Category Archives: Review

Call Me Jules

A few weeks ago I finished my first reading of Jules Renard’s Nature Stories (Douglas Parmée, trans. New York: New York Review of Books, 2011). I read a few short chapters every night before bed. Now I am reading Moby Dick. The two works really do not bear comparison–except that that I am reading them in succession. Nature Stories is so happy, unguarded and fearless (in an innocent way) about its contradictions. (For Renard, caging a canary or a bullfinch is a senseless brutality, but there’s no better recreation than shooting hares and partridges.) Renard, like most good writers, is an excellent witness, but he is not a distant one. He simply enjoys stomping around the French countryside and acquainting himself with the local critters, domestic and wild. And yet, his affections are not the principle focus of what he writes; they are communicated incidentally, in passing, or by some magic of tone. For Renard, the countryside is a place of rest; there “nature” is, not without pain, but on the whole, benevolent.

Some of Renard’s sketches in this book are short enough to pass as haiku:

The Wasp

In the end, she’s bound to spoil her waistline.

Others are longer than this blog post and are truly essays–not quite travel writing, not quite memoirs, not quite expository–his jubilant account of his war against partridges (“Oh, they’re absolutely diabolical! How they’re making me run!”) fills five pages and is the longest piece in the book. Between these two examples, most selections are about the length of a short prose poem–a page or a page and a half. Perfect length for bedtime.

Here Renard observes how flies pester cattle and how rain eventually gives them some relief:

    But for the flies, they’d be very comfortable. … Whenever an ox moves its leather apron or stomps on the dry ground with its hooves, the cloud of flies buzzes off. You’d think they’re fermenting. … And over there, a first flash of lightning shoots across the sky; there’s no sound. A drop of rain falls.
The oxen see the warning, lift their heads, move to the edge of the oak, and breathe, patiently.
They know the good flies are going to chase away the bad ones.
At first gently, one by one, and then thick and fast, out of a sky torn by lightning, they swoop on the enemy which gives way, little by little, fewer and fewer, as they fly away.
Soon, with water streaming from their snub noses to their indefatigable tails, the oxen will be squirming with delight under the swarm of victorious water flies.

I suppose we have no idea what kind of relief cattle find in a rain storm, but were we to assume ourselves as cattle, this would be our narrative of ease–a gentle rain washing away the nuisances of life.

Melville’s Moby Dick is another matter–the rain is never gentle, the wind is always in the face of the protagonist and the world must be endured. I have only just begun, but it seems that Ishmael seeks more than a mere respite from the constraints and complications of civilization. He finds, instead, in his struggle against the environment a kind of brutal cleansing or, at least, a way to prove himself dead or alive. At the same time (although Renard has a few points of soft persuasion, made transparently) one can feel in Melville a great machine winding up, positioning and calculating to imprint its designs upon the reader.

I am a patient reader and Melville is worth every minute, but after long days, now and then, I feel a vacancy fit exactly for Renard’s winsome little sketches.

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An Unfortunately Collected Poem by Ted Hughes

Mia Brownell, Still Life with Chicken Villin Headpiece (2006)

A writer that I will not name (because I’d rather not misrepresent or misremember him) once told me that both T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were anti-Semitic, but that Eliot’s poetry was strong when expressing racism, while Pound’s poetry, when it turned to his fascist ideology, was not. I do not know if this is true. Whenever I encounter in their poems something politically or morally objectionable I ask myself: but is this “good” poetry? I can think of at least a handful of poems by each of these poets that I want to remember, but I quickly lose interest in the poems that turn to clichéd stereotypes and strident propaganda. And so, thus far, I have failed to answer this question … while conceding to the more immediate and subjective standards of 1) “do I like it?” and 2) “do I want to read it?”

In my friend’s case, this might be a small gesture toward excusing Ezra Pound of his politics. One which is along the lines of: we don’t need to pay too much attention to Pound’s fascism, that part of his poetry isn’t very good, anyway. The approach seems difficult to defend, and yet there are so many great writers and artists who were or are, in one or more parts of their lives, inarguably monstrous. (The same might be said of most people. I do not think this is a unique feature of artistic personalities.) And so (displaying my friend’s influence, perhaps) I often read while making some assumed moral judgments about the value of the poetry. Poems may be categorized by:

1. Convincing works which advocate for or give voice to good things. (Christopher Smart’s “A Song to David.”)
2. Works created by people who did bad things. (Pretty much anything and everything we do.)
3. Unconvincing works which advocate for or give voice to good things. (Trite little moralisms and juvenile works about the wonderful qualities of one’s grandparents.)
4. Unconvincing works which advocate for or give voice to bad things. (Some of the Pound Cantos.)
5. Convincing works which advocate for or give voice to bad things. (Eliot’s images of Jews.)

While #1 and #2 are comorbid, and while #4 is perhaps the most unpleasant, #5 is most the dangerous. Finally, although I am certain #5 is more dangerous, I find it difficult to distinguish between morally damaged poetry that is unconvincing (#4) and that which is convincing (#5). Frequently, the evil expressed makes the expression itself seem less convincing. In other words, I struggle to separate the medium from the moral. Nonetheless, from time to time, I try. Recently, I decided to apply these judgments to a brief poem by Ted Hughes, “Exits”:

‘We believers shall get away to God
That much earlier if the bomb drops!’ rejoices
Our parson to the old women’s faces
That are cold and folded, like plucked dead hens’ arses.

In many a corner tonight
The rat chews off its paw
And dedicates the other three
To getting away out of it joyfully.

A sudden pinky-blue scowling glistener
The baby balloons out of its mother –
Splitting the tissue of all time, and the tarmac too
Like a mushroom, O genii of the atom.

Marly Youmans, in her expression of disgust, introduced me to the poem and, I fear, I have already given it more attention than she thinks it deserves. (The poem that follows “Exits” is without a doubt far, far more unsettling—plain misogyny, complete with a chorus on the word “bitch.”) But, now that I’m this far in, let’s measure it against the (above) five moral categories.

Is this a poem by a person who did bad things (#2)?

Absolutely, I do not need to read biographies of Ted Hughes, to know this is true.

Is this a poem that expresses bad things, but poorly (#3)?

Ah, now that’s complicated. First, does the poem express bad things? Maybe. Women are at two ends of a complex metaphor. In both cases he uses the bodies of women (“women” in general) as the image of that from which one might want an exit. It would be an understatement to say that these representations are “unflattering.” In the first stanza, Hughes compares the faces of old women to the “arses” of plucked hens. In the third, he uses the image of a baby’s head crowning at birth to show the arrival and detonation of a nuclear weapon. (Think of all the mushroom clouds one sees blooming in slow-mo film.) But are these representations “bad”? Do they help us build a better world? Maybe. Maybe, on the whole, one reads the poem and realizes that this world is not something we should be so eager to exit. Maybe one reads the third stanza and sees a birth that we should work with more diligence to avoid. Perhaps, one might say, Hughes should be excused of his misogyny because he has used it to show us the horror of a nuclear “exit”. Or, more accurately, Hughes has shown us the lifelessness of wanting to leave this world so much that we might wish upon ourselves a nuclear end. Having read of Youmans’ wrath, I am reluctant to say that this is so. Youmans’ disgust with the chicken image is an example of at least one case in which a very skilled reader found the image to be more hurtful than edifying. I will conclude, therefore, persuaded that the poem expresses bad things. But does it do it well?

Is this a poem that expresses bad things in a powerful way (#5)?

Yes, to the bad things; see above. And yes and no to things expressed with poetic power. The three images used in this poem are at once efficacious and cartoonish. (By some aesthetic standards, cartoonish representations are always inferior, mimesis by shorthand, but I’m not sure that I hold to that.) I think that the first two stanzas are difficult to take literally. The rat that escapes without its paw does not hobble away “joyfully”; rather, it limps away like a rat with three good legs and one raw one. Likewise, while the parson’s remark seems a bit ridiculous, and although I have heard equally silly remarks in many sermons, what would be the occasion for the comment? The women, however, are less believable. Most churches have at least a few women with wrinkled or even grouchy faces, but in this scene it seems that the entire congregation is comprised of elderly, “church ladies.” (One must assume that the poet is there too, or at least has reason to own the anecdote; after all, he writes of “our parson.”) In addition to these reasons, I am also inclined to say that the stanza does not work because it has misplaced its focus. It is the exit, the parson’s message, which is the true focus of the stanza, but Hughes diverts our attention to the women’s faces. He makes the problem worse by choosing a distasteful vehicle for his metaphor. In short, one spends far too much time trying to imagine “plucked dead hen’s arses” and not enough time registering the exact “exit” that is recounted in the stanza.

The final stanza, in which the crowning head of a baby is used as the vehicle for a vision of a nuclear explosion, holds more power. Cleverly, it doubles back on itself—an exit shown to us by an entrance—we are exited from the world as the baby exits its mother, as the bomb enters the “tarmac.” But what are we to make of this? Something misanthropic and dark if not disturbingly misogynistic? Let’s not forget that we have, for the most part, all entered this world by “ballooning” out of our mothers, by splitting that “tarmac”—surely Teddy’s mom would not have appreciated this vision. Nor, I hope, would the poet want us to think of his own birth in such terms.

Finally, although I appreciate the cleverness whereby the final stanza revisits the first, I also fail to see how the poem works as a whole. What are we expected to conclude? Silly parsons are suicidal? Rats will do anything to get out of a trap? Old women are not attractive? Babies are deadly? If it’s “nuclear war is bad,” I think Hughes failed to get us there. Rather, the poem confirms the parson’s message. This is a more fitting paraphrase: the poet is looking for an exit and would be willing to chew off a foot to get away; he’d rather have never been born into this awful world, if it weren’t for aging women, he wouldn’t have had to be. So, the poem seems to plead: go ahead and drop the bomb; see if I care.

Read in this way, the poem is a powerful expression of Hughes’ own ugly mood. Perhaps that’s why he left it “uncollected”. Perhaps he too could hear the shrill adolescent tone. Perhaps he feared he’d anger his mother. Most of us will never have an editor to pick through our “uncollected” poems; the cost of being worthy of one is on display here in the Collected poems (Paul Keegan, ed. New York: FSG, 2003).

Therefore, I put this poem somewhere between #4 and #5. If we read it as an anti-nuclear war poem, it’s a four. If we read it as the work of a depressed adolescent, it get’s a five—although it offends more than it hurts. The poem shows the author to be a shallow person, it does not motivate us to be likewise.

A Protestant Reading of Valerie Sayer’s Brain Fever

Valerie Sayer’s Brain Fever is a very Catholic book in that it’s not quite Catholic enough for a Protestant reader to make ready religious sense of it. The characters, especially the leading man, Tim Rooney, an anti-hero, are constantly repositioning themselves relative to their waxing or waning Catholicity. Even so, no one really makes a “Here I stand” commitment for or against the Church. The characters are Catholic because their faith is an inheritance more so than an allegiance. They know it like the decor of their childhood homes, a decor they would gladly change but for the fear of insulting their mothers.

The plot of Brain Fever is simple enough. A literate, middle-aged Southerner slides into mania, leaves his fiancé and heads to the city of New York where he spends his time revisiting the places he frequented during his youth as a graduate student. Meanwhile the people that care about him move in and out of his territory, trying to find him, trying to help him, trying to make sense of his insanity and, ultimately, racing to save him from his own demise.

While pathetic, Tim Rooney is less than likeable. On the other hand, the cast of subordinate characters who try to help him are very likeable. As the book draws to a close, the reader will find that one worries more about the impact of Tim’s behavior on others than about the risks that Tim himself faces. Thus, Sayers has made of Mr. Rooney a very effective anti-hero. Comparatively, we know very little about the supporting characters, but what we know about the life and mind of the anti-hero makes us empathize with his friends. As a group, one might think of these folks as the Catholic communion–the lay people (a South Carolinian diaspora, in this case) who, wittingly or not, do their best to minister to the whole body of Christ, a body which includes the nearly toxic Tim Rooney.

The religiously illiterate Catholic community, therefore, is the hero of the book. Why do these characters love Tim? I’m not persuaded that any of them really know–and some of them wish that they didn’t. Were they to start thinking about it, Protestant style, it would drive them to some kind of Kierkegaardian madness at best and at worst they would succumb to the solipsism of the individual, the feverish idolatry of the self. In short, when you’re losing your mind it would be wise to have some habitual Catholics in your life.

Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass in 200 Words

SweetgrassHaving raced through Micah Ling’s Sweetgrass (Sunnyoutside, 2010) twice, I’m perplexed. Not by the material, which is sweet and, as is grass, light and easy, but by genre and intentions. While the short book expresses an honest affection for her Western encounters, and while a few pages demonstrate creative verve–the poem beginning “Listen: this is a stick up” is the best stand-alone lyric–on the whole, these untitled bits produce an unstructured essay. As it turns out, Sweetgrass is a dude ranch in Montana, so one might even wonder if the book belongs to the what-I-did-on-my-summer-vacation genre. The voice of the book is that of a tourist, not of one who shares a deep knowledge of her subject, nor of one who has any real or lasting allegiances to the place. As readers we are pulled into a kind of voyeurism—uncomfortably, we watch someone we do not know have a really good time in Montana. Ling and her hosts seem like truly nice people, but what’s missing from the book is the work. Not the romanticized work of the cattle ranch, but the work of hosting its gawking visitors. Being under the gaze itself must be a chore.

What will come after Carrie Jerrell’s revival?

After the RevivalIn the mood for hawks, snakes, horses and lonely, but fierce women? Given up on contemporary poetry, poems written for poets, camps of code-talkers engaged in self-congratulating games of inter-reference? Try Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival (WorldCat | Amazon). True, it suffers a bit from the usual first-book excesses–the occasional over-reaching, metaphors which try too hard, and (at times) a kind of garish urge to be odd. Nonetheless, Jerrell’s poems are carefully written lyrics with a keen narrative sensibility.

As for me, I have not given up on contemporary poetry; in fact, I write the worst of it–unreadable, insensible, too-inside for the insiders. And so, I admire Jerrell’s book (which I discovered on Marly Youmans’ blog) for other reasons. Foremost, perhaps, because I can think of no other contemporary poet who has written better love poems for rural Indiana. John Matthias will forever own the St. Joseph River valley, and Indianapolis deserves its waste land of bad taste, but the case could be made (on the strength of only a handful of poems) to make Carrie Jerrell the state’s next poet laureate. At the very least, give her all the blighted little towns south of Seymour. Of the poems which name Indiana, I am most fond of two. The first provides a hawk’s snapshot of a forlorn and lonely landscape, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Glezen, Indiana”:

I’m 4 a.m. deer-piss-drenched camouflage,
the haunted woods, the doe’s brown eyes, the gun
and Tater Warner’s hardware store on Main
and Cherry, baseballs aisle five, a tent
beyond revival, organ out of tune,
“Amazing Grace” played back-pew Baptist flat,
potluck to follow. Flying red-tail high,
I’ve circled every furrowed field for life
and only seen my shadow, the willow swing
by Panther Creek, an empty gravel road,
an unchained shepherd taking the long way home.

I met a shepherd like this during one of my long runs. On a cold January day, it took us a good twenty minutes of threats and concessions before we could pass.

Although it ends less well, I’m equally drawn to “In an Indiana County Thick with Copperheads”. Had the poem been written 50 years earlier, it opens with what would be a picture of my mother (minus the meth), somewhere south of Bedford:

Tweaked out on her mother’s meth,
the twelve-year-old walks
the county roads of my childhood,
sees stars in a sky crow-feather black,
finds the pack of wild dogs, the teeth
of the mottled Lab less frightening than
her uncle and his bristle-brush whiskers.
There’s little left to do here but grow
long and mean, to meet each day
like a belly meets gravel.

In addition to the other fine poems which self-identify as set in Indiana (including: “For the Sparrows Who Lost Their Nests in the Southern Indiana Tornado” and “View of Petersburg from Bell’s Hill Strip Mine, Pike County, Indiana”), there are those which evoke the place. First read the book’s excellent and harrowing title poem, “After the Revival”, and then turn to the view from a cracked, rear view mirror in the well-timed “Love Letter Written While Speeding Past the City Limit Sign” (also entitled “Drive” at DIAGRAM). Perhaps Indiana also accounts for at least half of the setting for spiraling conceit in “The Fire Tower”.

I think Jerrell currently writes in Kentucky, but I doubt she will ever completely rid herself of Pike County, Indiana. I’ll be looking for more poems from this poet. It might be nice to see more of Jerrell and less of her personae in the future. Her sensual, religious meditations (although a bit too impersonal) are a promising turn. She chose one of these to end the book, and perhaps (following the title poem’s evocation of death) to end on a hopeful note. Likewise, hoping for more, I’ll end this review with the final poem in the book, “When the Rider is Truth”:

I am froth and lather, sent steaming
through jade fields while he sits
heavy in the saddle, beating love songs
on my flanks I’m slow to learn.
His snapped whip rings like church bells.
He prays my name. In different winds,
it rhymes with win and race. At night,
he rests against my neck and tells me
stars are born between my heartbeats,
though they’re unreachable this trip.
Still, with him I feel sure-footed
running on this soil of sand,
this miraculous green,
where every day is like no other
in its symmetry of hill and valley.
When shadows blend, I want the blinders on.
I want the spurs and speed. It’s then
I understand tight reins, the firm grip,
the bitter iron on my tongue,
the blood and sharper bit I’m driven with.

Reference:
Jerrell, Carrie. 2009. After the revival. Ewell, UK: Waywiser.

 

Updike’s Afterlife

I read John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers in high school, along with The Coup and, later, The Centaur in college. Having, recently, wrung myself out on Milton and, in general, having lost my bearings on what matters to me as a reader, I pulled a copy of The Afterlife and Other Stories from the public library. I’m halfway through it now … and halfway through this current life too. That makes me ten to twenty years younger than most of the characters in this collection of stories.

Thus far, halfway in, I do not like them–the characters. They are not likeable people; or, rather, it’s hard to feel sorry for them. Parini writes in his review of the collection that Updike was “unashamedly autobiographical” in his short fiction. Privileged men, momma’s boys, self-absorbed, painfully selfish–if autobiographical, his characters are not his best representatives. Their regrets, their affairs and divorces, their ailing aging bodies, their helpless dissolutions, seem to be worn as prizes, or (at best) as the assumed sacrifices of a life lived in comfort.

If there is a pleasure to be had in reading these stories, it is that of sharing in the joy Updike finds in writing, the joy and the talent. He wrote so much, so well and with such ease. Readers stand on the side as the author’s witnesses. We are not merely passive, but inconsequential. Updike would write (and did write) with or without us. He was a superb talent and to read him is to acknowledge this fact.

Of those that I have read thus far, the title story is the most compelling and challenging. (“Brother Grasshopper” is also memorable, for its portrayal of a friendship between men, and “A Sandstone Farmhouse” as a moving remembrance probably based on the author’s relationship with his mother.) Unlike the others stories, “The Afterlife” extends beyond Updike’s conceptual control. He seems less confident, less sure, less tidy in his conclusion. In the other stories, characters face regret and sentimentality with lonely resignation. Sad, even with their affirmations of sensual existence, the characters have disconnected themselves from their roots. In contrast, in “The Afterlife” they face the storm. Even what might have grounded them (social ties, memory, and experience) is a fool’s game in the storm of “The Afterlife”. Free of silly regrets and pointless sentimentality, “The Afterlife” is, ironically, the most hopeful of the stories.

Reference:
Parini, Jay. 1994. All his wives are mother. The New York Times, November 6. http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-afterlife.html.

Landis Everson’s Early Deaths

Everything Preserved, cover

Landis Everson. Everything Preserved. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.

Landis Everson’s Everything Preserved won the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from the Poetry Foundation in 2005. The prize is given to American poets older than the age of 50 years who have yet to see a book of their poems published. Everything Preserved includes many fine poems of whimsy and wit. A playful poet (as a younger man, he submitted a master’s thesis on a 17th-century poet of his own creation, the imagined “Sir William Bargoth”), Everson is more than willing to surprise and trick his readers. Although I expected to find good poems in this prize-winning book (and I did), this expectation does not account for my decision to read it in the first place.

Everson’s editor, Ben Mazer, has pitched the book as a comparative study across many decades. The book, implicitly, asks: what happens when a talented young poet “retires” from poetry for forty years? Mazer and Everson have divided the poems into two sections: an initial, brief selection of poems written prior to 1960 (in the poet’s 30s) and a longer, concluding section for the poems written from 2003 to 2005 (his late 70s). The division invites comparison and speculation. Did the older Everson write better than the younger? Do the two Eversons share vocabularies? Do the poems by the older poet answer questions left unresolved in the poetry of the younger poet? And, if the two sections differ: how, in the forty year retirement, did the poet travel from point A to point B? In other words, what are the undocumented events which have shaped the poet of the second section, those missing forty years?

While I think these are all interesting questions, and while the editorial arrangement contributed to my decision to read the book, I worry that these questions do the book and the poet a disservice. Therefore, in this reading, I have tried to avoid such nosy prying. If I were the poet, I would want people to read the poems for what they are, poems, and not as curious artifacts in the life of an aging writer. Thus, in this review for the Spotlight Series tour on Graywolf Press, I am ignoring the first section of the book, the ambitious exercises of the young man, and I am focusing on the longer section at the end of the book, the poems written in Everson’s 7th decade.

Several of Everson’s poems refer to the act of writing, and (as such) might be construed by the reader as aesthetic statements of purpose. I have read his poem “Genie” in this way, but at my own risk. One should be careful not to assume too much of Everson’s intentions. The poet is a wit and fond of chess; gleefully ironic, he mocks self-referential poetry (poems about writing poems) as masturbatory dead ends in “Decision for Self-Love” (pg. 45):

Sometimes you write poetry about poetry.
You can’t help yourself.
Your fingers stray down there where there is
still feeling

On the chest of drawers the teddy bear
someone’s mother put there
doesn’t crack a smile
as you leave it out.

So, with this wry caveat and a not-very-amused teddy bear as witness, I turn to “Genie” (pg. 33) as an entry point to Everson’s book:

The poem grows
a preconceived experiment
the lab scientists knew exactly
how at the end
the test tube would turn blue.

But, bam!
a bright explosion
an experiment gone odd.
Out of the disaster a genie scowls.
A bridge collapsing
the engineer swore it would hold
3 elephants at one time
but one, only one
cracked the suspension.

The elephant fell into the river.
It was the end of the bridge, the circus and the waterlilies,
but the best thing that happened,
the genie unfolded.
Give a free poem to each poet who promises us
an early death.

Everson died the year after the publication of his first book. Although he left us at the age of 81, it was an “early death”. I think, however, this fact should not distract us, his passing is not the “death” the poem promises. Rather, in “Genie”, as in many of Everson’s poems, it is the death of the poet’s “preconceived experiment,” (the “bam!”) that he embraces. Everson willingly lets his poetry veer off into unexpected territory. Or, as he writes in the beginning of his poem “Landscape with Deer”: “The forest [he steps] in has to be imaginary” (pg. 68). And thus, from out there, out in the badlands, where the elephants break the bridge and crush the waterlilies, the genie unfolds for the poet a “free poem”.

Although I could write about Everson’s “early death” in many of my favorites from this book, including: “Sacrifice”, “How to Remain Dry When it Rains”, “Poems Along the Wall”, and “A Prism of Birds”, let’s turn the page and look at the next poem the collection, “I Reach for My Knight” (pg. 34). Here is another fine example of Everson’s imaginative and sly playfulness. The poet begins with the game of chess, with its constrained rules of play and highly abstracted symbols. After an initial stanza, in which Everson brings some of these symbols back to the mythological characters (the knight, the bishop, and the king) they have always been, he clears the board and restarts:

Instead, play me the game again, but not to win, play
on a flat plain with the knight on it alone
naked except for the fine horse and
that long lance stretched forth into the future
and the Holy Grail he’s always searching for
that is said not to exist–
I will hold that under my ribs where life itself begins.

I’ll let other readers decide where exactly under the ribs “life itself begins” for a lance toting, naked knight and his poet. The poem, however, exemplifies the way in which Everson can step out into the imaginary forest (or even a checkered chess board) and find suddenly, his intimate self, open and exposed. Once again, the poem is “free” when the genie wins the game.

I believe the poet enjoyed this process, this repeated “early death”–putting aside the self and letting the imaginative process win. At least, I hope he found in his last years a great deal of pleasure in the writing. In any case, he has left us a book of playful surprises.