Tag Archives: books

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.

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.

“M” is for Michaux; “M” is for Mescaline

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle.

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle: Mescaline. New York: New York Review Books, 2002.

In April I agreed to read and write about Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle for the Spotlight Series tour on the NYRB Classics. The book is the first of four about the author’s experiences following self-administered doses of mescaline, a hallucinogen. Although easy enough to read (unlike Octavio Paz, who introduces the book, Michaux is not a show-off), Miserable Miracle demands an unsettling intimacy from its readers. With but a few shifty, though powerful, characters (principally Michaux and mescaline, but also hashish), and sparing concrete context, “you” too (however sober) will stand on the tracks and take measure of the locomotive. There, in the misery, “the whole theater … breaks up” and seizures are “suffered in every part of one’s being” (69).

What can one write about a book, in an orderly manner, when its author insists: “Multiplicity and overlapping are at work in you”? (69). Here, I try merely a few riffs (of thousands) on the letter “M”.

M is for Mescaline

Typically derived from the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), mescaline is a psychedelic alkaloid. People often puke after consuming mescaline; Michaux imagines the body frantic to rid itself of the poison. Like other psychedelics (LSD, PCP), mescaline plays havoc with the uptake of serotonin (see: NIDA InfoFacts: Hallucinogens). Michaux writes, at the end of an addendum to Miserable Miracle: “Taking some (of these products) every four years, once or twice just to see how one is doing, probably would not be a bad idea” (179). My serotonin system is already shot; I know enough of how I’m doing. Perhaps reading the book every four years is a safer alternative. Perhaps.

M is for Miserable

Even after the puking, mescaline makes Michaux miserable. Early on, he warns us: “[I]n my journal, during all those incredible hours, I find these words written more than fifty times, clumsily, and with difficulty: Intolerable, Unbearable” (8). He is miserable in being overwhelmed. The drug, Mescaline, personified with a capital “M”, rushes Michaux. Even prior to the overdose, it is a rapist, overpowering him, robing him of his will. He is barraged with lights, attenuated shapes, rhythms, colors: green, pink (“pink enough to make you howl, unless you had the soul of a whore and took a flabby pleasure in yielding to it”), and “mad, exasperated, shrieking” white (32, 12). The misery is all the more apparent when Michaux compares mescaline with hashish. Indian hemp is at worst a mocking demon; it accompanies the author and mocks him … “Ha!” is for the deity “Hashish.”  While mescaline is a rushing train, hashish is a pony “capable of surprises” (95). Michaux, however, does experience a kind of joy (is this the “miracle”?), but typically this joy appears after recovering from the drug. He writes, three months after a trip: “And all my strength has returned. Who would have believed it possible? My strength! With what adolescent joy I feel it coming back” (85).

M is for Manuscript

Miserable Miracle, pg 44: manuscript page written under influence of mescaline by Henri Michaux.

Miserable Miracle, pg 44

Miserable Miracle includes several of Michaux’s mescaline influenced line drawings. These appear to be recollections of his experiences (not unlike much of the text itself), the drawings are metaphors for the experience. Breaches, fault lines, part reptilian, part infinite abyss, the drawings are inimitable, but recognizably Michaux’s handiwork. The book, however, also includes thirty-two pages of illegible manuscript. Michaux’s attempt to write during hallucinations; Mescaline the amanuensis. These are frightful, but also (as Michaux suggests) the most honest witness to his experience. (After all, one might fake a narrative account of a drug trip, but what genius would ever try to forge Mescaline’s perseverating manuscript?) Mirroring the manuscript, he writes: “having settled on the letters ‘m’ of the word ‘immense’ which I was mentally pronouncing, the double downstrokes of these miserable ‘m’s’ … iMMense terremoto Mense” (11).

M is for Miracle

Miraculous that Michaux endured; the book is without a doubt a great feat of physical and intellectual athleticism. But a “miracle,” too, in that here the author breaks from what comes to him by nature. Without mescaline Michaux’s writings are wonderfully strange, but Michaux hides and Michaux controls. While Michaux would construct, mescaline prefers “covering ground” (64). It “diminishes the imagination. It castrates, desensualizes the image” (61). Though miserable, mescaline is a step toward an infinity; the “miracle”: “against my natural instinct, I had accepted infinite fragmentation, the teeming state composed of what is smallest, which divides and overruns everything” (70).

M is for Michaux

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

If the experience, for Michaux, is so miserable, why does he take the drug? Some people do not trust their god; others suspect the government, stand apart from their cultures, or feel betrayed by their tongues, but Michaux fears the self. It is for this reason that I have long admired Michaux’s “poetry” … his short prose writings are really a genre of their own. I am mostly drawn to his self-doubting, his hiding and tricks of persona. Michaux is not dishonest (he is unsparingly honest), but he hides. Doubting the existence of a sober, direct voice, Michaux prefers the distortions. The madness that possesses us confirms the honesty of these distortions. In this chaos, which of the self, which of the wills, are we too choose?

In Miserable Miracle, Michaux is at times (as he is nowhere in the “poems”) transparent. In the trauma, in the illnesses and the narrow recoveries, Michaux finds himself at home in his skin. Misery is a price he willing pays for this “paradise” (8). A paradise in which mescaline obliterates both narcissism (“My drug is myself, which Mescaline banishes”) and (“I am being hollowed out”) the accuser with all its masks (85, 12). In return, whatever is left of Michaux experiences a kind of wholeness. This wholeness is painful at times, as he writes in a note remembering the overdose: “The terrible cyclone caught us, me and myself, united so idiotically, so indissolubly, and from that moment, instead of watching them, I received all the blows” (125n).

But at a high price, he persisted “in offering the best [he] had, the most intimate, the most Henri Michaux … like a man whose arm has been caught in a revolving belt and who in spite of himself is drawn toward the center of the machine which in no time will tear him to pieces” (129). Yes, it is a miracle that he survived, that after such thorough self mutilation, he should endure to write this book. In returning, he is found by infinity and he finds the world, and with it (although expressed a decade later) joy:

Suddenly a word came to me, found me. Myriads was the word. Myriads, Myriads. Everything can be found in it … This world that can only describe itself in terms of myriads, I had a share in it, too. A magnificent sense of fulfillment took root in me. Joy! (168).

M is for Me

Will I read this book again? Yes, but next time with friends. Madness is lonely, and I am not one in need of an “experimental psychosis” (81). I know the “ruses of the madman” all too well (133). Next time I aim to share with Michaux his myriads, but not so much his misery.

Cows Errant

Going BovineLibba Bray’s Going Bovine ends better than it begins, but, nonetheless, ends with a journey to nowhere. The lead character, Cameron, discovers his life (like all humans) in the process of losing it. Unlike most humans, however, this discovery is made under the influence of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease–the human version of mad cow disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Prior to the diagnosis, Cameron is an apathetic, sarcastic, suburbanite, teenager. In the first sixty pages or so, readers learn just enough about his “friends”, his musical tastes, his parents, and his early childhood, to sustain another 420 pages of his BSE inspired hallucinations.

With his brain rotting in his skull, “mad” Cameron, is a much nicer guy. Also, he “has” more fun. His hallucinatory journey mirrors the adventures of Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha. Like DQ, Cameron has a guiding muse, a diminutive side kick, an unreliable means of transportation, and demonic adversaries. Unlike DQ, who actually wanders the Spanish countryside, evangelizing for his vision of a chivalric order, Cameron’s body never leaves the hospital bed. Except for the rotting brain and an occasional drip from the IV, his body has no part in the last 400 pages of the book. Although Cameron has a lot of imagined fun and the book ends on a happy note, the wet dreams are dry. In his hallucinations, the once apathetic teenager discovers that living is loving: “to live is to love and to love is to live”. And so, his Sancho becomes a braver soul; the social snobs are undone; he listens to good music, reads better books, and goes on a road trip, and (most importantly) sacrifices his own well-being for the good of his compadres. … Achievements all, but achieved only in the brain burning haze of Cameron’s imagination.

If, therefore, readers are to take Going Bovine seriously, by which I mean, to read it as more than a parlor trick, more than an improv-styled assembly of loosely disguised elements from “popular culture” for teenagers, the book ends not far from where it begins: a selfish character discovers himself in an equally selfish “life” of the mind. In the book’s closing chapter, Cameron, fading from physical life, asks his Dulcinea, “Hey, Dulcie, was any of that real?” She replies: “Who’s to say what’s real or not?” Beyond Cameron’s BSE self, “reality” has only a small part in the novel. We learn very little about the “real” people in his life and Cameron is mostly oblivious to how they carry with him the burden of his illness. Cameron is lost to them; lost in apathy, lost in illness. Who’s to say what’s real? Perhaps, that task should be left to the people who outlive you. Yes, Cameron had a great “ride”, but it was, in the end, nothing more than a self-indulgent, fruitless, adolescent trip.

Reading what I have just written, I see that most will conclude that I did not like the book. This is only partly true. In “reality”, I hope that it finds plenty of young readers. Going Bovine, the winner of the 2010 The Michael L. Printz Award, is more than a clever book. I would put it before Harry Potty, before Twilight and spawn, before (in other words) most of the escapist, corn syrup publishers market to “young adult” readers. Like most books, however, Going Bovine is a long, long, long way from Don Quixote.

Read Don Quixote.

The Arts of Language: Reading vs Word-Watching

If you want to read some old school literary criticism, try Sis. Miriam Joseph’s Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. The book, first published in in 1947, was (for some reason, probably not a good reason) re-published in 2005. It has some devoted readers and I’m (obviously) one of it’s not very devoted readers. A very bright friend with intriguing interests recommended it recently. Apparently the catalog of “arts” provided in this text have informed a few of his writing projects. Fair enough–I can see how the many examples of linguistic forms at play in Shakespeare’s writing … especially when named … might inspire one to deliberately attempt to employ them. I have, in my own poetry, often played with the rules of grammar, so I can’t complain about the influence.

I’m bothered, however, by the book. Granted, I’m only 70 pages or so into the text, but the author doesn’t seem to have an argument–at least, not an argument that merits a book-length manuscript. The Sister was, obviously, a diligent and devoted reader of Shakespeare, but she read the “bard” as if she were bird watching. At each spotting of a linguistic device (like anastrophe) she must have jotted the quotation down on an index card. After many years these were compiled into a book–so, what we have here is a collection of favorite lines glossed by very sparse notes. Given that these lines were harvested from some of the greatest literature written in English, the reading’s not too bad. Given a choice, however, I’d prefer to do my own bard-watching. Sure, I might forget that this-or-that clever phrase from the play is actually a good example of something like zeugma, but do I really need to know these Latin diagnostics to truly digest and enjoy the writing?

As I write this, I am reminded of how much pleasure I find in knowing the names of various plants and animals … , so, I’m probably missing something here. I’ll have to revisit this question after reading another 70 pages of this text. Given my reading rate, that will be sometime next year. (May 30, 2008)