Thursday, August 21, 2014

Talking to Ourselves, But Who Is Listening?

Andrés Neuman, Talking to Ourselves

"It's true, pleasure brings hope."



The photogenic, talented, and prolific Andrés Neuman--born in Buenos Aires in 1977 and currently living in Granada--has created a wrenching series of disjunctive voices in Talking to Ourselves. Mario is married to Elena and dying of cancer; Lito is their ten-year-old son. The novel reprises monologues by each character, though the strongest and clearest voice belongs to Elena, a complex, literate woman who both grieves for and betrays her dying husband. I was reminded of operatic recitative as I tried to fit together the contrasting voices: it is as if the trio were standing on stage at the same time, but, in the conventional manner of operatic performance, none of the three is at all aware of the presence, never mind the feelings and actions, of the other two. Mario appears to have no awareness of his wife's unhappiness; Elena'a sorrow for Mario's dying is genuine, but it also disguises the disappointments in her own life; and poor Lito, shunted about like a loyal poodle, is deceived by both his mother and father. Near the end of the novel, Lito is effectively written out of the story, which seemed to me an unsatisfying way to deal with a character who had no real role in the story's unwinding.  Neuman is a fine stylist--but I was puzzled by the story's premise, by the notion that three people could have so little knowledge of one another's hearts, and, frankly, so little interest in knowing anything at all about those whom they purport to love.

Then again, why should I have been surprised by the isolation and loneliness of the characters? Isn't this the rule--in families, among friends, between strangers? We talk, but who listens? Perhaps in my summer stupor I've misjudged Neuman's book and misunderstood the novel's core contention: it isn't that we speak to ourselves, it's that we only speak to ourselves.

This next part is about sex.

Apart from the plot--its deficiencies or illogic--I was struck by the fact that Neuman writes about human sexuality better than any writer I've read in a long time, maybe ever. I won't name the couple so as not to spoil the story, and I won't quote the loveliest blue passages, but I will say that at the heart of the novel are long erotic meditations that are both raw and aesthetically stirring. I confess that when I read the "older American stylists" (Roth, Mailer, Updike, and their ilk) I am embarrassed by the ham-handed way in which they depict the sex act--I won't have been the first to notice how phallocentric, laughable, and unbelievable the lovemaking or just plain fucking are in any number of novels, and not only those by older men.  Let's face it, writing about sex without producing pornography is difficult--Henry Miller was, of course, a lecher, but at least Sexus was joyful; coitus in P. Roth often seems like hard work and seldom is erotic, at least to my way of thinking. 

On vacation this past month, and on a whim, I picked up a Gillian Flynn novel to get me through an airplane ride.  I thought, "How bad can it be?" Here's page 12; the speaker is Amy Elliott: "He is the kind of guy who carries himself like he gets laid a lot, a guy who likes women, a guy who would actually fuck me properly. I would like to be fucked properly!...The Fitzgerald fellows tend to be ineffectually porny in bed, a lot of noise and acrobatics to very little end. The finance guys turn rageful and flaccid. The smart-boys fuck like they're composing a piece of math-rock...I sound quite slutty, don't I?" How bad? Very.  Does this passage sound realistic? Probably. More to the point, does it sound literary? I've just met Amy and already I think: she's seen too many movies, is too fond of stereotypes, is too full of herself.

But Neuman: here's someone who knows his way around a human body: "Tradition has it that sex results in the little death. I now believe those who say [they] haven't experienced the pleasure of harm. Because with [x] I find the opposite is true: each fuck results in resurrection. We insult each other. We tear into each other. We cause each other pain in order to make sure we are still here. And each time we reaffirm the other's presence, the other's suffering, we are as moved as if it were a reunion. Then I have orgasms that stretch the limits of my existence. As though my existence were a vaginal muscle. I want to avenge myself on my own flesh." There's much in these pages that is raw, even shocking--but also real and beautiful. Neuman's novel, ultimately, is about the body--its decay, its death, its resurrection.

George Ovitt 8/21/14

Monday, August 4, 2014


The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H. by George Steiner

On April 30th, 1945 Adolph Hitler and his newly married bride, Eva Braun, had a quiet lunch, then met with Hitler’s inner circle in the anteroom chamber of his personal bunker in Berlin to say their farewells. Included among the staff members were Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. Earlier, Hitler had given instructions to his personal adjunct, Otto Gunsche, that once he and his wife were dead their bodies were to be burned to ashes. Despite Hitler’s claim that the war would “one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live,” he’d known by then that the German cause was lost and had ordered two hydrogen cyanide capsules to be prepared for him and his wife. As a typical precaution, he first had the dosage tested on his beloved dog Blondi and her puppies, all of which died. At round 14:30 that day, Hitler and Eva retreated to his sitting room and closed the door. Staff witnesses report hearing a single shot. When they entered the room they found Hitler slumped on the sofa where he sat, blood dripping from his right temple where he had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65. On the sofa beside him, his young wife Eva sat slumped away from him, dead from the capsule she had swallowed. In the air was the telltale scent of burnt almonds.

As per Hitler’s instructions, their bodies were carried outside, doused with gasoline and burned to ashes. What little remained of them was covered up in a shallow bomb crater just hours before the advancing Soviet Army seized control of Berlin. 

Stalin, wary about accepting the news that his nemesis was dead, indeed sensing a trick, was the first to suggest the possibility that Hitler was still alive and in hiding somewhere. In the years to follow, the Soviets helped to spawn a variety of international theories regarding Hitler’s fate, most of them ridiculous, some of them cynical Cold War ploys: that he was given refuge by Western allies bent on destroying the Soviet Union, that he and Eva had escaped to Argentina or Brazil, that the Nazis had a secret moon base, that Hitler was an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu and could never—no matter the weapon—be killed.

Now imagine yourself one of the many Jewish Nazi-hunters who went to work after the war. For there were dozens of them (most notably the relentless and successful Simon Wiesenthal), each of them hell-bent on tracking down such infamous Nazis as Adolf Eichmann, Klaus Barbie, and Josef Mengele. Imagine yourself one of these men, these hunters, at your wit’s end deep in the Brazilian jungle where you have been wandering for months with little contact with the outside world. Imagine one morning—hungry, delirious, stung to madness by the midges and gnats—stumbling upon a clearing in the swamp through which you’ve been slogging for days, a ring of charred stumps, a sudden blue break of sky, and suddenly finding yourself face to face with him, an old man now, der Führer himself, in the flesh.

Such is the engaging premise of George Steiner’s 1979 novel, The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H.. Yet Steiner is no conspiracy theorist, to be sure, but uses the idea of Hitler still living as a means of getting at more pressing, more philosophical things. A Jew himself, he was more interested in the larger implications of what it would mean to find Hitler, capture him, and bring him to justice. While not the least bit didactic, the novel raises an array of compelling and provocative questions: What would you feel when you first saw him, this butcher, this monster, this all but mythical man? How would you react to the sight of him before you? Would you kick him, curse him, punch him in the face? What, if anything, would you say? And what about justice, revenge? What, once you’d found him, caught him, and seen him tried, would be the significance of your efforts—to Jews, to History, to humanity at large? Would it have any real impact at all? Finally, the novel presses one to wonder how, if ever, a person, a people can comes to terms with such profound and extraordinary grief. Would the killing of Hitler be enough?

As one might imagine, the novel gave rise to instant and bitter controversy, so that for a time its translation into Hebrew and German was strictly forbidden. Clearly Steiner’s aim was to be provocative, to complicate (for Jews especially) what already threatened to become a fixed, hidebound understanding of Hitler and the horror he’d wrought. “The Portage To San Cristóbal of A.H is a parable about pain,” explains Steiner himself in his 1999 Afterword to the novel, “about the abyss of pain endured by the victims of Nazism.” If as a parable it pushed the limits of what was acceptable at the time, it did  so with a wisdom, courage, and conviction we could stand to see more of today.

George Steiner is a French-born American polyglot and polymath philosopher, literary critic, academic, and writer who has taught Comparative Literature and Poetry at Oxford, Harvard, and the University of Geneva. He now lives in Cambridge, England where he has been Extraordinary Fellow at Churchill College at the University of Cambridge. His best known works include Heidegger, The Death of Tragedy, Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevsky, Language and Silence, and the extraordinary After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation. 

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Second Circle

"Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
   esser basciato da cotanto amante,
   questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
la bocca ma bascio tutta tremante.
   Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
   quel giorno piu non vi leggemmo avante."

Inferno, V, 120-125

"That day we read no more." Never will I forget my Dante professor in graduate school reading these lines, and those that follow--Dante, upon hearing the tale of the eternal torment of Paolo and Francesca, swoons ("con corpo morto") at Virgil's feet, so deeply does he feel the story of the young lovers. This Canto also contains one of Dante's most unforgettable images: "As winter starlings riding on their wings/form crowded flocks, so spirits dip and veer/Foundering in the wind's rough buffetings/Upward of downward, driven here and there/With never ease from pain nor hope of rest." (V, 36ff. trans. Robert Pinsky). Thus are the lustful souls of the Second Circle driven hither and yon by the winds of passion. William Blake placed the spirits in a kind of diaphanous digestive tube, generic flesh whirling eternally; Dante lies at the Leader's feet, and, in the background, a nimbus shining with, perhaps, "those two who move along together, so lightly."

I was eager to read Clare Messud's new novel, The Woman Upstairs, since I so enjoyed The Emperor's Children, her story of New York just before September 11, 2001. The Woman Upstairs, multilayered with literary references ("the madwoman in the attic"), also merges two fairy tale themes: Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Nora Eldridge is an unhappy teacher of third graders in Cambridge, Massachusetts--a frustrated artist who creates Joseph Cornell-style boxes, dioramas, or who once did, but who has surrendered her dreams for a more mundane life. She mourns her beloved mother, yearns some of the time for love--she's single, childless, empty, and a part-time or perhaps incoherent feminist--and seems resigned to sadness. Then she meets the extraordinary (too-good-to-be-true if you don't live on Brattle Street in Cambridge) family of Reza Shahid. Reza is Nora's eight-year-old pupil, his mother Sirena is an Italian artist, and his father, Skandar, is a Lebanese-born, French-educated philosopher of history (vaguely looking for morality in the past--rather like looking for wisdom in Congress) who is teaching for a year at Harvard. Nora falls in love, one by one, with each member of the family--first with the precocious little boy with the beautiful eyes and the soul of the Buddha, then with the eccentric but brilliant Sirena who is deeply engaged in a Judy Chicago-like installation called "Wonderland"--yes, the metaphors are piled on thickly, and Ms. Messud, so deft at subtle characterizations, escalates the emotional pitch--Nora's anger, Nora's yearning--by creating a kind of whirlwind of escalating emotion, a series of set encounters (Nora with Skandar, Nora with Sirena, Nora with her gay friend Didi) without a moment of calm reflection and with no sense that Nora's self-awareness increases as she is buffeted about by the winds of her passion.

"Wonderland" will be installed in Paris, and will be a kind of feminist "We are the world," and since Nora is smitten to her mousey core by the scarf-wearing, frizzy-haired, chain-smoking Sirena (with her charming accent; this business of accents was rather embarrassing), she becomes the older woman's confidant. And, of course, eventually, reluctantly, that and more to the husband, who comes across as an out-of-focus Edward Said: cosmopolitan, charming, a sort-of intellectual, but utterly incredible as the lover of Nora. And Nora herself? Her back story is hastily assembled, as if her life was lived in one of tiny boxes she makes to satisfy some dark yearning of her soul. Messud invokes Emily Dickinson and Andy Warhol's Edie Sedgwick in Nora's portrait, and that seems about right: Nora is both cloistered madwoman and modern wild woman, Emily and Edie; prim schoolteacher, overworked Cinderella, but, around the Shahid's, her inhibitions vanish, and her deep yearning for meaning, for love, blows her about like a starling in the wind.  I pictured Nora as Edie--see above--with a look of perpetual surprise, or perhaps of ingenuousness, on her face as she slipped into and out of the lives of Reza, Sirena, and Skandar. That Nora will be betrayed is a foregone conclusion. How could she not be? Everything about the Shahid's feels shallow--but it's worse than that--they're evil in the way of all narcissists and self-seekers. Reza's affection for his teacher is genuine, but what is it exactly that the parents want from this attractive, vivacious, but self-pitying woman? Messud puts the reader in a difficult position: she needs Nora to be vulnerable and therefore open to the overtures from this glamorous academic family; but in making Nora vulnerable, she also makes her weak, a victim awaiting attractive predators. I happened to be reading an essay of Karen Horney's as I was reading The Woman Upstairs. Horney's remarks on "Inhibited Femininity" seemed almost a gloss on Nora Eldridge's character: so willing was she to surrender to "stronger" types, so eager to find fault with herself and to childishly place her faith in those who appear to have life figured out.

Or perhaps she is Francesca da Rimini, blown about by desire--not sexual desire, but a desire for life. As Nora says of herself, she is "ravenous" for living, she "wants it all," and in her eagerness to live fully and deeply, she places her life in the hands of those who cannot value it. The Woman Upstairs seemed to me above all a novel about social class, a Jamesian meditation on the innocence of Americans when confronted by the decadence of Europeans (the French!).  Harvard elites and elementary school teachers, lions and lambs, upstairs and downstairs. Poor Nora! Like Ibsen's Nora Helmer, she's crushed by her family, even if it isn't hers.

George Ovitt (7/28/14)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

To She Who Loves So Sadly / A la del amor más triste

Against Heaven: Selected Poems by Dulce María Loynaz

To She Who Loves So Sadly

You who love a phantom love.
You who give a name to the fog
and to the ash of our dreams.
You who bend down over your
self like a willow bending
over its shadow reflected
in the water. You who cross
your empty arms over your
chest and whisper the word
nobody hears. Come and teach me
to bore through this stony silence.
Teach me to light loneliness on fire
and to keep it aflame.

“The poetry of Dulce María Loynaz is, above all, a poetry of solitude,” writes James O’Connor in his introduction to this marvelous collection. Indeed in reading these poems one comes to treasure her particular solitude like a darkly burnished gem. It is a quality, this reclusion of hers—a relationship to the world, to the word, to herself as a woman, a Cuban, a writer—that gives her poetry (even in English) a grave and lyric beauty, a frankness and aestheticism that is nearly monastic in its clarity, restraint. Yet the object of Loynaz’s  reverence in these poems is as much Death and Love (and paradoxically the solitude they afford her) as it is some hidebound conception of God. “Loynaz,” observes O’Connor, “is a religious poet in the way that Kierkegaard is a religious thinker: melancholy, not ecstasy, is the door to paradise.”


The sweetness of feeling more detached every day.
More detached and more lethargic
without knowing if it’s because
all things fade away or oneself fades away.
The sweetness of oblivion like a light dew
falling in the darkness, the sweetness
of being untouched by anything, of transcending everything
like an infinitely distant star
shining in silence.

                                                         In silence?

God help me.

As a poet Loynaz thinks often of oblivion, of death, but less as an end to worldly things, to the burdens of this earth-bound life (which she also recognizes), than as a consummation of them, a means of transcendence, a mundane, temporal, ultimately secular rapture that exhilarates, even as it moves one to sadness and dread.

Always, Love

Always, love.
Above the kiss
that proved food for worms,
above the roses that rot
every blue morning in a coffin,
above the thousand moons in the slime
on the floor left behind
by the pale mollusk,
above the bread mixed with as,
above the clenched fist beside the iron.
Always, love. Beyond every flight,
beyond every bitterness, beyond every thought,
beyond mankind, beyond space and time.
Always, love. At the very moment
the body frees itself from its shadow,
at the very moment darkness begins
to feed on the body.
Always, love. (two shipwrecked words
between body and soul nailed to the wind!)

Loynaz’s life itself, spent all but entirely in Cuba, was not without its own melancholy hues. Born in Havana in 1902, the daughter of Enrique Loynaz del Castillo, a famous general in Cuba’s War of Independence, Maria Dulce lived the privileged, sheltered life of most young women of her class, though she traveled widely, earned a Doctorate of Civil Law, and—thanks to her family’s reputation for patronizing the arts—made the early acquaintance of many great writers of the time, such as Gabriela Mistral, Alejo Capentier, Juan Ramón Jiménez, and Frederico García Lorca, each of whom spent time in their home. 

After trying her hand at the law (and not liking it), Loynaz directed all of her energy to the challenge of writing poetry. Though she had written and published poetry since she was a teenager, it was not until the 1950’s that she really hit her stride as a writer. In a span of eight years the Madrid publishing house published four works of hers, including three collections of her poetry (Garden, Poems with no Names, and Lyric Poems) as well as a highly successful novel of hers called A Summer in Tenerife, which Luis Bañuel tried without success to adapt for the screen.

Around 1959, having refused to join the communist party (for reasons more personal than political), Loynaz gave up writing and publishing altogether to live in seclusion in her family’s old house. It was not until the late 1980’s, after nearly thirty years of anonymity and solitude, that her work was rediscovered, earning her a flood of national and international distinctions, including the National Order of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the Order of Felix Varela of the Culture, the National Culture Distinction Award, the Alejo Carpentier Medal, the Cuban National Prize for Literature, as well as the Nobel Prize equivalent for the Spanish-speaking world, the Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra Literature Prize, awarded to her in 1993 by King Juan Carlos I of Spain. 

Spanish Nobel Laureate Juan Ramón Jiménez had many names by which he knew this modest, elegant, extraordinary woman: “Sister Dragonfly, Saint Lawyer of Lost Jonquils, of Lost Mosquitos, of Lost Rowboats, of Lost Pins, of Lost Toothpicks, Ophelia Loynaz the Subtle, archaic and new…” In his prologue to Cuban Poetry in 1936 he described her as a cross between “the gothic and the overreal,” “a singer desiccated, nailed by her own heart” whose deeply private poetry was alive with a “mystic irony.”

While Loynaz was not the first or last of the world’s great melancholy writers, she is undoubtedly a singular strain of the breed. Neither misanthrope nor bully, neither narcissist nor suicide nor drunk, she spent a nun’s life as a poet, keeping her own grave counsel, admiring her own dark and furtive saints. In his eccentric and magisterial work The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621, the English writer Robert Burton not only defines the condition of melancholy at length (virtually ad infinitum, and with a garrulous digression on human anatomy), as well as its causes, symptoms, and ‘prognostics,’ but devotes some 261 pages to describing its remedy. What would he have said, I wonder, to the likes of Dulce María Loynaz, a woman, a poet, with no interest in a cure?

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Two Novellas: Duras and Grossman

Moderato Cantabile by Marguerite Duras

Frenzy by David Grossman

It's neither fish nor fowl. The novella, defined as a "short novel" or "a literary work less developed in plotting and characterization than a full-scale novel" in many literary reference works--a fine lot of good that does us!--isn't a novelette or a short story or, obviously, a novel. Oddly, works like The Secret Sharer, The Old Man and the Sea, and Billy Budd are counted by some as novellas, but they seem more like short novels--each has the kinds of thematic complexity, character development, and intricate plotting one associates with the longer form.  And why would anyone think that Heart of Darkness was a novella while Paul Harding's Tinkers, easily readable in one sitting, is a novel? Both books have the characteristics of novels, though Conrad, as one would expect, packs more philosophy and psychology into his short classic.  Or what must one do with the slender final novels of Philip Roth (Indignation) or the trilogy of short autobiographical (but fictional!) works of Coetzee, or the many tiny mad monologues of Bernhard (Wittgenstein's Nephew)?  It's a baffling distinction, and word count alone seems to me to have nothing to do with the matter. I always marvel at how Alice Munro can unfold in twenty-five pages all of the richness of novels that are ten times as long.

Genre aside, I thought it would be fun to read--back to back--novellas by two writers who are as diametrically opposed in style and theme as any two writers I can think of, but who nonetheless share two interesting qualities: both are often found writing about what I think of as the pathologies of love; and both substitute interior monologue, indirect discourse, "telling instead of showing," and loads of opaque description--detached from place and time and character--for the traditional engines of plot.

Marguerite Duras's Moderato Cantabile is representative of her other novellas (collected in a handy Grove Press edition): the theme of her work is the difficulty of living a reasonable life in a world that is wholly unreasonable. Duras hasn't a romantic bone in her body (Grossman has many). Anne Desbaresdes, whose son has no interest in the piano lessons he is forced to take, witnesses a man shooting his girlfriend. Anne becomes obsessed with this act of, presumably, passion; it's difficult to know the facts--are there facts?--, and begins an obsessive series of conversations with a mysterious but attractive barfly named Chauvin, peppering him with questions about the murder, inciting him to concoct a fable about the shooting and the lives of the murdered woman and her male assassin. What does Chauvin know? Nothing much, but his myth-making has about it the same seductive qualities of the myth-making that Duras used to such powerful effect in the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Anne isn't interested in having an affair, or rather she isn't primarily interested in Chauvin as a potential lover; what interests her is death, the death of the unknowable woman and her own death as well. It appeared to me partway through the novella that she was tempting Chauvin to kill her, but at the end it seemed that this wasn't her intention at all. Duras isn't one to tidy up loose ends, but it occurred to me that "moderately and melodiously" we are led toward the recognition that neither the murder, nor Anne's questions, nor Chauvin's fabulated responses have any meaning at all. "I'm already dead" Anne declares, and we believe her.

David Grossman is an Israeli, the author of the remarkable epistolary novel Be My Knife as well as several books on the Arab-Israeli limbo. (What to call it? Tragedy? Crisis? Standoff? As it appears hellish and unending I'll use the word "limbo," optimistically).   Where Duras writes lovely elliptical sentences that flit around unspeakable truths--e.g. Anna's indifference toward her child--Grossman writes long, meandering, poetic paragraphs, dense with indirect quotation, unattributed dialogue, brisk physical description, and deep psychological probing that leaves this reader both stimulated and perplexed. The story is simple: Shul's much beloved--adored, neurotically obsessed over--wife Elisheva has apparently been carrying on an affair with a Russian emigre named Paul for ten years--ten years at precisely fifty minutes per day. Since the entire book, though narrated in the third person, presents only Shul's speculations about the affair, and these speculations are rife with self-lacerating but, one presumes, purely imagined details, we can't say for certain if this illicit relationship is taking place in the way that he says, or, indeed, if it is taking place at all. It seemed at several points in the short (130 pages) whatever-you-call-it that Shul, like Chauvin, was fabulating to win the sympathy, or perhaps the affections, of his sister-in-law Esther. But this relationship is impossible to parse--the long dialogue/monologue that occupies most of the book involves fragmented conversations between Esther and Shul as they drive toward an anti-climactic rendezvous with Elisheva. The story's ending leaves many questions unanswered, but, I think, properly so.  It is impossible to describe the dynamics of any relationship, and Grossman skillfully examines the meaning of what is unspoken. At one point I wrote in my notebook: "this isn't a novel about what is known but about what is wished for, yearned for in some perverse way." In this regard Grossman and Duras are working common ground. Though Duras maintains a magisterial distance and deeply ironic detachment from her story, and Grossman imbues his with deep feeling, as if he were Shul, both writers wish to understand the drives that push us toward, or repel us from, one another. They don't write about love, but about the impossibility of love, its inherent misunderstandings and the stories we must tell ourselves to persist in believing in love's possibility.

Whatever a novella might be, these compact books, each of which can be read in a summer afternoon on the front porch, casts a strange spell over our hours--so foreign are these stories, so removed from (at least my) ordinary existence, and yet, in their understated styles, utterly compelling.

George Ovitt (7/3/14)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

This Snarl of a Life

The fiercest hearts are in love with a wild perfection.

                              —from a letter to James Dickey
                                                          August 12, 1958

I’d like to begin by praising James Wright for having written the only poem about sports I have ever loved:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
Ands gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

Of course it is not really about sports at all, but about hope and despair and the power of language to quicken our blood. My college roommate, Tom Hurley, once took me home with him to Youngstown, Ohio, a once-thriving blue-collar town, which by then, by the early 1980’s, was but a shadow of its former mighty self. After an afternoon of drinking beer in a dark old Polish bar, he’d led me through a hole in a chain-link fence to a point overlooking the wide Mahoning Valley, then still choked for as far as the eye could see with the hulking remains of the city’s once world-famous steel mills, those of U.S Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube, mills that at their peak had employed as many as 300, 000 workers, many of them from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The silence there was eerie. 

It was out of this background, this hardscrabble industrial Ohio, that James Wright made his first appearance on the American poetry scene in 1956 with his collection of formalist verse called The Green Wall. Then too began the brilliant, tortured, immeasurably rich and thrilling correspondence between Wright and his friends and fellow poets that comprises this volume, A Wild Perfection: The Selected Letters of James Wright. Of friends and correspondents, his were some of the best writers this country has known: Robert Lowell, James Dickey, Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Theodore Roethke, Kenneth Rexroth, Anne Sexton, Louis Simpson, Jack Myers, E. L. Doctorow, Denise Levertov, Richard Hugo, A.R. Ammons, Louise Bogan, J.D. McClatchy, Robert Bly, W.D. Snodgrass, Mark Strand, Hayden Carruth, Tomas Tranströmer, Robert Hass, Stanley Kunitz, Roger Hecht, Diane Wakowski, C.K. Williams, Philip Levine, Donald Hall, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

I have long been ambivalent about reading famous people’s letters, just as I have long been ambivalent about reading their memoirs, which have struck me, more often than not, as case studies in vanity and affectation. Not so with the letters of James Wright. “In a man’s letters,” writes Samuel Johnson, “a man’s soul lies naked.” And so it is with the letters in this marvelous collection, distinguished, on page after page, by Wright’s mighty, humble, generous, infinitely hard-suffering voice. At points his candor in the letters is so raw I winced.

Perhaps above all one is struck by the high level of conversation in these often everyday missives, by the stakes—by Wright’s rare, nearly pious devotion to what he called ‘the Great Conversation,’ a correspondence, a dialogue, “in which stories and poems and those who love them talk eternally with one another.” Poetry—one feels in these letters—is a matter of life or death. And so it is for those who know. One has only to scan the book’s index to get a sense of the glorious depth and erudition of this protracted conversation of his. In thinking about poetry and life, he writes with devotion of Catallus and Virgil, of Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Lorca, Neruda, Jiménez, Whitman, and Baudelaire, speaks with pride and knowing of Melville, Lawrence, Forster, Tolstoy, Dickens, and Camus, of Freud, Ramakrishna, and Marx. His hunger for ideas—and for the language that shapes them—was stupendous.

In his poetry Wright was a perfectionist, working tirelessly to develop his own voice and form, and struggling—with every muscle and sinew in his being—against the unshakable curse of competency, what his friend and mentor, James Dickey, called “the good enough that spoils the world.” With the intimate guidance of both Dickey and Bly, he labored restlessly as a poet, and while he often reached dizzying heights in his work and friendships, he was just as often laid low by lengthy bouts of depression and despair. He smoked and drank heavily, both of which destroyed his first marriage and so compounded his nervous exhaustion that at least twice he was hospitalized for it, for what, in one of his letters, he dismisses as just another “mild crack-up.” His life was hard, the price of his poetry dear, giving this intellectually dazzling correspondence a dark and tragic weight. Yet for all the emotional turmoil of his life, Wright believed in love, lived love each day as “a kind of miraculous agony” that one struggles in vain to escape.

James Wright (1927-1980) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1972 for his Collected Poems.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, June 23, 2014

Oulipo, or The Workshop of Potential Literature

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books

(Pourquoi je n'ai écrit aucun de mes livres)

By Marcel Bénabou


I love this picture of Georges Perec (seated) with Marcel Bénabou--taken sometime in the 1960's.  Together with Marcel Duchamp, Italo Calvino, Jacques Roubaud, and Harry Matthews, Perec and Bénabou were member of the playful and inventive Workshop of Potential Literature founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in 1960--a group of writers interested in what might best be called the playful or ludic forms of literary expression. I have written elsewhere in TR about Perec's novel A Void, a full-length and complex book that dispenses with all words that include the letter "e." Bénabou, a historian of ancient Rome and author of a dozen scholarly works in this field, also wrote numerous fictions and meta-fictions in the Oulipoian mode--think of Borges's Other Inquisitions  pushed further over the brink of self-reference, literary-mindedness, and surrealism.  Or, as Warren Mote suggests in his own witty introduction to Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, look to Raymond Roussel's truly eccentric How I Wrote Certain of My Books (which is about everything but) to get a sense of what a writer who loves puzzles can do with fictional form. This little-known circle of mostly Francophone writers not only eschewed the conventions of the realist novel, they also negated the conventions of modernist and post-modernist fiction as well by doing away with characters, plots, themes, and even the "anxiety of influence." Perec's masterpiece, Life: A User's Manual, takes the reader on a guided tour of an apartment building, room by room, fragmented story by fragmented story. And Bénabou's WIHNWAOMB not only renounces authorship, it also plays with the notion of the book as an actually existing entity--as if Heidegger were asking the question "What is called writing"?

"Don't you go believing, reader, that the books I haven't written are pure nothingness. Quite the contrary (let it be said once and for all), they are as if suspended in the literary universe. They exist in libraries by word, by groups of words, by entire sentences in certain cases. But they are surrounded by so much empty filler and trapped in such an overabundance of printed matter that I myself, truth be told, have not yet succeeded, despite my best efforts, in isolating them and putting them together. Indeed, the world seems to me full of plagiarists, which makes of my work a lengthy tracking down, an obstinate search for all those little fragments inexplicably snatched away from my future books."

Northrup Frye, in The Anatomy of Criticism, suggested that all existing literature belongs to a universe of words and sentences, thus unifying the efforts of all writers from all places and times. When I first encountered this idea in Frye it seemed to vindicate my own inchoate sense that literature had the mystical power of Kabbalah--that the word, the Word, was indeed the creator of a universe (of language), and that it was this world of words that made sense--if any sense was to be made--of the "real" world.  That language creates reality is hardly a new idea--George Steiner, for one, wrote brilliantly about the implications of this view in After Babel, and the fictions of Borges interrogate the world that is language (rather than the world "of" language). The writers of Ouilpo have created fictions--if they are that--whose oddity comes from their self-conscious examination of the conventions of writing, authorship, and of language-use itself. It seems, for Bénabou (and in some sense for Frye, Steiner, and Borges) that the act of writing is more akin to collecting words and sentences than of creating ex nihilo. The God/gods (Gen. 3:22) of Genesis create first with the Word, and then with earth and breath (Gen. 1:3; 2:7). The writer, in Bénabou's view, moves among fragments of language and pieces together works he "has not written" but dreamed into being.

The question Bénabou asks in Why I Have Not is this: what is the point of writing (or reading)? Why not feast on reality instead? Why shouldn't we give up stories--poems too, while we're at it. After all, "we" nearly have done so already, in the name of what we are told is more compelling, or practical, or profitable. Any writer worth his or her salt knows the answer to this question: "I accepted a book's function as being not a useless redoubling of reality but its continuation by other means."  The form of the book is endlessly plastic; instead of the mirror or the lamp, we discover in literature the earthiness that Yahweh shaped into human beings, a reality unlimited by human imagination. A book can be anything--even a book that is not a book.  When Bénabou claims not to have written his books he means it--authorship implies creating, but books are already written into the world and need only (!) be discovered. This is a Platonic notion of authorship, but appealing for where it leads--which is, like everything else, to a form of love:

"Well, let's say that in the final analysis, this text could claim to be a very classic novel. Is it not the story of an ever deferred meeting, of a frustrated love strewn with obstacles and crosspieces which is the victim of illusions and regrets? Of an unhappy and perhaps ultimately impossible love, that of its author for a certain idea of literature." 

I've been reading Bénabou's colleague Georges Perec this week as well--his Thoughts of Sorts--and came upon this passage last evening in "On the Art and Craft of Sorting Books" (I read it because I've been sorting mine: if you think Perec will be any help with your own literary taxonomies, forget it):

"Like the librarians in Borges's Babel looking for the book that contains the key to all others, we waver between the illusion of completion and the abyss of the ungraspable. In the name of completion we would like to believe that a single order exists which would allow us immediate access to knowledge; in the name of the ungraspable we wish to believe that order and disorder are two identical terms signifying chance." [my emphasis]

Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books, trans. by David Kornacker, is published by the University of Nebraska Press (1996).
Perec's books are published by Verba Mundi, a division of David R. Godine, who makes lovely books for our disorganized, dusty, and inchoerent libraries.

George Ovitt (6/23/14)

(The middle photo is of George Steiner. The bottom photo is of Bénabou.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Three Wrights at the Solstice


Charles Wright, James Wright, C.D. Wright


Summer is the time for poetry--it's curious how reading five or six poems can take an entire morning when you have the time to spare. For the past week I've been reading and rereading our new poet laureate's collection Appalachia, one part of a trilogy that is itself one part of a trilogy, all of which books and their resplendent poems ask us to reconsider just what it was we thought poetry was about. Wright is a deep thinker whose loosely structured but dense poems ask fundamental questions that aren't "about" life, or death, or God--though these are among the subjects Wright tackles--but about how a person asking questions about life and death and God goes about his business. Wright brings us along with him as his inner life moves restlessly through a repertoire of questions.  Since I'm in the habit of asking myself who a poet reminds me of--a bad habit, for one should just enjoy the poetic moment--I can't help but think of how much Gerard Manley Hopkins was after some of the same things as Wright. Both look deep into the core of things, into the mystical nature of the world, poke around a bit and bring up (more often than not) a shiny stone.  Here's a poem I can't stop thinking about called "Basic Dialogue":

The transformation of objects in space,
                                                            or objects in time,
To objects outside either, but tactile, still precise....
It's always the same problem--
Nothing's more abstract, more unreal
                                                            than what we actually see.
The job is to make it otherwise.

Two dead crepe-myrtle bushes,
                                                   tulips petal-splayed and swan-stemmed,
All blossoms gone from the blossoming trees--the new loss
Is not like old loss,
Winter-kill, a jubilant revelation, an artificial thing
Linked and lifted by pure description into the other world.

Self-oblivion, sacred information, God's nudge--
I think I'll piddle around by the lemon tree, thorns
Sharp as angel's teeth.
                                     I think
I'll lie down in the dandelions, the purple and white violets.
I think I'll keep on lying there, one eye cocked to heaven.

April eats from my fingers,
                                            nibble of dogwood, nip of pine.
Now is the time, Lord.
Syllables scatter across the new grass, in search of their words.
Such minor Armageddons.
Beside the waters of disremembering,
                                                             I lay me down.

Nothing is more unreal than what we really see...

I love the restlessness of this poem; the visceral feel and rub of specific objects (it's not a nature poem!), the casual movement from the mundane to the almost sublime (but never quite); the language ("piddle" and "nibble"), the shock that comes with the line "Now is the time, Lord," as if challenging God to make good on some promise that's encoded in the dying blossoms--a "jubilant revelation." Can a poet get away with being as philosophical as Wright? I don't like everything he does ("Syllables scatter across the new grass" is forced), but there's hardly a false move in the three books of Wright's I've been able to read.  How about this: "How small the stars are tonight, bandannaaed by moonlight, / How few and far between--Disordered and drained, like highlights in Dante's death mask." ("Star Turn II").  To ask about Wright's "themes" is to ask what a seventy-something-year-old, observant, well-read, and word-mad man might think about in the course of a day.  His theme, I guess, is how to live. Mine too.

And then there's C.D. (no relation to Charles, as far as I know). Carolyn D. Wright, of the Ozarks, has a sensibility quite different from that of her fellow southerner, Charles. Where Charles (of Charlottesville) is philosophical and formal, Jeffersonian, preoccupied with the deeper questions, C.D. is informal and immediate, raw and visceral, Jacksonian, casual in the way she presents the everyday shocks of life:

A girl on the stairs listens to her father
Beat up her mother.
Doors bang.
She comes down in her nightgown.

The piano stands there in the dark
Like a boy with an orchid.

She plays what she can
Then she turns the lamp on.

Her mother’s music is spread out
On the floor like brochures.

She hears her father
Running through the leaves.

The last black key
She presses stays down, makes no sound
Someone putting their tongue where their tooth had been.


God isn't going to be showing up anytime soon in a C.D. Wright poem. In C.D.'s poems folks are also waiting around, but not for the dying blossoms of winter; they're waiting instead for a bit of rest, or a rag of dignity:

Approximately Forever

She was changing on the inside
it was true what had been written

The new syntax of love
both sucked and burned

The secret clung around them
She took in the smell

Walking down a road to nowhere
every sound was relevant

The sun fell behind them now
he seemed strangely moved

She would take her clothes off
for the camera

she said in plain english
but she wasn’t holding that snake
"The new syntax of love." I was just downtown here in Albuquerque picking up an old pair of boots I'd had resoled. The shoemaker is an Hispanic man a decade or so older than I am (and going into his shop always takes me back several decades).  As he handed me my boots I joked that I'd love to go dancing in them now that they were repaired, but that, unfortunately, all the good country bars in our hometown were closed. And he said, "Nothing's like it used to be anymore," and I thought how often I've heard that line lately--how often I've said it myself. C.D. Wright, bless her poetic soul, is a poet who, among other things, laments the way things once were, or perhaps the way we wish they had once been. 

Then there's James--the Ur/Uber-Wright. I'm tempted to reproduce "The Blessing" here, but I'll restrain myself and offer this one instead. You'll notice how the great bard of Dobbs Ferry, Ohio, a man who in his youth looked eerily like my deceased best male friend, threads the needle between Charles and C.D.--there's the quotidian and the metaphysical in every line Jim wrote:

Crouched down by a roadside windbreak
At the edge of the prairie,
I flinch under the baleful jangling of wind
Through the telephone wires, a wilderness of voices
Blown for a thousand miles, for a hundred years.
They all have the same name, and the name is lost.
So: it is not me, it is not my love
Alone lost.
The grief that I hear is my life somewhere.
Now I am speaking with the voice
Of a scarecrow that stands up
And suddenly turns into a bird.
This field is the beginning of my native land,
This place of skull where I hear myself weeping.

("Listening to the Mourners")

I've been immersed in poetry for weeks now. Translating some contemporary French poets, reading through the Complete Lorca, dipping into old favorites--Maxine Kumin, Stephan Dunn, Ruth Stone, John Logan--trying some translations of Antonio Machado (without success), and writing some new ones of my own.  Summer is the time for poetry, baseball, beer, and long walks...Enjoy!
Try these books:
Appalachia, by Charles Wright (FSG)
Rising, Falling, Hovering, by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon)
Above the River: The Complete Poems, James Wright (Noonday Press)

George Ovitt, (6/18/14)