Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Ever-Present Fullness of All Treasured Life

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Seghers (1900-1983), born Netty Reiling, was a German-Jewish writer whose education in pre-Nazi Germany included studies in Chinese language and culture; German, French, and Russian Literature, as well as sociology and history. She completed her studies at the University of Heidelberg with a dissertation, Jude und Judentum im Werke Rembrandts, in which she examined the role of Jews in Rembrandt’s work. It is believed that she chose her penname, Anna Seghers, after the Dutch painter, Hercules Seghers, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

A lifelong reader, she was especially devoted to literature, to the works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Kleist, Büchner, and Kafka, Racine and Balzac, and lived her life with a special affection for fairy tales and Jewish and Christian legends, which often play a part in her fiction. 
After the burning of the Reichstag in February of 1933, she—a Jew and member of the Communist Party—was arrested then released, at which point she fled to Switzerland, before continuing on to France, to Paris, where she got involved with the anti-fascist coalition, Volksfront or Popular Front. Yet soon she was forced to flee again, as Hitler’s troops invaded and occupied France, first to the south, to Marseille, “the uterine center of the earth”, from where she and her family finally managed to escape the mounting horrors of Europe aboard a ship to Mexico, a voyage which included the passengers Victor Serge, André Breton, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Such, at heart, is the story of her 1951 novel, Transit. In a description that surely captures her own perilous efforts to evade the steady advance of Hitler’s troops, she writes:

I watched them streaming into Marseille with their tattered banners representing all nations and faith, the advance guard of refugees. They had fled across all of Europe, but now, confronting the glimpses of blue water sparkling innocently between the houses, they were at their wits’ end. For the names of ships written in chalk didn’t mean that there really were ships but only a faint hope that there might be some—the names were constantly being wiped off because some strait was mined or a new coastal port had been fired on. Death was moving ever closer with his swastika banner as yet unscathed. 

Started after she found safety in Mexico, Transit takes “a sadder, longer view of her own experience,” writes Peter Conrad in his helpful introduction. “It observes events from what might be the vantage of the gods, looking down…on the spectacle of human folly, the delusion of human hope, and the alternation of anxiety and ennui that consumes our days.” Indeed, central to the overall force of the novel is the abiding impression that, for all of the apparent progress of the modern age, remarkably little has changed:

It was the age-old harbor gossip, as ancient as the Old Port itself and even older. Wonderful, an ancient harbor twaddle that’s existed as long as there’s been a Mediterranean Sea. Phoenician chit-chat, Cretan and Greek gossip, and that of the Romans. There was never a shortage of gossips who were anxious about their berths aboard a ship and about their money, or who were fleeing from all the real and imagined horrors of the world. Mothers who had lost their children, children who had lost their mothers. The remnants of crushed armies, escaped slaves human hordes who had been chased from all the countries of the earth, and having at last reached the sea, boarded ships in order to discover new lands from which they would again be driven; forever running from one death toward another.

Sengher’s recognition of this was by no means an apology for or capitulation to the apathy and fatalism of the age, let alone to Hitler and his kind. Rather (Why else would she write?), informing it all is the frank and finally hopeful recognition that, as Alan Watts puts it in his book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, “Poverty, disease, war, change, and death are nothing new. In the best of times 'security' has never been more than temporary and apparent". What matters is that we continue to live, to strive, moved—as by some mystery, some magic—by “the ever-present fullness of all treasured life”.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Genius of the Islands

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems


His best poems have about them a ferocity, an anger or impatience that makes them impossible to ignore. Reading Walcott is a sustained pleasure, but unless you read casually, his poems will make you squirm.  He had no patience for cant or cruelty, no love for the imperialists who had skewed the history of his beloved islands.  Here's a sample, the extraordinary poem "The Sea is History," included in Walcott's 1979 collection, The Star Apple Kingdom.  He's the perfect poet for high summer, for heat and the proliferation of life, for rum and fresh fish, for long days and short nights. 

Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that grey vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.

First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, like a light at the end of a tunnel,

the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:

Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,

that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor

the plangent harps of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,

and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages

looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,

brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw

of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?

Sir, it is locked in them sea-sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;

strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,

past the gothic windows of sea-fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;

and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,

and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,

and that was Lamentations—
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;

then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,

and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God

as His son set, and that was the New Testament.

Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation—

jubilation, O jubilation—
vanishing swiftly
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,

but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;

then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,

fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,

and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns

and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo

of History, really beginning.
George Ovitt (7/24/2018) 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Five-Mile Wall

Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen (essays)

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong (poems)

As I write this post, Mr. Trump is meeting in Helsinki with Mr. Putin.  Mr. Pompeo, our latest Secretary of State, has met a few times with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  My brother-in-law, a businessman, has made many trips to Vietnam, exploring mutually beneficial economic relations with our former enemy.  We briefly forgave Cuba for Fidel, but it didn't stick--too close to home.  Iran remains non grata going on forty years after that country's Islamic Revolution.  We don't care for Venezuela, though this administration doesn't much like Mexico, Canada, or Europe either.

In the peculiar calculus of international relations, friends and foes change places with astonishing rapidity.  That our president admires Putin but despises Theresa May is surely wondrous, a fact not even explicable in reference to national interest. The nexus of corporate capitalism and high-end scheming has created strange bedfellows in the 21st century. Like the stock market, volatility and creative destruction (of companies, or workers, or resources) has replaced the once sacrosanct pursuit of stability. 

Nothing is more mind boggling to me, a college student in the 1960's, then the about-face on the country we invaded and made war on for twenty years, the domino that wasn't to be allowed to fall, the communist state that would infect all of southeast Asia with the contagion of monolithic communism.  But my incredulity stems from my inability to grasp the simple fact that ideology is dead, replaced, worldwide, by the logic, the omnipotence, of capital.  There's a franchise here that I hadn't paid enough attention to: destroy a country, then with multinational investments rebuild it; once rebuilt (more or less after a Westernized model) use the former enemy as a base of operations for the storage of surplus domestic capital, avoiding taxes at home.  Everybody gets rich, except for the people. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the bestselling and remarkable novel The Sympathizer attempts, in his essays Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War to catalogue the ways in which for Vietnamese and Americans alike the war in Vietnam, the war of American aggression (as it is known in Southeast Asia) has been memorialized--in graveyards, formal memorials, novels, and films.  It's a fine book, but for me at least, unconvincing.  As with Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering, the award-winning account of the memorization of the Civil War dead, I came away thinking that the construction of memorials, the dedication of grave sites, the commercialization of war in books or films has nothing to do with remembering.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's academic style--he's a professor of English, and writes like one--obscures the fact that for Americans the war in Vietnam isn't a historical fact, but a mythological tale, a story that has taken its place alongside the vast array of myths that define our national consciousness.  The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example, is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the war for the United States. A similar war memorializing Vietnam's dead would stretch five miles, from the Lincoln Memorial well up Capitol Hill.  But what does this reflective wall have to do with remembering?  What does any statue or any field of white crosses have to do with the internalization of a catastrophic historical event?  Remembrance depends upon compassion, empathy and imagination far more than it does on the traditional symbols of death and loss.  A visit to Gettysburg's famed battlefield, with its plinths and equestrian statues, is like an episode on the History Channel unless one is willing to look inward and feel the mayhem and suffering that took place on those pastoral acres on three summer days in 1863.  Americans might be moved by the Wall, but they aren't thinking much about what it really means; if we were, we wouldn't be continuing to behave as we do, creating new memorials to the dead. It's easier to build another Wall than to stop the need for them.

Sorry, I've oversimplified Viet Thanh Nguyen's argument here. He has many subtle and important things to say about the asymmetries of power and the problem (impossibility) of humanizing one's enemies--please do read this book--but I still haven't understood how remembering and memorializing explain America's amnesia or Vietnam's transformation into an "acceptable" communist government. What sleight of hand is at work here? I defer to historians on this question.

If you want to feel things, if you want to know about human beings, it's poetry that is required, not statues. 

The young (he's twenty-nine) Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has produced a remarkable book of poems about war, isolation, foreignness, loss, and memory.  Particular impressive is the way in which Ocean moves from formal verse to free verse to idiosyncratic styles in order to blend meaning and feeling with form.  There's a violence in the book, a sustained pitch of anger and despair that is inescapable, particularly if one reads straight through in a single sitting. This book is not a sampler but a slap in the face, a call to wake up and share in a stranger's life (and what could be more foreign to us than this young man's life)? 

There isn't an uninteresting poem in the book. Here's one that shows the range of feeling and mastery of tone:

Prayer for the Newly Damned

Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen.
Behind the wooden fence, a field lit
with summer, a man pressing a shank
to another man’s throat. Steel turning to light
on sweat-slick neck. Forgive me
for not calling Your name. For thinking:
this must be how every prayer
begins—the word Please cleaving
the wind into fragments, into what
a boy hears in his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner. The hour suddenly
stilled. The man genuflected, his lips
pressed to black boot as the words spilled
from his mouth like rosaries
shattering from too much
Father. Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
and blue—beg to remain
clear and blue? Did my cheek twitch
when that darkness bloomed from his crotch
and trickled into ochre dirt? Father,
how quickly the blade becomes
You. But let me begin again: There’s a boy
kneeling in a house with every door kicked open
to summer. There’s a question corroding
his tongue. There’s a knife touching
Your name lodged inside the throat.
Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?

Many of the poems in Ocean's collection are memorials to his father, as here. Some are love poems, and some, among the most moving, are reflections on the poet's own identity as a son, a gay man, an American. (See "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong").  Here's a poem about remembering the war:

Aubade With Burning City

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving
Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent
Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese
refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
           Milkflower petals in the street
                                               like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright…
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
           Open, he says.
                                       She opens.
                                                           Outside, a soldier spits out
           his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
                                                                         fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
                                        as the traffic guard unstraps his holster.
                                       His fingers running the hem
of  her white dress. A single candle.
                                       Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
                                     shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
           through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                           lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
                                                                             crushed into the shine
                                                      of a white Christmas.
On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                 for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                               facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                            A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
               beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white…A white…I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
                                              falling from her shoulders.
Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
                                      with gunfire. Red sky.
                             Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just
                                                                               out of reach.
           The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                    The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                           like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
           something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                       beneath them. The bed a field of ice.
Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
                            their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                 and tomorrow…
                                            The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming…
                                                           to hear sleigh bells in the snow…
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                           runs silently toward her god—
                          Open, he says.
                                                        She opens.

 If you can, get both books and read them together.  Let me know what you think.

George Ovitt (7/16/2018)

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Science of Destruction

Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

“I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium,” professed the philosopher William James in his 1910 essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. “The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticism, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them… I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.” It is a declaration, an optimism, that seems naïve, if not positively obtuse, when viewed in the light of the decades that followed it, nearly a century of the worst violence and destruction the world has ever known.

       Nazi Diagram of Gas Chambers at Auschwitz
Patrik Ouředník, in this extraordinary short novel, takes pains to remind us of just that in what is largely a compendium of brutal, if deftly rendered facts. The novel begins like this:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot the would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again…

            U.S. Government Diagram of ‘Fat Man’ 

Continuing in the same matter-of-fact tone, if with the occasional inflection of irony, of humor, Europeana is—in the tradition of Rabelais and Beckett (both of whom Ouředník has translated into his native Czech)—a prose poem of modern hubris and folly, a dazzling, finally breathless, primer on the horrors and absurdity of our times.   

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Poorest Coffee in America!

My favorite scene in West Side Story is the one in which George Chakiris and Rita Moreno,  Bernardo and Anita in the film version, sing and dance on a tenement rooftop to Bernstein and Sondheim's  "America." Bernardo is disillusioned by America--especially by the fact that Puerto Ricans like himself are not welcome on the "isle of Manhattan." Vivacious Anita feels differently. America a land of possibility, or at least of short-term glamor and fewer hurricanes.  "Everyone free in America" sings Anita as she swings her orchid skirt and high kicks with the exuberance that characterized all of Robbins' choreography for the film. As it turned out America wasn't altogether welcoming, and its Romeo and Juliet (Tony and Maria) are killed by the racial hatreds that we Americans are still, perennially, struggling to put aside.


I just put out my American flag--reluctantly I admit--as I do each Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July.  If my neighbors, who resolutely show no colors, asked me about the flag I would explain that for me the stars and stripes acknowledge the noble idea of individual rights, freedom of conscience, and the striving for an inclusive, just, and democratic society.  We haven't done so well in any of these departments. We are, in fact, rushing backward toward the worst periods of oligarchy, racism, xenophobia, and civic indifference. But still, one can hope, and the flag is a reminder of what might be.  (No doubt you know this iconic Gordon Parks photo, one I have above my desk at home.)

But this is a post about books, not politics, and I wanted most of all to mention just a handful of  books about America, or the Other America, that lately mean most to me, that have done most to shape my perception of my country. 

This is not a list of "great American novels," It is a personal list of books (including non-fiction) that at this moment mean a great deal to me.  I almost wrote "help me make sense of," but that, I think, is asking too much.

On the very top of my list of novels about America is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 Americanah. This brilliant exploration of the life of a Nigerian immigrant woman in America and its unsparing analysis of racism is required reading, especially now.

And what is it like to be a Mexican-American in the late 2010s? Indispensable is Cristina Henriquez's aptly titled, multi-voiced, poignant The Book of Unknown Americans. Told from many points of view, Henriquez's lyrical novel examines with humanity and sobriety the plight of invisible yet  polarizing immigrants from the South. Super smart and beautifully written.

I have read all of Ha Jin's novels.  In the category of "what does it mean to be an American" I recommend A Free Life. As in all of Ha Jin's work, there is a deceptively simple story masking rich philosophical and political themes.  Here the issue is what it means to be a person, specially a writer, who happens to be a refugee from China living in America.

 Independence Day (1995) by Richard Ford, is the second part of the four-part series of books about Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged, white, male, real estate agent. Yes, I know, stories of white men who live in suburban New Jersey and sell houses between existential crises don't exactly titillate, but Ford has never written a dull sentence, and Frank's July 4th Odyssey explores not only the inner life of an Everyman, but also the flaws and beauties of our perplexing country. 

I never really "got" immigrant life on a visceral level until I read Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. This Jewish-American bildungsroman might be complemented by John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.  Bellow is funnier and far more readable. Bellow's book should be read in tandem with James Baldwin's Another Country.  The similarities between the lives of a Harlem "Negro" in the 1940s and a Jewish boy in Depression-era Chicago are uncanny. Both books deconstruct the idea of the American "hero" and replace him with men and women who must hustle to get by on the fringes of a never-quite-welcoming America.

American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Plot Against America--a trilogy of novels by Philip Roth that measure out the cost of our deeply-felt fears and paranoia. We are the melting pot that mostly prefers not to.

 What's the best book celebrating America and American values? Hands down, the complete version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Two volumes, 1836 and 1840).  Don't keep promising to read it--just do it. This liberal Frenchmen (zut alors!) saw more clearly into our soul than anyone save Jefferson, Emerson, and Henry Adams.

 Gotta go and put the burgers on the grill.

George Ovitt (July 3/4, 2018)

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Ian Haight

Tony Hoagland

Robert Pinsky

Wyn Cooper

There are certain people, the mere fact of their being alive, that gives you reason for hope.  Donald Hall was one such person for me, and while his passing on June 23 was unsurprising--he'd been in ill health--the world feels a little emptier without him sitting on his front porch in Wilmot, watching the haze gather on Blue Mountain.  I loved the Bill Moyers tribute to Hall and Jane Kenyon back in 1993, and I enjoyed Hall's periodic cameos on NPR, Garrison Keillor without the fake folksiness, and I've read just about every one of the many books he produced from the time he and Jane left Ann Arbor in 1975 right up to his Essays After Eighty.

The obits have him as kin to Robert Frost, but this is wrong: Hall was far more versatile, much funnier, and deeply humane.  Hall wasn't "just" a poet of rural New England, not even close.  My favorite of his many books is Museum of Clear Ideas (1993). I love its witty "Nine Innings" on baseball, written to explain America's game to Kurt Schwitters, "Merz-poet and artist," the surrealist who is imagined sitting with Red-Sox-loving Donald  in the Fenway bleachers. A notable collection of historical figures--Rilke, Alexander the Great, Zane Grey, Moses and Dwight Evans--are brought together with love and wit to plumb the depths of the game Hall pondered and adored throughout his life.

Here's one for Donald, from his wife, Jane Kenyon, both now gone, and missed:

Heavy Summer Rain

The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day

turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.

Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.


Ian Haight is a poet I came to know through his translations of Korean poetry, done for, among others, the White Pine Korean Voices series. Haight has won numerous awards for his translations, but I had no knowledge of his own poems until I received a copy of his collection, Celadon, published in 2017 by Unicorn Press of Greensboro, N.C.   Celadon pottery, often a jade-green ceramic form that originated in China but spread to Korea and Japan, is characterized by a particular type of glazing and often features "tiny cracks" or imperfections (according to Chinese Celadon Wares by Godfrey St. George Montague).  I don't doubt that Haight, a poet of intelligence and wit, had the idea of slight imperfections in mind as he crafted the poems in his prize-winning collection, many of which employ deft ventriloquism in order to uncover lives that are otherwise closed to us.  It is the "slight cracking" in lives that Haight explores. Here's "Diary of a Korean Farmer," a poem representative of Haight's stripped-down diction, terse lines, and mode of evoking rather than describing feeling--

I used black tape
to hold my daughter's faded picture
on the truck's front.

I thought it best
to start the funeral
at her school.

I drove in a long
circle on the playground.
Some mothers stood
under a tree, next to cars.

I saw a cloud
near a peak.

The tide was low
at the riverside.
The water pulled away,
I smelled the river's mud-earth.

A mourner's car parked
by the river,

Mountains circled
the valley.
I wondered
if she might be
at the top of one

I knelt by the box
while the shaman chanted.

When I looked out
over the water,
my arms grew tight.

I remembered I hit my daughter
when I drank too much,

how she called
to me from a nightmare.

I remembered my wife
bathing her
in our warmed room.

I thought of the money
I didn't have,
how next year
the only people buying
our rice
would be from the government.

I thought of the little water
left in the river,

I could open the box then
spread her ashes
and be happy.

There's Li Po and Tu Fu in these stripped-down stanzas, each articulating a complex feeling in simple declarative statements.  Whether he's in Korea or Detroit or Florida, Haight approaches his subjects with the same clear-eyed intensity--"I could open the box then/spread her ashes/and be happy."  Rural sadness, the tribulations of the poor--these are a given. The use of the conditional makes the point visceral: there is something I might do that would bring me happiness, a happiness dependent on the worst of long list of troubles.

Haight also deals in negatives, perhaps with the Zen-mind of a translator of Korean poetry:

"I don't want to live next to you/in the house by the river" ("Farmers Hunt Turkeys"

"I don't miss the day/he cursed our children" ("The Neighbor's Son")

"Rice doesn't grow/in the gravelly/mountains..." ("A Chinese Migrant")

One sees the beauty of the outside of the bowl and the emptiness within, waiting to be filled.


Summer is the season for long, boring games of baseball (Bryce Harper, that traitor, wants to shorten games to seven innings!), long outdoor dinners watching the sun set,  long novels that meander toward nowhere, and long afternoons reading poems--the ultimate slap in the face delivered to the pragmatists and efficiency experts. People of my acquaintance are fond of reminding me that "no one" reads poetry any more. Good.  When no one else does something, then I am certain that it is worth doing.


Tony Hoagland is one of my go-to summer poets. The witty melancholy of his collection Application for Release from the Dream is a tonic for our dishonest age. He's a wag, un-PC, "inappropriate," likely to give offense, a tweaker of noses. Everything he writes is worth reading--about how many poets can we assert this?  Here's one of my favorites:

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now? 

Hoagland also writes incisive criticism; his most recent book, Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays is one of the two best books I have ever read on the craft of poetry, the other being Robert Pinsky's Singing School. Hoagland's essays on Robert Bly and Dean Young are full of intelligent insights, and his suggestions in regard to poetic form, style, and voicing are better than you'll find in any "how-to" book (plus funnier).


I've been reading Wyn Cooper's Mars Poetica for the past week. Cooper is new to me, and I am happy I found him. He's published four books prior to this one. There's nothing better than finding a new poet and discovering yet another way to say the things that poets say--new forms and vocabularies and tones of voice and attitudes. Cooper comes right at you; he's open and honest and straightforward.

Here's the title poem:

Imagine you’re on Mars, looking at earth,
a swirl of colors in the distance.
Tell us what you miss most, or least.

Let your feelings rise to the surface.
Skim that surface with a tiny net.
Now you’re getting the hang of it.

Tell us your story slantwise,
streetwise, in the disguise
of an astronaut in his suit.

Tell us something we didn’t know
before: how words mean things
we didn’t know we knew.

I hope you'll find some new poets this summer, and reread some of your old favorites.

George Ovitt (6/26/2018)



Tuesday, June 19, 2018


Adios Hemingway, Leonardo Padura Fuentes (a novel)

Ernest Hemingway, Mary V. Dearborn

He was a man's man.

The kind of man about whom Richard Slotkin wrote in Regeneration Through Violence; the man who "won the West;" the man with a house full of animal heads, a case full of guns, a rotting liver and a gigantic libido.

A dinosaur.  Like God, our culture--dishonest, feckless, preening, consumerist, shallow--has killed off men like Hemingway. Outside of the military, the version of masculinity Hemingway represented has passed into oblivion.  He was a bully and a drunk and an artist. He did not suffer fools; he didn't bow down to the gods of money and power. He was, like him or not, his own man.

In his various biographical guises, Hemingway comes off as brutal and bloodthirsty, buffoonish, drunken, insecure, and, near the end of his life, paranoid.  After reading Mary Dearborn's  biography it is difficult to disagree with this evaluation But he was also courageous, generous, loyal, and committed to his art.

I am rereading a handful of the novels and trying to recapture some of the excitement they engendered in me when I was a young man. To be honest, I'm ambivalent about all of them except for The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and The Sea. The simple cadences of his style--a style learned during Hemingway's brief stint at the Kansas City Star--feels more like reportage than literature. In the opening of To Have and Have Not, for instance, I can't make out the look of the bar (it's the Floridita in Havana) or the disposition of the characters during the gunfight that initiates the story.  The scene is flattened, more like a series of still photos than a narrative describing propulsive action. I understand what Hemingway was aiming for, a laconic detachment implying an unwillingness to judge events, but I can no longer live comfortably without judgments, without a sense of the weightiness of things.This feeling is unshakable during even the best sections of The Sun Also Rises, a book that might have been written by Camus or Gide or Beckett. 

In this post I want to approach Hemingway in terms of a philosophical problem rather than from the point of view of literary merit. The wonderful Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuenctes invites us, in his tiny gem of a novel Adios Hemingway, to rethink Hemingway's life and art, and I have tried to do so.

Please bear with this brief sidebar:

David Hume argued that there can be no such thing as a "self." In our internal life we note a riot of impressions, ideas, memories, sensations, fears, desires, opinions, and so forth. We flit from one thing to another. While we are performing even the most intimate and intensive actions--making love or writing poems--our minds still move to other things: the cool feeling of the air moving through the window, the dog that never ceases barking, the slight pain our knee, the bottle of wine that we will enjoy with dinner.  Everyone before Hume simply assumed that the mind was a theater and that the panoply of acts that crossed the stage was objectively observed by the Soul, made note of and rounded up in some fashion in order to create the Self.  Kant took Hume's point and ran with it--in the first critique he developed the notion of Transcendental Idealism, of an objective, self-observant critical consciousness.

Kant's understanding of how the mind imposes order on the outside world--in part through the categories of space, time, and causality--was unsatisfactory on a number of levels, and generations of critics wrestled with the fundamental problem that Hume articulated and that Kant believed he had settled.  Namely, how does the mind order the world in such a way that it appears to possess continuity and coherence? And what is this self or mind apart from the impressions it receives? The absurdity of Locke's idea of the "blank slate" made Kant's reconstruction of the inner life all the more important. 

To get some idea of what Kant was worried about, imagine that you were to forget the past, to sustain a brain injury that eradicated your memory and therefore your personality. Would you still be the person you had been?  What is this Self in which we place so much faith, that we give our name, that we trust to be there when we need it? ("Just be yourself" we say, and. "Be true to yourself"). This sounds like an argument you might have had in a college dorm room--it probably was--but even this crude formulation of the problem suggests something of the difficulty we face when thinking about our inner life and how it is connected to our sense of self.

What does any of this have to do with Hemingway?

No writer I can think of so carefully (or carelessly) blended his writing and his life; or, to put it another way, I can think of no other writer whose literary achievements are as inextricably bound to a particular way of life, a way of life that, as Mary Dearborn makes plain, Hemingway deliberately cultivated and consciously pursed.  He lived his books as few writers have lived theirs, and when he could no longer live a life centered on hunting, fishing, drinking, and pursuing women not only did he cease writing, he ceased living.  Beginning in 1958, Hemingway slipped into paranoia, ill-health, and senility; he no longer was the man he had been, and therefore the writer he had been.

It is the story of the slipping out of a life that Leonardo Padura Fuentes tells in Adios Hemingway. Mario Conde, the hero of Fuentes's wonderful Havana mysteries (try Havana Blue), has retired from police work to become a writer. His former partner and now chief of the Havana police asks Conde to investigate the identity of a body that has been unearthed on Heminway's former Finca, now a museum, or mausoleum, dedicated to the writer's years in Cuba.  Conde, who once revered Hemingway and took the novelist as his role model, has come to despise "Papa," to see the American ex-pat as  loutish and cruel, a man who was, in fact, capable of murder.  Conde takes on the job of identifying the corpse and finding the killer, and in doing so he unearths not just the body of an FBI agent and the killer, but also the central mysteries of Hemingway's life. 

While Conde sets out to solve a murder, the reader is led back in time to Hemingway's final days in Cuba. I loved these sections for their rich evocation of the writer's life, and for their intelligent exploration of the connection between the self and the artist. In Heminway's case, this connection was absolute and therefore is a provocation to think about the meaning of literary art.

Fuentes's explores with great economy and delicacy the connection between the self-identity of Hemingway and his sense of himself as an artist.  Once he can no longer live as he has lived, once he must renounce the outward roles he has played--as a hunter, a drinker, a lover--his inner world shrivels to nothing. He can't finish Death in the Afternoon because he can no longer evoke the drama of a bullfight. And, lacking the ability to write, why go on living?

That so slender and so unpretentious a novel would lead me to reread Hemingway, to search out a new biography, to write for days in my notebook about the relationship(s) between the writer's life and the writer's perception of his inner self, all of this speaks volumes about Fuentes's art.  I have just ordered Fuentes's big novel about Trotsky, The Man Who Loved Dogs and am looking forward to writing about it in a future episode of Talented Reader.   What is summer for but the discovery of exciting new books and writers? 

Have a cigar. 

George Ovitt (6/19/2018)

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Confederation of Souls

Pereira Declares by Antonio Tabucchi
I'm nothing.     
I'll always be nothing.
I can't want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?)

               Álvaro de Campos (Fernando Pessoa)

The médecins-philosophes were a revolutionary group of French physician-philosophers who, throughout the latter half of the 18th century, sought to combine the best medical practices of the day with the prevailing philosophical thinking. Among their most well-known notions was that of the confederation of souls, the theory that every human being is comprised, not of a single discrete soul, but of numerous souls, all of which are governed by a single ruling ego.   

Pereira Declares is a brilliant short novel set in Portugal, in Lisbon in the summer of 1938, near the start of the grim, fascist regime of António Salazar, the story of a lonely, overweight journalist and widower named Dr. Pereira who is content just to keep his head down by writing a culture page for a small, conservative newspaper called Lisboa, translating an occasional short story from the French, and spending his afternoons eating and drinking at his favorite café. Never interested politics, he doesn’t want to cause trouble, he doesn’t want to make waves.

One day, while in conversation at his favorite cafe, his friend, Dr. Cardoso, introduces him to the work, the thinking, of the médecins-philosophes, explaining to him in summary that “…within us we each have numerous souls…a confederation which agrees to put itself under the government of one ruling ego… It may be,” continues Dr. Cardoso, “that after slowly nibbling away in you some ruling ego is gaining the chieftainship of your confederation of souls, Dr. Pereira, and there’s nothing you can do about it except perhaps give it a helping hand whenever you get the chance.” It is an idea that intrigues him, but to which he gives little attention until he makes the acquaintance of a young man named Monteiro Rossi, whom he decides to recruit for the newspaper in order to create an archive of “advance obituaries on the writers of our times.” It is an encounter that marks a tuning point in his otherwise safe and apathetic life, drawing him swiftly into the heart of the politically dangerous times. While initially resistant to the call of this new ruling ego within himself, insisting to Rossi, “I am neither one of you, nor one of them, I prefer to keep to myself,” he is finally forced to commit himself, to enter the world, to act at last in the name of a matters greater, more lasting than himself. 

Peter Adam Nash