Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lebenslüge or Life-Lies

 Forgetfulness by Ward Just

Aquitaine, often billed as ‘the other south of France,’ is a culturally, geographically diverse region in southwestern France stretching from the world-famous vineyards of Bordeaux in the north to the precipitous Pyrenees of the Basque country in the south. It is there, in the south, in the mountainous village of St. Michel du Valcabrère, that this poetic, quietly unsettling novel is set. Thomas Railles, an American artist and former odd-jobber for the CIA, is living happily there in a self-imposed exile with his beloved French wife, Florette, painting, enjoying good food and wine, wandering the countryside, and listening to his favorite jazz records. One day, while he is busy chatting with some American guests in their home after a long and leisurely lunch, his wife sets out for a walk in the nearby mountains, as she is accustomed to do, and never returns. Night falls, the air grows cold, yet she is nowhere to be found. Set in the wake of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s blundering ‘War on Terror,’ Forgetfulness is an often poignant mediation on the personal, starkly human cost of the violent, evermore fateful intersection of nationalism, religious fanaticism, and unfettered global capitalism.  

When his wife’s body is discovered on the mountain, Railles learns that she had broken her ankle while hiking and then been murdered by unknown assailants, probably North African smugglers who regularly plied the region’s rugged mountain trails. The story that ensues is that of Railles’ struggle, in a country not his own, to come to terms with his grief and loneliness and to reorient himself in an age increasingly rife with both State and terrorist violence. Finally, Forgetfulness is the story of his own conflicted relationship with the U.S., with what it means to be an American today. Appalled, bewildered, by the events of 9/11 and eager that justice be served, Railles somehow “lacked anger of the sort that swept all before it and became a cause in itself, a way of life, the anger of the American…” Even when later he finds himself face to face with his wife’s killers, four recently captured Moroccan terrorists, he finds he cannot indulge even the urge to avenge his wife’s death, an impulse that—some would say—is both his duty and due. Instead he simply wants to meet the men, to talk to them, to understand what happened to his wife on the mountain that day, and in this way to puzzle back together at least a little of the world he knew.

On September 11th my brother-in-law, Greg Rodriquez, was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center where he was working that morning in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd Floor at One World Trade Center. What makes his story remarkable, what makes it especially remarkable, as well as relevant to this post, was the all-but-immediate reaction of his parents. Within days of Greg’s death, before they had even begun to reckon with their loss, their grief, they wrote an open letter to The New York Times called “Not in Our Son’s Name” in which they spoke out against the use of their son’s death as a pretext for the war then already underway. Even in the midst of their suffering, they understood the trap and futility of vengeance. So, too, Just’s character, Thomas Railles, refuses to seek vengeance as the solution to his own anguish and loss, consoling himself instead with the illusion of forgetfulness, a simple lie that allows him to rise each morning and paint, that allows him to live.

Here, for those interested, is a link to my in-law’s short open letter to The New York Times as read aloud by Benjamin Bratt, as well as a link to a trailer for the documentary made about their brave, affecting, and truly inspirational response to their son’s death, In Our Son’s Name.

Ward Just, born in Michigan in 1953, is best known for his novels, A Family Trust, An Unfinished Season, Exiles in the Garden, and The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert.
Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Moveable Feast

The Wheeling Year, Ted Kooser

Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven, John Eliot Gardiner

I may have mentioned this 365 days ago, but as a kid, the idea of a rabbit large enough to carry candy baskets to all the well-behaved kids in the neighborhood--a large stretch of Asbury Park, blue-collar Irish and Italian, boys enough for two full baseball teams--creeped me out. Unlike Santa with his benign and perhaps bourbon besotted red cheeks--a person I equated with my German grandfather, minus the red suit--the EB looked eerily like my Aunt Helen, pasty, with an egregious overbite. Helen smelled like roses and gave all of her nephews and nieces quarters instead of candy, which was fine by me. We'd have to dress up and go to church, then there was a big Easter egg hunt at the golf course--real eggs in those days, dyed by the Moms the night before. Even in dour New Jersey it seemed never to rain on Easter, and the day stretched on into deep darkness with the evening meal, processions of relatives, an Easter Promenade on the Boardwalk, and the stomach ache that comes from eating too much candy. Chocolate rabbits, hard boiled eggs, lamb stew, new shoes, and the priest showering us with holy water: what a mess of symbols, all adding up to the idea of life renewed: popping trees (oaks and red maples in front of our apartment), irises redolent of lemon licorice, school's penultimate month, Giants games on the radio, stickball in the street, and, even for a ten-year-old, undefinable yearning.  A moveable feast: medieval European math was pretty much invented for the purpose of locating the correct day for the Paschal feast. I liked it late: in those days there would be snow on the ground all through March, and you wanted it warm for Easter, so the later the better.

Sure enough, the Old English word Ēosturmōnaþ (Latin Eostur-monath) is right here in Venerable Bede--the Paschal month named for a pagan goddess of rebirth--though the more orthodox insist that the feast has only to do with the business of the empty tomb and nothing to do with pagans and Jews.

 Eostur-monath, qui nunc Paschalis mensis interpretatur, quondam a Dea illorum quæ Eostre vocabatur, et cui in illo festa celebrabant nomen habuit: a cujus nomine nunc Paschale tempus cognominant, consueto antiquæ observationis vocabulo gaudia novæ solemnitatis vocantes...

Eos is of course proto-Indo-European for "dawn." Most of the images I can find in my books and on-line picture Ostara as a flying or hovering female cloaked in white and wielding a flowering branch. Trees surround her, and there are some images with serpents, another symbol of fertility. There's a late 19th century image featuring a flying rabbit surrounded by angels--oh I love these conflations of paganism with Christianity! The bunny appears to come into the story later on, in Middle High German, perhaps as a companion of Ostara--but I'm thinking more of hares in terms of fecundity and carnality: in medieval manuscripts, the presence of a rabbit--a coney--nearly always indicates sexual activity, or at least carnal desire--D.W. Robertson analyzes this imagery in his Preface to Chaucer. The egg, it appears, is a symbol of the tomb--Jesus as the yolk, wrapped in white--I can't remember where I read this so I might be making it up. Purity and sex--how the Christians worked to purge their mythology--all borrowed from pagan sources--of any trace of carnality. Birds and bees and rabbits did it, but not them. "Better to marry than to burn" as Paul put it, "but best is to be even as I am," a virgin. But then there's spring: how to explain away the life that pulses through everything, even Christians? Allegorize it. Not life, but eternal life, not birth but rebirth.

Here's an image, province unknown, that covers several of the iconic themes:

For years, when I lived in civilization, I would attend a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion during Holy Week. Is there any better choral music? And could there be a finer book on J.S. Bach than Gardiner's magisterial Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven?  Listen to this (from page 428):

"As always, the music is the place to find Bach himself...Much as his whole endeavor is to give a voice to others--the protagonists, the crowd, the Gospel writer--his own is always present in the story. We hear it in his fervour, in his empathy with  the suffering to the innocent Christ, in his sense of propriety, in his choices and juxtapositions of narrative and commentary, and most of all in the abrupt way he stems the tide of vengeful hysteria, cutting into Matthew's narration and interrupting it with a chorale expressive of profound contrition and outrage."

Bach's faithful heart at work, as Bruno Walter put it. Here's the opening....

and the entire Passion:

Gardiner's book is full of brilliant insights: "What most distinguishes [Bach's] Passions from operas of the time is the way he does away with the convention of a fixed point of reference for the audience, rejecting the idea of a listener who surveys the development of the dramatic narrative more like a consumer--entertained, perhaps moved, ingesting spoon-fed images, but never a part of the action."

Sitting in church this morning, I nipped a moment here and there during the homily (what has happened to the once-great art of sermonizing?) to partake of Ted Kooser's delightful The Wheeling Year. Like other fine journal-keepers, and (I thought), like Marcus Aurelius, with Kooser I only needed a single paragraph and could then chew on it, like a stalk of longstem prairie grass. Here's the one I masticated this morning, from "April":

"Month of my birth. What record do we poets leave? Not on stone tablets, but in books like leaves that have matted together under the snows of indifference. That we were fretful, mostly, but that now and then we looked up and glimpsed something wonderful passing away." 

Perfect.  Kooser is all over the map in this book--tidy observations of the natural world, thoughts on aging, lines that will become part of his poetry. He occupies a small corner of an immense middle America, yet his reach exceeds that of almost any any other poet working today.

"Imagine this bluestem as salt grass, and these crows as a species of gull, and you will know what it's like to live on the coast of the sky, waves of light slapping the barns, splashing the windows with a blue that has come all the way from the other side." 

And then back to the Passion, playing as I type these words:

"Gerne will ich mich bequeman/Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen."*

Happy Spring.

*Act I, scene iv, "Gladly will I fear disdaining/drink the cup without complaining."

George Ovitt (4/5/15)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Lack Somewhere

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In his 1899 short story “The Wife of His Youth,” Charles Chesnutt tells the tale of the pretentious and conservative Mr. Ryder, a Southerner and man of mixed ancestry who runs a club known colloquially as ‘The Blue Vein Society,’ a relatively exclusive association patronized by up-and-coming members of the fictional town of Groveland who are ‘more white than black,’ that is, ‘white enough to show blue veins.’ “I have no race prejudice,” he is proud to declare, “but we people of mixed blood are the ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black.” They are words that might very well have been spoken by the fearless, brilliant, if now sadly little-read author, Nella Larsen. Indeed there is perhaps no American writer who was more haunted by and preoccupied with the punishing existential stigma of mixed-race ancestry than Larsen. Born to a white Danish mother and a black Danish West-Indian father who, as a couple, chose to cross the color line, Nella, “a visibly brown child,” writes Thadious M. Davis in his introduction to Larsen’s novel, Passing, “was raised as the lone ‘colored’ person in a family that had refashioned itself, consciously changed its name, erased its racial past, and, with the disappearance of that past, obscured familial ties to the dark child in its midst.” For this Larsen suffered all her life, inspiring in her (just as in her protagonist, Helga Crane) a desperate, often angry iconoclasm that kept her shuttling restlessly between one people and another, always searching, never satisfied, rarely if ever happy in her skin:

Helga Crane couldn’t, she told herself and others, live in America. In spite of its glamour, existence in America, even in Harlem, was for Negroes too cramped, too uncertain, too cruel; something not to be endured for a lifetime if one could escape; something demanding a courage greater than was in her. No. She couldn’t stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back.

Such, in broad strokes, is the story of Helga Crane in this grim, uncompromising, if highly readable and deeply worthwhile first novel. The title alone, Quicksand, is nearly sufficient to describe the painful daily crisis of so many African Americans in the 1920’s who suffered the triple curse of miscegenation (whether forced or consensual)—alienation from both the greater black and white communities, as well as from themselves. The ubiquitous and insidious racism that Larsen describes in the story of Helga Crane, in her life in the South, in Harlem, and in Copenhagen, to where, briefly, she flees, must eventually penetrate even the toughest of skins, as it does in time with hers, manifesting itself first as chronic dissatisfaction, self-censorship, insecurity, denial, and self-reproach, coupled at points with a bitter arrogance, then finally—if not inevitably—as bitterness itself, as apathy, submission, and self-loathing. Tragically, and for all of the evidence to the contrary, Helga’s problem seems to her, by the end of the novel, to stem less from the cruel and inhuman strictures of America at large as from a personal failing or flaw in her nature, from a lack within. To say, as a host of critics once did, that such an ending is overly pessimistic, is almost obscenely ridiculous—as if the pain Larsen describes was contrived for narrative effect alone, as if the novel itself has no greater function than to please us as readers. Larsen didn’t write to be clever, to exercise her imagination, to be creative; she wrote to tell the truth and, by telling the truth, to dignify her own life in all its pain and complexity. One has only to think of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, of the virulent, widespread, and blatantly systematic racism that still thrives in the U.S. today, to appreciate just how astute and courageous she was. 

Quicksand, while available in a number of different editions, has recently been republished as part of a beautiful collection of short novels called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1920’s. Edited by Rafia Zafar, the collection includes work by such African American greats Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Wallace Thurman. There is also a companion volume called Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the 1930’s. Do yourself a favor and buy them both. They are beautiful books.

Nella Larsen, one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the Harlem renaissance, was born Nellie Walker on April 13, 1891, in Chicago. She began publishing stories in the mid-1920’a and published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. Passing came out the following year.

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, March 13, 2015

What's Wrong With Me? Part I

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower


A list of things that I admire includes literary novels, the beautiful and damned city of Beirut (any beautiful and damned city), bucolic Transylvania, the art of literary translation, novels that are wholly lacking in the conventions of ordinary fiction--lacking plots, dialogue, and obvious authorial grasping after popularity or sales. I am drawn to books of all kinds written by East Europeans, especially Romanians and Hungarians, to claustrophobic fiction that keeps its story in a room in a small village or in a dank Stalinesque apartment in an unimaginable city like Bucharest. Frankly I've grown weary of New York City as the center of the literary universe and eagerly await the first novel to be set entirely in Szigetszentmiklós. I enjoy books about solitary characters and dislike fiction that is focused on suburban life, "self-realization," and love affairs that don't end badly. So: Bernhard, Beckett, Skvorecky, Manea, that sort of thing. If you've been paying attention these past two-and-one-half years none of this will come as a surprise. But what I don't get is why I sometimes turn my back on novels that seem to fit all of my idiosyncratic (idiotic?) criteria--books like the two under review here.

Gyula Krúdy was born in Nyiregyhaza, in Hungry. I've left out the many diacritical marks. How could you not love a novel by "the Hungarian Proust," a man whose collected works fill fifty volumes in the world's most inscrutable language, a writer beloved of Sandor Marai, whose gem of a novel Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek in Hungarian, if you can believe it) is one of my all time favorite books--how? Yet Sunflower, recently Englished by John Bakti and published by the saintly people at New York Review Books, nearly did me in. I couldn't finish it. Perhaps it was that I kept imagining I was reading Dracula, a novel I loathed in high school--the popular culture of blood-sucking fiction has always left me cold. Krudy's landscape is bleak; his central character (with a whiff of succubus) Eveline resides in a "country estate" in a place that must be Transylvania--emptiness to spare and an eccentric neighbor named Almos-Dreamer who periodically dies and comes back to life. (I kept wondering: Is he a bat?)  "Life is a mere flick of the hand. It isn't important. And not very interesting either." I like this sentiment, but it's what everyone believes in Eveline's corner of the world, a place where creepy attachments reeking of suppressed sexuality are the order of the day and where counts and princes play the violin and shoot themselves. But none of this is sufficient reason not to love this masterpiece (John Lukacs, who is often right, calls it that). So what's my problem? Is it that spring has come and a book like this one requires a pitch-black and wintery night? Don't I care about the characters? Not that. I never care about the characters; I've too many real-life people to care about. Isn't the novel psychologically interesting, rich in Freudian innuendo, replete with hints of dark passion? Yes, it most certainly is possessed of these qualities, if they are qualities. Is it that Krudy published the novel in 1918, a year whose deeper resonances keep me from understanding the frivolity that lies at the heart of the story? What's my problem with this novel--it's obscure, Hungarian, and cheerless. Everything one wants in a good read.

Having given the matter some thought I've concluded that my problem is with Krudy's style, his florid prose (at least in Batki's translation), the hothouse atmosphere; it's as if the novel transpired in a room full of orchids. By page 100 I was gasping for air: "Eveline strapped the red garter around her knees, and dug up a warm crimson house coat. She bustled about like a colorful pollen-laden moth, above the midnight flower-bed." A "bustling" moth?

                                      (A splendid example of Hyalophora cecropia, not bustling)

It came to me that Krudy's style, at least in English, bears a distinct kinship to early 19th century English fiction of the Wuthering Heights variety. Overwrought. Sentimental and chilling, poetic but in the mode of the worst Romantics--George Crabbe's "The Village" or some of the insufferable stanzas of Byron's "Don Juan": "She lay, her dark eyes flashing through their [sic] tears,/Like skies that rain and lighten: as a veil/Waved and o'ershading her wan cheek/appears/her streaming hair." 

One thing I've never cared for is fiction or poetry that pitches emotions so high that their credibility is unsustainable. Of course depicting deep feeling is at the heart of all great writing, but the romantic flaw, and perhaps Krudy's in this book, is to push the limits of feeling too hard, to go too far in a direction that leads to bathos rather than art. I will try Sunflower again next winter. And I've ordered Krudy's other novels in English as well. And Marai's Sinbad Comes Home, a novel about the last day in the life of Gyula Krudy, Marai's, and most other Hungarians, literary idol.  What's wrong with me?

[to be continued]

George Ovitt (3/13/15)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Kill Your Television" or "Titian’s Initials (T.V.)"


Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

Kill your television. Or maybe just turn it off. That’s what the obsessive, hopelessly distracted narrator of Toussaint’s novel, Television, does. Or tries to do. A French academic on sabbatical in Berlin, where he has taken an apartment in which to commence and complete a draft of what he is confident will be a ground-breaking study of Tiziano Vecelli, the Venetian-school painter best known as Titian, the anonymous narrator quickly concludes that unless he stops watching television altogether he will never get down to work.

            I’d decided to spend the summer alone in Berlin to devote myself to the study of Titian   
            Vecellio. For several years now I’d been planning a vast essay on the relationship between 
            political power and the arts. Little by little, my focus had narrowed to sixteenth-century Italy, 
            and more particularly to Titian Vecellio and Emperor Charles V; in the end I’d chosen the 
            apocryphal story of the paintbrush—according to which Charles V bent down in Titian’s studio
            to pick up a paintbrush that had slipped from the painter’s hands—as my monograph’s  
            emblematic center and the source of its title, The Paintbrush.

Unfortunately, the project is for naught, that is, unless he can actually renounce the odious habit that has overtaken his life. As he is quick to learn, it is no small challenge. Indeed, more than halfway through the story, the reader discovers that the narrator has still only managed to write the opening two words of his great monograph, "When Musset..." He is so distracted by the television in the apartment that he can't stop thinking about it—even (or especially) when it is off. Every day he sits down to write and every day he gets up. A "first-class rationalizer," "a casuist of rare accomplishment," he reassures himself that not writing is as important to the process of writing as writing itself! In fact at not-writing he seems to possess a singular gift, whiling away his time in Berlin drinking coffee, reading the newspaper, flipping his computer on and off, watching the neighbors in the apartments across the way (most of them watching television), sunbathing nude by the lake in Halensee Park, and generally neglecting the neighbor's plants, which he has agreed to water according to a strict and particular regimen—all while waxing philosophic about the troubling role of television in his thoughtful, well-meaning life.

Given what I have written so far, it should come as no surprise that what follows in this decidedly quirky novel is not the monograph itself (Who after all was Musset?) nor a humdrum, if heartening account of scholarly creation nor even a  comedy of bad manners, say, in the style of David Lodge, but a protracted, ironically amusing, finally deeply unsettling meditation on the effects of watching television, a habit now as ubiquitous in the world as it is disturbing in its effects and implications.  
            I spent hours every day motionless before the screen, my gaze fixed, bathed in the  
            ever-shifting light of the scene changes, gradually submerged by the flood of images 
            illuminating my face, the long parade of images blindly addressed to everyone at once and no
            one in particular, each channel being only another strand in the vast web of electromagnetic
            waves crashing down over the world.

Of course the point (his point, my point) is that a steady diet of video (television, movies, YouTube, TED Talks, advertisements, and pornography, in essence, the Internet itself) makes us dangerously impassive—sated, jaded, solipsistic, and remote. Driven by profit, by the frenzied peddling of trends, video culture depends on our willingness to be led by the nose, to cut loose our moorings, to be spectators in our own anxious lives. Indeed it depends on our willingness to not participate at all, to not think, to not question, to not evaluate what it is we see on the screen (and by extension in the world around us). The thriving video culture of today is a colossal sleight-of-hand, a vast, impersonal, essentially mercenary conglomeration of forces that thrives by our willingness to feed it, to take what it gives us as meaningful, significant, to accept as real and sufficient the restless tingling of its pulses in our brains. In his last, uproariously bleak novel Extinction, the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard has his thinly disguised narrator declare, “Photography is a base passion that has taken hold of every continent and every section of the population, a sickness that afflicts the whole of humanity and is no longer curable. The inventor of the photographic art was the inventor of the most inhumane of all arts. To him we owe the ultimate distortion of nature and of human beings who form part of it, the reduction of human beings to perverse caricatures… Photography is the greatest disaster of the twentieth century." While Bernhard was not explicitly speaking of video, I have no doubt that, were he still alive, he would be appalled by the virtually unchallenged, now dogmatic hegemony of video culture in the world today, astounded and dismayed by our zealous, fanatical subservience to the all-mighty screen.   

Reading and writing, by contrast, are actions, things a person does. That is the difference: reading and writing are creative acts, while (with perhaps few exceptions) watching video is not. In time, with exposure, watching video (even the most revered and artistic films) makes us dumbly acquiescent, for video, by its very nature, is about passivity, about receiving information over which one has little or no control. It is about allowing ourselves to be made puppets; it is about permitting our brains to be little more than screens upon which the lives of others are played.

Video culture today is not about connectivity and the democratization of information and knowledge, nor is it about the redistribution of wealth and power, but about its ruthless consolidation. It is about conscription and compliance and consumption. In the words of Dostoevsky, it is about "being in bondage to advanced ideas." At the risk of overstating it, watching video at the rate we do today is voyeurism and titillation at the price of our souls, a habit and pastime, an obsession now pandemic, that, in the gloating guise of reality (and increasingly of 'progressive' education), quickly overwhelms our intelligence, our skepticism, our curiosity, our compassion, our courage, and our dissent, not to mention our individuality (about which, ironically, we Americans now seem more boastful than ever). What's worse, what's more, our desperate and ever-more defensive addiction to video erodes our basic optimism about ourselves, our belief (surely a prehistoric one) that the answer to what ails us lies not in sitting captive before a screen, in the political-corporate mediation of our lives, but in our own stubborn agency as people, that is, as cultures, communities, and individuals thinking and doing every day—a trying, hard-won engagement with the world that is, to me, the only truth that matters. Writes Warren Motte in his insightful afterword to the novel: "For as much as anything else, Television is about the ways in which novels compete for our attention with other, newer media, in an increasingly unequal dual where some of the most basic terms of our culture hang breathlessly in the balance. And the real hero of that struggle, Toussaint suggests, is the novel itself."

Jean-Philippe Toussaint is the author of seven novels, including The Bathroom and Monsieur, both of which have been publish in English translation. His work has been compared to that of Samuel Beckett, Jacques Tati, and the films of Jim Jarmusch. Published by Dalkey Archive, Television was translated by Jordan Stump.

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Every Part of Me Was New"

Joan Murray, Swimming for the Ark: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2015


Would it surprise the young men
playing softball on the hill to hear the women
on the terrace admiring their bodies:
The slim waist of the pitcher. The strength
of the runner's legs. The torso of the catcher
—rising off his knees to toss the ball back to the mound?
Would it embarrass them
to hear two women, sitting together after dinner,
praising even their futile motions:
The flex of a batter's hips
before his missed swing. The wide-spread stride
of a man picked off his base. The intensity
on the new man's face
—as he waits on deck and fans the air?

(from "Play by Play")

I first read Joan Murray fifteen years ago when someone bought me a copy of her remarkable historical epic Queen of the Mist, the story of Anna Edson Taylor, the first person to "shoot" Niagara Falls in a barrel. When I opened the book and noticed that it was, indeed, a book-length poem about a 63-year-old woman desperately risking her life, I thought, "Nobody can pull this off; it's way more difficult to write a poem about falling a mile in a barrel than actually falling a mile." As usual, I was wrong. Joan Murray not only pulled it off, but did so with such style and compassion that I set out at once to read all the rest of her books just to see what she could do with ordinary life. It turns out that Murray can do a great deal with anything. Here's one of the early stanzas of Queen of the Mist:

Niagara!--over me!--under me!
I spilled into it from every pore,
lost myself
in the blackness of its roar.
Something opened--grew wide--tore--
till every part of me was new:
Brain. Eyes. Tongue
--down to the wet soles in my shoes.
I took my measure, checked my sex
and, pleased with what I'd made,
I slapped my back between the blades
and took a breath
of consciousness.

There's a lot to like here--the subtle rhymes that mimic the sing-song of monologue--and spilling into the falls, as if Annie Taylor herself was turned to liquid (it must have felt that way). She's in a barrel so something opened--but what? And then, perfectly put, every part of me was new. Shall we take this line as our theme and assert that Murray is able, often, to cast her loose and limber lines in such a way as to invite her reader's own newness? Book blurbs often go the route of "stunning" or "dazzled," but better than being knocked in the head (into incomprehension?) is to think anew about something we've grown accustomed to considering in a predictable way. This is what reading Murray does for me: someplace in almost all of her poems I am likely to think or feel about something, something trivial, sometimes something grand, in a way that I haven't before, or haven't lately. That's what poetry is for: condensing the power of thought and feeling into small compass but at the same time allowing ample room for the reader to form her own associations--think "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" with its clarity limned by the ambiguity of the last line, or of Wallace Stevens' "The Snowman," its simplicity and opacity coexisting.

There is no "typical" Joan Murray poem--she writes about everything imaginable, from fox hunts to neighbors sitting about of an evening; her poems are set in cities and in the country, in exotic places, and right around the corner--she's one of the most surprising poets I know in this regard. There's never any pretense in her work, nor professorial fakery--she's a poet first of all. She can write in strict stanzas with tight cadences and she can write deliriously long, flexible C.K. Williams-loopy lines that allow you space to think whatever thoughts you wish.

Here's "Her Head," tightly constructed, repetitious, and memorable:

Near Ekuvukeni,
in Natal, South Africa,
a woman carries water on her head.
After a year of drought,
when one child in three is at risk of death,
she returns from a distant well,
carrying water on her head.

The pumpkins are gone,
the tomatoes withered,
yet the woman carries water on her head.
The cattle kraals are empty,
the goats gaunt—
no milk now for children,
but she is carrying water on her head.

The engineers have reversed the river:
those with power can keep their power,
but one woman is carrying water on her head.
In the homelands, where the dusty crowds
watch the empty roads for water trucks,
one woman trusts herself with treasure,
and carries water on her head.

The sun does not dissuade her,
not the dried earth that blows against her,
as she carries the water on her head.
In a huge and dirty pail,
with an idle handle,
resting on a narrow can,
this woman is carrying water on her head.

This woman, who girds her neck
with safety pins, this one
who carries water on her head,
trusts her own head to bring to her people
what they need now
between life and death:
She is carrying them water on her head.

This poem is from Murray's 1999 collection Looking for the Parade, and is included in Swimming for the Ark.
There's political passion in Murray, vivid images, and a head-spinning array of subjects, observations, ideas. My own poetic tastes run to the the metaphysicals, to poets who can harness disparate and even contradictory ideas and images together into a satisfying whole.  I like poems with plots, poems that shake things up, poems with lines that stay with you all day. Read the first lines of "The Precarious Nest" and try to guess where Murray is taking you: "This summer I am less affected by Darwin/and the ice-action and organic production/of the Southern Hemisphere, / or by his expedition/up the Santa Cruz..." What's packed into this four-page poem--cats and shirts and Sabbaths and "Carol Wright facing the dark TV" is a reminder--if you need reminding--that poetry is boundless, and that its finest practitioners pull ideas out of language the way magicians pull rabbits out of hats. 

It also occurs to me that the sort of poets whom I go back to regularly are adept at wringing just the right amount of didacticism out of the quotidian. Here's the last stanza of "Master of the Situation," a poem that begins with a stolen bike and ends with a mediation on a "tiny red newt":

...something tells you--
something that's clearly on [the newt's] side--
as it wades on its piddly feet through the grains of sand
like someone swimming slowly--
just for the pleasure of it.
It pauses by a stone--pauses, pauses, doing nothing--
that's the way you think of it
as it stands there--brighter than anything you can
see in any direction--and wields against you
the mountainous weapon of its patience.

"Mountainous weapon" does the job perfectly: a way of studying the natural world for its slowness and lack of concern with what concerns us. My daughters enjoy the languid fluttering of butterflies in our summer garden for just this reason--"Don't they have anywhere to go?" The blessing of being able to say "no."

 I'll finish with one of my favorite of her poems.



It’s mid-September, and in the Magic Wing Butterfly Conservancy
in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the woman at the register
is ringing up the items of a small girl and her mother.
There are pencils and postcards and a paperweight--
all with butterflies--and, chilly but alive,
three monarch caterpillars--in small white boxes
with cellophane tops, and holes punched in their sides.
The girl keeps rearranging them like a shell game
while the cashier chats with her mother: “They have to
feed on milkweed--you can buy it in the nursery outside.”
“We’ve got a field behind our house," the mother answers.
The cashier smiles to show she didn’t need the sale:
“And in no time, they’ll be on their way to Brazil or Argentina--
or wherever they go--" (“to Mexico," says the girl,
though she’s ignored) “and you can watch them
do their thing till they’re ready to fly.”


I remember the monarchs my son and I brought in one summer
on bright pink flowers we’d picked along the swamp
on Yetter’s farm. We were “city folks," eager for nature
and ignorant--we left our TV home--and left the flowers
in a jar on the dry sink in the trailer. We never noticed the
till we puzzled out the mystery of the small black things
on the marble top--which turned out to be their droppings.
And soon, three pale green dollops hung from the carved-out leaves,
each studded with four gold beads--so gold they looked to be
mineral--not animal--a miracle that kept us amazed
as the walls grew clear and the transformed things broke through,
pumped fluid in their wings, dried off--and flew.
I gauge from that memory that it will be next month
before the girls are “ready.” I wonder how they’ll “fly”
when there’s been frost. “And they’ll come back next summer,"
the cashier says, “to the very same field--they always do.”
I’m sure that isn’t true. But why punch holes
in our little hopes when we have so few?


Next month, my mother will have a hole put in her skull
to drain the fluid that’s been weighing on her brain.
All summer, she’s lain in one hospital or another--
yet the old complainer’s never complained.
In Mather, the woman beside her spent a week in a coma,
wrapped like a white cocoon with an open mouth
(a nurse came now and then to dab the drool).
My mother claimed the woman’s husband was there too--
“doing what they do”--though it didn’t annoy her.
Now she’s in Stony Brook--on the eighteenth floor.
I realize I don’t know her anymore. When she beat against
the window to break through, they had to strap her down
--and yet how happy and how likeable she’s become.
When I visit, I spend my nights in her empty house--
in the bed she and my father used to share. Perhaps they’re
there. Perhaps we do come back year after year
to do what we’ve always done--if we can’t make
our way to kingdom come, or lose ourselves altogether.
 Joan Murray, Swimming for the Ark: New and Selected Poems, 1990-2015, published by White Pine press, here:

George Ovitt (2/25/15)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Plum Pictures, Plum Poems, Plum Universe

Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen

                                      I have nothing to give but a branch of spring.
When my wife gave me a copy of this book for my birthday last year, the first thing that struck me was the beauty of the book itself, a handsome blue paperback published by Copper Canyon Press. Their logo, 

 the Chinese character for poetry, is comprised of two parts: “word” and “temple”—such is their reverence for words at Copper Canyon Press, in this case for the words of the thirteenth century Chinese poet, Sung Po-jen, whose illustrated book of poems, Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, will make you wonder if you have ever seen Nature at all. 

Sung Po-jen’s, Mei-hua hsi-shen-p’u, or Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom is the world’s earliest-known printed book of art, written during a time of great cultural unrest when many Neo-Confucianist writers and artists were turning away from ‘the traditional approach to the derivation of knowledge through discursive thought’, believing as they did that secrets of nature could only be discovered through the patient, deliberate, nearly microscopic examination of things. While Chinese poetry had long been known for its subtlety and allusiveness, the work of poet-artists like Sung Po-jen was distinguished by its often startling likeness to natural forms. Yet realism itself was not their aim: they were after nothing less than the essence of things. “The goal was to express meaning beyond words and feeling beyond representations.” 

So comprehensive, so subtle, so painstakingly thorough is Sung Po-jen’s treatment of the simple plum blossom that his poems and drawings are divided into eight discrete sections with a variety of ‘branches’ in each: Covered Buds, Small Buds, Large Buds, Opening, Fully Opened, Radiant, Fading, and Forming Fruit. While the short poems are often subtle and in fact highly elusive, each one is clearly, briefly contextualized and annotated to make them accessible to even a novice of Neo-Classical Chinese aesthetics and culture. Reading these deftly annotated poems is a fabulous way in.  The project’s conception alone makes it well worth your while. Writes scholar Lo Ch’ing:

Sung’s book is…significant because it attempts to fathom the essence of a material object through detailed, empirical examination and uses the results of that examination to form the basis for that object’s deconstruction and reconstruction on a different plane. Once readers have the flower’s 100 stages memorized, they have the key to the plum flower and the key to Nature as well. With this key they can create their own plum flower universe without having to observe Nature at all.

How nice to simply close one’s eyes and see.


Red Pine (pen-name for Bill Porter) is the translator of this collection. Born in Los Angeles, Bill Porter earned a degree in Anthropology from U.C Santa Barbara before briefly attending graduate school at Columbia University, Uninspired by the prospect of an academic career, he moved to a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. After four years there, he worked for a number of English-language radio stations in Taiwan and Hong Kong, where he produced over a thousand programs about his travels in China. His recent publication include Zen Baggage, an account of a pilgrimage to sites associated with the beginning of Zen in China, and In Such Hard Times, a translation of the poetry of Wei Ying-wu, one of China’s greatest poets. 

Peter Adam Nash