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.
("Initiation")



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.

Chrysalis 

1

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.”


2

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
caterpillars
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?


3

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: http://www.whitepine.org/catalog.php

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Dirty Rotten English Teachers

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, by Debra Weinstein


Just kidding. All of my best friends are English teachers. But, you'll have to admit, they are a breed apart. And worse, of course, are the English-teacher types who teach writing. Worst of all, the lowest of the low, are creative writing teachers who teach poetry. As if.

Just kidding.

Years ago, in grad school, before I could be trusted to teach illiterate freshmen how to write five-paragraph essays about the kings of England, I was assigned a summer internship with an English professor. His "specialty" was popular culture (an oxymoron even then) and I was to assist him in his "work." Each morning that summer I would ride my bike from the grad-student ghetto, along the Connecticut River, through ripening green fields of tobacco, to Professor X's ramshackle house on the far northern edge of Amherst. X was recently tenured--a job for life!--and feeling his academic oats. My first job, as I recall, was shingling his house, then he had me repoint his chimney, dig up his garden, walk his dog, and paint his front door. After I'd finished what he referred to as the "mundane chores," X invited me into his library, sat me down at a small ancillary desk, handed me a stack of Donald Duck comic books, and told me to "read them and take notes." He was writing a book on Donald Duck, or perhaps on comic books, "from a Jungian perspective," and I was to be his apprentice, paid $3 an hour. I'm not kidding.

The book, so far as I know, never appeared. X went on to become a full professor someplace better. Maybe Yale. 

Astronomers, I imagine, spend their summers on Pacific Islands where there's no ambient light to interfere with their telescopic observations; botanists and ornithologists are of course in Costa Rica, historians at tbe Bodleian wading through archives, linguists lost among aboriginal peoples making notes on verb tenses, and all manner of social scientists are off doing field work in sub-Saharan Africa. Not English professors, and certainly not poetry-writing teachers. They're at Yaddo having affairs and eating organic kale, or summering at the Hamptons (they're only professors, but they've married financiers), in a Paris walk-up discovered in the classifieds of the New York Review, or, at worst, like my Professor X, lounging in a hammock, sipping iced tea, and reading Scandinavian mysteries so they can finally "relax;" relaxing is a big part of being an English professor. X liked to cook and eat--de riguer for English profs--and he was having an affair with a comely third-year Chaucerian. This is what an English professor means when he says "he's busy." Office hours: 1-2 pm, Wednesdays.




I don't normally read cheerful books, but it's February, and it was cloudy here one day last week, so to perk myself up I read Debra Weinstein's delightful Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z, a dead-on, only slightly hyperbolic account of a young woman's relationship with a famous poet who never reads or even writes poetry, who plagiarizes shamelessly, sleeps around, and spends more time on her wardrobe and campus politics than with her students or her "work." If you went to grad school in English, or took a few courses in the subject, you'll recognize Z at once. Preening, narcissistic, lazy, imperious, incurious, and ignorant. Weinstein has a blast with Z, and her ingénue narrator Annabelle is a delight: a young woman who images a life in poetry as a thing precious and beautiful, but who finds instead that poetry, like politics, is really about image and power and the caprice of fashion. Annabelle's lover Harry is a Joyce-besotted aspiring novelist who teaches Annabelle a thing or two about sex and life.  Harry leaves Annabelle boxes of gloves, has her recite lines that Nora wrote to Jimmy during their courtship, drags her off to the home of a deceased writer where, after a bit of breaking and entering, they act out the lives of real writers. And that's the nature of Weinstein's smart satire: Annabelle, the undergrad, is the real writer among a cast of phonies--Z and her wacky husband Lars (a memorist who thinks his life transcendent) and pretentious daughter; Harry with his Joycean fantasies; and Braun Brown, Z's oversexed poetic rival. Only Annabelle truly loves poetry, and by novel's end she's learned that if you want to write, the last thing you'd better do is apprentice yourself to a poet. One of the running gags in the novel is Annabelle's persistent desire to get Z to look at one her (Annabelle's) poems. Of course, Z can't be bothered: "Annabelle, could you do some research on male flowers?" "Are there male flowers?" "There must be..."  Quack quack.

All of this, of course, is in good fun. And, as the disclaimers always say, any resemblance to any real person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z was published a while back by Random House. Ms. Weinstein is a poet herself. Her poetry book is called Rodent Angel, which sounds promising.

George Ovitt (2/15/15)


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Bleak Houses

The Bradshaw Variations, by Rachel Cusk

"...if love is selfish, can it still be considered to be love?"

 


I grew up in a conventionally happy family, meaning that all of the unhappiness was kept tucked away with the good silver. The five of us--Mom and Dad and sibs--ate our meals at the same table, took an interest in one and other's lives, celebrated holidays in the way in which American families of the 1950's and 1960's celebrated holidays--together, with all the trappings. But by now we've all read our Betty Friedan and Marge Piercy and Nancy Chodorow and we understand that the thin patina of happiness and tranquility that marked America's "golden age" masked a great despair. Predictably, once the kids were grown, the thing fell apart, like an unstable element whose center was too perturbed to hold the compact little solar system together. It might have been the times: by the advent of Nixonland we had discovered that everything we'd been taught to believe was, at best, a half-truth, so why shouldn't the family have been a half-truth as well?* And then there was the sadism of families, the myriad petty ways in which we took revenge for our own failures on those we loved. Not quite a death wish, but a primordial desire to see what happens when you blow something up. Here's the human condition, or the American condition, in a nutshell. That contemporary American right-wing politicians want to bring back this land of illusion suggests not so much nostalgia as historical ignorance--the economic and political system these people worship is what destroyed the thing for which they are nostalgic.**

Rachel Cusk has written a delightfully sadistic little romp through the malfunctioning Bradshaw family, a mad-cap group based someplace in contemporary small-town England, though they may as well live in Manhattan, NY or Manhattan, Kansas. Just the book to cuddle up with on a cold, bleak evening--it's funny in the way Charlie Chaplin is funny, equal parts slapstick and poignancy. Or: I might have wept at parts of this novel but I chose to laugh instead.

Isn't this true of great comedy? Isn't it true that we pity Falstaff while we grin at his japes? Isn't his mockery of seriousness at one and the same time dead-on and deadly--we can't live straight up with the truth, it would kill us to do so. Comedy in the classic sense is more poignant than tragedy: you don't doubt Hamlet's fate, and I've never felt the play to be "sad," but the three Henry plays, the ambiguous comedies, and the "Tempest," especially the mooncalf Caliban, these can make me weep.***

"I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow;
And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts;
Show thee a jay's nest and instruct thee how
To snare the nimble marmoset; I'll bring thee
To clustering filberts and sometimes I'll get thee
Young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?"



Comedy is renewal; tragedy is destruction without hope of renewal--"Lysistrata" versus "The Trojan Women." By this measure, the Bradshaw's play out a tragicomedy--something ends and something new begins, but in neither case does Cusk hold out much hope for happiness or even rudimentary contentment. Thomas B. is a stay-at-home dad; Toni B. is chairperson of an English department in a "second-rate college." Thomas is befuddled by his role, though pleased not to be working in an office. He walks about in a cloud of uncertainty and domestic incompetence. Lacking a romantic bone in her body, Cusk doesn't get dewy-eyed about the B's gender flipping--Thomas is a lousy househubby and Tonie isn't much of a professor. He's a better pianist than father or husband, but it turns out that the conceit of Thomas learning Bach has nothing to do with the novel. Even Cusk's epigram from Jean-Paul Sartre ("[Bach] taught us how to find originality within an established discipline; actually--how to live" ) is misleading. Though the novel is organized as a kind of Poorly-Tempered Clavier, short variations on off-key themes, Bach has nothing to do with the story, and if anything the novel is a guide to how not to live. Thomas in a fog; Tonie torn between ambition and guilt--she resents her husband's relationship with their daughter but has no interest in being a full-time mother. Thomas' parents' "traditional" marriage is based on inexpressible mutual loathing. Thomas' wealthy brother lurches after happiness but has no clue what it might look like. There are other Bradshaw's, but their appearances are cameos and merely add to the general sense that this is indeed a dysfunctional family. Cusk offers us Everyfamily. The goal of life with others might be counterpoint and harmony, structure and beauty, but the end result is cacophony. Cusk isn't letting anyone off the hook--there's nothing exceptional about the wacky Bradshaws: they're us. Only Olga, the Polish janitor who rents a room from Thomas and Tonie gets it--how, she wonders, can people live this way?

"It is, he now sees, the problem with the day: it lacks the imposition of a human will. It is formless. It is a lump of clay which must be shaped by inspiration and desire. This, he recalls, is what freedom is. At forty-three freedom generally comes to him refined, in small quantities: decisions, directives, intricate opportunities for success. He has forgotten what the raw material feels like."

Freedom, of course, is the heart of the problem. We all want it, but nobody seems to have a clue what to do with the damn thing when he gets it. Learn to play the piano? Why not--anyone can be a virtuoso. Buy a dog? Good idea, a dog will make us happy. Have an affair with a complete stranger? We're not doing anything else today.  Wife's an alcoholic? Well, that's her business. After all, we're free to do as we wish. Don't want to vaccinate your kids? Then don't. We're all not in this together. What's a family these days but a mini-version of our greater selfishness?

In one of the novel's many darkly funny episodes, Howard runs over the hyperactive family dog and responds to the collective horror of his children by saying, "No one really liked the dog anyway." Yes, there's the grace note. What do we care? None of us liked the thing anyway.

Read the book. It'll cheer you up.









*For the lie, see Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge (2014)
**See Mike Huckabee's God, Guns, Grits and Gravy. Actually, just take my word for it. ("Let it alone thy fool; it is but trash.")
***"Endgame" as Shakespearean darkness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok7Vc3jczNg

The Bradshaw Variations is published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux

George Ovitt (2/7/15)

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Joys of Duty


The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz

The joys of doing one’s duty are so varied…that it always
 pays to put them in the proper light.

Under Nazi rule the German people were nothing if not dutiful. The historical record is clear on that. Thanks in large part to the work of such groundbreaking scholars as Robert Gellately, Ulrich Herbert, Christopher Browning, Omer Bartov, Robert Ericksen, and—perhaps most famously—Daniel Goldhagen, it is now widely accepted (though surely the precise degrees will always be debated) that, during the war, German citizens were not only well-informed about the Third Reich’s policies and atrocities (receiving regular bulletins about them on the radio, in the movie theaters, and even in church, as well as reading about them in the daily papers), but were willing, often active participants in the horrors themselves. It is a growing body of evidence that negates, perhaps once and for all, the standard, oft-made claim that “they [the German people] were only following orders” or were just “reacting to the extreme duress of a totalitarian state,” the Nazi reign of terror less the will and product of good, hard-working people than the sinister machinations of an aberrational clan of “cold-blooded technocrats dispassionately organizing mass disappearance on an industrial basis.” Sadly, wholesale German complicity is closer to the truth. 

In the years immediately following the war, young German writers, especially those like Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll, and Alfred Andersch (all of whom had worn Wehrmacht uniforms in their youth) found themselves “standing on the edge of an abyss.” They had few real choices: they could confront the Nazi horrors head-on, including their own complicity in them, or they could avoid the subject altogether, seeking their voice and vision in the abstract, allegorical, and ideal, groping their way back through the centuries toward a charmed and mystic past. Then there were the writers, surely the best of them, who sought to define a vision somewhere in between the two extremes, a vision of then and there, but with a twist, writers like Grass with his novel The Tin Drum, Boll with his novel The Clown, and Andersch with his novel Efraim’s Book. Instead of directly confronting the monstrous, arguably ineffable phenomenon of the Nazi years, especially from that proximity, all three authors chose to approach it more obliquely (as one might study an eclipse by its projection alone), and therefore, in that way, ‘By indirections find directions out.’ Of all of the novels of the post-war years I have read, I can think of none that describes the period, the culture, and its fateful psychology as successfully—with such clarity, depth, and integrity—as Siegfried Lenz' extraordinary novel The German Lesson.

Told in retrospect, about a decade after the war, through the eyes of a juvenile delinquent named Siggi Jepsen who, as punishment, has been confined to his cell to write an essay for his German lesson called 'The Joys of Duty' ('die Freuden der Phlicht'), the story proper unfolds during the war in a remote German town on the North Sea, a bleak, storm-struck village of windmills, peat bogs, and dykes called Rugbüll where the narrator's father was "the most northerly police officer in Germany." Charged by Berlin to stop a local Expressionist painter (his own childhood friend) from practicing his 'degenerate' art, Siggi's father, Jens Ole Jepsen, carries out his duty with a doggedness and consistency that proves deeply revealing in its implications for the people of the modest, taciturn town. Writes Goldhagen, in his controversial and award-winning study Hitler’s Willing Executioners, “All ‘obedience,’ all ‘crimes of obedience’ (and this refers only to situations in which coercion is not applied or threatened), depend upon the existence of a propitious social and political context in which the actors deem the authority to issue commands legitimate and the commands themselves not to be a gross transgression of sacred values and the overarching moral order.” Sure enough, this proves true in the remote little town of Rugbüll, this simple village drama a brilliant microcosm of the insidiously destructive power of the Third Reich itself.


While at first resistant to the idea of writing this obligatory essay, the narrator Siggi Jensen, soon finds himself enthralled by the normally humdrum subject of duty, inhabiting the past in all its richness, sorrow, and detail, and filling notebook after notebook with his descriptions of his intense, if largely refracted experiences of the war as a child in Rugbüll—of the many eccentric characters in the village there, of his friendship and complicity with the local artist, Max Ludwig Nansen, and of his ultimate defiance of his father, the dutiful policeman and proxy for the State. Told in some of the freshest, most evocative language I have read in years, I would be remiss if I didn't offer you a little taste of it, this from the opening of Chapter 2 called "No Painting Permitted":

In the year '43 (to get going somehow), on a Friday it was, in April, in the morning, perhaps around midday, my father, Jens Ole Jepsen, policeman, who manned Rugbüll, the northernmost police station in Schleswig- Holstein, got himself ready for a daily trip to Bleeckenwarf, in order to deliver to the painter Max Ludwig Nansen, who the people round about simply called —'The Painter', an official order form Berlin by which he was   forthwith forbidden to paint. Unhurriedly my father gathered togetherhis rain-cape, field-glasses, uniform belt and torch; he busied himself at his desk, obviously with the intention of delaying his departure, buttoned up   and unbuttoned his tunic for the second time, eyed the miserable spring day and listened to the wind, while I waited for him, muffled up and motionless. It was not merely wind one heard; this north-westerly, besieging the farms, the hedges and rows of trees, tumultuously skirmishing, testing their resistance, was what shaped the landscape, a black, windy landscape, crooked and tousled and charged with some incomprehensible meaning. It was this wind of ours, I think, that made the roofs keen of hearing, made the trees prophetic, caused the old mill to grow larger, swept across the ditches so that they became delirious, or attacked the peat-barges, despoiling their shapeless loads.

 

When our wind was out and about, one was well advised to put some ballast in one's pockets—packets of nails, or bits of lead piping or even a flat-iron—to be a match for it. Such a wind is part of our lives and we could not argue with Max Ludwig Nansen for bursting his paint-tubes, taking furious violet and crude white to make the north-westerly visible, this     north-westerly that belongs to us and which we know so well—the wind to which my father was listening with deep suspicion.



Siegfried Lenz (1926-2014) is  one of Germanys' most signficant post-war writers whose novels explore individual German culpabilty for the horors of Nazism. The German Lesson, a New Directions book, was transalated Ernest Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. 
  
Peter Adam Nash

Monday, January 26, 2015

Five (or More!) Books You Shouldn't Read This Year!





19-5-27* was the combination of my Master Lock in high school--19 Surefire Secrets! 5 Must Do Stretches! 27 Shortcuts To Staying in Shape! No thank you,  I don't subscribe, but I do love the predictable covers of self-help magazines. Oodles of lists on how to achieve fitness, sexual allure, and great abs (it really is all about one's abs, isn't it?). Be honest: did you even know what an ab was the first time you saw this dipthong in print? The writers' mags are just as bad. Recently I saw "22 Ways to Develop a Character" with an exclamation point; tough to imagine Henry James reading that article. Then there's the intriguing possibility of Foreign Affairs using the same technique to grab your short-term newstand attention: "16 Ways to Win Back the Eastern Ukraine!" or "The 22 Top Republican Fantasies About Benghazi!" Lots of traction there. Or the staid Economist: "Jamie Diamond's Top Ten Ties Worn When Testifying Before The House Banking Committee!"

Dear Reader: it irks me that Talented Reader doesn't have a catchy cover with lots of numbers and fake advice to arouse your interest. What do we offer you but idiosyncratic reviews of books, mostly without plot descriptions (and books mostly without plots)? We're yearning for bigger sales, an income stream, six-pack abs. So here we go: but not, of course, with any positive advice about improving your health, diet, exercise regime, or even your literary life. No, we'll take the low road and instead of pushing you toward five books that you MUST READ! this year in order to be happy, sexy, and slender, we'll suggest five plus books that you should avoid, books that you have been told are worth your time but which are--take our word for it--a waste.

--All poetry by John Ashbery. And while we're at it, any article, book, or statement by Helen Vendler on JA or any other poet. Or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books (I've cancelled my subscriptions) those paeans to Ashberyism. The Ashbery industry is one of the great literary scams of this or any other era. Think Robert Service, hallucinating.

--Don't bother reading the Michael Chabon novel you were planning to read, whichever one it might have been (aside from Wonder Boys). My guess, which is worthless, is that the likeable and competent Mr. Chabon yearned for NYT bestseller success and renounced his literary passion after the publication of Wonder Boys. All that has followed this amusing second book has been unlikeable--meandering plot-thick stories about loveable eccentrics (Kavalier and Klay, Yiddish Policemen, Telegraph Hill) whose adventures have a comic-book quality and little that is sustaining. I loathe loveable eccentrics.

--Admit it, you promised yourself that this would be the year you read ALL of Norman Rush. I've recently recovered from NRism--months of slogging through Mating and Mortals, and even, god help me, Subtle Bodies. Don't do it. Halfway through Mortals (which is Mating and therefore confusing) it occurred to me that I hate all novels about White People in Africa, almost all novels about adultery, and most novels that confuse personal anomie with the great crimes of imperialism. Read Achebe instead.

--That copy of Portrait of a Lady gathering dust on your bedside table? Or, god help you, The Golden Bowl? Or some novel or other by G. Eliot or Dickens or Thackeray (Vanity Fair!) that you "just can't get into"? Just let it go. Ego te absolvo. Not all of us are cut out for Bleak House or Martin Chuzzlewit (e.g. me). My old friend Trustman read all of Dickens, every last word, while walking her dog. Can you imagine the strength of character this took? Admit it: you're weak, you'll never have a six-pack, killer thighs, or finish Middlemarch. Be like me. Join a Recovering from Victorian Novels group. They're everywhere--check the Yellow Pages. Or read Lydia Davis while detoxing. You're basically a good person.

--To wrap up, I'll offer broad advice for the book-lorn that has helped me:

Instead of Murakami, read Oe
Instead of The Brothers Karamazov read The Idiot
Instead of War and Peace (that swollen clunker) read Anna K (really, it's all right, sort of like admitting you don't really like whole wheat bread)
Instead of Eliot and Pound read Hart Crane
Instead of all those tedious and over-hyped Javier Marias novels read Pessoa's Book of Disquiet. In fact, go Portuguese this year. Try Antunes' Fado Alexandrino.
Try Henry Roth instead of Philip, Richard Yates instead of Junot Diaz, Perec in place of Le Clezio, Jean Strouse's brilliant biography of Alice James instead of yet another book about George Washington or T. Jefferson, and by all means read all of Kawabata Yasunari. "Twenty-Seven Things I Learned About Life From Reading Snow Country" is a cover story you won't ever see, but that's the way it goes.

And, by the way, the notion of "training easy and running fast" is utter nonsense. Ask Dennis Kimetto, whose face you will never see in "Runners World. "



*How fun to begin a sentence with a numeral!

George Ovitt (1/26/15)







Monday, January 19, 2015

An Artist of the Green World

Marie NDiaye, Self-Portrait in Green

--Dedicated to Neal Tonken


Green with envy, green with inexperience, a green thumb, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, "the force that through the green fuse," "nature's first green is gold," greener on the other side, "eat your greens," greenbacks, The Greening of America, well-tended greens, the green room, given the green light, green around the gills (?): I could probably find lots more phrases on-line but won't waste the time looking. Green chile. The point is that greeness as a state of being (sometimes) implies life and vitality and renewal. Other times it doesn't, or does so in a way that is quite indirect. Mr. Green Jeans on Captain Kangaroo was an early fascination of mine--he could coax life from the earth and a laugh from the Captain equally well. And though I now live in the brownest of states, I grew up in the Garden State, opulent shades of green for six months of the year back in the days when our planet still had seasons. But green has a bit of menace about it as well--the life that percolates at all times just below the surface of the earth and which is awakened around the time of the vernal equinox is a great mystery and more than a little overwhelming to consider. Green might be hope, but it is also power, menace, yearning, and death.  Jack's climb up the beanstalk; the kudzu that chokes all greens to brown; the sad inevitability of green's fading...this, though not green, is greenish:

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches Tigers
In red weather. 


Maria NDdiaye, the Senegalese-French winner of the Booker Prize, the precocious novelist-playwright who published her first book, Quant au riche avenir, when she was seventeen, is a stylist of grace whose special power lies in the realm of dense atmospherics achieved through minimalist portraits of her characters and vaguely sketched plots. Poetic language in the service of that which is obscure--this is surely the point of Self-Portrait in Green, a novella whose quiet and cumulative effects have little to do with the conventions of story-telling and as much to do with what is left unwritten as with what is written. Women dressed in green, or with green eyes, or who evoke that which is green--or, to be honest, who mostly suggest what isn't green at all but shades of gray and black, colors of mystery, uncertainty, and sadness. See Wallace Stevens.






Mia Weinberg's "Green Painting" depicts movement and density with a minimal palate and few breaks in the monochromatic field of color. The blot of red/brown at the top of the painting breaks apart the sequencing of shades of green--from near yellow to near black. A gradation not unlike the flow of linked stories in Self-Portrait in Green. The rising waters of the Garonne River introduce a note of menace; the first woman of green appears as an apparition visible only to Marie, the narrator. This woman, perhaps the ghost of another green woman, blends into a landscape of banana trees like a figure in a painting by Rousseau. "Is she waiting for me? Does she somehow resent not being seen..." Being seen, being known, is one of NDiaye's central themes, both in SPIG and in another of her books that I am reading, All My Friends. In the greenest of Self-Portrait's plots a complex triangle emerges--husband, wife, and the former lover of the husband. Something unspeakable happens to the wife--or does it? It isn't clear what is being seen and what is being imagined or dreamed. And the resonance of this event colors the other stories: the author's father marrying a green woman and then disappearing; the author's mother in two wholly different shades of green, one resplendent and the other fading to black. Other greens include the green eyes and green trousers green souls of women who are known to Marie or a part of Marie herself, her voice at times a drone, as monochromatic as the single hue of a drive through Provence in mid-summer.

But why green? Why a novel that examines the hues of this ambiguous color? Why color at all? One might think that color would matter extraordinarily to a woman of African descent who lives in a European country (NDiaye now resides with her husband and children in Berlin). Yet Self-Portrait isn't a political book, or a book about race; insofar as it is "topical" this is a book about gender, about a woman's invisibility, her despair (perhaps her suicide), her reinvention, her coming back to life season after season. Perhaps that's it, the greening of Marie--her rebirth and death and birth again. As the Green Knight allows himself to be decapitated to prove a point (Arthur's court isn't the paradigm of morality that it pretends to be), so too do the women who are shades of Marie NDiaye endure invisibility and worse in order to unmask the lies with which women live. Or perhaps not. This sounds sententious and false. The truth is that there is a puzzle at the heart of this small book that has eluded me. It's beautifully written but as opaque as the color that lies at its center.






Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at: http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=2102#sthash.U4gSSecr.dpuf

 Self-Portrait in Green, translated by Jordan Stump, is published by Two Lines Press out of San Francisco. They also have published All My Friends and other titles translated from the French.

George Ovitt (1/19/15)

Marie Ndiaye est aussi discrète. L'écriture de son œuvre, qui compte à ce jour huit romans, ne s'accompagne pas d'une intense présence sur la scène publique et médiatique. Elle se situe en retrait, presque à la marge, des différents champs littéraires : le champ littéraire français et les champs littéraires africains, tant ceux qui se construisent dans les pays africains que ceux qui s'élaborent en Europe. - See more at: http://www.africultures.com/php/index.php?nav=article&no=2102#sthash.U4gSSecr.dpuf

 

Monday, January 12, 2015

This Mutilated World


 

Without End by Adam Zagajewski

A collection of collections, Without End includes poems from various collections of Zagajewski’s poetry, including New Poems, Early Poems, Tremor, Canvas, and Mysticism For Beginners.

Here is a small sampling of what you’ll find:


Good Friday in the Tunnels of the Métro

Jews of various religions meet
In the tunnels of the Métro, rosary beads
Spilled from someone’s tender fingers.

Above them priests sleep after their Lenten supper,
Above them the pyramids of synagogues and churches
Stand like the rocks a glacier left behind.

I listened to the St. Matthew Passion,
Which transforms pain into beauty,
I read the Death Fugue by Celan
Transforming pain into beauty.

In the tunnels of the Métro no transformation of pain,
It is there, it persists and is keen.


Song of an Emigré

We come into being in alien cities.
We call them native but not for long.
We are allowed to admire their walls and spires.
From east to west we go, and in front of us
rolls the huge circle of flaming
sun through which, nimbly, as in a circus,
a tame lion jumps. In alien cities
we look at the work of Old Masters
and we recognize our faces in the old
paintings without surprise. We lived
before and we even knew suffering,
we lacked only words. At the Orthodox
church in Paris, the last White
gray-haired Russians pray to God, who
is centuries younger than they and equally
helpless. In alien cities we’ll
remain, like trees, like stones.


Try To Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish  yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees going nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.




Adam Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland in 1945. Considered one of the “Generation of ‘68” or “New Wave” writers in Poland, he has written numerous collections of both poetry and prose. He lives in France.




  







                                               Peter Adam Nash