Monday, June 20, 2016

Small Bombs

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan

It happens (literally) every single day. Thirty-two thousand seven-hundred people died in terrorist bomb attacks in 2015. Mostly, but no longer exclusively, in the Middle East. A big bomb will kill two hundred, perhaps more. A "small bomb" placed in a car or left in a backpack, five or six, wounding dozens more. We say, "It is terrible." Or, "Madness." Or, "Why did they do it?" And then we forget until the next time, rather as with mass shootings in our own unhappy country. "What can we do?" It turns out that "we" (that is, those paid to govern) can do nothing. Perhaps we wait our turn, hope for the best, turn off the news, stop reading the newspaper. Maybe elect a president who will do it to them before they can do it to us.  That's why they call it "terrorism."

What happens to the people who survive a "small bomb"? The logic of small bombs is that there are fewer victims with whom a survivor can connect and commiserate. Compassion requires a large object: the Holocaust; 9/11; maybe Biafra. Small disasters evoke curiosity, which isn't yet compassion or even empathy. It takes a lot to wake up sleepwalkers, but a small bomb--for those who have given terror some thought--is a fine way to create ripples of fear and disenchantment. Just the thing if chaos is your ultimate goal. Those merely maimed are basically alone. If the bomb goes off in India (or Iraq, or Syria) the government takes no interest in the victims, or in the perpetrators. What do the survivors feel? How do their lives go on, or do they? You could think about this problem all day long, maybe go a little crazy wondering at the waste of lives. But there's something important for us to consider, and, I admit, I hadn't, at least until I read Mahajan.

Karan Mahajan has asked lots of good questions about small bombs. The Association of Small Bombs is a very smart novel, not only for the compassion it evokes for the the innocent victims of terror, but for the honesty with which Mahajan confronts the fundamental fact that suffering is always personal and that the consequences of any political act (it needn't be a terrorist bomb) unfold endlessly. The "association" is both the organization of survivors of a Kashmir-terrorist bombing in Delhi in 1996, and the bonds that forever link the victims, the bombers, the police, and the dozens of others whose own lives are forever altered by a single, relatively low-key political act. And the implication of the novel--searingly revealed in the final pages--is that the Association is rapidly growing to include all of us. And the really smart thing I learned from Mahajan is that suffering and chaos unites us in a way that happiness and order cannot. "Unites" might be the wrong word: it is more along the lines of a brother- and sisterhood of suffering creating bonds that would otherwise never have existed. In a strange way the association of small bombs is like the association of believers, a few of whom subscribe to dogmas of violence as central to their creed. The believers create a new dispensation: that of the victims.

Bakunin took up the idea of the "propaganda of the deed" in his struggle against the Tsarist regime in Russia. Revolutionary violence was thought to be more effective than mere propaganda--ideally, the terrorist act stirs revolutionary fervor among the supine masses (Bakunin, Paul Broursse). Modern terrorism may or may not be directed at bringing down a particular state; its purpose may be to draw attention to a particular injustice, to undermine an ideology ("the West"), or simply to spread terror without a definable political goal. Mahajan's terrorists mix all of these motives with a baser alloy: a fascination with terror for its own sake. Murder, it appears, can become a job, rather like engineering or computer programming. Shockie, the bomb builder in TAOSB is a haunted, inscrutable figure. He hates the Indian government for its occupation of Kashmir, but his politics are vague. Mostly he builds and detonates bombs because that is his profession. He doesn't represent the "banality of evil," just evil's unreflecting nature. Killing innocent people is, for some, a default setting. It's difficult to hate Shockie, even though what he does is terrible. It's a very strange kind of art that can create such a figure, strange and wonderful.

Shockie sets off a small bomb in a crowded market in Delhi in 1996. Two boys, the sons of the Khurana's, are killed; their best friend, Mansoor, survives, but is wounded. The bomb is detonated on page three. What happens "next" is both a linear description of effects and a multilayered accounting of the complexity of a catastrophic event. The Khurana's lives are, of course, ruined, but not simply torn apart--rather they are blown up slowly, as if in slow motion, briefly healing and then torn open again. Mansoor grows up but he would have been better off if he too had been killed. His suffering is most acutely felt; Mahajan is at his most brilliant in his painstaking stripping away of everything that Mansoor once was, breaking him, as it were, on the rack of his own innocence. The bombers themselves suffer in various ways, but not, I suspect, enough to satisfy any sort of karmic balance. And other characters, not a part of the initial event, are also drawn into the great skein of its tragic consequences. No one survives. That too is why it is called "terrorism." Terrorism is the most acute modern reminder of the fragility of life and the impotence of politics in the face of ideology. You go to work and someone blows you up. Terrorism is the principle tool of the ideologically-inclined, just as peace might have been the natural outgrowth of politics, if politics were motivated by a desire for justice. It's a wonder that a novel so focused on individual peoples' lives could have so much to say (between the lines) about the ordering of everyday life.

Mahajan writes beautifully, with remarkable (he's very young!) compassion. I underlined dozens of passages to reproduce here. Let me quote only one.  Years after their sons' deaths, Vika and Deepa Khurana establish The Association of Small Bombs, a victims' aid group, though they can do little for the victims of bombings but visit the newly blown up in the hospital. Here is a tender passage whose description turns out to be terribly ironic:

"Together, aged, having experienced so much, [Vika and Deepa] cut warm, comforting, watchful figures in the hospitals. Often, they were observing not the victims but each other. How had they come from marriage to the death of their boys--to this? And yet, it gave them enormous solace to know that their suffering had not been for naught, that they had been able to eke a larger meaning out of it; they felt the closeness couples sometimes experience when they become rich after years of poverty, a mutual appreciation and gratefulness and wonder and an awareness of the depths of the other person--an awareness that is stronger than any affection or love."

I can think of few novels that examine evil and its consequences with as much intelligence, clarity, and compassion as this great book by Karan Mahajan. It's published by Viking, and worth your while.

George Ovitt (6/20/16)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Summer He Died

The summer he died
My father discovered plants.
He grew sunflowers that leapt
over his tiny house, tomatoes
that burst in the heat, stunted
corn and rows of string beans
eaten over one July night
by a pack of ravenous moles.
He could hardly stand; he’d
lost fifty pounds—his hair,
thick and brown into his 80’s,
simply disappeared. We rose
together at mid-morning; he
ate Wheaties with strawberries
that I bought at the Farmers
Market—he told me he hated
the thought of dying and missing
his breakfast, the newspaper,
the thought of that first cigarette
(he’d quit a decade before—like all
men his age he’d ash his Lucky in
the orange half-moon of his eggs.)
Then we’d reminisce for an hour:
I knew nothing about him, nor did
he know a thing about me: fathers
and sons practice silence like monks
locked together in a desert of love.
After lunch we’d find a ballgame.
He would fall asleep and quietly fart;
I’d go for a walk, up and down blocks
of large empty houses--I never saw a soul.
Later I would drive to the store for corn
and steaks; he had no appetite and would
vomit while I cooked. I wasn’t
sad—we were standing on the edge
of something we couldn’t name or feel--
time ended in the blackness of his dying.
On the phone my wife told me about the
children; I could picture her in our bright
living room, thousands of miles from where
I stood. The house would be hot and loud
with music—my father’s house was silent
and smelled of rust and mildew;
the cicadas chorused in a manic circle—
the heat pushed the outdoors
onto the porch where we sat, remembering
the lightning bugs that I had caught
in Mason jars, the cool nights when we
could smell the faintly salty Eastern breeze,
the far off sound of fireworks from the
boardwalk, the men laughing as they
played bocce and drank beer,
the way your hand would hurt as you
dug into the icy tub for a Coke,
the snap of the church key and the cold
that hurt your throat and eye—
my mother calling us in for dessert,
my father telling me to go ahead, he’d sit a while
longer on the stoop, watching the kids play
stickball in the gathering darkness.
And the way the house was so full of us,
the five of us, the rooms dense with our
lives, the dishes drying in the sink, the
tired way my legs would feel after another
day of being alive. And my father would
come in the sit and not say a word: he was
locked up in himself even then, as I would
be when I was his age, a silence that was
watching and waiting for something better
to come along, when there was nothing better,
when there was nothing better to come.

In Memory of George Ovitt, Sr. November 13, 1919-July 6, 2010

Happy Fathers Day to all of our readers....(that's my sister, Patricia, with my father, mid-1950's)

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Kingfisher

The Kingfisher, Amy Clampitt

Amy Clampitt, the Iowa Quaker, published her first book of poetry in 1983--she was sixty-three years old--and while she had been writing poetry since her undergraduate days at Grinnell College, she had only started to publish in the late 1970's.  Simply put, The Kingfisher is among the finest sustained poetic achievements in the English language. Clampitt, who died in 1994, was born on June 15, 1920, and it was the proximity of her birthday that led me to reread this extraordinary book.

Wheeling, the careening
winds arrive with lariets
and tambourines of rain.
Torn-to-pieces, mud-dark
flounces of Caribbean

cumulus keep passing, 
keep passing.  By afternoon
rinsed transparencies begin
to open overhead, Mediterranean
windowpanes of clearness

crossed by young gusts'
vaporous fripperies, liquid
footprints flying, lacewing
leaf-shade brightning
and fading....

[From "The Edge of the Hurricane"]

Miss Clampitt's closest progenitor was Gerard Manley Hopkins (her title is taken from a line of Hopkins); both share a baroque and mystical connection to the natural world, an extraordinary lexical richness, stunning imagery, and the metaphysical poet's ability to link the seemingly disconnected into unforgettable synthesis.  Her work at Oxford University Press and the Audubon Society appear to have leached both language and observational acuity into her verse--like Hopkins, but better, Clampitt uncovers the rich symbiotic connection between poet and nature, not in search of God, and not in search of Meaning, but purely for the beauty of being alive, the wry and charming oddity of being in this world. Here's one of my favorite Clampitt poems, "Sea Mouse":

The orphanage of possibility
has had to be expanded to 
admit the sea mouse. No one
had asked for such a thing, 
or prophesied its advent,

sheltering under ruching
edges of sea lettuce--
a wet thing but pettable
as, seen in the distance, 
the tops of copses, 

sun-honeyed, needle pelted
pine trees, bearded barley, 
or anything newborn not bald
but furred. No rodent this 
scabrous, this unlooked-for

foundling, no catnip plaything
for a cat to worry, not even
an echinoderm, the creature
seems to be a worm. Silk-spiny, 
baby-mummy-swaddled, it's

at home where every corridor
is mop-and-bucket scrubbed
and aired from wall to wall
twice daily by the inde-
fatigable tidal head nurse.  

Such chewy language! Ruchy, needle-pelted, silk-spiny. And in other poems the same joyful playing with language. But not just playing, Clampitt's not a "language poet," no, there's meaning and feeling at every turn: "the nodding/campanula of bell buoys" ("Fog"); "a tatting/ of foam out where the rocks are" ("Gradual Clearing"); "Strawstacks' beveled loaves" ("Stacking the Straws"). She's one of the few poets who sends me, gratefully, to the OED--"furred with a velouté/of looking glass"--velouté, one of the Mother Sauces of French cuisine (who knew?). Then there is "scenes of transhumance," "a chromo of Hobbema," "grisaille." I especially admire the way Clampitt uses possessives and compounding hyphens to join ideas that one might not conceive of as joined, but which, in her capable hands, are effortlessly put together; her striking adjectives: "wing-dragging" killdeer or "berry-eyed and bark-brown" kingfisher. The freshness with which she looks at the every day. Great poets are always youthful, vigorous, joyful. Except if they are mopes, but in the summer I am opting for the joyful ones, Clampitt above all--a romantic in the American idiom.

Not only does she send me to the dictionary. Clampitt taken on a meandering stroll in the local landscape incites me to look more carefully: "Nightfall/hangs up a single moon/bleached white as laundry;" and this: "spilled/and scattered like/a gust of lost pollen."  No seas near me, but I do remember the coast in a storm well enough for this image: "gales hurled gnashing like seawater over fences'/laddered apertures..." ("The Woodlot").

My copy--now 33 years old--is full of pencil markings, grass stains, stuffed with cottonwood leaves, scuffed from being packed along on hikes and camping trips (along with Annie Dillard, who, like Hopkins, is a bit too pious for my tastes, but who nonetheless has the keen eye and immersion in poetic language we find in Clampitt). Clampitt wrote poems about Maine and New York City (where she mostly lived--you wouldn't know it), about Iowa and farm life in that beautiful corny rectangle of a place. About the many countries she visited--Italy and England in particular--and, some of her best and wittiest, about music. Especially memorable is her long poem "Beethoven, Opus 111," too beautiful simply to quote from and too long to type out here.

Buy the book. Write your name in it. Carry it around all summer (with a pocket dictionary). You'll be happy you did.

And finally, this:

Easter Morning

a stone at dawn
cold water in the basin
these walls' rough plaster
after the hammering
of so much insistence
on the need for naming
after the travesties
that passed as faces,
grace : the unction
of sheer nonexistence
upwelling in this
hyacinthine freshet
of the unnamed
the faceless

There are no bad photographs of Amy Clampitt. Here is my favorite.

George Ovitt (6/10/16)

The Kingfisher is published by Knopf and is still in print, thank God. 

For the sea mouse:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Eros, Philos, Agape

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm

translated by Michael Hofmann

 It was the great scholar and saint, Augustine of Hippo, who first explored with remarkable psychological acuity the nuances of human love and the connection between human erotic passion and the love of God. In the Confessions, Augustine delineates with exquisite--at times excruciating--self-awareness his journey from cupidity to caritas, from love of the flesh to love of the spirit:

“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by love of mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.” 

In his short, exegetical work, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine argues that Scripture, as God's Word, must always be read and interpreted as tending toward the enhancement of divine love--the word alone is merely dross; its meaning uplifts the devout to knowledge of, and love for, the Divine.

Strange as it may seem, it was Augustine who came to mind as I read through the unusual and unsettling 2009 novel Sieben Jahre, translated with typical felicity by Michael Hofmann as Seven Years and published by Other Press. Believe me, there is nothing remotely Augustinian or even especially religious about this novel, yet I was compelled to think, as the story of Sonia, Alexander, and Ivona unwound, not of the physical compulsions of human love but of the mysterious psychological or, in this case, spiritual dimensions of attraction and obsession. The force fields of this particular triangle are oddly proportioned--unbalanced and disjointed: Alexander has married Sonia. He is a handsome, charming, and not especially ambitious architect, more deeply engaged by the practical side of design than the aesthetic; he offhandedly woos and eventually marries Sonia. Sonia, we are told (repeatedly) is beautiful, brilliant, dynamic, alluring, etc. Unlike Alex, Sonia is drawn to the aesthetics of architecture, in particular to the murky--authoritarian--utopianism of Le Corbusier. Indeed, the novel's epigram is from the great Swiss-French architect, an often-quoted modernist koan: "Light and shadow reveal form." If Alexander and Sonia are light and shadow--he all practicality, down-to-earthiness, muddle; she a ravishing mystery--then the nearly mute, devout, lower-class and decidedly unattractive Ivona is "revealed form." For what Stamm has achieved, brilliantly if incredibly, is to make a silent outcast, a mystical washerwoman, the real center of the novel, the source of its energy and cryptic meaning. How so?

Alexander has a brief tryst with Ivona, not out of attraction, but out of (self) loathing; he finds Ivona repulsive but compelling; he strips off her clothes and lies on top of her, fondles her, but does not "possess her." It's a disturbing scene: not rape, but not consensual, and it's not sexual but contractual, a tacit acknowledgment of a connection that persists over years and years, even though Alex has virtually no contact with Ivona, his life is shaped by her being, and hers by him. It is as if Ivona, the victim of a callous and unfeeling man's assault, is the seducer. For thereafter, all through his profitable marriage and business partnership with Sonia, Alexander cannot excise Ivona from his consciousness. He cannot be happy with Sonia (it appears) largely because the woman he desires is someone he doesn't love. It's a muddle, implausible, but entirely believable. The form of a life is made not by anything real, but by contrasting ideals.

We live in a building that we build ourselves. This "building" is not only our life--that's the least of it--this building is what we think about our life. The modernist ethos prescribed functionality, a prescription that grew out of the embrace of positivism and technology that swept through European intellectual life in the late 19th century. The great monuments of modernist writing accept as given the fact that we have built a world and that we are compelled to constantly reconstruct and remodel our view of our place in that world. The tension between a lived and an examined life is the source of what is loosely called "irony."* The magisterial work of modernist irony is Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel that excavates the tension between the world we actually live in and the world we think we live in... Joyce, Woolf, James, Eliot, all wrote from the same ironic perspective, trying or not trying to bring into harmony light and shadow, life and thought, the building and the space it defines.

Augustine, as a believer in an omniscient deity, had no such paradoxes to resolve, and if he thought of irony at all he thought of it in the Greek sense of εἰρωνεία, the rhetorical trope for "dissimulation" or "delusion." Augustinian love is "ironic" when the the lover mistakes his erotic fascination for the real thing, as when Chaucer's Troilus, released at last from the surly bonds of earth, looks down on the world and, at long last, gets it.

SPOILER ALERT: So here is the joke, the irony in the Augustinian sense: only Ivona--fat, covered with moles, naive, unfashionable, etc. is fruitful. Only Ivona is fully alive. Only Ivona has bridged the unbridgeable gap between life-as-lived and life-as-reflection. And how does she manage this miracle? Here's where Augustine popped to mind: she is a medieval woman; she is the annunciate, the true Child of God. Sonia cannot conceive; she can design and create soulless buildings, but she cannot love her husband, or the child (Sophia!) whom he creates with unloved Ivona. It is with these unexpected developments that Stamm is most original. His love triangle offers no clarity, no resolution; there is no "happily ever after," no "blended family." Sonia runs off. Alexander broods. Ivona, out of love, gives up her baby. Stamm's wonderful insight is that "making sense" of our lives isn't a solitary pursuit, and in any case, isn't really worth the time and suffering we put into it. "Making sense" of things is a modern madness--things in themselves have sense, are meaningful, and our role is to accept that fact, or, rather, to make the leap to belief. This belief isn't--I say again--religious--but psychological. But, in the end, what's the difference?

*Among the Ancients, Socrates, as he comes to us via Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, was an "ironic" figure ("The Apology"). The next great ironist was Shakespeare (compare "The Tempest" to "On Cannibals" for the difference between irony and not-irony). This said, I am probably wrong, and if I had paid closer attention to my teachers I would have avoided this sort of shameless generalization. 

George Ovitt (6/7/16)

Friday, June 3, 2016

"Nothing is Mine for Long"

Divan of Ghalib, Nachoem M. Wijnberg

"The human / image remains imprisoned / in the mirror of the world." (Ghalib) 

Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, whose takhallus, or pen-name, was Ghalib ("most excellent"), was born in Agra during the twilight of the Mughal Empire, though he lived most of his life in Delhi. Ghalib's "traditional divan," contains 234 ghazals as well as Urdu poems in other styles. Ghalib also composed poetry and prose works in Persian, including a history of the 1857 "mutiny." Virtually all translators and commentators (over one hundred commentaries on Ghalib's ghazals exist) agree that the task of translating Ghalib is a "doomed mission" [Frances W. Pritchett], and agree that Ghalib is "mushkil-panand"--a lover of complexity.  I have spent parts of the past few days admiring a handful of the ghazals in various translations (Niazi, Ahmed Ali, as well as adaptations by W.S. Merwin, Adrienne Rich, and others).  I also found myself rereading Nabokov's famous 1941 New Republic article, "On the Art of Translation,"written as the polyglot novelist revised his version of Pushkin:

"We can deduce now the requirements that a translator must possess in order to be able to give an ideal version of a foreign masterpiece. First of all he must have as much talent, or at least the same kind of talent, as the author he chooses. In this, though only in this, respect Baudelaire and Poe or Joukovsky and Schiller made ideal playmates. Second, he must know thoroughly the two nations and the two languages involved and be perfectly acquainted with all details relating to his author’s manner and methods; also, with the social background of words, their fashions, history and period associations. This leads to the third point: while having genius and knowledge he must possess the gift of mimicry and be able to act, as it were, the real author’s part by impersonating his tricks of demeanor and speech, his ways and his mind, with the utmost degree of verisimilitude."

No doubt Nabokov considered himself nearly up to the task of Eugene Onegin--but to render Ghalib's subtle and delicate love poems from Urdu to English--to have assimilated not only the languages but the "author's manner and methods," his "social background," his "demeanor"--who could achieve so much, and how might we, as readers without Urdu or any other Nabokovian qualification, hope to make sense of this great poet?

While I was reading Nachoem M. Wijnberg's poems for (in honor of, as homage to, based on, etc.) Ghalib in David Colmer's fine translation, I had in mind this sentence from the collection's forward, written, presumably, by Colmer: "[Divan of Ghalib] is a book of English translations of the Dutch poems Nachoem Wijnberg wrote for Ghalib and with Ghalib with Ghalib and to Ghalib." This clarification--if you can call it that--yes, at first I thought White Pine had sent me a collection of translations of Ghalib by a Dutch poet translated into English by an Austrailian!--not only enhanced my interest in the book (beautifully gotten up, as all WP books are) but let me off the hook: no need to fret about the "accuracy" or "spirit" of the translations. This was a straightforward literary transaction: a book of poems Englished from a comfortable (bourgeois!) language from which even I--monoglot that I am--could wrestle some words, a hommage (of sorts) rather than another attempt to climb the mountain of Ghalib's esoteric genius.

This is familiar territory for me, this realm of the poetic transformation rather than translation. I have enough German to know that Rilke's sublime Duino Elegies are untranslatable (William Gass has a wonderful book on the subject of not translating Rilke), and Kenneth Rexroth's versions of Tu Fu--among my favorite poems--have always felt more like Rexroth channeling Tu Fu than surmounting the multiple Nabokovian hurdles to rendering a man as little known to us as Lao Tzu. Rexroth worked with the Chinese scholar Ling Chung on his versions of Chinese poetry; but of course Rexroth had many languages, and he was among the last poets to have read everything. I also love reading and comparing various versions of grad school stand-bys like Beowulf, wondering all the while if Michael Alexander, Burton Raffel, and Seamus Heaney had even read the same poem. But then there's John Gardner's wonderful Grendel, and that, patient reader, brings us at last to Wijnberg's Ghalib.

Nachoem M. Wijnberg, born in 1961, is the author, in Dutch, of fourteen books of poetry and, by my count, three novels. He is a professor of something called "cultural entrepreneurship" at the University of Amsterdam. And why not? The best poems are written by those who have never been "work-shopped" in Iowa or anyplace else. I have ordered both of Wijnberg's books available in English (The Jews and Advance Payment, the latter also translated by David Colmer); I will report on these books in due course. The reviews suggest that Wijnberg's novels are difficult and obscure; so much the better.

However, there is nothing obscure about Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib--the poems are personal, chatty, direct, and commodious. No need to have mastered the intricacies of the ghazal to cozy up to "Enough:"

I have seen no more of the one who said that if he had a second 
life it would be mine.
   I wished I had seen more of the one who made morning for 
himself, who said my morning.

He can build his own hourse, he doesn't make day or night until 
the house is ready.
   His legs spread, a hand of each knee, that how he sits on a 
chair in the doorway. There is no door, he doesn't know how to 
make one....

The loose lines seem to stretch out through odd-ball commas until the idea is done. Throughout the collection, one finds a no-nonsense, declarative style: "I know how this goes, last time I didn't find a solution in time./But if I can try again I'll be more able to keep up with what's/Happening--it helps to know a lot." ("How It Grows"). Here and there I thought of Karl Ove Knausgaard's let's-have-a-coffee-and-a-cigarette-and-talk style of coming to the point; Wijnberg eschews metaphor for straight talk, as if he were doing two things at once (culture and entrepreneurship) and didn't want to waste a lot of time: "Ghalib, did you have to spend another day getting used/To the idea that the stars you see at night might have/disappeared long ago?" A rhetorical question posed in "India," not so much, one feels, to Ghalib as to the poet himself. No channeling here, but rather an unfolding meditation on reading and thinking about a predecessor, which, when you come right down to it, is what all literature is really about, an adding to the universe of language by charting one's own reflection of what, frankly, can never be what Nabokov wished--a full reckoning with another mind.

The poems in Wijnberg's Divan that I returned to several times were the most discursive and personal. I thought I might have a go at matching one divan to another, Wijnberg back to Ghalib's originals, but I doubt I'd find many resemblances, and so what if I did? The pleasure I took in this book was more along the lines of seeing how many associations might be coaxed out of "Ghalib," as if the 19th century Urdu/Persian genius were at the center of one of many millions of poetic constellations and Wijnberg's idea was to make poems reflecting this fact. Think, perhaps, of Dante's Cavalcanti or Lorca's Gypsy Ballads, not dissimilar recognitions of the power of predecessors.  Wijnberg's poetic "you," I'm guessing, isn't Ghalib, but some North Star of meaning.  I note that one of the blurbs on the book jacket points to Wijnberg as "disguising himself" as Ghalib. I respectfully disagree. The distance between the meditative subject of these poems and Wijnberg is preserved throughout; his Divan evokes unknowing, distance, the mystery of another's life and language. It is precisely the lack of disguise that is most perceptive in Divan of Ghalib. Not only is translation (sometimes) futile; so is impersonation. What remains is the kind of homage Wijnberg pays to Ghalib: we are different, but like some great perturbation in the sea of language, your words affect my own. Bloom thought of influence as anxious; perhaps, but also respectful and worthy of recognition.

This book was welcome right at this moment of my life--of our lives. So much nonsense about our insurmountable differences, our inescapable tribal loathings, tumbling from the mouths of the ignorant  and ambitious! How refreshing to encounter in a new poet (Wijnberg) an old friend (Ghalib) freshly attired. To be reminded again of what continues to matter when so much no longer does.

George Ovitt (6/3/16)

Nachoem M. Wijnberg's Divan of Ghalib, translated by David Colmer is available from White Pine Press.

A brief, accessible study of Ghalib by Ahmed Ali is here

For addition information on the ghazal and other poetic forms in Urdu I rely on Frances W. Pritchitt of Columbia University (whose translation of Intizar Husain's great Urdu novel Basti was reviewed in this blog):

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

This Is The End?

Jan Dismas Zelenka, "The Lamentations of Jeremiah the Prophet," ZWV 53

Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford (a Frank Bascombe novel)

The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn

Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, Donald J. Trump

The great Czech composer Jan Dismas Zelenka composed his "Lamentations" in the 1720's. They showcase Zelenka's remarkable contrapuntal talents--think Smetana or Dvořák, two musicians influened by Zelenka's complex harmonic style. The "Lamentations" possess a rich, introspective feeling, slow orchestral cadences, haunting oboe solos, voices that modulate across layered textures of sound--here the brass uplifts, now the viola darkens the mood. The power of the work, as in the prophet's, is in its melancholy, a text and music that meditates on what might have been, distraught, perplexed by the human foibles that have brought us to this, to the Kingdom of Babylon:

     ...Raise the wail and lamentation for the mountains,
     the dirge for the desert pastures,
     for they have been burned, no one passes there,
     the sound of the flocks is heard no more,
     birds of the sky and all animals
     all have fled, all are gone.
     I mean to make Jerusalem a heap of ruins. (Jeremiah, 9 "Lamentations to Zion")

Social catastrophe causes personal catastrophe to be sure, but it is the life of the individual that foretells the future of society, as in the great prophetic books of Jeremiah, Isiah, Ezekiel, and Amos.  In times of chaos, thoughtful and spiritually-inclined individuals--that is, people who are attuned to the subtle connections that bind the world together in counterpoint with the divine--are likely to turn inward, to search for signs that provide a narrative by which they can live.  Such is the prophecy of the Old Testament--an indictment of Israel, but also an affirmation of Yahweh's intentions for his chosen people. So too do we find in the rich spiritual literature of the late Middle Ages--another chaotic and unsettled era--a profound engagement with the mystical, rendered first in visions and then in the language of subjectivity, an inwardness that adumbrated the Protestant focus on silent engagement with the Word. Aside from their psychological and pathological implications, the visions of the mystics don't much interest me, but their writings are rich with Blakean symbols. Teresa of Avila is perhaps the most eloquent proponent of unity with the Divine:

      "As far as can be understood, the soul, I mean the spirit of this soul, is made one with God who is himself a spirit, and who has been pleased to show certain persons how far his love for us extends in order that we may praise his greatness. He has thus deigned to unite himself with His creature. He has bound himself to her as firmly as any two human beings are joined in wedlock, and will never separate himself from her."

(McGinn, Christian Mysticism, p. 456; every library should include a copy of this book. McGinn, the finest scholar of medieval religiosity, provides a generous selection of mystical writings, moving for the atheist as well as for the devout.)

We yearn to believe in something--it can't be denied--God works for many, but for others there is art and beauty, politics and power, love and friendship, and for those full of "passionate intensity" there is money and what it buys. Or the glorified Self, the one Frank Bascombe, at (a mere!) sixty-eight, finds not only ephemeral but ludicrous. The baggage of ego permeates all of the four Bascombe novels, but none so much as this most recent. The Self: the roller coaster at Seaside Heights, half-submerged, a wreck, a mockery of amusement.

Richard Ford, among the finest stylists writing in English--his stories rank, in my view, with Alice Munro's for their artistry and deftness at creating character--has, since 1988, followed the career of Frank Bascombe, failed-novelist, sportswriter, divorced person, real estate agent and philosopher of the everyday--the sort of phenomenologist Husserl had in mind when he described the profound ways in which we can come to know the world by simply paying attention. And Frank pays very close attention. Ford's Bascombe (the autobiographical elements in his novels and stories are unmistakable), like Updike's Rabbit or Roth's Nathan Zuckerman, travels through the landscape of post-Reagan, post-Bush I and II, post-Clinton America not unlike the way in which Jeremiah wandered through the deserts of Palestine, in search of what thoughtful human beings are in search of--not "truth", that squib of meaning, but coherence, as in, what is going on here?

If Frank has a default setting it is bemused confusion. Whether he is meeting with an ex-client whose vacation home on the Jersey Shore has been blown to smithereens by Hurricane Sandy ("I'm Here"), listening to a macabre tale of family homicide ("Everything Could Be Worse"), negotiating the delivery of an orthopedic pillow to his ex-wife ("The New Normal"), or spending a some terrible minutes with a dying acquaintance ("Deaths of Others"), Ford's four interlinked stories evoke a quietly apocalyptic landscape, a suburban world ravaged by climate change, political nihilism (the Republican nay-sayers and Tea Party crack-pots), aging (Frank is recovering from the cancer described in excruciating detail in The Lay of the Land), and the daily rub of post-modern, post-meaning, American life. It's the world of Trumpery, where "kicking ass" and "getting rich" and "fixing" a broken American by exiling everyone with dark skin revives, if not our past glory, at least the myth of our past glory. It's a sad fantasy this idea of ours, this lie about a wondrous past of unalloyed glory, but it's the one we want, the one that sells and elects presidents and keeps the machine of greed humming along. Jeremiah would recognize it at once.

Ford writes like an angel. Or like an OT prophet. The cadences of his sentences, the counterpoint of voices--Frank's skeptical inner monologues layered over the voices of those he (reluctantly) has to deal with in real life--have the quality of lamentation. Frank Bascombe was an ironic wag in the Sportswriter, a witty, disillusioned man in Independence Day, but in older age Frank is weary, eager to be left in peace, and yet constantly at the beck and call of others. He reads books to the blind, greets returning Iraq War Vets at Newark Airport, visits his Parkinson-afflicted ex-wife, and fields phone calls and visits from his former real-estate clients; in other words, Frank is enmeshed in a social world not of his own choosing, just as we all are, and much of his inner life is a wry commentary on the illusions of civil life, the tedium of others.  Saul Bellow would imagine that these interruptions served some higher purpose (as in Herzog and Humbolt's Gift), but Ford possesses none of Bellow's faith in higher meanings. He's a here and now guy, a what's-this-signify-right-this-second fellow whose only remaining faith is placed in the facts of decay and death. Time is running out for Frank--he feels the "wing'ed chariot" nipping at his heels at every junction of his ordinary days--and he doesn't wish to waste a minute. What he will do with the time he saves is an open question. Mostly, he tells us, he just wants to sit still.

Where are we headed? Back to greatness, lost because of "stupidity" of our leaders? Should we "trust our guts" as Mr. Trump advises in the most recent of his books, drop a few more bombs, weed out the un-American among us? Frank Bascombe's sensible view of the world precludes such cruelty. A suburban Buddhist, Frank believes in disengagement, in taking a step back, in being agreeable, but without agreeing. His former wife, committed to conspiracies, thinks that Hurricane Sandy (the central trope of the stories) was a personal affront, something aimed at her. Frank meditates on this notion:

   "The Default Self, my answer to all her true thing issues, is an expedient that comes along with nothing more than being sixty-eight--the Default Period of life.
   "Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believed the same. ""...A man should give us a sense of mass..." etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we only have what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else--nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end."

Here is a point that clarifies Jeremiah, a cause for lamentation: we find ourselves divided between the Ann's of this world and the (fewer) Frank's--those for whom Meaning is built into the nature of the world and those for whom only actions and judgements and muddle are real. The third way, the way of the mystics, lifts us up out of this mess altogether, but isn't a path many of us would choose. The terrible thing isn't that we (Americans, humans) are divided between these two incommensurate visions of the possibilities of human life, the tragedy is that they are both wrong, or incomplete. Frank wanders back home to Haddam, to his All-Bran and ESPN and squishy liberal ideas--and his dying--without having learned a single thing from the four encounters that lie at the heart of Let Me Be Frank With You. That's the joke: Frank can only be frank with us, and frankness for Frank is a recitation of confusion and doubt. But, to be frank, I am relieved and pleased that there is nothing more, nothing deeper for me to learn. I too am tired of the essentialists, the truth-mongers, the ideologues, the big talkers. We come to this point eventually, to the moment when we only want to pay attention to the here and now, and to make (as Bascombe does) the world just a little bit better around us, in our own neighborhood. We've learned all the lessons there are to learn. Time, simply, to live.

Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank With You is published by Ecco Press.
Bernard McGinn's The Essential Writings of the Christian Mystics by Modern Library, which has also just published a beautiful edition of the first three Bascombe novels in one book.
Jan Dismas Zelenka's "Lamantions" are, remarkably, here
I've used the Jerusalem Bible for Jeremiah because my King James isn't handy; the KJ is, of course, preferable for this, and for all, prophets.

George Ovitt (May 24, 2016)

Experience taught me a few things. One is to listen to your gut, no matter how good something sounds on paper. The second is that you're generally better off sticking with what you know. And the third is that sometimes your best investments are the ones you don't make.
Read more at:


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Leda In My Kitchen

Some Girls by Janet McNally

The myth of Leda is an old and beloved one, especially for writers and artists. Leda was a Greek princess, daughter of the king of Aetolia, Thestius. She was the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. When Zeus saw her he fell in love with her. Transforming himself into a swan he raped her. Earlier that same night she had also lain with her husband. As a result, she was impregnated by both. From two eggs, two sets of twins were born; the first was Helen and Clytemnestra, the second Castor and Pollux. 

While undoubtedly many people know the outlines of the story, it is surely through Yeats’ famous poem “Leda and the Swan” that the story is now best known.   

Now here is McNally; admire the tender twist she has given this tale:

Leda in My Kitchen

With her fingers flat on the table, her hands
feathered like a pair of wings, tips pointed,
a silvery shade of white I recognized
from somewhere else. Alabaster, or the concrete
spread of sidewalk soaking in moonlight. The idea
of a cloud in childhood, more insinuation
than weather. Book-ended, always,
by wakefulness and sleep.

She closed her eyes and said, What bothers me most
is that I can’t remember. She held the curve
of her belly and I saw her fingers
were bone and skin again, pressed together
like a prayer. For a moment, we pretended
the egg in front of us had lost its terrible promise,
cradled no life in its calcium shell. 

The warp and weft of “Leda In My Kitchen” is hardly the exception in this smart and graceful collection in which—to quote the poet Paula Meehan—“the grammar of myth and fairytale is real.” Indeed such names as Circe, Eurydice, and Penelope abound in these poems, charging the prosaic if mighty struggles of contemporary women and girls with the force and radiance of the mythical, mystical past.

Here are two more poems from the collection:

Persephone Has a Secret

Everything’s about to pop. The pollen
shakes like confetti form the long, red throats

of trumpet flowers. The air burns gold.
In this version, Hades is bayou Louisiana,

and the underworld drips
with rainwater and dew. She’s the one

who’s done it, loosed this place
from its ashen dusk the minute that child

started swirling beneath her rib cage, pulsing
like a flock of juncos winging in the trees.

Tonight, Luna moths gather on the screens, their chartreuse
wingspread fragile as rice paper. The have

no mouths, no stomachs, and will live a week
and die. You’ve come to the right place,

she tells them. Here, you can go right on breathing
after you’re dead. Not that she plans on staying.

For now, she’s naming the flowers
as they sprout: pink stars of seashore

mallow, white jasmine trailing leaves
in brackish water. Hibiscus so red it slows

the amnesia flutter in her blood, lets her remember
the single bloom that stole her soul in the first place:

narcissus, pinwheel blossom, sepals
and petals both crushed in her astonished grasp.

From the turntable, Nina Simone sings
“Lilac Wine.” Another flower she’ll show

her baby, another word she’ll spell
when they step out of this place stone free.

Hecuba and Gravity

When she was young, she saw Hokusai’s prints of Mt. Fuji,
its peak a gentle slope in red ink and gray. Snow-pink
spring trees, diamond-sharp kites on fine black strings.
She wanted to unfasten the clouds, peel the whirling birds
away from their updraft spins. She couldn’t quite love
two dimensions. so she folded squares of paper
into animals—here, a pointed shoulder, there,
a triangle of ear—and set them on a windowsill.
Sometimes the wind made them flutter to the floor.

Which is to say, she always knew what would happen,
if only in her sleep. In her dreams, the baby falls
like the cherry blossoms she’s never seen.

Writes poet Eavan Boland, “These poems chart with a rare grace and lyric skill the traffic between the plainspoken, ordinary moment and the visionary one.” I encourage you to read them for yourself.

Janet McNally is a poet and novelist who teaches creative writing at Canisius College. She has a Master of Fine Arts in fiction form the University of Notre Dame and has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Some Girls is published by White Pine Press.

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crocodile Tears

Two  Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández

—how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us!

What happens when you put a Russian and a Uruguayan crocodile into the same small tank (or between the same two covers)? You get a lot of crocodile tears.

Dostoevsky’s 1865 story “The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” is described, on its title page, as “A true story of how a gentleman of a certain age and of respectable appearance was swallowed alive by the crocodile in the Arcade, and of the consequences that followed.” The description is not only funny, but apt in characterizing the brilliantly dry, matter-of-fact tone in which this shrewd little satire unfolds. 

One day, so Dosotoevsky’s narrator relates to us, a pompous civil servant named Ivan Matveitch takes his wife, Elena Ivanovna, to see the exotic and “monstrous” crocodile on exhibit at the Arcade, part of a travelling sideshow from Germany. Boldly taunting the creature to impress his pretty young wife, Ivan Matveitch is promptly gobbled up, swallowed whole before her much-astonished eyes. In the words of friend and narrator, Semyon Semyonitch (which, forgive me, I will quote at some length), this is what ensues:

The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then brining up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and cltuching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his wasit. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes.  At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take tis last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again—this time forever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same—either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles—there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.

In fact what at first appears a matter of horror, soon turns decidedly amusing, bizarre, as the just-devoured Ivan Matveitch begins to speak, to cajole his awestruck wife from within the bloated belly of this same beast. When his wife exclaims with wonder that he is still alive, he replies, “Alive and well, and thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever.” In fact, he feels so well, is so steadfast in his devotion to his work, that he determines (expounding all the while) to continue his official duties as a civil servant from his new home inside the crocodile!

Paired with this tale, producing an interesting reaction between them, is the much shorter, if equally amusing story by the same name by the great Uraguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Based in part on the author’s own experience as a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing music in the silent-screen theatres and cafes of Uruguay, the story is narrated by a lonely concert pianist trying hard to make ends meet. One day he makes the inadvertent discovery, when he finds himself weeping in the middle of a concert, that his tears are more of an attraction than his music. Told in a voice and style reminiscent of (if predating) that of Boll’s The Clown and “The Laugher”, Hernández’s “The Crocodile” is one of numerous tales “about quietly deranged individuals” that has distinguished the career of this highly influential stylist. Revered by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño, Hernández is a writer whose works I am delighted to know. 

“The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated by Constance Garnett. “The Crocodile” by Felisberto Hernández was translated by Esther Allen.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


It's been a siege of spiteful characters, plots, and world views--months really, since through pure happenstance I started to read the backlog of novels I've been accumulating since year's end.

What exactly is spite? Not an easy word to define, spite evokes the worst character traits: simmering anger, bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness, resentment, vengefulness. I imagine the spiteful would reside in Dante's Fifth Circle, hard on the banks of the River Styx. Filippio Argenti is one of the only souls in hell for whom Dante feels only spite ("I would see him pickled in that swill.") The spiteful imagine great wrongs done to their person; they feel deeply, but only to the end of exacting revenge. Spite presumes a form of justice that doesn't even accounts but obliterates those who have given offense. Perfect spite is nurtured, kept alive as a means of providing the spiteful a reason to live.

A nearly-blind Edwin Mortens lives in the bathroom of a flat with his almost deaf wife Erna. They hate each other but depend on one another physically and psychologically--they torment one another, suspect infidelities, are envious and spiteful--a marriage made in hell. Saeterbakken, author of Journey Through Night and Self-Control specializes in character studies of men and women living in extremis, surviving in the face of suffering and loss, spreading the wealth, so to speak, by tormenting those around them. Siamese is a novel Beckett might have written or brought to the stage. The sequential interior monologues of Edwin and Erna are perfectly suited to the theater--Edwin seated in the bathroom staring with milky eyes at nothing; Erna seated at the kitchen table in a run-down apartment muttering about her husband's vileness. Nurturing their hatred so as to continue living, after a fashion.

 Revenge isn't inherently spiteful: one might get back at someone coolly, just to even the score. But the best sort of revenge is obsessive and therefore steeped in spite--and the payback, ideally, will both duplicate the original offense and quote it. The finest novel of revenge-spite that I know of is Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, a title that suggests the great Japanese writer's penchant for delicate stories of unhappy love, but which actually delivers a bitter tale of terrible revenge enacted long after the precipitating crime. As the novel opens, Oki Toshio is journeying from Tokyo to listen to the New Year's bells in Kyoto. But his real hope is to visit a lover whom he impregnated and abandoned twenty years before--Otoko Ueno. Ueno is now a famous artist who lives with a young lover and protege, Keiko Sakimi. Keiko is jealous of Ueno's former lover, but her feelings of hatred and her desire for revenge, as is typical in Kawabata, are just as much directed against what to her appear to be the cruel customs and repressive culture of traditional Japan. As Keiko plots exquisite and terrible revenge against Otoko and his family, Kawabata reveals deeper fissures in the social fabric of Japan: the subservient role of women is one of them, but more poignant is the Kabuki-like ritual of love-death. Ueno and Keiko share a destructive passion: Ueno's detachment and world-weariness are well suited to Otoko's deep-seated grief for his treatment of Ueno, but Keiko is nearly driven mad by the passivity and introspection that has allowed Ueno to live her life as a victim. Keiko dispatches her victim callously, methodically, and without a hint of passion. Her spite is reserved for Ueno--this is the genius of the novel--rather than for the man who abandoned her.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way." Thus begins the most disturbing--I suppose I should use the word "transgressive"--of the three novels, the story of an ordinary woman who has a dream of blood and elects to become a vegetarian as a result. Where's the harm? Hardly as serious as the mad hatreds of the Mortens or as obsessive as the revenge described by Kawabata--vegetarianism, after all, would seem to be a personal and an ethical decision, to be respected and honored. But Yeong-hye's husband and family behave as if she had elected to become a serial killer: they torment her with arguments, they stuff food into her mouth, they treat her as if she were insane.  Yeong-hye's response is to become nearly catatonic, to abandon not only meat but her life and, eventually, her language. Her tormentors are ordinary people--her family--but the spiteful ways in which they insinuate that Yeong-hye has no rights over her own body suggest the brutal way in which men (and some women) assert the proposition that women are not agents and that their bodies belong to husbands and fathers and mothers.

The spite trilogy. Hardly cheering, but each of these three novels was compelling in the way that a traffic accident is compelling--you slow down despite yourself, relieved that it isn't you--this time. 

George Ovitt (4/19/16)