Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Lack Somewhere

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Adam Nash

Friday, March 13, 2015

What's Wrong With Me? Part I

Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman

Gyula Krudy, Sunflower


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

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

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

                                      (A splendid example of Hyalophora cecropia, not bustling)

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

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

[to be continued]

George Ovitt (3/13/15)

Saturday, March 7, 2015

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


Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Adam Nash

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Every Part of Me Was New"

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


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

(from "Play by Play")

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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


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

George Ovitt (2/25/15)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Plum Pictures, Plum Poems, Plum Universe

Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom by Sung Po-jen

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Peter Adam Nash

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:

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