Wednesday, December 28, 2016


"The calm and ordinary/is always based on a most delicate rite." --Ruth Stone "Order and Design"


This is Henry Miller at Big Sur, sitting, somehow, with swagger. The author, ostensibly alone with his work (imagine no photographer). He is thinking hard, smoking (naturally), sipping strong coffee, not paying the bills, scribbling on legal pads or composing on a Smith-Remington portable. The life of the mind--let's cling to it in the days ahead.

A good year for reading--if not for much else. Here are a few of the books that brought me a degree of solace or, in some cases, a jolt of righteous indignation, during 2016. 


Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty--has Hirshfield ever written a mediocre poem?

Amy Clampitt, The Kingfisher and Maxine Kumin, Where I Live--older books that I keep on my desk and read regularly.

David Kirby, House on Boulevard St.--new to me this year are Kirby's wildly inventive musings on his life.

Kim Garcia, The Brighter House and Drone--my favorite new (to me) poet.

Harvey Shapiro, The Sights Along the River--Shapiro writes simple elegies for a lost world of thoughtful decency.

My favorite poem of the year? Perhaps it's this one--apt and moving:

For What Binds Us
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

As the world around us become more difficult to absorb, as it makes less "sense" in the antediluvian Enlightenment context of "facts" and "reason" and "virtue," poetry assumes a more central place in the lives of (some) people. The poet's work is to make sense of her own experience and then to communicate that sense to the rest of us in language that is necessarily personal but also--here's what separates the poets from the fakers--universal. It's a big responsibility.



History and Politics

Rick Perlstein, Nixonland. I read Perlstein's trilogy out of order (Before the Storm, Nixonland, and Invisible Bridge, dealing with, respectively, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan.) I can't recommend the Reagan volume, but Before the Storm and Nixonland are among the great political histories of our age.

Jane Mayer, Dark Money. Bound to make you want to emigrate to Portugal.

Stedman Jones, Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion --a history of 19th century political thought that is so detailed and nuanced and rich in recreating the lives of minor figures like Bruno Bauer and the other Young Hegelians that it feels like I've taken a graduate course from a scholar who has read everything.

Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Not well. Streeck's essay "The Citizen as Consumer" was the best political analysis of our ongoing crisis that I read all year.

Seymour M. Hersh, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden.  Lies our presidents (and Secretaries of State) tell us.

Andrew Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East. 

Volker Weidermann, Ostend: Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, and the Summer Before the Dark.


I read fewer than usual due to the load of politics and history that I felt impelled to read. But a lot of good novels came my way--again, not all of them new.

Yasmine El Rashidi, Chronicle of a Last Summer. Egypt after Mubarak. Cairo comes alive and the novel feels deeply topical.

Karan Mahajan: The Association of Small Bombs. Among the best novels I read this year. Discussed somewhere in TR.

Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. A novel of Haiti and therefore of politics and hopes deferred.

Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special. What Balzac did for post-Napoleonic France, that is, create an etudes des mœurs, Bachelder has done in a little over two-hundred pages. A mini-panorama of the (male) human comedy. An unlikely likeable book.

Irène Némirovsk, All Our Worldly Goods [Les Biens de ce monde]. Némirovsky was among the great realists of the 20th century, and this short novel, a prequel to Suite Française, is pitch perfect in its depiction of French society before, during, and after World War I. A kind of love story, but not in a traditional sense. Not one wasted word.

Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say That We Have Nothing. Mao's Cultural Revolution destroys two families; the survivors tell their stories through folklore, magical realism, and grueling naturalism. I was entranced by the seemingly effortlessness with which this complex novel unfolded.

Han Kang, The Vegetarian. Harrowing. Ruthlessly explores the nuances of domestic cruelty. I wonder how many persons bought this book thinking it was the autobiography of a vegetarian?

Richard Ford. Let Me Be Frank With You. Yes, an awful title. What were they thinking at Random House? The last hurrah, in four long stories, of Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land). White, late-middle-aged male writers aren't especially popular these days. That's too bad, because Ford writes like a dream. He's Updike with a sense of proportion and a far greater degree of modesty. A genial craftsman.

Peter Stamm, Seven Years. A love triangle involving three utterly despicable people. How did he pull it off? All that nonsense about "identifying with the characters" is just that, and Stamm proves it.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle. Volume five. My favorite volume in this gargantuan enterprise that demonstrates Norwegian narcissism is more interesting than its American counterpart. I eagerly await the denouement of volume six, coming, like the winds of New Mexico, in April.

Other Books 

Music is still our great source of solace. A few fine books relating to music that fell into my hands during the past few weeks:

Ted Gioia, The Jazz Standards. The stories, and best recordings, of 250 jazz classics. While there's a lot missing, there's plenty here for the lover of standards. Gioia is the best writer on jazz since Nat Hentoff.

John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven. Title of the year. "Bach in the breath of his vision, grasped and then revealed to us his conception of the universe as a harmonious whole; yet he was composing at a time when the breakdown of social unity was well advanced and the old structures of religion were fast being eroded by Enlightenment thinkers." Many brilliant insights by this great musicologist and Bach interpreter into the greatest musical genius who ever lived.

For Christmas, my brother sent me Philippe Margotin and Jean-Michel Guesdon's massive The Rolling Stones: All the Songs/The Story Behind Every Track. The French write wonderful books about American music. What most impresses me about my favorite band is how true they've stayed to their roots in the blues. (e.g. the new CD, "Blue and Lonesome").

Speaking of which....

My wife gave me Bill Dahl's gorgeous The Art of the Blues: A Visual Treasury of Black Music's Golden Age. Great photos of persons, record jackets, and venues (juke joints in the Delta). As one would expect, Dahl's text is informative and lively.

There were others--biographies (James A. Harris, Hume was the best of these), memoirs (Michael C. Keith's The Next Better Place), oral histories (the brilliant Secondhand Time by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich), and some books that defy categorization (Jim Holt's Why Does the World Exist?) A question I ask myself almost daily these days.

I hope that you readers of TR found good books to fill your days and that you will find lots more in the year to come. Peter and I hope to provide some suggestions. Meanwhile, peace and good reading.

George Ovitt (12/28/2016)

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


The Bed Moved, Rebecca Schiff

Infinite Distraction, Dominic Pettman

Dark Money, Jane Mayer

How Will Capitalism End? Wolfgang Streeck

"White Christmas," directed by Michael Curtiz

"In becoming a habit, distraction becomes a tool for dissolving regimes of thought, modes of understanding, by admitting an empirical moment into the transcendental structure of apperception."
Paul North, quoted by Dominic Pettman (133)


Professor North is referring to Kant's discussion of the seemingly insurmountable complications we face in making sense of the world, of sorting through the myriad and dense layers of sense impressions that bombard us, of making what is inchoate a part of the quiet inner story that is our consciousness. Distractions further complicate this process; perhaps distractions make making"sense" of our lives an impossible project. And yet we seek out distractions, as Dominic Pettman suggests in Infinite Distraction, precisely to obfuscate a world that is not only too diffuse to comprehend, but too disturbing. Pettman speaks of "pervasive bewilderment and insecurity," of a loss of "shared chronology, direction, or purpose." I would add our willful jettisoning of facts, of empathy, of a common humanity. A decade ago we were assured that those in power "made up their own facts." It's now common knowledge that there are no facts whatsoever. Ironically, it was a pack of mordant Frenchmen who were accused of destroying traditional values in favor of an amoral "post-modern" vision. Now it's the pols, the media, and Organization Men who have taken up the cry: "Truth is dead, and we killed it!"  


Sick of Brooklyn? The restaurants, the craft beers, the renovations, the self-regard? The authors? The book jackets weighted down with gush from other Brooklyn writers? Is anyone in Brooklyn not a writer? Case in point, The Bed Moved, a collection of stories by Rebecca Schiff. A book my eyes passed over but which touched me not at all...

Adam Wilson, another young writer who lives in Brooklyn, is convinced that Schiff is the real deal. Mr. Wilson feels that the era of authors like Proust and Virginia Woolf is over. But on the subject of Schiff he is unequivocal.  "If you see a bald man running through the streets of Brooklyn screaming Rebecca Schiff's name, do not fear for her life--it's just me, after one too many, singing the gospel of Schiff!" The Gospel of Schiff. Just the sort of thing Edmund Wilson might have written.

Or Claire Luchette's (also from Brooklyn. Her motto? "I write for bummed folks." She interviewed Schiff for Politico or some such. For all we know these people all drink at the same bar.) take on Schiff's "tart, powerful, sexy, and very, very funny stories":  "What I loved most about these stories is how stripped they are of all the often-clunky narrative stuff that shows up in more traditional stories, where it can seem like character, biographical details and situational context are dumped into the text" (my emphasis). 

Chekhov's clunky character details? Having to wade through all that "stuff" in a story by Cheever? Or Yates, or Charles Baxter? Character! Who has time for a story of more than a thousand words? A Schiff story is hip, a shtick, a routine, patter. It's a Netflix series full of hipsters and sex and one-liners that are very, very funny. No Schiff character has a face, a body, a tone of voice, a personality--nobody does anything but quip. Are quips literature? Will Woody Allen get the Nobel Prize next year? I'm trying as I read these stories to get it, to get why someone would run drunken through the streets of Brooklyn over these skeletal, affectless vignettes. To figure out why they are witty. Proust makes me giddy with pleasure; Bernhard makes me laugh until I weep; any story by Alice Munro makes me shake my head in awe of the woman's craft; Yates and Cheever I could read all day for their psychological insights, their humanity. But these dabs of prose--I kept circling Hamlet's "words, words, words" as I made my way through the book:

     "'There were film majors in my bed--they talked about film. There were poets, coxswains, guys trying to grow beards.'
     'Kids get really scared when their Dad grows a beard,' I said." (from "The Bed Moved").

     "'The ad said "I will rate your vagina," so I sent it in. It got two. Warts.'" ("Rate Me")

     "They said keep an eye on it, they said it was nothing, they took a picture, took a sample, they burned it, they froze it, they biopsied it, they told me to come back in a year, they winced when they saw me coming, they wrote down everything I said or dictated it to a woman who had to be in the room for legal reasons, they wrote me a prescription, they said, "You write fiction, that must be interesting."
     In fiction, it's never benign."  ("Keep and Eye on It" in its entirety)

I read the whole book. Two hours and twenty minutes. Published by Knopf--Alfred A.

What is this book about, really?

(Very) Late Capitalism

In her brilliant and disturbing Dark Money, Jane Mayer, perhaps without meaning to do so, demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that in twenty-first century America, even consciousness is for sale. Example after example shows that calculating, amoral, rapacious billionaires can actually get people to think things that are not only untrue, but actually hurtful to them (e.g. that mine safety in West Virginia is a bad idea for miners; that pollution is actually good). So money isn't just able to purchase newspapers, book publishers, politicians, and "think" tanks, but it can also, readily, be the medium though which human consciousness--yours and mine--is defined. 

What is capitalism? A form of human intercourse based upon the premise that everything--everything!--is reducible to quantifiable value and can, therefore, be exchanged in the framework of an entirely artificial space called "the market," which is, in fact, nothing more than the reification of any person's basest motives--fear, envy, pride, and lust ("cupidity" in the old days).

Almost every word of Pettman's Infinite Distraction is nonsense (see, e.g. p. 116), but here's the pearl amongst the sand: "....we are being systematically deprived not only of human freedoms, but our own capacity to be subjects of our own lives." Yes, this is just how one feels. Not only that we are being duped into buying objects we don't wish to own, but that we are being enticed into thinking thoughts that are beneath us, that diminish our humanity.

The phrase from Streeck's How Will Capitalism End? that has stuck with me is this: "...the nightmare of elites confident that they will outlive the social system that is making them rich." (p. 68)

The game is over. "Social life in an age of entropy is necessarily individualistic." (p. 40) But not quite, since the individualism that Streeck describes and that Jane Mayer's libertarians yearn to impose on the rest of us isn't individualistic in the sense of defending individual rights or parsing the value of a human being's consciousness, but rather individual in the sense of imposing a view of human nature that privileges 'fulfillment' (a vague notion) above all else. My students all believe that "human beings are basically selfish." And when I ask them what leads them to this Darwinian conclusion they have no answer--they've absorbed the message with the air they breath. They too understand that our habits of consumption define what used to be called character but is now thought of as a "profile." That's why it's a waste of time to create characters in literature or to write stories with psychological depth. The notion of a person as a nexus of complex yearnings, of hopes and dreams and inexpressible feelings is antiquated in just the way that stories about virgins pining after wealthy English landowners are antiquated. One could still write Pride and Prejudice but what would be the point?

The Bed Moved:

It turns out that Schiff is right. All we have is yearning and sex and distractions. If you read her book you will see that not paying attention is the only intelligent response to our world. Kant was right to see apperception as an impossible project--and he was writing in a candle-lit world. But then again, in reading interviews and reviews for this post, I couldn't help but think that the younger generation of writers was selling literature short, giving up not only on the beauty of art, but on its subversive qualities. Somewhere Pettman quotes an Italian theorist who says "we are cowards." That's it.

Bing at the Window

In "White Christmas," Bing returns from the Good War to go into show business with Danny Kaye. He meets Rosemary Clooney and falls in love. He and his Army buddies put on a show at a snowy inn in Vermont. A story that in some odd way feels familiar even if you've never seen the film--not the romance of it or the plot that's just an excuse for songs and dances (as in all those glorious Fred Astaire films). What grabs you, or should, is the comfort of it, the maudlin claustrophobic feeling that when Bing turns back into the room and looks at the fake tree and the bows on the packages he will feel a sense of happiness and security that we will never feel. And if you're writing stories these days, if you're the age of Rebecca Schiff or Adam Wilson or my older daughter, you may never have had this feeling. And if you've never felt in your bones, never felt to the core of your being, that the world isn't but could be, and should be, and will, on some snowy Christmas day in Vermont, in fact be benign and decent and humane--what can you be expected to make of stories and poems that have the nerve to play pretend, that set out to fool you, to turn your gaze away from the fact that all we've got is joyless sex, the lust for money, on-line communities, and the kind of sad wit that isn't so much shallow as hollow? What's left is a scrim of words on a page or a screen that is added to everything else whose only purpose is to distract us from the emptiness we feel, day after day. 

Happy holidays.

 George Ovitt (12/21/2016)



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Open Mind of Lafcadio Hearn

Lafcadio Hearn: Writings From Japan, edited by Francis King

The year my girlfriend (now wife), Annie, asked me to spend the summer travelling around Japan with her, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course I’d eaten sushi, teriyaki, and tempura, and had seen a couple of Kurasawa films—if with the bright unknowing of a pilgrim at Plymouth Rock. I was as ignorant of the country as I was happy and eager to see it.

Annie, a former East Asian Studies minor in college, did her best, in the months preceding our trip, to prepare me for the adventure to come, lending me books about Buddhism and Shintoism, pressing me to read the various travels guides she’d collected, and speaking with wonder about her own first trip there the previous summer to visit a close college friend. Just before we left for Japan Annie’s stepfather, the late sociologist Robert Nisbet, gave me a book, Hearn’s Writings From Japan, a number of the essays of which he had read and liked very much when he was stationed on Saipan during World War II. I thanked him kindly for the gift and packed it away.
It wasn’t until we’d already been in Japan for some weeks, settled for a spell, after our first stint of travelling, in a handsome old house in the town of Hayama, overlooking the long, wide curve of Sagami Bay, that I actually opened the book and read. What I discovered in those pages not only transformed the country I saw before me each day, but kindled in me an affection for Japan—for the dreamlike strangeness of the land, its people, and its past—that haunts me to this day.

My initial hours in the country were a glorious, intoxicated blur, an experience perhaps best captured by Hearn himself when he first set foot in the country, in nearby Yokohama, nearly a hundred years before me, in the spring of 1890:

It is with the delicious surprise of the first journey through Japanese streets—unable to make one’s kurama-runner understand anything but gestures, frantic gestures to roll on anywhere, everywhere, since all is unspeakably pleasurable and new… ‘Tis at first a delightfully odd confusion only, as you look down one of them [the streets], through an interminable flutter of flags and swaying of dark blue drapery, all made beautiful and mysterious with Japanese or Chinese lettering. For there are no immediately discernable laws of construction or decoration: each building seems to have a fantastic prettiness of its own; nothing is exactly like anything else, and all is bewilderingly novel. 

By the time of Hearn’s arrival, Japan had been visited and written about at length by writers as esteemed and varied as Pierre Loti and Rudyard Kipling. Following the invasion of Commodore Perry and his fleet of American warships in 1853, the modest, introverted, once-insular Japan had been overrun by westerners, by “diplomats, advisers, teachers, businessmen and journalists”, each armed with something new to teach the Japanese, something by which to draw them out (meaning westward) into the bright and ‘civilized’ world.

Lafcadio Hearn was different, precisely in that regard, encountering all he saw before him in the country with a child’s wonder, with a mute and goggling awe. Yet in his thinking he was hardly simplistic, naïve. Indeed his critical acumen in these essays (his extraordinary ability to see) is unmistakable, buoyed—though it nearly always is—by his enchantment, his humility, his glee. 
What followed for me, that long, chimerical summer in Japan, were weeks of reading and rereading the essays in this collection, and of wandering the nearby towns and villages with my intrepid guide and girlfriend, Annie. Together we’d delighted in the shops and temples, and in the local festivals (Tanabata and Obon), while admiring the gardens and graveyards and shrines—and all through Hearn’s deeply observant, deeply affectionate eyes.

Surely a part of the charm of Hearn’s work for me that summer was the house in which we happened to be staying, a traditional Japanese house on a narrow street above the bay, complete with a genkan, tatami, shoji, and a tokonama, as well as a free standing teahouse from which we’d had an unbroken view of Mt. Fuji (This photo could have been taken from our backyard!). 

We could hardly believe our good fortune, our luck. Tired, our resources already strained by the cost of living in ryokans and hostels, we’d all but stumbled  into taking care of the house for a retired U.S. Navy nurse, then on emergency medical leave in the States, a distinctly Hearn-like woman who, since her arrival in Japan at the end of WWII, had come to love the country so much that she’d made it her home. Not surprisingly, the house was filled with Japanese antiques—porcelain, screens, various tansu or chests, woodblock prints, and a fantastical array of Buddhist statues. If that were not enough to set the scene for that magical summer of ours, we’d received a letter one day, from the owner herself, thanking us again for taking care of her house and encouraging us to have a look at her collection of netsuke in the shoeboxes beneath the guestroom beds. Netsuke? we wondered. What in the world were netsuke
Nestuke—so we learned (so many of you must know)—are small, sculptural objects made of porcelain, ivory, wood, boar tusk or stone that were traditionally designed to prevent one’s purse from slipping through the belt or obi worn over one’s kimono. Both functional and aesthetic, netsuke were commonly designed after people, plants, and animals, after gods and religious symbols, after folkloric figures and mythological beasts. 

The netsuke we found in the shoe boxes that summer left us speechless for their strangeness and variety, as well as for their extraordinary workmanship and beauty—charms, tokens, of a long-gone, bygone age. Purchased by the owner of the house from the many desperate Japanese she had met in Tokyo and Yokohama immediately following the war, men and women often on the verge of starvation and madness, she’d collected the netsuke in the shoe boxes beneath her guestroom beds for close to a decade, originally knowing little or nothing about their function or worth. Was it kindness or simple opportunism that had motivated her to buy them, these extraordinary artifacts? We didn’t know; not having met her before, we couldn’t even guess. Only later, in a follow-up letter that same summer, when she’d nearly recovered and was planning her return, did we learn that, years before, and whatever her initial motive for buying them, she had willed the entire collection of netsuke, appraised at over a million dollars, back to the nation of Japan, to the country and people she loved. It is something Hearn himself would have done.

Of course Hearn (the writer and ethnographer, the avid devotee) made his own fine bequest to the Japanese people—his nearly countless essays and observations about a Japan now largely vanished beneath the flash and clamor of the modern world, so that today the Japanese themselves rely on his writings to revisit and remember who they were and what they valued, to reacquaint themselves with their once-singular customs and ways. 

Surely one of my favorite passages from this collection of essays, one I’d like to leave you with, is Hearn’s awestruck description of a legendary sea-cave near Matsue, which he had heard about upon his arrival in the city and had hoped dearly to see:

Few pilgrims go thither there by sea, and boatmen are forbidden to go there if there be even enough wind ’to move three hairs.’ So that whoever wishes to visit Kaka must either wait for a period of dead calm—very rare upon the coast of the Japanese Sea—or journey thereunto by land; and by land the way is difficult and wearisome. But I must see Kaka. For at Kaka, in a great cavern by the sea, there is a famous Jizō of stone; and each night, it is said, the ghosts of little children climb to the high cavern and pile up before the statue small heaps of pebbles; and every morning, in the soft sand, there may be seen the fresh prints of tiny naked feet, the feet of the infant ghosts. It is also said that in the cavern there is a rock out of which comes a stream of milk, as from a woman’s breast; and the white stream flows forever, and the phantom children drink of it. Pilgrims bring with them gifts of straw sandals—the zori that children wear—and leave them before the cavern, that the feet of the little ghosts may not be wounded by the sharp rocks. And the pilgrim treads with caution, lest he should overturn any of the many heaps of stones; for if this be done the children cry.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The Other World

The Brighter House, Kim Garcia

Bright Scythe, Tomas Tranströmer (trans. Patty Crane)

I was reading Tranströmer's Bright Scythe when Kim Garcia's The Brighter House arrived in the mail.  I have always enjoyed reading poets in tandem, looking for points of comparison--it's a way of concentrating that has enhanced my understanding of poets who are otherwise too difficult. Tranströmer, for example, sometimes eludes me:


The silent rage scribbles on the inward wall.
Fruit trees in bloom, the cuckoo calls out. 
This is spring's narcosis. But the silent rage
paints its slogans backwards in garages.

We see all and nothing, but straight as periscopes
handled by the underworld's timid crew.
It's the war of minutes. The broiling sun
stands over the hospital, suffering's parking lot.

We the living nails hammered down in society!
One day we'll come loose from everything.
We'll feel death's air under our wings
and be milder and wilder than we are here. 

A couple of years of Old English allow me to make out a word here and there, enough to see that Patty Crane has followed the poet's intentions closely--"hanterade av underjordens skygga besattning"--aside from the syntax, this is the line, word for word. So what is Tranströmer up to here and in poems like "Ljuset Strommar In" ("Light Streams In") that end with this typical apocalyptic twist: "The countdown has begun."  Or "Winter's Glance" with its "Then suddenly I'm struck by a chill from far away./The moment darkens/and remains like an ax scare on a trunk." One doesn't expect Swedish poets to offer sun-drenched, Mediterranean imagery. I know Kierkegaard was Danish, but I can't help but think of SK when reading something like "An icy wind in my eyes and the suns dance/inside a kaleidoscope of tears..." ("The Crossing Place").  The theology of dimly-lit churches, pale Calvinism, black trees, blowing snow, the way I felt when I first watched "Persona"--dazzled by my incomprehension of what Bergman was about.

But then Tranströmer also writes poems that are as transparent as an icy window: "We are the earth," he writes in "Sketch in October," yes, of course. Or the beautiful poem "The Station," a simple series of declarative statements that end with the injunction to "remember this" moment of clarity, the man hitting the wheels of the train with a maul, a "round-the-world sound/that lifts the whole train and the regions wet stone." ("varldsomseglarklang").  But with these poems one must think of a parallel world, a magic world where every simple thing is made simpler, where the poet sees through objects and events, into the heart of things. "The sun lies low now./Our shadows are goliaths./Soon shadow is all." What seems mysterious is what we don't attend to. Tranströmer writes fairy tales, poems of revelation that are, despite the rich imagery, primarily about ideas. Bergman might not be a bad comparison, but Tranströmer is lighter on his feet, never morose--yes there are lots of shadows to be found, but they aren't emblems for existential emptiness--the sun is going down, that's all. 

Kim Garcia's The Brighter House uses Tranströmer's prose poem "Madrigal" as an epigram: "I inherited a dark forest where I seldom walk. But there will come a day when the dead and the living change places." 

Garcia writes poems that are unique, but call to mind some of Tranströmer's penchant for fairy tales--here's Garcia:

In My City of Z, Forgiveness

In the City of Z. I was scarred--three lines, sternum to solar plexus.
They wept and festered and would not heal. How else can you be beautiful?
asked the angels of that place. I had hope for something more

than my own body handed back to me, still barren, still bargaining.
My mouth was stuffed with manioc. My belly gave up its worms,
still I would not abandon the pictures hope twisted from my dreams.

They threatened to crush my skull, to feed me to the fish. I pressed
small children for a word of the world in the other country, a physics
of speech not equal but opposite. So they teased me with nonsense,

birdsong, their own alliterative names made strange by my longing
to speak strange, be strange, all at once familiar, while my abdomen
bloomed--egg-laying insects, boring to blood, unhinging the last bone.

I kept a final word under my tongue, belligerent child. Shook my head.
I didn't want to. Wouldn't. Not even silence could enter my lips, gentle
as she was. I had paid my way cross-river. I had to be worth something. 


I won't mention Tranströmer again, as this is a consideration of Kim Garcia, but keeping the two volumes side-by-side on my desk, making notes in each one, comparing lines and poems is instructive--not only did I read the Swede with greater clarity, I understood, I think, what Ms. Garcia had set out to do.

Garcia's poems are mythical in content and subject matter ("And in the beginning was all the after," "Thor," "Miracle," "Rumpelstiltskin," etc.), that is, they aspire to locate the unchanging in the everyday, or work in the opposite direction by finding the quotidian in the mythical ("The Little Golden Books," especially "The Toad Princess"). In many cases, the crossing over from the realm of feeling to thought involves violence or violation. Indeed, The Brighter House is full of images of blood and violence in something like the way Transtromer's poems are packed with images of death. How else can one be born or reborn but in blood--I was wondering about religious influences in the two poets, Garcia's fleshy Catholic icons and Transtromer's rather more bloodless (but far more somber) Protestantism--well, I can't claim much for this line of thought since I know nothing about the poets' backgrounds or beliefs. 

In both poets' work I felt the urge to tear away the illusions of simple perception--there is always something else that we are called upon to attend in "the mystic crucifixion by Tintoretto," a poem about doubling experience, hiding one meaning inside another. Isn't this what fairy tales do, what magic is about, what the best poetry is up to? Not in the trivial sense of direct reference to another meaning, but in the subtle way that a good poem is read with both with the consciousness of what it says and the sense that it is also saying something else--you need to pay attention--but still something important remains elusive. A mystery, or a Mystery--glorious, sorrowful. Yes, this thought occurred to me more than once as I read Garcia--she was inviting me to do a little extra work: "I was, as you said, very strange/ Pale and larval, like something flayed." Not a line I'll soon forget. ("Unicorn and Virgin: Cloisters Tapestries"). This one feels like a prayer. Others feel like magical invocations, talismans ("You're All the Gods to Me"). Or, "Oil." This one walked around with me for a full day, like a melodic line from Miles's "Autumn Leaves,"my favorite November record--"And death never caught me, / easy as I was to catch."

Garcia has a fine sense of the twists and turns of feeling, of fear especially, but also of affection--here's a few examples from The Brighter House of her fetching ability to catch us up in her world: "The weight of the water at the bottom of the sea crushes the air out of/our bone. It is a desert, an endless overabundance of just one thing." ("Tales of the Sisters: Atlantis)--I love the simplicity of "just one thing," an anti-climax after the forbidding crushing of the air out of our bones.  "So awkwardly arranged that she must walk with one hand extended/like the blind, anticipating touch in a world full of surface" this is brilliant, but it gets better: "balancing a bucket of lake water half as heavy as she is, a strange S curve/in the spine, torqued." That last word: it snaps the line and reader to attention: the miraculous girl weighted down, bent, reaching ahead to feel the air like a blind person, torqued. ("Miracle"). Such a simple act, a little story of fish head and a racoon, but Garcia, mythographer, turns the whole into something richer, an illusion, a miracle. I enjoy the idea of seeing life constantly brushing up against the surreal, the unreal, the miraculous: 

Early Morning

As though my lover placed his cold, chapped hand
against the soft tissue under my ribs, stopping my breath.

As though that silence were in incision
I could step through. [!] Foot-lifted, hand in the flame.

Or as though we were sparrows hopping on the garage roof,
the trees dripping, piercing the gray with silver needles.

A pink magnolia holding up palm after palm of blessing.

One could write "My lover..." "That silence," "We were," but the speculative tone created by "as though" evokes a meditative mood, as if the poet were asking herself what this moment of early morning was it this, or that? All of those things, and none of them--and Garcia knows enough not to ruin the mood by pinning anything down; best of all, the vivid image at the end. You've seen it, the magnolia leaves rustling like palms (of hands, of Palm Sunday, the ambiguity of the palms strewn before Jesus as he entered Jerusalem for the last time--a blessing with menace). 

Well, that's what poetry does. Words strewn about don't make a poem, nor does prose clipped into stanzas. There has to be a sensibility at work, but not only that, a sensibility whose intimacy isn't only with the world or with language, but with both at once. Too much poetry that I read is simple code, autobiography disguised with imagery and inference. The best poetry (my opinion) feels unaffected, comes to us as a consistent way of seeing and feeling, one that we don't merely observe, but share. The language of creation. 

From an earlier collection: one of my favorite poems:


Between twilight and twilight the muddle-sleep of fear
with a head against a stranger's shoulder. Every bomb
every bullet is coming towards you, every hand holding
a detonator. A jolt in the road, and it's all over. Where am I?
A battlefield is home compared to that place. Then, it's day.

A buddy is sprawled on the bench seat, mouth raw, agape.
Tenderness. Maybe bombs are outside waiting, but here
a bit of morning comes through dirt-smudged windows.
The driver swigs coffee from a flask. He's driven all night
while you slept helpless. A flood of thanks, before thinking,

at the back of his head. The windshield is full of blue sky.
The drones will be out, Bethlehem stars, clearing the way.
You let the thanking in, the melt where fear was, blood warm.
Give into it, like you give into the truck’s shake through
your bones, like whiskey. Let it soak your parched ground.  

 George Ovitt (12/3/2016)

Kim Garcia's award-winning The Brighter House is available from White Pine Press--their link is on this page.

Bright Scythe is available from Sarabande Books, Louisville, Kentucky, here: