Sunday, April 15, 2018

War

Peace, by Richard Bausch 

 


Human history is written in blood.

No surprise really--there's plenty to fight about--land, food, women, God--and technology has showered men (always men) with the means of acting on their blood lust. Killing appears more deeply ingrained in our being than the contrary desire to live in peace and propagate our kind.  We would rather bomb our neighbors than learn their language or bow to their customs. There's something strangely erotic and deeply psychotic in the avocation of killing.  When I was in the Army we slept with our weapons and were told that "the spirit of the bayonet" was "to kill." I remember thinking that sleeping with a gun was a sad reminder that while sex is encrusted with numerous taboos (with whom, when, how, etc.), shooting people has been made remarkably simple, even guilt free.

And our enemies are all around us. Long before Darwin and Spencer supplied the language we use to degrade and dehumanize other people,  priests and kings, aristocrats and other elites supplied ample justification for murder. David Livingstone Smith's sobering study Less Than Human surveys this terrain in great detail; one is numbed but not surprised by the history of mayhem that Smith reports.  In order to kill a man face to face you have to be one of three things: compelled to do so by a state that holds the monopoly of power, temporarily insane, or convinced by your own or (more likely) someone else's ideology that your enemy is more dangerous to you than the people who blithely send you off to die. 

Simon Weil's great essay on the Iliad puts the case succinctly:

"The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to."

"Deformed by the weight of the force it submits to."  This deformation has been the central subject of most of the books written about war, from Homer to Joseph Heller.  It seems to me that stories of war come in three principle types. There is the novel that uses war to supply plot and characterization; in these novels war is a backdrop, a theater in which human life and moral actions must, quite often, occur. Examples of this first type of war novel include War and Peace, The Naked and the Dead, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and The Caine Mutiny. The second type of war novel uses the horrors of conflict in order to examine the psychology of human beings--its focus is on character above all else and it examines what the proximity of violent death does to ordinary men and women.  There are many great novels of this kind, including Red Badge of Courage, J.G. Ballard's The Empire of the Sun, the novels of Irene Nemirovsky, James Jones's The Thin Red Line, and many others.  War novels of the third sort are anti-war novels--Slaughter-House Five and Catch-22 come to mind at once, as does Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and Tim O'Brien's books about Vietnam.

Of course this categorization is wrong in lots of ways--there are books that overlap (All Quiet on the Western Front is both a psychological study of men under fire and one of the finest anti-war novels ever written), and thousands of novels use war as a backdrop for their plots--the recent best-sellers Pachinko and All the Light We Cannot See come to mind in this regard.

A small gem of a novel that combines all three of my (shaky) types is Richard Bausch's Peace, a story and a parable set during the Italian campaign of 1943. The novel uses the classic combat trope of the small group of men sent on a mission whose purpose is vague if not irrational. In this case, Marson, Asch, and Joyner--three grunts who are frightened (of course) and at odds (Asch, a Jew, is despised by Joyner, a mid-Western anti-Semite; it is a Hollywood fantasy that war creates "bands of brothers" rather than deepening all of the usual prejudices)--are ordered to walk up a mountain with an Italian guide who may or may not be a fascist in order to....well, it isn't clear what they are to do once they get to the top.  But that's the way of war novels: it never is clear what the mission is supposed to achieve. Modern wars are not won in battles but in a thousand pointless skirmishes.

The three GI's and their reluctant Italian guide suffer from cold rain and exposure, mutual hatreds, and the dread of men in hostile territory.  Things go badly, as they must, and while Marson proves an heroic figure, the novel doesn't let them, or the reader, believe that anything of value has been achieved or learned. Death is the only lesson of war, death and the yearning for peace. Bausch is the least sentimental of writers. His style in Peace is as raw and unrelenting as the freezing rain on the unnamed mountain. From the opening pages there is an ominous sense of impending disaster. Even the flashbacks to peacetime feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the circumstances of the present. Marson, the only character whose inner life is available to us, expects to die, understands that dying is what he must do in order to be honorable. But why he must die is something he cannot understand. It's easy for us, eighty years on, to make sense of the war in Italy, to see the War itself as honorable, a "good war," but Bausch isn't having it. His novel puts us in the moment, and from the perspective of the daily suffering and the suffocation of fear, nothing seems heroic or reasonable or even remotely connected to honor. The whole ghastly business is a horror.  And peace? It's the thing you think about as you make your way uphill toward the enemy, as elusive as sunshine.



George Ovitt (4/16/18)

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Swiss Modern


The Country Road by Regina Ullman

For all of Switzerland’s pastoral qualities (think Heidi, think yodeling), this small, isolated nation proved to be one of the great hubs of the seismographic art-cultural phenomenon known as modernism. A distinctly urban invention, modernism burst into particular life there, in Zurich, in the form of a revolutionary art movement called Dada, which quickly spread to other cities in the West—to Paris, Berlin, and New York. Founded in Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire (after the great French satirist), Dada was conceived as an unequivocal reaction to the chauvinistic, bourgeois norms that had brought Europe to the brink of catastrophe in World War I, leaving in its wake an estimated ten million dead and twenty million wounded. The German poet and Dadaist, Hugo Ball, who had sought refuge from the war in Zurich, put it well, insisting that his aim as a writer was to shock anyone who regarded “all this civilized carnage as a triumph of European intelligence.” It was a whirling, multimedia experiment that made a virtue of chaos, irrationality, and chance.


Remarkably, the stories of Regina Ullmann seem to bear little connection to this artistic-cultural upheaval that was raging all around her, reading more like nineteenth-century village tales than satirical experiments in language or Candide-like attacks on the reigning status quo. Born into a Jewish-Austrian family in 1884, the Swiss writer and poet was in fact perfectly positioned to join the forces of literary modernism, as defined by such giants as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf. Widely hailed for her work by Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, and Herman Hesse (whose mother was Swiss), she was championed for years by the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who spoke of her and her work with a tender adoration. “Genius,” declared Musil. “Her voice is something holy,” wrote Mann.

Clearly these writers recognized something familiar, even modern, in her seemingly old-fashioned work. Indeed, despite her spare, allegorical style, there is an abiding human sadness in these stories, a philosophical brooding about the world, which, while surely timeless, applicable to any age, seems particular, too, symptomatic of the fraught and whirling times in which she lived. If she is a modernist (and I believe she is) she is differently, obliquely so—“a modernist trailing ghosts of the past,” as critic and blogger Joseph Schreiber puts it on his excellent blog, roughghosts. Her conversion to Catholicism and subsequent flight from Nazi Germany are indications enough that, for all of the remoteness of her stories, her vision, she too was subject to the forces of her times. As a Jew she could never have stood apart. 

Here, for those interested, is some footage of the founding of Dada:


Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"The Falling of the Dusk"

The Blind Owl, Sadegh Hedayat


Hegel's profound insight into our historical blindness has been affirmed again and again in recent decades--understanding comes too late, history preempts reflection and therefore wisdom. The Owl of Minerva flies before the falling of the dusk.

But in one respect Hegel was incorrect: some persons do see the truth, as it were in advance of its unfolding. There are false prophets to be sure, usually hawking a future that will bring them riches and power, but there are genuine prophets as well.  Hedayat was one such. Long before the fateful combination of autocratic power and fundamentalist religion (the creation, in part, of foreign meddling and Western greed) conspired to undo Iran's historical and cultural greatness, Hedayat foretold the event in his writings. Like many other prophets, Hedayat succumbed to his visionary power.

The tension between Western ideas and the cultural traditions of the rest of the world--the subject of so much great literature--manifested itself in the life and art of Hedayat,* the finest of Iranian modernist writers.  He was obsessed with the novelists and poets of his generation who were expanding the boundaries of fiction and the understanding of the psychological turmoil imposed on ordinary men and women by progress, urbanization, and war.  Hedayat read Kafka and Chekhov, Rilke and Poe, while at the same time immersing himself in Persian literature, folklore, and history.  His literary works seek a balance between tradition and the tumultuous change that was the touchstone of his age (he was born in 1900).  He believed in the power of literature to awaken his countrymen to the dangers of complacency, the risks inherent in obedience to a monarch and to a clergy that dominated intellectual and emotional life in Iran.  He felt unheeded and ignored, and was driven to despair, exile, and, in 1951, suicide.

The Blind Owl is Hedayat's only novel and a classic of modern Iranian fiction. It is a strange, hallucinatory book, overwrought and almost mystical in style and content. The story--as much a dream as a traditional plot--focuses on the obsessions of a solitary Iranian artist (he decorates pen cases) with a woman who haunts his wine- and opium-induced visions.  As I read the The Blind Owl I kept thinking of Poe's "Lenore," and finally found the lines in Hedayat's strong predecessor that I had been dimly recalling:

"Let no bell toll!--lest her sweet soul, amid its hallowed mirth, 
Should catch the note, as it doth float up from the damned earth."

This sentiment, and the mysterious Lenore, are typical not only of Poe but of dozens of European romantics and haunt The Blind Owl. She is the mysterious woman who dies in the artist's garret and who possesses the sublimity and inexplicable power of the tubercular Clavdia Chauchat in Mann's vision of cultural decay or of Maria Timofeevna in Demons--insubstantial (diseased!) women whose proximity to death raises their value as objects of sexless adoration. To love the dying (or dead, in the case of Poe) Feminine is to slip free of a world that is horrifying in its banality and coarseness. One can find rich studies of this construct of ideas in Leslie Fiedler or Camille Paglia.

"I often used to recall the days of my childhood in order to forget the present, in order to escape from myself."  

"Sometimes I imagined that the visions I saw were those which appeared to everyone who was at the point of death. All anxiety, awe, fear and will to live had subsided within me and my renunciation of the religious beliefs which had been inculcated into me in my childhood had given me an extraordinary inner tranquility. What comforted me was the prospect of oblivion after death.....I had never been able to adapt myself to the world in which I was now living." 



Romantic modernism. The second half of The Blind Owl--actually a novella thematically linked to the first half of the book which reprises the same themes at an even higher pitch--evokes not only Poe but T.S. Eliot, especially "The Four Quartets:"


"Where is there an end of it, the soundless wailing,
The silent withering of autumn flowers
Dropping their petals and remaining motionless;
Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,
The prayer of the bone on the beach, the unprayable
Prayer at the calamitous annunciation?"  

("The Dry Salvages" II)

What is going on here?  It's facile and reductive to point to Hedayat's despair and suicide, to his inability to live in a present that mocked the things he believed in--individual autonomy, the dangers of religion, vegetarianism (yes, Hedayat is among the most ardent defenders of animals), the sanctity of art.  The weight of personal despair plays a role in Hedayat's work and gives it much of its power, but more important is the fact that he was a committed cosmopolitan, a believer in the universal value and transformative power of literature at a time when only blood and iron and money and nationalism stirred the masses of men.  The romantic modernist isn't just nostalgic for a vanished past; he has recognized that there can be no compromise with the present without losing one's soul. Better to die, or remain silent (same thing if you are a writer) than to rage against the inevitable.

Stefan Zweig, Nietzsche, Kafka, Robert Walser, and, reaching back further, Leopardi, Trakl, Novalis--Hedayat is in their company, a man out of time, in the wrong place, feeling too deeply and being too unwilling to give up the things for which he lived.  Until cynicism came along to save us from being serious, the deep thinkers and great souls had no choice but to succumb to the machines. To the "bots" as we now affectionately call them, To the Shahs and Ayatollah's, to the gruff liars and self-seekers. I'm not fond of the notion of the "rabble," but I don't know Persian so I will let Hedayat's translated words stand:

"What relationship could exist between the lives of the fools and healthy rabble who were well, who slept well, who performed the sexual act well, who had never felt the wings of death on their face every moment—what relationship could exist between them and one like me who has arrived at the end of his rope and who knows that he will pass away gradually and tragically?"






George Ovitt (3/19/18)

The Blind Owl, translated by D.P. Costello, is published by Grove Press.

*I have relied on the Encyclopedia Iranica for details of Hedayat's life and work.  There is no biography in English or French that I am aware of; I have not been able to secure a copy of On the Damp Road: A Walk With Sadegh Hedayat, by Seheyl Dahl.




Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Banished Immortal


The Selected Poems of Li Po, translated by David Hinton

The T’ang Dynasty poet, Li Po, is popularly know as the ‘Banished Immortal’, “an exiled spirit moving through this world with an unearthly ease and freedom from attachment,” writes David Hinton, the translator of this extraordinarily fine collection. There is in fact an unmistakable ease, an uncanny, even preternatural satisfaction in the way this poet-wanderer experienced the world around him, every gorge and temple and mountain rendered so crisply, so clearly, it is easy to forget one is reading.

The Chinese term wu-wei (literally: ‘doing nothing’, an important part of Taoist and Ch’an practice) perhaps best describes the selfless spontaneity with which Li Po encounters ‘the ten thousand things”, that is, the material, phenomenal world of form. Writes Hinton, “The most essential quality of Li Po’s work is the way in which wu-wei spontaneity gives shape to his experience of the natural world. He is primarily engaged with the natural world in its wild, rather than domestic forms. Not only does the wild evoke wonder, it is also where the spontaneous energy of tzu-jan (‘being such of itself’ or natural) is clearly visible, energy with which Li Po identified.” 


Here, to illustrate this spirit in his work, are a few of his better known poems:

Listening to Lu Tzu-Hsün Play the Ch’in on a Moonlit Night

The night’s lazy, the moon bright. Sitting
here, a recluse plays his pale white ch’in,

and suddenly, as if cold pines were singing,
it’s all those harmonies of grieving wind.

Intricate fingers flurries of white snow,
empty thoughts emerald-water clarities:

No one understands now. Those who could
hear a song this deeply vanished long ago.


Night Thoughts at Tung-lin Monastery on Lu Mountain

Alone, searching for blue-lotus roofs,
I set out from city gates. Soon, frost

clear, Tung-lin temple bells call out,
Hu Creek’s moon bright in pale water.

Heaven’s fragrance everywhere pure
Emptiness, heaven’s music endless,

I sit silent. It’s still, the entire Buddha-
realm in  a hair’s breadth, mind-depths

all bottomless clarity, in which vast
kalpas begin and end out of nowhere.


Something Said, Waking Drunk on a Spring Day

It’s like boundless dream here in this
world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.

I have, therefore, been drunk all day,
a shambles of sleep on the front porch.

Coming to, I look into the courtyard.
There’s a bird among blossoms calling,

and when I ask what season this is,
an oriole’s voice drifts on spring winds.

Overcome, verging on sorrow and lament,
I pour another drink. Soon, awaiting

this bright moon, I’m chanting a song.
And now it’s over, I’ve forgotten why.


An inveterate  drinker, Li Po died as legend says he did—drunk in a boat one night, he drowned while trying to embrace the moon.

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Blues

Rain in Our Door (Duets With Robert Johnson), poems by Diann Blakely

Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, by Elijah Wald

"I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," Robert Johnson (recorded in 1936)


He was a natty dresser, a ladies man,  he always had pocket change, was "a strange dude, a loner and a drifter." He had the kind of long "spidery" fingers that made it easier to reach for a note; he drank, but he was seldom drunk. Johnny Shines, himself a fine bluesman, spent a lot of time on the road with Johnson, and noted that Johnson "was about the greatest guitar player [he'd] ever heard," an innovator as a slide player and adept at taking old songs, adding verses and sprucing up the guitar parts in ways no one had ever heard before (check out "Terraplane Blues" for a sampling of Johnson's remarkable, innovative style).  "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom," based on a blues of Leroy Carr, uses "floating verses"--stock lines that Johnson, like any oral-formulaic poet, popped into his longer tunes to fill out the song. Elijah Wald's reading of this and other great Johnson tunes emphasizes the way in which Johnson used triplets and a boogie-woogie beat to drive the song forward, to give it an urgency that doesn't show up in any early versions. Most listeners know this tune from the Elmore James recording of 1951--it's a remarkable performance and contains what one critic has called the "most famous blues riff" ever recorded.  I prefer Johnson's scalding acoustic to James's electric slide, but both songs are the real thing. Johnson wasn't a poet, but listening through the entire body of his recorded work demonstrates his genius for merging standard blues sentiments to stunningly original guitar riffs.

***

Diann Blakely, like Robert Johnson, died too young.  I have admired her poetry since reading her first collection, Hurricane Walk, in 1993.  Here's the title poem from that collection, typical of Blakely's intense and lyric style:

Hurricane Walk


It was better than sex, the way it relaxed me.
My thighs throbbed for ours, each finger
seemed limp. I lighted
a cigarette, then found it too heavy to lift.

A more comfortable lust would have kept me
inside. Yet I wanted
the wind’s touch, to feel its whorled force.
I stood on a bridge, there were no trees

to stop it — I saw thin sheets of water
spin like ghosts from the Charles.
And now, damp from a bath, I feel
honed, quite essential.

This robe seems too big, it abrades
my cleansed skin. The room’s warmth
stings my lips; they were left raw and chapped,
almost bruised. It will take days

to heal them, the slightest good-night kiss
is out of the question for weeks.

At the time of her death in 2014, Blakely was working on Rain in Our Door, duets that honor, and, in the style of the blues, riff on the songs of Robert Johnson. The blues are stacked deep with meaning: a tag line from a song might reach back to a call and response shouted by a tired field worker on a Saturday afternoon, a man or a woman waiting for the pay envelop and a night at the juke or on the front porch.  Johnson and so many other blues players learned their craft from older practitioners; the songs they played were based on "traditional" tunes, meaning songs whose origins cannot be traced to any composer but are so deeply embedded in the culture as to be the culture. The instruments--beat-up guitars, fiddles, harmonicas, drums--were often found in pawn shops, and the blues voice, more often than not, was honed in a church choir ("devil's music" the preachers called it).  Blakely was deeply immersed in this rich tradition of making music out of pain. Her poems, virtually all of them, are full of yearning, and in this collection she brilliantly captures Johnson's moods--not just the words he sang, but the guitar voicings that are often the real attraction.



Here's part of Blakely's syncopated "Stop Breaking Down"

O can I get a witness for this wreckage?
             You asked when sweet black angels beckoned

And you kicked off the sheets, sweating fresh blues
               And dreaming of Friars Point, Memphis, 

Dreaming of Rosedale and Mound Bayou. The stuff
               I get--o sing it now--gon' bust

Your brains out baby, gon' make you lose your mind.
               Lost him like smoke, said Johnny Shines.... 

Robert Johnson was always dreaming of someplace else. He lived no where in particular. Robert Lockwood shares stories of traveling with Johnson, of splitting the kitty, playing "both sides of the bridge" to make more money for moonshine and smokes, and especially for the women who loved Johnson's look ("he was part Indian" with smooth skin and a quick smile, according to Shines).  

Blakely replicates the restlessness of Johnson in her poems--they move from blues verses, to fragments of Johnson's life ("Mr. Downchild"), to sad reflections on how race still haunts America ("Rambling on My Mind").  

"Truth sides / With history's open veins..." Blakely seamlessly weaves Johnson's lyrics into her poems, or she writes her own blues, following Johnson across his brief, wild life to his dying in agony of poisoned whiskey (or a stabbing, or syphilis, depending on who is telling the story--Wald quotes "Honeyboy" Edwards to support the poisoning story, which is the most credible).  

"And soon you're brokedown on your knees, mouth full of foam
   And blood and curses hurled at God. 
Please Mr. HIghwayman. please don't block the road.
   Three days. Three nights. A borrowed bed

With shrieking metal springs. But first musky confusion;
   Your gut becomes a gallows-rope [!]
O play me. Play me. O play me Terraplane Blues...
   Strings fray. You're booked and got to go.

--from "Terraplane Blues"

Blakely's chronology of Johnson's life and her remarkable notes to her poems--not snippets of explanation, but short essays on the life and afterlife of Johnson and the blues--make Rain in Our Door more than just an extraordinary collection of poems; the book is a homage to the greatest of the early bluesmen. 

I recommend that you read Rain in Our Door with Elijah Wald's wonderful account of the Delta blues at hand. Taken together, and with the definitive recordings of Johnson's songs on the stereo, the books provide both poetic and historical insights into America's most important cultural creation. 



 Here's a link to Johnson's version of "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBHHFIyRxw0

Rain in Our Door is published by White Pine Press

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

George Ovitt (3/4/18)


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Aunt Grace Wears Beautiful Clothes


Collected Poems by Marie Ponsot

In an interview for Guernica Magazine, the late poet Marie Ponsot insists, “…there is a very serious reason for poetry: it takes us back to our most primitive language cells. Poetry comes first, historically. It’s really primitive. Ten thousand years before you have prose, you have poems, you know.” Indeed for all the modernity of her poems, for all her experimentation, her tussling with established forms, there is something ancient, elemental, even rudimentary, about them. Yet to say so seems somehow a cheapening, not enough, for her poetry has also been described as “preternatural”, quivering—like a bowstring—between the miraculous and mundane. Read some for yourself and see:

Better

After a long wet season the rain’s let up.
The list my life was on was critical;
reproach soaked it and infected my ears.
I hid, deaf and blind, my skin my hospital,
in the inoperable ache of fear.

Today the rain stops. I can hear! Trees drip.
The spatter & whisper as I walk their
breathing avenue. The wind has died back;
edge-catching light elaborates the air.

Form the road car-tunes rush close then slacken.
I climb the green hill. There at last I read
a figured stillness where no nightmares slide.

Green leaves turn inside out to grow. They breach
their barriers. I come, eyes wide, outside.


Drunk & Disorderly, Big Hair

Handmaid to Cybele,
she is a Dactyl, a
tangle-haired, leap-taking
hot Corybantica.

Torch-light & cymbal strikes
scamper along with her.
Kniving & shouting, she
heads up her dancing girls’
streaming sorority, glamorous
over the forested slopes of Mt. Ida

until she hits 60 and
loses it (since she’s supposed
to be losing it, loses it).
Someone takes over
her sickle & signature tune. Son
they leave her & she doesn’t care.

Down to the valley floor
scared she won’t make it, she
slipslides unlit to no rhythm,
not screaming.   But now she can
hear in the distance
some new thing, surprising,
She likes it. She wants it.
What is it? Its echoes originate
sober as heartbeats, her beat,
unexpected, It woos her.

The rhythm’s complex
—like the long to improvise
or, like Aubade inside Lullaby
inside a falling and rising
of planets.  A clouding.  A clearing.
She listens.  It happens
between her own two ears.


Aunt Grace Wears Beautiful Clothes

Asleep, she has no idea she is old.

She’s running uphill, no lightfoot, but quite fast
past the houses and driveways of family friends
toward the higher fields juts breaking into flower
that weren’t there before, when she was awake.
She stops at the tree edge. The sight that yields
is daisies. Careful she enters the pathless field
of daisies daisies hundreds sunning. She takes
her time. She crouches among their stems. Bowered
low, she looks up at their heads, their far sky.
The wind’s soft. The sunclock’s high. It can’t last.
Aunt Grace is coming to lunch, she’s been told.
Good. Maybe bring her a love-me-not daisy or
love-me. Aunt Grace will know what daisies are for.

 

Peter Adam Nash

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Poetry and Prose

Andrew Motion, Coming In To Land (poems)

Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (stories)





I had an opportunity to travel to Santa Fe last week and to visit one of my favorite bookstores--it is intimate, has a tasteful but not overwhelming collection, possesses lots of cozy seating for reading, and a nice in-house coffee shop (de rigueur these days).  It reminds me of Politics and Prose, my old NW DC bookstore.  Of course I love Powell's in Portland and The Strand in New York, but those are different kinds of stores, ones where you need days to browse and where the overwhelming feeling one has is of one's own illiteracy. Collected Works, on the other hand, reminds me of small independent bookstores in cities like Chicago and New York and Paris--it's a reader's sanctuary. I passed an afternoon browsing and picked up two books that I read this week and wanted to recommend to readers of TR.



I'm embarrassed to admit that I had not read more than one or two poems by Andrew Motion, former poet laureate of the United Kingdom (1999-2009) until I found his selected poems, Coming In To Land, in Santa Fe. I grabbed a coffee and started reading, and was hooked after this poem:

Anne Frank Huis

Even now, after twice her lifetime of grief
and anger in the very place, whoever comes
to climb these narrow stairs, discovers how
the bookcase slides aside, then walks through
shadow into sunlit rooms, can never help

but break her secrecy again. Just listening
is a kind of guilt: the Westerkirk repeats
itself outside, as if all time worked round
towards her fear, and made each stroke
die down on guarded streets. Imagine it--

for years of whispering, and loneliness,
and plotting, day by day, the Allied line
in Europe with a yellow chalk. What hope
she had for ordinary love and interest
survives her here, displayed above the bed

as pictures of her family; some actors;
fashions chosen by Princess Elizabeth.
And those who stoop to see them find
not only patience missing its reward,
but one enduring wish for changes

like my own: to leave as simply
as I do, and walk at ease
up dusty tree-lined avenues, or watch
a silent barge come clear of bridges
setting their reflections in the blue canal.

Motion's poems rely on plain diction and ordinary meters to convey the richer meanings of things (e.g. "The Fence"), the hidden truths in everyday life ("A Pine Cone,"), or the inexorable facts of our existence--loss and sadness (as in the beautiful "Passing On.") Motion creates memorable lines in the midst of his poems without ever seeming studied or glib: "The hand of God/ is a burst of sun." He's also a marvelous ventriloquist, narrating his historical poems in the voices of dead or dying soldiers ("Home Front") or taking on the point of view of an animal with complete conviction ("The Fox Provides for Himself).  Motion writes compact lyrics as well as long, rambling narrative poems, always with an eye to the telling detail, the flash of meaning, that makes a poem about not only language, but the inquisitive eye of the poet himself--a record of consciousness.

I think that's Keats on the wall--a fitting image.


 ***

If you read, and you should, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son (2012), you won't be surprised to learn that his recent story collection Fortune Smiles is imaginative, harrowing, and utterly engrossing. I don't like to make simplistic comparisons, but there is much in Johnson to remind one of Don DeLillo, especially the DeLillo of the earlier novels.  Both writers convey a sense of menace, of an emptiness at the heart of even the most ordinary of lives. Johnson is able to create a credible version of North Korean lives (in the title story of this collection for example), but he also has the ability to infuse what Daniel Mendelshon has called a "Blade Runner-esque" weirdness into the most banal existences imaginable.  The story I liked best--that's an understatement; I dreamed about it--is "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," a surreal recounting of the life of the warden of a Stasi torture prison after the Wall has come down and Germany has been unified.  The prison, just down the street from the narrator Prinz's ordinary bungalow, is, in post-Cold War Germany, the site of a museum of atrocities. Johnson has a gift for turning the horrors of recent history into memorials to our tendency to forget the past, or to reshape it to fit our naive view of the present.  Prinz interjects himself back into now "curated" prison (this word has taken on a new life in the age of Twitter--the collection and organizing of things best forgotten) with results that are both horrifying and enlightening. As I reread the story I not only relished the brilliance and economy of Johnson's story telling--every little piece fits, no image or encounter is wasted--but the profundity of the message. Orwell, it turns out, is a friend of us all.

"Hurricanes Anonymous" is the story of a FedEx driver in the wake of Katrina.  Check out these sentences: "Climbing the Lake Charles Bridge, None can see the muscles and elbows of the petrochemical plants, their vent stacks blowing off maroon-blue flame. Below are the driven edges of a brown tide, and everywhere is the open abdomen of Louisiana. At the top of the bridge, there is no sign of what happened here, not a sippy cup in the breakdown lane, not a little show. None looks out on the city. It looks like one of those end-times Bible paintings where everything is large and impressive, but when you look close, in all the corners, some major shit is befalling people."

Yup, major shit.  That's about it in the world of Johnson's stories, which is, minus just the tiniest bit of weirdness, our very own.



George Ovitt (2/21/18)

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Rainbow-Colored Soap Bubbles



The Hotel Years by Joseph Roth

It was on January 28, 1800 that the first feuilleton appeared in the great French newspaper, Journal des débats. Literally “a leaf” or “a scrap of paper”, the new supplement quickly distinguished itself in France as a highly popular chronicle of the latest non-political news—that of art, literature, music, theatre, gossip, and fashion. The “The Talk of the Town” section in The New Yorker magazine is a contemporary version of the same.

Admired and practiced as a form by writers as varied as Heinrich Heine, Theodor Herzl, Marcel Proust, Isaac Babel, Peter Altenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Ilya Ehrenberg, and Walter Benjamin, it found a particularly worthy muse in the Viennese writer and drunkard, Joseph Roth. Best known for his novels Radetsky March and The Emperor’s Tomb, Roth spent the better part of his adult life living in hotels and cafés where he passed the time reading, eavesdropping, and generally surveying the world around him. I am a hotel citizen,” he once wrote, “a hotel patriot.” Indeed it was in hotels and cafés that Roth developed his particular vision as a writer, working daily to capture what he witnessed, to sketch what he called “the portrait of an age”, an age—that doomed if glittering interregnum between the wars—which for Roth stretched roughly from his return from the War in 1919 to his death from alcoholism in Paris in 1939. 
  
It is in Roth’s feuilletons, writes translator Michael Hofmann in his illuminating introduction to the collection, “…with his variable thoughts on exile, on monarchy, on literature, on the military, on nations, on east and West, that he regales us. He is capable of hanging a set of political opinions on a quirk of facial hair styling (‘a large blond mustache that went out into a couple of butcher’s hooks’) and of turning a manicure into a threat (‘a hand with flashing pink nails dangled over the chairback’); of inferring the state of the nation from a chance observation (‘the railway conductor wolfing chocolates), and of shrinking another nation into a natty synecdoche (‘on the right a mosque, on the left a rudimentary café terrace where guests bake and fezzes talk’). He has at times a wonderfully simple, radical imagination…”

It then was largely in the troubled years between the wars, when Roth lived in Vienna and Paris, when he traveled  through Germany, Galicia, Poland, Albania, Italy, and the USSR, that he wrote these many feuilletons, what he himself called his “rainbow-colored soap bubbles”. Indeed their variety and lightness are striking, though such a characterization fails to do justice to what, in many of the pieces, is a startling moral-political clarity. 

Here, by way of example, are a few selections from the book, the first and third but the opening paragraphs, the second one complete:

Arrival in the Hotel

The hotel that I love like a fatherland is situated in one of the great port cities of Europe, and the heavy gold Antiqua letters in which its banal name is spelled out (shining across the roofs of the gently banked houses) are in my eye metal flags, metal bannerets that instead of fluttering blink out their greeting. Other men may return to hearth and home, and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid—and between us we put on such a consummate performance that the notion of merely checking into a hotel doesn’t even raise its head. The look with which the doorman welcomes me is more than a father’s embrace. As  though he actually were my father, he discreetly pays my taxi out of his own waistcoat pocket, saving me form having to think about it. The receptionist emerges from his glass booth with a smile as wide as his bow is deep. My arrival seems to delight him so much that his back imparts friendliness to his mouth, and the professional and the human are mingled in his greeting. He would be ashamed to greet me with a registration form; so deeply does he understand the way I see such a  legal requirement as a personal insult. He will fill in my details himself, later on, when I am installed my room, even though he has no idea here I have come from. He will write out some name or other, some place he thinks deserving of having been visited by me. He is a greater authority on my personal data than I am. Probably over the years namesakes of mine have stayed in the hotel. But he doesn’t know their details, and they seem a little suspicious to him, as if they were unlawful borrowers of my name. The lift-boy takes my suitcases one under each arm. Probably it’s the way an angel spreads his wings. No one asks me how long I plan on staying, an hour or a year, my fatherland is happy either way…

                                                                                                         Frankfurter Zeitung, 9 January 1929

Spring

I am woken by the sound of carpets being beaten overhead. The muffled thudding  provokes my neighbor’s canary, and he cheep and twitters and warbles like a bird song imitator. In the yard a window flies open, a second, a third: the whole building seems to be tearing off its windows.
     A ray of sunshine splashes in my violet inkwell. The bronze maiden on my desk protects her bosoms from the intrusive beam and sweetly tans.
     A hurdy-gurdy is playing in the yard. The streams of melody burst through, melting and freed.
                 From these and other signs, one notices eventually that it is spring.
     On the Kurfürstendamm the cafes put out spring awnings, the ladies have new wardrobes, the gentlemen natty yellow twittering gloves. In side streets the children  play with shiny buttons and marbles. The blue-bedizened sky checks its reflection in the brass shaving bowl outside the barber’s shop.
     Everyone is freshly varnished and ”please don’t touch”. Slips of girls wander about on the asphalt in sheer stockings and new boots looking like costumed willow trees.
     In the afternoon I sit in the window and think that Sunday is on it sway. To Grunewald, for instance.
                 After six or still later, a girl in purple rings the doorbell. Love is like that.

                                                                                                   Freie Deutsche Bühne, 16 June 1921
  
The Third Reich, a Dependence of Hell on Earth

After seventeen moths, we are now sued to the fact that in Germany more blood is spilled than the newspapers use printers’ ink to report on it. Probably Goebbels, the overlord of German printers’ ink, has more dead bodies on the conscience he doesn’t have , than he has journalists to do his bidding, which is to silence the great number of these deaths. For we know now that the task of the German press is not to publicize events but to silence them; not only to spread lies but to suggest them; not just to mislead world opinion—the pathetic remnant of the world that still has an opinion—but also to impart false news on it with a baffling naïvieté. Not since this earth frit had blood spilled on it has there been a murderer who has washed his bloodstained hands in as much printers’ ink. Not since lies were first told in this world has a liar has so many powerful loudspeakers at his disposal. Not since betrayal was first perpetrated  in this world was a traitor by another, greater traitor: has there been such a contest between traitors. And, alas, never has the part of the world that has not yet sunk into the night of dictatorships been so dazzled by the hellish glow of lies, or so deafened and dulled by the screaming of so many lies. For hundreds of years, we have been accustomed too lies going around on tiptoe. The epoch-making discovery of modern dictatorships is the invention of the loud lie, based on the psychologically correct assumption that people will believe a shout when they doubt speech. Since the onset of the Third Reich the lie, in spite of the saying, has walked on long legs. It no longer follows on the heels of the truth, it races on ahead of it. If Goebbels is to be credited with a stroke of genius, then surely it is this: he has caused official truth to walk with the limp he has himself. The officially sanctioned German truth has been given its own club foot. It is no fluke but a knowing joke on the part of history that the first German minister of propaganda has a limp…

                                                                                                    Pariser Tageblatt, 6 July 1934
 
Peter Adam Nash