Friday, September 28, 2018

Reading the World

New Selected Poems by Les Murray

I tend to read in fits. I find a novel I like written by an author from Spain, for example, and for the next six months I read exclusively Spanish novels, from those of Javier Marías,  Camilo José Cela, Juan Benet, José Luis Olaizola, Quim Monzó, and Carmen Martín Gaite, to those of Juan Goytisolo, Ana Mariá Matute, Max Aub, Manuel Rivas, Mercé Rodoreda, Belén Gopegui, and Enrique Vila-Matas. This is not suggest that I am an expert on the literature of this or any country, far from it, only that I have found this method an intense and engrossing way to read.

Of late, having chanced upon the keenly oblique novels of Gerald Murnane (novels that have redefined the way I think of the form), I have steeped myself in Australian fiction, particularly in the novels of Patrick White, Eleanor Dark, Peter Carey, Richard Flanagan, and Georgia Blain. In the course of this reading I have also delved into the poetry of some of the country’s better known poets, most recently that of the doyen, Les Murray, by way of his New Selected Poems, a collection that provides a generous sampling of the work of a poet described by Meghan O’Rourke in The New York Times as “A sui generis autodidact (he now suspects he has Asperger’s syndrome)  equipped with a fierce moral vision and sensuous musicality, he writes subtly about postcolonialism, urban sprawl and poverty and, in his most intimate poems, reminds us of the power of literature to transubstantiate grievance into insight.”

Here is a poem of his called “The Sleepout”:

Childhood sleeps in a verandah room
in an iron bed close to the wall
where the winter over the railing
swelled the blind on its timber boom

and splinters picked lint off warm linen
and the stars were out over the hill;
then one wall of the room was forest
and all things in there were to come.

Breathings climbed up on the verandah
when dark cattle rubbed at a corner
and sometimes dim towering rain stood
for forest, and the dry cave hunched woolen.

Inside the forest was lamplit
along tracks to a starry creek bed
and beyond lay the never-fenced country,
its full billabongs all surrounded

by animals and birds, in loud crustings,
and something leaping up amongst them.
And out there, to kindle whenever
dark found it, hung the daylight moon.

This poem, a favorite of mine for its wonderful strangeness, is called “The Images Alone”:

Scarlet as the cloth draped over a sword,
white as steaming rice, blue as leschenaultia,
old curried towns, the frog in its green human skin;
a ploughman walking his furrow as if in irons, but
as at a whoop of young men running loose
in brick passages, there occurred the thought
like instant stitches through crumpled silk:

as if he’d had to leap to catch the bullet.

A stench like hands out of the ground.
The willows had like beads in their hair, and
Peenemünde, grunted the dentist’s drill, Peenemünde!
Fowls went on typing on every corn key, green
kept crowding the pinks of peach trees into the sky
but used speech balloons were tacky in the river
and waterbirds had liftoff as at a repeal of gravity.

Finally, his poem “Antarctica”:

Beyond the human flat earths
which, policed by warm language, wreathed
in the fog the limits of the world,
far out in space you can breathe

the planet revolves in a cold book.
It turns one numb white page a year.
Round this in shattering billions spread
ruins of a Ptolemaic sphere,

and brittle-beard reciters bore
out time in adamant hoar rods
to freight where it’s growing short,
childless absolutes shrieking the odds.

Most modern of the Great South Lands,
her storm-blown powder whited wigs
as wit of the New Contempt chilled her.
The first spacefarers worked her rope rigs

in horizontal liftoff, when to climb
the high Pole was officer class.
Total prehuman pavement, extending
beyond every roof-brink of crevasse:

Sterility Park, ringed by sheathed animals.
Singing spiritoso their tongueless keens
musselled carolers fly under the world.
Deeper out, out star’s gale folds and greens.

Blue miles above the first flowered hills
towers the true Flood, as it was,
as it is, at the crux of global lattice,
and long-shod humans, risking diamond there,
propitiate with known laws and our wickedness.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Life Alone

The Wall (a novel), Marlen Haushofer

It isn't my intention to put you off this remarkable novel, but it is, hands down, the most depressing book I have ever read.  Depressing in a good way.  Haushofer set out to write a novel depicting the end of the world, the effects of debilitating solitude, and the hopelessness of the individual in the face of total meaninglessness--and she did. And what's worse (better) is how effectively Haushofer evoked not so much screaming-banshee terror but quiet despair. What has killed off everyone, and why?  We have as little idea as the nameless narrator.

There's lots of apocalyptic literature around these days.  The little of it that I have read feels either sensationalized and, frankly, disgusting (Cormac McCarthy's The Road), or preposterous (N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season).  The problem isn't plausibility--the world is ending after all. No, the problem with post-disaster books is that they don't take seriously the existential and psychological cost of living in the end-times. The characters in most of these books are victims whose lives are unimaginable struggles for survival. There's no provision made for reflection: around every corner is a cannibal, a carnivorous alien, or a another human who is (naturally) one's enemy.  In Eden there was scope for cooperation; when the Seventh Seal has been broken it's every woman for herself. 

I won't be forgetting The Wall anytime soon.  What happens when one wakes up to a world devoid of other human beings, with a transparent glass wall enclosing one in a valley whose outward prospect suggests that you are the only surviving human being?

Haushofer examines with painstaking care the claustrophobic daily life of an ordinary woman--she has no name--who has survived some kind of global disaster. Haushofer never lets on what has happened--where is everyone? Who built the Wall, and why? Like the woman, we operate wholly in the dark, and if we allow ourselves to fall into the conceit of the Wall a nightmare is opened to us: how does one cope with loneliness, with the daily grinding routine of survival?  The woman has a few companions--a dog, a cat, a cow--and in her ingenuity and sheer will to survive she reminds one of Robinson Crusoe, but without the human companionship of Friday.  There are no voices in the novel but that of the solitary woman, and her voice has the dull cadence and flatness of the dead.

Reading this novel requires one to think about solitude in a way that no other novel does. Hell may be other people, but there surely is a version of hell that is no one, not a human voice anywhere. Our woman survivor is incapable of reading--what's the point of information or art?--or of amusing herself in any way but with Tarot cards (a chilling idea), or of doing anything except sleeping and trying to stay alive. The state of nature so attractive to admirers of Ayn Rand and Rand Paul--well, here it is. Lusty independence, no government regulations, no one else's annoying needs to get in the way of the satisfaction of your own. Madness. I kept thinking of prison, but even in prison someone shoves food in the slot or tries to stab you with a toothbrush--horrible, but better than nothing.  

This is a deeply political book, a feminist meditation.  For what does our protagonist do but rebuild  civilization, remake a tiny world out of remnants of what has been lost. She creates order and routine, does chores, cares for the injured, buries the dead, in just the way that women have always done.  She's so depressed she can barely rise up from her bed, and yet she does so because otherwise the whole rickety edifice of her solitary civilization will fall to pieces.

And men? You'll need to read The Wall to find out about them. 

I understand there's a film. I can't imagine it. If ever there were an unfilmable book, it's this one.

George Ovitt (9/17/2018)

The Wall was published in German in 1968 and released by Cleis Press of Berkeley in 2012. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

New Books!

Hello. I am happy to announce the publication of two new books.

The first, What Happens Next, is the latest collection of poems by my friend and fellow writer, George Ovitt.  Here’s the link:


The second book is a novel of mine called The Perfection of Things. Here is the link for it:

As ever, thank you for reading our blog.

George Ovitt & Peter Nash

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Devil’s Biographer

One Life by David Lida

In Mexico there is a program called The Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program that helps train, pay, and advise U.S. lawyers in handling the cases of Mexicans nationals facing possible execution in the United States. Specifically, as described on The Marshall Project website: “One of the program’s chief purposes is to help defense attorneys construct a biography of the accused—to humanize them. Poverty, family dysfunction, and developmental disability are frequent themes in their clients’ lives. When presented as  part of a defense, such themes can encourage mercy among jurors and dissuade them from handing down a death sentence.”
This, essentially, is the background of David Lida’s remarkable novel, One Life. Lida, himself a mitigation specialist dealing with precisely such cases, tells the bracing, often eloquent story of a disaffected American named Richard, whose job it is to travel to Mexico, to remote, often desolate towns, to uncover the fractured life stories of his clients in the always desperate effort to complicate, if not actually temper, the judgment of prospective American jurors. Of course, humanizing Mexican immigrants—according them the basic dignity of a past, a family, a conscience, a dream—flies directly in the face of much American rhetoric today, a rhetoric fueled daily by our increasingly punitive immigration policies and practices, and by the racist vitriol of the president of himself.    

At the heart of this poignant, complexly wrought novel, is the case of a young woman, a Mexican national named Esperanza, who is due to stand trial in Louisiana for allegedly murdering her baby. Richard, an ex-novelist recovering from a recently failed marriage, has been hired by her lawyers to travel to Mexico to assemble, as best he can, the scattered pieces of her past as a means of rendering her anew—as a human being, as a woman of flesh and blood. This proves no easy task, as the people he meets are not only wary of him, a gringo, but often so taciturn, so beleaguered, so fatalistic in their view of life, that it is everything he can do to get them to speak to him at all. What unfolds is a story as harrowing, as trenchant, as it is hopeful, compassionate, humane. Writes novelist Daniel Alarcón, “David Lida’s One Life is simply revelatory. It’s Juan Rulfo meets Raymond Chandler, Roberto Bolaño meets Chester Himes. It’s the American justice system, exposed, and the inside story of the frenetic, cruel push and pull that lures Mexican migrants from their homes to the U.S.. I’ve never read a book quite like this, and neither have you.”

David Lida has also written a collection of short stories called Travel Advisory and a smart, street-level guide to Mexico City called First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, The Capital of the 21st Century, a city in which he now lives, writes, practices mitigation, and leads tailor-made tours of the various neighborhoods, markets, parks, gardens, restaurants, and museums. If you have never been to Mexico City it’s time to plan a trip there now. 


Check out his website:

Peter Adam Nash