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Did Coetzee Know “Briggflatts”?

By Ange Mlinko

At this late date, the blogger reviews her options. She knows a little too much about blogging at this point; she knows, for instance, that the point is to maximize hits, even though the longevity of content on the internet (ye gods…) suggests there is some motivation to be thoughtful. A rundown of various tactics looks like this:

1. Diaristic

Enough said

2. Provocative

E.g.: My abiding distaste for Rimbaud

E.g.: My love for Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Prose, e.g.: “…the so-called ‘confessional’ movement in post-modern art and literature is mainly a mating-display clumsily performed.”

3. Learnèd

My love for The Art of the Sonnet (Burt & Mikics). Re: Les Murray’s “Strangler Fig”: “Through [the poem], nature demonstrates a substantial, efficient rule: the more the better.” The joy that struck me at the insight that efficient is not opposed to more. Implications.

4. Entertaining

The rhymes I’ve heard on the radio here in Houston, e.g.: purple/maple syrple (Roger Miller); “compromisin’/horizon” (Glen Campbell). God bless country music! (File also under: Provocative)

5. Topical

Oprah’s behind the curve. Fashion and poetry reached their acme in this high-end advertisement that found its way to the Beirut Souks last year:

pushkin
(Photograph taken by me in Beirut, 2009)

*

When J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello came out in 2003, I remember the reviewers discussing it almost exclusively vis-a-vis the two long lecture-chapters on animal rights. But that is an awfully truncated view of the book. In fact, those two chapters occur early on, before the real tour-de-force: “The Humanities in Africa,” a chapter that amounts to a dialog between Elizabeth Costello and Bridget Costello, the professor and the nun, the Hellenist and the Christian, Humanism and Anti-Humanism.

Realistically, okay, not many book reviews would give a critic carte-blanche to write about philosophical antinomies that just happens to inform our culture on a foundational level.

Nor would it be reasonable to expect a discussion of the chapter “Eros” which culminates in the question of whether “congress is possible with the divine.”

This is the chapter that begins with a (fictional?) reading by Robert Duncan at the University of Melbourne in 1963. Elizabeth Costello thinks that having sex with Robert Duncan would be like congress with a god, and that train of thought reminds her of Susan Mitchell’s poem about Cupid and Psyche. But our protagonist wonders why Mitchell describes what it’s like for the god to consort with the woman, but not the woman with the god. I wonder if Coetzee knew these lines from “Briggflatts:”

So is summer held to its contract

and the year solvent; but men

driven by storm fret,

reminded of sweltering Crete

and Pasiphae’s pungent sweat,

who heard the god-bull’s feet

scattering sand,

breathed byre stink, yet stood

with expectant hand

to guide his seed to its soil;

nor did flesh flinch

distended by the brute

nor loaded spirit sink

till it had gloried in unlike creation.

There’s my favorite moment in one of my favorite poems, and I think Elizabeth Costello would have loved it. “Where in the world today does one find such immortal longings as hers used to be?” she wonders.

Maybe among the coupling of unlike rhymes. Or the unlike concepts, efficient and more…


Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 1st, 2011 by Ange Mlinko.