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Reading List: July/August 2013 (Part II)
The Reading List is a new feature of the Editors’ Blog this year. Each month we ask Poetry’s contributors to share a book—or several—that held their interest recently. Our July/August double issue features even more poets and writers than usual, so we split this Reading List into two parts. You can catch up on Part I here.
Monique Wittig’s The Lesbian Body, a brilliant collection of prose poems which has been misguidedly read as “fiction.” These experimental poems, in the voice of an unnamed lover to an “unnamable” love object, were utterly ahead of their time (1973), and were generally criticized for their depictions of bodies, violence and sex. Wittig’s language here may not be for the weak-stomached, but for every image of “intestines uncoiling gliding among themselves,” another comes where “I see the sun shining between your ribs.”
On my textual journey into the 1970’s, I moved to Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. Dialectic is worth reading for Firestone’s critique and appreciation of Freud alone, but also her insistence that the liberation of children is no less important than the liberation of women. (“Childhood is hell,” Firestone writes). In her conclusion, which even my own mother admits she blocked out or didn’t read, Firestone ends on a note of speculative science futurism, without which texts like Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” would not have been possible.
Because one can’t live on the seventies alone, I turned this summer to Susan Stewart’s beautiful book of poems, Columbarium. Stewart’s translation of Virgil’s “Bees” is incomprehensibly good: “Do this when the west winds blow. Do this when the meadows / are alive with poppies.”
I’ve just finished reading a most unusual book of criticism: Daniel Levin Becker’s charming Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (Harvard, 2012). Becker was evidently introduced to Oulipo in a college seminar, took off for Paris to research the group, and was to become one of its members—no mean feat since there are currently only thirty-eight members, and of those, seventeen are dead! Part history, part theory, part critical evaluation and juicy gossip about individual Oulipians, Many Subtle Channels worries less about the specific constraints (lipogram, palindrome, snowball) Oulipians have used than about their larger concern for a “literature in the conditional mood.” Conditional, in that, “When you don’t know what you’re looking for, as they say, your chances of finding it are excellent.” Becker suggests that for a writer like Georges Perec, Oulipo, far from being a cerebral game short on emotional charge (as Calvin Bedient has argued in a recent essay for the Boston Review), was on the contrary a way of making sense of a world otherwise too painful to put into words—in Perec’s case, the deportation of his mother to Auschwitz when he was only six years old. Life A User’s Manual uses the chess board and any number of mathematical procedures to contain that central memory. As for Marcel Duchamp, in Becker’s words, “the most famous Oulipian nobody knows was an Oulipian,” “[his] genius vis-à-vis Adorno’s oft-misquoted comment on the possibilities of art after Auschwitz, was to show that even if ‘after Auschwitz’ couldn’t be changed, ‘art’ could.” The optative mood of such pithy statements is contagious.
Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels: When both Ange Mlinko and Anahid Nersessian tell me to read something, I read it. Just finished Never Mind and started Bad News, the first two novels of St. Aubyn’s quintet, and Jesus Christ. I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory earlier this year and thought that was a nice bit of nastiness, but St. Aubyn makes Houellebecq seem like Garrison Keillor. But the sadism of the intolerably rich and the pathetic striving of those who crave admission to their idiot circles, as perfectly rendered as they are, are jacket copy. Dude is killing it at the sentence level.
Confucius, The Analects: I don’t know why I waited so long to get with this (beyond a passing acquaintance with Pound’s translations). I recently finished a first reading, alternating between D.C. Lau’s and Burton Watson’s versions. I come away from Kongfuzi, as I do from the Gospels, aware that I don’t measure up—I don’t even come close. But Kongfuzi’s funnier than Yeshua.
Kenneth Jackson, Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry: Anthony Madrid turned me on to this. Jackson’s translations of medieval Welsh poems are freakier and more conceptually compelling than any internet anyone might print out:
Mountain snow, the stag is swift;
scarcely anything at all interests me;
warning avails nothing to the unfortunate.
Mountain snow, white is its fleece;
rarely is the face of a friend kindly
at frequent visiting.
Mountain snow, white are the roofs of houses;
if the tongue related what the mind knew,
none would be neighbours.
I’m also reading Hubert Dreyfus on Heidegger and revisiting Marianne Moore; I just started Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques for like the fifth time; and I’m looking forward to Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life. For the record, I don’t recommend trying to read this many books at once unless you want to feel like you never finish anything.
The Catcher in the Rye was the first good book I loved, for all the wrong reasons and one right one: it spoke to me. Or Holden Caulfield did, intimately, honestly, and hilariously, one miserable sex-obsessed adolescent to another, furious at “phonies.” When I finished it, I started it again, three times in a row. I haven’t reread it since, and I’m only reading it now because it’s on my thirteen-year-old daughter’s summer reading list for school. More than fifty years and about eighty-seven lives later, the novel seems like a one-trick pony. But it’s a good trick: Holden talks one way (obnoxiously, wackily) but acts and feels another (sweetly, kindly) and makes us love him and be touched by his troubles. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be surprised now with a love for a book as much as I was then? At what a piece of writing can do? It still happens to me, but not with that first astonishment. The Catcher in the Rye started a lifetime of reading for the indispensable experience of being spoken to deeply and truly.
Something always seems to lead me back to The Poems of Nazim Hikmet (translated by Randy Blasing & Mutlu Konuk, Persea Books, 2002), something I read or see and fear, a feeling both subtle and musical, like the title of one of the most beautiful love poems ever written, his “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved”–something inspiriting and sad that always makes me feel like writing. I just finished two other books: Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy (Crown, 2013), a wonderfully provocative and expansive look at the seventies and eighties art scene in New York through the eyes of someone who was there. I couldn’t help but compare the gathering of artists such as Fischl, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Krugger, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel with Hemingway’s cast of improvident provocateurs–Gertrude Stein, Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound–in A Moveable Feast, another interesting time of radical personalities reinventing history for mostly selfish purposes. Most interesting, I think, is his honest exploration of ambition and desire at the earliest stages of artistic development. And Saul Friedlander’s surprising take on Franz Kafka, (Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt, Yale University Press, 2013). Interweaving Kafka’s letters, diaries and stories, he shows us a new and vital Kafka, who made literature out of all the things he brilliantly failed at in his mostly painful life. Friedlander, the great historian of the Holocaust, intricately reveals how longing and personal history can disturb and inspire genius. It’s as if I’d never read Kafka before, and finally know him.
Rise in the Fall by Ana Božičević is one of those books you quote loudly in riotous rooms of friends throwing back whiskey, waxing about the vocation of being a poet. The kind of lines you want tattooed on your thigh. Božičević builds and layers and uncovers in her poems. She’s political without being preachy. Serious without being didactic. Hilarious without being petty. And not afraid of emotion—unleashed, and raw stuff I love so damn much. Amen to that.
I’ll stand here and look at you
and invent nothing
Valis is the only Philip K. Dick book I’ve read this slowly (4mph). If anyone knows the wisdom of madness it’s my mother, but the second is Philip K. Dick. His book is so accurate, it’s chilling to read. As always, with over-the-top religious/mental/humanistic insight, there is great humor.
Favorite line: “They ought to make it a binding clause that if you find God you get to keep him. For Fat, finding God (if indeed he did find God) became, ultimately, a bummer, a constantly diminishing supply of joy, sinking lower and lower like the contents of a bag of uppers. Who deals God?”
In the Dark by Ruth Stone: I basically have no choice in this matter: I read Ruth Stone’s poetry constantly. Forget that we’re related. In the Dark is such a good, underappreciated book of poetry.
Favorite line will be substituted for a small poem in its entirety:
Like the radiator that sits
in the kitchen passing gas;
like the mop with its head
on the floor, weeping;
or the poinsettia that pretends
its leaves are flowers;
the cheap paint peels
off the steamed walls.
When you have nothing to say,
the sadness of things
speaks for you.
Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations, ed. Clark Coolidge: I’ve been carrying this book around for two years, dipping into it like I would a book of poems. Guston is one of my favorite artists. And his dry, intellectual philosophies on painting, somewhat dark, indifferent artist statements, and terrifying student lectures are a delight to read. But I’m a double agent. I can’t read most things for enjoyment. They get me thinking too much…my second [hybrid] book of poetry I’ve been writing engages continuously with this collection. It gives you a lot to think about.
Favorite line: “It is the bareness of drawing that I like.”
I’ve just finished Atul Gawande’s must-read article “Slow Ideas” in the New Yorker, about the effort to promote safer childbirth practices in India, and what works to get people to change their habits, whether getting Third World mothers to keep their newborns warm by holding them against their own bodies or getting First World doctors to wash their hands. The essay perfectly complements Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers about life in a Mumbai slum.
Another interesting pair I read recently was The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a dramatic monologue by Mary, mother of Jesus, and The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, Marie Howe’s latest poetry collection, which includes a section of “Poems From the Life of Mary” that find the extraordinary in the ordinary: “You know the wind is sky moving. It happens all the time.”
The strangest combination I’ve read recently but probably my favorite is Martin McDonagh’s first play, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and Joanne Dominique Dwyer’s terrific first book of poetry, Belle Laide (“beautiful ugly”). From Belle Laide: “How overrated civilization is. / How carnal the faith of the innocent: / a tin cup and a tarp— / how beautiful the blue accordion.”
To date, I’ve given away five copies of Bewilderment by David Ferry. Poetry books of such lucidity are rare. His poems present a philosophically bemused and anguished contemplation of mortality, a subject made raw at the time of writing by the recent death of his wife, and made humorous by his take on his own aging. His own themes are amplified by his translations of poems from Greek and Latin poetry on similar topics. The resonance is so striking that it’s as if these particular translations were saved until he needed them to illumine the madness and mystery of losing a beloved.
By chance, I’m reading another book in which the poet’s personal lyrics are interspersed with translations. Nocturnes of the Brothel of Ruin by Patrick Donnelly includes Japanese poems translated by Stephen D. Miller. Many of Patrick’s poems portray gay life during the eighties, recalling his experiences as a way as to understand how love can be both tender and lustful, transient and haunting. The Japanese translations, though spare in number, place Patrick’s poems within the centuries old Japanese tradition of “mono no aware” —writing poems or otherwise conveying the awareness of impermanence.
Those of us who live in Seattle are fortunate to hear Rebecca Hoog’s humorous literary critiques that serve as introductions to visiting writers in Seattle Arts and Lectures series. I’ve seen her outwit Robert Pinsky, Patti Smith, and Billy Collins without somehow stealing their limelight. She’s just as smart and light on her feet in her first book Self Storage. Her word play isn’t clever for cleverness sake, though I suppose there’s some of that—think Heather McHugh. Instead, she upends idiom and rhetoric to unravel conundrums whether that of being lovelorn or puzzled by the difference between irresolution and epiphany.
This summer only a lucky few—those with review copies—can read a collaboration between poet Rodger Kamenetz and visual artist Michael Hafftka, To Die Next To You. The poems are associative and strange, shaped by a dream logic held together by an inquiring, attuned narrator. While many such collaborations steer clear of the visual art interpreting the poetry, this one doesn’t to great effect. There’s a resonance between the drawings and poems perhaps because the subject matter allows for many layers of interpretation. The work arose initially out of Rodger Kamenetz’s immersion in archetypal dreamwork, which he has recounted in a prose book The History of Last Night’s Dream (2007). This book will be available in October.
Tags: Bianca Stone, Emily Warn, marjorie perloff, Michael Robbins, Michael Ryan, Miller Oberman, Philip Schultz, Reading List, Robert Thomas
Posted in From Poetry Magazine on Wednesday, August 14th, 2013 by Lindsay Garbutt.