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Zest (#2)

» December 7th, 2019

Friends,

My daughter made some updates to her blog and somehow lost all her subscribers. I know some of you kindly signed up for her posts so, if you are inclined, please re-subscribe here. Many thanks.

James

Nick Flynn

» December 1st, 2019

 

 

Years ago I remember being thrilled by Nick Flynn’s memoirs Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is the Bomb. Because I liked them so much I resisted reading his poetry, perhaps fearing that his skill in one literary venue might not transfer to the other in a way that sustained my admiration. So I waited a decade and, having just finished his latest book of poems,  I Will Destroy You, am pleased to note that my fears were unfounded.

Flynn’s poetry centers on addiction, nature (and ecological destruction, but not in a pedantic way), the child inside every adult, and, most successfully, the limits of language to articulate the power of emotion. This last accomplishment is most evident in “Saltmarsh,” a poem that opens with the image of a book “facedown in the flattened/grass . . .” and then declares “I want all/language to dissolve, to/become    (again)    salt . . .” By the end of the poem words have exploded, the meaning they intend to represent unrecoverable. Strangely, though, the feeling is not one of loss or destruction, but faith in the feelings that words can’t signify.

In Flynn’s world, what accounts for the limits of language are both the depth of human feeling and the ease with which we allow language to be commodified. To get at the latter, Flynn develops numerous metaphors around birds and nests. In “God’s Will,” a woman struggling with the pain of her brother’s overdose is juxtaposed against the bower bird’s habit of collecting “blue/things–bottle cap, rubber band/bits of broken  band,/bits of a broken/cup–to make an elaborate, sparkling/blue nest on the ground.” The message stresses how an instinctual love can drive us to protect others but, no matter how beautiful and even magical our efforts–a blue nest–can still be inadequate, and may be even nothing more than a symbolic move really designed to protect ourselves.

In “If Only They Could Bottle This Feeling,” Flynn pits language against the forces of commodification that all too easily gut it of its power, most of it in an attempt to make humans supposedly happier. It opens: “Pages torn from magazines/taped to the walls–a sunset,/a puppy, a tree in/ a field–all of it more real/than these words.” Then comes a kiss so consuming that “if I/was made of paper I’d have/burst into flame . . .” With the flame leveling a forest of words you think, again, about the limits  of language.

But in a twist, Flynn shows how, instead of accepting those limits, a commercial culture that is limitless in what it promises inevitably intervenes: “If only they could/bottle this feeling, I thought/&then they did.” The sadness is in the reminder of how what’s really being commodified is not language, but rather the emotion that language cannot grasp, thereby making our feelings graspable and cheap. One wonders if this is where sentiment and nostalgia derive, how much of our emotional reaction to life is genuine and how much if fabricated, and a lot of other worthwhile considerations that great poetry can evoke.

Sally Rooney’s Conversations

» November 28th, 2019

When I was in Dublin last summer I picked up a thin volume called Mr. Salary by the Irish author Sally Rooney. She’s a big deal in Ireland. I read it before going to bed and thought “what’s all the hype with this young woman?” I was in Boston soon after and I tossed it to a friend I said here, but no need to bother. I dismissed Rooney along with so many other contemporary writers who strike me as not good enough to read in lieu of so many great dead writers.

But then I heard Rooney interviewed on a podcast. Something about her made me think I should give her novels a try. What impressed me was her awareness that she should not, as a writer in her 20s, attempt to say more than she knows. What Sally Rooney knows–and what she knows she knows– is how young adults talk to each other and, as they do, how they feel inside as they converse. She covers a lot of Millennial social terrain (a bit of polyamory, open relationships, Tinder sex), and there is at times a forced effort to let us know (through her characters’ reading habits) that she’s fluent in a lot of philosophy and history and politics. But what her novels ultimately offer is a forensic investigation of how people form relationships and, once in those relationships, talk to each other. In this ambition, few writers I know of can compete.

Searching Normal People and Conversations with Friends for passages that demonstrate Rooney’s facility with dialogue, I got stumped. The reason I cannot find a passage to quote is that the conversations in her novels are so situational, so rooted in the specific drama of the moment, that it’s nearly impossible to isolate highlights. There are no highlights. Anything I excerpted would, in isolation, seem mundane to the point of irrelevance. The reason for this is important: In real life conversation, as we all know (but never really think about), a common phrase can mean radically different things depending on the person and the context and the tone. Rooney is so sensitive to her characters and their precise context that the only way to appreciate their conversations is in the framework of the entire book itself.

Rooney’s recognition of her own limits has a drawback, at least for a reader like me (in his 50s). Her Gen X characters are about as developed as the parents in a Charlie Brown episode. In contrast to her Millennial characters, her fully adult characters are without character; they are props. In a way, this is reassuring. Rooney’s antennae reaches only so far as reaches. She’s no George Eliot. But she’s Sally Rooney. She knows it. And I like it.

A Confederacy of Dunces

» September 30th, 2019

 

I’d been wanting to write this essay for many years, so was thrilled when Public Books answered my query. By journalistic standards, it’s a lengthy piece, with the introduction excerpted here and a link to the full article appearing at the end. 

Thelma Toole, the mother of the novelist John Kennedy Toole—author of the extraordinary almost-unpublished novel A Confederacy of Dunces—delivered one of the most irresponsible accusations in American literary history. But responsibility really wasn’t her thing. Instead, it was to ensure that her son’s genius would be acknowledged: preferably by the world and ideally by means of Robert Gottlieb, a kingpin of New York publishing.

So when Gottlieb, a young but virtuosic editor at Simon & Schuster, opted not to publish Ken Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces in the mid 1960s—and then when the 32-year-old author killed himself in 1969, 50 years ago this past March—Thelma mixed correlation and causation, sending up a full-throttled J’accuse from New Orleans to New York. Gottlieb—she stated publicly1—by rejecting Toole’s manuscript, had effectively killed her son.

Gottlieb’s restraint in the face of Thelma’s behavior was more than heroic. He stayed silent, recognizing that a grieving mother will do horrible things to assuage her suffering. But Gottlieb cannot be so easily exonerated from another charge leveled against him. This one came from the broader literary establishment and was backed by the Pulitzer Prize Board, which awarded A Confederacy of Dunces a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Certainly by then, if not before, this accusation could stick: Gottlieb, like much of the New York publishing world at the time (eight other presses would pass on the manuscript), misunderstood Toole’s book.

Today, 50 years after the death of Toole, during a technological era when social media intensify and publicize our status anxieties, and at an ecological point in time when the city where the novel originated—New Orleans—is under seasonal threat of Armageddon, it has never been more important to revisit Toole’s masterpiece.

If only as a critique of late capitalism, A Confederacy of Dunces uncannily identifies the deep ennui that accompanies today’s rat race, questioning what it means to do as the protagonist’s mother begs her son: “Make good.”

Keep reading here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fast Life

» September 6th, 2019

Tim Dlugos is a poet that a friend introduced to me by reading a poem of his into my phone. I was enchanted. But it was a hectic day and all I could remember was that the poem was perfect and the poet’s name started with a D, not followed by a vowel.

A year later, at the library, I searched for him, D…g? . . l?… and eventually I landed on his collection A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos. I can’t really summarize the poems other than to say they track the intricacies and love and lust through the jungle of AIDS and death. Dlugas seemed incapable of a dull line.

Like a lot of great poetry it’s what’s left out that captivates:

 

It’s cold, you note

(correctly) as we walk

to the train

 

It’s midnight, it 

will be colder 

when you leave 

6 a.m. or so . . .

 

This is such a wonderful poetic somersault, with the flip left out. You head home with a potential lover you know might be an actual lover.  To fill the space he says “It’s cold.” The forced nature of the comment makes the anticipation between the walk to the train and the bed palpable. The clock strikes midnight and, suddenly, you are, as the voyeur/reader, curtained off. This is a private moment. But then morning threatens and we’re let back in. The sky is pale blue with dawn and what thrilled to the core six hours earlier is a now source of ineffable sadness. Sadder than a petite mort.

 

 

 

1619

» August 18th, 2019

Today’s New York Times‘ Magazine issue was based on the single and profound conceit that slavery began in the American colonies in 1619. In terms of editorial packaging, it was an editor’s dream. Consider: the 400-year anniversary of the defining scar on our nation’s past–slavery– coinciding with a white supremacist president who has revived the racism our better angels have tried, however inadequately, to resolve and redeem. You’d be a fool not to make the most of this anniversary.

But the problem is that 1619/slavery connection is wrong. It’s factually not the date slavery began in what Jake Silverstein, the magazine’s editor, implies was “our nation.” There was no “our nation” in 1619. There was England. And her colonies. “The country’s true birth date” was not, as Silverstein tells us, 1619. It was in fact 1776. But the problem here is not with the ridiculous ahistorical implication that the US was somehow accountable for what happened a 150 years before its founding. It’s rather with the more complicated origins of North American slavery itself.

I’m not going to belabor things too much here. But I only want to make two quick and essential points: a) the arrival of 20-30 slaves in 1619 cannot be characterized as having “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery”; and b) it does the world of elite journalism, much less those of us who want to trust it, no good to hinge its truly noble commitment to righting historical injustice on bad history.

Now, to succinctly elaborate the former claim: The 20-30 Africans who disembarked in Virginia might have been slaves on the ship from which they disembarked. But when their feet hit Virginia soil they were by no means slaves, at least in terms of what slavery would become. There were as yet no slave codes in Virginia, only an array of contractual agreements dealing with indentured servants. It was into the wide framework of these indentured arrangements that these 20-30 Africans were incorporated into Virginia’s tobacco economy. These black servants–not slaves– enjoyed some level of legal protection on par with white indentured servants. As Edmund Morgan has shown, black and white servants toiled together, sued their masters’ together, escaped together, and even made it through their servitude and owned land together. Indeed, Anthony Johnson, a black servant who fulfilled his contract, eventually grabbed up land and worked it with white indentured servants!

The origin of American slavery actually came in 1676, when black and white servants linked arms and rebelled, quite violently, against their masters, in an event known as Bacon’s Rebellion. Tidewater masters, realizing that racism could diffuse the class tension that almost left their heads in a pile of rubble, began to impose slave codes as the dust of the this massacre settled.  Perhaps slave codes might ensure that the poorest whites would no longer unite with blacks. Rather, due to legal designations, those whites could feel a sense of superiority to blacks, and even some affinity with the rich whites. Slavery could pull that off.

Trump’s race baiting makes a hell of a lot more sense in this more accurate narrative. But–and to point b– I imagine the NYT Magazine wasn’t willing to wait another half century to get history right. Upshot (a word the journos love): the 1619 gambit is a darling that should have been killed.

 

Ammons

» August 17th, 2019

 

 

 

A.R. Ammons was a southern poet who grew up poor on a Carolina tobacco farm owned by his Pentecostal parents. He scratched his way to that sweet spot between total immersion in and angry disownment from parental influence and majored in science at Wake Forest University. Poetry snuck up on him as he stared into the South Pacific as a soldier during WWII–”The whole world changed as a result of an interior illumination”–and he wrote like a demon on weekends and evenings while making a living in his father-in-law’s glassware business. In 1977, his poem “Easter Morning” recollected a visit back to North Carolina:

. . . . I cannot leave this place, for

for me it is the dearest and the worst,

it is life nearest to life which is

life lost: it is my place where

I must stand and fail . . .

As a resident of Austin, Texas since 1994, and having grown up in Atlanta, where I make obligatory and frequent visits to family, this quote spoke up to me. Both places have been transformed by untethered greed and creativity. The physical landscape has been altered so drastically under these not incompatible influences that the only continuity that I can positively identify is the literal longitude and latitude measures that mark these homelands in Google space.

In Atlanta, I now get lost in the same stretch of three miles between my home and high school. In Austin, if you leave for a week, it’s as if someone took a giant weed whacker to blocks of old structures and saturated the earth with Miracle-Gro for boxy big-windowed buildings. The whole  transformative project seems catered to an odd but fierce millennial-inspired dedication to “lifestyle” and “quality of life” and it’s as shallow as a kiddie pool full of warm piss.

Yet “I cannot leave this place.” It’s the darnedest and dearest and the worst. I stand here, for sure, and even more for sure, I fail here. Cascades of failure. My homeland cuckolds me on a daily basis and yet I remain, obediently and with disarming loyalty, loyal to her turf. Explaining this adherence to place would likely require going deeper into my psyche than I wish to do in this public forum, but there seems an easy explanation: Austin is where my friends are and Atlanta is where my family is. I know, yawn. But time ensures this tyranny. We abide our geography if we want to be grounded in a way that matters, and in the way that Ammons so brilliantly understood.

Meeting Cormac McCarthy (Garry Wallace)

» July 25th, 2019

Cormac said that education often got in the way of understanding.

One of the finer pleasures of being a book hunter is that, if you hound around used/rare bookstores enough, you sometimes find wedged into a wayward shelf a book you have never heard of by a writer you have never heard of, and, for whatever weird intuitive reason, you pick it up (in this case, for $8.00) and end up enthralled.

Meeting Cormac McCarthy, by Garry Wallace, is a self-published volume I spotted at Crescent City Books, in New Orleans (a great city for bookstores). The first essay, and the title of the book, contained the quote cited above, one that Wallace paraphrased after getting to spend a few days with the notoriously elusive author of the finest literature being written today. (Suttree, for my money, is unsurpassed in the canon of American Lit, except perhaps by Moby Dick and Invisible Man.) 

I love the quote. I’m a university professor but I’ve never been much convinced by the pedagogical mission underscoring my professional existence. If nothing else, I think my decision to model a passion for literature and the kinds of experience that makes literature stick might inspire a Quixotic student or two. But I honestly think the vast majority of my students would be better off chucking the best four years of their life for an unconventional experience in the “real world.” (See my posts on Fermor.)

Cormac can’t stand academic horseshit–and most academic writing is total horseshit–and I agree that the best writing is free of such nonsense. Anyway, Cormac’s literature thrives by exploring those who have gone into the world and lived close to the bone of experience. Nobody in his novels has a degree. Mind you, I love the pursuit of esoterica and obscurity. Hell, I’m writing a book about a poet nobody knows. But I think what this guy Wallace does so well is channel Cormac’s understanding of a truth that’s totally lost on the vast majority of college students grinding away for a degree: You’re missing out on something you lack the ability to imagine.

A Time of Gifts (Fermor cont.)

» July 22nd, 2019

When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel.

Fermor continues to push the connection between representation and reality in the most intriguing ways. It’s something of a motif in his uneven but charming book. His reverential reference to Brueghel really pleased me. I wrote my college application essay (mind you, decades ago) on Brueghel’s “The Fall of Icarus.” It was a writing experience I remember with a certain amount of high schoolish nostalgia. (The fact that my son, now the same age as I was then, is currently fixated on another painting, “The Arnofini Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck, only sweetens the memory and moment.)

 

Art is reality–this point should be noted, if not tattooed into the brain. It represents but, in representing, it is. So art, in the most uncomplicated way, is real. I think Brueghel blended reality and representation so well due to the insane technical skill underscoring his work. According to a recent New York Review of Books piece, his virtuosity was peerless. Each painting is, according to author, “plausibly the greatest painting ever made.” Love that.

Perhaps as evidence that Brueghel fused art and reality so perfectly, poets have swept in to ostensibly usher his work into a poetic netherworld, to deem it beyond reality. But his painting won’t abandon the grit of life. W.H. Auden’ s “Musee de Beaux Arts” exemplifies this paradox with brilliance. Reading it, I cannot help feel how poetry, painting, and the world in front of me–all the suffering and pleasure therein– is, despite the ceaseless effort of modern bourgeois categorization, a convergence immune to fantasy or metaphysical flight, permitting us to feel it as real while also sailing calmly on.

Here’s Auden, best read very slowly:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Fire on the Mountain (Edward Abbey)

» July 20th, 2019

The landscape before me was much the same as that in the mural on the wall of the Wagon Wheel Bar.

Edward Abbey is not much of a novelist in my opinion. His non-fiction, most notably Desert Solitaire, is among the best in the American canon. But his novels are pedantic, preachy, and contrived. And yes, I still read them because, well, it’s Edward Abbey. My latest bout of frustration with this paradox was with Fire on the Mountain (1962).

The quote above rang a similar chord as did the one I last wrote about from Fermor’s A Time of Gifts. The big theme–the interchange between art and reality (as a general rule I’m a fan of both)– intrigues me. In the case of this quote, Abbey turns us to the iconography of the west, a region of the country that has arguably been shaped more by the imagery of it than our actual interchange with it. Is there really any way to experience the grandeur of, say, the Grand Canyon in its singular power without being biased by the endless imagery we have consumed before seeing it?

This was a question once asked by the great southern novelist and essayist Walker Percy (in Message in a Bottle). Years ago I took it to heart, and accepted it as a challenge, and headed to Arizona. After spending 17 hours running through the Canyon, starting at 3:30 am, I can say with some confidence that I saw the beast on its own terms. So I was disappointed in Abbey’s protagonist so easily accepting the interchangeability of tavern mural and actual landscape. Granted, the kid–Billy Vogelin Starr–is only twelve, but one hopes that he grows up a bit, and learns to think for himself. (Note: it’s possible that the quote is ironic, and that irony will only be evident at the end of the novel, when Billy has breathed the landscape–but I’m not sure Abbey was that kind of novelist.)

In the novel, Big Gov’ment takes Grandpa Vogelin’s land from him. Much of the novel involves Billy and grandpa rueing the imposition of the feds (Abbey’s libertarianism is a sticking point for me). What Billy never realizes, and what Abbey never seems to intuit, is that the supposed tyranny of Bureau of Land Management is nothing compared to the tyranny of the western iconography that wants us to go west young rich family to the nearest bullshit ski resort.