Archive for the ‘The Pitchfork’ Category

April Reading Overview

» July 5th, 2020


The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity by James Cobb

For a lot of people “the Mississippi Delta” evokes the blues. It’s an appropriate association. But what’s easy to overlook is the underlying source of that original folk expression. Behind every ribald lyric and jangled chord shift is a history of white control over the black body. James Cobb’s account of this control is, thematically speaking, hardly easy reading. But it’s necessary, if only because the nature of that control, while ultimately rooted in violence, demanded negotiations that explain why the southern identity continues to be plagued by such ceaseless demons of anxiety. This is something we ought to know.

Yes, there was the Klan, and its methods of enforcing Jim Crow norms were as brutal as they were conspicuous. But the old guard, almost all of them plantation owners, adhered to a set of gentlemanly values that disdained the Klan as low class, rough-hewn, room-temp-IQ rednecks. The elite plantocracy–think of William Alexander Percy and his refined ilk–advocated for more parlor-appropriate suasions, including the drawling balm of noblesse oblige and masterly paternalism. Cobb does a remarkable job highlighting the triangulated efforts undertaken by anxious if genteel patriarchs in their efforts to avoid the crass techniques of hooded if vicious clowns while at the same time ensuring that blacks never became especially uppity. A cotton plantation only worked when all players knew their place. But anarchy lurked when too many black bodies were turned into strange fruit. This was a vice that squeezed the South.

The Federal Government was central to honing this more refined, or at least less explicitly violent, approach to preventing blacks from getting too uppity. Federal expenditures on levees and railroads, in addition to wartime measures for crop support, enabled powerful whites to control Federal pursestrings in a way that enhanced their bargaining power over blacks while keeping the trashy whites at arms length, preferably deep in the swamplands Many blacks went north but, as C. Vann Woodward has shown, that migration did not necessarily work out so well, as racism turned out to be just as vicious on the upside of the Mason-Dixon line as below it. Other blacks knew the power they held in the Delta, and engaged in their own negotiations with nervous planters, often to their advantage. But then again there were those cross burners back in their shacks, ready to put on a show when necessary, demonstrations of vile hatred the genteel types would step aside and let rage when necessary.

It was all a tragic balancing act, one that, as we listen to the blues–and we should always listen to the blues–we have an obligation to notice. Good news is that Cobb has written a history you can hear.

 

Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert

Madam Bovary is pretty much essential reading, at least for those who buy the idea of essential reading. But Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is a lesser prerequisite for those who fret about their canonical bone fides. The novel comes up in polite conversation just enough, though, for those of us insecure enough about our own readerly accomplishments (and obligations) to consider putting that notch in our belt. And it is for this reason alone–the quiet guilt of the pseudo-well read–that I plucked it off my shelf of aspiration and bore into it.

From page one, as the protagonist watches the banks of Paris slip past as he sails down the Seine, I was hooked. Sentimental Education  is unforgettable, charming, surprising, and sometimes brilliant. There are two aspects of the novel that linger for me. The first is that the protagonist, Frederic, is not a very likable fellow. He’s shallow, petulant, inconsiderate, haughty, and a trust fund brat. But in the opening scene he does something that eventually rescues him, and has us rooting for him, and finally makes him nothing short of a hero to humanity: the insufferable little shit falls in love. And he falls hard, with a Madame Arnoux, who is all class, if not in wealth at  least in demeanor. And he stays in love with her. It never wavers (despite being unconsummated). And that love becomes so powerful, and eventually convincing, that it redeems him. She becomes what every human, implicitly or explicitly wants to be–the center of another’s obsession. So there you have it: a love story.

The second remarkable aspect of this novel is that it’s also a political novel. The revolution of 1848 (lots of revolutions in 19th-century France) gathers steam as if heated by the social intrigue and desire that drives the novel. Personal relationships become political and politics get very personal. Tantrums are thrown. Barricades are stormed. Whores feel their power. The industrialists are humbled. There is so much more plot weaving here than in Bovary, but the upshot is a novel that vibrates on several levels at once. I have no idea how fiction writers pull it off, but I’m always happy to enjoy the outcome. I imagine this is a book I’ll return to.

The Color of Water  by James McBride

There are scores of once-downtrodden memoirs these days (Educated, Hillbilly Elegy). But McBride’s soars a bit higher because his voice soars with the story. This rarely happens in memoirs. Typically, when it’s any good, the voice starts strong, original, but, by page 75-100, goes flat. Trust fades, inconsistencies emerge, and questions arise over authenticity. In the two aforementioned books mentioned the authors never quite probed that part of themselves that enabled them to thrive in the academic world, making their unlikely origins the only part of the story that really mattered. But it’s not all that really mattered.

There is something so incrementally trustworthy and loving in McBride’s voice as he narrates his and his siblings’ trajectory from the projects to professional and personal success. At the core of this transformation is McBride’s mother, a Jewish woman whose life was almost crushed by systemic abuse and oppression, much of it from her father and first husband. McBride eases into his ambition as he eases into an appreciation of this remarkable woman, not to mention a unique view on race–the color of water–that derives not from slogans or trends, but the grit of daily experience. That kind of message hits the heart’s sweet spot, and only drives deeper as the book progresses.

Ironies of the real life variety–rather than the clever literary sort–ground the memoir in a rendition of motherhood that will feel familiar to anyone who has marveled over a mom. “Mommy”–or Rachel Shilsky– is a woman who, “could make no decisions.” McBride explains, “Even the simplest choice, like whether to have a Touch-Tone telephone or a rotary one, required enormous, painstaking deliberation. If the furnace broke down it stayed broken, not just because she didn’t have the money to fix it, but because . . . well . . . just because.”

McBride allows his mother’s flaws to be human, normal, and genuine, and therefore he must have felt a certain satisfaction–or something like it–when, at the end of the memoir, he lists what he and his twelve brothers and sisters have gone to do in their professional lives: graduate from Yale med school and become a medical director at Merck, graduate with a PhD from Columbia University and become a chair of the history department at Penn State, become a chemistry professor, and, of course, there’s James, our Oberlin and Columbia educated, who became a “writer, composer, saxophonist.” May the man and his pen and horn howl for ages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eudora Welty’s Photographic Gaze

» May 17th, 2020

Two portraits; two men. Both are from 1930s Mississippi. The men are situated together, photos 22 and 23, both from Eudora Welty’s only published book of photographs, simply titled Photographs. If you could put a frame around both images it would be the Jim Crow South.

The image to the left [below] is of an older, stout black man with a white moustache that droops around his mouth. He sits on a bench in a cluttered work yard in Grenada County. It looks to be the end of the workday. A small chicken darts past his left knee. Two large melons rest at his right, almost out of the frame. The man’s posture shifts, leans back, and his expression, assured but quizzical, darts over his left shoulder, as if responding to a call from elsewhere. His right hand relaxes. His left hand, in motion, blurs with movement. His eyes are dark and deep set. He answers to others. But he knows who he is.

March Reading Overview

» April 19th, 2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

It’s gratifying to watch a writer come into his powers. Whitehead is one of the country’s most respected contemporary novelists. But his early work, The Intuitionist in particular, is not only awkward and uneven–it’s dull. But twenty years later–with a maturing range of work finding voice in the middle–there is The Nickel Boys. The novel draws on actual events from a reform school in Florida that abused the system and, worse, the mostly black boys stuck in its punitive cogs. This novel is quite the opposite of dull. Even better than the high-voltage plot, it thrives on the sentence level. The writing is tight and the story speeds along at the right pace, with an ending that takes a risk, one that reminded me of James McBride’s wonderful The Color of Water. The final scenes evoke empathy you might have thought was already exhausted by the novels’ genuinely and intimately drawn characters. On an even deeper level, Whitehead gets at historical memory without being preachy. Legal lynchings at the state run school took place “deep in the heartwood.” The rings that held the boys’ wrists are still rusting, he writes, “testifying to anyone who cares to listen.” Your choice.

 

In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish

Darwish (1941-2008) was a Palestinian refugee and poet. Both of those identifiers–refugee and poet–infuse every word he wrote. The experience of leaving home physically but not emotionally resonates across this elegant volume, published in 2006. Never ceding to “the gigantic bulldozer of history”–a term, not incidentally, used by C. Vann Woodward to describe the loss of the Old South, Darwish resists by building verbal edifices to fill the vacancies. “In every boy there is a gypsy woman. In every gypsy woman there is an improvised inner journey. In every journey there is a secret tale told only after memory passes the age of shyness.” Darwish is a poetic gypsy whose shyness had been bulldozed by Israeli imperialism. His prose-poem reflections exude a sense of loss and longing, as well as reminder that we are all refugees in some way or another. “You are in exile too! You wondered: How many nails have you hammered into the walls of other houses? How many paintings have you hung? How many beds have you abandoned for others to sleep in afterward? How many drafts and beginnings have you forgotten in other drawers?” Darwish asks us to take these questions, inspired by his own exile, seriously. Doing so leads you into yourself, which is what the best poetry should do. Maybe it is, as Darwish suggests, “what saves us from nothingness.”

 

 

Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell

No poet I know of can make inherited wealth and privilege–of the Boston Brahmin sort no less–seem so simultaneously offensive and seductive as Robert Lowell. There is so much sweet, precious, touching, and rarified charm in these poems it’s almost unbearable.

 

Often she saw you came home from a ride

or a walk, your coat dotted with thoughts

on slips of paper. 

 

But then again this riding and walking was being done by the fire-and-brimstone preacher Jonathan Edwards, a less than charming moral taskmaster. And, as Edwards seemed to portend, this otherwise pleasant patch of dotted thoughts led in time to spiritual misery for those who followed his dedication to the Puritan work ethic. From the same poem:

 

On State Street 

a steeple with a glowing dial-clock

measures the weary hours,

the merciless march of professional feet.  

 

Decay and danger emerge from stability not only in the arc of history, but in Lowell’s quickest glimpse of the quotidian:

 

             The cheese wilts in the rat trap,

             the milk turns to junket in the cornflakes bowl,

              car keys and razor blades

              shine in an ashtray

 

 

I think the main reason why I’m so enamored of Lowell is not only that he once traveled to Kentucky to camp out in front of Allen Tate’s house in the hopes of earning the Agrarian’s guidance (he ended up not needing it), but that every detail he offers appears to have some grounding in an event that Robert Lowell experienced himself. I actually don’t know if this claim is true, but his autobiographical openness, and inwardness, allows me to think so. It’s an allowance that speaks to a kind of poetic openness that’s not so confessional and mired in identity obsession as so much contemporary poetry is today (seriously, pick up a copy of Poetry). Lowell is vulnerable and trustworthy, and suddenly so am I.

 

In Praise of Idleness by Bertram Russell

Russell should always be read. Like Orwell, his ideas tend to cycle back into contemporary relevance every generation or so. In the midst of a pandemic we have watched an American government rhetorically dedicated to laissez-faire economic principles, dedication to hard work, and a loathing for handouts yield, however reluctantly, to socialistic strictures, orders to not work, and aid packages bailing out businesses big and small, as well as individuals. Uncannily, Russell promotes all of these ideas, with the critical caveat being that he advocates for them as standards during times of normalcy (or, if you prefer, normality)–not all out crisis. It raises the god question: doesn’t what we need in a crisis tell us something basic about what we need when there is not a crisis? The underlying premise to Russell’s utopian-tinged vision of political economy is hard to dispute: “Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not a life of arduous struggle.” The book builds in many ways on this theme.

What American readers might find hard to grasp is Russell’s embrace of useless knowledge, and the sense that we are all better off pursuing it rather than dedicating our lives to work that might seem necessary, but only if we understand ourselves as consumers rather than soulful individuals with an interest in life per se. He laments how “the conception of speech as something capable of aesthetic value is dying out, and it is coming to be thought that the sole purpose of words is to convey practical information.” This was in 1927. One can only imagine what he would think of texts. OMG!

 

Writing the Australian Crawl by William Stafford

Stafford was a fixture of American poetry in the 1970s. His prolific output of exploratory but accessible poems were notable for ignoring prevailing trends and analytical frameworks. Writing the Australian Crawl, published as part of the University of Michigan’s undervalued “Poets on Poetry” series, is Stafford’s freewheeling look at what so many great writers seem unable to articulate with any satisfaction: the writing process.

In a nutshell, Stafford’s philosophy is to write unencumbered by thought. In a way, he elevates the observational innocence of childhood to the touchstone of poetic worth, knocking academic knowledge to the curb on trash night. “You know, when we are kids we make up things, we write, and for me the puzzle is not that some people are still writing, the real question is why did the other people stop?” At the heart of this trust in the experience of childhood was the language emanating from it. “It is simply not true, for instance, that young students rely on a knowledge of ‘literature’ to enable their entry into poetry,” he wrote. “Rather, it is the other way around. They rely on talk, their own, and the talk around them. Their writings, their speakings, are like little explosions of discovery . . . ”

“Intention endangers creation,” he writes. To think hard, to make maps and legends, to aim for the end result–this is essential for the professors and the politicians. But it’s the kiss of death for the poet. “One who composes in language confronts opportunities too varied for fixed rules, or for violation of rules: from the emergency of the encounter emerges the new realization, the now poem.”

 

 

 

 

Premeditations

» March 25th, 2020

Premeditations

by klipschutz
Hoot n Waddle, 120pp., $16.00

Premeditations is a poet’s ode to poets. With wry nostalgia, klipschutz (the name author Kurt Lipschutz goes by), a San Francisco poet and songwriter (who works closely with the musician Chuck Prophet), opens his paean to poetry by defending the increasingly endangered sacred space where one typically discovers words that fuel the spirit: a bookstore. “North Beach Threnody,” the volume’s opening poem, leads with this stanza:

A landmark, registered, and us inside it,
folded up in folding chairs, with
everything outside moving
fast in another direction.
Looking around from
sign to handmade
sign, I dreamt
the lot of us
had heard
an SOS
and
answered,
gathering
against
an evil hour,
keeping faith
to make our stand,
in the last bookstore in town.

Those (of a certain age) committed to literature might quickly intuit the meaning of the stanza’s inversion. A cultural institution gets eroded from the center inward, enduring an attack on its countercultural tradition while nonetheless taking a stand (even if that stand is pacific and delivered from folding chairs). It’s an act that seems particularly appropriate for the Bay Area, a misty nirvana currently under siege by slick tech giants.

So klipschutz’s ode comes with urgency. It’s an urgency marked by memory and fueled by the terrifying prospect that we might choose not to resist. Books are precarious, loving them more so. Dedicating a life to text is an expression of defiance in a culture that’s increasingly gutted by commerce and intellectual indifference. And so on.

It’s good to be reminded of this truth. Its necessity. The experience of browsing shelves for hidden gems, with the faith that something critical depends on it, stands in empowering contrast to “everything outside moving / fast in another direction.” And thus one pleasure of this volume: klipschutz winks with those of us who know just how subversive this position can feel, a rare and therapeutic empathy we didn’t know we needed, until it came at us, poem after poem.

Charm leavens klipschutz’s nostalgia. He writes poems that remind us how, like most weapons of the weak, great poetry evokes the inner glow of living well, of exploring deeply, and of taking reality neat and straight. This book honors old souls with the fortitude to equate worlds and words, knowing intuitively that language does not represent so much as embody those “regions / scientists will never map.” klipschutz accomplishes all this while reiterating how precarious the space remains between real readers and their increasingly precious, tightly bound, potentially explosive weapons.

Read more here

February Reading Overview

» February 28th, 2020

Michael Cuddihy began his gem of a “little magazine” in 1972, in Tucson, Arizona, and for over 15 years ushered remarkable poetic talent from relative obscurity to global attention. Known for his exacting if sometimes maddening editorial standards, he published Charles Simic, W.S. Merwin, Czeslaw Milosz, Frank Stanford, George Oppen, Ai, Jack Gilbert, Donald Hall, and many others.  This book, a kind of autobiography of working life, chronicles Cuddihy’s connection with the poets he published, his interpretation of their work, and the nuts and bolts of putting together a journal in an age before digital publishing. Ironwood, Cuddihy’s journal, embodies a lifetime of work, 32 issues dedicated to publishing rare talent. Cuddihy’s own voice is measured, although it sometimes sometimes rises and falls above the norm. A rise: about a speech by the poet Robert Hass he writes, “So powerful was the impact his words made that had I been standing, I would have staggered.” Cuddihy was not standing because he couldn’t stand. Polio confined him to a wheelchair. And as for the falls, there’s a bit too much “I then had lunch with so and so important poet here and there” but it’s a small complaint for a book that consistently reminds us how deeply words matter.

 

 

 

 

C. Vann Woodward is a hero to me. I’m a historian (officially at least, although I rarely act like one) and he’s my model of what a historian should be. Why? Primarily because he understands the legacy of racial injustice, and condemns racism, while also remaining a proud, even defiant Southerner. This has been my lifelong struggle. My formative years were in Atlanta, Georgia and thus my identity was forged in the South. This regional association has stuck with me enough for me to get touchy when below-the-Mason-Dixon line slurs are uttered. Woodward goes after highbrow 19th-century northerners who went gaga over a murderer turned martyr named John Brown; he notes that the “American exceptionalism” that so many patriotic northerners have long sought was best reflected in the South; and he points out, rather bluntly, that the northerners who condemned the South as uniquely racist erupted in race riots the moment African Americans migrated to their turf: Chicago, New York, Detroit, and so on. Essentially C. Vann Woodward lets nobody off the hook when it comes to the legacy of race and racial injustice in the United States and that’s how it should be.

 

 

 

 

 

Basil Bunting was an English poet who worked in the shadow of Ezra Pound, and occasional managed to escape it and find his own voice. He’s a modernist. But, as stubbornly inaccessible as his poetry can be, he’s warm at heart and periodically able to elicit a throb of insight. BB was enamored of both youth and losing it, and once you appreciate this anxiety his Complete Poems bring you on board and perhaps serve you a bit of tea before the tears start to flow. The core advice of saving yourself from the perils that the hipper modernists feared was perhaps best stated here by Bunting:

Aye, tether me among the maniacs,

it’s nicer to rave than reason.

And it sure is. But it’s when Bunting thinks small that you might be better likely to connect with him. Such wisdom, for example, in this:

 

To cross a river 

boats and rudders

to keep the empire in order

poets and sages

 

Dare to dream, huh? Okay one more, I saddened my self with idealistic philosophies And another: Whose steps wake your delight?

I could go on. And so should you.

 

“Perfect,” a reviewer wrote in the New York Times. “Perfect,” a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post. This much hyped novel–about an adrift young woman who finds herself after being hired by an old friend to care for her stepchildren–delivers some touching insights into the ineffably difficult task of raising children. To highlight the deeply personal and emotional nature of the relationship between children and those who care for them, Kevin Wilson makes a couple of interesting choices: First, he sets the novel in the era just before the Internet, a choice that requires adults and kids to actually interact rather than lose themselves in screens; and second, he has the kids catch fire when they get overly excited. You heard that right. So, for me, a reader who prefers my reality straight with no chaser, the test was obvious: would I be able to keep reading once a kid spontaneously combusted? The answer was an assured yes. Wilson’s touch as a writer is swift, sometimes too breezy, but ultimately effective and trustworthy. I stuck with him, and while some characters are drawn as caricatures, and others under drawn, the protagonist, Lillian, is fully formed and deeply lovable; and while having kids catch fire still seems gimmicky, it accomplishes more than I thought possible. So the book is hardly perfect, hardly close to it, and does not go after any big game, but it’s an entertaining and well told tale. Bring it to the beach.

 

 

 

We all have gaps in our reading and Frankenstein was one that always bothered me. So when my daughter had to read it for school I thought I’d join her. It’s a page turner! Mary Shelley wrote it as a teenager, something that’s hard to fathom given the profound insight she offers into the human quest for technological control over nature. This book goes after big game indeed, so big that it may have more relevance now–200 years after it came out–than then. The age of AI would benefit immensely from a close reading of this text. Perhaps most shocking to me was how the monster that Frankenstein creates evokes such sympathy in the reader, as does the fear–gut wrenching as it is–that Frankenstein experiences when his powerful invention turns on him. References to Genesis, Rousseau, and Hobbes underscore much the text but what’s astounding is how equally interesting it is to think about the novel in the framework of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, all of whom came after Mary Shelley. Many it’s this last observation that qualifies a book as a classic.

 

 

 

 

 

Frank Stanford is a poet before anything else. But he did write short stories. They were nowhere near as impressive as his poems, but some of them are gripping, in a dark and carnivalesque  kind of way, and they nurture a theme that defines so much of Stanford’s work–deep empathy for the marginalized and grotesque. Wisdom resides in the downtrodden, and the very few elites who enter the scene are taken down many notches for their ersatz erudition. “Where I come from strangers are welcome”–the line opening one of the stories–could be Stanford’s motto. These strangers are usually damaged seekers who you root for. But the real highlights for me are when Stanford brings a poetic touch to his stories. “The tangle of an old chandelier hung in one room like a clump of roots” is a line that only a poet could write. And so I’m happy to think of Stanford, even more so after reading his prose, as a poet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January Reading Overview

» January 13th, 2020

 

Marquez is a masterful writer. Sentences soar and float with ethereal beauty. Example: “Little by little, listening to her sleep, he pieced together the navigation chart of her dreams and sailed among the countless islands of her secret life.” Lovely, but: Find that a little creepy, too? This is where Marquez gets complicated. He immerses readers in the romance of unrequited love and tender passion while allowing his elderly but remarkably virile protagonist to blamelessly sleep with a 14-year old girl whose prospects, as a result of this abuse, do not end well. Trust me that nobody will be reading this in high school English these days.  Or in college English for that matter. The novel makes Lolita look tame.  But then again Nabokov never did this: “He played, murmuring the words, his violin bathed in tears, with an inspiration so intense that with the first measures the dogs all over the city began to howl, but then, little by little, they were quieted by the spell of the music, and the waltz ended in supernatural silence.” Works for me.

 

 

 

For years, when I had a Twitter account, I used as my photo that famous image of Abbey leaning on the rifle with which he had just bullet-holed his television. Real good pic. I’ve read Abbey’s work for years, and have generally been a huge fan of his nonfiction (naturally, Desert Solitaire) although less enthused by his fiction (still, The Monkey Wrench Gang is an exception to my skepticism). His life was always vague to me, but–as I’m reading a lot of literary bios these days–I thought I’d take on James M. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life. There are flaws to this biography but it’s generally quite well done. The best proof of this claim is that by the end of it I really did not care for Ed Abbey as a person. In fact, I think he was largely full of shit, a man who invented himself as cheap caricature. But the crank had his insights that, jejune as they were, were also, if you want to get down to the lick log, funny. When he learned he might die, he quipped, “At least I don’t have to floss anymore.” Yeah, funny, but not enough to compensate for how badly he treated so many people, starting with himself. For the record, I no longer use his photo on my Twitter account, in part because I shot my Twitter account. You should, too. Abbey would approve.

Given it’s status as a longtime #1 NYT bestseller, given the vast positive commentary it generated, and given the author’s rise to stardom, Hillbilly Elegy came to me with elevated expectations. God what a horribly confused book. To be sure, it’s a page-turner. I mean, a real page turner. I started to read it while on a brief trip to the Florida Keys, where, on page 100, I dropped it, full immersion, into the bathtub. The paperback sunk like a cinderblock and then swelled to the size of a phonebook, so I did the natural thing: I got dressed and went right back to the bookstore and bought a second copy.

But by the time I finished it I wish I hadn’t padded the profits of this truly deceptive and manipulative book. The upshot is that the author is an incredibly impressive person who overcame some horrific early childhood experiences to make it to the Marines, Ohio State, and Yale Law School. The trajectory alone makes for the story.

But in that last hallowed venue he became preoccupied with class privilege. Others had it and he did not. Even as he rose in the ranks–law review, job offers, etc–he victimizes himself as unworthy, uncouth, unprepared, out of the LOOP. Not buying it, JD. What Esq. Vance never realizes is that the unique nature of his experience–seeing the class spectrum from so many angles–does not privilege him to draw the sweeping conclusions that he draws about class status, work, and upward mobility in ‘merica.

Unless he wants to invest his law degree with an authority he finds so vacant, he is only qualified to draw conclusions about one subject matter: himself. I wish he trusted that that would be enough. But, as a result of his deterministic insistence that once an Appalachian hillbilly always an Appalachian hillbilly, he ends up, due to this essentialist notion (and the false confidence of his credential), entirely ham-handing class in America. When a guy from such poverty insists that the government cannot help the poor folk he seems to know so well, you know something has been skewed for ulterior motives. When a Yale Law grad complains that nobody ever taught him that a belt and shoes should match, and deems that ignorance as genuine cultural oppression, I’m sorry, but I have more sympathy for the “welfare queens” he condemns.

My word, dear lord, hail mary, this Kurt Lipschutz (byline klipschutz) is some wonderful combination of smart, fun, irreverent, flippant, and beat. The single best thing about reading his new book of poems–Premeditations– is the thrill of witnessing a poet’s love of poetry. I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with klipshutz looking at art, and learning that he writes songs with the musician Chuck Prophet. Well, yeah he does. This volume is somehow both a personal testament to poetry, a history of poetry, and poetry all in one junket. Example: Ginsberg’s Howl is poetically cast as “the poem that changed America’s diapers/brought Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp out of the closet.” Amen. Who needs more than that. [sic]

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.