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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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