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.”





Leave a Reply