Monday, December 29, 2014

Best Books Read in 2014

Yet another change-up on the year-end retrospective, this time listing every book (with brief commentary) I liked this calendar year. I can't remember better luck in my reading choices. Maybe twenty or twenty-five mild-to-outright duds and flubs, which means an above-50% plug rate. That said, I shelved several only a chapter (or a few poems) in, so, in hindsight, it allowed for far more quality. I've been sliding in that direction for several years now, anyway, and as the years accelerate into worldwide graphomania, it's a damn good policy.

The first ten books are listed in order of preference, the other twenty-seven in no particular order. The [b] designation after publication date refers to a lengthier blog entry on the same book earlier in the year, which can be accessed at the sidebar to the right.

1) Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, (1973). I don’t know why it’s taken me forty-one years to pick up this wayward, psychedelic, manic encyclopedia. The best “new” novel I’ve read this century, its scope and tonal range, lexical extravagance and meaning (reading some of the dismissive reviews on its meaning was discouraging), and prophetic impulse is incomparable. From a trapped bombing victim on one page to the surrealistic trip of a buggered bar patron trying to fish out his mouth harp from an overflowing toilet on the next page, it all works, all 760 dense pages of it.

2) Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers, (1997). Over forty years in the making, Ozick’s novel is executed in all facets with a hyper-attached Swiss Army knife. Stylish, lean, big-voiced with an incredibly sophisticated tone both arch and solemn, a fantasia without taking away from the realistic and harrowing penultimate event, wise, metaphysically daunting, meta-fictionally ingenious, structurally and chronologically inventive, funny, funny, and funny. The titular character I won’t ever forget.

3) Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760). Even Sterne wouldn’t have anticipated the irony and hypocrisy of present-day pomos carping about the too-earnest and too-proud certainties of realists and other assorted traditionalists while, themselves, lathering on the arcane and the obscuring, the specialized hush and the snake-eating-its-tail argumentation. I read this novel (or anti-novel) in my youth, but it’s only this year, this reread, that I’ve appreciated it as more than an amusing, infinite digression. (The targets are broader, of course, including other pompous figures, whether in the eighteenth or twenty-first centuries.)

4) James Park Sloan, Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (1996). With the help of a skylight winch, pulled this from a Victoria, B.C. bookstore in 2007, and it took me seven years of daily weight training to be able to hoist the cement coffin from a bookcase addition. Amazingly meticulous research – not dissimilar in kind, at least, to the work Brian Busby put in on another bio on this list, while separating truth from whopper – in order to get underneath the many layers of fibbing and “image maintenance” of Kosinski’s mercurial personality. The Polish history is fascinating, the involvement with a New York literary elite desperate for “authenticity” revealing, the Hollywood hobnobbing a converging and sympathetic ambivalence, the Village Voice exposé a balanced journalistic overview with riveting biographical detail. Kiki von Fraunhofer must be the most selfless lit-spouse of all.

5) Joseph Heller, Something Happened, (1974). Relentlessly dark, the novel is black and yellow bile served up dry. Heller, after Catch-22, brings the American nightmare home. If there’s a more illuminating floodlight turned on office politics, I haven’t yet read it. The home front gets a similarly detailed psychological exploration. (I seem to have chanced upon quite a few laugh-to-keep-from-crying works this year.)

6) Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book Of Words, tr. Susan Bernofsky, (2004). Impressionistic yet concentrated, the novel gathers force and leaves stunning metaphorical clues as the girl narrator tries to understand her mysterious guardian’s language-perversion in justification of a career in state torture. Mixing folklore with horrific event, the reader, too, is constantly unbalanced. 

7) Anis Shivani, My Tranquil War and Other Poems, (2012). [b]. In a wide range of modes and emotions, Shivani argues with, and touts, an equally wide range of literary lion(esse)s, artists, and political figures, while situating (or implicating) them in cultural clashes and irrelevancies. Many standout poems.

8) Peter Richardson, Bit Parts For Fools, (2013). Richardson deepens his historical fiction monologues in this latest poetry collection, but never runs away from more personal involvement, revealing new concerns in entries of retirement, nostalgia, and specific appreciation. (As a huge Ralph Gustafson fan, it’s heartening to see the corresponding gentle elegy.)

9) Rachel Lebowitz, Cottonopolis, (2013). Shelby Foote complained about most historians whose dry and/or poorly-written tomes detracted from the horrors evoked in source material. Not so in Lebowitz’ stirring poems – found, phrase-borrowed, or original – of the too-easily-forgotten slaves, weaver-slaves, and famine victims of the Industrial maladaptation. Mixing extracts of squalor and beauty in language both vivid and blunt, the book is a worthy reminder that history tends, unfortunately, to favour stories of superhuman battle rather than the more common (and relatable) long emergencies detailed here – even during the American Civil War – of  infection, exhaustion, and disease.

10) Yiyun Li, The Vagrants, (2009). Set in the late 1970s, between Mao’s Cultural Devolution and the ‘Eight Square’ Massacre of 1989 (I use one of the euphemisms to bypass Chinese censors in that country on the slight chance someone there googles this mini-review), Li’s consistently low-key, formal, dire novel records the cultural ambivalences of that brief and hopeful period, when generations clashed over the value of individualism and revolution over respect, collective will, and family obedience. 

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse, (1970). A delightful Henry Miller-ish creative non-fic place piece, without the inflated metaphysics.

ed. Brian Busby, The Heart Accepts It All, (2013). A wide-ranging selection of John Glassco’s letters which, in their personal obsessions, reveal, perplex, and delight.

ed. Brian Busby, A Gentleman of Pleasure, (2011). [b]. Meticulous biographical research against a complex historical adventure which organizes a psychological study of  dramatic, wise import.

Joyce Carol Oates, A Fair Maiden, (2010). [b]. Grim novella, rich in character tension, not so rich in tonal contrast.

Thomas Pynchon, Vineland, (1990). [b]. Has been called Pynchon’s worst novel. We should all be so lucky. A delightfully paranoid California romp. The author gently slaps the counter-culture while throwing vitriol at apostate informers.

James Dickey, Deliverance, (1970). [b]. Exceptionally tense, with gorgeous rock-cut sentence-descriptions of the river rapids. Dickey doesn’t let up in the quieter character assessments, either.

Bill Gaston, The Order of Good Cheer, (2008). [b]. A colourful bisection where the comparisons are effective only at a stretch. The alternating stories, though, provide a potent one-two combo of whimsy and guilt.

Mona Simpson, Off Keck Road, (2000). It must be hard to compose a novella about three unadventurous women, but Simpson succeeds with interior shading, wise character exchanges, and descriptive subtlety.

Beryl Bainbridge, An Awfully Big Adventure, (1989). Bainbridge’s last semi-autobiographical novel (I believe), the writing is superb: dialogue captures working-class vitality, and narration is crisp and colourful. Humour with a cost.

Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow, (2010) [b]. A generous dose of typically surprising, astute, comedic Amis-penned mischief.

John Pass, Crawlspace, (2011). [b]. A pretty good poetry collection with vibrant images, disarming humour, and narrative heft. Flagged a bit with emotional overreach.

Dean Young, Embryoyo, (2007). [b]. Excellent surrealistic poetry assault. Provocative linkages which gather multiple suggestions.

Nicole Dixon, High-Water Mark, (2012). The transience of desire, and desire’s reconciliation, usually for the best, characterize many of Dixon’s dialogue-heavy short stories. The traps gnawing at each character stem not so much from grim economic realities or family pressures, but from individuals’ own limitations, largely based on a lack of experience (many characters are young). Pared, immediate, and refreshingly clear of taking sides.

Philip Roth, Indignation, (2008). [b]. I’ve soured a bit on this since reading/blogging it in February, but it still packs a typical Rothian punch of sexuality and identity at near-burst the entire novella.

Alissa Nutting, Tampa, (2013). [b]. Receiving a horrendously reactive critical reception, either for or against, because of its explosive subject matter, the novel isn’t cutting edge or exploitative trash, but a flawed, intelligent first-person study of sex and power.

Will Ferguson, Spanish Fly, (2007). Riveting account of scammers set in the U.S. Depression dustbowl, the novel scores frequent points for humour, drama, plot, and description. The ending fell apart – in believability and force – but that’s a minor point.

Jason Guriel, The Pigheaded Soul, (2013). [b]. A wide tapas table of literary response to a fairly divergent set of authors in several genres, Guriel’s writing is concise and occasionally startling in its phrase-making and wise allusive reach, though I disagree with many of its evaluations.

Shane Neilson, Will, (2013). [b]. In-your-face and angry, sadly contemplative, or japingly satirical, Neilson, in these short stories, succeeds in a variety of tones. Too many noteworthy stories to single out just one or two. They’re all various shades of interesting to exciting.

Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist, (2005). Whimsical, witty, poignant novel of a reclusive poet battling inertia and failure to craft an intro to a poetry anthology. Baker overcomes the potentially dry material by releasing a captivating voice in the narrator.

Martin Amis, Heavy Water & Other Stories, (1999). Much panned and, yeah, some of the inverted conceits (and conceited inverts) are more interesting for the idea than the exposition, but several of the shorts have the stamp of Amis-branded absurdity and bullseye satire. Unlike almost every reviewer, I found the title effort both vivid and moving.

Jerzy Kosinski, Passion Play, (1979). The quality of Kosinski’s opus flags markedly after his first two fiction titles, but there are many haunting passages here of identity crisis and ambivalent nostalgia, as well as stinging descriptions of polo drama and Caribbean intrigue.

Guy de Maupassant, Selected Stories, tr. Roger Colet, (compiled 1971). A much-culled selection of Maupassant’s short stories, including “The Horla” and “Boule de Suif”, Colet’s translation is classically rendered, though dialogue has the force and immediacy of the characters’ volatility.

Orhan Pamuk, Other Colors, (2007). A slew of essays, articles, reminiscences, polemics, literary statements, anecdotes, historical cut-outs, and author retrospectives, capped by his Nobel speech, Paris interview and an original short story, Pamuk’s range is impressive, though that scope is contradicted, at times – I carp – by his obsession with East-West relations.

Zachariah Wells, Career Limiting Moves, (2013). I’d read most of these poetry reviews and essays, interviews, considerations, and ironic interrogations, but not his excellent review – “Disaster Tourism” – of Anne Simpson’s Loop, which he once pointed me to, after I’d reviewed her atrocious collection, Is, (available at the roll call to the right). Lots of quotation included throughout the collection, and assertions are elaborated on from more than one angle.

Richard Greene, Dante’s House, (2014). [b]. The long terza rima titular poem is a standout, neither sagging nor garrulous. Several gems appear in the opening section, too, including the simultaneously gripping and measured “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”.

George Elliott Clarke, Black, (2012). [b]. In a stunningly wide array of moods and modes, Clarke’s characteristic indulgences are superseded by a wealth of lyrical power.

Zsuzsi Gartner, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, (2011). Wallowing in cultural ephemera, this short story collection is nevertheless saved by Gartner’s (narrative, lexical, stylish) joyous invention.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Richard Greene's Dante's House

“I substitute have seen you for will see./Tenses shift and I prepare for memory.”

Those lines, the final in-stanza couplet from “Crooked Eclipses”, Richard Greene’s poem from Dante’s House, capture the backward transitional movement of psychological time, but Greene has consistently gazed over his shoulder, in this collection as in his previous, Boxing the Compass. Even in his personal travel pieces, the past constantly merges with the present, and is often more vivid than reachable church stone or “ten fantini sitting on bareback steeds”. That said, his observational powers are very good. Greene’s mind is equable, and many of the conclusions drawn are doubting, provisional, withheld, or impossible. Unlike instances in Boxing the Compass, there’s more of, “Those roads wind among degrees of sorrow/I cannot imagine” (from “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”), and I, for one, am grateful for it.

The latter poem’s title is in some way a response, obviously, to Wallace Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West”, which could just as easily have been headed as “The Idea of Disorder”. Greene, then, isn’t indulging in irony when observing the broken political reality and broken men and women that he sees during a Haiti excursion. A narrative poet often drawn to the elegiac mode, Greene’s lyrical skills are rarely virtuosic, though the approach is purposely understated, even at heightened interludes. At times, though, a memorable sequence will make the reader (this one, at least) pause. One example: Greene, in his “The Idea of Order at Port-au-Prince”, agrees with Stevens’ philosophical stance of manpersonwomankind’s rage for meaning, but undercuts it in practical necessity, with “Rebuilding is a matter of cinder-/block and thickets of rebar rising up/the mountain’s steep face”.

The sameness of colour in the first eleven one-to-five pagers – measured, sympathetic, commemorative – makes it more important than usual that content, in isolation, be interesting. This is, of course, highly subjective, reader to reader. I found the two-part “Corrections” a highlight: horrifying mini-studies of doomed prisoners “rip[ping]/open the skin and muscle with their hands.” Greene’s strength, though – (I’ll shortly get to that) – is absent by constriction. The poet obviously can’t enter the troubed lives of these unfortunate men in any meaningful way from a one-visit tour. A lowlight was “Yankee Stadium”, a fond homage to the Yankee “mystique”.  Rhapsodizing over ballooning multi-millionaires becomes, itself, weirdly inflated as one ages and the corporate chess-players shift and pluck from the green board.

The approach and sequencing between Boxing the Compass and Dante’s House is the same. Shorter considerations act as substantial appetizers to the last poem, in this case the titular 32 page travelogue-memorial. So I was surprised to find my evaluations, book-to-book, reversed: “Dante’s House”, after the collection’s uneven first half, knocks it out of any open space, whether Yankee Stadium or the Grand Canyon. The aptly-named poem’s impulse is self-evident. Structured in twenty-nine tercet-descending terza rima stanzas, the formidable formal constraint works astonishingly well. It’s not a boastful marathon exercise. The one-step-back-two-steps-forward foray of the rhyme scheme captures Greene’s often tentative experiences on foreign soil, trying to communicate with strangers in Berlitz Italian, and interpreting actions and dialogue, self-consciously, through a different cultural and historical lens. (For that matter, the backward-forward steps work as fitting image of a Dante troubled by the Inferno’s upcoming, deeper circle.) But the pattern also enhances Greene’s quieter connections between the past as it manifests in the present (Faulkner is useful to think about here), not just in how Il Duce’s sins live on in the shattered lives of victims’ descendants, but in Greene’s own ruminations on his mother’s troubles and ultimate death. His strength in bridging time and geography, others with himself, is utterly mellifluous and convincing. To accomplish that narratively within the demanding long-poem constraints of the form (I only counted one egregious choice – “move slowly past in their pageantry of tum-//ult.” is the end-move to “come” and “drum”) is even more impressive. One reason attention isn’t called to the procedure, like an annoyed and dissatisfied audience member lifting the curtain in front of the hand puppet, has to do with Greene’s prosodic variance. Many readers, even studious poets, frequently belittle rhyme in a free(r) verse milieu, but a far more damning clunkfest has to do with repetitive metre. Gimme ingenious rhymes all day; just don’t dress them up in military iambics.

There are many other elements to trumpet in “Dante’s House”, and though I can’t get to them all, I’d like to point to a few more. Lyricism is enhanced, in contrast to the book’s first half, throughout the long poem. “Bungling shrinks tinkered with her sanity” is the closest Greene gets to anger, but it’s the sounds, not the tone, one remembers. The concluding line of that penultimate stanza – “Love was taken from me, yet I rejoice” – is simple and heartbreaking, a closing benediction on three interspersed sections concentrating on his mother, itself a spur to a spiritual strength which surpasses the milder, received grace of Italian architecture and biography and interaction, though these, too, are noteworthy. Like “The Divine Comedy”, Greene’s scope encompasses all kinds of figures -- political, artistic, religious, and intellectual. Catherine of Alexandria is given thirty lines of stanza twelve, and, typical of Greene’s seamless weaving, he manages to distill complex, provocative and disputatious subject matter into personal wisdom. The future martyr is “a late child among twenty-five,/little wonder she preferred constraint//to bed and breeding.” Conversion, Greene seems to believe, followed more easily, perhaps even as a practical inevitability, from her early experiences, and in that way may not have been the unexplained event, the more sensational miracle. Umberto is Green’s Virgilian guide, and if the author doesn’t mythologize his helpers, he certainly colours them liberally with fond idiosyncrasy, as Umberto “summons dark humour/and blows away his temple with a finger.”  The poem’s length lets Greene rummage, ruminate, travel without conclusion, stumble, misconstrue, prevail, and “rejoice” with “a power to bless”. “Dante’s House” is more expansive and more concentrated than “Over the Border”, the similarly structured long end-piece to his previous volume which won the Canadian Gov-Gen award. This poem is far more deserving of accolades, and I hope he receives them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

George Elliott Clarke's Black

Black, George Elliott Clarke’s 2012 poetry collection from Gaspereau Press, is  reworked from an earlier version from a different publishing house. I’m not familiar with its genesis, but this latest edition may have been not just an editing reappraisal, but also an addendum, since it clocks in at a stout 141 pages, sans end notes. The book is indexed by thematic dividers: Black Ink; Black Eye; Black Ice; Black Light, etc. And though a first impression, here, may gravitate towards unsubtle metaphor, the poems at once transcend racial didacticism. And like his Red and Blue, and against what Clarke’s titles may suggest are colour-specific metaphor, his scope overspills what must be a temptation in jargon-ridden ideological poli-sci students juggling ideas for a Master’s thesis. I say “overspills”, because, unlike the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s masterwork, The Golden Notebook, with its neurotically compartmentalized sections of black, yellow, blue, and gold, Clarke is impetuously integrative. The poems’ many modes aren’t an angled show of workshop chops, but a natural outpouring of complex emotion and vision.

“Natural outpouring” may cause craftspeoplehoods everywhere a wince or three. Visions of Whitman’s democratic acolytes scribbling delightful nonsense faster than a shorthand secretary at a decision on bomb deployment in a hurried State Dept convening. And, again, there’s that flagrantly, even arrogantly, unfashionable 141 pages (though with scattered pics) to consider. To the poems:

In a cheeky personal continuum, Clarke begins with “George & Rue: Coda”, a narrative sequence that immediately raises the pulse, with “Rufus slammed the hammer/ ... into Burgundy’s head”. The second couplet, unfortunately, highlights Clarke’s more than occasional problems with word choice. “Like a bullet bashing the skull” is echoed, in botched image or illogical link, by the later “words flood out”, “eunuchs droning” (eunuchs maintained a high and sweet voice, which was the point in the cut of European castrati), “surge of sun, lemony, cantankerous, warm” (the middle adjective is the worst, and “lemony” and “warm” are analogous to “wet water”), and “little rills slur the frothed river/ ... Bright as tinny, sitcom laughter, drowning/Out every serious thing”. (Sitcom laughter is, by definition, an amplifier, not something that “drowns” or eliminates. And how can a rill – a natural phenomenon – be equated to a human manipulation? The images here aren’t contrapuntal, either in harmony or dissonance.) Other problems? Clarke has always had a compulsive desire to clang rhymes – off-centred and full – like a mischievous schoolboy unattended at five a.m. in a church tower. It’s not that it’s unappealing (a reader who doesn’t delight in “vague ague plaguing” is probably better off reading intergovernmental marketing manuals), it’s that Clarke uses it as an all-purpose lyrical option, like a stuck music box that eventually morphs into a jackhammer.

But for all Clarke’s faults, they pale when remembering (and, dammit, reading aloud!) lines like “I gabble a garrote argot, guttural, by rote,/A wanton lingo, taunted and tainted by wine,/A feinting langue haunted by each slave boat”; “I suffered vicious, viscous visions/Of that Bible-toting tease, that hymn-singing quim,/That wriggle of a woman in a squiggle of a dress”; “a sour, righteous condemnation,/perpetually fountaining, brilliant,/ from the holes in the orator’s chest,/ his multiplied mouths” (the latter from “The Assassination of Malcolm X”, Clarke’s brilliantly shocking life-from-death dramatic metaphor); “A Frankenstein-masked, meeching, elfish ghoul,/Skulking in a graveyard of prime ministers”, (that last from “Jean Chretien”); his “Autobiography (II)”, the “so-called poet/Ink on my hands like bomb residue”; and “Breathless, she inhales leaves, their incensed green/Ebony, dark narcotic chlorophyll,/Then faints at the crux of branches and trunk” from his remarkable “Elegy on a Theme by Gasparini”, itself inspired by Len Gasparini’s exceptional “Elegy”.

I mentioned Clarke’s emotional breadth earlier. Poems here traverse the elegiac, the address to students, lyrical poetics, stinging ethnography, ars poetica,  epigram, anaphora, georgic, confessional and lament, bitter proverb, racial myth, erotic paean, satire, celebrity monologue, economic squib, prophecy, encomium, pasquinade, personal appellative etymology, and soliloquy. In an emotional range reminiscent of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues, where the composer resubmits Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” with his own contrasting take on multiple moods, Clarke’s far-ranging modes are what we still refer to as classical, yet they are entirely his own.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Shane Neilson's Will

“The more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.”
--Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions

The epigraph to Shane Neilson’s 2013 Will alerts the reader before the first short story that there’ll be more than a few autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or attendant studies among the set of eighteen. Neilson, a physician, wastes no time. “The Entirely Beautiful” is the most harrowing story in a collection mass-tattooed with medical blunders, emergency chaos, angry reaction, and painful reflection. This is a good choice in sequencing. If you can get through story one (better, if you enjoy it), it’s a good bet you’ll move through the blood and anguish with eyes wider than an initial, indifferent perusal might have gained.

Though the operating room and palliative care facility make for a lot of the settings, medical care is also backgrounded and foregrounded  outside the hospital. “Gorblimey!”, one of the compilation’s best, a speculation on poet-physician John McCrae, is a crafty mix of risque, ad hoc, soldier-bellowing song lyrics, aphorism (“Poetry is no ounce of cure, words won’t cleanse my lungs.”), and dramatic ambivalence.

Neilson can take off the scrubs, though, and travel to the hockey rink, with “Fucking Shit Ice”, a gamey insider look at the minors with a ringer, his friend, and his coach; a terrifically funny (and wistful) “Prawn”, about a beleaguered high-pressure inside salesman with admirable ‘fuck you’ ethics; and the ambitious “The Great Newfoundland Novel”, a boisterous phantasmagoria featuring a forlorn Nabokov in the snow and mist of Newfoundland.

Neilson shows a surprisingly refreshing tactic of burying any didacticism within the action of the narrative framework. The violent and drunken father; the superior medical superior: in less patient, or more reactionary, hands, these characters could have been a short road to caricature and easy damnation. But the invested author makes us look at them, difficult, at times, as it is, with concern, if not empathy.

A terrific collection that, I'm sure, will reward future readings.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Jason Guriel's The Pigheaded Soul

Collections of poetry criticism, dormant for a spell in Canada, have erupted in the past two years. Carmine Starnino’s Lazy Bastardism, James Pollock’s  You Are Here (both reviewed on this site), and others I’ve yet to get to have provided context on, and assessment for, contemporary poets, as well as needed looking glasses into the hours-only shifting sands of poetics. Jason Guriel’s The Pigheaded Soul, published last year by The Porcupine’s Quill, is another compilation, a generous roll call of thirty poetry reviews, essays and retrospectives, journalistic “atmosphere” pieces on poetry readings, a memorial, a music review, a thematic review of two novels, a general review of poetry within prose, and a review of an essayistic compilation of poets opening up on pre-poem impulses. I’ve given my opinions on Daryl Hine, Eric Ormsby, Anne Carson, Dennis Lee, and Don Coles in the aforementioned books by Starnino and/or Pollock, so I’ll just mention in passing that Guriel’s take on those poets shares evaluative force and specific, similar criticisms with those other assessments (Hine, yes – Ormsby, yes – Carson, mostly yes – Coles, yes – Lee, “Godno”.) And because of the breadth of the compilation, the unkind math involved in the undeviating sweep of the clock’s second-hand, and other books piling up like cordwood in October, I’ll have to severely limit my engagement with the essays to several choices. But I’ll back up.

Surely Guriel’s most provocative contention in the introduction is his Kleinzahler-aligned applause of poetry as “[e]ntertainment, escapism – these are feats enough”. Rather than expanding in a joyful explication his definition would warrant (two previous quotes from poems of Sarah and Coluccio don’t support his argument, the first example clever but slight, and the second, in lockstep iambic tetrameter, a shopworn consideration of the writer’s wish for the everlasting freshness of his words), Guriel settles back into the role of scold after a momentary half-smile. His next sentence is a botched, slumberous variation which, even were it a sardonic aping of the self-appointed vatic emphatics, assumes too much – “[f]ar too many readers of poetry prefer to flatter themselves with the splendid thought that the thoughtful work they read (and write) is food for thought”. Well, I’d submit that that extreme is equally countered by its opposite: poem as joke, as cool persona, as ironic elbow-to-the-ribs before the channel change. There are several problems with Guriel’s assertion but, for time considerations, I’ll limit my response to the main one: it’s a lie. Shakespeare, of course, created mouthwatering rhythms from diction frequently his own (neologists aren’t cute, they’re ambitious). But his plays have also been hotly debated for their political meanings, their psychological and philosophical insights, their moral knots and revelations, and their emotional ambiguities. Milton was a great thinker, and not just in his urgent political tracts. Dante was no slouch, nor were Blake and D. H. Lawrence. More recent examples? Lesser lights, sure, but I learned, as a sprout, when indoors, more about human nature and grace from Layton and Gustafson than when reading historical overviews or cultural op eds. Of course great poetry doesn’t need complex thought. And thought without a joy in its encapsulated language is stillborn. But thought doesn’t, willy nilly, cancel out entertainment and delight.  And at the outset, just to posit this forced choice is false. Thought, as Guriel often derides that  word or procedure in poetry, means, for him, messaging, or more accurately, bald or simplistic or hectoring messaging. Get that baby out of the bathwater! But I go on so, so I’ll go on.

I’m lukewarm or cuke-cool on much of the poetry of Kay Ryan, so I was eager to read Guriel’s take on her poetry since he thinks her (I believe) North America’s greatest living practitioner. In his book’s titular essay, the conceit is ineffectual. Written from the perspective of a reviewer in the 2030s, anything said could just as easily be made clear now, especially so since the Guriel stand-in loves to praise his case study by the contrast of beating with a ruler her unworthy contemporaries. The Ryan promoter tells us all poets are now Ryan-influenced, “so much so that her concise, linear style ... is the default setting for versifiers”. Guriel, later, has fun with that “reality” when he cites a poem by a Frank Hoaks in The New Yorker (the reviewer shows a welcome consideration in tipping his hand). In its skinny lines, aphoristic ambition, gear-shifting enjambment and last-word rhyme, Guriel may be gently pummeling acolytes trying to make a name for themselves riding the jacket flaps of the great, but his exercise, though a pale imitation of a Ryan poem, nevertheless undercuts some of the limitations of the California poet. Ryan -- and Guriel surely must love this about her -- is transitional about meaning, preferring, in step and often, to shift from the concrete to the general in the closing line or three by way of ironic juxtaposition. At her best, as in “Against Gravity”, Ryan delivers the shock from a vague appreciation of perseverance to the ominous specifics of “Because we’re glad some mornings,/and buoyant, as though we had/no bombs or appointments”. In other poems, “Half A Loaf” being a good example, Ryan’s beguiling, casual metaphorical horror of “The whole loaf’s loft/is halved in profile,/like the standing side/of a bombed cathedral” ends in the deflating and unnecessary “I say do not adjust to half/unless you must”. At her worst, Ryan has the contemporary disease – no different than a legion of other versifiers filling out the requirements of one-issue-and-out litzines – of vagueness masquerading as profundity, as in “Miners’ Canaries”, where “Something is always/testing the edges/of the breathable -- /not so sweet, not so yellow,/but something is always/living at the wrong edge/of the arable; something/is always excused first”. I’m writing a bit of a review of Ryan’s The Best Of It myself, but I’d hoped that Guriel would’ve focused more on a review-proper, on the specific charms or revelations of a poet he reveres, instead of setting down a three-page biographical preamble and a concluding two-page hoax, critical history, and future speculation. The middle half deals with poems, but mostly summarily, in overview, though when he does delve into a particular poem, her “Turtle”, I couldn’t disagree more with the interpretation, in which the reptile’s movements somehow demonstrated her “advocacy of underdogs of all stripes”. This may be true of Ryan, when considering her prose and her personal life. I wouldn’t know. But the poem – the only consideration – is a different animal. Though Ted Hughes and D. H. Lawrence wrote excellent poems of beast and bird, they could also arrogantly draw thought bubbles above the heads of their illiterate studies. Ryan’s “Turtle”, unfortunately, belongs to the latter set, with its, “She lives/below luck-level, never imagining some lottery/will change her load of pottery to wings.” But change is a human hope, and hope is made possible by an awareness of past and future. Animals don’t have that capacity, which can be a curse, but in this case surely a blessing. The turtle doesn’t need the poet’s misplaced compassion – (Who knows, from the poem’s last line, not quoted in Guriel’s essay, that the turtle is “chastened”?) – but maybe the reader chancing upon Ryan for the first time, via Guriel, does.

When Guriel wants to, he can dig into the guts and grace of a particular poem with an insightful revelation and assessment. Multiple essays in The Pigheaded Soul demonstrate this. But the practice is sporadic, and one almost always gets the sense that the microscopic view is just a researcher’s required footnotes, a dispassionate accommodation to the exigencies of the reviewer’s job description. His prime passion, as I’ve made the point, is the overview, including the historical placement, the (sometimes) willful and cross-genre comparisons, the insights gleaned from an author’s life, away from and at the writer’s desk. This is all quite interesting, but (asks the reader, and certainly the author under consideration), what about the poems? Well, if you’re looking to be enlightened on the poetry of Charles Bernstein in Guriel’s essay “Words Fail Him”, on that American language poet and guru, you’re out of luck. The procedure mentioned above is amplified. Clocking in at twenty pages – the longest word count of any essay in the book – it’s apparent the topic (not, ever, just the poems) is an important one for the reviewer. Guriel instigates the attack with a bewildering medley of meta-analyses. A high school friend’s poem is endearingly mocked (“This/is/a/poem.”). Language poetry is then castigated by its very definition. Other language poets are mini-critiqued (Hejinian, Perelman) by way of one poem-fragment apiece. A reactionary and silly defense is made for poems that dare to appear unthreatening on first read: “But what’s so bad about kicking back with a poem that conjures the illusion of a speaker serving up a clear message in a linear way? (What’s so bad about a good read?) And why do these curious peoples, the Language poets, want to take the reader by the lapels and jostle her so?” To the last question: I don’t know, maybe they got (and get) tired of poems that “entertain” and have nothing to say? Guriel’s welcome to his preferences, of course. We all have them, and it’s best (and credit to Guriel) to admit them. But there is so much that is assumed in the above quotation, I’ll try to be concise with my response. There’s nothing wrong with a good read, of course. Maybe others (and I’m one) are entertained, at times, by non-linear writing as well as “clear message[s]”. (I thought Guriel was against messaging?) An antagonistic my-team-or-nothing view seems not just narrow-sighted, but narrow-minded. And in an age of exponential distraction, the poet’s initial job (essentially, to get noticed) is as hard as it’s ever been. A little lapel-shaking ain’t necessarily a bad thing, and it doesn’t always mean that a poet’s doing so in bad faith. If it seems I’m far from any Bernstein sighting, I’m just following Guriel’s lead. Nothing yet on the poet’s All the Whiskey in Heaven, Bernstein’s large Selected. But at least we’ve thrashed through the underbrush and are now within range of the perplexing, though not-so-rare, black wildebeest in the clearing. Responding to an early essay by Bernstein, Guriel asserts that “surely there are those who aren’t much startled by the [language poems’] disruptions, having encountered them before”. He fixes on this point, with minor variations, throughout this “review” of Bernstein’s 2010 Selected, his most forceful point being that the reader must first be transmitted into reverie before any startling can occur. But these words – startle, jostle, disruption -- have to be used with great care. (Bernstein – and the language poets – get sympathy, from me, here.)  It’s true that in their fractured syntax, grammatical tricks and subversions, lack (at times) of referents, disjointed narratives, harsh shifts in tone, a Gurielesque prosecution of opacity and willful disdain for the reader may make sense. But each reader has to account for his own experiences. After the initial “jostling”, the effect of Bernstein’s poetry, for me, isn’t one of confusion or frustration, but of play, of seeing how it matches with meaning and emotion. I can’t do that yet, though, because the reviewer is still haranguing all language poets for the supposed sins of their forebears. All language poets are alike, apparently because one passage of a 1994 Bernstein poem is “similar in sound” (yes, that’s the finely-tuned exegesis) to that of a Jackson Mac Low 1964 fragment and a Gertrude Stein poem-snippet of 1914. But this is ridiculous. The poems are quite different in structure, rhythm, and tone (I’m not typing them all out here, and for illustrative purposes, they can’t be excised. Pp 236-7, though.) Guriel finishes his preamble with, “his gumming up of grammar, his juxtaposition of words that are a typewriter’s slip away from one another: these are reliable licks in a repertoire, the ones you play if you want to count yourself part of Official Avant-Garde Culture.” This is unfair, based, so far, on one Bernstein poem-fragment. But now, the review of the Selected itself begins.

Guriel states that Bernstein’s “subject matter is usually the opacity of words” after stating that it’s “not the transcript of a coherent voice with something on its mind”. This contradiction, amazingly, trumps itself in the next paragraph, where Guriel lists several meanings apparent throughout the Selected, including, “wary of walls and boundaries”, “looks askance at the corporate world and the myth of the self-determining individual”, and “not without a sense of humour” (the double negative here is a grudging, faint-praise nod to one of Bernstein’s strengths). I mentioned earlier that Guriel is at his best when investigating an actual poem, but even this is overstating the case. He’s most concerned with parsing poem fragments, as evidenced by his handling of a section of Ryan’s “Turtle”, already explored by me in that essay. (All Ryan’s poems are short, so a full-poem quotation would have been easy, though it also would have shown how his point was compromised.) The best demonstration, though, of Guriel’s missing the forest for a glance at a pine needle begins with his perusal of Bernstein’s first poem in All the Whiskey in Heaven, “Asylum”. It’s not an auspicious start. Bernstein’s “rooms, suites of rooms, buildings, plants//in line” is criticized by Guriel for its missed connection of not just “in line”, but  “words in a line – a line of poetry!” (Italics are in the original text.) Guriel continues: “Bernstein borrows some images from Goffman, of bounded spaces. But he also cracks wise with a pun, reminding those of us bookworms who might otherwise relax into the reverie of reading that the images, far from being firm representations of the things of the world, are made of words, words, words. ... He leaves his sentences in tatters, ironically enough.//In other words, it’s hard to get a grip on “Asylum”, which is always unravelling.” Flabbergasting. Remember, this is the conclusion Guriel asserts after quoting less than two lines of a 16 page poem. Yes, those lines are also lines in poetry. Even the most representational of poets realizes (or should) that their words are just manipulations of reality, messed with, loaded with multiple or ambiguous meanings, ordered in syntactical originality, presented with an organic feel for nuanced tone within the temporal shifts of the whole poem. What is Guriel actually arguing (or arguing for) here? Bernstein’s aim, even in this small sample, is fairly easy to decipher. Guriel damns the sentence tatters as “ironic”, but it’s Guriel who’s obtusely ironic in not recognizing Bernstein’s fine mating of style with content (the disjunction – not breakdown – of language with the mental states experienced in a 1976 mental institution, as they were called in pre-politically incorrect times). If one can’t be circular, oblique, and grammatically challenging, in this context, then I’m not sure when a non-linear approach would be accepted. The further irony, though, is that most of “Asylum” is fairly easy to parse. But one wouldn’t know that with only Guriel’s essay to go by. The poem gathers in condemnatory strength and anger, convincingly so. Guriel’s introductory slam of Bernstein’s nothing “on his mind” vanishes in poem one, with “booing, tray thumping, mass food rejection/mutinies; but these/plateaus of disinvolvement/broken (as they/disciplined, moralistic, monochromatic/sponsor an ideal” and “lectures, art classes or woodworking classes, card playing//industrial alcohol, nutmeg, or ginger//of dead sea in//vivid, encapturing//outside. This//sharp smell of fresh air//pass//the loss of failure//circles from which” (The last quote closes the poem, although closes isn’t the right word.) Guriel’s attack continues, though, seemingly oblivious to the dramatic narrative: “Perhaps, then, that’s why the poem is so fragmented: it’s fomenting an uprising against the institution of grammar!” Or perhaps Bernstein is making the case for rationality transitioning into its insane paradoxical bed partner, and its use in all sorts of oppressive behaviour, backed by the state and the good housekeeping seal of approval. This is, after all, what kicked off the high-modern hijinks of a more difficult time in engaged meaning with poets, novelists, playwrights and painters. “A war to end all wars”, and the like, have a tendency to anger and disturb. Guriel continues, in his next poem-“review”, this of Bernstein’s devastating social scorch, “Standing Target”. Here, and finally, to his credit, Guriel allows for four fairly extended passages of the twelve-page offering, after which he summarizes, in part, “these creeps [are also] associated with the most criminally banal examples of language in Bernstein’s poem. If only little Charlie were left to his own devices and allowed to play freely in the muck of pure language -- instead of being harangued into ‘organized games’ where he has to side with a team – he might avoid a career in advertising or, worse, turning out like like DeMotte [the corporation man mocked earlier in the poem]. He might become a Language poet, given to explosive outbursts.” Now, this is a curious conclusion, this ad hominem sneer. First, Guriel is bending backwards to find meaning, interesting on its own for someone so averse to even care about meaning (generally) in poetry. So why he’d try even harder here is revealing. Is it because Bernstein’s politics and social concerns are antithetical to his? He references them quite a bit throughout these twenty pages, the “left-wing axe to grind”, among other biographical fixations. I have an issue, too, with much of Bernstein’s politics (not so much with the particular direction, more so its simplicity), but one needn’t care about pinpoint advocacy to feel compassion for one’s own (and others’, of course) experiences growing up in a school system rife with do-gooding half-wits, malicious drones, and other psychologically stunted stooges of administrators who get their coin by the sequestered robotic Spock-lite (not the sci-fi one) parameters of condescending report card-ese. It’s a widespread North American concern, a critical one, even one changed for the worse since 1980, if journalistic and academic and anecdotal accounts are indicators, and certainly nothing that warrants a cynical and misguided putdown on the putative petulance of a still-infantile Bernstein. But the focus on Bernstein’s insidious program continues through to the end of the long essay: “Thank You for Saying Thank You” is an “anti-poem”. I hate the too-easy, sneering anti-poem, as well. But does Bernstein’s poem qualify as one? No. It’s an anti-a-particular-kind-of poem, a different matter altogether. Guriel, through his long compilation, sneers as good as Bernstein ever gives (and if Bernstein is “a little too hot”, then Guriel is much too separated and cool) when critiquing, holus-bolus, avant-garde poetry. Why shouldn’t Bernstein get the same allowance for castigating the paint-by-numbers emotionality of a prefab lyric in fifteen precious lines? One could argue, as I’ve done, that bald poetics should remain in essays, not in poems, much like the government should stay away from the pulpit (or more accurately, the choral bench), but the sentiments expressed in “Thank You for Saying Thank You”, the target of which is poetry of positive reader-regard, “like kite/flying and fly/fishing”, are on the mark, and, ironically, something I’d think Guriel would applaud in a different form, perhaps even in a different mode. His response, immediately following the bizarre, “[i]t reads like the venting of someone who was jilted by a New Yorker poet”, which itself is deposited immediately before the following quote (though this latter is to a different poem in the book which Guriel doesn’t reference) reads, “it’s no great act of iconoclasm to snicker at some neo-Romantic who goes looking for his soul in ‘the song of a minor bird’ or who objectifies women. I mean, who doesn’t hate that guy?” It may not be iconoclastic, but it’s also not hiding behind criticisms of the dead. “Thank You for Saying Thank You” was written in 2001, and it’s a timely response to much of the most popular (and critically lauded) poetry of the 90s, both in Canada and the U.S., the poetry of sincere, inoffensive, even-tempered coffee table books. A few pages later, we’re treated to another sarcastic excuse for exposition: I don’t go for the anaphoric monotony of “Let’s Just Say”, but there are a few good lines, one of which Guriel shits on in a typically superficial phrase. Bernstein’s line? “Let’s just say that I encounter myself not in the mirror but in the manure.” Too pat? Maybe. But does it earn Guriel’s, “the speaker has shit on his face”? Even if we only interpret the line on its surface, it’s obviously figurative, emphasizing that one’s deficiencies are more instructive than one’s delusional self-regard. (One typically postures, and puts on make-up, in front of the mirror.) But “manure” also grows what we need to survive. Is that such a stretch for a critic who’s also a poet? Again, I don’t think the poem works, but the snide and empty assumptions, “Here are some of [the lines], should you care to concentrate”, don’t illuminate. Guriel is now in the homestretch. “[R]eaders have adjusted to poetry shot through with disruptions; indeed, they fairly expect them”. Which readers are these? Other avant-garde readers, perhaps. But doesn’t the opposite point hold for Bernstein, then? Don’t readers of the anecdotal or imagined lyric expect, in a history far longer and more deeply entrenched, that minor epiphanies will arrive, in the last line of the half-page, with a slightly sad or slightly smiley expression? And aren’t reader expectations, however superficial, separate from the procedures and qualities of specific poems from either camp? In other words, are poets responsible for the complacencies of their readers? This is all too easy, this macro-dumping on avant-garde poetry. I’ve expressed my disgust with a lot of it, in reviews of specific books, and in proactive poetics. But that’s the point. Books should be reviewed for what’s between the pages, not as soldiers in a long line of casualties in an ongoing war. It’d be nice if Bernstein’s poems, delightfully various and rich with sound, feeling, and sense, could’ve gotten a deliberate airing in the expanded word count. But Guriel has formed an opinion on avant-garde poetry, and has framed his argument with misconstrued examples from several poems. God knows, if that’s the route one takes, it’s easy pickings: pretentious nonsense like “Virtual Reality” won’t win Bernstein many new converts. But Guriel’s also failed to note, never mind comment on, other worthy poems, and lines of poems in All the Whiskey in Heaven. There’s the effervescent (in part) “Dark City”, with its wonderful, “She that peeps through a hole will kiss/the wave that troubled her”, which, aside from its delightful rhythm, also makes a case for following one’s obsession, not getting psychoanalyzed out of it. (An aphorism similar in sentiment comes four lines later with, “A stumble may/prevent a fall but a fall guy’s/my kind of man.”) There’s the songlike “Rivulets of the Dead Jew” ‘s “Don’t dance with me/’til I cut my tie/Cut my tie, cut my tie/Don’t fancy me ‘til/The rivers run dry/& a heh & a hi & a ho”. There’s the great success, of “Report From Liberty Street”, in balancing tones – puzzled, wondrous, rational – of (then) recent post 9/11 with its near-finish challenge (which shouldn’t need to be voiced, but is needed), “The question isn’t is art up for this but what else is art for?”. There’s the sublime poem, “Mall At Night”, which I’ll quote in full:

“There is no shade in the forest
when we beat our wings against the moss
& tear the petals off the spruce
revealing what’s never said but
spoken, companion to discordant facts
stacked three foot high above the drawers
clogging corridors. Consonance is this
world’s only comfort, stony stare of
stars on bleary night, awake enough
to lose a dozen threads, invent a baker’s
dozen more for recompense. The gravel
does not hold, the road beyond repair,
yet closer to, by far, than dusk’s approaching

None of the above plays superior tricks with “gum[med] ... grammar” and pretzel syntax on readers, so Guriel’s assertion – “whenever Bernstein appears readable, whenever he resorts to traditional devices like alliteration and rhyme, he’s likely having us on” – is pernicious, even if mistakenly formed. Guriel finally throws his hands up in a concluding biographical attack, which, again, reveals more about Guriel’s distaste for an entire poetic movement than it does in enlightening the reader on actual poems from this one card-carrying member of “Official Avant-Garde Culture”. After listing Bernstein’s accomplishments as decided on by the word community, Guriel states, “Language poets, we might conclude [we might conclude?] lead an ascetic existence early in the life cycle, but later grow fat and happy. More power to them, I say! Still, I wonder what Bernstein’s younger self would make of all that power?” This is the best howler yet. The cynical tone (and the passive-aggressive one), the assumed cynicism of Bernstein (he was a starving poet, an ascetic, with the paradoxical hope, all along, of breaching the ivy walls of ... of what, exactly? Poets have “all that power”? And if others choose to fete Bernstein with titles and fitting adjectives, that somehow, in itself, reflects poorly on Bernstein? What’s he supposed to do? Be churlish, a boor behind bad grammar? And if he does, wouldn’t he then be mocked by Guriel for chasing further notoriety as a reverse revolutionary?  Words fail him, indeed.

“Kevin: Yeah, you ever hear the one about the middleclass idiots who sort of spend all their time analyzing their own emotions and writing bullshit poetry, you know, that we’re supposed to read? I mean, as if we’re fucking interested.

Band (laughs): That’s a good one.”

-- Dexys Midnight Runners

The above quote is taken from the prefatory set-up to Guriel’s essay on the novels The Anthologist by Nicholoson Baker, and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. The essay itself is called “Lovable Losers”, and the top-heavy thematic approach allows its author the opportunity to make all sorts of pronouncements – some mildly sympathetic, others withering – about the psychology of little known or unappreciated poets. The conversation lead-off, from the 80s band (I assume Guriel is transferring it from a rock bio or article), is interesting in how it ties into Guriel’s thoughts. Dexys Midnight Runners were pulling in more green than what the fictional first-person narrator of The Anthologist would have seen, he of the not insubstantial debt and odd job undertakings, so I’m not sure who the “middle class” dig is aimed at. And it’s sure not aimed at any of Arturo Belano’s or Ulysses Lima’s acolytes and lovers, those who spend more time dreaming in the guts of fire hazards than combing their hair for job interviews. I also wonder which incarnation of Dexys Midnight Runners this story is taken from. A later version – 1985 – would have seen Vincent Crane on its roster, the manic-depressive and brilliant organist/lyricist who wrote many of the tunes for the underrated, early 70s Atomic Rooster. Those lyrics, embedded in powerful funk/blues workings, often dealt with suicide, alienation and social deception. One or both of the formative Kevins in DMR may have ho-hoed about losers dripping blue tears onto endless pages, but I can’t imagine Crane participating in it (he committed suicide just four years later), and when you’re chasing that “fat and happy” zone (Guriel’s assessment of latter-day Bernstein), it’s doubly rich to note DMR’s constant image and musical makeover in trying to cash in on that ever-elusive second hit. But the charming, intelligent, quirky, and passionate (about poetry) Paul Chowder, he of the fictional wordsmiths, isn’t angling for a new style, or promoting what’s he’s already written. Guriel’s introduction to The Anthologist is concise. Mildly respected, once-known poet, procrastinates while trying to start an introduction to an anthology of rhyming poetry, girlfriend leaves him, mundane life details take on melancholic significance. OK, the latter isn’t mentioned by Guriel, but that’s because it doesn’t fit his theme. But let’s get to the poetry. Chowder’s an odd duck, a prosodist who disbelieves in the existence of pentameter (it’s tetrameter with a rest), and free verse. But he’s not a simple grouser of contemporary verse. Despite its apparent “unruliness”, Chowder enjoys the poetry of Robert Hass. He enthuses over lines of verse in chestnuts, sure, but his comments can’t be consigned to the bins of cheap augury and laughable vagary. Nor can his commentary of extra-poetical matters. But perhaps most endearing are the speculations on the gulf between a canonical artist’s influence and the odds an unknown has of matching it (call it fame if you like). “One day the English language is going to perish ... and it will become a language like Latin that learned people learn... American poetry will perish with the language; the sitcoms, on the other hand, are new to human evolution and therefore will be less perishable.” Like the “losers” in The Savage Detectives, the obsessive artists are depicted with more than a hint of sympathy. Guriel states that a huge reason for the popularity of The Anthologists can be understood “because it enabled that most satisfying kind of voyeurism: the prolonged peek at oneself.” But this is superficial. Yes, artists can see the broad outlines of envy, self-pity, struggle, petty jockeying for political position via  movements and fads, but Chowder is a unique creation and, (once again) I find Guriel’s descent into a possible autobiographical link to be barking up the same tree long after the cat’s skedaddled, unaffected and oblivious: “It’s possible that this Paul Chowder character is little more that a special effect: the lifelike avatar of an amateur enthusiast named Nicholson Baker, who writes a stylish novel but hasn’t much of a clue about poems.” Or it’s possible that Baker knows a great deal more than he’s letting on with his fictional character, and that he’s plotted out that character consistently, painstakingly, so that his monologue matches that vision. Guriel gets a little closer to the bone with his conjecture that “Chowder may well be intended as a parody of the middle-aged curmudgeon, out of touch with recent doings, but are most readers – the ones who know little about poetry and just want to read the new Nicholson Baker novel – going to get the parody?” Why not? Despite the occasional concentration of prosodic exegesis, Baker’s narrative is of a piece, and makes a cohesive statement about individual perception, paradoxically unique while getting stuck in past resolutions. (Chowder obsesses over poets’ biographies, as well as their evaluative rankings.) The Anthologist is an enjoyable novel, a delight to read aloud for its unaffected tone and  its loopy insights. And again, who cares, besides Guriel, that it misrepresents the actual poetry world? The character is not supposed to be all-knowing. In fact, the point of his misreading of the current scene, and that he’s not up to date on publications and journals other than The New York Times, is that he’s a hidebound traditionalist not just in verse but in life. Afraid of taking on new challenges, within a relationship or on the job or in the community, his cluelessness about much contemporary verse or different communities and schools can be understood in this wider context. The uplifting ending is unconvincing, too easy, after that entrenchment, but the compassionate tone of the novel makes it unsurprising. Guriel wanted muck and fire. But that’s not the character, or the novel, Nicholson wanted to create. And he didn’t need to. Others can fill in those blanks.

I don’t have a copy of Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives at the moment, but, once again, I take issue with Guriel’s view of the novel, to say nothing of his extraneous assessments, though it’s less of an issue than was the case for Baker’s study. Guriel praises the prose for “putting a lot of stock in the power of the good old human voice at its least rehearsed and most conversational.” But the welter of voices in the long, first-person, middle-section reportage, coagulate in an amorphous jello of mediocre taste and texture. I get that poets, even good ones, often flatline their speech with the best (or worst) of one’s literary-despising or literary-indifferent acquaintances, but out of the eighty?, a hundred?, different narrators, most all involved as poets, painters, editors, publishers, curators, university students, journalists, one would expect more than a few startling (there’s that word again) figures of speech, similes, syntactical felicities, slang-slinging, cussing of originality and cultural wit. (Guriel, with others, has attested to Natasha Wimmer’s excellent translation, so that excuse is off the board.) Ironically, Guriel follows up his previous quote with, “[f]ortunately, one can only imagine the purple prose a Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, presented with the same material, would have slathered on”. But what’s wrong with using a Michaels-like voice to lampoon pretensions of some of Bolano’s characters? It’d be entirely believable: young, impressionable poets trying, through strained, overly-ambitious, high-flown diction, to create a name for themselves in the crowded din of Mexican poetastery. (Many of those young people talk with the same elevated self-importance as they write.) Not Bolano’s aim, though, apparently. There’s been much praise for Bolano for the humour in The Savage Detectives, but the overwhelming emotional residue is one of sadness. A heavy, hopeless sadness. Guriel notes the “underdog” nature of the visceral realists (as well as their counterpart in Chowder), and he “got caught up in the sheer adventure” of the realists’ quest to track and find the elusive Tinajero, a fantastically obscure poet whose one extant poem the young dreamers have elevated into a mythical document. I, unlike Guriel, don’t much care about poems or songs that may or may not have existed, but I agree that the chase itself was fun. Well, for at least a hundred pages. Now, I have to state – I often enjoy long novels. Some of our greatest canonical works, of course, cross the 500 page-plus finish line. But The Savage Detectives covers its terrain many times, then backtracks, and (despite the change in locations) takes us on similar tours. Buried underneath billowing exhaust and dust are some narrative gems, especially when Bolano allows his storyteller(s) to breathe for more than three pages. Perhaps Guriel got sidetracked, too, because he fills the middle of his review with detours into the worlds of Joyce’s Dedalus and Nabokov’s John Shade. Interesting comparisons to the core work, and Guriel’s insight is excellent – “Dedalus and Madero [SD’s introductory and concluding narrator] share a fantasy: they want to possess an oeuvre, without having to give much thought to what it might consist of” – but the exclusive focus on the poet- theme leaves out the many other concerns and obsessions of Bolano: the career-climbing word-related professionals who manipulate language to their benefit; an enlightenment fantasy of language that substitutes, ironically, for the beatific promises of organized religion (well, maybe that ties in with Guriel’s consideration); the traffic between words as charm, and sexual desire and decay; and the disagreements, even violence, between wage-earners and their poetic parasites. Guriel’s final line, as a faint damnation or faint approval of the two novels – “We’ve had a lot of fictional poets who are easy to love; we need more who actually deserve it” – is praiseworthy, but problematic. Are only successes worthy of love? And how do we account for a successful artist in fiction? By popularity, subjective evaluation (good luck with the narrative arc on that one), strength of personality?

I’ve read other works which are the focus of The Pigheaded Soul, but, as mentioned earlier, have had to limit my selection in what I’ve engaged with above. It’s certainly unrepresentative of my evaluative decision on the book as a whole. Guriel, despite my earlier condemnation, shows a deft touch when burrowing, for three pages, into one poem, “Play”, from Suzanne Buffam’s excellent 2005 Past Imperfect, patiently triggering Buffam’s word choices and sonic manoeuvring into the childrens’ psychology during the game. His fond and slight mocking of the Griffin Prize extravaganza, in the role of cultural gadabout, is amusing and occasionally noteworthy for its puncturing of subdued Canadian pomposity. (Yes, I’m aware of the oxymoron, but the tag still fits.) And it’s heartening to read about a little love shown once more for the Wordsworth-lite verse of Frederick Goddard Tuckerman who, at least, gets the occasional nod decade to decade from the academic set. Guriel’s most important attribute, however, is his writing: concise, with creative turns of phrase, surprising and apt lexical choices, skeptical, allusive, unstuffy and unafraid to stick his neck out with evaluations (Heaney’s The Human Chain doesn’t make the grade), and wide-ranging, Guriel is foremost a curious reader who’s arrogant enough to believe his opinions matter (reviewers, in general, need more of that arrogance). That I disagree with him on many of his assessments isn’t all that big a deal. At least I know where the man stands. Can a reader of criticism ask for anything more important?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Alissa Nutting's Tampa

I dislike almost every online review I’ve read of this novel, pro or con, thus providing my chief stimulus for this consideration.

Tampa, because it’s based on the actual lurid adventures of a female hebephile, got a lot of coverage, much of it focusing on the sociological issues and legal ramifications weighing on the narrative like a 60000 lb elephant expanding with each ingested and titillating doughnut while among several innocents trapped in a rec room.

The novel’s advocates: Nutting bravely shines a light on the often overlooked crime of women in power sexually abusing young males. She reveals the hypocrisy in a society which still considers a fourteen year-old male student to be the benefactor, not the victim, in this scenario.

The novel’s detractors: The sex scenes, which extended to the way the book was marketed, were damning in that they ironically set out to excite the reader, thereby adding to the bottom line of both author and publisher. (Duncan White’s review in The Telegraph was particularly adamant with this criticism.)

To the advocates: the big picture 60 Minutes-style overview is reductive, obvious, shallow, and unimaginative. Of course Nutting is pointing out the hypocrisies and sententious blather of the mouth-breathing boob tube enthusiasts, the boasting idiocies of the jock culture, the silence or downplaying or oppositional stance from female sexual-abuse support groups. But that’s a muted grand issue and, in that wise weighing of proportional characterization-within-theme, it shows a real and rare skill in a book fighting its way within a literary world – from author, reviewer, award-giving panel, and reader – frequently consumed by ideological positions of moral uplift that conflates a book’s worth with its potential for social change.

To the detractors: the sex scenes are indeed covered with a rancid motel 6 oil of pornographic spew. That’s the point. The first-person criminal sociopath described her experiences in A into B geometric, goal-scoring terms because that’s how she experienced them. The reader isn’t welcomed into a world of bad porn, but one of the psychology of desire without emotion. This is particularly well done because the predator’s demeanor with Jack is smooth, accommodating, encouraging, even laudatory. And it’s this frightening duplicity – everything she does is as a means to sate, temporarily, her sexual addiction – that shows what Nutting is about with her lead, both in and out of the bedroom.

Another negative position taken by the novel’s critics focuses on the improbable plot points. I don’t know. Have any of these people read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? I’m assuming they refer to the (spoiler alert!) father’s sudden death, or to the courtroom scene. These aren’t everyday outcomes, but there’re many stranger events happening every day, and you don’t have to read the Enquirer’s 86 lb front-page kitty to discover them. I thought the plot, though baggy at times, propulsive and dramatic.

Finally, both pro and con reviewers remarked on the writing. Either it was wonderful or awful. I found it was frequently wonderful and awful, sometimes on the same page. Here are two quotes from page 102:

“Suddenly all the panic inside me that had recently drained gushed back in full force.”

“He took a seat on my desk, his pants rising up to reveal trouser socks patterned with rows of tiny rainbow-trout icons.”

Nutting overwrites, and her syntax is often awkward (though the latter deficit isn’t lowlighted here). But she also has a delightful lyrical facility, an imaginative wit and dark humour integrated with emotional seamlessness. Since this is her first novel, and since her faults are repetitive ones, the publisher has to bear a large responsibility for the stylistic failings on board. So – it’s not poorly or expertly written, but is wildly uneven. But I’ll take a wide variation to get to the talented phrases and sentences, rather than endure a competent but talent-challenged and even-keeled experience.

I don’t have time to remark on the other fine psychological investigations Nutting digs into in the book. (The criminal’s reaction, (another spoiler alert!), now behind bars, to her husband’s anguished questions, is devastating in its cold, banal first-person assessment and off-topic trivial concern.) But I suppose it shouldn’t be shocking that a shocking book is praised and denounced for invalid or misconstrued reasons.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Philip Roth's Indignation

Philip Roth’s follow-up to Exit Ghost, 2008’s Indignation, sees the workaholic turn up the heat while dealing with the same obsessions: sex, alienation, and death. Especially death. For those who’ve yet to read the short novel, beware of reviews – online reviews, anyway – that sabotage the narrative through giving away important plot points, including one structural surprise, that can be anticipated to some extent, but nevertheless have to experienced on first reading for best effect. The New York Times’ Kakutani is the worst culprit for this. But whereas the protagonist of Roth’s preceding novel was seventy-one, Indignation’s intense first-person narrator is just out of his teens and trying to complete his first year of college. The outside world is always present – the ramped-up Korean War – as are Marcus’ parents, though the young man, at Ohio’s Winesburg college, has left them back in New Jersey because of his admonitory, overbearing father.

I’ve only read eight or nine of Roth’s twenty-nine (+?) novels, but I’m sure there’s a lot of standard fare here. College life, sexual awakening, the exotic shiksa, rebellion of all sorts, self-definition. Unlike others who felt the structure was both shoddy and clipped, I thought the transitions and amalgamations of the larger worlds (college, war, politics of both) were handled intelligently and, just as importantly, raised a number of points which transcended Roth’s irritating propensity for didactic verbosity (though at times that didacticism was handled humorously and with purpose, as in the central set-piece between a smug and patronizing Dean and a nervous yet defiant Marcus). I’d develop this line of thought a little further, but it would come at the expense of narrative explanation, so I’ll just plug the book and leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Jerzy Kosinski's The Devil Tree

Jerzy Kosinski’s career makes a farce out of the notion of artistic progression. His first novel, 1965’s The Painted Bird, is the most talented and realistic literary horror novel I’ve yet read. His last, 1988’s The Hermit Of 69th Street, is a dislocated series of private pleas and belligerent defenses. 

His second novel, Steps, is a series of thematically linked vignettes, and the revenge the protagonist was unable to formulate and enact in The Painted Bird was dramatically rendered in that novel’s follow-up.1973’s The Devil Tree is also structured in brief episodes, but as a fractured narrative. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth between shocking action and lacerating interior criticism doesn’t work organically, or with any narrative momentum. Repetition dulls the more lurid effects, and one already gets the sense that Kosinski has played his best hands early in his career.

I believe it’s at least partly circumstantial. By 1973, burrowing into self-exploration had morphed from a psychedelic game into a painful picking at scabs. Kosinski’s forte – psychological revelation under extreme and sudden violence – had given way to this much different obsession, and Kosinski couldn’t find a way to successfully transform the two directions in a unique vision. Worse, Kosinski’s amoral anti-hero, Whalen, had already been done more convincingly by a number of authors before the 70s, including Camus and Dreiser in different modes.

But the fearless chronicler of hypocrisy, upper-class coldness, and perversion still knocks it out of the park in several episodes, including one in which Whalen’s father fires his loyal servant of twenty years for changing the blade in the master’s razor one day too early.

As for the charges of plagiarism directed at the Polish emigrant, it’s no wonder revenge played a part in most of his stories. After surviving World War II, only to land in a free country rife with jealous orchestrators of the unfounded, cowardly attack (though some of those pipsqueaks also originated in Poland), Kosinski could only lash back in his art. Unfortunately, his most open attempt to settle the record came when his mental health had already plummeted. Though he had been fighting his demons longer than the first of the personal literary attacks took hold, his last novel was a narrow, emasculated response to his accusers. The Devil Tree’s original epigraph, also appearing in the novel’s last pages, is scarily accurate when turned on Kosinski: “the devil, getting tangled in its branches, punished the tree by reversing it”.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Philip Roth's Exit Ghost

Christopher Hitchens' review of Philip Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost is funny and brilliant.

That said, and granting many of the damning points made, I liked the book quite a bit more than him. First the agreements:

The sassy shiksa still drives Roth/Zuckerman to lusty agony (emotionally only, that is --the protagonist is impotent after prostate surgery), though Roth's eros-thanatos dialectic has been debased. No one gives a damn about literature, especially not the young upstarts talking half the day on their cell phones -- grumpy old man makes visit to New York city after decades-long absence. Jamie’s dialogue with the “seductive” Zuckerman is stilted and unbelievable. And the conversations – all characters expatiate joylessly – are boring and repetitive.

Yet Roth paints a few bulls-eyes, as well. Hitchens, surprisingly, adds no word on the largest concern in the novel: the traffic between respect for privacy and the desire (right?) for the public to go after, and discover, secrets, whether they’re cheap and dubious or pertinent and spiritually revelatory. Zuckerman, in this light, and despite his morose obsession with writing and (as the novel progresses) desperate plea to Jamie to resuscitate his soggy organ, attacks the public’s insatiable appetite for trite journalistic detail concerning their faddish heroes. The irony is that Lonoff, Roth’s mentor, has been forgotten, anyway, but as Zuckerman has it, that’s not the point. Dignity doesn’t depend on whether or not the public cares for the degraded presumptions, only that they were made against the dead’s inability to defend them. One can see more than a little fear in Roth’s own life and work here. Zuckerman’s hatred and envy of the young, strong, and charismatic Kliman is palpable.

The Amy Bellette character – with brain cancer in its final stages – is well done and quite an achievement. She’s drawn sympathetically, hard to do while unflinchingly dwelling on her physical ruin and mental collapse.

Roth also aces class hypocrisy, having Zuckerman catch Jamie’s complaint about the use of the word “underprivileged”.

“SHE: I don’t like that word.

HE: Why?

SHE: Well, what does it mean? Under privileged. Either you have privilege or you don’t have privilege ...

HE: You were yourself  so privileged. One might even say overprivileged.”

Jamie had earlier struck out in rage and disbelief during and after George Bush’s election night second-term win. Yet she’s the beneficiary of old Houston money – (her father was friends with Bush Sr.) – which put her in the connected schools right up the line, which then allowed an acceptance of her neophyte effort in the New York Times despite the fact she always seemed to be too afraid (after 9/11) to work at all.

And on that always prickly and complex class speculation, Roth, in a curious structural choice toward the end of the novel, crafts a sedate and admiring introspective eulogy on the late George Plimpton. The aristocratic New England editor and essayist wasn’t slumming, as many (Mailer included) criticized, when the author of Paper Lion and Out Of My League tried his hand at exhibition play with the pros of football, baseball, boxing, and golf. (I’ve read, and delighted in, all of his sports ventures and would select The Bogey Man as Plimpton’s best.) Remarkable that one so privileged could create such a sympathetic picture of the borderline roster players in all those sports. Roth’s point is that Plimpton’s talent and compassionate observational powers were so advanced he could overcome those charges with in-depth adventures in class contrasts, not hypocritically sucking up to the disadvantaged nor boasting about the stars.

But how does that tie in to Roth’s main narrative? Well, it’s a damnation of Zuckerman (and by extension Roth) since – PLOT SPOILER! -- the writer is reduced to sour personal defense among his own kind -- fellow writers -- which can only be “won” by having the first-person narrator denying Jamie in his own alternate narrative in Exit Ghost’s final page.