Friday, December 18, 2015

Edward Carson's Birds Flock Fish School

“Something is moving them/into the sky, spreading their wings.”

“Something about what has come/and gone swirls and eddies in our brains, hastily forgotten.”

“something/more than ordinary light,”

“a mark of something largely more.”

“We already understand/something has gone missing,”

“It happens every time we say something about//what’s coming for each of us,”

“Something departs, ambitious, perfect.”

“something/more than knowing what to do, how to arrive,”

“someone might be searching for something else//entirely.”

The last of these nine quotations (in eight poems) from Edward Carson’s 2013 collection of poetry, Birds Flock Fish School, applies to yours truly. So there’s your answer (though Carson hates answers) to at least one particular “something” or “someone”.

Vague sermons dressed up with somber, vatic assumptions (Carson hammers, in most every poem, on the “we” undergoing the experience, a beautifully funny example of the grammatical term, “subjective case”) are a mainstay of an always-popular subset of Canadian poetry, which depresses, in its dime-store translation of timeless spiritual wisdom, with an embarrassingly unsophisticated caress of air. Carson, worse than most followers in this school, gives next to no concrete colorings or imagery which would at least help to make vivid, in relief and contrast and context, the abstractions he finds so important. But it would also force Carson to be far more nuanced and responsible in those pronouncements. It would also show, even more humorously, the pretentiousness “we” find, in lines such as, “One thing beckoning at the edges of another,/we think of things retrieved”, or, “brilliant mosaics of now”, or, “a new opening/opens”, or, “We see the horizon/lingers, speaking in tongues”, or, “In the end, will we find this to be what is here/for us to wonder, what dark embrace we covet, identical as heaven?”, or, “the morning shows the way/to what is meant to be”.

Further to the problem of bastardised content, Carson has only one note. Every poem (but one) shows it, and relentlessly, but here’s a passage from the end of “Symptoms” which best captures his (not our) discovery:

“The day breaks before we know it. Our restlessness
is impossible to subdue. A promise appears, invisible

as light, pushing past the literal, the loosely knit ideas
of what the only thing is on earth to know, to believe in.”

Aside, again, from the arrogant first-person plural, note the tone. The one note in content is matched by a consistency in mood. The voice, strangely, is both grey-green and ridiculous, almost an unintended parody on the foolish spiritual sufferer, meditating for ten hours a day with the familiar patina of woes and minute, finely-tuned turnings of the deluded mind, however calibrated those thoughts may be to an ontological profundity.

And however a reader may approach these thoughts, and downplay any residual meaning (Carson, like others in this school, gets to step away from challenges of content since even the concrete nouns are general: cloud, sky, bird, star, earth, light), the overwhelming focus, as appears in the last-quoted segment above, is on “our” exasperated failure, always just out of reach, of and for enlightenment. I don’t deny this is real, and that it’s experienced by many (it accords with a minority of my own history) but it’s the importance – no, the obsession – he attaches to this experience that finally irritates at least this reader. Life – including meditation, whether formal or spontaneous – is far more various in mood and spiritual insight than Carson lets on. To be brief about it: divinity is in reach, at times, and, opposite, at most other times, even a hint of it is completely foreign.

There is one very good poem in Birds Flock Fish School: “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”. Here, Carson forgets the script, and a sensitive, extended four-part nature metaphor builds to an affecting consideration on how the past defines us (yes, the “we”, finally, is fitting), but is paradoxically (and optimistically, for a change) lightened by the wind (forgetfulness? or superseded by joy, however brief?). No matter on the takeaway. These lines are good for the mind to roll around in, and the language here is devoid of easy mystification, instead letting the reader luxuriate, however briefly, in the sensuous contact of, “The force that keeps things afloat takes note/of what it is to be the falling leaf, imagines//the tension of its balancing, face up, against/the water pressing back.”

The last poem in the collection is titled “First and Last Things”, and whaddaya know, a second human finally appears, in itself giving the narrator a human (if generic) element. But, and despite the success of “The Force that Keeps Things Afloat”, it’s much too little and too late. The weight of spiritual fatalism smothers all (the book’s worst, “Flying Formation”, schools us with, “[the clouds] describe what turns out to be the rising//shape of our fear”).

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Don Coles' A Serious Call

Don Coles has often etched his poems on a membrane separating enchantment from mundanity. To his great credit, the cell has rarely broken, and his fascinating recollections, sprinkled liberally with cleverly shaped bursts of spontaneous wonder, add to the stock of that all-too-rare breed of poetry: elevated thought and feeling, fragile, ensorcelling, imprinted, and sensitively adjusted. But Coles’ latest offering, this year’s A Serious Call, is a collection of staggering missteps. Gone are the close relationships between narrator Coles and his subjects, to be replaced by long-distance, rambling reminiscences. Here’s a cut from “People I Knew for One Year”:

“Frank Elsom who won a blue sleeveless sweater
with ‘Bolo-Bat Champion’ on it for hitting
the Bolo-ball on its elastic string more times
than anybody.”

The standard objection to this type of quoting is that it’s cherry-picking for weak spots. But this is a representative example. It’s not just the tediousness of the thoughts that dismays, but the dead tone one naturally evinces to give them voice. Robert Lowell, in his otherwise seminal Life Studies, isn’t a stranger, either, to the biographical doldrums, banging out a pedestrian observation of, “Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms/to be a two minute walk from the station,/half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.” At other times, though, Lowell hauls his diurnal drudgery up from its roots by language alone. Coles’ talents, however, don’t lend themselves to virtuosic rescue of this sort.

There’s also the problem throughout of ground covered like the front row of a three-day outdoor international congress with the Pope. “Moonlight” – actually one of the poems that shows Coles here at close to his best manner of offhand-raconteur-turns-spellbinding (“a kind of be-cloaked Caspar David Friedrich walk-on/gibbering under the moon to a nodding-off fellow-cloakee/while on a remote hilltop his tiny wife lies with her white legs/in the air either side of his happy teenage apprentice”) – descends into, “I’ve so often wished I had asked him much more/about all that, and right now there’s a blurred couple of seconds which could be my chance,/but in the moonlight and the remembered quiet /I let it go.”

The greatest travesty, though, arrives with the titular effort. To mangle Delmore Schwartz: “with many pages begin responsibilities”. “A Serious Call” occupies the final nineteen pages of the book. After the first half, a little trepidation naturally crept in. But that was eased by the first page. After a blackly humorous epigraph on Pushkin’s response, while on his deathbed, to the question of whether or not he wanted to say goodbye to his friends, (“He looked around at his books/and said, ‘Goodbye, friends’.”), and the opening setting wherein Coles mixes a mysterious stew of geography, fitting allusion, hints of danger, an as-yet-unrevealed bookstore gig, and art-to-commerce enjambments in cutting yet even-toned revelation, (“Nowadays the area’s rampant with wine bars/patronized by rich youths who got that way/shifting currencies in nearby highrises”), the poem quickly falls apart when and after a clumsily rendered depiction of first-person narrator Coles and the bookstore owner ... well, put their feet up, smoke roll ‘ems, and read whatever they want. This dull recording then passes into a Colesian standard: the many-angled consideration of epiphany, here in its literary manifestation. In previous volumes, Coles was a master, in this vein, at creating moods at once unnerving and welcoming, but in this poem the transference is borrowed from the deathless, and splashed with a ramped-up, laudatory mystification. The reader (the current reviewer, not Coles) is treated to particularly contorted, long-winded, and multiple asides, and the clauses are interwoven so thickly within the core statements that rereading this section, immediately, and more than once, is necessary just to parse the hesitant declarations, which owe more to enthusiasm than to transferred experience. Here’s an example:

“I can even remember what the first lines, the first
of so many lines to be read aloud by one of those two
(one of us two, sure, but we’re so almost out-of-sight
way back there among the years that from where I am now
we look to be a those) and listened to by the other one
(roles undecided, who would do what, who would read
and who listen – usually this depended on who was the first
to be prompted by a newly arrived sentence cluster to know
that there was no way he was going to move past this cluster,
its unexpectedness, without getting some backup)”

But let’s move on. Once settled in, stationary, feet up on the table, Coles then continues with a statement of poetics before launching into scattershot omnibus review-bites covering canonical favourites from the past three centuries. The poem’s set-up, then, disappears. We are now entirely inside Coles’ head, and the bookstore, any people who may have ventured into it, his boss, and the relationship between this outlet and the surrounding community, have dropped away. This criticism is entirely justified since Coles laid down these elements in the initial stages. And yes, I know that interior concentration is the point – the epigraph is a reminder – but structurally, the poem is a mess. But let’s talk about what’s there for the remaining pages. Coles’ valedictory penchant moves to the fore. It’s always been a strength, and in snippets from – and commentary on – writers from Flaubert to Hardy, George Eliot to Camus, the author warms his heart (and occasionally mine) by turning over a mini-highlight reel of verse and prose passage. There is nothing particularly illuminating here, though. The great writers speak for themselves. Coles simply admires for the most part, though he also reviews a Hardy passage by remarking on, “ ‘starlit’ locked into its perfection-slot [ugh!] in that last line”, and George Eliot is rightfully belaurelled (or whatever the equivalent word is for novelists) for a specific passage in Middlemarch, after which Coles remarks that Eliot “allows you to bring to mind, possibly from very far off, someone you know or, just as possibly, love”. Even here, though, the emotion, deep, devotional, can be, should be, readily evident from the source quotation, never mind the novel itself. Here’s the late Ralph Gustafson, Coles’ friend and neighbour, from his similarly considered winter poem-memoir, Configurations at Midnight:

“North, where I live, the crocus blooms
For about four weeks, less,
Perhaps, I haven’t counted, being
Too busy with coming peonies,
Then eating garden green peas,
Then August Indian corn
(Eight minutes is about all you need
For that, the water already boiling,
That is), far quicker than reading
Remembrance of Things Past. George
Eliot’s Middlemarch matches
Eating corn though and Chopin’s
“Barcarolle,” peas ...

Sadness to know there is no time.”

The latter passage is from a poem with complications. Coles’ enthusiasms are not much more than book blurbs.

Outside of the act of arranging these words, the sentiments herein give me zero pleasure. On this site, I’ve plugged all of Coles’ books – four? five? – that I’ve read. I just hope this volume isn’t indicative of the last offerings of some of our other gifted senior poets – Daryl Hine jumps immediately to mind – and that it’s just one bad note in a continuing, mesmerizing sonata. The second option is retirement. The other choice doesn’t bear dwelling on.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Peter Norman's The Gun That Starts the Race

The West’s strategy concerning death is to pretend it doesn’t exist. When this fails – at a funeral; over a compost bin; after house demolitions – the next move is to cover it up or spruce it up, and, when those additional strategies sputter, to “turn in, those hordes of us who need not know the night”. The preceding quotation is plucked from “Super’s Report”, the opening poem of Peter Norman’s  The Gun That Starts the Race. It’s tempting to see Norman as the reluctant but faithful super, issuing reports – on paper, with a gun’s reverberations – and handing his “torch to the night shift guy”, “torch”, like “reports”, taking on the double meaning of violence and necessary communication of unpleasant fate. Here, as in many other poems of decay and disorder, Norman’s tone – at once pungent and even – recalls general communal views of the expired, pre-WWI, where, as related in Philippe Ariès’ Western Attitudes Toward Death, the final event was observed as “a public ceremony ... including children ... with no theatrics, with no great show of emotion”.

A ridiculous ‘don’t go gentle into that good night’ railing is absent, but so too is passive resignation. Norman keeps a fearless gaze at nothingness (and moreso, the longer look at dissolution) when engraving disturbing yet commonplace images into the reader’s altered mindscape. And it’s not all folded tents and burial rites. In “Note For the Newly Hatched”, the author, in lines trading rhythms with the strength and incision of a pit saw, champions the ugly birth, the “clot of eggs,/as one, burst open ... Creep/with lustful courage/on the corpses of your siblings.”, only possible because of that other inconvenient truth.

This sounds grim, overwhelmingly so (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), but whereas lesser writers have us reaching for the razor blade or concoction of pills after forty (or two) poems, Norman’s creations are sparked with mordant humour and a coupled sound/sense mastery.

There are too many lines, (“plump tumour, savaged gum, unseeing eye./And yet the smoke she breathes is grey and painless”; “God’s at his dice again. He cannot hear/my ash’s prayers over his mathematics.”), too many poems, to quote from here to do the book justice, but Norman has achieved that rare thing in poetry at any time: a startling vision which is passionately ordered and realized.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Haruki Murakami's IQ84

Shinkitschi Takamiki sighed. With a deft bicep-curl, he brought Haruki Murakami’s cement block IQ84 up near eye level. The eyes peering back at him from between the face-cage title graphics signalled ... what? Pique? Exotic ennui? Static lust? Or a clandestine plea for help from the forthcoming rigours of narrative boredom for which she’d be put through the paces like a ballerina in a mud-wrestling pit?

The cab driver turned around, which wasn’t as dangerous as navigating through an ersatz and humdrum parallel universe. The traffic, after all, had stopped,  the breathless grills of U.S. auto imports stalled and silent across eighteen lanes of bumper-kissing gridlock. Shinkitschi put down the novel, straining a trapezoid in the process, and stared back into the cabbie’s depthless and profoundly mysterious sockets, which, in Kitschi’s dream world, followed him to the four corners of the story like a rent collector booking 3 to 1 that his tenant wouldn’t skip to the elevator before the soul of his heart quaked in bitter congress.

“What’s the music, hack-san?” from Kitschi.

“ ‘Alligator Boogaloo’, by Lou Donaldson.”

“You know, ever since I purchased this novel at the bus terminal, I’ve been besieged by international cultural references in those I’ve met. But before this IQ84 world, no one cared of anything outside of the Tokyo office-subway-homefront.”

“Would you like me to switch the station?”

“Ah! God, please, anything but. One alternate world a day, or year, is all I can take.” Kitschi, antsy, shuffled on the vinyl seat cover like a bear with hemorrhoids. “Stop here!”

“We’re not moving.”

“No. No, we’re not, you’re right. But I just thought I’d introduce some unnecessary drama into our little story since nothing much is happening, anyway.” He paused, and intoned with decidedly ominous overtones and undertones: “Or will ever happen.”

Kitschi leaned over and looked upward through the back-seat window. Two suns appeared – one rote, one a smaller and lopsided sputtering globe somewhat akin to a solar panel lighthouse at the end of its warranty – burning through the existential mist, car fumes, and the expiring streaks of a chemtrail.  He neglected to pay the driver, as befits a narrative which scorns legal and social givens for the much more fascinating and labyrinthian philosophical squalor of cut-rate sci-fi and Sleepless in Seattle romance where the unconvincing lovers meet, for the second time, (literally!) on page 918 of 925 pages, after obsessive, asexual longings more in tune with their spiritual make-up at meeting number one at ten years of age.  But the breasts? Every woman in this parallel skit was obsessed about breasts, so the more seedy of the review-comments suggested. Their own, those belonging to their delightfully unabashed lesbian-for-a-day girlfriends, those in the afterlife. What, in the end, are breasts, anyway, but memory, but figments of creative unreality, a God in two existential lumps. A love story, with name-dropping pop-cult, which makes the highbrow name-dropping all the more pretentious when you realize it’s trying to impress by contrast, even though, like the fabulist silliness, it, too, is a drive-by colour of the phrase-moment, and is then remembered no more.

Kitschi alighted. The suns were bearing down on him with knowing. But the suns knowing was nothing like the knowing of the maliciously mysterious sperm-chrysalis droplets currently shooting across the asphalt at breakneck pace. It only takes one, thought the unfortunate reader, to impregnate a mind and transform an international culture.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Grant Buday's Stranger on a Strange Island

(This review was first published in subTerrain #60.)

The front cover picture of Grant Buday’s 2011 Mayne Island memoir, Stranger on a Strange Island, announces the tone of its innards unambiguously: a metallic light grey Airstream trailer, detached, foregrounds a patch of island forest. The Gulf Islands have long been associated with romantic getaways, spiritual transformations, and pulchritudinous seascapes, but just months into an ongoing eight-year stay on tiny Mayne, those visions have closed like eyes poked by Moe the head Stooge: “November arrived. The clocks were rolled back and the rain began to fall – and fall ... What with black clouds overhead, tall trees all around, and no street lights, it felt positively medieval. By three in the afternoon it was twilight, by four dark, by five so cave-black I needed a flashlight to venture out the door. What was all that about a third less rain?” To be clear, the Buday family’s move from Vancouver to Mayne was undertaken more out of economic pressure than idealistic stance, but an intriguing pull in Buday’s rumination is one between mundane necessity and spiritual hope. An initial job of helping an employer relocate an illegally moored boat involves this non-postcard entry: “My wet denim stuck to me like depression, my pale and frozen hands resembled bled pork, my back was in spasm. As for my teeth, I was clenching them so tightly against the cold that I feared for my dental work.” Yet the book’s last chapter, of the author’s whale watching excursion with his eight-year-old son, culminates in grace: “she jumped high, surging out of the water with no warning, right up into the air, that bus-sized beast performing a pirouette in the bright sunshine ... The entire ship seemed to stagger. But there she was, twenty tonnes of mammal only twenty metres away, suspended in one glittering airborne moment, a greeting from another world.”

It’s not all angst and wonder. Humour, wit, irony, and satire abound, and are incorporated into the anecdotes with the natural aplomb of a head cook festooning a three-tiered cake with baroque curlicues. Buday is a terrifically funny writer. Past efforts in short stories, novels, and travel essays have shown his gift for uproarious yet accurate simile, believable punch-line dialogue, coarse slapstick, and situational disjunction, all of it delivered in unassuming voice and smooth transition. Here, Buday is able to display a more relaxed tone, a conversational wisdom for his deprecatory, occasionally caustic, humour. The mood is at times melancholic, yet the language is spry and engaging; the autobiographical persona is a maladroit foil to Mr. Handyman, yet there’s satisfaction and even defiance in a low-tech pullback. Buday seamlessly weaves personal interaction with natural description, fascinating allusion with fictive hijinks (the chapter on Mayne Island’s founding), and biographical excavation with incisive psychological speculation. Some may not take to Buday’s penchant for balloon puncturing, but it’s a necessary universal endeavour, and one that yields its own occasional epiphanies, all the more earned for being honest and tenaciously pursued: “The tree hesitated, creaked slowly, creaked loudly, and began to tilt. With the solemn grandeur unique to the enormous, the cedar began to splinter and groan as it gained momentum. The whole world seemed to be toppling. The tree pitched forward then struck the ground with a whamp! And lo, light did flood through the newly opened gap in the forest.”

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Carmelo Militano's Sebastiano's Vine

A family saga, coming-of-age narrative, historical consideration, urban adventure, fabular comedy, and cordiform philosophy, Carmelo Militano’s 2013 novella, Sebastiano’s Vine, compresses those various elements within a shifting chronology and, with a lightly poetic touch, captures a wide range of feelings, the more impressive for acing nuances in its frequent, mere two-to-five page scenic fragments. Understated yet colourful natural description dots many pages in a breadth of detail spanning “a blue strip of water, the Gulf of Corinth, mist floating above it like a white muslin veil” to “the remains of last month’s Saturday comic pages bled pink and blue against a corner fencepost”. Canvasses of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, World War II wounded, and the 1783 earthquake in Calabria are painted with bold surface colour, but also with a merging depth as seen through the experiences of the actors involved. Throughout, the reader is hit with weather, not reports or scene-setting abstractions, but in-your-bones transmissions, whether a Winnipeg winter or Calabrian summer. Geographical description aside, historical focus set back, it’s the characters that linger. Militano has infused his dramatis personae with a lively suggestiveness, a suggestiveness that generously (and hopefully) includes the reader at the novella’s close, where “[T]he complex silence that comes after death is what remains, like the silence at the end of a story before one returns to the dream of life”.

Monday, July 6, 2015

When Shunning Is No Fun

I begin this meditation with a heavy heart. No, I’m not talking about cardiomegaly. Rather, it’s ... it’s that under this grease-stained wife-beater T-shirt lurks a sensitive thumper, one given to fluttering like a nun’s uvula during the elongated high note in “Amazing Grace” when, with friends at the local gaslamp bar,  spontaneous outbursts of Shelley recitation overtake me in the middle of  convivial belching contests, mooning displays (of the anterior variety), and pitching peanuts into the stagnant pool of  ale belonging to the effete college kids slumming it before their bedtimes. Thing is, my colleagues in spirit, I’ve sometimes ... not always ... detected a faint whiff of superiority in the grizzled countenances of my social set. How so? The blue-skinned galvanizer, neck a block of pounded dough cut like compressed switchbacks, raises a Vincent Price brow as if he wanted to try out a newly-purchased pendulum on my nutsack. I stew and fret that it’s not all in my head, that these social faux pas (paes?, pae? et I’m not so comfortable avec les Canadiens qui se présentent au bar aprés minuit, soit) are causes for shunning, or perhaps I’ve just got a bad case of confessionalitis, the condition, as the term makes plain, an efflorescence of talking about oneself that would be OH (not the state abbr., Ms. or Mr. Editor, please)-so much more easeful if my compatriots, brothers, workmates, satsang, horizontally-structured aides-de-camp (Thackeray would scoff) just let their feelings be made plain, and in soothing tones.

But that’s not the half of it. No. Because I hide my closet literary preoccupations from the rough-and-tumble of the not infrequent social rites of log-burling (the winner is always an André the Giant lookalike with the feet of a hampster) and gas-siphoning the foreman’s nephew’s Prius with a party straw during company picnics, it sometimes emerges as a strangled blurt during those poetry open-mics when I profess my love of Pennzoil, wood alcohol, (briefly) cohabiting divorcées from (and to) Prince George, and cheroots. The mildly sleepy or mildly astonished faces of the candlelit crowd hide oceanic vagaries when I try to placate by fusing (scribbled notes on podium at wood and at that sheet of  foolish secrets near the screaming cars on Dundas) backloaded theories with honouring our shared space. In short, I get it both ways. And as a white male of ancient (second gen) residency with the manners of a turbojägered rhino at a tea party, I realize the preconceptions I face going into these literary soirées, when a blank slate is a ridiculous Rousseauean fantasy, are a fait accompli. Nevertheless, I mean to navigate somehow, through Parnassian decree (or perhaps just a more amenable bureaucratic community ... or gig! can’t we dream) a more sympathetic space for those minority headscapes to exist in, and thrive.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Jason Guriel's Satisfying Clicking Sound

“Where there are many beauties in a poem,
A few blots won’t offend, those carelessly split,
Or that human frailty can scarcely help. So what?”

-- Horace, “Ars Poetica”

Horace stuffed his instruction in one long breezy poem. Jason Guriel, in last year’s Satisfying Clicking Sound, believes in the verse equivalent of a Tim Vine joke – enter straightaway, set up smartly, don’t leave them hanging – but he otherwise approximates the seminal Latin work in focus, the meta- and meta-meta-brevity of most every poem in the volume scored with the what-it’s-for and how-to administration. Of course, other poets have treated readers as students – less artfully, to be sure (and more on Guriel’s craft later, though here’s a hint, it differs from the epigraph-leader) – but though that usually humourless didactic strategy sees off more than a few “experimental” poetics-as-poetry productions, there’s not much difference in the constant  backgrounding of subject matter, in the service of poetics, between Guriel’s in-poem foes or foils, and the author himself.

Guriel’s ostensible subjects include painters, speed bumps, leaves, straw, airport bookstores, and signatures, but especially poets, musicians or songwriters, and geometry. Even when Guriel forgets to organize his poetics mission for a page in “My Father’s Stamps” – an anecdote about a dying father that necessarily shelves the constant, bludgeoned-by-wit lit-crit allegory for a time-fading concentration of emotion – the unwelcome switch is thrown back to an electrifying summation of father-as-artist, in “this is the work of one/of the great surrealists”. 

Guriel expresses often his exasperation with the poetic process, and to a contemporary working poet, this must strike a lot of anvil iron. But, as noted, the result is usually (always?) a foot or ten yards short of ringing the bell. Should non-poets care, let alone sympathize? And if one can enter the narrator’s anguished soul to commiserate with that failure during one poem, does the next poem’s identical topic garner the same consideration? Of course, Guriel would argue it’s all about craft. But aesthetic accomplishment straightjacketted by its own abstract commentary can’t even be considered stifling (another reviewer called this “claustrophobic”, and Guriel responds to it in a clever but silly poem wherein the conceit has the unfortunate critic shut up in an air-tight cartoon) because there isn’t much – and in many poems, no – force to stifle. Subjects are hauled into Guriel’s ideé fixe by music biography so that the epigraph (in part, “ “The hands playing haunting chords turned into clenched fists pounding the ivories” “, from Ben Edmonds) serves as the (by now) obvious spur to another link to the poetic process. And what does Guriel do with this unexciting material?

“Hands playing haunting chords
cannot help the soul
that’s up the sleeves,
and cannot help
but fall as fists – off
and on and off
the beat – upon the ivories.”

Guriel adheres, in the following, however, to more of Horace’s advice, knowingly or no: “You who write, choose a subject that’s matched by/Your powers, consider deeply what your shoulders/Can and cannot bear.” But that’s selling oneself very short here. The subject, dear reader, is Dennis Wilson’s creative angst. Now, I confess I haven’t read the bio this is taken from. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for buried genius in the failures of the drummer. But, really, who cares other than diehard Beach Boys fans or Dennis Wilson groupies? If Dennis wasn’t related to Brian, the only audience for his mediocre drumming would have been several other drunks in a seaside bar, and he would have been surfing to the welfare depot every month after hosing crabs out of his trunks. Remember, this is a poem about the frustrations of creativity.

Good, then, that Guriel concentrates his idea on others more worthy of incorporating it, as well as shedding light on the process. “Poetry Is Barbarous” takes off from a letter from mentor Samuel Menashe, in which the poet writes of erasing lines that’s he’s just sent. Guriel turns this into an arresting image of two rakes covered by snow. I wonder if he meant for the rakes, originally, to be thought of as clearance devices. Not a happy thought, that, to be sure, when considering the religious or primordial aspects of creation. A pun (surprise!) appears with the expected short development, though it works on two levels (at least), and the scene ends with “the rakes are primered-over lines/that lie below like old designs.” A satisfying click? Or piling on with unnecessary metaphor? To get to that click ...

The book’s titular poem uses an epigraph from a Steve Jobs bio wherein engineers were asked to “stay up all night fiddling with the headphone jack so that it made a more satisfying clicking sound”. Guriel then, in the poem proper, compares this to Yeats’ well-known quote on “the click/of a well-made box”. As is Guriel’s frequent procedure, the reader is led to consider possible sonic metaphors. The cricket’s “field/of creaks” is an excellent sonic choice and lexical melisma (and the obligatory pun is enjoyable, probably because here it’s buried – many of the other puns in the book should have been read their last rites). I admit my own obtuseness with the poem’s own final click. Actually, for Guriel, an extended one that I can’t decipher. Images of death are introduced early on, and the abstract summation uses them organically, but I don’t get the connection to Yeats or, indeed, to the headphones’ click. A well-made ending is a definite death? The poem’s “click” has to be finite in what way? Aesthetically? Dialectically? Logically? “What’s grating/is the indefinitiveness/of the death rattle-/ragged, the way/we have to guess/which one’s the last/gasp by waiting/out the sequence.”

The three strongest poems in Satisfying Clicking Sound are “The Washbasin”, “A Moving Picture”, and “Looking at People While Listening to Nico”. In the former, the father is recently deceased, and the narrator stares at his murky, shifting reflection in a washbasin of water that his father hadn’t emptied. The subject, and its metaphorical support, is finally intriguing. And Guriel delivers. Though Tom Vine’s “quantity over quality” philosophy of punning allows no poem to go unpunished, the main one here – “The reflection of my face/takes it on the chin” – is legitimately startling. Even here, though, one wonders if the joke was too irresistable, that another more emotionally affecting and logical choice would have been better. Say, “in the heart” instead of “on the chin”. No pun there, though. Better tamp down the emotion. Still, the poem recovers, and really kicks off a wake with its concluding, “I mean to stand for one/more moment in the five/o’clock shadow of/my father, a brave face/I pretend is mine.”

“A Moving Picture” is the volume’s highlight, and a terrific meditation on perspective, yes, but there’s also and finally a correspondingly light and weighty metaphysical element to the poem top to bottom. “Once when I was one/year old and on my back,/I noticed the sun/seemed skewered on a lance.” There’s no borrowed preface, here. No straining for extended metaphor. The one is no longer the other. The one is both the one and the other. (Most metaphors, no matter how craftily drawn, fall down metaphysically, not structurally.) There’s a wonderfully appropriate simile involving Icarus here that hovers successfully in the pre- and post-period, both in mythological implication and in the autobiographical timeline. I usually hesitate in quoting too much of a very good poem because lines, out of context, can seem haphazard or confusing meshed with surrounding exegesis. The rhymes here are frequently full, and all follow a sing-songy ABAB, a fantastic and deceptive contrast to the perfectly orchestrated and thoughtful material.

“Looking at People while Listening to Nico” sees Guriel in the heads of actual people, not abstract props that can more easily be shifted about a geometrical board, as in “Problems of Design”. Here, “[T]he face across the aisle/yawns – but Nico stops/the hole with a moan/of a voice the face,/a middle-aged man’s,/doesn’t know it makes.” Similar in imaginary conception to the static “Claustrophobic”, the transformation here is complicated by shifting emotions, in both the sender and receiver. Guriel then ups the ante further down the typically quick-running lines when, “[B]ut then/you’re not yourself/either in the eyes/of those whose ears/are also spoken for.”

A poet who writes criticism should be given even less leeway for compositions about composition. After all, we’ve heard it before. And the prose, elsewhere, is good enough, sometimes more than good enough.. There’s an enjoyable interview of guitarist Rory Gallagher up on yootoob in which he answers questions on the technical detail of playing any of various of his  instruments. Gallagher circles his hands artfully around the frets, the resonator, demonstrates with a few phrases, holds up a brass slide, and casually throws off allusions and category shifts. But I’ve only seen that ten or fifteen minute interview once. Mostly I’d rather listen to any one of hundreds of his versions of “Tattooed Lady”.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Shoshanna Wingate's Radio Weather

Great poets knew (and know) they only need one idea. They’re obsessed, and write on the same idea or theme (with minor keys, and secondary concerns) incessantly, including variations in assessment and tone. Wallace Stevens’ imagination over reality, Whitman’s big-gulp democratic effusions, Irving Layton’s castigation of man as coldblooded violent anti-messiah triggered by knowledge of his (and her) own insignificance, Ralph Gustafson’s secular psalms on grandeur through art history or sensuous epiphany, Philip Larkin’s brief light overwhelmed by mortality, poems from each have the unmistakable visionary imprimatur of their creator.

But that insistent and idiosyncratic, personal and depth-seeking (and sounding) concentration can also be found in overlooked or relatively unknown poets, as well, even though the force of the associations may be tamer or less convincing. Contemporary poets have had a memory obsession for quite a while. Don Coles is always concerned with the traffic between memory and the truth/semi-truth/untruths those memories engender. C.K. Williams, at his best, imagines past events as more troubling than they might initially have seemed, certainly a valuable corrective to “the good ole days”. And David O’Meara’s concerns with memory have more to do with how they act in the present, as emotional generator more than history.

Shoshanna Wingate’s first book of poetry, Radio Weather, (2014), explores memory as an unruly, organic, slow-pulse movement, more powerful than the lies we pluck to order meaning in pat abstractions. The best evidence for this is in her titular opener, which ruminates on the various meanings that past storms have for those who’ve experienced them, even though the initial spur (the radio call-in show) concerns future issues, which is a clever narrative manoeuvre in showing how past associations hard-pack into present conclusions which will be even more ineffective in years ahead. But Wingate complicates the process further: “Weather serves up/ memory better than any book.” Dramatic day-to-day events give exclamatory assurance for conclusions, yet Wingate immediately disagrees with that easy take based on personal chance encounters with nasty weather by an equally personal suggestion of what it means to be altered by slow accretion, by the spiritual transformation of reading, certainly a daring and unusual association: “Our stories, though,/tell us who we are.” This is the rare poem that earns its first-person plural claims.

I also like another “reading” association of a storm, in the same poem, which “felled trees older than most houses”. Brilliant! And “older” is the perfect word here.

Organic memory (or action) is not just meaningless flux, though. Wingate makes clear the slow progressions (or in this case, regressions) that occur, in her next poem, “The City Dwellers”, where the intermediary house owners are “our predecessors, the cousin spinsters/who left it wild. They kept a rotting shack//full of dead cats.” Nature, here, isn’t praised for its wild state, and there’s a neatly-fashioned similarity drawn between naive city dwellers who know nothing of gardening, and the equally-destructive country dwellers who let everything go to seed, out of neglect more than lack of skill. Two generations seem like a long enough time to correct past mistakes, but as the book’s opener makes clear, “Who likes to think about means and ends”?, especially when, in the case of “The City Dwellers”, the garden (metaphors are only overworked when they’re rendered poorly) was relatively Edenic.

Section Two begins with a delightful child’s pastoral (“Neighbours”) in crisp tetrameter, and the variations – the three-foot “and bolt around the back”; the first-stressed “No one knows people live down here” – break the rhythm with purpose. Once again, we see Wingate’s relationship with memory not as troubled discrimination of factual, even emotional, truth, but as continuation of character, of slow-moving time as fate. The narrator is confident in relating the action, yet the reader is left with more than a few questions. Where is the mother? Is she the neighbour? Is the neighbour a surrogate mother, the real mother missing (a divorce, real or emotional)? Who is the other of the poem, the “we” of the child’s address? Is it her sister, perhaps? Her neighbour’s daughter? The speaker’s imaginary friend? Perhaps most importantly, does it matter? Well, there are a few other clues that help stir the pot. About the wheat stalks: “We strip them, let the seeds rain down,/ then joust with drooping cattail reeds,/ and pop the heads for ammunition.” Precursors to war on the domestic front, which the missing or unclear relationships suggest? But the poem ends in gleeful reverie: we “fan ourselves with ferns like queens.” If the poem is a snapshot of the “nurture” side of the longstanding debate, it’s a gentle full-circle study (the neighbour or mother “laughs/ and scolds us, pulling silken threads/ of dandelions from our hair.”)

Section Three is a dramatic shift into the poem entitled “Letters from Vietnam” which, in the author’s note, is an “assemblage from letters sent to my father who ... worked as a conscientious objector counselor”. Interesting thoughts here which range from anger to fear to ambiguous resignation, but I’m not sure why they’re included in this otherwise carefully plotted book. Whether, or however much, they’re adapted, the lines are notable in the worst sense of found poetry. That is, the poetry of immediate witness of unfiltered, vivid, colloquial speech. But transcriptions, no mater how intense, honest, bravely vulnerable, can’t substitute for the crafted (and necessary) lies of poetry. “I enlisted about three months ago/ after having become frustrated/ with college. I couldn’t justify/ spending my father’s money/ any longer on the draft” begins the fourth of the eight letters, and the reader can fairly predict the further flat reportage which concludes (in this particular letter) with “I am only interested/ in getting out of the service/ in order to lead a more real/ and meaningful life”, as if Studs Terkel is at hand with a mic and tape recorder, the words on the page a faithful transcript. If there are any (or many) adaptations, it’s not clear the reasons for Wingate’s amendments, nor to what extent, or how, the changes occur.

The final section sees Wingate tackle the ambitious material of murder, disease, death, and the metaphysics of evil, and her reach exceeds her grasp. The last poem in the section (and book) rounds off the bleak subject matter with a run-of-the-mill snapshot of family love and committed protection – “I lift my shirt, eyes closed, and offer her/ my breast as she squirms into me” – but before that, we get “The Murderer”, an autobiographical meditation on a condemned man, a friend of her father’s. “Visits were denied after/ a prison riot and I didn’t see him/ again alive.” So  Wingate’s (or the narrator’s, if you will) imagination must provide further speculation, as well as the filtered (from a lawyer) record of events leading to the unfortunate man’s execution. The poem fails both as an imaginative speculation, and as a close-up events-driven drama, since both are too far removed from their source. (For imagination, the reader gets the sentimental musings of “I wondered on his life./ I put him in a house with a little yard;/ a vegetable patch and wife, a cat, a simple job.” For reality, we get third-hand detail.) This is well enough if the speaker is coming at it from the perspective of the girl in “Neighbours”, but Wingate, it’s clear, is still wrestling with her memories, and with what they mean. The pathos, the grim diurnal events are projected, not realized. “The Poet’s Devil” attempts a cynical,  tough girl voice – “You hear what I’m saying, don’t you./ Implication. Suggestion. Don’t be a dolt.” – but its effects are more nagging than fearful. Thankfully, “Living with the Dead” is a mountain that, by its immediate surroundings, towers over the rest of the section. I really like the tone of the poem – wise, both self-critical and self-forgiving, concerned. Echoing early poems in the volume, Wingate’s benedictory dead “rewrite history, always coming out good in the story.” Here, the unglamorous lines are strung with a various and resilient tug, at once nostalgic and abstract, deeply considered and inevitable, while implying, with a light though frightening touch, the hope we all have of being remembered, with fondness but also honestly. This is the future of “Better/ to live with books and music.”

Monday, May 4, 2015

Will Ferguson's HappinessTM

HappinessTM, Will Ferguson’s first novel, shouldn’t succeed so readily. The writing is, at times, unsubtle (“the significance of that last sentence imploded within him, collapsing inward with a sense of guilt and despair” – ironic in light of the author’s jokey first-page disclaimer of his editor’s knuckle-rapping for redundancies); historically mixed-up (“Soiree was the Stalin of the New Age. He had released a neutron bomb of love upon the world”); grammatically maladroit, with group stereotypes  (“Mr. Mead was a Baby Boomer in the worst sense of the word. He was in his early fifties, but he kept trying to pass himself off as, well, hip. Or something.”); philosophically jejune, another irony in a book trying to satirize the self-help industry (“ ‘Hellraisers destroy only themselves, and they do it because they love life too much to fall asleep’ “); and spiritually incorrect, the following quote actually part of the Japanese Zen tradition: (“ ‘there’s a Hindu proverb that says: The finger that points to the moon is not the moon’ “).

But succeed it does. Because it’s funny, which is kinda the point in a humourous novel. If one can forgive the increasingly (and again, ironically) preachy, broad-based, vapid counters to new-agey blandness and smiley narcissism (I could), the laughs are frequent and variously structured. Ferguson is fond of the Beard and Kenney technique, appearing in that duo’s parodic masterpiece Bored of the Rings, in which narrative hijinks immediately follow the foolishly-timed speaker’s boast. In HappinessTM, it’s used to delightful surprise several times: (“ ‘If your last name is already Serpent, why would you need the nickname Snake? I mean, it’s kind of redundant, don’t you think?’ “.//When Edwin regained consciousness, he was lying on a tabletop, strapped down and looking up into a bright light ...”). He’s also partial to the outlandish reaction of a character to the stupidity or insensitivity of another, which, after the shocker, proves to be a thought instead of a deed (“ ‘So let’s work within those parameters, shall we?’ “//”And what exactly,” said Edwin, “would 0.6 of a word be, you stupid, brain-dead, grey-haired, washed-up, over-the-hill twit?”//But that wasn’t exactly how Edwin phrased his question. What he actually said was, ‘Point six, sir?’ “).

HappinessTM caroms insouciantly chapter to chapter, unapologetic for its tone, and though the wisdom included is often shopworn and too-insistent, there are a few passages of social satire which hold up, one of which occurs near the end of the novel (p. 330 in my edition) in which Ferguson (under the narrator’s guise) mocks the moral hypocrisy of those previously under the spell of What I Learned on the Mountain for the self-help cynic’s apparent turn-about sequel, How to Be Miserable: “Many people condemned the once-loved author for having betrayed the very movement he helped launch. A fatwa was issued against him, a price was put on his head and the bounty brought hundreds of hopeful assassins out from the shadows.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Aravind Adiga's Last Man In Tower & Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games

A more mature novel from Aravind Adiga than his previous The White Tiger, Last Man In Tower  drills into the personalities and introspections of each resident of Tower A in the district of Vakola in Mumbai as they wrestle with the option of receiving (each) 150 lakhs  ($330,000) as the offer from a hard-line developer intent on building one of the many posh condos sprouting in the city like cement dreams. Now a third of a million might sound like a nice spread of cash, but not a necessity from which to retire. Not so in India, where, as Adiga points out, the average per capita annual income is $800. So, where and when can I sign, and when do you tear down this creaky old rat-trap?

Adiga takes great care in detailing the back stories and presenting travails of his characters, and the result is a sometimes bewildering exploration of depth and ambiguity, interfamilial drama and isolation. The residents here are middle class, but Mumbai’s rapidly upward mobile construction hopes are ahead of the economic realities by a generation or two. Deepak Vij, Ramesh Ajwani, Ms. Meenakshi and others still harden themselves to the long, filthy work commute while existing in a dilapidated building. So when the offer comes to take the money and resettle, it’s not a dilemma for most of the residents.

Except one. Yogesh Murthy (Masterji), a retired schoolteacher, stubborn, not influenced by wealth or comfort, rejects the offer, and the remainder of the novel accelerates into a dramatic and heartbreaking series of events between him, his ambiguously loyal friend, and the rest of his neighbours trying to convince him of his “error”.

It’s a terrific set-up, and Adiga delivers. Gone is much of the sarcastic humour of The White Tower, replaced by the ironic, shaded humour in this more accomplished novel. But the biggest difference between the two books is in Adiga’s astonishing growth in how he sees his characters. The ridiculous terms some insist on – “good” and “bad” – to describe these people, vanish. And Mumbai is the greatest character of all, a sprawling, noisy, corrupt juggernaut nevertheless inflected with nooks of beauty and colour.  

Another novel set in Mumbai rolled out in 2007, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games, at 900 densely-packed pages a structural paean to the city’s excess. At first take, an epic would seem to be a faulty tactic for the usually terse detective thriller, but Chandra uses the genre as a dramatic ploy to play off contemporary and historical problems, while subverting expectations. The good police inspector, Sikh Sartaj Singh, is set against the bad Hindu criminal don, Ganesh Gaitonde, but the reader knows the outcome on page 45 or so, the two meet only twice in the novel (a total of about 15 pages), morals are presented as circumstantial necessities rather than religious absolutes, and the climax is the most banal conclusion to the weight of a  frozen zinc block of a book you’d never predict. (One reviewer, the usually astute Jonathan Yardley, went so far as to complain about the main plot final tie-up, as if Chandra didn’t know what he was doing).

Not many serious novels, never mind epics, have the dramatic insistence ordered here. Chandra’s pace is masterful, scenes of brutal violence interspersed with interior and spiritual anguish. The architecture of juggling so many plots is handled with amazing selection and transition. Characters, all of them, are lively and striking, both in personality and unexpected action. The many scenes of detailed description are meshed with action and character analysis (self- and other-directed). The many dialects are frequently rendered in the original, and it’s entertaining to read a crime book filled with repetitive swearing, casual or angry, that dares the reader to either guess or peek at the partial glossary at the novel’s addenda. The emotional scale one endures is both exhausting and worthwhile. The tone is magnificent – there’s just the right amount of self-irony (the many references to writing and filmmaking make intelligent and humorous points without rubbing the reader’s face in dull games).

And with that last word, “games”, it’s worth a mention that the novel’s title refers to “leela”, the Hindu concept of divine play, an infinite cosmic dance without purpose. It supersedes the Western notion of fixed moral assessment, and it’s here that Chandra takes the biggest risk in an already ambitious novel, since about half the text is a first-person memoir of the gangster, and it’s a tribute to the author that Gaitonde – multiple murderer (including faithful employees), thief, defiler of a young boy, serial user of randis (whores), egomaniac – is given lots of space to wrestle with his demons, and to come out, occasionally, on top. There’s lots of detail here, but to say more would kill the surprise. I’ll just say that Chandra’s bold step of having Gaitonde challenge his guru’s ultimate game, after all we already know of the warlord, is surprising and affecting.

Like Adiga’s Last Man In Tower, Sacred Games jumps into teeming Mumbai with both feet and all senses.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger

Aravind Adiga’s 2008 debut novel, The White Tiger, has garnered outrageously ecstatic reviews as well as harsh dismissals, which is not surprising considering its situation as a Booker-winning entry which covers the son of a rickshaw-puller, the father dying in an untended hospital, the son eventually “besting” the upper class at their own game: violence, corruption, hypocrisy, and smug self-regard. My own appraisal leans more toward the grousing reviewers, even while granting the first-person Balram his due as an interesting narrator.

Let’s start with those props. The underdog isn’t your typical fictional victim who gathers easy sympathy as he suffers through circumstantial and psychic pain. Balram, sly and duplicitious almost from the outset, manages to work himself up from unemployed (and seemingly unemployable) penury to a situation as chauffeur to the dominant family in his region, while eavesdropping on, and getting clues from, his politically-connected and knee-capping bosses (the father, the often-absent hard-line son, and Balram’s direct boss, the weak-willed other son, Mr. Ashok). A delightful base from which to investigate many social angles: the caste system as its presently experienced; the flux of India’s modernism, with attendant confusion vis-a-vis the West and Indian tradition; and, as Adiga’s mixed, titular metaphor plays out, the nature of the downtrodden, which is to default to the “rooster coop of Indian society”, since any servant who tries to buck the vertical alignment invariably has violence and death meted out to his or her extended family.

Balram is a curious mix of obsequiousness and cunning, and the novel is a great ride, till the half-way point, with tense relationships and uncertainty (even though Adiga tips off the climax, in a postmodern declaration, early on). Unfortunately, those same relationships solidify into a cartoonish force of (to use Adiga’s relentless, stated opposition) Light and Darkness. Balram’s specific masters become caricatures, and their political friends – though described in biting physical detail reminiscent of some of Saul Bellow’s damning character portraits – are likewise too broad, too outlined with doctrinaire faults, to become invested in seriously.

There are other problems. The novel is structured as a vocal musing to a soon-to-be-visiting Chinese premier, which, though it allows for some humorous ruminations on the ideology of developing nations overturning their also-ran status (while noting the very different political histories of, and cultural responses to, modernity in each country), also highlights a not-infrequent (and major) fault of novels which use a first-person narrator. Like Jonathan Franzen’s ponderous and overrated Freedom, I don’t believe the speaker’s lexical and grammatical proficiency. (In Franzen’s novel, the co-protagonist, Patty Berglund, is a sagacious and meticulous self-examiner of vice and folly who can spin serpentine sentences, though she’s depicted in the greater narrative as a jock with limited education and educational desire.) Balram tells premier Jiabao that his English is poor, and the novel certainly corroborates this, as the protagonist learns the language through lurid headlines and newspaper shockers. When his masters really want to speak privately in front of him, they speak in direct English (which Balram then relates faithfully), but more importantly, and with more skill than Patty Berglund, Balram creates some finely-turned poetic descriptions of Delhi street life, cockroach movement, and character idiosyncrasies.

Adiga gets to have and eat his cake. The bosses are overthrown, but the new boss just becomes a slightly more just oppressor, or, even worse, though I could be misreading Adiga, a hopeful precursor to a cutthroat entrepreneurial future that has as its political calling a consumerist corruption rather than caste-entrenched corruption. As an upper-middle-class Indian himself, Adiga is to be applauded for dumping on his own in this fashion, but as the novel plays out, it’s hard not to see the entire enterprise as an assuagement of class guilt. At the novel’s close, in the reversal of fortune, Balram’s new chauffeurs may be treated with more compassion, but the reader still doesn’t hear them in their own words. And of course, we don’t know what happens to Balram’s invisible family after his crime.

The story is a semi-diverting peg on which to clip (and display to the masses) the oft-rewashed bloomers of sympathy for the oppressed. The ideology becomes overbearing and simplistic. Though the ambition is noted, I prefer messages or ideas to have slightly sexier undergarments.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Catherine Bush's Accusation

Novels and non-fictive explorations about Western professionals challenged by shifting their work overseas have a long and (in tone) varied history. John Hersey’s Hiroshima is a dispassionate recording of a horrific event; Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost is a semi-hallucinatory novel about an archaeologist’s efforts at exhuming a victim of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war; and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is a hilarious account of a journalist’s misadventures which proves the Peter Principle. In these, and other, novels, the exotic locale acts as metaphysical challenge to the protagonist (the challenge in the first book above is specifically for the reader).

Like Scoop, Catherine Bush’s 2013 Accusation is a novel about a journalist at sea in an alien world of fact or fiction. Though Waugh’s novel’s protagonist was also based on a reporter in Addis Ababa (Bush’s protagonist travels to that city, as well), the similarities between the two books end there.

Bush’s narrator comes in contact with a charismatic and forceful black man who founded and managed a boys’ and girls’ circus company. Sara is drawn into sympathetic curiosity with this man (Raymond) when she finds out he’s been accused of abusing his young charges. The impetus, the reason for the sympathy? Sara, herself, had once been falsely accused, and charged (the case was dropped for lack of evidence), with stealing a woman’s wallet and running up some purchases, so she understands that the accusation will never be fully expunged in the minds of many, whatever the outcome of any trial.

This is a fine working plot for all kinds of reasons and avenues: the reactions and withdrawal of friends and lovers (Bush handles this with intelligence and conviction); the mining for clues and objective detail (Bush is exhaustive in the book’s best scenes, the middle-section questioning in Addis Ababa); and the acceptance or difficulty that one will never know the full details (Bush explores this from different angles, and though it ties in well with the Sara-David sub-plot, the grim persistence of the psychological reorientation overwhelms other possible moods and viewpoints).

It’s on this latter tendency, the main theme obsession, that the novel falters. Like her novel Claire’s Head, Bush is excellent at getting inside the ... er, head of the protagonist. But, though that metaphor is somewhat different in Accusation (the different locations, the many characters, the competing viewpoints and desires), Sara still suffocates the reader by not only appearing in most every scene, but by being every scene’s overwhelming conscience. A counter argument would consider that getting into others’ heads could have destroyed the factual mystery (Raymond – did he or didn’t he?), but the Canadian characters also in the dark (friend Juliet, lover David, as well as Sara’s newspaper boss) could have been offered sole-viewpoint scenes, and some of the Ethiopian characters, and Australian Sem Le, could have added layers to the confusion and emotion by offering us their unfiltered thoughts. The first-person voice could have been a better way to deal with the dominant perspective.

That major complaint aside, Accusation is narratively interesting, even thrilling in some places, especially in its final two-thirds, as well as patiently wise in its assessments.

As an addendum, the missing dialogue tags sometimes hindered my reading experience. I always understood who was speaking, it’s just that I had to halt on more than one occasion, which is fine if that’s part of the intent –  William Gaddis comes to mind – but not so fine if it detracts from the narrative pace.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Alexander Kuprin's The Duel

The title gives away the inevitable climax, but Alexander Kuprin’s concern in The Duel is to hook a common Russian melodramatic trope with his own spin, in this novel the absurdity of initial event and build-up, before the set-to itself. Military life, of which Kuprin got a taste, is skewered with existentialist mockery, realism’s magnifying glass, and a lacerating Romantic irony. Reminiscent of any Dostoyevsky femme fatale, Kuprin’s Shurochka, by theatrical and duplicitous direction, adds gasoline to the fire of Romashov’s ridiculous, impetuous pride.

Unfortunately, Kuprin’s powerful narration is compromised by translator Josh Billings’ repetitive word choices and rhythmic missteps, even though he captures a good deal of Kuprin’s lively characterizations and lyrical transitions. But by far the biggest problem in this English version of The Duel stems from Melville House Publishing’s rotten care in setting the text, which is riddled with typos (at least one per page in a 306 pp outlay). Kuprin deserved much better, and I note in mild horror that the same publisher/translator duo combined for a Pushkin collection.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jim Johnstone’s Dog Ear

With its mix of scientific observation and metaphysical questioning, Jim Johnstone’s latest poetry collection, Dog Ear, recalls similar procedures in the poetry of Leigh Kotsilidis. Whereas Kotsilidis accepts the incompletions inherent in fact and fancy, equably so, Johnstone’s speculative conclusions are anguished, the product of a mind obsessive enough to follow the circuitous and repetitive paths of logic, but intelligent enough to know its not likely to offer more than provisional understanding. The titular opener displays this frustrated investigation:

It was years before I learned to call
this prayer: the right-hand corner
of a page turned down to make another
page. I attempted to escape, then return
to the boneyard where I’d removed
an earring from my wife’s right ear—
diamond, the crux of the universe,
contracting to leave a pin-sized hole
midair. In that margin, my words
remain transfixed until she disappears—
proof that while I swore the world
I’d created would double like a hand
beneath my own, it merely stretches
before me in consolation. There, there.

“Dog Ear” also demonstrates Johnstone’s – I want to call it ‘facility’, but that’s not the right word – strange blend of anecdote, metaphor, and fantasy. In isolation, those components don’t provide a vehicle for even provisional understanding, but a readerly  juggling act conjures an organic unfolding, climax, and denouement, classic structures that, in Johnstone’s effort, muddies and perplexes, while closing on an anti-epiphany, the final two-word repetition either compassionate or maliciously diverting.

The metaphysical questing is a constant throughout the collection, and an obsessive trope that supports it is flying/falling. In “Complementarity” (“All that’s lost is given shape -- /a hand crushed under Boeing/fuselage”), in “Inland” (“our company’s shade/lifts likeness from stands of birch, blots/retreating lanes of wind: our pilot”), in “Evel Knievel Negotiates the Fountain at Caesar’s Palace” (I groped around and found myself/unmoored at latitude”), and in “Ariadne’s Thread” (“Our pact: to climb against  winter’s rush --/mad, uncoupled”), the narrator is caught in a tragic fix: wise enough to know of gravity’s inviolable law, but restless enough to want to transcend it anyway, however knowingly futile the attempt. In this, Johnstone’s dilemma (acceptance of entropy vs  spiritual desire for transcendence mated with its infinitesimally small likelihood of  realization) can only be recorded and aesthetically investigated, if not unified.

The biggest weakness of this volume is Johnstone’s over-reliance on the high-toned, even vatic, register. The poems are good enough – and some of them are more than good – so that the tone doesn’t create an unfortunate parody of itself, and I also realize that  existential burrowing isn’t an avocation, but an occasional self-puncturing (“Evel Knievel” ’s “body tossed ass-first/over the gas tank’s hive” a stick-out exception) would be more than welcome.

Monday, January 19, 2015

H. L. Mencken's A Choice of Days

What do H. L. Mencken, Kahlil Gibran, and Thomas Jefferson have in common? Many can ape a starred quote from all three, but few bother to read them extensively. In Mencken’s case, that means an unmeasured adulation for his incisive, provocative, oft-cited epigrams. Mencken plied his chief trade – newspaper opinion pieces – during the beginnings of yellow journalism and working class exposés, so it’s ironic that he succeeded in an era that alternately pandered to, and sympathized with, the semi-literate. (More on that in a bit.) He knew, or wrote at the same time as, Hemingway, Dreiser, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair. Nathanael West also clicked keys in a newspaper office (and readers are grateful – the excellent Miss Lonelyhearts resulted). Great writing, bold opinion, larger than life personalities. Mencken, like the notables listed above, also applied himself to the creative arts, as they’re more widely pegged, though he shelved stories and poems as inferior testings. That’s an important segue into the review at hand.

I didn’t like Mencken’s A Choice of Words, the abridged book of his three-volume autobiography-in-essays. I didn’t like it because I didn’t like the man. In a creative work, that kind of identification of quality with the person who penned it is inexcusable. In a journalistic piece, much less so. Non-fiction reportage – dispassion, wide-focus assertion, external issues, definition by negative reaction – often runs counter to creative endeavour, so it’s doubly impressive the aforementioned novelists transcended those strictures. I picked up this book to see if Mencken would rip off his starched collar, ply himself with a whiskey or three (a semi-teetotaler, he prided himself on working sober), and get personal. Be personable. Vulnerable. Endearing. Investigative, in the deepest sense of the word. No such luck. Mencken’s views are weightless because I didn’t know what animated them, other than aristocratic derision. Southerners or rednecks (or as Mencken liked to call them, “lintheads”) are despised above all other targets, even politicians and religious figures, because the former created the cynical crusading of the latter two groups. Stupidity is Mencken’s constant subject, either in direct attack or underlying core. Many or most of us remember his awesome epigram, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”, but Mencken’s good times are frequently spurred on by mockery, by reactive self-regard.

A Choice of Words brings that out. Mencken’s style is breezily confident, his diction far-ranging and entertaining, and his sentence structures various and tonally even, though every second explanatory clause begins with the jarringly formal “for”, as in, “[They] appear[ed] to have leaned toward Levirate ideas, for when the cousin dies one of his brothers married his widow”. But the emotion – and in what better an avenue than autobiography to explore it? – is stillborn. Lots of bravado (childhood indiscretions) and faux-wonder (condescending observations of “coloureds”, and rabble-rousing drunks), but all of it viewed through a telescope on a cold and sparse-starred night. Even the most traumatic event – the great Baltimore fire of 1904 – is rendered as hectic report. I half-expected Mencken to sign off for a commercial break during problems with burned-out news offices and shifting locales. No ruminations on lives lost, homes and careers destroyed, specific damage, dynamic images. In fact, no acknowledgement that these were issues at all. But Mencken the hero (getting the “news” out no matter the obstacle) carries the day. After recently reading Orhan Pamuk’s beautifully moving, wise, and multi-angled two essays on living through earthquakes in Istanbul, Mencken’s puny offerings are an offensive wasteland of the imagination, strong on the headlines but flatlined on the heart beneath them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Juan Goytisolo's Count Julian

Much better than his Marks of Identity (as translated by Rabassa), Juan Goytisolo’s Count Julian, the 1970 middle novel in the trilogy, gains that evaluation in no small part from Helen Lane’s fine, lyrical translation. The rhetoric is rhythmically calibrated for emotional shock, metaphorically daring (repetitive insect predation is handled with skillful variation and merciless scientific observation), and tonally sensitive and various. Most importantly, the voice which seemed, at times in the opening novel, pedantic and general, here is sharper. The reader can hear echoes of a necessary rage and mockery. Relentless in its targetted hits, Goytisolo avoids the flippant drive-by which often marred Marks of Identity to first colour his characters with specific tics and twitches in order to more effectively drive juice through the electric chair’s occupied head-and-hand irons. But, though it’s shorter than its predecessor, the pace also fries the reader’s sensibilities just past the half-way point. I’ll be reporting on the concluding book, Juan the Landless, later this year since it’s also translated by Lane.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Juan Goytisolo's Marks of Identity

Works in translation often present acute reviewer-with-pants-down syndrome because that blind and deaf soul can’t rely on the middlepersonhood as a faithful conduit due to the reviewer’s unrefulgent ability in understanding the source work. That problem popped up as often as moles in a whack- ‘em arcade game throughout Gregory Rabassa’s Spanish translation of Juan Goytisolo’s 1966 Marks of Identity, the novelist’s first entry (and first-ever avant work) in his lauded trilogy. Repetitively clunky syntax shifts the reader’s focus from content and image to its unrhythmic means, a dire flaw in an ambitious, multi-modal, complex work where rhetoric registers from passionate denunciation to cool irony. The reader remains tentative on an evaluation since the blunder could emanate as much, or more, from the author, in this instance. Certainly, Goytisolo doesn’t make the interpreter’s job easy. One of the main approaches – the second-person autobiographical punctuationless highly-charged run-on sentence block-paragraphs – creates a heavy slog no matter the translator’s talents, as evidenced by the circling back, the lost referents, the cloudy tones, the mysterious pronouns, the sketchy characterizations. Perhaps and again, this is Goytisolo’s intent – the destruction of bourgeois expectations – because a giant ‘fuck you’ to the reader wouldn’t come as a surprise next to the giant ‘fuck you’ to Franco, Franco’s supporters and minions, communists, fat women, dull workers of state whether in bureaucratic office or on production line, ridiculous Don Juans, haughty and decadent forebears of the aristocracy, the Catholic church, the myth of the honourable virgin, the myth of the heroic knight, Spanish stoicism, tourists, Catalonian complacency, counter-revolutionary simple-Simons, familial imbecility, sexual repression, deceptive ‘friends’, literary log rolling, pop culture, romanticizing traditional Spanish culture, technological ‘progress’, sexual duplicity, sentimentality, the police, democrats, the self, and – above all – the pimping-out of language as moral directive. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for an opposing, positive vision in Goytisolo’s personal revolution other than (in the vaguest of terms) freedom, and (ironically) a romantic call-to-arms for Moorish re-engagement and takeover of moribund Castilian society. If I give this book a plug, it’s more to do with Goytisolo’s audaciousness than a realized (structurally, aesthetically) fictional journey.