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Portland just feels different. That can seem like an unfortunate statement to anyone already living here, because the rent spikes another forty bucks every time it’s uttered, but that doesn’t make those four words any less true. They seem especially true now to those of us in the local literary community, because everything that has made Portland a Mecca for musicians and visual artists for the last decade or so is here in earnest for the poets, too.

“Community” is an important word. While it feels like there have been small pockets scattered around the city of close friends, or trusted confidants, who write together, offer feedback, and support each other’s efforts, bringing those groups together into a larger, more diverse local presence never seemed quite possible until recently. There have been some touchstone figures and organizations working in the literary spectrum this whole time, to be sure—Kevin Sampsell, small press guru of Burnside Powell’s and seemingly tireless driving force behind Future Tense press immediately comes to mind as a kind of figurehead for the local indie press movement, along with the Independent Press Resource Center (IPRC), helmed by Justin Hocking. There’s also Literary Arts, which brings in figures from all over the upper stratosphere of the literary world, while constantly working to support local writers, publishers, and journals. There has also been a guardianship of Oregon’s literary tradition maintained largely by organizations like the Friends of William Stafford (the board of trustees includes Paulanne Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate and reads like a who’s who of the national poetry scene spanning the last few decades).

It’s not like Portland woke up one morning and joined the larger contemporary poetry world in progress. Considering how much of the year we spend covered by thick, flat-gray clouds and perpetually soaked by the fine mist that hangs in the air everywhere all fall, winter, and spring, Portlanders have a lot of time to engage in their “indoor” hobbies and pride themselves on being a well-read crowd. You are equally likely to get turned on to a new author while mixing concrete on a construction site as you would while wandering around one of the many libraries and bookstores. Portland is a well-read city in the midst of a well-read state and has more than its fair share of writers, which has been made patently clear over the years.

At the height of the popularity of slam poetry during the nineties, Portland made waves in the national scene for having the lowest-scoring audiences in the nation. It seemed like this city was an excellent place for performance poets to get their egos raked across the coals any time their material favored pure performance over literary merit, or substantiality.

As slam fizzled out locally (not to effectively reappear until very recently), about a thousand open mics seemed to pop up around the city. These ranged from quiet bookstore or library affairs to rowdier barroom readings sometimes accompanied by musicians and DJ’s. I hosted on of the latter type for a year-and-a-half, learning a lot about that particular scene from several sides of the picture.

Those open mics were a great thing for a lot of budding poets. Even now, they can create a space to work on reading voices, make friends with people who are also into what can feel like one of the more despised art forms in America (especially for those of us who have friends that like to bitch about how much they hate poetry), figure out their craft, and occasionally (very occasionally) meet someone to date. But, as much as open mics are a great way for new poets to start figuring things out, they have problems, too.

After visiting a number of these around town, and running one, I started to notice that the same group of people would migrate around and read the same set at every single open mic that fit their schedule. Since most of these were weeklies, the homogeneity was palpable. This group of regulars made up the bulk of the readers at each open mic, and seldom—if ever—played the audience role well. If a new person (especially a woman, the bulk of the regulars all seem to be men) wandered in to the open mic, all the regulars would break out their “big guns”—whatever got a good response from that particular crowd in the past—which would be fine, excepting that the same set might be repeated over and over every week depending on how many strangers showed up.

The close quarters also seemed to lend it to deep, jealous rivalries. Little, sometimes one-sided, wars would break out among regular readers.  Keeping track of who hated whom could drive a person to drinking heavily, especially since so much effort on the part of whoever had a grudge went into trying to recruit supporters. Since the same general group would be at each reading, there might be no escape from the machinations of angry regulars.

Granted, this behavior was only really common among the divas in the group—primarily male, prone to redlining microphones by screaming “fuck” a lot, and frequently given to rambling “off the cuff” medleys of their memorized work. Since the bigger personalities were often at odds with one another, it could sometimes be hard to see past them and find the distinct value in the open mics, especially if the goal was to check out some poetry. Of course, the value is there and its discovery can keep someone (like me) coming back week after week for the flashes of surprise that can make the open mic so worthwhile.

Despite the problems, fresh art can be found frequently at open mics, along with amazing feats of performance. I remember standing in amazement one time while a guy recited “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, and again while Tom Blood (who would later win the Oregon Book Award) “read” in his strange, lilting tone from blank sheets of paper. The surprises are what makes the open mics worth visiting—which is probably true everywhere—especially when there’s an energy to specific venues. The energy is more likely to attract diversity, and simple high school biology tells us that a diverse ecosystem is less likely to collapse. In fact, that surprise and that energy are probably the key reasons why Slam took off so hard in the nineties.

While some of the open mics struggled with inbreeding, and seemed to be providing fewer surprises, many of the smaller curated readings didn’t fare as well as one would like. Attendance could be abyssmal for numerous reasons: popular open mic regulars noticably absent anywhere but the open mics at which they read (often citing issues of authenticity), no reliable list of events to be found anywhere, only a handful running on a regular enough schedule (usually monthly) to predict.

Unfortunately, some curated readings would be followed by an open mic, as a strategy to build or keep audience, a practice that deeply violates my old punk rock ethos—whoever tours headlines!—but also creates an environment in which the open mic crowd starts noisily arriving somewhere in the middle of the last “featured” poet’s set. The host might then transition from the curated portion to the open part by saying something like, “we listened to you, now you listen to us,” which can seem hypocritical since the “us” in question often has just walked in the front door, or spent the last twenty minutes shuffling papers, not listening to anyone at all.

Many of the other curated events suffered from lack of publicity to a point where I might catch sight of some local poet walking into a café or gallery while I was out getting groceries and, if I dropped what I was doing and followed him or her, I’d wander into a reading that featured some touring poet whom I’d never heard. Sometimes the reading would actually be kind of a big deal, but news of its existence wouldn’t seem to make it into the light of day until after the fact.

The newspapers didn’t help. If anything the local weeklies and the Oregonian appeared to be pointedly ignoring the local literary scene. I remember sitting in an editorial meeting while working as an intern for Willamette Week right as there seemed to be a small, sudden influx of new energy in local poetry, mentioning an upcoming event as possibly being worth a blurb and getting “slam poetry is dead” for the trouble. Yes. Slam was (at least temporarily) dead in Portland. Of course, that’s not at all what I was talking about.

Then something changed. Just as more Portland writers started getting national recognition, an influx of highly active, extraordinarily community-oriented people showed up on the local scene, injecting the city with a new vitality. I don’t know who came first. It was like an explosion. Now the city is filled with people who really give a shit. Not just about the art, but about fostering relationships between everyone with a shared interest in the art. Willamette Week lists the slam almost every week (along with all the amazing stuff happening around the city), Oregonian has a poetry column that only occasionally is bumped, Portland Mercury thankfully lost or fired all their lit-crit Reed alumni and replaced them with people who only occasionally rip on poetry.

It is fucking awesome, and as far as I can tell, directly linked to a few key events.

I remember walking into my first (their third) If Not for Kidnap, held in the living room of a large shared house off of César E. Chavez Blvd. (it was 39th Ave, then). I was nervous as hell because the thing I can handle the least is being around a crowd of people. Plus, I wasn’t experienced with the kind of energy this group put out. It was a semi-BYOB event, with a couple of half-racks of Pabst parked on the table to fortify all the wine everyone brought. I was there with my girlfriend who’s also nervous in a crowd, carrying a bottle of red wine and wishing there was someplace nearby to get a whiskey shot. We were, of course, a little early.

Although I don’t like crowds, I do like readings, and I wanted to try to be as close to the readers as possible. The hosts, Donald Dunbar and Jamalieh Haley, were still busy putting the living room together. I’d met Donald Dunbar before, but tonight he was radiating waves of calm energy. It felt good. In fact, I’d never felt so completely welcomed into a space in my life. Kate Bucko, a friend and classmate from PSU, was a roommate in the house and provided shots pilfered from a secret stash. We went out to the back porch, to get out of the way, and met Marshal Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen (who we’d later learn are the engine behind Poor Claudia, one of the prettiest journals I’ve seen). By the time the reading started, it was packed. People were all over the floor, directly in front of the microphone to watch Emily Kendal Frey and Lisa Ciccarello. The excitement in the room hung on everything like humidity.

I’d never seen a reading like it in Portland. In the last twelve years, I’ve been to bookstore readings, library events, slams, literary variety shows, readings by extremely famous poets in massive venues, and countless poetry open mics. I’d talked with people about what a “good” reading looked like and heard a gamut of ideal events ranging from boozy rowdiness to church-like silence. This reading got silent, but it didn’t have the stuffy feeling of being at a strict protestant service. People were drinking, but nobody in the audience reached the point where they had to heckle or shout or otherwise make themselves more important than the readers. It was rapt attention. Everyone in the room was really into the poetry. And the poetry was good. It was funny, strange, and sometimes sad. It felt great.

Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger kicked off the Smalldoggies reading series (named after their press and magazine) a little over a year ago at a bar off of Hawthorne that boasted impossibly cheap pints of Ninkasi IPA. The bar closed and they’ve moved it to the basement stage at Blue Monk, a venue that has historically shown solid support for the literary crowd in Portland. It’s a remarkable event, and has been touted by some as one of the more important regular readings in Portland. Part of what makes it incredible for an audience member is that Carrie or Matty are right there at the door, despite having a show to put on, to say hi and take donations. Their presence is thread throughout the whole evening, as they swap emcee duties and prepare the audience for each new segment. The format is great, too. Since the beginning, they’ve had a band or musician open the show, followed by the readers—almost the reverse of any event I’ve ever seen. The music is often unexpected, sometimes raucous, and always contemporary—I think I’ve seen more indie-rock open for poets and writers at Smalldoggies than anything else, the most recent show featuring Curious Hands, one of my favorite local bands to see live.

Again, what marks Smalldoggies as being so great is that it has the same kind of intense energy as INFK; the audience’s attention is undivided. The venue helps. People who are more interested in socializing can hang out upstairs, leaving the fans to the work of watching, but it’s hard to think there are too many people bailing on the reading, the seats are almost always completely full and the entire back end of the room is regularly filled with people standing near the bar without ordering drinks.

Bad Blood shares this feeling. Drew Swenhaugen, Joseph Mains, and Zachary Schomburg originally put these readings together at the Work / Sound gallery right off of Morrison, moving them to ADX after a while. Bad Blood comes out of nowhere, sometimes, and can happen any night of the week. The news of a new show releases anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in advance, depending on what’s being booked, giving the events the feeling of being like a party the hosts threw together to break up the wet, gray doldrums of Portland weather. This is a group that’s also not afraid to mix it up, often inviting filmmakers to show off work. The readings feel cathartic, making Carolyn and I crazy about running off somewhere to talk about every little moment, the way we do after watching a movie.

I’m not sure what started this, exactly, but I’m glad it’s happening. Portland is changing by strides, so much so that the poetry produced from this city is significantly different than what has come before. Categorizing it is the job of more critical minds, but there is a real shift away from quiet meditations on the Pacific Northwest landscape and a move toward touching, dreamlike visions, absurdity, and dry humor. There are well put together readings several times a month that have all the energy, excitement, and audience I’ve ever dreamed of seeing at any of the smaller, independent events I’ve visited over the last decade or so and there are really good poets just hanging out everywhere.

It’s a renaissance. Maybe that’s too big a word. Nobody is inventing the new physics here (that I know of), but there’s a clear change in the fabric of Portland and it’s making the city love poetry again.

durbin

LF: One of the things I thought was interesting–and admirably bold–about The Hills was that it wasn’t afraid to, conceivably, bore its readers;  wasn’t afraid to not entertain, which is a rather ingenious juxtaposition considering that, of course, the book is about entertainment, and by default about instant gratification. (In your recent reading at AWP, you even mention that the piece, as read aloud, might conceivably come across as “boring” without the participation of readers acting as the voices of various characters, so the narrative is clearly a multimedia interaction as presentation as well as in print). Beneath the “naked eye” repetition, there’s an indefinable undercurrent–as if someone had slipped something into a drink and the room had started to shift and alter imperceptibly, or a kind of white noise that had been quietly building had suddenly made itself heard. The ostensibly perfunctory/stoic text has suddenly become richer, more layered, and more disturbed; the dialogue within more frantic and uncontrolled, though nothing ever really happens on the surface. Methodology-wise, this is a radical departure from your first collection, The Ravenous Audience, which is extremely visceral and instantly/almost tactilely engaging; can you talk a little about any such methods you might have employed  in composing The Hills, as (unlike many clearly “channeled” poems) it does seem to have come into existence by the hands of a deliberate methodology?

KD: The Hills is, as you point out, an exercise in tedium, and yet there is a sort of dramatic pull to it not unlike, say, a Jane Austen novel–if one is willing to give themselves over to the breaking of the action by descriptions of weird minutia in the setting, such as a bottle of champagne behind a juicer, camera angles, all the weird mannerisms of the characters, things like people pulling hairs out of their mouths. These oddities can be pleasurable, tactile, to read, or frustrating because of how they don’t really reveal. The set of constraints I followed with constructing the piece were to simply describe, in minute detail, every moment of an entire episode, with block texts broken into scenes. The title of the episode is “I Know What You Did,” and it’s one of many interchangeable episodes of the show, wherein Lauren Conrad (the show’s heroine) confronts Heidi, her former BFF, at a now defunct faux-French nightclub in Los Angeles, for telling the press that Lauren and her ex-boyfriend made sex tapes. I am still not done with the full version of The Hills, which will be in the diamond edition of E!, and which comes out this summer. Each scene, which is about 20-30 seconds of screen time, takes me about two hours to write.

After Ravenous came out, as off-putting as the text was to people because of its intensely sexual and violent subject matter, I felt that the poems themselves were very seductive and had a cinematic pull to them. E! is not a seductive book, purposely–it has an ironic effect, considering that I more or less just re-iterated the most seductive “texts” of our pop culture. I mean, the Lindsay Lohan Arrives at Court section of the book is just a complete lifting of a text from an online tabloid that millions of people read, and yet it’s the section of E! that people are most bored by. I suppose you could say this is because what we are interested in as a culture is in essence very boring, but I feel like that’s too easy of an answer. Like all good conceptual art, the texts of E! are pre-existing “material”, de-contextualized. In that way, E! is a completely disorienting book because it de-familiarizes pop culture so totally; it’s a text that unravels, but very, very slowly and almost imperceptibly, as you point out. And so if you don’t read it all the way through, with attention, you can miss that and read it too flatly. But you’re reading pop culture, which is something people normally don’t pay attention to, is the thing–they usually “miss” the very thing which shows us so much about ourselves.. Because I felt that people were missing E! in performance/readings,  I started having them act out the characters in The Hills. It forces them to encounter a text that they might have been really ambivalent about before–and often they start to “get it” and really love it (one reader said he felt “exhilarated as he’s never felt at a poetry reading” after being Heidi in Boston). This happens even if they don’t know who those characters are. The audience then embodies the basic premise of this body of work, which is “we do this, we are this.” We live reality TV every day of our lives; we are Lauren and Heidi.

LF: Your chapter on Dynasty was my favorite part of the book, and seemed to me, as I described it in my review, as a kind of morbid stop-motion dollhouse. I am curious about your personal thoughts on the representations therein, either from a feminist perspective or as commentary on popular media’s idea of what the public “wants” re female interaction.  I thought it significant that telltale glimpses of the actor’s “real” ages kept slipping like cracks of sunlight into the poem. Though the piece is obviously largely hilarious, there’s something sinister looming over the camp–a kind of overseer embodying the possibility of a kind of encroaching  metaphorical death (of youth, perhaps) or change. Did these more ominous images come out naturally in the process of transcription; and, if so, were you aware of them when they appeared, or did you notice them in hindsight?

KD: With the Dynasty section, what happened was that I discovered through the process of freezing, then transcribing, nighttime television’s first major catfight, in a series of stills, that the tragedy of “the catfight” and women’s loss of beauty in our culture, manifested itself quietly and tragically. I like that you called it a stop-motion dollhouse. It very much is that. Some of the images looked to me like a still life as well; there is one still where a gilded picture of women with parasols is on the wall while Krystle and Alexis fight that simply breaks my heart–that doubling of the two women on the wall, our dolls. And yet the section is funny, too. Our funny woman problems: wigs slipping, silk ripping, fire-engine red press-on nails. Cue the laugh track.

As for what you say about the manifestations coming out the woodwork (or out of the pixels), I’d say yes–I didn’t know with any of the sections in this book what would manifest from my processes of writing. I felt drawn to certain images/texts (images are texts), set up constraints, and went to work. I figured by looking closely at something usually glossed over–seen as “shallow”–I would find much, terribly much, that had been neglected. And I did. And yet I didn’t want to “say” what I had found, I wanted others to experience my process through reading the text, my process of writing, not about, but writing, reality TV.

I love what you said in your review about the book’s method forcing one to look at one’s own conscience. That is a beautiful way to put it. It did that to me too.

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LF: Your Anna Nicole piece was also carnivalesquely disturbing, and I thought it was fantastic that you had someone putting clown makeup on you as you read it at AWP–just as the child in the now notorious video that’s the poem’s subject was applying it to Smith’s face as events unfolded. Obviously you kept your own ideas about Smith’s possible complicity in said footage to yourself, but I wonder what you think: do you identify that particular spectacle (and perhaps the enigma of Anna Nicole herself) with the natural but still contrived camp of, say, John Waters, as opposed to a more “organic” kind of Tennessee Williams Baby Doll  innocence? (I use these examples as templates in keeping with the women/drag queen-and-screen premises of both E! and Ravenous). How do you think either interpretation might change the way–or, perhaps more accurately, the level of sympathy–with which Smith is generally viewed?

KD: I think any/all of these descriptions of Anna Nicole’s problem seem apt, the only thing is that we can sit here and talk about Anna Nicole forever, and about Marilyn Monroe too, but at the end of the day that’s us sitting here talking about these women and the problem(s) of these women, and there’s something gross about that. I didn’t want to write another text that tsked tsked at the problem of the destroyed blonde angel. I wanted to simply re-arrange a text that already existed that was fucked, and multiply fucked by having been introduced into court evidence. Another thing I wanted to do was mix up tabloid and CNN/news reportage (because they are all the same now anyway), and then to see what that might teach me, or what experience I might have via reading that text re-arranged, to see what I was not seeing. A lot of things became viewable through this process. An experience of heartbreak, mostly, that–I was going to say despite, but I won’t say despite, and I won’t say because of either, but alongside or entangled with, the mechanical and uncanny and bizarre and unreal qualities of the text–a tragedy that is very human and very, very alive. We think of television, we think of reality television especially, as being so fake and scripted and what-have-you, but it seems to me more alive than life, life spilling beyond life. Whatever was real, whatever was “fake” with that Anna tape, what I learned by looking more closely at the transcripts, scrambling them, was an ecstatic tragedy, and that tragedy had to do, yet again, with a woman who was not seen, not witnessed, who was dismissed as a clown, and who could not see herself. The echoes of her pain are still reverberating, like a mechanical baby doll, crying forever: a baby, our baby, who can never be soothed.

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Kate Durbin is a Los Angeles-based writer and performance artist. She is author of The Ravenous Audience (Akashic Books), E! Entertainment (Blanc Press Diamond Edition), the conceptual fashion magazine The Fashion Issue (Wonder, forthcoming), and, with Amaranth Borsuk,  ABRA (Zg Press, forthcoming). She has also written five chapbooks. Her projects have been featured in Spex, Huffington Post, The New Yorker, Salon.com, Poets and Writers, Poets.org, VLAK, Lana Turner: A Journal of Poetry and Opinion, Black Warrior Review, Joyland, berfrois, SUPERMACHINE, Drunken Boat, NPR, Bookslut,  and The American Scholar, among others. She is founding editor of Gaga Stigmata, an online arts and criticism journal about Lady Gaga, which will be published as a book from Zg Press in 2012. She co-curated a forum on women writers and fashion for Delirious Hem, SEAM RIPPER. Her performance Prices Upon Request was performed at Yuki Sharoni Salon in Beverly Hills, her piece Pardonmywhoremoans was performed in BELLYFLOP swimming pool gallery in Los Angeles, her Bad Princess Walk was performed at the West Hollywood Book Fair in 2011, her installation Pile of Panties took place on Sunset Blvd as part of the Los Angeles Road Concerts in 2011, and her short film Tumblr is the Only Place I Don’t Pretend I’m Okay premiered at TOTEM in Brooklyn in 2012. She writes about celebrity style for Hollywood.com.

E! Entertainment
By Kate Durbin
Insert/Blanc Press, 2012
Full color 40 p. chapbook
$12.00

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If Hedda Hopper had been reincarnated into a bag lady forced to stuff her own newspaper columns into her clothes for warmth, the wyrd outer hummings of her cycle toward rebirth might well have been echoed in Kate Durbin’s E! Entertainment.  The 40 page deconstruction,  namesake of the television network and interspersed with lurid screenshots, is prose-poetry fed less by muses than by an alternative kind of green energy powered by their garbage: “recording angel” concept gone Murdoch wiretap, courtroom stenography as art that fluctuates between high and low like designer prescription drug-induced mood swings.

The book opens with an episode (presented as script-summary) from reality TV’s The Hills. The shot (recognizable and iconic in renditions from Wilder to Lynch) rises over the narrative like a smog-crepuscular sun:

Opening shot pans over Los Angeles. The buildings sparkle in the sunlight. Episode title appears in white font. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID’.  Shot of Sunset Boulevard sign, man in grey shirt going over crosswalk…

But Durbin is not interested in exploring mystery here so much as she is leaving us to dissect it, if we can find it. E!’s four chapters (the remaining three are on Dynasty, Lindsay Lohan, and Anna Nicole Smith) are so wholly representative of their medium their strategy is almost undetectable, its illumination indistinguishable from the famous sunlight in which it exists. Just as cubism and surrealism aim toward simultaneous representation, The Hills explores the overlap of interiority within presentation, like a sheet of tracing paper: “closed captioning” repeatedly refusing and belying the accuracy of spoken dialogue–as if the piece were composing itself against its own five-second broadcast delay:

 “I’m intimidated’ says a male voice with a British accent. The white letters say the same thing….’okay,” says Lauren. The white letters do not say this.

Shot of Lauren putting her hand over her heart and leaning forward…shot of Lauren’s face ….her eyes are glassy and her nose looks like a button.

The aforementioned chapter on Dynasty is E!’s crown jewel, a campy, morbidly funny stop-motion dollhouse in which Joan Collins and Linda Evans in a cat fight are repeatedly played and put on freeze frame:

Alexis’ blurred upper body fills ¾ of the frame. Her black hair is pouffy and a wig. Krystle’s face is coming at her. The crease of her cheek can be seen. The rest of her face is indistinct, and looks old.

                                           —-

Collins and Evans are as fairytale crones with false faces, their true countenances only glimpsed at certain slants of light, angles, pauses.  Sometimes the glamour loses its footing and the realtime-face–the pathos under the camp–can be seen, the blow-by-blow cattiness stopped and neutered into a fascinating playset:

Alexis sits on a beige sofa. Her tummy fat bulges. Her black wig is mussed. She is picking up a large crystal vase from a dark wood dressing table. Her fingernails are press-on and fire-engine red. The veins in her hands bulge.

….

Krystle is face-down on a chartreuse sofa. She is covered in broken glass. Behind the sofa the stairs to the upper level of the room are covered in something white. It must be feathers.

This last vignette, with its suggestion of forensic crime scene and waiting white angel–or specter–looming just out of the frame, reads like a horror story blurb. Another image brings to mind a wonderfully ghastly portrait of a foliage-camouflaged bogey or gremlin, crouching in the corner, reaching up for its prey with alarmingly long arms:

…There is a potted plant is the corner. Krystle is crouched near it. Her right arm reaches out all the way to her right. She is almost touching the upper level of the room with it.

Some of these scenarios run as fascinating companion pieces to the work of visual “dollhouse” artist Laurie Simmons, whose photographs feature everything from plastic figurines to ventriloquist’s dummies to Japanese love dolls:

—-

Alexis is at the upper level of the room, which is elevated five feet above the lower level of  the room. Her blue skirt flares out. Her left leg is in the air. She is wearing granny flats.

—-

Alexis and Krystle are lying on the wood floor, locked in an embrace. Krystle’s right leg is blurry and slung over Alexis. In the foreground is a small round dark wood table with a crystal vase on it filled with yellow daisies and green filler.

Of course, we are all “green filler”/worm food sooner or later, but Alexis and Krystle  are also action figures filled with the Stretch Armstrongish green “goo” of envy, hair-pulling drag queens brawling it out:

Krystle fills most of the frame. She is scrunching her face so her wrinkles show a lot. Her cheekbones are savage.

Extracts from the infamous Howard K. Stern/Anna Nicole Smith “clown makeup” video (in which a drug-stupefied Smith is alleged to have mistaken her own unborn eight-month-old child for the swelling of flatulence) make up the book’s fourth and final chapter. Though there is a brief preamble suggesting the whole scene might be staged, no comprehensive explanation for the scene is offered, and so, for those who haven’t seen the footage, Durbin’s transcript evokes a blow-up doll in whose womb Hasbro’s Baby Alive kicks up a can-can of a storm, a manic mechanical stillbirth:

RILEY: It’s your baby.  The clown doesn’t need gas medicine, she needs baaaaby medicine. That’s your baby kicking you. She isn’t real. Look. She’s having brain trouble. Brain trouble. It’s a battery baby. She’s fake. It’s fake. She has major brain trouble. Get the screwdriver. Yes, take one battery out to prove that’s not a real baby. Camera, camera…

ANNA: I think I just have a little gas. It hurts and I need some gas poot stuff so I can poot it out. I need somecuz look how big this belly’s getting cuz it’s gas. Nu uh. It’s gas…it’s cryin. Get her a binkie; it’s cryin. My baby whore. I’m gonna go give her her binkie cuz she don’t know how to take care of a baby.

MECHANICAL BABY: Mama. Mama. Waah. Waah. Mama. Mama. Mama…

There is something disturbingly “unattended” about this, as if it–and, indeed, E! itself, like Lynch’s Club Silencio–are, conceivably, “all a tape recording”. But the surveillance-or-theater question remains key; Durbin doesn’t explicate. As readers, we’re left to navigate possible meanings with no tools but our own understanding of the absurd and–strangely–our own conscience. It’s an ingenious strategy that has the boldness to potentially dismiss itself as literature–just as its subject, reality TV, is so often summarily dismissed. “My visibilities hide/I gleam like a mirror,” wrote Plath. The back cover of E!–a looking-glass image of its front cover, with correspondingly reversed text and images–is just one of many variations upon this theme. Whether we’re looking into a funhouse distortion or simply seeing a reflection of something already, innately warped is up to us–and a loaded, philosophically complex question dwarfed in an entertainment value that–significance notwithstanding and by any other name–smells exactly we want it to.

Bat & Man: A Sonnet Comic Book by Chad Parmenter and Mark Cudd (illus.)

I picked up Bat & Man amid my own recent bat-craze. The full trailer for The Dark Knight Rises had just gone viral; I was knee-deep in a run-through of Arkham City; I was even following The Batman on Twitter @God_Damn_Batman. But the Batman mythology, despite films that provide luscious arcs of his formative years and a video game that includes pretty much every character, is a minimalist one. This is the nature of a mythology, to always only provide snippets of a far vaster cosmos, regardless of the size and depth of any individual narrative and the number of tellers who take up the tale.  Batman’s, for all intents and purposes, is perhaps the distinctly American mythology. While Superman inspires with his perfection, and the Marvel heroes prance around in more and more ridiculous scenarios, Batman is, well, Bat and Man, a paragon of flawed redemption and ambitious idealism. He is the stone-faced cowboy, the gothic Ahab of the modern age, the manifestation of the American apocalyptic id, who transcends and defies a socioeconomic system that limits righteousness. He is almost completely silent, his message the persistent enactment of retributive violence cloaked as justice.

He straddles the border between genius and madness, and the Joker brings this dichotomy to bear on Batman’s consciousness time and again. His life is a nightmare, the self-preserving lie to the Joker’s horrifying truth, as Zizek so cleverly put it. Chad Parmenter picks up the mythology with a literal nightmare of Batman’s own origins, an autobiographical spin on the roots of myth in the vein of good poetic work on superheroes by Bryan Dietrich and others. The poem, indeed the sonnet, may be the perfect vehicle for such a project, given its inherent minimalism and gesture toward unseen depth.

The book’s structure is subtle and unique. The narrative proper begins with “Hey Bruce. Wake up. You’re shrieking in your sleep.” It doesn’t surprise us that the source of this easy nonchalance is Selina Kyle, a.k.a., Catwoman, who happens to be sharing Bruce’s bed at the moment. Their banter exhibits the curtness and simultaneity of comic-book speak, back and forth within single lines like panels: “We should wait./No. Tell. But it’s a nightmare. Do your worst./You’ll learn too much. I’ll live. This one will haunt/your catnaps. Spill it. I’m too curious./It started by the bay. My parents…spawned” (his ellipsis).  Thus commences Batman’s narrative of the nightmare of a counterfactual upbringing, in which he is literally fathered by bats:

What did you dream then, sobbing in a ball?
That mother knew there was no boy inside
her body. Not so much as human cells
evolved there. Doctors – jokers. Tried to tell
her what was kicking in there was a child.

She felt me – bat. With feather ears, with eyes
like night lights, I would spy. With spindle nails
for fingers, I would scratch for freedom. Sails
of budding wings I’d flutter, and she’d die

before she let me out.

This is a twisted darkness commensurate with this universe. Note the element of dialogue here. Just as the above excerpt begins with an inquiry from Selina, so does each page of the book, to which a poem is the reply. The table of contents cleverly arranges these questions into a sort of found poetry of its own.

From his mother’s insemination (which is mythological in its bestiality. Later in the book Bruce describes a party in which he is “disguised as Zeus, disguised as swan”) we proceed through Bruce’s early years shrouded in martial imagery:

The nursery I was raised in – arsenal,
where suits of armor rusted to their swords
and soldered armies swarmed before their lord,/myself.

And his parents’ murder:

He squared/his shoulders. Tom did? Yes. Then the dark cursed
and birthed a fire. Roar. Star that ate his shirt
and burst. She howled “You bastard.” Mother? Heard

her lurch. Another fire. Roar.
Star that
_____blazed
so bright, so long, I saw her – mask with ink
exploding
_____through its cracks. The killer? Spliced
himself into the city night. Erased
_____me. Who did? Mother. Father. Shh. Close your eyes.”

Thus ends the “Bat” section of the book. The irony here resides in the fact that while the Batman origin story typically goes from man to Batman, here the order is reversed. Bruce is always already part bat, and learns to become a man in the sections “&” and “Man.” “&” depicts his upbringing in orphanages, in which visions of his father as a bat (“vampire father”) haunt his sleepless nights (“I stayed awake. He stayed in hell”). It was here that he embraced his identity and birthed his obsession with vigilante justice. Not before he endured a period of self-medication, “A year/I spent in articles I had to scan/to fabricate the night before,” what we are led to believe is the “&” portion of Bruce Wayne’s life.

“Man” begins with the accident that shaped Bruce’s destiny, in which a Halloween party at Wayne manor is interrupted by a swarm of bats, which catch fire by torches lighting the lawn. One becomes tangled in Bruce’s date’s hair: “The more/she fought, the tighter it was caught. It lit/her scalp. You put it out?  I tried. I…poured/my drink on her. Oh god. The fire caught/and spread. She sputtered ‘Zeus,’ my dying star.” It is here that Selina reminds us (actually, we do need reminding. Bruce’s story is sordid, but not unlike a believable Batman origin tale) to “Calm down, dear. It’s just one more nightmare. Right?” Right? Bruce then describes his guilty flight into hiding, out of the public eye, at which point Selina realizes that “This really happened. I remember. You went underground.” This subtle blend of fact with dream nicely underscores the tone of the whole account: this very well may have happened, all things considered. Bruce’s telling concludes with an image of the discovery of the Bat Cave, which we may in this case call hell. In a drunken stupor around the darkened mansion

I’d found a door. It couldn’t, must/
be Father’s cellar door. Lit up. With what?
An orange glow was pulsing from inside.
I had to break it. Bad bat. “Sorry, Dad,”
I prayed, and kicked the frame. Again. It burst,

Exhaled a veil of smoke. Behind it, floor –
but no. I must have been insane. Why? Where I set my feet was just a shaft of air
descending to a monolithic pyre
how many hundred feet below. It snared
me.

Selina comforts him, in a nice elision over two pages, with “Then I woke you back into the here/and now. Your dream is Batman’s memory.” This declaration is appropriately vague. Myths float in the zone between dream and memory, a collective vision of the origin and manifestation of our cultural anxieties. But the book ends in comic book fashion, with some more banter between lovers, on a short-lived break between stints as hero/anti-hero:

You’re just a boy. I’m more than that. You’re Bat—
I’m what? You’re bad, I said. Okay. Hey. Lie
here next to me some more, and we’ll forget
that nightmare life you’ve spun for me. I’d like
that, but I can’t. That sound, under the bed?
My phone. I have to go. Then so do I.
__________________________Goodnight. Good bat.

There is some interesting paratext here, too. “Bat” and “&” begin with epigraphs that are so serendipitously spot-on that the sections may have been inspired entirely by them. “Bat” opens with lines from Rilke:

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature
that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing
from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way
a crack runs through the teacup. So the bat
quivers across the porcelain of evening.

This perfectly captures the chaos of Bruce’s conception, and Rilke’s image of the bat mirrors that of Batman, whose obsessive “zigzags” taint an otherwise pristine life as Bruce Wayne. “&” begins with lines from John Berryman: “Henry, for joining the human race, is bats,/known to be so, by few them who think,/out of the cave,” introducing a biting pun on Bruce’s underlying insanity.  Mark Cudd’s illustrations that introduce the sections not only embody a portion of the narrative, but convey the general theme. Of particular interest is the diagram that opens “Bat”:

It staunchly conveys the air of contamination and disfigurement that characterizes Bruce’s account of his conception.

The book is also bookended by a pair of sonnets from an external voice. The first, titled “Holy Sonnet for His New Movie,” is a nod toward the odd commercialization of such a dark story. “Your christ in vinyl tights” should generally cause nightmares, but “Don’t you close your eyes to weep/or let them blur with tears; no watering/the roses with your cheeks; he’s glittering/behind these sponsors.” Bat & Man reminds us, however, not to be anesthetized to the real horror. “Sonnet on Selina’s Machine,” the final poem, is literally a voicemail from Batman to Catwoman, an ominous love note:

I need
you to return my call. I swear
your alter ego’s name is safe with me.
I need it that way, need her to stay clear
and skylined on skyscrapers’ tips, to flee

from me, but not this far ahead. I’m near
now, on the fire escape. Pick up. I see
your shadow on the blinds. I hear your purr.

This is a smart delineation between identities. The series proper ends with a willful obfuscation of their true selves (“You’re Bat—I’m what?”). Here, their love is in full bloom, in their own creepily managed way.

In all, Parmenter gets the idea of the dark mythology. His use of ellipsis and punning enjambment and elision creates an air of mystery and deliberate concealment. You definitely don’t need to be a “bat-fan” to get a lot out of this. Maybe that’s the point – it’s also the nature of mythology to slowly but surely seep into the collective consciousness. This is due to a lot of things – ubiquitous exposure, divergent retellings by multiple authors, a clear socio-psychological identification, etc. – but we have here an origin story that is more Ovid than Hollywood.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956, edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck.  Cambridge University Press, 2011. 791 pp.

The temptation to snoop overtakes all of us by moments, and unsought-after opportunity suddenly finds our eyes riveted to letters not meant for us.  There have been figures in literary history fully prepared to forgive the intrusion: Madame de Sévigné eventually heard that her letters were being handed around among her admirers but never stopped dashing off her acute and fluent observations about life at the Sun King’s court or in the provinces.  We wouldn’t remember the eighteenth-century figure Horace Walpole except for his letters, texts composed with the sort of regard, witty phrasing, and visual detail found only among those who write with one eye towards posterity. Aside from ecclesiastical epistles, collections of letters were not often published before the nineteenth century.  During the twentieth, they appeared much more often, with the interval between the author’s death and eventual publication of a selected correspondence steadily narrowing.  The three-volume edition of Virginia Woolf’s letters was probably the first such collection to reach a wide audience, but author letters now amount to a reliable niche in contemporary publishing.  Because of changes in society and the frank disclosures of modern biography, we’ve become more tolerant of personal failings in our star literary figures. We can listen to them in their off hours, their fits of pique, their bawdy moments, and not be shocked—or, if we are, take it in stride.  Meanwhile, the autobiographical, engaged aspect of contemporary poetry could also be described as “epistolary,” even if the poem isn’t addressed to any single individual. Qualities such as narrative economy, informality, or comic irony are standard for our “letters to the world” (one description Dickinson applied to her poems), and those same qualities are prominent in actual letters.

This book is the second volume in the Cambridge University Press edition of Beckett’s selected letters, the first covering the period 1929 to 1940. Though Beckett’s will stipulated that only that part of the correspondence having to do with his writing should be published after his death, the editors have interpreted the criterion broadly.  Personal letters that never mention his fiction or theatrical works are included, and it’s a good editorial decision.  Authors’ writing selves are never walled off from private concerns or obsessions.  All of it goes into the hopper, as careful reader-critics will eventually come to see, even though the connection may be stylistic only.  Consider this sentence from one of Beckett’s personal letters: “I had a glimpse of Brian over to bury his father looking very married and tired.”  (To Gwynedd Reavey, May 1945.)   Beckett’s thumbnail sketch of Brian Coffey arriving for a Dublin funeral exemplifies characteristic virtues: sharp economy, agile prose rhythm, and unsavage irony. We sense that the son is in imminent danger of following on his father’s heels as he trudges onward under the married condition. In any case, it’s a sentence worth putting in a poem, though we don’t find it in any of Beckett’s. The sometime poet was more memorable in his prose works than the actual poems, as he himself must have realized fairly soon in his development.

The title of this volume is a little misleading in that it gives us only one letter from 1941 and none subsequent until 1945.  As a citizen of the neutral Irish Republic, Beckett was allowed to remain in France during the German Occupation. Abjuring neutral status, he soon went underground and participated in Résistance operations, serving as a courier among several other agents. When one of them was captured and interrogated, the cell of resisters Beckett belonged to had to scatter. He and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil fled south to Free France, setting up in the little village of Roussillon. Only at the Liberation did he return to the post office and re-establish contact with his friends.

When he did, his correspondents can’t have failed to notice a change in his tone.  The first volume of letters gave us a Beckett often disgruntled and sneering, anxious about money, pleased to be drinking so much, and eager to publish, but rarely managing the trick.  Professional writers will find a perverse reassurance in observing this god of twentieth-century literature, this Nobel laureate, scrambling around from magazine to publishing house like any green careerist, and more often than not swallowing bluntly phrased rejections. But in the long run the record of this early phase makes for uncomfortable reading, even if the ambitious letter-writer’s style is acute and engaging.  Events Beckett had witnessed during the war, or only heard about, seem to have permanently shifted his perspective.  His post-war letters are generally quieter, more patient, perhaps more humane, than those in the earlier volume.  There is also the fact that he began by the late 1940s to have some success as an author, his novels appearing with the new publishing house Les Editions de Minuit. The name means “midnight publications,” and indeed the new house had begun during the Résistance, organized as an underground operation by its founder Jérôme Lindon.  Editorial taste at Les Editions de Minuit gravitated towards French avant-garde fiction, its list eventually including leading figures of the French nouveau roman like Robbe-Grillet. Judging from the letters Beckett wrote to him, Lindon became rather more than his publisher, in fact, something like a close friend.

Readers should be forewarned that more than half the letters included here were written in French. Editor George Craig provides good translations, along with notes alerting us to mistakes in usage or spelling. Beckett’s written French was very good, and not at all the stiff classroom version you might expect from a non-native speaker. He writes a fluent, satiric, slangy idiom that sounds as though it was picked up in the Montparnasse cafés he frequented, like La Coupole or Le Dôme. Also, because his wife didn’t know much English, French was the language the couple used at home, a running conversation that gave Beckett special access to the contemporary language. Occasionally he stumbles over words that look like cognates but actually aren’t; for example, “fastidieux,” which he uses to mean “fastidious,” though the French only apply that adjective to festal celebrations, those involving pomp and display.  His letters often quote tags from classic poems, and for these George Craig chooses extant versions rather than providing new ones of his own. In one instance, when Beckett is quoting Baudelaire’s “Réversibilité,” his footnote cites Richard Howard’s rendering of the poem, which translates “dévouement” as “disgust,” whereas the word actually means “devotion.” Howard no doubt had his reasons for translating with a free hand, but scholarly notes keep to a different standard and should have avoided this inaccuracy.

To regard Beckett’s French-language letters as spring training for the works he later composed in the language is plausible, yet his style in the letters is much more florid than in the novels. Beckett typically develops long sentences freighted with subordinate clauses, and sometimes resorts to a syntax based on the comma splice.  You see these tendencies at their most hectic in the letters to George Duthuit, an art critic and essayist who for a time served as contributing editor to Transition magazine.  Whenever Beckett writes to him, the style is so torrential, so metaphoric, so satiric, you begin to feel he was trying to show off his mastery of French as much as his overall authorial competence. Did Beckett not know that the French prefer a more restrained approach, with short, concentrated sentences rationally composed, subordinate clauses meanwhile kept to a minimum? If he did, he shrugged off the standard and wrote his helter-skelter blue streaks without any detectable qualms.

Beckett finally achieved fame with his play En attendant Godot, which opened at Paris’s Théâtre de Babylone in 1953. It was written in French and only later translated. This volume’s letters track the run-up to the first production, its première, and the gathering groundswell of fame that developed after reviews began appearing.  The alchemical action of publicity transformed Beckett’s life and consciousness just as thoroughly as the disaster of war had done.  Good news for the published and performed writer was not, all things considered, equally good for the letters.  More and more they are written to strangers as he handles business details connected to translation and publication of his work abroad. It’s something I’ve observed before in other collections of author’s letters.  The young and unfamous aspirant most often writes to friends, having both the time and energy for long, detailed, witty updates or closely argued esthetic manifestoes. The mature celebrity, though, has been drained by all the business to be dealt with in correspondence and can’t find the energy or the will to write at length to his friends.  Enjoying widespread recognition, he no longer needs to prove anything by drafting flamboyant displays of intelligence, impressive feats of observation, or polished phrasing.  He saves the best for the work he expects to publish. Not immediately after Godot, but toward the late 1950s Beckett begins to write less vividly.  It is the earlier letters in this collection that most reward attention. To give an example: after Godot opened, Beckettt’s wife attended an early performance without him and noticed that in Act II Roger Blin, the actor playing Pozzo, was gripping his loose, unbelted trousers rather than allowing them to fall down around his ankles, in keeping with stage directions.  This prompted a letter to Blin, in which Beckett insisted that the stage direction should be followed.  His reason for demanding maximum humiliation for the character was this: “The spirit of the play, in so far as it has one, is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic, and that must be put across right to the end, and particularly at the end.”  In Beckett’s vision, human tragedy is not accorded the grandeur of, say, Sophocles’s Oedipus or Racine’s Andromaque: it unfolds in a series of grotesque situations and actions, so that we laugh and wince simultaneously.

They grow sparse, but Beckett’s letters to personal friends like George Reavey, Mania Perón, and Thomas MacGreevy continue in the volume, providing human relief from the impersonal business correspondence. A special case is the group of letters to Pamela Mitchell, a young American with whom he began a love affair not long after she arrived in Paris to negotiate for USA rights to Godot.  (We aren’t told whether the affair unfolded with or without Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil’s permission.)  After Mitchell’s return home, Beckett sends a number of letters to her, always with an affectionate regard and lightness of touch.  Here is an excerpt from one he composed in March of 1955 at his country retreat near Ussy in the Île de France: “Trees surviving, even the two shy apples showing signs of life.  Shall soon have to buy a mechanical scyther-mower, never get round the grass otherwise. Visited by partridges now daily, about midday. Queer birds. They hop, listen, hop, listen, never seem to eat. Wretched letter, forgive me. Hope you can read it all the same.”  Years pass, the two aren’t reunited, and Beckett gently lets Mitchell down. But the brief idyll gives us a sense of Beckett as lover, and the impression, despite the relationship’s unconventional context, has a graceful appeal.  After all, Pamela Mitchell knew that he was married right at the start.  Eventually fame takes its toll, (as all fulfilled dreams must), and the later Beckett settles into the psychological armchair he found most comfortable, that is, despairing negation.  One letter to Mitchell puts it this way: “The notion of happiness has no meaning at all for me now. All I want is to be in the silence.”

To her he also wrote,“Pen drying up too, like myself.” And,“Wish I could discover why my cursed prose won’t go into English.”  It’s a comment that makes us want to ask, “But why did you write it in French to begin with?” Beckett gave several answers, one delivered in private to a friend: “To get myself noticed.” But that must, at least in part, be a joke. To interviewers, he answered that French was an escape from English, which he knew too well to achieve the bare-bones stylistic effects he desired.  Another way he put it was, “à fin d’avoir moins de style” [in order to have less style].  We can see that it would be inconsistent to write about destitution and despair in an abundant, luxuriant idiom. What he needed was a blunt instrument, and colloquial, unliterary French gave him that.

Yet we still want to go back a step further and uncover the forces in his experience that drove him to prefer near-absolute negativity as his essential perspective on experience.  A list of possible explanations might include the absence of any sort of religious consolation; lasting effect of years of poverty and neglect; exile from a homeland he detested yet also missed; the death of parents and friends; knowledge of horrific things that had happened during the war; the loss of youth, health, and any expectation that human love might be redemptive for him.  All of these are perfectly plausible. Yet there are purely artistic explanations as well.  His close association with Joyce must have demonstrated to him that nothing more in the direction of excess, linguistic fireworks, and elaborate construction could be done. Joyce had got there first, and Beckett wasn’t so full of confidence as to compete with him on the turf the older Irishman had made his own.  Instead, Beckett turned 180 degrees, charting a course in the direction of austerity, of stylistic minimalism.  It’s also apposite to consider a citation from Francesco De Sancis that Beckett included in his brief study of Proust: “Chi non ha la forza di uccidere la realtá non ha la forza di crearla.” [Whoever lacks the strength to murder reality will not have the strength to create it.] In order to write, Beckett first had to wipe the slate clean and wipe out conventional notions about the nature of human reality. Doing so he was able to transform pessimism into a creative source, a nay-saying Muse who guided him to his masterworks. Yet he had to wait a long time before the letter announcing acceptance and acclaim arrived; and by then it was too late.

If you’ve read Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or any of his other novels and stories, you know what Haruki Murakami is about. For three decades he’s guided us through odd parallel universes and the underbelly of Japanese culture. You would not be surprised to find your protagonists walking through walls, talking with (not just to) cats, or visiting abandoned and dreamlike villages. Simple everyday people carrying out strange and extraordinary tasks for otherworldly agents, the completion of which carry emotional resonances that open your mind to the fact that you’ll never look at the ordinary world around you, the same way again. But Murakami, whom Michael Dirda calls a “brilliant practitioner of serious, yet irresistibly engaging, literary fantasy,” and whom Sam Anderson hails as the world’s “chief imaginative ambassador,” whose “addictive weirdness” has captivated college students and hipsters everywhere, has succumbed to an odd case of gigantism in his much-heralded, and long, twelfth novel (or twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth novel, depending on where you live) 1Q84.

All the tasty bits of vintage Murakami are here: dull but steadfast male leads, hypersexual and hypersexy teenagers, strange conspiracies loaded with uncanny coincidences, and, of course, forays into parallel universes. He has a straight ahead style, and is an ace at making you interested in watching a guy drink a beer. Daily routines have never been so captivating. But it’s not until, in this case, you descend an emergency stairwell off the side of the highway or receive a request to rewrite a teenager’s novel that your whole world is thrown for a loop. This is something Charles Baxter has called “Unrealism,” a slightly altered state that mirrors the real world in odd ways, which “reflects an entire generation’s conviction that the world they inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.” Murakami therefore flirts with the hopelessly weird at every turn.  Problem is, he usually comes out of his considerably shorter novels relatively unscathed. Here, I’m left asking myself if Murakami has fallen into his own Bizarro World of self-parody.

The title 1Q84 is a translingual pun, the English syllable q indicating the number nine in Japanese. It is also a tip of the cap to Orwell, whose authoritarian world of 1984 is evoked here by a prevalence of religious and political cults, ominous shifts in natural phenomena, and a near total atmosphere of surveillance verging on downright omniscience.  The emergence of this vaguely odd but unmistakably different world of 1Q84 (there are two moons in the sky and folks called Little People emerge from the mouths of the dead, detonate animals from within, and perpetrate other illogical feats) is grafted onto the actual year of 1984 (and, conveniently, on to the consciousnesses of only certain characters), spawning a proliferation of pairs, doubles, mirrors, and the like. Seemingly everyone shows up somewhere else as someone else at some point in the novel.  Aspects of characters’ appearances and personalities resonate across generations and worlds. Memories of loved ones project new identities onto the people around you.

This is most clearly the case for our two protagonists Tengo and Aomame, the former a math teacher who writes fiction, the latter a fitness instructor cum assassin cum sex maniac, who fell in love in grade school, have been separated ever since, and now find themselves on a quest through 1Q84, and the sinister twists and turns within it, to reunite.  Thus the theme of the whole thing, articulated early on by Aomame: “If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” This trajectory toward redemptive love is told in alternating chapters, wherein each character inches tantalizing closer to the other. Murakami manages this overarching duality rather cleanly; the slow rise of background details to the foreground by the latter parts of the novel occurs organically enough. The suspense is real, and you root for the lovers.

But amid this relatively sophisticated complexity is an ultimately unsurpassable stumbling block. Murakami, seemingly desperate for simplicity, commits grievous stylistic errors that I encourage even my own students to avoid. Despite this book’s heft, and Murakami’s now famous work ethic, 1Q84 is a lazy novel, whose every page (all 923 of them) requires a scalpel at the very least, a chainsaw in most cases.

I’ll begin with the most noticeable transgression. Namely, in his attempt to depict the quotidian, Murakami lets us know exactly what our main characters are thinking, by putting their thoughts, which occur in complete sentences, in italics. If the fiction and poetry of the last century taught us anything, it’s that depicting the mind in the act of thinking is a terribly complex task, riddled with subtle demands. So I thought to myself, Murakami must be up to something. Is he playing with genre here? What is the purpose of purposefully bad prose? I’m going to get to the bottom of this.  See what I mean? This is the kind of slog that occurs page in and page out. It’s reminiscent of the hard-boiled American novels Murakami actively imitates, but these self-dialogues by and large reveal nothing important and deliver evaluations that are usually reserved for the reader to determine. We have to wait constantly for our protagonists to make the connections we’ve tidied up pages if not chapters ago. Consider:

It was the perfect moment for a man to approach a woman, and [Aomame] had created it. But this man said nothing. What the hell is he waiting for? she wondered. He’s no kid. He should pick up on these subtle hints. Maybe he hasn’t got the guts. Maybe he’s worried about the age difference. Maybe he thinks I’ll ignore him or put him down: bald old coot of fifty has some nerve approaching a woman in her twenties! Damn, he just doesn’t get it.

Or:

This was an easier death than you deserved, Aomame thought with a scowl. It was just too simple. I probably should have broken a few ribs for you with a five iron and given you plenty of pain before putting you out of your misery. That would have been the right kind of death for a rat like you. It’s what you did to your wife. Unfortunately, however, the choice was not mine. My mission was to send this man to the other world as swiftly and surely – and discreetly – as possible. Now, I have accomplished that mission. He was alive until a moment ago, and now he’s dead. He crossed the threshold separating life from death without being aware of it himself.

This mental rehashing of the painfully obvious and ethically simplistic persists into the most important parts of the plot, and we have to twiddle our thumbs while these protagonists densely process information and repeat it until they’re sure they’ve got everything. I initially tried to keep track of every time a character repeated and rephrased something that someone just said – “’So the German shepherd died, and the next day Tsubasa disappeared,’ Aomame said, as if to verify the accuracy of her understanding” – but this sort of thing occurs at almost every conversation. You really can’t miss it. The narrator even gets in on it: “The phone woke Tengo. The luminous hands of his clock pointed to a little after one a.m. The room was dark, of course.”

 

And then there are the metaphors:

“Aomame lifted her glass and took a sip of iced tea, tasting nothing, as if her mouth were stuffed with cotton and absorbed all flavor.”

“[H]er stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon.”

“Tengo stared at the dead receiver in his hand for a while, the way a farmer stares at a withered vegetable he has picked up from a drought-wracked field. These days, a lot of people were hanging up on Tengo.”

“To himself he said, She was very good at it. Just as every village has at least one farmer who is good at irrigation, she was good at sexual intercourse. She liked to try different methods.”

“Her nipples showed clearly through the shirt, which could not help but revive in Tengo the feeling of last night’s ejaculation, the way a certain date brings to mind related historical facts.”

Okay, I’ll give you one decent one: “Ushikawa’s appearance made him stand out. He did not have the sort of looks suited for stakeouts or tailing people. As much as he might try to lose himself in a crowd, he was as inconspicuous as a centipede in a cup of yogurt,” which occurs alongside other creepiness, such as comparing a beautiful girl in the act of sex to an insect sucking nectar out of a flower, or the above character’s eyebrows to “two hairy caterpillars reaching out to each other.”

These comparisons are accompanied by and embedded within countless passages of needless description. These mostly are directed at the above mentioned Ushikawa, the primary antagonist who is, you guessed it, hideous:

The man’s gray suit had countless tiny wrinkles, which made it look like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier. One flap of his white dress shirt’s collar was sticking out, and the knot of his tie was contorted, as if it had twisted itself from the sheer discomfort of having to exist in that place. The suit, the shirt, and the tie were all slightly the wrong size. The pattern on his tie might have been an inept art student’s impressionistic rendering of a bowl of tangled, soggy noodles. Each piece of clothing looked like something he had bought at a discount store to fill an immediate need. But the longer Tengo studied them, the sorrier he felt for the clothes themselves, for having to be worn by this man. Tengo paid little attention to his own clothing, but he was strangely concerned about the clothing worn by others. If he had to compile a list of the worst dressers he had met in the past ten years, this man would be somewhere near the top. It was not just that he had terrible style: he also gave the impression that he was deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes.

But characters who appear only once are given similar attention:

The secretary was a capable woman one year older than Tengo who, in spite of her title, handled virtually all of the school’s administrative business. Her facial features were a bit too irregular for her to be considered beautiful, but she had a nice figure and marvelous taste in clothes.

This kind of inanity (not to mention a robust and almost juvenile interest in female bodies, especially breasts) is tolerable in small doses. But in a novel of this length, it becomes, ultimately, unbearable.  I tried, I really did, to rationalize. Okay, I thought to myself, the downright pornography of the first third of the book is meant to lampoon mainstream culture, right? Or, as Aomame indicates, it’s meant to balance the depressing humdrum of the rest of life. A ha! Balance, a major theme. I’m starting to get it. And the rest of these passages – the metaphors, descriptions, the self-monologue – these are aspects of popular detective novels, and Murakami is paying homage here. I’m meant to read this generically. But this novel’s nine hundred plus pages and constantly twisting plots somehow leave no room for self-consciousness and parody. For that, turn to David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas is a master work of stylistic and generic mimicry (not to mention of the type of mirroring plots Murakami goes for here).

But along the way, despite the incessant and annoying bad style, I cared. Tengo and Aomame, partly because you watch them clumsily process this new dreamlike world, and partly because you unavoidably spend so much time with them anyway, become real people, with normal, everyday desires and worries. This is refreshing for sure. Murakami revealed in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that he rises at four in the morning and writes solidly for five to six hours. This novel feels like the product of such constancy, but without much retrospection. Interviews have revealed that he even intended to end the novel after Book 2, in a captivating and tragic moment, an apex of the structural trajectory, and an iconic image that perfectly mirrors the gripping opening scene of the novel.

But he decided to trudge on, and Book 3 delivers the redemptive love he probably thought his audience needed. I do agree with Charles Baxter, who wrote, “I finished 1Q84 feeling that its spiritual project was heroic and beautiful, that its central conflict involved a pitched battle between realism and unrealism (while being scrupulously fair to both sides), and that, in our own somewhat unreal times, younger readers, unlike me, would have no trouble at all believing in [1Q84].” But this addition of a whole new book dooms the novel via its dissolution of the tightness that propelled the first two installments and via the introduction of a plot thread that occurs just slightly behind the main one, temporally, requiring a recap of the main events every third chapter, so that one ultimately ineffectual character can get up to speed. In all, this is a rare case of a novel that would benefit from the work of an imaginative director, whose film version would necessarily do away with clunky metaphors and obvious and unrealistic interior monologue, whose visual rendering of 1Q84 and its quirky inhabitants would suffice for droning descriptions of it, who could deliver only the essentials of a suspenseful and moving human story.

Zone One is not a zombie novel.

Sure, there are plenty of lurching, chomping, and chewing “creatures,” the plagued dead who are affectionately titled “skels” by survivors who shoot, stab, and firebomb them. In this sense the novel certainly conforms to a generic paradigm. But the titillating idea of Colson Whitehead’s gripping book is that there really is no such thing as a zombie novel. There are zombie graphic novels, which, for all their literary dexterity, are closer in form (and content) to films like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later, television series like The Walking Dead (adapted from a series of graphic novels with the same title), and video games like those of the Resident Evil and Fallout series. But this paradigm – which cuts to the core of popular fears of literal and figurative contamination – has not found sufficient articulation in the novel form, until now.

Whitehead’s brilliance resides in his ability, though, to slash through generic expectations, all the while tipping his cap to them. At his reading at Politics and Prose recently, he admitted that some zombie puritans have complained that this novel is some sort of an impostor, because it consists of “a bunch of sitting around and thinking.” That is, it lacks a requisite amount of horror and action commensurate to the genre. Yes and no. There’s plenty of warfare and stomach-fulls of the generally visceral, but Whitehead is too conscious of those moments as generic to dwell on them. Rather, as any “literary” (Whitehead was smart enough to put this word in air quotes through his talk) author should do, he places a compelling protagonist at the center of this dystopian milieu, providing a meditation on just what apocalypse means for the individual.

This character is Mark Spitz (this is a nickname, so consistent reference to him by this full moniker adds some humor), a decidedly mediocre man who struggled to make it in a formerly perfect world. But now, the narrator points out, that the world is suddenly mediocre, his skills ensure his survival. “He just couldn’t die.” He, along with other members of Omega Unit, aid “reconstruction,” or what the new government operating out of Buffalo refers to as “The American Phoenix” (whose loyalists are called “pheenies”). Specifically, he is a sweeper – he combs empty Manhattan for the dead, “putting them down” and leaving them in body bags for Disposal teams to collect and, eventually, incinerate (the snowing ash from the incinerator complex is a morose reference to 9/11 Manhattan, not to mention the Holocaust). The novel opens in an office building, and Mark Spitz is reminiscing about childhood visits to his Uncle Lloyd, who lived in the city, his apartment enticing Mark Spitz, a Long Islander, to fantasies of Manhattan living. These memories are quickly interrupted by the novel’s first skel sighting. The subsequent sequence allows Whitehead to flex his considerable stylistic muscles:

He was the first live human being the dead had seen since the start, and the former ladies of HR were starving. After all this time, they were a thin membrane of meat stretched over bone. Their skirts were bunched on the floor, having slid off their shrunken hips long ago, and the dark jackets of their sensible dress suits were made darker still, and stiffened, by jagged arterial splashes and kernels of gore. Two of them had lost their high heels at some point during the long years of bumping around the room looking for an exit. One of them wore the same brand of panties his last two girlfriends had favored, with the distinctive frilled red edges. They were grimed and torn. He couldn’t help but notice the thong, current demands on his attention aside. He’d made a host of necessary recalibrations but the old self made noises from time to time. Then that new self stepped in. He had to put them down.

Not without an admittedly thrilling scuffle. But note the dual movement in the above passage. Mark Spitz has a habit of seeing people from his past in the grotesque forms of the dead (he even names one of the adversaries in this scene Miss Alcott, because of whose “bushy eyebrows, the whisper of a mustache – it was hard to avoid recognizing in this one his sixth-grade English teacher”). But in order to carry out his duty, he has to cultivate a “new self,” capable of capping a former human, but, more dramatically, annihilating his memories.

These metamorphoses provide the emotional core of the novel. The most obvious type are the (and this terminology has some eerily apt timing) ninety-nine percent, who, like their famous predecessors, nosh on our flesh.  But Whitehead reserves a privileged position for the one percent, known as “stragglers.” The difference:

There were your standard-issue skels, and then there were the stragglers. Most skels, they moved. They came to eat you – not all of you, but a nice chomp here or there, enough to pass on the plague…The stragglers, on the other hand, did not move, and that’s what made them a suitable objective for civilian units. They were a succession of imponderable tableaux, the malfunctioning stragglers and the places they chose to haunt throughout the Zone and beyond. An army of mannequins, limbs adjusted by an inscrutable hand. The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late…The pock-faced assistant manager of the shoe store crouched before the foot-measuring instrument…The vitamin-store clerk stalled out among the aisles, depleted among the plenty…The owner of the plant store dipped her fingers into the soil of a pot earmarked for a city plant…A woman cradled a wedding dress in the dressing room’s murk, reenacting without end a primal moment of expectation. A man lifted the hood of a copy machine. They did not move when you happened on them. They didn’t know you were there. They kept watching their movies.

Brian McHale has labeled genres such as these the “ontological genre par excellence” because of their clear allegorical function. In the case of the skels, populist fears of cultural mixing, contamination, plague, apocalypse, starvation and poverty immediately arise. In the case of stragglers, we move beyond allegory to a more empathic state. Consider the trigger-happy Lieutenant, an unlikely voice for the following sentiment:

They’ve been studying this thing, squinting at the microbe, cutting it up, and all the British guys can come up with is that the stragglers are mistakes. Nobody knows anything…Personally, I like them. Not supposed to say it out loud, but I think they’ve got it right and we’re the ninety-nine percent that have it all wrong…They know what they’re doing. Verve and sense of purpose. What do we have? Fear and danger. The memories of all the ones you’ve lost. The regular skels, they’re all messed up. But your straggler, your straggler doesn’t have any of that. It’s always inhabiting its perfect moment. They’ve found it – where they belong.

The stragglers’ existence, in other words, brings the existential agony of surviving an apocalypse into clear focus. Frequent scenes of straggler abuse recall Abu Ghraib and succeed in garnering genuine pity for these poor “wretches.” But it’s not a case of certain human qualities persisting post-contamination, but a case of a positive evolution, a zombie Nirvana that humans in this dark future, Mark Spitz being the prime example, struggle to achieve.  If the ninety-nine percent symbolize the stupefied bourgeois masses, the stragglers point to an enlightened state of being.

This state is directly linked to nostalgia, the “forbidden thought” that Mark Spitz’s new self strives to efface. He’s done well to quell his memories, but the irruption of those very memories into his rounds of skel popping characterizes his plight by the end of the novel.

And we become privy to plenty of them. Whitehead’s narrative, like his nonfiction prose (including his talk at Politics and Prose) is exquisitely digressive. In fact, beyond the routine sweeps, there isn’t a primary plot to speak of here. Rather, we follow Mark Spitz through his memories of how he came to work for Omega Unit. Two days surrounded in a farm house here, weeks holed up in a toy store there (falling in love with its other inhabitant). We see how he developed his “new self” who is able to let go of his attachments when they disappear as swiftly and effortlessly as they materialize. But the locus of memory for many of the novel’s characters is Last Night, that collective Where-Were-You-When-You-Realized-The-World-Was-Ending question that occupies late nights around campfires with rationed whiskey. They tend to be gruesome and devastating, and Mark Spitz’s is no exception. It is the point at which everyone took on a new self, but the tragic irony resides in the fact that the main aim of these survivors is to access physical (and, we see, emotional and spiritual) remnants of the past and “carry them across” into a reconstructed future.

This interplay of cutting losses and preserving “the good old days, which we are having right now” pulls Mark Spitz in multiple directions, but eventually things come to a head. Consider a pithy exchange between Mark Spitz and the Lieutenant in which the former asserts, “I’m here because there’s something worth bringing back.” “That’s straggler thinking,” replies the Lieutenant. Mark Spitz eventually recognizes his inner straggler when he comes across the old restaurant his family used to frequent. He pauses and reminisces at length, frozen in an otherwise discardable moment. He finds his happy place. The enlightenment, the brief recovery of his humanity, is, of course, short-lived, as he is swept up in the mad dash to the novel’s conclusion. It doesn’t end like a zombie narrative would, but rather as one should. It is the apocalypse, after all.

And this subversion of generic expectations constitutes Whitehead’s singular achievement. The last fifth of the novel is loaded with aphoristic meditations on what is really happening here. Ultimately, it’s not the mindless skels that terrify us, but the fact that after the destruction of society and its norms, “I’m more me” – I can become the monster I always wanted to be. Because really “It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been.” Survival is a curse, and the stragglers, “they’ve got it right.” But we quickly learn the fallacious nature of nostalgia in the face of survival. The allegorical, symbolic, and emotional cores of the novel are bleak through and through.  The problem, and the sad beauty of Zone One, is that we don’t need a plague-apocalypse to see the monster within. The world crumbles around us, one moral disaster at a time.

A Review of The Pistol Tree Poems by Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh


The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
– Karl Marx

You must be the change you want to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Experimental writers can perform no more politically effective feat toward that noble Marxian goal of changing the world than imaginative collaboration. To the central tenet of the old Left that one must change the world, Gandhi adds that one must be the change one wants to see in the world. By collaborating to create The Pistol Tree Poems (Shearsman, 2011), Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh have intervened in the lyric poetry tradition to our benefit.

Whether or not Marx, Gandhi, and Shelley’s wisdom resonates with us, today’s philosophers (read readers) do not absorb such wisdom by osmosis. Such wisdom needs a shape and language shapes wisdom. Therefore, since language mediates wisdom, a philosophy, in effect, means a love of language. This way, philosophers love wisdom only to the extent to which they love language. A hermit, for instance, knows he is a hermit because of the echolalia of the word hermit which goes bounding inside his head. Along these lines, poets Peter Hughes and Simon Marsh use language for its aesthetic and evocative qualities to make poetry. However, these poems enact the change Hughes and Marsh want to see in the world because the poems are constructed and presented as collaborative. Whatever the medium, collaborative work tempts new subjectivities into being.

Poetic collaboration keeps the selves we think we know in motion.

Such grand framing may be all well and good, but how do poets manage not only to change the world but to be the change they want to see in the world? The process of imaginative collaboration can change the world by changing how we think we know ourselves. We know ourselves, like the hermit in his cave, by how we use language. Writers who use language as a fluid artifact of the commons help to dislodge static notions of selves: Hughes and Marsh make the possible more possible.

Two basic formal constraints score Hughes and Marsh’s The Pistol Tree Poems, full of that selfsame swirling that goes in and out of egos, places, and senses of craft: Hughes writes the odd poems in the UK, Marsh responds via email from Italy with the even poems. The second constraining factor has each poem end with one line less than the prior poem, thus the collection of 106 poems tapers into silence with the formal whisper of one line from each poet.

just time to pull on the feathered leggings (Hughes 105)

& swap love for light (Marsh 106)

Hughes has a gift for the telling chop of idiom while Marsh is an accomplished handler of the heft of figuration. Hughes’ boisterous humor is tempered by Marsh’s Latinate vocabulary and concrete poetry layouts. Thus split, the author-function twains the reader’s expectations and the actual reading experience of how she should know the author. Always the twain shall meet.

The following poems show how Hughes and Marsh become the change they wish to see in the world. To be clear, I certainly to not presume to know the writers’ political or aesthetical intentions: my claims are those of a reader discussing a text and the function of collaborative writing. Nonetheless, watch and listen to how they perform a shuffling together like a deck of odd and even subject positions, perceptions, local names and concerns:

what to you now are eyes
in nights to come will be stars

__________now the pickled onions are fantastic
___a first bite twists the spine 20 degrees
__anti-clockwise with left shoulder dipping
_so folks developed language & language
developed people which helped us knock through
but also dumped too much weight in the boot
_thus fucking up most front-wheel drives & those
__who squat in the backs of caves wondering
_______what star-light might be like in ideal worlds
______instead of smacking fat pigs with ping-pong
_____bats from which the rubber mat flaps free or
_______licking Swindon nymphs in the fairy-light
____________lit gloom of St Cecilia’s Day where
_______Purcell no it’s Mahler is humming you
___mustn’t enclose the night inside you you
_you must flood it in eternal light

Norfolk    St. Cecilia’s Day 2009 (Hughes 75)

 And below I include Marsh’s poem sent via email (our contemporary letter-writing medium) in response to Hughes’ poem above. These two poems show the call-and-response nature of the collaborative process. Converse to Chevy Chase notions of the lone genius working in his study in a cabin in the woods unmolested by society, these poems suggest the social nature of the creative writing process. After all, being hip means what more than being social? In collaborating to make special objects, Hughes and Marsh perform up to the potential of man as a social animal:

Happy birthday, John Abercrombie

Chipset notes
_Mahler’s beamless
__loft of sky
__quietly hewn
___from torrential rain
____& anchored slipshod
______to Earth’s off-centred girth
__________it’s my turn so
_________I stare as far as we can
________beyond where the jazz is
_______to warm tucks of
______magnetic heat
_____coiled round
___hollowed out melodies
daylight flickers
-and is gone

Varzi    December 2009 (Marsh 76)

Readers will note the place and year of where and when the poem was written left justified under each poem. This information brands each passage with the mortality suggested by the passing of time and space during travel. Some readers may read such branding gestures as claims, however false or true, constructed upon the authority of the local or of the locale. Obviously, this kind of biographical information does situate the word-play in a specific place and time and such placing does invest the poems with that certain auratic glow of having been there. However, essentialism is not a weakness in art: capturing essence is the goal of aesthetics. The essence of places is alluded to throughout the collection with the names of local beaches like Old Hunstanton and local lunch specials like Norfolk Pork & Haddock Chowder.

On the one hand, a collaborative poetry sequence like The Pistol Tree Poems implicates readers in the flux of two writers becoming one writer. Moreover, this back and forth between political worldviews and aesthetic sensibilities offers an extended example for the reader of how two poets can work together to become one poet. On the other hand, more conventional lyric poetry with its tacit narrative realism accepts as established fact that market-driven illusion of the subject as a stable and knowable noun. Here, I define more conventional lyric poetry as the poetry of those who own the means of production who, because it would lessen their comforts, do not trouble the category of the “I.” But what can it mean to punch the Marxian ringtone of “the means of production” in present times, when every desktop PC is a publishing house? How must discussing “the means of production” shift when a playful epistolary dialogue transpires via email between two buddies across Europe? How does an epistolary conversation become a pistol tree conversation? And exactly how much “Jameson’s in jam jars” must have been consumed? (Hughes 103)

In The Pistol Tree Poems the word “soul” comes up 15 times (on pages 2, 15, 17, 18, and twice on 23, 25, 35, 40, 43, 50, 54, 58, 72, and 78). I bring it up not because I mind the soul metaphor: Emily Dickinson uses it to booming effect. I point to the word “soul” because I want to use it to illustrate how collaborative writing can destabilize the propaganda undergirding a certain kind of subject position.

Can one own the self, mind, or soul (like so many other nouns on the commodity market)? If one can in fact own these social constructions, it follows logically that one can also own the other, the foreigner, or the absent author as part of the free-market of human resources. What if I’ve been duped into believing that I am I? In other words, what if the I-function is an instance-location in the social fabric of time and space scored into being by the architecture of our habits? With the help of the work of writers like Hughes and Marsh who play with words and with the function of authorship, readers too can be the change they wish to see in the world. For instance, what changes if one thinks of the self, mind, and soul as attributes or qualities pivoting along the continuum of social conventions rather than as commodities to be possessed?

Am I my own property or do I have properties? Am I a piece of property with properties? Simply owning a self, mind, or soul requires no active engagement with the wisdom I receive about these objects or traits. However, weighing the attributes and qualities of a self, mind, or soul demands both critical and creative thinking. If the pre-Socratics, Immanuel Kant, and Jiddu Krishnamurti teach us anything, they teach us that it is bad to think of people as objects. Fine, but what do ethics have to do with two people writing poetry together?

Through its conceptual structure and effects, collaborative poetry inveigles us to consider the shattered and displaced condition of our subjectivities. Through the pleasures and surprises directed by the effects of cutup and syntactic enjambment of units of sound and sense, Hughes and Marsh show readers the aesthetic value that can come from relaxing the ego muscle. Many twentieth-century writers have used the jarring effects of parataxis from Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Chinese and Japanese poetry, to Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso’s work together, to the canon of experimenters represented in collections such as Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry.

To collaborate well as a creative writer, one has to give up the 500 year old idea of the Humanist self as a unique consumer of “the real” as defined by the commodity market from the beginning of European colonial aggression in 1492 up to the email age. This review does nothing new by pointing to the transitory properties of identity. Such a gesture has deep roots all over the world from Greece to Ireland to India as illustrated by the documents of Heraclitian paradox, Socratic doubt, and Romantic poetries. Sometimes these gnarled old roots sprout questions and suggestions as I’ve tried to outline by discussing the political implications of writing and reading collaborative poetry.

As formal innovation, Hughes and Marsh’s collaboration in the form of The Pistol Tree Poems entices and challenges readers of contemporary poetry to consider how they themselves could collaborate in order to face their own crises of form in the age of internet, easy travel, and increasing global hardships. How do we readers of the English language, all hermits in the caves of capital, face the freight of our received wisdom?

More capable writers have written about Robert Duncan and the circumstances surrounding The H.D. Book, notably the poet Lisa Jarnot whose review I highly recommend. It’s impossible not to concur with her on every point with regard to this, but I can’t speak to such a deep relationship with Duncan. As such, The H.D. Book, for me, was more a lesson on how to read poetry, perhaps at the most extreme.

Divided into three books, the short history of The H.D. Book is a somewhat common tale. One of those pieces that a writer is constantly writing, editing, tinkering, refining, adding to, etc., thus never really receiving a “finished” stamp of approval. Which is the exact way for a book like this to evolve, as it is essentially a record of Duncan’s two-step with poetry. This dance began with H.D. early in his life, and as such, she is present through all his thoughts on poetry and vice versa. Everything Duncan has pondered in poetry must first pass through H.D., not so much as a gatekeeper, but rather like a pair of glasses that put verse into focus for him. Thinking back onto my own experience with poetry I can (and often have) pointed to that first instance of poetic reception, the poet and poem that cracked the walnut of possibilities open. Like a scientist, or a theosophical philosopher scientist, Duncan approaches his walnut from every conceivable angle, often at the exact moment he conceives of each individual angle.

Which of course lends to the overwhelming magnitude of this tome, part of the multi-dimensional narrative going on here. A conversation in constant engagement was never meant to be read a second time. But how could this book have been anything other than what it is? There is no editing Duncan’s thoughts, references, asides, clips of Randell Jarrell and Pound and Williams and Eliot in turn faulting and praising and (ultimately) faulting H.D. again for her digressions against the flow of the academic canon. Duncan comes out firing in H.D.’s honor, though is not a qualifier by any means, casting no stones but rather approaching each point respectfully and discussing it through other evidence, references, and inferences.

The H.D. Book is larger than H.D. or Duncan then, a treatise on reading itself, as something between academic decoding and personal interaction between reader and text. Neither Duncan nor I seek to disparage criticism or academia, but this book doesn’t fill the needs of that style of literary interaction. Rather Duncan is writing down what he researches, thinks, and dreams about while working through H.D. and modernism in general. Book 1 is more akin to the historical reading of H.D. and greek mythology, working through the symbology she presents. For me, Book 2 was more engaging in that it investigated H.D.’s work directly and it was cross-pollenated with and within the work of Williams, Pound, and other and (post-)Imagists. Here we think along with Duncan, dive deep into quotes and references within and between sentences. It can be dazzling just by the enormity of his inquest, and rather than trying to take stock of his many references and asides, I took in this book as a direct call to knowledge.

In terms of describing this book as an argument for reading, though, I was primarily entranced by Duncan’s graciousness and patience. Even taking as long as I did to read this book I felt rushed, as every sentence was a thesis, an argument for the poetic and real legitimacy of the verse of not only H.D. but in many ways the 20th century as a whole. I wouldn’t know where to begin to quote from the book as it itself is comprised of so many quotes, inter-connected thoughts, and seemingly simple.

If nothing else, reading The H.D. Book has left me feeling something of a failure for not engaging so intimately with this art as Duncan had. Which is far from what Duncan would have wanted, I believe. This book is critical but suspicious of academia and the idea of “canon”. He was vested in readability but couldn’t help himself with regard to the density of his work, but such is the price of passion, and this book is the image not only of passion but of poetry’s impact on passion. It’s a life-long affair, and we are lucky to have this collection of thoughts. Though daunting and challenging, they’re intimately readable and inspiring for a poet such as myself. Trust no writer with a shelf that lacks this book, and spare the time to let Duncan show you that to write you must love to read.

What would a trip to Paris be without a gentle kiss from Destiny? My fiancée and I arrived in London on a Friday morning to stay with her cousin, his wife and daughter, in East Finchley. A jumping-off point to three weeks in France. The following morning Ana, matron of the house, presented me with an insert from last week’s Guardian, called A Literary Guide to Paris. I unfolded it to see maps, lists, itineraries, blurbs. An Indiana Jones map to the mother lode of literary booty.

The contents of the guide can occupy you for a weekend, which is all we had after our sojourn in London, before proceeding on to Dijon. So, I’ll give you the cool stuff that you have to see without driving your partner nuts and taking away from all the other beauties Paris has to offer. But a lot of sites you can catch on your way to and from the major places. Don’t miss the favorite hotel of the Beats (on rue Git le Coeur, just off the left bank of the Seine), or Picasso’s studio just up the road at rue des Grands Augustins (Balzac lived there for a time too), or the flats of Henry Miller, Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, as well as the cafes strewn across Saint-Germain des Pres they used to frequent. This is just a smattering of the itinerary that the guide draws up for you, winding you all around the Latin Quarter. By the way, a good deal of the French literary greats (Dumas, Balzac, etc.) are buried in the Pantheon, if you’re willing to pay handsomely (comparatively) to enter.

But do stop, when you can, at some of the English language bookstores across the central part of the city. First, visit this blog for the total rundown. I’ll just tell you where I went, what I bought, what I thought.

If you don’t have time to go any bookstore save one during your visit, make sure it’s Shakespeare and Company, the tried and true classic with loads of history. Pretty much all those heavyweights listed above hung out there when it was run by Sylvia Beach. At 37 rue de la Bucherie, it’s situated in the middle of, well, everything. Across the street from the famed “bouquinistes” (roadside stalls selling all sorts of French books and art) and across the river from Notre Dame, the area bustles throughout the day and night. It makes for a crowded venture into the store itself, but take your time to go through the used and antique shop next door, as well as the bookshop proper. It was here that Destiny blew me another kiss. After proceeding through the entrance adorned with photos of the heroes of high Modernism, I squeezed into the narrow stacks lined with high shelves. This was not the place to increase my Burgess stock, so I looked around for novels by the authors who are the focus of my dissertation (Vidal, Pynchon, Coover, Erickson). I sought the Coover, the first alphabetically. They had one copy of one novel, The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (Director’s Cut). I removed the book from the shelf and checked the title page for the price. At 7 Euro, not a bad deal. And then my eyes moved to the center of the page, and the tiny signature under the title. Coover himself had graced these pages, signed his name. Feeling my karma to be near an all-time high, we exited the shop, into the sunlight, and continued our day.

The Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche is a great hotel for many reasons, not the least of which is its proximity to three other high-quality English language book shops. Located at the northeast corner of the Luxembourg Gardens, it’s a short walk from The Village Voice, Berkeley Books of Paris, and San Francisco Book Company. I visited the first on a dreary morning on the way to Montmarte. Located on rue Princesse directly north of the Gardens, it’s tucked out of the way, sandwiched between cafes, one of which is the Frog and Princess, an English pub. The proprietors are American expatriates who insist on speaking French. We didn’t even try. The only customers in the place, we skirted watchful eyes. This is not the place to make a purchase, as they sport clean crisp new books at 15-18 Euro a pop. Head upstairs, though, to browse the history, politics, philosophy, and psychology sections, and to glimpse a pleasant view of the street from the open windows.

Berkeley Books and San Francisco Book Company are run by the same crew, and they are steps from each other. From the Gardens, cut north across the plaza in front of the Odeon Theater, and head up rue Casimir Delavigne to Berkeley. It sports a good collection of new and gently used fiction at the front of the store, but the more interesting back section carries the really cheap used literature, stacked sideways (Image 3). I was tempted by the Dostoevsky, Barth, Bellow and, yes, the Burgess, but I wanted to see what San Francisco Book Company had before deciding on a purchase. Right around the corner on rue M. le Prince, I found the glass door to San Francisco locked shut, with a post-it claiming that the proprietor will return in five minutes. But two racks of used paperbacks still remained on the front stoop. Really, I could have just walked off with that good-as-new copy of Ragtime and been done with it. No, I waited. And sure enough, the proprietor, who barely spoke any French, oddly, returned in five minutes, and showed me inside. Like Berkeley, plenty of quality fiction just at the front of the store, but here there is an entire back room of used cheapies. I swear I wasn’t seeking out that beautiful little copy of End of the World News. Burgess (or maybe it’s that nymphet Destiny again) seems to have a way of calling my soul. I opened the front flap for the price: 5.00. I dug around in my pocket for change (no cash in the wallet; it was our last day in Paris): 4.40. I sheepishly presented my treasure to the proprietor and meekly asked if he would accept my meager offering. Despite his displeased over-the-spectacles glare, he sent me on my way, giddy as a schoolboy. I rushed back to the Gardens to show my lounging fiancée what I had found.

But what did I read? Prior to the trip, I had resolved to find something slim and something French. Something I could finish over those last 48 hours in Paris before returning to Washington. I chose Edouard Leve’s new novel Suicide. It begins like this:

One Saturday in the month of August, you leave your home wearing your tennis gear, accompanied by your wife. In the middle of the garden you point out to her that you’ve forgotten your racket in the house. You go back to look for it, but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared. On the table, you left a comic book open to a double-page spread. In the heat of the moment, your wife leans on the table; the book falls closed before she understands that this was your final message.

Horrific, oui? The tension of the second-person mode and the present tense of the verbs creates a unique immediacy considering the subject matter. The narrator, a friend who had become estranged in recent years, experiences a renewed fascination with the dead man’s life after his suicide. “Your suicide is the most important thing you ever said,” he admits, “You are a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” And so the novella he writes, Suicide, is a collection of anecdotes from the dead man’s life, peppered with insights, attitudes, solitary itineraries abroad, intimate moments with his wife, furtive plans for self-annihilation – i.e., bits of impossible knowledge that beg important questions about fictionality.

The thing is, Leve killed himself days after submitting Suicide for publication. He blends art and life to the ultimate degree here, with disturbing effects. How do you evaluate – criticize – a work of art by a man who destroyed himself for it? How can I do anything but agree with the narrator who glorifies this aesthetic, though, gruesome, death? That’s the trick of the narrative; despite the interpretation thrust upon you by the second person and of course by Leve’s suicide, you must criticize to the best of your ability. You still have to be a reader. In this context, it’s reading dramatized with the highest possible stakes, literally life and death. Leve staked his own life on it, and Suicide is, morbidly, “a book that speaks to me whenever I need it.” Much the way Paris remains, in memory.

In Harvard Square, The Coop and The Harvard Bookstore loom large. The former is essentially a Barnes & Noble dressed as Harvard’s bookstore, paraphernalia and special interest sections galore. The latter is a little more of a heavyweight. Situated on Massachusetts Avenue in the heart of the square (a mere two blocks from The Coop, which makes no small difference), across the street from the University entrance and next to Bartley’s Burger Cottage, the classic Harvard burger joint, it has the makings of an intellectual and social hub. The main floor sports the major genres, including a section common to local stores devoted to books by famous Harvard professors (these are extremely pricey, but their Murakami selection is strong). For meager funded mortals, go downstairs. There you’ll find used and reduced priced titles in fiction, history, philosophy, poetry and drama. The back wall where you’ll find cheap literature is substantial for a store that ostensibly sports (and prices) reading material for the landed intelligentsia.

On the penultimate day of my conference at the Radcliffe Institute, I had a good two hours to kill (I recommend taking considerably longer, but still) before meeting my sister for dinner on Newbury Street. Just enough time for a city hike, down Massachusetts Avenue, across the Charles, and into the city proper. What I found turned out to be a veritable walking tour of some of the best independent bookstores in Boston. The Coop sits atop Massachusetts, where it forks by the Harvard Square T stop. A perfect starting point. It’s never not worth it to stop in there, at least to see who and what they’re showcasing. Their American history section on the first floor (of two) is particularly robust. But don’t tarry – head to The Harvard Bookstore either before or after fueling up for your walk at Bartley’s. After spending a thorough time at both places, and before setting off, take a detour southwest, down John F. Kennedy Street toward the river. Amid a row of upscale sushi and Indian restaurants you’ll find, in the basement of a commercial row house, Raven Used Books.

It’s tight, stuffy, and stocked with obscure titles. The first books I saw when I walked in were Franco Moretti’s two-volume history of the novel. I’m in paradise. It seemed that they had acquired a good deal of Harvard sell-backs and cast-offs from historiography to pop music. Be sure to scour every inch of this small place. It’s the best book store you’ll visit. For fiction people, they have good depth from the likes of Vollmann, Banville, Barth and other less marketed postmodernists. I was torn between one of Barth’s fatter late novels and a slimmer Banville, until I came across a novel I had been searching for for a while: Jim Crace’s Quarantine. This discovery solidified Raven’s status for me. I had to have it. It was, like most other novels on the shelf, a mere seven dollars.

Head back over and continue down Mass Ave until you see The Old Cambridge Baptist Church on your left, across the street. You should be standing in front of the red sign for Revolution Books. Behind the windowless wooden black door is a narrow staircase that leads up to the shop. It shares a floor with offices, and there are warnings posted–Keep Quiet: Therapy in Progress. Ultimately, I couldn’t help but think those signs actually referred to George, the volunteer holding court in the small room that was probably an office in a previous life. A thin, soft-spoken man of about fifty, he engaged me almost immediately in conversation (he and I were the only people in the store). He gently directed me to books, pamphlets, journals, and web sites dedicated to the socialist/communist cause. If only he could see Book Marx in London. He had never been. I didn’t buy anything, guiltily, but the store, though sparse, sports good and rich material on issues, in addition to Marxism, such as racial oppression and gender inequality (which are ultimately not terribly separable from the broader cause, anyway). After reminiscing a bit more and exchanging hardy thanks, I set back to the street.

The stretch of Massachusetts between Revolution Books and Harvard Bridge is a hipster scene, with quirky pubs and restaurants (as well as The Center for Marxist Education and The Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center). Here you will find Rodney’s Bookstore. It sports a formidable fiction section, as well as Boston history. I made my second purchase here, a pristine used copy of Barth’s Coming Soon!!! for six dollars. But the distinguishing mark of Rodney’s is what I’ve noticed as a burgeoning hipster hobby: a robust VHS collection. They’ve reserved the entire front section of the store to these clunky boxes casing The Cutting Edge and Jurassic Park. A curious commodity. The way down Massachusetts toward MIT is dotted with speeding flip-flopped hipsters aboard bicycles, perhaps racing home to watch a video. The area around MIT is beautiful, reminiscent of certain sections of London. The view across Harvard Bridge, especially near sunset, is spectacular, both for the skyline and for the crowds of cyclists and sailors. Mass Ave bustles as you cross Commonwealth and head down Newbury. At last the final stop on the tour: Trident Booksellers & Cafe. A hipster hub itself – microbrews, vegan foodstuffs, coffee. Wander the stacks to the soundtrack of First Wave FM, straight from the UK. But by this time you’ll probably be tired of wandering. Snag a title from any of the diverse sections, or from their sizable news stand, and saddle up with a beer to reflect on your journey. Or, you can head next door, to Newbury Comics, yes, that Newbury Comics, stalwart of a generation. All in all, a little hipster outpost on the edge of posh heaven. Take it all in, the center of the city, as the sun goes down.

It’s always a relief to me when I see a book published by somebody outside the “poetry ghetto.” Though I’m sure Troy Jollimore has been to his fair share of poetry workshops (who hasn’t?), he is (by trade?) a philosopher, teaching at California State-Chico. It might be wise, therefore, to keep Randall Jarrell’s words on Wallace Stevens (from Poetry and the Age) in mind as we approach Jollimore’s work:

Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of a philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano….When the first thing that Stevens can find to say of the Supreme Fiction is that ‘it must be abstract,’ the reader protests, ‘Why, even Hegel called it a concrete universal’; the poet’s medium, words, is abstract to begin with, and it is only his unique organization of the words that forces the poem, generalizations and all, over into the concreteness and singularity that it exists for.

I think the primary concern here mirror’s Joe Weil’s opinion that “The idea for a poem competes with the poem. or worse, the idea of writing a poem competes with the poem.” In that sense, the idea, of a poem–of the arrangement of poems–can sometimes destroy the poetic. It’s possible that the arrangement of Jollimore’s book was influenced by philosophy, inasmuch as the poems seems to be grouped thematically, and this becomes a fault early in the book. The book begins with the clever poem “The Solipsist,” which assures us that “when you lay down your sad head / …you lay down the whole / universe.” Whether this is Jollimore, the philosopher, speaking or Jollimore, the poet who might be channeling other voices and personas, is not exactly clear. But the next several poems seem to indicate that solipsism is the primary concern of this book. Poems that alone may have contained a certain self-aware charm come dangerously close to beating the dead horse. Lines like “Where what I see comes to rest, / ….against what I think I see” (“At Lake Scugog”) ring the same thematic bell as ones like “I’d like to take back my not saying to you” and “I’d like to retract my retracting” (“Regret”); the reader may fear being sucked into yet another black hole of poetic solipsism, since many contemporary poets are solipsistic, whether they intend to be or not.

The shape of the book, if we are concerned with such things, might be a very slow moving line. Happily, though, even when Jollimore’s poems risk getting stuck in neutral, they do so with formal concerns, which keep the poems from drifting and

falling out of tune
like a disabled satellite

in a slowly decaying
orbit ____ abandoned
by its callous makers
who trusted it to do

the right thing, to burn up
before hitting the ground

Jollimore projects solipsism into numerous objects, situations, and personas. Most memorable is the image of purgatory (presumably a theme from this first work Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which I have not read). In At Lake Scugog, the purgatory image is best captured by the poem “Gate,” in which “A seraph with a clipboard sang, Hurry up and wait” in a strange sort of heavenly airport. One is also reminded of that pagan purgatory, the “dreary coast” on which the shades of the unburied wait, all jostling to get on Charon’s boat.

In a way, both the Christian and pagan understandings of purgatory is a mirror of sorts for the world of the living as well–since we’re all waiting on earth to be buried, waiting to enter into our rest. One is not sure what Jollimore’s solipsist is waiting for, though. At times there is the hope of “ascension” in his poems (as in “Gate”), while at other times his speakers eschew the Platonic vision, hoping for a taste of the ‘real’ (or something like it) right here and now (“Heaven can go to hell, my sweet”).

***

Thankfully, the book does not solely focus on the dilemma of the solipsist. In fact, it seems to move more toward the dilemma of the poet, who must rein in and focus the many voices and selves inside into something communicable. Later, the book moves toward a dialogue between the various selves that we contain within our self. It’s not so much an opening up, a revelation, but more a casting lots for the one-pieced garment. Again, the two primary poems concerned with this theme are next to each other in the work; this time, however, they converse more than repeat.

“Free Rider” dramatizes the sense that many writers feel when it comes to wrestling with their own inspirational “daemon”–something that feels like US, yet is also at the same time an alien presence: “He doesn’t like the way I use my mouth. (Our mouth?)” And in the poem that follows, he says “It all began to make sense / when the doctors told me / I had two hearts.” Later “Organ Music,” a hilarious sort of debate between the parts of the body seems to channel these various selves into the desire of the body and its senses.

***

One of the most mysterious poems in the collection is “The Hunter,” which I read as a sort of creation myth, in which the miracle of being is dashed as we are eventually “rendered foreign.” Readers should sense a strong connection to the idea of being “rendered foreign” and the “sound” in Jollimore’s “Remembered Summer” that “filled our atmosphere like the drone of some far-off / crop duster, like a universal headache, like the decrescendo / moan of a piano that has fallen to the street / from some high apartment window and smashed like a body” (the piano is one among many images that Jollimore repeats throughout the book with some success). These poems, along with the final, tend to suggest a sort of primal state, scarred by something (“the sound”…a fall? Manichean duality?). As a result, many of us turn inward, turn into solipsists, in order to avoid the pain.

We also begin to observe in “Remembered Summer” that Jollimore sees “all the little engines / we had so painstakingly gathered and constructed” as being part of our solipsism. The solipsist, it seems, is not just the person lost in their head, but the person lost in what Erazim Kohak describes as a world of “artifacts.” The world of artifacts is not personal and acts as a sort of mirror to ourselves. A TV is as valuable as we believe it to be. In Kohak’s opinion, nature is personal and resists the solipsist. Notably, one of the strong presences lacking in Jollimore’s work is nature. This is not a fault, per se, but one wonders where nature has got to. The one “nature” poem “At Lake Scugog” is so concerned with the “I” and “You” almost to the exclusion of natural surroundings.

***

It seems to me that At Lake Scugog does trip over the philosophy/poetry dichotomy, but this does not make it entirely unsuccessful in both regards. Jollimore brings insight to the dilemma of the solipsist, and he writes some interesting poems along the way, poems worth some chewing and multiple reads. I sense though that, in the end, the places where the book falters are the places where the philosophy daimon won the debate with the poetry daimon.

“The artist is a receptacle of emotions come from no matter where: from the sky, the earth, a piece of paper, a passing figure, a cobweb. This is why one must not discriminate between things. There is no rank among them. One must take one’s good where one finds it.” Picasso wrote this well before Mary Ruefle started publishing books, but if his words could be an egg, Ruefle’s Selected Poems would hatch right out of it. Her speakers—obsessed both with beauty and with their inability to “attain a balance/ between important and unimportant things”— over and over fuse the world’s grandest abstractions and minutest details in efforts to find meaning somewhere in the middle.

Naturally, with so many things to include, Ruefle’s poems jump around a lot from one place/time/feeling/speaker to another. In “Timberland,” we go from “Paul’s Fish Fry in Bennington, Vermont” to “the delta/ of the Pearl River” to “Actually none of this has happened yet”—I think in this poem we’re simultaneously in the past, present, and future—but this movement, however quick, never feels random just for the sake of randomness. In each of Ruefle’s lines we find the perfect amount of surprise: enough to disorient and delight and keep our synapses firing, but not so much we get frustrated with nonsense or lack of a larger poetic context. This tightrope act of simultaneously balancing and sorting—and of course, the sheer beauty and originality of these poems—invites us to fully take part in Ruefle’s attempts to make sense of the world (and feel enchanted enough to want to keep doing so).

Because the entirety of the world Ruefle wants to encompass is so overwhelming, it is often the little details that give her speakers something they can use to ground themselves. In “Thistle,” for example, a “we” travels around the world, unexpectedly finding thistles in every location, which grants the thistle the critical roles of creating meaning and connecting the world, kind of like the horn symbol in The Crying of Lot 49.

But Ruefle’s search feels much less unidimensional than Pynchon’s. Her conclusions—while sometimes arbitrary—don’t just lead you on a wild goose chase. At the end of “Thistle,” you’re fully aware the thistle is a kind of random stand-in for meaning, but the ending still feels thrilling and complete:

O ruthless thistle, match in the dark,
you can talk to anyone about the weather
but only to your closest friends
can you mention the light.

Ruefle’s speakers struggle with questions of balance and meaning in multiple forms: Embrace togetherness, or seek isolation? Accept the risk of loss in exchange for aliveness, or don’t? Stay in the imagination, or move into the real world? On one level, each poem chronicles a constant process of decision-making. But the poems aren’t just saying yes or no to a world, whether real or imagined. They’re exploring the price associated with each answer—and because everything in Ruefle’s world is ultimately connected, yes and no aren’t even separate answers. To make the process more complicated, Ruefle acknowledges that choosing an answer or ascribing meaning to something could be based on a fiction: We aren’t omniscient, and we may never know the price of our choice (or really, even what questions we’re answering). We just have to make peace with guessing and assigning meaning.

Ruefle doesn’t usually examine “no” as an option (because unless you’re going to kill yourself, it isn’t, and because her world is just too darn magical not to), but she does spend whole poems asking what if yes could be less troublesome, more embracing. Why does yes have to be so costly? Imagine what could be possible if it weren’t! “One wants so many things,” says the speaker in “The Intended.” And those things are both greater and smaller than any one person can have in any one life. Ruefle intimates this by constantly disorienting us—changing geographic location, scale, speaker, and who the speaker is referring to, as if trying to embrace it all and write it down before it disappears:

One wants simply, said the lady,
to sit on the bank and throw stones
while another wishes he were standing
in the Victoria and Albert Museum
looking at Hiroshige’s Waterfall:
one would like to be able to paint
like that, and Hiroshige wishes
he could create himself out of the
Yoro sea spray in Mino province where
a girl under the Yoro waterfall wants
to die, not quite sure who her person is

The omniscient speaker starts out talking directly to the reader (or maybe herself), with “One wants so many things …” and then quickly moves into narration about other people and their inner lives. In just a dozen lines, we hear the most intimate thoughts of no fewer than five people; move from an unnamed body of water to London and then to Japan; and engage with both the simplest human desires and some of the most complex. Notably, all these desires feel equally painful and urgent—Ruefle makes no value distinction between wanting to throw stones and wanting to die. These quick transitions portray a world in which not only does “one want so many things,” but all those things are interconnected and important. By not valuing one desire more than another—and by connecting them—Ruefle makes them feel universally difficult and totally human. (Even the structure says so; the whole poem is one long sentence.) Eventually the poem returns to “the lady” and ends on a single, concrete, graspable image, as many poems in this collection do. The implication is that even though the world is full of things and every day is “thrown in the sieve” to figure out which ones are important, one way to make the world real and survivable is to focus on a single thing and ascribe meaning to that thing:

one can barely see the cherry blossoms
pinned up in little buns like the white hair
of an old woman who was intended for this hour,
the hour intended to sit simply on the bank
at the end of a long life, throwing stones,
each one hitting the water with the tick of
a hairpin falling in front of a mirror.

That last image is so crisp and mundane, so earnest that “life goes on no matter what we do,” that in my Whitmanesque high I nearly missed the fact that just before it Ruefle slipped in that nagging word from the title: intended. Sure, the speaker put the day through a sieve and came up with lots of unfulfilled human desires, but this “intended” bit is the biggest desire of all—the desire for our desires to have meaning, to be part of some larger picture. We want access to all the possibilities, but we want them to mean something. We want our “yes” to count. Crucial to Ruefle’s poem-world, though, is that she didn’t end on the intendedness—she didn’t totally commit to it. The possibility of a larger picture, or even the desire for one, is just another desire to be weighed against all the others.

Ruefle is not reticent about her struggle between wanting the safety of certainty and accepting that life is uncertain (and that embracing life means embracing that uncertainty). In “Why I Am Not A Good Kisser,” she literally embraces the world too much to function well in it and then reacts by shutting it out altogether, in a yes-then-no move:

Because I open my mouth too wide
Trying to take in the curtains behind us
And everything outside the window
Except the little black dog
Who does not like me
So at the last moment I shut my mouth.

At first, the physical opening and shutting—certainties both—are the only possible responses to the situation, neither of which satisfy. But later in the poem, the speaker champions simultaneous certainty and uncertainty, both physically and spiritually:

… what quality goes to form
A Good Kisser, especially at this moment, & which you
Possess so enormously—I mean when a man is capable
Of being in uncertainties, Mysteries & doubts without me
I am dreadfully afraid he will slip away
While my kiss is trying to think what to do.

So perhaps rather than deciding something so stark as yes or no—between “letting go/ all the animals at once/ from his bosom, or welcoming/ them one by one/ into his arms” (“The Beginnings of Idleness in Assisi”)—these poems are explorations of what it means to accept the uncertainty of the world (the yes and no) as it really is. On one hand, the “dark risk” of rejecting the world “is not to grow” (“Patient Without an Acre”). On the other, embracing it could mean that “The porcupine went into a culvert and didn’t come out/ And that was the end of my happiness.” For Ruefle there is no definitive answer but to struggle against her own sensitive, perceptive nature, and in this way find beauty without grasping the world too tightly, as in “The Cart”:

Yet I admire its gloves. Hands are unbearably beautiful.
They hold on to things. They let things go.

An encounter it would have been gripping to see: the 1875 reunion, in Stuttgart, of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, at the conclusion of the older poet’s two-year imprisonment in Belgium. (He had been convicted for firing on his lover and giving him a flesh wound in the wrist.)  Verlaine told his friends that, as soon as he was released, he made his way to Germany, hoping he would be able to persuade the younger poet to resume their travels and adventures together. When they stood face to face again, did they cry, did they jump up and down, cackling with laughter? Or, if there were bitter reproaches, did those come more from Verlaine or from Rimbaud?  Until time-travel is invented we won’t have answers because neither poet left a detailed record of the meeting, nor were there any witnesses. So much about relationships that crash and burn must always remain undiscoverable, even when the breakup happens in our own time. Fact in these cases abdicates, replaced by gossip, rumor, and, often enough, malice.  This universally acknowledged truth doesn’t seem to prevent us from assuming we’ve got the lowdown on what really happened, even when we’re not close to those involved.

Assuming Verlaine’s account is accurate, it seems that the 1875 meeting was the moment when Rimbaud entrusted the manuscript of Illuminations to him, with the request that it be sent to a friend of his in Brussels, who might be able to arrange for its publication. If Rimbaud didn’t trouble to send it himself, does that mean he wanted Verlaine to read it first and perhaps regard the work as some sort of compensation for the disaster their relationship had been?  Should we see in this book another literary transformation of their shared experience, the follow-up to A Season in Hell?  Or was Rimbaud seeking helpful critiques of the poems, still unaware that he had already outdistanced his poetic master? Did Rimbaud put the poems in the order assigned to them when eventually published, or did Verlaine and later editors who handled the ms. change that order?  Few books have been as persistently dogged by enigmas as Illuminations, a fact that puts it in a paradoxical relationship to its title.

If it’s true that Verlaine kept his promise and sent the poems to Rimbaud’s friend Germain Nouveau in Brussels (a letter of Verlaine’s complains about the postage costs), then at some point he must have retrieved them. We know that they eventually turned up in the hands of his brother-in-law in Paris.  Not Verlaine nor Germain Nouveau nor the brother-in-law, but instead editors who weren’t intimates of Rimbaud a decade later arranged for their publication in the Symbolist magazine La Vogue. Because the loose pages of the ms. weren’t numbered, these editors admitted to an uncertainty as to the order of the poems, except for a few that Rimbaud had transcribed on the same page.

Also, we have to take Verlaine’s word for it that the title his friend  wanted was Illuminations because the sheaf of poems Verlaine forwarded to others lacked a title page.  The book has sometimes been published under the title Les Illuminations, the standard form for a French-language title. However, Verlaine said that Rimbaud was using the English, not the French word, as he did in several individual poem titles (“Bottom” and “Fairy,” for example).  The older poet explained that “illuminations” in English referred to printed, hand-colored engravings, which were common at the period. Of course the term in both languages carries the more general sense of light and even mystical enlightenment, one version thereof being the occult belief and practice known as “Illuminism.”  In English “illuminations” can also refer to the hand-painted pictures and decorations found in medieval manuscripts, but whether Verlaine or Rimbaud was aware of this extra meaning, who can say? (The French term for these is enluminures.) Considering Rimbaud’s ironic and challenging temperament, it’s possible he wanted to make both senses of the English term available, as a way to suggest that his mysterious and even quasi-religious texts could also be compared to cheap popular prints.  The strategy of the young and not yet established poet is often to “have it both ways,” defending his most exalted thoughts with an electric fence of high-voltage irony.  Since we’re on the topic of electrical equipment, consider this interesting coincidence: the first incandescent light-bulb was made in 1874, and commercial distribution of the new invention began in 1886, the year when La Vogue first brought Illuminations to the French reading public. If it seems fanciful to conflate the two phenomena, recall that the most widely distributed light-bulbs in twentieth-century Europe were called Mazda bulbs, after the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda.

The central conflict in Zoroastrianism is figured as a struggle between the forces of darkness and light.  It seems fair to class Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell as a book about the forces of darkness, and so perhaps we can understand Illuminations as the poet’s effort to evoke—at least for poetry—the forces of light.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t flashes of beauty in the earlier book or that all is serenity and effortless ascension in the later one.  That would be too neat and monotonous, and besides, as Stevens put it, “No man of imagination is prim.”  The prose poems in Illuminations are rather short and the sequence develops no discernible narrative; instead, a series of dreamlike vignettes or meditations whose context is never provided.  More than half are descriptive, surveys of landscapes or cityscapes too imaginary and protean to exist in actuality, though they often include the equivalent of Marianne Moore’s “real toads.” The tone is generally exalted and hyperbolic, a cornucopia of images and words tumbling out rapidly in sentences with loosened syntax.  Apostrophes introduced by the exclamation “O” are frequent, yet the mosquito whine of irony is found in almost every poem, provoked in part by hyperbole and acting in part to neutralize it.  Thoroughly enigmatic as they are, the poems are the last to be aware of the fact, judging by the prevailing tone of confidential assurance and the absence of any fumbling efforts at explanation.  We may not understand them, but it’s clear that these poems understand themselves, giving meanwhile the curious impression that they can survive and even thrive without our assistance.

Rimbaud is an often-translated poet and many distinguished hands have made versions of Illuminations, Louise Varèse and Paul Schmidt among them.  Ashbery’s versions are strikingly better than his predecessors, which isn’t surprising when you consider that he resided for a decade in Paris and that he has also successfully translated the poetry of Reverdy and of his friend Pierre Martory.  Add to that Ashbery’s own unconventional literary mastery, and he would seem to be the ideal author to negotiate the difficulties of a poet who inspired a century of poetic experiments, continuing up to the present.  Ideal for us; but you have to wonder why a poet so eminent, so thickly swathed in laurel (he has won every important poetry prize except for the Nobel) should want to take time away from his own work to provide us with this topnotch version of Illuminations. The brief introduction Ashbery provides for this book offers no explanation apart from his thorough admiration for Rimbaud. Still, admirers can admire profoundly without bothering to translate.  I’m guessing that he undertook the task as a way of reminding readers hostile to his own poetry that experimental (or dreamlike, difficult, fragmented, disjunctive, enigmatic—whatever term seems applicable) poetry has been around for a century and a half. If you want to dismiss Ashbery, you also have to dismiss Rimbaud and the Surrealists, plus all the Modernists in various molds who were influenced by him.  It no longer makes any sense to call this kind of poetry the “avant-garde” or the “poetry of the future,” at least no more so than the poetry based on narrative, spoken language, prosody, and sequential reason. Both approaches will be used in the future, as they have been during the past. Some readers will prefer experimental, and another part, mainstream approaches, so there’s no point in trying to legislate an aesthetic Prohibition against either.

It goes without saying that some practitioners of mainstream poetry are better than others, just as it’s reasonable to assume that experimental poetry is sometimes good and sometimes not. Yet critics of experimental work don’t seem to have arrived at a practical criticism capable of sifting the large amount of experimental writing now being produced in order to put aside what’s not worth reading and to make a case for the part of it that’s good. All the alternative critics seem to be able to do at present is repeat any number of times that traditional approaches to poetry are old and therefore irrelevant or inferior. When it comes to the experimental aesthetic, they don’t offer a set of evaluative principles as familiar and dependable as the criteria used to analyze and assess mainstream work.  Given the antinomian and deconstructive nature of experimental writing, its resolute effort to undermine orthodoxy and consensus perception, we can question whether any individual or critical school could ever develop an agreed-on set of yardsticks applicable to it.  However, if adequate critical tools aren’t devised, then criticism will simply amount to “I like this” and “I don’t like that.” A purely personal criterion might be acceptable if we weren’t faced with the real-world problem of public rewards. Which poets should be published, and, among those, which should receive prizes and artist fellowships, including grants based on state funding?  Perhaps most experimental poets write without conscious concerns like these; but critics who ignore them aren’t acting responsibly.

 

Almost all of the Illuminations are prose poems, a form first tried by the French poet Aloysius Bertrand, then taken up with notable success by Baudelaire and Mallarmé.  That the poems are short and don’t rely on traditional French prosody lightens the burden of translation, with the result that a lot of time can be spent on finding the aptest word choices and pleasing sentence rhythms.  Ashbery handles both with cool but remarkable skill. A sample:

In an attic where I was shut up at the age of twelve I got to know the world. I illustrated the human comedy. In a cellar I learned history. At some nighttime carnival in a Northern city, I met all the wives of the master painters. In an arcade in Paris I was taught the classic sciences. In a magnificent abode surrounded by the entire Orient I accomplished my immense opus and spent my illustrious retirement. I churned my blood. My homework has been handed back to me. One must not even think of that now. I’m really beyond the grave, and no more assignments, please.

(part III of “Lives”)

Without arguing that this is the strongest passage in Illuminations, I can still see in it many of the work’s preoccupations, not to say obsessions: singular and perhaps visionary experience recalled from childhood; the mind’s susceptibility to rapid scene changes in space and time; a chest-thumping celebration of self that is nevertheless undercut by sly mockery; and the sense that the poem’s speaker has gone beyond the normal confines of human experience into something beyond reason and civility.

To translate is to interpret, and the reader who knows French will see that Ashbery’s “My homework has been handed back to me” (his reading of “Mon devoir m’est remis,”) could also be rendered as “My duty has been restored to me.”  In the poem’s final sentence, “pas de commissions” becomes “no more assignments, please.” But it could also be rendered as “no errands/messages/shopping lists.” Ashbery has added “more” and “please,” for sense, rhythm, and tone, but those words aren’t found in the original.  I cite this not as a fault but as evidence that he has tried throughout to make versions that are plausible as poems in English.  I was struck again and again how he passed over a reflexively dull equivalent to the French word in favor of something more idiomatic and non-routine.  That said, I also noticed several instances where non-cognates were translated as though they were cognates. Non-cognates are what the French call “faux amis,” “false friends,” words that look as though they meant the same in English and French, but actually don’t; for example, “actuellement,” which doesn’t mean “actually” but instead, “at present.”  Here are a few translations I had doubts about in this version: désert isn’t usually “desert,” but instead “wilderness”; pourpre isn’t so much “purple” as “crimson”; honnêteté isn’t merely “honesty” but rather “probity” or “integrity”; sciences need not be limited to “sciences” but can also mean “studies” or “disciplines”; cellier isn’t strictly “cellar,” but more properly “wine-cellar” or “storeroom.”  Apart from the “false friends,” there are a couple of other misleading translations. For example, faubourg and banlieue are both rendered by Ashbery as “suburbs,” but the right sense for the first is “district,” (as in “Garden District”) or “quarter” (as in “French Quarter”); and for the second, “outskirts of town” or “periphery.” Also, the word jour, when translated as “day” isn’t necessarily wrong; but in many contexts it means “dawn,” “daylight” or simply “light.” As the last word of Illuminations (at least, in the editorial order for the poems that Ashbery has adopted here) it seems probable that Rimbaud meant “dawn” or “light” when he wrote of the emblematic and redemptive figure that he calls “Genie”:

He has known us all and loved us all. Let us, on this winter night, from cape to cape, from the tumultuous pole to the castle, from the crowd to the beach, from glance to glance, our strengths and feelings numb, learn to hail him and see him, and send him back, and under the tides and at the summit of snowy deserts, follow his seeing, his breathing, his body, his day.

Translations of poetry are always in one way or another inaccurate. The reviewer with a sense of responsibility to the author being reconceived in English has the uncomfortable duty (homework?) of pointing out instances where the translation isn’t perfectly congruent with the original. This is done not in order to show superiority but to suggest that real interest, real love for a poet must inevitably inspire readers to learn the original language. When people tell me they don’t care for Dante, I ask them if they know Italian; none of the translations conveys all that can be found in his own idiom. By the same token, any reader astonished and moved to tears by Rimbaud will, I hazard, want to acquire a knowledge of the language and culture thatproduced the strength and beauty they’ve glimpsed through a door that translation has partially opened.  It goes without saying that the project demands a large commitment of time and energy that few can spare.  Meanwhile, those who haven’t had the luck to acquire a true working knowledge of the language and the thematic preoccupations of French literature can even so get a very good sense of Rimbaud’s Illuminations from Ashbery’s version, which is the best we have in English so far.

 

Neither a memoir nor a novel, The Poetry Lesson (Princeton UP, 2010) by Andrei Codrescu measures the speed of our psycho-poetic times. It seems we are moving faster and faster knowing less and less where. On the sheen of it, the book runs through the first day of an Intro to Poetry Writing class wherein Codrescu narrates his process of assigning “Ghost-Companion” poets to students according to the first letter of their last names. Underneath the glaze of this conceit, however, the book prods for lessons about the American Academy’s marketing of the imagination through creative writing classes.

I pissed smugly on academia, which is a way of saying that I pissed on myself, which I do, regularly, to extinguish my pretensions. While I was peeing I didn’t think I was immortal, but felt something very much like it. It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything. I could just be a damn professor like all the dinosaurs that spray these stalls, but I can’t. I’d have to give up being a poet, not that anyone knows what the hell that is, but that’s exactly the point. The professors are not afflicted by the identity crisis that is my only subject. (98)

Codrescu, with his trademark humor and eye for the ladies, unleashes a number of schemes to shock his poetry students into making it new (here “it” also means their lives and not just their texts). Musing on our mania for the new, Codrescu writes: “The most valuable commodity, right after human energy, is style. If styles don’t change to arouse us to trade in yesterday’s model for today’s, the world collapses. Style feeds capital, and so it can never be allowed to devolve into the familiar, it must aspire to multidimensionality, to complexity … to poetry.” (94-5) A bit later, he expounds explicitly on the role of the poet in society: “The poets’ job was to cast a weary second glance on the world and to look fondly into eternal sentiments with a musical insistence that made them new.” (109) Upon critical reflection on Codrescu’s observations that we are addicts of the new, a question might arise: how can a poet ever be more than a hipster, a fashionista, or a mere bodysurfer of the new? Turning Walter Benjamin on his head, one might ask: what is freedom without fashion?

College students need the kinds of Humanistic insights that Codrescu offers throughout his diaristic recounting of the first session of his last class. For instance, Codrescu brings up linearity, that crutch of old-man positivism:  “I like to start at the beginning, I adore chronology even though I know only too well (and explain to my advanced classes) that chronology is arbitrary and that you can get to or at anything starting at any point, because all things touch on every other thing with at least one point of their thingness. Or maybe all things are round.” (116) I like to think that such an image (of how all things are really connected) lounging in the heads of young people might make it difficult for them to conspire to profit off of their neighbor. Eternal sentiments like the interconnectedness of all things or the sensuality of life or the transitory nature of all things are the functional purview of a Liberal education.

Though the form of Codrescu’s pedagogy seems based on a set of labyrinthine rules and draconian discipline; the content, represented through deft summary and talky quotation, suggests his abiding interest in learning what it means to be a poet from his students. Reflecting on his poetry-life, Codrescu writes:

If anything consoles me now it is that attached to these poets and their publishers and my friends and their work were stories. I had thousands of stories to tell about these people and their products because this was my life, a life spent hanging out, talking, writing poetry, alone or with others, seeing twisted shapes in the night and crisp aphorism at dawn. (103)

The book rambles through delightful scenes of perky soldier-students and feral cats that have laid siege to the LSU campus where Codrescu is teaching his last class before retiring. “Unfortunately, poetry was exceedingly teachable. One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled ball of yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry. I had trained thousands to pull a thread from this ball of life-yarn, and now they trail strings wherever they walk, true kittens of capitalism.” (108)

Like the Romanian-born literary critic and professor Matei Calinescu, Andrei Codrescu, synthesizes the histories of European Avant-garde and American Modernism with calm lucidity. He chucks around terms like ideology, postmodernism, and kitsch with the cock-soreness of a smithy. Really? Take his word for it. Here Codrescu describes the perennial distrust between generations: “It had always been thus, but it was worse, I think, now, when every proof for one thing or another was intellectually available, but tips and hints on how to really live are rarer than asparagus stalks in Eskimo cuisine.” (57)

So, what is the poetry lesson? The poetry lesson is that poetry is a practice. What kind of practice? Poetry is the kind of practice that afflicts you with the microbe of identity crisis. If you don’t have an identity crisis, you have been rendered spiritually destitute by the readymade suggestions of capital. Seek the guidance of spirits.

 

Vladimir Sorokin stands atop a list of Russian novelists, along with Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, and Victor Erofeyev, who have married an old-school sci-fi sensibility with American cyberpunk hipness to constitute the vanguard of literary social criticism in Moscow.  Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy not only established him as a progenitor of the form but garnered for him a reputation as Russia’s bad boy literary star, whose brazen challenges to authority and occasional pornographic content compelled the Putin Youth to dump his works into a giant makeshift toilet. His latest work, Day of the Oprichnik (translated by Jamey Gambrell) imagines a Moscow of 2028. The Red Troubles (presumably the Soviet era) are over, as are the White Troubles (whatever those might have been) that followed them, and the czarship has been restored. It is The Russian Revival, or, as characters refer to it, “Nowadays.” The oprichniki are the defenders of the oprichnina, literally “the place apart,” the moral core of the Motherland. This was an actual group, comprised of brutal enforcers during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the middle of the 16th century. You can see where this is going.

When you enter a world like this, where an alternate history shapes an unexpected and probably fucked up future, when you have to piece together strange events and align them with those from your own world, you have to ask yourself two questions: what’s different, and how did it get this way? From the first scene we are thrust into an autocratic, nationalistic, Orthodox, and downright brutal government. All the old icons and superstitions have returned. The czar (who has repainted the Kremlin its old white) is hailed continuously, and God is impulsively and perpetually thanked for this unnamed leader’s political guidance and moral clarity. Technologically, people get their news from “bubbles,” speak on mobilovs, and drive Mercedovs (oprichniks fasten the severed heads of vicious dogs as grill ornaments, who snarl and bark in lieu of sirens). The news and the entertainment industry are monitored closely by representatives from the slew of government departments such as The Culture Chamber, The Literary Chamber, The Inner Circle, The Mind Department, the All-Russian Equine Society, The Association to Promote Air Flight, The Society of Russian Fisticuffs, The Malachite Chamber, and, of course, the Good Fellows.  Dissenters are punished, severely and thoroughly.

I love these genres because of the level of detail an author can engage. For me, this is the test of quality, and it operates down to the sentence and word level. It’s a writerly genre that can stimulate without too much attention even to its political elements. Sorokin subtly slips in bits of technology, film, radio, law and references to that alternate history  with a phrase here, clause there, that serve as a textured backdrop to the political commentary and plot. Here, that political and economic causality is engaged in interesting ways. It becomes very clear early on why Russia has reverted to its old paranoia. The oprichniks joke, “We drive Chinese Mercedovs, we fly on Chinese Boeings, His majesty likes to shoot ducks with Chinese guns…We make children on Chinese beds! We do our business on Chinese toilets!” In short China (much like in Gary Shteyngart’s recent novel Super Sad True Love Story) has reached the global economic hegemony that seems more and more inevitable. But the czar is able to sustain some autonomy via the Far Eastern Pipeline, which runs natural gas from East Asia to Europe (through the nicely renamed St. Petrograd). It is protected by The Road, a.k.a. The Guangzhou-Paris Highway, the nexus of the Russian economy, where slippery Chinese industrialists are fended off by the oprichniks, crooked business agreements, and The Great Wall, extending from Eastern Europe, across Siberia, to China.  In vintage totalitarian fashion, the protection of New Rus’ economic interests is framed as duty to God. The oprichnik general Batya explains it, in a nice stylistic flourish from Sorokin, toward the end of the novel:

Now you, my dear Enochs, you’re wondering, why was the Wall built, why are we fenced off, why did we burn our foreign passports, why are there different classes, why were intelligent machines changed to Cyrillic? To increase profits? To maintain order? For entertainment? For home and hearth? To create the big and beautiful? For fancy houses? For Moroccan leather boots, so everyone could tap their heels and clap? For all that’s good, true, and well made, so that there’d be plenty all around? To make the state as mighty as a pole from the heavenly tamarind tree? So that it supports the heavenly vault and the stars, goddamn it, so the stars and moon would shine, you sniveling scarecrow wolves, so that the warm wind would blow-not-stop-blowing on your asses, is that it? So your asses would stay nice and warm in your velvet pants? So your heads would feel cozy under their sable hats? So you sniveling wolves wouldn’t live by lies? So you’d run in herds, fast, straight, close together, most holy, obedient, so you’d harvest the grain on time, feed your brother, love your wives and children, is that it?

Batya pauses, inhales a good snort of white coke and washes it down with vodka.

Now you see, my dearest Enochs, that’s not what it was for. It was so the Christian faith would be preserved like a chaste treasure, you get it? For only we, the Orthodox, have preserved the church as Christ’s body on earth, a single church, sacred, conciliar, apostolic, and infallible, isn’t that right? That’s why His Majesty has built this magnificent Wall, in order to cut us off from stench and unbelievers, from the damned cyberpunks, from sodomites, Catholics, melancholiacs, from Buddhists, sadists, Satanists, and Marxists; from megamasturbators, fascists, pluralists, and atheists! For faith, you sniveling wolves, isn’t a change purse! It’s no brocaded caftan! No oak club! What is faith? Faith, my noisy ones – is a well of spring water, pure, clear, quiet, modest, powerful, and plentiful! You get it? Or should I repeat it to you?

Again, we know where this is going. And this is the sentence Sorokin seems to be muttering to himself as he watches Putin at work. But as readers we are as preoccupied with the rudiments of this other world as we are with the political message behind its depiction. Thus, the story that occurs within this world, a day in the life of oprichnik Andrei Danilovich, need not be overly plotted. We’re dealing with a tableau of events that unveils both the particulars of New Rus and how it came to be. In that sense it reminisces of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and is no less frightening.

It begins with a dream, “always the same dream,” a rude awakening, and a swift hangover cure, as Andrei prepares for another day on the beat, enforcing government policies and punishing the crooked and malcontent. After he cleans up, shaves, dresses, and his butler fastens a wolf head to his Mercedov, he zips off to his first job – the seizure of a nobleman’s home, the beating and hanging of said nobleman in the front yard, the gang rape of his beautiful wife, the shipment of their children to an orphanage, and the firebombing of the property. As a first-person narrator, Andre reminds us of Burgess’ Alex from A Clockwork Orange, reveling in barbarity, justifying it with faux philosophy. But he has the simplicity and regular-guy attitude of a Murakami or Bolano narrator, walking you through his day routinely, providing sparse commentary on the tedium of certain activities. From the opening “purge” he moves on to prayer, then to a bath house where he injects a hallucinogenic goldfish called a golden sterlet into his brain (which induces, a la Alex, fantasies of future rape), to a shady bargain on The Road with Chinese industrialists, to a cultural monitoring session at the opera house, to a fortune-telling session with a clairvoyant who announces that Russia will be “all right,” to a foiled disruption of a dissenters’ rally, to a meeting with the czar’s wife (who rises at sundown and breakfasts for dinner). The day culminates at the oprichnik mess hall with a rompish ritual so grotesque and shocking (mixed with demoniacal justifications like the one quoted above) as to remind us of the true nature of these types of regimes.

This is all obviously about Putin, and what he could do. It reminds me of Brian McHale, who heralded science fiction as “the ontological genre par excellence.” But allegory aside, these types of genres are a narratologist’s dream, because one can spend an inordinate amount of time (even in a 190 page book like this one) teasing out the tiniest components of this unfamiliar world.  Sorokin manages this deftly here, and combined with his urgent social message and twisted scenes of brutality, this would make for a chilling film. The opening and closing scenes alone solidify this belief. A lot is at stake with this novel, and Sorokin pulls no punches. But for us on the outside, it has the simple pleasure of just being so cool.