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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.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam. The first part, by poet and theater historian M G Stevens, appeared previously.

***

Staring out at the audience of the Pentameters Theatre, David Manson as the poet Robert Lowell distrustfully remarks ‘This is a two-way mirror, isn’t it?’  While in Alfred Corn’s play the Bostonian is informed he is looking at a window, part of the work’s triumph is that we obtain a sense throughout that the events we are seeing have been transfigured by a spectator who is both Lowell the artist and Lowell the man, tormented by his past.  Observation, here, is everything.

The ostensible setting of Lowell’s Bedlam is Pitney Akins Hospital, New York in 1949 where the writer is being treated for bipolar disorder.  The director Daniel Ricken, himself a New Yorker, reveals Lowell’s unconscious largely through offstage noises—muffled thumps, groans and sighs—and the insistent repetition of phrases.  Corn’s play has teasing references to his subject’s work too, to ‘very polite’ murderers in a Federal Detention Centre in Greenwich Village, one of whom is documented in Lowell’s poem ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’;  Czar Lepke was a gang murderer Lowell made into a dignified version of himself by giving him ‘a ribbon of Easter palm’.  In Corn’s searing drama, Lowell views himself as having ended someone’s life, too, through having been at the wheel in a car crash that left his first wife Jean Stafford disfigured and in considerable ongoing pain.

Most strikingly of all Corn’s summonings of Lowell’s poems, there is the avowal ‘I myself am Hell’, a phrase from Milton’s Satan famously adapted in ‘Skunk Hour’ with the addition ‘nobody’s here’.  That poem of Lowell’s describes a panorama of decay, finishing with the disturbing animals of the title, their  ‘moonstruck eyes’ red fire’ contrasting with ‘the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church’.  In Lowell’s Bedlam, the antagonist is very much the Catholic Church he tried and failed to get away from through divorcing Stafford after the accident; his new wife, the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick (played by Lowri Lewis), is able to offer scant defence against the onslaught through her tender Southern tones.  The hellish eyes of those skunks loom large in the red light that suddenly floods the sterile bareness of the set when Clair Elsmore as the nurse transforms into Stafford to berate him for abandoning a ‘disgusting patient’ who became ‘too unattractive for a poet to love’.

Nevertheless, the balance of Lowell’s Bedlam shifts markedly with the arrival of Elizabeth Bishop in Act Two.  Bishop—whose quiet cheerfulness and wit are brilliantly captured by Hannah Mercer—provides the model for an alternative approach to both living and writing.  Red becomes simultaneously the colour of not only hell but of the absurdly huge scarlet nose of a Rudolf toy she gives him.  It is both and neither.  Palm leaves are exciting for her not as religious symbols but as part of the secular, tropical flora she includes in poems that reveal the workings of the mind through the observations it makes.  For all her own guilt about her institutionalized mother, she laughs freely about the way she repeatedly contradicts herself, being content to reside in flux.

Perhaps Corn’s boldest move is to explore this idea in ‘Mate’, a Bishop poem centred around chess that is actually the playwright’s invention.  Reciting the poem to Lowell, Bishop tells him that ‘If he found no white pieces, the black couldn’t see / To maneuvre, becalmed in ambiguous fog / With a chessboard and pawns who’ve turned aimless and gray.’  The risk pays off because not only is the poem immediately accessible and relevant to the audience but it is true to the metaphysical cleanness and playfulness of early Bishop poems like ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’ and ‘The Gentleman of Shalott’.  The galloping anapaestic metre is perfectly suited to both the poem’s depiction of a knight’s three-square move in chess and the alleviation of a great deal of the play’s tension once Lowell is in conversation with his great friend who may be, it hints, deeper in his affections than either of the women he has married.

Tennyson’s own writing is used to explain Bishop’s different way of looking through her remark that she is ‘immune’ to his physical charms like ‘”Mariana in her moated grange”’—a misquotation that is also a subtle reference to her lesbianism (in 1948, Lowell had told friends of his plans to propose to her).  To Lowell’s objection ‘That’s not the best Tennyson’, she counters ‘I’m not taking on responsibility for the whole poem, just the “moated grange” part’.  The individual phrase and the moment of saying it aloud take precedence over any grander schemes as so often happens in Bishop’s poetry with its love of details and focus on what occurs in the instant of perception.  All acts of observation are partial and reveal as much about the observer as the observed.  It is a portrait Corn renders with great affection, and the play is almost as much about Bishop as it is about Lowell.

Interspersed throughout is the loquacious narrator Dick Jaffee played by Roger Sansom, an unemployed story editor for film who looks back on his time as a fellow patient.  Far from being a simple comic counterweight, Jaffee as a stranger is a clever device for teasing out those parts of himself Lowell is still keen to present to society (he cannot resist the mention of his Pulitzer Prize) and situating the play within a broader dramatic and political context.  There is Bedlam not only in Pitney Akins but outside it in Hollywood’s blacklisting of Communist writers.  Their dialogue also enables Lowell to make a spirited defence of poetic drama—with his Marxist interlocutor adeptly puncturing, for all his dizziness, the Bostonian’s characteristically elevated notion that every writer should exist away from the realm of paying the bills.

Lowell’s Bedlam is an arresting play that brings to life the psychological nuances of two of America’s most celebrated twentieth-century poets with fire and insight.  To its very last, offstage word, it refuses to leave the audience with easy choices to make about what they themselves have observed; how hopefully or pessimistically we view the play’s conclusion says as much about us as it does about Lowell or even Corn.  It urges us instead merely to remain open to Bishop’s idea ‘that you have to live with both light and darkness in your experience, that they’re somehow … reciprocal’.

NOTE: This is part one of a two-part dialogue on Alfred Corn‘s play Lowell’s Bedlam, which had it’s world premiere on April 7, 2011 in London. The second part, by poet John McCullough, appeared afterward.

***

The poet Alfred Corn has written a marvelous, sharply observed, and brilliantly imagined play about Robert Lowell’s stay in a mental hospital for his bipolar disorder. Corn includes the poet Elizabeth Bishop and the prose writer Elizabeth Hardwick in his dramatic tale, which is told from the point-of-view of one of the hospital’s denizens, a fellow who befriends Lowell over a card game. Pentameters is one of the oldest fringe theatres in London, famous for its relationships with poets, including Robert Lowell, so it was an equally apt venue to present the world premiere production of this work. Leonie Scott-Matthews, the artistic director at Pentameters for the past forty years, introduced the evening by giving the audience a thumbnail portrait of the theatre’s long history, including Lowell’s visit in 1974.

Robert Lowell, besides being a pre-eminent poet of the postwar years in America, also wrote well-received plays, as well as having a long association with Britain. (He taught for many years at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.) A so-called confessional poet, his mental disorders were handsomely chronicled in his poems. That being the case, what purpose a play about this one aspect of his life? Well, Alfred Corn makes eminently clear that when a life is dramatized, often very different things are revealed than in the poems or in a biography. For one thing, the life unfolds before our eyes—not the poet’s exterior world, but the turmoil of his inner life. We experience Lowell at the moment he reveals himself to us on the stage, and because Lowell is such a complex person, it takes an equally deft poet to evoke him. That is what Alfred Corn succeeds in doing so dramatically.

This is not just any bipolar patient in a hospital—the play is set in September 1949 in the recreation room for patients at the Pitney Akins mental hospital in New York City—it is the blueblood Robert Lowell. As he tells his newly met friend on the ward, he has just won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Of course, the other patient thinks that Lowell is being delusional. After all, this other patient has literary illusions, too, and all he’s wound up doing is story editing in film. This Nick Carraway-like character, whom Corn calls Dick Jaffee, is as talkative as Lowell, and perhaps that is where the two make a human connection. The two Elizabeths, Lowell, and Jaffee are all thirty-somethings.

The stage is a great place for unfolding events, the slow revelation of a characters inner life. Invariably characters reveal themselves by what they say about themselves, about others, and what they do. Bipolar patients are famously verbal, but also physically animated during mania. I have heard psychiatrists and therapists describe the manic cycle as one of verbal brilliance, though usually followed by a crash. Lowell was not at Pitney Akins for being verbally brilliant, though, but rather for being mentally ill. He was famously not on the planet when he entered such bouts in his life. Alfred Corn is a poet of considerable verbal skills, too, so that he is able to portray these effects on stage, sculpting them into dramatic moments that reveal so much about Lowell’s inner state. Lowell is guilty and full of shame for leaving his first wife after a car accident that nearly kills her. Then he takes up with Elizabeth Hardwick, his soul mate. Or is Elizabeth Bishop his soulmate?

Bishop is the character with the most to hide, and thus is one of the most revealing characters as a result of that dramatic tension. She clearly loves Robert Lowell—but not that way. He is smitten as well. But she needs to make clear that she is not interested in romance. They are fellow poets. She loves his poetry, and she appreciates his attention to her poems. They are not so much soulmates—that role remains in Hardwick’s orbit—they are kindred spirits. They both love words, are made drunk on their effects. There is a wonderful scene, not dramatized in Alfred Corn’s play, but in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell, in which a line from Racine’s Phedre which Lowell has translated actually comes out to mean the opposite from what the French dramatist intended. Lowell keeps it anyhow because he feels it is a better line of poetry now. That willful, confident poet is in evidence on the stage, but so is the wreck of a person, a man hearing voices, possessed by demons, wracked with guilt and shame, two corrosive emotions that seem to chip away at Lowell’s ironclad New England temperament.

Finally, here is why Alfred Corn’s play is such an important work. It gives us an inner portrait of Robert Lowell that is not found in either the biography or the poetry itself. Robert Lowell the poet is a persona, while Robert Lowell the man is a suffering human being, one ridden with an emotional wound that seems to rend him into two or more personalities. The Ian Hamilton biography, good as it is, gives us details of a life, its comings and goings, the surface narrative. The poems present us with Robert Lowell’s literary obsessions, his lineage with more formal poets like Robert Frost and his 20th century obsessions which align him more with a poet like William Carlos Williams. Towards the end of his life, Lowell once told Allen Ginsberg that both of them were the children of WCW.

If I have a criticism to make about contemporary American playwrights—I am thinking of writers like David Mamet and Sam Shepard—it is how one-dimensional and weak their women characters seem to be. Conversely, I have found so many women playwrights create the most stereotypical male characters. Yet being able to create full-blown characters of the opposite sex is almost a hallmark of great playwriting. Certainly Brecht, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov created women characters that dominated their stages with their complexity and humanity. Alfred Corn’s women are witty, verbal, real, and daring. Towards the end of this wonderful play, Elizabeth Bishop reads one of her poems aloud to Robert Lowell. But, almost like a play within a play, she reads a poem by Alfred Corn. The moment is luscious, and it reveals the character of Bishop to us, while also suggesting why a poet in the theatre is such a dynamic possibility for drama. This stage tableau becomes even more complex and fabulous, a truly dramatic fete.

 

First things, first. Full disclosure: Tom Sleigh was my teacher and thesis advisor at Hunter College.

* * *

Tom Sleigh’s method is art, but his end is anthropological. His vision is fully humane, an attempt to catalogue people, events, and his own place among them. Because of this, one might be surprised that this collection begins with a three part series of poems that picture a lively army scene populated by  cats. In this opening poem, readers find the sheer pleasure of reading Sleigh’s poetry. His idiom is musical, yet speechly:

Over by the cemetery next to the CP
you could see them in wild catmint going crazy:
I watched them roll and wriggle, paw it, lick it,
chew it, leap about, pink tongues stuck out, drooling.

Cats in the tanks’ squat shadows lounging
Or sleeping curled up under gun turrets.
Hundreds of them sniffing or licking
long hind legs stuck in the air…

The sounds ring back and forth along these lines, resonating with one another in a way that feels formal yet unrestricted: the various ringing sounds in these two stanzas are the closest poetry come to creating to a musical chord–the EEs, the EDs/ETs/ITs, the INGs–all rising and falling go back and forth like a metronome. There’s even some subtle bits of chiasmus (“cURled Up under gUn tURrets”). All this in the first two stanzas of the book.

I’m tempted to reproduce the whole poem, if only because its self-evident mastery could complete this review (If you want, you can find the rest of the poem here).

There is one question, however, that I have about this poem: why the cats? Does Sleigh betray his “calling” as a poetic anthropologist? Let me answer this question by means of another discussion: formality.

Sleigh’s poetry is often noted for its “classical” nature. I take this in two ways: first, Sleigh’s poems are drenched in classical allusion; second–and I think this is more interesting–there is a formality that extends beyond formalism in Sleigh’s writing. I am not totally sure how to express what I mean, but I think Allen Grossman gets at it when he says “all speaking is action which has a history” (from The Sighted Singer). What we call “formal” is an awareness of that history transferred by various ways in the writing: sometimes this comes as a poetic form, sometimes as an awareness of meter and sound a sort of imitation of forebearers (while, nonetheless, giving it a particular, perhaps unique, voicing). To me, this quality provides a very loose scale by which I can classify writers. There are some writers whose writing is more aware of this “formality” and there are some writers whose poetry seems to have very little concern for it, though I think we all participate in it, whether we like it or not.

Sleigh’s relationship to formality is not that of a purist who exalts the “tradition” as the benchmark of perfection. I would argue that Sleigh’s formality plays two roles in his poetry. First, it lets him put down one of the balls a poet juggles in the act of writing (and editing). For example, a poet who is translating is free from concern about the content of the poem–that is, the images, ideas, etc. already exist within the original poem, and content-wise, the poet is not concerned with generating “new” content. Put simply: the question of “what do I say next” is already answered while translating. Sleigh’s formality is often musical: in this sense, he does not have to ask himself, “what sound comes next” because the dictates of formality can answer that question for him. Now–Sleigh plays with this, of course, as is evident from the above selection: some lines have end-rhyme, some don’t; some lines are rhymed couplets, others are an ABAC scheme. Sleigh’s formal play is made possible by the form, in that we might not recognize his poetic choice otherwise. Inasmuch as we note Tom Sleigh’s writing to be “classical” (i.e., to openly have a relationship with formality), we come more to see Tom’s artistic ego/daimon at work.

The second way that Sleigh uses formality is as a way to interrogate his writing. When writing with formal intentions, one makes a choice: do I sacrifice this word/line/idea for the sake of the form? Inevitably there comes the choice to follow, break, or bend the demands of formality. This connects with the first point. Sleigh’s play with formality creates a rich musical texture, and it also is capable of revealing the actions of a poet in creating the work. Thus we see that Sleigh’s anthropology cuts both ways. Not only is he “documenting” others, he is documenting himself. Formality, in this case, allows Sleigh to achieve a reflexivity and self-awareness without the cloying injections that deliberately remind the reader of the existence of the poet. A dramatic mask need not be about the falseness of an actor; indeed, its presence can create a duality that highlights the actor.

So we can say that Sleigh’s role as an anthropologist is still in effect because he is documenting his own place as a writer among his poetic subjects.

But still, cats? It seems perhaps that Sleigh abandons his anthropological post with this one…let’s see.

After introducing an orgiastic, “big pregnant / female” cat who vamps in front of the horny (“cat fuck yowl” is one of the most memorable lines from the whole book) army cats, Sleigh instructs us to

Picture her with gold hoop earrings
and punked-out nose ring like the cat goddess Bast,
bronze kittens at her feet, the crowd drinking wildly,

women lifting up their skirts as she floats down
the Nile, a sistrum jangling in her paw.
Then come back out of it and sniff
her ointments, Lady of Flame, Eye of Ra.

It’s one of the many clever leaps in this poem series; we become part of the undeniably enjoyable act of gawking at the exotic (oriental?). It’s a bit like T.S. Eliot directing a scene from Indiana Jones (or Lucas/Spielberg directing Cats). The poem also sets the stage for the rest of the book. We remember that the Middle East has its own history of empire, a classical age before Islam, before Christianity, when the division between East and West was more porous.

Follow the poem to its end. As the series continues, the poems become decidedly less cat-oriented. By the end of Part III, the cats are no longer anthropomorphized; the “I” (a decidedly different one) re-enters the poem after a long absence:

And then I remember the ancient archers
frozen between reverence and necessity–

who stare down the enemy, barbarians
as it’s told, who nailed sacred cats to their shields,
knowing their foes outraged in their piety
would throw down their bows and wail like kittens.

Readers of Tom Sleigh’s essay “Self as Self-Impersonation in American Poetry” should recognize in Sleigh’s Protean subjects something he spoke about in that essay:

Dissonance of feeling, the disrelation of “I” to any settled viewpoint, which is a way of being that seems foreclosed to the “mind at rest,” is a quality in poetry that over the years I’ve come to prize more and more….the difficulty of pinning down Ashbery in his poems as anything other than the medium of language is one reason why he is such a bad model for other poets interested in the slippery relations of “I” to “the tale of the tribe.” The positing of a unitary identity is crucial to a process of questioning that identity. Ashbery’s associative movement is too strictly linear in what it is obliged to leave out: the sense that we are getting “the real John Ashbery,” illusory and as much an effect of language as that may be, is simply not one of the formal burdens that Ashbery’s poems are willing to take up.

And the winner [of who disrelates most to a stable subject] is: Robert Lowell. Robert Lowell again?….What is [Life Studies] but a gallery of family portraits in which the faces, at first highly defined, by degrees begin to blend together into the composite face of a crucial cultural and historical moment in Cold War American Life?

I apologize for chopping that passage up so badly (I highly recommend reading it–if only to read one of the most interesting justifications of Anne Bradstreet as a great modern poet you’ll ever see). The picture of Lowell in Ashbery’s relief is fundamental to seeing how Sleigh sees selves, subjects, characters, I’s, You’s, etc. working in poetry. The self-not-as-self in Ashbery can become gimmicky at times because it’s what you expect. The self-not-as-self in Lowell, however, is almost unnoticeable at first. The more you sit with the poem, however, the more the disconnects and fractures begin to show. Lowell’s depiction is more prized to Sleigh because it exists as part of a deeper texture, and is thus more capable of exploring the problematic aspects of self-hood.

I’ve said all that to say this: Sleigh’s poem “Army Cats” displays the same shifting: first we are only readers, then we are gawkers; first the cats are human-like, now the cats have become cats. Most noticeably, the I which established perspective among the army cats in the beginning has been drawn out and now ponders them, almost as objects in a history book. Commands come out of nowhere, completely new voices enter and leave the poem–yet it all flows unnoticed in the being of the poem. You only pin it down when you go back and objectify the poem, pick it apart and analyze it.

Combine the formality I spoke about earlier with the shifting self and one can see that Tom Sleigh is writing, fundamentally, about the same unstable self as Ashbery and others. Yet he does them one better, I believe: Sleigh uses formality to interrogate itself. Rather than creating new ways to enter the poem in order to critique the old ways, Sleigh expands the use of the “old ways,” showing that such formality is actually robust enough to transcend itself in a way.

If it is true that the highest art hides its artifice, then Sleigh is clearly a master; yet he even does not let us as readers fall prey to this dictum. Careful readers see that he never hides his artifice, but carefully documents it. Thus, we see that in using these cats, Sleigh is still in the business of anthropology: it’s an anthropology of himself and of us as readers.

There’s also a connection between these shifting selves and the way that Sleigh weaves allusion and history into his poetry. “Beirut Tank”–a poem that matches Bishop for craftedness–creates a textured, multi-layered subject, which is the result of other voices and histories blending together:

Staring up into the tank’s belly
lit by a bare bulb hanging down
off the exhaust, a mechanic’s hands are up
inside the dark metallic innards doing something
that looks personal, private. The tank is nothing
like the ones the ones the Americans deploy.
Those have uranium piercing shells that could melt
right through this tank’s armor and set off
the ammo box: nothing can withstand the American tanks.

What begins as the voice of an observer, slowly becomes the voice of the mechanic. Perhaps the speaker is just repeating what they’ve heard. Or perhaps they are actually becoming the mechanic in a way. This shift happens more noticeably in these lines:

The mechanic on his back in the dirt,
cursing in Arabic, sounds like he’s cursing
in a good-natured way: who was the fucking moron
who did the maintenance on this thing?
This tank, this tank, he should push it off
a cliff into the sea to bob for
half an hour before sinking under the Pigeon Rocks
where all the lovers gather in the shadows
near that little bar, lit by a generator, that serves Arak

and warm beer to soldiers hanging out on the Corniche:
mainly conscripts from down south, whose orange groves
rot because nobody can pick the oranges: try to pick
an orange and a cluster bomb lodged in leaves
comes tumbling into your basket. What weight
did this cocksucker use, anyway? And this engine,
it’s gonna blow.

Who knows how many possible voices are blending together to create the speaker of this poem? Here the speaker is really a series of selves who are speaking in a semi-narrative arc.

I’ve spent a great deal of time on the first two poems of this collection. There are, of course, many things to say about the rest, but the first two poems–for me–set the tone, ambitions, and goals for the rest of the work. In “Army Cats” we must confront our own selves and ask what is the meaning of the way we are drawn in; the answer is not always comfortable. In “Beirut Tank,” Sleigh’s careful attention to stories and details and his ability to weave in narratives testifies to his effort and observational powers.

Other poems to pay attention to on your own reading are “The Games,” “The Spell,” “The Chosen One,” “Money,” “On First Avenue and Sixth Street,” and “Mingus Reborn as Mingus.”

The two loves of Kalamaras’s life: Surrealism and Hindu mysticism (with a touch of rhetorical theory!). A serious look at his work would address how his poetry investigates the intriguing parallels between surrealism and Eastern mysticism, a relationship already hinted at in the origins of Pound’s ideogrammic method, which became the basis of the modernist image.  Kalamaras blurs the line between the poetic and mystic: “Central to my work as a poet is the exploration of language as a way to conjure ‘silence,’ or moments of discursive interruption and dissolve, in which all seeming oppositions are complementary rather than contradictory.”

Kalamaras’s thin volume from UDP offers two dozen poems, all in the same form: couplet stanzas where each line is a (usually) complete sentence. Part of a larger project called The Bone Sutras, these poems resemble Robert Bly’s recent ghazals. The poems are stoic, even, one might feel, mechanical. The method is pretty clear: self-contained sentences/lines that center on a contradictory or surreal image are placed almost at random into an anti-narrative, illogical sequence. The subject matter “emerges” through the images and linguistic gestures, relying heavily on symbolism and archetypes in a style reminiscent of Deep Image poetry. Formally speaking, it’s pretty formulaic stuff, which is probably why I feel guilty for loving it so much.

By writing each poem exactly the same way, Kalamaras creates remarkably even-handed and meditative thought “progressions.” Some images have little effect, but often he “hits it” for several lines, and it’s just “whoa!”:

And so, it came to pass that I discerned eels in my spine.
Memories of a previous birth night after night between the thighs of strangers in Tokyo’s
Shimbashi district.

Aristotle proclaimed the eel a sexless creature.
Before the 1920s no one knew how baby eels were even born.

Saddened, the hands of drawn space floated backwards flower to flower.
The most heart-rending bee blurred through wind, through Saturn’s fluid ribs.

And so, their ascetic monk mouths must have fractured me.
And so, the world is unsolved like a beautiful table.

Perhaps a more contemporary move, Kalamaras mixes in the occasional verbal gesture, pastiche, or otherwise “flat” sentence to vary his register. This is a good idea, in my opinion, as it juxtaposes various linguistic modalities, extending the disparity to language and not just imagery. It’s also pleasant aesthetically for reasons I don’t feel awake enough to articulate:

For a long time, we lived as a thief.

Not this rib, but that.

Okay, the domino theory was wrong.

Far too many people died far too young for his or her sins, or something like that.

I think the future of surrealism is in Language poetry, whereby surrealism’s psychological and metaphysical starting points merge with the theoretical and rhetorical modality of Language poetry. This would imply a move away from the Romantic ego as the author of the text, a position reflected in Kalamars’s non-egoistic voice, as he withdraws himself from the lyrical surface of his work. The mechanical, almost inhuman speaker of these poems, nevertheless, “chances” upon the occasional magic. So, while Bly and Deep Imagism is a fair comparison on many levels, Kalamaras forgoes self-consciousness, pretending not to know his phrases (such as the book’s title) are just as delicious as the butterflies on the cover.

And one can only hope to get a blurb like this: “The name Kalamaras means, as everyone knows, He Who Channels the Throat Songs of the Inflamed Detectives of Southern Surreality.” (Forest Gander)

I had a few reasons to pick up Geraldine Brooks’ new novel Caleb’s Crossing. First, it’s a new book by a semi-important author, which has received mostly good reviews in major newspapers. Second, it takes place at Harvard, and I thought it would be a good read for my trip there for a conference. But most importantly, I have just begun a dissertation on contemporary novels that take place in the colonial period. So, Caleb’s Crossing, the story of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, in 1665, seemed to fit the bill.

It does and it doesn’t. My work focuses on the novels, which have come to be called “historiographic metafictions,” that fall under the umbrella of postmodernism, novels like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vollmann’s Argall.  Through the depiction of historical events and figures in an ironic light, they foreground the fluidity and downright unknowability of the past. Brooks is not so interested in that here. Like Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (and I find it very difficult to make this comparison in good conscience, but bear with me) Brooks has taken an obscure historical event and extrapolated it into a fleshy, dramatic narrative. But while Jones’ novel is a veritable masterpiece, Brooks’ premise is problematic, and sometimes disingenuous.

It is told from the perspective of Bethia Mayfield (a completely fictional invention), a pre-adolescent girl growing up on Martha’s Vineyard. Stifled by her puritanical father and brother, she sets out frequently on her own to explore the coastline. She eventually befriends a Wopanoak of similar age named Cheeshahteamauk. They discuss their mutual frustrations with their respective communities, in turn engaging in debates over religion. These are convincing, in that they exhibit the types of attitudes characteristic of people that age (“But aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” Etc.).  Throughout her narrative, Bethia evaluates her experiences, no matter how extreme or trying, under the auspices of her Puritanism, which too is convincing. She is a precocious storyteller like Jane Eyre (while the entirety of Jane’s story is told in retrospect, Bethia’s keeps hers like a journal, writing sometimes only hours after the events she’s addressing), and her impetus to self-expression and feminine identity is reminiscent. But the way Brooks has her stop short and remain within her value system, out of fear mostly, is key to capturing the ethos of the period.

But this is where things do become troublesome. Bethia continually refers to her adventures and conversations as sins, deviations from the obedience she only pretends to foster. But so too does she label as sins her questioning of her faith, and her keen interest in the all too stereotypical worship of nature on the part of Cheeshahteamauk. She wavers between her fascination (often verging on subtle eroticization) and a more typical condemnation of his religion as witchcraft. Again, we can chalk this up to accuracy, but things become blurrier after Cheeshahteamauk is slighted by his family, and debates assimilating with the Puritan community. In an early scene the friends decide to re-name each other, he acquiring the Caleb that he would be referred to as throughout the novel, she becoming Storm Eyes, “since my eyes were the color of a thunderhead.” She eventually sheds this title as Caleb becomes more indoctrinated in the Puritan way of life and religious education, but Caleb only becomes more Caleb-like. That is, his assimilation is celebrated, even by him, as an abandonment of his culture’s pact with Satan, and thus “Storm Eyes” must be discarded as child’s stuff, if not heresy.

The novel from there is relatively plotless. (And Brooks’ attempt at stylistic accuracy is commendable, but compared to the virtuosity of Pynchon and Barth’s achievements in this territory, she falls disappointingly flat. Consider “I suddenly felt so light that I thought I might lift off the ground and float away like the seeds of a blowball,” or “This morning, light lapped the water as if God had spilt a goblet of molten gold upon a ground of darkest velvet.” A lot of the time you feel like Brooks is digging for excuses to use archaic terms like “sennight” just to prove she’s done her homework.) Happily, Bethia and Caleb don’t engage in a romantic relationship (thus avoiding the utterly stereotypical and unrealistic), and this allows for a significant chunk of the later plot to be devoted to Bethia’s dilemma over her choice of husband. In the meantime, as Caleb matriculates into secondary school and eventually into Harvard, the plot centers on death and its aftermath, another nice accuracy on the part of Brooks. You see how daily life, and the Puritan attitude, is refined by the imminence of plague, famine, or, on Martha’s Vineyard, shipwreck.  Many important people die throughout the story, and this is not a device to sustain emotional virility–it’s the norm of the day. That said, there is not much beyond this to indicate a plot trajectory per se, and elements of desire and controversy are introduced haphazardly. We meet new characters, such as potential suitors for Bethia, at the last minute, and we have to drag ourselves up to believe that these people are actual human beings, and not devices. There is a core mystery in the Harvard scenes that involves the impregnation of a Wopanoak servant at the school, but this potentially most interesting issue is dismissed almost as rapidly as it develops. This is very clearly not a novel about the issues of colonization, assimilation, miscegenation, etc. but about Caleb’s so-called triumph.

And triumph he does. The climax of the novel is so mawkish that its downright dismissal of the fraught implications of his “achievement” are extremely troubling. At the commencement ceremony, Bethia asides, “Well, I thought. You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, and your health, and estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man may say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable. Here, in this hall, you stand, the incontestible argument, the negat respondens.” This type of proclamation is only convincing if we are made privy to Bethia as a naive observer of Wopanoak relations, but we are clearly encouraged to trust her wisdom, as a mouthpiece for Brooks herself. Toward the end, she again proclaims, “Caleb was a hero, there is no doubt of it. He ventured forth from one world to another with an explorer’s courage, armored by the hope that he could serve his people. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the most learned of his day, ready to take his place with them as a man of affairs. He won the respect of those who had been swiftest to dismiss him.” Nowhere amid this unabashed celebration of the “modernization” of the natives is there an indictment or at least a challenge to the cultural assumptions of the Puritans (“an explorer’s courage” is a particularly bold phrase, considering certain famous explorers’ treatment of their conquered. Again, this is not posed ironically). Sure, the discipline and the repression thing is addressed, but nowhere is the study of Latin, Greek, and the Bible as proof of one’s intellectual capacity called into question. It’s taken as a given, so Caleb’s mastery of his subjects at Harvard becomes the categorical evidence that he isn’t a savage. I don’t need to tell you how problematic this type of assumption is, and how anesthetized the pain and tension underlying all this becomes. King Phillip’s War is glossed over toward the end, and any discussion of the social and political aftermath of Caleb’s graduation (there were other native people in his class, including the valedictorian) is buried under the continuation of the death-and-grief trajectory of the plot. It is not until the very end, when Caleb himself is on his deathbed (only a month after his graduation), that the real issue is called into question. I hinted at adolescent notions of the afterlife earlier in this review, but it does become central here as the ultimate stakes of any belief system. As Caleb is dying, Bethia can’t help but wonder to what home he’s being called back, and her consultation with his people’s de facto witch doctor for a remedy for his consumption throws into doubt her devotion to her own set of values. This type of ideological inquiry, I think, needs to be central to a novel that’s going to address the history of native peoples. It’s largely missing here, even though Brooks handles it nicely in their childhood, toward the beginning. In a novel that attempts to address the “crossing” of cultural barriers, a more accurate title probably would have been Caleb’s Passing, because that’s more to the point here. Assimilation is heroic in Brooks’ imagination, and this attitude ultimately dooms her novel.

When charm works, the connection established between individuals is palpable. Flow becomes effortless and meaning is instantaneous. Hearing LaGrone read his poems out loud can deliver this, in a way. Such fluid links are also temporary, made all the more constrained by the instant in which they exist. Having this chance to really interact with Oyster Perpetual as a whole rather than through workshops with LaGrone extends the charming band-leader qualities of his poetry, but also elucidates the temporal nature of these poems.

He leads his parade of broken but non-pitiable scoundrels around urban, natural, and temporal topographies, usually branching off between lines. He has no qualms about naming the people, bars, drinks, smokables, poets, car parts, and more that populate his worlds.

Charisma can be a liability, though. LaGrone is aware of this. Throughout the book he casts wide for characters of all permutations but uses them as a foil for the “self” of the writer. This is the narrator’s world, and he understands his own limitations. Take the end of “Bonding”:

There was almost no wiggle room
around the dropper loops. Laid well,
there was enough temporary whipping
to hold me—so I fashioned a josephine
across my neck for a little flash.
When you got scared, running
into the shed for a Swiss Army,
I knew you’d never learn.

It’s due to the author’s earnestness that we, the reader (and the you of the poem) trust him, despite the fact that he’s volunteering for every conceivably uncomfortable position available in this sex dungeon. “Love is a gimp” is the kind of clever theme that wears itself out quickly, but this poem delves deeper into a position where one becomes non-charismatic, that the narrator’s very desire for shared pain when every partner acts to free him with a “Swiss Army”, showing that they will “never learn” his desires. Even LaGrone’s sweet talk has its limits, and it’s in those limits that this book becomes revelatory.

Part of good chemistry comes from balance, and LaGrone balances his sentimental conclusions with the grit that many of his influences touch on. Levis, Gilbert, Levine, and so forth, are all old men to whom the words of “common” men mattered greatly. LaGrone cracks the nut wider though, allowing not just the questionable decisions and epiphanies of flawed men but also women, oftentimes in juxtaposition. Charm and codependency blur throughout “Tableau with Rockets Redglare”:

… My ex-wife
sleeps with the television on,
says the flickering light
scares away the roaches.
We make love on Thursdays
as though we are still married.
It is comforting and effortless,
and afterwards we play ‘Deluxe’ Othello
and watch Down By Law with the volume
down. The Newton’s Roach and Flea Powder
I sprinkle on the floor makes little difference;
week after week they return
to an understanding.

That LaGrone can give us a tender catalog of bondage knots in one poem and a despair-soaked game night in another speaks to his versatility, not only in terms of setting and vocabulary, but breadth of emotional experience. The roaches return, “as though we are still married.” So too do we return to these verbose, complicated poems that swim in their syntax, though LaGrone never leaves us hanging. Believe the whistles and the winks, because though these lines may only love you for a moment, he makes that moment worthwhile.

Read Sarah V. Schweig on Oyster Perpetual here.