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Okay! Fine. Tea Obreht is a veritable prodigy, and The Tiger’s Wife is uncannily good. Most (no, all) reviewers, as well as the likes of Colum McCann, TC Boyle, and Ann Patchett, say no less. But this novel is not just good for a twenty-five year old. Most of us would kill to kill it like she does.

It’s a story told by a young doctor named Natalia, who travels through an unnamed Balkan nation, having been, about to be, and, maybe, perpetually always, war-ravaged, inoculating children, deriding (but perhaps eventually acquiescing to) local superstition, and, most importantly, seeking out the facts of her grandfather’s last days before his death by cancer. But the reader quickly comes to realize that the collection of a plastic bag full of Natalia’s grandfather’s personal effects fails to explain the man she loved. Rather, his stories, which she re-tells with elaborate and emotional texture, bring her real closure, in turn sending this novel brilliantly toward the borders of fantasy.

Here’s what some critics have said about these legends:

David Ulin: “What these stories represent is mystery, the unanswered questions that, even in a rational universe, exist at the center of the world.”

Michiko Kakutani: This novel “explores the very essence of storytelling and the role it plays in people’s lives…It’s not so much magical realism in the tradition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass as it is an extraordinarily limber exploration of allegory and myth making in the ways in which narratives (be they superstitions, cultural beliefs, or supernatural legends) reveal – and reflect back – the identities of individuals and communities: their dreams, fears, sympathies, and hatreds.”

Liesl Schillinger: “Ingeniously, Obreht juxtaposes Natalia’s matter-of-fact narration with contemporary folk tales that are as simple, enthralling, and sometimes brutal as fables by Kipling or Dinesen…Arrestingly, Obreht shows that you don’t have to go back centuries to find history transformed into myth; the process can occur within a lifetime if a gifted observer is on hand to record it…The Tiger’s Wife is all the more remarkable for being the product not of observation but of imagination.”

Ron Charles: “That The Tiger’s Wife never slips entirely into magical realism is part of its magic – its agile play with tragic material and with us – because, despite Natalia and her grandfather’s devotion to science and rationality, this is a story that bleeds into fable with the slightest scratch.”

This unabashed praise shares a collective awe at how Obreht subtly imagines the thin border between reality and legend that pervades not only her stories, but, more importantly, the lives of the people whom these stories are about. So how does she pull it off? In short, the subtle mysteries of these stories are managed via even subtler narrative moves that generate this mythic atmosphere. Natalia simply sets up the structure of her story near the very beginning of it:

Everything necessary to understand my grandfather lies between two stories: the story of the tiger’s wife, and the story of the deathless man. These stories run like secret rivers through all the other stories of his life…One, which I learned after his death, is the story of how my grandfather became a man; the other, which he told to me, is of how he became a child again.

This is the novel in a nutshell. But the language here is important to note. Namely, by indicating how she came across these stories, Natalia is prefacing how she herself is going to deliver them to us. Her journey with her friend Zora, which gets sidetracked by news of her grandfather’s death, serves as the framing narrative, told by Natalia in the first person. Chapters are interspersed that recall memories of her childhood with him, visiting the local zoo, admiring the tigers. But suddenly, mid-story, she will declare, “He thought for a long time while we walked with the elephant. Perhaps under slightly different circumstances, he might have told me about the tiger’s wife. Instead, he told me about the deathless man.” And so, the grandfather assumes the narrative in his own voice, recalled verbatim by Natalia. His recollections stand alone as their own short stories (within stories within stories), and they are utterly compelling as such. His encounter with Gavran Gaile, the deathless man, is the story, Natalia indicates, of how he became a child again, spiritually, with his eyes open to his lost faith and to his own death (and, thus, his life).

The story of the tiger’s wife is, indeed, the story of Natalia’s grandfather’s maturation. But it is told by her alone, having pieced together anecdotes through interviews and research. It is consequently imbued with the fantastic, that is conveyed, again, by embedded stories, subplots about vicious hunters, slighted lovers, and a superstitious village. These chapters stand alone, as interruptions of the framed narrative, but internally they are more complex and digressive than any of the other chapters. Obreht has the pupil’s grasp of detail and metaphor, and her appropriation of magical realist elements is deft and subtle. But her management of these narrative levels across and within chapters, and her ability to render relatively unnoticeable rapid and frequent shifts between them, smoothly moving from one embedded story to another, mid-paragraph sometimes, is her most impressive quality. It is this ability to create authorial distance from your subject matter that renders the embedded story most mythical, even beyond the mysterious events of the stories being told. Obreht pulls it all off swimmingly.

Obreht brings it all together with emotional force by novel’s end. When the tales of the deathless man and the Tiger’s wife are complete, we return to the framing narrative, in which Natalia has learned of her grandfather’s death. A sense of her grief has been somewhat elusive to this point, as the reader is more rapt by her stories than by her own predicament. But as she retrieves her grandfather’s effects and returns to her medical task at hand, we see, through her own eventual encounter with the mysterious and mythical, the origin of her impulse to tell all these stories in the first place. What had so far come off as a meandering weave suddenly takes on the feeling of a completed circle, and Natalia takes on extraordinary depth in just a few climactic scenes. Her subsequent mastery of diverse voices, especially her willingness to take on the very voice of her dead grandfather, is thus a direct outcrop of her grief, which will make re-reading her narrative even more powerful.

This is an achievement for Obreht – we think of really good writers as having gone through some sort of mysterious training period, where their craft is almost magically honed by fire in some far unreachable realm. Obreht is too young for that, and, thus, she feels more real. The Tiger’s Wife is sticking with me, and I suspect it will for a while. This alone is a testament to what I hope will blossom into the career that it already promises to be.

Cursivism, Will Hubbard’s slim, debut volume of prose poems published by Ugly Duckling Presse, begins with a simple piece of advice that may be one of the most challenging charges facing anyone who is trying to figure out how to live, “just let it happen.” Though the mother’s instruction refers to how to tend an orchid the speaker has wooed into blossom mid-winter, it also applies to everything and anything our lives might encompass. To live by that advice requires difficult virtues: restraint, patience, and faith. Hubbard’s poems exhibit all three.

The poems that comprise Cursivism humbly speak at the same time as personal anecdotes, somber and revelatory reflections on the past, whimsical tales, and truths. These poems are modestly anthemic for members of Generation Y— those of us waking up to the fact that we’ve inherited a fraught world of questions that don’t have answers, and where many days feel like a tightrope walk that demands an unattainable balance between making something happen and letting it happen.

However, Hubbard’s poems never lecture or preach, nor are they pessimistic. For every mention of panic and longing, there is also mention of a miracle. And even at their most historical or questionably fictitious, the poems are grounded in daily life and voiced by a steady speaker who we want to trust. The diction comes from a careful vernacular; these poems don’t flaunt their economy of language, but they do owe some of their mystery to that economy. At times it feels like the author dares us to fill in the unnamed subject of a sentence, paint a context, imagine the untold parts of a story— and if you heed Hubbard’s imaginative challenge, the poems will not disappoint.

Before I go any further, I want to briefly consider whether these pieces are poems or whether they are something else. My answer is, both. I address this question in part because on the back cover of the book, poet Matthew Rohrer refers to Hubbard’s writing as “discrete little blocks of prose that move like poems;” and at a recent reading, Hubbard himself introduced some new work by saying, “these actually aren’t poems, and neither are those,” referring to what he had just read from Cursivism.

Perhaps classifying Hubbard’s work is beside the point— whether it is considered poetry, prose, prose poems, extended aphorisms or simply a little book of great writing, may not matter to some readers. These might as well be inscriptions; or etchings on the face of a rock that you are lucky enough to notice during a walk through the woods; or maybe they are bits of talk you overhear someone saying as you pass him in the street, which stay with you and draw up forgotten or neglected or denied or new ideas in you. My impression is that the words that come together in Cursivism do what poems do. They teach me about the world and even about myself. They call to be read again and again, and with each reading they reinvent themselves and stir new thoughts.

Despite my open interpretation of the form of Hubbard’s work, I don’t think for a second that they were constructed haphazardly or arbitrarily. Their form is inseparable from how they function. The absence of line breaks focuses our attention on the relationship of the sentences to each other; where line breaks would affect the pace and tone in a stanzaic poem, sentences affect the pace and tone here. One affect of the lack of line breaks is to somehow subdue drama, or rather, control it, when it might call more attention to itself if the poem was lineated or broken into stanzas. In the poem on page forty-five, the speaker recounts a shocking experience from childhood, but the shock is executed with matter-of-fact directness. Hubbard tells us,

. . . . Aware of my burgeoning creativity,
my grandmother gave me a set of razor-sharp whittling
knives for my tenth birthday. I promptly made the scar
that extends across four fingers of my left hand and
stared at the curiosity until it shook. The family was
awed that blood could so variously paint four walls of
a bedroom. (45)

The energy of this memory is locked in the curiosity that fixated the boy “until it shook.” The sentences direct us to follow the scene along until it explodes, as if without sound, when the boy stares at the cut he has made across his own fingertips. Even his family’s reaction— awe— appears visually, not sonically. The poems in this collection maintain a kind of diminuendo, a ruminative soft-spoken quality, even when they depict blood-painted walls or the soreness that comes from longing for someone absent.

The poems are quiet as the “soundless dark” (28) of a mysterious destination where some brew of sacred communication takes place. Encoded in the quietness of these poems are unassuming, almost deceptively simple love notes, as when the speaker says, “There is a limit to how tangled two things can get. But it might feel good to fall and get caught by you” (31). However, the book is not without its reticent mention of a wound, a love unreturned or expired, as the speaker reveals with the subtlety of a ventriloquist, “I read that you are to be married. The calligrapher wrote my apartment number wrong, but the postman is a friend of mine. He slipped it under the door while I was shaving” (46). Hubbard is able to tell an entire story, allude to a chapter, or many chapters, of a person’s life, through his juxtaposition of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ in a brief sentence. There is so much unsaid, but the space that comes after the poem shakes with tremors from the magnitude of the past slipping under the door, into the present.

Another formal aspect is what I see as a kind of fracture line; which in biology is the natural line along which a cell will split, into uneven parts, when it is frozen. After the second or third sentence in many, though not all, of these poems, I felt this fracture— whereat the poem takes an imaginative leap and brings us along with it. The leaps do not seem formulaic to me; they are organic and thrilling. The poems that do this attain strangeness and give rise to a sense of displacement, which makes us pay attention to every word, circle back to the beginning and consider what has been born out of the pairing of seemingly incongruous parts.

In the poem I just discussed, Hubbard leaps from ancient Greek writing techniques (“Until the sixth century B.C., the Greeks wrote from left to right on the first line, then back from right to left on the next, and so on” (46)) to a marble traveling “in a grade-school friction experiment,” and finally to a wedding invitation that shouldn’t have come but did, interrupting a man while he’s shaving. Thus, Hubbard’s poems bring the world together by joining what it has been, what it is, and what it might be, in an original, unexpected, and worthwhile way.

The content of the poems is rewardingly dynamic. But we can credit the speaker’s steady voice with stewarding the readers through Cursivism‘s impressive imaginative range— from memories of acute childhood alienation to Egyptian mummification techniques to “(e)vidence that longing remains, even in eternal things” (4). The speaker’s voice does more than regulate tone; it becomes a persona, something like a silhouette, a suggestion of a person who prefers to stay partially concealed from view. Hubbard’s assertion that “Reading in silence looks like nothing. It feels good because effortless concealment has electric potential” (59) might well characterize the speaker himself and what at least appears to be his “effortless concealment.” Other poems suggest that practicing privacy, cultivating a penchant to withhold, is attractive and rewarding. “In fact, there is undeniable appeal in her withholding. It has nothing to do with sex. She simply stays free of everyone” (38), Hubbard observes. And, “A good device. . . .Has something to hide from everyone” (61).

Even when these poems are shifting between showing and obscuring, or pausing to set flowers on a grave, or letting the mind settle on an old scar, or surveying the gaps that separate us from each other, usually they are also talking about language itself. With his signature tone of telling a riddle, Hubbard describes a place where

. . . .Members
of the Irish bardic orders went regularly to prove the
sincerity of their desire to communicate. . . .In other
times it was simply an island that could not be reached
easily or at all. To go there was an acknowledgment that
curiosity was stronger than habit, itself stronger than fear. (28)

Even if Hubbard is referring to a place that exists somewhere on a map of the world, by refraining from naming it, he invites us to dream of and define the “there” for ourselves; it will probably be different for each of us. I think of it as a realm of inspiration, perhaps, a place where words come from, a place where communication between people is possible if we have enough courage and determination to go.

The cover art, Hubbard’s own illustration, says something of the book’s fascination with and commitment to words strung together— even when the words and their meanings are indecipherable. The cover is all but consumed by a formidable tangle of squiggles, which from some angles appear to be the title word, “cursivism,” overlaid more than a thousand-fold. But maybe the cover is some kind of representation of what it would look like to see all the words we have ever spoken or written joined together; or maybe it is everything as Yeats saw it, “a series of concentric, downward winding spirals. The sort of unified outlook that leaps in the heart” as Hubbard recalls on page thirty-one, or the “string of blasphemies” that “feel like they are keeping you alive” (54). Hubbard’s design, like his writing, presents indefinite interpretations and requires of the reader much of what life requires: patience, an open mind, and the willingness to be surprised. Like I was when I read this poem, one of my favorites of the collection:

IF THE FEELING overwhelms, your lover is being
unfaithful. Poets of the Japanese Edo court knew this,
and weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or
hearty autumn grass. For them, moving clouds were
messengers enough. Granted, staring out a window
at wet asphalt is hardly like listening to a bamboo
thicket fill with snow. The feeling of sickness in the
morning eases with a day of activity. Returning at
night it can transform into a pleasant, vital dream.
Only then is the lover listening, hoping against all odds
that you will send some sign of conviction through the
fickle wind.

I love the ingenuity, and evocative natural landscape in the phrase, “weaved yearning easily into cherry blossoms or hearty autumn grass,” which unexpectedly follows a nod to a vulnerable experience of panic and suspicion. And I don’t want to say one analytical word to disturb that bamboo thicket filling with snow. The poem owns every movement it makes, from the view of wet asphalt to waning sickness to the fickle wind, all the while balancing the uneasiness of dread with the beauty afforded us when we imagine. In a few places in this book, Hubbard suggests he is waiting for the thing that will change him, that will break though. “Something about you will be different,” he writes in a poem about watching a delivery truck back in and out of a garage all day, “A sunburn, maybe” (5). His work is a testament to the fact that what we imagine has the power to change us, though maybe not in a way that can be measured in sunburns or lengths of days. Hubbard’s poems impart the knowledge that despite the struggle it can be to navigate day in and day out, change is as unpredictable as the “fickle wind,” and our best bet is to let go, and “let it happen.”

City Lights Books just published Compression & Purity, a new poetry book by L.A.-based African-American surrealist, Will Alexander. Alexander writes densely textured “psychedelic” or scientific surrealism with a strong affinity for arcane vocabulary. “On Scorpions & Swallows” begins:

Not claimed
by the accessible as contrast
or as competition by loss
or mathematics by peril

but occlusion as opposable phylums

minus a dark synesthesial as rote
minus the axial smoke of a rotted bonfire hamlet

I mean
oasis as savage dialectic rotation
meaning species as aggressive salt
as curious vertical blazing

in reversed arrayal
I think of interior cobalt swallows
with predacious ignition
a contradictory igniting
beautific with scopolamine

I am struck with Alexander’s careful phrasings, his manipulation of thematic shape and his mastery of extensions. For instance, the poetry quoted above, “On Scorpions & Swallows,” reads like a single, extended sentence creating a sonnet-like problem-and-answer structure to the poem. Alexander favors long, elliptical syntactic units that span several stanzas, increasing the complexity and obscurity of his style.

The dense texture might intimidate the reader, but it does not necessarily ambiguate meaning. Contrarily, he is often clear and exceedingly poignant. Take, for example, how he uses scientific jargon to describe Cesar Vellejo:

calling up vacuums written in vicuna

through fabulous confounding

through anarchical visceral cascade

like unstructured findings

curiously filtered

through a partially constricted gullet

Stanzas like these are astounding to me, perhaps partly because they are foiled by adjacent stanzas that seem obscure. Perhaps the oscillation of each stanza’s “logical” effectiveness is part of Alexander’s trick, as the images that resonate with readers probably vary significantly. On the other hand, even the obscure passages are attractive in a hieratic, rarified, geeky way. A good “Alexandrian” phrase gives the kind of satisfaction scholars get when they lecture at conferences in words that are technical and precise and somehow on the brink of incomprehension. The paradox and inner tension of precision and incomprehension creates an amusing, ironic tension. Carried through by this underlying tension, Alexander’s poetic textures hypnotize and seduce.

What is Alexander doing with language? His work focuses quite obviously on a particular semantic field (science) and employs strained but traditionally lyrical syntax. I, like Joron, see in this as reclaiming or deconstructing language—especially vocabularies that have been hitherto forbidden for the vast majority of literary writing. Certainly postmodern works has blurred generic boundaries, but Alexander seems to be showing, in an almost Pynchon-like way, that even the nuances of specialized language can be conscripted and subsumed into a larger poetic utterance. To a great extent, his project resembles the surrealists’ neo-Romantic mission to subordinate external reality to consciousness through linguistic looting. Furthermore, if we read Alexander as a surrealist, his poetry represents a shift from image-centered to poetry to word-centered surrealism. As Joron states, Alexander “positioned himself within the contingent order of the lexicon, refashioning (and thus reclaiming) language word by word. As a result, Alexander’s writing liberates the imagination from restricted economy of the image.” In the stanzas I quote above, you can see Alexander cutting up and recombining scientific language in this way, creating new contexts and opening up highly controlled language to expansive subjects. His poems are Max Ernst collages constructed from the archives of Scientific American and biology textbooks.

Until now, Alexander has been most known for his 1995 collection Asia & Haiti, as well as his 2005 Exobiology As Goddess. But when I examined the “books by” page of Compression & Purity, I was astonished to see several other titles attributed to Alexander in the two years, several of which I believe are forthcoming:

Impulse & Nothingness (Green Integer, 2011)
Aboriginal Salt: Early Divinations (White Press Inc., 2011)
The Brimstone Boat (Reve a Deux, 2011)
Diary as Sin (Skylight Press, 2011)
Mirach Speaks to his Grammatical Transparents (Oyster Moon Press, 2011)
On the Substance of Disorder (Inset Press, 2011)
Inalienable Recognitions (eohippus labs, 2010)
Inside the Earthquake Palace (Chax Press, 2011)

The sheer number of titles here suggests a prolific burst of energy, almost outnumbering in a matter of months the works he has published before this decade. Suffice it to say, if these titles are all indeed realities, then Alexander may be entering the definitive stage in his career. Even more impressive, many other categories are represented here in addition to poetry: fiction, philosophy, essays and drama.

For more on Will Alexander, check out this video of him reading and this poem.

One can see that David Foster Wallace was thinking about the main problem of what would become his final work when he delivered his commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005. Now regarded as a seminal piece on modern compassion, it proposed to reveal, as any small-college commencement address worth its speaker fee is wont to do, the “real purpose” of a liberal arts education. For Wallace, it was this:

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed…And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.

Wallace elaborates by applying this idea to a regular occurrence – a trip to the grocery store. Rather than lament our vice-tight schedules and the depressing lighting, or loathe the overfed customers in the overlong checkout line, we should look around, and imagine other people’s stories, realizing “the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.” More than a trite dictum on empathy, this idea is first and foremost about storytelling, about filling in for ourselves the unheard narratives that people tell themselves. And Wallace over the years was most interested in narratives of suffering. Boredom (so closely linked to the problem of addiction, which he addressed in Infinite Jest) is one such type, and it takes center stage in his last book, an unfinished project published under the title The Pale King.

Really, any book about the IRS that doesn’t talk at potentially tedious length about boredom would need to have its head checked. But Wallace makes it work in surprising and brilliant ways. Like Infinite Jest, the book establishes a central setting – this time a tax collection and processing center in Illinois – through which a wide variety of zany characters come and go. While the chapters that digress into the backgrounds of many of these characters constitute the type of attention to personal narratives Wallace spoke about in his address, there are other chapters, which go on for pages and pages about tax code, that deliberately test the reader’s ability to stick with it. We watch characters concoct more and more methods to cope with office tedia (the story takes place in the ‘80’s, pre-Internet), but we also watch characters experience supernatural effects of hyper-consciousness (one character floats when he’s really focused). Toward the end of the manuscript, our main protagonist (more on him later) comes to a final realization:

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy…I discovered the key. The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for…The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex.

This passage comprises nearly the entirety of one short chapter, which I don’t have a problem calling the book’s climax. The remainder of the book (there’s not much left after this chapter) is similarly hopeful. Amid the subplot (any sequence that one wants to label a “plot” in this book would do well to call it a subplot, in that it operates, always, beneath the surface of things. Emily Cooke said it well in The Millions when she affirmed, “events receive a swirling, almost obfuscating treatment, the event itself nearly effaced by context or interpretation”) of the attempts to replace human workers at the IRS with computers, certain characters, as mentioned, discover that they have special abilities to focus, not just on tax-work, but on the lives of others. The penultimate chapter, in which Meredith Rand, a beautiful (and, thus, emotionally isolated) agent, tells the story of her stint in a psych ward to Shane Drinion, the man no one else pays attention to, is the best in the book. It is a story about listening, about paying attention with unmotivated empathy. To see Wallace’s notes in the appendix address some of how this storyline would play out filled me with sadness over the potential this book really had. Namely: “Drinion is happy. Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

It’s fairly clear how preoccupied with boredom Wallace actually was in his final years. Jonathan Franzen asserted as much in his recent article in The New Yorker:

That [Wallace] was blocked with his work when he decided to quit Nardil – was bored with his old tricks and unable to muster enough excitement about his new novel to find a way forward with it – is not inconsequential…When his hope for fiction died, after years of struggle with the new novel, there was no other way out but death. If boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout, and if the phenomenology and the teleology of suicidality are the same as those of addiction, it seems fair to say that David died of boredom.

Franzen spends a good deal of this article hashing out his anger over Wallace’s suicide. But if we put his observations of his dear friend’s decline alongside what Wallace came up with in The Pale King, we see the tragedy. In short, this book is as much about writing as it is about working at the IRS. Tom McCarthy made the right connection between the image of the service agent and of the novelist, hailing the book as “a much rawer and more fragmented reflection on the act of writing itself, the excruciating difficulty of carrying the practice forward – properly and rigorously forward – in an age of data saturation.” Cooke agrees: “The question is whether, along with the data, [the agents] can acquire a sense of vocation and vision, of meaningful work in a meaningful world. It is a question whose implications point inward, to the novelist’s own profession, and outward, to the status of human activity generally in what we have come to call an ‘information society.’”  It’s ultimately up to you to determine whether, like Franzen did, Wallace’s vocation and vision had left him, but, here, that struggle is valiantly dramatized.

Like addiction in Infinite Jest, boredom serves as a centripetal theme. Everything comes back to boredom. But, also like Infinite Jest, the theme is developed piecemeal, in a plotless tableau that is nonetheless filled with the delicious nuggets that we have come to love Wallace so much for. We have characters like the “fact psychic” Claude Sylvanshine, the compulsive and uncontrollable sweater David Cusk, the logorrheic and narratively expansive Chris “Irrelevant” Fogle, and the monastic Shane Drinion, who floats when he concentrates. Not to mention other chapters that tell of menacing infants, terrifying childhood shit stories, and life in the ‘60’s. They are digressive in that wonderful Wallacean way, becoming like legends, the way you can kick back with a friend and say, “Remember that part in Infinite Jest?” In that sense one feels that The Pale King could have been as long, as Rabelaisan, and almost as scriptural as its predecessor.

But the most interesting move Wallace makes is a vexing narrative divergence from the structure of Infinite Jest (by the way, I am happy to talk about Wallace’s shorter fiction, or his first novel The Broom of the System, but there really is no other analog, in a holistic sense). Namely, everything reads along just fine, until you hit Chapter 9, titled “Author’s Foreword.” The first line may evoke that familiar postmodern groan. Oh. This again. It begins:

Author here. Meaning the real author, the living human holding the pencil, not some abstract narrative persona. Granted, there sometimes is such a persona in The Pale King, but that’s mainly a pro forma statutory construct, an entity that exists just for legal and commercial purposes, rather like a corporation; it has no direct, provable connection to me as a person. But this right here is me as a real person, Dave Wallace, age forty, SS no. 975-04-2012, addressing you from my Form 8829-deductible home office at 725 Indian Hill Blvd., Claremont 91711 CA, on this fifth day of spring, 2005, to inform you of the following:

All of this is true. This book is really true.

The rest of the chapter recounts his suspension from university (rich students paid him to write their papers) and subsequent employment at the IRS. In a later chapter we learn how he was confused for a higher-ranking David Wallace and was thus given a job well above his pay grade. All of this is fictional, of course. Wallace wasn’t even forty in 2005. He was 43. Not to mention the fictional home address and social security number (“Wallace” claims he was issued a new one when he joined the Service). But this is not the point. In short, this whole sequence is a blatant ploy at the idea of fictionality in general. There are other first-person narrators, some identified, some not. Other chapters refer to Wallace only in passing, as merely a tangential character. He is both focalized protagonist and wallflower. But there is more to it than what “Wallace” himself calls “postmodern titty-pinching.” The real point here, broadly, is that Wallace seems to be writing a counterfactual life. If we take Franzen at his word, we might partly read this book as a dramatization of Wallace’s own despair. Many characters share famous Wallacean traits (excessive sweating, precocious “data mysticism,” penchants for storytelling), and we find that their lives in the Service have a Plan-B quality. Sylvanshine wants to become a CPA but can’t; Cusk has unnatural processing abilities but is too paralyzed by his condition to live a public life; Fogle shifts life paths after he stumbled into the wrong review session in college; Lane Dean signs up after he gets his girlfriend pregnant. Across these characters Wallace depicts the tragedy of what could have been, condemning characters to lives of tedium. The saddest thing about it, though, is the hopeful note it ends on, as these seemingly doomed characters become friends and begin to rise to the challenge of remaining relevant in the dawning digital age. At any rate, we see Wallace here searching, an activity that maybe occurs most often when we are bored, for greener pastures.

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that I have refrained to this point from calling The Pale King a novel. This was essentially my way of broaching the rabbit-hole debate over the book’s textual status. A particularly snarky article (and that’s saying something) from Slate’s Tom Scocca took to task Michiko Kakutani’s review. He writes:

Evaluation is beside the point. Kakutani, gamely taking things at face value, wrote that the book was “lumpy but often stirring” – well, why wouldn’t it have lumps? It’s not a finished novel.

And: “this volume showcases his embrace of discontinuity.” But why would it be continuous? It’s not a finished novel.

The Pale King is less inventive and exuberantly imagined than Wallace’s previous novels.” But it is not a finished novel.

It is “[t]old in fragmented, strobe-lighted chapters” – but it is not a finished novel!

And so on. Scocca accuses Kakutani of over-harshly mistreating The Pale King as a finished, polished product, when it is really just a draft.  He’s looking for his “Gotcha!” moment, but his qualms, in form and content, are more reductive than Kakutani’s claims by far. She’s doing her job of evaluating what’s there. Scocca drops the ball by assuming that what’s there is somehow worse than what could have been there. In other words, he dodges the idea that a fundamental characteristic of any novel is its unfinishedness. This is an idea as old as Bakhtin and central to deconstruction, as well as to novel theory in general. The Pale King offers a rare glimpse into process in a raw state. As Emily Cooke concluded, “the book’s inconclusiveness keeps alive [Wallace’s] questions, and ours, in a way a completed work wouldn’t…As much sense as it settles into, it will escape us. It escaped him.” If ever a novel was going to be patently unfinished, it should be this one. Wallace has created an open-ended counterfactual existence, where he was free to imagine possibilities bleak and hopeful. That he couldn’t give us a final answer was the great tragedy of his life, but perhaps his most novelistic quality.

If you’d told me that the ultimate line of a wonderful poem could be, simply, “Doctor Wong,” I would’ve looked at you skeptically.  But that’s exactly the case in Matthew Rohrer’s latest collection, Destroyer and Preserver (Wave 2011).  I both laughed and felt outfoxed by Rohrer’s nasty knuckleball wit when I read the last line of, “Marque Nùmero Dos.”  My laughter elicited an is-there-something-wrong-with-you look from the woman next to me on the plane, but I cared about as much as the clouds outside.

And Destroyer and Preserver is more than witty and strange.  These unpretentious lyrics are deft expressions of where the personal meets the political, where the mundane meets the profound—documenting a multivalent poet’s quotidian as his nation wars abroad.

Destroyer and Preserver shares many of the concerns of Rohrer’s earlier works.  I was introduced to his poems some years back, when a mentor suggested I read his first collection, A Hummock in the Malookas—which was Mary Oliver’s selection for the National Poetry Series in 1994.  I checked the slim volume out from the library and found myself rereading it weekly for the next six months, only returning the book the way that one who’s been drinking coffee every day for years gives up caffeine—with reluctance and anxiety over his rather pointless act of sacrifice.  So I bought my own copy.  To me, Rohrer’s poetry has been easy to live with, incisive, and sustaining ever since.

In the manners of the sometimes jokey, New York School-y, sometimes cryptic, sometimes surreal poems of prior collections, Destroyer and Preserver offers an assortment of breezily deployed formal variations with thematic interests.  In the first piece, “From Mars,” quick enjambments and an absence of punctuation muss up syntax:

We have some sad news
this morning
from Mars
the imagination thinks
in phrases but the universe
is a long sentence
according to our instruments
the oldest songs
are breaking apart
like a puzzle in a basement…

What strikes one immediately as a spoken quality in this diction, familiar in Rohrer’s work, is disrupted in two manners.  First, by the poet’s lineation—invoking his agency to ‘break apart’ the ‘long sentence of the universe,’ thus reshuffling how we see the cosmic order and assign meaning to its individuated components—and second by his refusal to obey prose-y conventions of punctuation, et cetera, which allows for a lot of bait-and-switch play from line to line, from idea to idea.  These strategies are fairly consistently applied in this collection.  Coupled with the statement on the surface of this first poem, we’re at least superficially given a glimpse of Rohrer’s personal cosmos.

Rohrer’s is a cosmos of the mind, of course, in a Stevensian “I am my world” sense.  The surprise synaptic leaps in “From Mars” seem to mirror those of the speaker in the poem.  This happens again and again in Rohrer’s work—rather like surprise hands pushing us forward or spinning us sideways, he subjects us to his own leaping fixations and associations.  The ride is exhilarating, confusing, and thought-provoking at different turns.

In fact, these poems are not so breezily presented, and pay off with a kind of full immersion.  “Marque Nùmero Dos” is a great example.  Employing similar enjambment to “From Mars,” “Marque Nùmero Dos” is less grand in terms of scope.  In this piece, Rohrer documents his own cognitive experience while on the phone with an automated system.  Infusing the banal with the reflection of an interesting poet’s consciousness, we readily accept such statements as:  “a sunny day / is a sufficient cathedral.”  These poems do this again and again—dilating on tedium and infusing it with grander meaning, sharing an experience of our shared world from the point of view of a unique wordsmith’s mental jumble, seemingly effortlessly organized on the page.

The pieces that leap less are no less charming.  “Casualties,” for example, is a meditation in the bathroom that demonstrates how the characters of Rohrer’s domestic life inhabit the perspective of these poems:

My son says
are soldiers good or bad?
I say it’s very complicated.

He brushes his teeth
with a toothbrush
that looks like a whale.

I see his face, his eyes
right in front of mine.
We are drowning together

in the hold of a ship.
He looks just like me.
The rain slows outside.

One cloud turns pink at sunset.
A bomb falls on a house in the desert.
The plane that dropped it

glides through another blue
and returns to us
to be washed and put away.

Some readers of contemporary poetry might bridle at Rohrer’s spartan, utilitarian diction, and the lack of political restraint in reference to U.S. bombing of civilians.  But just as the wonderful poet Bob Hicok writes in a recent piece of his own, “As I was masturbating, more rainforest disappeared” (from “Life,” in Words for Empty and Words for Full, University of Pittsburg, 2010), Rohrer’s poems document how we as individuals move fluidly between domestic and private concerns, with a sometimes-helpless bemusement about the world around us.  Without judgment, and with a seriousness that is either a rendering of reality or an excellent facsimile of Reality, Rohrer’s poems are great examples of such human instants.  Thus Destroyer and Preserver is a subtle and entertaining lens through which to view our moment, and well worth your perusal—especially if you enjoyed Rohrer’s previous, fine collections of poems.

I had downloaded an off-line map of Vancouver for my iPad to prepare for our trip. But when I searched its catalogue for bookstores, it yielded only the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore, located in the back of the BC Marijuana Party establishment just east of Gastown (I eventually visited at the end of the trip). Luckily, Google maps yielded considerably more options, spread across the city. But how to discern which to visit, on my limited conference schedule and lack of motorized transport? Our decided upon method was a combination of combing the neighborhoods that we already wanted to see, and tossing a net around the area of our hotel (Fairmont Downtown, conference headquarters, swank city, abuzz with hipster theorists).

Kitsilano proved to be gorgeous. Located on the west end of the Burrard and Granville bridges, it is home to the University of British Columbia and surrounding neighborhoods. We toured Point Grey Road along the water’s edge, admiring the view of the bay and mountains that was actually rivaled by the coastline mansions of diverse styles. We made it all the way to Jericho Park before turning back along West 4th. After passing ABC Books, a Chinese children’s textbook shop, we came to Kestrel Books. They prioritize quaintness over selection, but they do sport sections devoted entirely to different branches of Eastern spirituality, nature writing, travel narratives, and the like. The juxtaposition of titles in the fiction and poetry sections is particularly fun:

burgess

Further down West 4th we stopped at the considerably larger Banyen Books and Sound (“Sound” refers to their collection of wind chimes and flutes on the left side of the store). That, actually, may be an indication of the type of store we were dealing with. Consider these lists of topics:

list

There is an overall peaceful vibe there, though the fiction and poetry section sports only Beat meditations on Buddhism.

Between Banyen and the bridge are Comicshop and Drexoll Games (“Board Games & More”), but as it began to rain, we stopped for dinner before redoubling our effort to return to the Fairmont.

The following morning – still raining – we set out for MacLeod’s Books, on the corner of Richards and West Pender. Along the way we stumbled upon manga heaven (as well as a $2 copy of Madame Bovary):

manga

This bright homogeny (the whole store had that fluorescent Japanese flavor) contrasted sharply with what we found in MacLeod’s. But, as soon as we walked in, we knew we had found what we came for. Namely, beautiful used and rare books. Everywhere:

booksmorebooks
tons

 

This is the type of place that requires maximum restraint. Simply browsing will lead you to decades old copies and even originals from Bellow, Barth, Roth, Rushdie, and, well, pretty much every major novelist you like. When I get into situations like these, I tend to leave them all behind, so as not to open the floodgates. But I had to come away with something here. And then it hit me (really, it did, much more than I found it). The Mother Lode:

burgess

Disclaimer, now, for clairification. I collect used Anthony Burgess novels. There, I said it. Except for maybe Sam Weller’s in Salt Lake City, this was the best Burgess collection I have ever seen. But which to choose? I own most of the books in the photograph, so mostly I just wanted to choose something hard and small, for packing and travel. Moses simply stood out as the best choice. It’s a lyric narrative much like Byrne, and very much in Burgess’ preferred vein of historiography and biographical novels. Moses is the story of (yes, that) Moses in lyric epic, for $5. Quite an outing.

As a post script, we returned to MacLeod’s on our last day in Vancouver, after touring Gastown and backtracking to the Fairmont. I wanted to re-view their Barth section, just to see. Letters was under $10, but it’s bulky. I stopped in the bathroom before heading to the street again, and, mirabile dictu, even it was flooded with text. Books, magazines, posters, etc. I could easily have just shoved that copy of Adventures of Augie March into my pack. But of course that would be to desecrate this holy space (not only the bathroom, but, you know, the whole store). There was even a note pinned near the mirror – a customer apologizing for having stolen a book from here many years ago, with the appropriate $7 payment.

Respect.

If you go to Vancouver, go to MacLeod’s. But also go to shops that I didn’t get to, and comment here about it.

This is how I usually go to Kramerbooks. I arrive in Dupont Circle in the pre-dinner hour, emerging from the Q Street exit of the Metro and heading shortly down Connecticut Avenue and through the glass door by the shop window. Immediately you are inundated with wood shelves and stacks of all the books you’ve been reading about in magazines and online in recent weeks. Moreover, the smell of the place – coffee and pastries mostly, but pervasive and richer; it seems to have seeped into the pages – is most inviting. I browse the stacks of new releases, reading first pages and blurbs, getting a sense of what the reviewers have been talking about. The large wall to the left of the entrance comprises the fiction section, while smaller, chest-sized shelves in the foreground display titles in philosophy, religion and spirituality. In the back, facing the entrance, are travel and foreign language titles, as well as politics and history. Neighboring the back wall is the entrance to Afterwords cafe, with one of the best menus in Dupont, and not just for a bookstore.

When you enter the store and gravitate toward the fiction wall, there is an entrance adjacent to it to another room that houses poetry and local titles, as well as a shelf of recent anthologies from The New Yorker, Paris Review, and “Best American” series. Also in this second room is a cozy bar, where you can order a Rogue Dead Guy Ale, which, especially for $6.50, is up there with The Big Hunt’s House Amber as one of the best bets for beer in Dupont. Grab a book from any of the copious shelves and saddle up to a two-person table to peruse and sip before heading to happy hour or dinner.

Typically, I browse for a good quarter of an hour, before friends arrive and we head to another spot for drinks and dinner. During this short interim, I indulge fantasies of ownership, lament the limited capacity of my wallet and shelf space to accommodate all the books I want. But I gird myself and leave with nothing, happy to have looked, touched, but saved myself again. After wine at Circa or beer at The Big Hunt or vodka at The Russia House, grab a meal at any of the incredible restaurants in the Circle and surrounding areas. Maybe head to Gazuza for a nightcap, hookah, and some of the best downbeat jams in the city. Then, when you’ve had your fill of eat and drink, head back to Kramers for the best after-hours atmosphere in town. There is low-key live music every Friday and Saturday night, and the restaurant is open well into the early morning. Wind down the evening with friends over brownie sundaes or any one (or two) of their gourmet pies.

And then the coup de grace. Inhibitions and apprehensions disarmed, I return to the bookstore, at last ready to purchase. A night of full indulgence sufficiently dulls the pain of $27 for a Zizek or new fiction. Bargain books Kramers is not. But the massaging of the senses, physical and intellectual, makes for a great city night.

Visit kramers.com for menu options, music schedule, and hours.

Oranges and Snow is a selection of Milan Djordjevic’s poems, translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic and published by Princeton University Press as part of the Facing Pages series. I was grateful to Simic’s pithy yet thorough introduction to Djordjevic as a writer and, just as importantly, as a person. Simic explains that Djordjevic grew up under a restrictive Communist government, saw his homeland ravaged by ethnic warfare, wrote for publications that opposed Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, and in 2007 sustained a personal tragedy that has confined him to his house—he was hit by a car while walking in a designated crosswalk in Belgrade. If Simic assesses that “The poet’s mission is not to save the world, but to save some human experience from oblivion,” I see Simic’s translation of Djordjevic’s work as an accomplishment of a similar gesture. Djordjevic’s house-bound eye and voice accentuate how much of a gift Simic’s translation and selection is for us who, otherwise, might never have met the voice of this fellow human survivor.

The history of war and personal tragedy that coalesce into a backdrop for Djodjevic’s poetry is relevant to any reading of his work. However, his poems rarely relate a distinct narrative of the past. I had to hold myself back from trying to read an autobiography into the poems because they did not offer themselves to me as such, and I decided after spending time in Djodjevic’s world that it was not fair to his imaginative dexterity nor to the strangeness of his vision to be disappointed that the poems did not meet my expectations. Djordjevic’s history of survival through political unrest and cruel accident made an impression on me before I read his work. But I had to learn to stand in each poem as if I were on an island.

Simic’s selection of Djordjevic’s poems spans a strikingly vast range from surreal pieces that alienate the reader (perhaps intentionally) to intimate, moving, and prophetic meditations on pain, mortality, and questions of fate.

A division among the poems became apparent to me as I spent time with Oranges and Snow—the surreal poems obscured an encounter with the speaker and the present moment by employing a kind of fan (embellished with garish, sexual, and at times even sadistic designs). But on the other side of the division I was moved and grateful to find intimate, personal poems that speak of what is at our fingertips and what is inevitable.

This is the range of his work—perhaps it would misrepresent Djordjevic’s work if Simic had filtered the poems that compare a potato to “a dark-hued pharaoh resting in peace” (“Spud”) from the poems that face the inevitability of our own death with an eerie simplicity (though not to the point of resignation), as in “The Dream”: “I know that all my dreams will die the day / death takes me to a place where streets / have no names. . .” However, I cannot hold back that at times I wished I was reading the filtered version. Give me the poet staring into the face of death, of utter human vulnerability.

I won’t deny that much comes down to taste. I admit my preferences usually dwell on the side of writing that vigilantly attends to capturing things as they are. Something Eliot Weinberger writes in his preface to George Oppen’s New Collected Poems seemed to sum up the kind of resistance I felt to some of Djordjevic’s poems. Weinberger writes that Oppen nurses “an obstinate blindness to all forms of surrealism, which he saw as an escape from, and not a way into, current realities.” But that intolerance for surrealism, Weinberger understands, came from “Oppen’s standard, his obsession, [which] was ‘honesty’ in the poem. . .”

Though I do not discriminate against surreal poetry to the extent that Oppen apparently did, I stand in awe of surreal work that, in its departure from the commonplace, never forgets that something is still at stake and actually brings me back (perhaps through contrast) into intimate contact with the real and current world around me.

Thus, to any vein of poetry—and to my life—like Oppen, I bring a standard of “honesty.” When I held Djordjevic’s poems to it, some were so honest that they struck me on a physical level (in Dickinson’s measure of poetry), while others seemed to hover in a non-place where honesty was beside the point (out of sight, out of mind). The poems that stand out to me as the strongest in the collection are those in which Djordjevic applies his penchant for surreal images to quotidian, personal, and, ultimately, honest meditations.

Fate is one of the paramount themes running amok like a banshee throughout Djordjevic’s poems. When, in “Two Pigeons,” Djordjevic remarks, “I see the wire is empty, / as if they both suddenly took off flapping their wings, / god knows where or why” (65), he touches on this theme of questionable causality, of inexplicability.  Djordjevic seems to waver, like any thoughtful and sensitive person does, between acceptance of the idea that there is no reason for any of this, and, on the other hand, a wary sense that this is all happening for a reason (however inaccessible that reason may be to us). His poems span a range of understanding. He says at one point, “Long ago the gods left us leaving everything at the mercy / of history and our mortality” (“Clouds,” 47) and suggests a painful change of perspective later in the book when he says in the excellent poem “Regarding Fate,” “There was a time I didn’t believe in fate. / Today I’m drowning in it” (79). Djordjevic is able to address questions of metaphysics and causality, questions of god and of fate, through various focal points. A scene as common as two pigeons flying away, or an event as personally catastrophic as a maiming car accident—both occurrences are joined, Djordjevic seems to suggest, by their inexplicable accidence . . . “god knows where or why.”

Paradoxically, as soon as these poems attribute occurrence to accidence, they beg me to question, are there accidents? They stroke the idea of a predetermined fate. However, as a writer who lived through the ethnic violence in the Balkans and as an outspoken opponent of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime, the danger of entertaining the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or “there are no accidents” is not lost on Djordjevic. His poems force us to consider how any god or fate could exist in a world where a large part of the human experience is war and suffering. In “The Game,” Djordjevic depicts a man who used to laugh but is now silenced by what has happened:

Now he plays without words, without laughter or anger,
shocked by human stupidity and cruelty.
He yearns for the ripeness of October afternoons
…at the conclusion of this tired century—our loathsome lair. (53)

I am grateful to any writer whose poems have the guts to bring to the surface the disquieting, unanswerable questions: Why were some people born into a time and place of war while others were born into peace? What tragedy might yet befall us, by accidence or fate? Does anything that happens to us and do our actions make a difference in something beyond our own life?

Djordjevic does not come to any solid answers for his endless questions about existence and fate (nor would I expect him to). Instead, he settles on an articulation of the way things are now; a portrait of what we have done to ourselves, to each other and to the world, and what we will do in the future. Listen to the haunting, dreadfully mournful premonition in his poem “Answers”:

You seek answers to your questions, since you don’t know who you are
where you come from and where you are going?…
…Blind man, the answers are to be found in things you will do!
…Or they are inside you, since in the next war you’ll kill a friend.

And it may be that one night after a lengthy storm
in a solitary house next to the wild Atlantic, you’ll discover
that the world is a story told by someone forgetful.

Someone who never repeats the story, someone who will never,
never come, though they call him, though they wait for him,
the way the parched Gobi desert waits for hot rain. (49)

Another prominent theme in Oranges and Snow is the personal narrative of feeling lost, searching for something that feels right and whole. Djordjevic reminds his readers that being lost is not an experience that only refugees of war feel—instead, we may not know when we started feeling this way, or precisely why we feel this way; it is a condition that we are born with, that some of us carry with us wherever we go.

Djordjevic is forthright in his expressions of loneliness. In the poem “Sea Voyage,” his self-portrayal to the sea wolves (wonderfully strange addressees) is uncomfortably acute and unbuffered. He reveals himself as a wandering orphan who is desperately seeking a new realm in which to exist,

Here I am, wise and experienced sea wolves,
I’m an orphan, no one needs me on land.
Let the choppy ocean adopt me as its own.

Take me, captain, you of the longest voyage,
I’m exchanging the dry boredom of land’s certainties
for the thrill and infinite uncertainty of the sea. . . (19)

The goal of his voyage is not to lose himself, but to find himself. It is a voyage fueled by alienation, hope, and courage. The speaker in these poems displays startling courage and the conviction of someone who is wholly ready for profound change. Here, he is ready to hurl himself toward  “infinite uncertainty.” In my experience, the unknown, the uncertain, is something—no matter how drab, confined and monotonous our daily lives may be—that few people are willing to give themselves over to.

It is with this spirit of readiness for something new that Djordjevic actively sets out on a path, built by his imagination, toward transformation, toward a reality that makes him feel at home—with himself as much as with a place. In the dynamic poem, “A Path,” he mixes lyric and declarative tones when he describes his purpose,

I seek a path or a road between the fields
salted with black frost and fine snow, imprisoned
by barbed wire, I seek a reliable path
or a frozen road that will take me from here. (21)

As the poem develops, we see that what takes the reader away, the path, is the imagination. A delightful departure takes place. The speaker’s imagination leaps into the past, into visceral memories. Sensual, colorful details appear, “I’m thinking about a red orange from Greece. . . . / I’m thinking about a round breast in the dark / which saying goodbye years ago I didn’t kiss.” As soon as the poem lilts with a melancholy timbre, “I’m sad as a rusty cooking pot thrown in a ditch. . . ,” it picks up in tone, in hopefulness:

After much roaming around, I found a dependable path,
I found a road that leads into the center of a small town.
There I will have a beer, and will send you, distant friend
with the speed of a snowball rolling down a hill,
this elegiac message free of covert meanings.

This is a poetry and a poet that seeks to belong and connect. Djordjevic is at his best when he allows the reader to witness him stumbling on that path—because it is a path we all must wrangle with at one point or another in our lives—and the recognition of that common experience enables connection.

Part of Djordjevic’s experience of being lost involves feeling trapped. In the poem “Aquarium,” Djordjevic gives voice to the fish who plea with the boy watching them from the other side of the glass, “‘Save us, boy! Free us all, free us! / Break the walls of our narrow, transparent cage!'” (29). But we know that the plea of the fish could very well be our own human plea against the walls that hold us in. In this poem, however, the boy breaks the aquarium’s wall and the fish “spill on the black asphalt /. . . .Bleed, / . . . . gasp for air in the mild night and die.” Here, reality is not so inescapable by a flair of imagination. The walls are glass, the fish do not survive. Instead, what persists is the reality of “darkness and pale colors of the city.”

Perhaps an antidote to being lost, a salve for feeling wounded and imprisoned has something to do with uniting disparate parts—a thematic wish shining through the most of these poems, the wish to unify, to make whole again or for the first time. In the interesting poem, “Aachen,” the speaker declares with a mix of defiance and hope, “With [the help of German Telekom] I’ll reestablish ties between creatures / of the past and future, all distant and near things, / autumn’s colors of cinnabar, embers from a fire and winter ice” (39).

Despite the dour aspect of many of these poems, hope runs through them like a brook in spring after the snows melt. Hear Djordjevic’s uncomplicated and contagious confidence in “Little Joy,”

Yes, you, too will finally come.
A small, ordinary, daily joy.
You’ll be the slice of rye bread,
or a glass filled with cold milk. (27)

The poem moves toward the marvelously strange, even mythical, image when the speaker surrenders himself to the pleasure of imaginging he will carry that joy to bed, “and sleep the way the earth sleeps next to a spring.”

Thus, Djordjevic’s reality is wide and inclusive. It has room for the “ordinary, daily joy” and the wounded fish sprawled in front of a shattered aquarium; for the pallor of an empty German city on a Sunday and the precious excitement of finding “words the way one finds blackberries in the woods” (“Waking,” 43). In his poem “Reality,” he provides a litany of what might constitute it. The poem has an easy, pleasant tone and flow, like the mind floating from one idea to another, touching briefly on “The reality of a fruit, meat and earth’s dampness. / The reality of metal, concrete, dry and naked meadows, / white phosphorous. . . / the reality of stone, water and sand dunes” (57). This poem delivers to the reader the quiet peacefulness of considering things from afar—but it exhibits an intellectual relationship to reality that leaves me wanting something more raw, something that is real, instead of talking about the real.

Only in Part III of the book are we granted admission to the speaker’s reality as it is (not a distanced discussion of it). In the poem “Solitude,” Djordjevic admits us to his tenuous lair of recovery where desperation and hope replace each other like images coming in and out of focus. We are allowed to experience what it might feel like to live in a “thick midnight that won’t blow over.” We are allowed to see how much it hurts to live even one day in this speaker’s reality:

. . .I’m stripped of my abilities,
normal movement, speech, ability to swallow.
I’m reduced to watching things and other forms of life
around me while what is within me
is as blurred as a cloud of morning mist.
. . . everywhere midnight reigns. . . . (77)

The poem, “Regarding Fate,” also revealed only in Part III, occupies a higher level of consciousness, of honesty, and of writing, than most of the poems in this selection. The poems “Days” also exhibits these qualities. In “Regarding Fate,” Djordjevic accomplishes a spare, beautiful and painfully honest portrayal of where the speaker finds himself in the present moment. We are allowed to inhabit the space beside this fragile, frustrated, broken but surviving and searingly sensitive mind as he gathers twigs in the garden and is

curious about stones, grasses, rains,
snows, woods, fires and sea waves,
and hundreds of other small and large things,
while being chained securely to this wall
by a short iron chain. (79)

We feel the weight of the “hundreds of other small and large things” press on our chests with the limits they imply, all that is out of reach, beyond the speaker’s garden, inaccessible and seemingly infinite. It is an honor to feel that weight—when he lets us—to share, however briefly, the wonderful and terrible burden of being alive.

By this point in his career Kevin Young is an old hand at the psychic restoration of outside source material. His books, including Jelly Roll, To Repel Ghosts, and Black Maria, have each found something lyrical in the dry air of various historical and cultural archives while maintaining a crucial link to his own personal experience and sense of family. This is key to the work in Ardency because it’s his least personal book so far, but in many ways that allows him to approach those same emotions within the book’s historical characters from a more objective stance. Kevin Young rehydrates history with the often impenetrable abstract motivations of humanity, those emotions both feral and civil that run through us all.

Those human characters, and their voices, are the cornerstone of Ardency. This epic embodies in verse their experience as men, boys, and girls kidnapped from the paths winding through their home country of Sierra Leone, illegally (as opposed to amorally) sold into slavery in Cuba, who then rebelled on their ship and attempted to sail east to Africa only to find that they were being misdirected towards New York at night, where they were tried, and with the intervention of abolitionists and a president, set free. But that’s all the testable material.

For everything past the introduction, Kevin is filling in the cracks and doing so with warmth, music, and brevity (only a handful poems last longer than a page). Headlines, locations, and names are bandied about to serve the poem and its multi-dimensional enterprise:

__________________The whole country flocks
to watch you at play, a flea circus somersetting
the prison Green. Warden claims the proceeds
for your bail & newspaper reviews of jail
go well:—They crouch like tailors, teeth like stars
in inky faces, black headlines blare. No one dares
how you still may be sold, stolen like a scene.

[from “Blackmarket”]

The language is somersetting around itself, becoming the textual embodiment of the circus while we read aghast as twenty-first century ignoramuses of this experience. We read “black headlines blare” and trip over the subtext but it’s all part of the spectacle that the poem reenacts so concisely. Reenactment is a fair approximation of what this poetry accomplishes, as something beyond reportage but free of the budgetary and chronological constraints of cinema but fully immersed in the drama of experience. From “Testimony”:

You call us rebels____we were spoons
in that ship for so long____the wood
dark, drowned as the men who
made it from song____sold on land
like ships____like us____christened
out of water

This is the type of historical document that should be read, taught, and discussed from classrooms K through Ph.D. Kevin is so clearly integrated with the tools of poetry that even first time readers can sense the distance it keeps from fiction, what is conveyed through an image of men spooned together at the bottom of the ship as literal cargo surpasses statistical analysis. This book comes closest to the actual experience on the Amistad, and more importantly, afterwards.

The strength of the first two sections is such that the third, “Witness”, initially left me gasping in their wake. “Witness” is the majority of the book and is definitively elegant. But where “Buzzard” and “Correspondance” teem with character, setting, and energy, “Witness” gives a slight advantage to quantity over quality.

I frequently found myself wondering if I’d read this poem or that poem earlier in the manuscript, wondering where the fervor went. No single poem is bad, each carries the same weight, but by the end that weight begins to feel repetitive. “Witness” pulls down on the eyes and the mind. Which might not be a terrible thing: it’s easy to breeze through some poems about the hardships undergone by these rebels, get a sense of their misfortune, then throw a movie on or step out for some falafel. Elements of song are interspersed with the single eyewitness account of Cinque, leader of the rebellion. But it’s hard to determine Cinque’s character, especially after the captivating montage of the first two sections.

My mind
were winter.

Never
did I know

that word
till Merica—

then, learned it
was white

and silent and covered
even the trees.

__________Steal Away.

Inside my cell
snow.

[…]

There neither do lions
speak, nor preach

till the sand beneath
the sea shifts

and swallows—
till the waves

erase the names.

[from “Tabernacle”]

By the time we hear this poem Cinque feels less like a man and more like an amalgamation of suffering, endurance, and trial. Job is the easy comparison, which may be why these poems initially felt so thin to me. But upon second consideration, “Witness” is more than just viewing. It makes the reader the witness, emotionally enduring the same tolls heaped upon Cinque and his fellow rebels. Names are erased, everything is left cold and silent, the mere adoption of the language and religion of the West is enough to obliterate these rebels. Which is sort of how I felt after reading this section, a sense of obliteration, exhaustion, but a need to carry on.

The themes of cold and snow, this new world Merica, and home bounce around “Witness” in constant rotation. This mimics the thought of a captive, someone kidnapped from their home and forced through horrific ideals, someone who has to find something to hold onto mentally in order to maintain some level of sanity. A 240-page historical epic poem already carries the potential for exhaustion, but perhaps this last section is meant to be more meditative. Like overwhelming the trees with silence, or the tides that erase the names of the dead, the trauma of witness can overwhelm the human psyche, and perhaps this is the feeling I approach when reading through the section.

Despite my first impression, the impact of “Witness” has caused me to more deeply ponder the effects of this history on Kevin Young and the readers of Ardency. I may not have felt as much throughout reading it, but I can hardly flip to a page without finding the nuance and pace of the first two sections working in a similar way, albeit one that must simmer. While I still feel that those poems of “Witness” don’t quite shine as individually as the ones of the first two sections (and the final “Afterword”), the bulk of its reading is subliminally affective, which may be closer to the truth of these rebel’s experiences than any proclamation.

Ultimately, Ardency is a poised, fantastic collection that I can’t wait to share with my students. In terms of documentary poetics and its potential, this book is quite fitting as another feather in Kevin Young’s cap.

Since I moved into my current house off of Kennedy street in Northwest last summer, Busboys and Poets, located just down 14th Street in the vibrant U Street corridor, has become an increasingly frequented spot. The bookstore/bar/restaurant is a cultural bastion for the bookishly inclined across the usually stark cultural divide in Washington, and the prevalent African American themes create a unique flavor not found at Kramers or Politics and Prose. The background music (which remains happily in the background) spins current and classic jams and R&B. The bookstore, considerably smaller than Kramers and P&P, identifies itself by content that you can’t find at the other two. The fiction and poetry sections focus primarily on the African American experience in a much more involved way, sporting the best black writers from across generations, many of whom you’ve never heard of. Their politics and culture section is beefed up, with shelves devoted to (mostly leftist, in a good way) accounts of the economic, political, social, and religious issues of the major regions of the world. What they lack in size, then, they compensate for with books that are hard to come by most elsewhere.

When you enter at the front (two doors up 14th from Marvin, one of the best restaurants in the city), the restaurant opens to the right. Two-person tables are interspersed among couches occupied by various types with laptops. If you turn to face this open area, the bar is on the left wall, adorned with a mural depicting manifestations of African-American femininity. The bookstore is located directly ahead of the entrance, before you have a chance to turn into the restaurant proper. After browsing the fiction section and turning a couple pages of D.C. Noir, I find a seat at the bar and order from their comprehensive beer selection and sneakily exquisite dinner menu (which sports many vegan and gluten-free meals). With Magic Hat in hand and shrimp and chorizo pasta on the way, I dig into Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children. As the late afternoon turned into early evening, more people arrived from work, and the conversational din began to rise. One can make an outing from eavesdropping, and the setup is conducive to it.

After dinner, I make my way to the back of the restaurant, past an area of high tables and booths and into the Langston Room (named after the poet), an enclosed space that hosts readings and discussions on a regular basis. The theme of the room is peace, and the walls are decorated with images and phrases from the likes of Ghandi, King, and the Dalai Llama, as well as local artists. Tonight I am here to see Jones himself, who was to discuss his participation in Marita Golden’s new book, a collection of interviews with major black writers about their literary upbringings. This was thrilling for me. Jones famously rarely appears in public. He was as I expected him to be: painfully shy, shielding his face from the spotlight throughout, barely making eye contact with questioners. Never smiling. He’s not prickly per se, but not as generous as other writers I’ve seen. His discomfort made me wonder why he agreed to show up at all, though I chalked it up to his character and loyalty to friend Golden. My mild disappointment was assuaged at the book signing, where I told him that I was a fifth generation Washingtonian, and my father had grown up in Southeast. He seemed to like that, and smiled when I told him he was DC’s Homer. My signed copy of The Known World is now one of my treasures.

Experiences like these are not uncommon at Busboys. Keep your eyes peeled on their website, busboysandpoets.com, for weekly open mic nights, and even more frequent readings and discussions with important writers from the African American, academic, and local spheres. The place hops for most of the day, from lunch, to afternoon coffee, to happy hour, to early evening events, to dessert and late-night conversation. Stop in before a night out on U St., or afterwards.

Unlike the anthologies of traditional Chinese poetry translated by Burton Watson and Stephen Owen, Voices of the Fourth Generation, compiled and translated by Keming Liu and some other writers and poets, is in bilingual format for the first time. The collection aims at “the attention of English-speaking readers a comprehensive and focused selection of contemporary Chinese poetry in translation.” More than 40 poems by 20 poets are chosen in the translated anthology.

Generally speaking, the poets whose poems are chosen in the book were born in 1970s and 1980s. Many are cynical of the modern Chinese society, showcasing the negative aspects in their poems. In fact, the translators–perhaps influenced by critical ideology–have mostly selected poems for translation which tell the Western readers about one side of current realities in Chinese society, which are no doubt worthy of attention today. Particularly highlighted are the problems from China’s recent economic development: the pollution, the thieves, the farm-workers’ poor treatment, the poverty, the workers’ poor working conditions and life, suicide, etc. On the other hand, though, we also see the mother’s love, peddler’s life, natural innocence. In general, though, the translated poems offer far more negatives than positives. Perhaps this caters to Westerners’ pre-conceived notions or the readers who are interested in the current troubles of Chinese society. In a word, the translated poems seem more interested in criticizing Chinese society than aesthetic expression. In spite of these issues, the translators should be respected for their down-to-earth choice of the poems.

The translators are very faithful to the original poems in their translations. Some of the translations are very creative. For example, the poem “Hidden”: “I try to look radiant and dewy like jade/Smile a plump smile/like the long-dead Mona Lisa”(我累得珠圆玉润,胖了起来/笑成了死去的蒙娜丽莎),which suggests the real meaning of the Chinese sentence creatively and fluently in a varied structure. The poem “Orange”: “Sectioning an orange/how I wish it were you.”(我收刃一个橘子/我多想手刃你。) Instead of the rendition of “sectioning you,” it is translated into “it were you.” Its terseness avoids the awkward literal translation. In “Vase” the two lines “好插进花瓶/就像那个花瓶白白的园园的那么安静” are translated into several English lines—“like the vase/ pale, round, so serene/evenly covered with dust/how tender and poignant, that film of ash.” The restructured sentences in English sound more beautiful than the original ones.

Some poems give the sense of life philosophy. For example, “The Metro Station” by Mo Tou Bei Bei:

The metro conjoins departures and farewells
Experience, however, is not straight like the rail track.
I arrive
no welcome
familiar places pass by
unnoticed

 

车站汇集了出发和离别
但经历
不会象笔直的铁轨。
当我回来
没有迎接
熟悉的场景仿佛路过的
那些无名之处。

The title of the poem reminds us of Ezra Pound’s famous poem “The Metro”, yet it goes farther than the image creation of Pound’s imagism movement. The short poem is filled with the pathos of people’s separation and the loss of life or loneliness in the modern society.

James Copeland is a tall man, who rides a tall bike, drinks tall drinks, and writes tall poetry. To My Plants is a tallish, stiff chapbook of words arranged by James, printed on cellulose by James, and containing a DVD of a short film shot by a friend of James, from which the still photographs interspersed throughout the chapbook originate. The cover is two-sided, both unassuming, without any words to indicate title or author. You get clouds and mountainous valleys at first glance, but the sleuthy reader will check under the flap and be delighted, or maybe teased, with a string of automobiles as silent as any natural wonder.

You’re right, I’m stalling, but only because To My Plants already says everything that needs to be said about itself. It’s a book that delights in a cat-like batting about of your preconceptions: Plants, oh, James is a hippie, or: “Science arises from the green and yellow star, / ready for panoramas, radiant with facts”, oh, James thinks he’s smarter than me. Which is where he gets you, feeding us lines we think we get (or don’t) but seconds later instinctively reconsider. It isn’t slippery so much as twisting, squirming, revolting, linguistic revolutions around the star that bore us.

Plants and science greet us throughout this slim book/tall poem. The long lines mirror time’s inconstant rhythms (despite what the atom says) and throws everything into transition.  The “Children, too, are present, looking at their final bowls of cereal / before being called into service.” From plant to paper, child to servant (soldier? cubicle drone? janitor?), things are shifting throughout. Mountains are unsettled, lions act like men, “The sunlight washes over the mustard on the man’s fingers / like the visions of violent wealth that wash over the young girl’s sleep.” There’s our yellow and green star again.

But if everything is moving, where is it going? Even random paths, viewed from far enough out, can’t help but cough up a pattern. To My Plants offers the returning lion, which may be us, unless we are the plants, or the men and women, or maybe the “dollop of carbon”  left on the fingertip. There are animals, and plants, both are carbon-based and can’t help but be. We can’t help ourselves, “We are part of the ocean, the gorge, we lurch into the surrounding smell / to know nothing except volume.”

There is hardly an “I” to be found in this book amidst the swirling patrons of planet Earth, but James slips, shows us that he is human, that “Like anyone else, he enjoys the feeling of corn syrup running down his forearms. / And by enjoy, I mean he swears by it.” We are what we enjoy, even if, at this point, that enjoyment is bringing the whole works down. James is no prophet but his poetry is a telescope turned on this place we call home. Sitting on this messy, throbbing rock, overrun with planets and animals, James gives us the pattern in one fell poem. Would that we may learn something about ourselves by it.

Thin Kimono is a book of mistaken identities: a hallucinogenic wandering through a cocktail party the night before the invention of the internet.  The party is populated with individuals you may or may not know.  Your wife is a slightly altered version of herself.  There are horses, but even they have become something else. Michael Earl Craig’s acupuncturist is here too.  She tells us her “speakers are hidden in the jade plant” (The Bad Clown)  We get the sense she is struggling not to become evil.  We know there must be separate rooms, separate poem-rooms, but even with titles, often the only sense of demarcation comes from the turning of pages.  This is particularly true in the book’s second and smallest section, which is reminiscent of Matthew Rohrer’s “A Plate of Chicken” in that the section is comprised of short 8-line segments separated by asterisks (“A Plate of Chicken” is divided into 7-line segments).  Also like “A Plate of Chicken,” this section employs an uncanny use of dissociative observation as lens for self-reflection.

The innervated spatula, it
feels things even you don’t.
In 204 a couple humps briskly
like Great Danes, it’s textbook (had heard
what was probably a shoe hit the wall
with some force). We dream of perfecting life
somewhere else.  In space, let’s say.
Wearing Erik Satie stretch pants.

We are invited to enter the rooms of his characters, to observe their strange habits and quiet respect for the divinity in objects, and then we let them pass back into an interaction we can only assume continues to occur after our leaving. “The nitwit danced with the congresswoman/ at the spring picnic,” Craig writes in “Poem.” As a reader I take solace in the knowledge that this dance continues even once I have closed the book and replaced it on my bookshelf.  I’m equally glad to know that couple in 204 will be humping eternally, briskly.

In “The Neighbor,” one of the book’s most defiant and arguably self-aware poems, a dinner roll falls off the dining room table. “It [rolls] across the room and [passes] through the doorway into the bedroom and the door [slams] shut behind it.” Nothing about this act is portrayed as being out of the ordinary. To the contrary, we feel a very natural loss at the roll’s leaving, as though we, the non-participatory readers, have done something to cause it to throw a tantrum.  After all, this particular poem is about us: about Craig’s inability to imagine us as anyone other than exactly himself, and of course about our inability to fulfill that expectation.  Perhaps we feel an affinity to the roll in this poem because Craig has chosen the roll to represent our interests. While reading, there is always a recognition that we cannot enter the poem unless we are written into it, and so, like ghosts, we posses for a moment the body of the dinner roll and storm indignantly out of the room.

As with the proems of Francis Ponge, the objects in Thin Kimono are imbued with a kind of duplicitous consciousness.  However, where Ponge’s objects come across as insecure and terrified of the softness that is contained within them, Craig’s objects appear at times in a state of revolt against the very human hands that created them.  In “In The Road,” Craig tells us of a dream where he is shoeing a horse.

________________…Hitting
the nails was like trying to strike flies
from the air.  My hammer flashed in the sun,
striking the shoe to the left or the right of the nail.
One miss-hit busted my thumb open.
Blood trickled like a wet glove over my hand.

Even the blood here becomes an object capable of acting of its own volition.  And again, similar to the proems of Francis Ponge, there is a moment where the interior comes to the surface, transforms itself, and covers “like a glove” the exterior.  The blood in this instance is no longer an extension of the body but has become more an extension of the hammer that has revolted against the body.  The objects have overtaken consciousness.  Our grasping at them will lead to our own demise.  Here is a very clearly stated desire to turn away from our tendency toward possession of material goods and into a world of endless metaphysical fulfillment, the lucid dreamstate where surrealism and realism and absurdism all coexist.

These poems occur in the space between the stirring of consciousness and the awakening of reason, when our unconscious perceptions of the objects and characters that embody our lives are still dripping in the semiotic fluid of dreams and of language. In short, it’s a very fun book to read, and one that leaves you feeling more inquisitive and excited about the earth’s occupants (both sentient and non-sentient) than when you opened it.  Craig’s poems are as layered and thick as a well-made baklava.  They are equally accessible, rich, and nutty.  “THE READER CAN ALMOST BE DUMB REALLY AND STILL GET [THEM].”(Bluebirds) Also like baklava, they taste more of the Country Marm’s kitchen than of the Hostess factory, more of the earth than of the machines we have created to destroy it.  As with so many of the books put out by Wave, this one is quirky, intelligent, and entertaining, with leaps that sometimes require a great effort in the suspension of disbelief.  I for one am glad to go there, glad to learn of the disparities that can be stitched together by consciousness, and particularly glad to again crack the form I have built around cognition.  I hope this book does the same for you.

…“This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.”  Now I
can go back to my single room,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s god, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.

-from “The Music of Time”

As we have been trained over decades to expect from Philip Levine, his latest book of poems, News of the World, is an unsurprisingly likeable collection of environmental portraits rendered with acute sensitivity to history and class.  Those who know Levine’s work will find much familiar about many of these poems—and happily so, as his strengths as a poet have resisted dulling over time and profuse exercise.

The spoken quality of this master’s voice and the guileless feel of these poems’ shapes are subtle forces in News of the World.  In the above closure of “The Music of Time,” Levine’s loping parataxis, his casually exacting “someone’s god” and “actual voice of someone else,” his flirtation with negative capabilities—above all else his unique narrative space of a kind of American subaltern—are prominent features of these recent works.  Yet for Levine’s fans and the uninitiated alike, News of the World delivers on the promise in its title.  The real force behind the collection is its gentle insistence on dialogue as a source of inspiration—the interplay between Levine’s liminal yet capacious narrative space and other voices in these poems.  Vital statements, questions, and ironies are threaded throughout in exchanges that begin between a “you” and “I” (which occasionally resolves to “we”) in “Our Valley,” the opening piece, to be sustained in the various voices of Levine’s family and intimates, historical and literary figures, writers, songsmiths, and of course the poet himself.  Whereas in so many works the voices of others become foils for or extensions of the author’s own voice, some of the best poems of News of the World suggest the possibility of hearing “the actual voice of someone else”—with a stress on the actual.

Perhaps nowhere is Levine’s dialogical bent more evident in News of the World than in its third of four sections, which is comprised entirely of prose poems.  This section opens with an overheard exchange between a doctor and a young patient—a prose poem ironically titled, “Fixing the Foot:  On Rhythm”—which is surely what Levine referred to in a March of 2008 interview as “the first good prose poem I ever wrote,” and closes with the book’s namesake.  Many of these fine poems embody such actual listenings and recastings of speech, effectively assuming postures of tenderness, fractiousness, and play—all with Levine’s signature restraint and regard for humanity.   They treat us to the voices that enlarge and enrich our own individual humanities.  What once might have been seen as Levine’s anger and righteousness is transformed into an impulse to listen and share what he hears—an experience that he creates for his readers rather than telling us, ‘you don’t know what ______ is.’  This is a truly engaging facet of the new Levine collection, and just part of what makes these poems well worth experiencing first-hand.

So, while News of the World certainly offers some typical-feeling moves to those familiar with Levine’s oeuvres, it also contains formal variations and preoccupations that will amuse and surprise both his admirers and those who don’t yet know his work.  And most hopefully, at least possibly, we might find “actual” other voices here—voices that waken in us the best and most thrilling aspects of what it means to live.

James Schuyler is back from the dead with the lovely “Other Flowers”  a posthumous book of his unpublished, uncollected poems.  Everything I have come to know and love about Schuyler’s eye and heart is here in generous supply.  The poems are – like so many of the poems published in his lifetime – made from a kind of brilliance disguised as innocence; a sadness disguised as joy.  They feel closer to jazz and painting than to another kind of poetry.   And, like  they are peculiarly of their own time: still timeless as any poetry this indelible (though more in the sense of memorable than something held down or restricted by an era), but they are also poems that feel (somewhat like Frank O’Hara, Joe Brainard and, later, Frank Bidart) almost immediately nostalgic.

The subject matter here is still the same as it’s always been:  New York, adventures in intimacy, pop culture, gossip, longing and traveling and most of them are famously brief in scope of time and how they fall upon the page.  In their brevity, they feel as important and quietly beautiful as leaves we use as summer bookmarkers.

What I find most fascinating about Schuyler’s poems (and probably one of the most interesting aspect of this collection is the fact that there are probably more not so good poems than in his other collections) is how slight they may appear and yet are not slight at all.  Like interpretive inkblots that use tea for color instead of ink, the poems are there and not there; emphatic, authoritative, but also whispered.  There’s confrontation and resistance – exemplified, in part, in “Vila Della Vite”, which tracks the desire to be a different kind of thinker than he already is:

I’m not happy
My spirits that lifted
me so high, went off like smoke
after a shot.  How can
I fear so many diverse things?
I want to think of other things.
Is it all
in how you think?
I want to think of a washing machine
in a basement….

Being a different kind of thinker than he is or wants to be is actually one of the aspects that makes Schuyler such a great poet, if that makes sense.  His intelligence is fixed in time but it is also mutable as the subjects it lands on, and rather than the heavy hand of the writer casting a shadow on the subject and/or cadence of the poem, the poem casts the shadow on the writer.  In this way, each poem is its style:

It darkens, brother
and your crutch-tip grinds
the gravel the deer stepped delicately along
one breakfast, you were a kid.
Mother says after thirty,
decades clip by
‘and then you have the sum’
or spent it.

(From “Coming Night”)

And each poem – especially this one – is stacked in terms of form – a way of making information happen by making each line take on a different subject – what Richard Hugo talks about in his book on poetics, “The Triggering Town”.  Here, each next line in that first stanza stands in unison and independently:  it darkens, there’s a crutch-tip, gravel and deer, breakfast, Mother, decades, the sum, and then “or spent it” – the culmination.

And while the eye in many of Schuyler poems is in a beautiful gaze about making the moment larger, the mind is also wondering what is really being seen, considered and what the stakes are.  Each poem in a way – whether it literally asks a question or not – is wondering who someone is, what something is.   Each poem is deceptively simple in that inquiry, but mysterious, too:

The mind dies down.
Nerves, unsheathed, stir.
Radios.  A water tap
Depart, flesh, trailed
by barbwire hair.  Sea salt
explores lips of lacerations
cut on you like a christening
nick.  A yellow light
in blue light.  Twilight
and hydrangeas watery
through hedges.  Was the hideous
lesson worth the pleasure?

(From “The Exchange”)

It’s so good to have these poems in the world now; to have James Schuyler back, uncollected, saluting the various field:  these other flowers.

If you are a poet writing in English, you carry Horace in your own voice. I’m convinced there really is no way around this. I’m not sure there’s any possible strain of English poetry that can avoid his influence. And who would want to? Horace is a master of lyric poetry. To learn better how we speak as poets, we should all be looking at and coming to grips with Horace.

This looking back (not so much ad fontes as Jacob wrestling God) is made difficult by the fact that most of us don’t know Latin (or the Greek of the poets Horace learned from). And even for those who do, the collapse that exists between Latin and English can seem insurmountable. I was a terrible student when I studied Latin and Greek and have since forgotten much of it. Looking back now, I can see that I looked at foreign languages more as a different speaking-code that could be translated into English (with a few admitted bumps along the way), rather than another way of thinking–perhaps even another way of being. I’ve realized that language is a rite of sorts into which we are initiated over a very long period of time. Whenever I feel frustrated with my students inability to grasp certain ideas of language, I look up at a large poster of Greek verb endings that I’ve posted in my cubicle to remind myself of the difficulty of learning another language. It keeps me humble (I hope).

Because language is a rite of initiation of sorts, it has to be done with humans. You can immerse yourself in a dead language, but at the end day who knows whether you’re working with the language in a way the original speakers would have been familiar with? I remember reading some translation commentaries in which several possible translations–all very different–were posited by the commentators who then shrugged, essentially, saying–we honestly just don’t know how to translate this. This is maddening if you’re trying to render a translation that is as close to the original in every way possible. At the end of the day, most translators have to admit that they are only able to be accurate in one or two ways, and that these accuracies come at the expense of other accuracies. A translator may, for example, attempt to imitate the free and easy rhythm of the original, but to do so in English, the translator may need to reorder the ideas and images in the original.

A few months back I wrote a sort of prologue to this book review in which I concluded that fruitful translation is possible as long as we are able to recognize and appreciate the “extra layers” of intent that must be layered over top of a translation to make it possible. That is, we first must recognize the limits of translation, while also acknowledging (and appreciating, I think) what the translator adds to the translation.

The collection that J.D. McClatchy has assembled renders the totality of Horace’s four books of odes. The translations are from contemporary English-speaking poets of all varieties, from Paul Muldoon to Charles Simic to Rosanna Warren. All (or almost) have had some experience translating from a classical language. All the poets, with the exception of Simic, grew up speaking one of the major incarnations of modern English (American, British, Irish, Canadian, Australian).

McClatchy’s Odes favors a variety of translators (and inevitably, translational perspectives). As such, it is a valuable collection to add to the stable of Horace translations. From them, you can learn a lot about Horace as a poet. But I suspect you can also learn more about the translators as poets themselves, and that makes this collection a valuable addition to the study of modern poetry as well.

It would be much too large of a task to review how each poet approaches Horace. The good news is that almost every one of McClatchy’s translators take on several Odes each, which creates a sort of arc from which you can study and learn about each poet’s translational perspective. One poem is not probably enough to enlighten us about how the contemporary poet relates her or his poetics with that of Horace, but thankfully, McClatchy has given readers enough to make a study of each individual poet if a they so chose.

Given my own weak knowledge of Latin, I cannot assess well the various ways in which the translations of McClatchy’s edition mediate the gap between Horace’s Latin and modern-day English. The best I can is muddle an assessment in triangulation with another modern edition of Horace I have come to love and admire: David Ferry’s.  Where McClatchy’s Odes features variety, Ferry’s translations have a consistency of translational perspective. Over winter break, I also picked up a copy of Mitchie’s translations (which are, amazingly, often done in the original meter–something neither Ferry nor McClatchy’s translators attempt). Legend has it that Auden was scared off from doing his own translations of Horace by what he perceived as the self-evident greatness of Mitchie’s.

As far as recent poets go, however, I believe that Ferry’s translations will last for a long time as a node upon which modern poetics can hang its relationship with Horace. McClatchy’s Odes exists more as a collection of statements of relationship between modern poets and Horace. For comparison’s sake, let’s look at Ode I.23, by both Ferry and Heather McHugh.

Ferry first:

i.23 / To Chloë

Chloë, it is as if
_____You were but a little fawn
Needlessly fearful of every
_____Littlest breeze that stirs,

Ready to run as far
_____Away as it possibly can,
Seeking its timid mother
_____Anywhere but here

Where its heart beats fast and it trembles
_____In every limb for any
Slightest shimmer or shiver
_____Of newly opening leaf,

Signs of the spring beginning,
_____Or if a lizard’s foot
Disturbs a single twig.
_____Chloë, I am neither

A lion nor a tiger;
_____I have no wish to hurt you;
Do not run to your mother;
_____Now is the time for love.

Now McHugh:

I.23

You dash from my sight, little Chloë, the way, wth fear,
a stray fawn bolts from path to bush in search
of her lost mother, trembling utterly at each
sweet nothing of the woods, each stir of air.

Let any thorn tree spring the briefest leaf,
let any lizard make the least green streak
toward any under-tangle–and she’ll freeze,
blood knocking, heart at knees.

But I’m no predatory cur, no wildcat appetite,
to rack a baby down and eat her up. I’m only
human: I’m a man. The time is right, in you, for some
bold move. Now let your mother go. Now, let me come.

McHugh, with her percussive wordplay, has turned Horace’s speaker into a sweaty, groping, borderline (if not already there) pedophile. In truth, it’s also there in Ferry’s poem, but ambivalently. The tactfully discharged imagery of Ferry’s poem could be one playing a role in a game of “hard to get” as easily as it could indicate a smooth, but predatory operator. I’ll admit, however, that after reading McHugh’s poem I have a hard time not seeing it her way (that might also be because I just finished watching an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but that’s neither here nor there).

McHugh takes the central conceit of the poem and thrusts the reader into it (“You dash from my sight”). Ferry, on the other hand, layers the desire below the conceit (“Chloë, it is as if…”). McHugh makes the not-at-all subtle equation of Horace’s desire (and the instrument thereof) to the lizard (which itself sparks other associations); in Ferry’s poem, that image is tidied away as a “lizard’s foot.” The way we see both Ferry and McHugh dealing with these images brings me to a larger point about Horace: one of the most impressive things that Horace does–one thing that I badly wishI could ape from his craft–is his ability to introduce a multitude of objects and hold them all in balance. We see what could be Ashbery’s wandering mind under the disciplinary curtain call of form. Whether the “formal feeling” that gives us a sense of the poem’s beginning or end is a “romantic standby,” I’ll leave for other poets to hammer out at this point. In these translations, there is no formalism, but how the translators perceive Horace’s intent becomes a form, of sorts. They must wrestle with all the objects, by squeezing them in, ordering and directing them to their will. This reinterpretive ordering says much about how the translators as poets relate to Horace.

If I had a wider range of knowledge about all the contributing translators, McClatchy’s collection of new translations could do with a thorough comparison, a catalogue of what each poet is doing with Horace in his or her own right. That exercise would, no doubt, yield a large number of insights, and I hope that the readers of this review would do this and return with their findings (perhaps shared in the comment section?). Ezra Pound suggested that there are three major components to poetry: sound, image, and word play. In this review I mostly focused on image (the most easily translated of the three aspects according to Pound). I was hoping to tackle tone, which floats around Pound’s three aspects. I wanted to write about Mark Strand’s translations, but honestly I just didn’t have time (this was supposed to go up at Christmas!). Maybe some other day.

What I wanted to end this review with, however, is with a demonstration of the way that we all carry Horace in our voice, using a poem I wrote as an example. While a student at Hunter, I was given a side-by-side comparison of Wyatt’s “My Galley, Charged with Forgetfulness” and O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster.” Wyatt’s poem was itself a translation of Petrarch’s “Canzionere 189.” I decided to do my own loose rewrite of O’Hara and Wyatt, and the resulting poem turned out to be a bit of a cipher (to me at least) for the rest of my poems.

Later, after “discovering” Horace (that is to say, I had begun to read seriously and enjoy), I found that Petrarch’s was itself a rewrite of Horace’s 14th Ode from Book I. It was a very clear demonstration for me that tradition, for better or worse, was a part of all our voices, and–in a sense–we all need that tradition to speak as poets. So I present you with 5 different “versions” of the same poem, the last of which is my own (not to suggest that I am, in any way, an equal to the poets in this list).

i.14 / To the Republic
David Ferry

O ship, O battered ship, the backward running waves

Are taking you out to sea again! Oh what to do?

Oh don’t you see? Oh make for port! The wind’s gone wild!

Your sails are torn! Your mast is shaking! Your oars are gone!

Your onboard gods gone overboard! How long, how long

Can the eggshell hull so frail hold out? O ship so proud,

Your famous name, your gilded stern, your polished decks,

Your polished brass, so useless now, O Storm’s play thing,

O ship my care, beware, beware the Cyclades!

I.14
Debora Greger

O ship, a ground swell threatens
to set you adrift–look out!
Hurry to reach the harbor–no, don’t stop
to look, but you’ve lost your oars.

The mast has snapped, sails slap at the wind,
your hull needs rope to tie it back together,
canvas has torn, but you no longer
have gods to get you out of trouble.

Though you’re built of the best pine
from the most noble forest, upon a plank
of which your famous name is lettered–
and so beautifully–who can trust paint?

You make a sailor nervous. Be careful
or you’ll become a toy of the storm.
You who, not that long ago, were just
my headache, my pain in the neck,

but who now have my heart aboard,
steer clear of those narrow seas
that cut past the bright lights
marking the rocks of the Cyclades.

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness
Thomas Wyatt

My galley, chargèd with forgetfulness,
Thorough sharp seas in winter nights doth pass
‘Tween rock and rock; and eke mine en’my, alas,
That is my lord, steereth with cruelness;
And every owre a thought in readiness,
As though that death were light in such a case.
An endless wind doth tear the sail apace
Of forced sighs and trusty fearfulness.
A rain of tears, a cloud of dark disdain,
Hath done the weared cords great hinderance;
Wreathèd with error and eke with ignorance.
The stars be hid that led me to this pain;
Drownèd is Reason that should me comfort,
And I remain despairing of the port.

To the Harbormaster
Frank O’Hara

I wanted to be sure to reach you;
though my ship was on the way it got caught
in some moorings. I am always tying up
and then deciding to depart. In storms and
at sunset, with the metallic coils of the tide
around my fathomless arms, I am unable
to understand the forms of my vanity
or I am hard alee with my Polish rudder
in my hand and the sun sinking. To
you I offer my hull and the tattered cordage
of my will. The terrible channels where
the wind drives me against the brown lips
of the reeds are not all behind me. Yet
I trust the sanity of my vessel; and
if it sinks, it may well be in answer
to the reasoning of the eternal voices,
the waves which have kept me from reaching you.

Canzionere 189

Like a forgetful, wind tottered garbage scow
I float. Pity me now
that I have eaten the sun god’s
cattle, and hunger still grips my body.
I wanted to shield it from the gulls
who followed the fat, dull
smell of death from port to
port, pulling out intestines of trash. For you
I have been terrible, increasing,
lashed to a green whale, desiring
spontaneous prose from secret thoughts
to hold me now. Oh how sorry
I am that I ate the sun’s cows
and didn’t feel sorry about it.