Thursday, February 26, 2009

Susannah M. Smith reads Walter Benjamin's Archive

Walter Benjamin's Archive: Images, Texts, Sign, Verso 2007


I don't know you, WB.
I don't know you at all.

I'm thinking of the way people seem to hear about you serendipitously, repeatedly.
I'm thinking of the leather suitcase that disappeared after you died,
its contents alleged but never located: postcards, a manuscript, a pipe, morphine.
You are gone but you ghost our post-modernity.

I found your Archives in the university library.
Renewed it as many times as I could.
Then the public library.
Ditto.
Finally, I got you for good as a Christmas gift.
Flew you in the belly of a plane across Canada at the end of 2008,
68 years after your death.
Since then, we've slept in the same room.
You on the art table
or the floor beside the bed.
Proximate yet private.

Now, I walk towards you through these pages, a fractal of your archive.
You were a collector, an organizer, a preserver.
You constellate in motes, acidic yellowing papers, tiny script.

There is that famous photo of you engrossed in research
taken by Gisèle Freund at the Bibliothèque nationale.

There are well-loved notebooks:
a worn, black leather cover
pages with torn and crumpled edges
paper so thin the handwriting beneath shows through
homemade stamps glued in.

One notebook is filled with your son Stefan's linguistic evolution:
Moma keet for parakeet
dandals for sandals
little birds for nail clippings when they fall to the ground.

There are crossouts
(like Virginia Woolf and Anne Carson)
and Xs
and small, inked crosses + + +
to inventory and make meaning.

There are sketches for essays.
A drawing of a lullaby.
Notes on Kafka arranged in two columns that could pass for a poem:
<<<<<<<<Forgetting Disfiguration
<<<<<<<<Forgetting
<<<<<<<<Swamp world

There is marginalia.
There are ink spots, annotations, rusty echoes of paper clips.
Pages sewn together with thread.
Fragments on Proust, Baudelaire.

There are bibliographic notes written on the back of a receipt.
Circles drawn in blue.
Words within boxes.
A manuscript cut into strips.

There are black and white photos of Paris arcades and interiors.
There is the S page from your 1930's address book.
There are photos of toys from your collection:
<<<<<<<<Bacchus on a billy goat. Music in the casket.

I go back to the photo of you in the Bibliothèque nationale again and again.
Your long fingers against your papers
your curious mind visible.

One could spend years in these pages
returning again to wander, inspect, absorb.
So much residue.
So many glimpses.

<<<<<<<<
Objects look back at you, you once said.

It is true.
I can see you, WB.
You look back through the photos and the notebooks.
You look back through the scraps, the titles, the margins.

I imagine that this gathering together would make you happy.

Knowing that the archives are open
and you are so clearly here.


*Due to the blog's limitations the crossouts and double crossouts are not visible.

_________________________________________________

Susannah M. Smith is the author of the novel How the Blessed Live. She lives, writes and blogs in Vancouver. You can visit her online.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Erin Wunker reads Sachiko Murakami

The Invisibility Exhibit, Talon 2008
Sachiko Murakami

In our post 9/11 world even (especially?) pronouns are risky. The difference between the already complex markers of me and you, us and them is increasingly great. It seems to me that as a woman, and academic, and a citizen of the world it is my responsibility to take more chances in my writing. As I was thinking about pronouns I happened across American writer Joan Retallack’s “Essay as Wager.” In it Retallack makes two claims early on: first, that writing which is concerned with the present (as well as the future) allows us to “rethink habits of thought by…. unsettling familiar terrain” (1). Her second claim is that the only way to jar our collective thoughts is to have “concern and courage as an artist” (4). I found myself wondering, why courage? The answer that I’ve arrived at is this: to risk the pronoun is to place a bet on hope. For, whether I am thinking about global catastrophes or the minutiae of everyday life I can no longer simply assume that I am heard by you. Furthermore, to think, in poetry, about the pronoun is to wager that there is an audience willing to meet the text halfway. Turns out, it is a risk certain writers are compelled to take.

A striking example of one writer’s attempt to enact a radicalization of the politics of pronouns is the recent work of poet Sachiko Murakami. Her debut collection is built around something, or rather someone missing. Murakami deftly manipulates the fine distinction between these pronouns. Her poetry asks the reader who do you see when you look at a woman on the street? A person, or a thing? Do you see her at all? Or do you only see her when she is gone? The Invisibility Exhibit walks the reader through the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside paying close attention to the people the Olympic planners would rather you didn’t see. Whether stalking ghosts or examining the minutiae left behind, the poet unflinchingly looks into the void left by the scores of women who have gone missing from Vancouver’s Skid Row. The implicit and urgent question here is what damage do we perpetuate when we thing someone.

Her poem “Exhibit A (Boxes)” uses the imperative to direct the reader’s gaze: “Leave the box beneath the tree. Leave parents to their cruelty./ For dinner, try pasta, try fury, try feeding after fray./ Try a split lip. Try Exhibit A./ Open the box: lump of coal, wormy dirt, slap of adult palm to knee,/ you and your big disappointment.” The rhetoric of courtroom evidence is woven with the language of the quotidian around a disturbing lacuna. “Exhibit A” does not have a subject, it has many, or none, depending on what the reader commits to seeing. But, as the poet concedes, not even mighty Charon can “bring to rest/ images of the dead” for whether or not we can spare any change, these dead “never lived” (“Negotiating with the Ferryman”).

One of Murakami’s most effective tropes is the use of repeated images that are subtly threaded through the collection. There is the bag of Okanagan peaches, appearing first in “Portrait of Mother as Missing Woman” (“haven’t spoken since that day/ in the hotel with a bagful of Okanagan peaches/ I didn’t want, wanted her to have”), then in “Poem to stop the Recurring Dream,” (“No one knows/ what’s worth archiving. Peach rot slicked pebbles ripped pictures can’t stop”), and again in “Exhibit D (Peaches)” (“Now she is too thin from her smaller and smaller suppers/…./ a bag of useless imaginary peaches”). There is also the recurring correlation between women and meat, where the faceless man makes the uncomfortable connection between dinner and the news but “swears it has nothing to do with him” (“Meat”). These reoccurring images work to sketch the connection between the reader and the missing: who deserves to be seen? Don’t mistake Murakami here, this is not a question for Vancouver alone, this is a question to you, to Canada, and to the world, whose eyes will be on us soon enough. Which brings me back to my initial question of pronouns. Murakami writes around real absences, the women who have left these voids are irrevocably gone. It seems to me that the function of the pronoun, part of its inherent risk, is that while it may elicit a response, it may just as well hold us all at a distance from one another. Trapped in the grammar of our “social decorum,” we may recognize each other, though we may not act.

Ultimately the demand Murakami makes is, fittingly enough, left invisible: will you continue to look when it is inconvenient? When the spotlights are off and the media has packed up, will you remember these women? “Now that the lab is nearly empty./ What gentleness we muster now, to lift DNA/ from a microscopic edge, to protect/ the whole of the woman contained there” (“We’ve Seen Littler of Her in Life and Less of Her in Death”). By writing around the missing women Murakami makes it impossible for her reader not to look for them.
____
Erin Wunker completed her PhD at the University of Calgary. Her dissertation, "Archive Undone: Feminisms and the Future" occurs at the interstices of public memory, poetry, feminism, and performance theory.

Quotes of the week

"I like the sort of lesbians one doesn't know are lesbians."
--anonymous

“I can’t help but dream about a criticism that would not try to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life…It would multiply not judgments but signs of life.”
--Michel Foucault

Meanwhile in the Persian Gulf, girls will be boys.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Michael Bryson: Fiction is Mystery

When I was younger, I thought that good reading leads to knowledge and that knowledge led to a deeper understanding of life, the world, the opposite sex, everything important. It can, of course, I still believe that, but it does something much grander – it leads to a more sustained sense of life’s mysteries. It leads to confusion, to speak plainly.

I’m drawn, for example, to stories of self-deprecating writers. Charles McGrath had the following to say recently about John Updike, recently deceased:

His submissions to The New Yorker, where I used to edit him sometimes, were often accompanied by a little note declaring that the enclosed was not very good and would probably be his last, because the well was going dry, the tank was empty, the field was fallow. In fact, until the very end of his life Mr. Updike was remarkably youthful, and he filed his last piece with the magazine just weeks before he died (New York Times, January 31, 2009).

One mustn’t confuse writing and life, of course. Life can be mysterious, and one can live graciously and with an sense of wonder at each evolving moment and still not have anything to say, nor any talent for language. However muddled the writer, his or her fiction may still lead to revelation, conviction and certainty, but I don’t think so.

There are good readings and bad readings, better interpretations and worse interpretations. Interesting expositions and dull ones. But the interaction between reader and story is subjective; each of us reads differently, even if we are reading the same thing.

I will illustrate this point by referring to an article about children who struggle with literacy. Teachers were the audience of the article, which asked, “Who can tell the child that his or her interpretation of a story is wrong?”

The example provided was of a child who’d read a reference to a donkey being a “beast of burden” and concluded that the donkey was a vicious creature. He was “a beast.” This is clearly an incorrect reading, but this was a child who struggled to process language and here he offered his own interpretation. His imagination produced something mysterious, but it was correct, clear and meaningful to him. So it was not wrong.

Or was it?

I have a step-son with a learning disability, and he can say astonishing things, and he has taught me much. Such as, neurologically normal children are more predictable. It is the unexpected, however, that makes stories interesting. Unexpected interpretation is what leads to keeper knowledge; the mystery never ends.

This is not a conclusion that my graduate school professors passed on. Unless I missed something important, which I’m sure I did. Many times. I’d say I’m a slow learner, but Pynchon said that long ago. So I’ll just say my literary education has progressed in fits and starts. I was drawn to one school, then another. I have wanted to write dirty realism and fabulist-styled postmodern tales. I have ended up both more confused and more grounded. It’s the sort of contradictory conclusion that only fiction could provide.

One of the best quotations about fiction I’ve found is from John Barth: “Traditionalist excellence is no doubt preferable to innovative mediocrity (but there's not much to be said for conservative mediocrity; and there's a great deal to be said for inspired innovation).”

I also like Douglas Glover’s notion that fiction “opens into mystery.” (Carol Shields also apparently said that Alice Munro’s stories don’t end: “They soar off into mystery.”) If fiction works in any meaningful way, it’s to remind us that what we think we know, we probably don’t. We make many assumptions just to get us through, day by day. If we start living by what we expect to be true, we will inevitably end up hurting other people. So we all need forgiveness, but the universe doesn’t provide any.

We’re all just waiting, waiting, waiting for Godot.

I wrote a short story called “Beginnings and Endings” (included in Thirteen Shades of Black and White; Turnstone Press, 1999), which plays with a concept I stole from Robert Kroetsch’s Words of My Roaring. I’m sure he stole it from somewhere else, because beginning and endings are what make stories. They are the tops and sides of the box, the basic structure that holds in the middle.

Clark Blaise says he thinks beginnings are more important that endings, although most of the critical work about short stories focuses on endings (see Selected Essays; Biblioasis, 2008). I don’t privilege one over the other; I’ll just make this my final point. I think you can start just about anywhere and end just about anywhere. What matters most is the journey in between. The best stories make startling leaps, but they still make sense. Life is full of surprises, and fiction should be, too.

Michael Bryson blogs at The New CanLit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Influency 6: Christakos is at it again!

INFLUENCY 6: A TORONTO POETRY SALON

LARSON • QUEYRAS • PHILIP • DOWNIE •

SOL • NICKERSON • SINCLAIR • HALL

APRIL 1 to June 10, 2009

Wednesday evenings, 7 to 9:30 pm

April 1: Introductory Talk by Margaret Christakos

April 8: Billeh NICKERSON on Jacqueline LARSON’s Salt Physic (Pedlar)

April 15: Jacqueline LARSON on Sina QUEYRAS’s Expressway (Coach House)

April 22: Sina QUEYRAS on M. NourbeSe PHILIP’s Zong! (Mercury/ W.W. Norton)

April 29: M. NourbeSe PHILIP on Glen DOWNIE’s Loyalty Management (Wolsak & Wynn)

May 6: Glen DOWNIE on Adam SOL’s Jeremiah, Ohio (Anansi)

May 13: Phil HALL on Billeh NICKERSON’s The Asthmatic Glassblower (Arsenal Pulp)

May 20: Adam SOL on Sue SINCLAIR’s Breaker (Brick)

May 27: Sue SINCLAIR on Phil HALL’s White Porcupine (BookThug)

(no class June 3)

June 10: Registrants’ Intertexts and Salon Closing Party

Influency is an innovative 10-week lecture-reading course featuring eight contemporary guest poets in person. This Spring 2009, a remarkable group of poets—Glen Downie, Phil Hall, Jacqueline Larson, Billeh Nickerson, M. NourbeSe Philip, Sina Queyras, Sue Sinclair and Adam Sol—will take part, facilitated by Margaret Christakos. Offered through the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing program, this is the sixth session since “Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon” began in Fall 2006.

Please join us for this flow-chart series of generously prepared talks by Toronto poets becoming fluent in the work of some of our contemporaries, combined with dynamic half-hour poetry readings and engaging, pleasurable hour-long discussions. Registrants compose written responses to all the poetries encountered.

By presenting poets from many of the micro-communities in the city's literary scene, “Influency” creates the opportunity for social and intellectual interaction, and builds a passionate audience for contemporary poetry in general. Over the ten-week course, registrants gather critical vocabulary for discussing contemporary poetry alongside an enhanced range of sensibility and ability to fluently discuss the nuanced divergences of approach, motive, process and influence typical of Toronto's multitraditional literary culture.

“Influency” is FOR READERS and WRITERS ALIKE. FOR BEGINNERS and EXPERTS, in the SAME ROOM. FOR the LOVE and RECEPTION of NEW POETRY.

This salon course is offered at an accessible price of $225. Course materials (8 books, one by each participating poet) will be available at the first class, for $100.

Register NOW! SCS 1777 – 006 Influency: A Toronto Poetry Salon

www.learn.utoronto.ca 416-978-2400

Expressway's first review

Apparently the link to Expressway's first review wasn't working yesterday, so I offer it again, shameless hussy that I am. Partly because it's friendly, but also because it's smart.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Expressway is on the move

Thanks Coach House publicist Evan Munday for the fun little promo tool for Expressway, which arrived in the world last week at a weighty 98 pages. For the record, this isn't AC/DC, but a cover. A good one at that. Oh, and Expressway gets its very first review. And it's friendly. Thanks Vanessa.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Jacob Wren reads Carl Wilson by way of a digression

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste by Carl Wilson
by Jacob Wren
Far more than most celebrities, [Céline] is plausible as a common person catapulted into uncommon status. Apart from her music, I've grown accustomed to her over-expressive face, attached to her arm-flinging gawkiness. And as I suspected, looking closely at her seemingly mundane music has focused me on another set of virtues - not so much the fidelity and devotion she sings about, but the persistence and flexibility it takes to translate between her terms and mine.

This is what I mean by democracy - not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.
Many books claim to be experiments, but Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste does so in terms that are unfamiliar, asking: what does it mean for a rock critic to fully immerse himself in the music of an artist (Céline Dion) that he hates, not as an exercise in self-abnegation but rather as an attempt to come to some more general understanding of why, on a personal and aesthetic level, we love the things we love and hate the things that, in the case of Céline, ‘tens of millions’ of others all around the world happen to love. In this experiment Wilson is nothing if not thorough, but what struck me most upon re-reading the book (in order to write this text) was how deeply moving I often found it. Hurtling past the very astute Bourdieu take on taste as cultural capital, cutting deeply into how our aesthetic loves, the ones that most define us, in fact also serve to define us in relation to those we wish to raise ourselves above in social status, Wilson drives into the oversized emotions that Céline so effortlessly and graciously flaunts and suggests that our embarrassment around such things is not only a rejection of “schmaltz”, the only category he can find to describe her genre, but also representative of a questionable, very contemporary embarrassment around (and repression of) feeling things too much.

If I knew what was good for me I would probably continue along these lines (while at the same time toning it down a bit.) I believe Let’s Talk About Love is an important book and that everyone should simply go out and read it now. However, I had another, slightly more personal, encounter with this book and, since Wilson uses autobiographical detail sparingly but to great effect in Let’s Talk About Love, I will take the permission to do the same. My anecdote is perhaps self-indulgent, I suppose embarrassing, perhaps self-serving (I apologize most for the self-serving aspect), but (I hope) it does eventually come to a point.

About six months ago, my own most recent book had received no reviews. Sheila Heti, who was once married to Carl Wilson and appears in Let’s Talk About Love, though not mentioned by name, volunteered to review my book and proposed it to The Globe & Mail, who quickly refused, saying (and I hope my martyr complex didn’t simply make this next part up), that it would be of ‘no interest to their readership.’ I found this depressing. I greatly admire Shelia’s writing and would have been very curious to see what she would have written. (Knowing Sheila’s tastes a bit I did not think it would be entirely positive but hoped I could take it.) And of course it never hurts to have one’s book reviewed in The Globe & Mail.

A few months later I got a Facebook message from another friend/acquaintance whose work I also greatly admire, and to whom I had recently sent a copy of my book: Emily Vey Duke. Her Facebook message read: “I love your book.” This of course felt very good (such moments of surprising approbation are rare in this life) and, increasingly regretful that my book had been out almost a year and had yet to receive a single review, I decided to take matters into my own hands, asking Emily if she would be willing to write something about my book and attempt to place it in an art magazine. She agreed and a few months later she nervously sent me a first draft. Her review was strongly positive but – and I believe I took it graciously at the time – not nearly as positive as I had hoped. There were two quite damming paragraphs, the second of which read:
My biggest frustration with the piece was the decision to include the final chapter, “There is a Special place in Hell Reserved for People who Listen to the Wrong Kind of Music”. After three lachrymose, acerbic, haunted and important chapters, Wren tosses in a bit about how it's alienating when people younger than one's self start to listen to the music one held dear—how that can leave one feeling over-the-hill, not with-it. This is a reductive description, and I would be the last person to claim that the culture of cool, of with-it-ness, is less than tyrannical, but Wren's work here does not stand up […] Certainly the relationship between taste and identity is worth exploring—Carl Wilson has done so brilliantly in his fabulous little book “Let's Talk About Love” (to which I thank Jon Davies for introducing me). Unfortunately, Wren's exploration of the same ideas feels tacked on and trivializes what has come before.
And the moment I read this I knew she was absolutely right. What I had meekly tried (and I now believe failed) to do in the last section of my book, Wilson accomplished with thoroughness and panache in Let’s Talk About Love. I even remember thinking this (briefly) the first time I read it: this is what I had been trying to do, and seeing it done properly made it apparent how far off the mark I had in fact been. Besides the bizarre, if slight, coincidence that the first two attempts to review my book had a (very, very) tangential connection to Wilson (the arts community in Canada is small but is it really that small), there was the reality that I had attempted, Adorno in hand, to write about music, taste and politics and yet, it wasn’t until reading Wilson’s book that I realized how shallowly I had scratched the surface, and in many way how outdated many of my thoughts and positions around the topic had become. I wondered, and wondered quite seriously, if I had read Let’s Talk About Love before my own book went to press if I would have had the good sense to cut the last section (I hope so.)

So, and I am not exactly sure why this aspect might be relevant to anyone else, in my great admiration for this small, potent book there is also a certain degree of regret. It is my hope that in this regret, in my rather sharp realization that themes and topics can be shared among many different writers to varying degrees of efficacy, there is also something we might refer to as democratic.
_

Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His recent books include Unrehearsed Beauty (Coach House Books), Families Are Formed Through Copulation (Pedlar Press), Le génie des autres (Le Quartanier), La famille se crée en copulant (Le Quartanier) and the upcoming novel Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created En francais comme en anglais, it's easy to criticize (1998), Unrehearsed Beauty / Le Génie des autres (2002), La famille se crée en copulant (2005) and Hospitality (2008). He has also collaborated with Nadia Ross and her company STO Union. Together they have co-written and co-directed Recent Experiences (2000) and Revolutions in Therapy (2004). In 2007 he was invited to Berlin by Sophiensaele to adapt and direct Wolfgang Koeppen's 1954 novel Der Tod in Rom and in 2008 he was commissioned by Campo in Ghent to co-create (with Pieter De Buysser) a new performance entitled An Anthology of Optimism. He frequently writes about contemporary art for C Magazine.

Links:

http://www.radicalcut.blogspot.com

http://www.pme-art.ca

http://www.anthologyofoptimism.com

http://www.chbooks.com/archives/online_books/unrehearsed_beauty

http://www.agorareview.ca/?q=node/91

http://www.lequartanier.com/auteurs/wren.htm

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Poets Read: Round One

A mix of poets reading for the perusal and benefit of my esteemed students of poetry and poetics who would otherwise assume the reading of poems to be that undertaken under the greatest duress involving shortness of breath, much panting and dryness in the mouth, and whom after the briefest of engagements with said poets, offer up spectacular renditions of their very own poems. Or, for those of you who missed our discussion on Tuesday.

Caroline Bergvall, from Shorter Chaucers.

Christian Bok on behalf of George Bush and for Dick Higgins.

Patricia Smith
, Skinhead.

Jorie Graham from Dodge.

Harryette Mullen Lunch poems.

Sharon Olds and Billy Collins.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Joyland is way cool

Have you seen Joyland, the fantastic hub for short fiction created by Toronto writer Emily Schultz? This is what I've been looking for. Well, one of the things. Here's a taste of what's on the menu:

Jonny says
Mr. Hardman was silent. Then after a few tumbleweed moments, I was told to stay away from Hypermart for a couple of weeks. A kind of unpaid probation. I swore to myself that I would take the opportunity to hunt Chastity down and ruin her life, unless she called me and wanted to screw around or something.
Amanda Stern says
Say that I could fly using just my body. Say that based on the rate at which I lift my arms, I could take flight. Say that I could see through atmosphere and gauge ominous weather using just my eyes and what I know to be true of clouds (sometimes there is turbulence). Then, I think, I wouldn’t be afraid to leave the ground and I could move freely from the place I’m in. I could attend my sister’s wedding; see my mother before she dies. I could spend time with my brother whose two children I have never met.
Jonathan Lethem says
“I guess you’re thinking that there might not be a story here,” says The Man Who. “Least not the story you had in mind.”

“Oh no, I wouldn’t say that,” says the journalist quickly. He’s not sure if he hasn’t detected a note of sarcasm in the voice of The Man Who by now. “I’m sure we can work something up.”

“Work something up,” parrots The Man Who. The Mother Of has his shorts down now, and she’s swabbing at his damp flank with a paper towel. The Man Who sets his mouth in a grim smile and trudges forward. He’s not here, really. He’s out on Io, making tracks. He’s going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Fresh fiction from several North American cities, each with its own editor. It really gives you a flavor for each town, a little snapshot of Montreal, Toronto, New York. A little slice to go.

Check it out.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

How Fiction Works: On Joyce Carol Oates

“How ingenious, Anton! Did you carve it yourself?”

This was the sort of inane question you asked Anton Kruppev. For you had to say something to alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh. Hadley recalled the first time Anton had come by to see her, which had been the previous week—the strained and protracted conversation between them when, after Hadley had served him coffee and little sandwiches on multigrain bread, Anton hadn’t seemed to know how to depart; his lurching over her, his spasm of a handshake, and his clumsy wet kiss on her cheek which had seemed to sting her, and to thrill her, like the brush of a bat’s wings.

“Yes, Ma’am. You think—you will buy?”

“That depends, Anton. How much . . . ”

“For you, Ma’am, no charge!”

This forced joke, how long would it be kept up? Hadley wondered in exasperation. In middle school, boys like Anton Kruppev were snubbed—Ha ha, very funny!—but once you were an adult how could you discourage such humor without being rude? Hadley was thirty-nine. Anton couldn’t have been more than twenty-nine. He’d been born in what was now called Bosnia and Herzegovina, had lost his parents, and was brought to the United States by a surviving grandparent. He’d gone to American schools, including M.I.T., and yet in all those years had not become convincingly American.

Trying too hard, Hadley thought. The sign of the foreign-born.

Ah yes, the foreign-born. In the latest issue of the New Yorker Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps the most prolific writer of our time, maybe ever, sets a story in the town she lives in, the town of Princeton, which of course is that which surrounds Princeton University where Oates teaches. It's a very pleasing oasis with canals and wide streets, much brick, several very good restaurants, a great record shop, coffee shop and one of my favorite book stores (before it too closed down a year or two ago, sigh). It's a town filled with many well meaning liberalish people one might argue are largely unaware of the privilege they enjoy. Wealthy parental units descend from afar to take their children out to dinner at one of the several excellent restaurants. It's one version of the best of New Jersey, or one of the best versions, in any case. Many tales are set here, including at least part of Richard Ford's trilogy of novels, which also prods a little--just a little--at this elite world.

I say these folks are completely unaware of their privilege but that isn't quite true. Like most of people living in relative middle-class, or upper middle-class comfort, they know something of it, but that something is a mysterious, mercurial knowing that makes itself evident in strange ways. These strange ways, these faint roars or shimmers, are what Oates is on about in her recent story, "Pumpkin Head."

Oates' story details one such tiny clash. One Anton Kruppev, causes some stress in the lives of those he interacts with, some effort on their part to "alleviate the tension of the man’s aggressive-doggy eagerness to please, to impress, to make you laugh." The levels of anxiety, as is often the case with Oates, are quite palpable and escalate. This is the writer who brought us such classics as Where are you going, where have you been?, one of the creepiest short stories of all time. There is something gothic about Oates, someting strangely regal, angular and quietly disturbing that translates into all of her writing. Frail as a hummingbird bone she somehow manages, in her part Stephen King, part Flannery O'Connor mode, to get under even the most taught, thick, skin.

"Pumpkin Head" is no exception, though it's probably not a classic Oates story. The danger is over quickly and there are no bodies, nor much psychological terror to sweep up. On the scale of creepiness it's downright friendly. We follow our narrator, Hadley, as she navigates the difficulties that arise when the small ritual of exchange she has with one Anton Kruppev is altered. Very quickly he moves from being a manageable nuisance to a downright nuisance, to a threat. This as he struggles to emerge from the restrained conversations that he too is confined by. He literally tries to carve out a place, to impress upon his host some degree of his person, to make himself seen.

What I remember of this story after putting it down is really what I remember of all Oates' stories--the feeling. So often one gets a sense of being trapped in her work, as you do here. Hadley is trapped by her angry (sort of) guest, trapped by her own ideas of her life, trapped by her life. In other stories I remember, not the narrative but similar feelings: trapped down by a river, trapped in a car, trapped on a cruise. You have to read her quickly so that you don't sink into it, or let her sink too deeply into you, because once she gets in there the images, and the characters and the feelings linger and there is--when she gets it right--no escaping them.

The story also put me in mind of Alice Munro's recent story, "Free Radicals," which I wrote about here. In fact, now that I think of it, yes, it's strikingly similar. A widow alone in her house, wondering how to get along, the visit, someone forcing themselves into the widow's life, and then at the widow more violently. Munro's felt like a revision of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," a surprising turn for Munro. I'm not sure I could say the same of Oates,' though now that I've noticed the similarity lets have a look at the two.

Here is the opening of Oates'
In late March, there’d been a sleet storm throughout north-central New Jersey. Her husband had died several days before. There was no connection, she knew. But since that time she’d begun to notice at twilight a curious glistening to the air. Often, she found herself in the doorway of her house, or outside, not remembering how she’d got there. For long minutes, she would stare as the colors faded and a glassy light emerged from the sky and from the Scotch pines surrounding the house. It did not seem to her a natural light, and in weak moments she thought, This is the crossing-over time. She watched, not knowing what she might be seeing. She felt aroused, vigilant. She felt apprehension. She wondered if the strange glistening to the air had always been there but in her previous, protected life she hadn’t noticed it.
And here is the opening of Munro's:
At first, people kept phoning, to make sure that Nita was not too depressed, not too lonely, not eating too little or drinking too much. (She had been such a diligent wine drinker that many forgot that she was now forbidden to drink at all.) She held them off, without sounding nobly grief-stricken or unnaturally cheerful or absent-minded or confused. She said that she didn’t need groceries; she was working through what she had on hand. She had enough of her prescription pills and enough stamps for her thank-you notes.
So both women are in a state of "crossing over" time. One, Munro's character, a tad more stoic than the other. And here are the endings, first Munro:

She was wakened by a knock on her still unlocked door. It was a policeman, not the one from the village but one of the provincial traffic police. He asked if she knew where her car was.
She looked at the patch of gravel where it had been parked.
“It’s gone,” she said. “It was over there.”
“You didn’t know it was stolen? When did you last look out and see it?”
“It must have been last night.”
“The keys were left in it?”
“I suppose they must have been.”
“I have to tell you it’s been in a bad accident. A one-car accident just this side of Wallenstein. The driver rolled it down into the culvert and totalled it. And that’s not all. He’s wanted for a triple murder. That’s the latest we heard, anyway. Murder in Mitchellston. You were lucky you didn’t run into him.”
“Was he hurt?”
“Killed. Instantly. Serves him right.”
There followed a kindly stern lecture. Leaving keys in the car. Woman living alone. These days you never know.
Never know.

And then Oates:
She managed to stand. She was dazed, sobbing. She leaned against a chair in the hall, touching the walls, then stumbled to the open doorway and stood, staring outside. The front walk was dimly illuminated by the moon overhead. There was a meagre light, a near-to-fading light. She saw that the pumpkin head had fallen from the step, or had been kicked. It lay shattered on its side. She could see that the innards had been scooped out, but negligently, so that seeds remained, bits of pumpkin gristle. She stepped outside. She wiped at her mouth, which was still bleeding. She would run back into the house and dial 911. She would report an assault. She would summon help. For she required help, badly; she knew that Anton Kruppev would return. Certainly he would return. On the front walk, she stood gazing toward the road—what she could see of the road in the darkness. There were headlights there. An unmoving vehicle. It was very dark, a winter dark had come upon them. She called out, “Hello? Hello? Who is it?” Headlights on the roadway, where his vehicle was parked.

Not the same story, nor the same writers, but a similar journey. Both women having to talk their way out of a bad situation. It doesn't work for the old woman in O'Connor's story, who is shot and finds or does not find redemption in that moment--the jury is still out on that. But it does for both Oates' and Munro's characters. Widows who will go on, a little dazed, but righted finally, slightly scarred by the brush with the "other" in varying degrees of danger.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

If not winter, snow, thinking, and slight of hand, notes toward an essay

There is a narrow endless place
where the earth has frozen. On this
they live at unbelievable speeds.
-Don Coles
Under the snow, more snow. Shaved and shaped, smelling strangely enough of snow, not grass, which I try to imagine somewhere under there, yellow and flat.

Grey sky hardens, sun surprisingly, does not always soften.

Still, all joy, flaneuring in it piled up, hollowed, wind swept, crusted.

Is it snow that shapes us hard as porcelain? That slows us so?

I have been reading Canadian poetry. Here's a few lines from David O'Meara's "This Age," after Ahkmatova:
Why are things worse than they've ever been?
Sometimes, distracted by the mind's great grief,
we'd lop our own hand off to stop the pain,
then fidget with the stump so there's never relief.
And here's the beginning of Czarna Polweka:
When he crossed the valley
and frozen creek bed, he could hear
a curt squeal of shifting ice,
and the chop of wet-packed snow.
One can be a good sport about winter, but eventually one realizes that as cheerful as they've been they are still not even half way through the season. One turns inward. And no matter how great the power grid, the hardened look of everything wears. One couldn't last without heat. And then there are the sick days. By now you'll notice we've slipped right into David O'Meara's third book, Noble Gas, Penny Black which is quiet in this way, even quieter than his first two. It's a catalog of observances really, "a buttery pad of sun/slides below the slanted roofs" of his town, which is winter and he lives under "goose down, and humidifier steam," a muffled world of heaviness shot through with yearning and great attention to detail:
There's a click of lozenge
against your teeth, a coughed, lemon pause
until your voice creaks

like a breathy hinge...
ah, yes, winter.
I'll stay home too, make soup
against your temperature's flux,
putter through

the hours, our see-saw evening
of crosswords, photographs, question
marks on next year's calendar
as the ploughs scrape skeins

of snow toward the buried curb.
We talk past midnight. Quilt-folds
pocket a splay of warmth, hold
the fever before it breaks...
Canadian quiet. Aching with precision. Somber, as we see in the first stanza quoted, that lopped off hand, the nub we go back to. Like winter. Forced attention to sound. Forced because that is what one does when seasons lay hard upon the body. There is a slight of hand afoot, Mr. Don Coles points out about O'Meara's poetry "something quietly blooms before your reading eye...and spreads itself back into the lines behind it and over the lines that are still to come, and the poem moves from its previous mode into the kind of place which good poets intuit must be reachable but nevertheless often miss out on, just don't get the syllables right..."

Blurbishness aside, and the fact of the "good poets" line which always means "poets I like," Mr. Coles, whom I wrote about here, is referring to O'Meara, but I think--and this is also the danger in reviews and blurbs, he is also referring to himself. Here's Coles from "Photos in an Album"
They are like pools. The surface
of these prints shimmers,
while just below
he and his friends, intermittent swimmers,
hide in gliding time, or rise
showing changing faces as years pass.
It's perhaps not fair to move from a young poet to a senior poet in so few steps, but one hopes for more of this energy in our verse. For while O'Meara gets the syllables right, there is something missing here for me. One thing that Coles proves is that poetry, whether it is formal, innovative, avant garde, avant lyric, or whatever one might label it, is really about the idea, about the thinking behind the lines. Conceptual poetry, Kenny Goldsmith says, is only as good as the idea. It's the thinking that makes a poem compel, that gives it an engine. All the noticing, all the rhyme, the structural integrity of a piece, all the verbal play in the world--no matter how clever--means nothing if there is no thought behind it.

Of course O'Meara is thinking. And feeling. And of course this is one note in the grand scheme of things, but it's a fairly entrenched note, and the problem is a big one. Without that engine this kind of poetry becomes a kind of mock sublime. I say mock because we all know that under Heaney's pen, under his great ability to create such syllabics, to catalog items in sound, there is always the scrim of something darker looming, or having just gotten through. One weakness of quiet poetry is it forgets that to whisper is often at great peril. At great risk. There is no sense of that here. Or less perhaps than I felt in the earlier books.

Still, given the range of quiet and what a poet might do with it, O'Meara is still a poet that I'll gladly read, not just for his skill with the line, with syllables, and with that sleight of imagistic hand, but for the bigheartedness of the work, and how he lays that heart, as I've said above, over very real things, lovingly and precisely rendered.