I read William T. Vollmann because he occasionally gets everything right, all at once. Tucked between pages of overwritten and sometimes annoying pros...moreI read William T. Vollmann because he occasionally gets everything right, all at once. Tucked between pages of overwritten and sometimes annoying prose, he'll pull everything together for a few sentences that are crass, ethical, devastating, beautiful and true. I wonder if he will ever be constrained by himself or an editor to pack his finest moments into a novel all their own; it would be a formidable work.
13 Stories and 13 epitaphs, like a few other Vollmann "short story collections" is awfully close to being a shredded novel (perhaps another place where an editor less overwhelmed by Vollmann's fame might have made some suggestions). Characters recur throughout and the narrative voice is more of a presence and more of a character than, say, Anderson is in "Winesburg, Ohio."
A longer excerpt from the beginning of the eighth story offers a particularly unobscured example of Vollmann's subject matter and point of view:
"Admittedly, whatever help I offered has rarely succeeded in accomplishing anything; yet I myself have benefited so much from the generosity of friends and strangers that I have never seen reason to be pessimistic about what one human being can do for another. There are always instances, good and bad, that prove that the world does not work the way we expect it to. I remember the case of Sheet-Rock Mark, who went with my friend Ken to a Vietnamese restaurant, and Mark kept yelling what the fuck do you want to take me to this gook place for? why do you want this goddamned gook food? and I imagine that the Vietnamese lady who served them understood very well the drift of Mark's words and feared and hated Mark, and then after lunch Mark saw that the door was broken and he said to her oh you want me to fix your door? He got his tools and worked on that door for a good hour, and when he was finished the door was fixed and the Vietnamese lady was happy. It seems to me that Mark did more good than one of the people who have despised Mark for calling her a gook, who would have been polite to her and smiled at her encouragingly when she tried to speak English, but who would never in a million years have repaired the door."
This is Vollmann, matter-of-fact and confrontational, sitting amongst the people who concern him. At another point, also concerned with a war veteran, Vollmann writes with more intensity:
"Nonetheless, he had kept the dog tags of the last German that he'd killed, one minute before Hitler committed suicide. They were two cold black strips of metal, joined by a chain; they were heavy and slick with gun-oil; they had the smell of handcuffs about them. Sometimes, when the rest of the family was watching the blue adventures of Lone Shen on the old television and everybody got killed in action all over again, he went out to the garage to hold them in his hands. It was strange, the way they could suck the warmth out of him. He told no one about them, least of all his wife, because they had power and were magic. A houselight from across the featurlessly white-walled driveway shone green in the window, which was grey and of a varying texture, like pond ice. He held the dog tags up to the light and watched them glow. but they sucked him dry somehow. they left him so tired that when he pissed he could note even tell whether the ringing in his ears was piss striking the bowl or a sound in his head or maybe the ringing of a telephone."
Of course, within a minute's read, you can be mired in a twelve page, chopped up whore-dialogue of broken and accented English. Or your narrator might ask, "Which of the umpety-ump million flavors of pussy would he taste tonight?" But this multi-colored, unapologetic mess has characterized much of the Vollmann that I have read--and when I see that it characterizes another of his works (and when I see that I am not about to read a mythologized book about an icelandic power vest), I will read it.
Sometimes you are embarrassed for Vollmann and sometimes he embarrasses you. He is earnest, thoughtful, far away from what you know and allergic to the cheap laughs and the garbagey referential humor of his contemporary American novelists.(less)
“Waking the Tiger” advances Peter Levine’s hopeful theory that trauma has been badly misunderstood and mistreated in Western Culture. He uses numerous...more“Waking the Tiger” advances Peter Levine’s hopeful theory that trauma has been badly misunderstood and mistreated in Western Culture. He uses numerous examples from the animal kingdom along with case studies of his own patients to argue that people can make a complete and healthy recovery from trauma by somatically renegotiating their traumatic experience. He emphasizes that “somatic experiencing” is not re-enactment—an approach that he is skeptical about, at best. His contention is that the tremendous energies mobilized to defend us in moments of fear and danger can become trapped within us if they are not allowed to discharge themselves or to complete their functions.
Whereas a lay person has little to gain by reading about how trauma should be medicated, anyone can benefit from an exploration of Peter Levine’s arguments. Even if he is only partially or occasionally right, his strategies can help anyone to explore ways that trauma may be influencing their behavior or the behavior of their loved ones. He then offers an empowering framework for engaging with these vestiges of trauma, both in ourselves and in others.
The warning that totally routine dental and medical procedures or minor accidents can be traumatizing to young people who do not understand them seems to be particularly relevant. I think anyone in the medical profession and everyone with young children should read this book to make sure that they can better accompany young people through experiences that are perceived as threatening. This book has definitely changed the way that I will interact with people who have just been through something traumatic-—and how many books actually make you change the way you behave during extremely important moments of your life? (less)
It is bold to write elegies to great masters of your native language who died four decades before your birth in tragic circumstances; yet, Ilya Kamins...moreIt is bold to write elegies to great masters of your native language who died four decades before your birth in tragic circumstances; yet, Ilya Kaminsky seems comfortable using his adopted language (English) to attach himself to the writers in whose lineage he wishes to belong. He stakes a claim over personal stories in the lives of Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky, Isaac Babel and Marina Tsvetaeva--three of whom were ground out of existence by the Soviet government between 1938 and 1941. He also permits into this constellation, Paul Celan, whose Jewishness and experience of suffering presumably outweigh the fact that he wrote his poetry in German. Kaminsky and his family fled the former Soviet Union for the United States, where they were granted asylum. I don’t know more about his life than that; but the authors mentioned above endured horrendous circumstances.
At several points in this volume, Kaminsky makes clear that he has no affiliation (“I was born in the city named after Odysseus/ and I praise no nation—” “The sky my medicine, the sky my country”); perhaps worried that his readers might not understand that this constitutes a rejection of the national identity of his asylum-givers, he writes, “In plain speech, for the sweetness/ between the lines is no longer important, what you call immigration I call suicide.” We also know, from the first line of the collection that he aspires to “speak for the dead”—whether this is easier or more difficult for someone who feels that he has killed his identity, I do not know. Occasionally, throughout the volume, there are moments where Kaminsky shows (appropriate) modesty about his poetic ambitions. For example, to Joseph Brodsky, he writes, “You would be ashamed of these wooden lines,/ how I don’t imagine your death/ but it is here, setting my hands on fire.”
In any case, an ambitious, deep-feeling young poet is constructing, for himself and for his ancestors, a tribute and a bridge. From what I have read, he is not their equal; but he is talented and I will read him again. In his poems grapefruit, small change, levity and intimacy oppose the Furies of fascism, search warrants, surveillance and tanks. Prose poems, a glossary and a recipe are integrated sensibly with more lyric verse and a small palette of objects recur throughout all five of the longer, segmented poems: pigeons, wind, tomatoes, coins, ill-fated ships, joints of the human body, lemons, the word “syllables”, biblical references and hands. It works to have these humble nodes, connecting one poem to the next, binding the thoughtful and sometimes touching love poems to his wife with the poems that imagine dead voices from another era in their moments of grief or celebration. There is something logical about selecting objects, forces, and traditions that have not changed and using them as a shared context for diverse human subjects.
But, I have not spoken highly enough about the quality of his poetry when he gets things right: he sometimes manages a rapid movement over and through several connected people in a way that is both affectionate and wise. For instance,
“my mother danced, she filled the past/ with peaches, casseroles. At this, my doctor laughed, his granddaughter/ touched my eyelid—I kissed/ / the back of her knee.”
“On my brother’s head: not a single/ gray hair, he is singing to his twelve-month-old son. / / And my father is singing/ to his six-year-old silence.”
At other times, Kaminsky conjures a very real and sympathetic persona that struggles to connect and remain connected:
“I bend clumsily at the knees/ and I quarrel no more,/ all I want is a human window/ / in a house whose roof is my life.”
“He is traveling across her kitchen, touching furniture,/ a small propeller in his head / / turning as he speaks.”
“Memory,/ I whisper, stay awake.”
A book of poetry is worth reading, from my point of view, if it offers up just a few pages of excerpts this singular and unpretentious. Kaminsky achieves this and he does so without ever being annoying—even while embarked on what I obviously think is a rather grand mission.