'Oh, for Christ's sake, one doesn't study poets! You read them, and think, That's marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that's how you learn.''Oh, for Christ's sake, one doesn't study poets! You read them, and think, That's marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that's how you learn.' -Philip Larkin (Paris Review, 1982)
The concept is brilliant: McSweeny's took a poem by 10 poets and then had these poets select another of their poems to be included. Then they picked a poem by another poet, who in turn selected a poem of their own and furthermore selected a poem from another poet. The end result is 10 poet chains, each 5 poets long with 10 poems in each. Follow? The table of contents gives a good visual:
The idea works much like spending a night surfing the links on Youtube; you find a poet you might enjoy and then before you know it you've read through other 'suggested poems for you'.
This is a fascinating little collection, and offers an excellent introduction to a wide range of modern day poets. Many of these poets I had been unfamiliar with, and even for those I've read before, it was rather interesting to see what poem they selected of themselves and of their contemporaries (I couldn't help but enjoy that James Tate picked a wonderful poem by my favorite, Charles Simic). The collection could have been made better and more insightful if the poets provided a small blurb about why they selected the poems and poets they did. The collection feels a bit cold in that regard, and though it is entertaining to try and guess for yourself why they selected what they did, it would have been more fun to get a glimpse into the gears behind the machines a bit. In fact, the book I really wish it were is a book of each poet talking about their influences. Definitely worth picking up still, as it does provide a great variety and has a very unique format. 4/5
‘Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.’
There is a quote by David Foster Wallace that ‘good fiction's job is to comfort the di ‘Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.’
There is a quote by David Foster Wallace that ‘good fiction's job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.’ Cormac McCarthy’s trim third novel, Child of God, is an optimal example of this sentiment, as it manages to provide the counterparts of the both comfortable and disturbed elements within the reader by offering them an unflinching portrait of baseness and demanding reaction. The short novel chronicles the hellish descent of Lester Ballard into the maelstroms of human depravity, from simple onanistic voyeurism to murder and necrophilia. Yet, McCarthy reminds us that Ballard is ‘a child of God much like yourself perhaps,’ and reminds us of how human we really are. Through sparse and stupendous prose, McCarthy drags the human soul through the mud and muck of this gruesome parable to show us the degradation of humanity when chased into the shadows by isolation and ostracization, showing us wickedness and making us feel,—much to the reader’s discomfort—equal parts disgust and empathy.
To open a McCarthy novel is to step into a nightmarish wasteland of the soul built out of breathtaking bricks of penetrating prose. Through language that borders on biblical and flourishes effortlessly like tangled ivy on Greek pillars, McCarthy brings the reader into the dirty dregs of a small Tennessee town and makes them practically smell the damp soil and sweaty backs and gunpowder of the novel. Broken up into three parts, each unique in style and execution, McCarthy unfolds the story of Lester Ballard through the eyes and ears of the locals as well as his omniscient narration. Each voice is a piece of the puzzle to understanding Ballard, fleshing him out by examining him from many angles and views while also constructing a penetrating look at those around him. Child of God is another impressive addition to the American mythology of darkness that McCarthy has built.
The story of Lester Ballard is not for the squeamish as McCarthy illuminates his depravity without ever shielding the readers eyes from the disgusting sights. It is what readers of McCarthy have come to expect; McCarthy is an expert in probing the depths of the human soul and rubbing in our faces all the darkest and most disturbing elements the imagination can find down there in the shadows we try to conceal and forget. Ballard does the unthinkable and inexcusable again and again, yet McCarthy does not create him as a flat, pure-evil character. He has much more in store for our souls to digest and wrestle with. Chronicling his life, McCarthy depicts Ballard as a man alienated by his community, chased like a rat into hiding because of his differences and difficulties putting on a normal persona in the world. Ostracized, isolated and with no one to turn to, Ballard has little choice but to give in to his alarmingly abominable ways. Occasionally he is called out of the darkness,
some old shed self that came yet from time to time in the name of sanity, a hand to gentle him back from the rim of his disastrous wrath
However, being so withdrawn and removed from society, the voice of civilized reason is most often lost in the wilderness of wickedness. His criminal acts seem a way he has found to give voice to a sense of impotence and alienation he has felt all his life.
'You ain't even a man. You're just a crazy thing,' a girl says to him. It is easy to just consider him a 'thing', a being removed from us so that we can despise and scorn him without inner-remorse. It keeps us safe from identifying with him, from having to understand him or see life through his eyes. But is he just a 'thing', or is he still a man? We are reminded that Lester Ballard is a ‘child of God’ and not so different from you or I. Those of the religious faith are taught to forgive and love thy brothers and sisters, as we are all cut from the same cloth. Ballard too. And to deny him of this would be to deny God’s word, and this is the skillful and wonderfully ironic moral conundrum McCarthy imposes on the reader. ‘Let he who is free from sin cast the first stone,’ is a statement from the Bible pointing out that we all bear the scars of sin, and can we really judge Ballard without then judging ourselves? Religious or not, this is a quandary that tests our moral judgment and reminds us that all of us are capable of evil.
All the bleakness aside, it is hard to not be astounded by McCarthy’s dexterity with prose styling and his way with diction. And, despite the grim context, this is actually quite a darkly comical novel at times. Ballard gets swindled trying to sell watches, bootleggers are too drunk to find their own hiding places, and other sorts of gross yet somehow humorous elements keep the book from being too flatly dark. It is not an ‘enjoyable’ read, yet there is much enjoyment to keep the reader thinking and turning pages. It is short as to not begrudge the reader with too much darkness and entertaining and engaging enough so that most can finish it in a sitting or two.
This is a bleak novel with little to nothing in the way of redemption within the book. However, this is because the redemption rests within the reader; can we look into the heart of another man and disregard him as pure evil? Is everything black or white or can we feel pity even for those who are the epitome of depravity. Lester Ballard is chased from society, eventually having to hide in caves like a wild beast or a descent into hell, and we must question if he is just an evil man or a product of his circumstances. This isn’t to say that he is to be cleared of his crimes, but it does make an interesting point about humanity. I was glad to have read this book on a bright sunny day beside a case of fine IPAs, which lasted the duration of reading this book, as the novel left me feeling cold and hard and hollow on the inside. Child of God might be my least favorite of McCarthy's novels (Suttree toping my list), but it still packs a wallop of a punch. Bleak and brutal, yet darkly funny, this book is not for everyone. But if you are willing to stare into the eyes of darkness and voyage into the deepest recesses of the human heart, McCarthy is the ideal tour guide.
‘What sort of meanness have you got laid out for next.’
This is a wonderful little gem of an anthology. This vast collection of stories, ranging from the 16th century on up until the modern day, is compriseThis is a wonderful little gem of an anthology. This vast collection of stories, ranging from the 16th century on up until the modern day, is comprised of short pieces (short stories, poetry, prose, essays and sketches) all under 1250 words. It is the perfect little companion to take to the toilet (does anyone else think of Costanza from that Seinfeld episode in the bookstore anytime they have a book near their toilet?) or just to break up the day for a brief moments. Plus there is a wonderful collection of authors actually worth reading: Macedonio Fernández, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Walser, Virginia Woolf, Donald Barthelme, Charles Simic, Russell Edson, Italo Calvino, Lydia Davis, Amelia Gray, Thomas Bernhard, just to name a few. It is a rather impressive list and collection, though a good chunk of material may be repeats for those who have explored the short fiction or poetry world before. However, it is full of brilliant pieces, some that defy tidy classification, that manage to contain a universe of thought and ideas in the tiniest of spaces. Definitely worth picking up just to have around for when you need a extremely short break from the day. 4/5
One of my favorite James Tate poems is included in here:
Good Time Jesus Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dreaming so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beautiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
A poem is a voice-mail: the poet has stepped out, most likely will not be back. Please leave a message after you hear a gunshot.
There is a stark simpliciA poem is a voice-mail: the poet has stepped out, most likely will not be back. Please leave a message after you hear a gunshot.
There is a stark simplicity to Russian poet Vera Pavlova's poetry that manages to dredge up the highest emotive power through such slim offerings. These 100 poems are brief waltzes of life, easily relatable while still probing the darker corners of our hearth that we don't usually let see the light of day or conversation. These are not normally the type of poems I would enjoy, being bent on relationships and the still-life echoes of love long fallen into domestic routine and structure, yet there is something so utterly charming and potent to be found within her words. Pavlova's emotions ring clear and true, and give a guilty pleasure that reminds us exactly why we fall in love, and love the feeling of love and comfort, even when that comfort may dull the edges of our lives and remind us that we are merely a cog in the world around us.
When the very last grief deadens all our pain, I will follow you there on the very next train, not because I lack the strength to ponder the end result, but maybe you forgot to bring pills, a necktie, razor blades...
Unlike the Tyson Knot Gregson's that plague the instagrams and poetry shelves of the modern day, capitalizing on our emotions and constantly looking up from the page to see if they have made us cry yet, Pavlova offers true, honest emotion in the 'everyday' sort. Her poems are like the simple act of covering a loved one with a blanket, or forgiving a lover and falling asleep with their hand clasped in yours after an argument. These poems are short, getting in and out while bestirring the most possible emotion, yet don't leave the reader feeling they have been duped by emotional propaganda or false pretenses merely aimed at hanging your wallet from a noose. Had this not been a translation and had a wider promotional campaign, this would be a major success as it manages to be both accessible and provoke such emotional resonance. However, Pavlova's poetry is easily forgettable, mostly because it is primarily one-liners and quick tugs of the heart-strings but light on the intellectual playing field. That said, each time you find it again on your shelf while looking for something quick to browse, you are glad that it is there to remind you again why love is one of the most important aspects of being a human being. Well worth the price of admission. 3.5/5
...if necessary, the books shall be divided as follows: you get the odd, I get the even pages; "the books" are understood to mean the ones we used to read aloud together, when we would interrupt our reading for a kiss, and get back to the book after half an hour...
With his newest effort, 2014's Bone Clocks, David Mitchell returns to form found in his earlier novels such as--Slightly improved version 10/31/2014--
With his newest effort, 2014's Bone Clocks, David Mitchell returns to form found in his earlier novels such as Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas with a wide-ranging epic spanning across multiple narrators and continents with aims at a universal message about power and the battle of good versus evil. Like Cloud Atlas, his newest effort harnesses various genres of fiction into a larger mosaic work that highlights the interconnectivity of humanity and the versatility of fiction writing. Bone Clocks both builds upon and simultaneously suffers from its attempt at harnessing the popular fiction of the day, yet misses the mark in terms of both parody and creating a work of lasting value. The book is a enjoyable, wild ride, and it is no surprise it has a popular following and managed to poke about on bestseller lists for a brief period. However, in the cannon of David Mitchell, this book falls far short of its potential. Mitchell seems to be making a grab for a wider, younger reader base here with Bone Clocks, yet also appears to be self-conscious of this grab and satirizes the genres he parodies in order to wash his hands of the whole affair. Despite the length and sprawling settings, the book finishes feeling overly simplified and overly explained, nothing left for the reader to venture in their own minds, and, most unfortunately, feels as if the novel was cheated by being tied together by the tawdry fantasy elements. However, Mitchell does succeed in highlighting the elements of popular fiction and adapting his own prose to fit these elements. While Bone Clocks has a lot of positives going for it, it succumbs to the overpowering negatives amalgamated from lackluster—and totally unnessesary—fantasy sub-plots, weak dialogue, and an insistence at saturating the text with witty one-liners.
A fascinating and engaging aspect of Cloud Atlas, to which this novel is sure to be frequently compared, was Mitchell’s ability to sashay between genres and voice, creating a wide-ranging assortment of characters reincarnated through time as a brilliant metaphor for the reoccurrence of motifs in various literary traditions as well as an exploration of the how language evolves through time. Whereas Cloud Atlas parodied a wide range of notable styles across a lengthy timeline, using voices reminiscent of Herman Melville, Aldous Huxley, and even dipped into mass market action adventure crime dramas, Bone Clocks keeps the voices very contemporary. While this is in keeping with the shorter timeline of the novel, the variations are less noticeable and though it would seem impressive from a different author, it leads the reader to wonder why he would pull the same trick but to a lesser extent and the diminishing returns take the headspace that would otherwise be occupied by awe (this same aspect thwarts his character Crispin Hershey, though more on that later). Another dilemma is that the voices aren’t all that varied in cadence and each voice is oversaturated with jokey one-liners and insults that are all built on the same blueprints. Mitchell compensates for this as most of his narrators are writers themselves, but the technique quickly becomes threadbare. There is no attempt to step into a voice outside the actual author—Mitchell—and each new narrator brings further diminishing returns of enjoyment and awe. Also, the collection of parodies seems more an ugly hodgepodge than a fine-tuned machine of separate gears working together. ‘think Solaris meets Noam Chomsky via The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Add a dash of Twin Peaks...’ Hershey’s own future book sounds just as clumsy as the one at hand.
The contemporary voice of the work seem pivotal to Mitchell’s intent for the novel. Literature is an ever-changing, fluid beast that reacts both to the society and times from which it is created, but also to itself. Literature spawns from a tradition that is forever reshaped, reexamined and refurbished, drawing on both past and present to create something new and, hopefully, something noteworthy, but it cannot do so without recognizing where it has come from in order to step in a bold new direction. ‘Even if a poet sets out to invent a new poetics,’ lectures character-author Crispin Hershey, ‘he or she can oly react against what’s already there. There’s no Johnny Rotten without the Bee Gees.’ We live in an age of hyper-information, an age where anyone can voice an opinion and have it read across the globe, an age of ‘entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist’ (William Gaddis, Agapē Agape). In this age, literature has fallen prey to a capitalist agenda, where the books that are easily accessible—in regards to both accesiblitliy to a consumer and accessibility of understanding—are the ones that will be pushed and promoted on the market. These books are much like what social theorists spoke of about popular television a few decades ago, being something with the highest possible pleasure and leaving the recipient feeling as if they have not wasted their time though they have actually just been a passive viewer to what has transpired. With Bone Clocks Mitchell seems to to highlighting the characteristics of what is now considered popular fiction. Cloud Atlas had the merits of being a sort of ‘literary pulp’, being both pulpy stories but with a literary intent that would lead readers excited by the adventures towards the literary pillars Mitchell had parodied. Bone Clocks is similar, except he leads readers towards popular fiction, for better of for worse. Mitchell often mentions the authors and genres he satirizes by name, such as the name-drop of Lee Child in the action story narrated by Marinus. This story is particularly pockmarked with atrocious dialogue. Characters are overly jokey in high-stress situations—a common occurrence in bad action films or books to point out how ‘hardened’ they are, and, in one unforgivable moment, the villain (yes, this book falls victim to the juvenile usage of a pure-evil villain character) of the book shouts ‘crush them like ants’ during a battle sequence. People do not talk like this. Why would she need to inform her pure-evil team in the middle of a fight to the death that they should be trying to kill their opponents? Why reiterate that for the reader, unless it is assumed we’ve missed the point that they should be killing each other. Once again, this is the characteristics of pulpy action stories.
While other chapters seem based on writings of a bit more merit, such as the Martin Amis inspired Crispin Hershey or the war correspondent section, the characteristics of popular teen fiction seem to flicker in much of the novel. There are the tidy endings often found in that genre (in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, a current corner-stone of popular fiction, the focal characters reject novels that do not have tidy, redemptive endings), and the cliche villain characters like Hugo that are charismatic, selfish and essentially sociopathic (a bit of a Voldemort character). An aspect that registered most distasteful are the ‘allusions’ that are more a mere name-dropping than actual references. Instead of cloaking an allusion to be unearthed by those who either know the material or do their research, Mitchell simply states things to rile up the fans. Daleks and the Tardis are simply called out, a technique found in popular fiction to excite fans but more borders on pandering than anything, and even the more literary references like the Auden and Laxness discussions are laid bare instead of assessed intertextually. I must admit to feeling the ‘fan-boy’ glee at name-drops such as Bonnie Prince Billy, but the frequent name dropping feels careless and desperate for attention rather than used for any higher purpose beyond elevating the readers pulse.
The troublesome narration, flat dialogue, and pulpy, fantasy plots would be easily disposed as simply bad writing in any other author, but those familiar with Mitchell are sure to notice that the writing is uncharacteristically poor for an author who is known to take careful, self-conscious consideration and typically writes at a higher caliber than much of what is found within Bone Clocks. Perhaps the negative reception to the film version of Cloud Atlas, which is sure to have hurt sales (I personally used to recommend the book to customers at my bookstore, and was often met with a wrinkling of the face and comments on how they had heard or thought the movie was terrible). Perhaps Mitchell is attempting to expand his reader base and is dipping into popular fiction as bait. Many times while reading Bone Clocks I was upset knowing Mitchell is better than how he was carrying on. There is much evidence in the text to support he was aware of his attempt to parody popular fiction and his usually charming self-conscious anxiety assesses this frequently throughout the Crispin Hershey segment. Hershey’s in-novel literary history reflects Mitchell’s own in many ways. The five year gap between Bone Clocks and Thousand Autumns is represented in the five years before Hershey’s Echo Must Die saw publication in the novel, and Hershey is always short-listed for, but never the recipient of, the most presigious European literary prize, mirroring the Man Booker Prize for which Mitchell is always notable but never victor. The most charming aspects of a David Mitchell novel is always when he exposes the clockwork, and Crispin Hershey’s segment is that moment in this novel. Mitchell pokes fun at himself, such as the review of Hershey’s Echo Must Die by character Richard Cheeseman (fans of Cloud Atlas are sure to enjoy that Cheesman—Mitchell never missing an opportunity to ridicule reviewers by naming his reviewer Dick Cheese—was first employed by a certain Felix Finch) stating:
Why is Echo Must Die such a decomposing hog? One: Hersey is so bent on avoiding cliche that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?
Each of these points are clearly addressing Bone Clocks itself, or is it that Echo Must Die is in fact a in-novel version of Bone Clocks? There are plenty of strong points in this novel, particularly Mitchell’s recurring theme of those in power holding an obdurate seat of authority over those without by any means possible most, notably emphasized in Brubeck’s chapter ‘Wedding Bash’, yet every time the novel is flowing nicely along through societal or interpersonal commentary, the fantasy elements crop up, derail anything beneficial, and speed the plot along towards some unsatisfying and unnecessary fantastic climax (a climax achieved in an orgasm of action-packed psychic battle bloodshed). To humor the idea, what then are the ‘echos’ that must die? Through each section, right when things get dicey and plot-excitement take hold, there are the repeated questions: ‘what do you know about Horology?’ or ‘Who is Esther Little?’. These questions echo on, conjuring up the jarring and, unfortunately for the book, juvenile and cheesy fantasy elements that plague the novel. Mitchell is pointing out how these fantasy stories, the action plots of authors like Lee Child and Dan Brown (both of which are frequently mentioned) are bastardizing the literary tradition. This then leads the reader to question every element of the novel, noticing the glaring cliches and other popular fiction elements flagged by flagrantly poor writing.
Which is not to say, exactly, that Mitchell is a poor writer, and I find it troublesome to actually label the writing in this book as 'poor'. Considering the idea that this is an intentional investigation into popular fiction, Mitchell brilliantly succeeds in parodying and highlighting the elements of the novelists and genres he has chosen to examine. Lee Child comes up a few times, an author working within the action-packed political spy genre. The Marinus segments work wonderfully within this genre, and while it seemed to me a bit overblown and pulpy, that is exactly what it is supposed to be. The dialogue of Sadaqat, the housekeeper of the Horologists home-base, does not feel realistic, being overtly passive and chummy and full of home-team pride, but it is exactly this disingenuous dialogue that leads the reader to realize that he is a traitor. When he betrays them, which doesn't come as much of a surprise, it is evident that the flat dialogue was the foreshadowing; Mitchell uses linguistic cues and intentionally 'bad' writing as a method of character development, which is honestly quite fascinating and is in keeping with the style of dialogue such a character would employ in, say, a Lee Child novel. Similarly with the nods to Dan Brown in the Crispin Hershey segment, utilizing the semiotic investigations of a Brown 'connect-the-dots to solve the mystery' plot such as the one-eyed man being used to bait the reader to a false climax (the first is not his killer, and the second is a surprise interpretation).
Mitchell is making a play for a wider audience by baiting them with popular fiction, yet simultaneously prodding at the book for employing this technique. However, would a self-respecting author really intentionally stoop to poor writing to make a point? I fully concede to be wrong on all accounts here, because would Mitchell jeopardize his novel and writing-caliber to make a point? I believe he may have taken this risk, as I have faith that Mitchell is wiser and more adept than much of what he presents here, yet even seeing through to the possible mechanics and impetus of the novel do not save it, though they do retain respect for Mitchell as a writer. Even alongside this theory of both utilizing bad fiction while chastising it for a higher purpose of literary conversation, Bone Clocks still fail. The supposed intent does not compensate for the inferior writing, meretricious fantasy elements, and aggravating characters—such as young Holly—that plague the novel and detract from the emotive and intellectual themes of power, corruption and literary prowess that could have shone on their own had their not been a need to tie them together with the Anchorite vs Horologist sub-plot. Each time this plot reared its ugly head it was met with an eye-roll.
All the negatives aside, this is a fun book. Mitchell enacts a fascinating and well-rounded theology with the Horologists, creating a within-the-novel jargon and fleshed-out history (impressive at least to me, a reader not well-versed, and even adverse, to the science-fiction realms Mitchell takes the reader throughout this book). The characters are engaging, especially Ed Brubeck, who leaves the reader wishing Mitchell had just written a full-length novel on him alone (though at least we are blessed by war correspondent stories such as ‘Listening to the Shells’ in William T. Vollmann’s Last Stories and Other Stories—possibly the finest book published in Summer 2014—to satisfy where Mitchell cut short). Mitchell works well with three-dimensional characters like Brubeck who is not without his flaws, and especially Hugo, the books most likeable character who also happens to be a morally bankrupt utter bastard. This is interesting seeing as most popular fiction tends towards relatable, likeable characters that are either irreprochable or flaws that are more charming than anything else. This book is also worth reading for any Mitchell fan simply to see how it fits into his universe. There are frequent allusions to his other works, particularly Black Swan Green in the earlier portions (Alan Ward and Hugo were exciting to revisit) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which may possibly feature an early example of the Anchorites alongside the first mention of Marinus (if this was preordained by Mitchell or just a happy opportunity for expansion is up for debate and could only be resolved by Mitchell himself). Despite my earlier comments on the bland dialogue and, to me, middling prose that comprises the Marinus section, that chapter blazed like wildfire with excitement and glee. While I did not enjoy Bone Clocks, it is admittedly a fun and engaging novel, especially for those who are coming to this from the styles which he parodies.
Mitchell returns with fascinating themes on power and the human condition that permeate his other novels. I respect his views on good and evil, and that the world is ruined by those who abuse power to shoehorn their own profit-gaining power over those below them. The section on the Iraq war is of particular interest, as Mitchell manages to summarize the conflict better in a more succinct and beneficial manner than months of news broadcasts explained it to me in my youth. I particularly enjoyed his jabs at American arrogance and his brief mention of war-profiteers such as Erik Prince’s Blackwater group (who are local heros here in hometown Holland, Michigan, much to my disdain). Mitchell has an agenda for the betterment of humanity that is honorable and uplifting, and these themes of his are what always keep me coming back for more.
Mitchell does well by gathering a wider readership and creating a fascinating fantasy world that is fun to read, yet the novel feels like he is constantly juggling more than he can carry and is thwarted by a striking mediocrity in variety of voices and satire, though intentional. What is most troubling is that Mitchell seems to be writing for the sake of an audience, a wide audience at that, and not for the sake of the story. Cheapen a book for an audience, and the story suffers. Keep true to a story, and an audience will find their way. That said, I will still read any following Mitchell novels and still hold faith in him as a writer. He is a necessary and wonderful benefactor for those hoping to move from pulpier fiction to a fiction of a more literary bent reminding readers how much fun reading can be. Bone Clocks is a fun adventure, but one soon forgotten upon completion. 2.5/5...more
'A poem is like a bank robbery: the idea is to get in, get their attention, get the money and get out.' - c.simic
LABOR AND CAPITAL The softness of this
'A poem is like a bank robbery: the idea is to get in, get their attention, get the money and get out.' - c.simic
LABOR AND CAPITAL The softness of this hotel bed On which we made love Demonstrates to me in an impressive manner The superiority of capitalism.
At the mattress factory I imagine, The employees are happy today. It's Sunday and they are working Extra hours, like us, for no pay.
Still, the way you open your legs and reach for me with your hand Makes me think of the Revolution, Red banners, crowds charging.
Someone stepping on the soapbox As flames engulf the palace, And the old prince in full view, Steps to his death from a balcony.
Not only is Simic my favorite poet, but it is due to this collection of poetry that I was able to meet my fiancé. A fantastic 'selected works', primarily drawing on his later works (early, brilliant, poems like his infamous poem about silverware are neglected) and includes many of my favorites. Simic has a gift for juxtaposing the mundane with the comical, and often darkly comical, while dredging up his yellowing memories to create a portrait of timeless importance. The way his spins metaphors is awe-inspiring; Simic takes an idea and runs it through a series of loops and twists like an airshow pilot to deliver the reader into a metaphysical realm of language that will leave you gasping for breath and checking your seatbelt harness. I discovered him in my darkest hours, and he was a torch that saw me through the labyrinthian caverns to a new world of light, love and happiness. He reads like a whimsical Borges of the noir, and clutches your soul with tender, loving care. If you read only one poet in your life, make it Simic. 5/5
MIRRORS AT 4a.m.
You must come to them sideways In rooms webbed in shadow, Sneak a view of their emptiness Without them catching A glimpse of you in return.
The secret is, Even the empty bed is a burden to them, A pretense. They are more themselves keeping The company of a blank wall, The company of time and eternity
Which, begging your pardon, Cast no image As they admire themselves in the mirror, While you stand to the side Pulling a hanky out To wipe your brow surreptitiously.
Rather disappointed in this collection. It may be due to my fanfare for Frank Bidart's collection, which was also shortlisted for the National Book AwRather disappointed in this collection. It may be due to my fanfare for Frank Bidart's collection, which was also shortlisted for the National Book Award, or my recent realization that so many poetry grab for the sentimental as an excuse to avoid true perfection. There were a lot of great moments, especially her combination of Lolita with statements about the Clinton affair, but so much was drown out in sentimentality and cutesy nods to falling asleep on yoga mats and other such modern-day middle-class problems. I really wanted to like this, too. She plays with form in several poems, but it came across as an experiment hell-bent on impressing with experimentation that it forgot to be a worthwhile poem. I may also be being a bit harsh of Szybist, who is clearly a genius poet. I just wish more was from the soul than from the heart. If that makes sense. ...more
‘'Maybe the idea is to think of time differently. Stop time, or stretch it out, or open it up. Make a still life that's living, not painted.’
In every‘'Maybe the idea is to think of time differently. Stop time, or stretch it out, or open it up. Make a still life that's living, not painted.’
In every instant of our waking lives we are experiencing the world around us through all our five senses. In order to process and share these experiences, we cage our perceptions up in words—abstract signifiers with an assumed weight of meaning. However, language is frail. fallible and full of holes, delivering us a beast behind bars, a caged animal at the zoo, restless and submissive rather than the wild, raw power of a creature at one in its natural habitat and able to roam free through our senses. Don DeLillo’s brief novel, The Body Artist (2001), brings to life the limitations of language to pinpoint experience and further examines this notion in light of a technology-infused modern society through the frighteningly intense introspective plunge of the grief and loneliness that befalls Lauren Hartke after the death of her husband. DeLillo conducts a quiet symphony of pitch-perfect prose to steal the heart as well as crack the shell of concepts such as time and language and masterfully serves us a delicious platter of the abstract implications that hide within. This is a novel about abstractions in a world of impermanence and a white noise of Being that buzzes like an aging fridge all around us, and a novel about the state of metamorphosis. Through Lauren Hartke, a nearly parasitic being that absorbs the world around her to explore the vicissitudes of life, DeLillo uncrates a haunting and surreal existential discourse on time and how language assesses being, effortlessly encapsulating the alienation and anguish of post-modern humanity in this age of technology.
‘Everything is slow and hazy and drained and it all happens around the word seemed.’
Jacques Derrida wrote that ‘il n'ya pas de hors texte (there is nothing outside the text).’ There are many facets to this statement, namely (and I apologize for bastardizing the ideas of deconstructionism is such shamefully simplistic and faulty manner that does not even probe beneath the surface of the ideas) that authorial intent is overruled by the inherent meaning of words as themselves, and that meaning resides in the rhetorical usage of language with regards to historical context, grammar and vocabulary. Words become a tricky subject that exist in a life beyond our complete control and can only be hoped to be harnessed and rode like a wild stallion across the prairies of pages; words are are method of transporting experience to others and therefore experience must be reigned by language and subjected to its shortcomings of placing an abstract into a signifier. ‘No single word,’ wrote Derrida, ‘ out of context, can by itself ever translate another word perfectly.’ Words are rife with meaning, a tree full with the fruits of connotation, denotation and intention, each specific and unique, yet to perfectly harness our intentions it would require an exhaustive examination of each word to be sure we are ushering the reader to experience the exact same principals of the experience we are trying to imply. It is also important to keep in mind that the word is not the thing, only a signpost pointing towards the thing-in-itself. It is an abstract array of sounds agreed upon as an indentifier. When we say ‘dog’, for example, we don’t paint a clear image of a dog—what kind of dog, what color, or even if we mean dog-like, but mostly just rule out that we don’t mean, say, a cat or a giraffe (once again, forgive the shallow discussion on Derrida’s différance and the examples from Ferdinand de Saussure’s discourses on semiology. I’m painting with broad strokes that can lead to dangerous misinterpretation, but the general idea is important to the understanding of the novel). In The Body Artist, DeLillo highlights the zone where experience and language fail to match up, the feelings that life embodies but language falls short of harnessing. It is a book about ‘seems’, a book about the abstract, the moments unlocked from time and space and plot.
The opening scene is a perfect example of Hartke’s ‘living still life’, a scene that is brilliant on its own and would function flawlessly as a short story if shorn from the remainder of the novel. The scene focuses on Hartke having breakfast at home with her husband, Rey Robles, mere hours before his suicide in the living space of a former wife. The scene is practically still, only several minutes lapsing over the few pages, allowing time to stretch open and reveal all the latent implications and overlooked sensory perceptions to the reader because ‘this is how you live a life even if you don’t know it.’ Practically without realizing it, Hartke is assessing the world around her and processing it through language, from the taste of the breeze to the ‘cardboard orange aroma’ of the orange juice container—and immensely brilliant collection of words that borders on near-nonsense in order to more accurately express how much of our sensory experience defies perfect linguistic explanation. This is further exemplified by smells that escape definition:
Nothing described it. It was pure smell. It was the thing that smell is, apart from all sources...it was as though some, maybe, medieval scholastic had attempted to classify all known odors and had found something that did not fit into his system…
Even the sound of birds humming outside the window are obliged to be caged in familiar and examinable language.
The birds broke off the feeder in a wing-whir that was all b’s and r’s, the letter b followed by a series of vibrato r’s. But that wasn’t it at all. That wasn’t anything like it.
Try as we might, language is a poor substitute for earnest experience and our state of being is stifled by our need to understand, share and examine it through linguistic policy. Language becomes a stand-in for an idea, but it is more akin to a child playing dress-up as the idea rather than the idea being-in-itself. This is most notable when Hartke mistakes a paint can for a man.
When the car moved past the house...she understood that she was not looking at a seated man but at a paint can placed on a board that was balanced between two chairs. The white and yellow can was his face, the board was his arms and the mind and heart of the man were in the air somewhere already lost in the voice of the news reader on the radio.
Lauren Hartke is herself an avant-garde artist like her husband, an acclaimed surrealist filmmaker. As a ‘body artist’, she examines the flux of life through her art, exemplifying them through artistic and shocking changes in her body, finding inspiration in the world around her.
Things she saw seemed doubtful—not doubtful but ever changing,plunged into metamorphosis, something that is also something else, but what, and what?
DeLillo keeps the novel focused on the state of transformation, embodying the idea through Hartke’s alteration after the death of her husband. She is nearly a parasitic creature, drawing her strength from the world and people around her. In the opening scene it is apparent that Rey keeps eye on her health, ensuring she eats and drinks, and that she seems to define herself through his existence. Hartke feeds off him and his care. ‘She was too trim and limber to feel the strain, only echoing Rey, identifying, groaning his groan, but in a manner so seamless and deep it was her discomfort too.’ But what is art but an echo, a reaction, to the world around you. Her art feast upon and is inspired by reality, taking natural life and twisting it into surrealistic performances that unlock the inherent meaning of Being in ways that language cannot do. After his death she stops eating and begins to waste away, literally and figuratively. ‘Now he was smoke, Rey was, the thing in the air, vaporous, drifting into every space sooner or later, unshaped…’ Nothing is permanent in this world and with his impermanence, she too feels her own sense of impermanence. She is removed of her safety net, and is like the ‘life in midair, turning,’ that she sees outside her window, spinning aimlessly without a thread to something firm to ground it. However, it is this entrance into the void that becomes her new inspiration, her knew way of reading the implications of the world and honing her art on the state of flux and metamorphasis she finds in her own life. Through her loneliness and alienation from the world, she discovers her form.
‘There has to be an imaginary point, a non-place where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space, and he is a stranger at this crossing, without words or bearings.’
Hartke also discovers Mr. Tuttle, who may or may not exist, in the upper levels of her home. He speaks and acts ‘like a man anonymous to himself’, removed from time and place, and is even able to perfectly match her and Rey’s voice and recite their final conversations together. Mr. Tuttle is the pockmarked, teenage state of language, language still forming and taking shape both theoretically and biologically, and emphasized by her naming him after a high school biology teacher. Mr. Tuttle ‘violates the limits of the human’ and seems unstuck from time and space. He is language in a pure sense, not beholden to the constraints of the universe and the clock.
There’s a code in the simplest conversation that tells the speakers what’s going on outside the bare acoustics, This was missing when they talked. There was a missing beat...There were no grades of emphasis here and flatness there. She began to understand that their talks had no time sense and that all the references at the unspoken level...was missing here
His voice comes out flat and without facial expressions to register emotion, paralleled by the synthetic voice on Hartke’s friend’s answering machine. ‘Please / leave / a message / af / ter / the / tone.’ This is an age of technology and advances of artificial intelligence, and it is intriguing to think of a computer, a lifeless machine, interacting in lifelike ways and having to also utilize language the way we do to process and deliver information. Mr. Tuttle is just that, language, devoid of the human emotion and unstuck from time.
Technology plays a large part in this slim novel, especially with regards to Hartke’s feelings of alienation. Computers and technology give us access to the world at our fingertips, just a click of a button and she is staring at a live feed of a Scandinavian interstate yet still she feels disconnected from people and lonely. There is daily news from around the world to which she can osmose emotion, yet there is still a disconnect¹
‘All plots tend to move deathward,’ DeLillo wrote in his quintessential masterpiece White Noise. Plot and time are imperative here, too, in The Body Artist. ‘You are made out of time. This is the force that tells you who you are. Close your eyes and feel it. It is time that defines you.’ We are strapped to our timeline, finite beings whose story plays out in an orderly, plot-like fashion when seen as a set of points from birth to death; time takes life and ‘[writes] it like a line in fiction.’ Each point is part of an arc of change, and The Body Artist is like a second derivative in math, opening up each individual point in time to view the changes therein. We are constantly in a state of flux, constantly aware of the ticking hands, yet with Mr. Tuttle we see how events can be viewed ‘outside of time’, as events-in-themselves.
If we stopped and slowed down, if we saw our life like a bowl of oranges in an ornate frame, what would we make of our individual moments? The Body Artist asks this question of us, being concerned not with where a plot is heading, but the metamorphosis that ensues along the journey. The final sections, including an editorial review of Lauren Hartke’s performance, tie the themes of language and change together upon the stage and makes them dance beautifully for the reader. Don DeLillo is an author that really knocks it out of the park for me when he is at the top of his game, and there are some fantastic existential quandaries brought to life through perfectly polished and flawlessly fluid sentences. Part ghost story, part linguistic and metaphysical metaphorical dissertation, The Body Artist is a slim powerhouse of ideas that is sure to charm the intellect and send the reader racing for more DeLillo. 4.5/5
‘Past, present and future are not amenities of language. Time unfolds into the seams of being. It passes through you, making and shaping.’
¹ Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other is an excellent and insightful investigation into the DeLillo-esk implications of a post-modern technology reliant society and how it breeds human alienation. The story goes, according to the story I heard on NPR’s Radiolab, that Turkle fully endorsed technology and social media as an advancement in human interaction until the fateful day that she took her grad students on a field trip to a nursing home to watch the elderly people staying there interact with a ‘hairless seal’ robot that was designed to mimic empathy and respond to emotion. Turkle and her students were horrified, believing these dying people deserved more than simulated empathy and companionship in their twilight hours, and she began to examine life and technology from the other side. A worthwhile and intriguing book. ...more
Our lives are an elaborate and exquisite collage of moments. Each moment beautiful and powerful on th‘Moments like this are buds on the tree of life.’
Our lives are an elaborate and exquisite collage of moments. Each moment beautiful and powerful on their own when reflected upon, turned about and examined to breath in the full nostalgia for each glorious moment gone by, yet it is the compendium of moments that truly form our history of individuality. Yet, what is an expression of individuality if it is not taken in relation to all the lives around us, as a moment in history, a drop in a multitude of drops to form an ocean of existence? Virginia Woolf enacts the near impossibility in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ of charting for examination and reflection the whole of a lifeline for multiple characters, all interweaving to proclaim a brilliant portrait of existence itself, all succinctly packaged in the elegant wrappings of a solitary day. Akin to Joyce’s monumental achievement, Ulysses, Woolf’s poetic plunge into the minds and hearts of her assorted characters not only dredges up an impressively multi-faceted perspective on their lives as a whole, but delivers a cutting social satire extending far beyond the boundaries of the selective London society that struts and frets their 24 hours upon the stage of Woolf’s words.
‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ This simple phrase is one any serious student of literature would recognize lest they fear an inadequacy of appearance in the eyes of their collegiate classmates, much in the way a great deal of actions in Mrs Dalloway is a learned behavior for the sake of appearances. ‘Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame,’ and much of what we do out of habit, out of adherence to social standards, is what upholds the society at hand and shapes the civilization of the times. Woolf’s novel hinges upon manners and social standings, highlighting a withering hegemony during the a period of change and rebirth with society marching forward into an uncertain and unrestrained future following the first World War. However, before getting too far ahead into a broad scope, it is imperative to examine the immediate and singular implications of the novel. Much of Mrs Dalloway is deceptively simplistic, using the singular as a doorway into the collective, and offering a tiny gift of perfect that can be unpacked to expose an infinite depiction of the world. Take the title, for instance. In most cases, the central character is referred to as Clarissa Dalloway, yet it was essential to place Mrs Dalloway first and foremost in the readers mind to forever bind their impression of her as a married woman, an extension of Mr. Richard Dalloway. In comparison, Miss Kilman is never addressed in text without the title ‘Miss’ to emphasize her unmarried—and, in terms of the social standings of the time, inferior—position in society; or even Ellie Henderson whose poverty doesn’t even earn her a title of marital status in the eyes of the Dalloway circle, forever condemned to a singular name inconsequential to anything. Just the indication of Clarissa as the wife of a member of government expands well beyond her status as an individual to open a conversation about social implications.
‘Mrs Dalloway is always giving parties to cover the silence.’
Personal identity plays a major theme within the novel with each character’s entire life on display simply through their actions and reflection within the solitary June day. Clarissa is examined through a weaving of past and present as she tumbles through an existential crises in regards to her position as the wife of a dignitary and as a the perfect party host. ‘Why, after all, did she do these things? Why seek pinnacles and stand drenched in fire? Might it consume her anyhow?’ Through her interactions with Peter, the reader is treated to her romantic lineage, rejecting Peter for the safer, more social circle security of Robert, which gives way to a questioning if she is merely a snob. Furthermore, the reader witnesses Clarissa in her heights of emotion through her friendship with Sally Seton¹, a relationship that seems to transcend the rigid gender roles of the time.
The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one’s feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women.
Virginia Woolf’s own sexuality has been a topic of interest over the years, and the relationship between Clarissa and Sally—the kiss shared between them being considered by Clarissa to be a notable peak of happiness in her life—is open to interpretation. However, this aspect of Clarissa’s life and identity allows for one of the numerous footholds of feminism found throughout the text, giving way to an image of Sally rejecting standard gender roles through examples such as her openly smoking cigars. Through Clarissa we see a desire of life, of not becoming stagnant, of not ‘being herself invisible; unseen; unknown…this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.’ There must be a way to separate from the society, to form an identity beyond social conventions or gender, to find life in a world hurtling towards death.
‘Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you.’
As a foil to the character of Clarissa, Woolf presents the war-torn Septimus. While Clarissa finds meaning in her merrymaking because ‘what she liked was simply life’, and bringing people together to be always moving towards a warm center of life, Septimus is shown as moving outwards, stolen away from the joys of life through his experiences of bloodshed in battle.
So there was no excuse, nothing whatever the matter, except the sin for which human nature had condemned him to death; that he did not feel.
While Clarissa grapples with her fear of death, ‘that is must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all,’ Septimus finds life, a never-ending spiral of guilt for not feeling beset by visions of his fallen comrade, to be a fearsome and loathsome beast. Doctors would have him locked away (a dramatic contrast to the lively parties hosted by Clarissa), and even his own wife forges an identity of guilt and self-conscious sorrow for upholding a clearly disturbed husband. This is a haunting portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, the latter fmuch like Woolf herself suffered. Septimus and Clarissa are like opposite sides to the same coin, however, and many essential parrallels exist between them. Both find solace in the works of Shakespeare², both obsess over a lonely figure in an opposing window (one of Septimus’ last impressions in the land of the living), and both trying to express themselves in the world yet fearing the solitude that their failures will form for them. Even his inability to feel is similar to the love felt by Clarissa: 'But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?) as the complete indifference of other people.'
Death becomes an important discussion point of the novel, with each character trying to define themselves in the face of, or in spite of, their impending demise. Peter so fears death that he follows a stranger through town, inventing an elaborate fantasy of romance to blot out the deathly darkness. Yet, it is in contrast to death that we find life. Clarissa’s desire for communication, community and life is only given weight in relation to the news of death that invades her party.
Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; repute faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
What is most impressive about Mrs Dalloway is the nearly endless array of tones and voices that Woolf is able to so deftly sashay between. While each character is unique, it is the contrast between death and life that she weaves that is staggeringly wonderful. Right from the beginning, Woolf treats us to a feast of contrast.
For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed…but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June…and everywhere, thought it was still early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats…
Cold death and warm life on a sunny June day all mingle together here, and throughout the novel. And we are constantly reminded of our lives marching towards death like a battalion of soldiers, each hour pounded away by the ringing of Big Ben. This motif is two-fold, both representing the lives passing from present to past, but also using the image of Big Ben as a symbol of British society. The war has ended and a new era is dawning, one where the obdurate and stuffy society of old has been shown to be withered and wilting, like Clarissa’s elderly aunt with the glass eye. Not only are the lifelines of each character put under examination, but the history of the English empire as well, highlighting the ages of imperialism that have spread the sons of England across the map and over bloody battlefields. Clarissa is a prime example of the Euro-centrism found in society, frequently confusing the Albanians and Armenians, and assuming that her love of England and her contributions to society must in some way benefit them. ‘Byt she loved her roses (didn’t that help the Armenians?)’ In contrast is Peter, constantly toying with his knife—a symbol of masculinity imposed by an ideal enforced by bloodshed and military might—to evince not only his fears of inadequacy as a Man (fostered by Clarissa’s rejection for him and his possibly shady marriage plans), but his wishy-washy feelings of imperialism after spending time in India.
Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks—all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.
Mrs Dalloway is nearly overwhelming in scope despite the tiny package and seemingly singular advancements of plot. Seamlessly moving between the minds and hearts of each character with a prose that soars to the stratosphere, Woolf presents an intensely detailed portrait of post-war Europe and the struggles of identity found within us all. While it can be demanding at times, asking for your full cooperation and attention, but only because to miss a single second would be a tragic loss to the reader, this is one of the most impressive and inspiring novels I have ever read. Woolf manages to take the scale of Ulysses and the poetic prowess of the finest poets, and condense it all in 200pgs of pure literary excellence. Simple yet sprawling, this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century and an outstanding achievement that stands high even among Woolf's other literary giants. This novel has a bit more of a raw feel when compared to To the Lighthouse, yet that work is nothing short of pure perfection, a novel so highly tuned that one worries that even breathing on it will tarnish it's sleek and shiny luster. Dalloway stands just as tall, however, both as a satire on society and a powerful statement of feminism. A civilization is made up of the many lives within, and each life is made up of many moments, all of which culminating to a portrait of human beauty. Though at the end of life we must meet death, it is through death we find life. 5/5
It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.
¹ With regards to the discussion of marital titles, Sally Seton later becomes Lady Rosseter through marriage. This title further emphasizes marriage as a means of climbing the social ladder, with Sally seen in the past as an impoverished, rebellious ragamuffin, yet through marriage gains an aura of dignity. Perhaps Sally becoming a housewife is a statement on the society of the times suffocating feministic freedoms.
² There is an interesting rejection of Shakespeare found most notably in the characters of Richard Dallowlay and Lady Bruton. This emphasized the dying British society as a cold and artless being, devoid of emotion. This is most evident through Richard Dalloway, seen as a symbol of British society, as he fails to express his emotions of love towards his wife. ...more