Richard M McMurry's Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (copyright 2000, University of Nebraska Press) is an exceptionally good book.
RecountRichard M McMurry's Atlanta 1864: Last Chance for the Confederacy (copyright 2000, University of Nebraska Press) is an exceptionally good book.
Recounting the story of the chess game played by William T Sherman and Joseph E Johnston between Chattanooga and Atlanta, McMurry's deft touch insures that all the significant moves, and many of the more subtle feints as well, receive their just due. Given the tremendous impact of this particular campaign on the history of the Civil War, and on Lincoln's re-election bid, and on the fate of slavery and of the United States, too often these particular stories are given short-shrift elsewhere. McMurry corrects that oversight in this concise yet detail-packed slender volume.
McMurry successfully holds at bay the legends and myths of the men involved, devoting considerable time to their foibles, personal limitations, and strategic and tactical errors and outright blunders. No more is this more evident than in his treatment of both Sherman's and Johnston's behaviors and choices during the campaign. But there is no sign that McMurry has a personal axe to grind. He is more interested in divesting the myth to reveal the raw and dirty facts of the fight than he is to advance the agenda of either side over the other.
Often in books of Civil War campaigns we are told merely what happened, which direction some army or other elected to travel on a map. McMurry refreshingly always provides insight as to what informed these often pivotal decisions: for this reason alone this book is superior to about ninety percent of its competition in the genre, and all writers in this arena would do well to seriously consider emulating the model presented here.
Also worthy of mention is McMurry's consideration of the influence of politics and personal foibles that significantly impacted these events. For example, Sherman later claimed he launched the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain because he was concerned about his army becoming rusty from not fighting. McMurry shows that Sherman was also feeling political pressure to have a fight even if he doubted he could win it, and one is reminded of similar actions by Sherman at Chickasaw Bayou and in the early fruitless attacks on the stronghold of Vicksburg. Also, I'd long been mystified by the strange Federal failures at Utoy Creek, and McMurry illuminates the scandal of John Palmer's dereliction of duty on the field which led to a crisis here and subsequent loss of life.
This isn't a difficult book to read, but that doesn't mean it's easy to breeze through, either. This is a book that requires some degree of concentration, but it rewards that attention in abundance. Rarely would I give a book like this such a high rating, but McMurry has done a superb job with his subject, and his book deserves the highest praise and recommendation. ...more
Sometimes an idea or a theme gets lodged in a poet's brain and there's no shaking it loose. The fever must run its course, and the poet will try to wrSometimes an idea or a theme gets lodged in a poet's brain and there's no shaking it loose. The fever must run its course, and the poet will try to write down words to net the evasive vision-fragment that always seems to slip away. Revision leads to revision; one attempt is shelved to make way for a new approach. Always the refinement effort goes on and on, beach pebbles tumbling in the surf, sharp edges knocked off, smoothed out, polishing the original conception away beyond recovery. We can see the effects of this buffing process to different degrees in a pair of Bob Dylan songs from the early 1960s: "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" and "Chimes of Freedom." Both involve a poet preoccupied with conveying his esthesis of the concrete world being itself a phenomenal expression of deeper musical forms. Joan Baez suggested that Dylan used to put his audience to sleep with his performances of "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." "Chimes of Freedom," on the contrary, is poetic brilliance of a more immediately recognizable variety, even if it never achieved the repute of Dylan's greatest hits.
The first third of Faulkner's Vision in Spring is closer in effectiveness to "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" than it is to "Chimes of Freedom." Here Faulkner is abstract to the point of disjunction with the real world that awaits on our doorsteps. Characters and setting and action are absent, or if they are not absent then they might as well be, for the reward of trying to seek them out defies the effort that would be required. Faulkner's poetic control is fine enough, and I reject his claim that he was the "failed poet" he always claimed to be, but poetry also requires toeholds that the audience, or the readers, can latch onto. Effective poetry requires striking imagery, and usually if not characters, then a feeling or a notion that expands through time: it requires a reason to be read, to be experienced: it needs to evoke a sympathetic emotional response. But the first third of Vision in Spring lacks this fundamental ability to connect. It puts the audience/reader to sleep with its simplistic and infernally repetitious language isolated from any sense of place or passage of time. It is a long, softly lapping lagoon of unexciting ― indeed, of uninteresting ― words. Sluggish as "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" may be, at least that song is not uninteresting.
Faulkner began his abortive career in poetry in about 1916 when he was nineteen years old, so he was about as good a poet as he was ever going to be by the time he got around to 1921's Vision in Spring (he started writing his first novel, Soldiers' Pay, in 1925). This book, or booklet, is deeply informed by the same conceit that would preoccupy Bob Dylan almost four decades later, that the bones of the world are musical forms, that what we see and experience in the world are physical expressions of music. In the Introduction to Vision in Spring Judith L Sensibar provides a fine accounting for why this should be, and also why we should view this particular poem-cycle of Faulkner's as evidence of the beginning of his transformation into a Modernist writer, or at least a Modernist thinker. I won't challenge Sensibar too much on her opinions or conclusions. Most definitely in the last two thirds of Vision in Spring Faulkner has become conspicuously influenced by TS Eliot in particular. Although what results is unfortunately blatantly derivative, the result is to impose a focus in the poems which the preceding material lacked. The audience/reader begins to waken, as now there are characters and motion and action and emotion present. We begin to have something to cling too, even if we've seen this movie before.
Here Faulkner is zeroed in on an abundance of small details that inflate voluminously outward from very small foci in time and space. It can be thought of as a scaled-down version of the near-infinite expansion we encounter in Joyce's Ulysses, for example, or perhaps it is a harbinger of the tumescent distension we'll eventually find in Absalom, Absalom! As poetry Vision in Spring eventually becomes tolerable, although it lacks power or any compelling voice. It never comes close to challenging "Chimes of Freedom." It remains a ghostly whisper, but one which suggests that maybe change is on the way. ...more
The thing is, Abraham Lincoln had a bad first term as President. This whole Civil War business had spiraled out of control, and Northern generals seemThe thing is, Abraham Lincoln had a bad first term as President. This whole Civil War business had spiraled out of control, and Northern generals seemed to lack the wisdom and/or inclination to reliably conduct and win battles. Things looked better for the North out west, but who cared about out west? No one. Robert E Lee had been driven out of Pennsylvania and back into Virginia, but at such an appalling cost that it was difficult to see Gettysburg as a victory. True, Vicksburg had fallen too, and the Mississippi River was in Union hands, but all that could be tucked away conveniently into a folder called the "uninteresting western struggle" and be casually ignored. By the time that the election was approaching in the fall of 1864, Sherman's army was bogged down in static siege conditions around Atlanta, and thousands of boys had become corpses as Grant had ramrodded his way through the Wilderness campaign, digging into another static siege at Petersburg, with only legions of dead to show for his progress. In political terms, it all added up to poor hopes for a Lincoln reelection, and should Lincoln lose and George McClellan become the new President, the direction of the war would surely be radically altered. The stakes were substantial.
In these terms we must view Price's raid into Missouri lest we forget that the forces which contributed to its inception, organization, and conduct were not strictly military goals, but were mixed with political goals: the wider goals of the Confederacy, and the political goals of Sterling Price personally, for example. Price did not necessarily have to successfully capture St Louis or Jefferson City to be successful. If he could merely continue putting pressure on the Yankee Army so that Northerners were sufficiently discouraged to not vote for Lincoln, he could claim some success. Alas for Price and the South, Sherman would capture Atlanta early during Price's raid, and the resulting rising spirits in the North would insure a Lincoln landslide.
Price was then compelled to conduct a campaign that was primarily of a military, not a political, nature. Unfortunately, as always, Price's troops were insufficiently armed, insufficiently fed, insufficiently clothed, and insufficiently disciplined. He conducted a rabble into Missouri. Fortunately for Price, at least until he reached Westport, the Union Army, sufficiently armed, fed, clothed, and disciplined, was unable to do him much harm, excepting in a few limited encounters.
Dick Titterington considers primarily the Union response directed by William Rosecrans out of St Louis in this book. Although Titterington calls himself an amateur historian, he certainly knows his chops and he can be counted on to get his facts straight, to dot every i and cross every t, and to provide excellent documentation all along the way. Moreover, when presenting a broad story like this one with so many characters and changing places, Titterington does something which is difficult: he organizes his tale in an order that is easy to follow. That takes some real storytelling skill, particularly when you're dealing with nonfiction which can't be rewritten to heighten dramatic effect.
This book aims to show Rosecrans' field officers in a better light than that in which they are usually remembered, to provide an accounting for why they kept not quite catching up and closing with Price, to emphasize how absence of reliable military intelligence encouraged a conservative approach to tangling with Old Pap. I've read other accounts of this raid, and the analyses put forward by others, and I confess I'm unpersuaded by Titterington's thesis. In military terms, Price made numerous errors during his raid, and the Union Army was almost never in a position to capitalize on them. I have a feeling we would be less willing to forgive Grant or Sherman for paralysis due to absence of intelligence as we are asked to do for Rosecrans. Nevertheless, although my interpretation is not the same as Titterington's, the events he documents are unshakably solid.
Some might find fault with Titterington's unwillingness to move away from absolute historical objectivity and reveal some of his own interpretive and subjective opinions about the people involved. I myself understand exactly why he does not do this, as it necessarily would taint the objectivity of the story he's setting down. What I do think would help, however, would be to add a layer of sensation: to better show the country and the weather, the cold and the rain of the surroundings, to hear the wagon wheels creak and the mules bray, to smell the ears of corn cooking and feel the campfire smoke burning in our eyes, to make us feel we as readers are more present in the world of 1864. Just a few paragraphs of such strategically placed throughout a text like this can work wonders.
As far as books about Price's raid go, this is a very good one, and one told with a different emphasis than I've seen before. I'd like to have seen more of the action around Westport and beyond, but no doubt that's for a later book in the series. I'd recommend this concise and absorbing story to everyone interested in the western conflicts of the Civil War, and to everyone who lives in the region now....more
I've just spent most of the day reading this book, and Hemingway for Beginners is precisely that: as succinct and concise a wrap-up of Papa Hemingway'I've just spent most of the day reading this book, and Hemingway for Beginners is precisely that: as succinct and concise a wrap-up of Papa Hemingway's whole life as you'll find in 155 pages, complete with line illustrations.
This is an acceptable resource for the college undergrad who is desperately cramming, or for anyone else who wants to go light on a Hemingway bio. The glorious and sordid stories of Papa's sad life unfold one by one here, although if you're not already quite familiar with Hemingway's literary works and style and how they shook the world, you're going to have to invest some substantial time actually reading his original tales. But then, if you care at all about literature, then you ought to do that anyway, so. . .
Hemingway was a complex man and a deeply flawed one. This book hints at his profoundly troubled soul. The answers to those more complicated questions can be found elsewhere, but not in this book. Still, if you want to begin to quickly learn a lot about Hemingway in one day, this is not a bad place to begin. ...more
The role of the state of Missouri in the American Civil War is terribly complex, as any student of the Western Theater is painfully aware. Besides theThe role of the state of Missouri in the American Civil War is terribly complex, as any student of the Western Theater is painfully aware. Besides the difficulty of divided loyalties shattered into so many different factions and interests ― political, social, pro- and anti-slavery, pro- and anti-Union, economic interests, German and Irish immigration, etc. ― one must also have a facile, working familiarity with Bleeding Kansas, as well as with the guerrilla war, which in some ways can be seen as a second, more personal and ugly war contemporaneous with the Civil War. While providing appropriate coverage of all these aspects of the story he would tell, in Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon, Christopher Phillips has also provided a superb biographical recounting of the life of one of the most pivotal players in the early part of Missouri's Civil War tale. Let me tell you something: in technical terms alone, in the level of research and private reflection required to produce this kind of book, this is no mean feat.
Although Phillips' prose flows smoothly enough, this very well researched book is not particularly easy to read and understand. A certain degree of familiarity with the story is not required, but it's most definitely helpful, and even then, this is a book that demands real intellectual engagement and not infrequent pauses to let the implications of the text sink in, to wrangle with them, to engage with Phillips and his arguments and evidence, to struggle with complex personalities long dead and to try to reach one's own conclusions about the subject matter under consideration. I will tell you that this book has caused me to rethink my own assumptions about the character of Nathaniel Lyon, and in truth to conclude that, in certain ways, I don't understand this man, and perhaps I never will. This kind of ambiguity about character is the opposite of what we expect to find in a biography, but perhaps it is fitting with regard to Lyon, who died so early in the war before leaving a more substantial body of evidence for us to examine.
Sometimes when reading this book I felt I detected a little bit of authorial bias seeping through. This bothered me a few times, but not overly so: this is a balanced book, and when Phillips is expressing his own opinions and conclusions, these are usually apparent for what they are; what's more, we all have biases of which we are generally unaware, and these lead to what is called style and tone in an author's voice. Some of Phillips conclusions I disagree with, whether these are about Lyon's personality or the significance of his stance at Springfield and Wilson's Creek, although I freely admit that Phillips lays out his reasons for his conclusions quite clearly, and even if I hold differing opinions, or even divergent opinions, I respect Phillips sufficiently to recognize that his viewpoint may be closer to the truth than my own. In other words, I will continue to grapple with this book now that I'm finished reading it.
Many students of the Civil War are more partisan than I, and depending on their starting point they will have very strong opinions about Nathaniel Lyon and so will probably reflexively praise or loathe this author and some or all of this book. That is a shame, I think. All of our heroes (e.g., Nathaniel Lyon and/or Sterling Price, say) have human hearts, all of them make mistakes, all of them make some choices on the spur of the moment which in hindsight strike us as genius or as evidence of a heinous soul. Whichever way your more partisan leanings tend, I think in this book you will find Lyon to be as terribly complex a character as the times in which he lived and died. ...more
It's not exactly Ellman, or Edna O'Brien, but it gets the job done ― nicely! Lovely, amusing illustrations. Pick it up if you possibly can: I see cheaIt's not exactly Ellman, or Edna O'Brien, but it gets the job done ― nicely! Lovely, amusing illustrations. Pick it up if you possibly can: I see cheap steals at Amazon. What are you waiting for?...more
I picked this book up in a used book store anticipating a nice, generally easy read concerning a fairly arcane project: the creation of the Oxford EngI picked this book up in a used book store anticipating a nice, generally easy read concerning a fairly arcane project: the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. According to its numerous blurbs and end-pieces, the story promised to be well-researched and well-told. It is all that.
However interesting the subject matter, it can't really be sustained by the 242 pages of this book. The dramatic elements are (mostly) all apparent about half way through, or at least they ought to be. There is a good deal of repetition here, along with some fluff. By somewhere around page 160 I started getting antsy about this book that seemed peculiarly reluctant to reach an end. The Professor &c. would have been strengthened and improved considerably had about 50 to 75 pages been slashed out of it.
I am a believer in the canon of Western literature. The canon is not simply a list of great books, but as all books are in conversation with one anothI am a believer in the canon of Western literature. The canon is not simply a list of great books, but as all books are in conversation with one another, there are certain books which we really ought to be familiar with if we wish to understand all later literary texts and experiments. Obviously The Iliad is a prime example.
As I read and write continuously in my life, I don't have time to read all the books I'd like to, and so I've taken to listening to canonical texts as audiobooks when I'm alone in the car, especially during drives to and from work, an approach I'd recommend for everyone. You'd be surprised how quickly you can check off another book you've long known you really ought to read.
I can't say that I'd care to ever read/listen to The Iliad again, but my understanding of the phylogeny of the Western canon is certainly improved, and I'll grasp more allusions in the future, and no doubt plant some of my own in my own writing. That's important. The Iliad is essentially about . . . well, you already know what it's about. When I got to "The End" I Tweeted: "Just finished that cornerstone of Western civilization, The Iliad. Feel like I want to go slaughter teeming masses of my fellow man." It's interesting to discover that the roots of our modern gung ho testosterone-soaked might-makes-right lowbrow Super Bowl mentality trace back in an unbroken chain through three millennia, and no doubt more. This is what, I think, The Iliad teaches us about the human condition. Ain't always pretty. ...more
For whatever reason, I kept coming across whiny Tweets from students who were being compelled to read Thomas C Foster's How to Read Literature Like aFor whatever reason, I kept coming across whiny Tweets from students who were being compelled to read Thomas C Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor over the summer in advance of a college lit class.
Now, I've been reading Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism for about a year now, and I'm probably about three-quarters of the way through that book, which I find interesting enough, although obviously I can't drink it all down in one gulp. So I read a little bit about Foster's book here and there online, and it sounded like something I'd like to check out. When by chance I came across it at a local used bookstore a few weeks back, I snapped it up.
This isn't the greatest book I've ever read (i.e., Ulysses), but for what it is, it's pretty excellent. In fact it's pretty simple reading, and very fast reading, but this is one of those very rare books that I couldn't put down. If you read through the whole book and pay attention to what you're reading, I don't see how you could ever look at a novel or a short story through the same eyes ever again. Foster peels back the superficial layer of the story that few ever penetrate and exposes the symbolic and mythological guts that inform the best stories our civilization has produced.
I wish that when I was a senior in high school I'd had an English teacher who had assigned this book as a reading assignment. Of course it hadn't been written yet then, but still . . . Anyone who is interested in reading literature, or in trying to write the same, really ought to read this book and then move on to Northrop Frye.
Because I admire Ed Bearss and his incomparable commitment to the preservation of Civil War battlefields and the stories with which they're associatedBecause I admire Ed Bearss and his incomparable commitment to the preservation of Civil War battlefields and the stories with which they're associated, it pains me to report that reading this book of his is not unlike reading a master's thesis: a surpassingly dry and tedious master's thesis. This extremely well-researched, slim volume is impressively concise, but unless you're hopelessly obsessed specifically with this one particular battle, to the near exclusion of all other aspects of life, and unless you're already so intimately familiar with all of the officers who take to the field herein that reading one of their myriad names instantly conjures a vast biography in your mind, this book will probably put you to sleep after every page or two. The problem is in the lopsided minute-fact-to-compelling-narrative ratio. The extensive battlefield maps are pretty good, although occasionally unit designations are by a regiment's commander's name while the accompanying text focuses on the names of higher echelon commanders or vice versa so that text/map comparisons becomes a frustrating exercise. I'd welcome a better summary-analysis of what could have been or should have been at Wilson's Creek, but so far I haven't found one in this book or elsewhere.
Bob R Bogle, author of Memphis Blues Again ...more
The reputation of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) as an American scholar of the classics, particularly of Greek studies and of philology more gThe reputation of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) as an American scholar of the classics, particularly of Greek studies and of philology more generally, is beyond dispute. But the two essays of his which are combined in this volume, "The Creed of the South" (1892) and "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War" (1897), have not aged well, to put it charitably. The value of this book is more historic than historical.
I had hoped for penetrating insights into the daily life of a confederate soldier during the American Civil War, but few are to be found here. Instead, Gildersleeve spends his time flaunting his erudition, which probably passed for high-brow diversion in his own time, but which now comes across as irksome and highfalutin. This is especially true in the first essay, and one inevitably considers that if this kind of Aeolian pretense that passed for Southern scholarship – especially long and obscure, sentimental passages in Latin and Greek intercut with the text-proper – while the North was emphasizing a more pragmatic curriculum – training in practical engineering and the kind of direct discourse serviceable to an expanding industrial culture – then perhaps the outcome of the war was less in doubt than might have been supposed. Flowery rhetoric will carry you so far until it puts you to sleep. The second essay is built upon a rather bizarre premise of comparing and contrasting the American Civil War with the Peloponnesian War, and this seems like an argument that only another philologist might conceivably appreciate.
For all its author's scholarship, this book is regrettable revisionist, although there's little doubt its author is sincere in all he says. The problem is the disconnect between what is said about the South's reasons for fighting years after the war had ended in contrast to what was said before and during the war. Here we have the usual "it was about states rights, not about slavery" mantra alongside the unironic assertion that white Southerners would never have debased themselves to be enslaved by the North. The historic aspect here is that its author is one of the earliest advocates of the Lost Cause theory.
One challenge of reading young poets is the generational divide. All ages face the same life-problems, but the starting assumptions with which we confOne challenge of reading young poets is the generational divide. All ages face the same life-problems, but the starting assumptions with which we confront them are commonly at wild odds across demographic lines. Young minds engage objects and events with different verbal tools than do their forebears, and these do not always easily translate. When one overlays these temporal distinctions with the spatial ones of foreign cultural filters, the interpretive puzzle grows that much more pronounced.
Adam Mieczyński's new book of poetry makes for an uneven reading experience for these reasons. Mieczyński was born and raised under the leaden decades of Polish history which remain implicitly elusive and alien to me. Obviously passionate for language, sometimes his imagery and constructions appear to clunk about, almost mechanical and obtuse. But then, with a light touch and a quick turn of words, a dash of deft, rolling phrasing bursts through like a refreshing breeze, as in "Freedom":
This is a golden (c)age, and I a parrot pampered into gray paresis
Sometimes skirting close to the edge, his prose threatens to grow too precious, as in "Does One Marry Madness?" or in "Half". And a suggestion of mommy issues seeps through in "Crab Apple Virgin Mothers", as it does again in "Pursuit of Happiness":
I notice Perry K, that little chubby kid my mother loves to fondle so – I think she thinks of me, back in the so-much-potential times. . . Gracefully he hops and skylarks, wings unclipped as yet.
It's alienation especially that comes through in this collection, or perhaps a sense that the surrounding landscape is iced over and sterile. In "Rainbow" we read:
Knee-deep in water, we huddled and wept while other families seeped on streets, shielding eyes, equally surprised to find they had neighbors and we them.
Mieczyński seems to be describing a society just awakening and emerging from a troubled sleep into a retreating deluge left by a glacial melt. One hopes that the process will proceed apace and his future work will feature more of his elegant phrasing with its attendant human warmth. ...more
A great deal of The Swan’s Coconut Cream Eyes reminds me of many of the lyrics from The Basement Tapes, which seem to be temporary, place-holding versA great deal of The Swan’s Coconut Cream Eyes reminds me of many of the lyrics from The Basement Tapes, which seem to be temporary, place-holding verses that were supposed to be replaced once the song writers thought of something more meaningful to say, only they never quite got around to it. I’m always thinking I’m picking up on threads of meaning running through many of these poems by S Falcon MacDowell, but they don’t always seem to quite crystallize into final significance, meaning, or relevance. This isn’t necessarily as disastrous as it might seem. After all, the legend of The Basement Tapes has not abated yet.
Is MacDowell simply pressing forward into the poetic form with all possible force and deliberation, damn the comprehension, stealing and stapling together, with bits of broken rhythm and rhyme, random subconscious images that briefly break water like flopping fish on the surface of a lake? Maybe.
Take the first few lines of “Just Like Tom Cruise’s Rorschach Rag”: “Bullethead finback sharkmen on the march / Spittin’ up blood in the market square. / Tim the leech leans on his cane, teaches / Children of unsuspecting pain in a public / Park. Approaching darkness, prickly lion’s / Torn verbatim out of night’s broken organs / In a methaneous, Jovian atmosphere. . .” Some of the staples: shark/market/park/darkness, leech/teaches, cane/pain/methaneous. And on it unravels. The groove is there. The meaning? Sometimes maybe, sometimes . . . although I note how sharks and leeches are aquatic creatures, and the prickly lion might be a reference to the constellation Leo, which might link up to the celestial Jovian atmosphere . . . something is going on, but do we have the tools to reconstruct MacDowell’s intent? Or was there intent?
MacDowell’s trademark imagery certainly riddles this collection like bullet holes, and for some readers that may be enough. “Steam-driven interstellar spacecraft / Push back the doors of purple clouds” (“Just One of Those Things”), say, or “I watched her weld it together and douse her eyes in cayenne sauce / Expediently accusing scapegoats before she found herself accused” (“Hung Up in a Holding Pattern”), or “I / Want to go to dinner with her, to / See the suns of her eyes and the / Constellations of her skin, and the / Comets of her hair” (“Temporary Separation”), or “he // longed to eat the moonflower / and be // sliced up into a million mindful pieces / and be // fed to the soldier ants” (“Moonflower”), or “it’s all broken out of this / credentialed reality that flows into our lungs like / liquefied lead & drowns out everything that we / know know know know know” (“Afternoon Showers”). For myself, the pieces which work best are those most closely resembling song lyrics with well-defined rhyme schemes. In these MacDowell most closely holds to a storyline or theme, although never in any conventional way. “All these gull voices ping pong facile platitudes / I tip my hat; discreetly past them all I creep / Someone drained the swamp of ambitious, selfless attitudes / And shellacked their minds just as soon as they fell asleep” (also from “Hung Up in a Holding Pattern”) is one example; another is: “We promised to be true no matter what sorrows befell / Before the days of glasnost and the gleaming towers fell / I remember well when it didn’t hurt so much to laugh / We foresaw no bitterly ironic epitaph / The national emblem featured an eagle, not a golden calf / Now you lean so heavily upon your creaking staff / Like you’re senile or just a little daft as twilight descends / Wondering at your isolation from all your abandoned friends” (“Abandoned Friends”).
MacDowell directs his attention squarely at the arts, or at literature and its critics, on occasion. In “Ideally Abstract Idyll, Really” he proclaims what appears to be his own philosophical stance: “art that fails to wreak havoc is sterile / they criminalized most artistic formulations / while you were out golfing,” and later in the same piece: “soon they’ll be incarcerating the most earnest poets for the most blatant failures of vision.” Something about this reminds me how, many years ago, Salman Rushdie proved that being a fiction author is the most dangerous job in the world. Or of Patti Smith: “all must not be art. some art we must disintegrate. / positive (anarchy must exist)” (“25th Floor” & “High on Rebellion”).
If MacDowell is really digging down deep into the psyche for this collection of poems, the one which best illustrates his quest for the bones of language must be “Hsstj~g,” which contains no recognizable words at all, although unmistakable patterns are present in letters which appear to presuppose a capacity for language and meaning. Is this some kind of code, or is it closer to nonsense? So far I’m unable to decipher it, but I haven’t given up hope. Yet.
Give me Whitman over Disney any day. ―"Green Under a Golden Sun"
Dreambuckles, Turnpigs & Interpretations of Style is a far-ranging, eclectic mix of Give me Whitman over Disney any day. ―"Green Under a Golden Sun"
Dreambuckles, Turnpigs & Interpretations of Style is a far-ranging, eclectic mix of poetry that explores, with fantastic – often phantasmagorical – language and imagery, such diverse arenas as linguistic and rhetorical gamesmanship, love, politics and scientific reductionism, not infrequently all at once.
Judging from this collection of poems, S Falcon MacDowell is a wry-humored paranoiac whose words can never be trusted to mean what they appear to say. The opening line of this collection, "Nothing is about anything" ("Magic in Real Time"), signals us that MacDowell's words are not to be read as signifying symbols but as independent signs themselves.
References to the poet's personal interest in astronomy and science deeply inform his language in a smart manner unfamiliar to most students of poetry. Esoteric scientific minutiae abounds as MacDowell dissects emotion-rich situations, unleashing a myriad of clinical details that secretly envelop everyday life, whether he's regaling us with love songs ("Supposed to Be"; "Sketches for a New Statue"), his trademark little allegorical folk tales ("Chemical Panels, Girder Strips, Nuts, Boltzmann"; "A Little Voyage"; "Letter from Between Enemy Lines"), or missives of hallucinatory excess ("Welcome to Jimmy Bob's") that jolt us out of our pedestrian lives and routines.
MacDowell is also preoccupied with exploding and reassembling the expected formal structures of poetry and language ("Unwasted Unfair Review"; "Crashing Stars & Nickel Plated Bullets"; "Dirty"; "Seaside Serenade, Ma (A Seaman-Seeded Sire)") in ways that jar us into unexpected insight into what poems are or may be. Words and concepts are digested and reconstituted in unexpected new configurations before our eyes. Very meta is he.
"Graveloct, he Struve them of Their Tittles" seems to be the central mini-epic of this collection, but I prefer "Gnosisworm (Soft Hits From the War Years)", which reiterates the thematic concerns of the soul-sapping "MACHINE", which to my reading truly lies at the core of this collection. Here the dehumanizing and autolytic mechanical process is thrust front and center, mindless capitalism devouring the foundation of a titanic, globe-striding country it once created.
While his laser-tight focus on technical and scientific detail sometimes threatens to leave me cold, MacDowell appears to be deploying this surgical precision in the attempt to transmit subliminal – or perhaps not so subliminal and subtle after all – messages to his fellow slumbering countrymen.
For the footnotes alone to "Much Owed to Keats' Ale in the Night, in G Major" (which perhaps comprise a kind of mangled tribute to "The Wasteland"), as well as the very last line of "Sketches of a New Statue", this book is well worth contemplating in earnest, I think. These poems never fail to peel back ordinary reality and thrust us into a more magical and more troubling world lying unsuspected just below the seemingly placid surfaces enshrouding our daily existence. ...more
I'm a white male author, which fact apparently has nothing to do with Aisha Sabatini Sloan's fine first book, The Fluency of Light. I deliberately briI'm a white male author, which fact apparently has nothing to do with Aisha Sabatini Sloan's fine first book, The Fluency of Light. I deliberately bring up the matter for two specific reasons, however.
One reason is that I spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about race relations, and the longer I dwell on such matters, the more deeply I fathom the complexities and intricacies involved. On one level it's all very foolish that phenotypic expression of genes controlling skin pigmentation, eye shape, hair structure, etc. – much of which serves as a convenient tagging system typifying deeper cultural biases and bigotries – could so preoccupy human interest and soak up time and energy; on another level the fact that phenotypic expression is effectively so critical to matters of justice and equality and the simplest instances of interpersonal interaction and decency demands that this colossal subject be considered with appropriate attention and sobriety.
The Fluency of Light examines these kinds of concerns indirectly through the lens of personal biography, its author smartly revealing the ubiquity of subtle, subconscious racial assumptions and their unfolding expressions in the real world as she globe-trotted through her youth. The stories she connects together are aggregates of small moments of minor drama, of casual exchanges of glances, of shared laughter and solitary tears: all human, all genetics-independent. Every chapter here contains its provocative elements and scenes, and now and again I would have to put the book down and think about it for a day or two before going on. Not a lot of books you can say that about these days. The last two chapters were especially compelling as the author began to edge toward a better understanding of her own biases and prejudices and to see herself also as a visual-weighted creature programmed by her own experiences and privilege to respond to phenotypic cues of ethnicity and cultural assumptions. The visceral reaction to a visit to South Africa she describes was disturbing and troubling, and she suggests she still doesn't know how to interpret it, and neither do we, the readers. Which is fine: that open-endedness is entirely appropriate to the subject material and true to her experience. The exploration must continue.
The second reason I mentioned my own background above is that I write about my ancestry. One experiences an automatic, kneejerk divide in assumptions upon hearing of either a white male or a black female (Aisha Sabatini Sloan is of African-American and Italian-American descent) writing about ancestry and genealogy. What does it tell you about your own culturally-imposed biases to reflect on why a white male author would not feel the same qualms about writing about ancestry that a black female author might? Would one author risk being pigeonholed while the other would not? The Fluency of Light must, of necessity, be a daring and revealing book not because of the stories it tells but simply because of who the author is. Unfair, but true enough. I suspect it's well that this is her first book, because she has most effectively laid her cards on the table and is now free to move on to any kind of writing that she likes. In writing this particular book she has, as I see it, carefully chronicled where she has come from, and has simultaneously liberated herself from those roots. She is free to invent the future.
When I first started this book I was reminded of the writings of Joan Didion, but beyond some stylistic similarities, the two authors have little in common; at least, that's my conclusion based on this single book. I saw one review that complained because of how it's cut up, jumping between far-ranging topics from one paragraph to the next. I had to laugh. The cut-up approach suits this book just fine. I must also add that the author here has a real knack for finding just the right turn of phrase. She has a fine voice and, more importantly, a fine mind. Very much do I look forward to whatever she writes next.