"The Argonauts" is Maggie Nelson's ninth book, and it's a crowded field, but it may be her best yet. Her fMy review that ran in the Chicago Tribune:
"The Argonauts" is Maggie Nelson's ninth book, and it's a crowded field, but it may be her best yet. Her faculty page at CalArts — where she is a professor who lists her teaching interests as "poetics; non-fiction" — identifies these nine as "five books of nonfiction and four books of poetry." But one of the most appealing qualities of Nelson's body of work is how it consistently defies straightforward categorization, blending genres and approaches to find new forms of expression.
"The Argonauts" is a thrilling read for the way in which Nelson crafts an exceptional form uniquely suited to her exceptional content: the story of falling in love with the gender-fluid artist Harry (formerly "Harriet") Dodge, building a queer family and having a child through IVF. Yet this summary can do neither the book nor Nelson's huge-brained and big-hearted ambitions for it justice. One could call what she has done a motherhood memoir, which it undeniably is, but that label risks reducing its scope, which is practically boundless.
For "The Argonauts" is a memoir, yes, but Nelson's strategies are those of the personal essayist, the poet and the philosopher, and her goals are nothing less than affording her readers new ways of thinking about — and employing new language to describe — our experiences of gender, marriage, sexuality, difference, thought and humanity itself.
Early on, as she's describing the process of falling in love with the person who will eventually become her spouse, whom she addresses in much of the text as "you," Nelson recounts how a friend "offers to Google you on my behalf. She's going to see if the Internet reveals a preferred pronoun for you, since despite or due to the fact that we're spending every free moment in bed together and already talking about moving in, I can't bring myself to ask."
She juxtaposes her own embodied experience with Harry's: "2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you six months on T. We pitched out, in our inscrutable hormonal soup, for Fort Lauderdale, to stay for a week at the beachside Sheraton in monsoon season, so that you could have top surgery by a good surgeon and recover."
She is also unsentimental and honest in her description of the birth of her son, Iggy, writing: "Everyone is watching down there intently, in a kind of happy panic. Someone asks if I want to feel the baby's head, and I don't, I don't know why. Then a minute later, I do. Here he comes. It feels big but I feel big enough."
In a culture still too quick to ask people to pick a side — to be male or female, to be an assimilationist or a revolutionary, to be totally straight or totally gay, totally hetero- or totally homo-normative — Nelson's book is a beautiful, passionate and shatteringly intelligent meditation on what it means not to accept binaries but to improvise an individual life that says, without fear, yes, and. This, Nelson says, "is an activity that demands an attentiveness — a relentlessness, even — whose very rigor tips it into ardor."
What's remarkable about "The Argonauts" is that it's an entire book that does just that: It pays relentless, ardent attention to the idea of dynamism, in which people can choose to engage in "an endless becoming."
At one point, Nelson writes, after sharing a story about how the artist Catherine Opie has spoken of the difficulty of being a "professor and an artist and a mom and a partner" and still having "time to go and explore and play (S&M style)" that: "There is something profound here, which I will draw a circle around for you to ponder. As you ponder, however, note that a difficulty in shifting gears, or a struggle to find the time, is not the same thing as an ontological either/or."
By means of the personal and memoiristic, the journalistically reported, the heavily quoted and the anecdotally historic, Nelson encourages us to be more pluralistic and attentive.
The structure of the book is chapterless, one long, unbroken set of 143 pages (minus acknowledgments) divided by the judicious use of white space into little prose rectangles. These sections rarely have overt transitions but create a logic that flows by way of juxtaposition, suggesting invisible segues and giving readers the chance to find the connections for themselves. It's an exciting way to read, apt for such exciting content....more
On the final two pages of her lyrical and slim — but far from slight — semi-autobiographical novella,My review which appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
On the final two pages of her lyrical and slim — but far from slight — semi-autobiographical novella, "Her 37th Year, An Index," Suzanne Scanlon acknowledges no fewer than 48 "other writers and texts I've copied, (mis)quoted, reformulated, or otherwise invoked in the creation of this book." This list ranges from Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" to Claudia Rankine's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely," from Hélène Cixous' "Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing" to "Blake Butler on Facebook."
As in similarly unconventional novels such as Jenny Offill's "Dept. of Speculation," the book's frequent reference to other works is integral to Scanlon's creation of its protagonist, a highly educated, mentally and emotionally voracious woman entering middle age and compelled by desire, highly aware of the fact that all "knowledge is constructed." So, too, do its frequent citations add to what its publisher, Noemi Press (which has done a truly beautiful job in the book's production), calls "a collage of excerpted conversations, letters, quotations, moments, and dreams."
Any time a work of art takes a form that announces itself to be different than the form its audience might expect, that audience is going to be asking itself — consciously or unconsciously — why is the art doing this? In Scanlon's case, the obvious questions to ponder are: Why an index? And why a collage?
One of the many brilliant aspects of this book is that the form permits Scanlon to offer a built-in answer. For an index is a guide, an imposition of a pattern on something that does not necessarily suggest that pattern, in this case, the life of Scanlon's protagonist, who is attempting to catalog her life so far: attending university, being in a mental institution, having affairs, getting married, giving birth to a child and so on. This structure lets Scanlon capitalize on the by-turns fun, wry and melancholy juxtapositions of entries in an index due to the happy accidents of alphabetical order. In this way, she emphasizes how such indices can lead to inadvertent insights merely by letting a reader see one alphabetical name or phrase preceding or following another.
Of course, here, unlike in a real index in which these juxtapositions are arbitrary, Scanlon makes these inadvertent insights intentional, putting, for instance "Email," "Emptiness" and "Encarnacion Bail Romero" all in a row. This index is not an adjunct to the text, but is the text.
While the alphabet provides the order, Scanlon chooses what to put in that order, as when, under "K" she has the author "Kraus, Chris" appear and explain a bit about Scanlon's own choices: "There is no problem with female confession providing it is made within a repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things coolly, to thrust experience out of one's own brain and put it on the table, is still too confrontational."
Scanlon's first book, "Promising Young Women," also avoided the rules of conventional realism, wisely opting instead for fragmentary tales to present its subject matter: a young woman in and out of psychiatric institutions.
In early April, the art critic and professional aesthetic provocateur Dave Hickey posted on Facebook: "I think we have reached (the) point where all those genres designed to hide your technical incompetence — collage, assemblage, installation — now do nothing else. All these genres are detritus of the industrial age, which is over."
He was speaking of visual art, but it's interesting to think of how, or if, this assertion applies across genres. Often, if an author is doing a pastiche, uncharitable readers might take it as a gimmick or a move to cover up failure, as if the author couldn't just write a "traditional novel," whatever that means. But in the end, collage, like anything else, can be done well or poorly, and Scanlon does pastiche remarkably well.
Her complex structure allows this book's layers and textures to happen simultaneously, and to comment on themselves as they are happening. It shows that experience itself can be like a collage: not neatly linear, but full of overlaps and ragged edges....more
A basically decent book on craft full of weird axe-grindy passages about "meta-fiction" and head-shaking sexism: "The age-old idea of human dignity coA basically decent book on craft full of weird axe-grindy passages about "meta-fiction" and head-shaking sexism: "The age-old idea of human dignity comes to apply event to the indigent, even to slaves, even to immigrants, now recently even to women."...more
The show-business saying "everyone's a critic" came into common usage in the middle of the last century, but it's aMy review for the Chicago Tribune:
The show-business saying "everyone's a critic" came into common usage in the middle of the last century, but it's arguably never been more true than now. In our era of Yelp and Amazon, Twitter and Facebook, every literate person with a reliable Internet connection can opine on every commodifiable element of human experience.
So why write criticism professionally, and why write criticism on a writer who is herself a professional critic? The title of Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper's "The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic" sums up why this particular book is important. Hopper acknowledges in her opening note that this self-reflexive and confrontational name is "about planting a flag" and offers nods to her forebears, while suggesting that her readers consider why there haven't been more. "There's Ellen Willis' 'Beginning to See the Light,'" she writes, "though it wasn't all music writing, and then her posthumous collection that was," and she mentions "Lillian Roxon's Rock Encyclopedia" from 1969 and Caroline Coon's "1988: The New Wave Punk Rock Explosion" before adding, "We should be able to list a few dozen more — but those books don't exist. Yet."
But it's not just the book's significance as a feminist and musical milestone that recommends it. Every piece, ranging from the one on Tyler the Creator in the book's sixth chapter under the heading "Bad Reviews" to St. Vincent in the eighth under "Females," is powerfully written, wittily observed and unafraid to argue. Taken individually — all appeared elsewhere prior to their inclusion here in outlets such as Punk Planet, Village Voice, SPIN and Chicago Reader — and as a whole, they make an airtight case for why the professional critic still matters, and why it is a thrill to spend time in the presence of someone whose job it is to care so much and so intelligently.
Like the best critics — Pauline Kael, Susan Sontag — Hopper is gifted at balancing the macro and the micro, identifying a pattern and helping the reader appreciate its scope and significance, while peppering in details that make the writing electrifying on the sentence level. In "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't," she asks: "Who do you excuse and why? Do you check your politics at the door and just dance or just rock or just let side A spin out? Can you ignore the marginalization of women's lives on the records that line your record shelves … because it's either that or purge your collection of everything but free jazz, micro house 12"s and the Mr. Lady Records catalog?"
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And like the best critics — Byron Coley, Eve Babitz — she's practically a poet when it comes to the brilliant metaphor or the apt comparison: writing of Van Morrison's "T.B. Sheets" that a secondary version of "Beside You" is "totally chardonnay," writing of Coughs front woman Anya Davidson that she "took to the floor, shuffling around like an expiring windup toy" and writing of Lana Del Rey that she is "Amy Winehouse with the safety on."
Good criticism is rarely only about the thing it is ostensibly criticizing; rather, its critique is grounded in the specifics of its own occasion — here, rock music — while reaching to answer more abstract questions — here, questions of identity, ethics, representation and consumption. And that is why professional criticism is exciting, an answer that Hopper's book offers on every page: to help us understand why and how culture affects us for better and for worse, and why and how we can in turn engage with and affect that culture....more
In his tongue-in-cheek manifesto "Personism," Frank O'Hara says "only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the AmericaMy review for the Chicago Tribune:
In his tongue-in-cheek manifesto "Personism," Frank O'Hara says "only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies." He was clearly kidding around, but in all seriousness, the poems in Somali-American poet Ladan Osman's debut collection, "The Kitchen-Dweller's Testimony," are by turns arguably as good as and even better than watching a film. In his foreword, editor Kwame Dawes writes that Osman writes "with a capacity for physical detail in the cinematic sense and beyond — things a cinema can't offer us easily, physical texture and scent."
Winner of the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, jointly published by the University of Nebraska Press and Amalion Press in Senegal, Osman's collection is alive with a love of language, sensory imagery and well-timed metaphor, as in "First Red Dress" when one of the speaker's male family members warns her: "Go out in that dress / and you'll get split like a watermelon. Down there."
This book is stunning because of the beauty of Osman's words from a craft perspective, but also because of the fierceness of her desire to interrogate such issues as racial politics, violence against women and the struggles of being an immigrant. No matter their subject, her poems are amazingly human and frequently funny, even when they seek, as the title suggests, to testify.
"Silhouette," the opening poem, is prefaced by the note "at a Claudia Rankine reading, University of Chicago, 2011." Even if a reader does not recall how outspoken Rankine was being at that time about problematic racial statements in the work of the poet Tony Hoagland, or does not know Rankine's work then and since then, Osman's poem is clear in its honest exploration of inequality. "I am afraid of them," she writes of the white academics she encounters in this milieu, "their smell, / their cotton, their expensive running shoes, / their faces so hard to read / when they make odd-placed sighs / at black people histories. There is not one / bright color." Here and throughout she sets a scene and places her persona in it, then moves from description to interrogation: "My voice is small as it asks, / What will it matter to them if I make a book? / I am one poet. Isn't there space for me?"
Interrogation is Osman's fiercest mode. She uses questions to invite the reader to consider the thin membrane between witness and participant, between the decision to document and the effort to affect, and how the question (as a noun) and the act of questioning (as a verb) carry a person back and forth, almost osmotically, between the two roles. "I am sorry for you, I tell her" she writes of a doll in the poem "Ordinary Heaven," adding "You witness but don't testify." Osman does both — and a great deal more.
The collection is structured so that elegant writing and testimony go hand in hand, as when the poem "Denotation" — in which the speaker's father tells her "This is a n—. If anyone ever calls you that, / knock their teeth out" — is followed by "Connotation," in which "the woman whose hair is like down spits near my shoe and says, / 'This neighborhood has changed since these people came' / I can't say, 'You are the spitter; you are the trash.'"
And that perhaps is what makes this book so immensely satisfying: that it is, in a sense, a long, smart, sharp, relentless opus of l'esprit d'escalier — the things a person wants to and should say in the face of insult in the moment, but usually doesn't think of until being on the stairs on the way out. Put another way, the poems are essentially a collection of answers, in various voices, to the question posed by her epigraph from Whitman's "Song of Myself": "What living and buried speech is always vibrating here … what howls restrained by decorum?" In a world that too often plugs its ears to voices it thinks unworthy, Osman shows that it's actually more inappropriate to be decorous....more
I you set out to write a poetry collection about Kanye West, someone who is himself arguably one of the most brilliant and influential poets of the 21st century so far, then it had better be good. Sarah Blake's debut book, "Mr. West" — impressive for both its hybridity and its ambition — is very good. She describes it as "an unauthorized lyric biography," and in it, she juxtaposes West's life as a celebrity with her own as an artist and soon-to-be-mother.
The result — which could be considered a book-length essay — is fascinating, not just for the unknowable superstar burning at its center, but also because Blake is a formal acrobat, capable of prose poems, lineated lyrics, and even a bitter and witty sestina ("Twilight: Starring Kanye"), all executed with intelligence, sensitivity, and a willingness to engage difficult issues with irreverent humor and grace. Even the "Notes and Further Reading" get their own title, "The Unending World that Connects Us," and read less like a set of references and more like an essay.
Relatedly, if you set yourself the task of writing across difference — in this case, as a white woman writing about a black man — you have to consider how to make your engagement not an act of exploitation or tone-deaf identification, but rather one of illumination and sympathetic understanding. Blake seems to pose the question: How can a woman who "grew up saying, I listen to everything but country / and rap" write effectively about Kanye? She goes on to answer that question implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — on every page, noting: "A white woman has privilege but not power. / A black celebrity has privilege but not power and also discrimination. // Has it in his hands, his hood, buried in the pavement against his face." In so doing, she is able to suggest that at its best, art can help people reach across what divides them.
That said, Blake is never so careful that the book ends up boring. The work takes plenty of risks as it explores a figure who, even at the height of his fame, identifies, correctly, as among the dispossessed. As she notes in "In Song": "Kanye compared himself to Emmett Till again," and, "People have been outraged, but Kanye must / feel a connection to this boy. And because of Kanye, / Emmett's story is on the internet again. 65 years later. // Kanye knows what appropriation is."
Blake understands that Kanye is an object of superlative and vitriol, and that he, like much of the best poetry, exists in a kind of provocative ambiguity. What can we know about a celebrity, the book wonders, but also what are we ever able to know about the experience of anyone outside ourselves?
Stars both are and are not just like us: They get married, like West and like Blake. They have parents and kids, like West and like Blake. They lose people they love. She plays with the idea of what we can and can't confirm about others in "Kanye's Skeletal System," interrupting herself with "Oh god, fact-checker" and "Fact-checker, please."
In "Adventures" she reminds the reader of West's unscripted comments at NBC's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief" in response to Katrina. Although they were — and remain — controversial, West's remarks get at the heart of storytelling. "I hate the way they portray us in the media," he said. "You see a black family, it says 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says 'They're looking for food.'"
In a world where some versions of the truth are unjustly taken as truer than others (the truth of George Zimmerman over Trayvon Martin, of Darren Wilson over Michael Brown, of Daniel Pantaleo over Eric Garner and on and on), Blake's hybridity is an attempt to make more space for the plurality of lives in America. In this sense, "Mr. West" is an important entry into the ongoing literary conversation on race that would be worthwhile to read alongside Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" and Kevin Young's "The Grey Album."
"Mr. West" reminds the reader that "The mouths we speak with are hidden by other mouths," but also that it's possible to imagine, as she does, in the poem "Hate Is for Hitler" that "We enter into discourse thinking first, love."...more
Start to finish, this book by Eve Babitz is wonderful.
"Arrogance and conceit and remarks like that one are much more fun than starving all the time.Start to finish, this book by Eve Babitz is wonderful.
"Arrogance and conceit and remarks like that one are much more fun than starving all the time. Once it is established that you are you and everyone else is merely perfect, ordinarily, factory-like perfect...you can wreak all the havoc you want."...more
A quick read. Workmanlike and stagey. Plenty of casual and overt sexism ("Fiona had started thinking about the Giles Trent problem now that it had sexA quick read. Workmanlike and stagey. Plenty of casual and overt sexism ("Fiona had started thinking about the Giles Trent problem now that it had sexual and emotional aspects. I guess all women are like that") every few pages. ...more