Thursday, August 31, 2006

A. E. Stallings reviewed by Adam Kirsch

Adam Kirsch's review of A. E. Stallings's Hapax concludes with a brief and beautiful discussion of the winner of my Daily Poem Project, "Fragment":

"When Stallings writes about shattering emotion, as in 'Fragment,' she does not use 'I' even once, preferring to give herself wholly over to the metaphor of a dropped glass:

It breaks because it falls
Into the arms of the earth—that grave attraction.
It breaks because it meets the floor’s surface,
Which is solid and does not give. It breaks because
It is dropped, and falls hard, because it hits
Bottom, and nobody catches it."

(I should mention that Kirsch's review begins with a review of The Optimist by Joshua Mehigan, before getting to Stallings's book.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

George at work

There's a nice picture of George W. Bush at work here. He's never been much of a handyman, I guess.

Socks

As Andrea said the other day: "When you have to wear socks, it doesn't feel like summer anymore."

Bob Dylan, "Modern Times": First impressions

Bob Dylan's new album, Modern Times, is incredibly relaxed. Most of the songs are mid-tempo shuffles, with the arrangements focusing on texture (a guitar riff here, a drum fill there, a bit of violin) rather than on power. There are only a couple real rockers, and even they are not played for rock-and-roll drive.

My first listen was last night after supper, with three kids running round (well, okay, Sara was not running around, since she can't walk yet, but it's a metaphor). The sound of the CD made the whole living room calm; the kids' energy did not seem hectic with these gentle but pulsing rhythms surrounding them. Despite being very worn out, I just sat there on the couch and enjoyed the music and the kids.

I've been catching bits of lyrics here and there, but nothing that makes me want to cite anything yet. Lots of nice turns of phrase, as always, and a healthy dose of lines that are actually clichés, but that sound beautiful in a song. Also, the lyrics are not included with the disc, and I have not yet been able to find them on line.

In fact, the phrases that keep coming to me tend to be from songs from Dylan's last, Love and Theft, which just indicates that this CD sounds a lot like that one—and why shouldn't it? One feature of both Love and Theft and Modern Times is just how wonderfully recorded they are.

The titles that have struck me the most on Modern Times are the first two, "Thunder on the Mountain" (not a rocker; the thunder is in the distance, as it were) and "Spirit on the Water" (with some exquisite rhythym riffing from the guitars), as well as two ballads, "When the Deal Goes Down" (with its title that sounds familiar to any Deadhead) and "Nettie Moore." The last of these is the most singular tune on the CD musically: the groove is much less pronounced, and the sparseness of the arrangement (though not the details) recalls the exquisite "Sugar Baby" from Love and Theft. The arrangement of the drums deserves special mention: using mostly just a straight-four bass drum, with some percussion details added on the choruses (or perhaps they are bridges?), George Recile has produced a masterpiece of minimalism in his playing here.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer

David Foster Wallace, author of the novel Infinite Jest and other books that have gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, has just published an essay about Roger Federer in The New York Times. I recommend it; along with being a good description of Federer himself, it is an excellent analysis of the current situation in men's tennis.

(If you can't get to the article, sign up for free access to the NYT. If the article is more than a week old and hence in the archive, then you can access the archive if you subscribe to the NYT or to the International Herald Tribune. If you cannot get to the article otherwise, I did download it, so you can ask me to send it to you.)

Friday, August 18, 2006

Verse novels V: Rosellen Brown, "Cora Fry's Pillow Book"

This book is another one that I picked up in March, but I only just now got around to reading it. It pushes the envelope of what can be called a "verse novel," but there is enough story to it to make it clearly more than "just" a "sequence." Rosellen Brown writes in the first person here, but the speaker is Cora Fry, a woman who lives most of her life in Oxford, New Hampshire, where as an adult she is first a housewife and then a mail carrier. The narrative is basically the narrative of a life: children are raised, tensions between husband and wife are dealt with, and eventually Cora and her husband move to another town after he has gone through a period of unemployment. This story of a life makes the book more a novel than a sequence.

At the same time, the individual poems can mostly be read on their own, as well (which, it could be argued, makes it more a sequence than a novel). There are many vivid moments, as in a poem about Cora's children that contains this frightening thought for all parents:

And if I died
would they
remember me
shouting?

This is followed a bit later by a a crisp poem acting out how the light from a new streetlamp would upset someone nearby who is not used to light shining in the window at night. Another memorable poem describes how a muskrat chewed off its leg to escape a trap, leaving behind only a leg for Cora's husband and son to find there. A third is about gardening and the gardener's uncertainty about the vegetables she plants:

Each year I doubt, each year they prosper.

The gardener's doubt, that is, does not influence the success or failure of the garden. (I have the same doubt when I tie-dye shirts: each time I doubt, each time they come out.)

There is a memory of her son on a merry-go-round, thinking that the "red and white horse" would "canter off across / the town green." At the same time, there is a much later poem about talking to adult children, remembering things, and noticing:

They have forgotten the childhoods we had
together, they remember only their own.

The book is actually two books: Cora Fry was apparently published much earlier; the 1994 edition that I have includes all of Cora Fry and then continues with the actual Cora Fry's Pillow Book. The two books cover different time periods (the former the housewife years, so to speak, and the latter the mail-carrier years) and are written in different forms (shorter lines in the former, much longer lines in the latter).

One of the more startling moments comes near the end of the second part, when Cora reflects on the lives of those who have lived in or near Oxford all their lives:

... I feel like a pilot
flying over the tiny, separate plots of our lives,
I see how the shapes we've worked so hard at carving out and cultivating
to look like no one else's begin to resemble each other. At fifteen thousand feet,
they blend, their borders run together, vague, finally invisible.

All in all, Cora Fry's Pillow Book is another fine addition to my list of verse novels.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Verse Novels IV: John Bricuth

John Bricuth has written two books that he calls "narrative poems"; they both seem to me to qualify as "verse novels" (although perhaps he might try to downplay the "novelistic" elements). I picked them up in the U.S. in March and read them on the plane home. Yes, both of them, all the way through.

The first, Just Let Me Say This About That, was published in 1998. A brief prose introduction sets the stage; it begins:

"The following poem takes the form of a press conference. The three questioners are named Bird, Fox and Fish. The person being questioned, addressed only as 'Sir,' either God, the president of the United States, everybody's father, or a combination of the three."

This structure becomes the springboard for a wide-ranging story told through questions and answers; at times highly philosophical, at others it is uproariously comical. Still other passages become entirely tragic.

As "Sir" says once, though, "boys, let's not go crazy chasing details." Further, Fox complains about "the coldness of examples." Instead, here are some quotable passages:

You come away convinced the sense of self

And its survival had its start in childhood
Memories of being held within a
Parent's gaze, that look that first conveyed

The notion they were someone separate, special,
Safe from harm as long as daddy watched,
Until as they grew up that gaze was swallowed

Whole, and came back as the soul.

*

We'd had the better of the bargain: merely
To have been, and been aware, within
A universe mostly made of vacant

Space, freezing cold, drifting dust,
Represents so rare a gift that if you
Reckon in life's ordinary share of

Joys, then add the world's surprises, you've got
A big mix justifies any amount
Of suffering, at least that's what I think.

*

I know you'll laugh at this, my thoughts began
To clear. I had a kind of revelation, Fish,
That burst of level lightning one associates

With several types of Eastern wisdom—
The seven ways, the twelve steps, the four
Tops, the three pigs—I don't know ...

I know it had a number in it, Fox.

*

Bricuth's second "narrative poem" appeared in 2005. As Long As It's Big takes the same discursive situation, adds a few characters, and makes it more concrete: the setting is not a parody of a press conference but a divorce trial in which Fox and Bird have become lawyers for Fish and his wife. Like its predecessor, the book runs through a wide range of emotions and registers. Some readers might prefer the somewhat tighter intensity of Just Let Me Say This About That (which might partly explain why I did not note any particular passages of ALAIB), but others (the majority, I suspect) will prefer the clearer narrative of As Long As It's Big. I enjoyed both books immensely and recommend them highly as two more extraordinarily successful and utterly unique examples of the peculiar category of the "verse novel."

Monday, August 07, 2006

Simon Armitage, "Homer's Odyssey"

In a book that is as yet only available in England, Simon Armitage recasts the Odyssey as a radio play and hence entirely in dialogue. Even though the book was a BBC commission, it is vivid and riveting from start to finish. Odysseus's telling of his story to the Phaeacians is handled beautifully, with the dialogues switching back and forth between those in the stories Odysseus tells and those between Odysseus and his listeners. But the book's best sections are the dialogues between Athena and an entirely memorable Zeus: the king of the gods comes across as a wonderful ironist:

When we send eagles
to signal our thoughts in the sky,
what do they do -- stand and point and stare,
like ... birdwatchers!

Or:

At least they don't live forever, like us. My memory --
it's like a museum. Infinite rooms, covered in dust.

Or:

I find it doesn't do to look down too much like that.
Gives one a bad neck.

As I looked back through the book to find some good passages to cite, I discovered that after about halfway through the book, I stopped underlining things. That could be a bad sign (fewer quotable passages later in the book?), but it usually means that I got so caught up in the story and its telling that I stopped thinking about finding quotable quotes! And this is, of course, a fabulous story, which Armitage tells in a fresh and exciting way.

Kick Me

So last night Miles and Luisa were watching Swallows and Amazons. Miles was lolling about on the floor, and Luisa was sitting on one of their two small white chairs (which they usually sit on to watch their movies, right next to each other, soooo cute). Luisa was pestering Miles with her feet.

Andrew: Luisa, don't kick Miles. Kick me if you want to kick somebody!
Miles (standing up): I want to have somebody to kick, too!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

31 for 14

Miles and I were playing cribbage, and we had the following run of points in play:

Miles played a 10.
I played a 5: Fifteen for two.
Miles played a 4: 19.
I played a 4: 23 for two.
Miles played a 4: 27 for six.
I played a 4: 31 for fourteen!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Evening Snack

After they have put their pyjamas on, Miles and Luisa often have an evening snack of fruit while watching a bit of one of the movies they like (lately, Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Swallows and Amazons have been their favorites). This evening, they watched the scene in which Mary Poppins arrives, the "Step in Time" sequence, and the finale, "Let's Go Fly a Kite" (what a cool song that one is), and they each ate quite a few pieces of apple and banana as a snack.

When movie-watching time ended, I asked Miles to go brush his teeth. He insisted that he was still hungry and wanted to eat some more, which I did not believe (sometimes he asks for more just to further delay going to bed, and it was already quite late). So I decided to tease him and offer him something more to eat that would be as small as possible: "Okay, you can have one piece of rice or a piece of cold macaroni."

"Okay," he said, "I want a piece of cold macaroni!"

At which Luisa said, "Auch cold macaroni!" (If she had not said it bilingually, she would have said something like "me-too cold macaroni!")

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Verse novels III: Fred D'Aguiar

I have been meaning to make more comments about verse novels since March, when I bought quite a few new ones while traveling in the US.

One was Fred D'Aguiar's Bloodlines. As I commented in Verse novels part two, I was not that impressed by his Bill of Rights, but Bloodlines makes me want to reread that one anyway. Bloodlines tells the story of a doomed interracial love affair around the time of the American Civil War. Its tour de force is a chapter called "War," and its most memorable effect is that it treats the topic without the slightest sentimentality: no happy end here.

My only problem with the book as a whole might have been a result of how I read it: I had to take a break in the middle of it to reread another verse novel (Glyn Maxwell's The Sugar Mile, which I taught in late June), and as a result, the book seemed somewhat disjointed to me.

But it is full of wonderful moments, such as this one:

.... Their attitude
to everything is, if it is so urgent
it will happen without their attention.

They are right and they are wrong. The world
carries on as it must, but it is diminished
without their involvement.

Verse novels part two
Verse novels