This is April again. Roller skates rain slowly down the street
Your voice far away on the phone
Once I would have jumped like a clown through a hoop—
“Then the area of infection has increased? …oh …What can I expect after all—I’ve had worse shocks.
Anyhow, I know and that’s something.” (Like hell it is, but it’s what you say to an X-ray doctor.)
Then the past whispering faint now on another phone:
“Is there any change?”
“Little or no change”
The roller skates rain down the streets,
The black cars shine between the leaves,
Your voice far away:
“I am going with my daughter to the country. My husband left today. . . No he knows nothing.”
I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories, The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.
Once the phial was full—here is the bottle it came in.
Hold on there’s a drop left there. . . No, it was just the way the light fell
But your voice on the telephone. If I hadn’t abused words so what you said might have meant something.
But one hundred and twenty stories
April evening spreads over everything, the purple blur left by a child who has used the whole paint-box.
“Our April Letter” is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Notebooks.
“The Easter Hare” by Margaret Arndt
It is curious how little children of one country know about the lives and interests of the children of another. Perhaps if English people would send their children over to Germany, instead of their journalists, singers, etc., the danger of an International war would be lessened. The children would be sure to fall in love with Germany; for it is the land above all others that appeals to children. Women are said to come first in America, children are certainly the first consideration in Germany. Froebel’s motto: “Come let us live with our children,” is nowhere better carried out.
A little English girl, named Patsie, came over to visit her German friends, Gretel and Barbara, shortly before Easter this year; and she was much surprised to find all the shop-windows filled with hares; hares made of chocolate, toy hares, hares with fine red coats on, hares trundling wheelbarrows or carrying baskets full of Easter eggs. Moreover there was no end to the picture post cards representing the hare in various costumes, and in some connection with Easter eggs. One of these post cards represented a hare crawling out of a large broken egg just like a chicken.
Patsie asked her little friends eagerly what this all meant.
“Who is the Hare?” she said. “I do so want to know all about him.”
“Why, of course, it is the Easter Hare,” they replied.
“Is it possible that you have not heard of him? O, you poor English children! Why, he brings us the eggs on Easter Sunday morning!” said Gretel.
“O don’t you know,” said Barbara, “he hides them in the garden, unless it rains or is very wet; then we have to stay in our bedrooms for fear of frightening him, and he lays them downstairs in the dining-room or drawing-room. However, this has only happened once since I was born, and I am nine years old; it mustbe always fine at Easter.”
“We have to let all the blinds down before he will come into our garden, he is so dreadfully nervous,” said Gretel. “Then he hides the eggs in the most unexpected places, we have to hunt and hunt a long time before we have found them all. Last year we discovered an egg some weeks afterwards; luckily it was a glass one filled with sweeties; for if it had been of chocolate, we could not have eaten it, after it had lain on the damp mould, where the snails and worms would have crawled over it. Some of the eggs are made of chocolate or marzipan or sugar, and some are real eggs coloured blue or red or brown, or even sometimes with pictures on them.”
“We had two dear little baskets with dollies in them, and a big Easter Hare made of gingerbread, as well as the eggs this year,” said Barbara. “We hunt and hunt in every corner of the garden, and then we divide our treasures afterwards on two plates, so that is quite fair.”
“You are lucky children, why does not the Hare come to England?” said Patsie. “I am sure little English children would appreciate him too!”
RIP Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013
I will never forget the first time I read Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s famous novel that mixes elements of magical realism and postcolonial criticism into the story of brave, stubborn Okonkwo, a killer, an exile, a man too big for his world. I was a high school senior and the book was part of an AP Literature reading list. I found a tattered copy in my classroom library, and compelled by the cover and the book’s name (what a great name!) and the author’s name, I read it. I devoured it. I absorbed it. I read it again.
And I stole the book of course.
And then years later, a student of mine stole it from me, which is as it should be.
I used Things Fall Apart for years in the classroom, reading it aloud with my classes in the inner-city school where I taught. Few of my students were avid readers, especially the angry young boys, who often seemed to show up merely to escape the violent streets they roamed or the chaos at home. But they liked Things Fall Apart and they loved Okonkwo and they understood him, his anger, his pride, his fury. Over the years my class set experienced that special kind of attrition all well-loved books face: The books disappeared, secreted into knapsacks and lockers, loaned to students in other classes. Or they fell apart, fittingly, the spines cracked, the glue brittle and crumbling, the pages torn. This is love, of course.
Achebe was always thrust into a strange position. He had to defend writing in English, for example, and discourse about Things Fall Apart often dwells too much on the book’s final chapters, where British colonials begin systemically decimating traditional Igbo culture. It’s not that that final section isn’t important or meaningful to the book, but there’s so much more there—so much is preserved—and shared—of Igbo culture in the book’s first three quarters. (Achebe’s scathing attack on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness often overshadows his fiction).
If we’re being honest though, let’s admit that what makes Things Fall Apart a great work of literature, a strange, strong work of literature, isn’t merely its anthropological or folkloric or political values. It’s not a book we read again and again because of its allegorical values or its maddening critique of colonialism. The reason that we continue to read and reread Things Fall Apart is that it’s an excellent novel, an aesthetic achievement, a work that produces its own anxieties, that captures terror and pity and humanity. So much humanity.
Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.
In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.
Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?
Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?
MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.
Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did how you were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?
MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.
Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…
MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.
Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?
MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.
Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?
MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.
Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?
MK: That was for Gigantic’s Gigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.
Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?
MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.
Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?
MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.
Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?
MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now?
MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.
Still Points North is Leigh Newman’s new memoir about growing up in Alaska. Publisher Random House’s blurb:
Part adventure story, part love story, part homecoming, Still Points North is a page-turning memoir that explores the extremes of belonging and exile, and the difference between how to survive and knowing how to truly live.
Growing up in the wilds of Alaska, seven-year-old Leigh Newman spent her time landing silver salmon, hiking glaciers, and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents unexpectedly divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her more urbane mother.
Navigating the fraught terrain of her family’s unraveling, Newman did what any outdoorsman would do: She adapted. With her father she fished remote rivers, hunted caribou, and packed her own shotgun shells. With her mother she memorized the names of antique furniture, composed proper bread-and-butter notes, and studied Latin poetry at a private girl’s school. Charting her way through these two very different worlds, Newman learned to never get attached to people or places, and to leave others before they left her. As an adult, she explored the most distant reaches of the globe as a travel writer, yet had difficulty navigating the far more foreign landscape of love and marriage.
In vivid, astonishing prose, Newman reveals how a child torn between two homes becomes a woman who both fears and idealizes connection, how a need for independence can morph into isolation, and how even the most guarded heart can still long for understanding. Still Points North is a love letter to an unconventional Alaskan childhood of endurance and affection, one that teaches us that no matter where you go in life, the truest tests of courage are the chances you take, not with bears and blizzards, but with other people.
A passel of unsolicited reader copies arrived in the middle of February, including a trio of strange birds from Akashic Books. Preston L. Allen’s Every Boy Should Have a Man seems especially (and wonderfully) weird. First, there’s that title, which is, you know, strange, and then the blurb:
A riveting, poignant satire of societal ills, with an added dose of fantasy, Every Boy Should Have a Man takes place in a post-human world where creatures called oafs keep humanlike “mans” as beloved pets. One day, a poor boy oaf brings home a man whom he hides under his bed in the hopes his parents won’t find out. When the man is discovered, the boy admits it is not his—but the boy is no delinquent. Despite the accusations being hurled at him, he’s telling the truth when he says he found the man aimlessly wandering in the bramble. Nevertheless, he must return the man to his rightful owner. But when the heartbroken boy comes home from school one afternoon, he finds wrapped up in red ribbon a female man with a note around her neck: Every boy should have a man. You’re a fine son. Love, Dad.
Thus begins Every Boy Should Have a Man, Preston L. Allen’s picaresque journey into uncharted territory in earth, sky, and firmament. With echoes of Margaret Atwood and Jack and the Beanstalk, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, it traces the story of the boy and his three “mans,” Brown Skin who is not his, the tragic Red Sleeves who has no voice, and her quick-witted daughter Red Locks whose epic journey takes her from the backbreaking drudgery of the mines to the perils of the battlefield to the savagery of cannibalism.
Oafs and mans each gain insight and understanding into one another’s worlds, and the worlds that touch theirs—ultimately showing that oafs and mans alike share a common “humanity.” Filled with surprising twists and turns, the novel is in part a morality tale that takes on many of today’s issues including poverty, the environment, sexism, racism, war, and religion, all in lighthearted King James prose.
Seems to have shades of Fantastic Planet — but “in lighthearted King James prose”!
Next up, The Roving Tree, the first novel from Elsi Augustave, which seems like it might be happily at home on a contemporary postcolonial studies syllabus:
Elsie Augustave’s debut novel, The Roving Tree, explores multiple themes: separation and loss, rootlessness, the impact of class privilege and color consciousness, and the search for cultural identity. The central character, Iris Odys, is the offspring of Hagathe, a Haitian maid, and Brahami, a French-educated mulatto father who cares little about his child.
Hagathe, who had always dreamt of a better life for her child, is presented with the perfect opportunity when Iris is five years old. Adopted by a white American couple, an anthropologist and art gallery owner, Iris is transported from her tiny remote Haitian village, Monn Neg, to an American suburb.
The Roving Tree illuminates how imperfectly assimilated adoptees struggle to remember their original voices and recapture their personal histories and cultural legacy. Set between two worlds, suburban America and Haiti under the oppressive regime of Papa Doc’s Tanton Macoutes, the novel offers a unique literary glimpse into the deeply entrenched class discrimination and political repression of Haiti during the Duvalier era, along with the subtle but nonetheless dangerous effects of American racism.
Told from beyond the grave, Iris seamlessly shares her poignant and pivotal life experiences. The Roving Tree, underscored by the spiritual wisdom of Haitian griots, offers insightful revelations of the importance of significant relationships with family and friends. Years later, we see how these elements are transformative to Iris’s intense love affair, and her personal and professional growth. Universal truths resonate beyond the pages of this work.
Also on the colonial-historical tip: Anthony C. Winkler’s The Family Mansion:
The Family Mansion is a historical novel that tells the story of Hartley Fudges, whose personal destiny unfolds against the backdrop of 19th-century British culture, a time when English society was based upon the strictest subordination and stratification of the classes. As the second son of a hereditary duke and his father’s favorite, Hartley, under different circumstances, might have inherited the inside track to his father’s estate and titles. But the English law of succession was rigidly dictated by the principle of male primogeniture, with all the property, assets, titles, and debts devolving to the firstborn son and his issue, leaving nothing for the other sons.
Like many second sons, Hartley decides to migrate to Jamaica at the age of twenty-three. This at first seems sensible: in the early 1800s Jamaica was far and away the richest and most opulent of all the crown colonies, and the single greatest producer of sugar in the world. But for all its fabulous wealth, Jamaica was a difficult and inhospitable place for an immigrant. The mortality rate for new immigrants was over 50% for the first year of residence. Some immigrant groups fared even worse. The island’s white population that ran the lucrative sugarcane industry was outnumbered 10-to-1 by the largely enslaved black population. Slave revolts were common with brutal reprisals such as the decapitation of ringleaders and nailing the severed heads to trees.
The complex saga of Hartley’s life is revealed in vivid scenes that depict the vicissitudes of 19th-century English and Jamaican societies. Aside from violent slave revolts, newcomers had to survive the nemesis of the white man in the tropics—namely, yellow fever. With Hartley’s point of view as its primary focus, the narrative transports readers to exotic lands, simultaneously exploring the brutality of England’s slavery-based colonization.
Akashic, a label I was ignorant of up until now, seems to be publishing some pretty cool stuff.
“Nam-Bok the Unveracious” by Jack London
“A Bidarka, is it not so! Look! a bidarka, and one man who drives clumsily with a paddle!”
Old Bask-Wah-Wan rose to her knees, trembling with weakness and eagerness, and gazed out over the sea.
“Nam-Bok was ever clumsy at the paddle,” she maundered reminiscently, shading the sun from her eyes and staring across the silver-spilled water. “Nam-Bok was ever clumsy. I remember….”
But the women and children laughed loudly, and there was a gentle mockery in their laughter, and her voice dwindled till her lips moved without sound.
Koogah lifted his grizzled head from his bone-carving and followed the path of her eyes. Except when wide yawns took it off its course, a bidarka was heading in for the beach. Its occupant was paddling with more strength than dexterity, and made his approach along the zigzag line of most resistance. Koogah’s head dropped to his work again, and on the ivory tusk between his knees he scratched the dorsal fin of a fish the like of which never swam in the sea.
“It is doubtless the man from the next village,” he said finally, “come to consult with me about the marking of things on bone. And the man is a clumsy man. He will never know how.”
“It is Nam-Bok,” old Bask-Wah-Wan repeated. “Should I not know my son!” she demanded shrilly. “I say, and I say again, it is Nam-Bok.”
“And so thou hast said these many summers,” one of the women chided softly. “Ever when the ice passed out of the sea hast thou sat and watched through the long day, saying at each chance canoe, ‘This is Nam-Bok.’ Nam-Bok is dead, O Bask-Wah-Wan, and the dead do not come back. It cannot be that the dead come back.”
“Nam-Bok!” the old woman cried, so loud and clear that the whole village was startled and looked at her.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.
It so chanced, that after the Parsee’s disappearance, I was he whom the Fates ordained to take the place of Ahab’s bowsman, when that bowsman assumed the vacant post; the same, who, when on the last day the three men were tossed from out of the rocking boat, was dropped astern. So, floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it, when the halfspent suction of the sunk ship reached me, I was then, but slowly, drawn towards the closing vortex. When I reached it, it had subsided to a creamy pool. Round and round, then, and ever contracting towards the button-like black bubble at the axis of that slowly wheeling circle, like another Ixion I did revolve. Till, gaining that vital centre, the black bubble upward burst; and now, liberated by reason of its cunning spring, and, owing to its great buoyancy, rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost one whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirgelike main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks. On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.
The untitled epilogue to Melville’s Moby-Dick, which I’ve always thought of by its epigraph from Job, “And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee.”
I’ve enjoyed citing these extracts through this reading of Moby-Dick.
Read Teju Cole’s essay “A Reader’s War,” which tries to square Obama’s reputation as a man “widely read in philosophy, literature, and history” with the White House’s policies of drone warfare. From the essay:
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.
“T.S. Eliot” by Ezra Pound (from Instigations)
Il n’y a de livres que ceux où un écrivain s’est raconté lui-même en racontant les mœurs de ses contemporains—leurs rêves, leurs vanités, leurs amours, et leurs folies.— Remy de Gourmont.
De Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of “Madame Bovary,” “L’Éducation Sentimentale” and “Bouvard et Pécuchet” to “Salammbô” and “La Tentation de St. Antoine.” A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of rêves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.
The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete; much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year’s study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naïve despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretense.
It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot’s work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.
The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it—he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are “no longer American.” This is the bitterest jibe in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one’s contemporaries. After a time one tires of “promise.”
In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:
INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?
STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.
INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.
STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.
INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.
STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?
Hello, I’m Leos Carax, director of foreign-language films. I’ve been making foreign-language films my whole life. Foreign-language films are made all over the world, of course, except in America. In America, they only make non-foreign-language films. Foreign-language films are very hard to make, obviously, because you have to invent a foreign language instead of using the usual language. But the truth is, cinema is a foreign language, a language created for those who need to travel to the other side of life. Good night.
Director Leos Carax accepts his award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association for best-foreign language film for Holy Motors. (Here’s my review of Holy Motors, by the way).
Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in America (Book Acquired, Sometime in December of 2012)
I got a little lax with these “books acquired” posts at the end of last year—chalk it up to end of semester deadlines and meetings, family-oriented holiday stuff, and an awful illness. Anyway–
Mike Chasar’s Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America, new from Columbia University Press is pretty cool: it’s kind of a dialogic study of how poetry evinces (or infiltrates or collides or emerges from or is bound by) a variety of popular media. Some of the most fascinating chapters dwell on scrapbooking. Here’s Columbia U of P’s blurb:
Exploring poetry scrapbooks, old-time radio show recordings, advertising verse, corporate archives, and Hallmark greeting cards, among other unconventional sources, Mike Chasar casts American poetry as an everyday phenomenon consumed and created by a vast range of readers. He shows how American poetry in the first half of the twentieth century and its reception helped set the stage for the dynamics of popular culture and mass media today.
Poetry was then part and parcel of American popular culture, spreading rapidly as the consumer economy expanded and companies exploited its profit-making potential. Poetry also offered ordinary Americans creative, emotional, political, and intellectual modes of expression, whether through scrapbooking, participation in radio programs, or poetry contests. Reenvisioning the uses of twentieth-century poetry, Chasar provides a richer understanding of the innovations of modernist and avant-garde poets and the American reading public’s sophisticated powers of feeling and perception.
A couple of snaps from the book—pics of pages from one of those scrapbooks—
Tombstone, Arizona, during the 1880′s is, in ways, our national Camelot: a never-never land where American virtues are embodied in the Earps, and the opposite evils in the Clanton gang; where the confrontation at the OK corral takes on some of the dry purity of the Arthurian joust. Oakley Hall, in his very fine novel Warlock (Viking) has restored to the myth of Tombstone its full, mortal, blooded humanity. Wyatt Earp is transmogrified into a gunfighter named Blaisdell who, partly because of his blown-up image in the Wild West magazines of the day, believes he is a hero. He is summoned to the embattled town of Warlock by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist. It is Blaisdell’s private abyss, and not too different from the town’s public one. Before the agonized epic of Warlock is over with — the rebellion of the proto-Wobblies working in the mines, the struggling for political control of the area, the gunfighting, mob violence, the personal crises of those in power — the collective awareness that is Warlock must face its own inescapable Horror: that what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makesWarlock one of our best American novels. For we are a nation that can, many of us, toss with all aplomb our candy wrapper into the Grand Canyon itself, snap a color shot and drive away; and we need voices like Oakley Hall’s to remind us how far that piece of paper, still fluttering brightly behind us, has to fall.
Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 review of Oakley Hall’s novel Warlock. Via/more.
David Simon, the writer and creator behind The Wire, Treme, and Generation Kill, tries to tackle the tragic Newtown slayings in a post at his blog. There’s a lot of anger in the piece—rightfully so—but I find Simon’s most convincing paragraph to be the following passage, where he breaks down the fear fantasy that drives the ideology behind The Walking Dead:
On television the other evening, I caught a glimpse of a drama in which some future America was overrun by zombies, a thrilling narrative in which survivors could only rely on force of arms to keep the unthinking, unfeeling hordes at bay. And I realized: This isn’t mere entertainment, it’s national consensus. More than that, it’s a well-executed and starkly visual rendering of the collective fear that governs us. We know that they’re out there: The less human. The poor. The godless. The frightening other. And they want what we have, they are going to take what we have, and they understand nothing save for a well-placed bullet. It’s my understanding that the show I encountered is quite popular; in this America, it may even be called populist in its argument — a morality tale that speaks to why we must arm ourselves, and carry those guns with us, and stand our fucking ground; it declares that we can’t rely on collective, utilitarian will to achieve a safe and viable society, that government by the people and for the people is, at this point, an empty catchphrase for fools and weaklings. No, our future is every man for himself, and a gun in every outstretched hand, and if a classroom of six and seven year olds is the requisite cost every now and then, so be it.
Two champions of the old West share their common interest in this illustrated letter from sculptor, illustrator, and painter Frederic Remington to writer Owen Wister. Both originally Easterners, the two men had met in 1893 when Wister went to Wyoming for his health. In this letter to his new friend, Remington muses about the instability of his paintings, which may fade in time “like pale molasses,” but he suggests that his new work in bronze–”a cowboy on a bucking broncho”–will “rattle down through all the ages.”
Emily Dickinson’s recipe for cocoanut cake, via Tori Avey at the The History Kitchen. Avey’s post is great—she guides the reader through making the cake, includes photos of the process, and even pairs the recipe with an appropriate poem. And of course, she transcribes Dickinson’s scratchy notes:
Emily Dickinson’s Cocoanut Cake
1 cup cocoanut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoonful soda
1 teaspoonful cream of tartar
This makes one half the rule–
From Chapter XVII of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian—
They grew gaunted and lank under the white suns of those days and their hollow burnedout eyes were like those of noctambulants surprised by day. Crouched under their hats they seemed fugitives on some grander scale, like beings for whom the sun hungered. Even the judge grew silent and speculative. He’d spoke of purging oneself of those things that lay claim to a man but that body receiving his remarks counted themselves well done with any claims at all. They rode on and the wind drove the fine gray dust before them and they rode an army of gray-beards, gray men, gray horses. The mountains to the north lay sunwise in corrugated folds and the days were cool and the nights were cold and they sat about the fire each in his round of darkness in that round of dark while the idiot watched from his cage at the edge of the light. The judge cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was war.
The good book says that he that lives by the sword shall perish by the sword, said the black.
The judge smiled, his face shining with grease.
What right man would have it any other way? he said.
The good book does indeed count war an evil, said Irving. Yet there’s many a bloody tale of war inside it.
It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.
He turned to Brown, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.
What is my trade?
War. War is your trade. Is it not?
And it aint yours?
Mine too. Very much so.
What about all them notebooks and bones and stuff?
All other trades are contained in that of war.
Is that why war endures?
No. It endures because young men love it and old men love it in them. Those that fought, those that did not.
That’s your notion.
The judge smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the value of that which is put at hazard. Games of chance require a wager to have meaning at all. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of war for here that which is wagered swallows up game, player, all.
Suppose two men at cards with nothing to wager save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the card. The whole universe for such a player has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the game to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of fate. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of cards in his hand is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god. Brown studied the judge.
You’re crazy Holden. Crazy at last.
The judge smiled.