Saturday, September 24, 2011

Poetry Corner: Dedication

Right now I'm working on a review of Vivian Gornick's new biography of Emma Goldman for Open Letters Monthly. Over at The New Inquiry, The Jacobin's Bhaskar Sunkara takes issue with Gornick for spending too much time on her romantic life and failing to present an adequate analysis and critique of the limits of Goldman's brand of radicalism, deeming the book "a trite celebration of the 'good fight' and some parlor gossip."

But what does it actually mean to fight the good fight? Are the contours of a life of struggle really so familiar to us? Of course, from a certain radical perspective, this is besides the point: one struggles to change the world, not to live a meaningful life. Yet given the precariousness of radical victories, part of the story is always the lives left behind across decades of difficult and sacrifice, and, often, seeming failures. By aiming for more than a meaningful life for oneself, meaningful lives are constructed: this is one of the central tensions at the heart of Benjamin Balthaser's wonderful new collection of poems, Dedication, (you can get it here.)

Drawing on experiences and interviews with relatives who were activists and members of the American Communist Party, the book meditates on the lines of blood and memory that extend from the long-ago epiphanies, cherished books, and conversations across decades that erode their power, both through the active repression of HUAC and named names and the less deliberate but no less intolerable diminishments of age, separations, and silences. "Dedication for Arrival" implicitly rebukes all those who have seen American repression as somehow insignificant because it lacks the familiar icons of state repression:

When they came, they did not come,
in darkness, as they did,

they did come with greased faces,
black with smoke, as they did,


They came in the middle of the day,
they came in suits, they knocked on the door,
and read from a warrant, signed by a judge,
and when the children wept, they patted them on the head,
and gave them sweets, and the neighbors
peered from darkened windows
not knowing and prayer but silence, and rumor.

Finally, though, it is in the construction of meaningful lives that the losses and gains are measured. In "Dedication 4 for Sid Grossman: Service," we see a captain ridicule his commitment - ("we know what your background is"),
to run their logistics, the Lieutenant called on you.

Grossman will talk to those niggers, and when
you walked through the tropical darkness,
and onto the other side, and you spoke
with the ease and directness one grants to men,
it was obvious you had not learned this in the Army.

I don't buy or recommend poetry that often, but do yourself a favor and pick up Dedication here.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reading for the Plot

I remember, back when I was still a student (I say this as if it was some little brief fling instead of how I spent more than half of my life), reading a preface to one of Doris Lessing's novels. I think it was Martha Quest, although it might have been the namesake of this humble blog. In any case, the preface quoted Lessing crediting her literary accomplishments to her lack of formal schooling. It gave her the freedom, she said, to read the way one should read: haphazardly, without a plan, wherever one's interests and fancy took one. Well. I set her aside for awhile and guiltily went back to whatever I was supposed to be reading for a seminar. Now that I'm out of school (as much as a teacher can be), working on fiction as much as anything academic, I read more this way than I probably ever have. I don't know if I agree completely with Lessing: there's something to trying to discipline oneself to read deeply into a certain topic, even through the boring parts. In any case, I had something of an odd summer, and at the end of August I realized that what I'd read over the last two months - the good bad and ugly, made no sense together whatsoever, except that it made perfect sense. One feels, nonetheless, some need to account for What is Found There (the remnants of the good student, perhaps).

In any case, then, some discoveries and some embarrassing confessions:

- Eileen Myles, The Importance of Being Iceland. I came to read this in a way that's probably something like Lessing's ideal, but that almost never happens with me: I saw it at the bookstore, was struck by it although I'd never heard of it, and read it right away. I'd heard of Myles as a poet: this is a collection of prose pieces: some you might call reviews, some you might call essays, I suppose. There's a lot about art, but the best, for my money, are the responses to Times articles and the like: she takes some throw away, completely conventional line and runs with it, as if the writer had actually meant what he wrote. Her anti-advice commencement speech is pretty great too.

- Jane Green, Babyville. On to the ugly. Every once and a while I get momentarily fascinated by "chick lit." I kind of liked Bridget Jones and the one Candace Bushnell book I read. I tend to be of the "if it's popular there must be something there, and well-done pure entertainment is harder than it looks" school. But good god, this was awful. Somehow one can take a TV show where there is "the career girl with her one night stands" and "the housewife obsessed with babies" - just being played by an actor inevitably gives them at least a touch of something recognizable. But sitting through descriptions explaining to you that's who they are, in case you missed the point. Blech. The sex scenes sucked too.

- Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking. Borrowed from a friend while at a country house. I imagine that, good or bad, celebrity memoirs are far more entertaining that chick lit with "relatable" characters. There were funny pictures, plus it makes you curious to re-listen to mid-period Paul Simon.

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude. The only reread among the bunch, for an online reading group. My first read was in a grad seminar, overburdened by its reputation in Latin American literature and how much my Latin Americanist friends get annoyed by it as a result. I did enjoy it more this time, but it was still all a bit much for me. I think I'll always be a minimalist or a realist at heart, and usually both at the same time.

- Leslie Chang, Factory Girls. A bit of a cheat on the arbitrary reading plan, since I'd taught a chapter in my composition class on work, and wanted to see how the other pieces fit together. It's a great read. Chang isn't a lefty, and she clearly doesn't want her story about young migrant workers in China's new cities to be primarily a story about exploitation. What she does instead, though, works well, showing us how her subjects navigate a truly strange world. The chapters on the instant schools that have cropped up to teach the ways of the capitalist world and on the dating market among young migrants are particularly captivating. After reading the latter, at least, it's really really hard to complain about how "artificial" OkCupid is.

- Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle. J.K. Rowling gave this classic from 1948 a boost with her blurb, and you can see why. I guess you'd call it Y.A., though not everything with a teenage narrator and point of view merits that, does it? Is Catcher in the Rye YA? In any case, it brought me back to a lot of childhood reading - the Britishness, the propriety, the girl discovering the library in the old house, the way first crushes or loves bump against trying to be a good person. I wonder how many books for teenage girls stage this conflict, about what is given up to win someone else. It's probably not up there as a theme for the vampire and end of the world types, but it still does it for me.

- Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. The best of the bunch and probably the best novel I read this year. I have a New Yorker cartoon on my fridge that shows two farmers looking over a pen of cattle. "Before we slaughter them," one says, "we give them each an achievement award." Yes, the novel is about clones, but it's really about kids who are like us, only more so: they go to schools where they are told they matter, that they are cared for, that what they think and feel matters. That the teachers are interested in their art because it reveals something about them. The unwinding is in discovering that this isn't true, that they are a product, being prepared. And unlike our visions of youthful liberation, this is one set of raw materials that, despite any Mario Savios lurking among them, doesn't love the machine, but isn't about to throw itself into the gears, either. Taking it a step further, you think about what it means to create children - of the regular non-clone kind - and have to explain to them they're going to die. Cheery stuff! But way less depressing than Babyville.

- Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer. A delight from the first infamous sentence, as I knew it would be. Takes one of the oldest and well-worn topics - the problem of subjectivity, and plays it out in the concrete in all its horrors. Worth several shelves of philosophical monographs on the nature of truth.

- Annie Murphy Paul, Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives. Read this for the obvious reason. The subtitle tells you exactly why this book might be terrifying for a lot of moms-to-be, but I really appreciated actually reading some of the science behind all the recommendations, speculations, and confusions. Reading blog posts at Babble or wherever I just want to go around with a red marker and write "citation please." It's especially interesting to read about the "natural experiments" a lot of these ideas rest on, given that obvious ethical problems with traditional studies, and the history of what used to be believed is pretty hilarious. Paul was pregnant herself when she wrote the book and does a good job trying to frame the information without mother-blame, though her confidence that this is how it will be used seems overblown, to say the least.
- Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Another cheat, since I'm teaching some of it in my America in the World class. An ethnography of the Green Zone from the bad old Bremner/CPA days. He sides a little too much towards the "hubris/mistakes were made" interpretation, I think - giving the stories of well-intentioned young staffers and their disillusionment leads one a bit to the conclusion that things might have been different if there had been more competence, intelligence, what have you, instead of to the point that, as Jamaica Kincaid said of the British in one of our readings for the class, the problem was that they just should have stayed home. Still, an important document. The little "scenes" in between chapters - descriptions of things like where young staffers lodged in big communal bunks went to fuck, or the support group for Democrats - are the best part. Ah, remember the aughts? How much younger we were then.