Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Quarterly Review, Spring 2014

The Owl in the Mask of the Dreamer, John Haines. If you’re looking for poems about cold, snowy landscapes, look no further. Haines creates some interesting images, but for the most part, the poems don’t really go anywhere except out into the snow. From a technical standpoint, he’s a good poet, but the poems themselves . . . well, to be honest, I'm really freaking sick of snow.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami. Let me begin by saying I’m a huge Murakami fan. I’ve read every Murakami novel, including the regrettable 1Q84, but I’d not read his non-fiction until now. Murakami begins this memoir of sorts by making various loose analogies between writing & running, but as he progresses, he focuses on running solely–or perhaps I should say slowly, ha!–giving the reader a rundown of his rundown body. While I’d rather learn more about his approach to writing than his physical conditioning, I can empathize with his musings on aging, for I continue to play basketball, even though running & jumping, where I’m concerned, have reached the vanishing point. I still have my shot, though--well, most days. To continue the basketball analogy, I see Murakami as the Michael Jordan of novelists, for, in this book, published in 2006, Murakami makes it clear that he’s not afraid of not taking a side on any issue when he shrugs off global warming with a middle-of-the-road, fence-sitting, "Meh, who knows?"  As Jordan famously said, "Republicans buy shoes, too."  In Murakami's case, I'm not so sure that holds true of books.

Selected Poems, Robinson Jeffers. I have to say, I love his anger. Anger, ha! Outrage! I wonder on which side of the aisle Jeffers would sit these days. On one hand, his distrust of governments & his cynical view of humanity on the whole make him a bit Tea Party-ish. On the other hand, he’s a conservationist (see "Hurt Hawk") with certain progressive views (see "Woodrow Wilson"), so maybe he’d vote Green. In any event, he’s one angry poet.  As for the poetry itself, it's not the most lyrical. Like Whitman, Jeffers eschews meter in hopes to create syntactic rhythm, but unlike Whitman, he doesn’t really do that so much.  That’s not to say I don’t like his work. I hadn’t read Jeffers since my twenties. While I appreciated him then, I’ve come to better understand his bitter cynicism now.  Thanks, Obama.

Otherwise: New & Selected Poems, Jane Kenyon. As a card-carrying commie--hell, I still have my Blockbuster card, for that matter--I’m far too sympathetic with the revolutionary viewpoint to want to read any more bourgeois reflections on New England literary life, but Kenyon’s talent as a poet overcomes this seemingly insurmountable obstacle.  Like China, Inc.'s former CEO Mao, I want "the unity of revolutionary political content & artistic form.  Works of art which lack artistic quality have no force [re: 'poster & slogan style'], however progressive they are politically. "  Kenyon certainly scores points on the artistic front.  I especially like the way she achieves closure in such poems as "The Hermit" & "Main Street: Tilton, New Hampshire" by straying ever so slightly & cleverly off topic.   If not a must-read, Kenyon's certainly more than worthy of reading.

Quick Shots of False Hope, Laura Kightlinger. I don’t remember Kightlinger on SNL since she worked on the show after I’d stopped watching.  Nor have I ever watched any of the network sitcoms she wrote for, but I remember her as a stand-up comic & for her sitcom on IFC, The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman. (I have the first season, but will the second season ever be available on DVD?)   I like her dry sense of humor. That she comes from a working-class background shouldn’t matter, but like dots on the back of Denny’s menu, I make a connection on at least some level. Kightlinger's struggles as a young comic remind me of my struggles as a young poet, which by extension, represent the struggles of all people everywhere, except that she's actually successful. Written in words & sentences & stuff, it’s completely readable & amusing. I even laughed out loud a few times & I rarely do that while reading. That usually only happens during sex & then it's more of a maniacal evil cackle.  Point is, I rarely laugh out loud.

New & Selected Poems, Thomas Lux. Most of Lux’s poems are lists, albeit lyrical, of whatever things spring to his mind.  Listing’s a good strategy to employ as a poet. I met Lux at a writers’ conference at Palm Beach about ten years ago, though I doubt if he remembers me. He seemed a bit irritated that I kept closing my eyes during his reading.  I wasn’t bored or sleeping, but merely blocking out distractions so that I could concentrate on the poems. In fact, I liked "Autobiographical," which he read at the conference, so well that I bought this collection as a result.

Collected Poems 1920-1954, Eugenio Montale, trans. Jonathan Galassi.  According to Galassi, Montale meant his poems to be read as a novel, but if so, it seems at first blush to have less plot than The Unnamable (see below). On the upside, Montale embraced the objective correlative, so these poems are rife with sensory images, but on the downside, I can’t say that any of the poems sticks with me. Maybe they lack fiber. Of course, that’s a subjective reaction based upon a single reading, so don’t hold me to it. I recommend that I read this book again, which I’ll do, if for no other reason so I can once again pretend to speak italiano. 


Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, 2nd Ed, Introduced by Linn Piao. Signed by Mao himself–not his actual signature but an incredible facsimile–this collection of Mao’s sayings is the proverbial little red book we’ve heard so much about. Pocket-sized, it slipped easily into my overcoat, so I could take it with me on the bus to work. At first, I worried about reading Mao in public, but I soon discovered that most people thought I was reading one of those little red editions--no pun intended--of the New Testament that I used to get in Vacation Bible School as a kid. I know this because, every now & again, someone would strike up a conversation that usually revolved around Jesus & who was going to hell. If you’re heading that way, I’d recommend getting the lead out because, according to these sources, it’s filling up fast. Sometimes, if asked, I’d read a few "verses" out loud, taking care to omit any reference to China & to replace "socialism" with "the church" & "comrade" with "brother." I’d also throw in "verily, verily" for good measure. I liked to share the parable of the frog in the well, which I’d end with my eyebrow curled into a question mark.  Sometimes I'd recite, eyes closed, a "verse," such as: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, modesty helps one to moveth forward, whereas conceit maketh one lag behind"  (Paul II, 4:20).  I felt pretty safe passing Mao's quotations off as the Bible since most Christians have never read either.  One day as I read from the quote-unquote Beatitudes about letting a hundred flowers blossom & a hundred schools of thoughts contend, an old guy in a funny hat stopped me & said that’s not Jesus, but Mao.   I was surprised that somone riding the bus knew Mao & even more surprised when it turned out this particular someone was the pope, slumming.  I thought the pope was a Nazi. He laughed when I said that & told me I was thinking of the ex-pope. He may have been right, but before we could have much of a conversation, the bus reached my stop. It’s probably just as well because he’d probably have expected me to kiss his ring or some other crap, which I wasn’t going to do anyway, no matter who he was.

The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett. This stream-of-consciousness, internal monolog, which contains some of Beckett’s most oft quoted lines, essentially dramatizes the Cartesian proof of existence (cogito ergo sum). The thoughts of the speaker, i.e, the voice, represents existence (life) & the silence, which is unknown, represents non-existence (death). It’s dark humor at its pessimistic best & I’ve now completed the trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, & The Unnamable.

Nearing Narcoma, Matt Morris. Not to sound like a raging egotist, but I was flattered when a friend & mentor--let's call him X--began teaching the modified sestina form in poetry seminars. I felt flattered again, though to a lesser extent, when he used my end word/word ending innovation for a series of sestinas he wrote. However, when his sestina series appeared as an ebook, accompanied by an afterword in which one of his colleagues--let's call him Y--credited X with "inventing" the modified sestina & going so far as to dub it "X's sestina"--you know, like a Shakespearean sonnet--I'd hardly characterize my reaction as flattered.  Waiting a week for my anger to subside, I emailed both X & Y to point out the inaccuracy of Y's claim & posted examples of my sestinas, since my work isn't as well-known.  X replied with a condescending scattergun rant that invoked John Ashbery, Brooklyn College, Mark Doty, Norman Dubie, Prairie Schooner, the University of Iowa, etc. Try as he might, however, he couldn't cite any sestina he’d written using the word ending/end word swap–& with good reason, if we are to believe Y, who points out in the same glowing afterword that "X’s innovation" is new to this poem.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone using the modified sestina form. I don’t own the copyright. I make no claim of ownership.  Just as if someone familiar with my poems–let’s call him Z here & asshole in private–were to write a poem based upon the Blondie comic strip or pen a poem in which the Minotaur is the first person speaker, I don’t have exclusive rights to these topics, much less poetic forms. No one does, do they?  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone else had already used this word ending/end word swap before my doing so in the 90s–after all, the sestina dates back to the 13th century–but if so, I remain unaware of it.*  The thing is, I feel betrayed--not because someone borrowed my idea, but because someone I consider(ed) a friend claimed the idea as his own. Not to put too fine a point on the knife in my back, but that's bullshit.

A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell.  In The Problems of Philosophy, Russell writes about philosophy in such a way that it's fairly easy to grasp.  That holds true in this longer piece as well, though my disappointment derives from Russell spending too much time discussing the lives of saints & philosophers.  I wish he'd dedicated more time to the discussion of philosophy itself.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed this book as it provided a certain amount of relief from my recent bouts of insomnia.    

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* After my original posting, I discovered that Harvey Gross in Sound & Form in Modern Poetry claims Eliot's Four Quartets utilizes a similar innovation of the sestina in the opening of the second section of "The Dry Salvages," though I should point out that it deviates from the traditional sestina, as well as my modified form, in other significant ways. 


To read more reviews like these:

Last Quarter:  Year-End Roundup of Two-Bit Reviews
Just in 3/4 Time
Midyear Report
Shiny New Quarter Report
Year End Reviewz
First Quarter Book Report
Midterm Report
3/4 Report


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