Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Quick Hits on Select Lit, Part 2

Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford.  I’ve read this book of essays & interviews countless times–well, at least I’m not keeping track–because Stafford’s simple approach to the task of writing helps me clear the path through my mind's clutter so that I can continue the pursuit of poetry, whatever that's worth. It's not that I doubt myself as a poet, but I'm on life's harrowing back nine & I'm tired of schlepping my clubs around alone on the links, whacking my Titleist Pro out of a trap unbeknownst, reading the greens, silver Dead Aim putter in hand, for nobody but me, teeing off with my Big Bertha Alpha 816 Black Diamond into the great void unknown.

Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges.  “Good stuff,” an enthusiastic Chuck Barris said. The stubby finger at the end of the raised arm of his rented tuxedo pointed in a quick flick at the TV audience as he introduced, with the aplomb of a carnival sideshow barker, “Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine!”

Death Takes Practice, Erik Leavitt.  Not a bad little chappie, though I would be remiss if I didn’t tell Leavitt that Wendy’s doesn’t sell milkshakes, a fact that totally wrecks the verisimilitude of “For Dave Thomas, Founder of Wendy’s, Dead at 69.”  How am I now to believe the self-same speaker’s claim that “a hunk of space rock / just rippling the waters / . . . drifts past in the dark”?  Those ketchup packets that Leavitt asserts “grief finds us in” suddenly seem phony & wrong, like ordering a Whopper at McDonald’s, an irredeemable mistake akin to blaspheming the holy spirit, or worse, eating at Arby’s.

An Animal I Can’t Name, Raegen Pietrucha.  In this winner of the Two of Cups Press Chapbook Contest, centering around the aftermath of the sexual molestation & rape of a young girl, I’m left with a good many unanswered questions.  For instance, why did the publisher decide to use a font size of about, I don’t know, 2 point?  Tiny print.  Lawyer-like.  How small is it?  If Pietrucha coulda-woulda-shoulda named the titular animal, the reader’d probably be none the wiser unless having first procured a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass.  A shame, my bleeding retinas aside, because otherwise it’s an attractive, well-constructed chapbook with perfect-binding & color cover.

Landscape Portrait Figure Form, Dean Rader.  Let me begin by saying (as if I need your permission–just try to stop me) that I generally like Rader's poems.  He exercises an aesthetic akin to the one that Dean Young advocates in The Art of Recklessness.  This serves Rader well in "The Poem Chooses Its Own Adventure," for example, or "Self Portrait As Wikipedia Entry."  However, recklessness risks conveying a cavalier attitude toward one's work.  I don't mean to bad mouth Richard Lovelace & his cronies in any way. My point is that revision has a black eye these days–possibly from hanging out all hours in sleazy dives on the wrong side of town with a bunch of 3rd rate hacks–but if utilized judiciously, revision can improve writing that doesn’t come across so much as “reckless” but as “careless” or "lazy." Not revising–I’m not saying Rader doesn’t revise, I’m just saying–results in some rather bad writing at times.  Take, for instance, "Veduta Americana."  After ending the first of seven numbered sections, "They are sad / and hungry, and the desert is so cold," Rader inexplicably feels the need to repeat these prosaic at best, amateurish at worst, lines again to begin the second section almost verbatim:  "and the desert is so cold, and they are so sad / and so hungry. . ."  Sigh & double sigh, yet I struggle to publish my poems.  In "A Page of Spring," the second section appears in its entirety:

                II.
                Once upon
                a time

                there was
                no time

                only
                the page.

What's wrong with these lines, you'll need to decide for yourself.  I'm stopping here, for  ever heedful of Walter Sobchak's (The Big Lebowski) admonishment re strangers, I don't want to ride Rader's ass because 1) he's not a bad poet; & 2) I don't swing that way, though maybe I should if it would help my career.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius.  "Do nothing without purpose," Aurelius advises, if we wish to live a noble life. This has long been my mantra, for I'm doing nothing without purpose all the fucking time.  Aurelius offers Christ-like advice, suggesting, in so many words (lingua latina, at that) that we turn the other cheek when we're done a disservice, that we, in essence, love our enemy.  In fact, he gets downright preachy, at times sounding like my beloved sainted mother (requiescat in pace) as when he espouses that money, success, praise & such trifles don’t matter in the long run when you consider that all of us, from the least to the best, will someday die & once we’re dead, none of these earthly concerns matter. Besides, don't question the gods. They know what's best, etc., etc.  Yeah, OK, thanks, Mom. I get it. Death is The Ritz.  Thing is, until I'm dead, I'm pretty sure I'll need money, not bullshit about how fucking great the gods are & shit.  As for my limited success & lack of recognition--well, now you're pissing me off. To be fair, if a buttload of books on Buddhist thought that I'd read in my angry youth--now I'm a cantankerous old fart--failed to convince me to rid myself of earthly desires, Marcus Aurelius’s clunky argument never stood a chance. Nevertheless, I’m glad I finally got around to reading Meditations, which I received XX-some years ago at no cost as the result of a shipping error from a then upstart online bookstore.

God’s Grandeur & Other Poems, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  With a middle name of Manley, Hopkins is easily the most macho of all poets, albeit in a Village People sort of way.  He’s also does a fair share of Bible thumping--which is why I avoid him.  As a poet, Hopkins's claim to fame is Sprung Rhythm, which he explains thus:  "Sprung Rhythm . . . is measured by feet of from one to four syllables, regularly, and for particular effects any number of weak or slack syllables may be used.  It has one stress, which falls on the only syllable, if there is only one, or, if there are more, then scanning . . . on the first, and so gives rise to four sorts of feet, a monosyllable and the so-called accentual Trochee, Dactyl, and the First Paeon.  And there will be four corresponding natural rhythms; but nominally the feet are mixed and any one may follow any other.  And hence Sprung Rhythm differs from Running Rhythm in having or being only one nominal rhythm, a mixed of 'logaoedic' one, instead of three, but on the other hand in having twice the flexibility of foot, so that any two stresses may either follow one another running or be divided by one, two, or three slack syllables.  But strict Sprung Rhythm cannot be counterpointed.  In Sprung Rhythm, as in logaoedic rhythm generally, the feet are assumed to be equally long or strong and their seeming inequality is made up by pause or stressing."  Well, sure, that seems pretty clear, but if it's not, I swear to God's fucking grandeur, there's more.

Dating the Invisible Man, Gwen Hart.  The number of sonnets, sestinas & villanelles in this chapbook suggests that Hart likes to experiment with form–something that I like to do as well–which translates into something that I like that about this book.

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer.  Chaucer's strategy of allowing individual members of a disparate group of travelers to each tell a story provides the reader with a variety of tales, some heroic, some comic & some dull as church.  I wish I could say I read this in Middle English from beginning to end, but in all honesty--or at least most--I didn't & realistically, given its length & my ever advancing age, I kind of doubt if I ever do.

Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison.  I liked the characters in this novel better than the plot.  I know many today believe plot isn't important & I agree up to the point in which I don't care for it.  So as not to spoil the story for those who haven't read it, I'll  state my dissatisfaction, if your pardon the pun, cryptically:  Dying's easy--it's living that's a bitch.  However, as I said, I liked the characters.  I found Pilate Dead--the character names were nearly Pynchon-level cool--particularly interesting because I once met a guy at the Y who didn't have a navel either.  I'm not making this shit up!  Some 30ish year-old rando, as the kids say, who seemed a little unbalanced, maybe slightly mentally impaired, too, pestered me for half an hour to play him in a game of one-on-one.  I really didn't want to--admittedly, I'm a bit of a basketball snob--but I finally gave in, thinking I could mop the floor with him, then get back to my workout.  When he took his shirt off for the game, I noticed he didn't have a navel. It wasn't merely that he had his shorts pulled up Urkel-style.  If anything, he was wearing them under his button-less belly. It made me feel a bit uneasy, if not strangely ill, so I tried not to look.  I put the game away as quickly as possible--I'm a force of nature behind the arc & he wasn't much of a player--then told him I had to go. When I told other people later about the guy who didn't have a navel, they rolled their eyes as if I were crazy, but the Certificate of Sanity displayed on my study wall suggests otherwise.

Masters of Atlantis, Charles Portis.  After I got over my initial disappointment that it wasn't the adventure story on which Disney based its hit movie Atlantis: the Lost Empire, I enjoyed this quirky novel about obscure cultists, if that's what you call them, who protect the secret wisdom of Atlantis, if that's what you call it.

And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, William S. Burroughs & Jack Kerouac. This novel, based on a true story, is one telling of the incident that many say triggered the beginning of the Beat Movement.  With this in mind, perhaps the only thing worse than Kerouac & Burroughs's writing styles is their ethics.  I mean, these two erstwhile struggling writers apparently helped a murderer receive a lighter sentence--two years for murder--by concocting a story specifically to appeal to an anti-gay 1940s American justice system. In fact, from what I've read,  it's possible that both Burroughs & Kerouac gave false depositions, i.e., they committed perjury.  If so, that makes them the Ray Lewises of literature, though it should be pointed out that Ray Lewis, morality aside, was actually a good football player.

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