Saturday, August 31, 2019

Another Fistful of Book Reviews

The Age of Huts, Ron Silliman.  Experiments with language & form are good, generally speaking, but here's the exception that poops on the rule.  Silliman's poetic experiments are far too long, repetitive, & disjointed to approach what I'd term successful.  This is not to say that one can't glean anything from Silliman.  For instance, one learns that a 300+ page book comprised of mostly page-sprawling text, including the 100+ pages of "Ketjak," is not exactly the kind of thing that's exactly kind to the reader.  The lesson one may take from this is to respect the reader.  A valuable lesson.

The Modern Fable, Nishiwaki Junzaburō, trans. Hiroaki Sato.  Some call The Modern Fable Nishiwaki's best book, but having not read his other collections, I can't speak to that, but I can say I enjoyed these poems.  The influence of the surrealist movement on Nishiwaki becomes evident from the onset.  An example:

         The Winter Day

         What day was it when they made this garden?
         There aren't many
         who walk this road
         but in this valley where giant elms
         twist their branches into the sky
         I pick the seeds of wild roses
         for your gourd.
         Liquor may be exhausted but dreams spurt on endlessly.
         Dangling a string of empty cups from my forefinger
         brows raised and like a breeze
         I go with a man to the blue sea
         On a day like this the biologist
         wearing the pear-colored tie
         tells heartless stories
         of sea anemones and wild grapes.
         In the moonlight that Neptune casts
         in weather like this, quite unseen
         another pod of gonzui
         splits solemnly.
         Thus imagining gaudy matters
         smoking my hackberry pipe
         I ran toward the Meguro station to see the winter festival.
         Near the station at a house called Scipio
         an old woman was playing the flute
         From behind me a boy pulled at my mantle dyed purplish indigo
         with grass green lining.
        "Mackerel pike and chestnuts are out of season but would you
         please honor us by dropping in
         my master says.
         Mr. Socrates is there too."
         This is the beginning of
         Plato's Republic.

Modigliani, Doris Krystof.  I'm somewhat a Modigliani fan, mainly because some of my old drawings remind me of Modigliani, but not very many &, if I'm honest, not very much.

Selected Poems, Paul Eluard, trans. Gilbert Bowen.  "From one war to another I grew old" Eluard writes in "Like Many Others."  Sadly, I know that feeling.

Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis.  Given the novel's frequent use of British slang & idioms--ASBO itself is an acronym for antisocial behaviour order--I'm reminded that on the 50th anniversary of Mary Poppins, Dick Van Dyke apologized to Londoners for his corny cockney accent in the film.  Now that the precedent is set, it seems to me only fitting that Tom Hanks do the same for folks in Mississippi for his horrendous Southern accent in the remake of The Ladykillers.  Moreover, the Coen Brothers owe everyone an enormous apology for ever rolling out such a shitwagon of a flick.  As for the book, which is totally unrelated to any film that I know of, it has its moments, I guess.

The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino, trans. Ann Goldstein. A fanciful tale that perhaps peters out a bit by the end, it nevertheless, speaking of movies, seems like a great text for Terry Gilliam to adapt to film.

Threading the Maze, trans. Robert Epp.  A good selection of free verse from seven 20th century Japanese poets: Mushakôji Saneatsu, Hagiwara Sakutarô, Horiguchi Daigaku, Tsuboi Shigeji, Maruyama Kaoru, Kinoshita Yûji, & Sekiné Hiroshi.   With forty to fifty pages devoted to each poet---& well over a hundred poems for each--it's like having seven books of selected poems bound in a single volume.  Mushakôji is my least favorite--too simplistic & preachy--but I like Tsuboi, Kinoshita & Sekiné quite a bit.

The Morning of the Poem, James Schuyler.  I've read this book a gazillion times--er, gazillion & one--so you can extrapolate my opinion from that.

For All These Wretched, Beautiful, & Insignificant Things So Uselessly & Carelessly Destroyed . . ., Hosho McCreesh.  I share many of McCreesh's concerns & like his use of ampersands, but I wish he'd place more trust in imagery rather than feeling the need to editorialize.  For example, in "It Is Paris . . . " the opening poem--full title too long to fool with here--when the speaker walking along the Seine in the rain sees an empty can of dog food floating under a bridge, it's superfluous to explain:

            Suddenly the day went cold,
            went painfully, typically

McCreesh also relies too heavily upon abstract generalizations, as when in "A World of Monster-Spores . . . ," a poem rife with problems, he writes:

           Sure, maybe we ask too much of life.
           Maybe kindness doesn't end up mattering.
           Maybe it's all too terrifying to admit.
           Maybe it just seems easier than the truth--

Personally, I cringe whenever a poet uses "we" to speak presumptuously for all humanity, but I doubt that I'm alone in expecting--especially in a poem that begins with Hitler as a young man--the poet to make clear what is meant by "kindness" & "truth" as well as the ever enigmatic "it all."

Such faults aside, there's a certain playfulness, including the Brautigan-esque long titles, that is to recommend.  When McCreesh focuses on observable phenomena, as in "The Last March of the Human Animal . . . ," it can make for enjoyable poetry.

Das Kapital, Vol. 1, Karl Marx.  I've been reading this book for years & frankly I'm embarrassed at how long it's taken me.  It's true many of the equations Marx cites early on are above my head, but not the accounts of the extreme ways in which workers were/are exploited & the all too familiar perverted logic that businesses use to deflect from their immoral & inhumane policies.  For instance, one businessman defends the low wages paid to children, who worked 10 to 12 hour shifts in mines, workhouses, & factories, by saying that if children received better wages, even more parents would send their children to work.  Nor does the lack of ample action, if not the complete lack thereof, taken by governments elude me, as when British legislators stepped in to decide just how much sawdust bread sold to workers could contain & still legally be considered bread.  Everyone should read this book.  If you start now, maybe you'll finish before neoliberalism kills us all.

The State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin.  In this insightful little book, Lenin elucidates the writings of Marx & Engels in such a way to distinguish them from anarchists & social democrats.  At times, as when he speaks out against opportunists, it almost seems he's answering many of today's pundits who caution against progressive politics.  For Lenin, even today's so-called progressives would be labeled bourgeois reformers who fail to see the necessity of destroying the machine itself.  Reforms, the argument goes, are only temporary.  They can & will be undone at the discretion of the ruling class.  Lenin seems to be prophetic, for this is what one sees taking place in the world today as neoliberalism--striking down many of the reforms enacted during the early to mid 20th century--spreads war, repression, & austerity globally.

Paroles, Jacques Prévert, trans. Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Lyrical & surreal, this may be my favorite book this year.  So good I read it twice & I'm reading it a third time now, which makes typing quite difficult for %$#*'s sake.

Roman Poems, Pier Paolo Pasolini, trans. Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  Since Ferlinghetti translated (& published through City Lights) both Pasolini's Roman Poems & Prévert's Paroles, it seems natural to compare the two.  In general, while Prévert bombards readers with images, Pasolini's poems are filled with abstractions not anchored to anything concrete.  He tells readers to think & feel this or that way in lieu of imagery.  This seems particularly surprising since Pasolini, probably best known as a filmmaker, surely understands the impact imagery can have.  Yet when Pasolini employs images in his poems, they often come across as more symbolic than literal, which tends to diffuse rather than imbue meaning.  To put it another way, while Prévert shares assorted snapshots of a warped world, Pasolini links us to Google Maps for directions.  I share Pasolini's concern for poverty & inequality, but his poetics disappoint. 

The Elephant's Journey, José Saramago, trans. Margaret Jull Costa. The self-aware narrator's voice lends this retelling of an apparently true story a certain fanciful & humorous sense.  Think Larger Than Life retold in the 16th century but no Bill Murray, who wasn't yet born.  Enjoyable & definitely worth reading, yet much as in the Calvino novel previously mentioned, the story kind of peters out.

The Scarlet Plague, Jack London.  If you can imagine a dystopian future--ironically, our past--in which the few survivors of a devastating plague inexplicably refer to each other by their professions & give their offspring offensive names, it might be preferable to this underwhelming story.  To be fair, reading this during my interminable wait at the DMV, which is a dystopia lifted from one of Dante's rings of hell in & of itself, may have colored my opinion.

Cathay, Ezra Pound.  This book of loose translations or perhaps interpretations, generally based not upon the original texts but on the notes of Ernest Fenollosa, includes "The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter."  Of particular interest to me was Pound's snippy note at the end in which he says:
             There are also other poems, notably the "Five colour Screen," in which Professor 
             Fenollosa was, as an art critic, especially interested, and Rihaku's sort of Ars Poetica, 
             which might be given with diffidence to an audience of good will. But if I give them, 
             with the necessary breaks for explanation, and a tedium of notes, it is quite certain 
             that the personal hatred in which I am held by many, and the invidia which is directed 
             against me because I have dared openly to declare my belief in certain young artists, 
             will be brought to bear first on the flaws of such translation, and will then be merged 
             into depreciation of the whole book of translations. Therefore I give only these 
             unquestionable poems.

The Tormented Mirror, Russell Edson.  I've not read Edson in many years.  Not true--I just finished reading him.  Likewise, I say I'm burning logs in the fire even though they cease being logs when they burn, & from their ashes, summer comes, peeling the paint from the house down to its very boards, yet I refer to it as yellow.  Funny, it was actually blue.  As for The Tormented Mirror, I face it every day.  I like The Childhood of the Equestrian better, if I remember correctly, but memory's a flimsy whim on which to pin faith.  Yet it's hard to ignore the passage of time, the changes, the vastness.

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Friday, August 2, 2019


I'm happy to have my poem "Cypripedium" in the latest issue of SPANK the CARP.

Not only do I believe revision is the key to good writing, but I enjoy the process.  "Cypripedium" came about as the result of combining poems, a method I frequently use when stuck.  I have a vault of discarded poems in varying degrees of completeness that I dive into if I run dry.  Revisiting these poems or snippets is like bumping into different people I used to know at different times in my life & catching up.  When I combine poems, I play the matchmaker who introduces those with similarities who may, in turn, have a go. Sometimes that's all that comes of it, & there's nothing wrong with that: every poem we write is necessary on our journey.  Of course, one hopes that the upshot of the experiment isn't some unnatural assemblage of parts, but rather that the union results in the successful marriage of ideas & feelings.

If you like the poem, please consider voting for it.  I'm not out to win a competition, but it feels good to know people enjoy my poems.

Many thanks to all!

Georgia O'Keeffe, An Orchid (1941)

For other recent poems, click here, herehere, & here.