A Fistful More of Book Reviews: 2020 Vision

The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.  I don't know about complete, but these fairy tales, the originals collected by Jacob & Wilhelm, are definitely grim.  Rather than go on about them, I'll link to Daniel Hoffman's "Fables" instead.

The Granite Pail, Lorine Niedecker.   She may not be my favorite poet--in fact, she's not--but you could do a lot worse.  One of the lesser known of what Louis Zukofsky termed "Objectivists" (not affiliated in any way with the horrid group of the same name spawned by Ayn Rand, bleh), Niedecker writes in a mostly unadorned style that belies her attention to craft.   It may very well be this perceived simplicity, if not a certain sense of innocence, in Niedecker's poetry that gives it charm.

Bender, Dean Young.  This Neruda-ly arranged collection of new & selected poems reminds me why I once was such a big fan of Young.  Although the years, like an unheated swimming pool, have led to some shrinkage of my fandom, pieces such as  "I See a Lily on Thy Brow"--which, whatever Young's intention, makes a strong case for Medicare for All--keep me a fan.

     I See a Lily on Thy Brow

     It is 1816 and you gash your hand unloading
     a crate of geese, but if you keep working
     you’ll be able to buy a bucket of beer
     with your potatoes. You’re probably 14 although

     no one knows for sure and the whore you sometimes
     sleep with could be your younger sister
     and when your hand throbs to twice its size
     turning the fingernails green, she knots

     a poultice of mustard and turkey grease
     but the next morning, you wake to a yellow
     world and stumble through the London streets
     until your head implodes like a suffocated

     fire stuffing your nose with rancid smoke.
     Somehow you’re removed to Guy’s Infirmary.
     It’s Tuesday. The surgeon will demonstrate
     on Wednesday and you’re the demonstration.

     Five guzzles of brandy then they hoist you
     into the theater, into the trapped drone
     and humid scuffle, the throng of students
     a single body staked with a thousand peering

     bulbs and the doctor begins to saw. Of course
     you’ll die in a week, suppurating on a camphor-
     soaked sheet but now you scream and scream
     plash in a red river, in a sulfuric steam

     But above you, the assistant holding you down,
     trying to fix you with sad, electric eyes
     is John Keats.

Crow, Ted Hughes.  When I first read this book in grad school, I'll admit I didn't care for it much.  The way I see it, there were so many critics & poets crowing about Crow that it was bound to disappoint, as anyone familiar with the hype-versus-reality equation would attest.  However, reading it now, many years later, I can better appreciate it.  It's still not my favorite work by Hughes, but there's a great line from "Truth Kills Everybody" that seems apropos today:  "The earth, shrunk to the size of a hand grenade."

26 Ways of Looking at a Black Man & Other Poems, Raymond R. Patterson.  I thought this 1969 pocket paperback was one of my old books, but my son assures me it's his.  It strikes me as ironic that these poems, while at times bordering on sing-songy, are about some pretty heavy subjects that remain, sadly, relevant today.  For example. from "Riot Rhymes, USA":

     He said he told her to halt.
     It wasn't his fault.
     She looked like a looter.
     He had to shoot her.
     But most people say
     It wasn't that way.
     He shot her in the back
     Because she was black.

     We got integrated
     In the looting
     And segregated
     In the shooting.

My Tenantless Body, Yu Yoyo (trans. A.K. Blakemore & Dave Haysom).  The Poetry Translation Centre does some interesting stuff.  This bilingual chapbook represents approximately 22 pages of Yoyo's poetry, her first translation into English, according to the publisher.  Unlike Ryan (see below), Yoyo's poems lean mightily toward the personal, or the semblance thereof.  While the tone of these poems is often rather dark, the translations present a flowing style free of capital letters or punctuation that seems to work intentionally against the tone.

Say Uncle, Kay Ryan.  Reminiscent of Marianne Moore, in that it tends more toward the philosophical than the personal, Ryan's quasi-minimalism comes across well in most of this collection.  "A Hundred Bolts of Satin" is my favorite.  All in all, it's an enjoyable read.

The Dead Father, Donald Barthelme.  I get, given its nod to big ideas like "god & man & law" as Nobel Prize laureate Bob Dylan squawks in "Maggie's Farm," why some call this Barthelme's best novel, but Snow White is funnier.  As for The Dead Father, the book within the book, The Manual for Sons, is hilarious, reminding me a tad of the short stories Barthelme's better known for.

Crib Death, Frank Stanford.  Much of the language in Stanford's book, published posthumously, reminds me (e.g., "Regrets and warnings / To those who don't know what's cooking / When Death's bread rises / Out of its grave" ) of C.D. Wright.  That's not particularly surprising in light of their relationship.  Stanford's penchant for adopting personae, often of those fallen through societal cracks, brings to mind, well, Wright, who explored similar dark & gritty themes. This is not to suggest that there's nothing original in Stanford's work, as evidenced by the number of  collections he compiled in his short life.  If you've never read "Death and The Arkansas River," I feel sorry for you.  Another poet he reminds me of is Ai.

Room Rented by a Single Woman, C.D. Wright.  Much of the language in Wright's first book, published in 1977, reminds me (e.g., "children going down a slide, / landing safely in Delaware, / sweetbread and sleep") of Frank Stanford.  That's not particularly surprising in light of their relationship.  Wright's penchant for adopting personae, often of those fallen through societal cracks, brings to mind, well, Stanford, who explored similar dark & gritty themes. This is not to suggest that there's nothing original in Wright's early work; furthermore, her poetic vision clearly evolved over her career.  (On a personal note, as then editor of the now defunct Lost Roads Press, Wright wrote me a very encouraging letter way back when I submitted my first book shortly after I finished my master's, so I've always liked her & her work.)  Another poet she reminds me of is Ai.

Paper Boy, David Huddle. When I was young, Paper Boy--sort of an abridged Appalachian version of Spoon River Anthology--was one of my favorite books, possibly because I could readily relate to these usually short & unusually accessible poems about growing up in a part of the world not too far away from my hometown. Heck, I was even a paper boy, too.  Huddle strips these poems down to the point of bordering on prose--not entirely surprising, given that Huddle nowadays is better known for his fiction.  While I've not read this collection since the last millennium--that's how old I am--I've continued to carry "Mrs. Green" in my memory like a newspaper in my bag, rolled & ready to deliver to the last house on my route. 

The Overcoat & Other Stories, Nikolai Gogol.  I love me some Gogol!  This Dover Thrift edition includes the strange & funny "The Nose," which reminds me that I've dreamed the past few nights about my nose.  What's up with that?

The Oblvion Ha-Ha, James Tate.   Tate's long been one of my favorite poets.  The followup to The Lost Pilot, this book is one of the reasons.  "The President Slumming," "The Wheelchair Butterfly," "Pity Ascending with the Fog," & "Shadowboxing" have stayed with me since my undergraduate days.  As good as many of these poems are, a great thing about Tate is that, unlike many poets who have laurels heaped upon them early in their careers, he continued to grow as a poet.  Without losing any of the imaginative wildness of his youth, the mature Tate (if such an entity exists) poems convey an attention to craft sometimes missing in this & other early collections.  Saying I like his later books better--Shroud of the Gnome is probably my personal favorite--is offered more as a compliment than criticism.   

Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, John Cheever.  I've had this novella on my shelf since I don't remember when.  Oh, yeah, college, which is, I think, the last time I read Cheever.  The structure of the novella, not surprisingly, is very similar to that of Cheever's short stories, & the fluid prose is trademark Cheever.  I don't often think of Cheever as political, but he slyly satirizes political prattle when the mayor of Janice defends the city's turning Beasley's Pond into a dump:

      "This meeting has been called," he said, "simply as a courtesy to placate a Communist-
      inspired conservationist , whose bread is buttered by an old man.  Beasley's Pond is
      like the mainstream of American thought.  It accords with human nature.  To interfere
      in our improvements on Beasley's Pond is to interfere in the fruitful union between
      the energies of mankind and the energies of the planet.  To try and regulate with govern-
      ment interference the spontaneity of this union will sap its energy and put it at the para-
      lyzing mercy of a costly bureaucracy financed by the taxpayer.  Our improvements
      to Beasley's Pond are a very good example of that free enterprise that distinguishes
      the economy and indeed the character of this great nation."

Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank.  Democrats, the supposedly liberal branch of the US duopoly, have become  the other party of Wall Street, the technocratic branch, Frank claims.  The once so-called party of the worker has abandoned equality in favor of the self-serving, self-aggrandizing myth of meritocracy.  Partisans may argue that Frank is too critical of the Clinton & Obama presidencies, as well as Democrats in general, but I'd say he's too kind.  Also skewered is the political pablum (which is not substantively better than the above Cheever passage) that passes for policy.  For anyone who still believes Democrats & Republicans are not working the same side of the street, this book should prove eye-opening.

The Adventures of Mao on the Long March, Frederic Tuten.  The historical Long March (1934-35) becomes in this novella a symbolic frame to advance through the fictionalized figure of Mao--a visionary icon often maligned by political opponents in the real world--various philosophic & aesthetic viewpoints.  It's not a story in the traditional sense, so it's got that going for it, too.

The Cantos, Ezra Pound.  After several false starts over the years without completing it, I've finally finished Pound's history of the world, mostly an economic history, in verse.  Much of what I'd heard about The Cantos is true:  difficult, difficult, lemon, difficult.  Yet I'll admit, if you're willing to investigate the fragmented allusions, it's an informative read.  Since Pound openly supported Mussolini, a fascist & all that implies, it came as quite a shock to learn that Pound himself held somewhat egalitarian, albeit bigoted, views.  Remarkably, given Pound's intelligence, it's hard to fathom that he actually believed Mussolini's false populist platform, but maybe it was because he desperately wanted to believe him--much like US voters who supported Trump, falling in desperation for his fake friend-to-the-worker act.  Of course, beyond his allegiance to an imperialistic, fascist leader allied with Hitler, Pound's antisemitism, a deplorable thread recurring throughout The Cantos, is indefensible.   As for the poetics, it's hit & miss.  While I subscribe to the notion that a poem can be about anything, just because you can include, let's say, a shipping invoice in a poem doesn't mean that you should.  Also, The Cantos is excessively repetitive, so much of it could be cut or condensed.  For instance, the China Cantos, consisting essentially of the mantra "taozers, hochangs & eunuchs" repeated ad nauseam, needs judicious editing.  In short, "needs judicious editing" pretty much sums it up for me.

A Companion to The Cantos of Ezra Pound, Carroll F. Terrell.  You can't tell the players without a program, & you sure as hell can't understand the allusions without a guide.  Terrrell offers a thorough guide to Pound's myriad references, regardless of how obscure, as footnotes--pages & pages of footnotes--to each canto. 

Pound's Cantos, Peter Makin.  Not Peter Tomarken, former host of TV's Press Your Luck, Makin analyzes The Cantos in both the literary tradition & its historical relevance.  Beyond detailed overviews of each section, Makin presents an introduction to the work as a whole, including Pound's influences & intent.   He also provides a brief rundown of whammies, er, errors--those Pound intended & those he did not--which various publications of The Cantos reflect.  For instance, Makin notes that several of the Chinese characters used were originally upside down.  Also, some of Pound's other non-English citations have remained syntactically incorrect--sort of like Google translations, I guess.   

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