“Is Stuffed, De World: On Connie Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream” by Sumita Chakraborty


 

Connie Voisine, Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream, University of Chicago Press 

 

            At its best, Connie Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is a probing second volume from a gripping poet. Two of the book’s strongest poems are also among its shortest: “The Invisible Man Remained” (which charges into visibility with the word “invisible”) and “Love Poem” (which features careful tercets, ending with a proclamation about animals, who, according to Voisine, “believed this pour / was absorbed by the grasses and trees, geraniums, / air, and see how much and why I lose myself to you”).

            Too, I find myself enjoying Voisine’s typographical experiments: instead of feeling contrived, as formatting idiosyncrasies sometimes feel, Voisine’s demonstrate a useful relationship between form and content that well serves each poem that they are employed in. Take, for example, the following selection from a stanza in “The Bird is Her Reason”:

 

                                    You must know

                        how, in adulterous love,

                                    one begins to feel fatal, beautiful. The edges of your body

            become a tense meniscus and

                        in a kind of pain you fear this love

            can only lead to death—

 

            In this selection, not only do the carefully strung lines well embody the sense of “a tense meniscus,” but the word “death,” too, is effectively enacted by the dash that follows it. This language is meticulously selected: for instance, the word “pain” is usefully modified by the phrase “a kind of,” resulting in a tone that is capable of sustaining loaded words like “love,” “fatal,” “beautiful,” “body,” “death,” and even “pain” itself. This tone is significantly bolstered by Voisine’s formatting decisions. The narrative and the lyric merge here: we are always conscious that a story is being told, but the white space nestled within that story draws our attention to the silences that breed it and the well-developed lines it contains.

            At its weakest, though, Voisine’s otherwise captivating volume slips into belabored meandering. While the weaker poems in the volume do manage to display Voisine’s able grasp of the narrative poem, their shortcoming lies in the way that their reader can feel their muscles strain: the conjunction between the narrative and the lyric, in other words, is not always fully realized. Lines like, “The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath / and the plane could become a vehicle you’d use / the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional / fluidity and the world might feel to you / the way water must feel to a dolphin” (from “The Early Days of Aviation”) puff up, filling with the audible effort to portray a sense of the vast and crucial.

            The reason these few bloated lines strike such a discordant note is that many of Voisine’s poems do effectively convey this sense: the feeling that to read them is to teeter dangerously close to an important revelation. When Voisine successfully accomplishes this—as, in fact, she does often—it is when she does not seem to be trying, as is the case through much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” which begins unassumingly:

 

On the ten o’clock news, the weatherman replays the florid day on a loop

filed from the top of the News Center Building, plays and super speeds

 

that whole day. Suppose he played the real one—the man at the Rainbow Mart

singing country with K-BUL . . .

 

            We know that we are reading something quite important: yet, we are not overtly told what it is. After this opening, Voisine embarks on a lengthy catalogue, which falters in a quasi-Whitmanian landscape—although, unlike Whitman’s, Voisine’s catalogues seem unnecessary. In the stage setting of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” there are “wet rotten leaves pulled from beds of irises in the alleyway” and there is “chaos blooming,” nestled amidst “the marrying of ketchups” and “the polishing of shoes,” drumming home—with perhaps a few more strokes of the hammer than necessary—the greater sense of an “undoing.” After a certain point that is fittingly punctuated by the word “undoing,” this poem loses itself in its megaphone, completing its overwrought terrain with a “newscaster who weeps while she announces: there are babies / just unburied, alive, you can claim them at the corner of . . .”

            The subsequent stanza slides by, and after it, Voisine deftly recaptures the reader’s attention with a sharp dash, which is followed by a new stanza that begins with the word “no”:

 

no, he shows us the day from the point of view of the WeatherCam,

pointed at the horizon: a narrow cloud or two whizzes by,

 

the blue shifts in place like a woman who cannot bear her

body, and we are overcome by how even these sterling, western

 

heavens change, how at dusk the traffic below stills to a bright sluice

as the sun abandons its chase—the skyscrapers, the highways,

 

the glowing dome of the State House.

 

            Here is Voisine’s vision and capacity for poetic storytelling crystallized into crucial details: details that fall comfortably into a category best characterized by James McMichael, who calls Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream a book that “generates and sustains a momentum all its own,” a book that is “as down to earth as what we all walk on.” In these couplets, Voisine accomplishes something rare: the feat of generating a world that is both uniquely her own and is populated with details that a broad readership could easily picture. The word “no” is a pivot: we return not only to the narrative of the weatherman, but also to the larger narrative of “shifts in place.” We leave behind the world of the overdramatized sobbing newscaster and the catalogue in which she is housed, a catalogue that seems to try too hard to become part of a Modernist–Post Modernist tradition in which there must, it seems, be at least one set of rotting leaves in every text. In leaving the earlier tone, we enter forcefully into the universal sense of a body that is “overcome,” a body which—like the WeatherCam that drives the narrative—scrolls along a horizon filled with the recognizable (“the glowing dome of the State House”) tinged with a sense of the brand new (“these sterling, western heavens,” “the traffic below stills to a bright sluice”).

            Voisine sustains this tone successfully through the rest of “WeatherCam—the Horizon.” Although she occasionally provides a few details that bog down the pace of the text instead of promoting its central actions and concerns (an “artist’s sketch of a young, / thin, Caucasian man seen leaving a truck” is one strangely politically-correct example), she deftly builds the poem toward its conclusion:

 

[ . . . ] the smaller things that we will

never mention now, take us through to the other edge of the day

 

where we will see what the weatherman knew all along: the locust

and magnolia flowers, still tender, more bud than bloom, crisp

 

and dying on a branch’s sheath of snow, the skies, again, that forgetful blue.

 

            Perhaps the secret to Voisine’s work lies in the first couplet I have printed above: the reason some of Voisine’s details are excessive is because they belong to the category of “things that we will / never mention now,” and by mentioning them, Voisine breaks her own poetic pact. The primary purpose of these “smaller things” is to “take us through to the other edge”; and yet, when Voisine names them, endows them with lengthy catalogues in which to feed and grow fat, they overcrowd her more subtle craft, which reveals itself in stanzas and lines where those such “smaller things” are notably absent.

            If there were fewer bloated details—if those details were pushed to the background, giving the reader a sense of unrest as opposed to painting a vivid, Baroque image that screams, “There is unrest here!”—Voisine would consistently dazzle, as she does in much of “WeatherCam—the Horizon,” in “Love Poem,” in “The Invisible Man Remained.” At times, too, the poems seem to work too hard to belong to the Literary Canon, with a capital L and a capital C. In “The Early Days of Aviation,” there are lines of intelligently executed perception, introspection, and revelation, such as “I could tell you this was the year that I too / flew through a darkness, but at the time / I only felt ugly, inarticulate.” However, this reader finds herself disappointed when such moments blur amidst others whose greater purpose appears to be a sort of catcall to canonized literary and philosophical motifs. Take, for example, the following lines:

 

The world was a dark scroll unrolling beneath

and the plan could become a vehicle you’d use

the way a gnat uses its wings, with a three-dimensional

fluidity and the world might feel to you

the way water must feel to a dolphin.

It was too cold in that hotel, wind

snaked through the cracked-framed windows

and faded drapes.

 

            The impulse here to define the “world,” the references to a “gnat” and a “dolphin,” the mention of an edifice in disrepair and a wind that “snaked” amidst “cracked-framed windows” and “faded drapes”: this section envisions itself within a canon where such images and references are historically engaged, and suffers from it. One gets the sense that Voisine has included so many literary references in her volume in order to anchor her world in other worlds that have somehow gained a sought-after legitimacy—in other poems, we meet hawks, snakes, apples, Isabelle Archer, David Copperfield, Marie de France, Coleridge, and Keats, to name a few—rather than including them because they are vital to her poems. In truth, in its finest moments, Voisine’s work is strong enough to stand without these allusions—their invocations, as a result, can easily be interpreted as manifestations of insecurity as opposed to necessary in themselves.

            I mentioned earlier that two of the strongest poems in this book are among the shortest ones. There is one poem that is a glaring exception to this rule: it is the book’s long poem, “First Taste.” I believe that the reason many of Voisine’s short poems are successful is because a short poem mandates excision: there is no room for excess in a piece that is so small. “First Taste” is far from a short poem—it is ten pages long, with six lengthy sections that feature tercets, with the exception of the concluding one-line stanza. It also continues to demonstrate Voisine’s ability to craft a narrative poem in a lyric voice, and is a highly intelligent text with memorable and crucial moments—Voisine’s particular gift for rich endings is especially rewarding here, as the long journey taken through the poem ends with:

           

[. . .] —but you entered it as one enters

 

water in the summer, without fear or guile—and the brief glory of the door

flung open, the whoosh of air through the subway car,

the in and through every suffering you felt fully and well,

 

this is what you try to recall, organize.

 

            In a sense, however, “First Taste” is a short text, at least compared to what it might have been: as Nicholas Christopher notes, the poem is “rich and compressed as a novella.” “First Taste” is a short novel of sorts, compressed first by verse and second by Voisine’s knack for compression. The triumph of “First Taste” is a logical extension of the triumph of other instances of reduction by pressure, a phrase that suits Voisine well, and, tellingly, is a phrase that I have taken directly from the definition of what it means to “compress.”

          In the words of Mr. Bones, the world of Voisine’s Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream is—like the title of the volume itself—stuffed. There is much to admire in this second volume from an unquestionably skilled poet, including Voisine’s aptitude for astonishing shifts, for crafting frank confessions for her speakers, and for both the narrative and the lyric sensibilities. This quality of stuffed-ness, however, accounts for both the highs and the lows of this book, which sometimes feels as though it is straining against its belt buckle with too much ingested and too much said. I found myself unable to write about this book without weaving back and forth between pleasure and critique—though I searched for a way to separate the positives from the negatives and discuss each category in turn, it is a credit to Voisine’s capacity for cohesion that such an interpretation was impossible. Voisine demands a reader who processes her poems with a full acknowledgment of the fact that her book is a complete organism: the individual poems in the volume function much like organs within a larger creature. When an organ falters, the entire organism feels it, and when an organ works well, so too does the organism. A reader of Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream must follow the instructions for reading that the book itself prescribes: to be immersed in all aspects of Voisine’s full-to-bursting volume.

 

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Sumita Chakraborty is the Assistant Poetry Editor at AGNI Magazine. A resident of Cambridge, Massachusetts and a graduate of Wellesley College, she writes poems and criticism, and plans to pursue graduate studies in English literature in the future. She has a poem forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review.

Catherine Pierce’s “Famous Last Words” reviewed by Patrick Kanouse


Catherine Pierce, Famous Last Words, Saturnalia

I long ago stopped keeping track of the books that received first-book competition awards, for the volume of competitions has steadily increased over the years while the quality of the offerings seemed to decline. I now trust only a few competitions, and even then they do not always meet my expectations . If, however, more of these first books were like Catherine Pierce’s Famous Last Words, I would reconsider. Pierce’s book won the 2007 Saturnalia Prize (selected that year by John Yau), but it possesses none of the signs of a first book. Her ambitions are high, but she often meets those ambitions–variety of topic with a consistency of voice, a willingness to dabble outside of the mainstream of poetry, and a substantial command of language balanced by grace and simplicity.

Famous Last Words is divided into three parts. Part one is a section of “love” poems but not sappy, sentimental verse best left to private endearments. Instead, Pierce provides us with eight poems of love to abstract topics. The titles “Love Poem to Sinister Moments,” “Love Poem to America,” and “Love Poem to a Blank Space” indicate that these are no common subjects at which we address our “love.” These poems are almost journal-like entries, dealing with private, best-left-unsaid thoughts. Yet, as voyeurs, they match our own fears, concerns, and desires. Here are a few lines from “Love Poem to a Blank Space”:

 

            You are pure as soil,

            simple as bone. The taste

 

            of you transparent. I love

            your dumb grace,

 

            your unfelt presence.

 

A concise language (notice that Pierce left out a potential “as” in front of “pure,” which is telling), simple images, and a willingness to dip into synesthesia or other abstractions are a marked distinction throughout this book. Pierce never seems to let a poem get out of her control; at the same time, no poem here seems constricted or forced or limited.

The second and longest section has no specific, overarching theme but retains many strong elements of the first section. Perhaps the strongest poem, “Apostrophe to the First Gray Hair,” of the collection is here. Again, it shows the control and concision that Pierce maintains.

 

O small silver rope by whose noose

I will, if lucky, hang—

 

You are the highway’s white stripe

dividing toward from away.

 

The hairline fracture

on a slowly swaying bridge.

 

Light plummeting earthward

years after the star has turned dark.

 

The title of the poem suggests initially something frivolous, a toss away. Most people gray and many lament, but Pierce links it to the cosmos so elegantly, with such grace that it seems implausible that we ever thought this poem was going to be anything less significant than about the death of stars and the lapse of time.

This poem shows another very strong feature of Pierce’s work–she knows how to end a poem. While delivering them out of context can hamper their effect, still the best way to understand the effects she can achieve is to quote a few of them:

 

which card will send

the house tumbling down.

            (“Love Poem to Sinister Moments”)

 

…breaking

the sky into pieces

            (“Love Poem to the Word Lonesome”)

 

…The moon

shimmers, a placebo. As it falls,

I close my mouth around it.

            (“While You Sleep, I Watch Myself Die”)

 

These are forceful, make-you-stop-and-read-again endings. A poet can do much wrong in a poem and regain everything with a strong ending. So much the better when Pierce does not do much wrong. Her weakest moments are the two prose poems: “Project Yourself Here” and “Postcards Nos 1-6.” A prose poem must be singularly lyrical to evade being just prose, while at the same time avoiding a perpetually charged language (imagine if Dylan Thomas wrote only prose poems). While Pierce possesses such skills, her strength is in using them with timing and not overly frequently to maintain their value. In longer poems, Pierce uses more prosaic lines to break a series of intense lines, for example “Domesticity”:

 

            The night slips around me

            and the bedroom is lit

            with a strand of small lights.

            My body admits to calm.

But here the definitive line breaks create the tension that the more prosaic second and third lines might lack in regular prose.

The final section is a set of poems framed around someone’s famous last words: Billy the Kid, George Appel, Marie Antoinette, Doc Holliday, Isadora Duncan, Joseph Henry Green, and Pancho Villa. Each poem’s title consists of the last words of the subject of the poem and all are in third-person view. What is really interesting in these poems is the subtlety and variety Pierce achieves and how she expands and intuits beyond the “meaning” of the last words. Each of the subjects is well visualized, but the third-person view provides Pierce an opportunity to fill in some details or hypothesize. This is a strong group of poems, but perhaps the most interesting one is Pancho Villa’s, which ends the collection overall: “Don’t Let It End Like This. Tell Them I Said Something.” While clearly appropriate for a poet to end with such flair, the poem itself is deliciously inspired. Villa’s direct thoughts or words cut into the narrative of the poem, providing a backdrop often at odds with the narrative.

 

            But he bloodied the countryside. Is rumored

            to have killed to fulfill a thirst, to have shot the priest

            who begged for mercy. Do we serve him thus?

 

                        Fuck the dogs.

                       

                        Kill them for me.

 

Yet Villa and the narrator conclude and desire the same thing:

 

            …You understand

            the need for the right words. How else

            can we live forever? How else

            can we write ourselves in?

 

On that question ends this delightful collection of poems. Pierce begins with love to abstractions and ends with a reliance on language to not only make sense of our lives but to give eternal life to our lives. Given the strength of this collection, I expect we’ve not yet read Pierce’s last words, and I look forward to her next words.

 

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Patrick Kanouse’s poems have appeared in many journals and websites, including Smartish Pace, The Connecticut Review, The Evansville Review, and Astropoetica among others. He is a managing editor with a technology publisher in Indianapolis. You can read his poems at www.patrickkanouse.com.

Jennifer Perrine on Lydia Millet’s novel “How the Dead Dream”


Lydia Millet. How the Dead Dream. Counterpoint. 2008.

 

 

Lydia Millet’s sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, asks us to consider what makes empathy possible: not only the growing empathy of T.—the novel’s central character and capitalist extraordinaire—for endangered animals and fragile humans, but also our own empathy for a protagonist who for most of the novel loves the accumulation of wealth above all else.

 

Our first encounter with T. comes during his childhood; we find him already hording money and manipulating and extorting family and classmates. By the time we meet T. as an adult, money has reached the status of a deity, the god in all things, as T. revels in Whitmanian catalogues that portray money as the “single answer” in “the lurch and flux, in all the variation and the same”:

           

There was the noble trace of money in the half-imagined bodies of dinosaurs, looming with arched necks in the shadowed halls of natural history museums, the back-lit shapes of toothy deep-sea fish brought up from dark fathoms below […] There was money in the grandeur of the ranks of the imperial armies as they might march across the deserts underneath the skies, in the great thick cables that ran beneath the surging Atlantic, the intricate and freezing satellites that whirred a thousand miles above the surface of the earth […]

 

Throughout the bulk of the novel, T. is the supreme capitalist, motivated by desire for future wealth rather than by the pleasures of the present. In college, while his fraternity brethren run amok, T. is the perpetual designated driver tying up the frayed ends that his companions leave in their wake, which encompass everything from drug-induced existential angst to date rape. In this environment, T. never indulges instead performing his clean-up duties not out of fraternal loyalty but out of cunning always planning for how his aid to others might benefit him. T. sees no need to justify his scheming claiming it has a “positive net effect” as long as it also benefits someone else. Although, it’s hard to believe that the girls whom he persuades not to press sexual assault charges really “remembered him not with resentment but with tender respect.”

 

Yet, T. is not a repulsive character; despite his machinations, he’s still thoroughly human, in part because of Millet’s honest descriptions of T.’s self-interest—after all, what could be more human? But our sympathy for T. also stems from his growing awareness of the bits of wilderness in his orderly world, particularly as they crop up in a cast of characters who are just as egregiously flawed as he: a father who picks up and begins a new life without a word to his wife or son, wealthy frat brothers who ineloquently and thoughtlessly long for the “good life” of manual labor, and investors so lonely that they mistake T.’s interest in them for earnest friendship despite his constant business pitches.

 

However, T.’s first moment of real connection, of “fullness, the terrible sympathy,” doesn’t occur until T. hits a coyote with his car. It is this revelatory encounter with the pained body of another creature with her dying sensations that finally creates a moment of confusion within his controlled, confident world:

 

Animals died by the road and you saw that all the time […] You saw the red insides all exposed. You thought: that is the difference between them and me. My insides are firmly contained.

            And were I to lie on the side of the road dying, it would be nothing like that. No one would drive around me: the cars would stop, tens upon hundreds of them; there would be lines of traffic for miles as they removed my body, flashing their red and blue lights of crisis and competence […]

 

While T. grows more empathetic towards animals (considering what they might think, feel, or experience), his relationships with people remain distant. Though he recognizes parallels between his life and theirs, those parallel lines never converge, and he experiences something more akin to simultaneity than to connection. As T. begins to doubt the merits of a life devoted to capitalism and consumption, of a desire to “pave it over, make it a smooth and continuous surface, flat and gray on the world, speed and ease,” it’s not the various human losses in his life that provoke reevaluation, but rather the loss of animal life. Yet, even as kangaroo rats are made extinct so that he can build a subdivision, T. acknowledges his pang of disturbance “was not empathy. It was fear. It was the knowledge of the ants beneath them, the ants pouring away and taking with them the very foundations. Everything.” T.’s anxiety is not merely a sentimental sorrow for an extinct species or guilt over his role in extinguishing their lives, it is a sudden sense of self-preservation or fear of what might happen to humans when these foundations gone.

 

How the Dead Dream is at its best during its sparse, humorous snippets of dialogue in which characters voice aloud their bizarre thoughts, not in the unbelievably witty Juno-esque way, but rather in frequently foolish declarations that Millet skewers with wry, spare interjections. For instance, when T.’s mother, Angela, emerges from a coma, claiming that she had died and gone to another place, she declares, “I was surprised. I thought it would be heaven, T. But it was very, very bad […] It was the International House of Pancakes […] I thought it would be more expensive than that.” Millet follows this with a brief interlude in which Angela uses her experience on the “other side” to encourage T. to grand displays of good works: “When T. resisted her tithing demands she would finger-wag and remind him of the flicker of long tubes over his head, the blue-white light, and the laminated menus with close-up pictures of heavy foods.” Such interludes can’t be adequately described as digressions because the book is made up of moments like these—not merely witty asides, but a series of strange behaviors and mental paths that indicate the complex evolution of her characters, the tics that develop in response to their experiences that fade into the background until what initially might strike readers as eccentric begins to appear perfectly normal.

 

Because so much of the novel is a study of T.’s psychology and how he changes over time, the book tends to meander through T.’s contemplation of his various situations, often retracing epiphanies that the reader might already surmise through T.’s actions in the story. Occasionally, this makes Millet’s exposition feel redundant, and at some points the novel seems to doubt the intelligence of the reader as it hedges on the didactic: “Empire only looked good built against a backdrop of oceans and forests. It needed them. If the oceans were dead and the forests replaced by pavement even empire would be robbed of its consequence.”

 

What happens when readers aren’t required to do more of the work of making meaning, when we aren’t pushed to break a mental sweat in the process of imagining a novel’s world? T., despite his growing consciousness of endangered animals and what it means to be the last of one’s kind—to have lost not only one’s family and home, but also one’s wildness, whatever it is that makes one a particular sort of creature, continues to think largely of his finances and profits, of orderly streets and cities, of subdivisions and resorts. While T. begins seeking out these last animals, he never really considers—let alone acts upon—the possibility of working against the tide of death, and the book reads as an elegy for an already extinct world, rather than a call to arms against the dangers of possible extinction. T. claims empathy for creatures but never engages in an active response to their plight, and perhaps as readers, we’re left in the same space: a place in which we experience a connection to T. but let his story wash over us as a dream, not as a transformation in which we actively take part.

 

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Jennifer Perrine’s first book of poetry, The Body Is No Machine, was published by New Issues in 2007. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Crab Orchard Review, Ellipsis, Green Mountains Review, RATTLE, and Third Coast. Perrine lives in Des Moines, Iowa, and teaches at Drake University.

Peter Conners’ novella Emily Ate the Wind reviewed by Jefferson Hansen


Emily Ate the Wind, Peter Conners, Marick Press

Peter Conners’ novella Emily Ate the Wind extends the experiments of such well-known, locally focused writers as Sherwood Anderson and Thorton Wilder. In both Winesburg, Ohio and Our Town, these writers chose to focus on a small town and its people. Their lives come to represent in a loose allegorical fashion the human experience. Conners extends these experiments by adding wild stylistic shifts and various framing devices that present a multi-voiced and multi-layered approach to his ‘local,’ known only as ‘The Bar’ somewhere in upstate New York.

 

The book is not an easy read. Composed of vignettes that usually interlock with each other in some manner, the novella allows for time to shift around quite a bit (the vignette on page 90, for instance, could come before the vignette on page 20). The first twenty-seven pages introduces us to seven characters—each in disparate vignettes with different settings and mini-plots. It is difficult to keep these characters straight, and, as Conners develops them, it is necessary to flip back to their original introduction in order to keep oriented. These characters do not seem happy as they drink heavily, take drugs, gamble, and are neglectful of their children. The ones who seem most balanced end up married: Amber, an elementary school teacher, and Dan, a regular at the bar who learns what marital ‘commitment’ is in all its implications when talking to Amber one night and falling in love.

 

Conners deploys several stylistic experiments such as using a refracted, indirect manner of representing raw and even gruesome events, which seems to be the predominant one in the collection. It is clear that Conners is a fine technician, as in this poetic description of the feelings of a 10-12 year old girl:

He was a fawn. Light willowy fawn dist bleached white in the sun. Fawn dust tickling his forearms and winking up at her from beneath the hem of his soccer team shorts. Lime-green tang of little boy sweat. Dirty ears. Perfectly formed, tanned, softly laughing ears (6)

It is not clear if they actually have sex (“always their secrets”), but their relationship is clearly erotic on some level. Conners’ comparison of the boy to a fawn displays both youthful vulnerability and his beauty from the girl’s perspective.

 

In ‘Thoughts About Money’ Conners creates a list constantly interrupted by thoughts about human relationships, “Ovation, new ratchet set, in-laws, laptop, angst, puppy, Sara, slice of pizza, $33.23, re-establish contact with new finance rates, bachelor party.” This is, on one level, a confusing one-page chapter for the thinking is attributed to no character. How are we to take this? That it is representative of the type of thinking all characters must go through? That we should attribute it to a specific character who gets married, since he mentions a bachelor party? That it is a type of anti-absorptive device, to use Charles Bernstein’s term, which prevents us from becoming ‘lost’ in the novella through its use of traditional ‘realism’? None of these questions supply adequate answers. What we are given is a list of expenses, thoughts about people who are not even characters, considerations varying from cocaine to horse trainer to sales rep. It seems that the chapter displays the inability of creating a simple budget. Other concerns constantly come into play, overwhelming any simplicity and at the center of budgets so often are other people: what can we do for them, what can they do to us, what will happen when people die. Money is an aspect in all human relations; no human relations can be imagined without at least some reference to money.

 

There is also the use of minimalist dialogue such as this fairly representative example of the dialogue we see in much of the book:  

Just finished painting the Clark’s dining room. I’m done

            They pay you?

            Half.

            Cool

            Yeah, we’re set. When you done?

            Couple two three hours. Soon as I finish this up. (77)

To be frank, it’s hard coming to terms with what this kind of dialogue accomplishes. Of course, it is the way we quite frequently talk but this alone is not a reason for putting it in a story. Generally, dialogue is used specifically to further a story with little regard for ‘realism,’ even in the most ‘realistic’ stories, however this stylistic device doesn’t work well. Often readers want to skip to the end of the conversations in order to get back to the action, because the conversations were surely not action.

 

Conners inserts three fascinating vignettes written by his father into the story. They concern stories set in Pittsburgh from 1890 – 1920. One is about a Scottish WWI vet who survived the war only to die while on the job in Pittsburgh. Conners’ father’s style seems to be based on verbal storytelling: simple sentence structures, a certain level of generality, few specific instances of imagery:

For Tom was involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war, in battle after battle charging out of the trenches to attack German machine guns, barbed wire, and massed artillery. In futile attack after attack, men died around him by the tens of thousands (29)

Notice that, instead of using specific imagery, Conners’ father uses intensifiers and generalizations, which work fine with oral storytelling. They work fine in this book, too; these stories intersect and frame the stories of the main characters in the book. It is almost like a fifth dimension that cuts across the novelistic world Conners created allowing us a small peek into a quite different world.

 

Conners’ stylistic experiments extend ‘the local’ in several ways. One is that it insists on there being no single narrative line that will account for all perspectives such as the chapter featuring the letters of a scared spouse to a soldier, Lucas, in Korea. After telling Lucas that she is leaving him for Grover Gray, she writes,

Well I know you and Grover played football before his leg went and I remember you think highly of him. I don’t know if that is better or worse for this but I don’t see I have much choice for us now (57)

 

In another section of the book, we find Lucas at the bar with a speaker for a baby monitor. We learn that his granddaughter is at his house two blocks away and this is how he keeps dibs on her. Obviously, the letters help us to understand why a spouse would do something so cruel to Lucas: he was himself inexcusably careless. Another way the local is extended is in revealing that focusing only on a single place and time is inaccurate; any time and place is riddled with connections to other places, to the past, and even to the future — in the form of expectations and hopes and so on governing our current behavior. Finally, we see the definite frame that contains the stories associated with ‘The Bar,’ but we also see stories that penetrate that frame, not breaking it but moving through it. The edge of the frame becomes not the end of the local, but the permeable border of it.

 

Jefferson Hansen lives in Minneapolis. He is the author of Lyrical Eddies: Poems after the music of Marilyn Crispell, along with a number of chapbooks. Check out his review and interview blog at experimentalfictionpoetry.blogspot.com. 

Literary & Romantic Ambitions, Amos Lassen on Keith Gessen’s novel All the Sad Young Literary Men


 

Amos Lassen was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. After getting his M.A., he went on aliyah and lived in Israel for many years as a member of a kibbutz near Degania Bet. He served as supervisor of secondary English education for the State of Israel and taught at several universities there.  He returned to the U.S. and New Orleans right before Hurricane Katrina hit and was evacuated by the National Guard to Little Rock, Arkansas, which he calls home until he returns to Israel. He is on the faculty of the University of Central Arkansas where he teaches English and Biblical Hebrew. Amos is the founder of Literary Pride—a gay reading group and Cinema Pride—a gay movie group. He is extremely proud of two accomplishments—getting the Arkansas Literary Festival to recognize gay literature and for organizing the first GLBT film festival in the state.

 

*

 

Keith Gessen

All the Sad Young Literary Men

Viking, 2008

 

Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men is a jewel of a novel that tears asunder the romantic and literary ambitions of three well-educated men. All the Sad Young Literary Men is even more of a prize because it is Gessen’s debut. Not a novel that makes you laugh consciously, Gessen has written a black comedy in the form of stories that alternate between the three heroes of the book.

First, there is Mark, a doctoral candidate in Russian history, disappointed to discover what he has learned about the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks do nothing for his sex life. When his marriage fails and he becomes distracted by on-line porn and Internet dating it becomes clear his attempt at a successful literary career, satisfying relationships, and a PhD in history are certainly doomed. This character’s major struggle is to find and identify what exactly is required of a man who is afraid to miss a phone call from a woman who will probably never call:

“Celeste was not calling. The afternoon, the Friday afternoon, moved and

waned, but Celeste did not call. Mark was in his apartment, staring at the

phone that had become—after eight weeks  of Celeste’s streaky calling

practices—a kind of techno-death trap for the phone calls of Celeste…”

Then there is Sam who gets a contract (while he is still in his twenties) to write the great Zionist epic even though he speaks no Hebrew and has never been to Israel. While visiting Israel to research his book, Sam comes to realize the trip was not so much done in the quest for information but rather to get out of a one-sided romance back in Cambridge. His days are consumed by worrying about his girlfriends and checking emails. The advance money he wastes and as the contract expires he takes on temp jobs to return the advance. As he balances spreadsheets, he has less and less time to spend on the Internet and his identity (i.e. his profile) begins to fade away. When he discovers the number of times his name is mentioned on Google drops from 300 to 22, he falls apart.

Keith, our third “musketeer,” is a cultural critic and a Russian immigrant who seems to be Gessen’s persona (being born in Russia and the editor of the cultural review N+1). Keith is a liberal writer who has problems separating the personal from the political illustrated by his two “weaknesses” of alcohol and the philosophy of Hegel. Although he considers himself a failure, he is really the only one of the three that has any success. He is also the only one of the three that relates his story in the first person—perhaps allowing us to be drawn to him.

These three are Gessen’s clever young men of our generation—would-be intellectuals that are self-pitying, self-obsessed, and eager to be recognized. They yearn for love and fall in and out of it. When they realize who they are, they cast off their outsized ambitions and find new goals. Although the three are educated, they have trouble deciding what they really want out of life and as they fail they become a little wiser and a lot more cynical. Easily distracted and with poor communication skills they are defeated effortlessly by their grandiose ideas.

The three men share ages and desires to arrive on the literary scene and as we watch these three go about trying to reach their goals we see both savageness and tenderness. I hesitate to call the book a proper novel because it reads as a series of vignettes connected by disconnection. Each character is only broadly connected by achieving both literary and romantic failure. And all three have yet to develop into full manhood. In fact, do not think these characters have a concept of what manhood truly is. The men have ambitions to change the world and even though the three never meet, their lives come together as each tries to find his way to manhood. They realize that none of them will change the world and the only thing that they seem to have in common is the ability not to succeed. They are afraid to know themselves and success, many times, depends on one’s having a positive self-image.

            Gessen takes on serious political issues while having a good time poking fun at his characters. He looks at love and history as it applies to his three characters. The writing is subtle yet biting and the humor is caustic:

“What are you doing?” she asked sharply…

“I’m—nothing, Nothing much, Sushok.

She accepted this. “Mufka,” she said. “I’m sad.”

“I know, Sushok.” I’m sad too.”

“Mufka, listen.” She could always turn, so quickly. “Today I learned that Canadians think John Irving is a great American novelist. Isn’t that funny?”

“Don’t be a snob, Sushok.”

“Oh, all right. I really like Canadians actually, they’re very polite.”

The erudition of the characters is interlaced with both affection and cruelty creating a portrait of young adults that is scathing. As Mark, Sam and Keith attempt to find maturity, responsibility, and fame, they trip over themselves and each step they take is filled with humor and a biting honesty.

All three are readers, writers, and thinkers but they seem only to really care about women. They want women on their terms, but more than this they yearn for success feeling being successful is tantamount to acceptance. They want the girls they cannot have and do not want the girls that they can. The three seem to have no concept as to how to treat women and, therefore, do not succeed with them. The idea that the grass is always greener somewhere else also plays a part in their conception of women. The three know that they are smart but they are also aware of their pathos, and I think that Gessen is using this technique to get us to like the guys more. I am not sure that I do like them anymore, but I certainly find myself thinking about being a “sad, young literary” man. It’s easy for literary men to see some of themselves in Mark, Keith, and Sam. However, even taken together we still do not have a complete man.

            The three men know overconfidence and self-disgust. What they want is to be told that they have some worth. They want “normal” lives in an abnormal world. These young men desperately want to fit into society but have no practical concept of how. Although they are overly career-minded, they are afraid of being seen as such. They are used to being non-mainstream but know, deep down inside, that in order to succeed they must be accepted. The three men embody the positive and negative attributes all of us who work in the field of contemporary literature possess. Beneath the satire, there is honesty here that many critics have not seen. Yet, I am unsure as to how this book fits into the larger literary canon, if it fits at all. Is All the Sad Young Literary Men a homage to the sentimental educational novel? Of that, it is hard to say. Some may find Gessen’s novel disjointed and smug, but this is probably an outgrowth of expecting too much. Gessen is no “infant terrible” in the literary world, and I thoroughly enjoyed his debut novel and hope that we will hear more from him.

The Poetry of 1AK, CAConrad on Frank Sherlock & Brett Evans



Ready-To-Eat Individual
by Frank Sherlock & Brett Evans

LAVENDER INK, 2008

Order directly from the
publisher by clicking
here.

Book Review by CAConrad

Shamanism has the distinction in many ancient cultures as being the practice of Great Seers and healers. Shaman were those men and women who survived near death experiences or other tragic circumstances and came back with stories and visions from the abyss which in turn served the tribe. Surviving shifts the axis, remaps perspective, and awakens the senses as though they had never really been awake.

After hurricane Katrina devastated the much loved and celebrated city of New Orleans the city itself seemed near death before our eyes, and her citizens found themselves abused and neglected by their American superpower federal government, which shocked the world to see people left to suffer and die of exposure, and see African Americans seeking refuge in nearby towns held at gunpoint by white police officers to prevent them from leaving the connecting bridges to safety. Our modern day American race and class war was silent no more to those who had willed themselves into denial. Even president Bush’s own rich white mother made clear her contempt and complete lack of empathy for the suffering thousands who lost family, friends, homes and communities. No demon’s mask remained.

But like all Shaman, the city and many of her survivors took the brutal obstacles back to life, and some of that Olympic spiritual conquest is sung at perfect pitch in Ready-to-Eat Individual by poets Frank Sherlock and Brett Evans. A native of New Orleans, Evans stayed behind during the storm to protect his dogs and help friends. PhillySound poet Frank Sherlock went down to work with the activist collective Common Ground in the recovery work. Good friends for many years, Sherlock and Evans wrote this disturbing and BRILLIANT book during what they refer to as 1AK: Year One After Katrina. The book’s title is based on the laminated food pouches produced by the Defense Department with the same name. Ready-to-Eat Individuals were originally designed by the Space Program for astronauts, but were dropped on New Orleans after the storm and resulting flood.

         The post-apocalyptic mufaletta
         resembling a comeback city
         is seasoned w/ graffiti
         on abandoned refrigerators

These opening lines set the tone the title promises. 2008 New Orleans travel guide books make no mention of hurricane Katrina, nor the struggle the citizens of New Orleans continue to face. The best martinis and what kind of furniture to expect in your deluxe suite will be mentioned, but in order to discover what landmarks were destroyed by the storm you need to compare your 2008 guide with a 2005 edition and figure it out for yourself. To read the truth of pain and resurrection you will need to bring Ready-to-Eat Individual with you on the plane.

         & he said it best when he said
         I’ve learned there is Life
           even in the darkest of dark
           places I dance
          to escape from pacing

And later on the same page:

         at any moment it feels like this space
         where “to relax” we continue the Year of Magical
         Drinking
           could play host
             to a hold up….”

This makes reference to Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, her own memoir of inconsolable grief and madness, and learning to somehow rise and LIVE! Sherlock and Evans press against us an honesty which leaves its grill marks and shadows, but never an emptiness, and not the easy retreat from what they see.

         I appreciate the instructor
         deeply but I’ve already mastered
         the lessons of misunderstanding

         The city is too dirty
         for you     You’re right
         you might be too clean

         for me though my doubts
         are arousing     I want you dirty
         enough to be comfortable

         & relax     How did I get
         so at-home in
         the post-apocalypse?

In an age where we find ourselves at the mercy of all the neglect our elected governing bodies have been denying and spinning, and in an age where too many poets lack the loyalty to their own convictions and sidestep the courage it takes to take a stand with such passive statements as, “Oh, I don’t like overt political content in my poems,” THIS BOOK by THESE TWO POETS returns poetry to the center of poetry’s sharp edges to CARE about this world, and CARE to risk taking a stand!

         A trinity of medals conduct
                 this dull hum of energy     relics of a faith
                    you almost lost     Basta! then Basta!
                    Let us be this new city &
                    liberate ourselves     We can swear
                    ourselves into a parallel government
                    while the sun is coming up

                 I just want to act as your companion
              species since rulers are for losers
         This moment in the history of history

If Shamanism is a leadership procured through discovering the magic that bends the light of this world and blends its infinite chemical motors, then poets are Shamans, at least poets worth the salt in their veins. The storm is burning in effigy in these pages, and that really happened, and so did the storm despite editors and publishers of travel guide books. Forget the corporate publishing bullshit and give trust to Bill Lavender, publisher of Lavender Ink, and his pair of living Virgils — Sherlock and Evans — who lead us to our own ample declarations for the stark smells of love and survival.

————-
CAConrad is the author of Deviant Propulsion (Soft Skull, 2006), The Book of Frank (Chax, 2008), (Soma)tic Midge (FAUX, 2008), and a collaboration with poet Frank Sherlock titled The City Real & Imagined: Philadelphia Poems (Factory School, 2008). He can be found at CAConrad.blogspot.com