“Meddlesome Ghosts”: Kirk Curnutt reviews The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser


The Lost Dog, Michelle de Kretser, Little Brown & Co. 

Readers may be forgiven if the title of de Kretser’s third novel fails to captivate. Not only does The Lost Dog continue her preference for curiously static object names (following The Rose Grower and The Hamilton Case) that do an injustice to the complexity of her themes, but it seems to evoke a little too readily a growing genre of literature whose popularity would seem close to the saturation point. Ever since John Grogan’s Marley & Me proved a surprise bestseller in 2005, stories of man’s best friend, whether fiction or memoir, have been wet-nosing their way onto bookshelves like insistent Shih Tzus. Most recently, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain has taken the trend to its logical extreme by employing a pooch protagonist as narrator. While that is one way to stand out from the litter, the preponderance of literary terriers and retrievers is beginning to bring to mind the unfortunate image of a publishing puppy mill.

 

Curiously, though, de Kretser’s book can’t really be lumped in with these other works, for the search for the titular stray isn’t the overarching narrative concern. Instead, the real lost dog here is the owner, an Indian-Australian Henry James scholar named Tom Loxley, whose week long search for his pet prompts an inquiry into the nature of modernity, reality, and identity. One might go so far as to say that James is more central to the novel than the dog, which is never even named (unlike Tom’s book: Meddlesome Ghosts: Henry James and the Uncanny). What de Kretser hopes to produce here is a psychological study of perception on the order of “The Altar of the Dead,” “The Jolly Corner,” and “The Beast in the Jungle.” Whether she succeeds depends on the individual reader’s tolerance for stylistic abstraction and the relatively disassembled state in which she presents her plot pieces.

 

The lack of assembly becomes pronounced a third of the way into the narrative when de Kretser introduces what should be the novel’s unifying focus——we learn the mysterious background of the artist Nelly Zhang, whose house Tom rents in order to complete his scholarly study of the Master (and it is while on a walk near the bordering bush that Loxley’s dog runs away). A decade and a half earlier, Nelly’s husband, Felix Atwood, vanished without a trace while being investigated for shady finances. Nelly subsequently became a tabloid suspect in his disappearance, especially after she seemed to stoke the mystery with a series of paintings ridiculed in the press as “Nelly’s Nasties.” De Kretser even excerpts one disapproving review from an “eminent critic”: “Zhang (re)presents the symbolic violence of authoritarian modes in images as ambiguous as they are oppressive. Nowhere in these paintings is the phallocentric will-to-power explicitly critiqued. The refusal to engage in direct visual discourse is ultimately elitist and unsatisfying.”

 

Suffice it to say, it’s hard to build suspense when one is throwing around words like “phallocentric”—even when parodying them. But, Nelly isn’t Loxley’s only concern. The declining health of his aged mother, Iris, also preoccupies him. One of the most dramatically satisfying interludes occurs when Tom must clean the bathroom after his mother loses control of her bowels; the humiliating episode confirms for the protagonist the indignity of corporeality. De Kretser also goes into the Loxley family background, giving the storyline a colonialist spin by exploring how his father, Arthur, met Iris in India after WWII and how her desire for bourgeois prosperity landed them in Australia. Just how issues of immigration and identity relate to both Nelly’s mystery and Tom’s lost dog remain frustratingly unclear, however. At times, it feels as if there are three novels in one unspooling as the transitions between them are abrupt and often stagy. “But it might have begun long, long before that evening in Carson Posner’s gallery,” begins the introduction to the Arthur Loxley flashback, “It might have been historical.” One wishes a brave editor to have written, “Or it might just be a digression.”

 

In addition to structural problems, there are moments when the stylistic compression required to stitch these disparate plotlines together results in some downright dubious sentences. Describing the reaction to “Nelly’s Nasties,” de Kretser writes, “A rock star who collected art was quoted as saying he was struggling with aesthetic and ethical objections to Nelly’s work.” Perhaps Australian rock stars are that articulate—Colin Hay, maybe?—but the line strikes me instead as an instance of the authorial voice intruding into the narration out of sheer haste. De Kretser’s occasional reversion to such academic prose is curious given a late set piece in which Tom attends a hiring-committee meeting at his university—a scene that is needlessly populated with pompous tweed-and-political correctness types. At this point in literary history, there would seem little real value in parodying the professoriate; not only has it been done to death by David Lodge et al, but also it adds nothing to the story. Additionally, if one wants to mock the hallowed groves of academe, one shouldn’t sound like a denizen.

 

Despite these flaws, The Lost Dog still has much to recommend. For starters, the characters are intriguing and sustain interest through the plot’s patchwork discontinuities. Tom Loxley is the most rewarding of de Kretser’s overt Jamesian analogues; emotionally detached before the dog’s disappearance, he struggles in the classic mould of John Marcher and Spencer Brydon to come to grips with lost opportunities and disappointments and to balance his attraction to Nelly against the mystery of her missing husband. Nelly, too, is a thoroughly enjoyable creation, at once firmly committed to her aesthetics and yet winkingly aware of the pretension that seems inseparable from art. The putative antagonist, Carson Posner, is every bit as arch and manipulative as a Gilbert Osmond type should be, and several minor characters add local Aussie color. De Kretser’s eye for setting is likewise exquisite; aside from atmospheric evocations of paddocks and eucalyptus, she invests a great deal of effort in wringing poetry out of landscape, which pays off handsomely in conveying Tom’s ephemeral disconnection. Indeed, the chimerical is far more affecting here than in the constant references to James’s meddlesome ghosts.

 

Again, the overall success of The Lost Dog depends on the reader’s tolerance for its loose, baggy form. The Anglo literary establishment certainly hasn’t held its unshapely development against de Kretser. Despite the general consensus that the novel represents a bit of a retreat in ambition after The Hamilton Case, The Lost Dog recently made the longlist for the 2008 Man Booker Prize (it was also named Book of the Year in Australia). While it is unlikely to win top honors, the recognition is certainly deserved for de Kretser, if not necessarily for this particular work.

 

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Kirk Curnutt is the author the novel Breathing Out the Ghost. His next work, Dixie Noir, will be published in November 2009.

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“63 Years Later”: Nii Ayikwei Parkes on Cairo Modern by Naguib Mahfouz


Cairo Modern, Naguib Mahfouz (translated by William M. Hutchins), American University in Cairo Press 

 

Cairo Modern, the fifth novel of a thirty-plus novel and Nobel-prizing winning career, was written in 1945 after the end of the Second World War, which is important to keep in mind when reading the English translation now released sixty-three years later. Over the years, the novel (particularly in English) has greatly changed embracing influences from Russia, South Asia, and Africa as well as evolving to subsume the constantly mutating lexicon of technological advancement. This is not to say that Naguib Mahfouz’s novel is in any way diminished, neither is his well-known bent for exploring existentialism compromised, but it does reflect the more subdued language of its times.

 

As the title suggests, the novel is set in Cairo exploring the trials, opportunities, and trends of the city in the 1930s. Specifically, the novel  focuses upon the lives of four friends in King Fuad University (what is now Cairo University) who come from different backgrounds and have varying philosophies in life. Ahmad Badir is a journalist who never truly reveals his position on issues, Ma’mun Radwan is a young man who believes in “God in the heavens and Islam on the earth,” Ali Taha is an idealist interested in a society that functions perfectly and remains relevant through constant renewal, while Mahgub Abd al-Da’im eschews principles altogether with the constant refrain of “Tuzz.”

 

All four live in a modern Cairo that is awash with ambiguity: patrons of society can barely speak Arabic, government jobs have a system of progression rarely honoured, and family ties are compromised by the company they need to keep. As the novel progresses three of the friends, whose lives are fairly stable due to their respectable finances and family connections, fade into the background leaving Maghub, poor and barely supported by his clerk father. Intensely ambitious and dissatisfied by his inability to keep up with his friends in leisure or love, Maghub’s life becomes even more difficult when his father becomes paralysed and is laid off leaving the entire family to survive on his meagre compensation. With a few months left before Maghub’s graduation, two choices emerge—to quit and support his family or to bargain with his family to sacrifice on his behalf with the promise of becoming the main breadwinner as soon as he graduates.

 

Within this maze of choices and consequences, all that Maghub has to guide him are his patchwork of principles or non-principles (depending on your point of view). This is where Naguib Mafouz’s semi-detached, third-person narrative shows its merits as it unravels the story without judgement allowing the reader to tumble into the story outraged or sympathetic in equal measure. After abortive attempts to get help from a rich relative Maghub turns to a former neighbour to help him enter the world of Cairo’s rich and powerful. Mahfouz hints early at the party that Maghub has to borrow money to attend so he can be introduced to a ‘patron’ just how deceptive this world can be:

He saw chests that almost touched breasts and arms that encircled waists. He was amazed that these people could control their impulses. He wished he were dancing. Scrutinizing faces with anxious bulging eyes, he whispered to himself, ‘Wealth. Wealth equals sovereignty and power. It’s everything in the world.’ His eyes happened upon a swelling bosom that almost made him dream it would poke through the diaphanous white gown. His lust aroused, he raised his eyes to discover his sweetheart’s face. What he found was an ugly crone, even if she was a coquette.

 

Therein ultimately are Maghub’s challenges in Cairo Modern: Can he tell the difference between what is real and imagined progress? Can he control his impulses? And will he be able to live with the consequences of the actions he takes, even if he has convinced himself that morals and judgement mean nothing to him? This juxtaposition of real problems and one man’s abstractions of philosophical positions lays the foundation of an entertaining drama, which is shot through with Naguib Mahfouz’s dry humour. Cairo Modern may be a tad didactic for modern tastes, but for its time it is actually a very liberal book and remains over sixty years after it was written a compelling read.

 

*

 

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a writer of poetry, prose and articles, and author of the poetry chapbooks: eyes of a boy, lips of a man (1999) and M is for Madrigal (2004), a selection of seven jazz poems. He is also the Senior Editor at flipped eye publishing where he has overseen the production of four award-winning titles and a contributing editor to The Liberal. Nii is the current International Writing Fellow at the University of Southampton and his debut novel, Tail of the Blue Bird, will be released in June 2009 by Jonathan Cape .

“Intertwining Place, Meaning, & Permanence”: J. Michael Wahlgren looks at Matter No Matter by Joel Chace


Matter No Matter, Joel Chace, Paper Kite Press

What’s at stake here in Joel Chace’s Matter No Matter is the preservation or death of the “self.” Seeming wish-washy at times, which may be quite necessary, is this actual death or moving away from the self that figuratively stabs the reader. The writing seems quite aware of itself: the imminent occurrences are foreseen by events foretold or hinted at within the writing. As the text references a means of transportation, the train, the writing seems to predict this form being sampled in shifty letters & explanations which vary themselves, leading the reader to wonder where is the actual caboose. There is a certain mystery to the wordplay in this text with some being appropriately enough for the death of a self stream of consciousness.

 

An example of this foreseeing is Chace’s use of the word “crazy” in a poem entitled Upstate which sends the whole text into an organized type chaos: “don’t kid yourself/ purple white gray-white blue/ yellow black don’t a basketball/that grimes hands and/ bounces crazy off every/ goddamn gray little black/ knob of ice to walk over/ the bridge home through purple air…” The organized chaos appears as rainfall on the pages following spaced out wording such as: tier/ tier/ tiers/ destitu/ its ettrs/ used side/ trusd/ sire turd/ destitu…”

 

We return to the self in the text with the poem Given: “That self rides two/ Entirely different trains passing/ Each other icebergs in/ the night.” Given seems to reference this train of self, striving for meaning and to be read. It is a self that perhaps like the icebergs is chilled as the last poem touches upon the meaning of superficiality: “surface and water that/ are not do not matter but/ do mean the matter then/ cannot mean the meaning is/ nothing…” There is a sense of permanence in making sense out of the sentences, just as with the self, take the poem The Story: “about a line/ all about and around/ it two distances and/ the longest point/ he/ is one who/ keeps reading and keeps/ each time saying a/ sentence must lend itself/ to vigorous analysis.” In this poem there is a sense of “standing out” as if analysis is necessary to do so.

 

It seems as though Chace’s poems are tough enough to not get hurt, having some violent references which make the reader want to kidnap the author’s word choice. There is also a quest for a sense of place as in the poem Godhead where the character seeks a place to settle referencing it as “seeing a face” in something. The analysis of the ‘I,’ the sentence, and its death and meaning are lasting images when the text is over. The form of these poems sometimes makes it a complicated read. However, what’s at stake (the search for place, meaning, and most importantly, permanence) intertwines to pay off with an interesting read.

 

*

 

J. Michael Wahlgren edits for Gold Wake Press (goldwakepress.org). He is author of Silent Actor (BeWrite, 2008).

Lucas Klein on Bin Ramke’s Tendril


Bin Ramke, Tendril, Omnidawn Publishing

 

Bin Ramke’s is a poïesis for linguists. In “An Esthetic (Ars Poetica),” the first poem of Tendril, his newest collection, words and their sound components dismantle against meaning: “wish” flushes into “wash,” a “retina” “retained,” and as for “Beautiful,”

 

someone said: aye, but buy, eat. Beauty

is as beauty used. Does its duty. Did. Used to:

be a duty.

(15)

 

While further down the page,

 

the history of future is a version, aversion is a kind

of aesthetic. As if. The beautiful is a form of that

(15)

 

the spelling of “aesthetic”—in contradistinction against the “esthetic” of the title, reminds us of the relationship of art’s dissolution of meaning with both feeling—in Greek, aisthētikos, “of sense perception”—and unfeeling, the anesthetic.

 

Tendril, whose meaning is the curlicue connective between a vine and what it grasps, often focuses on the sinews of language, connecting word to word. Appropriately, etymology is central to Tendril’s poetics, as witness “A History of Mortality”:

 

They know the code

but do not know they know

 

[a. L. codex, later spelling of caudex trunk

of a tree, wooden tablet, book, code of laws.]

 

And the light shineth in the darkness;

and the darkness comprehended it not

 

the word in Greek, comprehend, [katalaben],

second aorist tense, emphasis on punctilier action,

no regard for past, present, or future

(73)

 

And, hinting at the work’s title and the work of the poet (as Ramke says, “Poet, Greek for Maker, bricks, too” [“Never Odd or Even,” 103]), undoing the metaphor—since Ovid—of poet as seamster:

 

Mitosis is an opening, a ripping, from the Greek for thread,

mitos. Threads part, seam ripping, opening into.

(“Protein Folding and Enzyme Catalysis,” 51)

 

Yet even here the poetic act is a creative action, as mitosis is not only cell division but cellular reproduction, and the history of writing takes us from pencil to its derivatives:

 

(from Old French pincel, from a diminutive of Latin peniculus

‘brush,’ diminutive of penis)

(“Gregg Shorthand Dictionary,” 30)

 

But etymology does not occupy all of Bin Ramke’s poetic product any more than it is all of linguistic science. Slippage between words, particularly of homographs, occupies as much of Tendril’s project. Consider the proximity of “Can you touch?” to “You can’t, ouch!” introduced by the following two stanzas:

 

“Pear” and “pare” and other doublings

play in the fearful boy’s mind in the night

the light beneath the door a comfort

against lightning. The wind winds

its way down a hall

 

all waking in the night adds up

to a wound he is wound in the sheets

that tear, his tears he is a boy after all,

small. Sleep well, a deep source of darkness.

(“Social Conscience, Well Meant,” 24)

 

While linguistics may seem dry to some, and eggheaded to others, it typifies a literary paranoia (“the word fear is related to fare and it fits” [“Birds Fly Through Us,” 85]) penetrated before by Thomas Pynchon’s hyperconnectivity. Or, as Ramke defines, in “Eclogue,”

 

Paranoia, para plus nous, mind … a parallel mind,

a second mind, being of two minds, being overly

mindful, mind your manners, minded matter.

(63)

 

And, to demonstrate the pathology of recurrence, Ramke gives a rhymed—and rhyming—translation, in “The Consolations of Defeat”:

 

Might I quote myself? “a minor note, etymology—

Paranoia is para plus nous, mind … a parallel mind?

a second mind, being of two minds, being overly

mindful, minding manners: a matter of kind-

 

ness, and a manner of speaking.”

(76)

 

Tendril’s paranoia and wordplay are rooted in the individual’s personal propensity to confuse, as expressed in the section, “From the Chapter ‘Jesus Speaks to Judas Privately,’” in the closing sequence, “Tendril”:

 

I would write “sacred” for “scared” or sometimes

“scarred,” and needed no analyst

since it was only an error. Eros.

(95)

 

Confusion—fusing together—reveals profundity; further down the page, the speaker laments, after quoting a translation, “I should know the French”

 

and not rely on this carrying across, this.

But in that shadow, that shaped space

which is the wrongness of the best

translation, is asylum. The original

was wrong too. Eros.

(95)

 

In a poem about Jesus, the “carrying across” of translation has never been closer to “carrying a cross.”

 

The linguistics of etymology and homographic inquiry reach their apex in “Tendril,” the swan (or vulning pelican [“Tendril,” 105]) song of this volume. Bookish knowledge unites with personal pain in sections like,

 

“Replicate” can be pronounced several different ways—one of these, as an adjective, can refer to an insect wing folded back on itself. From the Latin plicare, to fold, also replicare, to unfold or to reply. An answer as an unfolding. To speak, for instance, to a figure with wings, and then to see the wings begin to unfold, as your answer. As in, “I love you,” and she unfolds her wings to leave you.

(“Tendril (B),” 101)

 

Following this paragraph, the line

 

Replicatory can mean, “of the nature of a reply.”

(“Tendril (B),” 101)

 

Means something it did not when appearing verbatim on the previous page: then, it was true, but here, Replicatory does not indicate response, but rather replication, and the changes that occur in seeing the same thing twice.

 

“Tendril” is an echo chamber in which not only the words of Anne Bradstreet—“Thou ill-form’d offspring of my feeble brain,” from “The Author to Her Book”—can appear and reappear (“Infant,” 94; “Of the Past, the Unspeakable,” 110), but elements from earlier in the book, as well. 

 

The dew is vulnerable, the boy sleeping the girl sleeping are

vulnerable, to wound and be wounded, wound

in sleep which has elements, requirements and rewards

(“Tendril,” 107)

 

And even

 

They know the code,

but do not know they know

[codex, later spelling caudex

trunk of a tree, wooden

tablet, book, code of laws.]

(“Hard to the Touch,” 108 )

 

These echoes are tendrils, just as the etymologies and phonemes contrasted and contracted. What they reflect, what they obscure as much as they reveal, is the grasp our language has on us, and on our cling to each other inside language, the static born between “alone” and “all one.” Or, as Ramke writes:

 

alone. All one. The greatest betrayal happens

alone, always from the others and when

the very light itself delights in it, it heals. Itself.

(“From the Chapter ‘Jesus Speaks to Judas Privately,’” 96)

“Excursions: Five Short Story Collections (Recent & Vintage) that Take You Places” by Steven Wingate


Since the glossy magazines have recently come out with their summer “beach reading” list, this first installment of mine covers analogous territory: books that, while by no means escapist in their intent, offer readers an escape from their own worlds and an immersion into others. Writers are always discovering their characters (and themselves) in the combustible seams between the familiar and the unfamiliar, and readers are no different. You’ll notice in the capsule reviews below my proclivity for escaping into the combustible seams of Africa. I’ve included a bit about how each of these books ended up on my shelves—there’s always a story about how books end up on our radar and in our hands, isn’t there?

 

            Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, by Ben Fountain

            (Harper/Ecco, 2006

 

Sometimes you just meet people. At the 2008 AWP Conference in New York last year, as I searched for a place to devour my bagel and coffee between panels, I ran into a pleasant, unassuming gentleman from Texas named Ben Fountain. We talked about our books and he told me to come by the booth where he would be signing his—which his publisher, amazingly, was giving away for free! I swung by, picked up Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and got so hooked on the first story that I had to be nudged forward twice in the signing line. Fountain’s collection has been racking up awards (PEN/Hemingway, B&N Discover Great New Writers Series, Whiting Award) and the work is so good that I’m not even jealous. It sparkles on a sentence level, and Fountain never lets his characters off the hook easily. He makes them fight their way through every trap they set for themselves, and in doing so brings us to varied international locations ranging from Haiti to Cambodia. Even the lone American-based story—which tells of a military wife who must share her husband with the Haitian voodoo goddess he has ceremonially married—resonates with the swirling world beyond.

 

            Whites, by Norman Rush

            (Knopf, 1984)

 

“You’ve got to read Norman Rush’s Mating,” a friend told me, though he refused to loan me his copy of the book. He showed it to me, though—a big, intimidating 500-ish pages that was far too thick for my mood at the time. Awhile later, I saw Rush’s Whites on sale for a dollar at a used bookstore and pounced on my opportunity to “date” Rush as an author before “Mating” him. Whites turned out to be a sock in the jaw of a book, 150 pages of humanity in its rawest state.  Rush spent time as an ex-patriot in Africa, and published these stories in the 1980s to strong, well-deserved critical acclaim. The way colonialism’s legacy has played out in the intervening quarter-century has done nothing to dim the power of his stories, since he writes less about Africa and more of human beings in extremis: the tourists of “Near Pala” coming to grips with the true value of water in the desert or the desperate wife of a bureaucrat in “Instruments of Seduction.” After finishing it, I quickly dispensed with my prohibition against huge, door-stopper novels and picked up Mating—also set in Africa—which did not disappoint.

 

            Apologies Forthcoming, by Xujun Eberlein

            (Livingston Press, 2008 )

 

I met Xujun Eberlein by mail; she sent in a wonderful nonfiction piece to divide, the magazine I was running at the time at the University of Colorado, and we knew each other virtually until meeting (where else?) at an AWP Conference in Atlanta. This collection of short stories won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award from Livingston Press, and was published this May. My first sensation upon reading it was of getting completely lost in an alien culture—in this case, China during and after the Cultural Revolution, in which the majority of Eberlein’s stories take place. At first, when I saw its protagonists (primarily educated women “relocated” to rural areas) making decisions based on very un-American things like avoiding government scrutiny, I wanted to grab and shake them back to their senses. But by the end of the book I understood their lines of thinking and behavior, and this alone makes Apologies worth the read. At a time when the world has its eyes on China, Eberlein intimately examines the underbelly of cultural and personal change that—intentionally or not—led to the nation’s surge in world power. I often found myself feeling, as I read her collection, the sense of a national culture in tumult breathing its last before being paved over by a newer, shinier, but no less tumultuous one.

 

            Disturbance-Loving Species, by Peter Chilson

            (Houghton Mifflin, 2007)

 

I found out about Peter Chilson because I’ve been stalking him, sort of—in a literary sense. He won the fiction prize from Gulf Coast magazine, then I won it shortly thereafter; he won the Bakeless Prize for Disturbance-Loving Species, then I won it the next year. What’s up with that? Given the circumstances I had no choice but to read Species, predominantly about Americans in Africa but balanced out by stories of Africans transplanted to America. This book reads like a direct descendant of Whites in its closely-observed depiction of two complimentary cultures rubbing up against each other, and it updates the earlier book’s themes by virtue of coming out nearly two decades later. It’s amazing, reading the two collections side by side, how much the surface of the Africa/America relationship has changed without the core changing at all. The sentences throughout Species reflect the tension of its subject matter, and Chilson’s own experience in Africa (as a Peace Corps volunteer and a journalist) shines through. But my favorite pieces were those that took place in the US—especially “Toumani Ogun,” the closing story about a former West African warlord who ends up running a gas station in Portland, Oregon. 

 

            Looking for a Rain God, ed. Nadeźda Obradović

            (Simon & Schuster, 1990)

 

Back in the days before children overtook our lives completely, my wife and I liked to take turns reading aloud in bed. The last book we read in that fashion—and perhaps the first one we’ll read when we pick up the habit again—is this tremendously varied collection of tales from sub-Saharan Africa. The collection includes some authors from the continent who have made names for themselves in America, including Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart) and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o (author of The River Between), but it also offers a taste of African authors whose names will be unfamiliar to readers here. My favorite was “Heart of a Judge” by Sierra Leone’s R. Sarif Easmon, which features a colonial judge and an ingenious talking rat. Although this title is out of print (and no longer fully contemporary), it is an excellent time capsule of African literature before the turn of the century—and before Wole Sonyika’s 1986 Nobel Prize started to bring African literature to a broader audience. If you can’t find this title in your library, Obradović also edited a similar anthology for Anchor books in 2002.

 

______________________

 

Steven Wingate’s short story collection Wifeshopping won the 2007 Bakeless Prize for Fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and was published by Houghton Mifflin in July, 2008. He spends his analog time in Colorado and his digital time at www.stevenwingate.com.

“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.