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.

 

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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 Caedmon Room IV


Nate Pritts is the author of Sensational Spectacular (BlazeVOX) & the recent chapbook Shrug (MSR Press).  His new book, Honorary Astronaut, will be out from Ghost Road Press in the fall of 2008.  The editor of H_NGM_N, Nate works in advertising.  You can find him online at http://www.natepritts.com.

 

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Andrew Mister

Hotels.

Fewer & Further Press 

http://www.fewfurpress.blogspot.com

 

There’s something that is so recognizable & yet hard to annotate in the tone of Andrew Mister’s work.  There’s a bit of James Schuyler in the way Mister is able to, again & again, craft poems that find the bright side without making it seem like they’re finding the bright side, poems that are straightforward & clear acts of gratitude, simple acknowledgements communicated without succumbing to the disjunctive syntax or ironic posturing that mars so much of contemporary poetry.

Hotels, in an equally clear-headed and clear-hearted design by Jess Mynes and his vitally important Fewer & Further Press, presents poem after poem of Mister piecing something together, developing it as the poem develops disarmingly.  Consider the end of “Comfort Inn” as a good précis to Mister’s work:

We are so lucky

                                    to be here

 

            We are so lucky to be standing here

 

                        We are so lucky

                                                            to be standing

This sequence is stunning on so many levels.  Notice the way that each tumbling line adds a different perspective on the same base; notice the way the stumbling momentum itself serves to engage the reader almost physically, jerking our way toward a revelation that is both humble & epiphanic.

Hotels is full of poems that are so recognizably human it’s almost painful and, of course, amazingly beautiful. Painful to realize we live in a world where we are forced to take comfort in lives that are nothing more than “15 boxes of books,” and beautiful to realize that it’s enough, that “[t]he light loosened / into an embrace” can still make the difference.

 

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

Why I’ll Never Be a Bookslut by Stephanie Cleveland


Stephanie Cleveland is a poet living in New York City. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Boston Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Jubilat, Phoebe, and Conduit.

 

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Whenever I hear the word slut, part of me feels like I’m twelve years old, standing in a Winn Dixie parking lot. That’s how old I was and where I was, the first time a man ever called me slut. My mother and I had driven into town from our home in rural Georgia, to buy groceries, and when we left the store, Mama, always in a hurry to get home and cook dinner for my Dad and me, was halfway to the car before I’d even made it past the exit row of shopping carts.

I’d just started sixth grade, and I loved daydreaming, writing songs and stories in my head. Words were comforting distractions from the awkwardness of my body. Somehow or other, things had changed over the summer, and by the time I started school I already wore a C cup. My new bra size won me lots of unwanted teasing from boys at school and lots of unwanted groping from boys on the bus ride home. But on that day in the parking lot, although I’d been careful to wear a turtleneck that covered the entire top half of my body, a middle-aged man with tan, leathery skin I can still picture noticed me walking to the car. I tried to ignore him, but the man kept leering at me.

As I walked past, I could hear him whisper something under his breath. After a few seconds, I realized he’d said, “Nice tits.” It was the first time anybody had ever called my breasts tits, and I remember hating the sharp, ugly sound of that word. I stopped to face the man. Now that he had my attention, he took his opportunity to snarl another insult, this time calling me little slut. His assessment made me feel confused and scared, so I put my head down and kept walking. Once I reached my mother and the car, I looked back. The man winked, turned and strolled into Winn Dixie, and was gone.

In middle school, I turned to books and daydreaming, and reading more and more, and eventually started writing poetry. I wrote poems, not because I wanted to be called slut again (I didn’t particularly want to make anybody a slut for my own words either). Instead, I remember just wanting to get as far away from sexist language as I possibly could. I wanted a place where men couldn’t define me using words like slut. In fact, I wanted to change the ways men talked about women altogether. Most especially, I wanted to change how men talked about sex with us.

I hated the definition of sex I was learning in school during health class, and at home, from my father’s pornography. What I’d learned from both was, that sex happened when a man penetrated a woman, inserted his penis in her vagina, mouth, or anus, until he came, and in that order, man-does-to-woman, subject-verb-object. The language men had for fucking reflected the way most men had sex, and I hated both the language and the fucking.

By the time I was fourteen, I was very familiar with most of the slang words boys at my school used to talk about women. My own view of my body had become so colonized, I even thought of myself using their words — pussy, cunt, boobs, tits, piece of ass. All these words made me feel humiliated. They were clearly insults, and I think I already suspected something about how hateful words could never really be emptied of their original vitriol. I felt reclaiming men’s sexist language was not my responsibility, not my job as a female writer. Instead, I wanted a different language, one that would allow me to leave behind sexist words.

By the time I got to eighth grade, I’d begun to want a certain kind of literary freedom, one that’s still largely forbidden to girls and women authors. I wanted the freedom to write about not wanting to be fucked, maybe not wanting sex at all. If I did write about sex, the only kind I wanted was a specific kind, a kind I barely even had a language for, sex that meant tenderness and equality, making love, through gentleness, human touch without fear of being expected to submit to anybody, without learning to like men being dominant. This was the kind of sex that was forbidden to me, all the sex male-supremacist literature treated as feminine and therefore inferior, all the sex my Dad’s pornography left out. I didn’t want to adopt men’s dick-centered word for sex, fucking. I didn’t want to fuck or be fucked or be called slut.

Writing my resistance to these words and ideas down on paper seemed like revolutionary acts to me. In short, I wanted to be able to want without being called slut for it, and I ultimately hoped all the hate words men had invented for me as a female human being could get out of my writing and my life. As a twenty seven year old feminist poet, I still want all those things.

But talking with other men and women poets, maybe especially those working in academia, I feel incredibly alone in refusing to accept words like slut. In New York, poets have laughed, yelled, ignored me, called me stupid and simple-minded whenever I’ve mentioned my hatred for words like slut. I used to hear feminists agreeing that there was no point in learning to accept men’s sexist language, and I still hear women activists and feminists in my community voice that same dissatisfaction—working class women who are not at all sheltered, who, sadly, know all too well what it’s like to have words like slut used against you during an assault.

Over the past five or ten years, something seems to have shifted among feminist poets and writers however. There’s a different way of practicing feminism, one that, to me, feels elitist and false. One that claims to be avant-garde in its politics, but often chastises women for being too critical of traditional, macho ways of thinking and writing about women. Particularly, I think, this new form of feminism discourages women from taking a radical approach to language. We are told not to remember pain sexist language may have caused us in the past, and are forbidden to ask for uncompromised change — for responsibility — in the ways poets and writers write about women and sex. Certainly, we are forbidden to ask that some words like slut, not be used anymore.

Now, if a woman becomes upset over the word slut, especially in an academic setting, it’s not at all uncommon for her to be accused of not having an appropriate grasp of irony, not being sexually liberated, of thinking of language in an old-fashioned way, or turning herself into a victim. She may be accused of not knowing enough about postmodernism or third-wave feminist theory to have anything valuable to say. I feel as though many women writers have decided it’s just easier to adopt men’s language, to learn to live with it, to fool ourselves into thinking we’ve reclaimed it, rather than fighting for something radically different. I think, in this context of extreme compromise, magazines like Bookslut happen.

 

I first heard about Bookslut last summer, after traveling to Chicago where I’d been invited to read my poetry at a launch party for Another Chicago Magazine. When, during conversation before the reading, one poet mentioned the online lit magazine, I was struck by how none of the other poets present seemed bothered by the idea of a woman’s passion for reading — her simply feeling joy over books and words — being used to identify her as a specific kind of slut, a bookslut.

Certainly as a feminist, I believe women are entitled to an egalitarian sexuality, (should we choose to be sexually active), one that goes along with our struggle for equality. But I also think there is an important difference between feeling pride and freedom about one’s sexual self, and allowing others to sexualize us in ways that ultimately reinforce male dominance. In Chicago, I found myself wondering why are women writers and readers still persistently sexualized even after decades of feminism?

Why do men still expect us to behave in certain ways, particularly when we attempt to be accepted as artists? In my experience as a poet, men seem most comfortable around women they perceive as sexy, bubbly, seductive and eager to have sex, women who may attempt to write as well, but who understand the importance of being attractive to men while doing it. Most of all, I wondered how women’s sexuality — or the male-supremacist version of it — could still be used to market almost everything in a consumption-obsessed America, including, it would now seem, literary magazines, without women writers even batting an eye?

It wasn’t until I was back in New York that I checked out Bookslut online, and got my first introduction to the magazine via the August issue. One of the first things I noticed was, despite its claim to be a magazine for “people” who love reading, and despite a few male editors flippantly (offensively?) proclaiming themselves “sluts” on the masthead, Bookslut features images of women in various states of undress, but no naked men.

The Bookslut logo is a cartoon of a female nude, lying horizontally, in the great tradition of reclining female nudes painted by male artists throughout history. Bookslut is hunched eagerly over her book, and the focal point of the cartoon is her ass. She has long wavy hair, perched atop her head in a ponytail. Her body looks thin and young, traditionally attractive. You can see the edge of her right breast jutting over the side of her rib cage perkily. On the Bookslut site, readers can buy pictures of this logo and different pinup style cartoons of women, on T-shirts, tote-bags, and other merchandise. Later that evening, after looking at Bookslut, I started thinking about Audre Lorde’s essay, Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power. In that essay, Lorde wrote:

The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.

To me, the cartoons of women on Bookslut seemed plastic and trivial, like the fake depictions of female sexuality Lorde critiqued.

As a freshman in college, I remembered seeing a nude self-portrait visual artist Susan Hauptman created using charcoal and chalk pastel. Hauptman was my drawing teacher my second semester as an art major, and in person, she was small, only about 5′1.” But in her self-portrait, she stood over 7 feet tall, and when you approached it, you saw a naked woman, wearing no makeup, with all her pubic, underarm, and leg hair intact. The woman in the drawing literally loomed above you. She stared straight down at you. You did not approach this woman from behind, lying flat, with teased hair. Her hair was cut close to her head in a crew cut. She was human, powerful, intimidating, real, and yes, even sexual — but not on men’s terms, not trivial or plastic. She was a woman, a human being, like all women are in real life; she was not slut. I thought about how different this feminist drawing of a female nude was from the Bookslut logo.

I wondered too, if any woman who has ever been called slut, really believes in her heart that the word isn’t still first and foremost associated with women? A friend recently pointed out to me that, if a person wants to call a man slut, she often ends up saying male slut, even laughing at how comic the combination of those words “male” and “slut” sound together, the term has been so intimately connected with women for so long. Men are not called sluts, by and large, for having sex or being sexual — they’re just doing what men do. The slut mascot for Bookslut is a woman for a reason.

There’s not a cartoon of a young naked male body laid out for female readers to ogle, no male ass inviting penetration. Women readers won’t get a peak at any exposed, perky testicles dangling between hairy thighs. Instead, below the Bookslut logo, a fully clothed real life portrait of Thomas Mallon started off the August issue. I have never met Thomas Mallon, and it seems unlikely he had anything to do with the layout of the magazine. But, I do think, if you have a cartoon of a naked woman called Bookslut, above a picture of a clothed man who writes books, the assumption is that she is his slut, a slut for his writing.

Postmodernists will probably argue all this is my personal, individual, unsophisticated interpretation of Bookslut, that, if other women writers and readers like being called slut, I should celebrate their choices, because anything any woman consents to in this patriarchal world is inherently feminist, right? I do not believe this is true. I think real agency for women, real feminist choices, involve resisting male dominance with everything we have in us, not doing exactly what dominant men demand.

I think it’s important as well not to assume women make our choices in a vacuum or a free world where we have equality. In my experience, it has certainly been easier to find support and praise from men poets and editors, if I’ve willingly adopted their language, whereas refusal to do so often makes men defensive and angry.

The existence of Bookslut means women who do not like the word slut, now have to hear it one more time, have to hear it used in a celebratory way, without critique, more times than we would otherwise. I have thankfully known a handful of poets who do still recognize the misogyny of words like slut. These poets would never use these words to talk about women, in much the same way they would never use racial slurs or other hate words. But now, those same poets end up saying, “So and so was reviewed in Bookslut,” and men have one more excuse to keep the image of women as sluts in their minds.

A male poet who has been reviewed on Bookslut can effectively consider the magazine’s founder Jessa Crispin, a slut for his book. He can, if he wants, begin thinking about other women readers of his in that same way as well, as his personal booksluts, metaphorically fucked by his every word. How on earth does this pass for sexual or intellectual liberation for women? Andrea Dworkin wrote, “The pornographic conception of female power is fundamental to the anti-feminism of sexual-liberation movements in which unlimited sexual use of women by men is defined as freedom for both: she wants it; he responds; viola! The revolution.” Crispin’s choice to call herself a slut goes along with this male-supremacist version of sexual revolution — one which caters to men’s words, men’s desires, men’s construction of female sexuality, by giving men greater sexual access to women and greater freedom to think of us as fuck objects.

Bookslut fails, however, to address women’s inequality. It fails to offer a feminist, non-patriarchal vision of sex and women’s passion for reading and creating. Using women as sexualized commodity to sell literary magazines is not a feminist sexual revolution, and moreover, Cripsin’s choice to do that affects more women than just herself. Women who are not interested in reclaiming hate words now must deal with them more frequently in literary circles.

We may even need to explain to men, “I understand that woman over there says she’s okay with being called a bookslut, but I actually don’t like it, actually feel degraded and humiliated when you do it.” Then too, there is the fear one will be viewed as “sexually inhibited,” or “not fun enough” by male peers who like the idea of a bookslut — that is to say, if one refuses to accept men’s language, one may do the unforgivable and alienate men. Alienating men is risky for a woman writer, since writing like any other field is dominated by white men many of whom with the power to refuse to publish women’s words.

I am not claiming to speak about what every issue of Bookslut looks like, but in the August issue I read, most if not all of the featured poets and writers on the homepage were men. All these men were fully clothed. Images of naked or partially naked women in stereotypically gendered positions were the norm — a woman cartoon contorted and squeezed into a little box, her weight propped on one elbow, wearing pink lingerie and giving readers a wouldn’t you like to fuck me smirk, was one of the first images I noticed when I scrolled down. The woman had no body hair to speak of (no one even seems to notice the sexism of adult women being asked to remove all our pubic hair anymore), and she smiled capriciously, the way women are expected to when we are being seductive.

Once again, this cartoon was female — no cartoon of a man wearing frilly lingerie, sporting an erection over poetry. The worst photo was an advertisement for the Bookslut reading series — a poster featuring the names of authors, some of them women, and a real woman’s legs — thin, white, and so smooth they could be used for Nair commercials — spread apart across the left side of the photograph. This woman’s entire body was not shown, only her thighs and crotch. Her feet were propped sideways on a picnic table, and on the table between her spread legs, aligned directly with her vagina, stood a glass beer bottle.

I looked, but didn’t find any photos on the Bookslut site of men with their legs spread, glass bottles placed between them. There were no photos to suggest a male reader might feel somehow motivated by his passion for literature to fuck himself with glass. Apparently, only women-readers do that sort of thing.

These images are not new or empowering. They aren’t feminist, and they don’t have anything to do with good writing. They articulate instead, the tired, old idea that women are sexual masochists, which feminists critiqued in the sixties, seventies and eighties. The difference is, now sexual masochism for women is considered part of feminism. Female anger and outrage over being called slut have been labeled outdated, while acceptance of misogynist language is the popular position to take.

I do not mean to place all the blame on Jessa Crispin, or to act as though she could single handedly bring down the patriarchy if she stopped calling women booksluts. But I do believe the idea of reclaiming hate language is an ineffective strategy for gaining women’s equality. In philosophy, there is the theory of adaptive preferences, which states, if a person knows she is going to get treated a certain way, regardless of whether or not she likes or wants that treatment, then, in some ways, it behooves her to learn to want it.

Even after years of feminist struggle, US women still live in a country where every day three women are killed by our intimate partners, one in four is raped before she turns eighteen, and the only fields women earn more money in on average than men working in the same fields are modeling and prostitution. Men still see us as people to be fucked, still use words like slut to attack women in prostitution and pornography, in strip clubs, during domestic violence assaults, during rape, during street harassment — In this kind of political climate, no wonder many women decide to try and make the best of slut.

I am also not claiming that all men enjoy using words like slut. I am glad to have known a couple men who hate these words almost as much as I do. But many men and male poets I have talked with are resistant about giving up sexist language. I remember a poem in Tomaz Salamun’s Feast, a book I was required to read in college, that included the line, “I smell whores on the shoulders of soldiers.” Neither my male teacher, nor any of the male students in my class seemed bothered by that line. When I left college, I tried talking with a few male poet friends about it, but none of them saw a problem either. What does it mean that a male poet can with impunity call certain women “whores” in the 21st century, can even write what he thinks a “whore” smells like?

I had an argument with a close male poet friend last summer, trying to explain to him why I felt hurt when he wrote about female genitalia as cunt. He felt entitled to that word as a writer, despite its continued use as a term of hatred for women, and I couldn’t convince him men should rethink their use of words so intimately linked with women’s pain, pain that isn’t theirs to use.

I especially thought about men’s resistance to giving up sexist language last July, when a group of teenage boys assaulted me while I was running in Central Park. For whatever reason, the boys, who were playing baseball, started chasing after me. One of them, once he got close enough, swung the bat at my legs trying to knock me to the ground. When I swerved to avoid being hit, I felt a smack against the left side of my head. I realized the boys a little further away were throwing rocks at me. One boy yelled as he threw, “Fuck you, you motherfucking cunt!”

My head pounded. I felt pain in my mouth on the left side of my face. If the boys had been a little older, I might have been too scared not to keep running. But once I cleared the gates of the park, I turned around. I couldn’t stop hearing the words those boys had used at me. Simply because I was a woman, in their eyes, I was inferior, a cunt.

But inside myself, I was still a poet. Maybe that was why, more than anything else in that moment, I wanted a word I could use, a word that would hurt them as much as their word hurt me. Although I tried hard to come up with something, I wasn’t sure what I should have yelled — “Hey, haven’t you heard? Women reclaimed cunt , so it doesn’t hurt anymore”? The problem was, it still did. In that minute, I realized how pointless trying to reclaim men’s sexist language really is.

Language has meaning and words have power based on the social realty those words are used in. It means something when men, who all live with some degree of privilege over women, use the same words to talk about our bodies and our sexuality in ways that are presumed to be sexy and fun, and then insult us with those same words during acts of violence.

Words like slut, whore and cunt are not about equality or sexual liberation for women; they aren’t really about poetry and women’s passion for reading either. Instead, these words are about misogyny, about continued respect for male dominance and dominant language. I would like to know other poets, both women and men, who feel a world where women don’t have to worry about being called cunt, slut, or whore anymore is possible, because these words no longer exist. I believe that world is possible and worth writing towards.

 

Problematic Indirection, Trina Burke on Paige Ackerson-Kiely


Trina Burke holds an MFA from the University of Montana and an MA in creative writing from Western Washington University. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in 580 Split, The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and Phoebe. She works as a freelance editor in Seattle.

 

*

 

In No One’s Land

Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Ahsahta Press, 2007

 

Paige Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement about her debut In No One’s Land engages in problematic indirection, “I find it difficult to discuss In No One’s Land or my work in general in any way that isn’t prefaced with: ‘I might have had a nebulous feeling about something, I don’t know what—I remember it was small and fleeting—at one time or another, but that, my friend, I cannot say with any certainty.’” This is a refrain we hear all the time from young poets: “I’m not the one to talk about my work” or “I can’t really articulate what I was trying to do” or “It just came out that way. It’s a mystery to me.” All such statements seem to be translations of “Don’t look at me.” But Ackerson-Kiely takes a stab at more substantive commentary later noting

David McDuff in his book Ice Around Our Lips described other work of Gripenberg’s era as ‘the elaboration of an austerely beautiful nature poetry in which man is portrayed as a lonely, alien guest awaiting reabsorption into a cosmic night.’ Although I would never embolden my own verse in such a lofty and lovely description, [my emphasis] I cannot help but feel that there is some relationship there—if only because I clutched at it so unbecomingly…

While we can appreciate that nice, fat slice of humble pie, we must also wonder if this sort of exaggerated humility is genuinely benefiting either writer or reader. It is as if the poet does not wish to commit to a reading of her own work. I can certainly sympathize. How many times have I criticized artist statements as useless, self-indulgent, or flat-out inaccurate? And how many times have I made similar claims of ignorance about my own work? As a reader, I am not entirely drawn in by these milquetoast attempts at creating a context for the work. As a writer, I am frightened by the mirror being held up to my own face.

My capacity for the purposes of this review, however, is as a reader, and as such, I have to wonder whether an author’s resistance to making a solid statement about her work belies an underlying lack of commitment to making a statement in the work itself. To address this properly requires me to leave author’s statement behind and look to the book itself.

 

            Ackerson-Kiely takes her title from a line by Finnish writer Bertel Gripenberg translated as “In no one’s land, with no one will I stay.” The opening prose poem, “Foreplay,” locates itself in a motel room indicating a displacement of the speaker from what is familiar. Ackerson-Kiely deftly condenses images leading the reader through a thicket of unbalancing associations: “The sheets are not soft reminders of human capacity for forgiveness with their random tufts like a father roughing up his boy’s hair; son you’ve made me proud. There are times when an absence of pride means the lion is eating his cub.” The stage is set as un-homey, unfamiliar, and un-familial as throughout we are constantly given foreign lands—Minsk, Spanish, Berlin, the Baltic, etc.—to disorient us.

            The arc of the book can be traced by examining each of the five sections that are book-ended by stand-alone poems. Section 1 sets up the question of the speaker’s separation or individuation from others:

You weren’t anywhere I was planning to go. (6)

 

When I need you you don’t come running. ( 8 )

 

So that the last woman

left

in the bar

is the same woman

in the bar earlier

saying

yeah, I’ve got some abandonment issues. (9)

The second section progresses into the desire for shepherding, a gathering together which ultimately goes unmet:

They will call all of us in

on cold nights,

though no one calls

to me specifically. (15)

 

You are a hero, heroes help others. (16)

 

The sheer numbers acquit you,

turn away from your glib matter while

quietly the stars undress in the dark,

(there are thousands, thousands). (19)

 

Nights from now I will join the river.

I will say current and it will be mine,

as a man turned away at the door. (21)

Section 3 is tricky to categorize as themes of worship, power, guilt, and, particularly, sexual shame or shamelessness develop. Perhaps instructive here is Ackerson-Kiely’s author’s statement, “Admittedly I am uncomfortable with worship in all of its various incarnations yet I struggle with keeping desire at bay, as desire feels like a less informed version of worship.” The poems “Privacy” and “Prayer for Singularity” repeat the phrase “our father” introducing the theme of paternalized male dominance and eroticized subjugation, which is layered into a larger lexicon of prayer, hymn, and Old Testament references. The disparate notions of the bodily and the spiritual create an awkward tension that is, nonetheless, pleasing—

At least 20 minutes a day

In the bathroom come

Shooting

 

up Father

 

Is he red and dead

Done Father,

 

whose art

Is simply not your name. (30)

 

To need to be pushed inside

of something to become

alive. (36)

 

If I knew the world was going

to end, I’d just run out into
the street and fuck the first

chick I saw, says

a teenage virgin. (31)

 

shame is not a silent bride

rolling her eyes at a fitting. (39-40)

 

I am frightened of the intimate thing. (41)

 

Tell me how they approached your hand, which you pretended held food, but was merely a closed fist.

The relationships in this section are fraught with power struggles, fear of intimacy, and separation of bodily from spiritual desires. One might argue these are the central tensions of the book, and the purpose of section 3 is to name overtly the stakes.

It would make sense, then, that section 4 would complicate the stakes further progressing the arc of the speaker’s journey. I’m not sure that this is the case. The poems of this section largely deal with the absence of what should be there and the implications of the seen and unseen. Rather than moving toward resolution, the speaker continues to both desire and create distance at cross-purposes.

You

are Jerusalem—

over there. (46)

 

wanting a reason to stop

and say:

 

Man, I could stay

here forever. (51)

 

I am talking around the fact that you aren’t supposed to be here, in flesh or in my capacity to imagine my flesh as yours—touching me the way you would pull back the smallest bit of which from a kerosene lantern. Make it fucking darker. (55)

The use of “fuck” in this last excerpt attempts to voice the speaker’s frustration, but is unnecessary. The voice already exhibits the speaker’s growing impatience with how desire never quite meets reality, at least, not without force.

The final section of the In No One’s Land provides little relief. In the opening poem, “Greenland,” the speaker attempts to pin down the act of dying through a series of increasingly lonesome and desperate images, the most disturbing of which could be a portrait of the speaker herself: “Dying is a woman so alone in a city that she does not think we see her adjusting her undergarments as she walks, head bent so that her hair falls across her face like the relief of driving snow just when you needed a reason to turn in for the night.” This is not only death, but voluntary death by means of self-isolation and willful dismissal of what is outside oneself. I doubt if any book can entirely dwell successfully in this brand of isolation.  

            In No One’s Land could have been a commentary on the distinctly American manner of recognizing every land as our own, of assuming our right-to-be-there, of ignoring the ownership and population of other places, but it’s not. It’s too grounded in the speaker’s “I” throughout to be a significant commentary on society, culture, or, more generally, the external world. Even the “You” is not really characterized with the landscape internalized as everything is sucked inside the persona of the I—location, people, objects. Ackerson-Kiely has not written a humble book. Her speaker is firmly at the center of things and anyone or anything else populating the poem is simply flowing in orbit around her. The speaker is not placed in a larger context as one of many, but rather is one of one—THE one.

Everything in the book is defined by or in terms of the “I,” which is not to say that Ackerson-Kiely’s speaker is an example of the Martin Buber’s concept of the I-I  attitude (“Some live in a strange world bounded by a path from which countless ways lead inside. If there were road signs, all of them might bear the same inscription: I-I”). The “I” of this book is observant and aware of others. Some of the most moving passages are those in which the speaker simply observes another person living a moment or enters into such a moment as a way of metaphorizing her own experience. For instance, in “Interrogation” the speaker inhabits a multitude of conditional statements leading up to the question at the center of the poem: “Did you really love him?” Her answer:

I would have to say yes—hands feeling around my clavicle

the way a woman with a pearl necklace

fondles that pearl necklace

except that I haven’t got one

and so lightly pinch at the skin

in a way that leaves a trail of red

inching toward my throat

which is slowly closing now

which is almost completely shut. (63)

The speaker has taken the speculative situation and entered into it through the guise of “a woman,” becoming the woman who loved the man. It would seem, then, that the speaker does have experiences with others, rather than simply using them, talking at them or of them.

In addition, there is a smattering of outward-looking or not-quite “I”-centered prose poems. A better way to characterize these poems might be to say that they are “distanced from the speaker” by addressing a mitigating “you” that may or may not be self-reflexive. These include “Foreplay,” “One Type of Hunger,” and “Greenland.” These are somewhat odd choices, since “Foreplay” is the introductory poem of the book and “One Type of Hunger” and “Greenland” are the opening poems of their respective sections. “Economics Theory” and “After Hours,” the last two poems in the book, are somewhat like “Foreplay” addressing a “You” that may or may not be reflexive (i.e. the speaker) or the reader. The final poem, “After Hours,” ends with a “thank you” that seems to break the frame of the poem, addressing a “you” outside of it. A nod (a finale bow?) at the end of the speaker’s journey?

And so, in the end, how does it all hang together, if the introduction of the idea of individuation does not progress to a resolution? One would expect the speaker to find a way into community with others or, alternatively, a way to accept her isolation. The book does neither. “After Hours,” (75) set in a restaurant, dwells in the isolation, “Where are heart and soul hanging out, someone singing sweetly, someone picturing you in your undecorated room eating from a bag.” The line is not punctuated as a question, rather as a statement of unlocation. The waitress, who is a character in the poem, asks “Will there be anything else” and the question, of course, holds more than its quotidian meaning. The answer, two lines later: “No, nothing else / thank you.” I suppose one might read into this an acceptance of or resignation to the isolation that has plagued the speaker throughout the book. Maybe I’m not satisfied because it is, especially in this cultural time and place, a sort of horror movie ending where the protagonist not only doesn’t prevail over the forces of evil, but is recruited by the dark side. She not only accepts her fate, but embraces it with gratitude.

 

 

Notes

Ackerson-Kiely, Page. http://ahsahtapress.boisestate.edu/books/ackerson-kiely/ackerson-kiely-author.htm

Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Touchstone, 1970. 11

English Studies in the 21st Century: A Critical Look at Combining Cultural Studies and Classics by Kelly Hunt


Kelly Hunt, kellymariehunt@yahoo.com

English Studies in the 21st Century: A Critical Look at Combining Cultural Studies and Classics

 

 

The fate of English studies appears most threatened by increasing technology, employability and institutional pressures.   In the face of such troublesome issues, scholars find themselves defending the field and calling for a new direction, most often involving an interdisciplinary approach.   While I do not deny the inevitable path towards interdisciplinary work or Cultural studies, I resist the recent trend to dismiss the importance of the aesthetic value and rich experience reading and studying literature offers.  Still, according to Richard Ohmann, the number of English majors has shrunk at least 50 percent in the past twenty years (92), figures that suggest the need for change. Throwing out the classics to make room for the study of a blog or comic strip would be a terrible loss, but to examine only the traditional canon will leave students unequipped.  The answer lies somewhere in the middle with themed courses in Cultural studies that include a variety of text.   

 The problem with the canon remains rather obvious and two-fold.  First, its neglect of minorities and difference—as Lillian S. Robinson points out; “It is quite accurate to think of the canon as an entirely gentlemanly artifact, considering how few works by nonmembers of that class and sex make it into the informal agglomeration of course syllabi, anthologies and widely commented-upon ‘standard authors’ that constitutes the canon as it is generally understood” (154).  Secondly, if the fate of English studies depends on a Cultural studies approach, the four-year degree can only hope to cover a mere fraction of the “great works” as other text will necessitate class time.   However, I do not want to see all canonized text disappear as Robinson suggests could happen; “Permission may have been given to the contemporary critic to approach a wide range of texts, transcending and even ignoring the traditional canon” (162).  There are certain works, written by dead white males as they may be, which are referenced within the college experience and throughout life.  Not only could one miss out on “the joke” or the richness a subtle reference adds to whatever context in which it might be found, but there are certain works a student must be familiar with as they are used often as examples in the classroom and criticism.  

I propose closer reading and critical examination of a variety of texts, a sort of juxtaposing of the classic and modern within the same course similar to those taught by J. Hillis Miller who explains, “My strategy has been to teach and write about old literary works in the context of one ‘timely’ problematic of another, ‘Victorian and Modernist English Novels: Moments of Decision’ for the last two years, ‘Victorian Multiplotted Novels as Models of Community’” (4).  In these types of courses, students should be taught a methodology, a learned set of skills for analysis of any type of text—canonized or found on the back of a cereal box. 

As previously mentioned, time permits the wide coverage of all literature that may have made it onto Bloom’s seemingly arrogant list of, “what I have read and think worthy of rereading, which may be the only pragmatic test of the canonical” (226).  Instead, I recommend tightening the focus by teaching courses in themes that comprise multiple types of texts, including film and media.  I agree with Robert Scholes when he writes, “The process of reading should take precedence over the coverage of texts in the English curriculum.  By process I mean learning how to read closely and carefully, how to situate a text in relation to other texts (intertextuality) how to situate a text in relation to culture, society, the world (extratextuality)” (117).   In this way Cultural studies again comes into play, reaching to various humanities departments.

The interdisciplinary nature of studying literature in regards to varying cultures of varying times, produces its own problems amongst humanities departments.  Because of this I agree with critics who suggest literature will be rolled together among a new department of Cultural studies.   However, students should still have a “concentration” within the major of Cultural studies, much like Art majors could a have concentration in Drawing or a Music major with a concentration in Musical Composition.   One of the concentrations among Cultural studies majors will of course be Literature, ensuring that the study of literature will never fade away.  These literature courses could introduce students to prominent schools of theory by centering themselves on various relevant themes. 

The idea of pushing English studies into Cultural studies might also alleviate the burden of employment for students after college.  Since the subject area is broader and more relevant to current trends in society, multiple opportunities for application of knowledge will surface.  Still, with the Cultural studies major and “concentration” model I have suggested, students who desire to focus on literature may do so while gaining the benefits of a wider area of study.  More people are college graduates than ever before—making the job market highly competitive—and studying literature, where jobs are few, might seem like a risky decision.  However, it is precisely because of this that many (if not most) graduates end up in a field far from what they studied in school.  However, as Ohmann points out, the skills learned upon receipt of an education in English are considerable, “English teachers have helped train the kind of work force capitalist need in a productive system that relies less and less on purely manual labor.  More, we have helped to inculcate the discipline—punctuality, good verbal manners, submission to authority, attention to problem solving assignments set by somebody else, long hours spent in one place—that is necessary to perform the alienated labor that will be the lot of most”  (92). 

Of course there are more sentimental reasons for studying literature as well.  Humanist Helen Vendler writes, “Nothing is more lonely than to go through life uncompanioned by a sense that others have also gone through it, and left a record of experience” (39). And despite what Harold Bloom claims about today’s students lack of passion for reading, “only a few handfuls of students now enter Yale with an authentic passion for reading” (226), recalling friends, classmates and a bustling Barnes and Noble in every town, I conclude passion for literature is alive and well.    

One area of debate I must mention lies in the placement of the composition course.  Most universities require these types of courses, forcing students to crank out what Richard Marius dubs “model airplane” essays.  “These are papers whose writing resembles what kids do when they buy a model airplane in a hobby shop…[t]he student writers exhibit no creativity, no sustained rational discourse that explains or builds a careful argument” (Marius 474).   This type of class does very little good for the English department, and perhaps little good for the students as well.  Instead, I suggest students take a course designed within their major that fulfills the writing requirement.  As Marius points out, many history classes have students write multiple papers in a term, as would a cultural studies class.  Students would write about something they are actually interested in (assuming that the major they picked interests them).  This could provide a solution to the problem of outside departments that “insist on naming and authorizing” (McQuade 484) the activities of the composition courses as well as increase respect through out academia for the composition professor (who would also teach a variety of skills such as close reading, critical analysis, etc.) within each department.

Harold Bloom predicts the fall of “Departments of English” as we know them by pointing to the lack of passion in today’s students.  He writes, “You cannot teach someone to love great poetry if they come to you without such love.”   I disagree based on personal experience, and so would Gerard Graff who relays his earlier struggles with literature in his essay, Disliking Books at an Early Age.  Graff admits his aversion to reading until he was introduced to critical debate and close reading under the direction of a knowledgeable professor, “It was through exposure to such critical reading and discussion over a period of time that I came to catch the literary bug” (44).  If a student finds a particular piece of writing as engaging as Graff’s professor made it for him, they will expand their personal reading beyond classroom assignments.  The problem (if you call it one) regarding the lack of coverage in a Cultural studies type program could solve itself.

Despite Graff’s experience, critical exposure means little if it remains aimed at the very few who already understand it.  Several critics acknowledge the difficult nature of literary study and criticism including Graff who writes, “Many literate people learned certain ways of talking about books so long ago that they have forgotten they ever had to learn them.  These people therefore fail to understand the reading problems of the struggling students who have still not acquired a critical vocabulary” (45).  Wayne Booth forms a similar complaint in his request to the editors of Critical Inquiry when he suggests, “ask each author who uses fancy but necessary new terminology to provide a brief glossary at the end of the article rather than assuming an audience of five or ten who are up on the new terminology” (1).  Alan Purves also acknowledges the jargon heavy arguments, calling them confusing and denigrating to teachers and parents (211).  If indeed the threat against literary study does exist, and I believe it does to some extent, scholars need to open the club up to new and interested parties instead of closing it off to a select, highly educated few. 

While acknowledging the challenges in determining the fate of English Studies in an increasingly technological world, I still believe the aesthetic role of literature will never be eradicated.   There is merit in reading literature, just as there is merit in the mass culture and commercial entertainment suggested to be an overwhelming force against it.  For scholars such as Alan Purves, “enjoyment” is not a worthy enough cause to study literature.  Commenting on school literature he writes, “It is not supposed to be fun; it’s supposed to be a mental discipline.  Students are learning a disciplined way of reading, watching or listening and a disciplined way of talking, writing, or composing, which teachers believe—or someone believes—will help them later in life” (214).  His is a sad statement.  While reading literature does help one later in life, can it not be for enjoyment as well?  Besides, if a university level student does not enjoy learning, I fail to see how they will succeed in the scholastic career, let alone the area of expertise they choose.    The sage advice, “do what you love,” exists for a reason—if you do not enjoy something, not only will you be unhappy, but you probably won’t be very good at it.   With the vast areas of interest involved in Cultural studies, students will (in theory) have more options for courses and may pick and choose based on where interests lie.  Themed courses will bring to light a variety of texts and their relationship to culture, establishing connections leading to deeper understanding and greater knowledge.  


 

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. “Elegiac Conclusion.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 225-234. 

Booth, Wayne. “To the Future Editors of Critical Inquiry.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2003). Chicago. 3 Dec. 2007 <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/features/symposium03.shtml&gt;. 

Graff, Gerald. “Disliking Books At an Early Age.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 40-48. 

Hillis Miller, J. Critical Inquiry 30 (2003):  14. Chicago. 18 Nov. 2003 <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/features/symposium03.shtml&gt;. 

Marius, Richard. “Composition Studies.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992. 466-481. 

McQuade, Donald. “Composition and Literary Studies.” Redrawing the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1992. 482-519. 

Ohmann, Richard. “The Function of English At the Present Time.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 89-95. 

Purves, Alan. “Telling Our Story About Teaching Literature.” Falling Into Theory. Ed. David Richter. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin_ 2000. 211-217. 

Robinson, Lillian S. “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon.”