Frankenstein in Baghdad (Saadawi)

For all of it epic ambition and scrawling scope, I am a big fan of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley made no small plans with her ghost story, and I respect that. It’s one of those classics that rewards re-reading and I thought this might make a nice pairing in class. Saadawi provides a smart twist on the creation of the creature or monster (depending on how you think of it), but he does not always seem confident about what to do with it. There are side plots here and various narrative techniques. Of course, there’s the omnipresent Americans.

This is a promising book, a Man Booker International Prize Finalist. Saadawi’s someone to watch. I think if he continues to have such intense and slightly strange ideas, but can explore them with more depth and nuance, there will be many great books in his future.

As for teaching it, it’s possible. There are a few explicit moments which don’t necessarily preclude me from using it in the classroom. I just thought they were gratuitous which was disappointing.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (Lockwood)

I admit. It was the title that first caught my eye. Then it was the back of the collection which features questions like What if a deer did porn? and Is it legal to marry a stuffed owl exhibit?

Ms. Lockwood had my attention.

The trouble was that, except for a few lines, I had very little idea of what was going on in many of these poems. “The Third Power” is a favorite. “Rape Joke,” like the title, will make you wince, but you cannot and should not look away. “The Hypno-Domme Speaks, and Speaks and Speaks” is a powerful way to end the collection.

So I am not at all saying don’t read this. Lockwood’s language is admirably unafraid. I am saying that when you do read it, let’s discuss it. There’s something unique and necessary here, I am sure of it. I just could not discover much of it alone.

“The Hypno-Domme Speaks, and Speaks and Speaks”

According to the NEW YORKER, she’s known as the poet laureate of Twitter.

The Unconsoled (Ishiguro)

For Father’s Day, I asked our son to select a book that we’d read and discuss together. Fresh off of an obsession, he called me over to the computer to see a book that was described as “Kafka-like.” Now I like Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece; Never Let Me Go is overrated, but good. This one, I’d heard, was quite difficult. But he wanted to try it.

Well, I was right and so was the computer. It is difficult and it is Kafkaesque. But we plugged along, about 30 pages at a time, trying to make sense of Ishiguro’s surreal world in an unnamed city. We began, over time, to see some patterns, to watch characters develop, but were shaky about what it was all going to add up to.

There are many compelling set pieces here. Ryder playing the piano while Brodsky buries his dog. Gustav doing the porter’s dance on top of table one last time. Ryder finding a wall where he least expected it. But I think you’d have to be a real Ishiguro fan to jump into this one. I certainly saw some thematic connections with The Remains of the Day – an obsession with perfection, for example – and that helped open up some things for me.

The last scene is pretty compelling, and we’ve been going back and forth about it for a few days now. So even though I did not like the book, I loved the experience of reading with my son.

The Street Kids (Pasolini)

The challenge of picaresque novels is that they have to end. The form Pasolini chose here matches the content. The kids he describes, almost always boys, are drifting through life – through money, through sexual experiences, through families, through encounters with the police, through everything. There are signs that there is some thinking about the future. One gets engaged. Another tries to take a serious job. But nothing lasts. Nihilism reigns supreme.

These kinds of stories can’t add up to much because that would defy their purpose – to be plotless. Not surprisingly then, even with the allure that this one was banned, things just get dull after a while. There’s an ending of sorts and it comes across as random as it is inevitable. If you are interested in the history of Italian literature or the kind of Rome that tourists do not see, then pick it up. Otherwise, it’s just not worth it.

Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee)

I read another of Coetzee’s novels a while back. I am pretty sure it was Disgrace. That I can’t say for sure tells you what I thought about it. It’s not that I thought it was bad – just unmemorable. Maybe I needed to age into his work. Maybe this one is better. Either way. . . wow.

Coetzee’s prose is impeccable. He doesn’t write sentences; he sculpts them. And he does so very efficiently. This proves that you don’t need to write an epic in terms of page count to write in epic in terms of meaning. There is a familiar frame here – that of an empire on the decline, one that can’t help but remind me of where the United States is today. But that proves to be only the outside layer of the onion.  Coetzee slowly and subtly reveals the many other connotations of empire and domination, and he does so on both personal and political levels. And he does so honestly. No one, not even the narrator, is spared. We are all complicit in empire especially, here and in life, men.

The last 20 or so pages turn this from a very good book to a new member of my top 10. A sample from those final pages:

What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

Gorgeous and true. And if you’re reading this on July 30th, the truth of it is borne out by the headlines. Heaven help us all.

What’s the next Coetzee I should read?

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (Barry)

I picked this up in the spirit of the cliche about what happens to those who don’t study history. For the most part, I think Barry does a good job here. I got a bit bogged down by some of the scientific explanations, but that’s probably more about me than him. The similarities to current events run throughout the book. I was struck most by the sections on the evolution of the study of medicine and Woodrow Wilson’s drastic change of mind (influenced, Barry strongly suggests, by an attack of influenza) that led to him abandoning his principles and supporting the Treaty of Versailles. (This treaty, I am convinced, led to World War II. I am not alone in this.)

The problem here – and it grew increasingly irritating as the narrative unfolded – is that Barry doesn’t trust his material. I don’t mean the evidence which I found persuasive. I mean, he doesn’t seem to think that we get the power of what he’s saying. Sometimes he italicizes things for us. He’s almost obsessed with the use of the one-sentence paragraph to end a section or a chapter. There are whole sections that seem like exercises in self-indulgence. We get that people were afraid. We get that people dismissed what was happening as “only influenza.” Where was the editor???

So having read only this account, I can’t say that it’s the best account of the 1918 epidemic. I can’t imagine that it’s the worst. I do know that it would not have lost its power if it had been about 30 pages shorter. I was tempted to cross out sentences, even sections, as I read, and that frustration definitely made me lose focus on Barry’s account.

The Tradition (Brown)

Whatever you think of literary prizes, how they are chosen, who chooses them, etc., I am grateful that the Pulitzer committee chose this one because it deserves all of the attention that accompanies such an award, and more; it is that good. There’s not one single missed note. These poems are as compact and well-constructed as any I’ve ever encountered. Whether he’s demonstrating the power of the duplex form or using free verse, Brown’s words may not be sharp – and there is no shouting here – but his poems are punches, body blows. I’m going to have to use a long quotation from “Riddle” to try to demonstrate:

We do not know the history

Of this natiion in ourselves. We

Do not know the history of our-

Selves on this planet because

We do not have to know what

We bel;ive we own. We believe

We own your bodies but have no

Use for your ttears. We destroy

The body that refuses use. We use

Maps we did not draw. We see

A sea  so cross it. We see a moon

So land there. We love land so

Long as we can take it.

If you read poetry, you probably already know. If you don’t, this is where to begin. Or return. This is what words can do.

Once Upon a River (Campbell)

I’m not sure why I kept this book on my shelf so long. I loved American Salvage so much that I think maybe I feared a sophomore slump. I shouldn’t have worried. This is another great book. It was a write-up in my college alumni magazine that made me pull it off the shelf. Apparently, a movie has been made, so I had to read it before I saw any images from the movie. And now I can’t wait for it.

This book, like Campbell’s earlier one, is a story of a world that I do not know. Her descriptions and characters are so evocative that I feel like I would know them and their river if I was ever lucky enough to find them (though I would not want to encroach upon their world).

This is, on the surface, the story of a journey, both personal and practical, but Campbell uses the conventional framework only to twist it a bit, like a slightly unexpected turn in the river, not to shock us, but to reveal some truths about people and the way they choose to live their lives, and what they learn along the way. Margo Crane (I admit I kept picturing Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone) has a journey to take and there are, as you might expect, stops along the way, both expected and surprising. You’d be unwise to let the serenity of the river or the fairy tale-like title fool you; there is real violence here. None of it is gratuitous, and Margo’s responses to it – even her own choices – are compelling.

And because I read it now, during the pandemic, I wondered if these people would wear masks. I think Michael would. I think Smoke wouldn’t, but his nieces would. I think, however reluctantly, Fishbone would.

I enjoyed not knowing how Campbell would find her way to ending of Margo’s journey, even if it only turns out that it is a temporary one. That’s not to say that I am longing for a sequel. Margo, in my mind, may move on. (Note to author: I would welcome a sequel.) The final image of the book is perfect, one of my favorites of all time.

How A Poem Moves: A Field Guide for Readers of Poetry (Sol)

The subtitle with the cover to support suggests the light touch Sol will take with this project, and this approach serves him quite well.

A digression: When I was in college, we had been assigned to start reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I came to class all fired up, passages marked, questions ready and so on. The first question from the professor: What did you notice in the Table of Contents?

The Table of Contents? Who notices the Table of Contents, except perhaps as a way of making sure you’re completing the reading assignment properly? I paged backwards as our professor made her point about the way the different names Malcolm gave himself throughout life would say something about his personal and political evolution.

Since then, I do not overlook the Table of Contents. And Sol’s is great. The titles of his essays set the stage for this inviting book – “How a Poem Tries to Connect Us, Despite,” “How a Poem Seduces Us with Outlandishness,” etc.. And Sol is making his Table of Contents an invitation deliberately. He knows people have to be invited (back?) to poetry because it can be intimidating.

In these short essays, he revels in exploring poems from books he read as a juror for a poetry prize. He’s having fun here, clearly and carefully not saying as much as he knows, but saying enough, asking enough – again, he’s welcoming us. These are essays of enticement. And I love the wide range of poetry he covers. I made notes of several authors whose work I will pursue.

If I have quibbles, they are minor. I wish there had been a way to locate the poems in each essay in a way that would prevent the disruption of having to flip the pages back and forth to connect his commentary to the poems themselves. I can picture what I’m after, but I’m sure it would be difficult and expensive to execute. The other adjustment I longed for is one that could be more easily accomplished – and I’ve made this note about other collections before. Order has to matter. Otherwise, it’s just essay after essay after essay. In a few of the final ones, Sol himself seems to acknowledge this with frequent references to essays that are elsewhere in the book. Sections like, “Poems that Nod to a Form” could have served him well, I think.

In his conclusion, Sol comments that he noticed, as he was revising the book, that he used the word ‘delight’ a lot. That’s fine with me. That’s part of what makes its spirit so engaging and contagious. I also appreciated another idea that he laid out explicitly once and used consistently throughout the essays – that of being in the “vicinity” of the truth. I think that’s the ideal approach to poetry – to life, in fact. It’s the search that we should treasure and we should relish the pursuit.

From Nicaragua with Love (Cardenal)

I am glad I read the letters exchanged between Cardenal and Thomas Merton first (my review of their collected correspondence) because it gave me some insights into Ernesto Cardenal, the poet-priest. I don’t think I’d ever encountered a poet-priest before and I admit I was surprised both in the letters and here about how human he was. In “Apparition at Hamburg,” he is a reminded of a girl he “let go.” Again, it’s likely just my inexperience with priests, but I just didn’t expect that.

I loved and will treasure this edition from City Lights because of the directness of Cardenal’s manner. I don’t want that to be confused with simple. He just lays it out for you in careful and well-chosen and well-placed words. These are poems to read slowly. The space and the quiet are there for you to contemplate them while you’re reading them. His criticisms of capitalism are pointed, evocative, and, I think, absolutely right. We have, as he says in “Visit to Weimar (GDR),” engaged in “[c]apitalist economy to the point of madness.” He also comments on the price of bras and empty shelves at a grocery store.

In addition to capitalism, Cardenal has sharp words for its cousin, the media. “Among Facades” and “Room 5600” are subtly scathing. “Among Facades” has now entered my teaching repertoire.

Despite the incredibly difficult things he describes including “A Museum in Kampuchea,” a poem about a school that Pol Pot turned into “the biggest prison in Cambodia,” Cardenal is often able to find beauty. When he and his group leave the museum, he says, “[t]here were flowers outside. / In a clean puddle a white duck fluttered / bathing itself in the water and sun.”

Given the letters I read, it was not surprising to find Cardenal on the side of the revolutionaries, in “solidarity with Boliva, with El Savador,” for example (see “Founding for the Latin American Association for Human Rights”). His encompassing view of the revolution is what I find inspiring. At the end of “New Ecology,” he says, “The humans weren’t the only ones who longed for liberation. The whole ecology had been moaning. The Revolution also belongs to lakes, rivers, trees, animals.” And, in “Economic Brief,” he turns the notion of capitalism on its head and ties it to revolution. He writes: “the thing is now what’s economic is poetic, or rather, with the Revolution, the economy amounts to love.”

That’s my kind of economy; that’s my kind of Revolution.