Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Relaxing today: a day off. Morning at the coffee shop with the dog; afternoon watching the rain and reading the first novel I've thoroughly enjoyed in a long, long time: Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. A novel that actually uses the form well to track dozens of characters through history writ small and large, with a not inconsiderable amount of usable wisdom about life. Plus the prose is gorgeous, ecstatic, crammed with detail: he's a great, Joycean list-maker. I've read Bellow before, years ago, but the books seemed dated and full of self-importance. Either this novel, his first, is very different, or I am. Lately I've been thinking about narrative, what it would be like to embark on a long one. Years ago I wrote most of a novel but the impulse has been evaporated since. The Severance Songs are approaching their conclusion (I'd like to stop somewhere between eighty and one hundred) and yes, I have a dissertation to write, but I do feel the itch to try something more sustained than fourteen lines. But what? I don't have that insatiable curiosity about people and places which I think is the prerequisite for the kind of straight fiction I most enjoy—that which evokes a world. (The last writer who provided me that kind of pleasure in any consistent way was Patrick O'Brian, which is why I enjoy this poem by Mairead Byrne so much.) I'm more likely to attempt something with a less absorptive linguistic surface. Carole Maso and Lydia Davis are inspiring in that regard, as is the work of my new patron Christian Bok. I devoured Eunoia in Arizona and I love the way he swing-dances with narrative while hacking (if "to hack" can become a verb belonging to the sublime) out his set pieces: orgies, sea-fights, trenchermen's contests. Saturated by way of restriction, his book also manages to create the illusion of being overstuffed with world. Bountifulness.

On the other side there's spareness, where I find myself inclined for solace these days. After yesterday's horror I was comforted, though not soothed, by the intelligent mirror of anguish provided by Michael Palmer's "Seven Poems Within a Matrix for War" from At Passages. (Yes, I'm mentioning patrons a lot—but how extraordinarily fortunate I am to be patronized, so to speak, by writers for whom my admiration was already vast.) Read them if you don't know them: they came out of the first Gulf War (the same war, really) and they extract and examine our complicity in these things in a away that leaves me clear- and wet-eyed at once. Poems more urgent and immediately useful than I once found them to be. Useful in another way is Kasey's Deer Head Nation, which he kindly sent me a copy of. It's a pure product of America that makes you feel less crazy, that helps you recognize the ravings of the White Mouse for what they are. Which is all, maybe, that you can ask from poetry, especially at a time like this.

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