Saturday, October 13, 2007

Dreaming the Pines

Two men appreciating strong women makes for necessary reading in the New York Times Book Review this week: Joel Brouwer reviews Alice Notley's latest, In the Pines, while John Leonard writes with lyric intensity about Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, a soberly outraged new book about how we as a nation went insane after the attacks—written, as Leonard notes, from a rigorous feminist perspective that produces insight in direct proportion with its theoretical consistency:
Feminism — fierce, supple, focused, filigreed and chivalrous — has steered her inquiries and sensitized her apprehensions of a celebrity/media culture and national security state that honors men more as warriors, actors, cowboys, athletes and killers than for skilled labor, company loyalty, civic duty, steadfast fatherhood, homesteading, caretaking and community-building, and that tells women to lie down and shut up. Feminism, like a trampoline, has made possible this splendid provocation of a book, levitating to keep company with Hunter Thompson’s fear and loathing, Leslie Fielder’s love and death and Edmund Wilson’s patriotic gore.
A welcome mainstream endorsement of the power and truth-telling capacity of criticism sustained by latter-day Enlightenment values. Brouwer's review of Notley has less urgency to it, but he does astutely describe her as "a poet who persistently exceeds, or eludes, the sum of her associations"—as good an indicator as any of the majority of an artist (Ashbery can also be described this way). Plus he has the wit to quote much more of her verse than is usual in the Times' desultory treatments of poetry, to wit:
Whose mind are you? All of those I say. No one and my defect tells you nothing. When
your baby’s on the cooling board. Yes I’ve see that too.
You aren’t telling me anything.
The wind blew that way because it liked to.
No one will tell me where they’ve gone ...
We know a different language, for when the mind breaks. Or the oldest explanation of the failure to love her.
‘I knew you were in charge of me but my mind broke on its own.’
My mind is rubbed raw. The people who are in charge of me are happy.
A nice meaty quote like that means that readers can actually experience the process of thinking and writing that is uniquely Notley's. At the same time, Brouwer's description of this process, which follows the excerpt, is evocative of much that I find of worth in contemporary writing:
Notley suggests narrative linkages rather than enforcing them, working not by logic but by accretion, circularity and chance, calling to mind (to add a few more barnacles) the spontaneity of abstract expressionism, the intuitive transitions of free jazz, écriture féminine’s emphasis on nonlinear writing and, above all, since he was a strong early influence on Notley, Frank O’Hara’s exasperated wave of the hand in his 1959 faux-manifesto “Personism”: “You just go on your nerve.”
Any weekend O'Hara and Notley make it into the Book Review has to be a good weekend, and I'm looking forward to this one: some New York friends are in town and we're going to hang out with them downtown. It will be my first visit to the MCA and then we're going to see the new production of Stephen Sondheim's Passion at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, for which another friend of ours, Rob Berman, is the music director. Kulchur galore!

By the way: Cleveland really does rock. I had a very full twenty-four hours there in the delightful company of Sarah Gridley: we visited the West Side Market; strolled around the campus of Case Western Reserve, admiring the rippling Frank Gehry roofs on display there; taught a remarkably talented group of mixed grad and undergrad students in Sarah's poetry seminar (more precisely: Sarah taught, I kibbitzed); scurried across town to read together at John Carroll, where we were both introduced with extravagant generosity by the earnestly charming Philip Metres (pronounce his last name "MET-riss"); went to dinner at an excellent Brazillian restaurant, where we were joined by Michael Dumanis, fellow new-Chicagoan Joshua Marie Wilkinson, and our moment's most prolific younger poet, Noah Eli Gordon (the latter two had done a reading simultaneous with ours, alas; I would have liked to hear them—but I did get gifted with their collaborative book Figures for a Darkrom Voice); talked and drank till late; and bleary-eyed picked up amazing baked goods and coffee in Sarah's neighborhood before she drove me to the airport. One thing I liked about our reading is that we did a Q&A: I suspect many poetry audiences, and not only those composed mainly of students as this one was, would appreciate the opportunity to ask questions, and it was fun to try and answer them. Among other things it gives you a little bit of insight into the actual effect your words are having, and how narrow or wide the gap between your intention and the poem may be.

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