Rumpus Blog

Seriously Serious

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Over at the Paris Review, Jason Novak has taken up the pen again; this time, he’s turned to authors and their eccentricities. Among his observations:

“Somewhere Hemingway is sitting quietly at his desk. Pouring another bull. And fighting another drink.”

Other targets include Don DeLillo, Jane Austen, Hegel, Nabokov, Heidegger, and the state of Publishing itself.

Can Poptimism Save Literary Culture?

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Literary criticism suffers from elitism, claims Elisabeth Donnelly over at Flavorwire, and the solution is introducing a poptimism revolution. The term poptimism originated in the music world as a reaction to stodgy music reviewers’ love of Bob Dylan and “argues for a more inclusive view of what matters and what’s pleasurable in music.” Donnelly insists that book reviewers and literary culture could stand to benefit from a wider audience by embracing popular books. Rather than shunning writers like Jennifer Weiner and books like Fifty Shades of Grey, these should be brought into the fold expanding the literary community:

Immersion in “literary” culture, the cycle of writing criticism and having your work be the subject of other writers’ criticism, is often boring half the time, and far too often irrelevant. A vital literary culture needs to move beyond just getting off on its own erudition and figuring out the pleasures of a sharply written plot or searing dialogue. Some of that can be found beyond the borders of what’s considered critically important.

Profile of “Pangaeic” Writer David Mitchell

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Fans of Cloud Atlas, a sextet of sweeping stylistic range, know well that Granta-recognized author David Mitchell has a knack for mimesis. But they may not know that he is also “uncommonly good at imitating nonhuman noises.” In anticipation of his new “psychovoltaic” novel, The Bone Clocks, Catherine Schultz walks with him through the Irish countryside as he discusses turning young adult “stew” into serious literature, dropping coins into the “slot called plot,” and writing using Google Maps.

And if you missed it, be sure to hear him talk about autism, family, and child prodigies in this Daily Show interview.

Making Art and Being an Artist

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When does an artist get to be called an artist? Anne Truitt explored the labels in her diary seven years in the making, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist. Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings looks at Truitt’s work and the “existential discomfort” at facing her life’s retrospective. Truitt wrote:

The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories.

Examining the Ordinary

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Stephan Eirik Clark, author of a new novel about artificial sweeteners, Sweetness #9, discusses his fascination with Don DeLillo’s White Noise over at The Atlantic:

White Noise, though—it was something more. It was getting at what I’d always wanted to get. It was full of American yearning, a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for the 20th Century. It held up everything for examination, even the supermarket.

And so after I read Fast Food Nation and began to become intensely curious about the role artificial flavorings and other food additives play in our lives, it was only natural that I would reach for White Noise and re-read its opening before typing the first lines of my debut novel.

Broke and Broken

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Saeed Jones published a book of poems, Prelude To Bruise. Over at Buzzfeed, he’ll tell you why he wrote them, too:

“My mother had a fatal heart attack the night before Mother’s Day in 2011. The experience of losing her broke me down. I quit my job teaching high school English and pretty much locked myself in my apartment for a while, writing poems and crying hysterically. One morning, I woke up with tear streaks dried on my face. I think I’d been crying in my sleep which my mother herself used to do.”

Jones also talks about loss, ethnicity, and the incongruities of having “a black man literally fall from the sky and land in the middle of a cotton field”.

The Scale of Maps

The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui

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The most indispensable writer of the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges, included a short story about a mythic map in A Universal History of Infamy. The story is about one hundred words long and concerns a “Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” The map is impractical and the imperial advisors discard it. In the end, both the discarded map and the incomplete story are cast as Ozymandias-type fragments:

In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Cartography as quixotic undertaking is also a theme of the indelible first novel of Belén Gopegui, a Madrid-based writer. The Scale of Maps, owing partly to its short, honed chapters, is brisk, taut storytelling. Its protagonist-narrator, Sergio Prim, describes his unusual love affair with another cartographer, his troubles at work, and the metaphysical debates he has with other mapmakers. Throughout the novel he openly questions both his own psychological reliability and ability to handle human relationships. At times, he clearly fabricates conversations and events. This novel of ideas never feels contrived or schematic.

As in Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances or John Lanchester’s great The Debt to Pleasure, the first-person narrator is mad, and his madness defamiliarizes the banal rituals of intimacy. Throughout the novel, Sergio Prim, a quixotic mapmaker in the Borgesian tradition, makes repeated claims for the explanatory power of myth, abstraction, and non-empirical truths. As a geographer and as a madman, he blurs the line between sign and referent.

It leads Sergio to produce off-kilter flourishes like this: “I have always liked examining people’s topographical features, catching them unawares as they rest their hands in a moment of inattention, their sonorous and pensive profile or their black moustache, their dark tragedy.”

Belén Gopegui

Belén Gopegui

The reader comes to realize that the narrator’s intellectualism is a self-defense mechanism. He describes himself this way: “I am Albania. My natural climate is temperate, it is composed of scraps of unsanitary plains, rugged plateaus, and a collection of abrupt mountains. In my republic, we practice the autarchy of retreat: production for the purpose of self-sufficiency and to protect ourselves from foreign influence.”

Sergio is preoccupied by a theory of the “hollow”—a negative space that gives order and meaning to his life. As a geographer, he compares it to the time before maps, before the first world map created by Anaximander, when the world was “exaggerated and self-absorbed.” He is paralyzed by doubt, though no less loquacious for it: “Circumstances always get the better of men. I completely understand those admirals who never manage to engage a single ship in battle, who fight the elements their whole lives long.”

The woman that the protagonist pines for is Brezo Varla, whose smile “is as wide as a gong.” Here, Gopegui, a committed Marxist, is playing some of the same post-modern name games that have come down to us through Pynchon. In Spanish, “Brezo” means “to fall asleep,” and Varla is the name of a 19th-century priest in Cuba whose name has been taken up by an organization calling for political reform there.

Shafer’s translation recreates the humor and intelligence of Gopegui’s novel. The Spaniard’s humor is distinctly literary, always specific, and never condescending. By taking up the evocative language of geography—its “errors in scale,” the “architects of utopias”—Gopegui runs the risk of dull metaphor, but her narrative instincts are sharp enough to avoid that pitfall. Instead, gratefully, Brezo or Dona Elena, Sergio’s supervisor, are wry foils to Sergio’s grand theories.

At one point, Sergio Prim tells Brezo, “Don’t believe anything because, at the least, you will be protecting a sensitive, almost liquid, shifting, and turbulent system that is somewhat mysteriously called your sense of humor.”

The novelists Roberto Bolaño and Francisco Umbral and the critic Idoya Puig are not alone in placing Gopegui among the finest Spanish-language writers working today. After The Scale of Maps made a splash on the Spanish-language literary scene in 1993, she went on to write over ten other novels, including The Conquest of the Air (1998) and The Father of White (2007), though unfortunately only The Scale of Maps is available in English. She shares some of the rueful tone and brazen stylistic improvisations of her contemporaries, Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marias, but her work has taken much longer to find its way into Anglophone bookstores.

In an interview in El Mundo, Gopegui asked which of her books to start with and she answered The Scale of Maps, “if you are interested in the possibility of intervening and changing reality.” Perhaps a translator is churning out pages of her other celebrated novels as I write. The Scale of Maps is a rapturous and dazzling achievement, and I, for one, am waiting impatiently for the opportunity to read more of Gopegui.

Collecting John Updike’s Trash

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Paul Moran began collecting John Updike’s trash in 2006, three years before the writer’s death. He found discarded photos, story drafts, and honorary degrees. The acquisition of curbside trash seems perfectly legal in Massachusetts, even if Updike and his wife took measures to dissuade Moran’s efforts. Nevertheless, the discarded material represents a legacy Updike either thought unimportant or wished to discard. The Atlantic explores Moran’s collection including a call to jury duty and residuals checks from The Simpsons, and what it means for writers to craft their posthumous legacy.

Goodbye for now…and new at the Sunday Rumpus helm…

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Dear amazing Rumpus tribe—

This September marks my third anniversary as the editor of The Sunday Rumpus. These three years have included some of the true highlights of my 17 years as an editor—from being able to interview one of my lifelong literary heroes, Margaret Atwood, to introducing the work of many writers whose essays have now graced The Rumpus numerous times, such as Jennifer Pastiloff and Emily Rapp…and whose back to back pieces will, at the end of September, also mark the end of my time as a Rumpus editor. I have to tell you: it’s very hard to say goodbye.

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Notable NYC: 8/30–9/5

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Monday 9/1: Todd Colby and Adam Fitzgerald read poetry. Fitzgerald’s The Late Parade explores phantom memories. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.

Tuesday 9/2: Adam Wilson and Justin Taylor, literary best friends, talk about their story collections. Flings (August 2014) is Taylor’s includes a menagerie of unmoored characters struggling to find their place. Wilson’s What’s Import is Feeling (February 2014) includes funny stories about bankers trying to act like hipsters and lobsters used as sex toys. McNally Jackson, 7 p.m., free.

Isabel Gillies and John Searles discuss Starry Night (September 2014), a novel about a mysterious wind. B&N 82nd Street, 7 p.m., free.
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There THere

There, There by George Higgins

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There, There, George Higgins’s first collection of poems, is a search for that something more, that something that was promised: justice, equality, progress, and truth. The speaker seeks this promise through seeing, defending, and distinguishing. His is made among family members, The Constitution is cited, and poetry, that earnest genre, tries its damnedest to name.

Seeing is practice, both literal and figurative; it is personal and political, a practice for him as both poet and lawyer. We glimpse at the origins—parents, ancestors, prisoners, judges, and poetic traditions—comprising this poet. Sometimes they deny each other. For example, In “Reading Hayden’s Frederick Douglass to the Alleged Dealers,” the speaker shares a poem by one of his favorite authors, Robert Hayden, but the accused won’t give the lawyer their attention, even after he’s bought them ties and showed them how to make the loops and turns. These tensions and operatives abound in Higgins’s work.

The cover of There, There works perfectly. Many covers seem to serve as a setting snapshot or a mood evocation, but Higgins’s does more. He chooses one of Dorothea Lange’s photographs from her Oakland, California, public defender series. Black and white, that familiar contrast, lends itself to multifarious interpretation—racially, historically, thematically, photographically, you name it. Squares upon squares dominate this image, framing the public defender and the accused. The defender’s eyes face us. His pressed-shirt shoulders lean in. Both defender and accused rest their arms on a desk, another rectangle—more lines in a harsh white glare. The public defender’s mouth is still. We know he has or will explain and counsel, but for now he listens. Prison bars partly obscure the NO SMOKING sign on the door. Right there, NO is on the vertical axis, opposing the affirmation of justice and rights. To defend is to ward off, protect, keep safe, but also to hinder, begging the question, Who and what are hindered? Public is for us, pertaining to a community as a whole.

So, too, the bars in Lange’s photograph look like a grid, a form that contains. Like a society contains a man in prison but not necessarily the problem, a poem cannot truly contain a subject. It’s bars we see through, an imperfect perspective–not the whole yet decidedly better than a cement box.

“After Another Execution”

I read on a slip of paper at dinner tonight that
You must empty yourself before God may enter
so I emptied myself and found
the bottom of a lake bed
caked with sticky mud
next to a sign that said
do not swim.
Under a covering of mulch
the reflection of the stars
disappeared into the blackness.
I no longer want to reconcile myself to grief;
I’ll sit with this thing tonight.
Let it crack the bowls, break the windows out.
I am weary of running away.

The lines in the middle empty out. It bottoms out right at “do not swim.” The opening long lines do not return till “I not longer want to reconcile myself to grief.” After the plea for help, the speaker takes the advice. He does the hard work. It takes a long time for those signs to appear, as that place has been bad for his health for a long time. No longer lost but found in muck and hazard, a mess witnessed under starlight. Higgins repeats the negative and not like the NO on the cover. Here is not what he can do but what the public defender cannot do: stop the execution. So he sits there in the lake bottom or the church, not really there, there. Grief and everything else that cannot be prevented can just destroy everything around him. He has the courage to watch it and feel.

What can a public defender show us about a newborn’s startle reflex? Spreading the arms is like being arrested for what you did not do, a separation from security, an alarm, a cry from the innocent. A public defender holds a life in his charge. He’s often the only one in the courtroom and the meeting room doing so, always wishing he could do more and searching: “To have been there an hour before/And instead of allowing you to watch/ to have walked you up the riverbed/ to your parents’ home/ through the thickets of flashy palms,/ to have held you by the shoulder/ And left you at their door/ That would be defending” (“Defending Sweet”). No one to hold. Nothing held.

I recently served four days on a federal jury. My must-stay-in-juror-room steno pad teemed with witness statements and their body language, especially that of the defendant, who never took the stand. Mostly, though, I couldn’t take my ears off the public defender. What was she telling me with those fired-off questions that went unanswered? The little things that were never settled but stayed with me, creating their own reality? The consensus theory is truth agreed upon by a group. Say, a jury. It was a reminder again of that timeless dilemma: How are we to distinguish the truth? As lawyer, as a juror, as poet? I have not gained any significant insight since I was assigned that question for a high school paper two decades ago. Higgins has, though.

In “Notes,” the accused hands his defender what he has remembered of the events: “For the first time the lawyer really looks at them,/ the notes, on the lined, school boy paper written in pencil in a careful hand./ The lawyer doesn’t need them/ but holds them in his arms.” The speaker stops himself. He “really looks at them.” The “careful hand” and “school boy paper” return us to elementary school when the accused paid attention and cared, when some teacher had not given up on him. Also, the moment nods to father-son tenderness. The investment of the faraway past and the immediate past in the cell reconcile. There is no sense that any of this care will matter because “the lawyer doesn’t need them.” When so much is out of our control, when verdicts seem certain and doomed, we hold onto something or someone. For a lawyer and poet in this moment, of course it is paper and pencil—“notes” of the promise for something more and better.

There are many fathers and sons in There, There. Literal, yes, but also the accused with their public defenders, poet-teachers from the New York School, and also the go-to rhythms and God of the King James Bible and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Higgins thanks Robert Hayden first. Recall that Hayden was the first African-American to be appointed as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (later changed to Poet Laureate). Auden taught Hayden at the University of Michigan; Hayden then taught Higgins at the same place. We can see Auden’s great love for Gerard Manley Hopkins in Higgins’s work: that dedication to prosody, to varied techniques, and off-rhyme. That is there with the villanelle, triolet, ghazal, but mostly the sonnet. The surfaces are not perfect—again, bars we see through. Hayden’s Americans are “élan vital,” “some thing,” an “essence.” Strict form with violent subject matter—the tension between address and contain.

In the remaining sestet of “Let Go,” a Petrarchan sonnet, Higgins writes:

What follows is our walk across the berm,
the blessedness of knowing that she’s lost
herself in momentary clarity.
We also observe that what we’ve done has cost
us a trip to find the string, the tail we
think are lost. What’s missing here we can’t confirm.

The end rhymes of lost/cost and clarity/we heightens what is not there and what is unsettled. No we. What is missing? That more that is promised in life, on the job, if we just try a little harder and have faith. The speaker wonders if that mythology, that passed-down way of thinking leads to loss. Nothing adores paradox and juxtaposition like a sonnet.

What will remain is what I’m feeling now,
The rising and the falling of my chest,
the hum that’s undefined inside my ear,
perhaps a drop of thankfulness. The Tao
repeats: count syllables, which beat is stressed?
It’s not the words, it’s what you hear. (“The Tao”)

Note the un- again in this sestet. It is undefined like unspecified. The opposites, rising/falling, repeat/remain, and not the words/what was heard do not reveal a path, only more negation.

“There’s no there, there” is a misinterpreted Gertrude Stein line about Oakland. It usually means there’s no culture or soul in a place. People have said this about Detroit and Oakland, both homes to Higgins. Higgins debunks this time over, from a hospital in Motown, to a bar where his father bought Billie Holiday a drink, to the sixth grade Lady Bobcats basketball game, to Oakland High, to Cesar Chavez Park. You can’t have people without soul, and struggle and art can’t exist without soul.

“Aneurysm”

Seven hundred miles away one of the nurses ran a phone line to his bed:
I’m holding the receiver next to his ear. The docent in the Heard Museum tells us
about the ceramic bowls of the Mogollon, placed facedown
over the head of the deceased, sometimes in layers of four
as though they were the dome of the sky and its four layers,
each bowl pierced with a kill hole through which the soul ascends.

When I researched the Mogollon tribe’s burial rites, I saw that the bowl is “killed” with the center hole to symbolize the fatal wound. The potter’s soul can then accompany the dead. People live on in their kin. They do so genetically but also spiritually. Death and Birth in a wheel, around and around like a making a ceramic bowl. The long lines are akin to distance: reaching out like phone lines between father and son. Seven hundred miles is nothing for souls. I love it when a poet gives me the option to look things up but doesn’t demand it for interpretation and enjoyment of his own poem. The poems succeed either way.

The most important question in There, There is, What is the there of origins? Of prison? Hayden concludes “[American Journal],” “A quiddity I cannot penetrate or name.” What is the poem but a pointing to a place, a making of a place to sense? In these 53 poems, Higgins offers some frame to make it seem navigable and seeable.

Again from the Ground Up

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Before the mid-1970’s, Somalia had no written alphabet to speak of. In 1972, the Somali government introduced a standard written alphabet, and literacy rates climbed from a measly 5% to nearly 60%. Unfortunately, as an effect of the civil war, literacy rates dropped below 30% at the turn of the century.

Hargeisa, Somaliland—once known as the “cultural hub” of the Somali Republic—just wrapped up its annual Hargeisa Book Fair: an attempt to bring art and literacy back into the public sphere.

“Funny Women” Art Show

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Near the bottom of every Funny Women piece is the note, “Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.” We believe in combining hilarious content with a strong aesthetic while promoting artists with ovaries. For a year, Annie’s reliably created beautiful illustrations to make women’s writing and jokes prettier.

For those of you in the Bay Area or with friends/family/ex-lovers in the Bay Area, Annie is showing her Rumpus-inspired art at the Glama-Rama Salon & Gallery on 6399 Telegraph Ave in Oakland until Sept. 28. (more…)

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This Week in Short Fiction

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On Tuesday, Tony Earley released a new collection of stories, Mr. Tall. Two decades have passed since Earley’s debut collection, Here We Are in Paradise, and though he has released two novels and a memoir since that time, for short fiction addicts (and lovers of southern writing), the publication of a new book of stories is big news. Reading the stories of Mr. Tall is something like that moment when Max Mercy realizes that the older Roy Hobbs wearing the Knights jersey in the batter’s box is the same kid who struck out the Whammer at the beginning of The Natural. Translation: time has passed, but Earley’s still got the magic and a lot of wisdom to go with it.
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Notable Chicago: 8/29—9/4

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Friday 8/29: After Hours is a literary magazine that publishes writing and art by Chicagoans, even ones who once lived here but then made the insane decision to move away. The magazine is celebrating issue #29 at The Book Cellar, 7 p.m.

D. Bryant Simmons continues her area tour in support of her novel How to Knock a Bravebird from Her Perch at Women and Children First Books. Refreshments are always served at these readings, so consider going to one of the few feminist bookstores in the country. 7:30 p.m.

Saturday 8/30: Myopic Books Poetry Series continues in earnest with special guests Luis Humberto Valadez and Philip Jenks. 7 p.m. (more…)

Properly Blootered

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The New Republic has taken the task of dissecting our collective drunkenness; or at least the words we’ve used to describe it:

There seems to be a universal trend to avoid stating the obvious. To describe someone as simply drunk, in drink, or in liquor is accurate but evidently uninspiring. One fruitful vein is to find terms that characterize drunken appearance (owl­eyed, pie­eyed, cock­eyed, lumpy, blue, lit) or behaviour, especially erratic movement (slewed, bumpsy, reeling ripe, tow­ row, rocky, on one’s ear, zigzag, tipped, looped) or lack of any movement at all (stiff, paralytic). Another is mental state, such as being muddled (fuddled, muzzed, queer, woozy), elated (high­flown, wired, pixilated), or worn down (whittled, half­shaved, rotten, crocked, the worse for wear).

David Crystal bounces across lexical beginnings, from the oferdrunken, to the indruncen, to, worse yet, the dryncweric.

All Are Bad

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We’ve all read at least one: from “Against YA” to “Against Happiness,” essays that promise to dismiss entire abstract concepts using only rhetoric make for great click-bait. In The New Yorker, Ivan Kreilkamp explains why we keep overstating the case:

“Against [X]” is a symptom of a liberal culture’s longing to escape its own strictures; it’s the desire of thoughtful and nuanced people to shed their inhibitions and issue fearsome dicta. We feel that we must be fair and evenhanded in our prose, but in our titles we can fly a pirate’s flag.

Her Book

Her Book by Éireann Lorsung

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So much of written culture has been, as the first poem in this visionary collection calls it, “Speaking a thin, permanent/archive. What we call a woman,” that women writers have quite a task. They must work towards creating their own identity, and their own lives and art, amid the swirl of ideas, conventions, and confinements imposed by others and by themselves. The intense focus of such ambition can lead to an intense self-centeredness.

Her Book by Éireann Lorsung offers an alternative: poems that explore what is “female” from various perspectives, as the poet works toward her own subject and voice. Yet Her Book’s focus on friendship and community singles it out; at least half of the poems are dedicated to other women, and many of them narrate with a collective “we” that appears to be women as a group—exploring together, experiencing together, making things. In these ways, Lorsung both expresses, and reaches out to, a community of women, rather than simply forwarding her own artist self.

We see this right away with the first section of the book, “Fifteen Poems for Kiki Smith,” which is dedicated to, and inspired by, another woman artist. You don’t have to know Smith’s visual art in order to get the power of these poems (though you will probably become curious about it). Smith’s images spark Lorsung into poems that sound authentic and earned, and the imagery is powerfully clear.

The first poem, “Revelation,” is an eye-opener. It immediately places us within the mind of a speaker whose perspective can’t be denied:

From inside all this hair I can see you.

The body on the ground,
on its own, is resurrection. Female,

that’s a question of creation.
. . . . . .

How clever a first line this is, its own directness nearly conceals. The poem’s speaker claims to be “seeing,” not just looking at, the reader, which encourages us to try to do the same. Who is the subject here? Who the viewer? Is neither the object? Already, the artistic ground trembles beneath our feet.

The three lines following the first introduce some of the poet’s interests—the body, nature, creativity, gender—all within tightly crafted, casually brilliant, lines. For example, the line “Female, that’s a matter of creation,” refers to the physical matter of the body but also to the self-creation each person must handle for herself. Such nuanced word usage characterizes Her Book—Lorsung says a lot in one or two phrases that allow for several interpretations.

The poems throughout the book are written mostly in tightly crafted, incisive free verse with varying stanza arrangements, mingled with some prose poems, as well as hybrid poems that feature both. All of them have an organic feel, the line and stanza breaks emerging out of images and speech. Though there might be not obvious music to the poems (e.g., rhyme and meter), Lorsung achieves lyrical effects through the use of repetition such as anaphora, litany, assonance, consonance, and with the personas’ and poems’ different speech rhythms. She uses lists in a number of poems, which suits Her Book as a kind of alternate archive. That is, objects, notions, names, conventionally “female” activities, even colors and designs sometimes associated with women and girls, are scattered throughout, like bits of history in a memory book. From these bits and pieces, as well as from her own thinking about, and experiences around, them, the poet synthesizes as well as collects.

One example is “Girl with Chain,” which explores a chain of associations and assumptions:

Girl with part in her hair.

Girl with downward glance.
Girl with tiny Adam’s apple.

Girl with shoulders gently.

Girl with generalized flower pattern.
Girl with stomacher.

Girl with late 18th century.

Girl with exposed.
Girl with blue ground.

Girl with fog.

Girl with platemark.
Girl with fourteen doubles.

Girl with Hahnemüle.

Girl with mottling.
Girl with linen, lines.

In contrast to “Revelation,” this poem describes a looking-at that is objectifying and generalizing. “Girl with downward glance” might allude to paintings and conventions about the proscribed modesty of women. “Girl with shoulders gently,” a tender observation, still indicates a painterly gaze as well as the recommended “gentleness” for females in many societies. These contrast with “Girl exposed”—a product of Realism and the taboo, and a subject more vulnerable, and possibly sexual. Objects paired with the girls carry important connotations; if you didn’t know (I didn’t), a “stomacher” is a decorative pattern in a bodice; “Hahnemüle” from what I can find online, is a kind of artist paper dating back several centuries. “Girl with Chain” presents a “thin” archive of depictions of women through the ages in art.

—Until that last line. Lorsung surprises us by moving from “linen”—associated with clothing and domestic fabric—to “lines,” the poem’s last word. “Lines” might refer to the “girls” in the lines of this poem, as well as to the poet herself, writing lines that are her own. The poem both acknowledges the “chain” and moves beyond it. The burden of this archive of depictions on a woman writer, how it both links to her and holds her back, is conveyed with simplicity and cunning in this apparently straightforward poem.

Another poem, “It falls into ruin by its own weight,” takes on a collective voice that indicates some violent aggression:

Let’s punish all those women.

Let’s punish them hard.
Let’s make it so their babies

fall out of them

like red splotches
and their bodies are open

to whatever invasion we choose.

Let’s show those women
they can’t be trusted

with the frangible innards

we’ve taken so much time
to cultivate.

Let’s haul out of them bodies

what we came for,
new stock, new

civilization.

Is the “us” who speak here a community of hostile women talking about other women whom they judge harshly? A group of misogynists? Some other group discussing the punishment of Eve (and all women) after her disobedience? This is a poem whose interpretation is best left to readers, but it’s a powerful perspectival flip.

“Dowry Cloth” describes a cloth made painfully and deliberately: “We made this cloth from our skins./We pulled out our own hair carefully/from the roots/and threaded needles with it,” as the true cost of the “dowry” becomes painfully obvious:

We took the left-over, the uneaten,

the throw-away, the heretical,

the disgusting, the idolatrous, the dregs,
detritus, dross, the junk no one

but us would want, we took that

and our hard labor
and our bodies

and made you this.

This poem leads us to think about dowries still in existence in certain cultures, as well as what a real dowry might be: ourselves, our lives, what we have made, what we would like to give, what might be conventionally inappropriate but is nevertheless a part of who we are.

In “Dowry,” Lorsung links natural and bodily imagery with things made by hand. She does this in other poems as well. In “The cells—the moon,” Lorsung describes cells as “breakable and lacelike handmade cells.” Connecting what might be considered feminine, “lacelike,” to “cells,” is a reach—but a fruitful one. And the sounds of “breakable,” “lacelike,” and “handmade cells”—the soft consonance of those “l”s, the assonance of the long a’s—have been marvelously layered by the poet.

We are taken from cells to celestial bodies in another poem, “Standing,” in which the poem’s speaker says “the body/is more like stars than we know.” There’s an ecological current underlying many of the poems; Lorsung seems to be encouraging us to think of ourselves as more physically, as well as imaginatively, linked to nature. “Standing”’s optimistic cosmology is in contrast to “Stars and Scat,” whose title demands that we consider what isn’t pretty:

We’re talking basics here,
just questions of inside and outside.

When it comes

down to it, the sky
is full of bullshit, a few thousand

years of the stuff:

women chained to rocks, heroes
swinging their clubs

all over the universe.

Listen, we know
the sky at this time of night is pret-ty

and makes you prone

to stories you’ll recover from
like a millenial hangover

This poem is more like a warning, in language more direct, more idiomatic, and angry, too. These are just a few examples of the range in this first section, the shifts in mood, perspective, philosophy, and style. We also see how good a poet Lorsung is. Getting into character in believable, lyrical poems is hard to do well.

Her Book’s second section, “Girllife,” begins with one of the strongest poems in the collection. The story of a woman who carries a “labyrinth” with her at all times, “First Principles” revises Genesis and gives us a different sort of epic journey:

In the beginning was the labyrinth.

It was the size of a continent, the inside
of a jar she carried in her shoulder
bag, swinging while she walked.

Sometimes she didn’t know it was there
but underneath everything walls
would rise, hold
up construction of new roads, and
she would reknow: it was there, she
had seen it. The labyrinth covered

everything in questions.

Both companion and burden, exhausting and stimulating, the labyrinth demands perpetual interpretation, and requires that the woman in the poem never forget it is there:

She entered it daily:
she never wore a watch, she carried
Nothing with her, or she carried
her knitting, she emptied
the canvas bag at every turn
and filled it
with sand, guitar
strings . . .
Nothing
was enough. The labyrinth
followed her from one edge
of the world to another:
It was all around her, like her mother’s love.
Every morning she reentered
the labyrinth of the labyrinth.
The smell of the sea that wasn’t there.
The clicking shadows of laurel trees
and their scent; she was full
without eating.

eireann-lorsungA simple, but intricate extended metaphor: I find implications of artmaking (“laurel trees”), sexual identity, nature, motherhood, and more. (The poem also reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop’s haunting poem, “The Monument.”) “First Principles” conveys, more than any poem I can remember reading, the difficulty of having to map one’s own life within a world that has tried to map it for you. It is a fascinating depiction of complex identity and the dilemma for women (or anyone) trying to figure out how to, in common parlance, find oneself.

The poem “Pink,” dedicated to a girl or woman, uses another list to convey a sensuous experience of the world, as well as a desire for experience. It seems true to what adolescence can be like: “crushing/petals in a pocket/was like blushing—/She wanted to touch everything/over & over.” Another poem, “Sweets,” dedicated to five women, presents yet another list of objects and associations, floated into a realistic but also mythic atmosphere:

In the high windows, contrails; a severely English blue.
There were trees growing out of buildings.

We could touch one another’s shoulders and we did.
Flowers on our desks in old jars, postcards,

pictures, poems, biscuits, cups of tea, train trips . . .

We made a text with the passage of our hands.
We were near to each other with music and in silence.

The making of the “we” here is not necessarily the making of art but of a comforting community, of a life shared: “We held hands, borrowed clothes, sat together, watched/for stars or hot-air balloons, birds, satellites./Did not expect them. There they were.”

Another poem includes a startling journey—one that takes place inside a house, with objects of domesticity and handiwork all around. It is a journey through memory, through fragments of some personal history, though we aren’t told the precise story:

It was as though we were on a ship
in the middle of the prairie

It was as though the house
was sighing or breathing

Stocks of flower seed, vegetable seed,
wool blankets, quilts our mothers made . . .

The poem opens into litany with lines that include handmade as well as domestic items: “pressed leaves,” “paper birds and animals with pin joints,” “teacups” “colored shoes” a “pile of silk scraps,” which the poet ends with this:

The most gentle apocalypse in the world.

We woke up, the sky was blue.

(“And so the last day came, and the last hour of the last day”)

That phrase, “The most gentle apocalypse,” is unforgettable. I can see the tumult of objects and associations being turned over in the writer’s mind, as if inside a coccoon out of which someone will eventually emerge. The sky—am I being too optimistic?—of that last line is blue, and seems open and clear—a good one to wake up into. It’s a different sort of sky than the one “full of bullshit/thousands of years of it.”

After even a “gentle apocalypse” some rebuilding is necessary. In “Reconstruction,” Her Book’s third section, Lorsung describes being “on a journey without/the female names of things“ (“Autoportrait tree”), yet the journeying in this section is more detailed and personal than in the other two. For example, “Sewing Together” is one of the most beautiful poems in the book, speaking of what is possible, even with a vexed and inhibiting history:

We went to school and someone there
told us not to touch things, sing things,

dance things, hold things, love things.
But in fact we were singing together

while we sewed. We began sewing
parts we didn’t use. My leg to your leg,

your left arm to my left arm. We sewed
together everything in us able to touch,

sing, dance, you know what I mean.
New body’s grace was a shambles

but it spoke with us, fragments
of an original language.

The work described in the poem—the women beginning to metaphorically incorporate and include one another in their handiwork, as part of their own bodies—I find very moving. I will be thinking about those three last lines for a long time.

I’ll end with one more favorite, “Eating the Archive,” a turn from Mark Strand’s famous poem, “Eating Poetry” (“Ink runs from the corners of my mouth./I have been eating poetry.”) In Lorsung’s feminist revision of Strand’s pleasure poem, the woman poet has a more bitter task, a tougher pleasure: “I eat the archive, which used to have a flavor./The taste of the letters./The taste of what made them,” it begins. The speaker describes being “Tired . . . of people sucking/and eating the spines of books,” but she says, “I eat it all”:

Continue to eat it. Pages dry as old leaves.

Everything is dust in the archive.
The poem is dust.
My tongue is coated in it.
Touch is what makes the archive disappear.

As Lorsung’s poet-speaker keeps eating, the snow-covered city she is in grows quiet, and “things in the archive and city/are going to die.”

. . . Tonight
they begin to fall apart.

I hold a candle, blow it out. Eat it.
For the first time, the people outside
are sleeping. Quiet.

Where no one is chewing.
Where no one is licking and licking their words.

That last line anticipates our misreading it as “licking their wounds,” so that Lorsung, Dickinson-like, achieves two goals with the word of one. She implies that we need to move beyond both “wound licking” and “word licking” if we are going to make it through the archive, and come out, knowledgeable and still talking.

An alternate archive that is vibrant and inclusive rather than “thin” and “permanent,” Éireann Lorsung’s Her Book records the poet’s journey towards making, from a tangle of personal, historical, and artistic material, a voice of her own. At the same time, Lorsung’s is not a self-centered project. Within the poems, and through their homages to other women, Lorsung writes toward a community, sharing her creativity, experience, and attention. She does all of this in mostly short, lyrically intense, accessible poems that meet us instantly on the page, while unfolding more over multiple readings—her own “gentle apocalypse.”

Entitled Fiction

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At Poets and Writers, Steve Almond offers his opinion on the growing “Problem of Entitlement” —  “a curious arrogance toward published authors” among young writers. Here’s why he thinks that’s the continuing case:

In my own experience, the Problem of Entitlement has gotten worse over the past decade and a half, and for three distinct reasons: first, the growing competitive pressures on aspiring writers; second, the pace and ease of judgment fostered by digital technology; and finally, the insidious cultural tendency of students to think of themselves as customers.

Win Or Lose, Amazon War Means Change

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No matter how the dispute between publisher Hachette and online mage-retailer Amazon resolves itself, the one thing that can be assured is that the publishing industry is changing. Amazon might hope to accelerate and seize control of the changes through pricing, but the book industry was changing even before Amazon started picking fights, warns The Guardian:

Even before the latest dispute, publishers were thinking about how to reinvent themselves, from developing their own digital content to trying to build a direct relationship with readers by hosting author events and using social media. The world’s biggest publisher, Penguin Random House, recently launched a social network site for readers, allowing people to showcase their favourite books and buy them from independent stores.

Infinite Brickjest

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Fascinated by The Brick Bible, Professor Kevin Griffith of Ohio’s Capital University has had his 11-years-old son Sebastian recreating in LEGO bricks 100 scenes from David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest. Griffith explained to The Guardian:

“I would describe a scene to him and he would recreate it in a way that suited his vision.  All the scenes are created by him and he then took photos of them using a 10-year-old Kodak digital camera he received for a present long ago. I think that having the scenes reflect an 11-year-old’s perspective gives them a little extra poignancy, maybe.”

Photos are available on the Brickjest website.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Drunk

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The Airship Daily contemplates the relationship between writing and booze.

What is it about intoxication that makes us believe we are better at things than we actually are? Wittier, funnier and deeper than anyone in a 50 mile radius? Why do I think I can write fiction under the influence? F. Scott Fitzgerald captures the phenomenon in The Beautiful and the Damned: “There was a kindliness about intoxication — there was that indescribable gloss and glamour it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings.”

Song of the Day: “What Light”

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Wilco has seen its fair share of adversity. The group, led by songwriter Jeff Tweedy, has picked up and dropped band members at various times between 1994 and 2004. However, its current iteration feels right. That cohesion is evident in the stirring artistic manifesto, “What Light,” from their Grammy-nominated 2007 album, Sky Blue Sky. Over a perfect harmony, Tweedy sings:

If the whole world’s singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours is everyone’s from now on
And that’s not wrong or right
And you can struggle with it all you like
You’ll only get uptight
There’s a light
What light

Inside of you