31 March 2006

Remembering Charlotte

I once recommended Jane Eyre to a friend of mine, and when she finally read it she was extremely underwhelmed. She saw Jane as a doormat and could not understand why I love this book so much. Well, on the 150th anniversary of Charlotte's death, here are a few meagre thoughts...

I first read it when I was 13, home sick from school (and devotedly in love with Jack London) on a grey autumn day. I identified with her from page one, and the subsequent issues of personal identity, choice, self-worth, resisting others who would change you, and the views on marriage were all revelatory for me. Here was a girl who was not beautiful and not particularly talented, yet she had the strength of character to do what she thought was right in the face of myriad pressures (internal and external). She knew that going off to India to sacrifice herself for religious reasons was just as wrong as becoming a shadow of herself as Rochester's plaything (he was already going overboard and dressing her up like a doll just before things fell apart).

It's also important to remember (as I dutifully told my doubting friend) that when the book first came out, Jane was percieved as a monstrous violation of the ideals of "womanhood" in Victorian England. (The exact *opposite* impression she tends to create these days--more of a harpy than a doormat!) Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth is a fantastic analysis of how the sisters and their work has been percieved (and mythologized) over the years (e.g., Gaskell did more harm than good in trying to "rehabilitate" Charlotte).

Here is a wonderful conversation on the BBC's Radio 4 with Lucasta Miller and Joanna Trollope on Charlotte, her death, and the revolutionary nature of her work. (They say it all much better than I ever could!)

(first link via Maud)

The Definition of Love

My love is of a birth as rare
As 'tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne'er have flown,
But vainly flapp'd its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow'r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac'd,
(Though love's whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac'd;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp'd into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

~ Andrew Marvell, born on this day in 1621

T.S. Eliot on Marvell's tercentenary:
The tercentenary of the former member for Hull deserves not only the celebration proposed by that favoured borough, but a little serious reflection upon his writing. That is an act of piety, which is very different from the resurrection of a deceased reputation. Marvell has stood high for some years; his best poems are not very many, and not only must be well known, from the Golden Treasury and the Oxford Book of English Verse, but must also have been enjoyed by numerous readers. His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him, if there be need for thinking, for our own benefit, not his. To bring the poet back to life - the great, the perennial, task of criticism - is in this case to squeeze the drops of the essence of two or three poems; even confining ourselves to these, we may find some precious liquor unknown to the present age. Not to determine rank, but to isolate this quality, is the critical labour.

29 March 2006

Thou nedest getten a lyfe of thyne owene

Not only has Geoffrey Chaucer moved and updated his blog (as well as this handy-dandy User Profile), but now he's offering t-shirtes!:
& hereof I appeale thee John Gower that thou art a wanker

Chaucer: funnier than dante, prettier than boccaccio

I study medieval literature because that's where the money is

Chaucer: because Shakespeare was too easy

Okaye, so sometymes it raineth in March: make notte a chancerye case of the whole mattere.
Rest assured, the all-out flayme werre between Chaucer and Gower is being closely followed by this litblogger.

(via Books, Words, and Writing)

Film news from Colombia

From today's Bogocine e-newsletter (English version of site):

Her performance in “ROSARIO TIJERAS” made it deserving the “BIZNAGA DE PLATA” to best actress in the section of Latin American Territory in the IX Malaga Film Festival which it awards for the first time to the cinema of this continent. Rosario is released this week in Mexico and later in Spain. [...]


A new cinematographic offense will take place this year with the filming of four movies about the book of the Nobel Prize Gabriel García Marquez. “In negotiations”, “filming” or “in script” are “EL AMOR EN LOS TIEMPOS DEL COLERA” EL OTOÑO DEL PATRIARCA”, “MEMORIA DE MIS PUTAS TRISTES” and “DEL AMOR Y OTROS DEMONIOS” (“LOVE IN THE TIMES OF THE COLERA “, "THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH", "MEMORIES OF MY SAD PROSTITUTES” and "OF THE LOVE AND OTHER DEMONS”. Will we be able of find the magic of realism?
The prevalent opinion being that as much as we love Javier Bardem, he is no Florentino Ariza.

The Bogotá Film Festival takes place this year on 4-12 October.

28 March 2006


"She opened her eyes at four in the morning and thought, Today you begin to change the world, Florita. Undaunted by the prospect of setting in motion the machinery that in a matter of years would transform humanity and eliminate injustice, she felt calm, strong enough to face the obstacles ahead of her. It was the same way she had felt on that afternoon in Saint-Germain ten years ago, at her first meeting of Saint-Simonians, when she listened to Prosper Enfantin describe the messianic couple who would save the world and vowed to herself, You'll be that Woman-Messiah. Poor Saint-Simonians, with their elaborate hierarchies, their fanatical love of science, their belief that progress could be made simply by putting industrialists in government and running society like a business! You had left them far behind, Andalusa."
~ from the first page of The Way to Paradise (El paraíso en la otra esquina) by Mario Vargas Llosa, born on this day in 1936

26 March 2006


Neko Case:
"Western culture is into making everyone's feelings black and white. If you're sad, that's negative, automatically. Well, sadness has many parts to it. It can be very gratifying. I'm not saying I sit around being sad all the time, but when I am sad, now, I pay attention to it." On Fox Confessor, the notions she's exploring aren't nearly as polar as happy and sad--they are a zillion shades of gray, each with its own emotional twinge conveyed by an insignificant, sometimes even unrelated, visual image. As these fall together, line by line, what began as a series of disconnected ideas arranges itself into a kind of fable. Consider "Star Witness," which traces a life observed at close range in a Chicago neighborhood. Its seemingly disconnected events are rendered in such detail it sounds like it could be nothing but autobiography. Case insists the song is not about her. "You notice pretty mundane and strange things about people when bad things happen to them," she says to explain such odd images as glass in a thermos or a nightgown sweeping the street clean. "Your mind focuses on how bad the thing is, but somehow the nightgown becomes the memory for you. Maybe that's how we avoid post-traumatic stress. The brain is always working to protect you. It'll suspend you in a tiny moment, and that will become the title page in your memory. A lot of these songs have those kinds of odd signifiers in them." [...]

In the middle of a long conversation about Faust, the epic allegorical tale she reread during the making of Fox Confessor, she worries that she's going to sound snooty. "I hate those celebrity interviews like in Vanity Fair, where they're talking about some book they've read and how it has important lessons for the rest of us. To me it's very pompous, like they need to appear cerebral. I'm the opposite of that: When I read Faust I realize how stupid I am. And in a way I feel so much better. There's joy and comfort in that, in not knowing everything and allowing yourself to be awed a little bit."
Also: I spent some time yesterday examining her video for "Maybe Sparrow" and loved the visual implications given to the evocative music.

Conceiving possibility

Thanks to Steve Mitchelmore for drawing attention to this marvelous essay by Gabriel Josipovici:
Borges’ fondness for detective stories stems from his dislike for the classical novel. For the detective story, unlike the novel, accepts from the start that the logic of fiction is not the logic of life and that as a fictional construct its prime duty is to be interesting, not realistic. The novel, on the other hand, is a curious hybrid: it wants to assert at one and the same time that it is dealing with life in all its boring contingency, while at the same time telling a story which implies that life has a meaning, is always more than mere contingency. This is the secret of its hold over us, as Sartre, for one, understood so well. We open a novel, Sartre says in La Nausée, and read about a man walking down a road. The man seems free, the future open before him. At once we identify with him, for that is how our own existence seems to be to us. We too are walking down the road of life, not knowing what is to come. But the pleasure of reading a novel stems from the fact that we know that this man is in fact the subject of an adventure that is about to befall him. How do we know this? Because he is there at the start of the novel and he would not be there if nothing were going to happen to him. Thus, Sartre concludes, ‘the end is there, which transforms everything. For us the guy is already the hero of the story.’ The extraordinary power of the novel lies in this, that it makes us feel that our lives are both free and meaningful. It does not say this, for it neither needs to nor is it fully aware of it, but nonetheless that is its essence, the secret of its power.

Borges, like Beckett, dislikes the novel for two reasons, one having to do with literature and the other with life. He dislikes it because he finds it tedious and uninteresting to imitate reality, and he dislikes it because he feels that it propagates a false view of life which stops us seeing what life is really like. [...]

Kierkegaard’s great decade of writing took place exactly a century before Borges’, in the years 1840-50. Nevertheless, the problems he explored were almost identical to those of the Argentinian writer. Kierkegaard is concerned with what he calls ‘actuality’, with the stuff of life as it is lived, and with the way narratives about living, whether they be those of novelists or of a philosopher like Hegel, covertly falsify actuality. ‘“Actuality” cannot be conceived,’ he writes in his notebook for the year 1850. To conceive something is to dissolve actuality into possibility – but then it is impossible to conceive it, because conceiving something is transforming it into possibility and so not holding on to it as actuality.… But there’s this deplorable confusion in that modern times have incorporated ‘actuality’ into logic and then, in distraction, forgotten that ‘actuality’ in logic is still only a ‘thought actuality’, i.e. it is possibility.

Everything would be fine if works of fiction and works like Hegel’s Phenomenology presented themselves as hypotheses, but they do not, they present themselves as actuality. [...]

This helps explain why so many modern writers have been at pains to stress that their fictions are only fictions, not reality. This is not in order to play games with the reader or to deny the world, but on the contrary, out of a deep sense of the wondrous nature of the world and a determination not to confuse the world as it is with the world as we imagine it to be, not to confuse actuality with possibility.
Don't let my obsessive quoting keep you from reading the entire thing. (And you mustn't miss the Wallace Stevens poem at the end.)

25 March 2006

Algo hermoso termina

como a una vieja estrella fatigada
te ha dejado la luz. Y la criatura
que iluminabas
                  (y que iluminaba
tus ojos ciegos a las nimias cosas
del mundo)
ha vuelto a ser mortal.
Todo recobra
su densidad, su peso, su volumen,
ese pobre equilibrio que sostiene
tu nuevo invierno. Alégrate.
Tus vísceras ahora son otra vez tus vísceras
y no crudo alimento de zozobras.
Ya no eres ese dios ebrio e incierto
que te fue dado ser. Muerde
el hueso que dan,
llega a su médula,
recoge las migajas que deja la memoria.

~ Piedad Bonnet

(English translation)

21 March 2006


Just got in from watching Breaking the Waves projected on a screen in a little patio under the stars... It was already a personal favorite, but seeing it like this, given my current circumstances, was a revelation.

I've discovered a new favorite place here in town (connected to the university) where they show a film a week, and I couldn't be more pleased. Between this and last Friday's performance of the National Symphonic Orchestra of Colombia, I feel like I've discovered a whole new city.

Next up? Thomas Vinterberg's Festen ("The Celebration")--they're on a bit of a Dogma kick at the moment. Then there'll be a few weeks of Hitchcock (be still my heart!) and a spate of Westerns (Ford, Leone, Peckinpah, and Eastwood).

I'm giddy!

20 March 2006


Geoffrey Chaucer Hath A Blog! See him offer useful "abbreviaciouns" and other pithy advice:
Oh newfanglenesse! Y have learned the privitees of the manye abbreviaciouns ywritten on the internette. OMG: "oh mine ++DOMINUS++". ROFL: "rollinge on the floore laughinge". IRL: "in reale lyfe." WTF: "whatte the swyve?"

Beinge somethinge of an innovator myselfe, Y presente to yow, churles and gentils alle, the followynge abbreviaciouns. May they serven yow welle in your internette communicacioun:

GP: gentil person

WC: woole customes

XC: Exchequer

BATJG: biggere arsehole thanne john gowere

BSL!: by seinte loy!

OTPBRB: Offe to parliamente, be ryghte back

SNAPFU - BYXCA: supposedely nyce annuitie paymente fuckede uppe by the XC againe

KRBMA: Kynge Richarde II buggynge me againe

AOMSHJDOTBD: anothere of myne servauntes hath just dyede of the blacke death

EISBYMIWATCHDNSTHD: eftsoon I shall be ycleped mad if worke atte the customes house doth not settle the helle downe
And apparently, Katharine Swynforde has gotten in on the action as well:
Enspyred by my brother-in-lawe Geffrey, I now shal bloggeth myn own thoghtes and tempres. Myn suster Phelippe sayd it myghte be gode, for I am "passyve-aggressyve" and this myghte me helpe by expressinge myn angre. Of that she speketh, I wis nat what; but nothelesse I shal blog, for hit is somethinge els to kepeth myn eyen from the sewinge, curye and cleninge that be nat somuche as putten in my job descripcioun, and watchinge the childeren; and I even have namo monie for to buyen bokes, as I must lende hit alle to Johne for his "Campaigne Espagnole." I do wisshe hym to be the Kinge of Spayne, but mower I wisshe I myghte be hys wife, and nat thatte bitch Constaunze. Hit is but this "karme" of what I here so oft, I am certain -- hit is my punisshment for makinge of Hugh a cokewald whilst he yet lived. Supposeddly Godd forgaf me aft thatt CXX day penaunce, that the prest hit sayeth, but ne I seen nat how so, by my troth.

Pardee, do I sounde whinye hereon!
(via wood s lot via Bookninja and Katharine's via Geoffrey himself)

19 March 2006

More love for the hapless knight

As Bud accurately notes, this is a *marvelous* essay. Probably the best analysis of Cervantes I've read, and deeply engaging to boot:
Is it not possible, after all, that even as he eludes us, we identify with Don Quixote? Have you never wished to live inside a book? There are writers who have found his madness inconceivable and arbitrary, merely a premise we must accept as the key to a number of metaphors. For all I have said about not knowing Don Quixote from the inside, I have never found it so. To long for an escape into the image seems to me a universal wish; and the lesson that the escape will not change the nature of the world, which Ruskin missed and which Cervantes teaches, seems almost the modern definition of maturity. For most of human history the aesthetic image, the world transformed in the order of the mind, was, in myth and ritual, the secret to our understanding of the universe; over time the image shook loose from our metaphysics; we came to perceive that the structure of the universe does not match the structure of the mind. This does not diminish the power of the image, but it does undermine the certainty of its place in our lives. Cervantes wrote in a time and place where, for many reasons, the consequence of this development was beginning to be keenly felt.
(via 400 Windmills)

Update: I found the Google-translated Spanish version so I could share it with more people here. Usually I would never advise using this as a solution, but it's enough to get the ideas across--and what ideas Phillips has! Such excellent insight.

Liberating words

Finally. A personal goal! Definitely something to work towards.

(via Dasein, Red Elephant)

The distraction of having no distractions

Spurious says it all:
Work - there's nothing to distract you. Work: but there's the whole weekend to distract me, hours in which nothing need happen; I've no appointments, but for all that time is too full, too present with itself. How is it that I seem to have fallen beneath its passing, that time, now, is only concerned with itself? Unwritten book, unwritten articles - now that unwriting has become active; it is the very work of time as it passes without me. [...]

Work: there's nothing to distract you. Work - but nothing happens but distraction. All of time moves forward, but not here. Long sunday without monday. Day that cannot complete itself.
My day described by someone else in another country on the same day.

In praise of disquiet

A lovely look at the work of my favorite Portuguese:
Pessoa earned his living as a translator. His legacy, enormous and in large part unpublished, comports philosophy, literary criticism, linguistic theory, writings on politics in Portuguese, English and French. Like Borges, Beckett or Nabokov, Pessoa shows up the naive, malignant falsehood still current in certain Fenland English faculties whereby only the monoglot and native speaker is inward with style and literary insight.

The fragmentary, the incomplete is of the essence of Pessoa's spirit. The very kaleidoscope of voices within him, the breadth of his culture, the catholicity of his ironic sympathies - wonderfully echoed in Saramago's great novel about Ricardo Reis - inhibited the monumentalities, the self-satisfaction of completion. Hence the vast torso of Pessoa's Faust on which he laboured much of his life. Hence the fragmentary condition of The Book of Disquiet which contains material that predates 1913 and which Pessoa left open-ended at his death. As Adorno famously said, the finished work is, in our times and climate of anguish, a lie. [...]

What we have is a haunting mosaic of dreams, psychological notations, autobiographical vignettes, shards of literary theory and criticism and maxims. 'A Letter not to Post', an 'Aesthetics of Indifference', 'A Factless Autobiography' and manual of welcomed failure (only a writer wholly innocent of success and public acclaim invites serious examination).

If there is a common thread, it is that of unsparing introspection. Over and over, Pessoa asks of himself and of the living mirrors which he has created, 'Who am I?', 'What makes me write?', 'To whom shall I turn?' The metaphysical sharpness, the wealth of self-scrutiny are, in modern literature, matched only by Valery or Musil or, in a register often uncannily similar, by Wittgenstein. 'Solitude devastates me; company oppresses me. The presence of another person derails my thoughts; I dream of the other's presence with a strange absent-mindedness that no amount of my analytical scrutiny can define.' This very scrutiny, moreover, is fraught with danger: 'To understand, I destroyed myself. To understand is to forget about loving.' These findings arise out of a uniquely spectral yet memorable landscape: 'A firefly flashes forward at regular intervals. Around me the dark countryside is a huge lack of sound that almost smells pleasant.' [...]

The sense of the comedy of the inanimate is acute: 'Over the pyjamas of my abandoned sleep...' The juxtapositions have a startling resonance: 'I'm suffering from a headache and the universe.' A sort of critical, self-mocking surrealism surfaces: 'To have touched the feet of Christ is no excuse for mistakes in punctuation.' Or that fragment of a sentence which may come close to encapsulating Pessoa's unique reckoning: '... intelligence, an errant fiction of the surface'.
Read this book.

Update: wood s lot offers more glimpses.

18 March 2006


Ever notice how your love for certain books and writers colors the opinions you have of certain people you meet who do or do not love them as well? Sometimes it's tricky to distinguish between regard for an individual and regard for his or her literary inclinations.

On a related note:
I'm all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let's start with typewriters.

~ Frank Lloyd Wright

Internal states

Five Branch Tree examines Knut Hamsun's Hunger:
At first there’s a strong resemblance to Raskolnikov from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with both characters’ grandiose and volatile emotional states pouring out in deluge of verbiage (and what makes the readings of each enthralling). Although, as pointed out in the introduction by Robert Bly, there is a major difference between Hunger and Crime and Punishment, and is what also sets Hamsun off from a large portion of Western literature. Where Dostoyevsky has his characters beating their heads against a wall of brick to crack out a moral solution to life’s problems, Hamsun lets the internal states of his character’s ride through and run their course, allowing heroic experience over efforts to control or prevent, even allowing his characters to occasionally give into the madness of their desires without much of a second thought. If you're hungry, you're hungry. That simple. Hamsun is not interested in moral guidance, instead wants to linguistically represent the pinball contraption we like call our minds, where we on occasion can keep the ball in play but to only then have it carry on in its own flabbergasting speed of ricocheting whirls and largely beyond one's conscious control.

If this isn't nice, I don't know what is

Brian at Five Branch Tree shares highlights of Vonnegut's “last speech for money”:
“people are in revolt against life itself.”

“As the world is ending, I’m always glad to be entertained for a few moments. The best way to do that is with music. You should practice once a night."

“If you really want to hurt your parents and don’t want to be gay, go into the arts.”

“To hell with the advances in computers,” he says after he finishes singing. “YOU are supposed to advance and become, not the computers. Find out what’s inside you. And don’t kill anybody."

“There are no factories any more. Where are the jobs supposed to come from? There’s nothing for people to do anymore. We need to ask the Seminoles: ‘what the hell did you do?’ after the tribe’s traditional livelihood was taken away."

“war is a very profitable thing for a few people. Jesus used to be so merciful and loving of the poor. But now he’s a Republican."

“Our economy today is not capitalism. It’s casino-ism. That’s all the stock market is about. Gambling."

“You meet saints every where. They can be anywhere. They are people behaving decently in an indecent society."

The greatest peace, Vonnegut wraps up, “comes from the knowledge that I have enough. Joe Heller told me that.

“I began writing because I found myself possessed. I looked at what I wrote and I said ‘How the hell did I do that?’

“We may all be possessed. I hope so.”

Wild Swans

I looked in my heart while the wild swans went over.
And what did I see I had not seen before?
Only a question less or a question more;
Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying.
Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,
House without air, I leave you and lock your door.
Wild swans, come over the town, come over
The town again, trailing your legs and crying!

~ Edna St. Vincent Millay

14 March 2006

Flannery the cartoonist

Many of O'Connor's published cartoons were linoleum-block prints. Linoleum-block printing involves cutting or etching an image on to a linoleum sheet. In O'Connor's case, she attached the linoleum to a piece of wood, applied a solid color of ink to the linoleum cutting, and printed the image on to a piece of paper. The image was then printed in black and white in the final publication.

O'Connor's interest in creating cartoons continued as she left home in 1945 to pursue a graduate degree in writing at The University of Iowa. Among O'Connor's first courses at The University of Iowa were two courses in advanced drawing. She hoped to be able to support her writing by selling cartoons to national publications. O'Connor, however, was unable to sell any of her cartoons, at which time she began devoting all of her energy to writing.
(Via Maud, who excerpts the bit from Mystery and Manners about the theft of the wooden leg and "the habit of art.")

13 March 2006

Buried history

This week, the Poetry International Web features the work of Tamil poet Kutti Revathi:
Supple, fierce and molten, the image clearly plays a pivotal role in her art. “I have been criticised on this count,” she says, but remains unapologetic, viewing the image as an integral part of her seditious poetic enterprise. “As we poke into a word and turn it over,” she writes in her essay, “the history buried in its innards rises up, along with images, memories . . . and poetry too.”

At the same time, she is deeply aware of the power of the image to initiate unexpected inner mutinies. As she remarks in the interview accompanying this edition, “Poetry . . . demands an endless enquiry into the self, and endless cycles of the self’s destruction and renewal [. . .] People always ask my why I do not write poems about societal concerns and issues, as though attempts to bring about inner renewal and inner transformation were not acts of social concern. I use my language only to loosen the fetters that have bound and shrunk a woman’s body.”

12 March 2006

List of essentials

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
4. Be in love with yr life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Dont think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. Youre a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

~ Jack Kerouac, born on this day in 1922

See also Syntax of Things for a fitting tribute on "St. Jack's Day."

Private revelations

Christopher Bakken examines the work of B.H. Fairchild:
Fairchild is a surprising painter, one obviously indebted to Edward Hopper, whose paintings always seem darker than they are, with their parallel lines of light-catching windows and bricks extending beyond the frame into invisible potential. Fairchild’s senses are not subdued by an apparent lack of material opulence; they are electrified and entirely satisfied:
Everything is here. Linoleum
in alternating squares of red
and gray. Bare wall on the west
rising under an afternoon sun.
Couch in brown vinyl,
empty bottle of Miller High Life,
crucifix over the dinner table.
An odor of sleep and sauerkraut,
fresh laundry and ammonia.
                              (“In the Homes of the Working Class”)

Never has a humble Midwestern beer, with its perfectly ironic name, appeared so sacramental. But the poet’s recurring discovery—the fact that he exists, in spite of his surroundings, in a world teeming with such significance—is rarely shared by others. We are not surprised to find, in the very next stanza, that “No one is here” to observe these objects and the holy pattern the poet sees. When, “later, the occupants return,” they will merely be “assuming the burden of possession, / feeling the heaviness of the day’s / last light.” Such totems will inevitably resume being mundane props in their owners’ underwhelming lives.

More often than not, when the poet investigates “the hard round faces” of his fellow citizens, they reveal “something like loneliness / but deeper.” So he turns instead, like every isolated poet must, to the only other community available to him, the one to be found in his local bookstore. According to the prose “Afterword” printed in Local Knowledge, what he discovered there was crucial:
     Growing up in that little town in the heart of the dust bowl, I do not know how I could have survived without the words of the printed page, of books. I wish that I could rhapsodize about the natural beauties of the place, the rich and varied landscape, but I cannot. It was rather bleak, surrounded by wheat and maize fields, with few trees. I recall being out on oil rigs on various jobs, looking out across the barren country treeless from horizon to horizon, listening to the chains beating against the derrick in the ceaseless wind, and waiting, waiting for life to come to some kind of point. But it only seemed to come to a point on the printed page, and so I lived, when I could, among books, and words filled the empty horizon and made for me a necessary world.
So it falls to the speakers of Fairchild’s poems to experience revelations that are primarily private, if the revelations arrive at all, and the difficulty of his project involves revealing what is beautiful without over-inscribing his praise. The sadness (there isn’t a better word for it) that emanates from his first two books stems, I think, from the poet’s constant wish to offer imaginative salvation to things and to people who cannot be saved, or who do not even think to desire salvation.

07 March 2006

The potential of art

From Dan Green's recent essay in The Quarterly Conversation:
It might seem that literature in particular--both fiction and poetry--is especially destined to reflect its genetic origins, given that its medium, language, is so obviously an example of a human faculty produced directly by natural selection and deeply rooted in the physical properties of the brain. [...] However, precisely as a consequence of these apparent constraints inherent in the use of language, literature is actually by its very nature an effort to escape the habitual and ingrained assumptions about the status of language that are involved in its ordinary applications.

Both poetry and fiction--the latter increasingly so over the course of its history, as distinctions between the two modes become less significant--are most immediately the deliberate assertion of language as something other than ordinary communication. [...]

I would contend that the simplistic and passive appreciation of the kind of unexamined storytelling that Pinker valorizes in The Blank Slate only encourages an approach to literature that sees it as offering lessons for life, intimations of a better way to arrange things. (Although Pinker himself does not suggest this; he’s clearly more inclined to regard art as mere entertainment.) Rather than understanding literature--all works of the imagination--as a potential tool of consciousness, helping us both to clarify the nature of aesthetic experience and to dispel the illusion that we cast over the rest of our experience, this assumption about what literature can do for us arguably allows consciousness to become the acquiescent screen on which fanciful stories are projected--another version of the blank slate. I don’t claim that only art and literature help us, in effect, to face reality--certainly science remains the most direct means of coming to terms with the real--but the converse view, that art is an escape from reality, arises primarily from a lack of interest in discovering the potential of art in the first place.
There is a curious correlation between the literary views of certain "evolutionary psychologists" and some religious fundamentalists. As Green mentions earlier in the essay, "Given the public’s presumptive preference for the familiar and comforting, the work of modernists and postmodernists alike is characterized not only as artistic failure but as a kind of moral decadence as well." Whether it be a preference for "harmonious" or "balanced" narrative or tidy, conventional endings that seek to give "order" to existence, the denial of the "disturbing" in art is a shameful omission of equally valid aspects of the glorious mystery we call human nature.

Exhausting all options before the Last Resort

Julian Barnes responds to the question, "Would you recommend being an author to anyone else?":
Ha! I'm not a careers advisor, and if someone has to ask 'Should I be a writer?' maybe the fact of asking the question implies that they don't want to be one enough. But on the other hand, there are many ways of getting to become a writer, some all swagger and confidence, some all doubt and insecurity. I took the latter route. I still at times can't get over the fact that I've become a writer, and make my living at it. All I would say is, don't become a writer unless you are convinced that writing is the best way of describing and rendering the truth about the world; if you think there's a better way, try that instead.
(Via This Space)

06 March 2006

Personal clockwork

Happy Birthday, Gabo!

García Márquez on his "great masters":
I don't know who said that novelists read the novels of others only to figure out how they are written. I believe it's true. We aren't satisfied with the secrets exposed on the surface of the page: we turn the book around to find the seams. In a way that's impossible to explain, we break the book down to its essential parts and then put it back together after we understand the mysteries of its personal clockwork. The effort is disheartening in Faulkner's books, because he doesn't seem to have an organic system of writing, but instead walks blindly through his biblical universe, like a herd of goats loosed in a shop full of crystal. Managing to dismantle a page of his, one has the impression of springs and screws left over, that it's impossible to put back together in its original state. Hemingway, by contrast, with less inspiration, with less passion and less craziness but with a splendid severity, left the screws fully exposed, as they are on freight cars. Maybe for that reason Faulkner is a writer who has had much to do with my soul, but Hemingway is the one who had the most to do with my craft - not simply for his books, but for his astounding knowledge of the aspect of craftsmanship in the science of writing.
Edith Grossman on Gabriel García Márquez:
He is a master of physical observation: Surfaces, appearances, external realities, spoken words – everything that a truly observant observer can observe. He makes almost no allusion to states-of-mind, motivations, emotions, internal responses: Those are left to the inferential skills and deductive interests of the reader. In other words, García Márquez has turned the fly-on-the-wall point of view into a crucial aspect of his narrative style in both fiction and non-fiction, and it is a strategy that he uses to stunning effect. It not only obliges readers to participate in the narration by placing them up on the wall, right next to the fly, but I believe it is also one of the techniques he employs to abrogate sentimentality, leaving only actions driven by emotions, and sometimes passions.

Happy 200th!


I lift my heavy heart up solemnly,
As once Electra her sepulchral urn,
And, looking in thine eyes, I overturn
The ashes at thy feet. Behold and see
What a great heap of grief lay hid in me,
And how the red wild sparkles dimly burn
Through the ashen greyness. If thy foot in scorn
Could tread them out to darkness utterly,
It might be well perhaps. But if instead
Thou wait beside me for the wind to blow
The grey dust up,...those laurels on thine head,
O my Belovèd, will not shield thee so,
That none of all the fires shall scorch and shred
The hair beneath. Stand farther off then! go.

~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning, born on this day in 1806

05 March 2006


My big plans? Get caught up on grading and follow the Oscar Blog, especially since the best I can get down here is a dubbed version (which I may try just to guess at what Jon Stewart is really saying).

The party's already gotten started at Ed's place--take a look.

Correction: Of the three stations I get on this old little box (which I never use), the one that is broadcasting the Oscars (in translation) is not one of them. Rats.

My F5 key is going to be completely worn out at the end of the night!

04 March 2006


"Of course I was drugged, and so heavily I did not regain consciousness until the next morning. I was horrified to discover that I had been ruined, and for some days I was inconsolable, and cried like a child to be killed or sent back to my aunt."

--Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor

Even so distant, I can taste the grief,
Bitter and sharp with stalks, he made you gulp.
The sun's occasional print, the brisk brief
Worry of wheels along the street outside
Where bridal London bows the other way,
And light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding. All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

Slums, years, have buried you. I would not dare
Console you if I could. What can be said,
Except that suffering is exact, but where
Desire takes charge, readings will grow erratic?
For you would hardly care
That you were less deceived, out on that bed,
Than he was, stumbling up the breathless stair
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic.

~ Philip Larkin

03 March 2006

Ramona the trendy

Judy Blume tampered with Margaret, and now all hell has broken loose. In a shocking twist, Beverly Cleary has "updated" Ramona:
Ramona went on with her singing and skipping. She began to feel considerable angst and contemplated setting fire to something. Perhaps she might skip to the 7-11 and spend most of the day hanging out in front looking gloomy. “I hate my life,” said Ramona. “I want to kill myself and I’m only eight years old.” Murphy’s gloom was starting to weigh on her. Perhaps she should cement this with a good solid blast of melancholy from Robert Smith. No longer could she care much about Beezus, who had one of the stupidest names she had ever heard. The name “Beezus” was more Goth than Ramona. It was more alternative in a radcliffy kind of way.

When "A" is for weathered wood

A lovely new book (illustrated by Jean Holabird and with a luminous forward by Brain Boyd) lets us in on Nabokov's synesthesiac sense of the alphabet:
Vladimir Nabokov could hear color. As he described it –

perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites.
(via Bookish)

01 March 2006


Looked at historically, there is no question but that this society started out with a divided mind, if not with a divided conscience. Its founders asserted the noble idea of creating a free, open society while retaining slavery, a system in direct contradiction to their rhetorically inclusive concept of freedom. Thus, from the beginning, racism has mocked the futuristic dream of democracy.

[...] They declared themselves the new national identity, "American," but, as social beings they were still locked in the continuum of history, and as language-users they were still given to the ceaseless classifying and grading of everything from stars and doodle bugs to tints of skin and crinks of hair, they had to have a standard by which they could gauge the extent to which their theories of democracy were being made manifest, both in the structure of the new society and in the lives of its citizens. [...]

What you're observing, in many instances, is the effort on the part of many white intellectuals to deal critically with aspects of American culture that haven't been given adequate study. In doing this, they identify themselves with the values native to older, more stable cultures in which race plays no immediate role (many know more about Europe than they do about the United States), and since they're moving upward in social status, many tend to identify with the values of older, more established Americans.

In an essay, I've termed this a form of "passing for white." That was naughty of me, but the pervasive operation of the principle of race (or racism) in American society leads many nonblacks to confuse culture with race and thresholds with steeples, and prevents them from recognizing to what extent the American culture is Afro-American. This can be denied, but it can't be undone because the culture has had our input since before nationhood.

It's up to us to contribute to the broader recognition of this pluralistic fact. While others worry about racial superiority, let us be concerned with the quality of culture.
~ Ralph Ellison, born on this day in 1914

I was already in college when I read Ellison for the first time--the prologue to Invisible Man--a piece of writing that flooded me with ineffable thoughts and then wrung me out to dry. Monopolated Light & Power, those 1,369 lights, and this:
There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I'd like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing "What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue"--all at the same time. Sometimes now I listen to Louis while I have my favorite dessert of vanilla ice cream and sloe gin. I pour the red liquid over the white mound, watching it glisten and the vapor rising as Louis bends that military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound. Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.
By the time he "descended, like Dante" into the depths of the music and the surreal waking dream of the "cave," I felt as if secrets to the very nature of existence had been handed to me in the form of this awe-inspiring novel. And this was only the first few pages!

As John Callahan reminds us,
There is a kind of prophetic quality to Ellison's work. It's amazing to think that Invisible Man was written and published when "separate but equal" was the law of the land, before Brown vs. Board of Education, before integration. What you have, it seems to me, is a certain kind of prophetic quality of his work, about the 60's, about the fight over integration on both sides of the color line. Black power movement, women's movement, even identity politics, a "rainbow" in America's future, 35 years before Jesse Jackson's "rainbow coalition."
I soon carefully worked my way through Shadow and Act, attempting to absorb the wisdom saturating the pages, understanding (for the first time?) that it was not arrogance for a bicultural "white" girl from Northern California to think that she could attempt to understand the complex labyrinth that is race in America. Ellison's style is such that the reader feels included, let in on a dialogue where her thoughts can be of value.

As much as I adore Ellison for those stories of how he and his brother learned how to hunt by reading Hemingway when they were living in Ohio, his frustrated dream of becoming a musician, and his epiphanic way of thinking about "The Wasteland" in terms of Armstrong's trumpet playing, I think I was affected most by the sense that as a reader, I was being treated as an equal. He threw those latched windows open for me, and so has my eternal gratitude.

Visit the Ralph Ellison Project at Jerry Jazz Musician.

(And I would love to own this!)

The unstilled world


If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

~ T.S. Eliot, from "Ash Wednesday"

A mouthful

Five Branch Tree turns one:
A person could read the entire canon of great novels and see the best of film, know the critical viewpoints of all the significant scholars, memorize the chronological history of every major art movement, but appreciation would remain hopelessly deficient without access to the simple, personal interests and reactions of other people. And in a time when there is increasing momentum towards consumer culture, when the arts and humanities become further marginalized within both lower and higher educational institutions, how valuable the internet is becoming in battling these trends by providing an opportunity for people to share their thoughts and eagerness for artistic efforts.