Poetry, Classics & Other Boring Stuff


PERE GORIOT
HONORE DE BALZAC (tr. Burton Raffel)

W.W. Norton Critical Editions
$16.87 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five for the Raffel translation

The Publisher Says: Père Goriot is the tragic story of a father whose obsessive love for his two daughters leads to his financial and personal ruin. Interwoven with this theme is that of the impoverished young aristocrat, Rastignac, come to Paris from the provinces to make his fortune, who befriends Goriot and becomes involved with the daughters. The story is set against the background of a whole society driven by social ambition and lust for money.

My Review: Père Goriot as translated by Marian Ayton Crawford simply has to be the most tedious translation of Balzac ever done. The translation is the thing here. A perfectly pleasurable read in French, it is just criminal to market this translation at this point in history. Penguin should hang its corporate head in shame for continuing to offer this terrible clanking juddering 1980 Ford Fiesta of a misrepresentation of Père Goriot.

The Raffel translation from Norton Critical Editions is head and shoulders above the older translation. It's much more what I hear in my punkin haid when I try to read the French original. Not stilted, though formal by our modern standardsless standards. Not precious or overblown. Simple, well-built sentences telling the sad tale of a father whose love for his daughters blinds him to the budding rascality and rapscallionhood of the smooth-talking arriviste Rastignac. Delphine, Goriot's daughter, doesn't attend her father's funeral; nor does her sister; and yet there sits Rastignac....

The reason this story continues to be read is simple: A classic is a book that never finishes saying all it has to say. These tropes are as fresh as the morning dew and as old as the hills. Balzac brought them intensely and vividly to life in Père Goriot. No one, save perhaps wily seducer Vautrin, he who makes a good-enough bloke over into a sleazy social climber, is an unmixed all-good or all-bad person. And that's a rare thing today, let alone in the 1830s when this was first published. An excellent read IN THE RAFFEL TRANSLATION!

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BELOW ZERO
EDUARDO DEL VALLE

Diálogos Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Inside America’s Pit; rebuilding Ground Zero…
Below Zero is a collection of poems, haibun and haiku, written by architect Eduardo del Valle, beginning with his first day on the Ground Zero job site in 2007 and ending when the tower’s ground floor slab reached street level. The poems are inspired by a wide range of project experiences and events, all the complex emotions and activities going on in and about the site of reconstruction in the wake of one of America’s— and the World’s— greatest disasters. Del Valle’s architectural training and practice lend a unique vernacular and insight to the poems as they chronicle the progress of this monolithic undertaking.

My Review: I don't want to alarm anyone, but I read and liked a book of poetry.

No, really. I did.

Good gracious, a lot of people seem to have needed naps all at once. But the floor? Is that comfortable? Hello?

Not only that, it's related to the 9/11 attacks, which I've been pretty clear is a subject I find all too ripe for cloying sentimentality and self-important bloviation. This book resorts to neither.

I lived on Rector Place in 1993, when the first attempt was made to topple the Twin Towers. My living room window, which faced the South Tower, was cracked and the dishes came out of the cabinet. I said then, "These idiots are not gonna stop til they succeed." My friends said oh pooh that's piffle no one will ever do that.

Hmmm.

I left New York in 2000, a year ahead of the events of 9/11. Damn good thing I did, too, since my apartment on Maiden Lane, a block and a half from the North Tower, had two seven and a half foot tall, nine and a half foot wide plate glass windows, made of 19th-century unsafety glass, that slivered into spears that were embedded in the walls of that apartment. (The super, a friend of mine, told me this as we were talking about the deaths of his wife and kids in the PATH plaza.)

So to hear people yim-yammering about the events who weren't there, or weren't involved, has never held any appeal for me. Del Valle started work as an architect on the site in 2007, and doesn't make any pretenses to making A Larger Point in writing his poems. He makes the emotional point that he experiences and lets you experience it with him, adding such layers as you can or care to:

Orientation
At some point I find myself wanting to accept not as much
what but that this trainer has been trained to train us.
I've been sitting in this space, carved out of an
oversized toolbox, for too long. There's but one laptop-
sized window, screwed shut and shielded with a rusty
junkyard, standard-issue guard-screen. The chair is
hard; my body has knowingly become unconscious to its
fascist shape. I wonder if the rest of the heads and
bodies in here...No, I'm alone. I'm trying to look
interested, at the very least, perhaps even comfortable.
There's an unmistakably citrusy tang in the room.

No room, give none to the thought of another. I'm saying
to myself, just as the crustacean-red face in front of
the classroom repeats, 'We're all responsible for
security,' pointing to the site plan on the wall, 'at all
times, in and out of the project limit lines,' his right
hand in circular motion around the two pools.

A clandestine glance out the window and I begin to
wonder.

dragonfly lights
on a diamond
in the mesh

Why do I feel like the enemy has already won?
I've added the underline to make it clear, in this small and unpaginated context, that the title of the piece is "Orientation."

That's a personal observation, a moment in the poet's life, and it's also evocative of the nature of the 9/11 disaster as an interruption of quotidian activity, that is repaired by quotidian activity, that is mundane in its consequences, and is still proof that the bombers couldn't have been more successful in their effort. After this event, the most everyday of activities have been circumscribed by a sense of being Under Threat, of Waiting for Disaster, of Manufactured and Absurdly Baseless ANXIETY.

They won.

The city itself, the physical plant of it, has never been completely still and untouched. That's accelerated since 9/11, but only back to 1960s levels. In that time, the city was massively building itself upwards and gigantically reimagining itself as a post-industrial place. The docks were buried under the basement dirt of the Twin Towers, and the result was called "Battery Park City." (That's where Rector Place is...the area is a lovely little garden suburb sticking into the Hudson River. I loved living there.) Typical of New York City, the corrupt and venal politicians, unions, and general all-around naysayers held up construction of and use from Battery Park City for a decade or so after the first plans were created, which needless to say resemble the finished buildup very very little.

Now the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, is being rebuilt, and the wrangling, infighting, graft, and corruption endemic to our "free" society has taken...why look at that...a bit more than ten years! Conservative and religious bigots and fools have screamed blue murder about this and that, most recently the presence of a mosque near the site. STFU, right-wingers, freedom of religion means just that.

This, of course, has made an impact on the architect/poet, as he tells us in this excerpt from "Under Vesey Street":
...springtide
wishing autumn
clinging to rime

feeling for my pocket edition daily log -- each of the 92
pages properly sawn -- in legally-binding terms -- into the
spine -- and slowly (feeling my pupils dilating, again)
take a 270° sweep, and see, leaching slowly through
darkness, a maze of columns>beams>bracing steel>fuming
pipes>buzzing conduits, varicose walls perspiring; pupils
reach higher into the penumbra of the soaring walls: a
stumping reflection of the stampede on the other side,
above, on the intermediate plane, as they dash from east
to west over the wetdim blacktop-patched concrete
sidewalks, on an endless, sacramental cycle the blurry
bobbing mugs, seemingly -- cues perhaps unduly enlarged by
the echoing quietness, here, where I stand {how could
anyone not be going loco} on the lower plane (I've
switched off the flashlight, it's back in my back pocket,
tight between twilled blue cotton pleats, safe under my
regulation yellow safety vest) -- natural, the nightly
exoduses as casual, immaterial as the influx of winter
dusk in springtime...
I relate to this. I have experienced so much bureaucratic inaction-coupled-with-interference-combined-with-legalistic-nonsense that the litany of his built world and its ridiculous, overbearing rules in contrast to the simple reality of color, shape, sound gongs my inner bell.

So yeah, I liked the book. It took me a month to read, because all said and done I don't like reading poetry any more than I like reading plays. The rare piece that gets past my guard becomes more and more valuable to me as proof that I'm set in my ways like hair is set, not like concrete is set.

The publisher sent this book to me with [The Wisdom of Ashes], as an unsolicited bonus gift. I hope he realizes how lucky he is that I liked this book! It goes unpanned, a very rare occurrence when I'm asked (however indirectly) to read poetry. I find the rhyming stuff intolerable, and most of the rest insufferably pit-sniffing self-absorption.

That makes happy discoveries like Eduardo del Valle's collection so much more pleasurable and important to me than to genre fans.

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THE IRON LANCE (The Celtic Crusade #1)
STEPHEN R. LAWHEAD
HarperVoyager
$15 ebook, don't buy it though

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: In the year 1095, Pope Urban II declared war on the infidel. Kings, princes, and lords throughout Europe have joined the Crusade. To Murdo Ranulfson has fallen the duty of guarding his family's interests while his father and brothers fight to win Jerusalem. But when corrupt clergy prove enemies rather than protectors, Murdo must leave his native Scotland in search of his father.

In the company of monks and warriors, he journeys far beyond the rolling fields of home, beyond the fabled Constantinople and the brooding walls of Antioch, to the Holy Land and the sword points of the Saracens. There, where blood, suffering, and human evil at its most horrifying are shot through with rays of the miraculous, he obtains the relic that will guide his life and the lives of his descendants for centuries. And there he grows from a callow youth to a man, trading cynicism for faith and selfishness for the heart of a leader.

Steeped in heroism, treachery, and the clamor of battle, The Iron Lance begins a remarkable, masterfully woven epic trilogy of a Scottish noble family fighting for its existence and its faith during the age of the Great Crusades -- and of a secret society that will shape history for a thousand years.

My Review: There was a time when I tried, and tried hard, to be a christian. Something alluring about feeling sure you're protected by a bid daddy who loves you. But the problem for me is, I have this logical outlook on life and I need stuff to make sense, to follow the rules of storytelling. This religion don't do none o' that, and plus it's riddled with exclusionary language, "moral" justifications for rotten stuff like slavery and incest, and so on and so forth.

Horrible.

This novel is a holdover possession from that period of my life. It's competently written, it's about a period of history I find enthralling, and I hated every single eyeblink I spent on it. There's persuasion and then there's bludgeoning. This is the latter. Had I paid the slightest attention, I would have noticed that the book was published by Zondervan...a christian publishing house. A foolish error on my part.

This review is my reminder to myself: Openness to change is good, but don't get carried away. Borrow from the library. That way the crap that offends you can go back with no damage to your pocketbook.

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SUPERZELDA: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald
Tiziana LoPorto and Daniele Marotta

One Peace Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Dancer, painter, writer, muse, passionate lover, and freethinker, Zelda Fitzgerald is one of the most iconic figures of the Jazz Age. Born in Alabama in 1900, she was only 18 when she met F. Scott Fitzgerald, an ambitious young writer who would turn into one the greatest American authors of all time. Beautiful, talented, irreverent, extravagant, and alcohol-driven, the newly married couple took New York's high society and the whole literary world by storm. They traveled to France, Italy, and Africa; hung out with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and Gertrude Stein; managed to both charm and enrage most of the people they were acquainted with; and ended up destroying their love and themselves-Zelda was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent more than a decade in psychiatric clinics, tragically dying at 48 in a fire. Superzelda is a thoroughly researched work based on period photographs and documents, as well as on Zelda and Scott's writing. It is a biography, a love story, and a travelogue all wrapped into one. The beautiful two-color illustrations bring to life one of the most fascinating women, as well as eras, of the early 20th century.

My Review: Twitter made me do it.

No, for real. I saw a tweet of a reviewlet for Superzelda and, well, I was too curious not to look into the book itself. Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the publication of Z, and now this! An embarrassment of riches in Fitzgeraldry. What can a comic book add to the merriment, I wondered, that something more meaty and textual couldn't do better?

Well now, given my overall lack of appreciation for comic books, the answer you're expecting now is either a grumbling "not a lot" or a shrieking "NOTHING!" Nanny nanny boo-boo! I liked this comic book condensed history of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald a good deal.

The illos are, well, they're what I'd expect. I think they're okay. The fact that they're printed on comic-book paper, uncoated and not very thick and pretty rough, added to the charm of the thing. It even smells the way I expect a comic book to smell! I like the two-color printing, black and various screens of a lovely slate-meets-turquoise blue. I like the choices of subjects to illustrate and the sense I get that Marotta, the illustrator, had about six zillion photos tacked up and piled on tables and propped against books in his studio and he alchemically schlurgled them around in his visual cortex and blew them out his hands in a fury of creation.

LoPorto's writing I can't comment on, because of necessity it's been translated and that means I have no idea how this compares to her original since I haven't read it. The story is already familiar to me, so I'm not reading to be informed, only entertained. I was, at least enough to finish the book.

Which leads me to the heart of the matter for me: What is the point of these things? They're not violent or prurient, previously the two reasons that comic books existed; they're not in-depth, they're not glitteringly witty or lushly lovely; they're sort of limbic creations, in a twilight zone of fact meeting imagination that just makes no sense to me. This is a book that resembles Zelda, Nancy Milford's excellent biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, the way Wikipedia resembles the Encyclopedia Britannica. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, in a browsing-the-porn-sites way; nothing much not to like, but nothing to get my teeth (!) into.

Plus it's too hard to read.

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HOW TO BE ALONE: Essays
Jonathan Franzen

Picador
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections was the best-loved and most-written-about novel of 2001. Nearly every in-depth review of it discussed what became known as "The Harper's Essay," Franzen's controversial 1996 investigation of the fate of the American novel. This essay is reprinted for the first time in How to be Alone, along with the personal essays and the dead-on reportage that earned Franzen a wide readership before the success of The Corrections. Although his subjects range from the sex-advice industry to the way a supermax prison works, each piece wrestles with familiar themes of Franzen's writing: the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America. Recent pieces include a moving essay on his father's stuggle with Alzheimer's disease (which has already been reprinted around the world) and a rueful account of Franzen's brief tenure as an Oprah Winfrey author.

As a collection, these essays record what Franzen calls "a movement away from an angry and frightened isolation toward an acceptance--even a celebration--of being a reader and a writer." At the same time they show the wry distrust of the claims of technology and psychology, the love-hate relationship with consumerism, and the subversive belief in the tragic shape of the individual life that help make Franzen one of our sharpest, toughest, and most entertaining social critics.

My Review: "Why Bother?" or, more familiarly "The Harper's Essay," is the most famous piece in the collection, and probably the most read. I think it's a nice meditation on the nature of reading and writing, and the changes these two things have been through, but it's not (to me) earth-shatteringly amazing. I've been thinking many of the same thoughts for a long time, being both a modeled and a social-isolate reader (the essay gives definitions for these terms, and you should read the text anyway. Wikipedia links to a PDF of it).

That doesn't mean the essay is less valuable, merely makes the point that I, and presumably others like me, don't feel its novelty. For others to whom the ideas are new, this could gong them like a bell. I wonder if those folks are among Franzen's readers, though. I still think Tetris is a cool video game, so how likely am I to be seeking out BioShock X or whatever? My sense of novelty, then, isn't about texts or their creators and/or the act of their creation, it's about the successors to the book and the ethos they create.

But the essay is, like the entire collection, a little bit less than fully coherent. Franzen doesn't so much organize his points around his thoughts as his thoughts around his points. The bits about his marital breakdown, the portions mentioning his teaching job, the revision-points about the Oprah kerfuffle after The Corrections got him into such trouble...all placed here and there, all called upon to do multiple duty and yet never seeming to be the mainstay of any one argument. Why then invoke them at all? I didn't feel the added weight of support in many of Franzen's passing mentions and glancing blows.

"My Father's Brain," on the other hand, was a fine and personal piece of wrestling, and a very involving and moving look at the nature of a time and a space in an adult man's life: The end of a parent's life is fraught for us all, and the ending of the life before the parent's actual death is the hardest thing to process.

Alzheimer's and other dementias are deeply frightening to me, and I suspect to most of us. Franzen reports from the front lines that it's a lot less terrifying than one might imagine, and even more heartrending. This essay is responsible for all three stars I've given the collection all by itself. I like the author a great deal more than I did after reading The Corrections, which I found repetitive rather than recursive, and ~100pp of Freedom, which for some reason I can't quite understand made me angry. The son who wrote "My Father's Brain" is a guy I want to have a beer with, talk about the pessimism-inducing world we fifty-plus social isolates live in, and see if we can't hash out some reason not to despair.

The other essays are well-written pieces about things I wasn't interested in, and ended up not meaning anything to me on a visceral level. Just, well, yeah okay that's nice, but what the devil should I care?

It's very much a library-borrow, and really not something I'll urge you to get out there and procure no matter the source. As usual for me as regards this writer, I don't leave this read eagerly awaiting the next one by him.

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LUCIFER AT THE STARLITE: Poems
Kim Addonizio

W.W. Norton
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: With both passion and precision, Lucifer at the Starlite explores life’s dual nature: good and evil, light and dark, suffering and moments of unexpected joy. Whether looking outward to events on the world stage—the war in Iraq, the 2004 Asian tsunami—or inward at struggles with the self, these poems aim at the heart and against the feeling that Lucifer may have already won the day.

My Review: The title poem, "Lucifer at the Starlite," will give you a flavor of her work:

Here's my bright idea for life on earth:
better management. The CEO
has lost touch with the details. I'm worth
as much, but I care; I come down here, I show
my face, I'm a real regular. A toast:
To our boys and girls in the war, grinding
through sand, to everybody here, our host
who's mostly mist, like methane rising
from retreating ice shelves. Put me in command.
For every town, we'll have a marching band.
For each thoroughbred, a comfortable stable;
for each worker, a place beneath the table.
For every forward step a stumbling,
A shadow over every starlit thing.

This is as good as her poetry gets, so if you don't like that, give the collection a miss. I liked it, as you can tell. I thought there was a freshness about her very serious point, the expression was light and informal and that's (I'm pretty sure) what she was going for; but The Divine Miss, in her inimitable way, upon hearing me read several poems aloud, commented: "Nice! She's Auden for the ADD generation."

Well, when you can't top a line, get off the stage. Recommended.

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EASY: Poems
Marie Ponsot

Alfred A. Knopf
$17.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Leave it to the graceful Marie Ponsot, now in her late eighties, to view her life in poetry as easeful. As she tells us, pondering what stones can hear, “Between silence and sound / we are balancing darkness, / making light of it.” In this celebratory collection, Ponsot makes light, in both senses, of all she touches, and her pleasure in offering these late poems is infectious. After more than a half century at her craft, she describes her poetic preferences unpretentiously thus: “no fruity phrases, just unspun / words trued right toward a nice / idea, for chaser. True’s a risk. / Take it I say. Do true for fun.”

Ponsot is accepting of what has come, whether it’s a joyous memory of her second-grade teacher in a New York public school or the feeling of being “Orphaned Old,” less lucky in life since her parents died. She holds herself to the highest standard: to see clearly, to think, to deal openhandedly and openheartedly with the world, to “Go to a wedding / as to a funeral: / bury the loss” and also to “Go to a funeral / as to a wedding: / marry the loss.” She confides that she meets works of great art “expectant and thirsty.”

Indeed, Ponsot’s thirst for life and its best expression, for the sprightly phrase and the deeper understanding running beneath, makes this book a transformative experience. The wisdom and music of Easy, like all of Ponsot’s poetry, will remain with her readers for decades to come.

My Review:
COMETING

I like to drink my language in
straight up, no ice no twist no spin
----no fruity phrases, just unspun
words trued right toward a nice
idea, for chaser. True's a risk.
Take it I say. Do true for fun.

We say water is taught by thirst
earth by ocean diving
birds by the lift of the heart

oh that lift
----curative, isn't it----
a surge a sursum as
words become us
we come alive lightly
saying Oh

*
at the wordstream of sentences
transparent in their consequence
cometing before our eyes
trailing crystalline
across our other sky
and we drink from it
for the jolt of language
for its lucid hit
of bliss, the surprise.

Mrs. Ponsot is a friend of my BFF's, and a lady of quite noble vintage (90 quite soon); as you see from the above, pp60-61 in the book, she's lost not one step in her grande-dame-hood. I loved the clear, refreshing dip I took into the 52 poems in "Easy: Poems".

I am always delighted by poets whose impulse is to communicate not obfuscate; I love Wallace Stevens and WH Auden and Sharon Olds, and of course Mrs. Ponsot, for their sharp eyes and their stiletto-thin pencils. These lines are so well crafted that you can cut yourself on them:

"...From its baseboard stares
the head of a boar made
by someone who had seen a boar.

Cornered, caved, tarnishing
regardless in the dark at the back
edge of a royal burial, it sucked
the dust of three skulls
of three young women
whose heads it crushed
as it was planted there.
...
two singers and a lutanist, untarnished,
breakable, intentional, faithful
servants and instruments of song.
..."
--from "What Speaks Out", pp44-45

May I, and all I love, be able to create such wonderful, bright, unsparing beauty as we close in on our centenaries. This is how to do Getting Old. Brava, Marie Ponsot, and many many thanks for paying forward your dark-adapted eye.

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HELLO SUNSHINE
Ryan Adams

Akashic Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now (though why you would want it I don't know)

Rating: 0.0000000125* of five


Why? In the name of all that's holy, why?

Memo to all prospective poets: Line breaks
do
not make
your vapid, tem-
pestuous maunder
ings
poetry.

In honor of it being National Poetry month and all.

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