“the way a matronly merchant / Might brush off her lap, at the iron end of the market day”: Monica Ferrell’s “In the Grips of a Sickness Transmitted by Wolves”

I’ve wanted to visit Italy for years—the descriptions of the light and the scenery and the food are always so delicious, don’t you think?

I just came across Monica Ferrell’s “In the Grips of a Sickness Transmitted by Wolves,” an atmospheric, creepy sort of poem set in Sorrento that calls up a different kind of association; it made me think of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, actually. I love the poet’s use of sound, both in description and in the almost-rhymes, which give a sort of off-kilter quality to the lines. And the image of the merchant dusting off her lap at the “iron end” of the day is just wonderful. I wish I better understood the poem’s allusions though—if you do, please enlighten me!

In other poetry-related news, October8 was National Poetry Day in the U.K.; here’s a link of the Prince of Wales reading (rather well, I might say) one of his favorite Dylan Thomas poems some time ago. 

Recommended Reading: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

I read this book in the best company: my new niece's.

I read this book in the best company: my new niece’s.

Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was so breathtaking that I felt sincere trepidation when his new collection of short stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno*, arrived in the mail.

I shouldn’t have.

These linked stories, though they don’t swell with the emotional buildup made possible by the length of the novel, are nonetheless beautifully constructed, achingly sad, grimly funny. If A Constellation of Vital Phenomena had me sobbing, The Tsar of Love and Techno made a lump rise in my throat more than once (and to be fair, the former’s depiction of torture made me ill, and this book made me only faintly queasy in comparison).

Again, Mr. Marra finds his subjects in violence-torn Chechnya, where a placid hillside depicted in a minor nineteenth-century painting is a touchstone that winks in and out of nearly a century of darkness in St. Petersburg (and its other names), Siberia, and Grozny.

The stories begin in 1937, when a prolific censor begins painting his brother into each work he “corrects,” and then they expand outward in time and space. We meet the beautiful granddaughter of an exiled ballerina, the bereft self-appointed curator of a Chechen art museum, two young brothers on the edge of a chemical-swollen manmade lake, a boy thinking about getting himself arrested so he won’t be drafted, a middle-aged woman desperate to connect with her daughter and make sense of a daunting half century of change.

The level of detail in the stories is exquisite, the settings unforgettable (a wolf-haunted forest of fake trees, a mine-strewn hillside, piles of rubble that used to be apartments) and the characterization unfolds from tale to tale with great skill. Each story could stand alone, but one or two later you’ll find a character is more nuanced than when you first read about him or her. Sometimes all it takes is a sentence: “she had long ago learned to ignore her largest moral failures by attending to the smallest social proprieties” (233).

It’s a testament to the brilliance of this book that Mr. Marra shows the sheer terror of Stalinism and the icy cruelty of Putin’s oligarchy and yet still finds a way to convey humor and even a little beauty (besides that in the writing, which is extensive), and the human, individual mystery that sends the same man almost mad with a longing for home, and then the implacable determination to return to war.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is a marvelous book. Highly recommended.

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“something brighter than pity for the wingless ones”: Derek Walcott’s “The Season of Phantasmal Peace”

Photo by Rowan Heuval via Unsplash

Photo by Rowan Heuval via Unsplash

Recently I read Derek Walcott’s 1984 collection Midsummer (which I highly recommend–it’s heavy and heady with summer and heat, like a ripe peach). This week, when it’s finally starting to feel like autumn around here (I nominate 2015 for Boston’s strangest year of weather award), I’m reading his poem “The Season of Phantasmal Peace,” which you can find here. 

This poem is an interesting contrast with last week’s featured poem, which was “Light” by C. K. Williams.  It’s a pairing that makes me miss teaching; I’d love to discuss with students how the two poets approach light and darkness, expand on a small moment, use imagery and form. Ah well.

P.S. True story/shameless name-dropping: Derek Walcott is the only Nobel Prize winner I’ve met. I had the privilege of sitting in on one of his playwriting courses, and once he held the door to the English department open for me.

On Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last and Milton

IMG_3829In Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last*, Stan and Charmaine live in the Northeast in the years after a terrible economic collapse that has affected that part of the country more than any other. They are eking out a meager living, sleeping in their car, avoiding roaming gangs, and looking desperately for work.

Increasingly despondent about their chances of raising their standard of living (they cannot afford enough gas to get them to a region with better economic prospects), Charmaine and Stan apply to and are accepted by the Positron project. Positron is a prison located in its sister town, Consilience. Every month, half the citizens of Consilience go about ordinary lives—ordering furnishing for their houses, going to work, enjoying the movies and music of the 1950s; the next month, they become inmates in Positron prison, where they attend to jobs like knitting and feeding the town’s chicken supply. There is zero unemployment in Consilience, almost no crime, and no hunger.

But of course things are not what they seem, and soon Stan and Charmaine are sucked into a vortex of secrets and plots and come much too close to learning the truth behind the Positron system (which seems like a thinly-veiled critique of the company town).

In many ways, The Heart Goes Last is your standard dystopian thriller:

  • Evil institution interested in exploiting the populace
  • Characters forced by circumstance to join evil institution
  • Social breakdown and collapse of economic systems
  • Power of human relationships fundamental to resolution of tale
  • High tension, cascading plot revelations, and an unsettling denouement

But The Heart Goes Last also offers a heaping portion of satire; this is the genre taken to its limit, complete with sexbots, brain-wiping, sinister knitting, and more Elvises than have ever appeared in a novel (to my knowledge). And it’s Margaret Atwood, so throw in plenty of sex and gender politics as well.

Until I realized it was satire, I found the novel hard to like; neither Stan nor Charmaine, nor any of the supporting characters, are particularly likable; there’s no Offred to cheer for (well, maybe one minor character). I don’t require likable characters to enjoy a book, but it’s harder to stick with a novel when you don’t much care whether such-and-such lives or dies.

And it’s not just satire; it’s a riff on Milton’s Paradise Lost. The poem is mentioned explicitly once, and the novel’s last lines are lifted from the end of Milton’s epic in an amusing fashion.

[If you want a quick refresher on Paradise Lost, I’ve got posts for you: Books 1&2, Books 3&4, Books 5&6, Books 7&8, Books 9&10, Books 11&12.]

Milton’s purpose in Paradise Lost is to “justify the ways of God to man.” A tall order, but Milton’s like that. Essentially, his epic poem is an attempt to explain why God would create humans only to watch us sin and suffer; put another way, the poem tries to solve the problem of evil. But it’s more than that; it’s about poetry itself, marriage, psychology, history, freedom, education, the environment (Milton might call it stewardship),and choice. (And more.)

The Heart Goes Last is rather like Paradise Lost set in the dystopian future, without an omnipotent God running the show.

On one level, paradise is already lost, thanks to the economic collapse that’s sent Stan and Charmaine into the arms of Positron.

Consilience, the supposed paradise of full employment, no hunger, and perfect happy homes (and, Stan notices eventually, no gay citizens) is of course a prison too, a prison of constant surveillance; Stan and Charmaine have traded their freedom for security, and that’s a bad choice. In Milton’s poem, Eve and Adam have security–all their needs are provided for, though, like Stan and Charmaine, they are expected to work. Crucially, Eve trades that security for freedom–choosing to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And for Milton, that’s the bad choice, the wrong one that leads to humanity’s fallen history.

But in each case, it’s the woman’s choice, and her husband, for good or ill, goes along with it; the ebb and flow of partners’ satisfaction and interests in the marriage is a key theme in The Heart Goes Last, just as marriage-making is a thread that runs through Paradise Lost.

Then there’s temptation. One of Charmaine’s most interesting characteristics is her susceptibility to suggestion, a trait she shares with Eve, though Charmaine might be just a touch more self-aware. Milton’s God contends that he created humanity “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” and that’s one way of describing Stan and Charmaine, both in their choice to sign the Consilience contract, and in their personal sexual choices.

There are several other parallels (I think I see Ms. Atwood grappling with Milton’s views on women, for instance), but what struck me as I thought about the two texts is how Ms. Atwood’s book brought something about Paradise Lost into focus for me: Milton’s version of Eden is a surveillance state. Eve and Adam are watched constantly–by the reader and the speaker, in some sense, but also by Satan, the angels, and God (Father and Son). How free are you if every choice you make is monitored, and occasionally someone is sent by to educate you about your choices?

Putting these books in conversation is a fascinating exercise, and now I’m eager to read more of Ms. Atwood’s work with Milton in mind. Meanwhile, for those of you who aren’t terribly excited at the idea of reading a poem that’s thousands of lines long: give The Heart Goes Last a try if you like Margaret Atwood, satire, or creepy books about marriage.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

In Memoriam: C. K. Williams

Photo courtesy Elijah Hail via Unsplash

Photo courtesy Elijah Hail via Unsplash

Poet C. K. Williams died this week; you can read a brief obituary here. He himself wrote a moving tribute at the death of his friend Galway Kinnell late last year in the New Yorker; I commend it to your reading, since a eulogy often says as much about the eulogizer as the eulogized.

I’ve read his poems from time to time, and certainly come across them in anthologies and classes on poetry, but I don’t know his work well. But here is “Light,” a poem of his I’m fond of, a poem with Dante and bats and these gorgeous lines:

[. . .] having to know for us both that everything ends,
world, after-world, even their memory, steamed away
like the film of uncertain vapor of the last of the luscious rain.


I hope you’ll enjoy it too.


Recommended Reading: Sanford Friedman’s Conversations with Beethoven

Conversations on the BeachFor someone who loves epistolary novels, as I do, Sanford Friedman’s posthumously published Conversations with Beethoven* is a treat. The novel is a record of Beethoven’s last year of life, from the time of his beloved nephew Karl’s suicide attempt to his own fatal illness. In his later years, when he was deaf, the great composer’s friends, relatives, admirers, and doctors communicated with him by writing their replies when they conversed.

Since Beethoven spoke aloud, except when he did not wish to be overheard (or when writing letters) Conversations with Beethoven is a book in which much takes place that is not written on the page; readers must, for the most part, imagine Beethoven’s responses to his interlocutors. It is to Friedman’s credit that these unwritten responses are entirely vivid, thanks to the reactions of Beethoven’s conversation partners (who are distinguished by the way they address the composer; there’s a handy guide in the front matter). Context and tone are the backbone of this book and make it utterly fascinating (and nearly impossible to quote here).

Beethoven is irascible above all, particular, ill, vehement, passionate, impetuous, stubborn, thoughtful. If you are expecting to read a great deal about his music and his inspiration, you’d best look to nonfiction about his work. But if you want to become immersed in Beethoven’s life, his everyday anxieties about money and illness, his small triumphs in overcoming his prejudices, his unexpected kindness toward servants and younger musicians—if you are looking for the man behind the music, Conversations with Beethoven will delight.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“My heart and the gray world grow young”: Sophie Jewett’s “To a Child”

IMG_4651This past weekend, Dear Readers, my sister gave birth to the most beautiful little girl. She’s our first niece and H’s first cousin, and we’re so excited that she’s here (and we can’t wait to meet her!).

Naturally, I’ve had poems about babies and birth on the brain, and let me tell you: there are a lot of cotton-candy sweet poems about babies out there if you care to look, but also quite a few that are nuanced and lovely (Don Paterson’s “Walking with Russell,” for example,  is a fantastic father-son/parent-child poem).

Sophie Jewett’s “To a Child” is old fashioned, a quiet and simple poem. Its speaker looks back on early parenthood from the position of age, using a metaphor of a tree and a bird to show the parent-child relationship:

I was a dreaming forest tree,
You were a wild, sweet bird
Who sheltered at the heart of me
Because the north wind stirred;

It reminds me of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny (one of the all-time great children’s books, and beautifully deconstructed in Margaret Edson’s beautiful play Wit). In the story (and aren’t children’s stories often very much like poems, with their rhythmic cadences and repetitions?) , the baby bunny says that he will run away, and the mother replies that she will find him, “for you are my little bunny.” In one scene, he says that he will become a little bird and fly away, but “If you become a little bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

Welcome home, Cora!