The Great Library Rundown, Part 1: Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Though I generally don’t use my local library as often as I feel I should, over the last few months I’ve read a steady stream of library books, which I’ll be opining on in batches. Chez O is about to see some very busy weeks, so longer review posts will appear sporadically, I’m afraid.

Let’s sally forth, shall we?

In March I checked out two books I’ve had my eye on for quite a while: Garth Greenwell’s debut novel What Belongs to You and Katie Roiphe’s study of writers meeting their deaths, The Violet Hour. Both were on hold, so I had to return them before I could do a proper write-up, but here’s a short glimpse of each.

IMG_6233What Belongs to You is narrated by an American teacher living in Bulgaria, who finds himself drawn to Mitko, a beguiling and needy hustler. In long sentences and paragraphs (sometimes pages long), Mr. Greenwell reveals the narrator’s troubled Southern childhood, his attempts to control his desire for risk, his confessional impulses. The prose is precise and rather cool, I would say, for a book so concerned with lust and longing, but the contrast between subject and style works to draw the reader into the kinds of worlds we might ordinarily look past, to overcome our resistance to deeply examining uncomfortable emotions like fear, shame, and pity. It’s a remarkable, timely, and difficult novel, well worth reading.

Here’s a passage I particularly liked, from later in the novel when the narrator and his mother have traveled by train in a compartment with another woman and a small boy:

Making poems is a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.


 

IMG_6239I’m fascinated with death—not in a Hot Topic skull necklace kind of way, I mean, but about its practical realties and existential murkiness—and so this book was right up my alley. Ms. Roiphe, herself the survivor of a near-fatal childhood illness, conducted research (including interviews with relatives, friends, and caregivers) on how writers approached their own looming ends. You’ll find chapters on Susan Sontag, Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak, and John Updike (and a conversation with James Salter at the end of the book); each is utterly different and completely absorbing.  As soon as I finished it, I put The Violet Hour on my (imaginary) wish list. Intellectual, unflinching, ferocious questioning. Here are a few lines I noted:

In even the worst deaths, observed closely, there is a great burst of life.

*

Time in the hospital is strange; it just hangs there, with no progression of the sun, no night, even, in all that fluorescence, in the nurses ducking in at three in the morning, in tests, and medications, and blood pressure takings.

*

[about James Salter] In some larger sense, of course, the thing I want from him is delusional. I want him to tell me what it means to come close to death. He flew fighter planes in Korea. He writes more radiant sentences than any writer alive. He seems from his fiction to see ends in beginnings, loss before the fact. From these unrelated details, I have somehow concocted a fantasy that he has made peace with death, seen it up close, knows its surface. I have a further implausible fantasy that he can or wants to share this knowledge with me and put it into words.

P.S. for Ripley: Happy birthday; no bildungsroman today!

“Days are where we live.”

In a recent post on The Poetry Foundation’s website, Caitlin Kimball calls British poet Philip Larkin “that crown prince of misanthropic, socially awkward poet-librarians,” which is probably the best, funniest summation of Larkin’s whole ethos I’ve ever read. For me, reading Larkin’s poems are like sucking on lemons (I know, I know: terrible for one’s teeth. But I do it anyway.). There’s sourness, sure, but it only serves to highlight the brightness of the fruit, the taste like color.

Image courtesy of Pixomar / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Pixomar / Freedigitalphotos.net

In this poem, “Days,” it’s the turn that twists the knife; the first stanza lulls the reader into a little thought experiment, asking her to consider day as a place rather than as a time: “Where can we live but days?” Ay, there’s the rub.

Here’s the second and final stanza.

Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.

“they don’t pause, don’t buzz, don’t / fly up in fear and light again”

I’ve been itching to feature this poem all summer, but I restrained myself until the timing was right — and now it is!

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy SweetCrisis / Freedigitalphotos.net

This week, I’m working on Andrew Hudgins’s sublime “Wasps in August.” You can hear Professor Hudgins read the poem here, at Slate (text too). And you should immediately go find Ecstatic in the Poison, from which this poem comes. I own two copies, and I am, sad to say, not sharing.

Professor Hudgins is one of the best living formalist poets, and a kind and funny man to boot (he teaches at The Ohio State University, alma mater of your humble blogger). I’ve never had the pleasure of taking his classes, but my friends who did treasure the experience. He was gracious enough to support the campus literary magazine and its young poets, and he was (and is) a highly-regarded mentor to new poets.

This poem describes the dying days of the wasps outside the speaker’s home, who defend and nurture their larvae in the nest. But it’s about more than that: frailty, death, rebirth, renewal, futility . . . I could go on.

The last line will floor you.

“Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind”

for Eric

I don’t have anything new or insightful to say about death.

In the last five years, I’ve dealt with death by reading poetry. First I read poems to choose the ones other people would read at the funeral. Then I kept reading. I’ve read elegies and sonnets. I’ve read poems about the dead who died too young, about dead poets, about dead lovers, dead friends. And I’ve read poems that aren’t, ostensibly, about death, but that speak to me about the dead anyway.

Sometimes it helps, sometimes not.  Two poems that have meant something particular to me are “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman, and “Lycidas,” by Milton, of course (despite his egotism, the last twenty lines are amazing). I’ll be re-reading them tomorrow.

And I read “Dirge Without Words” by Edna St. Vincent Millay last week. I love Millay’s work, but I’d never read this poem before, and in its rage and futility and acknowledgment of all the customary tropes, it’s perfect.