Monday, February 22, 2010

rob mclennan, red earth

"Given the fact of lyric obscurity--perhaps the only fact a poem yields to its readers--one wonders what sort of bond, if any, a poem establishes with its readers, with the sensory realm evoked by its words, or with the society in which it appears (if indeed it makes an appearance). More to the point, after a century or programmatic obscurity, a great deal of serious poetry seems to have abandoned the task of communication, the will to directly influence common, public discourse and evolving conceptions of community. Must we therefore presume that the obscurity of poetry, in comparison with other genres and medias, bars it from over social engagement and, even more radically, that no viable model of relational being can be deduced from the conditions of lyric obscurity?"
(Daniel Tiffany, Infidel Poetics:
Riddles, Nightlife, Substance, p.3)
The answer a friendly reader is meant to give Tiffany's not entirely rhetorical question is, of course, "no," and the answer that a frustrated or less friendly reader would give is, also of course, "yes." Personally, I'm not comfortable with or pleasured by what I've taken to calling secret-handshake poetry, but Tiffany's point is well taken. Poetry has always been obscure to at least some of its readers, more and less so at different times, just like there have always been other communities and other forms of language whose (somewhat private) language is difficult for outsiders to access.

The question for poets and their readers has always been the definition of community, of who might reasonably be expected to understand and appreciate the published (or at least written) words. Coterie poets in ages past wrote deliberately for small, specific readerships who would have recognized additional significance in coded references, mentions of privately memorable events, that sort of thing, so one defense that's sometimes offered against the difficulty of much contemporary poetry is that it's not unlike a return to coterie publication. And given the print run of much contemporary poetry, it's a tempting defense.

These points were in my head recently as I wrote back and forth with a regular correspondent about the rewards and frustrations of reading contemporary poetry, so it made sense that they kept rattling around as I worked through rob mclennan's red earth, book 5 in the Palm Poets Series from Black Moss Press. (If you want to get a sense for him before continuing, here's an interview with mclennan about this book, and here's a link to his blog.) mclennan's a tireless worker, an insightful reviewer, and a very good contemporary poet, thus making one of his books a useful test case for the kinds of ideas that Tiffany raises.

Ignore success, for now. Some of the poems in red earth are clear and illuminating, such as those inspired by Louis Dudek and Kevin Connolly (pp.36&38), and these poems would work fine for someone resistant to the idea that obscurity is a virtue, maybe even a necessity. mclennan has a distinct ability with the piercing line, such as those expressing a moment poised between nostalgia and desire in "invisible techniques (after gb" (yes, there's no closing parenthesis), so if he wanted to write straightforward lyric poems, he'd do just fine in that mode.

But he's not interested in being that sort of poet, or at least not only that sort of poet, so that's why I found myself thinking about Daniel Tiffany. I mean, what do you do with this (imagining, in addition, that the last line of each stanza is indented from the rest)?
"summer: 31st year"

i threw my hands in, swirl
of the sunny terrasse, are
& then wondering, you in town?

bites down hard on my lip, she, quarters
& others that keep me holed,
pigeon, sparrow, quail.

sleeps in the morning of small shadows,
opens her hair up to the shower rail
& picturesque, wholly sweet.

this is the door i will design to open. this is
the bicycle that will take me. this
is the key i will break. (p.76)
No, really, what do you do with it?

Lilli Carré, Tales of Woodsman Pete

Lilli Carré's wee book Tales of Woodsman Pete was among the haul brought back from last weekend's jaunt to Portland, and I can't come up with a better brief summary of this gem than is available on the publisher's own site: "a collection of vignettes and stories about a solitary albeit gregarious woodsman with a loose grasp on his own personal history and that of the outside world."

Actually, once you've finished reading the book, that description sounds just about right. If you're considering this book, you need to know that Woodsman Pete lives alone after the inadequately and inconsistently described death of his wife, in the company of his bearskin rug, named Philippe, and an assortment of mounted heads (birds, moose, and so on).

Pete's all about the storytelling, not necessarily about getting the details right. As he puts it himself when he's NOT talking about his wife, "it's hard to remember all the details -- you just gotta tie together what you haven't forgotten and hope it can stand on its own two feet" (p.66). His wife isn't particularly important to the story (a good thing, since her death is placed before the book's first page), except that Pete's a character who's living alone but clearly wasn't meant to be that way. Mixed in with the stories that Pete tells in order to seem less alone are two other perspectives: (1) Paul Bunyan tells some of his own stories, shifting them out of pure myth, and (2) we get to watch Pete go about his days seemingly outside the view he'd take of them -- the Saturday night page is especially good in this light, both hilarious though sad. These shifts in perspective make the book a whole lot better than it might otherwise be, because they come across as sensitive rather than obvious.

It's a small book, less than 80 pages long, and I know that graphic novels don't work for everyone, but it's worth the price of admission. Graphic novel, though: graphic novella? It's not a collection of strips, exactly, because they work together to exceed the sum of their parts, but it's episodic rather than narrative. It's a form I'm still getting used to, but I liked this book an awful lot.

For a few preview pages, click here. Good stuff!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Feb 15 - Port Angeles

I zipped into a couple of Port Angeles bookstores today while waiting for a ferry, because I couldn't stand just sitting and waiting. And really, what better thing is there to do other than pick up more paperwork?

Odyssey Books contributed Richard White's The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River ($3.50) as well as Terry Tempest Williams' Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place ($3), and Port Book & News offered Paula Gunn Allen's The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions ($6) and Jenny Kurzweil's Fields That Dream: A Journey to the Roots of Our Food ($14.95, about the farming community that feeds Seattle's public markets and restaurants). Great stuff, to cap off a great trip!

Feb 14 - Powell's

And because I was kicking myself for some of my leave-behinds at Powell's on Saturday, I had to go pick up a few things on the way out of the Pearl District:
  • Rich Ives, ed., From Timberline to Tidepool: Contemporary Fiction from the Northwest ($3.50, and by "contemporary" I mean "as of 1986")
  • Rich Ives, ed., The Truth About the Territory: Contemporary Nonfiction from the Northwest ($8.95, as of 1987)
  • Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion ($10.95)
  • Mourning Dove, Mourning Dove: A Salishan Autobiography ($5.95)

Feb 13 - Reading Frenzy

I found a way-cool little bookstore, mostly selling zines, just down the road from Powell's, and I picked up two fascinating little volumes from Reading Frenzy:
  • Lilli Carre's comic/cartoon Tales of Woodsman Pete, With Full Particulars ($7, and including some about Paul Bunyan), and
  • Martha Grover's text-driven Portland, Oregon Hip-Hop: Four Essays on Style and Place ($5, clearly of interest because of my gangsta roots, yo).
Very fun place, well worth checking out!

Feb 13 - Powell's

This was my first visit to Powell's Books, and I was staggered. I made a point of visiting twice before buying anything, but honestly, I wound up wandering around with a full basket, putting one thing back and picking up two more -- hardly a good way of staying within budget, but what do you expect from a bookstore with roughly a MILLION volumes? So, here's the big haul, from the first purchase run, some new, some used, and some discounted new:
  • David Landis Barnhill, ed., At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place: A Multicultural Anthology ($11.95)
  • Rick Bass, The Book of Yaak ($8.95)
  • Daniel Botkin, Our Natural History: The Lessons of Lewis and Clark ($5)
  • Lawrence Buell, The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination ($19.95)
  • Grace L. Dillon, ed, Hive of Dreams: Contemporary Science Fiction from the Pacific Northwest ($7.98)
  • William Kittredge, Owning It All ($5.95)
  • David Peterson del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History ($6.95)
  • Laurie Ricou, The Arbutus/Madrone Files: Reading the Pacific Northwest ($8.95)
  • James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians ($11.95)
  • Richard J. Schneider, ed., Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing ($12.50)
God. What a nerd. I gotta start casting the ol' net a little wider.

Feb 13 - Oregon Historical Society

The first of a few posts, because it was a bonanza weekend in Portland! It all started off with a visit to the Oregon Historical Museum, which is tightly focused on what amounts to the state's environmental history and does a wonderful job of clarifying the intimate connections between the so-called "Indian wars" and associated genocide on the one hand, and on the other hand the state's fertility and productiveness. Three books leapt into my hands at the museum store, but it was tough to push more of them back on the shelves:
  • John Daniel, The Far Corner: Northwestern Views on Land, Life, and Literature ($18.75)
  • John Daniel, Rogue River Journal: A Winter Alone ($12)
  • S.L. Stoner, Timber Beasts ($14.95, "A Sage Adair Historical Mystery," involving a secret operative inside America's labour movement, circa 1902, in the Pacific Northwest)
I've been really enjoying John Daniel as I dipped into him over the last few days, but I'm looking forward to Stoner, too.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Michael Chabon, Summerland

So I picked up this book in the UVic bookstore: "Summerland?," thought I. "Someone's written a fat novel about the Okanagan town of Summerland? Wait, no, that can't be right -- what would Michael Chabon have to do with a place Where The Spirit Of Summer Never Ends?"

Of course it wasn't about the Okanagan, but when I flipped to the first page and learned that it begins in the fictional locale of Clam Island, Washington, just off Tacoma, my literatures of the West Coast radar went off, and I had to buy it. Since it combines not just the West Coast but also fantasy, according to the back-cover blurb, and also baseball, which as any reader of W.P. Kinsella, David James Duncan, or Bernard Malamud knows is a mystical and glorious pursuit (if ONLY within the covers of a book or the images of a film), well, what was I going to do?

Reader, I finished it.

And it was fabulous. Honestly, about the most fun I've had with a book since I first encountered Jasper Fforde, and it revived the little ache I've long had about not yet reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Now that I've read one Chabon book, I'm diving headlong into some more of them, and I think K&C will be my first stop. Unless someone recommends otherwise?

Anyway, it's no Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, as the ad copy promises, but it's a nice melange of mythologies (First Nations, Homer, Americana, etc.) that's given a particular late-capitalist twist by virtue of its setting on a really carefully imagined West Coast island that still shows the scars of the WW2 internment of Japanese-Americans (and -Canadians, though that's not part of the book), of the active and passive assault against Native Americans and their ways of being, and of the ongoing pursuit of development that would leave no spot untouched. The real-world portions of the book work really well, with Chabon's 11-year-old heroes doing their best in a world largely populated by somehow damaged adults, and while the fantasy-world sections are worth the price of admission on their own, the pieces are integrated masterfully.

It's under the imprint of "Hyperion Paperbacks for Children," but don't believe it. Five hundred pages? And with this much good stuff? Put Harry Potter under the bed for a while, and get yourself a real book of fantasy.

David Sedaris, When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Ah, David Sedaris: he almost made me forget just how SICK I'd been for much of the previous weeks before the book club met to talk about his newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (a title borrowed from an especially helpful hotel information sign he saw in Japan). I actually read this back in January, for a meeting two weeks ago today, but, well, you know. Life. Work. Stuff. On the positive side, my life isn't as chaotic as the one Sedaris represents as his own throughout his writing.

If you've read Sedaris, all you need to know is that this is more of what you've already read. Liked it? Then this one's for you. Not so much? This one neither.

If you haven't yet had what I think of as the pleasure of reading David Sedaris, this is a decent place to start (since all his books are basically the same, though with a different organizing principle). It's got the usual style of jokes, the usual excursions and travels, the usual cast of wildly idiosyncratic characters you're not sure would be unbearable or fun fun fun. One of my students said yesterday (when we talked about his essay "This Old House") that he's kind of like Stuart McLean, a reference which doesn't help my American readers even a little, but more apparently realistic. However, I loathe Stuart McLean's delivery in person, so I'm unable to appreciate his writing. Sedaris, now, there's a distinctly funny guy!

After an absence

No apologies, but I'm back: some mostly seasonal illness, then a lengthy (lengthy!) paper to write that required rebooting my brain's outmoded steam-driven and dust-covered academic engines. Sometimes it just takes three weeks to get back to where you were.