Friday, October 12, 2012

Wednesday Poem: 10.10.12

Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers
John Updike

Distance brings proportion. From here
the populated tiers
as much as players seem part of the show:
a constructed stage beast, three folds of Dante’s rose,
or a Chinese military hat
cunningly chased with bodies.
“Falling from his chariot, a drunk man is unhurt
because his soul is intact. Not knowing his fall,
he is unastonished, he is invulnerable.”
So, too, the “pure man”—“pure”
in the sense of undisturbed water.

“It is not necessary to seek out
a wasteland, swamp, or thicket.”
The opposing pitcher’s pertinent hesitations,
the sky, this meadow, Mantle’s thick baked neck,
the old men who in the changing rosters see
a personal mutability,
green slats, wet stone are all to me
as when an emperor commands
a performance with a gesture of his eyes.

“No king on his throne has the joy of the dead,”
the skull told Chuang-tzu.
The thought of death is peppermint to you
when games begin with patriotic song
and a democratic sun beats broadly down.
The Inner Journey seems unjudgeably long
when small boys purchase cups of ice
and, distant as a paradise,
experts, passionate and deft,
hold motionless while Berra flies to left.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Perfect Storm: Books to Read in the Rain

There may be no more subtle pleasure than reading to the sound of a thunderstorm. Some books, however, seem particularly well suited to rainy days. I think it is a question of pacing and style - books to read in the rain ought to unfold carefully, quietly, precisely. Books for the fog and mist ought to slow you down and allow you to appreciate the unexpected capacities of language.

1. The End of the Affair, Graham Greene
The End of the Affair is a first-person account of the warped liaison between a youngish English novelist (Maurice Bendrix) and the wife of an up-and-coming civil servant (Sarah Miles). Bendrix, wracked with jealousy after the end of his own relationship with Sarah, hires a private detective to discover her new partner.

Greene's style refuses to allow language to become a character in its own right. His sentences are clean and lucid, but his intense focus on his character's psyches means that the reader is not left with Hemingway-esque sparsity. Greene's books are places whose moral temperature would wring sweat out of a polar bear. There is an air of menace in Greene's work which intensifies his windowpane prose.

2. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
Two young girls, Ruth and Lucille, are orphaned after their mother's suicide. They are then raised by their competent grandmother, well-meaning but ineffective great aunts and, finally, by Sylvie, their physically transient and emotionally distant aunt. Ruth and Lucille respond very differently to their ephemeral caregivers, and their lives begin to diverge when Sylvie arrives. Lucille is distressed by Sylvie's room which "was just as my grandmother had left it, but the closet and the drawers were mostly empty, since Sylvie kept her clothes and even her hairbrush and toothpowder in a cardboard box under the bed. ... Such habits (she always slept clothed, at first with her shoes on, and then, after a month or two, with her shoes under her pillow) were clearly the habits of a transient.'' But the very habits that unnerve Lucille give comfort to Ruth. ''It seemed to me that if she could remain transient here, she would not have to leave.''

 Robinson is easily one of the most talented writers I have ever come across. You start off by reading slowly, and then slow down because her sentences are so beautiful, so distilled. I'll let her demonstrate:

"I hated waiting. If I had one particular complaint, it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation. I expected — an arrival, an explanation, an apology. There had never been one, a fact I could have accepted, were it not true that, just when I had got used to the limits and dimensions of one moment, I was expelled into the next and made to wonder again if any shapes hid in its shadows."

"Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world's true workings. The nerves and the brain are tricked, and one is left with dreams that these specters loose their hands from ours and walk away, the curve of the back and the swing of the coat so familiar as to imply that they should be permanent fixtures of the world, when in fact nothing is more perishable."

3. Waterland, Graham Swift
Tom Crick is a high school history teacher in Greenwich when the novel begins, but the narrative quickly returns us to his family's home, "a lock-keeper's cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens." Waterland then covers about two and a half centuries in the lives of its narrator and his ancestors. The central plot concerns Tom, his brother, a local girl named Mary, jealousy and murder. A secondary plot revolves around Tom's mother's family, the Atkinsons. Interwoven into both stories is the history of the Fens. 

Swift has described putting ink cartridges in his pen as being like loading ammunition, and this may go someway to explaining the violence that seems to define his writing. Waterland seems to teeter on the edge of fury and madness despite, or perhaps because of, Tom Crick's professorial, lecturing tone.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Dougal, I told you to stop reading Roddy Doyle: How the Irish Saved My Bookshelf

Descriptions of the Irish as delightfully tipsy raconteurs are nauseating. I have spent some time in Ireland and not once has an old man with a tweed cap and a Guinness regaled me with a Joycean epic about love, loss and potatoes. 

Having said that, the Irish write some damn good books. And, mercifully, the three authors that follow write books that save us from Ireland as Leprechaun Disney or Angela's Miseryney. 

1. The Secret Scripture, Sebastian Barry
Roseanne Clear is 100 years old and a resident of the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital. Barry's novel is her life story, scribbled on scavenged hospital letterhead. 

Roscommon is to be closed, and it is Dr. William Grene's responsibility to determine which patients will be moved to a new facility and who will be released into society. Despite her name, Roseanne has no intention of providing a straightforward account of her life to Dr. Grene. Thus, the novel unfolds as a triptych: Roseanne's handwritten account; Roseanne's oral recitation to Dr. Grene, and Dr. Grene's own journal as he tries to make sense of Roseanne's life. 

Underlying Roseanne's personal history is Ireland’s national history — the Rising during the Great War, the war of independence following it, then a civil war following independence, all in quick, murderous succession. Barry's story allows for the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness without sacrificing narrative flow or beauty. This is a novel in which swans enduring a rainstorm are "like unsuccessful suicides" and the accents of Sligo thugs are "like bottles being smashed in a back lane."

2. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Brooklyn is the story of a young woman's (Eilis Lacey) emigration from Ireland to America: a well worn path historically and literarily. But, Toibin's novel is notable for what it lacks: there's no awed first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline; no references to streets paved with gold, and even the account of Eilis's first trip to a baseball game focuses on her boyfriend's way of being with his brothers, not the chance to write a set piece.

Instead, Tóibín patiently details Eilis's numbing homesickness in contrast with enforced American good cheer, her interactions with her fellow inmates at an all-Irish boarding house, her work at a moderately enlightened department store, her night classes. 

Brooklyn is a calm, modest novel. Eilis is not Forrest Gump. Nothing much happens, except for real life.

3. Resurrection Man, Eoin McNamee
Victor Kelly is the leader of an incredibly violent gang of Protestant thugs, the Resurrection Men (read: Shankhill Butchers) roaming the streets of Belfast in the 1970s.

McNamee's novel is remarkable for its ability to conjure up the squalid, claustrophobic terror of Northern Ireland during The Troubles. His Belfast is blasted and broken. Night in the city is a "vernacular darkness," because brutality is the only language its inhabitants speak. Victor strips layers of skin off his victims "to arrive at valid words," and a dead man's head is "bent to his chest as though there were something written there he could read."

McNamee has been compared to Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo - the sort of association that usually dooms a 'new writer' to come up short, but Resurrection Man exceeds expectations.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday Poem: 10.3.12

The Day of Gifts
Paul Claudel (Jonathan Monroe Geltner, trans.)
 It’s not true that Your saints have won everything: they left me with sins enough.
Someday I’ll lie on my deathbed, Lord, ill-shaven and yellow as a lifelong drunk.
And I’ll make a general examination of myself, looking back over all my days,
And I’ll see that I’m rich after all, ripe and rich with evil in its unnumbered paths and ways.
I haven’t lost one single chance, Lord, to make matter for You to pardon.
Now I hearten myself with vice, having long ago sloughed off virtue’s burden.
Each day has its own kind of crime, plain to see, and I count them like some paranoid miser.

If what you need, Lord, are virgins, if what you need are brave men beneath your standard;
If there are people for whom to be Christian words alone would not suffice,
But who know rather that only in stirring themselves to chase after You is there any life,
Well then there’s Dominic and Francis, Saint Lawrence and Saint Cecilia and plenty more!
But if by chance You should have need of a lazy and imbecilic bore,
If a prideful coward could prove useful to You, or perhaps a soiled ingrate,
Or the sort of man whose hard heart shows up in a hard face—
Well, anyway, You didn’t come to save the just but that other type that abounds,
And if, miraculously, You run out of them elsewhere . . . Lord, I’m still around.

And what kind of a man is so crude that he hasn’t held a little something back from You,
Hasn’t in his free time fashioned something special for You,
Hoping that one day the idea will come to You to ask it of him,
And maybe this little that he’s made himself, kept back until then, though horrid and tortuous, will please Your whim.
It would be something that he’d put his whole heart into, something useless and malformed.
Just like that my little daughter once, on my birthday, teetered forward with encumbered arms
And offered me, her heart at once full of timidity and pride,
A magnificent little duck she had made with her own two hands, a pincushion, made of red wool and gold thread.