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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Midsummer reads

Despite rushing-about, despite progeny, despite getting ready for The Book of the Red King, and despite celebrating the 4th of July over three days of barbecues and events and fireworks, I have been managing to do a little reading. And as it is feeling good, I thought to share the list. Please add your own midsummer list in the comments if you're reading something you like...

Irene McManus, Dreamscapes: The Art of Juan González (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1994.) I picked this up at The Village of Cooperstown Library and was so fascinated by the artist's symbology and concerns (a father who came out as gay and became HIV+ in the 1980's, a man obsessed by Catholic imagery from his Cuban childhood, a painter who shows theatricality and love of tiny stage sets and shrines in his paintings and drawings versus a strong meditative tendency, a master of trompe l'oeil, a reader with a love of poetry, particularly Garcia Lorca's poems, a myth-maker especially down to Narcissus--with mirrors and doublings--and Orpheus, a symbolist who is sometimes clear and sometimes hermetic, a visionary concerned with psychological and spiritual states) that I ordered my own copy. While it's clear that he was influenced by certain contemporaries and movements (his Minimalist-influenced pieces are surely my favorites from that particular corner of the art world), he is strongly drawn by European art made for cathedral and church settings and also by Vermeer and Rembrandt and other Dutch Golden Age painters.

And González has made me go back to Federico García Lorca, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). And as I always say, rereading is the best reading.

David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.) I ordered this beautiful volume because of John Wilson's review, which is here: "David Lyle Jeffrey's Unpopular Project." I'm on page 25 and liking the book very much. And one thing I just learned that I like a lot is that the Hebrew word for artistic creativity is chokma-lev, or wise-heartedness. I'll have to aspire to that! Here's some praise from John Wilson: "Jeffrey is a scholar who could easily intimidate readers with his erudition: master of many languages, ancient and modern; equally knowledgeable about literature and the visual arts; and intimately familiar, above all, with Scripture. Open his book at random and read a few pages: You’ll be stunned by the sheer range of his learning. And yet, unlike many of his academic peers, he doesn’t employ a style designed to exclude all but a handful of readers fluent in this or that jargon."

Wow. Crack-stroke of lightning, almost simultaneous with the thunder... Where was I? Hmm. I'm doing my third book event for my women's group (a group focused on creating and attending events related to arts and religion for going-on-two years now.) And the next discussion is of readings from Kathleen Raine, Richard Wilbur, Charles Causley, and Elizabeth Jennings. So of course I am reading those four to get ready. (Past readings: Frederick Buechner's little masterpiece, Godric; and The Cloud of Unknowing in the new Carmen Acevedo Butcher translation from Shambhala.) Oh, and I've just reviewed a book of poems and a novel by Valerie Nieman for North Carolina Literary Review. And that was an interesting assignment for me, as those of us who write poetry and fiction are the in the minority, and an even smaller minority of us write either a book-length poem (see Poochigian below) or a book-length series of poems (Nieman's Leopard Lady, out from Press53 in Winston-Salem, 2018, and Jeffery Beam, below.) As I have done both (Thaliad and The Book of the Red King), I'm always glad to encounter new examples.

Thinking about an unusual book form in a current read...

Jeffery Beam has long been a devotee of beauty, and his Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements is one of the prettiest books to appear in recent years. This poetry collection is another in the realm of the book-length series of poems, and is also an addition to the world of ekphrastic poetry. It is a book of free verse responses to paintings--and since the art is intricately tied together in a series, naturally the poems are as well. And internally they are held together, elaborate parallelism often binding the lines, so there is a kind of macrocosmic and microcosmic structure in the form.

Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements display a different way of thinking about what a book of poetry is, and it strikes me that the book is determined to create its own audience--that is, to create the reader's understanding and sympathy for the project--through what is included. Short excerpts from Lindsay Clarke and Joseph Campbell serve as a kind of preface, nudging us in a desired direction. The poems and art form the core of the book, but they are followed by three essays about the poetry and the art. So the book itself teaches how to read it, and also how to look at the art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins... Then there's a whole other dimension to the book in which music and poems join in the CD. It's an interesting and rare way of looking at the making of a poetry collection, and one that must have taken a lot of love and care.

Here's a sample that goes with the weather outside...


Delicate thief!
I thought your roar something
children imagined in a storm
Instead you light up the night meteoric
I hear you flash
Then all quiet

Currently on the starlit nightstand of poetry:

Ned Balbo, 3 Nights of the Perseids 2018 Richard Wilbur Award
  (Evansville, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2019)
Jeffery Beam, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements (thank you to Jeffery)
   Higganum, CT: Kin Press, 2019
   Includes reproductions of art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. And a CD with poems and music!
Maryann Corbett, Mid Evil 2014 Richard Wilbur Award
     (Evansville, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2014)
Jeanne Larsen, What Penelope Chooses (thank you to Jeanne) 2017 Cider Press Review Award
   (San Diego, CA: Cider Press Review, 2019)
Amit Majmudar, Dothead
   (New York: Borzoi Book, Knopf, 2016)
A. E. Stallings, Like (thank you to Ashley Cooper)
   (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018)
Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or 
   (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2017)



sirens croon among birds: a small crane, twin
gulls wheeling. Out there on the mast Odysseus
hangs hog-roped, neck a twist, his chin wrenched down.
What binds him is inescapable, & white.
Oh the blue blues, oh naked women's sweet
bone-black hips, oh shoreline's flame-green flames.
Look: in a mirror that is & is not beyond
this hanging objet's frame, a mob. But with honey
-comb our great hearted man stopped up soft ears.
He'll make it to Ithaka, after all. A poem,
then, not about cosseting steep-walled shames. No threnody.
Poem of the trickster's survival. Poem of how
we do go forward. Of shuddering bodies, compassed.

It's always curious how certain threads coalesce in the world of letters. I'm still pondering the current combination on the loom of literary time, of which Jeanne Larsen's book is a part. Why re-think Homer now? Along with Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe, Jeanne Larsen's twisty, jazzy poems in What Penelope Chooses question (interrogate would be the hip critic's word) that composite, passed-down voice we call Homer. 

Even more than in Wilson's translation, which makes the Homeric line something different, more tense and compact by compression into iambic pentameter, Larsen's lines are tightened, broken, contemporary, full of frisky language play. Try these: nasty / sassy queasy peephole; beagle-brained square-jawed skull-thickener; poly-vocal fingers; sea dog, pollywog, old tarpaulin, / storm-scoured gob; blood-streaky, breached; nerve-zap yearning; clit / -whipped; PTSD blues; future snarled, blue-screened, timed-out. The poems question not just Homer but also form and what language is suited to a trickster--cheerfully tossing out not just the Homeric line but also pulling into new, wild shapes the sonnet form to which Larsen nods.

The freedom of time-leaping and the frolicsome language remind me a bit of Christopher Logue's unfinished versions--or "accounts," as he called them--of the Illiad, War Music. But as with Barker, Miller, and Wilson, a different sort of metamorphosis is underway. What was at the margins or not conceived to be worth sustained attention now gleams under a light: torn, ignored, or cast-off women; autistic (!) Polyphemus who loves his "nubbly" ram; a tapestry- and Homer-unweaving Penelope who may have had "a few brawly boys, a fickle maid" in her bed. What is at the margin takes stage, becomes center.


  1. Interested to see your group will be discussing, inter alia, the poems of Kathleen Raine. I haven't read any of her poetry (but then I am fairly new to poetry anyway) but I was under the impression, from friends with greater poetry-savvy, that KR had been over-rated and her work presently exists under a darkish cloud of non-acknowledgement. Are you engaged in an act of rehabilitation or were my friends merely being bitchy? No need to respond if you'd prefer not to.

    However here's a potentially more interesting - and certainly unexpected - admission from over the water. A month or so ago I was reading The Guardian's book reviews and came upon a lengthy and enthusiastic critique of John Barton's A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths. To the point where I wondered if I might even consider buying it. No need! VR - with whom I share the state of non-faith - had read the same review and had ordered the book, at full-whack price. She's presently reading it slowly, interperspersed with other more quickly gobbled-up titles, all of which will contribute to her annual average of 220 titles/year. So I may get to read it some time in the winter. Verily, in my father's house there are many mansions or, in our case, many book-shelves.

    I may have mentioned that I heard Pat Barker interviewed about Silence of the Girls at Hay Festival. Not typically my field but I'm a great fan of her WW1 trilogy and it's a possibility.

    1. I have not read the Regeneration trilogy. Ought to!

      The book group ended up just doing Causley and Jennings; I'll go back and do a Wilbur-Raine night another time. No, I find things to like in Raine. I don't know her as well as I should, but yes, she is capable of wielding sound and rhythm and sense to make something beautiful and lyrical.


      Primrose, anemone, bluebell, moss
      Grow in the kingdom of the cross

      And the ash-trees's purple bud
      Dresses the spear that sheds his blood.

      With the thorns that pierce his brow
      Soft encircling petals grow

      For in each flower the secret lies
      Of the tree that crucifies.

      Garden by the water clear
      All must die that enter here!

      Aren't all poets rejected at some point, or forgotten even if they will be recalled later? A poet is lucky if able to lodge a single poem in the remembrance of his/her culture...

      A long time ago I made a little anthology of poems to memorize for my daughter's class. She memorized Puck's address to the audience and Raine's "Spell of Creation." And I think she still loves it. The early poems often have a ton of parallelism (like many passages of poetry in the Bible that are organized by Hebrew parallelism), and I think in general her religious nature (not always tuned to Christian subjects) is not popular in our time.

      The Barton book did sound interesting to me, and maybe I'll get to it eventually--I don't know why people don't consider the Bible to be a kind of library of disparate materials more often. Because it clearly is a kind of wildly-varied library. I've been reading David Bentley Hart and Robert Alter translations over the past year, though the KJB is still stellar. Also was reading bits of the Geneva bible (relied a lot on Tyndale's version) for the upcoming novel and liked it. Vigorous prose! Very wonderful to think that Shakespeare and Donne etc. read it.

      * * *

      Kathleen Raine: Poetry is not an end in itself but in the service of life; of what use are poems, or any other works of art, unless to enable human lives to be lived with insight of a deeper kind, with more sensitive feelings, more intense sense of the beautiful, with deeper understanding?


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.