Indelicacy – Amina Cain

Portraiture, the art of depicting a person. With the advent of photography, the need to accurately record a sitter’s likeness gave way to more expressive forms, a raft of dimensions, for example psychological and emotional could be explored. Interestingly when you look at “people’s choice” award winners in National Portrait Prizes there is still a tendency to lean towards the more conservative “likeness” style works, with the expressionistic, or subtle nuances of other works being overlooked. Many times, I have seen people look at portraits in galleries, glance at the face and move on. However, if you stop, pause, and look deeply the more you may learn, it is not just the face, where is the subject looking, what are they observing, what are they wearing, clothing, jewelry, setting, tone, colour, furniture, the placement of the hands, are they holding something? There are a myriad of clues, hints that can give you a more in depth view of the sitter and the artist.

Amina Cain’s short novel ‘Indelicacy’ is primarily a portrait of the writer protagonist Vitória, but it is also a portrait that contains three other women, her hired help Solange, and her two friends Dana and Antionette.

Vitória works as a cleaner at a gallery, but she dreams of becoming a writer, she writes of the paintings she views whilst working, “The people in the painting are huddled together as if for protection, as if freezing cold.” This is a work that contains ekphrastic elements, Vitória reflects on the art works and creates an imaginative narrative, an amplification of the artwork’s meaning.

However. it is not only the artworks that she contemplates, a ultimately, writes about, it is also her own life, and that of her friends, her surroundings.

…the winter dragged itself though its January, its February, its March, with its dirty snow and frozen mud. I felt I was dragging myself through as well. I hated March more than any other month, with its promises of warmth that never came.
My writing was not unlike that. I would write, then read out loud what I had written and realise I was not any closer to a book than I had ever been. I began to hate writing, though I also still loved it.
I thought if I spent time in the country every day I would be able to write. Walk in the morning, write in the afternoon, walk again in the evening, then write again. Late at night, read, Then write again. Sleep.
One day I looked for a while at a small painting and saw something in it. A man and a boy in muted suits doing their engraving work, the background behind them completely dark. We are not meant to see anything beyond this task, their concentration on it. Yet we want to know, it is only a scrap. What is in the darkness?
This was my slogging through. Until spring came.

Eventually Vitória finds a wealthy husband, her dreams of being able to write become a reality. Now the mistress of the household she has hired help, people to clean up after her, and an uneasy relationship with Solange begins. Whilst cleaning her best friend was Antionette, with whom she loses touch, and once she has plenty of spare time she meets another friend Dana at dance classes. The female bonds are strong, and the portraits of these diverse women are slowly painted, layer by layer.

This work is even constructed like a painting, there is enough detail for you to picture the people, but the backgrounds are dark, the foregrounds light, the story very much implied in many places, you the viewer (or reader) has to create the depth in the narrative. Stop, pause, observe, why are the dishes on the table, why are the walls bare?

From then on, Dana asked to read from my notebook from time to time and then she would talk with me about what she’d read. ‘A humble sense of purpose,’ she said once, ‘and of fascination. You are fascinated by everything around you.’ On a few occasions I did let her take my notebook home, when I thought I wouldn’t need it, that it might be good for me to be without it for a while. If I found I wanted to write, I opened up the same book I had written in already and wrote there again. I had already defaced it, and I was starting to feel as if I were having a conversation with it.

A novel about writing, about female bonds and about life’s purpose, a wanderer who allows the day to day pass her by, simply observing and writing.

Astute readers would note the four character’s names, Vitória from Clarice Lispector’s ‘The Apple in the Dark’, Solange from Jean Ginet’s ‘The Maids’, Antionette from Jean Rhys’ ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, and Dana from ‘Kindred’ by Octavia Butler. These four works are credited in the acknowledgements and the short precise sentences did remind me of Jean Rhys’ works, with the darkness of Lispector. Passages from those works appear in the novel.

A novel that feels gothic in places, or from a Brother’s Grimm tale in others, for example her meeting her future husband and her marriage are mentioned in passing, it is peripheral to the portrait, the husband merely a player. As in the quote above “what is in the darkness?”, this novel  has many dark corner’s on the canvas, things happen there but they are not for our eyes, Amina Cain drawing our attention to people in the portrait, Vitória, Antionette, Solange and Dana.

An interesting title, as the work itself feels delicate, it also has very different covers for the US and UK editions. The FSG cover for the United State’s market a glaring “wallpaper” style design, an abstract portrait? The UK cover a dark portrait by Gerard ter Borch (1617-81) titled ‘Margaretha van Haexbergen’. Visually I prefer the US cover, however based on content the UK seems to match better.

Short, precise and intriguing an ekphrastic novel constructed like a painting, a worthy contender for the 2021 Rathbone’s Folio Prize, for which it is shortlisted, worth hunting down.


Men and Apparitions – Lynne Tillman

Ezekiel Stark, a skeptic in his field, was promising. He studied small groups or areas of cultural concerns – family photographs, the basis of images, men. His dissertation pubbed by a university press, his gig in acadoomia was upped to associate professor. He walked the halls of academe, walked the line, talked the talk, and went by the book. He was a good enough colleague, if sometimes too aggressive when he thought he was right. He always seemed preoccupied. Sometimes he partied. Sometimes he was a hermit. He did his version of field work. He wrote papers, articles, books, he made a splash, and then he floated.

Late in the “novel” ‘Men and Apparitions’ the protagonist, who has been writing fragments, short experiences and expositions, writes three third person sketches of himself, one is above and the other two contain spoilers so I’ll not present them here. Here’s my attempt at Ezekiel Stark’s story:

Ezekiel Stark, a boring, mundane academic, who takes anti-depressants, and excrutiatingly mansplains page after page after page on the totally disinteresting subject of ethnography [the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures], more specifically the study of old family photos. He is a narcissistic, misogynistic, bore of a human. He never parties, he just whines about the fact that his best friend ran off with his wife and talks about his fractured relationship with his mother, his father, his elder brother (who is more successful than him), his younger sister (who chose from an early age to remain silent), his aunt, his ancestors and any other relative he can blame for his shitty position. Ezekiel wonders if it was the rise of feminism in the 60’s/70’s that has brought on this crap life and writes a field study “Men in Quotes” which appears at the end of this book. It is no wonder Ezekiel is single, who could be enamored to such a self-centered bore of a human?

‘Men and Apparitions’ is close to four-hundred pages in length, with ‘The Spectator’ describing it as “mansplaining littered with tedious verbal tics, which is oddly compelling to read”, which is a perfect description. Unlike ethnography “photographs can create images, but they are not images per se, they are things, a physical object”, this novel is a slow feeding of images, semi-stories, a peeling back of layers, slowly (very slowly) the picture comes into focus.

Some have said that our being absorbed in images is the sine qua non for our inevitable self- and other-destruction. Some have said that narcissism, shown by our avidity for images, turned us inward, into inner-bounded psyches, away from the natural order and from a necessary empathy, both underlying our immense species failure and so on. Interiority – an illusion as great as Narcissus found the river/mirror to be.
Narcissism is part of the natural order.

These “chapters”, they read more like diary entries but are not marked as such, are random, disconnected mind explosions of Ezekiel. However, they do reveal learnings, about our protagonist, ourselves and our place in the world:

It was late for the morning, and I lay in bed like a drugged person, and that’s when the idea aced me. It flashed. It hit me, I’d look after the lost, care for the unwanted. Image detritus. I’d turn into a finder of the unwanted. Homeless photographs, the exilic.
I hunted the streets, sidewalks, under tables in restaurants (in winter, found gloves everywhere); the floors in clubs and bars; now in digital time, there’s way less. What people throw out tells an untold story. (I’m not a garbologist). There’s still purging among over inflated consumers of tech. Get rid of stuff and buy the new, so material shows up, photos left in a book, books tossed out everywhere; I’ve found thumb drives too. Meanwhile, garbage trucks drop cartons and garbage collectors run wild in the streets. The streets overflow with rejection.

Silence is also a theme throughout, the silence of his little sister who refuses to speak, his wife (“the silence grew”), his aunt who ignores him, his strange belief that he can make himself invisible, like Mr. Percy a praying mantis he used to visit in the yard when he was a child, the animosity between him and his older brother, the silence between them:

Little Sister prepared me for the silence required in thinking, writing, reading. I don’t blame her for what happened between me and Maggie [his wife]. Silence became an intangible obstacle. She has to deal with it, hers, all the time. Don’t know how she does it.

Always the academic, our protagonist quotes others’ texts throughout, here Clifford Geertz a famous ethnographer, talking about anthropologists and photographs:

They marginalize what is central. What is needed, or anyway must serve, is tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales: mini-narratives with the narrator in them.

Here’s our novel, a series of tableaus, anecdotes, parables, tales and mini-narratives with the narrator in them. An ethnographer creating a cultural artefact that he can then digest, explore, study.

Fifty pages into this book I was willing to hurl it against the wall, the voice didn’t sound like any male I’d ever come across, the “just kidding” and “ only joking” at the end of lines, the tedious academic style, however I became slightly intrigued by this most annoying and unreliable narrator, and within another fifty pages I was strangely curious as to his fate.

At 397 pages this is overly long and I found the closing field study “Men in Quotes” completely off putting, an imaginary set of responses, by nameless “new men” subjects, to questions about the impact of feminism on their lives. Again, I do not know a single male (and I’ve known plenty) who would answer these questions in that manner. Interestingly in the acknowledgements Lynne Tillman thanks “all of the men who responded so generously and intelligently to Zeke’s questions”, so if they are actual responses then the circles that the author moves in are far far removed from the circles I move in. Not every man I know answers with academic twaddle!!!

Initially this began as a “did not finish”, slowly grew to a “I wonder what will happen next” and petered out to a “I’ve only 100 pages to go may as well finish it” book. I can imagine others liking it, just like I can imagine that I’ve completely missed the point, however I can’t see it making the shortlist of the Republic of Consciousness Prize – the reason I read it, it’s on the longlist. Next up my sixth title from the longlist, ‘Lote’ by Shola von Reinhold.

“Calamities” by Renee Gladman & “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen


Incomprehension is usually the result of obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus
–  (Foreword Annie Dillard’s “The Abundance” by Geoff Dyer)

My recent enjoyable excursion into the world of Mary Ruefle via “My Private Property”, exposed me to the publisher Wave Books, and, as I frequently do, I purchased a couple of other books from Wave Book’s recent catalogue. September 2016 releases, “Calamities” by Renee Gladman and “Violet Energy Ingots” by Hoa Nguyen. First up let’s look at Renee Gladman’s latest release, “Calamities”.

The Poetry Foundation website describes Renee Gladman:

Born in Atlanta, poet, novelist, and publisher Renee Gladman earned a BA at Vassar College and an MA in poetics at the New College of California. Gladman, whose work has been associated with the New Narrative movement, composes prose and poetry that tests the potential of the sentence with mapmaking precision and curiosity.

Author of the poetry collection A Picture-Feeling (2005), Gladman has also published several works of prose, including Event Factory (2010), The Activist (2003), Juice (2000), and Arlem (1994), and a monograph of drawings, Prose Architectures (2017). She has edited Leon Works, an experimental prose chapbook series, as well as the Leroy chapbook series. Gladman lives in Massachusetts and teaches at Brown University.

A collection that is an attempt at defining the problem of “where you are in a defined space and what your purpose is for being there”, the work at times feel liberating (as you find the space) and claustrophobic at other times (as the definitions pin you in). The book opens with forty-four short essays, narratives all opening with the phrase “I began the day…”, it closes with “The Eleven Calamities” which number fourteen in total?!!?

I closed the inner essay to look at the outer. I wanted to find a word or sentence that would prove there was an even larger essay that was further outside of this one. I closed the quotes of lying in the bed with my eyes closed, and opened my eyes, looking literally into the face of the question of narrative, which was the emptiness of my apartment and the long stretch of the day that lay ahead.

A collection that muses on the fringes of human existence, the spaces you never read (or write) about, there are a few difficult passages as there is an assumption that we all understand the idiosyncrasies of specific United States geographies.

I began the day reading the third section of Eileen Myles’ Inferno. I was in “Heaven,” and had been awake only a short time, still in bed, lying on my side. I hadn’t yet had coffee, so after a line or so of the book my eyes would close. I’d be sleeping, except also reading. The book would go on in my mind as I slept (how much time passes in this state?), until suddenly I’d be awake and would find the book fallen to the floor (it wasn’t a high bed) or sitting at an impossible angle in my hand. I’d right the book and try to find my place. The lines I’d been reading would not be there. Where had I gotten them? They continued the story perfectly, but not, it turned out, in the direction Eileen had wanted it to go. But, why? My additions were not terrible, and they seemed bodily connected to her text, and what’s further, they stayed with me as I went on reading, mingling with the lines that actually were there. I woke up again. I was thinking this and not reading the page I was reading and I didn’t quite know what I was thinking though it made sense with what had been on my mind before I’d fallen asleep. I’d been reflecting on how your mind writes what you read and lays it out only one or two steps ahead of you, so that there’s always a risk of taking a step that isn’t there yet.

An exploration of location, exploring structures in fiction, these are luminous creations, that explain the art of writing poetry (“Poetry comes out of nothing…read the nothing”), and novel writing (“asked it to step out of its hiding place, its refusal place, and come to me.”). These are multi layered essays, layers of an onion, “each one thicker as you moved outward, away from the core, though onions have no true core, or rather, no core that survives our trying to reach it.”

A revelatory, hallucinatory read as you work your way through space, there are large passages I simply did not understand, however this became part of the reading challenge as I moved through the day to day mundane minutiae of Renee Gladman’s life “for much of the day nothing happens, nothing ever happens”, luminous sections, confusing sections, sometimes the works “refusing to slip into focus”.


Hoa Nguyen’s poetry collection, also from Wave Poetry, “Violet Energy Ingots” is even more confusing, opening with the dedication “For Aphrodite, deathless and of the spangled mind”, the luminous nuggets scattered throughout the poems are like searching for flecks of gold, only once you have enough can you create an “ingot”.

In “Mekong I” (pg 6) A poet’s birth is like a delta spreading into strands “become/mangroves stranded/and braid your oiled hair” the poems containing vivid imagery of silt, sand, stone, a “River as sift/ and sorter”, the poem containing the lifeblood of floating markets, but still an area to be traversed.

Political, these works become even more focused in these uncertain times…

Who was Andrew Jackson?

He was the seventh president of the United States
He was responsible for the Indian Removal Act
He was poor but ended up rich
He was an enslaver of men, women, and children
He was given the nickname “Indian killer”
He was put on the twenty-dollar bill

Like Renee Gladman’s “Calamities”, where each of the opening essays opens with “I began the day…”, we have the poem “Week of Words” where a few insignificant snippets of a week’s activities are presented, the news, a number of seemingly unconnected events all broken with spacing, where the reader is unaware of the activities, the spaces where the action resides, it is not (cannot be?) put into words, “snow all day/snow all day”

A collection that blends the solstice, the seasons, star signs, the mystical, blended with the sceptical. The collection of sixty-one poems are, at times, incomprehensible another work where the result is “obfuscation, the words refusing to slip into focus”. You know these are important statements, the fragments moving into your consciousness, but residing elsewhere.

I’ve covered this collection here, and purposely chosen one of the more formal, recognisable poems, as I would like to highlight some of the poetry collections I do read, where I am simply out of my depth. An enjoyable book, however one I cannot explain.

Excerpts of both books are available at the publisher’s webpage here.



Shame and Wonder – David Searcy

shamewonderLast week I reviewed the “poetry as essay” collection “Unbearable Splendor” by Sun Yung Shin, taken from the Book Riot “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016”. The next collection that I picked up, from that listing was “Shame And Wonder” by David Searcy. Described as “A debut collection of 21 essays, this book combines a personal voice with a sharp critical eye. Searcy’s subjects are varied, but his perspective on the world is consistently surprising, fresh, and insightful.”

David Searcy is apparently well known for his “two horror-inflected novels, Ordinary Horror and Last Things”, Google him and the matches you get are all for Shame and Wonder, I’m starting to get that uneasy feeling, the publicists are doing a great job with very ordinary material. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Like dispatches from another world, the twenty-one essays in David Searcy’s debut collection Shame and Wonder are unfamiliar, profound and haunting. In his late sixties, the Texan author David Searcy became drawn to non-fiction, writing ‘straight-up’, on note pad and manual typewriter, a series of disparate thoughts and interests. These unframed apprehensions, as he called them – of forgotten baseball fields, childhood dreams of space travel, the bedtime stories he’d invent for his young children – evolved into a sequence of extraordinary essays probing the pivots and pathways of his life, and puzzling out what they might mean. Expansive in scope, but deeply personal in their perspective, the pieces in Shame and Wonder forge beautiful connections that make the everyday seem almost extraterrestrial, creating intricate and glittering constellations of words and ideas. Radiant and strange and suffused with longing, this collection is a work of true grace, wisdom and joy.

 Rereading the blurb and the precis of such at Book Riot, I am starting to question why I bought this book in the first place…

Here are my thoughts….From the first page my skin crawled, we are talking narcissism in the extreme, the opening essay, “The Hudson River School”, is basically about a farmer who used a recording of a child’s cry to lure and shoot a coyote. But the essay is about Searcy and his visit to the dentist, and the reasons why he can’t visit the farmer in question, why he doesn’t floss, his “girlfriend”, Nancy, drawing a picture. Now a 60 year old latecomer to non-fiction, calling out his “girlfriend” every few pages, a woman who is painted as his trophy, a woman without a voice, is getting on my goat and I’m only 25 pages in….this was going to need some pretty decent storytelling to win me over…

In the big high-ceilinged living room are all the animals Nancy didn’t see on the way down. All the ones she’d periodically wake herself to look for out in the scrub along the highway. Here they are. The biggest elk I’ve ever seen above the fireplace. On the floor, a brown bear rug. And on the wall across the room above the bookcase is a group of horned and antlered beasts so fully and expansively themselves they lose significance as trophies.

Exploring the psyche of somebody who hunts may be an interesting subject for a reader like me, a vegan pacifist, a person who consciously does not harm any animal (even flies) – I am willing to open my mind to other views, however in the hands of Searcy (as this is ALL about Searcy) I simply cannot have any compassion. Sorry mate, they are no longer “so fully and expensively themselves” because somebody put a bullet in them!!! He seems to think white males with guns have a right to own everything “your wind, your emptiness, your animals, your house”, I’m surprised there wasn’t a “your woman” thrown in there.

Essay two, “El Camino Doloroso”;

How striking and encouraging to discover that a ‘51 Ford pickup or whatever had a soul. Who would have thought?

Oh my goodness, an essay about cars, and the cars have souls!!! The animals that hang on walls in essay one don’t have souls, they’re just possessions you can treat as you want, lure to their death, but the fucking cars in essay two do!!!

I’m done.

An “everyman’s” essay collection, guns, motors, toothpicks, a beaten up typewriter, an “invented” writer for us, do we recall Hemmingway and be oh so macho? I’m fully aware of the record companies, and television programs that create boy bands, girl bands, the next big “voice”, I didn’t realise that publishing companies were up to the same trick, the next big writer. Put in a dash of this, a splash of that, a spicy after-shave blend for the well-rounded man, a great gift for Father’s Day, or Thanksgiving, or Xmas, no need for socks or chewing tobacco, buy the latest writing sensation talking all things guns, cars and balls. Puke.

Unbearable Splendor – Sun Yung Shin


What is essay? In recent years I have been exploring the fiction form and the boundaries being pushed in the fictional format. Recently I have noticed an inordinate number of new essay collections hitting the shelf. Is the factual argument or the exploration of a subject via experimental means lesser of an essay? I recently reviewed Brian Blanchfield’s “Proxies; Essay’s near knowing” where personal restriction was put in place (for example, no research whilst writing each essay), this collection was vibrant, exciting, thought provoking and thoroughly enjoyable. Can others also experiment with the form for similar results?

As mentioned in my recent post about Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, reading such a dense, complex and large book poses mental and physical restrictions. Generally I read one book from start to finish, pick up something that seems to suit the flow of my previous reading and then complete the new one, and continue ad-nauseum. A few “breaks” by participating in Women In Translation Month or Spanish Literature Month or other style read-alongs can break the flow I’m in and set me off on a new tangent. As regular visitors here would know I have been primarily focused on Latin American, South American literature for quite a few months now, and switching to the German was a massive cultural shift. Given the sheer size of “Bottom’s Dream” it is not a book I take to read on my daily work commute, I’m therefore breaking up the Germanic, at the moment, with various essay, short story or poetry collections. Regular visitors here will notice that over the comings weeks or months my posts will be reviews of books of the shorter form, although I do have a few unwritten reviews from novels read (and heavily notated) which I may get to write up and post.

For my essay reading I referred to a recent post at Book Riot titled “25 Great Essay Collections from 2016” – a number simply didn’t take my fancy as they appeared to address American History, or the blurb indicated a severe case of narcissism (“It tells stories about growing up and coming to understand her intelligence, her role as a writer, and her place in the world.”), I culled the list to six, yes I was savage in my culling process.

The first collection off the pile was Sun Yung Shin’s “Unbearable Splendor”. As publisher Coffee House Press tells us, “Sun Yung Shin is the author of poetry collections Rough, and Savage and Skirt Full of Black, which won an Asian American Literary Award. She coedited the anthology Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, and is the author of Cooper’s Lesson, a bilingual Korean/English illustrated book for children”. With their blurb of the book saying, “Poetry as essay, as a way of hovering over the uncanny, sci-fi orientalism, Antigone, cyborgs, Borges, disobedience.”

Doesn’t help much does it?

An essay collection blending micro-fiction, poetry, graphs, all musing on themes linked to cultural or scientific references. We have Borges, Kafka, Antigone, the Minotaur, Dante, Pinocchio, the movies Alien and Blade Runner. Starting off with the universe’s creation, astrophysics, light, and black holes:

Maybe I am a kind of star. Burning – sending you the light to read by. A valley you might come upon gradually, not a hole to fall into.

Don’t be perturbed by the early graphs, showing ‘moving’ and ‘still’ plotted against axis’ of ‘human likeness’ and ‘familiarity’, the opening appears complex, but as you work your way through this fragmented poetic text the messages of identity and singularity come clearly into focus. In these graphs, the axis ‘human likeness’ appears as a demarcation line, policed with cameras and guns. As our poet was born in Korea the DMZ (demarcation zone) immediately springs to mind.

Parallel to Sun Yung Shin’s journey as a star, is her journey from Korea to the USA as an adopted child, a two-year-old. Attempting to explore her roots we have an ‘essay’ titled “One Hundred Days In The Cave” where Sun Yung Shin explores Korean history until the Bronze Age, as well as Korean creation myths.

Our time is recursive and forking. Our time is a garden in which all realities are simultaneously possible. All paths are truly one path. From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. This sentence is utterly, heartbreakingly unique. Never before and never again. Yet they, in ensemble, create One Sentence. It holds and houses us. Announces and defends us. Blesses and confesses us. Curses and condemns.

Not your usual collection of ‘essays’ you need to dwell on the poetics, the message behind the written word, the timbre and the metre. Mixing myth with poetics, with familial recollections or dreams this is a startling revelation of a search for identity.

At one stage the Minotaur in his labyrinth is fed nine youths every nine years until visited by Theseus, and later the scientific research of dreaming in-utero is presented followed by “dreams are ephemera”, the adopted Korean cannot discern between truthful and deceitful dreams, the ones she has of her life in Korea, her biological parents being unknown, as evidenced by a facsimile of her Birth Certificate.

At one stage Sun Yung Shin links adoption to Gregor Samsa, the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, the similarities of having to change in a new environment, new restrictions, new cultural norms, new learned histories.

At times written in the plural, is this the royal “we”?, when the dreams of a forgotten childhood are documented, we later learn Sun Yung Shin’s playful language is in use here, in the essay “Autocionography” the concept of no such thing as “I” is explored.

to love the word we more than I – we don’t have to capitalize we even in the middle of a sentence – the I has been sprung from its prison no more stretcher for you letter I – who do you think you are letter I to be so tall to be like the Roman numeral one – you don’t stand for one anymore – you don’t stand up anymore

Not only exploring her cultural roots, her homeland, her adoption, this is a work deeply rooted in cultural references both Korean and American. We also have the themes of motherhood, of what it is to be female as evidenced by the epigraph from Carl Jung;

A particularly beautiful woman is a source of terror. As a rule, a beautiful woman is a terrible disappointment. – Carl Jung in an interview with Frederick Sands, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 10, 1961.

Even surrogacy is touched upon, “my womb a piñata”.

Antigone becomes as reoccurring character, and I have to ask are there parallels to Jacques Lacan’s 1997 quotes: though Antigone represents ‘‘a turning point in . . . ethics’’ and reveals ‘‘the line of sight that defines desire,’’ it is ‘‘Antigone herself who fascinates us, Antigone in her unbearable splendor’’? I’m no psychoanalyst, nor have a clue what half of their work means, so I’ll leave that to the more educated (wish me luck when I get into the whole Freud thing in Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”!!)

Unlike your more “vanilla” essay collections, this work uses poetic building blocks to slowly reveal the existentialist heart, a very impressive result as the personal connection is palpable. Successful where so many fiction writers fail. This work is layer upon layer of revelation, a slow unwrapping of identity, a convincing view of numerous ephemera, myth blended with science blended with history and culture, poetically descending into our consciousness and leaving a memory behind. Thoroughly enjoyable, experimental poetic essay, who would have thought!

Proxies: Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning} – Brian Blanchfield

Something a little different to end the month, a book that was recommended to me by Rough Ghosts whilst I was reading Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”  Brian Blanchfield is a North American poet, with two published collections to his name, Not Even Then and A Several World, which won the 2014 James Laughlin Award and was longlisted for the National Book Award. “Proxies; Essays Near Knowing {a reckoning}” is a collection of twenty four essays, musings on the mundane.
As explained in the opening “Note” each essay was composed using two criteria, they needed to be written fully from memory, with no reference checking, no internet referral, and Brian Blanchfield needed to “stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there.”
Even though our writer here is using a “proxy”, authority to act as somebody else, or as Blanchfield says “a stand-in, an agent, an avatar, a functionary” he then gives his reason why he is suitably qualified for such, but it is the raw honesty, the existentialist approach, the honest revelation of self that is the moving, touching component here.
Using, what would, on the surface, seem mundane, we have subjects such as “Foot Washing”, here the historical, and religious symbolism is mixed with the familial and “On Minutes”;
Minutes are so called because they keep a chronological record, or because they guarantee that the proceedings of a meeting will be represented in their minutiae. They constitute the primary mode of clerical documentary nonfiction narrative, and are understood to be entirely faithful to fact, objective and without analysis, very nearly at 1:1 scale. Nonetheless the art of preparing minutes inheres in one’s facility with abstraction, namely paraphrase. There are no quotation marks in minutes. What was said must be related, and the audience is posterity.
At times I felt I was out of my depth with the superior intelligence of Blanchfield, but I was true to his creation process and did not use reference material when reading this collection (it helped that I read it on a long(ish) plan flight where there was no internet and I didn’t pack a thesaurus or dictionary). In the essay “On The Locus Amoenus” he describes somebody as “gracefully intelligent, highly literate”, in my mind that is Brian Blanchfield himself!
A collection that is brilliant in its exploration and revelations, for example to explore a simple word like “confound” and add such depth and meaning shows you are reading a master of language, a writer who is operating at full strength and is enlightening you as part of his journey of self discovery.
In housesitting, you have an established normalcy to play at, an established normalcy to play against. Largesse and obligation alternate and conspire in transitory identity, which wanders the premises with you: minder, keeper, prowler, visitor, charlatan, surrogate, subordinate, beneficiary, help. Because, as you move through the days, the eventual goal is to cover all traces of yourself and leave things as they were, house sitting is situationally criminal, or adolescent at best, surreptitious in any case. The construct is a tidy, socioeconomic parallel of queer desire in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
 An in-depth discovery of our writer’s journey and thought processes whilst housesitting. And like the aforementioned Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry” there is reference here to Aristotle too;
This is in language what Donald Winnicott insisted remain free in childhood play, our remake of our surroundings, our exercise of independence. This is what Aristotle mistrusted in poets, makers; we cannot leave things alone. We say what we like. There is a given world and then most of us graduate into a second given, an abstract realm where all of the entities of the given world are players that we can bring into transactive arrangements in sentences, by their names. Standing to reason is only one position. That was a proposition.
Whilst Brian Blanchfield is openly gay and there are numerous references to homosexuality, and essays that address subjects such as male-to-male sex and HIV, AIDS in New York in the 1990’s to restrict his observations and revelations to a purely gay audience would be a great disservice. Let’s hope this work isn’t marketed purely as LGBIT essays!!
Blanchfield’s sexuality is, of course, the subject of many family diversions, an adopted child (adopted by a step father remaining with his blood mother), the relationships with his step father and mother, his real father are often the destination of his unpacking, the “area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability”. As family relationships are for many of us!!!
Be warned though, you can, at times feel as though you are a minnow in the shadow of Blanchield’s learnedness, his writing self-described as, “…the stronger I grow as a writer, my work is not especially welcoming to the uninitiated and one can feel excluded there by a somewhat nuanced consciousness of literary tradition.” As I said…be warned.
With references to other writers, such as Roland Barthes, where he says “agile, esoteric, and unsynthesized, pivoting continually to consult yet another tangential text or discipline”, Blanchfield could be holding a mirror up to his own writing.
And poetry? In the essay “On Reset” he describes reading “Chris Nealon and Kevin Killian and Jena Osman and Harmony Holiday and Aaron Kunin and Bhanu Kapil”…”Each of them, midway, I put down and looked up to find the world changed, a little. That’s what I’m looking for, that transfer, a new attunement.”

 Described on the back cover as singlehandedly raising the bar for what’s possible in the new golden age of creative nonfiction, this is a collection that demands to be read, if essays are your cup of tea here is a fresh approach to what would seem insignificant subjects. A focus on what appears to be mundane shows a deep personal connection to everything that makes us human, where family relationships can bubble in the darkness and only resurface when you are thinking of personal (or more specifically peripersonal) space or the forest or Bre’r Rabbit. Like the “Understory” described in one essay, the multi layers of soft mulch under the forest canopy, this collection is rich in matter, when the light shines through the over growth the focus is intense, but the revelation unique. An absolute brilliant read, one to be celebrated.

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The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner

This week at Messenger’s Booker will be a little different than usual. I’m going to dedicate a week to poetry. Recent reading has included dystopian futures, short stories from Bulgaria, Hebrew Zen Buddhist thought and detailed analysis of literature’s Masters. A breather was required, so instead of picking up pulp fiction or a graphic novel (which I did contemplate) I settled for the melancholic search for meaning…poetry.

Today I’ll look at the recent Fitzcarraldo Editions release “The Hatred of Poetry” and follow up later in the week with reviews of at least three poetry books from around the globe.
The title alone and the marketing blurb that contains the line “Many more people agree they hate poetry’ Ben Lerner writes, ‘than can agree what poetry is. I, too, dislike it and have largely organized my life around it and do not experience that as a contradiction because poetry and the hatred of poetry are inextricable in ways it is my purpose to explore.”, lead you to believe this is going to be a read that gives you the ammunition to discredit poetry to your heart’s content.
“Poetry”: What kind of art assumes the dislike of its audience and what kind of artist aligns herself with that dislike, even encourages it? An art hated from without and within. What kind of art has as a condition of its possibility a perfect contempt? And then, even reading contemptuously, you don’t achieve the genuine. You can only clear a place for it – you still don’t encounter the actual poem, the genuine article. Every few years an essay appears in a mainstream periodical denouncing poetry or proclaiming its death, usually blaming existing poets for the relative marginalization of the art, and then the defences light up the blogosphere before the culture, if we can call it a culture, turns its attention, if we can call it attention, back to the future.
But if you are looking for an essay that will give a barrow full of stones to throw at the poetic art, you will be sadly disappointed. Ben Lerner’s essay brings up all of the usual arguments of hatred and then staunchly defends the art against each of the accusations. This is an essay that analyses the social contempt, yes contempt as it is more than simply indifference, of being a poet. When a poet is asked “what do you do for a living”, why do they stumble to answer? Why is there embarrassment in an admission of being a poet? Why can’t your poetry be performed out loud at will? Why don’t you “grow up and get a real job”? All of these phenomenon, unique to poets, explored.
This work is very much an American essay, even though it is a United Kingdom release, with references to Barrack Obama bringing back the Poet Laureate for his first inauguration in 2009 (Elizabeth Alexander became the fourth poet to read at an American presidential inauguration, after Robert Frost in 1961, Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997), critical comments on Sylvia Plath and Walt Whitman, and a substantial part of the book being dedicated to refuting Mark Edmundson’s criticism of American poetry in his article “Poetry Slam: Or, The decline of American verse” which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
“I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote in “Song of Myself,” and Packet’s nostalgia, as with many American nostalgists, is clearly shaped by the figure of Whitman, who desired his book, Leaves of Grass, to be a kind of secular bible for American democracy. The American experiment – its newness, its geographical vastness, the relative openness of its institutions, its egalitarianism, its orientation toward the future and not the past – all of these necessitated, in Whitman’s view, an equally new and expansive poetry: plainspoken, unrestrained by inherited verse structures, just as the country would be unrestrained by monarchic traditions, and so on. “There will soon be no more priests,” Whitman wrote, “their work is done.” What was needed was a poet who, in the absence of a common tradition or metaphysical system, could celebrate the American people into existence, who could help hold the nation together, in all its internal difference, through his singing.
My concern with the American centric view, or even English language view, is the poetry “hatred” assumption may not be as universal as Lerner assumes, as an example, look at ingrained popularity of Persian verse in a nation such as Afghanistan; “The vast majority of Afghans, even those who are illiterate, have a deep appreciation for poetry and most have a colourful variety of poems stored in their memories.” (“Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan”). As I also highlighted in my review of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi’s “Mirages Of The Mind” (translated by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad) poetry plays a significant role in the literature of the region (in the case of “Mirages of the Mind” the Pakistan/India border).

Another concern I had with this “book” is the size, there are 107 pages of text, the font is huge, the spacing large and the margins massive, if published in a “standard” format it would be hard pressed to be 30-40 pages. As an essay it would probably be the feature work in a journal such as “Music and Literature” and wouldn’t be out of place, however as a stand-alone publication priced at £9.99??? I thought the Jean-Phillipe Toussaint 88 page effort was overpriced at £12.99, this one is an even flimsier offering.
Besides the size and the English language (USA) bias, this is a very informative essay, although more an opinion piece, Lerner’s commitment and love of the art shines through, assisting the reader in finding joy, celebration in the poems they chose to read, painting a vivid enough a case to entice the reader to pick up a book of poetry soon after finishing. Personally I did so, using Lerner’s reference to political poems, “and if they are weapons”, to lead me to the Afghan collection that was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Best Translated Book Award (Poetry) “Load Poems Like Guns: Women’s Poetry from Herat, Afghanistan” edited and translated by Farzana Marie, a book that I will review here shortly.

Postscript: One negative I also forgot to mention was the lack of a “Bibliography”, with numerous works referenced a listing would have been nice. I would have been failed in Grade 6 for not providing one!!!

Fitzcarraldo Editions have also kindly contacted me to advise that if their usual layout (font size, spacing etc) was used, this would have been an 88 page book, weighing in at 16,000 words. They also advised that the cost of “Football” was higher as they had to fully fund the translation. Thanks for the update Fiztcarraldo, most appreciated)

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