The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn, 128 pp, $14.95


First Impressions

This book is both less and more exciting to me than the others I’ve discussed here (The Artist’s Daughter and The Unbearable Heart). It is less exciting because it’s not as penetrable, but it is more exciting because of this — because, in fact, it’s even more fragmented, unruly, collaged, spontaneous, piece-y than Hahn’s other work. Billed as zuihitsu, this book is:

“list, diary, commentary, essay, poem. Fragment. [. . . It creates] a sense of disorder [. . .] by fragmenting, juxtaposing, contradicting, varying length or — even within a piece — topic. [. . . It is] e-mail, say. Gossip or scholarly notation. [. . . essays] closer to poetry.”

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Contemporary Verse Novels: Carole Maso’s AUREOLE

I’d like to state my thanks to the Big Other crew for letting me think aloud and formulate ideas about this strange hybrid form I’m trying to define. Comments along the way have helped me think and rethink, and I believe, for this final installment, I’ve got a much clearer idea of what a contemporary verse novel is or can be.


Contemporary Verse Novels and Subversion

The “Contemporary Verse Novel,” as I see it, is, first and foremost, subversive. If, back in Baudelaire’s day, a “prose poem” was neither like the prose nor poems that came before it, then I’ll just go ahead and say, too, that today’s “verse novel” is neither like the verse nor novels that came before. And because I wish to align my study most closely with the study of the historical tradition of prose poetry (which was subversive to the traditions of metered, lineated poetry as well as extended, narrative prose), I believe that the Contemporary Verse Novel is subversive to both verse and novel — in that it refuses to fit into the neat categories of “verse” or “novel.” In fact, it will challenge our ideas of “verse,” and it will make us reconsider what we mean when we say “novel,” including, of course, the idea that novels must be fiction and therefore are not memoirs. I can think of so many book-length essay collections that read like novels and are also at times lineated or made up of small prose sections. These, too, seem perfect fits for what I mean when I say contemporary verse novel. Books like Marie Carter’s The Trapeze Diaries, David Barringer’s American Home Life, Eula Biss’s The Balloonists.

Still, I have to say, I, like others here, would for so many reasons rather call these books “books.” Or “literature.” To define seems to limit, even if the definition calls for expansion, progression, movement beyond categorical limitations. But let’s leave this for now and return to it later, in another post perhaps.



Aureole by Carole Maso

The reason I’ve chosen Aureole over AVA is in fact because of the subversion I want to discuss. AVA is a perfect definition of a “contemporary verse novel.” It is one long, multi-layered, fragmented narrative, and it is lineated. It is a book everyone should try to read at least once, and if anyone needs help with that, go on over on Dalkey’s website, where there is a handbook, or “casebook,” filled with others’ essays about how to read and better understand AVA.

As for Aureole, the entire title is: “Aureole: An Erotic Sequence.” Here, the word “Sequence” makes one think of poetry. Fiction writers say, “I’m working on a collection of stories.” Poets say, “I’m working on a sequence.” But is Aureole a sequence? Maso says it is, so of course it must be. But it also seems very much like a short story collection. The reason it is not a short story collection, however, is that the stories (most of them, but not all of them) are lineated.

Aureole works, then, as a contemporary verse novel, because it is subversive to verse in that not all the stories are lineated. It is subversive to the novel because it is made up of short stories, it is a sequence, and it is lineated.

Because, ultimately, this is my finding and this is what this small study has led me to, I’ll stop here. I feel like I could go on and on, but I won’t. I don’t want to do a close reading of Aureole, and I don’t want to compare it to Carson or Conrad or Saterstrom or Ruefle.


Contemporary Verse Novels, Concluded

I sort of want this post to bask in its own understanding of what a contemporary verse novel has the potential to be. It has the potential to be Aureole.

Or Catherine Sasanov’s Had Slaves.

Or any of the books from Kate Bernheimer’s trilogy.

Or Arielle Greenberg’s and Rachel Zucker’s Home/Birth.

Or Joe Hall’s Pigafetta Is My Wife.

Or Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth.

Or Robert Lopez’s Asunder.

Etc., etc., etc.

In the end, or in the beginning, a contemporary verse novel has the best of all worlds. It gets the honor and distinction of caring about language the way poets care about language. It has the marketability potential of a novel. It gets to be badass and say fuck the traditions. It gets to break all the rules. It gets to have fun and try new things, explore new ways, and even if it fails in one area it ultimately has the chance to find success in other areas.

So, good luck writers. Good luck, verse novelists. And have fun!

That’s all you have to do.

Just have fun. . . .


Contemporary Verse Novels: Carson, Saterstrom, Conrad, the Roubauds, Boully, and Ruefle

What is a beginning? What is an ending? What makes a particular grouping of words become a poem or a story or a fiction or a non-fiction? And do these labels, these distinctions, even matter?

For anyone who does not know, I’ve been reading and thinking about books that may or may not fit into the category of Contemporary Verse Novels. In attempting to define “contemporary verse novel,” I turned to several presses, books, and authors that I wanted to study and better understand.


Contemporary Verse Novel


Novel in Verse (vs. Novel vs. Poetry)

I first looked at Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Selah Saterstrom’s The Pink Institution, and C. A. Conrad’s The Book of Frank. In grouping together these three books, I examined the role of family as both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. I spent some time discussing the mother/son relationship in Autobiography, the abusive father in Pink, and the strange mother who keeps jars of fetuses in Frank. In better understanding the families, readers also gain further entrance into the lives and minds of the protagonists. Whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry or short story collection, family is a solid theme that many authors write about.

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Style as Imitation

Leonardo #1, page 17 (1987) (detail; First Publishing reprint). Art by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.


My father, who once trained as a baker, taught me when I was a kid how to bake an apple pie. I don’t know where he got the original recipe from; I highly doubt that he invented it. Certainly he didn’t invent the idea of baking pies. And he didn’t invent the idea of baking an apple pie.

He was very clear about certain instructions:

  • always use Granny Smith apples;
  • always use ice-cold water;
  • touch the dough as little as possible.

Since then, I’ve baked several apple pies, and over time I’ve modified the recipe slightly, but it’s essentially the same (and I never violate his prime instructions).

When I make a new apple pie, I’m not doing anything new.

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Break Every Rule, Part 2

Break Every RuleWhereas the first chapter of Carole Maso’s Break Every Rule (I wrote about it HERE) is a kind of travelogue where cities or towns in Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, as well as in France, inspire reveries on home and language, the second chapter unfolds much differently. “Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: a Lifelong Conversation with Myself Entered Midway” is a series of brilliant, and sometimes enigmatic, epigrams on writing, on lyric poetry, on the novel. These are luscious morsels that can be cherry-picked at random. At one point, she writes:

Language engenders language. Language itself presents unexpected and often extraordinary solutions. It leads you to the what next? To the how and why. To the what if, and if only.

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Break Every Rule, Part 1

Break Every RuleCarole Maso’s Break Every Rule is a quiet, elegant book of essays. Every sentence here is a gem. Remember that time you walked barefoot across a pebbled beach, marveled at every sea-bitten thing, picked up some bright form that warmed your palm, that had some power in it. That’s what it’s like reading Maso.

The first chapter, “The Shelter of the Alphabet,” is a series of ruminations on home, the idea of it, the concreteness it sometimes takes, how it remains elusive:

I think of all things that are outside the range of our memories or imaginations or intelligence or talent—it’s the place I suspect which is our true home. If we could get there we would finally be okay. But we can’t. We are homeless, groping, roaming in the darkness, aware of only a fraction of it.

She writes much about her travels, her peripatetic life, and how words became home for her, housed her like no other place, structure, or idea:

I am a wandering soul—but not an aimless one. I’ve learned well how to listen and I’ve gone wherever my work told me to go. Wherever my work took me, insistent, I went. I have been forced, in order to continue writing on my own terms, to leave over and over again. I who live everywhere and nowhere have built a home of language. I have been forced to create a home of my own making. A home of music and desire. I can at this point make a home wherever I go. I open my large artist’s notebook, I pick up a pen, I turn on the radio; I dream of you—the best, the most mysterious one, the most remote and beautiful aspect of self.

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