Contemporary Verse Novels and Sentences and Fragments: Charles Simic’s DIME STORE ALCHEMY


I’m not really sure why I keep writing about “Contemporary Verse Novels,” because I’m not that interested in labeling things. But it’s as good a category as any, and I like the idea that books that already exist as “poems” might also benefit from being associated with “novels.” So, on to the latest that fits the bill.

Dime Store Alchemy was recommended to me by Brian Clements, whose recommendations I’m always interested in. Knowing how much he thinks of this book only made me that much more eager to read it. And in the midst of reading so much poetry that confused me (I’ve been pretty loud and clear about how I’m not the best reader of poetry, about how poetry often baffles me), I was really, well, just happy, to open this book, read the first poem, and feel good about life. No anxiety, no confusion, no bewilderment. Instead, just a solid reading experience, and the thrill of knowing that the rest of the book to follow would be related, that I would not be reading standalone poems but a collection of poems on the same topics and themes and subject — namely, the book’s subtitle: “The Art of Joseph Cornell.”

I’ve dog-eared so many pages I don’t even know where to start. Maybe what I’ll do is include my favorite sentences and fragments from all the pages I’ve dog-eared. Maybe these sentences will create a poem of their own. Who knows? Maybe they’ll offer a pretty good representation of the book overall. If not, at least there’s this:  Joseph Cornell went all over New York collecting objects to put in his boxes, found objects that became his art, his collage work; so traveling through this book about his process, and then gathering bits of “found” text, only to piece these bits together, seems like a nice sort of homage. I hope that’s how people interpret this anyway. So, here goes:

On the streets Cornell walked forty years ago, there were still medical leech dealers; importers of armadillo meat and ostrich eggs — all over in a flash but evoking a strong feeling — unusual feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, unexpected and more abiding than usual. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. In them the night is always falling. Here’s everything the immigrants carried in their suitcases and bundles to these shores and their descendants threw out with the trash: Poetry: three mismatched shoes at the entrance of a dark alley. We were left with the storming sea that made no sound, and a beautiful woman on a long, empty beach whose tears rolled down silently as she watched me falling asleep in my mother’s arms. Ahead, nothing but wind, sky, and more sand. The great ballerina, Emma Livry, a protegee of Taglioni, for instance, died in flames while dancing the role of a night butterfly.

Yes, I think this does accomplish what I wanted it to. Well, when I read these sentences, these fragments, I can associate them with the poems they come from, and I get the larger experience again of the entire book, which I, like Brian Clements, highly recommend. Brian recommended it to me because he thought it might help me as I thought through some of my ideas about book-length poems. I’m recommending, though, to anyone who has ever found himself alone in a city and wandering, to anyone who has ever picked something up randomly and out of curiosity, at a garage sale or on the ground or in a store, to anyone who ever wanted to put some object in a box for safekeeping, to anyone who has ever put something on display. If you are someone who has done any of these things, then this book just might be for you.

 

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Contemporary Verse Novels: The Anxiety of Reading Poems and Kimiko Hahn’s THE UNBEARABLE HEART

This book undoes a lot of the anxiety I have as someone who has to read a lot of poetry and has yet to discover more than two or three books of poems that I actually like and would want to read again.

Does that sounds shitty and ignorant?

I mean it, though. And this is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to book-length poems. I like narrative. I like characters. And plot and setting and drama. And while some may argue that these exist in poetry collections, I’ll say they’re easier to settle into and enjoy in book-length poems (or contemporary verse novels, which I have written about a lot here).

I mean, I have a lot of anxiety. Am I alone when I say that poetry is hard. It’s not like you can just pick up a book of poems and dive in and just read, and when I say read I mean, you know, read, like the way you did when you were a kid, or the way you do when you pick up a magazine or your favorite guilty pleasure novels (mine are those romance novels that feature neurotic career women who find love in the most unlikely suitors). These books fly by, you know? They’re easy, they offer a better world to escape to, and they don’t take forever to read.

Poetry, though. Sooo different.

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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: Robert Walser’s SPEAKING TO THE ROSE and Harry Mathews’s 20 LINES A DAY

Contemporary Verse Novels continued . . .

Okay, so, this is important (and many thanks to A. D. Jameson for pointing this out in my previous post’s comments):  A book should probably not be called a Contemporary Verse Novel if it is not written in verse, which is to say, if it is neither lineated nor metered. Seems obvious, right?

 

Verse vs. Prose Poems

Well, this raises some interesting questions. First, I suppose we should talk about prose poems (which share a tricky, fine line with that so-called “flash fiction” that at one very small time in our recent history seemed to be all the rage but mostly now people just sort of are annoyed by, as they’d much rather just consider these to be stories, and not even short short stories or very short stories or sudden fictions or anything other than, simply, you know, stories. Am I wrong about this?). I should also clarify that the reason I have these more prose-oriented books on my reading list (Walser, Mathews, Boully, Saterstrom, Ruefle, the Roubauds) is because I’m very interested in hybrid genres, that this study is probably more about hybridity than anything else. But, when studying poetry, one must make arguments for reading what the establishment might consider “not poetry,” especially where credits toward degrees are concerned, yes?

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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

vs.

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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