Other Worlds

That we live in different worlds was brought starkly home to me earlier this summer when I read, in succession, two books about the 1930s. The first was The Thirties: An Intimate History by Juliet Gardiner, an exhaustive account of Britain in the decade that begins in the working class streets of Glasgow, and though it goes all the way up to Buckingham Palace you never forget those streets. This was the decade of Depression, and throughout the book Gardiner is anxious to ensure that we remain aware of the human cost. We see the hunger marches (pretty nearly the last and least of which was the only one we remember these days, the Jarrow March), we see the unemployment, the inadequacy of any public response, the dread of a visit from the government agents who had a right to enter any home, pry among ones belongings, and drastically reduce one’s dole if they suspected you had earned even a penny over some notional limit. It was a hard time, because the poverty that was all around resulted not just in economic hardship but in needless deaths, poor health, appalling housing, political extremism. It was also a hardy time, as thousands of working class men tried to evade the authorities in order to enlist (on either side) in the Spanish Civil War; sometimes, it is true, they enlisted only because it might bring in a little money, but very often they enlisted because they believed in the cause (this was also the decade of The Road to Wigan Pier and Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club and the Red Dean). Continue reading


#AuthorFail 8: Alexandra Chasin

Greetings, earth people, from the (pain) planet failure.

Here, the atmosphere is different. The stars are different.

The entire sense of the project-to-be, an examination by NYC writer (and my collaborator) Alexandra Chasin, requires more preliminary work into the nature of the question: and what of it, when the question is pain?

Here, the question itself, perhaps, gleams always far away.


An idea leads to a little research and a little research leads to a little more, and lines of inquiry extend and elaborate themselves fractally, and proliferate, beckoning a would-be writer in multiple directions, and two years later the representation of the medical condition of a character as originally conceived continues to elude her…hundreds of pages of quotations from articles, treatises, stunning 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-Century articulations of the matter, relevant documents, novelistic case histories, authorities, literary treatments, pamphlets, and more, and yet it still seems like a little more information might tie everything together so that the writing proper could begin.  And then it doesn’t.  

For example: Continue reading

A Review of Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns Lately Found in Norfolk

Ostensibly a history of the ways humanity has, across history, housed the mortal remains of its dearly, or otherwise, departed, Sir Thomas Browne’s Urne Buriall is a lyrical, voluptuous, and evocative meditation on mortality, fate, and fleeting fame.

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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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“Fat, too, fool, hey?” – The Mind in Morning (Snow in film)

Snow: Kubrick style

Having just reread William Gass’s “The Pedersen Kid” yesterday morning, I decided to do a study of associations–what my brain does as I read, what I think of, what I take away–though right there I sally and this Heraclitus quote, used as an epigraph in W.S. Merwin’s The Lice, drips back into my consciousness:

All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

Is this nugget saying that which we can’t understand stays with us? Maybe. But more and more I take with me what is mysterious. The trove of Wallace Stevens poems that I’ve examined recently has somewhat sunk into me as what I write now leaks his influence. But really the conglomerate of Gass/Gaddis/Rilke/Stevens via John Madera has been instrumental in boosting the language quotient and destroying a quasi-plain style I took on after a few months with Lydia Davis. So lines or formations like, “She wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do and this frustrated him,” become “There is a way you carry yourself, he said, quickly breaking off because evening drew on, evening and everything evening measures. Our pace, the space between canyons, this leaf living in the book on the chair.”

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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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