Why I Am A Not A Poet: Harmonium

HarmoniumWell, I had hoped that Wallace Stevens`Harmonium would be a great read and re-kindle my interest in modernist poetry. I can`t say that it has. At one point, I had considered going into modernism before I ended up in Canadian literature as a scholar, and reading Stevens`work vindicated that decision for me. It is not that Stevens is not a good poet, he is, but more that I was often left confused and scratching my head. Reading Harmonium was like riding a roller-coaster (a terrible cliche, I know), it had some amazing highs but also lots of lows and some moments where you are just clicking along hoping that the thrills will start soon.

Take the opening poem, “Earthy Anecdote,” for example. It is a short poem, 20 lines, with short lines. It concerns a firecat who makes the bucks swerve away from it. Who or what is the firecat? It is not the name of an actual animal, or at least not a recognized name for one. So do we take it as an allegorical animal or an actual one? The poem itself is quite elliptical, repeating itself and coming back to this action of the firecat threatening a hear of bucks in Oklahama. The poem ends with the firecat closing his “bright eyes” and sleeping, suggesting that it has eaten its fill and now rests. I read this poem a number of times, trying to make sense of it but ultimately coming to frustration. I cheated for this review and glanced at Bart Eeckhout’s “Wallace Stevens’ ‘Earthy Anecdote’: or, How Poetry Must Resist Ecocriticism Almost Successfully”.* He goes through a number of different readings of the firecat before settling on it as an actual predator of some kind. When I read the poem again, as I did just now, I still feel like there is a river of meaning to which I can only gain glimpses and small tastes rather than full mouthfuls. This is, perhaps, Stevens’ goal (and if so, he does it well). At its best, poetry fills  me with joy, longing, desire, and a raft of other emotions. At its worst, it leaves me feeling confused and wondering what I missed.

Harmonium does have plenty of interesting environmental themes running throughout it. In “The Snow Man,” the speaker ponders what it must take to truly regard winter in a place:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

The connection between bodily awareness of cold and the perception of winter here is intriguing and apt. Having grown up in Canada, I do feel that you do not truly perceive winter until you feel its cold biting into you so that your perception of icy beauty is also tinged with the pain of cold air on skin. The poem ends with:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

This elliptical ending brings the reader back to the speaker standing in the cold trying to “see” the winter truly. Instead, he only sees that there is nothing there to behold (note the confusion of senses with him listening to the wind and regarding the frost visually at the poem’s beginning), and then he realizes the nothing that exists in winter. Having been outside on a day where the temperature fell below -50 with windchill, there really is no sound around, instead an absence of sound and movement (because everything else is just trying to survive in their hole/home).

I found Stevens’ environmental poems (if I can call them that), the most rewarding and I wish I had taken more careful notes on which ones I like best. However, too often I found myself confused by poems like “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Cy est pourtraicte, Madame Ste Ursule, et les unze mille vierges” where the titles make reference to some event or character I don’t know and the words of the poem seem disconnected from that same reference. You could easily write a dissertation or three on Harmonium, but this is not what I wanted to do when I set out to read the collection. Perhaps, the fault lies in trying to get through it speedily rather than reading it several times over the course of a year. Anyways, this collection made me realize why I am not a poet: because I want my meaning to be understood, not always immediately, but at least accessibly in a way that does not require ten minutes of Google searching and Google book scanning to get a sense of what is there.

I recommend this books for grad students of American literature and the most ardent of poetry lovers. Otherwise, this probably is not for you.

Stevens, Wallace. Harmonium. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947. Print.

*The article is available on Eeckhout’s Academia.edu webpage or in Comparative American Studies 7.2 (2009): 173-92.

Hard Boiled Science Fiction is Good For You: Gun, with Occasional Music

gun_with_occasional_music.largeGun, with Occasional Music is an amazing book. A friend recommended it for the science fiction category but I slipped it on under the detective fiction category instead. This is because the novel is, primarily, a hard-boiled detective novel set in a not-so distant future. Conrad Metcalf, said detective, attempts to unravel the murder of a former client of his for a soon-to-be dead (actually, frozen in this novel because it is more economical and easier to manage for the government) man. The novel circles outward from this premise and I was drawn into Lethem’s strange and compelling world.

While the novel’s present is not significantly different from the world as we know it today, there are a number of changes worth noting. One is that most people are addicted to make – a catch-all name for various blends of drugs with catchy names like Forgettol, Addictol, and Blanketrol. Metcalf is addicted and constantly needs to snort a line or two to get his thoughts moving. A second change is the cultural move into a strange form of individualism. No one asks questions anymore. Only the police, the Office Inquisitors as Lethem calls them, or PIs (Private inquisitors) are able to do this. So, Metcalf’s investigation is a strange one in that questions become a loaded issue when talking with people. A third change is the inclusion of animal characters. Dr. Twostrand’s evolution therapy, initially meant to speed up childhood because it took too long, also allows animals to become speaking and sentient beings. Metcalf is followed and harassed by one kangaroo, a dangerous character who becomes a central suspect in the novel’s mystery. The therapy does not work so well on children as it creates dwarf-sized bodies with the minds of two year olds, many of whom congregate in shady bars drinking and talking in their own gibberish.

What I liked most about Lethem’s novel was his ability to breathe new life into detective fiction for me. This genre is riddled with conventions that authors need to follow in order to guarantee a readership. However, Lethem is able to play with this by introducing speculative fiction into the hard-boiled detective narrative. While he stays close enough to convention, Gun, with Occassional Music is its own thing. It mixes intrigue and mystery with science fiction delight and black humor. Metcalf is incisive and darkly funny in his commentary on the novel’s culture and the other characters. The hybrid mixing of genres is what got Lethem noticed in the first place. His next few novels (Amnesia MoonAs She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape) continue with the genre blending. I am hoping to read some of these next year and I’m wondering if Lethem is my new David Mitchell. After reading Cloud Atlas last year, I promptly picked up number9dream and  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m still hoping to read his Ghostwritten.

I highly recommend Gun, with Occasional Music for anyone who likes to read. Read it now!

Lethem, Jonathan. Gun, with Occasional Music. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Print.

Richly Textured But At Times Frustrating: Trauma Farm

trauma_farmBrian Brett’s pseudo-memoir of his small farm on Salt Spring Island is a bit of a strange beast. On the one hand, it has a number of very compelling sections that weave together anecdotes and narrative with a strong critique of current agricultural practices in Canada. But there are also moments when the critique crosses over into soap-box preaching and beating up a straw man of factory farming that left me feeling frustrated and annoyed. I agree that small-scale farming and local communities are the best possible way to fix some of the problems of globalization and industrial production, but I am not certain that the picture of rural life that Brett puts together is as rosy in reality. Rural life on Salt Spring Island seems to be more of a comedy than anything else with everything working out in the end, and communities always coming together to help each other out. Maybe it`s just that I don`t live on Salt Spring Island, but I`m not convinced that rural life necessarily plays out like this. Nor am I convinced that all bureaucrats (a favorite target in this book) are as air-headed, contrarian, or disconnected from reality as Brett makes them out to be.

These faults aside, Trauma Farm is a great read. It moves along at a good clip, giving plenty of information without bogging readers down. The book is set up as a journey through a (very very long) day and moves from dawn to dusk while also moving about the contours of Brett’s farm. I liked this narrative structure and felt that it kept the book moving along. The shortness of chapters and individual sections means that Brett never stays on his soapbox for long (which is a good thing). The mixture of social history, anecdote, poetry, and narrative works well and kept me interested while also dropping seeds of a dream for a small-farm at some point in my future. My partner would love to move back to the farm while I tend to enjoy the city, so the fact that Brett got me dreaming about the farm is impressive in and of itself.

The book is also full of useful information about the food we eat, where it comes from, and what it does for us. Brett advocates a move towards local diets and eating what is in season. Now, I`m already on board with this (at least in theory, maybe not so much in practice given my many trips to the local grocery store instead of the farmer`s market), but he does do a good job of laying out reasons for why this is a wise choice. It`s not just an environmental choice but also one of taste. Food that was picked in your backyard will taste better than food that has been packaged, put into a shipping container, and left around for 40+ days. Some of the best parts of Trauma Farm come when Brett rhapsodizes about his sheep, birds, and produce. More of these sections and less preaching would have made an otherwise good book into an exceptional one. Then again, Brett is a poet and unapologetic about the informal and unorthodox approach he takes.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in local food and farming even if it can be preachy, nostalgic, and sometimes one-sided.

Brett, Brian. Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2009. Print.

A Criminal Encyclopedia Brown: Artemis Fowl

artemisfowlbookcoverEoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl is a decent book. There are some strong moments of writing and action, but there are other moments where I felt like other books began to shine through Artemis Fowl‘s texture (and not in a good way). This series is a mix of Encyclopedia Brown, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and the cartoon Dexter’s Laboratory.  Artemis Fowl, the protagonist, is a teenage genius born into a prominent Irish criminal family. His father has gone missing and his mother has gone slightly crazy as a result. The family’s fortunes are failing, so he has taken it upon himself to make some money.

The novel starts in media res with Fowl attempting to track down a fairy. After doing copious amounts of research, he becomes convinced they are real and is hoping to steal some of their gold. The story moves back and forth between Fowl, Captain Holly Short, and elf policewoman of sorts whom Fowl kidnaps, and Commander Root, Short’s boss and head of the recovery team sent to get Short back. The second half of the novel focuses on Fowl Manor as Root and his men’s attempt to get Short back from Fowl, who seems to be able to predict their every move. The action moves quickly and Colfer has a good sense of pacing, enough to keep me up late last night finishing the book.

I guess my problem with Artemis Fowl is that it lacked a little individuality. As I said earlier, it read like a mix of other books, but not in a flattering way. I used to love the Encyclopedia Brown series, and Fowl comes across a like a criminal Brown. The Fowl Manor section also reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery although not nearly as complex or as taut as Arthur Conan Doyle wrote them. Where I felt the novel began to take on its own character was in the interactions between Short, Fowl and the two Butlers. Near the end, I got the sense that a relationship was developing between them despite Fowl’s kidnapping of the elf. This relationship becomes the focus of the next few novels (I did some Wikipedia research) and I think that the next few books probably come into their own in a way that this one did not.

Part of my dissatisfaction might stem from the conventions of children’s literature itself. It seems like publishers are demanding that writers produce marketable series rather than individual works in their own right. The vast success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series blazed the way, but remembering my childhood many children’s books were series. I used to love the Hardy Boys series and that was template writing if I’ve ever seen it. I am not suggesting that Colfer is following a template, but it does seem like his hands are tied in having to set up enough in the first novel of a series to continue it over several books while still trying to craft an interesting narrative to pull readers in. Artemis Fowl is not a bad book, it was an enjoyable read. I just felt like it treaded familiar ground without really adding anything to it.

I would recommend this book to lovers of children’s fantasy.

Colfer, Eoin. Artemis Fowl. Rockland, MA: Wheeler Publishing, 2001. Print.

The Dark Soil of Georgia: Cane

book-cover-caneI had read some of Jean Toomer’s stories and poetry in a graduate course on cultures and modernism in the 20th century. The pieces were included in The New Negro, a key anthology that catalyzed the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s in the United States. I was intrigued by his work at the time and meant to read more at some point. Well, three years later here I am having just finished Toomer’s Cane. I am not quite sure what Cane is given that it includes both poetry and short stories (although some of the stories are more like vignettes or sketches than anything else). Perhaps, we can consider it a landscape of sorts. An attempt to document a place in a deep and meaningful way.

That place happens to be the United States’ South. Most of the stories are set in Georgia while some of the poems are more akin to folk songs than anything else. Toomer captures the deep-rooted racist tensions in the state as the black characters struggle against the lingering effects of slavery while trying to make their way. But this collection is not all misery and woe. There are some amazing moments when Toomer gets at intimate moments of beauty, of awe, and of wonder. In the story “Fern,” Toomer has some amazing lines describing her beauty. He writes:

“The soft suggestion of down slightly darkened, like the shadow of a bird’s wing might, the creamy brown color of her upper lip. Why, after noticing it, you sought her eyes, I cannot tell you. Her nose was aquiline, Semitic. If you have heard a Jewish cantor sign, if he has touched you and made you own sorrow seem trivial when compared with his, you will know my feeling when I follow the curves of her profile, like mobile rivers, to their common delta” (14)

Toomer is very poetic in such moments and I revelled in these long, sinuous sentences. At the same time, J would despise this kind of stuff because it gets away from the meat of the stories themselves. I actually found myself struggling to get through some of Toomer’s headier moments because the prose moved away from narrative towards poetry. Yet when I gave Cane time, it really rewarded the work of reading it.

“Kabnis,” the final story of the collection and the longest, comes close to being a novella. It concerns Kabnis, a school teacher who loses his job because he is caught drinking in his cabin, and is attempt to feel at home in Georgia. The story moves from cultural politics to bawdy drunkenness, from southern Gospel praise to gossipy hen-pecking. Yet the story ends with this amazing moment of transcendence when Kabnis, hung over and forced to go back to work on Sunday, looks back into the basement he has left and sees two figures in a religious light. I was amazed at Toomer’s ability to move between a rich southern Gospel tone and drunken, coarse entertainment. This story alone is worth picking up Cane.

I would highly recommend this book to those interested in American literature and, particularly, African-American writers.

Toomer, Jean. Cane. 1923. New York, Liveright, 1975. Print.

Spies, Betrayal, and Loyalty: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

 

tinker-tailorIn the interest of forthrightness, I have to admit that I saw the 2011 BBC adaptation of John le Carré`s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy before I read the novel. Of course, I watched the film last year so I had forgotten large parts of the plot by the time I started reading this book. Tinker, Tailor (as I`ll call it from now on) is a great novel. It is part mystery novel, part spy thriller, and a dash of detective fiction all mixed in. There has been a scandal at Cambridge Circus, Britain’s secret service agency in le Carré`s novel. Jim Prideaux was shot twice in the back in Soviet Czechoslovakia, Control, the former head of the agency, has died, and George Smiley has been put out to pasture by the new regime. Smiley is called back into service by a minister, a distant cousin of his wife’s, and a former colleague, Lacon. Everything happens in media res as Smiley interrogates a repatriated spy who may have connections to a potential Russian defector.

 

What makes this novel great, at least in my mind, is the way le Carré draws readers along into ever deepening pools of mystery. It’s as if we are entering a cave and things keep getting darker the farther along we go, until in the closing chapters, le Carré shows us the light in Smiley’s careful thinking. I have not necessarily been sold on the mystery/crime fiction genre so far, but this book was a real page-turner. I spent most of yesterday reading a good two thirds of this book because I just could not put it down. Part of the thrill is the careful peeling away of layers of deception that le Carré performs. The truth is not what it seems in this novel even if by the end you have a pretty clear sense of who the bad guys are and what they did.

 

I felt like this novel was also about the decline of British Empire. Part of this might be an over-eagerness on my part as an academic to read national narratives onto literature, but I do think there is some merit to this. At the heart of the action is a regime change in the Circus. The old ways are no longer possible and young professionals are chomping at the bit to push Control over the edge. The high-level mole uses this tension to get himself into a position of high authority while continuing to transmit secrets to Russia. There are numerous sections throughout where characters rue the loss of Britain’s authority and one of the mole’s main priorities is being in an advantageous position to manipulate and gain American intelligence of Russia. Le Carré was a member of MI5 and MI6 before he began writing espionage novels full time after his first few had done quite well. And this background comes through in the kind of detailed texture that Thinker, Tailor weaves together.

 

This is a big novel, full of intrigue, specific details, and intricate action. In a way, I felt like watching the movie had helped make some of these contexts more understandable for myself (being a Canadian and not British by any means). I would say, as I usually do, that the novel is better than the film adaptation because I had a much greater sense of closure at the end of the narrative. At the same time, this is a big, dense book, and for readers who can be put off by size or density, this might not be for them.

 

I would recommend this book to readers of detective/crime fiction and those who love all things Britain.

 

le Carré, John. Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. Print.

Incisive and Way Ahead of Its Time: The Martian Chronicles

the-martian-chronicles-book-coverI am trying to make double-time this week as my dissertation writing needs to start picking up steam. I love Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, so I was really looking forward to reading his The Martian Chronicles. And let me say that it does not disappoint. The one failing (and a minor one at that) is that, at times, the book shows its origins. Bradbury had initially written a number of the chapters as stand-alone short stories but tied them all together with interspersed vignettes and a few more stories to make a novel. “The House of Usher II” is a great story but it jars with the tone of many of the stories given its very fantastical and Poe-heavy style.

This novel, or perhaps collection of inter-linked short stories, is all about the human colonization of Mars. However, this colonization is not peaceful, scientific, or noble by any means. Several of the early short stories are told from the perspectives of the Martians and the human arrival is an absolute disaster (once they manage to establish themselves). These stories are both humorous and incisive. Bradbury lays out a very strong critique of human colonization (and one that could certainly be read as an allegory of the colonization of North America). Where I felt the book turned quite amazingly was when the nuclear war starts on Earth. At this point, there are many humans on Mars, turning it into a resource extraction colony and throwing up shoddy towns and dumping trash as they go. (spoiler alert!) However, once the war gets going, almost all of the humans leave for Earth to take part and only a few stay behind. At this point, the novel takes on a melancholic tone that productively explores the meanings of space travel, global war, and human loneliness.

While I want to read this book as an environmental fable (humans tend to destroy the places they inhabit), this can take away from some of Bradbury’s craft. Yes, it certainly has an ecological message in it, but it is also about wonder and awe. The fact that some of these stories were published as early as 1946 while the book itself was published in 1950 means that this book predates almost all space travel and even nuclear weapons as we know them. But Bradbury clearly saw into the future what was coming. He is an amazing writer and The Martian Chronicles is well worth your time.

I highly recommend this book for any readers. You will laugh, cry, and be astounded.

Bradbury, Ray. The Martian Chronicles. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1950. Print.