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nest of flowering gold
and my hands at its center.
Blood leaving the face,
old eyes blind from starstaring.
Those aren’t yellow aspens
on the mountain but fireflies
held at call,
waiting for the song
(a ‘translation’ / erasure / repair of a Lorca poem…)
And not to feel bad about dying.
Not to take it so personally—
it is only
the force we exert all our lives
to exclude death from our thoughts
that confronts us, when it does arrive,
as the horror of being excluded— . . .
something like that, the Canadian wind
coming in off Lake Erie
rattling the windows, horizontal snow
appearing out of nowhere
across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.
(Franz Wright, of course…)
Lee’s work is unerringly visceral, singularly invested on a deep personal level, and always offering a stark, unflinching display for both the speaker-self as well as the reader-observer. Place and memory are often of the most delineated actors in Lee’s books but perhaps never as much so as in this newest collection. Lee seems unafraid of embracing not only the yearning and regret cultivated by the past but the rich, nostalgic confusion that occurs when it’s mirrored and overlapped by the present. Life whirls around Lee’s standing-still speaker as places and people empty out and refill — this is really all that time is as it cruelly steps on. While textually many of these poems appear spare this is another of the brilliant gestures Lee knows so well, and just as a smell can trigger an entire season full of memories Lee’s poems explode and engulf, shrink down to pinpoints with the weight of dark matter. His lines are full of characteristic leaps of association that can comfort or drunkenly go dizzy. There’s always a deft, natural touch to the mechanical bits, the syntax and vocabulary, but Lee’s unique flavor is in a matured, raw patina of breathlessness, anger, lust; artistry without guise, a performance that’s never just putting you on. These poems are as comfortable throwing you against the wall as letting you quietly sink to the bottom of a pond.
There’s good reason why David Dodd Lee remains a staple in the small group of poets I find I can reliably return to when hitting depressingly long dry spells between books that feel like knockouts. One of my flaws as a reader is my susceptibility to taking such spells in dramatic stride, despairing for no good reason that either there just aren’t any books coming out that will genuinely unsettle me or that for some reason poetry has lost some of its destructive and surprising powers to me. Fortunately enough, these things are never true and Lee is a poet that invariably clarifies to me through absurd bouts of self-obfuscation what I personally value in a collection, or put another way, what gets inside of my head and refuses to leave. This kind of reliability is increasingly remarkable to me when over long careers many poets only oscillate in and out of this startlingly complex kind of efficacy.
For lack of a better term, Lee’s ‘staying power’ when included on any shelf has been almost unparalleled in my experience as a reader of poetry over the years. ‘Coldest Winter on Earth’ not only manages not to be an exception to this rule but an admirably achieved high note.
“You will find yourself among people.
There is no help for this
nor should you want it otherwise.
The passages where no one waits are dark
and hard to navigate.
The wet walls touch your shoulders on each side.
When the trees were there I cared that they were there.
And now they are gone, does it matter?
The passages where no one waits go on
and give no promise of an end.
You will find yourself among people,
Faces, clothing, teeth and hair
and words, and many words
When there was life, I said that life was wrong.
What do I say now? You understand?”
Making some small edits & sending this one out, so taking it down from here. Also thanks as always to Vince for his helpful and generous comment.
Hayes here produces erudition and insight with his hallmark fervor and tenacity that makes his work on MSNBC both so enjoyable as well as so intense. I often marvel at just how refreshing he is as a personality and an intellectual by way of his enthusiasm–he always manages to genuinely be the most passionate person in the room.
His analysis here not only of the recent failures of the pillar institutions of authority and progress in the United States is really only surpassed, to my mind, by his reflections on the core, painful reverberations that follow such failure in the trust of the citizenry. I’d comfortably hazard that his assessment of the kind of near-nihilistic ‘everything-is-broken-ism’ societal milieu will be terribly familiar to every reader.
One can already predict the hostile responses, both pat and substantive, that will surely follow Hayes’ critique of American meritocratic worship, but his conclusions and welcome suggestions are nuanced and deserve to be digested with openness and care. Meritocracy is still, I think Hayes believes, not only a great and admirable thing but the only conclusion of a modern society. His work here only concludes that in its current state it is not only untenable but hostile to any real civilized existence for our or any other society.
Meritocracy must be balanced by a believable sense of equality to begin with, and must be safeguarded by accountability of the most pristine order. To steal Hayes’ own metaphors, we might be well ensuring that the playing field is level, but too often some are sneaking in extra practice before the big game regardless, and the snowball effect inevitably comes to pass that the ‘winners’ can be counted upon to viciously make sure this continues to be the case. Hayes makes a stunningly effective case for the inevitability that also follows the meritocratic drive: it promotes cheating as much as anything else. Thus equality to begin with, thus safeguarding that is as wide-ranging as it is persistent.
The financial climate that looks to have a Wall Street all too eager to do it all again with the comfort of elite safety nets is all that needs to be said of a need for a new brand of accountability and consequence. A meritocracy is only truly such when those that fail are punished. Hayes’ work here recounts in a readable yet delving manner the price our country has paid for ignoring this problematic series of eruptions, and offers a way forward where we might navigate them more effectively. It might be only a first step, but it’s a hell of a good one.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Dear stranger, dear anger, dear fantasies of justice, please ferry us to
the lake where the stories are clear.”
-from the poem ‘Fist and After, El Cinzano’
Dostoevsky has provided the enduring idea that it is by observing a society’s prisons that one can most richly decide on that society’s progress; many admirable riffs on the moral notion of ‘What you do unto the least…’ appear in some form or another in most cultures.
The most striking effect of Idra Novey’s newest collection is the collage of voices and emotions she collects so austerely, creating what feels like a very considered mode that reflects the prisons she’s contemplating — ‘critiquing’ seems too simplistic a term. The vocabulary of impressions is detached, observational (one might say the speaker here is in an oscillating place of micro-detail as well as macro-culture surveillance). But, also like prisons, very human, personal, charged with memory, and often subdued to an unsettling extent, aware as we are privy to being of just how much emotional blast and ruin must go on beneath surface appearances.
These small but immensely uncomfortable poems overlay reality with Novey’s inward-facing (face against the wall, citizen) imagination; like Bentham’s Panopticon, she seems to always be looking even when not wanting to, trying to. They manage to work at deconstructing the illusions around how we treat one another (and even think about how we treat one another), the circuitous perimeters we all use.
The unadorned tone throughout the book works against the trappings that can sometimes plague more overt social and political critique; the honest core of this to my mind is Novey’s sense of something like guilt or shame, rooted in a complicity any thoughtful citizen must encounter, hopefully often. Along this line the book is always rooted in the speaker’s own memory and emotion; there are brilliant bits of journalistic artifact and even an occasional dip into something like parable, but these to me seem like working extensions rather than the center.
The words ‘spare’ and ‘stark’ repeat often in conversations about this book, and they are apt, but enough emphasis cannot be given to the quiet but vibrant resonance of these poems. Novey has a touch for imagery that feels gracefully violent — like the polished steel curves of a weapon, her tonal gestures feel so fluid and natural they rarely betray the abrupt effects they will often cause — I’m tempted to describe this frequent encounter in the book, ironically, as disarming.
Novey opens the book with a short series titled ‘The Little Prison’, an inspired taking from Vasko Popa’s ‘The Little Box’, in which she jarringly writes:
“Wind a ribbon around the little prison
And pretend you made a gift
Give it to your neighbors
Or your cousins
Clasp your hands
I cannot help but end with Popa’s ending, from ‘Last News About the Little Box’, which feels remarkably appropriate here:
“But not one of the little boxes
Inside the little box in love with herself
Is the last one
Let’s see you find the world now”
‘Exit, Civilian’ is available now from The University of Georgia Press.
Say, its only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me
Desperate as I always feel after finishing a Murakami novel to write up something profound and properly expressive of what his work seems to always so easily do to me, I never have until now. It always feels futile, foolish–I feel like a three-year-old who has seen a supernova; it’s nearly impossible to really articulate what I’ve encountered, yet perhaps a rich, ambivalent sensory befuddlement is all one can hope for in art. I feel this way more than ever after finishing his most recent and hand-achingly thick masterpiece, but here I am nonetheless.
1Q84 feels like quintessential Murakami, full of surreal moments both dazzling and (to this reader, enjoyably) mundane, cats, sadness, loneliness, death, hope, the ethereal and the grubbily all-too-real. Everyone has lost something, and everyone is looking looking looking. I can’t ever get over the strange and deliriously paced tone of this and his other books, a tone that in my experience is some mixture of both the translation process and Murakami’s indelible presence. It feels comfortable but a bit askew, which of course fits into the Murakami Mode almost too perfectly. If I say that the phrases and paragraphs always seem slightly wary and confused, it isn’t a critique of either of those to aspects; rather, I genuinely enjoy the tentative feeling of almost literally every line in the book. There’s a sad but quiet intensity, anxiety hanging over everything, it’s beautiful but off-putting (not unlike the double moons hanging in the sky of this somehow-but-not-exact-alternate 1984 Tokyo, one normal and one smaller, dented, green).
Many people seem to experience (whether they enjoy it or not) the distinct feeling that Murakami bleeds over into their real world somehow, taints them — this is absolutely the case for myself, it’s always been the hallmark to me of fiction that has a special staying power, has an elusive brilliance. I honestly don’t feel like I’ll ever look at the moon again with remembering this book; even moments of transit seem to draw it quickly back to my memory, as the characters here are always traveling in one form or another. I was struck even by stunning little coincidences while reading that seemed to signify that I, too, had somehow been pulled a little into a strange alternate reality, had become a shade of green. While sitting down to write this my cat suddenly became incessantly noisy and playful as if trying absurdly hard to keep my attention elsewhere. While reading what was to me the most intense moment of the most intense chapter near the end of the book, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ sung by a very young Ella Fitzgerald came onto my Pandora station (I hadn’t even ‘Like’ed the song until then), which very honestly unsettled me for a moment. The ‘moon’ connection aside, the song appears throughout the nove as jazz and classical music one more haunt Murakami’s fiction. I had never liked a single jazz song I had ever heard until some of the music in the book sent me searching out of curiosity, and now I cannot get enough. Haunting and infectious perfectly describe this book.
I’ve seen some criticism of the book’s close, that it offers either not enough or too much closure. I suppose I’m too easy to please, to connected to what I feel is the Murakami experience I so much seek out and enjoy. I felt at peace with the ending; it’s heavily bent and untidy, but that’s one thing I love about this book and the rest of his fiction — it’s never tidy, it’s never polished or feels like, once you’re done, that the book will even fit conveniently back onto the bookshelf. I remember when reading Murakami for the first time, Kafka on the Shore, how struck I was by the duality in these surreal iconic characters and their presences–we first see Johnny Walker, a dashing and menacing presence–but then we get…KFC’s Colonel Sanders!? This absurdity, this refusal towards perhaps easier (to write, and to read) gestures and choices. This isn’t what he ‘does’, and it’s why I’ll always come back to his work. It’s unsettling, imperfect, confused, awkward, brilliant and it will sometimes tarry, sometimes disappear without waiting for you.