March: month when “…even your good friends will turn into monsters.” A trenchant observation from one of my hometown’s illuminati: Hunter S. Thompson. And though he was speaking of March Madness avant le letter, and if one can give some legroom to that “good friends” and include the incorporeal companions of one’s reading, then perhaps I can return not entirely non-sequitor-iously to that list of books in my life that ended some issues ago in the year 1972. For, after all, as those of you who subscribe to our Newsletter know already, the task of introducing a “secret poem” has been taken up this month by our own Associate Editor for Special Projects Nancy Mitchell. And most capably, as you also surely have decided for yourselves. This will become a regular feature, too, you will be happy to learn: no more of those tiresome anecdotes of mine, for a while, anyway! Next up in that series: Dore Kiesselbach.
But, for the moment, it is again 1973: a pivotal year in my young life, taken ill as I was – severe ulcers, thought then to be the physical manifestation of “anxiety” which I had in spades. Hospital time and then home, to recuperate, with nothing to which to apply myself but the consumption of 40 mg. of Valium each day, and the stack of books on my bedside table. Some of those being as follows. (And here I wonder if you, too, are presently searching your own memories – if you were extant in that distant annus horribilis – and I mean not personally, but: the war, and everything else –for the works that held your gaze then – and, sometimes, continue to do so). But: with the caveat that these are only those works that rise immediately to memory, on which I do not mean to confer any literary greatness – yet some are great – but reflecting merely my own predelictions. For by this time, with the ludicrous confidence in which only an adolescent can enrobe himself, I had become almost entirely an autodidact, rejecting out of hand the syllabi and recommendations of my first college teachers – those fusty forty year-olds (!) who had long ago bargained away their right to authenticity in favor of tenure.
One Hundred Years of Solitude. Of course – for some, so significant a work that they almost can identify the place and time in which they first encountered it – on a par with our great national tragedies. I entered Macondo via a wormhole in the floor of the University of Louisville Library: an innocent, I knew nothing of Marquez or magical realism, drawn merely by the word “solitude” in the title. Read cover to cover in the next two days, the novel was my password as it was for so many into the world of Latin American Literature. Backwards and forwards, it led us to among others of the famous Boom, Rojas and Dario, the indispensable Cortázar, Borges, Asturias, and Rulfo, Fuentes, Llosa, Puig, Mistral, Parra, Neruda, Paz, Vallejo…so many. How much poorer we would have been without them.
Poe: Almost all of which I am indifferent to, save for The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a book the author himself thought “very silly.” A fairly accurate assessment given its cringe-inducing slavery motif, a theme taken up in Pym from Mat Johnson, by the way… And yet, that last line, so haunting and beautiful it has not left me in forty years: “And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.”
Nausea: In many ways, in those days, the perfect book: I ironed the name “Roqentin” in felt letters on the back of my tee shirt. And how not to identify it so, with passages like this, designed like latter day action figure films for ease of access to the heart of a certain type of literary adolescent:
This moment was extraordinary. I was there, motionless and icy, plunged in a horrible ecstasy. But something fresh had just appeared in the very heart of this ecstasy; I understood the Nausea, I possessed it. To tell the truth, I did not formulate my discoveries to myself. But I think it would be easy for me to put them in words now. The essential thing is contingency. I mean that one cannot define existence as necessity. To exist is simply to be there; those who exist let themselves be encountered, but you can never deduce anything from them. I believe there are people who have understood this. Only they tried to overcome this contingency by inventing a necessary, causal being. But no necessary being can explain existence: contingency is not a delusion, a probability which can be dissipated; it is the absolute, consequently, the perfect free gift. All is free, this park, this city and myself. When you realize that, it turns your heart upside down and everything begins to float, as the other evening at the “Railwaymen’s Rendezvous”: here is Nausea; here there is what those bastards— the ones on the Coteau Vert and others—try to hide from themselves with their idea of their rights. But what a poor lie: no one has any rights; they are entirely free, like other men, they cannot succeed in not feeling superfluous. And in themselves, secretly, they are superfluous, that is to say, amorphous, vague, and sad.
Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman. “Survive!”, “Fight!” “Liberate!
Crowds and Power. Canetti’s masterwork, as I conceived it then. Fresh from reading the distanced and in some ways cold “thing” poems of Ponge and Michaux, I felt some symmetry there. And this is, in fact, far from social analysis, but rather a poem itself, full of allusions and images that, alas, have not withstood the test of time. Much better is Auto da Fé and his later memoirs, The Tongue Set Free, The Torch in My Ear, and The Play of the Eyes. Read concurrently with Braudel and the magnificent Philippe Ariès’s L’Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime and later his L’Homme devant la mort; and Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques.
Under the Volcano: I have it still on my desk, its maroon cover and black spine as alluring as ever. Malcolm’s Lowry’s Consul was an indelible figure from the moment I met him. That being Christmas morning, in the company of protagonists from four other Lowry novels, my sole gift request that year: Ultramarine, Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place, Lunar Caustic, and Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid. Why? I have no idea. On the other hand, laugh if you will, but a year later, I was back for another boxed set as it were: the initial five offerings – with Jeff Beck, Faces and solo – from one Rod Stewart, who I swear was really good then.
George Steiner’s Language and Silence. The Karl Hass (“Hello, Everyone!) of critical writing. The demolition of language, Kafka, the camps – what’s not to like? Steiner has taken his lumps over the years, for both his content and manner — humorless, unrelenting, and flashily erudite – but remains the man who introduced me to Musil and to Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, with its odd echoes for me of Peter Weiss’s The Aesthetics of Resistance.
For obvious reasons, if you were acquainted with my family history, R.D. Laing’s The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity, Madness and The Family.. Also, the necessary and enthralling The Age of Madness by Thomas Szasz and Foucault’s Madness and Civilization.
Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: my initiation to that turbid world, and my farewell.
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. William Gass. About which I have fleeting visons of icicles and cockroaches, and endless prairies and psychological claustrophobia. A marvelous title, don’t you think? Almost as good as George V. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, still one of the best New Yorker articles ever printed. In the Heart… read back-to-back with Gadids’s The Recognitions. Again, betokening some mysterious affinity.
The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson. Capote, Christgau, Didion, Terry Southern, Mailer, Michael Herr. Male-centric, yes, but, damn!
“The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” The aforementioned Louisville favorite son’s take on the annual event I had attended for the first time in the late sixties, at fourteen, where I got drunk in the infield and passed out before noon and missed the race but glimpsed my first female breasts, as a girl removed her halter top and gyrated on a restroom’s roof. The adventure continued in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, illustrated by the master, Ralph Steadman.
Against Interpretation. Sontag’s primer on contemporary European literature along with Styles of Radical Will. Letters of recommendation for Sarraute, Leiris, Artaud, Norman O. Brown, Godard, Genet, Ionesco, Pavese, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet, and on and on. Not to forget the seminal “Notes on Camp.”
The Greening of America: proof positive of the wisdom of hindsight.
Nexus: the first book I bought in France. Easy to read Henry Miller and very cosmopolitan-looking set beside an espresso.
Poetry, various: My year of Follain, Anne Waldman, Kinnell, Simic (Dismantling the Silence), Char, Guillevic, Montale, Saint-John Perse, Celan, Heaney, Ted Hughes, Ashbery, Brodsky, Merrill, Levine (They Feed They Lion – another of the all-time great titles), Bly (The Light Around the Body), Transtromer…
And so: part of that long-ago year, in reading. From which I will extract this month’s secret poem, from the last-mentioned’ The Half-Finished Heaven:
After a Death
Once there was a shock
that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail.
It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy.
It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires.
One can still go slowly on skis in the winter sun
through brush where a few leaves hang on.
They resemble pages torn from old telephone directories.
Names swallowed by the cold.
It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat
but often the shadow seems more real than the body.
The samurai looks insignificant
beside his armor of black dragon scales.
Tomas Transtomer, translated by Robert Bly
Now, then. To business, again, such as it is.
We’ve made a small change to the anthology, moving from the year designation to simply a number, in the upcoming case “3”. Something, I am told, to do with the advantages of securing an SPD number. And, I can tell, immodestly, it is going to be…something: living up to our Mission Statement’s (so audacious in in its pre-first issue conception!) promise to publish “the best work by the best poets working today, nationally and internationally.” E.g. Shamsad Abdulloev, translated by Alex Cigale; Kim Addonizio; Kelli Russell Adagon; Sandra Alcosser; Meena Alexander; Kazim Ali; Ralph Angel; Rae Armantrout…and, obviously, that’s just the A’s. Copies will be available at AWP and thereafter through Madhat/Evolution Arts, Amazon, etc.
A sneak peak at the continually evolving but very close to the final cover:
Speaking of AWP. A final reminder: Friday, April 10, 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. in the Minneapolis Convention Center, Conference Room 209 A & B, Level 2, there will be a joint reading with Plume & Fulcrum (with a full bar). My request for readers has been answered – many times over, I’m afraid. (How generous our contributors!) As noted, on a first come, first served basis as their emails arrived in my Inbox, the line-up (with perhaps a bit of tweaking in order yet) is as follows: Page Hill Starzinger, Rae Armantrout, John Skoyles, Clare Rossini, David Baker, Dore Kiesselbach, Robin Behn, and Patricia Clark.
And a final reminder: if you are in the Saint Petersburg area: Richard Blanco will be the featured poet at the third annual Plume Poetry Series reading, 23 March, @ 7: 30, The Palladium Theater. Details TBA.
Oh, and post-AWP we’ll be lining up Plume readings: I foresee a swing through Boston/Cambridge and New York, possibly Hartford; Asheville; Grand Rapids; perhaps Charlottesville in the fall; the West Coast, and London/Paris later in the fall. If anyone has an interest in reading for Plume, please – contact me, and I will do my very best to work out logistics.
Our cover art this month is again – appropriately as his work graces the new print anthology’s cover as well – from Allen Forrest. Born in Canada and bred in the U.S., Mr. Forrest has worked in many mediums: computer graphics, theater, digital music, film, video, drawing and painting. Allen studied acting in the Columbia Pictures Talent Program in Los Angeles and digital media in art and design at Bellevue College (receiving degrees in Web Multimedia Authoring and Digital Video Production.) He currently works in Vancouver, Canada, as a graphic artist and painter. He is the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University’s Reed Magazine and his Bel Red painting series is part of the Bellevue College Foundation’s permanent art collection
Next up, after this issue’s Featured Selection, a second installment collaboration from Tess Gallagher and Lawrence Matsuda (a pleasure to hear Alejandro González Iñárritu at the Oscars acknowledge Tess in his third and final acceptance speech of the evening, noting that one portion of the screenplay was not completely original: “I want to thank Tess Gallagher,” he said, “for letting us use Raymond Carver’s story”), look for extended work from Gennady Aygi and the great Russian Tatar painter Igor Vulokh, also in collaboration; Nin Andrews; Kelle Groom; Linda Pastan; Judy Jordan, Chris Kennedy. (Here, too, again, let me add as always: those with projects that might be suitable for the Featured Selection please do contact us with your proposal at email@example.com ).
Finally, as we pull back a little hoping to clear out the back list, New Work Received this month includes pieces from Kimiko Hahn; Dorothy Chan; Annie Kantar; Judy Jordan; Christopher Crawford; new translations by Will Stone of Rilke, Trakl, Charles Meryon, and Georges Rodenbach; Anna Gorria, translated by Yvette Siegert; Kelle Groom, Carol Moldaw, Andrei Codrescu, Rachel Careau; and Keith Flynn.
As always, I do hope you enjoy the issue!