Friday, November 30, 2007

Chris Abani, Song for Night

I am a huge fan of Chris Abani.

But Song for Night left me cold.

I am not sure if it was because I could never quite get over the conceit Abani sets up which makes the narrative possible (in the first person by an Igbo speaker whose vocal chords have been slashed); the disconnect between the language of the narrator, My Luck, and his purported age; or the slowly emerging sense as I pushed to the close of the book that I was reading something by Ben Okri.

And I have never much cared for Okri.

Abani's Graceland was a wonder -- rich, entertaining, evocative. Becoming Abigail made me ache. In my chest, and in my eyes. His poetry I find fascinating. And I am looking forward to The Virgin of Flames. But...

I was, for the first time, disappointed by one of Abani's books. His lyrical mode simply broke down instead of drawing me in. Abani's language, the great strength of his earlier books, simply doesn't fit the story or the "speaker" here.

Perhaps it was a failure of my own imagination in the reading; perhaps I had Iweala and Kourouma and lord knows who or what else too much in mind.

I am sure I will one day reread Song and perhaps it will sing something, or somehow, differently to me then.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Poetry 191.2 (November 2007)

I always look forward to receiving my copy of Poetry. Sometimes they pile up and are read through in a great rush (though the September 2002 issue still sits on my shelf unread). But I more often than not dip in soon after its arrival in the mail.

These days I find myself more drawn to the prose than the verse (an ongoing "controversy" among the readers if past Letters columns are to be believed). Oh, this is so unpoetical, but the reviewers and commentators often have so much more snap than the poets.


I found this month's happiness in David Biespiel's "Former Dogs".

Monday, November 26, 2007

Gipi, Notes for a War Story

No, I didn't blow off work to read all day -- though that would have been nice. Young Stalin was finished last night, Notes was started last night and finished before work this morning.

Notes for a War Story is a graphic novel -- a genre that I've really taken to in the last few years. Gipi's artwork reminds me of Ben Katchor, whose work I love. But this volume is dark and in tone reminds me more of Nikolai Maslov's Siberia (jesus, it's those damn Soviets again!!) than anything Katchor has produced.

Notes is relatively simple and painfully worldly -- unlike Katchor's rather delightful (if often melancholic & strangely both pedestrian and surreal) flights through the not quite familiar urban landscape. It is also quietly effective and affecting, and those last few panels of Giuliano (and the photographers) watching the nameless amnestied militiamen stepping off the train will stay with me for long while.

You can read a 10 page excerpt on the publisher's website (:01 First Second Books).

Simon Sebag Montefiore, Young Stalin

I read a review of Young Stalin somewhere -- maybe the Times, maybe I just saw it in the bookstore -- mentioned that it seemed like a very interesting book, and it turned up in my hands as a gift from Melissa. One of those lovely, thoughtful gestures.

There is not, though, anything lovely about Stalin's life chronicled here. While Montefiore has been criticized for romanticizing Stalin -- and there is certainly some truth to that, a result of Montefiore's style more than anything else it seems to me -- there is just something so grindingly horrific about this early life that the supposed glamor feels washed out by the brutality and callousness (in the full sense of the word) of the man and the world he lived in.

And Montefiore spares no detail. I thought Norman Sherry on Graham Greene was exhaustive.

Not sure what to make of this wave of interest in things Soviet. Sitting on my shelf not yet finished is Jochen Hellbeck's Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary Under Stalin. Perhaps a hang-over from the adolescent years of sheer cussedness, directed at my classmates and the world (sadly, I'm one of Ronald Reagan's babies). Or maybe it's because my grandfather, a major in the Estonian Army, died in a Siberian work/prison camp.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Charles Bukowski, The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain

I'm a relatively recent convert to the Church of Chinaski. Back when I first came to Madison and would cruise the used and independent bookstores (notably the old Avol's) I would see shelf upon shelf of the Black Sparrow Press editions of Bukowski. Just knew, looking at them, the placement, the prominence, the sheer bulk of it all, that there was something "hip" about him.

Is that why I avoided him? Did I avoid him?

Yeah, probably. Not proud of that, but there it is.

But some time ago I dipped in and... well... Bukowski is like candy for me know. Collection after collection (if I'm lucky I pick 'em up cheap). Just pop one in and polish it off. A nod and a wink behind the rough and tumble pose. There's got to be, right? Bukowski teeters on the edge of being the Danny Bonaduce of American poetry -- and without the slap and tickle he'd tip over.

Or maybe Danny's struggling to live out an adolescent reading of Bukowski "unloading the goods"?

The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain is one of the more recent posthumous collections to come out. They are bound to run out of material, at some point, no? Read in bits and pieces over the last few days, I ran through the poems like I pop Smarties -- in great big gulps, and in fits and starts. Collection to collection he writes about the same things but I'm never bored. Oh, no...

And maybe in that, and the knowing smile he occasionally casts at the reader, is the delight.

And it's in poems like "I have this new room" -- "my disorder was never chosen, it just arrived and then it / stayed" -- where there isn't a wink of any sort, just raw feeling deftly twisted into poetic form that is the very stuff of the poet. And something more than sugary delight.

No wonder "they are after me".

Coincidentally, Jim Harrison reviews the very latest collection -- The Pleasures of the Damned, Poems, 1951-1993 -- in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review.