Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Donald Revell, The Art of Attention: The Poet's Eye

As much as it pains me to write this, The Art of Attention was a misery.

It has been awhile since I really felt like I had to slog through a book, but this was surely one. Perhaps this is mere pretense on my part -- not recognizing how often artists (and everyone) does this, day to day -- but it's almost unseemly how Revell uses his own poetry in the latter half of the book to illustrate his points.

Whatever they might happen to be. And I'm not sure what they are.

As best I can tell, Revell holds to the mystical notion that poetry springs from... mystery. Or rather: Mystery. I wouldn't disagree, but it's hard to get a whole book out of such. Hence, perhaps, his reliance on self-consumption... and regurgitation.

It's like listening to a particularly earnest and ecstatic executive chef (and an insufferably self-focused one at that) -- say, for Applebees -- wax "lyrical" and obtusely over the marvel of souffles.

To Revell's credit, he does not trumpet himself as master -- it is not nearly so gross as that -- but there is an unsettling egotism to the entire book.

All that said, there are some interesting bits: reminding the reader of Wallace Stevens' admonition that "being there together is enough" and Revell's own assertion that "Composition is taxidermy." And there's this little gem of an exercise:
"Sometimes I like to ask my students to translate one of their own poems into a nonexistent language of their own invention." (71)
That strikes a masterful note. Noteworthy, unfortunately, for how it stands out among the clanging, tiresome rest.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America

Quick, quick as it's time for me to fly. Or actually drive. But this last little bit I've been engaged reading about Amerigo Vespucci. Judicious, engaging, balanced (if rather critical of Vespucci, Columbus, and the lot of the early European explorers of the "New World"), Amerigo succeeds in sketching the man, from limited sources (very limited sources), and the world he lived, worked, explored (to some extent), and puffed himself up in.

Vespucci, it turns out, was sort of a shit. But as Fernández-Armesto points out, most of "them" were. The book, however, isn't.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tenaya Darlington, Madame Deluxe

My god, almost two weeks since I finished anything of substance?!? Maybe that's why I'm feeling so funky. That's funky in a bad way, not in the Madame Deluxe way.

But the read itself was enjoyable... enough? No, that's damning by faint praise. Not everything worked (as you would expect) but I suppose, for me, that the "failures" -- those passages and pieces that don't quite connect -- are more glaring in poetry than in prose. Certainly than in novels, where the scope and expanse of the narrative (and the sheer weight of the words) tends to sweep through and over the infelicities. In the very engaging works, at least.

But even the most engaging poetry collection isn't enough to swamp the failures. Which is not to say that there are failures in Tenaya Darlington's Madame Deluxe -- certainly none that have stuck with me.

These are poems with an edge and a spice mildly reminiscent of perhaps the greatest (to my mind) book-length poem of all time: Suzy Zeus Gets Organized. A bit more holistically playful than Suzy Zeus, and certainly more poetically, formally "inventive" (Darlington is at play with the words and forms deployed -- and they are "deployed", quite consciously, or so the collection reads).

Her "The Student Asks the Poet Basho: What is Victoria's Secret?" is one of the great examples of the above. It could have become too cloying, too clever, and far too obvious. It's none of those.

And it is all very much worth the time it takes to read.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Félix Fénéon, Novels in Three Lines

Novels in Three Lines is a fascinating, evocative, and somewhat disturbing collection of newspaper filler written in 1906 by Félix Fénéon. A sample (at random):
"During a pleasure outing in an ill-famed neighborhood of Toulon, Brigadier Hory, of the 3rd Colonial, was stabbed to death." (13)

"Twirling a lasso and yahooing, Kieffer, of Montreuil, committed thrice in two years, galloped away. He vanished. He went on to hang himself." (56)

"Too bad! Mentré of Longwy, who revealed to us he was the winner of the 250,000 francs in the tuberculosis lottery, seems to have been hoaxed."(107)
Well, the last wasn't wholly at random. I scanned the pages trying to find one that did not involve yet another accident (crushed thorax), suicide, or murder.

It is a brutish, violent world that comes across in these "novels" -- but perhaps only proper as Fénéon is compelled to come right to the denoument, the world tied up as it is among and before the three lines.

I did tire of them at times, having to put the book down and rest. Get some space. It was... just too much unhappiness and death, at the hands of others and oneself. But a fascinating way to see a frantic, mad, and bloody world, not unlike our own.
"What?! Children perched on his wall?! With eight rounds M. Olive, property owner in Toulon, forced them to scramble down all bloodied." (60)
Damn, Toulon was rough!

Poetry 191.4 (January 2008)

I'm now traveling about a month behind in Poetry -- the arrival of the February 2008 edition reminding me to dip into the prior month's that was sitting on my end table.

The poetry itself was engaging but not exceptional this month, nothing struck me as wonderful or notably awful. Though, for that matter, I'm not sure that there has ever been a poem in Poetry that has compelled me to buy a collection.

The prose, the reviews, that's another matter. Though here, this month, I have to say I was disappointed. There has been an edge to the prose of late, of the past year? more? It's hard to tell at this point. But a smart -- it's been criticized as "snarky" -- wit about many of the reviews. This month's were weak. Mackowski's dismissal of Atwood (and celebration of Jamie) perplexed me -- I'm no partisan of Atwood's but I couldn't understand the argument from the examples provided. And Mlinko on Pinsky and Kinzie was a dismal conflation of the worst of the emotive and academic impulses in literary criticism.

Bring back the snarky, please!!