Saturday, August 15, 2009

Charles Bukowski, Love is a Dog From Hell

Perhaps I should have found something a little more... celebratory (perhaps?) coming off my time in Stalingrad. Still, there was a striking -- if fleeting (and slightly perverse) -- nod to the Eastern Front:
this time has finished me.

I feel like the German troops
whipped by snow and the communists
walking bent
with newspapers stuffed into
worn boots.

my plight is just as terrible.
maybe more so.

victory was so close
victory was there.

as she stood before my mirror [...]
"the retreat" (198)

Love is a Dog From Hell gives us a much more... carnal Bukowski than I... remember? expected? Cock and balls, cunt and masturbation, watching schoolgirls, blowjobs, and wanking off as he sits in his car. It's most unrelenting in the first section -- "one more creature / dizzy with love" -- but is pulled throughout.

It reads too like a Bukowski discovering his fame -- not in wonder, or with youthful exuberance, nor with weariness or delight. His fame (and notoriety) is the subject of much of his poetry, but here there is a sense of discovery, as if it's something new worth exploring.

It doesn't feel as if he's wearied of it yet.

What we get is mostly Bukowski. Not Hank or Chinaski -- though a few of these creep in late in the collection (as does a Salomski in "Twins") -- which in itself is rather striking. And there is the stark push pull that characterizes so much of his work (and which, probably, makes it and him such a draw -- lending a thoughtful credibility [or is it patina?] -- aside from the cheap thrill of hanging out at the track, in the dive bar, and with drunks and whores even at such a remove):
sometimes you make a mistake, taking
the wrong poem
more often I make the mistake, writing
"for Al—" (90)
people need me. I fill
them. if they can't see me
for a while they get desperate, they get
"Chopin Bukowski" (101)

I think we all hope for something of the latter, and realize the former is much more likely our fate.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Antony Beevor, Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943


I was drawn to Beevor's history of the World War II siege of Stalingrad by the glowing reviews I'd read of his forthcoming history of the D-Day invasions.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 is an amazing, jaw-dropping, and horrific history of one of the turning points of the war in Europe. The chronicle of brutality -- of the Nazi push into the Soviet Union, the Soviet push back west, the siege itself, the encirclement of German armies -- is both shocking and all too familiar.

The only word to describe the conflict, over-used though it might be, is meat-grinder. Soldiers and civilians both were simply chewed up (at many points during the siege, quite literally, by vermin and their own bodies and sometimes by their fellows) in the battles, by the hunt for "traitors" and "revanchists", by the awful conditions, by lack of food and gear. Beevor chronicles the fate of individual soldiers (and thus the great mass of soldiers) and officers well and in detail, while also detailing both the political and strategic machinations that shaped the battles and the concomitant horrors.

Occasionally the sheer scope of unit names and numbers that Beevor casts about becomes a bit overwhelming, but the narrative he's built is so strong and compelling that any confusion is temporary (and perhaps in some very small, abstract way conjures a hint of the battlefield itself).

On the whole, though, words fail me. This is an important book. We need to be reminded, viscerally, of the horrors we commit against one another. And Beevor has given us, perhaps, one of the fullest portraits of such horrors of the none too distant past. The truly disturbing thing for me is the realization that thrust into just such a meat-grinder I would turn the crank as vigorously as the next. Not for Motherland, or Fatherland, or any ideology or affection for a leader, but rather, like most of the meat fed through the machine, in a desperate effort to survive.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Edward Miguel, Africa's Turn?

This is the second Boston Review book read. In a row. Miguel's Africa's Turn? summarizes fairly standard thinking on the "African" economic situation (mirrored in a recent New York Times article, "Just When Africa's Luck Was Changing"). Thankfully, Miguel and the various contributors -- and the book itself is made up of an extended introduction by Miguel followed by 9 brief essays by contributors and wrapped up by Miguel -- recognize that you can't really talk about "Africa" as if it was a singularity.

As least we've come this far.

Here is, perhaps, the most representative passage from the book (at the close of Miguel's introductory essay):
It is still too early to know if Africa's time is now. In the meantime, international efforts to reduce Western farm subsidies, use foreign aid as insurance against conflict risk in the most vulnerable countries, end the wars in Darfur and Congo, and promote agricultural adaptation to climate change are concrete steps that may help solidify Africa's nascent transformation. (46)
The take away? "Africa" may be poised to take off. Or it may not. It depends.

Well, no shit.

What will probably happen is that some countries will exceed expectations -- their own and those of outsiders. Others will surprise most and collapse. But the vast majority will push on, taking incremental steps forward and suffering the occasional setback.

And the vast majority of folks will celebrate and suffer and love and work and fight and do their thing as they've done.

This wasn't, by any stretch, a bad book. But I do wonder now why I bothered...