My essay “When I Make My Road Trip Movie” is in the current issue of _Eclectica_:
My essay “When I Make My Road Trip Movie” is in the current issue of _Eclectica_:
In the movie This Is Spinal Tap, the band is searching for a stage concept that will live up to the mythopoeic grandiosity of their Jurassic rock sound. They hit upon the idea of an 18-foot-high replica of Stonehenge, but some confusion between the symbols ‘ and “ results in dolmens a foot and a half tall, the tiny dancers they hire to prance about this microlith do not, to say the least, set the proper tone.
This is roughly the transformation that the Duke of Ferrara undergoes between Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Richard Howard’s “Nikolaus Mardruz to His Master Ferdinand, Count of Tyrol, 1565.” Here are the poems:
Even more than a novel or a play, a dramatic monologue revolves around the control of information, usually accomplished through point of view. Lacking the props of context, the reader must use clues of tone and inference to puzzle out a meaning that is often quite different from what the speaker intends. In “My Last Duchess,” we gradually realize that the Duke is not merely pompous and self-regarding, not merely an annoying prick, but almost certainly a murderer; the progression is rendered even more disturbing because we are inserted into the position of an emissary negotiating a marriage, and are thus implicated in the fate of the Duke’s next Duchess. The poem has aged well, I think, because Browning can still rely on (most of) us to share his fear and loathing of domestic tyrants, a species with which he had some personal acquaintance.
Part of the fun of Howard’s re-telling is, of course, figuring out that that’s what it is; I’m afraid I may have lessened that fun by my presentation, but it would be a shame to read the Howard poem without having read the Browning. From the beginning, with the swans and towers reflected upside-down in the lake, we are warned to expect inversions and reversals, and the trompe-l’oeil curtain that flips over to reveal the portrait carries this forward, as well as illustrating the kind of petty power trips the Duke is willing to stoop to.
We are now at an extra remove from the Duke, in the position of the Count to whom Mardruz’s letter is addressed, and whom we can imagine as sharing his general world-view, even if he may perhaps find his underling a bit cheeky and verbose. Instead of the earnest, upright Protestant gentleman who is shocked and horrified by the evil Duke, we have the witty, urbane ambassador who seems to regard His Grace’s appalling morals as principally (or ducally) another example of his unspeakable taste. We are not asked to be any fonder of the Duke than we are in “My Last Duchess,” but we are asked to see him as contemptible and easily manipulated, the way a legate from imperial London or Paris might look down on a small-time dictator.
Howard gives Mardruzhis own style, with a good deal of syntactic suspense and lots of semantic inversions (“by his own lights, or, perhaps more properly / said, by his own tenebrosity”) to go with the elaboraate syllabic meter:
The years are her
ally in such an arbitrament,
and with confidence
My Lord can assure
the new Duchess (assuming her Duke
abides by these stipulations and his own
“semblances”) the long devotion (so long as
he lasts ) of her last Duke… Or more likely,
if I guess aright
your daughter’s intent,
of that young lordling I might make so
bold as to designate her next Duke, as well…
In other words, they can rig the contract so that the “old reprobate” won’t dare harm the new Duchess for fear of losing the dowry, and she need only wait for him to pop off so that she can marry her boyfriend and make him her next Duke.
The ornate and rather fussy style may be specific to Mardruz, but I can’t help seeing in his amused and cosmopolitan self-assurance a good deal of Richard Howard. Here is Edmund White’s description of his first encounter with Howard—at the time, White was an unpublished novelist and Howard had agreed to look at his manuscript (this was to be the big break in White’s career). But rather than arranging lunch or some similar mundane appointment, Howard instructed him to be waiting, MS in hand, on the corner of 13th Street and ith Avenue at exactly 2:00 PM:
At the appointed time I was standing on the corner…with the manuscript in hand. I was wearing sawed-off blue-jean shorts and a maroon T-shirt. My hair was freshly washed and combed, but I wished I’d slept better and didn’t have such dark circles under my eyes. Suddenly I saw him whirling up the street at a fast clip in a cape, his bald head gleaming. He sized me up with a head-to-toe survey and a cocked eyebrow.
Style, energy, cocked eyebrow…I think Nikolaus Mardruz would approve.
So, how might this serve as a model or caution for a writer of poems? I mentioned above the use of gradual revelation to create a drama of discovery where there may not be a drama of action, and this is surely something that any writer can profit from who wishes to keep an audience attentive. There is also a sense of discovery as we thread our way through the twisty corridors of Mardruz’ syntax, though this may start to feel claustrophobic.
The meter too is interesting, an elaborate syllabic pattern that provides an abstract matrix within which the poem develops; given modern sensibilities, the lack of palpable rhythmic pulse may be considered an advantage, since iambic or trochaic meter strikes readers as retro. But by the same token, it lacks visceral, audible power.
I am greatly drawn to Howard’s brilliance and his evident pleasure in creation, but I am not sure that I can claim for him what Lorca calls duende, what the rest of us call soul. My own poems are usually about me, and the ones that have gotten the strongest response are those that have the greatest emotional authenticity and intensity, so that for me, the biggest challenge in writing dramatic monologue is not being clever (much as I love clever) but inhabiting the speaker with as much sure-footedness as I inhabit the poem-character version of myself. And then I just have to wait for that big arsenic lobster to fall on my head.
This year’s edition of The Best American Poetry is out, with Terrance Hayes as the guest editor. Contrary to my usual custom, I looked into the introduction by series editor David Lehman, and was reminded why I usually don’t. He is crabby about the decline of literature, or at least of poetry, which is understandable, though maybe not very interesting. But I was surprised to find that he blames this crisis on “the imperialism of science”—yes, in a country where the dominant notion of the good life is being able to watch marathons of reality TV on a screen the size of a galleon’s mainsail and to build an addition onto your McMansion to accommodate your arsenal of automatic weapons, David Lehman has identified the enemy of culture: nerds who dig biology and astronomy. Helpful!
The selection of poems reflects, as always, the concerns of the guest editor, which in Hayes’ case are most notably music (especially jazz and blues), what it means to be African-American, and what it means to be an African-American man. To be sure, there are also poems that do not deal with these topics, though even the selections by white writers are more often about race than is usual in the BestAmPos of other years (for example, there is Tony Hoagland’s “Write Whiter”). As always, there are interesting comments by the poets at the back of the volume, ranging from the illuminating and funny to the embarrassingly pretentious.
Here are some of my faves that I was able to find online:
David Wojahn’s touching elegy for his father profits from classical restraint:
I’m not sure if this link will let you read all of Steve Scafidi’s “Thank You Lord for the Dark Ablaze,” but I hope so:
I couldn’t find Eleanor Wilner’s “Sowing,” but maybe this page has a link:
Mark Doty is always worth reading, and I love the last line, “this is the price the wind pays.”
I’m not always in love with Sharon Olds, but this is exceedingly charming:
These are different tanka by Harryette Mullen from those in BestAmPo, but you’ll get the idea:
I’m taking a poetry writing course in which the teacher talked about how remarkable it is that Louise Gluck, in “The Red Poppy,” is able to evoke the color red without ever naming it:
I’m a fan of Gluck, but don’t you think the color red is put in our minds by the word “red” in the title? It’s like marveling at how “The apparition of these faces in the crowd” somehow manages to make you think of the Paris subway system (it’s the first line of Pound’s “in a Station of the Metro,” of course). Anyway, our assignment was to do the same, evoke red or blue without naming it. My contribution below isn’t a real poem, but I hope it amuses.
Obituary of Red
She had always feared boredom,
had often ordered coredumps
of Alfred’s firedamaged Apple.
She found the predictable shreds
of credos and unredeemed offers
for engineered heredity—
all foredoomed, but who cared
while they bred predators:
Airedales, or were they firedrakes?
You can see the roots of the future science-fiction writer in JG Ballard’s description of the surreal Shanghai in which he spent his childhood. Here, from the quasi-autobiographical novel The kindness of Women, is the Great World amusement park, as it was just before a stray Kuo Min Tang bomb destroyed it in 1937:
A vast warehouse of light and noise, the amusement park was filled with magicians and fireworks, slot machines and sing-song girls,. A haze of frying fat gleamed in the air and formed a greasy film on my face, mingling with the smell of joss-sticks and incense. Stunned by the din, I would follow Yang as he slipped through the acrobats and Chinese actors striking their gongs. Medicine hawkers lanced the necks of huge white geese, selling the cups of steaming blood to passers-by as the ferocious birds stamped their feet and gobbled at me when I came too close. While Yang murmured into the ears of the mah-jong dealers and marriage brokers, I peered between his legs at the exposed toilets in the lavatory stalls and at the fearsome idols scowling over the temple doorways, at the mysterious peep-shows and massage booths with their elegant Chinese girls, infinitely more terrifying than Olga, in embroidered high-collared robes slit to expose their thighs.
This is not so different from a thousand other exotic alien bars and bazaars, from Star Wars to Samuel R. Delany, and indeed it was particularly alien to the young Ballard; as we learn from his memoir, Miracles of Life, he lived in China for the first fifteen years of his life without ever learning a word of Chinese, and if he did know the name of Yang the chauffeur, that was very unusual. In general, he and his parents never used names for the servants, addressing them and referring to them as “#1 Coolie,” “#2 Boy,” or “#1 Ama.” Exoticism is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.
Ballard was, I am told, a leading figure in New Wave SF in the ‘60s, which according to TOm Disch was characterized by an influx of English majors into the field. Certainly the above paragraph shows an impressive and pleasing mastery of rhetorical balance and rhythm, combining intensity with a restraint that might be welcome in the purple passages of other stylistically-ambitious SF writers (Delany, say, or China Mieville or Michael Swanwick). I should admit that I haven’t read Ballard’s SF, but even from the two books I’ve mentioned, I think that I can sense his influence on Mieville, Swanwick, and any number of other recent practitioners.
One feature JG shares with Swanwick, probably more out of temperamental resonance than literary influence, is a fondness for unpleasant sex scenes. I note with relief that Ballard’s memoir lacks some of the weirder encounters that are presented in Kindness of Women, such as dealing with grief over his wife’s sudden death by screwing her sister while her husband is running an errand. Here is a typical scene, as Jim (the quasi-Ballard) lounges on a beach with a young American woman, Sally Mumford:
She had chewed her nails to the quick and her left nipple was raw and tender. A faint chemical odor rose from the gusset of her bikini, a hint of stale spermicidal jelly, and I guessed that she had been too distracted to change her cap for a few days.
Nothing happens on this occasion, but when they do finally get it on, on the living room couch while his three children are asleep, she shouts out “Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me, Daddy!” Nice. Oh, and the above is not by any means the most icky mention of spermicidal jelly in the book.
I am not sure why Ballard gets a kick out of scenes like these; you might think that he was trying to get the reader to share his revulsion at sex or at the sexual revolution, but that doesn’t seem to be it. In Miracles of Life, he mocks the mothers of his daughters’ friends for their squeamishness, and claims that he was fine with the girls doing whatever they felt like, as long as they kept their appointments at the local family planning clinic. One element in his penchant for the gross-out is surely a desire to unsettle and provoke people, as when he organized an art show in London consisting of crashed cars. He notes with pride that the exhibit enraged visitors more than any other he could remember.
The flip side of JG the cutting-edge counterculture bad boy (his The Atrocity Exhibition included a chapter called “I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”) is JG the devoted single dad, picking up his kids from school every day and making dinner with them. Sometimes he would take them to Magic Land, as they called it, which was a lot in back of the local film studio where disused props such as giant iffigies of household products had been abandoned. Magic Land makes a kind of bookend to the Great World, and colors Ballard’s picture of himself as an empty-nester, one of my favorite things in the The Kindness of Women:
My children had set off for their universities, leaving a vacuum in my life that would never be filled. The house in Shepperton was like a warehouse discarded by the film studios, along with the plywood candy bars and toilet roll of Magic World. The old toys and model aircraft that crammed the cupboards were the props of a long-running family sitcom which the sponsors, despite its high ratings and loyal audience, had decided to drop. The sense of being pulled out of the schedules pressed on me as I mooned around the empty bedrooms, looking at the old holiday snapshots lying in the debris….When they came home on their brief visits, eerily like cast reunions, I knew that I was the last of us to grow up.
PS: I see that I haven’t mentioned Ballard’s years in a Japanese prison camp. He later claimed to have enjoyed it, and to have had more friends there than he ever did later in life. Asked about his swanky boarding school, he said it was a lot like Lung Hua, but the food was worse.
It’s not easy to summarize the 900 pages (50 reading hours) of Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Perhaps the most telling fact is that I was rarely bored until the end, where the generalizations pile up and where Judt’s assessment of the prospects for Europe is vitiated by an accident of timing, since the book was written just before the great economic collapse. There was no way for Judt to know that in a few years, there would be a significant anti-Euro constituency even in Germany.
Judt is quick to point out hypocrisy and humbug, such as the fabrication of heroic wartime resistance movements in places like the Netherlands and, to some degree, France, Austria’s pretense of having been Hitler’s first victim rather than his most enthusiastic ally, and the lack of support for East German dissidents among West German politicians. His skepticism is bracing, but also cumulatively rather depressing.
Judt is particularly sour on the supposed revolution of the ‘60s; this surprised me because he was born in 1948 and spent univeristy breaks working on a kibbutz—you would think that he would have fond memories of 1968 and all that, but instead he portrays the student demonstrators as spoiled children of priviledge, mostly battling for nicer dorm rooms and posing for the TV cameras in their tight-fitting red corduroy pants (which were, he says, made by and for men “like everything else in the ‘60s”).
True, the most valuable aspects of the ‘60s here were probably the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, neither of which had much of a role in Europe. I did once meet a Swede who wrote his PhD thesis on the Vietnam protest movement in Sweden; I managed to refrain from asking him how much sleep LBJ or Nixon ever lost over the knowledge that Swedish students disapproved of them.
And the point about so much of the ‘60s being a guy thing is well taken, but when he comes to the later and vastly more revolutionary women’s movement, Judt mostly just goes through the motions. I suppose that he needs the bitterness of the apostate to get his rhetorical engines going, as they are not only in his treatment of ’68 but in his analysis of left-wing politics, to which he brings the ex-Marxist’s savage enthusiasm.
Here are a few quips and quotes to give you a taste of the book:
One French Communist writer, noting that in a cold country like France, you can keep your roast on the window-ledge over the weekend, called the refrigerator “an American mystification.” The poet Louis Aragon dismissed the United States as a nation of bathtubs and Frigidaires. (I always thought it was only Francophobes who thought of France as a nation of body odor and moldy food.)
Describing the growing dominance of American films at the box office: “Cinema in Europe declined from a social activity to an art form.” The bon-ness of this mot is diminished when J makes the same joke a couple of hundred pages later.
On the fascination for the British of the inter-class eroticism in Lady Chatterley’s Lover: “Upon being asked by the prosecuting counsel whether this was a novel he would let his wife or maidservant read, one witness replied that this would not trouble him in the least, but he would never let it into the hands of his gamekeeper.
On the West’s unwillingness to call out totalitarianism: “As late as September 1983,…Vice President George Bush described Ceausescu as “one of Europe’s good Communists.”
“Indeed, a surprisingly broad range of hard-bitten statesmen in Europe and the United States confessed, albeit off the record, to finding Mrs. Thatcher rather sexy. Francois Miterrand, who knew something about such things, once described her as having ‘the eyes of Caligula, but the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.’” ( (It is a bit disturbing that Judt brings this up, when he has nothing to say about the sexiness of male politicians, but I find the parenthetical statement about FM pretty funny.)
On the increasingly casual attitude toward work in the command-economy East: “As East Germany’s official Small Political Dictionary put it, with unintended irony, “In socialism, the contradiction between work and free time, typical of capitalism, is removed.”
On Prague’s 15 minutes of fame after the Velvet Revolution: “The gaze of prominent intellectuals, a sure barometer of passing political fashions, had moved away.” (He named Susan Sontag in the next sentence.)
On the top-down, technocratic origins of the EU: “Reflecting bleakly upon his Labor Party colleagues’ obsession with the techniques and rules of party political management, the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee used to advise against the fundamental fallacy of believing that ‘it is possible by the elaboration of machinery to escape the necessity of trusting one’s fellow human beings.’ But this was just the premise on which the institutions of post-war European unity had been built.”
Georges Pompidou: “Should French ever cease to be the primary working language of Europe, then Europe itself would never be fully European.” (A telling quote, plus I never pass up a chance to say “Pompidou.”)
“In October 1991, …Gallup polled Austrians on their attitude to Jews. 20% thought ‘positions of authority should be closed to Jews,’ 31% declared that they would not want a Jew as a neighbor. Fully 50% were ready to agree with the proposition that “Jews are responsible for their past persecution.’”
I’m always more likely to pick up a memoir than a book of cultural theory, so when I came to read a book by the famous old-timey feminist Germaine Greer, it was not The Female Eunuch but Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, the story of Greer’s attempt to research her late father’s life. Mr. Greer did not say very much about his early life, and what he did say was not very true, so the book has an intriguing detective-story angle as we follow Greer from place to place in search of his trail.
Unfortunately, much of what stays in the mind from the chapters I read is an endless series of petty gripes. Greer goes back home to Australia after years abroad, and…well, she goes to the racetrack, and the races are no good, and the bottle of champagne she buys at the bar is no good, and they won’t let her take the bottle out of the bar, and when she tells them that any racetrack in Europe would let her take the bottle out, they are not impressed. Like that.
But her true idée fixe is improper wardrobe. Every scene, from her sister’s home to libraries to government record offices, is punctuated with Greer’s horror at people wearing t-shirts and trainers and (gasp!) shorts. This would be in the late ‘80s, when Greer was not yet fifty years old; the only explanation I can think of for her shock is that she had been living in England, where everybody had to wear three sweaters all the time. As for why she thinks her sartorial dissonance will interest readers, I have no clue.
But anyway, the thing I really wanted to share with y’all is an amazing passage from her visit to India, where her father had spent time in a military mental hospital. She is on the beach in Bombay:
The beach is very wide, eighty yards at least, yet every man who walks along it comes within two yards of where I sit writing in my notebook. Some of them, emboldened by their smart Western apparel, tight nylon shirt with huge collar, flared synthetic trousers and high-heeled plastic shoes, dare to sit down and stare fixedly at me. “Move! Go! Be off! At once!” I say in a piercing mem-sahib voice. They pretend they have not heard, look away for a minute or two and then, face saved, casually saunter off. I put my head in my notebook, anxious that they should not see my grin.
Why is it, I wonder, that all men are so confident of their attractiveness and so few women are? Why would any tatterdemalian Maratha imagine that a foreign tourist lady of apparent wealth would welcome his attentions?
Well, shut my mouth. Among the many interesting aspects of this scene, I would like to note two. First, I think that most women I know would interpret the men’s behavior not as seduction but as aggression, comparable to wolf-whistles or butt-grabbing in the Italy of yore. The men may feel threatened by her transgression of their culture’s norms (being alone on the beach), they may think (correctly) that she is jotting down snide and contemptuous things about them in her book, they may just be assholes. But why does GG suppose that they are acting based on the assumption that she is attracted to them, and why, oh why, does she make the obviously false claim that all men are convinced of their own attractiveness?
Second, I think that most women I know would base their objection to the men’s conduct on their status as human beings who deserve to have their space respected and not to be intimidated. Instead, GG uses race and class to trump gender. In case your Kipling is rusty, ‘mem sahib’ is what the Maratha and other Indians were supposed to call the women among their colonial overlords, ‘mem’ being a corruption of Ma’am and ‘sahib’ deriving from an Arabic word for Master. I am surprised that Greer doesn’t feel any discomfort at staking her claim as a rich white woman; to be sure, the fellow’s high-heeled plastic shoes are a regrettable fashion statement, but hey, at least he’s not wearing shorts.
I may well start working on a piercing mem sahib voice of my own, but I expect I’ll leave it at home the next time I visit the old Raj.