Thomas DePietro November 30, 2009 - 11:48am
The poets Samuel Menashe, Jack Gilbert, and W. S. Merwin are now all in their eighties. Their reputations secure, their voices assured, they are free either to break their own old rules or to continue following them—and so break the rule that says a poet must not repeat himself. There is beauty in their departures, but also in their returns.
In a foreword to the expanded edition of his New and Selected Poems (The Library of America, $20, 200 pp.), Samuel Menashe writes, “Those who approve of my poems call them economical or concise. The others dismiss them as slight.” But even “slight” is not always a slight: think of Dickinson, or Blake’s Songs of Experience. Menashe is resourceful in both senses of the word: he is richly endowed with every gift a lyric poet could want, and among these is a verbal thrift that allows him to do a lot with almost nothing. His poems, punctuated lightly or not at all, are usually just one or two sentences long—often short enough to be read in a single breath. They are works of exquisite containment, written by a ruefully self-contained man.
Who is mother
Of more than one
Is not the same
As the mother
Of an only son
Who never became
Still only a son
As an old man—
What I have not done
Made me who I am.
Just as it’s what the poet has not done (become a father) that made him what he is, it’s what he does not write—what he withholds—that makes the poem what it is: intimate but not conventionally confessional, since we learn nothing about this mother and son except the ways they are, and aren’t, related to others. The language here, like the life behind it, is reflexive, doubling back on itself, with equal attention paid to the sound and look of each word. Menashe is interested in patterns and resonances of every kind, especially those we hear or see without noticing. His short poems, both delicate and explosive, are packed tight with half-hidden meanings and effects.
For a long time, Menashe, a very American poet, went without an American publisher. A few years ago the Poetry Foundation gave him its first Neglected Masters Award, which, together with the publication of New and Selected Poems, has left him a bit less neglected.
Neglect has never been a problem for W. S. Merwin, whose first book was chosen for the Yale Younger Poets Series by W. H. Auden in 1952. His latest book, The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, $22, 117 pp.), won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. The absence of punctuation, which one hardly notices in Menashe’s poems, is one of the first things one notices about Merwin’s. His long lines are rarely end-stopped, so that from the starting gate of one capital letter the language runs away with no visible bridle, interrupted only by the spaces between words and ordered only by syntax. Read aloud, Merwin’s phrases are so natural and clear that one wonders why he hasn’t gotten rid of the spaces too, and printed his poems in a solid block of undifferentiated text, like an ancient manuscript. Of course, making words seem so natural and clear requires great art; and though these poems often sound like the record of a man’s conversations with himself, they are the furthest thing from “automatic writing.” In this river of words, every drop has been carefully titrated. Nothing’s wasted: Merwin gets more poetry into a title than many poets get into a whole poem. His titles are not just handles or ornaments; they are little locks for which the poem provides the key. In “One of the Butterflies,” he writes:
it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn to pain
The way the remains of joy turn to pain is also one of the central themes in Jack Gilbert’s work, which goes back, book after book, poem after poem, to revisit the same events and images, prodding them again till they yield some sound of life, whether it’s a sigh or a song—or both. His latest collection, The Dance Most of All (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 60 pp.), tells us little about Gilbert’s life that we didn’t already know from Refusing Heaven (2005), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. It has been a life that combines cosmopolitan glamour with hermetic discipline, intense love affairs and a happy marriage alternating with long spells of self-assigned solitude. And it has been a life of continual loss, like any other. Gilbert keeps an unusually careful inventory of his losses, refusing to bury them with unworthy consolations. If life is to be celebrated, his poems tell us, it must be in full view of suffering, one’s own and others’—and with the knowledge that what one celebrates now may later have to be suffered in memory, whose measurements can be cruel. As Gilbert writes in “Living Hungry After”:
I worried that a great
love might make everything else an exile.
It turned out that being together
at twilight in the olive groves of Umbria
did, indeed, measure everything after that.
Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
Every day I hear stories of religious people who feel called to resist current cultural vectors. Their efforts often target government or politicians. Their acts of resistance are often—though not always—admirable. Three books I read this year opened windows into faith-based resistance.
After watching Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise film about a plot to blow up Hitler, I wondered whether there was a faith factor in the conspirators’ motives. Then came a book—Valkyrie: The Story of the Plot to Kill Hitler, by Its Last Member (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 212 pp.)—that promised to fill in that part of the picture for one Catholic conspirator.
Unlike the Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Philipp Freiherr von Boeselager didn’t seem to struggle with his conscience. Von Boeselager had been raised in a patrician family with a long devotion to hunting, horsemanship, military service, faith, and virtue. When he heard an SS officer talking matter-of-factly about exterminating Jews and Gypsies, he knew that what had seemed to be isolated atrocities actually manifested Nazi policy made at the highest levels. The shocked cavalry commander was easily recruited to supply the explosives meant to stop Hitler. Von Boeselager’s memoir displays a virtuous confidence, a willingness to risk his life to take a life in order to save many lives.
After the failure of the Valkyrie plot, von Boeselager naturally lived in fear. His co-conspirators were executed, and he was summoned to army headquarters. He sensed his “end was near.” Running anxiously toward the airplane that had been sent to fetch him, he paused to pick up the Bible that had fallen from his hand luggage. Staring him in the face were the words of the Benedictus: “That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve Him without fear.” It was a moment of personal revelation. His confidence restored, von Boeselager boarded the plane, saying to himself, “By the grace of God!”
Ed Husain’s faith-based resistance was much less inspiring. In The Islamist: Why I Became an Islamic Fundamentalist, What I Saw Inside, and Why I Left (Penguin, $16, 300 pp.), Husain describes how he was recruited from his parents’ mystical Islam to join a militant and decidedly less prayerful version of the faith. This conversion was a potent admixture of adolescent rebellion and radical intellectual posing.
For readers who think of radical Islam as a monolith, this memoir of five years of radicalized turmoil highlights the varieties of Islamism that prey on students in Britain’s schools and universities. As Husain describes them, the Islamist factions are united in their mutual disdain for Western culture, but divided by their disdain for each other, and generally uncoordinated and fractious. Nevertheless, dangers abound. Husain’s turning point came when a fellow leader of the radical Hizb ut-Tahrir killed a Christian student in a knife attack. Although the group’s rhetoric had always envisioned takeover of Western civilization by Islamist militias, the actual violence—a fellow student’s bloody death—brought Husain to his senses. It also brought him to the difficult realization that he had lost his spiritual connection with God, and that the Hizb advocated prayer only to establish their legitimacy in the eyes of other Muslims. “If we were working to establish God’s rule on earth, as we claimed,” Husain reasons, “then Hizb ut-Tahrir activists were the most unlikely candidates God could have chosen.”
By 2001, Husain returned to spiritual Islam under Sufi influence. He believed he had unlearned the distortions inculcated by the radicals. Then came September 11, and he found himself taking satisfaction in the attack on America. The Hizb’s polarized view of the world, and their belief that non-Muslims were of lesser value, came once again to the fore. Rebuked by his Sufi friends, Husain experienced a renewed repentance and reorientation. One lasting lesson from this book is that once a religion is viewed through a political lens, it will always be difficult to see the faith in nonpoliticized terms.
Husain and Von Boeselager provide case studies in faith-based resistance. Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis provides some theory. In Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights, $19.99, 131 pp.), Schulweis explores the role of conscientious resistance in the religious life. The view that Judaism is all about obedience to Law is false. The rabbinic tradition, he argues, has concerned itself with stories of chutzpah klapei shmaya—the spiritual audacity that allowed Abraham, Moses, and others to argue with God and win. “People of faith may intercede and divine imperatives are subject to correction.”
Schulweis draws a distinction between God (who must be feared) and Torah (which must not be). He echoes St. Paul when he argues that “the letter of the biblical law must not be allowed to crush the spirit of halachic conscience.” Schulweis’s conscience does not operate above or outside the Law, but is informed by it and operates within the sphere of halacha.
Schulweis is puzzled by Jews and Christians who obey authorities that command evil. He proposes that when the dominant religious influences in a society teach “obedience to obedience,” they create a culture of obedience that spills over into civic life and abets acquiescence to evil. On the other hand, religion that affirms principled resistance to its own codes creates a culture of conscience that resists evil. Reverent disputes actually reveal the spirit of the Torah: “The divine is manifest through the earnest debates and judgments of human beings.”
Acts of conscience depend upon a “conspiracy of goodness,” a cultural (or subcultural) framework for resistance. “Civilization cannot endure without conscience,” concludes Schulweis. “That blessed obduracy is the hope of our moral sanity and survival.”
David Neff is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today magazine.
The ghost of the Twin Towers continues to haunt the literary imagination. First there was Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), in many ways still the best fictional response to that horrific day. Last year, Joseph O’Neill followed with Netherland, which not only covers some of the same ground but also alludes to DeLillo’s earlier novel Underworld in its title. The genius of Colum McCann’s latest novel, Let the Great World Spin (Random House, $25, 354 pp.), is that he sets his post-9/11 narrative in 1974 and frames it with a description of a different Twin Towers moment: the morning a French tightrope walker named Philippe Petit entertained the world by crossing back and forth between the Towers on a single wire.
Like the unforgettable pennant ballgame in DeLillo’s Underworld, Petit’s death-defying frolic becomes both theme and icon in McCann’s story. Many voices join here in synchronicity. Among them, a Park Avenue housewife grieving her son killed in Vietnam; a South Bronx hooker regretting her choices in life; a teenage aspiring photographer who happens to look skyward as Petit steps out over the abyss; and the municipal court judge (married to the Park Avenue housewife) who handles the Petit case. The world of McCann’s novel really does seem to spin. Hovering over the whole story is McCann’s most memorable character, from whom we never hear directly. John Andrew Corrigan, a Dublin-born monk assigned to New York City, lives among the very poorest in the Bronx, ministering to the aged and infirm, as well as to the prostitutes who stroll along the Major Deegan underpass near his apartment in the projects. Corrigan’s brother Ciaran, retreating from a terrorist bomb scare in Dublin, crashes at the monk’s apartment. Corrigan, his brother tells us, “was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.” But McCann, who is Irish himself, also lets the monk’s brother offer us a vision of hope: a “wild, yea-saying overburst of American joy.” Like O’Neill, who is half-Irish, and DeLillo, McCann covers New York from street to skyscraper, and discovers in the babel of voices a longing for connection.
Mary Caponegro, another bright and fearless young writer, offers her own response to 9/11 in one of the shorter stories in her latest collection, which is titled, appropriately, All Fall Down (Coffee House Press, $14.95, 216 pp.). “A Daughter in Time” captures the anxious reaction of a woman whose daughter is a student at a university not far from Ground Zero. A dean at an upstate college, this nervous mom is trained in handling undergraduate crises. Prepared for her daughter to return home “pregnant, depressive, bisexual, bipolar, Republican, alcoholic, suspended, a dropout,” she can’t deal with her own helplessness the day of the attack, which her daughter witnesses from a downtown roof.
Most of the stories in this collection are about people in crisis: marriages falling apart, parents dying, strange illnesses. What distinguishes Caponegro from many other contemporary chroniclers of the broken and needy is an uncommon literary skill. Her complex sentences weave a narrative of surprises. She combines a bitter wit with a quirky eroticism. In the story “Ashes Ashes We All Fall Down,” a young husband living in his childhood home finds his loyalties stretched between his dying mother on the ground floor and his pregnant wife upstairs. He’s not the only anxious character who flirts with decadence and decay in Caponegro’s fictions. Her novella “The Translator” self-consciously echoes Henry James and Nabokov with its juxtaposition of Old World decrepitude and New World innocence. The story’s an updated Daisy Miller with shades of Lolita, told by the eponymous translator, a European as pedantic and obsessive as Humbert himself. His lust for his young protégé, a beautiful blonde American half his age, manifests itself only when he can contemplate her as a lifeless work of art.
The creepiest tale, “Junior Achievement,” is a bizarre gothic narrative about three young siblings whose parents have died. They now live by themselves in a suburban ranch house where they perform abortions in the basement rec room. Games like “Operation” merge with reality in this odd little fable. Caponegro’s everyday metaphysics will startle you, just when you think you’re reading a typical tale about a marriage (“Last Resort Retreat”) or relationship (“Ill-Timed”) on the skids. She takes to heart Dante’s familiar warning, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here”—she quotes it more than once—but she also holds out a promise of paradise.
Another small-press book worth noting is a smart and skillful fiction by Jody McAuliffe, My Lovely Suicides (Ravenna Press, $16.95, 130 pp.). This sort of fact-based historical narrative, experimental in an inviting way, reminds us of the European decadence on display in Caponegro’s “The Translator.” McAuliffe’s story follows the planning and execution of one of literary history’s most memorable suicides, the German playwright and novelist Heinrich Von Kleist (1777–1811), whose haunting novella Michael Kohlhaas has influenced writers as different as Franz Kafka and E. L. Doctorow. My Lovely Suicides purports to offer some autobiographical notes Kleist left at his death, now discovered by his sister. Kleist imagines himself a modern Cato, unappreciated by those around him, driven to suicide by corruption and existential self-loathing. Much of the narrative details Kleist’s strange attempts to find a partner in death. The great irony here is that it was Kleist’s more famous rival, Goethe, whose book The Sorrows of Young Werther would make romantic suicide fashionable. But for Goethe it was enough to imagine self-destruction without enacting it; he survived his own early disappointments and went on to fame and glory. McAuliffe’s clever little novel may sound drily academic, but it’s a witty portrait of a self-aggrandizing artist determined to put his absurd philosophy into practice.
If all this talk of suicide, despair, and 9/11 isn’t for you, then let me recommend a work I didn’t get around to reading until this summer, G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a book so startlingly original I can’t stop thinking about it. Though called a “nightmare” by Chesterton, it’s really quite comical: a strange mystery about seven coconspirators, each named for a day of the week, all (apparently) bent on anarchy. The dream-like terrain of the book makes it clear that Chesterton is less concerned with ordinary politics than with philosophic struggle—the most basic clash of good and evil. The narrative rushes along into deep uncertainty: who’s a real anarchist and who’s a spy for the police? The story’s as profound and as elementary as the Book of Job. I love Chesterton’s use of modernist technique to offer his antimodernist vision. The Man Who Was Thursday looks forward to Jorge Luis Borges (who celebrated it), as well as to Flann O’Brien and Philip K. Dick. There are many editions available, but try to find the one published by Sheed and Ward with Garry Wills’s brilliant introduction, which explains all the allusions to Job and compares Chesterton’s “nightmare” with the poetry of William Blake. Like Blake, Chesterton marries heaven and hell.
Thomas DiPietro is a regular contributor to the online Barnes and Noble Review and a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews. His book Conversations with Kingsley Amis is published by the University Press of Mississippi.
I live in the Old West—that is to say, Milwaukee, where the quite sincerely named corporation Northwestern Mutual was founded one hundred and fifty years ago—but I grew up in the New West, in Los Angeles (a name whose sincerity has always been doubted). My dad moved us to California for a job, which is the same reason I came to Wisconsin, but what called author and environmental activist Rick Bass west twenty-odd years ago is more complicated. And while his 2008 memoir is titled Why I Came West (Mariner Books, $14.95, 238 pp.), his 2009 book The Wild Marsh: Four Seasons at Home in Montana (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 375 pp.) answers the question more emphatically. The memoir—really a collection of essays, almost editorials—is a discursive, argumentative book, but The Wild Marsh follows the absorbing through-line of a single year in Bass’s beloved, “gloriously remote” Yaak Valley in northwestern Montana. “What I love most about the passage of a year,” he writes, “is the tininess and slowness of its uncountable exquisite gears, each turning upon another to produce what seems to be the labored miracle of whatever it is you happen to be looking at, whatever it is you happen to notice.” What I loved about the book was precisely this: its author’s exquisite eye for those tiny, slow, uncountable gears—wildlife, weather—and the humility with which he witnesses them. When August brings a wildfire to his doorstep, he writes, “I have no illusions about my frailty before such a force.”
Gifford Pinchot, first head of the U.S. Forest Service, had a few illusions. “The first duty of the human race is to control the earth it lives upon,” he is quoted as saying in Timothy Egan’s new book The Big Burn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26, 352 pp.). But as Egan notes, “in a short time, a wildfire would make a mockery of Pinchot’s certainty.” Not just any wildfire, but the largest American forest fire ever, a 1910 blaze that eventually consumed 3 million acres across Montana and Idaho. Egan’s book is subtitled “Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America,” presumably because the publisher forwent the pithier “Plainspoken Ed Pulaski and How He Saved Forty-one Men.” That’s a shame, because Pulaski, a low-level Forest Service employee, is the biggest hero in the book by far. Anyone who’s worked outdoors in the West for any length of time knows the tool Pulaski developed, which bears his name: part ax, part pick or mattock, it’s essential to wilderness firefighters. The tool Pulaski found most effective in 1910, however, was a .44 caliber revolver. Caught in a firestorm, he led dozens of firefighters to an abandoned mine shaft. The men, terrified and claustrophobic, tried to storm their way out; Pulaski threatened to shoot. They retreated and he remained at the entrance, beating back the fire with wet blankets and bare hands. Eventually, all passed out from the heat and smoke; when the fire passed and the rescuers arrived, all but five men and two horses had survived.
Mack, the hero of Ron Carlson’s short novel The Signal (Viking, $25.95, 192 pp.), spends most of his time with another tool at his side—a BlackBerry—but eventually a gun comes into his hands as well, and unlike Pulaski, he’s forced to fire. We’re now in the Wind River Range of Wyoming, a few hundred miles south of where Pulaski holed up with his men. Rescue is still the main motive, although it takes a variety of forms. Mack and his estranged wife Vonnie set out on what she’s sure will be the last of their annual fall camping trips; Mack wants to save their marriage—and the failing family ranch—but Vonnie’s wary of all the trouble he’s lately found. And he’s secretly looking for more: a shady character in town has slipped him a “military” smart phone that will help Mack track some even shadier quarry on his hike. If he finds it, he’ll net a big, dirty-money payday. Vonnie thinks he should just sell the ranch instead. His reply: “I could and where would I go? …San Diego? My knees are too bony. This is where I go.” And this is where Carlson goes, again and again, to the uneasy ground of an unhappy marriage, and farther on to the wilderness that restores. Finish Bass’s books and you’ll want to move to Montana; finish Carlson’s and you’ll want to stop in Wyoming along the way. (The copyright page helpfully includes trailhead information.)
Start Wallace Stegner’s lesser-known but extraordinary volume Wolf Willow (Penguin, $16, 336 pp.), however, and you may not want to move from that cozy chair by the fire. First published in 1962, this strange amalgam of history, memoir, and fiction centered around Stegner’s birthplace, southern Saskatchewan, has no right to read as smoothly as it does. But Stegner’s searching, graceful prose pulls you through his bedraggled boyhood with such speed and ease that before you know it, you’re hip-deep in the famous blizzard of 1906–07, which all but ended open-range ranching in prairie Canada. Rusty Cullen, a greenhorn fresh from England, signs on to bring the cattle home. You look around, recognize nothing: Is this fiction now? Actually, it’s the finest cowboy story ever written, and if that superlative means nothing to you, then maybe it’s time you left that chair by the fire and, with these authors, went west.
The world F. Scott Fitzgerald chronicled in The Great Gatsby, with its privilege, anxiety, and despair, has a contemporary resonance—and with the cost of the American dream again in question, a return to the lessons of the 1920s may be in order. Echoes of Gatsby’s world in fact and fiction inspire several of my recommendations.
Chris Bohjalian’s novels, whose themes vary from homelessness and animal rights to homeopathic medicine and environmentalism, are driven by ordinary people facing extraordinary difficulties. He often draws inspiration from the landscape of his home state, Vermont, and The Double Bind (Shaye Areheart Books, $25, 384 pp.) is no exception. His heroine is college student Laurel Estabrook, who spent peaceful days biking along Vermont trails until she was violently attacked and left for dead. Two years later, working at a shelter in Vermont, she meets Bobbie Crocker, a homeless schizophrenic who once was a famous photographer. When Crocker dies, Laurel comes upon his work and sets out to discover who he was. His black-and-white photographs include familiar scenes of Jay Gatsby’s home, the West Egg country club where Laurel learned to swim. Bohjalian brings the plot and the characters of The Great Gatsby into this contemporary novel with ease and credibility—it seems believable that Laurel could be friends with the daughter of Tom and Myrtle Buchanan. Consciously or not, in the process of tracing Crocker’s past, Laurel undertakes her own quest for self-discovery. After she finds a more recent, disturbing photo by Crocker—an image of a girl on a bike—the novel takes a suspenseful turn. Some might find Bohjalian’s final twist contrived. I prefer to call it “unexpected.”
The jazz age and its aftermath is the subject of Amanda Vaill’s Everybody Was So Young (Broadway Books, $16.95, 512 pp.). The book is a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy, the Lost Generation’s “golden couple,” but it reads like a novel: the story of Gerald, who became a renowned painter, and of Sara, who made life a work of art. Their circle of friends included Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and Pablo Picasso. Vaill writes with sensitivity to the historical period and the personal lives of her subjects, who lived for a while as expatriates in Europe, lost their two sons to illness within two years, and survived the Great Depression. The glamour she captures leaves a lasting impression, as do the moral values that sustained the Murphys.
An engaging mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear brings us to 1920s London to follow a young girl, sent to work for a wealthy family, who grows up to become a private investigator. Maisie Dobbs (Penguin, $15, 320 pp.), the first book in the series, gives us glimpses of Maisie as her interests take her to Cambridge and, subsequently, to service as a nurse during World War I. In her postwar career, Maisie begins her investigations by asking clients: What will you do with the information I pass on to you, and how responsible will you be with it? Start with this book and I suspect you will soon become a fan.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, $15, 336 pp.) is a gem to be discovered. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson, it follows the story of a fifty-four-year-old widowed concierge, Renée Michel, and a precocious twelve-year-old, Paloma Josse, who lives in the luxury apartment building where Renée works. Although both conceal their personalities and impressions from others, the reader quickly comes to know them as social critics with strong opinions on politics, family values, philosophy, literary works, and the arts. In befriending an erudite Japanese man, they both discover they can be who they truly are: a woman of wisdom and a loving young girl. According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, a hedgehog—a creature much beloved by English gardeners—is a spiny quadruped that rolls itself up into a ball for defense; otherwise, a person hard to get along with. Barbery’s hedgehogs, though initially prickly, prove truly elegant.
In his autobiographical novel A Happy Marriage (Scribner, $26, 384 pp.), Rafael Yglesias spans thirty years of matrimony with his artist wife Margaret. The book is a poignant story of what it means to share life and death with someone. How do parents say goodbye to a daughter? How do spouses let each other know how much they care before the dialogue that lasted thirty years suddenly becomes a monologue? How do children deal with a mother’s terminal illness? The chapters alternate between the last three weeks of Margaret’s life and the many past episodes that defined her marriage. We observe what it is like to see friends for the last time and witness how much energy it takes to arrange one’s personal ritual of dying. Persevere beyond the first chapter and you will not be disappointed. Be prepared to pause, to reflect, and to appreciate through the author’s eyes what it is like to truly love another, in sickness and in health, until death.
The Reed of God (Christian Classics, $11.95, 187 pp.), a spiritual classic first published in 1944, is a book to be kept on the nightstand during the Advent and Christmas Seasons. Caryll Houselander, an English artist who died in 1954, reflects on the Virgin Mary not only as human, but as a figure of humanity. Written in the style of Julian of Norwich, this small volume challenges us to let go of stereotypes and allow a poetic voice to speak to us of the Word of God made flesh.
Jo-Ann Veillette-Stonehart is the former assistant chaplain of the Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale.