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95 Books, Part 9

Numbers 86-97 in 2013 reading.

Below are reading notes (I don’t call any of these reviews) on the next batch of books include pop science to biography, religion and poetry.

  1. After: Poems by Jane Hirshfield (Harper Perennnial, 2006)
    I wanted to like this book. Bits of it I did. For example, p.85

    Red Scarf

    The red scarf
    still hangs over the chairback.
    In its folds,
    like a perfume
    that cannot be quite remembered,
    inconceivable before

    for L.B. (1950-2004)

    Simple yet effective. From its short emphatic lines and extra line-end commas and low content per line, I’d imagined it would be spoken with a bad case of poet voice. But the order of reveal with that attenuated lead to before gives an unexpected twist to something of cherish and loss and a life revolutionized by it the mementos of untouched scarf and scent.

    It has a concreteness in a collection of mostly floaty poems. Perhaps I find them floaty because whereever they start and whatever path they take it’s a given they will end somewhere gesturing profound.

    Some are abstract by nature of the subject. Poems that each study “of”, “and”, “to”, “once”, “ah!” as characters made a backbone though the book; thinking around the concept of “articulation in another assay. I understand resisting knowing and to be koanic is part of her buddhist world view but still stanza to stanza or line to line are leaps larger than within most bastard ghazals. For example on a mediation around a Serrano Pepper, p. 78

    The self can be seared away, can be taken.
    The hoarded honeys and angers, the very names, taken.
    One moment: the hoof of the horse propped up, at rest.
    Then the next.

    Why is there a horse? Where did it ride in? There’s a setting things into juxtaposition, a teasing apart and teasing together, (or perhaps conflating?) of what is. Because it was set up as having the sombre weight of significance, I felt alienated by the spiral-thinking and jumps.

    Are we our language? p. 72-73 she considers this,

    We think it’s the fire that cooks the stew,
    but it’s speech, it’s also you:
    teacher
    of fire-making and stew-making,
    orator of all our plans and intentions.

    We think with a self.
    That also, it seems, is mostly you –
    sometimes a single spider’s thread of you,
    sometimes a mountain.

    In the opening poems she says “Distinctions matter. Whether a goat’s/ quiet face should be called noble/or indifferent […] Words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.”

    I think because I take our world-views to overlap, because she has so much experience writing, and because I liked her other book, I want to be blown away. My wishes are higher.

  2. Essential Zen by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Tenso David Schneider (Castle Books, 1994)
    A wonderful read that collates ideas but does not attempt to decide on merits of streams of thoughts. Ideas are just presented in quotes. Subjects of death, breath, etc. Ancient thinkers to contemporary are represented with useful endnotes. One person says posture and breathing is meditation. Another says, if you cannot make a mudra hand position because you are missing an arm or if you sit in a wheelchair, and can’t do kinhin, does that mean you can’t do buddhism or enlightenment? Of course not she says. (I neglected to note which American practicioner that was.) p. 5

    Awakened within a dream
    I fall into my own arms
    …what kept you so long?
    ~ Lou Hartman

    It also includes koans, such as p. 99

    Wuzu said, “A water buffalo goes through a louvered window. Head, horns and all 4 legs get though. Why can’t its tail get though?”

  3. Man Reading “Woman Reading in Bath”: Poems by John Livingstone (Thistledown Press, 2009)
    This book read through and expands on the poem in the title of Anne Szumigalski. It reminds me of the process locally of Chris Johnson‘s “Phyllis, I have never spoke your name” thinking through Phyllis Webb.

    Livingstone writes ghazals in one section and the rest takes a phrase, line or couplet and reacts in them on her and their relationship. I haven’t heard of Livingstone but western presses and eastern presses don’t mix much. He had 8 poetry collections before this one from Thistledown, Cocteau and Exile. If a good sign, it spurred a couple poems while reading his. He writes of a lot of big nouns, sea, child, fire. I found some a bit hard to follow but then he’d drop an idea like p. 42’s “The Her/Man Gaze”, “sharp teeth like/ the nibs of fountain pens”. Maybe to someone else it’s a cliché but I’ve never seen p. 44 “that comb of ribs”.

    They are mostly poems exploring end of life and expected mopiness, but then there’s something snappy and playful too, like p. 43

    “en/dolphins: a chemical found in the brain/ creating sensations
    of conscious swimming /: the mind afloat”

    He uses slashes within a line as part of the poem (as well as indents that are hard to replicate in html). Many of the poems are around the theme of swimming. There are bits of philosophy through like p. 60 “the heart pumps out its own encouragement” and p. 71, “I shift to backstroke…body limp – what do I believe any-/more? exhaustion is the opposite of wisdom”.

  4. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007)
    It is rich with example, examples, exams. There are exercises through it so you can experience phenomena directly that they are about to talk about. I found that effective. There were a few main points that I didn’t have before that are incorporated into how I see now. For example what they call the “curse of knowledge” exemplified by tapping a tune. You can hear the tune in your head to fill in the rest but someone who even has a choice of a couple options can’t guess which one. Try it. I thought that was just my wonky sense of rhythm that couldn’t transfer the song in my head to someone else but apparently its more universal.

    So it is with corporate pitch of plans, upshots, summative editorial poems – you need the whole journey for those summaries to be meaningful. Conferences and classes where they give you powerpoint summaries that don’t unpack the information are presenting but they are not communicating because they are not making the information concrete, emotional, credible, stories. If you give someone stats with that, they are less likely to connect rather than more.

    Another aspect they talked about, you don’t have to be creative, just have an eye for what’s a good story/angle that exemplifies what you want to say. For example, “we serve better” is a flat pitch but a story of Macy’s who go beyond the call of duty is meaningful. To be an effective ad, it doesn’t have to be strange/surprising but follow one of 6 templates that 89% of the most effective ads follow.

  5. The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1890s)
    She’s lively. Almost as fresh and controversial now as Stein.

    She argues against the story that religion is the arbitarar of an improved civilization and that the story or Christianity is one lesson, with an equivalent in all great myths. She argues to point out inconsistencies, sub-texts of who. Through Part 1 and Part 2, the blurbs and commentaries around question and in-fill and demand, you do realize this implies? Such and such is often misinterpreted, with the hero presented as the man but what did the woman just do there?

    For example, in Samuel xxv when King David said, water for my troops and rich Nabal said, David who? Why should I give my bread water and meat to these envoys I don’t know. His wife was a diplomat of sorts. “Abigail made haste, and took 200 loaves, and 2 bottles of wine, and 5 sheep ready dressed, and 5 measures of parched corn, and a 100 clusters of raisins, and 200 cases of figs” and sent out a greeting party to intercept the King with an apology of, my husband isn’t too bright. 10 days later Nabal died and she was added to David’s harem.

    While not setting a woman as an example of who should be put to death as the pattern had been, “The transfer of a camel or a donkey from one owner to another, no doubt, was often marked with more consideration than that of a daughter… [we have] no temples of knowledge where philosophers and learned matrons discussed great questions of human destiny, such as Greek mythology gives to us; Socrates and Plato, learning wisdom at the feet of the Diametias of their times, give to us a glimpse of a more exalted type of womanhood than any which the sacred fabulists have vouchsafed thus far.”

    And spun from 1 Peter iii.

    There is much talk of the poor and the needy, especially during political campaigns. In the autumn of 1896, when the workingman’s interests formed the warp and woof of every speech, three thousand children stood in the streets of New York City, for whom there was no room in the schoolhouses and no play-grounds; and yet thousands of dollars were spent in buying votes. Large, well-ventilated homes for those who do the work of the world, plenty of schoolhouses and play- grounds for the children of the poor, would be much more beneficial to the race than expensive monuments to dead men, and large appropriations from the public treasury for holidays and convivial occasions to honor men in high places.

    Her asides are as fascinating as her main text. 1 Corinthians xi.

    10 For this cause ought the woman to have power [that is protection] on her head because of the angels.
    11 Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.
    13 judge in yourselves: is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?
    14 Doth not even nature itself teach you, that, if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?

    15 But if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given her for a covering.

    Though these directions appear to be very frivolous, even for those times, they are much more so for our stage of civilization. […] It is not a mere social fashion that allows men to sit in church with their heads uncovered and women with theirs covered, but a requirement of canon law of vital significance, showing the superiority, the authority, the headship of man, and the humility and the subservience of woman. The aristocracy in social life requires the same badge of respect of all female servants. In Europe they uniformly wear caps[…]

    [at the same time] Jesus is always represented as having long, curling hair, and so is the Trinity. Imagine a painting of these Gods all with clipped hair.[…]

    The origin of the command that women should cover their heads is found in an old Jewish or Hebrew legend which appears in literature for the first time in Genesis vi. There we are told that the sons of God, that is, the angels, took to wives the daughters of men, and begat the giants and the heroes who were instrumental in bringing about the flood. The Rabbins held that the way in which the angels got possession of women was by laying hold of their hair; they accordingly warned women to cover their heads in public so that the angels might not get possession of them.
    […]
    Paul merely repeats this warning, which he must often have heard at the feet of Gamaliel, who was at that time prince or president of the Sanhedrim.[…] This legend will be found fully treated in a German pamphlet, “Die Paulinische Angelologie und Daemonologie.” Otto Everling, Gottingen, 1883.

  6. Ireland is Changing Mother by Rita Ann Higgins (Bloodaxe, 2011)
    When she read at Versefest, I recall she got a chuckle from her “Hasta Libido Baby” about a ploy to buy cat food to ogle the clerk. She might have read her list poem of “The Darkness” as well. It accumulates in a slam poetry sort of way. Even when she does heavy topics, like “The Brent Geese Chorus” she does it in an attempt to entertain; in that poem she has a chorus of “God is good but gas is better”. Verses against Shell and infrastructure boondoggles likewise have a stick it up your crass marketing sort of zap to them. Most are about the broken and the breaking, a view that society is going to the dogs. It mixes in some Irish phrases which are about as opaque as the specifics as the political references, even with footnotes. There’s a lot of clever like “Houdini” (p. 28, middle verse of 3) of how, on a train, you can vanish,

    Today I didn’t need a place to park guilt.
    I didn’t need to disinfect over and over
    my thoughts could stay filthy.
    I could run out of thing not to say.

  7. So Long as the People are People by Jeff Blackman (Apt 9 Press, 2013)
    This was a good read. Somehow Jeff wasn’t on my radar. I’d heard people say he’s one to watch but it wasn’t until an In/Words reading last year and an open mic at Tree this spring that he got my full attention. And of course, the poem at The Steel Chisel I mentioned before, How to Kiss the Prime Minister. That one is in this chapbook. Read that. I’ll wait here.

    Done? There’s also Poem for C.D. Howe in there that also strikes for its simultaneous control and seeming offhandedness. Rather like a tight rope walker in the park ho makes it look easy. Then you see other people get on the line and fall before they stand. Anyway, a snippet from that,

    Since I’ve told my wife, she’s told me twice about her dreams about me. In the second some former roommate harangued her, “You’re not good enough for him! He deserves better!” but Clarence, between the audience and me, we know a dreamt word is as worthless as a dreamt dollar.

    Now that’s as much self-awareness and audience awareness and profundity as a stack of books to my right were reaching for but didn’t quite reach, let alone with clarity and economy.

  8. Walking with Garbo: Conversations and Recollections by Raymond Daum, ed. by Vance Muse (Harper Perennial, 1991)
    I didn’t know much but the same of Greta Garbo. I hadn’t seen a movie. What legacy is that that a generation after her death still her name has cultural currency of recognition even when her famous face wasn’t attached to it for me. It’s structured kind of like a memoir in the sense of Daum transcribing verbatim her conversational monologues as soon as he could after their walks together.

    This is mixed with biography and photos. Would she have flourished in movies for another decade or two, if she could be enticed to be coddled to work, if Hays Code hadn’t been so harsh? Would she have appeared more as the gentleman she was in some role? Would she have been more able to play genderqueer roles more frankly than in Queen Christina? She referred to herself as a man, gentleman, young boy and in the third person as Miss Garbo. She preferred to dress in men’s suits and men’s loafers. Or like her grease paint make-up was being behind the mask of femme the way she could bear being in front of the camera? It wasn’t her, but a character and that allowed her excruciating shyness to act? One autobiographical play written for her she found delightful and refused to play the role.

    p. 212

    Schlee even lured Garbo to Washington, for a dinner at the Kenndy Whitehouse. When they arrived at their hotel that evening however, Garbo tried to back out; Schlee, familiar with such last-minute panic and equivocation, gave her an ultimatum: If she must cancel, fine, but she would have to admit herself into a hospital so that he could make a credible excuse. Faced with that scenario Garbo composed herself and dressed for dinner. The evening went beautifully, Garbo chatting easily with the President, and was delighted when he showed her around and could come back anytime for a swim in the White House pool. Garbo admitted to Sam Green that she may have enjoyed herself too much at the White House tour. At one point, she told him, she bounced up and down on the Lincoln Bed – a bit of playfulness, she feared, that Jacqueline Kennedy did not appreciate.

    At the same time being hypochondriac and sure of rejection from everyone, it would be consistent if it weighed heavily on her mind and not to anyone else.

  9. The Shagganappi by Pauline E Johnson (1913).
    These are stories better written than the other set of hers. They vary from legend to expanded new story (such as people clobbering a landed flock of snow geese and a boy protecting one to survive) to family story (of her dad cutting down an idol for a neighbouring tribe’s conversion to Christianity). They are magazine-type stories where a boy proves his character by saving a beaten horse, or stopping a train before it reaches the burnt out bridge, or dives in the river to save his sworn enemy. The perspectives are patriotic to the Queen and sets native and British upper class on equal footing. In a couple stories a woman with child or old woman are portrayed with strength and dignity. Mostly women are the implied shadow cast. The main characters are almost all male with females being described as weak, helpless, burdens by male characters. One is a product of one’s time and selling to the audience of one’s time. Yet she as self-sufficient, self-employed and her sister the bread winner for her family. But perhaps female was more her inheritance that she had to work with than her chosen identity. She was a dramatist and could transform to over the top native or satirical parlour fine lady. She was, like Garbo, at home most on the water paddling where there isn’t gender.

    The tiny canoe flung between the rocks like a shuttle. Twice its keel shivered, rabbit-wise, in the force of crossing currents; once, far above the tumult, came a wild, anxious voice from the shore, but neither Bob nor his passenger gave heed. The dash of that wildcat rapid left no second of time for replying or turning one’s eyelid; it was one long, breathless, hurling plunge, that got into their blood like a fever. Then presently the riot seemed all behind them. The savage music of the river grew fainter and fainter, the canoe slipped through the exhausted waters silently as a snake. A moment more, and the bow beached on a strip of yellow sand, secure, steadfast, triumphant.

  10. Excerpts from Improbable Books: The Apt. 9 Installment by Stephen Brockwell (Apt 9 Press, 2013)

    from The Lightning Harvest
    The Energy Equivalence of Bolts

    The bolt from Zeus that splits the tree,
    ignited the tinder-dry pine,
    burned to rubble Mary’s house,
    set tingling Albert’s spine
    before it stopped his heart,
    embodies enough energy
    to watch a thousand hours of TV.

    His are not terribly excerpt-able. As Stanley Fish was talking about in How to Write a Sentence, there are sentences that accumulate in additive style (like Stein, Joe Brainard, Salinger and Hemmingway) that make a sort of flattened hierarchy of information, and there are sentences that build rhetorically (like Milton, Melville, Henry James or Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail) with an controlled subordinate clauses where information is nested in relationship to each other.

    These poems are more subordinating sentences, the end filtered by clauses and delays and layers of reflection so that by the end there’s more punch. Here the punch comes from an angle you couldn’t have predicted but like the Made to Stick fellows were talking about it’s “postdictable” not an arbitrary gimmicky twist. The syntax holds the subject on track even while the subjects jump from a tree to a house to a person and another person. It coheres within the form of the sentence.

    Luckily for the people with the chapbook and want more, next year the full collection is coming out.

  11. The Book of Stones by Adam Schwartzman (Carcanet, 2003)
    Since that review already delves into “Maybe you don’t have to know why”, calling it a central poem, perhaps I shan’t as well. It is less blurry than many of the poems that have a refrain of sand through them and an addressed “you”. The dream of sensation poem is grounded in specifics but they are blown apart like reflections of facet in an interesting way and concludes (spoiler alert) “As for what the camera saw/I couldn’t say” which gives it a strong regrounding after the spiel and spin. Although being about the South African travelling through various nations, they seem more personal universal. In “Celeste” p. 28-29 he makes the allowance “In my weakness//I believed only in what I could see”.

    We are the lions in this kingdom, sang the Liberian
    in the steel cafe made of a container
    at the bus station, to himself –
           but he wasn’t
    and he went and asked a white man
    for a cigarette and money

    and got neither Further on was nothing but sand and wood
    and the suffering of animals doing
    man’s work,
    being paid with a whip.

    The guide went ahead,
    beating a harnessed cow with a stick – the cow that carried our food.
    The sand wanted to stop my feet.

    The poems in this book were written in Uganda, Eritrea, Nigeria and Mali, as well as in South Africa in the 1990s. It loops across the century and continents to the stories being read in parallel – Pauline Johnston is in mind at the same time, from remembering late 1800s Canada, particularly her story of a boy’s club forming an animal welfare society and by community pressure leading a man to understand that animals have thoughts, feelings and integrity themselves and should not be beaten.

    Akin also is contemporary England and The Barefoot Shepherdess and Women of the Dales by Yvette Huddleston and Walter Swan wherein one of the bios of featured women, Isobel Davies who does animal welfare. Instead of meat/wool sheep being killed as lambs and chickens being killed at 72 weeks when egg production may go down, and cattle at age 5, she is working to create a network of farmers who let them live out their natural lives. Shetland sheep can live to 18 years, a chicken 8-15 years, and cattle 15 years. She now has 600 sheep which run the fields and instead of scratching off their wool, she is shearing and the wool used instead. (She started Farm Around and Good Food Nation.)

  12. Four Hundred Rabbits by Steven Artelle (AngelHouse Press, 2013)
    This a chapbook-long poem that is what it’s title says…cataloguing 400 individual rabbits. But not your average rabbits. Or your run of the mill Zen Bunny. They are all of society. Or a good hop at it. It leaves me gobsmacked and wondering how anyone can do it. The amount of ideas and the wildly angled walls they bounced off of into so many particular lines. p. 6

    and even if tonight wasn’t the end of the world
    fights would have started at heaven’s congested exit
    because ego and alcohol can’t go quietly
    so of course two male rabbits suddenly went rabid
    and plummeted together into the hard sidewalk
    as their friends orbited and urged them vaguely to stop

    “urged them vaguely” slays me with its small perfection of phrase. You get the idea that these are not your average bunnies. p.14

    one rabbit married a Tijuana Bible girl
    and took a bullet in his Hollywood apartment
    where the cops bagged his last disillusioned word balloon.
    […]
    one rabbit was pierced by a rainbow; another one
          got a lethal dose of November Christmas carol

    Very strange and lovely categorization of members of society from saints to feral, casino owner to rabbits made of open flame.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] Pirie had some nice things to say in her ongoing 2013 reading notes about recent Apt. 9 chapbooks from Jeff Blackman and Stephen Brockwell. On Jeff Blackman’s So […]

  2. […] more recent praise care of Pearl Pirie’s 95 Books Series: “like a tight rope walker in the park he makes it look easy… as much self-awareness […]