Category Archives: Poetry

The Albertine Workout by Anne Carson

albertineAnne Carson writes in the appendix to this chapbook: “Habit, suffering, boredom, memory, tea drinking, tea biscuits and the inscrutable banality of existence are topics Beckett and Proust have in Common.  They anatomize them differently.  What is located in the head, the mouth or the mind for Proust moves lower down the body in Beckett.”  Carson uses this theory to help us better understand one of Proust’s most elusive characters.

Carson ironically and brilliant writes a small pamphlet on a woman named Albertine who is present or mentioned on 807 pages of Proust’s novel.  Albertine is oftentimes asleep and her main problems from the narrator’s perspective are lying, lesbianism and being imprisoned in the narrator’s house. Since Albertine is not a common name among females in France, many critics have speculated that she is a disguised version of Proust’s chauffeur, Alfred, with whom he had a secret affair.  Carson examines fascinating details about Proust’s book and his life in order to explore this transposition theory.

Carson also provides an illuminating commentary of sexuality in Proust via Albertine.  The narrator insists that Albertine is a lesbian, all of her friends are lesbians, but she vehemently denies this.  He doesn’t understand how two women can be in love with one another and he can’t figure out what they do together so he is repulsed by what he cannot grasp.  The narrator never actually uses the term “lesbian,” with Albertine, but instead he says “the kind of woman I object to.”

Finally, the appendix, which I quoted above, is just as intriguing as the main body of Carson’s text.  In addition to exploring the similarities and differences in Proust and Beckett she also writes about the use of adjectives in a language, capture myopathy, the second paradox of Zeno, and my favorite, the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

I found Carson’s thoughts and writing engrossing and I am looking forward to diving in to more of her works.

Which Carson books would you recommend?

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Filed under Chapbook, Nonfiction, Poetry, Proust

Stranded in New York City: My Literary Adventure

This week I had the opportunity to visit New York City and explore one of its biggest and best bookstores.  The Strand, on 12th Street and Broadway, which has been in business for 86 years,  boasts 18 miles of books on three floors.  Browsing the massive collection of books is a bibliophile’s dream come true.  One of the things that impressed me the most is the abundance of what blogger Times Flow recently called “alt-lit”—which to me means literature in translation from around the world, books from small presses, and reissued classics.  Not only do they have a plethora of such interesting literature, but these types of books are displayed prominently on easy-to-browse tables on the first floor of The Strand.

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I recently acquired a copy of Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and became intrigued with her writing and translating so I was excited to find two Carson books (well, more like pamphlets) at The Strand.  Her poetry collection entitled Float comes in a clear plastic box and contains a series of chapbooks with poems, reflections, lists, and thoughtful observations.  They are meant to be read separately or as one continuous, connected work; I would like to set aside enough time to read them all at once.

 

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I also found another  chapbook from Anne Carson that she wrote for part of the New Directions poetry pamphlet series.  I read The Albertine Workout on the train ride home and found it interesting, clever, humorous and erudite.   It’s ironic and thrilling that she penned such a small, thoughtful pamphlet on Proust!

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I also came across a rather inexpensive copy of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones.  One aspect of The Strand that is also helpful is their abundance of new books on sale as well as inexpensive used book selection.

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I also couldn’t resist this new, pristine copy of Fagle’s translation of the Aeneid to replace my badly worn out copy.  The introduction by Bernard Knox is a fantastic piece of writing that makes this translation worth owning just for his essay alone.

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It was particularly exciting for me to walk into The Strand and immediately find books from many of my favorite small presses.  I browsed through books from Deep Vellum, New Vessel Press, Archipelago Books, Seagull Books and New Directions.  I found three books to add to my ever-growing collection from the New York Review of Books: The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, The Other by Thomas Tryon and The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout.

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I also found this copy of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Wilma Stockenstrom published by Archipelago Books.

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Finally, I had the thrill of a lifetime when, as I was browsing this fabulous selection of books, I opened a copy of Recitation by Bae Suah from Deep Vellum which I recently reviewed.  Inside the front cover was a blurb from my review of her previous book, A Greater Music, that I wrote for World Literature Today.

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I also highly recommend The Strand Kiosk which is located outside of Central Park on E. 60th St. and 5th Ave.  It is only opened seasonally and I had the opportunity to browse the Kiosk during my visit last June and also came home with an assortment of great books.  And a final thing worth mentioning about The Strand is the third floor of the main shop on Broadway which is full of rare and collectable first edition books.  Their selection of rare books is also listed for sale on their website.  I am hoping that someday my copy of Bottom’s Dream from Dalkey Archive will be worthy of sitting among the rare books in their collection.  Although I doubt that I would ever be able to part with my copy!

I always find New York exciting and exhilarating and The Strand is a unique destination in the city that adds to the thrill of visiting.  I could have spent at least a few more hours there, I didn’t even make it to the second floor of books!  I am contemplating a day trip next month just to go back and visit this magical, literary place.  What are your favorite bookshops from around the world?

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Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Literature/Fiction, New York Review of Books, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Osip Mandelstam, Poetry, Russian Literature

My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

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Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

Review: Written in the Dark—Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad

My Review:
written-in-the-darkThe official, state sponsored view of the Siege of Leningrad was one of heroism and valor and any piece of writing whether it be fiction, non-fiction or poetry that did not align with the Soviet vision of the Siege was suppressed.  The dark and shocking works of the five poets in this collection were written in secret and not uncovered or published until many years after the war and after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The Nazi siege of this Russian city lasted from September 1941 until January of 1944 with an estimated death toll reaching nearly 1,000,000 lives.  The Soviet Union propogated a version of this event that portrayed stoic Russians valiantly enduring the long, German offensive;  the brutality and horror that occurred in the city were buried with those who died during the Siege.  In the introduction to the collection, Polina Barskova writes about the official, state approved, Soviet poetry that was allowed to be published about the Siege:

The “exemplary” Siege self presented to the world in this kind of literature was that of the stoic Soviet soldier.  Even women, children and the elderly were depicted as warriors and likened to the city’s monuments —carved of marble and decorated with gold.  It is these ubiquitous monuments that told, as I recall from my Leningrad childhood, the retouched story of the Siege—filled with hypocritical pathos and barren of the horrific truth.  The truth, however, does emerge, sooner or later.

During the era of perestroika, poetry that was written during the Siege and suppressed by the Soviet regime began to emerge and to give the world a more accurate glimpse into the suffering and death that was thrust upon this city during World War II.  The poets in this collection include Gennady Gor (1907-1981), the artist and film set director Pavel Zaltsman (1912-1985), the philologist Dmitry Maximov (1904-1987), the avant-garde painter Vladimir Sterligov (1904-1973), and the poet-philologist Sergey Rudakov (1909-1944).

The most brutally shocking poems in the book are written by Gennady Gor who became a well-known scholar, science fiction writer and collector of the art of Northern ethnicities when the war was over.  There is an emphasis throughout his poems on cannibalism which is believed to have been widely practiced during the height of the Siege. Even carrion birds are deprived of any meals because there simply is nothing left:

I ate Rebecca the girl full of laughter
A raven looked down at my hideous dinner.
A raven looked down at me like at boredom.
At hwo slowly this human was eating that human.
A raven looked down but it was for nothing.
I didn’t throw it that arm of Rebecca.

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Lenigraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Gor’s poems are obsessed with rotting and cold body parts, even when they are not being eaten.  His emphasis on descriptions of  body parts evokes the images of citizens lying in the streets, completely forgotten. His description of the pervading darkness reminds us of the black nights endured by the citizens because they were constantly under attack by the Germans. Even the moon is not welcome under these horrendous circumstances. Gor reveals the mental and emotional toll that this Siege took on its survivors, which stark details were forbidden to be written about in the official, Soviet poetry:

With a shock wave in my ears,
A cold moon in my soul,
I am a shot to insanity. I am both
Check and mate to myself. I am mute. Now I
Am nothing and running toward nothing.
Now I am no one’s and rushing to no one.
A shock wave in my mouth,
A cold moon in my dark,
A leg in my corner, an arm in my ditch,
The eyes that fell out of my sockets,
A finger forgotten in one of the clinics,
An unneeded moon in my dark.

After reading Vladimir Stergilov’s poems I was stunned that this man could not only survive the Siege, but also serve at the Leningrad Front, and then after the war return to this city where he became a successful artist in the underground, unofficial, avant-garde world of art.  One wonders how could a man who wrote this poem go on after these experiences:

Raised a spoon to your lips—Death
Stretched out your hand to hello—Death
Saw a little goldfinch—Death
On the branch of a little leaf—Death
On a walk with your friends—Death
Looked at the cabbage on the plate—Death
Seeing your friends off, two of them—Death
Happened to glance to the side—Death.

Stergilov’s use of epistrophe with the word “Death” underscores the sheer terror that hovers over the most mundane, daily activities like eating or greeting a friend or walking in the park.

One final poet in the collection that stands out is Sergey Rudakov who elevates the themes of his poetry to encompass the larger event that is the destruction of Leningrad,  a once proud and prosperous stronghold of the Russian state.  He is the only one of these five poets who mentions his native city repeatedly in his Siege poems. In this first excerpt there is a feeling of nostalgia for his beloved city which is no longer recognizable to him:

The poor heart is both happy and unhappy
To recognize in searchlight crosses, to the west,
The native sky of Leningrad.

In the next poem in which he mentions the city there is an emphasis on the wasteland that  his city has become with its empty apartments, streets and shops:

In the wasteland of Leningrad
Clocks still tell time somewhere.
But do not trust their wheels’ gait
Nor the arc of their springs.
Blind Charon keeps idle:
There are no normal burials.

RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

Leningraders on Nevsky Prospect during the Siege, 1942. RIA Novosti archive, image #324 / Boris Kudoyarov via Wikimedia Commons

And in one final poem he uses the city’s former name, perhaps in an attempt to remember what a great city it once was before the Germans invaded. There is also an emphasis in this poem on the scores of unburied dead that were strewn on the city streets:
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…In those far off years
Which future grandchildren
Will never come to know
In pale accounts of science,
Those days immemorial
Were lost in dreadful frosts.
In makeshift huts, the futile fires
Warmed soups of glue
And glucose for the living.
The dead outnumbered coffins.
The rout of Petersburg abandoned
Without a burial their own.

As difficult as these poems are to read, they are a reminder of the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit.  Rudakov aptly writes that future grandchildren will not come to know the true brutality of the Siege because as time slips by, so do our memories fade.  Our minds, our hearts, our souls have the greatest capacity to overcome the most unspeakable tragedies; this collection of poems puts into perspective the seemingly trivial problems that we might have on a day to day basis—trivial, at least, in comparison to surviving the Siege of Leningrad.

For more information on each of the authors of the collection as well as the editor visit Ugly Duckling Presse.

 

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Filed under Poetry, Russian Literature

Beauty and Love: My Bookstore Adventure in Maine

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I had the chance to spend some time vacationing in Maine over the Thanksgiving Holiday.  Like any truly dedicated bibliophile, I seek out used bookstores wherever I go and Maine has some great selections.  I browed a rather large one in Wells which not only has rooms and rooms full of books but also has a rather large selection of maps.  I came home with an interesting mix of books, the first of which is a copy of Petronius’s  Satyricon.  Now why would a classicist need another translation of Petronius’s bawdy novel, you might ask.  This copy that I found was published in 1931 and is the translation attributed to Oscar Wilde.  It is attributed to Wilde but no one is quite sure if he actually did the translation himself or if he translated it from the original Latin text.  There are large parts of the translation that were borrowed from three previous translations.  In addition, the original copies of the book were published without naming the translator on the title page but instead the publisher sent out each copy with a slip indicating that the translator was Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde’s pseudonym.  For more information on this interesting literary hoax, here is a link to an excerpt of an article that was written about this translation: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/373513/pdf

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The next book I found as I wandered the many rooms of this bookstore was a copy of Thackeray’s Ballads published in 1856.  He is, of course, most famous for his longer work Vanity Fair and it was nice to discover that he had written this short volume of Ballads.  It’s interesting that this author who was known for his satirical works also wrote love poems and some short narrative poems.  The particular bookshop seems to have many editions of very old books.  This particular book of Thackeray’s Ballads is not valuable and I only paid $7.50 for it, but it is now one of the oldest books I have on my shelves.

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Next, I was specifically looking for a copy of anything I could find by William James, the American pragmatist philosopher.  I recently read American Philosophy by John Kaag and his discovery of a long-forgotten library with over 10,000 books, some of which beloved to James, renewed my interest in American philosophy.  I was surprised when the bookstore clerk said that books by American philosophers are very popular and I was lucky to find this copy of James’s essays published by Longmans, Green, and Co. in 1917.  This collection of essays includes some of his most famous such as “Is Life Worth Living” which was delivered at Harvard’s Holden Chapel in 1985.

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The final book that I found is my favorite of the collection.  At the entrance to the bookshop there is a huge table with stacks of books on the table and around the table that are the shop’s most recent arrivals that haven’t been categorized yet.  I walked up to these piles, which are rather daunting, and plucked a slim volume of poetry off the top.  The author of the book is William Dwight Crane and I noticed that there is a handwritten inscription inside the book that reads, “For Angel, From Bill in memory of many happy times.  December 19, 1932.”  The book is also signed by the author.  I researched the author’s name on the Internet and could find no biographical information on him or titles of other books that he wrote.  This lonely, slim volume might have been sitting on a pile in that bookshop all but forgotten for years.  I am happy to give it a new home with my other books will it will be used and read from time to time.

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The poems are a bit simple, but they are clearly from the heart and there is something about their simplicity that captivated me.  I will share one such poem entitled “Beauty and Love” from the collection:

Beauty is the soul of man’s desire
A blessed synthesis of pity, joy, and pain
Burned from out the centre of that fire
Of Passion which else were but a stain
Upon our shields, a funeral pyre
On which in each succeeding age have lain
The ashes of the deeds to which men’s hearts aspire,
Only to rise on phoenix-wings to urge men on again,
Beauty of form, and subtle harmony of line,
Beauty of thought and faery fantasy,
Beauty of deed, which makes the thought divine
Compose this substance born of ecstasy,
We need but fashion it with gentile hands,
And, lo! the image Love before us stands.

My daughter, who also inherited the reading gene, found some books to add to her own growing collection, including one about the ocean.  True bibliophiles know that used bookstores can be such great places of adventure and discovery.  What are your favorite bookshop finds?

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Filed under British Literature, Classics, Opinion Posts, Poetry