Tag Archives: American Literature

In Praise of Risk

I’m convinced that in life we are either moving forward or backward, and that rarely are we standing still or static. Even when we think we are stuck, we are being dragged downwards and backwards by a variety of thoughts, circumstances, people, etc. I was talking to a friend who astutely pointed out that Covid and the sudden change in circumstances for many people have exposed now more than ever the tendencies of individuals to move forward or backward.  Those who can adapt quickly to a loss or a lack, and who think about things from different aspects, are more likely to take risks and move forward despite what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. 

I’ve been mulling over lately what it is that compels me to more forward after a sudden tragedy that completely altered my life.  We can guess and speculate all we want, but it is true that we never know how we will react until we are faced with a difficult challenge or a loss.  Why do I get out of bed everyday? Why do I feel the need, the urge even, to move forward, to make a new and different life for myself? What compels me to find joy and happiness, even in simple things? Am I just wired this way? Is it for the sake of my daughter? Is it because of the people with whom I have chosen to surround myself, like the friend I mentioned above who encourages  and inspires me to write?

The French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle’s book In Praise of Risk has struck a cord with me as I think about this choice between moving forward, or backward in life.  Dufourmantelle points out that in spite of the 21st century obsession with zero risk, extensive insurance policies and 100% guarantees, life is a risk.  There is no way around it.  Dufourmantelle emphasizes throughout her book that love in particular—and the desire, passion, fear and sadness that come with it—is always a risk.  Whether it be familial, platonic or romantic love all relationships will inevitably end through separation, estrangement or death.  Durfourmantelle writes, “Love happens in spite of violence, stupidity, style, envy, and our dreams; it is also constantly ill-timed.”  And we continue to seek out and move towards love in spite of the risks of pain, of heartache, of sadness and, even more surprisingly, love happens without regrets or second thoughts.

“Snowdrops,” a poem composed by Louise Gluck, the recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, captures perfectly the desire to move forward, to live, to seek out new risks:

Do you know what I was, how I lived?  You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you.

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

Gluck’s placement of those four words together at the end of her poem—crying yes risk joy—makes us feel the author’s forward movement into her “new world.”

Every single day brings for me the renewed risk of finding love, joy, happiness. And lots of questions. So many questions. What was I thinking adopting a puppy, beginning major renovations on my house, filling two 30 yard dumpsters with years worth of accumulated junk, putting my career on pause or welcoming new relationships/connections into my life? But all of these things represent a way forward for me; and I could not have moved any way but forward. A friend wrote a note to me over the summer that keeps playing over in my mind: “…the arrival of an unsought and unthought-of future alone is just an ongoing perplexity. But I believe, perhaps more on a hunch than anything else, that you have a natural buoyancy that will emerge and keep you from sinking under all of this.”

And so I carry on and, perhaps stupidly, ridiculously, I take more risks.

I think that maybe I’m just wired this way.

Our golden retriever puppy, Phoebe.

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Filed under American Literature, French Literature, Opinion Posts

You Listening?: JR by William Gaddis

On August 27th, 1956 William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself in order to protect his idea for his novel JR against any possible copyright infringement.  The idea for JR, he states in the letter, first came to him in the winter of 1956 and he remarks about its plot and themes: “This book is projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in America today; and on the people who handle them; it is also a morality study of a straightforward boy reared in our culture, of a man with an artist’s conscience, and of the figures who surround them in such a competetive (sic) and material economy as ours.”

The eponymous character of the novel is a clever and enterprising eleven year-old boy who is able to build a multi-million dollar corporate empire because the adults around him don’t supervise him or pay very much attention to him.  He starts out by getting in the mail odd, free items he writes away for that are advertised in magazines.  Broken clocks, forks, personal business cards, and free banquet meals are among the things he collects.  When his social studies teacher takes JR’s class on a field trip to Manhattan in order to understand the stock market and buy a share of a company, JR gets a taste for this “competitive, material economy.”  The boy reads enough about the market and corporate and tax laws to acquire a textile company in a small town in upstate New York.  He then hatches a plot to take the employees’ retirement funds to buy a brewery and from there he builds his portfolio by acquiring a plethora of corporations and businesses which include, among many things,  a magazine, a publishing company, and a group of nursing homes, funeral parlors and a cemetery which he franchises as his “healthcare package.”

JR has a phone booth installed in the hallway of his middle school from which he conducts most of his business.  He is smart enough to disguise the fact that he is a child by holding a tattered, dirty handkerchief over the receiver when he is making his business deals or talking to one of his two lawyers.  He convinces his former music teacher, a naive and gullible man named Edward Bast, to be his front man.  Bast’s dirty, cluttered apartment in the Bronyx becomes the uptown headquarters for the JR family of corporations and a rented room at the Waldorf becomes the downtown headquarters. JR also likes to focus on taking over companies who are losing money so he can write them off as tax breaks. The best and funniest parts of the book are when JR is trying to decide what his next business moves will be and then tries to explain his plans to Bast:

No but see that’s earnings before taxes that’s the whole thing. I mean didn’t you read this part Bast? See because like if you can put it all together and write off all these here losses of Eagle against all these profits of like this here brewery then you get to keep them, I mean like otherwise you get screwed out of everything by these taxes like these two old brothers see they had all these profits which they didn’t collect them on account of this here tax so now when they do collect them they’d have this tremendous tax which is this undistributed profits tax, see? See so now they”re scared if one of them dies the other would really get screwed, but if they just sell the whole thing then all they have to pay is this here capital gains tax which is only like half of a half, I mean don’t you even remember this part hey?

The entire book is written in a dialogue in which speakers are never identified; Gaddis uses em dashes to indicate the change of speaker in a dialogue but sometimes there are several people in a room and the only way to distinguish who is saying what is by the characteristic phrases or verbal ticks that are unique to each person.  For instance, JR’s favorite phrases are “these here,” “holy shit” and “hey.” And the adults who work for him, including Mr. Bast and Mr. Davidoff, JR’s public relations manager, start to use the same phrases as their “Boss.”  The corporate world is taken by storm and surprised at the overnight success of JR Corporation and everyone is fascinated with the  mysterious “man” in charge of the company whom no one, except Bast, has ever met.  Davidoff, JR’s public relations man is running the office at the Waldorf and trying to explain to various parties what the “Boss,” whom no one realizes is a 6th grader, wants:

…the Boss saw that piece in Forbes on this collision course we’re running on these mineral interests wants to move fast got this topflight salesman I brought along from Diamond on that Endo divestiture on his way out there with, Hyde….? Haven’t shown up here yet no had them paged down at the bar but…no if you’re driving better leave without them we’ll get them loaded on the company plane with Mister…what? Six cents a mile companywide yes straight from the Boss not his fault if you drive a Cadillac he…time to get rid of what smell in your car..Because this whole Endo shipment’s on its way out there right now, gets there ahead of you and you’ll have them tearing open the crates won’t know a toaster from a hair dryer be lifting the tops of the washing machines to climb on them and…

This type of scattered, disorganized, broken dialogue, especially when characters are on the phone or there are multiple characters in one scene is typical of the novel. It is not an easy, quick read as Gaddis throws a lot of information out at once and therefore demands our complete attention.  There are no chapters or smooth transitions from one scene to the next and time passes—sometimes several days—within the same paragraph. The scattered and broken dialogue is fitting for the larger world which Gaddis is ridiculing.  All of the adults in the book have messy lives and are dealing with  serious issues such as divorces, child custody, alcoholism and suicide.  One couple featured in the book has an older man living with them and each thinks that it’s the other one’s parent.  No wonder why an eleven year-old boy is able to dupe so many people.  And this is what I found to be the saddest commentary in Gaddis’s satire: this type of moralizing, as he puts it, of a boy neglected by everyone around him who falls through the cracks.  Even Bast, who helps JR build his corporation, doesn’t truly listen to JR or offer him appropriate guidance or support for someone his age.  What I thought especially pathetic is that JR’s mother is a nurse who works crazy shifts so is never around and no father is ever mentioned.

JR’s teacher, who takes him on that pivotal field trip to Manhattan, has the only compassionate and emotional comments about the child: “if we can get in these here bellies he said and I asked him what on earth he was talking about, that bleak liittle Vansant boy and it’s not funny, really. He’s so earnest so, he thinks there’s a millionaire behind everything he sees and that’s all he does see, it’s just so sad really.” Sad, indeed, since no adults in his life give him the appropriate direction a young boy needs. Besides this teacher and Mr. Bast everyone else sees him as a brilliant business man and the contrast between the two descriptions of him—the one by his teacher and the one printed in the newspapers—is astonishing.  JR proudly reads to Bast from a newspaper article what corporate America’s perception of him is:

-Okay wait I’ll read it listen. The small closely held company which rose almost overnight from the ruins of a failing upstate textile mill to become the multimillion dollar multiface, facet, faceted JR Corp appears threatened by a credit squeeze whose dramatic repercussions could be felt throughout the corporate and financial world it was reported here today. I mean that was like Tuesday. Attracted by the smell of here it is listen hey, smell of profits and the corporate daring which have characterized the company’s abrupt entry into such diverse areas as pap wait where does it tell about me down here someplace I thought I marked it, reputation both as a ruthless corporate manipulator with a shrewd see this is me hey, a shrewd eye for tax situations, and a man of vision whose almost clair, clair something see this is still me, clairsomething ability to cut through to the heart of a problem and post an answer in profits before the competition has understood the quest continued on where’s the rest of it wait, I even marked it where I have this here bulldog jaw and all might prove there’s more truth than why’d I mark that for it’s, wait no wait this is you hey listen. You listening?

Much has been written about Gaddis’s scathing, satirical rebuke in JR of capitalism, corporate American, the publishing industry and the educational system.  But what I find most tragic is that question that comes out of the mouth of what is, essentially, an overlooked and forgotten child: “You listening?”

The book ends when JR Corp faces scrutiny from the SEC and IRS and Bast has to spend the night in a hospital because of double pneumonia.  When Bast finally gets back to his messy, disgusting apartment in the Bronx,  JR calls him on the phone with more plans.  JR’s words are the last in the novel and, fittingly, in a smaller font than the rest of the text:

—for all these here letters and offers I been getting because I mean like remember this here book that time where they wanted me to write about success and like free enterprise and all hey? And like remember where I read you on the train that time where there was this big groundswill about leading this here parade and entering public life and all? So I mean listen I got this neat idea hey, you listening? Hey? You listening…?

The text, the subject matter, the characters, and the humor make this a brilliant book but expect to take it in at a slow pace. I also recommend The Letters of William Gaddis which was published a few years ago by Dalkey Archive and williamgaddis.org which was a very useful tool to help keep track of all of the characters in the book.  The site has an extensive dramatis personae which I found to be a necessity.

 

 

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Filed under American Literature

Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt: Some Concluding Thoughts

My life, like everyone else’s in the world, has been completely upended this week. I’ve had to learn how to move all of my classes online and I’ve pretty much stayed in my house for the past week. The worst part about this has been my inability to focus on reading. But on the bright side my husband, daughter and I are safe at home and enjoying each other’s company and we are both still very lucky to have jobs. I have found my friends on Twitter, especially those in the literary community, to be particularly soothing at this time. Naveen from Seagull Books has reminded us many times that it’s the books that will save us. Just today he wrote, “Yes. We need compassion. And that old fashioned love for everyone around us. So yes. Books.” I decided to ease my anxiety by forcing myself to concentrate on what has been one of my favorite books since last spring, Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets which I finally finished last night.

Lives of the Poets, at nearly 1,000 pages, is an impressive survey of more than 300 English language poets spanning the last 700 years. Each of the 64 chapters, which proceed in chronological order, have brief biological sketches of poets including their places of birth and their educational backgrounds. What is astonishing about the book is the cumulative nature of poetry and how Schmidt connects poets and generations of poets together. Schmidt lays out his intentions for his survey of these poets in the second chapter:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed, may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully. To know more does not imply that we read Freud into an innocent cucumber, or Marx into a poem about daffodils, bu that we read with our ears and hear Chaucer transmuted through Spense, Sidney through Herbert, Milton through Wordsworth, Skelton through Graves, Housman through Larkin, Sappho through H.D. or Adrienne Rich.

This book has had two very personal effects on me which I will focus on in my post. First, Michael Schmidt has made me feel more grateful than I have ever been to have studied classics and have degrees in Latin and Ancient Greek. One of the most obvious threads that emerged for me in the course of reading this book is how much the English language poets have drawn on the materials, language, themes, etc. of the ancient poets. From the earliest instances we have of English language poetry through the 20th century there is a robust tradition of poets using ancient sources. Some of the ones I’ve discovered have been profound and have further enriched my study and teaching of classics.

One of my favorite discoveries in Schmidt’s book is Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.” I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses. “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of senses that is triggered when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden. Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by an arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Oftentimes poets don’t necessarily dedicate an entire poem to writing about a classical theme, but instead weave allusions to ancient myths into their poems. Another favorite discovery from Schmidt’s book is the poet The Earl of Surrey and his poem “When Raging Love” is an excellent example of this type of classical allusion:

When raging love with extreme pain
Most cruelly distrains my heart;
When that my tears, as floods of rain,
Bear witness of my woeful smart;
When sighs have wasted so my breath
That I lie at the point of death:

I call to mind the navy great
That the Greeks brought to Troy town,
And how the boysteous winds did beat
Their ships and rent their sails adown,
Till Agamemnon’s daughter’s blood
Appeased the gods that them withstood.

And how that in those ten years’ war
Full many a bloody deed was done,
And many a lord, that came full far,
There caught his bane, alas, too soon,
And many a good knight overrun,
Before the Greeks had Helen now.

Then think I thus: since such repair,
So long time war of valiant men,
Was all to win a lady fair,
Shall I not learn to suffer then,
And think my life well spent to be
Serving a worthier wight than she?

Therefore I never will repent,
but pains contented still endure:
For like as when, rough winter spent,
The pleasant spring straight draws in ure,
So after raging storms of care
Joyful at length may be my fare.

And one more example of poets using classics, and another favorite discovery from Schmidt, is the Australian poet A.D. Hope. This is an example of a poet using a myth as a springboard in order to expand the voice of a character that we don’t hear from in the original, ancient sources. In his poem “The Return of Persephone” Hope gives us this myth from Persephone’s point-of-view:

Gliding through the still air, he made no sound;
Wing-shod and deft, dropped almost at her feet,
And searched the ghostly regiments and found
The living eyes, the tremor of breath, the beat
Of blood in all that bodiless underground.

She left her majesty; she loosed the zone
Of darkness and put by the rod of dread.
Standing, she turned her back upon the throne
Where, well she knew, the Ruler of the Dead,
Lord of her body and being, sat like stone;

Stared with his ravenous eyes to see her shake
The midnight drifting from her loosened hair,
The girl once more in all her actions wake,
The blush of colour in her cheeks appear
Lost with her flowers that day beside the lake.

The summer flowers scattering, the shout,
The black manes plunging down to the black pit —
Memory or dream? She stood awhile in doubt,
Then touched the Traveller God’s brown arm and met
His cool, bright glance and heard his words ring out:

“Queen of the Dead and Mistress of the Year!”
— His voice was the ripe ripple of the corn;
The touch of dew, the rush of morning air —
“Remember now the world where you were born;
The month of your return at last is here.”

And still she did not speak, but turned again
Looking for answer, for anger, for command:
The eyes of Dis were shut upon their pain;
Calm as his marble brow, the marble hand
Slept on his knee. Insuperable disdain

Foreknowing all bounds of passion, of power, of art,
Mastered but could not mask his deep despair.
Even as she turned with Hermes to depart,
Looking her last on her grim ravisher
For the first time she loved him from her heart.

The second side effect of reading Schmidt’s book—something that I honestly didn’t think would ever happen—is that I’ve actually begin to appreciate and enjoy American poetry. The only American poetry I had read at any length are those assigned to me in my classes at school and university. But I’ve been reading Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound, e.e. Cummings, Laura Riding, John Berryman, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, and Frank O’Hara, just to name a few. Schmidt has single-handedly managed to give me a new understanding of the poets of my own country while putting them in the larger context of the history of English language poetry.

Finally, it has taken me months to read Lives of the Poets, not because it is a difficult text. In fact, as one can tell from the quote I shared at the beginning of the post, Schmidt’s writing is engaging and his sense of humor comes through quite often. But I kept pausing to read more of the poems he mentions and I have ordered an obscene amount of poetry in the last several months. So a bit of a warning if you read this book—you will be tempted to buy loads of poetry books. But can one ever really have too much poetry, especially in these trying times?

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Filed under American Literature, British Literature, Poetry

Don’t Talk So Much: Convalescent Conversations by Laura Riding

I started reading the wonderful poetry of Laura Riding after I discovered her in Michael Schimidt’s book Lives of the Poets.  And I realized that I had two of her prose books published by Ugly Duckling Presse sitting on my bookshelves.  Convalescent Conversations was first published in 1936 by Seizin Press, which she ran with Robert Graves, under her pseudonym Madeleine Vara.  It is a short novel with two central characters, Eleanor and Adam, recovering from unspecified illnesses, in the same nursing home.  They are both in their 30’s, single, and from the same social class.  When their nurse wheels them both out onto the same veranda every day for some fresh air, they find lots of things to talk about.

Riding’s  experimental piece of writing is described as having no real plot, which, I think, best showcases the brilliance of her talent.  Her characters are charming, humorous, fussy, and philosophical so there is no need for a traditional plot.  We don’t miss it.   The only real twist, if we can even call it that, is when Eleanor and Adam seem to be developing romantic feelings for one another, even though they vehemently resist this idea.  Their conversations range in topics from politics, to marriage, to sex, to religion, to language.  Eleanor seems to be the guiding force of the first eight chapters.  Riding gives her the most interesting and profound pieces of the dialogue.   When discussing the topic of beauty, for instance, Adam asks, “But have women a secret—a real secret?” to which Eleanor responds with a humorous and astute argument:

Indeed they have! And they know how to keep it. They keep it so well that men think they can master it just by sleeping with them. It’s like with some mysterious island, say the Island of the Hesperides, where the golden apples grow. The apples aren’t real golden apples, merely symbols that it’s a pretty wonderful island. But Hercules kills the dragon and steals the apples and brings them home, thinking he’s conquered the secret of the island. Every man is a sort of Hercules and sex is just a tour to foreign places. He kills the dragon, brings home the fruit, and thinks he knows it all.

The dialogue also veers into very serious topics, which read like a Platonic dialogue, in which Adam is the one who brings up conventional wisdom and Eleanor plays the role of the true philosopher like Socrates and disputes these conventional ideas.  Riding sometimes even sets up the text to look like a Socratic dialogue with characters’ names inserted into the text.  In their discussion on religion Eleanor starts with, “I don’t have ideas or pictures about God. God to me is a name—a name for all the most important things that nobody can define, and not the right name.”  Adam responds, “You mean things like truth and goodness and reality?”  Which question brings forth from Eleanor one of her longer arguments:

Yes, things like that—all the impressive ideas that people don’t believe in privately, but only in groups. Or perhaps privately they believe in them a little. Then you throw a lot of people together and they believe in such things in a big way. That’s what churches are for: you get people together and add up all the fractions of belief or interest that each one has in things which don’t bother them very much in their daily lives—and the answer is ‘God’. But no single person has more than a fraction of interest, and so the combined feeling isn’t very strong—only louder; like when a schoolmaster gets the whole class to recite a poem because no single boy recites it with much enthusiasm. He gets more volume from the class as a whole, but not more enthusiasm.

In the last few chapters, a new invalid is introduced into the mix, a Mrs. Lyley who quickly realizes that Eleanor and Adam have developed feelings for one another.  She too, has astute and philosophical observations about life and relationships that she shares with her younger friends: “But don’t you believe that when two people are thrown together and find themselves in sympathy they owe it to—well, to each other—not to draw apart again? I mean, it’s like finding something nice in the street that doesn’t seem to belong to anyone—it’d be sinful to kick it aside and pass on. Like a rose: you’d take it home and put it in water. I know I would.”

Mrs. Lyley invites Eleanor and Adam to finish their convalescence at her country home, but with the condition that they must fall in love with one another.  Eleanor is especially resistant to the whole idea and overthinks this generous proposal.  Adam finally steps in with the right arguments to convince her to take up Mrs. Lyley’s offer.  He suggests they hold hands and call one another ‘darling’ and brings up the topic of love:

Eleanor: Have I ever said I loved you?

Adam: No, but I love you. And I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me.

Eleanor: Well, I couldn’t possibly love you unless you loved me. So that makes just the conversational deadlock you pride yourself this isn’t.

Adam: Oh, but it isn’t a deadlock. If I say I won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, and you say you won’t go out to-morrow unless it’s fine weather, that’s not a conversational deadlock, but an identical expression of an identical hope. And the chances are that the weather will be fine, and that we’ll go out together. Or stay indoors together if it’s not fine.

Eleanor: Don’t talk so much.

The other Riding book I have yet to read, which is also part of Ugly Duckling Presse’s Lost Literature Series, is entitled Experts are Puzzled, which, after sampling her prose, I am also very much looking forward to reading.

My friend Tony has also written a wonderful review of this book at his blog: https://messybooker.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/convalescent-conversations-madeleine-vara-laura-riding/

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Filed under American Literature

Words form, interpretations: Love and I, Poems by Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe’s latest collection of poems, Love and I,  arrived in the mail this afternoon and I have spent some time reading and thinking about it.  Her poems have a constant sense of motion which is particularly fitting for her thoughts on love.  I’ve always felt that love—romantic, familial, platonic, etc.—is never something that can be static.  We either move forward in love by putting effort into fostering it, tending to it, even expanding it.  Conversely it also takes effort to forget it by sabotaging it, resisting it and ignoring it.  My favorite poem in the collection has a brilliant title that captures Howe’s thoughts on love, memory and motion.  Philophany is taken from two Ancient Greek words, philos, “love” and the verb phan, to “think,” “deem,” “suppose.”

Philophany

The clatter of rain has a personal meaning.
This is the time to meditate or write down your dreams.
But the lover can do neither, can only wander
From room to room trying not to spill what’s so precious.

Around the lover are myriad sounds.
Thoughts shine through like water.
Forms, shapes, colors, stations are glorified in the morning.
Indecipherable, almost transparent.

Fear of loss takes root in the blood of the lover.
Words form, interpretations.

Miracles: no one there where someone was.
Someone here where no one was.

The stars that shine are sparks and coal.
As if to show experience purifies existence.

Experience was everything to me.
(This is what the uneducated would say.)

Every word must come from my acts direct.
But I know the difficulty too.
Who will believe what I do?

I’m very interested in reading more Fanny Howe.  Her back list of poetry, essays and novels is overwhelming.  Please let me know if you have any favorites of hers as a good place to start.  I’m interested in reading all three genres.

 

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Filed under American Literature, Poetry