Tag Archives: Ugly Ducking Presse

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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Review: The Happy End/All Welcome by Mónica de la Torre

My Review:

As much as companies like Google have attempted to rearrange office space into non-traditional configurations and break free of the rat maze of traditional cubicles, we still show up to work every day and have to function within a corporate structure.  Monica de la Torre’s collection of poems in The Happy End/All Welcome satirize the futile attempts of office dwellers to break free of the constraints imposed on them by bosses, human resources, and even the chairs they sit in.  De la Torre cleverly highlights the absurdity that we face in our every day work lives by using a scene from the unfinished Kafka novel, Amerika,  as her backdrop.

Kafka’s Amerika, which was published posthumously, tells the story of sixteen year-old Karl Roßmann who is forced to emigrate to the United States after it is revealed that he was seduced by a housemaid.  At the end of the novel, after Karl has had adventures with a stoker from the passage ship, a couple of drifters and his uncle, he sees a job advertisement for the Nature Theater of Oklahoma which promises to employ every applicant.  When Karl is hired as a “technical worker” he goes off to Oklahoma by train but the novel breaks off suddenly within this final chapter.  The poems in de la Torre’s collection are all set in a job fair being held by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma from Kafka’s novel.

De la Torre uses an interesting array of formats and arrangements for her poems: interviews, ad copy, reports, questionnaires and descriptions of chairs are all employed to satirize every aspect of corporate life from the job interview, to office design, to strategic plans, to the use of social media and to office politics.  Inspired by artist Marin Kippenberger’s installationThe Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika” the poet states at the beginning of her collection that we are to imagine “an assortment of numbered tables and office desks with pairs of mismatched chairs within a soccer field flanked by grandstands.”  The numbered tables become the settings of poems involving job interviews for applicants who are sorely unqualified but are hired anyway.  These series of poems magnify the painful experience for everyone involved–applicant, employers, human resources, headhunters— in the job application process.  At Table 20, for example, an aspiring lifeguard with a terrible case of astigmatism is immediately given the job despite openly admitting his vision impairment.  And some applicants are asked to do the most random, absurd tasks that seem more fitting for auditions for a reality TV show than an office job:

Three people sitting on a tandem bench come forth.

Each applicant is assigned a color around which to improvise
lyrics for jingles.

Only found language displayed in the color assigned to each can
be used.

Applicants are given two hours to go searching for text in the city.

The Assistant Director selects corresponding loops from the
Buddha Machine 2.0, a portable music player, as accompaniment.

One of the funniest and most absurd poems describes a headhunter and the object of his hunt, a man who oddly looks like the artist Martin Kippenberger:

A Headhunter at the hunting blind at the edge of the field
keeps an eye on a middle-aged potbellied man in oversized
underwear who eerily resembles Martin Kippenberger. He’s
about to get in a full-sized Barbie tub near a couple of lifeguard
chairs, holds a cigarette in one hand and a hard-boiled egg in
the other.

In the Headhunter’s estimation, the man could be either rapt
in thought or overhearing the interview between the Bather
and the Lifeguard next to him. He might also be reminiscing
on the teepee villages at American Western theme campsites
he stayed at in the old days with friends, which always had hot
tubs.

The Headhunter wonders if he is seeking employment—why
else would he be at the fair? He cannot begin to imagine
what position might be appropriate for this individual defying
categorization, whose insouciance clashes with the professional
aspirations of the fairgoers.

An idea comes to him in a flash: this man could play the
Unhappy Hedonist!

This poem is set in the middle of the collection and serves a centerpiece that showcases de la Torre’s many talents as a poet.  The image of the headhunter lurking in the bushes underscores the ridiculous name given to workers whose role is recruitment.  She also brings us back to Kippenberger the artist whose installment is the specific inspiration for her strange job fair setting.  As the headhunter marks his “victim,” he proceeds to psychoanalyze him so that he can slot him into the company role that will suit him best, even if he has to invent a new job title.  It appears that the theater will now have an “Unhappy Hedonist” which position reminds us of the absurd titles that corporations have used to give a façade of importance in order to attract the highest quality of candidates for jobs which no one can clearly identify.  As I was reading this poem I kept thinking about the vague names we have for jobs even in schools. For instance, we no longer have the specific title of “Librarian” but instead we now have the difficult-to-pinpoint position of  “Media Specialist.”

When one does finally land what he or she thinks is a desirable job, reality and disappointment often set in as we see in this Case Study poem. It is interesting to note that Kafka’s working title for his novel was “The Man Who Disappeared” which is fitting for the theme of an oppressive and hard-to-break-free-from system of working life where few stand out among the corporate crowd.  The tone of this piece is markedly sadder than others in the collection:

On the first day of a new job, after quitting a highly desirable
one, the subject experiences genuine befuddlement when asked
to contribute $20 for a colleague’s taxi fare from the airport.

The day’s obligations include putting documents in boxes and
loading them into a coworker’s trunk. It soon becomes ap-
parent that the subject occupies the lowest rung of the bureau-
cracy and that, other than this odd version of paperwork, there
is nothing of consequence at stake.

The most clever and thought-provoking pieces were those that explored the idea of how we use furniture and space in an office.  An entire thriving industry has been devoted to choosing, planning and fitting out offices to make workers more comfortable and more productive.  De la Torre’s poems exude a particular tension between open and confined space, and productive and unproductive workers and ask us to think about whether or not a different arrangement of space truly makes people more active and engaged members of an office hierarchy.  In one of the poems entitled “Yes or No,” she writes:

So that personnel can move around and up and down
and function as vertical machines
office landscapes are sectioned into action offices.

It is suboptimal to give vertical machines space to move
around and up and down.

Flexible offices are not cost-effective.

Furniture in action offices is placed orthogonally.

Plants are replaced by partitions on three sides.

Action offices become cubicles.

Action offices become dead offices.

Plants enliven offices in pictures.

Living offices are safe environments for plants.

These poems force us to question whether or not it really matters how we arrange our furniture, our partitions, or our plants.  There is still a hierarchy which must be obeyed in a workplace environment or all will fall into chaos.  This collection uses several descriptions of chairs as a metaphor for the constraint that must be endured when we walk into an office regardless of  how the space is used or how it is decorated.    De la Torre poems include “The View from an Aeron Chair,” “The View from the Folding Chair,” “The View from a Womb Chair” and so on.  My favorite view from a chair is the Dodo Chair.   The Dodo is a swivel armchair, easily converted into a lounger, which is ergonomically designed for comfort.  But the poet uses a reference to the extinct bird by the same name to satirize the practicality of a comfortable chair in an office where not a single moment of rest is allowed.

A mutable shape stating that downtime hasn’t gone the way of the Dodo.

Yet the days of sitting around seem extinct.

Now it’s all go-go.  No need to go into it; who doesn’t know the feeling?

The dodo maybe?  Its temporality is other.

Its inability to adapt rendered it obsolete.

It is ironic that in an age in which we are working longer hours, are more stressed out than ever that we spend so much time in fitting out our offices with just the right type of chairs and configurations of chairs.  De la Torre sums it up best when she writes, “The office chair’s revolution is an oxymoron.”

This is one of the most clever, well-written, descriptive and hilarious collection of poems I have read this year.  For anyone looking for a new and innovative book of poems for poetry month then this one comes highly recommended by me.

Read an interview with Monica de la Torre about her inspiration for this collection at Lit Hub: http://lithub.com/monica-de-la-torre-on-corporatese-and-the-oppression-of-fancy-chairs/

About the Author:

Mónica de la Torre is co-author of the book Appendices, Illustrations & Notes (Smart Art Press) with artist Terence Gower, and co-editor, with Michael Wiegers, of Reversible Monuments: Contemporary Mexican Poetry (Copper Canyon Press). She edited and translated the volume Poems by Gerardo Deniz, published by Lost Roads and Taller Ditoria, and has translated numerous other Spanish-language poets. Born and raised in Mexico City, she moved to New York in 1993. She has been the poetry editor of The Brooklyn Rail since 2001 and is pursuing a PhD in Spanish Literature at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in journals including Art on Paper, BOMB, Bombay Gin, Boston Review, Chain, Circumference, Fence, Mandorla, Review: Latin American Literature and Arts, and Twentysix. Talk Shows was her first book of original poetry in English.

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To Grieve by Will Daddario

In 2013, Will Daddario experienced the loss of his father, grandmother, friend, and cat all within a span of five months.  In early 2014, he and his wife were expecting their first child, a baby boy whom they were going to name Finlay, but their precious gift died during delivery.  Daddario writes this short, philosophical, moving chapbook to serve as a chronicle of his grieving process and as a tribute to those he loved and lost. He introduces his writing: “While grieving, I have turned to multiple sources to guidance.  What follows here is my own attempt to act as guide for others who encounter such loss, though, truthfully, the primary audience is myself.”

What struck me the most about Daddario’s handling of grief is that he was constantly moving forward in his attempt to deal with his mourning.  This was, for him and his wife, a very active handling of several devastating blows, one after the other.  Daddario and his wife kept their own notes on mourning and, following the example of Barthes, they wrote reflections on small pieces of paper every day for a year and placed them in a glass jar.  On their son’s 2-year birthday they read through their reflections, many of which are copied here for us into his book.  On August 7, 2014, for instance, Daddario’s wife wrote:

I continue to feel as though I’ve been shot through with a cannon ball, creating a huge hole in me, and that the cannonball is lodged in my body, weighing me down.

And on July 3, 2014 Daddario himself writes:

A new phase of mourning.  Like Barthes says, the “emotivity” starts to subside, but the suffering remains.  We are four weeks to the day after Finlay’s arrival/departure.  What will the next four bring?

Another activity that Daddario and his wife do on a daily basis is to light a candle in Finlay’s room each night as the sun goes down and dedicate that quiet time of their day to reflection.  And each morning they dedicated to “tear time” which allowed them to grieve for another day that would begin without their son.  Daddario also uses reading as an activity that becomes a great comfort for him.  He has a list of 13 pivotal books that include authors such as Roland Barthes, Anne Carson, Karen Green and the poet Rumi.

One final activity that Daddario actively engages in during his experience with grief is his focus on language and unpacking different words which now had a new meaning for him.  He discusses the words solve, resolve, unresolved and buoy and how they all gave him insight into his grieving process.  His analysis of the Ancient Greek word therapeuein, which Michel Foucault lectured on, was especially intriguing to me.  Foucault says of this word:

Therapeuein means in Greek three things.  Therapeuein means, of course, to perform a medical action whose purpose is to cure or to treat.  However, therapeuein is also the activity of the servant who obeys and serves his master.  Finally, therapeuein is to worship (render un culte).  Now, therapeuein heauton means at the same time to give medical care to oneself, to be one’s own servant, and to devote oneself to oneself.

It is this last definition of therapeuein that Daddario truly grasps and practices throughout his grief process.  His self-care is active—he writes, reads, cries, discusses, lights candles, and jogs—which all are the best methods for him of being his own servant.  The biggest and most important lesson for me in this piece of writing is that in the grieving process we must each find our own soothing activities that bring us the greatest devotion to self-care.

This is a link to a conversation between Will Daddario and Kate Jaeger about To Grieve: http://uglyducklingpresse.tumblr.com/post/157616166149/who-can-read-it-kate-jaeger-in-conversation-with

This title is published by Ugly Ducking Presse, which indie press I recently discovered through their collection of poems Written in the Dark which are translated from the Russian.  I am so excited to find these brave, small publishers that bring us such profound pieces of literature.  What are your favorite small press finds?

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