- Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar (1983, tr. from the Italian by William Weaver)
- Anne Carson: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry (1995)
- Ted Hughes: The Hawk in the Rain (1957)
- Laura Jensen: Memory (1982)
- Forrest Gander: A Faithful Existence: Reading, Memory, and Transcendence (2005)
I have to say it: Italo Calvino is starting to grate on me. But — this can’t be all that shocking, can it? People have felt this way before, yes?
Mr Palomar is about Mr Palomar, in his own words. These are his observations, his relentless ruminations on the world. He’s at the beach, he thinks about how to separate one wave from the next. He’s in his garden, he studies bird patterns. All this towards understanding principles of the universe: how things are held together or how they are not. The problem? It’s all kind of cute: a moment of seriousness and beauty is thwarted almost instantaneously the humorous futility of it all. The frustration that comes from acknowledging – really acknowledging — the futility of something is tremendously moving in the way that I want to be moved by writing. The funny stuff annoys me too often. More than that, it’s the self-conscious postmodernism of it all that bothers me. I put my book down several times out of sheer nausea. I mean, those terribly neat structures?! Each section has three chapters: the first one descriptive, the second narrative and the third philosophical (or something to that effect; it’s all explained in the back of the book). I can’t bear that stuff.
Then again, there were many moments in the book that had me gasping in awe, and those are the one’s I’ll re-read if I were to pick the book up again. Unfortunately, my copy is in St Louis, so I can’t quote what I liked or disliked. I think that Invisible Cities is probably Calvino’s masterpiece; it stands apart from the jokiness of Mr Palomar and, come to think of it, If on a winter’s night a traveller.
On to things that annoyed me much less –
The Forrest Gander and Laura Jensen books pictured above were my absolute favourites from this month. Laura is a strange, strange genius, and I’m thinking of teaching her to my Poetry I’s in the fall (though John Haines is calling to me as well; his books might be harder to source). Again, I don’t have my book with me, so I can’t show you a favourite poem from the book. Sadly, there’s hardly anything to be found on poets.org or The Poetry Foundation. Only this, which is rather lovely — just see what she does in those last four lines. Almost all her poems work with that kind of birdlike lightness that is suddenly twisted out painfully from within, leaving you with a hard question or a hard thought or a hard beauty.
Gander’s is a book of essays on all sorts of things: translation, a life of poetry (or specifically, a life of faith in poetry, which I think is beautiful and just and what I want to live), science, insects, his favourite writers, the South, the great, great South — such deep love in this book and such a clear sense of what is natural — within and without — and what is making. I definitely recommend this book. Again, my copy is in St Louis and I can’t share my favourite bits here. That’s the pain of travelling.
I like this book a lot, but I like it a lot less than I did when I first read it. Call it time, I suppose, but I found some of the poems in here sort of overblown and unfeeling. I’d chalk it down to first book syndrome, but who am I to talk about first books?
Of course there are many other poems in the book that give me chills; this is one I’ve been obsessing over, and I stole a line from it for a poem of my own:
A MODEST PROPOSAL
There is no better way to know us
Than as two wolves, come separately to a wood.
Now neither´s able to sleep – -even at a distance
Distracted by the soft competing pulse
Of the other; nor able to hunt — at every step
Looking backwards and sideways, warying to listen
For the other´s slavering rush. Neither can make die
The painful burning of the coal in its heart
Till the other´s body and the whole wood is its own.
Then it might sob contentment toward the moon.
Each in a thicket, rage hoarse in its labouring
Chest after a skirmish, licks the rents in its hide,
Eyes brighter than is natural under the leaves
(Where the wren, peeping around the leaf, shrieks out
To see a chink so terrifyingly open
Onto the red smelting of hatred) as each
Pictures a mad final satisfaction.
Suddenly they duck and peer.
And there rides by
The great lord from hunting. His embroidered
Cloak floats, the tail of his horse pours,
And at his stirrup the two great-eyed greyhounds
That day after day bring down the towering stag
Leap like one, making delighted sounds.
Anne — dear Anne, I love her so. I won’t lie, I have named things after her.
I do love this book, though I admit at times it gets a little too Anne Carson-y even for my tastes, which meant I ended up playing favourites with the sections, pitting one against the next. I think my two favourite sections were the one with the short poems on towns (the most poetic of them all) and the one called ‘Short Talks’ (arguably the most essayistic of them all; Anne Carson is an extraordinary essayist). I also liked the main water stuff — ‘The Anthropology of Water,’ was it? — which is almost an entire novella, if you ask me, and all about pilgrims, which we are. The other two sections were the hardest for me to get through for some reason; all that loopy enjambment.
Anyway, with those five sections, it’s sort of like five books jammed into one, which you get for what, fourteen, fifteen dollars? And I paid seven for mine, because I got it used.