- Theresa Hak Kyung Cha: Dictee (1982)
- Martha Collins: Blue Front (2001)
- Brenda Hillman: Cascadia (2001)
- Ed Roberson: City Eclogue (2006)
- Cole Swensen: Ours (2008)
- CD Wright: One with Others (2010)
- Renee Gladman: To After That (Toaf) (2008)
- Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni: Life and Death in a Venetian Convent: the Chronicle and Necrology of Corpus Domini 1395-1426 (2000, tr. from the Italian by Daniel Bornstein)
Gladman’s To After That: This book made me angry in a way that no book should ever.
This book is part of the Atelos project which aims to publish ‘under the sign of poetry, writing that challenges the conventional definitions of poetry’ and which is curated by Lyn Hejinian and Travis Ortiz. I’ve read one other book from this series — Ed Roberson’s City Eclogue — and quite enjoyed it, and I certainly don’t have a problem with the aim of this project. It seems actually very necessary. I do, however, have a problem with Toaf: it’s glib and what it lacks for in intellect, it makes up for in inane posturing.
The bio on the cover of the book says: ‘Since the early 1990s, Renee Gladman has been collecting problems in writing; beginning with the problem of the person, she has, in the duration, gone on to explore those of time, place, and translation. These problems have occurred as events of the city, in the language of identify and confusion.’
Big questions, but it seems that every point, Gladman has reduced them to very simple ones: Is there a clear separation between what one writes and what one lives? [No.] Do places we live in significantly impact what we write? [Yes.] Must narrative always be linear? [No.] Is it allowed for an unfinished work to be published and read? [Of course.] Is it allowed for a work of fiction to be less than the prescribed 50,000 words? [Yes.]
It’s not that these simpler questions shoudn’t be answered or that they don’t have complex answers. But in this case, the answers are very simple and obvious. I don’t disagree with her conclusions much at all; in fact, I agree with them rather strongly; but it’s the getting to these answers that’s insufferable in Gladman’s work. I would hope that any kind of written work (whether prose or poetry or some kind of hybrid) hoping to answer such questions, if inconclusively, would display an athletic intellect. Nope. What you get is 70 pages of lukewarm meandering about some novel (excerpted in Toaf, also terrible) Gladman may or may not have written but was in any case a failure, and frippery like:
I must admit a lack of conclusiveness that I wrote the above statements. It is one of those things. There are no signs of having quoted another source, but there is something other about this list. If it is yours I apologize. How did I get it? In any case, what a recipe for success! If you follow these steps, don’t you end up writing the novel of the century? How can you not?
I’m not going to venture into wondering whether this is prose or poetry. That’s hardly the biggest issue here. Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is that it begins and ends with the same paragraph, like a third-rate imitation of a Calvino novel.
Riccoboni’s Chronology and Necrology: I can’t imagine too many people wanting to read this book who are not either (a) very devout Catholics or (b) scholars interested in the field. For its audience, this book is wonderful, and judging from reviews, a pioneer effort. It’s a translation into English of the writings of Sister Bartolomea Riccoboni, a member of the Corpus Domini convent in fifteenth-century Venice. I came to know it because of a class on nuns I was going to take (but couldn’t; too much other work) and then decided to read it anyway for a poem-sequence I’ve been working on. Anyway, I found it very lovely and fascinating; also very useful to my project.
Cha’s Dictee: This is one of my favourite books from this month. I couldn’t tell you what it’s about or what exactly it does, but, unlike the Gladman book or most books, it feels urgent. Something is at stake.
Like most of the poetry this month and the previous, it was assigned for a class. It was a pretty good discussion. I took copious notes. I noted a thousand connections and structures and references. I’m not sure I can explain what we discussed or our conclusions, if any.
It’s a difficult book, with 9 sections that refer to the nine days of the novena and to the nine Greek muses (one of which Cha replaces with her own made up muse), and possibly something else. Then there are acts of submission. Then there are bits about the difficulty of speech and language. There are diagrams. There are personae from Cha’s life, from history and from mythology. Besides Catholocisim, there are aspects of the Eleusian mysteries and Daoism involved in the text. There are diagrams and photographs. And endless other things.
I think we sort of decided the book had to do with suffering and transcendence; suffering as necessary in order to speak; ritual as a way to suffer and as a means of hailing saints, those who have suffered already and can deliver one. It’s very Catholic and pagan at the same time.
Just . . . read the book.
Collins’s Blue Front: Also loved this. It’s a devastating book in which Collins investigates certain acts of lynching that took place in Cairo, Illinois, and that were witnessed by her father when he was about five years old.
Hillman’s Cascadia: Hmm. Not for me, meaning only that I couldn’t get into it. But I know some smart people who love it. It’s probably just me and my tastes..
Roberson’s City Eclogue: Oh, this is the book I mentioned while reviewing Gladman. Read!
Swensen’s Ours: So you might as well know that I adore Cole Swensen. She’s an intelligent, generous, generously intelligent woman who writes wonderful poems about French gardens and gardeners (Ours) and ghosts and quaint British sea towns (Gravesend, forthcoming). She also translates from the French and writes about translation. She read at Wash U in November (ON MY BIRTHDAY!) and I talked to her for five minutes. I don’t have anything intelligent to say about her book, but I will suggest you read it and also look out for the next one, Gravesend. Oh, and here’s a bit from Ours:
Certain traditions claim that man and garden cannot be separated,
or if and when they are, will neither still be visible, the inverse
of those twins that you never see in the same place at the same time. We
through a single door, unrecognized
in the morning in the park, where we sit behind the early paper
and periodically declare I can’t believe
in the Middle Ages, they drew the news on cemetery walls. A long line
of bodies in silhouette that swayed. This too, they say,
is paradise because the sky touches the ground wherever the former has
indentindentindentindentindentindent a hole in it called a hand,
espalliered mansions and guests in the millions.
The first public gardens in history were called oubliettes. As soon as you entered,
you were indistinguishable from the animals.
Wright’s One With Others: Read!