HISTORY IS BUNK? NO, BUT IT MAY BE BI-POLAR. SAY WHAT?

While researching a story whose plot points I’ll keep to myself at this moment, I was gob-smacked by the following notion:  the nature of history is bipolar.

You may of course object:  Let’s be rational about this; what you’re suggesting applies to the writing of history, or the analysis of history.  Surely you don’t mean history itself?

Maybe.  But if I did?

No, no! you shout.  Heaven forfend!  History itself, the unfolding of events in time, “what actually happened in the past,” is itself incapable of structure.  History is just . . . history.  Structure is imposed on it by its principal observers, those peepers, those educated voyeurs:  historians.  History simply happens:  let the historians sort it out.

But that’s just it, I maintain.  Historians aren’t sorting it out.  Maybe they can’t sort it out, try as they may.  Nothing they’ve written seems to overcome the bipolarity I’m talking about.

So what in tarnation is this bipolarity you speak of?

Well, from where I sit, I see micro-historians and macro-historians.  Some (the macros) paint on a grand canvas, laying out a sweeping narrative of events, which they organize into patterns or trends.  Perfectly reasonable.  Without pattern, events are un-coalesced microdots floating around the canvas (or the page).  Without pattern there’s no meaning.  The drawback of the macro approach, however, is that, once brought forth, these trends begin to seem inevitable.

Consider what one might remark after the breakup of a marriage:  I knew this would happen!  Those two should never have met!  Different values, different social classes, different ethnicities. Not to mention incompatible goals.  He wanted to raise a large family in a quiet suburb.  She wanted to star on Broadway!  Their personalities were destined to rub against one another until nerves were so raw that being in the same room was impossible.  Doomed from the start.

But that’s not how it looked to the parties involved:  the stars aligned, the earth moved, they fell in love.

Hey! you demur crossly.  Are we talking about love or history?

Well, I’ve read historical accounts suggesting the certainty of a particular outcome that I found persuasive.  Hey, it had to turn out that way!  When you look deeply, the conflicts between those two countries – divergent economies, conflicting political systems, different faiths, clashing cultures, and the fact that they both desperately needed the same river to water their crops and slake the thirst of their citizens – it was perfectly clear that it would end in the bloody conflict that you saw.  No other course possible.

But!  When you examine things the way micro-historians do – day-to-day, blow-by-blow – you discover all kinds of chancy things.  You see history as resulting from tiny individual decisions made during the course of an individual day.  And you realize many things could have happened that would have led to a different outcome.  The crucial decision-maker might have had an argument with his wife and arrived at the pivotal meeting an hour late, by which time the others had decided on a different course without him.  Or perhaps he had a troubling dream that changed his mind?  To take a different example – the assassin might have found his gun jamming at the crucial moment.  Or someone had convinced the victim to wear a bulletproof vest?  Or. . . well, the sun was in the perpetrator’s eyes.  Etc.  When what-ifs multiply geometrically, what happens to the notion of inevitability?

Question is, are the bipolar narratives gleaned from these different perspectives – the long and the short of it – merely a function of how historians assemble the facts?  Or is it something inherent in history itself?

Let’s not forget the other meaning of the term bipolar.  Are the historians emotionally disturbed?  Or is history itself?

As the novelist Pursewarden wrote in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandrian Quartet:  “God is a humorist.”

I think I’ll leave it at that.

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NOT HARD TO READ, THOUGH SOMETIMES DIFFICULT FOR THE HEART TO BEAR

I’m writing about two books in this post.  Two  l – o –o – n – n – g   novels:  The Son by Phillip Meyer (841 pages) and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (775 pages).

They’re both pretty amazing.  Tons of research, funneled into the creation of characters who felt as if they could step off the page and talk to you.  (Though whether you would want to is another question.) Still, the books are very different.  Phillip Meyer’s model might be said to be Hemmingway or – forgive the Russian historian in me – Sholokov (as in Quiet Flows the Don/The Don Flows Home to the Sea).  Donna Tartt’s model is unquestionably Dickens.  Meyer’s prose is taut, flat, crisp, devoid of flourish or complexity, while Tartt’s is lush and complicated, convoluted even, yet nudging you so close to her characters you can feel their breath on your face.  Each style can in its own way be poetic, and each author is firmly in control of his or her material.  Myer is painting on a vast canvas, striding across some three hundred years of Southwest history; Tartt’s canvas, while not so restricted as the tiny masterpiece painting that is the sine qua non of her tale, is nonetheless smaller and more focused, the interactions of her characters spanning less than two decades.

The tale that Meyer tells is, frankly, devastating.  Read “depressing.”  The broad sweep of time from when Texas belonged to Mexico until today.  Mexicans, Indians, Whites.  How they clashed, fought, slaughtered, pillaged, chiseled – and sued – one another in their separate efforts to achieve power and supremacy.  Told through the device of a single family through time.  Land, sheep, horses, cattle, oil.  How some won and some lost and yet all – in the final analysis – lost.  It’s our story.  (Certainly I, as someone who is part Indian and from Oklahoma, felt this way, but I suspect even New Yorkers might recognize the horror of their heritage in these pages.)

The tale that Tartt tells is quite different, of course.  And in some ways it is equally saddening, however much it tries to provide some hope for a kind of rescue through art, through the love that we come to feel for certain kinds of perfections of effort to create beautiful things, from brushstrokes that capture the eye to sentences that dazzle the mind.  It is a tale of our times, for sure, from terrorist bombs to widespread drug use, to frauds at every level of society; sometimes it seems almost an homage to the anomie and weakness of character which seems to afflict Americans in the twenty-first century.  Be warned:  the novel’s addictive.  Once you start reading it, you can’t stop.  You’ll think it’s not only the characters in her book who are hooked (on drugs, in their case), but yourself.

What these novels have in common is the amazing degree of totally credible detail they each provide about their separate concerns.  From Tartt, about painting, I might have expected it.  About the repair and re-creation of period furniture, perhaps.  But I can’t even imagine how she knows so much about the drug culture, on an individual level or on the level of international transactions and crooks, but she does and she shows it.  How can she deal so comfortably in the lingo?  So much slangy Russian and Polish and Ukrainian!  Is it accurate?  The Russian that I know suggests it is, which gives me the confidence to trust everything else.  And Myer!  When he talks about Indian tribes!  The names of things, the techniques!  How they made their bows and their arrows.  Exactly how.  How they shot them, whether at rest or from horseback!  Exactly how.  So credible and detailed that you feel, with practice, you could have done this stuff yourself.  Or:  the savagery and variety of the tribes’ tortures; their customs of sex and war and love, adherence to and violation of; the individual animosities and struggles of particular tribesmen with each other; how a captive can become a full-fledged member of the tribe, and the cost of this.  The cost.  Always the cost.

Let me be clear.  I’m not saying that the reader knows in some kind of proven, evidentiary way, that the details offered by both of these authors are absolutely smack-dab correct.  I’m saying that each writes with an authority that is convincing, which is vital to the success of their stories.  As Elizabeth Strout, editor of the Best American Short Stories of 2012, writes, explaining her choices, “. . . it had a great deal to do with voice.  That sound – if it is working well – has authority, probably the most important dimension of voice.  We really hope that the author knows what he or she is doing.”

Another thing that both novels share is that, structurally, they each move back and forth in time, though the shifts Myer makes are more radical and, while sometimes tricky to follow, completely germane to his purpose.

If I’ve made these novels sound like surveys or treatises or even histories, I apologize.  They’re not.  They are well-plotted stories, deftly and compellingly told, in ways that excite both the mind and the heart.  Be prepared.  Each is a big commitment, but well worth it.

BY THE WAY, if you weren’t able to attend my last reading – on Dec. 12 – both video and audio recordings of my performances are accessible from my website, jimcstory.com.  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL! ANOTHER READING AT THE CORNELIA STREET CAFE!

December 12th at the Cornelia Street Cafe will, if memory serves, mark my thirteenth appearance there in the last seven years. I get great joy out of these readings, and my audiences seem to go away happy as well. So I hope everyone who reads this post will join me for the fun!

Just to be clear: the date is Thursday, December 12th, and the venue is the venerable Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, just west of Sixth Avenue between Bleecker Street and West 4th. The time is from 6 to 7:30 pm and the entry fee is $8, which will also entitle you to a glass of wine.

I’ll be reading both from my recently completed novel Problems of Translation and — as I often do — from even newer work, this time a short story in progress. I’m very proud of both. As some of you may already know, the great Ben Fountain (National Book Critic’s Circle Award for Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk) once called my writing, “swift, profound and exciting . . . laced with humor and a heartfelt passion.” I’ll take praise like that any day of the week!

If you’ve been to an earlier reading, you probably know that Problems is my comic adventure novel about Charles Abel Baker, who travels the world trying to get one of his short stories translated into ten different languages before being returned to English. Charlie lands in trouble in almost every country he visits. One of the last episodes I read saw him in the clutches of a drug cartel in Mexico! Perhaps I’ll give you a clue on Dec. 12 as to how (or whether!) he manages to get away. As for the short story, well . . . you’ll have to show up to see what that’s all about.

But there’s more! I’ll be joined on the 12th by a poet named Charlie Bondhus, whose poetry I’m really looking forward to hearing. The evening will be a first for Charlie — his first time reading at Cornelia Street — but he’s certainly no neophyte when it comes to gathering awards: the Brickhouse Books Stonewall Award, the Blue Light Press First Book Award, Main Street Rag’s Annual Poetry Book Award, to name only some. Major poet Carolyn Forche called All the Heat We Could Carry “a rare, brilliant, and necessary book.” So it stacks up to be an exciting evening.  Visit Cornelia’s website (www.corneliastreetcafe.com) for greater detail, including pictures of both Charlie and myself.

I look forward to meeting you all there on the 12th. Remember!  Keep your expectations high; it’s up to us to meet them!

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Elizabeth Strout Turns Her Remarkable Skill Set on Wider World

The Burgess boys rode up the turnpike as twilight arrived. It arrived gently, the sky remaining a soft blue as the trees along either side of the unfolding pavement darkened. Then the sinking sun sent up a spread of lavender and yellow, and the horizon line seemed cracked open to give a peek at the heavens far beyond. Thin clouds became pink and stayed that way, until finally darkness emerged, almost complete. The brothers had spoken little once they pulled out of the airport in the rental car, Jim at the wheel, and for the last many minutes as the sun went down there had been silence between them. Bob was unutterably happy. He had not expected the feeling, which intensified it. He gazed out the window at the black stretches of evergreens, the granite boulders here and there. The landscape he had forgotten – and now remembered. The world was an old friend, and the darkness was like arms around him. When his brother spoke, Bob heard the words. Still he said, casually, “What did you say?”

“I said this is just unbelievably depressing.”

This is how Book Two of Chapter 10 begins in Elizabeth Strout‘s engrossing new novel, The Burgess Boys. How that last sentence jars! But consider how masterfully it’s set up. First the quiet, graceful prose describes, in lovely but neutral tones, the landscape. Next Bob’s mood is defined, which is followed by further descriptions of the landscape, seen now through his contented, almost euphoric eyes, lulling the reader into a sense of the power of nature both to inspire and to succor. Then bam! The anvil is dropped.  Although the brothers, who grew up in the same small Maine town, are moving through the same landscape, you realize they’re not really seeing the same landscape, because what’s inside each head – a brew of divergent pathways, burdened or failed marriages and one life-changing secret – is coloring what each sees.

Of course, a delicate and precise delineation of thought and feeling, as well as the dramatic clash of family members’ viewpoints, are elements we have glimpsed before in Elizabeth Strout’s books. Amy & Isabelle. The Pulitzer prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. Even, to a lesser degree, in Abide With Me.

But there is a Tolstoyan breadth and richness to this novel that I think is new.

She’s raising the ante. Those earlier books dealt exclusively with small-town Maine, with its sometimes funny, often touching, occasionally outrageous characters. The issues she focused on were inter-personal. Now the focus widens. This book is set in a fraught and disheveled house in Maine, in a law office or a high-end bar-restaurant or toney dinner party in Manhattan, a gracious home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a spread in Connecticut. And the central event in the book, while small, has the potential to resound nationally and internationally. Strout is now dealing with larger social dynamics, with contemporary socio-political issues. In this case it’s the presence in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine of a group of Somalis and the aftershocks from a teenager’s tossing a pig’s head onto the floor of their mosque. Everything revolves around this single act. The three siblings of the Burgess family are revealed to us as they struggle and rub against one another, trying to understand this event, but we are confronted as well by the reactions of the teenager himself (a state of almost paralytic bafflement), of ex-wives living in splendid oblivion of world events, of Shirley Falls townspeople: policemen trying to do the right thing, church leaders seeking rapprochement, small-town prosecutors on the make. We see nationally-known defense attorneys, and moreover – and properly so – we see the hurt and shame of the Somali community, as they struggle to understand, individually and collectively, what has happened. We see how a tragedy that occurred much earlier in its characters’ lives can reverberate down through time to affect the personalities and even the character of those involved. We see the corrosive effects of a spur-of-the-moment lie.

Did I mention how adroitly the novel is orchestrated? Each character brought on stage both advances the plot adds to the emotional density. The pace is measured and controlled, though it picks up speed when it needs to.

The Burgess Boys is Liz Strout at the top of her game. And that is very good indeed.

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IF IT’S SPRING, IT MUST BE TIME FOR ANOTHER READING!

Welcome to Spring! Finally!

I’m delighted to report that I’m doing my semi-annual (Spring) reading in only a matter of days – May 8th to be exact – at my favorite venue, the Cornelia Street Café, 6 pm.  Please come and enjoy yourselves!

I’ll be reading, as I have done in recent years, from my recently completed novel Problems of Translation, which is at this very moment scouring the field looking for a publisher, as well as from an even more recently completed short story, “In the Shadow of the Condor.”

And by the way!  I’m excited by some great comments I’ve received from those who’ve read the novel in manuscript.  Like the following:

“. . . practically every paragraph twinkles with humor . . . ,”

“ . . .erudite from start to finish . . . ,”

“One of the most enjoyable books . . .in recent memory,”

“Marvelous touches of . . . poignancy that don’t . . . delay the progress of the story toward its delectable conclusion . . . ,”

“ . . . pretty much perfectly done.”

Please be assured I am far too circumspect to include another comment (I SWEAR THIS IS WHAT THIS WRITER SAID!): “[a] remarkable protagonist . . . [who] keeps encountering wet-dream women who find him attractive . . . .”

In any event, it should be a fine evening.  I’ll be sharing the stage with Shelly Stenhouse, a widely published poet, author of the collection PANTS and winner of numerous awards, including the Allen Ginsberg.  Shelly was also a finalist in the 2009 National Poetry Series competition and has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes (NO FAIR!  I’VE ONLY BEEN NOMINATED FOR ONE!).

So hopefully we’ll see many of you on Wednesday, May 8 at 6 pm at the Cornelia Street Café (off Bleecker St. just to the west of Sixth Avenue), where you’ll pay your $8 to receive not only a free glass of wine but a great evening’s entertainment.

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Andre Dubus III Scores a Knockout with Townie

To the list of fine books I’ve read thus far this year, I’m adding Townie, by Andre Dubus III. Unlike Dubus’ earlier impressive work, The House of Sand and Fog, Townie is not a novel, but a memoir.

It’s a searing book, unsparing both of himself and his famous father, but it is not a book of blame. It’s a book about the raw pain he experienced when his parents split and his father left. About the helplessness he felt as a short, weak child in a thuggish neighborhood. The physical violence repeatedly inflicted on him and his siblings in the New England mill town where he grew up. His willed transformation, though barbells and boxing, into a bulked up, powerful and dangerous young man with a killer instinct, quick to avenge any hurt to himself or his family and friends. It’s about learning to throw the first punch and never look back, not quitting until whoever had threatened him lay bloodied and beaten on the ground. But it’s also – and most important – about his transformation beyond that sometimes vicious young man into a person who came to dread the creature he’d become, and to realize the isolating and self-perpetuating nature of violence, and how the harm he’d done to others had eroded something essential and important in himself.

What may come as a surprise is that, for Dubus, most of that makeover was accomplished through writing.

A surprise, yet not a surprise. The discipline of weight training gave way to the discipline of writing. Writing true became the substitute for the one-two punch. Going deep into the characters he was creating, becoming them, feeling their own hurt and pain and rage, created compassion. He became himself, he discovered, only when he could become one of them. It’s a startlingly honest work of self-reflection.

But in case this makes Townie sound like an analytical treatise, it’s not. It’s a story: a beautiful, haunting, exciting yarn. Touching, thrilling, and absolutely compelling. As expertly crafted as a fine novel. Dozens of memorable characters sprout from its pages. Enormous attention is paid to details of places, sounds, smells. It just happens to be true, or as true as Dubus could make it, which means true on the inside, and true on the outside.

I rarely read memoirs. I might never have read this one had I not had the opportunity to meet the author a few months ago at the Crosby Hotel in New York City. The event was Michael Maren’s “Writers on Film” series, where well-known authors pick movies that have deep resonance for them. For Dubus, it was Scorcese’s “Mean Streets,” which he selected, he explained, because of its particularly honest depiction of street violence.
I saw Dubus again a few weeks later at the AWP conference in Boston and he remarked from the dais that what he admired most about his father was his compassion, his generosity and his courage.

In my brief chat with him on that earlier evening in New York, I found him to be a genuinely nice man, and what he wrote in my copy of his book I attribute to his own generosity of spirit, just as the book itself is a testament to his courage. But what I value most are the last two words before his signature: “Stay true.”

Something he’s obviously done himself. And it wasn’t easy.

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BEN FOUNTAIN’S NOVEL CALLED ‘LEGITIMATE MASTERPIECE’

At last!

Someone with more clout than I (I have none) has accorded Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk, the stature it deserves. Darin Strauss, a novelist and professor at New York University, included it among three “legitimate masterpieces” he’s read this year, the other two being Zadie Smith’s NW and Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue. He did so in a New York Times Book Review Endpaper  published today that linked each of these books – for somewhat different reasons, to be sure – to James Joyce.

I’ve not yet read the other two (they’re on my Christmas list!) but I certainly agree with Strauss about Billy Lynn. But it occurred to me, when I saw that Billy was not included among the “10 Best Books of 2012” in that same issue of the Book Review (neither was Telegraph Avenue), was that – as a society – we don’t seem all that comfortable these days with satire. It would appear to be hard for us to see satire as “significant.”

The book did get listed among the “notable” books of the year (previous week’s Times), and it certainly gathered  favorable reviews. Some praised Fountain’s “linguistic firepower,” as I noted in an earlier posting (September 24). And they’re not wrong. Ben Fountain’s prose dances, sings, teases, catches us unawares . . . well, see my previous post. Some reviewers also noted the book’s humor, but few seemed to think of it as a novel with serious heft. It was nominated for a National Book Award, but it didn’t win.

Satire is a way of holding a mirror up to ourselves, and that’s always a bit alarming. Strauss, in his essay, says, “Fountain lays his hand over a day and place (Texas Stadium, Thanksgiving, 2004) and takes an entire country’s temperature.” Many readers of Billy will laugh at the funny parts, but say “well, we’re not really that way, it’s just a joke, after all.” But take it seriously? Then we start to sweat, and who wants that?

Many years ago, Edward Arlington Robinson wrote a poem called “Dear Friends,” which contains some of my favorite lines. Reacting to critics who seem to have regarded his poems as “bubbles,” he says, “And if my bubbles be too small for you/blow bigger then your own,” suggesting that his poems “Good glasses are to read the spirit through.”

In addition to being entertaining, mind-bending, and sometimes over-the-top hilarious, that’s what Ben Fountain’s book delivers:  “good glasses . . . to read the spirit through.” The spirit – for good or ill – is the spirit of America in the early throes of the twenty-first century, and what the novel unmasks – once the laughter and the arresting characters and the rich prose have gone to silence – is a view of ourselves we all ought to ponder.

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PULITZER NOMINATIONS: THE LINE STARTS HERE

It won’t be long before literary tastemakers will be preparing to award the Pulitzer Prizes for 2012. I’ve read several good books this year which I’ll tell you about now and in future posts. Today I’ll talk about one of my favorites:  Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

The title of Ben Fountain’s astonishing new novel disturbed me at first. Perhaps too pedestrian? (There’s a pun for you!) Couldn’t one have chosen a zippier title to skewer the imagination of potential buyers? Browsers at bookstores have fickle attention-spans, my brain argued; gotta get ‘em inside the tent-flap before you can start the show.

That was before I realized how completely the title embodies its text.

First of all, the novel is about Billy. Billy Lynn. Our everyman, and one of fiction’s better incarnations of him, in my opinion. Billy is a young man, an ordinary Joe, from an average, broke-apart Southern family. Siphoned into the army out of high school just short of his diploma for reasons I won’t reveal here, this nineteen-year-old is somehow endowed with an incipient yearning to do the right thing. (Even his reason for winding up in the army betrays a primitive sense of moral outrage.) Although Billy has no overlay of college-nurtured schemata for analyzing the way things are versus the way they ought to be, he can’t stop thinking about such matters. He can’t stop obsessing about the things that seem, well . . . false. He bounces a few of these vague but prickling dissatisfactions off his better-educated sergeant, but the long, slow, tortured progress of his thinking is all Billy’s. And readers will consider it a privilege – certainly this reader did – to be inside his head.

Furthermore – back to the title, once more – Billy’s experience in the book is a “walk,” not a run. Not even a trot. The whole novel occupies a single afternoon, most of the action taking place in Billy’s head, with occasional references to the back story that brought him to be where and who he is that afternoon, a foot soldier riding in a six-door stretch limo (with all its “pimp finery”) beside fellow members of Bravo Company, on his way to watch the Dallas Cowboys play football.

And finally, the “halftime” of the title is not just a reference to the halftime show performed at that football game but, again, a nod to pace. Everything that day moves at half-time compared to the staccato frenzy of a few deadly moments on a battlefield in Iraq where Billy and his brethren – but particularly Billy – became recognized as HEROES whose exploits were caught on videotape by an embedded reporter in the act of rescuing their ambushed buddies while laying waste the enemy. As a result, they were transported to America for a Victory Tour in support of the war (and a Hollywood producer rides along in the limo, constantly on his cell trying to negotiate a Hollywood film their heroics must surely make).

Money, glory, power, and the Halftime Show at the Cowboys’ football stadium. Did I mention it’s the Super Bowl?

This is satire, of course, and satire of a very high order, which asks provocative questions while engaging our faculties completely. Fountain’s “linguistic firepower,” as one reviewer dubbed it, amazes throughout. As does the story itself. As do the characters, and the dead-on dialogue. It’s funny, supercharged, and brilliant.

In Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a character speaks of how an individual life, no matter how heroic, may be turned into kitsch by the survivors. That’s exactly what’s going on here. Only it’s a whole country’s values, not an individual’s, that are being kitsch-ified.

The mock heroic game enacted on the football field by overfed gladiators pales beside the very real sacrifices which our Bravo Company represents, and the very real war they are oh-so-briefly home from. The game is scarcely noticed by our soldiers.

But the Halftime Show! An extravaganza! Up close and personal with the beautiful, scantily clad Beyoncé! The precision marching bands! The orgiastic dancing! The sexy Dallas cheerleaders! (And one in particular that Billy takes a shine to; there’s a scene behind a wall in the interior of the stadium that will melt your underwear.) It’s all a rush: a heady, disarming, alarming mish-mash of what a culture seems to think of as the height of its inner core of values. And, as Fountain’s intelligent, fecund, funny, feisty, fierce, falsity-sniffing prose convincingly demonstrates . . . HOLD ON! . . . let me not get ahead of myself:  Read it yourself and decide.

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WHAT IS THIS MAN? A POET? A NOVELIST? A SOOTHSAYER?

Phil Miller is a poet who often writes like a novelist.

Please don’t think I’m downgrading him; as a novelist, I mean it as the highest compliment.  It’s not meant to diminish his poetic chops.  Please!  About those skills there’s nary a question.

No, this thought arises because, like other friends and colleagues of this wonderful poet, I’ve been invited to read one of his poems at the one-year anniversary of his death.  And as I browse through his work on this occasion, I’m struck by this:  He sets a scene.  He creates memorable characters.  He tells a story.

Certainly this is true of many of the “ghost” poems which form the bulk of The Ghost of Every Day and Other Poems, his last collection.  They bristle with narrative.  And he generates this sense of passing time despite the fact that his observer is a “ghost” who  — presumably — is already on the other side of whatever time is.

The wisdom you encounter in Phil’s poetry is no surprise, of course.  Nor is the humor.  Both are sometimes evident even in his droll titles :  “Sex After Death?  The Ghost Says ‘Yes!  Yes!’”  Or “The Ghost Refuses to Confess His Crimes.”  But let me illustrate the scene-setting, character-creation, and narrative drive I referred to by quoting the poem of his I finally decided to read.  One of the “ghost” poems, it’s called “Our Outcomes.”

The old man next door
lights his El Producto,
lets the smoke waft into April air.
He’s eighty-five, an inch away
from the end, you’d think,
but with no more of a bird’s notion
than a child with eyes grown wide with awe
who cries out in the nightmare dark
and awakes to a place he hopes is safe and real
as the front yard this morning seemed to me,
bathed in sun, and on a branch a bird
had returned, a sleek grackle,
like all the others I’ve watched
come back for twenty-five years
with oil-blue feathers and yellow eyes,
with the same squeaky notes
twittered out like the green programs
each tree flutters forth, translucent,
delicate blooms, tender leaves unfolding
like lizards in the wild somewhere,
tiny tongues tasting the air
they swim through,
coming and going, each offspring
replacing the other
without a moment of praise or grief
uttered by wind or flower or bird.
Now the old bird next door
walks past me,
gives me the oldest, wickedest look,
a short nod, a long glance:
We’re both waiting, it says,
despite sunshine and birdsong and earth-scented breeze
for the day to come to its end,
waiting for what won’t come ’round
every year like a grackle or a rosebud,
for something that happens once and once only,
like his birth or mine, our coming outs,
but our demises, too, our outcomes,
that we’re waiting for God knows what?
his eyes say almost merrily,
and how in the dark we both are,
and how we both know it.
(Reprinted with permission.)

It should be a great evening:  a bunch of friends and admirers all reading Phil, along with samples of their own work either influenced or published by him.  Circle the date on your calendar!

It’s at the Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street in the Village, on September 28, 6 pm.

 

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ANOTHER READING! MARCH 6!

Same place, same time, but different day of the week. At the Cornelia
Street Café on Tuesday, March 6, 6-7:30 pm, I’ll be reading new
selections from my picaresque novel-in-progress, PROBLEMS OF
TRANSLATION (and possibly a short story selection).

This time I’ll be teamed up with two very interesting poets. Dorothea
Hutton Scher, who chairs the Epiphany Poets group, has recently
published her book Trapped in Black and White. Christian Garaud has
published widely in French periodicals, his own work as well as
translations of others’ from English into French. His 2009 book,
originally published in France, is about to appear in English under
the title Feather Brain, and his most recently completed set of poems
is titled The (More Or Less) Well Attached Cicada.

Having just completed the first draft of Problems of Translation (whew!), I’m eager
to share the further adventures of Charles Abel Baker with you. This
feels like a landmark reading to me. Hope you can come join in the
celebration.

Details:
Tuesday, March 6, 6-7:30
Cornelia Street Cafe
29 Cornelia Street, in Greenwich Village (west side of 6th Ave. & just
south of West Fourth St.);
take the A, C, E, B, D, F or M to West 4th St. station.
$7 buys you entry plus a free glass of wine (or another beverage).

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