Tuesday, February 06, 2007

“This is the division of virtues through their centers”

On Emma Howells' Slim Night of Recognition
Poems, Eastern Washington University Press, 2007

The critic Roland Barthes is famous, or infamous if you choose, for a number of declarations having to do with authors, with their works, and with how readers read. In “The Death of the Author,” he argues that “writing is the destruction of every voice … the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.” Later in the same essay, Barthes says “it is language which speaks, not the author.” Barthes’ point has something to do with language itself, with how it at once gestures towards something and yet falsifies it: “apple” is not and will never be the fruit itself.

Yet it is quite possible to visit Westminster Abbey, take with you a page of the Prologue of Canterbury Tales, and read it while standing at Chaucer’s grave. You can do something similar at Wordsworth’s tomb in Grasmere or Emily Dickinson's in Amherst. And if you have written a book yourself, you know something of the odd but very definitely present relationship between your self and the object you may pick up off the table, hold in your hand, and open and read.

Such observations come to mind when holding Emma Howell’s new book, Slim Night of Recognition. Her picture graces the book’s back cover, and next to it is a brief biography that reads in part “She spent a year studying in Spain and six months in Brazil, where she died at the age of twenty. This book is her first collection.” These two sentences together serve to stun you for a moment with their implications: twenty is too young for anyone, especially any writer, to die; this book is her first collection, which means she was most unusually talented to have produced work that qualifies as more than mere juvenilia; this is her first collection and we shall have no others. Of such recognitions, the last must be the hardest, the slipperiest to grasp.

So what voice do we hear in Emma Howells’ poems? It is, first, a voice beguiled by consonants and vowels, by the rhythms a sentence can make and repeat. Even before clear narrative or definite summarizable content, this sense of language comes through. You can hear it particularly here in the r’s of dresser, supper, father, letter:

The hands that surrounded me made bird
shapes and catcalls
purring me closer.
I arranged dolls on the dresser
and asked for a pumpkin supper
and wrote my father a letter ...

What others look for when they first begin to read a new book of poems, I’m not sure. Maybe it varies from reader to reader and from book to book. I listen first for a voice I can hear and want to hear, and only then for what it does with words, form, content, import. The language in Slim Night of Recognition embodies such a voice – such a set of voices:

“luminescent drops arc above the wind’s dips and joints”,

“Lay yourself down like a half-moon, / let the vagabond night take you.”

“Our coast was invented by wanderers / and bringers of ice and magnets, / the rightful owners of our opposite poles.”

“We come in, opening / and closing our mouths like wings. / Swallows, we fly away, / lie down between breast bones / and the heart made night.”

And then there is this opening to the poem “Just This:”

All I know I have said into an emptiness
to test the depth of it.
And all I have been allowed to keep
has echoed back to me by some divine
miracle of physics…

Emma Howell’s book is just out from Eastern Washington University Press. I know where it sits on my desk. I feel no compelling hurry to know it fully; the promises of discovery sometimes displace gluttony or greed. This much may be affirmed: when I’ve opened it, it has more than generously repaid my attention, slowed the clock. Since it gives the only Emma Howell poems we shall have, I choose, for now, to read it slowly, often.

Friday, January 05, 2007

“Think, think, thinky, think”

On Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land

Discussed below:

The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford, Knopf, 2006

Richard Ford may be the contemporary true inheritor of Henry James. Ford’s hero-voice -protagonist, Frank Bascombe, fills this novel nearly to overbrimming, and as a narrator, Bascombe cannot help but connect dots – as many as possible. Despite multiple digressions and a jump forward in the final chapter, The Lay of the Land mostly covers a short time span centering around Thanksgiving in the year 2000 in Bascombe’s part of the world, the "mid-line Jersey shore." Bascombe sells real estate for a living, which in some vaguely perverse way might explain why he’s interested in attending any building implosion that might be scheduled nearby. Bascombe also knows almost everyone, some by name, some merely by what their address says about them, and some because they have at some point or other become part of his personal life. Here’s an example of Bascombe’s thinking. The occasion is a meeting with an elderly guy, Wade, with whom he frequently views building implosions and whose daughter Frank once pursued:

“For these weeks, traveling to the odd implosion here, another there, a cup of chowder or a piece of icebox pie in a Greek diner, I’ve all but expunged from my thoughts the truth that Wade is father to Vicki (now Ricki), my long-gone dream of a lifetime from when I, as a divorced man, wrote for a glossy New York sports magazine, horsed around with women, suffered dreaminess both night and day and had yet to list my first house.” (p. 317)

If this isn’t quite Jamesian in sentence structure, it nevertheless begins to suggest the almost baroque quality of Frank Bascombe’s narration. Reading along, you either warm to this and come to relish it, or you don’t.

Bascombe is nothing if not candid (whether he’s entirely reliable as a narrator is another matter--but then, who is?). He’s divorced from Ann. He’s married a woman named Sally. But Sally’s first husband, who came home deeply troubled from Viet Nam, simply walked out of the house one day and never returned. After several years, she had him declared legally dead. And several years after that, Sally met Frank and they later married. However, by Thanksgiving time in the year 2000, Sally’s first husband (legally dead) has returned from the island of Mull, in Scotland, where he has been living since walking out decades earlier. And Sally, in trying to reconcile and understand her responses to this series of events, has left Frank in New Jersey and moved – temporarily or permanently Frank does not know – to Mull.

In addition, Frank has prostate cancer, for which he’s received treatment in the form of radioactive BBs carefully and precisely implanted. One of Frank’s and Ann’s children, Ralph, died while still a boy (part of the reason for their later divorce). His surviving two children are, by Thanksgiving in 2000, adults: Clarissa, bisexual, has rallied to Frank’s side once the cancer was diagnosed. Paul, who was diagnosed in gradeschool as "unsystematically oppositional, " writes greeting card verse in Kansas but is due to visit, with his significant other, at Thanksgiving. If this all sounds sort of messy and faintly over the top, it is. Add in a Tibetan business colleague, some random vandalism of Frank’s car, a real estate deal that Frank perversely sours, an explosion at a hospital (the same one where Frank’s son died years earlier), a set of nasty neighbors, some gun shots at close range, and Thanksgiving begins to look like a holiday from hell.

The Lay of the Land becomes as much about perseverance – Frank’s perseverance – as about anything else. Despite his inveterately garrulous nature, Frank believes in a humane and American sense of home. This partly explains his happiness at selling real estate (not commercial buildings but single-family dwellings): he genuinely wishes people would live in places that might offer the prospect of making them happier. Similarly, Frank also believes deeply in a sense of family, which to the extent that he’s able to understand it means connection, concern for, and a genuine if rarely achieved effort to see things from the point of view of others.

Ford’s novel also serves as a useful example of the differences between novels and movies. How, for instance, does one capture on film this tone of voice: “I haven’t seen, spoken to or thought much about Vicki/Ricki, who I guarantee was a yeasty package, since ’84, and wouldn’t recognize her if she shot out of Fuddruckers on a pair of roller skates” (p. 317). Parts of this novel would easily enough translate to video. But the core of it, including Frank's sense of humor, would likely be lost to caricature. The trouble with Frank Bascombe is that you come to know him pretty well – at least as well as more than half your relatives. Finish the book, and he’s still there. You remember he said once that "Americans are hardwired for something to be thankful for" (p. 26) You remember his offhand way of making up place names like "Ruckusville, Alabama" or "Lake Laconic," or that he said once "the devil is in the details, of course, even the details of our affections" (p. 89) You wonder if he might call. You wonder what he’s doing now.