pure poetry, 2000

Readers who like unlikeable characters will love Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Lila Moscowitz. Lila is stubborn, spoiled, angry, bitter, promiscuously self-destructive. And, frosting on the cake, she’s a poet. That’s not to say she’s without redeemable qualities. She’s funny, hilarious, in fact, a natural wit, and as honest as a person can be without losing all of one’s family and friends and readers. Her humor is laced with sarcasm and irony. She’s quick, street smart and intelligent, independent. Experienced readers will recognize that Lila is not Binnie, that the narrator of a novel should not be confused with the author. This narrative truth is emphasized toward the end of the book when Lila takes some questions after a poetry reading:

“‘Did you really dance topless at the Baby Doll Lounge?’ Another one of the college girls is contemplating a career move, no doubt.
I smile as if I’ve got a secret, and I say, ‘I refuse to answer on the grounds that it could incriminate me.'”

Lila may be a poet, but she’s not stupid:

“That I never danced topless at the Baby Doll Lounge or anyplace else either is not what they want to hear.”

Does she “write every day,” another student asks, and Lila pretends for the audience that she does write every day. She’s then asked “how much money do poets make?” Here she tells the truth (192-193).

But while the perspicacious reader knows Lila is not Binnie, we all know that poetry does not sell, so why not only does Binnie put “poetry” in her title but structures her book with poetic devices, informing each chapter with epigraphs, definitions of poetic conventions? Didn’t she want her book to sell? The answer has to do with wheels within wheels, or how to turn a stand up routine into literature:

“Many of the poems I write are about sex. I have a gift for the subject. The ins and outs of it. My poems lean toward the sordid side of the bed, the stuff of soiled sheets” (21).

We don’t get to hear those poems, but they apparently are full of the tension created by want harbored in inhibitions freed in seduction, romp enclosed in forms, procedures, praxis, which express mores without which somehow sex is not nearly as much fun. The fun is enclosed in a box of gravure etchings. The notion of form as enclosure is conservative. The poet might want out, not in. Lila’s own explanation might solve both Binnie and the reader’s questions:

“There is freedom within the confines of form the way a barrier protects you from the elements of disaster. The way there is love in the bonds of marriage. ‘Without boundaries, you can be only adrift,’ I say. ‘Lost. Without lines drawn on the map, you are nowhere. It is better to be a prisoner of war than to be without a nation, a place, a people'” (194).

Jesus may have said the opposite – Come, follow me, and leave all that nonsense behind. Of course, most of his followers wound up wanting it both ways.

“Maybe they should stay in their cages and sing their hearts out. Unbridled passion…results from being tied to the bedpost” (194).

Which is to make of Lila a dynamic character, one who’s changed over the course of the work. She finds love only by losing love. She’s human, fallen, having slipped on her own banana peel, but she gets back up, and writes a book that stirs and calms the forms.

Pure Poetry, by Binnie Kirshenbaum, a novel, Simon & Schuster, 2000, 203 pages.

Talk, 1969 (republished 2015)

“Talk” is another book acquired some time ago but left initially unread, sitting in a stack on a table, even reshuffled, as if for a game of solitaire, or as if it needed to thaw or season before consuming, opened for a few bites but put back down for something else, but when picked up again finally found its taste delightful, finished, and thoroughly enjoyed. And nothing will do but I must talk about it. Did I pick “Talk” out of the free library book box down on the corner? I don’t recall, and it doesn’t really matter except that I’ve started these short short reviews here at The Toads I’m tagging “Lit Crit Shorts,” though they are not proper reviews, as was discussed off-line after my posting of an LCS of “The Ant.” By proper is meant the reviewer talks mainly about the book in hand, gives it a few stars, or fewer, to indicate degree to which it was liked or is being recommended: ***** or *** or *. Of course you can like something without it at all being good or good for you. In any case, I’m not interested in writing that kind of review. But neither are these so-called Lit Crit Shorts an original form. The New Yorker in a weekly feature publishes four “briefly noted” book reviews, single paragraphs, an art form in its own right. Clear and concise sentences too, unlike the ones you’ll likely stumble over here at The Toads, like miscreant directions in an unfamiliar part of town. Not that I can’t write a perfectly navigable sentence or a proper book review, one that will get a reader home safely. And there are templates for that sort of thing. Plates that match. And how do you cast something without a mold? Still, it’s the reflective, personal (as in personal essay) response to a reading I’m interested in, not a discussion of whether or not the thing holds true to a tradition or has lit out for some territory previously uncharted, though of course that’s important too and there’s no reason it can’t be included, in any form desired. Authors of course, their publishers and company, are interested in reviews that will cause their books to fly off shelves. Click here to order now! But if someone is not likely to read your book, why would they read a review of your book? And if they are going to read your book, why would they want to read a review of your book? Likewise, I won’t watch movie trailers, unless I’m not going to see the movie. And I’m not just talking about spoiler alert here. I love reading TNY “Briefly Noted” reviews, yet in some 50 years of reading The New Yorker, I’m not sure I’ve ever ran out and purchased a book as a result of seeing it “Briefly Noted.” I’m probably an exception here, but I’m not sure that readers of book reviews are the same readers as those of the books. I read book reviews for the book review, not for the book. And longer reviews demand, or should require, a degree of research the common writer is not likely qualified to conduct. And, yes, if there is such a thing as a common reader, why should there not also be someone called a common writer? We don’t all need or want to be specialists. The generalist can bring to a study a perspective the specialist is too close to envision. But the ease with which we are all able to opine these days calls for double checking of a speaker’s ethos, logos, and pathos – their means of persuasion, an ability to read into a speaker’s presuppositions, assumptions, and biases. And it does indeed appear, alas, the ability to check independently for reliability, credibility, authority – in short, to check sources – is startlingly uncommon. We don’t need to crave facts, or only facts, there’s no fun in just that; it’s good to able to deconstruct a statement to its constituent parts, to read the book in a bumper sticker. That is what mechanics do, and what readers ought to aspire to do. A prerequisite to talking about books is the ability to listen to a book, and it’s hard to talk and listen at the same time. You can follow that link, btw, to a New Yorker Page Turner book review from July 1, 2015, where the reviewer, Molly Fischer, finds the novel “Talk” “weirdly arduous.” It reminded her of Sartre’s play “No Exit,” where hell is described as “other people,” of which there are three, same as Rosenkrantz’s “Talk,” though Sartre included a valet. I also thought of “No Exit” while I was reading “Talk,” but I didn’t find reading “Talk” any more arduous than watching the TV sitcom “Friends,” which Stephen Koch suggests in his introduction to the 2015 copy might be a successor to “Talk.” I did think of tweets and today’s social media and the like, which Molly also tangents into, but only because of their notable absence from “Talk.” I liked “Talk” because it was written around and takes place in 1965, on the beach, with little to distract the characters but the distractions of their own making. They indeed come of age in an existential time and place, with the privilege of being able to make their own choices, and make them they do, with one another’s help through the knack (dare I say art) of talking and listening. And “Talk” is interesting for not only what is said but what the characters don’t talk about, or talk very little about. They no doubt would have very few followers on a social media platform like today’s Twitter. Their talk isn’t about nothing, in spite of its being existentially grounded. “Talk” reminded me also of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting on the beach, “Talk” might have been subtitled. “Talk” I recommend especially for readers who today might be around the age of 30, as well as for readers who may have been somewhere in their formative years in the mid 1960’s. “Talk” is a modern classic.

“Talk,” Linda Rosenkrantz, 1969; republished NYRB, 2015 *****

Motherless Brooklyn, 1999

The narrator of this Jonathan Lethem novel, an orphan afflicted with Tourette’s, is handpicked along with a few school comrades for exploitation as black market stooges. The opportunity frees them to work on street education degrees where coursework involves the detective mystery that is coming of age. I had briefly confused Jonathan Lethem with Jonathan Franzen, both peers of David Foster Wallace, Franzen a close friend and Lethem Wallace’s successor teaching creative writing at Pomona College. A used copy of “Motherless Brooklyn” had been gifted to me a few years back but it found a place on a shelf unread, and when I recently pulled it out to take a look, I wondered where I’d picked it up, thinking it was probably from the free library book box down on the corner, but opening it read the thank you gift note handwritten to me. Sometimes writers or books find their way to readers unready or caught off guard. We often think we know what we want to read, what will be good, what will be good for us; we just as often don’t. “Motherless Brooklyn” is about words put into action, plot as call and response, setting as streets and commerce, alive with verisimilitude easily mistaken for fantasy given its enjoyment.

About Nora

Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.

Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.

But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.

Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.

Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.

Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.

Fragments Strung Together to Make a Whole

Cold, clear morning. Just below freezing. Frost riffs across roofs and grass the sun has not yet touched. The hoary, grey-silver stubble of winter blades, stiff. The skinny, rigid jogger skips by again, down the road, round and round she goes. A squirrel. No birds. Quiet. Clarity. Wind nil. Across the street on the sidewalk guy wearing black beard pulling red wagon up the hill in the wagon a child sitting holding the rails.

Back inside, a couple of books: “nothing but the music: Documentaries from nightclubs, dance halls & a tailor’s shop in Dakar, 1974-1992” (Thulani Davis, Blank Forms Editions, Brooklyn, 2020, but just out, pre-ordered & in snail mail about a week ago, January 2021, 63 pages); and “Paris: a poem” (Hope Mirrlees, first published in 1920 by the Hogarth Press, 175 copies, handsewn, this edition in 2020, also recently received, Bloomsbury House, London, 59 pages).

In an Afterword (long after, 100 years after), of “Paris: a poem,” Sandeep Parmar shares the setting: “Spring 1919 was quiet and cold….The weather put a dampener on the First of May demonstrations,” and she quotes from a letter, “Riots were expected but all fell flat and it was like an English Sunday – traffic stopped shops shut and nothing doing” (56-57). Sounds a bit like the morning here described above I just came from back inside to read and write. That’s not as easy as it might sound, at least not the reading part, not reading “Paris: a poem.” The poem itself runs from page 3 to page 23. The remainder of the book is Foreword (Deborah Levy), the aforementioned Afterword, and Commentary (by Julia Briggs, 2007, reworked to fit this edition), this last running from pages 25 thru 51, including Works Cited and an Addendum by Parmar. There’s also a page of notes apparently part of the first edition. For the aficionado of the obscure, this little book is a goldmine. And here I am, panning for gold:

The sun is rising,
Soon les Halles will open,
The sky is saffron behind the two towers of Notre-Dame (22).

The close of Parmar’s Afterword wants quoting in this little review just wanting to share what resources might be extracted:

“But it also startlingly brings to life a city lost to the past: the voice of an old nun chanting masses, American servicemen at jazz clubs, hawkers on the street, the sounds of newly opened metro trains and the glare of advertisements for exotic colonial products, the famous and nameless dead, as well as the living who have endured tragedy and survived, who must now inhabit this great metropolis side by side with those they mourn.”

(59)

Which might bring us back to today, what we began our little review with, still a cold, clear morning, now with cup of coffee, a couch, and “Paris: a poem” to carry us through to a sun low in the south noon and another early evening of thanks for the “nothing doing” of the moment. For we are doing as little as possible, still stuck in our own tragedy and attempts to survive, masked and not famous, inhabitants of this Earth, these cities, constantly renewing, so frequently we often miss what’s passing as it passes. And perhaps that’s the purpose of poetry – to still the passing for recording and reflection and renewal.

Tomorrow, or the day after, I’ll talk about the other little book recently acquired: “nothing but the music.”

A New Modernist Journal

One of the characteristics of the small press literary journal is its short shelf life, if it makes it to a shelf at all. But its practitioners blast away nevertheless, their voices barely audible rising from the bottom rungs of the literary ladder. Another of its characteristics is the constancy of its myriad rebirths, even if in limited print runs, the first 30 signed and numbered by – someone. Another of its characteristics is its often assumed lack of what in academic argument is called ethos, by which is meant credentials, credibility, reliability, experience, imprimatur. A lack of ethos may fail to persuade even a cursory glance or worse garner a quick list of lit-snub snarks. The local librarian will probably file the journal with a few other self-published efforts on the free books and discards shelf. But the serious critic is always looking for the exception to assumptions and presuppositions, even if his leaning is hierarchical. Peter Molin’s blog, Time Now: The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars in Art, Film, and Literature, provides a recent example of the critic wrestling with the ladders and scaffolding: “Small and indie presses help bridge the divide between professional publishing realm and amateur online authorial ranks (does an analogy to distinctions separating Special Operations, Regular Army, and National Guard troops work here?).” But Molin has already somewhat equitably posited, “The divide between professional and amateur vet-writing is a thing, but cross-boundary pleasure and pollination are everywhere possible.” More of course could be said about that divide, a literary no man’s land. The small press literary journal can only exist on one side of the divide. When it crosses over, it becomes something else; when it dies, it awaits discovery, or recovery, or rebirth.

Consider what is now called the Modernist Journal, indie starts from around 1890 through the first quarter of the 20th Century, most of which survived but briefly, but contained writing by contributors now considered influential if often still controversial, journals full of now canonical writers who at the time were experimenting with new ideas and forms, and many other writers who were mostly unknown and remain so. Readers can research, browse, discover these journals in the Modernist Journal Project, now housed at Brown and the University of Tulsa. Examples include Blast, Des Imagistes, The Egoist, The Little Review, The Masses.

All by way of introducing another new indie journal on the literary block, its first issue, Winter 2021, now in circulation – Firmament: A magazine of considered miscellany from Sublunary Editions. I received a print copy because last year I subscribed to the full suite of Sublunary publications via the annual subscription. Monthly and 6-month subscriptions are also available – all include the quarterly magazine, Firmament. The Sublunary productions, called “objects,” are thin (Firmament No. 1 is 63 pages), with extreme care taken with design – typeset, layout, arrangement, presentation. Monthly, I get something from Sublunary in the snail mail.

Firmament is edited by Jessica Sequeira, a translator of Spanish texts who has also written a few original books, one of which, “A Luminous History of the Palm,” was published in April, 2020 by Sublunary. I put up a short review of that book here at the Toads back in July. In her “Editor’s Note” to Firmament No. 1, Jessica mentions several journals as examples of like, and liked, precursors, including Sur, 291, Der Sturm, and Claridad. The first issue of Firmament contains poetry, short fiction and excerpts, interviews, and nonfiction and columns – from an international cast of writers and translators. I count 23 contributors, 14 sections, in the 63 pages. I find that remarkable (and so I remarked on it). There is also a page devoted to drawings of a cat creature (tyger?), but it’s uncredited (but it appears to be from the cover of the forthcoming Chevillard book). Another page is devoted to a preview of the upcoming April, Spring 2021 issue of Firmament, and another page listing more Sublunary objects forthcoming for 2021. And a page of “Endnotes.” The issue contains a striking color scheme of red, white, and black. Clearly the editors are serious and professional, busy, planning ahead, with dedicated resources and action plans.

Eric Chevillard, French experimental author, is featured in Firmament No. 1, translated by Chris Clarke – both come with awards and previous publishing successes. “Chronology” (pgs 4-10) is a biographical summary of the life of one Thomas Jean-Julien Pilaster, compiled by one Marc-Antoine Marson, both fictional characters created by Chevillard. All three are writers, real and imagined, at least they live the lives one imagines a writer might live, born, perhaps, to lose (that is to say, live on the wrong side of the divide), as they are artists by temperament.

A poem by J. A. Pak follows, “Love Tattoo,” and, yes, isn’t a tattoo often a poem, often one of love penned on skin, though love can be removed.

Tony Messenger’s “Fragments 1, 2 and 5,” reflections on the divisions language may create (there’s that theme of divide again), read like journal entries, notes, ponderings. I liked them enough to find Tony’s blog, Messenger’s Booker – the beauty of quick links. The name Tony Messenger was familiar, but the Firmament Tony Messenger is not the Tony Messenger who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not unless we’re back in Chevillard territory.

If Firmament No. 1 were a syllabus, it would have to be for a year long course. “Lamborghiniana,” an interview/conversation between Agustina Perez and Jessica Sequeira, about Osvaldo Lamborghini, makes this clear. But that is yet another characteristic of the small press literary journal – to suggest new directions of writing and reading, thought, expression, translation, literary virtual travel. Three Lamborghini poems are included, translated by Louis Chitarroni.

So, Firmament appears to be concerned with experimental and international writing. Yet, in Joshua Rothes’s (founder and publisher of Sublunary Editions) column, “Pith & Self-Defeating,” he says: “What I aim to propose in this inaugural column is that 1) most writing done with a specific set of aims is, after Parfit, ultimately self-defeating, 2) this process of undermining our stated aims is the most important part of the creative process” (38). Paradox, paradox, paradox, Thoreau might have epizeuxisly said. And Vic Shirley, another of the Sublunary editors, follows with this, in “Commitment to Chush”: “Chush is Russian for nonsense,” beginning a bit of a rant that seems both nonsensical and right on simultaneously (40).

I was glad to see comics represented, even if sans cartoons or drawings, with Maurizio Salabelle, translated by Jamie Richards, who has apparently translated some cartoonists. This I’ve yet to follow up on, but it’s on my list of things to do.

And more, including two poems by Rilke, translated by Kristofor Minta, and fiction by Anna de Nosailles, translated by Christina Tudor-Sideri, and Carol Rodrigues, translated by Adrian Minckley, and poetry by Tim MacGabhann.

On the back cover, we find this brief description: “Sublunary Editions is an independent press dedicated to publishing brief volumes of innovative texts from authors past and present.” True that, if Firmanent No. 1 is any example.

“end tatters” 1st Review, and a Cover Revision

The first review of “end tatters” is in, received via cell phone text:

“Finished End Tatters; especially liked About Confusion, Bells, and To Surf, which I hope to do this morning. Milk made me very sad. Waiting for your next novel. Alma and Penina my favorites.”

To drive down, stop, and check out surf spots at the end of a beach town road is part of surfing. A second text from our first reviewer came in that evening, with a couple of pics and a note that he had made it into some waves:

Meantime, still not entirely satisfied with the “end tatters” cover (having already made several changes pre-publication), I made a post-publication cover revision. Copies sold with the blue back cover are now considered to have some increased value for collectors. New cover photos below:

Original back cover shown below:

Go here to order your copy. Write a review and send it to thecomingofthetoads @ gmail dot com, and I’ll post it to the blog.

News at the Toads

I reviewed British poet Scott Manley Hadley’s debut poetry collection, “Bad Boy Poet,” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. The book, just out this week, is available from the publisher (Open Pen) and at Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions). Read my review here.

My novel “Alma Lolloon” is now available in Kindle electronic edition format. You can download a copy for $2.99 here (free if you have Kindle Unlimited).

Notes on Jessica Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster”

20180916_100653I was reading Jessica Sequeira’s debut novel, “A Furious Oyster” (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), when the 30 August London Review of Books arrived in the day’s mail. A book review should reveal something unexpected, but to do that the book under consideration must be heard in a whisper.

I turned to the review of Zadie Smith’s latest collection of essays; the LRB reviewer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, quotes from Zadie’s foreword:

“‘I have no real qualifications to write as I do. Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist … My evidence – such as it is – is almost always intimate. I feel this – do you? I’m struck by this thought – are you?’”

Later in the review, we might recall that quote and think Zadie is telling us something more, but on the slant, that where she comes from, who she is, who her parents were, the various markings often used for identity, also don’t necessarily serve as “real qualifications”:

“‘Who am I to speak of this painting? I am a laywoman, a casual appreciator of painting, a dilettante novelist, a non-expert – not to mention a woman of lower birth than the personage here depicted … I am still the type of person who will tend, if I am in a public gallery, to whisper as I stand in front of the art.’”

That ‘whisper’ is often precisely both unexpected and unheard. The whisper follows no code of style. The whisper comes after the existence of the writer, and describes her essence, her choices, her existential leanings, what she has decided to follow. The whisper is the writer’s breath. The whisper might also be how something is said, and is often paradoxical. The whisper breaks the piece, ruins the lecture, calls from the pit, stops the show. The whisper might be a prayer of praise or a heckle in time with popular opinions.

There’s something else, too, about the whisper; it’s what most of us do who have no real qualifications. And out of all those whispers (the all but silent blogs, the self-published and distributed broadside, the furious but funny poem in the on-line lit-wall), which ones should we home in on? And why would someone whisper when already no one’s listening?

Sometimes, of course, the whisper “goes viral,” bounces and echoes off walls, scampers up trees, drifts through subway tunnels. But who or what is the host for that sometimes poison, at times the scent of lavender? And it’s well known, though often not accepted, the virus does not respond to antibiotics, the stubborn use of which weakens the resistance.

All noise dissipates into whisper, so it should not surprise us that John Cage’s 4’ 33’’ goes briefly viral upon each new discovery. We realize even the Big Bang was a silent singularity. Not only might the world end not with a bang but a whisper, as Eliot almost said in “The Hollow Men,” but the world probably began with a whisper.

A whisper is not a whimper. A whimper is what comes out of a giant mouth at the end of a rant. A whisper is a careful timing of breath, a largo escape, patient. The whisper goes easy and around.

“Although that isn’t quite right either: how to describe something like the voice of a person just out of sight?” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

Hilda Mundy’s voice was far out of sight when Jessica Sequeira brought it back: “I don’t want them to punish me with comments” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, trans. Sequeira, We Heard You Like Books, 2017, 17). “Them,” the “three-dozen readers laughing at the pages of my failure” (17).

The whisper never fails: “I began to hear people whispering things to help me, advice. I don’t know whether those voices were really there or not, but they brought me serenity. They helped talk me through my situation, suggesting new paths, pointing out what I needed to do” (A Furious Oyster, 92).

“I have great respect, in contrast, for the metaphor. This is that” (118). So when we are told Pablo Neruda has ridden a wave of energy from an earthquake or the ocean or some great storm to enter the realm of the living, we believe. “This is my body.” This voice, this word. The metaphor transfigures.

Sequeira’s “A Furious Oyster” is diary, memoir, investigation, document, thesis, mystery, love story. Let’s “be clear,” there are “other realities” (55). The reality of the metaphor, for example. “Strong wills work even in the shadows of the afterlife” (Mundy, Pyrotechnics, 29). Does every word contain its erotic origin? “How pleasant and suggestive a couple in love is!” (Mundy, 34). “Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time?…Her kisses alternate, soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know, I know. I know, and how I wish I did not” (A Furious Oyster, 38).

“A Furious Oyster” is a story of two famous poets in Chile, Pablo Neruda and Pablo de Rokha, literary adversaries, it seems, but both driven by the sufferings and loves of the people of a place, a land, a geography, a structure, to reach out, to reach. The geography of Sequeira’s book reveals her interests in shapes: “Sometimes at night, I dreamed of these theoretical shapes – the rhombuses, the ovals, the diamonds, the ellipses of sub-arguments within the prose. I kept only one notebook, and the diary of my personal life merged smoothly into the most abstract of notes on these Chilean poets, here and gone before my time” (55). “A Furious Oyster” is also the story of a writer researching, composing, working, in a relationship, watching, listening. And it’s the story of a place, Santiago de Chile.

Sequeira possesses that most unique of minds, the one able ambidextrously to move easily from the hard academic to the soft poet (or is it the soft academic to the hard poet?) within the same shape. The flow of “A Furious Oyster,” its style, is redolent of the Duras of the “Four Novels,” or Lispector’s way of creating mystery while unveiling surprises. I also thought of the modernism of Djuna Barnes and Anais Nin. Jessica Sequeira is a translator, a scholar, a writer. She both understands and comprehends literature. For those of us who can only comprehend, but feel we are indeed also “struck with this thought,” we can only whisper in her shadow that you really should read “A Furious Oyster.”

Out of the Blue Review of Alma Lolloon

A fun and generous review of Alma Lolloon has appeared on Amazon. Here is a link, and I’ve pasted the review below:

by, Rucker Trill


July 4, 2018

Format: Paperback|Verified Purchase
Dear Miss Lolloon – You are no doubt by now growing weary of fan mail after the publication of your eponymous novel, Alma Lolloon, but I just finished reading it, so I must write to tell you how much I liked it.

Right off the bat I thought, hmmm, this is new and unusual given the absence of most punctuation not to mention quote marks so that I knew I was in uncharted waters here, or maybe a better metaphor (I learned that word from the book)would be along the line of separating skeins of different colored yarn after the kittens have been in the knitting basket. But soon enough I got my stride and realized that this is the way things happen in real life – there are no quotation marks there, now are there. And it seems like that’s the way this book unrolls, just like life with the unexpected hidden just around the corner, under the everyday. (Though given your five husbands I wonder if anything about your life is “everyday”.)

I’m no writer myself, but one of the things I liked was how you and your friends talk about the book right there in the book while they’re supposedly hearing the book! I mean whoa! What’s that about? It was like falling into a hall of mirrors or something. I asked a professor who lives down the block about it, and she said you were “meta-texting” and after I showed her a few pages she said you were doing it very humorously, and I confess I laughed way more than once. But like I said, I’m no writer, so who knows.

Now, I don’t knit but I’d love to join you and Curly, Hattie, and Rufa some day for coffee and scones and we could talk more about your book. I could even bring the scones. Maybe some time in August? I plan to be up your way then.

Anyway, I’ve run on too long and I know you’re busy on your next book. I hope it’s a mystery, I really like the mystery part of the book with Jack Rack. (I think you should have married him!)

Best regards, Rucker

 

Notes on “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding”

Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From HidingPure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding, by Lim Lee Ching, with Drawings by Britta Noresten. Introduction by Neil Murphy and Afterword by Jeremy Fernando. Poems Sequenced by Mary Ann Lim. Layout by Yanyun Chen. Paperback edition first published 2017 by Delere Press, Singapore.

 

In a December, 2014 interview with Sara Lau for Obscured, Jeremy Fernando talks about his vision for Delere Press: “We didn’t see the need to have a prescribed look for all our books – we recognize that we are a small boutique press, and we are probably going to remain that way in the foreseeable future. In the end, all we want to do is to create and publish something that shows the artists and the writers’ work in the most beautiful way possible.” “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding” is my second experience reading with notes intended for the Toads in response to a Delere Press work. Of particular note is the press’s intent “to provide a home for text and images that may not have a home otherwise, no matter what its geographical origins.” That the press attempts to do so with hard copy, illustrated texts, choreographed by literary troupe in our digital age is remarkable.

“Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging From Hiding,” is a collaborative effort to book a collection of poems by a particular writer that becomes more than a sum of its parts. We have, maybe, become too familiar with books of hidden poetry. They line the shelves like butterflies pinned under glass. A poem does not begin like a fallen leaf pressed between pages of a book for bibliographical preservation. A poem begins as a particle, a photon, a piece of light that lands in the reader’s hands, a single note that enters the ears with a breeze, something that bugs the skin with an itch, as in, “something just bit me!” A book cannot preserve that piece of light except in fossilized memory. We may never hear that note again; it has joined the sound ocean waves make. The bug has lit, and we are left the proof of a small rash of the bed bug or lice visit. We jump into a bath of prose to escape the itching.

When I say “to book,” I mean that pinned collection of specimens organized for study. To book is to create a model to look. The helpless reader must imagine the specimen fluttering in a heat of flowers. A poem may try to evade its predators (its digital critics) by hiding in the book:

“Even as it might be chuckling, perhaps always
laughing

                                            le rire du poeme

A laughter from elsewhere,
one that we perhaps cannot yet hear.
Much like the silence of the sirens. Always perhaps
already there,
awaiting us.”

That is from Jeremy Fernando’s “Et tu…A Prayer for Lim Lee Ching,” an afterword to “Pure and Faultless Elation Emerging from Hiding.” Other parts of Lim Lee Ching’s book of poetry include an introduction by Neil Murphy (“Lim Lee Ching: Bounded by Beauty”) and eight drawings of birds, spread throughout the book, by Britta Noresten. We are told the poems were sequenced by Mary Ann Lim and the layout composed by Yanyun Chen. All of those collaborators are called “contributors,” and they are given end-space so they too might become familiar to the reader. What becomes larger than the sum of the parts is that collaborative effort that creates emergence. What emerges is poetry from hiding, raising elation, poetry unshackled, flown like paper birds from the garret into a community, a society. Poetry is a question of community more important than mere self-expression.

“The path is not tongue-tied,” Lim Lee Ching says. The path is there and people will walk it. The invitation, the invocation, is clear. But who are these people, these walkers (readers) of the path? “That perhaps is not so much the question, but quite certainly a question,” Fernando says, and “Keeping in mind Paul Celan’s beautiful, haunting, reminder that la poesie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose. One might even say it opens itself” (93). Opens itself to itself, it’s self-same intuitions, which are its conventions, if you need “criteria” to read by, if mere light proves insufficient. We are on a path.

When I first read “Quick Guide” (48), I thought I was to pick words from the text box on page 48 and insert them into one of the blank lines in the text on pages 49 through 51. I thought the path had come upon a Mad Lib.

“Sometimes a show can be too new for its own good” (49), I suggested to myself, my choices being “first blue dark ripe new fast.” “Mad” is a choice farther down the list, and “sad,” and “bad,” if you want to rhyme. But now I’m not so sure. All the words in the text box are one syllable. There are 78 words in the text box, and there are 60 blank spaces in the text on pages 49 through 51. This is analysis. Am I analyzing a joke here? Is this humor? Of course it is! Let’s get the reader really involved!

“It quickly becomes clear that part of the idea is to use humour to send up some of the ____________ attitudes still dominant in the art world. So, the pleasures of discipline are extolled, the players get their turn and pretentiousness gets a ____________ kicking” (50).

Poetry comes without directions, or it should. Critics may provide some directions, using a kind of rear view mirror to describe the path now behind them. The critic’s notes may prove useful maps; then again, the reader may feel just as lost.

The Poems:

Beginning with “Ode to Everman” [sic], we hear repetition and a counting (accounting of things): cadence, marching, peace and piece, music piece, measured. Every man [who has ever marched, marching in a line, in a poem, to a tune, attuned]. Circumstance, the silence of Beckett (a ringing in the ears). Military “boom time,” “armed,” “beating” (12:13).

Warren Beatty? How’s that for a surprise? Repetitions (‘One at a time”), words connected by sound: “cravat advocate” (14).

“Unloading pomposity one at a time” (14), and again “…your / Penchant for pomposity” (22). Where “Iowa” is monosyllabic: “Impossibility of authenticity” (22).

Numbers as poetic concern, things counted, measured, “Halved too far” (15).

“Cull” illustrates the poet’s task. The poet fishes, on a perch, for a perch. But who are the “armed men”? Look how quickly we can move from river to city:

“Waiting and baiting on the narrowing perch,
The centre holds them still.
A trunk, a branch – of streets and lanes,
Of skinny legs and weathered shoulders” (17).

Suggesting weathered soldiers, readers. Again, a military, a line: “Of fight, of fright, / And frenzied feeding against stained walls” (17). Desire is impotent. Who will teach that?

Then we turn the page to a drawing of a bird, not quite but almost black and white, but more, the feeling of a bird in flight, perhaps in the night, or a fog, or over a grey sea. We resist the impulse to anthropomorphize. But it’s clinging to a small branch. Building a nest? Very few birds fly solo. What a world this must be, to a bird. In any case, to cull is to pick, peck, at words.

“Only the facts remain” of Ryan White, who picked up a “Contagion.” Only our germs remain. You build yourself a bomb shelter against the fallout, but you are yourself a germ, a bug, rising, falling. So much fear. “Only the facts remain” (20). Facts survive. If we’ve lived for any length of time in a refugee camp, we have germs. If we’ve lived any length of time in a bungalow in Des Moines, we have the same germs. We are emergent, emerging – emergence, as writer merges with reader, something more. Is that pompous? Is poetry a contagion? After the poem, what remains?

“Bookmarks” is a longer poem, of which there are several in the book, prose blocks, not non-lyrical, but not lyrics. But not prose, and not blocks, scrolls. We keep to the first word of each line capitalized, giving the line that authority accustomed poetry, but the lines are not necessarily sentences, not in the usual sense:

“Only the words remain to be spoken, the writing to be sung
Of happinesses witnessed and tongues tied
In full contemplation of the idea of ideas” (24).

Who inhabits the space of an idea? “…not…king, colonel or clown, / Nor the realm of whisperers seeking to please” (24).

An idea (ideology is not ideas, Trilling said: Ideas malleable, suitable for poetry; ideology fixed). Idea of order in things (Key West shells, beaches, cocktails, dandy diamond Wallace Stevens). “Not ideas about the thing, but the thing itself,” Stevens said. No idea except in things (Williams, Paterson, Book I):

“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”

I’m in “Bookmarks,” and I’m reminded of Blake (where I left plenty of bookmarks), “Proverbs of Hell.” “Adagia”? Erasmus’s collection of proverbs. In any case, Lim Lee Ching says:

“The source of ignorance may well be reluctant pursuit.”

“The cult of stability and singular meaning
Diminishes ascendant beauty, delight and breath-hope.”


“Persistent therefores are fallacious,
They bind while unleashing the gateward push” (25).

Prayer, cadence, repetition. Whose tongue is tied praying, writing, reading poems? The scat of the song ruins the stutter, but the poet’s many tools are not obtrusive:

“Whispery songs of woven trances,
Of ancient wisemen oozing” (27).

Cadence as old steps (“the fragrance of remembrance”) might lead to disappointment, even depression: “Accord each a place in abjection” (27).

But isn’t time directionless? What does it matter if we are moving forward (in desire, in anxiety) or backward (in memory, in loss). For-word. Back-word. The poet spends time in a backworld, where the citizens speak backward.

“Penance is the province of princes, not poor men” (28), which brings us to T. S. Eliot:

“Here lies the awakening
Of the dispensation of an age,
Dismissing the certainty as one in many
[where]
The faces put on meet the faces within” (29).

Ideology is a “contagion.” Is poetry the antidote?

And again birds, before a song breaks the spell of the litany. Something lonely about the bird drawings. The birds are not in nature, or even in the city, but alone, each its own poem, each drawing its own poem, saying the same thing, but in different expressions. Where do we see these birds? In sky that is like a sea: grey-green; blue-grey; slate; cliff chalk white.

“Song” (34): Blake of the Songs – song, rhyme, cadence, hope, safe, heart, metaphor for what? Can the reader, too, be one of the “players of the heart”? (35).

“faithful” (37), religious or spiritual, sound but abstract images, nothing of the kitchen full of dirty dishes or the toilet in the bathroom in need of cleaning. Not Bukowski here. And I’m still hearing Blake of the Songs. Which is lovely, lyrical, song. I try to remain a faithful reader.

We’ve had our song, now the “Road Rises” as the reader falls. Mix of pop culture with “village.” The “tenderizing songs” of Elvis. And “Plastic Jesus” – the perfect image on the dashboard desires deconstruction, a theory to explain its presence, or disappearance.

Then again I’m reminded of Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, but not Stevie Smith or Marianne Moore. Not a statistician. Enjoys punctuation that helps, not simply follows some rule. Writing as accretion, addition. I find something interesting, a two word form, in “Shallowbreath”: “ribboned arches…winded depths…cobbled many…meddled few…celebrated warmth…allayed smokememory…displaced upon…hounded the highroad… …warmed eyes.” We could be in London or Singapore or Dublin. Joycean, that “smokememory.”

A short, lyrical, litany ends, “And then there is you.” Do birds prepare for flight? Always at the ready, never slack, like cats, never napping in clear sight. Are birds keen to fly? “On the station platform prayer beads change hands” (57). Partnerships.

“A Gazal” (58). What gets rhymed, and why, and what gets repeated, and why? For song, for the sake of song in which we have something to keen. Poetry gives form to the broken. What is unbound cannot be broken again.

The poems seem to call on a kind of philosophical muse, hard thought. Yet that thought’s softness comes through in poetic style, the form and shapes, the lines, the breath, the flows repeated and measured. The writing seems logical, in the same way that Kafka may appear logical, or Borges, without dismissing the nonlogical. The first person is not paramount. Others are. And when I appears, it’s Meng Jiang (61). If we continue to break what is broken what do we become? Minerals? Salts?

Little poems of “love and faith” (65). What more can a reader ask for? The reader comprehends the poetry without necessarily every line understanding it.

Nijinsky appears (66). The last time I saw Nijinsky in a poem was at El Camino, around 1969. Stephen Jama passed out a poem he had written, typewriter print on colored paper. Some students got a green sheet, others a yellow, others blue or grey. Never white. “And the world dies, Adonis on its lips,” I think I recall, at the top. And Nijinsky was “dancing a band”? No, dancing I forget what. And there was a “tousled laugh.” I wish I could remember that poem. It’s lost now. I don’t think it ever made it into a book. I wonder who still has their copy. I kept mine for years, then one day without reason tossed them all, along with a box of my own stuff. I was knee deep in the red dust by then, cleaning out the basement, lost in the dust. Maybe it’s poems “belong only to the night” (67). Jama’s assignment was for us to read the poem and then to write a response. Birds in flight.

“What I have written, I have written,” Jeremy Fernando says in his afterword. Would that were true of what I have written. But what I have read, I have read. Fernando attempts to connect writer to reader: where does poetry, that space of water we seem to want to cross, a crossing, from the shore of sleep to the loading docks of day – poetry the ferry full of readers unbound from one shore, paddling for the opposite – what path leads down to the ferry launch? When the poem laughs, is it the reader laughed at? That is a cynical view many hold.

To read is to experience. Any attempt to make some other sense of that experience is a different matter:

“… every try, any trying, perhaps even trial, is not just haunted by misreadings, over-writings, one cannot even underwrite it with the certainty that reading has taken place, that one has even read” (77).