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 *****

African Titanics, 2008 (transl. 2014)

Recessions and depressions follow wars. War is migration. Not all soldiers come home, and those that do often don’t stay, their points of view altered in myriad ways, while economic fallout, checkbook flush blocked-up to military spending, spreads like rising floodwaters on the homefront.

Daily my Dad signed in at the Louisville plumbers’ union hall, and one day he came home and said he’d lined up a job in Los Angeles. He bought a brand new car to make the trip, which he would drive to a car lot in LA, explain he couldn’t make the payments, and hand over the keys. My little sister sat up front between my parents. I sat in the backseat between my two older sisters. Our clothes and some food packed in the trunk, it was like going on vacation, like the time we went down to Mammoth Cave, except that for the trip to Los Angeles Mom had packed the family Bible. Everything else had been sold, given away, or thrown out, not that there was ever much to everything else. Lots of folks were on the road on their way to California in those days. In the 1940’s, California’s population increased by 53%; on top of that, in the 1950’s, it increased another 49%.

The trip out to the West Coast, from the Midwest, the Prairie, the South, was not always easy sailing. During the Dust Bowl years, well rooted posses on the state and county borders, both legal and vigilante, discouraged newcomers and otherwise tried to cherry-pick who got in. And who got in might have brought with them their assumptions, presuppositions, and personal biases, but being part of any migration it seems prepares one for future life with travel vaccinations of humility, sacrifice, unity.

My family’s little migration was of course a walk in the park compared to experiences on a global scale today. In “African Titanics,” Abu Bakr Khaal describes the motivation for migrating as a kind of lure. “I pity the poor immigrant, who wishes he would’ve stayed home,” Bob Dylan sang on the John Wesley Harding album. “It was a pandemic. A plague,” Khaal’s narrator says, on the opening page. And this:

“The truth of the matter was that he would probably never return, and was shamefully lying about his outrageous wealth. As for those who returned with university degrees, most of whom were penniless, no one paid them any attention. They aroused universal scorn for returning without pretty women or cars” (p. 5).

“African Titanics” tells the story of Eritrean and other migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe via less than seaworthy vessels sponsored by less than reliable smugglers. The arc of the story follows the narrator, Abdar, and his friend Malouk, “a Liberian whose fate was deeply entangled with my own for quite some time, and whose departure left a deep well of sadness within me that still torments me to this day” (5). Through the desert, always hungry and thirsty, and in and out of rancid sleeping quarters, and walking or busing or hiring short rides, living in constant fear and worry, lost in an uncertain zone between freedom and imprisonment – they pursue relentlessly the dream, the nightmare, of the crossing. The characters are intelligent, articulate, and they know exactly what’s going on around them:

“‘They’re all in prison?’
‘That’s right.’
‘Avoid public places,’ Si Najih nodded, ‘like streets, squares and gardens. And don’t walk around in groups.’
‘So, in other words, find yourself a hole, curl up in it, and hope for the best,’ Malouk muttered after I had translated Si Najih’s words” (p. 97).

Still, they joke, maybe smoke and drink when they can, sing and dance (Malouk is an accomplished folk guitarist), even make love. And wait:

“In about four days, a boat would set sail, followed by a second one a few days later. In general, the situation was not promising, however, and arrests were taking place every day” (p. 95).

African Titanics” by Abu Bakr Khaal, 2008; tansl. Charis Bredin, Darf Publishers, London, 2014, 122 pages.

The Ant, 1998 (transl. 2021)

The Ant is a nickname for Delia Del Carril, second of Pablo Neruda’s three wives, and the title of her biography, by Fernando Saez, translated into English by Jessica Sequeira and published by Fiction Advocate, a small alternative press producing e-books and excellent quality paperbacks. As an enthusiastic follower of Jessica Sequeira’s work, I early ordered and read The Ant and considered a long reflective review comparing Delia to Joyce’s Nora, whose fictional biography I read and reviewed back in April (Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial). There’s almost no basis for comparison. Delia was a wealthy and influential scion world’s away from poor Nora, and she would be cast aside by Pablo, her junior by two decades, for the younger Matilde. But Delia and Nora were born the same year, 1884, and both married men who grew to gigantic proportion in the country of books. Both were dedicated to and sacrificed for their husbands, who, it might be argued, scarcely deserved their affection. But that is love. That Pablo was no saint should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his poetry or his Memoirs. Likewise, Joyce was no saint, at least not one likely to be canonized in the eyes of Holy Mother Church. Yet both Pablo and Joyce seemed to possess boundless capabilities (some might say disabilities) for love and love’s expressions. Time is the great canceller of the postage stamp that is literature. “Neruda participated in a bohemia of bars and poverty” (86) – places from where Joyce also drew a good amount of inspiration. “Could there have been two people any more different [than Pablo and The Ant]? It’s difficult and risky to explain the origins of an interest, the unthinkable reasons that bring a couple together and make love possible. The mystery of why him, and why her, can lead to a number of questions without answer, in which there is surely more absurdity than logic” (89). “More absurdity than logic” – how’s that for a definition of literature? But don’t we go to literature to find the logic that might displace the absurdity of our lives? In any case, apart from the absurdity of the love story, there are good, practical reasons for reading Saez’s The Ant: to further our understanding and appreciation of 20th Century thought and expression; for an inside view of the history of politics, art, economics, and the geography of Chile and Argentina; and it details the ins and outs of the lives of artists and the families and friends they choose to live and correspond with. It’s possible that Delia and Nora might have met one another. They may have both been in Paris at the same time, where circles of expatriates, artists, and bohemians of both wealth and poverty often overlapped. If they did meet, would they have recognized one another? What would their talk have been about?

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.