Last year, while staying a house in Berlin, I came across an old, 1950s Chatto & Windus set of Proust in twelve little volumes. Innocently enough, I picked up Swann’s Way, slipped it into my jacket pocket, and reread it on the trains. When I finished, I picked up the next little volume. Soon enough I realized this was it, I had begun in the foothills and was now climbing the mountain. I have given it most of my reading hours, and with great joy. Also, inter alia, Kevin Power’s beautiful novel of the Iraq War, The Yellow Flowers; Edward P. Jones’ The Known World; and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. On the non-fiction side, I’m reading mostly about Reconstruction: David Blight’s Race and Reunion, and Philip Dray’s At The Hands of Persons Unknown.
I’ve been reading fictionalized case histories by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German defense lawyer (grandson of a Nazi official!). Guilt is a spectacular trove of existential narrative gambits. Ditto his Crime. These make rich companion reading to The Examined Life, case histories by psychoanalyst-author Stephen Grosz. Recently I finally cracked open Thomas Bernhard, wary for years of his run-ons and non-paragraphs (suffocating prospect). Indeed, he’s a genius—a thrilling misanthrope who includes his own mirror among mankind. The Woodcutters and Wittgenstein’s Nephew. I was just in Vienna, too; and learned that von Schirach’s grandfather ran it for the Nazis…
I’m a fast but monogamous reader. Since I rarely have more than one book open at a time, I’m going to name the title I’ll be finishing this afternoon, the two I read over the last few days, and the two I’ll be tackling next.
Currently I’m reading Italo Calvino’s Into the War. Calvino is as important to me as any writer I could mention, and I assumed I had already devoured everything he had ever published, or at least everything I was likely to see, but suddenly a little flurry of previously untranslated books are finding their way into print in the US and England. (Next month, for instance, Princeton University is publishing a 632-page volume of his letters that is by far the volume I’m most eagerly anticipating this year.) Into the War, published in the UK as part of the Penguin Modern Classics series, comprises a trio of autobiographical essays about Calvino’s experiences as a sixteen-year-old boy in the months immediately after Italy entered the Second World War. Calvino didn’t value autobiographical writing very highly and considered this book one of his least essential, but the final essay, “UNPA Nights,” about a night of compulsory Fascist Youth service he and a friend spent guarding—or, more accurately, failing to guard—the local school buildingsis a gem.
I just finished Twins by Megan Milks—a chapbook published in a limited edition of fifty copies and distributed through Etsy by a tiny press called Birds of Lace. It’s a short, wonderful mash-up of the Sweet Valley High books and the Choose Your Own Adventure books, with a dash of both the Baby-Sitters Club and Bruce Coville’s My Teacher Is an Alien, and it’s one of the cleverest and most purely enjoyable discoveries I’ve made this year.
I also recently finished The Man Who Walked through Walls by Marcel Ayme, a Pushkin Press edition of a collection of short conceptual fantasies originally published in France in 1943. Many of the stories here resolve as grimly as anything by Kafka, but they have this swiftness and this light comic tone that somehow makes them feel like a rock skipping over water, so fleet and so gorgeous. My favorite was “Tickets on Time: Extracts from the Diary of Jules Flegmon,” about the black market in time that arises when the authorities decree that “the unemployed and other superfluous mouths” must cease to exist for a few days each month.
And next on my stack are Godforsaken Idaho: Stories by Shawn Vestal, which was published just this week by Houghton Mifflin, and The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas, which was also published just this week, by Yale University Press. I know Vestal’s work only from “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” a chronicle of the afterlife in which the dead spend their centuries bowed under the weight of nostalgia, which I included in an anthology I edited several years ago. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his stories. As for Rojas, it would seem that he’s one of the great Spanish-language writers who emerged in the late-sixties, though I myself heard his name for the first time only this year. Lorca Ascends to Hell was translated by Edith Grossman, and the jacket copy compares Rojas to Marquez, Coetzee, and Saramago. I’m excited to dive into its pages.
Congratulations to Shira Dentz, Drunken Boat’s Reviews Editor, on the publication of her second book, door of thin skins (CavanKerry Press) – a hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual elements; a tale that unfolds in a psychotherapist’s and a state prosecutor’s office and the mind of the poet regarding it all.
PoetryNet has chosen Shira to be Poet of the Month during National Poetry 2013 as well.
Here’s what people are saying about door of thin skins –
door of thin skins is a perfect title for Shira Dentz’s latest work. In this fever dream of a book, Dentz’s language is like a spirit who can pass through the scrims of time and perspective, but not unscathed. These poems are the toll. She sings what fails to kill us. —Cornelius Eady
door of thin skins tracks the misuse of power in a patient/doctor relationship in shattering detail. A patient is cut off from her body and the doctor imposes his. Her senses have dispersed as if to escape the troubled site. In these poems, the experiences that tear the mind and the mind’s language must be recollected in language, which becomes a reenactment of the wounding. What the poet must do, and does, is let language be torn apart so that the senses (sense) may re-collect in beauty, in the body of the poem —Eleni Sikelianos
by Dan Godston
Exhuming, unearthing, uncovering, lifting rocks to let in light…lots of loaded imagery and associations — “…hacia allí me dirijo, no sin cierta fatiga, / piasando una tierra removida de sepulcros un tanto frescos, / yo sueño entre esas plantas de legumbre confusa…” — “I move toward it just a bit haggardly, / trampling a gravedigger’s rubble still moist from the spade / to dream in a bedlam of vegetables…” (from “Caballo de los Sueños” / “Dream Horse” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt)
We’re into the second week of National Poetry Month, and excavation crews in Chile exhumed Pablo Neruda’s remains earlier today. The poet’s estate maintains he was not murdered, but Manuel Araya (Neruda’s driver, who was with the poet during his final days), asserts that Chilean President Augusto Pinochet had him poisoned. (Intriguing 4′s: Neruda died 40 years ago, we’re in the fourth month, and the Chinese character for four is a homonym for death.) Neruda was a close friend of Salvador Allende, the democratically elected President of Chile who was deposed by Pinochet in September 1973. Neruda, who was an outspoken opponent of Pinochet, died within weeks of Allende’s death. Did Pinochet have Neruda murdered? If so, are the CIA and Nixon administration (at least partially) complicit in the murder? “The CIA sought to instigate a coup to prevent Allende from taking office” in 1970, was “aware of coup-plotting by the military,” and appears to have condoned Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
It’s been said that everything is political, even something that’s intensely private and personal. It is fascinating to think of Neruda in a political context; many of his poems don’t seem to carry political implications. But he had such a gift for describing things in a way that imbued the mundane with poetry and power. Think about his odes about sheets, lemons, tuna, artichokes, el mar…one could swim in an ocean of Neruda’s poetry!
“Necesito del mar porque me enseña: / no sé si aprendo música o conciencia: / no sé si es ola o ser profundo…” — “I need an ocean to teach me: / whatever it is that I learn–music or consciousness, / the single wave in the sea, the abyss of my being…” (from “El Mar” / “The Sea” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt). Neruda was outspokenly opposed to Pinochet, and soon after Allende’s death one of Pinochet’s warships was stationed in the waters by Isla Negra, cannons pointed directly at Neruda’s house. It’s sinister and ironic that so many of Neruda’s poems include imagery and language that speak of his love for the ocean and its mystery, yet Pinochet would have one of his warships fill the poet’s final views of his beloved ocean with terrible cannons.
Will Chilean and international forensics experts be able to determine whether Neruda was poisoned? As a man in his late 60s who was living with prostate cancer, how much longer would he have been able to live (assuming he wasn’t murdered)? If DNA testing can convict murderers and help to reverse convictions for innocent people who have done time in prison, and other advances in forensics can discover the true causes of crimes, what will we learn about Neruda’s death?
It’s funny how investigations can call into question presumptions that have prevailed for decades or centuries. For example, did Shakespeare rely too heavily on Tudor historian-created portrayals regarding King Richard III, as he was writing his play about the king? The recently exhumed bones of the king — found under a Leicester, UK parking lot! — suggest the king wasn’t as ugly as the Tudor historians said he was, and maybe that Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king relied on the sinister look that the Tudor historians pushed. But studying 500-year old bones (even those found under parking lots) for clues is different from trying to find traces of poison in “soil that receives intense coastal humidity.”
In “Oda al Viejo Poeta” (“Ode to an Old Poet”) Neruda writes, “he was nothing but / bone, / alert and instructive / bone / a tiny / tree, finally, of bone, / was the poet / quenched / by the calligraphy / of the rain, / by the / inexhaustible / springs of time…” The Academy of American Poets chose April to be National Poetry Month because of The Waste Land‘s iconic opening lines – “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.” Bones and rain, spring and cruelty, digging and unearthing. There’s something Shakespearean here too—as in Hamlet at Yorick’s and Ophelia’s graves, trying to get to the truth of things.
Exhumations and forensics results can lead to a sense of closure, or at least a better understanding of how things happened. Controversy still swirls around President Allende’s death, as Pinochet’s forces stormed the presidential palace on September 11, 1973. Did Allende commit suicide, or was he murdered by one of Pinochet’s men? Isabel Allende (one of President Allende’s children, and cousin of the writer Isabel Allende) maintained he committed suicide — “It was an extremely courageous act for someone who loved life as he did.” Chile’s Legal Medical Service determined after the 2011 exhumation that Allende committed suicide.
“Los desgranados, los muertos de rostro tierno, / los que amamos, los que brillan / en el firmamento, en la multitud del silencio…” — “Those threshed out of life, the dead with the delicate faces, / whom we cherished, who burned / in the firmament in a multiple silence…” (from “Fin de Fiesta” / “Party’s End” by Pablo Neruda, trans. Ben Belitt) It’s remarkable how fearlessly and eloquently Neruda wrote about so many aspects of the world — from “small” things such as artichokes and lemons, to the “big” things such as life and death. Last week the Pablo Neruda Foundation stated on its website that it hopes the investigation will “clarify doubts that may exist regarding the death of the poet.” I’m not sure if I’d agree that April is the cruelest month, but it is a great month for one to reaffirm the value of reading and writing more poetry, and to look forward to hearing what the forensics experts determine regarding the cause of Neruda’s death.