I was intending to return to W. G. Sebald’s masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn, when I decided I should first read The Emigrants, a book I had started at least once before and never finished. Like all of Sebald’s novels, I found The Emigrants hard to navigate, not because it’s “difficult” (though its long paragraphs and lack of quotation marks can be daunting), but because its insistent clarity makes it oddly easy to lose one’s place, to let one’s attention wander, and to forget—all essential concerns of Sebald’s narrator. The novel is rigorously melancholy in content, but rigorous in many other ways: to read it well we must remember, even as the book is designed (I believe) to press us toward forgetting. And so the process of reading that it demands becomes an enactment of what it is about, which might be one way of identifying a masterpiece.
I’ve just started Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, a much friendlier book, as well it might be considering that it’s about the most mysterious play ever written. I have yet to encounter an overall argument in Stay, Illusion! and hope I will not. The authors’ linked observations are like comments from the most brilliant student in class—witty, insightful, annoying, suggestive, irritating, rewarding, frustrating—and so on. The word I might finally settle on is provocative, which I intend as very high praise for literary criticism.
The book that stays on my bedside table (and has for a long time) is David Thomson’s “Have you Seen…?” : short comments on 1,000 films. (Thomson has seen so many movies one wonders if he has ever experienced daylight.) Thomson’s style is elegant, and his responses can be quirky, but they are always challenging. Also fun to read. I was deeply saddened by his refusal to like Fellini’s 8 ½, a favorite of mine, which I am now a little afraid to watch again, but I was also cheered when he could persuasively point to all of the exciting aspects of Arthur Penn’s little-known Mickey One.
Turning to poetry, I want to praise, first of all, Stephen Dunn’s latest collection, Lines of Defense. Dunn is sometimes accused of being “accessible,” and he is, or seems to be, the way Robert Frost is or seems to be accessible. Yet both poets’ best poems are sly, crafty, and philosophically demanding. Dunn’s work is far from what appears to be the dominant style of our moment—the so-called “experimental poem,” which is opaque, academic, coded, voice-less, afraid of narrative, and unrewarding in any way I would wish to be rewarded. Dunn’s complex lucidity makes us think, but refuses to congratulate us on our thinking. His poems surprise us into knowing what we thought we already knew.
Finally, I wish to mention David Ferry’s wonderful Bewilderment, which is, like The Emigrants, a deeply melancholy book, but never a depressing one. These are poems of enormous tact and reticence, which—perhaps paradoxically—make them all the more powerful and heart-breaking. And I can’t help but add that frequently (especially when I’m teaching) I turn with renewed pleasure and admiration to almost anything by Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, and James Tate. What continually instructs and delights me are the ways these poets move around in their poems, the strategies they develop to keep disparate materials from flying apart, and of course their considerable humor, which usually opens up to reveal the seriously troubling ways in which we find ourselves living at this moment, and thinking, and trying to read, look, and remember as best we can.
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