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Spring Arts Guide: 10 Semi-Erudite Choices for Spring Literature

Illuminations

By Arthur Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery, April

Did you write poetry in college? Bet you weren’t no Rimbaud. In 1876, the 21-year-old who made enfants terrible turned out his masterpiece, Illuminations—42 of those newfangled (at the time) prose poems, and two others in an obscure style called “free verse,” a Symbolist explosion that would inspire Dadaists, Surrealists, and Bob Dylan. The diffuse nature of the manuscript makes the translator’s decisions crucial to any new edition. How will the revered Omega Man of the New York School, John Ashbery, illuminate this version? Sounds promising—his previous translations have impressed actual French people. W.W. Norton & Co., 144 pp., $24.95

The Pale King

By David Foster Wallace, April

Judging by the excerpt of this unfinished novel of IRS history (and other subjects, doubtlessly) that recently appeared in The New Yorker—a section about a boy who aspires to kiss the entire surface of his body—Wallace’s swan song mashes up Portnoy’s Complaint and The New England Journal of Medicine. Proving again that he’s the writer late-stage capitalism deserves—yearning for sensuality, he gets lost in a labyrinth of clinical factoids. Like Kurt Cobain, his suicide enforces his integrity; whether or not it’s true, it appears as if he couldn’t bear the success bestowed on him by a system he abhorred. Little, Brown, 560 pp., $27.99

Quiet Chaos

By Sandro Veronesi, April

If the hair-raising opening scene of this acclaimed novel, in which two men rescue two women from drowning, one using an inappropriately arousing method, fails to thrill you with its vivid whorl of detail, insane momentum, and dark humor, check your pulse. If you find yourself dead, keep reading, because the excitement may resurrect you. No sooner has one of the unsung life-savers, Pietro, arrived home than he discovers that his common-law wife has passed away in a freak accident. Then he meets the woman he saved. Even a corpse would want to know where a novelist could go from there. Ecco, 432 pp., $13.99

The Tragedy of Arthur

By Arthur Phillips, April

In this high-concept novel, Arthur Phillips invents a fictional character named Arthur Phillips who discovers an unknown manuscript by William Shakespeare called The Tragedy of Arthur. In the 256-page introduction, Phillips the author blends memoir and scholarly discourse to recount how Phillips the character’s family acquired this priceless piece of literary history. Then Phillips the author includes the footnoted “text” of the “original” script of the Shakespeare play, which may be a fabrication perpetrated by the character’s father, also named Arthur Phillips—either way, his Fakespeare had better be a masterpiece of pastiche. Like his spiritual brother, David Mitchell, Phillips not only kicks postmodernism awake but encourages it to shoot crystal meth. Random House, 368 pp., $26

A Queer History of the United States

By Michael Bronski, May

“The . . . slightly counterintuitive, key concept is that LGBT history does not exist,” writes Dartmouth historian Michael Bronski in his introduction to this provocative volume covering an astonishing 500 years of stateside gayness. Wait—it didn’t start with Stonewall? Though ’mos have been “shunned, marginalized, censored, ignored, and hidden,” and in that sense remained nonexistent, Bronski argues that the history of “women and men who experienced and expressed sexual desires for their own sex . . . complicates and enriches the American imagination.” And not just because of all the decorating. Beacon Press, 288 pp., $26.95

Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives

By Robert Thacker, May

If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t)

By Betty White, May

Is it coincidence that these Golden Girls share a release date, May 3? White’s book, a smorgasbord of anecdotes à la Rose Nylund, cashes in as the 89-year-old’s comeback crests. Thacker’s biography fixes in amber the Queen of the Bourgeois Short Story. With Munro’s approval, he recounts how she lived in British Columbia, married, opened a bookstore, divorced, wrote, won awards (but not yet the Nobel!), and moved to Clinton, Ontario. In just 616 pages. If only she’d retire to Miami and room with Cynthia Ozick, Joyce Carol Oates, and Doris Lessing. “Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives,” Emblem Editions, 616 pp., $22.99; “If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t),” Putnam, 272 pp., $25.95

Out of the Vinyl Deeps

By Ellen Willis, May

Rock criticism abounds with competitive white guys suffering from pop music Asperger’s; to make a living at it and own a vagina you need to be a powerhouse. In 1968, Willis got there before nearly anyone—even anyone male—when she became The New Yorker’s first pop critic. With incredible exuberance and voracious intelligence, she focused her floodlight on Dylan, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder, and Mott the Hoople alike. This, her own greatest hits album, compiled by her daughter, Nona Willis Aronowitz, both restores her reputation and fortifies the rock journalism canon. University of Minnesota Press, 272 pp., $22.95

Silver Sparrow

By Tayari Jones, May

Jones, who is fast defining middle-class black Atlanta the way Cheever did Westchester, explored the trauma of the Atlanta Child Murders in her first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Her second, The Untelling, spooled out an unusual tale of teen pregnancy and self-discovery. Now she casts her sharp yet forgiving eye on James Witherspoon, a philandering black husband, and his secret family, but the tenderness and curiosity of Jones’s narrators (James’s daughters, Dana and Bunny) keeps this book from lurching into man-bashing Maury Povich territory. Algonquin, 340 pp., $19.95

Someday This Will Be Funny

By Lynne Tillman, May

Tillman, a writer who comfortably and brilliantly occupies a space between the art scene and the lit world, tackles fame, sex, New York, women, and contemporary politics in a jaunty style that aligns her with figures as disparate as Lydia Davis and Cindy Sherman. This new group of shorts inaugurates Red Lemonade’s bid to revive Tillman’s reputation, a project that rescues four out-of-print novels and promises a new one in the future. As the U.K.’s Independent puts it, “To encounter a writer of Tillman’s acute intelligence . . . is a cause for real celebration.” And you bet it’s open bar. Red Lemonade, 176 pp., $14.95

You Are Free

By Danzy Senna, May

An upwardly mobile wife frets after her child is accepted into an expensive preschool, though she applied insincerely and her husband scorns the place. A single woman develops a dysfunctional relationship with a dog she refers to as “the bitch.” A woman who has never given birth receives a call from someone claiming to be the child she gave up for adoption. These and five other crisply written stories take place in a middle-class world we thought we knew, while revealing the strangeness, distress, and sorrow under its blank surfaces. As with Senna’s novels, racial issues crop up, but here they dodge and feint through women’s lives that are never as well-tended as they seem. Riverhead, 240 pp., $15

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Fall Preview: Poet John Ashbery Makes His Elliptical Way into Library of America

For better or worse, John Ashbery looms over the downtown of contemporary American poetry like a gaudy skyscraper: Wherever you wander, it’s impossible to lose sight of him.

Given Ashbery’s aversion to all things mainstream, his dogged experimentalism, and his notorious “difficulty” as a writer, this is perhaps a somewhat improbable state of affairs. Indeed, at the age of 81, Ashbery still divides readers. There are many who’d agree with one reviewer’s verdict that much of his work has “about as much poetic life as a refrigerated plastic flower.”

Nevertheless, next month Ashbery will become only the fourth American writer to see his collected works published during his lifetime by the Library of America (the others were Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth). It’s an ironic instance of the establishment appropriating a figure who’s spent much of his life writing from the margin. (Although the poet has always had his champions—the new volume comes emblazoned with a tagline from that most excitable of blurbists, Harold Bloom: “Since the death of Wallace Stevens in 1955, we have been living in the Age of Ashbery.”)

Ashbery himself is dry, unsentimental, deflating on the subject of literary immortality. His work tends to emphasize the contingent, accidental, and precarious nature of art. The writers of past ages, he says in one downbeat verse, have “disappeared into libraries, onto microfilm./A few are still interested in them.” The casualness, the lack of pretension, the wry acknowledgment that in our mass culture, poetry must jostle for attention with a host of easier, less time-and-thought-consuming pleasures: These are all hallmarks of the Ashbery voice, and no doubt reasons for his popularity. (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the 1975 National Book Critics Circle Award, sold 20,000 copies—in the poetry world, the equivalent of Dark Knight ticket sales.)

Of course, Ashbery’s work is renowned more for its opacity than its plain-speaking. W.H. Auden, who chose Ashbery’s first collection, Some Trees (1956), as the winner of the Yale Young Poets Award, later confessed that he didn’t understand a word of it.

Yet Ashbery’s disjunctions and seemingly arbitrary twists and turns represent not mere scatterbrained dilettantism, but an attempt to write—to adapt a title from Stevens—the poems of our climate. Pay close attention to the variety of information we receive in an ordinary day—from television, radio, the Internet, newspapers, books, strangers overheard in the street—and Ashbery’s verse begins to seem more familiar, to represent a modern world that is well-known to us, whose often elliptical and incoherent messages we rarely have time to make sense of properly. Consider also that Ashbery has said that his poetry is an attempt to describe “the way time feels as it passes.” So it’s hardly surprising that his poems should seem to drift in and out of intelligibility.

There’s a passage in the poem “Down by the Station, Early in the Morning” that might serve as a fitting epigraph to the new collection:

[. . .] the wrecking ball bursts through the wall with the bookshelves

Scattering the works of famous authors as well as those

Of more obscure ones, and books with no author, letting in

Space, and an extraneous babble from the street

Confirming the new value the hollow core has again [. . .]

The wrecking ball of time, always mangling and disrupting what we like to think of as the permanence of the canon, is also the agent that allows in “extraneous babble from the street” and thus the possibility for fresh creation. Whereas poets of past ages looked forward strenuously to their own posthumous fame, this one predicts, with his typically unflustered cheerfulness, his own demise.

Library of America, 1,050 pp., $40.

The Men in My Life

By Vivian Gornick (September)

A book in which a critic whose sensibility was shaped by second-wave feminism shares her thoughts on a stable of male authors—including such coltish laureates of misogyny as Roth and Bellow—may not strike one as the most happy marriage of writer and subject. Yet Gornick, a reader of immense sympathy and insight, is not out to expose and chasten the unseemly underbellies of the men in her life, but rather, as she says in the preface to this short, elegant book, “to think more inclusively about the emotional imprisonment of mind and spirit to which all human beings are heir.” MIT Press, 224 pp., $13.95.

Death With Interruptions

By José Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (October)

José Saramago, it would seem, does not so much compose as blurt out, ejaculate, or extemporize his novels (as the author himself, with his lust for verbal proliferation, would probably put it). Most of his books have the air of being transcribed on a beer-stained parchment in the back room of some bucolic tavern around the middle of the 16th century, so copious are they in folksy quirks and archaic turns of phrase. Death With Interruptions, the latest from the octogenarian Portuguese Nobel laureate, returns to the unnamed country that in two previous novels has been ravaged by an epidemic of white blindness (Blindness) and a sudden outburst of mass political dissent (Seeing). This time, the plague to be visited on the hapless population is, of all things, the disappearance of death, a far less pleasant turn of events than one might first imagine. Harcourt, 256 pp., $24.

Invite

By Glen Pourciau (October)

Beginning a story by Glen Pourciau, the bizarre and quietly eccentric young writer whose first collection won this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Award, is often not the most riveting of experiences: “It was Saturday afternoon, and my wife and I had decided to go to the mall to pick up a pair of pants I’d bought there and had altered.” Like Raymond Carver, to whom he bears a superficial resemblance, Pourciau’s hunting ground is the great welter of American suburbia. Yet he’s not so much a realist as a subtle fantasist of the day-to-day whose stories suddenly shift to the level of nightmare. The way he imbues the most ordinary happenings with an uncanny and ineffable terror is reminiscent of Kafka, Bernhard, and Beckett. Iowa University Press, 120 pp., $16.

Lulu in Marrakech

By Diane Johnson (October)

Part thriller, part philosophical meditation on the nature of deception, Diane Johnson’s new novel extends the tradition—stretching back to James, Wharton, and Hemingway—of books about naïve Americans being flummoxed by the representatives of older, more opaque foreign cultures. Lulu Sawyer, recently arrived in Morocco, has been tasked by the CIA to find out what she can about the connection between wealthy businessmen and Islamic terrorists. Naturally, this rubs certain people the wrong way, and things soon turn very nasty indeed. Dutton, 320 pp., $25.95.

Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun

By Wafaa Bilal and Kari Lydersen (October)

History simply refuses to leave some people alone. The Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal grew up under Saddam Hussein, survived two wars, was forced to live for periods at refugee camps in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and finally escaped to the U.S. in 1992 to study art. When his father and brother were killed during the latest U.S. invasion of his country, Bilal responded by creating the now infamous art piece Domestic Tension, in which the artist spent a month living in a Chicago gallery where Internet users could watch his day-to-day movements and, if they felt like it, take shots at him with a remote-controlled paint gun. By the end, more than 60,000 people had opened fire. Shoot an Iraqi—a name he initially considered for the installation—combines autobiographical narrative with a discussion of his work and its political implications. City Lights, 240 pp., $18.95.

A Mercy

By Toni Morrison (November)

Toni Morrison continues her excavation into the history of American race relations with this brief, tragic novel. Set in the colonial North of the 1680s, it tells the story of a young slave girl who’s accepted by an Anglo-Dutch trader in payment for a bad debt. Knopf, 176 pp., $23.95.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles

By Pierre Bayard (November)

Just as the conversation generated by his last work—the wildly successful, not-as-frivolous-as-it-sounds How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read—is beginning to dry up, Pierre Bayard has furnished us with another piece of wry intellectual conjecture, namely, that things are not as elementary as Sherlock Holmes—or Arthur Conan Doyle—liked to think they were. His stated aim is to write what he calls “detective criticism,” something that involves being “more rigorous than even the detectives in literature and the writers who create them, and thus to work out solutions that are more satisfying to the soul.” Bloomsbury, 208 pp., $20.

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A Voice Poetry Roundup

Last week’s annual Poets House Showcase held in the West Village displayed more than 2,000 poetry books and related materials published in 2007. As impressive and even overwhelming as that number might seem, it represents a sliver—as any overview must—of poetry’s current state, a large portion of which also exists off the page in readings and classrooms, on the Internet, and via word of mouth. The amount of time spent with other poets in bars, living rooms, and, more recently, online usually counts as much as the writing done while sitting alone at a desk.

Among contemporary poetry’s most notable trends is a post-9/11 surge in translation. The “blockbuster” anthology published during the past six months is Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry From the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton), devotedly compiled by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal, and Ravi Shankar. Collecting and translating work by more than 400 poets from 61 countries or territories—including writers who’ve relocated to the United States—the anthology confirms that although poetry may aspire to express universal conditions, it remains engrossing only when rooted in specific cultures and locations. But as the poetry world exemplifies, smaller can also be substantial. Stefania Heim and Jennifer Kronovet’s slim journal, Circumference, dedicated entirely to poetry in translation, was a breath of fresh air when it was started in 2003, and it continues to present some of the most compelling translations in print. So too does Action Books; it recently published South Korean experimental writer Kim Hyesoon’s Mommy Must Be a Fountain of Feathers, which situates the female body as the primary site of social and psychological struggle.

Three new titles use early American history to illuminate the promises and failures of the democratic project. Frank X Walker’s When Winter Come: The Ascension of York (University Press of Kentucky) speaks from the point of view of a slave named York who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition. The many poems about sheer survival shouldn’t only be taken literally: “Nah, killin’ is what we do/’n the reason he sleep with his fingers/’round my throat.” Dale Smith’s Susquehanna (Punch Press) revisits Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey’s half-baked plan to start a utopian community in central Pennsylvania. As with most things Coleridge, the magnificence of the dream supersedes its reality, but isn’t diminished as a result. Similarly, Susan Howe’s Souls of the Labadie Tract (New Directions) unearths a “Utopian Quietest sect,” and in the process confirms Howe’s stature as the still-new century’s finest metaphysical poet.

Frances Richey began writing the poems in The Warrior: A Mother’s Story of a Son at War (Viking) after her son was sent to fight in Iraq, and she ably captures a single parent’s cares and fears. Yet other than a poem reflecting on a photograph of an Iraqi woman mourning her dead child, the book isolates its mother-son relationship, thereby steering clear of the sticky issues surrounding his deployment. Indran Amirthanayagam takes a different approach in The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose), which narrates various stories in the imagined voices of the 2004 disaster’s survivors and deceased. Expansive in its framing while remaining intimate in address, his book shows that the aftermath can be as devastating as the event: Just ask the poorer residents of New Orleans.

On the MFA-writing-program front, John Ashbery’s poetry and its companionship in the work of James Tate remain a dominant flavor. Ashbery’s Notes From the Air: Selected Later Poems and A Worldly Country: New Poems (both Ecco) further solidify a unique style that gets taken for granted the more widely it’s imitated. Tate’s The Ghost Soldiers (Ecco) disconsolately engages with the current political and cultural climate—that is, to the degree to which his (or Ashbery’s) work is one of direct engagement; linguistic slipperiness is obviously a part of their respective charms. A different form of detachment was practiced by Zen Buddhist monk Philip Whalen, whose Collected Poems (Wesleyan) might get the nod for the most beautifully produced poetry book of the past six months. Barely pausing to catch its breath, Wesleyan University Press followed it with an affiliated volume: The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest. Guest was a rare female member of poetry’s original New York School, and both she and Whalen were residents of the Bay Area who used an urban savvy to sharpen their works’ ephemerally registered impressions.

Jay Wright remains, unassumingly, one of the most significant poets writing today, though three new books may help garner him more attention: Polynomials and Pollen, The Presentable Art of Reading Absence (both Dalkey Archive), and The Guide Signs (Louisiana State). Wright’s work effortlessly draws from African, Latin-American, and European intellectual and poetic traditions. The Guide Signs, which completes a 10-volume cycle commencing with his first book (published back in 1971) is a good place to start: “Such is our symmetry,/surfacing long after we have encountered/and abandoned the solitude and scurry/that defined our possible/light.” These lines might just as readily describe Cole Swensen’s Ours (California). Perhaps her best book yet, Ours fuses Swensen’s long-standing interests in lyric poetry, visual art, geometry, and French culture—in this instance, 17th-century French royal gardens—to investigate the shifting boundaries between private and public space. Fluid borders of a more subjective sort—between inner and outer worlds—are strikingly rendered in Forrest Gander’s translations of Mexican poet Coral Bracho, gathered in Firefly Under the Tongue: Selected Poems of Coral Bracho (New Directions).

Swensen teaches at the fabled Iowa Writers Workshop, which in the ’90s began to shed its image as ground zero for cookie-cutter workshop verse. The results have been mixed, and readers can be confident that whenever they hear work described as “combining language and lyric,” it’s usually shorthand for the application of avant-garde poetry techniques to emotional and perceptual platitudes. An antidote? Maybe one of the prefaces to Chelsey Minnis’s Bad Bad (Fence): “Someone once thought that a poem should be more than an elaborate ‘fuck you,’ but I did not think it.” Other recent “bad”—in a good way—girl/boy poetries include the most accomplished book (if superlatives are appropriate for such intentionally offensive work) produced to date by the Flarf group, Sharon Mesmer’s Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo), as well as the messy body politics of Garrett Caples’s Complications (Meritage) and Dennis Cooper’s limited-edition The Weaklings, from the newly inaugurated Fanzine Press. Cooper’s book distills into dark verse crystals the obsessions with eroticism and death that saturate his more widely read novels.

Reversing Richey’s mother-to-son correspondence, the tour de force “Son2Mother” concludes Kevin Powell’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn: New and Selected Poems (Soft Skull). Poets raised on the spoken-word scene are increasingly concerned with finding a way to translate their words to the page, and Powell is another successful example, following in the footsteps of Tracie Morris, Suheir Hammad, and many more. It’s difficult to overestimate the contributions that spoken word and hip-hop have made to poetry as an art form, however much they’ve yet to be recognized in the official histories or anthologies—or to leave a large mark with individual books. But poetry is spacious enough to include Ashbery, Bracho, and Lil’ Wayne, too.

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The Wood Demons

Some three decades before the slave-holding states of the South formed their Confederacy, a rugged swath of New Hampshire calling itself the Republic of Indian Stream seceded from the United States. Its experiment in independence, which lasted for three years, provides the setting for the challenging blend of experimental prose and historical fiction in Quinnehtukqut, Joshua Harmon’s debut novel.

“Lake Connecticut was to us but the jumping-off place whence we proposed to dive into a remoter world of mystery,” says one character about the body of water near the Canadian border for which the novel is named. Harmon uses four interlocking narratives—centered loosely on the experiences of a young woman with dreams beyond farm life—to explore the untamed land’s fledgling independence and its subsequent emergence, in the 20th century, as the destitute back country of a rapidly modernizing nation.

In the opening chapter, a bloodthirsty stranger searches for gold while terrorizing the citizenry; in another, a wealthy Massachusetts family settles into uneasy coexistence with its suspicious neighbors. The most daring section of the novel pays tribute to the experimental poet John Ashbery with a prose poem about a woman whose homestead is threatened by the construction of a dam. But neither carpetbaggers nor castaways find solace in Indian Stream, which ultimately comes to represent a “corner of the world [where] there is nothing but wilderness and darkness and drink.”

While Harmon’s treatment of the land is unimpeachable, the writing in
Quinnehtukqut-
—replete with rambling stream-of-consciousness and disjointed description-—too closely mirrors the bewildering density of the New Hampshire woods. Harmon, who regularly advocates for nonlinear fiction on his blog, concerns himself with formal innovation at the expense of a coherent narrative. William Faulkner, an obvious inspiration for this novel, explored the South’s troubled history through a meticulous conception of Yoknapatawpha County, but he brought readers into his world before dazzling them with literary prowess. There is no shortage of bravura in Harmon’s prose, but he seems to forget that a novel cannot subsist on avant-gardism alone.

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Disciples Gather to Worship Prophet of Poetry

For the poet who’s been a prophet for at least one generation of readers and writers, the New School assembles a meeting house full of disciples. John Ashbery has been producing volumes since the days when Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and the rest of their cohort roamed the East Village. And he’s still around—producing over 20 books in 50 years of sometimes fatigued, fantastic, and light-headed poetics—the last living legend of the luminous movement that changed all too quickly from subversive to canon. David Lehman, a New School professor, poet, and New York School specialist, puts the pieces together of what has invented, echoed, and reacted to the legacy of “the poet-laureate of spaciness,” as Ashbery was once called by a critic. Three days of readings by an eclectic and international assembly of poets—including Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, James Tate, and Ashbery himself—speak his language and to the breadth of his influence. In a landmark finale, Ashbery, Ann Lauterbach, Dara Wier, and Tate recite simultaneously the double columns of “Litany”—which, in true Ashberian, plays best as conversation.

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Paris in the ’50s

There is more and more to say about Guy Debord; one can scarcely walk through the bohemian district of the bookstore without toppling a stack of biographies and gossip. Perhaps it’s an apology for not noticing in a timely fashion how incisive was his description of daily life, political domination, and their entwined fate. Perhaps it’s simply an attempt to skim some cash off the widening Situationist cult. Either way, it’s good that Debord occasionally gets to speak for himself.

Semi-memoir Panegyric opens, “All my life I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction; I have taken part in these troubles.”

This is Debord in a shot glass: serenely high stakes, resignedly delighting in what he would elsewhere call “the work of the negative,” buoyed by an incomparable command of classical rhetoric. It’s Proust’s “For a long time, I went to bed early,” with time, that wayward and sensual substance, returned to history, the nightmare from which Debord wished to awaken as urgently as any habitué of the 20th century.

“Such circumstances would doubtless suffice to prevent the most transparent of my acts or thoughts from ever being universally approved. But,” he continues, “I do believe, several of them may have been misunderstood.” That’s Debord too, defensive ruffian who can’t stop smoothing his imago. Just as well. Otherwise it’ll be burnished for him until his howlings are just another gold record in the Rebel Yell hit parade. And so, rather than go down as someone who happened to find himself in the Sorbonne’s 1968 occupation a year after publishing Society of the Spectacle to minimal acclaim, Debord would rather devote a chapter of his final book to booze. “I have written much less than most people who write, but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” The latter claim, at least, seems true; I am happy to report Debord has made more of it than, say, Charles Bukowski. “Very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkenness, once that stage is past: a terrible and magnificent peace, the true taste of the passage of time.” Said flavor flits through this newly fancified reissue and that’s plenty, amid the blurry photographs and hokum about a burnt archive that comprises the “new” material (the old material can be found freely at ,chez.com/debordiana/english/panegyric.htm). It’s no surprise that the great thinker of symbol management knew his way around a sentence; in the best of worlds, the pleasure of reading would be a kind of awakening.

John Ashbery may find himself in the same review with Guy Debord as an umbrella finds itself on a dissecting table with a sewing machine; at best, we can place them both in Paris in 1955, one lurching down Rue Lacenaire, the other lunching with Giacometti. There is less and less to say about Ashbery, as with the pyramids. There he stands: astonishing, irrefutable, and inexhaustible. Nonetheless it seems certain more will be said, even while he remains alive and implausibly productive. His advantage over the pyramids is that he occasionally makes one look elsewhere. This volume forms a triptych with Other Traditions and Reported Sightings in gathering his prose; one reads as much for the easy delight of Ashbery’s mind-motion as the education in 20th-century aesthetic traditions, with a slant toward the French and avant-garde; Pound’s ABCs of Reading but disemboweled, i.e., without the asshole.

Ashbery’s prose shares the peculiar friendliness of his poetry, yet remains at once less personal and more direct. He sojourned as a Raymond Roussel scholar, and the related pieces are among the loveliest, as are his defenses of Bishop, Berrigan, and Jacques Rivette. It’s not clear if they need defending now; then one arrives at all-but- unknown John Wheelwright, “a sophisticated, aristocratic Marxist writing way-out poetry in Boston in the thirties,” whose early death Ashbery ranks as “the biggest secret loss to American poetry” until that of his friend Frank O’Hara—about whom he is unfailingly eloquent, even when ribbing O’Hara’s “Parisian artiness.” It’s anxiety of influence as real sweetness.

If he’s occasionally off the mark in opinion, it’s less often and better put than the rest of us; I’d rather read Ashbery’s undervaluing of Witold Gombrowicz than some contemporary’s rave. “One waits to see more of Gombrowicz,” he wrote, “if he is not on the present evidence a very satisfying novelist, he is at least not an easy one.” This was something one could say in the
Times Sunday Book Review, in 1967.

On occasion, Ashbery broaches his own poetics; for many this will be the sparkle. There’s a hilarious gem in his banter-as-interview with Kenneth Koch, wherein he proffers his poems as “just a bunch of impressions.” If there were hidden meanings, after all, “someone might find them out and then the poem would no longer be mysterious.” On such simplicities is literary history diverted. In a talk on the New York School (a brand name for which he has little patience) he makes some rather odd claims in a plain manner: “New York is really an anti-place, an abstract climate.” This is a fine account not of the city but of Ashbery’s own unmistakable, unlocatable metropolism. That’s in March 1968; the centrifuge of modernity is becoming a tilt-a-whirl. “Our program is the absence of any program,” he notes, the kind of simple slogan made for painting on the walls of the university.

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Books

Jonathan Ames + Jeff Johnson + Dan Kennedy + Kevin Sampsell

March 9

Happy Ending, 302 Broome, 212-334-9676. Of Ames’s latest novel, Wake Up, Sir!, Ed Park wrote in these pages: “One hopes Ames sees fit to stir up such pure fancy again. Here is a book, rigorous as a dream and well ventilated with wit . . . a classic of caprice.”


Charles Simic + Howie Michels

March 10

Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, 212-614-0505. The poetry and pictures of Simic and Michels, respectively, collide in the bawdy Aunt Lettuce, I Want to Peek Under Your Skirt. Perhaps too blue for Valentine’s Day, the pair will make for an interesting St. Patrick’s Day precursor, regaling early-evening drunks with poems such as “Love Flea” and “Crazy About Her Shrimp.”


Meg Wolitzer +Lauren Sanders

March 13

KGB Bar, 85 E 4th, 212-505-3360. Meg Wolitzer’s The Position is a study of American suburban malaise with a twist: In 1975 Paul and Roz Mellow write a sexual how-to featuring the couple in various positions, a book which predictably traumatizes their three children upon its discovery. Call it Corrections on the Kama Sutra.


Marilynne Robinson + Mary Gordon

March 14

92nd Street Y, Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500. The Voice‘s Mark Holcomb praised Robinson’s sophomore novel, Gilead—her first in 23 years!—for its “preternaturally intimate prose.” The author discusses her work with Mary Gordon, herself an accomplished novelist (of, most recently, Pearl).


John Ashbery

March 17

192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave, 212-255-4022. One of famed poet Ashbery’s latest is the tersely titled Selected Prose; the collection forms a triptych with the previously released Reported Sightings and Other Traditions. Ashbery will discuss his life and work, and present a few examples of the latter.


Glyn Maxwell+Don Paterson

March 21

92nd Street Y, Buttenwieser Hall, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500. Maxwell and Paterson are two of England’s best-regarded poets. The former’s books of poetry include The Breakage, The Boys at Twilight, and The Nerve, while the latter’s volumes include Landing Light, which won the Whitbread prize for poetry.


Francine Prose

March 22

192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave, 212-255-4022. Prose, author of the National Book Award-nominated Blue Angel, returns with a new novel. A Changed Man is the tragicomic story of disenchanted neo-Nazi Vincent Nolan and Holocaust survivor Meyer Maslow.


Cristina Garcia

March 23

Barnard College, Barnard Hall, 3009 Bway, 212-854-2037. Cuban American author Garcia returns to her alma mater to read from her latest, Monkey Hunting.


Noam Mor + Martin Nakell + Steve Tomasula

April 3

Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, 212-614-0505. The authors of novels Arc: Cleavage of Ghosts, The Library of Thomas Rivka, and VAS: An Opera in Flatland, respectively, Mor, Nakell, and Tomasula will meet to discuss “the state of avant-garde fiction.”


William T. Vollmann + Jonathan Safran Foer

April 4

92nd St Y, Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500. When Big-Idea Social Commentators Collide: New meets less-new when William T. Vollmann—author of, most recently, Europe Central—talks with Jonathan Safran Foer, on the day Foer’s new novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is released.


Steve Almond+Beth Kimmerle

April 6

Happy Ending, 302 Broome, 212-334-9676. Happy family abducted—and returned by aliens; golden boy wonders whether or not he’s a murderer: In Steve Almond’s The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, characters exist slightly to the left of where we’d expect to find them—or, in fact, where they’d expect to find themselves.


James Salter + Michael Ondaatje

April 21

92nd St Y, Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Ave, 212-415-5500. Over nearly a quarter of a century, Salter produced five novels—The Hunters, The Arm of Flesh, A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, and Solo Faces—well regarded and quickly adopted into the academy. He will discuss his work with Ondaatje, author of Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient among other works.


Alexander McCall Smith

May 4

Symphony Space, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 2537 Bway, 212-864-1414. Best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, McCall Smith returned in December with the simultaneous publication of three novellas—Portuguese Irregular Verbs, At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances, and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs. He’ll discuss his work with Malachy McCourt.


‘Selected Shorts:The Best American Short Stories 2004’

May 11

Symphony Space, Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 2537 Bway, 212-864-1414. Lorrie Moore knows a thing or three about the short story (see her collections Self-Help and Birds of America), so it makes sense to see her name appear under the newest edition of The Best American Short Stories. Moore will discuss her selections for the volume, as well as introduce readers.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

Put It All Down

“I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way,” the poet John Ashbery wrote in 1972. “And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer, way.” For 10 years, from 1989 to 1999, Pavement made music that lived in this gap of poetic indeterminacy—the gap, as Lou Reed put it, between thought and expression. They were the most consistent band of the ’90s, transmuting the noise and chaos of scenemakers like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. into glamour and melody, and restoring lyrical romanticism to an indie-rock world that had learned to feed on its own disillusionment. Few bands were funnier, or better, at describing their own sound in song, always better than the critics they loved to hoodwink: “electricity and lust,” “tricks are everything,” “style for miles and miles/so much style that it’s wasted,” “Can you treat it like an oil well/When it’s underground, out of sight?” “a special new band.”

In 2002, Matador expanded Pavement’s debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, into a double CD encompassing the Watery Domestic EP, B-sides, one-offs, Peel sessions, and a widely bootlegged live show. At this point in their development they could do no wrong, and having this material together in one place only makes that clearer. The music—the title goes a long way toward describing the sound—takes shape around singer-guitarist Steven Malkmus, much of it in overdubs that allowed for what partner Scott Kannberg calls “happy accidents.” Malkmus seems to be finding his way through these songs for the first time, using his voice and guitar to navigate. Almost 13 years later, the sense of discovery, of exploration, remains overwhelming.

Now comes a similar reissue of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain that includes a disc of material that has never even been bootlegged. It’s less compelling, but still fascinating. By this time, the music was no longer taking shape around Malkmus; now Malkmus was calling it forth, directing it, dictating the form. Pavement is in transition here—CRCR is a California album recorded on 32nd Street and Ninth Avenue in Manhattan. These songs are products of skill, not accident, and the previously unreleased tracks document a band learning how to turn one into the other. Eight come from aborted sessions at original drummer Gary Young’s studio in Stockton, California. Young was drinking so much they could only work in the morning, and it shows—the sound is a little bleary-eyed. Most of the vocals seem to be scratch takes where Malkmus has yet to find either melody or lyric.

Still, as the sessions continue in New York with a new drummer, you can hear how he used his habit of making lyrics up at the mic to map his unconscious, and how much power the music draws from just that. The sloppy off-the-cuff jokes (“I never had any children. . . . Maybe I’d like to fuck a woman and make one/But I don’t know if I should because I don’t have a real steady job”) make it plain that his great subject was a longing for love and domesticity at war with the bohemian pull of poetry, art, and rock & roll. So much for his much-bruited lyrical opacity. And though only a few of the bonus tracks are must-hears, including “Fucking Righteous,” a jam as in-the-red as the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” or “Sister Ray,” pleasures and surprises abound. It’s the sound of a great band gaining ambition, confidence, ability. Soon Pavement will take some of these first-draft songs on the road, and eventually they’ll recut them for their masterpiece, Wowee Zowee.

Put it all down or leave it all out. Malkmus—an Ashbery fan—knew there was no hope of truly doing either. So he went for songs that attempted both at once. In the gap this created, music and listeners could talk to each other, define each other. They still can.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Location, Location, Location

Egad,

Trixie, the water can speak! Like a boy
it speaks, and I’m not so sure how little all
this is,
how much fuss shouldn’t be made about it.

—John Ashbery, “The Burden of the Park”


I am large. . . . I contain multitudes.

—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


Bully for Whitman, but what about poetry now—slandered as a gabbling elitist, lonely and long rumored dead? According to CUNY’s Angus Fletcher, poets must master “a language capable of expressing the common fact of being perpetually overwhelmed” by the multitudinous world around them, be it the speechless wonders of unmediated nature or the stunned blur of urban flux. In his upcoming study-cum-manifesto, A New Theory for American Poetry (Harvard), Fletcher celebrates the immersive “environment-poem,” a shadow tradition that originated with the Romantic-era Englishman John Clare, reached an apotheosis with Whitman, and found a later exemplar in Ashbery.

“This is not a poem merely about the environment, but the poem actually is an environment,” explains Fletcher, who is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at CUNY Graduate School, in an interview with the Voice. “That is, we readers feel we are entering into a surrounding. The poem creates a newly perceived horizon for the reader and fills in this boundary with pieces of our lives.”

While the compensatory imagination associated with the Romantics might survey the grounds in search of allegory or epiphany, “the environment-poem gets me simply to join in, become a citizen within the scene,” Fletcher says. “Whitman and Ashbery present these subjects to us more in the manner of a virtual landscape we readers begin to wander about in.” According to this rubric, a poem is a self-sustaining place unto itself, as well as an exploratory, present-tense chronicling of its own becoming—attaining no conclusions but constantly venturing toward skylines unattainable, as in an Emily Dickinson poem with its vector-like dashes.

The idea of the American poem-as-ecosystem has a long and diverse lineage. In his 1950 essay “Projective Verse,” Charles Olson wrote, “From the moment [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—put himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself.” Denise Levertov built upon the concept in 1965 with “Some Notes on Organic Form,” as did Olson’s onetime Black Mountain College colleague Robert Duncan in his “Equilibrations” of 1968 (“The poem is not a stream of consciousness, but an area of composition in which I work with whatever comes into it”) and Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure,” published in 1984, which reads very much as a proto-crystallization of Fletcher’s thesis (and incidentally, could provide a worthy title for an Ashbery study).

The newness of A New Theory perhaps lies in the triangulation of Clare, Whitman, and Ashbery, who “all write poetry as if it were a revelatory or metaphysical journalism,” as Fletcher states in his book. Clare, the least well-known of the nexus, was a day laborer in English fen country, born in 1793, who shared an editor with Keats; the “peasant poet” enjoyed a brief London vogue before sinking irretrievably into poverty and insanity. (He spent the final 28 years of his life in asylums, where he wrote some of his greatest verse.) Ashbery devoted the first of his Norton lectures at Harvard in 2000 to Clare, praising the 1827 volume The Shepherd’s Calendar as “a distillation of the natural world with all its beauty and pointlessness, its salient and boring features preserved intact.” Ashbery’s prose poem “For John Clare” performs another distillation of perpetual overwhelm: “There is so much to be seen everywhere that it’s like not getting used to it, only there is so much it never feels new, never any different.”

According to Harold Bloom, the “absolutely Blakean” short lyric “A Vision” is Clare’s crowning achievement (“I snatch’d the sun’s eternal ray/And wrote till earth was but a name”), but Fletcher wouldn’t want the poem’s title to mislead. ” ‘Vision’ usually means Romantic transcendence of some sort, or a Ronald Reagan version of ad copy,” he says. The environment-poem, by contrast, privileges description over inscription, the mind’s motions over its destinations, pure perception over prophecy—summoning a “democratic vista,” to borrow Whitman’s phrase, that eschews what Fletcher summarizes as the “grand, egotistically sublime Wordsworthian vision.” (Nor should you necessarily judge Fletcher’s own book by its cover: As A New Theory‘s author declares, “I can tell you that 95 percent of all so-called theory and ‘theorizing literature’ has been glorified junk; that is, mostly mindless networking jargon.”)

The environment-poem doesn’t necessarily represent a counter-Romanticism—after all, wasn’t it Coleridge who spoke of “form as proceeding”? See Ashbery in “The Art of Speeding,” when the speaker announces himself “A free-lance artist. The last and first of the romantics.” Fletcher provides a gloss: “First because Ashbery is a radically Romantic thinker in his dreaming out loud, and a great student of poets from that time, and a believer in romantic love. Last because he comes late in the game, and would preserve all the force of Romantic vision by giving it a new turn.”

Born in 1927, Ashbery had a kindred spirit in the late A.R. Ammons (1926-2001), whose monumental Garbage (1993) is as quintessential an environment-poem as Ashbery’s Flow Chart (1991), and in his onetime co-author James Schuyler (1923-1991), whose stream-of-conversation nature walks practiced what Schuyler once called “the intimate yell”—surely a modulation of Walt’s barbaric yawp. (Surprisingly, Fletcher declines to nominate a single living writer who can keep visionary company with the godhead Ashbery, the most influential poet of both his generation and the next.)

In aligning Whitman and Ashbery, A New Theory may disturb the thumbnail consensus on both: big bear Uncle Walt, the “accessible,” “earthy,” “popular” former newspaperman who translated High Romantic sublimations into the American demotic; and the elusive JA, the “difficult,” “abstract,” “private” New York School star, scion-in-verse of Wallace Stevens. How would history be different if, say, Bill had given Monica a copy of Ashbery’s (in)famously experimental The Tennis Court Oath? (Blatantly unrepresentative sample line: “the clean fart genital enthusiastic toe prick album serious evening flames”!)

Especially after reading A New Theory, though, the ample affinities leap and spark: Ashbery’s “At North Farm” scans like the answer-poem to Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “Some Trees” appears as the forest neighbors to “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” and so on and on. “Whitman and Ashbery share a fascination with the myriad small details of life that make it what it is, day to day,” Fletcher says. “They project these details into a tapestry, a larger description of our democratic life and hopes and fears. They share a freedom of form; they keep inventing new poetic shapes. They write poems endlessly, as their chosen form of life, as their continuing biography of the soul.” And they implore us to make a fuss, to pay attention: “The environment-poem stays in the present,” Fletcher says, “and tells us always, There is more here than meets the eye, so keep looking.”

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ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES

Gizzi’s Lyrical Sublime: A Word Is Worth a Thousand Pictures

How come all the best thoughts/are images? How come all the best images/are uncanny?” Peter Gizzi asks in “Revival,” an elegy for beat maudit Gregory Corso, and they’re not rhetorical questions. Gizzi’s gift for shorthand sublimity could defib Rilke: The leadoff sequence “A History of the Lyric” catalogs grand impersonal archaisms from “the white curled backs/of snapshots tucked in a frame/eyes of the dead” to a “burning ship. Buckling dam” to an opening door geometrically realized as “a trapezoid in deep gold light.”

Lush description and soulful wariness are default settings for the editor of o-blek, the journal that in the ’80s and early ’90s declined to patrol aesthetic borders as it charted the progress of the language poets and their predecessors from the New York School and Black Mountain groups. Like half of American poets born after 1940, Gizzi is compared to John Ashbery, the baffling rich uncle of American poetry. While Gizzi’s earlier, more high-toned and fragmented books bear the comparison out, his third book tends in an altogether original direction, one that moves away from spiritual longing and vocabulary mix-and-matching toward a public and personal statement that you don’t just overhear, you drop what you’re doing to listen. The end of “To Be Written in No Other Country” is a bitter example: “When and whenever past Saturdays/of adolescents in faded Kodak/enter the discourse of politicians/know you are not alone and your scrapbook/will be enough in talk of resolutions/and what you plan to do this weekend/to the garage and the porch.”

Even at his most intense reliance on images, Gizzi telegraphs huge interpersonal dramas, as when he notes that a landscape of intense beauty “more sparkling than sun on brick” gives him the warning of “October’s crossing-guard orange,” or when he captures the all-or-nothing gamble of soldiers on the front lines in what, at first glance, looks like lecture notes: “an avant-garde/a backward glance.”