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Author Archive: "Jae"

The Collected Poems

The dark and tragic tones of American poet Sylvia Plath cannot be denied — her persona and infamous death ensure this — but her poems are also by turns playful and deeply haunting, and this too must be admitted. A stunning collection.

Collected Poems

Inscrutable poet-of-ideas Wallace Stevens is a deepening favorite of mine, and the reasons are here in his Collected Poems. Stevens's poems are timeless — his imagery is vivid and beautifully precise; his ideas are endlessly strange. A vital volume for any personal library.

The Book of Disquiet

How does one proceed in approaching Fernando Pessoa? Writing under at least 72 known heteronyms, he's a complicated wonder to ferret out from his constructed personae, who have individual prose styles, life histories, and even politics. One must proceed by diving into the work itself. A beautiful, inventive text, The Book of Disquiet is a posthumous collection of fragments attributed to Pessoa's "semi-heteronym" Bernardo Soares (whom he considered close to his own personality but still "a mere mutilation" of it). What interests me about Pessoa is his preoccupation with self as an imagined entity, apparent even in his description of a lake at sunset:

The golden tint that still glows on waters abandoned by the setting sun is hovering on the surface of my weariness. I see myself as I see the lake I've imagined, and what I see in that lake is myself. I don't know how to explain this image, or this symbol, or this I that I envision. But I know I see, as if in reality I were seeing, a sun behind the hills that casts its doomed rays on to this lake that dark-goldenly shimmers.

Carry On, Jeeves

Q: Do you ever go back and reread your own books?

Wodehouse: Oh, yes.

Q: Are you ever surprised by them?

Wodehouse: I'm rather surprised that they're so good.

And there is English humorist P. G. Wodehouse's particular brand of sly chagrin, the playful swatting that populates his oeuvre. I am utterly, thoroughly charmed by Wodehouse, an infatuation that began with Carry On, Jeeves, a collection of 10 short adventures centering on Bertie Wooster and everyone's favorite all-knowing butler, Jeeves. Wodehouse is noted for his light, humorous prose, and sometimes denigrated for being a "popular writer." But my thought is you don't criticize Buster Keaton for not doing King Lear; instead, you watch The General for the 20th time and marvel at the comic genius. The same is true for Wodehouse. These new clothbound editions by Overlook Press are seriously stunning and beg for your book-love.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

Of our two positions — you, not having read Amy Hempel, and me, having read and loved Amy Hempel — the equivalents are as follows: If we were playing Monopoly, consider Park Place mine. If we were trying to determine who tops whom in the food chain, please trust that you'd be the thin blade of saw grass in the mouth of the lamb I stalked for dinner. I play first chair in the philharmonic, I toss first pitch at the World Series. What I'm saying is reading Amy Hempel gives you the advantage. Because her fiction is perfect — her prose so distilled, you couldn't imagine she could pack in one voluminous truth after another (but she does); her understanding of undercurrent is so eerie, I find I sometimes have to brace myself for what's to come. It's all too easy to dismiss the hyperbole of book blurbs, but I invite you to open any page and start reading. I promise you'll already be a little better off for it.

On Tact, and the Made Up World

Michele Glazer's On Tact, and the Made Up World is outstanding. These are poems executed with live-wire exactitude; even where one cannot have certainty, Glazer presents her reader with the option that absence is certain enough. And there are absences. "Holes" appear frequently throughout these poems — holes of vision, tunnels that worm out past the point of visibility, forcing the eye to doubt what could constitute the "made up world," from the blown-glass flowers of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka to the "girl in pink moving from lap to lap to lap." Hole, deriving from 'hol' (Old English), means hollow. Interesting then, that whole derives from 'hool,' meaning healthy, unhurt. One less "o," that perfect shape of hole-ness, and we are left in the cavity of something less complete. It is in this sunken grade that these poems reside, not without a keen and spirited awareness, not without a complex appreciation for the broken thing. "Name everything that can break," Glazer says, and we can't; it's too much.

Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation

Contemporary American poet Fanny Howe has written over 25 books of poetry and prose. Her spare style of poetry is lauded for its bold experimentalism and the incisive intellect behind it. The Winter Sun, her third book of essays, is a deeply personal investigation, an attempt to map, and not without trepidation, the places a self coheres to the life it is designated, and where it diverges. These essays pass itinerantly through autobiography, ruminations on race and class and religion, on to scholars and mystics and French poets, and provide a means of shaping and then deciphering Howe's poetic practice. Like the sun in winter, this intimate window really should not be taken lightly. Avail yourself of the view.

The Poetics of Space

Philosopher Gaston Bachelard published The Poetics of Space in 1958, many years into a prolific and prestigious career in science and French academe. A rationalist who believed rational thought was an ill-fitting framework for exploring the imagination, dream worlds, and poetics, Bachelard was nevertheless intensely interested in exactly these realms. In this book, he proposes a rethinking of space based on lived experience, risen from one's intimate experiences in/with them. His phenomenology of architecture, then, is most concerned with the house (or its alter ego, the dream house), the nest, corner nooks, and the inner cove of a seashell. Bachelard addresses these spaces, winningly, with fondness: "Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these 'objects' and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy....Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe?" Though Bachelard is not the most casual read, I highly recommend this dense text for pragmatics, poets, and any of us with a penchant for the leaning tower of the literary postmodern.

The Book of Beginnings and Endings

The Book of Beginnings and Endings begins with the perfect visual complement on its cover: an installation by Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers. An egg is a literal, biological, and metaphorical beginning. But an eggshell is an ending; emptied of its typical function, it can only hope for the compost heap. Here though, we see eggshells — through a windowed cabinet, on a painted table — all broken, but some refashioned to look whole. The cabinet brims with them, the table has no surface free of them; the threat is that some eggshells will fall and break. Why is it scary that something broken should again break? What becomes the middle when the middle is gone? These are just two of the questions Jenny Boully's project forces to mind. Like the eggshell halves, these 36 essays/poems simulate intactness, but are comprised of the first page of a text and the last page of a separate text. Boully uses these sutures to explore her interest in form, intent, wholeness, and capacity (even when the notion of holding is entirely disrupted). Sometimes the seams are ridged and visible. Sometimes they're not. But Boully's overall objective is to bend the text until it is ...

Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

It's difficult to say which genre best fits Claudia Rankine's explosive fourth book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, so instead I'll say it is poem/essay/many-headed hydra. Narrated by a stricken, channel-surfing "I" and accompanied by images as disparate as video stills from Herzog's Fitzcarraldo as well as from the murder case of Amadou Diallo, it is also poem as evening news, and poem as Eisensteinian montage in which "each sequential element is perceived not next to the other, but on top of the other." These stacking worlds create the odd, mesmerizing gulf from which Rankine writes, one in which anxiety, grief, and footnote are the only constants. Challenging, startling, and moving, this project is one of the first that has actually spoken to me in its address of the sociopolitical, schizophrenic times in which we live.

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