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May I Recommend to You Some Books to Read?

It's hump day at Powell's, and I'm (not surprisingly) a little hungover from the excitement (that reach for The Other) of yesterday's purchases (Salter, Adler, Simic). May I recommend three titles that Powells.com and Powell's downtown currently carry?

1. Mary Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

Collected over many years of giving lectures at Vermont College's low-residency MFA program, these are not simply poetry craft essays but essays searching hard for discovery in the face of rampant uncertainty, death, despair, and wonder. Ruefle's prose reveals her very intense passion for poetics while arguing in multiple ways (and across all her lectures) that the most impactful writers write with humility and devotion to mystery and confusion and uncertainty in the face of death and reverence for those (e.g., Keats, Clare, Dickinson) who have spoken before. I don't know more than you don't know. This passage is from her lecture "On Secrets":


I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say; but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to. (77)

This title — now in its second edition! — is published by Wave Books in Seattle (and New York), and (not bragging here) I have been told by Wave staff members who shall remain nameless that I am their "number one fan." I teach their books a lot to my Marylhurst students and order multiple copies of all of their titles. Enough said.

2. Selected Stories by Robert Walser and translated mainly by Christopher Middleton, published by FSG and later reissued by NYRB Classics

Walser was a contemporary of Rilke and Kafka and wrote in poverty, illness, and obscurity over the course of 25 to 30 years before he was involuntarily moved to a mental hospital in 1932. I just gave a talk to the MFA nonfiction program at Columbia College on what I call The Unparagraph — that is, prose not organized in manageable chunks for the reader. Here's what I said about Walser in that talk:

If us Unparagraphers end up choosing a team captain, Walser's our man. As W. G. Sebald said in his Walser essay, when reading Walser, one feels oneself beckoned by Walser, as if from the other side. His prose is maximal. He takes pleasure in staying with a sentence indefinitely, expanding through self-reflexivity, equivocation, digression, extending the Present Moment of Composition, so that our first French kiss with Anne XXXX will never ever ever ever end!

3. Edouard Levé's Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein, published by Dalkey Archive Press

I love this book for many reasons. It unabashedly, unapologetically explores the self-illuminating other (Yeats). Levé's narrator speaks frankly (and personally!) about sex, death, and religion, uttering so often what seems unutterable, each utterance another salvo fired by the warring selves, e.g., self-diminishing self, the detached self, self as lonely, self as separate from others, the silent self, the self in incessant resistance to others. The accumulation of utterance — the self has SPOKEN AND SPOKEN AND SPOKEN — exalts the self, lightens the self even amidst the bulk of revealed despair and futility. The list is pleasingly labyrinthine, built from layering stances contradictory and/or analogous to one another, varying in content, mode (dream, thought, anecdote), and register (private, banal, philosophical), sans transitional phrase, sans paragraph breaks. No matter what the narrator describes — his sexual relationships with women, his dietary preferences — the tone is detached, tired, stripped of emotion. Here's a little taste from pages 114-115:

When I was a child, I didn't ask riddles. I don't know how many animals I could recognize by scent. To survive an ordeal, I break it up into sections. I cannot remember having spoken to a New Zealander. I improvise only on the piano. Despite myself, I look away when I pass a dwarf. I hear the word "marvelous" and I marvel. I do not use the word "gamine." As far as I know, only one woman has gotten pregnant by me. Borrowing is an ordeal. They took out four wisdom teeth, unless maybe it was two. Because of their names, certain acts strike me as outdated, for example, "laying down a deposit." Tonsils (amygdales) make me think of spiders (mygales).

And, bonus book!: Brandon Shimoda's Portuguese: Poems, newly published by Tin House Books and Octopus Books, a terrific collaborative publishing project brought to us by Portland poets Matthew Dickman and Zachary Schomburg. Buy Portuguese by Brandon Shimoda. And buy Schomburg's books. Buy Dickman's books. If you can't afford them, I might have extra copies...


More from Jay Ponteri on PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Jay Ponteri directs the undergraduate creative writing program at Marylhurst University and Show: Tell, the Workshop for Teen Writers and Artists. He is the founding editor of both the online literary magazine M Review and HABIT Books. Wedlocked: A Memoir is his first book.


Books mentioned in this post

  1. Wedlocked: A Memoir Used Trade Paper $10.95
  2. Portuguese: Poems New Trade Paper $14.95
  3. Autoportrait Used Trade Paper $7.95
  4. Selected Stories Used Trade Paper $7.95
  5. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected...
    New Trade Paper $25.00
  6. New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012 New Hardcover $30.00
  7. Speedboat
    Used Trade Paper $8.95
  8. All That Is
    Used Hardcover $11.95
  9. Selected Stories (02 Edition) Used Trade Paper $8.00


Jay Ponteri is the author of Wedlocked: A Memoir

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