I Ride a Donkey in a Drizzle

The secret of most writers I know is that if they’re writing (and working at whatever job permits them to write), they don’t have much time to read. During the school year, with a full (adjunct) teaching load, as well as independent-study students, university scholar projects, committee attendance, office hours, e-mail correspondence, professional blogging, manuscript preparation, job searches, and domestic life with children, I often can only look wistfully at books that gape off my shelves like loose dentures.


August 2, 2011

The secret of most writers I know is that if they’re writing (and working at whatever job permits them to write), they don’t have much time to read. During the school year, with a full (adjunct) teaching load, as well as independent-study students, university scholar projects, committee attendance, office hours, e-mail correspondence, professional blogging, manuscript preparation, job searches, and domestic life with children, I often can only look wistfully at books that gape off my shelves like loose dentures. Well, you have it worse, I know you do, unless you’re this guy, in which case you have it very good indeed, but unfortunately you don't realize you've become a tool.

My family and I decided not entirely by free will to stay put this summer and focus, though now that Mrs. Churm has found a job there’ll be a few days of budget travel as the summer winds down. I worked hard on my novel, and by reading assiduously every night after the boys were in bed I’ve also been able to finish a bunch of books. I’d like to recommend a few:

Drizzle and Plum Blossoms: Four Poets of the Song Dynasty, trans. Li C. Tien and John Palen. Here in the post-postmodern era, it’s said that belief may be creeping back in, but it still seems to me, Rory, much contemporary writing programmatically tries to stick to the text-within-texts puzzle. Call me old-fashioned (like, a thousand years and more), but I love ancient Chinese poetry for its vivid sharpness, repose, and willingness to commit to the attempt to approach the world directly. The effect can be startling in its sudden shifts of awareness: “Here are plums the size of peas, / willow leaves like eyebrows, / a butterfly crossing the long day, / then dew-bent flowers, / haze over grass, drawn curtains.”

Translation is the art of difficult choices, and there is an odd repetition of the word “drizzle” in this book. It’s a comic word after all, slightly vulgar and unpretty-sounding, and I suspect English lacks options for the translator. Mist? Not the same thing. Spitting rain? Sprinkle? (I prefer the French word for the strange mist-rain of northern Vietnam—crachin—but it hasn’t caught on in east-central Illinois.) The choice of “drizzle” is at its best here in the translation of a poem by Lu You: “How did I end up like this, / a poet instead of a soldier? / Like poets before me I ride / a donkey in a drizzle into Jianmen.” Despite a millennium’s passage since its writing, the situation is instantly recognizable. Who hasn’t ridden that donkey toward Jianmen?

Open Communion: New and Selected Poems, John Palen. This very good collection from 2005 is by one of the translators of Drizzle and Plum Blossoms, above, and it’s clear that Palen is influenced by Asian poetry. To start with, he often focuses on nature imagery, even when the object is manmade, as with this slaughtered vehicle, which ends up being beautiful: “Someone has hoisted / a salmon-pink Pinto / on a block and tackle / slung from a long limb. / Rust shows / under the raised hood, / and engine parts are scattered / like branches and leaves / on the ground.”

It’s been suggested that poems in the Imagist tradition try to evade morality by focusing on isolated images or metaphors, but that’s not accurate. Here, Palen has a poem titled, “On the Destruction of a Civilian Airliner by a U.S. Naval Ship, With 290 Lives Lost.” It’s subject is the 1988 accidental shooting-down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the USS Vincennes. He does start with the simple act of looking and naming: “Why is it that after catastrophes like this— / Bhopal, Flight 255— / my impulse is to sit where I can look quietly/ at something, almost anything, / and describe what I see. This limestone / retaining wall, for example, enclosing / red roses and orange marigolds: / no need to reach for meaning….”

Of course he does reach for and take meaning, halfway through the poem: “Looking through instruments / instead of eyes, we see / fire instead of marigold, / say the word “enemy,” / and these die, / who were not clear enough / about who they were / to register correctly on our systems.”

Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, trans. David Young. As the title suggests, this is a sort of autobiography in poetry, with modern translation, arrangement, selection, an introduction and brief footnotes to shape it. Again I’m struck by how fresh and relevant this writing is, despite being 1,250 years old. As Young says in his introduction,

[Du Fu, sometimes Tu Fu] began as a good poet and turned himself into a great poet, and he did this in an unprecedented fashion, widening his subject matter steadily, complicating his worldview, taking in more and more of the totality of existence, even as the social fabric around him was disrupted and devastated. As his society, one of the world’s great civilizations, slipped from a golden age into chaos and uncertainty, he responded imaginatively, with poems whose excellence still startles us.

On one of many journeys Du Fu crosses the landscape noticing the beauty and stillness of nature, where “field mice run and duck / in and out of burrows.” But suddenly a few lines later: ”the cold moon shines / on white and scattered bones / why should a huge army / so suddenly be destroyed / and this whole region / lose half its population?”

Your Father on the Train of Ghosts, GC Waldrep and John Gallaher. This collection of poems is a collaborative effort in the tradition of renga, where poets perform a kind of call-and-response together. In this case, Waldrep (Archicembalo) and Gallaher e-mailed hundreds of poems back and forth over several months (this BOA edition contains 200 pages out of more than 700), creating in the end a mutual voice that is neither poet alone. A snippet from “Parable of the Door”:

For there to be a funeral, someone must die—
That’s one rule, you’re guessing. And
the politicians at the viewing, all crowded
around the little tables, with their little trays
of credit cards and baked brie with honey.

The two have read here before, separately, but I had the pleasure last month of seeing them together on their mutual tour and road trip, right after they had stopped at the National Circus Hall of Fame Museum in Peru, Indiana. Imagine Gertrude Stein and Hart Crane in a vaudeville act. Or something. GC, the coolest-wittiest Amish guy I know, wrote in his inscription to me…well, I can’t read what he wrote to me. But I’ll bet it’s awfully cool.

Stories V!, Scott McClanahan. I reviewed Scott McClanahan’s first two story collections here. Stories V! (his third book, playfully) are short- and micro-stories in plain, unadorned language, which nonetheless go right to the heart of story’s impulse. In this collection you’ll find fragility, guilt, earnestness, narcissism, “Sex Tapes,” “Love Letters,” “Dead Baby Jokes,” “A Chapter from a Book I Will Start Writing in 2012,” and a farewell to writing for good. While the last is almost certainly a lie—at least we hope it is—much of the rest of the slim collection is powerful, and you’ll want to follow young Mr. McClanahan wherever he goes.

Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow. Listen, it was one of my first blog posts, more than four years ago: We’re all under-read and have gaps in our knowledge, me more than most. I love Bellow’s work, he’s a hero, but I’d never read Sammler, one of his three National Book Award winners. Set in NYC in the ‘60s, the novel is (to ludicrously reduce its meaning) about an old man who’s an intellectual and a Holocaust survivor trying to understand his own survivor’s guilt and a world where “progress”—most recently space travel—hasn’t alleviated suffering. His balance, good nature, and humanity, despite his apparent fragility, are beautiful to experience.

The Hawkline Monster:A Gothic Western, Richard Brautigan. I’m not Richard Brautigan’s ideal reader, and I get bored by his mannerism of jumping to a surreal image when all else fails. I did enjoy Confederate General from Big Sur, and the first two-thirds of Hawkline are riveting, even at times terrifying. Two hardass gunmen (played by me and Rory in a film one day) in 1902 take a job in a Victorian house with its own climate and ice caves underneath, where a monster lurks, and the father of the family is hidden in plain sight as an umbrella stand. Oops, there’s that jump. But for a long while the story rolls along like a classic.

Confessions of a Young Novelist, Umberto Eco. Young is relative, of course, and in this collection of four Richard Ellmann Lectures that Eco gave at Harvard, he admits that in his 77th year what he really means is that he began publishing novels only 28 years ago, that he’s published only five of them, and that “[I] will publish many more in the next fifty years.” The book is as smart and funny as you’d expect lectures by Eco to be, with much insight to his craft and aesthetics along the way. Nearly the last half is an essay in several parts, called “My Lists,” which is abundantly, dementedly brilliant.

The American Scene, Henry James. One of James’ travel books, first serialized in 1905-06, about a trip down the East Coast while visiting from England, American Scene is controversial in part because of James’ portrayal of race (Leon Edel defends him). It’s also written in the rococo late style, which takes application. Yet it's filled with poetic and wise observations on American culture, in the tradition of Tocqueville, Frances Trollope and later, Baudrillard, and Eco (again). At least for working purposes, I’m using two sentences from American Scene as an epigraph for my novel:

He doesn’t know, he can’t say, before the facts, and he doesn’t even want to know or to say; the facts themselves loom, before the understanding, in too large a mass for a mere mouthful: it is as if the syllables were too numerous to make a legible word. The illegible word, accordingly, the great inscrutable answer to questions, hangs in the vast American sky, to his imagination, as something fantastic and abracadabrant, belonging to no known language, and it is under this convenient ensign that he travels and considers and contemplates, and, to the best of his ability, enjoys.

Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil and Society in the American Countryside, Ben Cohen. Speaking of visits to American soil in search of meaning, my friend Ben, who’s all up in science, the environment, ethics, and finding common ground between technology and humanism, published this scholarly study in hardcover, with Yale, two years ago. That’s when I first read it, enjoyed it, and prepared a long list of questions to interview him for this blog. Back then he was an adjunct of sorts at Virginia, and I was an adjunct at Illinois, and he and I both had written columns for McSweeney’s and we both had first books. Somehow, by some fault of my own, which I have no memory of now, the interview didn’t happen. Now his book is going into paper (I’ve been re-reading the hardcover), and he’s tenure-stream at a different uni, and we’ll get to that interview one day soon. In the meantime, you might check out Notes, which shows how science had to more or less force its way into American georgic thinking about how best to care for agricultural soil. Or, as Ben writes, “This book is about how and why dirt became an object of scientific interest.”

An Improvised Life: A Memoir, Alan Arkin. I’ve always liked Arkin, starting with his portrayal of the sane second-in-command of a Soviet sub in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. This memoir is not what I expected; I was hoping for stories about his films and acquaintances. Instead it’s mostly an explanation of the method he uses as an actor, director, and teacher in what he calls improv. By that he doesn’t mean sketch comedy (though he was an original member of Second City), but something more like Stanislavski or Meisner technique. He does tie his method to living a fulfilling and ethical life, and while I could do without brief mentions of things like dream regression analysis, I largely read with great interest. Acting students will especially find it useful.


I also wanted to mention a couple of books by friends that are either out or are due out soon, and which I’ll get to next:

The Funny Man, John Warner. John and I go way back, but even if I didn’t think his wit and craft would triumph, it’s inconceivable that a novel about a guy who gets famous for sticking his fist in his mouth could miss. Out soon. I have it in uncorrected proofs. Neener.

The Mimic’s Own Voice, Tom Williams. I met Tom at the most recent AWP conference in DC, and a nicer, kinder, more engaging guy I can’t imagine. Tom read from this novella at Vermin On the Mount, a reading series, and I enjoyed it a lot. The eponymous mimic’s “fans and rivals know…he can mimic…every speaker in the world…but they still want to know the man behind the voices. Even when he stops performing and disappears from view, even after his death, their interest in him doesn’t fade….”

Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, Sandra Beasley. You might remember Sandra, an award-winning young poet, from her guest post here at the blog, back when she was just headed down the path toward this nonfiction book. (She also generously agreed to be a part of Radio Free AWP.) It’s been exciting and gratifying to see someone with her talent and drive succeed, and this crossover book has been doing wonderfully since it came out this year. Yes, it’s about allergies (and is currently #2 in Amazon’s disease/disorder category), but from what I’ve read so far it’s also a beautifully-written memoir in the literary vein.


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