Friday, March 30, 2012

Hillary Gravendyk: Harm

Harm, Hillary Gravendyk (Omnidawn, 2011)

One feels old. The letter carrier today brought Michael Heller's huge and beautifully designed This Constellation Is a Name: Collected Poems 1965-2010 (Nightboat), and all I could think was, this isn't right – Mike's a guy with a handful of exquisite collections, not a brick of a book like this. But then I realized, I was stuck in the late 1980s, when Heller published In the Builded Place; and he's been publishing a new, strong collection every few years since; and before you know it, yes all those slim volumes add up to an almost 600-page volume. Need I add that I can't wait to dive into This Constellation, to re-meet all those old acquaintances among his poems, & savor the new work?
I suppose we've been witnessing the full-blown return of the lyric "I" for the last 2 decades or so – and some of course would say it's never gone away. Hillary Gravendyk's Harm is an almost unbearably personal sequence of poems, written in the wake of the author's double lung transplant. "Harm" – the harm of her decade-long pulmonary disorder, the harm of the unimaginably invasive medical procedure that she's undergone, the psychological harm of living with one's face to a fundamentally uncertain future – harm is here fused intricately and inextricably with healing, so that the process of healing itself becomes a kind of torture, the hive of bee-stings with every breath taken in.

Gravendyk intersperses densely metaphorical prose poems with sparser, still metaphorized, verse. In the end it's the sure-footed lyricism of the book, the impressive music of the lines that carries the reader onward thru the at times nightmarish hospital landscape, where the body becomes interpenetrated, even fused with the digital mechanisms our century deploys to prolong, sustain, and jump-start life.
Shore curved like an instep against the soft fray of water
but all the litter of other lives
and minus shells, minus salt glass
begins a poem on a "Sleep Chart": see how "lives" and "like," "litter" and "water" bind the second line to the first, how the 2nd and 3rd lines play variations on the "l" sound, how the delicate spondee of "salt glass" (delicate on account of its short vowels) touches a faint rhyme with "lives."

I want to use the words "lovely" and "moving" for this book – they feel like boilerplate. Suffice it to say that Gravendyk's collection kept me, rivetted, in the rooms & neighborhood of a hospital – my least favorite place on earth – for eighty rapt pages.


Thursday, March 29, 2012

£ian economics, & where not to learn about them

Like most people who've read & worked on Ezra Pound, I've always found the economic side of his writings pretty tough going. Sure, I can understand and sympathize with his outrage at how capitalism was working itself out in the first part of the century. And needless to say, I've always found the "Jewish-banker-&-financier-conspiracy" place he arrived at in his later thought to be just plain obscene. But in between Ruskinian outrage and anti-Semitic madness, there's Social Credit, the economic scheme hatched by Major Clifford H. Douglas in the early part of the century, passed on to Pound by AR Orage, and ominipresent in Pound's thought and correspondence form the mid-30s on; and I've always found Social Credit a hard business to understand, even in the relatively lucid exposition Hugh Kenner offers in The Pound Era.

So I was mightily pleased when I discovered, a year or so back, that Meghnad Desai, former LSE professor of economics & the author of Marx's Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism (Verso 2002) had written a book on Pound's economics. Desai (that's Baron Desai to you commoners) is, in the words of one reviewer, a "mild sort of heretic himself who has written sympathetically about Karl Marx, but who, whether he admits it or not, is now a mainstream economist." That's certainly my impression of Marx's Revenge; not at all a Marxist text (despite coming from Verso), but one of the most lucid and impressive histories of economic analysis I've encountered. I had high hopes that the Baron would be able to untangle and usefully contextualize Social Credit, Silvio Gesell, and all those other economic "heresies" that figure so largely in the mature Pound's thought.

The Route of All Evil: The Political Economy of Ezra Pound (Faber 2006) is not an easy book to come by, and I finally got my hands on a copy, thanks to the magic of internet shopping, early last week. It proves to be quite the disappointment. I don't mind that Desai doesn't really address the poetry; it's not his bailiwick, after all. And I suppose I don't really mind that he doesn't even attempt to tackle the mountain of Pound secondary literature. I do mind, however, that the secondary material he tackles feels like what happened to be on his shelves at the moment: we get The Pound Era, we get Paul Morrison's and Peter Nicholls's books on Pound's politics. But for biographical reference, we get Noel Stock's ancient (1970) biography (he's "Nigel" stock on the first page of the Preface, a clue to how well copy-edited this book is) and John Tytell's 1987 rehash of Stock (not to mention E. Fuller Torrey's psychological slash-job The Roots of Treason). Where, pray tell, is Humphrey Carpenter's huge and (for better or worse) state-of-the-art 1988 A Serious Character?

And why, if Desai's proposing to write on Pound's political economy, hasn't he dipped into some of the more recent excellent studies: Alec Marsh's prize-winning Money and Modernity: Pound, Williams, and The Spirit of Jefferson (University of Alabama Press 1998), or Tim Redman's Ezra Pound and Italian Fascism (Cambridge 1991), or Leon Surette's Pound in Purgatory (Indiana 2003)? Desai doesn't even cite Earle Davis's Vision Fugitive: Ezra Pound and Economics (Kansas 1968), which flawed as it is is far more careful and thoughtful than The Route of All Evil.

The problems of Desai's book go beyond the copy-editing blips of misremembered names, dropped commas, and multiple outright repetitions. Events are given as taking place at one date on one page, a different date on the next. Paragraphs veer off course into name-dropping digressions. Sentences metastasize into ungainly, well-nigh ungrammatical blobs. Explications of abstruse economic theory take us out to the deep end of the terminological pool (and this in a book explicitly pitched for the general reader) then, just as they seem to be nearing climax, abruptly break off into biographical notes.

This is in short one of the most ill-edited, ill-written books I've encountered in ages. It's not merely a work "of the left hand," as Milton famously called his own prose tracts, but it seems to have been written in snatches, dashed off in airport lounges between flights, or scribbled at in the twenty minutes before lights-out that we call "story-time" around here. Desai claims that his book will elucidate the roots of Pound's economic theory, situate it within the context of other "money cranks," and show that Pound's ideas have relevance to the age of globalism. Score: #1, C-; #2, D; #3, F (I count maybe three sentences in the book that assert – not demonstrate – the relevance of EP's economics to the contemporary).

What does The Route of All Evil offer the Pound scholar? nothing. What does it offer the general reader? nothing she or he can't get more lucidly, and more elegantly, from a half-hour's nosing around in The Pound Era. So why, for the love of Pete, did Faber of all people publish this thing? There's a clue in the Preface, where Baron Desai recalls an evening in "House of Lords in the Peers' Guest Room (the only bar where peers can entertain guests," and a conversation with his friends (Baron) Robert Skidelsky, Keynes's biographer, and Matthew Evans, Baron Evans of Temple Guiting, in which the topic of Pound's politics came up. Yes, that Matthew Evans – managing director of Faber, who of course encouraged Desai to put up a proposal & write the book. And they say small press publishing is an insider's game.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

the tangible thing

Reading Wells's Tono-Bungay on the iPad, after reading stacks of his science fiction things on my (pre-Touch) Kindle over this past summer. The iPad reading experience is, at least to these aging eyes, rather more pleasant than the Kindle experience. I appreciate the Kindle's lightness, its slip-in-pocket-of-your-cargo-shorts go-anywhereness; I like its seemingly infinite battery life; but I'm not sold on the "digital ink" display, nor do I like any of the typefaces available. That's okay: it delivers the text, and it's been more than good enough for engrossed readings of Verne, Wells, Gaskell, and a bit of George Eliot.

Tono-Bungay? From the first fifth of the thing, I can say that it's quite well written indeed. Rather moving, in fact. Hard to see in what direction the story's going to head – I'd picked it up after reading a description of it (in John Gross's Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters) as a kind of ripping satire of Victorian commercialism, but thus far it's shaping up as a rather intimate Bildungsroman. Wells is better than Gaskell here (at least the Gaskell I've read), but he's no George Eliot.

I had the occasion to revisit the other Eliot (T. Stearns) the other week, in the form of the bulky HBJ hardcover of his Complete Poems and Play 1909-1950 – the one where the cover is dominated by the aged eagle staring purse-lipped from behind his round spectacles. The binding of that particular book is in a parlous state, I'm afraid; a couple of signatures are on the verge of falling out. And that's not to mention the rather shocking degree of underlining & marginalia pretty much throughout. (Okay, not quite throughout – I haven't really marked Practical Cats much at all, nor the weaker of the plays.)

I bought the book in my second year of graduate school, ostensibly for Joel Porte's course on American Modernism, but really because I wanted an Eliot. My own copies of his poems – if you're of a certain age you know the editions, those thin little HBJ mass-market paperbacks, The Waste Land and Other Poems in grey, Four Quartets in yellow – had gotten soaked one undergraduate year when the pipes in the apartment above me had frozen. I kept the books, swollen and curled as they were, for a few years, unwilling to part with the familiar typeface, the now-blurred ballpoint notes, but eventually the mold drove me to throw them away & replace them with the Complete Poems and Plays, itself now foxed and beginning to disintegrate, the corners of the leaves of the first hundred pages or so almost entirely worn into finger-friendly curves.

No, I have nothing really new to add to the proliferating conversation on the merits and demerits of digital, screen reading. I'm by no means an early adopter, but I'm happy with the Kindle and the iPad, happy to be able to carry around bookcases'-worths of Victorian and Edwardian novels, never having to worry about eventually shelving them. But I wonder if I'll ever make of any of those books my own in the same tangible way that I did those Eliot volumes, or that copy of To the Lighthouse I read to tatters, or the creased and multiply-read Princess of Mars back in my mother's house? Tono-Bungay remains oddly intangible to me, and even when I digitally "underline" passages, or fill the digital "margin" with typed notes, I can't feel myself interacting with the page in that same way.

Monday, March 05, 2012


As of 3.00 pm Friday, I've been on Spring Break. Which means of course beer bongs, foam raves, and general non-stop partying. Not really. Indeed, I'm wondering whether I've forgotten how to relax. Even reading novels, rather than recondite slim volumes of contemporary poetry or gnarly, ill-written works of literary & cultural criticism, makes me feel guilty, as tho I'm stealing time away from what I ought to be doing. You can take the boy out of the fundamentalist, guilt-ridden, work-ethical protestant church, I guess, but you can't take the protestant, fundamentalist, guilt-ridden work ethic out of the boy...

At least there's a tenuous Ruskin connection in Forster's Howards End (1910), which I finished re-reading last night, in a kind of ecstasy of wonder at the man's prose and the complex balancing of thought and emotion in his characters. The ill-fated Leonard Bast, that is, when we first meet him is making his way thru Stones of Venice. That reading marks him in our eyes, and in the eyes of Schlegel sisters, who're hip enough to be concerned mostly with far more current movements in art & literature, with Wedekind and Augustus John. Bast, in contrast, falls into precisely the group Stuart Eagles (After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet, 1870-1920, OUP 2011) defines as "upper-working-class and lower-middle-class autodidacts who often worked as clerks..." So that's good for at least a sentence or two, I guess, contrasting JR's readership in the 1st decade of the century with what the cool kids were reading.

On the other hand, there's really no excuse for re-reading Michael Moorcock's spectacularly hastily and sloppily written Elric novel, The Vanishing Tower (or The Sleeping Sorceress – choose your own overheated title). Maybe someday I'll put the thousands of hours of my youth (and the scores of hours of my recent middle age) I've devoted to Moorcock to some kind of use. Maybe there's a biography there to be written...

Sunday, March 04, 2012


My resolution to jump right back blogging seems to have gone awry. Any way –

No, I didn't go to AWP this year. I know I should've gone. All the cool kids went, and after all I've got two newish books I ought to be flogging more assiduously. Sometime I'll go, I think, but till then I'll forgo writing about it from the outside. I'm not sure I could handle all that many poets in one place at one time.

Where I did go (last weekend) was the Louisville Conference, of which Bob Archambeau gives a pretty decent précis here. I had a good time, saw some friends, ate some good food, bought a few books. More importantly, it gave my thinking life a shot of monkey glands like I hadn't had in ages.

That is to say, this has so far – and it's over half done – a particularly gnarly semester. The administrative position, combined with an uncongenial teaching schedule, has left me months and months behind on all sorts of writing obligations. And along with that, the planning & blocking out of the new "big" project has gotten entirely sidelined. But I was on a panel with Bob – whose own "big" project I've been watching take shape for a couple years now – and Vince Sherry, one of the people I consider among the true shining lights of modernist scholarship, and the mere proximity to those folks, not to mention hearing their work-in-progress, got me back to thinking about Ruskin. Not just Ruskin – because not an hour goes by in which I don't think about Ruskin (call me obsessed) – but Ruskin in larger contexts, Ruskin as proto-modern, Ruskin as a vast unacknowledged influence on the century that follows him.

The problem of writing & arguing this, of course, in much larger than that of being able to spin it out in cocktail conversation. I find myself with at least three directions to pursue, three "leads" to follow in linking JR to the "high" modernist conversation. None of them amounts to a kind of "field theory" of Ruskinian modernism, but taken together, they make a compelling if disjointed argument. Right now what I'm trying to untangle is precisely what is Ruskin & what is Ruskin & a bunch of other guys (Carlyle, Pugin, etc.). That is, I'm trying to separate out the specifically Ruskinian from a whole phalanx of aesthetic and social theory. It means reading a lot of stuff on the Victorians (as I've already been doing), & thinking a good deal about the social situation of what John Holloway called the "Victorian Sage" (and what Stefan Collini calls the "public moralist").

Today however has been mostly a non-work day. A few hours at the Florida Renaissance Festival (after Thursday's mind-bending gumbo and last night's Thai, I had my doubts as to whether my kilt would still fit), then a lazy afternoon of tinkering at my latest infantile time-waster: model ships. It's all new to me; I built tons of plastic models as a kid, but it never occurred to me to actually paint them. Now I realize, surfing around the web and being astonished at the jobs various folks have done on models I own, that the finish is really the heart of the enterprise.