Say It Isn’t So / a new poem by Tom Evans

Days of summer gone.
If I had written a line like that,
Joe Bolton, I would have died
A happy man.

Why did you do it,
Were you half in love with
Easeful death?

How did you do it?
Did you bite your tongue?
I would understand
If that was the case.

You see, I have these questions.

The seasons, each one wistful
In its own way, but especially
Summer, which you chose, Joe-
Evanescent- lingering echoes,
Distant strains of music
Fading in and out,
Vestiges of the past that you can
Imagine, remember, and even see,
But never quite put your finger on,
Much less grasp.

And though you grieved
Summers past
You did it in
Marshy spring,
Not wanting to see
Another summer come
And go, I suppose.

Your poetry is full of
Lost loves, ghosted memories
And empty beds—
All unrequited.

I get that
Joe Bolton
And who am I
To say you nay?

But summer
Came anyway.

And couldn’t you
Have at least
Stuck around
To tell us
If it was worth
The strength it takes
To see another
One through?

Instead you
Left us
With a wordless
Answer.

Say it isn’t so Joe Bolton!

Book Review: “Judas” / by Amos Oz

I knew that Amos Oz was an Israeli writer, but that was about it, and I’d never read anything by him. On a recommendation (my therapist’s actually) I thought I’d give it a try, as I’d always had an interest in Judas, and am so glad I did. As far as I’m concerned, it’s an unequivocal masterpiece.

It is a novel of ideas (I think you’ll agree that’s rare enough these days) concerning the founding of the Jewish state, the relationship between Jesus and the Jews (and ultimately Judaism vs. Christianity), Judas and the Jews, Judas and Jesus, Arabs and Jews, discussed in unconventional ways, presenting very different (and extremely interesting) perspectives that deviate greatly from the conventional narrative propounded by politicians and religious leaders alike.

Set in 1959 Israel, the story concerns a young Israeli graduate student at a  crossroad in his life: his girlfriend has just left him and married a former boyfriend; he’s dropped out of graduate school mainly because reversals in his family fortunes didn’t allow him to continue, but even then he was stalled on his thesis on Jewish views of Jesus and Christian views of Judas.

Shmuel Ash, the main protagonist, answers an ad seeking a companion for an elderly invalid male. His first name, Shmuel, couldn’t help but bring to mind the prominent place of the schlemiel in Jewish literature, whether Oz intended this or not. He thinks it will just be he and the old man at first but then discovers a much younger woman lives there, whose idea it was to place the ad. She (Atalia) is very mysterious and very beautiful, smelling of violets, and immediately captures Shmuel’s heart.

We gradually find out she is the daughter of one of Ben-Gurion’s arch rivals, the lone dissenting voice in the movement for a state of Israel, believing there could be a two-state solution with the Arabs. For this he was expelled from the Zionist executive committee and branded a “traitor.”

Naturally this interests Shmuel, who has been writing a thesis on the greatest traitor in history, and he spends long hours in the National Library delving into the history of that era. Unfortunately he can find no trace of his papers, no record of his speeches, and has to abandon this research also.

The old man he is taking care of is Atalia’s father-in-law, whose beloved son (Atalia’s husband) was killed in the 1948 war. Although he disagreed strongly with Atalia’s father’s views he invited him to live with him after his fall from grace. The old man comes to love Shmuel as a son during his three-month stay there, and gains Atalia’s grudging admiration also.

It seems Shmuel is the fourth of a succession of young male caretakers, all seduced by Altalia, who had a bit of Estella Havisham about her, then sent away. Things seem to be going differently for Shmuel even though all along he sees her as unattainable.

This is all I will say about the plot, aside from mentioning it has a perfectly ambiguous ending, hopefully it is enough to spark an interest in the book. As a minor spoiler alert I’ll just say there is an incredibly harrowing and graphic chapter devoted to Jesus’ crucifixion narrated by Judas, a real tour de force, which makes the book worth reading for this alone, although there is so much more.

There is not a lot of action, but the story moves apace and Oz tells it carefully and lovingly. As it  turns out, some of the subject matter is taken from the author’s life, as delineated in his 2004 memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” The book wrestles with the big topics of Jesus’ humanity, the basis of anti-Semitism and other prejudice, the hope for eventual peace in the Middle East, and love.

Originally published in 2014, this edition, translated from the Hebrew, was published in 2016, and was shortlisted for the Man Book International Prize in 2017. Oz is a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this book puts him over the top.

“Spoon River Anthology”

Perhaps Edgar Lee Masters was a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was, SRA being one of the most idiosyncratic (one might say even accidental) masterpieces in any country’s literature. I believe I first came across it on a summer reading list sent to me by my high school and  it immediately became one of my go to books which I read on a least an annual basis.

It seems Masters (a lawyer by trade who once worked with Clarence Darrow but who had already had several books published at the beginning of a very prolific literary career), had just finished reading the Greek Anthology, a collection of some 4500 Greek poems written between about 500 B.C. and 1000 A.D., many of which took the form of epigrams-laconic sayings that may or may not harbor  a kernel of truth, while others were expressed as confessional epitaphs, in which the dead commented on their lives from beyond the grave. Shortly after reading it, Masters, experimenting with free verse, penned some of his own using them as a model and sent them off to Editor Reedy of “Reedy’s Mirror”, a literary magazine published in St. Louis, mostly as a lark, and Reedy liked them so much he asked for more. The poems were serialized there in 1914 under the pseudonym Webster Ford for fear of damaging Masters’s law practice, his real identity being revealed later that year by Reedy.

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, it shattered the myth of small-town America as the bastion of American virtue. Meant to be read as a novel, the reader is required to piece together narratives from single lines and fragments contained in 244 individual poems. In his thinly veiled fictional town of Spoon River, situated in central Illinois near Lewistown, where Masters grew up, the honest, hardworking, chaste, and churchgoing live amidst corrupt bankers, abusive husbands, unfulfilled wives, sexual deviants, and failed dreamers, freed from the shackles of life by death, who “sleep beneath these weeds” confess their deepest secrets, disappointments, frustrations, joys, and warnings to the living in the form of brutally honest free verse poems. The poems are remarkable for the breadth of personalities and the honesty with which they speak. When his book first came out, Masters’ own mother, who was on the library board, voted to ban it. He was exposing family secrets; people were much more private then, and they didn’t want everybody to know their business even though in a small town everybody already knew it. Dubbed a sort of “Peyton Place” of its time, it was unofficially banned for over a half-century in his hometown. It wasn’t that people weren’t reading it- they most certainly were, they just wouldn’t admit or dare talk about it.

Championed early on by Ezra Pound (who wrote “At last the American West has produced a poet . . . ” ) and fellow Illinoisian Carl Sandburg, it was an international best-seller, reported to have sold 80,000 copies in four years, unheard of for a book of poetry. “No volume of poetry since Whitman’s Leaves of Grass had attempted so much or had been so original,” says John Hallwas, who edited and annotated the 1993 version published by the University of Illinois Press, which I highly recommend, but only after you have familiarized yourself with the book.

The book went on to influence American masterpieces like Sherwood Anderson’s book of interlocking short stories about a small town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ novels Main Street and Babbitt, and the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. The work continues to stay relevant for its treatment of the human condition Hallwas also says. Although unknown by the general public, and certainly not taught in schools, it has never been out of print, has been adapted for stage and screen, taught in acting classes, translated into numerous languages, and phrases from one of the poems entitled “Alexander Throckmorton” were quoted by Pope Francis during his recent visit to America.

In contemporary culture another fellow Illinoisian, the late folksinger songwriter Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans” being his most well known song) has a song on his first album entitled “Spoon River,” obviously influenced by the book, though set in the Civil War time period, and more nostalgic; Richard Buckner, another admired folksinger songwriter made an entire album using some of the poems set to music, entitled appropriately, “The Hill” (after the prefatory poem), both well worth checking out.

I leave you with this,  spoken by my favorite Spoon River denizen, Fiddler Jones:

“Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going

There in your heart, and that is you.

And if the people find you can fiddle,

Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.

What do you see, a harvest of clover?

Or a meadow to walk through to the river?

The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands

For beeves hereafter ready for market;

Or else you hear the rustle of skirts

Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.

To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust

Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;

They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy

Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”

How could I till my forty acres

Not to speak of getting more,

With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos

Stirred in my brain by crows and robins

And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?

And I never started to plow in my life

That some one did not stop in the road

And take me away to a dance or picnic.

I ended up with forty acres;

I ended up with a broken fiddle—

And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,

And not a single regret”.

 

The Dream Songs / John Berryman

A scholar and professor as well as a poet, John Berryman graduated from Columbia in 1936, then went to study at Cambridge University for two years on a scholarship. Early on he wrote a critical biography of the American writer Stephen Crane, and first achieved national attention for Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), a dense, brilliant book-length dialogue with the seventeenth century poet Anne Bradstreet. Berryman taught at Harvard and Princeton, among other places, finally taking a position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained until his death. He was a major figure in American poetry in the second half of the 20th century and was considered a key figure in the Confessional school of poetry. He taught many well-known future poets , one of whom (Philip Levine) characterized him as brilliant, mesmerizing, difficult, and demanding, but the best teacher he ever had.

But it is The Dream Songs that made him famous and on which his literary reputation will rest. The book is listed on the American Academy of Poets website as one of their Groundbreaking Books of the 20th Century, and was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. There are 385 of them, composed in a form consisting of three stanzas divided into six lines per stanza, in free verse with irregular rhyme schemes. The songs are all numbered but some of them also have individual titles. The poems teem with allusions to past and present events (capturing the Fifties and Sixties decades very well) and to literary figures, many of which are elegies for Berryman’s recently deceased poet friends, including Delmore Schwartz,  Randall Jarrell, and Theodore Roethke. It is a veritable literary Spoon River Anthology with its many paeans to the great writers throughout history he felt connected to.

Its main protagonist is named Henry, a white American in early middle age who sometimes makes up in blackface as a minstrel.  An unnamed friend who speaks in several of the poems calls him “Mr. Bones” and he then often refers to himself as that in future poems. Although Berryman insists Henry is not him, the dream songs portray many experiences of his life, like his troubles with women and his obsession with death and suicide, mainly his father’s suicide. He compares Henry to Tolstoy’s treatment of Anna Karenina, in that, as Tolstoy did with his heroine, Berryman took Henry further than any normal life could take us.

The best summation of these poems I’ve read is by Kevin Young, an African-American poet  who edited The Selected Poems for the Library of America edition who states in his introduction to that volume “The voice shifts from high to low, from archaic language to slang, slant rhyme to full, attempting to render something of jazz or, more accurately, the blues—devil’s music. What emerges and succeeds is something of a sonnet plus some—a devil’s sonnet, say (the three sixes stanzas too obvious to be ignored). Berryman’s heresy is against the polite modernism that preceded him. That the poem can let in all sorts of Americanisms—… and not as signs of culture’s decay, but of its American vitality, is fearless and liberating.”

Among my favorite ones are Numbers 1, 4, 14, 28, 29, 40, 145, 149, 155, 187, 206, 224, 265, 301, 312, 324, & 347 – so many good ones I’d like to quote them in full but I’ll let you discover them on your own. The frankness of Berryman’s work influenced his friend Robert Lowell and other Confessional poets like Anne Sexton. Despite the grim subject matter of some they are often hilarious,  but can also bring you to tears.  Some of it is tough going and its not for the faint-hearted, but the improvident beauty studding every poem is well worth the effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Meadow” / James Galvin

First published in 1992, James Galvin’s The Meadow depicts the century-long history of a hay meadow in the mountains of the Colorado/Wyoming border, told through the  eyes of Lyle, Ray, Clara, and App, of their unsentimental struggle to survive on an independent family ranch, along the way debunking much of the traditional romantic myth of the American West as we know it. Galvin knows the meadow like Thoreau knew Walden and the surrounding areas, and writes of it as intimately, giving it a sense of place only a native could. Imagine Walden as a western novel and you have a sense of what the book is like. Similar to Stoner (discussed here in an earlier entry), The Meadow is a quiet classic that you somehow discover because it has been kept alive mostly through word of mouth. It had received, along with Cormac McCarthy’s  All the Pretty Horses, the award for Best Novel about the West that year, but unlike McCarthy’s novel which was a huge bestseller, The Meadow suffered a very different publishing fate, as few bookstores carried it. It came out  in paperback the following year and subsequently obtained a devoted following.

Immediately upon finishing it, if you’re anything like me, you can’t wait to run out and  tell others with a like mind about it. Even better (though rare) if you find someone who smiles and excitedly replies, yes I’ve read it, and you launch into an in-depth discussion of it. Although different in scope and milieu, it reminded me a lot of Vern Klinkenborg’s The Last Fine Time, published the previous year, also an elegy for a lost time and place, although The Meadow reads more like a novel written by a poet (which Galvin) is, with its close attention to detail, meticulous musical prose, plotted structure (though it also contains just the facts, ma’am), and unrequited denouement. By the end of the book, we know these people, unfamiliar as they may seem, intimately; we become linked to them because we cannot help but identify with and admire their heroic age-old struggle for survival; stoic, on the edge of a subsistence living, yet loving the place for what it gives them materially and spiritually. Even if you’re not interested in the subject matter, read it for the writing itself;  in its way, for what it is, The Meadow is a perfect book..

Wolf Solent / John Cowper Powys

Ah, the Powys family, from Shirley, Derbyshire, where to begin?  They were that rare commodity, a literary family (families who had more than two published members) who overshadowed the other two literary families, the Brontes and the Sitwells, in quantity if not in fame. The father, the Rev.Charles Francis Powys, and his wife, Mary Cowper Johnson, claimed direct descent from both John Donne and William Cowper;  7 of the 11 children (John, Theodore, Llewelyn, Philippa, Marian, A.R., and Katie) all  had books published, over 100 books among them all! John Cowper Powys, the author of Wolf Solent, was a remarkable admixture  of D.H. Lawrence (who compared to Powys was quite the prude), Tolstoy, and Thomas Hardy (particularly known as his successor), with a dash of Aleister Crowley thrown in. He made his  living traveling around the United States as a lecturer; an extremely powerful and charasmatic speaker, with the looks of a silent movie star, people often fainted at his performances. For most people he would be considered an acquired taste but I took to him immediately . I first heard the book mentioned in something I was reading by the Austrian writer Peter Handke and on his recommendation I immediately (figuratively and literally) checked it out. Over the years he’s had such champions (besides Handke) as Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch,  Elias Canetti, and Philip Larkin, and the book (as well as A Glastonbury Romance) is listed in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon so who am I to argue? Powys was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He died in 1963 at the age ogf 90.

Wolf Solent  is set in the fictional towns of Ramsgard, Dorset, which is based on Sherborne, Dorset, where Powys attended school, as well as other towns in the area. The book itself concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, a thirty-four year old history teacher returning to his boyhood home, and his courtship of two very different women. The supporting cast includes a lecherous sausage-maker, a peddler of antiquarian pornography, a homosexual clergyman, a voyeuristic country squire, a teenage boy who kisses trees, and a mad poet. It portrays his casual attitude toward polymorphous sex ( “Natural or unnatural,” one of the characters says, “it’s nature. It’s mortal man’s one great solace before he’s annihilated.”), but also his great compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten. Many of the cast of unforgettable characters have equally unforgettable names: Wolf Solent (of course), Selena Gault (my favorite), Gerda Torp, Christie Malakite, Darnley Otter, Lobbie Torp, and Bob Weevil, just to name a few.

Powys wrote 21 novels and over 50 books in all; A Glastonbury RomanceWeymouth Sands, Wolf Solent, Maiden Castle, and his Autobiography, are his most well known works, but several critics consider an almost completely unknown work, Porius (almost 1600 pages) his masterpiece, comparing it to novels as disparate as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland.

There are many great books in this amazing writer’s ouevre, and I recommend you read them all,  but if you’re looking for his most accessible book, Wolf Solent is for you.

Myra Breckinridge

“I believe in justice, I want redress for all wrongs done, I want the good life – if such a thing exists – accessible to all. Yet, emotionally, I would be only too happy to become world dictator, if only to fulfill my mission: the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes, thus reducing population while increasing human happiness and preparing humanity for its next stage.” Gore Vidal, Myra Breckinridge (1968, Little, Brown and Company) p. 41  (italics in original.)

In wondering where to begin writing about this book I decided to let Myra say in her own words what she is about, after all she says it best and certainly wouldn’t have it any other way. I have long known about the book’s existence, that it was controversial, that one of the worst movies ever made was based on it, but never had any interest in reading it. Indeed I had never read anything of his before, although I remember thoroughly enjoying the encounters he had with Norman Mailer on The Dick Cavett Show, and the televised political debates he had with William F. Buckley. He was suave, irascible, brilliant, and possibly the most well-read writer of his generation; I knew of him mainly for having uttered one of the greatest self-observations I’ve ever heard,  one I  repeated any time I could work it into a conversation:  “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little.” How honest and self-effacing, or was it tongue in cheek? Only Gore Vidal will ever know.

As is all the rage now, I  have been interested in anything pertaining to the topic of transgenderism for quite a while and recently the book was mentioned in that context and I knew I had to read it. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I was enjoying it; while I had no preconceived notions about it I hadn’t expected it to have the feel of an early 60s book, especially when juxtaposed with the big historical/political novels he was known for, and with the subject matter. There is an interesting paradox involved in discussing the book in that you can’t give too much away without revealing the huge plot twists (they literally made me gasp out loud on my commute home) in it, and it is these sensational aspects of the book that would impel most potential readers to take the plunge, yet most of them wouldn’t even read it if they did know ahead of time as that is the major pleasure in reading it for the neophyte. In fact, to ensure the book’s secret was kept, Vidal insisted that his publisher not send advance review copies to the nation’s book critics, something completely unheard of then or since. In spite of this it quickly soared to Number 1 on many bestseller lists.

The best strategy, then, in discussing the book is to approximate what it is like not about through comparisons with other books published at the time, because it is so much a product of its times I would venture to say it couldn’t have been written in any other period. Yet it doesn’t feel in any way dated, as so much bric a brac from that era unfortunately is, even though it was the ultimate in high camp in its day. To begin with it was written in the space of a month and has an inspirational feel to it throughout although perhaps only a writer might sense this. It was written during a time when Vidal was exploring “The New Novel” movement in France, and many critics say it is his response to that, especially the notion that the novel was dead. In addition, it was a major contribution to the cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world at the time. That being said, it has the overall feel of West’s Day of the Locust or Miss Lonelyhearts, Yates’s “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness,” even a faint whiff of Sunset Boulevard. Myra herself’s persona can seem like a character straight out of an Ayn Rand creation in its cold aloofness;  Vidal later hinted that the voice of Myra may have been inspired by the “megalomania” of Anais Nin’s diaries. An endearing plot device, never overdone, is his use of all things pertaining to the Hollywood film industry (many obscure references) as backdrops to scenes, character description (both physical and mental) and plot explication. One of the more famous examples is Myra describing herself in this way: “my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile if the key light is no more than five feet high during the close shot.” cf. Myra Breckinridge, p. 3.

That’s all I  will say for now; if you want to know more you’ll have to read it yourself, which I hope this piece inspires you to do. Ahead of its time in 1968, we’re still not sure what to make of Myra, and perhaps never will be.