The Last Novel by David Markson
My appreciation of Markson is still in its honeymooning phase. I came upon his name a few years ago, when reading David Foster Wallace’s short essay “Overlooked: Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960,” in which he describes Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress as “pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country.” I read that novel years later and was fascinated by the sad hypnosis brought on by its propositional, looping narrative. The Last Novel was Markson’s last novel (2007), though most of the traditional genre markers are absent. Instead, it consists of anecdotes, apocryphal stories, snippets, and facts about creative luminaries from Sappho to Cézanne, Niels Bohr to Marian Anderson. Occasionally, the narrator (named “Novelist”) offers a personal detail, and these moments get the same laconic treatment as the accumulating others. Some are descriptively third-person (e.g., “Old. Tired. Sick. Alone. Broke. All of which obviously means that this is the last book Novelist is going to write”), while others spring directly from Novelist’s perspective (“Almost forgetting Emily Brontë’s mastiff—which slept at the door of her room for years, after her death”). I’m only fifty pages in, but already the mosaic portrait is taking wondrous shape.
Bright Scythe: The Selected Poems of Tomas Tranströmer (trans. Patty Crane)
I tend to be pretty hot-and-cold with Tranströmer—I’ve gone through periods when I felt his facility for metaphor and atmosphere were uniquely intoxicating, and then there are others when I’m idly flipping pages, hunting for some elusive thing I can’t quite name. Add to this the slipperiness of translating poetry, the vagaries of each translator’s eye and ear, the poems that constitute a representative selection, the interpretive strong-arming (at times) of what those poems are supposed to represent, and you get the idea. So far, I’ve found Crane’s work crisp and refreshingly familiar without being risk-averse. Or maybe I’m just entering another warm patch with Tranströmer. You see the dilemma.
Here by C.S. Giscombe
Recently I’ve been thinking about place and the subjectivities of lineage. Not ancestral lineage (there are plenty of websites for that), but the choices we make for how and where to belong, who we endorse or shun, who we embrace as artistic forebears, that kind of thing. I first read Giscombe’s Here years ago and I was immediately struck by its deft, generous treatment of time, its passing and continuation, and our experience of that seeming contradiction. Time places us; we are its objects, its participants. Giscombe invokes James Wright and painter Robert Duncanson in his Ohioan lineage, and its tracing is procreative—how a landscape becomes the collective agency of its objects. Rereading Here calibrates the compass, shows the many potential directions.
beyond sunset by Mary Ruefle
This is a gem of a chapbook that Ruefle wrote while a Trias Resident at Hobart & William Smith Colleges. It consists of ten prose poems, each printed on a piece of white card stock measuring 5.5 by 8 inches, and each with a unique series of intersecting colored lines. Each poem is an experiential index of a particular color of sadness. The poems begin, “Red sadness is…,” “Yellow sadness is…,” and so on. Some of the pieces are cheeky in their sparsity: “Brown sadness is the simple sadness. It is the sadness of huge, upright stones. That is all. It is simple.” Other poems open wide their metaphoric arms:
Purple sadness is the sadness of classical music and eggplant, the stroke of midnight, human organs, ports cut off for a part of every year, words with too many meanings, incense, insomnia, and the crescent moon. It is the sadness of play money, and icebergs seen from a canoe. It is possible to dance to purple sadness, though slowly, as slowly as it takes to dig a pit to hold a sleeping giant.
In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower by Marcel Proust (trans. James Grieve)
Proust! I know, I know. But is it a trite thing to be reading Proust? Are our aesthetic judgments also lined in cork and tired of preening at cocktail parties? A backstory that might serve (though I don’t really think Proust needs justification): During my MFA years at Johns Hopkins, Jean McGarry taught a summer course on Proust. The course was called PROUST, it was five weeks long, and all you had to do was read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time. A friend of mine took the class and did the work and I remember being desperate with envy. I’m a slow reader, always have been—I had no chance. It’s summer now, and time stretches out toward August, toward the seascapes and countrysides of Balbec, where the carriage of Mme de Villeparisis rushes us through the blue air of Marcel’s remembered childhood. Why resist.