You remember I posted two videos of Berryman reading? Well, aparently there’s more where that came from. I found more stuff online today. It’s a reading that a youtube user has put online in six parts. Below is the video to the first part, below that I added the links to the other parts. Berryman is an incredible poet, he soars, crawls, shouts, whispers, cries, beseeches, and all this with an amazing control of language and form. One of the greatest poets of the 20th century. These readings are highly enjoyable.
Bell, Madison Smartt (2004), All Souls’ Rising, Vintage
This is the way of the world. Those who write the history books keep getting accolades. If we discuss leadership and success, 90% of the time we’ll discuss people like Napoleon Bonaparte or Margaret Thatcher but not Olaudah Equiano or Toussaint Louverture. It doesn’t matter that during the past decades we have learned more, we have grown as a culture, it doesn’t matter that we’ve dredged people up from the fringes of history and learned to look at the dark aspects of success stories; if you look at sources of inspiration, those who identify with the norm will still come up with Napoleon and Thatcher, it’s enough to make you sick. But once in a while a book comes along that does right by people like Equiano or Louverture. Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising (1995), the first novel in a trilogy that charts the slave revolt on Haiti that started in 1791, is, despite its flaws, such a book. Let’s start with this: All Souls’ Rising is an excellent novel that leads you into a strange world full of memorable characters and dark and troublesome stories, and into the swamps of history, where easy judgments are thwarted but moral conscience and commitment is never abandoned.
That was maybe a bit much as a lead-in to a review of an outstanding but not necessarily great novel, one which is, after all, frequently caught up in the nooks and crannies of its plots and rarely finds time to come up and breathe and provide further perspectives or contexts (something that may come in the two other novels); this is, however, at the same time one of its strengths. Bell’s writing here resembles a wave of ideas, plots, voices, it’s an onslaught of creative energy and we cannot help but think that this novel could easily have been three times as long without losing that sense of necessity, of economy, even. Every image, plot strand or change of perspective feels needed, nothing is superfluous; Bell demands much of his readers, he presents them with a historical novel that tries to read the history on hand on its own terms, handing it enough room for contradictions, confusions and reversals, unlike much of E.L. Doctorow’s historical prose, for example. Although I consider novels like Doctorow’s The March superior to All Souls’ Rising, it is undeniable that Doctorow reduces historical complexities to simple situations that can easily be used to extract a message; intellectually, they have a pamphlet-like quality, which has its advantages and is maybe more honest than the equilibrium that Bell aims for.
Nevertheless, Bell’s endeavor is admirable. He wants us to understand the scenario in all its complexities. In order to achieve this, he takes several measures. One of these is issuing us with a plethora of material that helps us to contextualize the novel’s events. There is both an explanatory preface as well as a thorough time-line of the revolt on Haiti that encompasses all of the revolt, not just the events of All Soul’s Rising. The second measure may seem to contradict the goals the first measure achieves but is, in fact, complimentary: as the novel proceeds, Bell is depriving us of a broader context by plunging us into the stories of small people who are so caught up in their worlds that none of them can see the broader picture; things happen around them, as they try to survive in the maelstrom of history. Unlike Doctorow in The March, Madison Smartt Bell completely refrains from telling the leaders’ stories from their perspective. Leaders, people with political power walk on and off the stage but we never see things from their point of view. We are never partial to political reasoning, to political intrigue, to the usual trappings of many historical novels. Although Bell’s not the first nor the last to do this, I find his utter refusal to lend a voice to those in power and explore the stories of those near it or even those far from it, remarkable and it makes for peculiar effect.
The angles and voices he does choose come from different strata of the society on the island and they are not all accorded equal amounts of air time, so to say. Some of the most interesting characters, despite staying an integral part of the story, get their say only once or twice, such as the creole wife of a landowner, who murders one of her slaves first and then leads a group of women to safety through a burning, violent, apocalyptic landscape. She sort of fades into the fabric of the novel later, but doesn’t vanish either. True to the efficient manner of storytelling that I claimed earlier, Bell focuses on those characters that can serve multiple functions: they are all highly active, moving all over the island, thus being ideal instruments to efficiently chronicle the tumultuous events of the revolution without dividing the reader’s attention between too many personal histories. After the first hundred pages, we learn to recognize the voices and know what to expect from each of them. Besides various smaller roles and voices, there are three characters who fairly dominate the narration. They are a black writer, a liberal doctor and an officer in the French army.
These three characters are well chosen. The officer in the army is low enough in the ranks that he’s just as struggling with the small tragedies of his life as the others, he has no elevated position from which to regard political developments. When disaster strikes -and it’s one of this novel’s peculiarities that disaster strikes not once but several times- he’s frequently in the middle of it, not overseeing the situation but ducking an enemy’s bayonet, more often than not. Although we have different characters that can offer us insight into the white population, the officer is important in showing us along which lines loyalties divide, because each party is anxious, as could be expected in a situation like this, to get the support of the army. The white population, huddling together in the two large cities, confronting the bands of former slaves who roam the island, is, indeed, far from united. The French Revolution, the state of the mulattoes, i.e. the so-called “gens de couleur”, the rights of slaves, and class conflict between poor workers in the city and the rich landowners, leads to outbreaks of violence between whites. Thus it’s, somewhat literally, not a black-and-white conflict that we witness. Instead, this is an island full of people struggling, trying not to drown in the heat, trying to create room for survival. The violence stems from the fact that all of a sudden everybody is clamoring and demanding rights, a voice, room. It’s a sudden explosion that plunges the island into a decade of war.
All that is not to deny that race is one of the most important issues and areas of conflict here. But, again, it’s not being duked out between the “white” and the “black” race. There are five distinct groups although not every character can tell all of them apart. There are the rich white landowners who are the whitest of all, mostly because they wield economic and political power. Then there are poor ‘whites’. They insist upon their own whiteness in the course of their rivalry with the third group, the mulattoes, but they are not necessarily seen as ‘white’ by the rich whites, they have to fight for acceptance. Mulattoes, in contrast, are almost accepted. Having black blood separates them from the whites but as it turns out they can attain positions that allow them to order poor whites around. They are only attacked as non-white by those who are their rivals, poor whites on the one hand and, interestingly, women on the other, because many men keep themselves a mulatto mistress. And then there are the slaves, who, in turn, split into two groups. Slaves that come from Africa either themselves or in the previous generation and slaves that are descended from a longer line of colonial slaves. Just as whites are very conscious of the distinction between real, i.e. rich whites on the one and poor whites on the other hand, so are the slaves conscious of the distinction based on descent. In a more general way, it could be said that while these distinctions are multicausal, the color of the skin is one of the least important factors, with mulattoes who could easily pass as white and similar details crowding the book, breaking up certainties.
The question of color and power and voice becomes even more apparent in the second of the three characters, Riau, who is Bell’s nexus for comments upon storytelling. Riau is one of the few literate slaves and becomes for a time Toussaint’s secretary. Just as the officer is our window into the city population and the forces that compel and disturb that group of people, Riau is our insider witness to the slave revolt. There are three significant ways in which he fulfills that function. The first is recounting things that happen, of course. It is not until two thirds of the book have passed that Toussaint gains dominance among all the black leaders on the island. Some of those leaders have been able to take power because they were the most outspoken, most ruthless, most violent among the slaves; some, like Toussaint are natural leaders, they were part of the original power structure, having had responsibilities on the farms, and they don’t want a revolution either, their goal’s a reform. Through the hurricane of events they are then thrust into a role they don’t like but are immensely qualified to fill out.
It is maybe here that I should mention the intense amount of violence that permeates the whole book. Early on in the book we see someone shoot a dog and it is this shot that is like a hint of the darkness to come. Later, on the same plantation, a woman kills in a cold rage verging on madness the black mistress of her husband, making a bloody mess of it all. A short time afterward the revolt begins and we the readers are treated to pages of carnage, pages and pages of descriptions of slaughter, but these are not the images that will stay in your mind. Bell is nothing if not goal-oriented, precise and so he creates a series of images that each encapsulate a complex of issues. The most striking image is that of a white woman, leading a trek of female refugees to the city. Upon being held up by a group of evidently bloodthirsty rebels, she offers them her ring, but doesn’t take it off, instead she slowly, calmly cuts off her whole finger. This display of bravery or madness turns the rebels away, thus saving her and her companions (Its way with female characters is the novel’s most glaring flaw. Women are curiously flat, almost like caricatures.). Despite the restraint that comes from using the force of single images rather than overwhelming the reader with rivers of blood, the amount of violence is stunning, as is the destruction wrought by the angry former slaves.
This is part of conflict between structure and destruction, as it is mapped onto the different parties in this war. Rich whites are violent as well, but they destroy nothing for this, their violence is achieved with (and even: through) the structure. Reading the book, one cannot help but feel that Bell denounces all violence, even what is frequently called ‘necessary’ violence to uphold central elements of the structure, because Bell demonstrates how quickly it can all spill over into madness (although ‘madness’ would put you into a very specialized part of the structure, but that would go too far now I think). Riau does not reflect upon all this, but he is perceptive, it is through his perceptions that we gain insights into the revolt, especially into the role of religion. The book is full of French and Creole phrases, not all of them directly or obviously significant, except for one sort, words from the voodoo cult. Riau is a devout adherent of voodoo, and keeps tabs on how rituals and beliefs support and undermine the efforts of the revolt. The danger of irrationality is plain at all times and Bell doesn’t shy away from making it obvious that Christianity is not better than religions like voodoo which can appear to be sectarian and obscure. There are several priests making an appearance and only one of those is painted in a positive light, a Jesuit priest with a black wife, and his endeavors are shown to be doomed.
I could go on like this for ages, I have notes on gender, linguistics, Paul Gilroy and some more on structure, but this is, after all a review. Suffice to say that this is a novel rich with ideas and that each and everyone works. The writing is good, bordering on sumptuous. It’s clearly more than adequate to its subject but then, it doesn’t really add much. Bell works through structure, characters and images, not language; his language is clean and poetical, but really not above the level of any good historical novel, although he does avoid the trap of faux-high-brow writing that is so ubiquitous in the genre. All Souls’ Rising is a very good book that draws you in, it makes for compulsive reading, and at the same time, as I said in the first paragraph, Bell should be credited with giving a voice and a story to those, as Carribean poet Martin Carter put it, “who had no voice in the emptiness / in the unbelievable”, those who “heard […] the iron clang”. He presents Toussaint as a hero who takes up the anger and hate and prejudice of the past and transforms it into an orderly revolution, but as a hero whose time has not yet come. Toussaint’s ideals and commitments show him to be an early proponent of the movement that, two hundred years later, Aime Césaire called “négritude”. In this sense, perhaps, Madison Smartt Bell is, after all, like Doctorow, hunting for the lesson, the lecturing line that is threaded through history.
I want to give witness not to the thought of myself—that specious concept of identity—but, rather, to what I am as simple agency, a thing evidently alive by virtue of such activity. I want, as Charles Olson says, to come into the world. Measure, then, is my testament. What uses me is what I use and in that complex measure is the issue. I cannot cut down trees with my bare hand, which is measure of both tree and hand. In that way I feel that poetry, in the very subtlety of its relation to image and rhythm, offers an intensely various record of such facts. It is equally one of them. (Robert Creeley, from his essay “A Sense of Measure”)
Robert Creeley, whose collection of early poetry is among my favorite books of poetry, a poet of immense power and subtlety, has written a lot of essays, published in 1989 as Collected Essays by the University of California Press. Now they are online. Click here. You know you want this. You know you need to read this. Get to it already. Chop chop.
Mahoney, Blair (2009), Poetry Reloaded, Cambridge University Press
If you know me, you know I collect and recommend books on poetry; I keep recommending especially introductions to poetry. Good introductions are hard to come by, especially as my chosen field of specialty is often not well served by critics. And it’s worse for children. The few good introductions and guides I know are targeted at adults and mostly not fit to be used with younger kids. The only book I ever found commendable for children was Randall Jarrell’s effulgent The Bat-Poet, which remains highly recommended to all and any. There is now, however, a new book that I would add to said list.
An Australian teacher called Blair Mahoney has just published Poetry Reloaded, which is, strictly speaking, a textbook for teenage students, but it’s actually a great introduction into poetry that I recommend to anyone who might be interested in it. It’s fresh, well conceived and very well written. But, oh, you don’t have to take my word for it. If you follow this link, you’ll land at the publisher’s page that allows you to view a couple of sample pages and a plethora of other kinds of information. In a field where even decent publications are few and far between, a book like Mahoney’s is not just welcome, it’s necessary.
In this country, as in others (see Stanley Fish’s commentary), the uselessness of the Humanities is frequently claimed, an assertion that supports and provides the rationale behind cuts at universities and schools. As someone who’s currently preparing a phd on American poetry, my everyday concerns can seem downright quixotic when I look at the syllabus of our department and its academic priorities. Poetry matters! He shouts at the windmills. But appreciation of poetry doesn’t just fall into yr lap just like that, or it doesn’t usually. Reading poetry, properly appreciating it required a special kind of knowledge. To instil this knowledge, this capability of appreciating poems we often, and rightly so, turn to introductions, simple as this may sound.
For adults, who are ready to invest work on their own accord, who may see the worth of acquiring a knowledge of poetry, good introductions abound, by poets and critics both. There is mediocre poet Timothy Steele’s (for sentimental reasons, I think, Steele’s even less accomplished student Vikram Seth has been granted a place in Mahoney’s book) very good introduction, there is The Making of a Poem , Mark Strand’s and Eavan Boland’s amazing anthology, there are various books by Mary Oliver and Mary Kinzie, both highly accomplished poets in their own right. And then there are other books, collections of critical writings or interviews that can be enlightening, as well (J.D. McClatchy would be an example of such an enlightening writer).
But kids? Of all my close high school friends I was the only one who stuck with poetry and made it his life. The poetry classes at university tend to be rather empty; it gets so bad that a friend of mine suggested reading Billy Collins in school to get kids to like poetry. We need to have writers and books who both seduce children into liking poetry and challenge them at the same time. We don’t need to push the likes of Collins on kids, assuming they’re too dense to understand anything else. What we need are books like Poetry Reloaded. Blair Mahoney uses poems by the divine John Donne, he may start a chapter with a poem by Collins but proceeds, in the same chapter, to use Sandburg, Plath and Hardy. He may put in Seth’s waffle but the poem used just before is Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”. If I had world enough and time, I’d go into further details, but suffice to say that Mahoney’s project is remarkable and the end result, as far as I see it, is terrific.
So, if you feel the need to turn to an introduction, if you have someone to introduce to poetry, I advise you to turn to Blair Mahoney’s fine and lively introduction, born from many years’ experience as a teacher, according to the bio on the publicity page I linked above. Poetry matters, remember. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Mahoney’s book is out this week. Don’t miss it. I’ll close with the first lines of another great text that is used in the book, Beddoes’s “Last Man”:
Sing on, sing ever, and let sobs arise
Beneath the current of your harmony,
Breaking its silvery stillness into gushes
Of stealing sadness: let tears fall upon it,
And burst with such a sound, as when a lute-string,
Torn by the passion of its melody,
Gasps its whole soul of music in one sound,
And dies beneath the waves of its own voice!
Kennedy, A.L. (2000), On Bullfighting, Yellow Jersey Press
Blood. That’s what you expect when you hear the word „Bullfighting“. Blood. Cruelty. Spaniards in tights. Bleeding Spaniards in tights. In terms of literature, the one writer who immediately comes to mind is Ernest Hemingway, the most ‘macho’ of American writers, who wrote a breathtaking book about bullfighting, about the corrida, literally the running of the bull, Death in the Afternoon. Hemingway’s persona has so dominated any writing about the corrida that A.L. Kennedy, in her own account of the spectacle, economically called On Bullfighting, even visits a moderately famous bar to be able to tell a bar story, because „there has to be at least one bar“ in a book about bullfighting. Bullfighting has come to be seen as a province of the masculine, and just as machismo, has come to be regarded as outdated, outmoded. So, if this wasn’t also a decade of growing awareness of animal rights and ecological issues, this could have been a comeback decade for bullfighting in the non-Spanish speaking world given the state of feminism these days and Kennedy’s book, first published in 1999, would have been eerily trendy.
That said, it’s not actually a good book to associate with any sort of trend. On Bullfighting is a wondrous little book, hard to label, tough to slot into a place on the shelf. It is an intimate book, discussing matters of personal relevance, discussing pain and loss, bringing up sadness and exhaustion of the soul. On the other hand, it is quite an earnest, serious discussion of bullfighting, filled to the brim with facts and observations. Kennedy is careful, systematic, providing contexts and varying perspectives to the things she discusses. It is also a book on travel, on meeting a different country, a different culture, while at the same time having the same encounter on the page, reading books, an article. This is a perfect book. Perfectly calibrated, perfectly written. It’s smart, sane, beautiful and enlightening.
The narrative of the book starts in a room in the writer’s native Scotland, as she is about to step from a ledge and end her life. She chooses a quiet day so she’s not “gawped“ at when she dies, because “she’s had enough embarrassment for one life”, nor does she want to hurt or discomfort someone, since, after all, “[i]t’s only me I want to kill.” This situation came about due to a chain of events, including the loss of a loved one, making her “rather averagely brokenhearted” and, perhaps more importantly, the loss of her writing. We learn that she hasn’t written anything in a while:
I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no-one at all. I don’t look very different but I have nothing of value inside.
She lives in a flat that she bought so she’d have room to write, it’s an apartment that contains a writer’s study which seems to her, now, a useless room.
It’s a bit strange to read this in a book that she’s evidently written afterward, and it demonstrates the irony, the inadequacy, ridiculousness, even, of such acts, which she is all too well aware of. But that does not keep her off the ledge. As the mighty Jean Améry, in his classic apologia of suicide, Hand an sich legen (review forthcoming), pointed out, the ridiculousness is caused by the ‘logic of life’ that governs much of our thinking, an imposed set of priorities, things as they ‘should’ be, an expression that refers, of course, to a conventional rule, irrational in the blind obeisance and self-reproducing logic it demands, like similar irrational idiocies like strict manners (all this depends upon the extent; there are cautious, simple versions that I would not describe as I have the stricter, more elaborate version).
So there she is, on the ledge, ready to take the leap. She’s taken off her shoes, which she does for anything important that demands her full attention, and waits, sinks into the moment, until, well, until an atrocious song is played, Mhairi’s Wedding, “pseudo-celtic pap” (listen to a rendition here). It mars the moment, divesting it of any kind of dignity, and thus prevents her from taking the leap. Instead, she takes an offer to write about the corrida and plunges herself into the research and the writing, even if it’s just to see whether something will come of this. From these beginnings, she spins a book that is a description “as accurate as possible” of the corrida, but it’s also about encounters on the frontier between life and death, it’s about faith, dignity, about, au fond, the human condition. I’m not reaching for too strong a description, because Kennedy’s interweaving of personal fear and faith and the fear and faith that permeates the spectacle, produces a potent mix that sheds light on far more than one person’s drama or the corrida.
Bullfighting is about taking and accepting personal risks, but not in the way that a Formula 1 driver or a boxer does, because, as Kennedy points out, the term “Bullfight” is woefully inadequate:
[T]he corrida is not, accurately speaking, a bullfight, although this is the standard English term for it. No man, as has often been noted, can actually fight half a ton or so of bull. What happens in the ring is more complicated, repellent, fascinating, grotesque, sacramental, ugly, ritualistic, haphazard, sacred and blasphemous than any fight.
It’s hard to improve upon this quote if you want a good and concise summary of two thirds of the book, as Kennedy spends much time looking into the history of the corrida, and relating it to literary, religious and historical contexts. She’s never scholarly, it’s just that when she needs to explain something, she has just the right facts on hand, presented in the right way to make sense of things. Because that is what it’s all about: making sense of things. Much of this book consists of preparations for her first actual corrida that she will watch with her own eyes, facts presented to us while we also follow her path through Spain, visiting places that are important to the corrida or at least to the history of the corrida. She reads stories while traveling and she tells us this. And she tells us stories, stories that are not clothed like stories, more like facts, but in actuality, these are stories.
Stories of the homosexual poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a huge fan of the corrida, who was murdered by fascists in the streets of Grenada, maybe for political reasons, maybe for his homosexuality. And stories of the Inquisition, of streets that converted Jews and Moors had to walk along to prove their conversion. Stories of dying matadors, of old matadors who play with bulls on their farms and shoot themselves when they’re no longer able to. Stories of poems about toreros, stories of dying horses, of ears cut and laps granted. Stories of modern commercial pressure taking over. Stories of vengeance but most of all: stories of fear. Ritual and faith is constantly evoked. Faith in surviving the next encounter with the bull. And ritual to assure this. Matadors are, Kennedy tells us, highly superstitious. After all, their life is on the line each time they go out there, in the afternoon, courting death, with glittering sword, and the traje de luces, the garb of lights. Stories of people stepping up to a ledge twice in an afternoon, meeting the bulls.
But we already established that the corrida is no actual fight. Kennedy tells us that trickery abounds. Bulls are slowed, weakened. When she describes her first corrida, she explains how the picadors and banderilleros, the first two waves of people attacking the bull, sticking various sharp objects in it, butcher the bull to such an extent that all that is left is a slow slab of meat waiting for the coup de grâce. Ideally, the matador only hurts the bull once, when he delivers one precise jab with his sword. In the meantime, he plays with the hurting, bleeding, tired animal. He has twelve minutes do do this. Twelve painful, long minutes for the bull, who isn’t even always killed as he should be. More often than not he’s hacked to death. The three waves of attacks all depend upon skill, and skilled killing of a bull is rare. Whatever merits, aesthetic or else, the corrida may have, can only be attributed to the good variety of it, the skilled one. I’ve seen clips of mediocre banderillero lancing their spears against a bull online. How I know they were mediocre? Because I’ve also seen clips of El Juli do it.
El Juli, whom Kennedy talks at length about, is one of the superstars of his profession, possibly the highest-paid matador in history, and one of the very few who sometimes does their own banderillero work (you can see small clips of him doing that in Shakira’s video “Te Dejo Madrid” (click here)). He’s elegant, direct, precise. His performances are like elegant dances with the bull. When he lances his banderillas, I’ve seen him reach right over the horns and let them fly, thus bringing himself right into the most dangerous zone of all. Because this is where the danger arises. This is where the encounter with death takes place. Here, where the torero places himself over the bull’s horns. The matador needs success, even the mediocre one, and in order to achieve success it’s not important to kill a bull, no the bull’s death is a foregone conclusion, it’s important to place yourself in danger, be brushed by the bull, reach over the horns, step to the side fractions before the bull turns his head.
Toreros are frequently injured, but the bull has little to do with it. The bull has been tortured and butchered into submission. He’s dangerous now, very much so, but only on close distances or when the matador makes a grave mistake. It’s about faith. Matadors are not suicidal. They have faith in things working out, in not being gored, in turning at the right second. In the end, it’s the matador’s decision. This is what Kennedy tells us, over and over again. Her stories always revert to the situation that is sketched at the beginning and is thus shown to be more than just the story of a lonely woman on a ledge. It’s the instinct, the urge to do something, to matter, or the absence of such an urge. And she finds it in the men who pretend to fight bulls but actually fight themselves. Thankfully, Kennedy spares us a discussion of animal rights here, because she knows as well as most of us do, that there are very few among us whose eating habits allow them an outrage that is not hypocrisy. Kennedy dives first into the details, then into the actual fights and returns then to herself again.
Which, of course, she reflects as well in this little marvel of a book. In a way it exemplifies James Clifford’s concept of travel which includes travel that the reader of a text can undertake. In On Bullfighting we have all sorts of travel rolled up into one. She reads books, travels the country and finally experiences a corrida. And all of this is narrated, from the outside as well as the inside. We see her on the stone steps of an arena, carrying two cameras, one pair of binoculars and a notebook. She’s an anxious observer. Anxious of her powers to record what she sees. To return to Jean Améry and the conventional opinion, the logic of life, force-fed to everyone. Yes, this is luxury, to be able to reject life, to endanger life, and it’s not something to do lightly, but it’s also a right or it should be. As we see Kennedy watching herself we cannot but see her also with the eyes of society and though she travels to Spain, she carries her own culture with her like a snail and warps our reading and understanding, which, again, is reflected in numerous ways. Read this book if you know little about the corrida and want to learn more. Read this book if you want your brain and heart to be engaged. Read this book if you want to read a great book. It’s small but one of her best, and she’s one of the best, in general.
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