Summer is late, my heart

Stanley Kunitz: As Flowers Are

As flowers have wars that the philosophic eye
Stoops to behold, broils of the golden age
When honey dropped from the trees, and the bees perform
Their educated dance, we find our skins
In which to parable the act of love,
Contending, as at first, that the world might move.

Perfection caught in amber of our days
Jewels the life; on the offended thread
We hang the instants of the souls’ surprise
When it is ravished by the absolute god,
Who comes in any shape that he may choose
But the expected one: as flowers tell lies.

Your lazy tongue that makes me think of bells
And soft Mediterranean afternoons
(As flowers shoot stars) rings out its heaven-changes
Till souls and gods pick clover in your lines
And what I carry through the giant grass
Mocks the profession of the comic ants.

Summer is late, my heart: the dusty fiddler
Hunches under the stone; these pummelings
Of scent are more than masquerade; I have heard
A song repeat, repeat, till my breath had failed.
As flowers have flowers, at the season’s height,
A single color oversweeps the field.

Another one of the best post WWII American poets. His lamentably slim (274 pp) Collected Poems (buy em here) should be read by everyone interested in the craft and magic of good poetry.

RIP J.D. Salinger

Oh. J.D. Salinger died.

J.D. Salinger, the legendary author, youth hero and fugitive from fame whose “The Catcher in the Rye” shocked and inspired a world he increasingly shunned, has died. He was 91.

Salinger died of natural causes at his home on Wednesday, the author’s son said in a statement from Salinger’s literary representative. He had lived for decades in self-imposed isolation in the small, remote house in Cornish, N.H.

Here is a bit from Robert Giroux’ interview (interviewed by George Plimpton) in the Paris Review

A year later a messenger delivered the manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye to the office. It came from the Harold Ober Agency. I read it and, of course, I was absolutely riveted. I thought how lucky I was that this incredible book had come into my hands. I wrote a rave report and I turned it over to Eugene Reynal, my new boss. (…) So I left the Catcher in the Rye manuscript with Reynal. No reply for much too long, maybe two weeks. I finally went to see him. I said, “Gene, I’ve told you the story of Salinger visiting this office, and the fact that I shook hands with him. We have a gentleman’s contract at this point.”

He said, “Bob, I’m worried about that manuscript.” I said, “What are you worried about?” He said, “I think the guy’s crazy.”

Robert Olmstead: Coal Black Horse

Olmstead, Robert (2008), Coal Black Horse, Algonquin
ISBN 978-1-56512-521-6

olmstead 1First and foremost, Coal Black Horse is a beautiful book. It’s smart, fascinating, complex, but above all, especially in the first half, it’s beautiful. I admit I have never heard of Olmstead before, although he won several prizes and authored an oeuvre that gained him the respect and praise of writers as famous and talented as Richard Ford, but I’m glad I chanced upon Coal Black Horse, his fourth novel, set in the American Civil War. The reader enters the book and follows Olmstead’s protagonist as if through an enchanted wood, but at the same time he is led through the waste land of American History. The novel makes judicious use of both registers, with allusions and references all over the board, playing with genres without ever developing a postmodern ironic distance. Coal Black Horse is a serious book, and is using tradition in order to gain more precision without losing the traction, the pull of traditional narratives. It’s my first novel by Olmstead , who appears to be a fine writer, and I urge everyone to read it. If you give the book the attention it deserves, it’ll take you away to a strange country, which is at once part of common history and part of a small, personal history, which is both about one boy’s coming of age, and about a nation’s. Olmstead is a bit of a narcissist, he knows he’s good, and he knows what he can do, and this leads to passages and story-lines that are just a bit too much of a good thing. In a few places, Coal Black Horse reads like a debut novel, by an enormously talented, but impatient young writer, who wants to serve up his delicious dishes as soon as possible, but who threatens to overwhelm his guests. However, his successes clearly outweigh his failures in this, his fourth novel, making it an intriguing and engrossing read.

This is true despite the fact that it seems possible to level charges at Olmstead for merely riding the coattails of the traditions he writes in, for only using topics and themes that have been used ad nauseam in American fiction, and which, moreover, seem to lend themselves suspiciously easily to ‘deep’ literature. If we only look at obvious markers of genre, Coal Black Horse, the story of a boy, Robey, leaving his home to bring his father, a soldier in the Confederate army, back home, is either a coming of age tale, or a American Civil War novel; Olmstead makes much use of the sentimental possibilities, especially with regard to pathos, that both of these genres offer. As we experience emotional upheavals in the book it’s natural to wonder how much of that is due to Olmstead’s craft, and how much is created by the competent use of common tropes of the genres, and especially the setting, with the attendant props. The horror of dead people, the sadness of losing a father, finding him and losing him again, the prickling of a first love: reading experience tells us that you don’t have to be a talented or smart writer to (re)create these for your audience. A sad example of this is the public (and sometimes even critical) reaction to John Boyne‘s atrocious and irresponsible soi-disant “fable” about the Shoah (another topic that can make it “easy” for the writer), and it’s seductive to shelve Olmstead, who didn’t opt for an innovative point of view (like Alan Gurganus), or attempt to implode the genre from within (like I think McCarthy does with Blood Meridian), with Boyne, but that would be a mistake. Olmstead is a better writer than that, and while he certainly relies a lot on what’s basically prefabricated emotion, the true strength of Coal Black Horse is not in its setting or the genres it aligns itself with.

cormacInstead, Olmstead uses what I read as a fairy tale kind of mood for the whole book. Part of this may be due to saddling the story with a 14 year old boy as protagonist, who isn’t interested in politics, and wanders through the Civil War waste land like Candide. Unlike Boyne’s book which uses a similar focus to deflate the political and historical context of its setting, opting instead for a bloodlessly generalized statement, Olmstead’s never abdicates his responsibility to his material. By de-emphasizing some political aspects, he gains enough perspective to take on a broader, but not a jot less politically and historically incisive, point of view. And if we take a closer look, it turns out that Robey’s observations are strange and surreal with or without an immediate understanding of the politics of his time. As he visits a smithy, where the kind resident smith gives him the titular hoofed mammal, he sees one of the smithy’s workers and describes him thus:

A boy, not much younger than himself, was walking across the porch floor on his hands, the unhitched galluses of his denim overalls clicking across the boards. An upside-down pocket was sewn into his pant’s leg and stems of black licorice sprang from it.

Without denying the existence of boys walking on their hands, passages like this one tell us that this is not a strictly realist novel. Towards the end, the book contains a plethora of accidental meetings that strain one’s credulity, and presents scenes saturated with symbolic significance rather than sober realism. In a historical novel, these are odd elements; this is one of many examples demonstrating the book’s indifference to historical precision. Indifference may not be the right word maybe resistance is a better word, resistance to cheap historical folklore, often marked by “authentic” dialect. There isn’t any of that in Coal Black Horse, which only contains deviations that mark one character’s low level of education. Real, actual historical places play a very small role. Gettysburg is named, true enough, but as Robey follows the Confederates, trying to reach his father as soon as possible, any other possible points of reference are glossed over, smudged, by referring to written accounts and records, such as Newspaper articles, as mere accumulations of rumor and sensationalism. Robey drifts along more than he pursues a set path, and it’s the horse, more often than not, that is smarter than he is.

The horse is a curious character. It turns up at one point of the story, leaves a few chapters later, and alights again still later in the book. It’s very strong-willed, and much smarter (street-smart, you might say) than Robey as he sets out on his journey:

He was alone with the horse and as he studied it, he understood the horse to be making decisions about him, as well. He’d not known such a horse as this had ever been made and could not help but feel inferior to the animal.

Associations to Anna Sewell’s classic Black Beauty are bound to arise. While Sewell’s horse is “bright black”, its intelligence, its understanding of its environment, and the lessons it teaches its readers with regard to cruelty and violence are all apt points of comparison here. We never ‘hear’ the horse in Olmstead’s book, but while Sewell postulates a respect towards animals, implicitly urges her readers to see animals as being like human beings, and deserving of the same esteem and care, Olmstead’s protagonist has already implemented these lessons. Although there is a limit to the similarities, the association with a book conceived for adults but also read by kids (mostly kids, now) is fitting in a book that works so much with the images and language of children’s literature.

aremdtThere is, for example, as already mentioned, the fairy tale mood that much of the book has and which leads the reader to view the coal black horse in a similar light. It is a kind of silent guide, but it also means danger and has little to do with Robey’s growing up, learning about life’s hard lessons, it’s like a ghost, fading into the background some times, becoming more obvious at others, it’s accompanying the protagonist, nudging him in the right direction but leaving him the choice to go down the right road of his own will and accord. The coming-of-age-tale aspect of the novel isn’t the Salinger kind, with a young, jaded protagonist calling all grownups “phoneys”. This is more the Grimm’s Tales kind, a boy, thrown into a strange adventure, who’s struck with bewilderment, horror and wonder by the world around him.

He […] held a boy’s fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could not be all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing.

In the course of the book the experiences and witnessed violence and its lessons shape Robey’s future life, and within weeks, he has lost his innocence. Insecurities and possibilities will have coagulated into sureness, conviction and necessity. Small men, dressed in women’s clothes, awash in lice, who cook gorgeous meals and steal your horses used to be encountered with surprise, but the older Robey will shoot before asking, because it’s survival and that’s what you do. The aftermath of one of western history’s bloodiest wars leaves an emotional desert, and fairy tale oddities have turned into dark symbols. In the black last pages of the book, we find that a boy’s coming of age tale has turned into a nation’s. And it is the way that this aspect of the book unfolds, not by engaging history, but by evoking an ahistorical, devastated landscape, and the arid landscape of a soul darkened by violence and loss, that moves Coal Black Horse close to the genre of post-apocalyptic novels.

I have been reading and rereading lots of post-apocalyptic novels recently, with a handful more to come (including Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood which sounds wonderfully irresistible). One thing is remarkable especially about the American variety of the genre: the closeness of its images and tropes to literature of and about the American Civil War, or about even earlier periods of American history. Even in middling achievements like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or, worse, in Marcel Theroux’ Far North, post-apocalyptic tales appear to be less a criticism of how things will turn out to be, as a reminder of the cultural roots of our contemporary American society, of the basic elements in place in its structure and reasoning. Creating their future by taking stock of our known world and subtracting comforts and of popular monuments of consumerism from it, many of these writers manage to remind their readers upon which foundations (and illusions) their society is built. Granted, all post-apocalyptic novels do something like that, but the interesting point here is the connection to American history. These books make a specific point about the promise and problems inherent in the American premise, which is often worshiped in the form of an ideal.

The evocation of “American energy, initiative and freedom“ (to quote a dully disapproving review of Morris Dickstein’s most recent book by British critic John Gross) has become a mantra; American history and historical documents, which are often obsessively read, reread and analyzed with a hermeneutic fever are a rewarding quarry for inquisitive writers. In a way, many of the post-apocalyptic novels of the kind I described above are like historical novels stripped of direct and precise references. And this works: even in the work of writers who do not appear to apply overly much thought or talent to their efforts (Marcel Theroux or Paul Auster would come to mind), the mere fact of taking a piece of American history and removing the teleological push of the American narrative seems to serve to dismantle some illusions, exposing the raw flesh of history. That last metaphor is not out of place in a review of Coal Black Horse, in which amply, and in uncomfortable detail, the aftermath of one of the most famous and gruesome battles in American history is described, as Robey moves among the dead of Pickett’s Charge. Like many of the other novels that share Olmstead’s focus on American history, Coal Black Horse divests the setting of the American narrative, but only in part. Yes, Robert Olmstead did not write a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s a historical novel, but it’s reading experience is closer in spirit, and surprisingly many details, to post-apocalyptic novels than to its historical brethren, from Stephen Crane to Shelby Foote and Charles Frazier (although it’s not dissimilar to Russell Banks’ massive Cloudsplitter).

Historical novels, much like Science Fiction novels on the other end of the spectrum, frequently talk about the present by olmstead 3discussing the past and mirroring in it our morals, prejudice, and general attitudes. Some are more detailed than others, but all find some way to evoke some image of the past, the past as a cohesive unit and place. Props, language, places, the list is long. Much like McCarthy in his aforementioned Blood Meridian, Olmstead manages to do without a lot of these things. Coal Black Horse leads the reader through a landscape stuffed with symbols and signifiers. Even the historical references elude Robey, as he keeps missing the army, and only catches up with it at Gettysburg, when it’s destroyed and its rests scattered along the roads leading away from the slaughter. History slouches off, but what stays behind, and creates the structure, the meat of the book, is Robey’s process of maturing, which takes place in a landscape that is not shaped by history, and which maps out a continuity of an idea of civilization that is born from a violent place. Rape, murder, self-defense and fighting for survival. Coal Black Horse speaks eloquently of the roots of modern America, and it’s not alone in this. There are quite a few books that manage to do this, and do it rather well, I think, but this observation does not take away from the power of Olmstead’s novel.

As Coal Black Horse‘s story concentrates, closes in on Robey, it’s focus actually pans out. Coal Black Horse is decidedly not a novel about history, it’s about the present, about our own motivations. In its harsh education of Robey, it’s pointing out what’s been part of our education all along. It’s a call to look at ourselves, deep and hard, to re-examine what I called the American premise. With today’s talkingheads repeating hogwash about what’s ‘American’ and what’s not, this book (maybe along with Hannah Arendt’s curiously idealistic but brilliant On Revolution) provides an antidote. In this effort, Olmstead frequently overdoes the pathos, to such an extent that he sometimes slips stylistically, into strangely awkward phrases. It’s, ultimately, a very hard book, and too earnest for its own good, but it is a great read, a compelling, marvelous book, one which I recommend fully and completely. I may have reservations, but ultimately, I loved this book, and so will you.


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ikhnaton came up / with the door

Ishmael Reed: Why I Often Allude to Osiris

ikhnaton looked like
prophet jones, who brick
by brick broke up a
french chateau & set it
down in detroit. he was
‘elongated’ like prophet
jones & had a hairdresser’s
ikhnaton moved cities for
his mother-in-law &
each finger of his hands
bore rings.

ikhnaton brought re
ligious fascism to egypt.

where once man animals
plants & stars freely
roamed thru each other’s
rooms, ikhnaton came up
with the door.

(a lot of people in new york
go for him – museum curators
politicians & tragic mulattoes)
i’ll take osiris any
prefiguring JB he
funky chickened into
ethiopia & everybody had
a good time. osiris in
vented the popcorn, the
slow drag & the lindy hop.

he’d rather dance than rule

Poetry, Prayer

Derek Walcott: The Fist

The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved

past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.

Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.

Derek Walcott turned 80 yesterday. One of my favorite poets (Omeros is otherworldly), he once said in a Paris Review interview with the excellent Edward Hirsch: “I have never separated the writing of poetry from prayer.” A sentence that has kept me company throughout the last decade. We are lucky to have him.

Padgett Powell: The Interrogative Mood, a Novel?

Powell, Padgett (2009), The Interrogative Mood: a Novel?, Ecco
ISBN 978-0-06-185941-0

When I heard about this book in bookblogs, I was skeptical. See, American bookbloggers have a tendency to elevate stern genre distinctions to fetishes, creating such a strong image of what a genre is supposed to be like, that they happen to hail a surprising number of recent and not-so-recent publications as major breakthroughs in the genre in question. From an “Alternative History” of the novel to Lydia Davis’ work, the unexciting string of ‘shocking’ breaks with convention is long and dire. So when Padgett Powell’s most recent book, The Interrogative Mood, was received along similar lines, lines that the subtitle “a novel?”, with the pointed question mark, only served to deepen and emphasize, I almost regretted getting it. I wrote down a few remarks for this review concentrating on the ludicrous straw men of some reviewers, tying in this book, without having read it. Yeah, I do that sometimes. As I got into it, however, I became genuinely excited about the book and its writer. It’s quite astonishing that Powell really manages to pull this off: an experimental book that does play intelligently with genre notions and conventions, that’s an engaging read, quite moving, frankly, yet also challenging and consistently interesting. Pick up this book. You will not be disappointed. And while you’re at it, pick up also his debut novel, Edisto (review forthcoming). Padgett Powell is one of the most genuinely exciting writers I’ve discovered in a while.

The Interrogative Mood is an interesting kind of novel (and why not run with it and call it that). On the surface, there is no plot, there are no characters, there are just questions. 164 pages of unceasing, unflagging questions, one after another. When I heard that the book consisted solely of questions, a few ideas came into my head about how a plot might be constructed through questions, but I didn’t expect this. The endless stream of questions appears to be a barrage of non-sequitur inquiries, some humorous, some not, some political, some not, many very silly, many not. The second question of the book is “Are your nerves adjustable?”, third question “How do you stand in relation to the potatoe?”, fourth question “Should it still be Constantinople?”, sixth question “In your view, do children smell good?”. And so on. The wealth of questions is quite overwhelming, but in a good way. When Powell set out to write a book composed solely of questions, this is exactly what he did, unlike other writers, he didn’t cloak a cheaply traditional, sentimental book with experimental cloth. He really wrote an experimental book that is truly unlike any book I’ve read so far. What makes it so unique is the fact that these questions appear to form an incoherent stream of impromptu ideas, a rambling book with, at best, novelty factor, but that in Powell’s hands, they acquire a subtle coherence, a voice, direction and meaning. The book is both coherent and rambling at once, depending upon the degree of care which one applies to the text. It’s a text glittering with subtleties.

It’s also an addictively readable book. The flow of questions is exhilarating, challenging and fascinating. Some questions provoke you to raise objections, some ask you to dig into your memories, still others, and those are a large portion of the whole, are goofy and funny, some of those more like cheap comedy quips, and some as finely wrought as a Dr. Seuss book. There will be questions that surprise you, questions that will touch upon some memory that’ll move you, make you rev up your memory. It’s hard to imagine a reader not swayed by the titular ‘moods’ of Powell’s book (I’ll mention other meanings of the title in awhile), at least to some extent. These questions are well crafted and it’s admirable that Powell is able to use them as he does. But on the whole, as you turn the pages, the questions lose importance and you answer fewer and fewer of the, just coasting along on the wave of words, as the small units of questions coalesce into something larger. Something, yes, that I would call a novel.

Definitions of the novel abound, and since, to riff on a phrase of Jarrell, a definition is a short text that has something wrong with it, I won’t try to define the novel here, it’s been done, with varying levels of success. Try your local library. It’s difficult to come up with a list of “must” elements in such a comprehensive and fluid genre like the novel, which isn’t defined in a non-ambiguous way through any element. There are novels in verse, brief as well as long novels, expansive historical novels and dense, action-packed novels. Novels can feature any kind or amount of characters and are composed in all kinds of structures. While it’s easy to determine if a book is ‘clearly’ a novel, the borderline cases are far harder to pinpoint. One such case is Padgett Powell’s fine book, which explicitly asks the reader to consider whether it’s a novel, and indeed it shares enough properties with the mainstream novel to justify calling it one, or at least considering it as one as a valid mode of reading the book (among others). The first, most basic properties are these: The Interrogative Mood has two characters (a very basic requirement) and a narrative. One of the characters is the narrator, the interrogator, the one asking the questions. He definitely experiences a change of character as the book progresses, and as we hear to him ramble, we notice that some questions are more personal than others.

There is an urgency in some questions, and some explicit biographical background worked into others. The very nature of the questions used suggests a personal spin. The kind of questions, their sequence and recurrence, among other factors, help map out a kind of personality. It’s actually quite remarkable how precise a writer Powell proves to be in this regard. For example, there are quizzes, i.e. detailed questions that are about general knowledge. The vast majority of these have to do with nature, which suggests a preeminent importance of the topic for the asker of questions. This fact is firmly impressed upon the reader, as names and images of animals and plants are threaded through his head as he tries to follow the book, keep up with its dodges and feints. These quiz questions are fair and open, and only revealing in terms of sheer quantity and focus of topic. There are also other questions, less fair, but also still more revealing ones. In personal and political matters, Powell’s narrator has the tendency to ask leading questions. He confronts his counterpart with false dichotomies, or he asks what is at best a rhetorical question. It is with these questions that he’s really tipping his hand. These questions, whether it’s his use of false dichotomies or of rhetorical questions, they tell us what the narrator believes or at least what he wants to make his counterpart think he believes. There is, however, no indication of subterfuge in the book, despite the tricky surface. The unnamed narrator appears to be quite earnest and straightforward, within the limitations of the form he has chosen, of course.

So when he gives his opinions away they don’t develop into a new game, they lend resonance to the book, imbuing it with a voice that is singular and unmistakable. As you read on, engrossed by the entertaining surface, you enter into a kind of intimacy with the narrator, listening for his voice, for personal issues even in perfectly innocent questions. This is a work that the book expects you to do. It relies firmly upon our instincts to look for and draw connections even between seemingly unconnected events and statements. By looking closely at the text, listening to it, we find that, far from random, the book is composed, and structured. While one reading wasn’t enough for me to puzzle out that structure, it’s worth noting that the narrator has a few subjects he’s obsessing about, subjects that keep recurring, often in different contexts. It’s not, from a first reading, obvious how these subjects and themes work, in what way they are stacked and repeated, but the enormous amount of them assures that we are made aware of structure, and together with the changes in tone and direction that we see in the personal questions, we have an immediate sense of narrative. Make no mistake, there is not an overt plot, a story that we can follow and retell. To claim that would be absurd. Yet it would be equally absurd to deny the fact of structure, hidden though it is in the folds of this complex book, structure that, indeed, amounts to what can meaningfully be called a narrative.

As for the counterpart, the listener to questions, the answerer of them, little is known about him. The interrogator addresses him in the second person singular, an address that is purposefully fuzzy. The reader naturally assumes that he or she is meant by the questions, and immediately starts formulating answers, thinking about the questions. Not until quite a few questions in, the interrogator refers to answers that he has received. Not from the reader obviously. How we read these references and asides hinges mostly upon the question of whether we are prepared at all to read this as a novel. If we’re not, the putative answers will only be seen as a rhetorical device to further engage “you”, i.e. the reader (who would be the prime suspect for the role of the “you”), in the book’s discussion. If on the other hand, we are open to seeing The Interrogative Mood as fiction, a listener, a counterpart emerges that could (or not) motivate the speaker to ask more and more personal questions. Reading the book with a hypothetical listener/answerer in mind, questions that are pointed and focused, questions that we thought referred to the interrogator and his situatedness, could be his way of riffing upon his counterpart. All these, while they may seem like idle speculations, are legitimate questions, and I think that from the subtitle to some of the details, Powell fuels this kind of debate.

It’s hard not to think that Powell is very aware of how our thinking about genre conventions in the arts has changed, from Wayne Booth’s groundbreaking work on the novel (there is a point to make about Booth’s treatment of James’ narrators and the way Powell’s narrator is set up) to Nelson Goodman’s astonishing distillations in the 1970s and 1980s. This isn’t, by the way, the only theoretical consideration that underlies the book. The title refers us to another one which I can but briefly sketch. “Interrogative Mood” is a grammatical term, referring to a way to express interrogativity in some language, though not in English. That is remarkable for a book written in English and suggests that the book is concerned with the wider modes of interrogativity. In semantics, interrogativity holds a special place. It’s a repository for doubt, a marker of ambiguity (ambiguity of reference, for example. Interrogatives are often highly dependent upon context to be clarified, yet it is this context that Powell, slyly, denies us), of epistemological uncertainty. It is a mode that doesn’t just raise questions, it also puts things into question. But in the case of The Interrogative Mood, this isn’t a coldly calculating questioning, not an intellectually bracing search. Powell’s narrator is clearly calling not just aspects of his knowledge of the world, and his interlocutor’s, into question, he puts himself up for discussion. The very form and shape of the book is designed to be elusive, to allow the narrator to hide in a mirror cabinet of questions. Questions seem to be propelled outward, demanding answers of people elsewhere, but we can, as I said earlier, follow these questions back to their source, Powell’s narrator.

When you come down to it, The Interrogative Mood is a very small and personal book, yet through its engagement with the reader (the ambiguity of reference is a big part of that), it’s also a very open book, open to the world without. Many definitions of the novel, especially German ones, have stressed that the novel is the one genre that contains the fullness of life, the smörgåsbord of the everyday, containing often disparate elements, from human psychology, to public events and the richness of bodily experience, in short, “life in its allness”, to quote from Lucács’ classic Theory of the Novel. And in the stupendous amount of kinds of questions and sectors of knowledge that Powell’s book draws on and uses, it does just that. It’s a slim book, a simply written book that is teeming with life. Yes, the two characters’ lives, but also ours. Powell introduces the book with a quote from Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “Does the Daylight astonish?” Whitman asks. And the very first question that the book has for its reader is “Are your emotions pure?”. That wonderment, that tender sensitivity, the careful voice of the narrator expecting, no, hoping, for something beyond the fog that crawls all over us. Yes, the questions are a kind of fog themselves, but if we let them, they can clear some of the other fog away. Padgett Powell has written a wondrous book, a light, musical read, that is formally brave and beautiful in terms of its emotions. It’s not a generous book, but the heart of it is hardened by distress. Read The Interrogative Mood. You won’t be sorry.


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Human capacities

On his blog, Stanley Fish reviews Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s new book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion. Smith is a marvelous writer, who is generally admired in this household and her new book sounds intriguing as well.

Her point, stated frequently and in the company of careful readings of those who might reject it, is that while science and religion exhibit different models, offer different resources, display different limitations and enter into different relationships of support and (historically specific) antagonism, they are not, and should not be seen as, battle-to-the-death opponents in a cosmic struggle. Nor are they epistemologically distinct in a way that leaves room for only one of them in the life of an individual or a society: “There is nothing that distinguishes how we produce and respond to Gods from how we produce and respond to a wide variety of other social-cognitive constructs ubiquitous in human culture and central to human experience.” Which is not to say that science and religion are the same, only that that their very different efforts to conceptualize and engage with very different challenges have a common source in human capacities and limitations.

The Climacteric of his Want

Robert Lowell: “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage”

“The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms.Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . .
It’s the injustice . . . he is so unjust–
whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him tick? Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . .
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant.”

an odd little poem, one of my favorite Lowell poems.

Thomas Bernhard: My Prizes

Bernhard, Thomas (2009), Meine Preise, Suhrkamp
ISBN 978-3-518-42055-3

Thomas Bernhard is among the most compelling writers of the 20th century, in prose and drama, and among the most compelling of Bernhard’s books are his five autobiographical volumes, the first of which, Die Ursache: Eine Entziehung, was published in 1975, and the last of which, Ein Kind, followed in 1982. In Bernhard’s work, an oeuvre that is intricate and dense, they stand out, if anything, because they are even more dense. They draw words, ideas and structures from the pavements, walls and the hollow skulls of the landscapes, houses and institutions of Bernhard’s childhood. In his novels he sets many things in motion, puts worlds of ideas into play, but in his five autobiographical books, they are anchored to something else, which is hard to describe, something in the air, one might say. The same ineffable quality is one of the biggest strengths of Meine Preise, Bernhard’s posthumously published book about some of the prizes he won. Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be. Most of these prizes are won early in his career, for his dazzling debut novel Frost, which is one of my favorite Austrian novels in the latter half of the last century and for his first play Ein Fest Für Boris, a stunning attack on clinical hierachies of speech.

And the succor they provide is not just moral. Actually, to hear Bernhard tell the story, it isn’t moral at all: accepting prizes is a humiliation of sorts, something that he needs to justify to himself. The basic justification here is poverty. Early in his career, Bernhard was piss-poor, and writing professionally, living off his creative work, was out of the question. The book shows him driving a beer truck through Vienna, among other things, it tells us of his debts and problems, and how the prizes suggested a way out. Out of the narrow systems of coercion and control that renting an apartment in the city had become to him, by allowing him to purchase a house of his own, in the country. A farmstead, actually, his famous Vierkanthof, long since immortalized in biographical writing of all stripes. And out of the country, by allowing him to purchase a car. With that car, he went on a trip abroad (which is symbolic of the freedom that the purchase afforded him) and wrote his second novel, the gorgeously odd Amras, there. These sections of the book demonstrate to us that growing into his own as a writer was connected, for Bernhard, with the need for a material autonomy, an ability (though not a need!) to walk away from people and things. The fierceness of his early work was driven by urges and needs, that the prizes, suddenly, surprisingly, allowed him to assuage. But these positive effects just enhanced the humiliation, the shame for accepting prizes that he knew to be problematic.

Accepting a prize, for him, means becoming part of an institution, accepting its structures and strictures, and Bernhard was understandably uneasy about that; in the speeches he gave, some of which are appended to the main text, there is a lot of distance to his environment. None of them sound like typical acceptance speeches, but the speech he gave upon accepting the Österreichischer Staatspreis (a national Austrian award, which comes in two sizes) takes the cake. The fact that the one he won was the smaller of the two, which he had to explain to everyone who congratulated him on winning, and that he was about to accept a prize given out by an institution that is part of the Austrian state appears to have galvanized him into writing a brief, harsh, but great little troll of a speech, broadly insulting Austrians and those who govern them. This caused the education secretary, who hadn’t expected anything like this (and clearly he hadn’t read Frost, the novel that the prize had been awarded for), to jump up, red in the face, point a finger at Bernhard and then storm out of the room. That same year, Bernhard was supposed to be awarded yet another prize, but when the same secretary, who was supposed to be the guest of honor at the ceremony, heard who would win the prize (and presumably give a speech), he boycotted the event, which was subsequently canceled.

This scandalous speech is the best of the bunch, it reads like an unpublished page from Frost, and, as such, was oddly fitting. The whole event itself foreshadowed the rest of Bernhard’s public life, the attacks that he had to undergo both by prominent Austrian politicians and a large portion of Austrian broadsheets. And this is not the only award or speech that seems strangely fitting, like an allegory, a complex symbolic arrangement rather than a retelling of actual events. It’s Bernhard’s skills that create this impression, and this book, that seemed simple, and only light and funny at a first glance, turns out to be, in addition, quite cunningly crafted. The first thing that’s apparent is that the sequence of awards in the book, and the actual chronological sequence in which he received them are not the same. In fact, there’s a narrative to the book that the factual nature of the stories, and the often dry and matter-of-fact voice that Bernhard uses here, manage to hide. The editorial afterword gives no indication of how finished Bernhard considered this book, there are hints, such as his announcements of the existence of the manuscript, his oft-stated intentions to have it published etc., but they provide no real evidence given the fact that writers are prone to talk about and announce books that are nowhere near finished. Nabokov’s The Original of Laura is perhaps the most recent example of this.

It makes sense, nevertheless, to treat Meine Preise as if it was meant to be published that way. And in this light, as a coherent whole, it makes far more sense, and it’s a far better book than a loose collection of anecdotes and gossip ever could be. Bernhard’s tone varies, as does his scope. The first episode, the Grillparzer award, is an enjoyable little tale of Bernhard’s last-minute attempts to buy a suit, and his nasty stubbornness at the ceremony itself. Miffed at not having been properly greeted, he decides to just quietly sit in the audience, waiting for people to come looking for him, to seek him out. In a stunning display of obstinacy, he insists that to be asked by the head of proceedings “personally”. It’s hilarious, especially after we watched him pick a suit, arrive, quietly, with his aunt in tow. In the actual sequence of events, the Grillparzer award was one of the last ones he won. He won it after the upheavals and scandals, after having been the subject of scathing ridicule in the Austrian press, after having had to see his books being stupidly praised and even more stupidly panned by the press, both in Austria and in Germany. As a writer of prose and drama, Bernhard seemed to be complete right from the start, but the German language reading public had to adjust to him, a process that took Austria a longer time than he had to live.

Arranging the book so that this award comes first robs it of all this context, highlighting a more personal reading, which has a twofold effect: it’s hilarious, and in the uncanny qualities that his behavior exhibits, also sinister. The arrangement works on more levels than one. There’s, for example, the fact that the prize is only awarded to plays that have not been given a prize before, and the initial placing of the episode in the book implicitly extends that quality to Bernhard’s whole work. Bernhard’s indignation and obstinacy is, in a historical context, an understandable reaction to an establishment that denied him the attention and tributes that he felt he deserved. In fact, throughout the book, there are recurring figures who introduce him, in order to hand him an award, without having the fgacts straight: from switched around names, to completely made-up biographies and sloppy summaries, Bernhard presents those who give him his prizes as not worthy of awarding someone of his stature. Again, this is about humiliation, to an extent. but the central point of the Grillparzer episode, effected by the arrangement of the book, is about dignity, its opposite. Instead of allowing the reader to see his behavior in the light of the decade that passed between the award and the publication of Frost, he implies that the dignity he demands is implicit in his person, that he is due respect not because of what he had written and published, but because of who he is.

And this narrative is continued in other guises and other episodes in the book, in an attempt to wrench power, dignity and strength from parts of his life that he felt a certain amount of shame for. He castigates a friend who’s also a juror for one of those prizes for having been part of “dastardly behavior”, and pities him for being “inconsequential, deplorable, miserable”, only to mention his friend’s suicide in the very next sentence. The narrative is brought to a close in the final episode, which is about the Büchnerpreis, probably the most respected literary prize in German language literature. It’s only partly about the prize he won, and more about his announcement to leave the academy which awards the prize. The letter to the academy in which he announces his departure is appended. This is not an editorial decision by Raimund Fellinger, who compiled the book, it’s part of Bernhard’s own plans for the book, as is apparent from a facsimile that Fellinger provides. There is no melodrama in the episode, cushioning the exit, it is recounted plainly, in measured and simple words. As a reader, I was surprised how well-rounded, closed, finished an affair this book, published posthumously, from an abandoned typoscript, is. The first and the last episode are especially significant, in more ways than one. Among those I haven’t mentioned yet, the cultural, literary, context, looms large.

Prizes and literature are connected (in this book) in three significant ways. One is personal, the effect that winning a prize has on the writer. The other two are more cultural. There are the writers who the prizes are named for, and there are the writers who win with you, won before you, or after you. Grillparzer and Büchner came from roughly the same period, and both were oddballs who didn’t really fit into their time. Grillparzer’s aestheticist conservativism, and Büchner’s firebrand anger are two poles that are highly important in Bernhard’s work, as well, and framing his book with these two writer’s names seems not without significance, it implies a statement about the literary work that was emerging in that decade that is covered by Meine Preise. Especially since he took pains to suppress another writer who lent his name to a prize, the poet Rudolf Alexander Schröder. In the whole chapter about the Literaturpreis der Freien Hansestadt Bremen there is no mention of Schröder at all, although it is the Rudolf Alexander Schröder foundation that awards the prize on the poet’s birthday. This is a complicated and mined field, and very interesting with regard to Bernhard’s relationship to a literary movement called the Conservative Revolution, of which writers as famous as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Rudolf Borchard (and Rudolf Alexander Schröder) were a part, but this is not the place to elaborate on the topic.

Suffice to say that as any work by the great Austrian writer, this is a complex, accomplished work of art. It is, however, much lighter. It’s like small doses of Bernhard, like Bernhard sampling his own work, writing a pastiche of different aspects of it. Meine Preise is a funny book, a very quick read, with none of Bernhard’s idiosyncratic difficulties in evidence. He makes use of typical aspects of his style to create great comic moments, shining a bright light on his other books, and upon his role as jokester and trickster that he plays even in his very serious books. In dazzling plays like Die Macht der Gewohnheit, he showed how much darkness, brutality and obsessiveness can be part of a truly comical work. In this book, he does the opposite. Revisiting the idea of writing about his life, he calls up serious and important topics, yet offers them to us in an infinitely lighter mood. Also, in many places, the writing lacks the concision and precision that distinguishes his best work. So, no, this isn’t a major new work by Thomas Bernhard. It is a great introduction to his work though, and a thoroughly enjoyable romp, as well. If you like Bernhard, you cannot not read it, and if you’re thinking of starting on Bernhard, this is the book to pick up. In connection with his five older autobiographical books, a fuller picture of Bernhard the writer emerges, of the exigencies and pressures and delights that made him who he was.

Monody shall not wake the mariner

Hart Crane is one of the poets closest to my heart. This is one of his best poems. But then, he doesn’t really have bad ones. Read his poetry. Read his letters. Be careful reading secondary lit on him. Stay away from Winters, Gwiazda or Bloom. Read, smell, taste Hart Crane’s work directly. There’s nothing like it. A glowing angel, a staggering poet.

Hart Crane: At Melville’s Tomb

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man

Isherwood, Christopher (2001), A Single Man, Minnesota University Press
ISBN: 0-8166-3862-4

A Single Man is a great novel. Read it. It is the first book I read by Christopher Isherwood, a multi-talented writer who was born in Britain, lived for a while in Berlin among other places and finally died in California. I haven’t read anything else of his work, or about his life, except for the portions of it that he shared with Auden, whose work, in contrast, I know quite well. Isherwood wrote novels, stories, memoirs, screenplays and a disturbing amount of tracts on Vedanta and, with help from Swami Prabhavananda, produced Hindu translations. In Isherwood’s work there are a lot of tangents, and in this light, it’s astonishing how brief, slim and purposeful A Single Man, which was originally published in 1961, is. There are no doubt numerous allusions, meanings and reflections in it that touch upon Isherwood’s rich life and work, but the book wears these lightly. It is, first and foremost, a great read and an inspiring, elegiac novel about one man’s life passing through one phase into something else. But, although is admirable on almost every level, it will not appeal to everyone. Like Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, (click here for my review) this novel is highly dependent on the voice of its protagonist. It’s his thoughts, feelings, disturbances that reel you in, but these same concerns could put you off. I don’t, however, think it will. It’s that good.

The plot follows George, a professor at a California university, during an apparently wholly ordinary day. We start with an image of him shaving and leave him as he slips into a deep sleep. George is relatively old, and is living in California after having grown up in the UK. He’s ‘a single man’ after the death of his partner Jim, which he hides from his neighbors. A Single Man can be read as one long exploration of the exigencies and contradictions of his character, the complexities of his identity. The day in George’s life that the book depicts is a working day, and as George ambles through what’s left of his life after Jim’s departure, we see how much his everyday reality, his everyday habits, how all this is shrouded in lies, illusions, subterfuges. George his hiding from the people around him, but he’s also hiding from himself. The novel brilliantly unsettles the well-wrought construct that George set up for himself, by focusing with an unusual intensity upon gazes. From the very first section, where we encounter a kind of camera, or rather: we follow a tracking shot that zooms in on the character, until the narrative finally settles on him, snug like an expensive tailored suit, we are averted to the importance of gazes. In fact, it is this section, written in a voice and a tone that we will not see again until the last pages of the book, that puts the rest of the narrative into perspective.

All novels have a gaze they work with, a vantage point, the difference is the amount of reflection that writers invest in the tools they use. A mediocre writer like Paul Auster with his fixed, incredibly normative, moralistic, simplistic points of view appears to be unable or unwilling to engage them in his small pubescent literary games. A different case is China Miéville, whose work evinces a strong awareness of situations and the way he’s situated himself within frameworks of centers and peripheries, narrative and cultural norms, and can even find striking images within his books to exemplify these issues (most brilliantly maybe in his most recent, The City & The City, which is a long disquisition about gaze, perception and performativity post-Derrida). Isherwood’s choice here is different but no less effective or ingenious. As his camera-like narrator settles into the story, a personal third person narrator takes over the reins. Suddenly we ride in George’s head, although we don’t. There are tweaks here and there that disrupt the narrative illusion and ask us to look at the narrative from the outside, swivel the camera around, so to say, and look at this guy, as he walks down a street, as he gets heavily drunk twice in one night, bathes in the nude and is hit on, twice. And as the book progresses, this reader’s gaze, made a part and a reflected requirement of the narrative, is accompanied by other gazes.

There are the neighbors, his students, a pretty boy in a bar, an old friend. George is obsessed with his appearance, “he looks – and doesn’t he know it! – better than nearly all of his age-mates at the gym”, but also with appearances in general, obsessed with maintaining the fiction about himself that he decided to invent earlier in his life. His obsession doesn’t show through meticulously maintained obsessive thoughts about this, but in the fact that his thoughts keep returning to the same worries, that he keeps telling us about the cover stories he presents, but that commentary is so sparse, that we are left wondering how many of the stories he tells others, such as the wonderfully sentimental plan to buy a pub and retire to a life as an innkeeper, whether these stories, although he doesn’t disavow them explicitly, are untruths as well. Or whether he’s even capable of being honest to himself. But these recurring thoughts share one more characteristic: many of them have to do with the fact that he’s homosexual, a lifestyle that his neighbors disapprove of. It’s not that he hides his sexual preference. On the contrary, his relationship with Jim was pretty well known, and among his students it appears to be common knowledge that he frequents a specific gay bar.

But in the way George looks at himself, in his convoluted narratives, we find what W.E.B. Du Bois, in writing about the black experience, famously called the “double consciousness”, which describes a very simple perceptual mechanism that is active in many people that belong to groups that are not part of the general, restrictive and restricted norm. It has been applied to women, and it can also be profitably applied to homosexuals. People in these groups often have conflicting identities. As part of their nation-wide culture, they see themselves with the same gaze that the white, male, heteronormative society trains on them. But there is also one’s own, personal part of identity, the part identifying as someone who isn’t necessarily part of the set that is described by the general norm. Between those identities, or: those parts of his identity, conflicts turn up, naturally. From these conflicts, different problems and anxieties can arise. In every look, thought, stifled word of George, this kind of consciousness is visible; I think George is a man haunted by his identities, and somewhat oppressed by the roles he is supposed to inhabit. To quote the book, he “knows what is expected of” him. At the same time, there is no heaviness in his character. His voice isn’t dark, brooding or moping. Isherwood manages to raise issues like these without bogging the book down in them.

George is “oppressed by awareness”, but his voice is light, he’s a very humorous, likable guy, or he’s presented to us that way. Isherwood isn’t the first to attempt or to succeed in mixing the heavy and the light in this way, there are countless other writers doing this, but this isn’t a mark of unoriginality on Isherwood’s part. Isherwood is content in presenting a fully fleshed-out and original character to his readers. As for the echoes of other books, they are clearly intended, as Isherwood places A Single Man firmly in several literary traditions, and then makes ingenious use of the reader’s recognition of these traditional stories and structures. The most obvious reference is to the modern line of novels that are set in a single day and show a character coming up and to terms with his time, his life, his culture. From Ulysses through Ivan Denisovich and Seize the Day, the number of books that deal with this theme are legion, and Isherwood was clearly counting on his readers’ knowledge of books from this genre (among some others) when he wrote A Single Man. In each of these novels the inner conflicts of the characters or the petty, mundane conflicts that these characters may have with their immediate environment have an almost allegorical status, bespeaking the state of humanity, the fate of man in the modern world.

These broader implications are true, as well, for George. Isherwood’s skills both create a highly believable, specific environment and story for his protagonist, as well as a matrix that would work for anyone. We are all George, to a degree. His cowardice and his bravery are ours. The pain of his desire and the dulling ache of his loss, they are ours, as well. This is what elevates the book from merely ‘good’ to ‘great’. And all through this, we are swayed, we are moved along by Isherwood’s impeccable language that can make the elegiac throb of guilty desire just as palpable and incisive, as a scene where a man hurries from the toilet to pick up the phone with an unwiped ass. Isherwood’s ability to pull off a description of the latter kind of activity with such aplomb, to make it part of a generally smooth and musical book is just one aspect of his skills. Within his style, different registers and kinds of reference merge. Scene by scene, this is stunningly realized, and one of the reasons why it all coheres so well is, I think, that Isherwood writes with a notion of, well, “unrealism”, you might call it (yes I stole that word from Lowell). His protagonist, going off on a rant, gives a great explanation of how that might work, when he rebukes a student for attacking American motels for being ‘unreal’:

Unreal. American motels are unreal! My good girl-you know and I know that our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period. […] And it’s a symbol […] for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.

In an odd way, this is also a perfect description of the book which uses the realist elements as parts of its “building code” which is, at the end of the day, part of Isherwood’s unrealism, as so many other things.

And Isherwood’s breadth and appetite for texts and myths to incorporate in his work seems endless, without letting any of this show in a very obvious manner. I’ve hinted at a few things, but there’s so much more. He works both with what seems to me a very modern notion of the grotesque (Bakhtin would come to mind), and a slightly older contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian elements (Nietzsche, anyone?). His use of travel as an image, and a recurring metaphor, and a structural device, too, is fascinating. And there’s so much more, but none of this is burdensome. It’s not baggage that the reader has to deal with, it’s a bonus that he can access if he wants to. But even without all this, it’s a great, if brief ride through one day full of hope, desire, disappointments and, finally, hope. George battles with decay, with dark shadows on his soul yet he, deeply, rejoices in life. He is incredibly smart, fully capable of making strong and intelligent choices in his life, yet, like all of us, he’s also propelled, moved, driven along by the obscure river of his life, and the big events of this life of his, they crash through the fabric of his stories, like large rocks, redirecting the river, and hurtling him elsewhere. But he walks upright, making his choices, wielding his mind. George’s dignity, which is what much of the book is ultimately about, humbles us. This is a great book. This is a great writer.


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Leery: Kulla on Neuro-Evolution

Here is a recent talk that Daniel Kulla (who makes music and blogs as classless Kulla) gave on Neuro-Evolution and Timothy Leary. It’s well worth your while. This is a six-part playlist on youtube of someone filming the talk at this year’s “The Future @ c-base” event, a day of talks hosted by c-base, and which is taking place during the annual Chaos Computer Club conference (which is actually called “The 26th Chaos Communication Congress (26C3)“. Wowser). Anyway. Here is the first video of the full talk. To access the rest, either click here or on one of youtube suggestions when the video is finished. Enjoy:


Hey why aren’t you writing anything on your blog? Lazy much?

After having had the above, in some variations, emailed to me a few times, here’s my story: I’m sick. When I’m sick, I write badly, and can barely read. I lie back and play games on my computer.

And this is one of the best songs of the 1980s. Yeah. Fuck me I’m sick.

“But really no one is exceptional”

Randall Jarrell: Next Day

Moving from Cheer to Joy, from Joy to All,
I take a box
And add it to my wild rice, my Cornish game hens.
The slacked or shorted, basketed, identical
Food-gathering flocks
Are selves I overlook. Wisdom, said William James,

Is learning what to overlook. And I am wise
If that is wisdom.
Yet somehow, as I buy All from these shelves
And the boy takes it to my station wagon,
What I’ve become
Troubles me even if I shut my eyes.

When I was young and miserable and pretty
And poor, I’d wish
What all girls wish: to have a husband,
A house and children. Now that I’m old, my wish
Is womanish:
That the boy putting groceries in my car

See me. It bewilders me he doesn’t see me.
For so many years
I was good enough to eat: the world looked at me
And its mouth watered. How often they have undressed me,
The eyes of strangers!
And, holding their flesh within my flesh, their vile

Imaginings within my imagining,
I too have taken
The chance of life. Now the boy pats my dog
And we start home. Now I am good.
The last mistaken,
Ecstatic, accidental bliss, the blind

Happiness that, bursting, leaves upon the palm
Some soap and water–
It was so long ago, back in some Gay
Twenties, Nineties, I don’t know . . . Today I miss
My lovely daughter
Away at school, my sons away at school,

My husband away at work–I wish for them.
The dog, the maid,
And I go through the sure unvarying days
At home in them. As I look at my life,
I am afraid
Only that it will change, as I am changing:

I am afraid, this morning, of my face.
It looks at me
From the rear-view mirror, with the eyes I hate,
The smile I hate. Its plain, lined look
Of gray discovery
Repeats to me: “You’re old.” That’s all, I’m old.

And yet I’m afraid, as I was at the funeral
I went to yesterday.
My friend’s cold made-up face, granite among its flowers,
Her undressed, operated-on, dressed body
Were my face and body.
As I think of her I hear her telling me

How young I seem; I am exceptional;
I think of all I have.
But really no one is exceptional,
No one has anything, I’m anybody,
I stand beside my grave
Confused with my life, that is commonplace and solitary.

This link will lead you to a reading of this poem by the poet.
Randall Jarrell is one of the towering figures of American literature, although his name is no longer as foregrounded as it used to be. Fiction, non.fiction, poetry, he excelled at everything. Reading Jarrell’s poetry criticism is like drinking from a fresh well. Invigorating, inspiring.