On finding Frank Bidart

I had some collection by Frank Bidart on my shelf for what felt like almost a decade before I even looked at it. It was In the Western Night. I do not remember why or when I bought it. One night, desperate to find words to tide me over to the next day, I took it off the shelf. I was 23 and alone, marooned in a life I had not chosen and a body that had just appeared around me. Frank Bidart spoke of bodies, of fathers, of the unreality of one’s own face in the mirrors. In a new poem, Bidart speaks of learning American history from a Lowell poem. In these earlier Bidart poems that I found on my shelf, the Bostonian stateliness of Lowell is made to up a life that has more doubts, an a fuller body to deal with. There is no scaffolding in Bidart’s poems – it is Bidart’s breath, his rhythmic heart that pushes everything into its place. 25 years old, living in the ruins of an old, collapsed country, I touched these words and marveled. I found Bidart. And with every new book I found him again. In the more recent poems, even more of the scaffolding falls away, lines survive on the strength of Bidart’s invocation of an unsentimental sentimentality, an exploration of the body around one’s body, of the words in plain, exalted speech. Many years later, I sit in a crumbling apartment, in Germany’s former capital, touching the ruins of my lives with the words I have, exalted, plain. And still, when I am desperate to find words, I reach for Bidart on my shelf.

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Autobiography and Community

In what I am currently writing I have become quite interested in the way autobiographies and autobiographical work constructs an imagined community, obviously Benedict Anderson doesn’t quite apply here, but he also doesn’t NOT apply, you know? Instead of looking at the way autobiography explores the self, and applying various ideas of selfhood and truth etc. to it, I have become more interested in how reception theories shape what we understand of autobiography – if we shouldn’t read them in relationship to the self and ideas of the self, Freudian self-analysis and whatnot, and instead read them as texts written to be read by an audience. Written to interact with a specific literary field. Autobiography is a public act, and I think some interactions between writer and audience can be described by using Marcel Mauss and the gift. And now I have been thinking – and I’m sure this is not true for every autobiography. Say, Robert Lowell, a tall, white, straight man. But, say, you look at Mary McCarthy (because that’s my topic) and the situation turns. Or the tradition of Jewish autobiography. This is two steps. One, looking at the outside effect of autobiography and entirely excluding the self-exploratory aspect of it. Two, see in what way this works to construct a sense of (a) community, or a pole within a literary field. So that’s where I am. Any comments?

Catherynne Valente: Space Opera

Valente, Caterynne, Space Opera, Saga Press
ISBN 978-1481497497

One of my favorite science fiction novels is The Killing Star by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. The situation is simple: in the future, with humanity having colonialized the solar system and about to step outside, someone notices we exist and might be a threat, and, just to be safe, nukes the whole of humanity before coming in and mopping up what’s left. It is a dark novel that provides an unsettling answer to the Fermi paradoxon, and its logic is grounded in our history of colonialism and imperialism. Catherynne Valente’s Space Opera takes a very similar premise, and spins it into one of the funniest novels this side of Scalzi’s Redshirts (it’s funnier than Scalzi). Humanity has reached the brink of leaving for space, and now the sentient creatures of the universe are auditioning us for space adulthood. How you may ask? After a devastating civil war in the galaxy, a singing competition was instated to test sentience. You have to take part. If you are an applicant species, you can’t come last – if you come last, your planet is wiped clean and re-seeded. So one day, the universe is knocking on earth’s door and asks for humanity’s champion. That champion is a washed up British glam rocker: brown, queer and old. What comes next is hilarious – and smart.

The obvious comparison is Hitchhiker’s Guide, with its satirical phantasmagoria of space, but the most apt comparison to me is the work of Terry Pratchett. Like Pratchett, Valente suffuses her extremely funny writing with some ultimately serious thinking about who we are as a society and who we ought to be. Pratchett’s work is less about dwarves, wizards and inedible streetfood than it is about community and how we as humans – and more precisely, the English –struggle with and understand community and humanity. One wonders what Pratchett, who died in 2015, would have made of Farage and Brexit and Trump. Well this is an option: Catherynne Valente takes one of the big projects of post-WWII Europe, the Eurovision Song Contest (née Grand Prix Eurovision) and blows it up to galactic scale. She keeps the current rules (including the stupid stupid current vote split between popular and jury vote), and adapts them to a larger scale, with aliens of all shapes and sizes, and includes the genocide-for-losers option (though it only applies to applicant nations. Established nations who come last are merely shamed for it. Valente is an unexpectedly funny writer, the book’s joke density is extremely high, with standalone jokes, allusions to pop music, to Eurovision history, to books, and more wrestling for space, but even so, we’re always led by a clear political sense of what’s good and proper.

Racism, for example, isn’t, and Valente gets in multiple hits at it. This connects Space Opera to another novel that I can hear humming in the background: Gwyneth Jones’s Bold as Love. Gwyneth Jones is one of the most underrated and most brilliant writers of SF today, and her Bold as Love cycle focuses on a mixed-race British rock guitarist, connecting rock music with British politics, and for all the fantasy hijinks in Jones’s books, there is a serious contemplation behind it all, which Valente shares. Both Valente and Jones take contemporary culture, signifiers of identity and skew them away from assumptions of whiteness and “Britishness.” Valente gets explicit – once her protagonist, Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes gets picked, the British public is upset: a brown immigrant from a Muslim background? Couldn’t they have picked someone….whiter? There is a tendency in some science fiction to externalize debates on racism to aliens and make it about purple beings discriminating against green beings – not so here. Like some versions of Doctor Who, Valente never disengages from actual racism, though she does use galactic racism as a canvas as well. In Space Opera, things are terrible on Earth, and things are terrible in the Galaxy, and one doesn’t replace the other.

In fact, Valente’s novel is a perfect example of the possibilities of science fiction. Yes, it is a endlessly hilarious take on Eurovision, but it also exemplifies what Samuel Delany has written about science fiction expanding literary language and possibilities. It takes a genre considered bad (Delany says “When far-future sf fails, we usually call its degenerate form “space opera”) and elevates it. Valente uses the camp and exaggeration inherent in the form to speak to a larger issue about violence and war and, most of all, community. If you have read any of her other books, in particular what I consider her masterpiece, the 2009 Palimpsest, you won’t be surprised at the precision and craftsmanship throughout the book. Jack Vance, one of the SF legends, had written a tongue-in-cheek take on space opera in his 1965 Space Opera, but somehow Valente’s book exceeds this and many other novels like it. There is no flab, no fat on the bones of this novel. Even her very prose is complex and dense with allusion and humor. Her humor is not harsh, not cheaply ironic. It is full of puns, verbal energy – it’s like a three ring circus act. What’s more (and important to understand) is that Valente (like me) unironically loves the ESC. The book comes with quotes from some favorite songs and a long dedication to its founder in the afterword. Irony is cheap. This book is not. The book demands to be re-read in delight, excitement and admiration. Space Opera is very funny, very serious and very, very good.

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A note on Death

I have been working on fiction/memoir relating to my family – there are a lot of stories to be told, a lot of paths to followed. Most of my immediate family, two generations, one generation back, are some form of immigrant. But my grandfather is currently dying as I type this and everything is stopping in its tracks. I cannot properly explain what a loss this loss of my grandfather would be – would, mind you. He’s had an incredible life so far, and I’m visiting him across the country tomorrow, today, that is, later today, I suppose.

Death is strange. As a weird man who has been obsessed with death, largely my own death, but also that of others since childhood, a man who visits cemeteries, and is largely alone in this – it is not accompanied by a real fascination, or a gothic habit. It’s just – death.

But this is different. Today – yesterday, I suppose, I mean, dates get blurry when you write at night – my father, who lives far away from me, apparently locked himself in a room to cry after he had a phone conversation with my grandfather. I myself was stuck in a different room for an hour, similarly struggling. The image of my father in his bedroom, not able or willing to communicate with his family, bereft, even though nobody has died yet, feels like the fingers of death on our lives, a moment that we will all remember, even those, like me, who have not been there. Something has broken in him, in us, and there’s a feeling that it has also infected our memories.

How far back does death reach? Already, I find it difficult to call upon memories of my grandfather that are not touched by death, memories of my own life. At every important turn in my life, he was there, usually quiet, grumbling. A broad man of small stature who worked hard for everything in his life, who worked hard to survive. And my father, a much taller man, in his room, this moment which I have not witnessed myself, it pulsates in my imagination. I have not been able to shake it.

The first and last time I remember seeing my father cry was when his grandfather died. We all stood at his grave, my father cried, I couldn’t cry. I pinched myself – there must be a way to cry, but nothing happened. My father cried, standing in the cold on the slighly hilly cemetery in the little East German village. I stood there, pretending to cry, ashamed of failing some protocol. This time is different. i have been intermittently crying for two weeks. Maybe I am becoming a warped version of my father. Maybe that is what death does.

Reviewing poetry

I don’t do it. Not on this blog anyway – though I would obviously take a commission to do it. And I published one of Ben Mazer’s book two? years ago. But overall – I don’t do it. I find it exceedingly difficult. And I write so much academically about poetry, and I write poetry myself and love to discuss poems, with poets and readers. But writing reviews of poetry – somehow my brain or pen doesn’t quite bend to the task. When I review a book like Herta Müller’s poems, if you look closely, I did not in fact review the poems as much as I reviewed context and translation. I have, I think, I flatter myself, a good, solid sense of what makes a good poem, of what good poetry is, and I hope that this sense transcends, at least somewhat, my own very narrow taste, I mean who knows, but I don’t review poetry, I can’t sit down and line by line offer my take and how do I end it with “you should read this book, if…” – of course you should read it, you idiot, it’s poetry. Even bad poetry is worth your while. So, I don’t really review poetry. Poetry reviews me.

Curzio Malaparte: The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte, Curzio (2018), The Kremlin Ball, NYRB Classics
trans. Jenny McPhee
ISBN 9781681372099

I reviewed Malaparte’s posthumous and strange novel for Review 31.

For better or worse, The Kremlin Ball gives us a point-blank perspective on Malaparte’s literary and personal inclinations: his egomania, his disdain for simple people, his attraction to totalitarianism, and his conflicted feelings towards masculinity. That alone makes it well worth reading.

You can read the whole thing here.