Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ben Marcus, the inglorious, unheroic, nobody

I finished Notable American Women by Ben Marcus yesterday. Here's a challenge: read this book and as you're reading it, try to explain to people what it's about. They will look at you like you are describing a very new, very complicated, very unappealing sex position, and maybe Snoop Dogg's there watching from a throne. Regardless, you will be met with, let's just call it, skepticism. As a precautionary measure, it's usually best to show these skeptics the paperback in question. And as prospective readers are wont to do, they will flip over the book to read the usual false, showy superlatives attached to any book of merit: Incredible!, A fantastic journey!, ____'s best yet! Usually as unreliable as a shroom-head's description of a tree. Just a guess. Even someone as dubious as I am about such things (in case that wasn't clear), I was immediately smitten with Marcus. Here's the back of the book:

"Ben Marcus is a genius, one of the most daring, funny, morally engaged and brilliant writers, someone whose work truly makes a difference in the world."—George Saunders

"How can one word from Ben Marcus's rotten, filthy heart be trusted?"—Michael Marcus, Ben's father

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Current books in my bag

In case you were wondering, these are all great.

Interview with Anna Journey

A year and a half ago, I worked as an editorial assistant at The New Criterion. One of my jobs was to send the famously irascible poetry critic, William Logan, books for possible review. New books would come in from publishers all over the place. In this case, it was an act akin to leaving your baby out in the Savannah, with lions and cheetahs and hyenas running around searching for pink soft chewy things to eat. I liked going through the new books, for obvious reasons. Usually though, I'd peruse the book and feel uninspired, place it back down, and that would be that. I had been trying to work on a series of poems called "Quarry is a Place for Nesting" (it didn't work out) when what book should arrive but a book called If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey. There was a feeling of almost sisterhood, with our similarly felt utliziation of a word like 'nesting'; so much of a wry conflation of maternity and a post-modern age's sensibility. I did my usual dance of opening the book in order to scan it for possibly exciting language. I read the first poem, "Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?" I read the first poem. I read the first poem. I read the first poem. Almost immediately, my poem, which had instantly seemed so kith on the surface, became wildly inferior to the beauty, control, and wile of Journey's work. I remember being most drawn to the closure's sex-and-violence grace, which made me feel like something in me was slipping off into a crag:

...I'm drunk

though I won't wear heels, honey, or I'd fall

for anyone. I'd fall devil

over heels over edge over oleander
over open mouth

over birthmark over forked

tongue over forked tongue
that turns on mine.

The experience of reading this book made me want to trade in my diction for arcane tools and demented flowers. I remember wanting very badly to know this person, or at least make myself known to them. After I got into the contact with her, her name started popping up everywhere, whether in the literary journal Parnassus, or on random websites lauding the book as part of a best summer reading list. She's a poet of decadence, flare, trickery, and come-hither, someone with whom music and character are on equally intense lyric plains. I knew that speaking with her would be fun as hell, and all of its sexy devils. And with all of the sharp, irresistible language in her poems, this interview revealed to me the very level balance between her attention to language and her intellectual prowess in Contemporary Poetry, which are also earnest and smart as hell to say the least.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Touching the Void, and Our Extreme Orders

Yesterday, I watched, with treachery, the wild survivor's tale that is Touching the Void, directed by Kevin MacDonald. The structure of the documentary is part raw story-telling and part dramatic reenactment. More specifically, one part is devised of portraits of the three climbers', with each divulging their perspective of what happened; this provides the streaming narrative for the documentary. There is a calm backdrop for these moments that undoubtedly connotes that they’re safe from harm now. The other part has about it the style of amateur recording, taken in the unlikely midst of Siula Grande, a mountain in the Peruvian Andes; it is a shaky, frantic attempt at recapturing the memory of a climber, Joe Simpson, who, after falling 100 feet into the crevice of a glacier and breaking his leg, must drag himself, somehow, back to a camp that may not even be there anymore.

Aside from being simply rapt by the battle to descend the glacier (quite an apt metaphor for story-telling), I was also drawn more and more to all the juxtapositions that, intentionally or not, helped strengthen the narrative. Juxtapositions through dueling landscapes, temperaments, climates, and composition, to name a few. There's a moment near the end where Joe is experiencing what I can only surmise as actually dying (don't worry, I'm not giving anything away; clearly, Joe's beautiful and healthy face is a current, constant presence), and this is when I really started to notice a doubling taking effect: sky and mountain, snow and rock, wind and rain, man and landscape, life and death. On a more macro level, narrator and event, me and them, peril and safety, past and present.