Category Archives: Big Loves

Big Loves: Tyler McMahon Discusses Russell Banks

other_headshotToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Tyler McMahon. Tyler has published two novels—How The K99_coverMistakes Were Made (St. Martin’s, 2011) and Kilometer 99, which releases today, June 17, 2014. Tyler is the editor of Hawaii Pacific Review and teaches in the English Department at Hawaii Pacific University.

I saw Russell Banks speak at a theater in Boise, Idaho. It must have been 2004. I seem to remember him talking mostly of Hemingway; he showed a certain giddiness at the fact that Papa had shot himself not so many miles up the road from where we sat. “Hemingway Country,” he called it.

I’d always liked Banks’ work, and had read several of his earlier novels. I thought I had him pegged as an author who wrote about working-class New Englanders, often with father and brother issues, sometimes caught up in misadventures that drew them towards the Caribbean. Hemingway’s influence seemed about right.

But that impression was cracked open once he read a passage from his new novel, The Darling. The story was narrated by a female protagonist—a decidedly un-Hemingway approach. And while it took place in Africa, it was not the Africa of wealthy mountain climbers or half-drunk safaris.

Indeed, Hannah Musgrave is an American expat narrator unlike the midcentury tropes. A sixties radical and member of the Weather Underground, she’s wanted by the FBI and hiding out in New Bedford, making small explosives and forging documents for other fugitives. On the run, she winds up in Liberia, marries a bureaucrat, and witnesses the country’s descent into civil war.

As the trophy wife of a low-level government minister, Hannah becomes the opposite of the independent woman she’d always aspired to be: “I was a different woman. You probably think of me as strong and independent, and I believe that I am—now. I was strong and independent when I was young, too, back before I came to Africa. But in the years between? No. Emphatically no. I was different then.”

In the novel’s most superb turn of plot, Hannah’s three young sons become boy-soldiers aligned with Prince Johnson’s guerilla force. Renamed Fly, Demonology, and Worse-Than-Death, they commit grotesque acts of torture. Even this move is treated sympathetically. The leap from privileged youngsters to violent killers is bridged by Banks’ careful detailing of tribal values regarding family a512JMEG3WVLnd the sons’ reaction to their father’s murder. In this novel, it is violence that begets more violence, and at the end of the chain is a colonial political structure, brutally and stupidly imposed in the first place.

Though it’s set not so many years ago, The Darling is first and foremost an historical novel. It is a long and unflinching immersion in a dark and nearly ignored chapter of the twentieth century. In that sense, the book demonstrates the enduring need for fiction in our time.

Toward the end of the novel, Hannah says: “Mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning.” This may be the fundamental epiphany available to Americans abroad, fictional or not: that their stories are small and occur among bigger, more terrible sweeps of history. Through Hannah, Banks allows us to imagine an America to whom the rest of the world is equally darling.





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Big Loves: Andrew Ladd Discusses James Morrow

UnknownToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Andrew Ladd, the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His first novel, What Ends, won the AWP Prize in the Novel and is available now from New Issues Press.

For many years, I had an instant answer when people asked me about my favorite book. For many more since, I’ve mostly stopped giving it.

I fully admit that there are some silly, superficial reasons for my reticence. Like: a college friend whose literary chops I admire greatly read the book, on my recommendation, and was underwhelmed. Or: it’s generally shelved under Sci-Fi/Fantasy, and though I actually disagree with that classification, my years in an MFA program have made me wary of copping to this sort of thing. (Admit it: when I mentioned the dreaded genre you almost stopped reading.)

abaddonA slightly less silly reason for my reticence, perhaps, is that the book, James Morrow’s Blameless in Abaddon, doesn’t lend itself well to brief summary. In it, the comatose body of God is the main attraction of a Baptist-run Florida theme park, until a small-town justice of the peace named Martin Candle—distraught by a cancer diagnosis and the untimely death of his wife—decides to put the deity on trial, in the Hague, for crimes against humanity. What ensues is a satirical theology in which the prosecution’s discovery takes places on a riverboat inside God’s brain, and monks take the stand to discuss the difference between doughnuts and Heaven—among other things.

So yes, it sounds kind of hokey, rife with opportunities for clumsy didacticism. It sounds, to paraphrase someone I once described it to, like the sort of thing you would give to high school kids to get them interested in religion. And certainly, there’s a lot of exposition in it that, if I were in an MFA workshop and feeling less charitable, I would probably cut.

Yet considering the book in terms of its major plot points and/or theological content does it as much a disservice as dismissing it for being Sci-Fi/Fantasy. Better, I think, to call it Vonnegutesque, or better still to forgo such characterization altogether and appreciate more comprehensively all that James Morrow accomplishes, here and in his other books, as an author of good fiction. Because so many of those cliché things that happen to people when they really, truly, love a book? They happened to me for the first time—and in some cases the only time, even fifteen years later—when I read Blameless in Abaddon.

I re-read it, for one thing, which I never did. The only other book I can remember re-reading before that was a Hardy Boys mystery, and that was just because I was on holiday in Italy and hadn’t brought any others. Equally unusual for me, when I first read it, visiting my uncle’s house during my spring vacation, was the way I would wait impatiently for my cousin to come home from school, just so that I could re-read him whole passages, pages at a time, because I thought they were that good. And yet in grad school, by comparison, when it was basically my job to find noteworthy passages in books to share with my peers, I struggled to do so or to even see the merit in the exercise. Blameless just got to me in a way few others have.

More than anything, though, the book sticks with me because it was the first one to make me cry. Up until then, I think, I had always looked at books as light entertainment—witness The Hardy Boys. Reading about Martin Candle, though, a man so consumed with grief and rage, so desperately in search of a reason for his suffering that he ignores the real sources of solace in his life and instead hooks all his hopes, delusional, on a grand scheme that any rational person can see will end in disappointment: I was moved to tears. (And by the way, stripped away of all the Sci-Fi/Fantasy particulars, how’s that for a literary fiction plot?)


James Morrow

Nowadays, of course, Blameless is no longer the only book I’ve quoted or re-read; I returned to Invisible Man and Crying of Lot 49, and I know I pushed passages of Franzen on unsuspecting bystanders; I recommended The Corrections to so many people it became a running joke among my friends. I got a little choked up at The Moonflower Vine, too, even if I’ve never actually cried at another book since. And these are all reasons, too—good reasons, actually—why I’m no longer so quick to tell people Blameless is my favorite book. The more I’ve read, the more I’ve found the things I loved about it elsewhere.

But your first time is always your most memorable, right? So let me say it once more, for nostalgia’s sake: Trust me. You just have to read this book.

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by | March 13, 2014 · 4:26 pm

Firsts for the New Year

Because the New Year brings about a lot of fresh starts and new beginnings, we would like to celebrate some “firsts.” We asked our Memorious 21 contributors and new fiction editors to offer up a toast to some opening lines that they admire. Here’s what they had to say.


Memorious 21 contributor Joseph Wood chose these opening lines of “The Parachutist” by Jon Anderson:

 Then the air was perfect. And his descent

to the white earth slowed.


became an ability to rest–as

 the released breath

believes in life.

Why I love it: So many reasons. First, I absolutely love how the reader is placed within the moment; it is done with the utmost efficiency. There’s no scaffolding, no introduction. Second, the ear is impeccable. The first line is purely trochaic, but done with such ease it doesn’t jump out. Anderson knew how to score a line, and particularly in this entire poem, where the line length underscores the tension between falling and stasis, life and death. But mostly, I adore the opening because the poet plays for keeps–it’s life and death at its most core and primal levels, the stuff which binds humanity together.  

*            *            *

From Memorious 21 Contributor Kevin Simmonds:

 The first stanza from “A Meeting of Minds” in All Sins Forgiven: Poems for my Parents (Leapfrog Press, 2013) by Charles Coe:

 One day, when my first-grade class was learning to write, Sister Edna took

the pencil from my left hand, put it in my right, and told me to keep it there.

I have to say I love this opening: straightforward, provocative, glinting. I grew up Catholic, went to Saturday catechism class and know that nuns will take your stuff. But a pencil? 

Like all the rest in this collection, this poem displays Coe’s brilliance in evoking his deceased parents’ foibles and loving ferocity. Where this poem ends up…you’d never believe. 

A tsunami of a poem set off by this one-sentence quake.   

*            *            *

 From Memorious 21 Contributor Maureen Alsop:

In the mail today I just received a book of poetry I’d ordered, Annie Lighthart’s Iron String. These are the first four lines from the first poem in the book, “The Second Music:”

Now I understand that there are two melodies playing,
one below the other, one easier to hear, the other

lower, steady, perhaps more faithful for being less heard
yet always present ….

The celebration of the under-sound, the under-story, the victory of years, the ghost trails of ghost comets… What a wonderful listening open into the new year.

*            *            *

From Memorious 21 Contributor Maya Pindyck:

Here are three opening lines of poems I’d love to celebrate. I’ve opted not to explain why; I think each line speaks for itself:

 “The stars had only one task: they taught me how to read.”

–Mahmoud Darwish, “Poetic Regulations,” Unfortunately, It was Paradise, 2003, translated by Munir Akash and Carolyn Forche.

 “It’s not that the octopus wouldn’t love you–“

–Mary Szybist, “The Lushness of It,” Incarnadine, 2013.

 “Between is a hard place to live.”

–Kamilah Aisha Moon, “No Room for Gray,” She Has a Name, 2013.

*            *            *

From Memorious 21 Contributor José Rodríguez:

 From the poem “Fists (for my father)” by Joe Weil, from the book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, 2008):

 It was the sense that your fists were worlds

And mine were not

That caused me to worship you;

All those thick rope veins,

And the deep inlaid grime of your life,

The permanent filth of your labors.

*            *            *

From Memorious 21 Contributor Jeff Alessandrelli, the opening of David Markson’s The Last Novel (Counterpoint, 2007):

Dante will always remain popular because nobody ever reads him.

Said Voltaire.

Thinking with someone else’s brain.

Schopenhauer called reading.

Markson’s last novel was, appropriately enough, entitled The Last Novel; in it he continued the idiosyncratic examination of artistic and cultural anecdote initially begun by him in his book Reader’s Block. The Last Novel almost wholly consists of largely unknown facts and curiosities about writers, artists and thinkers seminal to history. Although the book’s narrator very occasionally pokes his head through—“There are six floor in Novelist’s apartment building…And then the roof”— for the most part Markson’s last novel consists of  his saying goodbye to what he spent his entire life reading, studying, and living. As an obituary, it’s mesmerizing; as a novel it’s even better.   

 *            *            *

From Fiction Editor Ian Stansel:

“William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” -John Williams, Stoner

I love this opening because of how un-compelling it should be. It goes on to give away the entirety of the titular character’s life, telling us that, really, nothing significant ever happened to him. Yet we are about to spend 300-plus pages covering that uneventful life. And that’s part of the intrigue. It asks us to start to contemplate the difference between inner and outer lives. It even, in its own unassuming way, call into question the very nature of story. How can a man who “achieved” so little be the subject of a novel? What will fill the next 300 pages?

 *            *            *

From Fiction Editor Joanna Luloff:

“It was a bathroom in an unfinished house in Somalia in the year 2012. There was a hole in the wall where the water pipe was meant to come in and the floor sloped away to a drain where the suds were meant to flow from a shower along a trench to the dirt outside. In some future time, the shower might be fitted. In some future time, it might become an incidental place. But it was not so for him. For him it was a very dark and specific place.” – J.M. Ledgard

I love the precision of these opening lines from J.M. Ledgard’s novel Submergence. Against the matter-of-factness of the narrative delivery, there is already a hint of menace and mystery. All of those conditional “meant to’s” and “mights” and then the abrupt “but.” This opening moves through time (a stark present versus a possible future) and begins to prepare the reader for the movements between time and place that the novel will eventually travel. A English spy being held captive by jihadist fighters and a biomathematician exploring the ocean floor are the central characters who share a past and an uncertain present in this contemplative novel. 

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Big Loves: Derrick Austin on James Merrill

Today’s contributor, Derrick Austin, was the winner of a Twitter Challenge to write for our Big Love column. Derrick Austin is a Colby Fellow and MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Michigan. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Knockout, Waccamaw, Crab Orchard Review, storySouth, and other journals.

James Merrill

I’m still in the first throes of love with James Merrill after two years. However, it wasn’t love at first sight. When I started writing and sought queer writers, like myself, Merrill’s name always came up. I couldn’t understand his work initially for many of the same reasons as his detractors: he’s too mannered or he’s too formal or too rarefied. Bullshit. Like others from Dickinson to Crane to Moore, writers with a powerful sense of style, Merrill’s poetry requires a period of adjustment. His lyric “The Mad Scene” provided a Rosetta Stone. This was work “Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never / Wears thin.” Here is a master whose work serves as a touchstone: the balanced, musical line, lush imagery, and an engagement with emotion in the service of truth. Of all our great poets of the last century, Merrill ranks among the highest in understanding desire, its gradations and degradations. He looks naked need in the mirror and, witnessing his own face, doesn’t shirk his responsibility as a poet.

Merrill’s lyric poems are wondrous, but what changed me was his ability to marry his lyric impulse to longer narrative forms. At first, I savored “Days of 1964,” “The Friend of the Fourth Decade,” “Strato in Plaster,” and “After the Fire” before moving on to “Lost in Translation,” “Yannina,” and “Clearing the Title.” How could I not be dazzled by those crystalline structures—sonnet sequences, villanelles, canzones, ballads, forms of his own invention, and even the epic in The Changing Light at Sandover—and his loose, conversational use of that old staple, the pentameter line? “Form’s what affirms,” he wrote in “The Thousand and Second Night,” yet his poems, besides being technically accomplished, are wonderfully witty. Here’s a poet unafraid of puns and wordplay. Here’s a poet who taught me that a lightness of touch does not denote a lightness of intention.

Yet, what I love Merrill for the most is his graciousness. Despite his varied gifts and deeply personal, sometimes plainly biographical, poems he never lost sight of the reader. In collections like The Inner Room and A Scattering of Salts, he engaged with politics and ecological degradation in work like “The Ring Cycle” and “Self-Portrait in Tyvek TM Windbreaker,” topics most don’t readily associate with Merrill; yet, he was so skilled an artist that large topics never feel less than intimate and pressing. Gracious poetry doesn’t require one to be devoid of complexities or to write in a narrow “plainspoken” way. His graciousness is in never condescending to readers, always challenging as well as delighting. His joyous spirit coupled with an unflinching eye on human failings and longings are always present—and, reading his poems, it always feels as if his eyes are on me. That intimate. That honest.

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Big Loves: Rebecca Hazelton on Marguerite Duras

Today’s Big Loves guest is Rebecca Hazelton, author of Fair Copy, forthcoming from Ohio State Press as winner of the 2011 Charles B. Wheeler Prize.

Marguerite Duras

When I was fifteen, during a layover in a sprawling airport, I picked up a book that changed me forever, as hyperbolic as that sounds. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover solidified my desire to become a writer, God help me. To try and emulate the protagonist, who was also fifteen, also traveling, crossing the Mekong river in Indochina. Crossing and re-crossing, because Duras is a writer of spirals; she dips toward and veers away from her subject, touches on pain then runs. How terrible for my parents that I found this book, that I began to harbor fantasies of wearing a man’s hat and taking lovers. How terrible for my future that I realized “writer” might be an occupation, that it might accompany a life of questionable romantic choices, drinking, and odd sartorial selections—ah, those gold lamé shoes she wears on the boat, those inappropriately adult clothes for a young girl.

Had I just picked up something else that day, I could have been respectable. Instead, I decided to follow the example of a French author who was at times in her life a severe alcoholic, who worked for the Vichy government, who aided the Resistance, whose husband was sent to a concentration camp, who claimed she tortured a French collaborator, and who played fast and loose with the truth. She didn’t exactly lie—one senses that Duras always believed herself, even as she told dramatically different versions of the same autobiographical stories. The events in The Lover are retold in The North China Lover and in various other books. The lover himself is sometimes ugly, sometimes handsome. She acknowledges past versions, disavows them, erases then reframes them to suit her often self-serving needs.

Much of The Lover concerns memory, how we fill in the pieces that are missing with bits that please us, how we know things we couldn’t possibly know, and how we invent the past in our minds. How we self-deceive. I reread The Lover every few years. Every time I do, I notice things I missed before. The book is a litmus test for me—I tell someone I love that it is my book, my most important book. I see if they read it. Only two men I’ve loved ever have, and I married each of them. The other ones? I suspect them of not really wanting to know me. I’m convinced in some way that the book is me, not because I am like the protagonist (though in some ways I am), not because the home life described was my childhood (though in some ways it was), nor because my experience of love is like that in the book (though it has been at times), but because I view the world as a constant negotiation between our present self and our past self. And just so, the book tells its story through a series of vignettes, pieces, and scraps assembled and reassembled in different orders. And oh, that language, the spare words, the unsaid. That girl on the cusp of adulthood, and that old woman looking back at her, rewriting the past self into something the present can live with.

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Big Loves: Jennifer Perrine on Whitman and Dickinson

Today’s Big Loves Contributor is Jennifer Perrine, author of In The Human Zoo (University of Utah Press, 2011).

My Love Is Large—My Love Contains Multitudes

          I’m sure I first encountered Walt Whitman in high school. Sure because I remember poring over “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” in a literature class, trying to make sense of it. Sure because, when I stood on my desk along with my senior-year classmates and shouted “O Captain! My Captain” to send off our beloved English teacher at the end of the year, I knew we weren’t just referencing Dead Poets Society—we were channeling the great sweaty-toothed madman himself.

         But it wasn’t until I was nineteen, when my friend Stacey Waite gave me a copy of Whitman’s Selected Poems, that I accepted Walt’s invitation: “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.” I stopped. I had spent days and nights searching for big love in romantic partners, in various religions, in dance clubs, in rambling wilderness—and I often found it. But it wasn’t until Walt came along, leaning and loafing, that I discovered the origin of all my poems: my big love for the world, in all of its grandeur, its blandness, its beauty, its cruelty.

I had always been an avid reader, but now, with Walt’s words in my hands, in my mouth, I felt compelled to read every poem aloud—no doubt my roommate grew weary of my ecstatic oratory. I had scribbled words in notebooks for years, but now I allowed my language to be more like my life—to be rangy, full of encounters with the world, to wander around on the page and not worry about where it would end up. To paraphrase Walt, poetry was larger, better than I thought, I did not know it held so much goodness.

And then I met Emily. I had known her for years, too. She showed up in those same literature classes, acknowledging Death’s kindness in stopping for her. I heard her fly buzz when she died and felt the funeral in her brain, but mostly she puzzled me—she intrigued me, but I felt unsteady, dizzy in her presence, and once Walt came along, it was easy to forget about her.

Many years later, though, my friend Rebecca Hazelton told me about an essay by Alice Fulton, who wrote about how many poets with clearly Dickinsonian leanings will cite Whitman as their primary influence instead. I began to look back over my own poems, and quite quickly, I discovered that Emily, too, was my big love—but she was my secret love, my love that dared not speak its name, not even to me. But she’s left her marks all over my poetry—her longing, her intimacy, her music, even her penchant for devising her own rules for punctuation.

Walt may have introduced me to the pleasures of poetry, but Emily showed me how to find that pleasure even in the most spare language, to exact lusciousness from “the pea within the pod,” to wrap sensuality in formal constraints and find delight in that restraint. She taught me, too, how to “tell it slant,” to let the speaker in my poems “tell all the truth” through voices with whom I felt an affinity, but who were decidedly not me, who were just askew of me. Those personae could “dazzle gradually” in a way I couldn’t—in a way Walt couldn’t, with his bold cosmic love—and I thank Emily for the years she stood by me, for the Wild Nights when she moored in me.

Walt and Emily, how different you were, how good you have been to me, how dearly I love you both.

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Big Loves: Tyrone Jaeger on Jesus’ Son

Today’s Big Loves guest is Tyrone Jaeger, Hendrix-Murphy Writer-in-Residence at Hendrix College.

 Tyrone Jaeger Pushes Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

A hitchhiker with druggy clairvoyance accepts a ride in the rain . . . an ER worker witnesses angels descending at the drive-in . . . A man taunts his girlfriend moments after her abortion . . . A recovering addict spies on a Mennonite couple making love. He’s getting a little better every day . . .

I’ve been rereading Jesus’ Son for twenty years now. Each time I hear the narrator’s voice in my head, it’s like I’m in the presence of a trembling spirit, that sentence-by-sentence cloaks itself in muscle and bone and the ache of being alive.

Told through a train wreck of regret and longing, the stories in Jesus’ Son unapologetically expose the malignancies of the human heart. The unnamed narrator is only known to us by his nickname: Fuckhead. His friends and acquaintances are emotional cripples—drifters pulled out of a Flannery O’Connor police lineup. These are people like Dundun, who intentionally shoots and accidentally kills one of his friends. Of Dundun, the narrator says: “Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”

I admire Jesus’ Son for the way its vivid and precise prose lashes human weakness and fear to the page. I admire the humor that rises out the honesty, the eye that never flinches, even in its shame.

The collection’s first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” ends with a flash-forward of the narrator hallucinating in detox: “It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

Funny, when I first read those lines I had no way to respond. Help me? But after twenty years, I’m still pushing the stories on friends and students. Here, I say, try some of this. I think you’ll like it. It’ll help … Oh yeah, don’t worry, there’s more where that came from.

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Big Loves: L.S. Klatt on John Berryman

Today’s Big Loves contributor is L.S. Klatt, author of  Cloud of Ink (University of Iowa, 2011).

On John Berryman

I consider a song will be as humming-bird

swift, down-light, missile-metal-hard, & strange

as the world of anti-matter

where they are wondering: does time run backward—

which the poet thought was true; Scarlatti-supple;

but can Henry write it? (Dream Song #103)

I love The Dream Songs, their wit, their verve, their transgressions. John Berryman invented a form where he could cut loose in wild, impulsive “humming-bird/ swift” songs, where the sentences could be figured, sometimes wrenched, where words were plastic, stretched to the breaking point; the speaker, Henry, allowed the poet, Berryman, to be his flawed, boorish, uncensored self, a buffoon as fun to laugh at as Homer Simpson, always tomcatting, often on benders, frequently given to patricidal rage—a Neanderthal strangely familiar, therefore endearing.

The songs veer every which way, but they are a sequence, each song self-contained yet contributing to a larger plotline—the story of Henry, an antihero, who, I discovered somewhere along the way, was much like Berryman himself: a literature professor, a drunk, a womanizer, a man obsessed with death. And the songs, scattershot across the pages, turned out to be not as irregular as they first seemed, all conforming to a pattern of three sestets, so that though the lines go haywire there is a structure (formal & narrative) that stabilized my reading as I navigated the seismic shifts in syntax, grammar, vocabulary.

Berryman’s poems electrocuted me when I first started writing, when I was stuck in sing-song and monotones; they liberated me the way they exorcised Berryman; and they taught me that poetry is, as Eliot said, a kind of dream language—“it is not necessary, in order to enjoy the poem, to know what the dream means; but humans have an unshakeable belief that dreams mean something.”

This freedom to forsake straightforward sense and follow the sonic or graphic or metaphoric impulse into sideways revelations became for me a manifesto. Berryman gave me the courage to swerve, or as Dickinson said before him, to “tell it slant.”

Reading his biography, I learned that Berryman once lived in my hometown of Cincinnati. This was before The Dream Songs when he was in transition artistically, experimenting with dissonance and improvisation. I thought that the cacophony of cicadas, notorious in the Ohio Valley, were somehow fitting for my homage to this idiosyncratic poet:

berryman in cincinnati

A very pleasant city except for the cicadas

which crash-landed. After seventeen years

underground, a horde was born

outnumbering its predation. So, as I

was saying, a very pleasant city in spite

of the acoustics. Those were days

when in all my dreaminess

I could play no nocturne & I amplified

underground. For I was a dead

Berryman, & I ferried the souls

of the dispossessed across the Ohio.

There I met the ibis, its plumage a white

paintbrush. And with it I erased what I

knew was melody without hope

of noisemaking. That was a sign,

was it the last, that the lyre would be

heavy metal.

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Big Loves: Rader on Stevens

Today’s Big Loves guest is Dean Rader, winner of the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize for Works & Days (Truman State University Press, 2010).

Wallace Stevens

I still remember the first time I read Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on The Dump.”

I was an undergraduate taking an advanced poetry workshop from a fairly recent Yale Younger Poet Awardee. And I was nervous. We were supposed to bring a published poem we admired to every class and explain why we liked it. I had recently discovered Stevens and the famous poems from Harmonium. To me, these poems were fun but flashy. I knew I wanted to pimp a Stevens poem, but I didn’t want “The Emperor of Ice Cream” or “A High Toned Old Christian Woman.” So, I started scanning the titles of individual poems from The Collected Poems in hopes of finding something that would . . . surprise.

My first reaction was minor disbelief. I couldn’t believe the range of subjects. The titles ran the spectrum from intense earnestness (“Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”) to the goofy (“No Possum, No Sop, No Taters”) to the inscrutable (“Add This To Rhetoric”). Ultimately, I landed on “The Man on the Dump,” whose title reminded me of Eliot’s Wasteland. I thought it might be a similarly studied meditation on modern society as junkyard, which to an undergraduate English major is as dreamy as it gets.

To this day, I don’t think I’ve had an experience quite like reading that poem. It was similar to the first time I saw Raising Arizona—I just didn’t quite know what I was seeing. Drama? Farce? Something else? I was utterly confused but even more intrigued. I couldn’t stop reading, and I recognized instantly a virtuoso performance.

Reading Stevens is unlike any other project, and yet, it is a project so many of us take on. As the 2009 anthology of Stevens-inspired poems, Visiting Wallace, suggests, Stevens’s presence is thoroughly present in contemporary poetry. According to the preface, “no other poet has been more influential upon American poets during the past 30 years. . . .in the recent Poet’s Bookshelf anthologies more poets cited work by Wallace Stevens for shaping their poetic art than work by any other writer.”  In my mind, and I think in the mind of most contemporary poets, it is Stevens who has established the lyric aesthetic for this century and the last. To interact with him, to co-Stevens as I like to call it, is to pledge a commitment to the lyric and all of its glorious ambiguities. We admire Eliot and Williams and Pound and Crane but contemporary poets wrestle with them less.  It’s easy to mimic Williams or to jettison Pound, but Stevens is more complex. Despite the perceived abstraction of his poetry and the ongoing disagreements among his scholars, contemporary American poetry is saturated with the Stevensian echo. Even in the work of people as diverse as Rachel Loden, Adrienne Rich, Charles Wright, Susan Howe, or Terrance Hayes (see his fantastic “Snow for Wallace Stevens”), you hear Stevens’s voice.

It is that notion of voice that captivated me in “The Man on the Dump.” There is no opening in modern poetry like the first stanza:

Day creeps down. The moon is creeping up.
The sun is a corbeil of flowers the moon Blanche
Places there, a bouquet. Ho-ho … The dump is full
Of images. Days pass like papers from a press.
The bouquets come here in the papers. So the sun,
And so the moon, both come, and the janitor’s poems
Of every day, the wrapper on the can of pears,
The cat in the paper-bag, the corset, the box
From Esthonia: the tiger chest, for tea.

The funky repetition in line one bleeds into the cool sun metaphor in line two, which, amazingly, flows into one of the most unexpected interjections in all of poetry: “Ho-ho.” The reader stops right there, uncertain if the goofiness is intended or accidental. But then, that astonishing simile, “Days pass like papers from a press” drops the hammer, and we are nailed to the poem.

The juxtaposition of the bouquets in paper and dead cats in paper along with the janitor’s poems, also made of paper—which Stevens rhythmically reminds us are our days—is so smart and so perfectly rendered and so odd, we feel both lost and found.

The rest of the poem plays with this tension between the refined and the ridiculous, the sublime and the shitty. Greatness, garbage. It asks what we want, what we need of this thing we are all calling “poetry.”

Beyond that, “The Man on the Dump” is also a tour-de-force from a sonic perspective. Stevens may have the best ear of any modern poet, and he is certainly one of the masters of the one-syllable word. For a heroic performance, check out the final stanza of “Esthétique du Mal,” in which Stevens lines up close to 30 monosyllables in a row. He comes close in “The Man on The Dump,” but here, it’s less about number and more about effect:

One sits and beats an old tin can, lard pail.
One beats and beats for that which one believes.
That’s what one wants to get near.

In three lines, only one two-syllable word: believes. That difference lends the word (and its associations) unusual emphasis, and all of those single syllables rhythmically reinforce the beating of the tin can.

Stevens demonstrates here what I call a modulation of tone. The poem makes astonishing leaps from one line to the next—mini-volta after mini-volta—that swerve the poem and the reader’s experience in unexpected directions. By the time you get to the final list of questions, you think the poem can’t take you any new place, but it does:

Is it a philosopher’s honeymoon, one finds
On the dump? Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.

Where was it, actually, you first heard of the truth? It’s such a great question, you almost forget the various poetic turns that have delivered you here.

But, writer, here is where we sit:

On the dump, beating our lard pail for that which we believe.

It is that incessant beautiful beating of Stevens’s entire body of poetry that is at once both untranslatable and unforgettable; that I did and still do (perhaps more than ever) want to get near.

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Big Loves: Larry Sawyer on Anne Sexton

Today’s Big Loves guest is Larry Sawyer, author of Unable to Fully California (Otoliths, 2010).

Big Loves: Anne Sexton

When I first came upon the lines “the virgin is a lovely number” I felt for the first time, more so than when I’d read Wallace Stevens or was deciphering Apollinaire’s “Bergère ô tour Eiffel le troupeau des ponts bêle ce matin,” that here was a voice that whispered to me somewhere sweet as a sun, almost finally set, in a husky sultry whisper, “Snow White wake up.”

It seemed the playful irony had a dark side that rang true to where my life was at that precise time—coming to terms with humanity and mortality and there were lessons poetic (involving how to carry an extended metaphor successfully through a poem, how to give the right amount of closure without selling the store, using enjambment to create momentum, internal rhyme, wringing new meaning from old poetic assumptions, deflating cliché) and also lessons about living that were lyrical but most importantly tough.

Sexton’s diamond-studded nightmares were a revelation to me: I don’t so much view the work as being confessional as it is an UNVEILING of intricate life dioramas. Some seem unfinished but that’s what gives them such mordant wit and charm. Her vision was, and is, transformative because it’s a human drama that will obviously carry through to future generations. Witnessing them casts the reader “opened and undressed” (as in “Consorting with Angels”). And, as in “Bat,” an emotion or object is a poem-prism that casts off completely bizarre and yet somehow plausible confluences: “His awful skin  stretched out by some tradesman  is like my skin, here between my fingers,  a kind of webbing, a kind of frog.”

Anne Sexton’s poetry is something to be caught, read at night, and her flashlight still illumines that which is most marvelous, resonant and redolent of real experience but with wild flights that reward patient readers.

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