Simple or Rich?

This is, perhaps, the first of many iterations of this topic for me, for reasons that will later become clear, and since I’m laying that track for myself out toward the staggering horizon, let me begin in a proper place.

I was flipping through a few Wall Street Journals this afternoon (this is my job) and happened upon a generative juxtaposition of literary reviews, the first being, funny enough, a very brief interview with John Krasinski, who’s directing the upcoming film adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” a book I happen to be reading currently. While the interview itself seemed little more than promotional fodder (with no offense to Candace Jackson or Krasinski or WSJ—I’m glad the movie and “The Office” are being promoted), it did secure the backdrop of “Brief Interviews…” in my mind as I came to an almost equally indirect bit of analysis-persuasion, this review of Raymond Carver’s Collected Stories, which is out now. I was familiar before with how severely Gordon Lish edited Carver’s work, and the revisit to those facts with Wallace in my head induced this authorial anguish in me that has now become a really regular event.

Let me describe it with a glib question: what has more value, the simple or the rich? There are caveats, of course: that this an entirely moronic question to ask in the great scheme of Literature, that the terms are ill-defined, and that David Foster Wallace isn’t exactly who I mean as exemplary of a “rich” style, if anything because he otherwise strikes me as an anonymous propulsion behind an entirely unpredictable set of voices. But his best, for me, is when he enters the more sumptuous descriptions:

Forever below is rough deck, snacks, thin metal music, down where you once used to be; the line is solid and has no reverse gear; and the water, of course, is only soft when you’re inside it. Look down. Now it moves in the sun, full of hard coins of light that shimmer red as they stretch away into a mist that is your own sweet salt.

This is from “Forever Overhead” in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and yes, much writing has greater displays of syntactic chops, but the point remains that Carver (and Lish) trimmed the thought-fat from the action-meat, whereas here, Wallace lets the fat plump in the Tucson sun (O poor metaphors). But let me leave this inchoate/coherent comparison of these two specific writers in the shadow of a larger concern. Perhaps it’s best expressed in this manner: simple writing allows a reader into the humanity of the characters—the reader doesn’t feel threatened by the characters, and in some lovely psychological phenomenon happily produces the congruent response to the call of the text (e.g. flowers in a quiet room call, and we respond, death). And, despite my tone, there is great value in this. I love the implied, the NOT said, and the cycle of mystery/guesswork that compels such writing compels me. We are interpreters, and such writing as that which I describe plays to those compulsions. Oh hell, like this from Carver, when our protagonists arrive at Bud and Olla’s in “Feathers” and encounter the peacock:

Then something as big as a vulture flapped heavily down from one of the trees and landed just in front of the car. It shook itself. It turned it’s long neck toward the car, raised its head, and regarded us.

The short, measured sentences give an air of ritualism to this entrance, a distended moment of encounter, and when we get to “regarded” we are wild in thought over how they must feel coming to this strange place with its gatekeeper. But there is no “the house is only soft when you’re inside it” kind of detailings of thought. It’s pure action, and the joy is that it evokes our assumptions of thought in the characters—we are seduced into their frame of view, so our mental reactions to this event become those of the characters, and there is great reward in this mechanic. Okay, so this is fiction workshop 101 type stuff. Going on.

The point is, simple writing also fails, at the very beginning, at achieving another, equally important ambition: to secure possibilities through language. And isn’t it just my trickery that this is in fact not a post about David Foster Wallace and Raymond Carver, but, in fact, G.C. Waldrep and his pretty recent book Archicembalo, which I am more heartily reading. I love and hate Waldrep to the extreme, but let me save all of that for a later post, zeroing in, instead, on Waldrep as, I think, the exemplar poet of a very defined technique. The list. The shock of original image. Perhaps we’d also include the more senior Dean Young and John Ashbery, but damn if I don’t stay with you here in Waldrep, because, importantly, he shares a very distinct value with David Foster Wallace, which is an intense love of the English language and a use of it almost artistic in its own right, separate from conveyance, as a matter of color and sound. Sure, there’s a whole school for that, but more than they Waldrep and Wallace act as kinds of park rangers of the dictionary, of diction (I believe Wallace said he wanted to use every word in the language—sorry, no hyperlink, but it was in Harper’s). Shall I give you my recent queries lists from the dictionary on my phone? Cerements, fletch, haruspex, crepitant, peristyle, cittern, wyvern, cowslip, chalcedonic, armigerous, struthers, raddle, shirr, arcature, abluted, orogeny, sot, epode, asperges and, well, let me stop there. Trust me sans-screenshot, openoffice just went crazy with red squiggles. Ah ha, and both writers use such words appropriately, I mean, with great imagistic force. Here are two from Waldrep:

When the coulter withdraws from the body of a child what then is seen clearly….This, like flesh, for the licking. Surgical. Sweet.

From “What is Sforzando”–and O how the violence and passion are so compressed with the simple inclusion of that somewhat esoteric term (also, “surgical”–just lovely). Or something like this, from “Who is Anton Webern:”

Ablute serial malfeasance.

Sic. I mean, that phrase just so, it’s own sentence, verb-less. There’s something irritating here, to be sure—it’s bravado, but in my better moods I rather see it as a muscular forging, a yoking together of wild words that don’t otherwise want to be anywhere near the others’ territories, and that tension alone is worth the ten bucks, which, of course, misses my original point in that this combination in fact provokes a new meaning, a local presence that, through the combination of connotative and tonal timbres of these words, allows, in fact, a kind of humanity, the religiosity of public figures through their deceptions/failures, etc. I buy it—it is a legitimate reality. And that reality, I suppose I argue, is only had through such intense displays of lexical richness.

And yet, still, I’m pissed, because in cases like this, all one has is the local. The global meaning of the poem is so far down on the priorities that one might as well remove the titles and run the entire collection as a single poem, an adventure of the mind, which certainly HAS been done many times before. So I’m missing that, that feeling of intention, of even somewhat larger design, and this lack is not so dismissable. But okay enough for now. Let’s go eat dinner.

Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form

Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form by Matthea Harvey

I came to “Pity…” after having read “Sad Little Breathing Machine,” so my thoughts on the collection are a bit in reverse. Dean Young’s string-of-similes blurb, “this book astonishes me the way I am astonished by jeweled clockworks, siege machinery, the musculature of the shark and hummingbird,” thus, in hindsight, seems more fitting for Harvey’s second collection, which is much more a collection of little machines of ornament and maneuvers (not pejorative!). Thus, I am in fact struck by the coherence of the poems in “Pity…,” the fidelity to scene and conceit they exhibit. There are in fact quite a number of narrative cycles, all of them stunning, though perhaps the most narrative of note (and I think the best) is “Thermae,” a collection of prose poems that follows a very tight sort of day-in-the-life.

Of course, the “Ceiling Unlimited Series” detours a bit and is perhaps my all-time-favorite of the collection, and really, for what I can gather, links us as readers to Harvey’s future endeavors, hints at, foreshadows, etc. It’s most adept at musically linking a quickfire chain of statements that feel too distant from each other to offer the kind of tenable arguments and complete scenes the other poems afford. When these are most successful the feeling is that of a fusillade of aphorisms (even when the lines are descriptive), which, for me, is accomplished exactly because of the proximity of the lines to one another. In other words, she is being pretty D. Young here; she is making metaphors that we can’t explain in paragraphs:

…Like most
cadenzas I need something to come back to.
I push the rubble out of the second-storey window.
I put the money in an envelope and it’s sucked up
a transparent tube. Only the rusted bits of roof
stand out against the sky. Yellow water
in the gutters–always the fault falls somewhere.

Now I feel like I must mention the other sort of detour Harvey takes from fidelity, though, ha!, it also just supplants one for the other–her perhaps most frequented technique (I mean, these is almost a new entry in the Book of Forms she nails it so fully) in the collection is this thing that all the Goodreaders (me too!) are having a really difficult time naming, the “carry over,” the “enjambment,” etc. Essentially, the line breaks, and the next logical word appears, but that word is now, in the new line, ACTUALLY functioning in an entirely new syntactic structure, i.e., the natural ellipses between statements, the synapses, are actually CONNECTED by a single word that is performing double duty. This does not happen at every line, but the effect is that every little area of concern, every argument or scene becomes kind of modular, connected to the next by a “joint” or “hinge.” Ah hell e.g.:

Again housewives took blue pills to magnify the moment
When they rounded the curve of a chocolate cake &
Were about to find out whether the frosting would
LAST year when something truly predictable happened…

From “The State of Expectation.” My emphasis. See what I’m saying? A lot of folks are put of by this, but I have to put myself in the OMG-Love-It camp. Doesn’t this remind people of the “Miss Susie” game?

Miss Susie had a steamboat, the steamboat had a bell,
Miss Susie went to heaven, The steamboat went to…
Hello operator, please give me number nine,

It’s a pretty clear, formal conceit–I think it’s form introduced from on high, and while I’m one to think that that doesn’t typically lead to glory and flowers, in this case–well Harvey is just brilliant–she really pulls it off, she UNDERSTANDS what this technique can and should do, and she wastes no time getting us there. This is not to say she is ALWAYS successful. The most successful moments are, perhaps, like above, when this advances us into a new scene, esp., moment in time–other instances of the technique feel slightly more random and not quite as finely executed, perhaps, inhabit that same superficial space as pun? Taken from the same poem:

Something went wrong with the lottery & someone won
Though the government claimed it was one of series of
Tests in school were rarely given but frequently announced…

It’s difficult to measure when we are only reading the excerpt, but here, in that old workshop adage, function seems to be serving form, and we give Harvey a B+ for it.

O but I’m so sorry to end on a sour note. Read this book. More importantly, read it twice.

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