Barrelhouse Reviews

Barrelhouse Reviews: I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott

Review by Laura Gill

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There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Many of us would probably like to think we are the latter—people who don’t use categories or classify people into groups because humanity is expansive—even if most of us accept we are often the former: we do group people, and sometimes there’s worth to doing so. We ask our friends and lovers: are you an Order Muppet or a Chaos Muppet? Are you type A or type B? All of us are probably a bit of both, or something different in between. Sometimes, we have moments when we do need to divide the world into two (or at least four, six, eight) types and moments where we see humanity as infinitely complex as possible.

In the world of essays, one might be able make a similar point. There are two types of essays; essays that explore questions and essays that want to answer them, and to answer them too quickly. In many of Mary Laura Philpott’s essays in the recently-released collection I Miss You When You Blink, we get the latter. Topics sometimes go unexamined, and simple metaphors or colloquial language soften what might be more complicated moments—the result of which makes it feel as though the narrator is attempting to simplify a much messier truth.

Mary Laura Philpott admits she’s Type A early on, and the essays mirror what we are meant to assume comes along with a Type A personality: a tendency to control an experience, to walk through life (and an essay) checking things off the list. Even though she questions with that impulse in herself, as it has been both the driver of her success and the reason for her stress about those successes, her essays don’t dig in deeply enough to the underlying issues that might participate in what has lead her to not just feel frustrated by her own perfectionism but also guilty for it. Often, it seems like she’s driving towards a predetermined end without interrogating the process to get there, a technique deployed often with deflecting remarks like this one: “I had my health, my youth. I was not yet forty. I was not dying of insidious cancer, and I had not accidentally gotten hooked on meth, like those soccer moms I saw on the news.” Since when did being forty indicate some terrible end? And when did getting “hooked on meth” become a barometer that made any sense for this narrator? While what she is saying is true—all of us are no worse or better off than millions of people (or I guess older or younger?)—it feels to me like a way to get out of digging more deeply into what that psychology means for those who do seemingly “have it all.”

Deflection on pops up in other moments in the book. In one essay about moving frequently as a child and having multiple fainting spells, she closes with: “I do know that learning to give in to sudden fainting spells and weathering the end of friendships severed by childhood moves gave me practice in accepting, without struggle, the unexpected. Don’t make a big deal, let it pass, everything’s fine.” In the margins, I wrote, “wait, what?” next to those sentences. As a child who moved a lot and experienced fainting spells, I wanted more. “Everything’s fine,” she declares. But, wait—what about when it isn’t?  Though she doesn’t state it, she clearly feels the need to offhandedly say “no biggie, it’s all ok,” lest the reader think she’s complaining. Don’t look to closely, she seems to be asking; really, it’s nothing. Then why write an essay about it at all?

There are moments when Philpott deflects, and others where it feels like a detail or metaphor gets too much attention, almost diluting the material. In her title essay, she writes about where the phrase “I miss you when you blink” came from. It came from her son who says it to her while he’s doodling. She is stunned by it, as most writers would be—it’s a beautiful phrase, and it speaks beyond a simple gesture to a kind of longing; it acknowledges the pervasiveness of loss, and is made more moving because it comes from a voice that does not yet know know the true expansiveness of what that loss means. Philpott repeats the phrase to herself “as she lays awake in bed” and then again as she is in traffic the next day, and then she thinks: “How cute.” How cute?! No! How profound! How beautiful! She goes on of course: it isn’t just “cute, it  “helps her be more “patient” and it “captures the depths” of her love for her son. But a strange thing happens as she continues to examine the phrase, she weakens it instead of enhancing it, writing that it “captures that universal experience: the identity crisis,” specifically the one where “you feel sure you can’t go forward and you can’t go back and you absolutely, positively cannot stand still one minute longer.” It is also a mantra: “I say I miss you when I blink to myself,” she writes, “and it means, Get a grip. Don’t panic. To figure out where to go next, look at where you came from. If you got here, you can get to the next thing.” And there, perhaps, is the problem. If the phrase means so many things, does it really mean anything at all?

Philpott is at her best towards the end of the of the collection when she writes about her depression. In saying that, I don’t mean to imply that essays that focus on personal struggle are intrinsically more interesting. In Philpott’s case, it’s that these essays are simply where one gets the strongest sense that the narrator has a universe of questions about the experience she’s trying to unravel, and in her unraveling, opens up to some poignant ideas about what it means to live with depression. She writes that she needed to leave her family for a few months because she “wanted to be unwitnessed for a while.” That phrase is moving, especially in light of her role in her family, as a mother and wife, often (and perhaps always) being witnessed. In this moment, and among those essays, it feels like she’s truly essaying, which is to say: making an attempt and trying to explain an experience she doesn’t completely understand.

In such essays, she also resists deflecting with off-handed comments about how she knows she doesn’t have it as hard as other people. This comes as a relief...but we are not relieved for long.  In her essay, “Ungrateful Bitch,” she makes the point, again, that she is fortunate, but still, sometimes, distressed:

I know how fortunate I am to have my health and my family and my jobs and my roof and my car and my democracy. I do know. I promise. And I know that saying out loud, ‘I think I might want a different life,’ when you already have a perfectly good life is sort of like holding a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie in your hand while saying, ‘I don’t want a chocolate cookie.’ I know some people have no cookies. Unfortunately, having a fine life doesn’t exempt anyone from existential anger...

Here, it feels like the is pushing the reader away again. “I promise” she seems to pleads with the reader: I get it, I am fortunate. And because she gets it, she really needs us to step off, or step back, from a platform we weren’t on until she put us there. She then goes a step further to say that not only does she understand her own privilege, but she understands what it might be like to not have privilege, explaining that if she were homeless, she might not “give a damn about things like personal satisfaction or personal fulfillment because [her] greater concern would be not freezing to death.” To assume all homeless people have the same needs is an issue in and of itself, but what is more concerning, is that it perpetuates the type of of white guilt that keeps people complacent. In an article for the New York Times, Eula Biss wrote about white guilt as a “potential prod, a goad, an impetus to action,” asking, “isn’t guilt an essential cog in the machinery of the conscience?”  I think the answer is yes, it can be, but in Philpott’s essay the guilt essay does not serve as a cog, or if it does, it is doesn’t function in the way it needs to. Instead of turning the magnifying glass on herself, she turns it away, further distancing herself from the complexities of her reality. She starts to blame herself for considering herself ungrateful, instead of examining the realms of that ungratefulness, and why gratefulness, in the end, really isn’t the point. In that same essay, Eula Biss writes that “being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.” In the end of the essay, Philpott seems to be suggesting it shouldn’t cost us anything—all thinking about whiteness does is lead to guilt. And for her, this guilt feels like useless self sabotage, something she needs to get rid of so she can simply be happy in her privileged life. The way to do that is, she suggests, just writing down the words“ungrateful bitch,” and staring “at them until they are just squiggles and shapes.”

Here’s the thing: I’m all for exploring layers of distress, and I’m all for exploring what the psychology of “having it all” means for all of us living in a country focused on striving, above all else. It’s a pathology that is clearly detrimental to society.  But it’s worthy of a much better diagnosis than the one Philpott is able to give. James Baldwin comes back to the forefront; he who wrote so extensively about how the privileged in this country have just as much to reckon with as those that they’ve oppressed also strenuously argued that the delusions and the myths that we carry are not only making us sick, but perhaps do demand scrutiny and an honest reckoning. Of course, one can’t assume that Philpott and Baldwin are necessarily speaking to each other in a meaningful sense, or that this country’s past is the reason for her struggles, but if someone is going to offhandedly mention their privilege, it would serve them well to dive into it. The book takes place in the South, which is to say it takes place in America, and so much of it feels particular to that place and our country's relationship to success—who gets to have it and who defined it in the first place. And given that she doesn’t, there’s a rather awkward hole left in her work, waiting to be filled.


Laura Gill is a writer, editor, and photographer. Her essays and photographs have been published in Agni, The Carolina Quarterly, Electric Literature, Entropy, and Memoir Mixtapes, among others. She is a contributing editor of nonfiction at Hobart

Barrelhouse Reviews: Colonize Me by by Benjamín Nake-Hasebe Kingsley

Review by Brian Simoneau

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Back in February I met with a group of high school teachers to talk about ways to cultivate a classroom experience based on equity and inclusion. We shared ideas for bringing diverse voices into a curriculum and for decentering the idea of a Western literary canon. In the process, we reminded ourselves that unless such work also involves interrogating our own biases, we risk enacting the same colonialist impulses we’re trying to get past. We agreed that we need to think about how students see themselves in our classrooms—whether that means a richer sense of belonging or an uncomfortable reckoning with privilege—and that wrestling with such questions of identity is essential to building inclusive communities without glossing over difference and without erasing the ongoing complications of the past.

I came home that night to a copy of Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley’s second poetry collection Colonize Me in the mail, a fitting way to keep thinking about questions of literature and history and identity. Reading these poems, I was captivated by the vivid retelling of histories both personal and public and astonished by the lyrical leaps and expansive approach to form. By turns playful and earnest, Kingsley conveys a sense of the anxiety we feel when we think about where we come from and who we would like to be. How do we embrace an identity when it results in part from suffering? How do we move on from the past without forgetting it? By putting these questions in the context of American colonialism and its inherent violence toward marginalized groups, Colonize Me offers a profound exploration of identity that could not have come at a more essential time, as yet another disturbing episode of American history plays out all around us. 

These are poems which complicate the notion of identity—poems in which we witness the assembly of a poetic self from multiple threads. Here we find depictions of Native American genocide, Japanese internment, American housing projects and trailer parks, police shootings, and pipelines across indigenous lands. For Kingsley, poetry becomes a way to salvage a sense of identity from the violent reality of colonial culture, a way to rebuild something meaningful from the wreckage of empire. For example, in “Of What America: How to Assemble a (1) Native (2) Nippon (3) Cubana Body in (4) Appalachia,” the speaker identifies as “a mixed-mixed skinned boy” and describes his “Onondaga origin / bowed beneath the whip / of whiteness” before revealing his faith that “the potential of / a small beginning” can eventually become a song “of forward / rejoicing.”

While the poems in Colonize Me emerge from overlapping histories of violence and struggle, what emerges is not a fractured identity so much as one which endlessly interrogates itself and integrates the many multiple selves found there. Kingsley captures this dynamic on the page and in the ear, as in the collection’s opening poem, “Our Broke-Ass Ladder of Opportunity or The Block Boy Anthem.” Sprawling across the page, the lines are broken and arranged in ways that shape multiple readings, as in the boy who

                                                            caught more                air

                        than any jet plane

                                                                        we’d never ridden in

                        an ambulance               before

                                                                                    the sun turned its

            back

                        on our street

In the moment it takes to consider which grammatical path to follow—a sense of being trapped or a sense of innocence?—all possibilities form one whole (albeit fleeting) truth. Even the title’s contradictory use of both “Broke-Ass” and “Anthem” to describe memories of growing up in the projects captures the specific double consciousness that lies behind Kingsley’s poems. And when the speaker claims “tenant reality was complex / colonies,” one can’t help but read the apartment building as both a prison-like instance of colonial violence and a self-sustaining community—a community that includes “boys raising each other” and dreaming still of taking flight. The apartment building becomes an image of both poverty and nostalgia, confinement and possibility, but the good never cancels out the bad. Both might be true for the speaker, but it’s no easy solace. It’s a sense of alienation that leads us to question our assumptions about Kingsley’s speaker, about ourselves, and about the very nature of identity.

Kingsley’s speaker presents his own sense of alienation as a result of a painful past and a source of what’s to come—both curse and offering. Poems like “I Can’t Close My Eyes Without Seeing Jason Pero’s Body” and “Split the Lark     & You Will      Find the Music” bear witness to police violence and poverty. Using multiple languages and images like “vines around the trunk / of violence,” they transform experience into art without diminishing their lived reality. A series of poems about Japanese Internment photos for sale on eBay leads into “Insecticide,” in which the speaker earns “half a penny per / japanese / beetle” in the garden of a white neighbor—an intersection of war and family history and capitalism that illustrates yet more of the difficulties of navigating this speaker’s past and present.

Reading these overlapping identities feels like laying out the edges of a jigsaw puzzle and finding more than four corner pieces. There’s no easy way to contain the heaps and scraps that combine to make a self—except maybe language, which itself fits together uneasily and only for moments so that every poem risks becoming a hollow gesture. Kingsley hints as much with poems titled “just another     horse poem” and “just another     night sky poem” and “just another     fruit fly poem,” but his formal inventiveness and playful language mean these poems never ring hollow. Instead, the piecing together of an ever-shifting identity makes easy categorization impossible. The resulting poetic self—aware of its past while looking forward to define its own terms of selfhood—becomes nearly impossible to colonize, at least on the page, and so each poem becomes a chance to work through the anxieties that arise between past and present.

In “just another    horse poem,” for example, the speaker responds to racist insults from a boss: he keeps silent to keep the peace, to keep the job, to keep close to the beautiful horse he takes care of. But his silent nodding becomes a sort of self-affirmation, and the language (“I sing sweet” and “I paint myself” and “I hold the wet drum / of his heart”) points to the poem itself as his ultimate response to the woman’s taunting, which leads him to a new self on the page:

I let my hands lie long      behind the pieces

of his shoulders and when I      hold the wet drum

of his heart      I am ne hochsàte I am

horseman fullhearted      enormous I am

I am clean I am I am      bigger even than this moment [.]

This celebration of the self hints at one way a sense of alienation might be resolved, a notion that becomes more and more direct throughout the collection: love—everyday devotion of family, celebration of ancestors, love of self and other—becomes a form of remembering and resistance, a “singing of familial silence into ode.” Of course, it’s no simple sentimental love, but one complicated by its complex origins and its potential loss to the violence of history.

Colonize Me is a book to savor and share, a book with much to teach about how the past might be made into something capable of enduring the forces—capitalism, racism, state violence—that seek to exploit, to erase, to iron out the folds of identity that come together, no matter how untidily, to form a sense of self. What emerges is a necessary sort of hope for all who would do the hard work of building communities—in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods, in our homes—amid daily reminders that such forces remain as strong as ever. In poem after poem, Benjamín Naka-Hasebe Kingsley resists any impulse to erase these forces; instead, they are recalled and witnessed and shown to be—eventually, and in ways big and small—ineffectual against the resistance and persistence of the cultures and communities they seek to diminish.


Brian Simoneau is the author of the poetry collection River Bound (C&R Press, 2014). His poems have appeared in Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Mid-American Review, Southern Indiana Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, he lives in Connecticut with his family.

 

Barrelhouse Reviews: The Condition of Secrecy by Inger Christensen

Review by Michael Mungiello

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The Condition of Secrecy

Inger Christensen, Trans. Susanna Nied

November 27, 2018

New Directions

“The outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy.” If you don’t know what to make of that phrase, then you understand it perfectly. And if you enjoy the confusion washing over you right now (and if it’s not vexation you feel instead), then you just might enjoy The Condition of Secrecy, an essay collection by Inger Christensen that lies somewhere between between memoir, philosophy, and grammar guide.

The central conceit of The Condition of Secrecy is interplay. Christensen (1935-2009) believed in lexical autonomy, rather than lexical slavery: words are sovereign and we cannot make them bend to our will. Like the animals with which we share the earth, words are in our stewardship, not in our control. Literalism and symbolism are both betrayals of language for Christensen. She wouldn’t have you take her at her word, but she wouldn’t have you put words in her mouth, either.

But let’s return to that nut I’ve been trying to crack: "the outer world is the inner world, raised to a condition of secrecy." This secrecy is willed illegibility, or the fact that we cannot pin down the meaning of the world and should travel through it as we travel through our own mind—that is, with passive acceptance and without complete understanding. Christensen writes, "[j]ust as the letters within a book will never be able to read the book, we will never be able to read the world." We couldn’t read the world, because as soon as we put one word of it under our magnifying glass we’d see it shift into something else and then something else again, as if we are physicists observing particles under a microscope.

Admitting our inability to understand the world is simple enough. But then, can anyone perceive the order in what’s random? Traditionally, the answer to this is either Nobody or God. And though Christensen doesn’t believe in God per se, she comes close: “[b]ecause humans use the word god (or have used it in the past), god exists (is still in existence) as the concept that corresponds to our sense of interrelatedness among all the atoms in the universe. (And so it’s quite possible that god is a loaded word.) I feel that what we call style is the closest we come to expressing that inconceivable concept.”

Make no mistake: she’s saying style is god. Art is her religion and individual words are members in the hierarchy of angels. Or maybe they’re more like saints whom Christensen adorns with personalities: "All adjectives are very helpless... All verbs are very agreeable… All prepositions are nearly invisible."

Part of the project of The Condition of Secrecy is to blur the relationship between language and what it latches onto: words become a porous membrane between our minds and reality, inside and outside. This couldn’t be further from the traditional (Augustinian) idea of language, that words are what get people to hand you the stone you need to build a house, that words are labels appended to objects. In Christensen’s Testament, the Word becomes Stone.

But language does not just fuse with the world. It is itself a product of nature. Language is as natural as apples, and poetry is as physical an activity as eating. We think of language "as man-made, something that we alone hold the patent on. But just as we ourselves are a part of the remarkable biology project that makes the earth unique, at least in our part of the universe, so too is language a part of that biology project." Christensen argues that what we think of as culture is in fact nature. And then, powerfully, she argues that since language is the product of nature, and the outer world is the inner world raised to the condition of secrecy, “Humans as a group are a chemical poem in praise of the earth and its sun." We are but the world’s words.

What Christensen accomplishes here is no small feat. She vivifies the supposedly abstract structuralist position. It was once assumed that when we write we don’t express ourselves; rather, language expresses itself through us. Christensen’s cunning twist on structuralist theory is ecological: it’s not language so much as nature—the earth itself—that expresses itself in our words.

Like any decent ecologist, Christensen is convinced of the interconnectedness of all things, not just aesthetically but politically. "Each and every one of us personally bears responsibility for every wrong action, even if it is committed by someone completely unknown to us. This kind of thing is neither theory nor practice. It's magic. Or, to use a less loaded term, it's style."

She’s making a political argument starting from aesthetic principles. If you’re stylish, if you have good taste, then you’ll want to bear responsibility for your fellow people: supporting each other like parts of speech to form the sentence that is society. This social democracy of letters is a place where I’d like to live. Originality has no great power here, but in its absence, we have communion: "I write in the certainty that this has already been written before, in all possible ways, and that all its mad self-contradictions are a part of that reassuring form. It should have been a lullaby, like the one that waves write on water: humans are not abandoned and alone, it tells itself." One of Christensen’s special qualities is an acknowledgement of one’s own superfluity that feels not like resignation, but reverie: a thankfulness for one’s predecessors.

For Christensen, it is better to be connected than it is to be unique. She doesn’t write to make sense, or to say something correct, or even to say something true. She writes to connect, to praise the writing of the past and record the world of today for the future. Life without connectedness—without magic or style—is "an isolated travesty" to her.

Christensen calls her writing magic, but this is mysticism. Like all mystical writers, when Christensen gets it right, she’s transcendent. But of course she doesn’t always get it right. I wish New Directions had been more selective: the throwaway shorter essays that pad the back end of The Condition of Secrecy (“The Regulatory Effect of Chance” and “The Shadow of Night”) make the book less than the sum of its parts. But the extraordinary essays in the first half of this collection (“Our Story About the World,” “The Condition of Secrecy,” and “The Naïve Reader”) are linguistic defibrillators, galvanizing our relationship to writing, ourselves, even punctuation, revivifying that core of your mind where word and world mix. Only William H. Gass (1924-2017) comes to mind as a writer interested in achieving the same end, and he, like Christiansen, has met his own.

Who will follow in their wake? Somewhat disappointingly, the wackiness of Christensen’s notions is never quite matched with a commensurate zaniness of voice. She’s formidable, Olympian, stately. But as we anticipate what’s next, I imagine a counter-Christensen: a writer who enthusiastically seizes on the chaos of language, instead of piously meditating on its haughty inscrutability. Where’s the Ginsberg to Christensen’s Emerson? Who will emphasize not the equipoise but the cacophony of interconnectedness?


Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.

 

Barrelhouse Reviews: Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides by Jessica Laser

Review by Allison Casey

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Jessica Laser’s debut book Sergei Kuzmich from All Sides wields a terrible blade of knowledge—one most of us can only wield via Google. Even the title boasts a wide-cast net of experience, referencing a passage from War and Peace, and the name of an obscure Russian soldier. I know this thanks to Google, the 80 pages of Tolstoy I got through last summer, and a helpful epigraph at the beginning of the book. Knowledge isn’t the only weapon in Laser’s arsenal to be sure. Another, subtler, instrument is her beautiful attention to sound (How to represent this through a metaphor? Perhaps a lyre? A harp with racing stripes?). Laser creates bouncing rhythms, loops through unexpected rhymes, and sprinkles alliteration over the poems, not unlike Salt Bae; just the right amount, enough for that pleasant surprise. 

Surprise, it seems, is a goal of hers. Not just in the sudden rhymes and matching sounds, but in the syntax itself. Enjambment creates unstable lines and stanzas, catching one off guard so that the reading of a poem gets twisted and turned in real time, as if Laser’s will forces one to bend to understand a particular line, a key phrase. And while there’s obscurity and maybe some neurosis ringing in those moves, there’s also the pure delight of realizing that the poem has, once more, tricked you.

Laser reminded me, in fact, of the awe I felt the first time I ever read Emily Dickinson: the way she fucked with standard sentence clause construction. Laser’s wrought-iron syntax has that same hide-and-seek going on. Take the poem “Sergei,” for example:

“Man of what pebbles / The government pours // To adorn concrete lapping waves / Denote as slabbed beaches.”

With every line, the referent slips away, slides into something else. Those shifts prompt new readings, new thoughts, and a more careful attention to the poems. Reading the poems, then, becomes like slowly unworking a knot, trying to trace a winding shimmering trail of stones that Laser has left behind.

Some of those stones, though, are easy to miss. Every syllable of the book is absolutely flooded with references. Laser brings everyone from Flaubert to Nietzsche to Wittgenstein to Eliot into the fray, and ironically, it’s in a move like Eliot (or maybe more like Anne Carson) that Laser risks losing her reader among the weeds in all her influences and allusions. At what point are they more for her than for the poems? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that there’s a certain weight to the more academic and cerebral poems. If you catch who she’s paying homage too, it’s all the more fun. If not, that’s a facet of the work that’s lost flickering to the night. Of course, it’s a testament to just how fun the poems are that I didn’t want to lose any of the angles. Rather than being frustrated with Laser, I was disappointed in myself. To miss an aspect of Sergei Kuzmich felt like an opportunity wasted, and so I found myself Googling more than I otherwise would when reading poetry—in an effort not to let any allusion pass me by. That—needless to say—is not ideal.

But there’s the satisfaction of the recognized reference. Laser includes some interior references, lines that appear as duplications or inverses of previous lines in the book. It’s exciting to happen upon, to read a line and have that instant jolt of recognition: to read “In the Depression Between Two Hills” and remember the first poem of the book, the first line of which gives “Depression…” its title. The self-referential style feels like being invited in to Laser’s secret club: in watching Laser work back to a previous moment and revise some of it, one sees her extend past it.

One poem in particular, “The Bulletproof Vest,” stands out for its precision and economy. It contains all that the other poems boast, too: a winding syntax, cliff-hanging enjambments. But the story being told, the images deftly set into the lines are lighter, more delicate and therefore more pristine. That difference feels like something tangible. That difference feels like the reason I’ve been caught up in the last lines of that poem like spider-webbing (“...down that coast-resembling road / We migrated south with the circus party / And laughed without nets.”)

 The last poem of Sergei Kuzmich, “Losss,” is made up entirely of quotations, with endnotes that can lead the reader to where those words had their first home. Unlike the previous weighty references, this poem actually does more work toward telling the story of the composer—of Laser. Like Joan Retellack’s “Not a Cage,” “Losss” grants us a peek at the books that might line Laser’s shelves. The endnotes are a graveyard of poets, philosophers, thinkers: Blake, Porchia, Heidegger, Salinger, Frost, Browning, Cheever, the Bible…

It’s not just name-dropping this poem, though. Wildly impressive, more so than the names and titles is the form and what Laser has accomplished through it: compiling so many disparate and varied texts, doing the complex work of finding images and, indeed, finding a poem through them all. Despite the source material, Laser’s influence is apparent through her flex of craft. In other words: far more of Laser comes through than the other writers, even though the poem is made entirely from their words, and that’s a feat worth marveling at.

I’d venture that it’s the poems where we clearly see the picture of Laser that work better at what Laser herself considers important to poetry. A few years ago, while interviewing Hannah Sanghu Park for the LA Review of Books, Laser said, “As long as you’re hitting up against as much specificity as possible, your tiny little grain of sand [the poem] will explode into the universe.”

It is in the poems that feel entirely owned by Laser, not fogged by another voice, that we get the closest, most specific and unique glimpse at her own grain of sand. And it’s those poems that do indeed feel like they explode into the universe, into the reader, and leave a supernova burst imprinted on that reader.


Allison Casey is a current MFA Creative Writing candidate at Rutgers University—Camden. A New Jersey native, Allison received her BA in English and Certificate in Creative Writing from Rutgers University—New Brunswick. While her first and second loves are her cat and coffee respectively, poetry comes in at a close third. Her work has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Moonchild Magazine, and Occulum Journal.

 

Barrelhouse Reviews: In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes by Giorgio van Straten

Review by Michael Mungiello

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In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes

by Giorgio van Straten, Trans. Simon Carnell and Erica Serge

October 16, 2018

Pushkin Press


We write words dozens of times a day and hit send. We immediately forget what we wrote, but our texts are archived forever. Naturally we don’t think of all writing as precious. However, in Giorgio van Straten’s work of literary history and criticism In Search of Lost Books: The Forgotten Stories of Eight Mythical Volumes, we’re reminded of a past method of mourning, one founded on a romantic idea: that the object of readerly love is precious, irreplaceable. Straten’s is a less utilitarian, more humanistic approach to writing.

In Search of Lost Books tells eight stories, each about a manuscript by a Great Writer (Romano Bilenchi, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway, Bruno Schulz, Nikolai Gogol, Malcolm Lowry, Walter Benjamin, and Sylvia Plath), each thought beyond retrieval. The “lost” of the title is synonymous not with “misplaced” but with “dead.” Straten’s book is thin, pleasant, and just a bit snobbish; it’s caviar on a Ritz cracker. Straten wears his old-world eloquence, his sense of culture, on his tailored sleeve. One gets the sense he takes his “mission” “seriously.” In other words, In Search of Lost Books might have been written by Niles Crane.

Straten frames his searches as spells of unrequited love, explicitly invoking Proust not only in his title but in his introduction. And just like Proust, it is entirely possible that Straten wrote this book from his bed. You might think our author literally searches for these books, donning the cap and cape of a literary Sherlock, but no. Instead, Straten compiles what amount to book reports on the eight unpublished books: biographical summary, literary anecdote (“anecdote” meaning gossip), and paeans to Important Authors that verge on pontification.

Despite his Proustian pretensions, Straten is surprisingly shallow. There’s a lack of introspection or invigorating literary analysis. The author bandies about flashy signs of knowingness without revealing any underlying knowledge. Where we might look for an archaeologist willing to get into the dirt—how did the loss of Gogol’s redemptive sequel to Dead Souls shape Russian literature and its sense of pessimism? What did the destruction of Byron’s memoirs mean in the context of the Romantic argument for catharsis through self-disclosure?—we instead find a charming tour guide delivering a lecture from the top of a double-decker bus, gesturing vaguely at ruins we’re meant to respect.

“It is possible that from those lost pages, despite everything, the traces of a tremendous talent would have nevertheless emerged.”

“Instead of this text we have only a few surviving fragments…small pieces of paper with burnt edges, like maps of pirate treasure.”

“Is it too much to hope that sooner or later—by chance, scholarship or passion—someone will rediscover those pages and enable us to read them at last?”

“It is next to impossible to know what really happened.”

Despite vagueness and grandiosity, Straten is charming. He’s self-aware, and I have a sneaking suspicion he’s a sharp dresser with good teeth. In a sense, Straten himself is the sort of person disappearing from the world: the cultivated European aesthete, seemingly unsullied by extraliterary preoccupations, unashamed of his elitism, proud deployer of polysyllables.

Appropriately, Straten makes no effort to appeal to contemporary taste, no argument for the “relevance” or “urgency” of In Search of Lost Books. And why should he? Straten’s book is a languid love story, an indulgent rumination on the romance of what’s lost, including the phenomenon of lost manuscripts. This romance is rooted in a dream of wholeness: the lost book acquires a magical aura . The lost book is the one missing piece to the puzzle of an author’s oeuvre. Somehow, it’ll make everything cohere. Straten’s fondness for lost books mirrors my fondness for his manner. He has a holistic sense of literature as the missing piece to complete a cultivated life. His faith in culture, in literature, is uncommon.

Perhaps for good reason. Straten’s love of lost books seems indulgent, but it might be worse than that. Who’s to say Straten’s love is harmless? Isn’t his aestheticism apolitical, bourgeoisie, simplistic, weak-minded? Although a preservationist orientation could be mistaken for conservatism, the evidence points to the contrary. Straten preserves the work of the past to encourage the progress of writers and readers to come.

One of the binding threads of In Search of Lost Books is Straten’s PSA-like appeal to readers (and future literary trustees and heirs) that books, even books that their authors disdain, should never be destroyed. He suggests that authors and their descendants seal up embarrassing or dangerous manuscripts for a few centuries to protect the privacy of said authors’ loved (or hated) ones. But what’s written should never be destroyed, he argues. “The right to protect individuals is sacrosanct, but so is the need to preserve works of literature: the imperatives can converge and be compatible, if you only want them to.” The readers of the future take priority over a writer’s temporary contemporaries. And in this sense, Straten’s idea of culture isn’t just pining for the past, but belief in a canon that continues accumulating into the future forever. A faith in continuity, stretching forward as well as backward, vivifies the otherwise clichéd nostalgia of In Search of Lost Books. If we believe great writing is precious, and worth preserving, then even the automatic preservation of online texts seems meaningful. In Search of Lost Books is almost a cautionary tale: this is what it was like when manuscripts were on paper and could be completely lost. Don’t forget.


Michael Mungiello is from New Jersey.