The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is the using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,
And the food had been transfigured,
Changed into a weak, old whiteness,
Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

Recommended Readings in Sports Literature

I’ve recently finished teaching an intersession course here at Johns Hopkins—that is, a three-week course, held during the period between winter break and the start of the spring semester, on a topic of my choosing. As such, I’ve spent most of January thinking about the literature of sports, and how various writers manage to make the subject compelling to a general audience.

Speaking as someone who loves sports, someone who organizes dinner plans and reading schedules around “the game tonight,” I often find written descriptions of sporting events rather dull. I’ll read newspaper recaps or student stories about some athletic contest, and my eyes will start glazing over the text immediately. As a reader, I want more than a litany of individual events. I want an actual narrative, or an argument, or something musical.

As such, most of the pieces I selected for the syllabus take an indirect approach to sports. Rather than focusing on the outcome of the game—the thing we care about when watching sports—they tend to emphasize the beauty inherent in athletic excellence, or the personal significance that the sport holds for the characters, or what the sport tells us about society. Such approaches are not just more creative than the play-by-play method, but are also more appealing to a reader who doesn’t care about sports but still appreciates good writing.

What follows are a series of pieces from my syllabus that my students seemed to respond to the most. They all either provoked interesting discussions during class, or had a clear influence on their own creative efforts. Each of these works, I believe, tells us something about how successful sports writing functions.

“Analysis of Baseball” by May Swenson (link here)

May Swenson’s poem “Analysis of Baseball” breaks the title game down to its constituent parts, down to the people and equipment necessary for it to occur. That sounds like the driest poem in history, but it’s a blast to read because Swenson privileges sound above all else. The poem’s paratactic phrasing, insistent repetition and constant rhyming results in a work that is quite playful coming off the tongue. Consider the following excerpt:

Bat waits
for ball
to mate.
Ball hates
to take bat’s
bait. Ball
flirts, bat’s
late, don’t
keep the date. (lines 17-25)

Obviously we can see the heavy alliteration and rhyme, which would make for a sonically dense poem to begin with. But also consider how the enjambment creates tiny pauses right as we learn the pitch has fooled the batter. Just as the pitcher has played his foe like a fiddle, Swenson has the reader right where she wants them.

On the first day of class, I had my students write imitations of the various baseball poems we discussed, and “Analysis of Baseball” was the most popular model. Conceptually it lends itself to that exercise well, and it was quite fun to hear what happened when students allowed themselves to chase the sound while describing the sport of their choosing.

“Body and Soul” by B. H. Fairchild (link here)

One of my colleagues—a tip of the ol’ hat to J. P. Allen—sent me a link to this poem when I was first designing the course, and I’m forever grateful for that. Whereas Swenson’s poem homes in on how the game of baseball is played, B. H. Fairchild’s “Body and Soul” concerns itself with why people bother playing it.

An extended narrative about working class men playing sandlot baseball in Oklahoma, “Body and Soul” is at once a humorous yarn and a meditation on the nature of masculinity. These grown men, short a player for a full team, allow a fifteen-year-old to join them. The kid, to their shock, proceeds to hit a whopping five home runs against them—turns out the kid was a young Mickey Mantle. It’s the exact sort of plausible-enough tall tale you’d expect to hear from your grandfather at barbecue.

But it’s the sections where Fairchild explores the psyches of his characters where the poem really comes to life. Why, the poem asks, did the men keep on pitching to Mantle when he kept taking them yard? It all comes down to foolish, self-destructive male pride:

…they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamn much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen-year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. (lines 97-102)

As a portrait of the everyday athlete, at once sympathetic and critical, “Body and Soul” is a difficult one to top.

“Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo (link to excerpt here)

In this story—originally published as a novella, later made into the prologue to his 1997 novel Underworld—Don DeLillo chronicles one of the most celebrated days in baseball history: October 3, 1951, the day Bobby Thompson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round the World and the New York Giants won the pennant over their arch-rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Every baseball fan knows about this game, but DeLillo’s story makes it fresh by mostly ignoring the game itself. Instead, his narrative focuses on the spectators at the Polo Grounds, and the personal struggles they’ve brought to the ballpark. We follow the likes of Cotter Martin, a boy from Harlem who’s snuck past the turnstiles to watch his beloved Giants; Russ Hodges, the Giants radio announcer getting a sore throat at the worst possible time; and J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who’s just learned about a Soviet atom bomb test.

My students found this emphasis on the spectators fascinating. Most sports literature—for an obvious example, think “Casey at the Bat”—treats the crowd as a single character, a chorus of approval or disapproval. Not “Pafko at the Wall”: each member of the crowd has their own inner life, their own motivations and fears. It’s a difficult task, and it requires a lot of space (the story runs about 50 pages in my anthology of baseball writing), but it’s a challenge worth accepting.

Me, I’m always struck by how DeLillo, on the few occasions he actually talks about the game, chooses to emphasize moments of comic failure: Bobby Thompson getting thrown out a second, Don Mueller hurting himself sliding into third, etc. DeLillo saves the beautiful descriptions for the fans, especially Cotter. The passage in which the kid sneaks into the Polo Grounds is just exquisite:

Cotter thinks he sees a path to the turnstile on the right. He drains himself of everything he does not need to make the jump. Some are still jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter. A couple of stadium cops are rumbling down the ramp. Cotter sheds these elements as they appear, sheds a thousand waves of information hitting on his skin. His gaze is trained on the iron bar projected from the post. He picks up speed and seems to lose his gangliness, the slouchy funk of hormones and unbelonging and all the stammering things that seal his adolescence. He is just a running boy, a half-seen figure from the streets, but the way running reveals some clue to being, the way a runner bares himself to consciousness, this is how the dark-skinned kid seems to open to the world, how the bloodrush of a thousand strides brings him into eloquence. (p. 658, in Baseball: A Literary Anthology, ed. Nicholas Dawidoff, Library of America, 2002)

Even in the bleachers, “Pafko at the Wall” tells us, athletics is transformative in more ways that one.

“Roger Federer as Religious Experience” by David Foster Wallace (link here)

A celebration of perhaps the greatest player in the history of tennis, David Foster Wallace’s essay does to Federer what Don DeLillo does to Cotter Martin: use language to convey a moment of kinesthetic brilliance. “Federer Moments,” Wallace calls them, and they require almost as much virtuosity to describe as they do to perform.

Wallace’s technique of choice here is the long sentence, and I do mean long: a single-sentence rally between Federer and Andre Agassi, for instance, lasts for over 250 words before finally reaching a period. But this is no show of self-indulgence. Rather, Wallace uses the long sentence to illustrate all the complexities of tennis that a player must understand simultaneously and intuitively, and also to suggest the sheer stamina needed in top-flight tennis. If you get tired just reading about Federer’s exploits, just imagine actually doing them.

But the part of the essay that most interested my students, and ended up framing a lot the discussion in subsequent classes, was an almost-digressive paragraph on the language we use to describe sports. Sports are often thought of as simulations of war, and the pageantry surrounding them, especially men’s sports, bears that out:

[I]n men’s sports no one ever talks about beauty or grace or the body. Men may profess their love of sports, but that love must always be cast and enacted in the symbology of war: elimination vs. advance, hierarchy of rank and standing, obsessive statistics, technical analysis, tribal and/or nationalist fervor, uniforms, mass noise, banners, chest-thumping, face-painting, etc. For reasons that are not well understood, war’s codes are safer for most of us than love’s.

In part, “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” is a corrective to this tendency in sports writing. It leads by example in praising the aesthetic qualities of a world-class athlete, asking us to see the emergent artwork in a point well-played. The world could certainly use more lyricism and less brute force, no?

Part II of Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (link to slighlty edited version here)

I’ve briefly talked Claudia Rankine’s Citizen before, as part of my list of modern classics in poetry. In particular, I noted how much I admired Rankine’s decision to use John McEnroe as a Greek chorus to discuss the various injustices Serena Williams has faced on and off the court. So I won’t dwell on that specific craft choice here.

Instead, I’ll highlight the section’s use images, as the mere presence of photographs and video stills made Rankine’s piece unique within the class. Sometimes, Rankine’s chosen images provide visual evidence of the incidents she cites, most notably the photo which closes the section: Caroline Wozniacki “imitating” Williams by stuffing towels into her shirt and skirt. But other times, they illustrate a point that’s rather difficult to express verbally.

In my most unfortunate omission this intersession, I neglected to include the image credits in my scan of the piece. As such, my students weren’t sure what to make of the image of one of Nick Cave’s Soundsuits: gaudily decorated performance art outfits that make a lot noise when worn. They are designed to call attention to the wearer’s body in a public space. Including the image of a Soundsuit provides a parallel to Williams’ position within the world of tennis: a black woman from Compton, standing in an historically white and wealthy space. Her body’s mere presence, Rankine suggests, calls attention to itself.

Someone whose image is notably absent from this section: Serena Williams. If that’s not a significant and deliberate choice, I don’t know what is.

Note: the version of this piece linked above lacks the embedded images that I’ve just been praising. Quite a shame, that. By all means, consider getting your hands on a physical copy.

“The Cruelest Sport” by Joyce Carol Oates (link here)

I’ll close with what is perhaps the most straightforward piece on this list. Taken from her collection of essays on boxing (titled, appropriately, On Boxing),“The Cruelest Sport” sees Joyce Carol Oates confronting the brutal realities of a sport she greatly enjoys. Boxing is not merely violent, like football—violence is part of boxing’s very essence, the intention of every fighter who enters the ring. Who can ethically justify watching a sport where the goal is not simply to win, but to cause one’s opponent to lose consciousness?

On top of the sport’s physical dangers, Oates doesn’t shy away from the socioeconomic conditions which underpin boxing. After all, what would drive someone to enter the world of prizefighting, if not economic necessity?

Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their impoverished ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the evident, possibly daily, dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished, that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.

This article resonated with a lot of my students, because the harmful effects of sports institutions extend far beyond the boxing establishment. The head trauma crisis in the NFL and the appalling response to sexual abuse in US women’s gymnastics are just two recent examples. Sports are useful to a writer not simply because they’re exciting, but because they offer us a lens through which to view society. How does a business treat its workers? How do institutions treat their most marginalized members?

That’s enough from me. How about you? Are there any pieces of sports literature that you think exemplify a compelling approach to the subject? Let me know in the comments.

A Top 5 List: Most Read Authors

Here’s another post inspired by a prompt from Shanah “The Bionic Bookworm” McCready: Top 5 Most Read Authors. This seems like a simple, objective list to compile: just check Goodreads and read off the results, right? Well, that will produce a list, and it is the list I went with. But there might be some wrinkles to it.

For example, I’ve a read number of omnibus collections of an author’s work, such as the complete poems of Rita Dove, Marianne Moore, and James Wright. Goodreads will count those as one book, even if they are really several individual books printed together. In absolute terms I’ve probably read more of Rita Dove than I have of some authors on this list. Yet there is something to be said about picking up a whole other volume from an author, reading more of their work with intent and not just because it happens to continue on the next page.

Moreover, my Goodreads stats only include books I’ve read since joining the site. That’s not a revelation, true, but it means that this list is skewed towards recent years. I know I read a whole bunch of Lemony Snicket and Donald J. Sobol books as a kid, but they’re not making it onto this list. Nor will this list account for re-readings. I’ve read 1984 five or six times by now, but that only gets George Orwell one point.

My point is: this list is not necessarily an accurate picture of my most read authors. But looking at it, it’s a damn fine roster, and if this list turns you on to just one of my favorite writers, then I’ll call it a victory.

 

Brenda Shaughnessy5) Brenda Shaughnessy
Technically, the No. 5 spot on this list should be a six-way tie, but that would be rather much to condense into one paragraph. So I made an editorial decision and went with my favorite writer of the bunch. I first encountered Shaughnessy’s verse in Our Andromeda (Copper Canyon, 2012), which draws from Tarot cards and cosmic space for its sprawling depictions of motherhood. Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), on the other hand, leans heavily on a choppy but still musical prose rhythm for its pieces. But it was her most recent collection, So Much Synth (Copper Canyon, 2016) that made her a contemporary giant in my heart. Two poems in particular stand out: “A Mix Tape: ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’,” which painstakingly details the process of making a mix tape for a crush, and “Is There Something I Should Know?” an epic and absolutely piercing reflection on early adolescence.

 

Andrew Hudgins4) Andrew Hudgins
At its worst, formal poetry can read as stiff and needlessly antiquated. At its best, well, you get someone like Andrew Hudgins. I first encountered Hudgins’ poetry through his verse autobiography The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood (Mariner, 1994), which to this day is still my favorite high-concept collection of poems. Its make great use of received forms to convey a child’s moment-to-moment moods, for example, the boredom-inducing “Gospel Villanelle.” But Hudgins also knows that the creaking rhythms of formal poetry have the power to unsettle. His first collection, Saints and Strangers (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) contains the blank verse piece “Air View of an Industrial Scene,” which ends with the dire line, “We’re watchers. But if we had bombs we’d drop them.” Meanwhile Ecstatic in the Poison (Overlook, 2003) begins with “In,” a common-measure ballad about kids playing in the clouds of pesticide trucks. No matter the form or the subject, Hudgins’ work is sure to prick at your nerves.

 

Shakespeare3) William Shakespeare
If this list were based on my lifetime reading habits, the Bard would take first place, and it wouldn’t be all that close. Both for classes and for pleasure, I always find myself going back to Shakespeare, and—no surprise here—he keeps getting better and better. I recently re-read Richard II, for example, and found the title character’s eloquence even more pointed and haunting than I’d remembered it. (Seriously, the “hollow crown” speech is my favorite bit from Shakespeare’s whole oeuvre.) The past few years, I’ve aimed to fill in my personal gaps in the Shakespeare canon, so I’ve read a couple of clunkers like Two Gentleman of Verona and Henry VIII. But I’ve also read such hidden gems as Troilus and Cressida, which is so cynical and war-weary you’d think it was the product of the World War I poets. You obviously don’t need me to tell you to read your Shakespeare, but for real: read your Shakespeare.

 

Larry Levis2) Larry Levis
When I first started taking creative writing classes in undergrad, I quickly realized something: my knowledge of poetry ended at around 1900. In a panic, I dove into the library stacks to fix that, and one poet in particular captivated me: Larry Levis. From the tightly controlled similes found in Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), to the sweeping, digressive reflections that make up The Widening Spell of the Leaves (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), to the stark confrontations with mortality that mark his posthumous collections: Levis’s work is always compelling. While, if I’m honest, my own writing most resembles that of Hudgins’, Levis is the writer here I most wish I could emulate, but simply lack the skill to do so. Who else could take the phrase, “Death blows his little fucking trumpet,” and make it work in not one but two completely different poems?

 

Ursula K. Le Guin1) Ursula K. Le Guin
Where do I even begin / with Ursula K. Le Guin? Perhaps with the masterful world-building found in her science fiction novels. Perhaps with the introspective tone that characterizes the Earthsea Cycle books. Perhaps with the fact that her mid-2000s Annals of the Western Shore series is literally the only series of books I have ever read in its entirety. Perhaps with her poetry, or her advice on the craft of writing. Not only do I keep going back to Le Guin, I keep going back to her in different genres and contexts. I’ve never read Shakespeare’s narrative poetry, or Levis’s short fiction, but Le Guin? Hell, I’d read a history of sandwich toothpicks if she were the one writing it. For some representative books, I’d check out The Left Hand of Darkness (Ace, 1969), The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum, 1971, second Earthsea Cycle book), and Voices (Harcourt, 2007, second Annals of the Western Shore book). But start wherever you’d like. You’re in for a treat.

So there’s my Top 5. Does your list have any overlap with mine? Are there any authors here you’ve not read before but would like to check out? Let me know in the comments.

A Journey Through Tudor England: A Brief Review

A Journey Through Tudor EnglandWritten by Tudor historian Suzannah Lipscomb and published by Pegasus in 2013, A Journey Through Tudor England positions itself as part general-audience history, part travel guide. Covering fifty sites of interest from West Sussex to West Yorkshire, Lipscomb uses each site as jumping-off point to discuss various people and events of the Tudor era.

A Journey Through Tudor England is a book with multiple audiences in mind. In the introduction, Lipscomb says her book “is designed to be a companion both to the visitor to these fifty sites, and to the historical visitor to the Tudor period” (p. 3). The back cover, meanwhile, declares this a work for “the armchair traveler or for those looking to take a trip back to the colorful time of Henry VIII and Thomas More.” Based on these descriptions, I can see three intended readerships:

  1. People with a general interest in Tudor history
  2. People planning a visit to various Tudor sites
  3. People who would like to visit those sites but are unable to do so

Each group will want different things from the text. The history buffs will want to hear about the significance of each site, the stories of the people who were there, etc. The vacation planners will want to know what to look for when they make their trip. And the “armchair travelers” will want some sense of what experiencing these sites is like. (These groups are not mutually exclusive, of course; people hoping to see historical sites presumably have some interest in history.)

Three readerships can be difficult to balance, and some of Lipscomb’s descriptions do a better job of it than others. On the positive side, the beginning of her section on Broad Street in Oxford is exemplary:

In the centre of Broad Street in Oxford, outside Balliol College, an unceremonious small cross of cobblestones set in the middle of the tarmac road marks the site of the 1555 and 1556 burnings of the ‘Oxford martyrs’: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer, formerly the bishops of Worcester and London, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This inconspicuous reminder, together with the doors of Balliol College that were scorched by the fire and that now hang between the front and garden quadrangles, testify to the ugly side of the revival of Roman Catholicism in England when Mary I came to the throne. (p. 113)

This brief passage serves the needs of all three intended readerships. It establishes the historical significance of the site, which the rest of the section elaborates on: the executions of three prominent Protestant clergymen. It also draws attention to the particular items of interest: the cobblestone cross and the flame-licked doors. A visitor to Broad Street, after reading this paragraph, would know what to look for and why it matters.

As for the armchair traveler, Lipscomb manages to give the reader the sense of experiencing the site. Her prose emphasizes movement through the location. It begins with a general location, situating the reader in space: on Broad Street, outside Balliol College. The author then directs the reader’s gaze further into the site, down to the cobblestone cross. This is the exact manner in which one would experience such a simple memorial, coming across it while walking by. Then, once the mind has taken in the cross (and absorbed its import), it moves up and away from the street, to the scorched doors. It’s not quite a virtual tour, but it’s still an effective description.

What I most admire in the above passage is its efficiency. Lipscomb hits all her marks (history, handbook, and description) in just over 100 words, and both sentences serve multiple purposes. Even the listing of the martyrs, which is purely historical information, finishes the sentence introducing the cobblestone cross. The whole paragraph is a whirlwind to read, with all three elements swirling at once. Other than a brief mention of the Victorian-era monument to the martyrs nearby, the rest of the section is entirely devoted to history. But that first paragraph is so dense, every kind of reader can leave satisfied.

Alas, not every section is so successful. More typical is the section on the City of London’s Guildhall, which begins thusly:

Guildhall, which is situated at the centre of the City’s square mile on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, is one of London’s great survivors. It was the only secular building to escape the Great Fire of London in 1666 and it survived the Blitz in 1940, though in both instances it lost its roof and windows. In the fifteenth century, it was the second largest edifice in London, after the Old St Paul’s Cathedral, and the formidable Great Hall and undercroft date from that period. It is now on its fifth roof designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott to recreate what the medieval roof may have looked like, but everything beneath window-height is to the design of the original master mason, John Croxton, who built the Great Hall between 1411 and 1430. It is Gothic perpendicular in style, and an impressive 151 feet long, 48 feet wide and 89 feet high. The five-foot-thick walls may partially explain its durability. (p. 39)

This opening paragraph is longer than the one introducing Oxford’s Broad Street, yet it doesn’t accomplish as much. The history of the building comes through, albeit in a somewhat scattered fashioned, and the text does mention the highlights of the building. But as for giving the reader a sense of experiencing the building, it falls short. For one thing, the spatial movement implied here is odd, going from exterior (“lost its roof and windows”) to interior (“Great Hall and undercroft”), then back to exterior (the restored roof) and then back to interior (the Great Hall, again). For another, the details are either too general (“Gothic perpendicular” describes rather many buildings) or just not evocative (the Great Hall’s dimensions, which are difficult to scale in the mind).

Further, this first paragraph doesn’t even mention the main piece of history Lipscomb wishes to discuss: the life of Lady Jane Grey. Guildhall has clear significance in her life, as it was the site of her trial (as well as, by coincidence, Thomas Cranmer’s trial). But whereas Broad Street was central to the Oxford martyr’s story, with Lipscomb devoting many paragraphs to the events at that site, Guildhall feels tangential to Lady Jane’s ordeal. It reads as though the author just needed to discuss Lady Jane somewhere in book, rather than needing to tell the reader about Guildhall.

So where does all this leave a potential reader? Well, it goes back to the three intended audiences. A Journey Through Tudor England does an adequate job addressing the needs of the history buff and the vacation planner, but I think drops the ball as far as the armchair traveler is concerned. So ask yourself: “Which audience am I a part of?”

N.B. This book was originally published in the UK under the title A Visitor’s Companion to Tudor England.

A Top 5 List: Modern Poetry Classics

Shanah McCready, known to the Internet as the Bionic Book Worm, organizes a series of book-related Top 5 lists every Tuesday. This week’s theme is “modern classics,” which is quite a broad topic, and an inherently speculative one. After all, who knows what future generations of writers and readers will latch onto? I doubt anyone thought Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for example, would cast such a long shadow on American literature.

The doubt involved in making a list of “modern classics” is doubly present when it comes to poetry. Given how vanishingly rare it is for a contemporary poet to achieve broad recognition in the literary community, let alone the general reading public, picking any collection as a potential staple of future reading lists seems, shall we say, hopeful.

But I shall remain hopeful. As such, I’ve decided to put poetry front and center on this list. Here are five poetry collections released since 2000, listed in order of release, which at the very least ought to be considered modern classics.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

1) Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
University of California Press, 2002
Links: publisher | Amazon

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve pressed this book under the weight of the photocopier, curious to see how students will react to Mullen’s plays on form. This is a collection that turns “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a police blotter (“European Folk Tale Variant”), a courting ritual into a litany of tongue-twisters (“Any Lit”), and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into a paranoid rant about the Walt Disney Company (“Variation on a Theme Park”). Mullen takes the diction and rhetoric we take for granted everyday and puts it through the grinder, showing how meaningless (or meaningful!) it is at base. It’s a collection I’m not sure I will ever full-heartedly love, but it’s one I will always deeply respect.

 

Sea of Faith2) John Brehm, Sea of Faith
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Links: publisher | Amazon

Whereas Sleeping with the Dictionary is a book that always inspires me to think about writing, John Brehm’s Sea of Faith in one that inspires me to actually write. Nearly every poem in the collection is one I wish I could have written, because Brehm’s an expert at converting raw sensory inputs into polished works. Take “Coney Island,” which piles one overwhelming detail on top of another, to the point where I believe that “we’ll actually / get on a rollercoaster / just to calm ourselves down.” For another: “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” which finds the profundity beneath what sounds like  “[j]ust a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks.” Sea of Faith is probably my most obscure pick, which is a great shame. It deserves a wider audience.

 

Blood Dazzler

3) Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
Coffee House, 2008
Links: publisher | Amazon

An unfortunately timely choice, Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina is a poignant and inventive account of that storm’s particular devastation. Smith both employs a wide variety of forms (free verse, sestinas, abecedarians, etc) and inhabits a number of personas (politicians, residents, even the storm itself) to get the full scope of the tragedy across to the reader. If nothing else, you should listen to some of Smith’s readings on the Poetry Foundation website, which brutally highlight the sound-play at work, especially with regards to the poem “Katrina”: “I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted / a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

 

Dear Corporation,4) Adam Fell, Dear Corporation,
H_NGM_N, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

Inspired by the United States Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, Adam Fell’s prose poems addressed to the person Corporation burn with confused rage and raging confusion; as one of the letters begins, “I don’t know how to say how I feel politely, or poetically.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the collection’s political origins, each letter is also a deeply personal statement; the mere thought of the speaker reaching out to Corporation, of all persons, for solace is heart-rending. And as with Smith, Fell is an excellent reader of his own work. If you can find a recording or see him read in person, do so.

 

Citizen5) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Graywolf, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

If you follow poetry, then you knew this one was coming. A multimedia meditation on race in modern America, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric proved relevant to the broader literary conversation in a way that so few poetry collections are able to today. That alone would almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics; that these reflections are so sharp only puts it over the top. Seriously, the decision to cast John McEnroe as a Greek chorus in the essay on Serena Williams is absolutely brilliant (and given recent happenings, strangely prescient). To quote the book’s final line: “It was a lesson.” Indeed, indeed.

So there’s my list. What do you think? Are there any poetry collections released this century that you would have included? Let me know in the comments.

Henri Cole and the Sentimental Interruption

Natural disasters, death, isolation: how many poems take these topics as their subjects? Poets from all over draw inspiration, however weary, from such grave events, yet these are difficult subjects to address well. The temptation is always present to slip into sentimentality or detached philosophy, which would do great disservice to these grave subject matters. What could trivialize heartbreak more than a Hallmark card?

At the same time, we expect poets to find deeper meanings within the events they relate; rarely are we satisfied with the written equivalents of still lifes. This is especially true when it comes to subjects worthy of elegies. Without the solace that poetry can provide us, we’d be left staring at despair — perhaps an emotionally powerful experience, but hardly a useful one. And so the tension poets face: how is one to avoid cloying sentiment on the one hand and callous objectivity on the other?

The poems in Henri Cole’s latest collection, Nothing to Declare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) — which often describe scenes of devastation, physical and emotional — resolve this tension in a curious way: they temporarily indulge in sentimentality, only to change course abruptly and return to the facts at hand. Like a release valve, the sentimental interruptions relieve some of the pressure that these scenes entail, but not to the extent that their powers are completely emptied.

To demonstrate how this “release valve” technique works, let’s take a close look at two of Cole’s poems: “City Horse” (originally published in The Threepenny Review, text available here) and “Dandelions” (originally published in The Paris Review, audio available here). In both poems, the speaker momentarily departs from a gut-wrenching situation, only for the situation itself to drag the speaker back into the moment. Once that final transition is complete, the speaker (and so the reader) gains a fuller of understanding of the tragedy they face, one for which the earlier sentimentality would not be sufficient.

As a single sentence spanning fourteen lines, “City Horse” captures a moment of continuous agony: a boy seeing a dead horse in the aftermath of a storm. The opening line leaves little doubt as to the direction of the poem; it’s a journey to “the end of the road from concept to corpse” (line 1). What was once a living, moving beast has been tossed by wind and waves, dumped alongside piles of inanimate debris (“uprooted trees, crumpled cars, and collapsed houses” [3]). Although she is positioned “as if trying to raise herself still,” she is irretrievably dead (4). The only question is how to confront that fact.

At first, the speaker appears absorbed with the physical facts of the horse’s death: broken legs, face in the mud. Of particular interest is the horse’s appearance: “the color around her eyes, nose, and mane (the dapples of roan, / a mix of red and white hairs) now powdery gray” (7-8). The declension narrative is clearest here. This beautiful horse, because of the capricious weather, has been reduced to a monochromatic object. One might expect, then, to read of further and further decay.

Instead, the speaker interrupts the description with a set of apostrophes: “O, wondrous horse; O, delicate horse–dead, dead–” (9). The register is so elevated, the repetitions so sudden, that it sounds out of character for the speaker. Whereas the first eight lines were earthy and plainspoken, line 9 is more consciously poetic, if not bathetic — can readers feel this sort of emotion for a horse they hardly know?

But “O, wondrous horse” is not indicative of the poem’s progress; it’s a sudden pulling back, an unsustainable retreat. Just after the speaker’s interruption ends, we hear the boy who sees the horse with his vernacular speech: “‘She was more smarter than me, / she just wait'” (10-11). The two voices in succession shake the reader back and forth, from lofty sentiment back to the raw details. And once the poem returns to those details, the import of the interruption becomes more apparent.

The closing image sees the boy attempting to comfort the dead horse, “stroking the majestic rowing legs, / stiff now” (12-13). It’s a heartfelt gesture, but a futile one, much like the horse’s attempt to escape its fate. She simply “could not outrun / the heavy, black, frothing water” (13-14). But then, neither could the speaker “outrun” the tragedy of the horses death by invoking some sentimental muse — he must return to the situation, the heavy, black, frothing situation.

“Dandelions” follows a similar path as “City Horse”: the speaker is confronted with an uncomfortable situation, attempts to escape via a sentimental interruption, but gets drawn back to the reality of the scene. What makes “Dandelions” a little unusual is that the scene itself has no reality — it’s a dream, as the first stanza explains:

In the dream,
a priest said
it was time
to be entirely
adult. (1-5)

The set-up suggests a confrontation between the speaker and the priest, but in fact the priest is addressing the speaker’s mother, who is “bedridden / because of diabetes” (6-7). The priest seems convinced that the speaker’s mother has little time left, repeatedly asking about her beliefs. His insistence frightens the speaker, who retreats into his own head (or further within his own head, as the case may be).

Specifically, he starts to think of the title flowers, of their simple beauty, which appears to provide him some comfort in the midst of the confrontation:

those silver gray
stems and lemony
blossoms
that transform
any landscape (36-40)

That landscape, of course, is the speaker’s mental state. For the moment, his mother’s health and the priest’s insistence have faded into the background, subsumed by the soft colors of the dandelion imagery. If “City Horse” drifts into the language of sentimentality, “Dandelions” indulges in its visuals.

But, as with the sentimental interruption in “City Horse,” the speaker’s self-distraction cannot be sustained here. He’s brought back to the dream-proper when his mother’s ailment intervenes: “and then I heard / Mother lifting her stumps, / where the hands had been” (41-43). It’s an unnerving image in any context, but when contrasted with the dandelions, it’s a downright shock.

“Dandelions,” however, arrives at a different attitude than “City Horse.” The mother’s closing declaration (“‘I believe / in these living hands'” [44-45]) might provide the speaker with some consolation at the end of the dream. His mother is aware her hands have been amputated, but she does not try to ignore than fact. Instead, she finds a kind of strength within her condition, hence why she loudly lifts her stumps. She has embraced her situation and come out stronger for it. Perhaps the speaker, once he awakes, can learn from her example.

Cole returns to the structure used in “City Horse” and “Dandelions” throughout Nothing to Declare, and it proves surprisingly durable. It never loses its punch, seeing that moment where a sentimental interruption collapses and the speaker confronts reality again. It reenacts a thought process which all of us indulge in at various points in our lives, then shows the limits of that very process. Whether solace or mere devastation await at the end, Cole’s poems show us those difficult facts that our minds attempt to cloud.

Nothing to Declare is available through Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s website and through Amazon.com.

(Disclosure: I received Cole’s collection as part of a Goodreads giveaway sponsored by the publisher. Neither the author, nor the publisher, nor Goodreads had any input regarding this post.)