Dear readers, fellow bloggers and poets, friends, Romans, countrymen,
Lend me your ears and eyes, if you would. Every year there is a dry spell, a fallow period for yours truly in which almost nothing gets written. The last time I posted, it was December, 2021. This year that fallow period was way longer than I would like, three full months–but just as I might be able to predict a period of non-productivity every year, usually during those winter months, I can also bet that spell will be broken by the advent of National Poetry Writing Month, where I have vowed now for almost a decade running, almost religiously, to write a poem every day for the month of April.
I apologize for my absence to anyone out there who misses my presence. Mostly, I think, it’s a self-apology. I’m really, I think, the only one holding his breath to see when this Michael Jarmer guy will post a blog or a poem or a podcast. To self and others who care: I vow to be more present and productive, and I am pretty certain this is a vow that I will be able to keep–for reasons I hope to go into in the not-so-distant future.
Meanwhile, I have written three new poems and have posted them here for days one and two, respectively, of National Poetry Writing Month. Today’s poem was inspired by the always helpful, always edifying, always playful NaPoWriMo website, which I highly recommend. Every day there’s a prompt there–and I find myself visiting it every day of the month to see if the prompt excites something creative in me. Maybe, about half the time, I find that it does. Otherwise, I rely on my own interests and obsessions and find some way, by hook or by crook, to squeeze out a poem. On the first day of National Poetry Month, I used my classroom practice to generate poetry, as I was leading students through an introductory lesson on a poetry unit by having them write erasure poems, or “blackout poems,” a kind of found poem in which a text is redacted to reveal a new thing. It was super fun to “write” along with them. And it was super fun and naughty to direct students to write inside books and cut pages out with scissors. As I’ve got two more periods of sophomores with which to write erasure poems on Monday, day four of NaPoWriMo might find two more of these.
If you’re reading this, thank you! I hope you enjoy this journey with me, and I hope you’re doing your own writing along the way. And for podcast listeners: hang in there with me. I will return to that venue as well, and soon!
First, I have a supposition, a theory, a hypothesis:
Essentially, we’d have to be living under a rock not to know the story of the famous Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol. Right? We’ve seen the Albert Finney, the George C. Scott. We’ve seen the muppets and Michael Caine, the Patrick Stewart, the Bill Murray. We’ve seen the Jim Carrey. A google search revealed that as many as 61 different actors have been filmed as Ebenezer Scrooge. I know you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, but somehow this is not surprising to me, and I bet you it’s true. In addition to film after film of the Dickens classic, we’ve all seen or maybe even been in stage adaptations. I think my first experience as an actor was that, in the 6th or 7th grade, I played the ghost of Jacob Marley. But here’s the question: how many of us have actually read A Christmas Carol? My guess is, even though I can only speak for myself, not many of us. I could be mistaken–but I’m guessing it is perhaps the best known least read 19th century novel ever. I mean, Moby Dick is well-known, but outside of Ahab vs. the White Whale, most people don’t know shit about it. But this story people KNOW. It’s in their blood. And that’s amazing to me. I haven’t read it all the way through. So I have spent the first few days or so of my holiday break reading A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and my essential question going into the project was, how will it be, that experience–how will the story be enriched (or not) for me, by dealing with the original text? What have we been missing, perhaps, by a dependence on or the bombardment by the celluloid window dressing?
Let’s find out, shall we?
If it’s at all of interest to my listeners or readers, I just finished reading the second printing of A Christmas Carol published by the Folio Society in 2007 with illustrations by Michael Foreman from the 1983 printing. Of course, I hope you know this, but just in case, Dickens’ story was first published in 1852 in a collection of short pieces called Christmas Books. What I love about this Folio Society edition, beside the lovely full color illustrations, is that the print is gigantic, spread out luxuriously over 173 pages. In my copy of Christmas Books, it’s a tightly spaced printing on half as many pages–requiring the reading spectacles. This thing I could read without my glasses–if I wanted–from three feet away.
After reading, my first and early gut response is one of surprise at how absolutely close so many of the film adaptations come. And the thing that they get mostly right is the dialogue. Many of these screen plays adopt almost verbatim the conversations in the novel–so all of the well known classic lines are mostly preserved, and reading them in silence or out loud (as I love to do) these voices ring again in our ears the way we remember them from our favorite productions. I can hear Patrick Stewart exclaiming “Good afternoon” no fewer than six times over about two pages of text, turning, at least what we hear in American English as a polite greeting, into a curse–meaning, you know, get the hell away from me. Good afternoon! I don’t know if this is particularly English–or whether it originates with Scrooge, but I remember that my son found this particular expression hilarious the first time he experienced A Christmas Carol when he was perhaps 7 years old–walking around the house good afternooning in his little grade-school bellow.
But there are speeches, that when I read them here on the page, seem unfamiliar and new to me, probably as a result of some serious editing for the screen plays. This one in particular, spoken by Scrooge’s nephew in that first opening chapter, stands out. Ebeneezer’s dismissal of “keeping Christmas”: “Let me leave it alone, then. Much good may it do you! Much good has it ever done you!” is followed by this lovely lecture from Scrooge’s nephew:
“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round–apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that–as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”
If this full speech is included in any of the film productions of this story, I have forgotten or remember it only partially, so I single it out here just because I think I have not heard or read a better description of the holiday, or the meaning of Christmas, anywhere else. And I suppose this is the main benefit of reading the piece as opposed to watching it performed and interpreted: the opportunity to allow the words to really sink in. Not to mention just listening and savoring the rhythms of Dickens’ prose–his super-human ability to give complex sentences and sophisticated thought to characters in speech that nevertheless feels natural and convincing. Shakespeare did that. Jane Austen did that. Dickens did that.
Here’s a quick little description of how A Christmas Carol is laid out, structurally speaking. Its composition follows exactly the pattern of the story as we know it, in five chapters, or, as Dickens has named them, “staves,” the first being the Jacob Marley visit, the next three being the visitations of the Christmas spirits, past, present, and future, and the last being Scrooge’s ultimate redemption and rehabilitation, titled, oddly enough, and irreverently, “The End of It.” Again, the structure Dickens has set up has been religiously adhered to by every retelling of this tale–as far as I know. It is a simple, exquisitely clean structure.
You know, I think what I want to do here, for the rest of my little holiday special blog/podcast, is to simply share some of the joy I experienced in reading this complete text (I think, for the first time in my life) by looking at a single favorite passage or two from each of the five “staves” of A Christmas Carol.
This first one, the announcement of Marley’s doornail deadness and the initial introductory description of Ebenezer’s character is so fun, is so cleverly drawn, is so rhythmically alive, so immediately engaging. If nothing else, Dickens’ genius is revealed here as an absolute master prose stylist. And his gift at immediately invoking an atmosphere; here it is at once playful and deadly.
I can’t help thinking of the Robyn Hitchcock song when I read Stave II, featuring the Ghost of Christmas Past: “I’m the man with the lightbulb head.” This spirit has a lightbulb head–or, at least, underneath his cap. The description of this Ghost is a weird one, and I’d love to share it with you, but trust me. Check it out. I want to get to the next passage–before which the Spirit has shown Ebeneezer Scrooge a series of Christmases from his past–which begin happily enough, but become bleaker and bleaker until this culminating scene–the excruciating break-up scene.
This is essentially, almost the concluding passage of Stave II, but it’s the most significant moment, a heartbreaking moment, when young Ebenezer’s avarice finally cuts off from him this one opportunity for happiness with the young woman he loves. And already, Scrooge’s cold heart is beginning to transform: “‘No more,’ cried Scrooge. ‘No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!'”
In Stave III, the ghost of Christmas present, the jovial one, the giant one, leads Scrooge on a kind of whirlwind tour of the neighborhood and, miraculously, the world–but zeroes in on two particular present day scenes, maybe the most significant of which is the Cratchit residence, where Scrooge meets, or becomes aware of for the first time, the sickly and handicapped Tiny Tim. After thier glorious but modest dinner, and the presentation of the pudding, they make a cozy half circle around the fire. Bob proposes a toast to Scrooge, which, temporarily harshes the room, but all is well shortly thereafter as the children goof around, the family shares a holiday libation, and Tiny Tim sings a little song “about a lost child traveling in the snow.” The narrator gives us this final description of the family, a description for which might be captured on film visually, but perhaps not without losing this exact sentiment:
There was nothing of high mark in this. They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being waterproof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye on them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.
How unremarkable this family is, and yet, Scrooge sees in this scene the profundity of people who simply enjoy each other’s company, who are not grasping and striving, who are content–perhaps the truest form of human happiness, to be who they are in the circumstances in which they find themselves.
One more scene from Stave III must be referenced–one that, for me, all along in my experience of this story, has been the most haunting and disturbing of all. The Spirit begins to age and deteriorate before Scrooge’s eyes, reveals that his life is compassed by this single day and then he will be no more–and in this moment, Scrooge notices something moving underneath the Sprit’s voluminous robes. Again, we’re all familiar with the scene, but the language in this passage, for me, surpasses what can be achieved visually with this particular image. Check this out.
In Stave IV, the penultimate chapter of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is visited by the terrifying ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, who appears very much like the Grim Reaper, who doesn’t speak, but only points. Early in the chapter, before Scrooge visits the Cratchit family, mourning the loss of Tiny Tim, and before ultimately visiting his own tombstone, he is shown a body covered in a shroud. Here’s a passage that you will not find translated into film, as Scrooge is tempted to remove but resists removing the cover to reveal the identify of the corpse:
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honored head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and the pulse are still; but the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!
No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge’s ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought, if this man could be raised up now, what would be his foremost thoughts? Avarice, hard-dealing, gripping cares? They have brought him to a rich end, truly!
Something often missing from any film or stage play, and something that can be provided almost exclusively by literature, in fiction and in poetry, is character in THOUGHT. And perhaps this is the most significant thing almost always wanting when great fiction is translated to the screen–that whole interior landscape is gone. I think this is one passage above that points to the richness that might be found in reading A Christmas Carol as opposed to watching. But the imagery in this story lends itself so well to film, and it has been captured so wonderfully so many times. It’s almost like Dickens was writing for film. How many of Dickens novels, at this point, have NOT been filmed? The man was prolific–and yet there may be only a few titles of his that were never translated in this way.
Finally, we come to Stave V of A Christmas Carol. It’s the shortest chapter and it moves quickly through the iconic moves. Scrooge wakes up in love with his own bedposts. He doesn’t know what day it is. He is amazed to find out its Christmas Day, that the spirits, who were supposed to come in three consecutive nights, managed to get the whole job done in one–and thus begins a regular festival of good cheer all the way up to the closing sentence, where Tiny Tim’s words are echoed at last: “God bless Us, Every One.” What I found most astounding about this last chapter was how moved I was by it, AGAIN. Reading it out loud last night in my kitchen nook all by myself it was a concerted effort to avoid weeping–and what struck me most was the way in which Dickens has brought to life the sheer and utterly astounding joy that has returned to the heart of Ebenezer Scrooge. Listen to this:
There is a film, which I have not yet seen, a biopic about Charles Dickens called The Man Who Invented Christmas—a story, according to the trailer, of Dickens’ process of creating and then publishing A Christmas Carol. The film looks intriguing and fun—but this title seems, to me, totally apropos. With a minimum of, hardly any I’d say, religious proselytizing, it might be fair to say that the story of A Christmas Carol is primarily a secular one. The holiday, for good or bad, has become highly secularized. Santa and all that hooey notwithstanding, it feels to me that, the majority of us who continue to celebrate the holiday but hold very loosely to its religious aspects, hold on tightly nevertheless to the ethics, the morality, the values represented in Dicken’s short novel. It has indeed become for us the true meaning of Christmas.
Thank you so much for reading and/or tuning in. So long. Happy holidays and Happy New Year. Enjoy your winter. Be kind. Cheers.
Listen to the podcast version of this blog entry here:
I’m embarassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart
When I found out you wrote the book I read
David Byrne, from “The Book I Read,” Talking Heads 77
I want to begin this week by delivering a quick little study of the lyric that inspired the title of my humble podcast and this blog series; for those of you still outside of that particular loop, I’m referring to the song from the Talking Heads debut album, 77, a song called, you guessed it, “The Book I Read.”
First, I’d like to tell you a little funny story about the way I arrived as a Talking Heads fan. I was in middle school when the band made its first mark in the world. I was primarily in a hard rock phase. I listened to Kiss, to Cheap Trick, AC/DC, and Rush. My musical tastes were pretty typical for the era, in suburbia, and among my age group. But for some reason, I’ll never really understand why, I felt compelled over the next couple of years to experiment. Probably my first foray into New Wave music was the purchase of Talking Heads’ Fear of Music, an album that I absolutely cherish now, but that, when I bought it, I hated. Hated it so much, in fact, that after a couple of listens I took it back to the record store, claimed it was defective, and got a refund. But the Talking Heads and that first experience haunted me a little, and months or maybe a year later, I came back to them (I don’t know why–probably because, as startled as I was by my first experience, there was a certain something that hooked me, that piqued my interest, that made me feel like, yeah, I should give this band a second chance). When I did go back, I decided to start at the very beginning with their debut album. Outside of Fear of Music, it was likely the strangest rock music I had ever heard, but unlike my first response to their third record, this time I was giddy with excitement. This album was so nerdy, so decidedly un-heavy, so jaunty, so unabashedly weird and joyful, that I was hooked. And this song, “The Book I Read,” has embedded itself into my brain. As Talking Heads songs go, it’s a deep cut, was not a hit, but it spoke to me, and keeps speaking to me over the decades. Do you want to take a little break for a listen? If so, here you go. It’s just a clip, so, if you want to listen to the whole thing, click the Spotify icon.
Byrne’s vocal performance here is absolutely unhinged. I love the imprecision of it and his ability to capture this sort of unbridled sense of exuberance and enthusiasm–“I’m tipping over backwards,” indeed. He’s so excited, he can’t be bothered to hit all the notes–and yet, this melody is absolutely infectious–and the na na na bridge, or chorus, or whatever it is–inescapably hooky. But these lyrics–maybe the first rock song I ever heard for book nerds–the club for which, I must confess, when I first heard the song, I was not a member. Maybe the appeal to my younger non-reader self was that I understood it to be a metaphor–“the book I read was in your eyes.” But later, as I did over time become a bonafide book nerd, I understood it to be both literal and metaphorical at the same time. “I’m writing ’bout the book I read. I have to sing about the book I read.” That’s what I am doing in this podcast and blog series. And the lines, “I’m embarrassed to admit it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out you wrote the book I read.” Herein lies my inspiration and rationale, I suppose, for talking about books written by friends of mine as often as I can. There is something remarkable and exciting about reading books written by people you know and love. And I feel exceedingly blessed to be able to do so, and to have such an abundance of choices. Abundance is the theme of the season, after all.
Happy Thanksgiving, by the way, super belatedly. As is this episode of The Book I Read–somewhat super belated. I’ve been on a little bit of a hiatus, the demands of the school year finally eclipsing my capacity to read more often for pleasure and to write and speak about such pleasures. So, the book subject today was chosen–in part–for its brevity–a 86 page single volume of poetry–but in larger part–for it’s connection to the Talking Heads song, being, as it is, a book of poetry about music. It’s a book about a lot of other things as well, which I will get into shortly–but at it’s center are a couple of characters from music history, the 18th century composer Domenico Scarlatti and the famous opera singer Farinelli. I’m happy to be talking about Annie Kim’s Eros, Unbroken, the 2019 Washington Prize Winner for poetry, recently awarded the 2021 Library of Virginia Literary Award.
Where to begin describing this treasure of a poetry volume. Let’s begin at the beginning, perhaps, with the opening poem that is not a poem, but rather, a kind of introduction written in a series of aphoristic little pieces of prose, a thing titled, intriguingly, “Confession.” It works almost as an explanatory, a thesis, or, a statement of purpose. It gives us a bit of back story: Annie Kim, a classical violinist, randomly finds in the stacks a biography of Domenico Scarlatti and starts to read. Interested not in the biography itself as a genre, but in this particular case the eros or the passion contained therein. Somehow her interest is piqued by the friendship between this somewhat obscure 18th century composer and the castrato singer Farinelli, and their story somehow resonates with hers: “The hunt is rarely about the thing,” she writes. Her confession ends with these two striking aphorisms:
To be a thief you must love what you steal. I saw that I could write myself into their shadows. That I would need to pierce myself.
Counterpoint: the art of pursuing more than one melodic line, each independent but connected to the other.
Herein lies the crux of Eros, Unbroken. Through the story of the interconnected lives of Scarlatti and Farinelli, she will explore her own story–or, at least, the story of the collection’s primary speaker–and this “counterpoint” will take her deeply into the murky waters of love and passion, the difficulties of a family rift, the heart-rending disconnection between father and daughter, and the separations that must occur in order to put back together a divided life, finding what Parker J. Palmer calls the “hidden wholeness.”
Let’s spend a bit of time unpacking the “Eros” in the title of this volume before we proceed. I think most of us know Eros as Aphrodite’s minion, a companion and child-god of love and sexual desire, most often portrayed as the baby with a bow and arrow, or, as the Roman’s penned him, Cupid. Our word “erotic” springs from the Greek eros–and mostly when we hear this word we think about sexy-sexy time. That’s not the meaning we’re looking for with this book of poems. Modern philosophers and psychologists use the term “eros” to describe something more widely known as a kind of “life energy,” or, in Jungian psychology, relating to the process of individuation–rising above and beyond our tendencies toward projection, becoming conscious of anima or animus, and ultimately arriving at something like true self. In fact, immediately after the introductory “Confession,” and before the first poem in the collection, we have an epigraph from Jung: “Eros is not form-giving but form-fulfilling; it is the wine that will be poured into the vessel; it is not the bed and the direction of the stream but the impetuous water flowing in it.” Well, that should clear things up. One of the central figures in the collection, the castrato Farinelli, has given up his sex for the perpetually perfect voice for singing–he has been “unsexed,” castrated, and yet, his passion for music, his clarity of purpose throughout, is not stymied, is unbroken. He becomes the model, then, of an undivided life, about which Scarlatti, and the 21st century speaker in these poems, maybe the poet herself, are envious–or are trying to emulate in their way.
This book of poetry is divided into five parts, containing, respectively, 3, 3, 2, 10, and 5 poems. The first part mentions Scarlatti and Farinelli not a single time, but explores the modern concerns of the central speaker of the collection. I tell my students on a pretty regular basis that we cannot assume the speaker in a poem is the poet herself, but there are times when, our knowledge of the poet and our lack of evidence that anything has been fabricated, a lyric poem can be safely interpreted as coming from the perspective of the poet. Of course, even in this case, it doesn’t mean that everything the poem says is literally true or autobiographical–I remember William Stafford saying (loosely) that sometimes the poem “wanted” his father to be mean–even if that wasn’t really the case in actual fact. Just so as not to muddy the waters, I’ll refer to the primary character in these poems as the speaker, rather than as the poet.
So in part one of Eros, Unbroken, the speaker steps forward in the first three poems, immediately digging deep in experience for appropriate metaphors: the reflecting pool in “Eros the Binder and Loosener,” bringing to mind the wells of Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” man-made water bodies through which our selves are reflected and where inspiration is found; in the second poem, “Friend,” a snake, shown to the young and somewhat squeamish child by a friend, is a reptile that becomes another kind of muse: “Friend, I want to ask it,/how did you come into the open?” And then the poem “Violins: Violence,” the first of a few long poems in the collection that share a particular contrapuntal structure, a structure in which lyric poetry is interspersed with quotes from Marcus Aurelius; straight up expository passages about the origins, meanings, and relationships of words, violins, violence, vitulare, vitula, violare–to violate, the resonating holes in a violin: f-hole, to forte, fine, fuck; and some prose pieces which appear to be autobiographical sketches of our speaker, like this one: “In my old life I argued to a judge that the definition of wrongful act includes violations of a pre-existing duty, that loss includes liquidated damages. I lost. Not all bad acts are wrongful acts, he said. Not all loss is bargained for.” It turns out that Annie Kim is also a lawyer–and knowing this makes it harder to separate the speaker from the poet, and this first long poem deals with the excruciating painful exploration of an abusive father–the counterpoint to the melodies around coming into herself as a professional and a musician and a poet. Some distance is achieved here, though, in the lyric passages about the father–the point of view moves into second person: “shit-like offspring–/that was his favorite/curse for you in Korean.” The discursive nature of this poem, and later poems like it, appears both in content and form–as while the subjects shift and the tone shifts and the point of view shifts, there’s also a shifting on the page. Some stanzas are aligned left, others to the right, there are chunks of prose, some stanzas are double spaced between lines with shifting indentations. It is in every way, contrapuntal. Beautiful. Devastating. And, dense, exhilaratingly so.
I realize I’ve kind of gone on and on about the first part of the book and its third poem. If I were to do this as well for the remaining parts, this would need to be a series of blog entries/podcasts about a single book of poems–I could go on all the way through the new year! I won’t do that. Certainly, I think, this incredible book is worthy of it, no question–but I do not think I am up to that task, joyful as it might be.
So let me try to describe the remainder succinctly–a fool’s errand, really, dealing with so much nuance and complexity, but I will make the attempt, and, by necessity I’ll leave way too much unspoken. That’s probably fine–especially if it makes you want to read this book of poems, which you should.
In part two we’re given two unattributed epigraphs, “Tell me, what would you do for a perfect voice?” And “Tell me what perfection means to you. Completion? Rapture? Pain?” –epigraphs that feel weighty, that almost perfectly encapsulate what’s to follow. Part two begins with “Castrato,” a poem structurally parallel to “Violins: Violence,” but here the counterpoint in poetry and prose centers around the singer Farinelli, his castration, his wish to be “without desire,” ironic, given that to have the perfect voice in perpetuity is a desire–or, maybe, rather, a purpose against which other kinds of desire, material desire, or sexual desire, might be a distraction. But the connection to our 21st century speaker, even though she is almost invisible here, is undeniable in the motif of violare–to be violated and yet, not to feel vulnerable or victimized.
Eros, Unbroken proceeds with Farinelli at its center, in persona poems in which he is given a voice–in letters to his brother, and most interestingly, in conversation with the composer Scarlatti. There are a number of poems that read like little plays; “Everything Swims,” “Fire Chasing Air,” “To Hold Something Close,” and “Bright Skin of a Snake” are all poems written in dialogue between these two characters over a period of about 20 years or more–an astounding feat of imagination on Annie Kim’s part, if you ask me, given that any record of conversations like these would have been impossible. These conversations are philosophical, sophisticated, wide-ranging–but to me, authentic feeling. I had tons of fun reading them out loud, trying on these characters. At first, Scarlatti is a mentor, maybe even a father figure, at one point advising Farinelli not to ignore the attentions of a woman interested in him–but sometimes, maybe more often, the roles seem reversed. Scarlatti, poor, deeply in debt, is rescued by his friend, both financially and emotionally, intellectually.
Interspersed between these letters and conversations, is, ultimately, Annie Kim, writing herself “into their shadows.” “Bildungsroman, 1999” is a poem that explores a moment in the speaker’s life on the verge of some kind of wholeness–in music, in poetry, in finding her voice for “singing.” “Everything is worth your look, I’d like to tell/that self, everything is still beautiful,/even if you have no words to say it.” And in the poem “Leap,” recognizing the profound significance of the father as “a bridge you crossed to burn/more than a living father: yours.” For better or worse, our parents become our bridges–we may have to burn them on the other side.
I have said before that I am a lover of poetry, not a scholar. Even when I am doubtful of my own ability to comprehend, I am still finding things to get excited about. Here is a book of poems that reveals a world most of us are unfamiliar with. I mean, I still haven’t listened to any Scarlatti. I could probably go for his hundreds of keyboard sonatas, but I am not a fan of opera music. None of that matters. Annie Kim has taught me what I needed to know, has intrigued me with a drama about musicians centuries gone, has created a veritable novelistic breadth in a book of poems, has dealt honestly and brutally with all kinds of family of origin stuff–to which we can all relate on some level, and, as David Byrne has rapturously intoned, it hit the soft spot in my heart when I found out Annie Kim wrote the book I read.
Let me share this one short poem that, in an amazingly condensed way, reminds us of the liberating powers of music:
Uses for Music
Because there is no soundtrack for the brain.
Because nothing has the beauty of a cage
you can enter when you want and leave behind.
So you can crawl across the floor and give it shape. So one day you will release the snake–
you know, the one who lives inside you, has to move, who can’t keep still.
Annie Kim, from Eros, Unbroken
Until next time, thanks for reading; I hope to post again by the end of the year. So, in the meantime, happy holidays, be well, be kind, and cheers!
Note: The format of the poem in Kim’s book is not accurately replicated here due to the limitations of the WordPress drafting tools–apologies Annie!
True confession: I often abandon books before I finish them. Sometimes I go back, sometimes I never do. The reasons for the abandonment vary–but rarely, is it because I am disinterested. Only a couple of times have I ever stopped reading because I thought the book was awful. I’m not going to talk about those books. I’m staking out a philosophical stand here, in this podcast, that I’m really not interested in slagging on books. So, most often, I will stop reading a book because I have been distracted by another reading, wooed away, if you will, by something more tantalizing and shiny (and likely, less challenging). Often, I am interrupted by the beginning of the school year, and here we are–when there are so many other responsibilities in preparation and in keeping the ball in the air for September and October. I just run out of time for recreational reading of any kind. Sometimes I will abandon a book simply because I have bit off more than I could chew. I’ve chosen something ambitious or difficult. I have read IN Finnegans Wake, for example, but I have never even attempted to go from cover to cover. In a similar vein, I think I tried Ulysses four or five times–each time I’d go back to the beginning and start all over again, get about as far as I got the last time, and then give up again. I am proud to say, that one year I did finally read all the way through the great Joyce novel. I felt pretty good about that, even though I knew that I understood it poorly–knew more from things I had read about it than I did from the actual reading of it. It’s on my bucket list to read again; Finnegans Wake, too, is a book that I would like to tackle before I die–just so that I could say that I did it. No–I’m sure it would be more than that. I don’t think I read ever simply for bragging rights. Although, that would not be nearly as bad as bragging about not reading. I hate to hear people speak about getting all the way through school without reading a book from cover to cover as if it’s some great accomplishment. Just stab me in the heart, why don’t ya.
Two of my favorite books I’ve never finished are The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann and Herman Melville’s MobyDick. I think I got maybe 100 pages or so into Melville’s masterpiece on a couple different occasions, and it was a simple lack of stamina or commitment that stopped me–much of it I found absolutely engaging and astonishingly MODERN. I really loved it. Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab–just fascinating characters. Someday soon I will return to those guys. Writing it, or saying it out loud like this, I think, makes it more likely to become a reality. What is that pattern? Thoughts become words become actions. This is how things happen. I spoke about the Thomas Mann novel very briefly in my last episode, and I think it is, in this time and moment, a book that I must come back to–like right about now. It’s a pandemic novel, for crying out loud. And I think I will experiment. I put that novel down a year ago. Instead of what I have done with Ulysses and Moby Dick, that is, every time I pick it up I go back to the beginning, Sisyphus-like, and start again, I think what I’ll do this time is just simply review passages that I’ve marked, jar the old memory banks, and begin exactly where I left off a year ago, about 230 pages into a 700 page tome. It won’t be that hard. I did leave behind a series of reflections on my progress–an experiment with the ubiquitous “reaction video”–that petered out after about 4 episodes.
. . . So, while I am diving back into–or climbing back onto–The Magic Mountain, I have finishedAppalachian Book of the Deadby Dale Neal. So let’s talk about that. In the last episode I introduced you to the main characters, an aging couple recently married (Cal, the retired commodities trader and his younger wife, Joy, the pottery artist, formerly a physical therapist), Ainsley, a young bohemian woman practicing Tibetan Buddhism, and Doyle, the superstitious and handy caretaker of the abandoned Camp Bee Tree for girls–all of them living in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains–pretty isolated save for each other’s strange company. However, there may or may not be an escaped convict–a psychopathic murderer, no less, hiding in the woods. When Ainsley, our Buddhist yurt dweller, who has recently shaved off her dreadlocks and is completely bald, starts feeding a visiting coyote, can we be sure it’s the coyote and not the convict that’s taking the food she leaves out? And who or what is killing Joy’s barn cats? Are these folks in danger? So that’s part of the drama, always percolating, but just beneath the surface. If you were to call this novel a “thriller,” you’d be on to something–but you wouldn’t be capturing the essence of this thing–which is, to my understanding, realistic, literary fiction–and I say literary for two reasons. One, the writing is exquisite, beautiful, finely crafted. And the characterization is deep. It seems to me, a standard kind of horror story or thriller novel turns mostly on plot–what’s gonna happen next. While literary fiction often turns on character. Who are these people? What makes them tick? And why do I care so much? What am I learning? How have I been confronted with new ideas? While you’re likely to be entertained by a popular thriller, you’re more likely to be CHANGED by literary fiction. That’s what we have here with Dale Neal’s novel.
A few choices, though, amp up the thrill and the drama: Neal’s decision to write a few chapters in the Coyote’s perspective as she appears to cross paths with the escaped convict, and his super creepy choice of giving chapters to the convict as well, delivered in second person no less, so that the reader in a sense becomes the bad guy in the story, the bad guy whose chapters are punctuated with instructions in italicized print, which, I’m guessing, are taken directly from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, instructions for passing through the various stages of the Bardo, the in-between, before emerging into the next life. Perhaps, the convict, lost in this in-between of the mysterious and wild Appalachian Mountains, is metaphorically in a kind of Bardo. Meanwhile, we spend a significant amount of time with our four main characters–we learn more and more about them as the novel progresses; questions we have about their pasts are answered–and in some cases, like the fate of Ainsley’s boyfriend Bernie, our assumptions from earlier in the novel are corrected. It turns out that each of these individuals, including our lurking boogie man, have these incredibly vivid and often tragic back stories. And while I call this novel realistic fiction–it’s full of ghosts. They may be psychological ghosts–but they are delivered by our narrator, in the point of view of the character of focus for each chapter, as if they were literal. In one of our convict’s chapters, he sees the smoking, charred–and still alive–body of the man he murdered in the very first chapter. He even hears him speak. But, you know, our convict, Angel, has been out there so long in the wilderness, surviving on what? on food left out for coyotes and on unsuspecting barn cats?–that he might be beginning to lose his mind.
And I must warn you, that the concluding chapters of Appalachian Book of the Dead contain a veritable mountain picnic basket of surprises, that to talk very specifically about anything else that follows, seems like treading in some dangerous spoiler waters. But here are some questions: Will Ainsley realize her dreams of revitalizing her family’s mountain camp for girls? What might be the consequences of her brief and torrid interest in the old man and his interest in her? Why does the old man, Cal, who has been sober for seven years, ask Doyle, the caretaker of Camp Bee Tree, if he can score him some moonshine? Where is that murderous escaped convict? Who belongs here? Who does not? The pinnacle of the action in this novel, oddly enough, takes place around a kind of campfire gathering of the four main characters as they sit by a firing kiln that Doyle has engineered and constructed for Joy’s crazy pottery art. It is, perhaps, the single longest scene in the entire work–plenty of time to build steam. It is an absolutely wild ride from that point on. And answers are forthcoming, I promise. There’s some mighty karmic justice at work here in the end of Neal’s novel. It’s a satisfying ending, not much is left dangling. Appalachian Book of the Deadis a novel that brings together a lovely philosophical swirl of competing beliefs and values, an incredibly wicked landscape, and deep, vivid, believable, fully fleshed out characterization. Two thumbs up. If I had some more thumbs, I’d put them up as well.
I’d like to close, as I have over the last few episodes, with another poem by a friend of mine. On a personal note here, we’ve had significant rain in Portland, Oregon over the last few days for the first time in months. It’s been a warm, dry, summer. Fires are raging all over, but for us this year, the smoke has not reached us. The rain was welcome–and even though it’s been warm, all the autumn pyrotechnics are in full throttle. Before the sky opened up with precipitation, it was raining leaves and acorns from our giant oak trees. In a month’s time we will be buried in them. So my friend David Ruekberg, from his book Hour of the Green Light, has written this poem for the fall, “October Prayer.” It also seems fitting here today for a number of reasons. I’ll leave that open ended for you, dear listener, to play around with. From David Ruekberg’s Hour of the Green Light:
If a grey sky can be indicative of a life lived in the long echo of the snap of umbilical cord
and a farewell to the self of pure love floating in a green light near the origins of particle and wave,
then let leaves high in the maple turning to their first autumn orange be messengers of messengers
from the tallest, most foriegn angels that death is waiting for your next accident
and, no matter how cautious you are, you will only ever catch one glimpse.
Let the call of crow bobbing in the pines be the ungainly ugliness in your life that you must accept,
and let the digging in the yard for grubs be your digging–acrid food of your often-rehearsed regrets.
Crow gives way to silence in which you hear another kind of stirring.
Perhaps skies stretching, preparing rain, watering the suffering earth.
As a fiction writer, or essayist, I love poetry and in particular the poet’s close attention to the sentence. I just think that the most exquisite sentences in the English language can be found in poetry–and prose writers of all stripes, and writers, generally, whether they are pros or beginners, would do well to study the sentences of poets. I mean, this is kind of a wonky thing to talk about, but I love that the first five stanzas of this poem form a single, beautiful sentence, the next two stanzas form a single sentence, and then the last two stanzas each form their own, short little sentences, haiku-like. So this poem just has a beautiful shape, a funnel shape, or a kind of leaf-falling shape. But holy cow, more importantly and more beautifully is what the poem says–what it says about birth and death, what it says about a kind of welcoming acceptance to everything, about what is possible to hear or to understand in silence.
Thanks for reading, friends. Coming up next: I think we have to return to The Magic Mountain. Cheers!
For this entry in The Book I Read series (which is also a podcast, by the way), I am writing about, not what I’ve read, but what I’ve started to read, AND, what I’ve tried reading and then abandoned. I had these ideas that I might get well into one of those things, or well into the beginnings of both of those things in the effort to, you know, make a CHOICE about what to tackle next—and in that effort I appear to have been successful! And then finally I’d like to conclude with a bit of a freak out, a freak out over the beginning of the new school year of fully in-person teaching and learning in the midst of that part of our current plague we’re calling the delta variant spread of COVID-19.
First, about book choices:
I am fortunate, in that I do not have to go very far to find titles. For the longest time—well, now, more than half of my life, I have been a habitual and chronic book buyer and book collector. I am guilty, as so many of us are, I think, of buying more books than I can read—embarrassingly so, maybe more books than I will be able to read in my lifetime. Nevertheless, there are books in every room of the house. I even have a tiny little traveling library in the teardrop trailer I take camping. So the list of books to read is almost always immediately accessible to me. But making the choice of what to tackle next has always been a struggle. With a limited amount of discretionary reading time—the choice must be the right one. That’s a lot of pressure. So, I forgive myself when I start a book but can’t, for whatever reason, finish it.
So how do I choose the next book to read? For all of my academic life—or my schooling life, I was just told what to read—and lucky for me, that did not kill reading. As an adult, if you’re like me, we have lists—either ones that we write or ones that we catalogue in our brains. My list is categorized like this: books I want to read because I think I SHOULD (classics and such), books I want to read because I know I would be interested (books about subjects I dig or books by writers I already love). Then there are those books recommended or gifted, which are on the list out of a sense, as I’ve said before, of obligation, yeah, but also because I trust the gift giver. Last, but not least, there are books written by friends of mine. My community of Warren Wilson MFA alumni has produced an embarrassment of literary riches, some of which, in previous episodes, I have shared with you. I’m going to start there today by talking about the novel Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal. If you happened to read the last entry, or listen in on episode three of the podcast, you might catch a pattern here. Another factor in the choosing the next book might be a kind of thread I’m following—in this case, with Lincoln in the Bardo and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog—I am following a kind of Tibetan Buddhist thread. This novel’s title makes an explicit allusion to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and I have heard Dale Neal speak of his novel as a kind of Southern Buddhist thriller. And it is that—in flying colors.
I think I wanna do something crazy. Maybe even two crazy things. First, I’m going to talk about this book IN PROGRESS. I confess right out of the gate that I am a little less than halfway through Appalachian Book of the Dead. I am liberating myself from the notion that I can only talk about books that I’ve finished. That’s a crazy notion. But this is a book, I know, already, that I will absolutely finish, but today, I can only talk about my experience of the first hundred and twenty-five pages. And I’d like to begin by talking about the beginning—the opening. Some readers are dependent upon a strong hook from the start—while other readers are more forgiving and patient. I tend to be patient—more so with classics—but in this case, with Neal’s novel, patience is absolutely unnecessary. To prove my case (here’s the second crazy thing), I’m going to read out loud the first page of Appalachian Book of the Dead.
Holy shit. That was my first reaction. And I think I had exactly the same reaction when I heard the author read this out loud once. Holy shit. First of all, to begin a novel with a murder and car-jacking—openings to novels don’t come any bolder than that—but the sheer drama of the scene is far less striking than some of the other moves here. First of all, Peabody is fully characterized. Here’s a character we will never see again—who dies on the first page a violent and gruesome death—and yet, we know a whole bunch about him—his age, what he did for a living, his favorite sports team, his favorite snack, his religion, and something, too, beyond that, of his worldview—“he never even considered the prospect of such pure meanness”—it’s a master class in the fiction writing adage that says that no matter how minor the character, some fleshing out of that character is crucial to creating a believable fictional world, to suck the reader in to the “fictive dream.” And on top of that, in a single page, before killing him off, through those details, Neal has created a character that we care something about. We’re horrified at his death, not just because it stirs up the creepy icky, but because he seems like a good guy.
Okay—to begin with, Neal has opened the novel with the criminal and murderous spree of two escaped convicts, who, in short order, are forced to leave their stolen vehicle behind and flee on foot into the wilderness of the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains—into or around a small wilderness town called Yonah, where all our main characters live. Now, one of these criminals is immediately caught in the manhunt—but the other, the decidedly more dangerous one, the one that represents “pure meanness,” the one with the tattoo of the naked lady in the clutches of a demon—this guy seemingly disappears into the landscape.
So we have a cast of characters: Cal, a retired tradesman, a recovering alcoholic, also recovering from a recent and serious heart surgery, a committed stoic and faithful adherent to the teachings of Marcus Aurelius, hoping soon to write a memoir; Joy, his recent and third wife, a craft potter who spearheaded the idea to move away from city life into this vast and wild landscape; Doyle, the caretaker of a now defunct nature camp for kids, and a young woman, Ainsley, who camped there as a kid, the child of the family that ran the place, returned now to start her life anew—living in a yurt in the woods of the run down property of the family camp. She’s a spiritual seeker, super earthy, dread-locked, still attempting to practice Tibetan Buddhism—having arrived without her longtime boyfriend and spiritual companion—estranged from her now. These are the major players—and the chapters that follow that horrific and gripping opening delve into to the somewhat broken lives of these characters—meanwhile, in the backdrop, as a kind of ominous echo—almost a haunting, is the spectre of this escaped convict. Where is he? Is he alive? Will any of our people encounter him? These are the big sort of plot questions—and Neal is taking his time with this. Some people might find that frustrating—but Neal has made us intimately familiar with these characters—they are flawed but likeable—and from my vantage point, super interesting. I do not mind hanging out with these people while this other darkness percolates in the background. How does the darkness percolate—let me show you.
As the story progress, there are some really intriguing point of view moves. One chapter, a single page long, seems to be from the perspective of a coyote, a coyote that feels it’s being stalked. And a couple of other chapters seem to be about our evil guy—but Neal has made the super strange and wonderful choice of putting these chapters in second person! The escaped convict, ironically named Angel, is now YOU. Sometimes in the style of The Tibetan Book of the Dead—which, if I didn’t characterize it specifically enough in the last episode, are essentially a set of instructions for dead people about how to navigate the bardo! So creepy. So wonderful. “You have heard of the smokey mountains, but you did not believe in the haze of these hills.” Our narrator seems to be giving instructions to this “hungry ghost” through the bardo—putting us as readers eerily in his shoes—and then later Ainsley gives her lost boyfriend her own instructions through the in-between.
I’m gonna step out on a limb here and say that the forests in the Appalachian Mountains, for all of these characters and for us, are serving as a metaphorical bardo—an in-between place—where we are all striving toward some kind of enlightenment into a new life.
I am digging this novel. It is vivid, beautifully written—every sentence kicks ass, and, as I’ve said, I am all in. In the next entry in this series (while I promise there will be no spoilers) I will share with you a final reaction to Appalachian Book of the Dead by Dale Neal.
I’d like to write next, briefly, very briefly, about a book I started reading last summer but did not finish—let me sort of paint the scene. The summer of 2020, at the height, (we thought) of our pandemic woes, preparing to go into the weirdest school year in the history of school years, and I sit down for an ambitious read of a classic novel whose praises had been sung up and down over and over by people I admire, the early 20th century German novel The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. This novel is about a lot of things—thematically, perhaps, the way we understand and experience TIME—but literally—this novel is about a pandemic! It takes place during the Tuberculosis Pandemic of the early twentieth century. I loved reading this book. I have taken an entire year away from it. It’s a tome—like 700 pages. But It keeps calling to me and I know that soon, I will be back. I mention it now to add some weight to that commitment. I didn’t know what it was about when I picked it up, but it is too perfect for this time, in this year of our plague, 2021.
So, to conclude, I’m freaking out a little bit about the new school year—for a couple of reasons. First—you know—I’m going back to in-person instruction after 15 months of plague year teaching and learning at home. I spent the entire last school year relearning my job, finally getting somewhat good at it, and now I’ve got to unlearn a lot of that—revise everything I know one more time—in the transition back to business as usual—which, by the way, will not be business as usual. I’m fully masked. Kids are fully masked. Teachers and other school employees must be fully vaccinated—while the kids—as far as I know in this moment—not so much. Last spring, in what we called the Hybrid model, when we thought things had improved enough to offer the opportunity to any kid who was willing to come back into the building for a half day, I was back in the room with between about 15 and 20 students in each of 3 classes. This year, I will be back in the building with 6 periods of anywhere between 25 and 30 students in each. All the comfort last spring, of, at least, coming into contact with a relatively tiny student population will be null and void this year. So, with these conditions and the reality that vaccinated people are far from invulnerable, I admit there’s a little trepidation. The second freak-out (albeit a more minor type of freak out) has to do with the difficulty of continuing my podcast extra-curricular activities during the school year—especially with regard to talking about NEW books I’ve read. It may just be that I might just have to talk about something else!
We will see how this all turns out. Wish me the best. I hope you’ll stay with me for the ride.
As a student of literature, always a beginner, and one interested in a wide variety of wisdom literature or philosophical texts, certain books of historical and literary significance have crossed my radar, have maybe even made it into the home library, but have never been read, you know, famous philosophical or spiritual texts like the Tao Te Ching or The Bhagavad Gita or, more modern texts–Gibran’s The Prophet, for example. Among these kinds of work I would include the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Until recently, even though I was aware of the title and its historical, cultural, and spiritual mega-importance, I had no idea what it was about. It turns out–it is, in short, about a place called The Bardo–which I will feebly attempt to describe in the progress of this entry. This word “bardo,” too, was new to me. Only recently was I introduced to the concept of the bardo by the songwriter, composer, and performance artist Laurie Anderson–a huge influence on me, by the way–since the late 80s she has helped shape me as a writer and a musician–being, as she is, one of the most successful artists (in my humble opinion) to bridge the literary and musical worlds. In 2015 Laurie Anderson wrote, directed and produced a film with an accompanying soundtrack album, “Heart of a Dog.” Here we are on dogs again! At any rate, her film is a meditation on a number of things: living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11, her midwestern childhood and early traumatic brushes with death, but primarily, the loving relationship and ultimate loss of her pet terrier Lola–and by thinly veiled metaphor–her loving relationship and ultimate loss of her husband, Lou Reed. Actually, I don’t know that the metaphor is thinly veiled at all, it’s pretty obscure–Reed’s name is mentioned not once in the film–but the film does close with perhaps one of his last recorded songs, the beautiful and haunting “Turning Time Around.” At any rate, at one point in her film, she imagines her beloved puppy in this place–not just as an exercise, but as part of her spiritual practice–her rat terrier Lola is in the bardo.*
Don’t worry, eventually, I will arrive at the George Saunders novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. I’m serving up this long preamble, in part, to kind of demonstrate what we do sometimes when we are faced, from the get-go, (from the title!) with an allusion that we don’t understand. What’s the bardo?–the first question a reader is going ask when they approach this thing–that is, if they do not have the requisite prior knowledge. And I talk about this with my students all the time regarding allusion. What’s are the consequences, for a reader, of not understanding an allusion? If Shakespeare’s character mentions a Greek myth, for example, one that you don’t know, are you completely out in the cold? Can you still move forward without that knowledge with full understanding? Maybe you can. I know that Greek Myth was an absolute hole in my education when I was reading Shakespeare for the first time–and somehow I managed not only to understand Shakespeare but to love him. Here’s the thing I say. If you come across an allusion, and you DO have the requisite prior knowledge, your understanding of the work is enriched, as is your appreciation for how interconnected human beings are by STORY; it is a thread that binds us all together.
So, what’s the bardo? Now, granted, this is, as I have confessed, a new one for me. I have not read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, but, through Laurie Anderson’s work and some time with the google machine, I have discovered that the bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhism, is a transitional space between one life and the next. When you die, you spend, according to Tibetan lore, 49 days in the bardo, at which point you are reincarnated into the next life. Granted, this is a cursory, a superficial definition. Our job then, is not to understand everything there is to know about the bardo in Tibetan Buddhist teachings, but rather, to simply describe the way it is revealed in George Saunders’ novel.
We can get to that in a minute. First, it might be important to establish, quickly, a historical context for the novel, and to describe somewhat the unique, the super-strange, the inventive way, and the very challenging way, this novel is put together. First, it’s February 20th, 1862, about 10 months into the American Civil War, and president Abraham Lincoln’s son, William, 11 years old, dies at home in bed of typhoid fever. And to provide, again quickly, the premise of the novel: William arrives, after his death, in the bardo–where an enormous cast of characters who already occupy this space, are serving out their time, and who become immersed in the drama and tragedy of William’s death and the effort to help him through this liminal space to the other side.
Stylistically, the storytelling method here is singular, unlike anything I’ve ever seen–breaking both with conventions and tradition of narrative fiction, it is a highly experimental work. While the entire novel is mostly delivered in short bursts of prose separated from other bursts by a break or double space, the story is revealed to us in essentially two ways. Some chapters, a full quarter of them, I’d say loosely, are collections of, what seems to me, quotes from primary texts from the era–histories, news articles, essays, op ed articles, letters, oral histories or interviews–and it appears that these pieces of text are recorded faithfully by Saunders without changes. So these are pieces that Saunders has not written, per se, but only selected and then arranged. So that, for example, in several chapters that describe a party the Lincolns host at the White House while 11 year old Willie is upstairs dying, the description, the narrative line, speech and commentary are all made up from these quotes from primary source documents–each one with an identifying source note afterwards. Miraculously, these quotes from this wide range of sources, in the way that Saunders has selected and arranged them, provide a coherent and compelling narrative–a cacophony of voices that nevertheless provide clarity.
The remaining chapters, the bulk of this novel, (and what could be decisively described as Saunders’ own imaginative work), are delivered as a kind of play. Each burst of prose in these sections, then, are delivered by characters who occupy the bardo–unlike a play, however, where the character’s name is placed before the line they speak, in this case the lines the characters speak are followed by the name of the character speaking. This provides a challenge for the reader–the choice between a temptation to look ahead to the end of the burst to identify the speaker, or, to read the speech without knowing who the speaker is, and thus, be kind of guessing all the time until you might be able to identify the voice even before you’re told whose voice it is! This is hardly an issue when the lines from characters are short and follow one another in rapid-fire succession as they often do–the attribution is right there. Identifying characters or not seems to be more of an issue when the characters are given long lines or paragraphs of prose. Does it matter? I think it does–because each of these speakers has been uniquely characterized–they all have their back stories, their histories, their quirks, their syntax and rhythms. Who are these people? One of the questions that I had, which was never satisfactorily answered, was whether the characters in the bardo are also historical figures–or–are they purely the fictional creations of the novelist. Without time for further digging, my gut tells me that the latter is the case here. Still–who are these people?
There’s a mess of them, from all walks of life, it appears, with no common denominator save for the fact that they’re all in the bardo–and oddly, somewhat oblivious to their “condition.” –but primarily, there are three main characters in this bardo cacophony (Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas), characters who take center stage, speak most often, interact with each other, seem to have established in the bardo a long-term relationship, take turns telling the story, each from their own unique perspective, and guide us, the readers, through the drama–while all the others, dozens of them perhaps, interrupt, introduce bizarre side stories or other kinds of historical revelation, sometimes help out, other times provide insight, often provide comic relief, absurdity, and sometimes, other windows into the horrors of the 19th century, slavery, the civil war, occurring in what the characters often call “that previous place.”
I fear that I could go on and on an on about this novel and only scratch the surface. As I write this thing, conscious of wanting to stay under 2000 words or so, or, 20 or 25 minutes on the clock, my brain just swims with possibility. And I fear leaving out something key–not in the way of a spoiler–because I want to be really conscious of avoiding those, but in the way of capturing the most important and striking features of this novel for me. You know what I think I’ll do–something I do often when stymied about how to proceed organizing big ideas? I’m gonna make a list:
Let’s begin with some observations about the bardo.
The people there seem to be unaware that they’re dead–
The people there, when they are not out and about, inhabit what they all refer to as “sick beds,” which seem, to me anyway, to be a unintentional euphemism for coffin. Unintentional, again, because these residents don’t seem to be aware of their true nature–
The bardo is full of these sick beds–which seems to indicate that the bardo is essentially a massive cemetery–that the people in the bardo have not really travelled that far from their resting place.
Many of the people in the bardo are in various stages of anguish, or self-torture–if one did not know better, you might say that many of them are in Hell–
Or, you might say that they are in a process of repeatedly acting out or experiencing some of their worldly defects or traumas–although, some appear to be content where they are–do not wish to leave.
The environment there seems prone to surreal and bizarre states–people physically mutating in grotesque ways, hats raining from the sky, people being mutilated in an act of violence and then miraculously repairing themselves.
People in the bardo (in this bardo, anyway) seem to have been there a lot longer than 49 days–so, either Saunders is breaking with that particular convention of Tibetan Buddhist belief, or, the residents of the bardo experience time in an excruciating and elongated way.
When someone leaves the bardo, the process is referred to somewhat crudely as the matterlightblooming phenomena. It’s quite something. Clearly, a process that is bewildering to the residents of the bardo.
One of the most exciting features of bardo existence, and one of the devices that moves this story along and provides us with an exhaustive knowledge about the star of the show–not the folks in the bardo, not the young dead 11 year old boy, but the president Abraham Lincoln–is that the folks in the bardo discover they have the ability to inhabit the bodies of others–living others–and dramatically in a few key passages, some of them–actually many of them, inhabit the body, and therefore the mind, of Abraham Lincoln, while he is visiting his dead son in the crypt.
And I guess I would like to stop here to say that for me the single most profound takeaway from this novel is that I feel like I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I ever have–I feel like I have had the privilege of inhabiting that incredibly monumental historic figure–and the central drama of this piece seems to be the inconceivable, incomprehensible burden of losing a child–coupled with the potential loss of a nation that is under one’s charge. Most of us cannot imagine the second–but all of us who are parents or who had parents (I think that’s most of us), can imagine what it might be like to lose a child–and this novel gives us that viscerally. As bizarre as this novel is in its subject and in the way of its telling, it is an incredibly moving, heart wrenching, heavy work. But I am so glad I finally pulled it off the shelf. And I can’t have been alone–again–as strange as it is, it became a best seller for George Saunders and catapulted to many lists of great books made by people who know things about great books.
In my last installment of The Book I Read, I was inspired to end the episode/entry with a poem written by a friend of mine. This seems like a good tradition. Last time, too, that choice didn’t come out left field, but was a logical decision–in that the friend’s book recommendation was wholly responsible for the content of that episode–and the poem I had chosen served as a fitting bookend to the general subject matter under discussion. I want to keep that tradition going–or at least–let it be a motif in this series.
My friend and poet Don Colburn has published a book of poems called Mortality with Pronoun Shifts. It is a brilliant collection of poems that serves as a meditation on, you guessed it, mortality–and while there are no poems specifically about the bardo, there are poems here about great historical figures, two 19th century figures to be precise, Henry David Thoreau and Abraham Lincoln. I’d like to close by sharing with you a poem by Don Colburn, “Abe Lincoln’s Hat”
Abe Lincoln’s Hat
at the Smithsonian Museum
Topper, stovepipe, smokestack, cylinder, it made him seven inches taller than he was (and he was tall) and, at a distance, fashionable. But here, dim-lit behind glass, without a gangly, scrabble-bearded president to dignify and heighten, it looks lost. Unlike those who saw him, say, at Gettysburg, I can look down on the hard flat top, the rub of wear and weather, streaks like rust, their grainy whorls a time-lapse of the overbearing stars. And see, barely, darkness on darkness, the black silk band he added after Willie died.
Someone named Davis made this hat, a modest seven-and-one-eighth, stiff-walled oval pillbox on a plate, no give or dimple in the plush. He wore it last and doffed it last the night they went to Ford’s, arriving late. After cheers, after the orchestra struck up Hail to the Chief, the play resumed, Act Three. Hatless again, he folded his 6-foot-4 into the rocker in the presidential box, his top hat by his feet, out of the way.
Oh my god. Right? Lincoln’s hat is perfectly preserved. He probably wouldn’t have thought to leave it on his head while watching a play, but, you know, he could have fallen over on top of it after he was shot. But no–it’s “out of the way.” I love this poem. And it makes me think of what people leave behind after they’re gone, you know, people who aren’t presidents. And I can’t help but think about a musician friend of mine who recently died. I wonder where he put his bass guitar–whether it might be preserved. But he made music and he recorded music. Bob’s bass. Lincoln’s hat. Bob’s music. Lincoln’s hat. Hey Abe, say hello to Bob for me, in the bardo. Meanwhile, I will keep listening.
*I discovered today, that after Laurie Anderson’s 2015 “Heart of a Dog” film and album, in 2019, she released an album called “Songs from the Bardo.” I’m listening now for the first time–kind of embarrassed that it was not on my radar–but I’m thinking that this, for the uninitiated, might be a wonderful introduction to all things bardo–perhaps a more accessible route than tackling The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and one that might provide some insights ahead of time to the imagery Saunders incorporates into his novel Lincoln in the Bardo.
(Books discussed in this blog: Wolf in White Van, John Darneille; Her Read, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth, and Paddock, Mary Lou Buschi)
In April of 2019 I thought I would begin a series of book review blog entries titled after one of my favorite early Talking Heads songs, “The Book I Read.” So I did that. The trouble is: that first entry was the only entry! You know what they say: the best laid plans something something blah blah blah. Today, two years later and some change, I still think it’s a good idea. I am a person that is perpetually in a state of dissatisfaction about how much I read; every year of my life since leaving a formal education program where I am pretty much forced into the endeavor, I vow to read more, and specifically, to read more for pleasure. “The Book I Read” series seemed to be a tidy way to hold myself accountable, both for the reading and for the other thing I’d like to be doing more often–writing. And, too, I think the review, while I know nothing about how to do one properly, keeps me engaged in an activity I have always found, as an English teacher, to be a pedagogically sound practice: Okay, you’ve read a thing. Write about that experience! And as a student, I always found that my writing about my reading helped me to internalize the experience and to remember more of what I read. Perhaps this practice is why I have a much better book memory than a film memory. All I can tell you about a film I saw two years ago, or even two months ago, is whether or not I liked it. Don’t ask me to tell you what it was about–except to say something like, you know, it took place in outer space, or in the future, or it was about a boy and a dog and some vampires.
Because I am a musician that writes, or a writer who makes music, I have a soft spot, or an affinity, with others like me. Some famous rock musicians are very good writers. My first experience reading a rock star who could really write was Bob Geldof’s autobiography of the late 80’s. I’ve read David Byrne’s stuff. Mark Oliver Everett, The Eels guy. I’ve got Ben Folds on the shelf waiting. With Wolf in White Van, I have my first experience reading a rock musician fiction writer. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats, a band I have been smitten with over the last two or three years, is the author of this gem, and this was my first summer reading project.
Here’s a quick gloss of the premise: a young man, terribly disfigured by an accidental gun shot to the face, makes his way in the world as a role-play game designer, the protocols of which are extremely lo-fi. For a subscription fee, his customers play his RPG through written correspondence–that’s right, letters. He sends them a scenario, they send him a kind of narrative account of the choices they make, and in return, he sends them options for their next “move.” There are a few key dramatic arcs in this novel–or, a few key questions that provide readers with the impetus to keep on trucking. One: how did he fuck up his face? Two: is he responsible for the deaths of two of his players–killed no less in the process of “literally” acting out the scenarios in Sean’s RPG? How does one so disfigured navigate the world? Why doesn’t he seek plastic reconstructive surgery? What’s up with his parents? Is a relationship between Sean and his childhood friend Kimmy possible post-accident?
I liked reading this novel. Darnielle can really craft a sentence, and the novel is evocative, poetic, sometimes funny, and philosophically engaging, cerebral. It can also be frustrating. The first big question, how’d he fuck up his face, is ultimately answered, but we are made to wait until the very end to find out–and the answer is not altogether clear or satisfying. The other seemingly big question about the deaths of his customers is answered rather economically before we’re really half way through the novel–it turns out for the reader to be a kind of dashed expectation–at least it felt that way for me, as I expected it to be a key plot feature. Perhaps neither of these questions are the important ones, and it seems that Wolf in White Van may not be a novel driven by plot–but rather, by voice, by character; and the thing that moves us through as we bip back and forth in time with our narrator should really be the psychology of this guy, unraveling and understanding his nihilism despite his privileges and gifts. Certainly, the key might be in the unpacking of this potential metaphor of the Role-Play Game. People spend a whole heck of a lot of time pretending to be in a world that doesn’t exist, in the same way that people who are not gamers at all spend a considerable amount of their time on the planet skirting reality.
This next thing, Jennifer Sperry Steinorth’s Her Read, is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is manifestly unique. The book, about 260 pages long, is a single poem–a poem in a form we call an erasure. We have an erasure, essentially, when a poet has taken an existing non-poetry text and created something new and unique through the process of blocking out significant chunks of the original. I have come to know it as a common teaching technique in writing classes where the goal is to have students thinking about language and the various choices poets make–while simultaneously easing the anxiety around the blank page–everything is there for you already; you just have to find it. It’s like sculpting–you remove stuff in order to discover the shape or the image or the meaning inside. Super fun. I’ve only encountered erasure poems by serious poets on a few occasions, most notably, Tracy K. Smith’s erasure poem from the Declaration of Independence, a poem that totally transforms and reframes our understanding of American history.
But Steinorth’s poem is not simply an erasure–it is, as the cover announces, a “graphic poem.” It is a full color printing replete with drawings, photos, diagrams, and replications of the original source–a book originally published in 1931 called The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read–so that the reader can visually see Steinorth’s white out erasures, her doodling, her coloring, her stitching, her cutting and pasting, her manipulation of classic paintings–and the ghost of the original text, sometimes attempting to peak its way out from under the white-out, sometimes appearing vividly around the new poem, crossed out against Steinorth’s circled choices or otherwise as a kind of backdrop or wall paper out of which the new text or an art image leaps out. Without saying anything about the poem’s subject matter or themes, I must begin by just saying what a blast this piece is to read. It is tremendous fun. It gives new meaning to what folks sometimes say about any literary work–that the reader must learn HOW to read it. On almost every page, we are faced with a new kind of puzzle, sometimes a straightforward and easy adjustment, other times diabolically difficult. And, decidedly, it is just a beautiful thing, an art object as well as a literary artifact.
But what’s this poem about? And is it a good poem? I am a poetry lover, not a poetry scholar. I don’t think of myself as much of a critic–only that I know when I’m reading a poem if I’m enjoying myself or not, if I’ve understood the poem or not, or if I’m able to appreciate the various moves the poet is making. I’ve already confessed that I enjoyed myself thoroughly reading Her Read. But it is what I would call a difficult poem–in that it’s meaning is allusive–or rather, that my understanding while I read was tentative, slippery. I take full responsibility for that. I can say, though, that Eleanor Wilner’s introduction is astounding and astoundingly helpful, and the author’s preface, “Her Apologia,” is also edifying. Perhaps most helpful is the revelation that the source text, The Meaning of Art by Herbert Read, makes mention of exactly zero women artists–and in a subsequent edition from the fifties, only ONE. So–my biggest take away from this beautiful book is that the poem is a kind of reclamation of the history of art by and for women writers and painters and art enthusiasts. This is after all, her read, her reading, Steinorth’s illumination of what was missing in Herbert Read’s original text–and yet, present all the same! I just blew my own mind right there. I doubt this is accidental: the whole time I was reading I kept thinking of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I bet Steinorth would consider that pretty good company.
Finally, I arrive at Mary Lou Buschi’s Paddock, a volume of poetry so sparse and spacious, even at 64 pages, that it begs to be read more than once. So I did that. Outside of preparing for a writer’s workshop on a manuscript, I don’t think I’ve ever read a complete volume of poetry cover to cover more than once within the space of a couple of days. I felt it necessary perhaps to revel in its weirdness. That’s true. Or maybe I thought I’d understand it much better the second time around. That checks out, but still, I must confess, my understanding feels limited, superficial. Poetry like this makes one especially thankful for blurbs on the back covers, which, in the poetry world, are often little mini-essays in and of themselves. In the effort towards stepping away from Paddock with anything like an “understanding,” Patrick Donnelly’s blurb on the back cover was immeasurably helpful. He doesn’t have the answers either–but his speculating about what could be was a tremendous lifeline. Like Her Read, I found this volume to be a difficult but enormously rewarding reading experience. My own poetry, and (surprise surprise) the poetry I like best, is narrative in nature–where a story is being told or an experience is being described that is rooted in a comprehensible world–even if that world is exceedingly weird. I also enjoy lyric poetry that describes an emotional response or teases out a philosophical territory–and yet still is grounded somehow in a familiar world. The most rewarding reading experiences where neither of the above approaches, narrative or lyric, seem to be relevant or important, is in my deep reading over the years of Samuel Beckett. His disembodied voices, his gallows humor, his vaudevillian approach to the deepest existentialist questions, has been some of the most satisfying reading of my life. Paddock reminds me of Beckett more than anything else, and in particular, his play Waiting for Godot.
In Paddock we have three primary voices, girl 1 and girl 2, and a chorus. The chorus does what choruses do: sets the scene, provides commentary, maybe helps interpret the proceedings, lends a kind of mythic aura to the whole. The girls are our main characters–but in actual text real estate, their lines and their conversations are clipped, truncated, brief, and, like the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon from Godot, strangely surreal, comical, absurd. And like their Beckett counterpoints, they are on a mission it seems, not one of waiting, but one of looking, searching–and of trying at one and the same time to leave and to arrive. What are they looking for? Who are they leaving or hoping to join? Mother. And this, thankfully, is given us right out of the gate by the chorus: “Once, as there are many,/time stretches infinitely,/2 girls set forth,/to find a mother,/who is she,/who is I,/who is Dear.” Now the mysteries of this collection, similarly to the mysteries of Godot, are questions the reader may have that the text of the drama does not answer explicitly. Where are these two girls? In what state? Are they dead? Are they about to be born? Clearly, (I just said “clearly”) they are in some kind of liminal space. How are the girls related, or are they? What trauma has their “mother” experienced and by whose hands? Do they have the same mother or different ones? Is “mother” literal or metaphorical, symbolic? These are huge unanswerable questions–but again, like in Godot, the pleasure and the meaning is in NOT getting the answers you seek, but instead, more questions. In the end. . . No, I’m not going to give away the ending!
Paddock is not just a collection of poems–it is a singular and difficult drama. The more I think about it, the more likely I am to give it a third reading. It is beautiful and weird, nightmarish and strange, puzzling and profound.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap on my second attempt in two years at a blog about books I am reading in the series I have called “The Book I Read.”
This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.
I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.
Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.
So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.
If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.
Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.
So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!
Welcome back, friends, to the third installment of my attempt at a literary reaction vlog. I approached it a little bit differently this time. Less text. Almost entirely vlog. I’ve created two parts. The first part is a kind of “previously, in The Magic Mountain” type of introductory video, designed to catch you up, albeit superficially, on what’s happening in the novel, 176 pages in. The second part is a new reading accompanied by my reaction in real time. I think I like this approach, except, wouldn’t you know it, technical difficulties resulted in a reaction video without audio–so, what you have here is a second take. I know, it’s kind of cheating. It was super frustrating, because most of the time, in keeping with the “reaction video” concept, the first take is the best and the one you want to keep. Oh well. Without further ado:
Part One: Previously, in The Magic Mountain . . .
Part Two: Chapter 5, Eternal Soup and Sudden Clarity . . .
Already, I find it necessary to amend the rules of the game. The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann, in my edition, is nearly 700 pages long. I would have you know that I am not what you could call a fast reader. Initially, I thought that each of my reaction vlogs might be about a different piece of literature. At my rate, that would mean a new reaction vlog might go up every other month or so. And while I promised in my introductory entry that I would not be reading out loud and commenting on an entire novel, it does seem kind of ridiculous to do a reaction vlog for the first four paragraphs of a novel, and then a few days later another for the first four paragraphs of a different novel, especially if the somewhat selfish goal of this project is to get myself to read more, and to read books that have been beckoning for some time! So, here is my conclusion: I intend to finish The Magic Mountain. I can see myself doing several reaction vlogs along the way. One every 50 to 100 pages, say. That way, you, the viewer, get a sense of closure and continuity. That way, I, the blogger, can finish a damn book.
Here’s another idea that might be helpful. Rather than providing a series of cold readings and reactions throughout, before each new video, I will attempt to provide some context, in other words, address what kind of twists and turns have occurred since the last reading, try to describe what I have learned that might be helpful to you as you read, watch, and listen. Ergo:
Today I read about 60 pages into The Magic Mountain. This is what I’ve learned and observed:
Our hero, Hans Castorp, is a young man studying to be an engineer, specifically one that designs sea faring vessels. His parents died when he was very young, he was raised for a time by his grandfather until his death, and then finally was raised by an uncle. Outside of his early and somewhat traumatic experience with a number of family deaths, Hans has led a life of privilege.
Hans loves to smoke cigars. He can’t imagine a life without cigars.
Hans, as is established in the first four paragraphs of the novel, is on his way from his hometown of Hamburg to Davos-Platz in the Swiss Alps. He’s headed there for two reasons. First, a doctor advised him, that after intense schooling and examinations, the 20-something year-old should have a change of scenery, take in some new air. Secondly, while he is there, he will visit his cousin Joachim for three weeks.
Joachim Ziemssen is a young army lieutenant on an extended stay inside a sanatorium in the Alps.
What’s a sanatorium, you may well ask. I did. And I found out that during the late 19th century and into the 20th, when tuberculosis killed one out of seven people living in the United States and Europe, a “cure” was believed to be rest and relaxation in a more hospitable climate inside a sanatorium, essentially, a resort for people dying of TB. Joachim does not appear to be seriously ill. In fact, many of the characters living with Joachim do not seem seriously ill–but clearly, as Joachim reports, they are, and residents are dying all the time; in winter, when travel is difficult, their bodies are sent down the mountain on bobsleds, and a resident, he says, died just days before Hans arrived for his visit, a resident who had been living in the very apartment, sleeping in the very bed, where Hans will stay for three weeks. Joachim tells Hans that most of the deaths happen “behind the scenes” and the residents are usually kept in the dark, but on one occasion Joachim witnessed the disturbing death struggle of a young woman who was, in essence, refusing to die, hiding under her bed clothes, kicking and screaming, while the doctor kept telling her not to make such a fuss.
It seems grim, yes? And yet, while it’s not a “comic” novel, there are moments of hilarity peppered throughout. Some extremely colorful characters populate the sanatorium. A Russian married couple in the apartment next to Hans are playing some really strange erotic sex games late at night. A woman can whistle with one of her collapsed lungs. And there are these wild conversations, between Joaquim and Hans, and between the two cousins and the physicians and residents of the sanatorium, that, while philosophical in nature, sometimes border on the absurd. Conversation, it seems, is a big deal in this novel. Not so much to further the plot, maybe a little bit to develop character, but mostly, it seems to me, to push forward certain thematic threads.
Time and space, baby. Which has the most influence? How are they inextricably tied? Is time a thing? Does it really exist? Can it be measured or defined, really? Why does it sometimes go by so quickly and other times so slowly? Is dying so terrible? What does it mean to be ill, or healthy for that matter?
The narrator of The Magic Mountain is a third person omniscient that sometimes refers to himself in the first person plural, the royal WE. It’s funny, especially as he seems careful not to characterize Hans in a negative light: “As is apparent, we are attempting to include anything that can be said in Hans Castorp’s favor, and we offer our judgements without exaggeration, intending to make him no better or worse than he was.”
The novel is structured in 7 total numbered chapters, but each chapter has a number of titled sections.
The prose, again, an English translation from the original German, continues to be scintillating.
That was somewhat difficult to do economically. Perhaps it will be less necessary as we move through this tome. I sense, because the essential plot of the novel has already been laid out, that catching you up, dear reader, might not be as necessary moving forward. I could be wrong about that, but as I see it, the dramatic questions seem to be thus: How will this three week stay with Joachim at the sanatorium change our good friend Hans? How is the mountain magic? Is Joachim in serious danger from his TB? Will he survive the visit? Will the questions raised by the above thematic threads be answered? Is TB contagious? Otherwise, why would a husband and wife live there together when only one of them is sick, or a family for that matter? Inquiring minds need to know. A quick little research excursion reveals that, yes, TB is contagious. It spreads, oddly enough, in the same way the coronavirus spreads. Is Hans safe? Might he contract TB? How odd that I chose this book first out of all possible books, I, who did not know what a sanatorium was three or four days ago!
Meanwhile, here’s today’s reaction video to a section titled “One Word Too Many” from Chapter 3!