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Category: Reading Life

The Reading Life: Mountain hermit poems

Vermont_mountains
This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've been reading David Budbill for better than a decade, ever since "Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse" came out in 1999. There, he invents a persona: a poet, living alone on the side of a Vermont mountain -- a contemporary analogue to the 9th century Chinese poet Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, who took his name from the mountain where he lived.

Like Han Shan, Budbill's hermit writes in straightforward but poetic language about the paradoxes of being alive. "When I was young, I believed my work and passion / would get me where I wanted to go," he explains in the short poem "No Trail":

Now my hair is falling out and I know
nothing I have done amounts to anything.

My life is like the bird's path across the sky.
It will leave no trail.

Budbill's new book, "Happy Life," represents, in many ways, a continuation of the themes in "Moment to Moment," themes that have defined Budbill's poetic life. He is, after all, his own version of the Vermont hermit poet; with his wife, the painter Lois Eby, he has been a solitary (or nearly solitary) mountain dweller since 1969.

In "Happy Life," however, Budbill speaks directly, without the filter of another voice. He takes as a frame the idea of the seasons, breaking the book into five sections that together trace the inexorable flow of a bit more than a year. As always, he is funny, pointed even, in a sardonic way.

"I've spent most of my life / pissing and moaning about / never having any money / not being known, never / getting any honors, not / getting to travel," he observes in the collection's opening poem, "Chia Tao Begins a Poem to Subprefect Li K'uo of Hu County by Saying," before acknowledging how little these things matter in the end:

And yet,
for more than forty years
my days have been my own.

It takes a long time for some people
to realize how lucky they are.

There we have it in a nutshell, the defining terms of Budbill's vision, the tension between worldly desire and quiet wisdom, the intent to be here now. It's a focus that infuses nearly every poem in this collection, whether he is writing about nature, or chores, or celebrating his occasional visits to the city, where amidst the "[c]rowded and noisy streets," he feels "the solitude of / the quiet mountainside."

Such resolution is difficult to come by, and more difficult to maintain. It requires both self-awareness and a touch of self-deprecation ... or, at least, the ability to see yourself plain. For Budbill, this comes together in "Fake Hermit," which opens with a revelation: "I'm not the mountain hermit I pretend to be."

Still, for all his attachment -- to "a wife who's been here with me for more / than forty years, and a grown daughter // who lives down the road, a dead son, and / we've got lots of friends around here, too. / I'm not the hermit I pretend to be" -- he manages to find a point of integration, concluding that "I like my life this way: mostly, // but not entirely, alone."

This is it, the key idea of "Happy Life," the way solitude returns us, in some fundamental sense, to ourselves. Or, as Budbill writes in "To the End," one of the closing poems in the collection:

I've been here forty years.
I'd like to be here forty more.

The longer I'm here the less
I want to go away, the less

I want to be known. I'd like to
disappear into these mountains,

and never be seen again. I just
want to do my work, make my

poems, and be left alone.
I want to stay here to the end.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Vermont mountains. Credit: Barry Pouseman via Flickr

The Reading Life: Notes from underground

Ctrain
This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I don't have much use for driving. Growing up in Manhattan, I wasn't raised with it, and even after 20 years in Southern California, I view it as a necessary evil, one of the compromises I've had to make with where I live. It's not that I'm uncomfortable behind the wheel; in fact, I tend to be more uncomfortable when someone else is behind the wheel. No, for me, the issue is that I have to pay attention, which (paradoxically, I suppose) feels like a distraction, pulling me away from things I'd rather do, like read.

I've been thinking about that this week since I've been in New York, where I travel everywhere with a book. It's like a dream: Get on the 4 or 6 or E train and read for half an hour, and then (miraculously) you are there. Such an experience is available in L.A. also -- but I don't commute by Metrolink, and the Metro doesn't extend to where I live. For me, then, the art of subway reading remains particular to the first city I ever lived in, and when I'm here, I re-experience it with a mixture of nostalgia and glee.

This week, I was reading a book about New York in the 1970s. Its touchstones were scenes that resonated for me -- the fiscal crisis, the early punk days, the sense of the city as a broken landscape, not so much apocalyptic as shattered, to borrow an image from the Rolling Stones song ("bite the Big Apple / don't mind the maggots") of the same name.

Thirty-plus years later, New York is very different, an urban theme park, Times Square like the Grove on steroids -- although, as of this spring anyway, there were still bedbugs uptown. But reading this book as I subwayed back and forth beneath Manhattan's pavement brought back my earliest experience of the city as public space, with a force that I can only describe as visceral.

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The Reading Life: Gordon Matta-Clark's 'Conical Intersect'

ConicalintersectWhat was he up to? That's the question at the center of any consideration of Gordon Matta-Clark, an architecture student-turned-installation artist who died of cancer in 1978, when he was just 35.

Matta-Clark doesn't have the name recognition of contemporaries such as Robert Smithson, whose work his superficially resembles, or Laurie Anderson, who was part of an "informal collective of downtown artists he brought together under the banner of anarchitecture," writes Bruce Jenkins in his monograph "Gordon Matta-Clark: Conical Intersect."

Nonetheless, Jenkins suggests, his influence is significant -- if not for the public, who remain mostly ignorant of his large-scale, space-specific installations, then for other artists who share his experimentalism and his belief in art as a social force.

For Matta-Clark, Jenkins argues, this pair of interlocking imperatives came together most vividly in "Conical Intersect," created for the ninth Biennale de Paris in 1975. The idea is simple, but with implications -- which could be said of all of Matta-Clark's work. A block from the Centre Georges Pompidou, then under construction, the artist cut into two 16th century townhouses that had been scheduled for demolition, creating a vast circular opening "contracting from the exterior towards the interior of a building (from four metres to two metres) in the manner of a spyglass."

The experimental aspects are obvious; the social, perhaps, not so much. But, notes Jenkins, part of the point was to comment on what the Pompidou project was doing to its neighborhood, while also offering a new way of looking at (and thinking about) two buildings that would be destroyed. As Matta-Clark noted in a 1977 interview:

The first thing one notices is that violence has been done. Then the violence turns into visual order and, hopefully, then to a sense of heightened awareness.... You see that light enters places it otherwise couldn't. Angles and depths can be perceived where they should have been hidden. Spaces are available to move through that were previously inaccessible.... My hope is that the dynamism of the action can be seen as an alternative vocabulary with which to question the static, inert building environment.

For his Paris project, Jenkins suggests, Matta-Clark was influenced by the son et lumiere tradition, with its sense of architecture as spectacle. But equally important was his desire to comment on "the street-drama of the construction and demolition," his sense of urban renewal as a source of flattening, of forgetting, in which the old (people, buildings, communities) are consistently uprooted or left behind. A native New Yorker, he has seen this in Manhattan in the 1950s and '60s, when Robert Moses sought to remake the city in his own image.

In the early 1970s, Matta-Clark began to express a counter-sensibility in his artwork, most notably "Pig Roast," in which he "roasted a whole pig in the derelict Lower East Side environs under the [Brooklyn Bridge] and served it up to the resident homeless population and his fellow artists," and "Fresh Air Cart," a public art collaboration in which oxygen was offered to "air-starved passersby."

There's a bit of the put-on to such projects, or perhaps more accurately of the spectacle -- again, son et lumiere. But what Matta-Clark was really exploring was the hidden intersection between the conceptual and the everyday. How does art shake us out of our complacency? How does it help us reframe the world? For Matta-Clark, the issue was never permanence -- "Conical Intersect" existed for only a few weeks before it was demolished -- but rather the challenge of teaching a new way to see.

-- David L. Ulin

The Reading Life: Ellen Willis' vinyl deeps

Ellenwillis_1980s This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I've long considered Ellen Willis something of a hero. I hope I live longer than she did (Willis died in 2006, at 64), but otherwise, it's an exemplary life. She was the first pop music critic of the New Yorker, writing 56 pieces for the magazine between 1968 and 1975 that trace her relationship with "music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated ... [and] challenged me to do the same."

In the mid-1970s, she began to focus less on music and more on feminism and her own stunning brand of liberation politics, becoming an editor and writer at the Village Voice and later founding the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU. Her writing is rigorous, unrelenting, in your face: not in the sense of mindless provocation, but because she was so smart. "Students and colleagues fondly describe her as shy," recalled Robert Christgau in a 2007 tribute, "but she wasn’t shy -- she was thinking, and ignoring you."

Willis understood that criticism -- at least as practiced in a publication such as the New Yorker -- was equal parts service journalism and cultural commentary, requiring her to connect to the commercial demands of her readers (Should I buy this record? Should I pay attention to this band?) while also transcending them. Her music writing is remarkable for never losing sight of this duality, which is, of course, the duality at the heart of pop.

"What cultural revolutionaries do not seem to grasp," she wrote in "The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning," a September 1969 report on Woodstock, "is that, far from being a grass-roots art form that has been taken over by businessmen, rock itself comes from the commercial exploitation of blues. It is bourgeois at its core, a mass-produced commodity, dependent on advanced technology and therefore on the money controlled by those in power."

Four decades later, we take it for granted, this idea of rock's commodification, but Willis is after something deeper: to call out, even celebrate, rock's contradictions, its inherent blend of commercialization and ecstasy. "You think it's funny," Joe Strummer sang in 1977, "turning rebellion into money." And yet, for Willis, there’s nothing funny about it, since what Strummer's getting at is rock 'n' roll's most fundamental tension: the quixotic desire to make revolution (cultural or otherwise) one product at a time.

"The Cultural Revolution Saved from Drowning" is one of 59 pieces in "Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music," all but 12 from the New Yorker. Edited by Willis' daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz, it is, in the words of current New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones, "like finding a missing Beatles album" -- a result of both its engagement with its moment and the acuity of Willis' eye.

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The Reading Life: Lydia Davis talks to the animals

Thecows_lydiadavis This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

I'll read anything Lydia Davis does. Her fiction -- the story collections "Break it Down," "Almost No Memory," and "Varieties of Disturbance," and the novel "The End of The Story" -- are masterpieces of spare, objective writing, acute and often edgily funny: the very definition of sharp. Her translations assume nothing, taking their cues entirely from the text. 

Davis' chapbook "The Cows" operates along a similar trajectory, although it is also a departure of sorts. Originally published in the journal "Electric Literature," this series of impressions reads almost like a set of entries from a disembodied diary, as Davis watches three cows that live in a pasture across the road from her upstate New York home.

"Each new day," she begins, "when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play." The conceit here -- or the tension, such as it is -- has to do with the interplay between human intention and bovine placidity. "They comes out from behind the barn," Davis observes, "as though something is going to happen, and then nothing happens."

And yet, in that apparent nothing, Davis uncovers something, as she has throughout her career. How does she do it? I can't say, exactly, but perhaps the key is that she takes nothing for granted, watching the cows as if to discover new ways to see.

"They are often like a math problem," she writes, in my favorite passage:

2 cows lying down in the snow, plus 1 cow standing up looking at the hill, equals 3 cows.

Or 1 cow lying down in the snow, plus 2 cows on their feet looking this way across the road, equals 3 cows.

By the end of the chapbook (it's only 37 pages) the three cows have become five, echoing the cycles that occupy the center of this impressionistic work. It's the most simple stuff, but by slowing down to take a look, day in and day out, Davis reminds us of the profundity of everything -- even creatures who "do not know the words 'person,' 'neighbor,' 'watch,' or even 'cow.'"

-- David L. Ulin

The Reading Life: Last exit from Brooklyn

Jimmason_nodancing This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

Here's a small book worth your attention: James Mason's "Positively No Dancing," a collection of six linked short stories, originally published privately and reissued last month by Freebird Books & Goods.

Freebird is an independent bookstore on Columbia Street in Brooklyn, in a neighborhood now called the Columbia Street Waterfront District. But, as Mason -- who has lived in the neighborhood since 1987 -- writes in a brief preface, "as far as I'm concerned it's Red Hook."

He goes on:

You cross the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that carved a hole in the neighborhood. Once you cross the BQE you're isolated. Once you cross the BQE you're in Red Hook. Says me. Once you're in Red Hook you rarely cross back over. We look out our front windows onto shipping containers and cranes. Those cranes are our trees.

"Positively No Dancing" takes place, for the most part, along that narrow stretch of Brooklyn harbor front, in the bars and small apartments, on the job or on the run. The protagonist is a guy named John Flowers, who loses his job at a rehab center for the mentally disabled in the first story and then goes sideways (at times, downhill) from there. John goes to a funeral; he talks to a little girl and her sister on the Brooklyn Promenade about the proximity of the World Trade Center to Heaven.

"Maybe angels shed feathers from their wings," the girl suggests, "... [a]nd then the birds come and fly up and take the feathers and makes nests with it." That's a perfect metaphor for Mason's book, which gathers the detritus of city life and spins it into something spare and beautiful.

In places, "Positively No Dancing" is reminiscent of Denis Johnson's "Jesus' Son," involving, as it does, a protagonist who is hapless, self-destructive, but not without a certain charm. The language, too, is Johnson-esque: stripped down and largely without affect, as if emotion has been bleached from the very words.

For Mason, though, there is a whisper of if not redemption then at least epiphany of a kind. As he writes in the collection's final story, a little piece called "Luck," which revolves, in part, around a horse:

I opened the door and went back outside. There was a plane flying over the house, lower than I'd ever seen. I didn't even flinch. I thought I might go to the store. I figured I could find carrots somewhere. Hell, the way things were going, I was willing to bet I'd even find hay.

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-- David L. Ulin

Photo: James Mason at Freebird Books in Brooklyn. Credit: Freebird Books

The Reading Life: The vagaries of awards

Thomaswilliams
When Thomas Williams' novel "The Hair of Harold Roux" split the 1975 National Book Award with Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," his career seemed to be assured. And yet, very quickly, "The Hair of Harold Roux" -- not unlike the rest of Williams' writing -- became something of a lost book, a novel that, until its reissue this month, was long unavailable and out of print.

How did this happen? It's not a matter of "The Hair of Harold Roux" itself, which is deep and heartfelt, the story of a man who feels himself, in the most literal sense imaginable, to be running out of time. For him, eternity is looming, although in the short term he takes comfort in stories, in their ability to bestow meaning, to allow us to come together with each other in some way. This, of course, is what literature offers, which Williams understood. But he also understood that, in the face of eternity, stories are at best a temporary consolation, and that for all our work, all our efforts at connection, there is nothing that can save us from the inevitability of the void.

Williams died in 1990 of lung cancer, with all nine of his books out of print. The reissue of "The Hair of Harold Roux" will, one hopes, stir interest in the rest of his work. But either way, the book's uneasy history raises some interesting questions about the vagaries of awards.

Williams, after all, is hardly the first National Book Award winner to be forgotten: There's J. F. Powers' "Morte D'Urban," the 1963 fiction winner, or Orlando Patterson's "Freedom," which won the nonfiction prize in 1991. Look at other awards, such as the Pulitzer Prize in fiction -- which, William Gass once noted,"takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses" -- and you'll find more examples. Anyone read any Booth Tarkington recently? I didn't think so. And yet, he won the Pulitzer twice, in 1919 for "The Magnificent Ambersons" and again in 1922 for "Alice Adams."

As for what that means, I think, it's only this: That when it comes to awards, as with anything else, there are no guarantees. Writing must make its own way in the world, and often, the best stuff (and believe me, "The Hair of Harold Roux" is among the best stuff) falls to the side. Who can say what the culture notices, and why? But with the re-release of "The Hair of Harold Roux," we have the opportunity for a bit of literary reclamation ... 36 years after it won the National Book Award and promptly disappeared.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Thomas Williams. Credit: Bloomsbury

The Reading Life: The United States of Poetry

  Lake_reflection

This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

"Crossing State Lines: An American Renga" is my kind of book. It's a long poem, with 54 poets from all across the country contributing one after the next -- a kinder, gentler exquisite corpse. It's a contemporary adaptation of an ancient form, like the homegrown haiku co-editor Bob Holman cites in his introduction: "Allen Ginsberg felt that equating a Chinese character and an English syllable was foolish at best, so prosaically adapted haiku to 'American sentences': a single line of seventeen syllables: 'Put on my tie in a taxi, short of breath, rushing to meditate.' " I'm a sucker for the ambition, for the belief that poetry can tell us something, not just about who we are but about how we live. Poetry, "Crossing State Lines" insists, is a heartbeat, is a pulse.

And what a heartbeat, a heartbeat in 54 installments, working its way through Marie Howe and Mark Doty, C.K. Williams, Susan Wheeler, Edward Hirsch, all talking, thinking, writing together as poets rarely do. This is the point of the renga, the 900-year-old Japanese collaborative form that, co-editor Carol Muske-Dukes explains, "was/is a conversation, and it seemed the right time for America to hear its poets converse." Yes, the right time, fall 2008 to spring 2009, from just before the election to just after the inauguration of Obama, a period that asserts itself in these pages in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

Here, for instance, is Ed Sanders' entry in its entirety:

If there is a God
Please may He or She
Assist our new President

Guide him to Peace and Service
Help calm the Military

Grant Prosperity to every
Last human on
Broad-breasted Earth

The semi-bliss of Nat'l Health
And a Sharing of the Wealth

 And a chunk of Jorie Graham's:

But actually nothing's -- nothing's -- gone, and nothing's new
About this new slip chip of time we've just now crossed the border of,
Adding one atomic second to the flowering

Open-handed clock -- feel it? -- we've not been here
Before we think but the price of gas is down again and the sale

Of guzzler's up -- oh brother -- land
Is not our land ...

I love it, poetry as engagement, as a physical and emotional journey, beginning with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who starts things off with a question -- "Beginning of October, maples / kindle in the East, linked / to fire season in the West by what?" -- and ending, 53 poets later, in California, with the response of another former laureate Robert Hass.

Here we are, moving back and forth, from one coast to the other, and nothing left to look at but ourselves. Or, as Muske-Dukes puts it, in her own sharp and epigrammatic contribution:

Time to make something
From nothing -- garden, star chart,
Beehive, birdhouse, abacus

To add up what remains when
What we thought was wealth was gone.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: West Point Lake, on the border of Georgia and Alabama. Credit: Lee Cathey / MCT

The Reading Life: The girls in their summer dresses

Huntington_mar31

This post is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

When the weather turned Thursday and, 2 1/2 months early, summer seemed to settle on Los Angeles, I began to think of Irwin Shaw. Not because Shaw wrote much about Southern California -- although he did do some work here -- but because one of his early stories, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" felt momentarily apropos.

The connection, I'll admit, is a bit tenuous, because "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" is not about summer -- taking place, as it does, in November -- although it does involve weather that is unseasonably warm. Rather, it is about Michael Loomis, a husband with a wandering eye who looks over every woman on Manhattan's lower Fifth Avenue as he and his wife Frances take a Sunday morning stroll.

Originally published in the New Yorker on Feb. 4, 1939, the story has had a long life, probably because it is so taut and well-constructed: barely 3,000 words, mostly dialogue, taking place within the span of an hour or so. Its genius lies in its indirection, the way Shaw manages to withhold, until almost the very end, just exactly what's at stake.

"Someday," Frances weeps, verbalizing her fears, "you're going to make a move ..." Then, in five abbreviated paragraphs, Shaw exposes the marriage's tarnished heart:

Michael didn't say anything. He sat watching the bartender slowly peel a lemon.

"Aren't you?" Frances asked harshly. "Come on, tell me. Talk. Aren't you?"

"Maybe," Michael said. He moved his chair back again. "How the hell do I know?"

"You know," Frances persisted. "Don't you know?"

"Yes," Michael said after a while. "I know."

It's a brutal moment, all the more so for being utterly timeless, the kind of conversation we might imagine overhearing to this day.

In the seven decades since it first appeared, "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses" has gone through a number of incarnations. It was adapted for the PBS series "Great Performances" in 1981 with Jeff Bridges and Carol Kane; more recently, the band Airborne Toxic Event took the title (and at least some of the narrative and emotional dynamics) for a song

But most enduring is Shaw's small, grim classic, a story so simple and subtle that it feels like life. Michael and Frances might be any of us, and the easy, insinuating way their comfortable back-and-forth devolves into something more elemental resonates with the force of argument, of people not so much completing as complicating each other -- no matter what the weather or the time of year.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Sisters Annah and Kristen Hill keep cool Thursday, an unseasonably warm day, at the Huntington Library and Gardens. Credit: Don Bartletti /Los Angeles Times

The Reading Life: Revisiting 'Mildred Pierce'

Mildredpierce_vintagepbk This is part of the occasional series The Reading Life by book critic David L. Ulin.

Of all the classic noir writers, perhaps none has been as tarnished by the brush of genre as James M. Cain. That’s because Cain — born in Baltimore in 1892, a protégé of H.L. Mencken and, briefly, managing editor of The New Yorker — was not a great hard-boiled novelist but a great novelist period, whose vision of 1930s Southern California is as acute and resonant as anything ever written about that time and place.

His first novel, “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” published when he was 42, is said to have inspired Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”; his second, “Double Indemnity,” is among the finest of all American novels, regardless of genre or style. In 119 unrelenting pages, Cain not only indicts middle-class greed and shallowness, he also paints a considerably darker portrait of a man and a woman consumed by their desires. It is a piercing piece of work, a ruthless saga of betrayal, in which the worst sins are those the characters commit against themselves.

“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim,” Cain once noted of his own writing, “or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”

In 1941, Cain published his fourth novel, "Mildred Pierce," a book that has such an aesthetic at its heart. The story of a divorcee in Depression-era Glendale, it was filmed in 1945 with Joan Crawford; this weekend, HBO debuts a new five-part adaptation with Kate Winslet in the title role.

To read “Mildred Pierce” now is to experience a double vision, in which we confront both how much and how little things have changed.

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