Tuesday, October 8, 2019

DANCING IN SANTA FE – Beate Sigriddaughter

Beate Sigriddaughter dances with breathtaking grace and daring across the pages of her latest offering, a slim volume of fourteen exquisite poems she's given the beguiling title, Dancing in Santa Fe.

A former instructor of dance, and recent poet laureate of Silver City, New Mexico, Sigriddaughter is known for her sparing use of words with a precision so sly nuances can slip unnoticed into the most alert sensibility before revealing their connections to a greater yet not unfamiliar choreography.

Her poetry is widely celebrated for championing women in historically patriarchal cultures. She dedicated her previous collection, Xanthippe and her Friends, to Socrates’s wife, known for pouring the contents of a chamber pot over the great philosopher’s brilliant, balding, bilious head. But while we modern men (excluding me) are likely as deserving of such excremental scorn from the women in our lives as was no doubt the father of western philosophy, Dancing in Santa Fe carries not so much as a figurative whiff of ordure nor does it boast of boots made for walking all over anyone. What Sigriddaughter’s poems do bring is the occasional well-placed blade through the heart, and an invitation for sober reflection on the lack of progress my gender has made over the centuries in its appreciation of hers.

She's hidden from your benevolent contempt in the moss of morning dew. You thought I was going to eat her? – from The Dragon’s Tale

She’s a princess. The dragon has taken her away and hidden her “from your strange world of corsets and obedience...from your male fantasies.” It’s the last poem in Dancing in Santa Fe. The first one plays on a fairytale, The Seven Ravens, about a king who turns his sons into ravens because one of them made a mistake at their sister’s christening. When the girl learned of this she went looking for her brothers. She found them locked in a mountain, but had to cut off her little finger to use as a key to unlock the door. All ends happily, but the last stanza injects this thought: “...if seven girls were cursed because of one son, it wouldn't even be noticed. It happens all the time.” I sat silently, staring at the page awhile.

Why...a dreadful burden handed down,

one generation to the next?

Scheherazade, the legendary murderous Persian sultan’s bride who won his “love” by telling him 1,001 stories, one per night, comes in for lyrical questioning in the poem named for her. The sultan, enraged because his queen had been unfaithful, was killing one virgin per night. Then along came Scheherazade, who distracted him with her tales.

The poet asks her, “Did you save us all or merely raise the bar?” Pause to ponder, and then, “I cannot imagine the cost of making nice with the entitled predator like that.”

But the poet is ambivalent. Neither can she imagine the cost of “not making nice when the cold sword is already drawn.”

I wasn't—the war—born yet

is never over.

from the title poem, Dancing in Santa Fe, in which the poet gives us glimpses of a soul struggling to affirm life--how beautiful you are, world, with jewels in the juniper moments after rain. When will I be allowed to touch your beauty and keep it alive?--while “the enemy within just laughs.”

These two forces entwine and grapple continually throughout the poems, as if locked in a deadly tango—affirmation under assault by near crippling dread.

an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

There’s physical dancing in Dancing in Santa Fe: One evening with Chico at the Skylight they “jelled,” and it was wonderful. Then there was Gabriel, who danced okay, but they had a country in common. “Gabriel, all I could ever do is honor your pain.” Her words reach beyond this moment, beyond Gabriel, gathering passion: “I want to honor you, life, by living with joy. The enemy within just laughs. Those others, they just wanted to live, never mind joy…

Who, not born German, can possibly comprehend the guilt I am condemned to feel for sins I haven't committed? It is an unspeakable filter on this gorgeous world.

I haven’t danced much since.”

Her appeal for help in undoing “the curse that keeps me uneasy in this shimmering world,” is answered only by the wind in an ancient juniper telling her, “this is the task that has been given to you.”

The “enemy within” is daunting. Yet, “once you learn to dance you never forget.”

In her search for deliverance from this yin/yang dilemma she looks at the Hindu concept of nirvana, which, she tells us, “I don't trust this. I never have,” calling it a “withering of all...just self-effacing consent.”

Isn’t that like suicide?”

In Wandering Night Notes she returns to what she knows, and enjoys.

I pray for courage to dance
my anger now, my fear, my dreams,
and dance my hunger loudly.

        What is the point of limping through
this superfluous life? Why not
make it a pleasure for each other?

Teach me your scratchy ropes.
I will learn. I will climb. I will love.


Thursday, October 3, 2019

SEA OF CORTEZ – John Steinbeck and Edward F. Ricketts

It was early 1940. War was raging in Europe, and the U.S. was tooling up, evidently expecting to be drawn into the fighting eventually. Two Californians had a different plan: a six-week expedition in the Gulf of California sandwiched between Baja and Mexico to study the water creatures and to “see and think and even imagine” everything they could along the way.

The two were close friends, one a marine biologist and the other a novelist about to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction that very year. What attracted me to their account of the expedition, which they called by an earlier name for the Gulf—Sea of Cortez—was my respect for the novelist, John Steinbeck, whose work I admired but had not read in a long while. Accompanying him was Ed Ricketts, whom I had not known of except as the fictional “Doc” in Steinbeck’s later novel, Cannery Row. Another contribution to the book’s attraction for me was the enthusiastic endorsement by Jane Hammons, a writer acquaintance whose work I also admire.

And so off we went, me tripping the pages replaying the expedition aboard the Western Flyer, a seventy-six-foot diesel-powered charter boat, nearly 80 years after its principals, now long dead, made the meandering journey down the “long, narrow, highly dangerous body of water...subject to sudden and vicious storms of great intensity,” albeit March and April being “usually quite calm and dependable.” I sensed from the mostly leisurely narrative with its well-crafted, luminous sentences my guide was primarily Steinbeck. The scientific and academic-sounding philosophical stuff, I’m guessing, would have been Ricketts’s contributions, as meeting those passages for me was akin to veering off a manicured-though-fascinating trail into a dense patch of sharply authoritative briars.

Because the book was initially sold as co-authored neither Steinbeck nor Ricketts are named, and first-person pronouns are invariably plural. The captain and four-member crew come through as well-developed and interesting characters, who evidently became close as brothers during the adventure, meeting natives and Mexican officials and collecting invertebrates for Ricketts’s marine biology business. During their six weeks in the gulf and its estuaries they collected thousands of specimens, among them some four dozen unknown species. I skimmed over much of the detailed descriptions of these items, with their Latin names and curious attributes, while finding some examples as fascinating as the products of a child’s imagination. One I found most interesting was the crab known locally as “Sally Lightfoot...these little crabs, with brilliant cloisonne carapaces, walk on their tiptoes. They have remarkable eyes and an extremely fast reaction time. In spite of the fact that they swarm on the rocks at the Cape, and to a less degree inside the Gulf, they are exceedingly hard to catch. They seem to be able to run in any one of four directions; but more than this, perhaps because of their rapid reaction time, they appear to read the mind of their hunter.” Their speed and agility so enraged one of the crew members one of them pinched, he “declared a war of extermination on the whole Sally Lightfoot species.”
Steinbeck @1940

I found these descriptions of the various creatures and their behavior almost a comic relief from the philosophical conjectures the two men occasionally contrived projecting them up the evolutionary scale to the hominid species. I found these digressions absorbing, but welcomed the back and forth focus between direct observations of lesser creatures and speculation on how their lives might explain patterns in ours.

“We do not objectively observe our own species as a species,” our dual narrators tell us, “although we know the individuals fairly well. When it seems that men may be kinder to men, that wars may not come again, we completely ignore the record of our species. If we used the same smug observation on ourselves that we do on hermit crabs we would be forced to say, with the information at hand, ‘It is one diagnostic trait of Homo sapiens that groups of individuals are periodically infected with a feverish nervousness which causes the individual to turn on and destroy, not only his own kind, but the works of his own kind.’”

Pondering this passage alone drew me away from our voyage long enuf to arise from my laptop and stroll around the apartment, perhaps visiting a flushable facility or even finding in the kitchen something light upon which to sip or munch, or both. These breaks made the book last longer than do those I ordinarily read. In fact, just typing the above excerpt has my mind trying to wander once again.
Ed Ricketts

And then, quick as a Sally Lightfoot crab, we come to this, something I’ve been saying for years, tho with humbler diction and syntax: “Hope, which is another species diagnostic trait—the hope that this may not always be—does not in the least change the observable past and present...perhaps our species is not likely to forgo war without some psychic mutation which at present, at least, does not seem imminent.” Altho the irony of an imminent world war can be seen in this observation, I doubt either Steinbeck or Ricketts, who were to become actively involved in the fight against Germany and Japan, could have felt the full import of what seems here an almost offhand remark. An even greater irony perhaps is that also in the Bay, some fifty miles from the Western Flyer, Japanese shrimp boats were dredging up tons of shrimp, “rapidly destroying the species so that it may never come back, and with the species destroying the ecological balance of the whole region. That isn’t very important in the world. And six thousand miles away the great bombs are falling on London and the stars are not moved thereby. None of it is important or all of it is.”

Eventually the Western Flyer caught up with the Japanese fleet and our voyagers were welcomed aboard the main ship. “The Japanese captain was formal, but very courteous,” Steinbeck, I’m guessing, writes. “He spoke neither Spanish nor English; his business must all have been done through an interpreter. The Mexican fish and game official stationed aboard was a pleasant man, but he said that he had no great information about the animals he was overseeing.”

Pearl Harbor was less than two years away.

Oh, and we mustn’t forget the cormorants. Most hateful birds, we are told. “It seemed that everyone in Cape San Lucas hates cormorants. They are the flies in a perfect ecological ointment...they are considered interlopers, radicals, subversive forces against the perfect and God-set balance on Cape San Lucas. And they are rightly slaughtered, as all radicals should be. As one of our number remarked, ‘Why, pretty soon they’ll want to vote.’”

Maybe on Cape San Lucas, but with the Western Flyer something else aroused more wrath than either the Sally Lightfoot or the cormorant. It’s “a piece of equipment which still brings anger to our hearts and, we hope, some venom to our pen.”

This villain is...well, let’s let our venomous authors explain: “The outboard motor mentioned in this book is purely fictitious and any resemblance to outboard motors living or dead is coincidental. We shall call this contraption, for the sake of secrecy, a Hansen Sea-Cow—a dazzling little piece of machinery, all aluminum paint and touched here and there with spots of red. The Sea-Cow was built to sell, to dazzle the eyes, to splutter its way into the unwary heart. We took it along for the skiff. It was intended that it should push us ashore and back, should drive our boat into estuaries and along the borders of little coves. But we had not reckoned with one thing. Recently, industrial civilization has reached its peak of reality and has lunged forward into something that approaches mysticism. In the Sea-Cow factory where steel fingers tighten screws, bend and mold, measure and divide, some curious mathematick [sic] has occurred. And that secret so long sought has accidentally been found. Life has been created. The machine is at last stirred. A soul and a malignant mind have been born.

Our Hansen Sea-Cow was not only a living thing but a mean, irritable, contemptible, vengeful, mischievous, hateful living thing. In the six weeks of our association we observed it, at first mechanically and then, as its living reactions became more and more apparent, psychologically. And we determined one thing to our satisfaction. When and if these ghoulish little motors learn to reproduce themselves the human species is doomed. For their hatred of us is so great that they will wait and plan and organize and one night, in a roar of little exhausts, they will wipe us out...”

The rant continues thusly for several more pages, and the evil Sea-Cow itself rears its malfunctioning head periodically throughout the remainder of Sea of Cortez.

Alas, despite Grapes of Wrath having won a National Book Award the previous year and the Pulitzer shortly after the voyage, Sea of Cortez bombed at the box office when it came out in 1941. Steinbeck republished in ten years later, keeping only the narrative and omitting the appendixes. He retitled it The Log from the Sea of Cortez, and omitted Ricketts’s name as co-author.

I've deliberately omitted something deeply odd about the Bay trip only because I learned of it online after reading the book: the mystery of Carol, Steinbeck’s first wife. I found this strange detail in a single sentence of Steinbeck’s Wikipedia bio:Although Carol accompanied Steinbeck on the trip, their marriage was beginning to suffer, and ended a year later, in 1941, even as Steinbeck worked on the manuscript for the book.”

One does wonder what Carol was doing all the while the boys were gathering specimens, drinking beer, and behaving, well...like boys. Perhaps my next stop should be a formal biography. Whatever I might find out, I promise to share with you who follow this blog!

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, September 19, 2019

PNIN – Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve been making the mistake lately of reading professional reviews after reading the book rather than before. This despite knowing that reading reviews in advance of the book gives me insight that enhances my appreciation of the book—which is one reason for publishing reviews in the first place. The main reason, of course, the one directly related to publishers sending reviewers free “review copies,” is to help sell the book. So what in hell am I doing writing this review sixty-six years after Pnin, was published? Did the publisher’s free review copy get lost in the mail for more than half a century? Well now waitaminute, weren’t those the Pony Express days? Maybe the damned thing’s still bouncing around in a saddlebag out on a prairie somewhere in Nebraska. I mean, if so, it shouldn’t be held against me if I couldn’t wait any longer. I’m a patient man, but...there are limits! So I downloaded the Kindle version, costing me, btw, probly six times what I’d have had to pay had I bought it back in those Bill Codyish days of yore. Was I what? Alive that long ago? Well now hey, some cards a reviewer’s allowed to keep face down, n’est-ce-pas? [rhetorical question--move along, please!]

Anyway, not all is lost. There are advantages to reading a review by a reviewer who’s literally been left in the dust. Same as there are, say, to buying a road-gripping Armstrong tire, created eons after the original log wheel rolled away from its inventor’s flint adze. In the situation of Pnin, the reader has instant online access to the insights of top-line literary critics, which, by my failing to deepen my appreciation of this short, classic novel by first reading them, and which, by my coming to them after the fact, humiliated my intention of doing a proper review for you here, have unwittingly freed me to narrow my focus to only one facet of Vladimir Nabokov’s break-out American literary achievement. That one facet, which counterbalanced the ungainly, gentle, laughingstock persona of Timofey Pnin—pronounced Pun-in by Pnin in the novel, but which one reviewer has insisted is P’neen--the, Soviet Union escapee-cum-teacher of Russian literature. The one saving grace: tragic romance. Yes, that resonantly soulful Russian literary tradition. Pnin’s Mira plucks the balalaika heartstrings with a poignancy on a par with Zhivago’s Lara.

“In order to exist rationally,” our anonymous narrator tells us, “Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin—not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind (alas, recollections of his marriage to Liza were imperious enough to crowd out any former romance), but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

The slightest reminder of his long-lost Mira, in the midst of giving a speech, for example, can divert him into a split-second reverie of a past encounter.

Our narrator, who incrementally reveals his acquaintance with Pnin from childhood, mentions his first sighting of Mira at an amateur play some youngsters, including Pnin, held in an old barn. Without naming her then, he remembers her as a “pretty, slender-necked, velvet-eyed girl,” the sister of a mutual acquaintance.

Pnin last saw her in a Berlin restaurant after she escaped the Soviet Union and before her arrest by Nazis. “They exchanged a few words, she smiled at him in the remembered fashion, from under her dark brows, with that bashful slyness of hers; and the contour of her prominent cheekbones, and the elongated eyes, and the slenderness of arm and ankle were unchanged, were immortal, and then she joined her husband who was getting his overcoat at the cloakroom, and that was all—but the pang of tenderness remained, akin to the vibrating outline of verses you know you know but cannot recall.”

He learned years later, after escaping to the United States, that Mira had been murdered at Buchenwald.

More recently, in one of his unbidden remembrances, musing at night alone on a porch, “...again the clumsy, shy, obstinate, eighteen-year-old boy, waiting in the dark for Mira—and despite the fact that logical thought put electric bulbs into the kerosene lamps and reshuffled the people, turning them into aging émigrés and securely, hopelessly, forever wire-netting the lighted porch, my poor Pnin, with hallucinatory sharpness, imagined Mira slipping out of there into the garden and coming toward him among tall tobacco flowers whose dull white mingled in the dark with that of her frock...

Pnin slowly walked under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick.”

While Mira lives in his heart, Pnin marries Liza, a restless temptress who doesn’t hang around long. His sense of her as he watches her leave is a mixture of reluctant acceptance and relief:

He saw her off, and walked back through the park. To hold her, to keep her—just as she was—with her cruelty, with her vulgarity, with her blinding blue eyes, with her miserable poetry, with her fat feet, with her impure, dry, sordid, infantile soul. All of a sudden he thought: If people are reunited in Heaven (I don’t believe it, but suppose), then how shall I stop it from creeping upon me, over me, that shriveled, helpless, lame thing, her soul? But this is the earth, and I am, curiously enough, alive, and there is something in me and in life—“

He breaks down when his friend Joan, hoping to console him, asks softly, “Doesn’t she want to come back?”

Pnin, his head on his arm, started to beat the table with his loosely clenched fist. ‘I haf nofing,’ [he] wailed...between loud, damp sniffs, ‘I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!’”

What we have is something marvelous. An all-too-human character brought alive for us in all his dimensions by an enchanting writer, with the bonus of an intimate look at a small college community of Russian émigrés in the early 1950s portrayed with precision, fictionally, by one of their own. Nabokov is best known for Lolita, his startling, controversial novel about a middle-aged man’s infatuation with a 12-year-old girl. Pnin, however, was his break-out in U.S. literary circles, initially appearing as a series of individual stories in The New Yorker. Its success, establishing his reputation as a writer of uncommon brilliance, helped persuade publishers to take a chance with the more risky Lolita.
Vladimir Nabokov

Below are links to a couple of comprehensive reviews of Pnin:

Charles Poore, The New York Times

David Lodge, The Guardian

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]

Thursday, September 12, 2019


It’s taken me three readings of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story to recognize finally my vague discomfort accepting the presumption of sadness at this exceptional novel’s ironic ending. That’s one reading every three years starting with 2013, three years after its publication. The trienniality is coincidental—unless, as suggested by Shteyngart’s Tweeted tribute quote on the death last week of his beloved Random House editor Susan Kamil, "He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. The souls of the dead, perhaps formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick."

It’s from Nabokov’s novel Pnin. Shteyngart added, “I would like to believe this is true. Farewell Susan.”

Accepting it as true, why not take it a step further and believe one of these dead souls’ “committees” has been goading me to fathom the elusive mix of emotions I experience at Super Sad’s ending? Not that it would matter particularly to anyone else. And yet, there is a confluence of sorts that might well be calling to certain of the quick to, in a social media vernacular, “Get off your asses, and be quick about it!”

I feel this urgency. It’s the reason I’ve started reading William Vollmann’s massive two-volume report on the virtual demise of our species. In the first third of Carbon Ideologies, which is as far as I’ve gotten, Vollmann’s focus is on the nuclear generating disaster at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 (a year after Super Sad was published). He’s written it as an explanation to possible survivors of what he sees as inevitable climate catastrophe. His writing is framed as an apology to future inhabitants of Earth, and, less directly by presuming its inescapability, scaring the living crap out of those of us who still entertain an implausible hope of somehow averting the disaster. “I knew I’d find no adequate personal answer to the question ‘What should we do?’” he tells these theoretical survivors, “But I felt ashamed of doing nothing. Well, in the end I did nothing just the same, and the same went for most everyone I knew. This book may help you in the hot dark future to understand why.”
Gary Shteyngart

I feel the urgency also because of the political imbroglio we’ve permitted that exacerbates the disparities in our society, and because of the growing passivity of a culture easily distracted and manipulated by cheap entertainment, with its expectations of titillation, comfort, and the illusion of freedom.

This awareness was less defined when I first read Super Sad True Love Story, which I was enticed to read by a review Maureen Corrigan broadcast on NPR. What got my attention, perked my interest, induced me to buy the book was Corrigan’s description of a fictional near future that struck me as already incipient in its drift toward a junction of chaos and control. It rang of Orwell and Huxley, 1984 and Brave New World, but with comic twists and an endearing familiarity. As then New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani put it, “Mr. Shteyngart has extrapolated every toxic development already at large in America to farcical extremes.”

Reading it the first time I focused on the distance between then and Shteyngart’s fictional future. And, of course, there was no avoiding the love story between 39-year-old second-generation Russian Jewish immigrant Lenny Abramov and 24-year-old second-generation Korean immigrant Eunice Parks. This story, told by way of diary entries and social media conversations, provides the narrative train through Super Sad’s dystopian landscape, yet I found my interest veering more toward a skeptical voyeurism than empathizing with the obviously mismatched couple. Whether the concept of true love is realized between Lenny and Eunice, who could say with any certainty? Kakutani clearly thought so, as did several other reviewers who discussed the book at the time. I see the two as using one another, each for different reasons. But maybe that is love. Maybe it’s only love’s illusions I recall (thanks, Joni). I waxed enthusiastic with the brief piece I posted here in 2013 after the first read, but not about the romance.

At least one of Super Sad's predictions, that books will become dangerously unfashionable, has already almost come to pass,” I wrote then, adding, “It's one of the funniest, gloomiest social satires I have encountered.”

Three years later, after my second read, I still didn’t try to review the book, intimidated probably by the enthusiastic gushings of Kakutani, Corrigan and others, including Terrence Rafferty in Slate. Looking back, I find I like Rafferty’s best of the three reviews. He gives more plot and details. I should condense plot and details down for you myself but after reading the professionals I’m stymied, as if doing so would be akin to fashioning a Fabergé egg out of paper-mâché. Instead I’ll give you a link to Rafferty’s review: here.

So, there you have it, something you can hold against me forever, depending on how much “forever” we have left to live. A book I’ve read three times over the past six years, and still haven’t gotten up the gumption to do it justice. And yet, still, on the verge of hysteria, I implore you to read the damned book BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!!

Back now to William Vollmann’s horrifying apology to whomever might still be alive after the planet that’s hosted us all these eons finally turns out the lights…

Wait! I just went back and re-read the ending, the last chapter, one more time. I see now the cause of some of the ambivalence I’ve been feeling about it: I wasn’t ready for so abrupt a change in tempo. The main narrative had me rushing, frantically, to the apocalyptic edge, the unendurable sensation of imminent void. The last chapter, "27 – Welcome Back, Pa’dner,” begins with a sense of free-fall, a little relevant backstory, just enuf to offer the racing mind a more contemplative speed. It works, I suspect, for most readers. Not for me. My cognition is sluggish, slower to shift. My inner brakes were screaming as I tried to decipher how the words I was reading fit with my despairing terror of the calamitous denouement I'd been approaching. Then the cinematic break taking me from Kansas sepia to the Technicolor of Oz. Stumbling with contradictions, my ambivalent feet carried me to a place where at last I could sit and sort things out. And where I could appreciate the language, the secret humor, the tranquility and the beauty of simply being alive, no matter what future lay beyond the next heartbeat. Reading this chapter a fourth time, without the preceding headlong dash, I finally appreciated what Shteyngart had done. And despite the title and the scrambled emotions throughout, I believe he and I, on this point, are of one mind.

If so, this might help explain my inability to fully embrace the sadness others have found in Super Sad True Love Story. I see it as a sadness compromised by foolish expectations. A vanity. A sadness we deserve.

My advice: Find out for yourself.

[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]