Tuesday, September 29, 2020

THE SOUND AND THE FURY – William Faulkner

"Damnedest book I ever read," Faulkner said of his greatest book, which he titled after the line in Shakespeare's Macbeth describing life as "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The Sound and the Fury might easily have become the damnedest book I never read had I not on a whim first read Michael Gorra's The Saddest Words, a new scholarly look at Faulkner's work and reputation against the background of slavery and the Civil War.

One of the novel’s four narrator’s severe mental disability aggravated with The Sound and the Fury my usual inability to engage almost anything Faulkner. His style of suddenly shifting voices and time sequences, past and present, sometimes in one humongously long sentence, has scrambled my ADHD-addled brain nearly every time I’ve tried to read anything by him. The only stretch of his writing that gripped and bowled me over with its vivid depictions and dialogue and sheer eloquence of language was contained in the novel Light in August. The section, which I believe Faulkner had earlier published as a short story, is known as “The Bear.” I remember where I was sitting, and, under hypnosis, perhaps could recall what I was wearing and in which college lit course I read that piece half a century ago.

“The Bear” all by itself for me vaulted William Faulkner to a seat on the Olympus of literary gods….oh, what “smug false sentimental windy shit,” as Faulkner himself said of an off-the-cuff explanation he’d given about the difficulties encountered in writing The Sound and the Fury. Truthfully, “The Bear” was the first thing of Faulkner’s that awakened me to the raw power of his ability with words, and later the recording of his mesmerizing Nobel acceptance speech—the cadences, the tumbling, crescendoing, seemingly endless flow of soulful intelligence—and then the shock of finding, while covering courts for my newspaper employer, a lawyer who I hereby, forthwith swear in all sincerity was the embodiment of Faulkner’s ghost in appearance and gracefully understated manner. Oh, and lest I forget, there is the photo of me seated on the front steps of Rowan Oaks reading a newspaper Aug. 5, 1976, when one of the stops on a road trip through the Deep South included a visit to the Faulkner home in Oxford, Miss. The image if me is too small to recognize in the print I have were I to try to upload it to my laptop, but for anyone who gives a “shit”--to use a word the great man himself has sanctified—I intend to rush to Wally World soon as this horrific pandemic passes into history and have the image blown up so’s to post it here, on my blog and on Facebook, and I’ll sell prints, framed even, to anyone who really really gives a shit. That is a solemn promise!

So anyway, after reading The Saddest Words [you’ll hafta read the book to learn which two they are, sorry] I immediately downloaded The Sound and the Fury to my Kindle, and read it in a couple of days. And...I hope you weren’t expecting me to exhibit the audacity of trying to review it, this book that is now one of the damnedest books I’ve ever read, struggling for supremacy on the Olympus of my imagination among such giants of literary audacity as Moby Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and, of course, my own.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

A CLOUD IN MY HAND -- Erika Byrne-Ludwig

A mistake to dismiss the "cloud" you get in this collection of nearly four dozen spellbinding tales from Australian author Erika Byrne-Ludwig as just a quaint poetic metaphor, or maybe a clever reference to the ubiquitous digital clouds we keep hearing about but never see. Of course it’s a metaphor, Byrne-Ludwig's cloud, but “quaint” doesn’t come close to describing the power you’ll find between the covers of A Cloud in My Hand. Not if you've experienced any of the myriad faces ordinary clouds sometimes reveal to us. More intrusive than Joni's “illusions,” these bring thunder and lightning and wind and sleet and hail and horror and death: dark, forbidding miens that lurk behind the clean, happy fluffs we watch breezing across an innocent blue sky on a perfect day.


The cloud Byrne-Ludwig hands us with these stories arrived from a kaleidoscopic imagination that fabricates scenarios so diverse they’re apt to whirl from terror to laughter at the flip of a page, from an old woman tortured and beaten in her home for $15 to a lonely zombie on leave from his grave one night, who sneaks around spying on his widow, moves a ladder to confound the man who lives with her now, shuffles back to his grave, and climbs in, undoubtedly sporting a toothy grin on his undead face.

An even greater appeal than the stories themselves is the author’s voice, a soft, almost tentative invitation to participate in the telling. Its gentle approach draws me into an illusion of floating free from the usual narrative signposts that indicate direction, that neither of us by ourselves feels confident of what to expect for the characters, what will happen to them, how their story will end. It’s similar to the spell cast by some of the classic Russian writers, whose characters find themselves looking inward as circumstances conspire to put them in a situation where they’re unsure of their capability to affect a desired outcome. And we can’t help them, neither author nor reader. The characters are on their own. All we can do is watch, fascinated by their self-discovery, as are they, and hope, we and they, that things will work out for the better. And whether they do or they don’t, we are with them all of the way.

My favorite of these forty-six stories, one I will carry with me as long as any of those by my favorite Russian author, coincidentally shares a word in its title with one of the master’s best-known works. It’s a word I think of as ironically cheery in both contexts. I can imagine an appreciative sparkle appearing in Anton Chekhov’s eyes had impossible fortune allowed him to read Byrne-Ludwig’s A Cherry-Pink Moment.

It’s a bitter cold, windy winter morning, and Roselyn is commuting by bus to work. When the bus stops at a traffic light she sees a woman selling newspapers on a platform beside the road. The woman is dressed too lightly for the cold, wind “rippling through her shirt and spinning her trousers around her legs...Her ruddy face, her thin purple lips, her small tuft of hair, all taking the brunt of the wind.” It bothers Roselyn seeing the woman for the next several days selling papers in the same place, under dressed the same way, and one day on her lunch break, on an impulse, she buys a cherry-pink jumper for the woman.

But being shy by nature, Roselyn then wonders how the woman might receive her gift. “A turmoil began in her mind, questions about giving, about the right to assess people’s needs. These troubled her for a couple of days, but then, straightening her plump shoulders and raising resolutely her double-chin out of her scarf, she came to the conclusion that the paper lady needed her help. Who knows, her eyes...might flicker with joy when looking at the woolen jumper.

She decided to give it a try, encouraging herself as she often did: Come on, Rose, you can do it. It was mid-winter, a long month of cold winds ahead. This prompted her to act. She got off the bus and walked up to the lady with a shy smile, bought a paper held out to her. The woman’s hand was purple-blue. Just like the vase on my table with the bunch of irises, Roselyn thought..."

That’s as far as we go here. Roselyn and Byrne-Ludwig can take you the rest of the way. Come on, reader, you can do it!

You can get your copy of A Cloud in My Hand from her directly. Here’s her email. Give her a shout: erikaludbyrne@gmail.com


Wednesday, September 2, 2020


     We are seated on an upholstered bench in front of what might soon become our favorite Edward Hopper painting—well, besides Nighthawks, of course. The title of this one is less mysterious. In fact, it's so mundane and obvious one might even say it's redundant: Hotel Room. Really.

Hopper himself is seated near us on a bench situated at an angle and slightly to our front, giving us a three-quarter view of his face, just enough so we can watch how its silent language responds to the poem Sam Rasnake will read from his new collection, World within the World. Each of the collection’s three dozen poems is inspired by a different work of art. Each has its own title distinct from its inspiration. Rasnake is seated on our bench beside us. The title of the poem he will read has what the painting's title does not, an insightful mix of mystery, suspense, and...and something else, something combustible in the air that attracts the imagination: Night Journeys.

As I have never heard Rasnake’s voice, I must call upon imagination for a stand-in to deliver the words, and, just like that, no rhyme nor reason, the voice of Christopher Walken has arrived to do the honors.

The luggage is packed for

comings or leavings that blur

to silence. Only a dark square

of window near the room’s

bright, fevered edge gives

hope against the will’s deepest

appetite that settles onto the page,

two knees, and the unused bed --

a letter whose truth must dull

the body – its shoulders and

thin shadows, sagging toward

the fingers of disbelief.

Rasnake includes two other Hopper poems under the category he calls Solitudes as Meditation. But something in his reading must have caught in Walken’s voice, and he leaves us musing with our own thoughts. Hopper’s gone, too. Just like that. Here one moment then gone, leaving behind only his painting and the memory of what might have been amusement or surprise in his stoic features. We could move on to Georgia O’Keeffe’s My Last Door, but without Walken’s voice...well the imagination has its own mind, too, you know. If you can get hold of a copy of the book, and find some time for solitude during your pandemic quarantine—sorry, bad joke--your ear can provide its own voice, no? 

Okay just a sip. An O’Keeffe aperitif, if you will. In your own voice. It’s a quote Rasnake offers to help explain his resonating title: “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment.”

And this from Wallace Stevens, a poet I’ve made fun of because I’ve never taken the time, or had the patience, to get to know him. Whenever I’ve tried I’ve found him difficult. This line has ignited a new interest: “The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.” Forgive me, Mr. Stevens, for I’ve been remiss.

Oh, hell—full confession time—for most of my life I’ve avoided poetry, considering it naively precious or even pretentious—pompous, even (altho I’ve always found alliteration amusing, which explains my struggle at the moment to find a fourth word starting with “p”...ah, here it is! I’ve come to see the discipline as vital for learning precision in the craft of wordsmithery). But I’ve still not acquired the knowledge and language to write conventional reviews of the works of other writers, considering instead that if I like something, rather than pretend to be looking at it in a detached, perhaps analytical light, explaining the mechanics of the work rather than how it moves me, I flaunt my enthusiasm in a way that some, including myself, would call “the extended blurb.”

Yet, blurbing is an art all its own, combining the lyrical language of poetry as well as the facility to convey expertise. Kathy Fish, a fine writer in her own right, provides World within the World with the blurb I wish I might have written were I so knowledgeable and skilled. Rasnake’s collection, Fish says, “is a dance of image and abstraction, of precision and fluidity.

“These masterful works draw the reader in, invite us to bear witness to the poet in conversation with the world of art and artists,” to which I say, Amen, sister--amen, and right on!

Sam Rasnake