After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography edited by Kate Sontag and David Graham

June 27, 2010 at 9:45 pm (book review, books, essays, literary criticism, literature, nonfiction, poetry, reading)

Being a poet who writes primarily confessional poetry I was stoked to come across After Confession, a collection of critical essays discussing the technical, aesthetic, and ethical considerations unique to confessional poetry. With essays by some of the biggest names in contemporary poetry including Alicia Ostricker, Billy Collins, and Louise Gluck, After Confession offers a remarkably well-rounded look at the possibilities and pit falls of the form.

The book is divided into four sections: “Staying News: Critical and Historical Perspectives” looks at autobiographical poetry from antiquity to the present. “Our Better Halves: Autobiographical Musings ” examines the self within confessional poetry. “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” is self-explanatory. And “Codes of Silence: Women and Autobiography” shines a spotlight on women in confessional poetry.

Sontag’s and Graham’s arrangement of the essays is almost conversational, each one responding to arguments put forth in previous essays. This back and forth makes it feel as though you’re listening in on an active debate rather than reading a book.

Though the book as a whole is incredibly rich, I enjoyed part three, “Degrees of Fidelity: Ethical and Aesthetic Considerations” the most. Ted Kooser’s essay “Lying for the Sake of Making Poems” in which he lambastes autobiographical poets who stretch the truth and advocates the inclusion of some sort of note or clause at the start of poems indicating whether or not they are true, had me so furious I covered the margins in back talk. I didn’t need to though. In the following essay, “Self-Pity,” Carol Frost highlights the many subtle ways confessional poets use syntax, timing, innuendo, and word choice to indicate what is true and what is false, and basically makes Ted Kooser look like a lazy reader.

In his amusing essay “The Glass Anvil: The Lies of an Autobiographer” Andres Hudgins maps out ten different types of lies ranging from white to red hot, and points out where, why, and how he used each of them in his poetry book The Glass Hammer. And Kimiko Hahn’s “Blunt Instrument: a Zuihitsu” examines the intersection of truth, half-truth, and memory in confessional poetry as a whole through a poetic form that allows one to clearly view each fragment, each thought, by itself  and in relation to surrounding truths and untruths.

Each section has its stand out essays. In section four’s  “The Voices We Carry” Kimberly Blaeser talks about the social construction of individuality, and how our sense of self is cobbled together through membership to various groups, and relationships to other people.  In section two Stanley Plumly’s remarkable “Autobiography and Archetype” makes the argument that archetype is what connects autobiography to something larger than itself, and autobiography is the medium through which archetypes are continually renewed.

No matter how you feel about confessional poetry – whether you love it, hate it, write it, or sneer at it – After Confession should be on your bookshelf. The essays offer ammunition to anyone looking for a way to explain why confessional poetry is awesome or why it sucks, and contains loads of food for thought along the way.

More than anything, the critical ideas and personal views expressed in After Confession reminded me of the possibilities inherent in the poetic form; that a poet can never learn enough, can never stop trying new things, and must never stop pushing the boundaries of poetic expression.

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Perfume by Patrick Suskind

February 9, 2010 at 11:44 am (fiction, historical fiction, literature, mixed bag, novels, suspense/thriller)

Born with an acute sense of smell but no biologically produced body odor of his own, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille experiences the world through his nose. He knows every person, animal, shop, and street in Paris by their unique scent.

This peculiar gift drives Father Terrier, the monk under whose guardianship Grenouille was placed as an infant, to turn him over to Madame Gaillard who runs a boarding house for abandoned children, fearing if he does not rid himself of Grenuouille the boy will sniff out all of his sins. It is what leads Madame Gaillard, after years of caring for all Grenouille’s physical needs, to sell him to a tanner named Grimal as a child laborer, sensing that there is something not quite right about him. It is what convinces local perfumer Giuseppe Baldini to hire him away from Grimal so that he may use Grenouille’s talents for his own gain.

Grenouille’s entire identity is built upon his ability to mentally catalogue and re-create scents. He remembers each and every smell he has ever encountered. He dissects them, reducing each complex odor to its individual components. Without a home or even a compassionate guardian Grenouille’s sense of smell is the only thing he can truly rely on. It anchors him in an increasingly unpredictable world. But it isn’t enough for Grenouille to experience every scent in existence. He wants to be loved and admired for his talent, and vows to earn that admiration by creating the most irresistible perfume ever.

This allegorical tale about the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler is hypnotic in its depravity. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of allegory. I think it is easier and more enjoyable to probe a text when the subject matter is clear. Perfume, however, is so deftly written it can be enjoyed as the allegory that it is, or simply as a story of suspense. There are depths to mine if the reader wishes to, but it is not cricual to do so.

Grenouille is your run of the mill sociopath. He hates everyone and hasn’t an ounce of love or compassion in him. He values people for what they can do to help him reach his ultimate goal, that’s all. I can’t say I liked Grenouille, but even so, I wanted to know what would happen to him. I found his heartlessness and single-minded determination fascinating.

The book is full of people just as despicable as Grenouille. Madame Gaillard treats the children under her care with cool indifference, her only goal in life to save up enough money to buy an annuity so she might grow old and die in private rather than in the cramped Hotel-Deu as her husband did. Grimal purposely leaves the most hazardous tasks to child laborers as they are more disposable than skilled workers. Baldini, a master perfumer though he is, is barely competent and owes most of his success to the ingenuity of others. None of them are the least bit likable, yet I could not put the book down. I had to know what happened to them.

And what happens is grusome. Every life that Grenouille touches comes to a bad end. Madame Gaillard dies of old age in the Hotel-Deu just as she feared she would. Grimal drowns in a river after passing out drunk on the shore. Baldini’s house collapses while he’s asleep inside. Each is destroyed by their obsessions and punished for their sins. Call him Grenouille or call him Hitler, either way he can be seen as the personification of our worst human impulses. His behavior and the way others react to it shed light on aspects of the human psyche we’d rather ignore.

Suskind’s decision to tell the story in a dramatic third person voice distances the reader from the story. I never felt as if I were in the story or observing it like a fly on the wall. I was always very aware of being spoken to. This deliberate stylistic choice allows Suskind to manipulate the reader, making him feel emotionally removed from the story as it grows ever more bizarre and disturbing. 

It wasn’t until the explosive finale that I realized what Suskind was up to. He made me enjoy a story full of morally corrupt people, told it in a way that made me feel indifferent to behaviors that should have repelled me. He drew me in and, in doing so, made me an accomplice to the depravity. He turned me into a witness who did nothing to stop the crime. I got the feeling Suskind wanted me to feel guilty for having enjoyed the book, just as all of Germany continues to be made to feel guilty for allowing the rise of Nazism.

Though I was unable to emotionally invest in the novel, and that reduced the amount of enjoyment I got out of it, Perfume is worth reading, if only to admire the masterful technique with which Suskind weaves his tale and manipulates the reader.

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Big in Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino

October 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm (ARC, fiction, literary criticism, literature, novels)

Big in Japan was the second book I managed to snag from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program. Considering how I felt about the first one, I did not have high hopes for M. Thomas Gammarino’s debut. But this character driven rumination on the relationship between physical desire and spirituality was a delicious surprise. At turns crass and cerebral, Big in Japan captures the distinctive blend of ambivalence and desperation that characterizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Big in Japan follows the exploits of twenty-four year old Brain Tedesco, guitarist for the Philadelphia based progressive rock band Agenbite. When the group realizes their independently released debut album is selling slightly better in Japan than in the States they convince their manager to send them on a promotional tour of Japan to boost sales. As the band tours Tokyo, playing venue after empty venue, they are forced to admit the tour is a failure. But having fallen in love with a Japanese sex-worker named Miho, Brain is too distracted to care. When Brain suddenly quits the band, deciding to stay behind and marry Miho rather than return to Philadelphia, the story kicks into high gear.

It’s risky to place an emotionally stunted character at the apex of a novel, and Brain Tedesco is nothing if not stunted. At the start of the story he is still living with his parents and working a crappy minimum wage job stocking shelves at a local pharmacy. He has never had a girlfriend, his deep anxiety, insecurity, and social awkwardness having paved the way for rejection after rejection.

The problem with emotionally stunted characters is they’re incredibly difficult to render sympathetically. All too often they’re immaturity and lack of self-awareness make them come off as whiny and annoying. And even though Brain is whiny at times, I never found him annoying. Gammarino imbues him with a naked vulnerability that is endearing and relatable. Even when Brain’s behavior crosses the line from self-defeating into selfish and cruel, I couldn’t write him off as just another man behaving badly. His motivations were far too complex and his psyche too broken for me to turn on him, and that says a lot coming from a person who is always prepared to turn on a character she feels is acting like an idiot. Gammarino deserves a world of credit for creating a character whose humanity is never eclipsed by his moronic behavior.

Brain is also kind of OCD. He is obsessed with order and routine; the kind of guy who has a place for everything and  insists everything remain in its place. Initially, Brain is not happy about going to Japan. The trip is a major deviation from his normal routine; a disruption on par with leaving a magazine that belongs on the coffee table laying haphazardly on the couch.

But Brain’s desire for order also translates into a taste for purity. Brain is a virgin, and a typical one at that. He is a total horn dog consumed by sexual thoughts, yet reveres the idea of love. He believes love and sex to be neatly and inextricably linked, one following naturally on the heels of the other. So, it’s no surprise that Brain is automatically taken by the pristine beauty of Japanese women – women so physically and behaviorally different from women back in the States. On page 19 as his band mates discuss the pros and cons of sleeping with easy women, Brain thinks, “Horniness dried you out, made you haggard and ugly. These japanese girls weren’t that. They were so pure.” Drawn in by what he perceives as the unsullied beauty of the natives, Brain begins to view his trip to Japan, its alien language and culture, not as a disruption but as a coming home of sorts. He sees it as a place where his hunger for purity and order can be adequately satisfied.

Early in the story Brain visits the Tokyo National Museum where he comes across a series of scroll paintings of “hungry ghosts.” They are described on page 67 as “…[D]enizens of one of the Buddhist Hell realms. They had mountainous bellies and needle-thin necks that made it physiologically impossible for them to sate their hunger. In each of the scrolls, the ghosts…could be found squatting in latrines, trying and failing to gorge themselves on human waste.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Brain himself is a hungry ghost. His insatiable desire to do and be something more than the anxious, insecure, angry boy that he is leads him to a life of debauchery. He gluts himself on sex until the activity becomes toxic; a mechanical act that he no longer enjoys but can’t bring himself to stop.

This compulsion to internalize that which is poisonous stands in stark contrast to his search for the pristine, though both spring from the same well of insecurity and both shield him in some way. By accepting only perfection Brain kept himself from having to engage the material world, whereas consuming only the profane prevents him from having to fully engage others on an emotional level. It is only as Brain learns to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind and spirit that he begins to grow up.

Gammarino’s writing is strong and evocative, if a little self-conscious at times. Big in Japan maintained a sense of urgency throughout that had me rushing to turn each page.

Normally, I’m a serial reader. I finish one book and dive straight into another. I couldn’t do that with Big in Japan. I had to take two days to emotionally process the story before I could bring myself to start a new book, that’s how much it got to me.

Haunting, sad, and unflinchingly honest Big in Japan will leave your mouth watering.

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Landing by Emma Donoghue

December 31, 2008 at 3:55 am (fiction, literature, novels, queer interest)

In Emma Donoghue’s fifth novel, Landing, “Love isn’t a problem, geography is.” So says Jude Turner, a twenty-five year old museum curator who has spent her entire life in the small town of Ireland, Ontario, population six hundred. The love she’s referring to is Sile O’Shuanessey, a thirty-nine year old flight attendant whose roots are in Dublin, Ireland. After meeting on a trans-Atlantic flight neither woman can get the other out of her head, and they start up a flirty correspondence that slowly blooms into full blown love.

Jude and Sile appear to be total opposites. Jude is young, androgynous, loathes technology, adores small town life, and has a great respect for history. Sile is older, feminine, tech-savvy, well traveled, and loves urban living. But scratch the surface and you find both women are stuck in ruts dug by the repetitious natures of their respective lifestyles. Jude finds herself hanging around with the same people she did in high school, engaging in the same activities day in and day out, while Sile spends her days stuck in an airplane dealing with the same moody passengers flight after flight. It’s the stone of their long-distance relationship that disrupts their routines, sending ripples through every aspect of their lives.

The long distance relationship itself isn’t just the cause of each woman’s internal struggle, but an external depiction of it. It allows both women the emotional benefits of commitment without any of the inconveniences. There’s no fighting over where to eat dinner Friday night; no having to play referee to the lover and best friend who can’t stand each other. Both Jude and Sile are able to continue living their lives without significant interruption. But as their relationship turns serious, Jude and Sile begin to view the arrangement in a negative light. When the two meet up in New York for a weekend together, rather than look forward to the three days they have with Landingeach other, each sunrise and sunset only reminds them that they will have to part again. On page 196 Sile’s best friend Jael observes that the long distance relationship “Sounds like all the hassle of being in a couple, and none of the pleasure.” Still stubbornly attached to their home towns, however, neither Sile nor Jude is willing to make any compromise that will require major change in their lives. When the strain of maintaining separate lives becomes to much for the relationship to bear Jude and Sile must decide whether to remain chained to the past and rooted in routine, or to risk taking flight and seeing where their relationship lands.

I am a big fan of Emma Donoghue, and as with all of my favorite authors, she consistently produces work that is rich in themes worthy of examination. One could write a critical essay on the how the arbitrary constructs  of “time” and “place” work in the novel. Or ask what is it that physically and emotionally anchors us to specific locations? Donoghue returns to the  idea of taking flight and eventually landing throughout the novel, and how the two seemingly opposing actions often overlap and mimic each other.

While it would have been easy for Sile and Jude to come across as cliches, the consummate city mouse and country mouse, Donoghue gives them depth and individuality. Jude has a strong sense of self that allows her to be open about her fluid sexuality even in  a town where everyone knows everyone elses business, and Sile is incredibly kind and nurturing despite a fast paced jet-setter lifestyle that often forces her to deal with highly demanding individuals. The women have enough in common that  it’s easy to understand why they like each other, and are in just enough disagreement for the reader to understand what is keeping them apart.

Falling in love is like taking to the air. There’s the soaring, butterflies in the stomach feel of the honeymoon period that must eventually give way to the apprehensive, stomach-in-your-throat feeling brought on by the realization that what goes up must come down. With her trademark compassion and sensitivity, Donoghue has crafted a satisfying read about the risks of falling and the rewards of landing.

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The Weekend by Peter Cameron

September 3, 2007 at 2:56 pm (fiction, literature, novels, queer interest)

The Weekend is a relatively simple story full of complicated relationships. Lyle, a controversial art critic, receives an invitation to spend the weekend in upstate New York with his old friends John and Marian Kerr on the one year anniversary of his lover Tony’s death. The Kerrs’ have invited a rich intellectual named Laura for dinner one evening, hoping her love and knowledge of art will pique Lyle’s interest and keep him from dwelling on the sadness of the occasion. But everyone is surprised when Lyle shows up with his new and significantly younger lover, Robert. Thus begins a tense outing and a story that never quite reaches its potential.

Though my problems with the book are few they were large enough to prevent me from truly losing myself in this novel. My biggest qualm is with the characters themselves, all of whom are cold, elitist, defensive, and withholding. Since they all possess the same character flaws not a single one of them stands out. Rather, they all meld into one another, each losing whatever distinguishing characteristics they might have. It’s not exciting to read a novel in which five of the primary characters all deal with the same problems in the same ways. By doing this Cameron has missed a great opportunity to examine the grieving process from numerous perspectives.

Most of the back story revolving around Lyle and Tony is related through dialogue. This choice poses problems for two reasons: 1) it makes all of the characters, even those who The Weekend by Peter Cameronhave known one another for years, sound so uninformed they border on naive. For instance, John and Marian often ask Lyle questions that they as his lifelong friends should already know the answers to. And 2) it makes the dialogue predictable. Almost all the dialogue follows the same Q & A format with one person doing all the talking and the other doing all the asking.  Not only does this rob characters of their individual voices, but it makes conversation uniform. In this case the writing axiom “show, don’t tell” should have been more closely heeded.

However, Cameron is a good writer. His prose are clear, quick, and concise and at no point did I want to put the book down. He does a fabulous job of building tension. Though the characters all deal with the same internal conflicts, their decision to keep those conflicts bottled up throughout the story allows the reader to live in anticipation of the scene where they are all revealed. By keeping the protagonists just a degree or two below boiling Peterson lures the reader through page after page with great speed.

Unfortunately, the final pages are a disappointment. Cameron doesn’t bother to tie up any of the loose ends created by the climax which leaves the reader feeling deflated. While not without charm, the negative aspects of The Weekend outweigh the positives. Pass on this one.

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