22 January 2018
If I had piles of money sitting around, I would buy tens of thousands of copies of Chuck Rybak's little book UW Struggle and send them to state legislatures, public university boards of trustees, university administrators, students, parents, reporters — everybody I could possibly think of who might have some effect on public education in the U.S., because the book is short, accessible, punchy, and gives a vivid picture of the many ways that public education is being systematically and deliberately destroyed.
There are other books about higher education that provide a wider, more comprehensive view, but Rybak's purpose is different. His book is an in-the-moment, personal chronicle that also has much to say about the systems of economics and education in the U.S. To learn more about the origins and motivations of what's happening, it's good to read the work of people like Marc Bousquet, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Sara Goldrick-Rab (formerly of UW herself), Henry Giroux, Christopher Newfield, and, for an overview of the history and economics of neoliberalism (the fuel in the engine of this disaster), Philip Mirowski — but to know what this looks like on the ground, to feel the assault, there's nothing better than Rybak's gut punch.
11 January 2018
|Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, November 2017, photo by MC|
First, I should say that I published less in 2017 than in any year since 2002 or so. I published no new fiction. For nonfiction, there was only an essay on John Keene's sentences for Emerging Writers' Network and two reviews for the print edition of Rain Taxi (of The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein and Little Magazine, World Form by Eric Bulson).
The lightness of my publishing this year was a direct result of longer projects I was working on. Thus, while I published less, I wrote more than I have in many years. Yesterday, I turned in a rough draft of a complete dissertation to my advisor. At the end of the summer, I completed a draft of a novel, which I'm currently revising. I finished a long article on Virginia Woolf's The Years, which will be published later this year by Woolf Studies Annual. And early in 2017 I wrote a novella-length narrative about Woolf and anti-fascism; because of its length and form (not quite academic, not quite not-academic), it's basically unpublishable, but it was enjoyable work and I've cannibalized a few small parts of it for my dissertation, so I'm not complaining.
A highly productive year, then, but not one that was publicly productive.
It was also a productive year for reading, for movie-viewing and music-listening and general culture-imbiding. Partly, this was because I currently have a Dissertation Year Fellowship from the University of New Hampshire, so I haven't had to work as a teacher since last spring. I miss the classroom, miss the daily contact with students and the challenge of designing and implementing a curriculum, but I'm also benefitting a lot from having a break.
Here are some highlights, as I remember them. This chronicle is neither complete nor definitive, more a stream-of-consciousness meditation, and I have written it mostly for my own sake. In the interest particularly of bringing a sliver of attention to work that ought to get a lot more, I will perform this meditation in public, at the risk of making all my blind spots, bad taste, and human failures available to the masses. I live to serve.
28 December 2017
Sam Baker's music is relatively new to me, and it has become an obsession. I first heard of him when I heard part of his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross in 2014 while driving somewhere, and I was captivated, but for one reason or another, I didn't remember to seek out any of his albums. Then late this fall, looking for new stuff to listen to, I happened upon his recent album Land of Doubt, which wrapped itself around my consciousness and wouldn't let go. "Who is this guy?" I thought, imagining he was a grizzled old feller something like the Woodsman in Twin Peaks. I soon discovered he was the guy I'd heard on Fresh Air whose music I had wanted to listen to but then got distracted and didn't. Land of Doubt was different enough from my perception of his earlier music that I hadn't connected that musician, who had both a powerful personal story and a powerful talent as a singer-songwriter, with this one.
It's rare that I write about music, because I don't feel any real ability to explain why I like what I like. (That's one of the things I value music for: its mysterious appeal.) Nor do I have any knowledge of the world of the music business, its production, promotion, distribution, etc. But I feel compelled to write a few words in praise of Land of Doubt because after I discovered it, I expected there must be lots of reviews of it, interviews with Baker about it, award nomination for it. Baker's previous album, Say Grace, got him on Fresh Air and landed as number 5 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 10 Country albums of 2013 (don't let that "country" appellation put you off — if he's country, it's in the manner of John Prine, Townes van Zandt, and Steve Earle, not Garth Brooks). But as far as I can tell, there were only a handful of reviews — Austin Chronicle, No Depression, Folk Radio UK — and while the reviews were positive, they didn't lead the album to be included on any best-of-the-year lists that I've found except for the marvelous, eclectic list from Ted Gioia. (If I were a musician, that would be one of the lists I would most aspire to be on, since the choices are always wide-ranging and thoughtful.)
Given how much music is out there, it's hardly surprising that great work fails to get noticed. When the work is as compelling as Land of Doubt, though, that failure galls. Particularly for an audience that gravitates toward roots music, Americana, alt-country, Tom Waitsy grungefolk, whatever-you-want-to-call-it — for that audience, this album ought to be addictive.
12 December 2017
William Gass died a few days ago, and, as I do when a writer I value dies, I returned to his work. I read around in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and then A Temple of Texts, where, in the essay "The Sentence Seeks Its Form", I read:
Between Shakespeare and Joyce, there is no one but Dickens who has an equal command of the English language.
That sentence from A Temple of Texts most struck me, though, because not long before reading it, I had just finished reading one of Dickens's least popular novels, Barnaby Rudge, and as always when reading Dickens, even when my interest in the events or characters lagged, I was thrilled by his sentences. From his earliest days, Dickens was among the most popular writers in English, and yet now, in an era when endless lines of bland prose scroll across our eyes, I can't help but wonder at the fact of his popularity, given that he wrote such marvelously rich, complex sentences. It is unthinkable today. Not only do few people want to luxuriate in complex sentences, but few readers even know how to read them. Today, popular writers must stick to “shorter, cleaner sentences, without unneeded words" ("unneeded" being a code always in need of deciphering, as, like "cleaner", it refers not to words but to assumptions and prejudices), and even the most valorized of American lit'ry writers tend toward the short, sharp, chopped.
Reading Barnaby Rudge, I noted passage after passage that I wanted to savor and study. I won't go over them all here, but a few seem worthy of public mention.
03 November 2017
The Spring 2017 issue of Virginia Woolf Miscellany (issue 91) has been posted online as a free PDF. It includes a brief essay I wrote in remembrance of Jean Kennard, who taught a Woolf seminar twenty years ago that helped set me on a path I am still following.
Here's a taste:
We read all of the novels except Night and Day, plus Room, Three Guineas, and the essays in Michèle Barrett's Women & Writing anthology. I remember being so exhausted from reading that I could hardly keep up with my other classes, but it was a profoundly fulfilling exhaustion, because reading such a volume of Woolf made her words and images feel like a presence in my life, a sort of companion.
18 October 2017
To write responsibly about Blade Runner 2049, I would need to see it again, and to explore what I want to explore I would need to watch Denis Villeneuve's previous film, Arrival, again (I last saw it on its theatrical release), and I would need to watch all of Villeneuve's previous films (a couple of which I've missed), and I would need to watch the original Blade Runner again (a film I cherish and have seen a dozen times, at least, though I'm always happy for an excuse for another viewing), and—
I do not have time for any of this at the moment. But, before my thoughts disappear like — well, if wanted to insert an obvious and tacky allusion here, I'd say, like tears in rain, but you can fill in the simile yourself — before my thoughts disappear, I will jot down a few notes, on the off chance that they may be of use to you or somebody or me or nobody—
For me, Blade Runner 2049 is a sometimes visually interesting movie and not much other than that. Among the people I know, mine is a strikingly minority opinion: via social media, I've seen that many people I know and respect not only enjoy the movie, but respond to it in a way I have no access to. This is always an intellectually interesting moment for me (frustrating, because I would rather have access to pleasure than be barred from it, but interesting). The situation raises aesthetic questions: What is it within this film that works powerfully on the mind and emotions of many people but not others?
29 September 2017
Let me begin with disclaimer: This is not a review of Liz Ahl's first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. Liz is a longtime friend who sometimes writes about the place where I live and people I know, so anything I say about this book's qualities ought to be suspect. Further, I'm not very good at writing about poetry. I read a lot of poetry — well, "a lot" in comparison to most Americans, certainly, and probably in comparison to most writers who are not themselves poets — but have no facility for writing about poetry with much more insight than, "I like this line," or "Doesn't that sound nice?"
What this post is, then, is not a review but a notice, plus quotations and anecdotes.
Notice: Liz Ahl has published her first book-length collection of poems, Beating the Bounds. No book better captures what it looks like, smells like, sounds like, feels like to live in rural central New Hampshire than this book. That may sound like a little thing, but to me, who calls that world home, it is everything.
It's all relative, of course, the late and the early,Anecdotes: I first met Liz when she was a foreigner. It was nearly 20 years ago, and I was just back from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Walking through the Plymouth State University Bookstore one day, I saw that a professor had assigned a class to buy Joel Brouwer's poetry collection Exactly What Happened. Joel Brouwer had been at Bread Loaf, and I had fallen in love with his poems. But they weren't exactly famous. Of all the thousands and thousands of poetry collections to assign to undergraduates ... that seemed a strange choice. A good choice, an excellent choice, but statistically odd. I wanted to know who this person was. The professor's name on the shelfcard in the bookstore was unfamiliar to me: L. Ahl.
the patterns we imagine, the seasonal routine
we embellish, and all the talk we make—
("Talking About the Weather")
16 September 2017
Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.
Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")
It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery.
04 September 2017
That is the tune but there are no words.
The words are only speculation
(From the Latin speculum, mirror):
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music.
We see only postures of the dream,
Riders of the motion that swings the face
Into view under evening skies, with no
False disarray as proof of authenticity.
But it is life englobed.
One would like to stick one's hand
Out of the globe, but its dimension,
What carries it, will not allow it.
John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.
It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.
Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique position, which is the same reservation I have about Ashbery's unique position, is that it's unique. I wish a wider variety of artists were similarly free.
02 September 2017
Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.
The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:
Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.
From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?