Faulkner Friday: The Unvanquished (1938)

March 30th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

For most of the thirteen years leading up to the publication of The Unvanquished (1938), most of Faulkner’s short fiction and novels kept circling around the Ground Zero of Yoknapatawpha County:  the Civil War.  In “A Rose for Emily,” passing mention was made of Colonel Sartoris and his form of charity toward Emily.  Flags in the Dust (1929) follows the Sartoris family in its decline after the Civil War.  In Absalom, Absalom! we learn a bit more about the Compsons and their connection to the settlement of the county and their involvement in the Civil War.  “Barn Burning” introduced us to Ab Snopes, whose muddled role in the Civil War was, incidentally enough, first explored in The Unvanquished.  There are further ripple effects, forwards and backwards in Yoknapatawphan time, as the complex, tragic mix of pride, stubbornness, racism and classism, and the struggle of the everyperson to make his/her way through an often unforgiving environment all center around the real and fictional events of 1861-1865.

The Unvanquished, through seven episodes, tells the story of the Sartoris family during the second half of the Civil War, July 1863-April 1865, and into the Reconstruction years, ending in 1872.  Six of these seven episodes originally were short stories published between 1934-1936, with the seventh, “An Odor of Verbena,” appearing only with the complete novel.  It is told through the young twelve year-old eyes of Bayard Sartoris, Colonel John Sartoris’ eldest son, as he remains at home on the Sartoris plantation while his father and the other Yoknapatawpha men join the Confederate Army of the Mississippi in battles north and east of Jefferson.  The story begins with Bayard and the young slave Ringo playing a mock battle of Vicksburg when an older servant, Loosh, comes in and informs the boys that Vicksburg has fallen and that the Yankees are advancing through northeastern Mississippi toward Jefferson.  Soon enough, the two spot an advance Yankee patrol and Bayard pulls down a musket from the wall and shoots at him, killing a horse.  This opening episode, “Ambuscade,” reveals not just young Bayard’s naivety (he does not yet understand that there is an element of fear as well as respect in how Ringo and the other slaves treat him and his family), but also that turning point in the war where the advancing Union forces have begun liberating the slaves in the captured territories following the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863.    Faulkner later reveals the depth to which the slaves knew of Lincoln’s proclamation in the third section, “Raid,” through this eloquent passage:

We never did overtake them, just as you do not overtake a tide. You just keep moving, then suddenly you know that the set is about you, beneath you, overtaking you, as if the slow and ruthless power, become aware of your presence at last, had dropped back a tentacle, a feeler, to gather you in and sweep you remorselessly on. Singly, in couples, in groups and families they began to appear from the woods, ahead of us, alongside of us and behind…men and women carrying babies and dragging older children by the hand, old men and women on improvised sticks and crutches, and very old ones sitting beside the road and even calling to us when we passed; there was one old woman who even walked along beside the wagon, holding to the bed and begging Granny to at least let her see the river before she died.

The path of human migration was not limited to the slaves moving toward the Mississippi River (where the Union Army was stationed) but also to the movement of refugees driven from their homes by the fighting.  During the last full year of the war, Bayard’s family leaves the Sartoris plantation behind, as the Colonel has ridden into town and urges his mother, the Granny, to take the family silver to Memphis for safekeeping from looters from both sides of the conflict.  As Granny, Bayard, and Ringo travel toward their destination, they are waylaid, saved only by the fortuitous arrival of the Colonel’s cavalry as they try to chase down the thieves, who manage to escape but without the silver they had taken.  There are several funny events in the middle episodes, such as when Granny later goes to the Union forces and petitions for the return of the silver that the soldiers had later taken from the plantation after another patrol came upon it while searching for the Colonel’s troop.  Through a series of shrewd negotiations, abetted by the shady Ab Snopes, they have engaged in a mule smuggling/selling operation that allows the family to make back the money lost.  In this episode, there are shades of actual events late in the war where soldiers on both sides and civilians would sometimes engage in a series of complex and perhaps illicit trades in order for the latter to survive as their crops were devastated by the fighting and lack of labor for harvest time.

Dearth of supplies and food, while featured at times in these stories, takes a secondary role to Bayard’s personal development.  Near the end of the fighting, Granny is killed by the sinister ex-Confederate bandit, Grumby, as she tries to ply on him her mule-trading scam.  Betrayed by Snopes, Grumby has her killed.  Bayard and others in the household begin tracking down Grumby’s men, when they stumble upon Snopes, who had been tied up and left for dead by Grumby.  Eventually, Grumby is cornered, killed, and one of his hands is chopped off in retribution for the treatment Granny received.  In this, we see Bayard progressing from a callow youth to a young adolescent who is fierce in his defense of family honor.  Later, in the final episode, set in 1872, we see this sense of honor tested, with Bayard learning that sometimes there is a time and place for fighting and another for peacemaking for a good greater than that of the family.

The Unvanquished is difficult to discuss without laying out the events that occur.  Faulkner skips ahead months, if not years, between the seven episodes and at times the narrative is comic and at others very somber.  This likely is due to the episodes originally being six short stories that were later edited together to form a mosaic novel.  In places, such as the shift from the plantation to the family engaging in the mule-trading business, the transitions are very abrupt and feel rough and underdeveloped.  Yet on occasion this sense of disjointedness actually serves to accentuate the confusion and calamities of the final years of the Civil War and the massive disruptions and displacements that took place.  While Bayard’s growth into the future leader of the Sartoris family is a key unifying thread, there is much here about how the Jefferson blacks viewed the war, how there were unscrupulous individuals like Snopes and Grumby who profited from the war, as well as how chaste love, such as that shared between Bayard and Drusilla, serves as a thematic counterpoint to the fighting and hatreds that spilled out.  By itself, The Unvanquished is not one of Faulkner’s best written or developed story sequences.  But as a sort of quasi-prequel that ties together the references made in his earlier fiction, it serves to unify the disparate threads found elsewhere and to give a sense of loss, privation, and pride even in defeat that became the hallmark of so many of his post-Civil War-set characters and stories.  For that, it is an invaluable part of the larger tapestry of Faulkner’s fiction, even if by itself it is a weaker work.

Mario Vargas Llosa reading schedule

March 30th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

For several weeks now, I have been contemplating adding another reading/reviewing series to the Faulkner Friday weekly (or roughly speaking; I will be caught up by the end of the weekend, I hope).  I wanted to cover an author whose work could be seen as a complement of sorts to what Faulkner covers, but yet who is very distinct.  After consideration, I thought Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa would be a perfect fit, as not only is he a Nobel laureate, he claims Faulkner as one of his main literary influences.  So with that in mind, I am going to cover Vargas Llosa’s novels and two recent non-fiction works on a biweekly schedule, tentatively scheduled for Mondays.  I will be reading him in Spanish, but reviewing in English (and likely doing rough, quick translations of passages I want to quote); these works are readily available in English and most European languages.  Here is the reading schedule, with tentative dates:

 

April

2 – Los jefes/Los cachorros (The Chiefs/The Puppies)

16 – La ciudad y los perros (The Time of the Hero)

30 – La casa verde (The Green House)

 

May

14 – Conversación en la catedral (Conversation in the Cathedral)

28 – Pantaleón y las visitadoras (Captain Pantoja and the Special Service)

 

June

11 – La tía Julia y el escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter)

25 – La guerra del fin del mundo (The War of the End of the World)

 

July

9 – Historia de Mayta (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta)

23 – ¿Quién mató a Palomino Molero? (Who Killed Palomino Molero?)

 

August

6 – El hablador (The Storyteller)

20 – Elogio de la madrastra (In Praise of the Stepmother)

 

September

3 – Lituma en los Andes (Death in the Andes)

17 – Los cuadernos de don Rigoberto (Notebooks of Don Rigoberto)

 

October

1 – La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat)

15 – El paraíso en la otra esquina (The Way to Paradise)

29 – Travesuras de la niña mala (The Bad Girl)

 

November

12 – El sueño del celta (The Dream of the Celt)

26 – La tentación de lo imposible (The Temptation of the Impossible) (non-fiction)

 

December

10 – El Viaje a la Ficcion (The Journey to Fiction) (non-fiction)

PEN/Faulkner Award winner: Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic

March 27th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.

One of the hardest narratives to write is that of a common experience. Ask ten people who witnessed or experienced an event to describe it and you are going to get ten, sometimes opposing, different answers. This is especially true when writing a narrative history of a population’s experiences. In attempting to describe a common “we,” too often historians (the “true” storytellers) fall back into choosing what might be considered “representative samples” to replace any attempt at a narrative “we.”

In her second novel, Julie Otsuka audaciously attempts to write an entire short novel in contrasting first-person plural and (briefly) third-person plural narratives. Too easily could such an attempt flounder on the shores of repetitive sentence structure (we did this, we heard that) or have the narrative flow crash against the shoals of bland sameness. What Otsuka does in her recounting of the collective experience of Japanese “picture wives” from the early decades of the 20th century, through discrimination, cultural clashes, diminished (and increased) gender roles, childbirth, dealing with their children’s Americanized value systems, to World War II and the rise of the internment camps is remarkable. She gives both a collective voice and haunting individual voices.

Take for instance the passage quoted above. The reader encounters snippets of haunting tales (“or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away”) throughout these narratives, broken into eight thematic parts that chart the collective development of these women through their youth to their mature years (with the notable exceptions of those who go mad, are beaten to death, or are sent back to Japan for infidelity or infertility). Otsuka’s narrative becomes in many regards a sparse meta-narrative on establishing a cultural identity in a foreign land and how so many individual lives can be subsumed by their environs.

Otsuka’s prose is deceptively simple. It would be too easy to listen to the rise and fall of each paragraph, as the plural narrators speak almost poetically of their lives, their dreams, and their disappointments. Like whispers in a gale, the hints of certain voices arising repeatedly throughout this book can be easily missed. Perhaps that is part of the point; in noting the collective experiences of these women in group narratives, the personality of individual narrators can be lost. Otsuka manages to avoid this trap for most of the book; we the readers experience what they the narrators undergo without much, if any, loss in emotive power.

There are very few weaknesses in The Buddha in the Attic. The main structural issue comes in discussing the “they” surrounding the “we.” Although the point is to accentuate the foreignness of the Americans who stand at some remove from the Japanese immigrants, there are times where their actions feel too remote from what transpires. By the time the “Traitors” section is reached, the “they” are less than shadows of voices; they are reduced to symbols for estrangement, of suspicious separation. When the “they” gain their narrative voices at the end, there is not as much narrative force because “they” are ironically reduced to the quasi-ghosts that the Japanese and other immigrant groups experienced for decades in American histories. But that perhaps is exactly the point and perhaps that lack of corresponding narrative counterpoint is intended to underscore the power of Otsuka’s collective narrative.

On the whole, The Buddha in the Attic is a narrative tour de force of a too-long neglected era of American history. Otsuka’s prose manages to walk the narrative tightrope line between blandness and and triteness. Amidst the collective narrative lurks flitting yet moving mini-narratives in which a life and that woman’s experiences can be told in a single sentence, leaving the reader to imagine vividly the spaces that exist between. This is a powerful story told in a bold, creative fashion. The Buddha in the Attic certainly was a worthy winner for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award, even despite the other shortlisted titles, each of which were strong entries that certainly merit further consideration from readers who have yet to encounter their works.

Faulkner Friday: “The Tall Men” (1941); “Adolescence” (posthumous, released in 1979)

March 23rd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Much has been made in previous Faulkner Friday entries on how Faulkner’s characters relate to their time and locale.  At times, this take risks suborning characterization too much to the demands of theme.  Yet whenever the individual characters are considered, from Addie to Emily to Joe to Quentin to Sam Fathers and so forth, there is a quality about them that makes them seem “real” outside of the constraints of the particular tale in which they appear.  A composite image forms of characters who have suffered, who have grieved, who have spat into the wind and dared to take another step when exhaustion threatened to end their existence right then and there.  Faulkner references this in his Nobel acceptance speech, where he said:

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Endurance in hope of fulfillment and justification drives many people to suffer not just the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but also the ebbs and flows of bounty.  Faulkner’s characters have known better times; they strive for their return, even if they know it may never happen again.  If this were all that Faulkner’s characters were about, however, they would be more archetypes or distortions than true dynamic representations of human people.  Sometimes, these qualities of hope and steadfastness are recognized within the characters (as that of McCallums in “The Tall Men” or the half-orphaned girl Juliet in “Adolescence”) or are seen in opposition through the views of their antagonists (such as the government official in “The Tall Men”).  Even when misunderstood or unrecognized by other characters, these qualities capture and hold our attention.

“The Tall Men” (1941) is set during the last years of the Great Depression, as the country readies itself for possible entry into World War II.  A government official, Pearson,  has been sent to Jefferson to arrest two of the McCallums for draft evasion.  As he travels into town, irked that a local marshal has already told the two men to expect to be arrested, this investigator muses about the local situation in language that might sound familiar to those who have ever heard someone rail against public welfare:

The investigator drew up behind the other car and switched off and blacked out his lights.  “These people,” he said.  Then he thought, But this doddering, tobacco-chewing old man is one of them, too, despite the honor and pride of his office, which should have made him different.  So he didn’t speak it aloud, removing the keys and getting out of the car, and then locking the car itself, rolling the windows up first, thinking, These people who lie about and conceal the ownership of land and property in order to hold relief jobs which they have no intention of performing, standing on their constitutional rights against having to work, who jeopardize the very job itself through petty and transparent subterfuge to acquire a free mattress which they intend to sell; who would relinquish even the job, if by so doing they could receive free food and a place, any rathole, in town to sleep in; who, as farmers, make false statements to get seed loans which they will later misuse, and then react in loud vituperative outrage and astonishment when caught at it.  And then, when at long last a suffering and threatened Government asks one thing of them in return, one thing simply, which is to put their names down on a selective-service list, they refuse to do it.

Over the course of “The Tall Men,” we see this presumptive opinion altered by Pearson’s encounter with the uncle and father of the two young McCallums.  Agricultural laborers and, in the case of the father, a World War I veteran, the elder McCallums talk of not taking anything from anyone but giving freely (in the form of service to land and country, whether it be that of their own father who walked across a thousand miles to join a Confederate regiment in Virginia or Buddy McCallum’s service in World War I) when asked.  Some of their attitudes, such as their refusal to accept crop subsidies and their circumvention of being rewarded for no service may seem quaint to modern readers, but it lies in direct opposition to the opinion expressed earlier by Pearson.  Pearson is forced to confront the truth that there are some who do not shirk duty as much as embrace it to such a degree that mere government directives pale in comparison.  As he prepares to leave the McCallum household, his preconceptions shattered, the local marshal who accompanied him drives this point home with this observation:

So the investigator put the bundle down on the brick coping and the marshal began to dig, skillfully and rapidly, still talking in that cheerful, interminable voice, “Yes, sir.  We done forgot about folks.  Life has done got cheap, and life ain’t cheap.  Life’s a pretty durn valuable thing.  I don’t mean just getting along from one WPA relief check to the next one, but honor and pride and discipline that make a man worth preserving, make him of any value.  That’s what we got to learn again.  Maybe it takes trouble, bad trouble, to teach it back to us; maybe it was the walking to Virginia because that’s where his ma come from, and losing a war and then walking back, that taught it to old Anse.  Anyway, he seems to learned it, and to learned it good enough to bequeath it to his boys.  Did you notice how all Buddy had to do was to tell them boys of his it was time to go, because the Government had sent them the word?  And how they told him good-by?  Growned men kissing one another without hiding and without shame.  Maybe that’s what I am trying to say.

Just as Pearson too readily judged the McCallums because of the letter of a law being broken, too quickly do we often look down upon those who fail to behave in the manner which we prescribe to them.  “The Tall Men” could have been set anywhere in the South (it has barely any connection beyond the Jefferson setting with the rest of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County stories) or any American rural area for that matter.  It is the character of the fictional personages that speak to us, reminding us of character traits that we too often dismiss from our fellow human beings.  There is a veracity to “The Tall Men” that makes it powerful without there being any great dramatic scene; the drama that unfolds is between humans who come to understand each other just a little bit more.

“Adolescence” is not on the par of “The Tall Men,” but this short tale, likely composed in the late 1920s or early 1930s, also is a character-driven tale.  Faulkner begins this tale by opening with the cruel fate of young Juliet Bunden’s mother, whose dreams and aspirations were slowly crushed by marriage to the shiftless Joe Bunden and the pains of childbirth in an age before modern prenatal treatment:

The first ten months of her married life – a time of unprecedented manual labor – failed to destroy her illusions; her mental life, projected forward about her expected child, supported her.  She had hoped for twins, to be called Romeo and Juliet, but she was forced to lavish her starved affections on Juliet alone.  Her husband condoned this choice of name with a tolerant guffaw.  Paternity rested but lightly upon him:  like the male of his kind, he regarded the inevitable arrival of children as one of the unavoidable inconveniences of marriage, like the risk of wetting the feet while fishing.

Juliet’s mother soon dies and when her father remarries, he sends her to live with his mother, who attempts to rear this headstrong girl, after she is sent away by her stepmother for open defiance and antipathy.   “Adolescence” traces the story of Juliet’s development, as she comes to fall in love with a boy, Lee, she meets one day, and whose changing body and moods come to reflect a deepening distrust of the patriarchal world in which she lives.  Her grandmother, and later her father, try to force her to accept the subordinate role that women had been forced into in Southern (and by extension, American) society.  When her grandmother dismisses Lee as a scion of a worthless local family, Juliet flies into a rage, screaming and cursing at her grandmother.  The two eventually come to blows over this years later, as Juliet turns fifteen, and she wants a cook to do the labor that her grandmother has enforced upon her.  As they argue, the core issue of Juliet’s refusal to accept societal conventions comes to the fore:

“Tech you!  Joe Bunden’ll do that a plenty when he comes, I promise ye.  And I bound ye the husband Joe’s picked for you’ll tech ye too; when he hears what folks say about you and that no ‘count Hollowell.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet.  The other croaked into laughter.

“Husband, I tell ye.  But I hadn’t aimed to tell ye before every thing was ready, you’re so hard headed.  But I guess Joe’ll manage ye.  I sent word to Joe that I couldn’t manage you; and them folks of yourn dont want ye to home; so Joe’s went and found somebody to marry ye, though God knows where he found a feller’ll take ye.  But that’s Joe’s lookout, not mine:  I done what I could for ye.”

“Husband?” repeated Juliet idiotically.  “Do you think that you and Joe Bunden can both make me get married?  Much as I hate you, I’d rather be dead than go back home; and before I’d marry anybody I’ll kill you and Joe Bunden, too.  You cant make me!”

The story ends on an ambiguous note.  Her father turns up dead, shot by federal agents during a bootlegging run.  Juliet struggles to make sense of the world around her; she knows that she cannot continue as she is.  As the story closes, there is the hint of something momentous has happened, but with little resolution in sight.  “Adolescence” feels incomplete, as though there is more to Juliet’s young life to be explored, but perhaps that is part of the point that Faulkner makes, that of how all those storms and struggles of youth lead to something else, something that may or may not be for the better.  Yet even if this were the case, then perhaps Juliet Bunden’s struggles are worth considering all the more for their inconclusiveness than for what her fate might say?

There is much to consider (and perhaps, reconsider) in reading and re-reading this tale and that of “The Tall Men.”  Well-developed characters, just like people we have met in our lives, do not easily divulge their innermost secrets and motivations.  We change, we grow, we struggle to find a way to endure.  That lies at the heart of Faulkner’s Nobel speech and it certainly is an important part of his writings.  Empathy is a powerful force, if we could only grasp it fully, he seems to say in these tales.  It certainly is a quality that adds to these fictions.

Faulkner Friday: “A Justice” (1931); “Lion” (1935); “The Bear” (1935-1942)

March 16th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Readers familiar with Faulkner’s oeuvre are well-aware of his propensity to recycle characters and even stories to broaden the scope and to deepen the intensity of the thematic issues he wants to explore.  This certainly is the case with the three short fictions (or two, if one looks at “Lion” (1935) as being but a published draft of the later “The Bear”(1942 in its most familiar form) discussed here in this essay.  While each could be treated separately, perhaps it is best to consider the three together, linked as they are by the character of Sam Fathers, who perhaps is one of Faulkner’s more enigmatic and memorable characters.

Sam Fathers first appears in “A Justice” as a nearly century old half-Choctaw/half-black carpenter.  He is a mystery to a younger Quentin Compson (himself a repeat character from The Sound and the Fury (1929) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), as can be seen in how Compson describes him:

There was a long, low house in the grove, not painted but kept whole and sound by a clever carpenter from the quarters named Sam Fathers, and behind it the barns and smokehouses, and further still, the quarters themselves, also kept whole and sound by Sam Fathers.  He did nothing else, and they said he was almost a hundred years old.  He lived with the Negroes and they – the white people; the Negroes called him a blue-gum – called him a Negro.  But he wasn’t a Negro.  That’s what I’m going to tell about.

Fathers stops to talk to young Quentin one day, and this completes the framework for the narrative outside of the story’s main story, that of how Sam Fathers came to be born and how his Choctaw name came to be Had-Two-Fathers.  This birth narrative, set in the early decades of the 19th century, as Mississippi began to be settled by white plantation owners and their enslaved African servants, touches upon the foundation stories of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, first discussed in “Red Leaves” (1930).  We learn more about the Choctaw and their relationship to the enslaved blacks through the illicit relationship of the Choctaw Craw(fish)-ford with a female slave.  Faulkner weaves together a double narrative, that of the youthful Quentin and the aged Sam Fathers, to create a looping narrative in which the immoral actions of Craw-ford reflect a greater injustice that has befallen the blacks over the course of nearly a century, from the 1820s of the main action of the tale to the literary present of the late 1890s when Quentin is a boy of eight.  Faulkner contrasts the decision made by the chief Doom, with Craw-ford’s required recompense for fathering a child (Sam) on a married woman, with several of the inhumanities that were visited on African-Americans before, during, and after the Civil War.  “A Justice” can be seen as a thematic complement to not just “Red Leaves,” but also to Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! in how matters of racial and familial justice are meted out.

As noted above, Faulkner often would revisit characters at different stages in their lives in order to illustrate the interconnectedness of the peoples and cultures of his native Mississippi and how those relations in turn could stand for a greater human struggle against cold indifference.  One method of exploring this issue of humanity’s struggle against itself and nature is through the metaphor of the hunt.  Faulkner, like several other writers before him, was drawn to the power that can be found in the complex chess between the hunter and the hunted.  “Lion” is the briefest form of this hunt metaphor, extracted to its most mythical form.  Lion is Major de Spain’s hunting dog, yet he is more than that to those who are part of de Spain and Ike McCaslin’s party hunting the legendary black bear, Old Ben:

They were funny about Lion.  Neither one of them owned him or had any hope of ever owning him and I don’t believe it ever occurred to either of them to think, I wish I owned that dog.  Because you didn’t think of Lion as belonging to anyone, any more than you thought about a man belonging to anybody, not even to Major de Spain.  You thought of the house and the woods as belonging to him and even the deer and the bear in them; even the deer and killed by other people were shot by them on Major de Spain’s courtesy, given to them through his kindness and will.  But not Lion.  Lion was like the chiefs of Aztec and Polynesian tribes who were looked upon as being not men but both more and less than men.  Because we were not men either while we were in camp:  we were hunters, and Lion the best hunter of us all, and Major de Spain and Ike McCaslin next; and Lion did not talk as we talked, not because he could not but because he was the chief, the Sunbegotten, who knew the language which we spoke but was superior to using it himself; just as he lived under the house, under the kitchen, not because he was a dog, an animal, but for the same reason as the Aztec or the Polynesian whose godhead required that he live apart.  Lion did not belong to Major de Spain at all but just happened to like him better than he did any of the rest of us, as a man might have.

Contrast this portrayal of Lion with Old Ben:

Old Ben was a bear and we were going to run him to-morrow as we did once every year, every time in camp.  He was known through the country as well as Lion was.  I don’t know why they called him Old Ben nor who named him except that it was a long time ago.  He was known well for the shoats he had stolen and the corn cribs he had broken into and the dogs he had killed and the number of times he had been bayed and the lead which he carried (it was said that he had been shot at least two dozen times, with buckshot and even with rifles).  Old Ben had lost three toes from his nigh hind foot in a steel trap, and every man in the country knew his track, even discounting the size, and so he should have been called Two-Toe.  That is, that’s what they had been calling two-toed bears in this country for a hundred years.  Maybe it was because Old Ben was an extra bear – the head bear, Uncle Ike McCaslin called him – and everyone knew that he deserved a better name.

Here is a classic case of the immovable object of nature (Old Ben) clashing with the irresistible force of humanity (even though represented in the dog Lion).  Which would triumph and how would their battle affect the men who were part of that hunting party?  Faulkner adroitly mixes in the doggedness of Lion with the noble last stand of Old Ben to create a monumental clash which leaves both animals dying (Old Ben spills Lion’s entrails, while the man Boon finishes Old Ben off for the dying Lion) and the rest of the hunting party affected for the rest of their lives.  The challenge was met, but at a horrible cost.

Yet as powerful as “Lion” is by itself, Faulkner kept expanding the bear hunt motif in the intervening years, until by the publication of Go Down, Moses (1942) it had reached its final, full form.  Since this form of “The Bear” makes up an integral part of that novel, comments on how it differs from “Lion” will, by necessity, be brief.  “The Bear” widens the scope of the nature/civilization clash over a period of generations.  Sam Fathers reappears here in both the May 1942 short story and in the novel and he represents as much the falling away of the pre-war Choctaw and Chickasaw civilization as an active, vital character in the scenes that unfold.  “The Bear” stretches over nearly a century, with the Old Ben episode being the central nexus around which several related events occur.  “The Bear” manages to amplify “Lion”‘s atmosphere in such a way that many consider it to be not only one of Faulkner’s two or three finest short fictions, but one of his best writings in a career full of memorable characters, scenes, and denouements.

Man Asian Prize winner: Kyung-sook Shin, Please Look After Mom

March 14th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Mothers are, for most of us, the most important human beings we will ever know.  They give birth to us, nourish us, scold us when we stray from their teaching, sit down with us and make sure we learn our alphabets/characters and arithmetic so we can do better in class, and when we are adults, they strive to remind us of where we came from and what we can aim to achieve.  That is the Hallmark image of motherhood and although the realities of our lives reveal differences in this image of mother as supporter and enabler, it certainly is a vision that quite a few of us reading this have of our own mothers.

Yet mothers are also often taken for granted, as if they were a nice animated machine that dispensed food, hugs, and money, not necessarily in that order.  For many of us, as we’ve grown older, our mothers fade into the background, unless they call us up an evening or two (sometimes, in the process, annoying us) to see how we were doing and if we would be coming over to visit sometime soon.  Mama can become little more than an old person that gets in our way and we try to “make something” of our lives.  It’s not as though they are hated, usually it is far from that, but they are no longer important to us because they don’t provide for us and many of us just don’t have the time or desire to provide for them as they age.

This is a rather uncomfortable social truth that spans across six inhabited continents and divers cultures.  It lies at the heart of Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, which recounts through the points-of-view of a particular mother’s husband and children their memories of her that were reactivated after she turned up missing after she missed connecting with her husband on a commuter train a month prior.  Shin builds through these reminiscences a complex mosaic portrayal of the mother, Park So-nyo, and of the complicated relationships her children and husband (who proved to be faithless to her during their marriage) had with her and with each other.  Below is a memory that the eldest daughter, Chi-hon, had:

A few years ago, your mom said, “We don’t have to celebrate my birthday separately.”  Father’s birthday is one month before Mom’s.  You and your siblings always went to your parents’ house in Chongup for birthdays and other celebrations.  All together, there were twenty-two people in the immediate family.  Mom liked it when all her children and grandchildren gathered and bustled about the house.  A few days before everyone came down, she would make fresh kimchi, go to the market to buy beef, and stock up on extra toothpaste and toothbrushes.  She pressed sesame oil and roasted and ground sesame and perilla seeds, so she could present her children with a jar of each as they left.  As she waited for the family to arrive, your mom would be visibly animated, her words and her gestures revealing her pride when she talked to neighbors or acquaintances.  In the shed, Mom kept glass bottles of every size filled with plum or wild-strawberry juice, which she made seasonally.  Mom’s jars were filled to the brim with tiny fermented croaker-like fish or anchovy paste or fermented clams that she was planning to send to the family in the city.  When she heard that onions were good for one’s health, she made onion juice, and before winter came, she made pumpkin juice infused with licorice.  Your mom’s house was like a factory; she prepared sauces and fermented bean paste and hulled rice, producing things for the family year-round.  At some point, the children’s trips to Chongup became less frequent, and Mom and Father started to come to Seoul more often.  And then you began to celebrate each of their birthdays by going out for dinner.  That was easier.  Then Mom even suggested, “Let’s celebrate my birthday on your father’s.”  She said it would be a burden to celebrate their birthdays separately, since both happen during the hot summer, when there are also two ancestral rites only two days apart.  At first the family refused to do that, even when Mom insisted on it, and if she balked at coming to the city, a few of you went home to celebrate with her.  Then you all started to give Mom her birthday gift on Father’s birthday.  Eventually, quietly, Mom’s actual birthday was bypassed.  Mom, who liked to buy socks for everyone in the family, had in her dresser a growing collection of socks that her children didn’t take.

This passage, which is only but one of several similar flashbacks, goes straight for the jugular.  In reading it, I could remember how my mother and maternal grandmother were in regards to sewing clothing for several in the family, the simple dismissal of attention, and the stoic facing of age while the family grew up and moved into different homes (and in my case, to a different state for two years).  I could easily see myself in a position similar to Chi-hon’s, possibly sitting at a desk or table twenty years from now and wondering about my mother and just how quickly and completely she had faded into the background, despite her being so vocal about my need to learn responsibility when I was younger.  That is the devastating beauty of Please Look After Mom.  Shin utilizes a mixture of first-, second-, and third-person points-of-views to place us right in the shoes of the missing mother’s family.  How easily it could be our own mother who has wandered away, suffering from medical ailments, yet not wanting to interrupt our self-absorbed lives.  If we find ourselves thinking and reacting along with the husband and three children, then Shin’s novel has us utterly in its grasp.  We cannot turn aside, but have to confront the memories that burble up from reading a story just like this.

It is easy to forget how much and how little we understand our own family members until stories such as Please Look After Mom come along to jar us into remembering what we had forgotten or at least had tried to forget.  For that and for how adroitly Shin mixes the four narrative threads together to reveal portraits of each family member and mom, Please Look After Mom may be the best character novel of this year’s Man Asian Prize finalists.  It is difficult to imagine a story that could be more effective that portraying multiple, and sometimes conflicting, images of a family matriarch.  It simply is a moving novel that may lead to a few tears welling up as you read it.

Man Asian Prize finalist: Yan Lianke, Dream of Ding Village

March 14th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

Chinese writer Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village, first published in Chinese in 2005, stands out from the other Man Asian Prize finalists in its scathing social commentary.  Set in a fictional village in China’s Henan province, Dream of Ding Village reveals several tragedies that have fallen upon millions of Chinese over the past thirty years as the country suffered the consequences of political corruption at the local level.  Families/clans became divided as one branch would rise to local (and perhaps eventually regional) power and in their attempts to make profit off of their government mandates, people such as Ding Hui would view crises such as the spread of AIDS through tainted blood supplies sold by and for local villagers as yet one more opportunity to profit.  Dream of Ding Village reveals the nightmares behind these corrupt deeds and how so many suffered as a result.

Dream of Ding Village reminds me of two acclaimed novels, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow.  He, like Pamuk, utilizes the voice of a murdered person, in this case, the twelve-year-old son of Ding Hui, Ding Qiang, who was poisoned by the villagers in response to Ding Hui’s blood-selling project infecting them with “the fever,” their name for AIDS.  Unlike Pamuk, however, Qiang’s role is not to be part of an unfolding mystery but instead to give voice to the afflicted villagers of Ding Village.  Qiang had a close bond with his grandfather, the village’s schoolmaster, who comes to represent the living witness to the dying villagers’ love and hatred, their triumphs and their shortcomings.  In that regard, the narrative as seen and told through the father and murdered son of the main antagonist resembles in theme, if not quite in tone or style, wa Thiong’o’s dissection of Kenyan strongman politics and political corruption.

There is a lyrical quality to the writing.  Lianke utilizes climate conditions to serve as a metaphor for the “fever” that was burning up the villagers of Ding Village.  One passage very near the end of the novel underscores his ability to create memorable images of death and suffering:

Summer had passed without a drop of rain.  Now it was midway through autumn, and there hadn’t been a rainstorm for more than six months.  The dry spell had lasted for 180 days.  It was the worst drought seen on this plain in nearly a century.  All the grasses and crops had died.

The trees were gone, too.  Unable to resist the drought, the paulownia, scholar trees, chinaberries, elms, toons and rare honey locusts quietly passed away.

The big trees had all been chopped down, and the smaller ones had been lost to drought.  There were no more trees.

Ponds congealed.  Rivers stopped.  Wells ran dry.

When the water disappeared, so did the mosquitoes.

Cicadas shed their skin and left before it was time.  Their golden yellow corpses littered the trunks, branches and forks of dead trees, and clung to the shady side of walls and fences.

But the sun survived.  The wind lived on.  The sun and moon, stars and planets were alive and well.

This scene is the culmination of all of the suffering witnessed and experienced throughout the novel.  There is something of the cicadas and their short yet noticeable lovemaking adult lives in the doomed romance of the infected brother of Ding Hui, Liang, and his new wife, as both deserted their AIDS-free spouses for a brief yet passionate romantic life.  There are betrayals abundant in the narrative, as villagers scheme for access to food sold to them at outrageous prices by Ding Hui.  The trees had to be chopped down to supply the ever increasing number of coffins necessary to bury the dead who died from “the fever.”  As the narrative unfolds, the value of the tree/coffins and people switch in value, as the dead tree trunks become more valuable than the human chaff that is left to be blown away by the wind to rot, forgotten by nearly all those who remain, benumbed by “the fever.”  Lianke’s imagery is arresting because he forces the reader to take notice of the cruelties that are the offspring of political corruption.

Ding Hui makes only a few fleeting appearances until the penultimate section of Dream of Ding Village.  When we do encounter him directly, we see that he is the spider occupying the center of the web of corruption, deceit, and callousness.  He plots on how to make even more yuan after exhausting the avenues afforded by blood-selling and coffin manufacturing.  He strikes upon an idea that at first seems so strange that it actually makes an even deeper connection with traditional Chinese practices and the transformations that modernization had made:  selling the rights to posthumous “marriages” in order to restore dignity to families who had unmarried children.  When contemplated further, it truly is a monstrous corruption of popular practice to serve the moneymaking goals of Ding Hui:

How much is there?’ Grandpa asked.

Dad smiled. ‘I’m not sure.’

What do you need with all this money?  It’s more than you could spend in a lifetime.’

My dad seemed embarrassed.  ‘Is it my fault this fever never ends?  If it keeps on like this, I don’t know what I’m going to do.  I just opened five new factories for the county, and we still can’t make enough coffins to keep up with demand.  All the trees on the plain are gone, so I have to ship timber in from the northwest.  And this month, I sent a dozen matchmaking teams into the villages to gather statistics and arrange posthumous matches.  It’s been two weeks, and we’ve only managed to find matches for a third of the families who signed up.’

And this matchmaking business is more of your philanthropy?’

I’ve spent my whole life doing philanthropy,’ my dad smiled.

Ding Hui’s cupidity is repulsive, yet Lianke does not settle for a simple caricature of a greedy and corrupt political official.  Instead, he shows Ding Hui in action, snubbing his avowed enemies by showing just how readily people can be bought with the issuance of just a few filtered cigarettes and the promise of a new, greener land away from Ding Village where their families can be buried in a park-like setting.  The casual, contemptuous manner in which this is one serves to reinforce the notion planted earlier in the novel that corruption is an endemic outcome of unequal power and that those who are not in control are susceptible to its insidious influence.  Ding Hui is not extraordinary in any fashion; he merely is one of a long line of similar bureaucrats who have profited off of the suffering and credulity of those over whom he governs.

Lianke’s portrayal of local Chinese officials as being corrupt petty quasi-lords led to Dream of Ding Village being censored in China for being too direct in its criticism of the local and, by implication, national governments.  It is an evocative novel, where the effects of very real practices during the 1980s and 1990s are shown in their full, horrific qualities.  Dream of Ding Village pulls no punches; it squarely hits the reader repeatedly between the eyes with its narrative and characters.  It is one of the more moving novels I’ve read this year, second only to fellow Man Asian Prize finalist Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, and its biting commentary on Chinese local politics is first-rate.  Dream of Ding Village is perhaps my favorite of the finalists read to date because it uses vivid images and dreams to conjure visions of just how horrible corruption can be to those who suffer under such rule.

Man Asian Prize finalists and review plans

March 13th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The Man Asian Prize for Fiction will be announcing the winner of its annual award (founded in 2007) on Thursday, March 15 for works published in English or English translation in 2011 by Asian authors.  Below are the shortlisted titles.

 

The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad (of Pakistan)

Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua (of India) [not available in e-book and hard to find in print in US]

The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya (of India)

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (of India)

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (of South Korea)

Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke (of China)

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto (of Japan)

 

I have read six of the seven finalist (Rebirth was not available as an e-book and while it is being shipped from India, I fear it may not arrive in time for me to read it before the winner is announced early Thursday morning my time.  But I can safely say, having read the others, that this is a very strong group of finalists.  The Lianke, Shin, and Yoshimoto books in particular moved me, and the Bhattacharya, Ahmad, and Ghosh were a tiny half-step behind them.  Over the next few days, I will have more to say about these fine novels.  Hopefully, one or more of these stories may enchant you as well.

Faulkner Friday: Absalom, Absalom! (1936)

March 9th, 2012 § 3 comments § permalink

Faulkner often jumped back and forth in narrative time from story to story.  His 1936 novel, Absalom, Absalom!, is, to some extent, a prequel to perhaps his most famous novel, The Sound and the Fury (1929).  In devising the reading order for the weekly Faulkner reads/reviews, I left his earliest novels, including The Sound and the Fury, for near the end in part because of my decision to follow the Library of America publication dates for their five volumes of Faulkner’s novels.  But it also is a benefit to cover a key character from that earlier novel, Quentin Compson, without having to refer explicitly to what happened to him in the earlier novel a narrative year (1910) after the concluding events in Absalom, Absalom!, as there is a mystery to him for readers unfamiliar with The Sound and the Fury that would otherwise be lost if they were already well-informed about his character and disposition (conversely, those who have read The Sound and the Fury first can derive enjoyment from seeing certain mysteries from that novel played out here in Absalom, Absalom!).

Absalom, Absalom! is a complex novel, perhaps one of Faulkner’s most difficult for neophyte readers to process.  It is a recounting in 1909 of events that took place over a period of time stretching from the early decades of the 19th century to the narrative present.  In it, Quentin, along with his father (whose outlook on life colors this novel as much as the earlier The Sound and the Fury) and a Canadian-born college roommate at Harvard, try to pry apart the mystery surrounding the Sutpen family.  Early on, it is revealed that the Compsons are descended from a close friend of Thomas Sutpen, who established the 100 acre Sutpen’s Hundred plantation on land bought from the Choctaws around the founding of Yoknapatawpha County.  In one sense, the piecing together of what happened to Sutpen’s family could be viewed as an analogue for what later occurred to the Compsons (themselves part of the former landed gentry who lost much of their wealth and prestige in the years following the Civil War), but Absalom, Absalom! is more than just a narrative of the decline of the antebellum Southern aristocracy.  It is a tragedy that envelops not just this particular strain, but also references in yet another light the complexities of black-white race relations in not just the South, but also the Caribbean (where Thomas Sutpen had lived for several years, with consequences that affected the generations that followed).  It can also be viewed (and the story’s title makes this rather explicit) as a filial rebellion similar to that of King David’s son, between two scions of the Sutpens, between Quentin and his family’s past, and between the older and newer Southern societies.

Fatality looms large in Absalom, Absalom!, as the characters, from Thomas Sutpen to his rejected eldest son to the odd relationship between that discarded child and Sutpen’s two children, all experience mortality in ways reminiscent of those surrounding the Biblical Absolom and his kin.  Heartache, anger, frustration at being cast aside for another, incestuous feelings – each of these is explored in the novel.  Faulkner does not make the connections directly, but instead he utilizes competing narratives pieced together by the two Compsons and Quentin’s roommate to create a mosaic portrayal of the Sutpen family and their amorous/homicidal tendencies.  To do this, Faulkner utilizes a running stream of conversation, as Quentin, his father, the roommate, Rosa Coldfield (herself the descendent of a family related by marriage to the Sutpens), and others to recreate (sometimes with purposeful discrepancies) those past events.  Below is a sample of this, dealing with Henry Sutpen, Judith Sutpen, and Charles Bon:

So Miss Rosa did not see any of them, who had never seen (and was never to see alive) Charles Bon at all Charles Bon of New Orleans, Henry’s friend who was not only some few years older than Henry but actually a little old to be still in college and certainly a little out of place in that one where he was – a small new college in the Mississippi hinterland and even wilderness, three hundred miles from that worldly and even foreign city which was his home – a young man of a worldly elegance and assurance beyond his years, handsome, apparently wealthy and with for background the shadowy figure of a legal guardian rather than any parents – a personage who in the remote Mississippi of that time must have appeared almost phoenix-like, full-sprung from no childhood, born of no woman and impervious to time and, vanished, leaving no bones nor dust anywhere – a man with an ease of manner and a swaggering gallant air in comparison with which Sutpen’s pompous arrogance was clumsy bluff and Henry actually a hobble-de-hoy.  Miss Rosa never saw him; this was a picture, an image.  It was not what Ellen told her:  Ellen at the absolute halcyon of her butterfly’s summer and now with the added charm of gracious and graceful voluntary surrendering of youth to her blood’s and sex’s successor, that concurrent attitude and behavior with the engagement’s span with which mothers who want to can almost make themselves the bridges of their daughters’ weddings.  Listening to Ellen, a stranger would have almost believed that the marriage, which subsequent events would indicate had not even been mentioned between the young people and the parents, had been actually performed.  Ellen did not once mention love between Judith and Bon.  She did not hint around it.  Love, with reference to them, was just a finished and perfectly dead subject like the matter of virginity would be after the birth of the first grandchild.

Most of the novel is told through long, convoluted paragraphs that would be a complete mess to read if they were used to convey anything else other than the shifting perspectives of the narrators and the narrated individuals.  As it stands, it takes careful reading to piece together what is being revealed in passages such as this recounting on the part of Rosa Coldfield.  We see there is a mystery behind Charles Bon, in reference to his age (believed to be a bit old for college), wealth (rich in a poorer part of the country), and parentage (no parents are known at that time, but with the hint of a reveal later).  There is an explicit comparison between him and the Sutpens, as if there were a connection deeper than Bon’s courting of Thomas Sutpen’s daughter Judith.  Rosa is recounting what her mother, Ellen, had to say about her nephew, niece, and one-time friend of the former.  It is a second-hand account, with traces of yet another level of storytelling to indicate that what was being recounted was through the viewpoint of a potentially biased person.  There are similar such passages seen through the perspective of others who knew the Sutpens, leading to the development of a narrative where the “truth,” if there could ever be such an “objective” thing in light of the competing subjective accounts, has to be filtered through several perspectives that may or may not be withholding or distorting information.

This creates problems within the text for the reader to puzzle out, if she were so inclined.  Faulkner never directly says, until the concluding chapter, anything really definitive about these characters.  Instead, the stream of consciousness-like discussions between the Compsons and Quentin’s roommate, with Rosa’s occasional input, tells and retells the basics of the past in a way that makes it clear that the overarching issues that fueled the tragic events between Charles Bon, Judith, and Henry Stupen and between Thomas Sutpen and a squatter’s daughter after the Civil War are still present within Southern society.  Thomas Sutpen, along with the majority of the Southern aristocracy, focused so much of their energy on “purity” and preserving bloodlines.  In one of the great ironies of the novel, it is this desire for both that leads to the tragedies that occur and the inheritance being passed down to a character that Faulkner characterizes as the likely future symbol for what will transpire for countless Sutpen-like people in the South.  This theme, introduced late in the novel, is not as well-developed as the Absalom-family tragedy connection, yet it is unsettling in how it presents a somewhat pessimistic view of Southern society.  It reinforces some of Faulkner’s thoughts expressed in Light in August (1932) on race, yet today it seems to ring a false note.

Absalom, Absalom! is not for the faint of heart.  It takes a lot of effort to plow under the textual surface and turn up the nuggets Faulkner has buried underneath the complex presentation.  But if the reader makes that effort, he or she may be rewarded with a rich, complex, and ultimately tragic family history that contains not just allusions to Faulkner’s previous stories or to the Civil War and its effects on Southern society, but also to one of the more tragic Biblical tales.  It is not Faulkner’s best novel and certainly not one to read first (or second, or even third or fourth), but Absalom, Absalom! is the sort of story that makes the reader take pause for a moment to consider what she has just read.  Perhaps this need to pause and to reassess what was just read is the greatest testament to the novel’s power that can be given.  After all, discovering that for some, that the past is never over, that it has not indeed ever passed, is a rather disconcerting notion.  But sometimes we need to be disconcerted and for that, Absalom, Absalom! is a remarkable achievement and one of Faulkner’s better-constructed novels.

2012 National Book Critics Circle Award winner in Poetry: Laura Kasischke, Space, in Chains

March 9th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

It is some water lilies and a skull in a decorative pond,
and a tiny goldfish swimming
like an animated change-purse
made of brightness and surprises
observing the moment through its empty eye.
 
Thank you, thank you, bless you, beautiful
lady with your beautiful soul…
It is as if I have tossed a postcard
of the ocean into the ocean.
 
My stupid dollar, my beautiful soul.
– From “Beautiful Soul”

Of the five finalists for this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, Laura Kasischke’s Space, in Chains celebrates quotidian joys and sorrows more than the others.  Her poetry is subtle, deceptive in its seeming simplicity.  She speaks to those of us who have had an epiphany when we see a new cloud shape roil across the evening sky or who have grieved when a pet has sickened and died.  She takes an inductive approach to her poetry, where the smallest details expand outward to yield surprising generalities.  Take for instance the opening three stanzas of “The inner workings”:

This afternoon my son tore
his shorts climbing a barbed-wire fence.  Holy Toledo, I said
when he crashed back through the cornstalks
with half of his shorts gone.
 
The sun was ringing its sonorous silent bell underground, as
someone’s
grandmother tucked
an awful little cactus under
a doily embroidered with buttercups.
 
In prisons
 
exhausted prisoners napped, having
brief and peaceful dreams, while beautiful girls in bikinis tossed
fitfully in their own shadows
on a beach.
 

From the personal, intimately maternal reaction to a careless son running around with his shorts torn, Kasischke turns to the dreams and frustrations of others, from a grandmother who strangely places a cactus under a buttercup-adorned doily to prisoners who dream of pleasant escapes from their harsh realities to various tinkers and makers who ponderously toil over their little machines, trying to create something new and wondrous to behold.  At first, these transformations are not detected, but over the course of Space, in Chains there appears to be a repetition in this flow from the personal to the global.  It can be seen in the short poem “The call of the one duck flying south,” where the straggling duck comes to represent something else:

How
was it I believed I was
God’s favorite creature?  I,
who carry my feathery skeleton across the sky now, calling
out for all of us.  I, who am doubt now, with a song.

Passages like that speak to us when we feel that we have lost our way, that we too are straggling ducks who cannot understand just what our places in this cold, unforgiving world might possibly be.  Kasischke returns to this theme in “Wormwood,” in writing first of the nuclear fallout from Chernobyl before hinting at other forms of fallout that may be just as deadly to us:

That it might have been foolish to fall in love with this world.
That God sent Word.
That the radiant dust of that
catastrophe
traveled for thousands
of miles on their fur.

Here, the terribleness that lurks behind some of her more beautiful passages is most clearly seen.  Kasischke here, as in several other poems in this collection, enters into a Job-like questioning of fate and God.  These questions are neither fully the product of faith nor signs of a deep distrust or antagonism toward God, but rather are honest moments of seeking clarity regarding a wondrous creation that sometimes has too much bite to it for our liking.  Kasischke’s poems probe and explore, but rarely are full explanations or discoveries revealed.  Perhaps that is fitting, considering how “Tools and songs,” the final poem in Space, in Chains closes:

…God, please –
 
Give me a set of simple tools out of which to fashion a song for these.
 

Space, in Chains possesses that lingering quality in which Kasischke’s images and metaphors lurk and haunt the mind days after her poems are read.  While they may not be as direct or arresting in their symbols as some of the other finalists for this award, her poetry certainly is worthy of the honor bestowed upon it because she goes, via misdirections and side-slants, to the heart of the matter in a way that the reader may not anticipate, making her poems effective in a way that is more moving than most poetry collections of recent years.

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