Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Switch

After about seven years with Blogger, Unstable Euphony will be moving to Wordpress.

This switch is a long time coming for me, but the transition will take only a couple weeks or less if everything goes smoothly. I'll leave the Blogger version up during the switch to reroute folks to the new site, but will ultimately bring it down altogether.

All the archives will be available at the new site, which is up already but not finished. (I don't have my blogroll up, I'm still playing with the look of the site, etc.)

You can find the new site at Unstable Euphony

If you're interested in keeping up with the blog, I hope you'll add unstableeuphony.wordpress.com to  your reader or RSS feed.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Recent Reads and Links

I've read some great books so far in 2014. Right now I'm a little over halfway through James McBride's 2013 National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. The novel is a raucous reimagining of abolitionist John Brown's life and fight against the "infernal institution" of slavery.

Prior to starting McBride's novel, I read George Packer's The Unwinding, a close-up look at the effects of the consolidation of wealth and disintegration of the middle class in the United States told through a series of narrative vignettes focusing on the lives of a handful of private individuals, public figures, institutions, and subcultures (i.e. Wall Street and Silicon Valley).

I just finished writing a review of Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor's novel Dust that I hope will be out soon. The book was beautiful and complex.

I've also been following Diane Ravitch's blog in an effort to understand the Common Core (push to standardize k-12 education) and how it might affect higher education. Ravitch is a fascinating figure in the world of education because she has changed her mind at different times throughout her career. And I mean pretty drastic changes. I respect people who can change course when they are no longer compelled by a line of reasoning or when they find something that makes more sense. She is NOT a fan of Common Core Standards.

I've been super-obsessed with Harper's Index lately.

Check out Ballotpedia if you want an easy way to follow elections at the local, state, and federal levels.

Money and Politics on Bill Moyers's site.

Getting links from Micah Mattix's Prufrock.

It's National Poetry Month!

As always, Elisa Gabbert's The French Exit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

As Far As Bookstores Go

I made my first trip to New York City recently, and on that trip I did what I usually do whenever I go to a city of any size: I did a search for all the bookstores in the area within walking distance of where I was staying. Needless to say, NYC had a few more hits than most places I've been. New Orleans has some great bookstores, as does Seattle, Chicago, St. Louis, and, perhaps surprisingly, Charlottesville, VA.

My favorite bookstores in my hometown are Reader's Corner (for used books) and So and So Books (for new books), and I have found some brilliant and unexpected books in these top-notch shops.

But I have never been in a bookstore like Strand Bookstore in New York. When I walked in the door I realized that I would need a different pair of shoes and at least one full day to browse this store properly. As it happened, though, my feet were killing me from walking all the way from midtown to Battery Park and back up Broadway to NYU all in one morning. Plus, I only had as long as it would take for some friends to meet me so that we could go up to Central Park.

The fiction section alone would have taken hours to peruse. The literary nonfiction shelves in the basement held more books than some bookstores I've been in. It was awesome. Poetry had its own giant wall, with shelves rising higher than I could reach. What's more, it seemed like every book was a good book. I'm sure I had stars in my eyes, but it was impressive.

I took the opportunity to buy just two books that I have wanted for a long time, but would normally have to feed Amazon in order to get because they're just not the kind of books you're going to find every day in bookstores near where I live. Plus, I was limited by my purchasing power and the fact that I would have to carry whatever I bought.

Here's the small haul:

Yusef Komunyakaa's Neon Vernacular

Nicholson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper

I had great hopes to buy a book of Flannery O'Connor's prose, an Octavia Butler novel, and some literary criticism, but there was just no way I was going to lug a bag full of books around New York for another evening and then on the long trip home. I would make another trip to NYC for the sole purpose of going to Strand. That's how cool it was.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Outdoor Adventures (In Reading)

I've recently finished Cheryl Strayed's Wild, a story of her cathartic experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was that it transported me to a time when reading was a completely leisurely and pleasurable activity in my life. Nowadays I read for work, I read for information, I read to keep up with the culture. I'm happy to say that I read for pleasure still, but also must admit that reading for pleasure was something I had to relearn towards the end of graduate school.

Wild reminded me of my favorite book when I was a kid: Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain. The book tells the story of 12-year old Sam Gribley who leaves his family's crowded New York apartment to make a life for himself in the woods of the Catskill Mountains where his grandfather had once owned a farm. His adventures include training a peregrine falcon to hunt for him, making his home in a hollowed-out tree, and living off the land alongside a whole cast of human and non-human characters.

I used to read My Side of the Mountain over and over again as a kid just for the sheer fun of the story. I liked to imagine that I could do what Sam did, that I could live on my own in the woods, fishing, foraging, and surviving any kind of weather. These two responses to the book, rereading and imagining, demonstrate the differences and similarities between how I read as a kid and how I read today.

I will likely not reread Wild, at least not anytime soon, even though it was a fun and illuminating read for me. The prospect of rereading simply means that there's another book I'd love to read that will not get read, and right now I can't bear the thought of missing out on something else. Maybe that'll change sometime, but for now that's how I think about rereading for pleasure (I have to reread for my work all the time).

The second response, imagining, also looks different for me now than it once did. Of course, part of that is simply that I'm an adult with realistic expectations about life now, but another part is that my views of what literature can and should do have also changed some. I didn't finish Wild and plan to go on my own quest into the wild. So my reading didn't spark the kind imaginative response that it had when I was a kid. But I did imagine the possibilities of spending more time outside, going for a hike, and taking my kids camping. On some level, I guess, my imagination is still intact and can still be fired by reading a good book.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What Makes The Self Unstable? - Elisa Gabbert, Video Games, and Poetry

When I was in college a couple friends had their own photography/videography business with a small, single-room office just a block or so away from our campus. They had at least five or six computer stations and on a regular basis my friends would man these stations and play a video game called Call of Duty. With the wi-fi available there would sometimes be as many as eight or nine people playing in teams and hunting each other down. I never could get the hang of these first-person shooter games. I certainly didn't share many of my friends' intensity.


I guess it should have come as no great surprise to me. A much younger version of myself had been the kid who was always veering left and right, back and forth, waving the controller erratically through the air as I tried to steer some tiny avatar in an impossible direction. In Call of Duty, I was more often stuck in a corner or trapped in some obstacle than following my team through a burned out building. The first-person POV games always made me feel like a horse with blinders on. They obstructed my peripheral vision, and I just couldn't adapt. I was myself and yet separated from myself in the body of this little digital soldier who could not see out of the corners of his eyes without whirling around and becoming disoriented.

Elisa Gabbert's second full-length book of poetry, The Self Unstable, creates a similar effect but I like it.

The Self Unstable is divided into five main sections, the fourth of which is entitled "First-Person Shooter: Games & Leisure." The poems in this section play with themes that run throughout the entire book, themes like duality, cause and effect, beauty and power. But they bring these ideas alive in a unique way for me given my history with first-person shooter games. The instability of the self became less an abstraction and more of a feeling and intellectual experience brought on by my struggles as a digital soldier to define myself in a landscape I could not fully comprehend. Take for instance a poem like this one:

People think of themselves as something behind their eyes.
First-person shooter. It's fun to be the player, but boring
to watch. Writing is narcissistic, but without narcissism
we'd have nothing to read. We do most things only in
order to say we've done them, an ethical alternative to
lying. Your "desert island movie" is not the same as your
favorite movie.

The first-person shooter creates the effect of the binary in the first line where most people think of themselves as something "behind" their eyes. Am I the person with her hands on the keyboard, or am I the person in the game? After a while I used to come to my friends' office to watch everyone play. I was so terrible it was a relief to them that I just wanted to hang out. The speaker of the poem is right, though: watching is just not the same as actually playing the game. But even the player is not the shooter!

The effect of these poems is a constant double bind. The self is not steady, sound, univocal, but unstable, and yet it is still recognizable as a self. "Writing is narcissistic, but without narcissism we'd have nothing to read." The tension in this sentence is blissful, representative of the paradox of the self. To write is to assume that you are writing for someone (even if only yourself!). Thus, to write is to presume that others will want to read your words. How narcissistic! Andy yet the punch is true too. If no one wrote there would be nothing to read. This idea resurfaces in a later poem: "The secrecy of diaries is pretense. One journals in the hope, the expectation, that someone will read it"

Having done something just to say you've done it is not a very good motivation for doing anything, and yet it is better than lying. If you do something very good for a less-than-great reason, you've still done something good, right? And the final thought drives home this duality by parsing a simple confusion between a "desert island movie" and a favorite movie. Ostensibly, the desert island movie is the one you would take to a desert island and have to watch over and over again forever, while the favorite movie is not necessarily subject to this hypothetical. It's something like a square-rectangle situation: a square can be a rectangle, but a rectangle is never a square. Just so, a favorite movie might be your desert island movie, but a desert island movie is not necessarily your favorite movie.

These double-takes, switchbacks, and paradoxes are the stuff of the self. The opening poem captures this sense in two lines:

You wanted a life of causes, but it was all effects: you could
never get before.

It is the want, the desire to "get before" and the inability to do so that makes the self unstable. I wanted to be able to see out of the corners of my avatar's eyes in Call of Duty, but no amount of turning my body in the chair would give me peripheral vision. My friends laughed for a while, but then didn't want me on their teams. The ironic thing was that, in fairness to everyone, when I did play I would be put on the best team to make up for my ineptitude and so I was often on the winning side. And this fact illustrates how (I can only imagine) the self can be understood and felt as unstable for the reader of Gabbert's book who dominated (dominates?) first-person shooter games.

Someone who feels at home in the avatar, who feels no need to "get behind" his eyes, is not free of the tension but rather comfortable with it. In a late poem from the fifth section, "Enjoyment of Adversity: Love & Sex," this instability of the self is explained in terms of the paradoxes of beauty, power, and nakedness:

Girls want to be beautiful. Boys want to be powerful. In
other words, everyone wants to be powerful. The appeal
of Houdini and lingerie is the same: The more straps you
wear the nakeder you look. The only natural responses to
vulnerability are love and violence.

In the poem, both boys and girls want the same things, but experience these desires through different cultural norms. Boys have simply been trained to seek power without shame, while girls who seek power have been conditioned to be embarrassed for doing so. Gabbert goes on to unpack this double standard with the equation of Houdini's feats of escape and the alluring effect of lingerie. These cases seem oceans apart, but the appeal is the same. The more locks and straps Houdini took on, the more vulnerable he was before his audience, just like the more lingerie a person wears, the greater the anticipation that it will be removed. The final sentence of the poem turns the screws tighter by making a radical claim about the only natural responses to these two different metaphors. In Houdini's case, the final statement is certainly true. After all, he dies from the effects of a punch to the gut from a fan. Love and violence.

I've called these poems "poems" throughout, but although they're certainly poetic, they're not quite poems either. I've seen reviewers use words like "treatise," "aphorisms," and "koans," (a word Gabbert herself uses in the book's final poem) to refer to the pieces in The Self Unstable. To look at them on the page, you would think "prose poems." But to read them you might think "aphorism" or "haiku without the formal features." They are koan-like in the sense that they do not always follow a clear or logical path at first. Oftentimes the sentences within each poem are less directly connected and more associational, but they do all work toward the idea of the self as a present but unstable entity. So even though I would never call the book a treatise, it does have a bit of the spirit of a treatise. The form of the pieces resonates with the unstable effect they create. The final lines of many of the pieces create such an effect with startling poignancy:

"Whatever you do, don't start thinking about thinking."

"Do I want to be loved or misunderstood?"

"Most of the time, if you 'don't want to know,' you already do."

"Don't you always 'feel the way you feel'?"

"Pride is the successful avoidance of shame."

"If truth is a sliding scale, one must test the extremes."

"Would you rather be popular or infamous? Wrong choice."

"If we want to be happy, why are we so fond of sad endings?"

At times, it's almost like reading Rumi or Lao Tzu, like the wisdom literature of the Bible even, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. I am at once met on my own terms by the poems and put off by their bluntness. I have to deduce, connect the dots, infer while simultaneously nodding my head at something so obvious and yet so smart:

For something to be great, it has to be inevitable, and
therefore obvious. The fallacy is thinking that the obvious
must be great. So goes the history of art. "Great" doesn't
mean "capacious," but they often correlate. When assessing
greatness, ask yourself how many pianos would fit inside.

This form of self consciousness is what makes the self unstable, and The Self Unstable makes this form of self consciousness a delight to encounter on the page.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Some Thoughts on The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather - Part 5: Self Help Poems

In light of, or perhaps making light of, its title, the fourth and final book of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather contains very little of the prescriptive language common to most self help books. Instead, these poems raise questions, trade on ambiguity, and withhold closure, all the while pushing us toward an unexpected hope.

Although the prosaic form, break-neck pace, and echo-y sensibility of these poems recalls King of the Forest, La La La, and The Waters, Self Help Poems takes a radical departure from the first three books in terms of its narrative conceit. The poems can be read as a series of emails from a speaker named "Sampson" to an unknown recipient who responds only once. We can read these poems as emails because thirteen pages in, "Sampson" references an earlier poem, saying "Remember those fields I invented a few emails ago?" Plus, the poems actually look a bit like emails in an ongoing chain. They are typically short, informal, and presume their reader has contextual knowledge that would allow each transmission to be understood in isolation and as a part of a continuous conversation.

The poem I read as the sole response comes pretty late in the book. I read it as a response to Sampson because the entire poem is couched in quotation marks, rendering it direct discourse, and because the speaker addresses Sampson directly:

     "It's 89 degrees and I'm packing everything I own into my
     shitty Civic and driving to New Orleans. I pawned my
     guitars and TV and sold all my furniture, including my
     shower curtain, to the dude I buy pot from. Last week,
     he proposed to his lady while standing in a Toys 'R Us
     parking lot, his arms full of Marvel Universe action figures
     that he'd just shoplifted. yes, Sampson, sometimes your
     dreams come true and you don't even know it." (296)

This poem is important because it provides the only counterpoint to Sampson's voice, and because it is the only poem that tells us that the speaker of all the other poems is named Sampson. But if these are emails, if this book is a predominantly one-sided dialog, then how can this quasi-narrative form teach us to help ourselves?

Over on HTMLGiant, Amy Lawless has already offered one answer to this question by exploring the theme of hope in its various and complicated manifestations throughout Self Help Poems. Examining language, wrestling, and Sampson's obsession with Mickey Rourke, Lawless reads the book as a struggle to hope and a struggle to hope for things: "We hope and we hope for, and we fight on. Each breath is a swing in the ring. A word is a swing saying yes to living." I like Lawless's reading, but want to approach this idea of hope from another direction.

For me it's the epistolary form with the lone response that enacts hopefulness as well as any other formal feature of the book. I don't mean to ignore Mickey Rourke as an important presence in the book, I was simply more taken with the notion that what seems at first an entirely one-sided dialog (yet another beautiful paradox of the kind Starkweather has cultivated throughout the entire collection) is punctured and punctuated for just a moment by another voice. It is this possibility that those to whom we speak may one day speak back that most vividly actualizes the hope that is constantly trying to establish itself in the poems.

Starkweather's brand of hope is of the hard-won variety. It is difficult to embrace because it is always defined negatively, that is, in opposition to despair, depression, or death. For instance, in a poem roughly halfway through the book, a misunderstanding between Sampson and his communicant produces an impossible question that seems to lead nowhere, but which actually leads to the possibility of poetry:

     I thought you said a field of opposites. What is the opposite
     of a field anyway, a mountain, a pinprick? My philosophy
     professor said everything has an opposite. What is the
     opposite of mid-way? That's where the poem happens. (275)

The idea of an "opposite of mid-way" is difficult to conceptualize. The opposite of beginning, I guess, would be end, and likewise the opposite of end, beginning. But the opposite of mid-way? Just when it seems we have nowhere left to go, however, poetry happens. New possibilities are realized. The conversation picks back up in a later email, and we become privy to Sampson's initial misunderstanding:

     It's like when you said a field of poppies and I thought you
     said a field of opposites. That's what death is-a perfect
     misunderstanding. (288)

The misunderstanding in this case is the confusion of "opposites" for "poppies." The second poem's introduction of the poppies and resolve to death call to mind Isaac Rosenberg's "Break of Day in the Trenches," in which soldiers die in the poppy fields of France during World War I with poppies tucked behind their ears. But in Self Help Poems, the struggle is not an external battle of lead and mortar, but an internal conflict of imagining the meaning of things in someone else's mind. The potential for this kind of empathy is what's at stake in Sampson's war of words. For this reason, death, the ultimate equalizer of all humans, is a "perfect misunderstanding."

The notion of a "perfect misunderstanding," an idealized mistake, an optimal error, could stand in as the central emotion, idea, and effect of The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather. That feeling of the worst case scenario becoming absolutely true in your life alongside the revelation that you are not dead. Here again I think of Rosenberg. "Break of Day in the Trenches" ends as men drop dead all around the speaker who remarks:

     Poppies whose roots are in man's veins
     Drop, and are ever dropping;
     But mine in my ear is safe-
     Just a little white with the dust.

Death is held back awhile, but still imminent. There is no reason to hope, and yet we hope. The final poem of Self Help Poems begins in just such a mindset: "All nightmares are a matter of proportion." But before we can conclude that Sampson is finally either offering some advice to his correspondent or at least advising himself, he says, "This is not / wisdom" Instead, this revelation is a reality that is ever present and only obfuscated by language, maybe even by the poetry we are reading: "I'm trying to tell you something but the writing / keeps getting in the way." So rather than spend one more word explicating ideas or showing feelings, he simply speaks his desires and does the best he can do by appending hope as an ever-present reality:

                                              Our love ricochets off earth, but
     we go on. I want to help you, I want to open you up and fix
     all the black and bloody shit in there. We are small, but so
     is the world. Also, there is hope.

Hope gets the last word. And while it cannot be plausibly accounted for, its paradoxical presence is the driving force of the entire collection. The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather are/is darkly meditative, often depressing, but always hopeful. If there is something like humanness, then I think this book's irreconcilable devastation and irreducible hope enact that humanness as well as anything I've ever read.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some Thoughts on The First 4 Books of Sampson Starkweather - Part 4b: The Waters Continued

Last week I talked about the transcontemporations that make up The Waters in terms of their generic status as almost-but-not-quite translations of the poems from Cesar Vallejo's Trilce. I then analyzed one poem as a lyric in itself apart from its status as a transcontemporation. My goal was to stress the importance and value of these poems as poems in their own rights.

This week, though, I want to read the transcontemporations in the context of their relationship with Vallejo's work. Elisa Gabbert performs such a reading as well as any I have found here, offering an insightful analysis of the spirits of contact and especially the forms of departure between Vallejo's and Starkweather's work. What's so illuminating about Gabbert's comparison/contrast is how she articulates the spirit of Vallejo as it has been reimagined in Starkweather. She also does an excellent job accounting for the translations as art objects in their own rights. I want to talk a bit about the experience of reading Vallejo via Eshleman alongside Starkweather before looking at a couple specific poems.

The poems of Vallejo's Trilce, and thus Starkweather's The Waters, are numbered with Roman numerals, with the latter matching the former number for number. Once you set the two side by side (in my case Vallejo in Spanish and translated into English by Clayton Eshleman), the impulse to compare lines is overwhelming. I sometimes could not even finish a poem in The Waters without reaching for the Vallejo to see how the two matched up or diverged. You could do a whole study of the first and last lines, especially, looking at how Vallejo, Eshleman, and Starkweather interpret, introduce, and craft the final words on a given emotion.

Reading through all three texts (or reading through Eshleman and Starkweather while merely looking at the poems in Spanish occasionally recognizing a word or phrase), I was struck by the observation that there are only two poems in all of The Waters that end with the same word-for-word line that Eshleman uses in his translation. Given the nature of a transcontemporation, I was not surprised that Starkweather's poems so successfully capture the emotion and spirit of Vallejo's in radically different language, but in that context I expected the use of Vallejo's translated text to be something of an all-or-nothing proposition. These are my own expectations of course, but I don't think it's unreasonable to be surprised by the two poems that adopt the same exact lines as those that appear in Eshleman's Vallejo.

In many of the poems the final lines are tenuously related or even fraternally twinned. For instance, in "XXIV," the last line of Vallejo's poem is the stand-alone word "Lunes," which Eshleman directly translates, "Monday." But in Starkweather's "XXIV," the final line is not a stand-alone word, and that word is not Monday. Instead, the final line of Starkweather's "XXIV" reads "a Tuesday." Faithful to his robocopping approach to adaptation/translation, Starkweather upgrades Vallejo's day of the week and doubles the word count in the line.

And in a much later poem, "LXVIII," Vallejo ends by stretching a word vertically along the page:

a
t
o
d
a
s
t
A

which Eshleman translates as,

a
t
f
u
l
m
a
s
T

The translation is faithful, and the typography an English mirror of the Spanish, including the capitalization of the final letter. But in Starkweather's "LXVIII," the final lines are just barely altered:

a
t
f
u
l
l
m
a
s
t

Starkweather adds the second "l" and does not capitalize the final letter. In both of these examples the closing lines of the poems are almost, but not entirely the same. But there are two poems in which Starkweather's final line matches Eshleman's English translation of Vallejo exactly, "IX" and "LI," and I'd like to focus for a moment on "IX."

In "IX" Starkweather makes reasonable robocopping decisions throughout, upgrading Eschleman's translation of "Vusco" as "I sdrive" to "I caress my S-drive." "thirty-two cables and their multiples" in Eshleman's Vallejo becomes "33 fathoms / of forget-me-nots" in Starkweather. The sense of absence, erasure, or failure rendered indirectly throughouth the poem in Trilce becomes "the Ctrl-Alt-Deletes of our love" in The Waters. So when we arrive at the final couplet the similarities are actually more surprising than the differences:

Vallejo:

Y hembra es el alma de la ausente.
Y hembra es el alma mia.

Eshleman:

And female is the soul of the absent-she.
And female is my own soul.

Starkweather:

And female is the soul of her absence.
And female is my own soul.

The identical final lines scream because nothing else is identical. The form of Starkweather's transcontemporation resonating with Eshleman's translation of Vallejo makes sense here given the unity of the emotion in the line. Starkweather takes a breath; Robocop is rehumanized for an instant, and in that instant the binary created by a classic separation like that between the ostensibly male speaker and the female figure in the poem becomes an absence that signifies a presence, a unity, a togetherness.