Magical Realism: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

There’s a famous quote by Shakespeare that goes like this: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods.” This is from King Lear, but if you wanted to sum up every book or comic book by Gaiman that I’ve read so far, this does it. And it’s no wonder that Gaiman features Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sandman. The play has all the key elements that obsess Gaiman—mind control, illusion, delusion, and mortals who are subject to the whim of supernatural beings. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is essentially another Gaiman comic book in novel form where we are flies to wanton Gods. And like a comic book, the main character doesn’t “change” or, more precisely, there’s no character development while gods (or super/supernatural beings) run riot threatening to destroy not just Earth but the universe as well. And the fact that the world just about ended doesn’t change anyone. Says the main character:

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change.” [p. 163]

Besides Gaiman’s sometimes sloppy writing (is he saying that “everyone else” in the story was seven?), the problem isn’t that people don’t change, but that Gaiman’s “people” don’t change. This not only applies to Gaiman’s seven year old characters, but also, arguably, to the most powerful (according to some) and oldest being in the Marvel Universe—the Sandman— who (spoiler) sacrifices himself because he just can’t change. So apparently the kid’s age isn’t the issue. It’s more likely that Gaiman just doesn’t do character development.

I Have a Theory

And that’s because character development is hard to do when you’re just a fly batted around by wanton gods. And setting aside Sandman—which is nothing if not a collection of stories about flies (read mortals) batted around by wanton immortal and semi-immortal beings (read every manner of bugaboo set loose when the Sandman is imprisoned for a hundred years)—The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about a seven year old who finds himself smack dab in the middle a battle between (for lack of a better term) good gods and bad gods. Or super beings. Or thinly veiled super heroes and super villains. Or adults if it’s all a “dream”. The super heroes are three women—a grandmother, mother and “eleven” year old girl—who have actually been around since the creation of the Earth. It’s suggested that the grandmother has been around since before the Big Bang. (Because Gaiman has a seven year old’s instinct for upping the superhero ante, his have been around since before the Big Bang(!)—top that Batman!) In fact, she has apparently seen lots of Big Bangs. And yet the youngest of these super beings, the ostensibly eleven year old girl (who is at least several billion years old) doesn’t have the god-given sense not to take along a seven year old boy when confronting—what do we call it?—a super villain? And there’s nothing particularly clever about the Hempstocks (the good gods). They’re just more powerful than the villain. Geiman’s tale of their triumph is a dull and unimaginative tale of brute force.

What happens next is beyond any seven year old to grasp or fix, and so we end up with a plot-driven novel where the gods utterly mess up a seven year old’s life, then have to extricate him from the very mess they’ve made. The kid/narrator is just a fly.

On the Other Hand

Gaiman’s book has gotten over 15,000 reviews and they are largely 5 star reviews. Gaiman has a fierce and devoted following probably and largely because of Sandman. The thing about super-hero comic books is that they’re not about character development. Sure, more ambitious writers try their hand at it (including Gaiman), but that’s not what the genre is about, and the genre is as old as Greek gods. Comic books are about static, god-like beings (protagonists) with specific powers who use those powers to overcome equally static and powerful adversaries (antagonists) who usually want to rule the Earth and/or universe because—why think small?

And there’s nothing wrong with that—that’s the point of the genre after all.

If you’re a comic book reader, then Gaiman’s plot-driven super-being-tropes are nothing new and hardly a disappointment. It’s why you’re reading them. And I’ve noticed that many who criticize the book sound like they normally read fiction (like me) and find all of Gaiman’s comic-book tropes, his deus-ex-machina machinations, more than a little formulaic. But the god/super-hero genre comes with its own rules and expectations and I suppose expecting character development/complexity from an author so single-mindedly infatuated with the archetypal universal hero myth as Neil Gaiman, is like expecting romance from Stephen King, magical realism from Raymond Chandler or erotica from Hans Christian Andersen. But readers of comic books bring a whole set of expectations. They already know the hero’s history. They know the hero’s powers and limitations. They are familiar with the hero’s raft of villains and arch-nemeses. They are familiar with their hero’s archetype and with that hero’s archetypal stories. The best comic book writers know their archetypes and know their archetypical hero’s journey; and it’s for these “Hero’s Journeys” they’re read (and for the art of course, but many readers seem willing to let poor art slide if the story is exceptional). And when any expectations are dashed, there can be hell to pay. At it’s ugliest, you get the racist row over non-white elves and dwarves in Amazon’s “Ring of Power.” What I’m driving at is that the difference between a new work of fiction by a novelist verses a new comic book is that one reads the novelist for the whole story (to discover unknown characters and unexpected plots) while one comes to comic books with clear expectations as regards the characters and the plot (as one does with most genre literature). Jung writes:

The universal hero myth, for example, always refers to a powerful man or god-man who vanquishes evil in the form of dragons, serpents, monsters, demons, and so on, and who liberates his people from destruction and death.

These hero myths vary enormously in detail, but the more closely one examines them, the more one sees that structurally they are very similar. They have, that is to say, a universal pattern, even though they were developed by groups or individuals without any direct cultural contact with each other—by, for instance, tribes of Africans or North American Indians, or the Greeks, or the Incas of Peru. [The Archetypal story and how to keep it fresh]

With Ocean at the End of the Lane, Gaiman fulfills all the expectations of the horror/hero’s-journey/fantasy readership—in this case the “child archetype”. If one thinks of the book as a comic book turned into a novel, then I get the novel’s appeal, but if one thinks of it as a novel first, then I find the book far too beholden to genre tropes. The author of the website above (from which the quote comes) goes on to write:

Our job in becoming highly original storytellers is to create a world and characters so rare, that the audience lives with a sense of constant wonder and discovery. We take our readers far beyond their usual hunting grounds and lead them into a world where the mundane falls away and everything is an adventure. Once we start them on this journey, we ground the reader by relating this exotic world to a universal human experience. The characters in our stories have lives so unlike ours (spies, superhumans, space explorers, etc.), yet they’re confronted with conflicts common to our everyday experience (guilt and redemption, change vs tradition, tribalism vs individualism, etc.).  Although these conflicts are being played out with life and death stakes, and in settings that are exotic and dangerous, the best stories will still have some connection to our psyches, to what makes humans ‘human.’

I read other reviewers who call his novel poignant and bewitching. Some are brought to tears. Not me. I was rolling my eyes. I found Gaiman’s story too cynical for any of that and too plot-driven for anything like a “universal human experience”. While the main character is seven years old, it’s the seven year old as a grown man who is narrating, and he is breathtakingly unreliable. The villain of the novel accuses the seven year old of being a liar and she’s right. Anyone who believes, for example, the narrator’s protestations that he didn’t notice the nudity of women, multiple times, is probably already the owner of several bridges in Brooklyn. But then who’s talking? The boy? The grown man? At any rate, anyone questioning the narrator’s obsession with women and their bodies need only observe that the antagonist, Ursula Monkton, is at her most threatening and dangerous when she descends out of the night sky like an avenging pole dancer until (as we find out later) she’s stark naked—and all while surrounded by rain, wind and lightning (strobed in glitter-like rainfall and “writhing” lightning) because, you know, there’s nothing more terrifying, powerful or corrupt than a grown, naked woman (and not that the narrator put all this symbolism together on purpose or anything):

I had been running from her though the darkness for, what, half an hour? An hour? I wished I had stayed on the lane and not tried to cut across the fields. I would have been at the Hempstocks’ farm by now. Instead, I was lost and I was trapped.

Ursula Monkton came lower. Her pink blouse was open and unbuttoned. She wore a white bra. Her midi skirt flapped in the wind, revealing her calves. She did not appear to be wet, despite the storm. Her clothes, her face, her hair, were perfectly dry. ¶ She was floating above me, now, and she reached out her hands. ¶ Every move she made, everything she did, was strobed by the tame lightnings that flickered and writhed about her. [p. 81]

It’s all there, including the strobe lighting, the writhing, and the glitter-like rain that doesn’t make her wet. (The narrator mentions more than once that she doesn’t “get wet” in the rain. Maybe a naked woman “getting wet” was an insinuation too far—even for Gaiman—but the fact that he harps on this begins to sound sinister in and of itself, making her sexuality sociopathic—as if a woman’s sexuality were wholly about power and manipulation.) And there’s no escape. Not that the seven year old boy is so terrified, so convinced that death is imminent, that he doesn’t notice or can’t remember the color of Monkton’s bra and her revealing calves. This mature woman’s disrobing follows the seven year old boy wherever he runs. Kind of like life, isn’t it? It’s all downhill from there and at the bottom of the hill is Youporn. Meanwhile, the super-hero protagonist of the story, who steps in to save the doomed narrator (in the nick of deus-ex-machina), is Lettie Hempstock, a non/asexual eleven year old girl who essentially (and conveniently) sacrifices her life (Gaiman is vague) to save the main character. (She’s been eleven for over a billion years?) Thankfully, I’m guessing, the narrator never has to experience Lettie as a grown woman. His memory of her can remain pure. The narrator’s younger sister, meanwhile, seems just as adept (as the grown woman/monster who is Ursula Monkton) at manipulating the sole surviving man in the story. The narrator’s sister skates through the story utterly unharmed and oblivious, among the other females, as she gleefully assists in making the boy’s life miserable. (Such is the murderous, mind-controlling, sexual power of the corrupt female in Gaiman’s imagination that the father is almost made to murder the boy. The other “gods” in the story, the Hempstocks, consider him “mind-controlled”—along with his utterly absent wife.) And don’t forget that it was all women—women, women, women—who got the little boy/narrator into this mess—and that includes the Hempstocks. But you know how it is, can’t live with’em, can’t live without’em…

And then, to crown it all, Gaiman finishes the novel hinting at the telenovela maybe-it-was-all-just-a-dream trope; and all the super-beings were just an archetypal coping mechanism (think Life of Pi). The narrator does hint at this at the novel’s outset too, writing: “…I was an imaginative child, prone to nightmares…” [p. 17] But that doesn’t change my main disappointment with the novel—that everything about it was plot driven, the characters static, and the good vs. evil battle too stale for a novel published in 2013. That ship has sailed. If I ever see another movie or read another story where a super-being saves the Earth yet again, it will be too soon. And stories featuring mind-control (and to say that Gaiman’s stories are full of it is an understatement) quickly lose my interest. Nothing kills character development or “the universal human experience” more dead than wanton gods exercising mind control—as if swatting the flies weren’t enough. At that point you’ve truly entered the oxygen-thin realm of genre-driven fiction.

But some like it that way.

That said…

Of the writers I’ve read since beginning these posts, Gaiman is hands down the most evocative. His descriptions of the food served by the Hempstocks make the mouth water. It’s clear that he can construct and inhabit the worlds of his imagination and with minute detail; and it’s no wonder that he makes such an effective comic book writer—where the writer must retain an awareness that comic books are also a visual art. Sandman is illustrated by a number of artists and, according to what I’ve read, Gaiman was detailed as concerns the world he wanted them to illustrate—panel by panel. I believe it. This goes a long way toward making the world of The Ocean at the End of the Lane as real and concrete as any book I’ve read. Credit where credit is due. And if you accept Gaiman as the plot-driven genre writer that he is, he writes first rate plots that make for compelling reading. The portion of the novel in which the narrator runs from a murderous Ursula Monkton is a page turner. I’m almost inclined to call Gaiman a first rate writer as well, even though I wouldn’t consider him a stylist (there’s nothing exceptional in his use of language or imagery), but for one strange and inexplicable affectation: his weird refusal to use contractions. And so you get supremely awkward sentences like this:

I do not know why I did not ask an adult about it. I do not remember asking adults about anything… [p. 46]

And then, just a few pages later, and for no discernible reason whatsoever, Gaiman remembers that a contraction is a thing:

I don’t know what I said in reply, or if I even said anything. [p. 53]

But that’s the exception. For the most part, Gaiman’s arbitrary affectation makes his prose feel wooden and stiff. The same finicky avoidance of contractions is to be found in Sandman and, in my opinion, makes the dialog equally wooden.

But is it magical realism?

It depends on how you read the novel, to an extent. If you think it was all just a dream, then a hard maybe? But even then, given that Gaiman spends the lion’s share of the narrative in an alternate world or in a world heavily manipulated by magic, I’m more apt to call it Fantasy.

So, my search for true magical realism continues. I should probably get back to reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

upinVermont | September 25 2022

Magical Realism: The House on the Cerulian Sea by TJ Klune

I just finished this novel and am of two minds. On the one hand, if read in blissful isolation, the novel is a charming, uplifting, feel good story that features the anti-christ among other magical children who are only looking for a loving home and a government employee who, like the Grinch, comes to grow a heart three times its size. On the other hand, if one has been breathing and conscious for the last 20 years, then Klune’s story reads like a Marvel spin-off in the X-Men universe—as though it were based on the usual derivative trope of magical beings victimized by a powerful and hostile non-magical (and boring) majority. The book teeters from one genre cliché after another from beginning to end.

So, at the risk of engaging in some pop-psychology, my suspicion is that there’s a reason (think Big Bang Theory) “nerds” are associated with comic books (read superheroes). There’s a certain class of children who were, are, and will be perpetual victims (fictional and real) in grade school and high school, and these are the children who stand out in unpopular ways. Maybe they’re too skinny or fat, maybe they’re smart but socially inept, maybe they’re introverts, autistic, artistic instead of athletic, gay, lesbian or just look and dress funny. Among them, I suspect, are the kids who become comic book writers, writers who essentially project themselves into super-powered beings who right all the injustices ever inflicted on them. But society (read the class and school administration) fights back. Society labels and isolates these children and tries to “fix” them with therapy, medication, social intervention, etc… And so that feeling of further victimization is projected into the superhero universe by the next generation of comic book writers when superheros are forced to “register” (Marvel Universe) and give up their secret identity, to alter who they are and give up their superpowers so they’ll fit in (The Incredibles), or find themselves in a war, hunted and gunned down, by secret and opaque (read the school administration) government institutions (the X-Men). In the DC Universe, the Joker is really nothing more than the popular class clown who victimizes the über-smart class nerd, Batman.

In that regard, Klune’s novel leaves no trope unturned.

There is the secretive Government Institute (DICOMY); there is the hostile non-magical populace with protestors—thinly veiled right-wing MAGA racists and anti-immigrant bigots; there are the brilliant, engaging, accepting magical children who only want to be loved for who they are; there is the city (presumably under the complete control of the authorities/government) where it is always grey and raining, and there is “the house by the cerulean sea”, where the magical children live and where it is pretty as a Caribbean postcard. The juxtapositions are so cartoonish that one almost thinks the author is angling for a Pixar movie deal.

If one is willing to set all this aside (though it becomes harder as the novel progresses) then it’s possible to enjoy The House on the Cerulian Sea as a sort of novel length comic book where the putative villain has a change of heart and the good guys, in their way, triumph. Leave it at that and the book makes great summer reading. Expect more than that, and you will start to notice that none of the characters feel “real”. They’re rather two-dimensional. Reading Klune’s novel is a bit like reading a comic book in novel form. The main character’s “love interest”, the longingly named Arthur Parnassus, is never more than that—a character with a soaring name but who remains enigmatically flat. The various children are fun but never go much beyond cartoonish expectations. They behave in the expected ways (according to who and what they are) but we never learn anything about their pasts. We never get to know them. The main character, Linus, spends a great deal of time sweating. Klune is the second author I’ve read (Ruth Hogan The Keeper of Lost Things being the other) who seems particularly fixated with sweat. Linus sweats a lot. He is also prone to fear, dread and fainting spells.

In the end, I found the novel somewhat marred by the same temptation to moralize that got Patrick Ness, The Monster Calls, into trouble. Various characters get on their soapboxes and monologue as the novel draws to a close. The final monologue, the piece of resistance, is when Linus summons the courage to soliloquize before DICOMY’s “extreme upper management” [a name that still makes me laugh]—a monologue which allows the author, TJ Klune, to neatly sum up the moral of the story in case it wasn’t already obvious. That said, Klune does a better job of it than Ness (even while Klune’s soapboxing still seems contrived). I have yet, in real life, to see anyone get on their soapbox and soliloquize their mea culpa. In real life people just let their resentments fester and eventually end up on the bottle or in therapy.

But, after all that, it’s worth adding that Klune’s story-telling is good-humored and he actually got me to laugh here and there. By what I can tell, he knows that he’s primarily writing to entertain and is not out to produce a literary masterpiece. He’s a fine story teller whose novel is the best I’ve read so far (in the YA/Fantasy genre). He’s no poet. You won’t find any heart-stopping prose to give your breath a pause, but his descriptions are effective and provide the reader a sufficient sense of place. He’ a skilled storyteller whose book is deservedly successful.

Finally, is this Magical Realism? I would say not. Klune creates an alternate reality and that, in my view, makes this book more akin to Fantasy than Magical Realism.

up in Vermont | September 12th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: Ginger Bread by Helen Oyeyemi

Oyeyemi’s novel once again has me asking: but is this really Magical Realism? Among other objections, Oyeyemi creates a fictitious country that is, through and through, an alternate reality—Druhástrana. Is it borderline Magical Realism? I guess I should define what I consider magical realism—and that’s when a story takes place firmly in our own world and in which “magical” events are perceived as normal and not the defining reality (as in fantasy). The Movie Big Fish is, to me, a beautiful example of Magical Realism. Ideally, the magic that occurs is the subtle kind that a reader is never quite sure about—was that really magic or was it not? And if it’s more than that, the magic is like the weather. It’s there but doesn’t define the narrative. I think life is like that. I’ve certainly experienced moments in my own life that others would construe as Magical Realism. I suspect many of us have. That’s how I’m writing my own novels—like Big Fish.

Oyeyemi’s Ginger Bread is easily the most fun to write about because it’s the book that has earned nearly gushing praise from professional critics and a mixed reception from the general reader. The diverging opinions remind me of the various movies on Rotten Tomatoes in which critics and viewers radically differ. The plot of Ginger Bread is commonly described as that of an immigrant family’s experience making a new home in their adopted country (England)—all while confronting the usual prejudices and conflict, but that’s like defining a T-Rex by its bones. Oyeyemi’s story is also said to riff on Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale and the Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel but, despite my familiarity with both, I couldn’t see that she borrowed much more than the names (and in a way that’s better). In the last decade there have been a deluge of fairy tale adaptations. The whole genre has gotten stale as month old bread.

But anyway, saying the novel is about immigrants doesn’t begin to describe it.

The thing is this: This isn’t Oyeyemi’s first book. She’s a proven author of five novels with recognized talent, a winner of the PEN Open Book Award (among others) and was named Granta’s Best Young British Novelists. So what to do with a manifestly unsuccessful novel that is, dare I say it, poorly written? One can’t chalk it up to inexperience. One has to conclude that the narrative style of the book was a deliberate choice; and (William Logan excluded) critics are almost always confused by that. It goes like this: Critic: You’re a hack. Writer: Why? Critic: You’re writing is a convoluted mess. Writer: I meant it to be a convoluted mess. Critic: You’re a genius.

And so we get reviews like this one from NPR’s Michael Schaub:

~ Trying to summarize the plot of Gingerbread is like trying to describe a strange dream you had — it’s nearly impossible to put something so odd and compelling into words that will actually convey the experience.

And right after tossing up his hands he throws it all on the reader’s lap, saying: “She has a gift for getting readers to not only suspend their disbelief, but to throw it out the window entirely.” Unfortunately for Schaub, readers aren’t buying what he’s selling. Oyeyemi earned the fewest reviews of the four books (500 compared to Clarke’s 10,000) and only netted three and half stars. There are as many 1 star reviews as 5 star. And those rating the book highly often offer qualified praise along the lines of Schaub’s—you’ll love it as long as you don’t try to make sense of it.

As for myself, my opinion was divided. Oyeyemi threw conventional story-telling out with the bathwater. I admire her for that. It’s cool that she took the risk (I doubt many authors would have gotten a book published like that) but, if we’re being honest, the effort isn’t a success. There are too many poorly-defined characters and Oyeyemi spends way too much time narrating in a manner that I’d describe as “voice-over-narration“, squandering what adds up to pages and pages with ultimately irrelevant diversions and anecdotes that do nothing to move the story forward. Imagine a two hour long movie whose frames are frozen every two to three minutes for a fifteen minute voice-over nattering on about what happened in the room next door, who said what to who years before, what A was thinking when C was on the phone with X while in the two story building next to the garden that character A never liked but C did when she was thinking about Y during the afternoon but not in the morning when Q was visiting for tea to discuss R’s relationship with S. This is what reading Ginger Bread is like. This is why Schaub compared the narration to a “strange dream”. You get passages like this:

~ They’d met the summer before Kensilea graduated from medical school; Ambrose was her friend’s piano teacher. Kenzilea, usually late for everything, somehow managed to be wondrously punctual when it came to meeting her friend for lunch on piano-lesson days, often arriving before the lesson ended and complimenting Ambrose on the ethereal music she’d heard drifting out of the window. Occasionally what Kinzilea had heard was a composition of Ambrose Kercheval’s, performed by Ambrose himself, but most of the time it was a recording of a better pianist that Ambrose wanted his student to hear. Etc.

It’s tedious and boring. And this is the start of a paragraph that goes on unbroken for a whole page. The central story of the novel, such as it is, is put on hold while Oyeyemi (through the character of Harriet), drones on about Kercheval after Kercheval with well-enunciated and monotone prose. In fact the whole novel is like this. If there’s a duller way to tell a story I can’t imagine it; but I was determined to read it from beginning to end, and did; even when Oyeyemi asks on the two hundredth and eighteenth page of voice-over-narration: “HMMM… STILL HERE?” To be “fair”, part of the problem, if it can be called “a problem”, is that the entirety of the book is Harriet, the mother, telling Perdita, her daughter (who is recovering from a brush with death) the story of their family. But this was Oyeyemi’s choice. She didn’t have to write it this way. And what this means is that everything that happens is filtered through Harriet’s narration, (the reason for the novel-length “voice over”).

But why did I pick up the book initially?

You’ll frequently run into one particular paragraph quoted again and again in multiple reviews. This is it:

~ “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it,” the gingerbread addict said, “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon.” p. 2

This is beautiful writing. This is writing to savor. It’s what I like to call, writing through the metaphor (the flour as the “heart ground to ash”), and it’s a rare commodity. I read this on page 2 and immediately bought the book. Little did I know that this was the first and last example in the entirety of the book. I know that other critics and even readers have gushed over Oyeyemi’s writing, but I found nothing beyond this paragraph on page 2 that I couldn’t find among any number of writers. As a stylistic matter, her writing was generically good but nothing extraordinary. For example:

~ She watched as shadows swept along grassy slopes and swirled down the stream…

That’s fairly generic. If there’s anything that’s going to go down stream, then it will often swirl or be “swept along”. I’ve mentioned Anthony Doerr in my previous reviews so here, by way of comparison, is a brief passage from his short stories:

~ She stands in the wet yard. Exhales. The galaxy wheels above the pines. The bonfire is in a grove near the point. The wind is clean, the grass drowned with dew. Clouds slide in ranks below the stars. Her sneakers are soaked. Forest mulch clings to her cardigan. She crouches in pine needles outside the circle of firelight, sees dark figures shifting, their warped shadows thrown up into the pines. p. 81 The Shell Collector

The wind is clean. How often does the galaxy wheel above pines? When was the last time grass was drowned with dew or the clouds slid in ranks? And then there are the warped shadows. With Doerr we’re in the presence of a prose stylist. Where Oyeyemi’s description defaults to the generic, Doerr’s tweaks are unexpected and fresh, and that’s all it takes. Ultimately, Oyeyemi does the bare minimum as far as scene setting goes, being much more interested in convoluted interpersonal gossip. As other readers have remarked, Oyeyemi does little to nothing to bring the reader into the world of her novel. Instead, you get studiously awful writing like this:

~ “Later you started to like it?” Harriet wasn’t sure what Gabriel was saying; obviously he was saying what he was saying and she didn’t think he meant anything bad by it, but this recollection of his reinforced a feeling she had (a feeling that she’d always had?) that this is the impression she made, that of being a person who can be saved up for later. p. 223

The awfulness feels deliberate, the kind only a good writer can write, as if she’s daring the reader to object. HMMM… she asks. STILL THERE? WELL GET A LOAD OF THIS! And on she goes, page after page, one loopy and vacuous passage after another. It’s like she wanted to see what she could get away with—a sort of loose and dissociative automatic writing. The general reader was not impressed, but apparently the professional critics, with few exceptions, fell in line and decided the emperor’s clothes never looked better.

Good for Oyeyemi for doing something different. The book was original and unlike any that I’ve read, but generally not in a good way. If she writes another book like Ginger Bread, I may read some James Joyce instead.

up in Vermont | August 28th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Spoiler Alert: Don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers.

Susanna Clarke’s novel, Piranesi, is another that I wouldn’t call “Magical Realism”. I would place it somewhere in the fantasy genre. Clarke’s novel is easily the best written of the four novels. It doesn’t seem as though it was started as one kind of story, only to finish as another. I doesn’t read like passages were retained and uncomfortably shoehorned into a rewrite. It’s of a piece and feels like the work of an experienced author.

That said, the novel can be read in different ways. If it’s read as a straight up ‘Fantasy Novel’—capitalized—then it eventually boils down to the usual protagonist/antagonist, good versus evil, dynamic that compares to Alix Harrow. Even without knowing the background to her story, one gets the sense that Clarke was thoroughly taken by the dream-like, Borgesian surreality she envisioned, then decided to use that as a setting for a novel. Unfortunately, the story, for me, wasn’t really as captivating as its setting. Clarke’s descriptions of her alternate reality were and are bewitching. Unlike some readers, I found the earlier portion of the novel, the discovery phase, more interesting than the latter half. The further one reads, the more conventional the novel becomes in terms of its narrative ark. There is a villain and in the end the villain must be killed.

~ Set of Stairs decorated by Magnificent Architecture by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

But that convention seems to suffice for most readers, nearly ten thousand of whom give the book almost five stars. And of the positive reviews, very few mention the philosophical underpinnings of Clarke’s novel and so that suggests the novel largely works as a fantasy novel despite my finding the ending a bit too conventional.

But if one reads the novel as an allegory, riffing on philosophical ideas encompassing knowledge and existence then it becomes an interesting experiment. I’m not well-read on Art, Architecture or Philosophy and so I won’t claim credit for knowing that Clarke’s character Piranesi is undoubtedly a reference to Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Nor did I clue into the fact that the nature of Clarke’s alternate reality is based on Owen Barfield’s ideas concerning language and knowledge. (My thanks to other reviewers.) If you follow this last link, you will find a link to an interview with Clarke where she discusses Owen Barfield’s ideas and how she used them. Those comments start at about the 20 minutes mark.

So, about Piranesi. The character’s namesake was Giovanni Battista Piranesi who was famous for “his etchings of Rome and of fictitious and atmospheric “prisons” (Le Carceri d’Invenzione)”. And that may be all you need to know about that. The image above, for instance, captures the endless world of architecture that typifies Clarke’s alternate reality (and that was also, in a sense, a prison). And the image below, another by Piranesi, shows what may have inspired the endless statues in Clarke’s labyrinthine “world”.

Clarke seems to have used Piranesi’s etchings as the basis for the novel’s alternate reality—a dreamlike world of endless vestibules, stairs and halls lined by thousands of statues (presumably infinite). Birds come and go, nesting among the statues, as do tides, filling the lower halls with seaweed, seashells and enough fish to feed Piranesi. Some reviewers have drawn parallels between Giovanni Piranesi’s non-existent architecture of the mind and Clarke’s alternate reality which, arguably, is a also a creation of human consciousness (within the context of the novel’s world). That gets somewhat into the College English 101 level of analysis but it’s there.

It was Owen Barfield who formally posited that human beings originally existed in a state of consciousness wherein the world was a part of and expression of their own consciousness and communicated with them through natural signs—a bird’s flight, a tree’s fall, the pattern of wind in the grasses—but he hardly needed to look so far into the past. One frequently reads about this way of perceiving the world when reading about Native American mystics. Which is to say, this idea didn’t originate with Owen Barfield but had already been expressed as a living tradition among American Indians. I know nothing about Barfield but I wouldn’t be surprised if his ideas were directly or indirectly inspired by them.

At any rate, this way of perceiving the world is what characterizes Piranesi’s way of perceiving the labyrinthine world in which he is trapped (though he doesn’t consider himself trapped, his mind and memories having been erased by his time spent in Clarke’s labyrinth). Clarke (in the interview linked above) states that this consciousness is what she was trying to capture and explore. In other words, the story is just a vehicle for her to riff on the paradigm of universal consciousness. By way of contrast, the “villain” (called “the Other” by the now gullible Piranesi) is characterized by his modern mindset and desire to exploit this “consciousness in things”, thinking that he can ultimately control others in our own reality. I’m not sure Clarke was all that successful in that respect. Ketterley is ultimately a distant figure who, in the end, is little more than a symbol for modernity. Ketterley and Piranesi never truly interact. They’re never forced to confront each other’s beliefs. And it’s in that sense that for some, including me, the novel ended in a whimper.

One gets the sense that Clarke (and not just because she states as much in her interview) was more interested in the alternate reality (and Piranesi’s experience of it) than the arc of the story; and that makes the somewhat conventional story arc feel secondary and expedient. More typically, authors will dream up the story first, then create the world and characters that inhabit it. Readers who were unwilling to suspend belief as regards some of the inconsistencies between the setting and the “story” were inclined to dismiss the novel; and that’s fair if one prefers the self-consistent constraints of fantasy world-creation over an allegorical riffing on Owen Barfield’s mystical consciousness.

The other aspect of any book is the author’s stylistic abilities. I haven’t read Clarke’s other books, but in Piranesi there was nothing about her writing that particularly struck me—that made me want to savor an image or turn of phrase. Her talents don’t seem to bend that way. She’s a good writer in that I can’t recall a moment that distracted from the narrative, as with Harrow, or that seemed clumsy and amateurish, as with Hogan. I recall another reviewer referring to her writing style as generic. I might write efficient or serviceable. You will get a description like the following:

~ Once—it was evening in the Autumn—I came to the Doorway of the Twelfth South-Eastern Hall intending to pass through the Seventeenth Vestibule . I found that I was unable to enter it; the Vestibule was full of birds and the birds were all aflight. They circled and spiraled, creating a whirling dance. They filled the Vestibule like a column of smoke, which grew darker and denser in places and the next moment lighter and airier. p. 39

There is nothing particularly poetic in this description. Describing the birds’ flight as a “whirling dance” is utterly conventional, but efficient. The further description of them as a column of smoke growing darker and lighter is equally generic. One could probably find hundreds of examples that describe flocking birds as smoke. What she nevertheless does well is in including not just sight but sound, smell and touch in her descriptions. Though she’s no prose stylist (her writing doesn’t compare to a Gregory Maquire or an Athony Doerr) she does well communicating to the reader a sense of place—a skill that shouldn’t be underestimated.

up in Vermont | August 27th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

Alix E. Harrow’s book was the second that I read and is another book that gets very high marks from readers, four and half stars with nine thousand reviews, but which disappointed me. The book is considered Magical Realism but I personally would label it more of a Fantasy novel. There are alternate universes that are accessed by doorways or passageways that can magically appear or can be found among ruins. The novel’s premise reminded me straightaway of the movie Time Bandits, a favorite movie of mine, where alternate universes are accessed by doorways or passageways that can magically appear or can be found among ruins.

As with Hogan, the Ten Thousand Doors is Harrow’s first book and it shows. It’s clear that Harrow is a gifted storyteller but she made a variety of decisions that left the novel feeling deeply flawed. First and foremost was the decision to have January, the main character, make all her discoveries through a “book” she finds hidden among her possessions. This entirely robs January of agency and robs the book, as a whole, of discovery. She becomes, in essence, a reader of her own story (rather than unfolding the novel’s world herself). The only mystery that January really has to discover (which, it turns out, is the central mystery of the novel) is the identity of the writer. The astute reader is likely to guess the writer’s identity long before January, which has the unfortunately effect of making January seem somewhat clueless.

Curiously, there’s a feeling to Harrow’s novel that’s similar to Hogan’s. One gets the sense that the novel she started is not the same as the novel she finished. For instance, when January first discovers the “Pocket Diary”, the tone of the writing is archly pedantic and formal (including footnotes)—as though it were the product of an archaic and doddering Oxford professor. As Harrow’s novel progresses, the tone of the writing changes. One gets the sense that Harrow changed her mind about the author’s identity and never bothered to bring the whole into conformity. A possible rationale she might use would be that the author’s style changed as a result of his age and experiences, but given the reasons for the author writing it (who he was writing it for), I find this a very hard sell. Further, while Harrow later rationalizes the author’s reasons for hiding his identity from January, here too his reasons are as thin as the Pocket Diary’s paper. The best that Harrow can come up with is that the author is a coward; and he states that he’s a coward repeatedly (as do several other men including January’s ‘boyfriend’).

And this raises another issue.

Harrow writes with an agenda—and that agenda is to make women not just the central protagonists of her stories, but the only protagonists. You would be forgiven for thinking that Alix E. Harrow, all by herself, is going to right the wrongs of three thousand years of patriarchal literature. If the men in Ten Thousand Doors aren’t all feckless cowards (and not busily declaring themselves to be feckless cowards) then they’re powerful villains in corrupt patriarchal organizations who (oh, by the way) are still cowards:

~ “Maybe all powerful men are cowards at heart, because in their hearts they know power is temporary.”

Writes Harrow.

So that just about covers it. All the men are cowards, even the powerful ones. Besides Harrow’s attitude being boorish, it makes for bad characters. Not only are the men cowards, but they’re incompetent, and the women, for the most part, are their victims. What this means for Harrow’s novel is that everything seems to more or less happen to characters who are too cowardly, incompetent or oppressed to be protagonists. You would think that Harrow would at least grant greater agency to January, but here too the author has a point to make. January must also be rendered a nearly powerless—verging on gullible—victim of the patriarchy. And so we end up with a main character more or less carried from one end of the novel to the other, like a rudderless boat, driven by the tide of Harrow’s central thesis; and a villain who is so flat and predictable as to be a trope.

But, fortunately for January, Harrow created the character of Jane—or, more precisely, a woman with a gun. She becomes a deus-ex-machina-like figure who, like the Gods in Greek and Roman drama, extricates January “from a difficult situation” that might otherwise have forced upon January unnecessary character development.

All this is to say, the novel feels plot and agenda driven.

Moving on to Harrow’s writing, and stylistically speaking, it can be fun and inventive (she clearly has a quick and deft mind) but her delight in her own ability occasionally verges on the insufferable. I haven’t read her later novel, The Once and Future Witches, but there are passages in Ten Thousand Doors where the author just can’t help breaking the fourth wall.

~ I escaped outdoors (see how that world slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges). p. 6

To be clear, I love the inventiveness, but I wasn’t convinced this is something the character would have said or written. Whenever this sort of writing occurs (and it occurs several times) the spell of the book is broken. Harrow, interrupting the story, manically writes about writing.

In every other respect, she’s an imaginative writer. I wouldn’t call her a prose stylist. I can’t think of a single image or turn of phrase that gave me pause. There’s little that’s poetic. Where she shines is in how effortlessly her imagination makes analogies and draws associations. That’s a true writer’s gift. She has a good sense of pacing, able to slow or quicken prose according to mood. (A gift Ruth Hogan, at least in The Keeper of Lost Things, conspicuously lacks.) Here for example, is a nice passage which (though Harrow more or less breaks the fourth wall again to write about what a gift to the world she is) is nevertheless beautifully written.

~ Doors, he told her, are change, and change is a dangerous necessity. Doors are revolutions and upheavals, uncertainties and mysteries, axis points around which entire worlds can be turned. They are the beginnings and endings of every true story, the passages between that lead to adventures and madness and—here he smiled—even love. Without doors the worlds would grow stagnant, calcified, storyless. p. 167

In case you missed it, she’s not really talking about doors. Doors, as she strongly intimates several times in the course of the novel (again in case you missed it) are just metaphors for stories. She’s really talking about stories and she’s talking about herself (in case you missed it) the author of said stories. Where would the world be without her stories? But it’s a handsomely written paragraph, the analogy is masterfully handled and I agree with her (being a poet and writer myself) that the world would be calcified and stagnant without—moi. It would be:


I expect Harrow will continue to write stories that feature women defying patriarchal conventions, and why not? But one hopes she does so without making it seem as though she’s sacrificed character and plot on the alter of misandry. And it will be interesting to see if she has any desire to move beyond “light reading”—stories with flat and predictable villains—to more complex stories and characters where good and evil aren’t so cartoonishly or easily delineated—where the solutions aren’t so easily fixed with magic. That said, she is a successful author, is widely read, and both her novels are very well-liked by readers. There’s most definitely a market for more novels like the two she’s already written.

up in Vermont | August 26th 2022

Four Magical Realist Novels: The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading novels considered to be in the Magical Realism genre. Since I’m reading them, I thought I might as well comment on them (and I’ve been somewhat disappointed by what’s on offer). The first of the four was The Keeper of Lost Things. Reading it brings me to the observation that there are writers and there are storytellers and sometimes one gets both, as with Anthony Doerr—a beautiful writer and a fantastic storyteller—but more often, as with Hogan, the storytelling exceeds an author’s writerly gifts. If one has to choose from extremes, by the way, then be a fantastic storyteller and a terrible writer. Readers are far more apt to forgive poor writing (if they even recognize it) than poor storytelling.

The Keeper of Lost Things is Ruth Hogan’s first novel and I had my troubles with it. The novel seems to begin as one story, then end as another. Despite the novel being entitled “The Keeper of Lost Things”, the novel is neither about the “Keeper”, who is primarily a subplot, and only tangentially the “Lost Things”. Hogan tells stories related to the lost items, but these stories are told by an omniscient narrator and not unearthed by the characters themselves. The stories related to the lost things are largely unrelated to the larger plot (though I suppose the industrious English major could cook something up). There’s no discovery or revelation. As for returning the lost items to their owners, Hogan knocks any magic or romance out of that project by having the characters dispatch the whole mess to an online database. I guess magical realism only gets one so far. They wash their hands of the lost things and get on with the real subject of the novel—two romances with all the usual will they, won’t they tropes, one in the past and one in the present.

The one character who does seem to know a little about a lost item’s provenance is the teen-aged Sunshine, and her knowledge is the magical sort. She just knows. No explanation. Likewise, one of the novel’s central puzzles, the reasons why a resident ghost is upset (who only appears half way through the novel because that’s probably when the idea occurred to Hogan), is less a matter of discovery than of characters essentially being hit over the head with the solution. Sunshine, by the way, apparently knows and has known the solution all along. And in keeping with that sort of trope, can’t be bothered to share what she knows.

~ “Enough with the mushy, stuff girls,” he said, rocking his chair backwards on two legs. “What’s the clue?”
Sunshine looked at him with dutiful amusement, which quickly withered into undisguised scorn when she realized that he wasn’t joking. p. 233

Muggles. You know?

It’s a pity Hogan doesn’t make more of the “Lost Things” because it’s a great premise, but it would have been a completely different novel. It’s also probably more than Hogan could take on. She might have realized that writing about hundreds of lost things was going to be a mammoth undertaking. She instead decided to reuse the bits and pieces of what she’d already written as an atmospheric backdrop and subplot for a romance novel. I could be utterly wrong, but that’s the way I read the novel—as if rather than toss out any number of false starts and rough drafts, she decided she just needed to finish the book and ineptly grafted everything together.

At this point, any fan of Hogan’s novel might point out that her novel is a best seller and I’m still looking for an agent. Good point. I do think Hogan is a promising storyteller and her decision to write a romance using magical realism as a backdrop (whether her original intent or not) was timely if not shrewd. She handles the usual Romantic tropes, all but clichéd by this point, with (as she would write) aplomb. She wrote a lightweight, feel-good easy-reader perfect for a summer’s evening and readers have rewarded her for it. Think of the book as a scoop of ice cream. There’s little to no character development and the flavors are haphazard, but she gets the cream and sugar about right—the romance—and that’s all readers really ask from ice cream.

The larger stumbling block with Hogan’s book, typical of me, concerned her writing.

First, it has to be said as that this is her first book. I haven’t read any other books by her and for all I know she could have improved considerably. As it is, Hogan often sounds like she’s spent way too much time reading the ad copy of a Seinfeld J Peterman catalog. And so you get a paragraph like the following, full of trite and clichéd phrases [italics mine]:

~ Sarah Trouvay was a first-class barrister with a stellar career, two healthy, rumbustious boys, and a rugged architect husband. She also had an unexpected talent for yodeling, which had earned her extravagant plaudits as Maria in the school production of The Sound of Music. She and Laura had met at school and remained close friends ever since. Not close in terms or geography and frequency; they rarely met or spoke more than two or three times a year. But the bond between them, formed at an early age and tempered over time by triumphs and tragedies, remained as durable as it was dependable.

Don’t you want to buy dungarees that are as durable as they are dependable? For your rugged architect husband? And who doesn’t love extravagant plaudits? Or earlier in the novel we get this:

~ The question came from a leggy blonde who appeared down the path at the side of the house in skintight jeans and pale pink suede loafers which boasted telltale Gucci horse bit trims and matched perfectly with her cashmere sweater.

What about that cashmere sweater with the boasted Gucci bit trims? Hogan goes on and on like this. She tends toward vacuous and clichéd adjectives you would expect to find on a real-estate brochure [italics mine]:

~ The roses looked magnificent. Blooms of every shape, size, and hue combined to create a shimmering sea of scent and color. The lawn was a perfect square of lush green and the fruit trees and bushes at the bottom of the garden burgeoned with the promise of late summer bounty. p. 49

And then there are the mixed metaphors, clumsy and overstated:

~ Outside, the vapor trail of a plane was scrawled across the blue sky like the knobbled spine of a prehistoric animal. p. 168

Because, just in case you weren’t sure, the sky was blue. And the contrail wasn’t just like a spine, let’s not leave the metaphor there, but like a spine scrawled on a piece of paper. And then there’s this chestnut:

~ Anthony had told her so many things that she hadn’t known, and the knowledge had swept through her head like a wild wind through a field of barley, leaving it mussed and disarranged. p. 40

In any other context this would be nothing short of satire. The knowledge swept through her head? Would it have otherwise swept through her liver? And why barley? That’s oddly specific. And just in case the metaphor wasn’t already obvious, she adds the explanatory leaving it mussed and disarranged, as though the reader can’t be trusted to figure it all out. The sentence is an object lesson in how not to write.

The argument could be made that she was trying to adopt a sort of tongue and cheek, gossipy, narrative voice (let me tell you just the most delightful story). It seems to have worked for most readers, to judge by the four and half stars her book netted among readers, but I found it tiresome. She also stuffs her book with pop culture references (songs and artists) that, if you’re like me, are utterly meaningless. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with such references, but any author insisting on them is going to leave a sizable portion of their readership in the dark. The characters also regularly laugh uproariously at their own jokes. It’s always a bad sign when the author has to finger point at the “funny parts”.

All in all, the general tone was too smarmy and ingratiating for my tastes, and the writing too amateurish. That said, I’m happy for her and for the success of her novel. I hope she keeps writing and wish her further success.

up in Vermont | August 26th 2022

eYe by Howard Fine

Howard Fine, a reader of my blog, sent me one of his books of poetry to review and I have to say, aesthetically, it’s one of the most beautiful I’ve gotten. Each page is a handwritten facsimile. I myself wouldn’t possibly have the patience for this sort of effort. My mind wanders. I would absent-mindedly misspell a word and have to start all over again. I would probably end up writing the book ten times over just to get one printable version. So I admire Fine’s effort, his handwriting, and the neatness and readability of it. This book is a labor of love.

But what are the poems like?

Fine gives meter and rhyme a go and for that I’m grateful, but the end-result is a superficial resemblance to Emily Dickinson. Similar to Dickinson’s manner of writing, Fine dispenses with grammatical connectives, omitting definite articles, pronouns and propositions in the name of meter. Fine’s poetry often feels like its made from the limbs and shoots of a grammar tree, held together only by a poem’s thematic material. So you get stanzas like this:

was poor chronicler's lament
is our mere finite sphere
shall far sparkling firmament
may be forever near

labor least to reinvent
worn world as it wanes here
but by conjure and consent
drown known orb in own globed tear
coax Other to appear

What makes me guess this isn’t a peculiarity of Fine’s voice but a concession made to rhyme and meter is that in those poems where there’s neither rhyme nor meter, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal (less the omission of punctuation):

we brought a box of chocolates
we would have brought flowers
but all the florists were closed

oh what good are flowers?
they only fade

flowers are good
because they fade

Much to my enjoyment, he also wrote a couple poems in German:

aus dem trauern flog ein r
und wohnt der wunde bei
ein ich fragt    was es sei?
sagt ein engel  es war Er!

I was wondering if it should read ein(e)r? or if this was a kind of visual pun (the small ‘r’ corrected to the divine and capitalized ‘Er’)? — but anyways, what’s interesting is that Fine writes the same way in German as in English, the same sort of piecemeal grammar. I’m guessing most readers will simply accept this as a facet of his style. Since it’s something that I pay (possibly too much) attention to, I’m also probably going to be more critical than others. Even so, the downside is that it risks making the poetry feel altogether rhyme-driven and line-driven (the poem as a collection of lines rather than a whole). It risks trading the musicality of idiomatic English for something that sometimes sounds less playful than juvenile.

now west heeds east
by eremite's beach
here sweet tears teach
why best needs least

come share my tent
in neither nor
on this spare shore
from came to went

Or later, he will write a line like “and wonder what this life be worth”. I’m not sure what Fine gains by using “be” instead of “is”. Is it a feint at poetic depth? Is this meant to make us treat the narrator as a pretentious poseur? As it was, I was suddenly finishing the poem in the voice of Hector Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean.

and wonder what this life be worth

the dog returning brought for me
a stag's domed skull    laid at my heel
she knows     thought i    memento mori
though risen now     there yet i kneel

It’s a trade off and a conscious one. Either the reader accepts the stilted syntax or one wishes he had simply written free verse. I personally find myself sometimes, it has to be said, spending more time trying to piece together his grammatical jigsaw puzzles than enjoying the poetry.

why try? could court worse failures
draw blood? no more touch knife
assailed by fear's familiars
jailed   in   contracted life

grow bold! quit taboo's ambit
breathe freely  having fled
cold cell of concrete habit
enforced by bar of dread

Compare this to one of Dickinson’s many inscrutable poems:

Reverse cannot befall
That find Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior
As soon — Adversity

A Diamond — overtake
In far — Bolivian Ground —
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it — if it found —

Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them p. 287

If one is going to be influenced by Dickinson (not just in grammar but hymn meter too) then I’m not sure poems like these represent Dickinson at her best. When Dickinson is read and remembered, and appreciated for her genius, it’s for the poetry that speaks to us in familiar ways and of a world that is not so synechdochic as to be indecipherable.

But enough of that. What about the content of Fine’s poetry? Once you get past the (probably too) seriousness with which I read poetry, one can also read his poems as playful, inventive and enthusiastic—in short, as light verse. The reader seeking traditional poetry that aims for any sort of sublimity won’t find it here. There’s lots of winking, nudging, coy question marks and exclamation points. And not all his poems have that expediently truncated feel to them. You get a little charmer like this:

a natural cat knows how to purr
how to groom her winter fur
how to choose the cutest mice
and skate soft-shoe across new ice

how to scratch      how to sleep
wholeheartedly     but not too deep
and when she meows her ninth goodbye
a natural cat     knows   how to die.

But then at other times his humor can feel a little smug, like someone who laughs at his own joke a little too much and too long:

i knelt by a jamb
that hung no door
felt swung   i am   ajar

got sung till i crossed
through thought and ought
at last   past sense   commence

It’s a mixed bag. Not only is Fine writing to entertain but also, it has to be said, show off. One does get the sense that he wishes to impress with cleverness—a cleverness that sometimes implodes in it’s own too much:

lose ego   lose me    lose smartphone
what's dark   what's whole   what's hominid's?
re-inspire spark     runic sorcery
impish futhork    lyrical surge

sanity enjoyed   small's great while hearts turn
be peace vaporize into outto blackwhite lighght

Writing humor isn’t easy. It’s a curious thing, for example, that Steve Martin, one of the greatest physical comedians of all time, has little talent for writing humor. Comedic timing means something completely different on the page than on the stage and I’m not sure that Fine altogether succeeds as a humorist or writer of light verse, but his poems do communicate a good-natured and engaging enthusiasm. Fine himself closes the book by writing:

my script now nears its end
i'd love to ad-lib more

And that’s probably the spirit in which to read these poems—as ad-libbing. They’re high-spirited, and never longer than a page. There’s a touch of love and spirituality among them, but Fine doesn’t let either break the overall mood—a sort of pranksterish extroversion. In the end, I think he’d like to leave the reader as light-hearted as his poetry. That’s a wonderful thing, but there’s a serious art that underlies the art of light-heartedness. I think the reader is going to have to be a little indulgent with Fine to fully enjoy him, but I would discourage no one from giving his collection a try.

up in Vermont | March 31 2021

The Fetishizing of Difficulty

Two books that I ordered just came in the mail and they couldn’t be more diametrically opposed: Broken Hierarchies by Geoffrey Hill, a massive and über-serious Oxford edition of his collected poetry, and what is this thing called love by Kim Addonizio, an erotically slim, semi-serious, wry and sometimes sex-filled collection of poems. The covers couldn’t be more different. The cover image on Hill’s book is Kokoschka’s “Lorelay”, a painting that manages to combine drowning men with something like deliberate kitsch (a strikingly and unwittingly apropos cover for Hill’s poetry):

And then there’s the cover to Kim Addonizio’s book.

Needless to say, I was immediately attracted to Addonizio’s book. Accuse me of having a fetish, but here’s the thing, which book really attracts the fetishists? I’m going to say Geoffrey Hill’s compendium. Hands down. Nearly every review I’ve read of Hill brings up the subject of his poetry’s “difficulty”. Here you will find a series of quotes from reviews of Hill, and they all, in one way or another, broach the subject. Thomas L. Jeffers for example, writes that “as a philosophical poet, Hill may not be at the level of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens (not to mention Goethe or Dante), and not just because he lacks their degree of systematic clarity” where “lacks their systematic clarity” is a wordy euphemism for difficult.

Now when I read poetry, there’s only one question I ask myself: How does the poet use language? The notional and semantic content of the poetry is crucial but not so crucial, to me, as the aesthetics of the poet’s language. Not just aesthetics but I want to sense the poet’s metaphorical genius through their figurative language. A critic is going to read this some day and call me a philistine, but so be it. I read poetry for the poetry, as it were. It’s one of the reasons I don’t enjoy works in translation. The inherent aesthetic beauty of any given language, such as a great poet realizes it, is untranslatable. In the end, as Cervantes said, reading a work in translation is like looking at the backside of a Persian carpet.

There are different kinds of difficulty. There’s the difficulty of Shakespeare who writes the every day but whose figurative thought is so rich in metaphor, whose imagery is so inventive, that one needs footnotes and annotations to fully appreciate it. That’s the “difficulty” of genius and that’s hard work—for the poet. Then there’s the “difficulty” of 20th century poets like Geoffrey Hill (if not a sizable portion of latter-half 20th century poets) whose difficulty is not in the richness of the known but in the obscurity of the unknown. That’s a third rate sort of difficulty that doesn’t rely on intellectual rigor but on trivia—a chough’s memory that builds its nest collecting whatever shiny scrap catches its eye.


Composure's fragile citadel betrayed
Common agitations have served us well,
Write-offs as they prevail,
Love-ins destroyed
The Triumph of the Will
Unwilled recall
Kurfürst Leviathan,
Weak celluloid sucked from the can
Go for portraits as if caricatures,
Let us have selfmade greatness plucked by wires.
Must I confess that I'm
Partial to fame,
The grand puff and clatter
Of noble Herr Reuter...

~ Liber Illustrium Virorum p. 716

It’s a tedious difficulty. But it’s the sort of difficulty lauded by poets, critics and reviewers who, having once thought in middle school that all great poetry was difficult (and all great poetry is difficult for a middle schooler) concludes that all difficulty is therefore great poetry; and never matures beyond that adolescent supposition.

I’ve been reading Hill’s book, or skimming (as my reading adjusts to the spirit of his writing). I find him, as one Amazon reviewer put it (referring to his poetry after the early 80s), to be a garrulous bore. His verse is full of trivial sentiments, banalities and rhetorical posturing. It’s no surprise, though, that Oxford is attempting to sell him as the great poet of our generation (and lifetime). Those in the know have been telling us who the great poets were throughout history and have been repeatedly wrong. (Give readers 50 years and they’ll decide.) Prior to 1982, before he started psychotropic drugs apparently, he writes like a poet who understands the difficult art of poetry:

The chestnut trees begin to thresh and cast
huge canisters of blossom at each gust.
Coup de tonnerre! Bismarck is in the room!

Bad memories, seignors? Such wraiths appear
on summer evenings when the gnat-swarm spins
a dying moment on the tremulous air.
The curtains billow and the rain begins

its night-long vigil. Sombre heartwoods gleam,
the clocks replenish the small hours' advance
and not a soul has faltered from its trance.

That is the kind of poetry that greatness is built on (and I’m not referring to the rhymes). If that’s the Hill you want to read, then buy Geoffrey Hill: Collected Poems, published in the 80s. The Hill of the 90s and 00s is a different poet. In the later poems there are moments (to call them passages would be a stretch) of true poetic difficulty, the kind that is difficult for the poet to write and deceptively easy for the reader to read. They are so beautiful (along with the poet’s earlier poems) that they doubtless convince Hill’s editors and reviewers that his bad poetry must be the deliberate kind. How else does one explain such bad poetry? And so we must take his banality seriously.

This is not Duino. I have found no sign
that you are visited by any angel
of suffering creation. Violent
sensitivity is not vision, nor is vision
itself order. (...)
Indecent in turn, let me here interpose
the body of a parenthesis (do we indeed
not know ourselves?). (...)

XCV The Triumph of Love p. 266

And on he goes with such clichés and banalities—”suffering creation”; the banal musings on vision; the feigning depths of his adolescent rhetorical questions. The poem is full of automatic-writing like this—blather. I’ve been reading a lot of William Logan’s criticism lately (because I’m working up a review of his latest book of poetry) and think that Logan gets it right. There’s Logan’s review of The Triumph of Love, which reads like a 20 page apologia and the thing is: Logan really, really, really wants to like Hill. He knows Hill could be a better poet than he became. He recognizes the flashes of brilliance (if not genius); but unlike other reviewers, Logan indirectly states that he won’t be joining the poet’s cult following. Once Logan has served his 20 page tour of duty (having demonstrated his respect for the poet Hill should have been) he dismisses the long poem with one word in a later review—caterwauling.

To get to the difficulty that is the art of writing great poetry, you will, for example, have to read the entirety of Scenes from Comus, all 79 onanistic verses (like little Rorschach tests in your borrowed Playboy) to get to this:


While the height-challenged sun fades, clouds become
as black-barren as lava, wholly motionless,
not an ashen wisp out of places, while the sun fades.
While the sun fades its fields glow with dark poppies.
Some plenary hand spreads out, to flaunt an end,
old gold imperial colours. Look back a shade,
Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, over your
left shoulder or mine, absolute night comes
high-stalking after us.

Are the other 79 verses (and the high price tag of the Oxford edition) worth it?—with their little glimpses of that last verse? Ultimately, my own judgement is that Hill was neither a great thinker nor a great poet. He was a competent practitioner of his times possessing too few tools to elevate his competence to greatness. And that brings me back to Addonozio’s collection of poems—as opposite to Hill as road tar to chocolate. I confess, it was Logan’s review of her book that made me buy it. His opening paragraph immediately sold me:

Kim Addonizio is that New Formalist dream girl, a hot babe who can bang out a sonnet on demand. If your vice runs to forms a little more obscure, how can you resist? Her come-on seems to be, “Wouldn’t you like to peek at my sexy little sonnezhino?” ~ The New Criterion

Yes, please.

But don’t be fooled by Logan’s opening paragraph or mine. Addonizio possesses all the gifts that Geoffrey Hill lacks and lacks the one gift that should have made him great. She possesses the story telling gift and gritty realism of a Bukowski, the ease with form of a Richard Wilbur, and Dorothy Parker’s wry and cutting sense of humor. She’s all those things with a tender heart, and that’s probably what differentiates her from all those other poets. What she lacks is that difficulty that makes you want to linger over her lines the way you might linger over Hill’s best lines. There is little figurative language—imagery and metaphor. They are written plainly like a Bukowski if he’d ever bothered to write meter and rhyme. In Missing Boy Blues she describes the murder of a boy, sexually assaulted, and begins with the boy hoping he’ll be discovered before he’s “a few old bones”, then closes with these lines:

Once I asked my mother if God was all over.
I asked if He saw us. I had a high fever—
She said she didn't know, and straightened my covers.

Then she kissed my face, then she kissed my hair.
(Then he tore my pajamas and my legs were bare.)
If you're still looking for me, you won't find me anywhere. 

There’s something disconcerting with Addonizio’s lightness of touch, the rhymes that are as half-hearted as elevator music, and yet it works. There’s a Mother Hubbard nursery-rhyme feel to this verse that tricks the reader into complacency but also, perhaps, speaks to the ease with which these murders happen—how easy it is to not even bother looking for the bones. In the poem Knowledge, written in the second person singular, she seems to address herself in this regard:

even now you're sometimes stunned to hear
of some terrible act that sends you reeling off, too overwhelmed
even to weep, and then you realize that your innocence,
which you thought no longer existed,
did, in fact, exist 

And that describes a poem like Dead Girl, where she nonchalantly describes the benefits of being the dead girl “who show up often in the movies” but always gets to be the “center of attention, the special/desirable, dead, dead girl.” And that’s the way with Addonizio. She likes you to think it’s all fun and games. She could be the woman who’s learned to talk that way to men, to abusers, to other women, to survive, to not give offense when she speaks the truth. I can imagine how she might read those last lines— “the dead, dead girl”— dead repeated twice to make sure she’s been heard. Many of Addonizio’s poems are like that, wanting to please, wanting to put the reader at ease, wanting to make you smile the way her verse smiles—it’s okay—all while she tells you the desperate and unbearable truth before she leaves the room.

She writes about death, love, sex; but not all her poems speak with that innocent wariness. She also turns her wit for narrative and straightforward candor to less morbid use:

There are people who will tell you
that using the word fuck in a poem
indicates a serious lapse
of taste, or imagination,

or both. It's vulgar,
indecorous, an obscenity
that crashes down like an anvil
falling through a skylight

to land on a restaurant table,
on the white linen, the cut-glass vase of lilacs.
But if you were sitting
over coffee when the metal

hit your saucer like a missile,
wouldn't that be the first thing
you'd say? Wouldn't you leap back
shouting, or at least thinking it,

over and over, bell-note riotously clanging
in the church of your brain...

It’s that phrase, “church of your brain” that is snarky perfection, that reminds me of Dorothy Parker and Lord Byron, and that made me laugh out loud. I didn’t laugh once skimming through the whole of Hill’s 936 page book. Not once. What she lacks in “difficulty”, she makes up for with all her other gifts.

It’s a frowned upon game to compare poets and composers: how would you rank them?—who was the greatest?—is Addonizio a better or greater poet than Hill? Immediately your game will be suffocated by the nearest pedant who will remind you (with all the charm and intellectual curiosity of a cloistered nun) that there’s no such thing as better, best or greatness, only taste. But let me put it this way, if the late Hill and Addonizio were to read on the same night at Oxford, would you be standing in line with a gaggle of old Oxford Dons? — or with the students? What’s your fetish?

Review: Seth Steinzor’s In Dante’s Wake

This review is a request and a tough one for me. Steinzor sent me three full length books written as a modern parallel to Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Steinzor’s respective books are called, To Join the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 1, Among the Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 2, and (as yet unavailable on Amazon) Once was Lost, In Dante’s Wake, Book 3. I’m at a disadvantage because it’s been years since I’ve read Dante and am forced to admit that I intensely disliked Christianity as a child and rejected the religion in my early teens. I saw it as having no relevance to me or my life as a child. The worship of the bible struck me as a bizarre obsession among adults. Why this book as opposed to any other? Why believe these nonsensical fantasies as opposed to any other? When I was assigned Dante’s Trilogy in high school and college it felt (and still does) feel like the work of an alien worldview with which I have no connection. I wish that I could read it in the original. I’ve read that Dante’s poetry has a beauty that’s similar to Shakespeare’s but unfortunately (to my knowledge) no translation has ever approached the genius of the original. All that said, Steinzor’s take has led me to order the Ciardi translation from Abebooks and have another go because it is, after all, a masterpiece of world literature.

But back to Steinzor and Dante. Here is how Ciardi’s Dante began the Inferno:

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
   from the straight road and woke to find myself
   alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
    so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
    Its very memory gives a shape to fear

Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
    Bust since it came to good, I will recount
    all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
    so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
    when I first wandered there from the True Way.

 But at the far end of that valley of evil
    whose maze had sapped many very heart with fear!
    I found myself before a little hill

 and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
    already with the sweet rays of that planet
    whose virtue leads men straight on every road,

 and the shining strengthened me against the fright
    whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
    through all the terrors of that piteous night.

Translated John Ciardi 

And here is Seth Steinzor:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning
 larger solid looming walls or
 trunks or rocks or rubble, and strange shapes
 moving through the mist, silent or
 howling, scuffling through the uneven dirt or
 dropping from the blotchy sky like
 thicker clouds, so close sometimes I ducked in
 fright so that they never quite touched me.
Someone I had trusted had led me there.
 Perhaps it was persons, I could not remember,
 only how their words and gestures, once so
 sensible and clear, gradually grew
 obscure, how their features, once so individual
 and expressive – this lifted tuft of
 eyebrow, that kindly smile, that belly laugh –
 smoothed to nothing in the murk,
 and how at last they turned away, gibbering,
 gone. Without them was no path
that I could see. A bit ahead to the right the
 curtain seemed lighter, its patterns more
 distinct and loosely entwined and permeable,
 so I stepped over that way, stumbling
 on the occasional root or protuberance,
 until I splashed ankle deep
 into a pool of sucking mud that spread
 among the blackened boles and mounds its
 unforgiving mirror far as could be
 seen, and I could go no farther.

That might give you some flavor of Steinzor’s modern rendition: somewhat of a retelling, borrowing imagery (and some of the same Angels and demons) along with landscapes, tone and some of his punishments (all updated with more contemporary sinners and Saints). Steinzor also, like Dante, names names, some well known and some less so. Dante didn’t hesitate to exact revenge, even condemning (as far as I know) still living contemporaries with whom he was enemies. Filippo Argenti being an example. A contemporary with whom Dante clashed politically and in personal matters. Argenti reportedly even slapped Dante at one point. Dante, in revenge, had Argenti dismembered and torn to pieces in the river Styx. Steinzor, mentions Reagan indirectly twice while in Hell, but Reagan himself appears in Book 2 (Steinzor’s Purgatorio) in the “memorial cube” where Reagan, along with other Presidents, suffer disfigurements (amputated body parts) befitting their sins as leaders.

To give the reader some sense of how Steinzor continues to “retell” Dante’s original, consider one of Dante’s most famous passages from the inferno, the punishment of Francesca de Rimini (for which, frankly, I wouldn’t mind knowing which circle of hell the priggish Dante suffers in).

I came to place stripped bare of every light
     and roaring on the naked dark like seas
     wracked by a war of winds. Their hellish flight 

of storm and counterstorm through time forgone,
     sweeps the souls of the damned before its charge.
     Whirling and battering it drives them on,

 and when they pass the ruined gap of Hell 
     through which we had come, their shrieks begin new.
     There they blaspheme the power of God eternal.

 And this, I learn, was the never-ending flight
     of those who sinned in the flesh, the carnal and lusty
     who betrayed reason to their appetite.

And here is Steinzor:

We followed,
 barely able to pick our way through the
deepening dusk, uncertain always of seeing
 what our eyes were looking at.
 At last, ahead in a band of almost blackness,
 I thought I saw red lights like coals
 scattered from an upset barbecue.
 Then they seemed to gutter, and a
 sound of gusty winds – but no: they twinkled,
 as if birds or was that moths,
 huge moths fluttered at them. The lights were moving.
 Rags of breeze brought the odor of
 unwashed crotches. Then I saw what they were:
 a horde of naked men and women
 whose genitals glowed so you might read by them.
 They shuffled uneasily around
 each other, avoiding contact. Despite the blazing
 wands and clefts and globes they carried,
 their bodies – that is, their limbs and torsos and heads –
 were strangely unilluminated,
 merging chameleon-like with the rubbish and rocks
 of their crepuscular habitat.

These two are, ostensibly, the same Canto and circle of Hell—both detailing the punishment of those who gave way to lust and their carnal appetite. Steinzor makes reference to the “gusty winds”, acknowledging Dante’s inspiration, then entirely alters the scene presumably because the carnal sin being punished is entirely different than that of Dante’s Francesca de Rimini (with whom I sympathize). The condemned sinner in Steinzor’s retelling is the man who molested Steinzor’s narrator when the narrator was a youth. Steinzor’s punishment, compared to Dante’s, is positively sedate. Whereas Francesca and her lover are battered with the rage of opposing gales that violently smash the erstwhile lovers against each other like knots of bone and flesh, touching but never able to embrace, comfort or express their love, Steinzor’s carnal sinners walk in the dark with genitals seared to a glowing and untouchable coal. There’s some poetic justice in that, for sure, but nothing like the violent rage of Dante’s indignation—nothing that would inspire Tchaikovsky musical vision of the hellish wins bruising and brutalizing the former lovers.

In fact, Steinzor’s Hell does, to me, lack the sheer physical cruelty, suffering and limb-rending torment of Dante’s Hell (Steinzor’s slicing and dicing demons read like something out of fantasy novels) . Dante’s imagined Hell no doubt arises from what was generally the short, and sometimes brutal, lives of 13th and 14th century Europeans. Violence was everywhere and on display. There was no squeamishness about crime and punishment for example. Criminals were strung up, left to die, and left to rot in full view of the public’s comings and goings — children and all. While it’s easy to overstate the suffering in Dante’s day, people did have fun after all, and ate and made merry, I’m certain that many of the punishments—the howls of agony, the torture and dismemberment—were either witnessed first hand or familiar to Dante. In Elizabethan times, the dismembered arms and legs of traitors to the crown were nailed, for all to see, along the shore of the Thames. Some of Shakespeare’s descriptions, of wounds, blood and their effects on the wounded, are so accurate that scholars speculate he must have either seen the worst first hand or through first hand report. I don’t get the same sense from Steinzor. The relatively civilized 20th/21st century has put him at somewhat of a disadvantage in that respect. I don’t get the same feel for human pain and suffering, reading his Hell, as I do when reading Dante. Steinzor feels a bit more secondhand and idealized (if that’s the right word).

And that brings me to Steinzor’s poetry. I agreed to review the books on the basis of their verse form:

This is metrical poetry, in a form I invented for the project. As described at my web site, the work “consists of 100 cantos, spread over three books, written in polyrhythmic, unrhymed, ten line stanzas. Each stanza consists of alternating lines of five and four stresses: 5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4-5-4. In the third book, Once Was Lost, each line begins with a stressed syllable, an added regularity that somehow seemed appropriate to that book’s more elevated status.”

In other words, Steinzor has written an accentual meter (as opposed to a syllabic or accentual-syllabic meter like iambic pentameter). I was interested to see if it worked. At first I tried to read the lines while being conscious of the accented syllables and their count. That didn’t go very well:

Midway through my life’s journey, I found myself
 lost in a dark place, a tangle of hanging
 vines or cables or branches – so dark! – festooning

I counted 6 accented syllables in the first, 5 in the second and, 6 in the third. Two things: First, counting stress in a line isn’t a science, and so I’m not going to assert that my count is right and Steinzor’s is wrong; second, I generally write accentual-syllabic verse and so what I read as accented might be flavored by that. The problem, though, is that unlike accentual-syllabic verse, which provides a regular pattern which the poet can exploit, accentual meter doesn’t. There is a “pattern”, quote-unquote, but it’s not regular. It’s “polyrhythmic”. We know that there are supposed to be five accented syllables in the line but, in my case, I have to go back and sort out which syllables Steinzor isn’t hearing as accented. In the first line that’s probably “life’s“, in the next “dark” and in the third “so“.

But reading three books worth of stanzas like this is exhausting.

So I quit trying. A reader will no doubt assert that the effect works at a subconscious level. Possibly. Being subconscious though, I’m not remotely aware of it—nothing like when reading accentual syllabic verse. (Also, there’s little to no evidence that the subconscious mind actually exists but we won’t go there.) As a guiding principle for Steinzor, accentual verse does provide a kind of structure to work within, but if the average reader is anything like me, they will soon stop trying to read his stanzas as verse but as prose and, functionally, that’s what it is and what I did. To illustrate, Steinzor quotes Wendell Berry at the start of his third book:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot
 of doors, where we are invited 
to knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small
 as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts 
of those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay out 
forever. Some come in together 

and leave separately. Some come in 
and stay, until they die, and after. 
I was in it a long time with Nathan.
I am still in it with him. 
And what about Virgil? Once, we too 
went in and were together in 
that room. And now in my tenderness of remembering 
it all again, I think I am 
still there with him too. I am there
with all the others, most of them gone 

but some who are still here, who gave me love 
and called forth love from me. When 
I number them over, I am surprised by how many 
there are.

The quote, as written by Berry and quoted by Steinzor, is actually prose. To show just how easily any prose can be lineated as syllabic or accentual verse, I lineated Wendell’s prose using Steinzor’s 5,4 pattern; and as with Steinzor’s verse, some may disagree with the number of accented syllables in each line, but that’s the nature of the “meter”. Does this lineation turn Wendell’s prose into poetry? In truth, some metrists don’t consider syllabic or accentual meters as true “meters”. And as with arguments over the dividing line between free verse and prose: Here there be Rabbit Holes. (The debate can be both informative and frustrating.) Things get a little more interesting in Steinzor’s third book, his retelling of Paradiso, in which he begins each line with a stressed syllable, but the effect is more nominal than structural. It’s easy to alter Berry’s prose, without changing a word (and given the normal latitude as to what is and isn’t accented) so that it fits the new constraint:

Sometimes too I could see that love 
is a great room with a lot of
 doors, where we are invited to
knock and come in. Though 
it contains all the world, the sun, 
moon, and stars, it is so small as to be
 also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of
those who choose to come in. 
Some do not come in. Some may stay
out forever. Some come in (etc.)

All this is to say that I never got the sense, reading passages from Steinzor’s books, that I was actually reading “verse” or “poetry”. There was never a moment when I felt as though “language [was being] used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content”. This, for me, is the dividing line between poetry and prose. Other readers disagree and, as the expression has it, your mileage may vary. And as a stylistic matter, I did find Steinzor’s style to be a little too curated at times—a little precious. The purpose, I suspect, was to introduce a certain formal and elevated grandeur to the narrator’s voice, but it too often comes off as mannered and self-conscious.

On a more positive note, I found his writing to be evocative. I especially enjoyed the synesthesia in some of his imagery and appreciated his attentiveness to the five senses—touch, taste, smell, sound and sight—a necessary skill set if one is going to be describing Hell and Heaven.

Do Steinzor’s books make compelling reading? The downside to retelling a masterpiece is that, well, you’re always going to be compared to the masterpiece. Like Dante’s Comedy, there’s really no overarching narrative or dramatic arc beyond the journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. As Steinzor himself comments, the progress is episodic. We move from one tableau to the next and what happens in one canto is mostly forgotten in the next. Unlike Dante’s original, whose sheer force of originality, insight into the human condition and linguistic beauty create a sum in excess of its parts, Steinzor’s effort, by definition, is derivative and his verse falls well short of Dante’s linguistic genius. That leaves Steinzor’s insight into the human condition as the primary reason to read him (insofar as he offers something Dante doesn’t).

In that regard, Steinzor’s Comedy could be read as semi-autobiographical or as a kind of memoir; and, like Dante’s Comedy, as a critique of 20th/21st century figures, culture and politics through the lens of a medieval theology (that has been more or less relegated to history books). As to be expected, given my opening paragraph, I had a mixed reaction. I often felt as though the far greater moral and ethical complexities humanity has realized since the 14th century were being shoehorned into the moral edifice of a rigid and absolutist medieval one. Steinzor’s narrative felt, to me, more like a contrivance, a vehicle into which he could stamp his autobiography and/or life experiences (akin to the vehicle of his accentual verse) rather than as a unique and organic vision of the Comedy.

Is that an unfair standard? Would it be possible to write another Comedy without its feeling derivative? Is being derivative a bad thing; and isn’t its being derivative the point? Is Steinzor’s Comedy also a commentary on Dante’s vision of the universe? It isn’t; and that may be the real missed opportunity. Steinzor doesn’t question Dante’s theology but accepts its strictures and applies it to our own culture and dilemmas. That makes it a retread of medieval Catholic theology in modern dress.

All that said, the writing remains strong enough, honest enough, vivid and humorous enough to recommend to those interested in a modern writer’s tour of a medieval poet’s Hell.

And that’s that for today.

upinVermont | February 18th 2021

Review | Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin

Erotic HaikuSo this book, Erotic Haiku: Of Skin On Skin, deserved to be reviewed a couple months ago, but it seems I’m undergoing another change of life (also available directly from Black Moss Press). I feel as though I’ve accomplished little to nothing since the new year, and I take that as a sign that something’s in need of change. My first life change, in my twenties, got me out of academia and into the building trade. I suppose I’m a Master Carpenter now, and that has helped me earn a living, but I’m ready for another change. Among other things, I’ve taken up the ethos of Minimalism. I just recently donated a couple hundred pounds of books to the library. I’ve been moving furniture out of the house and in general trying to declutter my life and mind, along with my goals. I’m increasingly considering an eventual move back to Europe, maybe the Netherlands or Berlin. I’m done with owning things or rather—being owned by them. And part of that is living in a country where we don’t need a car.

So, if you’re a follower of my blog you may remember that last year and the year before I wrote a haiku a day—two years worth. There’s nothing as minimalist as the Japanese haiku—a beautiful form of poetry and ethos. I think that next year I’ll be ready to write another year’s worth—if only to declutter the mind. The poet learns to perceive what is essential and ineffable with the minimal intrusion of the self—and of words. And so, what to make of erotic haiku? The erotic, in a sense, is nothing if not absorption in the self.

Japanese poets prior to the 20th century only rarely wrote the patently sexual or erotic haiku. One was far more likely to find the erotic in Tanka, a form which, though men were among its great practitioners, was considered a feminine form and the domain of female poets. The most beautiful Tanka are generally considered the love poems of female poets like Ono No Komachi (834[?]-?), serving the Heian court in present-day Kyoto, and Izumi Shikibu (974-1034), “who wrote poetry ranging from the religious to the erotic, at the zenith of the Heian court. (At the same time, Murasaki Shikibu wrote and presented the world’s first psychological novel, The Tale of Genji.)”

That said, and before Basho, haiku were home to a more coarse kind of sexuality, unsuited to Tanka and, perhaps, mostly comparable to the modern limerick. Once haiku were established as an art form (and but for the few female poets who mastered the form) such coarseness all but disappeared. Though Basho counted women among his favorite disciples, the form was generally considered masculine and unsuited to ‘feminine’ preoccupations (which apparently included the erotic). R.H. Blythe, who did more to introduce haiku to Western culture than any other westerner, bluntly considered women incapable of writing haiku (and his attitude probably reflected that of his Japanese hosts). He made no effort to conceal his contempt for women [italics mine]:

“The dead child,
Who tore the paper-screens—
How cold it is!

Chiyo’s authorship of this verse is doubtful, but so is whether women can write haiku.” (A History of Haiku: Volume One, R.H. Blythe p. 223)

By my informed speculation, Blythe would have had nothing remotely favorable to say about erotic haiku.  In fact, he would have considered the form and subject matter an insult and an impossibility. The erotic was unfit for haiku—only suitable for Senryu. And Blythe generally dismissed Senryu as beneath serious consideration. Senryu are three line poems, formally identical to haiku, but distinguished by their subject matter (usually confined to people, humor and human foibles). Only once or twice did Basho write anything that could be construed an erotic haiku. By in large, Basho treated sexuality as a subject fit for coarse, adolescent humor. (Strikingly like Robert Frost, by the way.)

It wasn’t until the 20th century that women were truly accepted as equals and, perhaps not coincidentally, that the erotic increasingly appeared in haiku and were accepted as such. To my knowledge, no male poet would have written the following:

beyond the dark
where I disrobe
an iris in bloom

on the skin of a woman
who has never conceived
hot autumn sun

Katsura Nobuko (1914-2004)

None of this is to say that the erotic belongs to the feminine domain, only that this is how it was historically perceived in Japan.

So. Erotic haiku are new and have no tradition to speak of. And that’s cool. If you’re reading erotic haiku, then you’re essentially reading the creation of a new form, genre and tradition. So, I was very excited to receive a new anthology of erotic haiku by the editors George Swede and Terry Ann Carter, the former having urged Rod Wilmot to compile an earlier and outstanding anthology of erotic haiku called Erotic Haiku (scroll to the bottom of the page).

Let’s start off by saying that the book itself is beautiful, about 8×5 inches or so.  The collection opens to the book’s signature haiku:

dry spell
the spark of skin
on skin

Dan Curtis

And that’s not bad. The poem plays on the undying cliché of lust as something hot without falling victim to the cliché. Following that is an introduction explaining the genesis of the book. In an unwittingly humorous moment, the editors discuss “how the haiku is taught in schools, in particular, how to get teachers to see haiku as poetry”. Well, isn’t the answer obvious? Sex. Mr. Swede goes on to remark: “The idea was met with loud approval.” To which Mr. Swede offered: “I was reluctant”.

Erotic haiku in schools? What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, Swede’s new anthology expands on Wilmot’s anthology by including more than just the heterosexual experience. Swede elaborates:

The content of Of Skin On Skin is more varied than that of its predecessor. The first includes only heterosexual eroticism while this one adds masturbation, threesomes, and LGBT sensuality. Both anthologies are a product of their times. The first mirrored the beginnings  of the sexual revolution in North America. The second reflects the expanding views of what soceity deems appropriate after the passage of more than three decades. [p. 8-9]

Swede’s introduction is followed by Terry Ann Carter’s. She begins by quoting an obscure New England poet, author of an equally obscure blog called PoemShape, who published a review of Jeffrey Winke’s coquette:Sensual Haiku:

“Eroticism and haiku are a perfect fit. Just as the haiku is the art of indirection, so too erotica. Whereas the explicit is an imaginative endpoint, the best haiku are a suggestive starting point for the imagination.  Suggestiveness is all – allusion, inference, and association.  And when haiku fail because they were made too explicit, eroticism fails for the same reason: eroticism becomes pornographic.”

And I still believe that. She adds:

The earlier conception of a 5/7/5 structure has given way to a freer form; most haiku poets today agree that a haiku should consist of seventeen syllables (if there is no artificiality) or fewer. It is the movement, not the syllables, that matter. [p. 10]

From there, the anthology proceeds. Thankfully, we’re given more than one haiku per page which, artsy though that is, inevitably makes me feel like I’ve paid for paper rather than poetry. The contributing authors are offered in alphabetical order and the haiku are truly of a high quality. Any poet who is thinking of writing erotic haiku should buy this anthology and study it.

How to preserve the haiku’s tradition of seasonal reference alongside the erotic:

solstice··············the thin white line around her suntanned hips

first kiss
··············the taste of apple
··············on her tongue

~ nick avis

path of sperm
from breast to navel
winter light

~ Micheline Beaudry

The erotic Senryu (humor and human foible):

the pasta
boils over

~ Micheal Dudley

The humor is not just that the pasta boils over, but the suggestion that this “quickie” lasted longer than the recommended 8 to 12 minutes. And then there’s the playful comparison of orgasm and “pasta boiling over”. This kind of haiku/senryu uses a favorite technique of mine: suggesting a little story beyond the three lines of its form.

his cock
hard again
the phone rings

~ Jennifer Footman

There are a delightful number of ways one could read the haiku above: Has she or he had to work hard at reviving his cock? Only to have the phone ring? Maybe it’s his wife calling? There’s any number of ways the imaginative reader could read Footman’s haiku.

Or another favorite of mine:

putting on our masks
to make love

~ Marco Fraticelli

The haiku seems straightforward, but one could just as easily speculate that the lovers are strangers, and that it’s the masks that make them familiar to each other. Some readers dislike the ambiguity of haiku, but ambiguity can be the life blood of both haiku and eroticism.

And here’s another nicely ambiguous haiku by Daniel G. Scott:

summer’s heat
still on her back

And how does one read that?

dawn—summer’s heat. still on her back


dawn. summer’s heat still on her back.

I prefer the former. Having been made love to, perhaps the night before, she still lies on her back—surprised perhaps, his and her orgasm still wetly between her thighs, now in the haze of summer’s humidity.

i’d like to straighten
your bra strap
on my coat hook

~ Brendan Hewitt

I have no idea, but I love Hewitt’s haiku. Has to be among the best and most inscrutably suggestive I’ve ever read. Others wanting to write erotic haiku should memorize Hewitt’s haiku (and not just as a come-on line). Where are the lovers? Are they in a hotel? And what does that even mean—straighten your bra strap? I have an idea. It’s the combination of entirely novel imagery suggesting a mood and desire in an entirely novel way. Remember this haiku if you’re ever tempted to resort to the usual erotic platitudes.

And then there’s the supremely suggestive haiku by Lynne Jambor:

silk kimono
in a puddle
at her feet

There’s the nice metaphor of her kimono as a puddle at her feet, but it’s the suggestion of her arousal also puddling between her feet that elevates this haiku above the mundane. To see both makes this haiku not only lovely, but erotic.

  • There’s a good post over at Brief Poems called Nipples—50 Ways to Write an Erotic Haiku. The author writes that it’s “difficult to see how an erotic charge can be maintained without the benefits of verbal foreplay.” I would counter that the poems above suggest just how to do that. The erotic charge relies on the reader’s imagination and ability to elaborate on a haiku’s suggestiveness. A haiku, after all, is nothing if not foreplay, the best haiku suggest and intimate without asserting. They’re starting points, not endpoints. They aren’t three line descriptions of sex (as is so often the case with poets who lack an understanding of haiku).  Curiously, the author adds: “When it comes to the more salacious aspects of the form, what may be called hard-core haiku, questions of propriety, taste and value arise.” I disagree. Questions of taste and propriety are unrelated to value. The question isn’t whether a given work of literature is tasteful or shows propriety—leave that entirely moralistic question to prudes—but whether the work has artistic integrity. Well-written erotica, even hard-core erotica, isn’t as easy as it looks. As I wrote above, it’s the difference between the erotic and the pornographic.

There’s also the tender and touching:

she sleeps on his side
of the bed

~ Joanne Morcom

And then there’s Beth A. Skala. I loved every one of her haiku and can only hope to read more by her. They’re gently humorous, erotically suggestive, and novel. Here’s one of three:

pushing a snowball
down her skirt—
nipples perk up

Not only a seasonal reference, but a nice haiku-like association between something playful and something erotic. Do her nipples perk up simply because the snowball is cold, or is there something more erotic at play? — the way play, among adolescents and the young, can turn into a realization of the erotic. The haiku suggests a kind of awakening that’s both harmless and subversive.

hot summer night
she takes off
her crucifix

~ George Swede

And one wonders what came off first? The clothes or the crucifix? I somehow would like to think it’s the latter.

The 60 page book closes with short biographies of all the different contributors—something I appreciate and enjoy when reading poems I like. And as the back matter of the book states: “The meaning of “erotic” varies greatly… To many, it conjures actual intercourse—foreplay, climax and an array of emotions afterwards. For others, it is linked only tangentially to the sexual act: watching a bee enter a flower, recalling a glance from another or the smell of someone’s hair or skin smooth to the touch or a whisper in one’s ear or the taste of something sweet on a lover’s tongue.” Fortunately, neither understanding of the erotic excludes the other (as it so often does in other anthologies). Swede and Carter offer both.

Granted, the editors have quoted me in their book, and I might like that (just a little); but this really is a collection of erotic haiku that I would recommend. If you enjoy erotic poetry, get it while you can. I’ve seen too many anthologies like these go out of print and go up in price—and by up in price I mean in the $50 to $300 price range.

up in Vermont | May 7th 2018

Other reviews of Erotic Poetry: