Sunday, May 30, 2010

Recommended Poet: Alexandra Teague

Alexandra Teague, Mortal Geography.  New York: Persea Books, 2010.  Winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry.  88 pp. $15.

In poems about teaching English to immigrant students, Alexandra Teague beautifully explores the intersection between language and experience. In my favorite poem from her debut collection, "English Fundamentals," Teague observes a student diagramming sentences with colored markers.  She writes: "She has given me/grammar as a stained glass window..." Where another poet might compose an ars poetica, Teague creates an ars grammatica, seeing significance of grammar as a means of fashioning meaning and beauty out of one's experience.

She also writes about relationships, about art (Georgia O'Keefe, Frida Kahlo and Edward Hopper all inspire her poetry), and about the human body.  What she knows, and what her poetry skillfully conveys, is that there is more than one way of looking at anything—even a poem. One poem is titled "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Poem"—but every poem seems to offer alternate paths to meaning.  In "Two Drafts Written After a Fight," for instance, the poet shows how the placement of punctuation, a slight change of emphasis but not of wording, can change the meaning of a poem entirely.  

I first heard of Alexandra Teague on Poetry Daily, where I read her poem "Adjectives of Order." It was like hearing a really great song on the radio and wanting to buy the entire album. More of her poems can be read online at her website, but I recommend finding a copy of her book so you can explore more of her "mortal geography." 

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Journal: "Every Man Dies Alone"

Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone.  Brooklyn, Melville House.  Paperback.  539 pp. (with afterword).  $16.95.  Originally published as Jeder stirbt für sich allein in 1947.

Rudolf Ditzen was an alcoholic and a morphine addict.  He was also, under the pseudonym Hans Fallada, a brilliant and popular author, who was intermittently in and out of favor with the Nazi authorities.  He had come under suspicion when his 1932 novel Little Man, What Now? was made into a film by Jewish producers.  But his 1937 novel Wolf Among Wolves attracted the favorable attention of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, who pressed Fallada to write an anti-semitic novel.  Eventually, Fallada snapped from the pressure and ended up in a Nazi insane asylum. After his release near the end of the war, he sat down and feverishly composed the novel Every Man Dies Alone in a space of just twenty-four days. The novel is a masterpiece: a vivid depiction of life in Berlin under the Nazis, a detective story, a story of resistance, an affirmation of goodness and humanity in the face of overwhelming evil.
The story revolves around Otto Quangel, an austere carpentry shop foreman, and his wife Anna, who resist the Nazis by writing anti-Nazi postcards and dropping them in office buildings around Berlin.  Most of the cards are immediately turned in to the Gestapo.  The center section of the novel follows the efforts of Gestapo inspector Escherich to track down the writer of the postcards.
The conventions of the detective novel generally ally the reader on the side of the detective rather than that of the criminal.  In this case, those conventions place the reader in an uncomfortable position.  It's hard to resist the patient and methodical Escherich, who has a job to do and who does it well.  But, of course, he's working for the Gestapo, and the criminals he seeks are not criminals at all, but ordinary decent people determined to stand against the evil of Nazism.  But it's difficult for a reader not to fall into collaboration with literary convention. 
Fallada's novel skillfully places the reader into a world turned upside down, in which the goodness and decency are criminalized, and the murderers are in charge.  He makes the reader wonder, "What would I have done?"  The novel brilliantly and disturbingly recreates the fear and suspicion that gripped wartime Berlin, and the arbitrariness of evil under the Nazis. Fallada's characters are all brilliantly realized, from the craven informers to the brutal thugs to the ordinary decent people whose plain humanity becomes heroic.  

Fallada's writing is clear, calm, often wryly humorous.  He never seems to raise his voice or become emotional, but his words are compelling and their impact quietly devastating.  I found the novel nearly impossible to put down.  Michael Hofmann's translation is astonishingly good. It captures the film noir feel and sound of Fallada's world, the patois of drunks and swindlers and Gestapo thugs, and the unsentimental striving of good people to hold onto their humanity.  

Thursday, May 20, 2010


Me: You're so sensitive.
Her (pouting): Don't call me sensitive.  It hurts my feelings.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Reading Journal: "The River of Doubt"

Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. Anchor Books 2005. Paperback. 416 pp. (with notes and index). $15.

It was a day or two before Christmas, and my son still had to find me a present, so he did the best thing he could possibly do. He walked down to Monkey See, Monkey Read, where Jerry had the perfect suggestion: Candice Millard's gripping account of Theodore Roosevelt's 1914 expedition down a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon, the River of Doubt. Millard, an editor for National Geographic, delivers a perfect mix of biography, natural history, and adventure as she chronicles Roosevelt's fight for survival on the deadly river.

In 1912, Roosevelt was disenchanted with his Presidential successor William Howard Taft and the Republican party's abandonment of his own progressive principles. He decided to make another run for President at the head of the Progressive, or Bull Moose, Party. In a crowded field (Taft, Wilson, Roosevelt, and Debs), Roosevelt split the GOP vote and helped send Woodrow Wilson to the White House.* At loose ends, and suddenly a persona non grata with his former party, Roosevelt decided to fulfill a childhood dream of being a real explorer. So he set out on a poorly planned expedition down a mysterious South American river that exposed him to piranhas, cannibals, malaria, and a life-threatening infection that nearly ended his life.

Millard knows how to create suspense and a sense of the dangers that beset Roosevelt's expedition, without sacrificing historical or scientific accuracy. My only qualm is that she occasionally seems to anthropomorphize the menace of the Brazilian rain forest. For example, she writes: "Yet the same evolutionary competition that filled each branch, shadow, and muddy puddle with an unparalleled diversity of living things also ensured that those forms of life were virtually invisible to Roosevelt and his men. Those glimpses of activity that they did manage to see, moreover, were often calculated for the specific purpose of confusing and misleading them. Rarely in the rain forest do animals or insects allow themselves to be seen, and any that do generally do so with ulterior motives" (emphasis added). The attribution of calculation and ulterior motives to nature seems to me to misrepresent the mechanism of natural selection. But perhaps this is a minor criticism in the context of a true-life adventure story that aims to give the reader a vivid sense of the danger that surrounded Roosevelt and his men on their descent of the River of Doubt.

Millard tells a thrilling story, and as always, Theodore Roosevelt emerges as a compelling, larger-than-life figure.

*The story of the 1912 election is well told in James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election that Changed the Country (Simon and Schuster 2004). It was Chace who suggested to Millard the idea of writing about Roosevelt's expedition on the River of Doubt.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reading Journal: "Sheppard Lee"

Robert Montgomery Bird, Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself.  New York Review Books Classics 2008.  Originally published in 1836.  Paperback.  425 pp.  $16.95.

Sheppard Lee has been left a prosperous estate by his father, but soon manages to lose most of it. Out of sheer laziness, he watches his 40-acre farm go to ruin, and he allows an unscrupulous overseer to cheat him out of the rest of his patrimony.  He's reduced to digging for Captain Kid's gold, which according to local legend has been buried somewhere on his farm.  While he's out digging in the middle of the night, he stumbles upon the dead body of a wealthy Philadelphia brewer who's been hunting in the area, and he discovers a new way out of his difficulties.  He wishes he could trade places with the brewer, and—before he realizes what's happening—his soul passes out of him and reanimates the brewer's body.  This begins a picaresque series of adventures in which Sheppard Lee passes from body to body in search of happiness.

He discovers that every body, no matter how well-circumstanced it appears from the outside, carries with it its own pack of troubles.  The wealthy brewer, for example, suffers from gout and a shrewish wife, which combine to drive Sheppard Lee in search of another dead body to reanimate.  What most of the secondhand bodies have in common is that their owners live off inherited wealth, or speculation, or credit, or the prospect of inheriting or marrying well.  No one seems to do an honest day's work.  No one is as fortunate as he seems from the outside.
Eventually, the Sheppard Lee ends up in the body of Tom, a slave on a Virginia plantation.  The modern reader will find this section the most troubling.  Tom has a kind, paternalistic master who requires little work from his slaves and smilingly allows them to cheat him at every turn. As Tom, Sheppard Lee finds some provisional happiness—until an abolitionist tract falls into the hands of the plantation's slaves, and foments a bloody insurrection.  This section has to be read in the context of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, and the subsequent suppression of "incendiary" abolitionist publications by the post office in 1835.  At the time, abolitionism was still out of the mainstream, and even opponents of slavery like John Quincy Adams worried that their tactics would lead to bloody slave insurrections.  

Bird depicts the slaves, in easy and comfortable circumstances under a kind-hearted master, being stirred to a murderous frenzy by a pamphlet. In his previous incarnation, Sheppard Lee had been destroyed by a false story, and Bird is fascinated with the notion that stories—rumors, lies, false promises, uninformed public opinion—can come to have the force of fact.  But the modern reader can't help but find his depiction of slavery highly objectionable. 
The novel was originally published in 1836.  In that year, President Jackson had issued the Specie Circular, an executive order requiring purchases of government land to be paid for in specie.  This caused the state banks to start hemorrhaging gold and silver.  At the same time, he had withdrawn federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States, which damaged credit by taking federally-backed paper currency out of circulation.  Meanwhile, speculation in public lands in the west reached a fever pitch and finally collapsed, leading to bank failures, record high unemployment, and a five-year long depression.  

Bird's novel is a kind of extended parable on financial speculation, as Sheppard Lee speculates on various incarnations in the hope of improving his financial condition and his stock of happiness.  Along the way, he learns that appearances are deceiving, and that happiness can only be purchased with the specie of honest hard work.

Illustrations by Robert Montgomery Bird (1806-1854).


Lydia weighs 88 pounds and Michelle weighs 67 pounds—

"Clouds are made out of water," she says, staring out the window.  "So are humans."

"Are we clouds?" I ask.

"No.  We're too heavy."

Monday, May 10, 2010

Mother's Day at Target Field

The Twins blanked the Orioles on Sunday afternoon behind a strong performance by pitcher Nick Blackburn, who was backed up by three-run innings in the third and fourth.  In the third inning, the Twins roughed up the O's starter, Brian Matusz, with five straight hits, and finally chased him from the game in the fourth.  The final score was 6-0.  

During the seventh inning stretch, the Northfield High School choirs sang "God Bless America" from the roof deck in center field.  The arrangement was by the choir's director, Dwight Jilek. On the radio, Twins announcer John Gordon enthused, "Well, 'God Bless America' was sung by the Northfield High School choirs, and boy did they do a good job."  Our son Will was singing in the tenor section, and Clara and I were sitting in field box in the corner of left field—where we couldn't see the the choir on the jumbotron, but where we had a great view of every catch made by Delmon Young in left and Denard Span in center.  

We drove up to Minneapolis early, parked far from Target Field in the nearly deserted Leamington transit hub ramp near Orchestra Hall ($5), and walked up Nicollet Mall and 7th Street to the field.  Not at all a bad way to do it.  Target Field itself is beautiful—from the real grass to the great views both of the field and of the city of Minneapolis beyond.  Our tickets weren't cheap ($32), but it was worth the price for a great Mother's Day outing, and our first experience of outdoor Major League baseball in Minnesota. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Word Problems: Subtraction

Nicholas weighs 6 pounds—

“Who’s Nicholas?” she asks. “Why is he so small? Is he a baby? That’s small for a baby. I weighed more than that when I was born, and everyone said I was a small baby.”

She stares out the classroom window. Her attention seems to lengthen the further it wanders from the sheet of word problems on her desk.

The girl weighs 98 pounds. The bird outside the window weighs almost nothing. The wind ruffles its black feathers.

“I can’t stop looking at it,” she says.

See how the wind tosses the branches of the tree, and how the bird holds on, and even opens its beak to sing.

I may not be the best person to tutor her in math. I also would rather sit and watch the black birds in the tree outside the window. Now there are two birds, now one bird, and now that bird is gone.

“I can’t stop looking at the place where it used to be,” she says.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .