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Monthly Archives: February 2018

Here are some remarks on books I read/completed in February.

Jack Gilbert. A local poetry reading group picked Gilbert’s collected poems as their book for February 2018 (the previous month was Peter Reading). Gilbert’s poems obsessively explore loss and the problems of living in a world where loss is omnipresent. They exist in the uncomfortable space between a yearning for solitude (“Going Wrong”) and the need for (fragile, fraught) human connection (the many poems regarding his variously lost lovers). The meeting to discuss this book is tonight; I hope to write something more extended about Gilbert following that.

David Bentley Hart. A friend of mine, who is an admirer of Hart’s, very kindly sent me this collection of essays, many of them book reviews, titled The Dream-Child’s Progress. Hart is an Orthodox Christian; I am avowed atheist, and so it is high praise for me to be able to say that I found this book fun to wrestle with. Hart is sensitive to the riches of the world’s many cultures, religious or otherwise, thinking it a properly Christian attitude to expect that people will have found truth wherever they have put the effort into looking—though of course he believes that Christianity is privileged in this regard. He is most interesting to me when he discusses the history of Christianity and of interpretations of Christian doctrine. He makes no attempt to make early Christianity palatable to contemporary sensibilities, instead actively emphasizing how radically different it was from anything we see today. This is problematic, as he recognizes, but he openly admits to not knowing the solution. I find him weakest in his discussions of atheism—his sympathetic attitude towards the riches of human thought do not, unfortunately, extend so far. He admires atheists such as Nietzsche and Leopardi, but seems to think that any more humane atheistic viewpoint is a hopeless endeavor. The limitation here lies in Hart, not in atheism itself, whatever his protestations to the contrary. Still, despite this shortcoming, he is an engaging writing and a bracing thinker, and I very much enjoyed this book.

Fernando Pessoa. I’ve written about Pessoa before, primarily regarding his prose in The Book of Disquiet. But he is a phenomenal poet as well. I had previously read the Penguin collection of his poetry, A Little Larger than the Entire Universe (tr. Richard Zenith). This month, I read another collection, Fernando Pessoa & Co. (also translated by Zenith), which overlaps the former at a few points, but is largely distinct. Both books have largely the same format: a selection of poems from all four of Pessoa’s poetic heternoyms: Alberto Caiero, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. As before, I found Reis’ taut, sad, Epicurean odes the most consistently satisfying, though each has something to offer. But I hope Zenith shall one day produce complete editions for each persona. I find that Pessoa shines less in the individual poem than in the entire body of work of a persona. So to read intermittent poems from, say, Caiero’s A Keeper of Sheep feels like viewing mere fragments of a distant whole. Among the options available now, I recommend A Little Larger than the Entire Universe as the superior, especially for de Campos.

John Ashbery. Ashbery’s greatest talent, I think, is to take my thoughts (your thoughts, whoever’s thoughts) and to return them to me more beautiful than he found them. As We Know opens with a 100-page double monologue called “Litany”, which includes the following lines that exemplify that talent perfectly:

Just one minute of contemporary existence
Has so much to offer, but who
Can evaluate it, formulate
The appropriate apothegms, show us
In a few well-chosen words of wisdom
Exactly what is taking place all about us?

Who indeed? As usual with Ashbery, As We Know is filled with poems that slide from beneath our grasp—the “lubricity” of objects that Emerson called “the most unhandsome part of our condition.” Ashbery, however, finds what is handsome in it.

Ron Amundson. Over the past few months, I’ve had the good fortune to re-read Amundson’s philosophical history of evolutionary developmental biology, The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought with a group of evolutionary developmental biologists. This book has been hugely influential on my academic work, and while I often disagree with it strenuously, it has shaped and continues to shape my understanding of the problem space. To get working biologists’ perspective on it has been a delight, and has helped me to clarify both my admiration and my dissent.

I am, as usual, also in the middle of a number of books. I am continuing to make my way, slowly, through Tsong Khapa’s Ocean of Reasoning, and I am now supplementing it with a similarly slow meander through Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. A while back, I began reading Henry David Thoreau’s collected essays; I have recently picked that back up again. In terms of poetry, I’ve moved on to Ashbery’s Shadow Train, and I’ve also started Oxford’s version of KeatsSelected Poems. In addition, I recently picked up a volume of Octavio Paz’s The Poems of Octavio Paz (New Directions) in my university’s bookstore—I may begin that soon. I’ve been making my way through a collection of Readings in Later Chinese Philosophy (ed. Tiwald and van Norden) and am nearing the end, and I’ve started reading Mark Wilson’s just-published book Physics Avoidance, a fascinating study of the behavior of scientific concepts (a follow-up to his previous, equally interesting book, Wandering Significance).

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Every so often, an Ashbery poem lands like a revelation. “Sleeping in the Corners of Our Lives,” from As We Know, is one such poem. Here it is:

So the days went by and the nickname caught on.

It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious.
Afternoon leaves blew against the stale brick
Surface. Just an old castle. Enjoy it
While you’re here. And in looking for a more convenient way
To save one’s soul, one is led up to it like a season,
And in looking all around, and about, its tome
Becomes legible in the interstices. A great biography
That is also a good autobiography, at the station;
A honeycomb of pages with listings
Of the tried and true, that radiates
Out into what is there, that averages up as wind,
And settles back into a tepid, modest
Chamber with its mouse-gray furniture, its redundant pictures.

This is tall sleeping
To prepare you for the soup and the ruins
In giving the very special songs of the first meaning,
The ones incorporating the changes.

It is a poem about biography and autobiography, the sense we make of our lives. It is dominated by a contradiction and a pun. The contradiction is that the unnamed “you” of the poem is simultaneously sleeping (“This is tall sleeping”) and quite actively visiting a castle and reading. The pun is that the leaves blowing against the “stale brick / Surface” become the “leaves” of a “tome”—the tome that is one’s (auto)biography.

In the first line, I read “nickname” as referring to the addressee’s name—the suggestion is that it is not their true name, that there is no essential connection between the name and the person. “It became a curiosity, but it wasn’t curious”—after all, it’s just a name. We all have one. And yet it matters to us. Ashbery’s trademark grammatical shiftiness plays a key role here: the name becomes the old castle, and the old castle becomes the addressee’s soul, to be both enjoyed and saved. The name is somehow extrinsic, a mere “nickname”, yet also the addressee’s deepest reality. There is truth there.

There is something defeated about the end of the second stanza, where the biography becomes wind that “settles back into a tepid, modest / Chamber” with drab furniture and “redundant” decoration. But the poem undergoes a crucial shift in tone in the last stanza. It is the last two lines that make the revelation: “the very special songs of the first meaning, / The ones incorporating the changes.” It is that last word, “changes”, that gets me. Go back and re-read the rest of the poem in light of it. It is a sequence of dazzling changes, name–>castle–>soul–>leaves–>pages–>wind–>residence. But where the biography may be drab, there is life in the songs that incorporate the changes—Ashbery’s poem being one of those songs.