Thursday, August 16, 2007

some recent capsule reviews

Here are some reviews of stuff I read back in April. I didn't get a chance to review them then, because back then I was posting reviews of stuff I read in March. Oh well.

The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography: Volume 1 by Bob Perelman, Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Kit Robinson, Lyn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, and Ted Pearson
Ten Language poets take turns writing reflections on their origins. This volume (the first in a proposed ten) covers 1975-1980 and is loosely organized around a theme of "love." The unusual collective authorship scheme here is overtly designed to evoke multiplicity and ultimately create a "community of memory," although a less kind read might be to point out that it also serves to build the Language Poetry "brand," perhaps as part of a bid for long-term canonization. After all, the very point of writing autobiography (on one level) is to self-aggrandize, and although the Language thinkers, with their grounding in theory and radical politics, are more likely than most to critique this implulse, they don't manage here to transcend this aspect of the genre. All the same, the group assembled here is basically an all-star list of important poets writing today, and it's fascinating reading for anyone interested in putting their poetic work in context.

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
Strange, episodic story cycle of life in a gloomy Eastern European city (Drogobych), which is overstuffed with decaying marvels, cryptic artifacts, and just plain trash. (Same goes for the protagonist's home, which seems both cramped and weirdly infinite.) The book is populated by colorful / quirky / mad characters, most centrally the protagonist's father, who obsesses first over raising exotic birds and then later, over developing a quasi-Gnostic theory about tailor's dummies as a form of imprisoned matter. Uniquely European high weirdness, likely to be enjoyed by fans of Calvino's Invisible Cities or Kafka's parables.

Among the Names by Maxine Chernoff
For this book, Chernoff gathered various texts pertaining to the concept of "giving" or "gifts," ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Gifts," to Marcel Mauss' The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, to's "The Question of the Ring." Thus gathered, she culls interesting phrases from them and jettisons the rest, effectively taking the discourse and exploding it into a book-sized cloud. This doesn't reduce it to nonsense, however—the theme of the gift persists—but by shattering the originals she decontextualizes the fragments, transforming them into curious artifacts, rewarding of close examination. The result of arranging these artifacts is not to make an argument about giving, exactly, but to do something more valuable: to try to illustrate (albeit obliquely) the entire sphere of human thinking that surrounds the concept. Fascinating, occasionally moving. Recommended.

No comments: