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The Scattered Shrapnel of the Unknown: Carmen Boullosa’s “Before”

Boullosa Before

But I’ll start at the beginning. Sure, I was like those children, I was one of those awkward children, and here I am cut off from their world forever. Children! I was like you once!

Carmen Boullosa’s narrator is reliving and re-exploring memories of her childhood. It’s a childhood like many – full of blissful moments, mysteries, embarrassments, misunderstandings, intense fear. This is a common – if not cliched – theme in countless novels, but the return to childhood that Carmen Boullosa has given us feels unlike any other book that I have read. I can’t say enough about Boullosa’s incandescent writing, which glows from within, radiating possibilities, contradictions, ambiguities.

In Before, it is we, the readers, who are made up, invented:

When I decided to tell you this, to invent you in order to tell this, and by having an interlocutor to have words myself, I didn’t imagine the bliss my memories would bring. Though I can exaggerate slightly my epiphany, I might say I’ve come alive again.

And what’s real are the memories:

They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting “me first,” and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique.

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“Midpoint”: John Updike’s Pointillist Poem

Updike Midpoint_0001-001

Engraver and Apprentice, in their room
Of acid baths and photophobic gloom,
Transform to metal dots ten shades of gray…

I have never been a fan of John Updike’s writing, but I have to admit I was really curious when a Vertigo reader mentioned that Updike had published a book of poetry in 1969 that contained numerous photographs. “Midpoint,” the long poem that opens Midpoint and Other Poems (NY: Knopf, 1969), was written “to take inventory of his life at the end of his thirty-fifth year – a midpoint,” as the book’s dust jacket puts it. As it turned out, “Midpoint” was written a few years prematurely, since Updike (1932-2009) lived to be nearly seventy-seven.

“Midpoint” has five sections or cantos.  X.J. Kennedy referred to the poem as “a personal history in heterogeneous parts —terza rima; a family photo album; a celebration in Spenserian stanzas of metals, ceramics, and polymers; Poundian cantos, complete with glosses; and a meditation in heroic couplets…” (April 1993, New Criterion). Each canto begins with an “argument” that sets forth the poet’s own summary of that section. In Canto 1, the “Introduction,” Updike writes of “early intimations of wonder and dread” and opens with the telling line “Of nothing but me, me.” Then comes Canto II, “The Photographs,” which consists only of a brief argument and twenty-one photographs of Updike and his family – grandparents, parents, siblings, himself at multiple ages, his wife (the book came out five years before his divorce from Mary), and his children. Read more

Photo-Embedded Literature – 1970-1989: Bibliography

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in the years 1970-1989 containing embedded photographs.  You can see individual bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a comprehensive bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo). As of today, July 5, 2016, that bibliography contains 228 fiction titles and 68 poetry titles. I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book not included on my list, please let me know in a comment. [Updated July 15, 25, October 12, November 29, 2016.]

abebox

Kobo Abe.  The Box Man.  NY: Knopf, 1974. Contains nine b&w photographs, almost assuredly by Abe himself. This is the first English translation from the Japanese original Hako Otoko, published in 1973. For my review of this book, click here.

Bayer vitus bering rigmarole Read more

Two Key Books on Sebald Reissued in Paperback

Wolff Hybrid Poetics

The Berlin-based publisher De Gruyter is releasing an affordable paperback edition of Lynn Wolff’s W.G. Sebald’s Hybrid Poetics: Literature as Historiography, which first came out two years ago. With the hardcover version currently priced at €89.95 (or $126) the paperback price of 19.95 (in both euros and dollars) is welcome news. It comes with high praise from Richard Sheppard, who wrote in Journal of European Studies:

Wolff’s book does not, however, simply challenge the interested reader to think about Sebald’s literary work in a meta-representational way, it also shows the academic reader the advantages of familiarity with his critical work, the benefits of wrestling critically with – as opposed to just paraphrasing – the relevant secondary literature, the insights that come from the careful analysis of manuscript sources, and the creative understanding that derives from close reading, untrammelled by theoretical ideas for which Sebald had little or no time. Wolff has been publishing carefully researched, insightful and authoritative work on Sebald since 2007, but the originality and depth of her excellent new book will raise her into the top echelon of those younger scholars who have made Sebald’s life and work one of their primary preoccupations.

The edition should be available any day now.

Restitution

And Manchester University Press has also released an affordable paperback edition of A Literature of Restitution: Critical Essays on W.G. Sebald priced at £17.99 and $29.95 (the 2013 hardcover edition is $99.99). According to Lynn Wolff’s review of this title, “The volume’s organizing principle, the question of restitution, lends this book a much clearer profile than other edited volumes on Sebald. Taken together, the contributions provide readers with an excellent overview of Sebald’s oeuvre…The variety of perspectives from both within and beyond German Studies further sets this volume apart from other publications by offering fresh insights and new contexts within which to consider Sebald’s works.” The paperback version is already widely available.

I’m looking forward to reviewing both titles later this summer.

Madly Cycling

Dummy Jim Cycled

While recently recovering from surgery, I found myself needing something to read that was different from my usual diet. I looked at my stack of unread books with new eyes and lit upon a volume that had I had been passing over for weeks as simply too quirky. But now I was desperately in the mood for something off-beat.

A few months earlier, a long-time Vertigo reader had sent me a book he thought I might enjoy called I Cycled into the Arctic Circle: A Peregrination by James Duthie and Matt Hulse, published by the Saltire Society, Scotland in 2015. As it turns out, it’s a wondrous and utterly uncategorizable book that I read in a single sitting. In 1951, a deaf Scotsman named James Duthie decided to bicycle to Morocco. He headed south and crossed the Channel into France, where he suddenly veered east into Belgium, Holland, and Germany, before turning north into Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, ultimately reaching the Arctic Circle. A few years later, Duthie wrote a short book about his three-month trip, which he apparently sold door to door to fund future bicycle trips. Since then, Duthie’s I Cycled into the Arctic Circle has become a fairly rare book and a bit of a cult item that strikes me as the literary equivalent of outsider art. (While it’s a book of travel writing, it’s definitely not Patrick Leigh Fermor.) Duthie comes off as affable, intensely curious, and eternally optimistic – the kid of guy who will talk with anyone, anywhere. Read more

Medical Leave

Hospital Room

I was taken to hospital in Norwich in a state of almost total immobility.

W.G. Sebald. The Rings of Saturn.

A little more than a week ago, I suddenly found myself unable to stand or walk without immense pain. Somehow I managed to hobble to the car for the ride to the emergency room, where the triage began. “Have you been out of the country recently? Have you…?” Within a few minutes a sonogram and its operator appeared and she began scanning. The operator and the doctor hovered and pointed. “Gall stones,” one of them declared. Five days later I came home with no gall bladder, but four sore incisions from the laparoscopic procedure. All this is to say that I am taking a bit of medical leave from Vertigo – probably just another week or so. I am returning to normal health pretty well, but it’s mysteriously exhausting at times – and I’m craving pure entertainment at the moment. I’m reading Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Island quartet of mysteries – apparently in reverse order. I’ve got to get well by early June, because I have a ticket to see Argentina play Jamaica in the Copa America in Chicago. Lionel Messi!

My hospital window, I am happy to report, was much larger than the one Sebald’s shows us in The Rings of Saturn, but the view was no better.

Sebald's Hospital Window_0001

 

Modiano Twice on Youth

Modiano Youth

In Young Once, we meet Louis and Odile, married with children, living comfortably in Switzerland but feeling vaguely lost. They are only thirty-five years old, yet it feels like they have nothing more to expect from life. “Could anything new happen to them at thirty-five?” One day, while downtown, Louis hears the voice of a singer on a television program drifting out from open café windows. He can’t understand the words. A warm wind starts blowing. The first drops of rain appear. And just like that we are taken back to Louis at the age of nineteen, just demobilized from the French army. Louis immediately falls in with a man who promises to get him a job in Paris. The job turns out to be sitting at a desk at nights in a garage where men deliver cars, leaving them for someone else to drive them away later. Louis never does get an explanation of what is going on, but we suspect something illicit. Louis first meets Odile in a train station and before long they begin to live together, although they fail to display much that can be considered tender or loving. They are two aimless souls who seem to prefer letting other people make decisions for them. At nineteen, the can’t envision the future. “Lying down, looking at the ceiling, [Louis] would think about the future, or in other words about nothing.” Read more

Hardly War

Hardly WarI was narrowly narrator,

yet superbly so.

In an essay several years ago for the British magazine Source Photographic Review, I wrote: “if one were to look for the most innovative and challenging uses of photography in literature today, I would point to a handful of contemporary poets who are finding ways to turn visual images into poetic vocabulary, notably Anne Carson, Christian Hawkey, Susan Howe, and Leslie Scalapino.” Today, I would add a number of names to that list, one of which is Don Mee Choi, whose new book of poems and photographs Hardly War (Seattle & NY: Wave Books, 2016) I have been reading and rereading for a week now. Choi pulls off quote a feat by blending several languages, photographs, and drawings into a unified whole. She has a distinctive voice that is playful and confident, and Wave Books, as always, has produced a brilliant design that turns Hardly War into a bravura visual performance on paper. Choi was born in South Korea and her father was a photographer and cinematographer who mostly worked in Asian war zones – including the Korean War and the Vietnam War and she deploys photographs by her father and others in this book.

What I am attempting to do with my poems and my father’s photographs is what I used to do as a child when I stared at my father’s photographs and maps. I’m trying to imagine race=nation,its language, its wars. I am trying to fold race into geopolitics. It involves disobeying history, severing its ties to power. It strings together the faintly remembered, the faintly imagined, the faintly discarded, which is to say race=nation gets to speak its own faint history in its own faint language. Its mere umbilical cord is hardly attached to anything at all. Hence, hardly=war.

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Photography-embedded Literature – The 1990s: Bibliography

 

Here is my bibliography of works of fiction and poetry published in the years 1990-1999 containing embedded photographs.  You can see individual bibliographies for other years underneath the pull-down menu “Photo-Embedded Literature” at the top of Vertigo.  I also maintain a comprehensive bibliography that spans 1892 to the present at Library Thing (http://www.librarything.com/catalog/VertigoTwo). As of today, March 30, 2016, that bibliography contains 222 fiction titles and 64 poetry titles spanning the years 1892-2016. I am always updating these lists as I learn of new books.  If you know of a book not included on my list, please let me know in a comment. [Revised April 17, July 25, November 25, 2016.]

Abish 99Walter Abish. 99: The New Meaning. Providence: Burning Deck, 1990. Five unconventional stories by Abish with five photographs by his wife, the artist Cecile Abish. Read more

“There is so much pain in the world”: Carole Maso’s “The Art Lover”

Art Lover_0004-001

In 1990, when Carole Maso’s novel The Art Lover was first published (SF: North Point Press), there weren’t many recent and obvious precedents for including photographs and other types of reproductions with a novel. A few that come to mind that would have been more or less widely known were Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Kobo Abe’s The Box Man (first published in the US in 1974), Theresa Hak Kyung’s experimental novel Dictee, and Andre Breton’s 1937 novel Amour Fou, which finally appeared in English in 1988 as Mad Love. So The Art Lover, which contained some sixty-five or so reproductions of astonishing variety, really broke new ground. The book includes snapshots; photographs of articles torn or cut from the New York Times and other newspapers and periodicals; reproductions of artworks by Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Charles Demuth, and others; images of lost animal posters found around New York City; illustrations from textbooks; and more. And because so many of the embedded photographs involve texts of one sort or another, they become additional narrative voices that expound on topics like artists, works of art, and the stars in the night sky. My favorite is a tiny clipping (apparently from the Times) which supplies a correction to a previously published recipe for braised chicken.

Art Lover 5

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