What Matisse is After (Diana Chang, 1984)

ChangMatissePx2
At the beginning of October I took a vacation, spending some days in a cabin surrounded by redwoods with someone I dearly love. Afterwards came two weeks of catching up with my ordinary life, organising birthday parties and baking for a fundraiser and spending far too many hours daydreaming about being back at that cabin. But here upon this last Monday of October I am starting to find my rhythm again, and so I have more poetry by Diana Chang, whose collection What Matisse is After came from the library while I was gone. It is a beautiful collection, one of those books which is a pleasure to hold; my photo does not do justice to the cover, that boldness of the black and red upon the pale matte grey, nor does the texture come through, the paper not quite smooth to the touch. Inside, with the poems, there are drawings; I have even fewer words for visual art than I do for poetry, but they are simple, black and white and grey, seeming to me about the lines themselves, the size and shape and angles of them, experiments in form, perhaps. Whatever the words for them, I like them.

As always when reading a collection, I find the poems themselves to be a mix; some that do not work for me at all, some which come close but not quite, and some which are very good. Chang’s best poems do not, for me, reach the level of Mark Strand or Jane Hirshfield, but the why of it eludes me; I do not know if they are objectively weaker in some way I might eventually learn to define, or simply less the sort of thing I appreciate. Still, there are some which linger. This is one:

Naming

Because it is white we call it snow
The dark side of things is true to names, too

Geese scribbling across the sky
are having their say indefinitely

The wind of time drops
We will be a lasting quiet

By surprise, deer are fastened to a field
Cameras also try their desperate stilling

Through nerved,
we find, in any case,
what we gave away is called years.

I like some of the language of this one for itself, the geese having their say indefinitely, and also the concept of it, the naming of things, holding things still through naming; it is a poem which unfolds itself a little in my mind with the reading, but only a little, not largely.

I like this one as well, the title poem:

What Matisse is After

The straight in a curve
is what Matisse is after

two lines
one veering in,

an invitation to
the rest of space,
the other

a long gourd
swelling
out of bone

an arm  sings
that its reach

rounds
into a heave
of loving

the line of a thigh
on its departure
toward returning

in the teeth
of our dying

what elegant
flying

He exhales paint we need

to
breathe

Simple in that way that takes much craft, and flowing, and it captures a little of the looking at a painting’s line and form in the way the words move.

My very favourite poem in this collection is quite long, so I am going to save it for tomorrow.

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Asian-American Poetry: Diana Chang

I could fill pages with my outrage at a white male poet posing as a Chinese women in order to benefit from attempts to listen to Asian-American voices — as if the entire world did not already listen long and well to white men. But instead of adding another white voice to the outcry, I encourage anyone who has not already done so to read Jia Tolentino’s article above, and then go read Jenny Zhang’s Buzzfeed article.

In the meanwhile, I am going to rectify my own narrow vision, for while I have been reading classical Chinese & Japanese poetry in translation for decades, I am entirely unfamiliar with the work of Asian-American poets. It is a rich body of work to explore, and I have begun by acquiring some older collections of Asian-American writing from the library and investigating the authors whom I meet there. The first of these is Diana Chang; she was born in New York in 1934, but grew up in China, only returning to the United States after World War II. Her 1956 novel, The Frontiers of Love, is believed to be the first novel by an American-born Chinese published in the United States. She went on to publish five more novels, and then began to publish collections of poetry — but so far as I can tell, poetry is where she began; her first publication seems to have been three poems in the November 1946 issue of Poetry Magazine. Here is one:

Knowing What Desires We Have Had

Knowing what desires we have had (some flaring, beautiful ambitions),
And have had to let go,
And knowing what questions we have put off answering,
Slurring over them, always,
Seeing double, gladly,
(Fearful, unbigoted minds grasping at both sides of every question),
It is not surprising, only regrettable that we should have come to this.

And now we are too-far gone:
We have practiced too well a partial living.
From here, there is no recovery.

To the roomful of us, it seems always to have been this way:
You, I, and the other, manifesting conversation,
Watching the gestures of talk.
We hear the silence, uneasily,
Fearing the next pause might give us away.

It is a beautiful poem, very clear, building that tension of regret and despair. It needs no biography to make it live and move, but I cannot read it unaware of Chang’s life; this was published when she had been in the United States for at most a year. Coming to New York to finish high school after living in wartime China seems a very definite double vision. Perhaps not what she meant at all, but it is there in my reading, in part because of this much more recent poem of hers which seems to be included in a number of textbooks and thus, one hopes, frequently taught:

Saying Yes

“Are you Chinese?”
“Yes.”

“American?”
“Yes.”

Really Chinese?”
“No… not quite.”

Really American?”
“Well, actually, you see…”

But I would rather say
yes

Not neither-nor
not maybe,
but both, and not only

The homes I’ve had,
the ways I am

I’d rather say it twice,
yes

The more I read these poems and others by her, the more I consider her work, the more excited I am to have encountered her. I will be reading more of Chang’s poetry, and all of her novels which the library can provide, and will of course write about them here in the months to come.

Death at Wentwater Court (Carola Dunn, 1994)

DeathWWCourt

Is it possible to write a cosy murder mystery set in a country house in the 1920s without inviting comparisons to a host of earlier authors? Perhaps if one is lucky in one’s readers — but I am afraid that Carola Dunn’s Death at Wentwater Court, the first of her lengthy series featuring the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, had very bad luck indeed when it met me. As a fan of Golden Age detective fiction, and of interwar women’s fiction in general, I am the reader who stops and stares at the page when the chambermaid in Dunn’s novel calls something “wizard.” Why is the chambermaid using public school slang? Does she secretly read Tom Swift novels when not cleaning bedrooms? Does her use of schoolboy slang to a guest indicate something about the lack of control the young wife of the Earl has over her household? Or does it say something about the servants’ attitutdes towards Daisy? After all, Daisy is not quite a proper guest; she is visiting Wentwater Court in order to write a magazine article about the home and family. There are endless possibilities, but alas, the truth is that Dunn is simply making one of her many mistakes in tone, the sort of mistake that most readers will never even notice, or notice and brush aside — but here I am, the wrong reader for this book, assuming it all means something.

Unfortunately, even when Dunn is not mis-using slang or littering her descriptions with brand names in an exceptionally modern way reminiscent of the Gossip Girl novels, her book is not a success. The plot is all right, the characterisation one-dimensional but at least consistent, but her prose — well, it is very… prosy. When she wishes the reader to know that Daisy is unused to people being sympathetic about her fiancee’s death, she tells us that “Daisy was unused to wholehearted sympathy.” When she feels the need to remind the reader that, for some unknown reason, everyone confides in Daisy even if they have no reason to do so, she writes, “Daisy decided it would be untactful to tell him that he was by no means the first to confide in her.” And so it goes, for pages upon pages; it is like reading a story written by an extremely young person who is not sure that the audience will understand, so everything must be repeated again or again. When my son does this to tell me about his day at school I find it charming, but I prefer novelists to trust my intelligence and to realise that I am actually paying attention to their book & thus do not need salient points repeated. Indeed, I prefer novelists to construct their books so that the protagonists do not need to have a magical ability to inspire confidences from strangers in order for the plot to function, but I am willing to forgive much for enjoyment. This book did not quite outstrip my ability to forgive, but it came close.

So yes, clearly I am the wrong reader for this book — and yet I am frustrated, because if only Dunn wrote just a little better these would make excellent Silent Pleasures for the autumn. Alas, I peeked in at the second novel, and it is just as bad — another round of Daisy being confided in for no good reason except that Dunn cannot discover any other way to do exposition, so I think I must give up on these books; it is not as though I am in any danger of running out of things to read. But if any of you, my readers, are fans of Dunn’s novels, I would love to know what it is you enjoy in them.

The Fish Sauce Cookbook (Veronica Meewes, 2015)

FishSauceCookbook

There are, I have found, two ways that I read a cookbook. The first is pragmatically, looking for new dishes to make for myself and family, new techniques to be learned, ways to improve my skills in the kitchen. But I also read a cookbook as a text to be enjoyed, different from a novel or a collection of poetry, but still, a book. So to review The Fish Sauce Cookbook by Veronica Meewes, released just yesterday, I must tackle both these strands. How does it fare pragmatically? How does it fare as a text?

ChickenGreensFishSauce

When I received the electronic ARC of this cookbook from NetGalley, I immediately set about cooking from it, and thus you see above a plate of the Vietnamese Caramel Chicken (on top of short-grain white rice) along with a side of the Skillet Greens. Both of these recipes involve making a caramel with fish sauce, and in both cases it was much more difficult than the recipe indicated. I muddled through, however, and all five of us at the table enjoyed the food — my daughter had the leftover chicken for lunch on Monday, and has already told me she would like me to make it again. I found the chicken delicious, the skin a mix of sweet and savory with deep notes from the fish sauce, the meat tender and juicy, and the sauce that resulted from cooking the chicken in caramel is absolutely addictive over rice. The greens were also good, although the Nước Mắm Apple Cider Gastrique drizzled over them suffered from my problem with the caramel; too much salt, not enough sweet or acid. Still, it was a good adventure in the kitchen, and I enjoyed both the cooking and the eating very much.

That being said, the more I consider this cookbook, the more I find that there is not really any reason for these “50 Umami-Packed Recipes from Around the Globe” to be together under one cover. It reminds me of the Junior League cookbooks I used to find at garage sales during my childhood, a collection of favourite recipes organised with some photographs, but no real attempt to unify them. These chefs seem to be writing for other professional chefs, expecting their readers will have a wood oven ready at hand, or can easily come by ascorbic acid or quail eggs, or know how to use a mandoline to slice things to the proper thinness. There is nothing wrong with complex recipes that demand a high level of skill, but in a cookbook I expect them to be curated and presented with encouragement and instruction, not simply written down without comment. Lacking this sort of framework, there is little difference between this and what I can find searching online for recipes using fish sauce, so in spite of the two dishes I made and enjoyed, I would not let it take up space on my already very full shelf of practical cookbooks.

What, then, about this cookbook as a text? Unfortunately, the lack of unifying structure keeps it from being pleasant to simply read. A purely aspirational cookbook filled with immensely complex recipes can be lovely to daydream over if the chef-author infuses their personality into the page, showing how and why they came to create these dishes. A pragmatic cookbook can be also a pleasure to read if it is informative; I am interested in regional cooking, in food history, and in personal stories. This cookbook has an interesting piece at the beginning about the ways in which fish sauce is made, and a practical guide to different brands, but beyond that it did not contain any of these elements. I suppose, in the end, that I was looking for a very different cookbook — the history of the ingredient, a selection of traditional recipes, then some plays on modern uses so I could begin to incorporate it into my own everyday cooking. That is not what this is, but for the reader seeking a collection of complex and far-ranging fish sauce recipes from a variety of chefs working today, this is where you will find it.

“The Dead” (Mark Strand, 1968)

As promised, here is one more by Strand, also from his 1968 collection Reasons for Moving. His language is simple, which for me helps it to cut deep.

The Dead

The graves grow deeper.
The dead are more dead each night.

Under the elms and the rain of leaves,
The graves grow deeper.

The dark folds of the wind
Cover the ground. The night is cold.

The leaves are swept against the stones.
The dead are more dead each night.

A starless dark embraces them.
Their faces dim.

We cannot remember them
Clearly enough. We never will.

I am looking forward to more Strand, in time. However, next week I am going to start looking at some Asian-American poets, as the outrageous behaviour of a certain white man in pretending to be a Chinese woman has made me realise that I know very little about Asian-American authors.

Reasons for Moving (Mark Strand, 1968)

I first encountered Mark Strand through Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him on the CBC Writers & Company podcast. Usually I do not much enjoy hearing writers read their own work, but I fell in love with Strand’s voice, in both the literal and stylistic senses, and with his dry, sudden humour which is so similar to mine. He had a long and varied career, publishing poetry for five decades as well as translating, writing children’s books and criticism, and editing various anthologies until his death in 2014. Although the interview was from 1999, I only heard it a few months back, when I began to finally listen to the years of podcasts I had downloaded, and even though it is foolish, I wish very much I had met Strand’s work while he was still alive; I would have written some sort of joyful letter of my excitement at his poetry, perhaps, although that is an easy thing to say in retrospect. It may well be that having the chance I would not have taken it. Regardless, I do feel in discovering him only just after his death that I missed some opportunity, however ridiculous it is.

As for this collection, it is slender, only 47 pages, and the poems are short and deceptively simple. I have chosen two I liked very much.

The Man in Black

I was walking downtown
when I noticed a man in black,
black cape and black boots, coming toward me.

His arms out in front of him,
his fingers twinkling with little rings,
he looked like a summer night full of stars.

It was summer. The night was full of stars.
The tall buildings formed a hallway down which I walked.
The man in black came toward me.

The waxed tips of his mustache shone
like tiny spears and his teeth glistened.
I offered him my hand which he did not take.

I felt like a fool and stood in his black wake,
shaken and small, and my tears
swung back and forth in the sultry air like chandeliers.

It is that moment between the second and third stanzas, for me, which makes the poem, the repetition that changes it from the everyday recounting to the sense of something numinous occurring, the man who is like the summer night full of stars in the summer night full of stars, suggesting the man is the night, or there is no man, only the poet seeing the night both ways — it is one of those poems where my attempt to explain what I see in it trivialises, because I cannot say it better than the poet can, but for any reader who might be mystified by my joy, read it to yourself, slowly, and linger on that repetition, that space between those stanzas, where suddenly what seems to be reality changes and becomes much larger and stranger and more mysterious — and the poet weeps because he may not enter into it even as that last image suggests that he is already there.

Here is another, shorter, and much anthologised, but I had not heard it until Strand read it during the interview and it took my breath. I am glad to be able to remember it in his voice:

Keeping Things Whole

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

I will share one more from this collection tomorrow, I think; I find I cannot resist, nor is there any reason to.

Dare Me (Megan Abbott, 2012)

DareMe

If I treat literature as a landscape to explore, it is inevitable that I will stumble into some bogs now and again — and unfortunately, I found this to be one of them. So much so, in fact, that I did not finish the book, which one might argue would disqualify me from writing about it. But if I do not analyse the books that fail me, how will I ever come to know what it is I value in fiction?

I first heard about Dare Me online, and then found it at the library. Having seen it described as “cheerleader noir,” I think I was expecting an adult take on the Cheerleaders series that I read with such fascination in the 1980s — teenagers behaving badly towards each other, but with real consequences rather than the softened edges of those long-ago YA novels. This book has some of that, certainly, but really it is about adults behaving badly towards teenagers, who are quite realistically so confident in their own agency that they do not realise that they are being made use of.

Dare Me is narrated by 16-year-old Addy, whose already troubled relationship with her best friend and enemy Beth is strained towards a breaking point by the arrival of a new cheerleading coach, Colette French. French expects the girls to take themselves and their training seriously, and the girls eagerly accept the challenge — except for Beth, who resents authority, resents the entrance of an adult whom she cannot control, resents the end of the cheerleading squad as her own empire. Yet Beth is also the only one of the girls who sees how French is using the squad, and particularly Addy, to meet her own emotional needs. As French invites the girls to her home, gets drunk with them, and begins to treat Addy more as a companion than a student, Beth watches with anger and jealousy, warning Addy over and over that things are not as they seem. The craft of it is fascinating — Abbott does some very interesting things with Beth as the voice of truth who cannot be believed because in all other ways she is so untrustworthy — but I simply could not enjoy it. Pleasure is not the only thing I read for, but it must be in the mix somewhere, or why bother? Abbott’s structure and story were good, but I disliked her prose so much that I kept putting the book aside, and at some point past halfway I gave up altogether.

My difficulty with Abbott’s prose is in her use of imagery. She is capable of writing competent sentences, and she has a very distinct sharp-edged authorial voice, but her imagery is often confusing to the point of dysfunction. For an example, at one point Addy says that the girls share a “yearning so deep, like pinions over our hearts.” Well, all right, is it deep (which is under) or is it over? And pinions are feathers — if the yearning is deep, then why is it a feather (something external and protective) over their hearts? If I think of something over my heart, I think of it just beneath my skin, very close to the surface, so not deep — perhaps she misremembered the meaning of pinions and was going for something more like pinning, the yearning imprisoning the heart? Or did she mean pinions in the sense of gears, so that this yearning is what drives the girls? But again, if the pinion-gears are driving, would they be above the heart or within it? It is entirely possible Abbott knew exactly what she was doing, that there is a reading of this which is very precise to her, but in my mind what makes imagery such a valuable tool for a writer is the way that it evokes numerous associations that colour the book as the reader continues forward. A complex metaphor is fine, but if the reader is expected to put some long thought into puzzling it out, it needs to be built upon again and again so that there is reward to it, so that it is a foundation of the work rather than a grace note. In Abbott’s case, what might have been an engaging story was lost in the writing, and all her structural skills could not keep me interested enough to finish the book.

Silent Pleasures of August

This life continues to be unbearably busy, as each member of my family (including myself) has taken a turn being sick, and schedules keep shifting, and each weekend is filled with a hundred tasks. Through it all I am keeping a thread of time and space to myself by reading; I have always used books to carve some order out of the surrounding chaos. Here are six of my silent pleasures in August:

Zen Pencils Volume Two: Dream the Impossible Dream (Gavin Aung Than, coming in October 2015) — An ebook graciously provided by the lovely people at NetGalley in exchange for an honest review, this is a — well, what is it? A graphic novel, I suppose; Gavin Aung Than has taken various bits of writing he finds inspirational from a wide range of authors and turned each piece into a little illustrated story. Some of them are quite effective, such as Kevin Smith’s argument for taking all artists seriously, or Amy Poehler’s words on moving outside one’s comfort zone — both of which are imagined as child-focused. Others did not work as well for me; the Camus in particular I found laboured, his lyrical writing is not improved by art. And why take the words of Margaret E. Knight, a 19th century inventor, and illustrate it as a story about wrestling? The truth of her story is inspiring enough, and unlikely to be known to Than’s readers. It was an amusing book, but perhaps most suited to early adolescents, who might take to heart some of the advice to follow one’s own dreams despite discouragement.

The Artificial Face (Fenja Gunn, 1973) — I have a soft spot for amateur social histories, the sort of book in which someone who is not a scholar collects various anecdotal detail from earlier works and weaves it together into an interesting (and often false) narrative. This book on the history of cosmetics in England seems to be precisely that — at least if Gunn is a scholar I find no evidence of it — but it was marred by the author’s misogyny. Why would someone who dislikes “feminine vanity” and believes that fashions make “a mockery of nature” choose to write a book about cosmetics? I cannot recommend it, although it did interest me enough in the subject that I am planning to read Lisa Eldrige’s Face Paint: A History of Makeup, when it comes out in October.

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Gloria Steinem, 1983) — This book has been sitting on my shelves for at least 15 years, but it wasn’t until I heard Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with Steinem (on the fantastic CBC Writers and Company podcast) that I finally picked it up to read it. Steinem has a strong voice, and many of her pieces are still relevant — some of them frighteningly so; she predicted the legislative extremes some parts of the United States have gone to around pregnancy and the personhood of embryos. I wish the collection had been somewhat more varied, and that the pieces which are more statistics than narrative had been omitted, but it is a fascinating look back at a particular stage in the feminist movement, and certainly both informative and inspiring to read as a feminist today.

Simple Confession (Baird Leonard, 1930) — I discovered Leonard through some very early issues of The New Yorker, which I am slowly reading week by week starting at the very beginning — an infinite task, as the magazine comes out faster than I read, but a pleasant one. She published two light sketches mocking high society in 1925, and went on to contribute a large amount of humorous verse of the next few decades. This is the only book of hers in my library system, and given the title I was hoping for an autobiography, since I am quite curious about her life. Instead it was a collection of humorous verse depicting the life of a bright (but perhaps not very young) thing in New York in the 1920s. I found it entertaining reading, especially right before bed, but not the sort of thing which stays in the mind.

Mr. Fortune Speaking and Case for Mr. Fortune (H. C. Bailey, 1931 and 1932) — More Bailey; these are two volumes of his Reggie Fortune short stories, and contain some of my favourites of them. Bailey still has his irritating authorial tics, but taken slowly the stories are entertaining, and I appreciate Mr. Fortune’s desire to pursue justice without inflicting needless suffering.

Third Poems: 1965-1978 (David Galler, QRL 1978)

David Galler is the fifth and last of the poets I discovered in volume 21 of the Quarterly Review of Literature, the first in its poetry series. To judge by the collection of epigrams included halfway through these Third Poems: 1965-1978, at this time Galler considered himself rather embattled, a lone traditionalist amid a sea of unappreciative radicals. Forty years later the writerly politics are of little interest to me, but I do like most of the poems, although I find it difficult to sort out why. Many of his poems read very easily, and they are often so clever in their twists upon the classical that I find myself enjoying them almost in spite of myself — but they do not go beyond the cleverness for me, I do not have that sense of being lifted into another way of seeing or being. Others of the poems express some thought I have been struggling to articulate, and thus touch me very deeply, but I cannot judge if the power is in the poem itself or in my own recognition of something I have always been unable to say. Poems such as that I might share with a lover to express myself, but I would not select them as examples of fine work; I am simply too close to judge.

Here is one of the clever ones:

Sisyphus

How many times I’ve tried
To say just what it is
I’m doing with this rock.
Exhaustion, hope, despair
Are things I’ve talked about,
And irony or prayer,
Or how I’ve held this rock
To be a part of me.
I think I’ve learned enough
To say it’s just a job.
Each day brings changes, but
Ultimately not much:
Working the damned thing up
Takes what it takes, but then —
To watch it teeter, hear it
Thunder, all that anger
Grinding down the slope!
You don’t, as the god said,
Get something for nothing. No.

I do enjoy the execution of the idea, the modern twist upon the classical figure, but it does not touch me emotionally. This next one, on the other hand, does much more; when I read it I both feel the image in my body and see a piece of the world new.

The Root

We are similar,
Air-traveler.
Think what it is —
To be surrounded
On all sides by ground,
To feel the press
Of earth on every pore,
And to move blind
Along each way one finds,
Unblocked
Even by rock.

Then, struck afar
(As in another life),
To tremble at one’s tips;
To feel them each at once;
Not know the shape one is,
Nor nature of what affronts.

Towards the end of the collection come my favourite poems, unfortunately far too long to quote in full. In “Theseus Drunk” the Athenian King looks back upon “the marvelous damned mess made of my life,” considering how “whatever I do / Wherever, I’m called a hero” and what that means. The use of language is superb; I can read the poem quickly, caught up in the motion of a drunken man’s rush of confession, but when I slow down and really attend to the words I can see how controlled it is, how the vowels echo one another, how that word hero is repeated and played upon all through to the very end. “Sanctuaries” is the voice of Iphigenia in Aulis, priestess in a strange kingdom, speaking of her childhood in Agamemnon’s court, a place “in which / Incentive led forever / To despair.” Both of these are marvellous, and luckily the first one has been collected in another volume, although the second one appears to have fallen out of the poet’s favour — perhaps I will post it sometime despite the length, I hate to think of it being unavailable to a curious reader.

Literary Omakase

BuzzBooksFallWinterCovers

I have just discovered these marvellous things, via The Wild Bookworms and NetGalley, which latter is kind enough to provide members with free copies. They are the most recent Buzz Books volumes put out by Publishers Lunch, which yes, of course they are a marketing tool created in the hopes of publicity, but I feel like I have just discovered a free buffet. The volumes include excerpts from both fiction and non-fiction works coming out in the next season, with an introduction that situates these books with others in the wider publishing context. For me, as a reader, it is a chance to plan out some of my reading in the months ahead, and a chance to try without committment some authors I might otherwise ignore. These samplers are, as one would expect, weighted towards what is already expected to be successful, but even that I find useful — knowing that so many people are going to be talking about Franzen’s Purity, do I wish to join in on the conversation, or do I wish to use my time and energy and voice upon an author who might not be the focus of much discussion? What I love most about these volumes, however, is just the sheer pleasure of getting to try 53 new books, new voices, like — perhaps not a buffet after all, but an omakase meal at a Japanese restaurant, a little taste of everything the chef thinks is good. Whether I agree or disagree, I enjoy the experience — so much so that I wish I could go back and download the older volumes as well.