Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Scene Before You

Chandler Brossard edited a book with this title in 1955, a kind of taxonomy of American culture notable then for its sociological acuity but now barely remembered, though still highly regarded for its time, among his own novels, stories, and essays, both journalistic and personal. I have the good fortune of being reminded of his work through the unexpected friendship of his daughter Iris, who is living in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a few hours south of Bemidji, where I live; she is a doctor lured to the region somehow, but lucky for me as well as those she serves. In the sixties, when I was living in Seattle, I found her father’s novel The Bold Saboteurs (1953), and still have that copy inscribed with the name of one of my oldest friends, Anthony Lehman of Berkeley. Returning to the book now, I am reminded of a tone similar to the voice running through Louis-Ferdinand Celine and his Journey to the End of the Night (1932) as well as his Death on the Installment Plan (1936). Yet the comparison is misleading: Brossard evokes a very different temper–a humanity that exhibits a greater care for his fellow creatures, setting himself the difficult but necessary task of any ambitious writer, to imagine himself entering into his characters’ condition (attempting, that is, to get as near the core of that condition as humanly possible)–what the philosopher Edith Stein called einfuhlung, the subject of her 1917 dissertation for Edmund Husserl (its 1964 translation by Waltraut Stein, her grand niece, entitled On the Problem of Empathy). After converting from Judaism to Catholicism, and becoming a nun, Edith Stein was sent by the Nazis to die at Auschwitz in 1942; an informative essay on her by Patricia Hampl appears in Martyrs, edited by Susan Bergman (1996).(11 December 2010)
                    Brossard is a rarity in American literature, unsung but, for me at least, the author of prose that still evokes not only great vitality but a street wisdom that must be compared (and more favorably, in my opinion) with Mailer’s fifties and early sixties period (particularly as presented in his Advertisements for Myself of 1959) as well as Kerouac’s body of prose fiction, especially the original scroll version of On the Road finally published a few years ago and a stand-alone gem in the light of the 1957 book edited by the nevertheless great Malcolm Cowley. Those infatuated with that recent comet named Jonathan Franzen might discover a new sign in the sky, one aloft a long while, simply from reading Brossard’s books, which include, in addition to The Bold Saboteurs and others, his first novel Who Walk in Darkness (1952), as well as Over the Rainbow? Hardly: Collected Short Seizures (compiled 2005), both edited by Steven Moore, and the Chandler Brossard issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 1987).

I am mourning the death of the poet Ai. She died in her sixty-second year in the spring of this year: March 19. Her eighth and final book, No Surrender, has just appeared. I cannot recommend her work highly enough: Cruelty; Killing Floor (1978 recipient of the Lamont Poetry Award); Sin (1986 winner of the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award), Fate (1991), Greed (1993), Vice: New and Selected Poems (1999 recipient of the National Book Award), and Dread (2003)the seven books she was alive to see through publication. For those who wish to know more about her–and she is like no other poet–send a check for $7 to the Cimarron Review, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078, and ask for a copy of issue no. 173, the Fall 2010 issue dedicated entirely to her, and published where she was teaching at the time of her death from breast cancer. I can recommend three websites where Ai (Japanese for "love") receives worthy attention:, of the Academy of American Poets; Modern American Poetry of the University of Illinois; and This Black Sista’s Page, out of Wisconsin (or so I gather from the page’s posting of gas prices in Madison).
                    I had the luck to meet Ai at the Bisbee Poetry Festival in 1983. We were both coming off failed marriages at the time and met the night both of us arrived, and days later shared a gratifying afternoon on the deck of the Copper Queen Hotel. She spoke with gracious admiration of my long poem "Bellocq’s Daybook," which I’d read on the same bill with Robert Duncan the night before she shared the stage with Philip Levine to close the festival. I told her the story of the fallout from my reading of her first book, Cruelty, published in 1973. I touted it to everyone I knew in Amherst, where I had come to do the MFA at the University of Massachusetts. One afternoon, walking into Cronopios Books (named for Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios and Famas, whose translation by Paul Blackburn gave it the cachet it deserved in the United States). I was greeted by the owner Jon (whose surname I no longer recall), exclaiming jovially: "Cruelty is selling like hotcakes!" And in my last reading in Amherst I prefaced my own poems by reading Ai’s "Cuba 1962," which she told me in Bisbee was the poem she considered her breakthrough piece.

                    Cuba 1962

When the rooster jumps up on the windowsill
and spreads his red-gold wings,
I wake, thinking it is the sun
and call Juanita, hearing her answer,
but only in my mind.
I know she is already outside,
breaking the cane off at ground level,
using only her big hands.
I get the machete and walk among the cane,
until I see her, lying face-down in the dirt.

Juanita, dead in the morning like this.
I raise the machete–
what I take from the earth, I give back–
and cut off her feet.
I lift the body and carry it to the wagon,
where I load the cane to sell in the village.
Whoever tastes my woman in his candy, his cake,
tastes something sweeter than this sugar cane;
it is grief.
If you eat too much of it, you want more,
you can never get enough.
Finally, I doubt the work of the late poet Deborah Digges needs my imprimatur, but I discovered it only recently and have read it carefully and deliberately, and consider it among the best poetry of the last two decades. Before she fell to her death in Amherst in April 2009, she had composed a body of truly powerful work, a highly accomplished poet whose poetry possesses a frail but unmistakable beauty and has the kind of staying power that will endure, I’m sure. Her posthumous collection of poetry, published this past April, The Wind Blows through the Doors of My Heart, followed four books of poems, Vesper Sparrows 1986), Late in the Millennium (1989), Rough Music (1995), and Trapeze (2004). She wrote two memoirs, Fugitive Spring: Coming of Age in the ’50s and ’60s (1992) and Stardust Lounge: Stories from a Boy’s Adolescence (2001), the latter concerning her experience as the mother of an antiauthoritarian son whose farewell to his mother ends the book: "Thanks for a wonderful childhood!" She was born and raised in rural Missouri, in a family of ten children. At her death, an apparent suicide at age fifty-nine, she was a professor of English at Tufts University, near Boston, though she lived in Amherst. Here’s a poem from her final book:

                    Write a Book a Year

Well the wild ride into the earth was thrilling,
really, scared as I was and torn and sore.
I say what other woman could have managed it?
My life before then
picking flowers against my destiny
what glance, what meeting,
who was watching, what we don’t know we know,
the hour we chose and we are chosen.
And suddenly the dead my mission,
the dark my mission.
He’d find me pounding out the hours.
Spring is for women, spring clawing at our hearts.
We are pulled forward by our hair
to be anointed in the barren garden.
I want the dark back, the bloody well of it,
my face before the fire,
or lie alone on the cold stone and find a way
to sleep awhile, wake clear and wander.


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