Saturday, May 19, 2007

Life is Elsewhere

(sticky post)

Okay. It's official now. Starting a week ago, I'm switching my posts on books, movies and music to Momus. Same reviews, different place.

Those of you who read Considerable Speck regularly (aka index finger, middle finger and ring finger) please do switch to reading Momus, if you haven't already. There are already three reviews up there that don't feature here. And if you've been kind enough to add this site to your blogroll, you may want to update that as well.

I shall miss blogging here - it's been great fun. But never fear. There is some corner of Momus that will always be...errr...a Considerable Speck?

The Blog is dead. Long live the Blog.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Raymond Chandler High


We all know the story. Sociopathic tough-guy loner finds himself involved in inexplicable mystery. Someone has disappeared. The only clues are the words from a garbled phone call. Our hero taps into his connections on the street, kicks a few butts, and discovers that he's onto something bigger than he suspected. But that doesn't faze him. He's determined to get to the bottom of it all.

What follows is a descent into a seedy underworld of crime, complete with gorgeous women (who come onto our hero), diabolical but half-crazed villains, muscle-bound thugs, corrupt and clueless authorities and a brainy sidekick. It's a tough crowd to be playing games with, but our hero is more than up to the challenge. Along the way a few other side characters get killed, a lot of other people get beaten up or hurt, but through it all our hero never loses his cool, eventually proving himself smarter, tougher and more ruthless than everyone else. By the time the movie ends, all the bad guys are either dead or in prison while our hero has come out of it scot free, and can go back to his miserable meaningless life. No one's particularly happy, but at least justice has been done.

The fact that all this action takes place not in the gritty alleys of John Huston's suffocating cityscape, but in and around a high school, and that the hero in question is not a snarling private eye but an over-intense school kid bunking class, makes little difference. You would have to be blind and deaf not to see the film noir influences here - Brick is a straight up Humphrey Bogart flick, and the ghost of The Maltese Falcon haunts this movie all the way through, even down to the tacky little bird statuette on the villain's mail box.

To say that Brick leaves you unmoved, that its plot is full of holes and its acting has a plastic, hammy quality about it, is to miss the point entirely. Great film noir is entirely about the formula - no one got emotionally involved with character of Sam Spade, or watched The Maltese Falcon for the intricacies of the plot - the whole point of that movie was the attitude. It's the uber-coolness that we craved, the smooth-talking tough guy-ness, the aura of casual menace. We knew the good guy was going to win out, despite the odds; what's more, we knew he was going to pull it off without getting even slightly flustered or putting in more effort than it takes to have a drink. The thrill was seeing how. And if the intensity seemed over-the-top in a comic book kind of way, so much the better. We weren't looking for realism, we were looking for the vibe.

And for all of Brick's many flaws (the street-slang is distracting, the violence seems a little overdone and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is good, but he's no Bogart) that vibe is the one thing it gets mostly right [1]. There are a lot of ways in which the movie is (I suspect unintentionally) funny - you have only to step back from the action and remind yourself that these are high school kids we're talking about and the whole thing begins to look like caricature, despite its frenetic attempts to take itself seriously (and there are a lot of those). But the genius of Rian Johnson's script and direction is that it keeps you involved enough so that you don't notice the preposterousness of it all until you step out of the theatre. And that's really impressive.

If there's one thing that doesn't transfer well, it's the main character. Sam Spade was anti-social and screwed up, but he was never needy, never vulnerable. Brendan, the hero of Brick, is frequently both, and the result is that he comes across as more creepy than cool, more desperate than dapper. You very rarely get the sense that Brendan is in control of anything, and the few times that he does come through the effect is more of someone who's a tad psychotic rather than a hard-nosed professional trying to get the job done. It's a weakness in the script that seems unavoidable, given the high school staging, but it's a serious weakness none the less.

Bottomline: Brick is a fascinating tribute to the genre of film noir, and a truly delightful conceit that's well executed and interesting to watch. If you're the kind of person who never saw the point of those old Bogart films, then this is certainly not the movie for you. If on the other hand, you're someone who can mouth along to the dialogue of the Maltese Falcon, you probably should watch this movie. It won't blow you away. But it'll entertain you.


[1] Right down to the old-fashioned misogynism that is so central to the Bogart myth. Men, it seems, are always fine, upstanding chaps - even when they're trying to kill you. They're the kind of guys who read Tolkien and fall helplessly in love, and when they hurt someone it's only because they're confused and don't know what to do with their emotions. Women, on the other hand, are all scheming vixens who use their sex to get men to do exactly what they want. The fact that our hero is able to resist these sirens is the real proof of his supremacy.

(cross posted from Momus)

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

United we fall

United 93

Imagine that it's a calm, clear Tuesday morning in the fall. You have an early morning flight to catch. You yawn your way to Newark airport in a taxi, plod your way through security, go sit in the waiting area outside your boarding gate. There's the usual crowd of people around you - a few businessmen in suits, a couple of elderly people, some young people who are probably students. You pull out your cellphone, make a few calls. The pilots pass by and go into the plane, then the airhostesses . Eventually boarding is announced and you make your way to your seat in the plane, dump your stuff in the overhead luggage compartment, settle in for a long flight. It's a pretty empty flight so you've got plenty of space. At first it seems like you're taking off on time, the plane pushes back from the gate on schedule, then your captain announces that you're stuck in a long queue of planes waiting to depart. It's going to be an extra half hour. You groan inwardly. You promise yourself never to fly from Newark / on United again. When the flight finally does take off you breathe a sigh of relief, pull out your crossword, wonder how long breakfast will be. It's just another early morning commuter flight.

Except maybe it's not. Maybe the date is the 11th of september 2001 and you're two minutes away from being thrust into the impossible situation of being a hostage on a suicide mission intending to ram this plane you're on into a building somewhere. How would you know? And more importantly, how would you respond? What would you do if it were you?

That's exactly the question that the new film United 93 leaves you asking. The real genius of this film is the way it makes that flight and the crisis that hits it (and more generally, hits America) seem so frighteningly real. Director Paul Greengrass achieves that effect by breaking away from the standard process of disaster film making, and refusing to give you any background on the people involved. The first time you see the people on United Flight 93 is when they show up in the security lounge. There is no back story on any of them. You are not shown them leaving their homes, or told who they are or what they do. You are not even told their names. All you know about them is what the other passengers in the plane know about them - they are the guy in the sports jacket, the guy in the baseball hat - and if you trust them or watch them in the moment of crisis it is because of the courage and resourcefulness that they show, not because you have been primed to watch them beforehand. And it's this anonymity that gives the movie its flavour of authenticity, that insists that this is a movie about an event, about something that happened to us collectively - it is the story of what happened to people, not the story of what happened to one person.

People have pointed out that this anonymity is Greengrass's way of getting over the knotty problem of how to celebrate the heroism of one or the other person, without dishonouring others who lost their lives, and who, for all we know, may have showed equal, if not greater bravery. But I think there is a deeper reason for this anonymity.Greengrass 's biggest problem here, it seems to me, is hindsight. We all know what happened that fateful day, we've all seen the news coverage, the images are burned permanently into our memories. It would be easy for us to 'know' what was coming in this movie, easy to anticipate every response of the people involved. Yet were we to do this, there would be no emotional impact in the movie left. By denying us any knowledge of who the people involved are before they so dramatically enter our lives, by insisting that we experience the events on the plane (and on the ground) as if we were really there and it were happening to us, Greengrass draws a veil over our foreknowledge, and allows us to experience the shock of the terrible events of that day as though they were happening in real time. And that is the only thing that makes the movie a success.

There is much not to like in this movie, and it would be easy to dismiss it (as Manohla Dargis, being her usual obtuse self, does in the New York Times) as being unnecessary (as though everything else we watched were absolutely essential), but you have to see the movie in context. Or rather, it's because you can't see it out of context, because it is entirely impossible to separate your response to the movie as a work of cinematic art, from your response to the events that it describes, that you have to admire Greengrass 's achievement. There are many, many ways in which this could have been a really bad movie - overly sentimental, overly cliched, overly exploitative. Greengrass is walking an extraordinarily thin line here - a step wrong one way and he would be accused of using the suffering of others for his own ends, a step wrong the other way and he would be pilloried for downplaying the courage of the passengers on United 93. That he comes through without doing either is a minor miracle by itself - one that is achieved through a combination of overwhelming empathy (Greengrass even manages to find pity in his heart for the terrorists) and absolute honesty. This is not a dramatic film - it is a viscerally undramatic film - and that's why it works.

Perhaps the finest bits of the movie come in the first half, and are not necessarily centred in the flight itself. For me, the most compelling and moving parts of the film were the ones that showed the people on the ground - the FAA, the ATC, the military - all struggling to come to grips with what was happening. If United 93 succeeds it is because it takes one so convincingly back to the bewilderment of those initial moments, showing you the ways in which ordinary men and women struggled to come to terms with this new reality that had dropped in on them literally out of their blue. There is a moment in the film where the people on the ground, who are still trying to figure out what exactly is going on, watch the second plane ram into the World Trade Centre, live on CNN. Greengrass captures perfectly the shock of that event, the feeling of being struck by an almost physical blow, the head-shaking instant as you try to convince yourself to believe, against every instinct of self-preservation, that this could really be happening, that the world could really have shattered this completely. It is the inevitability of that confusion, of that struggle to comprehend, that is this movie's main emotional takeaway.

Once the action switches almost entirely to the plane (Greengrass having established that nothing the people on the ground can do is going to save the people on United 93) the movie, in my view, loses its authentic feel. The problem is twofold. First, no doubt because it would be an issue for the families of the passengers,Greengrass is reluctant to show any dissent with the idea of storming the cabin and bringing down the terrorists. This seems incredibly hard to believe. Sure, the passengers have found out (through telephone calls home) that the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon have been hit, but these are garbled accounts heard from friends and family - can we really believe that in thepre -9/11 world, when such an attack was unthinkable and conventional wisdom was always to offer no resistance to hijackers, that the passengers would, almost without exception have agreed to the almost certainly suicidal storming of the cockpit in the face of four armed men, one of whom as in possession of what may or not have been a bomb. Surely there would have been more resistance to the idea, surely someone would have objected more strongly, argued that they should sit tight and not provoke the terrorists.Greengrass has the passengers make a few token comments to this effect, but in general, the speed at which this group of total strangers get their heads around the idea that they are doomed and arrive at a consensus about what should be done about it is uncanny, and a little too quick to seem true.

The second false note that Greengrass introduces is the idea that the passengers were actually trying to take back the controls of the plane and have a pilot among them fly them to safety. Again, this seems unlikely - you would have to be really credulous to believe that you could wrest the controls of a plane from four armed terrorists bent on self-destruction without them finding some way of taking you out with them. And to assume that the passengers of United 93 had any real hope of this seems to me to be detracting needlessly from their actions. The least we can do is do them the honour of believing that they knew they had no hope of survival, that they were going to die, and the only thing they could really achieve by attacking the cockpit was to ensure that they didn't end up taking many, many other people with them.

There are many other things I could quibble with in the movie. Greengrass, it seems to me, goes out of his way to build parallels between the terrorists and the passengers, showing the more human side of the hijackers, but it should be obvious to everyone that this is a false analogy. The hijackers are there because they chose to be, the passengers are not.Greengrass also spends considerable time detailing the inadequate response by the higher powers (the President, for instance, is conspicuously missing throughout the movie) and this again seems besides the point - not to mention a little unfair. There are a lot of reasons to criticise Bush & co., but their failure to respond in a timely and adequate manner to a crisis quite unprecedented in scale and unimaginable in horror is surely the least of them.

As I said, I could quibble with much in this film, but it wouldn't change the fact that I can't begin to imagine a movie that could do a better job of telling the story that it tells. United 93 is one of the most stunninglyimpactful and unbelievably authentic films I have ever watched - a movie that for its sympathy, for its humanity and for its honesty seems almost unsurpassable , and that should be roundly celebrated if only for its rigorous commitment to not turning the very real horrors of 9/11 into melodrama. Whether this movie should have been made at all is a question of personal preference. That it could have been made better if it was going to be made at all is hard to argue.

(cross-posted from Momus)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Hostage to Momus

(cross-posted from 2x3x7)

Those of you who are the anal detail-oriented type may have noticed that as of today this site has a new link on the sidebar - a link to a site called Momus.

Here's the thing. I'm starting to get a little tired of Blogger. I seem to have difficulties with it at least twice a week and despite the fact that I've now got categories working fairly well - they're still a pain. So I've decided to try out Wordpress instead.

As a first step towards that, I've created a new blog (titled Momus, see Wikipedia for why) and shifted all my posts from here to Momus. My plan is to maintain both blogs for this month, and then, assuming that Momus works out, move permanently to Wordpress (I'm also considering shifting 2x3x7 to Wordpress [1], but I'm going to see how this Momus thing works and then decide).

This also means, btw, that you can check out an alternate template on the Wordpress site and tell me if you like that better.

[1] Actually, 2x3x7 has already been shifted to Wordpress, I'm just not updating it for now.

Monday, May 01, 2006

That death had undone so many

Ismail Kadare's The General of the Dead Army

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
"Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
"Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
"Oh keep the Dog far hence, that's friend to men,
"Or with his nails he'll dig it up again!
"You! hypocrite lecteur! - mon semblable, - mon frere!"
- T. S. Eliot The Waste Land
It does not pay to disturb the dead. Because the dead are not simply a collection of loose bones that can be thrust into a body bag. The dead are memory. They are tiny worlds of feeling that have been lulled very gently to sleep and must not be woken again. When you open a grave, when you violate a tomb, you disturb the spirit - not the spirit of ectoplasmic beings that keep watch over us, but the spirit that lurks in the hearts of men. And therein lies a great risk.

This is the central idea of Ismail Kadare's The General of the Dead Army. The plot of the novel is simple - 20 years after the end of the Second World War, an Italian general is despatched to Albania to recover the bodies of the Italian soldiers who lie buried there. On the surface, this is a petty, administrative task, but it is one charged with great emotional significance, and the difficulties attendant upon it, both physical and psychological prove to be different from and more taxing than the General had first expected.

To begin with, simply retrieving the bodies themselves is no easy matter. The mountain terrain is inhospitable, the bodies have been buried for years and are often hard to locate, there is the risk of infection, and the people of the country are naturally hostile and suspicious. The Italians are the enemy, after all, twenty years of peace have not dulled the local population's memory of that, and the General himself is acutely aware of being in a foreign land, among a different people. Fortunately, the General and his party come well-equipped with lists and maps, so that their task goes on apace, though it still proves less tractable than they had anticipated.

The larger difficulty is emotional. From the day he is first given the task of bringing these bodies back, the General finds himself drawn into the world of the dead. Relatives and friends of those who lie buried in Albania show up at the General's doorstep, punctual as ghosts. He is made witness to their loss, forced to share in their memories of that bygone time. As his work in Albania progresses, moreover, the General uncovers not only the corpses of the dead, but also their stories. The story of the whores brought into a small Albanian town to service the soldiers (as told by a local), the story of a young deserter set down in his diary, the story of a group of soldiers guarding a bridge. Spending night after night under canvas with only a gloomy priest for company, the General ends up dwelling almost exclusively on the dead, until he finds himself using their very words in the letters he writes home to his wife. As he relates more and more to the men whose bodies he is recovering, the illusion slowly grows in him that he is in fact the General of an army of dead men, that these corpses in their body bags are his ghost troops. The General's mission becomes, for him, a way of reliving history. He makes grandoise plans for how he would have won the battles that other generals lost, he finds himself sharing the shame of his army's defeat all those decades ago, feels the loss of his country's youth, of all those young men so needlessly wasted, is exposed again to the enmity of the people, to their bitterness, their accusations. All the weight of the terrible history of War lights upon his back.

There is a scene in the novel where the General is holding the remains of a dead soldier in a bag and thinks: "There is nothing in the world as light as you are now. Six or seven pounds at the most. And yet you are breaking my back!". It is this other, more spiritual weight that weighs heavy upon the General.

Ultimately, The General of the Dead Army is a novel about guilt. The guilt of having sent so many young men to war and not having been able to protect them. The guilt of coming by now, so many years later, to disturb their silence, to take them from the land where they lie sleeping and cart them back to their homelands whether they like it or not. The guilt of all the atrocities committed against the civilian population in the name of the war effort, and of knowing that to those who suffered all those in uniform are the same. The guilt of not having been part of the war effort yourself, not having run the same risks that you exposed others to.

All this guilt, all this emotion, accumulating over two years of work, becomes too much for the General. He ends up a broken man, oppressed by memories and shadows, feeling himself constantly accused, constantly found wanting. He grows supersititous, incoherent; and Kadare, with exquisite skill, follows him into his increasingly disjointed and hallucinatory world, so that the clean narrative of the early part of the novel slowly gives way to a more frantic, more fractured style, where impressions dominate ideas and shadows become living ghosts. The final chapters of the novel are a spectacular read, because they recreate so perfectly the dissonant, panicked state of mind that the General finds himself in.

But if The General of the Dead Army is a fascinating psychological exploration, it is also a deeply metaphoric novel, a lovely meditation on the nature of history and of war. As the General relives the experiences of soldiers and civilians from twenty years ago, Kadare explores the ways in which we come to terms with the past, the wounds it leaves us with. The General's guilt, his shame, his fear, his anger - these are all emotions we all have towards our own past, except where we are content to leave them buried, the General is forcing himself to dig them up.

The General of the Dead Army is also, of course, a book about the Albanian people, albeit one told from an outsider's perspective. Again and again, Kadare emphasizes the resilience of the Albanian people, the way that the harshness of both their geography and their history has forged a national character of hardihood, of simple yet stubborn pride.

Comparisons with Gogol, given the book's plot, are of course, inescapable. But the writer I was often reminded of was Hemingway. That may have a lot to do with the fact that the Albania that Kadare describes feels like a close country cousin of Hemingway's Spain, but there are other similarities in style and tone - a matter of fact brutality, the lack of overt sentiment, a combination of an appreciation of the great pity of war with a taste for the violent and the macabre. Towards the latter half of the book Kadare's style changes, becomes more experimental than anything Hemingway ever wrote, more like Kundera without the philosophical digressions, but early on in the book there were entire sections where I found myself remembering For Whom the Bell Tolls.

At any rate, The General of the Dead Army is a fine book - one that leaves you with a deep sense of disquiet and a sadness in your heart that is like music. After I was done with the book I sat and listened to the second movement of Beethoven's Eroica. It seemed the right thing to do.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Unamazing Grace

Claudia Emerson's Late Wife

One of the chief benefits of keeping track of all the important literary prizes, is that it introduces you to many new writers / poets. I'd never heard of Claudia Emerson till she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry five days ago, and on the whole am grateful to the Pulitzer for introducing me to her work.

Emerson's Late Wife is a collection in three parts - the first part describes the sadness and eventual break-up of a marriage, the second (somewhat less focussed) handles getting over that break-up, and the third is an exploration of being in a second marriage and dealing with the memory of her new husband's late wife (hence the title). It's a short collection - each section has maybe a dozen poems, the entire book is only a little over 50 pages long.

But Emerson manages to pack a lot into those pages. Late Wife is a study in quiet elegance; Emerson's poems here have a dignified, almost formal beauty that modulates and enhances the grief she is writing about, making it almost elegaic. Her descriptions are exact and lucid, and she has the true poet's knack for bringing her poems to a close with that one glowing line that makes the entire poem come alive. Consider:

"The waxwing
accepted us as given, and with us
our seized, repressed sky, glassed light,

narrow stairway. So when we let it go,
when it refused that atavistic
sky, remained instead for a full

month in the hickory tree that loomed
over the house, I asked you why
we'd fed it. What had we saved

for a world so alien, the waxwing
must have believed it had died in those rooms
where for a while we went on living?"

- from 'Waxwing'

Much of the book reads like this - verse after careful verse revealing, gradually, the shape of the poet's conceit, the single metaphor often stretching across the whole poem.

And that, I think, was the problem I had with the book. Adept as she is, Emerson is also, I feel, unsurprising. Emerson does vary form and metre a little, but the overall tone of her poetry never changes, so that the poems blur together and you have the impression of reading one long-ish poem rather than several. And even within that poem, even within the 20 pages of each section, there's a sense of predictability. The ideas / metaphors themselves are not strikingly brilliant, and there are few startling images. If these poems are compelling at all, it is because they have a classical aestheticism to them, not because they are particularly moving. There are some marvellous poems here, but on the whole it seems to me that Emerson is more a highly accomplished poet than a breathtaking one.

Among the sections, I liked the third one (late wife) the best, with its mournful but consoling sonnets exploring the memory of a husband's former wife (dead of cancer). There are some lovely poems here, and the overall effect is sharpened, I think, by the fact that the reasons for the sadness are so much more specific. In a poem about finding a glove of the ex-wife, Emerson writes:

"It still remembered
her hand, the creases where her fingers

had bent to hold the wheel, the turn
of her palm, smaller than mine. There was
nothing else to do but return it -
let it drift, sink, slow as a leaf through water
to rest on the bottom where I have not
forgotten it remains - persistent in its loss."

- from 'Driving Glove'.

At one level, this section is a fascinating study in the transference of grief, an exploration of the idea that loving someone means mourning for their losses. As the new wife, the 'I' of these poems can have no real memory of the person whose loss grieves her - this is a second-hand mourning and Emerson's calm, almost bloodless style seems particularly appropriate.

The same can't be said for the first section. On the whole the poems here are as good, but the section overall strikes me as unconvincing, simply because it seems too detached in its sadness. Perhaps it's just that in the world after Plath and Sexton, we've come to expect poetry to be rawer and more personal. With many of the poems in the first section of Late Wife (divorce epistles), one feels that they could just as easily have been written in third person.

This is not really an argument against the poems themselves, of course - it is an argument against the larger structure of the book. It seems to me that by framing the book so explicitly into three stages, Emerson does her own poetry a disservice. The poems work well enough by themselves, but when you start thinking of them as being poems written by someone in a particular frame of mind / at a particular stage in her life, they begin to disappoint. Take the third section. Is all Emerson can find to say about her new marriage that she mourns the loss of her husband's former wife?

Overall, then, it seems to me that Late Wife is a niche book. Emerson takes two basic poem ideas - a bitter-sweet look back at a failed marriage, and an elegy for a loved one's former wife (who is also, of course, a stand-in for the poet's own former self, the fact that this self died of cancer only makes that idea more complicated and interesting) - and spins them out into a series of variations. There is little range here, but a great deal of formal depth.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

An Unnatural Act

Elizabeth Bishop's Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box

"Writing poetry is an unnatural act. It takes great skill to make it seem natural. Most of the poet's energies are really directed towards this goal: to convince himself (perhaps, with luck, eventually some readers) that what he's up to and what he's saying is really an inevitable, only natural way of behaving under the circumstances"

- Elizabeth Bishop [1]

As those of you who read my other blog know, I've had fairly mixed feelings about Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box, a collection of unpublished (and often unfinished) work by Elizabeth Bishop that was released this month. It seemed to me that Bishop should have the right to decide what among her writing she wanted to publish and what she wanted to suppress, and to try and second guess her now, more than a quarter century after her death, is not simply to invade her privacy, it is also to insult her astuteness as a judge of good poetry. This is especially true for Bishop (in a way that it would not be true, should the question ever arise, for someone like Bukowski) because the whole point of Bishop's oeuvre is that she writes slow but very, very fine. Intense, almost obsessive quality is a hallmark of Bishop's poems as it is of few other voices in our century. So that to publish, in her name, a collection of poems that she never got to polish to that kind of perfection would seem to be entirely contrary to her artistic principles.

Having managed to get my hands on the book [2], and read it through, I can't help feeling that I was right. There are some real gems in this collection, but they are few and far between. Most of the poems here are too crude, too raw to be properly considered Bishop's poems. Oh, there are sparks of brilliance a plenty, glimpses of the greatness that these poems could have achieved if Bishop had only found the time and patience to work on them ("crab-apples/ ripen to rubies / cranberries / to drops of blood"), but there are also lines that make you wince (' "Tweet". Loud and coarse / the equivalent of "Dry Up!"') and a lot of stuff that seems pleasant enough, but has that rough-edged artificiality of first drafts. Many of these poems would be really good poems if they were submitted to a college magazine, but as pieces by so careful and preeminent a poet as Bishop they are a disappointment.

Should you even bother reading this book then? Once you come to terms with the fact that you're not going to be getting truly Elizabeth Bishop quality, there are a number of reasons why the collection may still be worth it. First, while consistently great poems are rare here, there are a number of poems that have stanzas of incredible power, which the rest of the poem is unable to live up to. This, for instance:

"The walls went on for years & years.
The walls went on to meet more walls
& travelled through night & day.
Sometimes they went fast, sometimes slow;
sometimes the progress was oblique,
always they slid away."

(and later, in the same poem)

"the floorboards had a nice perspective.
They rose a little here, sagged there
but went off alas under the wall.
Did they flow smooth on or meet
in the next room in a crash of splinters."

- 'The walls went on for years and years...'

or this, from the poem that gives the collection it's title:

"As easily as the music falls,
the nickels fall into the slots,
the drinks like lonely water-falls
in night descend the seperate throats"

or this, from a poem called 'The moon burgled the house - ', a delicate vision of the world going out with a whimper instead of a bang:

"the whole world turned like a
fading violet, turned in its death
gently, curled up but didn't stink at
all but gave off a long sigh - sweet sigh -"

The other exciting thing about the collection, is the glimpse it gives you into another side of Bishop, into poems that sound accomplished, but strangely unlike her. I'd posted an example of one such poem on 2x3x7 earlier, but here are some others:

"Close close all night
the lovers keep.
They turn together
in their sleep,

close as two pages
in a book
that read each other
in the dark.

Each knows all
the other knows,
learned by heart
from head to toes."

and this:

"Don't you call me that word, honey,
Don't you call me that word.
You know it ain't very kind & it's also undeserved.

I could take that to court, honey,
I could certainly take that to court,
But maybe I misunderstood you, and besides life is much too short."

and this:

"I see a postman everywhere
Vanishing in thin blue air,
A mammoth letter in his hand,
Postmarked from a foreign land.

The postman's uniform is blue.
The letter is of course from you
And I'd be able to read, I hope,
My own name on the envelope

But he has trouble with this letter
Which constantly grows bigger & bigger
And over and over with a stare,
He vanishes in blue, blue air."

Finally, Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke Box is worth reading for the insight it gives into the process by which Bishop wrote. Copious notes aside, the book includes images of a number of actual drafts, complete with scribbles in the margins, corrections, crossed out stanzas. It's a fascinating glimpse into the workings of the black-box of poetry. And while Alice Quinn tries to make as much sense of Bishop's scribbles as she can, she chooses (wisely enough) not to edit things that Bishop has not explicitly edited herself [3], so that every now and then, you can see Bishop trying out alternate phrasings. Consider this example:

"We all need the horizon, so it hardens
in its definition: the horizon,
(if it hadn't, as they say, we would imagine it;
rather, my dear, you, being practical, would have.)

Other things that you & I imagined
were not often so obliging.
Still the horizon is unbroken.

We needed the horizon, so it hardened
to horizon, into faultless definition.
(If it hadn't


Other spoken
were not often so obliging.
Still, the horizon is unbroken."

- 'Crossing the Equator'

It seems obvious to me that this fragment is really two alternate startings to the same poem (the verse itself, ironically enough, hardening into 'faultless definition') , even though Quinn includes it as the continuation of a single poem. It's watching this process of the poem being born that makes much of this book so fascinating. Though it's not clear to me that someone as fastidious as Bishop would have appreciated us all crowding around to watch.


[1] The source of this quotation is a delightful fragment of an essay on poetry which is one of the most pleasurable finds of the book. Bishop discusses (in a sort of verbal shorthand) her views on what makes a good poem, quoting (from memory) copious amounts of Herbert, Hopkins and Auden. Great stuff.

[2] A freak chance that. I was in the library and decided to check out the new arrivals section (a weekly habit) and found it just lying there. So maybe there's something to this Early Birds and Worms thing.

[3]As a matter of fact, Quinn seems to include words / phrases that Bishop has crossed out in her drafts, but not really replaced - Quinn puts these in square brackets