Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review of Rag & Bone by Kathryn Nuernberger

Forthcoming in The Literary Review, Winter 2011

Rag & Bone. Kathryn Nuernberger. Denver, Colorado: Elixir Press, 2011.

The memory of riding through Tuscany this summer in the back of a Peugeot while reading Kathryn Nuernberger’s first collection of poems, Rag & Bone, should not illicit sentimental longing for that very book, but it does. I left it in the last rental car or in the lobby of that last hotel before flying back to the States. My loss isn’t just the loss of an award-winning collection of poetry (2010 Antivenom Poetry Award). By the end of my three week trip, Nuernberger’s book was full of scribbled notes that included directions, festival notes, my observations of Rome and Tuscany, not to mention countless notes about the poems I was reading while friends drove or I baked in the sun in our villa’s pool in-between outings. I lost part of my summer by losing this book. I had notes for future poems, recipes, names of wine I didn’t want to forget, names of quaint hotels, villages where the produce market moved, and ideas for articles. Once home, I ordered another copy. However, its clean pages were intimidating. Each poem contained a nagging déjà vu of the passing Tuscany countryside or the smell of wine, bread and prosciutto, or that afternoon we hunkered down when a thunderstorm rolled across Sinalunga.

Nuernberger’s collection combines poems with metaphoric, fairytale-like characters with poems that examine the work of scientists. Myth and science. Observable fact and interpretation. The juxtaposition works nicely.

In Italy, too, there is this type of copasetic incongruity between the old and the new. WiFi in ancient villas, reconditioned with modern fixtures; wood-burning outdoor ovens and Smart cars; the new pool beside the old vineyard; and ancient olive groves encircling modern houses. There is a sense that certain things like bread and wine and walls are perfect and need no improvement while other things like trains, solar power, cars and computers improve with relish. In this way, the country offers less angst for the poet, less subject matter to decry, but more for a good life.

It is difficult to say what I really lost as my scribbled notes have receded into the murky space of things forgotten, lost or deleted. And it hits me, reading “Translation,” that maybe what I lost was a translation of sight. Nuernberger writes: "I want to believe we can’t see anything/ we don’t have a word for. When I look out the window and say green, I mean sea green,/ I mean moss green, I mean gray, I mean pale and also/ electrically flecked with white and I mean green/ in its damp way of glowing off a leaf."

The title “translations” refers, not to the written or spoken word, but to the visual world of imagery and color. It’s a refreshing twist on the interpretation of sight. It strikes me as the opposite of Aristotle’s impulse to name and classify with such clarity. In Nuernberger’s world, the observed has many potential names. Hers is a curious ego at work, a liberal eye. Detractors might claim it a messy and disorganized act. Perhaps, but it’s a struggle that feels closer to truth than scientific fact.

In Rag & Bone, there are many such moments of friction between science and poetry, between what I might call “wholeness” and what might be called “separation.” The opening poem “Ragged Edge” recounts two scientific experiments with beheaded monkeys having their heads stitched onto another monkey’s body, blood vessel to blood vessel. It’s pronounced successful when one monkey is able to bite the hand of the assistant since, as Nuernberger observes, “[O]ne sign of life is the defense/ of whatever body you have left.” In the same poem, images of chimpanzees “swinging in ritualized arcs over a great waterfall”—evidence of artistic expression?—juxtapose photographs of the stitched-together monkeys as scientific act. The poet reacts in the poem’s closing: “You can’t help but recoil, to use the words horror or vulgarity. It’s not unlike staring at pornography—.“ Yet, what is vulgar here is the scientist at work, putting together that which he has taken apart. If science and poetry are facing off in Rag & Bone, poetry wins.

In the same vein, another poem “U.S. EPA Reg. No. 524-474” exposes the wanton carelessness of bioengineering: “Have you seen what can be done with tobacco and fireflies?” the poet asks. Then she states, “Salmon-tomatoes clutch their fishy gloss against the pinch of frost.” Waxing more ludicrously, the narrator one-ups the gene-splicers: “I made peppermint termites to sweeten the swarm,” and “I shot scorpion tails into the fighting fish, and now I’ve made a bullet of me to blast into your amber eye. Will you come out simpering like a girl?” It is both a response to the gift of a gun and an evisceration of genetic manipulation. Nuernberger’s talent to critically dress-down (and perhaps ruin if poetry had more cultural power) a subject by mere observation is her talent.

Losing the first copy of Nuernberger’s poems was not the crisis I imagined. Surprisingly, memory has not completely abandoned me without my notes. In fact, all the important things are seared into my mind. Rereading Nuernberger reminds me that names are less important than the essence of the object or place. As Jane Satterfield says in the introduction of Rag & Bone, “[I]t is the poet’s sacred duty to remember and restore. In salvage lie magic and mystery.”

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane

Forthcoming in The Literary Review Fall/Winter 2010

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. Leїla Marouane.
New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2010. 221 pages. ISBN: 978-1-933372-85-3

I finished The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leїla Marouane on a night when it was raining in Tallahassee, and the café where I had been reading was a warm balm effusing a yellow light of calm against a stormy sky. I closed the page and looked out the window to a steady drizzle dampening the deck of Blackdog Café. Beyond the deck, beyond the grassy yard where local farmer’s set up every Wednesday to sell soap, cheese, and vegetables, past the sidewalk and a slanted shoreline of rocks, Lake Ella’s broad gray body was swelling and threatening to flood. Even the rowdy ducks were nesting quietly in defense of the weather. I was stunned, not by ducks or rain, but by narrative. I stared across this wet dismal landscape, blinking and squinting, wondering if Marouane had just pulled off what I thought she had. I blushed at my naivety and rushed back to the beginning.

Marouane embraces a complicated, mysterious narrative in The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, her fifth novel. The first line of the novel begins with a point of view shift that is unsettling as it defies narrative logic by switching perspective within a single sentence: “It came over me (italics mine) all of a sudden, he said. I was at my desk…,” (17) and the rest of the chapter continues in first person. Each chapter begins this way (for one sentence) with a mysterious third person reference to the first person narrator. I wondered what Marouane meant by this point of view shift, but then I was pulled into the larger narrative, ensconced in the world of a wealthy Algerian-French banker named Momo (short for Mohamed), whose narcissism and obsessive tendencies to fantasize sexual encounters rather than act them out was driving him to a mental, cultural and familial split.

In Part One of this three part novel, Momo extracts himself from his family, acquiring his own expensive apartment in an old and exclusive French neighborhood (on rue Saint-Placide), but he takes 113 pages to finally admit the move to his devoted Islamic mother. When asked if he is coming home for dinner, he lies and obfuscates. He ignores her calls. He says he is and doesn’t. I kept thinking, “What is the big deal?” and there, Marouane had exposed my Western cultural bias just as she intended.

Trying to comprehend the title “Dissidence” from Part One, I busily scribbled in the margins that in this section “an eldest 40-year-old brother in an Arab family living in Paris moves out of his mother’s apartment as a tremendous act of disobedience to both family and culture,” not truly understanding the significance of this act until the end of the novel in Part Three where our narrator’s mind splits because of the pressure of a dual cultural existence. It permeates his brain so deeply that he cannot function and, by the end, this mundane set up has exemplified Momo’s spiral away from reality. His mind makes its final break on that last page: “A moment later, I entered a world of fire and ice. Where wolves howl and men are silent,” (221). My mistake was that I assumed the narrator was sane and similar to me. I had been reading as an American, a Westerner, who could not fathom the significance of separation from one’s family as a dissident act.

In America, leaving one’s parents is a mark of being an adult; it’s expected. Living with one’s mother, especially for a man in his 40s, is a specific reason to cast suspicion on his ability to be an independent and responsible partner. In some kind of intercultural critique, Marouane is also criticizing this aspect of her own culture, demonstrating how the children of the immigrant families are torn culturally—and thus mentally—when their parents impose a cultural standard that grows obsolete in new cultural surroundings: “My freedom had no price, and I had ample means to live the way I intended to live from now on,” (33). Having acquired a separate apartment, our narrator assures himself that he will not have to entertain his mother here:

My mother, perpetually clinging. My mother, sticky as a makrout. My mother, sticking to her son. However, just as in the old days, when the women in the Kasbah never ventured into the European quarters, my mother never came to the center of Paris.” (48-9)

One would think my experience dating a French-Arab man and visiting his family in Paris would have equipped me culturally to see and understand these differences, for example, how it is for an elder Arab male or how one brother might forego marriage out of respect of an elder unmarried brother as Momo’s younger brother does, but it didn’t. Memories of cultural misunderstandings came flooding back from my time in France. In one, my boyfriend Khalil wanted me to attend a family wedding, but I had to be escorted by his sisters. I assumed this meant he really didn’t want me to go and didn’t want to offend me, so we argued. “I’d rather stay at the apartment,” I said. When his explanation made no sense, I concluded he was hiding something, so I stayed home. I felt crazy.

As the rain hit the café window and slid down the pane in crooked lines, I was patting my own back thinking about “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s demonstration of the slippery slope of the mind and all the ways I’d connect the two, but I couldn’t figure out why the novel in my hands, the one whose orange cover might look like a little fire in my lap from across the room, was an unsolved puzzle, and I wondered why the female Algerian novelist in Part Two playing such a strange role in Momo’s life, why she kept turning up loaning Momo books or listening to his sexual woes. How did she fit into the whole picture? When I reached the end, it hit me so hard I had to turn back, start at the beginning, and shoot through again, telling myself this is how it must have been for Gilman’s first audience. But Gilman’s mental unraveling is only one layer. Marouane accomplishes several more.

In Part Two, Marouane turns up the narrative magic. The Algerian novelist who is dubbed “Loubna Minbar” is likely an insertion of the author “Leila Marouane” (same initials) who is also a novelist living in Paris. Loubna is connected to all the women for whom Momo fantasizes as all seem to describe the same girl. The strange third person reference at the beginning of each chapter is the signal that someone else is telling Momo’s story or that Momo’s telling of it is part of Loubna’s novel that Maroune is—of course—really writing. We find out that Momo also wants to write a novel, and Loubna is there to help him. Then Momo, in his paranoia, suspects that Loubna is stealing his lines, stealing his life and writing a novel about him, and if you’re unsuspecting, as I was, you might miss the fact that the unreliable narrator is not just paranoid here. Our narrator has been throwing plot crumbs, planting them all along. For instance, Part Three opens with a quote from Loubna Minbar, “No books are committed without a motive,” and I should have been doinking my forehead and focusing. Marouane is writing with a motive!

At times, I wondered if an Arab man reading this male-narrated novel would cringe with incredulity or if the comically-described sexual fantasies for French women was purposely designed to be irritating to a male reader or to purposely point to the true narrator, an Arab woman either teasing men or warning Arab men of European women: “Sure of her charm, or so I believed at first, this white woman with her malevolent gaze, who scorned my race and my little curls but revered my pay stubs and my Hugo Boss jacket, aspired to only one thing—to tie the knot, around my neck,” (35). This made me wonder if the motive was to demonize or sexualize French women the way Arab women have sometimes been exoticized. Marouane could have several motives.

Once I began thinking about this gender and racial bias that kept peeping from descriptions of French women and narcissistic descriptions of our lead male, I remembered that Loubna had revealed how a male novelist had taken petty revenge on her when she criticized him in a review for using a female pseudonym when writing his crime fiction. Was Marouane demonstrating how she could take revenge in a novel? Was she demonstrating how irritating it was when male novelists wrote the sexual fantasies of women? Or when female novelists imagined how men coveted their penises as in this example: “’Oh really?’ I said, looking at my sleeping cock, which was enormous, it’s true, but absolutely immaculate, unburdened of its hair,” (176). I wondered if Marouane inserted these lines as some kind of coded revenge, an act that warns, “We women can play this game too.”

Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris ends with the realization that someone else has been telling Momo’s story all along because the closing line uses third person like the opening lines: “A place where, he said to me, you have come to listen to me at last.” Momo has been telling his story to Loubna Minbar, who has, indeed, been writing about him. There is every indication that he has lost his mind. Here is his behavior near the end: “Through the spy-hole I saw the concierge, and with her my sister, the blessed one, and my heart skipped a beat. They have come to inform me of something inconceivable, I thought, struggling not to pass out. My mother in the hospital. Alone. Of sorrow. Already in the morgue,” (194-5). With the arrival of his sister, we get a perspective that clarifies that everything is not as Momo says it is. He lies to himself, to us, to his family and to the concierge.

So with my brain doing flippy flops, I looked up from the novel and out to the gloom of a swollen gray lake, and I felt warmed, even sad, by the thought that inspires Momo to make his first fire in his fireplace after looking across the Parisian skyline and seeing “blueish plumes” rising above the roofs of Paris. Momo is living in metaphoric hell, but hell can be many things. Independence, even from one’s own mind, is sometimes the only freedom one can take. That we all have in common. This hell, the novel seems to say, is the price that Momo will pay.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Virginia Woolf's VOICE

She sounds German to me!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Boy in the Striped Pajamas

What a softly tragic story of a German family who live near a concentration camp but only wonder at the strange "farm" activity nearby and stench from the smoke. It captures how some Germans were innocent even when their men were deeply involved. (Who could imagine?) Reminds me that disgust is an emotion that enables humans to do horrible things to each other. This movie demonstrates the difference in the heart between the conservative and that of the liberal. Specifically, it shows how paternalism and nationalism corrupts when mixed with hatefulness. With the Holocaust as a back drop, this is really a movie about friendship and innocence, and, while tragedy occurs, a kind of restitution (between the boys), awakening (for the mother) and comeuppance (for the father) occurs that feels right.

I didn't think there was more to say about the Holocaust, but I was wrong. The Bush Years show that Americans are ever forgetful of the horrors perpetrated by soldiers who hear tacit approval for torture from leaders and encourage revenge.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dinty Moore's Google Map Essay

Dinty Moore's essay "Stalking George Plimpton: A Google Map Essay" written via, you guessed it, Google Maps utilizing the "directions" dialogue bubble was a clever way to map out a stalking of George Plimpton, but what was so fascinating to me was that I was there at the final scene. I, too, met Mr. Plimption at the book signing Dinty Moore describes in his last post. I was in the signing line, too, and after telling Mr. Plimpton that, like himself, I had been a fellow pugilist (well, having worked for Mike Tyson), he had asked me to step aside and wait until he finished signing books. Then he gave me a book of his, Shadow Boxing, and signed it." So, I was there, waiting, when Dinty Moore and Mr. Plimpton had their little joke! We wandered off to a corner where we talked for an hour, until the bookstore had boxed all their books and everyone except Mr. Plimpton's driver had gone home.

Here's a link but it's invisible. Place your cursor over the white space and click.

Moore's Essay

Click the above white space.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


Published in Inside Higher Ed, April 2, 2009 by President of AAUP (American Association of University Professors) Cary Nelson

Monsters With Constituencies

Over 40 years ago, when I was still an undergraduate at Antioch College, the student government sent out a large number of letters to controversial or accomplished Americans and invited them to talk on campus. One who accepted was George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party. Rockwell asked if he could bring 20 of his storm troopers with him, but permission was refused. So he asked if he could hold a news conference on campus; that request was turned down as well. He would be picked up at the airport, driven to the Yellow Springs, Ohio, campus to give his talk, and returned.

Although Antioch may not be anyone's image of a disciplined campus, the 500 students and faculty in the auditorium that day in 1964 were well disciplined indeed. They sat in absolute silence throughout the talk. When the question period came, no one raised a hand. Instead, everyone rose and exited, again in silence. So Rockwell began to curse us all. Still no one reacted. Eventually he gave up and left.

There was, quite understandably, no anxiety before or afterward that these impressionable college students might be persuaded by the talk. It was a chance to see firsthand a monster with a constituency, albeit a relatively small one. College audiences have special reason to see such people in the flesh, so as to try to understand how they might draw people to their cause. Monsters, as it happens, also have a way of showing their true colors, as Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did at Columbia University. His ludicrous assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran did more to discredit him as a competent leader than almost anything one might say about him.

The notion of a monster with a constituency affords at least some opportunity to avoid emptying all prison systems and hospitals for the criminally insane in search of campus speakers. It suggests instead that students who want to understand their culture might benefit from exposure to both its angels and its devils, along with those not so readily classifiable. What one learns can be surprising. What I learned in 1964 was to value the power of silent, nonviolent witness; that, and the special experience of sharing a moral conviction with hundreds of other people.

Of course some whom the public come to consider monstrous may not be so. The media and political groups can combine forces to create monsters where none are to be found. Then it is best for students and faculty to find out for themselves. High on my list of current faux monsters would be Ward Churchill and William Ayers.

Many faculty and students across the country expect Churchill to be a relentless ideologue. If you spend time with him, as I have, you meet a rather low-key, affable fellow, who wears his trials surprisingly lightly. Ayers, billed as an unrepentant radical, is an accomplished education professor who talks about classrooms and books, not bombs. Yet talks by both have repeatedly been canceled, thereby denying our students the chance to form opinions based on direct experience.

The American Association of University Professors has repeatedly argued that an invitation is not an endorsement. So far as I remember, no one was silly enough to make the counter claim about the Rockwell invitation. Nor was it necessary for Columbia's president Bollinger to go to such embarrassing lengths to distance himself from Ahmadinejad. No one thought Columbia was promoting him for the Nobel Peace prize.

But then efforts to get an invited speaker disinvited are not necessarily really based on anger at giving the person a platform, especially since real monsters often acquit themselves poorly on stage. They are as much as anything else efforts to housebreak American higher education, to establish external forces and constituencies as campus powers. They are about establishing who is really in charge -- students and faculty, or politicians, talk show radio hosts, and donors. Get a university to cancel Churchill or Ayers and anyone on the political or cultural spectrum whose views you oppose can be your next target. Once Hamilton College canceled Churchill and the University of Nebraska canceled Ayers, the playing field was open to all comers. Then state legislators could pressure the University of Oklahoma to cancel a talk by biologist Richard Dawkins. Why? Because the man treats evolution as an established fact. Oklahoma stood its ground, perhaps realizing it would be shamed for generations had it canceled the talk.

The most unwelcome trigger may be a donor�s threat to withdraw a gift. No administrator likes to knuckle under to extortion. But that is not the most efficient way to get a speech canceled in any case. The new weapon of choice is the anonymous threat of violence delivered by a phone call from a public booth. Then the president or his spokesperson can cancel a speech in a voice filled with regret, ceremoniously invoking "security" concerns, as Boston College did in canceling an Ayers talk. It is the ultimate heckler's veto. Place a call and you are in charge. Better yet, call the threat in to a talk show host and give his hate campaign a newspaper headline.

We either must stand firm against these efforts to undermine the integrity of our educational institutions or agree that academic freedom no longer obtains in America. Boston College tried lamely to say the decision was purely an internal matter, but press coverage appropriately turns each of these incidents into a national test of an institution's values and commitments. Each institution's decision about whether to show courage or cowardice helps set a pattern, strengthening or weakening academic freedom everywhere. Thus we all benefited when Pennsylvania's Millersville University resisted legislative pressure and held an Ayers lecture as planned.

And we are all diminished by Boston College's incoherent performance. Because the consequences of these decisions are considerable, the campus as a whole must bear the cost of assuring that invitations are not withdrawn. If a threat requires extra security, let the campus itself -- not the students or faculty who issued the invitation -- cover the cost. That is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Updikes A and P

Here's the Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli