Books I've read this summer part 1

by on Jul.25, 2012

Horacio Castellanos Moya

Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya (translated by Katherine Silver). New Directions. Castellanos Moya is great at the convoluted sentence. Many critics have talked recently about the long sentence: how, by undercutting scene (dialogue stated in quotation marks, descriptions of gestures, clear physical settings), the long sentence often closely braids together mind and world, consciousness and materiality, and in some hands resembles un-punctuated stream of conscious writing. David Foster Wallace, Bolaño, Vollmann, Bernhard, and others are well-known for their ability to carry out the tight-rope walk of the unending and usually highly qualified sentence. (Of course, there’s a long history of this. Proust and Faulkner also could keep a sentence running for pages.) One of the things I like about the cascading sentences of Senselessness is the writer’s ability to attune those sentences to his main character’s growing sense of paranoia. Here, the long, feverish sentences are expressive of an obsessive, feverish mind.

The plot is incredibly simple. A writer in Latin America is hired by the Catholic Church to edit a manuscript detailing the horrors carried out by the military against a number of Indian villages. He grows increasingly suspicious of everyone, and becomes more and more convinced the military has him in their sights. By the end of the novel, he is on the verge of a breakdown, a break down foreshadowed by the very first words of the book, which are “I am not complete in mind,” though the words are from a villager and not the writer. And yet, despite the somber material, the novel is mostly a comedy. A hellish comedy in the darkest of colors, but still a comedy. The main character is not a liberal humanist, as might well be expected, but a petty, ragingly sarcastic individual who continually ends up in predicaments that seem like X-rated scenes from a Chaplin film. He’s not wholly unsympathetic (part of his mental strain comes from his job, which requires him to spend huge amounts of time reading about atrocities) and yet his suffering through the narrative never elevates him to a heroic status, nor does it cast him into that all-American (that is, North American) role of the victim. The writer is an enraged neurotic to the end.

Many years ago, I heard Salman Rushdie say at a reading that he often tries to write material that seems tragic as comedy, and vice versa. Senselessness is a great example of that against-the-grain approach.

 Scubadivers and Chrysanthemums: Essays on the Poetry of Araki Yasusada, edited by Bill Friend. Shearsman Books. It’s tempting to read this book as a novel (or maybe a “nonfiction novel”). For a collection of literary essays, the book is teeming with anger, hurt feelings, stark admiration, confusion, and dread (dread of the inauthentic, that is). One of my favorite essays is by Forrest Gander. In his “Review of Doubled Flowering; From the Notebooks of Araki Yasusada,” he actually carries out a close reading of one of the poems, and then asks the simple question (though one lost in the more abstract debates in this book): Is this poem good? His own answer is yes. (Ron Silliman also famously admired Araki Yasusada before the hoax came to light.) And Marjorie Perloff has an excellent essay arguing that the Yasusada manuscript is a kind of new Ossian, and that just as the Ossian hoax led some readers to look at the medieval with a de-familiarized eye, so the Yasusada manuscript might lead some readers back to post-WWII Japanese poetry with an eye less captivated by shopworn notions of authenticity.

But my two favorite essays are by Jenny Boully and Dan Hoy, both who use the Yasusada controversy as a diving board for their own thought-experiments. Boully in her essay prints the “levels of reality” in the Yasusada manuscript only to find the whole thing “lost in the ‘layered clouds’ of authorship/creation.” And Hoy ends his essay by asking the provocative questions: “Can we exist without making dreamworlds of our suffering? Is our horror our gift to each other?”


Peter Richards

Helsinki, by Peters Richards. Action Books. This is book is like a piece of dark chocolate candy with some hard-to-pin filling inside. The collection has an Ashbery-like whimsy at moments (“There is a place in Helsinki called Timocharis / with baleful hills and baleful ditches”), and there is also something of Joseph Cornell’s miniature universe-building (“I came upon this handsome older man / his head was crawling with loam and minotaur lice”), but Richards takes his influences and runs with them into expansive, glittering new territories. The poems are entirely un-punctuated, and yet they are not stream-of-conscious: the diction is, more often than not, a bit elevated (“Sometimes I do wonder is Julia a rethought / sensual being feigning nature eclipsing smell”). But I found that mixture — the slightly formal diction and the lack of commas, periods — oddly exhilarating, as if an Elizabethan poet had decided to write out a series of visions before forgetting them. And in fact Robert Herrick appears (as a young girl), as does Julia, of the Julia poems.

The poems are filled with things approaching and vanishing, and the poet wanders from one landscape to the next. In other words, with perpetual movement. In one poem we are told “a slug is coming towards me / dragging its rail of glister and shine,” and in the very next one the poet states “the star wasn’t guiding me at all / it was leaving / me I was being left behind.”  Or: “When I came to it was a place impossible to distinguish from the place in my sleep.” And: “By the time we reached the stable it was that time / of year when the sun wobbles free of its namesake.” Where is the poet going? What is he searching for? Or is he trying to escape? And yet, on another level, these questions don’t have any real meaning for this book, no more than they do for Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came or Blood Meridian. Helsinki is a brilliant book of mutations, with foreground and background, landscape and figure, constantly maneuvering, slipping into and out of one another.


1 comment for this entry:
  1. Jennifer

    Hi James
    I loved what you had to say about _Helsinki_. I got the recommendation from and really am fond of this book of poems. The first time I read it, I was breathless. Now, I carry it with me and sneak little reads here and there.

    It’s one of those volumes that just gets into the marrow.