Thursday, August 21, 2008

From the LRB review of the new Raymond Williams biography

Perhaps Williams’s greatest achievement by 1961 was to have fashioned a form and idiom in which to combat the dominant cultural pessimism without ceding the moral high ground. What he identified as the ‘long revolution’ was a record of ‘actual growth’, of a liberation of human potential rather than a dilution of ‘standards’. As he put it in a never published conclusion to the book of that name (which Smith reproduces in full), ‘Everything that I understand of the history of the long revolution leads me to the belief that we are still in its early stages.’ That was an important thing to say in Britain in 1961; it’s still an important thing to say, especially if given a properly internationalist application. Part of the value of Smith’s painstaking account is that it shows that even Williams had to feel his way towards that conviction and towards the confident declarative terms in which it is expressed. Thereafter, he could easily sound too confident, too declarative, but, for all his later lapses into abstraction and pomposity, he was right about this central matter, impressively and inspiringly right. Claims that everything is going to the dogs all too often rest on the hidden supports of parochialism, snobbery, class insouciance and a wilful refusal of the intellectual effort required to try to draw up a more realistic balance sheet of gain and loss. Williams fought against those things all along the line.

-Stefan Collini

Sunday, August 17, 2008

From Aspects of the Novel, by E.M. Forster

True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare... Most of us are pseudo-scholars, and I want to consider our characteristics with sympathy and respect, for we are a very large and quite a powerful class, eminent in Church and State, we control the education of the Empire, we lend to the Press such distinction as it consents to receive, and we are a welcome asset at dinner-parties.

Pseudo-scholarship is, on its good side, the homage paid by ignorance to learning. It also has an economic side, on which we need not be hard. Most of us must get a job before thirty, or sponge on our relatives, and many jobs can only be got by passing an exam. The pseudo-scholar often does well in examination (real scholars are not much good), and even when he fails he appreciates their inner majesty. They are gateways to employment, they have power to ban and bless. A paper on King Lear may lead somewhere, unlike the rather far-fetched play of the same name. It may be a stepping-stone to the Local Government Board. He does not often put it to himself openly and say, "That's the use of knowing things, they help you to get on." The economic pressure he feels is more often subconscious, and he goes to his exam, merely feeling that a paper on King Lear is a very tempestuous and terrible experience but an intensely real one. And whether he be cynical or naïf, he is not to be blamed. As long as learning is connected with earning, as long as certain jobs can only be reached through exams, so long must we take
the examination system seriously. If another ladder to employment were contrived, much so-called education would disappear, and no one be a penny the stupider.

It is when he comes to criticism—to a job like the present—that he can be so pernicious, because he follows the method of a true scholar without having his equipment. He classes books before he has understood or read them; that is his first crime. Classification by chronology. Books written before 1847, books written after it, books written before or after 1848. The novel in the reign of Queen Anne, the pre-novel, the ur-novel, the novel of the future. Classification by subject matter—sillier still. The literature of Inns, beginning with Tom Jones; the literature of the Women's Movement, beginning with Shirley; the literature of Desert Islands, from Robinson Crusoe to The Blue Lagoon; the literature of Rogues—dreariest of all, though the Open Road runs it pretty close; the literature of Sussex (perhaps the most devoted of the Home Counties); improper books—a serious though dreadful branch of inquiry, only to be pursued by pseudo-scholars of riper years, novels relating to industrialism, aviation, chiropody, the weather...

Everything [the pseudo-scholar] says may be accurate but all is useless because he is moving round books instead of through them, he either has not read them or cannot read them properly. Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain. A few savage tribes eat them, but reading is the only method of assimilation revealed to the west. The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency. As soon as he can use the word "tendency" his spirits rise, and though those of his audience may sink, they often pull out their pencils at this point and make a note, under the belief that a tendency is portable.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen


Sub-sub-Henry James. But not bad at that. Better than sub-sub-Dostoevsky, I think.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon

Oh, what a book.

Ignore for the moment the mythical status of Hemon's assimilative mastery of the English language (he came to the US speaking "capable tourist" English and, according to legend, "could finish a New York Times crossword puzzle within a week of unpacking his suitcases in Chicago") and just concentrate on the novel. Paced and plotted in a way that shames superlatives, Nowhere Man moves with minute coordination, grace, and intensity. Its characters' obscurities are intriguingly mobile, their transparencies authentic yet incomplete, as if you're always arriving a moment too late to hear the most important part of a visceral confession. And the language—thrilling chains of words alive at their roots.

Hemon deploys his talents carefully in this novel, seemingly one at a time, allowing the reader just enough time to take one for granted before tilting her gaspingly into the next. First the prose engulfs you—ingenious, electric prose that somehow never seems to stretch out or contort itself for its startling effects. This is artistry without the anxiety of ostentation. Then the characters win you completely, a charming immigrant narrative firing on all cylinders—the good-natured, low-impact culture clashes; the carefully crafted linguistic playfulness etched across the faultlines of a guilelessly fractured English; the ever-shifting weights of heritage and homeland causing our hero to stumble a bit as he learns how best to bear them.

And then the plot accelerates, and the bottom of the novel falls out.

We say this sometimes ("the bottom falls out") when we mean something unexpected happens and things take an acute turn in a highly improbable direction. A Murakami narrator, for instance, is cooking spaghetti, and then he decides to climb into a well, or the phone rings and it is an invariably sexy voice saying invariably inscrutable things which will also sound (invariably) portentous.

But an acute turn in a highly improbable direction is not really what happens in this novel. When I say the bottom falls out, I mean that the novel falls with it; it doesn't turn, however sharply, and continue on, your cumbersome confusion swinging widely like a semi trailer taking a corner at a silly speed. No, for awhile Nowhere Man rolls downward like a loose elevator unsure if its cables are cut or frayed, but then the brakes snap, and if you're lucky, you can snatch at your memories of a few jagged pieces that poked out of the novel's fabric on your first pass through, and you can try to assemble them while you're in the air.

I don't think I did. Good luck.

From The Designated Mourner, by Wallace Shawn

There are ideas that are almost like formalized greetings. Everyone agrees with them, but we keep repeating them anyway, all day long. Everyone keeps saying, for example, "Human motivation is very complex." But if you stop and think about it, you have to admit that human motivation is not complex, or it's complex only in the same sense that the motivation of a fly is complex. In other words, if you try to swat a fly, it moves out of the way. And humans are the same. They step aside when they sense something coming, about to hit them in the face. Of course you do see the occasional exception—the person who just stands there and waits for the blow.

***

The first time I read this section, I misread "the motivation of a fly" as "the motion of a fly," so that the full sentence read, "But if you stop and think about it, you have to admit that human motivation is not complex, or it's complex only in the same sense that the motion of a fly is complex." It may be arrogant to say, but I am not entirely sure that my misreading doesn't access something deeper that is already present in the passage and, incidentally, in the work as a whole. To compare human motivation to that of a fly is a simple act of diminishment, a rough denial of the possibility of convolution in a human thought or emotion. Comparing it to a fly's motion, a repetitive and instinctual act which is nevertheless loaded with intricacy and even delicacy, smears the idea of complexity into something much richer than and less directly oppositional to the original received idea. Human motivation is complex in limited ways—its mechanics can be analyzed and even reproduced, its physics plotted and graphed, its biology transparent to the well-trained eye. But there is that intricacy, that delicacy which can be an irreducible source of wonder or disgust, an ineradicable part of our experience of the fly which eludes analysis or explanation.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

More from Sleepless Nights, by Elizabeth Hardwick

Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian—all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient—never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn't the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, "I" am a woman.

[For Jenny, Joan Didion's review of Sleepless Nights in the Times]

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

From Absalom, Absalom, by William Faulkner

"And I can imagine how Bon told Henry, broke it to him. I can imagine Henry in New Orleans, who had not yet even been to Memphis, whose entire worldly experience consisted of sojourns at other houses, plantations, almost interchangeable with his own, where he followed the same routine which he did at home—the same hunting and cockfighting, the same amateur racing of horses on crude homemade tracks, horses sound enough in blood and lineage yet not bred to race and perhaps not even thirty minutes out of the shafts of a trap or perhaps even a carriage, the same square dancing with identical and also interchangeable provincial virgins, to music exactly like that at home, the same champagne, the best doubtless yet crudely dispensed out of the burlesqued pantomime elegance of negro butlers who (and likewise the drinkers who gulped it down like neat whiskey between flowery and unsubtle toasts) would have treated lemonade the same way. I can imagine him, with his puritan heritage—that heritage peculiarly Anglo-Saxon—of fierce proud mysticism and that ability to be ashamed of ignorance and inexperience, in that city foreign and paradoxical, with its atmosphere, at once fatal and languorous, at once feminine and steel-hard—this grim humorless yokel out of a granite heritage where even the houses, let alone clothing and conduct, are built in the image of a jealous and sadistic Jehovah, put suddenly down in a place whose denizens had created their All-Powerful and His supporting hierarchy—chorus of beautiful saints and handsome angels in the image of their houses and personal ornaments and voluptuous lives..."

Monday, August 4, 2008

Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine

The hapless breed of defiantly immature anti-hero, so pervasive in film (thanks for nothing, Judd Apatow) and, regrettably, life, is a character type I can't get used to. I continue to expect something productive out of these "slacker-strivers" (as David Denby calls them rather fairly). Something more, that is, than the "lesson" of self-awareness which seems to be the modern equivalent of saving the princess from the dragon. Personal transformations are not necessary—save that for the superheros—what is called for is an acknowledgement—a shrug will do—of one's mediocrity and, more depressingly, one's post-adolescence. Whether that's Steve Carrell's coming to terms with his dorkiness and virginity in "40-Year-Old Virgin," Jonah Hill's second banana status to Michael Cera in "Superbad," whatever-his-name's whatever-his-deficiency from the Sarah Marshall movie, Seth Rogen's seth-rogenness from "Knocked Up," or... why go on. The point is, at some moment, these men just accept themselves enough to accept the women who already accepted them at the beginning of the movie, or whenever they first met. And suddenly, without actually doing anything, they're aware that they're aging, or that they have aged enough not to expect more than what they've gotten, which always ends up being suspiciously quite a lot.

Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings begins in this genre, but it lands somewhere else—in suspension, or what amounts to a death sentence for the slacker-striver character.

I'll be honest—I liked this novel a lot, and I like Tomine's art work a lot. But I don't want to talk about the book. That's not because I don't think it's well worth discussing, but I read something today (again in a review from Powells Review-a-Day) which provides an interesting correspondence to the slacker-striver.

In his review of Cyril Connolly's memoir Enemies of Promise, Christopher Hitchens introduces a remarkable quote—the first paragraph is Hitchens, and the second, Connolly's:
In the second half [of Enemies of Promise], titled "A Georgian Boyhood," he gives a lavishly detailed account of his education between the ages of 8 and 18, and shows an extraordinary confidence in the likelihood that this narrative will not prove ephemeral. The best-known phrase from this section is his "theory of permanent adolescence" as a description of the marination process of the English upper class. I should call this a coinage if it did not seem to me to derive from the "perpetual adolescent" fixation that comes to us from Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther but, as with Connolly's verdict on promise, it is very originally phrased, and it comes so close to the end of the book that it truly resembles a conclusion arrived at rather than a prejudice or proposition being demonstrated:

It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly, sentimental and in the last analysis homosexual. Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over.
The experience of adolescence is so heavily over-determined that merely being an adolescent—or to be precise, to have just been an adolescent, to be early to mid-twenties—seems to resemble, in some debased form, the experience of Eton, of having experienced life as potently and intensely as you ever will. Not that this is, or needs be, true, but the idea of adolescence as we have constructed it asks us to think that it certainly might be true.

"Promise" is the word Connolly seems to use (I haven't read the book, just the review) to name the knowledge that one acquires at the moment when you realize that the phrase "you can do anything" in reality means "you can do one of a number of sequences of specific things"—that the world may be your oyster, but you have a small mouth. Rather than venture farther out with this knowledge, a retreat toward the environment where "promise" does not ask for "choice" or "decision."

Though we do not typically think of these slacker-strivers as men of "promise," it is more or les apt. The retreat from the face of choice and decision toward the realm of vague and suspended possibilities, indistinguishable from one another and the more powerful for their tangles—isn't that the heart of the slacker-striver?

Much later addition (1/15/09): Great reading of Shortcomings and other graphic novels by Elif Batuman.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill

I am late returning to this post: I started it when I was away at camp when the book was still quite fresh in print. Now it has been a few weeks, weeks which perhaps will give me sufficient distance to evaluate it squarely (as my initial reaction was Sarvasly effusive—i.e. insubstantial, overwrought and gauchely hype-caught).

A number of glowing reviews in the various New York cultural outlets (NYT 1 and 2, New Yorker) provided they hype—hey, James Wood liked it! After reading a few more measured reviews (Benjamin Kunkel in LRB, and two reviews in the litblog The Millions 1, 2), I am still eager and willing to defend the novel as perhaps the best of the year so far, a title I expect it to retain.

The Kunkel review consists mostly of light frustrations superciliously expressed, but which are nevertheless insightful, albeit in a rather lateral way, uncovering the key points by impacting next to them. There are a few salient flaws Kunkel brings out, but I'd like to take just one for this post and save the rest for another post. I think this division will prove fruitful (at least for me) not because the two sets of flaws are unrelated, but because dealing with the first seems to me a good way to set the scene.

The first flaw or... well, it's not really a flaw, it's a sort of grumble or annoyance, but Kunkel seems intent on grumbling about it: Netherland, starting with its title, is not, as it may seem to be, geographically diverse, but rather spatially indecisive.

"‘Netherland’ is an ambiguous word. It evokes, of course, the Netherlands inhabited by the Dutch, one of whom, Hans van den Broek, tells this story of a few late years spent in that New World city founded almost four hundred years ago on Manhattan Island as New Amsterdam, in what was then the territory of New Netherland. But ‘netherland’ could also mean any faraway place, as in those ‘nether regions’ of the city where Hans’s teammates from the Staten Island Cricket Club spend their nights... ‘Netherland’ also has sinister overtones of Never Never Land, and sounds like a euphemism for Hades... The ambiguous title fits a novel remarkable for its complex geographical situation... So we have a British novel on American themes narrated in English by a Dutchman mostly about his Trinidadian Gatsby, while on another, fainter track of the story, he recounts a period of transatlantic separation between him and his English wife, who, not long after 9/11, returns to London with their young son... O’Neill’s effort to gather such a variety of social spaces under the same Netherlandish banner has something stirring about it. Many of us live, with Hans, this kind of far-flung life, globalised in all its localities, international even on a molecular scale, but contemporary fiction has struggled to keep pace with the aggressive contemporaneity of this way of living."

If the globalization of narrative actually stirs Kunkel, he does not really show it in the rest of the review, and the tone of the encomium is more auto-congratulatory than sincerely complimentary ("Many of us live, with Hans, this kind of far-flung life..."). "Jolly good show trying to catch up to the life I'm lucky enough to lead!"

However, if Kunkel thinks the novel's setting is spatially tenuous, he does not really address the added strangeness of having an American novelist reviewing this geographic mongrel of a book in the preeminent British literary publication. (Well, he does do a bit of self-deprecation when it comes to cricket—"The descriptions of cricket are the best thing in the book, even or perhaps especially for an American reader to whom ‘cricket’ is chiefly an insect.") Nor does he seem to acknowledge how hard he's working to turn Netherland into an American novel, plain and simple.

This may be a difficult charge to back up, as superficially, Kunkel seems to be reading it as a British novel (which is still a little weird): he does refer to it as such in giving its pedigree, and the (online at least) Table of Contents for this issue gives the subtitle of this essay as "Another Ian McEwan!"

Yet it is with McEwan that the compass swings toward America:
Chuck, Hans’s one real New York friend, as well as the novel’s central figure, cherishes the hope of making the quintessentially Commonwealth game of cricket into a commercially viable American pastime. And, in a way, this entrepreneurial gambit of Chuck’s resembles O’Neill’s own undertaking. O’Neill, that is, is working in a recognisably British mode of novel-writing marked by a combination of decorous prose, lyrical flights, well-carpentered plots and occasional injections of noirish material (we learn in the first pages of Chuck’s handcuffed body being retrieved from Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal), and he wants to adapt this mode – its exemplar is Ian McEwan – to the American soil of the book’s themes or subject matter: multicultural brotherhood, immigrant self-fashioning in the New World, post-9/11 New York.
Kunkel is referring most likely to Saturday, McEwan's book which has all the aforementioned things—9/11, narrative carpentry, stylistic décor and decorum—as well as a financially secure and intellectually active male narrator, Henry Perowne, who would probably find a lot to like in Hans van den Broek.

But to say that Joseph O'Neill follows McEwan in seeking to adapt a British "mode of novel-writing" (one would be better off calling it a mood of narrating) to American material (i.e. 9/11) seems to me to be missing a not very subtle point which both Saturday and Netherland make perfectly clear: September 11th, 2001 was not an American event only, or perhaps even at all. It was a world event. And non-Americans can deal with 9/11 in their novels without it being an attempt to ground anything in "American soil;" their characters can ponder its meaning in their lives without really even much connection to America at all. To think that we're still missing the boat on this is embarrassing: America is not the world, and a 9/11 book is not, ipso facto, American nor necessarily intended to be.

And as for the other themes which supposedly plant Netherland in American soil—"multicultural brotherhood, immigrant self-fashioning in the New World"—I am not entirely certain how these themes 'adapt' the novel to America, rather than merely take the immigrant experience in America as its subject. And that is not just splitting hairs—in a novel largely about the rarity of true adaptation in life (Hans's unwillingness/inability to modify his cricket swing to adapt to American fields being the most telling metaphor), it seems rather question-begging to read the novel as being in purpose a work of adaptation.

Not to put to fine a point on it, the fact that Netherland—like last year's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and the year before that's The Emperor's Children—is nominated for the Booker Prize should tell us something about whether the rest of the world considers these books "American." The Booker is closed to American writers, so their presence indicates some consistent sense that an American (or more particularly New York) setting and themes (9/11 features prominently in both Hamid's and Messud's novels) does not automatically claim the book for America.

I read a review of a new biography of Joseph Conrad today; I get this service from Powells.com that delivers a review a day to my inbox. I have a backlog by now, and I'm trying to sort through them, so this is actually a few weeks old, but it certainly spoke to the issues I'm trying to settle here. William Deresiewicz (more about him later) writes:
The worlds of Conrad's fiction are shaped by imperialism, but they are not, by and large, imperial spaces. Forster, by contrast, gives us in A Passage to India the more typical colonial situation: two communities, European and native, living in precisely defined relations of subjugation and power, the lines of allegiance and conduct carefully laid down. Conrad's attention was drawn instead to the spaces between empires, between nations, the kinds of spaces in which he had passed his nautical career -- intercultural spaces, permeated by the force fields of empire but not bound within a single imperial orbit: the Malay world of his early fiction, the Inner Station of Kurtz's domain, the republic of Costaguana in Nostromo, the anarchist cell in The Secret Agent, the circle of Russian exiles in Under Western Eyes. Each is made up of individuals who have lost the orientation of a familiar community and the restraining context of a stable moral framework.
The worlds of international privilege and international poverty are, to a very large extent, I think, one of these spaces, "intercultural spaces, permeated by the force fields of empire but not bound within a single imperial orbit"—Hans, who comes to the United States with everything and who can leave with everything, and Chuck, who comes to the United States with nothing and leaves with less, live in worlds shaped by America, but which are not American spaces—even if they are, strangely enough, located in America.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Elegy, by Mary Jo Bang

This volume is composed almost entirely of laments over the death of the author's son, so commentary seems almost unavoidably callous, but the poetry itself is so direct—more confrontational than confessional, buttonholing as much as soul-baring—that I think a few words are not out of line.

Bang's lyricism, when she employs it, maintains a singularly high level—it is not a common poet who can craft these lines:
The small war of the heart made bigger
by far in the world.
And daylight a gift.

Small cog after cog slips into the hour
And razor thin minute slot without stop.
And daylight a gift tied with some tinsel.
Yet this is just the latter half of a poem ("The Cruel Wheel Turns Twice"), possibly the loveliest in the book. The first half is marred by a handful of touches—random nominal capitalizations, an ostentatious and obvious line break between the syllables of "endless") which seem more willed than required—as if Bang tried them out in the course of composition but did not consider their relevance to the poem or its meaning. In fact, the entire work seems untouched by second thought, a state which revives the question of how much arranging, how much revision is appropriate for expressions of pure grief.

Clearly, very powerful work can come from the undiluted encounter with grief. But the question is not so much whether anything aesthetically good can come of grief, but whether things that are aesthetically modest should be retained because they are connected to the living tissue of the emotions which produced the good things. Grief, perhaps alone of our emotions, is often treated holistically when it is rendered artistically, as if it is a whole and seamless cloth which drapes the subject and which cannot be tailored.

Bang's poems often stretch to the very bottom of the page; many spill over onto the next. I have nothing against poems of any length, but it seems as if she meant to write pungently, to capture sharp impressions, pangs of sadness, rather than the persistence of depression. And it is not that she kept writing after what she meant to say, that her poems fall off as she tries to hold on to her subject through the act of writing; rather, the weakness of the poems' beginnings suggest that she simply had trouble fitting her emotions into words—an understandable situation, certainly.

Elegy is also heavy with repetition—of images, of phrases, of ideas. Again, this digs to the heart of some very important questions about the work of mourning, particularly as it is undertaken artistically. Bang has a very beautiful line early on in the book: "This is life's bargain that motion / Is hope." The unexpected length of the first line and the absence of a comma between "bargain" and "that" retraces the meaning of the phrase, quickening the pulse of the poem to a point that is slightly off-balance, as the sentence is off-balance absent the comma. The repetition that features so heavily in the book, however, undermines the equation of motion and hope, for Bang's repetitions do not accrete new meanings as they iterate, but compress them, taking slightly different images or usages and superimposing them forcefully. Boxes, for instance, repeat in many different forms, but they become, in each instance, the same box—a box of ashes. This is a use of metaphor, rather than a use of something to make a metaphor. Or as Bang acknowledges, "Thoughts / Washed against a reef, as if metaphor / Would make it less real."

Mourning and grief balance uneasily between the need for motion away from loss—to "move on"—and the compulsion to repeat, to revisit, to reënact. Art that begins as a sublimation or an expression of grief merely duplicates this tension, but in its highest form, it negotiates a stable settlement, as Milton's "Lycidas" makes clear. Beginning with the words "Yet once more," it culminates in a couplet marking a sincere closure: "At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew: / To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new."

The word "new" is, I think, a straightforward word for Milton; it is a synonym for "fresh," indicating that ground has been passed over which will not be traveled upon again, and that the ground which lies beyond is in some ways unconnected to that which has been traveled. Yet the spatial motion forward is in some conflict with the temporal motion of the daily cycle renewing itself—"To morrow." This division—temporal repetition, spatial progress—may be a common settlement for the work of mourning, though its inverse may be just as common, or more so.

Bang's book, on the other hand, treats space and time very differently and not, I think, productively in the end. Space is circular—the repeating wheels make that clear—and enclosed—the many boxes aforementioned. Time is definitively stopped or retraced, but retraced in a hydraulic, see-saw manner—the poet jumps back to an isolated moment in memory, then returns immediately to the atemporal moment of the poem. This binary temporality asks the reader to relinquish depth on behalf of directness, a trade which works occasionally. To some degree, Bang acknowledges the poverty of this treatment of time: in "She Remembers His Hat," she writes "The quality of time is 'poor.' / An abstraction that dissolves / Of its own accord. / There is no language // Unique to time. Devoted. Addicted. / The claustrophobic 'because.'" Time doesn't, unfortunately, dissolve of its own accord; Bang ignores it, and she decides not to create a language for the time she ignores.

Bang addresses the form of elegy and its cultural significance and constraints in a poem called, straightforwardly, "The Role of Elegy," a poem which dramatizes the problems I find with the book as a whole.

The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural

Debate over the aestheticization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for an imagined

Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.

Instead there's the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly
Through the just ajar door:
Some terrible mistake has been made.

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now—after the fact—
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

The transient distraction of ink on cloth
One scrubbed and scrubbed
But couldn't make less.
Not then, not soon.

Each day, a new caption on the cartoon
Ending that simply cannot be.
One hears repeatedly, the role of elegy is.

I find this disappointingly disorganized and contradictory. I understand that the poem is meant to deploy (and perhaps decry) the mutability of the elegy form, that it is or has been so many things, many of them contradictory. So my disappointment in the poem does not derive from the fact that it collects these contradictory things, but that it does not organize them into a structure which dramatizes the contradictions, or that does so with any success.

Masks and drapes, for instance, seem to be called forth together to activate the notion of elegy as a way of covering over grief at its most raw, but the poem seems to be indifferent to the way these two things differ—a drape merely obscures, while a mask substitutes one image for another. The rest of the poem seems to give up on even this level of organization: we have afterimages, consolidations, refrains, rebreathings, stages, shoes (?), stains, cartoons.

Bang's work is quite often excellent, and many of her formulations stand alone with an awesome power: "The rudderless language of everyday life." "The congress of humorless solutions." Or, at greater length,
You are in the zebra crossing,
Moving into the tornado green morning,
The shabby irradiation
Of sunlight seen through the hint
Of rain about to be.
(Actually, that whole poem is great—you can read the whole thing here.)

However, the elegy form demands things that I don't think Bang intended to put into her poems—discrete notions of time and space and a high level of organization. And I am not sure that Bang sees her work as an expansion of the possibilities of the form; although she fights against its conventions, she does not seem committed to providing a coherent alternative to them. This is not a damning thing, but it does sustain a pervasive awkwardness which has little to do with the emotions the poems intend to describe or evoke.