I’ve returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I’m excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee’s book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee’s otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year’s selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I’m sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year’s end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, “The Hearth,” I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud’s fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can’t help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I’m happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I’ve got lots to write about at the moment.
I’m sitting in a Barcelona internet cafe in the completely empty non-smoking section… The smoking section is packed. It’s only noon though, so it seems like most of the city isn’t really awake yet. We are staying about four blocks from Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. It is under construction as it has been for decades, and it is a bizarre building to look upon. Over the next couple of days we will see some of Gaudi’s other work. Today: art museums and La Boqueria, Barcelona’s massive open air food market. I had hoped to get a lot of reading done on the plane, but the trip was so grueling that I didn’t accomplish much. I worked my way through the first issue of The Believer, McSweeney’s magazine about books and other fluff. Heidi Julavits’ article about the lost art of book reviewing is the high point, after that it’s mostly uneven to dull. But, hey, at least the folks on Valencia keep churning out new and interesting projects. Til next time…
To paraphrase the critic Georges Poulet: a poet of written poems does not necessarily aim only to write a poem; he or she aims to become, and for those who read his or her poems to become. Becoming is an activity that many young African Americans are engaged in today — whether it be formal, revolutionary, or informal — and it is an activity that requires undivided dynamism. If Kendrick Lamar’s chant “we gon’ be alright” — four words that when repeated meld a fight song to a primordial moment in the foundation and the defense of a collective and its culture — is now considered the foremost musical expression of this era’s black activism, Nate Marshall’s poem “repetition & repetition &”, the very first poem from his book Wild Hundreds, should be considered the foremost articulation of contemporary blackness’s dynamism in literature. It’s an engine of becoming.
Our is a long love song,
A push into open air,
A stare into the barrel
With those three lines, Marshall begins an epic comparable to Robert Hayden’s renowned “The Middle Passage” and other black epics; but this is an epic of guidance and instruction. It’s built on the thesis that black “works,” as painful as it may be to be black. The poem begins by posing the question What do I feel as a black person, its title “repetition & repetition &” having given us the context. The opening of the poem removes any ambiguity we might attribute to the poem’s message, plunging us into the poet’s project.
We are a pattern,
A percussive imperative,
A break beat
“repetition & repetition &” quickly comes to feature the collective “we” as fundamental to the poem. Marshall uses the word “we” as the black community loves for it to be used. If “I” is modernism, and postmodernism, Marshall pushes it aside for the beloved “we” — the “we” of the hard road to salvation and joy. Sorry, he seems to be saying: despite claims that our sentiment is tribalism or that we are just Americans, the black community remains a place where a black “we” is a beautiful way of saying “me.” With “we” he expresses the blackness that has us all feeling, one that cannot be found in oh-so-many poems that center the lonely “I” or “me.”
“We” is brilliantly defined in the line “we are love.” We = love, in convivial crowds and effective political rallies.
Baby we are hundreds:
Wild until we are free.
Wild like Amnesia
This is an epic of identity. It proposes black identity (love, being wild) to its reader, as a written articulation of “black is beautiful”; it functions as a model of identity to adhere to and trust.
Identity is an old and persistent question in black life, to the point where passing, pretending that one is not black or not claiming one’s blackness, has been a theme of many black novels (see Nella Larsen’s Passing). Faith in blackness and in one’s own blackness is a feature in our age of contradictions: of a black president, of interracial marriages, of a growing middle class, of foreclosures of homes owned by blacks, of predatory and racist practices, of the killings of young black men and women, of Black Lives Matter. It’s an age of youthful comic modernities, where tragedy is not the sort of thing that co-workers of other races want to talk about. Should I be happy in public? Who am I in all of this? Marshall answers these questions and others with an epic that can guide, in terms of how to think about blackness or being black.
The black identity being proposed is not a simple one. As John Edgar Wideman wrote as a blurb for Mitchell Jackson’s novel The Residue Years, it embraces the English language as a means of expression, saying loud and clear, Despite my difference, I am culturally a descendent of the English language and of poetry in English. It is perhaps the most complex aspect of the poem — the poet does not want to settle for blackness as some sort of noble savagery. His language tells us that a black person can read French theory and find solace in Modernist English poetry all the while feeling the pain and rage that comes from seeing a dead black child on a television; all of it combined being who “we” are or “I” am as a black person.
In the end, Marshall offers an engine for the pursuit of self that can only be the undercurrent of black production — ranging from Beyoncé’s Lemonade, or Greg Osby’s many great yet unknown albums of genius Jazz blackness, or a teacher’s persistence with children — but also a vehicle for any non-black person to think about the blackness of co-citizens and friends. His poem is an epic of strength in love and in numbers, where in despite “a stare into the barrel,” and “repetition,” as he ends the poem, ‘we are 1’ and will remain it.
There’s a charming story about the power of independent bookstores in the Seatle PI.Book sales can have a curious alchemy. They have been spurred by all sorts of things, such as happenings in the news or mentions on Oprah, but seldom in the history of bookdom has one title ridden to new readership all because of a T-shirt from Texas.In this case a customer and a bookseller struck up a conversation because of the t-shirt the bookseller was wearing. The conversation soon turned to books and the customer recommended A Small Death in Lisbon, a World War II mystery from 2002 by Robert Wilson. The bookseller read and enjoyed the book and then set into motion one of the unique and amazing things about independent bookstores. She put it on the “staff recommendations” shelf, and started pushing the book. It wasn’t long before A Small Death in Lisbon was a local phenomenon.The article reminded me of what was probably my favorite thing about working in a bookstore, the ability to give people my favorite books. At independent bookstores in particular, customers really trust booksellers, who can then have a noticeable impact on the reading community. For example, I remember watching excitedly as books that I recommended — The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis and The Horned Man by James Lasdun were two — climbed the store’s bestseller list. Patrick, a sometime Millions contributor, had people all across town talking about Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (both of which I read on his recommendation).And this is why I love independent bookstores. Chain stores are clean and comfortable like hotel lobbies, but, walking into one, you never feel as though you are about to discover something new. For more on why I like indies better than chains, check out my post on the topic from a couple years ago: What Makes a Bookstore.
I usually listen to the BBC World Service when I listen to radio online, but Millions contributor Andrew recently told me about an excellent programme (as they say) on BBC4. “In Our Time” is hosted by Melvyn Bragg who, each week, is joined by three guests as he explores “the history of ideas.” To give an idea of the varied topics the program touches upon, the most recent show was about Samuel Johnson, 18th century author of Lives of the Poets among many other books (here’s his greatest hits), and “England ‘s most famous and well connected man of letters,” while next week’s show is on asteroids. All the old shows are archived and organized by subject.
I am pleased to report that Tin House Books will soon be publishing a long-awaited volume of Zak Smith’s Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated. The book features one illustration for every page of the Penguin edition of the Thomas Pynchon novel – a total of 760 allusive, elusive images. Release is scheduled for November 28. Gravity’s Rainbow Illustrated will not, of course, feature the text of the novel on facing pages, but should fit neatly on bookshelves beside the dog-eared paperbacks of junior Slothrops everywhere. A limited-edition, signed hardcover will likely appear as part of a larger print run, to be distributed well and widely. Steve Erickson pens the introduction.Serendipitously for Pynchoniacs (Pynchofiles? Pynchaholics?), Pynchon himself is also supposed to release a book that month: the sprawling, 960-page (?) Against the Day – as Ed reported back in June.I know little about the Pynchon book… having followed Pynchon rumors for a while back in the 90s, I’ve decided to not allow myself to get excited about the novel until it’s in my hands. But a book of Zak Smith’s illustrations is something I’ve been longing for ever since the 2004 Whitney Biennial, where I first saw them mounted. All 760 of them, on one wall. Even before I knew what they were, the meticulous draftsmanship and vivid colors and narrative urge of the illustrations pulled me across the gallery like a tractor beam. Or like Disney World beckoning to a child initiate… a kind of how-long-will-it-take-to-experience-all-of-this effect. I think I only had time to look at like 30 of the images. Then I read the little plaque – Gravity’s rainbow – and thought… I want to take this home with me. I want to read these pictures, over and over. I looked in vain for a print version in the gift-shop, and then on line. I even resorted to clipping the handful of illustrations that ran in Bookforum’s Pynchon tribute last year and wedging them into the pages of my Gravity’s Rainbow. So I was pretty excited to learn at a reading last night by the poet Alex Lemon (whose book Mosquito is also published by Tin House) that the complete project would be published right in time for my birthday.Which presents a conundrum: do I then plunge back into Gravity’s Rainbow again, or do I save my attention for Against the Day? Is it sane, or even possible, to read 1,720 pages of Pynchon consecutively? Wait… did I say I wasn’t allowed to get excited?[Note from Max: Garth, whose musings have appeared at The Millions from time to time, has joined us as a contributor – his bio will appear with the others shortly. This is his first post in that capacity.]