When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
After Cold Mountain, his critically and commercially beloved 1997 debut, Charles Frazier tried to conjure the same historical magic in his follow-up, Thirteen Moons. But, the second time around, written not as a first-time novelist but as a National Book Award winner with an eight million dollar advance, Frazier’s lush, swooning style failed to enchant readers the way it once did. Now, in Nightwoods, his third novel, he leaves the 19th century behind, and compresses his vision into a brutal, gorgeously cinematic 260-page thriller, set in small-town North Carolina in the 1960s, amidst bootleggers, raccoon hunters, drug-addled police officers, and divinely-inspired, knife-wielding madmen. In the midst of all this, one woman struggles to admit love into her life, and, at the same time, to keep evil from eating her alive.
In every regard, Nightwoods is Frazier’s fiercest and darkest work. The violence is less glamorous and more sickening than in Cold Mountain’s sweeping battle scenes and stylized shootouts, with suffering now far outweighing glory. Nightwoods is so much shorter than Frazier’s previous novels not only because it’s tighter and more intimate, forgoing the epic grandeur that he once dredged so fruitfully from the Civil War, but also because some elemental force, an incarnation of death, perhaps, or simply silence, refuses to let it go on any longer than it does. The pressures not only within but somehow on the novel feel incredibly intense, like something malignant is crushing it down.
The story begins with Luce, a young woman who’s all too happy to earn a modest stipend as caretaker of a disused Lodge on the far edge of a lake outside of town. Living here alone, with only late night radio (“Prayers pitched into the air from Nashville”) and a few elderly neighbors for company, she cultivates a hard resistance to human closeness as carefully as the few hearty vegetables that sustain her.
These years of guarded tranquility, which began after she was casually raped by her high school teacher, come to an abrupt end when her murdered sister’s twin children appear on her doorstep. Mute, sullen, and prone to killing roosters and starting fires, the boy and girl usher a gust of ghostly wind into the Lodge, as if the door, once opened to admit them, can never again be closed. It’s clear, from the moment they arrive, that Luce will have to journey through some version of hell in order to save them, even as she reminds herself that her duty is only to provide shelter, not love. We never know for certain if the children are victims of evil, or agents of it, and the way that Frazier follows through the implications of this dangerous uncertainty is one of his greatest novelistic feats. Much more than helpless orphans, on the one hand, and more than stock horror story demon-children on the other, the twins, taken together as a unit, are a distinctly uncanny presence. They are capable of fighting like snakes, “real cold, like they were not even very angry at each other, just acting under some shared compulsion,” and yet they also share moments of true tenderness and vulnerability, when they cannot disguise how desperate for mothering they are, and Luce begins to waver in her resolve not to love them.
When their father (and their mother’s killer) shows up in town, chasing money that he believes they have, the novel jolts even further from its hushed opening, flaring up into a showdown thriller, more than a little reminiscent of the film The Night of the Hunter. Indeed, the father, Bud, “a handsome man, at least in the retrograde style of the expired southern fifties,” is a campy, gleefully rendered stand-in for Hunter’s Robert Mitchum. Obsessed with “Christ’s wounds and Christ’s blood… the dark artery offering that covered the globe,” Bud perfectly embodies the same union of religious mania and compulsive sadism that made Mitchum’s Gospel-preaching hunter such an indelible bogeyman. The one difference, of course, is that the hunted children here are not the helpless innocents they were in the film: Frazier gets us to fear for the children, but also to fear them, never letting us forget that they are the progeny of the very murderer who has come to hunt them down. This extra variable only compounds the intensity of the hunt.
Despite Nightwoods’ markedly grimmer tone, however, Frazier retains his giant crowd-pleasing appeal, and this works both for and against him. There is an undeniable greatness to his prose and the way he carves terror and romance out of the magisterial Carolina landscape, building toward an intentionally unsubtle climax, and yet some saccharine aftertaste lurks even in the novel’s roughest patches: there is always the suspicion that he’s gone too far out of his way to please, crafting a sort of backwoods-bloodbath-lite for urbanites who know nothing of this world except a few tired clichés, and are game only for a brief guided tour. As such, the prose veers too often into a nostalgic, aphoristic tone, seemingly meant to convey hard-earned country wisdom, like “ …violence is best accomplished spur-of-the-moment. Let it happen out of nowhere… like there’s no past and no future, nothing but the red right now…” These lines are always beautiful, and often ring true, but, over time, they start to seem either demeaning toward the rural reality they come from, or else condescending toward the urban readership they will doubtlessly reach. In short, Nightwoods is not only grippingly cinematic, it’s also unabashedly movie-ready, no less so than Cold Mountain was.
But none of this obscures the pleasure of reading such a scary and handsomely pared-down novel. At the very center of the woods is a “black hole filled with black water,” which “pulled at you. You stand up to it, or you go down.” As the action hurdles along toward its inevitable bloody conclusion, the magnetic attraction of this black hole grows so strong that it overwhelms or simply devours any lingering suspicions of the confectionary hollowness under Frazier’s perfectly dressed scenes. After this, I could do nothing but enjoy the accelerating ride into and finally through the dark. Almost as much, I’m sure, as I’ll enjoy the movie when it comes out.
As if rap’s global pop influence isn’t justice enough, the campaign to document its musical and commercial developments, the lives of its artists, important artifacts and its intersection with recent history has gained great momentum in the literary space — when not making bold claims on Literature itself. A twenty-first-century given, rap has even wended its way into that beacon of the twentieth century, the anthology. Yale University Press’s The Anthology of Rap flays memorable tracks, preserving their lyrical skins for the hasty forceps of future scholars “within the context of African American oral culture and the Western poetic heritage.” Anthologies upholding a great heritage are necessarily short on the specifics. Yet there is also a rebellious potential within the anthology itself, recovering moments that tradition or fashion have invalidated.
Nicholson Baker invented such a noble anthology-wright in his short novel, The Anthologist, a miscellaneous monologue by working poet Paul Chowder that bears many of the features for which Baker has been rightly admired, his vivid observational miniatures and giddy disclosures, his nimble, various excursions, his paring back vast erudition to a buoyant, demotic language. Chowder takes seriously a poet’s claim to common experience and finds in the free-verse Modernists an estrangement from the four-beat line, which he considers “the soul of English poetry.” (Drawing on the recent theory of “unrealized beats,” he further insists that iambic pentameter subconsciously adopts a caesura as a sixth beat, morphing into a “swaying three-beat minuetto.”) The light verse and rhyming ballads that get crowded out by the followers of Eliot and Pound stake the truer claim to listeners’ hearts and minds by accommodating our innate habit of matching similar sounds. Holed up in his heaping New Hampshire barn, past deadline on the introduction to his anthology, Only Rhyme, Paul Chowder takes Sharpie to easel pad and diagrams the many stresses of his professional and personal discontents.
Paul Chowder returns in Baker’s new novel, Traveling Sprinkler, which isn’t so much a sequel as a remake. It is a novel-rhyme; the two comprise a couplet. Following the real-time interval between novels, a few years have passed and Only Rhyme continues to sell at some big schools in the southwest. The poet’s editor nudges him for a book of new poems, but there is nothing like the claustrophobic pressure that surrounded the previous labor. We already know of his productive return flight from a conference in Switzerland, when he wrote twenty-three poems. Communication lines are still tentatively open with ex-girlfriend Roz, who makes egg salad sandwiches for his fifty-fifth birthday. Paul Chowder has extended his sphere. Instead of the chin bar in his barn, he works out at Planet Fitness, a “Judgment Free Zone.” He attends Quaker meetings. He buys a guitar. Also a keyboard and a microphone. A nagging thirst for Yukon Jack has been displaced by a curious flirtation with cigars. He writes and works out melodies in the car. His middle-aged neighbor Nanette once nervously threw him a leftover Meals on Wheels chicken dinner and saved him from sabotaging her new hardwood floor. Now he has Nan and her son over for sushi, reliably babysits her chickens and waters her tomatoes with his traveling sprinkler.
It is the historian within the anthologist that presses toward the now. Tim, a professor at Tufts who completed a book on Queen Victoria’s imperialistic rule, informs Paul about the movement to challenge Obama’s use of drones in current conflicts. As Tim, always Paul’s hand in the world, reports from the latest rally, the poet becomes more disturbed by his readings on the issue and his consumption of related online media, like videos and protest songs. Paul is left “traumatized and angry” by the story of Roya, a thirteen-year-old taken to begging on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border after her mother and two brothers were killed in a 2002 drone attack and her father “carefully gathered pieces of his wife and his sons from the tree near their house and buried them.” Pacing in his kitchen, Paul feels “powerless and ineffectual.” If in the academy Paul’s minority defense of rhyme was somewhat vindicated, his revulsion toward American war tactics leaves him politically marginalized. But both minorities are appeals to common experience overrun by institutions. Atrocities can affect observers remotely, like poems. The poet’s response, the only response that registers on an individual level, is tangential and local. Tim recruits Paul to write a protest song. Much of Traveling Sprinkler follows this trajectory, but only in Paul’s meandering Chowderesque way.
The authorized history of hip hop’s cultural and musical expansion is that of local, folk origins. The DJ presided over the ceremony, providing rhythmic instructions to partygoers to maintain the music’s momentum. In time, these MC duties were outsourced to vocal specialists who conjured additional layers of narrative and linguistic complexity that survive, but in a different form, the party-event. Paradoxically, it is the MC’s flow — the delivery system of the lyrics, rooted in nonverbal features of the song — that enables the recognition of the words in anthology. This, too, was the radical notion behind Only Rhyme, assembling a book that isolates sounds. If Bob Dylan, whose lyrics also have been printed and bound, is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the proper objection isn’t regarding his songwriting but the singing quality of poetry. In The Anthologist, Chowder explains: “We like to visit the parallel sound-studio universe…independent of the other part of our head, which is the conscious part.” If rhyme serves an aural function in poetry, “music fogs over” the consonant particulars of lyrical rhyme. Music, the overarching concern of Traveling Sprinkler, “is about the idea that one cellist’s A is going to sound slightly different than another cellist’s A.” In written notation, of words or music, “there are losses incurred.” The plurality that reigns over head music is curtailed “by a black blob on a page.” The liberated anthologist burns a mixtape CD and gives it to Roz, his reluctant though accessible muse, the anti-Laura. Always the omnivore, Paul digs current and classic pop songs while also meditating in long stretches on classical composers, but from the underdog perspective of the bassoon. Stravinsky, influenced by Debussy, chose a solo bassoon to open The Rite of Spring, but tortures it by forcing it into the register of the flute. In spite of its limits, the woodcraft bassoon provides an organic connection to spring, while the flute is “a tube of metal.” Paul’s jaw is shot from playing the bassoon when he was younger, but he enjoys building his repertoire of guitar chords and also gains pointers from Nanette’s nineteen-year-old, Raymond, who composes rap songs digitally. Paul assembles an orchestra from the everyday, feeding his Logic digital audio workstation with the plucking of an egg slicer and the sloshing of a pasta pot, which he can manipulate on his new MIDI keyboard.
Technology enables the poet to complete the reductionist’s journey from language’s music to the fundamental elements of musical sound. In The Anthologist, Paul relays warnings from big names like Elizabeth Bishop and W. H. Auden against the growing Big Business of poetry. “Philip Larkin said that when you start paying people to write poems and paying people to read them you remove the ‘element of compulsive contact.’” His sense of powerlessness toward affecting change in society as writer of verse compels Chowder to retread his domain and seek out regions of compulsive contact with people rather than listing under faceless institutions. Raymond inhabits such a space, working away at original compositions on his computer while also DJing at a local club, college-age but taking time off, knowledgeable yet unaccredited. Raymond and Paul’s partnership, promiscuous and unauthorized, embodies the best virtues of the social media over which Paul devotes increasing time, to share songs, watch video, read political discourse, and self-educate his musicianship. His competition with dead critics finds a logical resolution in active, real-time exchanges with the living nonce.