Belly is a book about a man named Belly. Belly aka William O’Leary is a grandfather now, just out of jail after four years in for illegal bookkeeping, but he used to be a real big shot in Saratoga Springs. He was also a drunk, cruelly dismissive of his family and torn up by the death of his third daughter. When he arrives back home he finds that his old stomping grounds have changed and that his three surviving daughters are wary of his presence. The book encompasses Belly’s first week of freedom and is more a character study of this difficult man than a plot-driven novel. Because Belly is so stubborn and belligerent, it is difficult to commiserate with his bitterness about the incursion of WalMart and fancy chain coffee shops. In fact, I found Belly, the man, to be so repugnant that I thought that Lisa Selin Davis was trying to point out that he was wrong, that those chain stores aren’t so bad, but based on this interview, I can see that that is not the case. Belly is an admirable debut, with a handful of well-crafted characters, especially Belly and his oldest daughter Nora, but I would have more enjoyed reading about these characters in a more dynamic plot.
“When I was twelve,” Larry Levis wrote in “Family Romance,” “I used to stare at weeds / Along the road, at the way they kept trembling / Long after a car had passed.” The narrator watches “gnats in families hovering over / Some rotting peaches, & wonder why it was / I had been born a human. / Why not a weed, or a gnat? / Why not a horse, or a spider?” Levis was a master of such turns, although my favorite practitioner of poetic metamorphosis is Gerard Manley Hopkins. In 1887, Hopkins described Loch Lomond, where the “day was dark and partly hid the lake, yet it did not altogether disfigure it but gave a pensive or solemn beauty which left a deep impression on me.” “Inversnaid,” his poem of that place, follows the churning flow of a burn that is “horseback brown.” The poem’s final stanza arrives as a chant: “What would the world be, once bereft / Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left, / O let them be left, wildness and wet; / Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”
Bright Dead Things, the fourth book of poems by Ada Limón, begins with an epigraph from Levis — “Who among the numberless you have become desires this moment / Which comprehends nothing more than loss & fragility &; the fleeing of flesh” — yet the collection breeds her own particular mixture of wildness. The mixture is by turns melodious and tight. Endemic to a wildness of flee and freedom is a sense of transformation. I think again to Hopkins, who believed that the poetic sense was not merely meant to document the observed world, but that poetry should transform lived reality into a new plane. Limón’s poems are like fires in this way: charring the page, but leaving a smoke that remains past the close of the book.
The narrators — or perhaps singular narrator — of these poems has undergone a transformation from living in Brooklyn to Kentucky. In the prose poem “Mowing,” the narrator watches a man mow “40 acres on a small lawn mower” in slow, hypnotic fashion. “I imagine,” she says, “what it must be like to stay hidden, disappear in the dusky nothing and stay still in the night. It’s not sadness, though it may sound like it.”
The narrator demurs, but there is a curious link between wildness and sadness in the collection. “This land and I are rewilding,” says another narrator. The speakers of these poems lean on the pastoral world for support and rebirth; they are skeptical of God. Yet in “What It Looks Like To Us and the Words We Use,” the narrator plays with the reader’s spiritual sense. “All these great barns out here in the outskirts,” she begins, “black creosote boards knee-deep in the bluegrass. / They look so artfully abandoned, even in use.” Artfully, artifice: “You don’t believe in God?” The narrator doesn’t, but her interlocutor says she is merely mislabeling nature. Still: “we stood there, / low beasts among the white oaks, Spanish moss, / and spider webs, obsidian shards stuck in our pockets, / woodpecker flurry, and I refused to call it so.” Those feelings — doubt, wonder, rejection, flirtation, penance — swirl throughout the book, and are borne of the wildness of self: “I’m cold in my heart, coal-hard / knot in the mountain buried / deep in the boarded-up mine.”
There are also spaces for open hearts in the book, as in the aptly-titled “The Wild Divine.” It’s rare to read a poetics of affirmation — I don’t mean sappy songs, but rather a poet capturing joy, however temporary: “I could barely feel my hands, my limbs numbed / from the new touching that seemed strikingly / natural but also painfully kindled in the body’s stove.” Cue the wildness of Hopkins, for the euphoria that follows love is broken by a “wandering / madrone-skinned horse…bowed-back, higher than a man’s hat, high up / and hitched to nothing.” She thinks: “He seemed almost worthy of complete devotion.” The poem’s ending encapsulates the collection: “I thought, this was what it was to be blessed— / to know a love that was beyond an owning, beyond / the body and its needs, but went straight from wild / thing to wild thing, approving of its wildness.”
Bright Dead Things is an outdoor book, but this is not to say that Limón can’t write a poem about domestic and mundane spaces. “The Good Wave” is an ethereal baseball poem. Other poems sketch homes and apartments (Robert Bly was correct to title one of his collections of poetry essays American Poetry: Wildness and Domesticity). “Nashville After Hours” is a knockout: “Late night in a honky-tonk, fried pickles / in a red plastic basket, and it was all Loretta / on the heel-bruised stage, sung by a big girl / we kind of both had a crush on.” Limón effortlessly narrows the lens of a moment without narrowing its significance. “Good grief we were loaded,” the narrator quips, and in lines that made me long for Elizabeth Tallent’s “Why I Love Country Music,” Limón exits with the perfect breath: “I won’t deny it: I was there, / standing in the bar’s bathroom mirror, / saying my name like I was somebody.”
I look for a healthy tension in a book of poems; call it a scar of being reared on Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. The big-sky poems of this book are well-contrasted with heart-skipping narratives like “The Riveter.” The narrator, a manager whose office is in a “high rise,” learns that her mother has a month to live. She “called in my team” for advice about what to do next. Hospice? Total parenteral nutrition? She writes down advice “like this was a meeting / about a client who wasn’t happy,” and soon realizes that the hardest job belonged to her mother, whose work “was to let the machine / of survival break down.” I think of a later poem, “Outside Oklahoma, We See Boston,” that ends “How / masterful and mad is hope.” Madness, wildness, transcendence. Bright Dead Things offers many answers, but is equally appealing for its questions: “Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field. Why must we practice / this surrender?” May our poems always be wild.
Donald would’ve been an easy book to get wrong. After all, when McSweeney’s announced in early January that it would release Eric Martin and Stephen Elliott’s “high-wire allegory” on the same day as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir Known and Unknown, the message seemed clear – Rummy is about to get waterboarded.
And, some would feel, rightfully so. To many, the lines crossed by the United States in the War on Terror were not fine but coarse, and although the former administration has moved on, the ire it incited remains. But rather than exploiting this obvious emotional peg, Martin and Elliott take the high road. Donald is a smart, subtle story that provides new insight into a man at the center of it all.
The plot is roughly what you’d expect. After a day of research and an evening out with friends, Donald, a former senior government official, is abducted from his study while his wife is upstairs. A team of masked gunmen hood, bind, and drug Donald, who later wakes up in a cell where he is subjected to oblique interrogations. This routine is repeated a few more times, as Donald is shuffled through a disorienting system of temporary prisons. But if bloodthirsty Rumsfeld-haters are hoping for a good killing here, they’ll be disappointed. Yes, Donald gets a bit roughed up. But he’s never waterboarded and you won’t hear him beg for mercy. This isn’t a literary flogging.
Critics and columnists alike have knocked Known and Unknown for the gaps it reveals in Rumsfeld’s character. In a recent column, Maureen Dowd said that the memoir, “is like a living, breathing version of the man himself: very thorough, highly analytical, and virtually absent any credible self-criticism.” The Times’s reviewer Michiko Kakutani added, “It is a book that suffers from many of the same flaws that led the administration into what George Packer of The New Yorker has called ‘a needlessly deadly’ undertaking — that is, cherry-picked data, unexamined assumptions and an unwillingness to re-examine past decisions.” Martin and Elliott somehow anticipated those gaps, and they fill them in with Donald. In the opening scene of the novel, a young man and woman confront Donald in a library over his testimony in a commission’s report. “There are omissions in your account,” he says. “We’re looking to set baselines for productive dialogue.”
In the end, productive dialogue with Donald is impossible. But it’s hard not to root for the guy a little when he’s abducted. His pluck and tougher-than-thou ethos, his old-school self-reliance, and the tenderness with which he expresses his love and concern for his wife almost render him sympathetic. But these impressions fade as Donald’s true character inexorably emerges over the course of the novel.
His blind ambition and arrogance are highlighted when he considers overtaking his captors by force, mano a mano. Donald can’t see that the wrestling instincts of his youth now inhabit the 78-year-old frame of a retired bureaucrat. His love for his wife morphs into a kind of grotesque solipsism as he ultimately uses her voice to reminisce about their relationship in his prison scribbling. The fact of his doing this is not that bothersome. What’s disturbing here is the way he does it.
The bottom line is I never would have married anyone until he married someone other than me. I’m sure he would have liked to live the bachelor’s life for a few more years. But he thought: Gee, I’m not going to wake up someday and say why didn’t you act faster or sooner. So it was more of an intellectual decision, not knowing that I would have waited. So the fact that we were engaged was just a big surprise to everyone. It’s not that there wasn’t passion. Of course there was. But it was always a lifelong partnership.
One night, late in his captivity, the questioning young man from the opening scene in the library returns. He stands outside Donald’s cell, presumably waiting for that productive dialogue to begin. Here, what initially appeared to be self-reliance, is revealed to be mean self-righteousness. Donald barks, “These people are trained to lie. They’re trained to say they were tortured. Their training manual says so. We learned a great deal about them. Their methods. Their skill sets. We’ve learned a great deal through this process which has been humane.” The subtext here is clear –“Hey, don’t look at me; these people got what they deserved.”
At a tight 110 pages, Donald is written in gorgeous prose and makes for a hypnotic read in one sitting. As Donald dines with his wife and another couple, their champagne, “looks like ice washed in gold, with perfect beads of bubbles skipping to the surface.” When Donald is abducted, the bodies around him smell, “like leeks and batteries.” “Motes of sunlight dance in his new cell,” when Donald is returned to the general population after a stint in solitary.
The elegant writing coupled with Martin and Elliott’s emotional restraint allows for Donald’s ultimate point to stand in high-relief. When the person chained in darkness is dragged into the light in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”, his eyes eventually adjust and a new reality emerges. Perhaps because he is too confident in his own perception of things or simply a relic of a simpler time, Martin and Elliott’s Donald is incapable of such adjustment. He is blinded by the realities of the world in which he finds himself.