Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew


After the authorial point-of-view penetrates, after the characters have been made flesh, after the scent of New England wafts and the starburst leaves shimmer like a smoke screen before your eyes, the tensions tip us forward, the rhythm of our breath matches the rhythm of the prose, and just like that, we’re drinking pages — 10, 20, 100 at a time. This full-immersion baptism is what John Gardner calls the “vivid, continuous dream,” and it’s the reading experience we long for. Short stories can move us in this way, but they rarely do. Novels are often more conducive to this rapture. Instead, short stories move us in different ways, offering flashes of wisdom, linguistic pyrotechnics, provocative dialogue, tantalizing ideas. But Edith Pearlman, in her new collection, Honeydew — magically, gracefully — accomplishes both of these feats. The flourish is where it should be: far from the nose, underwater, begging for another dive, another dive, another dive.

The phrases “master of the short form” and “undiscovered genius” didn’t start appearing next to Pearlman’s name until her fourth and much-lauded collection, Binocular Vision, came out in 2011. Why was she only then catapulted to the top shelf of Literary Land Yiyun Li clues us in when she says Pearlman “works outside the noise.” She eschews gimmick and shock and ignores the standard of the day to begin in media res. This is good old fashioned fashioning: sumptuous feasts of character, place, plot; beginning-middle-end; generous, wise, et al. Binocular Vision gave us a beautiful vagary of Jews, Gentiles, and pagans of all shapes, colors, and sizes grappling to either accommodate or be accommodated to. We saw a war doctor battling cancer, a seven-year-old girl separated from her parents near Harvard Square, an exiled minister of health holed up in a barn, fearing arrest for her liberal politics. We saw loads of disappointed, flawed, charming, and somewhat self-alienated people. “I love to write about what isn’t me,” Pearlman told The Boston Globe. Many of her stories take place in Godolphin, a fictional, first-wrung suburb of Boston, which she described for Beatrice in 2005:

Bow-fronted apartment buildings line Jefferson Boulevard; trolley tracks run down its middle like a zipper. In the town live ancient Yankees, prosperous Jews, envious academics; shopkeepers, secretaries, music teachers; Asian-Americans, Irish Americans, Russian almost-Americans. A few inhabitants sleep in alleys. Godolphinites exhibit every sexual preference including the preference to be left alone.

Whether in Godolphin or elsewhere, the stories of Honeydew often explore how one person’s societal remove — however painful or quotidian — pushes them to the brink of isolation and forces them to bumble out into the world in search of connection. In the opening story, “Tenderfoot,” Bobby Farraday, a young divorcé, moves to a smallish town to teach art history at the local college. The bathroom window of his top floor apartment offers a plain view into the pedicure parlor across the street and, more importantly, of the parlor’s owner, Paige, a 49-year-old widow. “Secretly he considered himself more than her neighbor. He was her invisible housemate…he stood to watch the pedicures, but usually sat on the lidded toilet, like a peep-show connoisseur.” Pearlman repeatedly thrills us by opening up secret worlds, and it’s because of the exquisite care with which these worlds are formed that we come to care deeply about her people (“characters” just doesn’t cut it).

Secrets are hoarded, shared, withheld, and sometimes tacitly roil between two characters. This tug-of-silent-war, this intimacy of knowing what is hidden/seen, fuels characters with intractable and often baffling powers. Because of this, the stakes often feel extremely high. In “Dream Children,” for example, a live-in nanny named Willa stumbles upon her employer’s stash of gruesome paintings. With these paintings comes the secret pains of their maker. When Willa chooses to make this information known to her employer conjures the wager of gaining compassion — or perhaps losing her job.

The Jewish diaspora continue to make their mark in Pearlman’s work, but she seems more concerned with the broader world’s sometimes darker subject matter. In a heartbreaking story, “What the Ax Forgets, the Tree Remembers,” Gabrielle volunteers for the local chapter of the Society Against Female Mutilation, where she coordinates victim presentations. She routinely checks in on a Somalian victim, Selene, and gets thrust into an unpremeditated but not unwelcome intimacy. Our own secrets, rather than others’, can surprise us the most. In another, “Honeydew,” the last story and perhaps the strongest, Pearlman takes on anorexia. Emily Knapp, a 90-pound 11th grader, has an obsession with bugs. “She dined among her dead insects, admiring chitinous exoskeletons while she put one of three carrot sticks into her mouth.” Alice Toomey, the headmistress of Caldecott Academy wants Emily kicked out, but she’s preoccupied with her own secret love affair.

Sometimes the secret isn’t so much of a secret but more of a private world. “Castle 4,” (a novel in miniature, really), another standout, offers a trio of love stories. The story takes place in and around a High Victorian Gothic hospital, which people refer to as “the Castle.” It begins as a straightforward tale about an isolated, discontent, socially awkward anesthesiologist named Zeph Finn who falls for a dying patient, but Pearlman, in a feat of omniscience, deftly lifts the view and draws our attention to Acelle, a sixth-grade Filipina, who slips in the woods beyond the Castle and is stabbed in her upper thigh with a narrow branch. Her playmate Joe comes to her rescue. On the ground floor of the Castle, the manager of the gift shop falls for Acelle’s father, the security guard. It’s tempting to summarize the whole story, because it’s so lush, so impeccably designed and economized that it makes you want to give Pearlman an Honorary Novel degree.

“Wait and See,” previously collected in xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, is the most obvious homage to the fairy tale, which has always earned its energies by private invitations. Like a pigeon or a butterfly, young Lyle is believed to be a pentachromat, meaning his retinas have five types of light-absorbing pigment, allowing him to see a thunderous wonder of colors. This gift, this “mischievous gene,” the doctors believe, was most likely passed down from Lyle’s sperm donor father, an African, “unknown bestower of semen.” Lyle is “like Anansi, the helpful spider of his favorite tales — a quiet ally who prefers his own company but skitters over to join you when you need him.” His head might be in the clouds, but in this case, the clouds are not dreams but an intricate reality. Like a magic carriage or enticing apple, Lyle is offered a way out of his isolated view with a pair of trichromatic glasses. The choice is loaded — joining the crowd, seeing things how others see them, or holding on to the one obvious thing that makes you who you are?

The shortest stories are the most forgettable. In “Her Cousin Jamie,” two teaching colleagues sit at a hotel bar and one is gripped by a memory of her cousin’s love affair. Once the story gets traction, it barrels into a tragic surprise, but the conversational frame feels unnecessary. “The Decent of Happiness,” one of the few stories in the first-person, feels more like an anecdote. A woman of indeterminate age looks back on a single memory when she was eight and went on a house call with her father, the country doctor. When the patient’s wolf-like dog bounds after her, she has her first ruminations of death. It’s not a bad story, just uncharacteristically rushed. Even so, there’s always wisdom to be found in a Pearlman story: “…I have discovered through the years that anyone who restricts his conversational responses to what he knows — what he knows he knows — will always seem to have an extraordinary, well-stocked mind.”

What holds these 20 together is what holds all of Pearlman’s stories together: recurring characters, settings, themes of love, loss, innocence, and the manifold forms of hunger and exile. There are a fair amount of widowers, divorcées, fussy loners, unsettled Jews, and therapists masquerading as small business owners, and they’re all so attentively and compassionately rendered that they rarely, if ever, blur. The distinct beginning/middle/end lends many of the stories a “once upon a time”/“one day this bad thing happened,” fairy tale structure. Make no mistake, Edith Pearlman’s world is grounded in reality, but as with John Cheever, John Updike, A.S. Byatt, and V.S. Pritchett, among others, her stories hold a reverence for the magical, the anomalous, and the chance encounters all around us.

In the afterward of Paris Stories, Mavis Gallant says, “Stories are not chapters in novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” But when a story collection is a considered a page-turner, it’s high praise. Usually, I heed Gallant’s advice, because every word counts in a story. Often, you need to re-read, let it settle, but something about this book feels so urgent, so wise, and it had me turning pages until the wee hours. So, what is the proper way to approach it? Lucky for us: either, both, and then again.

The Crushing Beauty of Nescio’s Amsterdam Stories

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It’s not surprising that it took more than 50 years after his death, for the works of the Dutch writer Nescio to be translated and published in America. It wasn’t until after WWII that he gained any notoriety in the Netherlands and he only became a beloved member of the Dutch canon posthumously. As Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, writes in his introduction to Amsterdam Stories, the first collection of Nescio’s work to appear in America, “[Nescio] wrote very little, and he wrote small.” His longest work is 42 pages long. His entire published oeuvre, including editor’s notes and some unpublished fragments, fits in this 161 page volume. Nescio wrote in a handful of years between 1909 and 1942 and almost nothing in the 1920s and 1930s.

Nescio (Latin for “I don’t know”) was the pen name of Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh. After briefly falling in with a circle of ambitious artistic youths and applying to join a colony in the Dutch countryside founded by psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden, Grönloh committed himself to a business career in 1904. He married in 1906 and immediately began fathering children, eventually having four daughters. After a series of minor office jobs, he ended up working for the Holland-Bombay Trading company, becoming its director in 1926 and, O’Neill points out, “a notably demanding and severe boss.” Grönloh was as bourgeoisie as could be. What little he published, he published under a pen name to protect his career as a proper Dutch businessman.

Conventional Dutch life wasn’t the only drain on Nescio’s writing time. His first love was not writing, but walking. O’Neill writes, “At a very early age he fell in love with taking walks and as a nine-year old began to go on solitary outings, making written records of his impressions.” In 1899 alone, he walked 522 kilometers. He maintained this relationship with the Dutch landscape for the rest of his life and it became a center of gravity in his work. Remove the time at the office, on a walk, attending one of the social engagements directors of major trading firms were expected to attend, and fulfilling familial obligations, and there just wasn’t much time to write. That J.H.F. Grönloh, the successful businessman, had a writing hobby is not surprising; that Nescio is a brilliant writer is shocking. As O’Neill asks, “How many important artists have been such slight practitioners?” Given how few works in translation are read in America, in general, it is a miracle Nescio got here at all.

Nescio should have gotten here long ago. His work converged with many aspects of American literature and culture. The ragtag circle of artists at the center of his stories could have hung out with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. His eco-spirituality could have inspired the hippies and early environmentalists. Fans of our great walker Thoreau would have found a kindred spirit. Whenever Rimbaud showed up in coffee shops, clubs, and cocktail parties, Nescio could have been his shadow. But Nescio’s absence from our literature is most surprising because of the crushing beauty of his work.

Many of you have been waiting for Amsterdam Stories; those of you who reread “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” who had (or have) world changing dreams and no longer know what to do or believe or feel about them, who aren’t sure what to think when sitting in coffee shops watching people walk by, who don’t know what to say when you see an old friend for the first time in years and realize  how much you have changed by how much your friend has changed. Who love long walks. Who love sitting by lakes, ponds, and rivers. Who want brave and beautiful stories. Who want fiction to remind us why this is important.

Nescio examines painters, writers, poets, and thinkers at various stages of their lives. We see them full of the irrational passion of youth, crippled by the frustration of middle age in a world that refused to change, conflicted about the success of their bitterest work, and settling into the spiritual acceptance only available to those who can reflect on an entire life. Though there is a sense of longing when he looks back on youth, Nescio celebrates the exuberance and naïveté without being nostalgic. He is Romantic without romanticizing. And even as daily life slowly squeezes the revolution from these characters, even as they give up painting and writing, even as some fall away to madness or complacency, Nescio argues for the artist’s perspective, for the idea that even if you are unable to create, you can still see the world as an endless source of potential.

For me, reading Amsterdam Stories was like watching Casablanca. Much of Casablanca has become cliché. The famous lines are quoted so often, and the famous scenes are such a part of our culture, we’ve seen the movie before we’ve actually seen it. And yet, even though we’ve heard them a hundred times, even though we know they’re coming, the famous lines are still powerful. They are surrounded by such inherent and integral beauty, that what should make us roll our eyes, takes our breath away. In Casablanca we hear “a hill of beans” and “here’s looking at you, kid.” In Amsterdam Stories we read “And I puff on my pipe in all humility, and feel like God himself, who is infinity itself. I sit there aimlessly. God’s aim is aimlessness. But to keep this awareness always is granted to no man.” — from the story “Young Titans.” “Then she stretched out her arms but there was no one to answer her. Then she didn’t know if she wanted to live or die and she slowly rode her bike home, where Mother sat yawning over her Daily News under the gas lamp with her glasses on the tip of her nose,” from “The Little Poet.” “But the Lord is in the great silence and emptiness and in this wondrous end to a monumental day. The day has become mine once more and mine the enchanted world. The sun stands still, there will be no night. Time stands still; pitiless eternity takes pity,” from “Insula Dei.” In other contexts, these passages with their “God” and “live or die” and “eternity” might be overwrought bombast, but, as in Casablanca, the beauty in the fabric of the stories makes the passages transcendent.

Amsterdam Stories is a book of landscape. It is about what words the mind hears when the eyes are truly open, seeing the world as a reason to create. “And the sky got bluer and bluer and the sun shone until it seemed like flowers would have to start sprouting out of the country bumpkins. And the red roofs in the villages and the black trees and the fields…And the road lay there, white and smarting, it couldn’t bear the sunlight, and the glass panes of the village streetlamps flashed, they had trouble withstanding the glare too,” from “Young Titans.” “A stately row of Canadian poplars, a copse here and there. A striking emptiness and silence…And then there’s a fantastic golden cloud above the grain fields, climbing up out of the grain fields, shining and spreading up and to the right…And then something looms up out of the golden matter…And a moment later it’s a wagon piled high with hay,” from “Insula Dei.” It makes me feel the time has come to set out on my “journey westward.”

Finally, Nescio is not afraid to be vague. He lets moments for which language is an ineffective communicator hang on the thinnest scaffolding of words. In “Out Along the Ij,” “[h]is world came in through our eyes and lived in our heads, and our thoughts went wordlessly out across the world, far beyond the horizon they went.” In “Insula Dei,” we see Flip smile “not pathetically anymore but the way you smile at someone who has done you a real favor.” As readers and writers we are taught to seek and strive for precision; an exactness from which individual interpretations can flow. But much of life is vague, inexact, and diffuse. Like the indistinct details in a Van Gogh landscape, Nescio can be meaningful and beautiful without being specific.

Amsterdam Stories easily merged with my own canon, like a flood born stream joining the river. I’ve mentioned “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor,” but Nescio also reminded me of “The Hunger Artist,” “White Nights,” and the last few pages of The Great Gatsby. Stories like epic landscape paintings. Stories like a quiet chat on a river bank with a confidant. Stories like the foggy joyous hangover after a long night of tobacco-infused, coffee-fueled poetry. Beautiful stories. Love poems to life. Grönloh did not live the life of an artist, but Nescio has written one of the great apologies for art. We all struggle through the challenges of life; all the good mothers and fathers, all the diligent businessmen, all the fastidious bureaucrats, all the revolutionaries, all the mainstream politicians, all the over-read students, all the exhausted laborers, all of us. We rely on artists to remind us why that struggle is worth it.

The James Joyce Book Club: Julian Rios’s The House of Ulysses

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Ulysses is the literary equivalent of Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu or any of the world’s other great, beautiful, challenging locations.  Just as there are guides, travelogues and travel television shows designed to communicate a flavor of those locations while providing the traveler with the tools needed to actually visit them, there are guides and books hoping to create readers of Ulysses while providing those readers with the tools needed to actually read and appreciate it.  There are Gifford’s Annotated Ulysses, Blamire’s New Bloomsday Book, Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us, and many more guides, skeleton keys, and potential philosophical structures.

The House of Ulysses by Julian Rios isn’t exactly a guide or skeleton key to Ulysses, though it does offer short summaries of the episodes.  Nor is does it provide a direct intellectual structure for understanding Ulysses, though it certainly intellectually investigates Ulysses. Rather, House is a critical novel, or novelistic criticism, or some other mixture of the actions of creation and interpretation.  The House of Ulysses is essentially a book club novel with six speakers; “the Circeone” who leads the group, the silent “Macintosh,” a man whose Mac laptop displays information about the episode in question and who is a reference to one of the mysteries of Ulysses, “Professor Jones,” and “The mature reader (did she call him Ananias?), the young female reader (Babel or Belle?), and the old critic.  Let’s call them A, B, and C, for short.”

The House moves episode by episode through Ulysses with “the Cicerone” presenting the plot, historical context, and some of the many subtle threads of details that weave through the work, with “Passageways” sections in which the speakers discuss the episodes.  Though “discuss” might not be the right term as the speakers rarely directly respond to each other.  Instead, they  pile observations, critical insights, questions, philosophical flights of fancy, non-sequitorial conclusions, and bombast into a babbling tower of interpretation.  At times the “discussion”  is almost a vaudeville act; one could imagine the speakers participating in the intellectual equivalent of the exchanging of hats from Waiting for Godot.

Though the discussions never lead to anything on the same continent as a conclusion, they contain some of the best criticism about Ulysses I’ve ever read.  Whatever else can be said about House, Rios gets Ulysses at a level that allows him to encapsulate its spirit and core in single statements.  “…and it was also a way of referring to the secret unity of literature through ages and culture.”  “The revelations and knowledge emerge gradually, said A, as is so often the case in cities.”   “Ambiguity through contiguity.”  “Imitates and dynamites such enormities, so many delusions of past grandeur.”  “Words are the real hallucinogens here.”

One way to describe Ulysses is as a novel of mundane details, like the feeding of a cat, a forgotten tuning fork, and bad advertising copy.  Rios uses the “discussion” to elucidate many of the subtle details and connections in Ulysses.  “[Stephen] could have used those two pennies to settle the debt with the poor dairymaid.”  “We could also imagine as crossed the two keys Stephen and Bloom have left behind; the one for the Martello Tower, the other for 7 Eccles Street.”  “Another throwaway—Jacob for Elijah escaping in his chariot.”

The obvious question raised by a book like this is: “What if you haven’t read Ulysses?”  What if you don’t know about the dairymaid, the ad for the House of Keyes, or Throwaway the winner of the Gold Cup horse race? Unfortunately, House does not have enough content independent of Ulysses to be read and enjoyed by someone who hasn’t read Ulysses.  It has speakers, but no characters, and statements, but no plot.  Its jokes are all inside jokes.  For his part, Rios seems perfectly comfortable with writing to this particular audience, focusing his prose more on the critical than on the narrative components of his novel.

Ultimately, this means that House of Ulysses should be approached as criticism even if it uses techniques of fiction to convey its ideas.  Ulysses is a dramatic expression of the relationship between life and literature through ambitious experiments in narrative style and method.  So it makes sense for criticism about Ulysses to experiment with styles of interpretation.  Doing so allows the critic to explore and celebrate multiple levels of Ulysses within the same act of interpretation; elucidating details, making connections, and describing themes, while experimenting with the nature of communicating interpretation and thus directly engaging Ulysses’ statements on the nature of style.

I was left with one dominant effect from reading The House of Ulysses; the desire to read Ulysses again.  There are readers who have decided they will simply not read Ulysses, and no one will convince them.  There are readers who haven’t ruled it out, but Rios won’t convince them.  There are those who have it on the list, and when they get to it, Rios and his House will be there to deepen their reading.  But the readers who will get the most out of the novel are those whose familiarity with Ulysses will allow them to appreciate Rios’s criticism.  Criticism has a number of different goals, and one of them is to motivate a reader to return to the source text with new eyes.  In terms of this goal alone, The House of Ulysses is a brilliant work of criticism, one that reveals without dictating, written in the spirit of the source work, with a sense of humor and a profound love of literature.

Dada Pedagogy: Andrei Codrescu’s The Poetry Lesson

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On page six of Andrei Codrescu’s, The Poetry Lesson, student Matt Borden tells the class about himself.  He is heir to a milk fortune and his grandmother “was a personal friend of Queen Marie of Romania,” who is buried in a SALT-treaty-emptied missile silo along with all of her books and a “life-size bronze of Diana the Huntress.”  Before this moment, one could believe that The Poetry Lesson “is a hilarious account of the first day of a creative writing course.”  But Matt Borden is clearly a character, not a person, and the same goes for Hillary Adams, the ROTC member, Jason Jacob, who “looked very much like young Trotsky,” John Ferris the economics major, Letitia Klein with her Aunt Clara, the nun, and all the other students in the intro to poetry class.  It’s easy to believe a unique thinker like Codrescu would open a class with an anecdote about a man who collected pictures of poets’ graves and that he would assign the acquisition of a “goatskin notebook for writing down dreams” and a “Mont Blanc fountain pen (extra credit if it belonged to Mme Blavatsky),” but the students themselves reveal the fault lines, or seams, or perhaps even brushstrokes of the work itself.

About two thirds of the way through the book, Codrescu says this about The Poetry Lesson; “This is not a novel, but neither is it poetry…No, this story is not a novel or poetry, and it’s no essay or memoir either, thought it mimics aspects of both.”  Though it hints at a creative personal essay, it still goes too far into fiction for even our era’s lax requirements for a “memoir,” and its narrativity doesn’t go far enough into fiction for it to share a shelf with Sophie’s World, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Ishmael.  It might be best to read The Poetry Lesson as one reads Plato’s Dialogues; the Dialogues have characters, settings, and, in a basic sense, plots, but those components of fiction are merely support structures for ideas.  One does not read the Dialogues to explore the human experiences of Socrates, Phraedrus, or Alicbaides, as characters, or to understand Plato’s milieu, but to grapple directly with the ideas themselves.

However, that analogue is problematic as well, because the core projects of philosophy and poetry are so different.  Philosophy constructs ideas through statements; poetry creates images with language.  One should be prepared to read statements like these as lines of poetry, “I saw her standing at the bottom of the nuclear silo where a lone soldier once stood before a console and a telephone, reading endless novels, waiting for his one moment of work when the phone would ring;” “And if you do get rich…I advise you to dedicate a room of your rebuilt plantation house to Aimee Cesair;” “Think of what the inside of your head might sound like if you asked the Roman poet Ovid and the French poet Antonin Artaud to tell you what to have for dinner,” and “I did not dismiss the idea of the devil as a skilled forger who had faked what we call reality.”

Ultimately, The Poetry Lesson might be just that; a poetry lesson taught with dada pedagogy.  It is a lesson plan bent by manifesto-ish proclamations like “Unlike fame, immortality doesn’t need a press agent;” “Ours is not a heroic age and it embarrasses them.  They prefer doom to nothingness, but there it is: if you can’t have doom, feign indifference;” and “One reached for the end of any thread in the tangled yarn of what we know and pulled: the thing unraveled and that was poetry.” In a discursive but powerful way, Codrescu is making a statement about poetry; poetry mixes intellectual mysticism with an artistically arranged social consciousness, and a freewheeling joy in the creation of words, through whatever individual expression the writer has left after being formed, reformed, and deformed by systems of culture.  Will The Poetry Lesson create better poets?  I don’t know, but all those who read it will be better travelers in the world of poetry.

Codrescu might offer an even better perspective for reading The Poetry Lesson.  Much of the class in the Lesson is made up of Codrescu assigning “Ghost-Companions” to his students.  A ghost-companion “is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google until you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty.  Any difficulty…Your Ghost-Companion…will come to your aid not just for your assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.” (italics in original)  Perhaps Codrescu has tried to write a Ghost-Companion.

Regardless of how it’s labeled, The Poetry Lesson is a brilliant work, filled with sentences and images you’d want hung on your study walls for occasional contemplation.  Codrescu writes, “It hurts me, it really does, to know so much and to have to invent everything,” and “It was an interesting time in America: our country suddenly had more singers than machinists, more waiters than carpenters, more nerds than farmers.” At times the work reads like an anthology of likely epigraphs.  If you want to assess the impact this book has, just keep track of how often its statements appear at the beginning of other people’s works of poetry.  The Poetry Lesson bends, twists, dances, and distorts ideas of poetry; creating a weird, wonderful, and challenging work that stretches across and slips between genres of literature, while maintaining a profound core of wisdom.

War Comes Home: Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise

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“I embrace the frightful and the beautiful.”–Al-Bayati

Great war poetry has a profound tension between two fundamental sets of drives; the creative and empathetic drives of poetry and the destructive and divisive drives of war; it has a parallelism with the beauty and lyricism of the language and poetic structure existing with but never becoming one with the gore and horror of being in a WWI trench, for example.  As the romanticizing of war faded in Western culture, so did this tension and more often than not when poetry dealt with war, it only condemned war.  But war is not totally composed of atrocity, and to understand war and eventually eradicate it, means grappling with the complex effects of strife on human relationships and emotions and poetry has the conceptual flexibility needed to contain all those concepts and contradictions.

Furthermore, the experience of American war has changed and Brian Turner, who served in Iraq, is our first poetic chronicler of the new American war.  His previous book, Here, Bullet, (one of the finest collections in recent memory) dealt exclusively with his time in Iraq.  Phantom Noise is a broader examination of the new American war.  Soldiers now spend much more time identifying enemies than fighting enemies, they are on patrol through marketplaces more than they are on point in combat, and their mistakes lead to the deaths of innocents instead of themselves and their comrades.  Death is still the primary experience but American soldiers have a new relationship with it.  Contemporary war, in America at least, is now defined as much by coming home as it is by shipping out.

In Phantom Noise, Turner creates a technical definition of the “embrace” in his epigraph included above, by showing the impossible, yet constant, juxtaposition of “frightful” memories of war with “beautiful” experiences of human existence.  As in war poetry in general, the two are present but parallel.  In “The Inventory From a Year Lived Sleeping with Bullets;” Turner twists that parallelism, “The conceptual and the physical given parallel structure,” to create another pair constantly present without intersecting.  Phantom Noise is both the first collection of poetry dealing with the soldier returning from Iraq to a life constantly between the parallel forces of war and domesticity, and Turner’s creation of an embrace that encloses them both.

The embrace begins with the brilliant “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.”  This poem is the most direct exploration of those impossible juxtapositions as “a 50 pound box of double-headed nails” turns into “…firing pins/ from M-4s and M-16s,” “Wounded Iraqis with IVs/ sit propped against boxes as 92 sample Paradiso fans,” and “Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers.”  Though the images share physical space with the home improvement center, their concepts never mix; the ideas of a home improvement center and a war are kept separate.  One never becomes a metaphor for the other.  In poem after poem, Turner sets the memories that give him nightmares against the present that gives him comfort.

Along with poems of war and poems of returning from war, Turner bravely includes poems without the specter and spectacle of war.  With the assertive visuality of short art films, Turner shows a series of formative moments; a young boy caught asleep next to the daughter of his baby sitter in “Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon,” “…the old man strangling the dishes,” and “…a boy of four with a pot of tea/ for an old woman buried in afghans, lit by Chinese lanterns,” in “Lucky Money,” and the closing image of “The Whale;” “and I remember everyone smiling/ afterward, laughing, each of us amazed/ the day a god was blown to pieces on the beach/ and we walked away from it, unscathed.”  Though these poems are naturally overshadowed by the poems of war, they are all excellent works that reward scrutiny.

The politics in this collection is subtle, culminating in  “Al-A’Imma Bridge;” a mini-epic of war death in Iraq.  It is a scene of Iraqis falling off a bridge while, “years unravel like filaments of straw.”  Iraqis die from the efforts of “Alexander the Great,” “F-16s,” “the German Luftwaffe,” and others.  Turner’s collection is filled with dead Iraqis; poem after poem in a catalog of slain enemies.  But there is nothing victorious in this catalog.  Turner sees not thousands of war deaths, but one war death shared by all, American and Iraqi, soldier and civilian, endlessly iterated.  He writes, “Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world/ dying anew,” and concludes with resignation, “..give daisies and hyacinths/ to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips/ unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers/ that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.”  The collection’s political statement is one of empathy; a declaration that death, regardless of nationality, ethnicity belief, or anything else, is always death.

In “Phantom Noise,” Turner comes the closest in anything I’ve ever read to transferring an experience of the soldier to the civilian; to telling us in a way we can meaningful empathize with, what it feels like to be a soldier coming home.  The “Noise” is a “ringing” created by “bullet-borne language  ringing,” “shell-fall and static,” “brake pad gone useless  this muzzle-flash singing,” and other sounds.  In a brilliant display of sophisticated poetics, Turner recreates that “ringing” in the ears of the reader; a “ringing” that reappears whenever the poem is read or remembered.  The effect is powerful enough that I can almost see “Sgt. Rampley walk[ing] through–/ carrying someone’s blown-off arm cradled like an infant,” at my local hardware store parallel to the grills and gardening supplies and enclosed by Brian Turner’s embrace.