Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit

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My Sophomore Years


On a recent foray into the deepest, dankest corners of my basement, I came across a box of college mementoes — old photographs, bottlecaps, blue-book exams. As I dug through the strata, I uncovered a largely-forgotten treasure: a stack of novels that I’d read and loved as an idealistic, horny, often hungover student. These books helped usher me from my teens into adulthood — and opened my eyes to the breadth, and often the harshness, of the surrounding world. I’d adored these books. So why had I left them in this box, like discarded memories? Looking through them again, I may have found the answer.

Dancing Soup with Coyote Girl • Tom Robbins
As a sophomore, I discovered Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction and was blown back by his sentences’ studied freedom and his generous worldview. I quickly read Still Life With Woodpecker and enjoyed it slightly less; Skinny Legs and All, less still. By the time I got to Jitterbug Perfume, I was openly annoyed by the patchouli miasma that hovered over everything. The last Robbins book I read was Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl, published in 1992. The more Coyote Girl I read, the more I felt almost physically ill, as if a sketchy-bearded hippie was talking me through a brown-acid trip. I couldn’t finish the book. And when I saw Dancing Soup With Coyote Girl’s long-forgotten cover — a purple can of mushroom soup hovering above a desert mesa — I had a sweaty flashback that left me shivering under the utility sink.

Monsters of Privilege • Bret Easton Ellis
Of all the Ellis novels I ripped through in college — American Psycho, Glamorama, Less Than Zero — I remember very little about Monsters of Privilege aside from the fact that it featured hard drugs, an anorexic girl seeming to die without anyone caring, and lots of dead-eyed sex. As I flipped through my copy — the cover shows a backlit silhouette of a high-cheeked young man and a bold san-serif font — my eye landed on a passage that seemed representative: “Derek looked around, blood draining from the wound. The glass vase lay smashed on the Italian marble. ‘I need some coke,’ Derek muttered to the empty foyer. Out by the pool, someone had put on a Tears for Fears cassette.”

Garbageman • Charles Bukowski
Bukowski’s third novel, the autobiographical Garbageman, is about Los Angeles trash collector Henry Chinaski, who, when not working for the city’s Public Works Authority, writes short stories on a broken typewriter in his grimy cold-water flat. Chinaski rages against his circumscribed lot with a steady, heroic intake of hard booze and cheap women, unconcerned by the bleakness of it all. While some have criticized Garbageman as a carbon-copy of much of his other work — Post Office and Factotum come to mind — the differences are obvious. In Post Office, he’s a postal worker, and in Factotum, he’s a factotum (or handyman). In Garbageman, he’s a…well, I won’t ruin it for you.

 The Gutter • Hubert Selby, Jr.
What I’d consider to be Selby’s lightest, frothiest novel, The Gutter follows the exploits of a heroin-addicted gigolo named Bunny. At the book’s outset, we find Bunny writhing in a flophouse basement, covered in blood and vomit while scratching at infected boils. Two hundred forty-seven pages later, Bunny is near death, “bad skag” spreading through his veins, spittle at his purple lips, as he moans in the titular gutter. “I always wanted to write a comedy,” Selby said to The New York Review of Books in 1987, upon The Gutter’s publication. “This is my Without Feathers.”

Ishmael 3: Going Ape • Daniel Quinn
I read the gorilla-philosophy classic Ishmael at the precise moment I should have, when I was about 19 and, like its narrator, had “an earnest desire to save the world.” Its message — basically, that we’re a species of selfish bastards, and we need to stop hacking everything to pieces — seemed sound, and I became a vegetarian not long after reading it. A sequel, My Ishmael, offered more of the same, and I responded in kind, cutting dairy from my diet and riding my 10-speed everywhere, no matter the distance. I was nearly at my limit — and the Gaia-minded self-sacrifice urged in Ishmael 3: Going Ape pushed me over the edge. After reading it, I sought out a remote yurt-based community, where we drank home-brewed scallionmilk and fashioned socks from dryer lint. It was a rough period, to say the least (it was the year of the Great Eastern Chigger Invasion), and as the memories flooded back, I shoved Ishmael 3: Going Ape into the deepest recesses of the box, along with its companions: the Selby, the Ellis, the Bukowski, the Robbins. I sealed it with fresh tape, hurried up the basement steps, and shut off the light. Upstairs, slightly shaken, I laid on my living-room couch and continued reading a book that, I’m positive, will never seem embarrassing in retrospect.

Image Credit: Flickr/Angelo Yap.

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.

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