Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (trans. L Davis)

In her ‘Note on the Translation’ of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Lydia Davis writes, “‘A good sentence in prose,’ says Flaubert, ‘should be like a good line in poetry, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous.’ To achieve a translation that matches this high standard is difficult, perhaps impossible.” Reading a translation of Madame Bovary is a compromise, a dilution not only of style but of idiom.

Intending to satirise the bourgeois of his day, not bourgeois with any Marxist connotations but referring to the philistine obsessed with material circumstances, Flaubert drew heavily on his work-in-progress, the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas. Over three decades, Flaubert, recorded in this Dictionary his personal irritations and as Davis describes, “certain traits such as intellectual and spiritual superficiality, raw ambition, shallow culture, a love of material things, greed, and above all a mindless parroting of sentiments and beliefs.”

The dialogue between Emma Bovary and her husband and lovers, and, of course, the pedantries of Homais, are lifted straight from Flaubert’s dictionary. Hugh Kenner adds, “If the Dictionary is useless for guiding conversation, it is useful for the writer; and the writer who used it was Flaubert himself, turning, it would seem from entry to entry precisely like a correspondence-school novelist . . . For the dictionary entries on which he based the discourses of Emma and Léon, Flaubert need not have listened to thousands of Emmas and Léons; he could have gotten “Sea: image of the infinite” [from their cliché-filled introductory conversation] directly out of other novels, and perhaps did.”

With Madame Bovary, Flaubert writes a study of provincial life as polished and crafted as a diamond, but also commences a life-long theme, “Writing books about what books do to the readers of books, one eye always on the sort of thing his own book is going to do to its own reader.”

And what Flaubert does in Madame Bovary, is to present a dubious array of unsympathetic characters, whom he subsequently annihilates with apparent relish. “Who are the ‘good’ people of the book?” asks Nabokov in his precise examination of Madame Bovary, concluding, “Emma’s father, old Rouault; somewhat unconvincingly, the boy Justin, whom we glimpse crying on Emma’s grave, a bleak note; and speaking of Dickensian notes let us not forget two other unfortunate children, Emma’s little daughter, and of course that other little Dickensian girl, that girl of thirteen, hunchbacked, a little bleak housemaid, a dingy nymphet, who serves Lheureux as clerk, a glimpse to ponder. Who else in the book do we have as good people?The best person is the third doctor, the great Lariviere, although I have always hated the transparent tear he sheds over the dying Emma.”

As I complete my rereading of Madame Bovary, I remember why she always has my sympathies in the end. Not only because of her savage destruction by the book’s narrator, Flaubert if you go back far enough, but also because she represents the repressed sensuality within us. Our response to the ennui of everyday life is to throw ourselves into work, our children, our work, or to self-medicate with alcohol, tobacco or drugs, or any combination of these. A part of us, I suspect, however deeply repressed, wants to live with the abandon of Emma Bovary.

My much-younger reading of Madame Bovary had left an impression of an artist producing the last Victorian novel. Although there are traces of high Romance, this novel presents romance of a baser nature, and a closer pre-cursor to the Moderns. Kenner, drawing a straight line between Flaubert and James Joyce, makes the point, “His [Flaubert] tight, burnished set pieces slacken considerably in translation: if we want to see something in English that resembles them, we cannot do better than consult Ulysses, where Bloom’s cat ‘blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes,’ or ‘Frail from the housetops two plumes of smoke ascended, pluming, and in a flaw of softness softly were blown,’ or ‘Two shafts of soft daylight fell across the flagged floor from the high barbicans; and at the meeting of their rays a cloud of coalsmoke and fumes of fried grease floated, turning.'”

Lydia Davis counted nineteen translations of Madame Bovary, there are at least a dozen film interpretations, numerous serious critical works, by writers like Nabokov, Sartre and Proust. The book’s irresistible attraction is undeniable. There are few novels I have read three times; clear evidence of Madame Bovary’s masterpiece status is that multiple readings illuminate different facets.

To end, an apt conclusion from Harold Bloom, “Though he murders her, Flaubert performs the work of mourning for her, a work that takes the shape of his masterpiece, the purest of all novels in form, economy, and the just representation of general nature.”

The Stoic Comedians by Hugh Kenner

Flaubert, Joyce and Beckett, three writers that redefined the medium of the novel. Hugh Kenner, a passionate reader first, and insightful critic second, traces how each man pushed the form of the novel to a conclusion, or impasse. Each writer evolved the novel on a steady journey towards interiorization. Kenner illuminates the path of this journey. Kenner’s Stoic Comedians is that rare work of criticism, writing of the highest order.

Tony Curtis: The Perfect Rodolphe Boulanger

I’ve added Claude Chabrol’s interpretation of Madame Bovary to my Lovefilm list. I am very choosy the films that I watch. I’ve yet to see a Chabrol film that hasn’t provoked a powerful reaction. He is a first-rate artist.

While mooching on the web I came across the poster below for Jean Renoir’s (another inspiring director) Madame Bovary. My first reaction was ‘Perfect! Tony Curtis is the perfect Rodolphe Boulanger.’ Don’t you think? Curtis (RIP) has the right balance of cheesiness and charm to pull off oily Rodolphe.

Except that isn’t Tony Curtis in the picture. I think it is Daniel Lecourtois, who played Leon in this version of the film.

Madame Bovary Pt. 2

Rereading Part II of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is for me, an odd experience, if only because it is where I expected this story to come flooding back. After all, I read the novel twice before, albeit over twenty years ago. Yet only a faint impression remains, thus I enjoy this remarkable book almost afresh.

A recurring theme puzzled me whilst reading some of the comments on various blogs about Part I. A few commenters reported that they had abandoned Madame Bovary because they found it boring. Boring? I could just about understand readers giving the book up because they find Flaubert’s descriptive prose suffocating or cloying, or because of the lack of sympathetic characters. But boring?

Harold Bloom wrote, “With her [Emma] the novel enters the realm of inactivity, where the protagonists are bored, but the reader is not.” Perhaps Flaubert attracts polarised reactions because Madame Bovary is profoundly unsettling. Bloom again, “I wonder indeed if she does not provoke our fear as well, since she involuntary exposes the contingency of most of our passions. Even our most violent attachments are functions of mere juxtapositions of time and space.”

In the second part of Madame Bovary, the foundation of Flaubert’s pitiless destruction of his protagonist is laid. After the disappointment of Léon’s departure we glimpse the narcissism at the core of Emma’s downfall, “A woman who had required of herself such great sacrifices could surely be permitted to indulge her whims.”

Madame Bovary’s initial seduction, at the Agricultural Fair, by the oily Rodolphe, is my favourite chapter of Part II. The scene’s outcome is predictable but at, “And he grasped her hand; she did not withdraw it,” my immediate thought was ‘no, don’t do it.’ Flaubert succeeds in making this woman sympathetic, despite all.

Thereafter I read slightly breathlessly as the horrors mount: poor Hippolyte’s operation, Emma gets jilted and suffers a nervous or hysterical illness. The illness mirrors Flaubert’s nervous affliction, of which I know little. For me, Madame Bovary leads inevitably to a question: ‘why.’ Why Flaubert, a meticulous writer, who famously declared “I am Madame Bovary” chose to create and then destroy, so mercilessly, this character.

Madame Bovary Pt.1

“The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation” (translating Madame Bovary)

The Notion of Procreation was a Delectation

Alongside continuing to slowly read Madame Bovary this weekend, I’ve also been reading about the book and its writer. The posts and subsequent discussions that took place in Comments, both here and on the blogs of others participating in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of Madame Bovary, inspired me to think and read more deeply into the hazards of translating Flaubert’s complicated prose.

Nabokov’s lecture on Madame Bovary is the yardstick, but many serious critics address the art of Flaubert. Both Hugh Kenner and Harold Bloom offer perceptive criticism of Flaubert, but the critic that, in recent years, offers the most penetrating analysis of Flaubert is James Wood.

Wood’s The Broken Estate and How Fiction Works both contain helpful insight. In particular this paragraph fascinated and amused me. In the Lydia Davis translation, the sentence is: ” The idea of having engendered a child delighted him,” and shows how close Davis remains to the original.

So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: ‘L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.’ So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is ‘The idea of having engendered delighted him.’ Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: ‘The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.’ This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out loud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four ‘ay’ sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engend, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’

Last Letter

Via night rpm, Ted Hughes’ poem about the night of Plath’s suicide.

“Last Letter” by Ted Hughes

What happened that night? Your final night.
Double, treble exposure
Over everything. Late afternoon, Friday,
My last sight of you alive.
Burning your letter to me, in the ashtray,
With that strange smile. Had I bungled your plan?
Had it surprised me sooner than you purposed?
Had I rushed it back to you too promptly?
One hour later—-you would have been gone
Where I could not have traced you.
I would have turned from your locked red door
That nobody would open
Still holding your letter,
A thunderbolt that could not earth itself.
That would have been electric shock treatment
For me.
Repeated over and over, all weekend,
As often as I read it, or thought of it.
That would have remade my brains, and my life.
The treatment that you planned needed some time.
I cannot imagine
How I would have got through that weekend.
I cannot imagine. Had you plotted it all?

Your note reached me too soon—-that same day,
Friday afternoon, posted in the morning.
The prevalent devils expedited it.
That was one more straw of ill-luck
Drawn against you by the Post-Office
And added to your load. I moved fast,
Through the snow-blue, February, London twilight.
Wept with relief when you opened the door.
A huddle of riddles in solution. Precocious tears
That failed to interpret to me, failed to divulge
Their real import. But what did you say
Over the smoking shards of that letter
So carefully annihilated, so calmly,
That let me release you, and leave you
To blow its ashes off your plan—-off the ashtray
Against which you would lean for me to read
The Doctor’s phone-number.
My escape
Had become such a hunted thing
Sleepless, hopeless, all its dreams exhausted,
Only wanting to be recaptured, only
Wanting to drop, out of its vacuum.
Two days of dangling nothing. Two days gratis.
Two days in no calendar, but stolen
From no world,
Beyond actuality, feeling, or name.

My love-life grabbed it. My numbed love-life
With its two mad needles,
Embroidering their rose, piercing and tugging
At their tapestry, their bloody tattoo
Somewhere behind my navel,
Treading that morass of emblazon,
Two mad needles, criss-crossing their stitches,
Selecting among my nerves
For their colours, refashioning me
Inside my own skin, each refashioning the other
With their self-caricatures,

Their obsessed in and out. Two women
Each with her needle.

That night
My dellarobbia Susan. I moved
With the circumspection
Of a flame in a fuse. My whole fury
Was an abandoned effort to blow up
The old globe where shadows bent over
My telltale track of ashes. I raced
From and from, face backwards, a film reversed,
Towards what? We went to Rugby St
Where you and I began.
Why did we go there? Of all places
Why did we go there? Perversity
In the artistry of our fate
Adjusted its refinements for you, for me
And for Susan. Solitaire
Played by the Minotaur of that maze
Even included Helen, in the ground-floor flat.
You had noted her—-a girl for a story.
You never met her. Few ever met her,
Except across the ears and raving mask
Of her Alsatian. You had not even glimpsed her.
You had only recoiled
When her demented animal crashed its weight
Against her door, as we slipped through the hallway;
And heard it choking on infinite German hatred.

That Sunday night she eased her door open
Its few permitted inches.
Susan greeted the black eyes, the unhappy
Overweight, lovely face, that peeped out
Across the little chain. The door closed.
We heard her consoling her jailor
Inside her cell, its kennel, where, days later,
She gassed her ferocious kupo, and herself.

Susan and I spent that night
In our wedding bed. I had not seen it
Since we lay there on our wedding day.
I did not take her back to my own bed.
It had occurred to me, your weekend over,
You might appear—-a surprise visitation.
Did you appear, to tap at my dark window?
So I stayed with Susan, hiding from you,
In our own wedding bed—-the same from which
Within three years she would be taken to die
In that same hospital where, within twelve hours,
I would find you dead.
Monday morning
I drove her to work, in the City,
Then parked my van North of Euston Road
And returned to where my telephone waited.

What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—-
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.

At what position of the hands on my watch-face
Did your last attempt,
Already deeply past
My being able to hear it, shake the pillow
Of that empty bed? A last time
Lightly touch at my books, and my papers?
By the time I got there my phone was asleep.
The pillow innocent. My room slept,
Already filled with the snowlit morning light.
I lit my fire. I had got out my papers.
And I had started to write when the telephone
Jerked awake, in a jabbering alarm,
Remembering everything. It recovered in my hand.
Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: ‘Your wife is dead.’

Madame Bovary Pt. I

This year my attention so far, has been drawn to artists like Joyce, Woolf and Kafka. Reading Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, though I’ve read it twice before, requires an adjustment. Unlike those writers, Flaubert leaves less space for contemplation, he describes relentlessly, building up his fiction, layer by layer.

When Flaubert wishes to make a point he abjures subtlety. A lengthy paragraph describes hapless Charles Bovary’s graceless cap:

It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer’s cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by way of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.

The same technique is used when describing Charles’ and Emma’s wedding cake, an equally vulgar object:

At the base, first, there was a square of blue cardboard representing a temple with porticoes, colonnades, and statuettes of stucco all around, in niches spangled with gold paper stars; then on the second tier was a castle keep made of sponge cake, surrounded by tiny fortifications of angelica, almonds, raisins, and orange sections; and lastly, on the topmost layer, which was a green meadow with rocks and with lakes made of jam and boats of nutshells, a little Cupid was swinging on a chocolate swing whose two poles ended in two real rosebuds, for knobs, at the top.

I’ve been eager to read this first part of Lydia Davis’ new translation of Madame Bovary, delaying my reading of it to participate in Nonsuch Book’s shared reading of the book. The opening part is, I suspect, my favourite, at least it’s the part I always think of when I recall Madame Bovary.

Having adjusted to Flaubert’s prose and style, it is a joy to indulge in the detail and imagery: the crass cap, the vulgar wedding cake, the little drops of sweat on Emma’s bare shoulders when widower Charles come to visit and, not forgetting one of literature’s more erotic moments:

As was the fashion in the country, she offered him something to drink. He refused, she insisted, and finally invited him, laughing, to have a glass of liqueur with her. So she went to get a bottle of curaçao from the cupboard, took down two small glasses, filled one to the rim, poured almost nothing in the other, and, after having touched it to his, raised it to her mouth. As it was almost empty, she leaned back to drink; and with her head back, her lips thrust out, her neck tense, she laughed at feeling nothing, while the tip of her tongue, passing between her delicate teeth, licked with little stabs at the bottom of the glass.

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow

“Just as, according to Proust, all Dostoevsky’s novels could well be called Crime and Punishment and all Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, so all Bellow’s could be called Dangling Man.”

I don’t know how difficult it was for Saul Bellow to find a publisher for his first book, Dangling Man. Reading his memoir and biography comes later into my planned immersion into Bellow’s work. At any stage in a writer’s oeuvre, this book would stand out, as a debut it is breathtaking. It makes Josipovici’s quote, above, a compliment.

Written as a journal, there is no identifiable plot, merely a few set pieces and the words of a broadly sympathetic but not always likeable narrator. It is necessary to ask to what end the journal is kept? Who is the expected reader? There is always an anticipated audience, however private a journal. Although the journal format could be limiting, Bellow uses it creatively to open up space for this remarkable story to be unfold.

Aside from narrator Joseph, the other large character in Dangling Man is 1940’s Chicago. I’m not sure that I can wait for my scheduled 2012 assignment in Chicago. Bellow, as I mentioned before, deftly gives a sense of time and place. I was eagerly Googling pictures of Chicago during 1942-44 to establish my presence in the city during my reading of this book. The smells, sounds and weather of the city came to life, and I rode invisibly beside Joseph on the trams, the ‘El’ and ate in the diners. Here a brief establishing shot, and a few pictures I found:

At eleven I had a haircut. I went as far as Sixty-third Street for lunch and ate at a white counter amid smells of frying fish, looking out on the iron piers in the street and the huge paving bricks like the plates of the boiler-room floor in a huge liner. Above the restaurant, on the other corner, a hamburger jar with arms and legs balanced on a fiery wire, leaned toward a jar of mustard. I wiped up the sweet sediment in my cup with a piece of bread and went out to walk through large melting flakes. I wandered through a ten-cent store, examining the comic valentines, thought of buying envelopes, and bought instead a bag of chocolate creams. I ate them hungrily. Next, I was drawn to the shooting gallery. I paid for twenty shots and fired less than half, hitting none of the targets. Back in the street, I warmed myself at a salamander flaming in an oil drum near a newsstand with its wall of magazines erected under the shelter of the El.

Rue St-Dominique, Montreal

In Dangling Man, Saul Bellow’s narrator writes in his journal, recalling a childhood in Montreal. The description is so potent that I had an immediate urge to make a virtual visit.

I have never found another street that resembled St. Dominique. It was in a slum between a market and a hospital. I was generally intensely preoccupied with what went on in it and watched from the stairs and the windows. Little since then has worked upon me with such a force as, say, the sight of a driver trying to raise his fallen horse, of a funeral passing through the snow, or of a cripple who taunted his brother. And the pungency and staleness of its stores and cellars, the dogs, the boys, the French and immigrant women, the beggars with sores and deformities whose like I was not to meet again until I was old enough to read of Villon’s Paris, they very breezes in the narrow course of that street, have remained so clear to me that I sometimes think it is the only place where I was ever allowed to encounter reality.

Antlerheads, rue St. Dominique
[First image source]

“Reading the Girls” List Version 1.3

About a fortnight ago I asked for help. In response to writer Maureen Johnson’s convincing polemic against the way that publishers and critics present female writers I asked, “Can you add to the list of female writers I ought to be reading?”

Johnson listed several that revealed new possibilities:

Edna Ferber, Diana Wynne Jones, Kate Chopin, Patricia Highsmith, Miles Franklin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Lillian Hellman, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Edith Wharton, Eudora Welty, Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Virginia Woolf, Marianne Robinson, Lorrie Ann Moore, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Grace Paley, Barbara Kingsolver, Mary McCarthy, Paula Vogel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Edwidge Danticat.

In the comments to my post, readers made some great suggestions. These are too good to be buried in comments, so I list them below. There’ll be some we know and love, and others that offer an opportunity for discovery.

  1. Annie Dillard
  2. Francine Prose
  3. A. S Byatt
  4. Zora Neale Hurston
  5. Nicole Krauss
  6. Valerie Martin
  7. Helen Oyeyemi
  8. Marilynne Robinson
  9. Zadie Smith
  10. Eudora Welty
  11. Clarice Lispector
  12. Catherine Rey
  13. Nadine Gordimer
  14. Simone de Beauvoir
  15. Aphra Benn
  16. Phillis Wheatley
  17. Herta Muller
  18. Sigrid Undset
  19. Katherine Anne Porter
  20. Shirley Jackson
  21. Shirley Hazzard
  22. Shirley Ann Grau
  23. Baroness Blixen (Isak Dinesin)
  24. Rebecca West
  25. Beryl Markham
  26. Elspeth Huxley
  27. Jennifer Egan
  28. Elinor Lipman
  29. Georgette Heyer
  30. Gail Scott
  31. Lydia Davis
  32. Aimee Bender
  33. Carole Maso
  34. Ingeborg Bachmann
  35. Marguerite Duras
  36. Rosalind Belben
  37. Amelie Nothomb
  38. Olive Moore
  39. Evelyn Scott
  40. Helen DeWitt
  41. Joanna Scott
  42. Alice Munro
  43. Cynthia Ozick
  44. A. M. Homes
  45. Janice Galloway
  46. June Akers Seese
  47. Marguerite Young
  48. Susan Daitch
  49. Rikki Ducornet
  50.  A.L. Kennedy

Thank you so much for those suggestions: Kevin of Interpolations, wrappedupinbooks, Jen of Being in Lieu, verbivore of Incurable Logophilia, Emily of evening all afternoon, Steven Riddle of A Momentary Taste of Being and jaimie.

Halfway Through Dangling Man

Written in 1944, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man begins, “There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently and felt no shame at making a record of their inward transactions. But to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste. For this is an era of hardboiled-dom.”

The irony of writing this on a blog, while casting an eye over a rolling Twitter-feed. What is the opposite of hardboiled-dom, an appropriate name for our self-indulgent era?

At the time of writing his debut novel, Bellow could not have predicted winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. His Nobel lecture is magnificent:

Characters, Elizabeth Bowen once said, are not created by writers. They pre-exist and they have to be found. If we do not find them, if we fail to represent them, the fault is ours. It must be admitted, however, that finding them is not easy. The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define.

The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu

In the narrator’s own words, “this story is not a novel or poetry, and it’s no essay or memoir either, though it mimics aspects of both.” An English professor takes his last semester of “Intro to Poetry Writing” and assigns each student a Ghost-Companion. But he digresses wildly, into the lives and deaths of poets, his thoughts about the sex lives of his students and their futures.

In an interview Codrescu explains:

As for what this book is, I’m convinced that I invented a new form. I wrote it at Highlands Coffee in Baton Rouge, after my three-hour undergraduate poetry seminar. In the morning, before class, at the same coffee house, I wrote The Posthuman Dada Guide. After class, I had fun using the class to expand into a kind of synthetic expression of all my classes and teaching poetry for a quarter of a century. I shouldn’t even call it “teaching poetry,” because it was mostly playing and instructing students in the poetic mode, in thinking poetically, and even living that way if they had strong livers. I used some composite of youths of the 21st century and wrote without fear of digression because I would inevitably return to class the next week and come back to my characters. So, it’s a lived piece of reportage, in one sense, an autobiographical invention on the other, and a meditation on poetry scenes that had a bearing on the “lesson.” Writing this it occurred to me just how boring “teaching creative writing” is these days, and how many unimaginative drones who were themselves “taught” by unimaginative drones are fouling the air in our institutions of so-called “higher” learning. Most teacher-poets of the last four decades in America were dull bastards who nearly destroyed the art. Maybe they did.

If Codrescu was teaching “Intro to Poetry Writing” locally, I would sign up without hesitation. I read this wonderful book in two bites, and could have read twice as much. It made me want to read poetry, it almost made me want to write poetry, again. Almost.

A Ghost-Companion

I need a Ghost-Companion, seventh on Andrei Codrescu‘s list of ten tools of poetry in The Poetry Lesson. As the narrator explains to his “Introduction to Poetry Class”:

[A Ghost-Companion] is a poet, dead or alive from this big poetry book, whose last name begins with the same letter as yours. This is a poet that you will study all semester, read deeply, understand well, google till you’re satisfied, and call on when you feel some difficulty. Any difficulty. Your Ghost-Companion will be a great and generous soul, who will come to your aid not just for assignments, but also in other situations that neither you nor I can now imagine.

My needs are different. I don’t plan to write poetry anytime soon. I wrote plenty of adolescent angst-inspired poetry, and was sufficiently mortified to unearth one when clearing out some boxes recently. But I do want to extend my poetry reading beyond my favourites. Discovering Anne Carson’s work last year was thrilling. I need to discover a new poet, a Ghost-Companion.

Who to choose?

I abide by  Codrescu’s criteria, the narrator offers me, “Bachmann, Balestrini, Baraka, Beckett, Bei Dao, Bernstein, Berrigan, Blackburn, Brecht, Breton, Burroughs and more Bs than that. An embarrassment of riches.” Tempted by Brecht, scared of Burroughs, I remember spotting a Bei Dao book at the wonderful Nonsuch Book blog. Inspired by a moment’s serendipity I select Bei Dao. I have my Ghost-Companion.

Dry Season

First it’s the wind from home
the father like a bird flying
over a river of drowsy haze
suddenly changes course
but you’re already sunk in the fog

supposing memory wakes
like the night sky in an observatory
you clip your fingernails
close the door open the door
friends are hard to recognize

until letters from the old days
completely lose their shadows
at sunset you listen closely
to a new city
built by a string quartet