Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review of Joseph Cornell's Dreams

Joseph Cornell's Dreams
Edited and with an introduction by Catherine Corman
Exact Change, 2007

This book is literally what the title says it is: a collection of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell's dreams. He obsessively recorded the details of his daily life; his journal runs into some 30,000 pages. From this massive work, Catherine Corman has selected 115 dreams as recorded by Cornell. The dreams range from a few words in length to about a half page. Each entry is disjointed, obviously jotted down when the dream was still fresh, and contains the same kind of illogical sequences and relationships one has in dreams.

In addition to these brief snippets of oneiric memory, Corman includes "A Guide to the Dreams," in which major themes are analyzed, "Cornell's Philosophy of Dreaming," taken from the artist's own musings on the subject, and "Observations by Friends," in which Cornell's familiars speak of how the artist made no distinction between his dream life and his real one. (The man, we are told, was prone to hallucinatory encounters in everyday life.)

Corman selected those dreams which seemed to closely correspond to the admittedly dreamlike nature of Cornell's surreal assemblages. Birds, toys, and antiques are prominent in both the dreams and the artworks. The shorter dreams--such as "child with chick in dream world"--capture a single image or emotion. Longer ones capture the combination of unrelated elements found in both dreams and Cornell's assemblages: "dream of pulling out brass chaining from clutter in bedroom closet + later on lawn seeing Eisenhower smiling at me."

These are not quite prose poems, of course, and they were never meant to be. But as the dream memories of an artist known for the dream images of his work, these writings are fascinating insights into the inner workings of the creative process and provide some understanding of the roots of Cornell's delightfully enigmatic creations.

--Thomas Wiloch

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review of No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan

No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan
translated by Thomas Cleary

Billed as a translation of the Wumenguan, a classic collection of Chinese Zen koans and commentary, this book is far more than that. Thomas Cleary, translator of such Asian religious texts as the I Ching and the bestselling The Art of War, supplements the original thirteenth century version of Wumenguan with much new material. For each of the forty- eight koans presented here, Cleary includes the commentary by Wumen Huikai, the original author, as well as commentary from several different Zen masters from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries. Then Cleary comments of these earlier remarks, putting them into less metaphoric language and comparing one to another. He also explains terms and concepts unfamiliar to the Western reader. The result is a multi-layered exposition of each koan, giving the fledgling student a rich overview of how koans work, the ways they have of being interpreted, and the enlightenment they can provoke. As Cleary explains, “This book unravels the secrets of the most popular collection of koans, revealing them as tools for opening up the inherent genius of the mind.”

As an example, the koan, “The world is so wide, so vast; why put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell?” is followed by a 100-word comment from Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Zen master Gushan, and a three-page discussion from Cleary. This wealth of analysis–from several perspectives–offers the student a greater opportunity to gain the multiple insights this koan embodies.

In addition, Cleary’s introduction outlines a practical way to use the koans in this book to foster Zen consciousness–a state of mind free from automatic habits of thought and emotion. Based on Wumen’s own teachings, this method aids the serious student to calm the inner turmoil of the mind, drop the blinders of conditioned thought, and achieve control over his mental state. No Barrier can therefore be used as a training manual for reaching Zen consciousness. Or, for the casual reader, as a valuable guide to Zen thought and its expression through the traditional koan.

--Thomas Wiloch

Monday, July 14, 2008

Review of Peter Altenberg's Telegrams of the Soul

Telegrams of the Soul
by Peter Altenberg
Archipelago Books

Unsuccessful at law, medicine, and the book trade, it was only by chance that Richard Englander discovered his skill at writing when he was in his 40s. The son of a wealthy Viennese businessman, Englander took the pen name of Peter Altenberg and found success as a newspaper writer of brief sketches and vignettes, which he called "prose pearls."

"Success" is probably too positive a word for Altenberg's writing career. He lived in cheap hotels on donations from friends and admirers. A true Bohemian who was prone to wild dress and outrageous opinions, he favored the company of prostitutes between his visits to the local asylum, where the city's alcoholics were treated. Altenberg listed the Cafe Central, a favorite with Vienna's artistic set of the 1890s, as his official address. He would write the short prose he favored either at the coffeehouse or while propped up in his bed.

Inspired not only by the prose poems of Baudelaire but by that Austrian invention the postcard and its condensed style of writing, Altenberg's prose pearls are a very personal form of writing--"They're extracts! Extracts from life," he said. In fact, his personal life was often the subject of his writings, but he mixed fact and fiction freely, blurring the lines between the real and imaginary. At his best, he is like a favorite lush uncle, telling wondrous stories you can't quite believe. Altenberg relates his supposed encounters with shop clerks, waiters, and hotel maids, and displays his family's dirty laundry--their financial and sexual hi-jinks--for all to see. He is prone to discuss very childish things, like what kind of pen he favors when he writes, and he'll share his reaction to newfangled inventions such as the elevator. And he does not hesitate to discourse on his ponderings, both trivial and not so, sometimes venturing into waters a tad too deep for him.

Altenberg bragged that he never rewrote anything, that all of his writings were spontaneous first drafts. Some of them read that way, unfortunately, as if his deadline were pressing and he needed to end the piece and get it to the printer. Several! others! look! like! forests! of! exclamation! points! But then there are those pieces that truly are "prose pearls," small works of perfect beauty. The piece entitled "Schubert," for instance, traces a line of thought from its point of inspiration to its final destination. Altenberg begins by speaking of the print hanging on the wall of his room, which shows Schubert playing the piano for three little girls; this reminds him of the composer's longing for the daughter of one of his patrons. When the girl teased Schubert that he had never dedicated anything to her, he exclaimed: "What for? As it is, it's all for you!" Altenberg ends the piece with this telling remark: "That's why I often turn to Page 37 in Niggli's biography of Schubert."

--Thomas Wiloch

Review of H.C. Artmann's The Skewed Tales

The Skewed Tales
by H. C. Artmann
Atlas Press

Austrian novelist H. C. Artmann is the author of many books. In The Skewed Tales, he takes classic horror and fantasy characters and situations and mixes them into a potent satirical brew. His "Frankenstein in Sussex," for example, has the classic monster of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly meet Ernest Dodgson's Alice in an underground mansion a hundred stories deep in the ground. Frankenstein, you see, is still looking for a bride....

In "Dracula, Dracula" Artmann runs Bram Stoker's characters--and assorted 19th century English fictional types--through the blender. And in "Tok Ph'rong Suleng," a werewolf (who may be a yeti) is being hunted in the Himalayas.

While these stories provide little in the way of chills, despite their sometimes chilly characters, they do present a properly skewed take on familiar archetypes of English horror and fantasy literature. There are odd, sometimes disconcerting, chuckles along the way for those readers adventurous enough to tag along on these episodic narratives.

I'd like to see Artmann try his hand at skewing the old "lost race" genre. After all, one need not travel half way round the world to find creatures of the most exotic breeding anymore. Just glance out the window. Those hunched figures in the distance, swinging their arms, coming closer....

--Thomas Wiloch

Review of Eula Biss's The Balloonists

The Balloonists
Eula Biss
Hanging Loose Press

Written as a series of brief, self-contained prose poems, Eula Biss's memoir-as-fiction/fiction-as-memoir advances by fits and starts, giving a glimpse here, a sideglance there, until it accumulates its story. This is much the way life itself develops--not in a smooth trajectory but in daily, disconnected installments. Biss's story revolves around her parents, whose troubled relationship and eventual divorce still color her own relationships with men. "Are we going to keep living the same stories our parents lived?" Biss asks at one point, the central question in her engaging, absorbing narrative.

Biss particularly succeeds in examining the similarities between fictional narrative and autobiography, how the stories we call our lives are, in fact, a form of fiction, and how we can unwittingly find ourselves living a story not our own. "What if an entire generation were to reject their central story line?" she wonders. Her book's ambiguity as to genre serves to keep the narrative on a tightrope, nimbly balancing itself between truth and fiction, while always calling into question the reality of both concepts.

An example of Biss's writing: "Once I went to a concert with my mother and my father was there. In the same room. They had four children together." Notice that first sentence, how on first reading it you momentarily assume she went to the concert with both parents, only to realize that no, her father just happened to be there. And the sentence fragment in the middle, how much this awkward snippet says about her parents' strained relationship. The final sentence has a flat, informational quality without any apparent emotional value. But carefully placed right there, that deadpan sentence does have emotion. Such is the seemingly casual yet painstakingly choreographed writing Biss exhibits in this impressive book.
--Thomas Wiloch

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Review of Edouard Roditi's Choose Your Own World

Choose Your Own World
by Edouard Roditi
Asylum Arts

Edouard Roditi is credited with being the first writer in the English language to use the word "surrealism." This was back in 1929, when Roditi was a precocious student at Oxford University and apparently one of the few people in England at the time to know much about that new artistic sensation from across the channel. In an essay entitled "The New Reality," published in the Oxford Outlook, Roditi gave what he later described as being a "naive" account of the surrealist experiment. Naive or not, the essay is still consulted by scholars today.

Roditi would later live in Paris, and throughout Europe, contributing his poems and essays to such magazines as transition and VVV. He earned his living as an interpreter for various government and business conferences, and for the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War. The 1960s saw Roditi's work published by the legendary Kayak Press and the New Directions Annual. The 1974 Black Sparrow collection Emperor of Midnight contained much of his early writings for surrealist magazines and his fantastical prose poems. The present Choose Your Own World gathers together 54 of his prose poems and short fictions from the past twenty years.

The collection begins with "New Old and New Testaments," containing eight glosses on traditional Bible stories and characters. These are, as might be imagined, neither morally uplifting nor particularly spiritual. Rather they provide ironic versions of Adam discovering Eve (he is distressed that she comes with no instructions) and Lazarus returning from death (he is not pleased with the change of scene). Closing the section is "The Temptations of a Saint," which focuses on the narrator himself and his life in a high-rise apartment building. He has a problem. Every night his dreams create new monsters and monstrous situations, ending with the narrator trapped within a giant teapot, the boiling water threatening to boil him as well.

The largest section of the book is entitled "A Choice of Worlds." The pieces gathered here are first-person narratives reminiscent of the Trivia books of Logan Pearsall Smith, at least to my mind. Both writers share a love of whimsical premises, beautifully rolling sentences, and self-deprecating humor. But Roditi is far more political than Smith ever was (was he ever?) and he possesses a wilder imagination.

An example of a whimsical premise: In "How to Live in Your Own Ear" Roditi raises the odd question of how to do just that, comparing the practice to a snail in his shell. He asks the reader how it might be done, which ear would be chosen, and so on, and imagines the cozy, dark comfort of the snug abode.

An example of a beautifully rolling sentence from "In Praise of the Status Quo": "Now that it has become relatively easy to change one's sex, we've begun to consider also ways and means of changing one's species."

An example of self-deprecating humor: In "A Program for Self-Improvement" Roditi speaks of ways to improve his appearance, leading logically from weight reduction and muscle toning to such thoughts as adding green tusks to his upper jaw and a tattoo of a boa constrictor around his torso. His thoughts end in confusion as he considers the question of "how to improve my mind. There seem to be, for instance, so many different ways of becoming a genius or a saint."
As I said, a wild imagination.

Only when Roditi strays into more political realms does he fall a tad flat. References to Reagan or the Nicaraguans seem too public and mundane for a book so obviously in its own private world of the imagination. And a writer who is so good at personal whimsy--possesses a genius for it, in fact--seems somehow unqualified to be speaking on such larger matters. Better to stay with the personal, the quirky, the delightfully illogical. That's where Roditi is an absolute, unquestioned master.

--Thomas Wiloch

Review of Marcel Cohen's The Peacock Emperor Moth

The Peacock Emperor Moth
by Marcel Cohen
translated by Cid Corman
Burning Deck

Marcel Cohen's The Peacock Emperor Moth is a collection of one hundred brief stories ranging from a single sentence to a few paragraphs in length. Concerned with personal tragedies, unfortunate fates and melancholic memories, Cohen's stories are so brief that they often read like a simple plot synopsis for a more complete version of the story. Sometimes they resemble a story idea quickly jotted down and never completed. One such example: "A boy of seven, dressed in the Superman costume he got as a Christmas gift, who leaps from the seventh floor extending his arms for flight." The word "who" gives the text that jotted-down feel, as if this is an index citation or character description instead of a story. It is also similar to the casual manner one might speak of an acquaintance or a relative: "You know, the uncle who ran his car into the library." As such, many of Cohen's stories serve to define the casual vernacular as a means of narrative.

--Thomas Wiloch

Review of Mark Vinz's Late Night Calls

Late Night Calls
by Mark Vinz
New Rivers Press

A professor of English at Moorhead State University, Mark Vinz here gathers together his prose poems--brief, no-frills recountings of his everyday life, neither sordid enough to be called confessional nor dramatized enough to be pure fiction. He writes of the "blue stuff" used to clean toilets, the joys of taking an afternoon nap, and the problem of running out of gas in front of the state prison. Vinz's prose is direct and simple, using few metaphors or allusions, and his first person narrator speaks in a comfortably ordinary voice. If these texts were not billed as prose poems, you might suspect them of being personal observations or reminiscences. Calling them prose poems implies an artistic shaping of raw experience so subtle here as to be almost invisible. There seem to be no boundaries between Vinz's life and art, between the private man and the public persona.

Imagine that.

--Thomas Wiloch

Monday, July 7, 2008

Review of Felix Feneon's Novels in Three Lines

Novels in Three Lines
by Felix Feneon
translated by Luc Sante
New York Review Books

A behind-the-scenes figure in artistic Paris of the 1890s, Felix Feneon never published a book of his own. But he was widely admired as a great stylist, though most of his writing was published anonymously, either in literary journals of the day or in anarchist publications. Feneon also edited Rimbaud's Illuminations, published the first French translation of James Joyce, and founded several journals.

In 1906, Feneon wrote some 1,200 "novels-in-three-lines" for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. These micro-sized news items condense reports of everyday tragedies and absurdities into moments of haiku-like intensity. Whether the subject is suicide, labor unrest, murder, or burglary, Feneon employs a deadpan delivery, often with a pinch of irony. He seems to take nothing he reports, no matter how terrible, too seriously: "There is no longer a God even for drunkards. Kersilie, of Saint-Germain, who had mistaken the window for the door, is dead."

Many of the items deal with domestic disputes that ended in death: "In Marseilles, Sosio Merello, a Neapolitan, killed his wife. She did not wish to market her endowments." Suicide is also a common theme: "No papers, just 5 francs and a gold purse marked A.W., were on the person of a gentleman a woodcutter found—by smell—hanged in Velizy."

The labor unrest of the time is handled in much the same way, despite Feneon's anarchist convictions: "Strikers in Ronchamp, Haute-Saone, threw in the river a worker who insisted on continuing his labor"; "Three strikers in Fressenneville have been sentenced to jail, for one, two, or three months, according to how gravely they insulted the police."

Some items are just damned odd: "Catherine Rosello of Toulon, mother of four, got out of the way of a freight train. She was then run over by a passenger train." Perhaps the only time Feneon is serious is when he is dealing with the poor: "In Nogent, Rosalie David, a poor little hash-house waitress, throttled her clandestine newborn and put his corpse in a trunk."

Lovers of prose poems or flash fiction will most appreciate Luc Sante's stylish translation of these quirky gems, but any fan of a good turn of phrase will enjoy these Novels in Three Lines.

--reviewed by Thomas Wiloch