Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fruit Keys

Burt Kimmelman, As If Free, Jersey City, Talisman House, $14.95,  88 pp, ISBN 978-1-58948-069-8

Reviewed by Nicholas Birns

In “The Seeds of the Red Maple,” one of the most commanding poems in his new anthology, Burt Kimmelman annotates for the reader the phrase “fruit key”,  is “a type of seed or pot of seeds in which a flattened leaf of fibrous, papery tissue, called a wing, develops from the ovary wall.” (64). The phrase “fruit key” fiancées not just bauxite of its conjunction of the organic and the mechanical but because fruits are products of a process, whereas keys illuminate or investigate processes; because using a key is active, while reaping a fruit can at least seem passive; because fruit is abundant, while keys are scarce. Kimmelman's definition tantalizes as well, with its vocabulary that could be used as well of human as of arboreal reproduction.
      The tree is captured at a moment of transition, of late summer, even perhaps late midsummer, at the height of  its :majesty: yet ready “to let go of its seeds”. Nothing is still; even the still luxuriance nature contains hints of its succumbing. But Kimmelman is not plaintive or elegiac; the seeds of the tree, in literal terms,  become a tree diaspora, making the children who play with them “people of the tree”; the tree distributes itself, mixes itself in the world, in a mode of cyclical death—and-rebirth but also as a vehicle of a more widespread propagation which is moral and spiritual as well as natural.  The title of the volume comes in here: the seeds are cast off as if free, sent out into the world on their own missions The almost Kantian irony of the title—and its three words are indeed together three very important words in Kant’s thought—are suggestive; the tree is not really free to go outside its own natural rhythms, but its exuberance and prodigality make it seem almost as if it were, and it is that freedom, as much as and concomitant with the tragic awareness of mortality that this midsummer casting-off inevitably denotes, which is the affect the poet wants us to reap from the occasion,
   Kimmelman writes in the Objectivist tradition of Zukofsky, Oppen, and cognate figures such as William Bronk as well as contemporary practitioners such as the masterful  Michael Heller; but his principal difference from them all is that he is not worried about sounding too romantic or lyrical; he can look at nature without total severity and can model rather than carve experience without thinking he will mutate into Wordsworth or Sara Teasdale if he lets down his guard too much. Kimmelman is not just a poet of stance but of place. His Cape May nature poems, illustrated by Fred Caruso, are among the most absorbing site-specific poems of this time, poems that travel towards readers in one direction even as they travel towards Cape May in, for the most part, another. The poem in this volume of the opposite topographical extreme in New Jersey, the Delaware Water Gap, is similarly convinced by nature yet not overcome by it. He does not presuppose a Romantic unanimity or ease of reference about places, but they do exist: he does not enforce the composition of the frame (as others in his tradition might) so as to preclude them. 
Kimmelman is a better poet as he tries less to be a loyal objectivist, and this can be seen in the ekphrastic poems scattered throughout the volume. In “The Deception,” on Giorgio Morandi's 1955 still life as seen in the Metropolitan Museum in 2008, Kimmelman speaks of the ‘stubborn craft” of a “made world” (72). Compelling as an evocation of the painting as such, in the broader context this is a kind of creedal affirmation, an Objectivist flag-waving so determined to avoid any epistemological connection between perceiver and referent that it becomes a bit doctrinal and airless. In some of his other poems about paintings, though, Kimmelman more than makes up for this, In writing about the sculpture of Laocöon in the Vatican—that famously inspired G. E. Lessing’s ate eighteenth-century treatise on space and time in art—Kimmelman prizes the analogy between sculpted and human body, “the ecstasy. of sinuous bodies” (68)  in the sculpture both contradicted and reflected by the aging and vulnerability of actual bodies.  “Variation of Green,” on an Ellsworth Kelly painting at the Metropolitan, makes a punt similar to that attempted by the Morandi poem but without any dogmatic recitation: the painting is “a sure possibility” that is “just there” calling us to “stand alongside it./ in astonishment” (64). The registering of the power of art is manifested without any aw-shucks excess or overly ascetic restraint: the poem opens itself up to the force of the painting without being overwhelmed by it.
    There is a delightful and even bracing variety in this volume, an unwillingness to limit the poet’s gaze to a certain idea of the poetic, a reluctance to deny the potential integrity of any aspect of experience. “Reading Barbara Hemming’s Poems”  praises ‘the possibilities” that notice of the world affords, possibilities as likely to be gratified in  a grimy urban landscape or “a toilet overflowing” as in “the hills outside Santa Fe” (28)  In “The Sleep of the Dead” death is resisted yet also seen as a state of calm and peace; a sleep we want to, and want our loved ones to, do their best to avoid  but which also offers possibilities for wholeness, healing, and links between the generations.
     Most of these poems are a page or two long, giving enough scope for setting the scene, for an exfoliation—or a seed-scattering—of ideas, and for an often unexpected turn or conclusion to reveal itself. In some poems, though, Kimmelman works within a shorter compass, unafraid to let every word matter, as in “Abandoned House:

Thin tendrils of moss,
Bright green in the shock
Of morning sun across
Red brick stones, stand up straight
To tough the light (50)

With only three words more than one syllable, each word carried a large burden, yet the way the moss/across poem wins out, in its contrast of stasis and movement, over any potentially over-melodic associations tallies with the air of alertness, of readiness, of crispness in the scene. If we do our best with nature, Kimmelman hints, if we stand at attention towards it, it can yield it can yield moments of quickened, restless unfolding such as this.
      Kimmelman‘s experience in many different aspects of acidic literary studies (medieval literature as well as modern poetry) and his respect for academic ways of thinking without succumbing to being constricted or defined by them. His poems in past volumes on personal and family life are generally not repeated here, but lend their felt engagement to what in other hands might be more distanced considerations of nature and art. There is a sense of experimental, if not necessarily perceptual or moral, optimism here. We may not be free but acting as if we are will not only be inspirational can yield the exacting concentration and unlooked-for deliverance, the “quick tremor” (84) of these most welcome poems. 

Friday, September 17, 2010

L'heure zéro

I saw, without much expectation, Pascal Thomas's 2007 adaptation of Agatha Christie's Towards Zero as L'heure zéro  and was very pleasantly surprised, Thomas showed a scrupulous fidelity of the text, using names in the text as much as possible, or seeing the closest French equivalent, Nevile Strange became Guillaume Nouvelle, Audrey became Aude, Kay became Caroline, Thomas Royde Thomas Rondeau, etc. This showed both a certain ingenuity, a game-playing in the realm of translating miming the greater game of the puzzle and the text constituted by the original work, and also showed a comprehension that, in adapting Christie, fidelity matters, unlike the recent British adaptations, which have exploded the text in search of a more gratifying 'story'; the adaptation  of The Secret of Chimneys, that most delicate and pleasing of farces, made it into a creaking melodrama, and made the text's most genial character into the movie's villain. The French adaptation approached Christie as if she were Shakespeare--not to say that she is anything close to Shakespeare, but that her texts respond similarly to attempts to keep the plot and characters. that the setting was French, the language was French, made little difference, the integrity of the original was there--only in two small points did the movie stray from the text, and the only crucial one is that a certain car accident is meant to be an accident, not a part of the murder  scheme for artistic reasons: not all bad things in life are the product of malevolence, there is risk, fortune, which of course has been an element of many tragedies. I was surprised that so little was lost in making the milieu and characters over into French  one,s and perhaps we need to reevaluate Christie;s presumed cozy Englishness, ,perhaps this is not in any way essential to getting her work right, no more than Jim Thompson's; rough-hewn Americanises proved a barrier to rendering his oeuvre into French adaptations. French academics (Pierre Bayard) and writers (Michel Houellebecq)  have been at the forefront of recent revaluations of Christie, but there is more than a touch of irony in their championship  of her; this movie took her completely straight, and provided a gratifyingly faithful and intricate rendition of one of her best, and most engrossing, novels.

The two wives of Guillaume were, incidentally, both played by children of famous actors, Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Marcelo, and Laura Smet, daughter of Nathalie Baye. Both were stunning. 

Monday, September 6, 2010

Franzen and Shakespeare

Amid all the hubbub about Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom, what has not, as far as I know, been noticed so far is that the epigraph from The Winter's Tale is very significant not only for the plot but for the overall formal and thematic sense of the book. The passage in question is Paulina's speech in Act V, after the miraculous resurrection of Hermione and her restoration to her repentant husband, Leontes, a resurrection which Paulina has either stage-managed or presided over:

Go together,
You precious winners all; your exultation
Partake to every one. I, an old turtle,
Will wing me to some wither'd bough and there
My mate, that's never to be found again,
Lament till I am lost.

Franzen takes advantage of a semantic migration that often occurs to people reading this passage, that we speak of "winners", as in the sense of"winners and losers, more colloquially than did those in Shakespeare's day, and that moreover the rise both of capitalism and of ideology has given the entire idea of winning a sense both of competition and of polemics that, though undoubtedly there in Shakespeare's day, was not as accented. (indeed, Franzen's novel somewhat argues that it was even in modernity not as accented until the 1980s, and that is part of the book's weft of implication).  In a book all about status and the ideological means to status, this verbal gap is very pertinent,. But also of note is that, like Shakespeare's play, Freedom is a story of multiple generations, where the younger generation seeks to atone for, correct, or walk back the mistakes of the elder. Without giving away the story--I finished the book yesterday, but many have still to read it--I can say that. although Freedom is hardly a pastiche or rewrite of The Winter's Tale, and--though I enjoyed the book--not remotely in Shakespeare's league-- there are fascinating echoes, which only serve to enrich both the book itself and our response to it.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Obama and Responsibility

I differ from the mainstream media consensus in seeing President Obama's speech last night as really very good--contrary to what most people have said, it was not 'just about Iraq', it was using the end of active US combat in Iraq as a signal that positive developments can still occur--pace the naysaying of the media for the past nine months or so--and that the economic difficulties we have now should be viewed in an ampler context. Even more, he was trying to provide some perspective so as to cirucmnavigate the endless drumbeat of bad news.

I was, though, admittedly predisposed to be particularly sympathetic to Obama by reading Andrew Ross Sorkin's article in Monday's Times, which suggested that business executives were surprised Obama was so progressive in economic terms--after all, they said, he was a 1980s Ivy League graduate! This is especially amusing given that, in that era, every Ivy League institution, no matter how relatively conservative on the spectrum, was seen as politically liberal, leaning towards the Democrats--but Obama was thought to be a reliable endorser of corporate interests simply because of when and where he attended college! This made me muse on something Obama had said in his Inaugural Address, indeed perhaps its most resonant and best-trmemberedlnie'his call for  a 'new era of responsibility', and, with its Biblical resonance, his imploring that we 'set aside childish things'. How this was read was: Americans had been living above their means or pursuing self-interested agendas, this had been a form of narcissistic immaturity, now we must grow up and own our own actions. In a vacuum, this made perfect sense, and was of course a potentially bipartisan argument, given (somewhat reactivated) Republican concern for deficits.

But--as the assumptions about Obama's generation in Sorkin's article indicate--in this era, adulthood, maturity success, self-realization has been associated with endorsing the imperatives subscribed to by the corporate world, not the public weal. Obama was not so much asking the immature to become mature as to ask those who thought they had indeed become mature to adopt a new definition of maturity. He was urging people who thought they had definitively arrived at who they were to reconsider their basic assumption. And it is, here, perhaps, that his message feel on deaf ears, and why his efforts to lead the country have proved so oddly frustrating....   Not the only reason, of course, or even the main ones--but it is one of them.