Juliet Patterson’s The Truant Lover

I am rereading Juliet Patterson‘s first book of poetry The Truant Lover. The poems, which clearly reveal the influence of Lorine Niedecker, are both pared down and startling. Through her precise language, Patterson evokes profound ambiguities of the heart and mind. Many of the poems in this thrilling collection have appeared in journals before. One of my favorite ones “A Narrative” was first published online in three candles journal.

[Note 7/2009: the above link to three candles does not work, the journal having gone offline. Links to Patterson’s poems, including several audio samples, can be found here at her website.]

Originally posted on 10.31.2006

Helen Humphrey’s Wild Dogs

In her most recent novel Wild Dogs, Canadian author Helen Humphreys returns to a theme from her previous book The Lost Garden: the wildness of the heart. In both novels, Humphreys pursues this theme through a central metaphor found in the book’s title. In The Lost Garden, the heroine, a horticulturist named Gwen, sets out to understand a secret, abandoned garden overgrown from years of neglect. Part of what Gwen finds while working is her own heart shaped by loss and yearning. The crucial metaphor in Wild Dogs brings up an unruliness that’s more disturbing than Gwen’s lost garden. Here a pack of feral dogs is living in the woods in a depressed, northern town. Many of these dogs used to be domesticated but appear to have forgotten their former lives and human owners. Six of these humans come to the edge of the woods every night to call out their dogs’ names. It soon becomes clear that these people are calling out for something in their own hearts that doesn’t respond to anything as civilized as names or words.

Judging from Humphreys’ use of metaphor, it’s not surprising that she wrote poetry before turning her attention to fiction. Wild Dogs is her fourth novel and the first one set in the present. The Lost Garden takes place in England in 1941 and touches upon the tragedies of World War I and II. The wildness of Gwen’s garden is rooted in the devastating losses that the English suffered in the fighting. Almost all of the gardeners who used to work at the estate where Gwen lives were killed in the Great War, and so the plants, flowers and trees on the property have gone without care for years. Wild Dogs grapples not with the recorded violence of history but with a brutality that is silenced, intimate and of the moment. The novel takes place in an unnamed town where the main factory has closed. Some of the townspeople have been setting their dogs loose in the woods because they can’t afford to feed them anymore. One of the novel’s main characters Alice has been supporting her boyfriend, who’s been laid off from the factory. She pumps gas, a job her boyfriend thinks is beneath him. He is the one who drops her dog off next to the forest, and she leaves him at the beginning of the novel because of it. Her story is not unusual among the six people who regularly gather to try to get their dogs back. These strangers come to tell each other how they lost their pets. The reader soon learns that Alice is not the only one whose dog was turned out by someone close to her.

The plot of Wild Dogs is unusual and hard to describe without giving away too much. Carol Seajay talks about the problem of summarizing this novel in her newsletter Books to Watch Out For. (If following the link, scroll down on the newsletter’s page for the entry on Wild Dogs.) Seajay contacted Lambda to insist that Humphreys’ novel be added to the shortlist for Lesbian Fiction, and this past May, it won the literary prize, tying with Babyji by Abha Dawesar. In writing about Wild Dogs this past spring, Seajay wanted to introduce the book to a wider lesbian readership. I am following in her footsteps by recommending it to anyone interested in poetic and emotionally substantial novels. This book is moving, and its structure, which recalls Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury, is both solid and subtle. What is best about the book is what causes it to defy the glib, twenty-five-word descriptions that sum up so many novels: its depth and wildness.

Originally posted on 8.13.2006

Nina Shope’s Hangings

The first line of Nina Shope’s Hangings, a collection of three experimental novellas, shows the connection between a mother and a daughter and, while doing so, immediately connects the reader to the scene at hand: “When they are reading like this, her head on her mother’s breast, the empty shell of her ear covering her mother’s nipple, it is as if they have become one fused and fantastical creature.” Shope, expanding on this line, endows the scene with its own calm and reverberating breath. “The girl hears her mother’s voice resonate with each ear. The stories entering her right ear are of myths, monsters, transformations. Words of the mouth. Yet the left ear, pressed to the breast, hears a second strain of sound. A language that comes from the nipple. A humming, which begins in her mother’s throat, fills her ribcage, echoes through the dome of her breast.” Shope evokes the essential magic of words and of the mother through this sensual description of reading. She also reminds us to listen with both of our ears &#8211 one taking in the resonance of the words &#8211 when reading this memorable, original novella.

The plot of this first novella, “Hangings,” is, like Shope’s language here, rooted to the body. We soon learn that the mother, who is never named, has become ill with breast cancer. To describe this change, Shope uses words that create a rhythm of disruption; and in between these words come silent spaces that are filled with a new sense of isolation for the daughter: “And her mother’s breast sounds suddenly hollow. Emptied of everything but tissues. Glands. Tumors. And knotted veins.” The mother will no longer be reading to the girl, who also is never named over the course of the novella. The girl is becoming a woman and now is too old to be read to, says the mother, who believes her daughter “should be going out. Seeing friends. Meeting boys.” As the once “fused and fantastical creature” falls apart, the mother and girl must embark on their own physical transformations into, respectively, illness and womanhood. Shope illustrates how these transformations are every bit as strange as the myths that the mother is describing in the opening scene when she is reading out loud from what turns out to be Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In her second novella, Shope uses Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as her central allusion. “In Urbem” is an exploration of an ancient city populated by winged women, vestal virgins, priests, lovers, Caligula, Caesar, his mother, architects, nurses, senators. Part of this crowded city is powered by “the friction of bodies in moments of desire”: “when lovers quarrel the quarter is dark for days. sometimes it is lighted for weeks on end. luminous. the lovers’ bodies raising the temperature to an unbearable degree.” Shope is drawing upon Calvino’s cadences in Invisible Cities, altered by her own preference for sentence fragments, and throughout “In Urbem,” she is also borrowing on the basic premise of Calvino’s book: her city, like his invisible one, dwells within the imagination and appears to be many different cities at once. But unlike Calvino’s novel, which reads like a fanciful and philosophical poem, Shope’s “In Urbem” is often airless and without whimsy. It sits beneath the architecture of Invisible Cities and stays there, suffering from a lack of movement.

The last novella “Hagiographies” begins and ends with a quote from Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. Shope enters the territory so sharply explored by Barnes in Nightwood by taking on the subject of obsessive, destructive love between two women. The prose is polished as it is throughout the book and the ending is a quiet surprise, but the relationship between the women remains superficial throughout much of the piece. It doesn’t help that one of the women is solely referred to as “the girl with the black eyes.” The phrase is repeated often, along with “the girl with the pixie haircut,” another character, who, quite possibly, is friends with Aimee Bender’s “girl in the flammable skirt,” I don’t know. I do know that the repetitive phrases soon annoyed me, and I realized that Shope was not living up to the wonderful promise of her title novella, “Hangings.” She was not allowing her girls to transform into women, and as a result, the last novella suffers from an odd gap. The external reference to the complicated and poetic Nightwood seems disconnected from the flatness of the characters contained within the story and the coy clichés Shope uses to describe them.

Originally posted on 6.9.2006

Paulette Poujol Oriol’s Vale of Tears

In her novel Vale of Tears, Haitian author Paulette Poujol Oriol brings us a day in the life of Coralie Santeuil, a destitute woman who, slowly and with a great deal of effort, is making her way on foot across the city of Port-au-Prince. Coralie is visiting old friends, family and acquaintances and asking them for money. Tomorrow is New Year’s Day, and she will be evicted from the small room where she lives if she cannot come up with six month’s rent. She is around sixty years old and walks “with legs like a pair of wooden stilts, putting one foot forward, catching herself, finding her balance with difficulty, and bringing the other leg back again.” Near the end of this absorbing novel, we learn the reason behind Coralie’s pained gait. We also find out how she has come upon such hard times when she was born into privilege. Her father was a wealthy wholesale merchant, and in the opening pages, Oriol shows a seven-year-old Coralie playing with a doll “at the far end of an immense garden.” Her father gave her this beloved doll, which her stepmother, at the end of the first scene, breaks in an effort to punish Coralie.

Mr. Santeuil also gives his daughter his passive nature. He does nothing to stop his wife’s psychological abuse of Coralie, who, as an adult, surrenders to life’s onslaughts without first putting up a fight. “Everything glided over her,” writes Oriol about the older Coralie; “she gave in to fate without any sort of struggle other than that of the most rudimentary survival.” Coralie’s story is illuminating and tense rather than merely depressing thanks to Oriol’s direct but lyrical prose, her deep insights into character and the novel’s dramatic structure. In every chapter, a scene from Coralie’s earlier life is juxtaposed with an account of the next stop on her walk through Port-au-Prince. This structure makes the reader focus on the connections between Coralie’s past, including the many mistakes she has made, and her current condition. As the book progresses, we begin to wonder about what other missteps have brought Coralie to this point on her journey through poverty and pain.

Oriol, who is one of the most celebrated novelists in Haiti, ultimately renders the character of Coralie not only with honesty but with sympathy too. Vale of Tears is Oriol’s first novel to be published in English, and I hope translations of her other books will follow soon because I want to meet more characters as complex as Coralie Santeuil. Every step in her journey seems both like an extreme exertion of will and a matter of tragic fate. While for Coralie, this walk is a painful balancing act, it reads like the effortless creation of a master storyteller.

Originally posted on 4.30.2006

Dubravka Ugresic’s The Ministry of Pain

In its style, Dubravka Ugresic’s new novel The Ministry of Pain is markedly different from her earlier work. Gone is the fanciful surrealism present in much of her fiction, including her 2002 novel The Museum of Unconditional Surrender. There, Ugresic creates an angel whose feathers cause forgetfulness in human beings. The angel scatters some of his feathers among a group of friends who, in turn, must scatter when their country, Yugoslavia, comes apart. Nothing as strangely light as those feathers can be found on the pages of Ministry of Pain. When, in this novel, a group of men and women from the former Yugoslavia are sent from their war-torn country into exile, they appear to be disconnected from the divine protection of angels. The forces governing their fates seem as capricious as a breeze sending feathers in every direction.

But the forces that destroyed Yugoslavia were not of nature but of mankind. In Ministry of Pain, no one is spared the effects of the violence, not even those who manage to flee the war. The narrator of the novel, Tanja Lucic, has left the city of Zagreb and now lives in Amsterdam. The time is two years before the 1999 NATO bombing of Belgrade, and Tanja has landed a job at the University of Amsterdam teaching Serbo-Croatian literature. Almost all of her students, like her, grew up in the former Yugoslavia. “They’d come with the war,” explains Tanja about her students. “Some had acquired refugee status, others had not.” They support themselves with menial jobs. Some of them are “playing tennis,” which is slang for housekeeping; others work as dishwashers or waiters. “But the best-paying job you could get without a work permit,” says Tanja, “was a job at ‘the Ministry’…soon the whole gang was working there. It wasn’t strenuous: all you had to do was assemble items of sadomasochistic clothing out of leather, rubber, and plastic.”

Tanja starts out teaching the class with what seems like sympathetic leniency. Attendance is not mandatory, and those who do come to class don’t have to think about literature. Their only homework is to write down their memories of a now non-existent Yugoslavia. But as the months progress, Tanja’s attitude toward her students changes. She becomes harsher, and this shift in her behavior gives the reader a new perspective on the kindness that she showed her students at first. The essays that she assigned at the beginning of the year start to seem passively cruel when questions about memory and trauma arise. Do her students even want to recall their past, or do they want to forget about their destroyed country and move on with their lives? With a fascinating blend of boldness and subtlety, Ugresic exposes the limits of Tanja’s nostalgic point of view to give the reader dramatic insight into the powers of memory and forgetting.

In Ministry of Pain, forgetting is connected not to angels but to the earth, specifically to the Dutch landscape. As one of Tanja’s students says: “Flat, wet, nondescript as it is, Holland has one unique feature: it’s a country of forgetting, a country without pain. People turn into amphibians here. Of their own accord. They turn the color of sand; they blend in and die out.” Ministry of Pain is a novel of survival and succumbing to death, of pain and the numbness offered by oblivion. Through a masterfully simple approach, Ugresic reveals the complexities of paradox.

Originally posted on 3.15.2006

Jane Stevenson’s Good Women

I picked up a copy of Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, a collection of three novellas, during a visit to the Chicago bookstore Women and Children First. It was two days after Christmas, and I wanted an entertaining read to help me forget the stress of the holidays. I was intrigued by the description printed on the back cover of Stevenson as a “diabolically clever prose stylist,” and I also liked the opening lines of the first novella entitled Light My Fire: “The really ironic thing is, I hadn’t been thinking about sex at all. I’d been thinking it would’ve been the perfect day to murder your wife, and I’d probably get in less trouble if I had. You get away with murder, if you keep your head, but stonking great errors of judgment don’t get forgiven, ever.”

The speaker of these lines is David Laurence, an architect in Scotland who leaves his wife for a woman he meets on the train. When Freda Constantine first appears across from him on a train car, she’s enjoying the ride so to speak, engaging in a “slight rhythmic play of her thigh muscles, clenching, holding for a moment, releasing.” She concludes a little later with a sigh. It doesn’t take long for David to decide to marry Freda, and his “stonking” error in judgment soon leads to disaster. The couple moves into a stone house built in the seventeenth century and last decorated in the 1970s. David describes the drawing room as looking “as if someone had spent a long dark winter throwing fried eggs at the wall.” The drama that unfolds after the couple moves in is, like the house, a comical horror. Out for a quick profit, the couple wants to renovate and then sell the house while real-estate prices are still on the rise. Unfortunately for them, they lack the money and time to make real improvements. Stevenson’s humor is sharp as she shows the couple trying to fix up the scene of their deepening misery.

In all three novellas, Stevenson sets up a conflict with a socially satiric edge. In Walking with Angels, she explores the New Age movement through the character of Wenda, a woman whose growing awareness of angels pits her against her skeptical and annoyed husband. In the third novella Garden Guerrillas, Stevenson returns to the subject of the recent real-estate bubble, but this time she makes her protagonist more sympathetic. Alice Wright is a widow who is being pushed out of her London home by her son and daughter-in-law. She has lived in her house on Kew Green for over thirty years, taking care of her husband, her son and her garden. Now, with her son grown and her husband having died, she is being forced out of what has become a two-million-dollar property. As she plans what to do next, she starts purchasing invasive plants to put into the beloved garden that she’s on the verge of losing.

I found Alice’s story the strongest of the three novellas. It is quietly cunning and effective, much like Alice herself.

Originally posted on 1.14.2006