Monday, October 28, 2013

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Billy Collins is far and away my favorite poet.  His simple language, profound insights, and humorous poems are my ideal, My goal is to write a poem which causes a reader to think, “that reminds me of Billy Collins.”  Whenever Collins comes out with a new volume of poetry, I buy and devour a it as quickly as I can.  Published this month, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems is his tenth collection.

In this case I immediately flipped to the last section containing the new poems.  Fifty nuggets awaited my attention.  My favorite is “Foundling.”  “How unusual to be living a life of continual self-expression, / jotting down little things, / noticing a leaf being carried down a stream, / then wondering what will become of me, // and finally to work alone under a lamp / as if everything depended on this, / groping blindly down a page, like someone lost in a forest. // And to think it all began one night / on the steps of a nunnery / where I lay gazing up from a sewing basket, / which was doubling for a proper baby carrier, // staring into the turbulent winter sky, too young to wonder about anything / including my recent abandonment-- / but it was there that I committed // my first act of self-expression, / sticking out my infant tongue / and receiving in return (I can see it now) / a large, pristine snowflake much like any other” (175).

His nature poems also affect me deeply.  In “Osprey,” Collins sketches a scene I have lived through myself many times.  He writes, “Oh, large brown, thickly-feathered creature / with a distinctive white head, / you, perched on the top branch / of a tree near the lake shore, // as soon as I guide this boat back to the dock / and walk up the grassy path to the house, / before I unzip my windbreaker / and lift the binoculars from around my neck, // before I wash the gasoline from my hands, / before I tell anyone I am back, / and before I hang the ignition key on its nail, / or pour myself a drink-- // I’m thinking a vodka soda with lemon-- / I will look you up in my / illustrated guide to North American birds / and I promise I will learn what you are called” (208).

Collins has written a number of poems about writing and poetry, and this volume contains one about reading.  The title is “Reader,” and he wrote: “Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper, / thumb-licking page turner, peruser, / you getting your print-fix for the day, pencil chewer, not taker, marginalianist / with your checks and X’s / firs-timer or revisiter, / browser, speedster, English Major, / flight-ready girl, melancholy boy, / invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger-- // that is me rushing to the window / to see if it’s you passing under the shade trees /  with a baby carriage or a dog on a leash, / me picking up the phone / to imagine your unimaginable number, me standing by a map of the world / wondering where you are-- / alone on a bench in a train station / or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor?” (xix).

Aimless Love by Billy Collins is a wonderful way to introduce yourself to his work.  I bet you will soon find a collection of all his volumes of poetry, silently standing guard amid the Cs on a bookshelf, patiently awaiting your call.  5 stars 

--Chiron, 10/28/13

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Happy Death & The Stranger by Albert Camus

On November 7, 1913, Albert Camus was born in Algeria.  He attended at the University of Algiers, where he was goalkeeper for the university team.  He contracted tuberculosis in 1930.   He completed his Bachelor’s Degree philosophy in 1935, and in May 1936, he successfully presented his master’s thesis on Neo-Platonism and Christian Thought.  During the war Camus joined theFrench Resistance cell Combat, which published an underground newspaper of the same name.  This group worked against the Nazis, and in it Camus assumed the nom de guerre Beauchard.  Camus became the paper's editor in 1943.  He met John-Paul Sartre at the dress rehearsal of Sartre's play, The Flies, in June 1943.  When the Allies liberated Paris in August 1944, Camus witnessed and reported the last of the fighting.  Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.  In the words of the committee, he received the award for "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."

I have long admired Camus for his thoughtful, provocative, and stimulating novels.  The Stranger and The Plague frequently appear on college reading lists in world literature and great books classes.  This review will depart somewhat from my usual reviews, because Camus is a serious writer with a decidedly philosophical bent.   While Camus is frequently associated with Existentialism, he rejected this label.  He broke with his friend Sartre over several issues, but Sartre’s nihilism topped the list.  Camus believed that life itself was much too valuable to throw away.  He once wrote, “Your duty is to live and be happy.”

The posthumously published A Happy Death foreshadows the work he is most known for, The Stranger.  As notes in the book reveal, the main difference between A Happy Death and The Stranger lies in the fact that Camus the man is much more present in the former work than the latter.  
I first encountered Camus back in the 70s.  The prose mesmerized me and drove me to dig deeper into his life. 

In Happy Death he wrote: “Summer crammed the harbor with noise and sunlight.  It was eleven thirty.  The day split open down the middle, crushing the docks under the burden of its heat.  Moored at the sheds of the Algiers Municipal Depot, black-hulled, red-chimneyed freighters were loading sacks of wheat.  Their dusty fragrance mingled with the powerful smell of tar melting under a hot sun.  Men were drinking at a little stall that reeked of creosote and anisette, while some Arab acrobats in red shirts somersaulted on the scorching flagstones in front of the sea in the leaping light” (8).  This reflects Camus’ memory of the working class district he lived in and his job with the maritime commission.  

The Stranger and Happy Death deal with a murder by the main character, Patrice Merseult.  While there are similarities, substantial differences also separate the two stories.  Camus expert, Roger Quillot explicated these differences.  He wrote, “Mersault is … the younger brother of Mersault’ [in The Stranger] (165).  Another critic Jean Sarocchi asserts that Happy Death is a “prefiguration of The Stranger.  This view is based on the comparison of the structure of the two texts.

Thought-provoking, intriguing, splendidly written, Camus’ work validates the judgment of the Nobel Literature Prize committee.  5 stars.

--Chiron, 10-13-13

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis by Lydia Davis

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, explains the idea behind the Booker Prizes on the official website.  He wrote, "From the very beginning of what was originally called the Booker Prize there was just one criterion - the prize would be for 'the best novel in the opinion of the judges'. The aim was to increase the reading of quality fiction and ... The real success will be a significant increase in the sales of the winning book.”  As my listeners have heard several times, the Booker prize represents the best fiction written in English today since 1969.  The International prize began in 2004 and is awarded every other year – not for an individual title, but for a body of work.  The winners include Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, Canadian short story writer Alice Munro, and American novelist, Philip Roth.  The winner for 2013 is another American, short story writer Lydia Davis.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis total 298 on well over 700 pages.  Some of the stories are as short as a few lines, which evidences her creativity and desire to break new ground in the venerable genre stretching back well over 100 years.  Not a book to be read in a sitting, but rather wandered through like a museum, stopping here and there to take in a particularly artful piece.

I hardly read any of the stories I did not like, but rather I sipped and enjoyed even the shortest pieces like a glass of fine Bordeaux.  Here is an example of one of these short-short stories, titled “The Fish Tank,” “I star at four fish in a tank in the supermarket.  They are swimming in parallel formation against a small current created by a jet of water, and they are opening their mouths and staring off into the distance with the one eye, each, that I can see.  As I watch them through the class, thinking how fresh they would be to eat, still alive now, and calculating whether I might buy one to cook for dinner, I also see, as though behind or through them, a larger, shadowy form darkening their tank, what there is of me on the glass, their predator” (172).

Most of the stories deal with ordinary people facing life’s difficulties and joys, getting by day to day.  Others seem to be sketches prepared while outlining a story.  Here is the beginning of “The Center of the Story”: A woman has written a story that has a hurricane in it, and a hurricane usually promises to be interesting.  But in this story the hurricane threatens the city without actually striking it.  The story is flat and eben, just as the earth seems flat and even when a hurricane is advancing over it, and if she were to show it to a friend, the friend would probably say that, unlike a hurricane, this story has no center” (173).

But my favorite is “French Lesson I: Le Meurtre”: “See the vaches ambling up the hill, head to rump, head to rump.  Learn what a vache is.  A vache is milked in the morning, and milked again in the evening, twitching her dung-soaked tail, her head in a stanchion” (103).  Clever and creative. 

I have always loved short stories, and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis has shot to the top of my favorites list.  Take a sip of Lydia Davis’ work, and you will have many hours of enjoyment.  5 stars