25 November 2013

Dust Jacket : When Women Were Birds

When Women Were Birds
Designed by: Abby Kagan
Art by: Adly Elewa

Empty journals are frightening.

All those blank pages.

That silence.

From Terry Tempest Williams book:

"They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful cloth-bound books . . . I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It too was empty . . . Shelf after shelf after shelf, all of my mother’s journals were blank.

A blank journal becomes a sigil of unshared personal histories. And that is where the fear comes in.

What are we if we leave only blankness behind?

You could look at a blank journal another way. As hope. A future untold. And a new journal is that. A soft bed for thoughts, hopes, life.

This cover is both comforting and menacing.

A bed of feathers. A pillow. Nature. Birds in flight.

But these are the feathers of a bird of prey.

peregrine falcon.

The most widely spread of the raptors. It has been clocked flying up to 200+ mph. It is the fastest animal.

How are blank journals like a peregrine falcon?

Peregrine means 'to wander'. As a mind. As the possibility in a blank page.

The artist, Adley Elewa, designs for Penguin Press. The photo also resembles a flock of birds in flight. Again. The mind let loose.

Sky Chase by  Manuel Presti

Again. That silence is both soft and beautiful. And also deeply troubling.

A quiet mind is a home to infinity. And to nothing.

Finding a room full of journals. That were your dead mother's. Then finding them empty.

Nothing left but that blankness. All that blankness.

Dust Jacket is a sometime article about the design and art of book covers. The idea is to shine a spotlight on the work of the designer separate from the author. Literally judging a book by its cover.

21 November 2013

Child of the Storm

The re-examination of cultural figures happens with regularity. We go back, take a look, and decide if they are still worth our time. Periodically, this process allows people who were 'forgotten' or 'under appreciated' to be redeemed.

My most recent review for Publisher's Weekly was The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It's a book about Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The focus is on examining their respective public personae. On how they were or were not capable of directing public discussion.

The book served as a somewhat redemptive look at Taft, who is often viewed as a 'failed' President.

Nikola Tesla has undergone a much more complete transformation in public minds. You could even go so far as to say he's kinda cool these days.

I've personally been fascinated by the life/mind/inventions/madness/etc. of Nikola Tesla for years. His battles against the might of Edison are amazing for their ugliness. On both sides. Tesla's mind was expansive. Was manic. Was destructive.

He was a bad businessman. He was capricious. He refused to profit from his designs.

There are many books about him. W. Bernard Carson's 2013 book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electric Age, is a good start. Though I feel the book is simplistic and a bit on the glowing side.

I hate a biography that paints someone as a saint. See most bio movies.

I bring this up because I've been working on a project about Tesla for a L O N G time. I've mentioned it in brief before.

I started it seven years ago while I was still in grad school. The poems in the project are a sweeping biography of Tesla fused with strange dream-like poems about energy and space. Then they finish with a cycle of poems about a trip to The Lightening Field in Quemado, NM.

Walter De Maria - The Lightening Field 1977
It is infuriating to write about a person in this very close way.

It is enlightening.

It feels like opening a door. Allowing myself to write from some other perspective. To think in a slightly off way. A slightly not my own way.

Who knows if I will ever finish it.

At the moment the project is like Tesla's own work. Unfinished. A tower hanging out on Long Island Sound. Waiting for something.

To be declared cool enough so I can finish it.

But that's how a lot of my writing has felt lately. Not finished. Rusting. A bit broken maybe. It is a winter of putting things in the ground and seeing what happens.

Maybe light.

12 November 2013

All Is Gravity

A body floating in an expansive void.
One being. Alone.
Every element of the environment out to kill them.
No way to contact anyone.
No way to get home.
Nothing but wits. And luck. To save them.

This is the basic plot of two high-profile movies in theaters right now. Gravity and All Is Lost.

Each begins with an almost immediate calamity that leaves our 'hero' alone and adrift. A breath from certain doom. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is at first given the safety of George Clooney. But that is soon taken away. Robert Redford has no one from the start. Neither movie has much dialogue.

Both include sweeping views of the isolation of the characters. Disorienting rolling camerawork that conveys the instability of the moment.

Both films present road block upon road block in front of the stranded figures. Bullock must deal with fires, explosions, crashes, suicidal thoughts, broken everything. Redford must deal with fires, crashes, suicidal thoughts, massive storms that might as well be explosions.

Leaving the theater after All Is Lost this weekend I was overcome with a sense of 'why?' about these two movies.

Why now?

Why stories about such absolute isolation. About death. About silence.

About survival.

Because both of these movies end with impossible survival in the face of all of this. In fact the endings of these movies are almost metaphoric in their need for the characters to come through the fire and still not die. To, at the last moment, be saved, reborn.

J and I were talking and I feel like this is some post-Iraq War psychology. Though real American in its focus.

Hear me out.

You can pretty safely argue that post-9/11 the US was in a serious state of PTSD. Lashing out and going through the many stages of grief. The fact that other countries took the brunt of that is deplorable. But it is.

Are these movies a sort of selfish 'we came through that' played out on the screen? I'm sure there is some of that at play here. At least from a cultural stand point. We as a country certainly didn't actually deal with anything post-9/11. Most Americans certainly felt little of the impact from the decade of war we are emerging from.

That the movies are about death but against all odds the protagonists survive. I see them as attempts at explaining human will. Ingenuity. That we can face great darkness and come out into light.

The final scenes of both movies involves the character literally reaching for light. Bullock crawls out of the space craft and then onto a beach. She stands in the rays of the rising sun. It shines over her as she stumbles, like a new born, into the future. Redford is drowning. Is actually in the process of giving up, when a hand reaches into the darkness. He reaches up. Rays shining into the water from above.

Fade to black.

Culturally we are in a dark place. The economy has improved, but not for all. Politics has become overly fractured. There are little wars igniting and smoldering all over. We send drones to fight our ever elongating wars. Zeno's dichotomy playing out in real time, these wars are in a perpetual state of 'ending'.

Quetzalcoatl. Dies in fire to be reborn.
That these movies seem to predict a light at the end of the tunnel. That both seem to use their respective isolated environments as a sort of parable for the death/rebirth cycle and the improvement of self speaks to a rebirth through fire. Bullock in the shower of space vehicles entering the atmosphere and Redford literally starting a ring of fire that he is submerged beneath.

Psyche as phoenix.

J pointed out that the end of Zero Dark Thirty could be interpreted in a similar way. The final shot of Jessica Chastain sobbing uncontrollably, alone, in a plane can certainly be interpreted as the culture realization of what we have spent the last 10 years doing.

If Chastain represents America going through the post-9/11 stages that America did. Then do Bullock and Redford represent our hopes for what comes next?

04 November 2013

The Bridge of Beyond

I have an unsteady relationship to post-colonial literature. In general I find it too interested in theory to the detriment of story and style.

Oftentimes I find the need to make "A Point" to be placed above all else.

Few books exemplify this more for me then Foe by J. M. Coetzee. Or, for that matter, all of Coetzee's work.

Foe is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe. Or a reworking. From the perspective of Susan Barton and Friday. She is a fellow castaway with Crusoe. The book is told as if Barton is trying to convince Daniel Defoe to tell her story in print.

The implication is that he took the story and focused on the white male. Barton herself is responsible of telling the mute Friday's story as she feels fit.

The idea sounds interesting because it is.

The problem is that it hits you over the head with it's themes of sexism and imperialism. It is telling that the section on Wikipedia about the books themes is over double the length for the plot.

Wide Sargasso Sea is more functional for me as a book. Jean Rhys novel is a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre. The book details Bertha Mason's life. How she got to be Rochester's wife. And why she burns it down at the end.

This book is more about the inner sickness that imperialism/colonialism wrought. Antoinette/Bertha's mental illness is the result of the coming of white men to the Caribbean. Similar in concept to Things Fall Apart. Though Rhys' book is more baldly presented.

Post-colonial theory is important. I don't want to diminish it in any way. Taking the status quo and re-examining it from the perspective of the oppressed and marginalized provides a whole picture of history.

Even when that examination becomes bitter it is still worthy. The problem arises when the theory of re-examination removes the art from the art.

Achebe's book is more in tune with my idea. The 'message' of Things Fall Apart is the same as Rhys. But the book is also concerned with character development and being a whole work on its own. It also is told in a style unique to Nigerian culture and history. Both Rhys and Coetzee tell their stories in very European styles. In the case of Coetzee, also very coldly.

Recently I was gifted by J a NYRB club. I get one of their newer books every month. It has meant that I've spent most of 2013 reading NYRB books. They are consistently fascinating. August's selection was The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart.

The book tells the story of Telumee from birth to death on the island of Guadeloupe in the French Antilles. From being abandoned by her mother to working in the house of rich white plantation owners to having a quiet cabin near some sugar cane fields we watch Telumee have failed relationships and grow old.

The book manages to be an indictment while never being histrionic.

The tone is one of overcoming. Telumee is a spot of brightness amongst the despondent.

It helps that the tone is one of magical realness. That it is short, even, and beautifully rendered.

I was immediately reminded of The Ten Thousand Things by Maria DermoĆ»t. I briefly talked about that book before. In that story the world is slowly dissolved into fantasy. Into magic. The effect of living in the world consumes the main character.

Which is the main theme of most post-colonial novels.

That swirling destructive force.

To go back to Foe for a moment. The book ends with Barton staring into Friday's open mouth. That open mouth "...is not a place of words. Each syllable, as it comes out, is caught and filled with water and diffused." That deeply poetic moment sums up the idea that Coetzee has spent a whole book getting to.

The slave ships, the oppression, the taking of history, of language, of family. Everything dissolved. It is a triumph of simple language revealing much. And it comes in the last two paragraphs of the book. It also manages to sum up everything about post-colonial theory I like and dislike.

It is too technical.

And it is very true.