Saturday, December 17, 2005

Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. By Karen Jackson Ford. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. Pp. x + 205, notes, works cited. Cloth, $35.00)

In this critical work, Karen Jackson Ford re-examines Jean Toomer's work, including his seminal collection Cane, a book which helped spark the Harlem renaissance. Composed of short stories, vignettes and poetry, Cane is, in part, a critique of the dissolution of African American culture and traditions caused by the migration North after the civil war. Ford examines the culture split between the South of yesterday and the North of tomorrow, looking at Toomer's use of various thematic elements such as song and natural versus urbane imagery to mimic the changes in African American culture. Ford also touches on Toomer's desire to hold on to the vanishing traditions of African American culture and bridge the gap between past and present.

The bulk of Ford's book is devoted to Cane, following its three parts: section one, which portrays a vivid, almost idealized African American culture in the South. In section two, as African Americans move North, they lose their culture. Song is replaced with liquor, urban hopelessness and alienation. The middle class world of jazz and theatre cannot save them. Toomer is critical of jazz as being a "whitewashed" (p.99) version of earlier musics. Ford argues here that Toomer used form to mimic message. Poetry disappears, replaced by prose and free verse. The forms invoked in section one (field calls, spirituals) are distorted and corrupted in section two, much like Toomer feared African American culture was in danger of becoming corrupted by middle class values. The soul of an African American woman is re-imagined in one story as a stray dog that must sleep in a vestibule because the woman won't let it in. And only in dreams do these misplaced denizens remember their history, their culture, in the south. Part three has no poetry. It tells the story of Ralph Kabnis, a displaced Northerner teaching in Georgia. Kabnis yearns to be a poet, as many of Toomer's characters do, but all poetry does for him is hint at unattainable beauty. Instead of an idealized South, Kabnis is faced with the reality of lynching, and how can poetry combat this? In Cane, finally the message seems to be that sometimes poetry fails us. But the death of poetry, Ford argues, is also the death of a romanticized image of the south.

This is a complex work and Ford does a splendid job of tackling its intricacies in precise and interesting detail. Her interpretations of Toomer's imagery, form and overall intent are smart and engaging. Ford argues that Toomer was trying to grab on to the disappearing culture of a people who had already lost so much. The new culture being made in the North was balanced on a razor's edge between the desperation of African Americans not finding the new lives they'd hoped for in the North and still facing oppression in the South. According to Ford, Toomer disdained middle class pretensions and portrayed those who pursued the middle class life in negative ways. Toomer saw this burgeoning culture as being ashamed of its roots. Though the South had been the home of slavery it was also that much closer to the original bloodlines of African Americans. Toomer spoke of Cane as being an elegy. He didn't believe traditional African American culture could survive and, Ford argues, he didn't hold out much hope for the culture of the twenties.

After Cane, Toomer didn't publish much. He perused different avenues of spirituality and fell out with his peers. His later work was seen as didactic and lacked the lyricism of Cane. Regardless, this was a momentous book with an interesting take on a period often overlooked. It is well worth Ford's attentions.
-Originally published in The Arkansas Review

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

To The Green Man. By Mark Jarman. Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2004. $20.95 (cl) $13.95 (pa)

Jarman's eighth collection reads much like a collection of epistolary poems, in this case addressed mainly to powers higher than himself. Jarman acts as a monk, meditating on various aspects of religion, mythology, and humanity with a quiet tone of questioning. "I've told you this so you can know this man/ my grandfather, a little, as I tell my story/ the only real ghost story I know/ a Holy Ghost story," he says in "The Excitement." He isn't parroting scripture, though; he's searching for the questions that will lead him to meaning, and looking wherever he can.

He isn't always answered. In "Five Psalms" he responds to this idea playfully, "Let us think of God as a lover/ who never calls...Forgive God/ for being only a word." He is on the one hand admonishing this absentee deity, but he is also forgiving.

But for Jarman, the asking of the questions, the examination itself can be enough. In "As Close as Breathing," he states, "Everything answers/ everything says back, 'I am present, too.'" There are answers all around, if one bothers to look.

Jarman also explores the questioning itself. In his poem "Fox Night," he describes a fox staring at him during an accidental encounter. "What had I done/ so that I thought the world, at least my family/ should know a fox was looking back at me?" "What have I done to merit that regard?" He asks. Have I examined myself enough so that I can now move on to examining others? Am I up to this endeavor?

Jarman struggles over and over with spiritual ideals. "Is this a fallen world," he asks in "Coyotes," "How could it be?" He finds sanctity in nature and in relationships with others. He moves beyond the abstract and applies spirituality to everyday lives, by examining his relationships with others and with nature.

In the title poem, "To the Green Man," Jarman expresses empathy for the pagan deity the Green Man, "Lord of the returning leaves," whom Jarman equates with being a nature deity. But Jarman is also mourning a lost culture. "...the entry in the reference book that lists you/ as forester, pub sign, keeper of golf courses/ King for a day, or week, then sacrificed," Jarman says, referring to the ancient practice of religious sacrifice, whereas one member of the community was chosen and treated to luxury for a short time, then sacrificed. Jarman expresses joy in discovering the likeness of this god of nature. "Pray, vestige-secret of the trees, for us/ surprised and pleased to find you any place." Jarman respects spirituality wherever he finds it. His is not an exclusionary belief.

In "Roland," he bridges the gap between mythology and history, by creating a contrast between the figure of Roland, the paladin of Charlemagne, and Jarman's mother's cousin, also named Roland, who took her to the fair one summer. Instead of dying nobly, and "Blowing his horn," this Roland instead convinces Jarman's mother to open a box of face powder on the Ferris wheel, so that the carnie thinks there's been an explosion and smoke. This humanizing of mythical characters by showing real world counterparts and putting these characters in real-world situations, exemplifies Jarman's approach in this collection. He meditates on the abstract, making it concrete.

In mining his history, Jarman begins to find solace. "I looked around, wanting to be changed," he says in "The Wind." But can one be changed from without? In "Canticle," he states, "Death of the father, the mother, absolute/ no way to bring them back, except to become them." In much the same way, Jarman seems to be saying that there is no way to find the ideals one hopes to see in the world without following them oneself. Higher powers or no, we are still accountable ourselves.

-Originally Published in The Hollins Critic
* Shortly after this was published, I received a very nice card form Sarabande books' marketing person thanking me for the review. This was not something they had to do. It was very nice of them and made me glad I'd put the work into the review.
The Green Chair. By Mark DeFoe. Buckhannon: Pringle Tree Press, 2003. $10.00 (pa.)

In the title poem to his fifth collection, DeFoe pleads, "Give me this moment forever." In this slim volume of thirty poems, he attempts to achieve just that, by capturing the resonating moments in his subjects' lives in the here and now. He attempts to pin these moments down and save them.

Many of these poems deal with an attempt to hold on to humanity in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile to it. DeFoe shows us humanity in a most inhuman locale in "Coming Out of Wal Mart," where he describes a family being playful: "The Man is a tiny horse/ gentle at a fence. The boy's eyes are huge/ as a fawn's." Even in this cookie cutter monstrosity, there is hope, he seems to be saying.

In the beautifully ironic "Margaritaville," he shows us a Daytona dying; "Against the sand, progress has thrown up/ a picket line of condos." This is a portrait of self-destruction, and the all consuming quest to be entertained. DeFoe's judgments are harsh. "Off Africa," he says, "the predicted tsunami devoutly/awaits consummation." But even this harshness is tinged with irony. The tsunami serves as a device to deliver humanity from having to clean up after the party. The true, unspoken horror is the realization that we will not be wiped away, the world reborn. We're going to have to clean this mess up ourselves.

At times alien or achingly familiar, DeFoe renders even the oddest situations with human foibles. As in "Polar Bear Eats Missionary Woman While She Ministers to the Aleut," a hilarious parable of sexual repression, in which he describes the obsession with sameness, and conformity through the polar bear, who "could fill/the whole world with white bear people who/ told boring white bear stories..." And who would want to live in a world where all the "bears" (and the stories) were the same?

DeFoe fills his worlds with evocative imagery, language and characters. He achieves graceful forms and that rarest of accomplishments, the unobtrusive rhyme, as in these lines from "The Gambler," where he describes the struggle of an addict to resist temptation: "...just a fiver now and then/ on computer casino. Yes, Vegas/ crossed his mind - real roulette, a wheel to spin/ but that glitter would suck off his wages."

DeFoe's poems are honest, but there's humor there. In "Nine Reasons Why I Chose You," he describes the family of his wife (to be): "...twelve bridesmaids, twelve flower girls/ they gawked. They stared. At last, such wonderful hate."

DeFoe captures the moments in the fading lives of his subjects that bears remembering. As in the title poems, where he says, "Let this sun last, let this old chair remain." The moments in our lives in which we rise and fall are memories with which we should sit, now and then, like that old chair, and DeFoe captures them with grace, unchanging, reverberating throughout time.
-Originally Published in The Hollins Critic

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson. New York, Penguin Books. 2004. $14.00 (Trade Paperback)

Hank Hannah, a South Dakota anthropology professor, studies the prehistoric Clovis people, makers of the Clovis point, an arrowhead he believes was responsable for the extinction of 35 land mammals.

But Hannah's life is falling apart. Since the death of Hannah's step-mother, Hannah's father has been popping Viagra like there's no tomorrow, while Hannah can't connect with anyone, though he would really kinda sorta like to spend some time with one of his students, but he knows that's wrong. But how could something so wrong feel so right?

In the midst of this quandary, one of Hannah's students, who happens to live as though he were a Clovis, (no modern technology of any kind-including Doritoes, though his breath may occasionally smell strangely of cheese flavored snackfoods) has made an incredible anthropological find: a Clovis arrowhead, which leads him to a skeleton and a strange orb...

Unfortunately, before Hannah can study the find, he is thrown into jail for grave robbing, resisting arrest, assualt, etc. As if that weren't bad enough, a devestating epidemic has broken out and it looks like the world is finally ending. But Hannah, along with his students, is strangely unaffected. Now, if he can just escape from the trigger happy sherrif and the remaining townspeople and find the key to their immunity, humanity might survive.

I picked this book up in the bookstore at which I currently work. The comparisons to Vonnegut and my own past dabblings in Anthropological study made it seem like a good choice. The twist on the Armageddon story seemed especially intriguing.

And to read the summary I've just written, it still sounds interesting. Actually it sounds like a really fast paced story. It is very funny. The situations and characters are unfamiliar (that's a good thing), entertaining and at times border on zaniness.

The problem is that the book has no center. What exactly caused the epidemic? This is never really explained. We think it came from pigs, so all the pigs are destroyed. Then it's birds, so likewise, nix the birds. Early on, there is an implication that Hannah himself could have spread something through fleas. But it's never really explained. The epidemic starts after the Clovis skeleton is uncovered, so is that the cause? Without any authorial guidance, I'm just fumbling in the dark here. Nor does Hannah stop at any point and say, "Well, we don't really know what killed everyone, so you'll just have to chalk that up as a loss."

Parasites reads like a prequel for a story we've already read. Unfortunately, we haven't. The book is very intertaining and I enjoyed reading it; I just wish Johnson had had a better editor, a little guidance. Regardless, I will definately read his other work.