You’ll Never Escape 2020 with these Books from Decades Past by Michael Springer
Friday, 4 September 2020
I’m sharing these books because I think they are very good, and I hope you will pick up at least one of them. That said, I want to acknowledge that the entire list is much heavier fare than what usually fills up my reading pile. I’ll also note that the most recent of these books is twenty years old. Perhaps I can place the lion’s share of blame on the pandemic and the social distance we’re all practicing to weather it. That is, I’ve allowed myself to fall a little too far out of the contemporary literary world. Aside from a smattering of Zoom readings and some ongoing digital correspondence with a few longtime writing friends, I’ve spent the summer months removed from the usual bookstores, coffee shops, and collegiate reading series where I often get my leads on good, new work. Instead, I’ve found myself traveling decades back in time—sometimes to writers I’d managed to miss, and others to the earlier works of those I’ve already enjoyed.
The result has surprised me. Despite my best efforts to make it so, the experience has not been escapist. Nor has it piqued that invigorating feeling of transportation that accompanies intentional, focused study of books of a certain place or period. Rather, the books in this list, along with those I have worked my way through in the three months prior, have left me feeling more like an anxious wanderer. 2020 is lodged stubbornly in the back of my mind, and I haven’t had the nerve to leap into these books with abandon, or the audacity to come under the spell of pure nostalgia. Instead, I’ve read through these works the way I would listen to a writer share their latest work at a bookstore reading. I’ve read them patiently and quietly, and avoided the perils of comparison or critique. The books on this list have been around a while. Other people have already compared and critiqued them to a variety of ends; I’ve only been wandering—moving slow with something on my mind—finding myself increasingly thoughtful, but never soothed.
My Science Fiction Fix:
Butler, Octavia. Dawn. Narrated by Barrett Aldrich. Audiobook. Audible, 2014. (Original pub., 1987).
———. Adulthood Rites. Narrated by Barrett Aldrich. Audiobook. Audible, 2014. (Original pub., 1988)
———. Imago. Narrated by Barrett Aldrich. Audiobook, Audible 2014. (Original pub., 1989).
While hard science fiction has long been my default choice for escapist reading, I think that books from the soft side of the genre are at their best when they drew the reader as much into an unexpected piece of the real world as they do into their fictional settings. Having never read Butler, I wasn’t sure which side of that divide I’d land on when downloading the audiobook version of Dawn. In case my introduction to this post hasn’t clearly set the stage, here’s a hint: Butler’s trilogy has aged all too well, and the themes of oppression and identity that underlie it haven’t changed enough in thirty years to transform this collection into a mere product of its time.
The contemporary relevance of these novels only increases the power of Butler’s prose, which has also held up well through decades of shifting taste. Her lean and careful narration evokes a future Earth colonized by the Oankali, an alien species that both saves humanity from self destruction and exploits it for the most useful portions of its DNA. Coercion, both explicit and invisible, drives the series, as the Oankali seek to create drug-like chemical bonds, and eventually procreate with the tiny fraction of humanity that remains. The plot itself is enjoyable if unremarkable science fiction fare. The novels’ real impact resides in the often terrifying, always complicated, power dynamics and emotional struggles of characters who must rely on and maintain intimate relationships with their oppressors. Butler renders the Oankali as truly alien in both worldview and physiology. Human characters, like Dawn’s protagonist, Lilith often find themselves abhorring the actions of these alien beings while sympathizing, or even empathizing with their intentions.
As of this post, I’m listening to the final section of Adulthood Rites. The series’s second novel further complicates the human/Oankali dynamic by introducing “construct” children, parented by both species. Most of the story follows Akin, one such child who can physically pass as human, as he navigates between isolationist human villages and the “hybrid” communities his parents occupy. In less deft hands, the premise, along with many others in the series, may have turned into a clever but heavy-handed allegory. Butler manages to create strong characters, deeply believable motivations for their struggles, along with the food for thought that readers can’t help but chew on after they’ve put the novel down.
Verse: Kinnell, Galway. Body Rags. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.
Over the last year, I had worked my way through a few of Galway Kinnell's collections, and was struck by his knack for transforming mundane scenes into eerily mythic or evocatively esoteric visions of the world. This style of poetic veil pulling is the driving force of his most famous collection, The Book of Nightmares, but I was drawn to the poet’s subtler use of this strategy in his earlier, nature-centered book, Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock. Kinnell makes similar good use of that lighter touch in 1968’s Body Rags, where he applies it to a wider (and grittier) range of landscapes that include urban ruins, the inside of a prison, and backwater swampland.
I moved through these locales uneasy, but impressed. Kinnell crafts images of heroin-wrecked neighborhoods and seedy bayou that are awful in the old sense of the word. Larger forces swim just beneath the pockmarked surface of his scenes, threatening to enlighten or devour speaker and reader alike. No clever epiphanies punctuate these poems. By the time I reached the end of “The Last River,” a fourteen-page chronicle of a convict’s journey through Louisiana’s prisons and swamps, I did not want a tidy answer; I suspected that any understanding so clear-cut would also be more terrible than I could bear.
Body Rags explores anxieties of the late 1960s, and hardly provides an escape from those of the present day. To the contrary, many readers will find parallels between the drug-wrecked communities, racial injustice, and systematic oppression addressed by Kinnell’s speakers and our contemporary contexts. These poems provide no comfort in that comparison, but they do demonstrate the transformative power of re-imagination when trying to make sense of systems that seem too large and uniform to challenge.
Verse: Gunn, Thom. The Man with Night Sweats. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007. (original pub., 1992)
The Man with Night Sweats, resides somewhere between artifact and monument. The poems in this 1992 collection move back and forth between immediate scenes of the AIDS epidemic and moments of reflection, sometimes years after the actual deaths of Gunn’s friends and neighbors. Gunn chronicles the horrific decimation of San Franciso’s gay community, but he does so via intimate scenes of human contact rather than an ordered catalogs of facts. He does not fixate on HIV itself or the infrastructures that allowed so many to die, but he gives the reader so many vantages of this dark plague, that they come to know it inside and out. He writes poems to men who are presently dying and poems to men who have been dead for years.
The effect of these contrasts is acute: Gunn’s speaker paces back and forth between the past and present, hospitals and haunts, the bare face of the epidemic and its city-wide shroud. We cannot help but pace, restless, beside him—a haunting effect that’s amplified by the formal variations throughout the collections. I’m most fond of Gunn when his poems teeter at the very edge of meter and rhyme. Many of the poems in The Man with Night Sweats keep a more rigid beat and harder rhyme scheme than I normally find accessible; with such deliberate music in my head I could not give myself over to the rawer moments of voice in the collection. That’s not quite true—I consistently found myself on the verge of giving over, then was pulled away again. I found this troubling early in the collection, but halfway through the third section, this pattern of absorption and withdrawal produced its own rhythm. I was still troubled (and still am, a week after finishing the book), but troubled in the way I imagine Gunn must have been: stuck in a limbo of memory, trying to look back at people he loved, trying not to look so hard he caught a complete glimpse of the awfulness that swallowed them all.
Verse: Trethewey, Natasha. Domestic Work. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 2000.
Despite the vast differences between each of Natasha Trethewey’s collections—the ekphrastic drive of Bellocq’s Ophelia, the intersection of history and memoir in Native Guard, or the careful triangulation of an inarticulable subject in Thrall—I’ve always found a curious consistency in her work. No matter what approach she takes to a poem, Trethewey manages to create an interplay between speaker and poet that simultaneously allows the subjects of her poems to speak in authentic voices while subtly reminding readers that nearly everything we see (in or out of her poems) is shaped by someone’s plying of craft. The balance between subject and authorial string-pulling is remarkable; where other writers might fall into nostalgia, stereotype, or a kind of meta-writing exercise, Trethewey seems to speak for herself while letting her speakers and supporting characters do the same.
I’ve traveled back to Terethewey’s first collection, and, half way through, am relishing that same graceful twinning of awarenesses. Like those across her wider oeuvre, the poems within Domestic Work range in approach from persona to ekphrastic to personal lyric and every combination thereof. That variety, coupled with the remarkable depth of the voices she evokes, opens enough space for poet and speaker to cohabitate these poems without stepping on each other’s toes. The dance that takes place in that room is a kind of self consciousness I hadn’t fully understood while reading Trethewey’s earlier works. Consider the opening ekphrastic poem, “Gesture of a Woman-in-Process:”
one woman pauses for the picture.
The other won’t be still.
Even now, her hands circling,
the white blur of her apron
still in motion.” (ll. 11-15)
The two women are subjects of a photograph, they are objects of another’s gaze, they are aware that they have been placed in this role, but at least one of them will not refrain from the work she was already undertaking outside of the frame of the moment or the camera lens.
Domestic Work is full of figures like this: people who must actively create (or at least shape) a version of themselves for others while simultaneously sustaining a private self. There’s room in these poems for readers to peel back progressive layers of this onion, self performance in many spheres of human interaction. What’s most compelling is that this conscious performance extends to Trethewey’s speakers and (I’d certainly argue) the authorial Trethewey herself. Nothing is phony of affected in this collection; the putting on of different selves is a matter of survival. When Trethewey gives readers a glimpse of a human being caught in the uneasy space between one version of themselves and another, the result is an astonishing sense of vulnerability and intimacy.