When Partisan asked some of our favourite writers and contributors to tell us about the books that mattered to them in 2015, we were inundated with stocking stuffers and door-stoppers, small press gems and bestsellers, the timely and the timeless, and even a book that isn’t yet published. So we’ve dedicated our whole week to their recommendations. Read the first and second installments. Today: the final entry in Partisan's Year in Books.
The standout 2015 title for me—complete with scores of scored paragraphs I keep returning to—is Jordan Tannahill Theatre of the Unimpressed. A manifesto that hovers between memoir and reportage, the book is consumed by a single question: why is English-language theatre so boring? His conclusions will seem familiar to any serious artist trying to make a living at his or her craft—he blames a form straitjacketed by convention and a marketplace terrified of risk—but Tannahill lays out the realities of writing and producing plays in the Netflix era with exceptional clarity. A winner of the Governor-General’s Award for Drama, the 27-year-old was one of the co-founders of Videofag, a celebrated avant-garde performance space run out of a tiny Toronto storefront. He draws on that experience—which included a successful premiere of Sheila Heti’s “unproduceable” play, All Our Happy Days Are Stupid—when tracing his disillusionment with a contemporary stage that fails to respect “its audience’s capacity to think abstractly, profoundly, with nuance.” The book takes in a huge amount of dramaturgical history (beginning with 19th century French playwright Eugène Scribe who perfected Tannahill’s bête noire, the so-called Well-Made Play) but it’s also alert to fascinating experiments around the world (such as the U.S. production of Death of a Salesman where the role of Loman was played by a mix of actors of different ages, genders and ethnicities). Crammed with provocative insights and memorable anecdotes—with one now-infamous scene set during a “lackluster” orgy in a Montreal hotel—the book’s main joy is its prose. Tannahill’s visceral sentences match his vision of a guerrilla theatre that’s immersive, impulsive and bold.
There were a number of big events this year in poetry publishing, but I would like to give a shout out to the major minor poet John Crowe Ransom, in the gorgeous and meticulous edition by Ben Mazer, The Collected Poems of John Crowe Ransom. This is the first collected Ransom ever published, and will go some way to restoring Ransom’s poems (and reputation) to all their original quirky glory. (Ransom revised his work throughout his life, the transmogrifications not always for the better.) Mazer hews to the 1945 Selected’s versions of the most famous poems, but gives every published variant in the dizzying apparatus. It’s nothing short of a tome, priced for a library, and, like Ransom himself, not for everyone (alas!). But it’s just the thing for the right poet, who knows a brown study when she sees one, and gets fevers and chills when she hits on a word like “atrabilious”—you know who you are.
One of life’s great pleasures is reading a terrific writer from one genre closing to grips with a master in another. Cólm Toibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop (the latest iteration of Princeton University Press’s Writers on Writers series) managed to reconstruct a poet I thought I knew, one whom long acquaintance – together with the sometimes onerous responsibility to attend to emerging voices – had inadvertently put to sleep in my estimation. Technically accomplished and scholarly enough to satisfy any student of her work, Toibín’s reading renders a Bishop at once more accessible and more mysterious than the poet I thought I knew, perhaps because, ineluctably, a novelist’s attention to a poet won’t be coincidental with a poet’s; the poetry – and the artist – are more subject, somehow, to the myriad interests of narrative. Early in the book, he declares an interest which the rest of his estimation honours and limns: “A true statement for [Bishop] carried with it, buried in its rhythm, considerable degrees of irony because it was oddly futile; it was either too simple or too loaded to mean a great deal.” It’s a simple yet fascinating notion (especially in the linkage of irony with rhythm), and it’s the germ of Toibín’s marvelous (re)invention of Elizbeth Bishop, a figure as vivid, memorable and true, in its “oddly futile” fashion, as the Henry James he made for us in The Master.
The most recent book listed in J. H. Prynne’s Poems is the pamphlet "Al Dente," published last year. Its author may be pushing eighty but, as that title suggests, is still very much in the business of producing tangy and toothsome work. Prynne’s work is the great secret miracle of modern English-language poetry: known and loved by a too-small few, and genially belying his reputation for tuneless obscurantism for anyone else yet to have the pleasure. Or, as the man himself might put it, in Kazoo Dreamboats: "Catching up subliminal sudden paroxysm, power law in amble mounting rotation is a limit step yet dissimilar rank for rank notorious, what you know is not rate-dependent on blood flow through knowledge organs." If that doesn’t make appear to make sense, get into training for late Prynne by starting with The White Stones, one of the great books of post-war Anglophone poetry. If it still doesn’t make sense, bear in mind that understanding is an overrated quality anyway, where great poetry is concerned. Here is a book you can study for the rest of your life without ever really understanding; and without that detracting from the manifold and inexhaustible riches it contains.
I’m probably not the only one who wonders (read: agonizes over) whether scholarly work is interrupted or in some way damaged by going out into the agora and writing reviews, popular criticism, etc. There does seem to be some tension: the turn-it-around attitude with which it’s sometimes necessary to do literary journalism is in many ways antithetical to the slow, even tedious, but nevertheless deep engagement with texts that mark scholarship (I know I’m idealizing scholarship and maybe denigrating journalism, but I think the point stands). Of course, a glance at the LRB, NYRB, or the smorgasbord of online lit crit should be enough to put that kind of worry to bed. But for me the case is really made by the long career of Helen Vendler, a scholar of the highest order, whose many book reviews display a sensitivity and intelligence that is at once profound and conversational, absorbed and at ease. The essays in The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar engage a dizzying array of poets, from Jorie Graham to Langston Hughes, from Wallace Stevens to Mark Ford, all attended to with subtlety and grace. None of this turns journalism into scholarship, nor vice-versa (never mind the question of how they relate to poetry and fiction, especially for the writer of all these things), and Vendler surely has her missteps, but her work helps to illuminate—for me, anyway—some of the range of possibilities available to those of us who feel the urge to respond to our reading.
One of the books I was happiest to have in my hands this year was Uniformbooks’ handsomely printed, beautifully typeset new edition of Ronald Johnson’s The Book of the Green Man. First published in 1967, it was well described by the late Christopher Middleton "sundry English scenes [presented] with a vividness and a strangeness beyond the reach of any English poet." Roaming the shires with fellow American Jonathan Williams for a year in the early Sixties, Johnson—who had an exquisite ear for—made a seasonal work of rarefied bricolage, transplanting the syllables of local observers and visionaries into the "Ohio soil" of his own free verse. Or perhaps the image should be Johnson’s own, sharper analogue:
Mistletoe. Its seeds
out of the quickening gut,
it clings to oak.
To read this radical pastoral garland now, half a century further into the Anthropocene, is to be freshly enchanted by its vanishing music and ambivalently returned to its ‘green source[s]’, such as Geoffrey Grigson’s classic countryside guides—as published by Shell Oil Company.
Divided into parts entitled “Clasp,” “Cleave,” and “Clench,” Clasp is Doireann Ni Ghríofa’s fourth collection of poetry and her first in English. It’s a moving study of the fragility of our bonds: those between mother and child, and between ourselves and the animals, people, former selves, and places in our minds and midst. The poet’s empathic considerations are applied to history as well, which she concretizes to reveal moral transgressions in Ireland’s past, such as the child abuse that occurred at St Joseph’s Industrial School in Galway. Clasp is remarkable for its detailed observational capacities of a concrete yet fraught quotidian life. This includes both small scenarios as well as a memoir of the intense lives of adolescents, such as the gritty realisms of the final long poem, “Seven Views of Cork City.” In shorter lyricism, Ni Ghríofa expertly manages what can only be described as melancholy, absent of a cloying self-regard we sometimes find in young poets: “the dark makes a mirror of his window tonight. / I see my reflection there—brown moth, drawn to his light.” In this vein, there is also a perceptive sense of one’s life losses, such as, “On Bringing a First Child to School” with its stoic meditation on almost invisible spiders’ filaments, a beautiful metaphor for letting go: “on each gossamer thread, / spiderlings / bound / to new webs.”
I’m not really convinced there’s such a thing as a “best book” of 2015 or any other year—some are good for one thing, some for another. But my favorite book of the year is Karl Larsson’s Form/Force , translated from the Swedish by Jennifer Hayashida, who, along with Johannes Göransson, has the distinction of being the main conduit bringing Swedish experimental writing to the Anglophone world. Larsson’s book is presented as poetry, but it’s hard to know what to call it, really. It’s a collage, a writing-through, a meditation in found text about embodiment, borders, and the power of ideology over the body. It takes us from a man sewn into a car seat in an attempt to cross the U.S./Mexican border, through the prison writings of the Baader-Meinhof terror faction, to the destroyed Afghan Buddhas of Bamiyan via bootlegs of New Order records, finding in each instance a way to think about how power works its way over the spaces we share. Best book of 2015? Well, pick it up and I’ll guarantee it will be the best book of Swedish trans-generic experimental writing you’ve read in some time.
I have never, I confess, known to what to do with invitations to choose my books of the year. It’s not okay to mention your friends, is it? Who wants to look nepotistic in public? Or is it that you know how nepotistic it will look but don’t care because, you think, you’ve earned the right, just by being asked? Pending my making my mind up on this topic, I don’t feel I can choose the left-hook right-hook combination of Justin Quinn’s Early House and Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry, wonderful though they are. One offers further ‘frightening, wild and dim-lit //landscapes’, if not quite from ‘his eleventh full-length collection’, as Quinn writes in the third-person satire of ‘Reverb’, and the other is a rare critical book that speaks with equal authority from two different worlds, those of modern and contemporary Anglophone poetry, and the Cold War poetry of the Slavic nations.
My actual choice, then, is a novella, a genre I have long enjoyed for its fugitive, neither-one-thing-nor-the-other qualities. Flann O’Brien has become established in many people’s minds as the great Gaelic Irish modernist, though his writing in English as well as well as Irish gives him a certain head-start over the no less great Máirtín Ó Cadhain (1906–1970). Published in a dual-language edition with translation by Louis de Paor, Ó Cadhain’s An Eochair/The Key (Dalkey Archive Press) is the tale of a minor Irish civil servant, J (one letter along, alphabetically, from Kafka’s hero) who becomes trapped in his superior’s office when the key breaks in the lock. Because there is no procedure for this eventuality, nothing can be done to help him, and J endures an apocalyptic fate among the stacks of files that have been his life. Ó Cadhain was a revolutionary socialist, but this is the Irish ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’—a quietist fable of death by bureaucracy, according an awed respect to the life of the written word and the Messianic aura concealed in the lowliest sheaf of forms. Here is the secret history of post-independence Ireland, full of angst as banal as it is grandiose. The book is also very funny: an immaculate, small classic.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts is a hard book to write a little about. (For the curious, I wrote more here.) A love story written sometimes in, sometimes through, and sometimes against the language of critical theory, it aspires to that which is “good enough” and achieves greatness—a book of constant change, queer identities, and phenomenal intellect yoked powerfully enough to things as prosaic as health and marriage that those plain terms start to sing. With remarkable frequency, Nelson free-falls through layers of language, starting off at a theoretical remove only to land at something stunningly direct: “The answer isn’t just to introduce new words (boi, cis-gendered, andro-fag) and then set out to reify their meanings (though obviously there is power and pragmatism here). One must also become alert to the multitude of possible uses, possible contexts, the wings with which each word can fly. Like when you whisper, You’re just a hole, letting me fill you up. Like when I say husband.”
Graphic novels: The Sculptor (Scott McCloud) is a lengthy graphic novel at 488 pages, but it also manages to be an engrossing read about a young man who gains the ability to manipulate stone or any other material with his hands. The plot may belong to The Twilight Zone, but McCloud manages an impressive meditation on the challenge of finding your own voice, particularly in an age of instant gratification.
The centerpiece of McAuliffe’s book is “Home, Again,” a splendid long sequence modeled on and in dialogue with Spenser’s ‘Colin Clout’s Come Home Again,’ is an exploration of what home is, in historical, political, literary and domestic terms. (McAuliffe is an Irish poet living in Britain.) Shorter poems have the breadth and human interest of fiction and the compactness of lyric poetry, and are likewise frequently concerned with the home. McAuliffe’s complicated, quizzical, lucid relationship with domesticity situates his speakers in simultaneous comfort and discomfort; these are poems that mine the quotidian and rise, wittily and without an ounce of pretension, to the symbolic. In “Shed,” neighbors haul a shed, Fitzcarraldo-like, over a garage to find it a new home in a garden, and the poem is about work, and sweat, suspicion, second thoughts, and more. A woman coming home late from exhausting work in “Astronaut” wants to ask her husband if the heating system has been fixed, only to find in long branching sentences, that he is
…dead to the world with herself beside him, so begins
the careful, gravityless stepping around of an astronaut,
discovering on the bedside table, between ‘how-to’ books and
the baby’s bottle, the thermostat,
he must have fallen asleep trying to reset…
Among many pleasures in these poems are McAuliffe’s fast footwork in muscular word-laden lines, his swift shifts. In “Cover,” McAuliffe describes an Icarus painting in a museum (and perhaps talks, in doing so, to Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”), moves about the city the family is visiting (including a description of a TV smashed, Icarus-like, “fallen from who knows what heights, its screen / a glittering edge on red wire and green and silver circuits, / its crocked, fallen, akimbo openness”) and comes back finally to a family room, whereupon, still speaking the language of ekphrasis, “Cover” finds itself, in its final couplet, to be a love poem:
though skipping the exhibition after, max, an hour
I see under the electrifying, blue-black velvet
umbrellas of an Impressionist underwriter,
a sudden, first look we occasionally visit.
Traffic can snarl all it wants around its blue.
In case you’re ever wondering, I want to.
In Far-Fetched, Devin Johnston loves landscape, and loves birds. Loves them colloquially, in the voice of a woman on a plane: “I love birds! So check it out: / I raised fuckin’ racing pigeons / with my dad…” (“Strangers”). Loves them in metaphor and ekphrastically: “Your feathers brush the night sky / with ultramarine straight from the tube...” (“Satin Bowerbird”) Loves them excitedly: “A lyrebird at noon! / fossicking for worms” (“Small Triumphs”).
These deft, varied poems are as much about perception as they are about the meaning of animals, although Johnston’s not above addressing a backyard hen—with comedy appropriate to barnyard fowl—“Well, Sally Hen, how do you like your home?” in order to turn her and her activities into, I think, ars poetica:
From a fallow bed, so much undone,
your parched and reptilian cry proclaims
a perfect form of incompletion:
first egg of the year.
Johnston also likes inanimate objects, which may act as portals. In “Geode,” his touch is elegant, the weight of time massive as a present instant is put into contrast with the past:
In a farmhouse at dusk,
a young girl sorts her rocks
and stores them in a cardboard box
they nestle in tissue paper,
at rest from erosion.
Her fingers, soft as tissue,
lift and turn a geode
(the accident of epochs)
as if it were an egg.
For her, the stone is new.
A sweep into the past happens in “The Southern” in much more detail when the speaker rubs an old hotel key fob and key he keeps on his desk as, it seems, a kind of talisman, and imagines the “elegant lobby… / … / palms and spindleback chairs… / … / men loafing in spats...” who slip next door “for a quick nip” and “half a dozen oysters the size of eggs…” The poem twists further and further from the old key fob, to evening sun and “river smells, / through shadows of the Sixth Ward” as if merging eras, then finds its way back to the hotel’s commemorative plaque for Chief Pontiac:
leader of the Ottawa
and great friend to Louisiana,
buried in a blue coat
beyond the cemetery gates,
no one knows quite where.
The sounds of these poems are lovely; the ideas are quietly large.
Many, many people seem to have liked The Guardians, Canadian/American academic Susan Pedersen’s history of the ambitions and flaws of the League of Nations, which reminds me of the best novel I read this year: Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur, also about the League, seen from the perspective of one of its weary “Under-Clowns-General” as a futile, backscratching, incestuous talking shop—though it’s just one aspect of a glorious, nonsensically extended, Prousto-Joycean, existential, tragic, unhinged story of love, sex, obsession, despair, diplomacy, theology, high and low politics, middle class manners, twentieth-century Jewish life, Genevan high society, and more.
Henri Cole’s Nothing to Declare. Cole of course has everything to declare, even when what he has to say is couched in one of the most beautiful, agonized, self-questioning styles of the last thirty years. He has been able to turn misery into a form of grace.