Monthly Archives: August 2012

On Ayn Rand’s Rugged Individualism

writer Ayn RandI have just read John Guzlowski’s blog posting about, as he puts it in an email, “how I liked the writer [Ayn] Rand when I was a college student and then didn’t.” The essay is brief and eloquent; I would encourage you to read it at http://everythings-jake.blogspot.com/2012/08/who-is-ayn-rand_15.html.

I myself have not read Ayn Rand, though with all the talk recently even before the Paul Ryan Vice-Presidential nomination I have often considered that I ought to acquaint myself first-hand with Atlas Shrugged, the title usually mentioned. Though already I have read enough summations of her work – of which John’s elegant narrative of reconsideration is at least one of the best – to know that I concur with his later feeling that her message of ruthless individualism, if I may roughly paraphrase, negates our supposed Judeo-Christian ethic of community and concern for others.

But don’t let what I say get in the way of reading John’s posting for yourselves. It won’t take but a moment and will leave you at least the nourishment of food for thought.

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Brief Reviews: Irving A. Greenfield and Michael Corrigan

Both of these men are former colleagues in the editorial labor at New Works Review, and both have old or new books out in new Kindle editions. Their work is also highly readable and of deep literary merit.

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I have just read Irving A. Greenfield’s Snow Giants Dancing, whose 2012 electronic edition with Blueberry Lane Books is a first edition http://www.amazon.com/Snow-Giants-Dancing-ebook/dp/B0089SM22E/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1344966537&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=Snow+Giants+Dancing%2C+Irv+Greenfield. His other new e-book, from the same publisher, is Ancient of Days: The Chronicles of Ronstrom the Builder, which spent six weeks on the bestseller list in its original 1973 incarnation. His book Tagget, not available yet in an e-edition, became a made-for-TV movie starring Daniel J. Travanti. And this scarcely scratches the surface of his prolific literary production over the years.

 

Snow Giants Dancing, by Irv GreenfieldSnow Giants Dancing, in its estimated 166 pages, is a swift read with an out-sized moral and emotional impact. Its dramatic ending, which I will not give away, left me rather stunned and emotionally drained, yet perfectly satisfied as a reader interacting with a text: the ending is, simply, what it had to be.

The setting is a vaguely medieval period and purely fictitious isolated village high in some snowy mountain range, but there are enough historical markers to Catholic Rome and Crusades, Jews and Gypsies and such, as to ground it in a convincingly historical context. In this village evil has taken root and the inhabitants and Nature itself are expecting some catastrophe involving death; the fear and the hysteria are symbolized by the swirl of snow and ice that presents the sign or illusion of dancing snow giants which, according to pagan legend, have always prophesied forthcoming death.

Stirred up by the hatred and bigotry of a trio of religious zealots or posers, it is most all the town (minus one good Christian family) against Chayym the local Jew, his beautiful and sensuous daughter Shulamith, and the also marginalized and embittered sculptor who is her lover. The story is timeless but its portrait of intolerance bolstered by a thin layer of piety seems painfully prescient of our own times in which a separation of Church and State seems ever more precarious, and intolerance and real and potential violence ever-present.

Following is an excerpt: “The wind blew up great curtains of snow. The dying sun filled them with all the colors of the rainbow. But even as Shulamith watched, the spectacle changed. The high veils of snow formed into reddish colored swaying giants with heads that touched the sky and bodies that danced obscenely with the wind. Trembling with fear, she could not move, nor could she cry out. As the last light of the sun left the sky, the giants still danced on the edge of the snowfield.”

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Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, by Michael CorriganMichael Corrigan’s newly published Kindle books are 2011 editions of his “minor cult classic” (as I seem to recall someone writing) of a fictionalized memoir Confessions of a Shanty Irishman, and his more recent and wholly un-fictional memoir A Year and a Day: Journal of Grief, inspired (if that is the word) by the sudden death of the love of his life Karen, his wife of too few years.

Confessions of a Shanty Irishman http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Shanty-Irishman-ebook/dp/B004KABB5E/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1344966686&sr=1-1&keywords=Confessions+of+a+Shanty+Irishman%2C+Michael+Corrigan begins with a charming portrait of the grandparents who helped his dad to raise him and of his growing disenchantment, after their death, with both his now-and-again present mother and the rigors and hypocrisies of a Jesuit schooling; and later of his intellectual and sexual adventures through the ‘60s, as well as his drinking troubles and passing activism during the California campus troubles of that revolutionary era. It ends appropriately enough with his settling down and marrying his beloved Karen, which marked an end to the years of dissipation and malaise.

grief memoir by Michael CorriganA Year and a Day http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=A+Year+and+a+Day%2C+Michael+Corrigan is an invaluable record of loss that might be read profitably by anyone facing such a crisis. It begins with this very appropriate epigraph, from Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”; the book’s great strength is that, rather than press any one-size-fits-all self-help solution to grief, it simply shows – with brutal and cleansing honesty – the slow progress, over the Irish people’s traditional year and a day of mourning, of a particular man and a particular grief.

Here is an excerpt from Confessions of a Shanty Irishman: “On the way home, Grandfather described the three breeds of Irishmen: Lace Curtain for the well off, Shanty Irish for the working class, and the extremely rich Micks called Two Toilet Irish.

“‘We won’t ever have two toilets in our house,’ he said, ‘unless  you make a killing in vaudeville. We’re shanty Irish. The neighbor woman used to look down on me when I came home covered with tar, but whose door was she knockin’ on when her lawyer husband needed a blood transfusion? Mine! Never gave blood in me life, but I did. I guess I wasn’t so Shanty then.’”

stories by Michael Corrigan***

I should also mention Michael’s collection of stories, These Precious Hours, which is presently being serialized at The Scream Online http://www.thescreamonline.com/fiction/corrigan/ThesePreciousHoursHome.html. I have fond memories of editing three or four of these fabulous pieces for publication at NWR. Mark them in your agenda book as essential reads! (The book is also available in a 2010 Kindle edition and in a new audio version.)

New Publications by Pulitzer-nominated Lynn Strongin

poet Lynn Strongin

Lynn Strongin

According to Cassandra Robison, editor of Magnolia: a Florida Journal of Literary Arts, “Lynn Strongin may be the Emily Dickinson of our times.”

Indeed, Lynn – whose book Spectral Freedoms earned her a 2009 nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry; and whom I had the distinct honor of editing during my brief stint at New Works Review – does have an extremely inventive, original style and lends to her work a charismatic moral force that well justify the comparison.

And this year she has two new books to add to her considerable ouvre: Orphan Thorns, published by Albuquerque’s JB Stillwater Publishing; and Bread of the Angels, published by the Ravenna Press.

Orphan Thorns (http://www.casadesnapdragon.com/Books/Orphan_Thorns), on which I will focus most particularly, bills itself as a novel in verse. It is a novel not so much in the traditional sense: there is no clear narrative arc; present and past moments tend to merge in a seemingly random and indistinct chronology; the voices and characters remain vaguely defined, though one voice and personality does stand out as the organizing presence on which all is held together. Still, the protagonist’s and her peripheral characters’ time does clearly enough span the years from childhood to advancing age; and the coherence of theme and the concrete images that ground the work in time and space do justify the larger poem’s designation as a sort of impressionistic and experimental poetic novel.

Orphan Thorns, by Lynn StronginBoth Orphan Thorns and Bread of the Angels draw on a common thread of thematic and contextual experience. Most prominent is Lynn’s childhood acquaintance, as a victim of the post-WWII polio epidemic, of hospital wards and their young inhabitants, whether suffering from polio or some form of cancer or something else. Certainly a great portion if not all of her poetry is imbued with a consciousness of that personal and collective trauma, but in no way does this constant reduce the poetry to just another trite account of illness and overcoming. This poetry’s scope is universal in every way, encompassing the fruits of war in Europe and the growing environmental crisis from clear-cutting of mountain tops in the United States to Japan’s nuclear tragedy and recent meltdown.

She alludes, for instance, to “Nippon’s unprecedented multiple crisis of earthquake, tsunami, and radiation leak”; and then, a few lines later:

Stirring memories of Japan’s nuclear history

The shattered glass

The shattered bones

The rape of radiation

No morning can be radiant when this is going on. (pp. 41-2)

The following introductory poem and prologue, gives a sense of both this broad thematic scope and the stylistic playfulness that earns her comparison to Emily Dickinson:

Stars we Once Were

Watch out where are returned phoenixes from nests of  milk:  though  children our voices cannot be extinguished our fire the perpetual flame

Nor the torch shone under quilts to read clandestinely as children

Or later in hospital (Christ’s age when he wandered into the wilderness, that boy)

To pleasure us against coarse linen with numbers like the blue numbers injected under the Jews’ skin.

Who can never hear applause, foundlings in a nun’s basket left on the revolving wheel for the Mother Superior to find morning come

Unorphaned

By the century that dug the graves.

O for your love.

OOO Compassio                                 Now nurses have entered my life in

droves

Like loves, doves homecoming after a battle in Europe has left ground and air smoldering the color of angels wings:

Ash at the burnt tip                               rose a heart core:

Down I went like Alice down the hole

Into childhood hospital

Up I rose like a great big zero                                       bubble-pipe of clay

from yesteryear, yesterday. (unnumbered page)

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

One thing that strikes me here is the allusion to Christ (the age is left unspoken, but likely corresponds to the narrator’s age of 12 when she went to hospital as stated in other poems), a Christ linked immediately to the tragedy of the Holocaust, with further allusions further into the poem. The suggested likeness of Christ’s suffering (at least as a type) to these other sufferers is developed in other poems as well, perhaps most explicitly in this passage: “Savior: Our savior, the one who has kissed the floors of the asylum, known the salt of its air. I feel your struggle as a hospitalized child but I too carried the whole bloody thing further and further I respect you to bloody hell to Jesus …” (p. 63).

I also delight here in something as simple as the slant rhyme between droves and the purely rhyming love / loves / doves of two lines before and the line immediately following. Such musical elements plus the creative use of spaces (like Dickinson’s dashes, perhaps) and other linguistic tricks that I will suggest in an example or two:

Orphaned children, orphan stars we once were who now lie in a ward

transferred to an operating theatre

where God

s light does down upon us shine. (p. 25)

Striking here, besides the deliberately antiquated reverse syntax of “does down upon us shine” (which lends an appropriate bit of Biblical feel), is the enjambment (I believe I am using the term correctly) of the two parts, minus the apostrophe, of what I understand as the possessive God’s. By setting the God at the end of one line, followed by the stray s and light immediately thereafter, the reader is forced to pause on that altered syntax and absorb the surprise of form and meaning. She does similar things with an n in substitution for and – and there are other optical tricks that sometimes require an extended double-take, some of which I have yet to figure out.

The only problem with that, and one hardly worth mentioning, is that sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish between imaginative flourish and the errant typographical error. For example, is the ne in “a gem: ne in a million” intended to read one? and what about the hr in “Here is a raggedy string bear from the end of time: / child must have dropped him hr the slats in the merry go round / floor”? It occurs to me as I write that the hr, if intentional, could abbreviate her given the indeterminate gender of the bear, or just as well the poet’s customarily abbreviated thru: perhaps she means to suggest both? In any case, this is a minor quibble amidst such majestic and powerful work; and I must keep in mind that I have read both texts in a draft or final proof version.

young Lynn Strongin

The poet as a young woman

In any case there exists in Lynn Strongin’s poetry a great deal of sheer beauty and childish delight. Consider the simple sensuous pleasure of wordplays like “Rodents tunnel deeper runnel thru it,” for example, and “keep your troth bring froth / flower uncouth”; and, in poetry so rich in literary and artistic allusion of all sorts, name deformations like “Gertrude Stun” for Stein [slant rhyme with own end of next line], and, later “Friday [for Frida] Kahlo” – the pair of allusions to the great Mexican artist that I remember are highly appropriate, and at least once explicitly so, given her own life-long struggle with pain.

As for the title, as already evident above, some form of the root orphan (orphaned, orphanage, etc.) sprinkles the text from start to finish, and itself as adjective most commonly (though by no means exclusively) to the noun stars. One poem is entitled “Orphan Stars,” and based on some of my correspondence with Lynn I suspect that it was seriously considered as an alternative title for the book. But thorn is as substantially if not numerically present as here, if not precisely in the same adjective / noun syntax:

… Stars we once were

who will ever be

Once shinning down from the heavens

Now shining up from the grave

Opened: orphan voices of children fly out, the sharpest notes thorns: the

blood on the side Chinese red lacquer

The ruby or the mown down, renowned, rising phoenix from the fire.

(p. 33)

And:

After you were a nurse, you studied law, now thrown from the horse, Age, you will become a navigator:

Navigate thorns of stars, stars of thorn children re-appearing

After a century’s vanishing … (p. 53)

I also cannot resist pointing out the wordplay and slant rhyming in both passages, as between shinning and shining; mown and the pure-rhyming pair down / renowned; and thrown and thorn.

But to focus on the significance to the poem-novel of that word thorn: it certainly touches more immediately on life’s gritty struggle than the aspirational sense of star. And while it is generally a mistake to speak of a poem’s or a story’s meaning or moral – as if either one can be reduced to a simple declarative statement as at the end of a fable – I would venture to say that the aspect of struggle is the more dominant of what we still might call this poem’s many-faceted message. As suggested in its last stanza, and particularly the Biblical allusion and last line:

You came home to find me tying another color berry to the rowanberry tree:

Must ignite the orphaned, the stars, the embers glowing

Menacingly

Piercingly

The ceiling belonging to Michelangelo’s Sistine: as in childhood, it’s get up,

your bed on your back.

It’s do or die. (p. 123)

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I have been thinking about Lynn Strongin’s poems and wondering how profitably they might be read by high school students. While not for the weaker readers or the least mature, I think very profitably indeed for older ones, at least, perhaps girls more than boys though that is a pity, in particular, boys or girls, those with a certain sensibility to the suffering of others.

Bread of the Angels, by Lynn StronginBread of the Angels (http://www.ravennapress.com/books/title.php?tid=10031), lest I pass it by almost entirely, claims no single narrative structure but it does have many commonalities with the other book, including the life struggles toward transcendence of human beings across a wide spectrum. One passage in particular stands out to me as broadening those who fit the category of sympathetic sufferers. It grabs me for its thematic and topical relationship to the concerns that my own past students have written into poems and stories that we have published in our literary magazine The Jolie Rouge, which due to my unanticipated retirement issued its last number in May:

Last night I dreamed

I saw the child who slices herself with a razor

lift her tee-shirt stretching, I saw her scars:

twenty

odd

slits under sixteen-year-old breasts uplifted like pears.

There are happier notes from Bread of the Angels that I might close with, but there are none truer to contemporary human experience.