Saturday, December 3, 2016

Animated Landscape by Robert Gibbons: A Review

Robert Gibbons, Animated Landscape, BlazeVox [Books], 2016, 146 pp, $16.

 Peter Anastas

              Speaking recently at the Gloucester Writers Center, poet and Olson scholar Don Byrd advised poets who are inspired by Charles Olson not to attempt to follow him because Olson was uniquely unfollowable.  Rather, Byrd said, they should attempt to move beyond Olson with their own work, as the poet himself had done with respect to his masters, Pound and Williams. 

Among poets who have learned from Olson while forging their own unique path, Robert Gibbons stands out.  Though widely published and admired among poets, scholars of poetry, critics, and curators of contemporary art, Robert Gibbons has been less known to discerning readers of new American poetry.   This is about to change with the publication by BlazeVox of Animated Landscape, Gibbon’s major new collection of poems.  Those who care about the life of poetry in a time when there are many MFAs in verse but fewer poets who appeal directly to the human condition should attend to what Richard Deming calls Gibbons’ “universal and inclusive vision.” 

Gibbons’ poetry is informed not only by the crucial texts he’s read and internalized—Kristeva, Davenport, Olson himself— but also by the music and visual art that has animated his life and work—the jazz of Coltrane, the inventions of Bach, the paintings of Clyfford Still (about whom he has written incisively in Olson/Still: Crossroad)—along with the walks he has taken daily in the places he’s lived—Gloucester, Salem, Washington, DC, Boston, Portland, ME, and now Denver—bringing them to life and into his pages through conversations with those he has encountered going about their daily business, as Gibbons has gone about his as both secret sharer and astute observer.  His is a poetry that is as intensely lived as it is informed by a poised intelligence; a poetry of the heart and mind, where intellect and feeling do not conflict but, instead, fuse into incandescence, as Gibbons writes: “where senses reach an/intoxicated height, where air alone is/magic, silence music, touch between/us dispelling all dread.”
In his comments on the book’s jacket Richard Deming observes equally that Gibbons “carries Olson’s excavations into the present tense…in his own measure of music, personal and specific, yet universal and inclusive.”   Thus Gibbons has lent important credence to Don Byrd’s advice to move beyond Olson, while, at the same time, paying homage to his teacher, as Olson did to his:
No, not surprising to find
Olson equating the cave with our own
internal “maze,” our bodies with geography.
say kidneys as sea, or spine as mountain range,
brain as Arctic, coccyx Antarctic, heart solar system,
lung valley of breath, preferring stone, wood clay to iron,
brick, steel, glass, copper, or plastic, those basics to any manmade
transformation, & feeling inside himself there in the cave, or geography,
creatures that came before us,
horses rearing up.
   (This review appeared in Dispatches on 12/1/16)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Unknown Henry Miller--A review

The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, by Arthur Hoyle

A Review by Peter Anastas

(Arcade Publishing, 2014, 416 pp., $27.95)

We are being stifled and smothered by our creature comforts, by our fear of change, our fear of adventure, but above all by our fear of ideas….But the struggle of the individual to emancipate himself, that is to liberate himself from the prison of his own making—that is for me the supreme subject.”                                 --Henry Miller

Major biographies of two representative American writers, Henry Miller and John Updike, recently appeared within a month of each other.  The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, by Arthur Hoyle, was published in March 2014, followed in April by Adam Begley’s Updike.  While Begley’s well-publicized life was widely reviewed in the US and UK within a week of its publication, Hoyle’s biography has only received a handful of reviews beyond the usual notices posted by Kirkus and Library Journal.  The most significant appeared in TLS, which commended Miller for his “commitment to a rare aesthetic and philosophical vision,” and the Santa Barbara Independent, where reviewer Brian Tanguay described Hoyle’s biography as “the perfect trailhead…for the seeker bold enough to venture beyond the boundaries of convention.”   It’s understandable that an eagerly anticipated initial biography of Updike would excite interest; but one would think that the first new approach to the life and work of Henry Miller to have been published in 23 years would rate more than the cursory notices it has so far received.
Though it could be argued that both writers had sex as a central concern and were also said to have been essentially autobiographical in terms of the sources of their work; and while it could equally be said that Updike could not have addressed the question of sexuality as directly and candidly as he did without Miller’s having first smashed the taboos against explicit sexual representation, as Lawrence had previously opened the way for Miller, at bottom no two American writers were as dissimilar.  Miller was Whitmanian in the expansiveness of his language, the freedom of his expression, and the experimentalism of the structure of his books, just as Jack Kerouac later was.  Attracted to Emma Goldman’s anarchism at an early age, he spent his life outside of accepted social and political systems, his formal education as spotty as his reading was wide.  Updike, instead, a self-described small town boy as against Miller’s Brooklyn and Paris-rooted urbanism, favored a highly controlled and intensely literary approach, gained from studying with Harvard professors, who were steeped in the mythological, allegorical and symbolistic imperatives of the New Criticism, their world view—and his by extension— framed by conservative Cold War politics. 
Brian Tanguay begins his review of Hoyle’s book by agreeing with its author that Henry Miller is “one of the most neglected American writers — overlooked by the finest universities in the country, very few of which teach Miller, and excluded from the canon of American literature.”  He also agrees with Hoyle that that Henry Miller “deserves a place in the pantheon of American writers, and to be taught in our universities.”   It is with this in mind, he writes, that “Hoyle sets himself the prodigious task of introducing Miller to a new generation of readers.” 
            Most of my friends who were reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn in the mid-fifties obtained these banned books from tourists or members of the military, who had smuggled them into the country from France.  After which they were passed secretly from hand to hand, often losing their bright red and green paper covers like the discarded pulp novels they were erroneously accused of being.   Instead of reading Miller’s ground-breaking novels under the table, I was fortunate to have discovered them in the rare book room of the Bowdoin College Library as part of a collection that contained copies of most of the major avant-garde books of 20th century European art and literature, bequeathed to the College by an alumnus and rare book collector, Robert L. Swasey, who had been Henry Miller’s friend and patron. 
            The Swazey collection was of particular importance to me because it contained not only Miller’s Tropics, in their original Obelisk Press editions, as published in Paris in 1934 and 1938 by Jack Kahane, but the privately printed Black Spring, The World of Sex and The Colossus of Maroussi, one of Miller’s greatest books and of utmost significance to me as a young writer of Greek-American heritage, planning his first trip to Europe.  Exile and expatriation had emerged as significant themes for me from when I’d first started to read about the Lost Generation in Malcolm Cowley’s Exiles Return and John Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation.  Thereafter, Miller’s own saga of abandoning New York in 1930, followed by years of penury and artistic struggle in Paris, culminating in the publication of the Tropics, his life-affirming stay in Greece just before the war, and his return to travel in America, as chronicled in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, was an enormous inspiration to me, both as a writer and prospective traveler.  Of equal importance to me was the fact that Miller idolized D. H. Lawrence, about whom I was writing my senior thesis, having written a major study of Lawrence’s novels which, except for excerpts, remained unpublished until after his death, in 1980.
            I like to think that my first response to Miller’s work wasn’t merely prurient.  I was twenty years old in 1958, innocent of most of the sensual experience Miller catalogued in his novels, so I would not be truthful if I said I hadn’t been drawn into their erotic dimensions.  Nevertheless, I saw that Miller was no pornographer; nor was what he had achieved formally and linguistically in those ground–breaking novels anything close to the “smut” he had also been labeled as purveying.  It was clear to me that Miller was a serious American writer in the vein of Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, whom he had clearly inspired, if not influenced.  These were among the writers I most admired, those who spoke in their own voice, who recounted to you, as if in intimate conversation, what they were thinking and feeling about what they had seen and done.
            At the time I was an undergraduate there was an enormous struggle underway in both the academic and literary worlds, centering on the importance and value of “open” as against “closed” forms in poetry and prose.  The New Criticism, under which we, like Updike, were principally being trained to read, viewed the novel or the poem as closed systems of symbols and myths, which were to be decoded in both literary and religious, especially Christian, terms.  There was also a political dimension to this system, as I’ve said, not lost on those of us who experienced the Cold War obsessed times we were living in as equally closed and repressive.  The American publication of Miller’s Tropics and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by Grove Press, in the early 1960s, would become a major catalyst of change, moving us further away from the closed society to a more open and permissive one, literature in some cases leading the way.  The prose that had helped to precipitate these changes, along with Miller’s, included Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, both of which had clearly been inspired by Miller’s novels, while Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Charles Olson’s Projective Verse, helped to liberate poetry from the sterile formalism of the New Critics and their practitioners.
            Naturally, our teachers excoriated this “New American Writing,” warning us that it would be our moral and writerly outdoing were we to be unduly influenced by its “formlessness,” not to speak of its “decadence.”  We, as equally natural rebels, rushed toward Miller, when we could find his books, while Kerouac’s emerging Beat novels like On the Road and The Subterraneans, along with the stories of Michael Rumaker, the novels of Douglas Woolf, and the equally enthralling fiction and drama of the British Angry Young Men, gripped our imaginations in ways that American mainstream fiction, like the then popular novels of James Gould Cozzens, did not, except for books we had discovered on our own like Dos Passos’ USA or Wright Morris’ The Field of Vision, which were decidedly not taught in the classroom.
            It is difficult to explain the literary situation I’ve been describing to younger generations of writers and scholars, who have come of age in a practically censorship-free age; indeed, a time in which topics like oral sex are graphically discussed in the national media and pornographic novels like Fifty Shades of Gray are widely read and have sold many more copies than Miller’s Tropics.  Nevertheless, this situation, while potentially marginalizing pioneers like Lawrence and Miller, could also offer new readers a greater opportunity to discover these seminal writers in a less clandestine, heated and compromised atmosphere than the one in which they originally emerged.  In fact, it would seem to me that there is no better time to encounter Miller as writer in a more global sense—a Miller who not only used his own experience in fictively experimental ways, but also wrote some of the finest essays of his time, touching not only on personal and literary issues, but also describing his lifelong spiritual quest.
            It is this Henry Miller, the writer and spiritual seeker, that Hoyle gives us in his gripping and deeply-researched biography, a book which Miller’s own son Tony, who grew up in Big Sur with his parents, calls “the best book ever written about my father.”  Having read three previous biographies of Miller by Jay Martin, Robert Ferguson and Mary Dearborn, each of them worthy in its own way, I tend to agree with Tony.  Instead of beginning with Miller’s birth and upbringing in Brooklyn, as the other books do, Hoyle jumps ahead to the Paris years, the years in which Miller came into his own as a writer.  Though he later, and quite artfully, circles back to Brooklyn, the site of Miller’s troubled relationship with his parents, his decision to view Paris and Big Sur as nodal points in the growth of Miller’s artistry as well as his spirituality, gives the book a more concentrated and therefore more dramatic focus than the earlier studies, which, being chronological, tend to gloss over the more epiphanic and therefore more significant points in Miller’s never unadventurous life.
            Miller’s life may be seen as a continual spiritual quest, not for a deity or a form of belief but for a way of relating to creation itself, through the discovery of a way of being in the world “as a vital singing universe, alive in all its parts,” as Miller describes it.  Hoyle maps this quest through a sensitive examination of Miller’s reading.  Like many autodidacts—Eric Hoffer comes to mind—Miller’s reading was wide, deep and extremely eclectic, running the gamut from Emerson and Thoreau to Louis-Ferdinand Celine, little known when Miller began to read him in the 1930s, but now considered to have been one of the major stylists in French literature.  He wrote an entire book about it, The Books in My Life, which is as fascinating to read as Miller’s fiction.   To become immersed in Miller’s enthusiastic accounts of how he found a certain book or discovered a particular author is to understand yet another dimension of how Miller came at life.  Of the books that most delighted and instructed him, he writes, “They were alive and they spoke to me.”  The same could be said of the people in his life, those he met in Brooklyn, Paris, or Athens and has written so animatedly about, or the places like Big Sur, which he spent much of the latter part of his life in and made his own in books like Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.
            There is much to commend in this fine biography of one of the most misunderstood and yet most American of our writers.  To rectify that lack of understanding and to have as clear an introduction to Henry Miller’s mind and art as Arthur Hoyle has given us, I know of no better place to begin than with this illuminating book.    
(This review appeared in Beat Scene, UK, #83, Late Summer 2016

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Great Novel Restored

(Front  cover of original 1958 edition (left) and restored edition (right)

The Rack, by A. E. Ellis (Derek Lindsay)

Restored Edition, published by Ashgrove Publishing/Zephyr Books, UK, 2016

Peter Anastas

“There are certain books we call great for want of a better term, that rise like monuments above the cemeteries of literature: Clarissa Harlowe, Great Expectations, Ulysses. The Rack to my mind is one of this company.”
– Graham Greene

            Some books remain with us.  Even after subsequent readings they amplify rather than shrink our understanding of them.  One such novel is The Rack, published in London by William Heinemann, Ltd., in 1958.

             I discovered the 1961 Penguin Modern Classics edition of The Rack in its characteristic orange and white jacket in the bookstall of the railroad station in Florence, Italy.  It was December, shortly before Christmas, and I was on my way to England.  Opening the first pages, I learned that The Rack was a novel about a young Oxford student and former captain in the British Army during the Second War.  I also discovered that the protagonist, Paul Davenant, was suffering from tuberculosis and was traveling with a group of British students to a sanatorium in the French Alps, where they were to be treated under the auspices of an international student organization.  This brought to mind The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann’s novel of life in a Swiss sanatorium.  However, once I began to turn the pages, I found myself in the hands of a far different writer from Mann: a writer whose first sentences were as sharp and clear as the air his protagonist and I were soon to breathe on our very different passages through the mountains.

            I had been ill during the unusually cold and wet Florentine winter.  Though I felt well enough to travel, and would by no means have given up my first opportunity to experience London, I still felt feverish in the overheated train compartment I occupied, especially after I began reading about the state of health of the British students making their way to the mountains.  Paul Davenant, who was among them, was scarcely able to get around he was so incapacitated by the disease he hoped to get some respite from in the French sanatorium.

            I was drawn equally into the obsessive routines of temperature taking and sputum checking, as, having settled into sanatorium life, the patients shuffled from their rooms to the service medical for their x-rays.  Reading further, I would learn more about the array of interventions available to tuberculosis patients at the time, each stage of which became potentially more painful and, all too often, less effective.

            By the time we had reached the Italian-Swiss boarder I simply could not put the book down.  As novelist Alan Wall writes in his superb introduction to this restored edition of the novel, for whose important restorations he is also responsible, The Rack, “is the greatest novel of medical confinement in the English language.”   Even without coming to that conclusion during my reading in the stifling compartment, I clearly felt the sense of the novel’s projection of confinement, not only between the walls of the sanatoria where the patients were confined, but also in the book’s interconnected stories about several of the patients, many of whom represent the major countries of Europe not long after the close of the war.

            And the war itself is not far from the confines of the hospital, or the lives of its inmates.  Each in some way, including Paul, has suffered from the conflagration.  Paul, who saw combat as a captain, might well be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress as much as from the effects of TB.   It could also be ventured that his physical illness is a function of his depressed emotional state, which often causes him to strike out verbally against the person he most loves and to express his own growing self-hatred.

            While I concur with Wall’s discerning introduction that the subject is confinement in all of its senses (one can actually feel claustrophobic reading about the characters who spend their days in bed, or navigate the narrow hospital corridors in shabby robes and slippers), I also feel that the trope of confinement, along with novel’s multiple images of malaise, can be extended to Europe itself after a war believed by many to have brought on the collapse of the Old World order.  In other words: Europe has become the sanatorium and its people are now patients in an uneasy post-war recovery.  In fact, some, like the Dutch inmate and fantasist, Delmuth, also have troubled consciences, which may well be emblematic of a general European guilt over the war and its exterminations.

            Nevertheless, Paul’s case is central to the novel’s development.   He will learn that he is a very sick man.  We already know, and will learn more, about his early life as an orphan, about his shifting residence from one family member to another, about his having been bullied at a provincial public school, and his underachieving years as an Oxford undergraduate, all contributing to his depressive state, as does his physical illness.  We will also learn that he is a reader, when he is well enough to be; and that his preferences are for Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Proust, especially Proust.   One wonders if these writers are not also the preferences of the novelist himself, and if he is not signaling to us his influences in composing a novel that while eminently contemporary in subject, tone and language, also pays homage to those 19th and early 20th century novelists of the grand subject—war, the conflict within the human soul, and life in society as it etiolated (Proust), told by a writer who had been an invalid himself.  

Like the classics with which it has been compared, The Rack is one of those novels that continue to yield rewards upon each successive reading.  Subtleties of characterization emerge, especially the dynamics among the doctors in charge of treatment, along with the politics of the sanatorium culture of Brisset, the Alpine mountain community where the sanatoria are located, and the conflicts among the patients themselves.   At the vital center of the novel, whose narrative tensions can often feel excruciating, is the story of Paul and the woman he comes to love and will sadly lose, the young Belgian patient Michelle Duchene.   Doomed by deteriorating health, their age differences, and Paul’s diminishing prospects, yet alive to each other in the ways only young people in love can be, their story, narrated in unsparing and utterly unsentimental detail, takes its place among the great love stories of contemporary literature.

            Shortly after the publication of the first British edition, Atlantic Monthly Press issued an American edition, followed by a larger format Penguin Edition with a cover illustration from a 1926 painting by Ubaldo Oppi of three surgeons standing austerely in white coats.  The illustration itself is reflective of the three often competing doctors, who attempt unsuccessfully to treat Paul’s condition.  

The new Ashgrove/Zephyr edition restores 25,000 words from the original manuscript, cut by the book’s first editor, James Mitchie, who hoped to present a novel in the “existentialist” mode, in keeping with Continental fiction of the era.  A decidedly existentialist cast to the novel remains, even as restored, reflecting the underlying hopelessness and despair in Europe after the war, growing anxiety about the emerging Cold War, and the very real fear of nuclear holocaust.  Though these concerns may lie under the surface of the narrative they are often acted out by the characters.  It is my belief that the restored edition presents the novel as Ellis/Lindsay originally wrote it and would have wanted it to appear, in the same way that the restorations to the texts of D. H. Lawrence’s major novels in the Cambridge University Press editions give Lawrence to us undiluted and in all his narrative and linguistic brilliance.

            Alan Wall’s judicious restorations present us with a more ample narrative, a deeper sense of characterization, a comic spirit, often black but still bracing, and a more discerning sense of place; for place itself, not only in the confinement of the two sanatoria in which Paul becomes a patient, but also in the surrounding mountains, and the town of Brisset itself, is as much a character in the novel as are Paul and Michele, the other patients we come to know and care about, and the attending doctors, Vernet, Bruneau, Dubois and Roussel, whose bravado may often exceed what we view as their competence.

            Then there is the disease itself, barely able to be confined if not cured, even as the new antibiotics, in the form of streptomycin, are beginning to be tried and tested, only to discover that the subjects of the trials are often resistant to them.  Amply documented from the author’s own suffering are the horrors of the other modes of intervention, under oddly aseptic names like pneumothorax  or plombage.

            The new edition itself is in an attractive paperback format, designed by its publisher Brad Thompson, and illustrated with a front cover portrait that might well be Paul Davenant himself, hand on book, eyes on the surrounding mountains, the two poles of his life, inside and outside, confinement and freedom, the life of the mind and that of his gradually diminishing body constantly oscillating under his, and our, anxious gaze.

            Derek Lindsay (1920-2000), did not publish another novel during his lifetime, though he is said to have been at work on a sequel to The Rack, and also to have written plays.   While one might have wished for more from this clearly major novelist, it is enough for him to have written a single masterpiece. 

(I wish to thank publisher Brad Thompson for providing me with a copy of the novel soon after publication and for his assistance in helping me to understand the extent, nature and importance of Alan Wall’s restorations to the original text)