101 in 1001 {II}: 097 attend an event at the prospect park bandshell [completed 07.27.10]

day 356: in prospect park

bam. (not to be confused with bam.) the national with beach house (and wabes, and swedish fish, and a big bag of cherries).



SURVIVOR: let the great world spin (colum mccann)*
CHALLENGER: tree of smoke (denis johnson)

down the street from the colony

tree of smoke (summary here) begins with a scene about a monkey. literally it begins with jfk's assassination, but for most intents and purposes: monkey. how you feel about this scene is, i think, a fairly decent predictor of how you'll feel about denis johnson's whole novel (and perhaps about vietnam, but i'm getting ahead of myself). here's a bit of it which doesn't give too much away:
"Jesus Christ!" [Seaman Houston] shouted at the monkey, as if it might do something about its embarrassing and hateful condition. He thought his head would explode, if the forenoon kept burning into the jungle all around him and the gulls kept screaming and the monkey kept regarding its surroundings carefully, moving its head and black eyes from side to side like someone following the progress of some kind of conversation, some kind of debate, some kind of struggle that the jungle--the morning--the moment--was having with itself.
animal innocence is riveting, almost lurid, and it's tricky: two hundred pages later, this sort of passage would grind the whole story to a halt. it works here - for me, at least - as a bit of poem-logic to introduce us to johnson's vietnam. (it's quite like johnson's actual poetry, in fact, and reminds me of one of his sonnets.**) it enraged the atlantic's b.r. meyers, who called foul on its proximity to the jfk mention; it enchanted paste magazine's christine thomas, who compared the book to "the poetic sestina."*** i fall somewhere in the middle with jim lewis, randomly defensive in the new york times ("[I]t’s not a perfect book; but then, a perfect book would be perfectly safe, and I don’t have time for that."), which i feel strange saying, given how i began to suspect almost immediately that tree of smoke would be the book to end colum mccann's sensitive irish reign of THUNDERTOME terror.

how can an american with only moderate control of his adjectives (tree of smoke is as messy as johnson's most recent novel, nobody move, is awesomely businesslike) imagine vietnam and best a devastatingly musical foreigner recovering from 9/11? at the risk of sounding like jim lewis, i think the messiness does help: tree of smoke is what americans of my generation expect to hear about that war, and the format in which we expect to hear about it (a steaming bowl of chest-thumping**** tossed with helpless letters from home***** and snapshots of despair******). tree of smoke is seven hundred and two pages long, and johnson takes his sweet time getting to things that matter: while a writer like mccann fills his pages with immediately accessible, pleasurable set pieces, johnson aims to exhaust you before he makes his point. reading tree of smoke is an act of endurance, and readers speak of it the way they speak of david foster wallace's infinite jest ("just hang in there for a few hundred pages and it'll take hold."). one could argue that it's an irresponsible way to structure a book - why not ask me to take a few laps around the block instead of flinging less than meaningful sentences at me? - but the cumulative effect of the little psychic injuries he folds in when you think you're just reading about traffic in saigon is actually quite staggering. it's an effective way of communicating that war's toxicity to readers whose only adult points of reference are our non-conscripted engagements in afghanistan and iraq: vietnam poisoned the groundwater for the young westerners it engaged (to say nothing of the vietnamese).

one can't love tree of smoke as one can love let the great world spin, i think; while johnson gives us an intimate sense of why each of his characters fall sick, they end up so very lost that it's hard to care that they'll never be well. can desensitization actually be painful? as johnson notes in another poem,
I'm telling you it's cold inside the body that is not the body,
lonesome behind the face
that is certainly not the face
of the person one meant to become.

VICTOR: tree of smoke. mccann deepened my understanding of new york city, but johnson rewrote what i know of vietnam.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 do you have an ice-cream-tooth sensitivity to scenes with animals as well? if so, which books, which scenes?

02 do you believe that voltaire actually said "ice-cream is exquisite - what a pity it isn't illegal," as various quote-aggregating sites claim he did?

03 what do you think of denis johnson's sonnet?

04 sweeping generalization time: are poet-novelists a confluence of fine things, like jalapeno poppers, or the worst of two worlds, like musical theater?

05 what's the most affecting war novel you've read?

06 and the last really, really long, act-of-endurance novel you read? was it worth the effort?

*previous battle here.

**i'm not actually praising that sonnet, mind you. we're still eyeing each other warily.

***as opposed to, say, the spaghetti western sestina ("The way Henry Fonda dies / is fabulous.")

****"The moment was strong and peaceful. The air had ringing depth. Every last particle of bullshit had been incinerated."

*****"I cried so hard the tears fell on my hands, right down on my hands."

******"Certain persons positively and absolutely chosen to salvation, others as absolutely appointed to destruction...Lying there in the stink of her life with her hair still wet from rain."


101 in 1001 {II}: 012 watch duck soup [completed 07.09.10]

brooklyn purples under a goose-egg moon,
tugboats frog-march garbage past the windows,
and sweet freon sophisticates the room.
i stumble into a crush on harpo,
snick-sheared emancipator of pockets;
while i fantasize about greasepaint drag,
i have a soft spot for wordless tempests.
the gentle entropy of trading hats
flows into brother groucho's best lessons:
a uniform's no more than a sight gag,
no good will come of sustained reflection,
and most anything can be taken back.
knowing all this, the cat gnaws my ankle.
patriots leave capitols in shambles.


morale has been low this week - fall magazines are large magazines, and hustling them to the printer calls for the sort of psychological fortitude best left to cosmonauts - so i made myself a desk votive.


07.09.10: arizona, part II

joe's antlers


mimi guards the pocket (4 of 4)


alley behind the bar

day 332: star valley steps


07.08.10: arizona, part I

another axe

{one of like seventeen axes in my in-laws' garden}

swimming hole

{the swimming hole at which i attempted to impress my father-in-law with cannonballs}

downstream from the swimming hole

{downstream from the swimming hole}

toward whispering pines

{sunset, the hike back to the car}

knives and swords

{heading out of town on the beeline highway}

beeline highway saguaros (1 of 3)

{saguaros en route to phoenix}


in other news of tiny creatures and families, i give you steve in february and steve this morning; same box (we hoard).

february steve, july steve

i am going to bawl like a baby when he graduates from military school.

07.02.10: four ways of looking at a sockshund

sockshund for Q: aerial view

one: from above.

sockshund for Q: belly view

two: from below.

sockshund for Q: nose view

three: snout first.

sockshund for Q: window view

four: as he's looking for tugboats.

tonight the sockshund is accompanying joe and me to arizona, where he'll be tasked with supervising our impossibly wee nephew, quentin. i'm calling early dibs on being the auntie who makes reasonably symmetrical companions out of socks, and on being the referent when quentin's class reads lord of the flies and they all start saying "sucks to your auntie!" - i mean, i hope they do that. i still do.


on reading comprehension and having my second cup of coffee at the office rather than at home, i was walking to the subway this morning and happened upon a truck with C A L L A H E A D emblazoned on its side. my old nemesis, i thought.