Open Books: The Goods - Archive
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New Books - 08/06
The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O'Hara ($11.95 Turtle Point)
Yum. But don't read further if you know you're going to want this book,
because we'll be dishing up some Schuylerisms you might want to come upon on
your own, like chanterelles in the woods. This little volume is a wonderful
addendum to _Just the Thing: Selected Letters of James Schuyler_, published
by Turtle Point in 2004 and a store favorite at Open Books. Written over
four years, from 1954 to 1958, and filled with affection and snappy charm,
Schuyler's letters to O'Hara are not only another ray of light on writers
and artists of the New York School but pleasurable reading as well. "Pearl
Without Price," opens one missive, "First the worst: Your five dollar check
bounced. N'import. I made it good and you can pay me back when .the
primroses come back to 49th St." After several of O'Hara's poems had
appeared in "Poetry," Schuyler sent him a praising and delightfully
descriptive letter -- "Your passion always makes me feel like a cloud the
wind detaches (at last) from a mountain so I can go sailing over all those
valleys with their crazy farms and towns." Several of the letters were
written from Italy, where Schuyler was traveling with his partner, the
pianist Arthur Gold -- "There go the bells: sundown and vespers. I wonder
what the pope is thinking?" Ah, Jimmy is such good company.
Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson
($19.95 New York Review of Books)
Ms. Carson, a poet, essayist, and classicist revered at Open Books (and
many other places), acts as educator and translator here, desiring to make
Greek tragedy as alive for the contemporary reader/audience as it was for
Euripides's audience. Clearly our time, with its on-going "war on
terrorism," situates us within the frame for the four plays, "Herakles,"
"Hekabe," "Hippolytos," and "Alkestis." Ms. Carson provides a preface to
the collection and another preface for each of the plays. In those she comes
across as a fine teacher, with her lively, funny, and trenchant mind. The
contemporariness she sees in these works is clear when, in her preface to
Hekabe, she writes that Aischylos wrote his play about Agamemnon when
"Athenians. were launching themselves on several heady decades of imperial
conquest, making the world safe for democracy and all that," while Euripides
was writing a generation later "in the midst of the seemingly endless
Peloponnesian War." The war "which would. bring about the collapse of the
empire." In her brilliant, campy, and incisive manner, she sums that up
with, "Aischylos looked at the story of Agamemnon and saw a parable of human
grandiosity and tragic katharsis, leading through bloodshed and strife to an
eventual restoration of civilized order. Euripides looked at the same story
and saw smeared makeup." Ms. Carson's fingerprints are all over this work,
and we are happy with that. The unexpectedly modern language and syntax can
be jarring, as when Apollo, arguing with Death for an extension of Alkestis'
s life, hears from Death, "You know who I am. / Apollo: Yes -- one hostile
to men and by the gods abominated. / Death: You can't have everything." Ms.
Carson's work has always been strengthened greatly by her ability to convey
grief, sadness, and loss with wit, and without blinking. "Hekabe" ends with
this wonderfully double-edged sentence spoken by the Chorus: "Hard is
The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton ($14.95 New
Mr. Hinton, an eminent translator of Chinese poetry, gives us a welcome
new volume of this renowned 8th century Ch'an (Zen) poet. "The great
condensery," as Mr. Hinton calls him, Wang Wei "distills experience to its
most basic elements: consciousness, landscape, emptiness." Rather than
prattle, we'll give you an example:
"In the Mountains"
Bramble stream, white rocks jutting out.
Heaven cold, red leaves scarce. No rain
up here where the mountain road ends,
sky stains robes empty kingfisher-blue.
Scar Tissue by Charles Wright ($22 FSG)
Language, memory, and the dual sense of the absence and presence of God
infuse Mr. Wright's elegantly measured poems. He writes beautiful pastoral
imagery, as in "spring moves through the late May heat / as though someone
were poling it" -- such assonance! And the "someone" in that poem haunts
this whole book, as well as Mr. Wright's Appalachian landscape. "Something
unordinary persists, / something unstill, never-sleeping, just possible past
reason." The mysterious force driving this world is worth celebrating --
"should we clap our hands and dance / The Something Dance, the welcoming
Something Dance? / I think we should, love, I think we should." But Mr.
Wright's relationship to life is complex, notable when he follows a simple
rural domestic catalogue with "not much of a life, but I'll take it." This
book is not without humor, as when he writes, "the sunrise is never late, /
some Buddhist must certainly have said once. / If not, what a missed sound
bite." And Mr. Wright provides an ars poetica of a sort, stating, "Language
was always the subject matter, the idea of God / the ghost that over my
little world / hovered, my mouthpiece for meaning.." These are lovely,
sweet, at times sad mediations and recollections made live by Mr. Wright's
The Narrow Road to the Interior by Kimiko Hahn ($23.95 Norton)
Boldly and pointedly drawing her title from that of the Japanese poet
Matsuo Basho's famous 17th century text, Ms. Hahn has created a hybrid work
of prose and poetry that is a striking mixture of introspection and verve.
As she explains, she is working out of the zuihitsu tradition, which
translates as "following the impulse of the brush," gathering fragmentary
thoughts, snippets of conversation, e-mail exchanges, lists, diary entries,
as well as excerpts from and responses to Japanese literature, and
interspersing them with several series of tanka, employing a somewhat
relaxed version of this 31-syllable Japanese form. The resulting "disorder
as order" is a sustained and deep examination of a woman's life as daughter,
mother, ex-wife, lover, and writer. The pieces are angry, sorrowing,
passionate, and meditative, vibrating at the intersection of the personal
and the cultural -- "Mother was so intuitive she seemed to disappear at
times. As if thinking were less important than trains of thought. Sometimes
that disappearing was a way to survive other people's needs, and I imagine,
to locate her own self." Relationships, troubled and loving, are a primary
focus, and in the tanka, located vividly in the physical world -- "On the
third day of rain -- nature from indoors is without a scent, / even ozone.
All -- excepting his humidity." A sensual yet thought-filled book.
So What: New & Selected Poems, 1971--2005 by Taha Muhammad Ali
($18 Copper Canyon)
We have been quite fond of Taha Muhammad Ali's poetry since we found
his book, _Never Mind_, published by the Jerusalem-based Ibis Editions in
2000. We have probably promoted that book to many of you. Now Copper Canyon
has published that collection and an additional 14 poems. This new book,
unlike _Never Mind_, is bilingual, with the Arabic and English on facing
pages. Mr. Muhammad Ali was born and raised in a village that was destroyed
in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. His family fled to Lebanon, then resettled
in Nazareth a year later. His biography is fascinating; his poetry is every
bit its equal. His poems exude a weary charm and wisdom. A well-earned dark
humor fuels much of his work, as in, "I confess! / I've been neglecting / my
post operative physiotherapy / following the extraction of memory. / I've
even forgotten / the simplest way of collapsing / in exhaustion on the tile
floor." Gabriel Levin, who translated this collection along with Peter Cole
and Yahya Hijazi, wrote, "it is hard to think of another Palestinian poet of
Muhammad Ali's generation who writes with such intimacy while skillfully
modulating between the personal and the public spheres of life." It is hard
to think of many poets at all who combine the personal and poetry of witness
as effectively as Mr. Muhammad Ali. He will be reading in Seattle, along
with the translator Peter Cole, at St. Mark's Cathedral on Saturday, October
7. Contact Copper Canyon Press or St. Mark's Cathedral for more information.
Paradiso Diaspora by John Yau ($18 Penguin)
It's always a pleasure to have a new collection by John Yau, whose work
delights, moves, and enjoyably confounds us. Here pulse strange and
dreamlike tales ("the President of the Moth and Blanket Society formally
announces that he will no longer be requiring your services"); raucous
humor -- warning, four-letter-word coming -- ("honestly, I didn't know //
being American / meant // that you could / shit in the driver's seat");
haunting, beautifully rendered images ("flowers / splash the sky with
twilight and constellations / map out the mishaps settling above the city");
and a profound tenderness overlaid with a gentle sadness ("time quietly
peers in each window / but only the children find it funny"). Mr. Yau lives
in Manhattan, and several of the pieces allude to the destruction of the
Twin Towers, doing so in an understated yet profound way -- "I place these
smaller stories, these shards, in front of the larger one and ones. I do not
offer them as offerings."
Everything Else in the World by Stephen Dunn ($23.95, Norton) The
fourteenth volume from this recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and numerous
Breaking the Alabaster Jar: Conversations with Li-Young Lee ($19.95 BOA)
A gathering of interviews given over 20 years by the author of the
much-loved collection, _Rose_, and other books.
Remnants of Hannah by Dara Wier ($14 Wave Books) A new collection of
quirky poems from Ms. Wier -- threaded with playfulness and at times a
The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within by Stephen Fry ($25
Gotham Books) Yes, that Stephen Fry -- the British comic actor -- has
written a surprisingly detailed handbook of poetry, from meter to unusual
forms. As you might imagine, there are plenty of laughs, but his intent to
instruct is serious.
Compass of Affection: New and Selected Poems by Scott Cairns ($25
Paraclete) A generous gathering of earlier work, much of it out of print, as
well as recent poems from this writer who contemplates Christian theology
and practice with care and humor.
The Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry translated and edited by J.P.
Seaton ($15.95) A vast collection covering thousands of years and including
commentary by the well respected translator.
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