Wilkins, Ragged Point Road: Poems

Main Street Rag’s Editor’s Choice Chapbook Series.

Joe gave a reading at Briar Cliff University on Wednesday, 8 February, where I picked up this and his newest book of poems, Killing the Murnion Dogs.

I enjoyed the reading but still I enjoyed these poems much more than I expected. They are poems of place, of family, of loss. They are, in fact, elegies to life; by this, I mean ‘elegy’ in the non-formal or technical sense. In response to a question, Joe stated that “Our lives are lessons in loss.” While they are, or can be, many things, our lives most certainly are lessons in loss. And in these poems the lessons are the stars even while, or though, the loss is poignant.

The places of the poems are primarily three: eastern Montana where Joe grew up; Sunflower, Mississippi where Joe taught high school for a couple of years; and Memphis. The ‘place’ that comes through from all of these locations is palpable and, often, haunting.

Relationships are primarily familial, but are also to places, to the land, and to bodies. That is, they are embodied poems. They are about living and about being, and about one’s (be it the author, the voice of a poem, or the reader’s) relationship to that living and being.

The book is divided into two sections: Old Highway 49 and Ragged Point Road. The Mississippi and Memphis poems are in the first; there are twelve. The Montana ones in Ragged Point Road; there are fourteen.

My favorite poem, on a first reading of the book, is “Moth,” from the first section. Joe read a couple poems included in this book on Wednesday, but, sadly, not “Moth.”

I am definitely looking forward to reading Killing the Murnion Dogs. I ought mention that Joe also has a memoir out, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, from which he also read. I did not buy it, as I do not currently read memoirs, but I truly did like what I heard and I may check it out at some point.

I highly recommended Ragged Point Road!

JaPoWriMo

My friend Jess talked me into participating in JaPoWriMo, or January Poetry Writing Month. At least that is how I am parsing it out.

The idea is simply to write one poem a day. She insisted they could be a short as haiku and that there was no requirement for them to be any good. I am sharing them with her and my wife, of course and, so far, one or two with the odd other here and there.

Much of my month is taken up with my Grimm’s Fairy Tale class and editing and other magazine production duties putting together this year’s issue of the Briar Cliff Review. Thus, a couple have been about Grimm’s; I foresee one or more about editing; I have written a couple about books, those I’ve read and those I won’t be reading (end-of-2011 book post); one about meetings (after a long meeting on Friday); one about our SirsiDynix Symphony ILS (subject of said and several other meetings); one about not having a subject; and so on.

There is no need to worry—not much anyway— as I will not be sharing all of them with you here. Many of them are bad, and I doubt that any of them are actually good. But I agreed to commit to this writing a poem a day in an otherwise already quite busy month as I hoped that more writing, even if mostly tossed off, would help me in assorted ways as a poet and a writer. The bottom-line is that I am a lazy poet. Perhaps this will cultivate a habit, perhaps this will leave me with a few choice phrases or lines or ideas, perhaps nothing will come of it.

With all of that said, I would like to share two that I wrote in response to my Grimm’s class. The first was written about 15 minutes before the class met for the first time; the second was written this morning and is a conflation of “Snow-white and Rose-red” and “Little Snow White,” which we read for and discussed this past Friday, along with other generic thoughts on the role of “beauty” in the tales we’ve read so far (~10).

 


Grimm’s excitement today
Innocents start to play
Villains and ogres slay
Justice wins come what may

3 January 2012


Beauty for its own sake, enticement.
Or is it really entrapment?

The hunter spares her …
The wicked queen poisons her …
The dwarves domesticate her …
The prince wants her … dead and mute.

Snow-white. Rose-red. Two
Halves of the same girl.
A maiden on the edge
Of womanhood.

Tame the bear,
Emasculate the dwarf,
Remain kind to the vile.
Gentleness, purity, innocence

Retained. These are the steps to
Make oneself a woman.
Chaste, yet chargedly erotic.
Snow-white. Rose-red.

Beautiful.

8 January 2012

I may spend some time with the second as it could undoubtedly be improved. But, considering that I wrote it in about 10 minutes this morning I can live with it.

Sexton, Transformations

Brutal. Unflinching. Caustic. Anne Sexton let loose on fairy tales.

This is another book in my Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

There isn’t a lot to say here unless one is a fan of Sexton. We read a few of these along with many other Sexton poems (and those of Sylvia Plath) in the Madwomen Poets class I took in fall of 2010. I found an excellent copy of this in a lovely used bookstore (Defunct Books) in Iowa City sometime after the class was over so I bought it.

There is a forward by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. but I honestly don’t know what role it is supposed to play. From a purely mercenary capitalistic perspective I guess it was even better than a blurb by a “name.” ::sigh::

These are not accessible poems to the uninitiated. Clearly, most adults brought up on the Disney-fied versions of fairy tales can appreciate some of what is going on here. But Sexton pulls no punches and, as she is a confessional poet, one needs to know her story.

Sex and death. The never-ending story. Incest. (Real or contrived.) Old aunt. Father. Mixed in with the typical fare of lust, greed, hate, pride, and all of the other human foibles.

The poems are:

  • The Gold Key
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  • The White Snake
  • Rumpelstiltskin
  • The Little Peasant
  • Godfather Death
  • Rapunzel
  • Iron Hans
  • Cinderella
  • One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes
  • The Wonderful Musician
  • Red Riding Hood
  • The Maiden Without Hands
  • The Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • The Frog Prince
  • Hansel and Gretel
  • Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)

Some excerpts to whet your appetite (or not):

From “Iron Hans” p. 50

“Without Thorazine
or benefit of psychotherapy
Iron Hans was transformed.
no need for Master Medical;
no need for electroshock—
merely bewitched all along.
Just as the frog who was a prince.
Just as the madman his simple boyhood.”

Opening to “Cinderella” p. 53

“You always read about it:
the plumber with twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
That story.

Or the nursemaid,
some luscious sweet from Denmark
who captures the oldest son’s heart.
From diapers to Dior.
That story.

…”

From “One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes” p. 60-61

“The unusual needs to be commented upon…

The idiot child,
a stuffed doll who can only masturbate.
The hunchback carrying his hump
like a bag of onions…
Oh how we treasure
their scenic value.”

One group I can recommend this book of transformed fairy tales to, besides Sexton fans who have yet to read this, is those interested in critiques of the “traditional” Disney-fied, male-centered fairy/folk tale.

Sexton, as usual, is quite powerful.

Beware.

Books Read in 2011

Having learned from the painful construction of last (and previous) year’s list here are the links to assorted places to find good first approximations of which books I read in 2011:

And I must say that this is far easier. There was still a lot of effort to get good entries into Zotero, to add or fix records at Open Library and/or goodreads. But that all had to be done previously and then there was still all of the HTML/CSS wrangling to be done, which I skipped this year.

2011

In 2011, based on other data, it appears I read 96 books, am currently still reading 9 books (some far more actively than others), and have given up on 6 books.

Assorted breakdowns

Fiction: 15
Nonfiction: 29
Poetry: 33 + 2 about poetry
Graphic novels: 17

Continued from 2010: 1 (poetry)
Read & Reread: 2 (2nd reading not counted in total: Dickens’ Hard Times; Brontë’s, Jane Eyre)
Ebooks: 6 Finished (1 poetry, 4 fiction, 1 nonfiction), 2 Not finished (1 about poetry, 1 nonfiction), 2 Quit (both nonfiction)

Still reading (9): 7 nonfiction, 1 poetry, 1 about poetry
Gave up (6): 3 nonfiction, 1 fiction, 1 poetry, 1 about poetry

Male authors: 47 different
Female authors: 25 different
2 Male authors: 2 books
2 Female authors: 2 books
1 each: 4 books

Same author, multiple books

Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead): 13
Karen Armstrong: 2
Alan Jacobs: 2
John Maynard Smith: 2

Poetry:
Lee Ann Roripaugh: 3
Pablo Neruda: 2
Billy Collins: 2
Kristen McHenry: 2
Tomas Tranströmer: 2

I reviewed many of these books either here or at goodreads, and in the case of LibraryThing Early Reader books also at LibraryThing. If interested, the easiest way to find my comments would be to use the category Books here at the blog. I did, however, make a few shorter comments on some books at goodreads that I did not post here. I believe that any review I posted at LibraryThing was also posted at goodreads.

A few that I would highly recommend:

  • Rachel Maines, The Technology of Orgasm
  • Brown & Duguid, The Social Life of Information
  • Erwitt, Personal Exposures (photographs) – wrote about this book for my summer Digital Photography class
  • Abbas, Structures for Organizing Knowledge
  • Bauer, jeni’s splendid ice creams at home
  • Scholes, English After the Fall
  • Selznick, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

 Previous Books Read posts

Reading One to Ten (meme)

Cribbed from Angel at The Itinerant Librarian.

1 The book I am currently reading. Like Angel, I usually have more than one book going. I am currently reading the following: The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore; Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces; Hermann Melville’s Billy Budd and other stories; and about a half dozen others that I have been stopped on for a while now.

2 The last book I finished. Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Last night. My comments are here.

3 The next book I want to read. Again, ditto Angel, “there are all sorts of books I want to read next.” There are two books from the Library Thing Early Reviewer Program that need to be read so that I can write reviews: Delavier’s Stretching Anatomy and Gerhard Klosch’s Sleeping Better Together. I will probably take the stretching book with me on our trip to DC to visit family for Christmas. Then there are the books on my Two-Thirds Book Challenge list: Transformations (poems) by Anne Sexton is near the top of the list due to my Grimm’s Fairytales class starting in early January. Not on that list but recently purchased is Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary, which I’d like to read prior to Enlightenment Lit in the Spring term. I could go on and on here but I’ll stop. My goodread’s to read shelf would give you a small inkling of possibilities.

4 The last book I bought. On the 10th I bought Voltaire’s A Pocket Philosophical Dictionary (Oxford World’s Classic ed) in a Kindle ed. and I ordered a used copy of Tzvetan Todorov’s A Defence of the Enlightenment from England via abebooks. I have been wanting that book for quite a while now and it is already out of print. I foresee wanting/needing it for Enlightenment Lit for whatever paper topic I choose. I adore Todorov even though I don’t always agree with him. And Voltaire is simply delectable!

5 The last book I was given. Not counting Library Thing Early Reviewer books or books weeded from the collection at BCU, it appears the last book I was given was a copy of Jeni Bauer’s Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams by my daughter for Father’s Day. Eat Jeni’s ice cream! Support Jeni’s! Buy this book and make your own Jeni’s! Did I mention you should eat Jeni’s ice cream? It is beyond awesome!

6 The last book I borrowed from the library. Public: Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled, which I did not finish but put on my wish list. University: Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems, and Truth Barriers.

8 The last translated book you read. Lysistrata, and the Tranströmers just before that, in November.

9 The book at the top of my Christmas list. Like Angel, the list is not exactly specific to one title but the short list I culled from my Amazon wish list for the more immediate family included: Barbara McAfee’s Full Voice: The Art and Practice of Vocal Presence (seen in GradHacker); James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight; Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer; Douglas Thomas’ A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change; Gloria Ambrosia’s The Complete Muffin Cookbook: The Ultimate Guide To Making Great Muffins; Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions; Tolkien on Fairy-Stories; Mircea Eliade’s Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. These are all titles both Sara and I would like to read. If I were compiling that list today instead of just a couple of weeks ago it might be quite different as we both have added several (or more) titles to our wish lists. ::sigh::

10 The so-far unpublished book I am most looking forward to reading. Normally, I rarely know about books before they are published unless Amazon manages to send me a timely pre-order email. But. Kickstarter! We helped fund a book on Kickstarter recently so we are looking forward to Kio Stark’s, Don’t Go Back to School: A handbook for learning anything.

Nabokov, Pale Fire

9780679410775

This was the first book I started reading for my Two-Thirds Book Challenge, although it is the second one that I finished.

I started reading this on 2 October and read the foreword and the poem itself within the first couple of days of starting. Then I did not get back to it—due to reading other books, Challenge and otherwise—until 26 November. I finished it on 17 December.

**Possible (minimal) spoiler alert**

Pale Fire is an odd text, classified by some as “Experimental fiction” (LCSH). The text proper consists of a foreword, “Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos,” commentary, and an index. The poem is by one John Shade, an Appalachian poet and academic, and it was composed “during the last twenty days of his life” (Foreword, 9). The rest is purportedly by a Dr. Charles Kinbote, a recent Zemblan émigré, academic and, perhaps, a loony.

The edition we have, the 1992 Everyman’s Library v. 67 has an excellent introduction by Richard Rorty.

Sara suggested that I read the poem first and then go back and read the other material along with the poem it supposedly comments on. I left the introduction until I finished everything else as it contains spoilers. I did read Kinbote’s Foreword and then the poem. Sadly, it then took me about a month and a half to get back to it.

The main text of the book is Kinbote’s commentary on the 999-line poem “Pale Fire.” Some of the comments are short and to the point while many are long, rambling, and tell a completely different story than the one(s) the poet Shade was addressing in his poem. What is fact and what is not? What is real and what is fiction? What is fiction yet real? Is Kinbote who he claims to be? Is he as loony as the killer may be?

The index, besides being an index, is also a glossary, a gazetteer, a who’s who, and part of the work proper. Ensure that you read it.

I did enjoy Pale Fire although I doubt that I yet appreciate it as much as a few trusted recommenders do. I will need to reread it some day to better appreciate it in all its nuances: hidden, overt, and otherwise. Nabokov is a master of indirection as Rorty points out in his introduction.

Gingko Press has a new edition of Pale Fire out this year that Gabe Habash at the Publishers Weekly news blog Pwxyz called “The Most Beautiful Book of the Year.” Seeing as Sara has added this to her wishlist and, admittedly, as I am kind of lusting over it too we might be able to have a completely different kind of textual experience when we reread the work. I have read a few other reviews of this Gingko Press edition and it is supposedly both exquisite and provides an experience better suited to how both “Pale Fire” and Pale Fire are described to have come about.

 

Two-Thirds Book Challenge Update 2

This is the 2nd update to the Two-Thirds book Challenge.

This time of year is always busy and for one of us facing a big move it is especially so. Thus, not many of us were able to finish reading and/or write up any of our books.

Helen read Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty.

As a rule, Helen says, she loves Steve Martin’s books. Although she had been warned that she might not “really get or enjoy this story” as she has no specific interest in the art world, she found that it provided “a glimpse into a world I will never be a part, giving it a sense of fantasy while referencing things I know are real having lived in New York.”

She adds:

Steve Martin is gifted at laying out spans of life in a effortless way, showing the through lines of a persons life so subtly that it’s as if you’re going through it with them. In the case of this story, we follow the rise and fall of an intrepid, sometimes devious, always ambitious, woman in the high powered art world of New York.

She found it a little forced at the end but forgivable in light of the rest and considering how authentic it seemed.

I finished William Stafford’s The Way It Is which I quite enjoyed.

I’ll start with the negatives and finish on a more upbeat note as I do like Stafford’s poetry. One drawback of this book was that there are simply too many poems here to digest at once. That, though, could easily be handled by reading it in a different manner, which I mentioned in my review post.

More important as a true negative, in my opinion, is the ridiculous way the poems are arranged throughout the book. I did not follow that ordering but that also provided its own drawbacks. This is also explained more fully in my post.

More positively, here is some of what I said:

These poems accompany one as well as would a wise, world-observant, loquacious, and avuncular (but frequently solitary) companion who knows how to give one all the space and time one needs to grow just as wise and world-observant. He never gets in your way, never obstructs your view, doesn’t tell you what to think or even what to observe. The Way It Is is not a prescription but a description, and it winds its way through the whole volume and not simply the single short poem that bears that title. In fact, lines and phrases quite similar to “the way it is” are peppered throughout the poems of this volume.

Jen, along with her daughter, read Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm. [And, yes Jen, it does count even if she read part of it to you. Sara and I read books to each other and then we both consider them read. If it was an audio book it would count. Seems like the best kind of audio book to have a loved one read to you!]

Enthusiasm and amazing characterizations by her daughter helped Jen succumb to the story.

Hansel and Gretel weave their way through several story lines, most of them quite tragic (as traditional fairy tales are wont to be) and prove once and for all that children (at least these children–Hansel and Gretel) should be adulated and obeyed by adults. (I might have a bone or two to pick with that assertion.) Written by a teacher, the author humorously breaks in to the story line repeatedly to warn the reader to send small children away when horrible things are about to happen.

For a while Sara and I had an advanced reader copy of this but I think we weeded it without either of us reading it. This (now) makes me sad! I’ll be taking a very short, 3-week, 1-credit class on Grimm’s Fairy Tales this coming J-Term in January. Sadly, we did that round of weeding before I knew there would be a Grimm’s course [Ah, early Sep 2010 it was weeded].

Well, that is it for this installment of the Two-Thirds Book Challenge. Keep reading and next time we’ll hear about some more enticing sounding books.

Note: In the last couple days of writing and proofing this I see that Jen has finished another book. I also know that Sara has finished something that she should be including but she hasn’t had a chance to write it up. We’ll save these for next time. :D

Stafford, The Way It Is

This is the first book I have finished for My Two-Thirds Book Challenge.

Sara picked this book up at the lovely Defunct Books in Iowa City. It is a nice used book store that sits atop The Red Avocado vegan restaurant. Two great places in such proximity!

At 268 pages, there are a lot of poems in this book, which cover a 36-year publication history (1960-1996). It even includes the poem he wrote on the day he died.

I quite enjoyed this book, copied out several poems and a handful or two of great lines to use as prompts, read several to Sara, and generally pondered what Mr. William Stafford was like as a human being.

The one possible drawback to these poems is that there are simply too many of them to digest at once. The reader can discern one or more minor shifts in Stafford’s work across time* which makes it a bit more difficult to get a grasp on him at any specific time. But honestly, this is a very small thing as his shifts are never very large and have more to do with his moving across parts of the country and with the normal shifts in theme and voice that a poet encounters as they age.

These poems accompany one as well as would a wise, world-observant, loquacious, and avuncular (but frequently solitary) companion who knows how to give one all the space and time one needs to grow just as wise and world-observant. He never gets in your way, never obstructs your view, doesn’t tell you what to think or even what to observe. The Way It Is is not a prescription but a description, and it winds its way through the whole volume and not simply the single short poem that bears that title. In fact, lines and phrases quite similar to “the way it is” are peppered throughout the poems of this volume.

Love, the land, family, community, death, aging, historical events, nature, academia, and writing are only some of the many topics of these hundreds of poems.

In many ways I wish that I had taken a bit more time with these poems, that I had let them sink in more. Although, I am envisioning rereading them in the not-so-distant future as a one-poem-a-day meditation over the course of a year plus (there are approx. 400 poems). My version of a bible chapter a day, if you will.

*My biggest gripe with this book is its arrangement. The approximately 400 poems were selected from “some three thousand poems published by William Stafford in either journals or in the sixty-seven volumes from West of Your City (1960) to Even in Quiet Places (1996), and from the poet’s Daily Writings, with special attention to those of the last year of his life” (253). Great so far, but then:

“The volume is organized as follows: recent poems in the first section; a second section selected from the six volumes collected by HarperCollins in Stories That Could Be True (1977); a third section of poems published by other publishers, mostly in limited editions; and a fourth section selected from the poet’s last three HarperCollins volumes, A Glass Face in the Rain, An Oregon Message, and Passwords” (253).

Who does that kind of crap? Oh, yes. Poetry editors. Idiots! To show you the order in which I read these poems, as chronological as possible, here is the listing we constructed to do so:

p. 60 1960
p. 77 1962
p. 103 1966
p. 120 1970
p. 131 1973
p. 49 1977
p. 187 1982
p. 149 1983
p. 208 1987
p. 231 1991
p. 155 1992
p. 177 1980-1993
p. 3 1992
p. 24 1993
p. 166 1996

Simply astonishing!

All arrangement issues aside, I truly enjoyed this book and look forward to revisiting it and more of William Stafford’s work.

William Stafford at The Poetry Foundation

I will leave you with an excerpt from “An Afternoon in the Stacks”


…. When this book ends
I will pull it inside-out like a sock
and throw it back in the library. But the rumor
of it will haunt all that follows in my life.
….

The Way It Is (235)

My Spring and Summer 2011 Classes

After consultation with the professors and a few others (primarily the wife), I have decided which classes I will be taking or sitting in on at Briar Cliff this coming Spring and Summer terms.

Spring

Spring Term (March 5 – May 17) I will be taking one course for a grade, Victorian Lit, and sitting in on one for the fun of it, Modern Poetry. Both will be with Prof. Jeanne Emmons, who I previously took Madwomen Poets with last Fall.

ENGL 365 Victorian Literature 3 sem. hrs.
Prose, fiction and poetry including Charles Dickens, Alfred Tennyson, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Gerard Manley Hopkins and others. Works are examined both as literature and as expressions of the intellectual and social concerns of the nineteenth century in England.

The novels we will be reading are:

Thanks to Kirsten I was able to pick them all up for barely over $26 in an amazon.com 4-for-3 sale. The prof uses Oxford World Classics paperbacks, although she said I was free to use whichever editions I liked. But as I greatly dislike issues with struggling to find a passage even when using the same edition as others, and I only owned The Mill on the Floss (2 diff. editions), I decided to pick up new copies of the Oxford’s in the 4-for-3 sale.

We will also be reading poetry, short fiction, and some nonfiction prose. There will be reading quizzes, a midterm and a final, and a research paper.

This class will be a lot of work but I am really looking forward to it. I have read some Dickens but not Hard Times and I adore Eliot. In fact, The Mill on the Floss is one my 12 Books, 12 Months Challenge that I am currently participating in.

I am also looking forward to sitting in on Modern Poetry with Jeanne. There’s no way I would, at this point in my life, try to take two classes for credit from Dr. Emmons at the same time. I have the utmost respect for her as a professor and part of that is due to the workload not being a cake walk by any means. Also, this course is restricted to Honors students and English majors so sitting in also precludes hurdle jumping to get an override or any potential heartache at being denied the override.

ENGL 211 Modern Poetry 3 sem. hrs.
Major poets and poems of the high modernist era through the twentieth century are examined to gain appreciation of their formal and thematic concerns. Poets include Frost, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Elizabeth Bishop,  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, and others.

I will get to read the poems and discuss them in class with no worries about keeping up with the workload.

Summer

I have been looking for a good way to be “forced” into a structured program of learning for my Nikon DX40 camera. There are certainly tons of free ways to do so but I also know me and that I generally don’t work well on my own with such things.

Western Iowa Technical Community College has a course but it seemed far too basic. I already know, or once did anyway, a fair bit about photographic concepts from my years of shooting 35mm film on my Canon AE-1. But while many of these concepts directly translate into the world of digital photography, some of them experience some shift.

The course I am taking this summer at BCU uses Nikon DX70s but the professor said I was welcome to use my DX40 and that many of the controls will be the same. Thus, neither he nor I will be forced to do a lot of translating of how to do something on my model versus the ones the other students will be using.

I am really looking forward to this course, also.

May 31 – July 1

MCOM 216 Basic Photography – Digital 3 sem. hrs.
Introduction to digital photography. Material covered includes operation of 35mm professional digital camera including aperture, shutter and depth of field in manual control. Camera handling and care, lighting, composition, visual communication and photographic history. Extensive digital darkroom (IMC) work using Photoshop software application is required.

So, I am really excited for the coming terms. Sara had been planning on getting free ebook versions of the Victorian novels to read along with me because we love discussing the books we read with each other. Then someone else went and reminded her that these would all be pretty bleak, full of desperate people and times, and she changed her mind.

Two 3-hour courses in Spring means I will be spending a lot of time on campus. At least it will be easy to get my full 5 hours of contract cataloging work in. And, I’ll get to eat lunch with my sweetie 3 days a week. I am just hoping that I can find some place that I can acclimate to enough to do some of my coursework while there.

Plath. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams

Short review: A few decent stories and essays, but really only for the Plath aficionado or completist.

I became interested in this book of stories, essays and excerpts from Plath’s notebooks, due to the several references I came across to the title story while looking into Plath’s background as an aid in understanding her poetry for my Madwomen Poets class last fall.

I got a copy via ILL but it was in such bad shape that the book was received rubber banded together.  Also, the pages were highly yellowed and brittle and my allergies were not excited about even attempting reading the primary story for which I ordered it.  Noticing it was quite affordable brand new from amazon I added it to my wish list and my son got it for me for Christmas.  I read it in December 2010.

My first issue with this collection comes from its ordering.  In the Introduction, Ted Hughes (her husband) writes “All items have approximate dates of composition and are roughly in reverse chronological order, insofar as that is possible” (7) [see the table of contents below].  No justification or reasoning is presented for this decision at all.  What is it with this kind of arrangement?  We have several works of collected poems by assorted single authors that are organized like this.  It seems to me that if one wants to watch the development of an author as a writer then reverse chronological order is assbackwards.  This upset me, so I resolved to read this collection in reverse order.

Thus I began with “P.S. Insights, Interviews & More …” which contains a very short biography of Plath, “Poet’s Prose” an essay by Margaret Atwood, and some marketing materials for Plath’s other works.

Atwood ends her essay with the following:

“The stories are arranged chronologically but in reverse order. This creates an archeological effect: the reader is made to dig backward in time, downward into remarkable mind, so that the last, earliest story, “Among the Bumble-bees” (a wistful story about a little girl’s worship of her father who dies mysteriously), emerges like the final gold-crowned skeleton at the bottom of the tomb—the king all those others were killed to protect. Which it is” ([11]).

While I found Atwood’s explanation overly artsy, I did decide to accept it as an explanation and read the book normally.

A perhaps larger issue is that many of these had been rejected by Plath herself (7).  Another is that, while “her reputation rests on the poems of her last six months,” most of the contents of this collection predates the poems of The Colossus which was completed 3 years before her death (9).  The only parts contemporary with Ariel are “three brief journalistic pieces, “America! America!” “Snow Blitz,” and “Ocean 1212-W”" (9).

Some of these stories serve as the material for several of the Ariel poems.  “The Bee Meeting,” “Berck Plage,” “Among the Narcissi,” and “The Moon and the Yew Tree” are all presaged or mentioned.

Seeing as I don’t have a lot to say about most of these, I think I’ll just add my comments behind each entry in the TOC and maybe a few slightly longer excerpts at the end.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction by Ted Hughes
  • Mothers (Story, 1962) – highly autobiographical.
  • Ocean 1212-W (Essay, 1962) – her grandmother’s phone number, autobiographical.
  • Snow blitz (Essay, 1963) – Jeebus! The last few months of her life; some of her last written words. The ending is terrifyingly ironic considering how she killed herself.
  • The Smiths: George, Marjorie (50), Claire (16) (From Notebooks, Spring 1962)
  • America! America! (Essay, 1963)
  • Charlie Pollard and the beekeepers (From Notebooks, June 1962) – Bees are one of Sylvia’s major thematic images.
  • A comparison (Essay, 1962) – compares novels to poems; mentions the yew tree of “The Moon and the Yew Tree.”
  • “Context” (Essay, 1962) – about the context for her poems. Mentions the yew tree again, and other poems by image.
  • Rose and Percy B. (From Notebooks, 1961/62)
  • Day of success (Story, 1960)
  • The fifteen-dollar eagle (Story, November 1959)
  • The fifty-ninth bear (Story, September 1959)
  • The daughters of Blossom Street (Story, 1959)
  • Sweetie pie and the gutter men (Story, May 1959)
  • The shadow (Story, January 1959)
  • Johnny Panic and the Bible of dreams (Story, December 1958) – the poetic element of dreams; electroshock.
  • Above the oxbow (Story, 1958)
  • Stone boy with dolphin (Story, 1957/58) – the Cambridge party where Sylvia meets and bites Ted; brushing snow from the stone boy; “And asteroids innumerable, a buzz of gilded bees” (189) [drunk].
  • All the dead dears (Story, 1957/58)
  • The wishing box (Story, 1956)
  • The day Mr. Prescott died (Story, 1956)
  • Widow Mangada (From Notebooks, Summer 1956)
  • That widow Mangada (Story, Autumn 1956) – this was a bit redundant after reading the previous notebook entries on which it is based, although I preferred the ending in the story.
  • Cambridge notes (From Notebooks, February 1956) – “With masks down, I walk, talking to the moon, to the neutral impersonal force that does not hear, but merely accepts my being” (261). The moon is a major image, especially in her later poetry. The moon is declared neutral here, and the surrounding writing supports that view, but her view will shift more to the negative in her later poetry.
  • Tongues of stone (Story, 1955)
  • Superman and Paula Brown’s new snowsuit (Story, 1955)
  • In the mountains (Story, 1954)
  • Initiation (Story, July 1952)
  • Sunday at the Mintons’ (Story, Spring 1952)
  • Among the bumblebees (Story, Early 1950s)
  • P.S. Insights, Interviews & More …

Taken out of context, I love the quote about the moon from “Cambridge notes.” “With masks down,” defenseless, naked, exposed, one is implacably accepted, but not judged, by an all-seeing, but non-hearing, moon that “merely accepts my being.”

Several of these pieces were quite good and a few of the stories have twisted, yet delightful (good and bad) endings. How well any of them stand up outside of the context of Sylvia’s internally tortured life, though, is hard to say.