I always feel a little badly for Gwendolyn Brooks. Like many readers, for years all I knew of her work was “We Real Cool,” the short striking poem that gets anthologized all over the place, and that fits–for careless or superficial readers–a little too neatly into racist tropes of African American cultural dysfunction.
Don’t get me wrong–I like the poem, I think it’s got a lot going on, formally as well as in what it has to say. More so, in fact, than at first meets the eye. It’s just that it’s almost too accessible, and so invites quick dismissal. And, like any over-anthologized piece, it ends up being what this deep and multifaceted author is reduced to.
Then I started reading some of her other work, and discovered how much broader and deeper her range is than any one poem can illustrate. But one poem that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go was “Boy Breaking Glass.” It’s a gnarly poem–challenging, complex, rich in meaning and technique–and I found I had to write about it, to understand why I found it so compelling. I worked at it and let it sit and then worked at it some more, but was never satisfied. Finally I decided just to post what I had, even so. The recent events in Baltimore just make it all the more appropriate.
Here’s what I came up with.
The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.
A group of scientists have published an open letter to the Smithsonian, the American Museum of Natural History, and others to cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry, including removing David Koch from the boards of those two museums.
As James Powell, one of the signatories, put it on Democracy Now!,
And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that’s not just an appearance, but it’s actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they’re present on the planet. They’re not going to evolve by the time they’re my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.
Luis Alberto Urrea spoke at Hugo House last night and, thanks to a perspicacious colleague, I knew about the event in time to actually go. The talk was in two parts: a written lecture on what Urrea calls “understory” and an on-stage interview. The lecture was good—entertaining, well written, insightful, delivered with verve despite the fact that he was reading, not speaking extemporaneously. I had issues with parts of it, but overall I liked it. But the real highlight for me was the second half, the on-stage interview, where Urrea spoke off-the-cuff about his work, spinning tales about his Yaqui relatives, speaking at all-Latino high schools, working with Border Patrol agents when writing his book The Devil’s Highway, and an astonishing story about his mother’s experiences in World War II, to be the basis for a new book. His riff on the importance of empathy was inspiring. I won’t try to reproduce the talk; suffice it to say that he was funny, engaging, profound. I came away with great respect for this author whom I’ve never read. I hope to check out The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of 26 Mexican men’s attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States, and his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Today’s Seattle Times has an editorial in which it dismisses as mere symbolism efforts to prevent Shell from leasing the Port’s Terminal 5 for its Arctic drilling fleet.
Here’s the letter I sent in response:
The Times is right that the real fight over Arctic drilling has to be national, where the leases are granted. But it’s wrong to dismiss the Port Shell lease as mere symbolism. What this argument overlooks is that politics is all about symbolism.
Rejecting the Shell lease would dramatically enhance efforts to change those national leasing policies. It would get lots of attention and shift the debate by reminding everyone that much bigger interests are at stake. The economic and other benefits of leaving the oil under the Arctic far outweigh the advantages of extracting it.
I remember when divestment from South Africa was dismissed as mere symbolism. Yet we learned from the activists in South Africa that it was a vital form of solidarity.
Those accident-prone Shell rigs will be traversing Native territory that was never ceded, operating in extremely harsh conditions, threatening whales, seals, salmon, countless other species—and the people who depend on them.
It’s unclear whether Shell could find another port. What’s not debatable is that if we go along, we are abetting the worst crisis humanity faces. As the old proverb says, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll go for anything.
Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)
After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”
Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)
I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.
It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading