Dante’s Tears: The Poetics of Weeping from Vita Nuova to the Commedia, by Rossana Fenu Barbera

Rossana Barbera

Sometimes you find a book that answers questions you didn’t know you had. This book roused my curiosity about many things, not just Dante and tears, but also silences, numerology, medicine, and religious beliefs during the Late Middle Ages.

Earlier this week someone mentioned a history professor she once had who hated the sentence: “Things were different back then.” When I read these works of Dante’s back in my schooldays, that’s probably why I didn’t question all the weeping that goes on in them. As it turns out, though, the cultural context for tears really was different from today’s.

I haven’t read Dante since then, though of course I’ve encountered references and bits and pieces of his work over the years. Still, I had no trouble following Dr. Barbera’s explanations of the various meanings of tears during that time and how this understanding illuminates Dante’s most famous works. (Full disclosure: I have known the author for over ten years, first as a teacher and then as a friend.)

By tracing the way Dante presents his own tears and those of others, the author demonstrates how Dante’s philosophy and world view developed over the 26 or so years he spent writing these works. In Vita Nuova, where he first meets Beatrice,:

Dante’s confused and distressed state of mind is not merely emotional or decorative. It embraces the very essence of the book, the writing of which seems to be motivated by Dante’s finding a new path in life, finding his new life . . . Vita Nuova is the stage on which Dante represents his struggle to define the truth of Love, to test positive and negative behavior. Vita Nuova was the occasion, in Dante’s life, to discover a new poetic; in a way, it is the paradise and wood where Dante gets lost.

The Commedia, in which Dante travels through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, demonstrates Dante’s evolution to a more nuanced understanding of love and death, sin and redemption, and to a new poetics to express them. He more subtly uses different kinds of weeping to describe whom he meets and what he learns during his time in Hell and Purgatory. For some he meets, tears are a relief or a means of atonement. For others, they are a terrible punishment.

For example, Dante reserves the ninth and lowest circle of his Hell for traitors, those who broke the political order or society’s rules, which to him meant betraying the community itself. I was struck by the current relevance of this verdict, centuries before Rousseau published The Social Contract, which describes how citizens are willing to surrender some of their freedoms to the government in exchange for protection of their remaining rights.

Confined with Lucifer in a frozen lake of tears, these traitors are not allowed to weep, and therefore not given any way to relieve their sorrow or to petition God for forgiveness. If they do cry, their tears are frozen in their eye sockets, their heads tilted back. By delving into the significance of tears and Dante’s poetic use of them, the author brings home the true horror of these punishments and the depth of Dante’s scorn for these traitors.

I was also particularly interested in the history and meaning of the sin of acedia, better known today as sloth. However, it is more complicated than laziness. What we now call sloth was understood as a medical problem related to melancholia and tristitia (sorrow) until the “first Christian thinkers . . . began to associate diseases with or to explain them as a product of vice and sin.” When first identified as one of the seven deadly sins, it was considered “an inertia of the spirit” seen among monks who shifted their attention “from spiritual aspirations to earthly appetite.”

The relevance to today is obvious. As massive problems beset our society—problems we feel powerless to solve—it is tempting to bury our heads in the sand, whether by binge-watching television shows, video games, retail therapy, or focusing on personal ambition. Even though Thoreau’s “To be awake is to be alive” has been my motto since my teens, I am not immune; the lure of my book-lined room is sometimes irresistible.

In Dante’s Purgatory, acedia is the middle of the seven plateaus, separating the sins “that cause harm to others (Pride, Envy, and Wrath)” from the sins of “excessive love of earthly goods (Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust).” It is “intended as the mother of all temptations”. The exploration of Dante’s uses of weeping helps us better understand Dante’s struggle in this crucial area, the centerpoint of the entire Commedia and how we ourselves might move forward with open eyes.

Drawing on over a hundred sources, the author summarizes research and scholarship. She goes further and adds her own conclusions, clearly expressed and supported by the journey she has taken us on through the beliefs and worldview of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. Like the most satisfying of jigsaw puzzles, the pieces of the author’s argument slot together and yield a fascinating new portrait of Dante, his times, and his works.

Nearly all of the academic writers I know loathe tangled academic prose. What makes this book such a joy is not just the breadth of scholarship and the shrewd conclusions, but also the clarity of the prose. Even if you are not familiar with Dante’s works, the liberal quotations here will bring it to life and perhaps inspire you to explore these two works armed with your new understanding.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

9781400031702_p0_v5_s192x300

Tartt’s first novel begins with a quiet bang. I am no fan of prologues, but this one shows how powerful they can be. By mentioning a murder in the first sentence, this first section of the Introduction raises a huge story question and creates suspense that carries through the first half of the book. Tartt doesn’t stop there, but infuses each page with what Donald Maass, literary agent and writing guru, calls micro-tension. Sometimes it is out and out conflict and other times a vague sense of unease, but it is always there.

The prologue also immerses us in the voice of our narrator, Richard Papen, a young man from a working class family in southern California, who transfers to the fictional Hampden College in Hampden, Vermont.

Wanting to continue his Greek studies, Richard makes a huge effort to join the only Greek class. The professor, Julian Morrow, accepts students according to his own whim and then requires them to take all of their classes with him. One of Tartt’s strengths is her descriptions of people and places. With just a few phrases she conjures her characters.

It was a small, wise face, as alert and poised as a question, and though certain features of it were suggestive of youth—the elfin upsweep of the eyebrows, the depth lines of nose and jaw and mouth—it was by no means a young face, and the hair was snow white . . . He put his head to the other side and blinked again, bright-eyed, amiable as a sparrow.

Julian’s appeal for Richard is not only the entrée to an exclusive club, but also the image of Richard himself that Julian makes him believe in. Julian treats all of his students as serious scholars who care, not only about the language, but Greek culture itself, including its love of beauty and its attempt to balance Apollonian rationality with Dionysian ecstasy.

In this class, Richard joins the select few: Henry, brilliant and wealthy, the quiet leader of the group; Francis, also wealthy, prone to melodrama and attracted to men; the beautiful twins, Charles and Camilla, whose relationship is a clique within the clique; and Bunny, a narcissist from a destitute Brahmin family, who believes it is his right to take whatever he wants. Aristocrats all, they include Richard in their secret society, though he never feels entirely confident that he is one of them.

In this story of a middle-class youth fascinated by the beauty and nonchalant grace of his new aristocratic friends, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite books: Brideshead Revisited. This novel has some of the charm of Brideshead, but lacks its serious underpinnings. Stretching over several decades, the Brideshead story embodies the massive cultural changes in Britain, asking what remains when so much has been stripped away. The Secret History, though, has the much smaller scope of a single school year and only addresses the coldness and carelessness of privileged youth.

While the prose was often entrancing, I felt that the book did not need to be so long. For example, the Christmas vacation section is one that could have been cut down. Richard’s situation, living in an unheated attic with a hole in the roof, and what followed taxed my credulity and threw me out of the story. The narrative function of that section, to bring Henry home and endear him to Richard, could have easily been achieved with a more believable way of giving Richard pneumonia.

The novel reminded me of Diana Gabaldon’s books which seem less like compelling stories and more like an opportunity to sink into another world. Luckily I was listening to it as an audio book, so my “reading” stretched out over a couple of long car trips and many walks. If I’d been trying to read it as a book, I would probably have grown tired of it by the middle, where we finally get to the murder.

That felt like a logical stopping place, but as it turns out, the rest of the book, which is about the aftermath, is interesting in a different way. We may have the answer to the question of how and why the murder happens, but now we wonder what its effect will be on these characters.

Richard, like similar narrators of other lives (Charles Ryder and Nick Carraway, for instance), speaks in a careful and thoughtful, almost detached, tone of voice, as though answering an oral exam question. He is looking back on these events from the advanced age of 28, hence the detachment. While it might seem that such a tone might be boring, I actually found it engaging and more effective than an emotional tone might have been. Repressed emotion, if done as well as it is here, gives the story more power.

Since the book was narrated by the author, I was disoriented by the sound of this southern California boy’s voice being so high and having an accent redolent of the deep South. The other characters being New Englanders were equally jarring. However, I eventually got used to Tartt’s voice and even found it soothing. It was so soothing, in fact, that I began putting on the sleep timer and listening to it as I fell asleep, which was always within a few minutes.

Some of the reviews on Goodreads indicated that the book was most popular among high school students, one even saying that fifteen was the best age to appreciate it. I can see that older teens and college students, being of an age with the protagonist, would take a special interest in it, but the deluge of praise and awards seem proof that it is equally popular among older adults.

However, I found it ultimately shallow. I was certainly as charmed as Richard by this coterie of people, their old-fashioned formal dress, their erudite conversation, and literary references. But none, except perhaps Henry, seemed to have gone beyond these superficial attributes.

Thus, unexpectedly, my reaction to this book reminds me again of Brideshead, where Anthony Blanche says that Sebastian, while undeniably charming, reminds him of “‘that in some ways nauseating picture of Bubbles. . . when dear Sebastian speaks it is like a little sphere of soapsud drifting off the end of an old clay pipe, anywhere, full of rainbow light for a second and then—phut! vanished, with nothing left at all, nothing.’”

What books have worked well for you as audio books? Do you have a favorite narrator?

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

eb5e70_dd046e1a9b494fdcbad802ff41b01b11~mv2_d_1650_2531_s_2

The winner of several awards and places on best books of the year lists, this second novel from Mahajan examines the results of a bombing. Not some large, well-publicised terrorist attack, the event that starts the novel is a small bomb set off in a marketplace in New Delhi, killing—among others—two brothers and seriously injuring their friend.

The story examines the repercussions of this event on the parents of the two boys, the friend, and the terrorists themselves, including one who is drawn into their orbit later. By adopting this structure, Mahajan sets himself a serious challenge.

In my opinion and despite the fervent praise heaped on this book, he fails to meet this challenge. Confining the different stories to separate and clearly defined sections keeps the reader from getting confused. However, the lack of a single protagonist leaves the book empty at its core. As soon as we start to get interested in a character, the father for example or the bomb maker, his story is dropped entirely. It may be picked up again a hundred pages later or it may not.

As a result, the novel is interesting and informative, but not engaging. Contrary to the frenzied reviews, the book is neither thrilling nor urgent. Most of the people in one of my new book groups found it boring and had to force themselves to read on. Contributing to their malaise was the trajectory of the characters: they start off miserable and go downhill from there.

Of course, it is possible that the author intended for the book to be empty at its core, as though the center had exploded and destroyed everything, including our notions of narrative.

There are also some continuity problems that an editor should have picked up, a few inconsistencies that are jarring. And the ending is disappointing. Like too many books these days, it felt as though the author got tired of writing but didn’t know how to end it, so we get a series of brief this-is-what-happened capsules for the major characters.

It’s a shame because the novel brings to light an important subject. While we hear in the news about shocking terrorist attacks, I for one had no idea that so many of these small events were happening. Since 1970 there have been nearly 10,000 in India alone. In the single month of May, 2016, there were 207 terrorist incidents around the world, in countries in the news such as Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in places like Yemen, Egypt, Burundi, Tanzania, and the Philippines.

Mahajan does a great service by bringing these to light and demonstrating that, despite their smaller scale, their impact is no less tragic. My book group wondered what purpose could be achieved with this barrage of terror. Of the three terrorists in this book, one was said to be motivated by nationalist concerns (Kashmiri independence), one by religious discrimination, and one by rage at a politician.

Yet, as we have seen, such actions do not convert anyone to their cause and are too small to be remarked upon in the media or remembered by those not immediately affected. Some wondered if a deeper cause might lie in the mix of rage and fear and powerlessness that in the U.S. leads single white men and boys to pick up a gun and shoot up a restaurant or concert or school. There is no logical plan to achieve anything. Rather it is an explosive desire to be seen and heard. One person compared it to a toddler’s tantrum.

I urge people to read this book because it is important subject that most of us know little about. Don’t look for what you might normally expect in a novel, though the settings are beautifully described, both the places and the communities. Look instead for new insights into one of our greatest challenges: how to live together in peace.

Did you know about the number of terrorist incidents occurring every day around the world?

Collected Poems, by James Wright

wright book3

If memory serves, before now I had only read one poem by James Wright, his most famous one: “The Blessing”. I was drawn in and held by the gentle images, too specific to be sentimental, until the final image hit me like a fierce wind, lifting me out of this life.

The poem is a perfect example of Robert Bly’s concept of “leaping poetry” which I discussed a few weeks ago. That is no accident. I’ve come to find out that Bly was not only a friend to Wright but also a mentor.

If I liked the poem so much, why didn’t I read more of his work? All I can say is that I meant to. This 1971 collection of his poems, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is a good way to do that. It contains a good selection from his earlier books along with a section of new poems and one of translations from writers such as Neruda, Vallejo and Trakl.

As I read the selections from his first book, The Green Wall, I wondered if this could be the same poet. They seemed complex and overly elaborate, like something from an earlier age. However, I did appreciate his themes of estrangement from nature (symbolised in the green wall), the horrors of the modern world, and mourning.

The poems from his next book, St. Judas, went further into the hearts and minds of the poor, the criminal, the disenfranchised. Growing up in Martins Ferry, Ohio, during the Depression, he witnessed poverty and suffering first-hand; the only thing worse than a soulless factory job was having no job at all.

A bad review from the poet James Dickey led to an angry exchange of letters. However, upon reflection, Wright allowed that Dickey’s criticisms had merit. He let go of 19th century poetic traditions and, working with Bly and others, found a new, more direct style. By concentrating on images instead of stylised meter and rhyme, by using plainer language instead of rhetorical flourishes, he began writing the kind of amazing and transcendent poems that I originally fell in love with.

Wright’s next collection, The Branch Shall Not Break, was widely praised and influenced poets such as W. S. Merwin, Sylvia Plath and Galway Kinnell. I loved the poems here and in the remainder of the book. Of course, some are more successful than others and perhaps he overuses the technique of the leaping last line, but there are real gems here.

Wright dedicated one of the poems in Branch to Dickey, who became such a fan that he wrote a glowing blurb for the Collected Poems, saying:

James Wright is one of the few authentic visionary poets writing today. Unlike many others, James Wright’s visions are authentic, profound, and beautiful . . . He is a seer with astonishing compassion for human beings.

I think this episode with Dickey is a good lesson for any writer. It’s normal to feel defensive when your work is criticised. However, if Wright had continued to hold out against Dickey’s comments, he never would have experimented with changing his style. He would never have become the beloved and influential poet we know today. He never would have written the poem that lifted me out of myself and made me seek out this book.

Have you ever received a criticism that you initially thought was unfair but later recognised had merit?

Hard Truth, by Nevada Barr

9780425208410_p0_v1_s192x300

I’ve enjoyed the Anna Pigeon mysteries by Nevada Barr ever since they first came out. Anna is a park ranger, and each book takes place in a different national park. Barr herself worked in national parks during the summer, so she brings experience to her stories.

I know she also does extensive research for each book. One of her books, Blind Descent, is based on an actual incident in Lechuguilla, one in which my brother was involved. He was shocked by how accurate her details were, not just of the cave itself, but caving technology, and the kinds of people who would be on such expeditions (though there were no murderers on his descent!).

I heard her speak once, and loved her description of how she learned to write mysteries. Her first book was surprisingly accomplished. It deservedly won both the Agatha and Anthony awards for best first mystery. Barr said she learned by taking a few favorite mysteries and taking them apart. She studied them for months trying to understand what worked and what didn’t. I think this is a great way to learn how to write! After all, it wasn’t that long ago that there weren’t MFAs in creative writing.

Hard Truth is the 13th book in the series and finds Anna working in as District Ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. When she arrives, she finds a team that has been traumatized by a six-week search for three missing girls. They come camping with a group of young people under the guidance of their pastor. The girls have never been found, and the active search called off.

Oddly, the parents did not participate in the search. Instead, they prayed. Part of what I would call a cult, their home is a compound run by a large bully of a man whom everyone is afraid of. Anna hears that the sect has broken off from the Mormons, finding them too worldly and liberal.

A parallel story gives us a young woman, Heath Jarrod, who has come camping with her aunt. They are staying in the “handicamp” because Heath is confined to a wheelchair since a climbing accident, leaving her bitter and angry.

Barr mixes up these characters in events so suspenseful that a long car ride passed in a flash. I like Barr’s writing, her detail about the life of a park ranger, and her descriptions of the parks. This book, sadly, had less about the park and more about the evil on the loose.

One of my friends told me she stopped reading Barr’s books because she finds them too violent. I’ve thought about her comment while I’m working my way through them again; I find it interesting to read a series consecutively sometimes. I have to say, this book is particularly gruesome. In fact, the last few have been quite violent near the end, but this one verges on being a horror story. I’m almost afraid to read the next. My friend might be right.

What mystery series have you enjoyed?

This is Us, by Dan Fogelman, et al.

p14273615_b_v8_aa

The object of this blog is to look as stories to see what I and other writers might learn from them. While nearly all of my posts are about books, this week I want to take a look at a television series.

A writing teacher I revere recommended This Is Us, specifically the episode titled “Memphis” as an example of excellent writing. That was enough to get me started. The series, now in its second season, has been nominated for and won many awards, including a Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for Vera Herbert for Episode 9 of Season 1.

It’s a family drama about three siblings and their parents. The show’s concept is that the father and the three children share a birthday. The pilot episode is their 36th birthday, so we move between the past of Jack’s birthday and the present of the siblings’. We meet Jack and Rebecca as they are enacting their traditional celebration of his birthday, hampered by Rebecca being massively pregnant with triplets. The bond between them, the openness, humor and compassion, are quickly established.

Our introduction to the three children as adults uses key details of setting to establish their conflicts. An overweight Kate opens a refrigerator to see everything marked with her own sticky notes telling her not to eat them. Randall, sitting in his corner office engrossed in his the multiple stock-tracking windows open on his monitor, is disturbingly low-spirited when his employees come in with a surprise birthday cake. Before we see Kevin, we see a sculpture of the comedy and drama masks, a poster for Richard III with the famous quote “Now is the winter of our discontent”, and a poster for a sitcom called The Manny showing a naked Kevin holding a baby. No surprise, then, that Kevin is collapsed on a bed, ignoring two women—hookers or groupies—and feeling sorry for himself.

Continuing to jump back and forth between the present and the past, the show anchors us by staying within that day, Jack’s 36th birthday when the children are born and their own 36th birthdays. Since we’ve already seen that Randall is not the same race as the others, I’m not giving anything away by explaining that after one of the triplets is stillborn, Jack and Rebecca adopt Randall who had been left at a fire station, thus setting up additional potential conflict.

A visual medium enables us to tell whether we are in the past or the present just by looking at the characters. As writers, though, we have to find ways to subtly establish when we are jumping into a flashback and when we return.

What I like most about the show is seeing how Jack and Rebecca rise to the task of parenting the three children, and how Randall, Kevin and Kate then carry those skills forward. There’s a lot of humor and conflict and love without, in my opinion, crossing the line into sentimentality. I love the way they talk to the children and Jack’s hilarious ways of distracting them. Jack and Rebecca find a balance between caring for the children and giving them space, something I see too rarely.

As a parent, I’m dismayed that with these excellent parents the three children should turn out to have so many problems as adults. However, conflict is the engine that drives stories, so as a writer I approve.

Another driver is suspense. There are many story questions raised in this opening episode. Some, like how Randall ended up in the family, are answered by the end of the episode. Others, like Randall’s relationship with his biological father, are resolved by the end of the season.

However, there is one major question which is still being milked even though we are well into the second season. In the present of the series, it has been made clear that Jack is dead, but how and when is a big mystery. There were a lot of teasers last season that the final episode would reveal the answers. When it didn’t, I wasn’t the only one disgusted. My friends who watch the show felt betrayed, and at least one quit completely.

Similarly, I’ve heard readers complain about novels that leave too many questions unanswered at the end in a clumsy attempt to set up a sequel. Deciding the right moment to reveal information and answers is one of the hardest tasks for a writer. If you put it off too long, you will lose the reader’s interest; too soon, and the suspense fades. One good suggestion is that every time you reveal the answer to one question, you ask another.

Be aware, too, that if you are going to make something into a big mystery and keep teasing and holding off on answering it, you are building up expectations. When you finally do reveal the answer, it had better be spectacular. And if it’s a TV series you’d better—right away—set up another big question or your viewers will wander off.

We’ll see.

Is there a TV series you recommend for its writing?

Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler

9780061834127_p0_v1_s395x600

Although several years old now, Hessler’s book offers a good introduction to a country that is rapidly changing. Presented chronologically, the stories of people and places and artifacts span the years from 1999 to 2002, when Hessler worked in China as a teacher and journalist from. As in the best of today’s narrative nonfiction, these stories are vivid vignettes that immerse the reader in the experience.

We meet an 82-year-old, tennis-playing man who “carries himself like a soldier” and stubbornly refuses to leave his family home when the developers demand it. We camp in a tower on the Great Wall during a sandstorm, hang out in cafes at night with Uighur traders, and cruise along the banks of North Korea. We talk with peasants and movie stars, archeologists and black marketeers. We learn what a ghost chariot is.

The book’s subtitle, A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, points to the aspect of the book that—next to the stories—most appealed to me. Hessler gives the reader historical context for everything, but so subtly that we can absorb the information almost without noticing it. The trick is that he gives us a snippet of history at the moment we need it and immediately returns to the story.

Also, every two or three chapters we get a section that zooms in on a particular artifact, such as the Flying Horse, discovered in 1969 in the village of Wuwei. Since archeologists were not available in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, the peasants who blundered onto the third century tomb while digging under a temple did the excavation and kept the many bronzes in their own homes until they were finally collected. The background and symbolism of the horse are teased out in a series of interviews that keep the reader’s attention engaged.

Our attention is held, too, by certain people and stories that are carried through the book, such as former students with whom Hessler stays in touch and the mystery surrounding a suicide. Also, descriptions of places come alive with a handful of details, such as this one of the Ju’er neighborhood of Beijing:

Some residents kept makeshift pigeon coops on their roofs, and they tied whistles to the birds, so that the flock sounded when it passed overhead. In the old parts of Beijing, that low-pitched hum, rising and falling as the birds soared across the sky, was the mark of a beautiful clear day. In late afternoons, the trash man pushed his cart through the hutong, blowing a whistle. The sound faded as he made his way out of the neighborhood; usually he was gone just before sunset. Nights were silent.

What sent me to this book were the lovely quotations credited to it in Hélène, by Deborah Poe, such as the epigraph from Chuang-Tzu about the use and limitation of words. My favorite is this from Chen Mengjia, a poet and scholar: “I crushed my chest and pulled out a string of songs.”

I particularly liked Hessler’s evaluation near the end of the commonalities and differences between China and the U.S. We have more in common than you might think.

Change has only accelerated for China since 2002, but this book is a good place to start if you want to understand modern China amid the fragments of its long past.

What book have you read about modern China?

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

9780385536776_p0_v1_s460x700

A newly-graduated doctor sent in 1950 on an anthropological expedition to an island in the South Pacific to find a lost tribe: sounds like it might be an adventure story. However, by making the bulk of this novel Dr. Norton Perina’s memoir, Yanagihara turns it into an intense psychological portrait of a thoroughly unpleasant man.

In the memoir, which is introduced and edited by his obsequious assistant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, Perina describes his childhood, isolated on a farm with his fraternal twin. The two spend their time torturing insects and small animals as well as their mother; Perina despises both his parents for their uselessness and lack of ambition.

After medical school his brilliance is finally rewarded by his inclusion on the expedition. Ivu’ivu is thought to be uninhabited and cursed, but Paul Tallent, leader of the expedition, has reason to believe it harbors a lost tribe who live to an advanced age. The description, through Perina’s eyes, of his first encounter with the jungles and people of Ivu’ivu is brilliant, vividly evoking the sounds and smells of this new world and Perina’s wonder and anxiety.

Perina’s discovery on the island and his amoral behaviour around it lead to fame and fortune and the Nobel Prize. However, we learn from the first pages that he is in prison for sexually abusing one of the 43 children he adopted from the island.

When I finished the book, I felt strongly that the pedophilia plot detracted from the story. It was nowhere near as intensely written as Perina’s trips to the island and seemed to be included purely for gratuitous shock value and to provide a climax at the end.

Perina’s story of his discovery and the consequences for Ivu’ivu and its people raise questions of power, colonialism and abuse of both nature and people. It also raises questions of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath—a question much in the news of late as gifted and famous men are forced out amid revelations of abuse. That important and nuanced story did not need to be wrapped in a simple soap opera about pedophilia.

However, I later learned that, while the island and its tribe are fictional, Perina’s trajectory is based on the true story of a Dr. Carleton Gajdusek who won a Nobel Prize for his work among the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea on kuru, a fatal disease. Gajdusek later went to prison for the same reason his fictional counterpart did. It may not always be the right thing to include every aspect of the story that inspired you.

This first novel shows some of the author’s strengths that made her second, A Little Life, a huge bestseller. She doles out information in such a way that for every question answered, new questions emerge, thus keeping the reader from getting too frustrated while maintaining the suspense. Her male characters—and all the primary characters are male—are deeply characterised, by which I mean that we have full confidence that she thoroughly understands all their formative experiences, their demons and angels, their subtlest shadings.

The weaknesses are here as well. The single female character is presented as an unpleasant stereotype, though this is only to be expected since we learn about her through Perina’s eyes. Perina is born into wealth and becomes much richer through his famous discovery. The fact that all four protagonists in A Little Life also became fabulously rich and famous was one of the factors that left me bored and unmoved by the story.

Worse, though, is that both narrators here are thoroughly unpleasant. I felt that way about the protagonists in her second book as well, though not everyone agrees with me.

Aside from their obvious pathologies, both Perina and his assistant are unreliable narrators. For example, Perina at one point claims that he went to Ivu’ivu solely for the adventure when it is obvious that he was desperate to be the center of attention. Equally he claims that his childhood torturing of insects, animals and even his mother is only what every small boy does.

What I did like about this book that I didn’t find in the second book is the attempt to grapple with serious problems. Because we are limited by Perina’s self-serving point of view, and notes by his loyal assistant, the issues of power, colonialism and abuse are sketched in broad strokes. In retrospect Perina is sorry for the changes he brought to the area, but unrepentant, saying any scientist would do the same, and he himself, knowing the result, would certainly do it all again.

The changes are so horrific, as are Perina’s crimes against the children, that we have no choice about what to conclude, both about these issues and the question of how to evaluate a genius who is also a sociopath. Still, obvious as our conclusions must be, it is good to be reminded of these horrors that continue to occur today.

We discussed the title in my new book group without coming to any conclusion. The tribe is not in the trees but in their village. Perhaps it is meant to remind us of the song Strange Fruit, though I think the comparison is strained; both peoples suffered tragically but differently.

We were also reminded of Euphoria, of course, the novelisation of a portion of Margaret Mead’s life. Though I disliked that book for its tampering with the facts of Mead’s life, it does approach the issues of colonialism and tampering with more depth and subtlety.

Still, this book is a good read if you can bear to spend so many pages with someone so awful. The writing keeps you turning page after page, and the psychological portrait of a narcissistic sociopath is brilliant.

Have you read a novel based on a real person? Did it change your view of the person?

Accounted For: Poems, by Jeannine Savard

savardaccountedcov

A chorus of voices fill this 2011 collection of poems from Red Hen Press. People crowd the pages, alone or in company, describing prayers and portents, dreams and deserts. Savard uses the things of this world—donkeys, gold silk, stars, wild thyme—to ground emotions and epiphanies. Like Virginia Woolf’s “moments of being”, each poem holds a cup of liquid light.

However, much as I reveled in individual phrases, sometimes the objects and images came too fast for me, piled on top of one another, without enough context for me to follow.

I first understood what appealed to me in poetry when I read Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry. He says:

My idea, then, is that a great work of art often has at its center a long floating leap . . . The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem.

Graves maintains that the leap enables the reader to access the unconscious. He calls it “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again.” While that may be true, I instead think of it as being given the space to bring my own experience, my own emotions into the poem.

I love when two images come up against each other, the liminal space between them resonating with sounds neither can summon on their own. Similarly, an artist can lay down two strips of color on canvas and where they meet, our eyes see a spectrum of colors faintly vibrating. For example, in one of my favorite poems, “In a Radiant Field”, Savard says:

Touching her own ribs
she overhears the years of a tree

before the lightning struck.

She gives us a moment to hold these two images, of ribs and rings, and let them echo before summoning the lightning strike.

However, too much obscurity, too much private meaning invested in the image leaves the reader stranded on one side of the gulf. As Bly says of Neruda: “The links are not private, but somehow bound into nature.”

In several of the poems in this collection, the gaps are sometimes too wide for me, rendering the poems impenetrable. Perhaps there were allusions that I didn’t recognise or my brain couldn’t move fast enough. Bly goes on to say:

Thought of in terms of language, then, leaping is the ability to associate fast. In a great ancient or modern poem, the considerable distance between the associations, the distance the spark has to leap, gives the lines their bottomless feeling, their space, and the speed of the association increases the excitement of the poetry.

Other poems, with time, yielded meaning. “Ekstasis”, for example, conjures in cascades of images the experience of different kinds of music, the sound of the words as important as the images themselves, such as “Acoustical honey” and “Nine parrots come pecking at the foot of the porch stairs.”

As writers we struggle with finding the line between saying too much and saying too little. Certainly, as readers we want to do some of the work, not be spoonfed, but finding that line can be difficult. Trusted readers can help. I rely on my critique group to let me know when I haven’t provided enough information or am being too obvious.

To make it even harder, individual readers bring their own preferences and experience to a poem. I’ve participated in a poetry discussion group for several decades, enjoying the opportunity to explore in depth the work of a different poet every month. A side benefit has been hearing how others react. Tastes vary wildly. People interpret words, phrases, images differently. Their disparity has nothing to do with right or wrong, good or bad.

I found many of the poems in this collection difficult. When the juxtaposition of images worked for me, I experienced the excitement Bly describes. Always, I appreciate the vividness of her descriptions and am happy to immerse myself in the music of her words. I love, too, the way she tests the barriers, trying to surmount what holds us apart. As she says in “Sky Treasure”, our history is the “cry of so many hungers, / no boundary in between.”

What excites you in a poem?

Selected Poems II, 1976-1986, by Margaret Atwood

9780395454060_p0_v2_s550x406

I came to Atwood through her fiction, but it is her poetry that has come to mean the most to me. For me, her poems from this period expressed my own complicated mix of sorrow, pity, praise, and controlled rage.

As in her fiction, Atwood sometimes uses a female protagonist to shed new light on social issues. Most poems about the myth of Orpheus focus on his divine music and tragedy of his trip to the underworld to bring his wife Eurydice back to the realm of the living. However, Atwood’s “Orpheus (1)” gives us the voice of Eurydice who says, “the return/to time was not my choice.” She speaks of his “old leash . . . love you might call it” and says:

Before your eyes you held steady
the image of what you wanted
me to become: living again.
It was this hope of yours that kept me following.

In these few lines, Atwood captures the frustration of women wanting to be seen for themselves, not something to be molded to their husband’s fantasy, along with the patient kindness, the desire to spare him hurt that keeps us silent.

Myths and fairy tales are subtexts in many of these poems. In “Variation On The Word Sleep”, she alludes to several fairy tales, including one of my favorites: The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands . . .

Atwood’s Canadian identity has informed much of her critical work, including her landmark book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. Published in 1972, it makes a case that Canadian literature reflects a unique national identity, one derived from the harsh conditions in the frozen north and the clear-eyed accounts by early pioneers trying to survive in the wilderness. This somber theme works its way through many of the poems in this collection, sometimes emerging in strong, unpretty images. In “Flying Inside Your Own Body”, for example, she describes

Waking, your heart is a shaken fist,
a fine dust clogs the air you breathe in;
the sun’s a hot copper weight pressing straight
down on the thick pink rind of your skull.

That sense of the landscape as something hostile is tempered by her ecological awareness and sometimes difficult love for the things of this world. In “Marsh, Hawk” she describes a swamp and “a mass grave” of detritus—rotten trees, old tires, bottles and cans—that “spreads on the / land like a bruise.” But the poem takes a left turn in the middle, as so many of Atwood’s poems do, as the speaker wants the marsh rushes / to bend aside, the water / to accept us”, to become one with the complicated beauty of the physical world.

In much of her writing, Atwood draws inspiration from historical figures, particularly Canadian ones, such as Susanna Moody. Some of the poems in this collection seem to draw on this awareness. Sometimes she seems to be speaking for those who came before us.

In Negotiating with the Dead, a collection of her Empson lectures, she says, “Not just some, but all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and fascination with mortality – by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead.”

What themes or preoccupations do you see in one of your favorite writers?