spring… and all

spring and allI read William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All twice through, back to back. Due to my travel boredom, yes, but also because it’s a crazy little book, and requires another go asap. It did for me, at least. I was frazzled and travel weary, my focus wasn’t all there – a great mindset for a mindfuck. This delivers.

It’s a treatise on intellect, creativity, and the boundaries (if there are any) between poetry and prose. While he argues that there are indeed delineations, the book itself argues that there aren’t. WCW writes in deliberately imperfect prose, assigning random chapter numbers and using large breaks between paragraphs so it would seem that each must stand on its own. He leaves off mid sentence, and makes you finish thoughts. He forces you to think, goddamnit. I could picture him cackling with glee as he pushed out another sentence spoken with logical and intellectual assuredness, complete with typos that may or may not have been intentional. And I thought, ‘you’re an asshole, William Carlos Williams’ and laughed, too.

The poem that gets all the attention is XXII, known as The Red Wheelbarrow. But my favourite is XXI (illogically preceding in the right order) that goes,

one day in Paradise
a Gipsy

smiled
to see the blandness

of the leaves  —
so many

so lascivious
and still

I don’t know what scholars have said about this poem or this book, perhaps it should be obvious that it doesn’t matter. He’s set up a playground that will make some readers giggle as they wind and dart through the words, that will cause fierce playground spitfights, knock a few readers on their asses because they didn’t see the swing coming back at them, and make some violently ill with the spin.

I was always a playground bystander, unwilling to jump into the fray, so I think the Gipsy is Williams, the Paradise is a false one, and the amusing blandness of the leaves – sheathes and sheathes of tomes of leaves – are overwrought attempts at Great Prose or Great Poetry. And still….

Still, every once in awhile, someone manages to knock out something unique, in spite of themselves. Do I wish I was that someone? Oh yes. But I read stuff like this, and I know that I’m …still on the edge of the playground. I might stay here forever. At least the kids vomiting up their lunch are out there taking it on.

book recommendation: beverley nichols’ home & garden series

down the garden pathYou might be wondering why I would recommend a series of gentle home and garden books recounting an English gentleman’s town and country lifestyle. Beginning in the 1930s and moving onward at a slow pace, at first glance, Beverley Nichols’ books might not seem to have much to offer modern day readers.

The setting and pace of the books might be gentle, but the author is far from gentile when recounting his experiences with nosy neighbours, female gardeners, and lazy servants. And yet, he remains likeable. Much of that is due to his humour, and he also wins points for relating several useful tips, such as the best methods for transporting and arranging flowers, and how to find out if your neighbour has cheated and bought plants in pots rather than growing them from seed.

Nichols is one of those lovable aristocratic types. He often doesn’t even seem to realize when he’s being a dick, or is gleeful in his calculated dickish behaviour. He also has that talent of the clever and privileged for talking openly about his personal life while neither hiding nor revealing the details. It’s not difficult to figure out that he slept with more than one of his frequent male houseguests, for instance. From what I gather, Nichols was quite the wild one, with a penchant for rough trade; easily believable from what we see of his rakish personality.

I haven’t yet read his entire home and garden series (there are 11 in all), and I think I’ve lost the correct order, but I haven’t found that it matters a whole lot. The books stand well on their own. Nichols was prolific, authoring several other books, novels, and plays. He must’ve been fun to hang out with, and he had several well-known friends and enemies. Bratty, intelligent, and very human, his narrative books make for good bedtime reading – stuff that lulls you to sleep with a few laughs, and visions of thatched roof cottages and winter flowers dancing in your head.

book recommendation: the world of jeeves

Everyone has a blue day once in awhile. When nothing goes right, when your boss or boyfriend or barista was a shit to you FOR NO GOOD REASON (or maybe with slight reason, but even if you deserved it, you were probably cranky to begin with) or when you have a cold and your head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton – you need cheering up. On days like that, it’s best to retreat to your bedroom or couch with a blanket, something warming to drink whether it’s tea, hot chocolate or a glass of wine, and this book.

The World of Jeeves is filled with wonderful short stories featuring P.G. Wodehouse’s characters of Bertie Wooster – a wealthy bubbleheaded and cheery good soul who constantly finds himself in a spot or two of trouble, and Jeeves, his impeccable manservant who always gets Bertie out of those same spots. The setting is 1930ish London and outlying country houses, and the world is one in which the worst problems of life involve extracting one’s self from an unfortunate engagement – something Bertie often finds himself whiplashed into.

Wodehouse’s writing is fun to read. Not only is he hilarious, he’s also damn clever and plays with the English language like few can:

“Lady Malvern was a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it had been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season.”

“I mean to say, for years, right back to the time when I first went to school, this bulging relative has been one of the recognised eyesores of London. He was fat then, and day by day in every way has been getting fatter ever since, till now tailors measure him just for the sake of the exercise. He is what they call a prominent London clubman – one of those birds in tight morning-coats and grey toppers whom you see toddling along St. James’s Street on fine afternoons, puffing a bit as they make the grade. Slip a ferret into any good club between Piccadilly and Pall Mall, and you would start half a dozen Uncle Georges.”

You can’t help but smile when reading things like that. This is a perfectly gentle introduction to

hugh laurie and stephen fry

Wodehouse, especially for those in need of pampering. Read just one story, or as many as it takes to pull out of the doldrums. Stephen Fry, who portrayed Jeeves in the series, “Jeeves and Wooster” along with old friend and comedy partner Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster, named Wodehouse’s stories as those he turns to when in need of a quick buck-u-uppo, as Wodehouse would say.

Oh and by-the-by, if you can lay your hands on it, watch Stephen Fry’s Planet Word. It’s a five part series on language – how it developed, how we learn to speak and how language evolves, and the wonderful – and sometimes sinister – ways in which it is used. Those in the U.S. might have trouble finding it in playable form as it’s a BBC series, but it’s well worth the hunt. If you are linguistically inclined, or even if you couldn’t give a rat’s ass but enjoy a well-told story and a laugh or two, give it a go.

book recommendation: death in venice

It takes few words to achieve greatness. There are two novella-length books that are so grand in content, the resulting response consists of volumes and volumes of discussion and contemplation. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is one; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is the other.

Death in Venice is written in beautiful prose – I wish I could read it in the original German to fully appreciate the subtleties, but from what I’ve heard, the English translation by Clayton Koelb most closely follows the style and intentions of Mann. It’s the edition I have, and I’m very happy with it. There are also lots of useful footnotes that help to clarify the significance of the setting, the time period, etc.

Now, before I potentially scare anyone off with words like ‘footnotes’, I want to reiterate that this is a shorty – 63 pages, is all. The rest of the book contains discussions, and explanatory texts and maps. They aren’t necessary to the story, but if your interest is piqued – and I’m willing to bet it on it – they offer some interesting insights.

This is the story of Gustav von Aschenbach, a writer who has strained his literary muscles and is in need of a break. He goes to Venice to stay at a “resort” hotel for a period of time. The date we’re given is 19__, but the book was published in 1912 and contains some historical facts from 1911, so it’s no big secret as to when it takes place. Gustav is 50ish, and feeling unwell. He spends a lot of time sitting in the hotel common rooms and on the beach, people watching. He becomes fascinated with a 13-14 year old boy, who is staying at the hotel with his family.

Tadizo is a beautiful boy, so perfect that Gustav likens him to Narcissus. He seems to live for his next glimpse of Tadizo, and even admits to himself that he’s in love with him. Many critics and readers have labeled this as pedophilia. Gustav never acts on his adoration, but some find his attraction unsettling. I say: not so fast.

I am giving my interpretation here, it may not match with some critics and scholars, but I think to slap Gustav with the Scarlet P is too quick a reaction. There’s much more intricacy to his attraction. The comparison with Narcissus is just one of the references to Greek myth and gods made throughout the book. In my opinion, what he’s experiencing is mythological in its remote and beautiful, unattainable nature. He’s not truly expecting to possess Tadizo, nor do I think he wants to.

There are some things so beautiful, so revered, that they’re impossible to possess without ruination. We’re a tactile lot, we see something pretty or interesting and our immediate impulse is to put our hands all over it. But what we’re driven to do and what we’d really act on, given the chance, are two different things.

When I saw my first Van Gogh up close and personal, after I (nearly) pissed myself, I wanted to get as close as I possibly could to study it. The knife slaps of thick paint are evident even in photographs; in person, they stand out in relief, very nearly like all those beautiful marble and stone Greek gods chiseled into temple walls. Tactile. Now, I did set off the alarm, but that’s because I leaned too far over the acceptable barrier. Yes, I went too far; but never, never would I touch it. I couldn’t live with the guilt and shame of putting my stain on even one little peak, and ruining an imperceptible and nearly unmeasurable speck of paint. But it would be there, a blot on his work, and if everyone succumbed to this impulse, soon it would be ruined.

People are like that as well. Say the wrong thing to a child, intentional or not, and we mark them for the rest of their lives. Force them into certain directions and mindsets, touch them in ways no living creature should be touched, and we could break them irreparably. I think Gustav is aware of this. Tadizo is a work of art, something to be admired, worshiped, dreamed about, but never touched.

There’s also the conditions Gustav finds himself in. He’s an older man – physically and mentally much older than a man of 50 is now – and unwell. There’s a cholera epidemic in Venice, people are dying. He feels his mortality. Tadizo is youth and beauty and fresh potential – everything Gustav has lost and is gradually losing permanently, even as memories. Tadizo is a god, a mythological creature. Gustav’s love for him is a brief escape from reality, his lifeline.

Death in Venice is beautiful in every sense of the word. There’s nothing shameful here, nothing unsavory happening. It’s primal nature and survival and mythos and the drive to attain the unattainable. Take it into your hands and enjoy the experience.

book recommendation: homosex: 60 years of gay erotica

I really love this book – it was my first foray into reading gay erotica, specifically chosen because I wanted a general overview of erotic writing throughout a period of time. Edited by Simon Sheppard, This anthology gives the perfect taste, beginning with a wartime conquest so exciting, exclamation points are employed with abandon!

It provides a little slice of the history of gay erotica, with commentary at the beginning of each story that notes what was happing in society and gay culture at that time, and many pieces reflect important strides in gay themed literature, the beginnings of sub cultures such as leather, and confrontation of the era of the AIDS epidemic.

There are interesting revelations about the restrictions put on publishing gay themed literature and how these were circumnavigated. The first story, Navy Daze, was published in 1945 in Tijuana in mimeograph form. Erotic stories were later published under the guise of pseudoscientific analyses of “deviant behavior.” The Anal Compulsion in Homosexuality, published in 1968 – interestingly enough after those constraints were lifted, is a great example of a writing style featuring clinical descriptions of acts followed by “case studies” – personalized accounts of engaging in these acts. Way to put it out there, you clever boys!

My favorite story, Winter Count written in 2005 by Trebor Healey, features body art as communication of painful things, beautiful things, personal struggles and victories, and deep love. Not so much an erotic tale, it’s more a story of overstepping the labels we put on ourselves and each other, and getting to the heart of the matter: compassion, devotion, and the ability to rise to the most difficult challenges in life with subtle grace.

In all, there are 24 stories that not only stimulate the senses, but also the mind. It’s wonderful to read these works and marvel at the tenacity and ingenuity of the writers who brought these stories to an audience far too long deprived of stories reflecting their lives, their dreams and desires, their struggles and triumphs. Makes me proud to carry on the tradition.