A curated literary guide

Week #21 / 22nd – 28th May, 2017

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Sunday Review: Pond

a poetry collection from Claire-Louise Bennett

[ Fitzcarraldo Editions / 2015 / 184 pp ]

The musings and memories of an unnamed woman make up the 20 stories in Pond: a series of interconnected narratives, fixed in time and place (2013, an Irish cottage on the Western coast). Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut short story collection is extraordinary because of what she manages to do in such a presumably mundane, restricted space, without using any traditional plot devices.

Read the first couple of lines and you’re strung along, feverish. Each sentence fissures the ordinary way you look at things, by immersing you in the gaze of a rather eccentric, solitary narrator: objects that are usually taken for granted become alien, to be apprehended again and again, in different ways. This is the gaze of wonder (émerveillement) according to Luce Irigaray, and it’s a useful way of getting to grips with the book.

Bennett’s narrator is an Olympic all-star in linguistic calisthenics, creating wonder through heightened, gorgeous imagery: grass after the rain looks like a ‘squandered chandelier dashing headlong down the hillside’. Benign object arrangements, which are usually just ways of setting a scene, unleash the full sensuous force of Bennett’s prose—every detail adds a layer to experience: ‘they are very nice to eat, oranges, when you’ve been having sex for ages. They cut through the fug and smell very organized, and so a sort of structure resumes’. This kind of acuity, though hilarious at times, is never ridiculous: Bennett brilliantly manages to convey those dim feelings which stay illiterate in our own selves, through the narrator’s grounded, almost august, Austenian prose.

It’s not just the descriptions of things that change, however: Pond is also a book about the way we approach ‘description’—hence, I think, the reason for the title. Bennett rejects structuralism, as does her character: she rants against the ‘Pond’ signpost firstly because of its incorrect use as a word (it’s more like a large, shallow puddle), and secondly—more importantly—because naming is for ‘moronic busybodies’ anyway. Naming prevents the emergence of another kind of language, ‘the earth’s embedded logos’ which enables one to ‘experience the enriching joy of moving about in deep and direct accordance with things’ (she never descends into facile nature worship, by the way, to the author’s credit). This deep, non-linguistic state is probably what she refers to as her ‘first language’ that ‘simmer[s] in the elastic gloom betwixt my flickering organs’; there is a moment when she reaches this, tapping into a J.H. Prynne-like mood: ‘None wzm wzm on that here piss crater. And it being the day, still considered’. For a book so concerned with language, it’s almost necessary that the theme of human relations would crop up at some point, too. You’ve got a bit of Wittgenstein’s private language argument going on, when she tries to come to grips with the fact that an exact shared experience is difficult, if not impossible: ‘to establish by empirical increments a shared perspective was a rare thing’. In this, Pond shares some similarities with David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress.

Pond takes the stuffiness of a philosophy textbook and transforms it into lived experience; it demands a re-reading, and is remarkably accomplished for a debut. I still don’t know how the narrator manages to pay rent, given that she’s an ex-academic and doesn’t seem to work, but that honestly isn’t important at all.

Visit Fitzcarraldo Editions to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie

Five Things with Dorothea Lasky

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Looking at an orange glass vase being hit by the sunshine outside and observing the fractured shades of yellow and red. Although that wasn’t maybe the kind of smile you meant. Before that, it was last night, watching a skit from the Key and Peele show called ‘Continental Breakfast.’

2. A secret.

My secret is that I would never tell a secret this way. Or more so, my mood today is to keep all things hidden.

3. The last thing you wrote.

I just made final revisions on my latest book of poems, which is coming out next spring.

4. Favourite city.

Los Angeles. But there are so many places I’d like to travel to, so this could change someday.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

As many of my teeth as I could spare. A long love letter to a person of the future. A list of things I imagine would be happening when they open it up. A spell for peace.

Dorothea Lasky is the author of five books of poetry, the forthcoming Milk (Wave Books), as well as ROME (W.W. Norton/Liveright). She is the co-editor of Open the Door: How to Excite Young People About Poetry (McSweeney’s) and several chapbooks, including Poetry is Not a Project (Ugly Duckling Presse). Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of Poetry at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, co-directs Columbia Artist/Teachers, and lives in New York City.

Interlude: Thinking with images

cover design from Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday

As a designer (and editor) I’ve always loved to read process stories. Which is why, when I recently stumbled upon Peter Mendelsund and Oliver Munday’s blog for their work on HMH’s most recent Italo Calvino covers, I was delighted.

Through the pages you can discern a love for the source material, a contract forming between Calvino and the designers. In ‘Calvino Book Club’ Munday discusses his and Mendelsund’s love for Calvino’s writing: “I eagerly followed Calvino’s every turn, spinning and scrambling into his various worlds. However fantastical, I found Calvino’s work is deeply moving.” This fascination shows how, when a designer truly appreciates the source material, they can more effectively produce clarifying work—benefitting from the sheer thrill of being able to create something visually tangible from a writer’s words.

Earlier, in the ‘Process. 2.’ post, you can see the creative process—though streamlined—trailing down the page. The happenstance of playing with text and images, the chance of creation imbued in playful experimentation. For anyone who cares about covers, or the relationship between designers and writers, this small glimpse at the creative process is most definitely worth your time.

Visit ‘Thinking with images’ to see their work.

Art Director / Peter Barnfather

State Bird

a poem from Ada Limón

I went looking for Ada Limón. I was feeling rough-hewn and desiccated by the slide of spring into hot summer, by the rough edges of talk and politics. I wanted a poem like ‘State Bird’ where my own vague frustrations might find precise articulation and elegance. Where I could follow the tortured route of discomfit and discontent into an upswell of hope and tender human connection. It’s rough and we’re suffering, but we’re also together and worth-it-all. Ada Limón’s poem is what we need right now.

Visit The New Yorker to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby


a short story from Josie Turner

Familiar cats picked their way among the parking spaces, but there were no dogs. Dogs are for people who have settled down. Everyone in these flats was starting out, or on the move – they were restless, temporary residents, in flight or in hiding.

For today I have something unexpected and intricate. Not intricate in the way that small decorative things can be crammed full of detail and pattern, too dizzy to discern, but intricate in its decisiveness. The illustration of the ordinary with enough conviction and breath to make it real. There’s a unique balance between what is given to us, and what isn’t. Everything about the place, the view outside, even her radio listening habits. Everything, almost.

She wondered if there was a headboard in that mirror bedroom, and whether mildew accumulated in the corners of unaired rooms, as it did in hers.

What also stood out to me about this story was its pacing, a steady consistent stride forward. Or outward. Out the windows, into the streets. Slowly the world expands and then we see something strange, something out of the ordinary. Suddenly every hint and indication becomes something more. This is a story that’s always heading somewhere, until it’s not. Until it’s there.

Visit Noble / Gas Qtrly to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

Give Yourself to the Falling Sky

a lyric essay from Michael Schmeltzer

I could begin and end this little write up simply by providing this quote: “Writing is a near-constant state of failure.” The line is part of a short lyric essay by Michael Schmeltzer published in Proximity Magazine’s blog True. Bracketed by a fantastical scene from an anime and shot through with quotes, mostly from the incredible Li-Young Lee, the work is an earnest inquiry into creative process:

I tuck myself into every inch of the page. Unfold me into a sheet of a thousand creases. Imagine how many different ways those wrinkles can refold into a crane, a wolf, a father who cries and cries because his children are shatteringly beautiful. I have shoved myself against the rock and burned to ash. I am a majestic phoenix of failure.

This work gives me great heart; it gives me more words to help explain the unexplainable need to create poetry, to mirror the world I see or the world inside me and how those two are inseparable. Sometimes writing an essay about the creative process can’t be about craft practice, but rather an ode to creation itself. Schmeltzer titled his piece ‘Give Yourself to the Falling Sky,’ and really, what other title could there possibly be.

Visit Proximity Magazine to read the lyric essay.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Sexton Texts During the Polar Vortex

a poem from Airea D. Matthews

I love when poets create a form from the technology we currently have. To condense an image or moment to a text requires the voice to speak intentionally in a small space, but also allows for a sense of spillover. It’s not easily managed, but ‘Sexton Texts During the Polar Vortex’ really works to make condensed moments of familial discord sing, both in their singularity and their associations.

The mother wants to “taste the throbbing / veiny eels her crooked lovers forsook / drink from blind lakes of their leaving, / undo their digging.” These vivid notes on the mother’s desire are so heartbreaking. She doesn’t just want to go back to her lovers, but wants to undo their marks. Implied in the drinking of the “lakes of their leaving” is her being so filled to the brim that she won’t have this ache anymore. The speaker giving us her mother’s emotional interiority so easily speaks to the depth of their compassion. They can build whole scenes for us, knowing both what the mother does and why. Yet my favorite moment of the poem comes from inside the speaker: “how much silt I packed into the hole / no matter… / trenches never fill / never unslope / else they cease being / soldier’s shallow shelter.” To fall into the emotional trenches of connection with someone can create a symbiosis that’s both shelter and threat. But the speaker seems to know intrinsically that losing this closeness will mean losing it all. How can you pull back when your mother seems so close to floating away in her own unprocessed trauma already?

The grip on the mother feels so tenuous that it’s somewhat jarring to be introduced to the father after five whole texts, but it’s certainly memorable: “every day my father fell six / feet into a vat of tar.” The image is viscerally agonizing enough that the discussion of intentionality is really of little consequence. If you touched a doorknob and “steam rose / from the brass,” it would be alarming no matter how you sliced it. There’s a strong clarity of voice in addressing the trauma of seeing your father slowly kill himself in this way, yet the staggered lines and jumbled ordering of the five texts regarding him speaks to how this is being dragged out of the speaker, rather than freely given. The fourth text of the set is the last moment, and in it we’re given “back to tar streets.” This opens two main ideas for me. The streets will still exist even after the father is gone and the family will have to face them knowing this. I can also see his back lain over the streets instead of cushioned in a coffin, a bed, or any other comfortable place of rest. It is both a grounding moment of letting us know how the tar was used, but also a floating one because now we don’t know who’s making the turn (now that the context of three isn’t as linked). We only have the streets in their vast and spooky darkness, the “slick black” that lies under rock salt and pulls men under.

Visit Four Way Review to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse