I’ve not read Bluets, but The Argonauts did feel like a game-changer, partly because of its subject matter, and partly because it brought to light a tendency in recent non-fiction writing to ignore generic and formal boundaries, producing something that feels entirely new in the process (I’ve covered this ground pretty comprehensively in my stalled exchange with James, so won’t go over the same material here). Not sure how relevant it is, but there’s an excellent titbit about compositional methods from the Wave collection, where Maggie Nelson explains to Wayne Kostenbaum about how she writes poems on scraps of paper and napkins, and then carries the collated material around with her wherever she goes. It’s a fractured method of writing - something she contrasts with the more conventional procedures she applies to prose - which I can appreciate, and it’s precisely these little nuggets of writerly practice that make interviews with poets and their ilk so useful - it’s so much more valuable than the pseudo-scholarly gossip that often underpins literary biographies.
Claudia Rankine, too, has been a key part of my reading: both she and Nelson seem to have found a way to reinvigorate socially engaged writing in a way that combines the personal and the political, and feels immediately accessible for a general reader without sacrificing either formal invention or their innate radicalism. But they also feel strangely unrepeatable: both The Argonauts and Citizen will undoubtedly be incredibly influential, though not necessarily in terms of form or even theme, but rather as goads for the rest of us, on either side of the pond, to radically up our collective game. (Another nugget from the What is Poetry: Ted Greenwald - who’s in the reading jumble, too - bemoaning the decline in *creative* competition in poetry, the sense that we might be driven to greater compositional heights by the output of our peers and friends: jealousy as the great begetter. Think of Brian Wilson making Pet Sounds after hearing Revolver, and McCartney returning the complement with Sgt Pepper. I’m sure there are more literary examples I could have leant towards, but that’s always the analogy that’s at the forefront of my brain.)
Gratifyingly, Michael O’Brien’s work turned out to be as exciting as I’d hoped. Not sure why the hell I’ve not been reading him for years, to be honest; it feels like an irredeemable oversight on my part. Still, I’m glad to have discovered his work now, even if it is a little late in the day. I feel like he’s just the tip of an iceberg of poets with long and respected careers who’ve somehow, for whatever reason, managed to slip through the cracks of critical attention (or mine, at least). My mission for the next few months is to try and plug a few of those gaps: the world is absolutely stuffed with exciting work, both old and new; you just have to keep reading without jaded eyes.
In an entirely unrelated note, tell me about Motorman.
Well now, I wholeheartedly second everything you say about Nelson and Rankine, and glad for the extra bits I didn’t know about Maggie’s process. I’ll let that rest and move on because I’ve been thinking about anti-novels lately, or anti-narratives. And your query about Motorman sparks a few thoughts.
Do you know about Tin House magazine’s ‘Lost and Found’ section? The list is, fortunately, online, although the articles themselves are subscription-only. (And at time of writing their store is undergoing maintenance so I can’t see much more.) Anyway, I very much like the outcome of a ‘reclaimed from the heaps’ reading list, although the principle itself is somewhat, I dunno, distressing/frustrating? It’s obviously subjective: I’d hardly put Lessing and Henry Green, or Dodi Smith on those lists, but you can’t tell when these pieces were written from the list. There’s certainly some interesting stuff on there, regardless - it looks like a better ‘hit’ than ‘miss’ approach for me. (It is, I should add, exclusively prose, to the best of my knowledge).
At the same time, it leans toward American and ‘literary’ more than my tastes in recent years. If I had to draw up my own list of lost and founds, it might read with a mix of difficult and delightful, but all, to me, perspective game-changers in terms of what a novel can do (yes, OK, if I were being blunt they’re books that accept the whole ‘Joycean moment’):
David Ohle Motorman (originally loaned, then gifted, by Andrew Bailey, total legend that he is)
Ann Quin Berg
JG Ballard The Atrocity Exhibition
Kenneth Gangemi Olt
David Thomas The White Hotel
Renee Gladman The Activist
Robin Blaser The Holy Forest
Ursula Le Guin The Dispossessed
Flann O’Brien The Third Policeman
Boris Vian Heartsnatcher
I’m sure there are others I’ve forgotten for now and would need to hunt through shelves to recover. I can’t describe any of these as ‘perfect’ books but they definitely stuck with me in ways that other books haven’t. And by ‘stuck’ I mean they left an emotional smear across my otherwise numb and vacuous heart/soul echo chamber, like the remains of a vampire’s supper entrailed across a crypt floor.
Against these there’s a stack of less successful experimental novels:
Frederick Rolfe Hadrian VII
Juan Filloy Op Oloop
And what am I doing? I actually was on the verge of trawling through shelves to remind myself of all the bad writing out there and then I thought: list-making is a mug’s game. Some books work better than others, but this division into ‘successful/unsuccessful’ or ‘good/bad’ is kind of pointless. I’ve been spending too much time on the internet. Bump those two up into the top category and add the proviso there are dozens more. Yes, your point is spot on: “the world is absolutely stuffed with exciting work”.
So, I’ll do what I was semi-avoiding and offer up a quick precis of why Ohle’s Motorman moved me so much: I can’t honestly say what it is ‘about’ but it is laced with a passion for life and survival in ways few books seem capable of celebrating. The protagonist, whose name I’ve forgotten, has several minor hearts and a few major hearts. He sounds semi-robotic. He drives about, escapes the State, seems to be some kind of retarded expression of a free-wheelin’ sixties independent spirit operating in an early Thatcherite/Reagan-esque or even McCarthyan, ‘This World has Moved On’ authoritarian regime, which expresses itself benignly through doctors and malignantly through a kind of militarised police force.
And our hero has to basically chase down his old mentor - who was a state doctor type, possibly, but has since gone rogue - before too many of his hearts pack up and cause his main heart(s) to go into arrest. Or something like that. It’s urgent, you care for him. It’s written in bursts of poetic prose, almost like diary entries, each one barely contingent on those around to start with, but the narrative grows through fragments into a coherent dissonance.
You follow his urge to write love letters to a woman you’re never quite sure exists, but he’s madly in love with. You follow his quest through various deranged biomes and territories, his encounters with madnesses in the swamps and mists, weird episodes which seem hostile at first, turn into safety, etc. It’s that movement between safety and danger, and the continuous urgency of having to keep moving, chasing, to survive, wrapped up in the bizarre love story underwriting it, which may or may not be a false hallucination/implanted memory. I mean, I’m cobbling it all together, it was so weird I had to half-guess what was going on with it.
At the same time, it’s so joyfully written, so open-minded and clean to read. And funny and emotive: the prose is a beating heart, it bleeds energy and feeling. I haven’t read another book like like that, which also managed to catch me on the first page.
A lot of gushing and I’ve done all that without even checking the contents of the book again. The memory of reading it sits like a hazy-shaped ball of happygoo inside me somewhere. That’s the stuff I crave these days.
And to be honest, I haven’t had that feeling from poetry for quite a while. Maybe I had a slight tang/buzz off Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and maybe I’m forgetting other stuff...
But yes: quite, quite too long. Any recommendations along those somewhat indefinite lines?
The short answer: no, never. The nails in the coffin - Part 4 - tomorrow.