Friday, November 30, 2018

Rain and rhyme

We sure needed the stuff...

The Cycle
Theodore Roethke (1941)

Dark water, underground,
Beneath the rock and clay,
Beneath the roots of trees,
Moved into common day,
Rose from a mossy mound
In mist that sun could seize.

The fine rain coiled in a cloud
Turned by revolving air
Far from that colder source
Where elements cohere
Dense in the central stone.
The air grew loose and loud.

Then, with diminished force,
The full rain fell straight down,
Tunneled with lapsing sound
Under even the rock-shut ground,
Under a river’s source,
Under primeval stone.

Saturday, November 24, 2018


Dorothy B. Hughes, In a Lonely Place
Tana French, The Witch Elm

Both novels feature a troubled young male protagonist and murder(s) by the same technique. Both explore the terrain of "toxic masculinity." Hughes's book, first published in 1947, is one of the best noir crime novels I have read. It is even better than her 1963 The Expendable Man, and that's saying something. Whereas Tana French's latest is, in my view, her weakest novel yet, rave reviews notwithstanding. But if you are a fan– as I am– you will probably read it anyway, so I'll try to avoid any spoilers.

In The Witch Elm, as is standard in a French thriller, a messy Irish family and deep psychological trauma form the backdrop for murder and nastiness. As usual, the past is never dead– it's not even past. The novel has its gripping moments, but I found the writing more ham-handed than her norm, and the first-person protagonist psychologically unconvincing. Big themes about luck and fate are at play here, including moral luck, whether we make our own luck, and so forth. But this is not Dostoevsky, this is a crime novel! And the ultimate crime: just when it feels like we should have entered the denouement, French drops a farfetched plot element and drags the whole thing out for another hundred pages or so.

Dorothy B. Hughes, a deadly efficient writer, would have written The Witch Elm in about half the pages. It was interesting but hardly surprising to learn from Wikipedia that Hughes's first published book was a book of poetry; her terse prose has a music to it, though it never resorts to the pretentious "hard-boiled" noir style.
Once he’d had happiness but for so brief a time; happiness was made of quicksilver, it ran out of your hand like quicksilver. There was the heat of tears suddenly in his eyes and he shook his head angrily. He would not think about it, he would never think of that again. It was long ago in an ancient past. To hell with happiness. More important was excitement and power and the hot stir of lust. Those made you forget. They made happiness a pink marshmallow.
In these few short sentences you learn nearly as much about the twisted psyche of Dix Steele as you do about Toby Hennessy in Tana French's entire book. Send a few dollars NYRB's way and get the beautiful print edition of In a Lonely Place with Megan Abbott's insightful afterword about Hughes, noir, and masculinity. It fits comfortably in your hands, which is where it will likely stay until you have finished it.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The End of the Great War, 100 Years Ago Today

Dulce et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Sonny Fortune, RIP

I don't suppose he'll be best remembered for this album, but slide it on over to minute 8:00 or so and enjoy Sonny and the band.* Then stay on while the star of the show, Pete Cosey, truly and completely shreds it. Jazz that rocked like nothing before or since. Sonny was a part of that, and much more.

* Better, find it on Spotify and play it through some good speakers or headphones, loud, without commercial interruption...