Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wednesday Poetry: "Summer Storm in the Animal Graveyard," by Irene McKinney

Irene McKinney, a Professor Emerita at West Virginia Wesleyan College, is the author of five books of poetry. As a West Virginia native, McKinney often uses her poems to engage life in rural America, specifically in Appalachia. Her poems range in subject matter from the connections between people and the animals they raise to sexuality and womanhood.

The below poem is anthologized in Irene McKinney's collection Unthinkable: Selected Poems, 1976-2004, published by Red Hen Press. The poem first appeared in McKinney's 1976 poetry collection The Girl with the Stone in Her Lap.

"Summer Storm in the Animal Graveyard"

A shiver of violets runs over the ground,
the low branches of the Sour Russet dip and scrape.
Cows who died in labor, late apples pounding
the ground in the fall, piglets rolled on
in a wallowing grunt by the sow.

A wild rearing of the wind: it stands up and walks.
Dark scuds the sky, the quick touch of rain
over the bright level stretch of grass flattening.
A rumbling ache in the earth as
the storm breaks out, galloping.

The horse who died at the plow
fell to his knees after twenty years--
his legs must be cut off to fit him in the grave.
The limestone vein in the hill, loosened by rain,
replaced each cell and made him stone.

Flying home, hundreds of starlings killed
in the attic (their fluttering kept us awake at night)
bundled in a lumpy blanket into one large hole.
Now in the high wind, they speck the sky
like flecks of ash, twirling and rising.

Falling, the cool rain veers toward
the green line of the bitter hickories.
The sad sheep walk to death, so quiet,
like nothing was happening, and lie down.
The trees shift and settle after the storm.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Is New Literature Anything More than Repetition?

On 9 October, The New York Times published an op-ed by Maureen Dowd entitled "Lord of the Internet Rings," in which Dowd draws parallels between her experience of seeing Wagner's Ring Cycle for the first time and David Fincher's and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network. Dowd writes:
But as I watched the opera, my mind kept flashing to the "The Social Network," another dazzling drama about quarrels over riches, social hierarchy, envy, theft and the consequences of deceit. A Sony executive called "The Social Network," the David Fincher-Aaron Sorkin movie about Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his circle of ex-friends and partners, "the first really modern movie." Yet the strikingly similar themes in Wagner's feudal "Das Rheingold"--the Ring cycle is based on the medieval German epic poem "Das Nibelungenlied," which some experts say helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings"--underscore how little human drama changes through the ages.
Dowd's critique, twofold in nature, initially highlights a critique that, like a ceremonial canon blast of grapeshot, discharges and is heard around the world every time Hollywood releases a remake: There's nothing new in literature or film; everything has been done already.

On its surface, this may appear true. So how can a film like The Social Network--or any other piece of literature, written or visual or auditory--possibly do anything new? Remember, for starters, that I said Dowd's criticism was twofold. If one side is that there's nothing new, its inverse--the American seal on the back of the quarter, so to speak--is that mythic archetypes are easily recycled; though the narrative structures appear similar, the form is merely a tool we have to understand our world, its advances, and how those most human of emotions can interfere even in a postindustrial, tech-heavy society.

The mythic, then, isn't simply a myth; it's a way for us to reframe what's happening around us, today. T.S. Eliot, in writing his essay "Ulysses, Order and Myth" about James Joyce's Ulysses, praised what he termed the novel's "mythic method": Joyce took the allusions to Homer's Odyssey, and in a novel he employed the mythic figures, the epic narrative arc, and illuminated the unique characters and ideologies of Dublin, Ireland, as it existed on June 16, 1904.

I don't know about genre theory to say definitively (not that anybody can say something definitively when it comes to literature, though they'll try) that there are no new forms or structures extant in film, music, and literature today. But even if there aren't, even if history seems easily categorized by these same forms and structures, there will always be new characters, new psychologies, new circumstances.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Lapsed Time, Elapsed Memories

The novella 03 by French novelist Jean-Christophe Valtat--now available in translation from Farrar, Straus and Giroux--packages the thoughts of a pretentious teenager, who studies a mentally-challenged girl every day on his way to school. In another form--the short story or the novel--this narrative might just as easily have presented us with several scenes in which the boy encounters the girl or is caught watching her.

But Valtat is not content to simply have his teenager narrate interactions with the girl. The novella becomes a study in immediate reactions, informed through past experiences. The action of watching the girl transfers us from the curbside to the boy's memories, and an accordion shudder of reflections and recollections fold, unfold, and collapse: He recalls his own observations of adult sexuality, of interpersonal relationships, of solitude, of his own intellectual development and precociousness. (And it's little surprise that his cultural references range from Joy Division lyrics to Flowers for Algernon--an attempt to show that he belongs somewhere.)

Valtat displays a hallmark of the novella form: this compression of time and memory. Though only a quick glance passes in the narrative, memories elapse and take form. But it's not only the narrator's story that expands; he wonders as to what the girl's life is like, how it has effected her parents, how their entire life's narrative can exist in this single and singular glimpse. How do they live with their daughter in an institution? The narrator ponders:
When her mother and father were suddenly left alone, their daughter entrusted to some sort of institution, what was it like between them: Did they hold back sighs of relief, secretly wishing their time to themselves could last longer, or did they feel a yearning for her half-empty presence, this slender pail of the Danaids into which they poured all their attention, including the attention they had promised each other before, and had given up a luxury? Now they were parents of this rough muddled draft of a child: Was there between them the shadow of blame or else were they, in the English phrase, thick as thieves, united against the injustice for which they could never be held responsible (but then who could)?
Of course, all good fiction explores the inner psychology of its characters. Here, though, Valtat displays something the novella does particularly deftly: We move from the narrator's reflections, which collapse into this reflection, which in turn--like some particle exploding in a nuclear reaction--generates an expansive study of the story behind the story. Who is this girl? Where does she come from? And what is the life of which she's a part?

This trademark of the novella--this dimensionally transcendental quality in which a second can linger for pages, in which a moment can open into a more expansive narrative--offers us opportunities to perform our own literary explorations.