Friday, October 18, 2013

What I've been reading

Not much fiction lately; I've started a few novels but they didn't hold my interest, not, I'm sure, through any fault of their own. I've been in a poetry/nonfiction mood, and here's what I've been visiting/revisiting:

Increment by Chris Tonelli

Chris is one of my best friends from graduate school; last weekend, I stayed with his family in North Carolina for the weekend, and one cloudy morning, feeling a little slow and stupid and stiff from travel and bad sleep, etc., lounging in the guest room while everyone did their thing,  I read this chapbook in its entirety. What a beautiful little book. I perceive a similar trajectory in Chris's poetry to my own: We both used to be more verbose, more prolific, not just in language but in feeling. Now I think there's evidence of writing as practice, versus writing as necessity. We're older, more settled, more content ... and the poetry now is more distilled, and more a form of philosophy than a series of bursts of emotion, masquerading as objective correlative. (Remember I like philosophy mixed up in my poetry.) These poems are spare, with plenty of white space (they look like this); each contains at least one thought that I find myself dwelling on, or in. Like this one, from "Souvenir": "Like stars, / like futures, new pasts are born. / The spread out / in both directions." Or, from "Murderer": "In the dark, / I am a father. / In the dark, / I am a murderer / not murdering." Jeremiah Gould, of Rye House Press, does the little author portraits on the back; isn't it great?

Culture of One by Alice Notley

This is billed as a "novel in poems," and sure, why not. (I like thinking of a novel as "a novel in paragraphs.") In terms of the characters and setting, this reminds me a little bit of one of my favorite novels, The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams: basically, WOMEN AND BAD SHIT IN THE DESERT. But I'm just reading it for the poetry, which is not exactly the same as reading it for the poems. Alice Notley is a genius, and Culture of One is a good reminder of how much you can do with a poem that just looks, superficially, like a poem. (See also Ashbery.) There's a kind of schizophrenia in them, a multiplicity of voices and fragmented reality. This is from "Overmodeled Skull":

I'm too bizarre to go to school again. I
want to be scary, that's all. So I can make it down the street. 
Your crotch still has power, with its tremendous frightening
slit—another mask. I don't have to
breathe or dream: not in this black void where I really am. 
I've grown very tall and large, and may not fit into the metro.
Are you battling some demons? Only you my sweet 
god I hate that vapid on exhibit form stuff. 
Scratch your cheeks and face the humorless circumstance
no one's delighted to see you; it's a soft world, full of murders
committed by one for others. I'm not in it—I'm not here.

See how it argues with itself?

The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene

You may know Brian Greene from a NOVA series he did based on his book The Elegant Universe. He's a big string theory guy but this book is basically about how every scientific framework we currently work with, not just string theory, leads to the same inevitable conclusion: There are probably parallel universes. I read pop science strictly to blow my mind and there's a lot of mindblow in here. For example, this passage on page 51:

The speed limit set by light refers solely to the motion of objects through space. But galaxies recede from one another not because they are traveling through space—galaxies don't have jet engines—but rather because space itself is swelling and the galaxies are being dragged along by the overall flow. And the thing is, relativity places no limits on how fast space can swell, so there is no limit on how fast galaxies that are being pushed apart by the swell recede from one another. The rate of recession between any two galaxies can exceed any speed, including the speed of light. 

Whoa! On a related note, there's a good explanation of the speed of light on this page, which I found in a link on a Reddit thread about facts that you accept intellectually but still seem wrong. The page is an "abridgement" of a book called From Science to God by Peter Russell; I find the conclusions semi-abhorrent but it's a fascinating read nonetheless. For example:
Kant argued that space and time are characteristics not of the noumenon, the underlying reality, but of the mind. Quantum theory reveals that the same is true of matter. Matter is not to be found in the underlying reality; atoms turn out to be 99.99999999% empty space, and sub-atomic "particles" dissolve into fuzzy waves. Matter and substance seem, like space and time, to be characteristics of the phenomenon of experience. They are the way in which the mind makes sense of the no-thing-ness of the noumenon.
Next up on my reading pile: Young Tambling by Kate Greenstreet.


  1. Amanda Smeltz via The Best American Poetry blog:

    “[The epistolary form] seems to me a way of curing an aspect of contemporary poetry I despise, which is this seedy brand of intellectual aloofness. It’s for prigs. You’re not a philosopher or a scientist, you’re a poet, and philosophers largely make shitty poets because they’re always trying to find an pseudo-scientific or Wittgensteinian stance. Be biased, have some personality. It’s human anyway, and your poems will be worlds more interesting.”


    1. I think the epistolary is one of the most overused modes in contemporary poetry. It's such a boring, easy way to start a poem. I do like Matt Hart though.

      Also, I see no contradiction between philosophy and bias/personality. I'm not even sure what she's getting at there.

  2. I find the science quotes here fascinating. I read science from time to time, especially really challenging stuff. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, in their book The Grand Design, also suggest that there's growing evidence for the existence of multiple universes. As I get it, any other universes -- if they do exist -- would by nature be entirely separate from all other universes, so we (or anyone in any of the other universes) would never have any contact with any universe other than our own. Though I'm a long way from being anything like an authority on this stuff.

    One fascinating science moment for me came when I was reading Hawking's A Brief History of Time -- which I've read only part of. At one point he talks about one of the arguments, or pieces of evidence, suggesting that the universe isn't infinite, i.e. that it had a finite beginning point. He talks about the number of known stars in the universe, and he points out that scientists have determined (more or less) the rate at which light is emitted from stars. According to Hawking, there are so many stars giving off so much light, that if the stars had been giving off light for an infinite amount of time, then there would be so much light in the universe by now that, in effect, the entire sky would be as bright as noon all the time. I'm summarizing and paraphrasing this clumsily; I found Hawking himself a bit clearer on this...

    What I've been reading, or rereading, the past week or two are Galway Kinnell's book of poems Body Rags; also The New Body, a book of poems by James Moore, published ca. 1974 by U. of Pittsburgh Press; and, somewhat off-and-on, Railtracks by John Berger and Anne Michaels, a prose book written as a kind of dialogue between Berger and Michaels, with some color photographs by Tereza Stehlikova.

    And, here and there among the other reading, for lighter relief I've been reading Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories -- I've read some in years back, and I was provoked to seek them out again after seeing the anemic TV show "Elementary" a few times.

    1. Yes, there are different versions of the parallel universe idea (which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive; there might be multiple versions in existence) but in all versions that I know of, the universes can't communicate with each other.

  3. What do you think the reason might be for not being interested in novels lately?

    1. I'm sort of distracted/depressed/stressed out by life circumstances, so I guess I just don't have the right attention span to concentrate on a novel right now. Probably I just haven't started the right novel. I think what I need right now is something really lit-trashy-campy like The Secret History or Special Topics in Calamity Physics.