Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Jury's Out: Steve Gehrke is Brilliant

After a phone call to the disgruntled office of the Poetry Foundation, I finally got my July/August issue in the mail. I swear, the woman who runs the phones at that place has a beehive hairdo and butterfly glasses. She probably chainsmokes. She is not helpful at all (I've had to call a couple times), but I can deal with her if I think of her as being a poetic Marge Simpson or something.

Anyway, I'm not all the way through with it, being a slow reader, but let me put in a little plug for Poetry: if you don't subscribe, you should. It's a fantastic publication. It has something for everyone in almost every issue. Also the layout is fantastic, so even if you didn't think you liked modern poetry, the pure splendor of typface and expansive margins will spell love for you.

If you read nothing else, I'm going to put in my vote with Betsy and say that Steve Gehrke's "The New Self" is totally a must-read. It's phenomenal, and don't let its length put you off: the work's cadence and rhyme pulls you along the ripples in the spring rush of a river. You'll find yourself tapping your foot like a swimmer's strokes.

The poem's musicality--never overwhelming--belies its anguish. I won't tell you what it's about; that would spoil the fun, but this is introspection at it's best. (Speaking of introspection, have you read Wislawa Szymborska's "In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself"? I'll paste it at the end of this. Consider this a teaser to get you to read the whole post.) The poem is about guilt, or as my pal Jung might say (I've been reading a lot of him this summer) "being at variance with oneself." Introspection easily implodes into self-pity, and the brilliance of this poem is the way Gehrke unmasks the games of blame and self-victimization with which we try to absolve ourselves from responsibility for this strange other which is none other than us. "And it is funny, isn't it," he writes--and here the poem turns itself inside out and exposes itself, leading to its phenomenal second half,
the way that which starts as confession ends
     in blame, this constant search
for the marionettist of your brain, the ghost
     who stole the controls to your soul.
I read once that the key to a great poem is a great line, that most of the celebrated poems in history have that one razor sharp edge that cuts all the way to the end of brilliance into the sublime. Okay, so I'm not going to get carried away with myself--I'm trying, really--but I will say that this poem is stuffed with great lines which are both aweful in their insight and masterful in their language. He writes, "...the self / I am keeps evading the curses of the self / I meant to be...." Darn you, Steve Gehrke. Why couldn't I have written that? How dare you.

Betsy, I think the "jeweler's bluff" bit at the end is precisely about the ways in which Gehrke tries to use language--really excuses--to veil his own culpability, and the words reveal his bad faith. I have no idea what a "jeweler's bluff," is, though. I tried to Google it (a word, by the way, which somehow--again I say curse, you Steve--actually pulls off). No go. The internet failed me. Back to the point, Betsy, I think what he's doing here is basically what Tony Hoagland is saying in "There Is No Word" a few pages before: "how there are some holes [language] will not cover up; / how it will move, if not inside, then / around the circumference of almost anything", etc.

At any rate, I started to scan and try to get a handle on the rhym scheme (if there is a scheme) to delve deeper into analysis and whatnot, and then I realized I'm not in college any more and I just sat back and read the thing again. I humbly suggest you, dear reader, do the same. I don't think you'll regret it.

P.S. I know some of you are also subscribers to Poetry. Can we please get a conversation about this going? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself

 by Wislawa Szymborska

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.
A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?
Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Discovering Hungarian Literature in the Car Garage

I didn't sleep at all Friday night. I pretend that I'm really chill and that nothing bothers me, but really I'm a total stress ball (I know, I had you all fooled). Saturday, of course, I was going into Christiansburg to buy my car, and seeing as I find buying deodorant at Walmart completely overwhelming (so many varieties! I've actually just given up wearing it. Don't judge: I live on an organic farm.), the prospect of forking over more cash than I'd ever held in my life for a complex machine which I a) do not understand all and b) would cradle my life in the palm of its pleather seats, terrified me.

I woke up every hour on the half hour and finally gave up on the whole project of sleep.

After killing time by strolling uneasily around for 40 minutes after Mary Ellen (the apprentice at the meat farm next door who was on her way to the Blacksburg farmer's market) dropped me off, I finally ambled into Gabor's Import Auto Garage at 8am as we had arranged on a gray and humid morning. It's an old place, the paint is peeling a little and a number of cars in varying degree of repair, most of them Toyotas, settle in front in a kind of slightly disheveled order.

Backstory: a week and a half before, I had had Polly put a little ad in the note that goes out with the CSA bags with the news that I was looking for some cheap, reliable wheels. Kati Agostin answered my call. She and her husband Gabor, Polly told me, had eloped from Hungary in their mad youth and settled down in, of all places, Blacksburg and opened a car garage. They never left almost literally. Before their children became quite the intrepid explorers (the eldest son spend a couple tours doing drudge work for scientists in Antarctica and their youngest went to Humboldt State. Yes, that Humboldt. It's a small world, kids.), they apparently never strayed outside the bounds of south western Virginia.

Kati told me that they were selling their '99 Camry, and next thing I knew I had jetted over to Christiansburg to check the thing out. That was last Tuesday.

So news for those who don't know me: I'm not very, um, smooth in social situations. I lack a certain grace and panache at the best of times, and if you throw business into the mix, well, I fall basically apart. Which is to say when I showed up at the garage, pretending (badly) to know something about cars, I basically did everything except trip over my own feet.

Gabor did little to put me at ease. He's that kind of Eastern European stoic you see in the movies. A man of few words, he had given me terse answers in response to my questions over the phone, and when I drove up with Mary Ellen that first afternoon, he all but ignored me as he muttered to a man about a Volkswagen he had jacked up inside. He basically tossed me the keys and off I went to take the baby for a spin.

Chalk it up to either womanly intuition or lucky wishful thinking, but it was pretty clear to me as I wizzed down the interstate with the radio turned up that this car was a good buy. The stereo worked beautifully, it had a CD player, air-conditioning, and it didn't look too bad either. Kelly Blue Book listed it at $4,000ish, I think.

I offered him $2,200, three hundred less than the already-low price he was asking. He kind of gave me a shrewd look, shook his wiry gray head, and strolled away.

Had I lost it? Did I do something wrong? Shoot.

He showed me the Blue Book listing and gave some little dour pitch, and I said "Fine, whatever. I'll give you $2,400," and sort of stared him down.

"Oh fine," he said with a little grumble. "Kick me in the shins. Twist my arm."

So I came back on Saturday to give him the fat little envelope of hundreds, he sort of shrugged and twisted his mouth when I wished him a cheery good morning and tossed me the title.

We stood around for a second, him grumbling about the weather in his rough accent before he asked me why I'm here--at the farm, he meant. I won't exactly say he got excited, but something gleamed in his eyes, and I spent the next hour with a stunned smile on my face as he monologued about literature.

Turns out the man is fabulously well-read. In Hungary, he said, people are just expected to know these things. They read poetry before the evening news on TV. Children memorize scads of traditional verse--I had him recite some to me, and as he tilted his jowly, creased head toward the fluorescent shop lights he gave the closest thing to a real smile I ever saw from him. I wondered what he had been like as a school kid, how he and Kati met, why they had to elope. I didn't ask. Why didn't I? Because I wanted to get to the DMV on time? What a waste.

He told me about Sandor Marai's Embers, a somewhat melancholic novel by a man who always, as Gabor said, stood up for what was right in a country which always seemed to ally itself with the wrong man. He had been censored in his day, and the 1942 novel is just beginning to get the acclaim it deserves. Another book, Under the Frog, gets it's title from a Hungarian saying that if someone is completely down on his luck, he's "so low he's under the frog's ass." Apparently the ex-pat author, Tibor Fischer, was, in his youth, a friend of Gabor's cousin, and when the book achieved international acclaim and Gabor's son sent it to him from New Zealand (a pit stop on the way to Anarctica), the old mechanic in his shabby nowhersville, USA shop realized that the book was about his cousin's life. "He was quite a character," Gabor said, and rambled on about how Fischer had actually married one of his nieces ("I have not seen her since she was this high."), though they divorced "after he realized he was gay or something. I don't know how that happened that he decide he like little boys better than girls."

Finally, he recommended In Praise of Older Women, "if you're not a, you know, a little bit a prude, in which case you will not like it at all. It is very interesting, it gives a man's perspective on things, and I'm always wonder what the women think of it. But do you read French literature at all?"

I was beginning to be embarrassed. I'm the one with the college degree. This guy is covered in engine grease, and he's clearly read more than I'm likely to have done even when I'm his age.  Maupassant, he said, Maupessant's short stories are very good, very funny. He loves short stories because they are so much tighter than novels. Novelists get distracted by details, he said, and the things that don't matter.

"Don't bother with Zola, though. So depressing. You might as well get in bed and pull the sheets over your head. He's in Dickens' line--you know, poor people, suffering, the world not being right," he looks up to search for the word.

"Injustice?" I offer. He waves his hand.

"Don't read Zola unless you like that stuff. Same with Tolstoy."

"What about Dostoyevsky?"

"What's the English translation of that book? 'Sin and...'" He looks for the word.

"Crime and Punishment?"

"Yeah. So depressing, so long, just stuck in one man's head the whole time."

I ask him what he thinks of Marquez. "Oh my wife finished that book (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I read most of it, I think. What was that movie? Love in the Time of Cholera? It was just so confusing, the book, I mean--you never knew what was going on, at least not for my brain, but the movie was easier. And so depressing. The world is already bad enough, we need something funny to keep our minds off it. I read the news on the computer and my wife says, 'Why do you do that? It just makes you angry,'" he shrugs. "I just want to know what is going on. I love Mark Twain, though. He is hilarious."

And that's just a little sample of our conversation. When I came back a couple hours later to return his registration and plates after an irritating excursion to the DMV, he saw I had East of Eden tossed on the passenger's seat.

"I see you are reading depressing California literature. You should read Travels with Charlie instead. It is very funny."

"I'll get on that asap."

So I recommend A Confederacy of Dunces to him, scratch the name down on a greasy little pad by the phone, he smiles a little at the prospect of a new book. I assure him it's absolutely hysterical and that he'll love it.

I think I'll get the books he recommended with my new library card which dangles cheerily next to my car keys. Maybe I'll send him a postcard when I finish each one and tell them what I think.

I think he'd like that.