What I’m Reading

Review: Reading Girl, by Elizabeth Paul

Recently, I’ve become interested in the politics (and prose) of image descriptions, at least in part because of the accessibility issue of images. Because people who rely on screen readers to interpret text don’t have access to images, the provision of image descriptions is becoming increasingly common.

In Elizabeth Paul’s collection of prose poems, Reading Girl, each one based on an (unseen) painting by Henri Matisse, you see what poetry may be found here. Image descriptions are meant to “de-scribe”— that is, to write down, to give an account in words of something or someone, “including all the relevant characteristics, qualities, or events.” But these descriptions pulls upon the other definition of what it is to describe a thing, i.e., to mark out or draw. The pen described the circle. Paul’s descriptions don’t allow words to get in the way of the paintings.

There are 23 poems here, most four to five lines long; others linger over several paragraphs, but none is longer than a page. No information is given about the viewer of the paintings; no painting is given a frame. Instead, the reader is placed within the very sensual, three-dimensional context of each image. These are poems and paintings you can taste.

As an example, the title poem, “Girl Reading, 1905-06, Henri Matisse,” gives us the girl right away: “Her head never feels as heavy as in an afternoon of reading—” The reader, reading Paul’s chapbook, reads the refractive line again. Her head, my head, suddenly heavy as I read. The line continues, “there is a somnolence, an oppressive focus and abstention from the day.” I don’t know what the girl is reading, but it doesn’t matter: I know that feeling.

But I also know the feeling that follows, the one that carries the rest of the poem, in which every single thing in the room clamors for the reading girl’s attention.

Across and down the pages she tunnels while everything around her resents her inattention. The neglected pitcher trades bitter thoughts with the slighted table cloth adorned for delight. Apples and pears like preoccupied pigeons scavenge ever further from the moment of ripeness. Proud flower vases talk among themselves, making sure to be heard every now and again. The pictures on the wall hang out of reach, lucid only in denial that they had ever been hers. How is such distraction to be borne?

Each sentence here is exquisitely structured, chiseled to the quick of each of Matisse’s images. In Reading Girl, Elizabeth Paul has created image descriptions that engage both sense and sensibility, and offer no small measure of delight along the way.

Review: Harbors, by Donald Quist

I’d read a few of the essays found in Donald Quist’s new essay collection, Harbors, when they were published over the last year or so, but nothing prepared me for the impact of the complete collection. It’s a beautiful book, for one thing, something that deserves to be noted in a time when publishers save as much as they can wherever they can. The print, while small, is elegant; the paper is thick and of high quality. And the cover is just gorgeous. I read ebooks, but I want to hold this one in my hand. But it’s what’s inside this collection that really makes it remarkable.

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One of my favorites recalled the author’s relationship with his grandmother — who was, what we’d call in the South, a “real character”. She watches Jerry Springer and television preachers, her door was always open to drunks and addicts who would stumble by to share their stories (and she’d share her vodka). His granduncle who shares the house was a church-goer who enjoyed the respect of the community. But the essay shows how our lives are much more complex than any easy summary might make it seem.

In addition to tender and honest portraits of his family members, Quist writes about his time spent working for the mayor’s office of a small South Carolina town at a time of racial tension, and the ambiguity he feels in his role. He writes of growing up, working at the mall’s Spencer’s (which will ring a bell for anyone who came of age in the 80s) and how it was to be a geeky bookish adolescent (the detail of his favorite authors of that time—RL Stine and Camus—had me howling in recognition), are shared with a big-hearted sympathy to the boy he was.

Other pieces recount the feelings of isolation Quist experienced as a black male living in America. The way black bodies are attacked here, not newly since the time of social media but throughout his lifetime and beyond. Reading these essays gave me—someone who may be about his age, who was raised white and female about an hour’s drive from the South Carolina locations he describes—a very physical sense of the way the bodies we inhabit shape the lives we have in a very real and impersonal way. These feelings become more articulate once Quist and his wife decided to move to her home country of Thailand, where they live today. Like James Baldwin (or, it must be said, Ta-Nehisi Coates) living and writing in Paris, Quist’s view of these United States is sharp. At times angry, and at times revelatory, this is a brilliant collection.

Post-MFA Reading List

There are a handful of books I’ve been wanting to get around to for quite a while, and late summer seems like the right time to take them on. I don’t expect the dark tones of Thomas Bernhard to make everyone’s summer reading list, but to me his work is like the smoky taste of puer tea, perfect for humid afternoons and rainstorms. I’m starting with two – Wittgenstein’s Nephew, and The Lime Works.

Then there’s an early Rebecca Solnit, recently reissued by Haymarket Books – Hope in the Dark – which opens like a lawyer for the embattled and beleaguered cause of Hope, the weary defendant. I’m never sorry for reading Rebecca Solnit.

Or for reading Wendell Berry, whose collection of essays Imagination in Place has been waiting patiently for my attention. Wendell Berry and Rebecca Solnit will make for fine company of a warm summer evening.

In the wake of encountering Alison Bechdel at my last residency at VCFA, I’m finally reading her two graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? I’m pairing these two with another memoir I’ve long intended to read, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water.

I’ll be reading a couple of books for review as well, including War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence by Anne McGuire. (Did I beg to review this one? Absolutely.)

I expect there’ll be more titles salted in the next couple of months – Donald Harrington’s Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks? Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North? – but this seems like as good as any a place to start.