Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands

This book, originally published in German, was assigned to two years ago my introductory poetry workshop. It was an interesting item on our reading list, as the book more obviously qualifies as creative non-fiction than poetry (its American publisher, Penguin, classifies it as travel/reference). I agree with the instructor of the workshop, however. Atlas of Remote Islands is a book of poems, and I will tell you why.

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Schalansky opens the book with an essay in which she describes her early attraction to atlases as a means of travel – something she was banned from doing in her early life as a citizen of East Germany. She then moves onto the story of islands and what they can mean: and escape, a laboratory, a prison, a utopia, a hell, a microcosm, a story, a stage. She then talks about maps & what it is to create a map:

Mapmaking follows on the heels of discovery; and a new place is born with a new name. This foreign land is both occupied and possessed and the act of conquering it is repeated in the map. Only when a place has been precisely located and measured can it be actual and real. Every map is the result and the exercise of colonial violence.

And, as so often is true with good writing, this essay is both about its subject and also about writing itself:

An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned to fact.

That’s why the question whether these stories are ‘true’ is misleading. All text in the book is based on extensive research and every detail stems from factual sources. I have not invented anything. However I was the discovered of the sources, researching them through ancient and rare books and I have transformed the texts and appropriated them as sailors appropriate the lands they discover.

Schalansky thus makes a good argument for her claim that “it is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to become recognized as literature,” for like maps, like written histories, re-fabricate the reality they aim to represent.

Atlas of Remote Islands is also an exceedingly beautiful book. Schalansky has studied typesetting and in fact invented the font for the book. It is a pale blue, hard-cover book, with inside covers and dividing pages of a complementary toasted orange. At the top of each prose passage (which lie on the book’s verso pages), beneath the title, are carefully laid-out facts and visuals about the island’s coordinates, population, location, timeline, size, and national affiliation. The maps (on the recto pages) are sparsely ornamented, delicately printed masterpieces which represent the islands’s topography (by means of shading), villages and cities, landmarks, and roads.

It is a remarkably well-crafted book. And this attention to aesthetics makes sense: if journey by means of atlas is to be a rewarding one, shouldn’t the object itself offer something more than just what is contained in its text? Schalansky understands something profound about representation. She quotes the latin adage scribere necesse est, vivere non est — “only that which is written has actually happened.” And what is written is itself a happening. The representation is not merely a simulation, but itself is an experience.

But much has been made, in other reviews (all which are good reads: The Guardian, National Geographic, The Spectator, and Literary Review) of the aspects of this book that I have discussed above. Less has been said of the quality of the actual writing. Let’s talk about the poetry of the book.

What makes a prose poem a poem? My opinion is that is has to contain essential poetic elements — image, music, metaphor, and metric beauty. But, taking as it does the a shape we traditionally associate with narrative and plot, a prose poem ought to offer more semblance of a story than may be expected from a poem-shaped poem. What is brilliant about Atlas of Remote Islands is that it takes real, historical facts and, by means of poetic devices, transforms them into living stories. Here is an example, the entry in the book for Macquarie Island on page 78:

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The text begins in manner of an information text, but establishes its poetic nature in the second sentence, “It is a piece of the earth’s crust from the ocean that just happened to shoot up above the sea level, a vertebra of an undersea spine that rises above the water.” The non fictional character of the text is affirmed by the use of actual quotation (one of these days I will do a whole post on quotation and found language). Double backslashes inserted between sentences suggest the pause or jump we experience with line-breaks and section-breaks in poetry. Most important (here and in poems in general, maybe): the ending image. Schalansky is a master of the haunting yet conclusive image — she has a way of ending each not with rhetorical statement or explanation, but with an image that leaves you feeling as though the story you have been reading is in fact entirely different than you first thought.

The compactness of Schalansky’s writing is astonishing, and upon closer reading it becomes evident that as much care has gone in to the structure, pacing and poetry of language in each passage as has gone in to the design of the book, the research behind it, and the drawing of its maps. Thus one thing we can learn from Schalansky in addition to the power of a book that is aesthetically well-planned, is the power of non ficiton that is carefully informed by the methods of poetry.

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Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun

Today’s review is Matthew Henriksen’s Ordinary Sun, available from Black Ocean.

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I picked this book up at the book fair at the AWP conference in Boston last April, not really knowing anything about Henriksen, but this morning Flavorwire published this list of 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry in 2013 and Henriksen is included on it. So, check him out.

Brief tangent:

One reason I wanted to start trying to write reviews of poetry was that I wanted to be able to explain to myself and to others why I like certain poems, or books of poems so much. That may seem completely obvious, but it can actually be a difficult task. Many of my favorite books of poetry don’t make much sense in the straightforward here-is-what-I-am-writing-about kind of way, and are what some people would describe as “inaccessible”(which is a term I dislike), but I know what I like and I like these books and if I’m pretentious or clueless or a snob for liking them, well then that’s what I am. But actually, I’m not. There is good reason to like difficult, strange, seemingly incomprehensible poetry and I’m going to figure out what those reasons are and how to articulate them.

So there. Call that my mission statement.

That being said, you should order Ordinary Sun right now and spend the next three or four months reading it over and over and over again. Because that is what the book asks of you, intense and prolonged attention, and you will be well rewarded for it.

Ordinary Sun possesses a directness of meaning or of experience, an acute attention to the details of living in the universe and also in language. That is why I like it.

The first section of the book is entitled  “Copse”, and it consists of  a single long poem which feels to me like a childhood memory. I say this maybe because it uses first person plural, the way one does when recalling a prior epoch, like “remember when we used to do this?”, or in this instance it’s

Robins contained the hedges.
Trampled grass claimed the lawn.

We lived in a small house
in the quiet North.

For some reason first person plural is just the most nostalgic of verb-persons or whatever you call them.

But also, Henriksen has this way of subtly repeating phrases, not closely together, but spaced pages apart, so that each time you return to a repeated phrase it is familiar but does not register as a refrain. Bees pop up several time in this poem, but not so much or so frequently that it seems to be about bees. I know of a few poets who like to write about bees, and I think its because bees provide us with a multisensory experience (buzzing sounds, stinging sensations, the taste of honey, and then all of the associated meanings about spring, sweetness, communalism, biology, and pain)

Also:

Waking to whiteness and unsure
who is there,

the shape in the cloth,
my dove and blisters.

happens at least twice, and also just the words:

 history as war

which is just three words if you read it once, but if you read it over and over you think, that’s odd, what does that mean?  And then all the sudden it means something, something about memory, or about remembrance, or about the difference between the two.

Henriksen weaves his most slippery lines in between straightforward ones. It’s the switching between the two that leaves you feeling like you’ve fallen a short distance unexpectedly:

In a clearing between
a copse of elms and the river
conniving grew a shape.

We found light in a jar under the elms.

We drank at night and ran across the dam.
Nathan climbed down and stood in the river.

We broke into the lock station and threw
cinder blocks down the flood chamber.

(and then)

I only asked for a beginning
in a blade chamber,

a shower of bees
in a cinder’s slam.

That kind of sudden move in to strange word-space makes my stomach flip in a weird nice way.

The next section is comprised of a series of titled poems, three of which are have “Afterlife” in the title: “Afterlife on a long, shallow hill”; “Afterlife with still life”; “Afterlife ending as a question”.

Which I point out to illustrate what I said earlier, which is that one thing we may learn from Henriksen is how to make powerful use of repetition. In the case of the “Afterlife” poems, firstly, they follow naturally from the tone of remembering in “Copse” at least I feel like they do. “Copse” ends:

We got out of the car.
We set our bodies in the grass.
Stones held our breath.

Which feels like the beginning of something but also a kind of death. So the end of childhood is a sort of death; and life is a series of afterlives, lives after lives. I’m not making sense here. Just read the poems and then you’ll get it, ok? This is the last line of “Regulations of the Assassins”, which is the first poem in “Is Holy”:

In all that nonsense I became a gun.
It’s raining now, goddam.

And then the next poem is “Afterlife On a Long Shallow Hill”, which contains one of my favorite lines of poetry in recent memory. Here’s the poem:

The footed rhyme of grave
gained this cobbler’s shrine

benign in grass, this body, alive,
as in a moving cloud, a sun.

And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.
After the night unglues it’s unknown anyway. Then o.

Oblivion’s lens never closes. Diner won’t blink.
Its song demolishes our total losses.

People were terrified, then gone.
The soil opened its skin, hatching poppies.

My favorite line is:

And when. Or not when but of. Of longing.

Why do I love this line so much? Look at what it’s made of. Count the nouns and verbs in that line.

Nouns: 1 “longing”. Verbs: 0.

(adverbs: 1, “not”).

Not that I have anything against nouns and verbs. It just blows my mind that some one can compose a string of conjunctions and prepositions  and have it still mean so much.

It’s vague and ungrammatical and unconcrete yes, but somehow it’s still totally right, because first of all, beginning anything with “and” feels right because as far as we know nothing really begins, in life, but rather continues on from what was previous, and then, yes, the question we face is when, but then you grow to realize that no, it isn’t really about asking when because life, as we experience it, is only now, there is no when, and the question is not when and it’s actually not what either, though that’s part of it but really the question is of as in, the thing that the now is of.

And that’s it, the now is of longing. Longing for when and then of. And it makes that noun, there, at the end of the line, not cliché (because normally if I see the word “longing” in a poem I groan a little), not heavy-handed, because

it’s the only thing there, the longing.

You know what this poem makes me think of ? Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse”, where she describes going up on to a grassy hill to watch an eclipse, how the day died and was reborn in front of her.

Let’s just take a moment to admire Henriksen’s mastery of music, because we don’t do that enough when we’re talking about poetry, we get so much in talking about what it does or what it means, that we forget to stop and just mention what it sounds like:

As grace

disturbs our sentiment for violence
so the bush lays its ambush of lilacs

You just have a sense that this is someone who’s done his reading and practiced his scales and it is impressive.

The next section is called “The Talk” possibly because the poet in the section keeps referring to a boy, or what he’s saying or would say to that boy. I’m not sure who this boy is but I like to think that he looks kind of like a younger version of the poet, whoever that is. There are also a lot of angels in this section. One thing I noticed and liked was these moments of coltish allusion, for example, the first few lines from “Angels Give Birth at Sanitized Altars”:

Had I but time enough, boy, and a world to ravage

beyond the thick knots of my own blood,
she’d have me on the hood of a Honda

and conceive a horse.

In which the “had I but time enough” is (I think) an allusion to “had we but world enough, and time” from Marvell’s* “To His Coy Mistress”. Dunno why I remark this, except that it’s, well, a little funny, somehow, especially given the title. Horses pervade the entire book, actually, one of those threads that give the whole book a coherence despite its density.

The next section, “Mine of Losses” contains a woman character. We see the return of a blade chamber (which appeared in Copse), in the poem “Yard Work”:

The whisper lasted several hours in the blade chamber

and the bleeding slowed.

and I have no idea what a blade chamber is but apparently there is more than one of them.

I’m not just rambling here! The reason why I’m noting the blade chamber is because. Well. Because of what I said. I don’t know what a blade chamber is and I don’t think Henriksen does either or wants us to. Blade chamber just describes a direct experience. Sharpness, blood, and enclosure so tight that even a whisper echoes for hours.

God is in this section, and prayer, and

Mother stalking the playground howling scores,
raw umbrage, spare parts, gunstocks,
glitter last.

So somehow this sections deals with origins.

The next section, “Corolla in the Midden” is distinctly more bitter in tone:

I’m happy

we can get our grief from
the supermarket, the pharmacy,

and the toy store, rather
than having to earn

our pain by fucking up
at a motel on the turnpike.

Next to which, in my copy of the book, you will find penciled the words “oh, snap”.

This section also include perhaps my favorite four lines of poetry, ever, up to this point (though I’m still relatively new to this whole shindig):

I am not inclined to the earth
or what ruined us or what

we became. I can only say
we cherish ruins

because is this not so true of so many of us.

I will not write a book report of every single section, though I’ll say the next one moves on to “Gorge” and after that it’s “The New Surrealism.” In “Gorge” we break out of this tidy two-line stanza pattern Henriksen has had going on, and words start to spread around the page a little more. There’s death lurking here:

She felt like flesh. She wasn’t hanging.
“All answers are hells.”

What she heard about their house dripped from the faucet.
In the morning the tapping and water filled with light

A bucket in the garage burned.

In “The New Surrealism” we’re in New York, mostly, and there’s this feeling that something has died. The voice is more personal, it feels like it might actually be the same person as who is writing the book. Is it always that? Is it never?

Which may make this an opportune moment to point out another aspect of this book I like, which is that because it is divided, as it is, into sections (which vary in their composition, some being long single poems, some being collections of individually titled poems, and some being poems of numbered sections) it asks us to grapple with the question of voice in poetry – who is speaking? When does the speaker change? How are the different speakers related? I like to think that all of Ordinary Sun is spoken by the same person at different stages during their life, but maybe that’s not possible, or maybe it doesn’t matter.

The last two sections are “Beulah’s Rest” and  “Ordinary Sun.” “Ordinary Sun” is a trip. It breaks all of the books earlier conventions of neat poetry-looking poetry, and has square sections of prose poems and stacks of long-lines, and lots and lots of figures from real life (Bille Holiday, Salman Rushdie) and bureaucratic diction and after reading it you might need to drink a glass of water and lie down for a bit.

After writing this review, I went and read an interview with Matthew Henriksen on Bookslut. He’s a bit brilliant. It would probably be of more use to you than this review, so go ahead and read it. Definitely read it if you are going to read his book.  I am going to close here with two quotes from that interview that I copied in to my commonplace book:

Most contemporary narrative and rhetorical poems bore me because they limit themselves to statement, but the lyric can tell a narrative of perspective through immersion in an experience and can convey rhetoric by superimposing the poem’s perspective over the reader’s senses.

[…]

The less time I spend struggling with how to exist, how to survive, how to be happy, and the more I convince myself to drop my psychological burdens and just look at rocks and trees, the more I understand the potential within beauty.

* Thanks to Henriksen himself for reading this review and correcting me, as I originally attributed that quote to Byron, I am not sure why because the two are more than a century apart. I think I was thinking “Donne” (who is closer to Marvell) and then “Byron” popped into my head because they sort of rhyme, that’s my excuse anyway.

JG Ballard, The Drowned World

So I started this really cool blog where I write reviews about poetry and science fiction. And then I went to live in the woods for a month, and disappeared from the internet. But now I’m back! And I while I was in the woods, I read The Drowned World by JG Ballard.

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JG Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai to a British business man. As kid he and his family were interned in a civilian prison camp. They were released in 1946 and returned to England. The Drowned World is his first major novel.

The first thing you should know about Ballard is that his prose is anything but spare.

A sample from TDW:

Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstream are tributaries of the great sea of its total recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurons and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.”

So, he kind of lays it on thick. That alone is enough to make The Drowned World a little bit of a slog.

The story is set in the near future, when solar flares have caused the Earth’s temperature to rise, melting icecaps and flooding most of the planet’s major cities and rendering the human population largely infertile (due to increased exposure to radiation) and confining us to inhabiting mostly only the poles.

The story’s protagonist is Kerans, a biologist on assignment with a military unit led by a Colonel Riggs in what we eventually find out is the future London. Kerans’ job is to document the changes in the flora and fauna as the world rapidly reverts to Triassic conditions.

Riggs is ordered to pull out because the mission isn’t important anymore, but Kerans decides to stay back, along with the quixotic and exotic Beatrice Dahl and Kerans’ assistant Dr. Bodkin.  They hang out in the lagoons for a while and meet a bone-white man name Strangman who leads a troupe of buccaneers (all highly stereotypical black servant figures) looting the remains of cities for drowned treasure. Eventually Kerans and Strangman have a bit of a falling out (Strangman tries to kill him by leaving him strapped to a chair in full sunlight, wearing an animal skin, for two days) and Kerans heads south on his own, presumably to his death, to become a sort of last-Adam figure.

As the earlier quote suggests, the gist of the novel is that inscribed in our genes is a memory of prehistoric earth, that, with the onset of a new Triassic period, will begin to stir and awaken our primal instincts and cause a sort of reversion of evolution.

The Drowned World is all about the imbrication of body, psyche and landscape (which I take to be a general interest of Ballards – see Terminal Beach). Kerans and his companions find their inner world profoundly altered as they absorb the changes in the environment around them – as the world reverts to an earlier warmer climate, they they withdraw into themselves. Here’s another example of that typically ornate prose:

This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but of a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.

There’s a lot of tiresomely explicit returning-to-them womb imagery, as when Kerans enters a submerged planetarium in a diving suit attached to the surface by a breathing tube, and kind of tries to kills himself. The water Kerans enters is a “warm, glutinous jelly”; his companion asks him “how’s that the grey sweet mother of us all?”; and towards the end of the chapter Ballard just goes ahead and calls the structure “womb-like.”

This tendency towards explicit expression of his theme is probably the novel’s greatest weakness. It’s a novel concerned with social regression and de-evolution, which is all fine and good, but there’s not much going on plot-wise, and little more happening character-wise, and so what you get is a little too much of Ballard’s heavy-handed symbolic-imagery pyrotechnics.

What I liked about the novel was its matter-of-fact treatment of upheaval. Ballard presents the fact that earth as we know it is destroyed and the human population decimated with so little drama that we are inclined to forget that the scenario does sort qualify as an apocalypse. It’s not a story about the human capacity to fix things, merely the course of our evolution and the inevitability of change. There is not a moral purpose to this book. Rather it seems to be an investigation – of a potential future, of the idea of individual identity, of the interaction between human mind and earthly conditions.

A note on editions — I really liked the edition I read, the paperback Harper Collins edition (not the one pictured above), because the supplemental material at the back is actually pretty decent. It includes an interview with Ballard conducted by Travis Elborough and a 1963 essay by Ballard entitled “Time, Memory and Inner Space,” both of which are worth a read.

Pitch Black

Last night Dad and I watched Pitch Black together.

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I first watched this movie I think maybe when I was 13 or 14 and loved it. Now, of course, equipped with my newfound English major powers of analysis, I see its flaws. First, a brief summary.

The movie begins in space. A ship carrying passengers and a convict, all in cryo-sleep, is hit by some rock fragments, which penetrate the hull, kill the ship’s captain and cause the surviving crew to awake. Fry (Radha Mitchell) takes command of the ship as it crash-lands on a planet in a three-start system where the sun never sets. The crew sets about dealing with how to find water and deal with the escaped prisoner Riddick (Vin Diesel). Spoilers ahead. If you’ve read Asimov’s Nightfall, it’s kind of that scenario. An eclipse occurs, and the planet experience its first nighttime in twenty-two years. The planet’s underground inhabitants, vicious batty-pterodactyl things who might be distantly related to Alien’s alien, emerge from their caverns and start killing off crew members one by one (classic pack-of-teens-lost-in-the-woods style). The only thing our humans have going for them is that the creatures are so sensitive to light that they will can be warded off with even a puny flashlight. Unfortunately for our crew, in order to get off the planet they need to make a trek through the planet’s rough Mad Max-like terrain in order to bring some fuel cells from their wrecked ship to the skiff they have found left behind by the previous humans on the planet (a band of geologists killed by the creatures years ago).

So actually, there was one flaw I didn’t need to go to college to pick up on – the gigantic glaring question that I think occurs to even the least critical viewer of the film would be, how the hell does a light-allergic species evolve on a planet that only experiences night once every 22 years? And if they devour every living thing on the planet every time an eclipse happens, what do they eat the next time around, if there doesn’t happen to be a band of space travelers conveniently stranded for them? And why are there so many? But whatever. Other critics have plenty to say about the movie’s other flaws – namely unoriginal and formulaic plot being the main one – and it’s virtues – namely is pretty sweet cinematography and glitzy effects. Oh yeah, and Riddick’s cool because his eyes are shiny and he’s sort of a murderer but a nice guy deep down. Yeah. Sure. I’m not going to repeat here what’s been said, but you can google the reviews if you are interested (ok fine, I’ll do the work, here’s Roger Ebert). I’ll talk about some things about the movie that aren’t about the obvious “it’s to obvious” problem. Let’s talk about Jack (Rhiana Griffith). When I first saw this movie, I really liked Jack. I still like Jack, I think. She is not a character other reviewers seem to have paid much attention to, which is strange to me because I feel like she’s what gives it one of its few original moments. I mean, not that original, but, well, judge for yourself.

Here’s what happens: The motley band of travelers is making their way through the darkened landscape of the planet in a somewhat suicidal attempt to get back to their escape ship with some salvaged energy cells. In order to protect themselves from the monsters, the set out decked out with all the light-emitting equipment the could gather, but as we may expect things have gone sour and they find themselves huddled around only a few flickering torches hacked together from bottles of liquor and rag cloth. They argue about what to do: Fry wants to go back, Johns (Cole Hauser) wants to continue. Riddick speaks up: “We can’t go back, not now that they have our scent. Not with the girl bleeding and all.” And Fry (who is ostensibly the only female present) says, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not cut,” and Riddick says “Not her. Her.” And looks at Jack. And that’s how we find out that Jack is a girl (or rather, has just become a woman). (So, these quotes aren’t exact because I’m doing them from memory).

Ok, maybe it’s too cute, but I liked this moment. Sort of. I kind of take issue with the fact that Jack immediately goes all ewey and kind of cries once she’s discovered, but then again it’s not as though she was being totally stone-faced while she was a boy — I think we can chalk her noodliness up to the fact that she’s the kid, not the that she’s the girl. Am I being too much of a sophomore in seeing something sort of interesting about gender here (hopefully not seeing as I’m about to be senior)? I mean can’t we appreciate that this movie acknowledges a major practical problem that gets ignored in most action/thriller plots for the sake of convenience? I mean, forget water, guns, torches or medicine – what the hell do our badass science fiction heroines do without tampons? I suppose they’re all on continuous birth control (either they all hide an endless supply of pills in their underwear or have really long-term hormone implants) or maybe they just decided to put their careers first and have their ovaries removed. Or something else. Presumably if we can assume cryogenics and interstellar travel we can assume a solution to menstruation. But whatever. It’s not really the main point.

Jack explains her ruse saying “I just thought it would be better if people took me for a guy, that they would just leave me alone.” This kid knows what the world is like. And I think Pitch Black deserves credit in not only doing what is predecessor Alien did – maintaining the lead female character Fry as merely that, a leader and not an erotic ornament – but also that it doesn’t try to tell us that in the future women are captains so gender is not an issue anymore (not that Alien did do that either).

Perhaps I am reading far too much in to what was really just a melodramatic gimmick, but I want to connect this to my belief that how science fiction films, or action-oriented films in general, build female characters is a whole messy problem. This is going to be kind of a roundabout argument, but I promise you I will get back to Pitch Black and the my point about Jack.

Thinking about women characters in science fiction is hard because we all want to see better ones, but it’s hard to say what “better” is. It isn’t just a matter of “strong” versus “weak” females or “sexy” versus “butch.” It is not a black-and-white “this movie perpetuates a patriarchal and misogynistic culture” and “this movie affirms an emancipatory and egalitarian culture,” because we are not even in agreement about what is emancipatory for women and what is not in term of their physical appearance and character disposition. Probably the two most iconic badass females in science fiction film are Alien’s Ripley and Terminator’s Sarah Connor. Neither of them are conventionally beautiful, they sweat a lot and their hair is gets messed up, or shaved off. So the best female action characters are the unsexy ones who act like (male) soldiers? Well, that might be problematic too. And anyway, Ripley and Sarah are totally sexy: type in “Ripley alien” to Google and the first autofill option is “Ripley alien underwear”. And Sarah Connor wear no bra and rocks at it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Ripley and Sarah. I am just always on the lookout for female characters to love who aren’t like them. In Pitch Black, Fry is more or less a bleached photocopy of either of the two. She’s slightly prettier, fairly badass, and less interesting. She suffers from guilt for having nearly sacrificed her companions in order to save herself at the beginning of the film (she was stopped from doing this not by her conscious but by the ship’s captain who dies in the first few minutes), so at the end she has to die saving Riddick as redemption. That’s ok I guess. But she’s really pretty boring.

Jack, though. Is Jack interesting? We never get her backstory, but she’s obviously a runaway. Judging from the fact that she chose to disguise herself as a boy as protection we can guess her some things about her history. I don’t know if it’s just because I first saw Pitch Black in my early teens when I myself was still pretty uncomfortable with the newfound realization that my body was an erotic object that could garner unwanted attention, not to mention a good deal of discomfort and even shame about what at the time I perceived as the truly disgusting fact of menstruation (and the indignation I felt at having suddenly to deal with it), but the moment when we find out that she’s a girl because Riddick can tell she’s on her period tapped in to every confused teenage anxiety I had about being female. At the time I felt that my period was a fucking inconvenience, I was afraid of my body as far as it speaks for me in ways I don’t intend, and as much as I liked being a girl, sometimes I really did wish I could pass for a guy for the sake of being left alone (namely, while traveling in strange places, which is what Jack was doing). And, frankly, I occasionally still feel this way today, though not as much.

So… what I’m saying is that while Pitch Black is mostly just pot-boiler action sf, it (perhaps unintentionally) taps in gender anxiety differently than the films off of which it is based. And I kind of think we need more of this approach, this presentation not of women who already have “overcome” or “surpassed” their femaleness, not of “strong female characters” but of ones who, like Jack, portray something that’s true but hard to communicate without getting heavy-handed, spectacular or self-righteous: that it is fucking hard not just to be a girl, but to become a girl, to transition from that bizarre and happy state of genderlessness that is childhood to that moment that you realize that no matter how you think of yourself (as a person who likes to skip rocks, as an adventurer, as an independent individual), your body will behave like a female and others will treat you that way. And that’s what gender studies in film in literature is kind of about right? What we are is not who we are. This is the problem surrounding Ripley and Sarah. In their worlds, they are badass women, they are in charge of their sexuality, they are in control. But as constructs of mainstream popular media, they are still subject the patriarchal tastes and attitudes of their audience. And so we can’t decide whether they own their sexiness or whether it’s a concession to the box office. And that’s a problem, or a tension, we don’t talk about enough. But with Jack, the tension is explicit right off the bat. For Jack, there was no possibility of owning her sexiness, her femininity was no other thing but a threat, and being a women is definitely bad. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Let’s not pretend that is going to change anytime soon – this is set in the future, after all.

Eric Baus’ Tuned Droves

I just finished reading Eric Baus‘ Tuned Droves (Black Ocean, 2009).

Image

Here are some words I wrote down while reading:

snow, orange, echo, letter, sound, paper, owls, bees, vultures.

I liked Baus’ prose sections, which in tone sometimes seem to mimic an entry in an encyclopedia of natural history.

Anyway, I’m writing this review as a series of questions I ask and then answer.

1. What’s its deelio?

Speaking is something the body does.

“When a boy’s mouth collapses into itself, tiny flames release from his limbs. Although this is a small flash, he is startled by the sudden sun.”

A thought is a physical act, yes, but also, a physical event is a thought:

“Rain is when you get wet is what he think.”

That is to say, things that happen are things that happen to your body. We find a meld of flesh and paper and a host of strange animals. The vitalization of literature:

The Convex Vulture Unearth Ventricles

The formation of paper occasionally exposes the encyclopedia pigeon to the statue fish. This introduction creates a failed (sterile) collage. Failed collages exhaust themselves in air, water, and air. They cannot communicate with one another because of a dense layer of salt. In order to remain above the surface they must be renamed.

Letters are things that literally speak. To speak is to see is to disclose:

My sight is dim, said the woman. Another must be singing.

I am sorry, the letter said, it is too soon for me to tell about the paper train.

I mean it is too soon for me to see you.

Watchya think?

Well I liked reading it. I like his animals like the statue fish and the convex vulture. I like the structure of all these small fragments of narratives that plink pebble-like on to the page and then ripple outward, and then fade. That’s one of the sentences you find in poetry reviews where, like, the reviewer is more into writing their own poetry than writing about someone else’s. What I mean is, he picks up stories but they don’t solidify, but they don’t go away either. There’s a woman, a man, a boy, the color orange, a piece of snow. They echo throughout the book, though there’s no story to tell.

Steal something?

Dialogic structure:

A boy gets a bird from cutting paper. Birds become themselves when he sees them.

Dear paper birds, I can always see you. A woman, a man, and paper birds.

What are you doing, paper bird?

Removing myself from the sky

Isn’t it cool to think lines of text can talk to one another?

What question would we ask the book?

What’s the best shade of orange?