By John Cage
Wesleyan University (2001), $25
John Cage gleefully created himself as an avant-garde composer, man of letters, and Zen revisionist. Anarchy epitomizes all his selves, serving up twenty mesostic poem-essays on the topic. Based on texts by such iconoclasts as Henry David Thoreau, Emma Goldman, and Cage himself, the poems consist of randomly juggled quotes restructured into oddly meaningful phrases. They read both horizontally and vertically, with capitalized letters in each line spelling out a second catchphrase, top to bottom.
It’s not just a gimmick, despite a fair sprinkling of lines like “An/is/thE/cannot/so.” For the most part, the permutations yield more conventional combinations like “marvelous structure of realIty it is enough if one tries” or “frOm the tree/sLow/impriSoned/liberTy.” If read aloud as Cage suggests, the visual text recedes, and the aural qualities of language come to the fore. Experienced this way, even the most logical, straightforward phrases generate multiple meanings and associations.
Cage boasts that his “mesostic texts do not make ordinary sense. They make nonsense.” Anarchy cannot be described as “a good read.” Its nonlinear, nonsensical verbal expressions are meant to induce a state of psychic anarchism, as it were, leading to the individual transformations that substantially transform rather than merely re(dis)organize society. His final poem spells out Buckminster Fuller’s name, and shortening it to BUCK FULLER produces:
liberty oF each
by virtUe of
buwaLda for daring to
laws of ouR own individual nature
A grim ending? Think of it rather as a challenging nightcap in this experimental, interactive recipe for change.
Arts of the Possible
By Adrienne Rich
Norton (2001), $23.95
“How do you make poetry out of political experiences,” Adrienne Rich asks, “[poetry] not about, but out of” the issues that drive a collective movement? This question resides at the core of her new book, a group of twelve essays and interviews dating from 1971 to 1999. Incisive, self-probing — yet never self-promoting — Rich traces the evolution of her ideas on art vis-à-vis politics. Forthright in her feminism, she delighted in the 1970s liberation movement that encouraged women to make their own lives the subject of literature and public concern. But Rich’s careful thinking, “unable to confine itself within feminism alone,” is exactly what the movement now needs.
“Feelings are useless without facts,” Rich insists, observing that emphasis on personal anecdote in the 1970s led to a lack of critical analysis in the 1990s — and the marketing of feminism as self-involvement. Opposed to exclusionary politics, she decries the inevitable generalizations that followed. Statements, for instance, such as “Women have always been in subjugation to men” blot out what we really need to know: when, where, and why has subjugation occurred.
Convinced that beauty cannot be “severed from the doings of living people,” Rich calls for a reevaluation of Marx’s humanist principles. Quoting him, she reminds us that “Language is … the presence of the community,” a thought underlying her 1997 refusal of the National Medal for the Arts. Rich’s letter to Jane Alexander, then chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, reprinted here with an accompanying essay, explains her refusal on the grounds that the Clinton administration glossed over — indeed, dishonored — the social intentions of her work by its failure to give voice to victims of racial and economic injustice. Why have questions about health care and social justice been discredited in our society, she demands to know.
Rich’s 1975 essay “Women and Honor” appears unrelated to the others at first because it suggests a private emotional betrayal: Someone, it seems, perhaps a lover, has lied to her. And yet this essay truly reflects the political dimension of the personal. Truth-telling by all parties, Rich asserts, although it heightens the complexity of a relationship, prevents manipulation and thus cannot be “sealed off from the desire for justice.”Arts of the Possible underscores the difficulty of resolving an age-old philosophical problem, namely, how to protect simultaneously the welfare of the one and the many. Read this book for its brash social criticism but also for its passionate, reinvigorating discourse on poetics and the social contract.
— Marion Fay
The Yokota Officers Club
By Sarah Bird
Knopf (2001), $23
We first meet Bernie Root as she’s flying into Okinawa with a planeload of other military dependents. The Vietnam War is on, and for the past year, Bernie’s been breathing “civilian oxygen for the first time in her life” at the University of New Mexico. When she steps off the plane at the base, her Air Force major father, ex-nurse mother Moe, and five younger siblings behold “a vagrant in Levi’s with peace-sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who’d substituted patchouli oil for Wind Song perfume and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.”
But a great deal more happens in this novel than clashing values or parental disapproval — in fact, that’s the least of it. Bernie ends up taking charge because her mother’s gone AWOL, sleeping till 4 p.m. as the younger kids riot and her sister Kit strikes cheesecake poses on the roof or runs off to smoke dope in a cave overlooking the sea. To get her family back on track (if possible in the atmosphere of paranoia that pervades the lives of military officers and their dependents), Bernie must come to terms with her own shyness and feelings of inadequacy. This means confronting almost everyone in her family as well as discovering why her parents treat each other as strangers and no one talks about Fumiko, the family’s helpmate who was Moe’s best friend when the Roots were stationed at Yokota Air Base in Japan.
Three wars contribute memories and pathos as illusions of American invincibility fade fast. Meanwhile, no gossip is too petty in the hothouse of the base; outrageous behavior is smiled upon while independent thinking is not. But Bird goes far beyond quick and easy answers: Bernie, who spends her college days counseling draft dodgers, cannot articulate to her father her objections to the war and instead listens in horror as he, with his working knowledge of the war at ground zero, sarcastically catalogues a laundry list of reasons to take to the streets.
Once Bernie gets to Japan, intent on finding Fumiko, the story becomes almost too painful to bear. Yet the wit and irony that interlaced all that came before is still present, in the way that humor so often sustains those lives dedicated to discovery. By the end, what is honorable and what is heroic have traded places. Deft and ambitious, The Yokota Officers Club stabs straight to the heart of our collective fall from grace.
Mother Jones: The MostDangerous Woman in America
By Elliot J. Gorn
Hill & Wang (2001), $27
The story of Mother Jones is one of the most compelling in American history. Born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1837, she immigrated to the US as a child, later marrying an ironworker surnamed Jones and settling in Memphis. Following the loss of her husband and three children during a yellow-fever epidemic in 1867, she moved to Chicago, where she earned her living as a seamstress. Exactly when and how she became active in the newborn labor movement is a mystery (her highly recommended Autobiography devotes only six pages to the first half of her life), but by the 1890s Jones was becoming a real force. Her inexhaustible energy, raw physical courage, and unshakable belief that labor would prevail to usher in a new era of social democracy inspired thousands of followers in an era when unionizing was a blood-and-guts business. She masterminded marches to gain publicity for exploited children, was incarcerated for defying the orders of class-loyal judges, and routinely braved muddy mountain trails and the guns of hired thugs to deliver very unladylike speeches to “her boys.” One could say that this larger-than-life figure embodied much of what is best about our national character, and that her relegation to obscurity by a society that never dealt with the vicissitudes of capitalism is damning.
Elliot Gorn has done considerable research and shows admirable poise in letting the appalling story of labor’s early years tell itself, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. He is less judicious with his principal subject. No one can help suspecting that Jones’ career as “mother” of the unionists represented some kind of compensation for the loss of her family, but Gorn wastes whole pages wearing out this threadbare notion. He also berates Jones for political incorrectness on certain fronts: notably, her indifference to the suffragists. While the inconsistencies in Jones’ views are worth pointing out, the fact is that she wasn’t concerned with middle-class women’s aspirations, and believed, with considerable reason, that they cared naught for those of the working class. One might just as well castigate Gandhi for not being more vocal about gay rights. Mother Jones hadn’t the time, literally or figuratively, for the niceties of ideology, but worked from the simple moral conviction that economic exploitation is the evil that fathers all others. Flawed as it is, Gorn’s book will hopefully help rekindle the memory of this inspiring woman.
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2001), $25
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections arrives with a sense of heft and purpose. Weighing in at close to six hundred pages, it bears an inside testimonial from the publisher (“a masterpiece, a triumphant fulfillment”) and jacket blurbs from writers who know something of heft (Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace).
Now, the novel does occasionally veer into the DeLilloesque with its übersmart dalliances (“a putative deficit of Neurofactor 3,” for instance, and “troubled red nodules or black slacunae on his CAT scan”), but even better is Franzen’s wide-ranging and penetrating presentation of the American family.
In the Midwestern city of St. Jude (named for the patron saint of lost causes and the author’s most heavy-handed signifier), Alfred and Enid Lambert raise three distinctive children. Gary, later a Philadelphia investment banker, views his family relationships as battles and gains only a temporary lesson in surrender for his troubles. Denise, the youngest, struggles mightily with her vacillating sexual desires and is only rarely able to revel in her vocation as a world-class chef. Chip, the middle child, loses as much as finds himself. Fired by a Northeastern college for having sexual relations with a student, he grapples with an autobiographical screenplay as facile as the life it’s based on and subsists on loans from his younger sister while, on various occasions, he attempts carnal knowledge of a chaise longue, shoplifts a fresh salmon in his underwear, and is victimized by masked gunmen on the wintry plains of Lithuania.
Mother Enid is simply too good to be true. A self-deceiver running on full-throttle optimism fueled by denial, she desires all that she does not possess — such as sea cruises and tall desserts for two — and is, more often than not, caught between her ever-present hopes and the fast-approaching realities of her current life. It is the taciturn and unsentimental Alfred who is the unwitting backbone of the Lambert clan, even as his mind and body succumb to Parkinson’s and dementia. A man in turmoil, he is personally offended by suggestions that he “take it easy.”
At times, one wonders what holds this group together as Franzen’s deft prose renders each character tragic as well as comic, unique yet universal. The reality of family is the lone justification for the Lamberts’ fulfillment of Enid’s “only” wish: a final Christmas in St. Jude. And it is in this setting — a season of hope in a place that is without — that Franzen puts the finishing touches on a stunning contemporary American portrait.