THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Nicholas Fox Weber’s “The Bauhaus Group”

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The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.

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The outer part of Cape Cod, where I live, contains numerous examples of modern architecture, almost all of which appear in Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani (Metropolis Books, 2014). This beautiful book contains exquisite color plates of houses designed and built by Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Olav Hammarstrom and engineer Paul Weidlinger. A vibrant community gathered here which included Walter Gropius and many of his Bauhaus faculty.

weber_BAUHAUS GROUPA few years ago, I attended a panel discussion at the Wellfleet Public Library led by McMahon on that group of architects and artists. It featured painter Peter Watts and Walter Gropius’s daughter, Ati, who was approximately 82 at that time. She was asked how her father managed to keep the Bauhaus faculty in harmony, considering its many distinct personalities, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Johannes Itten, who was a member of a fire cult. She said whenever there was a strong disagreement about policy or practice, her father canceled all classes and declared a three-day party. At the festivity’s end, she said, everyone forgot what they had been fighting about. She added that Gropius provided the same solution to academic strife when she was a student at Black Mountain College and he was on the Advisory Council there. She said that he gave a costume party where everyone had to dress as a favorite tree. “It worked,” she said. “It was impossible to stay angry at someone who was covered in branches and leaves.”

The talk led me to Nicholas Fox Weber’s book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Knopf, 2009). He discusses Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In clear and lively prose, Fox Weber defines and characterizes each person and his aesthetic.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

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“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

Review: IN MY SKIN by Brittney Griner

brittney griner_IN MY SKINIn My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
itbooks, 2014
216 pages

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No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

REVIEW: Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela

belief is its own kind_lori jakielaBelief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe Lori Jakiela August 4, 2015 Atticus Books 290 pages Preorder Halfway through her new memoir, Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, Lori Jakiela comes across a mall kiosk selling Russian nesting dolls.

“The doll in the woman’s hand looks a little like my daughter—blonde, rosy-cheeked, green eyed,” Jakiela writes, “—which means she looks like me, too, and probably like my sister and probably my birth mother and so on.”

The doll strikes her as a metaphor, “a tiny sarcophagus, a little hollowed out self” that “fits into another tiny sarcophagus, a series of tiny sarcophagi tucked into other sarcophagi, selves into selves, until they end up with a larger self that looks whole but isn’t.” Through such metaphors and a fragmented, lyrical style that reflects the writer’s background as a poet, Jakiela communicates the sense of a fragmented self experienced by many adoptees with little information about their origins.Continue Reading

Review: GET IN TROUBLE by Kelly Link

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Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House, Feb 2015
352 pages

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For a long time, with all due respect to the memoirists, I’ve believed that fiction holds a particular truth in literature. Maybe by removing the self from the work, and unburdening the story of actual events and dialogue and timelines, the writer can more fearlessly probe and weave and build a world that ultimately reveals a truth.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to extend this theory to believe that there is a deeper level of truth revealed in fiction that takes place in an alternate reality. Some might call this science fiction or magic realism, and certainly these terms have been associated with fiction writer Kelly Link, though I’m not sure if any pre-existing term can aptly qualify her work.

Her latest book, the superb and unusual short-story collection Get in Trouble offers a view of the world that at first glance seems probable enough, if not exactly familiar. But soon each story veers into the surreal, and we find ourselves in a world peopled with superheroes, supervillains, and sidekicks, and those trying to move past the stereotype of having two shadows. There are pocket universes where you can go to get drunk and/or laid or retire in tranquility, and mermaids who have become an invasive species. The stories in Link’s collection left me with some simple and daunting conclusions that might not be achieved, or could feel melodramatic in less fantastical work—realizations along the lines of: This too shall pass, and We are all part of a mirage.Continue Reading

Five Speculative Tales Still Relevant Today (And What They Can Teach Us)

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1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Seven-Word Summary: Women enslaved by tyrannical dicks with dicks.

Excerpt: “Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it really isn’t about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.”

What It Can Teach Us: Recently I overheard a male student say feminism was really trending right now, as if it were a fad that would pass sooner or later, as if it were not inalienable, unimpeachable, and incontrovertible. At a time when prominent feminists are forced to cancel lectures because they receive death threats, in which women still make just 78 cents for every dollar earned by men, while action flicks like Mad Max: Fury Road are boycotted for having a feminist agenda by “men’s rights groups” (an oxymoron befitting of morons), as women continue to fight for control over their own bodies, and shirts like this one still exist, it’s easy to see the relevance of Atwood’s dystopic novel. The cruelty of subjugation against women is taken to the extreme, stripped of all subtleties, as women are kept as “concubines” to serve an Old-Testament, ultra-conservative regime. Not as far from fiction as one might think, The Handmaid’s Tale remains more necessary today than ever for its dramatic reminder that inequality is not just an abstract concept but a living reality, one that does irreparable harm to women everywhere.Continue Reading

Well-Traveled Verse: The Book of Poems You’ll Find Everywhere in India

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Indian bookstores come in wide varieties: street-sellers pitch copies of everything from tabloids to Freud, more upscale boutiques feature plastic-wrapped paperbacks in scholarly fields, and stuffed-to-the-brim cubicles at train depots deliver Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels beside worn editions of the Gita.

But, without a doubt, I always came across copies of Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections. The collection’s distinctive caramel cover features a red slash demarcating its title and author: in many stores, several of these candied collections would be nestled next to one another, provoking a question one of Seshadri’s poems asks: “How strange would it be if you met yourself on the street?” (33). How strange it is to see the same book again and again: 3 Sections was peculiarly unavoidable in India, like a neighbor you keep bumping into at the supermarket.Continue Reading

Review: THROWN by Kerry Howley

thrown_hawleyThrown
Kerry Howley
Sarabande Books, 2014
282 pages

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Being intimate with some sports is far from a guarantee that one is even acquainted with all of them. Personally I’ve never wanted to watch a single mixed-martial arts fight until reading Kerry Howley’s Thrown, a page-turner that has a lot to teach students of journalism, of creative nonfiction, and of fighting itself.

Criss-crossing the Midwest for one steamy gym after another, from Davenport to Milwaukee to Cedar Rapids, Howley spends the better part of two years tracking two fighters until she is nestled comfortably in their innermost circle: that is, invited over for the ritual living room screening of Pumping Iron at the end of another week in the gym. Having discovered both the fighters and fighting serendipitously, the chance inciting incident of her journey, Howley brings the reader along with her on the learning curve until we, too, are aghast at the screaming lack of understanding on display from the casual fans who surround her at cageside.Continue Reading

Hilarious Discomfort: On Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

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The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
March 2015
304 pages

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I sat down to read Paul Beatty’s new satirical novel The Sellout knowing I was going to write about it. In fact, I had committed to writing about it. I had pitched it; it was my idea. This knowledge, in conjunction with the book’s subject matter caused me anxiety throughout (though never impinged on my enjoyment of the book—is there a German word for extreme intellectual discomfort while also having a pretty good time?).

The book is about race in America. An outrageous satire, it shreds black culture, white culture, the intersection of the two, and a whole lot more. And my problem (though as problems go, this barely qualifies) is that I’m white. A white woman writing for the online arm of a literary outlet that was founded by a couple of white dudes in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1970s, and whose very name references our nation’s complicated and blood-spattered agrarian past. As I read, I kept thinking that Beatty would skewer that succinctly and hilariously. And he’d be right.Continue Reading