Joanna Rakoff

In 1965, poet and memoirist Kathleen Norris a shy, sheltered 17-year-old left her home in Hawaii and traveled several thousand miles to Bennington College in Vermont. As Norris recounts in The Virgin of Bennington, her fourth memoir, the distance between Honolulu and New England was more than geographical. Though academically rigorous, Bennington in the '60s was a playground for wealthy, "artsy" girls, members of the various branches of the East Coast elite. "I had no idea," Norris says, ". . . that I was signing on for a crash course in the turbulent dynamics of place and culture." Overwhelmed by her peers' hedonism affairs with professors and heavy drug use Norris retreated into herself, wrote poetry and critical essays, and earned a reputation as a prig. At 21, she was still a virgin, a complete anomaly at Bennington.

But after four years of college life, Norris succumbed; she developed a crush on a married professor a man who, she discovered years later, had engaged in countless affairs with students and doggedly pursued him. Her quest took her to New York, where she through the professor's connections landed a dream job as the assistant to Betty Kray, then-director of the Academy of American Poets. When the affair fizzled, Norris was crushed; but the failed romance became, in a way, a windfall. For it drew Norris closer to Kray by all accounts an extraordinary woman, friend to every major mid-century poet and inventor of any number of innovative arts and education programs (as well as a talented writer herself, evidenced by the letters included in Norris' book). Kray tutored Norris in everything from fashion to revision techniques to social etiquette and introduced her to James Wright, Diane Wakoski, Galway Kinnell, Richard Howard and a number of other poets. The book is filled with Norris' appreciative remembrances of these luminaries who taught her, in essence, how to be a poet. "Even in casual conversation they often imparted great wisdom on the joys and demands of the writing life," Norris says. Populated with some of the 20th century's most compelling writers, 0679455086 is a lively, jumbled tale full of literary history. Norris, author of the best-selling Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, has written a fascinating coming-of-age story.

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the book editor for Shout magazine.

 

In 1965, poet and memoirist Kathleen Norris a shy, sheltered 17-year-old left her home in Hawaii and traveled several thousand miles to Bennington College in Vermont. As Norris recounts in The Virgin of Bennington, her fourth memoir, the distance between Honolulu and New England was more than geographical. Though academically rigorous, Bennington in the '60s […]

This year marks the sixth anniversary of National Poetry Month, a four-week literary celebration sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. With readings, book fairs and festivals nationwide, the month provides a variety of ways to celebrate this classic genre of literature. If you prefer to markthe occasion by reading selections from some of the best contemporary poets, several exciting new volumes offer a wide range of choices.

Those who have read Julianna Baggott's wisecracking, quirky debut novel Girl Talk may be surprised to learn that Baggott is also a poet. Though more melancholy than Baggott's darkly comic fiction, the poems in her first collection This Country of Mothers wrestle with the same themes and ideas as Girl Talk. Like the novel, the collection is narrated by a young American Everywoman, navigating her way through a generic and often cruel landscape. As one might expect from an author who spent years writing fiction before turning to poetry, these are narrative poems, all of which deal with the same set of lively characters: the narrator; her tidy mother (who, in one poem, becomes the matriarch of a brood of bears); her one-legged maternal grandfather (whose hairless and pink prosthetic leg terrorizes the narrator); and her small daughter (on the verge of sight, just discovering a sense of herself in the world).

The narrator strives to reconcile her growing spirituality with her intense skepticism, "to figure out how to live in this sooty Eden, in which [l]ove makes us capable of the ugliest sins," through her interactions with these characters. Written in a kind of lyrical vernacular with line breaks that imitate natural speech patterns, these compelling, breathless poems read almost like a novel or a set of linked stories, as the narrator engages with the literal and metaphysical worlds. In "Correcting Memory," an early poem, she petulantly insists, "I don't want to know." By the end she coolly asks, "What could lie beyond these gates?"

Like Baggott, Thomas Lux inspects the grotesqueries of everyday American life and situates his poems in a kind of blank American panorama. "[T]he aesthetics/of landscape/less important than the fear for our lives," says the narrator of "So We Can See the Snakes Coming," describing his approach to lawn care and, in a way, encapsulating Lux's own approach to the physical world. Although many of the poems in The Street of Clocks, Lux's eighth collection, engage with natural or domestic environments, they do so only in order to get at the gristly stuff underneath. Death or the fear for our lives is ever-present and regarded with a sly mixture of adult apprehension and childish glee. "In the Bedroom Above the Embalming Room," for example, chronicles a child's discovery that his neighbor, the local undertaker, lives a humdrum life despite his profession thus, death is revealed as banal, part of daily existence.

Lux revels in language, and the compressed poems in The Street of Clocks are rich with puns, internal rhyme, repetition and onomatopoeia all of which lend a fluidity to his clipped lines and often formal diction. This is verse that transforms the world around us into a vista both menacing and comic.

Two vividly imagined dramas comprise Brutal Imagination, Cornelius Eady's aptly titled sixth collection. The first section is a series of poems based on the Susan Smith murder case, in which Smith murdered her two small sons, then claimed that a black man had kidnapped them. Eady, for the most part, writes in the voice of the imaginary kidnapper, using the details of the case to investigate the way the black man lives in the white imagination. "Susan Smith willed me alive/At the moment/Her babies sank into the lake/When called, I come," he explains in "How I Got Born," the collection's opening poem. In "Press Conference" and "Sympathy"–poems that detail Smith's confession–he constructs the imaginary kidnapper and Smith as one being, intrinsically tied: "How do we feel?" he asks, answering, "we're hard to untangle." Thus, Eady lays bare our most pernicious cultural myths and biases; the idea of the black man as criminal is nothing without the white woman's projection of this idea onto him. The cycle's final poem, "Birthing," describes the difficulty of breaking free from such stereotypes. "I am not me, yet," says Eady's protagonist, "I am just an understanding."

Poems that Eady adapted into a Pulitzer-nominated libretto for composer Deidre Murray comprise the second section, The Running Man Poems. These form a loose narrative about the death of a character called "Running Man." The poems narrated by Running Man's mother, father, sisters and Running Man himself (as a ghost) mainly consist of the family members' reactions to his death, as well as Running Man's own poignant commentary on his life. Where I come from, he declares in the section's titular poem, A smart black boy/Is like being a cat with a duck's bill. One can't help but think while reading Brutal Imagination that Eady's spare, intelligent verse will make such statements obsolete.

This year marks the sixth anniversary of National Poetry Month, a four-week literary celebration sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. With readings, book fairs and festivals nationwide, the month provides a variety of ways to celebrate this classic genre of literature. If you prefer to markthe occasion by reading selections from some of the […]

impressive, ambitious and extraordinarily imagined new novel from a Columbia anthropologist and New Yorker writer chronicles the modern history of Burma, from the 1885 British invasion to the political turmoil of present day Myanmar (as Burma is now called). The events are seen primarily through the eyes of Rajkumar Raha, an intrepid 11-year-old Indian orphan who finds himself on the eve of the British invasion stranded in Mandalay. A romantic and ambitious boy, Rajukmar becomes enthralled with the large fort that houses the Burmese royal family, vowing to “find a way in” the Glass Palace, the compound's inner sanctum, named for its “shining crystal walls and mirrored ceilings.” His chance comes sooner than he imagined. When British troops invade and loot the royal compound, the locals stampede the Glass Palace, searching for treasure. Therein, Rajkumar encounters 10-year-old Dolly, the queen's favorite and most beautiful maid. Instantly smitten, Rajkumar is crushed when, a day or so later, Dolly departs with the rest of the royal entourage, who have been exiled to India.

The first half of the novel follows Rajkumar, who makes his fortune in the teak industry, and Dolly, who plods through her days in Ratnagiri, the remote Indian town to which the Burmese royal family are exiled. Almost 20 years later, Rajkumar finds Dolly and convinces her to marry him. In the novel's second half the plot shifts, focusing on Rajkumar and Dolly's grown children and Uma's nieces and nephew. Although the various entanglements and dilemmas of this younger generation prove compelling, some of these characters have the feel of props, inserted in order to illustrate some aspect of the horrors of war and colonialism.

This is a small complaint, however, and one that perhaps should not be applied to an epic, episodic novel of this sort. For The Glass Palace resembles less a contemporary American plot-driven novel, than a sprawling work like Dos Passos' USA or a Greek epic. This is a major accomplishment from an important writer, worth reading if only for a greater understanding of Burmese and Indian history, and for a great thinker's perspective on the problems of colonialism and post-colonialism.

Joanna Smith Rakoff is the book editor for Shout magazine.

impressive, ambitious and extraordinarily imagined new novel from a Columbia anthropologist and New Yorker writer chronicles the modern history of Burma, from the 1885 British invasion to the political turmoil of present day Myanmar (as Burma is now called). The events are seen primarily through the eyes of Rajkumar Raha, an intrepid 11-year-old Indian orphan […]

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