Saturday 29 September 2018

Neglected writers - Hempel and Berlin

I've a list of writers that I want to read. Some of them have been rather neglected by readers at large. Here are two whose books I've recently found -

Amy Hempel

"The Dog of Marriage" (Quercus) contains all her stories up to 2008. 400 pages for £9.99. A bargain. Here's a sample (the narrator's a widow, Nashville's a dog)

Here's a trick I found for how to finally get some sleep. I sleep in my husband's bed. That way the empty bed I look at is my own.
Cold nights I pull his socks on over my hands. I read in his bed. People still write from when Flea had his column. He did a pet Q and A for the newspaper. The new doctor sends along letters for my amusement. Here's one I liked - a man thinks his cat is homosexual.
The letter begins, "My cat Frank (not his real name) ..."
In addition to Flea's socks, I also wear his watch.
It's the way we tell each other.
At bedtime, I think how Nashville slept with Flea. She must have felt to him like a sack of antlers. I read about a marriage breaking up because the man let his Afghan sleep in the marriage bed.
I had my own bed. I slept in it alone, except for those times when we needed - not sex - but sex was how we got there.

It's fast, with jokes and feeling. Names mentioned in the book's introduction came to my mind too - the wit of Lorrie Moore, the concision of Lydia Davis (some of Hempel's pieces are a page long, a few are much shorter). I suppose she's a bit of a writer's writer.

My favourite pieces include "San Francisco", "In the cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" (her most famous piece), and "Weekend".

Lucia Berlin

"A manual for cleaning women" (Picador, 2016) has 43 stories (about 400 pages) for £9.99. She had a lively start to life (3 failed marriages and 4 sons by the time she was 28) and was an alcoholic for decades. From the age of 10 she had scoliosos, which was often painful. For a while she was an elective mute. Her mother had alcohol problems and may well have killed herself. Her output was intermittent - she did many jobs because she needed the money - but she ended up being a creative writing prof, dying in 2004.

As the introduction to the book notes, her stories don't hang around. The first story begins in a laundromat. In the second paragraph the narrator recalls Mrs Armitage from a previous laundromat she visited - "I was a young mother then and washed diapers on Thursday mornings. She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn't see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays". It's zappy, with the speed of stand-up or Flash. Indeed, there are pieces which are little longer than a page. All I know of her life is from the notes in this book, but that's enough for me to view the pieces as thinly disguised autobiography - overlapping attempts at using the source material of her life.

There aren't many happy stories. In "Carmen" for example Mona is living with Noodles, an addict. She has kids and she's pregnant. She agrees to be a drug-mule, flies off, nearly gets raped, returns with a condom of heroin. Her waters break as Noodles tries the new supplies. She gets herself to hospital, has a baby girl, but the baby dies moments after birth.

"Point of View" , "A manual for cleaning women", "Toda Luna, Todo Año", "So Long", "Wait a minute" and "Homing" are my favourites, though they're not all stories.

Monday 17 September 2018

Poets on form

I've done a write-up of "Ecstatic occasions, expedient forms", David Lehman (ed) (Univ of Michigan, 1996) in which poets explain their forms. A mixed bag of scientific and mystical explanations -

  • "Since it is not my custom to capitalize the initial word of each line, I decided to experiment with this convention"
  • "it's foolish to think a line should break so that the reader might rest or so an end word can shiver and throb in order to call more attention to itself"
  • "I broke the poem into quatrains for the purpose of making a better shape on the page"
  • "an eight-syllable line with no regular meter, no counting of stresses. It is almost free verse broken into an arbitrary length. ... I like this form because it leaves the musical cadence almost entirely free to follow the content. ... yet has some of the surface tension of regularity. "

etc. Some of the poets decided not to mention the form even though it was overt.