This Saturday from 2-3pm at Faulkner House Books, we will be hosting the author Kevin Sessums, who will be signing his new book I Left it on the Mountain, which is the followup to his best-selling memoir Mississippi Sissy. Publisher’s Weekly writes of the book:
Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career.
Read the rest of the review here, and join us tomorrow to pick up a copy of the book and meet the author! As always, we’re at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter.
And this Sunday, March 15, from 2-4:30pm, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society will be co-sponsoring a celebration of the launch of Randy Fertel‘s new book, A Taste of Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, at the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says of the book,
A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.
Randy will give us his own take on improvisation, which he sees as at the very heart of literature. There will be wine, refreshments, and books available for sale. This is a free event, but please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org so we have enough wine for everyone!
Maxine Kumin. And Short the Season. WW Norton & Co, 2014. 24.95. Call or visit us to purchase.
Maxine Kumin’s death, a year ago this month, was a loss felt deeply by the poetry community. Her final book, And Short the Season, was published the year she died, and is a beautiful meditation on the close of a life.
In this final collection, Kumin explores nature, death, loss, and what it means to live as a poet. Her stunning formal abilities are on full display as well: the music of her meter and rhyme is subtle, yet almost perfect throughout. Kumin maintains her sensibilities as a New England poet, painting the outdoors with the eye of a naturalist. The first poem in the collection is one of my favorites, beginning
And short the season, first rubythroat
in the fading lilacs, alyssum in bloom,
a honeybee bumbling in the bleeding heart
on my gelding’s grave while beetles swarm
Kumin’s choice of natural detail is powerful: she suggests creeping mortality even before we come to the gelding’s grave, using the rubythroat and the bleeding heart to call to mind the violence inherent even beneath the serenity of nature. The season is short, the lilacs dying already, the life of the horse long since ended. This is Kumin’s gift throughout the collection: the quiet, yet steady, focus on the ephemerality of our own world. We see it especially in the final section of the book, in poems like “Going Down” and “Just Deserts.” Here it is the violence not of nature alone, but which humans have inflicted on the natural world, that haunts her:
Despite outcries of purest angst
dikes won’t save the playing field
so blow a kiss to this drowned world.
The gods have spoken: yield.
These final poems are some of the starkest in the collection. Here is a poet who visualizes herself not only on the brink of her own death, but on the brink of the collapse of the earth as she knows it through climate change. Kumin puts into words the sneaking fear felt by all who have seen our fragile worlds come crashing down in wind or flood.
Woven into the natural world of the book is also, of course, a very human element. Kumin reminds us of her rightful place in the canon, writing about poets from Sexton to Ginsberg to Williams. I especially love the series “Sonnets Uncorseted,” in which she writes about what it was like to be a woman poet of her generation. She nods to forebears from Margaret Cavendish to Virginia Woolf to Emily Dickinson, and writes fondly of her friendship with Anne Sexton. Describing the male poets of her generation, Kumin says
…if a poem
of ours seemed worthy they said, you write like a man.
When asked what woman poet they read, with one
voice they declaimed, Emily Dickinson.
Saintly Emily safely dead, modern
women poets dismissed as immature,
their poems pink with the glisten of female organs.
Much has changed since then: Kumin revels in the ambitious female writers of today, the MFA programs and small presses that give an alternative outlet to poets whose voices veer from the traditional. For woman poets today, Kumin’s blessing is something to hold onto.
And of course, And Short the Season is Kumin’s last book. Thus it is tinged with the sorrow of the dying, with the profound loss felt by the reader upon coming to the last page. There will be no more, the poet seems to say. Her short final poem is a sort of goodbye:
Sudden and quiet, surrounded by friends
–John Milton’s way–
But who gets to choose this ordered end
Trim and untattered, loved ones at hand?
–Allow me that day.
Kumin bids her reader adieu; she is off to join the ranks of the other historically great poets: Milton, Dickinson, her friend Anne Sexton. We are lucky to have had this last book. It is a masterfully realized goodbye from one of our most important poets.
Just in time for Mardi Gras, we have some exciting rare books for you! If you are looking to enrich your Carnival with some collectible literature, come by Faulkner House and check these out.
The Mystick Krewe: Comus and his Kin. Perry Young. 1931. 1st ed. $775.00.
This out-of-print, exceedingly rare book is in great condition, and features color illustrations. Young’s book outlines the history of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the Krewe that turned Mardi Gras into the celebration it is today.
Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization. Errol Laborde. 1991. $150.00.
This is a rare first edition of an out of print history of the Krewe of Rex, “King of Carnival.” Rex, along with Zulu, is perhaps the most famous Mardi Gras Krewe. They were founded in 1871, and have been marching Mardi Gras day ever since. The highlight of the season is the Rex Ball, held across the street from the Comus Ball. At the end of the night, the two courts meet. To learn more about this uniquely New Orleanian secret society, come by to check out the book! (And if you are looking for something less collectible, we also have Laborde’s most recent book in stock, 2013’s Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival.)
Call us at 504-524-2940 or come by the shop to see or purchase any of these books! Happy Carnival!
My Sunshine Away. M.O. Walsh. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015. 26.95. Come by and pick up a copy or call us to order!
This week marked the highly anticipated release of the debut novel by M.O. Walsh, My Sunshine Away, praised by Southern literary royalty the likes of Kathryn Stockett and Anne Rice. Walsh’s prose moves the story along at a pace that finds the perfect compromise between meditative and page-turner. Set in Baton Rouge in the early 90’s, the book is narrated by an unnamed man recalling his childhood, beginning with the year his neighbor, the 15-year-old Lindy Simpson, was raped on their usually quiet Southern street. The rape is still unsolved, and the narrator confesses to us early on that he is a suspect. This is, in some ways, a deeply unsettling story: we are immersed in the consciousness of a narrator who may or may not be a rapist, and whose lovesick actions toward Lindy are often unconscionable.
My Sunshine Away seems to plunge us into a normal childhood in the South, on Piney Creek Road, where neighborhood kids spent their days “tearing around in go-karts, coloring chalk figures on [their] driveways, or chasing snakes down into storm gutters.” But a dark current runs beneath the narrative. This is a street shaken to its core by the sexual assault of a teenage girl, Lindy Simpson. The insularity of the story is emphasized by the fact that the rape takes place right outside Lindy’s house, across the street from the narrator’s own home. Piney Creek is quietly, constantly under siege from the kinds of tragedies that are inescapable on any street, as well as the kinds of tragedies that make us question what is normal in human nature. The rape is just the publicly tangible manifestation of a world in which adult men take pictures of their teenage neighbors and drug their children, where the narrator spies on Lindy from an oak tree and draws her head onto pornographic images.
The darkness of the novel is tempered by the fact that it is also a kind of love story. My favorite thing about this book is Walsh’s ability to so fully crystallize what it means to be young and in love. Speaking of Lindy, our narrator says, “There’s this girl. And when I look at her, I don’t know what to do.” And on technology: “There were no cell phones. No private text messages. It was simply one on one conversation and, if it was any good at all, you had to whisper.” This is the kind of evocative power found on every page. Even if you didn’t grow up in the South, you will find remnants of your own high school experiences in the Spanish moss and mosquitoes of Piney Creek Road. And you will find yourself nostalgic for summer in Baton Rouge, even if you have never been: “And so the soul of this place lives in the parties that grow here, not just Mardi Gras, no, but rather the kind that start with a simple phone call to a neighbor, a friend. And after the heat is discussed and your troubles shared you say man it’d be nice to see you, your kids, your smile. And from this grows a spread several tables long, covered in newspaper, with long rows of crawfish spilled steaming from aluminum pots…” One can’t help but feel that South Louisiana is more than a backdrop to this story: it is almost a living character, loved by the narrator with the same passion he feels for Lindy.
This story is as much about Lindy as it is about the narrator. Lindy is objectified by almost everyone she encounters, reminding the reader of what it is like to grow up as a young girl in a world that becomes increasingly unsafe the more she begins to look like a woman. Lindy is never, however, objectified by the author. She is a real girl, experiencing a trauma that is not understood by the narrator, but that is deeply understood by the author. Walsh never gives us the narrator’s name, reminding us that the real protagonist is, in a way, Lindy. However, the namelessness of the narrator also fits him into the time-honored tradition of the every man, and this is what makes the book truly chilling. Does every man really enact such violence on the women around him? The narrator concludes, in the final pages of the book, what we have wanted him to recognize all along: “That’s why I am so lucky to have Julie around now, and to have had my mother and Rachel around for so long, to make me realize that life is not always about me and the unloading of my conscience. The story of Lindy’s rape, for instance. It is about Lindy. And that is all.” As he grows from a boy into a man, the narrator realizes that there is a world of women around him, women with secrets, women whose parallel existence in the world is shockingly different from his own. He realizes, for instance, that Lindy was probably not the only girl to be raped that year in Baton Rouge. That women bear scars that they don’t tell men about.
It is this nuanced understanding of what it means to be a man that makes My Sunshine Away so special. It is unsettling to read what presents itself as a mystery about a rape, but the solution to the mystery is, appropriately, unsatisfying in a way that a true crime novel’s ending never is. There is nothing glamorous, nothing outrageous about rape. We aren’t reading to find out who did it. Men commit these atrocities against women every day. This isn’t a mystery so much as it is the story of a man who comes to recognize his own complicity in a culture that is dangerous to women. It is a story about becoming a better man, and recognizing that some narratives will always remain secret.
Bill Loehfelm. Doing the Devil’s Work. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015. 26.00. Stop by Faulkner House Books or call us to purchase your copy!
Bill Loehfelm’s newest novel, Doing the Devil’s Work, the third in the Maureen Coughlin series, is both thrilling and gritty, a story you will want to devour in one sitting, but which will stay with you for days afterward. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, the book’s sense of place is created with hyper-realist precision. From an Audubon Park mansion to a Central City sidestreet to Coughlin’s own home in the Irish Channel, Loehfelm takes the reader on a tour of the city through the eyes of a cop who has recently moved here from Staten Island. Loehfelm includes a murder outside F&M’s, an interview at the Rose Nicaud, and a late night drinking at Ms. Mae’s, among other local markers. This book never lets you forget its setting, and locals and tourists alike will enjoy this gripping journey through what might be the closest thing to the real contemporary New Orleans ever portrayed in fiction.
In this installment of the series, Maureen has finished her police training and is finally a real New Orleans cop, but she is far from out of the woods. The department, and the city, is rife with corruption. They are understaffed, publicly disliked, and overworked, and these obstacles, as well as departmental politics and unwanted attention from the federal government after the 2013 consent decree, frustrate any neat solution to the murder mystery that begins with a dead body in an abandoned Central City home. Maureen finds herself torn between her instincts and a department that encourages her to stay out of it. And as an isolated murder quickly spirals into something much bigger, Maureen struggles to toe the line of police department ethics and politics while doing all she can to solve the crime.
Maureen herself is a character worth spending time with. She is both gutsy and empathetic, and her cop instincts are what drive this plot forward. Though she is no saint, Maureen is unphased by the social hierarchies of her newly adopted city, and her integrity is near unshakeable. As she says to her colleague, “The consent decree is going to change everything. That old-boy network stuff, that who-you-knew-in-high-school shit is going out the window.” Her New York attitude reflects the very real changes happening in a city that sometimes feels as if it being forcibly dragged into the twenty-first century, for better and for worse. And as a female protagonist, Maureen’s sharp tongue and tough attitude, not to mention her competence as a police officer, are nothing short of refreshing. Both her flaws and her virtues are realistic. Loehfelm is a master of characterization. He writes dialogue that is quick and witty, and from this dialogue spring dazzlingly realized characters.
From the police department, to the characters, to the city itself, this is a book in three dimensions: sparklingly real, never romanticized, never gratuitous. Doing the Devil’s Work is a highly satisfying read. My only regret is the wait for the sequel.
Italo Calvino. The Complete Cosmicomics. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $24.00. Call (504) 524-2940 or visit us to purchase a copy!
This beautiful new edition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics brings together all of the Cosmicomics for the first time in one place, including a few stories that have never before been translated into English. If you have never read these stories before, you are in for a treat: Calvino’s vision of a primordial universe as playground for his protagonist Qfwfq is transportative. We follow Qfwfq and his friends from the Big Bang through to the creation of life on earth and evolution. One of the most beautiful stories is the first, “The Distance of the Moon,” in which Qfwfq remembers when the moon passed so close to earth that he and his companions would take a boat out to the sea and climb a ladder to its surface. He tells us,
On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury,
and the fish in it, violet-coloured, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction,
rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron
medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures–little crabs, squid, and
even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants–that broke from the
sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling,
or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off,
waving banana leaves at them.
Calvino’s prose is where poetry and science mingle, and these stories, collected for the first time in their entirety, tell not only of the creation of the universe, but of love and loss. These tales are richly imagined, and the stunning images of the early universe as envisioned by Calvino will stay with you for a long, long time.
Denise Levertov, The Collected Poems of Denise Levertov. New Directions, 2013. $49.95. Call (504)-524-2940 to order or visit us in Pirate’s Alley!
Though she died in 1997, it wasn’t until last year that we were finally graced with Denise Levertov’s complete collected works. This is a beautiful volume, stunning even before it is opened to reveal the life’s work of one of 20th century America’s most important poets. The poems’ chronological arrangement allows us to observe the evolution of Levertov’s poetic voice over a period of more than 60 years.
If you are unfamiliar with Levertov’s less known works, this is the perfect opportunity to delve into her canon. She is a poet whose entire oeuvre demands reading and rereading. Poetry was her highest truth, as she writes in the poem A Cloak, from Relearning the Alphabet:
Levertov’s poetry is characterized by her precision: reality sparkles under her guidance, coming into sharp focus to reveal beauty that we might otherwise have overlooked. Her early collections (The Double Image, Here and Now, Overland to the Islands) are pure lyric, concerned deeply with the perennial subjects of love and death, marriage and war. An early poem, 1940’s Listening to Distant Guns, foreshadows some of her major poetic concerns:
That low pulsation in the east is war:
No bell now breaks the evening’s silent dream.
The bloodless clarity of evening’s sky
Betrays no whisper of the battle scream.
Levertov approaches her topics with a realist’s eye for the background noise. She brings the war into focus here, for example, by dwelling on the places where war seems nonexistent, the negative spaces of the horror, and she brings into chilling relief the powerlessness of human suffering to touch every part of the world.
In Here and Now, Levertov brings her uncompromising vision to New Orleans’ own Jackson Square (home of Faulkner House Books!) She writes,
Bravo! the brave sunshine.
A triangle of green green contains
the sleek and various pigeons
the starving inventors and all
who sit on benches in the morning,
to sun tenacious hopes…
She focuses on the smaller details of the place: not the looming cathedral, but the hopes of the “starving” people who try to make a living in the square. And yet the sun is still bright, the pigeons still varied; though sorrow is an inextricable part of her poetic world, it does not color all it touches. And isn’t this the most unsettling thing of all, to know that though we suffer, the sun shines on?
In With Eyes at the Back of our Heads, we see a poetic shift in which Levertov becomes more concerned with the role of the poet in her society. The book begins with a translation of a Toltec codice entitled The Artist, in which the true creator is praised. And in the poem The Charge, she writes,
to all the unsaid
all the lost living untranslated
in any sense,
and the dead
only in dreams that die by morning
is a mourning or ghostwalking only.
You must make, said music…
For Levertov, it becomes increasingly important that her poetic and political lives overlap and fuse. Art is a way for her to respond productively to the political upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.
In 1971’s To Stay Alive, Levertov writes wrenchingly of the death of her sister and the war in Vietnam. These poems are darker than her early work, and rightly so. Her “political” poems demonstrate perhaps most clearly her humanity as well as her poetic abilities. In Life at War, she writes,
We are the humans, men who can make;
whose language imagines mercy,
lovingkindness we have believed one another
mirrored forms of a God we felt as good—
who do these acts, who convince ourselves
it is necessary; these acts are done
to our own flesh; burned human flesh
is smelling in Vietnam as I write.
She resists always the dehumanization of war, forcing her reader to recognize that though the sun still shines, we cannot escape the legacy of the suffering we enact upon one another. Humans are great artists; we are also murderers, and this is the cold truth of which she reminds us.
Her later work shifts again, to what Eavan Boland calls in her introduction to the collection “a fully realized moral vision.” Many of her poems from the 80’s onward, informed by her late conversion to Christianity, survey the beauty of their world and seek its goodness. These lines from the poem Salvation, from Sands of the Well, strike me as particularly transcendent:
this unhoped-for pardon will once more permit
the stream to offer itself at last
to the lake, the lake will accept it, take it
the stream restored will become pure lake.
Levertov’s Collected Poems is a treasure chest waiting to be searched. Her poetic vision is always clear, striking, incisive. Whether she is writing about nature or war, marriage or death, she never wavers from her commitment to artistic excellence. She brings to mind the idea of the poet as prophet, as she was surely a voice of her time.
Louise Glück, Poems 1962-2012. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2013. $40.00. Call (504) 524-2940 to order or visit us!
If you have encountered Louise Glück’s work only through the odd anthology, or if you haven’t yet had the chance to discover her, this beautiful volume is the perfect way to delve deep into the canon of one of America’s most important contemporary poets. Robert Boyers writes in The Nation that Glück “has found ways to engage with the world as it is without capitulating to its felt demand that she renounce any alternative sense of what is real.” Glück does not create her own mythology, but rather infuses the stark reality of her lived experience with myth, paradoxically increasing the precision of the realism in these poems. In 1996’s Meadowlands, for example, Glück uses the story of the Odyssey as observed by Penelope and Telemachus to create heightened resonance in poems about her own unraveling marriage. In Penelope’s Song, she writes,
He will be home soon;
it behooves you to be
generous. You have not been completely
perfect either; with your troublesome body
you have done things you shouldn’t
discuss in poems.
Glück inhabits the anger of Penelope, who has been raped in the absence of Odysseus. She calls upon herself to “be generous,” though tragedy and unfaithfulness have driven a wedge between herself and her beloved.
For her there is no shortcut to the truth; truth itself is tangled, unclear, complicated. In “Moonless Night,” Glück writes, “Such a mistake to want / clarity above all things.” Truth is in the bleakness of Vita Nova’sAubade, the “room with a chair, a window. / A small window, filled with the pattern the light makes.” Yet truth also reveals itself, in a later Aubade from The Seven Ages, through the “Smell of the mock orange tree / Corridors of jasmine and lilies.” Glück confronts the complexity of beauty and sorrow through a careful assortment of objects. The flowers in her poetry, like the chairs, are unadorned.
You may know her most famous poem, The Garden, from 1980’s Descending Figure, which includes the lines:
The garden admires you.
For your sake it smears itself with green pigment,
the ecstatic reds of the roses,
so that you will come to it with your lovers.
Here, as elsewhere, Glück subverts the traditionally “feminine” style of ornamentation. She is anti-Romantic: in the process of ornamentation, her garden “smears” itself. In Glück’s work, nature is no pastoral comfort. It is a set of objects, and like the chair, or the window, it is tinged with the darkness that inhabits all aspects of the human condition. As she writes in Sunrise, from 2009’s A Village Life, “maybe that’s what nothing tastes like, thyme and rosemary.” The natural world is equated with the void that seems always at the edge of these poems. Beauty is not enough for Glück. In her poetry, she seeks something deeper, something harsher. And in this collection, spanning 50 years of her career, we watch as she deftly paints a world of darkness, a world of beauty.