December 1, 2015

"Stone Collection"

I have a suite of three poems under the title "Stone Collection" in the latest issue of Masque & Spectacle. The sculpture above is by the featured artist, Jyl Bonaguro.

November 25, 2015

Ursula K. Le Guin

Image by Euan Monaghan/Structo
Last weekend, Sofia and I made a pilgrimage to UCLA, where the Center for the Art of Performance was hosting an evening with Ursula Le Guin. We were in the plebe seats at the back of a massive hall, but it was nevertheless a magical experience. When she walked onstage, Sofia whispered: "That's the person who created The Tombs of Atuan," and it really was a bit surreal.

She is eighty-six now, small and hunched, with a low voice and deeply wrinkled skin. For ninety minutes she was in conversation with an appropriately awestruck moderator and read from several works and took questions. She came across as witty, ridiculously intelligent, and somehow simultaneously kindly and prickly. Some of the more interesting moments: Rocannon's World, her first published novel, was in fact the sixth novel she wrote. She considers her first three published novels, which would include Planet of Exile and City of Illusions, to be "apprentice work." Thus, I suppose, she would suggest that her real career begins with A Wizard of Earthsea, which is probably where most of her readers begin as well. Landscape and human intervention came up more than once. She read three poems about the Colorado River, before and after the damming, and offered a beautiful and emotional response to a question from Sofia about Always Coming Home, saying that she was trying to create a positive future for a landscape she cared for deeply. Her pacifist stance came through very strongly, as did her love of Virginia Woolf and J.R.R. Tolkien. In Earthsea, the old word for stone is tolk; it comes up at least twice, in poignant moments, and I believe this is a nod to Tolkien's influence on her. Furthermore, inien is the word for sea, so "Earthea" itself is possibly "Tolkien" in the old language. She mentioned Tolkien's "beats" - the alternating lights and darks, ups and downs, tensions and resolutions - which she says occur at every level: sentence, section, and chapter. She also told us that she read The Lord of the Rings aloud three times (to each of her kids), and is a strong believer in reading one's own work aloud.

I read the first three Earthsea books in Nairobi at the age of nine or ten. They were the lovely set in the clamshell, with the spines that make a perky little fish when put together. They were immediately placed on that special pedestal that contains the other hallowed multi-book fantasies: The Lord of the Rings and Narnia. All the others were second-rate imitators: Shannara and Thomas Covenant and Dragonriders of Pern and other crap. Of course I read everything else I could get my hands on in Nairobi, though I was too young for The Left Hand of Darkness. I devoured the short stories and the early novels and the slightly less compelling middle novels, The Word for World Is Forest, The Eye of the Heron, and The Beginning Place (though Le Guin's great gift is storytelling, and her work is always compulsively readable, with a special empathy that shines through even in her more minor work). Then in college I read Always Coming Home and The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and became obsessed. The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home, in particular, became touchstone works in the way A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan had been when I was a child.

More than any other living writer, Le Guin seems timeless. I think Earthsea and The Dispossessed will be read in a hundred years, and possibly in five hundred. Though she's had a few misses, the catalog of her hits is more extensive than that of just about any writer I can think of. Here's my Le Guin canon (in no particular order):

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Tombs of Atuan
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas"
"Darkness Box"
"She Unnames Them"
"Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight"
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Dispossessed
Always Coming Home

May 2, 2015

The Online Library of Babel

Okay, this is pretty awesome. Jonathan Basile has created Borges's Library of Babel online. You can choose books off the shelves and read them! In an interview at Flavorwire, Basile says: "When I started building the site, I actually had in the back of my mind the idea that a searchable, virtual Library of Babel might make it possible to find a few of those rational arrangements of letters. I very quickly realized how incorrect I was. And that I think is the most important part of the project — it gives that brief glimmer of hope, that reason might win out over unreason, then crushes it. In this way the site is true to Borges’ vision — I think he wants us to see that all the creations of reason, of human language and thought, are haunted and undermined by their irrational reproducibility."

March 1, 2015

New Edition of The Illuminations

I have put out a new version of my translation of The Illuminations. It has a new cover and I've done a little bit of tidying up inside. It's available on Amazon.

January 31, 2015

The Epilogue to Blood Meridian

Over at the always wonderful Biblioklept, Edwin Turner draws interesting parallels between the enigmatic epilogue to Blood Meridian and Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Here's the epilogue:
In the dawn there is a man progressing over the plain by means of holes which he is making in the ground. He uses an implement with two handles and he chucks it into the hole and he enkindles the stone in the hole with his steel hole by hole striking the fire out of the rock which God has put there. On the plain behind him are the wanderers in search of bones and those who do not search and they move haltingly in the light like mechanisms whose movements are monitored with escapement and pallet so that they appear restrained by a prudence or reflectiveness which has no inner reality and they cross in their progress one by one that track of holes that runs to the rim of the visible ground and which seems less the pursuit of some continuance than the verification of a principle, a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it there on that prairie upon which are the bones and the gatherers of bones and those who do not gather. He strikes fire in the hole and draws out his steel. Then they all move on again.
 Like Turner, I'd read the epilogue as describing the actions of a post-hole digger, followed by archaeologists  ... and "those who do not search" (settlers; us?). I'd imagined the digger marking the boundary between Mexico and the U.S., but as Turner notes, he could also be "carrying the fire, freeing the fire from the earth." Turner notes other interpretations: "it’s the final gnostic clue in the Judge’s web of mysteries; it’s the Promethean redemption of humanity against the Judge’s evil; it’s the spirit of civilization that will measure and conquer the bloody West, a progressive new dawn; it’s Cormac McCarthy’s signature, his designation of himself as the writer who carries the fire." Turner doesn't arrive at a satisfying conclusion; perhaps all we can say is that both McCarthy and Anderson are grappling with America's greedy, blood-soaked past and (perhaps) trying to draw lines to the present.

I first read Blood Meridian in Burundi, where I served with Mennonite Central Committee as a peace worker. It was a fraught time, and perhaps the novel explained or at least echoed some of the horrors I witnessed. A fellow MCCer had borrowed the book from a friend in the States, and I read the twice-borrowed copy to tatters, entranced by the language and the character of Judge Holden. For a while I thought it was McCarthy's finest novel, but now I'm back to All the Pretty Horses, with Suttree a close second.