The Room Must be Filled


The Humbling
, Philip Roth (140pp,  12.99, Jonathan Cape)
Bona Drag
, Jeremy Reed (128pp,  9.95, Shearsman)
Penury
, Myung Mi Kim (112pp, $15.95, Omnidawn)


The appeal of Roth to a poet?

Pretence to truthfulness in a book, which can be picked up or put down, or perceived with faint daze before put down, ignores that many read books to be titillated. From to be tickled. To be tickled as a child is one thing, and tickling in adulthood an extra thing, of course.

Where does sobering literature go, then? Straight to the heart? Or to the guilt? And is the guilt located in the heart, or is it passed (from one person to the next person to whom s/he recommends the book; with the idea that it is supposed to make interest in all other books feel newly complicated; not a guilty pleasure, but an unpleasurable guilt; so that the pleasure stands aside till the guilt is atoned for)?

Of the three books I've been reading for review this Christmas, at least one clearly sets out to titillate, but I wonder which manage to evoke those basic questions of logic and useful puzzlement that a child experiences. Why did that scene move to that scene? Why did that happen? Children seem oblivious to the page - where things are on the page, how one page moves to another page. Children follow logic. They demand it, or ignore it when they can't find it. Without logic, there is no guilt that leads to thought, only a bowed head kind of guilt.

Performers in the city must read plays. So that echoes, of more than one, come to bear on any performance. This is not quite saying poets should read other poets (to be better poets). Poets should take the risk of reading other poets for the risk of being dumbstruck. Or allowing that the other can have something which makes one's own performance seem broken, stuttered. This is only being humbled if it comes with seeing one might be able to be broken.

There are cities on the information highway, where traffic slows down on the approach, a one way system begins to usher and boss and the outre is practised. The cities are not its oases but its out of town malls. In cyberspace only between two neighbours are provincial idiocies not practised, where there might be actuality now and no avant-garde sentimentality. Meanwhile the loneliness that forces the life of real cities is strangely redammed and forded, through a real rush not in itself really wet. And so there is less anti-provincialism, more provincialism, and less city, so less metaphorical city, less cyber-city. The rich live in gated estates, behind firewalls, on which we the rest are scalded if, ever, we pause to look at their coins as objects that pass into and through our digestion. Existence now less gets talked about as everyone's life, but it does as everyone's money, in a talk of dead metaphors and common sense as dully reducible as the taxable gross of grunts. We are a spread sheet, but only notice it peripherally with a metonym-based shudder when we ever heard the word for column, or see a column. We stare at walls as if they were windows, and if, ever, not, then there is no Midas - only a touch that makes only metal (only not valued for its use): metal, and skin, and cornea, blistered. It is not that there is no community without privacy, the internet world of avatars. It is that we commune over something we have both, but not perfectly identically, pored over, in a way that can't be summarised in a digest or Idiot's Guide. Instead we hint at each our own studies, and Roth suggests, create a gravitational field that isn't about the person but instead a sort of selfish gene to knowledge/depth. An itch. But don't call it love, or lust, or pure. Perhaps call it the selfish city. 

Nobody would expect a poet to change the setting in a new book, look at a new kind of drama, a different politics. Why should Roth?

Histrionic exaggeration and grand sweeping statement as poem couched in Roth's prose. Auden doubted it, feared it. It is the fantasy of being able to sweep out of the room, with your line still ringing in others' ears, and makes for poetry. The room must be filled, not the swept white room of the versifier.

Compare the two late Bellow novellas. As markers of what the old guy now does, and what things now mean to him. Again, performance, for The Humbling is about an actor who can't perform anymore, though he is at least not sexually impotent the plot discovers. But what is performance? What are its temptations to simplification and exaggeration? In a swept white room?

Freudian language about the self made a theatre of performance. New acceptance of mental health takes that away, makes the relationship of performer to audience different, so that some "natural performers" want to leave the stage and be less bombastic. It seems like a desire for intimacy. But the intimacy has recording equipment on it and the chance to fetishise the joy as it flies. Not quite the self-surveillance of the self that Roth's narrator in the Dying Animal once (sweeping out of the chapter) urged it seems us to get past.  The multimedia age changes things, or personalises, or kills something, hence the death in the Humbling.

One notes the scene of abuse of children, within the idealised hearth and thus within the idealisation that implies the tragedy. Yet I look for the denial to be over, every refusal of pain of others is to do with overload of pain. Perhaps one should take away all looking from these books, all describing, all wish to be "stripped of" (in Denise Riley's poems) stimulation, if stimulation is the wrong kind of titillation? As an exercise. One notes that perhaps Philip Roth read the accounts, disputed, in Vanity Fair of Woody Allen at the time of child abuse allegations against Allen.

What does anyone read, and how fully are they with it? If they are not with it, then must we be with them, holding to the every word they hold in suspense? Or perhaps they will give them to us.




I don't write fiction. I love poetry. And I rarely find books of new poems that I like. I get great nourishment for my appetite in Roth, who cites poets again and again and on the pulse.

Jeremy Reed lives in the current real city of London.

Myung Mi Kim from her blurb teaches a great deal in American cities but her book is located in places of penury (as the title suggests), sparsity and torture. As the goal seems to be in torture, there seem very few hopes and not even literal dreams (mixings-up and greater horror or greater joy in REM sleep) and a lot of cynicism. There are implications of lives that have rarely if ever had hope, but (as if established logically) also that have rarely if ever had literal dreams. This is a confrontation rhetorical tactic, a kind of abstraction, and one of the tactics one can associate with poetry. The would-be titillated may cry "but I don't like this" and some voice from within or without replies, "it is poetic to have written this, and poetic to like it".

Poets, especially, have problems with endings, as does Roth in novel after novel. At least, it is my experience that I often pore over the pages leading up to the ending, then skim the ending. The Humbling
has a clean ending, led up to with pace, but one to which my reaction was "but I don't like this" and some voice from within or without replies, "it is poetic to have written this, and poetic to like it". It has led me to think hard about what its death is, and to conclude it is the death of an old performance world. In Roth's book, there are computers. A couple sit, as modern couples in relative Western affluence do, each on their laptops at night, not talking much. I am left a little trying to work on what the intention might have been, what was cut to fit expectations of channel surfers and the timing given by the distributor. But Roth's work demonstrates, as Ashbery does, that the same mind that produces ambitious work produces grandiose work, and at least it sometimes produces ambitious work. One of the features of the modern publishing world is that the minds of artists don't get the punts from the publishers that they used to, it takes a much tougher skin to persist with the hermetic activity that only makes sense when the author is gone, the oeuvre finished.

With an epistolary, documentary, real-time endeavour like Jeremy Reed's books, ambition and ending don't happen, or not in that way. He doesn't organise his work to put re-occurrences of certain themes, the red of lipstick, designer fashion labels, an interest in some Japanese people, so that they re-occur rhythmically across his book. Everything is a reaching for surprise, sometimes successfully. His work is not inert, as the many poets who reach for imagery every line can be, although rhythmically the lines in each poem pile up like a hawker shouting every headline in the paper page by page; and this is not untrue of Myung Mi Kim's rhythm either. Both poets work in an apparently visual way, which really means some curator (who are more indulgent than publishers) might put the pages on the walls of a white room called a Contemporary Art Gallery, and one might be able to get something from them with one's gallery head on. That is not a revolutionary space, but a cocky one, and the worlds of theatre and publishing and the stifled lives of people at or not at their laptops are given no more tools for addressing each other with pointful language. Instead, the pots simmer and shriek with tones sometimes accompanied by gristle of the language of their literal dreams.

Locales are suggested, however. And one is convinced not to visit them as a tourist, at all, and that one may never in one's lifetime go there properly, and therefore not at all. One says this, with the weariness of the hemmed-in real waking-time body, but almost feels warded off from dreaming these places either. One feels one might get to know the people who know the poets, but not the poets, and yet might get to know the poetry-loving novelist direct. Making small talk only, perhaps.

Does death need to take place at the end of a book? Especially when one is only allowed with discomfort to be a voyeur, a tourist. If one is forced out of being oneself, then thoughts of death for characters or the authorial voice in the book become too much like the utter nonsense of Damien Hirst's title The Impossibility of Death on the Mind of Someone Living
, they become not unbearable but illogical. They are bad rhythm, bad construction, disguising itself as an equally good, alternative rhythm and construction. It is more the unpalatability of bad silliness for someone good who's trying to live. Morbidity comes usefully in the Reed book, but like a bad day one tries to put it behind one.

          Ira Lightman 2010