Charles River

Charles River
Upper Limit Cloud/Lower Limit Sail


"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top Poetry Titles of 2010

Like floral holidays, year-end book lists are an instrument of the industries which benefit from them; in this case, the book agents and publishing industry executives whose business it is to dictate intelligent taste and how it should be produced, packaged, and consumed. But as Don DeLillo drily notes, “all lists are forms of cultural hysteria.”

I offer my own, then, with that cautionary framing, and by way of providing a counter-word to the stale repetitions of the lists found in the pages of the New York Times, The New Yorker, and all those factories of institutional conformity. In no particular order, and without annotation or any claim to having sampled more than a fraction of what was published this year, here are the poetry titles that I found most compelling in 2010.

(N.B. -- In looking over this list I can't help but notice that of the thirteen living poets, only four are younger than me, and then by just a slim margin. This is a problem. Perhaps one resolution for 2011 will be to read younger poets and not just my contemporaries or elders).

Squeezed Light: Collected Poems 1994-2005 – Lissa Wolsak (Station Hill)

Luminous Epinoia – Peter O’Leary (The Cultural Society)

Trance Archive: Selected and New Poems – Andrew Joron (City Lights)

Roche Limit – Andrew Zawacki (Tir Aux Pigeons)

Of Sarah: Lines & Fragments – Julie Carr (Coffee House)

Pitch: Drafts 77-95 – Rachel Blau DuPlessis (Salt)

Driven to Abstraction – Rosmarie Waldrop (New Directions)

Is Music: Selected Poems – John Taggart, edited by Peter O'Leary (Copper Canyon)

Reason and Other Women – Alice Notley (Chax)

R's Boat - Lisa Robertson (UC Press)

Mean Free Path - Ben Lerner (Copper Canyon)

Collected Poems – Gustaf Sobin, edited by Andrew Joron & Andrew Zawacki (Talisman)

engulf—enkindle – Anja Utler, translated by Kurt Beals (Burning Deck)

New Selected Poems and Translations – Ezra Pound, edited by Richard Sieburth (New Directions)

To Be At Music: Essays & Talks – Norma Cole (Omnidawn)

The H.D. Book – Robert Duncan, edited by Michael Boughn & Victor Coleman (UC Press)

And two outstanding critical works:

Norman Finkelstein’s On Mount Vision: Forms of the Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry (Iowa UP)

Marjorie Perloff’s Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century (U Chicago)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fair Game or, The Hazards of the Secret Life

It’s premature to say so, of course, especially given the limited number of first-run films I actually see, but for my money, Fair Game is the film of the year. David Denby cynically downgrades it with faint praise, relegating it to the category of last year’s kvetch, as if there were an expiration date on injustice and malfeasance. This in itself is such a dismayingly cynical act of bad faith it makes you wonder who Karl Rove hasn’t gotten to. But the sense of shame and the hazards of moral integrity that drive this film are undeniably powerful, making it every bit as relevant as when Plamegate was unfolding.

Naomi Watts brings a clarity, an unfussiness, and a lack of vanity to this role that is completely focused and riveting to watch, while Sean Penn’s performance is both dynamic and subtle. Watts combines a wary intelligence with a sense of commitment and risk-taking that is deeply compelling. As Valerie Plame Wilson, she amplifies the role she played in 2009’s The International (see my post on it: here), here playing a dedicated professional forced by betrayal to become an unwilling crusader against the very service she’s devoted her life to. The demands of this complex role ask her to display a charged sense of duty with a vulnerability that is both harrowing and moving.

The film’s denouement, with its vindication of Plame and Joe Wilson’s speech to college students, reminding them that we live in a republic, is rousing, gratifying stuff, to be sure, but while the Wilson’s themselves come through their ordeal, the larger scandal of how the casus belli for Iraq was manufactured and sold still looms, unresolved, already a part of the collective cultural amnesia surrounding the Bush Administration.

Nevertheless, Fair Game is a potent revisitation of those crimes. Doug Liman’s direction and pacing are sterling and the script, by the Butterworth brothers, is smartly restrained, balancing and intermeshing the private and the public with great delicacy. At the heart of this film is an exploration of the nexus where family loyalty is entangled with patriotism, love with professionalism, personal integrity with duty and service, all set under an excruciating pressure. Far from acting as abstract mottoes or perfunctory duties, these spheres of activity penetrate one another in the most intimate ways so that when one unravels, they all unravel.

Such is the price, as LeCarre might say, of “the secret life.” The larger structures of the social, which even in an open society, depend upon the clandestine, always already pulverize the individual, reducing her to a subject, as part of that agreement, and there is no protection, no immunity, from the state one serves, even in good faith. Any system with the clandestine at its core operates according to the logic of betrayal, then.

Fair Game is really an allegory about the decline and fall of the technocratic managers who preside over the American middle class's "counterfeit freedom," as Adorno puts it. This is particularly brought home, so to speak, by the film's two halves, in the first of which Plame conducts the Agency's business in Kuala Lumpur and Baghdad and the second, where the arena of global tensions takes over ordinary domestic spaces: the kitchen, the living room, the playground. The buffer that kept these two spheres separate is dissolved. As Jameson might say, this collapse of difference is the logic of late capital.

If the clandestine is the price for maintaining a politics of global influence and consumer affluence, then as citizens of empire we are each of us living in its shadows, on the thin margin between the unchecked privileges of power and the exposure which can, at any moment, plunge us into disaster.

UPDATE: By chance, the nominations for the Golden Globes were announced today. Neither "Fair Game" nor Naomi Watts were selected, which means that the social amnesia is all but complete and Denby is right. Iraq is so yesterday's news. That's a shame, because this picture, despite its weaknesses,* deserves so much more.

* As a former story analyst in Hollywood, my report would have recommended one less scene featuring either parent maintaining a stiff upper lip as the world collapses around them while their kids make a kid-like clamor. This kind of scenic domestic shorthand is no substitute for building up the texture of lived reality. I don't even recall the names of the children. One small scene -- perhaps it was excised? -- between father or mother and one of the twins would have gone a long way toward sustaining that sense of layering. On the other hand, the scene between Watts and her father, played by Sam Shepard, is near-perfect.