Charles River

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

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes

Keith Tuma's amazing new book, On Leave: A Book of Anecdotes, is just out from Salt. More than a collection of random tales, it's also a daybook, a meditation on the role of the anecdote in literary criticism, and some first rate readings of a wealth of great poems. It's brilliant and impossible to put down.

Besides recounting numerous anecdotes, delightful in themselves, about literary figures, Tuma provides a useful history of the genre and its study, while formulating a theory that tries to account for the vital role of the extra-literary in criticism. It's less a method, though, than a style; Hugh Kenner figures as one of its great exemplars.

The anecdote strand is counterpointed by two others. The first is an intermittent daybook of public and private events modeled after Hannah Weiner's Weeks. Here's a brief sample:

"Cubs off for the day; talk of recession follows talk of housing slump. Gonzales quits. A white bag of finch food hanging out back blows in the wind. One can't be bewildered forever; eventually you're just a clod of unknowing."

Tuma's wit is delightful and these passages prove every bit as enthralling as the classic anecdotes woven throughout. The practice of the daybook here becomes less about the recounting of events, then the flow of experience through language.

Tuma's peregrinations while on leave from Miami University, Ohio, form the second strand. Among these are his trip in 2008 to Orono, where we bumped into each other and he described the project to me. (Our hotel rooms were adjacent and I remember coming back from a panel and hailing Keith and Tom Raworth as they enjoyed an afternoon drink on the measly patio that opened out on to the parking lot. I was in too much of a conference funk to join them, though).

Then there are the anecdotes. Tuma has a fresh and easy way with them; indeed the whole book reads like a lark. There's the oft told classic of Jeremy Prynne and Tom Pickard's dust up at Sparty Lea, which I first heard from Ric Caddell in Durham. (Or was it Peter Quartermain in Boulder?) And another one about Alan Golding singing up a storm at Orono in 2000, well into the wee hours. I was at that party, too, matching drinks with Mark Scroggins, David Bromige, George Bowering, Linda Russo, and Tom Orange. It was my first big conference and I thought, if this is academic life, I want more of it. Of course, I suffered from a massive hangover all the next day.

And there's this, a recounting of a story told by Alan Shapiro (anecdotes are nothing if not promiscuously transmissible) that's a barbed allegory of the writing life almost too good to be true:

"Marvin Bell and Mark Strand walk into a Barnes and Noble and head over to the poetry section. Bell looks at the books shelved under B, Strand at the books shelved under S. There's not a book by either poet in the store. 'I guess they don't carry my books here,' Bell says. 'Mine are sold out,' says Strand."

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