Sunday, September 12, 2010

Book Review: This Is Not About What You Think

Lately we have been dealing with two very small projects in Manhattan; neither of them will take more than a day to do, but the problems of getting permits through bureaucracy, deposits from clients, negotiating of contracts, insurance with correct spelling of the company name and an as-yet undetermined permission from an alien god, is driving us a bit nuts. It is eating up a whole lot of time better spent and for very small prizes that seem to get smaller and smaller the longer we work at it. When we go through rashes like these I characterize that we are being nibbled to death by duck shit (a friend says they have a horn worm problem where the wasps have laid eggs in the body and the worm is now paralyzed).

So it was with pleasure when I got home the other day to find an envelope from Scotland. In it was a book of poems and a note, in incredibly cool hand written print, “Thought you might appreciate a copy of my poetry book.” From Jim... with a signature in blue ink that reminds me that Kilroy was here.  I smile.

This Is Not About What You Think, by Jim Murdoch. What I like best about this collection of poetry, in fact what I like best about Jim’s two previous novels, Living with the Truth and Stranger than Fiction is that I understand them very clearly, they are accessible to me, and yet, they come from another world than my own.

After I read Jim's novel Stranger than Fiction I felt this closeness to the spirit of the author, whom I have never met but with whom I have often corresponded about nonesuch, and I got so wrapped up in trying to understand why the writing seemed so comfortable for me, as if written by a semi-adopted brother, a friend so close to the family that we own each other, that I never finished writing a review. Sometimes I sit, some times I sit and think.

As Jim says, “No poem is ever about what you think it is. You’re always required to read in between the lines and so it’s up to each reader to provide his or her context and meaning generally from dipping into their own experience.” To me that statement seems fairly straightforward edging toward blasé, I mean, “Who would think otherwise than to read into a text what they bring of their own understanding?” That said, there is, at least for me, something much more subtle at work here in a local to global context.

When I go to our nearby fast-food eatery on Long Island, a good ways East of Manhattan, I often find myself unable to understand the talk, in my own home territory, not because of multi-national service workers, or my suspected loss of hearing, but that the native population -- I swear – is almost enunciating in some archaic form of Dutch-English held over from a pre-Revolution era of disjointed grammar and bastardized by a contemporary addiction to television sitcom blurps.

I often misunderstand my Scottish friends when I talk with them. I can be dense of hearing. It is one of my creative talents that I often hear the wrong thing said. One friend got upset when he thought I was making fun of him when I told him I had bought an English-Scot Dictionary. [My ancestry in part is either Northern English or Scot, we can't quite get it straight but I do like the music of bagpipes, and banjos.] Fact is I delight in variation of words, meaning and the music of spoken sound. Let alone exotic meanings never intended. I suspect if I had to listen to Jim Murdoch speak I would be totally flummoxed.

But there is also this thing going on in the world of literary writing brought on in great part by the internet, and the revolution of a communication media that provides ready access to a whole host of people who in the not-so-distant past would not have either written and published, or readers that would have read odd stuff, or writers that would never have got to know each other, even if only virtually.

That is where I bring in the need for a sense of context. As Jim says, “ provide his or her own context...” (Meaning is too complicated to deal with out of context and we sincerely hope to be devoid of any reference to meaning here in this context.)

Where the literary writing world is at is that at one time a reader would come to an author’s work, and an author would come to be a writer-in-public, through a bit of a structure that would in essence channel the context, such that everyone approaching the text would have some affinity of understanding. If we were looking for a mystery story then we would go to the mystery section of the bookstore. If we wanted poetry then some of us would go to the academy, and some would go to the streets.

We would think that this renowned poetry journal or that esteemed book press, or the Archie Randolph Ammons’ school, or the disembodied Naropa, or the famous block-buster agent, or a thousand-and-one self-flagellating prizes all too quickly forgot, plus tenure and creative writing programs and 50,000 or so certified vsf writers produced per year, would provide all that we would need of context.

But context has all been blown up, exploded, nucleated, irradiated, BLASTED and all sorts of people from all sorts of lives (this is an incredible Jasperian world-view existential moment that were are living through even though Existentialism is so old-fashioned) are jumping up and writing from their local understanding pouring heart and soul and other yukky stuff into a global media that is not particularly well structured and each and every individual, though they do over time tend to band together in clusters of near familiarity, is writing from the context of their individual lives. It is really super kool!

If your context as an author does not match anywhere near to my context as a reader then where the hell are we? Not Kansas, sadly.

So it is with great pleasure that I receive a book from a friend in Scotland, a fellow writer, and reader, and that I find I can not only enjoy the poetry, but understand it very well.

More Advice to Children:
Imaginary Friends

People leave; it’s what they do.

They don’t have to go away
but somehow they still do.

And the worst of it is,
they leave a bit at a time

till you don’t even notice
they’re not there anymore.

They never really were.

Get more, order your copy at Fandango Virtual