No thanks to you, poor X has managed to crawl through the muck of yet another terrible year. The contract with you that I was extorted into signing years ago–the contract that stipulates that X must deliver these periodic missives upon penalty of one of my few remaining family members being “removed” by the operatives at Berfrois–apparently remains enforceable. So here X is, delivering yet another one of those cliched “end-of-year” roundups, as if there was anything worth remembering–yet alone memorializing–from a hexed 2016, the year of unironic Darth Vaders taking power across the globe. A radical sadness–a sadness unknown to this or the previous generation or the generation before that–has gripped the good people of this United States from where I write. Some would say, dear Bennetts, that we have had it coming.
And yet as you know, Bennetts, I shall freely and solidly keep to you, with deep affection. It would be desirable to me in all things if it suited your pleasure to accept this contribution. I wish always to look to what is useful to you and rejoice in seeing it, I who have vowed myself and all I have to your service. To the anguish that afflicts poor X, the torment that oppresses him, I hope this letter testifies.
Yours, for a better tomorrow,
Banana Palace, by Dana Levin (Copper Canyon Press). Levin’s words and cadences render the familiar unfamiliar, reconstructing it in ways that make it mean something new. Her words are so truthful they should be hurtful, yet somehow they are not. From Levin’s poem “Across the Sea.”
We used our texting machines
to look up the definition of soul
In the middle of class–
thumb-joints at work
above the stitched paper
of actual books in which
we’d been reading
poetry . . .
And from “The Point of the Needle”.
Since you got to behead
with your round
of a mouth–
I hope you get to spin inside your
The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, by Larry Levis (Graywolf Press). Levis’s work is slow-burn. This posthumous collection–if you’ve not read him before–will ignite the long fuse to wend you back through his work and forward through your life. From “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire.”
Poor means knowing the trees couldn’t care less
Whether you carve the initials of your enemies
All over the white trunk’s bark,
Or whether this sleep beneath them is your last.
And this, from “Elegy with a Darkening Trapeze Inside It.”
For every revolution ends, or it begins, in memory:
Someone remembering her diminishment & pain, the way
Her scuffed shoes looked in the pale light,
How she inhaled steel filings in the grinding shed
For thirty years without complaining once about it,
How she might have done things differently. But didn’t.
How it is too late to change things now. How it isn’t.
Sunshine, by Melissa Lee-Houghton (Penned in the Margins). These poems are like Olena Kalytiak Davis and Anne Sexton put into the contraption from The Fly. From “i am very precious.”
I lie like a little snail stuck to the edge of a wall and get really moist.
I don’t want to do it anymore. I’d like simply to talk
about other poetic pursuits, like addictions, like walking at dusk
and making soup. Hounds call after me where I run with shaved legs
To come back and make coffee. Just try something simple and easy
And do nothing with my mouth.
You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior, by Carolina Ebeid (Noemi Press). X swam against the current of these poems for so long, finally succumbing. From “Something Brighter Than Pity.”
The curious there of hereafter.
Whose. How did it arrive.
It was the year we learned
To swim. We rose every time
To the sun already west of us
Like a saint leaving a typhus city.
Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett (Riverhead Books). Just when X thinks he has lost his capacity to be amazed, along comes something like Pond. “A leaf came in through the window and dropped directly onto the water between my knees as I sat in the bath looking out. It was a thoroughly square window and I had it open completely, with the pane pushed right back against the wall. . . . There was a storm, an old storm, going around and around the mountain, visiting the mountains again perhaps after who knows how long, trying to get somewhere, going nowhere.”
Beast, by Paul Kingsnorth (Faber & Faber). Confounding, maddening, willfully obscure, and yet it all works, somehow. Writing that is so heavy against the grain that each sentence gives off heat. “Imagine if adulthood is the fairy tale and childhood is the reality. Imagine giants’ graves all over the land and the motorways roaring past them and it is the motorways which are the romantic lies. Beyond the places you can walk to there is a field of buttercup and clover which rolls down to a river and that is where the life is that is the reality and here you are walking through a grey dream.”
*The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante (first published in 2002; Europa, thirteenth printing, 2016). X has only started this book, which was given as a Christmas gift by X’s daughter to X’s partner, who read it all in one night and was overcome by it in the best possible way. X’s partner read aloud this portion to X, and X quotes it here. It is a remarkable moment when the novel’s first-person narrator–Olga–tries to stop herself but cannot stop herself from slipping into the third person. The “I” here is Olga: “I got up, I hurried out of the room, closing the door behind me. I would have liked to have giant strides that would not allow me to stop for anything. Olga marches down the hall, through the living room. She is decisive now . . . . Reset the bite of the clip on my arm to get me to abandon that third person, the Olga who wanted to run, and return to the I, I who go to the metal-plated door, I who know who I am, control what I do.”
The Warren, by Brian Evenson (Tor). Evenson’s most experimental work since Contagion (2000), a weird hybrid extension of Samuel Beckett and Anne Carson. “I have all the usual appendages. I am doubly legged and doubly armed, just as I remembered. My face does not look exactly as I remember it looking, and this perhaps is due to my having dreamt too long. I am not certain what has been done to me. I do not remember this body as my body, and my movements within it are clumsy and ill-remembered. But it’s the only body I have.”
The Natural Way of Things, by Charlotte Wood (Europa). The sort of book someone should have warned X not to read, the shape-shifting between realism and metaphor so lacking warnings or transitions that a sea-sick feeling, when reading it, is the least uncomfortable state that can be hoped for. “She can feel the other girl behind her in the room, staring at her particular clothes. The stiff long green canvas smock, the coarse calico blouse beneath, the hard brown leather boots and long woolen socks. The ancient underwear. It is summer. Verla sweats inside them. She can feel it dawning on the other girl that she is a mirror: that she too wears this absurd costume, looks as strange as Verla does.”
The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, by V. I. Lenin (International Publishers). First published in 1918, but new to X this year. The edition I have is from the Little Lenin Library, 1935. X had no idea how sarcastic and biting Lenin’s prose was when he set himself against someone like poor Kautsky. His preferred methods are air quotes literalized on the page and their close relatives, italics and exclamation points. Karl Kautsky was a Marxist theoretician who made the mistake of disagreeing with Lenin. At one point, after quoting Kautsky, Lenin writes: “Oh, wonderful erudition! Oh, refined servility towards the bourgeoisie! Oh, civilized belly-crawling and boot-licking before the bourgeoisie! If I were a Krupp or a Scheidmann I would give Mr. Kautsky millions, reward him with Judas kisses, would praise him before the workers, and urge ‘socialist unity’ with ‘respectable’ men like him.”
X sometimes wonders if the best writing is by people whose names we will never know. The Geological Surveys published by the United States Government Printing Office–especially those from the 1930s through the 1950s–are remarkable not only for their oversized, beautifully drafted fold-out maps, but also for the plain and direct elegance of the prose. This, from The Southern Appalachian Region, Guidebook 3, Excursion A-3, published in 1933: “At the crossing of Abrams Creek, in the southwest environs of Winchester, is a good exposure of the Stonehenge limestone, which is a persistent, very thick-bedded limestone and the basal member of the Beekmantown group.” The pamphlet is by Charles Butts, G. W. Stone, and Anna I. Jonas, of the United States Geological Survey.
Channel Zero, “Candle Cove,” dir. Craig Macneill (Syfy). Like an ugly rock dropped into a Rube Goldberg and coming out the other end a polished stone whose imperfections only make it more beautiful, more terrifying, it is the transformation of the object, in this series, that remains unaccountable.
There were no outstanding or even good movies released in the U.S. in 2016, with the exception of The Wailing (dir. Na Hong-jin) and Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho). The other 140 or so films that poor X had to suffer through for the sake of his career and his thread-thin reputation either traded on the cheap sentimentality of au currant personal identity issues, were too self-aware, were not self-aware enough, or were simply rubbish of a garden variety sort. However, X was taken aback by a few moments scattered across these 5 films. If only these moments could be edited together to make a one complete, genuinely satisfying movie. To wit:
Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan). The 7-10 seconds around Lee Chandler’s lines “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” Film noir–in all its over-determined fatalism.
The Witch (Robert Eggers). Apart from several transitions between scenes, plus the moments surrounding Black Phillip’s line “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously,” the film was so carefully calibrated as to drain itself of any opportunity for chance or mistakes.
The Handmaiden (Park-Chan wook). The revelation of the genitals preserved in glass jars, lasting about 3 seconds, was one of the few moments where the film’s literalness rang true to the fictive world the film itself created.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) A few seconds scattered here and there, mostly involving the dog. The neo-Nazis acted as if they knew they were villainous.
Arrival (Dennis Villeneuve) Like the recent films of Ben Wheatley, a big disappointment when compared to his previous work. X tried so hard to believe the actors were characters and not actors that he gave himself some sort of infection. The strongest part of the film was when the military jets passed low and fast overhead, lasting around 2 seconds.