Friday, March 09, 2007

Blue Front by Martha Collins

A book-length poem about two lynchings (one of a black man accused, seemingly falsely, of raping a white woman and of a white man who happened to be in the jail at the same time) that occurred in Cairo, Illinois in the early twentieth century. What I admired particularly was that Collins (who, full disclosure, I consider something of a mentor) has written a book-length narrative but has never forgotten that she's writing poetry. I tend to favor narrative poetry simply because I really like narratives, but too often it seems such poems are really mini stories or essays with line breaks thrown in. There is nothing other than the breaks (which additionally are often placed at highly natural comma/semi-colon/period moments) to separate them from prose. But Collins uses her white space, her stanzas, her syntax, her word choices and both form and free verse to never let the reader forget they are inside of a poem. And that made the book a much more complicated, original, thought-provoking, emotion-evoking read.

It was also interesting to trace, via her acknowledgments, the origins of the book--which come from her father's first hand experience, her family's geographical history, an art exhibit in New York, a conversation with a fellow artist, and research. It's a great look into the process of creating a book. I'm of two minds with acknowledgments--I have respect for the writers like DeLillo who leave the text to stand alone but I also love the behind the scenes look offered by a detailed appendix-like acknowledgments page.

The Body Artist by Don DeLillo

A strange and floaty little novel (novella, really) about a woman who retreats to a remote house after the death of her famous husband only to find a strange and floaty man living there. DeLillo is capable of such variety in his novels that I never know if I will worship a book (Mao II, White Noise) or be mildly interested (Underworld, Libra). This one is somewhere in between but has prompted the epiphany that DeLillo writes women characters remarkably well. I don't buy into the idea that it's impossible for men to write women effectively and vice versa. I think occasionally writers of opposite genders ignore some physical realities of what it is to be a woman (or man) and therefore make mistakes. But I don't believe women think/act/talk a certain way and so I don't think women characters do either. What DeLillo does so well though is create specific women, who think/act/speak in ways that are complex and interesting and individual-- and who are as important to his story as the men are. Writing the opposite gender badly is most often a self-fulfilling prophecy simply because male (or female) writers don't pay enough attention to the women (or men) they create.

I want to be Don DeLillo when I grow up. But still me. Watch for it.