Saturday, December 28, 2019

At Dusk

At DuskAt Dusk by Mark Valentine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Valentine has to be my favorite contemporary writer. From his clever, yet sumptuous stories of the Connoisseur to his erudite and searching non-fictional essays on obscure writers to his weird fiction to his poetry, the man is one of the most accomplished writers alive.

His works are, at times, difficult to find and expensive to procure, and At Dusk is no exception. I've spent a pretty penny on Valentine's work in the past, and I mean to in the future. You won't find this rare gem (my copy is #48 of 235) laying around in some second-hand bookshop, fortunately or unfortunately, as the product itself speaks to its value. This Exposition Internationale edition is one of the more beautiful books I own, both in presentation and in content. The hardcover is split between a wonderful photo by Goticus Polus and a strange felt that imitates some sort of animal hide. It is a sturdy volume, heavier than one might think, with the silk ribbon that is an almost-required accessory for a book of such fine pedigree.

The heft of the book is not only in its thick pages of prose-poetry, interspersed with dark photography throughout, but in the weight of the words. For example, the piece dedicated to Gertrud Kolmar, entitled "Their Strange Beasts" begins as a beautiful ode to Kolmar's sense of poesis, then echoes, with a shock, her death at Auschwitz:

Unicorns, bears, black swans, brindled horses, eagles,
ravens, crowned stags, serpents. She dreamt of Teuton
heraldry, wrote about the badges of towns, their strange
beasts, their crests, their tinctures, their proud flourishes.

All the country was for her a living mythology. The same
burghers who sat under these grand arms gave her in the
end a badge: a yellow star.

Not all the poems are so grim, not by any means. Some pose a strange optimism, a hope for things beyond this world, as in the dedication to poet Antonio Machado, entitled "These Footfalls":

We walk in this world as if it were the only one. Yet there
is a side-step when we seem to stray into another. A few
moments pass, we waver on the brink of a revelation. We
could dissolve into another existence. Then, this world
tugs us back, and we return, as we think, to our usual
selves. But we are not unchanged by this glimpse, by
these footfalls towards another domain: we remember
with yearning what we briefly almost knew. A daydream,
or reverie; an uncanny intensity; perhaps, a sense of
drifting along some unremarkable street; or a strange
significance in the sudden look of a passer-by; something
in the turn of a road, or the fall of sunlight upon leaves,
the hovering of a shadow upon a white wall. If we are
fortunate, there might even seem to be a figure, waiting
for us.

I am tempted to reveal more: about the playfulness of "Gnostic Comedian" or the familial, domestic-banality-cum-mysticism of "Sabbath Candles" or any number of the other scintillating prisms through which Valentine shows us the breadth of the internal human experience. At Dusk is truly a kaleidoscope, one that will enthrall for a far longer time than it takes to read these short works. The power in them is their activation of the heart and mind, the setting in motion of the spirit, the becoming they allow.

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Thursday, December 19, 2019

Ornaments in Jade

Ornaments in JadeOrnaments in Jade by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've shouted Machen's praises before, and even the praises of those who successfully evoke his work. I can't seem to get enough of his work. And so, I bought this slim little volume, even though fully half of these tiny postcard stories are collected in the Oxford World's Classics collection. Knowing that this was coming in the mail, I omitted any review of the stories contained in this volume when I reviewed the Oxford book. Call me a tease.

The most difficult thing about telling you about this work is telling you how great I think it is without spoiling anything. Most of these stories are 3, maybe 4 pages long. It was wonderful to read during my lunch breaks at my new job, because I knew I could squeeze one of these ornaments in and still have time for (inspired!) writing of my own. If I had thousands of these jewels, I might never read another thing on my lunch break again.

Yet, despite my fears, I will outline - very, very briefly - my impressions, at least, of the story. Because impressions left in the reader's mind might be the most important aspect of these wee tales. Not every tale can evoke a character's breadth of personality in a sentence or two (though some do) nor can a "satisfying" ending be presented each time when the ending is just a beginning (though, again, some stories do just this). Some of the works here might be considered mere fragments, even. Despite the incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is each story, a more-or-less coherent oeuvre emerges. One might think of each of these stories as "episodes" in Machen's psycho-emotional history of the world - they are "of a piece," though the characters and places are never connected. Here we see Machen's mind working, almost as if we are in his head looking out and exploring, grasping small coincidences and visions, while anticipating what lay before or after (or even during) them, beyond our chronological reach. This anticipation is what makes the collection complete.

"The Rose Garden" is beautiful not because of it's beautiful descriptiveness, but because of its somber, yet hopeful emotional resonance. Five stars. Machen at his poetic best.

"The Turanians" is a brief sketch of the encounter of a young, expressive, imaginative girl on the edge of womanhood. Her mother warns her about being too expressive and arranged for a young gentleman to visit, but not before the girl encounters a young Turanian boy who gives her a wonderful gift. There is so much more roiling under the surface of this story than what is presented, and one can feel it as one reads it, like standing outside of a concert hall and hearing the cadence of the music without being able to hear individual notes in the muddle of sound. But you know there is an intricate structure under that bass thumping. This is what I felt about the protagonist: There was something more about her, her life was on the edge of . . . something. Five stars.

"The Idealist" is a glimpse into a strange inner life of resentment replaced by weird accomplishment. This is a deep dive into the main characters inner thoughts, though there are hints of shadows beyond what is made explicit and it is in that darkness that the readers mind can fester and grow its own imaginings. Five stars.

"Witchcraft" is a tease. All prelude and even the climax and denouement happen offstage, and most of the story consists of decontextualized dialogue. This is one of the most stunning examples of how to evoke - pun intended! If I taught writing, I'd teach this! Five stars.

Another beautiful story, but one that seems less "anchored" in itself, is "The Ceremony". It lacks the depth and twist that Machen has spoilt me with. But still, like the grey stone, beautiful and forbidden. Four stars.

"Psychology" is a prelude without a story appended to it. It's beautiful writing, as you would expect, but it's just a fragment, a jumping off point that doesn't jump. This "worst of" the stories in this collection would probably be among the better stories in most collections. Three stars.

"Torture" is a complete tale, though we only see the outward actions of the young protagonist. But there is much more going on in his head, not made explicit, only inferred. Therein lies the story, in the unseen caverns of the protagonist's heart and mind. Five creepy stars.

Machen shows his fascination with illicit rites carried out by moonlight in his story "Midsummer". I happen to share that fascination with dancing in the groves at midnight, but more as an observer than participant. Though sometimes . . . Four stars

The splendor of "Nature" is carefully poured out, like honey, from the narrator. The trick here is the offstage, implied conversation that happened before the present dialogue, where the listener coaxed the passionate descriptions from the narrator. Five stars

A bored-with-life man (an artist and poet) takes an unexpected turn from ennui to an ecstatic vision of Holborn in "The Holy Things". This feels like the turnabout moment in a story of decadence, but we can only imagine the rest for ourselves. Four stars.

Years ago, in Ellen Datlow's fabulous series of The Years Best Fantasy and Horror, there was a story whose title I can't remember, where redactions (with actual blocks of blackness) "told" a story of sexual abuse and horror. It was a highly disturbing story and has stuck with me for many years now, probably one of the most deeply-affecting stories I have ever read. Ornaments in Jade works in much the same way, but without the disturbing subject matter. It is more eerie (in the sense used by Mark Fisher) than horrific. It is what is missing here that fills the volume beyond the capacity of the pages. We read into the void and hear it speaking back to us in a deep, reverberating voice.

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Monday, December 16, 2019

Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration

Arthur Rackham: A Life with IllustrationArthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration by James Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this beautiful volume up while in Wales visiting the "book town" of Hay-on-Wye this past Summer. Now, I am normally very particular about which books I buy, whether online or by travelling halfway around the world (or thereabouts) as on this trip. I had a want-list and filled some of it. But this pickup was spontaneous. I had stopped late in the day at the last bookstore we would get to visit before having to get in the car and drive back over the border to the Cotswolds.

How did I end up picking this one, out of all the thousands of books (and this is no exaggeration) available in Hay-on-Wye? I think it was because of the place itself. Tolkien's ghost seems to haunt the area, or at least our trip. We ate at The Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where J.R.R. used to drink a pint with C.S. Lewis - incidentally, they had the absolutely best fish and chips I've ever eaten - the town we were staying in, Moreton-in-Marsh (it isn't, really . . . in a marsh, that is, at least not anymore) was, apparently the model for Bree. One of the pubs there, The Bell, provided the inspiration for the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and they celebrated this with a map of Middle Earth drawn across one entire wall (scroll down after clicking the Moreton link and you'll see it). And if you closed your eyes and opened them again on a hike through the hills (and we took a 12 mile hike, one day), you would swear you were in The Shire. Eastern Wales was much the same and had even more sheep than the Cotswolds.

So, in my last desperate rush to pick out a book, I spotted this volume of Rackham's work. And I thought of Ian Miller's art of the '70s, which I grew up with as my visual token of Middle Earth. Take Miller's art, soften it (a lot), pump it full of whimsy, and give it ethereal tones of sepia and silver, and you've got Rackham. Of course, that analogy is an anachronism - Rackham died before Miller was born (both events on either side of World War II). In fact, I wonder if Miller was not heavily influenced by Rackham's books and prints? There is a certain likeness . . .

What about the book itself? It's a wonderful biography replete with lots of color pictures of Rackham's work. Unlike some monographs, this one is almost completely filled with his beautiful, dreamlike paintings. I believe only one non-Rackham art piece is featured, and that is a Durer engraving used to show how Rackham (self-admittedly) copied one of his painting's layouts from the German master's print. I greatly enjoyed the focus - I wanted a Rackham book, I got a Rackham book! My only real complaint is that the paintings and illustrations are not given in strict chronological order, while the biography is, of necessity so organized.

The biography is thorough and a touch coy with sensitive subjects. It's never completely clear to me whether or not Rackham had an affair or affairs, but . . . maybe? My blunt American-ness gets in the way of fully understanding English subtleties, at times, even though I lived in England for three years (from age 15 to 18). Rackham's life story is refreshingly normal, so far as biographies go. There is no attempt to make him a hero or a martyr. He lived life, had ups and downs, seems to have loved his family, went through times of financial difficulty and times of affluence, had health difficulties as an older man and essentially died working. If the book is to be believed, his remarkable-ness was poured entirely into his art. And it is remarkable!

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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Star Kites: Poems & Versions

Star Kites: Poems & VersionsStar Kites: Poems & Versions by Mark Valentine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never confirmed the rumor, but my mom used to tell me that she was related to Alfred, Lord Tennyson through her father's line - second cousins or somesuch. Mom always did have a poetic streak in her, in fact she used to recite poems - some of them quite long - from memory. I've had a few poems published, but I am, at heart, a short-story writer. While poesis doesn't flow in my blood, it is like a distant cousin to me: I see the resemblance and feel familiar in its presence, but I don't spend enough time with it to have developed a truly deep relationship with it, more dilettante than expert.

I do, however, appreciate a good poetic voice. Valentine's own poems here are good and, at times, brilliant. His "versions," in which he mimics others' poetic voices, like a starling with a pen, are, on the whole, several shades darker and more textured. And I will be the first to admit that trying to mimic another writer's voice without sounding "tinny" is no small feat. These warrant repeated readings. The short biographies of the poets who inspired the "versions" are intriguing reading, in and of themselves, a sort of biographical-poetry, if not in form, then in function.

The best poetry, to me, not only titillates the imagination, but draws forth emotion from between the words, from the interstices of the reader's own brain. All great writing does this, whatever the form, but a poem that can do so with an enforced paucity of words is something special.

Valentine's "We leave . . ." (one of his originals, not a "version") is one such poem. You might guess that it caused me to think deeply, with great love and appreciation for my deceased parents, as well as on the effect I might have on others when it is my time to go:

We Leave . . .

We leave
in others' memories
that do not change,
though they may blur.

How many
carry us

The child that was you
may exist for years
as a face,
as a question,
until at last extinguished.

A chance meeting
may be replayed
quite often
by someone
you have forgotten:
they have kept you.

Something you said
may still be heard,
your words
by one you think
you barely knew.

Another may have caught
your face in repose
or full of light
to help them
go towards
the night.

In my gallery,
amongst others:
old fingers twist
a piece of lace;
a boy's blond hair
stands on end; and
a voice whispers

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Saturday, December 7, 2019

Fiendish Pamphlets

Fiendish PamphletsFiendish Pamphlets by Ramon Lasalle​
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Raphus Press is a little-known fine literary press - little-known except among a certain subset of small-press connoisseurs. Fiendish Pamphlets is a slim, elegant volume. Sexy, like a well-dressed Femme Fatale. Crisp and alluring. Physically, it's a model of what a book should be. I dare say, the production is near-perfect.

But what's on the inside? What will drive this reader-book relationship? Not much is given, a mere 44 pages of poetic prose. Because of small press economics, and the fact that this is a very limited edition, it's admittedly pricey. Maybe that's part of the allure - we covet that which is rare. But having obtained, what do we find inside?

Three (very short) segments of literary poetic prose fill the pages (along with some elegant illustrations that add to the luxuriousness of the volume). These are short pieces, but not something to charge through. Reading and appreciating them fully requires a slow hand, an examination of the text, ruminations, meditation. And they are meditative pieces.

In "Nocturnal Gardens," the self-discovery Demiurge, escapes into dreams, slipping the bonds of the workaday world. This was the least effective of the work, as far as I am concerned, and yet it is still of a very high caliber of work. Consider this piece an initiation into Lasalle's dark world.

"Distant Realms of the Kingdom" is an ode, of sorts, to animal instinct in the face of certain destruction. Beautifully lyrical and alien, there is a lot of meaning coded within the poetic language even when, or especially when it admits the inadequacy of expression in and of itself. This is the further descent into Lasalle's labyrinth.

"The Third Pamphlet" takes on a decidedly meditative tone, like some shadowy Zen philosophy of history filled with dark suppositions of causation and decay. This is the culminating ritual of the book, and it left me awestruck. Holding a rare, beautiful little book, reading about the covetousness of evil people lusting after a rare, beautiful little book . . . the effect is sinister, leaving one with a sense of wonder and a tinge of self-reproachment lingering in the background. Lasalle reintroduces decay into Decadence and ropes the reader in with a chaffing leather noose. This last segment is far more powerful than the sum of its parts, and it is the crown of the work.

Finis Opus Coronat

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