Ashes, Magic Mushrooms, and Haggadahs: Gulf Music by Robert Pinsky, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Prime Green by Robert Stone

Dear Reader:

Sunny and cool today – Copper Country Easters and Halloweens seem always to be frosty, so I expect it will stay awhile.

476) Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties by Robert Stone

Robert Stone is a novelist of some repute, he has published, among others, A Hall of Mirrors, Children of the Light, and Bay of Souls.  I have not read his novels – I think I picked up Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties after reading Mark Kurlansky’s wonderful 1968 which made me interested in understanding the Sixties.

Stone was very much in the thick of both the beatnik and Sixties social movements.  His career started in the navy, but after that landed back in New York writing for armed forces and, eventually, extremely tawdry newspapers.  He became part of the New York writers scene making contact with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.  After a stint with his young wife in New Orleans, where they experienced the fun of violent racism, they moved to San Francisco in the very early Sixties.

Their friends included Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion) and they were on “the bus” with Kesey et al. that traveled across the United States to the World’s Fair and generated the saying “you’re either on the bus or off it.”  Music, art, poetry, drugs, and sex swirled around them like oxygen creating the focus of their often aimless days.  Fairly amazing given that many of them, including Stone, had young children at the time.

This book is  a bit stream of consciousness and I’m not sure it lives up to the cover hype (“If Hemingway had lived through the sixties he might have written this book.” by the Wall St Journal reviewer).  While I enjoyed it, I learned more about the arc of Stone’s life than the era per se.  And I didn’t find Stone very relateable or likeable.

I think a more scholarly history of the time might be more to my taste.  But if you are looking for a readable description of one man’s not terribly admirable travails that is very much in the thick of “happening stuff” then this would be a good book for you.

451) Night by Elie Wiesel, New Trans. by Marion Wiesel (original, in French 1958, Trans. 2006)

This author won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, in part in response to Night and also to his activism.  Elie was a 13 year old living in Transylvania in Romania in 1941 when he started studying the Talmud and Kabbalah with Moishe the Beadle, a strange religious character floating on the edge of local Jewish society.

Although it was lost to the Germans in 1940, for much of World War II, Romania seemed to have been on the sidelines and Romanian Jews did not or would not hear what was going on elsewhere.  Tragically, many could have gotten out but chose not to.  It wasn’t until 1944 when the Jews of Sighet were forced into ghettos by German soldiers and they still hoped that the stories were untrue.  And remember, this was late in the war with people having good reason to hope it would end very soon.

But all too soon, Elie and his family landed in Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.  Elie and his father were separated from his mother and sisters.  He describes in powerful detail the fear, hunger, pain, and humiliation as well as how they strategized to survive. The camp was liberated in 1945.

In the years just after its first publication, this book sold slowly.  I think it was likely one of the first or at least one of the first very powerful first hand accounts of the camps.  With time and translation into English, sales picked up.  By the 1990’s it was a global best seller.

This is the one book that I would recommend everyone read.  Wiesel writes simply, elegantly, and movingly of the unimaginable horror of those times and their bewilderment that they could be occurring in the middle of the 20th Century.  The book is short and I can’t imagine a more powerful, accessible description of the Holocaust.

477) Gulf Music by Robert Pinsky (2007, hard copy)

In 1989, I was a student at UC Berkeley.  My degree program required that I take a writing course – I requested, and was allowed to use, a creative writing course I found in the catalog.

The first day of class, the room was standing room only and there were students in the door and hall trying to get into the class.  In walked Robert Pinsky, our professor.

He was gorgeous (this book jacket photo is 25 years later, imagine him in the late 80’s! even more stunning), young, cool, dynamic.  He moved the class to a bigger room and allowed a bunch more students to take it.  There was a reason that his classes were oversold.  He was an amazing teacher and, as he put it, at the time a “semi-famous poet.”  A few years later, he became the United States’ Poet Laureate.

I remember more from that class than most of my other classes even though, technically, it was outside my field.  I had always loved to write and, at the time, was interested in writing novels and short stories (our assignments were mostly essays and short stories as well as an ongoing reading and writing journal).  I remember Pinsky talking about the need for writers to read and read and read.  To tear apart and parse language.  To write and write.  To write down other people’s words and post them on your fridge.  To live and swim among written words every moment of the day.

He convinced us of the power of poetry and that it must be read aloud to attain its full force. He taught us to read poems out loud again and again, to notice the last and first words in the lines – their positions bring emphasis.

I loved writing for that class and got a lot of positive feedback on my work (I no longer have a desire to publish stories, but obviously this blog is a creative writing outlet and, as a professor, I’m 80% a writer).  He was the best teacher I ever had.

So, from time to time, I buy his work and check in to see what he’s up to.  I picked up his 2007 Gulf Music awhile ago.  When I learned April is National Poetry Month in the United States, this seemed like an opportune time to pull my poetry section off the shelves and dig in.

Gulf Music is political with multiple poems about the New Orleans flooding disaster and 9/11 (Pinsky is from the New York City area).  Tragedy and injustice are major themes.  Pinsky is very well-read and has translated Czeslaw Milosz and Dante.  His poems frequently draw widely from classical literature, but also from contemporary culture.  They can be a rich mix of references.  Many of them, I don’t get, but I also don’t worry about this.

I’m not sure of the Fair Use rules for copyright – I would like to reproduce a longer poem here, but I don’t think that is OK.  So, here’s a short one:

XYZ

The cross the fork the zigzag–a few straight lines

For pain, quandary and evasion, the last of signs.

By Robert Pinsky, from Gulf Music (2007)

As I reread and read out line this poem, it creates an image for me that is hard to put into words – of betrayal, relation, decisions, hurt.  It is quite evocative mentally, but as far as putting words to my image, I struggle.

And that’s OK – this is an art form about metaphors, images, the “unsayable” (that a poem says).  When I make time to focus on poetry, like Pinsky’s, I try to read and reread and read out loud slowly, letting the words wash over me, not always trying to make sense of them.  There are more accessible poets out there (I’ll write about Billy Collins, whom I love, in a later post), but for those of you who enjoy rich poems with complex images and diverse references, not all of which you may get, give Pinsky’s work a try, I think you’ll find it powerful.

Fuschia!!!!  The BEST color.

Happy reading, Ruby

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3 Comments

  1. Another secret revealed – you’ve studied with Pinsky!
    Wow.

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