Corduroy Books

Books you should be reading. Music you should be listening to.

Tag: Stephen Burt

S. Burt and S. Dixon

by Weston Cutter

Close Calls with Nonsense by Stephen Burt

             I suppose there’s some handful of us who hear Stephen Burt’s name and don’t think of him as a critic, or as a poet, or as a Harvard Professor, but as the writer of several articles for The Believer about the WNBA (that handful of people’d be made, I’m guessing, of folks who got into The Believer right when it started—his WNBA articles were early on) and as a former professor at Macalester (where he was teaching when The Believer started). I bring all this up only because Burt’s a dude who’s got more than a few hats in his arsenal—the sort of guy who, even if you think you know the full length/breadth of his work (poet, WNBA essayist, critic), chances are good he’s actually done even more than you knew.

            For instance: Burt could earn his keep forever simply for having coined the term elliptical, as in “The Elliptical Poets,” which in Close Calls with Nonsense starts the fifth section, and which you’d be wise to grab and read asap if you give even the merest smidgen of a shit about contemporary poetry (‘contemporary’ can be tricky in that usage—the essay clearly wasn’t written last year, yet it holds up well and, more, does a solid job of establishing things like struts and supports: it offers a way to see contemporary poetry, even if it doesn’t encapsulatingly cover the present poetic moment). Most of us are probably better of not knowing how we’d fare if we wrote something as good and clear-eyed as “The Elliptical Poets”: I’m more than a little inclined to believe I’d just coast as much as possible off the burn from that single rocket.

            Burt, though, does not coast, and this book’s a testament not only to his indefatiguable interests, but to something far more rare, a tone and clip that’s flat-out heartening in these dark-for-book-reviewer times: Burt digs books, and I mean really, really digs them—you can almost feel SBurt’s enthusiasm as he wens his way through books by, say, H.L. Hix or Muldoon or Neidecker or Ammons. He’s critical, let’s be clear: his isn’t just this yutzy voice of positivity, problaiming awesomeness at each phrase’s turn. No, it’s better: Burt’s an honest, tender-hearted reader, and he’ll holler hugely for the bits that work (for instance, read his stuff on C. D. Wright, a writer he clearly [and smartly] adores) and fairly document a poem’s or book’s faltering moments.

            Which, if the world were a better place, wouldn’t be too much to ask from critics; and, sure, there are plenty of critics who do a fair and even-handed job of weighing a books merits and demerits. That said, Burt’s enthusiasm’s singular and intoxicatingly fun to catch, and his tone’s so reassuring it’ll make all the consistently-reported bad news on book reviewing feel, well, slightly less apocalyptic. Stephen Burt’s among a tiny, tiny group of critics (John Leonard and Francine Prose and some others) whose work is worth not just owning, but worth reading again and again.


The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal by Sean Dixon


            Man, this is a fun book. Here, actually, is the most amazing thing: this book started as a play (!!). The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal might be the first book I’ve read since Plascencia’s oh-my-god great People of Paper that feels totally and entirely its own; I don’t know what to compare this book to, honestly. Here’s the premise: it’s the story of a book club, and the story starts with the girls in the club (it’s an all-girl club, sort of)(it’s complicated) choosing their next book, which book happens to be Gilgamesh, the book they pick. I almost don’t want to go on from there: it’s too satisfyingly weird and interwoven a book to spoil.

            All that said: this book’s not perfect. It’s an unbelievably engaging book, and gets huge marks for its audacity and daring, but, like any book which uses what could reasonably (by someone like, say, James Wood) be called a ‘trick’ (‘trick’ might be too harsh a word: maybe ‘affectation’), Lacuna‘s trick/affectation is the same thing which, in the end, undoes it in places. The trick/affectation in this book’s case, for the record, is its voicy-ness, this sort of emphatically and constant into-the-reader’s-ear whisper from the narrator(s), and I’d like to here, again, call for someone with more time and brains than I to write a good, long piece about how narrative voice (and, expecially, a sort of maximal, excessive-detail-noting voice) seems to be this present moment’s Achilles Heel (a good, long piece about that might, in fact, end up laying the blame for the whole mess at dear passed DFW’s feet—the more I consider it, the more that seems likely)(I think his voice was great and balanced and perfect, but I think, like Carver, he so perfectly nailed a style that he ended up ‘inspiring’ all these people to cop something similar, hoping for something like genius run-off).

            Anyway, all of that sort of strays from The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal itself: the short criticism’s that the narrative voice can be overly cutesy and therefore frustrating. There’s a whole other thing, though, that this book emphatically deserves praise for: the thing’s trying, in total good faith, to engage with the present world. Meaning, in this case, Iraq and blogging and wars, meaning nationalism and antiquities, meaning how all good stories not only overlap but are literally, at a genetically-coded level, made of the same stuff. For the sake of the book and it’s really great narrative riches, I won’t go further into it than that, but know that, reading Lacuna is not akin to reading some slow-burning navel-gazer about middle-classers coming of age, nor is it some hijinxy send-up of mores and morals and manners. The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal‘s a fierce and challenging and spunky book, and it’s fun as hell (even if it’s, yes, annoying as hell in parts), and it deserves an audience, prefereably a large and vociferous one.

Dobby Gibson

by Weston Cutter

            I don’t want to say it’s the coolest feeling to have when reading a book, but certainly way up there’s got to be the feeling you get when you pick up a book and read it and it’s like some lightningbolt shot that delivers, somehow, almost exactly what you want and need, even though you weren’t even aware, before you read the book, that what it would provide was exactly what you were looking for. If you’re lucky, you get this a bunch of different times and ways; we’ve all got our lists (Powers’s Gold Bug Variations and DeWitt’s Last Samurai back to back; L. Shapton’s Important Artifacts; Danielewski’s House of Leaves; Hicok’s Animal Soul and D. Young’s First Course in Turbulence back to back) and, at least in my case, I cling to those moments/memories/reading experiences when things feel dry. Like good kisses you keep recalling so that you’ll stay faithful to hopes of romance, reading books like that makes not just the enterprise of reading but the enterprise of being alive worth while.

            All of which may be an excessively laudatory build-up, but seriously: Dobby Gibson’s Skirmish knocked my my socks off in ways I haven’t felt in a long, long time. I feel sort of dumb, because these pages are full of me hyperventilating about how great all these books are, and so when I start to get all crazed and excited again, I want to both a) defend my earlier thrills, and b) clearly articulate why this new book’s really, really great, too. So: yes, I thought Todd Boss’s and Jericho Brown’s and Jill Bialoski’s and Nick Laird’s books of poetry were all great in the last five or so months. Each of those books, in their way, were fantastic.

            Gibson’s Skirmish, though, knocks my socks off in ways I really haven’t felt since I found Hicok and Young and Hoagland—and, in fairness, that’s his ‘crowd,’ poetically (book sports blurbs from: Hoagland, Ruefle, and S. Burt [plus on the press-sheet that came with the book there’s a quite from good old D. Young]). Much as I dig S. Burt (whose great new book, Close Calls With Nonsense, is coming soon from, yes, the country’s [and MN’s, obv.] best publisher), I don’t like the whole elliptical tag-thing (I’m not a big fan of the whole group-and-label urge to begin with, though), though it must here be said that if there is an elliptical school/style, D. Gibson’s got to be the new star envelope-pusher of the clan.

            Skirmish is a book full of neighbors and water (lakes and Mississippis), of speaking and wanting and not-quite-having. It’s a book studded every few pages with, either singly or in pairs, fortunes—shorter poems (the longest couple are 13 lines; the average line-length’s probably 11) which (somewhat) ditch the “I” that reigns throughout the rest of the book and settle more in on “you.” It’s also, just to get my prejudices out in the open, written by a dude who lives in Mpls, so I walked into it ready to be amazed.

            It’s maybe easiest to just give one of the poems (more of which can be read here and here and here and here)—here’s the Fortune from page 19:


Another iceberg calves and drifts

its first few feet toward destruction.

The motel hallway carpeting just goes on and on.

A cigarette if flicked from a speeding car,

a farmer files his horse’s teeth—

how is it that we can ever fall asleep?

There’s an infinity inside even

the shortest storms of our seen lives.

A Finn ladles water over his sauna rocks.

He’s never met you, and that is why

he has to make himself feel better

by going someplace very small to be warm and alone.


            I don’t even know what to say after that, really: the quick start in which, in two lines, a birth is doomed; the next four lines, the first three of which simply give a thing or scene or something and then that fourth line that wraps back in and tears at you; the next two, central (all senses of the word) lines that don’t quite give (away) enough meaning to spoil what’s coming; and those last four lines, somehow unbelievably aching and yearning and both sad and not totally sad, doomed and not quite, like someone who hugs you after kicking you in the shin.

            The whole book’s like this, actually: tiny movements push and pull at this sort of straight-jackety impending feeling (we’re alive, we’re going to do, we’re trying to connect but it’s hard and even when it works it’s never quite what we thought it’d be) and what ends up happening, for me anyway, is that D.Gibson creates this just monumental amount of friction, almost: there’s combustion awaiting the reader on just about every page herein, little oomph moments akin to match heads bursting. It’s that kind of book: flare after flare of brightness so that what you see at the end is not just one big shining thing but a series of sparks. You finish this book feeling like if you blink you’ll still see a constellation on the inside of yr eyelids. It really, really is that good.

            This, by the way, is Dobby Gibson’s second book. It’s just going to keep getting better. Also: does everyone go to Largehearted Boy and read their Book Notes section? Apparently, whoever’s running that and I have somewhat overlapping taste (Dobby Gibson, Jesse Ball, Leanne Shapton, Jeffrey Yang, Deb Olin Unferth, Elizabeth McCracken)—check it out.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 60 other followers

%d bloggers like this: