by Weston Cutter
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.
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.