Small Demon


Joseph Duemer is Professor of Humanities at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press (2001). He lives with his wife Carole, two Jack Russell terriers, Jett & Penny, & a Chocolate Lab, Angel, on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

Aug 182012

How come cranks, who are full of bunk, so often take a “debunking” tone? I’m interested in sentences & where they come from & I was hopeful that Verlyn Klinkenborg’s little essay in the NY Times would shed some light on that deep question. But all that we find out reading the essay is that sentences come from inside you & that they have a mysterious quality called rhythm. Now, I’m a poet & even more interested in sentences’ rhythm than in their origins, but rhythm too remains undefined. So why did I then buy the Kindle edition of Mr. Klinkenborg’s book? Well, I’m always looking for little nuggets of writing wisdom for my students & I suppose I thought I might find out more about where sentences come from in the book than in the newspaper essay. The book, called Several Short Sentences about Writing, more than lives up to its name — it ought to be called Several Hundred Short Sentences about Writing. I didn’t actually count them, at least in part because I could not read more than about twenty pages. This book is mind-numbingly boring. Perhaps if you aspire to develop a sort of hectoring version of a Mr. Rogers prose style, you will find this book helpful. It is, quite literally, a series of short sentences that purport to be about writing but which are more about the author’s belief that everything you learned in school about writing is wrong. Except that you should learn to diagram sentences.1   There is, as far as I can tell, no actual argument ion the book, no sequence of ideas that add up to anything like an actual idea. Klinkenborg strives to be aphoristic, but just sounds peeved. And why is the text presented as lines of “poetry”? In the Kindle edition, at least, the series of sentences are each given their own typographical paragraph, but then first letters of lines that are not first letters of sentences are capitalized as they would be in some presentations of verse. This is not verse, so what is the point of this weirdly misused convention.

Someone once said that writing a bad review is like swerving so as to intentionally hit the chipmunk crossing the road in front of you & in general I no longer bother to write such pieces; but the author of this book is on the Editorial Board of the NY Times & people might actually think he can help them learn something about sentences. He can’t. Get Stanley Fish’s little book on sentences if you’re looking for advice from a Times writer. Fish can be a twit in his column, but he know more than a little about writing, including the writing of sentences. Or if you are really ambitious about your sentences, you could take a look at Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, or the even more elegant The Art of Syntax by Ellen Bryant Voigt, though this last title, by a poet, is aimed more at poets & readers of poetry than the other books noted here. In any case,2 there are plenty of alternatives to the hectoring, “debunking” & ultimately boring advice of Several Short Sentences about Writing.

 Posted by at 7:06 am
Aug 112012

When I went out to catch the taxi to the airport in Hanoi, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, which continues to tick off seconds even when the phone is powered down. I hit “stop” when Carole pulled into our driveway in South Colton. Forty-eight hours, two minutes & fifty-three seconds: that’s how long I was in transit. In Hanoi, before being allowed to check my bag, I had to split it into two because it was too heavy. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are prepared for this eventuality & I was able to purchase a zippered plastic bag that, once filled, is wrapped tightly with wide plastic tape using a machine I have seen nowhere else. Okay, so three hours to Singapore, then a six-hour wait for the flight to Frankfurt that continues on to JFK. Had a very good Chinese dumpling (well, two, actually) for dinner & walked around looking at the amazing displays of consumer goods. The whole place is designed to make you feel bad if you don’t buy something, but other than my dumplings, I didn’t buy anything.

Singapore has very careful, though friendly enough, security procedures. The gate area is enclosed & all carry-on bags & documents checked. Once aboard, we taxied out & took off for a nearly twelve-hour flight over Southern & Central Asia & Eastern Europe. Most people try to sleep, but it is a miserable flight. Singapore Airlines is very good about distracting passengers with food, but twelve hours in an economy class airline seat is not much mitigated by even the very good food they serve. The woman in the seat next to mine solved the problem by sipping red wine throughout the flight, keeping, I imagine, just a light buzz of contentment. I listened to music — mostly Dylan & Leonard Cohen, with some Bunk Johnson & Blind Willie McTell mixed in, then shifted over to an audio version of Tristram Shandy I’d downloaded to my Kindle before leaving. Sterne’s novel is structured much like a dream & was the perfect choice: I drifted in & out of sleep for nearly five hours with Peter Barker’s droll voice enacting the scenes of the story in my mental theater. But while the audio version of Tristram runs nearly twenty-four hours, I eventually tired of the drollery with more than half the flight to Frankfurt remaining.

I read, I dozed, I watched the little figure of the airplane crawl across the video map of the world on the seatback in front of me. I tried to meditate but found it impossible. I should have tried harder, given the ordeal that awaited me in Germany. We touched down in the early morning & as we were rolling toward the gate, there was an announcement to the effect that those of us continuing to JFK would reboard the plane at the gate next to the one where we were disembarking. I’ve been on this flight before & this was a new wrinkle — we’d have to clear security again. Everyone is directed down a very long, featureless hallway and along a ramp in which all the doors are closed & guarded. Where the hell are the restrooms? I always thought Germans were fanatical about toilets, but apparently not for airline passengers. We arrive at a security area, get our boarding passes & passports checked, put our bags on the conveyor, walk through the metal detectors . . . & then we’re on our way, right? Well, some of us are, but quite a few of us have our bags slid over onto the far side of the outflow table, where we have to go retrieve them.

In front of me, a beefy female security cop is going through the bag of a middle-aged woman who has had the temerity to smuggle a six ounce jar of some kind of cold cream into her luggage. The cop tells her it is “a violation” & tosses it in the garbage. Now it’s my turn.

“Is this yours?”
“You will have a special check. Please follow my colleague.”

I am led into a little room where another beefy cop, this one male, tells me to take my camera bag out of my backpack, then has me open the bag & take the camera out, which he then swabs for explosives. After he puts his swab in the machine & it comes out negative I am allowed to repack my stuff & go on my way. But no, as I am hiking back out to the gate — still no god damned toilets — everyone on our flight is stopped for another document check, which is badly organized,  mean spirited, & just simply idiotic, since just ahead of me they let a family get back on the airplane even though mom seems to have lost half their boarding passes.

And my trip home was only half over. I spent another hour watching German security cops swagger around the gate area with their pistols on their hips, joking with each other & scowling at everyone waiting to resume their trip to New York. So was their some kind of threat? A piece of luggage without a passenger? Maybe, but I think it much more likely that it was merely arbitrary. As a final insult, it was real easy to log on to the “Free Wifi” in the boarding lounge; unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t connected to the internet.

The rest of the trip was long, but mostly uneventful, with the exception of how well I was treated at JFK by the check-in folks at Jet Blue — remember my heavy bags? — & by the crew on the plane up to Burlington. Everyone was really nice & went out of their way to be helpful. Carole met me in the afternoon, we took the ferry across Lake Champlain, then drove home, where, as I mentioned, I arrived almost exactly forty-eight hours after setting out from my hotel in Hanoi.

Aug 052012
 Posted by at 6:56 am
Aug 052012

Just finished reading Andrés Neuman’s audacious novel, Traveler of the Century & am still thinking about the way the title frames the novel, which is sent in 19th century Germany. My current idea is that Hans, the novel’s protagonist, is a kind of time-traveler from the 21st century who has gone back to the period in which modern literature was born. For this is a very literary novel about literature; more specifically, about translation. I should add that nothing in the novel except perhaps the title suggests the idea of time-travel: in many ways, this is a fairly conventional historical novel that focuses on the intellectual history of 19th century Europe & the confluence of poetics & politics.

I discovered the novel reading Chris Feliciano Arnold’s review-meditation in  the LA Book Review. I strongly recommend his essay as an introduction to the novel & to some alternative ways of thinking about translation. Who & what is the translator? The most stable, sensitive, & reliable character in the novel is Franz, who cannot speak because he is a dog. Everyone else gathered together in the city of Wandernburg — including the city itself — lacks any sort of consistent identity. They have come from elsewhere & settled in a city that itself has a tendency to wander. No character, except for Franz & perhaps his master, an old man known only as “the organ grinder,” has anything like a consistent self-identity. All are fabulists of their own identities, whether they are aware of this or not. (Some ore more aware than others.) All are in some way divided against themselves.

That is the context into which Neuman brings the idea of literary translation. Translation, in fact, is the main action of this very talky novel. Hans takes up with Sophie, already betrothed to Rudi, the son of local aristocrats. Soiphie & Hans become lovers & co-translators, the act of translation mixed into their love-making & their love-making mixed into their acts of translation. Do lovers absorb & transform each other? Do translators absorb & transform the texts they translate? Neuman has a lot of fun with this theme & my only complaint is that the love affair is described at such great length that it begins to become tedious. I much prefer the scenes in which Hans goes to visit the organ grinder, who lives in a cave outside of town. The old man is sort of a bodhisattva who dwells in the earth (literally) & seeks to bring happiness to the people of Wandernburg by playing music on his hurdy-gurdy.

By the end of the story it becomes clear that everyone except the old organ grinder & his dog are impostors, playing roles they have only half-consciously adopted. Even the organ grinder is not really a musician: he only turns the handle of a machine that is programmed to make music. And at the end of the story, each one is alone, though, Hans, the translator & traveler, has inherited the barrel organ, the idea, I think, being that being a translator is a bit like being a hurdy-gurdy man, just turning the handle of the machine.

Hurdy-Gurdy Man

 Posted by at 12:16 am