by Charles North
(Sun and Moon Press) $12.95
It was once thought that the atom was the final, irreducible element in the universe. Near the town in which I grew up (Wheaton, IL, where Billy Graham did his graduate school) is Fermilab (www.fnal.gov/). Fermilab is famous for creating an accelerator that could take seemingly irreducible atoms, speed them up, and smash them into little bits and pieces. This collection of poetry, exemplifying the course of Charles North's career, illustrates this same strategy, as North takes language, seemingly finite, and smashes it into smithereens.
I suggest reading this collection backward, starting off with North's last poem, "Building Sixteens," which North writes in 16 parts about 16 structures in 16 lines. Though symmetric, this poem is anything but systematic, and the chaos it creates opens a field of vision and values conducive to associative thought. As North states in a sci-fi, yet beautiful way: "At least since Victorian times/a troublesome arch has enveloped/people, buildings and landscape/in a fuzzy notion of what it means/to be central, and the stars like brainwaves/fight through the illusion that we are/command modules illuminated by/some extremely distant source...."
Combining elements of historical and commercial criticism with those of scientific and quotidian lyricism, Charles North is able to accelerate language and break it down, exposing the structures of rhetoric as they emerge, converge, and collide into one another. He reveals the underlying values deposited in these structures, reinforced by the hegemonic and ideological systems we accrete ourselves to, on a day-to-day level. Charles North leaves the pieces there, their bare elements scattered across the linoleum floor of language, for unassuming readers to cut their feet on. KREG HASEGAWA
BODIES IN MOTION AND AT REST: ON METAPHOR AND MORTALITY
by Thomas Lynch
A terrible thing happened to Thomas Lynch after the publication of his previous collection of essays, The Undertaking: He was compared, in The New York Times, to Garrison Keillor. Lynch is a poet and a funeral director, and The Undertaking is a collection of graceful, intelligent, and sometimes funny essays about his two vocations. The few weak places in that collection occurred when Lynch's voice skirted the cornball folksiness of Garrison Keillor.
It looks like some ambitious, cash-happy publicist rushed Lynch's new collection, which reads more like a sequel than a book that could stand on its own merits. Many of the new pieces have content similar to the previous book's, presented here in shorter, more quipable bites. There are some substantial pieces, though, particularly the ones about fatherhood. "The Way We Were" is a sad, clear-eyed eulogy to a son who, though still alive in body, has been rendered otherwise dead by alcohol. "Y2Kat," despite its irritating title, has some lovely insights into trying to love what your children love. "Johnny, We Hardly Knew You" suggests that the excess of public mourning for dead people we didn't know (Princess Di, the Kennedys) is a perverse replacement for the private mourning we are forgetting, as a culture, how to do. But read in succession too many times, the essays in Bodies in Motion and at Rest begin to sound, like those of Garrison Keillor, formulaic, glib. REBECCA BROWN
LOST AND FOUND
by W. G. Sebald
(New Directions) $23.95
I picked up Vertigo in sad and disoriented spirits--a mood the book, thank goodness, did not dissipate or solve but rather unfurled for me like a picnic blanket on the summer's last, darkening day. Vertigo is a record of Sebald's own disoriented wanderings through middle Europe, driven by the horror of a history that is both unreachably distant and disturbingly present. As he tells an old family acquaintance in the book's last section, "The more images I gathered from the past... the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: Most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling."
Like Sebald's other books, Vertigo tells a series of stories that circle back, with a modest, thrilling patience, to an unsettling core. In The Emigrants, the first of his books to appear in the U.S., each section turned out to be the story of a man (real or imagined; it's not clear) who survived the Holocaust, only to find himself crushed decades later by the burden of its memory. In Vertigo, the stories return to a number of images: the creation of art in the middle of great physical pain, the sinister loneliness of cities, the ease and finality with which a person can become insane. The Holocaust makes only the slightest entry in the book--in a photograph of a Gypsy detained behind barbed wire, taken by Sebald's father while in the German army and presented to his mother in a Christmas album, of all things. But no doubt for Sebald, born in Germany in 1944 but an exile in England for the last 30-odd years, the Holocaust is the chasm that lies underneath this book's historical vertigo, the one his later books circle back to again and again. TOM NISSELY