Monday, August 25, 2008

Review of Short Talks by Anne Carson

Short Talks
Anne Carson
Brick Books, 2005

In 45 "short talks," each a paragraph in length, Anne Carson covers a range of disparate subjects--the Mona Lisa, Ovid, Van Gogh, hedonism, hopes, trout--in a quirky, fascinating manner.

Here's "Short Talk on Van Gogh":

"The reason I drink is to understand the yellow sky the great yellow sky, said Van Gogh. When he looked at the world he saw the nails that attach colours to things and he saw that the nails were in pain."

And here's the "Short Talk on Le Bonheur D'Etre Bien Aimee":

"Day after day I think of you as soon as I wake up. Someone has put cries of birds on the air like jewels."

That last sentence is a beauty.

Make it new. That's what Carson does, and does well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Contest Links

I have added a list of prose poem and flash fiction contest links to the righthand column. Those with the nearest deadline are listed first. Good luck!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review of Joseph Cornell's Dreams

Joseph Cornell's Dreams
Edited and with an introduction by Catherine Corman
Exact Change, 2007

This book is literally what the title says it is: a collection of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell's dreams. He obsessively recorded the details of his daily life; his journal runs into some 30,000 pages. From this massive work, Catherine Corman has selected 115 dreams as recorded by Cornell. The dreams range from a few words in length to about a half page. Each entry is disjointed, obviously jotted down when the dream was still fresh, and contains the same kind of illogical sequences and relationships one has in dreams.

In addition to these brief snippets of oneiric memory, Corman includes "A Guide to the Dreams," in which major themes are analyzed, "Cornell's Philosophy of Dreaming," taken from the artist's own musings on the subject, and "Observations by Friends," in which Cornell's familiars speak of how the artist made no distinction between his dream life and his real one. (The man, we are told, was prone to hallucinatory encounters in everyday life.)

Corman selected those dreams which seemed to closely correspond to the admittedly dreamlike nature of Cornell's surreal assemblages. Birds, toys, and antiques are prominent in both the dreams and the artworks. The shorter dreams--such as "child with chick in dream world"--capture a single image or emotion. Longer ones capture the combination of unrelated elements found in both dreams and Cornell's assemblages: "dream of pulling out brass chaining from clutter in bedroom closet + later on lawn seeing Eisenhower smiling at me."

These are not quite prose poems, of course, and they were never meant to be. But as the dream memories of an artist known for the dream images of his work, these writings are fascinating insights into the inner workings of the creative process and provide some understanding of the roots of Cornell's delightfully enigmatic creations.

--Thomas Wiloch

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review of No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan

No Barrier: Unlocking the Zen Koan
translated by Thomas Cleary

Billed as a translation of the Wumenguan, a classic collection of Chinese Zen koans and commentary, this book is far more than that. Thomas Cleary, translator of such Asian religious texts as the I Ching and the bestselling The Art of War, supplements the original thirteenth century version of Wumenguan with much new material. For each of the forty- eight koans presented here, Cleary includes the commentary by Wumen Huikai, the original author, as well as commentary from several different Zen masters from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries. Then Cleary comments of these earlier remarks, putting them into less metaphoric language and comparing one to another. He also explains terms and concepts unfamiliar to the Western reader. The result is a multi-layered exposition of each koan, giving the fledgling student a rich overview of how koans work, the ways they have of being interpreted, and the enlightenment they can provoke. As Cleary explains, “This book unravels the secrets of the most popular collection of koans, revealing them as tools for opening up the inherent genius of the mind.”

As an example, the koan, “The world is so wide, so vast; why put on a formal vestment at the sound of a bell?” is followed by a 100-word comment from Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Wumen, a four-line poem comment by Zen master Gushan, and a three-page discussion from Cleary. This wealth of analysis–from several perspectives–offers the student a greater opportunity to gain the multiple insights this koan embodies.

In addition, Cleary’s introduction outlines a practical way to use the koans in this book to foster Zen consciousness–a state of mind free from automatic habits of thought and emotion. Based on Wumen’s own teachings, this method aids the serious student to calm the inner turmoil of the mind, drop the blinders of conditioned thought, and achieve control over his mental state. No Barrier can therefore be used as a training manual for reaching Zen consciousness. Or, for the casual reader, as a valuable guide to Zen thought and its expression through the traditional koan.

--Thomas Wiloch