This isn’t a book where you’re going to get emotionally attached to the characters; instead, you’re going to wince when you recognize how lifelike their lives truly are: chaotic, sometimes violent, and messy. And believe me, you’re not going to want to look away. Baboon is a collection of short stories that, like the cover art, are magnified at the moment of destruction or implosion. Energy thrums beneath the daily surface for these characters—a dark energy that threatens to unwind the very structure of their worlds. Adultery, child abuse, crumbling relationships, beasteality, sex addiction, and physical ailments are all present in this collection. These stories enter the minds of people who do the things we say we could never do, but despite that, happen on a daily basis everywhere.
Aidt is a prolific Danish poet and author, and has won much recognition, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for Baboon in 2008. This English edition of Baboon is translated by Denise Newman (who has translated many well-known Danish authors) so we can finally devour Aidt’s work here in English-speaking countries.
The characters, while not warm and fuzzy, are expertly crafted and hyper-real. Aidt is master at creating characters that are unaware of the magnifying glass hovering above their daily lives. The voice of these characters is unassuming, nonchalant almost, but that’s why the moments in these stories pack such a punch—they sneak up on you and engulf all of your senses. These aren’t characters who experience the clearly positive type of “personal growth” that is common in self-discovery story lines. Rather, these are characters undergo change and growth, yes, but it’s more of an murky unveiling of their true, raw thoughts and feelings.
This excerpt is from the opening story “Bulbjerg”, about a married couple who is dangerously lost in some woods with their 6 year old son and a dachshund. Juxtaposed with the chaos and tension of that situation is what is going on in the husband’s mind:
When I woke up this morning, you were watching me. We were both lying on our sides, facing each other, and you were watching me. I smiled. The light fell from the skylight in a sharp diagonal line onto the white duvet. I felt like I was being spied on. Then Sebastian was standing in the doorway. He said the dog had peed on the rug in the living room. A little while later I could hear you laughing and chatting in the kitchen. We used to do it on that rug. We were here in the fall, it was cold, and in the evenings we lit the fire. I slowly peeled the clothes off her, and she looked beautiful on the red Persian rug, in the warm light from the fire. She spread her legs. She looked at me with dark, almost sorrowful eyes. Your sister has a tighter cunt than you. I wonder whether you’re born that way or if it’s just because she’s so young.
Aidt sneakily shifts to the narrator talking about his wife, to then her sister, when you begin to see the real situation for what it is. Pronouns are significant here; in this story, for example, “you” is used throughout to refer to the narrator’s wife. The word holds an accusatory tone throughout, a metaphorical jabbing finger. Then, Aidt switches without warning to “she” to denote that no, he’s not talking about having sex with his wife on the rug, but rather her sister with whom he is having an affair. It’s a subtle shift, but one that hits with purpose.
In “Bulbjerg”, both of these situations (being lost in the woods, and the affair) build steadily until they boil over. Most of the stories in the collection contain more than what meets the eye; so much of the building action happens in the character’s heads with their internal thoughts. Aidt shows us what would really happen if we could read people’s minds. And Aidt doesn’t give us a clean conclusion; we’re left with a mess which can be unsettling at times.
Aidt writes in a very straight-forward fashion, with short, clipped sentences that add to the matter-of-fact nature of these characters. It also juxtaposes the moments of chaos starkly. Take the opening of the story “Torben and Maria”, which is about a mother who abuses her toddler son:
What can you say about Maria? That her hair is blonde and dark at the roots? That she loves roast pork with cracklings? That as a child she loved to look out at the flat fields at dusk in February? Her eyes rested there, under the low sky, in the gray gray light, until it got so dark that she could see only her face reflected on the window, the green lamp on the table behind her, and all the way back to her mother, leaning against the door smoking.
The window, a black mirror.
She hits her small child, until the screaming stops. It’s a boy and his name is Torben. Not many people call their sons that any more. Ah, Maria! You can say this about her: “She gave her son the name Torben.”
Soon he’ll be two. He’s a little weakling, and there’s nothing special about him.
This story is painful to read, but also shows how every day situations like this are; people abuse their children, and either no one knows or sometimes people know (such as other family, in this case) but no one does anything about it until it’s in the news or someone else finds out. It’s stories like this which make Baboon get under your skin; they linger there, a bad taste in your mouth, hyper-aware of all the dirty laundry underneath the thin scrim of “proper” social standards. You look around at the world around in a different way after reading Baboon, wondering what is actually going on in the minds of the woman in front of you at Walgreen’s, or the guy running around Lake Harriet.
What other books have shifted the way you view everyday life? Have you encountered other writers that juxtapose straight-forward style with magnified moments of chaos?
This week I’m in an open field. Well, alright, not actually in a field, but that’s where my brain is this week. A big, wide, open field of… what, exactly? Possibilities? Uniformity? Mysteries? Monotony? That’s for you to decide.
Taca Zhijie Sui, Untitled, from Odes of Zhou series. Photograph. www.tacasui.com
John Singer Sargent, Thistles, 1883-1884. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Chris Faust, Oat Field, Kandiyohi City, MN, 1994. Photograph. www.chrisfaustphoto.com
If you read my review last week, you know I was pretty impressed with Tin House’s Summer Writers Workshop this past July. Not only did I develop creative relationships and get some great feedback on my work, but I also left with a *few* reading suggestions. Okay, the reading list is ABSURD. But if you’re anything like me, and you believe that reading will improve your writing, then lists like these from people I hold in high regard are like gold. And so, I share the wealth:
Campbell McGrath – Capitalism (Wesleyan New Poets)
Campbell McGrath – American Noise (Ecco Press)
Campbell McGrath – Spring Comes to Chicago (Ecco Press)
I have become a complete disciple of Campbell McGrath. No other voice (that I’ve found) encapsulates the identity of this nation, in this millennium, with as much subtlety, poise, and formal consideration as McGrath.
Charles Wright – Bloodlines (Wesleyan Poetry Program)
D. A. Levy – Suburban Monastery Death Poem (Crisis Chronicles Press)
Dawn McGuire – The Aphasia Cafe (IFSF Publishers)
Derek Walcott – The Schooner Flight
Derek Walcott – Omeros
My workshop group spent a good deal of time considering form. Omeros is an epic poem in terza rima, and our conversation of Derek Walcott, also led us to Edward Kamau Braithwaite—another poet attending to the African diaspora.
Edward Dorn – Gunslinger (Duke University Press)
Edward Kamau Brathwaite – The Arrivants: A New World Trilogy (Oxford University Press)
Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Mother Poem (1977)
Edward Kamau Braithwaite – Sun Poem (1982)
Ellen Bryant Voigt – Kyrie (W. W. Norton & Company)
Gwendolyn Brooks – “We Real Cool” (originally published in The Bean Eaters )
With Kevin Young as my workshop leader, sound and music were frequent topics in conversation. Poems like “We Real Cool” are concise examples of precision and rhythm in a poem.
Jim Harrison – Letters to Yesenin (Copper Canyon Press)
Jo Ann Beard – “The Fourth State of Matter,” in The Boys of My Youth (Back Bay Books)
Jo Ann Beard was a faculty member at the workshop. I haven’t read The Boys of My Youth yet, but if her prose is half as wise as her lecture was last summer, I expect to be blown away.
Julia Story – Post Moxie: Poems (Sarabande Books)
June Jordan – “Poem About My Feelings”
Karen Volkman – Spar (University of Iowa Press)
Kevin Young – Jelly Roll: A Blues (Knopf)
Larry Levis – Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press)
Matthea Harvey – Modern Life (Graywolf Press)
Maurice Manning – The Gone and the Going Away (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Muriel Rukeyser – “Effort at Speech Between Two People” (originally published in Theory of Flight )
Enjoy this poem here!
Natalie Diaz – My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press)
Paige Ackerson Keily – My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer (Ahsahta)
Come on! With a title like that (My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer) how could you NOT want to dig into this book of poetry?!
Rochelle Hurt – The Rusted City (White Pine Press)
Sally Wen Mao – Mad Honey Symposium (Alice James Books)
T. Crunk – Living in the Resurrection (Yale University Press)
Ted Berrigan – The Sonnets
I admit, bashfully, that I did not know Ted Berrigan’s name before this summer. A “late Beat,” Berrigan became famous for The Sonnets, reissued by Grove Press in 1966, and influenced by T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
W. S. Merwin – Finding the Islands (San Francisco: North Point Press)
Walid Bitar – 2 Guys on Holy Land (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Wallace Stevens – Harmonium
Yusef Komunyakka- Copacetic (Wesleyan New Poets)
The Party Train: A Collection of North American Prose Poetry (New Rivers Press)
There you have it! Now I know what you’ll be reading this winter so… see you next spring! Speaking of which, if at any point between now and then you decide this workshop might be right for you, get your application in for the rolling admissions process. Scholarship applications are due March 25, 2015.
Franny Choi’s debut collection of poems, Floating, Brilliant, Gone, is haunted. There are ghosts everywhere, from the opening poem “Notes on the Existence of Ghosts” to the “dead lover” in “My Lovers” to the ghosts of old neighborhoods in “Gentrifier.” However, it would be wrong to imply that these poems aren’t based in the realm of the living. On the contrary, ghosts and living bodies occupy these poems in equal measure. Living bodies, in Choi’s poems, are political; ghosts are lucky enough to escape the politics of the living.
One of the most memorable—but nearly impossible to memorize—poems in the collection is “Pussy Monster,” which takes the lyrics from Lil’ Wayne’s song of the same name and rearranges the words in ascending order of frequency, ending with the word “pussy” repeated a whopping 40 times. Similarly, “Second Mouth” focuses on the female anatomy and the ways womanhood has been made political.
Other-lips whispering between her legs
What they called black hole not-thing
is really packed full of secrets A rebel mouth
testifying from the underside […]
from “Second Mouth”
The political poems showcase Choi at her most focused, and that intensity keeps the poems afloat. The strongest poems in Floating, Brilliant, Gone cleave to the page in some way, while still begging to be read out loud, to be performed. However, other poems are bound to performances that the reader can’t access on the page. Lines fall flat, even in the strongest poems. In one poem, “Metamorphosis,” which takes butterflies as its central metaphor, stanzas are scattered on the page like a cloud of butterflies. It’s a striking poem, and yet, even here the page muffles the poem:
he held the last raspberry
of the season to my lips.
the sun was shining. everything
was dying & we
laughed hand in hand
over the graves of
The final sentence of this stanza contains wonderful music (“the graves of / tiny kings”) and a surprising juxtaposition in “everything / was dying & we / laughed […]” Unfortunately, the uninspired image of the sun simply “shining” weighs the stanza down, though, read out loud, it’s easy enough to ignore the line.
The best poems here are moving, surprising, and big. They speak to loss and love in real and wonderful ways. The second poem in the book, “Halloween, 2009,” begins:
When my boyfriend’s mother
called to tell me
he was dead
I called her a liar
and took the day off.
These lines are spare, but the hurt and denial are huge. In “Kimchi,” Choi plays on her heritage, both familial and, more broadly, as a Korean-Amereican woman, writing, “My parents’ love for each other / was pickled in the brine of 1980 […]” The metaphor of a relationship as kimchi is unexpected and acute. It’s in these poems that the ghosts begin to speak more clearly.
The shortest poem in this collection, “Heaven is a Fairy Tale (& Vice Versa)” reads in full:
We are all
In the pages of Floating, Brilliant, Gone the exploration of bodies and how they become ghosts—the “practice” of dying—dominates. The collection suffers slightly from a lack of focus, both in poems individually and overall, but Choi’s voice is strong and at their best these poems ring clear and true. It’s a good bet that Choi’s poems will appear in pages and on stages across the country for some time to come.
What other new poets are you looking forward to reading as their careers grow?