Thursday, March 29, 2012

200 or so pages of The Years of Rice and Salt

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I have been exploring my interest in sci-fi, and particularly the dystopian novel. This interest began for me in high school when I read books such as Farenheit 451 and 1984. For many years I followed other pursuits and it has only been recently that I have begun to go back to this area of interest. The book that I am reading now, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, is something of a departure for me. Although KSR is well known for his sci-fi writing, this novel would more accurately be called a speculative or alternate history. The novel consists of ten books which recount the history of the world, but a world in which the black plague wiped out almost all of the population of Europe and Asian cultures took a place of dominance instead of Western Christianity. KSR uses the concept of reincarnation to provide a sort of continuity in the novel. Each book features a reincarnated version of the same two central characters who are inextricably bound together in a karma group. This device helps to convey the arc of history that KSR builds over the course of the novel because each individual book is tightly encapsulated: the narrative begins at some point in the lives of the characters -- sometimes detailing how they met, other times not -- and ends with their deaths. The result is that the overarching revised history is left largely implied.
KSR finds inventive ways of restating this large theme within the episodic narratives of the individual books. For example, the third book titled "Ocean Continents" focuses on a fleet of Chinese treasure ships that have gotten lost at sea and come across an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that has not been encountered before. The sailors, having brought small pox with them to the island, infect the islanders and end up taking a young girl with them for their return to the mainland. Kheim, one of the recurring characters wonders if they are justified in taking the girl away from her home even though this means saving her from the certain death that many of her family will face. Kheim considers the speed with which the girl, whom they call "Butterfly," adjusts to life on the ship, which parallels the reader's experience of reorienting, or adjusting, to each new life that the characters appear in. The reader is put into the paradoxical position of knowing more and less than the central characters. The reader knows more because he/she sees the broad arc of the novel, but knows less because the individual lives within each of the books is very minimally glossed. The reader is then forced into a position from which they can see the big picture, the broad historical perspective, but miss out on the intricacies of the lives of the characters presented. This contributes to KSR's purpose because the characters are in tune with reincarnation and often recognize that a single lifetime is a small aspect of the entire "life" of a soul.
The book is fascinating so far. I found it a bit jarring to read at first but it only took the first couple of transitions between historical ages and characters to catch on to the conceit of the novel. The two concepts that interest me the most in the novel are the treatment of character and the treatment of history. KSR develops a complex reimagination of history through his inventive use of "character" in a completely non-traditional way.

Friday, March 2, 2012

"The brittle things of March"

The forecast of bad weather held us back from making a trip to the east today; after last year's hail storm (with larger-than-golf-ball-sized hail), I am more cautious. Nothing much has happened yet, but nonetheless--the day has been good for looking back over some forgotten poems.

A friend recently remarked that it's difficult to understand poetry without knowing the poet; I argued that this is not the case, and that in a good poem, there are many things to grasp hold of, make meaning from.

I first read Joseph Enzweiler's A Curb in Eden almost eight years ago--before I understood the work of a farmer, or began listening to the land in the same way that he does in his poems. Reading the poems now, I know that the wind and the mud aren't abstractions. However, there is still much in this simple poem that is foreign to me--and maybe this very fact is part of the reason for my enjoyment (of any poem).

The Wind

I've been standing here all my life
by the road that day in March
and never knew till now.
Phone lines hold their breath.
Above the neighborhood
a hammer is lifted.
Swifts fall silent in the chimney.
Children on the lawn
are blurred, their faces
delicate as cups.
In the market aisle
a secret waits half-told.
A doorknob turns.
Cars intent on evening
as supper cooks.
Watch hands.
The smell of bread.

As the bus pulls away
in a black roar of diesel,
from its window
you smile at me and wave.
We are fifteen.
My face is cold.
The mud smells warm
with spring and rotten grass.
Four o'clock.
The potholes shiver with rain.

In glass dark and shifting,
clouds rush across your face
like faraway countries
taking you, faster now
until you are dust,
a metal frame of sky.

I never heard the hammer fall,
a garage door shut, the eyes
complete their journeys.
I thought I could always find you there
in the same green coat,
though it's we who are the wind.

I turned home past the locust trees
through the broken gate.
Our steel fence hissed in vines,
sun glazed the pear tree.
The brittle things of March
filled me, and the mud
on my shoes felt light.

That night at supper my family
ate the same in their same chairs.
But for me the fish was beautiful
and sweet  opened with my fork.
They could not see.
I never spoke, though my blood
was curving to the sky.