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What I'm Reading This Week Booked Up

Booked Up

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR


The Selected Poems of Wang Wei translated by David Hinton, New Directions, 2006.

I don’t hesitate much in saying this: Wang Wei is my favorite poet. I can read these poems, written in China’s Whole South Mountains during the 8th century, over and over again. Wang is often described as one of the originators of Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism. Perhaps. But his poems are not mystical or even philosophical and the are refreshingly devoid of the harshness and forced irony found in Japan’s variations on Zen. For me, Wang’s poems reveal the eyes and ears of a gifted naturalist, describing the flight of swallows, the sounds of rapids, the color of mountains shaded by clouds. (In English poetry, only the glorious eccentric John Clare rivals Wang as a poet/naturalist.) The images are sharp, the rhythms as spare and clear as a Monk solo. The language flows as casually as a conversation. In that way, some of Wang’s poems are as casual as Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems. Of course, we’re only receiving about half of the real Wang: we miss the calligraphy that was an integral part of Chinese poetry, the beautiful and sprawling landscapes painted by Wang to accompany his poems (now destroyed) and the Chinese language itself. He is at the mercy of his translators and he has enjoyed two gifted ones: Kenneth Rexroth and David Hinton. Here’s an ancient poem by Wang that sounds modern, perhaps because some of the best modern poets, Pound, Moore, Snyder and Williams, honed their craft at Wang’s feet:

A Farewell

Off our horses, I offer you wine,
Ask where you are going. You say:

Your work has come to nothing,
You’ll settle at South Mountain.

Once you set out, questions end
And white cloud keeps on and on.

The Damnation Game by Clive Barker. Random House, 1986.

On my list of novels that I hope Hollywood never discovers, The Damnation Game ranks near the top, along with Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. Why spoil the fun? The Damnation Game was Clive Barker’s first novel and remains his best. In fact, it is probably the best horror novel ever written (with the possible exception of Lord of the Dead by Tom Holland, featuring Lord Byron as a vampire). It is a truly unnerving retelling of the Faust legend set in the ruins of post-World War II Europe. Yes, this is genre fiction. So what? You’ll learn more about the craft of writing from reading Clive Barker than, say, Jonathan Franzen and enjoy the lesson, too.

Lorenzo in Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan. Sunstone Press, 2007.

Kimberly and I met in a D. H. Lawrence seminar at The American University in 1979. Within a year we were living together in a spooky basement in Chevy Chase. We talked back then of driving off to New Mexico to hunt down Lawrence’s "dirty paintings," visit the shrine made from his ashes and sneak a peak at the ranch in Taos where he spent one of his fruitful years. Life intervened: marriage, children, grad school, gardens, work, wars, clearcuts, books.

Last month, 28 years after the initial plan, we finally arrived in Taos together. We walked around the grounds of the labyrinthine abode at the foot of Taos Mountain once owned by the heiress and arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, where DH and Frieda spent a tumultuous 10 months in the early 1920s. The Luhan ranch has passed through several hands since she died in 1964, including Dennis Hopper’s (who, according to local gossip, hosted weeklong bacchanalias and looted the house’s original furnishings and paintings). Indeed, it’s where Hopper cut Easy Rider. Now it’s a easy-going bed-and-breakfast catering to yoga tourists.

From the courtyard, occupied by chatty magpies, you see the brilliant bathroom windows Lawrence painted for Luhan during that summer 85 years ago. Inside we picked up a copy of Luhan’s memoir of her relationship with the Lawrences (and the irrepressible Lawrence groupie and painter, Dorothy Brett.) The book had been out of print since it was originally published shortly after Lawrence’s death from TB in 1930. The Lujan’s salon in outback of Taos New Mexico rivaled Gertrude Stein’s Parisian loft. She lured to New Mexico Thomas Wolfe, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Mary Austin, Willa Cather and some of the best painters of the 20th century, including O’Keefe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Andrew Dasburg. But looming above all of these was the figure of Lawrence, who came to the Luhan compound in 1922. Dodge’s account of Lawrence’s year and half m in New Mexico is a gossipy marvel, giving penetrating new insights into the mind and persona of one of my favorite writers. Perhaps because he didn’t fall into her bed, Lawrence comes out as an infuriating character, petulant, paranoid, hysterical. A moody genius. The real surprise here is the quality of the writing. Luhan is a talented prose writer, who spares no one–including herself. A neglected classic of the Lost Generation.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published this spring. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.