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What I'm Reading This Week

Booked Up

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

An Unreasonable Woman by Diane Wilson. Chelsea Green. 2006.

Back in the 1960s there’s was much banter about who would write the great American novel.  Well, I think I’ve found the book: An Unreasonable Woman by Diane Wilson. There’s a catch. This isn’t fiction. And it’s all the more powerful for that reason. Part memoir, part thriller, part manifesto, Wilson’s book is a mesmerizing account of her life as a shrimper on the Gulf of Mexico operating out of the little town of of Seadrift, Texas. Times are hard. The shrimp are running out. People are getting sick. The tiny hamlet is being gobbled up by chemical plant sprawl and drowned in toxic effluent. Wilson, mother of five, decides to take action, direct action against the chemical and oil giants. And thus begins a tale as gripping as The Perfect Storm and as unnerving as the movie Silkwood. But the real treasure here is the quality of Wilson’s writing. This is no as-to account, ghost written by some third rate editor at a New York publisher. Wilson’s voice is unforgettable from the opening paragraph. A southern voice on a literary level with that of Flannery O’Connor, Fanny Flagg and Lee Smith from the great novel Oral History. Her story is genuinely heroic, but Wilson’s evocative descriptions of her daily life on the gulf (mending the cumbersome nets, raising her autistic son Crocket, the flight passterns of shorebirds, the stench from the bloated corpses of poisoned dolphins) seal the deal.  So rip down those tattered posters of Che and tape up one of Diane Wilson. Or better yet forget the poster and a hop a ride down to the Chemical Gulf and join the fight.

The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives by Nick Turse. Metropolitan Books. 2008.

As a writer, Nick Turse is no Diane Wilson. On the evidence of The Complex, Turse comes from the You Tube school of journalism. His story is a distressingly familiar one: the Pentagon has become a holding company for nearly ever sector of the American economy, doling out contracts for everything from Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Oakley sunglasses to Apple Macintosh G-4 computers and Starbucks coffee at Gitmo. Written in a gee-whiz prose style, the Complex grates where it should enrage. Its sound-bite sized chapters (one especially irritating chapter plays the Kevin Bacon game to sketch out the Pentagon’s insidious relationship with Hollywood) spatter lots of factoids with no analysis, as if Turse was auditioning for a skit on the Jon Stewart Show. Even worse, the book lacks footnotes or a bibliography even though it reads like crib notes from the work of other reporters. How a book on the political economy of the Pentagon can avoid mentioning the names of Fred Kaplan, Dina Rasor, Winslow Wheeler, Ernie Fitzgerald or Chuck Spinney, who have done so much to expose the corrupt core of the Pentagon’s budget and its contracting system, is a mystery, but you’ll search The Complex in vain for their names. There’s also a huge hole in the middle of Turse’s book: the Clinton years. This is a Bush-bashing book that maliciously elides the uncomfortable fact that many of the contractor scandals that penetrated the mainstream press in Bush-time where actually set in motion in the 1990s. As I detail in my book, Grand Theft Pentagon, the privatization of the Pentagon accelerated dramatically as a result of the loosening of restrictions and oversight on Pentagon contracts under Al Gore’s Reinventing Government (REGO) program. By ignoring this political context, Turse trivializes what he seeks to condemn.

The Other End by John Shirley. Cemetery Dance. 2006.

Rocker, Blue Oyster Cult lyricist and Bay Area novelist John Shirley has been one of my favorite writers since I encountered his anarchic epic Eclipse (A Song Called Youth) trilogy back in the 1980s.  William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and my former prof Tom Maddox (author of the ground-breaking and ethereal SF novel Halo) are gifted and innovative writers, but geeky and a little wimpy for my tastes. It took Shirley to put the punk in cyberpunk–so much so he was credited with creating a new genre, Splatterpunk. Shirley’s the Robespierre of SF. But oddly, The Other End, a novel about an alternate Apocalypse, is one of his most humane and darkly comic novels. It’s a brilliant premise, skillfully executed—so to speak, where everyone gets exactly what they deserve. Just like in the French Revolution. Ready to meet your maker Rev. La Haye?

The Essential Etheridge Knight. Etheridge Knight. University of Pittsburgh. 1986.

I met the great black poet Etheridge Knight in 1980 after he had given a reading at Crispus Attucks High School in downtown Indianapolis, the same school that Oscar Robertson breezed through on his way to immortality. It was an energetic and fiery performance that had the exhilarating effect of an hour long Coltrane solo. Afterwards, we repaired to a small house on the eastside of Indy, drinking Hoot Owl beer, eating home-cooked soul food and shooting pool on a billard table set up in backyard deep into the humid night. Knight won every game.

Knight’s poetry is meant to be read aloud to an audience. His is not the confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, but a poetry of self-assertion and confrontation. Not confrontation in a hostile sense—necessarily. But Knight demands that the audience confront the experience voiced in his poems: the experience of prison life, of street life, of life in culture of fear, bigotry and state violence. 
Knight was born in Corinth, Mississippi in 1931. His parents joined the Great Migration out of the cotton fields to the industrial north, landing in Indianapolis. Knight dropped out of high school at 16 to join the Army. He fought in the Korean War, where he suffered a nasty shrapnel wound that never really healed. The pain from the wound led Knight to a heroin addiction and the need for that daily fix led him to commit an armed robbery. He was caught and sentenced to an 8 year stint in the Indiana State Prison, where he beginning writing the scorching cycle of poems that became Poems from Prison published by the great Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press in 1968.

Along with Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed, Knight’s poems prefigure hip hop, though his beats, the sharpness of his images, the complexity of his rhythms remind me of the funk-driven jazz of the late 60s and early 70s, as performed by Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Knight’s fellow luminary from Naptown Freddie Hubbard. With the prison population in the US topping two million, Knight’s poetry of survival and resistance is more vital than ever. Here’s one of my favorite Knight poems, “He Sees Through Stone”. Read it aloud to someone.

He Sees Through Stone
By Etheridge Knight

He sees through stone
he has the secret
eyes this old black one
who under prison skies
sits pressed by the sun
against the western wall
his pipe between purple gums

the years fall
like overripe plums
bursting red flesh
on the dark earth

his time is not my time
but I have known him
in a time gone

he led me trembling cold
into the dark forest
taught me the secret rites
to make it with a woman
to be true to my brothers
to make my spear drink
the blood of my enemies

now black cats circle him
flash white teeth
snarl at the air
mashing green grass beneath
shining muscles

ears peeling his words
he smiles
he knows
the hunt the enemy
he has the secret eyes
he sees through stone

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