Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Can Poetry Save the Earth? This book of appreciative analysis of poems by major poets might convince you. See review below.
Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems
by John Felstiner
396 pp. illustrated
Yale University Press

Back before heuristics, semiotics, deconstruction, evolutionary literary criticism, etc. etc. we had something called "close analysis," an attempt to read poems on their own terms. I thought this particular art was dead, until John Felstiner applied it to a range of poets writing in English, about aspects of the natural world. And lo! It still works.

At least it works for me. Felstiner adds plenty of biographical background, too, which is valuable in itself when you see the majesty of the lives of revered but not exactly famous poets like Kenneth Rexroth and the exemplary W.S. Merwin. Maybe I'm prejudiced because this is how I learned to read poetry--beginning with a poem Felstiner begins with, the ancient anonymous "Western wind, when will thou blow." And many of these are poets I especially admire, from Keats to Wallace Stevens to William Stafford, Denise Levertov, Gary Snyder. But I also appreciate the resurrection of Robert Frost, not taken seriously in my college poetry classes, and Theodore Roethke, likewise, although he meant a lot to me back then.

But even those without sentimental attachment can profit from these cogent essays, and the poems they are about. There are some evocative illustrations as well. Plus the author's brief at the end, confronting the question of his title directly, and making a persuasive case for a craftily affirmative answer. "Can poetry save the earth? For sure, person by person, our earthly challenge hangs on the sense and spirit that poems can awaken."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

For Pleasure (Spring 2009): Danger on Peaks, Gary Snyder's 2004 book of poems from Shoemaker Hoard, which immediately and maybe eccentrically became my favorite. It begins with a wonderful pairing of old and new poems about Mt. St. Helen's and our human power and apparent passion to destroy the world and ourselves, with a wise symmetry that continues throughout. Short, late poems and a group of recent poems with prose contexts are also wise and a joy.

I've also been re-reading William Irwin Thompson, preparing to review his latest. I read for the first time his book with David Spangler, Reimagination of the World (Bear & Co.), and Thompson's autobiographical riffs in that volume sent me to his only novel, Islands Out of Time (also Bear & Co.), his sci-fi allegory of the New Age set in Atlantis. I don't know enough about the New Age scene of the 70s and 80s to get more than his own more familiar obsessions, but I enjoyed the novel as a novel. A guilty pleasure was another in the Winston juvenile s/f series, and one I know I read as a pre-adolescent, Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse. Although I remember reading it from the title I didn't remember the story, so it was new, and pretty good. It's this kind of book I like to read as I'm dropping off to dreamland. This spring I even read one of the Flash Gordon novels--terrible but a great giggle.
The original edition cover of a juvenile sci-fi novel I first read in this Winston edition, but read again this month...for (guilty) pleasure.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A fascinating book on the evolution of Charles Darwin, reviewed below.
The Young Charles Darwin
By Keith Thompson

270 pages Yale University Press

In the 200th anniversary year of his birth, and 150 years after his book on the origin of species, Charles Darwin remains the most controversial and in many ways influential scientist of the 21st century, as he was of the 20th and 19th.

Darwin and his theories are written about endlessly, but this book actually covers new ground: his youth, education and early career. Just a glance at the cover—not the inscrutable bearded face of textbooks and postage stamps, but a slim, young and handsome visage—suggests how foreign this territory is. Here are the foundations of his evolutionary theories, including his fabled five-year voyage around the world aboard the Beagle. But most telling, here is the person who is becoming Charles Darwin.

Keith Thomson is an assiduous scholar and an absorbing writer, so this book is a fascinating read. He won me immediately by noting that since the Darwin men had a limited number of first names (“Charles” and “Erasmus” mostly), they were known in the family by nicknames. So Charles Robert Darwin, the fearsome intellect and alarming revolutionary, was called Bobby.

Bobby’s career was hardly a straight line to evolution, even though his famous grandfather (Erasmus Darwin) proposed the basic idea. He studied first to be a doctor, then a clergyman. He was an amateur naturalist who acquired his first fame in geology, which was the first field to offer evidence of change over vast lengths of time, beyond the current Biblical interpretations.

He also fudged a lot of his early life in his own autobiography, and was notoriously lax in giving others due credit—even though one of his first discoveries was stolen by a friend and mentor. Despite his independent income, he worried about his career.

In the process of telling young Darwin's story, Thomson also provides a captivating guide to a unique time, when sciences like geology and the life sciences were really just getting started, and enthusiastic amateurs made real contributions (for much of Darwin’s life, there was no such word as “scientist.”)

This book solves the so-called mystery of why there was so much time between Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle and publication of his theory: it took that long to work it all out. Proposing a mechanism for what was supposed to be the work of the Creator required mental adjustments as well as much supporting evidence as possible.

Those theories remain essential to a lot of science and how we see the world, yet interpretations of them are still changing. "Darwin had the luck," said George Bernard Shaw, "to please anybody with an axe to grind." But now with this enlightening book there is a new account of Darwin’s own evolution.

Friday, May 01, 2009

European cultural history told through the changing conceptions of the Virgin Mary, reviewed below.
Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
Miri Rubin
533 pages
Yale University Press

This book's title is both accurate and a little misleading. By calling it Mother of God, Rubin rightly indicates that this is a history from the inside, detailing the sometimes shifting conceptions of Mary but basically from within the Catholic Church, though views of outsiders are duly noted. It is also a "history of the Virgin Mary" but though substantial, it is a partial one: from the birth of Christianity until 1600.

This is a clearly written history and a very attractive book, typographically, in its layout and presentation, and particularly in its well-presented illustrations. Rubin finds intriguing relationships between perspectives on Mary and cultural elements of the time. For example: "Early Christian writers developed a manner of thinking about the conception of Jesus in Mary as an act of hearing...Those who favored the ear made words the agents of conception..."

Rubin's treatment of how prevailing or changing cultural contexts and often competing constituencies affected the interpretations and status of Mary provide the historical storyline. Outside this book's purview however are some of the elements that interest me most: both the pre-history (the mythological roots and prior stories that prefigure Mary) and the later history, particularly Mary in the Americas, and the institution in 1959 of Mary's assumption into heaven as Catholic dogma, which suggested to Carl Jung that the trinity was now a quaternity, including the missing feminine.

Rubin does select a few elements of this later history at the end of her book, so perhaps she'll treat it in a future volume. Considering all that she does cover, it's churlish to complain. This book is handsome and readable, and can be read as a fascinating cultural history--using Mary as a Rosetta Stone to view the music, art, drama, philosophical thought and prevailing conceptions in various classes at different times and in various geographical locations. It's a substantial achievement and a superior book.