UM Researchers, Global Problems
In the Beginning
Of Politics, Presidents and Bulldozers
AROUND THE OVAL
About the Montanan
by Susanna Sonnenberg
So intimate a collection of poems is As Earth Begins to End, such a diary of the raw and the personal, that I feel intrusive writing about it for review. I must remind myself that the poet chose publication, a necessary witness for her grief.
Patricia Goedicke chronicles the last months of her husbands life as he dies of an unnamed illness. She writes in the voice of one masterfully accomplished with language but desperately new to an experience, a contrast that gives these poems both electricity and dignity.
In the title poem, observing her lover against his hospital pillow, she sees what this experience has made of her:
I always knew this would happen,
but gluttonous for your body,
For your shoulder to lean on
and not fail, I plastered myself against you
like wet newspapers, like leaves
that think they will never fall
Goedickes admissions in all these poems reveal the true self in pain, the staggering, lumbering pain of loving.
What these collected poems illuminate is the loss in the everyday, not just the cataclysmic silence of an actual death. The speaker here counts the many ways she no longer can reach her beloved, the ways age and illness have robbed two people of all that made life meaningful. The poems grow increasingly spare, words shredded over the page like scraps of thought, emotion and experience pared down to the essential utterances. Goedickes poems answer grief with language--in this case a sacred refuge--as in The Things I May Not Say.
I stand in the doorway watching
your nearly motionless back.
In pale cucumber-striped pajamas,
with the curve of your spine neutral
unemphatic as a comma
by day vigilant as a cat not to be stepped on,
after hours of bitter contention
because nothings right
anymore, words wont stay in their places.
With wit and assurance, debut novelist Thomas Orton is always one step ahead of his narrator Robert Armour, inventing for the art historian and ex-curator a whirl of thievery and intrigue, closed-door betrayals and wounded hearts. Armour never quite understands all that goes on around him, and with this Orton has created a rather endearing anti-hero to lead us through The Lost Glass Plates of Wilfred Eng.
Armour, who conducts his story for the reader in faithful detail, has happened upon a historians dream: the existence of something thought lost forever. In this case the find is a cache of glass plates dating back to 1874 by a photographer named Wilfred Eng.
Giddy with excitement, overwhelmed by fantasies of future wealth and fame, Armour fumbles around in the dark--sometimes literally, often emotionally--as he tries to conceive of the proper plan for such a treasure. He knows a great deal about Eng, filling the reader in bit by bit, at last turning the novel into something of a historical mystery.
Orton creates a fictitious biography for the photographer that is as realistic as a scholarly article. The biography includes love affairs and scandal, treachery and revelation, a rich chronicle that runs alongside the narrators own rather bumbly story. The contrast reveals modern man in all his anxieties, insecurities and weaknesses--a product of his culture.
Theo Wolkoviak is a small-time hothead, an ex-cop dismissed for violence whose grandiose fantasies never carry him further than a certain kind of car, a certain kind of condo. In the midst of a kidnapping thats ill-fated from the beginning, he imagines the movie to be made of his crime. He sees it with Tom Selleck or maybe Jim Rockford playing Theo. Even his illusions add up to reruns.
He is one of the central characters in Keith Scribners taut first book, The GoodLife, a novel based on the 1992 New Jersey kidnapping of an Exxon executive. Effortlessly shifting his psychological focus amongst five people, Scribner details a saga that is dramatically awful for each in a completely separate way. The writer imagines with intimate compassion the anxieties and bruised dreams that motivate each character, and he achieves a luminous clarity.
Theo is aided by his deflated wife Colleen, whose perfume smelled like running into CVS for a birthday card or a bottle of aspirin, a woman who achieved her only moment of self-esteem long ago at a GoodLife convention (modeled on Amway). Bankrupt, they have moved with their anorexic daughter into Theos parents home, where his cop father, Malcolm, is quietly dying, longing to connect just once with his disappointment of a son. Meanwhile, kidnapped and stifling in a storage locker, a corporate executive named Stona Brown retraces the signifying moments of his life and tries to measure how long hes been gagged by the beeps of his watch. His wife fusses in her wealthy home, comforted by the police and FBI. Each one of these people comes to life in vivid, desperate strokes, none more desperate than Theo, the sort of spectacular arrogant failure Eric Roberts is so good at playing in the real movies.
Scribner gives rich texture to the exorbitant fantasies Theo and Colleen live out as they execute the kidnapping. They are so distracted by the powerful longing for all that life has denied them they can barely focus on the people or crises that confront them. Toward the end Colleen catches a glimpse of regal, rich Mrs. Brown, the woman she foolishly imagined she might become, and Scribner looks into her heart: She wanted to ask Mrs. Brown why life is not what its promised to be, why were told to dream when our dreams have no chance of coming true. The novel, acid and observant about an indigenous sort of materialism, carries Theo and Colleen further and further from any chance of success until it produces a stunning wreckage.
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