Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Nine (and Nine B): Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

...and Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold.
First, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. This has one of best opening lines I've read in a long time. "By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909." Clearly, Packer is not one to pull punches and this collection of short stories reflects life well -- there is humor, horror, and people good and bad. Packer is African American and her stories focus on African Americans working their way through the world. The ass-kickin' Brownie troop above is an African American group responding to a racist comment never uttered. It takes nerve to open her collection of stories with one showing African Americans "using" their status to create an issue, but that is one of Packer's strengths. Throughout the stories Packer calls everyone to account regardless of race, gender, age, religion, and just about any other category you can create.
She is a realist in the sense that she describes how life is, meaning she is not a writer to look to when you need a lot of hope. There is hope in the stories, because there is hope in life. Just not an overwhelming amount.

Her best story (and longest -- she knows how to develop a story) is "Speaking in Tongues." In the story of runaway church girl from the country looking for her estranged, drug-addicted mom in Atlanta, we see the ease in which a child is almost brought into prostitution. But we also see the courage of others when several prostitutes go after the pimp in order for her to escape their life. This is a story which takes us deep into despair and then brings us hope.

"Brownies," from which we get the opening line, explores the racial understanding of young children and how they are already responding differently. One interesting aspect of this story is that the main character and narrator is actually ostracized by the group, and has been for years. It made me wonder how often we see stories from the point of view of someone who has little impact on the narrative direction, yet avoids the third-person perspective.

No story in the collection is bad, although a couple did not have the punch of the rest ("The Ant of the Self" has potential, but just did not cut it in the end for me). Packer has the potential to create an impact down the road, and this first (and only) book has brought in a number of awards and a great deal of recognition. Visit her website to read about her and find some of the stories online.

Galway Kinnell's Strong Is Your Hold. Kinnell is quite simply my favorite poet, evidenced by the fact that I return to him again and again. This is his latest collection (2008) and I was pretty excited to find a version of it which includes a CD of him reading it for $3 (new!) on Ebay -- including postage. Poetry should never be that cheap, but I'll take it (I also scored Donald Hall's collection of past and new poems for just a few dollars as well). I have two Galway Kinnell stories I tell and should put into writing. The great poet and teacher Jack Ridl introduced me to Kinnell when I was a student at Hope college. The first story actually deals with Tom Andrews, a fellow student who went on to be a great poet and who passed away much too soon. Many of our class were poets-in-hoping and dressed the part, but Andrews always looked like he got lost on the way to an engineering class. But could he write! I'd hear his poems and think, well, I guess I could do something else in life. So it came time to read Kinnell and I was completely blown away by his earthiness, his directness, his un-pretentiousness. Andrews and I were talking before class about "The Bear" (my all time favorite poem) and he said "when I got to the part where he climbs into the bear I just had to put the book down and walk away -- I couldn't even finish it." I thought the poem was really "cool," but Andrews was physically moved by it. Probably why he was a great poet and I've been told that I could write great Hallmark cards.

My second story (in case anyone is reading). Jack (Ridl) created a phenomenal writing series (which now carries his name and I have the joy of working with, although I do NOT get to select the writers) and I told him please let me know if you ever get Kinnell to Hope. Sure enough, a few years later I'm in charge of housing at Hope College and Jack sends me a note saying he has Kinnell coming in. I was so excited, and then realized it was same day/time all the women on
campus came to a large room and selected their housing for the next year -- a very stressful event. I had already sent out all the information, but I made the decision to change the housing selection time to later and I sent a letter to every woman on campus explaining what I was doing and why. Over 800 women learned that poetry is more important than shelter. Not a single complaint, I got to see Kinnell read, and my signed copy of his Selected Poems is still my most prized book. (But my supervisor at the time was a bit confused by my actions!). [If you are not familiar with Jack Ridl, or even if you are, visit his website and read some great stuff].

Okay, so now I come to Strong Is Your Hold. Kinnell is aging and his writing reflects the life and concerns of an older man who still loves life and people. Don't get me wrong. He is not a "happy" poet, but one who truly values what he has.

I, who so often used to wish to float free
of earth, now with all my being want to stay... ("The Stone Table")

He writes of his children (as always) and his grandchildren, nature and sex, and a range of other topics. What strikes me about Kinnell is that he treats all subjects equally. Children have as much to offer as nature which has as much to offer as good wine. He draws and learns from everything, seemingly without judgment expect on himself. He is a humble writer, but he writes with such power it is easy to miss.

"Pulling a Nail" is a wonderful rumination on pulling a nail his father drove into wood the year Kinnell was born. He does not miss these interesting intersections of present and past, and in doing so he transcends time to create a now. In the hands of a lesser poet this scene could be one of my Hallmark cards, but Kinnell relishes the struggle as much as the connection.

Death is always a theme for Kinnell, and this volume includes works to friends that have died. But without a doubt the most moving, most challenging poem is his 9/11 response entitled "When the Towers Fell." You can read this poem online. The poem shows Kinnell's strengths: his unflinching gaze into evil, his empathy, his anger, his humility. This is not a polite poem. For people who lost friends in the towers it would be difficult to read. Thus his greatest strength: honesty.

In other words, another great book by Kinnell.

Reading Challenges
Another easy week to meet my goal and I got to read Kinnell's work (twice), although I had read it before. What has been happening the last couple of weeks is I find myself reading ahead of my schedule -- the reading is very enjoyable and is making life more focused (or put into perspective). I thought by now I would be getting tired of this idea, but at the moment I have not intention of stopping. My list of books to read grows longer and I'm excited about what I have on the list. In fact, I'm more willing to "risk a read" since I'm not committing to weeks of reading, just one week.

What is Next?
Back to some nonfiction which sounds fictional. Greg Grandin's Fordlandia, about Henry Ford's failed attempt at building the U.S. Midwest in the jungles of Brazil. The plot would be a bad novel, but since it is true it should be pretty interesting. In going through the introduction I've learned about other companies doing similar things (e.g. Hershey in Cuba), but not with Ford's plan to simply drop our lifestyle unaltered in the midst of another world. Suburbia Brazil?

Happy reading!

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