book reports
June 2012


Wendell Berry, illustrated by Ben Shahn
Ben Shahn and Wendell Berry are two of my favorite people, so I don't know how I didn't know about this collaboration sooner. When JFK got shot, a young Wendell Berry wrote a poem about it, and it got published in The Nation. An old Ben Shahn read it: "It was right in every way; it was modest and unrhetorical. ... When I read the poem, I wanted it preserved, read, and not lost in the pages of a last week's magazine." So he did a series of drawings based on the poem, and did the lettering for it, six short lines on each page. This is a great way to read a poem. I usually read poems faster than I should, and having to turn the page for each stanza slowed me down a lot. The length and the illustrations and small amount of text on each page make it feel like a good, solemn children's book. I wish more poems would be published in this format. This isn't the best thing that either Ben Shahn or Wendell Berry ever did, but it's good and I'm glad for this overlap between them. I don't know if they were friends or ever really knew each other, but I like to imagine them hanging out or more likely writing letters to each other.


translated by Anne Carson, illustrated by Bianca Stone
OEDIPUS and ANTIGONE are the only ancient Greek plays that I've read or know anything about. Oedipus is Antigone's dad, and her mom and her grandma are the same person, oops, remember? I had to read them both in high school, and I remember liking ANTIGONE a lot. I think I was the only person in the class who actually read it. Mr. Defily was the teacher, but I have no idea what class it would have been. We also read SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT in there, which I still think of fairly often. They were both about Law vs Conscience, and I remember being sort of Troubled by ANTIGONE at the time but I wasn't with this version. Kreon just seems mean and Anitgone just seems self-righteous, which they were in whatever version I read ten years ago, but back then they were both obssessed with doing the right thing, however horrific it seeemed. Some of the lines are good and funny, but I think I would rather just read a more traditional version of this. The illustrations on every page are distracting and not very good. I do like hand-lettered books though. For poems or a novel it might be kind of emabrrassing but it seems good here. This book is sort of like someone having a dream about Antigone; only read this translation if you've already read another one.


Jim Harrison
A while ago I read and loved BRAIDED CREEK, which is where Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser took turns writing haiku and not telling anyone who wrote which ones. Somehow I decided that all my favorites were by Jim Harrison, and I saw that he is also the guy who wrote LEGENDS OF THE FALL, which I have never read or seen the movie of and which I'm aware of having conflated with Stephen King's THE STAND, which I have also never read or seen, but I imagine them both as a slow and lonely apocalypse in the American west. The point is that I'm strangely eager to become a big fan of Jim Harrison. But I read another haiku book of his and didn't care about it. I read his novel TRUE NORTH and the first page of it was really badass and good, but then the last sentence of the first page was annoying and so was most of the rest of the book. The poems in SONGS OF UNREASON are pretty good though. He seems resigned to not understanding the world or most of the humans in it, so most of his poems are about horses and dogs. Towards the beginning of the book he says The world that used to nurse us / now keeps shouting inane instructions. / That's why I ran to the woods. and closer to the end he says The shit of the world has to be taken / care of every day. You have to choose / your part after you take care of the shit. / I've chosen birds and fish, the creatures / whose logic I wish to learn and live. It's like he glances over his shoulder every once in a while to see if maybe he was wrong about what life is like, but he always cringes at what he sees and keeps his back turned against the world.


I pray for seven women I know
who have cancer. I can't tell you why
they have cancer and neither can doctors.
They are beaten by a stranger with no face.





Leaving on an exciting journey
is one thing, though most of all
I am engaged in homecoming -
the dogs, the glass of wine, a favorite
pillow that missed your head, the local
night with its familiar darkness.
The birds that ignored your absence
are singing at dawn assuring you
that all is inconceivable.

other stuff I read:
THE JOKERS - Albert Cossery
BONSAI - Alejandro Zambra
TRUE NORTH - Jim Harrison