Excerpts from a Reading Journal, 2014


15/7 – Dreamquake – Elizabeth Knox

What is there to say, except that I am in awe of Elizabeth Knox? I have taken so much from these two books, primarily two ideas:

The first, I would term a ‘big idea,’ the idea that an entire story can be a metaphor for something else, that an entire story can be a puzzle, and that the big picture matters. I love how everything ties together – then I also find this a bit cheap, although it is a kid’s book – and I continue to love how dreamhunters can be compared to storytellers, and how the story is a metaphor for telling stories. But I’m sure the novel manages to satisfy its younger readers as well. Similarly to Doug’s movie Jake, which I just saw, which besides a main plot ostensibly driving the novel – for Dreamquake it is: how can the Hames and Tiebolds save the city from Cas Doran and for ‘Jake’ it is how can Jake reclaim himself – they also contain another, perhaps more important question – for Dreamquake why does the place exist and what is it? and for ‘Jake’ who hired the casting agency to recast Jacob? In both plots the second question emerges as more important than the first. In my narrative poem, I also have an ostensible question: how can Max save the books and unseat the Captain? but a more important follow-up question, how can Max find contentment so far from his actual culture/family? The first drives the story; the second emerges as more necessary and more satisfying if solved.

The second idea I’ve encountered in Elizabeth’s novel is what I will call the very clever plot maneuver. This occurs when the novelist achieves a moment of plot whereby the viewer did not expect it, and recognizes it, at the moment of its occurrence, as being clever, perhaps something they ‘never would have thought of even if I were writing this story.’ Such a thought can be, and was, by me, explicitly thought during the course of reading the novel (at several moments). My favorite of these involves Laura Hame’s escape from ‘the Depot,’ a place where dreamhunters are stupefied by one of ‘the Place’s’ particularly wonderful and pleasing dreams. Laura constructs a ‘Nown,’ a sandmonster, out of the dirt on the floor of her cell, pieces of bread, and her own spit. The Nown unlocks the door and Laura walks away. The moment of plot here works so incredibly well for me: what a unique escape? (have you ever read of a prison escape like that?) it uses Laura’s only real unique talent, i.e. making Nowns; it involves a cute dirt man; and it allows the plot to move forward with Laura unharmed. At the time (and still) I was impressed by the beauty and consistency of this moment – it doesn’t break any of the novel’s internal rules – in fact, if you already bought in to the premises of the novel, Nowns and dreams and whatnot, this moment fits so elegantly, like the last puzzle piece. I think the preciseness of this moment must have involved a matching process – making all that had come before work towards this moment in some part, and making the moment agree with everything that had come before. I hope to achieve a few moments of plot clarity like this, I have to remain vigilant of matching moments of plot with the already set-up internal logic of the piece.


15/8 Red Doc > – Anne Carson

‘Carson has, over the years, moved closer to bizarreness for the sake of bizarreness – but she still pulls it off, mainly because the impulse behind it is mischief. ‘Can I get away with this?’ she seems to ask. And she does – because it’s fun. She’s having fun.’ So writes Daisy Fried in her review of Red Doc > ‘Other Labyrinths’ for The New York Times last year. I turned to The New York Times after reading Red Doc > for some insight into, quite simply, why I loved this book so damn much. Fried seems to hit on the reason, albeit slantwise, and I’ll try to rejigger her logic into a personally precise and particular direction of my love for this book – though at this point I’m not sure where it points exactly, but maybe in the writing out, I’ll find out where I stand.

I think what it comes down to is a sense of positioning between the writer and the audience that Carson aims for. Because isn’t all writing just communication, at least at its surface, just like Maslov’s hierarchy of needs suggests that our purpose in life is to survive and procreate? In Dead Poets Society Robin Williams (who just died this week, which is why I re-watched the movie), asks, ‘What is the purpose of language?’ A student answers, ‘To communicate.’ And Robin Williams corrects him, saying, ‘No, the purpose is to woo women.’ (I think I may have paraphrased a bit there.) On some level I completely get Williams’ characters’ point – namely that language exists on something of a deeper level – to really move other people, to convince them, or, as is said in the novel Lexicon, to ‘persuade.’ But then, as a nerdy intellectual whose strength lies something more along the lines of pure language than muscles, good cheek-bones, or gumption, I wonder whether that student might have hit on a truth closer to the marrow than Williams’ character. That, in fact, wooing women falls lower on a scale than communication. That communicating for its own sake and, that language as an imaginative exercise, or as a dance of words, as a courtship of syllables and a sexing of sentences, might be higher than the wooing. But then, perhaps suggesting that the pleasure of arguments surpasses that of the flesh would be considered an altogether pretentious thing to say – too sophisticatedly nerdy – and that I should whittle away my days in a lonely tower with some books.

For me, though, Anne understands the dichotomy of sex and language, holds those two concepts in her head at the same time, and slyly dances around the ballroom while furtively glancing at the other, then exchanges partners without letting them confront one another, and coyly laughs away the night. And if either goes to bed alone at least they do so smiling, drunk on the merriment of it all. So what I have to say to you, Daisy, is that her bizarreness for the sake of bizarreness is indeed a cover. That when Ida hits up a laundromat:

    / cops / grabs my gun throws it in the dry / gun / 
        where it melted / your gun 
        melted / was plastic / I’m 
        picturing this / I found it 
        under the overpass 
        anyway here’s the thing / 
        I’m listening / attempted 
robbery could be jailbars for Ida 

Because isn’t that lyrically beautiful – surprising / revolting? Isn’t that sexy – a gun exploding? Yet, in the words of Lesley Wheeler, ‘I can still cut my finger on the edge of the stanzas.’ ‘Armed // robbery’: the breaking and entering of the adjective from its noun, and the focusing on that weirdly attached modifier ‘armed,’ is less sexy in plot than in language – she cares about the audience and doesn’t, cares about plot for its own sake and ours, language for its own sake and ours. And when Io jumps from a cliff, spotting G below her:

plummeting toward him 
at the velocity you would 
expect of a 400-pound 
object falling through 
He shoots his wings to 
their fullest expanse and 
screams once as he leaves 
the ground. 

Greyon, hopping along beside us from verse novel (Autobiography of Red) to verse novel, through volcanoes and glaciers and saving flying oxen, Anne knows exactly where we stand. She positions us looking up at the falling beast, looking back through history of her own poetics, or looking forward into an old age for those same characters. Anne sees us watching her. And it is all the more to her credit that she has tricked you, Daisy, into thinking the bizarreness is only for its own sake, or for the sake of language’s joy and not for yours, the watcher.

Or, has she tricked you, Daisy? You must know she lives for your drops of stomach at her plot twists, your straining muscles as she strains hers? You write:

how am I supposed to feel about it? But how stunning. And how queasy-making. Serious poetry readers like to be put off balance, feel their stomachs drop. Red Doc invites confusion, and invites us to read for plot… but nothing that happens seems particularly inevitable or, for that matter, interesting except insofar as Carson’s eccentric high jinks dress events up. Red Doc might fail as a novel – did it want to succeed as a novel? – but it succeeds as linguistic confrontation.

But the confrontation only works because we are already hooked by something. We are already captured. We already care – if not so inevitably about the plot, then about the communication and what it wants to do – in the spaces between the transference of meaning and delight in the mechanism of transference. Does she care whether she convinces us of something really happening to her characters, or does she not?

For me, Anne’s is a trick of mirroring – ‘see me delight in language, language must delight you, too!’ It is a sidelong glance, it is playing hard to get, it is anticipation. It is hovering in the space between communication and wooing, like the moment just before the kiss, wondering if it is you or the alcohol, your body or your mind, Greek mythological figure or old army vet, or the space in between where the best moment of ecstasy falls from the sky and where it hits the ground.

Having written that self-indulgently lyrical rant, the only thing I am thinking now is to have more fun in my poems. To dance with language and seriousness, and to glance sidelong at my readers. And to not be afraid to let the heavy parts of my poetry gain some quickness or some lightness. If they feel as a heavy as a nymph trapped in an oxen’s body I will metaphorically throw them off the edge of the cliff, then cleverly link some characters and plot to make them fly away, as light as a herd of bats.



Max L. Chapnick writes poems about physicists, travel, and space. He completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2014 and researched New Zealand art/science collaborations on a 2014 US Student Fulbright grant. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Evansville ReviewThe LegendaryRejectamentaThe Westchester ReviewBANG BANG BANG, and other literary journals. In 2013, he graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with degrees in Physics and English. He is from White Plains, New York.