Monday, May 23, 2016

Unsettling Week-end Reading

The week-end before this past one, I read part of The Sense and Sensibility Screenplay and Diaries : Bringing Jane Austen's Novel to Film.  I didn't read the screenplay, but I enjoyed the introduction to the book, written by the producer.  He gave interesting insights about what it takes to bring a novel like Jane Austen's to the screen, as well as his history with the book.

I was fascinated by Emma Thompson's journal that she kept while the filming was happening.  She had to rewrite chunks of script, as well as act.  I found her accounts of how the cast and crew interacted to be very compelling.  Of course, it's England, and the weather was often against them.

But more disturbing was Emma Thompson's self doubt--disturbing and endearing.  She talks about seeing her face pasted all over magazines after her appearance at Cannes, and how distressed she was.  Who can't relate to that? 

She was in her early 30's when she shot to movie stardom, and she worries about being old and fat.  I, too, worried about being old and fat in my 30's, and now, I wonder why I felt old back then.  It's startling to see Emma Thompson, worrying about the same things, back when I considered her one of the most beautiful stars out there--but of course, there are always other stars in the firmament, and Thompson compares herself to them and finds herself lacking.

I found it bother heartening and sad to see her wrestling with what seems to afflict most women I know.

On Friday evening, I picked up a book that's been on my to-read shelf all year:  Claudia Rankine's Citizen:  an American Lyric.  I read it straight through and found it a bit overwhelming:  imagine every distressing state of our union story that comes across your Facebook feed and reading them for 166 pages.  Perhaps that wasn't the best way to read the book, or perhaps that feeling of despair and bleakness was exactly what Rankine wanted to evoke.

The book has gotten a variety of awards, most of them in poetry, but as I read it, I kept wondering how we define poetry in a modern age.  I loved the inclusion of all the art, much of it works I hadn't encountered before.  It was an interesting counterpart, and I wondered if it's more affordable to include this art now, and other aspects of book production.

I read it on the front porch, by the light of the setting sun and then the porch light.  I might reread parts of it in front of my computer.  Dan Chiasson's review in The New Yorker notes the fact that many of us might look up events in the book:  “'Citizen' conducts its business, often, with melancholy, but also with wit and a sharable incredulity that sends you running to YouTube. These kinds of errands into the culture could not have been performed before the Internet, which provides, for all of us, the ultimate instant replay."  We are both inside the history and outside, where the past isn't ever really the past.

I also found myself thinking, this work is intriguing and exhausting, this piling of image after image of oppression both overt and subtle and minute and deadly--but is it poetry?

I could argue that it's one long prose poem--or lots of prose poems interspersed with other art, both the image and the written.  Chiasson suggests that maybe something other than the poem is the model for some of this work:  "The rectilinear language blocks that make up much of 'Citizen' suggest the prose poem, that hand-me-down from the French Symbolists. But another model for these entries is, I suspect, non-literary: the police log, the journal entry, or—a new form familiar to anybody who visits student unions—the confession board papered with anonymous note cards."

It's a non-traditional work of poetry to be sure, perhaps experimental, perhaps more aligned with collage, perhaps something new for our time and technology that we have yet to name.

When I first finished it, I thought, I'm never reading this again!  But I've found my thoughts returning to it, and I know that I'll return to it.  It was disturbing and unsettling and it contained much that makes the modern world so wearying.  But as a white woman, an older woman, a middle class woman, I have the luxury of looking away--but I should not.  I am a woman committed to a vision of a world that's better, a world where no one has to look away because no one is abused in the ways that Rankine documents--I am not going to look away.

It's a powerful piece of art.

I also want to spend more time with it so that I can return to some of the analysis of it.  There's much richness in it all, and my brain hungers for that richness.  I'll return to this interview with Rankine.

If I had more time, perhaps I would think about the juxtaposition of Austen's work, Thompson's journey in taking that work to screen, and Rankine's documenting of this time/past time of our collective history.  But that topic will have to wait for another day.  Time is short today, and I have to go to spin class.  Then I'm taking today off to go on a birding/nature photography outing with my church group (see this blog post for details).

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