Tag Archives: American Literature

An Oath to Mida

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews An Oath to Mida [Amazon, Local Library] by Sharon Green, book 2 in the Jalav/Amazon Warrior series.

Green An Oath to Mida

I read this a couple of months ago, and held off on reviewing it — because, honestly, I’m embarrassed to have read the whole thing. I was looking for something trashy, but this was really awful. The story is told from the perspective of the amazon savage “war leader” Jalav, in a constructed idiom (and rather unconventional English syntax) to emphasize her alienation from the relatively medieval society in which she is sojourning. Her language alienated me too. Although she learned to read in the course of this novel, Jalav still called chairs, tables, and beds “platforms,” and lanterns were “boxes with lights in them.” Men and women were always and only “males” and “females.” The words ‘day’ and ‘night’ were eliminated, to be replaced with “feyd” and “darkness.” 

The plot is terribly slow, and Jalav is a captive for most of the book. She gets raped and beaten many times, and the “oath” of the title is her coerced swearing by her goddess Mida that she will obey a certain man, who subsequently domesticates her and passes her around to his pals. There’s plenty of psychological and cultural justification for the sequence of events. Then, at the end, the pace picks up considerably, culminating in Jalav’s ultimate rape by a demon-god, with the apparent connivance of Mida. 

It seems that this book (the second in a series of five) is intended to establish a set of affections and enmities that will motivate the remainder of a saga. But, ugh.

The Bridge of Lost Desire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Bridge of Lost Desire [Amazon, Local Library] by Samuel R Delany.

Delany The Bridge of Lost Desire

I have now completed my read of Samuel R. Delany’s Nevèrÿon series in their first mass market paperback editions, which fostered an illusion for a couple of years that they were a “fantasy trilogy” in the publishing straight-jacket of the day. The fourth and actually final book was The Bridge of Lost Desire–later re-titled Return to Nevèrÿon, which is also a name for the whole series. Like the previous volume Flight from Nevèrÿon, it is structured as three stories and a pseudo-scholarly appendix, but without the fictional/factual ambivalence of the third story in Flight.

The first and longest story is “The Game of Time and Pain,” and among other things it sets forth a sort of supplementary origin tale for the series’ axial character Gorgik the Liberator, whose early years were charted in the very first story of the whole series. Once himself a slave, Gorgik is now an accomplished minister of state who has attained his goal of the abolition of slavery, and most of this story is taken up with his reminiscences of his time as a slave in early adulthood, juxtaposed with his disorientation at returning to the scene of that slavery.

The second story “The Game of Rumor and Desire” is also structured around biographical reflection, although not in the voice of its central character. Despite a few references to people and places introduced earlier in the series, the immediate tale is concerned with an inconsequential and unsympathetic ruffian who has appeared nowhere else in the texts. The title is accurate, and the novella-length piece gives attention to the development of sexual fetishes and the navigation of affectional currents.

The final story of the entire decade-long Return to Nevèrÿon authorial project is the first story. It actually reprints in its unaltered entirety “The Tale of Gorgik” from the first volume Tales of Nevèrÿon. This fourth book would have been long enough without these sixty-two pages, so they are not mere “padding.” Reading the first story again at the end supplies an assurance that the concerns and motifs of the larger series were present in it from its start, as passages take on an altered luster in light of the subsequent tales. Gorgik is described with many details that seem cribbed from Robert E. Howard’s Conan, but at the last Delany is careful to point out that Gorgik is “a civilized man.”

The appendix carries the fictional byline of scholar Leslie K. Steiner, and allows Delany to confess his authorial sources and intentions and to play with readings of his own texts in the form of friendly criticism from an imagined third party. A preliminary author’s note in this volume suggests that for those “interested in the series as such” this appendix might be read at the beginning, and also expresses an intention for it to be set as a preface to the entire series. (I suppose it was in the later reissue.)

The period in which these books were written concludes during my own time as a college undergraduate, and their themes, theoretical preoccupations, and even textual allusions are largely ones that I first considered then. The nostalgic sense of “return” involved with heroic fantasy generally (“endlessly repeated pornographies of action and passion that, for all their violences, still manage to pander to an astonishingly untroubled acceptance of the personal and political status quo,” 305) was thus doubly effective for me. As “Steiner” admonishes in the words of Ernst Bloch, “You can never go home, only go home again” (307).

A Coney Island of the Mind

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Coney Island of the Mind [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Ferlinghetti A Coney Island of the Mind

This 1950s poetry collection is the most famous writing by Ferlinghetti, who was also lauded as an activist, publisher, bookseller, and painter. It has three principal sections: the title piece, “Oral Messages,” and poems from “Pictures of the Gone World.”

The title of the book and its first section was taken “out of context” from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life. Ferlinghetti said that it was to describe the carnivalesque aspect of his own subjective experience in composing the poems. But a different and credible reading is to see the US society that the poet engages in his verse as a mental amusement park: corralling minds into circuitous rides that exhilarate, games that impoverish, and technology that dazzles and mystifies. Still, the weight of these poems often rests not in social criticism but in aesthetic contemplation, libidinal impulse, epistemic anxiety, and similar dilemmas.

The second section of the book is “Oral Messages,” seven longer poems composed for recitation with “jazz accompaniment” (48), and to incorporate experimentation and spontaneity. Although this mode is a paragon of Beat Generation performance, and Ferlinghetti did publish prominent Beat authors, he rejected the “Beat” label for his own work. My favorite of these poems is “Junkman’s Obbligato,” which urges downward economic mobility in order to champion life and freedom. But a close second is the diffident brag of “Autobiography” (“I am the man. / I was there. / I suffered / somewhat.”) succumbing irregularly to atypical end rhyme.

The final thirteen poems are selected from a volume “Pictures of the Gone World” that Ferlinghetti had written just three years previously. These are similar to some of those in the first section (briefer, and like them individually numbered rather than titled), and they tend toward a narrower and more intimate sensibility–even though the eleventh has the great wide scope of the world as the place for life and death.

Ferlinghetti offers some unflinching anti-Christian blasphemy in the fifth “Coney Island” poem (15-6), but the “Oral Messages” seem to exhibit sincere apocalyptic anticipation (“I Am Waiting”) and a hope of obscure divine palingenesis (“Christ Climbed Down”).

Despite Ferlinghetti’s use of popular culture and accessible idiom, his texts are still in dialog with the canons of elite art and literature. The first poem of the book orients to the painting of Goya to reflect on “maimed citizens in painted cars” (10), and the second one alludes to Homer’s Odyssey to indict “American demi-Democracy” (12). Later verses cite Hieronymus Bosch, Morris Graves, Franz Kafka, Dante, Chagall, Proust, and others. The poet fulminates against the enclosure of culture by experts and institutions in poem 9 of “Pictures of the Gone World,” but he had an M.A. in English literature and a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and the consequences of this training are everywhere visible in his poems.

Twenty-first century readers may occasionally struggle with a dated allusion or two in these pages (nothing too arcane for a ‘net search to remedy, though). Ironically, it is the “popular” and contemporary references from the 1950s that are more likely to have passed into obscurity. On the whole, the verses have aged well and still have a sense of immediacy sixty-four years later.

City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews City of the Beast or Warriors of Mars [Amazon (1971), Amazon (2007), Publisher, Local Library] by Michael Moorcock, originally published as by Edward P Bradbury, introduction by Kim Mohan.

Moorcock City of the Beast 1971

Moorcock Bradbury Mohan City of the Beast Warriors of Mars

Well, I can’t say I agree with Michael Moorcock’s dad that the Kane of Old Mars stuff is the author’s best work. Although it’s consciously patterned on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, the pacing of City of the Beast actually made it read a little bit more like Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race. (If you haven’t read Bulwer-Lytton, it might help to picture Burroughs as the stylistic midpoint between Bulwer-Lytton and Robert E. Howard.) In contrast with both of those earlier authors, though, there was nothing surprising in this novel at all. It almost seemed as if the plot “twists” were executed ironically, since they were foreshadowed so obviously. 

I mean, I’m always game for a bit of mostly-naked sword-and-planet, and this was efficiently written. It didn’t take a lot of my time to tear through it, and it gave me some pleasant things to imagine. But it certainly pales beside the original Barsoom of Burroughs, or (better yet) the Barsoom-inspired Mars of Leigh Brackett. Formulaic as it might be, it is a formula I enjoy, so I won’t balk at the subsequent volumes. But I don’t expect brilliance there, if the first is any evidence.

Friendly Fire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Friendly Fire [Amazon, Internet Archive, Local Library] by Hermetic Library Fellow Bob Black.

Black Friendly Fire

Friendly Fire is a pugilistic potpourri of texts by Black, with the author’s resilient animus as its only continuous thread. Even that fades considerably in Chapter VIII: his study of the Johnson presidential impeachment, plus a bibliography of Black’s legal scholarship. He wrote in 1985, “Postering has been my main political activity since 1977,” (171) and posters and poster-worthy one-liners are certainly where he does his best work. In this volume, those are represented in a selection of “Wanted Posters” as well as the pun-replete and epigraphical “Introduction to Neutron Gun.” I can’t help thinking that it’s almost a shame that he disdains an Internet connection, as his writing talents are peculiarly well-adapted to the 140-character burst–not that I follow anyone’s Twitterfeed, nor would Black seem to have any interest in “followers.”

The anarchist “organizers,” Libertarian small fry, publishers, and club proprietors that serve as Black’s principal foes in this volume provide generally less interesting grounds for counter-polemic than Murray Bookchin does in Black’s Anarchy after Leftism. Still, his invective has its usual entertainment value.