BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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POEM: Engines of Desolation

That stubble, once a forest full of trees,

now rides the hills down to the turd brown sea.

I’d heard the drumming coming from the banks.

An army of axe men formed into ranks.

Firing up engines of desolation,

scarring the earth in ragged ablation.

And down the river, those drums went silent.

Modern man wondered where the tribes all went.

 

In ancient temples they’d preached mysteries.

Lost to the burning of the histories,

by purists who’d gathered in mankind’s flanks

to massacre all of the mainstream cranks.

 

And they sang their songs of faith and nation

to the tune of engines of desolation.

POEM: Desert Story



Play it out, like a six-gun Western.
Let the sun hang in the mid-day sky.
Have him search for a cool-water cistern.
Croaking and choking that “the end is nigh.”

Hand him a glimpse of clear, clean water,
but let the mirage vanish into sand.
Trotting up to it as lamb to slaughter,
let him know he’s surely been damned.

Then he’ll succumb to a parched stupor.
The light fades from that cowboy’s eyes.
No spur-jangle of a nearing trooper,
but dark clouds off in the western skies.

A good story would see him wake with droplets on his cheeks.
But this ain’t that kind of story, the desert plays for keeps.

POEM: The Destroyer



Mighty Fungi, the destroyer,
rending like a divorce lawyer.
There are no bonds you can’t dissolve.
It’s by your graces our world revolves.
Your rap is bad, but we all know,
the pile of stiffs would ceaseless grow,
if you weren’t breaking down the dead.

Plus, we love your work on beer and bread.

BOOK REVIEW: Erotic Poems ed. Peter Washington

Erotic PoemsErotic Poems by Peter Washington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection stands as one volume in a series entitled “Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets.” Other volumes in the series feature the work of a particular author, a regional or national poetic tradition, a type of poem (e.g. sonnets,) or – like this one – a central theme (e.g. friendship, love, animals, war, etc.)

It’s a broad ranging collection. It covers a period from before Christ (e.g. the Roman poet Catullus) to twentieth century poets such as Sylvia Plath and Joseph Brodsky. The poetry also spans the globe including not only English language poets of Britain and America, but also translated poetry from India, the Middle East, China, Japan, and elsewhere. The poem’s lengths range from the brevity of a Bashō haiku to long poems such as Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes.” Epically long poems aren’t included, though there are excerpts such as that of Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece.” There is a favoring of classical English forms (e.g. iambic pentameter) even among many translated poems, but that doesn’t mean that the collection lacks diversity of form.

One nice thing about the diversity of poems is that one gets to see how various cultures and time periods dealt with erotic content. It should be noted that readers who are expecting poems that are erotic in the sense of being pornographic or bawdy by today’s standards are likely to be disappointed. That said, while many of the erotic elements are veiled in symbolism, that isn’t the case throughout. There is some explicitly erotic content among the collected poems. (Though, not as explicit as one sees in the works of Allen Ginsberg, for example.) It was interesting to see that it isn’t necessarily that the further back one goes in time the more repressed or veiled the writing is. On the contrary, some of the Latin and old Indian poems were among the most explicit. Of course, decoding the meaning of poets, and the savoring of reading that requires, is part of the joy of reading poetry.

I enjoyed this collection. I thought it was nice gathering of poems that explored sensuality, romance, and eroticism.

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POEM: Lunatic in the Street

i saw a lunatic pacing at the edge of the street

a man overdressed in the way of those who have no place to hang a hat and an abiding fear that anything left out of sight will vanish — no matter how tattered, malodorous, and undesirable an object of theft said item may be

as he paced, his soliloquy never ceased:

“i’ve been down there; i followed it all the way down to the bottom.

“i saw what resides in the bankrupt bowels of this magnificent megalopolis.

“i looked in its burning eyes, and it would have killed me if it’d thought me worthy.

“i won’t flattery myself to think it took pity on me. no. it just didn’t find me worth its effort.

“it’s waiting. you’ll see. you’ll all see. someday it’s gonna bust its way up here.

“that’ll be our judgement day. could be tomorrow. could be in a million years…”

my first thought was that the man was insane and needed medication

my second thought was that any disaster that brings humanity to its knees will be heralded by a disheveled person ranting about an incomprehensible threat

i did the only thing i could do. i played the odds, figuring that since there are far more lunatics than humanity-devouring disasters; i went about my day as usual

POEM: a trio of fragments

harbor, studded with ships

ships made islands by heavy anchors

immune to the relentless undulation of the sea

 

***

tawdry neon red

pulsing in a puddle

the words unreflected

but the meaning is clear

 

***

gleaming brass caps

top stone buildings

stout, imposing

a Japanese might say Fudōshin

[– the imperturbable]

Around the World in 5 Works of Poetry

5.) On Love and Barley by Matsuo Basho [Japanese]: One doesn’t get better haiku [and other traditional Japanese poetry forms] than Basho.



4.) The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur [Indian-Canadian]: This isn’t the expected fair for an “around the world” post as it’s not blatantly infused with setting / geography, but culture does factor in prominently.


3.) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman [American]: Not only does Whitman explore the many dimensions of America, he also references other cultures and locales. [There was a fascination with the East brewing in Whitman’s day.]


2.) Octavio Paz / Selected Poems by Octavio Paz [Mexican]: Paz was a diplomat as well as a Nobel Laureate, and his poems include many references to India (where he was posted) as well as Mexico.


1.) The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran [Lebanese-American]: Featuring an intriguing melange of advice in poetic form.


NOTE: It’s not as global a list as I’d like. I’d love to hear what works others might include in the list. I don’t think poetry gets translated as much as fiction and so it’s a bit of a challenge. It’s much easier to find examples of novels & short story collections from far-flung corners of the world.

BOOK REVIEW: Death the Barber William Carlos Williams

Death the BarberDeath the Barber by William Carlos Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 39 poems by the twentieth century poet William Carlos Williams. It’s a thin volume, and is part of Penguin’s Modern Classics — a series of short works (small short story collections, novellas, and poetry collections; all less than 100 pages) that feature writers from the past century or so. Like many, my experience with Williams didn’t extend much beyond his red wheelbarrow (not included herein) and so it was nice to get a taste of a broader range of his poems.

The poetry is free verse with experimental feel. The gathered poems are as short as a few lines and as long as two-ish pages, but most fall in the one to one-and-a-half page range. Williams was an imagist, and these poems reflect that focus on creating vivid imagery while using economy of words. While imagery is given priority, Williams doesn’t completely ignore sound, using alliteration and repetition to create interesting aural effects here and there. Nature is a common theme, but not an exclusive one in these works.

Among the more noteworthy poems are the titular poem (“Death the Barber”), “Dedication for a Plot of Ground” [an elegy to his grandmother, Emily Dickinson Wellcome (not the poet sharing the same first two names),] “Young Sycamore,” “Death,” “The Botticellian Trees,” and “The Bitter World of Spring.”

I enjoyed this little collection and that it wasn’t just greatest hits — which in Williams’ case would revolve around his famous “Red Wheelbarrow.”

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Desert Haiku

Cubes of sand
Tumble on a tiny scale
Scouring history








Camel lurches
Only in a land of sand
could it kneel



Grain of sand
Do you miss the sea
from whence you came?



Bleached bones
Sandblasted lopsided
How will you go?



Wind blown
zebra stripes in the sand
Nature’s echo



Dubai