cambridge book review

Knowing that Most Things Break

Norma Gay Prewett

“Then, as a mother lays her sleeping child
Down tenderly, fearing it may awake.
He set the jug down slowly at
his feet, knowing that most things break.”

—Edgar Arlington Robinson, “Mr. Flood’s Party”

Knowing that most things break, you lick the flap of the envelope
Twice, softening the sentiment of the rejection inside,
Knowing that a disgruntled postal worker somewhere
May choose to open fire the very day your letter
Is pouched in the bag at his side, doubling the break.

Knowing that most things break, you may drive the nail
To hang your mother’s mother’s plaster plaque
Of the gilded Old Rugged Cross one extra whack.
You may soften the scolding you feel you must deliver
When your child inevitably lies about breaking it.

Knowing that of all the things that break
Words let loose in the trusting air can break, break.

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March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , | 1 Comment

Cottonbound: An Audio Chapbook

Norma Gay Prewett

I. Knowing that Most Things Break
II. Going All Bonnie on It
III. Burning
IV. Do Thus in Remembrance of Ma
V. Going Bonnie Again
VI. The Holidazz-z-z
VII. Things Too Good to Use
VIII. These Little Lights
IX. Much Better than Being Buried Up to Your Neck in Mud
X. Get Something on that Head
XI. Bill of Lading
XII. Cottonbound
XIII. Wheel of Fortune
XIV. Calling You Back
XV. Afterword

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Norma Gay Prewett is also known as Gay Davidson-Zielske in her professional life as an instructor of composition, literature, screenwriting and creative writing at UW-Whitewater. She has written poetry, fiction, dramatic monologues, and reviews for most of her life, published both regionally and nationally, and is co-producer for the radio literary show Mindseye Radio with main producer Kelly Warren for WORT radio (89.9 FM). She is currently at work on a screenplay and is a backyard chicken enthusiast.

March 31, 2010 Posted by | memoir, poetry | , , , , | 1 Comment

Reclamation: Memories from a New Orleans Girlhood

Reclamation: Memories from a New Orleans Girlhood by Eva Augustin Rumpf is set in the 1940s and 50s in America’s most “foreign” city. It takes the reader through World War II blackouts, Mardi Gras celebrations, sex myths, race relations, shotgun houses, shrimp boils, summers on the front porch, polio and whooping cough epidemics and hurricanes. A lost age is evoked of drugstore soda fountains, sidewalk games, street vendors, 78 rpm records, orange biographies, tepee motels, Woolworth stores, radio dramas, cod liver oil, party lines, the iceman, starched clothes and double features at the movies. Through childhood and adolescence we follow the author’s struggle to overcome the deprivations and limitations of her lower-middle-class life and her need to find identity and freedom amid her large extended family. Rumpf explores why she felt compelled to leave New Orleans and build a life away from her family and the city of her birth. It was only after the floods of Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans and scattered her family that she realized how much had been lost. Through her memoir, she seeks to reclaim her personal past, even as the city continues its reclamation efforts years after the disaster.

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Excerpt from Chapter 6, “The Silver Dollar”

As a 7-year-old, I didn’t know anything about investment strategies. But I learned that having a coin bank paid off. Mine was a tall tin can, designed to look like a round, red-brick chimney, with a slot on top for depositing coins. When I shook the bank, the coins inside made a loud rattle, proclaiming my wealth to all within earshot. I made sure my whole family knew about my chimney bank. When relatives would visit, I would bring it out and not so subtly coax visiting aunts and uncles to drop in a few pennies, or a nickel or two. Birthdays or other special occasions might bring forth a quarter. To a child growing up in the 1940s, a handful of change seemed like a fortune.

But a windfall I had not imagined came from my grandfather one day in the form of three silver dollars. Three dollars! I had never before received such a gift. I held them in my hand, feeling their heaviness. I rubbed my fingers over the raised face of Lady Liberty on each coin and the eagle on the other side. I was awed not only by the beauty of the large, shiny coins, but also by the thought of all they could buy.

However, my frugal mother, schooled by the hardships of the Great Depression, made it clear that this gift was not to be spent. “You have to save it for the future,” she declared. So the three silver dollars went into my chimney bank, adding considerably to its weight and noise value. Over time, my assets rose and fell. Nickels and pennies often found their way to the corner grocery store to buy a pack of Juicy Fruit gum or candy cigarettes. A quarter might be spent for a Mother’s Day present or a new box of crayons. But the sacred silver dollars remained unspent, nestled in the bottom of my chimney bank, as secure as the gold in Fort Knox. Occasionally, I would take them out, turn them over in my hands, and contemplate their power and unleashed potential. The desire to spend my treasure was growing inside me like an infectious disease, uncontrollable and consuming. And it was fed by the pressures of the outside world.

When the lunch bell rang each day at my public grammar school, Frank T. Howard #2, my first-grade classmates and I would join the other students and trot down the well-worn wooden steps to the cafeteria. We’d line up along the wall and slowly snake our way to the serving window, where, for a few nickels, we’d get a hot lunch and a small carton of milk. Like most school lunches, the food was pretty ordinary. But after enduring the bland meat loaf or greasy chicken leg, lucky kids with extra money headed for the ice cream window. There, treats like crunchy Drumsticks, chilly Fudgesicles and luscious ice cream sandwiches were placed into eager hands.

I was not one of the lucky ones. To my mother, ice cream for lunch was an extravagance. She gave me only enough money for hot lunch and milk, and I carried the coins to school, tied in a corner of my handkerchief. As I watched the other students eating their treats, I longed to be a part of this privileged group. I wondered how many chocolate-covered Eskimo bars or orange Dreamsicles a silver dollar would buy. I began to plan my crime.

My chimney bank was kept on the bottom shelf of the big sideboard that stood against one wall of the dining room in the camelback house on Laurel Street that our extended family shared. I picked a morning when the room was empty, my father and grandfather having left for work, my hard-of-hearing grandmother busy in the kitchen, and my mother still asleep upstairs.

I slip quietly into the room, open the lower door to the sideboard, and lift out the bank. I pry open the removable lid and slowly tip the bank, sliding the silver dollars into my palm. I hesitate for a moment, considering the enormity of what I’m about to do. My parents will be horrified if they find out. I take one of the coins and drop it into my dress pocket. I return the other two to the bank, being careful not to let them clang on the bottom.

All morning at school, I think about the treasure I carry. From time to time, I slip my hand into my pocket and run my fingers over the silver dollar, savoring my secret. At last the lunch bell rings. I rush through my meal, return my tray to the counter, and walk up to the ice cream window. I hold power and prestige in my hand. The world is at my command.

I order a Drumstick, a crunchy waffle cone filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with a chocolate coating and chopped nuts, the most expensive treat in the cafeteria’s selection. I lay my silver dollar on the counter. When the Negro cafeteria worker sees the coin, she looks directly at me. I see surprise in her eyes, and I feel her reproach. Guilt battles with gratification. But it’s too late to undo the crime. In an instant, my silver dollar is gone forever. I leave the ice cream window with my prize in one hand and an assortment of ordinary coins in the other. I sit alone at a table in the cafeteria and try to enjoy my ice cream cone.

When I got home from school that day, I furtively returned the change to my chimney bank. The small coins looked meager beside the two remaining silver dollars. I never told anyone about how I squandered my grandfather’s gift, and over time my parents must have forgotten about the remaining dollars in my bank. But the feelings of loss and guilt created by my childhood indiscretion stayed with me for a long time. Well into my adult years, whenever I was tempted to buy something I felt I deserved, a struggle waged in my soul between the forces of desire and self denial.

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Eva Augustin Rumpf grew up in New Orleans, attended college in the Midwest and eventually settled in Wisconsin. She is the author of the satiric novel Prot U (Booklocker.com 2004) and co-author of the self-help book Till Divorce Do Us Part (Glenbridge Publishing 1996). A former reporter and university journalism instructor, she currently lives in Milwaukee.

March 24, 2010 Posted by | memoir | , | Leave a comment

Omens of Millennium

By Harold Bloom
Riverhead Books 1996

Reviewed by Bob Wake
(From cbr 2 / spring 1998)

Harold Bloom, well into his sixth decade, exudes a lifetime of literary study and critical thinking, coupled with an irascible penchant for gnomic generalizations and grumpy political asides. Omens of Millennium—his 22nd book—manages to combine literature, religion, and politics in sometimes brilliant, sometimes baffling ways, which is to say it’s quintessential Bloom. While casting a disdainful eye on New Age spirituality in America, he presents us with a historical look at the rich religious traditions that form the basis for our fascination with angels, near-death experiences, and dream visions. Equally, Bloom defines his book as a “spiritual autobiography,” and interwoven throughout the text are references to his personal odyssey, including a breakdown at age 35 (“I got very wretched, and for almost a year was immersed in acute melancholia”) that first led him to study Gnosticism and find solace within its dark, existential spheres.

Born in New York City in 1930, he began his teaching career in 1955 at Yale (where today he is Sterling Professor of Humanities, in addition to a concurrent position at New York University as Berg Professor of English), and published his first book in 1961. Like Edmund Wilson before him—whom Bloom most resembles in his exuberant overreaching into subjects like religion and political history that lie outside his more assured literary purview—Bloom is often at his most interesting when making provocative, even outrageous assertions. But of course those very qualities which make Omens of Millennium quintessential Bloom are also those qualities which confound mainstream book reviewers, and incite critics like Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times to characterize the book as “an incoherent work—discursive, self-indulgent and a trial to try to read.”

Omens of Millennium above all is an encomium to Gnosticism, the profoundly heretical religious movement of the second century, C.E. So enraptured is Bloom with Gnosticism’s creative upturnings and reversals of traditional Judeo-Christian tenets, that he finds within its nose-thumbing paradoxes a sublime emphasis on individuality similar to Emersonian self-reliance. Bloom has been mining this territory for several decades now—the Gnosticism inherent in our American character—but Omens of Millennium goes even further, with Bloom outing himself as a full-fledged Gnostic and closing the book with a twenty-one page Gnostic “sermon,” in which he declares:  ‘Thrown’ is the most important verb in the Gnostic vocabulary, for it describes, now as well as two thousand years ago, our condition: we have been thrown into this world, this emptiness.”

If the phrase “we have been thrown into this world” seems to echo the existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger, there is good reason for this: the book which inspired Bloom’s Gnostic conversion 30 years ago was The Gnostic Religion, originally published in 1934 by Heidegger’s pupil Hans Jonas. The thrust of Bloom’s theology takes off from Jonas’s now famous epilogue appended to the 1958 edition of The Gnostic Religion and titled “Gnosticism, Existentialism and Nihilism.” A remarkable synthesis of Gnostic thought with the philosophies of Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, Jonas’s epilogue continues even today to influence readers with its unique perspective, blending as it does cultural pessimism with personal transcendence. It presents a far more radical interpretation of Gnosticism than, say, Elaine Pagels’s extremely popular, but sanitized and New Age-ish The Gnostic Gospels (1979).

To the extent that an “essential” Gnostic philosophy can be distilled from its many strains and off-shoots, it appears at heart to suggest a deep distrust of religious and political institutions and authority. Gnosticism preached that the God of Judeo-Christian tradition—the God of the Bible—was an imposter, an insane “demiurge” who sloppily created our false reality of flesh and sorrow, and who has no relation to the true Supreme Being whose existence is distant and removed from our corrupt world.

Bloom believes that the Gnostic paradigm offers the only cogent explanation for the existence of evil, which is described as stemming from the psychotic demiurge who created our world, rather than the real God, the estranged creator:

The transcendent stranger God or alien God of Gnosticism, being beyond our cosmos, is no longer an effective force; God exists, but is so hidden that he has become a nihilistic conception, in himself. He is not responsible for our world of death camps and schizophrenia, but he is so estranged and exiled that he is powerless. We are unsponsored, since the God of this world, worshipped (as Blake said) by the names of Jesus and Jehovah, is only a bungler, an archangel-artisan who botched the False Creation that we know as our Fall.

Gnosticism encouraged the idea that within each of us is a divine spark connected to this “alien” Supreme Being. The Gnostic mandate is thus to reveal and nourish the divine spark and manifest our true spiritual origins. The theme of “hidden truth” is common of course to innumerable varieties of mysticism, alchemy, and Kabbala, as well as “secular” enterprises such as Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis. New Age spirituality, too, promises its adherents a glimpse into deeper, more “authentic” realms.

Harold Bloom has little patience for the New Age, which he sees as a debasement of religious and literary history. He appreciates the yearnings that give rise to spiritual trends and fads, but he believes that Americans today are seeking easy answers to difficult questions of faith. Our current obsession with angels, for example, he finds particularly shallow:

To find your angel is not necessarily to find yourself, though most quests for the angels seem nowadays to suppose that a guardian angel is rather more like a dog or cat than like a husband or wife. You acquire an angel in the expectation that this addition to your household will give you perpetual and unconditional love.

Bloom wants to restore to us the terrifying grandeur with which angels, as well as dreams and near-death experiences, have been portrayed in the distant past. To this end, he guides us through complex Gnostic myths and fascinating interpretations of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian literature, as well as the works of John Milton and William Blake, both of whom he’s written on extensively over the years. Bloom is clearly revisiting some well-trod paths of his previous books, but he is a master at reconceptualizing his observations and placing them in fresh contexts. His life-long interest in Freud forms the basis for the brilliant chapter, “Sigmund Freud’s Dream Book,” which locates The Interpretation of Dreams within a framework of mysticism and hermeneutics.

Is Omens of Millennium a great or essential book? Perhaps not. It is, however, a fine showcase for one of our very best “readers.” Bloom’s textual interpretations are always deft and enthusiastic, and he is equally at ease with Shakespeare or Freud, the Book of Daniel or Paradise Lost. The most damaging flaw of Omens of Millennium is the book’s lack of a bibliography and index, not to mention footnotes, all of which would have been useful, and without which the book is rendered rather hopeless as scholarship. There are dozens of intriguing sources that Bloom alludes to or quotes from throughout his book, but the quotations—sometimes lengthy—are minus citations of any kind. Bloom’s arguments are never less than fascinating, but Omens of Millennium has the slapdash feel of a project written and published quickly to cash in on the very same rapacious New Age marketplace that Bloom lambasts so vociferously in the pages of his book.

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Bob Wake is editor of Cambridge Book Review.

March 23, 1998 Posted by | memoir, non-fiction, spirituality | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment