Literary Review: Poetry
Death in the Present
Katharine Coles' The Earth Is Not Flat
Katharine Coles couldn’t trust her senses. On a grant from the National Science Foundation, she boarded a ship to cross the infamous Drake Passage, the world’s roughest crossing, to live in Antarctica. For the celebrated writer, it was a hunt for poetry and instability, a dislocation from ordinary life. But she also found fear, the raw edge of death, and amidst a sea of glacial mirage, Coles penned The Earth Is Not Flat.
Coles thinks it’s a mistake to separate body from intellect. She engages in what she calls “passionate thinking,” being present in mind and body to a single moment. So when her poems include flashes of autobiography or past pain or longing, she refers to those lines as peripheral, even intrusions.
The book witnesses her confrontation with uncertainty. “The whole ocean funnels . . . building upon itself,” she writes in “Drake Passage” and “Sailing to Antarctica.” “Nothing to stop it. . . . stairs falling underfoot or scaling to meet us.” It’s the kind of scene that generates inner battles, the threatening voices of what if.
The glancing moments may come across as withholding, but Coles sees the past as insignificant in the face of the present, and generating instability may be a vehicle for approaching deeper interiority — from the side. “What I’m wondering,” she says in a phone call, “is whether physical danger helps me to manage vulnerability or displace it.”
Her metaphorical richness will strike readers. In “Walking the Glacier” she describes a raft of ice continually cracking into chasms around her.
Literally, the poem is about distraction, about attention acutely concentrated by threat. Lose focus, end up in a crevasse. “There would be something pretty spectacular about that,” she laughs, “so theres that kind of spectacle.” But beyond the obvious, “spectacular is etymologically related to spectacles and speculum, inspection, the whole idea of looking and lenses and perception,” Coles says.
So while the downside of forgetting yourself may be death, the upside means the fear of judgment drops away; you could become transported, clear-eyed.
That physical and emotional interchange is repeated in “To Alice, the Beast Appears.”
“If I’m writing well,” Coles says, “it’s always a really white-knuckled experience; excitement and fear coexist.” As a result, there seems to be a constant suggestion to readers that if we could only muster the courage to forget self and fear, our lives could be / / (fill in the blank with your own term).
The value of passion and questioning is that we turn off auto-pilot: spur unanticipated growth. Coles says it’s “one of the things that’s truly harrowing about being alive, and one of the great pleasures of being alive. That we, like everything else, are in constant flux.”
But why that level of willful risk? “It’s the practice of poems to work as hard as you can to come cheek by jowl with what can’t be known or articulated, which is also in a way to come cheek by jowl with your own limitations, your own mortality, the fact that you’re going to die.”
It troubled her family and friends. In “Reckless” she mused,
Coles wants intellectual and emotional edge, seeks the full-bodied, full-minded experience of estrangement. “Sometimes even pushing the edge or the boundary, so that in a given moment we might be able to say a little bit more than we were able to say in the moment before. But what we’re still doing is coming right up against the edge of what can be articulated.”
Emily Dickinson did that without leaving home, Coles admits, and even recently she experienced that complete presence with a painting in London. But risk is an inescapable “vehicle for translocation.” It brings its own awe.
In the extremes of glacial morass, Coles shared perpetual daylight with creatures many of us will only see on screens. They are unfathomable and impenetrable, Coles says, but “I think you can know some things about their sentience simply from the way they interact with the world.”
In “Self-Portrait with Elephant Seal” she marvels at a seal on land who calls and calls, ungracefully, to those in the water and writes,
I’m just another clumsy mammal
“I’m always curious about what it is they’re experiencing in the same place and time that I am. I certainly can’t project or articulate that for them. I can barely articulate it for myself,” Coles says, pointing to an edge. But however clouded our perception, she’s clearly interested in the value we generate by naming something: an idea, an animal, an experience.
Out of its element. Together
We share this moment in the sun, which is
Doorway, hinge, aperture to what
Neither of us will say.
Her images are stunning, as in “Penguin and Human.”
Her pairings shorten the distance between us and them, as when she describes the Adélie Penguin’s apparent fear of darkness in “No Wonder.”
Takes to the water and takes
Our breath—flight stitching wave to sky
They feel, swimming
Just ahead of the night,
Which, someday, even they
Will not be able to outrun.
This haunting strain pervades the book and brings up the question of disconnection, of our own unreliability and the way we rewrite our experiences in retrospect, even lose what’s in front of us.
In “Self-Portrait as Erasure,” Coles compares losing the attention of her lover, “when you / Sink to where we cannot keep / Each other,” to a memory of chasing humpback whales, a memory that corresponds in no way with the videotaped experience.
Our natural propensity to change, unintentionally, creates a striking parallel to her land of ghost-images, where the eye cannot be trusted.
“There is a sense in which I became available to bliss,” Coles says of how it changed her. “I’ve always been a pretty happy person, but this was something else. To be present to passion, to be present to the body, to be present to what I witnessed—called reality—in that intense way. I think it permanently changed me.”
So many “questions are raised by reflection and refraction and mirage,” Coles says. “You don’t know what you’re looking at. What you’re seeing—you don’t actually know if you’re seeing it. You don’t actually know if it’s present.”
“The question is not what you look at, but what you see. / The eye is not innocent, it is already committed,” she writes in the book’s one cento.
Coles returned home on the solstice. In one day, she passed “from the shortest to the longest day of the year.” It was unplanned and disorienting going from constant light into Utah’s “darkland.”
After one month in a landscape of frozen roiling, everything was different. No planning could predict such immensity, and in “Exit Interview” she writes,
“It may be that being present with death presents you with a choice,” she says. “You can decide to be present with life, which means also being present with death,” or numb out, live a half-life.
There’s joy we can’t experience without shadow, she argues in “Rumors of Topography.” It’s an intimacy we share with the earth, with “a land that seem[s] to be constantly erasing itself.”
For your pleasure, that show of light
The moment darkness descends
And threatens not to lift. For months, also
For your pleasure, the question: Where
Darkness ends and you begin.
Glaciers collapse, ice reforms, there is loss on a macro scale across the planet, on a micro scale as we transform.
Artist Profile: Literature
Dramaturgy of Space
The life and art of David Kranes
David Kranes will tell you he’s driven. Since his arrival in Utah from his home in New England in 1967, he has taught students at the University of Utah Creative Writing Program, directed the Sundance Playwright’s Lab, written 7 novels and now, with his recently released The Legend’s Daughter (Torrey House Press) three volumes of short stories along with dozens of plays. He’s even starred in Salt Lake City’s first independent feature (Down in the Valley, 1977).
Even at age 75, during a recent interview in his Salt Lake home which he shares with his wife Carol and a Hungarian pooli named “Mack,” he appeared far from retired, or retiring. He has two other novels in the works (3 others he’s just “re-discovered,” going through his papers). And then there’s that little casino thing on the side. “Casinos are filled with compressed drama,” he says, sitting comfortably in his Ron Molen-designed home of cedar wood and sunken sitting rooms and occasionally distracted by Mack’s wriggling antics. Kranes is an inveterate card counter at blackjack himself, and has been asked at least twice by casino management to “move along now” from tables where his take was getting a little too much and a little too consistent. A leading expert on new directions in casino design, Kranes is a columnist for Casino Executive Magazine and has consulted with the likes of Rainforest Café and Circus Circus.
In the last five years gambling consultants are less in demand. But as with virtually everything Kranes does from the right side of his brain, his experience with gaming seems to feed into his enduring tales of Western landscape and its people. In his Vegas serio-comedy 1102, 1103, staged by the Salt Lake Acting Company in 1989, the set is side-by-side hotel rooms, while in his fiction, space — especially the wilds of Idaho, as in his latest collection — propels his characters psychically. Shot through much of his oeuvre is Kranes’ perpetual grappling with what the French culturalist Jean Baudrillard referred to as America’s astral plane of “hyperreality.” Indeed, Kranes’ creative work, spanning opera libretto, dance, plays, film and fiction seems to vibrate out in the western landscape between, to quote Baudrillard, the “pompous Mormon symmetry” of Salt Lake streets and Las Vegas, “the great whore across the desert.”
In between and far beyond lies a host of characters deftly drawn by, according to Knopf fiction editor Gordon Lish, a “poet of dread, an American who knows America precisely as every American knows it, but never says.” In The Legend’s Daughter, Idaho becomes home to the broken — from a kayaking method actor to fly fishermen, and from a rebellious high school teacher to the founder of the “Church of Idaho.” Here they find their way out of solitude and into newly configured lives.
Despite his high level of production over the years, one could argue that the six-banger engine for Kranes is not the number of his stagings, screenings and publications but the artistic process. A fixture for over thirty years at the UofU, he guided the likes of Ron Carlson, Pam Huston and Jeff Metcalf and became a second-stage mentor for others, including Rolf Yngve, who appears to be successfully merging a 35-year career in the U.S. Navy with literary fiction.
In Act III (or is it now Act IV?) for Kranes, he also found a home for 14 years as Artistic Director of the Sundance Playwrights Lab. With David Chambers, Kranes was able to shape a program that included notables such as Don Dellilo, Donald Marguiles and Jim Lehrer, incubating a variety of Pulitzer- and Tony award-winnings plays, including Tony Kushner’s “Gay Fantasia,” Angels in America, and the epic The Kentucky Cycle.
The temperature in the room rises when Kranes talks about how collaborations, at Sundance and elsewhere, fire his imagination. “The more ways you can impact [the work] and, just let the pieces float around in the solution…the more possibility that it will reconfigure in powerful ways,” he says of play scripts. As lab director he would often convene “resource artists” with playwrights, protected in the mountains from market forces. On one occasion Repertory Dance Theatre-affiliated choreographer/costumer Marina Harris showed up to work with Phillip Gotanda on his The Wash, about a Japanese couple who even after separating maintain their traditional roles, including her doing his laundry. “For ten minutes Marina did a sheet dance, a solo, just [repetitively] folding sheets. It blew Phillip’s mind. Something clicked watching such a simple action [of a] traditional wife folding laundry. The choreography and the spoken word came together. It’s wonderful when your horizons get opened up like that.”
“Maybe it’s not the destination,” concedes Kranes, referring to process over finished product. He just barely got his own website up this year and, at one point, parked a novel manuscript, Making the Ghost Dance, with a local publisher for ten years before they called him with an offer to publish it. Kranes, while prolific, isn’t exactly a rock star in the world of letters, prompting Jon Jory, founder of the Humana New Play Festival to quip that Kranes “is without a doubt the best American playwright you haven't read yet.” The same might be said of his prose.
Winner of the Pushcart Prize for short fiction, Kranes isn’t necessarily gunning for fame. When his novel The National Tree got scooped up by the Hallmark Channel, he seemed almost bewildered by the attention, perhaps reminiscent of when he first arrived in Utah, crossed the Salt Flats in a surreal blizzard only to find himself in the Stateline Hotel & Casino. But what is distinctly Kranes is how he responds to such a phenomenon: he starts to read architects, ecologists, theologians, phenomenologists like Gaston Bachelard writing about space.
At the end of our interview, Kranes rises out of his chair with some trouble (his health has recently hit a rough patch, though he assures me he’s on the mend) to show me around. Mack, with his dark threaded cords from head to tail, making it difficult to know which end is which, pads along after us. Out back pine trees, more horizontal than vertical, stretch across the deck and into the spacious, terraced yard. Above us the mountain rises sharply. I am reminded of Kranes’ play, Winter of the Deer, in which a Salt Lake home on the bench of the Wasatch Range is invaded by hungry, disoriented deer during the winter. In fact the numerous bird feeders he and Carol have, he explains, are pointless during the cold months because of the deer.
When I mention this play, Kranes pauses. “That’s one project I wish I had done another draft on,” he says, explaining the downside of being so driven, “trying without success to bring all those [disparate] pieces in.” He quotes his storyteller/singer friend Bill Harley: You can’t tell a story until it’s over. “The first 15 years after I arrived in Utah, I wrote all about the East Coast. David in the East was over. There were stories to be told….That story about the deer isn’t over, yet,” he says.
Always in process.
Artists of Utah News: Literary
Vive la littérature
Announcing the 15 Bytes Book Award
Can you have too many book awards? Mais, no the French would say. They've got more book awards than public holidays (and that's saying something). There's not a lot of prize money in those awards. Just a small check, and a sleek red banner the publisher can wrap around the book. But there is prestige.
It's with that spirit, then, that we announce the 15 Bytes Book Awards. We thought the long-running Utah Book Award might be getting a little lonely in recognizing the authors and publishers bringing great books to our community.
What will we be awarding? Well, the type of books you'll see reviewed in 15 Bytes. This year we'll be offering an award for Fiction, for Poetry and for Art Books (books about art rather than book art — but look for a book art award in 2014).
With the Utah Book Award on hiatus for a year, we're going to step in really quick, and announce the first 15 Bytes Book Awards, honoring books published in 2012, in October 2013 — to coincide with the Utah Humanities Book Festival. In 2014, as the Utah Book Award returns to the October slot, we'll shift our awards to May, in order to spread the literary love throughout the year.
Stay tuned to our Daily Bytes blog (www.15bytes.com). We'll be posting the call and all the details early next week.