A Time in Xanadu
by Lars Gustafsson
Copper Canyon Press 2008
Reviewed by Jim Wood
Alan Weisman recently noted in The World Without Us that long after Earth is no longer habitable by any living thing, episodes of The Twilight Zone will still be broadcasting off into infinity. It is kind of comforting to know that the universe will forever be subject to the image of a man’s head bouncing out of a jack-in-the-box, an image that terrified me almost as much last month as it did when I first saw it as a kid. The makers of the show probably had no idea that they were simultaneously affecting the audience of the time, me as a child, me as an adult, my interpretation of Weisman’s book, and the state of the cosmos itself.
The title of Lars Gustafsson’s most recent English translation alludes simultaneously to two vanished eras: the time of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan, and the time of the Romantic poets who wrote about him. Oh, and Marco Polo as well. This allusion is indicative of the main theme of the book – that time is fluid, and the present constantly disappears while simultaneously affecting the shape of future “presents.” Whether I know anything about Kublai Klan, I might know something about the Romantic poets, and if not, I might at least be familiar with writers who are influenced by writers who are influenced by them. And I definitely played “Marco Polo” in the pool as a kid. Consider the poem “Traces” in this respect:
There is so little left.
Of dogs for example
only their collars.
Normally sent home in an envelope
along with the bill
from the vet.
Of the really great writers
some extracts in anthologies
that are soon thinned out
over a couple of decades
and die away in the ever-shorter footnotes
of secondary literature as the century passes.
Immortality of any kind is hopeless. We will certainly remember our dogs, and we may tell our kids about them, but our grandchildren are bound to forget. Leaving a legacy of writing is no way out either; at best it just prolongs the inevitable. The time of that poem, of that writer, is gone – no matter what.
But that doesn’t mean that anything is actually gone, in any strict sense of the word at least. Kublai Khan might be gone, but traces of his presence will never leave Mongolia completely. In “Conversation with the Dead,” we are presented with the image of snowy bicycles in the 1950s “or earlier.” The poem concludes “and this second space, / where we live / who are also both living and dead.” Time itself, and thus our status as living or dead, is subjective – at least from the perspective of the universe.
And this can give as much comfort as the thought of eternal radio waves. “In an old-fashioned bookcase, behind glass doors with green curtains on the inside, stand nineteenth-century travel accounts with etchings and woodcuts and neat cloth bindings with engraved illustrations.” There were people in the past who went to great lengths to record transient experience. But we don’t get the impression that anybody really reads these books, as they sit behind glass doors and curtains. They don’t even sound all that interesting. But that doesn’t matter, because “Yes, even they exist. / These other ones—the real places.” Time is one thing, but the universe is constantly shaped by the events within it, and so eternity happens whether one engraves illustrations into books or not.
A second theme permeating this book is the apparent stunning failure of logic and order. Lars Gustafsson, formally trained as a philosopher, comes off as a thinker who has thought about the universe from every possible angle – and has great difficultly making any sense of it at all. Even his organization of the book into sections (Prologues 5-12, Reminiscences 15-31, Philosophies 33-70, Everyday Life 73-76, Poèmes en prose 79-84, Notes 85-87) seems an attempt to impose order on chaos; are his reminiscences really that much different from his philosophies?
He displays a genuine an interest in formal logic and formalism with a concomitant doubt of its ability to express reality. In “Of Course Clark Kent is Superman,” he explains the formalism for expressing existentials, and then comments: “Did we really believe all this / in my youth? / Or did we just pretend?” Similarly, the first poem of Reminiscences discusses a poetry machine which takes works and organizes them into syntactically well-formed sentences. This machine and his description of it makes a not-so-subtle reference to early generative grammar, such as reference to “a language L” which is also featured on page 13 of Noam Chomsky’s 1957, now legendary, Syntactic Structures. However, the poetry machine composes lines of limited length, which is at odds with the early generative observation that human sentences are in principle infinitely long. “No string may be too long / And, least of all, infinitely long.” The formalization of language into technology, then, missed an important aspect of human language in the process: its infinite nature. Human nature is equally difficult to formalize, as he concludes near the end of the book: “Really interesting people have one thing in common: it is difficult to formulate what makes them such.”
Hope comes from elsewhere, namely, from whatever it is that makes things seem so chaotic in the first place, from the fact that you are a part of that chaos. “There is something in your voice … / that is for me / and no one else. / Not everything was senseless.” This is almost a non sequitur – why should we assume that because there was something which had some indefinable meaning “for you” make things make sense? But we are not to assume it; it is the position he argues for throughout the book. Time is fluid, and everything is constantly changing in response to everything else. How it changes defies logic, but when you are part of something so chaotic, only chaos makes sense.
I should mention that there are two annoying tendencies in this book. They are not fatal, but you do have to do some work to get past them. The first is his tendency to use clichés. When he declares, for example, “I did not choose this profession / This profession chose me” in reference to his career as a college professor, one is immediately reminded of Jay-Z: “This is the life I chose, or, rather, the life that chose me.” Of course, Jay-Z doesn’t get credit for the expression either, but like many clichés, it seems tired and lacking in insight.
The biggest problem with this book, though, is its tendency to over-explain. The ‘notes’ section is the most obvious example. Did you wonder what he was talking about with some kind of ‘poetry machine’? No worries, it’s all explained in the back of the book. What was that stuff about Clark Kent being Superman? Just check to the explanation in the back. Maybe I’ll look up that reference later to get a better understanding of the poem… no need, the poem and the reference are explained in full in the back of the book.
While over-footnoting might be okay (there are definitely times when footnotes are an absolute must), the tendency to over-explain also shows up in the poems themselves. “And libraries are subways.” A nice line. Would you like a minute to think about the comparison? Don’t bother, the next three lines tell you exactly what he means: “You often know where you emerge / to the agitated life of the surface again, /but sometimes in a completely unexpected place.” Great, now that line’s ruined.
An even better example is the poem “Centuries and Minutes.” The sub-title is “Poem for New Year’s Eve 1999.” Again, I wish he had left more up to the imagination. I have a hard time imagining how I would feel about this poem if I weren’t immediately accosted with the image of a maybe-slightly-too-drunk poet in the corner of a medium-sized party, pencil and notebook in hand, pretending not to be making a big scene about writing his “Millennium” poem.
Nevertheless, the poem has great moments. The fact that “Time is presence” is homophonous (in English – translator’s doing?) with presents (as in a series of present times) screams out the theme of the book along with another simple, but nice line “All that exists is a now /and that now can never end.” Again, eternity comes for free with a viewpoint which accepts the constant effect everything has on everything else.
This book is worth your time. If you can look past a few annoying clichés and some over-explaining, you will find genuine insight here. It will at least precisify ideas you might already have and supplement them with thoughtful examples and images (like, dogs). Although this book, like all others, will eventually be as moribund as anything else, it will certainly have an effect on you, and maybe that is all you can really hope for.