Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews

Briefly Noted - Poetry and Miscellany

reviews by Kevin McGowin

Sarah Ferber. Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France.
Routledge. 2004. 227 pp.

* * * *

While of course a heavily footnoted academic monograph, this book is also fascinating, andódare I say it? A real page-turner. Itís readable, its scholarship is airtight, and its subject is irresistible. And itís not just a compendium of dry historical facts culled from the research of othersóFerberís own angle is clearly and persuasively articulated, and my only reservation is that she doesnít take it quite far enough, perhaps due to limits of space or of Academic Propriety. 

Of this book, Robin Briggs of Oxford has said, ìIt avoids facile moral judgments in favour of a more sophisticated and balanced approach, exploring the ways in which almost all of those concerned in these mostly tragic affairs were, in their own fashion, victims.î This sentence, problematic as some may find its semantics, seems to me to sum of the essence of this study in a concise and pointed manner. 

ÜOkay, let me come down from the Ivory Tower here and not bore you with anecdotes of all I learned while studying Eckhartís treatise upon being charged with heresy. I donít mean to oversimplify Ms. Faberís substantial and even brilliant work, or make light of the thought behind itóbut while she takes the argument suggested in encapsulated form by Dr. Briggs a step further than many, itís not a new position, as she points out. 

And look. The French clergy was doing some hard-core stuff during these exorcisms, and they thought people who didnít agree with them or this or that were possessed and inspired by the devil. What they did wasnít coolÜand neither were the actions of a lot of the people whoíd be on Geodon now if theyíd had it in Early Modern France. But my Point is this: all these years weíve read how bad what the Church did was. While the other argument has been around for quite awhile tooóthey didnít know any better, they were not twenty-first century people, and as for the ìvictims,î hey! When in Rome, okay? 

Hereís the dealóFerber doesnít go this far, but I will, inspired by her book. The people tortured and killed were not necessarily inspired my the devil; the Catholic Church wasnít necessarily at his Evil Whim, either. Though there were, uh, oversights made on both sides.

No, the people Inspired by the Devil were Us, for always taking the blacks & whites of this subject as a truism! And know what? We still are. Because we refuse or fail to see the grays here or anywhere else in Life. Man, Iím writing this at Rush Hour looking down from a high-rise window, and a hundred people go by, 98.3 of them on cell phones, and am I thinking ìYeah, that oneís inspired by the devil?î No, because itís not that simple!  I may have been inspired by him to think that, and where are we then? Dig? Still, I can think of at least five persons personally known to me who, at this moment, are more or less possessed by the devil. Canít YOU? Yes. I knew you could.

But am I gonna be the one to perform the Exorcism? UhÖlike Jessica Brewster told me back in 11th grade: Not Today, Honey.


Louise Glück. October.
Sarabande Books Quarternote Chapbook Series #3. 2004. 18 pp.

* * * +

Louise Glück is America's twelfth Poet Laureate, and her work stands as proof that a writer's career isn't necessarily in its twilight after receiving this and her sundry other high honors. Her work also demonstrates that a writer's most acclaimed work is not necessarily her most significant: while The Wild Iris (1992) won the Pulitzer, Glück's real "masterpiece" to date is Meadowlands (1996).

And while her Vita Nova (1999) begins the Autumnal flavor of the present long poem, and is a masterpiece of sorts in itself, the Winter landscapes that surface in parts of The Seven Ages (2001) are here replaced by a poem whose tone and imagery reflect its title. Glück has long been a master of the shorter free verse poem; here, she composes something musical, for me quite akin to a later Beethoven quartet (though here in six movements, not four). Such a comparison implies genius, and that's what I see—Glück's is (as is usual) seemingly effortless, her repetitions and off-repetitions as certain themes and motifs reintroduced with poignance and genuine pathos. October, for Glück, is a dark, brooding, even cruel month... or time of life.

And for her now, at 61, such a perspective may be appropriate. (One is here tempted to do what used to be called a "close reading," but this is a poem published singularly for a fine chapbook series, so I won't). There is a power and precision to the writing, an assuredness and clarity that bodes well for an upcoming volume—yet in closing, one hopes that the sultry humor and sharp irony that has made Glück perhaps the foremost poet of her generation won't be abandoned or turned to the bitter chill of winter.


The Real Tuesday Weld. I, Lucifer.
(Music CD) Six Degrees Records. 2004.

* * * *

Loosely based on Glen Duncan's novel of the same name (Grove, 2003), this original and eclectic masterpiece can't be said to follow that or any other model save for a few "samples." Already noted and praised in The New Yorker and various respected British music periodicals, reviewers and listeners alike attempt to define The Real Tuesday Weld (Englishman Steven Coates and Friends) in terms of what it's redolent of, as its music falls outside any accepted mainstream category.

Which in part is why it's so terrifically exciting. Only nominally a "concept" album, I, Lucifer is punctuated on what its creator calls "antique beat"—an electronic approximation of French and English dance-hall and swing music from the 20s, 30s and 40s, with snippets of film-like melodies, and unusual mixes and arrangements.

Got it? No? Didn't think so. Okay—this CD is, to my mind, the most decadent music recorded in the last thirty years. It's smoky, sinful, East End, catchy and hilarious... the implications of its constant parody and reinventions make it grow on you until you can't get enough. And its meta-parody: the echoes of early Tom Waits in "The Ugly and the Beautiful" on track 3 and its reprise, a perfect rendition of the song in French with just acoustic guitar accompaniment, in a song that transcends Waits, George Brassens and the original song itself.

The album's mid-section is in the form of a smoky lounge performance, and just when you think of Chet Baker the songs themselves become sublimely beautiful and not a thing of neo-nostalgic pity but of stripping forms down to their essential elements, building from there, and ending with a Cohen-esque rasp above the sounds of scratched grooves and the snaking riffs of Jacques van Rhijn (Rembrandt's great-great grandson) on clarinet. And all this from a man whose alter-egos include a ragged-out pinup chick who starred with Elvis and Steve McQueen.

Steven Coates is a motherloving genius, and this, guys, is the Album of the Year.


Michelle Baldwin. Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind.
Speck Press. 2004. 144 pp.

* * * 1/2

Baldwin's is written from the perspective of a practicing burlesque artist, and is exceedingly well written at that. And as always with Speck Press, the photographs and layouts are spectacular—this is an informative paperback inexpensive coffee-table book, it does focus on the current and near-current as the title states, and it's damn well entertaining. If you're into contemporary burlesque dancing, here you go—though if you want more historical context and more emphasis on music and not performance-artish aspects, you've just a different focus, is all. Not that the present volume doesn't go into the details of the form's history—it does—but as the title suggests, the emphasis here is on the present, not the past of what it convincingly demonstrates as both a viable artistic form and a cultural phenomenon.

The photography is delicious here, capturing the essence of the New Burlesque while the text provides context and exquisitely fit descriptions of it. But the book is more than just a curiosity for enthusiastsÜit certainly serves as an informative guide and primer, but does so well enough and with enough erudite grace to dispel most anyone's notions (including mine) of the New Burlesque as a bastardized parody of its music hall roots. Burlesque dancing is not strip-club artless trash, but rather a highly evolved and fully-formed medium in itself, allowing for and encouraging individual creativity as it's aware of its own ethos and historicity. And plus, it's fun—like this book.


Christina Balint. Ophelia's Fan.
Norton. 2004. 351 pp.

* *

I had high hopes for this one, as it's the story of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress who triumphed in England and is credited by many with having "brought Shakespeare to the French" as the cover flap has itÜand there's a good deal of truth there. She was also the "muse" for Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and in many circles today is still best-known as the great composer's muse and later, wife. I don't know a great deal about the French years, but I've studied the Romantic Era English Theatre more than perhaps anyone you've ever met, and figured, heyÜKean works, so did (earlier) Siddons, why not Smithson?

Because of who wrote it and how it's written. Balint's composing a fanciful Creative Dissertation on, I guess, Theatre History here, complete with an impressive and extensive bibliography at the end (though she'd have done well to look at a few other period works, and if welcome to e-mail me). But as a novel... ok, this is not a novel. It's a stuttering, stammering, precious, fanciful I-don't-know-what about DEVIL take what, but as a novel, okay, it's just plain God-awful, and won't win any fans for Balint, Berlioz, or English Theatre History.

Yet Balint has potential. Lest all this research go to waste, I'd advise her to either go for broke and turn it into a Cabaret with Vaudeville numbers circa early Jimmy Durante interspersed, go home and write the thing as a straight-on dissertation, or both. Then, after working on stories about whatever for a little while, get her technique together, and make a Comeback, perhaps as a brainy Romance Novelist.

I'll even give her an extra star this time as credit on the success of that later effort.


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