- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2009



By Nicholson Baker

Simon & Schuster, $25, 243 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

Paul Chowder, a published poet stalled at middle age, is writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. Wait, not true. He’s supposed to be writing the introduction to a new anthology of poetry. But life keeps getting in the way even though his life is not a particularly complicated one.

He used to write and publish his poetry, but doesn’t anymore; he used to teach, but doesn’t anymore (the last time he tried, he walked out on the class after just three days, which hardly endeared him to the department head); and he used to have a nice woman named Roz living with him, but he doesn’t have that anymore, either. Oh, and he’s broke.

What he does have is the mess he has made of things by his penchant for indecision, procrastination and losing track of the subject at hand. What he also has, very early on in this charming and quite funny novel, is the reader’s attention, in my case, rapt.

“Roz, the woman who lived with me in this house for eight years, has moved away,” he tells us, apropos of nothing, which is how Paul Chowder offers almost all his cornucopia of information. “Roz is kind of short. I’ve always been attracted to short women. They’re usually smarter and more interesting than tall women and yet people don’t take them as seriously … But she’s moved out so I should stop talking about her.” And he does, but you just know he’ll return to the subject.

The book is told in a very free-form, freewheeling, first-person monologue. But instead of an interior monologue (a la Joyce and Faulkner and Virginia Woolf) it’s an exterior one because he is clearly talking to the reader as much as to himself.

And what a talker he is. It’s as if his mother was scared by playing the word-association game while carrying him. One paragraph he’s talking about Roz, and the next it’s the chirping of birds and how much he hates it. (He mows the grass to drown out their “racket.”) Then he lurches on to how last night in bed he tried crossing his eyes with his eyes closed. Hmm. Eventually, thankfully, he turns his capacious mind to poetry.

“One useful tip I can pass on is: Copy poems out. Absolutely top priority. Memorize them if you want to, but the main thing is to copy them out. Get a notebook and a ball-point pen and copy them out. You will be shocked by how much this helps you. You will see immediate results in your very next poem, I promise you.

“Another tip is: if you have something to say, say it. Don’t save it up … No, slam it in immediately. It won’t work if you hold it in reserve …

“Another tip: the term ‘iambic pentameter’ isn’t good. It isn’t at all good. It’s the source of much grief and muddle and some very bad enjambments. Louise Brogan once said that somebody’s enjambments gave her the willies, and she’s right, they can do that to you.” (For the record, an enjambment is a run-on line whose sense carries over, without pause, into the next line, i.e. “At the round earth’s imagined corners blow / Your trumpets, Angels.” John Donne.)

I should say right now that if you don’t like poetry, you won’t like all the time he devotes to it - which doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t like the book - but if you are among the many FEMs (former English majors) out there, you will find yourself racing through your memory banks to see if you can come up with the definitions of terms you haven’t thought about in years or maybe decades. And it’s grand fun, not to mention deciding whether or not you agree with the narrator’s many, and quite opinionated, pronouncements on rhyme and meter and other elements of versification.

For as unsure as he is of what to do next, Paul Chowder is very sure of his opinions. His main problem is that he isn’t able to get himself off the dime or, in his case, up to his writing room on the second floor of the old barn behind his house. He keeps pining for Roz, but she’s had enough of his putting off until tomorrow what he should have done many yesterdays ago.

Instead, he meets his buddy Tim for a beer - Tim whose wife left him - and they talk about women, of course, and Paul never fails to mention Roz or things she did or wore or said. He’s got it bad. And then, bless you Nicholson Baker (author perhaps most famously of “Vox” and the much-praised “A Box of Matches” and “The Mezzanine”), Paul gets back to talking about poetry, and does he ever dis the great and the near-great. It’s top-of-the-line literary gossip, but it’s leavened by his love and respect for the form.

“Most of us have a short period of intense thinking about poetry, when we take a course in college, and then that’s about it. And that’s really all you need. One intense time, when you master your little heap of names - Andrew Marvell, Muriel Rukeyser, Christina Rossetti, Hardy, Auden, Bishop, Marvin Bell, Ted Hughes, John Hollander, Nicholas Christopher, Deborah Garrison, whoever, James Wright, Selima Hill, Troy Jollimore … Every so often you remember them. If you’ve memorized some poems, the poems will raise a glimmering finger in your memory every once in a while, and that’s very nice, as long as you keep it to yourself. Never recite. Please!”

Paul Chowder, the character, who likes the work of most if not all of the poets he mentions, is generous with his praise - and quite often you’ll find yourself pausing to see if you agree or to jot down the name of poet or a poem for future reference. (That alone is worth the price of the book.)

Finally, he tries to get back to the task at hand, finishing the introduction (and getting paid $7,000) - and reintroducing Roz into his life.

It would be downright churlish - and definitely anti-poetic - of me to tell you if Paul succeeds in winning (back) the Fair Rosalind, but I will tell you that if you buy the book - and you really should - you will enjoy it thoroughly.

And if you’re a stalled poet dying to get back to the labor you love, who knows what might happen?

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer and critic.

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