Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I had this one on my list since it came out, because of a recommendation from a reviewer I consider reliable. It also happened to be selected by the other book club my wife is part of, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to follow along during my commute. 

 I think I will start with the bottom line: I think Doerr tried to do too much in a single book, and ended up with three stories that would have been better as stand-alone books, with more detail and attention. I get what he was trying to do, making a single book about the fragility of books and writing in general, and finding stories past, present, and future to illustrate it. And I found his individual stories interesting. But because they had to fit in a single book, he cut corners on developing his characters, and I don’t think it quite holds together. It is a decent book, but mildly disappointing. 


Doerr, in the fascinating afterword, credits The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt for inspiring the book. I agree that The Swerve is a truly delightful and enlightening book - and the inspiration is clear. So many books of antiquity have been lost to us forever - plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus, works of history, philosophy, poetry…it really is a tragedy. So, Doerr chooses to name his book and build it around a fictitious work by a real author. Antonius Diogenes is known to us for a long lost work that sounds a bit like the fictitious Cloud Cuckoo Land, which is quoted by other authors to the degree that we know some of the plot. If it were intact, we might consider it one of the first proto-novels. For his book, Doerr quotes from the fictitious one throughout, and we learn that story as kind of the fourth thread in the plot. 


Cloud Cuckoo Land is essentially three stories, as I noted above. The story from the past takes place at the time of the sack of Constintanople in 1453. Omier is a Bulgarian boy who is conscripted along with his family’s two oxen by the Ottomans and forced to assist the invading army. Anna is a young seamstress working in the city, who learns to read from an elderly scholar, and makes a bit of money on the side assisting another local boy in “stealing” books from a long-ruined monastery. Which is how she comes into possession of a codex of “Cloud Cuckoo Land.” After she escapes the city, she runs into Omier, who has fled rather than become cannon fodder. The two of them escape together, and eventually the book makes its way to the Vatican library. 


The second story takes place mostly in modern-day Idaho. Zeno, a Greek immigrant who was a prisoner of war in Korea, decides to translate the newly-discovered manuscript for “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” and with the assistance of local kids, put on a play version of it. Meanwhile, Seymour, a troubled (and likely autistic) teen is recruited by an eco-terrorist group, and brings homemade bombs into the library, after which everything goes to hell. 


The third story takes place several generations later, after the environmental catastrophe, with Konstance, a young girl, traveling on an intergenerational interstellar voyage to an exoplanet. Her father tells her the story of “Cloud Cuckoo Land,” which gives her the chance to preserve the story for a new generation. (There is a lot more going on, but the plot twists in this story are a lot more surprising.) 


There are some parts of the book I really liked. Both sides of the Siege episodes were well written, although I could have done without the side plot of Anna’s sister dying of what was probably a brain tumor. It felt like it was there solely to give someone for Anna to read the story to, and that could have happened without the added tragedy. That time could have been better spent on any number of things. After the fall of the city, we really get just the one scene where Anna and Omier meet, but almost nothing further of their journey. Which seems to me to be would have been interesting. How did the two of them figure out how to communicate? And if, as we learn later, the story kept them alive on the journey, how was Anna able to tell the story as she learned a new language? What were their adventures? See, if this had been made into a full book, it would have been fascinating. It would also have made the ending feel less contrived and hurried. 


For the modern story, I liked most of it. My main quibble was that I really wish that writers (and the media in general) would stop using autistic people as their go-to for mass shooters and bombers. This is factually inaccurate (autistic people are no more likely to be violent than neurotypical people, and less likely to engage in pre-planned mass casualty acts), and also misses the point that it isn’t the mentally ill that are the problem - it is violent, entitled young males (usually white) with easy legal access to weapons. As it is, we as a society tend to be suspicious of people who are not neurotypical, while giving a pass to “normal” sorts who just happen to be violent to their partners, or who share fantasies of mass murder. Likewise, there is already plenty of stigma in poverty, which is why the idea that it was Seymour’s poverty that was a significant factor seems off. So, in that sense, although Seymour was a well-drawn character, he also represented a lot of unfortunate stereotypes. 


I liked Zeno a lot better. From his background as an immigrant, to his experience as a young orphan, to his reluctant military service (which he joins in part to make his late father proud, and also as a way of proving he isn’t a coward for being gay), to his lonely life in a small town, he is a believeable character. The POW scenes seem to fit with the rest of the book - the theme of confinement - and are beautifully written. I could have enjoyed a book about Zeno with a lot more detail. 


For the Science Fiction plot, it felt like it never really got going until far later in the book. Perhaps this was because of the difficulty of integrating it with the rest. As with the other two plots, I would have preferred this to be its own book. Konstance eventually became a compelling character, but it took a while. And it isn’t until she is literally the only character left in her story that she becomes interesting. We never have a chance to make a connection with any of the others, so they serve as mere back story. This is yet again why this should have been its own book, not just the third (and most neglected) thread in a single book. I say this in part because there is so much that could have been explored in this story, but was just left to be imagined. The ending - like the first one - skips way ahead at the end, because there was no time left to tell the middle, which is a shame. 


Thus, I would say that, despite some good writing, a trio of interesting stories, the book felt to me like a missed opportunity. It could have been more by not trying to be too much at once. 




Note on audiobook: The narration was mostly by Marin Ireland, with the “Cloud Cuckoo Land” parts narrated by Simon Jones. In general, it was good, and I appreciated the good compression.


I did hate one thing, however: the length of the tracks. Some were over 20 minutes long, which is incredibly awkward for a commuter who uses different vehicles – there was no reason they couldn’t have done 3-5 minute tracks as usual. So that was a hard fail.



Monday, May 30, 2022

Selected Poems by William Carlos Williams

Source of book: I own this


I picked up several American Poetry Project hardcovers (in small format) at library sales before Covid, and this is one of them. Robert Pinsky, one of my favorite poet sorts of modern times, selected the poems from throughout WCW’s career, including the late period in the 1960s, which isn’t as well known. I previously blogged about his early poems, from a paperback from Dover Publications. 


It was difficult to narrow down the poems for this post, although I also posted a few on facebook, so they could be savored by my poetically inclined friends. I discussed WCW’s biography in my previous writeup, so, except for some background to a biographical poem (see below), I will assume that the reader is familiar with his life. I find writers who had other jobs to be fascinating - maybe because I moonlight as a non-professional blogger while working a day job. But also, because life experience matters in writing, and outside experiences can inform art better than ensconcement in academia, in my experience. Frost had his farm, Dickinson her nature, and Larkin his library. 


These are the ones I liked best this time around. Let’s start with an astronomy-based one. 


Peace on Earth


The Archer is wake!

The Swan is flying!

Gold against blue

An Arrow is lying.

There is hunting in heaven—

Sleep safe till tomorrow.


The Bears are abroad!

The Eagle is screaming!

Gold against blue

Their eyes are gleaming!


Sleep safe till tomorrow.


The Sisters lie

With their arms intertwining;

Gold against blue

Their hair is shining!

The Serpent writhes!

Orion is listening!

Gold against blue

His sword is glistening!


There is hunting in heaven—

Sleep safe till tomorrow.


A number of friends found the line “gold against blue” particularly meaningful in light of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. 


Also very much on point for our times is this early poem. 




When I was younger

it was plain to me

I must make something of myself.

Older now

I walk back streets

admiring the houses

of the very poor:

roof out of line with sides

the yards cluttered

with old chicken wire, ashes,

furniture gone wrong;

the fences and outhouses

built of barrel staves

and parts of boxes, all,

if I am fortunate,

smeared a bluish green

that properly weathered

pleases me best of all colors


               No one

will believe this

of vast import to the nation.


The “rat race” is turning on itself for my children’s generation, and I am seeing a renewed sense of common humanity, even as many of my parents’ generation wail about the change. 


I mentioned earlier a biographical poem. This one was written as a tribute to WCW’s grandmother, who was an important part of his life. It is an immigrant story, a messy personal story, and profoundly human. One of his best. 


Dedication for a Plot of Ground


This plot of ground

facing the waters of this inlet

is dedicated to the living presence of

Emily Dickinson Wellcome

who was born in England; married;

lost her husband and with

her five year old son

sailed for New York in a two-master;

was driven to the Azores;

ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,

met her second husband

in a Brooklyn boarding house,

went with him to Puerto Rico

bore three more children, lost

her second husband, lived hard

for eight years in St. Thomas,

Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed

the oldest son to New York,

lost her daughter, lost her "baby,"

seized the two boys of

the oldest son by the second marriage

mothered them—they being

motherless—fought for them

against the other grandmother

and the aunts, brought them here

summer after summer, defended

herself here against thieves,

storms, sun, fire,

against flies, against girls

that came smelling about, against

drought, against weeds, storm-tides,

neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,

against the weakness of her own hands,

against the growing strength of

the boys, against wind, against

the stones, against trespassers,

against rents, against her own mind.


She grubbed this earth with her own hands,

domineered over this grass plot,

blackguarded her oldest son

into buying it, lived here fifteen years,

attained a final loneliness and—


If you can bring nothing to this place

but your carcass, keep out.


I am a sucker for a well-turned nature poem, so I had to include this one. 


Willow Poem


It is a willow when summer is over,

a willow by the river

from which no leaf has fallen nor

bitten by the sun

turned orange or crimson.

The leaves cling and grow paler,

swing and grow paler

over the swirling waters of the river

as if loath to let go,

they are so cool, so drunk with

the swirl of the wind and of the river—

oblivious to winter,

the last to let go and fall

into the water and on the ground.


Oh, and a poem with a great musical metaphor. 




Again I reply to the triple winds

running chromatic fifths of derision

outside my window:

                                  Play louder.

You will not succeed. I am

bound more to my sentences

the more you batter at me

to follow you.

                                  And the wind,

as before, fingers perfectly

its derisive music.


“Chromatic fifths of derision.” That’s wonderful. 


There are a number of longer poems, and poem cycles, some of which are quoted in full, and others of which are given in excerpts. I loved “January Morning,” for example, but couldn’t decide what to quote. “Spring and All” was another, but I decided for that one to quote this passage: 


By the road to the contagious hospital

under the surge of the blue

mottled clouds driven from the

northeast-a cold wind. Beyond, the

waste of broad, muddy fields

brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen


patches of standing water

the scattering of tall trees


All along the road the reddish

purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy

stuff of bushes and small trees

with dead, brown leaves under them

leafless vines—


Lifeless in appearance, sluggish

dazed spring approaches—


They enter the new world naked,

cold, uncertain of all

save that they enter. All about them

the cold, familiar wind—


Now the grass, tomorrow

the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf


One by one objects are defined—

It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

But now the stark dignity of

entrance—Still, the profound change

has come upon them: rooted, they

grip down and begin to awaken


That is a really amazing description of spring, and of awakening of plant life after winter. At his best, WCW makes language sparkle and dance. Here is a shorter one that I love. 


My Luv


My luv

is like




A blue sky.


I also love those old insulators.

A greenglass insulator on a blue sky. 
Pipe Spring National Monument, 2014 (picture by me)

On a much darker note, this poem has stayed with me. It is hard to be sure of the intended meaning. Was the deceased a horrible person? Or is death so horrible it taints the body and even the memory of the departed? Or both? 




He's dead

the dog won't have to

sleep on his potatoes

any more to keep them

from freezing


he's dead

the old bastard—

He's a bastard because


there's nothing

legitimate in him any


           he's dead

He's sick dead



a godforsaken curio


any breath in it


He's nothing at all

              he's dead

shrunken up to the skin


            Put his head on

one chair and his

feet on another and

he'll lie there

like an acrobat—


Love's beaten. He

beat it. That's why

he's insufferable—



he's here needing a

shave and making love

an inside howl

of anguish and defeat—


He's come out of the man

and he's let

the man go—

                  the liar



       his eyes

rolled up out of

the light—a mockery



love cannot touch—


just bury it

and hide its face

for shame.


Also dark is this poem, which seems both a prelude and counterpart to “Spring and All,” but also connects with “death.” Winter as death, but winter also as a metaphor for humankind’s stupidity - and perhaps war in particular. Stupidity and death as flip sides of the same coin, ignorance and obscurity, intellectual and physical death. 




are the desolate, dark weeks

when nature in its barrenness

equals the stupidity of man.


The year plunges into night

and the heart plunges

lower than night


to an empty, windswept place

without sun, stars or moon

but a peculiar light as of thought


that spins a dark fire –

whirling upon itself until,

in the cold, it kindles


to make a man aware of nothing

that he knows, not loneliness

itself – Not a ghost but


would be embraced – emptiness,

despair – (They

whine and whistle) among


the flashes and booms of war;

houses of whose rooms

the cold is greater than can be thought,


the people gone that we loved,

the beds lying empty, the couches

damp, the chairs unused –


Hide it away somewhere

out of the mind, let it get roots

and grow, unrelated to jealous


ears and eyes – for itself.

In this mine they come to dig – all.

Is this the counterfoil to sweetest


music? The source of poetry that

seeing the clock stopped, says,

The clock has stopped


that ticked yesterday so well?

and hears the sound of lakewater

splashing – that is now stone.


A lot of the poems use a three line stanza. Sometimes, the breaks feel natural. In others, like the one above, they contribute to a certain emphasis, but break lines and sometimes full thoughts. It is a fascinating technique. In the hands of Williams, the result is often breathtaking, although it is too often imitated badly by lesser poets. Here is another example of that stanza form. 


River Rhyme


The rumpled river

takes its course

lashed by rain


This is that now

that tortures 

skeletons of weeds


and muddy waters

eat their

banks the drain


of swamps a bulk

that writhes and fat-

tens as it speeds.


Also of interest in this poem is the way that the poem - like the river - starts out in a normal course, then increasingly breaks its bounds. The first stanza is self contained. Then, the next break comes in the middle of a sentence, but between two thoughts. But then, the break is in the middle of the thought, and a line breaks in the middle of a word. All the banks are overrun by the end. 


This next one contains perhaps the most famous line WCW wrote - although I doubt many know it was he that said “No ideas but in things.” At best, a few recollect it being a sort of motto for the imagists. In context, it is a devastating line. 


A Sort of a Song


Let the snake wait under

his weed

and the writing

be of words, slow and quick, sharp

to strike, quiet to wait,



— through metaphor to reconcile

the people and the stones.

Compose. (No ideas

but in things) Invent!

Saxifrage is my flower that splits

the rocks.


While the various species of Saxifraga are widespread, I am most familiar with one that literally breaks the granite of the Sierra Nevada. WCW moves from the patient snake that strikes suddenly to the humble and fragile weed that works for centuries at splitting the ageless rocks to the idea of words carefully planned and metaphors carefully chosen to strike and fracture the psyche. I love it. 


I was also surprised to find that I enjoyed the later poems quite a bit. For many poets, the early poems make the reputation, and the later ones are either mailed in or not as revolutionary, or perhaps they are good but the world and style has moved on. It is, in some ways, a curse for an artist to live to an old age. However, I find that often the later works are as good, just not as revolutionary. In any case, the ones that follow are mostly from the last couple decades of Williams’ life. 


A Woman in Front of a Bank


The bank is a matter of columns,

like . convention,

unlike invention; but the pediments

sit there in the sun


to convince the doubting of

investments “solid

as a rock” —-upon which the world

stands, the world of finance,


the only world: Just there,

talking with another woman while

rocking a baby carriage

back and forth stands a woman in


a pink cotton dress, bare legged

and headed whose legs

are two columns to hold up

her face, like Lenin’s (her loosely


arranged hair profusely blond) or

Darwin’s and there you

have it:

a woman in front of a bank.


I am reminded of the way most of our media talk as if the stock market and “the economy” were the same thing. Williams reminds us that there are other ways of thinking, and in the long run, systems of finance are far less important than the real source of wealth: human labor and caretaking. And note the period between “like” and “convention.” That is intentional, and a way of showing the columns.


I want to mention “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” a long poem only part of which (but still a dozen pages) is quoted in this collection. Asphodel is, of course, a classical symbol of the afterlife, and peace after death. There are an abundance of great lines, and I recommend reading the whole thing. The poem was written during a period of trouble for the poet. He suffered a heart attack and a series of strokes, leading to increasingly poor - and precarious - health. He was also jerked around regarding a job, because of the McCarthy Era witch hunts against “communists” - he was suspected of being one, whatever that meant at the time. Oh, and he became so depressed he had to have in-patient psychiatric treatment. This poem was the result of this turmoil, and also of his determination to come clean to his long-suffering wife about his many past infidelities. It is unknown exactly how she took all of this, but in any case, the poem, with her at its center, has come to be considered one of his greatest late works. I wanted to mention a few lines. 


We lived long together

    a life filled,

        if you will,

with flowers. So that

    I was cheered

        when I came first to know

that there were flowers also

    in hell.


And this one:


I cannot say

    that I have gone to hell 

            for your love

but often

    found myself there

        in your pursuit.


I will end with an excerpt from a cycle in his last collection. Entitled “Pictures from Brueghel,” it gives poetic descriptions of certain famous paintings by that old master. I could pick any of them, but I think I will go with “Self Portrait,” because instead of the most famous painting of that name, WCW chooses a lesser known picture that I think is fabulous. Rather than show the serious painter, it portrays a jolly old man, full of good spirits. 


In a red winter hat blue

eyes smiling

just the head and shoulders


crowded on the canvas

arms folded one

big ear the right showing


the face slightly tilted

a heavy wool coat

with broad buttons


gathered at the neck reveals

a bulbous nose

but the eyes red-rimmed


from over-use he must have

driven them hard

but the delicate wrists


show him to have been a

man unused to

manual labor unshaved his


blond beard half trimmed

no time for any-

thing but his painting