Reviews — From the July 2017 issue

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In Marie ­NDiaye’s novel MY HEART HEMMED IN (Two Lines Press, $14.95), Nadia and Ange, a middle-aged couple from Bordeaux, become outcasts. “What sort of wickedness, I ask myself, are they suddenly believing in,” Nadia wonders of the students at the school where she and Ange are teachers, “that they don’t even dare to look up at me, when we once got along so well?” She doesn’t watch television or keep up with the news, so she doesn’t know that this is happening across France. Nadia never thought of herself as one of those people. She has long since severed all ties with her past. She never visits her parents, who raised her in a housing project on the outskirts of the city,

in the mediocrity of an existence completely enclosed in the boundaries of a neighborhood and austere rituals and incomprehensible, unyielding mistrusts of anything that wasn’t in our ways.

She can no longer speak their language, has told everyone that they are dead. But this repudiation does not protect her, and might even have contributed to her disgrace. 

“Bordeaux” © Romann Ramshorn.

My Heart Hemmed In has the psychological depth of a case study and the sensory texture of a hallucination. It relies on the unsaid—we never know exactly what Nadia’s ethnicity is, or what caused public opinion to turn against people like her. Published in France in 2007, it is the eighth of ­NDiaye’s dozen books to appear in En­glish, and the fifth to be translated by Jordan Stump. (NDiaye, who won the Prix Goncourt in 2009 and has been twice long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize, is also a playwright, and co-wrote the screenplay of White Material, Claire Denis’s 2000 film about a white French farmer in an unnamed African nation who tries to harvest her coffee crop during a civil war.) The novel raises political specters—xenophobia, immigration, nationalism—through a sensibility that is mythic or folkloric. Ange takes to bed with a gaping stomach wound that festers and pustulates. As he wastes away, Nadia grows fat and loathsome. She blames rich food, but there are hints of a pregnancy. She leaves Ange in Bordeaux and goes to visit her estranged son and his baby in a village on the Mediterranean coast. When she arrives, the baby is nowhere to be found, and her son’s wife, whose ethnicity also remains unclear, has been replaced by a white woman, a gynecologist named Wilma, whose ardor for hunting is matched by the passion with which she consumes meat. Wilma has “the broad, martial, joyless smile of someone who kills not for survival or pleasure but in the firm belief that it has to be done for the common good.”

As is typical in NDiaye, characters, particularly the women, are oppressed by a choking smog of shame that emanates from the family. Nadia is not the only one to indulge a fantasy of killing off a parent. In an earlier novel, Ladivine, a mixed-race woman changes her name and tells everyone that her mother is dead, though she continues to visit her in secret once a month. The narrator of the novella Self-portrait in Green describes

two stiff, prickly old people weeping before their careworn daughter, weeping because a man who is their grandchild, although he was born to an unknown woman in a place so far away they’ll never go there, has decided to have nothing more to do with them, because he despises and hates them. That man used to be a very little boy, who loved his holidays in this countryside, who hopped and rolled around the yard, who considered this yard his own, without qualm or reserve, and now he’s fled, burning behind him what he once seemed to love, now he’s become a faithless and mysterious person, someone you no longer know, but who seems to know you so well that he refuses to put up with you any longer.

The cruelties run both ways. In the short story “Revelation,” a mother abandons her adult son, whose insanity has made him gentle and undignified; in “The Boys,” a couple sell their children to a rich woman from the city.

Soft Tissue–Meat #2, by Bevan Ramsay

The difference between contempt and shame, explained the psychologist Silvan Tomkins, is that contempt rejects the object permanently, whereas shame expresses identification and love—a desire for intimacy. Shame follows enjoyment; you cannot be ashamed if you have not taken some pleasure or do not wish to take pleasure again. It is fitting that there is a reunion at the end of My Heart Hemmed In. Nadia returns to her parents, eats her mother’s cooking. The food, “semolina crumbled each morning by honest fingers,” helps her give birth to what has been growing inside her—it looks like “a short, fat eel, though the thing might have been hairy, its fur smoothed and stuck down by something wet, blood or mucus.” This “black, glistening, fast-moving thing,” the embodiment of Nadia’s shame, worms its way out of the room. In Self-portrait in Green, “something black, and quick” is also seen around town. It seems to have slithered out of that book and into My Heart Hemmed In. Readers of ­NDiaye will surely meet it again. 

“A black unidentifiable thing” flits across Maureen N. ­McLane’s bright new collection of poetry, SOME SAY (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24). “In the otherwise untroubled snow?/?I saw where I’d turned around,” she writes in “Crux/Fern Park”—“faint gashes the trace in the snow?/?of the way my mind ran aground.” Then, a little later:

even at 5° below
and only a chickadee

and a black unidentifiable thing
out of the corner of the eye

running through the woods
clearly knew their own going

No roads diverged
no ski trail split

the mind forked itself
and doubled back

and back and back
among the black spruce and tamaracks

McLane, a professor of English at New York University and the author of This Blue, Mz. N: the serial, and My Poets, measures the contours of thought in brief, abruptly enjambed lines and clever rhymes. Her black thing is not a disgusting creepy-crawly; it’s a darting creature, a moving X marking the spot around which the mind circles. ­McLane has much to think about and has no problem with changing the subject. “Some people?/?float better in a sea?/?of continuous partial attention,” she writes in “Real Time.” She speaks directly but circuitously, in a relaxed diction that is learned and unpretentious:

OK you heard the coyotes
and I didn’t.

It is always this—
You this, I that

and a canyon 
opening between.

Untitled photograph © Jason Nocito

In her academic life McLane specializes in Romanticism, and here she makes time to dally and drift in the natural world. “Even if I had plenty to do?/?I would still look at clouds,” she writes in “Confession.” Her poems yo-yo between sexual and intellectual life: A sleeping lover conjures thoughts of Antigone dead, paintings by Velázquez and Balthus, Proust’s Albertine. Speakers wander lonely and wide-eyed, beating back cynicism. “As I was saying, the sun” picks up where the title leaves off: 

& the moon and all stars
you can name
are fantastic!

It’s not cool
to be enthusiastic
not chill

to say hey! 

There’s a fucking sun
still shining

But Some Say is never naïve, and the author unabashedly enjoys jokes from the seminar room. “Some Say” rewrites Sappho’s “Anactoria Poem,” which, in Richmond Lattimore’s translation, begins:

Some there are who say that the fairest thing seen
on the black earth is an array of horsemen; some, men marching;
some would say ships; but I say
she whom one loves best
is the loveliest. 

­McLane’s poem throws out different theories of the beautiful (“a host of horsemen,” “a horizon of ships under sail”), heaps praise on a lover, pays homage to an airplane, and concludes with a wink at Burke: 

Some say beauty
is hanging there at a dank bar
with pretty and sublime
those sad bitches left behind
by the horsemen.

Beauty is slumming it and ­McLane is ordering another round. Her mix of the humorous and the cerebral is at once exuberant and rinsed with melancholy. She is an amusing complainer too. “A difficult climb?/?to a beautiful view—?/?I don’t like it,” begins “Against the Promise of a View”: 

I don’t want
to look back
& say ah
that was so
worth it
because even
if it was
it wasn’t.

Sleeping Girl, 1943, by Balthus © Tate, London/Art Resource, New York

In My Poets, a work of autobiographical criticism with occasional ventriloquial interludes, ­McLane recalls two “early impasses in reading,” freshman-year encounters with Charles Olson and Frank O’Hara. She writes about not “getting it” but wanting to get it, about a desire to get it that was left wanting by code-breaking and analysis and satisfied by hearing and feeling. If her own poetry presents an impasse, it is that of deceptive simplicity. Her poems are so appealing, so agreeable, and, to a reader who shares her set of references, so gettable that one might skim over the surface, start reading for the plot, for the rustle of turning the page. It is possible to be carried so far by ­McLane—by her knowledge, wit, generosity, and musical ear—that one is carried away. Perhaps only a critic, anxious to do the helpful work of intermediation, would think that a bad thing. I’m not sure ­McLane requires our services. Her vistas are democratic but unmonumental. She casts spells, not iron. “To make / no more things / but songs / anyone could sing,” concludes “Meditation After Berlin.” “To tune precisely / every string / and go without fear / of the simple or complex thing.”

The book ends with an envoi titled “Eclipse.” It reads, in its entirety: “I don’t trust myself / not to look.” Is ­McLane staring at the sun or the moon? And what kind of witness is she? She is patient but hardly neutral. Her body is always a little in the way. “First I flushed out the turkeys / then I startled the bird,” she writes in “Aversion”: “Nothing / did not flee.” ­McLane’s intelligence is just as quivering, and always shifting shape—a black unidentifiable thing at the corner of one’s vision.

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