Winter 1992, Volume 9.1
Book Reviews

Language in the Blood Reviewed by Bill McCarron
Alva Myrdal: A daughter's Memoir Reviewed by Nancy N. Haanstad
The Selected Letters of John Ciardi Reviewed by James A. Grimshaw
The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought Reviewed by Dennis M. Clark
Things Happen: Poems of Survival Reviewed by Robert M. Hogge

Language in the Blood by Kent Nelson. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 1991, 260 pp., $18.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Bill McCarron, Department of Literature and Languages, East Texas State University, Commerce

Late in Kent Nelson's bold novel, the discerning first-person narrator, Scott Talmedge, links observed nature to human passion: "I wanted to see the rail [Yellow Rail, a rare marsh bird] because birds are in me. They are in my blood, like a language. They were what I first knew how to love" (241). Scott's remarks provide the novel's title as well as a clue to the novel's basic thematic structure: what happens to birds—in Massachusetts, Minnesota, Arizona, Old Mexico, Texas—modifies what happens to the novel's main characters. For example, Scott remembers spotting an Ivory Gull off the coast of Maine; then he recalls meeting Demer, his first wife. She was and is a unique species, but she can also blend in with other people just as the Ivory Gull can with other gulls. She abandons Scott to fly to Guatemala where she rescues victimized peasants and helps them 'migrate' to the United States.

Tilghman Myre, Scott's former Harvard roommate, is the catalyst for all the other characters in the novel. Independently wealthy, he has retired in his early 30's to Tucson where he builds a large wall around his run-down adobe home in a seamy section of Tucson, west of the University of Arizona campus. However, while Tilghman walls out the city and his ex-live-in companion, Francie Slocum, he masterminds the rescue missions of the Guatemalan refugees. Thanks to his friend Ellis Carmichael's shrimp boat, the downtrodden enter Mexico through the Sea of Cortez; then they are driven by truck and Tilghman's Land Rover into Arizona. These poor immigrants are land birds, turned sea birds, turned land birds again. Demer writes from Central America about vultures "fighting over the pieces" (188) of a road-kill dog. Her description anticipates Tilghman's death where he is run over by a Park Ranger truck while helping illegal immigrants to freedom.

Francie Slocum is a bird, a dancer by profession, forced to model for a living. Her photogenic legs are thin and delicate, like those of wading birds. The Caracara is the national bird of Mexico. Nelson invests the bird with symbolic weight by having Scott see it as "more a vulture than an eagle" (204). The mythical Trogon with its "green scapulars, black head, coppery tail" and red breast (204) winters in Guatemala's jungles, but summers in the canyons of southeastern Arizona. The protagonist/narrator, Professor Scott Talmedge, is a visiting professor of ornithology at the University of Arizona. He and his department head, Harriet Keating, interest students in setting mist nets in the washes and arroyos outside Tucson. They trap vireos, gnatcatchers, even a hawk. Again, Nelson's graphic description is also highly symbolic because the characters in the novel are enmeshed variously with each other (Demer has passed from Scott to Tilghman to a younger man also doing rescue work in Guatemala; Harriet sleeps with Scott before taking up with Carmichael; Francie marries Scott in the end).

Each character must learn the language of his/her individual blood, whether it be Scott's saving a woman from a rattlesnake bite or Demer opting to take on the Washington, D.C., bureaucracy or Ellis Carmichael finally finishing his long-abandoned second novel. Shrikes impale grasshoppers on barbed-wire thorns while Ellis suffers severe leg injuries when U.S. government pursuers force his motorcycle off the road. When Scott and Francie climb Mount Wrightson to bury a relic of a dead Guatemalan woman, their bloods are fired spiritually and physically by sightings of a Red-faced Warbler and Hepatic Tanager. At one point, Tilghman hurtles off an island cliff into the Sea of Cortez like a comic Icarus. Nelson, the perceptive novelist, never calls attention to such parallels, but they are there awaiting the reader at every turn.

Kent Nelson is no mere regional writer. He is at ease with some scenes in St. Cloud, Senoita, Amesbury, Austin. Nelson does know the book's principle setting of Tucson with find-tuned accuracy—from the names of restaurants to exact street locations. He knows why ocotillos open and close their tiny leaves, where Curve-billed Thrashers nest. His uncanny knowledge matches the desert writing of Joseph Wood Krutch—just as his characters' strange meanderings remind this reviewer of the late Edward Abbey's Monkey Wrench Gang.

With his creation of Scott Talmedge, Nelson gives us a college teacher who is Socratic in the richest sense. When Scott asks his class what they'd do if it suddenly got dark outside, they answer that they'd head for the local Safeway or Acapulco. "You're all correct," Scott says. "You'd migrate" (17). Professor Talmedge then assigns students to write discovery papers about the routes various birds take during annual migrations. He is a professor who possesses humor and high seriousness.

The artistry of Nelson's novel is its deliberate and calculated circularity. It opens in Massachusetts with an indifferent Scott tinkering with projects at his uncle's lighting company. It ends with Scott migrating back to Amesbury with Francie in tow. Departures and returns—migrations, emigrations, immigrations—are the panoramas of Language in the Blood. It is a novel where birds and humans prey and pray.

Alva Myrdal: A daughter's Memoir by Sissela Bok. New York: Addison Wesley, 1991, 375 pp., $22.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Nancy N. Haanstad, Department of Political Science and Philosophy, Weber State University(Return to top of page)

Can one imagine a more difficult biography to write than of one's own world-renowned mother? In today's culture, the typical approach is brutal exposZ (as in the best-seller Anne Sexton). Happily, Sissela Bok has written an elegantly honest and poignant biography which reveals and humanizes her celebrated mother—Nobel Peace Prize winner Alva Myrdal (1902-1986).

In a sense, Myrdal's career began with the achievement of a high school degree because education for females stopped at age sixteen in Sweden at that time. So she took a job while her father convinced the school board to offer the regular classes on a fee basis to females.

Nearly a decade after completing her university studies, she and her husband Gunnar authored Crisis in the Population Question (1935) which guided the design of the Swedish welfare state, especially regarding child care. Also she was a lifelong champion of women's rights, filling many governmental positions in the succeeding years, but coming first to international attention as Director of UNESCO's Department of Social Sciences (1951-1955). Subsequently she had a highly successful tour as the Swedish Ambassador to India (1955-1961).

It is upon her return to Sweden in 1961, at age fifty-nine, that Alva Myrdal began disarmament work. From her position as chief of the Swedish delegation to the Geneva Disarmament talks (1961-1973), she led the unsuccessful Non-Aligned states' strategy of pressuring the superpowers into serious nuclear cutbacks. This experience was the basis for her magnum opus—The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Soviet Union Run the Arms Race (1976).

The capstone of her career was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on 10 December 1982 (which she shared with Alfonso Garcia Robles of Mexico). Despite failing health, she delivered, at age eighty, a rousing Nobel Address linking the nuclear arms race to our broader "culture of violence."

Alva Myrdal was widely regarded throughout Western Europe as the ideal "modern woman" who perfected her public and private roles. Publicly she was an international diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize recipient; privately, the mother of three who sustained a lifelong marriage to another world-famous scholar and reformer, Gunnar Myrdal. He unfailingly portrayed their marriage as a perfect collaboration of "consort battleships." Additionally they are the only husband and wife team to each win Nobel Prizes in different categories—economics and peace. Alva Myrdal was repeatedly voted the most admired woman in Sweden. Her colleagues among career diplomats annointed her the "conscience of the disarmament movement" and applauded her Nobel award.

Alva Myrdal's elder daughter, Sissela Bok, herself a noted author and scholar (Lying, 1978; Secrets, 1982), takes us behind the public image of "her [mother's] infallible competence, her inexhaustible energy, her perfect marriage." The romantic tale of Gunnar and Alva's first meeting—he, the young college student on a biking trip across Sweden and she, the farmer's daughter who, on the spur of the moment, left home to join him—is like a fairy tale. Alva Myrdal, however, later regretted her "ludicrous obedience" to Gunnar's will during their early married years. Her professional work amounted not to a career, but a series of "campaigns." Moreover, Gunnar's demands on her time and presence, especially while writing his classic An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944) in the United States during World War II, caused painful separations for the family. She later confided to her daughters that this period was one of three occasions when she should have refused to uproot the family and dislocate her own work, although the refusal probably would have meant divorce. (Bok recalls as a ten-year-old child drawing a picture of her family with one adult figure [Alva], and four children—herself, sister Kaj, brother Jan, and Gunnar.)

By the time she began her assignment in India, Alva Myrdal had found her professional niche.

From this point on, the marriage was sustained on her terms. Gunnar, plagued by depression and desperately acknowledging his dependence upon her, later joined her in India where he wrote yet another masterpiece, An Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations (1968).

Although Alva Myrdal was a prominent educator and childhood expert, their oldest child, Jan, was deeply alienated from his parents. He admired Mao, battled Gunnar relentlessly, and left home at age sixteen. Despite her numerous overtures throughout the years, he grew increasingly bitter towards them. As the Nobel celebrations began, Bok found Alva to be obsessed with her "almost constantly bleeding cross," Jan. She also felt the paradox of receiving such a prestigious honor for dissarmament negotiations which were futile in and of themselves, despite the fledgling nuclear freeze movement she helped inspire.

Alva Myrdal: A Daughter's Memoir is an insightful biography of a stunningly accomplished woman whose life inevitably fell short of the heroic public persona. Sissela Bok has distinguished herself both as a lucid writer skillfully revealing the emotional dramas of her subject's life, and as a wise daughter whose tender portrait will enhance one's understanding of and respect for Alva Myrdal.

The Selected Letters of John Ciardi edited by Edward M. Cifelli. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1991, 475 pp., $30.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by James A. Grimshaw, Jr., Department of Literature and Languages, East Texas State University, Commerce(Return to top of page)

Like Gaul, this collection of John Ciardi's selected letters is divided into three parts: "Footholds" includes letters between the ages 19-37; "Eye of the Storm," ages 37-56; and "Felonious Footnotery," ages 56-69. These letters, some 378 in this handsomely produced volume, represent fifty years of personal correspondence by one of this century's more provocative and outspoken members of the literati.

Edward M. Cifelli opts to "let John Ciardi tell his own story in his own way," thereby explaining the dearth of footnotes and "most other types of scholarly intrusion." Other editorial decisions such as "pruning" out some material, omitting letterheads and addresses, and making silent corrections may deprive the most ardent scholars of precise information; however, in editions of this nature, many and diverse factors necessitate those decisions. Cifelli's choices have not diminished the potential value of this book to students, scholars, and other admirers of John Ciardi's work.

Cifelli has provided three other features which enhance the book's usefulness: brief chronological lists of significant events in Ciardi's life follow each division; an alphabetical list of the 95 correspondence recipients included in this book is appended to the letters, along with a brief paragraph identifying each person; and the letters are indexed. Thus, getting around in Ciardi's selected letters is not difficult. For example, a quick check of the list of recipients reveals the location of thirteen letters to Theodore Roethke, whose association with Ciardi goes back to 1937. More importantly, Cifelli's selection of letters provides insights to Ciardi's intellect and personality, both of which gave him entrZe into and allowed him to reject the modern world of letters.

After reading these letters, one might be impressed by Ciardi's perseverance and determination to write; or, one may, on the other hand, be chagrined by the arrogance of this young, aging, aged upstart. Most likely, fence-sitters will be few and far between. Ciardi repeatedly explains to solicitors of his time why he cannot teach more courses, review more for magazines, or extend his lecture tours. Simply put, Ciardi reiterates his need to do his own work, his writing. Because of that dedication, the years 1959-1961 were particularly productive ones in which eight of his books appeared. By age 55, he could boast to Stanley Burnshaw of some thirty titles. Perhaps no one understood and appreciated him more than Miller Williams who authored The Achievement of John Ciardi (1969), a work for which Ciardi expressed extreme gratitude on numerous occasions.

On the other hand, Ciardi's audaciously frank assessments of his intrinsic self-worth may leave readers with a somewhat sour taste. For example, noticeable are his demands as poetry editor of the University of Kansas City Review expressed to Clarence Decker, president of UKC; his cheeky critiques of other poets' works (e.g., Louis Simpson, Tate, Merrill Moore, Dylan, Warren), though presented at times with attempted humor; his reference to John Crowe Ransom as "an academic son-of-a-bitch"; his self-assessment (rationalization?) in academe as "being too good" as an explanation for not finding a proper position; as poetry editor of Saturday Review, his niggling and bickering with Norman Cousins, editor; and his obsessive concern about money. Those occasions, and many others, may mark him as contentious and sententious. Was Ciardi really that insecure?

And yet his stated goals were to write and to raise the level of poetry discussions in the U.S. Ambitious, but not unworthy. He worked hard and constantly with the program at Bread Loaf until 1972; he counted among his friends Frances Fergusson, R. P. Blackmur, R. W. B. Lewis, Daniel Aaron, Dudley Fitts, William Meredith, Irv Klompus, John Stone, and others; he did a superlative translation of Dante; he even tried his hand at science-fiction; and he seemed always a leading avatar of good poetry.

Selected letters of anyone are, at best, chancy. Possibly the best to emerge in recent years is Flannery O'Connor: The Habit of Being (1979) because the letters chosen by Sally reveal so much about the author's work. Most authors, however, for whatever reasons, fail to say as much about their own works without boasting or being too introspective. Although Selected Letters of John Ciardi may disappoint readers looking for authorial insights to his poetry, Edward Cifelli has done an admirable job of selecting letters which reveal a telling portrait of John Ciardi, the individual.

The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought edited by John R. Sillito. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991, 192 pp., $10.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Dennis M. Clark, Writer, Orem, Utah(Return to top of page)

Occasionally in the essays in this collection there occurs a phrase like the following: "No doctrine of which I am aware forbids this" (8). The claim seems to reflect a lack of central doctrinal agreement in Mormondom. In this instance, Edwin Firmage is writing of women being "invited into full priesthood participation with every quorum and every office in the church open to them" (Restoring the Church 8); but the statement would apply to a number of other propositions advanced in these essays. And many, if not most, Mormons would disagree with this particular assertion—and many of the others.

Betina Lindsey applies a similar sentiment to the sacrament of healing: "There is no indication in Mormon theology that priesthood is in itself the healing power" (92). Faced with these obviously sincere beliefs, the trained scholar in me purrs in his pedantry: Where's the evidence for such a sweeping assertion? Have these authors made the exhaustive review required by such an assertion? If so, why not publish it?

But that's about all the niggling the habitual reader in me can take. He reads for enjoyment, for pleasure, for information, for opinion, for signs of intelligent life in the universe. He found them all here. Perhaps no one so schizophrenic as I should review these essays on faith; but faith is schizophrenic. As Hugh B. Brown (former leader in the the Mormon Church) put it: "Faith is not knowledge; it is mixed with uncertainty or it would not be faith." And that feature of this collection—uncertainty, the fact that these essays are tests of faith, attempts to express it aright, explorations of what one believes—is by far its most appealing quality. The word essay still carries, if faintly, its verbal sense of "to try, attempt; to put to the test, make trial of" (related to its Latin root exaqium {weigh}, cognate with the root for "assay" as well).

These are trials of faith presented as personal essays: the lives of people coming to terms with the claims of Mormondom, with the demands of membership in the Church, and with Christian belief. These writers address those issues. Their answers should try your faith, whatever your present beliefs. Their thoughts represent the entire spectrum of faith in the contemporary Mormon church.

I had read (or heard) many of these essays before, but found myself pleasantly surprised, as by familiar voices in a quiet house, to encounter them again: Richard J. Cummings' "Some Reflections on the Mormon Identity Crisis"; Susan B. Taber's report of the trial of her faith brought on by her daughter's leukemia, "In Jeopardy Every Hour"; Scott Kenney's "At Home at Sea," a discussion of a literal trial of faith; Elouise Bell's "The Better for My Foes: The Role of Opposition."

Bell's essay takes its title from the clown in Twelfth Night who, asked how he does, answers:

[T]he better for my foes and the worse for my friends . . . [for] they praise me and make an ass of me. Now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass, so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends I am abused. (35)

Bell demonstrates wonderfully how we too are abused by our friends (including ourselves) when we try to improve our image, or heighten our self-esteem, or lengthen our stride by believing our own propaganda about how wonderful "this people" are. Her plea for an astringent clearheaded faith offers eight suggestions for how we could be the better for our "foes" (the quotation marks are hers, at the end of the essay).

Of Bell's eight suggestions, the one I find most widely represented in the other essays is the sixth:

Beware of the passion to take a stand, any stand,

now, rather than wait and ponder. Be mature

enough and confident enough to be able to live with

a few loose ends, a few uncertainties. (42)

Most of these essays read as if the authors had taken that advice honestly, and followed it thoroughly in their writing.

That is perhaps the best answer this collection offers to that frustrated scholar I referred to earlier. As Ron Molen points out in The Two Churches of Mormonism, the Church has adopted a management style "required of a new, large institution" (26), but one that emphasizes central control. One limitation of that style is "a new fundamentalism, even a neo-Calvinism, requiring a tightening of theological positions and a rigidifying of form" (29). That enough Mormons care about that change to respond to it with thoughtful discipleship, mixed with uncertainty, is infinitely heartening to one who wishes the best for his people. The encouraging thing about these essays is that they embrace both faith and the wilderness.

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading the essays, there is one serious flaw in the collection: the questionable editing of at least one essay—an excerpt from Hugh B. Brown's sermon delivered in the 5th session of the 139th semi-annual General Conference of the Church (Sunday morning, October 5, 1959). Ellipses throughout the excerpt serve notice of at least the appearance to edit carefully, but they mislead. Paragraphs are omitted without indication; wording is changed; punctuation is changed; phrases—even whole paragraphs—are transposed.

None of that is fatal; but it gets worse when errors distort the sense of Brown's speech. At one point, "Faith is a road to truth" becomes "Faith is a rod to truth." Would that someone had clung a bit tighter to the iron rod of editorial practice in this case. Perhaps the editor had access to a different text than that printed by the Mormon church. If so, we should be told that in the contributor's note; if not, courtesy to both author and reader requires better editing, more accurate scholarship.

Things Happen: Poems of Survival by Emma Lou Thayne. Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1991, 80pp., $18.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Robert M. Hogge, Department of English, Weber State University(Return to top of page)

Things Happen is the tenth and best collection of poetry written by Utah poet Emma Lou Thayne whose poems have appeared in several prominent regional publications: Dialogue, Exponent II, and Utah Holiday. In the epigraph to the collection, she quotes Alice Walker: "One wants to write poetry that is understood by one's people." This too is Emma Lou's goal. Female speakers, the "I" in her poetry, are women who, in almost all cases, reflect her major themes, values, and lifestyle. The poet is concerned with nostalgic reflections on the past; the interconnectedness of faith, family, and the fertile earth; political, social, and aesthetic issues; and the mystique of traveling in foreign lands. Though her poetry acknowledges despair and some of the darker realities of life, she is essentially an affirmative writer, one eager to share her own brand of theocentric humanism with her people.

I like individual poems in each of the volume's three major sections: (I) Come to Pass; (II) The Map of the World; and (III) Things Happen. But the arrangement of poems within each section is loose, maybe even suspect. For example, Come to Pass, the first section, has a Scriptural ring to it, suggesting a sense of inevitability, of resolution—that somehow time has healed or soothed the happenings of life. If her intent is to show how her "speakers" have experienced life but then moved toward acceptance, reconciliation, and affirmation, then this section of the volume should appear last and include such poems as "Margaret at 94 Refuses a Retirement Center," "You Heal," and "I am Delighted." Similar arguments could be made about the two other sections of the volume.

But within the three sections are some memorable individual poems. In Come to Pass, "For My Child in Pain" is a moving lyric of a mother's love for a daughter afflicted with anorexia, a maternal cry reminiscent of some of the best of Carol Lynn Pearson's poetry (Beginnings, 1969). Using a "back to the future" motif, the mother yearns to turn back the genetic clock and somehow to change the was into a painless is: "I would curl you back into my womb,/monitor what we ate, drank, injected, /how we slept." Throughout this tightly controlled poem, imagery and passionate maternal love coalesce aesthetically.

My favorite poem in the first section is "Planting Wildflowers in September at the Cabin." I like the poem not for its title, but for its engaging expressionism as the speaker moves from the realistic fall planting to a winter dream of next spring's sensuous growth and blossoming when she'll become one with the flowers, and they, an extension of her: "And flowers, surely flowers,/wild as Gentian and Indian Paint Brush,/will grow from my fingertips,/silky bouquets to touch across my face."

From Section I to Section II (The Map of the World), the shift seems, in many ways, to be one from aesthetic subtlety to explicit politicizing. Her anti-war stance is clear, even memorable, but she still needs to learn the distinction between singing and preaching. In "Currency," she begins in a Walt Whitman style, naming people, places, and images of the Soviet Union. Then she includes a surprising one-line stanza: "But the naming is unimportant," followed by two quatrains explicitly preaching the need for people to love one another. However, instead of the eight lines, she could have used one: "Here, here is my hand," a line that appears in another poem, "Woman of Another World, I am with You."

This tendency to say too much mars several of the poems in this section. Those that are more successful are "Traveling," "Christmas Vigil of Mothers At the Gates of the Pershing Missile Site, Mutlangen, Germany" (possibly influenced by William Stafford's "At the Bomb Testing Site"), and "In the Cemetery of Heroes." Of the three, "Traveling" is an interesting adaptation of Robert Frost's "Mending Wall," showing how nationalistic borders destroy: "It is borders/that suggest, give permission,/invite the yours and the mine/of the quarrels, separate, kill." Politically the speaker's stand is clearly anti-nationalistic. But in another poem, "War," the speaker, reflecting on the destruction caused in the recent Gulf War, says, "Tomorrow I will fly my flag." As she links this symbol of nationalism with fervent prayer, one certainly can't accuse the poet politically of a foolish consistency in her treatment of nationalism.

The third section of the volume is entitled Things Happen. In an initial cluster of poems, the poet explores her July 1988 car accident, a bizarre and highly painful event in which a crowbar explodes through the window of her car, shattering her face, almost killing her, and barely sparing her vision. "Things Happen," "When I Died," and "You Heal" explore the persona's trauma, despair, and ultimate healing. Also in this section is "Meditations on the Heavens," an intricate poem somewhat similar to the villanelle, but in quatrains, not tercets. The chain-like linking of one-line refrains throughout the poem aesthetically fulfills Gertrude Stein's dictum that meaningful repetition probes beneath surfaces to reveal the essence of the intended message. For its consummate artistry, this poem received an award from the Association for Mormon Letters. For those who have read and enjoyed the poetry of Emma Lou Thayne and for those coming to her for the first time, Things Happen is an engaging collection by one of Utah's popular poets.