Friday, January 13, 2006

Not to say which book of poems.

Treat yourself to a reading of Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. For a subtitle it has to have "A Novel," lest readers confuse it with Walt Whiman's prose work of the same name (minus the sub, of course).

The confusion is hardly accidental, as Walt himself makes an appearance in the first of the book's three sections. There is a woman who answers to that name in the second section, too, but we're to understand the dubbing to be figurative, giving more of a sense of her role to those who named her. And then in section three appears a guy who could almost be the good gray poet, but you're never sure.

The book's three sections all contain the same characters--sort of. There is always a woman named Catherine or some variant, and there is always a Simon and a Lucas or Luke, although the relationships among the characters, not to mention their charcter, change dramatically. The three sections are all set (or at least begin) in New York City, though the first takes place in the late nineteenth century, the second roughly in the present day, and the third sometime in the future (150 years in the future, if you believe the dust jacket). And they embody wildly different genres--sci-fi, noir, ghost stories.

But those differences are mostly there to set off the similarities. The three are ruminations on the city itself, a city that of course also featured prominently in the works of Whitman, quotations from whose poems play starring roles in all three sections. They are examinations of the relationship between people and machinery, although that relationship changes as much as the characters sharing names, and the city they all inhabit. They all explore what it means to want to run away from the strange world where you find yourself, and what it would take to do that. They all question the intense lyricism of Whitman's poetry, as if trying to understand what it would mean to see the world that way. Any of the three stories could, of course, stand on its own, but they are richer together, so a reader can wonder about the blue and white bowl that makes its way through all three, or the woman Gaya who seems to maintain a junk shop bridging hundreds of years and thousands of miles.

It is easy to read this as the Walt Whitman novel written by the guy who made it big with a Virginia Woolf novel, but to dismiss this book that quickly would be a mistake. It is so much better than that, requiring and rewarding attention and investment.

No comments: