Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn. A pressed post.

A post linked at bottom from the blog http://memoriousmag.wordpress.com, companion to Memorious: A Journal of New Verse and Fiction, has moved and intrigued me. It also intersects with my own blog’s areas of poetry, nature, travel, art, and reviews.

Sara A. Lewis reviews Matthew Thorburn’s book-length poem Dear Almost and presents Leslie Harrison’s interview with the poet. An epistle in four parts parallel to the four seasons, the book is about the loss of Thorburn’s unborn daughter to miscarriage.

Some of the review and discussion’s elements that caught my especial attention and urged me today to pursue the book:

  • a cultural tradition unfamiliar to me – classical Chinese poetry and Chinese language (Mandarin) through wife Lillian’s family and their 3-year-old son learning Chinese
  • the notion of the “season suite” – A book-length poetic form brewing for Thorburn (though not consciously as a form) found its subject, and the book was born.
  • the raw, peculiar experience of loss and grief for a forming but unborn child her father will never meet – This recalls for me actor Caitriona Balfe’s deeply affecting performance as Claire Fraser in episode 207, “Faith,” of the Outlander STARZ TV series (series 2 based on Gabaldon’s 2nd book Dragonfly in Amber), when Claire learns her first child, a daughter, was stillborn.
  • Thorburn’s relationship with Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, a favorite poet of mine – a coupling of attentiveness with deep, restrained emotion
  • using haiku as bookends to a longer poetic passage
  • the interviewer’s incisive sophistication and the poet’s elegant thoughts

The interview is a bit of subtle theater emulating the kind they finish it discussing–how epistolary works hold readers at bay as the audience overhears a conversation between others.

Matthew Thorburn’s fourth full-length collection, Dear Almost, has recently been released by Louisiana State University Press. A book-length poem broken into sections that correspond to the four se…

Source: Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Matthew Thorburn |

This Hunted Story

Am I late, am I late, for a very important date?

If not, as long as I tell myself I run that risk, motivation survives, at least for something I already feel compelled in a deeper way to do—writing. So before it IS too late, it’s time to journal about my Jabberwock novel, a story of Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There from the Jabberwock perspective. Time to muse upon the fickle nature of the Muse. Time to log, on the Web, my thoughts about this story-making process, the state of this art. Time to blog about novel writing.

My hope in doing so is that it will help me get a handle, by November 1st at midnight, on my story outline so I can hit the ground running as NaNoWriMo 2016 kicks off. The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to “write with reckless abandon,” and as a planner (as opposed to a pantser), I’ll feel readier to do that if I have a sound story structure to populate with all that compelling characterization, magical description, and sparkling dialogue. * sigh *

Prompted by S of JS Mawdsley to write fanfic “so [S] wouldn’t be the only one” doing that for Camp NaNoWriMo this past July, I showed up at a write-in early in the month and started listing the fiction I’m a fan of. Not long into the exercise, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass popped up and led to my premise.

In a reversal, or extension (depending on your viewpoint), of the situation in Looking-Glass Land, I set up the Jabberwock as the story’s hero and the Red and White Nobles as the antagonists in their world of giant chessboard squares. Alice retains a position resembling her protagonist role in the original stories, entering the grand game of chess in book two in order to become queen by reaching the Eighth Square.

Simple, right?

So . . . I’ve been working on this intermittently since July and figured there’s plenty to write in November, too. Although I don’t exhibit the discipline JS Mawdsley do/es, which leads to such awe-inspiring story-writing productivity, it’s been a victory for me to remain interested in my story even after each, sometimes long, hiatus.

I’m intrigued enough by the concept, along with the outlining, mind mapping and analyzing I’ve done of it so far, and the handful of scenes I’ve written in full, that I feel confident I won’t lose interest any time soon, let alone halfway through NaNoWriMo.

The magic has come from seeing themes, symbols, and character relationships periodically connect in unexpected ways, from discovering that the ideas that bubble up work with the overall concept instead of against it. It gives me hope that the unity of the story can be preserved, assuming I can build it into a cohesive whole in the first place. This is the year, baby!

Still, it is by no means simple. The plot has been quite the code to crack. For me, that’s typical, but this one poses the extra challenges to work within the original story structure, use pre-existing characters, and figure out how the heck to weave in the new story.

If I have bitten off more than I can chew, by gum, at least I’m still chewing on it and my jaw hasn’t yet broken or frozen.

I confess to adding the pressure of creating something brilliant and eminently publishable out of a timeless classic that’s been thoroughly studied, adapted, spoofed, and spun off in every direction for over a hundred years. Otherwise, why spend all this time on it? But I’m fighting that tendency, too. I’m making a point of not reading the spin-off books and of not watching any more versions of the movie than I have already seen. I’m trying to let love lead. Love of Lewis Carroll’s work.

In addition, S made the point that because Looking-Glass is the less well-known of the pair of Alice stories, it will be wise to borrow characters from Adventures for this re-telling, to add reader interest. I’ll try not to make that issue a major priority; it, too, presumes publication.

The saving grace may be that, if a tangible end result ever does come, and whether or not it’s any good, at least it will have been one hell of a writing experiment that prepared me for success on simpler projects. Oh, if only I knew how to go simple. To do the work, day after day, without imploding under the weight of expectation.

Although I may not blog liberally about the intricacies of the Jabberwock story puzzle, I’ll try to use both blogging and private journaling to keep up my momentum through the exciting upcoming month of story stress, construction, and socializing.

A couple of days ago, I chose a title that took entirely too much time to think of: Hunted Song of Looking-Glass Land. Song is my main character, the teenage Jabberwock heroine who, in partnership with the younger human Alice, fights the good fight against the establishment. This much I know.

Hunted Song is my first fantasy story, first fan fiction (sort of, if we don’t count the one about Shakespeare’s mistress), and possibly first happy ending compared to my two most recent stories, which I actually finished drafting. There’s so much to look forward to, and the fact that I started this story well before November reassures me of my stamina to see it through to whatever moment declares itself the end.

Perhaps it’s fitting that this is my topic in the year of the 150th anniversary of the first book’s publication. These splashes of newness and flashes of specialness are keeping my eye on the prize, to follow through to create a good story that I can call mine.

What’s your story?

Join me and half a million other people worldwide this year in the storytelling adventure called NaNoWriMo. No experience necessary. No Plot? No Problem. No judgment. Just start writing. Ready. Set. Novel!. Also, check out the NaNoWriMo Blog.


For more about how my current story’s journey started, check out this summer’s post Packing for Camp.

jabberwocky

Featured image: Illustration of the Jabberwocky by John Tenniel, original artist for both Alice books.

 

Five-Phrase Friday (32): Remember This

A daily e-newsletter I’m receiving inspired my second post of phrases for National Poetry Month. Of breaking lines and cracking art projects, I sing with the chorus (the featured poet’s piece), and of the need to be gentle with oneself and one’s art, lest either one break and crumble.

The Cuyahoga County Public Library’s program “Read + Write: 30 Days of Poetry” each day presents a short poem and a poetry writing prompt at readwritepoetry.org. Today’s (April 8) featured poem is Maggie Anderson’s “The Thing You Must Remember.”

The portion that especially caught my notice emphasizes the delicate work of art making and, in a sense, the perils of a perfectionist approach to art, as that drive is grounded in fear of not being enough. (The arts and perfectionism are recurring themes of my blog.)

The passage also happens to speak directly to a major theme of the novel I’m writing for Camp NaNoWriMo this month about a young teacher’s obsessive efforts to combat bullying among her students. What a fine synchronicity of events and ideas!

With this sample of verse, I altered the format to make my usual handy grouping of five lines. My unsanctioned re-formatting raises the question of the mechanics of how to read a poem and how you can arrange the lines while writing one. I address these questions with some analysis below the excerpt.

Note: Ellipses for omitted text, brackets adding text for clarity, and slash lines signalling the end of a line as originally formatted–these are all my marks.

So here are lines 8-13 of the single-stanza, 16-line poem “The Thing You Must Remember” by Maggie Anderson, from Cold Comfort. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

. . . When the [clay] dog’s back / stiffened, then cracked
to white shards / in the kiln, you learned
how the beautiful / suffers from too much attention,
how clumsy / a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

The same excerpt with the poet’s original breaks of selected lines 8-13:

. . . When the dog’s back
stiffened, then cracked to white shards
in the kiln, you learned how the beautiful
suffers from too much attention, how clumsy
a single vision can grow, and fragile
with trying too hard. . . .

A poem of this general form–containing relatively equal-length lines whose endings do not rhyme (free verse) and bearing punctuation at the middles and ends of lines–is meant to be read fluidly across the line breaks. It uses punctuated pauses (commas) and stops (periods) as if it were prose, as do most poems, even if those pauses and stops happen to correspond with line endings.

This “continuation of the sense of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse” is called enjambment. The online Encyclopaedia Britannica has a helpful entry on this concept with an example to illustrate it clearly.

When we read the above poem aloud, then, we pause not after “back” (l. 8) but after “stiffened” (l. 9), and not after “shards” (l. 9) but after “kiln” (l. 10), and so forth.

Hearing the reading under such conditions, one might think this is not a poem at all, but other characteristics, such as length, word choice, point of view, and often style of voice while reading, all help signal to listeners that they are indeed hearing a poem.

Poetry is meant to be read aloud, but when line breaks don’t match pauses and stops, that doesn’t mean the break choices have no use or purpose. The visual effect can also be part of the package.

Aligning these phrases as Anderson does brings words with similar sounds (with techniques like internal rhyme, assonance, consonance) and similar appearances closer together. For instance, notice the internal rhyme of “back” with “cracked” and the consonant combination “nd” sound at the end of “stiffened” and “learned” (consonance).

Both visually and aurally, the pattern of short “i” rhyming words (assonance) lining up with each other is clearer than it would be if the commas and line endings corresponded; the cascade of the words “stiffened, in, kiln, single, vision, with, trying” all comes down the left side of the stanza in a delicate, suggestive bombardment.

The effect of certain sounds on a reader can vary, but for me, lots of short “i” words all stacked up like that suggests a sense of claustrophobia, being hemmed in and flattened like the very letter “i,” an application of pressure mirroring what happens to the clay figurine that “suffers from too much attention.” Think “squish” or “pinch.”

With this interpretation at least, form and meaning reinforce each other, and you notice these aspects more with free verse because there is no end rhyme to distract you from them. Similarly, any alliteration, repeated consonant sounds at the beginnings of words, is barely noticeable in the poem. Consonance describes matching consonant sounds at the ends of words.

Attention away from the ends, we are free to focus on the middle.

So now, you may start to see how poetic form and presentation can work together to encourage readers to take time, take it all in, and notice the clever or beautiful little convergences and connections–of word with word and word with meaning and meaning with meaning.

Once this happens, the overall message of the poem can more readily penetrate and resonate.

Check your favorite poems for enjambment, seeing how the arrangement of parts adds to the whole, and how these intentional choices of the poet communicate meaning and art.

And remember this: Treat your artwork and yourself gently, with a sense of trust and calm, so that both of you may remain whole and beautiful.

All the little clay puppies thank you for your kindness and mercy.

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Image credit: clay figurine from etsy.com via duckduckgo.com search.

 

Five-Phrase Friday (27): Oscars Race

The Oscars cometh on February 28, as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy resurges, and everyone wonders just how show host Chris Rock will address it all.

With little viewing experience of this year’s Oscar contenders, I’ve set a preliminary list of Academy Award-nominated films and artists I’d most like to see. I’ve seen and enjoyed The Martian and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (twice on the big screen), but there are many more performances worth seeing, stories worth experiencing. The 88th Annual Academy Awards is just another touchstone of an opportunity to learn about them.

It actually took me until this post to bother to look up the synopses for the films I’m less familiar with, which is ironic since I’m hosting our second annual Oscars party on Sunday. Oh well. I just care more about Outlander than movies right now, I guess.

My roughly prioritized selections are based on genre interests, preferred actors and other movie makers, Oscar buzz, feminist leanings, and sheer curiosity.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road – for the  impeccable and unique film editing of Margaret Sixel, wife of director George Miller, plus Charlize Theron and her women warriors’ badassness. I’d like to get to know Tom Hardy’s work better, too.
  2. The Revenant – Wilderness and Leo and, again, Tom Hardy, and bears and buzz.
  3. Room or Carol or Joy, depending on mood – Curious about Brie Larson’s performance in Room, long-time fan of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, co-stars of Carol; and love Jennifer Lawrence, too. Saw The Hunger Games, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook already, and Joy will be particularly uplifting, I think. Yeah, I guess Joy will be the first of these three that I see.
  4. The Hateful Eight – Tarantino, people. Tarantino. Plus, cast and music.
  5. Spotlight – curiosity about the history/story, plus a great cast.

And as for the snubbed, if I get around to it:

  1. Woman in Gold Helen Mirren seen by some to have been snubbed for lead actress in this and supporting in Trumbo. Co-starring Ryan Reynolds, a WWII Jewish cultural heritage story. Always liked both actors.
  2. Steve Jobs because I like Aaron Sorkin‘s writing; I love Fassbender and Winslet.
  3. Straight Outta Compton – As a white girl and 80s New Wave fan, I’ll get to learn some new things, gain greater music and cultural appreciation from my youth.
  4. Inside Out – It’s supposed to be interesting.
  5. Bridge of Spies – WWII and Hanks usually work. Spielberg‘s the apparent snub here.

I have no desire to see The Big Short, Brooklyn, Creed, or Concussion despite all the hype, mainly due to subject matter, though I’ve heard Brooklyn is also underwhelming.

The Danish Girl sounds interesting, but I have yet to see The Theory of Everything on my DVR, so I haven’t become enamored of Eddie Redmayne yet. I’ve also seen what are probably more compelling transgender works in both film and TV. If anything, I’ll revisit Transamerica, for which Felicity Huffman earned a Golden Globe nod (2005) for playing a male-to-female, pre-operative transgender in a more complex and interesting story. A woman as a man on his way to becoming a woman–how very Shakespearean!

About the awards controversy, it’s more complicated than simple prejudice, injustice, banning, and protest. I doubt most mistakes, if they can rightly be called mistakes, have occurred out of malice. A few other thoughts:

  1. It’s nothing new–as in, not just last year, but decades’ worth of overlooked, deserving artists of color. Therefore, pick your battles.
  2. Whites have been snubbed for meritorious work as well.
  3. What about Hispanics, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and women?
  4. The problems stem from limitations, both cultural and political, on the front end of movie making more so than at the awards-giving phase. Where are all the female directors? Which movies get made, and which actors get cast, in the first place? Etc.
  5. Besides, as with censorship, some degree of controversy is useful to raise awareness of art that’s worthy of experience and celebration.

So there you have it. If apparent prejudice gets your dander up, by all means join the conversation. It’s still a free country, even for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, who by the way, are already making changes to their policies to address concerns about improper bias.

But these are the arts, people; bias is the name of the game. It’s a matter of taste and critical mass. Not everyone can secure a nomination, just as only one can win the award. If everyone’s special, nobody is.

In the end, though, awards and critical acclaim are just a highlight, a blip on the screen of the long cultural arc of arts and entertainment stories. As Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ box office records show, ticket sales can tell a different and equally valid story.

Watch on.

Ocsar Statues Are Made Ahead Of This Year's Academy Awards

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images, 2008

Five-Phrase Friday (26): The Poet’s Paradox

Szymborska_Wislawa_PoemsNewandCollected_coverI just bought this book by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012), winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, called Poems, New and Collected (1998).

I’ve been wanting to get a collection of hers for years after sampling some of her work in the poetry section of a Borders book store.

I’m so glad I finally did.

Below are 10 poem titles that encourage my reading because they’re surprising, strange, mysterious, ironic, moving, or they touch on an idea I like.

(A bonus 5 phrases since we skipped last week to pay tribute to my dog.)

  1. Greeting the Supersonics
  2. Notes from a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition
  3. Returning Birds
  4. A Palaeolithic Fertility Fetish
  5. Evaluation of an Unwritten Poem
  6. A Medieval Miniature
  7. The Onion
  8. No Title Required
  9. Elegiac Calculation
  10. Maybe All This

The book holds over 180 poems from 8 different collections published 1957-1997.

Approved Titles

Some of the collection’s poems I’ve read and enjoyed so far include:

  1. Coloratura (celebrates a bird’s song in the spirit of Keats‘ “Ode to a Nightingale”)
  2. Clochard (of spirits and statues)
  3. The Railroad Station (existential romance)
  4. Poetry Reading (funny, ironic)
  5. Over Wine (lyrical, intimate)

The Nobel Prize website also shares a selection of five Szymborska poems in English, Polish, and Swedish:

  1. Utopia
  2. On Death, Without Exaggeration
  3. The Three Oddest Words
  4. Possibilities
  5. The Joy of Writing

A readily noticeable theme of her work is the exploration of paradox, specifically the nature of being and nothingness (à la Sartre), absence and illusion, and their emotional impact in the context of relationships and chance. She embraces the mystery, the beauty, and the pain together with the unaffected voice and questing soul I look for in a great poet.

Using a variety of tones and modes from simple and conversational to Romantic and elegiac to experimental and abstract, Szymborska has fashioned a little poet-philosopher’s Eden.

Five-Phrase Friday (20): Eliot’s Ironies

Happy New Year! Welcome to another round of posts celebrating that peculiar space in the English language between word and sentence–the phrase.

In this edition, I’ve sampled full clauses from sentences in a book I’m currently reading. These sometimes facetious truisms (per the narrator’s point of view) in George Eliot’s classic novel Middlemarch arrive in a variety of contexts: ironic description, suspect character mindsets and motivations, and subtly clever admonitions that also seem to treat characters with the utmost generosity of spirit.

I’ve affectionately marked the following excerpts with my pen while reading the book, which I bought after reading just a few pages of my library copy.

  1. “the most glutinously indefinite minds enclose some hard grains of habit” – narrator, Book I, Chapter I.
  2. “wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions” – narrator, Book I, Chapter III.
  3. “when a woman is not contradicted, she has no motive for obstinacy in her absurdities” – Mrs. Cadwallader about Dorothea’s refusal to marry Mrs. C’s match for her, Sir James Chettam, Book I, Chapter VI.
  4. “the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome dubious eggs called possibilities” – narrator, Book I, Chapter X.
  5. “correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.” – Fred, Book I, Chapter XI.

So why choose these examples? It took a little thought, but these are my best justifications.

(1) I was amused by the synchronicity in the way the first one’s metaphor indirectly speaks to the gluten-free craze of late. Gluten certainly has not come up as a subject in any other classic novel I’ve read so far.BookCover_Middlemarch_Norton

(2) The dilemma presented by the truth of the second example is intriguing–is it more important to strive to think right or end up right? “Road to hell” and so forth.

(3) Given its source and her motivations, the sexism and staunch beliefs of number three’s character made me grin.

(4) I admire the elegance in the thinly veiled cynicism of the fourth one.

(5) The frankness of number five and the irony of sharing it as part of celebrating the English language feel like the perfect way to start the year. Plus, it’s good to eat a little humble pie every once in a while (barring any gluten allergy or sensitivity, of course).

The rhythm, word choice, flow, sophisticated ideas, and spirit in Eliot’s writing overall have been a pleasure to experience. I hope to find the story just as enjoyable as I make my way through it. This is my first time reading the book, or any Eliot, and I have more than half of it still to read before the book club meeting in February.

Wish me luck–and stay tuned!