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Check It Out

Courier Article by David Locker
Sunday, June 6, 2004

Show Appreciation for Poetry by Way of these Reads

This column had its beginnings with my viewing of the library's copy of the DVD feature film Eugene Onegin (1999), starring Ralph Fiennes and Liv Tyler.

Fiennes' performance as a jaded Russian aristocrat who finds love the hard way is very fine indeed. Tyler is beautiful as his beloved, and is quite effective until she has to speak, which, unfortunately, is less than halfway through the movie. Still, I was enchanted with the affectionate rendition of the Russian poet Aleksandr Push-kin's long poem, and checked to see what new items the library had recently acquired on the Russian genius.

Pushkin: A Biography by T.J. Binyon (Knopf, 2003).

Russians consider Pushkin their greatest poet, and it is amazing how many details of his life have been unearthed. Binyon has put them all into this magisterial work.

I had not realized that Pushkin's grandfather was African. He was a favorite of Alexander the Great, who granted him lands and a title.

Pushkin lived during the Romantic Age of Lord Byron and Napoleon Bonaparte. Byron was a strong influence, not always for the better.

Among his many faults, Pushkin was a compulsive gambler who often lost entire cantos of "Eugene Onegin" at the gaming table. He would then have to write something fast in order to buy his good stuff back.

Pushkin was a coarse and earthy man who spent his time primarily chasing women. Like his hero, Byron, he would arrive home late at night and stay up until morning scribbling verses.

This was a time when the world was mad for poets. They were the rock stars of their day. Unfortunately, like their modern descendents, they too often expired prematurely. Pushkin himself died an Othello-like death in a duel at age 38 after he unjustly accused his brother-in-law of having an affair with his wife.

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades: A Novel by Alice Randall (Blackstone Audio, 2004).

I was looking through the library's latest issue of "The Paris Review" and came across a list of bookstores that were advertised as places to purchase the late George Plimpton's now-venerable literary quarterly. Among the stores listed was Left Bank Books in St. Louis.

It so happened that I had been listening to an audiobook version of Randall's new novel because of its Pushkin connection. I saw that she would be appearing at Left Bank Books, so my son Brian and I drove there to hear her.

Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone, the controversial parody of Gone with the Wind, is a Harvard graduate and the only African-American to write a No. 1 hit country song. She lives in Nashville, Tenn.

The Pushkin of her novel is the pro-football playing son of a Vanderbilt University professor of Russian literature.

Pushkin is the professor's hero, and her son's namesake. She considers him the smartest African man to ever walk the planet and the inventor of the modern Russian language .

Unfortunately, her son Pushkin, "The Phenom," wants to marry a Russian lap dancer named Tanya.

Randall has written a modernist novel that has layers of meaning, like a poem by T.S. Eliot. There are echoes of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Harvard career of her Midwestern narrator, as well as in the gangster background of her Detroit family.

The narrator of the audiobook does a good job, though she sounds perhaps a little too much like Detroit and not enough like Harvard.

Vanished Act: The Life and Art of Weldon Kees by James Reidel (University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

Finally, I wish to recommend this biography of a modern poet whose work deserves to be read today, almost 50 years after his mysterious disappearance.

Kees was a librarian from Nebraska who went to New York, hung out with the abstract expressionists and wrote poems good enough to be included by Harold Bloom in "The Western Canon."One day in 1955, Kees disappeared; his car was later found abandoned near the Golden Gate Bridge.

His life underscores how much less our era values poets than did the age of Byron and Pushkin.

David Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.