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The Pleasure Principle

PURE POETRY A Novel By Binnie Kirshenbaum; Simon & Schuster: 204 pp., $22

May 28, 2000|RICHARD HOWARD | Richard Howard is a translator and poet who teaches literature in the School of the Arts at Columbia University

This entertaining novel is the fourth and probably the last in a cycle of Untimely Meditations on the feminine condition--erotic, sentimental, social; it bears the same relation to Binnie Kirshenbaum's three previous brief fictions that "Gotterdammerung" does to the first three music dramas in Wagner's "Ring": the ultimate installment brings matters (and manners too--for this author is indeed a humorist, even a comedian, a sort of stand-up tragic) to an end, to a fall, to a defeat, though as in Wagner, the sense of a vanquished hero(ine) is a conscious glory: "For too long I have lived with ghosts," Lila Moscowitz sums up, in the combined timbres of Siegfried and Brunnhilde, "and contrary to popular opinion, ghosts, like thoughts and dreams and words, do indeed have form."

Form is certainly the salt in which these rosy herrings are packed: Each of the 36 chapters--one for each year of Moscowitz's heroic youth--is governed, as the novel's clever title ("a prescriptive rather than a descriptive term, in that it designates not an actual body of verse but a theoretical ideal to which poetry may aspire") might have led us to expect, by a pertinent definition from an encyclopedia of poetry and poetics. For example, "Chapter 35 epicedium: a song of mourning in praise of the dead, sung in the presence of the corpse and distinguished from threnos, a dirge, which was not limited by time or place." Logically enough, the damages follow the definition--a flight to that purely poetical site Los Angeles and to Lila's German ex-husband, whom she fondly fantasizes she can recover, only to discover that, like Siegfried, he is married (10 months already) to someone else--someone with actual undyed blond hair and not even Jewish. Brunnhilde vaults lightly into the saddle, Lila takes a cab, her true Valhalla being Disneyland. . . .

The immolation scene of the final chapter is not to be summarized, but I can attest that the author has perfectly accorded her heroine to her special heartbreak as well as to her super haberdashery. Norman Mailer (on the jacket) is right on about Kirshenbaum's lyric transactions with sex, "the appetite for it and the loss of such appetite," and it is Bernard Shaw, that supreme critic of Wagnerian excesses, who comes to my aid here when he reminds us that we invariably have the sentiment of learning something when we have lost something.

I mustn't oppress Kirshenbaum with too many great names, yet I invoke these (Wagner, Mailer, Shaw) because I fear that the neat candor and structural cunning of "Pure Poetry" may distract a reader who is being (supremely) entertained by Lila Moscowitz and her agons with race, class and sexual autonomy from the tragic instances of her fate. As Oscar Wilde (one last association) so wisely said: "I prefer pleasure to happiness, it has more tragic possibilities." And after all, Lila Moscowitz is a tragic poet. Giddy and greedy, but tragic.

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