WHAT THE FURIES BRING
By Kenneth Sherman
The Porcupine’s Quill
170 pages; $19.95
Review by Frank Moher
What does it mean to be an intellectual? Does it simply mean to think a lot, and vigorously, about something other than yourself? If so, some cab drivers I’ve had are among the most impressive intellectuals in my experience. Does it mean to be well-read? Can that possibly be enough? If you’re an idiot, but a well-read idiot, does that make you an intellectual?
In Canada, what we call “intellectuals” are generally academics with some sort of public platform — a newspaper, say. This leads to a certain bookishness in our life of the mind. So it is with Kenneth Sherman’s What the Furies Bring, a collection of literary essays written in the wake of 9/11. Sherman, a poet and an instructor at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, whose criticism has appeared in various publications, quotes the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam in his opening essay: “An intellectual needs no memory — it is enough for him to tell of the books he has read, and his biography is done.” Sherman adds: “This is essentially true.”
But if all a writer has to offer is the received wisdom of books, however handily he makes connections between them, he is not engaging his subject; he is refracting it through the lenses of others. That’s too often what happens in this dignified but stolid collection.
Sherman is best when he sticks to his own artistic ground. In “Poetry and Terrorism,” he examines the American poet Wallace Stevens and others whose work makes a determined attempt to engage public events. He sides with them, decorously, against the art-for-art’s-sake crowd, as represented by French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, while noting that Stevens managed to straddle the two. “By claiming that the very sound of words is useful and restorative, Stevens gave us an ingenious defence of poetry, affirming poetry’s public worth, while remaining in the Mallarmé camp.” It’s not surprising that Sherman admires this; his book is a tentative reaching out to the idea of the intellectual as engaged citizen, even while it remains, on the whole, hermetically focused on literature.
In “Lowell, Hughes and Bishop”, about the poets Robert, Ted, and Elizabeth respectively, he parses their work for evidence of artfulness under duress. He finds it readily in the work of Lowell and Hughes, but labours to locate it in Bishop’s. When he does, it is in poems that Bishop considered incomplete, but which Sherman convincingly regards as, in their imperfection, addressing “our growing unease.”
His reading of 9/11 itself, however, is thoroughly conventional. In “Amis’s Atta,” he deals with the British writer’s collection of short stories and essays The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom. Amis portrays Muhammad Atta, who, we are told, flew American Airlines Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre, as a death-bent fanatic, and Sherman is happy to echo him. “After all,” Sherman writes, “those sons of militant Islam who crashed the twin towers were operating from a skewed sense of manhood, and their morality was topsy-turvy: Death is good; Life (World/Manhattan) is evil.”
The problem with received wisdom, though, is that it is sometimes wrong, or premature, or incomplete. Psychoanalyzing the hijackers without also assaying those who had sufficient foreknowledge of the attacks to profit from them on the stock market is to miss half the meaning of the event. But they don’t appear in Sherman’s reading, and so they don’t appear in his essays. He writes that John Updike’s novel Terrorist “addresses the essential questions that thinking Americans posed after 9/11. Is there truth in the fundamentalist’s assertion that materialist America has poisoned itself with trivia? Has America justly incurred the wrath of the globe’s unfortunate by becoming an exploitive, soulless nation?” But this is a sentimental explanation for 9/11, handed down by the Bush administration at the time — “They hate our freedoms” — and it doesn’t sit on Sherman’s book any better than it did on Updike’s.
In his final essay, “The Angel of Disease,” Sherman springs himself free of his source material and, for the first time, is able to assemble it into something new. Here his subject is illness and writing. “When we write under duress,” he proposes, “our passive suffering becomes active making; the act of composing makes us feel less helpless while facing an implacable reality.” Ironically, the subject of decay prompts Sherman’s freshest insights. This one entry, sharp and, as always, elegantly composed, makes you wonder what he might write if he put away his reading and, like the firefighters in that iconic video footage of the first plane hitting WTC 1, looked up and simply asked himself, “What is happening?”