about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Three Journals
A Review of Three Journals
by Greg Masters

Spencer Dew



The journal is a strange artifact: neither a narrative nor a working notebook, it offers a kind of daily travelogue, a record of those moments that are deemed to deserve mention, many of them banal. Here we encounter such fleeting thoughts as “I wish I could find the nail clipper. My toe nails are getting out of hand.” and “Yesterday I saw Cilgerran Castle which dates from the 1100s, a guy named Percey gave me a pamphlet on it.” Masters, a former editor of Mag City and one of the folks behind Public Access Poetry, isn’t doing criticism here, either. Of a “major exhibition” of Miro he sees, for instance, we’re given only, “Miro, he’s a funny man. I laughed a lot.” History happens over the course of these three texts (one of a trip to Europe, with a swing through Morocco, from 1974-1975; one of daily life in the East Village, 1977-1979; and a short travel journal of a visit to Mexico, 1985), but it isn’t much of a concern to Masters. He happens to be in Copenhagen when the 16th Karmapa performs the Black Crown ceremony for Denmark’s native branch of Tibetan Buddhism, the Diamond Way organization started by Ole and Hannah Nydahl, but the stuff leaves Masters bored. He expresses admiration, at points, for Andy Warhol’s writings, and there is some echo here of that smooth surface, an intentionally cool blindness to events going on around him that too often slips into boredom for the reader, who would appreciate both more form and more content.

Memoir of any sort is a strange artifact, but these are the best of times and the worst of times for such a genre. On the one hand, we have Knausgaard; on the other hand, Masters is not Knausgaard. And while these journals are supposed to be something other than that kind of work, it is hard not to read them as incomplete, and there isn’t enough of interest here to make the immediacy of that incompleteness come through as seductive. When Masters folds some private letters into his text, it doesn’t amplify the sense of intimacy; it just makes the text feel more ineffectually ordered. Much of what is here is neither new nor striking, and the Mexican segment in particular offers a rehash of old American clichés—“Eating out is cheap here” and “Violence seems alien,” despite the guys with machine guns—that it is at first hard to see why it was published.

But there’s a sense here that Masters wants a degree of embarrassment on the page. When he pukes in a rented bed, we hear about it, and when he regales a girl at a restaurant about his travels, he belabors her own indifference to his stories, her own boredom. One character here who serves as something like a hero is a lay lady at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park who hands out “certificates” to anyone who can pass her oral examinations on literature or history. Masters notes, “I still have the two she gave me. She’d also give out candy and cookies. At one point she fell over and continued her questioning from the ground.”

Maybe this is what Masters is trying to do: memoir while fallen over. The best moments fit this mode: jolting observations about self, as when Masters notes that “Museums are good but I usually expend most of my energy looking at the women or at least this preoccupation disrupts my concentration,” or tragi-comic routines like the lengthy scene involving broken glasses, Super Glue, and negotiation of a ticket purchase at the Museum of Modern Art while still heavily stoned from the morning’s marijuana Masters is disarming in what he calls a “humanly” tone, just really interested in seeing some Cézanne, despite the slapstick that is life. Maybe that is the point, beyond bromides about the function of art, a “humanly” voice, from down on the sidewalk, testifying to an imperfect life.

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