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Francis-Noël Thomas


Book Review: Lives in Words

May 18, 2006 | Criticism

Sundays on the Phone, by Mark Rudman. Wesleyan, November 2005. $22.95

Since 1994 when he published Rider, Mark Rudman has been writing poems that have become something like one long poem, a meditation on an American life, his own. These poems do not constitute a memoir much less an autobiography; they are not a connected narrative, they do not seek to recapture the past. They are meditations on what can be neither resolved nor forgotten; reading them is like watching Jacob wrestle with the angel.

In the recently published Sundays on the Phone, the angel with whom the poet wrestles is the love of a son for his mother. The mother is seen at distinct moments of an unhappy life—as an attractive woman waiting out a divorce in Las Vegas, as a frustrated elderly woman living alone where she doesn't want to be, bitter about her lack of a college education, bewildered by her unhappy marriages, puzzled by her son. "She had no one with whom to share her experience. No friends who loved the things she loved . . ."


The Smart Set

March 9, 2006 | Essays

Before I read Daniel Karlin's excellent new book Proust's English, I had never given a thought to the word "smart" as part of the French lexicon. Either its vogue in French is long passed, as Karlin suggests, or I do not travel in sufficiently "smart" company when I am in France, but I have never heard the word used in French, where it means roughly "fashionable" or, as we might say in English, "chic." It can have this sense in English too although it is not the most common English meaning. I remember accompanying my mother on shopping expeditions when I was a little boy. She had a favorite saleswoman at a clothing store who would say as she surveyed my mother's appearance in a dress she had just tried on, "Angela, you look so smart in that." This usage endured in English far longer than it seems to have done in French. Jane Austen, in a letter of 1805 (when she was nineteen), says, in speaking of a certain Miss Seymour, "neither her dress nor her air have anything of the Dash or Stilishness which the Browns talked of; quite the contrary indeed, her dress is not even smart . . . " The word must still be used this way although I haven't encountered it in some time. Among younger speakers, it may have been replaced, at least for a while, by "cool."