On “Learning” by Andrew Choate, a review by Rebecca Ramirez
Andrew Choate’s Learning is unconventional by default. Indeed, by the third page, the author has invoked Henri Michaux, “The Tin Drum” (Günter Grass), and “The Last Novel” (David Markson) – each a vanguard in their own right of definitively genre-blurring, “anti-literary” works. For the entirety of “Learning,” Choate continues this referential gesture, both buoying and defending his own work, which he generates by attaching a wide variety of topics to the book’s only refrain: “Something I learned from…,” for example:
“Something I learned from Living with Moths
Don’t clap a moth over your head between your palms
It could fall into your upturned shirt sleeve
and ride down your arm
possibly across your chest
and then tickling will never feel the same” (39)
The refrain, as a structural element, is as generative as it is referential. The result is an engaging onset of “lessons” which meld exacting analyses and emotional reaction. Each refrain at once builds, redirects, and softens the readers pace as one travels through Choate’s own inner nature. Examples range from darker, Michaux-esque musings “Things I learned from The Tin Drum – Light attracts all/ but only some will linger in semidarkness” to tongue-in-cheek literary commentary, “Things I learned from Oblomov – Lovers are terribly long winded” (108). From its distaste for intellectual brouhaha to its “tiddly-winkishness” (29), the result is writing that is intellect-stirring at its least and heart-jostling at its best. Though it sometimes arrives in a form which blurs the borders between anecdote, aphorism, syllogism, and poetry, the divisive forward slash (which appears constantly) suggests that these variations on form, in chorus, function as a body of Choate’s own poetics.
Yet the writer, at the books epigraph, also invokes his wariness of language: “we should not hunt out archaic or far-fetched words and eccentric metaphors and figures of speech…we should seek precepts which will help us, utterances of courage and spirit which may at once be turned into facts. We should so learn them that words become deeds.” (Seneca, ca. AD 65) For how transcendent, really, are the allusive, sometimes ostentatious, and oft- profound—musings of a poet? The author’s interjection of a second, autobiographical narrative gives this interrogation form. In a comparably simple prose that reads as part-memoir, part-tragedy, Choate ensconces a narrative of events both leading up to and following his father’s death. The book, by its center, reaches a climactic level of interchange between this narrative and the writer’s own poetics.
A context for the evaluation of language—and learning—thus emerges. Take, for example, the lines which the author has copied verbatim from David Markson’s The Last Novel: “James Joyce said he was quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man”. At once, the quote defends the collage-like style that Choate has so clearly put to task and questions the ontological usefulness of Markson’s collection of oft-absurd, biographical anecdotes. By default, this reckons with the usefulness of Choate’s own industrious observations. As the reader travels with Choate’s narrator through his experience of personal tragedy, we are armed with his writing—yet does it soothe us, as readers? Does it soothe the writer? How does language function within Choate’s own experience of grief?
One of the biggest risks that the author takes is the potential disconnect between these two limbs of the book. For Choate, as poet, never directly addresses the narrative of his father’s demise. Similarly, it is rarely writing or literature that Choate, as narrator, turns to for courage. Rather, he chooses rock’n’roll and improvised jazz, nostalgic recollections of his father’s own sense of humor and cultural taste, recipes for perfect biscuits. Though the crossing point between the two narratives is not as simple as a forward slash (and at times remains mysterious), the result, to this reader, is successful. The writing is at once accessible and exacting, interior and grand. By its end, “Learning” reads as a slender treatise on reading, writing, and how each can aid us as we reckon with our own mortality – and that of the ones we love.
– Rebecca Ramirez