PURE POETRY | By BINNIE KIRSHENBAUM | Simon & Schuster | 208 pages | $22 hardcover
Pure Poetry reads like a journal — full of candid, sexually brazen (if self-indulgent) ramblings from narrator Lila Moscowitz, a brassy pop-poet with hair the shade of “black cherry” from the bottle and a two-page spread in People magazine. (Comparing her gynecologist to her psychologist, Lila muses, “I’m quite fond of both these men, although I prefer it when the gynecologist does the probing.”) Infamous for her “smutty” sonnets, Lila is on deadline for a new collection over which she has writer’s block; gearing up for her dreaded 38th birthday, she dissects her troubled marital past with her cross-dressing shrink, Leon.
Comparisons to Fear of Flying are inevitable, and indeed Kirshenbaum seems to fancy herself a sort of modern-day Erica Jong. But a neurotic, wise-cracking Jewish-American beauty with a seemingly insatiable sexual appetite lacks the shock value it had when Isadora Wing first appeared in 1973. Much has changed since the glory days of the “zipless fuck.” In an era when most women now wear button-down jeans anyway (the Gap-less fuck?), Kirshenbaum sounds more like a hybrid of Tama Janowitz and Helen Fielding, and Lila, though at times endearing, is often just plain whiny.
At best, Pure Poetry is cute and mildly entertaining. But Kirshenbaum’s characters lack insight and depth. Even Lila’s own journey seems hackneyed; she’s just another beautiful, sassy and successful 30-ish New Yorker drowning in discontent — the stuff of Sex and the City. And the steady stream of raunchy one-liners eventually wears thin.
There’s a certain irony in William S. Burroughs’ Last Words, a collection of journal entries written during the final nine months of the author’s life. This has less to do with what the book contains than with its very existence, since Burroughs once defined language as a virus and urged his readers to “rub out the word.” In some sense, Burroughs’ entire career can be read as an attempt to do precisely that, from his experimental use of cut-ups — verbal collages that sought to break down the ordered circuitry of narrative in favor of something more intuitive — to his eventual shift from writing to painting, a medium in which words don’t figure at all. With Last Words, though, Burroughs returns to language as a way of summing up his existence and, in so doing, ends up highlighting the contradictions of silence as a literary technique.
Journals, of course, are nothing new in Burroughs’ oeuvre. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he kept a series of notebooks that blended pictures with notes on art and experience, to present a kaleidoscopic vision of his mind. Yet Last Words proves a far more hermetic effort, in which the layers of Burroughs’ intellect collapse on themselves in a kind of mental claustrophobia, making him a prisoner of his own ideas. He repeatedly returns to subjects that have long possessed him, from his recurrent rants against the War on Drugs to the “No glot. Clom Fliday” refrain he first used 40 years ago in Naked Lunch. The effect is less enlightening than deadening, as if we’re looking not at the process of personal discovery, but the reverse: a life as it runs down. To his credit, though, Burroughs understands this. “Thinking is not enough . . .,” he notes in the diary’s closing entry, written just two days before his death. “There is no final enough of wisdom, experience — any fucking thing.”