The silence that greeted Dominion

Calvin Baker’s strangely neglected Dominion is one of the books I admired most this year.

I understand that a novel so allusive, in which invocations of myth abound and the richness of language recalls the King James, isn’t going to appeal to everyone. But I look at some of the hyped-up claptrap that has critics pulling out their trumpets this year, and am amazed that a story this good hasn’t garnered so much as a review in a major newspaper.

Dominion is the book that inspired One Story editor Hannah Tinti to break her own rule against excerpts. She read a galley and then begged Baker to let her literary magazine publish part of it. Here’s a sample:

They ate the dead that first winter on the land, such was their possession by vile hunger, mean desperation, and who can say what else other than it was unnatural. Any decent history will vouch for the truth of that. And, according to lore, the majority of the graveless sacrificed were uneasy souls, who walked certain nights on top of the earth — haunting not just the ground of their defilement but all the contiguous lands — until they possessed the entire continent as surely as if they had been more fortunate in life.

Ould Lowe, one from that legion of unblessed, had prowled the wilderness since anyone could remember. Each Sunday he could be seen standing atop the hill on the southern side of the lake, ululating as any wild beast, or grief stricken man, from the first moments of Creation.

It was why the land was sold to Jasper Merian at all, because to put up a proper house there he would have to begin construction on the very spot of the ghost’s weekly sojourn. Surveying east and west; north and south — to the edges of the horizon in each earthly direction — Merian sought a better place, or some compromise that would give him access to his lands without disturbing the unburied. He could see no other way, though, so started digging where he was forced, out there on the very boundary of civilization and silent oblivion.

The diction and contemplative pace of Dominion proved too much for the Publishers Weekly critic. (Scroll down and contrast with Booklist’s starred review.) Did that advance dissing deter newspaper editors from assigning the book?

Whatever the reason for the silence, I hope some of you will be sufficiently captivated by One Story‘s excerpt to pull the book off the shelves at your local bookstore, try out a chapter or two while standing in the aisle, buy a copy if you like it, and hand it off to a friend when you’re done.

Image of Baker taken from the One Story blog.

William Logan on Florida, in poetry and otherwise

Miami Beach, Mid-Winter

While I’m on the subject of the Sunshine State, here’s an excerpt from poet-critic William Logan’s “The State With the Prettiest Name.” (He titled the essay after the first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Florida.”)

Portraits of Florida, its beauty almost too beautiful, often risk a shallow, shoreline prettiness, the preciousness of the postcard, whose penny purpose is always to incite a twinge of jealousy. Bishop’s poem instead recalls the “brackish water,” the skeletons of dead mangroves, swamps pummeled as if by cannon. Her poem contains people only at its edges: those “ancient cannon-balls,” though merely a simile, have the memory of conquest behind them (her “green hummocks” mark her as a tourist – the locals call them hammocks); the turtle skulls have “round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man’s”; the lists of shells and alligator calls are those of a naturalist; and in the “gray rag of rotted calico,” in the very mention of “obbligatos” or a “post-card,” there is evidence of an absence. This is Bishop’s characteristic strategy, to make the margins the center, and concentrate only on what can be seen (making more intense what cannot be seen, merely implied). Civilization, already encroaching acre by acre on a prehistoric Florida, here just gnaws at the borders.

In Bishop’s day (she lived in Key West off and on from 1936 to 1949), primeval nature had already been pushed back. Today you have to go farther to see it; yet, even in my sprawling north Florida town, cattle graze beside shopping malls, sandhill cranes stalk the university feed lot, flocks of ibises browse the verge of mall retention-ponds, and every body of water bigger than a bathtub seems to boast its alligator – glowering, patient, inhuman. When an alligator has seen enough of you, has decided you are larger than its appetite, it sinks back into its watery home with an air of condescension. . . .

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