REVIEW: The Sea-God’s Herb by John Domini

by Kurt Baumeister

Name your topic, spin the wheel, and the Internet spits back its wicked mix of information and innuendo, wisdom and witlessness. From Kim’s ass to Kanye’s ego, there’s no shortage of expertise in the online world. Literary criticism is no exception. Whether we’re talking about the meat-and-potatoes book review, the ten thousand word think-piece on Proust’s Peruvian gargoyle fetish, or something in between, there are plenty of would-be tastemakers anxious to be heard.

Browse Goodreads or Amazon some time — go on, I dare you — and you’ll find every subspecies of reviewer from the fresh MFA to the self-taught literary gunslinger, from the five-star friend fluffer to the less-than-zero literary lunatic. You’ll find people who don’t even bother to review the book under discussion, proffering instead a link to their own two hundred thousand word, unedited opus. Then, of course, you may also find that most essential and least populous subspecies, the professional literary critic. Somebody, let’s say, like John Domini.

Domini’s latest, The Sea-God’s Herb, represents an attempt at the career-spanning retrospective, a task that seems thrilling and deeply satisfying, but also daunting in its way. The potential pitfalls are obvious. If, on one hand, the critic claims too much ground he may become scattershot or even grandiose in his attempt to tie the whole of literature up in a neat little package. One example, titanic a figure as Harold Bloom, there’s still no getting around the fact that his ego gets the better of him from book to book. But, then, he is Harold Bloom, so we go along with the hubris in order to partake of the genius.

Conversely, there’s the mistake of not trying to do enough with a collection of criticism, of being satisfied with little more than a one-way ticket to reprint city. This seems to me a far greater flaw than bravado or hubris. What do we look for from the critic, especially when considering a career-spanning collection of criticism? We want the goods — erudition and insight, style and grace. We expect to see the critic’s literary vision on the page, and for the critic to examine it with us, for him to provide scope as to what he’s spent several decades doing. This is precisely what we get with The Sea-God’s Herb.

Sea-God is a collection of forty pieces drawn from sources such as New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Boston Globe, Ploughshares, American Book Review, Harvard Review, and Bookforum. Aside from the odd topical lark (the Sopranos, Che Guevara, and the 1995 Italian Metamorphosis Exhibit at The Guggenheim come to mind), the focus is primarily on postmodernism (and a fair amount of metafiction), which makes sense given that Domini studied in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (one of the academic homes of American literary experimentalism). Morrison and Calvino, Delillo and Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and Gass all get their space here, the whole organized around a seemingly unlikely source, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. As Domini puts it himself:

“Transformation would be another word for it, a word that gives me my title. The source is Dante, the first Canto of Paradiso, which begins a lot like Coover on Beckett. It begins in doubt, as the Poet frets that he can never get across the wonders he’s seen. He must trasumanar, ‘transhumanize,’ in the Divine Comedy’s distinguishing neologism. Yet his guide Beatrice helps him achieve this altered state with a single long look:

Gazing at her, I felt myself becoming

what Glaucus had become tasting the herb

that made him like the other sea-gods there.

The translation is Mark Musa’s, but the myth referred to remains the same in any idiom. A fisherman notices that a certain shore grass revives his dead catch and so he tries the stuff himself; he becomes a god. What’s more, Glaucus stays that way. He gets no comeuppance, making miracles and collecting lovers. Ovid, Dante’s source, no doubt took pleasure in how the story upset expectation.”

Domini is talking about himself here, explaining the impetus for the collection and more still for the decades he’s spent framing reviews and cobbling criticism while his own creative work (three novels, two books of short stories, and a poetry collection) beckoned. He finds himself mesmerized by the power of storytelling, so much that it animates his thoughts (and writing) even when the topic is the architecture of metafiction or the translation of 14th century Italian epic poetry.

And this is the ironic trick Domini gives us, the way he manages to keep to a middle path between excessive pride and lack of ambition: he sets the focus squarely on himself, his own work and tastes, copping to the idiosyncrasy of any career retrospective, any literary criticism for that matter. Much as someone like the eminent Harold Bloom may want to give us The Western Canon, he’s really only giving us one version, his own.

The strengths of this collection are its playful prose, intellectual depth, and the breadth of texts it covers, the fact that it finds space not only for Dante and postmodern giants like Calvino, but younger writers, the “Coming Tide” as the Sea-God motif labels them, people like Matt Bell and Blake Butler. In this, Domini pays tribute to his real aim, the reason he’s spent so much time on criticism, a desire not for self-aggrandizement but at advocacy for what he loves.

As for the individual pieces here, the strongest for me are his multiple (justified) defenses of John Barth, his amusing takedown of Pynchon’s Vineland, and his fine, very recent piece on Calvino, Chessboard & Cornucopia: 40 Years of Invisible Cities. Then, of course, there are the two essays that provide the collection’s thematic spine — Tower, Tree, Candle: Dante’s Divine Comedy & the Triumph of the Fragility and Against “the Impossible to Explain:” The Postmodern Novel and Society. All things considered, Sea-God is a treat for the literary geek in each of us (or, at least, those of us who have an inner literary geek), an ambitious grad lit seminar crammed into a single book, one only John Domini could teach.

The Sea-God’s Herb: Reviews and Essays

by John Domini

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