Carl Sagan once said that in order to make an apple pie, you must first invent the universe. A touch melodramatic, perhaps, but an effective way of saying that we live in a world where nothing can exist without an unfathomable number of prior and ongoing causes and effects, relationships, and developments. Regarding Louis Zukofsky’s extraordinary, forty-six-years-in-the-making, eight hundred page poem “A” (in twenty-four sections, or movements), Sagan might have said that in order to read it, you must first read every other book ever written. Or at least, Zukofsky had to read every book ever written in order to write his poem. A Shakespeare scholar before he was a teenager, Zukofsky’s childhood in a Russian-Jewish immigrant household in Brooklyn in the 1910's and '20s formed early in him a polyglot passion for language. His penchant for punning can make Joyce seem like a buttoned-down prose stylist. It is impossible in this brief review to give you a sense of the full sweep and sorcery of this masterful, magisterial, majestic work, which begins with a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall in 1928 and ends with a choral setting of multiple Zukofsky texts by his wife Celia to Handel’s “Harpsichord Pieces.” At times strenuous, pedantic, esoteric, and puzzling,“A” is also ecstatic, inspiring, poignant, and will stand as one of the great literary achievements from the 20th century. Zukofsky’s brilliant, heartfelt treatment of everything from music to Marx, astronomy to Henry Adams, his magnetic command of sound and image make for edifying, exhilarating reading.
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