Daily Postings
literature : review

The Necessary Rage

by Scott Esposito

On Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse

It may be that, looking back, we recognize these as the years when the social fabric began to fray. The years in which the rich began to take just a little too much of the world’s wealth, when citizens of the wealthiest nations grew just a little too callous toward refugees from the poorest, when the effects of our environmental mismanagement became just a little too dramatic to brush off. The years, in other words, when order broke down and the only response for the dispossessed became rage.

The author Iván Repila invites this subtext for his second novel, published amid historic poverty in his native Spain in 2013 and now arriving in English.

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literature : interview

Derek McCormack

by Jennifer Krasinski

“I love that a piece of clothing can annihilate me.”

It was Dennis Cooper who first introduced me to Derek McCormack’s novels a little over ten years ago. At that time, Dennis was the editor of Little House on the Bowery, an imprint of Akashic Books, and he’d been gifting me copies of the far-from-ordinary books he was publishing: Benjamin Weissman’s Headless, Trinie Dalton’s Wide Eyed, Derek’s Grab Bag. During my friendship with Dennis, I was coming to terms with the fact that I was a writer, not a filmmaker as I’d wrongly imagined myself to be. Which is to say that at the same time I was learning to write, I was reading these authors and their books. All became tender touchstones for me, voices I returned to as I stumbled around to find my own—Derek not least among them.

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literature : review

And Everything Tasted of Soap

by Jane Yong Kim

On Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” With this opening line, Olga, the thirty-eight-year-old narrator of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, begins the terrifying process of appraising her life after years of ceding it to her family: to her husband, for whom she stopped her career as a writer, and to her two children, who gave her the “stink of motherhood” that she suspects, in part, led to her husband’s departure.

Olga deploys an unbridled anger toward her husband, screaming, “You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you!” Meanwhile, she lectures herself. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She has enough rage and self-possession that she seduces her neighbor, a graying cellist, in a fit of sadism.

Such fiery vitriol is largely absent in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, but it nonetheless shares DNA with Ferrante’s sharp and dark dissection of domestic breakdown. The second published novel by the British writer Barbara Comyns, it was originally released in 1950 and is being reissued this month by New York Review Books. A startling, immersive excavation of poor, young womanhood and marriage gone awry in 1930s London, it begins at the tale’s end. “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried,” Sophia Fairclough narrates, only to promptly think twice about her loquacity. “I wish I hadn’t told Helen so much; it’s brought everything back in a vivid flash. I can see Charles’s white pointed face, and hear his husky nervous voice.”

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literature : review

The Total System

by Andrew Durbin

On John Cage’s Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)

Composed for oneself, most “literary” diaries—from Samuel Pepys’s to Virginia Woolf’s—are well-written, intimate, interior narratives of self-reflection, sourced from private thoughts on friends, lovers, events, and art, often assuming a private pose, only to wink toward their potential public. This particular complexity has made the form both hugely popular for readers and controversial for those nervous estates that inherit such diaries. Not so with John Cage, whose Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) is now out in full for the first time from Siglio Press. (It was originally printed serially but never gathered in a complete edition.) Unlike other diarists, Cage isn’t so much interested in an explicitly personal meditation on his own life; rather, his life is composed of, and belongs among, the lives of others—written into and out of canned speech and newsy verbiage, spoken and written by public individuals (mom and dad crop up, yes, but famous friends more), reversing the literary formula to begin with the public only to end in the private. Meditating on Chairman Mao and his friend Buckminster Fuller, Cage writes: “Transform mistakes into / projects, misinformation into facts. / Forget yourself.” Gain a public.

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literature : interview

Rebecca Makkai

by J. T. Price

“People love to underrate plot, because it makes them sound like they’re beyond it, like plot is best left to Danielle Steele.“

Music for Wartime (Viking, 2015) is Rebecca Makkai’s third published book and first story collection. It features all four of her Best American Short Story-endorsed pieces—each chosen consecutively, year after year, which has to be a record—in addition to other tales, alternately fabular or dizzy with emotionally precipitous modernity, and frequently both at once. The book showcases the boldness of her range and, ambition notwithstanding, a decided lightness of touch.

J.T. Price Let’s begin where the book ends—with acknowledgments. We live, it sometimes seems, in an age of them. Would you mind speaking to the relationship between acknowledgments and fiction, the latter of which, in theory, is all about estranging and appropriating and recapitulating the actual in a newly relevant light?

Rebecca Makkai I was just thinking about this recently, about how the "real" parts of a book—the acknowledgments, dedication, author photo—all serve to paint this picture of who the author is, of why this author would write these stories. I’m sure I’m not alone in my habit of flipping back to the author photo to reassess the author’s face halfway through a novel.

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literature : review

Hosing down the Slaughterhouse

by Micaela Morrissette

On Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

Michel Houellebecq: butcher. Messy slaughterer of sacred cows. Disemboweler of all modes of political correctness, from the myth of the modern male’s respect for women to the laughable fiction of the liberal Westerner’s respect for non-Western cultures. That’s the story, anyway. Like most good stories, it isn’t true, for the most part; but Houellebecq, who enjoys a good yarn, and who is typically as impish as he is courageous, has done nothing to dispel it. Indeed he’s done his bit to spin it out—to spin, from straw spattered with dung hurled by his offended accusers, thread of pure gold.

His characters are, one and all, denizens of hell: of social hells, capitalist hells, and hells of their own devising. In those infernal regions, however, Houellebecq constructs utopias—terribly fragile, desperately ironic, but briefly beautiful. Michel, narrator of Platform, discovers wealth and romantic love via the industry of sex tourism, at least until his earthly paradise is destroyed by a group of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Rudi, of Lanzarote, can’t hack free love, but does find a moment’s precious relief in a pedophiliac cult before his arrest. The comedian Daniel, in The Possibility of an Island, also fails in love but discovers the theoretical consolation of immortality in a cult of his own. It is true that in The Elementary Particles, the scientist Michel isn’t granted much of a personal utopia, but his suffering, muted as it is, does lead him too to the utopic discovery of a future immortality for mankind. Even the hapless artist Jed of The Map and the Territory, who can’t possibly recover from the trauma of seeing photographs of the flesh of the murdered Michel Houellebecq spattered about a room like the gobbets and driblets of a Jackson Pollock painting, manages to create in his last and greatest series of works a utopian vision of a technological world swallowed, as if in flames, by tongues of flickering vegetation.

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literature : interview

Mark Doten & Peter Dimock

“People struggling to control language, control conversation, literally to control the world.”

There are novelists here in the United States who wrangle with the daily, psychic experience of living on the “safe,” domestic front of the wars our country has waged over the past fourteen years. Indeed, by now, these wars certainly feel like fixtures in the world, but the enormities of violence perpetrated in the name of “security” seem all too rarely acknowledged—and surely less so in the realm of contemporary fiction. Both Mark Doten’s delirious debut, The Infernal (released this past winter by Graywolf Press) and Peter Dimock’s bold second novel, George Anderson (Dalkey Archive, 2013), confront these very matters. What follows is a generous chunk of their challenging, and at times ecstatic, summer-long correspondence.  

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literature : review

California, Failed Experiment

by J. W. McCormack

On Claire Vaye Watkins's drought-stricken debut, Gold Fame Citrus.

The title of Claire Vaye Watkins’s first novel names just three of California’s historic exports. It’s a list to which, just for fun, we might add surfing, In-N-Out Burger, health fads, The Doors, cults, and—at least lately—post-apocalyptic novels. Gold Fame Citrus is certainly one of the latter, but it would be misleading to suggest that it is only, or even mainly, an aftershock of the dystopic boom that’s been running through mainstream contemporary fiction since, say, The Road. Since then, the genre has matured and broadened so much that labeling an end-of-the-world book as such is akin to cruising Netflix for “horror movies.” That is, your base-level expectations will be met: in both cases, you’re going to see someone die. But for a core audience, the pleasure is in the kind of minute touches and improvisations that each entry adds to the genre.

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literature : interview

Scott Cheshire

by Ryan Chapman

“Post-love, post-work, post-faith, post-home. What’s left?”

Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles, published by Henry Holt, is one of the most arresting debuts from a major imprint in recent memory. Its triptych structure explores strains of evangelism and madness in one family across two centuries, without recourse to “epic” narratives or traditional stories of generational strife. The bolder, more elliptical approach was praised by Colum McCann and Philipp Meyer upon the novel’s hardcover publication, and some chapters read like fireworks. Others demand patience, as they ruminate on the ambiguity between faithlessness and belief.

The novel opens in 1960s Queens, NY. Twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk, groomed to succeed his father in their Evangelical ministry, delights his congregation and his parents with an extemporaneous sermon on the fast-approaching apocalypse. From there we leap to the present day: “Josie” is divorced and ambivalent about his failing business. He’s summoned from California to contend with his ailing father, his own apostasy, and whether both men have wasted decades of their lives. The last section jumps backward to Kentucky in 1801, where a rural church gathering becomes the site of another filial betrayal and another ghostly vision.

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literature : interview

Juliet Jacques

by Rebekah Weikel

“Radical spaces can generate and evolve ideas and tactics, some of which cross over into mainstream culture—and need to.”

Juliet Jacques has written Trans, a memoir documenting many transitions—that of a young person’s entry into adulthood, a writer’s creative shift to mainstream journalism, and the long path through gender reassignment. In 2010, the Guardian published the first entry in A Transgender Journey, her serial blog that pursued a confessional mode with political intent. The column ran successfully for nearly three years and was long-listed for the Orwell Prize. Trans, similar in makeup, makes a strong argument for the personal as political while integrating a broad education in trans theory and politics, and giving context through the author’s sharp tastes in radical literature, French poetry, sport, music, art, and avant-garde film.

Despite its nonlinear progression, it feels right to say Trans begins in Manchester, where our then-eighteen-year-old author moves to go to university and study history. Embarking from Horley, her small conservative hometown, Manchester represents a sort of promised land—a safe(r) place to be queer in the midst of Section 28, and a place to bloom, think, and exist freely while walking the laneways of the city that birthed The Smiths and Joy Division, two bands cited as early mainstays of solace.

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literature : interview

Fiston Mwanza Mujila & Roland Glasser

by Sofia Samatar

“When a state ceases to exist, your body becomes your own state, the one and only state you have.”

Fiston Mwanza Mujila is a poet and dramatist whose work explores what one of his poems calls a “geography of hunger.” His debut novel, Tram 83, takes its title from a bar in an unnamed City-State where patrons meet to indulge their hunger for alcohol, money, music, and sex. Into this ruthless central terminal comes Lucien, a poet returned from abroad, carrying his own hunger for literature, meaning, and political and artistic freedom. His adventures among the denizens of Tram 83 unfold between two overarching hungers: that of foreign and local profiteers for the country’s mineral wealth, and that of ordinary people for survival.

Tram 83 moves with a relentless rhythm, full of lists that rush into one another, cassava fields and churches, miner-diggers and digger-miners, railroads and rumba. This forward charge is countered by frequent loops and repetitions, creating an intense, circular energy. In his efforts to find an art that speaks to the City-State, Lucien invents the genres of the “stage-tale” and “locomotive literature”—terms that could describe Tram 83 itself. His comic search for the right language ultimately suggests the impossibility of speaking. For all its exuberance, this is a novel of dismay.

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literature : review
literature : word choice


by Menachem Kaiser

In Warsaw I board an overnight bus to Berlin. Three facts immediately present themselves. The bus is full; nearly everyone is sleeping; and there is a sleeping baby in seat forty-three, which is, importantly, my seat. I stand in the aisle, consider my options. I can wake all those around me who might be the baby’s guardian. I can wake the baby, see what happens. I can sit and hold the baby. I can sit on the baby. I can store the baby on the rack above the seats. I can do nothing, stay standing in the aisle.

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literature : review

Le Mômo in the Mire

by Micaela Morrissette

Madness, melodrama, mundanity, and the legacy of Antonin Artaud.

For those susceptible to the romance of madness, the essential sanity of the written word is a tragedy. Perhaps literature is not the only art to suffer from the rationality that form and meanings impose, but it does seem at a peculiar disadvantage, even when it comes to the works of those practitioners who were themselves inarguably mad. The violently colored, claustrophobically dense drawings of the psychotic Adolf Wölfli satisfy with an intense frisson of delirium; the schizophrenic August Natterer’s elusively symbolic, eerily cartoonish images are unsettling in the extreme. But Robert Walser’s microscripts, creepy though they may be to behold, are, once deciphered, all too legible. Gérard de Nerval’s Aurelia, while it may chronicle his descent into lunacy, does so in limpid prose, unfolding its narrative in a calm and eminently parseable progression. The fiction Philip K. Dick generated from his transcendental visions is, if anything, more clichéd than the brain-bending stories that arose during his slightly less hallucinatory earlier years. Maybe literature, the reading of which involves deciphering a series of symbolic equations, simply cannot escape an intrinsically argumentative, demonstrative quality. Maybe, because literary works operate, no matter how conventional or how revolutionary the text, through the suspension of readerly disbelief, it’s tautologically impossible to regard them as delusional. Maybe literature’s mundanity is one more evil ascribable to the crime syndicate of literary criticism: There’s no idea, no form, no mode of language too extreme or sublime to escape the shackles of a meaningful analytical framework. Or maybe one must simply give way to the heartbreaking truth that battiness is banal—no more, no less. The crazy are as bourgeois, as irremediably earthbound as the rest of us. They cannot take us aloft with them; they’re even deeper in the mire than we are.

If anyone was ever truly deranged, it was the French playwright, poet, theorist, and opiate addict Antonin Artaud. If anyone had a chance at translating psychopathy into poetry, it was him. Born in 1896, Artaud suffered in childhood from stammering, headaches, meningitis, and other painful physical illnesses; by the time he was a teenager, he had already spent time in sanatoriums; and in 1937, he entered a period of institutionalization that lasted until his death in 1948. He believed he was Christ—also Antichrist. Wrenchingly repulsed by sex, he would spit at pregnant women when they crossed his path. Artaud knew himself to be the victim of numerous bewitchments by an international cabal of black magicians, and was horrified by the fact that his near and dear were being murdered and replaced by indistinguishable doubles. He was also a maniacally prolific writer now best known for his formulation of the theater of cruelty and for poems and other texts that incorporate glossolalia and nonverbal noise—particularly the scream.

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literature : interview

Stephanie Barber

by Laura van den Berg

“You poor, quite accurate word… cast aside for being too apt!”

Stephanie Barber lives in Baltimore where she is an artist-in-residence in the MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art. In addition to her latest book, All the People (Ink Press, 2015), Barber is the author of Night Moves (Publishing Genius, 2013) and these here separated to see how they standing alone (Publishing Genius, 2010). She also has an extensive body of work in film and various media. Recently her first feature, Daredevils, screened at The National Gallery of Art in DC, and for jhana and the rats of james olds, Barber moved her studio into the Baltimore Museum of Art where she created a new video every day, with museum visitors acting as both spectators and collaborators.

The art I most admire creates its own world. I can remember visiting Stephanie at the BMA and being so wholly absorbed by the world she was creating—isolated, collaborative, lonely, joyful. I remember wanting to stay and stay. To me, that experience is characteristic of her body of work: whether she is operating in film or installation or poetry or prose, she constructs worlds that are kinetic, strange, and stunningly beautiful, worlds that are wise and scary, that hit you in the head and in the heart.

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literature : word choice

I Am Not Dead, Yet: A Mesostic for Janet Fanjón

by John Pluecker

I sit down this morning to write about this image. This image—which might be a poem—that I made as the result of an experiment. I took walks through a city looking for street names with sufficient letters to create a mesostic for Janet Fanjón, a young photographer in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, in the northern part of Mexico on the border with Texas. She was disappeared by Mexican federal defense forces in 2011 along with her entire family.

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literature : from the editor
literature : interview

Mark von Schlegell

by Erika Landström

“Fiction can be this art object that doesn’t show us anything new about reality, but draws out everything fake.”

On the European release of Sundogz earlier this summer, I met with author and cultural critic Mark von Schlegell to talk about a mutual interest—the desire to observe from multiple viewpoints simultaneously, both inside and outside of fiction.

The idea of transformation is at the heart of speculative writing. Sundogz articulates this desire both allegorically, through descriptions of shape-shifting subjects in liquid worlds, and structurally, through normalizing a disrupted linearity, letting the point of reading become irretrievable by expansion instead. One viewpoint is diffused by striking two new.

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literature : word choice

Three Poems

by Joe Milazzo


They uncovered a u-boat in the bays beneath
the rayonnant of the kitchen linoleum,
drainpipes labyrinthed through its hull like
antennae with no use for alerts.
They anointed it “her,” so the lilting blue
of their torches might saw. In their sleeves
and buckles, they shoveled the fecund smell
her decks surrendered into the bags
whose buttressing they’d emptied of sand.
They offered to lay her relics in their van,
leaving me only her spiny lungs.
I asked them instead to erect
a second sink atop her bridge.
In the corroded glass of her periscope,
I can observe the creeping of green
bottles, brown bottles, brown bottles,
green bottles and the surface
of a mirror blank save
for a single bubble.

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literature : interview

V. Vale

by Karlynne Ejercito

“Everything goes, whatever. You know that word 'whatever'—whenever that started coming in, about twenty years ago? It's like whatever-core—that's where we're at now.”

As the editor and publisher of RE/Search, and a self-described amateur anthropologist, V. Vale has commanded volumes of interviews and articles about countercultural figures and the subcultures they spawned. In the thirty-some years since the first issue appeared in 1980—a slim journal that drew Julio Cortázar together with Non, Sun Ra, and The Slits—few things about RE/Search have changed. Still too catholic in its taste for discriminating punk palates and still not academic enough to be Semiotext(e), RE/Search continues to articulate a no-man’s-land between the “underground” and the institutions that undergrounds allegedly subvert. Despite inhabiting this space, these publications assume a distinct place with their irregular sizes and boldface logo emblazoned onto their exaggerated covers.

Much like the curious tone of his books, Vale is notably less cynical toward his countercultural peers than readers of, say, Vice or The Baffler might expect. His is an attitude that reflects a willingness to publish a book of interviews with tattooist Ed Hardy alongside a zine by McKenzie Wark and a book by Penny Rimbaud—with little trace of irony. His sincerity is not simply a pose but a mark of his deep involvement with the people he writes about.

That he’s sincere, however, makes him no less inscrutable. For one thing, Vale has a habit of deliberating over the delicate specificity of certain terms in unwieldy generalities—a style of expression that yields the most unpredictable of ideas. Although deciphering our conversation proved to be a difficult task, it may be the most straightforward path to an understanding of RE/Search and its place today.

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literature : interview

Magnus Mills

by Michael Barron

As novelist and bus driver, Mills discusses The Maintenance of Headway, vinyl puritans, and the history of England.

Few writers of fiction would retain a blue-collar occupation after meeting with literary success. In the case of Magnus Mills, however, it remains a vital component of his process. Throughout the span of eight novels, including one Booker nomination, the sixty-one-year-old British novelist has, curiously, remained a bus driver. It’s during his routes that he develops his ideas, which expand until he is ready to put them down on paper.

Plotted isn’t the most appropriate word to describe the kind of work Mills prefers to write. His novels are systems that slowly reveal their flaws as they progress. The Maintenance of Headway, released in the UK to much fanfare in 2010, now published in a US edition, is a poignant example of the Millsian style. The narrator is a bus driver who encounters little slips—a rushed or rerouted bus—that disrupt the optimal distance between the buses. Drivers are occasionally promoted to inspectors who, in turn, cite their colleagues for being early or late. New bus models loom on the horizon; others are retired. Headway remains a white rabbit.

Mills has since published two books in the UK, including this year’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold, a systemic novel tackling not the maladies of public transit, but the early history of the British, all woven with allegorical thread: a field of tent dwellers grows in population, including Caesarian and Christian inhabitants that bring about change.

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literature : word choice

The Thinking Head

by S.D. Chrostowska

An excerpt from Matches

§ Almost Being

The smaller the animal, the less the distance between being and its sensation. In this way, the smallest beings are closer to presence than us, who come face to face with being and do not sense it. What is our compensation for being so large?


§ Don’t Imagine…

If an angel were ever to tell us anything of his philosophy I believe many propositions would sound like two times two equals thirteen.
~ G.Ch. Lichtenberg1

If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, enthusiast of Lichtenberg2

All the thoughts of a turtle are turtles
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson3

After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?
~ Thomas Nagel4

Imagining and speculating about nonhuman experience makes us smaller and smaller. Why is it that we insist on being able to comprehend them all? Because little by little we are becoming our outside. The thoughts of a turtle will one day be shared by men who are part turtle, the arithmetic of angels, had angels ever existed, by semi-angels, the speech of a lion, by lion-man, the mindset of a bat—you guessed it. Even the experience of the next man will one day be accessible to us. Whenever we recognize this phenomenological drift, we start to prepare mentally for these interspecies liaisons, which will support us in our smallness. But when we set out only to know, we train for a fantasy takeover, ruling nothing.

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literature : interview

James Salter

by Sally Gall

“Style is the writer.”

In 1989, Esquire magazine sent me to France to make photographs for an essay by James Salter about his several-month French sojourn. The photo editor at Esquire (to whom I am eternally grateful) thought that the sensuality of my photos would complement the sensuous quality of his writing. The rest is history, as they say. We became friends and I remain a huge fan of his work. In 1995, when my first book of photographs was published, I asked Jim to write the introductory essay. He wrote a beautiful and evocative story that begins the book.

On the occasion of Salter’s novel All That Is, published in 2013, Betsy Sussler asked me to interview him. She was aware that Jim and I had known each other for a long time. What ensued was an interview that meandered very slowly over the course of a year or more and many travels. As we were rarely in the same physical place, we ended up exchanging emails, starting with me in New York and Jim in Bridgehampton, Long Island, and continuing through my travels in France and Italy while Jim visited Mexico, Aspen, and Long Island again.

I had just sent in the completed edit of this interview, for Jim to review, when I received the news that he had died unexpectedly. We never got to have our wrap-up drink at Capsouto Frères (see the beginning of the interview), we never had our proposed dinner, nor was I able to take his portrait, which we had planned to do this August. This portrait was to run side by side with the portrait I made of him in 1989, the summer we met.

It is a shock that he is gone. Despite the reality that he had recently turned ninety, he remained so youthful, seeming like a young handsome man with lots more writing to do—a few more green sprigs, as he says at the end of this piece.

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literature : word choice

Three Poems

by Linnea Ogden

The Way We Did It Was

“Going through something”
As though a spaceship made of marsh gas
Hovered overhead
The work of a moment mildewed
Along the edge
The press bed’s relenting skin
Sick at throat with hibiscus
Or rose hips
Our digressions
Black houses on a black street, hanging
Over dog-pawed ground

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literature : word choice

It’s Private

by Eric Ellingsen

That’s what we said. At the Ows-land-er-be-horde, the office for foreigners, pantheon of come backs of stays of goes, place to renew and apply. You have to make an appointment weeks ahead of time to renew. We made an appointment, then we missed that appointment. But today you don’t have to have an appointment, though it is advised.

So, my wife Hope and I had an appointment to renew, and we missed it. My wife is named after Bob Hope, Hope’s dad Jules says. And I know hope (the concept) fits this story, but it’s also the way it is. I’m a bit torn here—to change Hope’s real name to something more believable but less true. Her name could be Charity. Mercy. I’m friends with a Brazilian Ding. Freelanced with a Corner. I even briefly loved a Brie. The memories burst in on me. I could even make her a heart surgeon, say that gives her the right.

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