Translated by Kari Dickson
THE GRANDUNCLE (stands up in the middle of the wake. Taps his glass with a spoon)
AN ENTIRE FAMILY (holds its breath)[ Read More ]
Everybody assumes I’m one or the other, at first. Sometimes it becomes a game, a mental tally of points in each column, trying to prove the original guess. Two points one way for ear-length hair, and another three or four for thick, dark brows. A solid ten for a squarish jaw.[ Read More ]
The myth of documentary in Gerald Murnane's The Plains
If the most inventive twentieth-century fictions find their best analogues in coeval technological inventions, Gerald Murnane's novel The Plains, first published in 1982, is the optometrist's autorefractor. Known for its sharp yet defamiliarizing take on the landscape and an aesthetic of purity historically associated with it, The Plains is uniformly described as a masterpiece of Australian literature. Look closer, though, and it's a haunting nineteenth-century novel of colonial violence captured inside the machine's test-pattern image—a distant, unassuming house on the plains.[ Read More ]
Playing with polarities in Adrienne Raphel's What Was It For
What Was It For? asks the title of Adrienne Raphel's debut poetry collection (Rescue Press, March 2017). Was any poet ever so quick to question the worth of it all? Raphel's mercurial poems teach you several correct ways to say her title: at a tea party, surmising offhand—Oh, what was it for—or while pulling out your hair, the world falling to pieces—What was it for! Well, what was it for? Everything, or nothing, who knows the difference. In Raphel's world, a dimension over from Wonderland and Neverland, whimsy rules tyrannically, best intentions veer woozily off, and the divinest sense lies in nonsense. [ Read More ]
"As writers, we have the tendency to get disgusted by our own filth and start throwing it all away, spraying disinfectant and removing words, instead of using creativity to construct buoyancy."
Jeremy Sigler does not write nice poems. There's something honest (with a touch of creep) about them. He's funny and has the ability to rejoice at his own misery—a slew of embarrassing messes most would rather cover up or deny altogether. His new book of prose poems, My Vibe (Spoonbill, May 2017) is filled with amusing perspectives that cycle between comparisons of acceptance and rejection. He even takes on the project of reflection itself: "Indeed. Reflection... Nobody understands the importance of reflection—of reflecting, that is, on what one has done. And what one is about to do. Don't prepare. Be unprepared. But reflect!" Here, we reflect on his past life as a sculptor, and how he prioritizes transparency and vulnerability in his writing today.[ Read More ]
Fabulous talkers in Penelope Lively's The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories
The promotional material for The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories (Viking, May 2017) describes the title story as involving "a trenchant and worldly-wise bird [who] pecks and stalks among the fountains and statuary and informs us as to the goings-on in a household of homo sapiens." This undersells the level of twee quite a bit: the bird is our narrator, and also dead. Or possibly immortal?
If trenchant and worldly-wise birds are your thing, Penelope Lively has been a reliable source of the fantastic for nearly fifty years. In novels like The Photograph (2003) and the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (1987), she looks at the world through anthropological eyes, but with a pronounced interest in the improbable—think Margaret Drabble with a magical-realist bent.[ Read More ]
All rhapsodes want it, to fold the world into a poem,
reconstrue a world in salvaged scraps & bracketed sighs;
it is easier to say what a poem is than what a world,
were-ald, man-era, a stretch of time measured for a man
& weathered by him, a course charted across the face
of time & everything found or fished up along the way?
Surviving pieces, in their brokenness, a call to form
Slow-cooked verbiage in Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf
Flarf is an avant-garde writing movement with a neologistic name, a nonsense word meant to signal its distance from delicate, effete, high-art poetry. According to the editors of Flarf: An Anthology of Flarf (Aerial/Edge Books, May 2017), this sort of poetry is more like punk rock or Dada, but distinct from these previous movements in that the content crucial to its construction is sourced from the Internet. Flarf poets appropriate writings that might first appear in the textual yonder as unimportant, unfinished, and unwarranted—or just plain wrong. The finished poem itself may remain just as cringe-worthy, yet the poet is "in" on the joke, as it were, in a way that the ostensible author of the original source material may not be (but really we'll never know, and that's part of the fun).[ Read More ]
Satirizing the "late-capitalist late-patriarchy" in Catherine Lacey's The Answers
The wry joke of The Answers (FSG, June 2017) is that it's a novel bristling with questions—mostly about what it means "to find love or keep love going," and why that struggle has to hurt. The result is a kind of postmortem on human intimacy, as Catherine Lacey examines, with clinical chill and precision, late-capitalism's perversions of love: celebrity worship, exorbitant health fads designed to help us better 'love' ourselves, and, inevitably, dating in NYC. It brings to mind some of Freud's gloomier conclusions: human beings are hopeless misfits within the civilization they've created. Love and civilization are at odds.[ Read More ]
Well, nothing at first, not right after. In those initial moments panic is still optional.
At the grocery store, the one across from your building on Frederick Douglass, or farther up on Ft. Washington near your boyfriend's place, depending—a shrill, unfamiliar tone piercing the Muzak. It startles awake a sudden bond between you and other shoppers, people with whom you'd so far avoided eye contact, mumbling a continuous apology for bumping into one another. Now there is camaraderie in the unison groping of pockets, the rifling for phones among purses and reusable totes.
Across the river on Atlantic Avenue, in the urgent care waiting room, you and the receptionist both jump. The emergency alert system, this is not only a test.[ Read More ]
Unchanging times, in Joan Didion's South and West
Californians live with a particular affliction. We suffer from a sense of timelessness, an ahistorical bent for the future. California may represent the end of the American dream, the realization of a brutal manifest destiny, but it is mostly a land of new beginnings, technological and cinematic alike. At times, it can forget that it is not its own country, focused as it is on the Pacific horizon. It looks back east, over its shoulder, only when the ties that yoke it to America go taut. November 2016 was one of those times, when its purported myth of future-building was outdone by the sea of red states still angry about the past. California, long-enamored with its visions for a utopian future, was made aware that it could not control it.
Joan Didion knows more about this than just about anybody, and she knew it forty years earlier. In 1970, Didion, a native Californian herself, made a pilgrimage to the South, where she spent a month driving through Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi with her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The notes she took while there make up the bulk of South and West, the first released writing from her notebooks. She went with no journalistic imperative, in hunt for no particular story, but rather to test a hypothesis: "I had only some dim and unformed sense…that the South… had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center."[ Read More ]
Incorporating poems by Maureen McLane, Dorothea von Moltke, Geoffrey Nutter, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Sal Randolph, Mónica de la Torre, and Monica Youn
It happens like this: you enter the bright room on the west side of the sixth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art. You are among young trees, twenty-six of them, growing from wooden boxes raised on casters, spaced out around the room; the floor is red carpet, the light a mix of sun from the windows and a magenta glow from the bulbs on the ceiling. You may have a moment to look around, or you may be approached right away by someone who says: Find a furrow in your sleep. Or, The ridge. A ladder asleep against a house. Or, That went, This was our planet, a past tense.[ Read More ]
Moving toward a poetics of grief in Kate Zambreno's Book of Mutter
Louise Bourgeois's Cells makes physical the emotion of a wound, each piece in the series meditates on a painful object—clothing, furniture, a childhood home—as a form of exorcism. This duality of resurrection and destruction also animates much of Kate Zambreno's Book of Mutter (Semiotext(e), March 2017). It reveals both a tenderly curated archive of Zambreno's mother and the messiness of unearthing its zombie parts. "My mother book, my monster book," she writes of the text and its thirteen-year-long incubation.[ Read More ]
The new girl, Rachel Shapiro, kept getting flowers. They started coming her second week. Benny the cross-eyed mail guy brought them in, going, "Is there a Rachel Shapiro here? Does a Rachel Shapiro work here? I never heard of a Rachel Shapiro. Anyone?"
Rachel Shapiro had a rudely wide forehead, eyes that were miles away from each other, and bangs that didn't help. She was overqualified for the job, with two degrees in computer science. Cornell. That's what her resume said. And I was the one showing her the ropes. We got new ones, new coders I mean, every three months or so, and it would go like this. They'd come in and I'd show them the ropes, and after they left, no one would hear from them again.
But Rachel Shapiro was different. She didn't need the experience. For years she'd done complex coding for big companies like Johnson & Johnson. She was the only female on the floor, the first girl we'd had since Stephanie Peters, and she knew more about code than any of us. Even so, she never got bossy, never showed off on purpose, and this was of course more embarrassing for all of us.[ Read More ]
Warrior spirit and a harness to tie down
the heart, in case it should fall behind when it came time
Resilience, relentlessness, stubbornness; I do not give up,
I do not let go, and I do not listen;
Small hardworking hands, a missing sweet tooth,
Her nervous laugh, her satisfaction at the deep discount
her love ofthe gaudy;
Playing at life in Albert Mobilio's Games & Stunts
"Balloon Bust," the opening story in Albert Mobilio's new collection Games & Stunts (Black Square Editions, April 2017), reads something like the instructions for an esoteric hazing ritual, or perhaps the elaborate stage directions for a downtown play. "Stand with the others in the fenced-in yard," it begins. "Each of us has an uninflated balloon. At a signal, given from someone outside the fence, from someone who used to be in here with us, we all begin to blow up our balloons." The story amounts to half-game, half-stunt: we see a group of "contestants," as well as a clear objective: to be the first to pop one's balloon.
Participation is optional. "One plays only if one wishes to," the epigraph states, taken from Man, Play and Games, an idiosyncratic 1961 work by Roger Caillois, the pioneer of game studies. Part sociology, part philosophy, part cultural criticism, Caillois's study borrows concepts from various world cultures in the elaboration of a number of broad categories of play, ranging from agôn, "a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created," to alea, "in which winning is the result of fate rather than triumphing over an adversary." A tone of benign pedantry and a pleasingly opaque quality predominate—both of which seem to have inspired Mobilio in crafting the unique voice of Games & Stunts, which sometimes hovers above the contestants like an impartial commentator, diving at other times into their midst as a rival and co-conspirator. Like Caillois, Mobilio uncovers echoes of elemental human nature, both pathetic and profound, in the most trivial-seeming of juvenile competitions; unlike Caillois, Mobilio finds sly humor and beauty there as well.[ Read More ]
A bestiary of human proportions in Elena Passarello's Animals Strike Curious Poses
In "Why Look at Animals?" John Berger writes, "Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises." He goes on to detail the ways in which, in 1977, this is no longer the case; animals no longer hold the mysteries required for acts of the imagination. Berger describes a culture saturated with the animal imagery of late capitalism—toys and costumes, stuffed animal reproductions. He explains that when a child visits the zoo, they cannot help but be disappointed, cannot help but wonder, "Why are these animals less than I believed?"[ Read More ]
Sexual awakening amid poverty and violence in Édouard Louis's The End of Eddy
Early in The End of Eddy (FSG, May 2017), the autobiographical debut novel of twenty-four-year-old Édouard Louis, the protagonist, Eddy Belleguele, recounts his mother's frequent vituperations against what she calls "the politicians." To her, such figures seem like distant, mysterious overlords who only ever make their presence felt, at least in their impoverished, semi-rural village in northern France, in the form of reductions to welfare payments. She resents them, and yet, when conversation turns toward crime, or "Arabs," or "any kind of sexual behavior she didn't approve of," she doesn't "hesitate to invoke those same powers," telling Eddy, "What we need is some law and order in this country." Later, once Eddy has fled home and availed himself of an education, he'll find in his mother's conflicted raillery echoes of those women who, in 1789, went in droves to Versailles to vent their grievances, but upon seeing Louis XVI, chanted Vive le Roi! Much like those women, and Eddy himself, his mother is "torn between absolute submission to power and an enduring sense of revolt."[ Read More ]
She sitting across from me on the train and people are shooting crazy looks at her cause she shoulda got off four stops ago with the rest of the white people. They prolly wondering if she missed her stop. I know she ain't, but no one's asking. She act like she reading a magazine, but I know she staring at me. Studying a brother.
We come up out the station and the heat pimp slaps her cheeks red. She look confused, like she don't believe how hot it is in Brooklyn. When she left the city, it was cool, around eighty degrees or so. But here, the big bank clock at the junction is flashing ninety-six degrees. She must not know how the mayor got a big-ass AC in the sky that pumps out cool air all over Manhattan to keep the tourists and the big Willie white people comfortable.
All these brown bodies just absorb the heat and store it up for the winter. It's the only way tropical people can survive in New York when it starts to get cold.[ Read More ]
Deepak Unnikrishnan's Temporary People and the fantastical realities of life in the Persian Gulf
One morning two bulldozers climbed on top of an abandoned white building that sits at the end of a major T-junction. They shimmied their way up and took a rest to enjoy the view. After a day or so they lifted their blades up to the sky, and then set to work peck-pecking the building apart. Within two weeks they had reduced the entire structure to rubble. Then they sat, gloating, on the pile. After another few weeks they moved on, and, where the building once stood, the sun now streams into drivers' eyes.
There is something about this city—Abu Dhabi—that makes you want to anthropomorphize what it contains. It could be the sterility of a place ruled by artificial rhythms: waves of construction and demolition, the foraging routes of roaches, the flux of foreign-born workers and residents. Parks are peopled in stages: the early afternoon is the white Westerners' shift. (They bed their children first.) The Levantine Arabs, who put their children down later, come afterward; they are followed by the Gulf Arabs, whose children never seem to sleep at all.[ Read More ]
There is a particular
alleyway, not in this country.
I was late, it was dark,
and the fastest way
to reunite with my companions
was to walk down a very long
passage lined on each side
by the backs of buildings
then across a stretch of open road
through to the back entrance
of a gated theater complex
where we were meant to see a play.
Even before I began walking I knew
it was a bad idea.
I was drawn down the alley
by a feeling of inevitability and doom
such as one feels
walking to the gallows
in a hanging dream.
Syntactical adventure and rolling ruminations in Clark Coolidge: Selected Poems 1962–1985
In his introduction to Clark Coolidge: Selected Poems 1962–1985 (Station Hill Press, April 2017), Bill Berkson recalls something John Ashbery once told him about "Europe," a poem published in his 1957 collection, The Tennis Court Oath. Ashbery said that the work of Clark Coolidge was "the best extension he could imagine to what he was doing." High praise to be sure, yet there's more. That Ashbery has since omitted "Europe" from his own Selected Poems, published in 1985, has been interpreted a number of ways. Here is another: Ashbery left it out because Coolidge ran away with it.[ Read More ]
Freeing Joan of Arc from her Catholic trappings in Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan
Studying the lives of the saints is not a gentle undertaking. What seems at the onset to be a series of seemingly pious portraits turns into a coldly fascinating look at obsession and sacrifice. To a young Southern Catholic like me, the histories of Saint Lucy or Saint Teresa of Avila felt entirely detached from my reality. At thirteen, I was a believer, but their experiences felt dated or conditional. Then, along came Joan. As part of the evaluation process for confirmation, our parish priest said he would ask our families if we were sexually active. His perverse curiosity belittled all that encompassed my life as a Catholic. Was I nothing more than a body? It was the same feeling I had when I learned about Joan of Arc. When men looked at her, they saw a girl they could destroy by burning her body.[ Read More ]