As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Featuring selections by Justin Taylor, Shelly Oria, Mary Walling Blackburn, Kevin Killian, Barry Schwabsky, John Freeman, and more.
Part of the Looking Back series.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs (FSG Originals) is a novel of the future. It’s surprising, and—while giving despair its full measure—it’s surprisingly inspiring. A Bolano-esque labyrinth of shaggy dog stories flow through the narrator, describing the existential and physical conditions of a present in which it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but it’s written in calm and succinct, elegant prose. Lim nails the amnesia of sensory overload perfectly. Attending a cultural event, the narrator and friends are enthralled by Jonas Mekas’ chilling meditation on history and mortality but when they repair to a bar and watch a reality TV show on screen, his words evaporate.
Two of my favorite poetry collections of 2017 were published by Tavern Books, out of Portland Oregon: Elsbeth Pancrazi’s Full Body Pleasure Suit, a glorious mindbender, the latest entry in their stellar Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series; and Yannis Ritsos’ Monochords, 336 one-line poems written in the summer of 1979 and presented here in a newly revised translation from the Greek by Paul Merchant. Speaking of translation: Peter Cole’s Hymns & Qualms: New and Selected Poems and Translations (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is an excellent introduction to an extraordinary body of work, and surely one of the best books of the year. Now listen: they published a story of mine so forgive the inside baseball/own-horn-tooting (or don’t forgive it; that’s fine, too) but as far as I’m concerned the renaissance and relaunch of The Sewanee Review is the best thing that happened in literary magazines in 2017, full stop. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s two-part essay on the origin of the word “blues” should win a National Magazine Award. Ben Fountain, Danielle Evans, Jamie Quatro, Michael Knight, Kaveh Akbar, Mary Ruefle, Stephanie Danler—I could keep going, but forget the big names for a second and let me tell you about Sidik Fofana, whose debut fiction (“The Okiedoke”) in the Winter issue was so good that they had him back again in the Fall issue (“The Rent Manual”). These stories seem to be building toward a book and I for one am ready for that book now. Someone should give Fofana one of those quit-your-job-and-finish-your-book prizes. On a different note, here is the complete text of an unpublished letter to the editor, mailed August 2, 2017:
>>>>> In his ecstatic yet aggrieved review of Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings (“Handle With Care”, July 24, 2017) James Wood argues that the novel’s likening of the characters Yoav and Uri’s work on an eviction crew in New York City to their time serving in the IDF in the Occupied Territories is a “stabbing at similitudes” that “barely survives serious scrutiny.” I could not more emphatically disagree. Wood takes political as well as aesthetic exception to the idea that these two jobs might be understood as interchangeable, but in my reading the relation between “The Occupation” and “an occupation” is meant to be less symmetrical than homophonic. The eviction work draws on the soldiers’ military training: physical strength, feigned indifference to suffering, an ability to follow orders. Moreover, despite radical differences in context and country, the tasks themselves are identical and so are the results: people and things are forced from houses; the marginalized become the dispossessed; the fabric of communities is torn. It doesn’t matter that there’s a legitimate legal—or, in the IDF’s case, existential—justification for what Yoav and Uri are put to work doing, first in Palestine and later in New York. Just as the differences in motive ideology don’t matter to the refugees and the dead, so the moral and spiritual corrosion that Yoav and Uri suffer from inflicting suffering is the same in each case. And the two cases are mutually reinforcing. Having been a soldier optimizes you for enforcing evictions and enforcing evictions reveals that the horrors of war are present even in so-called civilian life. Cohen’s point seems to be that any society in which mass eviction or endless occupation can be understood as necessary or normal is one in which a far deeper rot has already set in. I take this to be not only the novel’s bleakest and most brilliant irony but also its powerful, prescient moral. <<<<<
I’m thankful to Donald Trump—I feel real and true gratitude—for inspiring, in his inconceivable terribleness, an unprecedented surge of the Women’s Movement, including #MeToo. This year has been painful for so many of us, and for me as a person who grew up in Israel, who’d been disillusioned more times that I can count with the notion of activism that yields actual policy change—calling my senators has been hard. I’ve been performing the duties of the Good Liberal, but on some level that’s what it’s all felt like, even marches and protests: performance. That’s by no means a criticism of the beautiful and powerful activism we’ve all been witnessing this year; it’s only a small reminder that we all arrive at this moment with our own personal baggage, that we’re all navigating citizenship in 2017 as best we can.
For me, #MeToo has offered the first path to activism that doesn’t feel performative, and books like Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence (YesYes Books) have been my tour guides. Melnick’s is the rare kind of poetry that reads like a page-turner; I read it in one sitting and then read it again, and in the end I felt both angry and tender, and more alive. Here’s the opening of “Historical Accuracy”:
Say it’s the ‘80s
and we’re all wearing a whole lot of electric pink.
And I’m wearing it short.
I’m wearing it swimsuit, nowhere near the water.
I hire a skywriter to describe me: voluptuous, terrified, bewitching, willing to wait.
Nothing else I read in 2017 was quite like Alissa Nutting’s wild, outrageous novel Made for Love (Ecco). It’s raunchy, disgusting, sharp, and hilarious: exactly the woman-focused story I needed in a raunchy, disgusting year. At once a satire of Google/Amazon-esque world domination, a story about the relationships between parents and children, and the love story of a man and a dolphin, Made for Love skips between genres in order to attempt to answer some of life’s most pressing questions: What is love, actually? And why does it matter?
It’s hard to ignore Rebecca Solnit’s profound words about sexual harassment and equality (or inequality) in The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books). With the uprising of the #MeToo movement this year, Solnit’s words and personal experiences shed light on the history and complexity of silence and silencing. Solnit poignantly describes the roots of silence and the effect of it on both men and women. Her words, descriptions, and facts are volcanic. Bringing in statistics alongside stories from across the globe, the writer and activist draws from popular culture, film, comedy, news, and literature to pinpoint who we are as a society and how we create suffering, while she reveals our ongoing process of redemption.
This strong bible of a book is not only for women, and not only for feminists, it is a book for everyone—a real opportunity to dig deep into our habits and comfort zones, as well as into our fixations and discomforts. This is a book that will make you think and hopefully act and support change in 2018.
I want to tell you about a new book of poetry called Apsara in New York (Willow Books) by the Khmer writer Sokunthary Svay. I heard Svay read at a Queens Writers Resist reading, which was really the best event I attended this year. (Nancy Agabian and Amy Treesa Paul started the series right after the election, and people keep coming back.) Svay’s singular, gorgeous book of poems is going to be in my bag for the foreseeable future.
This year I also found solace in the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold and Didion’s essay “The White Album.” I find it comforting to look back at the late sixties because it was a very traumatic time, and history is grounding in the chaos of the present. Yet another documentary that helped me make sense of the present this year was I Am Not Your Negro, which collages James Baldwin’s astounding writing with films clips.
I read a number of wonderful books this year, but honestly, I mostly read my horoscope to stay calm while in the throes of personal grief. I particularly like Chani Nicholas’s woke words of wisdom by way of the stars.
This year I’ve learned that I have to seek out my own path of healing.
Two poetry collections that totally floored me and then carried me through the year were Alan Felsenthal’s Lowly (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s Of Mongrelitude (Wave Books)—the latter re-making language with the volty force of trickster myth and the former re-making parable with exquisite gentleness and warmth. They both sound anciently fresh and freshly ancient, nothing like one another or anyone else. In any case they’re forever. Both let real, weird beauty have the last word at a moment when it’s hard to hear it. They could be exactly what we need to get us through the dark hours.
Mary Walling Blackburn
1/17: Post-election eclipse. Reading Hilda de Almeida Prado Hilst’s novella The Obscene Madame D (Nightboat Books)—because my government is raw and immoral because her words are raw but amoral. I read in hopes that I will move against a phallic life, a phallic state.
3/17: Making sculptures in response to the essays of ghost eyes a.k.a. Voltairine de Cleyre, most important American-born anarchist and terrible poet. In her essays, she talks about talking until the police club in her mouth stops the flow; she publishes her address for those who threaten to kill anarchists. (How did I ever imagine I was brave? I, coward read; Coward re-reads all year; Half-Coward re-re-reads today.)
6/17: Find Temporary People (Restless Books) by Deepak Unnikrishnan on a stoop in Brooklyn, an unproofed review copy—bloody, relevant, mordant. Unnikrishnan and Elfriede Jelinek feel like cronies—with their deadly, ludic dissections of contemporary capitalism. Summer before last, the street offered Sold to the Lady in the Green Hat—the annals of a Vermont female auctioneer; is it advisable to let the street choose your read?
10/17: The government remains dumb and brutal; I begin to read cookbooks like their obituaries. A recipe from city rubble. A recipe from a city about to be rubble. A recipe for immune-support granola. My stove-rubble: it would be one version of fairness if my city was in ruins. Ecologically, already is.
11/17 | 11th Hour: Album, albumen? The yolk of the end. Instead: Here is a recording from underneath: Eliane Radigue’s deep listening composition Occam River XV delivered, like a sci-fi baby, in an English cave.
I keep returning to novelist Charles Baxter’s craft talk “Things About to Disappear: The Writer as Curator,” delivered at 2017’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference (downloadable here, totally for free!). Baxter’s always been a charming savant about how narrative patterns shape and change us, but here he’s more urgent than ever, charging writers of this bleak moment to get to work, and build “an emotional inventory that includes objects of the past,” and cultural norms that may soon vanish, if they haven’t already. The talk is a spellbinding, mosaic tour of Baxter’s own memories of our expiring present, alongside the preservational, “pre-apocalyptic” work of Edith Wharton, Wright Morris, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, William Maxwell, Don DeLillo, Henry James, Deborah Eisenberg, Antonín Dvořák, Manuel Rosenthal, Edward P. Jones, Matthew Arnold, James Wright, Nazim Hikmet, and, perhaps most instructively, Simon Dubnow, who in the 1940s urged the Jews of Nazi-sieged Latvia to “memorize each detail, each name, every sigh, and the color of clouds, as well as the executioner’s gesture.” It’s a deeply resonant manifesto on the writer’s radical, archival mission in historical crisis, throughout which which Baxter suggests, as Air Credits does, that the path forward during uncertain times may be paved by what our past has already given us.
I read it towards the end of 2016 but it remained a vital book for me and many fellow Brits in 2017: The Good Immigrant (Unbound), edited by Nikesh Shukla, is a vital, furious, passionate and bleakly funny collection of essays by British writers of colour responding to the “hostile [read: murderous] environment” for migrants being cultivated as political policy in the UK by the Conservative government. When a hateful Tory MP took the time to officially oppose a new literary prize for writers of color because he deemed it discriminatory against white people, I had to donate a copy to the main library in his constituency. Other books which struck me this year: Jeffrey Zuckerman’s stunning translation of Ananda Devi’s Eve Out of Her Ruins (Deep Vellum), a poetic and brutal portrayal of adolescence in urban Mauritius. Kate Briggs’ powerful, playful and utterly compelling meditation on the labour of literary translation, This Little Art (Fitzcarraldo Editions). And Daniela Cascella is singing out my 2017 with Singed: Muted Voice-Transmissions, After The Fire (Equus Press) a mesmerizing text prompted by the loss of the writer’s books in a fire. Cascella’s conjectures—what might be recovered from a site of destruction—her assemblage of a poetics from the ashes, a piecing together of fragments, stutterings, utterings, and silences feels like essential preparation for the work we might be tasked with in 2018 and beyond.
Sometime around fall, Scott McClanahan lent me a copy of Elem Klimov’s film Come and See, and I haven’t stopped thinking of it since. The immediate, shaking POV, the immersive violence and brutality, the figures staring head on into the camera. It all felt so strangely and sickly in the now; nothing really changes. Earlier this year I couldn’t read at all until I came to Boris Pahor’s Necropolis (Dalkey Archive Press) and sent myself down a chain of Holocaust literature, suddenly the only language that seemed to matter; from Kertész to Kiš to Duras and so on. Reading seemed to mean something again after a lot of forced space surrounding. In the wake of those monstrosities, new life came in through Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream (Riverhead Books), Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words from Montmartre (NYRB Classics), Christopher Higgs’s As I Stand Living (Civil Coping Mechanisms), Mathias Énard’s Zone (Open Letter) and Compass (New Directions), Solmaz Sharif’s Look (Graywolf Press), Nathanaël’s Feder (Nightboat), Chris Kraus’s After Kathy Acker (Semiotex(e)), the videos of Mark Baumer, RIP. And as ever, fleshed out between those, I probably wouldn’t have gotten anything much done at a desk if it weren’t for the music of Tim Hecker, Nightbringer, and Mighty Plugs-brand ear plugs, my eternal VIP.
For the past years I have been looking at quietness as a form of refusal and resistance in the lives of those who find themselves marginalized. In Listening to Images (Duke University Press), Tina Campt’s brilliant work on the quotidian and the quiet in relation to the African diaspora, Campt argues for what she calls a “deeper understanding of the sonic frequencies of the quotidian practices of black communities.” She tells the story of her own father, deep in mourning, the night after his wife’s death, not speaking nor weeping, but instead, humming. As Campt explains, it is in this non-verbal embodied articulation that her father is able to relay the unsayable. She writes:
Even now, the memory of my father’s quiet hum connects me to feelings of loss I cannot articulate in words, and it provokes in me a simultaneously overwhelming and inseparable response. It is this exquisitely articulate modality of quiet—a sublimely expressive unsayability that exceeds both words, as well as what we associate with sound and utterance—that moves me toward a deeper understanding of the sonic frequencies of the quotidian practices of black communities.
As Campt writes, “Listening to Images reclaims the photographic archive of precarious dispossessed black subjects in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries by attending to the quiet but resonant frequencies of images that have been historically dismissed and disregarded.” This text has been a constant companion—a toolbox of sorts—helping me in my day to day life as well as with my creative and intellectual endeavors.
Toward the end of the year appeared a great book that’s both new and not: The first English translation (by Wieland Hoban) of a series of lectures by Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetics (Polity). In them we overhear the philosopher working out ideas that would later culminate in his posthumously published Aesthetic Theory (1970), and his thinking is more accessible in this form. No other aesthetics is as deeply immersed in both philosophy and art as Adorno’s; only his exemplifies his perception that understanding art means being “inside” it, since “the moment one is no longer inside it… art begins to withdraw in a certain sense, to close up.” The goal is not to understand the meaning of a work, but to feel its necessity. The interest of these nearly sixty-year-old lectures is not primarily historical; the conflicts they address are more alive than ever. Consider Adorno’s reflection that, as a proponent of the avant-garde, he nonetheless has to recognize “that this radicalism also contains something very un-radical, one could almost say something resigned, and that there are situations in which precisely such radical art can become an alibi for an eschewal of interventional practice.” But that interventionist practice might not be art, since “we behave aesthetically the moment we… are not realistic, the moment we do not wisely consider our advantage, our progress or whatever goals we may have.” Adorno takes us right up to the border between art and action.
Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (Zero Books), Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (Zero Books), and The Weird and the Eerie (Repeater Books) are all incredibly poignant and necessary, as is his brilliant music and cultural criticism on his blog K-punk. All have been crucial as a guiding force this year on how to move forward despite the apathy and relentless atrocities inflicted by our era of neoliberal capitalism. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming anthology in 2018 that will feature work from his unfinished book Acid Communism, in addition to other writings and interviews. Rest in Power, Mark Fisher.
“You can judge all you want about how we might license our song to a commercial,” Interpol front-man Paul Banks tells author Lizzy Goodman in her impressive-as-hell, collaborative oral history of modern New York City, Meet Me in the Bathroom (Dey Street Books), “but start paying for the fucking CDs and I’ll stop doing that!” As Goodman’s narrative describes it, around the turn of the century music enthusiasts en masse quit paying for songs they loved, instead going to one website or another to stream them. Rather than a band earning a generous living for their work, the proprietors of said websites (e.g. Ayn Randian übermensches Sean Parker of Napster, or more recently Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google/Alphabet-owned YouTube) devour the lion’s share of proceeds shelled out by advertisers for those clicks. Save for what gets made on tour, the individual artist hangs out to dry.
That’s exactly the scenario Jonathan Taplin starts from in his cogent, widely sourced Move Fast and Break Things (Little, Brown), a sweeping manifesto against internet-powered monopolists (Google, Facebook, and monopsony Amazon). Taplin’s first job out of Princeton was managing The Band in the late ’60s, whose mascot, drummer, and principal vocalist was Levon Helm. Mascot, but not their songwriter: when album-sale revenue collapsed so did Helm’s annual income, which proved hugely disruptive to his retirement when he came down with throat cancer. He was compelled to perform for his life at an age when most anyone else would expect a little hard-earned peace and quiet in which to heal. While the “Midnight Rambles” Helm hosted—on the farmland he stood to lose if not for those shows’ earnings—are said to have been a real great time for attendees, Taplin provides ample sense of how in a more just society the guy would have had other options. Taplin also spells out the way that internet monopolies infect news organizations with perverse incentives—then, lo & behold, chaos comes knocking in the form of our first Twitter president.
He isn’t president of anything, except perhaps my soul, but Helm’s contemporary and old stage-mate Bob Dylan (a.k.a. “Nobel Bob”) played a full slate of shows in 2017 just as he did the year before and the year before that. Almost like nothing at all changed with the new calendar year except Dylan’s set-lists and song arrangements: a more wistfully melodic “Tangled Up in Blue”; a thunderously rocking “Ballad of the Thin Man.” When he was young, the more zealous members of Dylan’s audience projected “prophet” status on to the young writer of protest songs, a mantle he refused; now, we project the young Dylan on to the sly, canny grandpa who asks “Why Try to Change Me Now”? No denying, it is kind of funny. A few years ago the snarkiest among us wanted to know, what was he was doing in that Super Bowl commercial? Ask Paul Banks.
Among my favorite artworks of 2017 is the quirky artist’s book Sperm Cult (Bad Dimensions Press) by Richard Hawkins and Elijah Burgher. Unusual in form, Sperm Cult eschews high quality printing effects to harken back to ‘80s/‘90s gay zine style, as well as to earlier eras of magick rituals presented for titillation to Western eyes. Hawkins and Burgher preserve the kitsch aspect perfectly, while layering newly shot photo footage with ornate extracts from, or pastiches of, 19th and 20th century texts of Crowleyan provenance. Many of my favorite contemporary artists are here, nude but for ceremonial fetish trinkets, grainily practicing sex and blood rituals as though the fate of the world depends on it. And maybe it does!
I finished Roxane Gay’s short-story collection Difficult Women (Grove Press) in a stalled subway car. It was after the election of a known predator, and after I had abandoned a stable life in favor of one that prioritized myself. In each of Gay’s stories, women defy what is expected of them, women speak what is often unsaid, women hurt and are hurt, women are tender and violent, women are, most importantly, real. Throughout much of the book, women resist the notion of belonging, women say no to futures they no longer find themselves suited for.
But on that 2 train, running local, stuck in between stations, I read the final story in the collection—which I adored and obsessively annotated—but I became uneasy at the last paragraph: a woman says yes. My initial feelings were of cynicism and rage: how could you end the book like that? These women are strong; these women do not need anyone. When a woman (or anyone) has worked so hard to exist on her own, letting herself exist and be loved by another is terrifying.
Roxane Gay knows this. It’s why the last paragraph of Difficult Women is such a triumph. Her women are recovering and breaking and healing and reconstructing their worlds to make space for a future of their own making. For some, that future would be an independent one, but it did not have to be. In the wake of this year, we could all use this reminder. While we must respect ourselves and exist in integrity, it is not the stronger choice to do so alone—sometimes it’s even stronger to learn how to be with someone. This book will change you.
2017 has been a terrible year for the world. But 2017 has been a good year for my many enthusiasms for many writers: Laura Lippman, Megan Abbott, Rachel Cusk, Jennifer Egan, Rachel Khong, Curtis Sittenfeld, Fran Ross, Jenny Offill, Alice Kaltman, Zadie Smith, Maile Meloy, Angela Carter, Edna O’Brien, Nick Laird, and Vivian Gornick to name but a few. The novel that gave me the greatest sustenance in the midst of our wretched moment was My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House) by Elizabeth Strout. Particularly compelling was the following paragraph:
“I have said this before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”
It is a simple insight, perhaps obvious, perhaps sentimental, but devastating if genuinely applied to oneself and formidable to practice its opposite. I want it tattooed on my brain.
In a year of illogic and sanctioned stupidity, I took comfort in Joseph O’Neill’s 2014 novel The Dog (Vintage). It was a cold comfort, I should say. The novel’s protagonist, X., is a corporate lawyer who, fleeing connubial disaster back in New York, relocates to Dubai. There he takes up work as a family trustee for a clan of Lebanese zillionaires, the Batroses, whose financial mendacities will ultimately ensnare him. There’s not much in the way of plot here; storylines drift hither and thither with little consequence, in much the manner of the city’s deracinated inhabitants. An amateur scuba diver known as the Man from Atlantis goes missing and is never found. Much quasi-erotic attention on the part of X. is paid to high-quality document embossers. The ethics of the world’s oldest profession are painstakingly assessed. What makes the book sad and hilarious, and also perversely timely, is X.’s conviction, earnestly upheld, that he can arrive at anything like moral clarity through mere reason, erudition, and analysis. The fool, as Shakespeare has it, doth think he is wise. X.’s quest for understanding, for exactitude, deforms his language: triple-parentheticals, page-long sentences, and shreds of dog Latin abound. He makes so much sense that he stops making sense. In 2017, he was the only person who made sense to me. Here, I thought, are the exhausted thumpings of the heart under neoliberalism. “Krokodilstränen. Les larmes de crocodile,” says X. “The human tear, once a great currency, is now worthless everywhere.”
Liza St. James
It was a joy to witness the appreciation for Leonora Carrington around the centennial of her birth in April. The Hearing Trumpet is one of my all-time favorite books, and this year when I read her stories with high-school fiction writers, I was able to bring in the full collection in English (Dorothy). I fell deep into Down Below (NYRB Classics) and bought The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Children’s Collection), pretending it was a gift for my niece and nephew. Good thing I kept it for myself, at least for a couple more years—if my sister read it to her kids now, I’d probably have some explaining to do. We seem to be getting better at celebrating “forgotten” women writers. Hopefully this means we’re also on the way to “forgetting” fewer in the first place.
The book I kept coming back to in 2017 felt incredibly timely, in part because it captures the feeling of helplessness many people are feeling at this moment in history, both domestically and across the globe. It calls out the history of violence in our culture. It gives voice to political unrest and our growing sense that everything—even language—is falling apart. The great irony is that this book, W. S. Merwin’s The Lice (Copper Canyon Press), appeared in 1967. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of what is, without question, one of the most influential books of American poetry published since 1950. To commemorate, Copper Canyon Press issued a special edition complete with facsimiles of manuscript pages. In spare, haunting poems that marry myth and existential grief, Merwin is able to write an elegy for the future he could hardly imagine.
I definitely needed books to get me through the year, if not to alleviate the anxiety (which, frankly, wasn’t possible), then to at least accompany me in some way. And I read a lot. Javier Marías’ novel Thus Bad Begins (Knopf), is at first veiled and then direct, absorbing in how it illuminates the strange turns of life and the unexpected, sometimes dark relationships between its characters. The cover of the book, a photograph of a woman emerging out of (or stepping back into) a deep shadow is telling. It is the perfect image for the feeling of the novel in a way that covers so often miss. Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), the second in her trilogy after Outline, is equally absorbing. Transit doesn’t shy away from anxiety and difficulty. It explores feeling and emotion without being emotional, which is a rare feat. I loved both of these books and I sunk into their different forms of darkness and life with fascination and pleasure.
The work that most helped me navigate the last year was the German writer Clemens Meyer’s novel Bricks and Mortar (Fitzcarraldo Editions). The novel tells the story of the sex trade in an unnamed city in the former GDR, from the fall of communism to roughly the present day. Through a cast of characters that includes football hooligans, businessmen, landlords, sex-workers, and an ex-jockey searching for his lost daughter, the book traces how in the twenty years after German unification prostitution went from complete prohibition to an economy sanctioned by state law. Meyer’s writing is rich and playful, shifting between the many voices in the novel and flashing forward and backward in time. What really stood out about this novel, however, was its treatment of history. By writing toward the present through the echoes of the recent past, Bricks and Mortar draws the many individual stories contained within the novel into the shadow of our neoliberal present. In doing so Meyer reminds us that what happens today will soon be the history we carry with us tomorrow. In Bricks and Mortar that burden is often hard to bear.
Patrick James Dunagan
Given the dire political situation in this country, the last year has been a miserable bleak mess (Fuck Donald Trump). Adding the deaths of poets (to name only those closest to my own sensibilities: David Meltzer, Joanne Kyger, Tom Raworth, Larry Fagin, John Ashbery) only worsens things. David and Joanne I knew personally. Facing the impossibility of thinking of them being gone has been a shock that I continue to process. The appearance of Joanne’s There You Are: Interviews, Journals, and Ephemera has been a bittersweet delight. My pal Cedar Sigo has however rendered a fine tribute to a truly wonderful and delightful poet. May we all live as rich a life and be as accurate custodians to the imagination and language as Joanne and David, especially in the no doubt difficult and dark year to come.
When the first volume of Peter Weiss’s 1982 novel The Aesthetics of Resistance (Duke University Press) was translated into English (wonderfully) by Joachim Neugroschel in 2005, even a magazine as far left as The Nation wondered why the book—which tells the story of a group of working-class Nazi resisters in 1938—felt compelled to rehash the artistic and political debates of the thirties. Translating the novel’s third volume this past year, I could not have disagreed more. I was struck by the strange timeliness that suffused Weiss’s depiction of the struggle to imagine freer and more just ways of living in times of utter political hopelessness. And in light of the cynical, cavalier way art crops up in the Times and the New Yorker, which celebrate the “creativity” of luxury restaurants and corporate offices, I found something thrillingly defiant in the way that Weiss’s protagonists devour the classics—Kafka, Dante, the Pergamon Altar, Dada, Surrealism, Cervantes—and will messages of hope and endurance into their pages. The novel has precious little in the way of period detail: no telling knick-knacks, no costumes, no old-timey turns of phrase, no winking contrasts to the mores of the present. What Weiss has to tell our current moment is that there is no moment: there are only a multitude of imagined futures clamoring to take place. For anyone trying to put into words the chagrin, as well as the sense of thrilling possibility, that came with seeing old political certainties shattered in 2017, Weiss’s novel will offer rewarding companionship.
This year I’ve turned to writing that refuses to negotiate its terms, rejecting the idea that everything has to be up for grabs at all times. L.A-based and L.A.-obsessed poet Vickie Vértiz conjures up the image of a Palm Frond with Its Throat Cut (University of Arizona Press) for the title of a book that elicits tears and rage and awe with its “darting bullets in the dark” and “rabbit-tipped vibrators.” Hearing her read recently in Tucson after the Thinking Its Presence conference was an invitation to the joys of voicing. Vértiz’s reading voice is one of the most fabulously anti-poet-voice voices I’ve heard in years.
Luis Felipe Fabre is another fearlessly effortless writer. His new collection of essays, called Escribir con caca (Writing with Shit) (Sexto Piso), is about Salvador Novo, the early-twentieth-century chronicler of Mexico City. Fabre appropriates an insult hurled by Octavio Paz at the very queer Novo—that his poetry came from the anus, that other dirty mouth. Fabre turns that purported slight into a theory of resistant, cheeky writing.
We need more writers with dirty, unashamed mouths at the moment. As is Beast Meridian (Noemi Press) by Vanessa Angélica Villarreal; she forms a migrant bestiary for this dark year out of the poetic lines laid by after-school detentions, tropical depressions, Gulf Coast blues, boogey men in closets, and “a halo of beasts.” This narrative of one brown grrl’s survival in the face a harsh, harsh world doesn’t deign to negotiate; it sneers and schemes, while, as Villarreal writes, “We whip our tails to a silent song.”
Antonio Sergio Bessa
Writer and Curator
In preparation for an exhibition that I will organize next year for Pratt Institute on John Ashbery’s collage work, I have been soaking myself on his books, including his winning series of lectures Other Traditions (Harvard University Press). I also enjoyed reading Karin Roffman’s biography The Songs We Know Best (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which gives great insight in his early years in Upstate New York. In the process, I also went back to writers like Marjorie Perloff, and Harold Bloom, who have written about his poetry with great insight.
Sarah Jean Grimm
Andrés Barba’s gruesome novella Such Small Hands (Transit Books) has haunted me all year. The story is based on a true incident in which a group of girls at an orphanage killed another child, then played with her body parts for a week, as if she were a doll. In Barba’s hands, this horrific sparagmos unfolds with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, alternating between the voice of the newly orphaned Marina and a chorus of her peers, veteran orphans. There is a tender logic ordering the world of these children, each of them habituated to grief, guided by twin engines of love and pain. Their violence is disturbing for its sheer banality, jarring the notion of children as pure and innocent.
I think back to my own childhood and recall casual cruelties, the easy brutality of bullies. I think of the bully in the White House, and what brutalities may come. 2017 suspended most everyone I know in a state of constant dread. I found a sort of balm in courting the particular anxiety of the horror genre, where the grotesque is expected and there’s no pretense of innocence when people behave monstrously. Lisa Dillman’s exquisite translation of this brilliant story offered me a temporary exorcism.
Often, especially now, I wonder about the hidden tremors of America, and whether or not their potential could heal me if I could only tap into them further, for longer. I’m talking about our subterranean cultures and personalities, and how artists and writers are meant to reveal them. Late in 2017, I discovered NECK, a brand-new journal of art and literature, primarily poetry. Founded and edited by the poet Ryan Paradiso, NECK features the work of mostly writers who have yet to publish a book. This was in line with Paradiso’s conceit for the journal, as his own name appears nowhere in the magazine; it is purchasable by mailing him a check to an address outside Marfa, Texas.
While not all of the contributors are American, the journal exudes a very molten American energy, something that harnesses and transforms the mythos of our highways, our wars, and our endless individual tragedies into a vision that looks forward as if across the desert night. There are many exciting discoveries, including Michael Dhyne, Annie Pittman, and Travis Klunick, as well as the black-and-white photography of Matthew Genitempo, a sublime artist who works on the open road. I know I love something when it feels too good to be true. I want to make Ryan Paradiso sit down and tell me how he managed to produce such a beautiful thing, but then it’s all already there—the art and writing of people who are working undercover in the constellated American landscape, filling NECK’s pages with the spirits of this country’s protean mystery.
Sometimes ambiguity can tell a story better than clarity; sometimes the questions a narrative doesn’t answer are the most haunting ones of all. (This was the year of Twin Peaks: The Return, so…) A lot of the fiction that got under my skin had a magnificently sustained ambiguity running through it. Consider Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It (FSG Originals). On one level, it’s the story of a couple who buy a house that turns out to be haunted–but the manner in which it’s told leaves plenty of room for the reader to question all that’s happening below the surface. Is this a story with one unreliable narrator? With two? Is it about a haunted house, a haunted neighborhood; is it about an angry revenant or a malevolent presence of a more tactile variety? Or is it all of the above?
Some of those same questions are brought to mind in Hari Kunzru’s White Tears (Knopf), which deftly brings up themes of cultural appropriation, economic inequality, and the nature of art. Along the way, Kunzru creates some of the most harrowing sequences I’ve read all year—and some of the most unsettling images. Even stories more rooted in historical events can spin off alternate timelines: the likes of Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs (FSG Originals), David Burr Gerrard’s The Epiphany Machine (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), and Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn (Blue Rider Press) all tap into the stuff of history even as their authors alter certain crucial events, kicking away the footing from below the reader and leaving them adrift, to a stunning narrative effect. And when a similar device is applied to a narrative with aspects of the memoir, as in Anne Garréta’s newly-translated Not One Day (Deep Vellum Press), the results are perfectly suited for a moment in time when personae and identities are increasingly malleable, and the nature of knowledge exists in a state of flux.
That our world is a ruin was a given for the great poet and aphorist Fernando Pessoa, who assumed, a century ago, that any of our lives is at best a provisional endeavor: the struggle of a largely unknowable animal to narratively create a meaningful context for itself in a world that is likely a categorical mistake. How is it, then, that the some thirty-five thousand sheets of diary-like fictions he left in a chest upon his death have become a book that can be so helpful, indeed soothing, to a contemporary soul, even one in this tumultuous year of 2017? I’m talking about The Book of Disquiet, which Jerónimo Pizarro reshaped (in what may be the definitive version of a book that resists definition) and Margaret Jull Costa brilliantly translated for New Directions this year, and which has been my constant, comforting companion since it was released. Pessoa’s strategy is one I recognize as a novelist: negotiate our botched realm by trying to pull something subjectively beautiful out of something objectively awful. In order to do that, one has to see, and then learn how to say what one sees. In The Book of Disquiet Pessoa said what he saw, so poignantly and gorgeously that it is, for me and others, a forever book. It is only appropriate that Peter Mendelsund’s arresting design for this New Directions edition raises the physical book itself to the status of an art object. In one of the book’s countless passages of profound seeing, Pessoa observes young couples out strolling by the river: “If I compare them to myself,” he admits, “I still enjoy them, but like someone enjoying a painful truth, combining the pain of the wound with the balm of having understood the gods.”
One book predicted, unpacked and raged at the ongoing emergency of 2017 for me: Lawrence Joseph’s sixth collection of poems, So Where Are We? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). It’s a book about love written straight at the violence that has become commonplace in our times—the police shootings, the aerial bombardments of Syria, the legalized thuggery of late capital banking practices, the bewilderment of the self through all this aerated vandalism of bodies and language. I don’t know of an American poet who has grappled this rigorously with the derangements of capitalism. So it’s a difficult book but a warm one, and in moments staggeringly beautiful. Joseph has learned from the late poets John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich how to pivot on a dime from a public, almost technocratic register to an intimate one. Here is a voice crying out in the dark a psalm of species grief, turning to us, the readers, and love, his love, for solace. As with most truth-telling prophets, there’s an optimism that radiates from these visions because, at least, if you’re like me, now you know you’re not alone.
Publisher of Open Letter Books
For me, 2017 included three monumental artistic moments. First up, I reread Joyce’s Ulysses for the first time in twenty years, finishing on Bloomsday over a pint of Guinness, as one should. When I was a kid, I loved Stephen and his artistic fire. Decades on, Bloom’s guilt and resignation is so much closer to the way that I experience the world. I spent about eight hours—and eight Guinnesses—explaining all of this to any and everyone within earshot of Rochester’s Irish bars.
That nicely overlapped with the launch of Twin Peaks: The Return. I’ve never seen anything like this. It may well be David Lynch’s masterpiece. It is definitely something that I’ll be revisiting and puzzling over for years to come. Dr. Amp’s “Dig yourself out of the shit!” refrain is perfect for 2017. But the most notable part of this experience was the way that it was meted out, hour by stunning hour, and even when an episode raised more questions than it answered, it led to long conversations with an intimate group of Twin Peaks fans. This sort of group experience hasn’t happened for me since Lost went off the air (off the rails?) way back when. And no, I don’t watch Game of Thrones. Fuck that shit.
One of the people I spent every Monday talking Twin Peaks with was Rodrigo Fresán. We happened to publish his novel The Invented Part in the spring, and over the summer we launched a podcast (Two Month Review) to discuss a book slowly but surely over an extended period. A little intellectual oasis in the torrent of media releases and “what to read now” lists, this experience was incredibly satisfying. Carving out a half-hour a week to really mull over—and straight up enjoy—a complex, mind-blowing novel is the way to do it. And the novel itself! Before this trilogy is over, Fresán will be as lauded in America as he is in the rest of the world—as one of the most ambitious literary authors of our time.
I spent a weird amount of time this year thinking about visual storytelling, rewatching movies for their colors, or diving into the sketchbooks of architects. Reading Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Only Wanting This (Pantheon) was part of this exploration. A graphic memoir about the author’s obsession with abandoned spaces, it melded personal and political revelations, gave both its drawing and its writing equal potency.
It still feels like, even in 2017, graphic storytelling is ripe for innovation and experimentation. Radtke’s book is an example of this. It plays with space and time, slithering away from the expected, spanning the globe, and even shifting in to the future. That it successfully includes narratives of war, economic catastrophes, and natural disasters, alongside such a personal story, is a wonder.
“Every day, every hour, every moment,” John Ashbery writes in “Hoboken,” a previously uncollected collage poem, compiled from Roget’s Thesaurus and published in his Collected Poems 1991–2000 (Library of America), edited by the British poet Mark Ford. What greater gift than this second volume of his collected works could John have left us, when he died on September 3, at the formidable age of ninety? In thirty-three years of friendship, he always helped me remember what counts, being here “Still in the published city but not yet / overtaken by a new form of despair.”
Other highlights of the year for me were books of poems by friends we love: Douglas Crase’s iconic landscapes in The Astropastorals (Pressed Wafer), with cover art by Trevor Winkfield; Rosanne Wasserman’s deliciously mischievous Sonnets from Elizabeth’s (Grey Suit Editions); Charles North’s “meteors whose earth / has stood the test of time,” in North of the Charles: Early and Uncollected Poems (Hanging Loose Press); Andrea Applebee’s “bright burning poetry” of desire, distance, closeness, and truth in Aletheia (Black Square Editions); Dara Wier’s sensuous and philosophical In the Still of the Night (Wave Books), a moving tribute to beloved James Tate; and Emily Skillings’s Fort Not (The Song Cave), which John, in one of his last book blurbs, called a “staggeringly beautiful, wildly off-kilter account of daily life.” And I was personally involved with publishing Susan Baran’s new collection of poems, Racing Daylight (with cover art by John’s longtime friend, the painter Jane Freilicher), via The Groundwater Press, which Rosanne and I founded in 1980; and assembling, with Raimundo Mora, a book of short stories, The Infinite Game, to be published in translation, by the refreshingly irreverent, enigmatic Venezuelan writer Matilde Daviu; some of these stories first appeared in BOMB.
This fall, I began to read the biblical Book of Isaiah in Hebrew as a way of coping with the US political crisis, and I was stunned at the plainness and depth of the words, and the vividness of the images. The people of the upper class flaunt their luxurious clothing and oppress the poor. The leadership takes bribes; the poor have no hope of justice. The lies and frivolity of the political class leave the nation open to an onslaught of enemies. The land is devastated by brainless unaccountability. But the powerful with no respect for the law will fall, and a new era of peace and equality will come.
Michael St. John
An article in The Atlantic, “How America Lost Its Mind,” August 7, 2017, by Kurt Andersen. Mr. Andersen’s words and thoughts give voice to an understanding and way of thinking about our current situation, both historically and culturally. A must read!
Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s astonishing How to Read Nancy (Fantagraphics) is a sublime object, a book that’s simultaneously a sensual pleasure to handle; a genius compilation of technical interventions for would-be cartoonists, practical jokers, and literary critics; a bundle of belly-laughs as delightful as a new puppy; and a kind of ontological “mise en abyme” which threatens to topple your sense of reality if you gaze into it too sustainedly. It serves as both a gentle biographical window into the mind of Ernie Bushmiller, the cartoonist who devoted his life to Nancy and Sluggo, and a confessional window into the obsessional fannish-scholarly outlook embodied by the authors themselves, who labored over the exegesis of a single three frames of Bushmiller’s daily strip for decades of their own precious lives. One staggers away from the whole enterprise informed and amazed, and hoping Karasik and Newgarden treat themselves to a few weeks on the Riviera, or in a sensory-deprivation chamber.
Aja Monet writes in My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter (Haymarket Books), “if i listen more than i speak / don’t mean i speak any less.” In the wake of the 2016 election, I felt the immense uselessness of my political engagement, of my voice, my arguments. I felt a profound need to be away from noise, my own most of all. I set out in 2017 to engage with silence, to speak through action, to listen more. I’ve mostly failed. I’ve spoken when I meant to be silent, and gotten angry when I wish I could’ve been calm. But Monet’s work, like so many others I’ve treasured this year, isn’t about control, it’s about our lack of it. It’s about singing as the world continues to hurt you, as life continues to be hard.
Criticism is rarely as good as the essay entitled “Swoonatra” by the British music writer Ian Penman in the July 2015 London Review of Books. Penman is great. He is as conversant with continental theory as Dave Hickey but wears it even more lightly. Penman has been writing for Britain’s NME (then elsewhere, including The Guardian) since ‘77, covering punks, Bowie, et al.
But this piece on Sinatra eventually—which is why I am referring to an article from 2015—drove me to Frank’s music as did the gossipy, but also interestingly analytical book that I found at a book sale, Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra (It Books) by Sinatra’s former valet George Jacobs, and the recent American songbook tribute albums by one Robert Zimmerman.
I have been listening to Sinatra almost steadily since late summer, and it’s been a revelation. Every time I hear him cover certain songs, he spins a tale that has funny, sharp, and deep shadings, some kind of literary jazz. Why did I not hear this before? Even the kitschy hit single “It Was a Very Good Year” has a strange muscularity: he seems to be pulling the words out like taffy. It is one of those rare occurrences where you discover something special that was there all along. Most notably it is thanks to good criticism that this happened.
Writer, Director of Online Editorial and Audience Development
I read far fewer novels in 2017 than I would have liked; blame the reams of political commentary scrolling down my phone. That said, one book in particular transmuted the new American berserk into some kind of catharsis.
Katherine Faw’s Ultraluminous (MCD) is the most of-the-moment novel since The Corrections. In a midnight-black pitch this slim book covers #metoo, New York’s income gap, toxic masculinity, even terrorism. It’s a shard of glass under your fingernail.
For pure escapism, look to Leila Guerriero’s A Simple Story: The Last Malambo (New Directions). It’s a nonfiction account of a farcically grueling dance competition in rural Argentina whose champions are expected to retire immediately upon winning. Their financial recompense is minimal; their glory, outsized and everlasting. Does a 120-page book about dedication and honor sound sleight? In a year like this one I’ll take what I can get.
2017 was the year that confirmed each person’s art was as important as each person’s vote. Artists asked themselves if there was a reason to keep making art. When that question gets asked it reminds me we are in need of experiencing and creating art that makes us see how art, like compassion and kindness, acts as one of the world’s strongest balms. We need art that renders that question moot. Art is a mirror that shows us paths, and answers, that a mirror reflects but cannot say.
Three books come to mind. Seeing Red (Deep Vellum), a 2014 book by Lina Meruane, a Chilean writer who teaches at NYU, about a woman going blind, forced to dive deep into the meanings of her past, Chile’s history, and what it means to her, brought tears of sorrow and joy to my eyes. The personal is gravely political.
Japanese haiku, the work of Basho, Issa, and Buson, reminded me that when the whole world is screaming, and protesting, cardinals still rest quiet on snowy branches.
Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (Scribner), which follows a mixed-race family in rural Mississippi, reminded me that we are all walking mythologies, and that the ghosts of America’s genocidal and slave past are knocking on the door. It’s time they speak.
I reread Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) and then picked up Emma Cline’s The Girls (Knopf) to think about the past that led us here, to ponder my own faulty assumptions and naïve beliefs that made it impossible for me to see the results of the 2016 election in advance. Unlike Joan Didion, who says she, “can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic,”in “Goodbye to All That” I can. It was the election and the realization that parts of America really do hate women this much. Re-reading Joan Didion also reminds me that though the world is terrible and people can be awful, it is also cyclical—things come and go. Evolution is not linear, but more of a jagged push-pull plate tectonic, where something must be shattered in order for progress. What we can’t allow is to be shattered in response or shattered in our resolve.
I saw Emma Cline read from The Girls this past June in a small church on Cuttyhunk Island, and an older gentleman asked where the men were in her book. Ms. Cline smiled and replied, “At every one of my readings, a man asks that question.” Then her voice grew firm, fierce, and she dropped her smile as she said, “It’s called The Girls.” Things may be swinging backwards in every direction, but younger people aren’t having it, and the passage of time and the cyclical nature of things means if we resist, if we refuse to allow the openings and rights gained to be shut down, then progress can still be made with clearer eyes for the knowledge of what is and of what has been.
In a year that reaffirmed the role and importance of art in helping us grapple with violence and disaster, two works stood out: Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant novel Exit West (Riverhead), and Saretta Morgan’s fall poetry chapbook Room for a Counter Interior (Yo Yo Labs).
Morgan, who writes in a form that is most recognizably poetry and whose MFA was in poetry, describes herself as a text-based artist. Her work examines “relationships between intimacy and architecture” and her first chapbook explores “the material wake of violence where loss is both a catalyst and the fractured condition of arrival.” Her work does not make overt reference to Blackness and identity, yet she addresses these topics through allusions to U.S. state violence and structural racism, and in referencing of scholar Hortense Spillers. In the final part of her chapbook, Morgan quotes Spillers: “The day that the enslaved decides to enact the threat of death that always hangs over [them] by risking [their] life is the first day of wisdom.” This quote brings us back to the chapbook’s concern with the materiality of violence, and loss as a point of departure and arrival.
These same themes echo in Hamid’s Exit West, which both taps into the increasing global anxieties and realities of our late-capitalist refugee crises and also humanizes the targets of the Trump administration’s hateful Muslim ban. A perceived loss of wealth is a catalyst for state-enacted violence, and—as in the case of Exit West’s Nadia and Saeed—loss is also the fractured state in which we arrive, at a shore, a home, a present.
The narrator of D. Foy’s Absolutely Golden (Stalking Horse Press) is Rachel Hill, a widowed schoolteacher in her thirties. The book takes place in the 1970s, and early in the story Rachel undergoes a transformation when she dyes her hair golden blonde and decides to wear it loose, instead of in a bouffant. Soon after this the setting moves to a nudist colony and stays there—and Rachel (along with the rest of the characters) is naked throughout much of the story.
The fall of 2017 might not have been the most fortuitous time for a male author to publish a book narrated by a woman. It could be that there was an almost guileless quality to doing so. For here was the moment our rage finally boiled over—I’m a #metoo; perhaps it’s too much for readers to crack open its fleshy cover. They are missing out. Rachel’s voice, delivered in Foy’s aurally rich and layered prose, is just the voice of one woman, one complex human. It is also the author’s voice, as every narrator’s voice is.
Absolutely Golden brings to mind another book: Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things, which was published toward the end of the Reagan era. A dystopian piece of speculative fiction narrated by a woman named Anna Blume, it’s an Auster novel people seem to forget. It differs from Foy’s book in many ways, but they both share a complex female voice. I always want more people to read In the Country of Last Things so I can talk about it with them. And I hope that you’ll read Absolutely Golden so I can talk about it with you.
Two very different books that grapple with upheaval helped me take stock of 2017 as it happened. The first was Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel What We Lose (Viking), which juxtaposes graphs, charts, and newspaper reports with elegant narrative fragments and succinct, striking ruminations on life, self, and death. Thandi, the novel’s light-skinned black South-African-American heroine, loses her mother to cancer and makes things happen in her own life. And yet What We Lose is not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a story of unresolvable conflict, jagged as grief. Its structure confronts us with the impossibility of assimilating loss, the irreducibility of identity, the elusiveness of belonging and home. “How pernicious these little things called memories are,” writes Clemmons. “They barbed me once, but now that I no longer have them, I am devastated.”
If Clemmons’ is a story of rootlessness and placelessness, Boris Dralyuk’s impeccable anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press) turns on timelessness: moments so explosive they might be eternal. It features big names like Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, as well as names that should be bigger, like Teffi and Mikhail Zoshchenko. They are all writing in the midst of the Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath, “to recreate the heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as the events unfolded,” as we read in the introduction. As earnest as Clemmons is honest, Dralyuk is a master of curation and a witty and original critic. The many perspectives presented here in consistently great translations provide much food for thought in these times that tend to make us feel insatiable.
Though troubles are always present, this particular round has been mightily sustained by the long overdue English appearance of Aleppo-born linguist Émile Benveniste’s masterpiece Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society (HAU). Here we come to understand, quite clearly, that usage of such basic verbs as “give” and “take” could only have emerged in the forms we use them in a patriarchal slave society, and that no amount of linguistic amelioration will alter the depth of that history in any fundamental way. Working through sections on economy, kinship, social status, royalty and its privileges, law, and religion, the chapters echo the daily news in eerie and illuminating ways.
Further sustenance came from two other books that I find more useful each passing day. Cultural Cleansing in Iraq: Why Museums Were Looted, Libraries Burned and Academics Murdered (Pluto Press), edited by Raymond W. Baker, Shereen T. Ismael, and Tareq Y. Ismael, brings us inside the machinery of U.S. policy, allowing us to understand the grisly effects of its operation and the long-lasting impact of events that took place in the quite recent past.
Moving further into the past, Jack D. Forbes’ extraordinary Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (University of Illinois Press), is unquestionably one of a handful of the most important books ever written on racial nomenclature in this hemisphere, making it that much more necessary in the present. Forbes creates an almost completely new world of actuality, based on deep and meticulous examination of all manner of archival resources—a world that is quite at odds with the blunt instruments now used to define and categorize peoples everywhere.
These books provide not only much needed oxygen in the suffocating space of present discourse, but also actual tools to help build other things.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.