Who doesn’t love 1940s Mexican children’s illustration?
Spider monkey’s societies are all sorts of sexually segregated (spider monkeys are jerks).
Elsewhere in the animal kingdom: oarfish are crazy!
This proposed Norwegian memorial is super lovely.
Who doesn’t love 1940s Mexican children’s illustration?
Spider monkey’s societies are all sorts of sexually segregated (spider monkeys are jerks).
Elsewhere in the animal kingdom: oarfish are crazy!
This proposed Norwegian memorial is super lovely.
Craig Morgan Teicher, Wendy Lotterman, Nicole Steinberg, Sarah V. Schweig, Ted Dodson, Krystal Languell, Joanna C. Valente, Jesse Kohn, Jonathan Aprea, Joe DeLuca, and M. Callen celebrate issue 3 of The Atlas Review. BookCourt, 7 p.m., free.
Sunday 3/9: Melissa Monroe celebrates the release of On Trepanation and Human Nature, an essay in verse. Bowery Poetry Club, 1 p.m., $8.
We remember the generals from almost any war. In the US, we often remember them because of the way they led soldiers to “glorious victory,” or if that’s too simplistic, through difficult times–and to their graves: Washington, Grant, Sherman, Pershing, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Schwarzkopf, Petraeus. We give them nicknames (not always complimentary): Black Jack, Blood-n-Guts, Little Napoleon, Old Wooden Head, Rough and Ready, Stonewall, Stormin’ Norman, Swamp Fox.
We raise statues to them, we write biographies of them, we (now) retire them to television to serve as military experts, we revere and vilify them. For a while we elected them to the presidency, though we haven’t done that since 1956. Their names appear in history books and on AP exams, generation after generation. They become myth.
Only recently have we started trying to find ways to memorialize the other people involved in conflicts. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC lists the names of those fallen or missing in combat with no regard to rank or fame. Just name after name, in the order in which they died, etched into the reflective basalt rock wall which swallows you as you make your way down the path toward the monument’s center.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad is written in this spirit of remembrance of the common soldier. Even people only vaguely familiar with Greek mythology recognize some of the kings from Homer’s epic–Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Odysseus, Aeneas, Menelaus, Paris–but how many could identify Protesilaus, the first Greek to die at Troy?
It’s obvious from the time one picks up the book that this isn’t a translation of Homer’s epic, at least not in the way we commonly use the term. It’s a slim volume, with short lines and lots of white space on the pages. The Iliad I read as an undergraduate (Fagles’ translation) was doorstop-hefty, with hexametric lines that threatened to spill over the margins, even in 10-point type. Oswald has sliced away almost everything famous from what is usually presented as Homer’s original, and has left the reader with a haunting, violent, and yet incredibly beautiful look at the people who are usually ignored in any discussion of The Iliad — or indeed in any war.
The first eight pages of Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad contain nothing but names, a list from Protesilaus to Hector. The names, 200 in all, are starkly presented in all caps, as though they had been carved into the stone of the page.
No introductions, no explanations–just name after name engulfing the reader. The lack of context is important–as with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, most visitors don’t recognize more than a handful of names, if that, and yet the power in the presence of those names, column after column, is undeniable.
In Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, Protesilaus appears in line 796 of book 2, well after the confrontation between Agamemnon and Achilles, after Odysseus and Nestor have attempted to hold the Greek coalition together. Oswald, instead, starts with Protesilaus, which seems appropriate, since he is the first Greek to die at Troy.
The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus Antron
He died mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years
Protesilaus, according to Ovid’s Heroides, leapt ashore aware of the oracle which had decreed that the first Greek to touch Trojan soil would be the first to die, and after killing four Trojans, he is slain by Hector. In Homer’s story, this is a side note, perhaps a passage thrown in during an oral recitation as a way to coax an extra coin from a listener who hailed from Phylace. The important story, according to Homer, plays out between the kings and princes–Agamemnon and Achilles, Hector and Paris–not to mention the gods, who join the fray on both sides.
Oswald’s version refocuses the questions about violence in the service of predestined outcomes by emphasizing a different set of characters. The people she’s most interested in are the ones without the privilege to question such matters. Even Pandarus, a captain and a wealthy man, seems trapped into the war.
PANDARUS son of Lycaon had a wife at home
In his high-roofed house in the foothills of Ida
He was captain of Zelea and he and his men
Used to drink the black raw water from the river
He was a rich man a master bowman
Eleven war cars in his stables brand new beautifully made
With rugs and thoroughbred horses
He couldn’t bear to risk them in the War
He went on foot to Troy with nothing but his bow
But that was no good to him
The arrows kept flying off at angles
If I ever get home he said
And see my wife and my high-roofed house
May a stranger cut off my head if I don’t
Smash this bow and throw it with my own hands
Into the fire it has proved such a nothingness
But he climbed up nevertheless next to Aeneas
He charged at Diomedes and a spear
Thrown by Diomedes pushed hard by Athene
Hit him between the eyes it split-second
Splintered his teeth cut through his tongue broke off his jaw
And came out clean through the chin
Pandarus seems to realize that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose by going to this war. He was wealthy and comfortable. He even seems to recognize that he’s doomed when his bow, which had no doubt provided him with some of his riches, betrays him, sending off arrows at angles. And none of it matters–the outcome of this war had been determined by the gods. Troy was going to fall, for the benefit of gods and kings, and men like Pandarus had to die to make it happen.
By focusing on these stories instead of the typical major characters like Hector and Achilles, Oswald’s version accentuates the cruelty of war. In Homer’s Iliad, the only major Greeks to die are Ajax and Patroclus (though Achilles does not survive the war, he does not die in The Iliad). The human cost is borne, as it usually is, by the “grunts,” the foot soldiers. The “generals” return home, and while some meet future tragedy–Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and her lover, for example–they are hailed as victorious, and remembered.
It’s an appropriate–even important–way to look at The Iliad today, since we are constantly engaged in a debate over the human cost of war. On March 31, 2003, 11 days after the start of hostilities in what would come to be known as Gulf War II, The PBS Newshour aired its first “Honor Roll” of US service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In the early days of the war, I watched the Honor Roll when I could, always in fear that I would recognize names. A number of my fraternity brothers from my undergraduate days were in the Army Reserves–working class guys for whom a drill paycheck and the GI Bill went a long way toward helping them finish a Bachelor’s degree and cut a path to the middle class. They were patriotic men, after a fashion, but mostly they were looking for a way to finish school. Many joined in 1998. Most went to Afghanistan in 2002, just before their enlistment was to expire.
I wonder how many of the people listed in the Honor Roll since 2003, or whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall fit the descriptions of those Oswald has decided to memorialize:
EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheatfields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out
ILIONEUS an only child ran out of luck
He always wore that well-off look
His parents had a sheep farm
They didn’t think he would die
But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands
And TROS begging for his life
But his life was over
All of these stories end the same way: in death. It’s not heroic or glorious. It’s terrifying. It’s exactly what we should expect.
Oswald follows most of the biographies of the memorialized with similes, such as these lines that follow the section about Tros:
Like when two animals have found a little luckiness
Of clear-running water in the mountains
One dies and the other drinks it
Eavan Boland, in the Afterword to this epic, writes “Oswald lays the lyric world beside violent death, like someone putting summer flowers in a coffin, a reminder of all that’s been lost.” But these flowers aren’t buried with the dead. In fact, the dead aren’t even buried–they’re rotting on the battlefield. This memorial has not been sanitized of the violence which necessitated it in the first place. No marble statues, men on horseback rearing, sword or hat in the air. No nicknames which make light of or obscure the blood these men ordered spilled.
No, what starts as a list of 200 names ends as a statement about the brevity–and by extension–the value of human life.
Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone
The end is violent, the burning of a meteorite as it disintegrates in the atmosphere. We can’t get away from it; violence is a low hum in the background of our daily lives. But we can remember, and be honest in the remembering. When we value human life–all human life, not just the privileged and powerful–we are less likely to accept at face value the claims made by the powerful that violent force is the best response to any conflict. Alice Oswald’s Memorial A Version of Homer’s Iliad asks us to confront that violence and resurrect the forgotten stories about those who sacrificed the most in the Trojan War.
We, as a society, have moved away from the glorification of generals as heroes, as examples for moral living, as near-mythic creatures. In the US, the generals still get their moments of glory, their names at times mentioned as potential presidential or vice-presidential candidates (Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, David Petraeus), but they don’t tend to get the statues their predecessors once got, and once they’ve been retired for a while, their names slip from the collective memory to be replaced by whoever has risen to their rank.
Perhaps we don’t lionize anyone the way we used to, or our collective attention span is just too short to make modern mythological beings (outside of entertainers), or we don’t have the taste for bloody battle our forebears did. During the Civil War, both sides would occasionally lose more soldiers in a single battle than the US has lost in the entire Second Gulf War, which was so unpopular that by 2008, opposition to it helped propel a little known junior Senator from Illinois to the Democratic party nomination and then the Presidency. (The public’s distaste for blood extends mainly to US troops; drone attacks that kill foreign civilians are still generally accepted by the public. We have work to do when it comes to valuing the lives of the people we categorize as “other.”) It suggests that we are becoming less interested in creating “great men” and more interested in not losing our neighbors, especially over something most consider frivolous.
The Trojan War, after all, was fought over a marital dispute, one that Homer’s text never exactly clears up. Was Helen abducted by Paris or did she run away with him or was she forced to leave Menelaus by a goddess who owed Paris a favor? And why did Protesilaus or Pandarus or Epicles have to die because of it? The Vietnam War wasn’t fought over a marital dispute, but the official reasons for the conflict didn’t make much more sense. The same can be said about the reasons for Gulf War 2. Why did 58,272 soldiers have to die in Vietnam? Or nearly 4,500 in Iraq since 2003?
This impulse to remember the regular person extends into the way we are now reacting to mass violence in the US. Over the last few years, every time a gunman goes on a killing spree, regardless of the way the news media reports these stories, people use social media to list the names of the dead and injured, imploring their friends to remember the victims and to deliberately shut the name of the gunman out of public discourse. It’s a reaction against the idea that a person can become famous by doing great damage to a community. “If fame is what you want,” the public seems to say, “you will get no satisfaction here.” It’s hard to imagine a modern-day Billy the Kid emerging in today’s world as a hero, no matter how violent some social critics and doomsayers suggest our society is.
More and more, we seem to be recognizing that the lives of working class people, of the underprivileged, are valuable in their own rights and shouldn’t just be sacrificed on a whim, all to glorify generals or warlords. Our lives are short, a “whip of sparks” as Oswald put it, too short to be wasted carelessly by powerful people on a cause some may feel is less than noble. They deserve better than to be piled up so that “great men” can stand atop them and declare their glory. They deserve, as Alice Oswald so beautifully demonstrates here, their own memorial.
What do Amish Friendship Bread, poetry and chain letters have in common?
Sadie Stein opened her inbox the other day to find an email about a poetry chain, she writes at the Paris Review. Although participating in the chain left her “feeling a bit like someone’s aunt,” the email project was ultimately inspiring, and reminded Stein of the last chain she’d taken part in—the act of baking and passing along to neighbors strange bread made from instant vanilla pudding.
I think some people are surprised at how violent these women are, in both their action and their inaction. I’m interested in putting women where you might not expect to find them—private eyes and bank robbers and alcoholic kleptomaniacal magician’s assistants.
For more insight into Laura’s writing process, check out our own interview with her.
Highlights include a meta horror story by Benjamin Percy, Star Wars in tweets by Ian Doescher, a sinful beach house weekend told in real time by Julia Fierro, the hidden erotic inner life of Downton Abbey’s Mr. Bates revealed by Anthony Marra, a guide to going on vacation with a man you’ve just started sleeping with and may not actually like by Emma Straub, and a brand new book of the Bible tweeted by God well, David Javerbaum, aka @TheTweetOfGod).
For those of us who have our hearts set on becoming professors, a Ph.D. is a necessary step toward landing a coveted tenure-track position. But if we aren’t planning to spend our lives at the blackboard, is a doctoral degree worth its hefty price tag?
If you’re currently toiling away at your dissertation, you might want to skip this post, up at The Billfold. Then again, it might be exactly what you need.
In the acknowledgments of Julie Carr’s Rag, her fifth poetry collection, the author once again thanks Lyn Hejinian, and Hejinian offers us as valuable a foothold as any for interpreting Carr’s latest work. Hejinian’s seminal My Life is an extended collage of narrative descriptions—many clearly from childhood, but others less definitively located in time—organized by a schema of compulsively repeated phrases. Revealingly, one of those repeated phrases—“As for we who ‘love to be astonished,’”—becomes about as astonishing as an ant at a picnic over the course of its dozens of appearances. The repetitions, here, degrade language’s associations and acknowledge the flagging conviction of signification. One of Hejinian’s aims in peppering her “autobiography” with these conspicuous repetitions is to indicate that memory is at least as corruptible as the language we have to describe it.
In Carr’s work, repeated lines are deployed more judiciously, but they nod toward a similar interrogation of experience. With Carr, however, the effect of these repetitions is generative, as the allegiances of the speaker and the context of the line shifts radically at each appearance. The phrase “face cannot adjust itself” (18), for instance, occurs the first time immediately following a description of a woman weeping on an airplane:
a woman three rows back, seated between two suited men, suddenly began to sob—loud and unabashed, not bothering to wipe her tears, not covering her face, just sitting staring forward, wailing like a baby. No one said anything. Not the men—one gazed out the window, the other continued to read his screen as if nothing—not the attendants, who did not come.
The “adjustment” apparently called for, here, is the realignment of the woman’s grief to a stoic, unemotional social norm. Later, however, the phrase follows a first-person maternal scene. Still later, a face is a shelter for what seems erotic afterglow: “And now my hope is drunk: a thought in which I do not have a face” (37). Eventually, Carr describes a “fixed face: redolent face” (81), and we are left to wonder, fixed how? Made up? Constructed? Finally, the face becomes an open wound for an unnamed figure, as “her hacked face shines from her fixed face” (84).
Complimenting her concern with fragmented identity, Carr deploys formal fragmentation to rare, successful effect. A handful of double- and triple-spaced poems announce themselves as moments of collection and recollection, successfully punctuating the unified work that might otherwise run together. The lines of these poems are traditionally capitalized, although each line is ambiguously autonomous. For instance:
The majority opinion was against
My “vacation” my “shadow” my “vacation,”
When will I learn to be the author of my own invention?
This from the spider descending the shade (12)
Is this all an imagined monologue from spider/god perspective, or a collection of loosely grouped fragments from multiple ruminations or conversations? I can see it either way, with implications for the supposed singularity of the narrator.
These impulses toward construction and deconstruction, combined with a certain cognitive slipperiness, contribute to Rag’s productively unsettling and kaleidoscopic effect. Carr employs film and filmmaking as an extended trope of poetic discourse from the outset:
It’s always that the lines of color are too stark
So how can I place a hand there, there on the edge of a truck?
One’s body is in response
But today my face grows smaller
I want the narrative of walking to a bus (11)
Panning and zooming through her story, the narrator assumes the role of director. It’s the sort of delusional choice that we make in our own lives, and thus, one to which we can readily connect. As what the narrator/director refers to as “a movie about my life” (54) unfolds, it reveals a range of influences from pornography to home movies to Hollywood talkies. The director and the audience are made complicit in these scenes, even those which are strictly non-filmic, such as the traffic accident intermittently recalled with filmic details. Here, the narrator’s husband and two children witness—and, once home, tearfully describe—a little girl run down by an SUV. They are racked by guilt of their witness, but cannot help bandying back and forth the notion of whether the open-eyed victim was killed or survived. Being director, then, entails less control than one would suppose, and it points to a number of ethical dilemmas involved in the act of envisioning.
If Carr were to stop at the filmic conceit, she would have plenty enough for a riveting work that reads more like a linked, evolving narrative than a typical collection. However, she seems compelled to make Rag accomplish more than it should, and here, I would have pled for restraint. One of her repeated notions is, “is grieving a politics?” (27). She references “civic lyrics,” “mastering diplomacy” (80), “foundational lust,” and the self as a “conduit for money” (38). These passages feel stilted, less convincing, not because the political fails to inform the personal (it most certainly does), but because this endeavor entails a sort of dual-seeing ascribed to an omniscient presence, well beyond the scope of Rag’s otherwise fallible director. The terminology involved in these passages is also technical, flattening. Here, the collection seems momentarily seduced by heuristics, to the detriment of its compelling human actors. Still, if Carr wishes to address the interaction of the personal and the political, her choice of film is effective, considering the tangle of motivations, patterns of cultural consumption and acting’s simultaneous demands for introspection and exhibitionism. A good director improvises, returns obsessively and anticipates an audience’s reaction on the fly. Carr reminds us that a director, a poet, any creator, has “no true gifts beyond the gift of placing the pieces one / beside another all day and all night” (29). All art is “against the idea of cessation” (103), and the primary imperative is change.
Rag is also concerned with violence, femaleness, sexuality, childhood, parenthood and agency. Carr details the experience of primarily female characters through the lens: “A woman might be a kind of postproduction medium, or a filter through which the desires of the ground are felt” (42). But it may be that Carr’s ultimate concern is a more genderless subjectivity, the constructedness of all those faces. As goes the imagined monologue of one of the actors from the director’s perspective, “consider my identity, she might say” (59). With this statement—hypothetical, projected, filtered—Carr invites her readership to consider the extent of anyone’s agency in a socially proscribed reality. In any case, Rag does admirable work in synthesizing these concerns into a vibrant, continuous series of scenes that are visually, emotionally and aurally arresting. I daresay that Hejinian’s work on subjectivity and identity has found an able and innovative champion in Julie Carr.
One word at a time, at up to 1000 words a minute. That’s 16.67 words per second.
Spritz, a Boston-based technology start-up, has developed a new app that presents text in a way that allows you to read at lightning speeds. Spritz has named their company after a gentle spray of water, though their product can feel more like a fire hose of words. The logic behind the technology is that we waste a lot of time moving our eyes from left to right. Precious time! Spritz solves for this by aligning each word on a central letter, shown in red. (You can test the app on their website using the “click to spritz” button in the upper right corner.) The new app even promises to get you through a novel in 90 minutes.
The question is: why would I want to turbo-read a good novel?
Take an awe-inspiring five minute journey through your computer screen into H.G. Wells’s imagination.
From filmmaker James W. Griffiths and PBS Digital Studios, A Solitary World pits text adapted from five of the legendary writer’s most celebrated works against stunning landscapes. Narrated by Terry Burns and scored by Lennert Busch, the film makes a strong case for the emerging genre of cinematic poetry.
During my memoir mania, I had it in my head that the function of the memoir was to take a horrible, painful, or at least quirky experience and write a purpose into it. A memoir wasn’t a memoir unless it gave some sort of meaning to the random twists of fate. The Adderall Diaries took that assumption, crushed it to powder, and snorted it in a bathroom stall.
Over at The Billfold, writer Nicole Dieker kicks off a new series on all aspects of life as a full-time freelancer. In her first installment, she covers the four different types of paid assignments and how her personal writing projects fit with her professional obligations.
Now that I’ve got the defensive posturing aside: well, sure. Of course I “really” want to write essays and columns and novels, but the truth is that I am already doing that. (This is the part where I would add “and I’ve been published in this place and that place,” but you can easily look that stuff up on your own.)
I’m doing the work, making the pitches, and building the clips. It’s just that you can’t build a career on three published essays a month. It doesn’t pay the rent.
I’m tempted to say that Lorrie Moore is a master of the feel-bad story. You don’t turn to her for depictions of love that endures despite hardships or for the triumph of the individual in the face of evil. But that wouldn’t be quite right, because her stories make me feel good, and I suspect the same is true for others. Why is this? Of course it is partly Moore’s sheer verbal dexterity and her rightly-celebrated sense of humor. But more important, to my mind, is a certain bracing quality in her writing. One has the sense of receiving truths that are disagreeable but that, once set plainly in black and white, have a little less power over us.
But the accuracy of what I’m calling these “bracing truths” is never certain. Few things are in Lorrie Moore’s world. In her new collection, Bark, (which is wonderful, by the way, so if you’re reading this review to try to decide whether or not you should read it, the answer is yes, you should), a character reflects that “life was long and not that edifying, and one sometimes had to make do with randomly seized tidbits.” The characters in these stories often build their lives on speculation, on things one read somewhere (that thing about a frog acclimating to boiling water if you raise the temperature slowly enough gets mentioned twice), and sometimes on theories that don’t quite hold up in practice. Moore’s characters are usually lonely, and loneliness can breed a certain sort of unreliability, the associative loopiness of a person who’s gone too long without meeting one of their basic needs, like sleep or food or human interaction. (Rejecting the bromide that single people need to “learn to be alone,” one character notes that “If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand.”)
The question that plagues these characters is often what to do with their bleak visions, especially as they pertain to romantic attachments. They are like the man in the Woody Allen joke who thinks he’s a chicken but doesn’t want to be cured of his delusion because he “needs the eggs.” “[I]f one knew the future,” one of Moore’s character thinks,
all the unexpected glimpses of the beloved, one might have trouble finding the courage to go on. This was probably the reason nine-tenths of the human brain had been rendered useless: to make you stupidly intrepid. One was working with only the animal brain, the Pringle brain.
The protagonist of the collection’s first story, “Debarking,” who is dating, or trying to date, a single mother who is unusually physically and emotionally intimate with her teenage son, thinks of “all the deeply wrong erotic attachments made in wartime, all the crazy romances cooked up quickly by the species to offset death.”
This could be a tagline for the entire collection, at least as far as romantic attachments go. They are never ideal, always matters of making do with what’s available. The protagonist of the story’s longest (and possibly strongest) story, “Wings,” who, like many of Moore’s characters, is involved with someone who does not seem to have anything close to her best interests at heart, thinks,
Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors. No, women got it from other women, because in the end women would rather be rid of one another than have to endure themselves on a daily basis. So they urged each other into relationships. “He loves you! You can see it in his eyes!” they lied.
In another story, Moore gives a nod to “those experimental monkeys with the wire-monkey moms.” This is what most of Bark’s characters’ relationships amount to. In “Paper Losses,” a middle-aged couple is described as “currently… partners only in anger and dislike”; hate is “their newly successful project together,” in which they are “complicitous and synergistic… In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling, they had shoved their hate center stage and shone a spotlight down for it to seize.”
There’s something pleasingly uneven about both individual stories in Bark and the collection as a whole. There are plenty of stories being written today that are exquisitely structured, attentive to what writers sometimes like to call “the rigors of the form.” Moore’s stories are, to my mind, a reprieve from this vision of short story as difficult geometrical equation. Instead, they offer the pleasure of immersing oneself in a distinctive sensibility, a voice that cannot fully accommodate itself to the world but hasn’t given up trying to make do with the materials at hand.
Woods writes that alt weeklies are “connected to a city in the way that a website can never be” and that they “report on the cultural life of a city in a way that neither big daily papers nor websites can.”
But as costs rise and many independent papers are folded into corporate conglomerates (indeed, the City Paper was just purchased by the Baltimore Sun Media Group), is the era of alternative print journalism nearing its end?
A couple weeks old, but always fresh: the poet Charles Simic writes on the NYR’s blog about the language that sticks, both on and off the page. Simic has a lot of dark poems but the occasional blogs he writes for the New York Review of Books tend to be surprisingly whimsical.
“His wife looks like a stork,” I overheard someone say in a restaurant and my imagination swallowed the bait. She’s tall, long-legged, wears short skirts, holds her head high, and has a long thin nose, I said to myself. And that was just the beginning. The day after I heard a wife being compared to a stork, I saw her standing on one leg on top of a brick chimney and then a bit later perched on a gravestone in a small graveyard.
And if that wets your appetite, here’s a good poem by Simic for a Wednesday.
Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s second book, Darktown Follies, interrogates minstrelsy, which was the most popular form of entertainment in America for about 130 years. The book is saturated in African American history, as well as the history of African American poetry.
Minstrel shows had comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music, and were performed by white people in blackface making fun of blacks, and black people in blackface making fun of whites making fun of blacks. It began in the 1830s and is still with us in various forms. For example, the actress Julianne Hough recently caused a controversy when she wore blackface to a Halloween party; she was dressed as Crazy Eyes from Orange is the New Black. (see also: Aunt Jemima’s pancakes, Uncle Ben’s rice, etc.). Duke Ellington’s first film appearance, in the 1930 movie Check and Double Check, is notable for its blackface actors, and characters portrayed as blacks, but entirely voiced by whites.
Eric Lott, in his history of minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, effectively shows how blackface performance had a current of homoerotic desire for black male bodies, and how, via a fear of black sexuality, whites simultaneously assimilated and appropriated black culture through minstrelsy.
Racism and cultural appropriation are not exclusive to American culture, but if you enjoy music, dance, food, clothing, and speak American English, then you have participated in such appropriation as an American. Johnson’s book uses an impressive facility with craft and language in Darktown Follies to cross-examine this twisted history, even as he reveals new meanings and feelings.
Powerfully, and with seemingly effortless surprise and invention, Johnson takes all of this through his own swirling powers of imagination. His lines are consistently taut and effective: “Take the architecture of the wrist / how the hands flit, hinged // & bony as a blur of wing pulling / each egret across the slow drag // of the lake…”
Johnson allows the figures from minstrelsy and its responders to speak in their own voices. Bert Williams, “looming in the darkness; / cigar smoke cross-hatching the air,” shows the painful misfortune of this popular genius of comedy. In “LeRoi Eating Watermelon at Howard,” the late Amiri Baraka rejects his formal education as he feels the political voice forming inside him. Johnson’s language—alchemy, doxologize, caboodle, pothooks, gnashing—is all corners and razor edges.
Other poems explore the way the tropes and themes of the minstrel show keep showing up, often uninvited. In “Clarence Muse Stars as The Magical Negro in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Black Stallion (1979)”, “the story begins with sugar, / the dark and muscular storm / of a horse, and its epicurean propensity for sweets….I think we were meant to love you; / just as the boy, who should not have / lived, keeps roping his noodle arms / around the base of the neck of The Black.” Johnson takes to task the history of white Hollywood making so many African American film characters with magical powers, who only use them to help white people (see: Ghost, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, What Dreams May Come, The Green Mile, and so on).
In one of the most experimental poems, “Cork”, Johnson uses a pyrotechnical list of names of champagnes and wines with names of minstrel theaters to mock and mime the heel-toe step of a blackface dancer; the shifting diction allows Johnson to break through to new meanings of language as the heel-toe becomes heal too.
Johnson’s best work has a political urgency that uses metaphor to connect his breadth of historical vision with more contemporary instances of race and power. In “The Further Adventures of Long Dong Silver (or The Incredible Tale of Boy’s Perilous Journey from Pin Point to the Chocolate City) as Told to Anita Hill”, about the 1991 Clarence Thomas scandal that occurred when Hill testified how Thomas had sexually harassed her when he was her supervisor. Thomas describes it as “a monster of mirrors” and asks that the viewer “consider all those / angles, the soft edges, the high cut and gloss / of his Thriller jacket.”
Johnson’s second section is “The Olio,” which refers to a period in a minstrel show, after an intermission, when miscellaneous songs and variety acts were performed in front of a painted backdrop; these were performed without blackface make-up, in part to prove that the performers were white. The second section contains softer, more personal poems, and reveals the meanings of the writer’s own life circumstance through anecdote and reveals the meanings the writer attaches to those circumstances rather than arguing a point.
Here, Johnson reveals himself as a subtle and gentle craftsman of love poems. In “Approaching Thunder”, the speaker says: “I guilted you into making love, / how the color of the stone changed in your eye each time I touched; how silence rose from your skin…” In “Wine with Hula Hoop”, the speaker confronts the problem of desire for twenty something girls: “the hips’ recreational apparatus, / the glass, this buttery accumulation / of light. When they speak I can’t speak.” In his perfect final poem, “Cherene”, written for the poet’s wife, he describes “A modern romance. You undress, but never say a word. / I touch your ribcage, take my thumbs, & split you like a pomegranate.”
Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Darktown Follies is a fascinating book, and is exactly what poetry is for: to use static material of language to describe what cannot be described: a system of entertainment that has lasted nearly two centuries that came to represent all the suffering and all the pleasure of the American experiment.
The next Weekly Rumpus features fiction from Ian Bassingthwaighte. Here’s an excerpt:
I spend all night thinking about bopping Karen ASAP like that would prove she’s right for me. Then immediately before sunup I sneak out of my cabin with the secret mission of finding hers. I want to ask if she’s also homesick. I hope it’s not just me. That would be a huge disappointment, being the only one.
I plan for the immediate future: if all is quiet on the front porch, and on the lawn, and the Bop Stoppers have convened for a debrief, then I’ll sneak with her into the trees, where we can touch each other. Maybe we’ll get naked and laugh about how stupid in love we are. (more…)
Luigi Prina’s airships are pretty delightful.
Hey scientists, you probably shouldn’t pollute Antarctica so badly.
I guess we’re talking about kakapos now!
I have a moral obligation to post about any and all developments in aquanaut suits.
Emily Gould is broke. Writing her first book got her into debt, which leaves her to wonder, now what? She muses, “How could someone who had been so mistaken about the narrative structure of her own life hope to write a novel?” Read the rest of her journey so far on Medium.
In the New York Times novelist Charles Yu, author of the hilarious, tragic, brain-melting How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, recounts his experience falling in love with technology.
A private channel had opened up, a vast network of channels, connecting the inside of my head with the insides of other heads. And that network became part of my inner cartography. It changed my map of reality. The physical world gained a new dimension, intangible but no less real.
But even the lustiest of romances fizzle out sometimes. Yu asks us to consider, how can we be in love with a thing that merely coddles us?
Elizabeth Kolbert began to study for the SAT and found that achieving a perfect score is much more difficult than she could have anticipated. She reported that her “anxiety level was soaring.” As the year went on, she “started to panic.”
Hold on to your sombrero, your skillet, and your EpiPen. Welcome to Jalisco, Mexico—specifically Lago de Moreno, where Juan Pablo Villalobos has set his second politically warped novel, Quesadillas. It’s a wacky performance, a Mexican-ified Kabuki script. Villalobos is one tablespoon Eugene Ionesco, desperately but hopefully advocating nihilism; a dash of Harold Pinter, catapulting his characters into oblivion; and a pinch of Suzan Lori-Parks, igniting political allegory with sibling rivalry. All in all, he has cooked up a messy concoction of absurdist theater and magical realism.
Lago de Moreno is a bleak, black hole of a village on the brink of gentrification. It’s where we meet Oreste and his family, a rag-tag team of colorful and emotionally “mutilated” characters. Oreste is our guide through his vibrant and colorful world of economic disenfranchisement, watermelons, and “bovine eroticism”. He is the least “hysterical and violent” of his six siblings, the most raucous being his oldest brother, Aristotle, who takes him on a quest to find their missing “imaginary” twins, Castor and Pollux. (All of the children are named after characters in ancient Greek literature.) It’s not long before they get distracted and arm themselves with a magical EpiPen in order to hunt aliens.
Losing the twins is actually not this family’s biggest worry. Next door, a wealthy Polish family has recently built a mansion that dwarfs Oreste’s family’s small fixer-upper. We watch our teenage narrator take his first bite out of capitalism’s bitter tortilla. Oreste’s realization sparks a deranged escape through the wild, urban sprawl of Jalisco where he encounters “feral dogs of unlikely colors, roads and streets carpeted with their squashed bodies… rich people who foolishly persisted in thinking that the middle class existed; and poor people, poorer people…infinitely poor.” Oreste revels in this twisted, iridescent, anarchist carnival.
Now is where Villalobos’ stage requires serious special effects. Although Oreste is a clueless nomad, he discovers that simply by pushing the red button on his EpiPen he’s able to teleport and fix electronic appliances. He magically makes busted blenders spin their blades and radios retrieve their signals. He becomes a quick-buck-making mechanic. But the gig is short lived and he mysteriously lands back at home with two angry parents and few explanations. Ashamed, he decides, “sometimes dignity is achieved by humiliating oneself. It seems confusing, but it’s not: it’s the life we poor people have to live.” It’s a message that would resonate with one of Ionesco’s rhinoceroses. Yet in terms of justifying the financial inequities of globalization, probably none of Lori-Parks’ protagonists would agree.
This is the divided nature of Quesadillas: part farce, part political memoir, part hyperbolic fiction, it’s a fast-paced, mind-bending journey, where transitions and explanations are often omitted. We learn that Oreste has been accused of stealing from the Polish family. What he stole? We’re not sure, but it’s decided that he will “work to pay back the psychological damage” he caused the neighbors by assisting Jaroslaw, the Polish father, in his artificial cattle inseminator business. What is initially an effort to demonstrate “old fashioned economic exploitation” evolves into an admission of teenage sexuality. “The sensation of heat around my hand made me feel at home, but not in my parents’ home, in my home, a place in the world that was mine and gave me a sense of comfort.” Oreste’s discovery is the kind of thrill that could merit itself a deleted scene from Pinter’s The Lover (if it were set on a farm).
The book’s Spanish title—Si viviéramos en un lugar normal, which translated is “If We Lived Somewhere Normal”—feels more appropriate than Quesadillas. The cheesy tortilla sandwich makes many appearances throughout the novel but the overarching message is homecoming. Oreste yearns for experience outside of his eccentric family and their woes. Villalobos sheds light on this theme in every chapter, but the choppy, passive translation often obscures his effort. Most of the book is translated verbatim. The text is littered with ‘of’s’ (i.e. “He took leave of his employees”) in places where there could just be two simple nouns, and the heavy, formal jargon weighs down this otherwise artful plot.
“Acacias and more acacias, flocks of wood pigeons, dust clouds,” hectares of watermelons and shady willow trees and eucalyptus—Quesadillas’s landscape is deliciously captivating. When this comedic thriller gets out of hand, Lago de Moreno’s scenery is our reliable respite. It only becomes more important toward the end of the novel, when Oreste’s family is forced out of their home so that the city can turn their once-devastated neighborhood into a housing development. The family moves into a one-room house on Oreste’s grandfather’s farm, and suddenly, in a divine Pinter-esque miracle (à la Moonlight), the missing twins reappear on horseback. Immediately, an army of ghosts of high-ruling Mexican politicians approaches the family and threatens to take over Grandfather’s farm. Oreste whips out the EpiPen and with several clicks of the red button constructs their dream house and the ghosts disappear. Curtain.
Just like anything by Lori-Parks, Villalobos refrains from the use of conspicuous metaphors. And like Lori-Parks’ characters, Oreste and his family only become stronger under the bond of economic oppression. But erase the political hue, and Quesadillas is pure fantastical rapture, a kaleidoscopic story about anger and adolescence. It’s a convoluted ride and it’s easy to get lost, but it’s worth it—and not just for a taste of genuine, old school magical-realism.
Guys, please don’t litter on Everest. (Is this really a thing we have to say now?)
Remember that time the Vatican put the pope’s corpse on trial?
Perhaps you’d like to look at a 19th century illustrated almanac of fashion.
The BBC takes you to the last place on earth with absolutely no life (we think).