In her preface to this often stunning, always measured debut book of essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn captures her essayistic identity in a quote from William James: “The most violent revolutions in an individual’s beliefs leave most of the old order standing.” Interior States is an examination of the Midwest and the self—a wry, ambitious catalog of what happens when a writer abandons belief yet retains a religious language and latitude. O’Gieblyn grew up in “a dwindling Baptist congregation in southeast Michigan, where Sunday mornings involved listening to our pastor unabashedly preach something akin to the 1819 version of hell.” “Saved” at 5 years old, she entered Moody Bible Institute at 18. There, the Word was literal and absolute. But don’t fall for the “widespread misconception that biblical literalism is facile and mindless.” Rather, the peculiar erudition of Christian literalism “is even more complicated than liberal brands of theology because it involves the sticky task of reconciling the overlay myth—the story of redemption—with a wildly inconsistent body of scripture.” A former evangelical whose audiences are primarily secular—think Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Guardian—O’Gieblyn calls out the lethargy of contemporary American culture. “I developed a physical allergy to NPR,” she writes, suspicious of narratives that center the narrator and, in doing so, praise that narrator. She thinks they are somewhere between self-satisfied and self-congratulatory: “It seemed to me then that we suffered from the fundamental delusion that we had elevated ourselves above the rubble of hinterland ignorance—that fair trade coffee and Orange You Glad It’s Vegan? cake had somehow redeemed our sins.” As a pox against that mindset, O’Gieblyn would “unwind by listening to a fundamentalist preacher who delivered exegeses on the Pentateuch and occasionally lapsed into fire and brimstone.” During those long drives home from her night class, charged by a cadence which stirred her, about a God in which she no longer believed, “I would slip into a trance state, failing to register the import of the message but calmed nonetheless by the familiar rhythm of conviction.” That need for conviction—perhaps more its hymn than its literal message—enables O’Gieblyn to arrive at interesting and refreshing conclusions. She laments that “at a time when we are in need of potent metaphors to help us make sense of our darkest impulses, Protestant churches have chosen to remain silent on the problem of evil, for fear of being obsolete.” Here O’Gieblyn carries what she calls the evangelical Protestant tradition of public profession. These essays are her peculiar testimonies. More than anything else, they are stories of the Midwest, where exists “a profound loss of telos, the realization that the industries and systems that built the region are no longer tenable.” Her literal and metaphorical home, the Midwest has been “less a destination than a corridor,” a place where you can easily develop “an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still.” The Midwest breeds outward kindness and inward skepticism. “When you live at the center of the American machine,” she writes, “it’s impossible to avoid speaking of mechanics.” She’s a welcome guide through this machine. “Awareness is not the same as perspective; sometimes the former is an obstacle to the latter”—aphorisms paint the atmosphere in this book. O’Gieblyn earns her pronouncements. In an essay about subtlety, that which she proclaims her “chronic foible,” O’Gieblyn shares “when I finally abandoned my faith, I believed I was leaving this inscrutable world behind”—an evangelical world of impossible theologies, in which God was absent but longed for. “But as it turns out,” she knows, “the material world is every bit as elusive as the superstitions I’d left behind.” Rather than a jeremiad against the Christianity of her youth, Interior States asks her former faith to return to its previous authenticity, one lost to a consumerist sense of worship. O’Gieblyn retains what she calls “an abiding anthropological curiosity” to her past life, and it has created a curiously powerful result. She’s a writer who speaks in tongues—Biblically trained, and yet now her own—and who understands America from the middle. After finishing Interior States, I returned to the William James essay that O’Gieblyn so appropriately quoted. He finishes that piece with a meditation upon the value of pragmatism: “Rationalism sticks to logic and the empyrean. Empiricism sticks to the external senses. Pragmatism for her part is willing to take anything, to follow either logic or the senses, and to count the humblest and most personal experiences. She will count mystical experiences if they have practical consequences. She will take a God who lives in the very dirt of private fact—if that should seem a likely place to find him.” O’Gieblyn is a writer worth trusting, a writer who audaciously, and stylistically, seeks truth.
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in October. The Lumberjack’s Dove by GennaRose Nethercott All praise to book-length poems. Nethercott’s yarn begins with a lumberjack who chops off his own hand. “The hand becomes a dove” and tries to fly away, but the lumberjack strings it to his belt. He “walks out of the forest, the airborne hand fluttering along behind.” The narrator tells us: “You know this story.” It’s part whisper, part command, all curiosity. How do we know this story? We know stories like it—folklore borne of the forest—and we know that our lives and souls are stories. It begins to add up. Nethercott’s narrator is gentle, quirky, playful, endearing: this is a book to read in circles around fires, under blankets, in dark and quiet room corners. Befuddled, the lumberjack wanders and wonders. He “clutches the absent space at the end of his arm.” His dove—his hand, his self—“looks back at him, already forgetting it was ever anything but sovereign.” Nethercott’s book is inventive, unique, and a welcome source of escape—or maybe inscape. The narrator frequently steps in and clears the white space of the page; these addresses are not interruptions, but soft reminders that stories are brought to us by mouths and hands. “Living creatures believe they own something as soon as they love it”: Nethercott’s book feels true as wind, a discovery worth embracing. The Arrangements by Kate Colby These are sharp elegies—not quite of the dead, but of the failures of language and connection all around us—delivered with smiles and smirks. To read “Wistless” is to miss summer, to enter the shape of mourning: “In-your-face blooms / now brown, drooped // into black / eyes of dying Susans.” In this space between seasons, we sigh: “Screen door squeaks, / buffeting whump of // unfast ceiling fan.” Colby’s columnar lines feel threaded, a lattice of letters that never feels choppy. The Arrangements carries us to someplace a little dark, a little comfortable. In “The Plunge,” we see: “Black evergreens / pre-dawn, it’s all / there before you.” In that place of “felt darkness,” there is love, picked “like splinters / of light from the light.” Colby is fresh and stirring—“Day doesn’t so much / progress as condense– // rain fills red Solo bowls / for feral cats in the yard”—yet her controlled language is fairly hypnotic, peacefully familiar: “There’s a first time / for everything and // now we’re in for it.” Museum of the Americas by J. Michael Martinez Martinez has written of growing up Catholic in Greeley, Colorado, where the stained glass iterations of the Holy Mother blurred into the glass candles in a curandera’s room: Mariology as reflection, refraction. Language as litany, proving ground for poetry. Martinez’s poems are dynamic personal doxologies of Mexican-American tradition and inheritance. In “Family Photo—Mi Bisabuela Con Mi Abuela”: “Maria Beltran would peel the oranges / & all things on the earth’s surface / became navel & hearth.” His poems open and turn; his theme of family feels like a reclamation. In a later photo poem, the woman’s “wedding dress spills // lilies & lilies of sugar mornings”— those ls lifting the image out of memory. His second sequence in the book—a meditation on execution, bodies hung, bodies “unnailed in cross”—is masterful. Based on a postcard set by Walter H. Horne from Mexico, the images are striking: “the second / leans forward into crucifixion // arms upstretched as wingbones / wrought of tar.” Later: “Lined as background stick figures, / a crowd of children gathers dust // & shade beside the spectacle.” He gathers rhythm and reason toward the poem’s end: “if there are tears, there are no homilies; / if there is color, they are bronze; // if there is life, it is public domain; / if he had a name, it is now transnational // confusion / postmarked in relief.” Ambitious and historical, Martinez’s book earns praise. Things as It Is by Chase Twichell Twichell’s new collection brings us into the world of her poems through invitation, not interrogation. It is a calm, measured entrance. In “The Missing Weekly Readers,” the narrator and her cousins are at their grandmother’s house during the first big snowstorm: “We sat around the table / in an igloo: the dining room // darkened and hushed, / windows a swollen glow.” After lunch, they brave the storm to loot the next week’s magazines from a mailbox. Years later, still coated with guilt, she tells us: “If you someday find them / in a surprising place, with a note / from some kids admitting to the theft, // please keep it to yourself.” Such union—or communion—with the reader is an offering worth savoring. Yet Twichell’s work is neither innocent nor gentle. In one stanza she describes riding her bike through the ash piles of burned leaves; in the next, she writes of a dangerous man who “liked little girls.” She repeats little, and the horror becomes pungent. Poetic turns like that require real skill, and the awareness that beauty and terror often share the same air. In “Soft Leather Reins,” the narrator and her friend had to release horses tangled in barbed wire. They ride home together at dusk, and “There my knowledge ends.” Twichell lets her poems unfurl into the world, and it is a quiet joy to watch them evaporate. With the Dogstar as My Witness by John Fry Fry’s debut begins in the most appropriate way possible for the book that follows: “like a preacher’s son returned to God / —but never the church.” This book is a search for a soul, undertaken by one who has “looked for that angel unawares, / prodigal or pilgrim, saint or sinner, to ask” questions without answers, unless we look to the imperfections of faith. With the Dogstar as My Witness is a document of terrible longing that we are born for, so many hearts “promised benediction, our goodbyes / blackened our altars.” In poems spread across the page—syntactic breaks in breath and hope—Fry suggests that we are never truly content with divine absence. He looks not for substitute, but salves. He travels the wilderness, the desert of desire. He accepts the recognition that “even novenas / can’t coat a stomach already gone.” Fry quotes Fanny Howe in one section of the book, and she is an appropriate patron saint for poetic hearts straining, inevitably, toward God. “say I am:” the narrator writes, “otherwise agnostic, a believer / only when in unison / words are sung-said / beside another, stranger or / familiar, not alone.” Hey, Marfa by Jeffrey Yang Marfa is lucky to earn such a quicksilver ode from Yang, whose poems are flexible, expansive, sonorously clever. From “Substation”: “Gray day faraway water-tower potentiometer // enclosed by a series of right-angle triangles, guy- / line hypotenuse cables lengthening to anchor / pole.” Among these manufactured moods, “A small town thrives in the desert.” Yang is so precise in his rendering of myths: “Sunrise over a dirt road / by a low-wire fence, birdsong, / a rooster crows, then distant church bells / pealing arpeggios in the thin air.” Peppered with paintings and drawings by Rackstraw Downes, Yang’s book is equal parts historical (diary and interview anecdotes from residents), folkloric (“They told us a story about the devil, / mala cosa, small in stature with a beard / whose face they could never see clearly”), and comfortable in contemporary wonder. In one poem, the narrator and friends “sought out the Lights / off an empty highway, not a soul but us four.” On the distant horizon, they see the magic: “hovering / eerily for a moment, chills at being chosen, / growing / brighter than disappearing.” The marvel ends when a police officer’s lights bring their gaze down to earth. His flashlight scans their faces, and he asks them: “You all’re Americans aren’t you?” Their response: “we lied and said ‘Yes.”—a reminder that even though you can capture a place in words doesn’t mean your language and self are understood there.
If You Have to Go, the new collection of poems by Katie Ford, is a book that conjures powers of possession. I feel that way about all of her books: Her poems bring me to a mystical plane somewhere between language and life. I’m left shaken. Her willingness—we might even call it her essence—to write seeking the untellable makes her work unique. Ford’s new book is anchored by a sequence of sonnets, the first of which begins, “Empty with me, though here I am.” She’s a kenotic poet, and we can feel, in that emptying, an ardent desire to see the knobby and surprising routes of which poetry can be capable. Her books are ones to sit with and contemplate—much the same as I feel about her conversation. Ford is the author of four books from Graywolf Press: Deposition, Colosseum, Blood Lyrics, and If You Have to Go. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Paris Review, and she holds graduate degrees in theology and poetry from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She teaches at the University of California, Riverside. We spoke about poetry, theology, and what happens when language fails us. The Millions: You studied theology at Harvard—your first and latest books are dedicated, in part, to Gordon D. Kaufman, who taught you there. Could you talk about him as a mentor? What did you learn from him? How does he remain an influence? Katie Ford: Gordon D. Kaufman was the first theologian—living or dead—that I trusted in a thoroughgoing way. I had been studying Christian theology, mainly, because I wanted to learn how to articulate just where and how particular forms of Christian thinking proceed from flawed and/or injurious methodologies. Kaufman’s An Essay on Theological Method was formative to my thinking, as was everything he’s written from the 1990s onward. He disowned his earliest work. I remember being in his office with him, looking at the massive systematics he published in 1969—Systematic Theology: A Historicist Perspective—and he told me, “Don't read that. I didn’t know how to do theology then.” It wasn’t until he traveled to the East and had conversations with a broader range of religious thinkers and practitioners that he said he understood that all theology and religious language is an imaginative endeavor and a human construct. This may sound obvious to some, but it’s not very widely accepted that all of what has been written—including religious scriptures and normative creeds and prayers—is made by us and is, therefore, limited and flawed. That which is ultimately mysterious and ultimately real (I’m fine calling that ultimate reality “God”), is approached with human language, not a specialized language that is infallible simply because its content is theological. This recognition holds us responsible when that language goes awry, as it often does when it mixes with governmental or ecclesiastical power. We are responsible for creating metaphors and approaches that might remedy wayward, often authoritarian constructs. More than that, though, this recognition begins in reverence for that which, by definition, is mysterious. And just because we are acknowledging human imagination in theological efforts doesn’t mean what we are directing that language toward—the ultimate reality—is “imaginary” or make believe. Some readers miss this point, sometimes willfully so, just to take Kaufman down. I cannot overspeak Kaufman’s influence upon me, nor how dear he remains to me now. When I dedicated Deposition to him, I went to his house for a visit. He was developing dementia at the time, so I asked him, “Did you see that I dedicated my book to you?” And he said, “I did!” as if it had just popped back into his mind. “I scarcely know what to say,” he said. I think a theology that begins with this posture—I scarcely know what to say—would serve us well. If You Have to Go, in part, made me feel like I was behaving as a theologian, and nearly everything conveyed theologically in it can be traced back to what Kaufman taught me, although I think it’s only now—20 years later—that his work has truly been integrated into my way of thinking and being. The last time I saw him, I was with the writer Sarah Sentilles, who also was profoundly influenced by Kaufman. We sat in his back patio. I asked him if he remembered what he and I talked about years back. He said, “No, but I remember it was very important.” And it was. TM: I’m always interested in the routes of poets. You first began writing poetry “seriously” when you were 19, studying under Tess Gallagher, no less, at Whitman College. Had you converted from prose—or was poetry your first writing genre overall? KF: Poetry was my first genre. And only genre, really. I’ve written essays here and there, but prose isn’t my love, and I’ve never written long-form prose. Perhaps you’re thinking Whitman College was named for Walt? I wish. It was named for the Whitman missionaries. It’s a secular school but traces back to white religious colonization. In any case, Tess came to Whitman when I was a senior, and studying with her drenched me in her astounding sense of figuration and the lyric poem’s “singing line,” as she would say, which she likely learned from Yeats (Tess has much Irish in her, and is often living in Ireland), Akhmatova, and García Lorca. She sounds like this: “Terrible the rain. All night rain, / that I love. So the weight of his leg / falls again like a huge tender wing / across my hipbone.” Her mind moves with a brilliant, pure-gift originality, leaping and shifting, but always trustworthy, always returning us to ourselves anew. I was with her once in the Portland Japanese Garden, and we decided to write a poem together. I wrote a few lines, then she did, then I did … at one point she looked at a waterfall and started a gorgeous metaphor about a bear showing itself finally in the water as it fell. I looked at her and said, “How do you do that?” and she laughed and said, “I don’t know.” There was humility in her laugh, a recognition that however the gift comes, it’s the whence that’s inexplicable. TM: What led you to study theology? KF: I’ll let the fraught content of Deposition be the lengthy, 60-page answer to that. The book traces the aftermath of my own short but awful participation in a fundamentalist, evangelical sect when I was 18. When I was 22, I applied to Harvard Divinity School because I had a pained intuition that I needed to study the thinking and methodology that can cause Christian sects to be so devastating. I wouldn’t have said it that way then, but that’s what it was. I went to Harvard Divinity School on that intuition, and then began studying the big guns of Christian thinking: Aquinas; Calvin, Luther, Augustine, Barth, Rahner, and so on. I ended up writing a major paper on how these theologians at times proceed, in their writings, with the same methodology as perpetrators of violence. Perpetrators, for instance, begin by defining the reality of their victim. The victim’s life is redefined by an authority stolen away by the perpetrator. These theologians all begin in this way, defining reality (invisible and visible, the former of which is most problematic) in their own terms in order for others to have their lives defined and explained by a stolen authority. Once you yoke this starting point to image-making that doesn’t acknowledge, as Kaufman stresses, the utter mystery we stand before, I think theology becomes astoundingly misguided. I won’t go into all of what I traced between theological method and perpetration, but that’s what I was working on. I’ve had a desire to actually return to that paper and work on it further ... In short: Disturbance led me to study theology. And disturbance most often leads me to write poems. TM: What were the differences between the lived, experienced Christianity of your youth, and your study of faith through theology? KF: When you study theology and world religions, you can either end up in an internal schism of confusion and turmoil, or you can revere the human history of myth- and meaning-making, their aspirational, perplexed, reaching instincts. For me, a statement of faith would be a confession of not knowing. I believe that the more you admit you cannot know, and do not know, about the divine, the more “faithful” you are, although I don’t often use the word “faith” or “faithful.” The construction is useful here because I’m hoping to subvert its normative use. I was raised in a home that by heritage was Norwegian Lutheran. It was culturally so, even as it was religiously so. Both aspects, I have to say, were deeply good and fruitful—my parents are socially and politically liberal, the ethic was one of service to others, and we had rituals and customs that grounded us (I have a brother and a sister) in repetition and the mythology of our religion. None of my disturbance, as I mention above, was due to my childhood. While at Harvard, I wasn’t known as a person of faith. I was profoundly wary of Christian doctrines, creeds, and interpretations of the world. My own experience had attuned me to how excruciatingly systems of belief can bear down upon one’s internal life. My orientation was toward the lived life—the daily burdens or sufferings—of the person living under Christian systems of belief. I should say, too, that I simply have an innate curiosity about human religion. To me, it is a vast field of fascinating inquiry. And the stakes are very high. I’d like to say, too, that the study of one’s own religious tradition only is able to destabilize that which is inherently unstable, and only needs to be feared if someone doesn’t want instabilities of thought and heart brought to light. Such study can become the depths of religious practice. TM: Your work brings to mind three other writers I adore: Mary Szybist, Fanny Howe, and Paul Lisicky (his prose poems, in particular). Who are writers that you are drawn to (curious about? inspirited by?) on spiritual/liturgical wavelengths? KF: I love all of those writers and am honored to come to mind in their company. Fanny Howe’s lyric essay “Doubt” is a touchstone for me. I think Mary, Paul and I would all love to be in Fanny’s company to listen to her talk and ask her questions for as long as she’d allow. She’s one of the great poets of our time. What she asks of herself, and of all of us, are inquiries of unparalleled depth. I think Paul and Mary are after that as well. If I had to narrow myself to a list of writers who bring a sense of spiritual resonance, I’d say these authors: Simone Weil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Flannery O’Connor, Frank Bidart, Ilya Kaminsky, Jorie Graham, Linda Gregg, James Wright, Li-Young Lee, Marina Tsvetaeva, Audre Lorde, Robert Hass, John Berryman, and Shane McCrae. I’ll indulge in a few long-dead authors as well, naming John Donne (especially his sermons), Hildegaard of Bingen, and Basho. I’m also deeply nourished by the ancient noncanonical gospels and writings found in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. Today I finished the book Reading Judas by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, which includes a translation of “The Gospel of Judas” (by King) and an extended scholarly meditation on how this gospel reshapes our sense of the arguments and debates going on from the very beginning in the early Christian period. It doesn’t matter if someone believes what’s said in these noncanonical writings, at least not for me; what matters is an absorbed understanding that there was no singular “first” Christian community or normative set of beliefs and practices. The communities were wildly diverse from the start. This is a fact that disempowers present-day fundamentalists who argue, inherently, that there is “one true faith.” And it can undercut Christian Nationalism as well, which I find deeply perverse. Every religion, when desirous of or attached to governmental power, goes terribly awry. The subversion of such power is inherently Christian. It’s important for Christians to look this straight in the eye: They follow a politically and religiously subversive dissident who was executed by the state. It ought to be a protest movement of the highest order and intensity, wherever and whenever state corruption and brutality occurs. TM: They appear in Deposition, your first book, but the lines “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” feel as if they permeate all of your work: a palpable sense of longing. Where does that sense come from? Does longing birth your poems, or is it a discovered place? KF: Perhaps the 24-year0old who wrote, “What you are looking for cannot be / found now” should have regarded those lines as her own theological starting point. I suppose I couldn't integrate that idea in its fuller manifestations for quite some time in my own life. Theologically speaking, I align myself with negative theologians who argue we cannot name the attributes of God but can only say what God is not. It simply cannot be found now. One might argue we can find traces, or feel them, or experience manifestations of it (God) via love and service to others, but I believe we are seeing “through a glass darkly.” Yet there is longing, yes. But I have grown more settled in knowing that human illumination is enormously partial. It doesn’t upset me, although during the composition of If You Have to Go, I was painfully startled by lonesomeness, and the suddenness of that—of being solitary after 11 years of marriage—gutted me. I had to build my life up again. And for me, that hollow cannot be satiated by some sense of communion with the divine. I’ve tried that. I need humans, and my longing is mostly reaching toward humans. Longing is somatic for me. I feel it, right now, in my chest, shooting out for something, for someone, to hold onto. When I desire to speak from it, I desire to do so via poems. Emotions aching to attach to an idea, to an articulation—this complex compels me to write. The only requirement for me when I begin a poem is that I feel something deeply, but I don’t know what that “something” is. I’m inside of the poem to find out what it is, what the constellation of images, ideas, and human relationships is that has driven me to feel so upset, or desirous, or, at times, still. Stillness in a poem is more rare for me, but I believe If You Have to Go has a few still points where a reader can rest in a calm. “Psalm 40,” for instance, and perhaps “All I Ever Wanted.” TM: “Belief and doubt on the form of faces. / Ask the faces / which is which?” You’ve discussed the curious reaction to Deposition, the misinterpretations of you as a fundamentalist Christian poet as perhaps being a result of the “deeply secular” world of poetry, how that world can misconstrue the appearance of faith and religion in verse. How do you feel about the secular, the spiritual, and poetry now—years later? How do you think the contemporary poetry world (and perhaps the world of poetry criticism) responds to faith and doubt on the page? KF: Well, I’ll say right away that I know the risks of engaging religious language on the page, but I’m willing to take them. When I use religious language, it’s necessitated by the poems themselves and is a sincere articulation. It has never occurred to me to be ironic in my use of theological language, and what I can say about a reader’s response to faith and doubt on the page is this: I believe readers are tired of ironic renderings of faith and doubt. I think people want to believe the author is sincere. As tiresome to me as Christian fundamentalism is atheistic fundamentalism, which so very often utilizes religious language ironically, or worse, mockingly. Atheists can also succumb to fundamentalist fervor and rigidity of mind but can be unattuned to that risk. But to return to sincerity of religious language, I think readers are often intrigued and even nourished by original lines of poetry that use words like God, Lord, Allah, Christ, Buddha, the gods, enlightenment, and so on. Poetry is in a particularly strong position when it comes to such language, as poetry’s first demand is for original language, acute sensory renderings of the world, and subtle, internal interrogations. In the end, poetry is pressing as far as it can until it hits up against mystery, the unsayable. And coming to that limit, and feeling that limit, is an ecstatic experience. I suppose it’s as close to what I might call “religious” experience as I get. And readers are right to want that, and should put down books that aren’t pressing toward that limit, that are satisfied to offer articulations that are facile, general, or easily won. Such books are insults to the intricacy and subtlety of human experience. When such a book addresses belief and/or doubt in a facile way, it can feel like a higher offense, as the stakes are at a heightened pitch. So the poetry has farther to fall. TM: If I were asked to name my favorite poem of yours, I would say, “All of them!” But if I had to choose, it would be “A Woman Wipes the Face of Jesus.” There’s this wonderful poem, “Rosary,” by Franz Wright, that is so simultaneously narrow and grand: “Mother of space,— / inner // virgin / with no one face— // See them flying to see you / be near you, // when you / are everywhere.” I feel that way about your poem, which in six lines contains almost a hundred variations and vibrations: the woman, Christ, the cross, tenderness, folklore, and more. I return to it like a devotion. This is a longwinded way of saying that you can accomplish an incredible amount in a short space, so: Could you talk about the shorter poems that pepper your collections? Do they “arrive” differently? How do you see them working, or speaking with, your longer pieces? KF: You’re very kind toward my work, thank you. I’m humbled that it might be a ritual piece for you, a devotion. Again, my very-younger self wrote that poem, and if I remember correctly (without going to the garage to rummage through my Deposition box), that poem was extracted from an abandoned longer poem. I often “find” a small poem within the body of a poem flailing about, as it’s very hard to sit down and successfully write a poem of less than, say, eight lines. Eight—the octave—is when, for me, an argument unwinds via detail and the development of a voice, and is simply roomier, more elastic. I’m happy when my books have a variety of reading experiences, and often the very small poem offers a crystalline moment in a collection. “Still Life,” a short poem in Blood Lyrics, was written in one night (as is the rule at the Community of Writers in the High Sierra), and I felt brevity was a confine I needed, as I was deeply fatigued, I had my 2-year-old with me, and I was in my hotel room, a toddler staring at me from her crib, bobbing up and down, and a children’s song, “Down by the Bay,” was stuck in my head. So I wrote the phrase, “Down by the pond ...” and then I asked myself what the most unexpected thing to find down by the pond might be—the farthest thing from “where the watermelons grow”—and I wrote “addicts sleep.” Perhaps showing the whole poem will be easier than explanation: Down by the pond, addicts sleep on rocky grass half in water, half out, and there the moon lights them out of tawny silhouettes into the rarest of amphibious flowers I once heard called striders, between, but needing, two worlds. Of what can you accuse them now, beauty? The last sentence was something I forced upon myself: I was so fatigued (I like thinking of fatigue as a formal constraint!) that I simply said: Stop this poem. Then I had the amazing poem “American History” by Michael S. Harper in mind, which ends with the rather scolding, scalding question, “can’t find what you can’t see, can you?” I borrowed that tone of voice and grammatical cadence to write the last sentence. I knew it was risky of me, as I was claiming I had written these humans into a form of unexpected beauty. But when are people suffering addiction ever rendered as beautiful? So I decided to let it stand. That poem went through almost no revision after the first draft, which is entirely rare for me. Almost never does that happen. Short poems have to have some guts. They are far riskier, I think, than their longer brothers and sisters. In the poem you cite, I remember feeling terribly uneasy with using the word “tenderness.” But there are times when even sentimentality must be risked. And I’ve had more response to that poem than to any other in Deposition. But you know what I think? I think, above all, poets have to guard against becoming cold. TM: I like the occasional literary conversation about poetry and prayer. David Yezzi has said “poems and prayers have different ends: the end of a poem is aesthetic communication, the end of a prayer is God. Liturgy works to tune the soul; poetry works to tune the emotions.” Jericho Brown talks about how “writing poetry has probably been the best teacher for me learning to pray.” More than any other poet I am reading now, I feel like I am sitting in front of prayers when I read your work: They are incantatory, solemn, otherworldly (when you end the poem “Flee” from Colosseum with “I gave you each other / so save each other,” it feels like God is talking—really). Could you talk about the connections, intersections, differences between poetry and prayer? KF: Perhaps what prayer and poetry have in common is that they both must be revised. I think people need to witness what they are actually saying in their prayers. Is what they are asking for ethically sound? Do prayers of gratitude take, as their object, something granted via economic and/or racial privilege? These questions can make prayer fall silent for quite some time. I’m interested in when prayer falls silent, when it isn’t just another form of wanting. Prayers have human motives, and we need to approach them with critical suspicion. Is anyone out there wanting a prayer to say for the next year? Then pray for your trespasses to become known to you, and ask for nothing but the fortitude to bear the revelation and the strength to make amends. It’s a hard thing to ask for. I rarely dare it. It’s intriguing to me that you say my work acts as prayer for you, as I’m very often desiring to subvert traditional Christian thought, although the chastening, godlike voice of “I gave you each other / so save each other” can easily find biblical correlatives. I knew I was taking on a godlike voice in those lines, but I had no belief at that moment that I was channeling. Nor did I feel like I was praying. I was making, and I felt myself to be the maker. At times there is a religious desire to define all things as forms of prayer—art, writing, reading, parenting, walking, thinking, etc. But I resist this. It undercuts the inherent value of those pursuits and doesn’t allow them to stand on their own two feet as necessary human endeavors. I don’t want my mothering to have to be buoyed up in importance by calling it a form of prayer. It’s not. It’s mothering. And my poems are poems. I’m not praying, I’m writing. If a reader takes those poems in as forms of prayer, I’m honored. We all need to find language—as I have, for instance, with a revision of the prayer of St. Francis I’ve grown to love—that we direct outward toward the unknowable realities. But we also need to know that language is fallible, that it’s an effort. Fallibility isn’t necessarily an ugly human fact. It can be a rather beautiful, actually, if we name it as such. But then we have to try again, fail again, try again ... TM: As a reader, your new book If You Have to Go feels like a return to the world of Deposition, a place of spiritual longing, where past and present are joined. It is a fantastic book, grounded in a sequence of sonnets that accumulates so well (as you do with other formal moves in previous books). It feels, again, as a book of longing: “All goes to gone. God of my childhood, / with your attendant monstrosities, / have a little warmth on me, bent and frozen.” When I finished it, I felt physically and emotionally spent; it was a transformative experience. Could you talk about the writing of this new book? KF: I was physically and emotionally spent myself! I felt like that sonnet sequence was going to kill me. Many things articulated in the sonnets came at great cost. At the same time, I felt I was in the middle of something artistic that would never, for me, happen again. It’s a time of my life I don’t enjoy looking back at, but I remember its insomnia, and how, at 4 a.m., I’d wake up, go down the path to the little studio our Los Angeles rental had beneath the main house, and I’d write for three hours, a little more, a little less, until I heard my husband and toddler daughter waking up, walking (and pattering) in the main house, and I’d stop my writing and walk back up to the house. I don’t remember the mornings very clearly after that initial window. The end of a marriage fashions its own dull, pained light. To articulate that light, I realized very easily that, in my writing, nothing could be ruled out or considered out of the question as artistically old-fashioned, tired, dead, worn out, or even archaic. In fact, I landed upon a form (it seemed comic, I remember lightly laughing when I began it) practiced by the poets of the 17th century—the crown of sonnets, a corona, in which the last line of one sonnet becomes the first of the next. I just decided to try it. And each morning, I’d have the last line of the previous poem to start the next. I wrote the sonnets sequentially—meaning I didn’t leave gaps and hop around, or write sonnets and then order them—and the first 20 or so came very fast. Two months or so. Then things slowed a bit, and the fluency of the beginning stage left me. Portions of the sequence were doggedly tricky, and I began to have narrative questions I don’t usually have as a lyric poet. For the sequence to end, I had to wait quite some time. How would it end? I had to wait for my own life to unfold. The poems in the book that are not sonnets were written when I knew I had content that needed other forms. Now that I’m truly done with the book and it’s in the world, I feel a bit bereft. I know I won’t ever be inside of those sonnets again.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in September. Like by A.E. Stallings Stallings has described the “strange dream-logic connections of the rhymes themselves that lead the poem forward, perhaps into territory the poet herself had not intuited. Rhyme is a method of composition.” Like, her fourth collection, is exactly the book needed in our time of neutered cultural language. Her poems are an antidote to the anodyne. We use the word “sculpted” to describe a well-formed poem, and Stallings earns that description: She’s adept at poetic control. In “Alice, Bewildered,” she brings the reader elsewhere—“Deep in the wood where things escape their names”—before alluding to a tale we know, of “likeness in the glass.” I love what she does next: “Yet in the dark ellipsis she can tell, / She’s certain, that her name begins with an ‘L’— / Liza, Lacie? Alias, alas, / A lass alike alone and at a loss.” A bounty of consonance and assonance to turn your tongue enough to taste what’s happening: She’s remaking language. Not with tricks, but with stretches and sprints. Like in “Bedbugs in Marriage Bed,” when the narrator wonders if “it’s best to burn the whole thing down.” Each morning, she checks “the seem of seams,” and there’s nothing for weeks and months—except paranoia. “When darkness blanches and the stars go grey. / Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams / Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good: / They are the negatives you cannot prove.” Subject becomes symbol becomes saying—it’s a clever movement for a poem. As in her other volumes, Stallings can bend to antiquity as easily as she can write of modern life. My favorite? “Dyeing the Easter Eggs.” Any poet who can deliver phrases like “chrism of olive oil” and “Punctilious as Pontius Pilate” is a gift. When Rap Spoke Straight to God by Erica Dawson Although broken into sections in the table of contents, Dawson’s book functions as a single, long poem. The stanzas brew and burst, but they build across pages. It feels like a book born to be read aloud. Dawson has said there’s “nothing wrong” with poetry that’s “difficult or strange.” Those descriptors can be applied, quite positively, to her new book: an athletically sure trip that begins with Wu-Tang and ends in an oneiric place, “a dark and empty heaven.” The speaker of Dawson’s continuous poem is witty, wise, hilarious, enchanting. She wonders about a Lady Jesus, who dares Peter to deny her. Who commands: “When I asked for grace / the dust hid all the stars and not / a single thing happened. But now/ I am the dust.” She concludes the section suggesting that now “the Holy Spirit finds its voice.” This voice has many varieties; some sections pun presidential, while others are satirical shreds of identity—“Let’s ball, / white boy. Next time I get exotic, I’ll call / You Hoss. Third person. You’re beside yourself.” Dawson’s fluidity is her function: When Rap Spoke Straight to God barrels across a wide plane. “You won’t believe what happened to the angels,” the narrator says. “They never speak the language of the body. / I have a dream I corner Gabriel and tell / him how, one time, I cored the moon and lived, / for a month of Sunday’s, warm inside its curve.” Read this book and you’ll want Dawson to sing of everything. Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez “My parents fold like luggage,” Olivarez writes, “into the trunk of a Toyota Tercel.” Above, “stars glitter against a black sky,” a sky from which “borders do not exist.” What folds them into that trunk is “the belief that the folding will end. // it doesn’t. dollars fold into bills. my parents / near breaking. broke.” This sense of passage and crossing bleeds throughout the collection, which includes interspersed, short pieces titled “Mexican Heaven.” In one, St. Peter is “a Mexican named Pedro.” He waits at the gate “with a shot of tequila to welcome all the Mexicans / to heaven, but he gets drunk & forgets about the list. / all the Mexicans walk into heaven, / even our no-good cousins who only / go to church for baptisms & funerals.” Olivarez’s humor often arises from a place of cultural anxiety: To be Mexican in America is to be talked about, to be labeled and debated, all so without being asked and respected. In one poem, the narrator dreamt he had “Armani suits / isn’t that what Harvard / was supposed to buy / where the border ended / in a boardroom.” An Ivy League education might unlock doors, but it doesn’t unlock stereotypes. What makes Citizen Illegal so pitch-perfect is the anxiety of expectations of immigrant families, the narrator who tries to be “a good Mexican son” but whose Spanish has begun to falter: “my mom still loved me. even when i couldn’t understand her blessings.” In another poem, the narrator is asked “what i am,” if he is really Mexican. I love how that poem ends: “i know i’m a questionable narrator / when it comes to my own life, i ask Jesus / how i got so white & Jesus says / man, / i’ve been trying to figure out the same damn thing myself.” Anagnorisis by Kyle Dargan “Live streams, meanwhile, / pump night-green footage from Ferguson’s / punctured lung into our timelines. Flash / grenades gush like stars spangling from a flag / drawn and quartered. I feel a vicarious / smallness watching demonstrations flee. / A boy has been murdered again.” Dargan is a master of threnody: lines tensed and pulled so much that his poems shake the page. He’s writing within an American language that is broken. In “Poem Resisting Arrest”: “This poem is trying to compose itself. It has // the right to remain either bruised or silent, / but it is a poem, so it hears you’d be safer // if you stopped acting like a poem, ceased resisting.” Poem as resistance, reaction, rejoinder. In a later poem, Dargan writes about the problem of seeking joy from poets: “my struggles with writing / for you, friends, a poem / about gratitude—gratitude / which is all the rave / now.” He prefers poems of gratitude like “Thanks” by Yusef Komunyakaa, where “the gods are blind / and so he praises / off-mark bullets / and butterflies / that kept him alive.” What, really, do we want of poets? What confessions? Who seeks penance? “You want / my private aspect / (joy) to be public. / You want my public / aspect (pain) to be / stowed beneath / my bed like a precious / something someone / might steal from me.” Those “peckish for a peek / at my cloistered, incandescent / revelry—were you as earnest / about my frostbite, my burns, / I would have opened / these hands, sated you all.” Anagnorisis is a book of the inevitable: “To be born human is to be tendered / this challenge to live larger than your woe.” A Cruelty Special to Our Species by Emily Jungmin Yoon Yoon’s book is anchored in poetic testimonies of “comfort women” of the Japanese Empire: women forced into military prostitution. Yoon envisions her channeled narratives as a way “to amplify and speak these women’s stories, not speak for them. I’d like my poetry to remind readers that even if a part of history may not seem to be relevant to their lives, it is—it is their reality too.” She succeeds on several levels. In poems like “Comfort,” she captures the rhythm of pain: “On Wednesdays, it rains // for the children they bore. For the children / they could not bear. For the children / they were.” Several pieces in the collection are titled “An Ordinary Misfortune,” suggesting that violence against women is endemic, threaded into culture, normal. “She is girl. She is gravel. She is grabbed. She is grabbed like handfuls of gravel.” Yoon’s cadences accumulate in this particular iteration, with a stress on girls grabbed: stolen and kept. Another refrain across poems are the “reused condoms,” capturing a shared experience of suffering. Her powerful “Testimonies” section will make you weep—and wonder at evil. Other poems in the collection exist beyond the years of war; pieces like “Bell Theory” skillfully consider how language displaces us. “When I was laughed at for my clumsy English, I touched my throat.” The narrator wants to escape the mockery, but she can’t: One of the cruelties special to our species is how language—and its daggers—is often all we have. Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers “The (Im)Precision of Language” is the perfect poem to introduce this collection, a book in which clever wordplay, trauma, and transcendence live together. The narrator begins by wondering about how porous and flexible English can be: “How far the ring-necked dove is / from wringing a dove’s neck. The way / a stand of trees can hide a deer // stand, concealing the hunter who / will shoot the deer.” Then, she moves her mood: “Once, someone who was dear to me / threatened me with a deer rifle.” Words and wounds are close. “Language became a tricky game where saying / nothing meant everything, where saying everything // meant nothing left to fear.” Her conclusion, though it stings, works so well: “Which brings us back to the dove, / the difference between ringing // and wringing and where language leaves us / when someone controls every word we say, / when we have no one left to talk to.” The narrators of these poems seek other, better bonds, such as between mother and son. From “Last Night”: “Since Liam turned two, it has been less / and less. The gradual stretching and thinning / of the thread between us.” She thinks “about / before he was born, lying in that same spot / on the bed, watching him flip and roll under / my skin.” Her boy will be 3 in a few hours, “and I will remember sadly the night before / the last time I ever held him so close.” Despite all that these narrators have experienced, they retain hope—to do so is a power against despair. American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time selected by Tracy K. Smith I don’t often think of books of poems as potential gifts, but Smith’s volume could make the perfect present. Pocket-sized, long enough to offer a breadth of poets without becoming repetitive or overbearing, Smith’s collection is well-prepared—exactly what you’d hope for in an anthology from a poet laureate. In Smith’s introduction, she says these poems “bear witness to the daily struggles and promises of community, as well as to the times when community eludes us.” Her prefatory remarks, and the book as a whole, feel optimistic. There are some poems of pain within this bunch, certainly, but Smith has done a fine job of giving the reader poems of earned emotions. There’s a fantastic lineup here, but what follows are some special highlights. “’N’em” by Jericho Brown: “They said to say goodnight / And not goodbye.” “They fed / Families with change and wiped / Their kitchens clean.” (Brown’s poems of place and generation drill down, puncture the earth: if you’re looking for a poet of community, look no further.) The always great Vievee Francis with “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding”: “When it’s time to celebrate, something dies. / When something dies, we take it with the sweet.” The spiritual architecture of “After the Diagnosis” by Christian Wiman: “Change is a thing one sleeps through / when young.” And the prose poetry of Nathalie Handal in “Ten Drumbeats to God”: “Then I heard the drumbeats and remembered—like rain like song like light lit by old questions—there is no reason, there is god, drum, beat, there is what lingers and there is what comes later.”
You’ve seen home videos like it: family scurrying in a kitchen while preparing a holiday meal. A father carrying a turkey to the counter to be carved; a mother washing dishes. Young daughters, anxious, watching the whole mess. Hours of recorded footage to be savored later—or to simply sit in a box, forgotten. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1998, in Eagar, Arizona. The FBI was monitoring the family inside a small home atop a hill in the White Mountains. The home belonged to Milton William Cooper, a veteran of the Vietnam war who worked in Naval Intelligence. Host of The Hour of the Time, an infamous shortwave radio show that opened with an air-raid siren, commanding voices, barking dogs, screams, and stomping jackboots. Author of Behold a Pale Horse, one of the most shoplifted books in America—and one of the most-read books in prisons. There was a warrant out for Cooper’s arrest: He’d been indicted on tax evasion and bank fraud. In response, Cooper posted a warning on his website: “Any attempt by the federal government or anyone else to execute the unconstitutional and unlawful arrest warrants will be met with armed resistance.” It was a warning, and prediction, that would later come true. Pale Horse Rider: William Cooper, the Rise of Conspiracy, and the Fall of Trust in America by Mark Jacobson is a worthwhile introduction to one of the most unique personalities in the world of conspiracy theories. In a business full of hucksters, paranoiacs, and would-be messiahs, Cooper is the prototype: the insider-turned-outsider, the radio show host behind a movement. Jacobson, an investigative journalist and contributing editor for New York magazine, creates a complex portrayal of Cooper that recognizes why he has become a mythic figure but doesn’t fall prey to the legend. Jacobson is clear that Cooper was physically abusive in his personal relationships and that his paranoid view of the world reached a dangerous fever pitch. Soon after that Thanksgiving movie was filmed (and sold online to his supporters), Cooper’s wife Annie and her daughters left the home, never to return. Cooper’s drinking had fueled battles with his previous wives and girlfriends, but even when he cut down, his temper caused problems. The passion that Cooper poured into his research, writing, and radio show was not performance: He could be volatile and mercurial, but he could also be prescient. To his credit, Jacobson is able to present Cooper’s alleged predictions with a grain of salt. In 1991, within Behold a Pale Horse, Cooper seemed to foresee the rise of school shootings: “The sharp increase of prescriptions of psychoactive drugs like Prozac and Ritalin to younger and younger children will inevitably lead to a rash of horrific school shootings ... [these incidents] will be used by elements of the federal government as an excuse to infringe upon the citizenry’s Second Amendment rights.” Jacobson is careful to couch these predictions within a particular worldview—as an author, he doesn’t think Cooper’s internal analysis is actually sound—to demonstrate how Cooper’s beliefs influenced and nurtured a burgeoning “patriot” movement. On June 2, 2001, Cooper began talking about Osama bin Laden during his recording of The Hour of the Time. He claimed that bin Laden was trained and funded by the CIA. “I’m telling you to be prepared for a major attack,” he warned. “Something terrible is going to happen in this country. And whatever is going to happen they’re going to blame on Osama bin Laden. Don’t you even believe it.” Did William Cooper, a shortwave radio host, predict the 9/11 attacks two months prior, in a small home studio near the New Mexico border? “Predict,” as Jacobson is aware, suggests preternatural knowledge. Back in 1999, CNN was already publishing articles with headlines like “Bin Laden Feared to Be Planning Terrorist Attack” and even identifying Washington D.C. as one of the potential locations. It might be better to claim that Cooper, like other radio host and raconteurs who speak in recursive sentences laden with ambiguity, was able to make us think that he could connect the mysterious dots of the world without actually drawing the lines. Cooper would often give his audience a suggestion: “Listen to everyone, read everything, believe nothing until you, yourself, can prove it with your own research.” Such advice sounds reasonable, but democratization of knowledge tends to make expertise less important than personal experience. Cooper began his own investigative journey at Long Beach College, where he expressed his anger at how Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return. Cooper was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and received treatment at the VA hospital in Long Beach, California, twice, in 1981 and 1982. His interest in conspiracy theories began with Roswell. A central myth of American UFO lore, the event had been resurrected by The Roswell Incident, a 1980 book by Charles Berlitz, language school scion and paranormal researcher. Jacobson writes, “Now the weakness of the Roswell narrative—the insufficient eyewitness testimony, the lack of compelling physical evidence—became the case’s greatest selling point. If Roswell was relegated to obscurity, someone at the top must have wanted it that way. It was an axiom of modern life: the extent of obfuscation is in direct proportion to what the authorities felt they needed to hide. The bigger the secret, the bigger the cover-up.” Jacobson is on to something with such observations, but he quickly returns to a biography of Cooper. It is a fascinating biography, to be sure. Ol’ Dirty Bastard called Cooper “curriculum,” one that was studied and even preached by Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes, Tupac Shakur, Mobb Deep, and Nas. Domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh was a fan of Cooper’s radio show and writings, even visiting him once before the Oklahoma City attack (Cooper had been unnerved by the encounter, describing McVeigh, who was unknown to him, as acting like a zombie; after the attack, Cooper recounted the incident to the FBI and even offered a tip that a Florida militia man was planning a similar attack). Pale Horse Rider begins to consider the lineage between Cooper and Alex Jones, but it would have benefitted from a fuller examination. Although some claim that Cooper even predicted an “outsider” president like Donald Trump, more consideration of the overlap between the rhetoric of Cooper and Trump is warranted. Jacobson gives us a taste; his first chapter is a concise overview of the road from Cooper to Trump. Still, there’s more to be said. The route between the men and their supporters is not a direct one, though. Cooper’s worldview was a menagerie of folklore and fear, but he was doggedly American. Trump, never a veteran of peacetime or war, is something else entirely. Is this too much to ask of a biography? Should we expect Jacobson to keep digging and create a more forceful argument connecting Cooper to our present moment? Maybe. Pale Horse Rider is a request that Milton William Cooper is worthy of our sustained attention. It is a hypnotic dive into a world where theory is considered fact.
Billie Holiday appeared on the cover of the July 1949 issue of Ebony magazine; inside her essay “I’m Cured for Good Now” was a short but heartfelt testament of her recent struggles. She’d pled guilty to drug charges “on the promise of treatment for addiction” and was confined to the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia. Her intake form listed her occupation as singer, and her religion as Catholic. In the essay—likely ghostwritten by one of the magazine’s staff writers—Holiday said her “priest was extremely helpful to me in those first weeks and helped me chart the course I should travel in order to build my life upon new strong foundations.” She was “determined to remake my entire life.” This spiritual route was an inevitable one for Holiday. In Religion Around Billie Holiday, a focused, enlightening examination of the gifted singer, Tracy Fessenden demonstrates that Holiday’s Catholicism was complex and formative. Fessenden is clear that her book “is not a brief for Holiday’s piety or impiety... It is not a study of sacred themes in her work, for indeed Holiday recorded almost nothing that could be called religious.” Instead she focuses “on the environing religious conditions to which her genius responded, and in which her life and sound took form.” This is a welcome approach. Holiday’s talent has earned her status as a legend, and we often seek to remake legends in our own image. When Fessenden writes that “at various moments,” Holiday “may or may not have been a believing Catholic, a practicing Catholic, a lapsed or cafeteria or recovering Catholic,” she is not being evasive. Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 autobiography, has been plagued by claims of inaccuracies and exaggerations. Fessenden notes that “Publicity photographs show Holiday at the typewriter, or in reading glasses, examining proofs—Doubleday insisted she initial every page—but Holiday would later claim she hadn’t so much as read the book.” The autobiography was co-authored by William Dufty and went “from conception to press in three months.” Discerning what is Dufty and what is Holiday, then, is no easy task. Rather than engage in the folly of explicating Holiday’s personal and private beliefs, Fessenden methodically documents her life in Catholic institutions, and within Catholic culture. Here the word “around” within the title is essential: “To consider religion around is to pay attention to ambient feeling and mood, to energies, pressures, frequencies, powers.” Her conclusion: Holiday “was indisputably a trained Catholic, and this training shaped her moves within what horizons of possibility were hers to navigate over the whole of her life.” Sadie Fagan, Holiday’s mother, was sent to the House of the Good Shepherd for Colored Girls in Baltimore when she was 13. Holiday described her mother as a “Mass every Sunday” Catholic “with her candles and creeping up to the altar.” Holiday herself was sent to Good Shepherd twice, in 1925 and 1927, after attending kindergarten at St. Frances Academy for Colored Girls. Fessenden does not whitewash those parochial years as anything near perfect, noting that certain, more lurid details have been shown to be apocryphal (and are likely vestiges of the convent exposé genre). To claim that Holiday was a raw talent, someone uncontrollable and nearly miraculous, is to diminish her selfhood: “As much as it discounts a taxing apprenticeship on the streets of a jazz-loving city, the myth of Holiday’s untutored genius also neglects her musical training in the institution where being a street kid landed her.” At Good Shepherd, Holiday “attended a compulsory Catholic Mass every day and sang every day from the forms set forth in the Liber Usualis, the common book of Gregorian chant used in the Mass, in daily and seasonal devotions, and in all feasts and celebrations in the liturgical year.” Holiday’s years at Good Shepherd followed Pope Pius X’s Tra Le Sollecitudini, which offered new guidance on liturgical music, including the “freshly revived Gregorian chant.” Dom Joseph Gajard, the choirmaster of Solesmes Abbey, said the new approach to the chant was such that “the rhythm, of material, becomes a thing of the spirit.” These “combined apprenticeships, convent and street, went to Billie Holiday’s distinctive undemonstrative cool, her soft parlando delivery of straight-up talk turned to song.” The influence went even beyond her music. The girls at Good Shepherd had been sent “by legal authority to the Sisters in order to remove them from evil surroundings and bad parents.” It was a place of asylum, a “setting devoted to the structuring or restructuring of a young woman’s life along a particular narrative arc.” The positives and negatives of such an approach are worthy of another book, but Fessenden’s focus is on influence: “If the stories you hear and the examples you are given make injured and suffering girls both romantic and valuable, then your idea of self, your subjectivity, will gather substance from that fact.” Holiday held on to that Catholicism as much as she held on to her rosary, “wrapped around her hand,” when she spoke to the jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams at a funeral. She held on to that faith when was driving with the jazz singer Thelma Carpenter, and the car’s brakes failed on the highway in Newark. Carpenter said, “I figured I’d hug the highway and we sort of prayed real good and finally we made it.” Holiday consoled her by turning the dying words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux into witness: “She let some of those rosebuds fall down on us.” Williams and Carpenter were both fellow Catholics, which is a cultural note that Fessenden perfectly captures: Catholicism is a shared, visceral experience of community and ritual. “Billie Holiday’s Catholicism,” Fessenden writes, “like Louis Armstrong’s, was casual and attenuated, lived in ways that prompted neither avowal nor rebellion. But Catholicism puts them both into a larger musical conversation than the relay between rural South and urban North, between spirituals and swing.” Around 1953, Billie Holiday returned to Good Shephard for a copy of her baptismal certificate. She showed John Levy, then her manager and boyfriend, the chapel in which she was baptized, as well as the dormitory rooms. The sisters asked her to sing, and she did. Her song “My Man” includes the haunting lines “All my life is just despair / but I don’t care.” I wonder what Holiday might have been thinking when those words settled into the walls.
Here are seven notable books of poetry publishing in August. The Carrying by Ada Limón For a book metered by grief, there’s a lot of love here—that shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering Limón’s stylistic control and skill. Poems like “Almost Forty” appear next to “Trying,”; in the former, narrated by a couple, loud birds are “insane // in their winter shock of sweet gum and ash.” They look at each other and wonder if the birds’ screams are a warning—but don’t say a thing. Their silence extends to the end of the poem, when they “eat what we’ve made together, / each bite an ordinary weapon we wield // against the shrinking of mouths.” In “Trying,” they are again together. He is painting in the basement; she is “trellising / the tomatoes in what’s called / a Florida weave.” And then, “we try to knock me up again.” The day passes, the sun begins to set, and she checks the plants, her “fingers smelling of sex and tomato vines.” She doesn’t “know much / about happiness,” and yet “some days I can see the point / in growing something, even if / it’s just to say I cared enough.” Growing, caring, surviving: There’s a hymn at play here, and Limón is very good at pacing her poems to leave us satisfied but also curious. Elsewhere she writes, “Perhaps we are always hurtling our body towards / the thing that will obliterate us,” and that sentiment feels like a central truth to her poems. Her satirical poems sting (in “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to Be Bilingual,” she roasts empty attempts at inclusion: “Will you tell us the stories that make / us uncomfortable, but not complicit?”), yet so many of these poems are simply about how to stay alive. “I lost God awhile ago,” she ends one poem. “And I don’t want to pray, but I can picture / the plants deepening right now into the soil, / wanting to live, so I lie down among them, / in my ripped pink tank top, filthy and covered / in sweat, among red burying beetles and dirt / that’s been turned and turned like a problem / in the mind.” One of the best books of the year. Perennial by Kelly Forsythe Forsythe’s debut collection is about 1999 and now, the personal and the projected, villains and victims. Writing about high school is never easy—those hyper, hyperbolic years—but Forsythe is open and patient as she reconstructs life at Columbine High School. “Call us rebels,” begins one poem. “We’re making movies, / we’re making a plan, we’re / following each other // around basements.” As if the poem wants to nudge our assumptions about the infamous identities of these poem’s speakers, we see: “Will you set up a dynamic // that is also an obsession? / Will you discuss patterns?” Perennial shows how the violence of Columbine—a violence that has reverberated on campuses across America—creates an endless cycle of worry, fear, regret, and guilt. The narrative bounds between Colorado and Pittsburgh, where a young narrator is forced to accept the pain that now scars the mundane walls of such schools. Forsythe delivers precise lines of pain—“We are so small & red, red, collapsing,” ends one poem, holding the reader’s breath—but what also appears is the dizzying sense that even in these banal spaces, humanity remains. In “Homeroom,” “It felt strange to return to this space / the next day, or rather this concept: // a room meant as a home / for small enlisted selves.” In that weird, boring world, “we noticed the color / black, we noticed each other’s / hands, we noticed each other.” If You Have to Go by Katie Ford “The mind is full of mistakes as we set out to write the poem. We have flawed thoughts, collapsing systems, rotten boards and corroding anchors that make up how we think through a morning, through a day, through a love, and through a life. It is a crushing art.” Written after her second book Colosseum, Ford’s description of the poetic experience feels equally apt to her excellent new book. If You Have to Go is dedicated to the theologian Gordon D. Kaufman, one of Ford’s mentors at Harvard Divinity School. Her new book is part threnody, part longing, all song. The book is anchored by an extended crown of sonnets, which feel like pained and punctuated addresses to God, herself, and “Desire, that zealous servant / who won’t stop tending.” The speaker has had enough and only wants some rest. “Let me stand plain, undone in this room. / I never asked desire to be so rich.” The recursive sonnet crown pushes the reader deeper into the book, and deeper into the narrator’s woes: “I make my bed every morning. / I don’t know where to start / so I start with the bed. / Then I fall to my knees against it.” Her habit, or perhaps her condition, of seeking divine solace creates only more worry: “Do you think I don’t know that when I say Lord / I might be singing into the silo where nothing is stored.” Ford’s lines are impassioned, full of the terrible desire of doubt: “I don’t know what I mean, / but I mean it. I don’t know what to want, / but I want it. And when I say God / it’s because no one can know it—not ever, // not at all—. It’s a wall. / And it drops to the floor as I fall.” This book is a journey, particularly moored to “Psalm 40,” a robust poem that looks inward and upward: “I am content because before me looms the hope of love.” If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar Asghar’s debut mines past and present, Pakistan and America in poems that are driven by a penchant and talent for storytelling. She begins with “For Peshawar,” an elegy that considers the 2014 Taliban attack on schoolchildren: “From the moment our babies are born / are we meant to lower them into the ground?” The narrator moves from questions to frustrated requests: “I wish them a mundane life. / Arguments with parents.” A life should have moments of mundane, not mortal, pain: “Blisters on the back of a heel. // Loneliness in a bookstore.” As her poems move to other settings and moments, Asghar returns to this theme: Wounds are inevitable, and much of life is looking to story for closure, or at least comfort. In the poem “Kal,” the narrator says “Allah, you gave us a language / where yesterday & tomorrow / are the same word.” Then, “If yesterday & tomorrow are the same / pluck the flower of my mother’s body / from the soil.” There’s an energy to her sense of elegy, so much that it permeates other poems, like “Old Country.” A family goes to a buffet “on the days we saved enough money.” Kids carry “our rectangle / backpacks brimming with homework, calculators / & Lisa Frank trapper keepers, for we knew this was a day / without escape.” That space becomes a fantasy of play: “Here, our family reveled in the American / way of waste, manifest destinied our way / through the mac & cheese, & green bean // casseroles, mythical foods we had only / heard about on TV where American children rolled their eyes in disgust.” Hours of freedom pass, but as with many of Asghar’s poems, there’s a tinge of melancholy—an awareness of what permeates this world. [millions_ad] The Blue Clerk by Dionne Brand Every ars poetica is a conversation, an attempt at meaning and purpose. The Blue Clerk is a collection of such attempts—a meandering, metaphorical, sometimes mystical collection—and the result is a developed, inventive book. Brand is also a novelist, and her reach is showcased here in a book that begins with a curious premise: a clerk, dressed in blue, waits on a wharf. A ship is supposed to arrive soon. She is “inspecting and abating” the “bales of paper” that surround her. These are “left-hand pages” from a poet, “benign enough pages,” ones “you can’t use right now because the poem moved in another direction. Pages that are unformed, or pages that, at whatever moment, she did not have the patience or the reference to solidify.” Brand tells this unfolding story in prose poetic verses. Some sections are of indiscriminate authorship—the clerk is the poet, the poet is not the clerk—suggesting the drift of our poetic identities. Brand’s lines are unique and quite comfortable to get lost in. The cleaved personality, and person, between the poet and clerk brings us to places where poetry is birthed: “Living that little fissure between scenes of the real. Everyone lives that everyday but we quickly seal the fissure for whatever pleasures are in the so-called reality, or we give up on being on this side of the fissure because it is too lonely there. It is a chasm. It is a choice available to anyone, and apparent to everyone, but unfortunately my job is…I wish I couldn’t see that chasm.” The work of the clerk is curation. The work of the poet? “I am not really in life, the author says. I am really a voyeur. But the part of me that is in life is in pain all the time. That’s me, says the clerk. You watch, I feel.” feeld by Jos Charles “Why do we say that the word ‘tree’—spoken or written—is a symbol to us for trees? Both the word itself and the trees themselves enter into our experience on equal terms; and it would be just as sensible, viewing the question abstractedly, for trees to symbolize the ‘tree’ as for the word to symbolize the trees.” Alfred North Whitehead’s schema of language seems relevant to feeld, the second book by Jos Charles. Although Charles’s method has been compared to Chaucer, I think Stephanie Burt’s allusion to James Joyce is even more apt. feeld, in its mode and method, lives in the same world as Finnegans Wake—both books force us to reconsider how language transfers (and hides) meaning. “i a lone hav scaped 2 tell u this,” Charles writes, of various scenes from a “female depositrie room,” but also images of fields, unearthing metaphors and ways to think of identity: “i muste // re member / plese kepe ur handes / 2 urself / i meen this // ontologicklie // nayture is sumwere else.” Language is a place of skepticism but also necessity, and feeld builds toward a sense of resignation: “a lief is so smal / the nut // off a thynge / the trees // ive wetd / & wut weeve throne // inn 2 a stream / ull never kno // wut was here.” How Poems Get Made by James Longenbach Rather than wonder or worry about poetry’s larger, idealistic goals for society, Longenbach’s volume is a careful guidebook that sticks to the poem itself: its reading, its writing, its revision. “The impulse to be lyrical is driven by the need to feel unconstrained by ourselves,” he writes, and he proceeds like a good teacher through many of poetry’s essential modes: diction, syntax, voice, figure, rhythm, image, tone, and more. What I especially like is that he uses time-worn classics as sources of instruction. He draws from poets like Blake, Crane, Dickinson, Donne, and Keats for good reason: “Because they hold our attention as repeatable events, the best-known poems may seem wonderfully strange, especially after long acquaintance.” With healthy quotes from poems that demonstrate the technical and metaphorical values he lauds, Longenbach creates a book that is not literary analysis, but an explanation of how poems work—which might just be enough to get people writing verse.
“Southern gentle lady, / Do not swoon. / They’ve just hung a black man / In the dark of the moon.” “Silhouette” by Langston Hughes rests on one of the middle pages of Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now by Asma Naeem, the poem’s white lines centered against black background. “They’ve hung a black man / To a roadside tree / In the dark of the moon / For the world to see.” The word silhouette appears only in the title, not the actual text of the poem. Its presence comes from its absence. Black Out began as an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., but Naeem’s examination extends to a consideration of how the silhouette rose as a powerful and economical art form—and how it symbolically, and sometimes literally, captures the way we see race in America. In her introduction to the collection, Naeem cites Emily Jackson from The History of the Silhouette (1911): “At its best, black profile portraiture is a thing of real beauty, almost worthy to take its place with the best miniature painting; at its worst, it is a quaintly appealing handicraft, revealing the fashions and foibles, the intimate domestic life and conventions of its day.” In contrast, Black Out offers a more nuanced understanding of silhouettes through image and essay, history and analysis. The silhouettist Auguste Edouart once received a letter praising his “shadow”—a 19th-century term for silhouettes—which the admirer said was “almost alive and breathing.” For those new to the art form, Penley Knipe’s essay from the collection, although placed last, should be read first. Her anecdote about Edouart begins an essay that offers readers a practical and historical understanding of the art form’s early development—and its particular power. By the 1780s, silhouettes were popular in America, and affordable. “Much less expensive than the portrait miniature,” these silhouettes “were often snipped for a few pennies.” For the first time, “people could possess an inexpensive, nearly instantaneous likeness of themselves or a loved one—before the silhouette, portraiture was for the royal and the wealthy.” Even amateurs tried their hands at the art form, using “a candle to cast a shadow or a pencil to draw freehand before taking up scissors to create an instant likeness of the sitter.” Whether skilled artist or hobbyist, techniques included full cutouts, busts, hollow-cuts, and the “conversation piece,” where friends or family are collected in a domestic space. One example reproduced in the collection is Edouart’s “Magic Lantern.” Nearly a dozen people are arranged in the family parlor, transfixed by the image projected from the magic lantern—a precursor to the projector. A bandit flees, chased by men on horseback. Pigs and ducks scurry in the street. Yet what is far more fascinating than the dizzying scene projected on the curtain are the black figures, whose dark bodies feel risen from the paper. Silhouette, performed with skill, is both exquisite and dizzying. In Edouart’s creation, a woman holds a child in front of the image. An old man’s peg leg points in the direction of the image, while an old woman sits, her profile stern. At the back of the room, the family’s African-American servant has opened the door to peek at the show. He is half in the room, half out; his presence is nearly shadow. Black Out expertly demonstrates that, as an art form and as a symbol, silhouettes have often been about race. Naeem writes that early American silhouettes “attempted to reconcile contradictory views on such pressing issues as colonial independence, slavery, and national identity. The cutting of the body and the head, the contour as a unit of meaning, the Spartan simplicity, and the cumulative uniformity of individuals from all walks of life as one black profile after another—all of these aspects of silhouettes registered highly charged debates of the day.” “Silhouette portraiture,” Naeem explains, “can be seen as an elision between high art and popular culture wherein European conventions of portraiture—contrived poses and stylized mises-en-scènes—were demoted in favor of simplified profile forms with no accoutrements, illusionism, or artifice.” Silhouettes were fast art, and since the sitter was the subject, silhouettes were instant affirmations of self. “No longer requiring rank or an oil commission to be imaged, lower and middle-class patrons could carry home images of themselves, their own medallions of greatness.” That power was not only personal. The silhouette style was used by abolitionist William Elford in his often-reproduced text “Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes Under the Regulated Slave Trade Act of 1788.” Naeem shows how Elford expertly used the silhouette style to make a political, and moral, point: “With the voiding of interior details of each person, the bodies inhumanely appear as cargo or things, even coffins, and the viewer quickly gathers the magnitude of the brutality from the cumulative effect of the graphic patterning.” Black Out documents the pre-Civil War heyday of silhouettes but also demonstrates how contemporary artists such as Kara Walker and Kumi Yamashita reinvent the art form. The result is a book that should serve as both introduction and inspiration; hopefully, even more scholars will consider the implications of the silhouette. As Naeem so appropriately writes, “shadows are always around us. Beyond manifestations of light and presence, beyond indicating the position of the sun, they encompass all of our unique places in the material and immaterial worlds.”
Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in July. A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires A book worthy of pondering—“how to find myself / when a self is so small”—Spires offers so many questions and considerations, yet they all return to our fleeting existences. “If my heart were scoured, / if my soul were remade / into a new and shining garment, / then would I have to die? // Lord, if perfection is death, / let me stay here / a little while longer, / spotted and stained.” In “The Road”: “A life: pared to the bone / Think of a room with no / chair, no bed.” Spires puts us in these monastic spaces where, like her narrator, we “sit on a black square / in a patch of light. / In my mind, I sit there.” When we sit inside ourselves, soon we sit everywhere, including out on the road. Spires’s narrator sees where “a few souls, gray as time, / stand in a patch of shade, / their arms held out.” There’s a need for poetry that is intensely, perhaps even messily, invested in the present moment as it unfolds; there’s also a need for poetry that feels transcendent, inward. There’s health in that for the reader, for the writer. “As one grows older, / there should be fewer / and fewer words to say,” Spires writes. This is a book of listening and contemplation. It does not ignore the outside world, but it gives readers a way to survive it. Poems like “Small as a Seed”—an appropriately Franciscan structured work from a poet raised Catholic—are welcome salves: “In everything, its opposite. / In terror, calm. / In joy, attendant sorrow. / In the sun’s ascendancy, its downfall. / In darkness, light not yet apprehended. // At night in bed, I fear the falling off. / Though falling, I will rise. / I fear. Fall arriving now. / In any word so small, the world. / In the world I walk in, a wild wood.” New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich In her introduction to this important volume, Erdrich quotes Dean Rader’s observation that “a comprehensive anthology of Indigenous American poetry has not been published since 1988.” Erdrich reminds us that in addition to this critical absence, there has also been erasure—“Native American-themed poetry by non-Natives” has “overwritten our identities in ways that confuse young people who are already at risk and struggling to forge an identity.” A small sampling of the excellent work here: Tacey M. Atsitty’s “Hole Through the Rock”: “But within my whorl, you are winged: doubled and pure, / like the coupling of pebbles in storm water. These enduring // glances from wind on pane say you can see plainly the part / of me you miss.” Selections from Layli Long Soldier’s moving collection, WHEREAS. From Tommy Pico’s IRL: “I / don’t have the option / of keeping my God / alive by keeping her name / secret b/c the word for her / is gone.” Craig Santos Perez’s masterful ruptures of language in “(First Trimester),” where the narrator’s partner feels their child’s first kick, that “embryo / of hope.” They think about fragments and pieces, organic and otherwise: “they say plastic is the perfect creation / because it never dies.” He thinks: “i wish my daughter was made // of plastic so that she will survive [our] wasteful / hands.” And then there’s Natalie Diaz, who will stop you, sit you right up: “Native Americans make up less than / one percent of the population of America. / 0.8 percent of 100 percent. / O, mine efficient country.” [millions_ad] Smudgy and Lossy by John Myers This debut by Myers unfolds as if it is in a Samuel Palmer painting: a moonlit field, blurry and dizzy at the right moments. Smudgy and Lossy, the two main characters in the book, are friends and lovers. They sometimes seem to have bodies; elsewhere, they drift through the book as referents. There’s a mystical, wondrous touch to Myers’s verse: “In the house I grew up in I always drew / where the windows were in the walls // because I didn’t trust that I would be / otherwise held.” In this pastoral world, dreams and reality share borders and sometimes overlap. “A butterfly found cold, its wings caked into the dirt” and “Lossy’s never bored watching mail carriers, their feet in the rain”—such lines are offered to the reader like passing thoughts. He often returns to the relationship between Smudgy and Lossy: “Sound requires a medium. / I put my back to you to / resonate and I can’t tell, does / this apply? You are hardly / affected no matter where / we share a tether.” His poems surprise us: They capture a world we’ve seen yet slightly transformed: “The light on the curve of one’s wrist like a nest of velvet ants.” The Galloping Hour: French Poems by Alejandra Pizarnik (translated by Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander) These are the first English translations of Pizarnik’s French poems, written from 1960-1964 and from 1970-1971. The collection includes images of her draft pages, now held at Princeton. Enrique Vila-Matas has written of how Pizarnik “liked illusory or artful nights,” and those incantatory rhythms particularly fuel these poems. “All night I hear the voice of someone seeking me. All night you abandon me slowly.” In the night, “Silence is temptation and promise.” The narrator is plagued by her longing; “I check the wind for you. You’re not a cry. But I check the wind for you.” To read Pizarnik is to inhabit her melancholic world, a world of recursive, enabling lines, where “my language is the priestess.” Trickster Feminism by Anne Waldman “I am a poet, bard, scop, minnesinger, trobairitz who is driven by sound and the possibilities for vocal expression, the mouthing of text as well as intentionality or dance on the page.” Waldman has always been interested in the poetry of performance, but never purely in artifice: “There’s a numbness in our culture to the continuing horrors of genocide...How, as a poet, do you take that on? How can the outrage really penetrate you into a state of compassion?” Trickster Feminism answers that question through a series of prose poems, litanies, and meditations; “what does the trickster say / kinetic or / clown / or / hiding so as in retreat”—for Waldman, the trickster is among us, sometimes within us. “Resistance. Had to resist. Ward off. Deflect. Exorcise. Defy. Apotropaic experiments to shift tone & anger.” This book is a call: “Take back founding myth of Americas: evil of the Feminine.” “This is a whisper,” Waldman writes, “enough of whisper to / rise up rise up and wiser, streets of the world.” Purgatorio translated by W.S. Merwin “I am invisible I am untouchable / and empty / nomad live with me / be my eyes / my tongue and my hands / my sleep and my rising / out of chaos / come and be given.” Those lines from The Essential W.S. Merwin arose while reading his translation of Dante’s masterwork. “The poem that survives the receding particulars of a given age and place soon becomes a shifting kaleidoscope of perceptions, each of them in turn provisional and subject to time and change,” Merwin writes in the foreword. He is in awe of Dante, and humbled by this assignment—a worthy caretaker. Merwin reminds us that out of Dante’s three sections, “only Purgatory happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain.” It is also the realm of hope “as it is experienced nowhere else in the poem, for there is none in Hell, and Paradise is fulfillment itself.” The tactile, raw nature of our visceral world, and the longing for something more: a poetic duality that Merwin captures in each canto. “When we had come to a place where the dew / fends off the sun, there where it dries / hardly at all because of the sea breeze // my master spread out both his hands and laid them / gently upon the grass, and I who / understood what he intended to do // leaned toward him my cheeks with their tear stains / and he made visible once again / all that color of mind which Hell had hidden.” In Merwin’s Purgatorio, the mire of Hell is never far away—but neither is the salvation of Paradise.
A few months before Donald Barthelme’s “Game” appeared in the July 31, 1965, issue of The New Yorker, a cloud moved over Los Angeles. The cloud originated in Jackass Flats, Nevada, born from a nuclear rocket test. The Atomic Energy Commission wanted a “controlled excursion.” That excursion rode hundreds of miles before drifting into the ocean. This was the era of Dr. Strangelove. A time when hundreds of kilograms of Uranium-235 went missing from a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. The years when American B-52s secretly flew above Europe, hydrogen bombs at the ready, first strike only a moment away. In a 1982 interview, Barthelme captured the sentiment that charged “Game.” His words could apply to the Cold War, as well as our painful present: “The doomsday clock has been set up a few notches, I gather. The way our present government is talking is absolutely mad.” “Game,” reprinted in Sixty Stories, is a paranoid, recursive, claustrophobic, uncomfortable tale. It takes place a single room. Shotwell and the narrator are two military officers stuck in an underground bunker “in Utah, Montana or Idaho” for 133 days, “owing to an oversight.” They are bored; they are frustrated. Shotwell is stubborn. He plays jacks but does not let the narrator join the game. The narrator wants the jacks, but Shotwell stuffs them into his attaché case. This double game—a game of hiding a game—continues as they watch the console. They both are outfitted with .45s, along with hidden backup pistols, and are supposed to shoot “if the other is behaving strangely.” They are strange from the first word to the final word of the story, but strangeness is relative in Barthelme’s box of a story. Their job is significant: If “certain events take place upon the console, we are to insert our keys.” They are to release the “bird,” the missile that will destroy a city. It is a hypothetical situation. It never happens. But it could, and its possibility is the story’s profluence. Barthelme’s recursive tale moves between several repeated signs—birds, guns, attaché case—but I am most drawn to its anomalies, its variables. A great short story has a pulse. A great short story is tightly wound—no wasted words or breaths—but a great short story has new contours when we return to it. I first read “Game” in the basement of a university library, among the dark stacks of nearly discarded issues of Popular Mechanics. But now, even reading the story in a brightly lit classroom, I can still appreciate how the bunker’s “pale green reinforced concrete walls sweat and the air conditioning zips on and off erratically.” Anaphoric, with the occasional aside and quirk, his sentences are like incantations—liturgical, even (not surprising—although he later lapsed, Barthelme had a nostalgia for Catholicism cultivated by his years at St. Thomas High School in Houston; think James Joyce sneaking into the back of churches, sentimentality tempering one’s skepticism). The narrator wonders if they are subjects of an experiment. Maybe. But we the readers are the experiment, so often, in Barthelme’s fiction. He pushes and strains the expectations we have for fiction. He asks us to play his game, with his rules. What is the syntax of a mind gone mad? Not just any mind—soldiers who can destroy cities. Mass destruction, “Game” suggests, is always in the wrong hands—because such power stains the soul. In Donald Barthelme: The Genesis of a Cool Sound, Helen Moore Barthelme said that her ex-husband claimed the story had touched an official nerve: “According to Don, ‘Game’ evidently stirred considerable interest among the military. He said that ‘Game’ had knocked them all for a loop in the Pentagon, but ‘not because it was true.’ He later told me that although the story caused a small furor, he heard nothing further about it.” Neither Shotwell nor the narrator can sleep well at the end of “Game.” Two soldiers, close together and underground, cradle and rock each other to sleep. “Game” is a horror story. It is suffocating, and it is simple. We are in that bunker with these soldiers, and whatever postmodern games Barthelme was playing with language, the result is frightening. Sooner or later, the keys will be turned, and the bird will fly. Image: Flickr/B4bees