The Spectacle of Cruelty: The Millions Interviews Phil Klay

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Great essay collections are generative, both extending and deepening the original reading experience of each individual essay. I’ve been moved by the power and grace of Phil Klay’s fiction, but Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War, his new collection of essays, is an exercise in both empathy and erudition. Klay is well-read, and well-considered.

Klay writes of war, of suffering, of veterans, of aspirations and delusions and laments. His writing sends me to other books, as when he quotes G.K. Chesterton on the power of fairy tales: “They make rivers run with wine, only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” That line then sent me back to Orthodoxy, where I found another gem tucked in the same paragraph: “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego; the self is more distant than any star.”
In the spirit of literary inversion, I’d like to turn Chesterton’s line back on Klay—his essays force citizens to consider their complacency, their imperception of the self, in the face of constant war. His work not just illuminating but challenging, in the way that all great essays force us to confront our inadequacies.
A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Klay won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction for his debut book, Redeployment. His novel, Missionaries, was named one of the ten best books of 2020 by the Wall Street Journal. His essays have appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and he currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.
Nick Ripatrazone: In your introduction to Uncertain Ground, you note that many American citizens are “swaddled from the consequences” of war. I love the malleability of this metaphor: how we can often be made sheltered, silent, and infantile. In another essay, you write: “There’s something bizarre about being a veteran of a war that doesn’t end, in a country that doesn’t pay attention.” These essays were written over a period spanning at least a decade. What’s your sense of American awareness of war now?
Phil Klay: We’ve been excused from thinking about war by our political leaders. Congress doesn’t vote on wars anymore, journalists aren’t allowed to embed with troops, and when something happens like President Biden announcing he’s sending troops into Somalia, it isn’t done publicly but rather first leaked anonymously to the press, with scant details about why and what they’ll be doing. Also, right now we heavily rely on special operations troops, on drones and airstrikes and mercenaries and partnering with local forces to achieve our objectives. It’s a style of warfare designed to be opaque to the average civilian. And so there isn’t really much interest in how we are using military force around the world, even though it is obviously one of the most important and morally fraught exercises of American power.
NR: “Marines,” you write, “are drawn like moths to a flame when it comes to the dangerous, the transgressive, and the darkly humorous.” Do you think this translates to a literary or storytelling style for Marines as well—including yourself?
PK: Ha! Guilty, probably. There’s an impish streak in me that I hope is healthy for a writer, an attraction to the bizarre, the out-of-place, the disturbing. One should poke beehives from time to time, so long as that’s not all you’re doing. Transgression does not justify itself, but needs to be earned. By that I mean that simply showing the grotesque and cruel and darkly funny things that happen in war is not enough. One must have a moral vision, a sense of why and in what context you are showing these things such that the reader does not lose sight of the human beings in the midst of the spectacle of cruelty and absurdity.
I actually think that humor is one of the more powerful tools we have for this. People in war don’t just make jokes because it takes the edge off of horror. They make jokes because human extremes come out in all their startling immediacy in war, and humor is the most serious and honest response. Emerson, in his essay on the comedic, notes that:

There is no joke so true and deep in actual life as when some pure idealist goes up and down among the institutions of society, attended by a man who knows the world, and who, sympathizing with the philosopher’s scrutiny, sympathizes also with the confusion and indignation of the detected, skulking institutions. His perception of disparity, his eye wandering perpetually from the rule to the crooked, lying, thieving fact, makes the eyes run over with laughter.

War is constant exposure to the difference between the rule and the crooked, lying, thieving fact, and the result is some of the funniest books ever written: Goodbye to All That, Journey to the End of the Night, The Good Soldier Schweik, Catch-22, Beer in the Snooker Club, and so on, right up to contemporary Iraqi literature like The Corpse Exhibition and Frankenstein in Baghdad.
NR: At the end of one essay, you recall a Vietnam veteran telling the story of his best friend, who “was the sort of guy you could count on, even if he might not have been the best soldier in the world.” You add: “He was nineteen, and he always will be.” How does war affect our sense and conception of time—for veterans, especially?
PK: I think it affects veterans differently, and at different moments. I remember having beers with a veteran in Texas almost a decade ago. He showed me a grisly photo from Iraq of an injury he’d received in combat, a photo his young daughter had apparently found on his phone. It’d caused nightmares, and he’d had to talk her through what happened to him. He also had another, still younger child, and he said to me that right then was when he realized that he’d need, at some point, to have with them both “the sex talk, and the Iraq talk.” I suspect that his own relationship to what he’d been through, and his sense of that past event, suddenly warped as he saw it through the eyes of his child, and as he imagined retelling it in the future. I also think these current wars are particularly strange, in that they haven’t ended so much as become attenuated, and pushed to the side even while low-level military efforts continue.
NR: You briefly mention an essay “It’s Not That I’m Lazy” written by an anonymous veteran that appeared in the October 1, 1946 edition of Harper’s. I found and read the essay, and agree that it is as arresting as you describe. The veteran writes that his “respect for my civilian occupation was badly shaken. It wasn’t a rational change of mind. It was a gradual and unconscious effect of four years of membership in a military society which, if not contemptuous, was at least indifferent to my special abilities as a member of that other society back home.” Do you find contemporary veterans echoing a similar sentiment? Do you think that there are particular sectors of civilian society that are doing a good job of inviting veterans back into the civilian world?
PK: You know, I quote a veteran in the book who, during the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, said, “Everyone wants to know, am I OK, and I’m like, ‘Really?’ Is the burden of feeling guilty about this also a burden veterans have to carry, too? Not only did you not care about Afghanistan, not only did you not follow Afghanistan, it’s like you gave such a little shit you can’t even feel bad yourself? Could somebody else please take some of this, take some responsibility? I’m so fucking tired of it and it’s killing me and it shouldn’t be fucking me up this much.”
It was an expression of bitterness, and disconnect from the civilian world that had paid such little attention to the war that had been so formative for him. But I spoke to him a few months later, after he’d been doing work resettling Afghans, and he told me it’d been a revelation to him to see how many people had expressed an interest in helping. Many of these were people with no connection to the military or Afghanistan at all. “I used to think people were apathetic about Afghanistan and I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I think it wasn’t communicated well. When everyday Americans see that there are people in need or there’s a crisis and people are lacking access to basic needs and treated in a way that denies them their basic human dignity, people have stepped up.”
One of the tragedies of these wars is that our political leaders have asked far less of our populace than they’re capable of. That said, there are absolutely places where that has happened. There are a lot of veterans in humanitarian communities working on immigration issues, with arts organizations, and so on. In some universities you’ll find that veterans can feel isolated, but others have taken pains to provide robust support to develop a real community. This often means a commitment of real resources. I’m currently at Fairfield University, which has committed funding to veterans who want to study in our MFA in creative writing program. Currently, about a third of the students are veterans, which has enabled an incredible community as well as the opportunity for real engagement between a diversity of veteran and civilian writers.
NR: You quote W. B. Yeats, who, while compiling poetry for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, passed on English soldier-poets, saying “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.” It’s certainly a glib statement from him, and it makes me think of your own appreciation for the talented work of David Jones, a Welsh soldier during World War I. Paul Sheehan finds an “oblique rejoinder to Yeats’s dictum” within In Parenthesis, where Jones writes of a soldier: “He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things. When they found him his friends came on him in the secluded fire-bay who miserably wept for the pity of it all and for the things shortly to come to pass and no hills to cover us.” As someone who mostly writes and publishes in prose, could you engage Yeats’s contention from a genre standpoint? Do you think fiction and nonfiction about war differs—in mode, intent, and perhaps result—from poetry about war?
PK: What’s interesting is that although Yeats famously insulted Wilfred Owen as “a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution… all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick,” he greatly admired Jones (once, at a party where Jones was present, he entered and bowed low to salute the author of In Parenthesis). And of course, Jones’s work is far more than “passive suffering.” It’s complicated, because Yeats is not entirely wrong in his dissatisfaction with some of the trench poets when he suspects that they’re limiting themselves because they feel obliged to plead the suffering of their men. But he obviously misses the genuine power and beauty of Owen’s verse.
Owen, as a man who self-consciously crafted his poetry as a form of protest, and who died in the war, is a critical exemplar of the ‘poet as witness’, who, as Seamus Heaney put it, “represents poetry’s solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged…[and for] whom the truth-telling urge and the compulsion to identify with the oppressed becomes necessarily integral with the act of writing itself.” And that’s a form I’ve distanced myself from.
As to whether fiction and nonfiction differ so much from poetry about war, I’m not sure. Poetry has been vital for me as a writer. Memorizing poetry to get the rhythms in my head. Working through the arguments and ideas and approaches to capturing experience in so many wars. I just read Tom Sleigh’s poetry collection The King’s Touch, which at points deals with his work as a journalist in conflict zones, and though obviously I work in prose Tom’s approach throughout his books has been pivotal for me as I think through what can be done with war writing, and how to balance ethical, political, and aesthetic commitments. Sleigh adopts a kind of caution about that in his work, a care that the poet not overstep his bounds, speak not simply for but over the voice of the oppressed, while nevertheless immersing the reader in the complexity of political fraught, emotionally intense and sometimes violent situations.

I try to do the same—immerse the reader in situations of political, emotional, psychological or spiritual complexity, but without necessarily providing the reader with the clear emotional or political cashout we come to expect from some poetry of witness. As a war writer, you find that people are comfortable with clear jingoism or pure denunciation, and your job is not to provide comfort.

NR: The final section of the book is titled “Faith.” “Faith, for me, has always been a place to register a sense of doubt, of powerlessness, of inadequacy and uncertainty about my place in the world and how I am supposed to live,” you write. You note: “It increasingly seems to me that the certainty of earlier life was based on fantasies of an orderly future in a rational, controllable world, fantasies that were no more than the wish that the Leviathan might one day be tied down by force.” You write of times of doubt in your life, and your musings make me think of the differing conceptions of God between the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who imagined a unified cosmos and consciousness, and Fr. Raymond Nogar, who envisioned the difference between them as “His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” You seem inclined to agree with Nogar, but I wanted to see which vision of the divine is more in line with your Catholic sensibility—and what that means for you as a writer and a veteran.

PK: Oh wow, I apparently have another book I need to read! I do find Chardin fascinating. He was a veteran of World War I himself, and has some truly fascinating reflections on it. In one essay, written during the war, after he’d already served in several major battles, he reflected on the strange nostalgia that he felt whenever he was rotated out of the front. Why was it, though he hated pain and death and suffering as much as the next man, did he find himself wanting to return to the front, this cataclysmic site of death and destruction where he knew he could be killed at any moment, and where he would certainly encounter extreme suffering? And he goes through various explanations—that simple desire we have to encounter extremity and the unknown, the freedom from normal social convention, the sense of being submerged in a larger task, and the mystic encounter with the absolute he finds in such close exposure to horror. He writes:

No one, except those who have been there, will possess charged recollections of wonder that a man retains of the plain of Ypres in April of 1915, when the air of Flanders was filled with the smell of chlorine and when artillery shells cut down the poplar trees all along the Yperlé; or when the chalky slopes of souville in July of 1916 blossomed in death. These super-human hours impregnated life with a tenacious perfume, definitive in exaltation and initiation, as if one had passed through them into the absolute.

This compulsion we have toward horror is, I think, difficult for people to talk about, and yet it is most certainly there. It’s funny, every once in a while I’ll mention that the ostensibly anti-war film Full Metal Jacket has been a fantastically successful recruiting commercial for Marine Corps, and annoyed critics have informed me that this is because I’m stupid, or the viewers are stupid, since the correct interpretation is to be repulsed by what we see. But of course, human desires are more complex than that, something I appreciate in Chardin’s searching WWI work. But it’s precisely for that reason that I’m on Nogar’s side against Chardin here. Yes, I’m wary of the Lord of order. Far too often the order imagined by those who espouse such a god has far more to do with narrow human desires. For me it comes down to the strange, broken, beautiful, unruly creatures humans are, possessing of freedom and creativity which seems to explode outwards, rather than narrow to a point.

A Year in Reading: Nick Ripatrazone


A few days ago, I thought that a gray fox was nosing around in our yard. Red foxes, rusted and jaunty, usually visited us—so I was intrigued by this apparent newcomer. I rushed outside and fumbled a wobbly video that only caught the fox sneaking into the woods. 

I followed its route, down a trail that curls between high brush, and checked one of our wildlife cameras. The gray fox was not a fox at all; it was a coyote, thinned and shaky from mange. I crouched under the tree’s canopy and watched the coyote sniff and jostle leaves, and then shake like a dog—likely a result of its pain and itching.

On another camera, further down the trail, I watched how the coyote settled into an unstable trot, crossed the low brook, and then disappeared into the forest.

Coyotes with mange in the winter often don’t survive. It is certainly cold here in mid-November, but we don’t yet have the true freeze of winter. In the forest, the coyote likely found the brook again where it curves further downstream. The coyote might have stopped at the horse farm that bordered the forest, keeping its distance. It could have rested beneath a thicket. It could be anywhere now, or, perhaps, it is nowhere.

The best short story that I’ve ever read is “The Tree” by Dylan Thomas, from his book Adventures in the Skin Trade. It is such a wildly unkempt story. Here is how it begins:

Rising from the house that faced the Jarvis hills in the long distance, there was a tower for the day-birds to build in and for the owls to fly around at night. From the village the light of the tower window shone like a glowworm through the panes; but the room under the sparrows’ nests was rarely lit; webs were spun over its unwashed ceilings; it stared over twenty miles of the up-and-down country, the corners kept their secrets where there were claw marks in the dust.

The corners kept their secrets.

Thomas continues in the second paragraph: “The child knew the house from roof to cellar; he knew the irregular lawns and the gardener’s shed where flowers burst out of their jars; but he could not find the key that opened the door of the tower.”

The gardener tells the boy ancient stories, including about a tree from the beginning of the world. He also told the boy the story of “the death of Christ on a tree.” The tree is the cross of wood, so that the tree is a singular tree and also a tree among trees, the way in which we are lost among trees in a forest. The story rises toward wild notes of violence—and then it finishes, and we almost drift back across the Jarvis hills, with the comfortable melancholy that comes from great art.

I’ve spent much of the past year reading everything Marshall McLuhan ever wrote, from his obscure essays on how the usage of microphones in Mass garbled Latin into irrelevancy, to his mass-packaged, most famous volumes. The reading was for my own book on McLuhan, Digital Communion, a spiritual biography of the Canadian media theorist. 

McLuhan is best understood as a Catholic jester-poet, who wrote in a mosaic style, and for whom the electronic world was equal parts edifying and terrifying. A Cambridge PhD on the caustic (yet brilliant) Thomas Nashe, McLuhan was the wrong person for his electric moment—which makes him, of course, exactly the prophet that was needed. 

For much of this year, I went from reading the likes of The Medium Is the Massage, The Gutenberg Galaxy and The Mechanical Bride, and then outside onto the trail, a winding path that has been uncovered with care but would—without attention—become overgrown and subsume back into the wilderness. McLuhan’s electronic world was wild; the Internet is its own wilderness.  

To me, the internet feels overgrown. Full of blazed but abandoned trails. Trails littered with snapped branches, windswept leaves. Trails of promise that lead nowhere. Rock-choked routes, ankle-twisting and mind-bending journeys. 

I can see that coyote when I close my eyes. Its tail thin, its fur bunched. The worst nightmares are the ones that happen when we’re awake. 

I’ve also been reading a lot of Carl Phillips. His wonderful collections—Pale Colors in a Tall Field, Double Shadow, Speak Low—as well as his prose, like The Art of Daring. Phillips always gets me thinking of the ligatures of sentences (what an odd coincidence that my MFA thesis advisor and mentor, Jayne Anne Phillips, a marvelous craftswomen of sentences, shares his last name and his revelatory attention toward the sentence as a body).

Sentences are trails, trails are sentences. Paths, promenades, entries into a suffocating world. Ways to journey and ways to disappear. 

Sometimes, at night, our cameras pick up motion in the woods. Perhaps it is a bobcat darting down the trail. A spider stalking along a branch. I walk that same trail hours later, and sometimes there are prints and evidence of lives that have passed through, but other times, the past dissolves in silence—like a sentence that makes an acute mark on us, but afterward, when we close the book, disappears into the mess of words that collect during a life. 

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Through the Human Lens: The Millions Interviews Meghan O’Gieblyn


While it is an admittedly high bar, I’m most drawn to nonfiction books where I feel surrounded by the writer’s manner of thought; I am not merely given an argument, but I am made to experience a mind. God, Human, Animal, Machine, the new book by Meghan O’Gieblyn, is that type of book: an intellectual journey that is generous and generative. I paused the book often to take notes, to ponder O’Gieblyn’s wise and unusual perspectives on big questions, and to even track down her fascinating miscellany (I’m happy that I followed her trail to find the curious essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat” by Thomas Nagel. Great writers, I believe, send us reading.)

Perhaps what I love most about her work is that O’Gieblyn reveals that old, even ancient concerns remain absolutely immediate—unavoidable, perhaps. “Today, as AI continues to blow past us in benchmark after benchmark of higher cognition,” she writes, “we quell our anxiety by insisting that what distinguishes true consciousness is emotions, perception, the ability to experience and feel: the qualities, in other words, that we share with animals.” 

Meghan O’Gieblyn is the author of Interior States, which won the 2018 Believer Book Award for nonfiction. She has written for Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Bookforum, n+1, The Point, The Believer, The Guardian, The New York Times, and is a columnist for Wired. She has received three Pushcart Prizes for her writing.

We spoke about how metaphor sustains language, our stubborn search for meaning, and what it means to be human in a transhuman world.

The Millions: The subtitle of your book contains the word “metaphor,” and you include lines of poetry from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Algernon Charles Swinburne, and Richard Brautigan. You also share a wonderful quote from the philosopher Gillian Rose, who described the act of writing as “a mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control.” What does language—and perhaps language at its most poetic—offer us in our search for meaning? Is language ultimately helpful or harmful in our pursuit of truth?

Meghan O’Gieblyn: I don’t think we can understand the world, at least on a conceptual level, without language. And you could argue that this language is always poetic, if you define that term broadly, as in “reliant on metaphor.” I’m thinking of the research that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson did in the early 1980s that found that all languages are built on spatial metaphors we learn as children, from our interactions in the world. When we envision the continuum of time, with the future lying “ahead” of us, and the past “behind” us, that’s a metaphor, even though we don’t often recognize it as such. It’s difficult to imagine being able to conceive of time without that visual metaphor. Their work, incidentally, ended up inspiring a lot of work in robotics because it suggested that in order for machines to develop conscious thought, they’d have to interact with the world and understand spatial relationships—you can’t just have a brain in a vat.

In the book, I’m primarily interested in technological metaphors, particularly those we use to describe ourselves as humans, like the mechanistic idea that humans are machines, or the more contemporary notion that the mind is a computer. Those metaphors are obviously useful in our attempts to understand ourselves. The mind-as-computer-metaphor has been crucial to both cognitive science and artificial intelligence. But a kind of slippage frequently occurs, where people forget that these are metaphors and begin to take them literally. You now have people working in AI who insist that their systems are actually thinking, or that they understand—words that used to be put in quotation marks. Nobody consciously decided that the metaphor would become literal; it just happened, little by little. It’s not unlike how certain passages in religious texts that were once understood metaphorically are taken literally by later generations. As a writer, I’m both fascinated and unnerved by those moments where language seems to slip out of my control. Every writer has experienced this at some point. You call upon an image that turns out, later on, to be the perfect metaphor for the point you’re making. Or you realize you’ve written something much smarter than what you set out to argue. It recalls the old poststructuralist point that we don’t speak language, it speaks us. Language, like all technologies, is constantly at risk of escaping our control. 

TM: There’s an interesting and generative tension in this book between the personal and the scholarly, the self and the analytical. You consider your time studying theology at a fundamentalist college as a formative part of your life: an experience that contributed to you leaving the Christian faith and worldview. I found myself drawn to your sense (and prose) in these personal moments, and then pulled again by your confession of sorts later: “As soon as I opened a small aperture into my life, people became less interested in the ideas I was discussing than in my personal story and my perspective as someone who was formerly religious.” How do you feel now, as this book is making its way into the world? Do you want to allow this aperture of the personal to grow or to shrink, as it relates to your analytical and philosophical discussions? 

MO: I’ve always felt that tension, as a writer, between the subjective and the objective approach. On one hand, personal writing is often considered less serious than journalism or criticism; that’s always there in the back of my mind. On the other hand, I have a hard time making sense of ideas without filtering them through the lens of the “I.” I think that’s true of all writers, to some extent, even those who don’t write explicitly in the first person. And when we distrust an argument, as readers, it’s often because we suspect the author has some personal axe to grind, or is writing in bad faith. It’s hard to avoid the personal, even when it’s not there, overtly, on the page. 

Throughout the process of writing this book, I struggled to maintain the right balance between the personal and analytical. When I write essays, that balance usually feels intuitive, but in this case, I couldn’t get it right. I kept resisting the use of the “I.” I teach writing, and I often tell my students that craft problems are often content problems in disguise; they tend to enact the very tensions that you’re writing about (or refusing to write about) and can clue you into the story’s larger themes. That’s what happened with this book. There was a certain point during the writing process when it occurred to me that this problem mirrored one of the underlying intellectual concerns of the book, which is the tension between the subjective and the objective points of view. Many of the fields I was writing about—consciousness, artificial intelligence, physics—have reached an impasse over these two ways of seeing the world. We can observe consciousness clearly from the first-person point of view, but from the objective vantage of science, it doesn’t exist. In quantum physics, there’s the observer problem, where the physicist sees one thing, and scientific instruments register something different. Some contemporary philosophers have argued that these problems come down to the fact that we’re not accounting for the subjective vantage. And that’s ultimately the problem I had to come to terms with during the writing process. I was stuck because I wasn’t thinking about what was at stake for me, or why I became interested in these questions. That tension immediately resolved when I put more of my own story in the book.  

TM: “For the medieval person,” you write, “the cosmos was fundamentally comprehensible: it was a rational system constructed by a rational God, the same intelligence who constructed our minds.” The Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin makes several appearances in your book; he strikes me as one whose radical, creative visions assume a certain neatness of construction. In the past year, I’ve been taken by the arguments of his contemporary, Fr. Raymond Nogar, who wrote: “My chief opposition to the vision of Father Teilhard is that it resembles far too much the Thomistic synthesis, and that it is, basically, too archaic to satisfy the demands of our contemporaries. The trouble with the world of Father Teilhard, as I understand it, is not that it is strange, but that it is not strange enough.” Nogar thought that Teilhard believed in “the God of the neat; mine is the God of the messy…His God is the Lord of order; my God is the Lord of the Absurd.” How might a Lord of the Absurd—or perhaps simply the Absurd—connect to your investigations into how we seek meaning and patterns in the world?

MO: Nogar’s observation that Teilhard’s cosmos is “not strange enough” reminds me of something Niels Bohr once said to another physicist, after a lecture. He said, basically, that everyone agreed that the physicist’s theory was crazy but the question was “whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” I’m interested in this idea that there are truths that remain absurd or paradoxical to human understanding. It’s a problem I encountered in my theology courses in Bible school, where I was first introduced to the nominalist idea that God’s morality, or his sense of justice, is far beyond human understanding—and perhaps even arbitrary. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a fairly modern view of God, one that arose in the late medieval period. The God I’d believed in growing up, the one who appeared in Sunday school lessons, was a lot more like the God of Aquinas, which is to say an entity that could be rationally understood, and whose world was similarly orderly and comprehensible. I’d always believed that my conscience was a reflection of some larger moral order in the universe. But in my courses, we were reading theologians who insisted that morality was based on nothing more than the sovereign will of God—the implication being that it could diverge from our intuitive sense of morality, or even strike us as alien. 

What’s interesting is that modern physics presents the same problem. When you begin looking at the world on the quantum level, it becomes clear that our notion of time, of cause-and-effect—basically everything that allows the world to be comprehensible—exists mostly in our minds, not in the world itself. Reality is governed by all sorts of absurd phenomenon that we can’t explain, like the observer effect or spooky action at a distance. I’m always baffled when self-professed “rationalists” object to the supernatural claims of religion—that a virgin could give birth, that God could be three persons. Modern science contains just as much mind-bending absurdity. It too requires that we take paradox on faith. C.S. Lewis, in The Problem of Pain, argues, in fact, that it’s precisely the “illogical” nature of the incarnation that makes it more likely to be true because it’s not something humans could have easily made up. “It has not the suspicious a priori lucidity of Pantheism or of Newtonian physics,” he writes. “It has the seemingly arbitrary and idiosyncratic character which modern science is slowly teaching us to put up with in this willful universe.”

TM:  “Perhaps the real illusion,” you write, “is our persistent hope that science will be able to explain consciousness one day.” I loved how God, Human, Animal, Machine feels like the work of a seeker from first word to final—your skepticism is fueled, seemingly, by a sense of wonder about the world; a respect for the complexity of consciousness (human, digital, and otherwise). You write early in the book that “It’s true that I have come to see myself more or less as a machine.” What type of machine are you? What is your function?

MO: That line is a little tongue-in-cheek, given that nobody really accepts that they’re a machine. (At least I don’t think they do.) But there are important differences between how I view myself now and how I viewed myself when I was a Christian. I am much more likely today to resort to purely quantitative or physical explanations of my behavior and mental states. If I’m feeling depressed, I immediately think about how much sleep I got the night before, or whether I’ve exercised. If I lash out at someone, it’s because I probably need a sandwich. I think most of us rely on these purely physical explanations because they can be objectively observed and quantified (we can now track our calorie-intakes, our heart rates, and our REM cycles on our phones). Whereas our mental lives—what we spend our time thinking about, what we value, and why—are difficult to talk about. Or maybe they don’t seem like a convincing causal force. I don’t think this is incidentally related to the fact that consciousness can’t be accounted for by science. There’s a persistent refrain in academic circles that we in the modern West overvalue our subjectivity, that we believe our minds are more real than our bodies. To me, that feels like one of those instances where the objection has become the consensus. The academic conclusions have trickled down into mainstream culture, such that it’s difficult, even in everyday life, believe that our minds are real.  

TM: You write about those who wonder whether we exist within a simulation, and it feels connected to what Hopkins once conjectured about the inscape of the world: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.” This resembles what you write about Jesus:  “When his disciples asked whether he was the son of God, he answered, ‘Who do you say I am?’ as though the faith of the observer determined whether he was human or divine.” In a world that increasingly feels anatheist—seeking God after God—how do we seek to answer the question that Jesus poses? Does the question still resonate in a transhuman world?

MO: I love that Hopkins line, and the reflexivity it describes. If I remember the context correctly, he was talking about how the intrinsic beauty of the natural world bespeaks design and purpose. Even though I no longer believe in a divine creator, I find it very difficult to resist seeing the world as a created object, especially in those moments that involve wonder, or the sublime. I don’t think that’s unusual as we might assume among atheists. Maybe that’s why theories like the Simulation Hypothesis—the argument that we’re living in a computer program created by future-humans—are so compelling. It satisfies our desire to see the world as containing a larger purpose or telos.

The objection, of course, is that we’re simply anthropomorphizing. We ourselves are creators, so we see the world as a created object. Not only that, we see it as precisely the kind of technology that we ourselves recently created—a giant computer. Both science and religion rest on a tension between the anthropomorphic and the transcendent. We can’t help but see the world in terms of the human, to see it in our own image, and this often leads to error. There are commands in many traditions against applying human qualities to God. And the scientific method is designed to keep us from sullying our inquiries with subjective beliefs and assumptions. But then whenever we try to go beyond the human, we encounter absurdity and paradox. 

What I still find compelling about Christianity—and maybe what it can teach us, in an anatheist world—is that it acknowledges this tension is an essential part of being human. The incarnation is a recognition, in a way, that we can’t escape our human vantage, that God had to come down and become flesh so that we could understand. You see that especially in Christ’s parables, stories that are rooted in the human world, but that nevertheless contain these insane paradoxes that are beyond this world. Going back to Niels Bohr: he once said that all the major religions of the world rely on parables and kaons because the gap between the human and transcendent realms can only be bridged by seemingly contradictory statements. I suspect there’s some validity to this, that paradox is connected to truth. This is becoming especially clear as we glean more and more information about the world. We now have so much data, we need AI systems to process it because our understanding and our scientific theories begin to break down when faced with that level of complexity. But I’m skeptical of the notion that we have to build bigger, more sophisticated machines that can comprehend a world that transcends our understanding. We have to find a way to understand the world on our own terms, through the lens of the human. 

Love Is Not a Destination: The Millions Interviews Kaveh Akbar


“Heaven,” Kaveh Akbar writes in Pilgrim Bell, “is all preposition—above, among, around, within—and if you must, / you can live any place that’s a place.” It’s a fitting line to capture Akbar’s poetic sense: that life—however dizzying, steeped in suffering, and fragmentary—is a tremendous gift.

Akbar’s life as a poet has been guided by a generous sense. For several years, he interviewed poets for his Divedapper site, guided by a simple philosophy: “I want to be able to have meaningful conversations with the poets whose words have shaped the way I experience the world, and I want to share the artifacts of those conversations with as many people as possible.” That sense appears to guide his editing and curatorial work—the feeling that the world of poetry sustains him, and that he can play a part in bringing that good work to the wider world.

Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is the poetry wditor of The Nation and a recipient of honors including multiple Pushcart Prizes, a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship, and the Levis Reading Prize. Akbar was born in Tehran, Iran, and teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson. Pilgrim Bell follows Calling a Wolf a Wolf, his debut collection. 

We spoke about prayer, his literary influences, and how poems arrive.

The Millions: I read much of your book aloud; I think Pilgrim Bell compels me (as Gerard Manley Hopkins hoped for his work) to live in the ear and mouth more than the eye. “The Value of Fear” feels especially aural, the living sound of the opening lines, following the title: “is in its sound, sewing song / to throat. The pale thrush // trills the snow.” Do you find yourself speaking your way through your poems? Where does voice—the mouth open, the words out and heard—exist in your process of composition

Kaveh Akbar: I’m always reading the poems out loud, from the very earliest stages of doodling language through revision and fine-tuning, laying the poem out on the page. The breath hooks into the spirit. In Arabic “ruh” means both breath and spirit. Ditto the Latin “spiritus.” Without some physiological sublimation of the inert font into a living poem—whether via breath or even just the movement of ocular muscles along a line, fingers across Braille—the poem remains ink on a page. If a poem augurs any holiness, it begins in the body.  

TM: We are mutual admirers of the late Franz Wright. Pilgrim Bell feels haunted by him. I think he is one of the great Catholic poets in recent memory, someone who arrived at that faith in his late 40s. He spoke of having a shift in September 1999 from having a longtime intellectual interest in Scripture to feeling a visceral, palpable attraction to Jesus as one who loved absolutely—drawn preternaturally to sinners. I am unable to read Wright without crying. Could you talk about Wright a bit? Do you return to his poems?

KA: He was my first favorite living poet. Everything I make is indelibly inflected by his thinking. Everything I think, really. He was so unwell, holistically, but he made such space in his life for young poets who could do him no good. He granted me the last interview he ever gave, and talked to me seriously, like I was a real poet. Not many had done that before him.  

I actually wrote to him for months trying to strike up a conversation. I was a baby, and a shameless fan. I didn’t know anything. I hadn’t learned that you’re not supposed to appear so desperate. Maybe I still haven’t. But I wrote him letters for months with no response, not even an away responder. It was almost like I was just keeping an epistolary journal. “Dear Franz, Last week I did such and such, read so and so,” that kind of thing.

Then finally, after maybe nine months of me emailing him, he wrote back with just a couple words and a phone number. Which I called immediately. Of course it rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. No machine, no voice mail. Same thing the next day, and the next. I worried he’d mistyped his number. But after a couple weeks of trying the number, his wife Elizabeth picked up. I said who I was and she brought the phone to Franz, who said “Kaveh! Why didn’t you call me sooner!”

TM: The epigraph to your poem “Cotton Candy” is from John Donne: “To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us.” In its original context, the line appears: “All their proportion’s lame, it sinks, it swells; / For of meridians and parallels / Man hath weaved out a net, and this net thrown / Upon the heavens, and now they are his own. / Loth to go up the hill, or labour thus / To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us. / We spur, we rein the stars, and in their race / They’re diversely content to obey our pace.” I love your epigraphic eye here. Who is Donne to you, as both poet and legacy? Why choose these lines in particular from his poem?

KA: He’s a titan. Sexy, ferocious. Magisterial. But what I’m really interested in, as it pertains to Pilgrim Bell, is Donne’s silence. Really all the metaphysical guys were great this way, Marvell and Herbert too. And Hopkins kind of tangentially. But the way Donne could get so bombastic, so loud. And how that volume created such a contrast to the silence immediately after. Like how the silence following a gunshot is somehow deeper than the silence before. “OH my blacke Soule! now thou art summoned / By sicknesse, deaths herald, and champion; / Thou art like a pilgrim.” Maybe I’m tipping my hand too much. But that pilgrim, the silence between “Soule” and “now” conjured by Donne’s exclamation. It’s such unforgettable drama.

TM: Among the glorious lines in Pilgrim Bell, I’ve been returning to these: “God’s word is a melody, and melody requires repetition. / God’s word is a melody I sang once then forgot.” You’ve returned (appropriately) to this theme of return, past and present, and the evolution of self in your work. Your narrators have lived two lives, or perhaps more. They have found and forgotten God, and understood the body and how it breaks (“Show me one beast / that loves itself as relentlessly / as even the most miserable man.”). What is it about poetry (as a form and genre, perhaps) that offers a useful vehicle for this theme?

KA: Even just putting a word in a poem places some tension upon it. Using it again and again, straining it differently each time. Like the chiming of a bell. M. NourbeSe Philip talks about “decontaminating” language and I feel like that’s at the heart of how Pilgrim Bell works. Poems are the best way I know to explore the divine. But the language of my poetry has been so endlessly compromised by its murderous histories. There is something about the iterative nature of lyric that allows me to vet my own thinking.

I once heard the critic Parul Sehgal use the phrase “a productive distrust of the self” in a talk and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I think, as an English language artist, that distrust has become central to my practice. When Brian Eno describes the crack in a blues singer’s voice on record as the sound of “an emotional event too momentous for the medium assigned to record it,” that’s what I’m after. Cracking the poem along the axis of my (hopefully!) productive skepticism of the language. And of myself.

TM: You’re the poetry editor for The Nation, and you’ve selected and presented the forthcoming Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. How do the modes of editor, curator, anthologist differ from that of poet? Do you find your editorial work generative for your creative work, or do they remain distinct?

KA: I don’t know that it’s so linear as X is generative to Y. I want to be useful, and I think we’ve been able to put a bit of wind at the back of some really fine poems at The Nation. I hope, with the Penguin anthology, we’ll be able to help introduce readers to voices from antiquity, from other parts of the world, that might usefully illuminate something about living. Steadily (re-)orienting myself toward humble grateful service to what I love best keeps me healthy. When I’m healthy, I can write. You know Merton’s prayer? “The fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

TM: I want to return to Wright to finish. I find it telling that he (a poet of craft and rawness, and a person who said of himself, “I’ve been around the block a few times, and have an idea of what men are capable of. I’ve been capable myself”) could be so sentimental and earnest about faith. I find equal parts power and humility in your engagement with the spiritual—I think of you among poets like Jericho Brown, Shane McCrae, Carl Phillips, and Mary Karr, all gifted stylists who live among faith and doubt. So let’s follow Wright for a moment. What, do you think, is the relationship between love and faith?

KA: I remember once, overzealous, I compared Franz to Rilke and he said, “You may as well compare me to Catullus.” That’s how I feel about your question situating me among those titans, moved as I am by the kindness. I am going to try to answer quickly to avoid overthinking myself into immobility. Love, faith. Yes, okay—

Poems, like prayers, orient one toward action. The trouble comes when people believe the poem, or the prayer, replaces action. I have faith in the capacity of writing, as a devotional technology, to illuminate the next right thing for me in my living. How I might learn to better pass through the world without harming it. That is a kind of love. And like every other love I have known, it is not a destination. It’s a marching. Daily, hourly.

That’s What Language Can Do: The Millions Interviews Pádraig Ó Tuama

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“Faith shelters some,” Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “and it shadows others.”

We are lucky—those of us who are believers, and those of us who are not—when our theologians are poets. Ó Tuama makes me think about belief, God, and language in such a jarring, revelatory way. Afterward, I don’t want to return to my tired assumptions. 

I felt invited into In the Shelter not because it was about a life quite like mine—although we both come from the Catholic tradition—but through Ó Tuama’s syntax; how his sentences move from past reflection to present encounter. I often think of good books as journeys, and all of the kinesthetic, profluent metaphors and feelings that go along with such movement, and In the Shelter feels like it moves. 

Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, theologian, and host of Poetry Unbound with On Being Studios, where he is the Theologian in Residence. From 2014 to 2019, Ó Tuama was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organization. His poetry collections include Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community, Sorry for Your Troubles and Readings from the Books of Exile. He is the author of In the Shelter: Finding a Home in the World, and, along with Glenn Jordan, Borders & Belonging.

We spoke about language as exploration, the necessity of questioning, and how we seek sanctuary in this world. 

The Millions: Early in the book, you write of being in the monastic community at Taizé, France, during Lent in 1998. Each morning began with reflections in English, French, German, or Spanish, and a monk “would ask, moving casually from language to language, which tongues he should use in order to be understood by everyone.” Then, on Holy Thursday, he reads from the Gospel of John, and others in the group read it in Dutch and Norwegian. There’s this swirl of language as a glorious but also frayed route toward belief throughout your book, and you include moments of Irish as well in the text. Where does language carry or compel you? Does language bring you closer to faith, to God, or to somewhere else?

Pádraig Ó Tuama: When I was a child, my mother wasn’t very well. So, from September 1978 (I was two, soon to be three) I spent a few hours a day with a woman known only to me as Bean an Tí. This lasted for two years. She was from Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, an Irish speaking village in West Kerry and was up in Cork city living with her niece. My dad told me later that he’d heard her try to speak in English once, but she was utterly confused. She had some vocabulary, but no sense of the English language. So, for two years I was surrounded by her Irish, fluent as the salt in the sea. I remember she had a gravelly voice. I remember she wore lots of navy. I remember that I had a plastic cup—was it yellow or red?—from which to drink milk halfway through the day. It was a kindergarten of sorts, there were other children there too. I thought she was two hundred years old. She gave me language. Bean an Tí means Woman of the House, a term meaning landlady perhaps. I was affronted when I heard another woman being called Bean an Tí years later, thinking that I knew the one and only. She was from the Ó Bric family, a well known clan in the Dingle peninsula.

All of this goes to say that the question of language, or, to be more accurate, languages has been a part of my life as long as my life has been my life. I loved speaking in Irish and English, once I realized that I could speak them both already. My older sister Áine started learning French at school so I begged her to teach me anything she could. When my mother had a small accident involving two German motorbikers, they were invited (read: forced) to our house for dinner. I sat next to them admiring their sleek jawlines, begging them to teach me anything in German. My auntie Mary is deaf, so I asked her for a sheet of paper with the alphabet for Irish Sign on it.

You get the drift.

I don’t know if language is a pathway to God. But I know it’s a pathway. For me, learning that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t say ‘be quiet’ to the waves in the gospel of Mark, but rather said ‘be muzzled’ fills me with wonder. I am not particularly interested in what it means—because that implies it definitely means something, or, even worse, definitely means one thing—but I’m transfixed by what this implies. It implies so much: the sea like a rabid dog, growling, gazing, muzzled temporarily, saliva and ferocity all crowding the experience. It’s the kind of language that makes literature literature. It doesn’t have to mean one thing in order to mean anything. It is like a mouthpiece at the edge of the universe telling its own story to itself.

Language compels me towards more exploration. Sometimes I feel like language is a tool for exploring the underground, the layers of rock underneath the assumptions and messages that are being communicated. When I was 20 and a man who was trying to cure me of being gay told me that my problem was language, I was accidentally landed into an experience of confidence. He claimed to be an authority in religion and psychology, so I—a good Catholic, always submissive to authority—took him at his word. But when I asked him what his obsession with teaching me how to objectify women was, he became angry and told me my problem was language. And suddenly I was more shiny than I’d ever been before. I saw through his trickery. He was a man making up language for the mouth of God, and he was pisspoor at it. I left and never went back.

That’s what language can do, when language is doing its work: it can spur extraordinary action.

Pisspoor—look at that delicious alliteration. P.P. Two little explosive sounds right next to each other. I needed those sounds to describe the explosion of life that happened in me after I realized that language could be part of being more alive. I know I’m not describing anything like a pathway to belief—because mostly, I’ve been affected by an awful kind of religion, so I’ve needed language to lead me away from it, not towards it. God’s own anarchy, giving humanity the faculty by which God created the world. We can create too. And destroy.  Language can be a terror, as we know well.

I know. I’m still not answering. Look at all this language. Once a man I know was telling a group of people how tired he was of fighting for his rights when his rights were being denied by those who said they spoke for God. He was in a room of a retreat at Corrymeela, a reconciliation community I was leading at the time. A woman sitting next to him said. “It’s okay to rest, others will do the standing for you.” Something about the quality of her words meant he heard them. He cried. The seventh day. It was evening. It was morning.

TM: There’s a real strand of Ignatian spirituality in this book. While in a course of Ignatian spiritual direction in Australia, you learned the vision of the world that transformed Saint Ignatius of Loyola: “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” You also ponder the humanity of Jesus: “We can ask about when he fell, or when he cried, or when he had nightmares. But we must also ask when he learned truth, or courage, or integrity. When did he learn the human art of apology? How did he live with his own body, the move from boy to man, the richness of a life lived in tension?” What has the corporeal sense of Jesus meant to you? Do you think that people fully reckon with his—and maybe our—flesh and blood?

PÓT: Years ago, when I was definitely more religious, I was teaching a class about the Stations of the Cross. It was a class of adults. I had been doing a daily practice of the Stations of the Cross myself for five years by that stage. I’ve always found the three-fold falling of Jesus to be very affecting. I had some images of Jesus that I was using as we were considering the walk of torture for a man about to be executed.

All of this was in a room in Australia. I was the only Catholic, and I was, in a certain sense, trying to prove to the Evangelicals in the room that Catholics, too, can be Christians. I have all kinds of problems with everything that was happening.

Anyway, after the third “Jesus Falls to the Ground” Station, I asked the people in the room what they’d say to Jesus. A woman named Julie said she’d ask him if it was worth it. Julie had lots of piercings and tattoos and half her head was shaved. The hair she had was dyed pink and green. She wore Doc Marten boots, and lots of leather. She was magnificent. Her own self. I hear she went to do a degree in law and worked in public defense of young people who’d been criminalized by a law system bent on marginalizing the already marginalized. She was somewhat of a scandal in this class because she would regularly say she wasn’t a Christian, even though she was on devotional course meant only for Christians. I admired her so much. There was something about the disposition of her question that moved me deeply. I think it was the first time I’d ever heard someone pose a question about—or, even more audaciously, to—Jesus without expecting they knew the answer. I want what she has, I remember thinking, which was: more distance from religion in order to be able to see a little more clearly.

I have never seen her since—this was 20 years ago—but I think about her regularly. She gave me what others resented her for having: distance and non-predatory curiosity. She was able to ask a question of Jesus of Nazareth without having formulated what she thought his answer should be. In the freedom she held in herself, her Jesus was also freer. I could imagine him saying No, it’s not. Get me out of here in response to her.

So whatever my relationship to the complicated question of Jesus’s identity is (and I wrote complicated essays about the hypostatic union in my degree), I always want the curiosity of the brilliant Julie. I’m not interested in being part of a gang who are so desperate to prove we love Jesus that we don’t take him seriously. I don’t know if I love him. I certainly respect him. I have many questions. I imagine he’d have been exhausting as a friend. I imagine he must have had some kind of energy in him that drew people to him with a heavy appeal. I’ve got a few friends like that. I am drawn to them. I come away depleted sometimes.

Who taught him to read? Was he interested in spelling? Did he skip formalities for the spirit of things? What did he say about Herod when nobody was writing down? Why did he tell the story of the desert with a devil in it? Wasn’t it just himself? When he said Why have you forsaken me, was that the end of his belief? It seems to me that when he posted three friends to keep watch as he prayed that he was leaving room for escape. Who is the escaping Jesus? What would he say?

To take Jesus of Nazareth seriously is to take ourselves seriously, I think. And consequently, to treat Jesus like some kind of perfect boy god is to deny the complexity of the secular everyday today. I’ve still got questions. I think I always will.

TM: You talk about studying redaction criticism during your theology schooling: “the skill of discovering how the texts that we now accept as a literary whole may be the product of decades of editing, with changes, additions, and extractions having happened.” I’m curious: do you find the action of memoir as a form of redaction criticism? What does it mean for you to revisit the stories of your life?

PÓT: A few years ago, I was in a Swatch Watch shop in New York City. I needed a new strap. The people were very friendly in there and after I’d gotten a new strap, the man working there said, “Do you want to come to a Swatch party on Thursday night?” This was not what I was expecting him to say. “What happens at a Swatch party?” I asked. “Oh all kinds of people come and they share their Swatch Story,” he said.

Swatch Story. Jesus. I could almost hear the voice of the branding consultant who came up with this inanity. People had sat in a room wondering how to build their corporate reach, and some overpaid person came up with the idea that the Swatch Story was a way to make people buy more shit.

I didn’t go. Although, I wonder what would have happened if I had. I hope that at that party there were small corners of people talking about what really mattered in their lives. I hope people made friends that night. I hope there are groupings of people who, when someone asks them, “How did you all meet?” answer, “Oh, at some party one Thursday night.” They forget that it was for a brand of watch. They made human in a place where money was the imagination.

Story is everywhere these days as a commodity. And that’s a betrayal of the brilliance of story. Story, if it means anything, is always changing. Story should never be convenient, or pretty, or nice. Stories should have the capacity for change—or, at least, the people who tell them should. If I’m telling the same old story at 60 that I am at 45 then I think I’ll have failed. I’m uninterested in being outraged because sometimes stories of outrage are being told by people who are profiting from my outrage while dodging accountability.

Stories are extraordinarily entertaining, but can leave corpses in their wake. Who is made a hero of a story? Who the scapegoat? How can a new point of view be told? How can a story be told anew? How can powers be re-examined? How can I be suspicious of the neat in a neatly told story? Who is the teller? Is it me? Am I over-identifying with the me in memoir? How can I make plural where commodity insists on single? I need to be made exile and made new. Stories have borders, too. And walls. And guns to keep certain people out. So I need all redaction, all historical criticism, all literary theories, and queering and turning upside down. Life is not a story, but stories—maybe—can help us live a life. So they’d better be good enough.

TM: You intersperse poems in this book, and one in particular, “Staring Match,” really paused me: “I stare at the icon, / the sacrament, and / the sacred story.” I think staring is a form of the ecstatic moment—our eyes locked somewhere, lost and drifting. What causes you to stare, to hold yourself to the point where you can’t look away?

PÓT: I’m intrigued that you’ve found such ecstasy in that poem. And I’m moved, too. That you found this in the poem speaks to me that the poem is doing its work; in that the words made space for you to put yourself into them. Were we sharing a pot of tea (Assam, made with leaves, stewed for seven minutes, proper boiling water. Microwave? Get behind me, Satan.) I’d want to ask you more about the poem, because you are participating in the making of the book, in the sense that you’re engaging with a conversation that I’m only an eavesdropper to.

All of that goes to say that if ever anyone ever says to me “I liked your book,” I always ask, “Why?” Not because I’m interested in checking out whether they’ve read it or not, but because they always say something interesting in answer to the why. Usually I realize the book is just a prompt for them to have a conversation with themselves.

I’d gotten completely stuck halfway through writing In the Shelter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a plan, as much as I wasn’t sure what the point of writing something new was. I was reading Adam Phillips’s book In Writing, where he says that most things are written in order to be forgotten; but what happens in the experience of reading is what is meant to be remembered. It changed everything for me. I went back to writing.

Staring, for me, in the context of that poem, was actually an accusation. I’d been schooled in the art of the devoted gaze, the gaze of love, the gaze of adoration. I needed something more like the fuck-you-glare towards an icon. If an icon is a window into God, then I had something to say. So much of In the Shelter is a landscape of anger; as well as a landscape of slowly stripping away denial about the violence of religion. Looking at the placid face of Jesus in an icon, I was angry, and in staring at him (through him, to him, with him) I was able to hear parts of my own life that had questions. I didn’t think he was cowed by my anger. I get the impression that if he was listening, he’d have been glad for it. It was my hidden-and-stowed-away questions that required me to get to the stage of exploding towards the very source of the very source. It was such a relief. Like many, I’d found myself caught in a cycle of leaving a suitcase of questions, objections, fantasies and furies at the doorway of the halls of prayer. Learning to bring a few of those items into chapels helped me take whatever it is that religion does more seriously.

The last word in that poem is “hungry.” Hunger, in Irish, is Gorta, a word we use for a body’s hunger, but also a word we use to imply the Great Famine—An Gorta Mór—a famine that was not a potato famine, but was, like most famines, influenced heavily by the political machinations of the day. While perhaps two million Irish people starved to death from the years 1845 to 1847, the British landlords (grabbed lands, I hope you didn’t need me to say that) were making money by supplying over half the corn and half the cattle to Britain. Hungry people were filling ships with foodstuffs they’d farmed but would never be nourished from. People who couldn’t pay the rent to live on the land that had been stolen from them were being evicted. Kindly neighbors who brought in evicted neighbors were subject to a new law that made such hospitality a crime. All of this being watched over by people who said they had God in mind. Jesus Christ. He deserves everything he can get.

TM: You wrote of living overseas, and sharing an occasional meal with people who were lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and “haunted and loved by God,” but who “had found the welcome of the church to be more airy than substantial.” You receive a call that the local priest wants to come to the house and join the dinner, but the caller says the priest “is keen to be seen to respond.” You focus on that language, and consider a few paradoxes. The priest came, brought some wine, and you spent time together. You remain friends. But you let him know that his presence there was fraught, and that what you needed to see “was less his kind words around the privacy of a table and more his public words in the halls of the powerful. Show us your change, please, I asked.” I can’t help but think of your recent erasure poem in response to the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s statement on the blessing of same-sex unions. Do you feel, as you write in the book, that “faith shelters some, and it shadows others”?

PÓT: God almighty, that priest. He was a lovely man. He’s still a priest, and one of the good ones. But the level of entitlement he had to send a message to me—via a secretary—that he’d heard I had a gathering of LGBT people in my house and he wanted to join, in order to be observed to be doing the right thing… that left me speechless. Of course he couldn’t come. I wouldn’t even tell him the night of the week, and I was aghast at how he’d found out. But he came alone to talk about the message.

There was so little consideration of the safety of the people around that table. Many of them would have feared being fired by him—or, at least, his machinery—had the story of their sexuality become known to him. Was the priest gay? Well, perhaps. But in this instance, unfortunately, who cares? There was a roomful of people seeking sanctuary around a table hoping that a Thursday evening in a kitchen in West Belfast could give enough courage to survive till the next month. His presence there would have been a little echo of empire.

It was a demonstration of the chasm between intention and impact. He would have said that he intended no harm, he intended no worry or threat. But actually his intentions weren’t really of any interest or consequence. His presence there, his self-invited presence, would have had an impact far beyond any intention he’d have used to butter over whatever awkwardness he’d have felt. I’ve grown suspicious of my own intentions, too. It’s all well and good for me to say I mean well. But I’ve been alive long enough to know that when I say I mean well, that that’s only sometimes true, and even when it is true, it can still wreak havoc.

Anyway, like I said. He was a lovely guy, but the luxury of his imagined innocence was a luxury he alone could luxuriate in. I stay in touch, I do. I text him, too. I’m always happy to hear from him, and support him if I can, or ask him for his help if he can give it. He’s not some boogie monster. But he needed to wise up about the impact of his association on a room of people at risk of unemployment.

So of course the establishment of religion works for some and not for others. For some it is important to find a pathway out, knowing that your imagination and safety and creativity might find life outside the borders of religion. Others find religion a salve, and I believe them. Some people say that such violences of religion are evidence of establishment, not Jesus. But I don’t accept that at all. Jesus said many things that, today, would not be considered acceptable. Sheep and Goats and Jews and Dogs and Belief and Gehenna and Pharisees and Divorce and Eunuchs and Devils, oh my. I would love to talk to him. But he’s not an innocent in the corner with angels dancing round his head. There’s blood on his hands, and not just his own. There’s blood on mine, too. Not just my own either.

That recent statement—or Responsum—from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was such a strange pronouncement. It was ostensibly aimed towards LGBT people. But any Catholic LGBT person already knew that any space for our unions to receive blessing was unlikely to come from the top. In reality I think that the true target of that document were allies of LGBT people within the structures of the church. It was a shot across the bow of a Cathedral. You next.

Such a use of language from such a platform was a complete failure of language, and authority. So I wanted to mine for something of curiosity within a text that was utterly predictable in its aggression.

Groups of belonging—whether that’s a country, a religion, a gender, an ethnicity, or a club—have a long history of violent bordermaking. Some groups are easy to join and impossible to leave. Others deny anything outside them exists. Some are almost impossible to join, but’ll kick you out if you sneeze the wrong question. What is the quality of fluid belonging, is something that’s at the heart of my interest. I don’t need to—or, my god, want to—belong to all the groups. Every group has membership requirements, etc. That’s probably okay, or at least, it could be.  But it’s the quality of entry and departure that interests me. And the quality of the stories told about those who left too; and those who wanted to leave but didn’t for fear of repercussions; and those who needed to; and those who stayed, too; and all of us in the in-between.

We’re back at story. I know. How neat. 

Must-Read Poetry: May 2021

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Here are four notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Even Shorn by Isabel Duarte-Gray 

An impressive debut that reverberates with its anchoring sense of place. The “night river is a woman washing / clean the moon / upon forgiving rocks,” Duarte-Gray writes in “Cutter Quilt,” and later wonders: “are these nails my person are they / dead apart of me the callus where / I grip my drawknife.” Western Kentucky pulses in this book, sustained by a folk sense that plays with horror and myth. Deft with the open space of the page and unafraid for lines to linger in those wide fields, Duarte-Gray creates a stunning sense of discomfort. In “Drunkard’s Path,” “My old mother kneaded bread / newborn gathered at the breast / full as circle skirt / her blue-eyed cotton lap” until a man comes home drunk, swinging, “his fists falling like / a basset skull caught the back hoof / of a unbroke horse.” These poems exist like hushed stories passed like terrible gifts across generations—the recognition that perhaps we will remain scarred: “Took me time to learn you can’t heal in body.”

The Renunciations by Donika Kelly 

With an expansive voice that is always tethered to the craft of material of stanzas and lines, Kelly creates a powerful second book. Kelly lines feel sustained by a collective voice—a perspective sometimes grammatically present within the lines, other times occupying something like a heartbeat in the charged material. “We come from abundance,” she begins one poem, “each season / bowed with rain.” She writes: “I watch the shoulder burn, / drive through the smoke that blots the mountains, / and holds the old yolk of sun.” The narrators of these poems are dizzy from pain, and seek to affirm: “Tonight, my love, we are free / of men, of gods, and I am a river // against you, drawn to current and eddy, / ready to make, to be unmade.” In addition to the rupture of childhood, Kelly also reveals the pain of separation—the longing that brings broken hearts temporarily together, and yet ultimately, “the gesture weak, / the occasion quite late.” Kelly’s past and present intermingle: “Fathers are for children,” she ends one poem, “and I was never a child, / only a smaller image of myself.” Absent of belief, her narrators ask incomplete questions and wander in mystery, and yet the wandering itself is affirmation enough: “I’ve always had: a dull knife, / a child afraid of the night and herself, // the woman you left. Still, there’s only doing / and done, the same sun, and who can remember home?”

Flares by Christopher Merrill

While reflecting on his time in Slovenia, Merrill said he found a world where “poets and writers, filmmakers and artists” played a distinct role “in fomenting, prophesying, or attempting to stave off the crisis, and then in bearing witness to what they saw. This was deeply interesting to me as a poet coming from a country in which the arts have a rather marginal place. It was disorienting to be in a place where artists took center stage.” Merrill’s life as a writer has been focused on imagining a world where the storyteller’s vision matters, and that vision sustains Flares, a book that also demonstrates the narrative merit of the prose poem tradition. The vignettes arise from an itinerant eye. In “Fall and Recovery,” a safety inspector describes the concept of “crazing”: the manner of a “rack widening in the window of the plane,” the “mesh of lines spreading from the bullet-sized hole in the plastic through which shine glaciers melting in the sea below.” In the fable “Without,” a goat climbs to the top branch of an acacia tree, blares parables, and then “drifted off to sleep, unafraid of what the waxing moon might bring.” In one of the final poems, Merrill wonders: “What became of the vase of lilacs propped on the windowsill of the house tugged by a truck from one end of the street to the other?” A touching, diverse collection.

Collected Poems by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

Ní Chuilleanáin has joked that she has never really suffered from writer’s block, but added “I think that my complete works in poetry would add up to something about an inch thick.” I can verify the literal truth of this observation through the book on my desk, but there’s a wealth of comedy, tragedy, and wisdom in her statement. We might write for all of our lives, and yet what we leave behind might only be measured in inches. Humbling, certainly, but perhaps also freeing. Her Collected Poems is a worthy testament to a notable life in poetry, beginning with the 1972 collection Acts and Monuments, and reaching to recent works. From that first book, “Family” glows: “Water has no memory / And you drown it in like a kind of absence.” That paradox permeates these collected works. She writes “Our history is a mountain of salt / a leaking strain under the evening cliff / it will be gone in time / grass will grow there— // not in our time.” A book to spend hours, days, years within.

Must-Read Poetry: April 2021


Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey by Craig Morgan Teicher

Teicher perfectly captures the teetering feel of middle-age: a lament clothed in appreciation (our gifts, collected and overflowing in our arms, can weigh us down). His first narrator remembers what it was like when his generation was “about to // inherit the world.” Now, “look // what we did, and we didn’t. / And now look at us, and it.” Now, “we look up again, decades groggy, // decades late.” What do we have to show for it? A lot, Teicher reminds us: “for joy is always / our secret, the secret of this hurried, harried life / without horses.” Let it never be trite to say that poets reveal the poetry of our lives: a tied garbage bag (“I find myself admiring the swift / dexterity with which I fashion, almost effortlessly, / the weird knot to seal off the bag from the world”), love (“We try to talk during crowded weekend days”), birthday parties (“I owe her happiness / if only because it was I, not she, / who asked for all of this: / marriage, house, for her to be.”). Teicher’s poems often rewind to the past—perhaps age 10, in Lake George, thinking: “He has this one chance / at childhood.” Years later, stretching that child toward man: “All my choices have led me right here, / to this chair, to typing who cares.” A genuine, searching, and honest book of considerable skill. Postscript: the late-collection poem “New Jersey” is magnificent. 

Connoisseurs of Worms by Deborah Warren 

A treat to read these mealy, mucky poems. Warren imbues a dewy, syrup drip to varied subjects, including, somehow, a ventriloquist’s mannequin: “Pumped too full of windy vocables, / he unsags—swells up—he’s about to go / some kind of crazy.” Imagine him, animated by language, softening from plastic to skin, as he “rolls the smile back in to a small pink circle / and spits a blast of shrapnel—plosives, glossals / fricatives.” An epigraph from Job (“I am…a companion to owls”) spurs an appreciation: “Owl, in spite of your reputation / as an icon of sagacity, / Job, comparing himself to you, referred / not to wisdom but to desolation.” Job was wrong: “mistaken.” Warren goes anywhere, inhabits anything: it is fun to see a poet so willing to embrace metamorphosis. Strung by playful song, she can also (pleasantly, but pointedly) shock you: “Being thin, I feel mortality / more than most,” a “frame under the flesh.” “I’m a living ossuary,” she writes. A great book.

If God Is a Virus by Seema Yasmin

Yasmin, a medical doctor who investigated outbreaks for the Epidemic Intelligence Service from the CDC and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, brings considerable experience and a poet’s vision and sense to her depiction of Ebola’s spread through Liberia. To read this work during the coronavirus pandemic is to recognize Yasmin’s prescience, and her ability to unpack how disease intersects with prejudice, race, myth, and poverty. “Dark deaths matter more if they speak / English,” she begins one poem, lamenting how awards are won “for photos of brown faces / eating expired medicines smeared in peanut / butter aid.” Yasmin is deft at inhabiting the voices of those she encountered, including a fortune teller who says that terror “descends here every fourteen years or / fourteen hours depending on your lineage or // ancestor’s prayers.” The woman tells a child: “ask not why war // comes, ask: Why does peace keep leaving?” Yasmin quotes Marwa Helal’s line “poems do work journalism cant,” while demonstrating that the synthesis of those modes can create revelations.

The Complete Poems of San Juan de la Cruz (translated from Spanish by María Baranda and Paul Hoover)

“Tonight I shall sing matins in Heaven” said San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross) on his deathbed—after asking the friars around him to “read aloud some verses from Song of Songs.” The enigmatic text greatly influenced him, although he was certainly aware of its sensuality (spiritually and theologically, of course, those elements were essential to the power of his own poetry). As the translators of this collection note, San Juan produced hundreds of pages of exegesis to “clarify his message,” so to speak. With the Spanish on the left in red and the English on the right in black, this is a gorgeously presented book with equally stunning verse. “This life that I live,” San Juan writes, “is the absence of living; / and so is endless dying / until I live with you; / listen, my God, to my words, / that I don’t desire this life; / I die because I don’t die.” Other poems like “Romances” teem with the type of deep paradoxes that sustain faith: “In the beginning resided / the Verb, and it lived in God, / in whom it possessed / its infinite happiness.” The rare poet whose pondering theology exists of songs of love—to God, creation, and our attempts to transcend.

In a Sentimental Mood by Ivana Bodrožić (translated from Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać and Damir Šodan)

The title piece is such a wonderful love poem in spite of itself, in spite of war and pain (we feel Bodrožić tiptoe toward sentiment, even acknowledging that “Jazz is so fragile” in the first line, like she is gently placing the poem in fear it might crack). “We packed up,” she writes, and “selected music for the car, / spread out the map over our knees, / then the earth split open, the road ahead unfurled, / the rivers spilled out of their riverbeds.” The lovers are “searching” for something, and soon find themselves in a hotel room, where they “shudder underneath a single sheet / so thin” while hearing “aggressive men howl, / herding their beasts of steel.” Is language enough? “Give up on words,” she writes elsewhere: “Everything ends, anyway, in silence.” A book of bodily pain and soulful despair.

32 Poems by Hyam Plutzik

A Pulitzer Prize finalist, World War II veteran, and professor whose work arose from and was influenced by his Russian-Jewish heritage, Plutzik receives much-needed consideration here. As editor George B. Henson notes, Plutzik’s death from cancer in 1962—while in his early 50s—left his work an unfinished project. “At the first smell of fall the locusts sing / Louder by far than on the midsummer nights, / Storing song for the later silences,” he writes in “Frederick’s Wood,” his stanzas can exist as their own poems. In “Connecticut Autumn,” he writes: “I have seen the pageantry of the leaves falling— / Their sere, brown frames descending brakingly, / Like old men lying down to rest.” He often returns to a pastoral melancholy, a recognition of death as an inevitable process: “Now the swift rot of the flesh is over. / Now only the slow rot of the bones in the Northern damp.” Poets will find so much that is wonderfully true here: “The poetic process is lonely but theatrical, / Improvisation before an empty house / With the dread that prompter and stagehands will stay away.” Perhaps even more so is his coda, which ends with an affirmation: “We must stay alive, must write then, write as excellently as we can. And if out of our labors and agonies there appears, along with our more moderate triumphs, even one speck of the final distillate, the eternal stuff pure and radiant as a drop of uranium, we are justified.” This bilingual (English/Spanish edition) helps introduce Plutzik to a wider audience.

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade


Few debut story collections feel as accomplished as Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas from 2015. “I’m lucky to know a lot of really good, generous people, but they don’t fall into any of those standard narratives of saintly lives,” Quade has said. “They’re people who just keep on trucking and being good in the face of a lot of injustice and ingratitude.” Night at the Fiestas tells the stories of those everyday saints, whose encounters with faith, doubt, and grace feel absolutely authentic.

I’m not the only one who was thrilled to hear that Quade decided to turn one of the stories into a novel. It is a significant feat, but Quade is uniquely positioned to make the shift in genre and form. Her stories teem with a generous sensibility; a recognition that each life is deeply, mysteriously complex.

Quade won the John Leonard Prize from the National Book Critics Circle, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a “5 Under 35” award from the National Book Foundation. She was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and The New York Times. Quade is an assistant professor at Princeton.

We spoke about how bodies are essential to fiction, the ways myth and folklore sustain her writing, and the challenges and revelations of reimagining a short story as a novel.

The Millions: The Five Wounds begins during Holy Week—the climax of the most dramatic liturgical season of the year. What does Lent conjure for you as a storyteller?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: Lent is a season of introspection and penance and making amends, which are all themes in The Five Wounds. My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.

Amadeo discovers early on that making amends for the way he’s failed the people in his life cannot happen in a single gesture—it has to happen over and over, incrementally, and it can’t be performative.

I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction. When I started writing, Angela Carter’s feminist reimaginings of fairy tales were real inspirations. When I think about the stories from the Old and New Testaments, it’s always been the human conflicts that interest me most. In those wonderful crowded Renaissance paintings of the crucifixion, I’m always drawn to the characters in the crowd who are going about their own business, holding a falcon or chasing a dog or looking wistfully at a friend.

TM: Last year we talked about your wonderful story collection, Night at the Fiestas, which includes a story that evolved into this novel. Among the great things you said that day, I often come back to one line in particular: “You can’t write your own story without fictionalizing it.” In a related way, I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction, especially ones that we live with for years. You’ve lived with Amadeo and Angel for some time now, so: in what ways do you inhabit their story yourself?

KQ: I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell. The short story “The Five Wounds” was published in 2009, so these characters have been with me a very long time. I am in every single one of the characters to varying degrees. I’ve felt Angel’s impatience with the members of her family, and her hopefulness and idealism, too. I’ve felt Amadeo’s longing to be a part of something important and his delusions of grandeur. I’ve definitely been nerdy, bookish Lily in the corner, judging everybody from behind her fat novel.

TM: You write so exquisitely about bodies: bodies in pain, penance, love, longing, and in fear. There’s a great moment when Amadeo is waiting for Angel, his daughter, to have her child. You describe his body perfectly: he is “filled with an electric jangling fear that doesn’t expend itself.” He prays to Jesus, who seems inadequate to understand Amadeo’s situation. Then he prays to God, but can’t picture him “except as a wooly jovial guy.” Finally, he prays to Mary, who gets it, “having had a kid herself and having had to watch that kid go through big troubles.” In this novel, as well as your stories, there is a Marian sensibility—which is of course distinctly Catholic, but also cultural. How does Mary exist in this story, in the lives and imaginations of these characters?

KQ: Bodies are so essential to fiction; I can tell when I’m not fully immersed in the writing, because I’ve somehow forgotten that my characters have bodies—they become just these floating consciousnesses. Paying attention to the physicality of the characters anchors me in the scene and makes the fictional world more vivid.

Mary’s story is, as much as her son’s, so much about the body. I imagine her shock at finding out that, without any say in the matter, she was suddenly pregnant. And sure, even if she thought it was an honor to be impregnated by God, I’ve got to think it was a complicated moment for her. I always focus on the book in her hands in paintings of the Annunciation. Who knows what other plans she had for her life?

The focus on Mary in the Catholicism I grew up with made a lot of sense to me. My family is absolutely a matriarchy; all the women are incredibly strong-willed and competent. They are the ones who hold the family together and get things done.

Likewise, Yolanda is the head of the Padilla family, the center around whom everyone circles, the person they go to for everything they need: allowance, affirmation, comfort. And she’s also completely taken for granted by her offspring. Her illness, then, comes as a shock, and they’re forced to grow up in a way they’ve managed to avoid.

TM: “Saint Amadeo. It has a dignified, archaic ring to it.” Amadeo dismisses the droning priest at Mass and his abstractions, and instead wishes that people would appreciate Amadeo’s own visceral passion: “His performance wasn’t just a performance, but a true crucifixion.” You’re great at mining the dual ambitions and anxieties of your characters—their desires to be saints while accepting their lives as sinners, as humans. If you had to choose a character from this book to be a saint, who would it be, and why?

KQ: Oh, wow, I don’t think I’d wish sainthood on any of them! Amadeo certainly has a penchant for extremes. I suppose I’d say that Angel has the most promise, since she’s most able to consistently think about other people’s needs and experiences. I like the name Saint Angel. Plus, we could use more lesbian saints!

TM: What did you discover about yourself as a writer—and perhaps in general as a storyteller—in the shift from the structure and style of short fiction to the expanse of a novel? What can a novel accomplish that a story might struggle to achieve?

KQ: The short story ends with an epiphany: Amadeo, who longs so deeply to transform his life, is on the cross, looking down at his pregnant daughter. In that moment, he truly sees her for the first time, and he understands that any hope for transformation will depend on his showing up for the people who need him.

That kind of epiphany works for a short story, but the question kept arising for me: What next? What happens the next morning when he wakes up in the same cramped bed in his childhood bedroom? What will Amadeo do with his new understanding? And I suspected that Amadeo, like many of us, might require more than that one epiphany to actually change his life. The novel grew out of my wanting to see what happens to these characters the next day, and the day after that.

As I expanded the story, the more I cared about the characters: Amadeo, whose efforts are so misplaced; vibrant, forceful, funny Angel who is trying so hard to give her son a good life and who falls so completely in love; and Yolanda, who, after devoting herself to her family, now finds that she must to attend to her own life. I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.

Must-Read Poetry: March 2021


Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Peach State by Adrienne Su

An exquisitely textured book. Food is a language, and Su follows its turns and tastes. She announces in “Ginger”: “We’ll affirm its arrival / when it’s not in the titles / of recipes in which it figures / quietly, as moderate slivers.” She rails against recipes that include the admonition to “serve immediately”: “Already the days // overflow with imperatives.” She laments that in “Home Baker,” “Art becomes chore, / your hair, clothes, the floor flecked with powder.” Be wary: “Having baked before marriage for the one you chose, / you pay to the end. Courtship is delusionary, // bread corporeal.” There is an unfortunate paradox: “Now, despite furnishings, a loaf / has the heft of a gift, the hours a miniature life / not spent on a book or a song.” Poems like “Peaches” cover much ground. “I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,” she writes, “stored it in the coolest part of the house, / then devoured it before any could rot.” Other Georgians ask her “But where are you from originally,” and she wants to quip “The homeland of the peach.” She writes about being “Chinese in that part of America, both strangers / and natives on a lonely, beautiful street,” and considers her parents: “Their lives were labor, they kept this from the kids // who grew up to confuse work with pleasure, / to become typical immigrants’ children, / taller than their parents and unaware of hunger / except when asked the odd, perplexing question.” Peach State is so deliciously crafted through food that it makes me wonder why poetry is written about anything else. 

If This is The Age We End Discovery by Rosebud Ben-Oni

Most of these poems include the narrator wrestling with something: an ode to her brother, happy little clouds, derelict spacecraft, and Rick & Morty (but mostly Rick). “All my timelines lead to this poem,” she writes an especially apt poem about pondering life in a possible simulation. “I suspect / my own veins are rogue simulations/ flitting with a new kind of heightened self- / awareness. Proof: the nurse says they are flighty / & hard to find.” The f sounds of those lines capture the fluttering sense of ourselves: are we really here? Do we always awaken to the same world? “It’s also sad to think / the envy still filling us over some horse / we knew for less than a week / is simulated,” she says. Ben-Oni’s poems often spray across the page, her lines reaching for the edges as if they seek to uncover the outlines of our tenuous existence. In one wonderfully heartfelt poem, “All Palaces Are Temporary Palaces,” she writes of how her six-year-old niece calls her to ask questions. The girl talks of asteroid mining, comets, quarks. “My dear, dear girl,” the narrator responds, “Calling on this overcast day in the spring, where sky is one, long cover / Of impassivity. Why are we here? She’s asking for the first time, / And I hear the anxiety of one who’s stumbled upon a burning / Temple in the fields.” Ben-Oni courts wonder throughout this book, while acknowledging that opening ourselves to the search can be perilous. 

American Wake by Kerrin McCadden

Impressive range in this collection, both within and across poems. In “Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” she asks: “what isn’t closer than you thought?” Bills, of course, but also “texts from an ex-husband that you have cleverly given / his own ringtone—the science fiction one, / so that every time he wants something / he breaks into your village home like a flying saucer / landing on earth, so close, all of a sudden / the peace and quiet you have built shattered.” Funny lines, but we sense the tension here, the hesitancy. “A Hagiography” is more comfortably hilarious: “Heads will roll, we say when shit gets bad, / but they don’t anymore—no more Saint Alban, // his head rolling downhill into a well, the water / turning holy.” More good questions: “Where was Saint Denis going when he walked / downhill into Paris, holding his head in his hands? // Where does anyone go with their head in their own hands? And what sermon does he give, this man gone walking // and praying, having played chicken without backing down / from men with swords, scourged and racked?” McCadden’s ability to shift without jarring owes to her care with sound and setting, as in “Our House Behind the Hawthorns”: “Our house // is just stone walls—a box filled with rusted bed- / frames and ploughs.” “Work and haul, kettle and hook, / stick broom, dirt floor, turf-light. At night, tiptoe / the edges of thirteen people sleeping.” When I read the lines “The sheep say their words / with their heads low, as if they know a story // is a sacrament” I feel an inclination toward the spirit that also permeates “The Dead.” The narrator watches her mother at her grandmother’s grave, “surveying lots, / approving and disapproving care and neglect.” She knows: “They worry I won’t keep the graves when they’re gone.” Elsewhere McCadden ponders her Irish lineage, in solemn pieces like “Saying the Rosary, Station Island.” An aged priest leads parishioners in praying the rosary. “I didn’t come for this,” the narrator admits, “but it takes me, and soon / I am walking outside, around and around the chapel, the priest // droning another decade, all of us walking in a circle.” They move “past the lake, past the holy water font, past the restrooms // where the Dyson hand-dryer joins the droning, a little engine / of extra prayer.” 

In the Antarctic Circle by Dennis James Sweeney

Appropriately enough, I settled into this book during a storm that dropped three feet of snow. The mood was externally set, but Sweeney’s book will get you there in any weather. In these prose poems, an unnamed narrator and a companion, Hank, exist in some ethereal plane in Antarctica. “The bed yawns under us,” Sweeney writes, on the introductory page. “He and I grip fingers. Thighs on thighs like batons.” We might consider this a prose-poetic play, discovered in scorched fragments. Each poem has coordinates as its title, leaving us somehow both exact and dizzied. Where are we? Hints of Samuel Beckett and William Gass (snow, wind, eternity, terror) haunt this book. “You will learn,” the narrator warns: “In a whiteout you cannot see shadows, but that does not mean the edges are not there.” Sweeney startles with the precision of his figurative description: “Harpoons loll in our arms like children too old to be held. Along the horizon animals run, disappearing over the brink of snow.” The narrator and Hank might be in love; they might simply be among each other, as we tend to gravitate toward what is warm when we are freezing: “Our rites of love and boredom circle each other, waving their leather whips.” Their purpose in this land is less clear than the explorers that Sweeney critiques. They are often powerless in this book: “Though no savior is due, we make a life of waiting.” The narrator ultimately sighs: “The world has less to offer than you think.” 

The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

“Echo” is a perfect choice as the first poem for this book: “Gaudí believed in holy sound / and built a cathedral to contain it, / pulling hearing men from their knees / as though Deafness is a kind of Atheism.” The narrator continues: “Even though I have not heard / the golden decibel of angels, / I have been living in a noiseless / place where the doorbell is pulsating / light and I am unable to answer.” In a later poem, he explains that this is “the reason I sat in saintly silence / during my grandfather’s sermons when he preached / The Good News I only heard / as Babylon’s babbling echoes.” “Dear Hearing World” is a dynamic poem, an ars poetica and more. “I am equal parts sick of your / oh, I’m hard of hearing too, just because / you’ve been on an airplane or suffered head colds. / Your voice has always been the loudest sound in a room.” The narrator’s mother remembers Robert Plant, the “cheeky bugger,” who tried to haggle down her prices. “I didn’t care about Led nothing. / I’m just out in snow on a Saturday market morning / trying to make rent and this is it.” He recalls his father in “Dementia”: “When his sleeping face / was a scrunched tissue, / wet with babbling,” the narrator went close to him, “unravelling a joy.” The narrator then “swallowed his past / until your breath was / warm as Caribbean / concrete.” He understands dementia will take its course, but prays that it will “make me unafraid / of what is / disappearing.” Antrobus can be gentle, tactile, and pointed in this book—which collects into an affirmation, a pronouncement. 

No Chronology by Karen Fish

In “Alibi,” Fish perfectly captures youth: “I knew nothing about anything: school, dreams, tornados, / strangers, smoke-filled bars, silent, oblivious mothers, / the teenage girls across the street, swaying and sashaying through the late afternoons with transistor radios.” She remembers how those years were full “of abrupt boys / running, stopwatches, athletic accidents, stitches, // snuck cigarettes, stashed girlie magazines, pogo sticks, / headlocks, handlebars to fall from.” Elsewhere in her book, there is the sense that the world will pass us: “The river forgets the fish, and the winter sun slides beyond / the far hills.” There’s a similar awareness in “The Accounting”: “Of course, there is some accounting, / right as you leave this world—stepping down // the rocky embankment, a purgatory.” Fish is absolutely exacting in her description, as during “Evening Song”: “The daylilies wince sut, reduced to orange tongues / waving by the woodshed, woozy on the wind.” and in another poem: “Living in the country, the great spaces / between the houses. The river just a black line / that underscored the sky.” And another: “Like most beauty— / the deer arrive unnoticed and then, / simply, are indisputable.” These precise lines (emotionally, syntactically so) are a stay against the mortality she reminds us of elsewhere. That’s comfort enough, I think, for now. 

Must-Read Poetry: February 2021


Here are five notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov

Dimitrov’s clever, casual, and inviting lines—“I don’t want to sound unreasonable / but I need to be in love immediately. / I can’t watch this sunset / on 14th Street by myself”—are especially welcome right now. But this is a complex collection; in “Waiting at Stonewall,” he ponders, 50 years later: “Those of us who resisted heroes / and sentiment. Those of us / who waited and found neither— / not the promised liberation / in marriage, or the salvation / of laws.” Sit down and appreciate “Love,” a long, anchoring litany-poem: “I love religious spaces though I’m sometimes lost there. / I love the sun for worshipping no one.” In “My Secret,” the narrator shares: “I’m suddenly / one of those people / who goes out / to dinner alone.” He knows: “Everyone I love / is disappointed in me.” This is a book about love, yes, but it is also one of the best recent books about New York City. If you love that city, if you hate that city, if you want to understand that city: read this book. His smirks and winks (“Or even worse / they’re going home to cook / and read this sad poem online”) are tender rather than tendentious; we are invited to experience this book. He calls out all of us, “Such righteous / saints! Repeating easy lines, / performing our great politics.” Dimitrov is good enough—his lines are smooth enough—that the guilty will gladly take the punishment. 

Promoteo by C. Dale Young

“As a child,” Young writes in a poem halfway through this book, “I asked my mother to listen to me / while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more / and more odd for their sounds, their structures.” Drawn to syntax and sound, the narrator remembers the repetition of Mass—how he was “trying to master // the language, the very words, fearful they would master / me, instead.” Years later, Young, the poet (and radiation oncologist) has mastered language in this finely wrought new volume. Continuing a tradition from previous books like The Second Person, Young’s narrators have inherited languages of religion and desire, and they intertwine in their ecstasy. “You punish or are punished,” he writes. “It really is that simple. // Dominus, Holy Father. I have hidden myself / in the cane field. I may have sinned.” “Portrait in Ochre and Seven Whispers” is a searing poem of suffering and abuse, beginning with: “To make and remake one’s self is / the artist’s job, I believed. And so, in poems, / I gave myself wings.” The narrator later laments: “You were supposed to save us. You were / supposed to help save our souls. Isn’t that part / of the vow you made to God when choosing / the life you did?” He ends the stanza: “You must have forgotten that. / You didn’t kill my soul. But you didn’t save it either.” An excellent book.

Self-Portrait with Cephalopod by Kathryn Smith

Playful and smart: Smith shows those traits can synthesize into memorable poems (with great titles). In “Most of Us Aren’t Beautiful, Though Some Learn How,” she admits: “I’m back // where I started: stuck in a parable / I cannot, botanically, and do not, // theologically, believe.” In the first poem, Smith writes: “The beauty of birds isn’t flight. It’s how they let / their young cram pointy beaks down their throats.” In “Dear Sirs,” she wonders—if the “traditional forms of revelation” included “interpretable dream, flashes of light,” then what “are some of the modern forms?” It’s a good question, and Smith is comfortable not answering it, resigned to a truth: “I fear that fire // will burn the insides of my eyes, / flames licking the wounds and disappearing / names of the dead.” Smith’s poems often ponder an entropic world through a theology of absence: “It is said in God / there is no darkness. / It is also said / I am made / in God’s image.” In this way, “I am fearfully and wonderfully / made, made wonderfully / fearful.” She concludes: “Surely goodness / will dog me all the days / of my life.” 

Oh You Robot Saints! by Rebecca Morgan Frank

God in the machine, God is the machine: Frank’s new book is a menagerie of automation, automatons, sentient verse, errant prophecies. She considers the tradition of mechanical Eves: “fetching your tea, serving / you wine,” they “didn’t have a mind” and “were built from the ribs / of men’s brains.” “Oh, man has made her!” Frank intones (long live exclamation points in poems!), “and she is uncanny (and / infertile!).” Man has long made women “in his own image / for beauty and service, oh, man has / made her, a more pliable Eve / with no desire of her own.” I think of how Thomas Pynchon lifted the Luddites from their 19th century economic vengeance to their contemporary technophobia; Frank similarly mines past art, story, and parable for astoundingly contemporary truths. She follows the metaphor of body-as-machine to its logical end: we are all gears, oiled, “no different than that of medieval / mechanical monkeys lining the bridge // in the park at Hesdin.” Eye-opening, jaunty: this is a whirl of a book.

The Readiness by Alan Gillis

What routes these lines take. Gillis begins one poem with an earthworm who “squinches / through soil to ooze in dew, / only to be pincered / in the beak of a crow, // lifted above the garden, the gable wall, into a sky / of porridge / with faint pools of blue.” I’m a believer in poetic surprise (when Frost created that image of ice on a hot stove, he knew that sometimes the ice melted into itself and steamed into the air: no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader, and so on). Gillis delivers, finding the lolling and lyric in the everyday: “get set for the whigmaleeries of the ticking clock, / spilt milk, the mystery / of missing socks, the transport peeve, the hundred-tonne / weight of to-dos.” Maybe poetry isn’t utilitarian in a grand, salvific sense, but it is a cure for language, and it might be a method to sing boredom into beauty. Gillis wants us to be ready: revelations, small and strange, “could happen at sunset / on a sloping lawn. / In a yawning estate / it could happen at dawn.” “Everything changes,” Gillis writes in a later poem. “In this there is no change.” Gillis’s willingness to bounce between jest and earnestness is a good reminder of how comic-poets can stun us with their well-placed truths: “And you know this, / the oncoming day, is nothing / but the night’s brief parenthesis.”