The Stories We Become: On William Cash’s ‘Restoration Heart’

Restoration Heart begins in 2009 with William Cash, the British journalist and publisher, hiding from the tabloids. He listens as a photographer and reporter banter outside his front door. Cash, frazzled and melancholy, huddles inside. His girlfriend’s photo appears “on the front page of the Sunday Mirror, alongside that of a well-known British politician, touted as a future prime minister.” Cash’s girlfriend was embroiled in a political sex scandal with none other than Boris Johnson.

Cash, who has often written of society and scandal, is adept at setting dramatic scenes throughout his memoir. Yet there’s another layer to Restoration Heart—an acute literary sense. While “camping out in a former tack room,” lamenting another failed relationship and the family he has always longed to have, Cash thinks of a line from Graham Greene: “No man is a success to himself.”

It is an appropriate quote—Cash once wrote a biography of Greene that examined his long affair with Catherine Walston, a relationship that influenced The End of the Affair—yet another line from Greene might be even more appropriate: “I feel there’s something awful in sealing up the envelope, not being able to add to this.” Cash’s memoir is the story of a man whose penchant for letters suggests a desire to hold on to the present. Sealing up the envelope means ending the letter; it means allowing our fantasies and stories to be finished, read, and judged.

Greene haunts this book in the way perhaps only the British novelist can; a lingering but vacillating Catholicism, a predilection for drama, and the worry that life is a series of disappointments. Those disappointments—and accompanying hopes—are often set at Upton Cressett, an Elizabethan manor in Shropshire, England. In 1970, Cash’s parents “had become afflicted with that most British and expensive of diseases: the ‘dream’ of finding an old English manor house and restoring it, the more of an overgrown ruin beyond hope, the better.” Built in 1580, the house, Cash quips, “has always been the most durable of my relationships—more reliable than any love affair or marriage.”

In 1899, H. Thornhill Timmins wrote in Nooks and Corners of Shropshire of the home’s past: “The course of the moat, the ancient well, and the site of the drawbridge can still be identified.” Rumor has it that an underground tunnel once ran from the home to Holgate Castle in Corve Dale, six miles away. Yet now, Cash laments, the home “had come to resemble an architectural salvage yard.” He decides to renovate the house, and his life.

The action is uniquely British. “The Germans, French, and Italians don’t understand the British Cult of Restoration,” Cash affirms: “restoring an old manor farmhouse, mill or ruined abbey until we are driven into the financial grave. It relates to our national obsession with the past and how our best domestic architecture—from castles to cottages—gives character and identity not only to our towns and villages but also defines who we are.” 

Cash quotes P. H. Ditchfield, from The Manor Houses of England, that manors such as his “do not court attention,” nor do they “seek to attract the eye by glaring incongruities or obtrusive detail. They seem in quest of peace, love and obscurity.” For much of his life, Cash seemed the opposite. Drama found him, or compelled him. Failed relationships were compounded by literary ambitions. 

He documented it all. One of his teachers at Trinity College was Eric Griffiths, who made Cash realize that “Letters or poems to those we have loved, or still love, can live on, long after the relationship is dead. I am sure this contributed to my chronic inability to let go of my past, and my habit of photocopying and collecting my letters.” Cash tended to fax his letters to lovers, friends, and foes, which left him with boxes full of originals. He confessed his deepest desires, but those desires also remained near. It is a not-always pleasant paradox to have our secrets archived and in reach.

Cash is full of secrets and stories. In a representative tale, he first met the actress Elizabeth Hurley in 1992, and lived with her for some time, including “when Hugh Grant had his notorious back-seat encounter on Sunset Boulevard with Divine Brown.” Cash hunkered down while paparazzi swarmed their home—perhaps preparing for his own encounters with the gossip press.

Cash placed Hurley “far too high on my usual pedestal for anything more than being her confidant.” Although Hurley was only a friend, Cash had a succession of girlfriends and lovers, and each relationship seems not only a potential marriage, but a marriage with children—which might include “having twins, writing bestselling thrillers, buying two borzoi puppies, importing wild board to roam around the medieval wood and peacocks for the garden, flooding our medieval moat, learning to cook, paying my credit-card bills each month.” 

Restoration Heart is buoyed by Cash’s self-effacing humor. He’s a romantic when it comes to love, and also writing.  The novelist Jay McInerney once told Cash there are two types of books: “the type you put in everything you know, and the type you leave out everything. Make sure you know which yours is before you start.” Cash puts his life—loves, losses, and longings—on display here, and the result is a paean to hard-worn optimism, and an affirmation of the epistle as cherished form. Reflecting on his many letters, Cash concludes: “So many are hopelessly self-indulgent attempts to win a heart or offer some thread of hope (often self-deceptive) to myself. Is the narrator of my letters really me, or a persona I created? I can’t answer that. I don’t know.” Restoration Heart suggests we don’t need an answer; that the stories we tell others, ultimately, become us.

How We Endure: The Millions Interviews M.I. Devine

“Julia Zavacky comes down to us today as an eccentric accomplice to an eccentric artist well supplied with accomplices—a factory of them,” M.I. Devine writes, describing the mother of Andy Warhol. “But what if, instead, Julia, you signify—your journey, endurance, sacrifice—a human depth upon the surfaces of things, even the surfaces of a son.”

Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry is an inventive, playful, and rangy consideration of that human depth upon the surfaces of things—an examination of what it means to put “the mom back in pop.” It’s the type of generative book that left me with a personal syllabus of poetry and film—Devine has a way of magnetizing himself to past and present, bounding across references and texts.

M.I. Devine is, along with Ru Devine, the pop music project Famous Letter Writer. Their debut album Warhola was released on Big Deep Records, and was recently featured on NPR. Devine earned his PhD in English from UCLA. He has won the Gournay Prize for Creative Nonfiction, was a finalist for the American Studies Zuckerman Prize from the University of Pennsylvania, and has received support for his work from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is an associate professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

We spoke about the definition of pop, the merits of playful literary and artistic criticism, and how Warhol still haunts us.

The Millions: The first section of Warhol’s Mother’s Pantry begins with a photo of Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia. The arrangement of the photo places Julia at the forefront—which is true of the book as a whole. I feel like Warhol “haunts” this book more than he is physically or literally present in the text. What is the spirit of Warhol himself in the book?

M.I. Devine: Well, there’s maybe a double haunting, because for me Andy is Warhola, the immigrant’s son.

So, let’s start with Julia Warhola, his mother. Her infant daughter dies in her arms while her husband is in America. (I’ve called this elsewhere the Pietà of Slovakia). She came here alone when the border was closing in 1921. Year of pandemic, persecution: sounds familiar, right? Everything is haunted: now by then, 2020 by 1921, Andy by his mother, a name by its erasure. Call it a haunting, or call it the deep continuity between all things. I call it pop. Why not?  

That’s how the book starts, with a kind of prose poem about this nobody woman crossing the water, this folk artist. She’s my “reusable muse.” She cut soup cans into flowers, and taught Andy how to use scissors, how to remake, recrop, repurpose. 

To your question, then: Andy as a spirit of reproduction—in every sense of that word (as child, of course, but also as force, as strategy) is what haunts the book. To reproduce is to repeat, and pop is always a bid against death, against our own ends. It says we’re not just these woods we wander in, to quote Richard Wilbur (wildly out of context—which is a very pop thing to do!). It’s a portrait of Marilyn the day after her death. A soup can that’s maybe your mother, for sure. And it’s Kendrick Lamar singing “Promise that you’ll sing about me,” it’s Leonard Cohen’s Casio “Hallelujah.” It’s a way to live. Our equipment for living. How we endure. 

I see Andy, in other words, as endlessly affirming. Our desire to cut through. To make new. Tyehimba Jess tells you to use scissors on his poems in Olio and I see Andy there. I see him in the long takes of Cuarón’s Roma, a mother and her stillborn child.

You might say that we know so much more than Andy. Maybe so. But of course he is that which we know. 

TM: Your references to film and music are encyclopedic in this book—and both well-crafted and entertaining. How would you define “pop,” and where does poetry belong within or related to that definition?

MD: Pop means saying something deep in a stupid way.

To say something stupid in a deep way, of course, is to be an academic. (Okay, okay, maybe that’s just from a meme I just shared. Ha! If it’s not it should be.)

But I think there’s something there. Stupid is flow. Stupid is your body. It’s your stupid limits and our stupid forms and the stupid fact that we all die. Andy suffered seizures as a kid and he knew all about the body. We’re not free. So much we can’t control. Right? Right. Pop is most pop, most stupid when it leans into that, let’s say, and a little bit of light shines through, and then we feel at home. We sing along. Pop is deeper than you suspect and probably more superficial than you can take. It’s the skin and the soul. It’s Stevie Smith’s poetry. It’s waving and drowning, the body and the sign; it’s a dead man explaining it all at the end, which is an absolutely stupid and wonderful thing.

Pop is MF Doom, a rapper who wears a kind of superhero mask. It’s repeating the title of his song “Sofa King” three times fast. (Try it.) And pop is especially the opposite of pop, obviously. Doom has a line that goes, “All fake rappers, 23 skidoo.” As far as I can tell, it’s a reference to, among other things, a very early Edison film called “What happened on 23rd Street”—a stupid little bit of cinema in which a woman stands on a subway vent and, voila, you know the rest, Marilyn Monroe. “23 skidoo” means beat it, stop watching, scram. And it means Keep Moving! Which is what all pop says, right? How did that expression reach Doom? Who cares? This is pop’s archivist poetics, the thrill, remixing, flowing, telling us what’s real and, you know, what’s not—who’s just the fake rapper. 

Perhaps this sounds stupid. If so, I’ve answered your question.

TM: You write about one of the poet Philip Larkin’s selfies: “He’s thin here, alone, taking a picture of a mirror, which of course is what we all did before our phones grew smarter.” Later: “Can a form be selfish? And what’s that even mean? What are forms but rooms you put yourself in, self-portraits that keep things out, let things in?” How would you describe the “form” of this book? 

MD: Oh, God, talk about stupid, using Philip Larkin in a book about American art! What was I thinking? And of course it gets worse: while traveling in Genoa, I took a selfie with a bomb that is unexploded in this absolutely stunning cathedral. It just sits there like a statue. And a few things occurred to me: 1) The British fired it there about three months after Coventry, Larkin’s hometown, was absolutely razed in WWII. And 2) The rather Gothic bomb was shaped almost identically like the cathedral. Okay, I’m getting to the point: Later that night, I watched a Pearl Jam cover band (quite good) and took notes on all of this—Italian Eddie Vedder singing “Young girl, violence,” Larkin’s city erased, the bomb unexploded in a church. Now what part do I leave out? What part do I keep in? I began by writing about how forms repeat and endure, and somehow I ended up here! With Eddie Vedder telling me that things change by not changing at all!

The point is: this is all very Andy, who’d be a great writing teacher. He said, “When you do something exactly wrong, you always turn up something.” So, I guess I’ve tried to be a bit stupid, which is maybe what literary criticism needs.  Writing is taking a selfie and it’s knowing you can’t help but let in the chaos, the clutter, the noise. When I finished writing my book I read Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book. It’s advice for academics, but it’s really just great about writing as every day practice—as pop, and open, and conflicted, and stupid, even, and, look!, there’s Elvis Costello! Writing is life. 

So order and chaos, pattern and chance, I wanted all of it in the pantry, footnotes that aren’t footnotes at all, distractions, startling juxtapositions. It’s all part of the journey, starting with Julia’s journey—for the reader. Into America, into the violence and beauty. Into great writers and artists I love. Into my writing.

TM: “I am not Jesus,” you write. “I can’t speak plainly. I’ve wept and fasted. Write and wait. Give you what I cross out.” There’s a great rhythm and layers to these lines, which I see reflected in the way you write of John Donne: “Donne doesn’t explicitly say whether God exists outside of language. Perhaps because Donne so loves the wor(l)d that he just doesn’t care. Like Hopkins, he reads in the Book of Creatures the unmistakable authorship of God. But undone, always undone is Donne. He has to complicate things. God is a strange king. And so hard to know.” Maybe it is because I have been reading a lot of that pun-admirer Marshall McLuhan, but it feels like punning and play are a big part of your prose. Is Warhol adjacent or present in that linguistic and intellectual play, for you? How about his mother?

MD: Well, to quote Kumar quoting Geoff Dyer quoting Albert Camus: “After all, the best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Look, there’s a deep humorlessness that stains our understanding of art and creation. It took, what, about half a century for art critics to actually even read the words Picasso and Braque were cutting up in their paintings. Cubism’s a cut up! Oh, now I get it! Visual puns, verbal puns: to get it means you use more than your mind; you use your body; you let art touch your body; you laugh when you see that cutting up “Le Journal” makes some joyful nonsense. Jouer. Jouir. My book’s brilliant cover designer, Jeff Clark, ran with that idea. Collage is less about fragments and more a punning strategy about depths and surfaces. 

Am I divine? I’m not. And this feeling of epistemological play is rooted, I guess, in a broader approach to writing. Who am I to say what art should teach me? Art will not be possessed, nailed down. Andy’s mom titles his book 25 Cats Name Sam and One Blue Pussy and Andy’s like, Nailed It! One of his earliest religious works: “The Lord Gave Me My Face but I Can Pick My Own Nose.”

But the part you mention first is from “Dead Poets”: my elegy for Sam See, a poet, professor, and dear friend who tragically died. I process his death by returning to early childhood encounters with Duchamp in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Looking through peepholes at death. At life. I found it all terrifying and wonderfully out there as a kid. This sounds bleak, right, but pretty soon Andy crashes the party and the elegy, as all elegies do, turns joyous. I didn’t plan that. But it’s precisely because of this spirit of play, of affirmation and life one finds in the pantry, I guess.

Death is stupid, like I’ve said, and our only hope is to outwit it. 

Jesus said to Lazarus “Come forth.” But he came fifth so he lost the job. 

TM: There’s a fascinating bit here about film historian Tom Gunning’s observation that in early film, spectators were cued to the act of display and movement, something like “See the still image spring to life!” You mention that this “pop throwback” has “become more and more common post-9/11,” and consider it “an attempt, I think, to recover a shared experience.” Why didn’t it return after other traumatic events?” What was it about 9/11—and us then and now—that prompted this resurrection?

MD: The 21st century has seen the great early cinema revival, no doubt. Our 1890s peeps watched cat videos on a loop, and, turns out, we watch cat videos on a loop. Sure, some of our cats are more poetic (please google Louiswildlife, a German cat, immediately) but the point is what you’ve said before: a kind of haunting. And hauntings are good! That’s where the spirits are! In lots of ways our digital habits have returned us to the wild sublime of the medium. Dogface 208 skateboards and sings to Fleetwood Mac on TikTok to a trillion views and it’s like you’ve never seen the sunset before; it’s like you never seen our massified, inhuman infrastructure of roads before; it’s like you see for the first time the body in space, singing, free.  

This return, I think, began, ironically, with a brutal collective GIF: 9/11. After the Towers, and the run-away machines, artists responded in all sorts of ways, from Foer to Scorsese in all sorts of magical ways that I write about. I think we’ve been trying to heal that wound, taking new control over our machines, because that’s what pop does. Remixing, recovering, going “old school.” Back to innocence. We are like Andy the amateur not quite sure knowing how to use his camera, you know? And that’s beautiful. It’s a way of unknowing better, which is all we can ask for from art. If readers tell me that they unknow art and America and Andy and even writing better after reading my book, well, that’s all I can ask for. 

Must-Read Poetry: November 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Together in a Sudden Strangeness edited by Alice Quinn 

“I don’t want to find meaning in it,” Diane Seuss, writes in “Pandemicon.” She’s not surprised “how America can brand even a pandemic, turn it / into a thing.” After all, we’re in “a reality series with viral bread recipes / and optimism,” and perhaps only absurdity can capture the heart of our moment. Quinn has accomplished something dizzying here: arranged a stellar cast of poets, some with Seuss’s satirical eye, others with a fresh deep down sentiment. It is what all great anthologies must be: comprehensive, contradictory, stirring. A prose poetic sequence by Rick Barot includes gems: “During the pandemic, I knew each neighbor by one thing. The neighbors above, the baby. The neighbors below, the dog…I wondered what one thing the neighbors would know me by. What truth an inadvertence could betray.” Jericho Brown proclaims: “I don’t know whose side you’re on, / But I am here for the people / Who work in grocery stores that glow in the morning / And close down for deep cleaning at night.” I pause. I think back to those early months of the pandemic, that dull cyclone of despair. What a world we have just lived through; what a world that so many among us haven’t made it through. Traci Brimhall, always sharp in her song, offers a “Plague Diary”: “Today, I walked the worn / shadows to the pond and congratulated myself / on my attention, my ears turned to the blackbirds, // my eyes catching the hawk. Today, my heart, silly little / star cup, measured the odd inches of the crocus.” We can only hope to live the dream lyric offered by Carl Phillips: “Slowly the fog did what fog does, eventually: it lifted.” It is sad that one of the best books of poetry of the year is about our shared pain, but maybe that is the catharsis we need.

Dearly by Margaret Atwood 

“Were things good then? / Yes. They were good. / Did you know they were good? / At the time? Your time?” I like when I find a poet’s book that feels transcendent, like the poet’s anchor in time, and Dearly reaches that level of permanence. Atwood can spin lines both gentle in piercing, as in “Salt,” how the “mellow lamplight / in that antique tent” was “falling on beauty, fullness / bodies entwined and cherishing, / then flareup, and then gone.” A later poem starts: “One day I will be old, / you said; let’s say / while hanging up the wash— / the sheets, the pillowcases.” The fabric holds “their white smell of June rain.” Atwood always winks before her lines become sentimental (“and your brain sang Yeah yeah yeah / like a backup group, / three girls with long legs / and thigh-high boots.”). But she returns to this sentiment, as in “September Mushrooms.” “I missed them again this year,” the narrator laments: “I was immersed elsewhere / when the weather broke / and enough rain came.” Atwood is interested in memory here, and domestic curios; how a narrator saves passports in the same way she saves “those curls / culled from our kids’ first haircuts.” We hold on to the idea of memory more than the memories themselves: “Why was I wandering from here to there / to there? God only knows.” What these narrators do know is mortality. “Things wear out,” unfortunately. “Also fingers. / Gnarling sets in. / Your hands crouch in their mittens. / Forget chopsticks, and buttons.” Remember: “The body, once your accomplice, / is now your trap.” 

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems by Yi Lei (translated by Tracy K. Smith and Changtai Bi) 

Lei died in 2018, and these selected poems—each dated at their conclusion—offer a route and a timeline through the work of this important Chinese poet. In “Picnic,” “Daylight tumbles down the grassy hill / Where we feast on spiced fish, / And the whiskers speckling your chin.” The narrator wonders why her companion doesn’t let his “beard go long, shambolic / Like a sage or savage?” She adds: “Just once, I’d like to be a savage,” the lines ending with an ellipsis that wanders into wonder. “Love’s Dance,” a long, early poem in the collection dazzles in Smith and Bi’s translation: “Your animal heat, heart in full gallop. / I gripped you with my heels, fingers / Knotted into your hair.” Later in the poem she writes: “I want to feel / Civilization flourish and fall. // And I want to live to tell.” She proclaims: “Let bodies go to Heaven! / Let souls go to Hell!” Short poems, like the five-line “As Clear and Thus as Virtuous as Glass,” arrive with equal power: “To see through me, you need only glance.” In “Talking to Myself,” she wonders: “Do I really believe / The fiercest flame / Is silent?” She offers more necessary questions in “To the Viewer”: “Whose hands scrub clean the soul? / Whose eyes cleave the future? / Whose mind fathoms God’s intentions? / Whose compassion undoes affliction?  // Whose? / Whose?”

Rosetta by Karina Borowicz 

“The whiskey stink of rot has settled / in the garden, and a burst of fruit flies / rises when I touch the dying tomato plants”—so begins “September Tomatoes,” a poem deep in Rosetta, but which captures Borowicz’s skilled sense (I felt it to be a cross between Seamus Heaney and Sylvia Plath’s pastoral verse). The poem is a lament for change (“Something in me isn’t ready / to let go of summer so easily.”) and also manages to drape the present with tradition, as when the narrator recalls the songs of her great-grandmother: “Songs so old / and so tied to the season that the very sound / seemed to turn the weather.” That sentiment explains the first poem of the collection, “The Old Country”: “I was nourished / by nostalgia for a place / I couldn’t remember.” Borowicz captures that intangible but rich feeling of inheriting a world and words that are beyond anything we can directly experience. It can infect us, as one narrator wonders: “Does it matter / that everything I’m living / is memory / that nothing happens / anymore / for the first time.” Rosetta is a beautiful book; there are gifts here, as in the way Borowicz offers gentle truths: “The original wind has not yet / stopped. Generations of hawks / have glided on the same gust / that pulls me now down / a busy street.” 

Music for the Dead and Resurrected by Valzhyna Mort 

“We walk into a book the way we walk into a garden,” Mort has said in an interview. “There are several paths we can follow on our walk, we can smell things before we even see them, we can hear things without ever seeing them, colors and textures complement each other.” Music for the Dead and Resurrected feels made for such meandering, from the figurative descriptions that capture the bending of time and the stretching of pain, to other lines that feel hypnotic, recursive, even jarring. “Not books, but / a street opened my mouth like a doctor’s spatula,” she writes in “Bus Stops: Ars Poetica.” The texture of her lines almost seem to tickle: “In the State Archives, covers / hardened like scabs / over the ledgers.” In “Genesis,” she admits: “I prefer apples that roll / far from the tree.” She concludes a later poem with a lament: “And instead of evening prayers / I plead / with myself / to just leave you / be, my dear, my // undear Lord.” Mort’s take on “Psalm 18” includes a question: “How could it be that I’m from this Earth, / yet trees are also from this Earth?” A dizzying imagination permeates this book, one that we can trace back to childhood, as in “An Attempt at Genealogy”: “Days of merciless snow in the kitchen window— / snow was deposited like fat under our skin. // How large we grew on those days! / So much time spent at the kitchen table / trying to decide where to put commas / in sentences about made-up lives.” Meanwhile, the real world is strange enough. “Of the empire’s fall / I heard on the radio / while waiting for a weather forecast,” she writes in “Self-Portrait with Madonna on Pravda Avenue.” “Chlorine, opium of the pupils, / granted us purity, absolution of sins / for our grandfathers / whose heroic deeds / festered under torn book covers.” A rich collection with language so sharp it unnerves. 

A Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry by Paul Celan (translated by Pierre Joris) 

“It was a landscape where both people and books lived,” Celan wrote of his homeland. As Joris notes, Celan was “reticent of speaking of private matters,” so the paucity compels us to return to the poems. The pieces in this collection were mostly written and published during the 1950s. “Your hair waves again when I weep,” he writes in “The Years from You to Me”: “With the blue of your eyes / you set the table of our love: a bed between summer and autumn.” “In Praise of Distance” concludes: “In the springs of your eyes / a hanged man strangles the rope.” Celan’s syntax intertwines the mysterious and macabre, revelatory in their juxtapositions. “Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends,” he writes in “Corona,” and I am carried, perhaps gently—in the way that only a master can carry—to the final lines: “It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom, / that unrest’s heart started to beat. / It’s time for it to be time. // It is time.” I’ve drifted to and from Celan over the years, and the return is always heartening, his melancholy a permeating force. “Mouth in the hidden mirror, / Knee before the column of pride, / Hand with the stanchion,” he begins “Into the Foghorn”: “hand yourself the darkness, / say my name, / lead me to him.” “I have never written a line that did not have something to do with my existence,” Celan wrote in 1962. “I am, as you can see, a realist in my own way.” I have always taken Celan at his word, perhaps paradoxically (is there any other way, truly, to read verse?): his spareness, his dreaminess, his anaphoric refrains. “Mute autumn odors. The / aster, unbent, passed / between homeland and abyss through / your memory. // A strange lostness was / palpably present, you could / almost have / lived.” The poetic skill of the soft line break, like an outstretched hand as the poet walks away.   

Ghosts Who Walk Among Us: The Millions Interviews Claire Cronin

“Horror fans are often asked to explain why to people who don’t like or understand the genre—to offer an apologia,” Claire Cronin writes in Blue Light of the Screen: On Horror, Ghosts, and God. “I’ve always felt haunted…There is something about watching ghosts on screens that satisfies this personal unprovable.”

Some books arrive at the
perfect time, but Cronin’s fascinating book feels absolutely made for this
especially disturbing Halloween. It speaks to the transcendence of her concerns:
she reveals how horror, ghosts, and God exist among each other.

Cronin’s vignette-style
structure arrives like whispers in the dark, or frenetic prayers. Her sense of curiosity
permeates the book. Fans of horror films and Catholics—devoted or drifted—will
love this unique book, but so will those who seek to understand fear.

Cronin is a writer and musician. Her latest album, Big Dread Moon, was described as “a full-length folk horror movie” by The Fader. She has written for Fairy Tale Review, Bennington Review, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She earned an MFA in poetry from the University of California, Irvine, and a PhD in English from the University of Georgia.

We spoke about writing that scares us, the power of ritual, and the ghosts who walk among us.

The Millions: Blue Light of the Screen is unique, expansive, and scary—and I don’t think it’s merely because I read it during the Halloween season. Your book mines the spiritual in a true sense: the world of spirits and the spirit. Were you ever scared while writing this book?

Claire Cronin: I did sometimes feel scared of what I was revealing about myself. The process of writing about my past called distant memories to surface, and some of those memories were scary—or sad.

While
working on the book over several years, I also became more attuned to uncanny experiences
and weird synchronicities. By the time I finished it, I found I was more of a
believer in the mysterious and supernatural than when I began, which was not
the outcome I expected.

I think my experience of the spiritual world has always been one of awe, fear, and dread: the “tremendum” in Rudolf Ottos’s definition of the numinous as “mysterium tremendum et fascinans.” It wasn’t ghosts and demons that most frightened me while writing; I was haunted by God.

TM: While reading your book, I recalled this observation by Father Andrew M. Greeley from The Catholic Imagination: “Catholics live in an enchanted world, a world of statues and holy water, stained glass and votive candles, saints and religious medals, rosary beads and holy pictures. But these Catholic paraphernalia are mere hints of a deeper and more pervasive religious sensibility.” Catholicism and God permeate this book—there’s even a Johannine (Gospel of John) cadence to some of your formulations about horror, like “We see it to believe it, and in believing, see.” What makes Catholics particularly receptive to horror and discussions of mortality?

CC: Well, the version of Catholicism I grew up with combined ordinary, post-Vatican II masses and catechism with my mom’s more magical beliefs and practices. From a very early age, this gave me the sense that our lives stood in a complicated relationship to the hereafter, and that we were sustained by our connections to invisible beings: God, Mary, the Holy Spirit, angels, and the dead, which meant both saints and dead people we knew personally. I learned that even if I couldn’t directly experience these beings, I should speak to them as if they were always present and listening. That whatever suffering I might face on earth was very small compared to the suffering of those who came before, and smaller still compared to the torments I might face in purgatory or hell. There’s a real horror to this idea, and it’s distinct from the secular, nihilistic horror of a vacuum. It’s a depth that’s filled with something—not a void.

And of course, the central rite of the Catholic mass is the sacrifice of Jesus’s body. This is very violent and mysterious. Catholics are taught to think of the eucharistic bread and wine as the literal flesh and blood of Christ. Through the power of the ritual, these substances are transformed. They are not symbols. When you’re actually in church, however, it’s hard to believe this because the eucharist still tastes and looks like bread…but there are stories of saints who were so holy that when they ate communion, they said it tasted like raw meat.

I
think this muddling of the symbolic and the actual is what set me up to be an
artist. I am, and always have been, fascinated by questions of what’s real and what’s
unreal, what’s manifest and what’s occult. I learned elaborate prayers to the
dead, saw images of wounded and transfigured bodies, heard gruesome stories of
the martyrs, and took seriously the threat of demonic evil. All these things were
present in my psyche before I recognized them in the horror genre.  

TM: “TV is a medium of ghosts,” you write. You title one section “Spirit Box,” and tell the eerie story of the 13th-century St. Clare of Assisi, the patron saint of television—who, unable to attend Mass in person, saw a vision of it projected on her wall in the convent. She is your namesake; what do you have in common with her? What does it mean to experience the world—material and spiritual—through a screen, a vision?

CC: I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to St. Clare. I’m not willing to give up everything I own, become an ascetic, and serve the poor with someone like St. Francis. My dad chose the name for me after his mother, but he’s also had a long career in the television industry, so it  fits in several ways. Or perhaps the name determined my fate, and I grew into it.

I think visions seen on TV, movie, or computer screens are very different from spiritual visions like St. Clare’s, but the problem of visions is something I spend the whole book worrying about. In one sense, a vision is by definition unreal—it’s a delusion, fantasy, or dream. But at the same time, a spiritual vision can reveal something more true and real than what’s normally perceptible.

I don’t know that people are capable of experiencing reality in some pure, unmediated, wholly physical way. We’re always drifting off into visions of the past and future. We become overwhelmed by memories and fantasies and moods, and we spend many hours watching images flicker across screens. Some of us, like St. Clare or William Blake or the poet H.D., have spiritual visions so powerful that ordinary reality fades in comparison.

There is something about watching a convincing horror film that is akin to having a terrible vision or a nightmare. But I think it would be an oversimplification to say that films are the same as dreams or delusions, or that witnessing an apparition of a ghost in a horror movie is the same as seeing a ghost appear at the foot of your own bed. The difference is the essence of the thing, which is the hardest part to define and yet the most important.

TM: I love to see Malachi Martin included in this book! Hostage to the Devil was a book I found in my house as a kid, and, fresh off repeated viewings of The Exorcist (and probably clutching a rosary), I pored through Martin’s disturbing tales. For the uninitiated: could you tell us a little about Father Martin? And how do you see possession relating to ghosts?

CC: Yes, thank you, Malachi Martin is fascinating! I still don’t know what to make of him. He was an Irish priest who left the Jesuits in the mid-1960s because of their alleged corruption, then he moved to New York, where he began a writing career and started practicing as an exorcist. He’s most known for Hostage to the Devil, which gives a terrifying and convincing account of several possessions. The book was a bestseller, but reviewers weren’t sure how seriously to take him, and he won as many followers as enemies.

I like Hostage to the Devil and find it scary, but I’m more convinced when I hear recordings of Martin speak. He gave a few long interviews on Coast to Coast, Art Bell’s long-running fringe paranormal talk show, and I found Martin to be so erudite and charming that I sincerely considered everything he said, though much of it is plainly impossible. The effect of that was chilling.

Within the world of horror, Martin was in the same circle as other paranormal investigators, like Ed and Lorraine Warren, and mentored a few contemporary demonologists who are still working in the field. The stories from these exorcists have been used as fodder for fictional horror films for decades.

As for the differences between demonic possession and ghostly hauntings, I think a person can be haunted, literally or figuratively, in such a strong way that it can seem as if they are possessed. What I mean is almost Freudian: that the ghost of a deceased parent or other ancestor can stay with a person and dwell within them, determining their interests, moods, and thoughts.

A
demonic possession is something totally other. It’s not a frustrated or unhappy
human spirit exerting its influence. It’s a nonhuman entity that has only
hatred for our species and wants to see us utterly destroyed. In horror films and
paranormal reality shows, these two kinds of spirits often coexist: a house or
a person may be tormented by both demons and ghosts. Very unlucky! But a demonic
possession is much worse; your soul is at risk. A demon works with a logic and
power we can’t understand and shouldn’t underestimate. No matter how frightening
a ghost may be, they are essentially the same as us.

In
my book, I think about haunting and possession as different metaphors for the
experience of depression and suicidal ideation. Both are states of being
overtaken by a negative force. My description of those states gets a little
more complicated and nuanced in the manuscript.

TM: Rilke, Plath, McLuhan, Merton, Deleuze, Sontag, Styron, Baudelaire, Kristeva, Freud, Lucretius, and Barthes all make appearances in this book—and that’s nowhere a complete list of thinkers and writers you reference. You include an especially great quote from Deleuze: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” I can’t help but receive this quote in the world of 2020—and connect it with your observation that horror, possibly more than any other genre, “gives its fans the gratifying daze of repetition.” Are we somnambulating through this moment? How do you view horror films during a time of visceral, worldwide horror?

CC: It’s a good question, and we’ll see what happens in the next few months—if things get better or worse as the year comes to an end. Since lockdown began for me in March, I’ve have had the strange sense that life has never been more virtual, more screen-mediated, yet the danger which keeps me trapped inside is physical. I have never felt more aware of my own bodily fragility and mortality, and never more afraid of the hatred, violence, and delusion in our country, which is making the pandemic so much worse.

No
matter how much time I spend “doom scrolling” on social media or reading the
news on my phone, I don’t feel numb. I don’t think we’re sleepwalking through
this, though time has taken on very strange proportions, and life has often
felt surreal. The distance between me and everything that’s awful (which is,
perhaps, the distance of a screen) doesn’t make the situation less emotionally
charged, it just makes me feel more powerless. But of course I’m grateful that
it’s not my body on the line right now, and that I have the tentative good
fortune of health and safety.

I think people are still watching a lot of horror in 2020. It can be a helpful genre in a terrible time because it works as a distraction (replacing a bad thing with something worse) and as a way to think through questions about evil, violence, and death at an entertaining distance. There are many subgenres of horror that speak directly to the issues we’re dealing with now, though as always, I get the most satisfaction out of ghost stories. I think a lot about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died this year, and I wonder what those ghosts might ask of us in the future. I suspect they’ll be returning, seeking justice.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersTerrify Yourself with These Ten Horror NovelsTen Haunting Ghost Stories for Halloween

A Liturgy of Language: On Don DeLillo’s ‘The Silence’

1. “Man has every right to be anxious about his fate so long as he feels himself to be lost and lonely in the midst of the mass of created things.” — Père Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe 

In the opening chapter of The Silence, the new novel by Don DeLillo, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are flying home. Turbulence will come soon; the plane will go down. But first there is a steadiness: “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating.” All of their speech echoes the novel’s opening line: “Words, sentences, numbers, distance to destination.” DeLillo’s liturgy has always been one of language.

2.“I think my work has always been informed by mystery; the final answer, if there is one at all, is outside the book. My books are open-ended. I would say that mystery in general rather than the occult is something that weaves in and out of my work. I can’t tell you where it came from or what it leads to. Possibly it is the natural product of a Catholic upbringing.” — DeLillo, Rolling Stone interview (1988)

The Catholic kid from the Bronx. The son of immigrants from Abruzzo. The student who maybe slept through his four years at Cardinal Hayes, but who then went to the Jesuits at Fordham, where they taught him “to be a failed ascetic.” 

One of my former editors at America magazine, the Jesuit review, told me that he and DeLillo shared a professor at Fordham, and he’d gotten a peek at DeLillo’s term papers. At Fordham, DeLillo would have read Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist whose theological views of evolution—past and future—later permeated DeLillo’s novels. Teilhard’s influence comes first with Gary Harkness, the running back turned desert monastic in End Zone. Harkness’s fever-stricken body seems to become fully spirit at the end of the novel, but the Jesuit’s presence arrives more explicitly in the Teilhardian titled Point Omega.

3.“I studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin…He went to China, an outlaw priest, China, Mongolia, digging for bones…He said that human thought is alive, it circulates. And the sphere of collective human thought, this is approaching the final term, the last flare.” 

***

“Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point. A leap out of our biology. Ask yourself this question. Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field.” 

— Point Omega

DeLillo has said that for a Catholic, “nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain. This removes a hesitation that a writer might otherwise feel when he’s approaching important subjects, eternal subjects. I think for a Catholic these things are part of ordinary life.”

The Silence, from start to finish, feels like an overcast book—a night book, taking place on that holy day of the Super Bowl. Friends—Martin, Diane, and Max—are watching the spectacle of the game, until the “images onscreen began to shake.” The disruption “formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede.” DeLillo avoids conflagrations; his end of the world is an absence of sound. A pulled plug. A flipped switch.

Why should we expect more from him? From the world?

4.“All pessimistic representations of the earth’s last days—whether in terms of cosmic catastrophe, biological disruptions or simply arrested growth or senility—have this in common: that they take the characteristics and conditions of our individual and elemental ends and extend them without correction to life as a whole.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo’s characters have lost their faith. They are anatheist—they seek faith after faith. “The important thing about the paranoia in my characters,” DeLillo has said, “is that it operates a form of religious awe. It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul.” 

The characters watching the Super Bowl together are left with nothing without the game. Max, bored, speaks in contemporary tongues: “Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.” The silence surrounds them outside. No cars, trucks, or traffic. The characters wonder: “Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones.” 

It recalls lines from Wyatt in DeLillo’s play, The Day Room: “I used to imagine, listening to a ballgame, as a kid, on the radio, that when I turned the radio off, in the seventh inning, say, with two out, men on first and third, that everything sort of shut down at that point. It simply stopped.”

When our power goes out at home, we soon wonder: are we the only ones? There must be others. There’s comfort in that idea. 

5.“The more one reflects on this eventuality….one comes to the conclusion that the great enigma presented to our minds by the phenomenon of man is not so much how life could ever have been kindled on earth as how it could ever be extinguished on earth without finding some continuance elsewhere.” — Père Teilhard, Hymn of the Universe 

The game off, the silence surrounding them in the apartment, Diane quotes a line from Finnegans Wake, “a book I’ve been reading on and off, here and there, for what seems like forever”: “Ere the sockson looked at the dure.” 

Outside, people “began to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.” 

The end will take us all by surprise, but that there will be an end is not surprising. DeLillo is the laureate of this unsettling truth.

6.“Man came silently into the world.” — Père Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man

DeLillo knows we will also leave the world in silence.

Bonus Links:—End Zones: On Football, Sports Scandals, and Don DeLilloThe Novel Still Exists: The Millions Interviews Don DeLilloFaith in Appearances: Don DeLillo’s ‘The Angel Esmeralda’Oil Plumes and White Noise: On Rereading DeLillo

Must-Read Poetry: October 2020

Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

The Historians by Eavan Boland 

Poetry “doesn’t make things happen. What poetry does, if anything, is show that something else happened at the same time.” Boland published her first book of poems, New Territory, in 1967, and her devotion to the art of poetry wasn’t without an awareness of the limits of art. She lamented that in Ireland, “we’ve always had this terrible gap between rhetoric and reality.” She wrote that the “position of women poets in this country is one thing. The shooting of a baby or a woman or a man on his own doorstep is quite another.” Boland’s realist sentiment imbues her poetry with a certain presence: her views feel well-earned. The Historians, her final book, is a necessary volume. The titular, sequential first poem ranges from the narrator’s mother, who “spoke about the influence / of metals, the congruence of atoms” to “old Ireland,” where she sees “candle smoke rising towards / the porcelain / yellow faces of the sanctified.” Later, she writes: “I was born in a place where rain / is second nature,” where “rain was a dialect I could listen to / on a winter night: its sibilance.” There are gently heartbreaking pieces here, such as “Be”: “All I know is / as the light went my / infant daughters / were asleep in it, / brightness arcing towards / a cambered distance.” Forgive me for reading a poet’s final book in the enveloping shadow of her passing, but there is an acute power here, as with poems that end with lines like this: “I should have taken more care.” Boland has left us with gifts: “I remember how I longed / to find the plenitude and accuracy needed / to bring words home, / to winter hills, fogged-away stars, / children’s faces fading into sleep. // Now I wonder / if it was enough.”

The Voice of Sheila Chandra by Kazim Ali

“Arriving in the night / All my forgotten prayers,” Ali writes in “Recite,” the first poem of the collection. “Not prayers really / Nothing to ask for.” After all, “God’s like a misfit / You don’t fit he don’t fit.” Ali’s masterful turns of phrase and feeling make this book feel both encompassing and particular.  The book is anchored by the long titular poem, generous in scope and sense . Born in London in 1965, Sheila Chandra was part of the Indian pop band Monsoon in the early ’80s before going solo. She stopped singing in 2009 because of a rare condition; it hurt gravely to sing or speak. “Laughing and crying also cause me pain,” she wrote in an interview. For Ali, Chandra is a guide and muse; he is entranced by her past voice, for  “Who can in syllables like / Sheila Chandra moan us.” She sings without words / Because a word is a form of rage at / Death.” Before her disease “she sang / In Uzbek contorted her tongue around / Words she never knew learned.” Ali is saddened by her lost voice, but his poem and book know the world moves in strange ways: “In a world governed by storm and noise why / Then should a singer not fall silent.” He lives among her absent song, reflecting back to the book’s originating poem: “Nor do I always turn to the tenor stricken / I have no fear of god but of being / This archangel unfolding to emerge / From god into form.” Such is life: “there is no beginning to any song only the place / the singer picks up the tune.”

Fractures by Carlos Andrés Gómez

“Sometimes I search for the exact day / I stopped dreaming in the language / that sings my name.” Gómez mines the tactile spaces between cultures and tongues, tinged with the melancholy concern of how it feels “to watch something slowly drift / away without knowing if it might / ever find its way back.” This concern of distance from origin—this unfolding of who we truly are—never ends: “Eleven years later, when you no longer eat pizza / or speak Spanish, when your father’s profile invades // your clenched jawling, you borrow his brisk gait, / his snort, his face. People say you look white. / Your father never does.” Fatherhood—as both father and son—permeates this collection. In “Revisionist,” the narrator’s precise amnesia results in forgotten names of his children, though “each time, / I am called by the wrong name, // I almost correct him, then wonder / the cost of each small revision and / how it might change that sprawling // unknown in the distance.” The narrator wonders if he “might someday need his tools / to right my own family again.” Fractures arrives with the tensions of such precipices.

Phone Bells Keep Ringing for Me by Choi Seungja (translated by Won-Chung Kim and Cathy Park Hong)

Seungja’s first published poem appeared in 1979, and eight volumes of her poetry have appeared since—most recently Written on the Water (2011) and Empty Like an Empty Boat (2016). Kim and Hong deftly deliver Seungja’s inventive lines, which command our attention from the first poem’s final stanza: “That I am alive / is no more than an endless / rumor.” Seungja’s imagery and metaphors sting. In “Do You Remember Cheongpa-dong,” she writes of another’s tender touch during winter, until their departure in spring. “Lilacs bloomed like ghosts / but you didn’t smile, even from that far place.” She is “stung in silence,” and makes a vow: “Even if I have to crawl like a worm with my stung body, / I want to go to you. / I want to steal into your warm light / and be stung for the last time / and die forever.” Her narrators are singular and assertive: “I’m nobody’s disciple, / nobody’s friend.” In “Sleep Comes Without Its Owner,” she warns: “Don’t hold onto me. / I’m not your mother, / not your child.” She will “go all alone / with my old body soaked in poetry and blood.” Seungja believes in poetry—it is not quite an optimistic belief, but it is an art of necessity: “poetry is charting a way,” and in doing so, “leaving a trace of the way.” She places parentheticals within her poems as more than asides—they are new routes of feeling, and they range from solemn reflections to flits of beauty: “(A child is eating / an apple outside the window. / I watch her / savoring / a world.).” Seungja offers those comforts, despite the overbearing feeling that life weighs so much: “That the sea I have to cross is getting bigger / worries me.” 

Field Music by Alexandria Hall

An engaging debut, steeped in place: “Nothing ever stays / where it ought: runoff dragged into the river / by summer rains from shit-covered fields— / my thickly perfumed Vermont.” In the book’s first poem, she describes how morning glories “creep up the shafts of the garden / vegetables, their seductive curls choking / out my small plot.” After all, sometimes “we can’t see / the dangers we feed, that we nurture.” In “Geosmin,” the narrator ponders: “Her shoulders were much smaller / than mine. I wasn’t sure // how to touch them. If a man / ever felt this way about my body, // how could he / go on touching me?” Touch pervades this book: “I might hold myself like that, // too tightly. I can feel the weight / of my hand resting on my leg / but not the pulp of my thigh // at my fingertip. There are, I’m told, / two sides to touch.” The contour of her syntax reflects this touch, even in the curve of her description: “Stray dogs dodging cars at the Oxxo. / Water level marked on the bluffs. The peonies / gutted and collapsed on the driveway in June. / I am undone, not by grief, but abundance.” Hall suggests that all we can do is reach for each other: “That night we lay strewn on the grass, / a product of restlessness, like garbage / combed through by skunks who, / though they’ve had their fill, / keep searching through the scraps / of plastic. I held my fingers out / to find yours.” 

Shifting the Silence by Etel Adnan

“When you have no way to go anywhere, what do you do? Of course, nothing.” Adnan’s prose-poetic rumination on death would strike a chord at any time, but it feels especially apt in this moment of protracted grief. Peppered with questions—“There are so many islands I dreamed of visiting, where have they gone?”—Adnan’s lamentations are recursive and soothing. To live is to die, and the poets can ease the passage. “My thoughts drip,” Adnan writes, “not unlike the faucet. They don’t let me know what they’re about.” She ponders how we “try to subvert the gods, buy their powers, corrupt their souls.” She wonders: “Can we keep that strange sense of sacredness that we knew, as if by inheritance, in our old days?” Her rhythms make all things new, big and small, including the unread books that line her shelves: “They’re so aloof, so silent. I spend hours next to them.” Among this accumulated sadness, there might be only one balm: “Our houses are cluttered, our minds too, so a fire as devastating as it can be, can well clear the air, enlarge the space, make room for some silence.” 

Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

Here are nine notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Horsepower by Joy Priest

One of the best debuts of the year. An early poem, “American Honey,” begins: “It’s easier than you thought—leaving.” Two moves here—the second-person framing and the em dash—give the line power and profluence. From the start of this book, Priest is a captivating guide. “Your long-built dread / dispersing like gas into a brilliantly Black / Appalachian sky” portends a recurrent theme of narrator-as-phantom, of transfigured characters. Her storytelling sense is formidable: “Now you can be a girl / on the back patio with three white men & you can leave / with their money, egg suede cowboy hat adorning your dreads.” Pitch-perfect lines abound, as in “Blue Heart Baby”: “Every piece / of advice is one the giver followed to his own // bitterness.” Priest is so adept at sketching place; elsewhere she writes “The darkness / up to our chins. The sky // a bowl of blinking lights above us.” Priest shows that mimesis is about feeling more than realism—the world wobbles while it spins, and her lines have a preternatural ability to reflect this. From “Self-Portrait as Disney Princess”: “Your only friends the carpenter bees who bear perfectly round holes / In the carport’s rotting wood frame & dance in socked feet // Glittering with pollen, the hummingbirds hovering at your head / Like a crown.” She’s equally adept at sketching scenes. In one poem, the narrator is sitting in “my mother’s white Plymouth” below the “Hollywood Video’s fanatic purple lights— // Their appliance buzz.” Her mother, inside the story, has been “stunned-still at the sight of my father, // Possibly a mirage.” The narrator’s father is an arresting character in Horsepower. “He sees the world in us. / Knows the huge, abstract names // for emotions, when it comes to plants, / but not his own self.” He’s a phantom in his own way, and when we read lines from the final poem—“I’m leaving / & being left. Looking for you / In all your haunts”—their worlds unite.

Be Holding by Ross Gay

The lyrical elements of basketball—hardwood and asphalt, hustle and strain—couldn’t find a better laureate than Gay. Sports, in the end, are about controlling our bodies, bending them toward our wills (especially basketball, in the constrained space). Be Holding is a book-length paean to Dr. J., among other wonders. Gay’s collection includes a hilarious early footnote for the uninitiated to Julius Erving (“You could just look on any of the video algorithim machines…or, better yet, you could just ask an elder.”). Gay invites us into his process, as the clip of Dr. J’s baseline levitation in the 1980 NBA Finals becomes a source of meditation, a recursive fount of energy. He ponders the typical admonition of frustrated coaches: “keep your feet! / again and again, // which makes the leaping—leaving your feet— / sound sacrificial.” Like the doctor himself, Gay’s ability to linger in a moment captures the richness of basketball-as-story: “—have you ever decided anything / in the air?—” The classic video clip brings Gay to other places, times, and subjects, including his youth. “I, too, am a docent / in the museum of black pain,” he writes. “my own white mother // how many times told / by white people // that brown child is not yours, / that curly-headed sun-loved thing // you nurse and whose ass / you wiped the shit from // and whose very body you bore / of your florid gore.” Gay delivers beautiful lines throughout: “my body is made of my father,” he notes: “I sometimes will study // my own hands, / which are his hands, // recalling the way he held / my brother’s and my heads // through the crosswalk.” A unique work of form and substance.

Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty

Gifted in the art of the long poem, Chakraborty, also includes dialogic poems, epigrammatic pieces, and verse essays (with appearances by Foucault, Spinoza, and Dürer)—all pieces touched with the elegiac. In an early segmented prose poem, she offers an apostrophe to the reader: “I am also writing his poem as a fable because at times I have been afraid to speak of myself, and lately it has become important to me to learn how to respect that my earliest affections for abstraction were by way of disguise.” Now, she writes, “I tend to think of obstruction and clarity alike as acts of definition.” A centerpiece of the collection is her masterful long poem “Dear, Beloved”: “Sister, I know neither goodness nor mercy shall follow me / all the days of my life, as surely as I know the beasts / I inherit or create, of all unions familial or otherwise, / are speechless and brute, and bound to die soon.” Some lines that stopped me: “The secret / about lullabies: when they work, it’s because they sound / like something plants would sing in Hades, on the banks / of the river dark.” In the book’s final poem, Chakraborty writes “There is a space in my body that did / not exist when I began this book. It / is a window. When I next speak, I / will do so through that window”—and it feels absolutely true.

Blizzard by Henri Cole 

A bee swarms out of a black-red peony, and “I am waving / my arms to make you go away. No one / is truly the owner of his own instincts, / but controlling them—this is civilization.” While peeling potatoes, “I put my head down,” and “I feel a connection across / time to others putting their heads down / in fatigued thought.” Black mushrooms are found, and “Sometimes, / when I’m suffocating from an atmosphere of restraint / within myself, I fry them up in butter, with pepper and salt, / and forget where the hurt came from.” The early poems in Blizzard immediately establish a hypnotic refrain of syntax and focus—no easy feat for a poet to wrest us from the world that quickly, and let us live elsewhere awhile. From “To a Snail”: “It’s a long game— / the whole undignified, insane attempt at living— / so I’ve relocated you to the woods.” His typically concise form never feels inert or bloodless: there’s a sense of poetic calmness or transcendence to his method of staying in a moment and watching, contemplating, speaking. His lines arrive within the tunnel of each poem, but feel like little gifts to carry elsewhere: “Time is short. / If tenderness approaches, run to it.” The book’s second section pivots to an earthly, funereal concern about decaying bodies and anxiety. A gray and white dove that slammed dead into a picture window: “We buried it—in some distorted version of its normal self— / folded in a white cloth napkin in the backyard. / Still soft enough to be cut into like a cabbage, I thought, / I’m glad I’m not dead.” “Agnostic and uninsured,” a later narrator laments, “I eat celery, onions, / and garlic—my Holy Trinity of survival.” These lamentations take a different, more sensuous turn in the third section: “Sometimes, a friend cooks dinner; our lives commingle. / In loneliness, I fear me, but in society I’m like a soldier / kneeling on soft mats.”

Owed by Joshua Bennett

“You contain / multitudes & are yet / contained everywhere you go.” From “Token Sings the Blues”—the first poem in Bennett’s skilled collection—on forward, Owed is a song of identity. An affirmation of how the narrator’s sister says “You. are everything” and the honest melancholy that “on your best / days above ground you / believe her.” In “Barber Song,” Bennett sings of “Postmodern blackness black / -smith,” how someone can make “a cut so close you could see / the shimmer of a man’s thinking.” How the barber is a “biweekly / psychoanalyst, first stop / before funeral, before / wedding & block party.” Yet there’s also a finely tuned sense of entropy in this book: “I’m pretty good / at not loving / anything enough / to fear its ruin. / The cruel speed / of our guaranteed / obsolescence suits / me.” One way against the storm, one measure of survival, is “how I lend my hands / to lyric’s labor, as if forsythia / or chrysanthemum could bloom from black / ideas dancing across a screen.” Bennett manages to do so with pieces that are nearly hymnal, as with “Mike Brown is a Type of Christ”: “By which I mean, mostly, that we gaze upon the boy / & all of our fallen return to us, their wounds unhealed / & howling.” And in one of the sections of the “Reparations” sequence: “But what modern-day / black son wasn’t born / knowing how to pray?” Bennett ends with a poem that follows Langston Hughes, and is much about America as it is about being a father and son, and about dogged hope for “some vast and future country / some nation within a nation.”

The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson

An ambitious new book, as Chiasson plays and prods with time, source, structure, and the spectacle of creation. The book’s first poem, a consideration of a 2017 mural by the artist David Teng Olsen, begins the fracturing—“Through his eyes I see in the dark. / I see through change the static”—which ends with the narrator’s son questing Chiasson’s cover of Bicentennial. Fathers and sons become an emblem for this book, which begins with a poem in four phrases—a porous narrative of fragments, dreams, and daydreams. There’s a self bursting against the world here (Chiasson has said in an interview: “I’m fascinated by the inner life as a social fact, a competing fact, as real as the weather or the news.”). T.S. Eliot haunts these poems well (“I owned ‘East Coker’ on cassette. / We’re close to Middlebury now, I pause / and ask my girlfriend how she likes / the line, In my beginning is my end.” “Over and Over,” the final section of the initial poem, invites the reader to “turn over / her hands to expose her palms,” and to later step away from the page and screen and “ponder who imagined whom.” The titular poem bleeds across adolescent wonders. While the Circus Camp “patches its tents” and at the Farm Camp, “a goat behind a wire fence / prepares to be clumsily milked,” the “Hard problems at the Math Camp wait / all winter for solutions; / engorged sums hibernate / and dream of consolation.” The ultimate equation is youth: “the absolute value of fifteen / or how the summer might expand / and prove eternal by division / of days into hours, minutes, seconds.”

Wonder & Wrath by A.M. Juster 

“Wood sways and mutters; palsied shutters bang. / The call has come.” “November Requiem” rests nearly in the middle of Wonder & Wrath, the poet and translator Juster’s latest, but radiates throughout the book. Juster is a poet of control—carefully pared lines whose concision creates profluent energy, as in the start of “Behold”: “Let the state highway cleave cold, stubbled fields / so that both empty lanes extend like grace.” That feeling carries the end of “Epilogue”: “There are no robins hymning / or gawkers at this scene— / only a lowered sun, / raw cries of crows, and dimming.” A particular standout here is “Inertia”: “High glinting leaves, / glazed by the post-storm light, / are hushing dark / in reassuring waves.” The calming of gl and s sounds lull the reader into an elegiac state, followed by “Our lichen-clad / old maple lost three limbs / to rain that felt / like reprimands from God.” In Juster’s work, the divine is present (and omnipresent), as well as the sense that our existence is part of a sometimes confounding by always certain scheme. “The world turns liquid,” he begins “Vertigo,” as it “reels and rolls, / as gravity // veers at angles.” His insights are often welcome, as in “Fruit Flies,” which opens with a useful reminder: “They are the best, as pest invasions go: / no bites and no disease, just clouds of small / tan smudges spawned in week-old grapes.” Although they “flit and frustrate,” and “outsmart you with their tiny brains,” just pour “some white wine into a dish, and wait.” They cannot resist. “They soak in joy, relax, then drink no more / It’s no surprise—you’ve seen it all before.” 

Runaway by Jorie Graham 

“My Skin Is”—as Graham’s title begins one poem—”brought to you by Revlon, melancholy, mother’s mother, the pain of others.” There’s a sense of breathless exposure to many of these poems, the long lines reaching across stanzas, their tendons the regular em dashes that serve as both pivots and locks. Graham suggests that something new is among us: “Things flinch / but it is my seeing / makes them / flinch. Before, they are / transparent.” One of the finest pieces here is “The Hiddenness of the World”: “The lovers disappear into the woods again.” War, blizzard, life accumulates: “But the lovers are in the woods again, the signifier is in / the woods, the revolution of the ploughshare in, clod-crumble in, cloud- / tumble, hope and its stumble in.” It’s within association that the poetic form carries its most force, how lines can carry subjects amongst other subjects (and amongst ourselves), so that the narrator must wonder: “Do I have to end // in order to begin, I ask the light that lingers on the trees—between the / trees—the lovers have disappeared again.” The book’s final work, “Poem,” offers a way forward: “The earth said / remember me. The earth said / don’t let go, // said it one day / when I was / accidentally / listening.”

Red Stilts by Ted Kooser 

I’ve come to believe that a Kooser collection is best thought of as a gift: he never ceases to offer a gentle correction to blurred visions of the world. A Kooser poem often arrives in a flash, and then enters the air: as with “Ohio Blue Tip,” which is a single sentence of a man lighting his pipe “with a stick match pinched from the trough / of the matchbox holder nailed by the door,” and the play of the flame before “the thin curl / of smoke as it lifted away from the tip / and then vanished, and it seemed he could / read something special in that, but he / never would say what it was.” In dredging memory from the past, Kooser offers a way for us to do the same—I think of the opening lines of “Helping”: “Our basement floor sloped to the linty lid / of a drain, with a muddy-smelling darkness / through the holes.” The simple (yet skilled) gesture of layering detail without oversaturation, the prayer-like return to the past. Another single-sentence gem, “Tarnish,” begins so appropriately with the word “unrolled”—as in the revelation of the past in the form of family silverware, “gone ghostly / with inky fingerprints of tarnish,” found in an attic chest. How those fingerprints “have been feeling / their way forward through time / in the manner that flat black paint / on the back of a mirror picks its way / through to the front.” Consider the gentle “Tree Frog”: “Late evening, a velvety black / beyond the high windows, and on one / a tiny tree frog with its legs spread / presses its soft, white belly to the glass. / This night it gets to be the evening star.” Few poets can continue to reveal the world book after book like Kooser. A beautiful collection.

Normal Was a Myth: On ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

1.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found my family’s VHS copy of The Shining in the basement, and pushed play. The turquoise-colored opening credits rolled up the screen in silence. I knew there was supposed to be sound—I’d watched parts of the movie before on TV—but in this old recording, the yellow Volkswagen Beetle drove along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park with only the cassette’s soft fuzz as soundtrack. 

Then, a minute or so into the film, sound pierced the tape—just as the camera shifted from behind the car and drifted left off the mountain road’s shoulder, over a tree-lined cliff that overlooks St. Mary Lake. It had been so quiet in the basement that it was like I’d discovered noise again. 

Years later, I can still hear that moment of sound’s sudden return; it has infected me. I felt it when my soccer coach sped our team’s van along Pike’s Peak Highway, and I imagined us careening into the air. I feel it whenever I drive up a long hill—the worry that my car’s tires will lift off the ground and I will drift away. In those moments, anxiety has little concern for logic.

It feels a lot like disorientation—a total loss of control.

2.The Shining always leaves me tired. It might be that its hallways and rooms invite our eyes to ride the perspective, to become one with the film. The claim of Kubrick aficionados that the Overlook Hotel’s layout is spatially impossible—fully interior rooms with exterior windows, like the manager’s office—helps explain its overwhelming sense of disorientation.

I felt much the same way for most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new Netflix film by Charlie Kaufman—especially the overlong scenes in the car. A “young woman” (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to visit his parents; it will be her first time meeting them, and she’s skeptical there will be a second time. Irish actress Buckley is known to American audiences for her appearance in the Chernobyl series, but the best precedent for this new story is her wild performance in the 2017 film Beast—Buckley shows that she’s the perfect choice to portray a character who has lost her sense of reality.

The young woman thinks that Jake is nice enough, but she’s bored with the relationship. We hear her thoughts—and sometimes Jake seems to also hear them—but we never learn her name. Sometimes their sentences tangle and overlap, and we start to suspect that it’s more than mere coincidence. 

Time is malleable in the film, but even within Kaufman’s blurred reality, the road scene pushes the viewer to a point of frustration. I admire when filmmakers linger long enough to court annoyance, and in Kaufman’s case, it is for good reason. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and rejections of linear narrative. One of the most linear movie tropes of all—a couple moving straight down a long road—is the perfect entrypoint toward this subversion.

When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s childhood home, his mother (Toni Collette) is frantically waving at them from the window—but when they enter the house, she takes a long time to come downstairs. She and Jake’s father (David Thewlis) are hilarious and unhinged; Jake is embarrassed, and his girlfriend is confused. Things are just normal enough—the silly stories of Jake’s youth, the doting mother, the aloof father—but Kaufman turns them toward darkness. The surreal within the painfully domestic creates an eerie sense of distortion and disorientation. 

I watched Kaufman’s film after midnight in August—prime setting to settle into a strange story. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought the most powerful and relevant horror would be zombie films: lumbering, virulent husks of our past selves. But I think we’re past the point of initial shock of the health crisis, and at the curious moment where the most appropriate horror might be one of disorientation. Put simply, maybe things will never get back to normal because normal was a myth.

After the couple leaves the house, there’s another road trip scene—and somehow it feels even longer than the first. The second half of the film descends into the fully surreal while also settling into horror—one especially creepy scene happens at a late-night visit to a roadside ice cream parlor—before becoming fantastical (think somewhere between Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros). The ending won’t quite work for everyone, but that’s probably the point. Kaufman finished this film well before the pandemic, but sometimes coincidence becomes context. I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have arrived at a better time—either we try to fit together the film’s dizzying puzzle, or we accept that its fractures feel especially true.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersMy Chernobyl

Searching for Home: The Millions Interviews Aimee Nezhukumatathil

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, the debut book of essays from poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, made me nostalgic for my childhood—spent poring over encyclopedias and marveling at the entries on animals. 

In fact, I wish Nezhukumatathil would have written those entries—her unique mixture of humor, contemplation, memoir, insight, and paradox reveals the complexities of our natural world. Complemented by beautiful illustrations from Fumi Mini Nakamura, World of Wonders is appropriate to its title. 

Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four collections of poems. Her most recent book, Oceanic, won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Poetry, ESPN, and Tin House. A 2020 Guggenheim Fellow in poetry, she is a professor of English in the University of Mississippi’s MFA program. 

We spoke about how her parents inspired her love of nature, the difference between writing poetry and essays, and who gets to tell their stories of the outdoors.

The Millions: Your books of poetry, especially your latest, Oceanic, reveal a world of wonder through verse. How does prose—in the form of essays—affect how you think and write about the natural world?

Aimee Nezhukumatathil: For me having the space in an essay allows me to unfurl and roll out an image creating whole scenes and while I still use elements of poetry, (metaphor, music, alliteration, etc.), writing an essay allows me to linger instead of rushing down the page.

TM: “A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun. Don’t get too dark, too dark, our mother would remind us as we ambled out into the relentless midwestern light.” These are the first two sentences of the book, and I love the poetic paradox of the second line. This reference puts your mother at the literal front of your narrative, and she appears throughout the book, as do other family members. How do you envision your perception of your mother as it relates to the way you see and appreciate nature?

AN: I love that question, but I’m much more interested in seeing how readers see both of my parents, Asian immigrants helping their bookish eldest daughter navigate white spaces both in and out of doors. But I will say that my mother and my father were my first environmental teachers, and silently watching them hold their heads up high while they experienced racism throughout my childhood and yet still maintained their sense of wonder absolutely informs how I shaped this book.

TM: In one section of the book, you describe that most of a beetle’s life is in the shadows: “When we see these beacons flashing their lights, they usually have one or two weeks left to live.” You then write: “Learning this as a child—I could often be found walking slowly around untrimmed lawns, stalling and not quite ready to go inside for dinner—made me melancholy, even in the face of their brilliance.” You have a talent for creating such a mood in your writing: for lack of a better word, I would almost call it a “comfortable” sense of melancholy, a type of resigned peace. What about the natural, wild world elicits that feeling for you? 

AN: Thank you so very much! The easy answer is that being outside was always a place of comfort and magic for me. Fireflies never asked me “what are you?” But I also realize with great sadness that feeling of comfort does not exist for everyone, especially many of my friends of color. There is so much that I don’t know about the natural world but I view that curiosity as a good thing, a place where I feel alive and my pulse quickens because I genuinely want to know the hows and the whys of creatures and plants with whom I share this planet.

TM: Early in the book, you write about the fragile comb jelly, whose “hundreds of thousands of cilia flash mini-rainbows even in the darkest polar and tropical ocean zones,” but which must be handled with the tenderest care (“If you want to observe one up close, scoop it into a clear cup and take a look-see that way.”) That image stayed with me when I read your description of suburban Phoenix in the 1980s: “an abandoned white roller skate, its neon-pink bootlace frayed,” in the parking lot of Fry’s Food and Drug. How you “wore keys tied to yarn around our necks or fastened with a giant safety pin in our pockets like our moms showed us,” since “those were the days our teachers told us of kids who never came home from school.” You mention wanting a “sentinel” of your own, something “to watch out for us.” There feels like a tension between the wild (or perceived wild) world and the constructed safety of the domestic. Where does nature fit within this tension? 

AN: That’s a marvelous question. So much nature writing I grew up with only focused on the wild or places where humans did not primarily live. And these narratives were beautiful and haunting but I had hoped to find someone who could experience awe and wonder from the suburbs or rural small-town America, where a person with brown skin learned to navigate the outdoors and the “constructed safety of the domestic.” You can imagine the pickings were slim to none. I guess I just internalized that for so long, and that, coupled with me not being a scientist but instead a writing professor, meant that my narratives would be inauthentic somehow. But over the years I’ve been happily proven wrong as readers from all over the world have assured me. I’m just hoping to open up more of a conversation about whose outdoor experiences get told and taught and why.

TM: “I’ve felt the sting of moving from home to home.” There’s an itinerant theme to this book; in a way, it feels connected to the cartographic sense of your poetry, with you as explorer (of memories, of narratives). Often in the book you metaphorically connect yourself with animals. Could you talk about these themes of migration and perhaps even metamorphosis? Did the writing of this book—the arranging and retelling of these experiences—move or change you? 

AN: The central question of searching for home is one I’ve been trying to answer my whole writing life, and I imagine I’ll spend the rest of my life answering in some way or another. I have different answers for that now in 2020, married and with two tween boys than what I had when I was a newlywed, or when I was fresh out of grad school, or when I was 10 and looking at the nature books I checked out from our school library and wondering why I never saw an Asian American in them. I wrote a good portion of the book after the 2016 election and I’m not going to lie, there were many difficult days in writing about wonder and belonging, when most of the current leadership’s platform was built on fear, xenophobia, and a distrust for knowledge/science. But on my darkest days of writing, when I thought of my loved ones—it was easy to insist on and remember how good it feels to express astonishment and to be curious about others. I try to not be prescriptive in this book, because really, who am I to tell other people how they should live—but my hope is that readers are guided towards a possibility of tenderness and wonderment towards other living things.

Bonus Link: —A Year in Reading: Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Rethinking Suburbia: The Millions Interviews Jason Diamond

In fiction, film, and real life, it has become comforting and convenient for us to stereotype the suburbs. Suburbia, so it goes, is a façade; a place where secrets lurk like grubs beneath well-manicured lawns. Jason Diamond’s excellent new book The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs reveals the truth is far more complicated.

Diamond’s omnivorous and expansive sense allows him to weave history, popular culture, literature, film, and his own experiences into a revelatory take on suburban life. “The suburbs aren’t one thing or another,” Diamond writes. “[W]e try to pigeonhole suburbia, act like it’s a great big boring monolith of conformity and tract housing, but there’s so much more to it than that, and we need to understand it better.”

The Sprawl enables such new understanding. Diamond’s first book was Searching for John Hughes. The features editor for InsideHook, he has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Paris Review, New Republic, Pitchfork, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Eater, and elsewhere. 

We spoke about the bucolic melancholy of the suburbs, the perfect movie to capture the feeling of suburbia, and how suburban life is used for political rhetoric.

The Millions: Your preface begins with an affirmation—“I’m suburban. I’m of the suburbs”—and a confession that it took you a long time to admit your appreciation for the small touches of suburbia: freshly cut grass, shopping malls, and “grilling meat on a Weber grill I spent an hour trying to light.” What causes people to hesitate voicing—or even accepting—their affinity for the suburbs?

Jason Diamond: I can only speculate as to people’s reasons, but I’d wager it’s why some people tell you they’re from New York when they’re from Long Island, or they’re from Los Angeles, but don’t specify which part. We don’t have a lot of overt pride in suburban places. The suburbs are just there, defined by what they’re not. Many of these places aren’t built to stand out—they’re just places to live and, for some, to leave. One of the things that I felt more clearly as I did my research is what links one suburb to the next is the feeling of an absent builder. Someone made this place, sold the homes, and moved on. They aren’t structured to cultivate community. Lawns are a far way off from shared green spaces. For people that grew up in cities or in rural areas where community is important, I’m sure that seems really off. For people who grew up in suburbs, that lack of community becomes that feeling of being disconnected, bored, and that there’s nothing to do in your hometown except maybe hang out in the Chili’s parking lot. People aren’t really happy with this explanation. But our individual experience of alienation in suburbia informs our entire idea of what “the suburbs” are, and I don’t think people like me, who left the suburbs, want to revisit that feeling. Which, again, fair. But not every suburban place is the same. 

TM: You note how the suburbs “have taken on the status of cultural oddity,” and include some salient examples: The Twilight Zone, the fiction of Shirley Jackson and John Cheever, Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, all works that I teach as examples of suburban literature—to a classroom full of suburban teenagers. I’m especially interested in Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” an iconic tale from 1964 that remains so accurate to a certain sliver of suburban life. You write that his mixture of realism and surrealist scenes show “that no matter what we do, no matter how much we make, how happy we pretend to be, or how far we’re willing to journey, our demons catch up to us.” Why are these ideas especially relevant to the world of the suburbs?

JD: I think Cheever really did a fantastic job of summing up what is dark and odd and messed up about the suburbs, and I think the suburbs do a fantastic job of summing up what is wrong with America in many ways, which is why artists keep going back to these places for inspiration. America has lied to itself for its entire existence. It is a place that has tried to run from its demons, all of the terrible, horrific things it’s done, and hopes that it will all just go away. For too long, America pretended that centuries of racism and violence was in the past, and nothing more. But I believe that the suburbs have really come to symbolize the pathology of “American exceptionalism,” that things aren’t as great as we want to make it out to be, and we don’t want to look under the carpet, so to speak. We don’t want to face these things. Suburbia is a really obvious metaphor. We just hope we’ll be protected by the walls we put up around us. I can read “The Swimmer” today and, sure, it’s still at its heart about a sad, middle-aged man who has lost it all, who cheated on his wife, whose kids probably hate him, and whatever other sins Neddy finally has to face at the haunting end of the story—but I can also look at it as a metaphor for America. That we go through this journey, blind to everything that’s going on around us, and then suddenly we come to a spot where we can’t keep moving. We reach the end and what do we get? A big empty house we’re locked out of. America, especially these days, often feels like it’s at the end of something, just standing outside of some big, empty house that we can’t get into. We tried to hide from all of our past transgressions, and now we’re Neddy Merrill. 

The good news is that I think things can change. At least, I hope they will. 

TM: Your description of a scene from Back to the Future when Marty McFly is at home in Lyon Estates is spot-on: “It’s lonely; something you realize after you’ve watched enough movies and TV shows about the suburbs is that they’re often shot that way.” You share a number of films that dramatize suburbia in all of its permutations. I know it’s a difficult task, but if you had to choose one as The Movie of the Suburbs, what would it be, and why? 

JD: That’s a tough one. Part of me would say Blue Velvet, because it’s a masterpiece, but it also starts out looking at what I talked about in my last answer: what’s underneath. That part where we see all these symbols of a certain type of suburban ideal, then it descends, literally, to the ground beneath the trimmed grass. But I’m actually going to go with the film Over the Edge. It’s obviously dramatized in that really gritty, almost silly late-1970s, early-’80s way, but it also really captures perfectly how alienating and mind-numbing places can be, and how often we really do just build places because we claim the space and then throw them away. 

TM: In the chapter titled “Monsters, Mad Men, and the Mundane,” you write “The truth is that, often, people from the suburbs create the things they’re most afraid of from their anxiety and angst.” You describe the wild Satanic Panic of the ’80s, which often spiked in suburban areas, and I can’t help but think of our shared appreciation for Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I watched while in the suburbs, and which often depicted strange things happening in those suburbs. How does the suburb, a place with “a structured and structuring way of being,” affect our sense of imagination?

JD: Growing up in the suburbs, to me, felt like a challenge to either be one way or another. To accept the way things seemed or to investigate, to push further, to engage a natural curiosity. A lot of suburban places offer wide open spaces, but these places also get filled up with a lot of unnecessary, unnatural filler: parking lots, box stores, office space they’re never going to fill up. I was really fascinated by what Rem Koolhaas calls “Junkspace.” He points out “the sum total of our current achievement; we have built more than all previous generations together, but somehow we do not register on the same scales,” and I think that could be applied to so much of what we see in suburbia. And when I talk to people in the suburbs, and from the suburbs, they generally just have overwhelmingly negative things to say. How could we have created so much shit, and have all of it be so empty? The best answer, then, would have to be that actually there was another reality behind the one that we were seeing. It feels like, if you were like me growing up in the suburbs, the only plausible explanation was for there to be some ghost world beneath the one we were seeing. It couldn’t possibly just be subdivisions all the way down. I don’t think people from the suburbs are any more or less creative than people from anywhere else, but I definitely felt like I had a heightened sense of otherworldliness because this world was just so stupid. You have to make things up and that’s how you get by. Imagination in the suburbs isn’t a survival instinct, but it’s close. 

TM: “It’s important that the suburbs, which have long been connected to whiteness and to keeping certain people out, are shown as places where anybody can and does live.” I read that great line of yours the same day that Donald Trump tweeted an article from The New York Post, writing “The Suburban Housewives of America must read this article. Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream. I will preserve it, and make it even better!” How—and why—are the suburbs such fodder for politics and polemics?

JD: Beyond their outsized symbolic power—truly just titanic rhetorical asteroids—there are good reasons for why the suburbs have these stereotypes attached to them. The suburbs were largely white for most of their history. There is no denying that they were white on purpose. From handshake deals to redlining that kept people of color, immigrants, and Jews from owning a slice of the “American Dream,” there are structural ways the suburbs have been entwined with whiteness. So they mean whiteness to him, because he’s a literal thinker. And because he doesn’t know or doesn’t care that the suburbs have demographically changed, you could see why he thinks there is a certain kind of voter in the suburbs who will be attracted to fear-mongering like this. But the suburbs just aren’t demographically as white anymore. The suburbs have changed racially and economically. These places aren’t perfect, but they have changed, and I think that’s good for the country. 

As to why politicians love the suburbs, I think it is a holdover from a different time when you could more easily stereotype suburban voters. They’re “soccer moms” or “commuters” who work in the city, but like in Westchester or something out of Mad Men. And while there are definitely still parents who drive their kids to soccer practice in an SUV, I think politicians and pundits really believe it is that simple: That people are simple, that the suburbs are simple. And maybe it was simple 30 years ago when you knew you were aiming for the hearts and minds of mostly white, middle-class types, that you could put a pin down on a map in any suburb and know what kind of person lived there. But I don’t think it’s that way anymore. I think people in the suburbs are far more complex and diverse, and some politicians get it and others don’t.

Bonus Links:—Returning to My People: Reading Tayeb Salih in the SuburbsZone of Strangeness: On John Cheever’s Subjective SuburbsSomething Sinister on the North ShoreA Year in Reading: Jason Diamond