No Exit and Three Other Plays

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Must-Read Poetry: February 2018

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing in February.

Giant by Richard Georges
Giant begins with how the “gods of our fathers rose” from the “unlighted deep.” The ocean “splashed about their groaning limbs, / foaming and licking their creaking bodies / stippled with black barnacle.” The long titular poem that opens the collection unfolds into a stanza of direct address: “Recite the prayers your mother taught you, / measure the depth of your days in sunsets, / count your crosses, the number of your years.” Georges commands a voice both calming and cleansing. Giant is a book of myths and minutiae. In poems like “Brandywine/Tortola,” narrators long for the old music of youth. The past often opens through the night, when “the ghosts / howl the unreasonableness of love // to those, like me, who listen for voices / on the wind.” These narrators wish “to believe again in gods, // and bodies as real as this green earth is.” Night, wind, prayer, and water become his refrain, coupled with a stubborn belief in words: “This is a night full of voices: / the infant wailing at the baptismal font, / the weeping around a silent casket. / The whole damn world is alight / and hungry and nothing is ever enough— / but there is poetry, which will suffice.”

Virgin by Analicia Sotelo
Sotelo’s poetry reveals the weight of desire, how our hearts drag our bodies. After a narrator heads home from a bar, alone, she’s “discovered / humiliation is physically painful: / the crown-like stigmata of a peach / that’s been twisted, pulled open, / left there.” A later narrator contemplates the “darkness of marriage, // the burial of my preferences / before they can even be born.” In “Trauma with White Agnostic Male,” she writes “This is blood / for blood, a prodigal heartbreak // I must return” (in Sotelo’s poems, past is always present). “I’m Trying to Write a Poem about a Virgin and It’s Awful” is hilarious—“She was very unhappy and vaguely religious so I put her / at the edge of the lake where the ducks were waddling / along like Victorian children, living out their lives in / blithe, downy softness”—and builds toward an emotional end. Imbued with Catholic cultural touches (“I was a clever rosary”), Sotelo mines the Marian paradox with complexity, grace, and power. And this is a book about Texas, where “there’s no winter,” but “the light changes, grows sharper, // keener, and when I was a girl, / it was breath to me, // walking up the hillside to school, / the wind touching my throat.” Her narrators want more out of life, but they clench what they have—and draw us back to her pages. A significant debut.

The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone
“No one here is glad anyone is dead. But / there is a certain comfort in knowing / the dead can entertain us, if we wish.” A little bit Inferno, but maybe even more so the deliciously devilish No Exit, Stone’s book is a strange, entertaining journey into an underground world where poor souls are “clinging to our tragedies, finding our favorite face.” Stone offers her reader a topography of a purgatory, a place where you “leave your inhibitions at the door,” and there’s “Grandma, half-blind, naked but for an open / XL flannel and Birkenstocks.” After their shift, dancers give tips to the House Mom, and then they go upstairs to their rooms, where grief “read itself aloud / in gilt fragments and tapestries fallen apart.” For all the spectacle of this netherworld, this grief returns in waves: “I can’t tell anymore whether I am grieving you particularly / or I simply find life and death erroneous.” You’ve never quite seen a poetic party like this: “Death’s last-minute cosmetic surgery, the skin taut / from gravity, confined in beauty for one last hurrah.” Yet at some point in Stone’s vision, the nightmare recedes, and we settle into her narrator’s mind—one pained by the cycles of generational loss, longing for her mother. When Stone finally returns us to that club in the book’s final pages, it is as if we might never leave there ourselves.

The Elegies of Maximianus translated by A.M. Juster
“I am not who I was, my greatest part has perished.” Juster’s fluid, engaging translation should bring the curious elegies of Maximianus—whose only previous English edition was in 1900—to a wider audience. A 6th-century Roman poet, Maximianus’s 686 lines arrive in the voice of a “querulous old man” (to quote Michael Roberts’s fine introduction), who laments the loss of his erotic misadventures. Readers of Michel de Montaigne will recognize the poet’s pithy lines quoted in the French essayist’s work (“Alas! how little of life is left to the old.” is crisply rendered by Juster as “how much life remains for old men?”). Juster imbues a profluence to the elegist’s consideration of life. Young Maximianus, full of lust, equally brimmed with folly: “So I, who everyone considered a grave saint, / am wretched and revealed by my own vice.” We can sense his old soul inaccurately lighting the lost loves of his youth—Juster’s translation is sharp, his pacing pure—and the book’s final elegy, a mere dozen lines, arrives with a particular sadness: “Death’s journey is the same for all; the type of life / and exit, though, is not the same for all.” Sometimes there is no solace, not even in memories.

Noirmania by Joanna Novak
Joyelle McSweeney has called the necropastoral the “manifestation of the infectiousness, anxiety, and contagion occultly present in the hygienic borders of the classic pastoral.” The necropastoral is a place of “strange meetings,” and it is within that setting Joanna Novak’s Noirmania exists. A dark book with drifting, spaced lines, Noirmania is a series of single-page, untitled poems that depict the stratification of memory. The narrator exists out of time, moving between visions of childhood and a place more severe and stagnant than Theodore Roethke’s root cellar. Sharp lines sneak through: “Who hasn’t / eaten alone at dusk, with the moon / pouring out like a placemat?” While it will take time for readers to settle into Novak’s schema, once they do, there is much to see in the darkness, where “silence studied / my lostness: a mass in a room in a suite / off an impossible house with bats and eaves.”

House of Fact, House of Ruin by Tom Sleigh
Poet as reporter, reporter as poet. In Sleigh’s essay collection, The Land Between Two Rivers, he ponders the differences between American and Iraqi poetry. He sees the poets Naseer Hassan and Hamed al-Maliki as championing “the Rilkean attributes of vision, inspiration, and the ability to express profound feeling,” in contrast to the occasional “poetry gloom” he feels in the states—born from “the world of workshops, ‘scenes,’ and hyperbolic blurbs.” Sleigh’s new poetry collection is informed by his reporting on the lives of refugees, but it is instructive to see the difference between his modes of writing and seeing. In “Lizards,” an early poem from the book, he is patient: “In the desert the lizard is the only liquid flowing under rocks and / down into crevices, undulating in shadows.” Above the lizard, “in heatwaves turning into air,” the mirage—or perhaps the reality—of tanks appear. Around them “mosques broadcasting wails of static, / baffled minarets like letters of secret code, a whole codex of holiness / and banalities.” The lizards go on, with their “still, flat eyes.” Around them, “marked in red, are the circled oil fields, the blow-torch / refinery flames / looking like souls in illuminated manuscripts.” What Sleigh helps us see in these poems is something deeper than journalism can offer: a heart and mind torn by inhabiting a world but not fully grasping its pain. “Whatever you do,” he writes, “there are rockets falling, / and after the rockets, smoke climbing.” Weeds swallow “beds of lettuces and coddled flowers.” What happens when “the bricked-in hours of the human have all been knocked down”?

Trapped in Purgatory with Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren

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“Hell is other people,” according to the three characters in Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. In Sartre’s vision, eternal damnation is mental, rather than physical, torture. Inez, Garcin, and Estelle have been selected to antagonize each other. Stuck in a gaudy, cramped room without any glass, they become each other’s mirrors. Inez is cunning and abrasive. Garcin is pensive but frail. Estelle is vain. They are terrible people, but terribly entertaining characters.

Sartre uses each character’s anxieties as weaknesses. Inez hates Garcin because he is a coward. Inez lusts for Estelle, but Estelle only has eyes for Garcin—merely because he is the only man available. Garcin is too busy thinking about what is happening on Earth to pay attention to Estelle, and she loathes being ignored. Their methods of torture are simple, cyclical, and eternal.

Each time I read Sartre’s claustrophobic play, I wonder: who would be my torturers? I won’t admit the two actual people who would vex me in a Sartrean Hell, but I will admit the two characters in literature who would annoy me forever: Stephen Dedalus and Anse Bundren.

If I were stuck in a Second Empire drawing room with no exit for all eternity, my torturers would definitely be Stephen and Anse. I love both A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and As I Lay Dying because I detest the central characters of both books.

Since A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man traces Stephen’s development, the text hews to his melodramatic sense of self. James Joyce’s method is sound—Stephen’s acquisition and mastery of language, as well as his skepticism toward his surroundings, are captured in the novel’s narrative style—but Stephen is taxing on the reader. He’s a jerk. He writes a noxious villanelle (“Are you not weary of ardent way, / Lure of the fallen seraphim.” Really?). Each prosaic moment of his existence must reflect some ancient Irish myth.

What irks me most is his glib disbelief. I’m a Catholic who knows that doubt is endemic to faith, but Stephen’s rejections—“I will not serve”—are couched in language that elevates his importance. He renounces God because he thinks himself to be God. He has become his namesake, the great artificer. Like many lapsed Catholics, Stephen is—in the words of his friend Cranly—“supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” But Stephen dismisses that belief as a stepping stone toward his real goal: “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe whether it call itself my home, my fatherland or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode or life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using my defence the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning.”

I can’t stand him.

This was all Joyce’s intention, of course, but that doesn’t diminish how much I hate Stephen. I imagine him leaning against a bookcase, arms crossed, huffing well actually forever and ever while the door to my Hell remains shut.

Anse Bundren is also terrible, but for different reasons. He’d sit in the center of the only couch in Hell, and spread his knees so that nobody else could fit. He’s selfish, lazy, and a hypocrite. His inert state is such a perfect contrast to William Faulkner’s profluent story in As I Lay Dying—a tragicomic journey story. He begins the book sitting on his back porch, “tilting snuff from the lid of his snuff-box into his lower lip, holding the lip outdrawn between thumb and finger.” Behind him, his wife Addie is dying. In front of him, his son Cash is building Addie’s coffin.

Anse is full of excuses: “he tells people that if he ever sweats, he will die.” He’s also full of complaints, calling himself a “luckless man.” He promised Addie that he would bury her in Jefferson with the rest of her family, but it soon becomes clear that he has other reasons for making the trek. His children don’t respect him because he doesn’t deserve it. And he’s quick to offer empty religious intonations: “The Lord will pardon me and excuse the conduct of them He sent me.” Get over yourself, Anse—and quit jabbering about your new teeth.

Certainly the central traits of Stephen and Anse that I most detest—self-importance and selfishness—are the two traits I pray that I never hold myself. Great literature has a way of making us recognize our own faults after we’ve first criticized them in others.

Who would be your literary torturers in Hell?

Image Credit: Pixabay.

May It Not Rest in Peace: On Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s ‘Cré na Cille’

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Among the many soothing stories we craft around death, most of us harbor a core belief that it will, at the very least, be peaceful. Even those with no residual belief in an afterlife can find some solace in the idea of an eternal quiet nothingness. No pain, no suffering, no obnoxious neighbors or megalomaniacal bank clerks.

But what if it’s all a lie? What if, instead of peace or rest, what awaits us after death is a continuation of exactly the same petty dramas and sordid resentments? What if, after we’re lowered into our graves, we discover that all the other corpses in the cemetery are still chattering away in some kind of eternal bitchfest?

These are the questions at the heart of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s modernist classic Cré na Cille. Originally published in Irish (sometimes called Gaelic) in 1949, it’s now available in English for the first time, translated by Alan Titley under the title The Dirty Dust. Often mentioned in the same breath as works of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ó Cadhain’s novel is, in some ways, even more radically experimental. For starters, all the characters are dead and speaking from inside their coffins, which are interred in a graveyard in Connemara, on Ireland’s west coast. The novel has no physical action or plot, but rather some 300 pages of cascading dialogue without narration, description, stage direction, or any indication of who’s speaking when.

We begin with Catriona Paudeen, a bitter, foul-mouthed, recently deceased local woman, frantically wondering whether her family has provided her with an appropriate funeral and buried her in the well-to-do section of the cemetery. Within a few pages, she’s absorbed into a chorus of competing voices as she realizes she’s surrounded by her old neighbors, some friends but mostly enemies, “all rabbiting on exactly the same way as they did above the ground!” The conversation mostly circles around everyday grievances — unpaid debts, unfaithful wives, contentious football games — although political disputes occasionally crop up, mostly related to the Irish Civil War and the Second World War (certain corpses are so nationalistic that they eagerly ask new arrivals whether Adolf Hitler has successfully destroyed England yet). As Titley writes in his thoughtful introduction, the novel is “a listening-in to gossip and to backbiting and rumours and bitching and carping and moaning and obsessing about the most important, but more often the most trivial matters of life, which are often the same thing.”

There are similarities between The Dirty Dust and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, in which three sinners are condemned to spend eternity in a small room together, acting as one another’s torturers (“hell is other people”). However, while Sartre’s play is full of heavy-handed moral and religious overtones, The Dirty Dust is remarkable for its lack of philosophy or theology. The idea of retaining consciousness while the body decomposes seems dark to the point of hellishness, but the text itself is so mundane, irreverent, and raucously funny that the grisly context slides into insignificance. One might surmise that the characters are in purgatory, but since they’re too busy arguing to reflect on their existential state, the theory lacks a foothold.

Essentially, this novel is all talk, and the historical and literary significance of the original lies in the richness of the spoken language, the warts-and-all reproduction of a dialect that, just 70 years later, has all but disappeared. Unfortunately, while Titley’s translation is sensitive and vibrant, it occasionally and inevitably feels stilted or overwrought. The narrow, uninspiring register of English curse words, for example, simply cannot capture the diversity of Irish language insults. Although Titley valiantly conjures terms like “sailor’s bicycle,” “shitehawk,” and “slut of the small spuds,” he also over-relies on shag, shit, bugger, bitch, and other less quotable English perennials. This danger — that the effusive, flowing text of the author may, at times, be reduced to generic translates — is fundamental to the translator’s work. However, as Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay “The Politics of Translation,” “to defer action until the production of the utopian translator, is impractical.” For decades, Irish language purists (we might also call them snobs) have rejected even the possibility of translating Cré na Cille, condemning it to irrelevance outside the walls of university libraries. Titley’s effort to translate the untranslatable, with full knowledge of its inevitable imperfections, is courageous and timely.

For hundreds of years, Irish has been battling the hegemonic language next door and, despite a partial revival in the last century, it continues to decline. Connemara, the setting for The Dirty Dust, is a designated “Gaeltacht” region, where Irish remained the primary spoken language long after it fell out of everyday usage elsewhere. Despite government subsidies intended to protect their linguistic identity, a recent report suggests that within 10 years Irish will no longer be the primary language even in these small enclaves.

Sad though this decline is, The Dirty Dust dispels any misplaced nostalgia for Connemara’s over-idealized past. The humor is very dark indeed, reflecting the reality that that Irish survived in these communities partly as a result of deprivation, isolation, and lack of opportunity. Accusations of theft, fraud, alcoholism, and violence rise above the chatter, before being quickly, desperately denied; ubiquitous nationalism, racism, and misogyny almost blend into the cacophony; and when the voices reflect on what they would have done with a little more time above ground, the overwhelming focus is on settling petty scores, chasing trifling debts, and suing neighbours over imaginary infractions. By the final pages, it’s clear that long before their deaths, the characters lived in a dark, narrow, airless world, where grinding poverty and religious conservatism gave rise to bitter hatreds between secretive, jealous, spiritually stale people.

It’s no surprise, then, that the cemetery’s new arrivals report the departure of waves of young people for England and America. Since the 1840s, mass migration from the Gaeltacht areas has been central to the decline of the language. And who could blame those who left in search of opportunity and relative freedom? While we may regret the loss of the language — and resent its suppression through force and economic coercion — native speakers can’t be expected to make vast personal sacrifices for the sake of a vague notion of cultural heritage. What’s more, Ireland’s current austerity government shows no willingness to make the kind of investment that might draw younger populations back.

All of this emphasises the significance of the translated edition. By exhuming Ó Cadhain’s zany chorus of cadavers, Titley has opened this masterpiece to the wider audience it so richly deserves.

May it not rest in peace.

55 Thoughts for English Teachers

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All of a sudden, I have been teaching public school English for a decade. Why am I surprised? I never thought I would be a high school teacher. I never took education courses. Only now am I beginning to reconcile my different professional selves: teacher, adjunct professor, and writer.

For years I avoided writing about my full-time profession. From 7:20 to 2:21 each day, I teach literature and creative writing courses at a large public high school in New Jersey. The day stretches much longer than that, but those are my salaried hours. I love kids, and I love books, and I love writing.

I didn’t avoid writing about teaching because I was ashamed of my profession, though I am aware that save for a handful of other teacher-writers scattered around the country, the majority of my literary peers work in higher education or publishing. They are tenured professors and adjuncts, editors and freelancers. When people learn at a book release or reading that I actually teach high school, as in kids, they look confused. I don’t blame them.

There are few professions more confusing, or misrepresented, than high school teaching. Education is a ubiquitous experience — public or private, we are all taught by someone, somewhere — and yet it remains misunderstood. I have now begun to write about teaching because I profoundly respect this vocation. I refuse to allow politicians to corner the rhetorical market on this subject. There are stories that need to be told.

I hesitate to call what follows “advice,” though it might seem as such. There are so many varied experiences during a single teaching day that I am much more comfortable thinking in epigrammatic terms. I have a lot more to say about teaching, and certain reflections will need to wait. But, for now, here are 55 thoughts about teaching English.

You need to love words. You don’t need to love a certain type of book or a particular writer, but you need to love letters and phrases and the possibilities of language. You will spend most of your days dealing with words, and students can sense if words do not bring you joy.

Students can sense a lot of things.

Do not confuse reading passions with reading biases. Be aware and upfront about your biases and work to decrease them. Your passions are healthy, as long as you help students understand why certain words stir you. Love Gerard Manley Hopkins? Telling them so won’t do a thing. Blow-up “Pied Beauty” on an 11 X 17 page and show them how a comma can change a moment, turn a breath.

Speaking of poetry: they will hate the idea of it, but they already love and live the soul of it. Condensed narratives and emotions tucked in abstractions? Those are their existences. Give them “Scary, No Scary” by Zachary Schomburg, and see what happens.

“Mostly I want my poems to generate their own energy through confusion. I want my poems to confuse the reader. Not a confusion in a cognitive or narrative sense, but in an emotional sense.” — Zachary Schomburg

Create a space for safe confusion.

Teach Sylvia Plath, but help your students understand that she is more than how she passed from this world. Teach “Blackberrying,” teach “Pheasant,” and, most of all, teach “Sow,” that beautiful and strange poem about a mythical pig hidden by her breeder.

Show them that poetry is about being surprised.

Remember why you are doing this.

Your students are not data.

Teach them writers who look and sound like them, so that they can believe that their words are the types of words that can be printed and praised.

Teach them writers who look and sound nothing like them, so that they can recognize what we share.

Politicians will misrepresent you. Vote.

Teachers used to be activists. There is a difference between being an activist within your classroom — which is not your role — and being an activist for your profession and your students.

Know what opinions are appropriate to express, and which are not. Respect your students enough to never cross that line.

Students have a reason for everything they do.

You need to be awake. Sleep is essential. Hoard your hours of sleep.

You will make a hundred decisions within a single class period.

You need to somehow give your attention to each individual student without dividing that attention.

Thomas Pynchon is worth teaching. Often confusion breeds later curiosity.

Think about the worst teacher you ever had. Recognize that he or she was probably not as bad as you thought. Think about that teacher’s classroom, students, situation. Were you part of the problem? How would you have helped yourself?

Write. Talk about your writing. Show them your drafts, your edits. Write along with them.

Trade robotic peer editing for writing workshops. Follow the undergraduate model but manipulate it for the needs of your students. Establish clear guidelines and model them during a mock workshop of your own work. Show them that you can be vulnerable, that you can accept criticism.

Never ask students to complete an assignment that you are unable to complete.

You will often have young women in class who love to write, and who outnumber the men, and yet these young women will stop writing. Teach them to keep writing. Show them their words matter. Introduce them to Mary Shelley, Marilynne Robinson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Toni Morrison, Tayari Jones, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Alice Elliott Dark, Virginia Woolf, Stacey D’Erasmo, Roxane Gay, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Natalie Diaz, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Willa Cather, Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and, please, Flannery O’Connor.

Do not try to sanitize Flannery. Let her live on the page.

Students want to know about you. Sometimes their personal questions are a clever distraction. Be more mystery than memoir, but never be cold.

If a student wants to engage in small talk at the start of class, they probably have not completed their assignment, and are hoping for some temporary graces. But don’t assume that.

Give them the benefit of the doubt until they will no longer benefit from it.

Avoid instructing your students to use dialogue tags in fiction other than “said.”

Cut their adverbs, but show them how, in the right hands, those words can be powerful.

“His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” — “The Dead” by James Joyce.

You may be the only person who will ever read their sonnets, or their prose poems, or their dystopian novellas. Don’t take that privilege lightly.

Teach writing from literary magazines. Encourage your students to read those magazines. If a student comes to class with tomes of speculative fiction, send them to Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons. Show them how literature is built from these little magazines on up, and how they can help maintain the foundation.

Give students the confidence to believe that they might publish their work, but teach them the humility necessary to withstand rejection.

Create meticulous plans for each day.

But be alive in the classroom.

“Through my years of teaching, I learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say, rather than knowing what I would say. Then I learned by hearing myself speak; the source of my speaking was our mysterious harmony with truths we know, though very often our knowledge of them is hidden from us. Now, as a retired teacher, I mistrust all prepared statements by anyone, and by me.” — Andre Dubus

Social media and cell phones exist, and neither is going anywhere. Help students use both responsibly.

Teaching is performance, but not the performance of theater; there needs to be genuine interaction. They can tell if you are putting on a show.

Each course is a different world. Each class period is a different world.

There is an art to asking questions. There is a way to ask questions that will only produce answers that you want to hear.

Wait after asking a question. Help show them what silence can reveal.

Math is language. Physics is language. Language is math. Language is physics.

You are there to teach them, not punish them. They need your help.

Read aloud. Every day.

Don’t be so dramatic about drama. Barebones in-class productions can be beautiful.

Of course, read Shakespeare, but also read Ionesco, Beckett, and Shepard.

For the right group of students, No Exit can be perfect.

Teach them how to closely read a text. Not only for the skill, but for the experience of spending time with words. Show them the worth of contemplation.

Be pragmatic and idealistic. If you are too much of one, the students will catch you.

This is not supposed to be easy.

Remember that you, also, are not data.

One day you will no longer be in the classroom. You will be standing in a garden or sitting in front of a television or holding the hand of a grandchild or pulling a plate from a dishwasher, and you will remember those rows and some of the faces. Try to remember none of the distractions; not the shortsighted pedagogical fads or the boorish politicians. Remember the students who thanked you. Trust that you helped the ones who did not.

For some students, you are their only light.

Image via Jayel Aheram/Flickr

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