Poetry Is Prayer

The English colony of Jamestown was only 18 years old in 1625, during the midst of what the poet John Donne, preaching safely from London, had called the “barbarous years,” when disease, starvation, and violence nearly destroyed the Virginian settlement. Its unfortunate colonists had been reduced in their most dire straits to exhuming the corpses of the recently dead, so that the living would have something to eat. If anytime would necessitate prayer, it would seem to be when people resort to cannibalism, and no doubt there was rending of garments in Jamestown. Across the Atlantic, too, for the collapse of the Virginia Company humbled an investor named Nicholas Ferrar. A courtier, and eventually an ordained Anglican deacon, Ferrar reacted to the financial implosion of his American investments by taking what money remained and purchasing an abandoned medieval church named St. John’s in the Salisbury village of Little Gidding.

Orthodox in his Calvinism, Ferrar was still High Church, and mourned for what had been lost from that Catholic past of multicolored stained glass and incense burning in thuribles. His little chapel had been stripped bare during the reformation of a century before, and he hoped to restore some ornamentation to that bare-ruined choir. At Little Gidding, Ferrar and his siblings dedicated themselves to founding a secular oratory, what later Puritan critics maligned as a “Protestant nunnery.” The Ferrars were to live simply, by a rigorous schedule of prayer, study, service, and contemplation. Upon the white-washed walls of their home, Ferrar and his brother John and sister Susan (and their respective families) painted psalms, so as to “excite the reader to a thought of piety.” As prayers are outward expressions of inner devotions, sent on vibrations of sound to whatever Ear is listening, the community at Little Gidding displayed their psalms as a type of signpost to the divine, hoping that they’d be noticed. Appropriate for a family that had turned their walls into printed pages, their home into an anthology, because the Ferrars supported Little Gidding with the trade of book binding.

Critic Don Paterson writes in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre that poetry has “invested itself with those magical properties, and also took the form of spell, riddle, curse, blessing, incantation and prayer. For those atavistic reasons, poetry remains an invocatory form.” Like spells written on hidden parchments, there was enchantment to the textuality of the Ferrars’ house, with its divinely graffitied walls. The house a book based on the Book, which produced books. None more famous or influential than a slender volume of poetry titled The Temple, written by a friend of Ferrar’s named George Herbert, a priest. Ministering a village over, Herbert was a product of courtier culture as well, and of similar social status to the Ferrars, his mother of the wealthy Newport family, and a patron to Donne. Like the pious Ferrars, Herbert had rejected the trappings of nobility that were his guaranteed birthright, preferring rather to work as a humble reverend on the Salisbury plain. When Herbert sent his friend a copy of his devotional poems in 1633, he said that he wished them to be printed should they have “advantage of any dejected poor soul,” and if Ferrar saw no such quality, the verse should be burned.

Herbert’s The Temple pairs with Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” as among not just the greatest of 17th-century metaphysical poetry but the greatest religious lyrics ever written in English. Poems like “The Collar,” “Love (III),” and his “shape poems” (with typography working as image) such as “The Altar” and “Easter Wings,” were as a type of worship. A century later and the Puritan schoolman Richard Baxter would enthuse that “Herbert speaks to God like one that really believes in God;” obvious faith beats like a metronome in the meter of his verse. “Heart-work and heaven-work make up his books,” said Baxter, so that it’s impossible to disentangle theology from his poetry, as it might be for modern readers of sexier metaphysical poets like Donne. Biographer John Drury writes in Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert that “Divinity saturated and enclosed his world: the whole of it, from the slightest movements of his own inmost being to his external circumstances in time and the natural world…Divinity was the cause and the sum of how things are, without remainder.” That being the case, Herbert’s poetry itself couldn’t help but be devotional, couldn’t help but fundamentally be as if a prayer. What I’d venture is that all poetry is fundamentally a prayer.

My ideas may be muddled or inchoate, and for that I beg your patience, but I think that some of my half-formed thinking (multitudinous as it will be) can be illustrated by a Herbert poem appropriately entitled “Prayer (1).” Of the poem’s subject, Herbert describes it as “the church’s banquet…God’s breath in man returning to his birth, /The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.” There are two things happening in those lines; the obvious is the connection of God’s Spirit to the individual spirit of man, how the animus of our breath finds its origin in the divine. All fine and good, but what’s more fascinating is the description of prayer as being a “soul in paraphrase,” for that explicitly aligns prayer not with completism—axioms, treatises, arguments, syllogisms, or any other method of total explication—but that prayer provides an intimation of what a soul is. “Prayer (I)” is replete with this language of incompleteness, it’s in some ways a statement against method. He writes of “The six-days world transposing in an hour,” a type of paraphrase of creation itself, and of “A kind of tune,” or the “Heaven in ordinary.” The imprecision of Herbert’s language is precisely the point—prayers are exemplary because they don’t exist to say everything that can be said; they exist for all of that which can’t be. The result of prayer, Herbert famously concludes, is “something understood.”

Everything depends on that indefinite pronoun, for in the ambiguity of “something” Herbert gestures at what prayer is. It’s not necessarily that prayer deals with only the ineffable (though that concept intersects with prayer), but rather that the product of prayer is this amorphous, free-floating, mercurial something of which Herbert speaks. Prayer imparts a type of knowledge—something has been understood. But good luck in being able to simply or literally say what that something is. So, Herbert differentiates prayer from other forms of sacred language; prayer has not the delineation of a creed or the rigor of an argument, it has not the logic of theology, nor the narrative of scripture. Prayer has this understood something, but by its nature what exactly it is must be felt rather than known, believed rather than stated.

The poem is about prayer, but it’s also about poetry. If Herbert is making an argument about prayer’s significance being incompleteness, then the precise same thing must be said about poetry as well. Like prayer, poetry is not the same as creed or argument, thesis or claim, philosophy or pedagogy. Both prayer and poetry are synonyms, albeit respectively associated with the sacred and the profane. They concern things that can only be espied from multiple perspectives, for the ecstasy of ambiguity and the spurning of literalism, for the quality of having “something understood” even if such a thing is contradictory or indefinable or impossible to summarize. The two forms are mechanisms for approaching the unapproachable, they are engines driving us to that which is an infinite distance away. What’s imparted is the mysterious “something”—when done well, prayer and poetry can both change you, but it’s difficult to put into words what that change was. A sublimity in that paradox, for prayer and poetry are defined by being words that gesture beyond words themselves.

All literary language is a special case; all literary language is exception. Since Plato, philosophers have found it difficult to categorize what exactly literature is supposed to be. Fictional narrative, after all, is simply lies artfully arranged. Or at least that’s one way to look at it, albeit a reductionist one that doesn’t perform due diligence toward just how weird literature is, this process by which we hallucinate entire worlds after staring at abstract symbols. Because it seems real, literature compels questions like that jocularly posed by the Shakespeare scholar L.C. Knight, when in 1933 he asked, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” Knight was raising a point about the way we talk about fiction, where a question can be posed that is logically and semantically coherent, yet totally meaningless. Lady Macbeth had no children of course, since she wasn’t real (or at least not in the form that the Bard presented to us). A similar metaphysical conundrum was posed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, when he asked what the “truth status” was of the question “Is the present King of France bald?” There no longer being a King of France, it would seem that either an affirmative or negative answer is completely meaningless, yet that’s affectively the nature of all fiction.

Poetry and fiction aren’t reducible to each other; if anything, they’re sometimes contrasted (in part because narrative poetry, such as the epic, is a largely moribund genre today). But poetry also has an innate weirdness that makes it difficult to classify—what exactly defines it? What makes poetry poetry? Formal characteristics—rhyme, meter, rhythm, and so on—make little sense as a distinguishing characteristic after almost two centuries of free verse. Russian linguist and critic Roman Jakobson argued (in a paper first published in Thomas A. Sebeok’s anthology Style in Language) that the “poetic function” of language was neither to express nor to communicate clear-cut truth, but rather existed with “the message for its own sake.” Jakobson’s claim was that poetry is basically always about poetry, that verse announces the strangeness of language itself rather than communicating literal facts. What defines poetry is not how it’s constructed, but what it does. Poetry announces itself as language through a process of defamiliarization—iambic pentameter and anaphora are ways in which a reader understands that something odd is happening—but it need not be facilitated only through formal rhetorical means. Paterson rightly condemns the fact that “Too often our interpretations are unconsciously predicated on the real-world existence of a truth, albeit a truth conveniently veiled or missing,” but to be overly hung up on the “truth” of poetry is to precisely miss the point. The medium truly is the message.

In an odd way, such pronouncements were anticipated by the Renaissance critic and poet Philip Sidney, who in his 1580 Defense of Poesy argued that “The poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Facts can be lied about, but a poem can’t be evaluated on whether it’s “true” or not, at least in any literal or logical way. What’s the “truth status,” Russell might ask, of the statement “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons?” Certainly, it’s not literally accurate, or privy to scientific falsification, but that it says something significant should be obvious. Poetry is thus a cracked type of speech, language that is about language, expressing truths that move beyond mere words but which can be indicated in their splendiferous ambiguities. Poetry is rhetorically distinct from other uses we have for words, Jakobson would argue; it’s not the dry literalism of logic, nor the pragmatic utility of instruction, or even the dense world-building of fiction (though that last certainly can intersect with poetry). Rather verse is when language thinks about itself. Popularizer of religion Karen Armstrong argues something similar in the introduction to Thomas J. Craughwell’s Every Eye Beholds You: A World Treasury of Prayer when she writes that “Prayer helps us to liberate ourselves and to use language in an entirely different way.”

Functionally, I see no difference between prayer and poetry. I should emphasize that this doesn’t necessarily have to do with God per se, but rather with what prayer and poetry do. And as both are in some sense very present-based genres, existing for their own purposes rather than to convey some other primary piece of information, what they do is ultimately the same. W.H. Auden famously declared that “Poetry makes nothing happen,” but there is a theological profundity to that, the idea of something existing without pragmatic justification to some bottom line, having being rather as a glorious singularity unto itself. Not dissimilar to the God of the medieval scholastics, whose views the literary critic Terry Eagleton described in The Meaning of Life, writing that God’s purpose and His creation isn’t a “question about what the world is for, since in… [theological] opinion the world has no purpose whatsoever. God is not a celestial engineer who created the world with some strategically calculated goal in mind. He is an artist who created it simply for his own self-delight, and for the self-delight of Creation itself.” The Word of God thus becomes something very close to the word of Auden. Something close to the ecstasy of prayer as well. Poetry fulfills what Jay Hopler described in the preface to Before the Door of God: An Anthology of Devotional Poetry when he noted that “poems confront two of humankind’s most powerful actuations: the drive to create and the drive to know a creator.”

Both poetry and prayer are written in a type of transcendent tense, they seem to bring voice forward from a certain perspective of eternity. The visceral presentness of both makes them different from other forms of language, for poetry and prayer don’t merely correspond to things that have happened in the world, but they are a reality itself. Kimberly Johnson writes in the introduction to Before the Door of God that “though a lyric poem may have a narrative that unfolds over its course, the first drama it relates is the coming into being of that speaking voice,” for poetry is an ever regenerative form, it is not ossified representation of some outside subject—it is the subject. Unlike painter Rene Magritte’s visual pun “The Treachery of Images,” with its depiction of a pipe with the sentence “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” a similar gambit makes no sense with a poem. There is no delay in verse, it has an immediacy that oracularly announces itself as a presence. Poetry and prayer share in this incantational quality, because they trade not only in representation but in a certain theurgy. This is the position that the narrator addresses to God in Charles Simic’s poem “Prayer” included in his collection A Wedding in Hell: “You who know only the present moment, /O Lord, /You who remember nothing/Of what came before.” An encapsulation of prayer and lyric alike, as well as the experience of being God in eternity, for unlike other modes, verse exists perennially in this moment we live in right now.

Because poetry and prayer, as an experience, belong not to the past or the future but rather a continual present, they both have the incantational quality of being able to resurrect that which is gone, of bringing to bear an actual presence with the reading of a poem, the chanting of a prayer. Eagleton, with good reason, sees something fallacious in this claim, arguing in How to Read a Poem that “On this view, form and content in poetry are entirely at one because the poem’s language somehow ‘incarnates’  its meaning,” but dismissing such romanticism by saying that “words which ‘become’ what they signify cease to be words at all.” But that might be precisely the point: that which distinguishes poetry from prose isn’t form, but the quality by which the former does actually, in some way, invoke or “call down” a different reality from the one in which the reader exists— while making allowances to poetic “prose” being capable of that same quality.

The Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer performs such an incantation in his lyric “Georgia Dusk.” Toomer writes of a “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,/Passively darkens for night’s barbecue” where men gather and “Their voices rise… the pine trees are guitars,/Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain…/Their voices rise… the chorus of the cane/Is caroling a vesper to the stars.” Poetry is not editorial or syllogism, but it is a calling forth, a transubstantiation. With Toomer’s invocation of this rural black town observing the simple eucharist of a barbecue, how is it not possible to feel the warm breeze of Georgia dusk whistling through the pines, as the yolk dusk descends into the hills, the drone of cicada punctuating the gathering coolness? That Toomer can put the reader there, it seems to me, is not an example of the “incarnational fallacy;” it is simply an incarnation.

Paterson differentiates prose from poetry by noting that with the former, the “well-chosen word describes the thing as if it were present,” but the latter “persists in its attempt to invoke, to call down its subject from above, as if there were no ‘as if’ at all.” That’s because when we read a poem, whether our loud or in our head, we embody the speaker. We’re possessed by the narrator, this spooky character who isn’t quite equivalent with the poet herself. Johnson argues that “poetic speech endures with a kind of immortality. Among other effects, it preserves the human voice far beyond the scale of human life…. the voice that is preserved over centuries comes to the reader’s corporeal as well as intellectual awareness, resurrected anew, as it were, through each new reader’s ears and eyes and breath and heartbeats.”

When we read Marianne Moore’s poem “By the Disposition of Angels,” which takes as its subject this quality of possession itself, we resurrect both Moore and the immanent voice that speaks and exists beyond mere personality, querying “Messengers much like ourselves? Explain it. /Steadfastness the darkness makes explicit? /Something heard most clearly when not near it?” Moore’s poem gives voice, literally and figuratively, to this precise strangeness of poetry and prayer: it’s ability to make us hear that which seems to not be there. “Poet and reader enter a bizarre cultural contract where they agree to create the poem through the investment of an excess of imaginative energy,” argues Paterson, “This convergence of minds adds a holographic dimension to the poem, one denied other modes of human speech. A poem’s elements can sometimes appear to have been summoned into existence with enough potency to engage our physical senses.”

Possession isn’t the same thing as transformation, however. When we pray, we speak to God; as when we read and write poetry, we perhaps speak to our narrators. At their most ecstatic, those things blur into our selves, but when we stand up from the kneeler or close the book we return to being ourselves, what poet Malachi Black describes in his poem “Vespers,” when he writes that “Lord, you are the gulf/between the hoped-for/and the happening.” Any recitation, any reading, has a gulf between it and the actual divine, for a poem must be a mechanism of approaching an eternity that we never quite reach. Ronald Thomas, Welsh poet and Anglican priest, describes in his poem “Kneeling” the “Moments of great calm,/ Kneeling before an altar/Of wood in a stone church/In summer, waiting for the God/To speak.” The simple physicality of his description takes part in that incantational poetics whereby we can transpose ourselves into that private moment, but the illusory nature of that experience isn’t obscured. We are, after all, “waiting” for God to speak, and that uncertainty, that agnostic quiet isn’t incidental to the prayerful qualities of poetry—it’s instrumental to it. Thomas writes, quipping on St. Augustine, to “Prompt me, God;/But not yet. When I speak, /Though it be you who speak/Through me, something is lost. /The meaning is in the waiting.” When Thomas humbly admits that “something is lost,” it’s an acknowledgement that the possessions of poetry are incomplete, yet that gulf between God’s understanding and our fumbling is the vacuum into which poetry must dissipate.

Because if there is anything that poetry and prayer share, that distinguishes them from other forms of language—be they plays and novels, policy briefs or automobile manuals—it’s that both must engage with that abiding sense of mystery that exists in those silent places where the soul dwells. A novel or a play or an essay can have mystery at its core, and can be all the better for it—but such mystery is incidental to it being in whatever particular genre it happens to be in. Philosopher George Steiner noted in Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1967 that “When the word of the poet ceases, a great light begins,” explaining that “Language can only deal [with]… a special, restricted segment of reality. The rest, and it is presumably the much larger part, is silence.” What differentiates poetry is not form or content, but that poetry is the language that is written not in words, but rather in the gaps between them. Poetry and prayer are implicated in that mystery, that sacrament. “Mysteries expound mysteries,” writes Moore, and it’s a good shared explanation of prayer and its identical twin poetry.

That sense of divine mystery is invoked by our most immaculate of modern devotional poets Denise Levertov in her “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus” from the collection Candles in Babylon. Writing at the mystical confluence of her duel Jewish and Christian background, between America and Europe, the political and the sacred, Levertov voiced the “deep unknown, guttering candle, /beloved nugget lodged in the obscure heart’s/last recess” more fully than any poet after the Second World War. Levertov is an incarnational poet, able to describe “woodgrain, windripple, crystal, /in crystals of snow, in petal, leaf… fossil and feather, /blood, bone, song, silence.” A poet of immanence, but one for whom all of this world is built not on exhalation, but inhalation, of “our hope… in the unknown, /in the unknowing.” This is the subject of all poetry and prayer, the injunction “O deep, remote unknown, /O deep unknown, /Have mercy upon us.” The beating heart of all poetry and prayer must be this blessed silence, this sacred unknown. Such a faith is what animates both vocations. For when we approach the sepulcher of that which Herbert called “something understood.”

Image Credit: Needpix.

Renewable Books Leads Industry with Green Initiatives

Random House parent company Bertelsmann recently announced the admirable goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030. We here at Renewable Books applaud the initiative, though we would also like to take this opportunity to highlight our revolutionary advancements in eco-publishing.

Renewable Books prides itself on being the greenest publishing house in the world. Our books are printed domestically, we use only post-consumer waste paper, and Greta Thunberg responds affirmatively to 95 percent of our blurb requests. But that’s not all: Renewable’s devotion to the environment extends to all facets of the publishing process.

Our Offices:

Renewable’s Platinum LEED offices boast high-efficiency lighting, appliances, and plumbing, as well as state-of-the-art solar panels. A bike path directly links the downtown light rail station to our courtyard; our decorators only use low VOC paints; and the majority of our energy needs are met by our in-house publicists, who spew the hot air required to power two steam-engine generators.

Our Books:

Renewable Books publishes daring works of literary fiction, environmental noir, and composting erotica.

As we are of the opinion that the current threat posed by climate change more than justifies a principled rejection of copyright law, we actively encourage our authors and editors to recycle plots, characters, and dialogue from previously successful books.

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While we value and advocate for transgressive literature, we prohibit the following material: scenes in which a car is needlessly idling; plot twists involving GMOs; any expression of lustful feelings for an offshore driller.

Editorial Philosophy:

We at Renewable Books feel that typos, misspellings, and consistency issues are vital components of a sustainable literary ecosystem, and that pencil-wielding humans should in no way tamper with the written word’s thriving biodiversity. This policy has saved us from needlessly printing millions of errata slips over the past decades.

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Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Hong, Cote, Harris, McCann, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Cathy Park Hong, Rachel Vorona Cote, Malcolm Harris, Colum McCann, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Minor Feelings: “In this blistering essay collection, poet Hong (Engine Empire) interrogates America’s racial categories to explore the ‘under-reported’ Asian-American experience. Hong, a child of Korean immigrants, was born in Los Angeles’s Koreatown, but moved from the neighborhood before the 1992 riots upended the area. Her topics include personal experiences, from learning English as a second language and obsessing over her scented Hello Kitty–branded erasers as a child, to mining the repertoire of Richard Pryor as a young woman entering the stand-up scene. She is both angry and wryly funny when examining her struggles with depression, hemifacial spasm disorder, and poetry peers who dismissed her first book as ‘hack identity politics.’ Assessing perceptions of Asian-Americans as ‘next in line to be white,’ as one man tells her, she observes that in fact they have the ‘highest income disparity out of any racial group’ in the country. Her confrontational prose maintains a poet’s lyricism in ‘The End of White Innocence,’ which recalls a childhood ‘spent looking into the menagerie of white children.’ Combining cultural criticism and personal exploration, Hong constructs a trenchant examination of race in America.”
Too Much by Rachel Vorona Cote
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Too Much: “Cote, a former PhD candidate in Victorian literature at the University of Maryland, traces the ‘unspoken rules’ that govern the expression of women’s emotional and physical desires to 19th-century medicine and culture in this vigorous, wide-ranging debut. Noting that ‘hysteria’ was a widespread medical diagnosis given to Victorian women exhibiting all kinds of ‘inappropriate’ behavior, from sighing and sudden laughter to self-mutilation, Cote analyzes how writers including Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti, and the Brontë sisters ‘contemplate[d] the circumstances of women in an age when emotion was so viciously policed and pathologized.’ In chapters devoted to mental health, infidelity, body image, ageism, and sexual desire, Cote confesses to her own ‘alluvion of feeling’ and relates personal experiences, including a suicide attempt and the end of her first marriage, to characters and plots in Victorian literature and figures from modern popular culture, including Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, and ‘Stifler’s Mom’ in the movie American Pie. She conclusively shows that women have been ’emotionally trussed for centuries,’ and empowers her readers to embrace their ‘too muchness’ as an ‘agent of emotional integrity.’ Though Cote’s blend of memoir, criticism, and history sometimes feels unfocused and idiosyncratic, her overarching arguments are apt. Readers whose tastes run from George Eliot to Lorde will embrace the book’s feminist message.”
Apartment by Teddy Wayne
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Apartment: “Wayne’s subtle, fascinating novel (after Loner) is set in the world of an MFA creative writing program at Columbia in 1996. The anxious, unnamed narrator didn’t make any friends at New York University as an undergraduate, and considers it equally unlikely that he will find any among the ambitious, self-assured students in his current classes. He’s delighted when charismatic Midwestern scholarship student Billy defends the first story the narrator presents against the attacks of the class, and invites Billy, who has been living in the basement of the bar where he works, to share the two-bedroom apartment the narrator’s great-aunt has been allowing him to live in rent-free. Billy offers to clean the apartment and cook dinners in exchange for the room. At first, the narrator revels in the arrangement, but the balance of power between the two shifts gradually but irrevocably over the months that follow. The narrator, inclined to ‘airbrush out unpalatable blemishes here and there’ in his past and his emotional life, notices and then immediately represses things like the way ‘the thin ribbed cotton of his white tank top hugged [Billy’s] body like a second skin.’ Wayne keeps his attention firmly on the small details that define the evolving relationship as Billy loses interest in the narrator. Wayne excels at creating a narrator both observant of his surroundings and deluded about his own feelings. Underneath the straightforward story, readers will find a careful meditation on class and power.”
The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Splendid and the Vile: “Larson (Dead Wake) delivers a propulsive, character-driven account of Winston Churchill’s first year as British prime minister (May 1940–May 1941), when the German air force launched ‘a full-on assault against the city of London’ in preparation for an invasion that never came. Larson’s profile subjects include Churchill’s 17-year-old daughter, Mary; his private secretary, John ‘Jock’ Colville, who kept a meticulous (and likely illegal, due to the national security secrets it revealed) diary; Nazi leader Rudolf Hess; and, to a lesser extent, ordinary Britons. Juxtaposing monumental developments, such as the Dunkirk evacuation, with intimate scenes, Larson notes that on the night Churchill learned French leaders wanted to make peace with Hitler, he raised his dinner guests’ spirits by passing out cigars, reading aloud telegrams of support from other countries, and ‘chant[ing] the refrain from a popular song.’ Larson highlights little-known but intriguing figures, including chief science adviser Frederick Lindemann, who made a multifaceted but unsuccessful case for why tea shouldn’t be rationed, and documents the carnage caused by German bombs, including the deaths of 34 people at the Café de Paris shortly before Mary Churchill was set to arrive at the club. While the story of Churchill’s premiership and the Blitz have been told in greater historical depth, they’ve rarely been rendered so vividly. Readers will rejoice.”
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Apeirogon: “National Book Award–winner McCann (Let the Great World Spin) bases this masterful novel on the lives of two real men working together toward Middle Eastern peace. Rami Elhanan, 67 on the single day of 2016 on which the main narrative takes place, is a graphic designer and Israeli military veteran. In September 1997, his 13-year-old daughter, Smadar, was killed in a Jerusalem suicide bombing. His need for revenge fades when he joins the Parents’ Circle, whose members, of many nationalities and religions, have all lost a child in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Nineteen years younger than Elhanan, Palestinian Bassam Aramin is jailed in 1985, at 17, for resisting the Israeli occupiers in Hebron, where he’s raised. During his imprisonment, writings by Gandhi, among others, and friendship with one of the Israeli guards convince him of the power of nonviolence. Released after seven years, he helps found Combatants for Peace, which brings Palestinian and Israeli fighters—among them Elhanan’s son, who introduces the two men—together for dialogue. The fatal 2005 shooting of Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, by an Israeli border guard doesn’t shake his belief that Israelis and Palestinians share ‘an equity of pain’; he and Elhanan begin meeting daily, using their daughters’ stories to become international advocates for peace. The book’s title is a reference to a polygon with a countable but infinite number of sides, and McCann evokes the experience of its protagonists and their region through 1,001 brief numbered segments that incorporate sequences in the men’s own voices and interconnect topics including bullet manufacturing, Jorge Luis Borges, and birds. Balancing its dazzling intellectual breadth with moments of searing intimacy, this is a transformative vision of a historic conflict and a triumph of the novelist’s art.”
Also on shelves: Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit by Malcolm Harris.
Bonus Links from Our Archive:– Only the Lonely: The Millions Interviews Teddy WayneA Year in Reading: Teddy WayneA Review of ‘The Devil in the White City’ by Erik LarsenGuns and Testosterone Rule the World: An Interview with Colum McCannThe Real and the Imagined: On Colum McCann’s ‘TransAtlantic’A Year in Reading: Colum McCann

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Burns, Adiga, Taylor, Phillips, Vollmann, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Anna Burns, Aravind Adiga, Brandon Taylor, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, William T. Vollmann, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.
Little Constructions by Anna Burns

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Constructions: “Belfast native Burns’s raucous, exacting modernist crime novel (after the Booker Prize–winning Milkman) skewers men’s incomprehension of women. After a young woman named Jetty Doe confounds a gun shop owner in a town known as Tiptoe Floorboard by snatching a Kalashnikov rifle and throwing a pile of money at him in pursuit of a crime of passion, shop owner Tom Spaders, already traumatized from being stabbed by teenagers in a mugging the year before, copes with the shock by blubbering to a friend about the woman’s apparent ignorance over the type of gun she’d wanted. The story then zigs and zags through a wild chronicle of the Doe crime syndicate and its core members’ immediate family, whose similar-sounding names—Jotty, John, Johnjoe, Janet, Janine, etc.—belie their complex, distinct identities (on Julie Doe: ‘This fifteen-year-old was older than her mother’s thirtysomething friend’). Burns’s narrator is a garrulous raconteur who drops in damning characterizations of men (‘Why couldn’t she be quiet and just listen and remain quiet even after she’d listened?,’ one wonders about his wife) while unspooling the freewheeling account of the Doe family’s occult superstitions, their quirky sensitivity to noises, and the bloody brouhaha that follows the arrest of several gang members. While the narrator’s digressive woolgathering will test some readers’ patience, the acerbic gender commentary tightens the slack. Burns’s fans will find much to chew on.”
Amnesty by Aravind Adiga

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Amnesty: “Adiga (The White Tiger) briskly captures an undocumented immigrant’s moral dilemma over whether to help the police solve a murder or remain under the radar in this engrossing tale. After leaving Sri Lanka to attend college in Sydney, Dhananjaya ‘Danny’ Rajaratnam quits school, loses his student visa, and fails to gain refugee status, but he stays in Australia out of fear for his safety back home, where he was misidentified as a Tamil terrorist. He sleeps in a grocery storeroom and earns cash cleaning homes and doing odd jobs. For four years he escapes notice by authorities; even his leftist Vietnamese girlfriend, Sonja, doesn’t know he’s in the country illegally. After one of his clients—Indian-born Radha Thomas—is murdered, Danny deduces that her murderer is her lover, a violent man nicknamed the Doctor. Danny knows Radha and the Doctor frequented the creek where Radha’s body was discovered, and that the Doctor owned a jacket resembling the one wrapped around the body. Adiga recounts Danny’s thoughts, memories, doubts, and hesitation as well as his aborted phone calls with police and ominous contacts with the Doctor, all within a single day. With nuance and vivid faced by a range of Asian Australians while highlighting the dangers faced by the Tamils of Sri Lanka. Adiga’s enthralling depiction of one immigrant’s tough situation humanizes a complex and controversial global dilemma.”
Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Real Life: “Taylor’s intense, introspective debut tackles the complicated desires of a painfully introverted gay black graduate student over the course of a tumultuous weekend. Wallace, a biochemistry student from Alabama at an unnamed contemporary Midwestern university, discovers his experiment involving breeding nematodes ruined by contaminating mold. Though distraught and facing tedious work, he reluctantly meets up with friends from his program to celebrate the last weekend of summer. He discloses to them the recent death of his estranged father, who did not protect him from sexual abuse by a family friend as a child. Wallace is perpetually ill at ease with his white friends and labmates, especially surly Miller, who unexpectedly admits a sexual interest in Wallace. Over the following two days, Wallace and Miller awkwardly begin a secret, volatile sexual relationship with troubling violence between them at its margins. As Wallace begins to doubt his future as an academic and continues to have fraught social interactions, he reveals more about his heartbreaking past to Miller, building toward an unsettling, unresolved conclusion between the two men. Wallace’s inconsistent emotional states when he’s in Miller’s company can be jarring; the novel is at its best and most powerful when Wallace is alone and readers witness his interior solitude in the face of the racism and loneliness he endures. Taylor’s perceptive, challenging exploration of the many kinds of emotional costs will resonate with readers looking for complex characters and rich prose.”
Living Weapon by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Living Weapon: “In his dazzling third collection, Phillips (Heaven) explores social ills while celebrating poetry’s ability to provide solace and sense during times of upheaval. Two prose poems anchor the book: the first, the standout of the collection, is ‘1776,’ in which Phillips imagines himself as a winged angel standing atop the Freedom Tower in New York City, observing the city below: ‘Lit streets run from it, electric arteries and veins. Manhattan’s never seemed so empty, so narrow, a pupil of a cat’s eye.’ Phillips imbues the book with the divisiveness and violence of the present moment: ‘We are all in prison./ This is the brutal lesson of the slouching century,// Swilled like a sour stone/ Through the vein of the beast.’ In ‘Mortality Ode,’ he narrates a scene in which several police officers enter a cellphone store and browse casually. Nothing dramatic occurs, but the simple presence of the officers conveys a tension born from the speaker’s subtle understanding that the police are a threat to his safety. In ‘Thoughts and Prayers,’ Phillips addresses the subject of gun violence directly, declaring that the refusal to take action to stop the epidemic is the real evil: ‘the end of endings; the death/ Of change.’ Phillips’s latest is lyrical, imaginative, and steeped in a keen understanding of current events.”
Home Making by Lee Matalone

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Home Making: “Rumpus columnist Matalone’s heady, lyrical debut overlays an adopted woman’s journey into motherhood with her daughter’s story of making a home for herself as an adult. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and French father, Cybil is adopted by an American couple in Arizona in the 1950s and eventually has a daughter, Chloe, who, in the present, struggles to make a home out of a sprawling house she buys in Virginia while estranged from her husband, Pat, contrasting their old house with Le Corbusier’s aphorism, ‘A house is a machine for living in’ (‘machines break, become defunct’). In spare chapters, Mantalone moves back and forth in time to trace the shapes of Cybil’s and Chloe’s identities through their relationships to domestic spaces. As Chloe wanders from dining room to kitchen to closet in her new house, she ruminates on the varied meanings of home, reflecting on her childhood and contemplating a future with her best friend, Beau, a gay man who glibly encourages her, ‘As the great sculpture of pirouetting steel, Richard Serra, said, space is material.’ In measured prose, Matalone draws out connections between past and present to illuminate the mother and daughter’s shared sense of ambiguity toward motherhood. Matalone’s cool reflections on art and architecture will appeal to fans of Chris Kraus.”
The Lucky Star by William T. Vollmann

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lucky Star: “Vollmann’s sprawling and provocatively playful novel revisits the sordid setting of his early collection The Rainbow Stories, where sexual desire shapes characters’ self-expression and pursuit of love, power, and human connection. A circle of friends is bonded by their relationship to a character named Neva, often referred to as ‘the lesbian.’ They meet at a San Francisco spot called the Y Bar in 2015, where they find support in their collective company and become a de facto family. Among them are the matriarch, a bartender named Francine; Shantelle, a transgender prostitute; the largely unnoticed hard-drinking barfly Richard, who provides florid narration; and the starry-eyed Frank, who has renamed himself after his icon, Judy Garland. Vollmann elaborately researched the tumultuous life of the real Garland, lending passion and credence to Richard’s extensive knowledge of the late singer. As Neva evolves from an innocent to an icon on par with Marlene Dietrich, at least in the eyes of the Y Bar circle, she guides and mentors their sexual self-discovery, helping define their boundaries and gain confidence. The Y Bar crowd’s otherwise static plotlines are tightened by the interweaving of their common experiences. Vollmann’s challenging novel is full of memorable moments.” 
Also on shelves: Where You’re All Going by Joan Frank.

Modern Feminism’s Big Lie: On ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’

In her debut novel, Fleishman Is in Trouble, New York Times Magazine staff writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner has done something astounding. The astounding thing isn’t that she’s written a book that’s garnered praise in both commercial and literary circles. Although yes, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a true commercial success, a witty New York Times bestseller that’s going to become a limited series on FX. And yes, it’s a literary-world darling, too, making the longlist for the 2019 National Book Award.

The remarkable thing Brodesser-Akner has done is to write a book that offers a sharp critique of the lie fueling modern feminism and is brilliantly disguised as a book about a man.

That man is Toby Fleishman, a 40-something liver doctor going through a divorce from Rachel. Rachel, we learn, is a status-obsessed social climber. Rachel is also the couple’s primary breadwinner (in this echelon of wealth, a medical salary is chump change compared to Rachel’s earnings running a talent agency), and Rachel is the spouse who, at the onset of the novel, drops their two kids off with Toby in the middle of the night before completely disappearing.

So, we follow Toby as he tries to find Rachel and process the end of his marriage and handle his kids and earn a promotion. Then there’s the apps. Newly single Toby has discovered the world of dating apps, a world that is, in the book as in real life, as exciting as it is draining as it is confidence-boosting as it is hilarious as it is deeply depressing.

Brodesser-Akner is equally entertaining and insightful as she judgmentally walks us through Manhattan’s world of the incredibly rich, its uber-alpha, finance-bro husbands and stay-at-home mothers with an endless supply of nannies, yoga pants, and tanks proclaiming “Lipstick & Lunges” and “Nevertheless, She Perspired.” From inside Toby’s mind and world, Brodesser-Akner makes some shrewd, impactful, incredibly funny, and incredibly correct points about class and friendship and marriage and divorce and aging and parenting and love. And there’s a version of this book that could have carried on that way to the end. Fortunately, Brodesser-Akner has written something better.

Which brings me to Libby. Did I mention that Toby’s story—in fact, the whole book—is narrated by Libby, a friend of Toby’s from his college years and a former magazine writer turned Jersey housewife? Libby is easy to overlook for the book’s first half, portrayed mostly as Toby’s omnipresent narrator, rather than an actual character with her own story to tell.

But as the book goes on, Libby becomes a person with her own story—and that story is about a world that stops seeing women as people as they become brides and wives and mothers and, ultimately, personality-less containers we can fill with the familiar, simplified stereotypes we hold about those roles.

Of course, Brodesser-Akner is not the first to tackle how age makes women’s wants and needs and general personhood disappear from the public’s collective mind. Still, there’s something new here. This book is not about women fighting those stereotypes, let alone overcoming them, as such examinations usually become; no one is finding herself here. Instead, Fleishman Is in Trouble is a long-overdue look at women who are disappearing in real time. Women who didn’t realize this would happen to them, too.

Which is to say, from Libby’s story emerges Rachel’s story—which is, of course, more complex and painful than Toby’s version of her story—from which emerges all the stories of the women who once seemed like one-dimensional side characters in a man’s story.

The more the women come into focus, the more compelling the book becomes, to no surprise to anyone who has read Brodesser-Akner’s magazine work. At a time when lots of smart ladies are writing lots of smart things about being a woman, Brodesser-Akner has established herself with a singular ability to write about her gender. A recounting of Rachel’s traumatic delivery of her first child is one of the book’s most haunting and stand-out moments. The fact that afterward Rachel feels most understood by the women she meets in a rape survivor’s group is a damning, but not inaccurate, assessment of all the different ways women’s bodies are violated.

Once the women’s lives are fully realized, readers are left with Rachel, a woman who has thrown her life into her job and winds up unhappy; Libby, who quit her job to become a full-time mother in the suburbs and winds up unhappy; Nahid, a woman Toby meets on a dating app who had no kids and never worked and offered her rich husband lots of sex and winds up unhappy; and Karen Cooper, a hospital patient in a coma because no one was able to diagnose her with a disease that could have been very easy to diagnose by looking her in the eye. And on the list goes until you have to ask: What, exactly, was the path these women were supposed to take to make things turn out differently? How does one escape the pitfalls of being a woman?

And yes, the problem with women is men. Because if you follow any female character’s problems back far enough, you’ll eventually hit a man—a cheating spouse, a sexist boss, etc. But the men are not the enemy. Not exactly. Because the book’s women, on the whole, are just as flawed as the men, and Toby, our leading guy, is never really treated as a villain.

The problem is the lie the women have been fed: that sexism is over and the world is fair and that if a woman plays her cards right, she can avoid disappearing. As narrator Libby explains it, “When Rachel and I were little girls, we had been promised by a liberated society that had almost ratified the Equal Rights Amendment that we could do anything we wanted. We were told that we could be successful, that there was something special about us that we could achieve anything.”

From there comes an absolute evisceration of The Future Is Female t-shirts and other such mantras and commodities that modern feminism feeds us. Really, the whole book is worth reading for this passage alone.

And the problem is the Modern Feminist WomanTM Fleishman’s female characters thought they could become. They thought they could live in a world without the barriers that held back the women who came before them. They thought they had choices and that they could be mothers and workers and do yoga or just wear yoga pants without doing yoga, and they thought that they could Have. It. All. while simultaneously laughing at the idea of having it all. And the women thought this because this was the image of modern feminism they had been sold from their childhood years of Take Your Daughter to Work Day to today’s endless supply of cheap girl-power slogans or even, dare I say it, pussy hats. But for Libby and Rachel, this is part of modern feminism’s big lie. All of it tokens women mistakenly accept in exchange for experiencing the same sorts of barriers that have always held women back. (Of course, if you don’t take the tokens, you’ll hit the barriers anyway.)

At this point, it seems worth stating that Brodesser-Akner has not written an angry book. She has, in fact, written a very funny book, and a compassionate and heartbreaking one, too. Equally apparent, Brodesser-Akner has written a very tired book, which is probably the perfect emotion for any book tackling issues of gender in Trump’s America. Fleishman Is in Trouble is a book that is desperately searching for solutions to the despair of gender disparity that it knows it won’t find —and yet, Brodesser-Akner and her characters helplessly and relentlessly and incredibly charmingly search for them anyway.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Offill, Stuart, Sharlet, Sparks, Lavery, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Jenny Offill, Douglas Stuart, Jeff Sharlet, Amber Sparks, Daniel M. Lavery, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today.

Weather by Jenny Offill

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Weather: “A librarian becomes increasingly obsessed with doomsday preparations in Offill’s excellently sardonic third novel (following Dept. of Speculation). Lizzie, a university librarian working in Brooklyn, already feels overwhelmed with guiding her son, Eli, through New York City’s crowded elementary school system without the extra strain of dealing with her addict brother’s constant crises. Mostly happily married to a computer game designer, Lizzie introduces anxiety into her marriage when she takes a second job answering emails for a former mentor who is now the host of a popular podcast about futurism. Fielding questions from both apocalypse truthers and preppers for the coming climate-induced ‘scarcity,’ Lizzie becomes convinced that doomsday is approaching. Her scattered, frenzied voice is studded with arresting flourishes, as when she describes releasing a fly: ‘Quiet in the cup. Hard to believe that isn’t joy, the way it flies away when I fling it out the window.’ Set against the backdrop of Lizzie’s trips to meditation classes, debates with a taxi driver, the 2016 presidential election, and constant attempts to avoid a haughty parent at Eli’s school, Lizzie’s apocalyptic worries are bittersweet, but also always wry and wise. Offill offers an acerbic observer with a wide-ranging mind in this marvelous novel.”

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Shuggie Bain: “Stuart’s harrowing debut follows a family ravaged by addiction in Glasgow during the Thatcher era. Agnes Bain yearns to move Shug, her taxi-driving, ‘selfish animal’ of a second husband, and three children out of the tiny apartment they share with her parents in Glasgow in 1981. Shug secures them a council flat, but when they arrive he leaves them in a flurry of violence, blaming Agnes’s drinking. While Agnes’s daughter, Catherine, escapes the misery of Agnes’s alcoholism and the family’s extreme poverty by finding a husband, and her older son, Leek, retreats into making art, Hugh (nicknamed ‘Shuggie’ after his absent father) assumes responsibility for Agnes’s safety and happiness. As the years pass, Shuggie suffers cruelty over his effeminate personality and endures sexual violence. He eventually accepts that he’s gay; meanwhile, Agnes finds some hope by entering A.A., landing a job, and dating another taxi driver named Eugene, but she later backslides. As Shuggie and his mother attempt to improve their lives, they are bound not just by one another but also to the U.K.’s dire economic conditions. While the languid pace could have benefited from condensing, there are flashes of deep feeling that cut through the darkness. This bleak if overlong book will resonate with readers.”

This Brilliant Darkness by Jeff Sharlet

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Brilliant Darkness: “Lives lived in shadows and corners are lit up in these offbeat photo-journalistic essays. Journalist and Dartmouth writing professor Sharlet (The Family) roams several continents, snapping smartphone photos he posts on Instagram and talking to people: night-shift workers at a Dunkin Donuts in Vermont; a far-right gun fanatic in Schenectady, N.Y.; a Ugandan clergyman who’s terrified of a witch’s curse; brother-sister street-junkies in Dublin, Ireland. Most of the pieces are short, evanescent essays, but Sharlet includes longer pieces, including a profile of a homeless African immigrant on L.A.’s Skid Row who was shot to death, unarmed, by police, and a sketch of a mentally fragile New England woman struggling to control her life, her only friend a potted plant named Bandit. Sharlet’s haunting photos accompany clipped, pointilist, but expressive prose that evokes character and tragedy: a New Hampshire arsonist ‘told the police (there were things he wanted them to know) that he used the flag to burn the church, that he tried to burn the children, that he did what he did—and, if they let him go, would do more—because he was angry with God.’ The result is a triumph of visual and written storytelling, both evocative and moving.”

And I Do Not Forgive You by Amber Sparks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about And I Do Not Forgive You: “Sparks (The Unfinished World) impresses with her exceptional collection of wry, feminist stories. ‘A Place for Hiding Precious Things’ is an incendiary retelling of the fairy tale ‘Donkeyskin’ that features a young princess’s escape into contemporary Manhattan from her father’s incestuous desires. A high school girl with a pitch-perfect teen voice lives with her dysfunctional family in a trailer park in ‘Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park’ and is bored with the ‘weird pioneer girl’ that haunts her until the ghost proves herself useful with homework and warding off sexual advances. Climate change and societal collapse set the stage for a woman’s ex-husband’s transformation into a religious despot who builds a giant tower in ‘We Destroy the Moon.’ Some stories smuggle incredible emotional impact into surprisingly few pages, including the haunting, unexplained severing of a friendship in ‘Mildly Unhappy with Moments of Joy’ and a queen who attempts to outrace a rapidly approaching future through a strange form of time-travel in ‘Is the Future a Nice Place for Girls.’ The time management–obsessed father in ‘The Eyes of Saint Lucy’ foists his mistress’s baby on his wife and daughter, leading to a chilling, macabre twist. Sparks’s sardonic wit never distracts from her polished dismantling of everyday and extraordinary abuses. Readers will love this remarkable, deliciously caustic collection.”

Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Untamed Shore: “Fantasy author Moreno-Garcia (Gods of Jade and Shadow) ventures into thriller territory with mixed success in this noir set in 1979 Baja California. Life for 18-year-old Viridiana in the ‘nothing at all’ town of Desengaño has been full of dull, senseless duty that she yearns to escape. When wealthy American Ambrose Allerton—an older man who’s renting a house with his trophy wife, Daisy, and her handsome brother, Gregory—offers Viridiana a summer job to be his secretary, she gladly accepts. But her good fortune doesn’t last. After a drunken Ambrose takes a fatal fall down some stairs, suspicion falls on Daisy and Gregory. After agreeing to lie on their behalf, Viridiana becomes a suspect in Ambrose’s murder. Fueled by her thirst for exotic adventure, she begins a highly charged affair with Gregory, but sordid reality soon catches up with her. Moreno-Garcia’s unsparing delineation of a ferocious land compensates in part for Viridiana’s somewhat unconvincing dreams of Hollywood romance. Fans of the author’s fantasy novels may want to take a pass.”

Something That May Shock and Discredit You by Daniel M. Lavery

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Something That May Shock and Discredit You: “Slate advice columnist Lavery (Texts from Jane Eyre) brings the full force of his wit and literary depth to this genre-bending essay collection. Describing it as ‘memoir-adjacent,’ Lavery intersperses searingly honest passages about his journey as a transgender man with laugh-out-loud funny literary pastiche. In ‘Lord Byron Has a Birthday and Takes His Leave,’ the poet histrionically threatens to die gloriously in Greece to avoid reaching the mortifying age of 40. Sir Gawain tries to escape the sexual hijinks cooked up by Lady Bertilak and the Green Knight in ‘Sir Gawain Just Wants to Leave Castle Make-Out.’ Amid the literary fun, Lavery reflects upon gender identity. Finding the national conversation about transgender people too child-centric—he only realized he was one at age 30—Lavery instead returned to the scriptures of his youth to find himself in ‘stories of transformation… already familiar’ to him. In the most moving chapter, he drops the artifice of humor and lays bare his anguish at severing his relationship with his mother as her daughter, with the two finding solace in the story of Jacob and Esau—two brothers who make peace but not before Jacob changes his name, and thus identity, to Israel. Lavery provides an often hilarious, sometimes discomfiting, but invariably honest account of one man’s becoming.”

Also on shelves this week: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams.

Steal This Meme: Beyond Truth and Lies

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”—Audre Lorde

At that unhappy moment when Donald Trump took the oath of office with what has proven to be an attitude of obscene disingenuity, I happened to be 38,000 miles in the air somewhere above the Pacific off the coast of California. By happy and fortuitous circumstance, I was in possession of a ticket to Honolulu in January, the month when most of my colleagues’ professional society of literary scholars chooses to force its members into dreary hotel conference rooms in Boston or Chicago. By unhappy circumstance, of course, this day scheduled for my trip to God’s own terrestrial paradise (everything they say of Hawaii is true) happened to be the genesis of our never-ending Annus horribilis. All morning I’d harbored irrational fears about what would happen at the exact second when Trump put his hand to Bible (for the first time I assume). When I bundled into a cab on First Avenue headed on the Van Wyck towards Kennedy, the pink-gauze sky was just breaking over shrouded Brooklyn and Queens and Barack Obama was still president.

Half-a-day later, when we touched down some 5,000 miles away, having completely embargoed myself of any social media or news, and thus being blissfully unaware of “American carnage” and the inauguration speech that even George W. Bush thought was “weird shit,” I was able to fall asleep near Oahu sands in a cocoon of immense privilege while pretending that I was somehow not even in America anymore (Trump started his political career claiming something similar). With morning, I first encountered Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who in recent years has attempted to rehabilitate himself on Dancing with the Stars in that characteristically malevolent and tacky way that Americans have perfected, with his bizarre insistence that the National Mall contained “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” an easily disproven claim. A day later, and Trump adviser and amoral mercenary Kellyanne Conway would defend Spicer while on Meet the Press, arguing simply that they were in possession of “alternative facts.”

Because a Catholic scrupulosity compels me to never totally enjoy a vacation, I’d taken with me the Anglo-Russian television producer and London School of Economics media theorist Peter Pomerantsev’s crucial Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. When I came across the unfamiliar title at the Strand’s Central Park book stand a few days before, I suspected that there might be something helpful in Pomerantsev’s account of how the Kremlin had constructed a strange, chimerical, mutant form of authoritarianism that wasn’t just built on lies, but where lies themselves became the operative ideology, an epistemically anarchic relativism that he called “post-modern dictatorship.” The son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Britain and later Germany, where his father first worked in Russian programing for the BBC and then Radio Free Europe, Pomerantsev would later spend a decade in his native country also working in media, where he could watch as Vladimir Putin, with the assistance of Svengalis like Vladislav Surkov, mastered the dizzying, confusing, relativist aesthetics of modern Kremlin propaganda.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible presents a Russian authoritarianism that owes as much to the cruelty of reality television as the Stalinist show trial; as much as they used to make the commissar vanish, they’re just as content to make people disbelieve the commissar (though ricin is still useful sometimes). Pomerantsev describes a country that “had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression—from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich—that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just one glittering masquerade, where every role and position or belief is mutable,” so that the Russian state can be defender of a staunchly reactionary traditionalist order when that benefits its aims, or the battle-hardened fighter of fascism when that perspective assists it. What Putinism represents, argues Pomerantsev, is not ideology so much as something transcendent of truth or falsehood, where lies aren’t strategy so much as faith itself.

Now Pomerantsev broadens his scope out from Moscow, to London, Washington, Belgrade, Manila, Beijing, Mexico City, and that nebulous universe that exists in the connection between modems and smartphones in his second book This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He describes a “world of dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, fake news, deep fakes, brainwashing, trolls, ISIS, Putin. Trump,” where the author meets “Twitter revolutionaries and pop-up populists, trolls and elves, ‘behavioral change’ salesmen and Infowar charlatans, Jihadi fan-boys, Identitarians, truth cops, and bot herders.” While not always as unified as Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible, Pomerantsev’s latest book (culled from essays originally published in The Guardian, Granta, The American Interest, and The London Review of Books) does provide a primer on how our dystopian new reality of digital simulacra came to be, what it has come to mean, and possibly how we might mitigate the worst of its effects.

Finding ferry-people across this social media Styx, Pomerantsev talks to experts like Russian dissident Lydia Savchuk who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency, the infamous St. Petersburg “troll farm” that long played a role in Moscow politics and that during the 2016 presidential elections saw “Over thirty million Americans… [share] its content among their friends and families.” The author doesn’t limit his analysis to the Kremlin, however, noting that Putinism is but “one front of a vast, global phenomenon.” Something those of us who are horrified by Trump would do well to keep at the forefront of our minds; for there is a certain type of centrist “#Resistance” person addicted to MSNBC and long conspiratorial Twitter threads who harbors the dangerous illusion that Trump is the disease and not the symptom, and that some mythic “normalcy” can be returned upon his ejection. There is also a variety of further-left individual (of which I suppose I’d include myself as a cautious fellow-traveler) who find the first group’s thinking unhelpful, but then overcorrect and end up minimizing the legitimate ideological and technological threats posed by a Kremlin that’s made itself the international of a revanchist order. What Pomerantsev makes clear is that this phenomenon is one that isn’t limited to one country—that’s precisely the point. Our crisis of democracy does not begin and end at the United States.

To that end, This Is Not Propaganda includes interviews with dissidents, hackers, and activists around the world who are attempting to fight a multi-pronged war against the cyber divisions of authoritarian states that have been able to so effectively weaponize information (and the appearance of information) over the past decade. These include the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa who has repeatedly been the target of digital attacks directed by the authoritarian president Roderigo Duterte, the Serbian democracy activist Srđa Popović who was instrumental in the movement against war criminal Slobodan Milosevic (and also literally wrote the guidebook for 21st-century agitators against oppressive governments) and the Mexican hacker Alberto Escorcia who has developed strategies for protestors to reverse-engineer some of the very same technologies used by states to spread disinformation. Pomerantsev even talks with the godfather of digital disinformation, the advertiser, analyst, and cofounder of Cambridge Analytica (which played such a decisive role in the 2016 election) Nigel Oakes. What emerges is an incomplete and sometimes inchoate picture of the second decade of our century, though one that still provides some names, faces, and intentions behind the dark avatars that swarm through Twitter like locusts spreading memes and propaganda, and the good wizards who’ve made it their mission to stop them.

Any radically new information technology alters human consciousness, and has the potential to promulgate disinformation amongst a credulous public not yet literate in the vagaries of the new order. Medieval manuscripts were no more accurate than websites; 14th-century readers of the anonymous The Travels of Sir John Mandeville thrilled to stories about dog-headed Cynocephalics, and two centuries later a rash of printed apocalyptic pamphlets, like the “English Nostradamus” Mother Shipton’s pseudographical prophecies, spread throughout Europe, driving paranoia as surely as Reddit and Twitter defuse QAnon conspiracy theories today. Yet Pomerantsev would be correct in saying that our current predicament is of a different kind, for unlike manuscript or print, our smartphones make us veritable cyborgs, creatures with super computers in our pockets who are continually, potentially connected by network to every other fellow cyborg in the world. This relativist consensus, an epistemic collapse that allows everyone to choose whatever truth is convenient to them, is a type of post-modern magical thinking. However, it isn’t just a return to archaic superstitions, but a reversal of the Enlightenment project that was based in an idea of objectivity that made the work of democracy possible. “There is nothing new about politicians lying,” writes Pomerantsev, “but what seems novel is their acting as if they don’t care whether what they say is true or false.”

We see this happening in real time if we compare the (obvious to some of us at the time) bogus rationale that the Bush administration used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the similar way that the Trump administration has gone about validating the extrajudicial assassination of Qassem Soleimani. While the former was an unmitigated human disaster and the later may yet hopefully prove to not result in the same scope of death, the Bush administration operated as if falsehood and truth were actual categories, even while they consciously chose to mislead. They operated in quasi-official channels, sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the case for war with (compromised) intelligence, and cobbling together a coalition of other countries that supported the invasion. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on the other hand, tells us to believe that Soleimani was imminently about to attack U.S. interests, and doesn’t even bother to construct a more fully fleshed out lie. At that point, we’ve left even the realm of falsehood, and enter the halls of magic. Pomerantsev explains that “Fox and the Kremlin exploit the same ideas: If reality is malleable, why can’t they introduce their own versions too? And if feelings are emancipatory, why can’t they invoke their own? With the idea of objectivity discredited, the grounds on which one could argue against them rationally disappears.”

My above account lets the Bush administration off the hook entirely too much, for the fact is that Trump is just better at deconstructing the division between truth and lie than they were. That most people know that Trump is lying—and that he still gets away with it—counterintuitively shows how masterful said lying is. Much of this has to do with the way the social media ecosystem of Facebook and Twitter have altered how people understand reality; Trump doesn’t have to make any case for the third of the country that’s going to believe what he says, no matter how absurd it might be—they’ve already made that case themselves in their own heads. The previous Republican administration had already flirted with epistemological tweaking during the Iraq catastrophe; one should remember the anonymous source high in the White House who in a gambit worthy of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard dismissed what he called “the reality-based community” to New York Times Magazine reporter Ron Susskind. Propaganda has always traded in flat-out lying—that’s its nature. Part of Pomerantsev’s argument, however, is that the new world of digital misleading has in some sense democratized tyranny, making all of us unwilling accomplices in spreading a constructed reality, whereas in the past such campaigns were obviously top-down.

Glib traditionalists could point to “post-modernism” as the origin of this free-for-all, but our current crisis of epistemology doesn’t come from French academic salons, but rather the cynical calculations of political pragmatism. Charting how the democratic promise unleashed by the fall of communism in 1989 cynically ended with the justifications for the Iraq war in 2003, Pomerantsev notes that “Words and images filled with potent meaning in East Berlin ended in Baghdad.” With democratizing events as varied as the collapse of Soviet authoritarianism, the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, the exile of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the resignation of Suharto in Indonesia, and the abolishment of apartheid in South Africa, it could seem obvious to the self-satisfied liberal that the moral arc of history did indeed predictably move towards justice. “If once upon a time one could speak confidently about history’s waves of democratization flowing in a single current,” Pomerantsev writes, “now a great storm has broken out and it’s hard to tell what’s flowing where and in which direction.” We’re done with Ceausescu, Marcos, and Suharto, but now we have Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro, Duterte, and Trump. Such is the state as aptly described by documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor in her perceptive book Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone when she writes that “Political gridlock, corruption, unaccountable representatives, and the lack of meaningful alternatives incense people across the ideological spectrum; their anger simmers at dehumanizing bureaucracy, blatant hypocrisy, and lack of voice.” Into that vacuum defuses the state agitprop of cynical actors willing to hijack our agency for their own coercive ends.

Such meme engineering rewrites the DNA of consciousness, acting as a parasite in the host and completely altering their worldview. In a passage that will no doubt have many nodding in recognition, Pomerantsev describes “people I have known my whole life [that] slip away from me on social media, reposting conspiracies from sources I have never heard of… which is rearranging our relations and identities with its own logic, or in the cause of someone else’s interests we can’t even see.” By way of making contrast between the previous century’s authoritarians and today’s savvier Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley-trained versions, Pomerantsev begins each chapter with a biographical account of his own parent’s running afoul of the Soviet government during the 1970s. In his family’s story, information was something emancipatory that could dispel the official Kremlin line, with censorship the cudgel used by the Soviets to oppress those who opposed them. Today, however, and it’s a surfeit of information that does the same, so much data that nobody can sort through it.

Censorship in 2020 functions not literally, but rather by screaming untruths so loudly through so many channels that reality itself is drowned out. Appropriately enough this is a free market version of propaganda, the tools of the state’s lies privatized and outsourced to your friends, family, and coworkers. The irony is that in the Soviet Union, everybody knew that what Pravda printed was a lie; today people share links from dubious sites pushing a line to assist the status quo under the guise of subversion. Our dire situation was summed up by the Ukrainian investigator Tatyana Gerasimova, who helped conduct an investigation of a tragic fire in Odessa that occurred following the Russian invasion, and which separatists and nationalists each blamed the other for, the truth ultimately being more complicated. Despite that nuance, Gerasimova explains that the truth can’t set one free if you’re incapable of recognizing the truth when presented with it. “Everyone lives in their own reality, everyone has their own truth, there is no reconciliation. We created the investigation to show that there is a difference between truth and lies. In that sense we failed.” So inured are we to the idea that there might be a truth, that there has been a trickle-down rewriting of reality, where now Big Brother doesn’t even have to convince you that 2+2=5. You saw it memed by your uncle on Facebook (the Deep State was the one who said 2+2=4 all along).

Our hellscape’s prophet of authoritarianism is less Franz Kafka than Philip K. Dick. Kafka’s vision of totalitarianism is of the show-trial, the prison, the centrally organized bureaucratic state whereby in The Castle he could write, “If a man has his eyes bound, you can encourage him as much as you like to stare through the bandage, but he’ll never see anything.” In our current world, we’ve put the bandage on ourselves and forgotten that we’re wearing it. Ours is much closer to the neon cacophony of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep where a character says “Everything is true…Everything anybody has ever thought.” The cruel irony of that is if everything is true, then nothing is true; if everything is permitted, then nothing is.

Pomerantsev writes that “More information was supposed to mean more freedom to stand up to the powerful. But it also has given the powerful new ways to crush and silence dissent.” As it has turned out it’s the melee of continual information shared by our zombified fellow citizens that’s proven the easiest method to awash us in propaganda. Compared to the authoritarians of the past, Pomerantsev writes that “today’s strongmen are not so rigid. Instead of hanging on to one single ideology, they have learned to speak with different tongues.” To the detriment of all of us, one of the languages they’re most proficient in is a rhetoric that has been available on A.M. radio and amongst shock jocks and stand-up comics for generations, but that has been divorced from any transgressive import it may have once had, now rather serving the purposes of state power.

Leftists were once the funny ones, the Dadaist antics of groups like the Yippies potently using rude and obscene humor to challenge state and corporate hegemony, for “laughter removes the aura of impenetrability around an authoritarian leader.” A perusal of much of woke Twitter will demonstrate that the left has disastrously ceded ground in this regard, the import of humor being taken up by the right in a manner that poses serious challenges to the cause of justice. Pomerantsev recounts visiting popular Manila comedy clubs where stand-ups “pick victims in the audience and roast them, taunting them about the size of their penises, or for their weight, and this right in front of entire families who all laugh along in the relatives’ humiliation.” Duterte’s rhetoric mimics such stand-ups exactly, and goes a long way to explaining his popularity in the ostensibly socially conservative nation. “It’s a type of humor he shares with a troupe of male leaders across the world… [where] toilet humor is used to show how ‘anti-establishment’ they are.”

Such is the disingenuous use of “I was just joking” by leaders from Putin to Trump, who are able to deploy a cavalier cruelty without repercussions. It’s an ingenious hacking of liberals’ natural affinity for the freedom of speech, but done for profoundly illiberal aims. We still understandably valorize the jester speaking truth to power, men like Bill Hicks and George Carlin who were willing to say the seven words you can’t say on television, because if you’re barred from saying the word “fuck” then you’re barred from saying “fuck the president.” But our new authoritarians understand something about amoral tools—they can be asymmetrically used. Pomerantsev notes that “when such language is used consistently by men with real power to degrade those weaker, this humor becomes menacing: It lays the linguistic path to humiliating victims in other ways as well, to as pace where all norms disappear.” Laughter, it seems, is indeed indelible in the hippocampus.

Voters with NPR tote-bags and New Yorker subscriptions may have been caught off guard by the 2016 election results, but they were never the audience for The Apprentice anyhow. The current crisis in democracy, facilitated by cruel and relativist propaganda, is much less surprising if you’re familiar with the past several decades of popular culture that doesn’t receive prestige awards. Trump’s rhetoric matches not the highfalutin pretensions of William F. Buckley, George Will, and The National Review, but it owes everything to A.M. radio sports talk, shock jocks like Don Imus and Howard Stern (neither of whom were supporters of the White House’s current occupant), reality television, and the preening and theatrics of World Wrestling Entertainment. Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape, there was much hand-wringing about how people don’t talk like Trump did in that video—but of course many people do.

For his supporters, the “joy of Trump is to validate the pleasure of spouting shit, the joy of pure emotion, often anger, without any sense,” writes Pomerantsev. It’s not that they’re unaware of the cruelty; the cruelty is the point. While I had long been more pessimistic about the election then many of my liberal friends and colleagues, I definitively knew that Hillary Clinton would lose when on that Tuesday night I saw CNN interview a woman in a Pennsylvania bar (of the sort that I’m estimably familiar with) who dismissed the “pussy grabbing” comments by saying (and I paraphrase) “I don’t care. Lots of women talk that way too.” From a certain perspective, the election of Trump—a gameshow host who is in the WWE Hall of Fame and made his entertainment career appearing on Stern and talking about how his daughter is sexy—seems less a fluke and more a dispiriting inevitability.

This Is Not Propaganda is not necessarily a hopeful read. True, some of the figures whom he speaks with, from Popović to Escorcia, have and do contend with far worse than we do, and they are able to keep a type of revolutionary optimism. It’s hard to ignore Trump, and in some cases it’s malpractice not to consider him when necessity compels us. And yet few of us will wish on our death-beds that we’d wasted more words on his inanities, his narcissism, his bloated absurdity. One of authoritarianism’s most insidious characteristics is that it doesn’t give you the option to ignore it.

Pomerantsev doesn’t necessarily offer the average citizen much in the way of a map out of the quagmire, though that’s less his intent. He alludes that if we’re to hope for any kind of restoration of truth, of objectivity, of rationality, of democracy, that we must “formulate a vision of the alternative political model you want to see.” What this looks like will be hard to say, but it’s necessary to figure that out. What it won’t look like is the endless, lame obsession over Trump, who wants us to obsess over him: all of our own memes inexpertly put together about “Mango Mussolini,” “Cheeto Jesus,” and “Drumpf.” We can’t win that game, so let’s stop playing it. Tyrants may not believe in truth, but there should be succor in knowing that truth is very much real—and patient. “It’s coming from the feel / That this ain’t exactly real,” wrote that prophet Leonard Cohen, “Or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.” And yet the chorus could still be sung that “Democracy is coming to the USA.” Hopefully.

Image: rob walsh

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Jen, Yuknavitch, Missaghi, Nemens, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Gish Jen, Lidia Yuknavitch, Poupeh Missaghi, Emily Nemens, and more—that are publishing this week.

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The Resisters by Gish Jen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Resisters: ” A prodigious young athlete fights the oppression and poverty of her social class in this shrewd and provocative near-future novel from Jen (World and Town). In AutoAmerica, the Netted rule over an underclass called the Surplus, who receive Basic Income but aren’t allowed to work and are denied basic human rights. Seventeen-year-old Gwen, a member of the Surplus and a star player in the Underground Baseball League, is tired of her oppressive life and wants to rise to the Netted class. She gets her chance when the Netted recruit her to help beat ChinRussia. Gwen faces a crisis of conscience as she looks back on those she would leave behind, including her friend Ondi, once banished for a month for sharing forbidden content on the internet, and her father, Grant (also the narrator), who intersperses anecdotes of brutal punishments faced by fellow members of their rank throughout. By placing the narration in Grant’s measured, ironic voice, Jen shows how the Netted accomplished their subtle, Huxleyian takeover through bigotry and technology. While some of Jen’s fans might miss the overt humor of her previous work, her intelligence and control shine through in a chilling portrait of the casual acceptance of totalitarianism.”

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Verge: “In this brilliant collection, Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan) chronicles people outside society’s margins. In ‘Cusp,’ a teenager in rural Texas comes of age while acting as a drug mule at a prison. ‘The Organ Runner’ follows a young girl as she works to ferry kidneys for illegal backroom transplants, while ‘Second Language’ deals with sex trafficking in Portland, Ore. In ‘A Woman Refusing,’ a frustrated ex-husband refuses to aid his former spouse, who stands nude atop a high-rise, threatening to jump. The incest-tinged ‘Second Coming’ describes an at-home artificial insemination involving a sexually naive woman and her married sister. In ‘Mechanics,’ a woman flirts with a potential new lover while working under the hood of her car. The stories are consistently incisive, with sharp sentences and a barreling pace. The subject matter is pretty dark stuff, but Yuknavitch does offer an occasional ray of hope or rallying cry of resilience for her characters trapped by addiction, forced sex work, or bad marriages. This riveting collection invites readers to see women whose points of view are typically ignored.”

trans(re)lating house 1 by Poupeh Missaghi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about trans(re)lating house 1: “Missaghi’s lyrical, meditative debut merges fiction, poetry, and critical study to explore Iran’s history and volatile present. An unnamed woman catalogues the statues of figures from the Persian Constitutional Revolution that are steadily disappearing from Tehran, reflecting on what their absence says about the enduring value of sacrifice for the greater good. After encountering a mysterious woman who slips her a note reading ‘Keep looking for the bodies,’ the protagonist begins writing annotations of the protesters who died in the aftermath of the 2009 election. As her archive grows, the narrator’s project hinges on two questions: ‘How does death define the experience of life?’ and ‘How to translate loss into language?’ Between entries, readers glimpse the public lives of women in teahouses, art galleries, and city buses, and enter into a rich dream world that ‘gains materiality’ through the protagonist’s methodical documentation. Missaghi mines a range of literary sources, quoting from Claire Lispector and Sigmund Freud, and notes formal inspiration from Roberto Bolaño’s harrowing description of missing and murdered women in 2666, though the result is less a novel than a bravura exhibition of writing as performance art. This will appeal to fans of mixed-genre experiments, such as works by Lyn Hejinian and Anne Carson.”

Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Everywhere You Don’t Belong: “Bump’s astute and touching debut follows young Claude McKay Love, a black child learning to navigate contemporary Chicago’s South Side after his parents’ acrimonious split. Raised by his strong-willed, foul-mouthed Grandma and her best friend, a gay man named Paul, the duo are honest with Claude about his absent parents and needing to make his own way in life. As a teenager, Claude is advised by his grandma to stay far away from the Redbelters, a gang, telling him the members will never get further than the corner they’re standing on. As the Redbelters gain notoriety, Grandma attempts to organize their neighbors to stand up to them, but to no avail: the neighborhood erupts in a standoff between gangs and police, forever transformed by shootings, destruction, and terror. Along with Grandma and Paul, Claude and his close friend Janice try to rebuild their lives after the violence without falling victim to despair. Hoping to leave his broken hometown behind, Claude heads to Missouri for college, where he discovers there’s no way to outrun the past. Bump balances his heavy subject matter with a healthy dose of humor, but the highlight is Claude, a complex, fully developed protagonist who anchors everything. Readers will be moved in following his path to young adulthood.”

The Cactus League by Emily Nemens

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Cactus League: “In Nemens’s insightful debut, it’s 2011 and players of the L.A. Lions professional baseball team are reporting for spring training at their new facility, Salt River Fields, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Under a hot Southwestern sun, a sportswriter waits to interview the team’s golden boy, left fielder Jason Goodyear, whose handsome façade belies some unsavory secrets. Readers see Jason glancingly from eight different points of view: a put-upon batting coach whose mantra is ‘what would Joe DiMaggio do?’; a baseball groupie who sets her sights on him; a sports agent forced to cover up his client’s misdeeds to protect a Nike contract; the team owner with his own façade to maintain; a pitcher desperately trying to hide a painful elbow injury; the organist at the field where the Lions play; the seven-year-old son of a drug-addicted single mother who runs one of the concessions at the field; and Jason’s ex-wife, who finds herself reduced in the pecking order with the other players’ wives. Largely plotless, the book is a vivid collection of stories, as each character is brought to life in convincing detail, though the sportswriter’s interstitial musings can be intrusive. Still, this debut entertainingly illuminates people and problems usually overlooked in the sports pages.”

The Lost Book of Adana Moreau by Michael Zapata

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lost Book of Adana Moreau: “In Zapata’s stirring debut, a man’s efforts to fulfill his grandfather’s last wishes leads him into the horror of post-Katrina New Orleans. On the eve of the Great Depression, Dominican expat novelist Adana Moreau finishes then destroys the sequel to her masterwork, Lost City. After her death, Adana’s 10 year-old, mixed-race son, Maxwell, is alone and adrift in New Orleans. A generation later in Chicago, Saul Drower discovers an unpublished manuscript in a box that his late grandfather requested be sent to now-renowned physicist Maxwell Moreau. Saul’s efforts to locate the elusive academic lead him to New Orleans just as Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. Joined by his childhood friend, Saul dives deep into the flooded city. Zapata expertly jumps between the story of Maxwell ’s youth and Saul’s attempt to return his manuscript. Histories collide as Saul navigates the storm-battered city in search of Maxwell and the prophetic words of Adana become realized. Zapata expertly blends the drama of the lost manuscript with the on-the-ground chaos and tumult caused by the storm. Digging into themes of regeneration and rejuvenation, Zapata’s marriage of speculative and realist styles makes for a harrowing, immersive tale that will appeal to fans of Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.”

Returning to Books After Climbing Peak TV

In 2016, I started keeping track of the television shows I watched, along with books and movies. That was the year I started taking television a bit more seriously, I guess. Or maybe I just wanted to see where all my time was going. This year, when I was looking at my books list to compose my annual “Year in Reading” post, I noticed that the amount of TV I’d watched had dropped dramatically. I started a lot of different series, but hardly finished any of them. Suddenly, it seems, I’m a lot pickier about what TV shows I watch, as picky as I have always been about books.

It used to be that I would try to watch what everyone else seemed to be watching. I grew up in a household where the television was mostly off-limits, so as an adult, I’ve relished the opportunity to stay current. The Sopranos, The Office, Mad Men, Friday Night Lights: These are a few of the mid-aughts shows I started watching because of the cultural conversation around them, rather than my personal interest in the material. I continued to watch them because I liked them, but for the past few years, the social pressure to keep up with a particular show has dissipated. I’m hardly the first person to observe that everyone seems to be watching their own version of TV. In the same way that I never expect anyone to be reading the same book as I am, I don’t have any expectation that other people will be watching the same TV shows. There are some things that I watch that are so obscure I’d be shocked to find another viewer. (Is there anyone besides me and my seven-year-old who watches PBS’s Monstrum, a series of mini-lectures about famous monsters?) With the recent exception of Succession, I can’t think of the last show that I tuned into because it was What People Are Watching.

Without the social pressure to try a particular show, I’ve been choosier. There’s more TV than ever before, yet I find myself listlessly scrolling through the options in the same way I sometimes gaze at my bookshelves, wondering what I’m in the mood to read next. Where I once would have stayed with a better-than-average TV series because my friends and family were into it, I now have to feel personally compelled to watch a show. Basically, I hold TV to the same standard that I hold books—not a higher one, necessarily, but more idiosyncratic.

When I think about how I choose what to read, it’s either nonfiction about a subject that I’m curious about, or it’s fiction with a voice that speaks to me, for whatever mysterious reason. It’s still hard for me to guess what fiction I’m going to adore. Earlier this year, I stayed up until the wee hours to finish Ling Ma’s Severance, a zombie-office novel that I was not expecting to be my cup of tea. I had a similar experience with HBO’s Chernobyl, a show that didn’t initially sound like something I wanted to dwell on, but once I started watching, I eagerly awaited every new installment.

In this era of Peak TV, I try to approach a new series with the same open mind I have for contemporary fiction—and with the same critical gaze. I’ll try more shows than I used to, but I’ll give up more quickly, too. Sometimes that means I’ll enjoy and genuinely admire a couple of episodes but don’t feel the need to continue (The Bold Type, Lodge 49, Queen Sugar). Five years ago, I think I would have given those shows more of a chance. I remember someone telling me that I had to watch about seven episodes of Mad Men before it got good. I actually followed that advice, but I can’t imagine doing it now. Life’s too short, and there’s so much more TV out there anyway. But also: the other night I re-watched a random episode from season six of Mad Men because I couldn’t decide what new thing to watch.

I choose books with the resigned sense that I will never in my lifetime read all of the authors recommended to me. It’s strange to have that feeling with television. As with classic unread novels, certain TV shows have begun to carry with them a hint of obligation. There are so many shows that people assure me are really good, really smart, really fun, shows like Breaking Bad and Borgen and Schitt’s Creek. Then there are the documentaries that promise to teach history: Ken Burns’s Vietnam, Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, Ken Burns’s Country Music, OJ: Made in America—actually, I did watch OJ, and it was incredible. I would like to watch it again. But then I’d like to read Middlemarch again, too.

I don’t want to overwork this comparison or to suggest that I’m pitting books against TV. (If I’m pitting books against anything, it’s the internet.) Books and television are fundamentally different. TV is theatrical and collaborative, with stories concocted by a room full of writers, and influenced by producers with varied motivations. Even showrunners with distinctive and quirky visions, such as Donald Glover (Atlanta) or Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) depend on their cast, crew, and production team to make certain narrative decisions. In contrast, the author of a book is in charge of all its narrative effects. Editors and publishers have their influence, but when you read a book, it’s you and the author in conversation. Books give a cozy feeling of privacy that I’ve always appreciated. TV never feels private, but it can feel lonely.

It’s possible that this essay is nothing more than a diary of my own exhaustion, of a new discernment brought on by children who leave me desiring quiet at the end of the day and news sites that shred my attention. There may be something generational going on here, too. Having come of age in an era where people tuned into the same shows, I could be bringing expectations to the medium that a younger generation doesn’t have. From what I gather from my nieces and nephews, TV shows are just one part of their daily dose of streaming entertainment, something that gets mixed in with YouTube clips, Instagram stories, memes, and other kinds of social media. This seems to be the future of entertainment, and maybe my recent choosiness regarding television shows is a reflection of the many, many things competing for my attention. As always, I feel overwhelmed. More often than not, I seek the comfort in a book.

Image: Scheier .hr

Prayer Is Poetry

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same things as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” —Simone Weil, “Attention and Will” (1942)

“I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them.” —Flannery O’Connor, private “prayer journal” (1946)

Murmuring fills the stone halls of Mt. Athos’s monasteries, exhaling like breath into a cold and clear morning. With its thousands of monks, there is not silence—there is the opposite of silence. Excluding the sounds of nature—the cooing of turtle doves and the swooping of Dalmatian pelicans; the sound of rain hitting the granite paths of the isle; the lapping of the ocean upon the jagged rocks—there is the omnipresent shudder of thousands of men’s faintly mumbled devotions, called to prayer by one of their brothers hitting the metal of a semantron with a wooden mallet. Like chill dew condensed on green leaves still black before the dawn, prayer clings in the atmosphere of this place. Prayer is the ether of Athos through which light must travel; the dun of monks chanting at every hour of the day and for all days is like a holy cosmic background radiation.

At the tip of that rocky peninsula, jutting like a limb into the wine-dark Aegean, are the 20 communities of the Orthodox Monastic Republic of Athos, an outcropping that has been continuously home to ascetic, celibate, reverential monks for 18 centuries. There, overlooking the Greek sea, sit buildings like the blue onion-domed mirage of St. Panteleimon Monastery, filled with Russian monks keeping their liturgy, and the Byzantine castle that constitutes the Stavronikita Monastery in honor of St. Nicholas. That holy bishop looks down on his novices with black eye from gold icon; St. Nicholas is joined by companions such as St. Gregory, St. Nektarios, and the gentle Virgin of Theotokos, as painted by the great artist Theophanes the Cretan. In their otherworldly position, what do the icons see? There they watch scores of dark robed monks, who with lips covered by black and grey and white beards repeat the same prayer as if breathing, over and over: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Such a process, the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer until it begins to lose coherence, in the same way that a continually uttered word begins to sound like nothing if you do it long enough, lends the words a different sort of significance. Any true hearing of the prayer has to consider the words beyond the words, that which it gestures toward in dictionaries that exist beyond literal statement. Meaning is sacrificed for mystery, and in the process an infinity is gained. Many who use this approach, known as Hesychasm, do so “not just as a philosophical device for indicating God’s utter transcendence, but also, and much more fundamentally, as a means for attaining union with Him through prayer,” notes Timothy Ware in his classic introduction The Orthodox Church. The spiritual cosmonauts who are Hesychasts engage in this extreme repetitive prayer, chasing the literal semantic meanings out of words like souls departing from dead flesh, because such “negations…acted as a springboard or trampoline whereby the mystical theologian sought to leap up with all the fullness of his or her being in the living mystery of God,” as Ware explains.

As superficial attributes are burnt away, the sinner is to encounter that noble silence that is at the core of all of us, the ineffable utterances of prayer. A process whereby those enraptured in the liturgy will subtract that which defines their externalities; a prayer so fervent that it will blind your eyes, mute your mouth, and deafen your ears. This is prayer at its most extreme—absolute, indomitable, and unceasing. Philip and Carol Zaleski explain in Prayer: A History that the “roots of the Jesus Prayer lie in the traditional belief that names contain power…and that repetition of a name concentrates and focuses this power.” The famed utterance is based on these contemplative principles of Hesychasm formulated within Eastern Orthodoxy, whereby the individual empties her soul out so as to make room for those defusing molecules of holiness. In such a space, it is not just the spirit, mind, heart, and mouth that utter the anchorite’s prayer, but indeed the elbow and ankle, the eyelash and earlobe, the knuckle and wrist also. Writing in the fourth century, the Church Father John Cassian said that the Jesus Prayer is to be one that you think upon “as you sleep, as you eat, as you submit to the most basic demands of nature…You will write it upon the threshold and gateway of your mouth, you will place it on the walls of your house and in the inner sanctum of your heart.” For if the Jesus Prayer is a narrative, it is one into which those who pray must descend; if it is a poem, it is one where the words themselves become indistinguishable from the reader, where the recitation becomes life.

The Jesus Prayer is not mere supplication, rather it’s a variation on what Walt Whitman intoned in Leaves of Grass whereby “your very flesh shall be a great poem.” When one transforms themselves into an evocation, it matters not whether we’re speaking of “prayer” or “poetry,” for in heaven those categories are the same thing. Prayer is like poetry in that the greatest examples of both take as their greatest subjects themselves. All true prayers are about prayer; all beautiful poetry is really about poetry. Like all divine utterances, the Jesus Prayer is also narrative and rhetoric, capable of being read critically. This is not to diminish the import of this celebrated Orthodox prayer; we must avoid collapsing the liturgical into the aesthetic, the profundity of ritual into the mere marketplace of art. But the Jesus Prayer—all 12 words, four clauses, three commas, and one period that constitute it—wouldn’t be as effective were it not also poetry, if it did not also have an endlessly regenerative story at its center. A script into which any penitent could imagine themselves.

For those who aren’t Orthodox, but are familiar with the Jesus Prayer, it’s perhaps read less as literature itself and more a concept that may have been encountered in literature. The prayer plays a large part in the plot of J.D. Salinger’s novel Franny and Zoey, whereby the former of the two Upper East Side Glass sisters becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer after reading an account of it in the 19th-century anonymous Russian tract called The Way of a Pilgrim. As Franny recounts to her college boyfriend, when considering unceasing prayer as is practiced on Athos, one must emphatically ask if they had ever heard “anything so fascinating in your life, in a way?” Far from mere neurotic scrupulosity, the Jesus Prayer is a melding of the person with the poem, whereby the author of The Way of a Pilgrim could say that “Sometimes my heart would feel as though it were bubbling with joy; such lightness, freedom, and consolation were in it.” The repetition of prayer is like wheels turning in the wind, equally dispelling meaning and its malignant sibling worry. Franny was right to be fascinated.

So, let’s close read the Jesus Prayer as poetry. It begins with that invocation, a calling upon Christ as if Homer entreating the muse; it transitions into the statement of identity for the Son of God, whose majesty is contrasted with the narrator of the lyric who is in need of saving grace. The plaintiveness of requesting mercy has the weighted heaviness of its simple declaration. So much is held in those last two words; the indefinite article indicating the universality of sin, the confession of that condition the material for all great drama. The Jesus Prayer is a microfiction written in the present tense, where the main character is whoever should be speaking it. The great tale it tells is that of unearned salvation. The peroration is inconclusive, the ending yet to be written.

God will hear any prayer as poetry—even the recitation of the alphabet or guttural nonsense syllables may be recognized by the Lord as prayer, but humans require prosody to stick in the brain. Too often prayer is dismissed by the secular because it’s reduced to mere plea for intercession; it’s slurred as being a cosmic gift-card, and not recognized for what it actually is—the only poetic genre defined by its intended audience being the Divine. Not enough attention is paid to the poetic aspects of prayer, scarcely more attention is paid to the prayerful qualities of poetry. Prayer is just as deserving of critical analysis, of close reading and interpretation through the methods of literary interpretation as any verse is. Such is the position of The New Yorker’s esteemed book critic James Wood, who in his introduction to the Penguin Deluxe Edition of the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 The Book of Common Prayer argued that the Church of England missal marked “one of the great, abiding works of English literature.” There are a handful of anthologies that treat prayer with the literary interest expressed by Wood. The Oxford Book of Prayer is an ecumenical anthology compiled by a group of scholars that goes beyond Christianity to explore the varieties of the poetic numinous, with the committee member George Appleton explaining that their desire was to express admiration for “all who value the religious experience of mankind, and are seeking the Eternal Mystery and Transcendence.” Religion popularizer Karen Armstrong offered her own selection of prayers as poems in the collection Tongues of Fire: An Anthology of Religious and Poetic Experience, which is sadly out of print. But for the most part, there is an endemic critical fallacy separating prayer and poetry.  

Theologians frequently divide prayers into five categories: adoration, petition, thanksgiving, contrition, and confession; in an act of Episcopalian parsimony the essayist Anne Lamott collapses those categories in her new-age guide Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Certainly prayer as a genre has multiple uses, with petition for the Lord to redress our needs and desires but the least of these. That’s not to diminish the importance of supplication; there are few things more understandable, universal, and human than the individual crying out to God in helplessness. Even God Himself supposedly does it as He dies upon the cross. If poetry is to be an expression of the breadth of humanity in its full experience, than the various purposes of prayer are a helpful encapsulation of what it means to be a person; running the gamut from ecstatic wonder to humble gratitude, desperation to guilt. The most powerful of prayers arguably embody all of those reasons for praying in the first place, because it’s not always easy to separate the terrible wonder toward God from our desire for redemption or our cries for help.

Filmmakers often understand the innate dramatic potential of a prayer, whether it be John Cazale’s stoic Fredo calmly reciting a Hail Mary in the seconds before his brother Michael, as played with reptilian efficacy by Al Pacino, shoots him in the back of the head during an ill-fated fishing trip in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II; bellowed out in horror and sadness like Harvey Keitel’s tortured scream within a cathedral at the conclusion Abel Ferrara’s gritty noir depiction of a corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant; or Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield reciting scripture (hubristically invented by director Quentin Tarantino) before executing someone who has run afoul of him in Pulp Fiction. If crime drama seems heavy on prayer, then it’s because prayer isn’t only for quiet meditation, but exists at those places where sin and the sacred must by necessity occupy the same space. Such is the explanation as memorably delivered by Jackson, who reflects that when it comes to his scriptwriter’s pseudo-scriptural inflection, “I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker…But I saw some shit this morning that made me think twice…The truth is… you’re the weak, and I am the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying.”

Prayer must by definition be extreme; to make oneself a conduit for the transcendent by words artfully arranged is, in a materialistic culture dominated by ruthless pragmatism, a transgressive practice. For those who reject prayer as maudlin affectation, more Thomas Kincaid than Caravaggio, know that the later has been at the forefront of the sacred a lot longer than the former. Not surprisingly, but strangely under remarked on, is the understandable facility with that poets themselves have in composing prayers. The 19th-century novelist Anne Brontë wrote her own subversive supplication in 1844, asking “My God! O let me call Thee mine! / Weak, wretched sinner though I be, / My trembling soul would fain be Thine, / My feeble faith still clings to Thee.” The poem is perfectly orthodox (lower-case “o” emphasized), for there would be nobody in the Church of England at the time who would look askance at confession of their faith’s fallibility. Yet there is also an eroticism in Brontë’s lyric, the romantic connotations of asking the beloved to be the speaker’s, the desire to cling to the beloved. In her language she calls back to the 17th-century Metaphysical tradition of George Herbert, or especially John Donne; in her punctuation she calls forward to Whitman. The forwardness of her confession that “Not only for the past I grieve, / The future fills me with dismay” is Brontë’s alone, however, the universality of such an observation paradoxically belying its personal nature.

Some of our greatest modernists have penned prayers as captivating as anything written in a patrist’s cell or jotted in the margins of a Puritan’s notebook, and not even necessarily the obvious figures who had religious fascinations like T.S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. Broad-shouldered Carl Sandburg of that hog butchery capital of the world Chicago wrote an unlikely prayer, appropriately enough for his proletariat subject-matter entitled “Prayers of Steel.” In a manner that evokes the Holy Sonnets of Donne, Sandburg asks the Lord to “Lay me on an anvil, O God. / Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar./Let me pry loose old walls. / Let me lift and loosen old foundations.” If prayer is erotic, then it’s also violent—it’s instrumental. Such a practice is to be a technology for transformation, and Sandburg’s desire is to be made into something with all of the heft, energy, and grit of sheer matter, so that God would “Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike. / Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together. / Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.” For such is a fundamental tension, a beautiful paradox of prayer—that it requires a profound humility, but is based upon the belief that a simple human can casually compose verse for the Infinite, so that he who is in repose may “be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.”

Another modernist psalmist is the Jamaican-American poet and seminal Harlem Renaissance figure Claude McKay, who composed a melancholic and intensely personal meditation in 1922, writing that “’Mid the discordant noises of the day I hear thee calling; / I stumble as I fare along Earth’s way; keep me from falling,” a declaration that is perhaps that which most sharply differentiates prayer as a subset of poetry—for unlike the later the former is always obligated to be honest (for its Reader would know if it wasn’t). In a theme that has motivated religious narrative from Paul to Augustine to Hank Williams Sr., McKay tells God that the “wild and fiery passion of my youth consumes my soul; / In agony I turn to thee for truth and self-control.” The rhyming couplets, as critically out of fashion as they were and continue to be, give the prayer the sing-song quality of hymn; their formal innocence add to the sense of helplessness that motivates the most intense of prayers.

That great wit and raconteur Dorothy Parker, more famous for her cutting gin-and-vermouth fueled quips at the Algonquin Round Table than piety, penned a beautiful and sad prayer in 1930 that James P. More Jr. described in One Nation Under God: A History of Prayer in America as “conveying a rare tenderness in the midst of personal loss.” Written in light of infidelity, miscarriage, and the omnipresent companion of alcoholism, Parker pleaded, “Dearest one, when I am dead / Never seek to follow me. / Never mount the quiet hill / Where the copper leaves are still, / As my heart is, on the tree / Standing at my narrow bed.” Parker’s sadness is a rejoinder to those who see in prayer only the myopia of personal contentment, for the asking of a cosmic favor. Rather, her prayer is an artifact of the broken ego that defines the tragedy of any prayer uttered truthfully—that prayer, if it’s to be heard, must be a ritual of ego extinction, of Hesychasm. “Only of your tenderness, / Pray a little prayer at night,” wrote Parker, “Say: ‘I have forgiven now – / I, so weak and said; O Thou, / Wreathed in thunder, robed in light, / Surely Thou wilt do no less.”

If prayer was “effective” than people wouldn’t die young, alone, sick, spurned, and forgotten; if prayer was “pragmatic” than loved ones wouldn’t suffer and pass, people wouldn’t be in debt, homes wouldn’t be foreclosed; if prayer was “useful,” than we’d never be despairing and broken. That prayer’s purpose isn’t to be effective, pragmatic, or useful speaks to a far deeper thirst that the practice quenches. Prayer isn’t about avoiding bad things; it’s about how one approaches their inevitability in a fallen world. Because I am a broken person who once drank too much, and discovered that it was impossible for me to drink less without drinking everything, I decided that it would be easier to not drink at all. As such, there’s a perhaps predictable and cliched prayer that I’ve long been partial towards, but which has as much significance to me as the Jesus Prayer had to John Cassian. The Zaleskis write of the “Serenity Prayer” that “nothing in it smacks of ideology or sectarianism, and yet its demands, if followed faithfully and to the letter, require Solomonic insight and saintly fortitude.”

Commonly attributed to the liberal Protestant minister and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who claimed that he first preached it in a sermon at an Evangelical church in western Massachusetts during World War II, the prayer was attributed by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill W., to everyone from an “ancient Greek, an English poet, [or] an American naval officer,” as the Zaleskis write. As seen on coffee mugs, wall-hangings, key chains, and cross-stiches, the Serenity Prayer implores “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change,/Courage to change the things we can,/And wisdom to know the difference.” This Stoic injunction is often misinterpreted as maudlin pablum by those who stop at the first sentence, misinterpreting the call to surrender as unthinking capitulation, whereas in reality it is often good sense. It’s the second sentence that has the pathos, however, and in the third there is the ingredient for all true narrative. When people are unable to know the difference we call it tragedy; when they can, we call it something else—even if tragedy remains forever a possibility.

The prayerful greatest hits have much to recommend in themselves as well, of course. Each of the great Abrahamic faiths is poetically bound by defining prayers, whether the Jewish Shema Yisrael, the Christian Pater Noster, or the Islamic Shahadah. The Shema’s blessing is both principle and poem, the short declaration “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” a statement of divine synthesis, unity, consilience. The imploration that the collected people must listen raises our profane realm into the transcendent. As with the Hesychasts or Whitman, humanity itself is transposed into the very flesh of the prayer. Melvin Konner describes the phylacteries used by observant Jews in the recitation of the prayer, writing in Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews about “tefillin, the black leather boxes that hold the words of the Shema, fulfilling the commandment to place them as ‘a sign upon the hand’ and ‘frontlets between the eyes.’” The Shahada does something similar, presenting an axiom as a prayer, the drama implicit within it a statement about reality itself. “There is no god but God,” prays the observant Muslim, and part of the beauty of the statement lies in its tautological simplicity, self-referentiality only broken in English transliteration by orthographic convention regarding the capitalization of certain words. The Pater Noster has a similar sense of the ways in which heaven (and perhaps hell) dwell not in a beyond, but in the here and now, as clear as a poem placed in a box and affixed to the forehead. What could be more tangible than the forgiveness of debts and of our “daily bread?”

America’s greatest psalmist, Emily Dickinson, defined the genre as being “the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them,” the gap of that characteristic dash saying everything we’ve ever felt, thought, or wondered about the spaces at the center of that absent Writer we call G-d. Perhaps that old language of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and so on is limited, better to think of prayer as being the poetry that you internalize and take with you, a consumptive implement that burns away the detritus of personality to leave behind (w)holly ash. Prayer is the poetry that possesses the body, the kernel of a soul left over when everything else has been immolated. Poems are written for audiences, readers, the poet themselves, but only prayers are written for God.

No doubt the literary genre for which there is the greatest number of compositions, but for which the vast majority of them will never be heard or read by any living person. The only literary genre in which there need not even be words for it to be a poem. All true prayers have as their subject the drama of salvation, redemption, reconciliation, peace. Such was the request of the great Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi who in the 13th century ecstatically implored us to “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of learning – it doesn’t matter, / Ours is not a caravan of despair. / Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times, / Come, come again, come.” So that prayer is, even when it seems to despair, a fundamentally optimistic genre. What it presupposes is that every second is a portal through which some kind of grace may enter. What it hopes is that there is somebody on the receiving end, listening.