This Story Sucks: What I Learned Teaching LGBTQ Studies

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On my classroom’s back wall, cartoon unicorns distinguish gender from sex and sexuality. Lil Nas X muses on the success of “Old Town Road:” “wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”

Above a pink triangle, the words I see you. Below it: & I love you.

When I tell men on Grindr that I teach LGBTQ Studies, they either express surprise that my high school offers it, play up a fetish (“I wish you’d been my teacher”), or assume I work at a fancy private school.

In fact, I teach (English, mostly) in one of the poorest public school districts in Massachusetts. I can trace the elective’s origin back to our teachers union. In 2017, the bargaining team strategized about how best to pull the conservative district left. Clear-eyed about our leverage, we chose not to lay a bunch of thorny demands out on the table. Instead, we pruned them. We proposed committees. Years later, the labor-management committee focused on diversity and equity successfully added LGBTQ Studies to the high school’s curriculum.

The inaugural class was small, only a dozen or so students, nearly all of them self-identifying with some letter in the acronym. We started with a bar riot (Stonewall, 1969) and ended with a nightclub massacre (Pulse, 2016). As the semester went on, I loved to see which figures and flash points in queer history resonated with my students.

Curly-haired and lewd, Jason wasn’t easily impressed. But when we listened to Sylvia Rivera recount her story of Stonewall in the documentary Out Rage ’69, he said, surprised by her coarse vernacular, “She sounds like us.” I smiled. “You mean you sound like her.”

One of the lesbians in class fell in love with Audre Lorde. Struck by the excerpt we read of “The Uses of Anger,” Michaela asked her mom to buy her a collection of Lorde’s poetry. She then sped through Zami and Sister Outsider.

After cheering on Damon and Angel in the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, students went home and binged the series.

And they got chills reading James Merrill’s concrete poem “Christmas Tree,” written at the end of his life before he died of AIDS complications. “Yo, I’m so dumb,” Jaliyah said to us, stunned that anyone could write a poem about a tree that was also a poem about a man, about how they both die, both become “needles and bone” in the end.

That’s a generous montage, though. If I’m honest, I often worried I was getting more out of the class than my students were.

Maybe I should blame the generational gap. There was only one half-out kid in my millennial high school. I spent close to a decade in the closet—from eighth grade (2004), when the word gay began to torment me, until my senior year of college (2013), when I finally came out. In between, I kept my distance from queer people, let alone queer history and culture. I slept with a gay man before I made friends with one. Now out as an adult, I still had a lot to learn, and I was hungry to learn it.

As I connected historical events to one another across time and teased out the movement’s tensions between assimilation and liberation, I reaffirmed my own present-tense identity, politics, and community. Excavating stories of a radical past—from the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to ACT UP—clarified an inheritance of queer resistance, an orientation toward solidarity, direct action, and supporting those with the least to lose in our fight to win the world we all deserve.

I wanted this for my students, too. I wanted the class to whistle and pop, for every student to walk away from it on fire for the movement. It was a big ask. Unlike the guys I try to impress online, my Gen Z students mostly took the class for granted.

Some students failed the class. One slept through it. In their defense, the course was far from perfect. It was only my first attempt, after all.

It didn’t help that we started before 8 a.m. Students would show up late with Dunkin’ and pay closer attention to their iced coffees than to the YA novels they’d each chosen for independent reading. (Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl stands out as one exception, a page-turner about a trans girl starting at a new school.)

Our classroom also invited gossip about their queer relationships in ways that most did not, a distraction I could hardly begrudge them. Trista mooned over her girlfriend. Lana, a potty-mouthed trans girl, serialized her entanglement with a pair of brothers. They whispered, they shrieked, they slapped each other’s twiggy arms in disbelief.

One particularly memorable Monday, Jason told us his boyfriend had cheated on him over the weekend. He was steamed. As we tried to read from Adrienne Rich’s admittedly dense “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that morning, he wrote in the margin, “This story sucks.” (To Jason’s credit, that more or less perfectly distills Rich’s argument about heterosexuality.)

In the end, I got over myself. I came to feel grateful for my students’ chill—even a little jealous. Is it too naïve to suggest we’ve come at least that far?

Still, I’m glossing. A majority of my students shared stories of childhood trauma, of brutal secrets and countless slights. It’s gotten better—but only to a point, and considerably more so for some than for others. No amount of glitter can cover up the unabated violence against queer and trans people, particularly of color. My students, for example, voted to raise money for the Trevor Project in order to address the persistently disproportionate rates of LGBTQ suicide and homelessness. I know they’d be horrified by the wave of anti-trans bills currently crashing down on state legislatures.

I just wish you could’ve seen them: unapologetic, unbowed, and—like all teenagers in class—easily off-task and gloriously bored.

I didn’t scold them, then. I chose not to play the role of elder (I’m 29, but age is elastic with teenagers, especially with gay boys like Jason, who thought I was ancient) intent on making the next generation feel painfully indebted for the basic dignity and rights they enjoy. They shouldn’t have to live stuck in a past when we existed only in the shadows, locked away in our closets.

What I did was write them a letter. As we said our goodbyes at the end of the semester, I encouraged them to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of queer and trans ancestors who hid, who loved, who threw bricks, who were murdered, who tore up dance floors, who lost families and chose new ones.

That to choose a family is to want to make them proud.

The message landed, I think—at least somewhat, at least for some of them. I know because I asked them to write me back.

In her letter, Michaela called our class her “home.” Many of them did. “This is like family,” she wrote. She also quoted Audre Lorde, whose work she now reads most mornings to motivate herself out of bed: “Your silence will not protect you.” Michaela promised to always speak up.

Lana, however, was brief. She ripped a page out of her notebook and scribbled across it, “Your the gayest teacher ive ever had and thats great for you.” A bubble hovered above the i, fit to burst.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Cusk, Pham, Silber, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Rachel Cusk, Larissa Pham, Joan Silber, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Second Place: “Cusk’s intelligent, sparkling return (after Kudos) centers on a woman in crisis. The narrator, M, is a writer living on an isolated coastal marsh with her second husband, Tony. They have built a guest cabin on their property, which they call the ‘second place.’ Through a mutual friend, M invites a painter, L, to stay in the cabin. L’s art deeply affected M 15 years earlier when she was a young mother and was struck by the work’s ‘freedom’ and how it was ‘elementally and unrepentingly male down to the last brushstroke.’ To her surprise, L accepts, before canceling. M’s daughter, Justine, and her new boyfriend, Kurt, who reminds M of her first husband, move into the cabin just before L shows up with a gorgeous young woman named Brett. The characters enter an uneasy equilibrium on the marsh as allusions of a global financial disaster fill in the backdrop. L paints portraits of everyone except M—which devastates her. Cusk expertly handles the logistics of the crowded setting, building tension as the characters form unexpected, temporary alliances—Kurt and L, Brett and Justine—and M’s isolation increases. There is the erudition of the author’s Outline trilogy here, but with a tightly contained dramatic narrative. It’s a novel that feels timeless, while dealing with ferocious modern questions.”

Pop Song by Larissa Pham

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pop Song: “Pham reinvents the memoir in a stirring debut that explores the power of language, art, and love. As an Asian American woman who felt alienated early on in her life, she poured herself into studying art and poetry to reconcile her need for closeness. In 11 essays, she interrogates desire in all its forms, beginning with an evocative piece about finding solace in the act of running. She aspires to the ‘affable stride’ of fellow runner and novelist Haruki Murakami, but instead she runs ‘as if trying to lose my mind.’ Throughout, Pham examines the emotionality of other artists’ and writers’ work and lives—from Barthes to Georgia O’Keeffe to Louise Bourgeois—as a way to better understand her own. In ‘Blue,’ she reflects on escaping mental burnout in New Mexico, and remembers the painter Agnes Martin’s flight from New York, after a schizophrenic episode: ‘Agnes’s voices and visions didn’t inform her art-making process, but… dictated her actions—where to be, what to eat, what to own.’ Ever-present, too, is the haunting of past lovers and her own sexuality, captured in prose that’s both beautiful and gutting. ‘If I could own it… become a woman with agency. It wouldn’t matter if I still hurt. At least I’d be able to describe it.’ This is a masterpiece.”

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sorrowland: “Solomon’s outstanding third novel (after The Deep) revisits the themes of memory and responsibility through two new lenses: horror and contemporary thriller. Vern, an albino, intersex, Black child raised in a cult known as the Blessed Acres of Cain, flees to the woods as a seven-months-pregnant 15-year-old, giving birth to twins she names Howling and Feral. The new family is pursued by ‘the fiend,’ who appears to the nearly blind Vern as ‘a white blur.’ The fiend scatters animal carcasses throughout the woods (often pointedly targeting animal families to send a message to Vern and her children) and sets dangerous fires. For four years Vern raises her twins without other human contact, until a cataclysmic encounter with the fiend, fearsome changes in her own body, and relentless hauntings drive her to seek answers in the world outside the woods. This plot is the most accessible of Solomon’s work to date, but they use the deceptively simple story to delve deep into Vern’s struggle to forge her own identity without buckling under the weight of history. As in their debut, An Unkindness of Ghosts, Solomon often packs so much into each image that the result can be overwhelming. They display a maturing control of their craft, employing a breathtaking range of reference that will enable any reader, from horror geek to Derridean academic, to engage with this thrilling tale. This is a tour de force.”

A Lonely Man by Chris Power

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Lonely Man: “In this beguiling literary thriller about the ethics of storytelling, Power (Mothers) examines the plundering tendencies of oligarchs and writers alike. Robert Prowe, an English novelist living in Berlin, strikes up a friendship with fellow writer Patrick Unsworth, who shares an outlandish tale: having been hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of dissident Russian oligarch Sergei Vanyashin and entrusted with compromising information about Putin’s regime, he is now being tracked by Russian agents. Moreover, Vanyashin and various figures in his circle have died under suspicious circumstances. Robert can’t decide if his new acquaintance is lying or ‘playing out some fantasy,’ but decides to use Patrick’s story, without his permission, as the basis for a new novel. Robert’s ‘twenty-four fucking carat’ material comes with a cost, as ominous signs emerge that he and his family could be in danger. For a novel filled with so much trickery, there are some slack sections, for example, when Robert prepares his family’s summer house in Sweden or returns to London for a funeral. Furthermore, the bond between the two men isn’t quite magnetic enough for the reader to feel the sting of the eventual vampiric betrayal. By and large, though, Power maintains an elegant sense of intrigue around the lengths writers will go for a good story.”

The Parted Earth by Anjali Enjeti

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Parted Earth: “Enjeti documents the impact of India’s Partition on successive generations in her immersive debut novel (after the essay collection Southbound). In 1947, British India is on the brink of being decolonized, with the lives of millions hanging in the balance. Hindu teenager Deepa Khanna’s doctor parents confront escalating hostilities from Hindu Indians because of their willingness to treat Muslims, while Deepa becomes secretly attracted to her Muslim friend Amir. After Deepa’s parents are killed in an attack, she moves to London and Amir leaves for Pakistan. The story then shifts to Deepa’s granddaughter Shan, who, following a miscarriage and subsequent divorce in 2016, begins digging into her past, finally uncovering the reason for her grandmother’s aloofness. Deepa’s experience renders her ‘unknowable’ to Shan, filling Deepa with a grief that ‘seemed to burden generations of Khannas’ with guilt. Meanwhile, other stories emerge of the Partition, from characters such as Shan’s neighbor, Chandani Singh, who supports Shan through her difficulties, and Chandani’s late husband, Harjeet, spinning an increasingly broad set of voices. While no less affecting, these supporting accounts receive an imbalanced, sometimes disproportionate attention that can detract from the novel’s main characters. Still, this intergenerational account of remembering and reconciliation sits comfortably alongside works of its kind.”

Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Things We Lost to the Water: “Nguyen’s captivating debut spans three decades to chronicle the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family. In 1978, Hư ơ ng arrives in New Orleans with her two sons, five-year-old Tuấ n and infant Bì nh. They settle in the Versailles Arms project on the eastern outskirts of the city, where the hurricane alarm reminds Hương of the war, and she mails tape recordings to Cô ng, the husband she left behind. Her messages receive no reply until finally, in a terse postcard, Công urges her to forget him. Hương tells her sons their father died, and over the years, the boys grow to follow different paths. In 1991, Tuấn falls in with a Vietnamese gang, the Southern Boyz. The next summer, Bình, who insists everyone call him Ben, takes refuge in books and a romance with an older white boy. A couple years later, Ben finds Hương’s old letters to Công and confronts her, shattering their increasingly fragile bond. As the characters spin away from each other, Nguyen keeps a keen eye on their struggles and triumphs, crafting an expansive portrayal of New Orleans’s Vietnamese community under the ever-present threat of flooding, and the novel builds to a haunting conclusion during Hurricane Katrina. Readers will find this gripping and illuminating.”

Secrets of Happiness by Joan Silber

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Secret of Happiness: “A crushing indiscretion comes to light in the sharp latest from National Book Critics Circle Award winner Silber (Improvement). The story is initially narrated by Ethan, a gay Manhattan attorney who discovers his businessman father, Gil, has led a secret double life after Gil is hit with a paternity suit by a Thai woman named Nok. Gil suffers several strokes and decides to recover with his Thai family, and awkward visitations ensue at Nok’s apartment, where Gil calls Nok Abby, Ethan’s mother’s name. The situation’s emotional complexity unfolds and expands through accounts from a diverse range of interconnected narrators, juggled by Silber with uncanny dexterity. In addition to witty and genially confident Ethan, there’s Abby, who now teaches English in Thailand; Ethan’s half brother, Joe, who feels uneasy about the return from Bangkok of his younger brother Jack, whom Joe had recently freed from jail by bribing the police; various characters’ ex-lovers and their exes; a Nepalese film director; and others. These perspectives become an extended family of sorts conjoined by love yet tormented by the past. As more layers peel away across continents, the fallout of Gil’s affair trickles down through Silber’s intricate and emotionally elaborate study of emotional ties. This mesmerizing story of love, lies, and the consequences of betrayal brims with heart and intelligence.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lahiri, Washuta, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jhumpa Lahiri, Elissa Washuta, 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.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Whereabouts: “The latest from Pulitzer winner Lahiri (The Interpreter of Maladies) is a meditative and aching snapshot of a life in suspension. The unnamed narrator, a single, middle-aged woman, lives a quiet life in an unnamed Italian city, ambling between cafes and storefronts, dinner parties with friends, and a leisurely career as a writer and teacher. The tranquil surface of her life belies a deeper unrest: a frayed, distant relationship with her widowed mother, romantic longings projected onto unavailable friends, and constant second-guessing of the paths her life has taken. The novel is told in short vignettes introducing a new scene and characters whose relationships are fertile ground for Lahiri’s impressive powers of observation. In a museum, for instance, sunlight refracted through the glass roof ‘brightens and darkens the room in turns. It’s a panorama that makes me think of the sea, of swimming in a clear blue patch underwater.’ Throughout, Lahiri’s poetic flourishes and spare, conversational prose are on full display. This beautifully written portrait of a life in passage captures the hopes, frustrations, and longings of solitude and remembrance.”

Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Folklorn: “Blurring the lines between sci-fi and fantasy, Hur’s sophomore novel (after The Queens of K-Town) offers a complex meditation on intergenerational trauma. While working at the Amundsen Scott South Pole Station, Korean-American physicist Elsa Park suffers sudden tinnitus and sees her imaginary friend from childhood. This sparks memories of the time Elsa’s mother gave her a now lost collection of four Korean folktales and warned her that all the women in their family are doomed to live out their plots. To understand what’s happening to her, Elsa consults Oskar Gantelius, a Swedish Korean adoptee and linguistics professor who specializes in Korean folktales and also serves as Elsa’s love interest, though their relationship is given little development. But before the pair can make sense of Elsa’s episodes, her mother dies, driving Elsa to find the folktales and figure out how to apply them to her own life. The honest look at prickly Elsa’s internalized racism is ambitious but often brutal in its unflinching execution, and the third act twist relies on an outdated take on mental illness. Despite the unconvincing romance between Oskar and Elsa, their conversations on minority life in majority white spaces are painfully accurate. This thought-provoking work will appeal to SFF fans who like their talk of particle physics side by side with fox spirits and fairy tales.”

White Magic by Elissa Washuta

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about White Magic: “Washuta (My Body Is a Book of Rules), a creative writing professor at Ohio State, offers in this collection of tender reckonings ‘a book about how my heart was broken’ and her attempts to heal it. Washuta recounts her struggles with sobriety, relationships, and the ‘tyrannical rule’ of PTSD in her life. In search of healing, Washuta, a Native woman and occult enthusiast, examined the differences between ‘white magic’ and misaligned, ‘malicious’ black magic, and sought out ‘a version of the occult that isn’t built on plunder.’ In ‘Little Lies,’ Washuta reflects on a D.A.R.E. drunk-driving ad soundtracked by Fleetwood Mac and Phil Collins, and ‘The Spirit Cabinet’ is an episodic collection of ‘synchronicities’ often about her ex-boyfriend, featuring quotes from magician David Blaine. The most eloquent section highlights her grief moving through a world built on violence toward Native peoples: ‘I have lost my land, my language,’ she writes. Her prose is crisp and precise, and the references hit spot-on (such as her fascination with the Sumerian goddess Inanna, who travels through the underworld, and with Twin Peaks, ‘a show about the unexplained, the mystical, and the cycles of violence and neglect to which women find themselves tethered’). Fans of the personal essay are in for a treat.”

Also on shelves this week: My Good Son by Yang Huang.

Bonus Links:
Found in Translation: On Jhumpa Lahiri and ‘Whereabouts’
Lydia Davis and Jhumpa Lahiri Learn New Languages
Another Mask: On Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘In Other Words’

Elegy of the Walker

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By the conclusion of Mildred Lissette Norman’s 2,200 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in 1952—the steep snow-covered peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains; the autumnal cacophony of Massachusetts’ brown, orange, and red Berkshires; the verdant greens of New York’s Adirondacks and Pennsylvania’s Alleghanies; the misty roll of Virginia’s Blue Ridge; the lushness of North Carolina and Georgia’s Great Smoky Mountains—she would wear down the soles of her blue Sperry Topsiders into a hatchwork of rubber threads, the rough canvas of the shoes ripping apart at the seams. “There were hills and valleys, lots of hills and valleys, in that growing up period,” Norman would recall, becoming the first woman to hike the trail in its entirety. The Topsiders were lost to friction, but along with 28 additional pairs of shoes over the next three decades, she would also gain a new name—Peace Pilgrim. The former secretary would (legally) rechristen herself after a mystical experience somewhere in New England, convinced that she would “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace.”


Peace Pilgrim’s mission began at the Rose Bowl Parade in 1953, gathering signatures on a petition to end the Korean War. From Pasadena she trekked over the Sierra Nevada, the hardscrabble southwest, the expansive Midwestern prairies, the roll of the Appalachians and into the concrete forest of New York City. She gained spectators, acolytes, and detractors; there was fascination with this 46-year-old woman, wearing a simple blue tunic emblazoned in white capital letters with “Walking Coast to Coast for Peace,” her greying hair kept up in a bun and her pockets containing only a collapsible toothbrush, a comb, and a ballpoint pen. By the time she died in 1981, she had traversed the United States seven times. “After I had walked almost all night,” she recalled in one of the interviews posthumously collected into Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, “I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down… That night I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life to something beyond myself.” It was the same inclination that compelled Abraham to walk into Canaan, penitents to trace Spain’s Camino de Santiago, or of the whirling Mevlevi dervishes traipsing through the Afghan bush. It was an inclination toward God.

Something about the plodding of one foot after another, the syncopation mimicking the regularity of our heartbeat, the single-minded determination to get from point A to point B (wherever those mythic locations are going to be) gives walking the particular enchantments that only the most universal of human activities can have. Whether a stroll, jog, hike, run, saunter, plod, trek, march, parade, patrol, ramble, constitutional, wander, perambulation, or just plain walk, the universal action of moving left foot-right foot-left foot-right foot marks humanity indelibly, so common that it seemingly warrants little comment if you’re not a podiatrist. But when it comes to the subject, there are as many narratives as there are individual routes, for as Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, “a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” Loathe we should be to let such an ostensibly basic act pass without some consideration.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking that “Like eating or breathing, [walking] can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.” Walking is leisure and punishment, introspection and exploration, supplication and meditation, even composition. As a tool for getting lost, both literally and figuratively, of fully inhabiting our being, walking can empty out our selfhood. A mechanism for transmuting a noun into a verb, or transforming the walker into the walking. When a person has pushed themselves so that their heart pumps like a piston, that they feel the sour burn of blisters, the chaffing of denim, so that breathing’s rapidity is the only focus, then there is something akin to pure consciousness (or possibly I’m just fat). And of course, all that you can simply observe with that consciousness, unhampered by screen, so that walking is “powerful and fundamental,” as Cheryl Strayed writes in her bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail: an account of how Strayed hiked thousands of miles following the death of her mother, and learning “what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets… It seemed to me it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild.”     

Maybe that sense of being has always attended locomotion, ever since a family of Australopithecus pressed their calloused heals into the cooling volcanic ash of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania some 3.7 million years ago. Discovered in 1976 by Mary Leaky, the preserved footprints were the earliest example of hominoid bipedalism. Two adults and a child, the traces suggested parents strolling with a toddler, as if they were Adam and Eve with either Cain or Abel. Olduvai’s footprints are smaller than those of a modern human, but they lack the divergent toe of other primates, and they indicate that whoever left them moved from the heel of their feet to the ball, like most of us do. Crucially, there were no knuckle impressions left, so they didn’t move in the manner that chimpanzees and gorillas do. “Mary’s footprint trail was graphically clear,” explains Virginia Morell in Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, “the early hominoids stood tall and walked as easily on two legs as any Homo sapiens today… it was apparently this upright stance, rather than enlarged crania, that first separated these creatures from other primates.”

The adults were a little under five-feet tall and under 100 pounds, covered in downy brown fur with slopping brow and overbit jaw, with the face of an ape but the uncanny eyes of a human, the upright walking itself transforming them into the latter. Walking preceded words, the ambulation perhaps necessitating the speaking. Australopithecus remained among the pleasant green plains of east Africa, but by the evolution of anatomically modern humans in the area that is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, and walking became the engine by which people disseminated through the world. Meandering was humanity’s insurance, as Nicholas Wade writes in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, that as little as 50,000 years ago and the “ancestral human population, the first to possess the power of fully articulate modern speech, may have numbered only 5,000 people, confined to a homeland in northeast Africa.” In such small numbers, and in such a circumscribed area, humanity was prisoner to circumstance, where an errant volcano, draught, or epidemic could have easily consigned us to oblivion. Walking as far as we could was our salvation.

Humans would walk out of Africa into Asia and perhaps by combination of simple boat and swimming down the Indonesian coast into Australia, across the Bering Strait and into North America, and over the Panamanian isthmus and into South America, with distant islands like Madagascar, New Zealand, and Iceland waiting for sailing technology to ferry people to their shores millennia after we left the shade of the Serengeti’s bulbous baobab trees. We think of our ancestors as living in a small world, but there’s was an expansive realm, all the more so since it wasn’t espied through a screen. Partner to burrowing meerkats peaking over the dry scrub of the Kalahari, nesting barn owls overlooking the crusting, moss-covered bark of the ancient Ciminian Forest, the curious giant softshell tortoises of the Yangtze River. To walk is to be partner to the natural world, it is to fully inhabit being an embodied self. Choosing to be a pedestrian today is to reject the diabolic speed of both automobile and computer. Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places that nature is “invaluable to us precisely because… [it is] uncompromisingly different… you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share.” Sojourn into a world so foreign was the birthright of the first humans, and it still is today, if you choose it. 

All continents, albeit mostly separated by unsettlingly vast oceans, are in some form or another connected by thin strips of land here or there, something to the advantage of Scottish Victorian explorer Sir George Thompson who walked from Canada to Western Europe, via Siberia. More recently there was the English explorer George Meegan who from 1977 to 1983 endeavored to walk from Patagonia to the northern tip of North America, which involved inching up South America’s Pacific coast, crossing the Darien Gap into Central America, circling the Gulf Coast and walking up the Atlantic shore, following the Canadian border, and then walking from the Yukon into Alaska. Meegan’s expedition covered 19,019 miles, the longest recorded uninterrupted walk. Effected by the nervous propulsion that possibly compelled that first generation to leave home, Meegan explains in The Longest Walk: The Record of our World’s First Crossing of the Entire Americas that “once the idea seemed to be a real possibility, once I thought I could do it, I had to do it.” Along the way Meegan wore out 12 pairs of hiking boots, got stabbed once, and met peanut-farmin’ Jimmy Carter at his Georgian homestead.

Meegan’s route was that of the first Americans, albeit accomplished in reverse. The most recent large landmass to be settled, those earliest walkers observed a verdant expanse, for as Craig Childs describes the Paleolithic continent in Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America, the land east of the Bering Strait was a “mosaic of rivers and grasslands… horizons continuing on as if constantly giving birth to themselves—mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and giant bears strung out as far as the eye could see. It must have seemed as if there was no end, the generosity of this planet unimaginable.” A venerable (and dangerous) tradition to see America as an unspoiled Paradise, but it’s not without its justifications, and one that I’ve been tempted to embrace during my own errands into the wilderness. Raised not far from Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, a 644-acre preserve set within the eastern edge of the city, a bramble of moss-covered rocky creeks and surprisingly steep ravines, a constructed forest primeval meant to look as it did when the Iroquois lived there, and I too could convince myself that I was a settler upon the frontier. Like all sojourns into the woods, I found that my strolls in Frick Park couldn’t help but have a bit of the mythic about them, especially at dusk.

One day when I was a freshman, a friend and I took a stack of cheap, pocket-sized, rough orange-covered New Testaments which the Gideons, who were standing the requisite constitutionally mandated distance from our high school, had been assiduously handing out as part of an ill-considered attempt to convert our fellow students. In a pique of adolescent blasphemy, we went to a Frick Park path, and walked through the cooling October forest as twilight fell, ripping the cheap pages from the bibles and letting them fall like crisp leaves to the woods’ floor, or maybe inadvertently as a trail of Eden’s apple seeds. No such thing as blasphemy unless you already ascent to the numinous, and as our heretical stroll turned God on his head, a different pilgrim had once roamed woods like these. During the Second Great Awakening when revivals of strange fervency and singular belief burnt down the Appalachian edge, a pious adherent of the mystical Swedenborgian faith named John Chapman was celebrated for traipsing through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Briefly a resident of the settlement of Grant’s Hill in what is today downtown Pittsburgh, about several miles west of Frick Park, and Chapman’s mission was to spread the gospel of the New Church, along with the planting of orchards. Posterity remembers him as Johnny Appleseed.

Folk memory has Johnny
Appleseed fixed in a particular (and peculiar way): the bearded frontiersmen,
wearing a rough brown burlap coffee sack, a copper pot on his head, and a
trundled bag over his shoulder as the barefoot yeoman plants apples across the
wide expanse of the West. I’d wager there is a strong possibility you thought
he was as apocryphal as John Henry or Paul Bunyan, but Chapman was definitely
real; a Protestant St. Francis of whom it was said that he walked with a tamed wolf
and that due to his creaturely benevolence even the mosquitoes would spare him
their sting. Extreme walkers become aspects of nature, their souls as if the
migratory birds that trace lines over the earth’s curvature. Johnny Appleseed’s
walking was a declaration of common ownership over the enormity of this land. Sometime
in the 1840s, Chapman found himself listening to the outdoor sermonizing of a fire-and-brimstone
Methodist preacher in Mansfield, Ohio. “Where is the primitive Christian, clad
in coarse raiment, walking barefoot to Jerusalem?” the minister implored
the crowd, judging them for their materialism, frivolity, and immorality.
Finally, a heretofore silent Johnny Appleseed, grown tired of the uncharitable
harangue, ascended the speaker’s platform and hiked one grime-covered,
bunion-encrusted, and blistered black foot underneath the preacher’s nose.
“Here’s your primitive Christian,” he supposedly declared. Even
Johnny Appleseed’s gospel was of walking.

“John Chapman’s appearance at the minister’s stump,” writes William Kerrigan in Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, made the horticulturalist a “walking manifestation of a rejection of materialism.” Not just figuratively a walking embodiment of such spirituality, but literally a walking incarnation of it. The regularity of putting one foot after the other has the rhythm of the fingering of rosary beads or the turning of prayer wheels; both intimately physical and yet paradoxically a means of transcending our bodies. “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” writes Solnit, “as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” Hence walking as religious devotion, from the Australian aborigine on a walkabout amidst the burnt ochre Outback, to the murmuring pilgrim tracing the labyrinth underneath the stone flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral, and the Hadji walking over hot sands towards Mecca, or the Orthodox Jew graced with the gift of deliberateness as she walks to shul on Shabbat. Contemplative, meditative, and restorative, religiously speaking walking can also be penitential. In 2009 the Irish Augustinian Fr. Michael Mernagh walked from Cork to Dublin on a pilgrimage of atonement that he single-handedly took in penitence for the Church’s shameful silence regarding child sexual abuse. Not just a pilgrimage, but a protest, with Fr. Mernagh saying of the rot infecting the Church that the “more I have walked the more I feel it is widespread beyond our comprehension.” Atonement is uncomfortable, painful even. As pleasant as a leisurely stroll can be, a penitential hike should strain the lungs, burn the muscles. If penitence isn’t freely taken, however, then it’s no longer penitence. Especially if there’s no reason for contrition, then it’s something else—punishment. Or torture.

“The drop outs began,” recalled Lt. Col. William E. Dyess. “It seemed that a great many of the prisoners reached the end of their endurance at about the same time. They went down by twos and threes. Usually, they made an effort to rise. I never can forget their groans and strangled breathing as they tried to get up. Some succeeded.” Many didn’t. A Texas Air Force officer with movie-star good looks, Dyess had been fighting with the 21st Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded in 1942. Along with some 80,000 fellow American and Filipino troops, he would be marched the 70 miles from Marviales to Camp O’Donnell. Denied food and water, forced to walk in the scorching heat of the jungle sun, with temperatures that went well over 100 degrees, it’s estimated that possibly 26,000 prisoners—a third of those captured—perished in that scorching April of 1942.

Bayonet and heat, bullet and sun, all goaded the men to put one foot in front of the other until many of them couldn’t any more. Transferred from the maggot and filth infested Camp O’Donnell, where malaria and dengue fever took even more Filipinos and Americans, Dyess was able to escape and make it back to American lines. While convalescing in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Dyess narrated his account—the first eyewitness American testimony to the Bataan Death March—to Chicago Tribune writer Charles Leavelle. Prohibited from release by the military, Leavelle would finally see the publication of Bataan Death March: A Survivor’s Account in 1944. Dyess never read it; he died a year before. His P-38G-10-LO Lightning lost an engine during takeoff at a Glendale, Calif., airport, and rather than risk civilian casualties by abandoning the plane, Dyess crashed it into a vacant lot, so that his life would be taken by flying rather than by walking.

Walking can remind us that we’re alive, so that it’s all the more obscene when such a human act is turned against us, when the pleasure of exertion turns into the horror of exhaustion, the gentle burn in muscles transformed into spasms, breathing mutated into sputtering. Bataan’s nightmare, among several, was that it was walking that couldn’t stop, wasn’t’ allowed to stop. “It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world,” writes philosopher Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, “a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe.” Torture reminds us that we’re reducible to bodies; it particularizes and universalizes our pain. With some irony, walking does something similar, with the exertion of moving legs and swinging arms, our wide-ranging mobility announcing us as citizens of the universe. Hence the hellish irony of Bataan, or the 2,200 miles from Georgia to Oklahoma that more than 100,000 Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were forced to walk by the U.S. federal government between 1830 and 1850, the January 1945 40-mile march of 56,000 Auschwitz prisoners to the Loslau train station in sub-zero temperatures, or the 2.5 million residents of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, forced to evacuate into the surrounding countryside by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. These walks are as hell, prisoners followed by guards with guns and German shepherds, over the hard, dark ground.

Harriet Tubman’s walks were also in the winter, feet trying to gain uncertain purchase upon frozen bramble, stumbling over cold ground and slick, snow covered brown leaves, and she too was pursued by men with rifles and dogs. She covered similar distances as those who were forced to march, but Tubman was headed to another destination, and that has made all the difference. Crossing the Mason-Dixon line in 1849, Tubman recalled that “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But she wasn’t in Heaven, she was in Pennsylvania. For Tubman, and for the seventy enslaved people whom she liberated on thirteen daring missions back into Maryland, walking was arduous, walking was frightening, walking was dangerous, but more than anything walking was the price of freedom.

Tubman would rightly
come to be known as the Moses of her people (another prodigious walker),
descending into the antebellum South like Christ harrowing Hell. The network of
safe-houses and sympathetic abolitionists who shepherded the enslaved out of
Maryland, and Virginia, and North Carolina into Pennsylvania, and New England
and Canada, who quartered the enslaved in cold, dusty, cracked root cellars and
hidden passageways, used multiple means of transportation. People hid in the
backs of wagons underneath moldering produce, they availed themselves of
steamships and sometimes the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad. One
enterprising man named Henry Box Brown even mailed himself from Richmond to
Philadelphia, the same year Tubman arrived in the Quaker City. But if the
Underground Railroad was anything, it was mostly a process of putting one foot
before the other on the long walk to the north.

              Familiar with the ebbs and flows of the
brackish Chesapeake as it lapped upon the western shores of Dorchester County,
Tubman was able to interpret mossy rocks and trees to orient herself, navigating
by the Big Dipper and Polaris. Her preferred time of travel was naturally at
night, and winter was the best season to abscond back, deploying the silence
and cold of the season as camouflage. Dorchester is only a scant 150 miles from
Philadelphia, but those even further south – South Carolina, Georgia, even
Mississippi – would also walk to freedom. Eric Foner explains in Gateway to
Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, that “Even
those who initially escaped by other means ended up having to walk significant
distances.” Those nights on the Underground Railroad must have been
terrifying. Hearing the resounding barks of Cuban hounds straining at slave
catchers’ leashes, the metallic taste of fear sitting in mouths, bile rising up
in throats. Yet what portals of momentary grace and beauty were there, those
intimations of the sought-after freedom? To see the graceful free passage of a
red-tailed hawk over the Green Ridge, the bramble thickets along the
cacophonous Great Falls of the cloudy Potomac, the luminescence of a blue moon
reflected on a patch of thick ice in the Ohio River?

            During that same decade, and the French dictator Napoleon III was, through ambitious city planning, inventing an entirely new category of walker – the peripatetic urban wanderer. Only a few months after Tubman arrived in Philadelphia, and four thousand miles across the ocean, something new in the annals of human experience would open at Paris’ Au Con de la Rue – a department store. For centuries, walking was simply a means of getting from one place to another; from home to the market, from market to the church. With something, like the department store, or the glass covered merchant streets known as arcades, people were enticed not just to walk somewhere, but rather to walk everywhere. Such were the beginnings of the category of perambulator known as the flâneur, a word that is untranslatable, but carries connotations of wandering, idling, loafing, sauntering.

Being a flâneur means simply walking without purpose other than to observe; of strolling down Le Havre Boulevard and eyeing the window displays of fashions weaved in cashmere and mohair at Printemps, of espying the bakeries of Montmartre laying out macarons and Pain au chocalait; of passing the diners in outdoor brasseries of the Left Bank eating coq au vin. Before the public planner Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s radical Second Empire reforms, Paris was a crowded, fetid, confusing and disorganized assemblage of crooked and narrow cobblestoned streets and dilapidated half-timbered houses. Afterwards it became a metropolis of wide, magnificent boulevards, parks, squares, and museums. Most distinctively, there were the astounding 56,573 gas lamps that had been assembled by 1870, lit by a legion of allumeurs at dusk, so that people could walk at night. If Hausmann – and Napoleon III – were responsible for the arrival of the flâneur, then it was because the city finally had things worth seeing. For the privileged flâneur, to walk wasn’t the means to acquire freedom – to walk was freedom. 

“For the perfect flâneur,” writes poet Charles Baudelaire in 1863, “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite… we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” Every great city’s pedestrian-minded public thoroughfares—the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and Cromwell Road; Fifth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard—is the rightful territory for the universal flâneur. Writers like Baudelaire compared the idyl of city walking to that other 19th-century innovation of photography; the flâneur existed inside a living daguerreotype, as if they had entered the hazy atmosphere of an impressionist painting, the gas lamps illuminating the drizzly fog of a Parisian evening. For the 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who analyzed that activity in his uncompleted magnum opus The Arcades Project, the flâneur was the living symbol of modernity, writing that the “crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flaneur.”

I often played the role of flaneur for the two years my wife and I lived in Manhattan in a bit of much-coveted rent-controlled bliss. When your estate is 200 square feet, there’s not much choice but to be a flâneur, and so we occupied ourselves with night strolls through the electric city, becoming familiar with the breathing and perspiring of the metropolis. Each avenue has its espirit de place: stately residential York, commercial First and Second with their banks and storefronts, imperial Madison with its regal countenance, Park with its aura of old money, barely reformed Lexington with its intimations of past seediness. In the city at night, we availed ourselves of looking at the intricate pyrotechnic window displays of Barneys and Bloomingdales, of the bohemian leisure of the Strand’s displays in front of Central Park, of the linoleum cavern underneath the 59th Street Bridge, and of course Grand Central Station, the United States’ least disappointing public space.

Despite gentrification, rising inequity, and now the pandemic, New York still amazingly functions according to what the geographer Edward Soja describes in Thirdspace as being a place where “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable.” Yet Manhattan is perhaps more a nature preserve for the flâneur, as various economic and social forces over the past few decades have conspired to make our species extinct. The automobile would seem to be a natural predator for the type, and yet even in the deepest environs of the pedestrian unfriendly suburbs the (now largely closed) American shopping mall fulfilled much the same function as Baudelaire’s arcades. To stroll, to see, to be seen. A new threat has emerged in the form of Amazon, which portends to end the brick-and-mortar establishment, the coronavirus perhaps the final death of the flâneur. If that type of walker was birthed by the industrial revolution, then it now appears late capitalism is his demise, undone by our new tyrant Jeff Bezos.

The rights of the flâneur were never equally distributed, with scant mention of the flâneur needing to be hyperaware of his surroundings, of needing to carry keys in his fist, or having to arm himself with mace. While it’s not an entirely unknown word, flâneuse is a much rarer term, and it’s clear that the independence and assumed safety that pedestrian exploration implies is more often than not configured as masculine. Women have, of course, been just as prodigious in mapping the urban space with their feet as have men, with Lauren Elkin joking in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London that many accounts assume that a “penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.” She provides necessary corrective to the male-heavy history of the flaneur, while also acknowledging that the risks are different for women. Describing the anonymity that such walking requires, Elkin writes that “We would love to be invisible the way a man is. We’re not the ones to make ourselves visible… it’s the gaze of the flaneur that makes the woman who would join his ranks too visible to slip by unnoticed.”

As a means of addressing this inequity that denies more than half the world’s population safe passage through public spaces, the activist movement Take Back the Night held its first march in Philadelphia, after the 1975 murder of microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth as she was walking home. Take Back the Night used one of the most venerable of protest strategies—the march—as a means of expressing solidarity, security, defiance, and rage. Andrea Dworkin stated the issue succinctly in her treatise “The Night and Danger,” explaining that “Women are often told to be extra careful and take precautions when going out at night… So when women struggle for freedom, we must start at the beginning by fighting for freedom of movement… We must recognize that freedom of movement is a precondition for everything else.” Often beginning with a candlelight vigil, participants do exactly that which they’re so often prevented from doing—walking freely at night. So often paeons to walking that are penned by men wax rhapsodic about the freedom of the flaneur, but forget how gendered the simple act of walking is. Dworkin’s point is that women never forget it.

Few visuals are quite as powerful as seeing thousands of women and men moving with intentionality through a public space, hoisting placards and signs, chanting slogans, and reminding the powers that be what mass mobilization looks like. There is a debate to be had about the efficacy of protest. But at their absolute most charged, a protest seems like it can change the world; thousands of feet walking as one, every marcher a small cell in a mighty Leviathan. In that uncharacteristically warm February of 2003, I joined the 5,000 activists who marched through the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland against the impending war in Iraq. There were the old hippies wearing t-shirts against the Vietnam War, the slightly drugged out looking college-aged Nader voters, Muslim women in vermillion hijabs and men in olive keffiyeh, the Catholic Workers, and the Jews for Palestine, the slightly menacing balaclava wearing anarchists, and of course your well-meaning liberals such as myself.

We marched past Carnegie-Mellon’s frat row, young Republicans jeering us with cans of Milwaukee’s Best, through the brutalist concrete caverns of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, and under the watchful golem that was the towering gothic Cathedral of Learning, up to the Fifth Avenue headquarters of CMU’s Software Engineering Institute, a soulless mirrored cube reflecting the granite gargoyles blackened by decades of steel mill exhaust who were watchfully positioned on St. Paul’s Cathedral across the street. Supposedly both the SEI and the adjacent RAND Institute had DoD contracts, developing software that would be used for drone strikes and smart bombs. With righteous (and accurately placed) indignation, the incensed crowd chanted, and we felt as a singular being. On that same day, in 650 cities around the world, 11 million others marched, history’s largest global protest. It felt as if by walking we’d stop the invasion. Reader, we did not stop the invasion.      

Despite those failures, the experience is indicative of how walking alters consciousness. Not just in a political sense, but in a personal one as well (though those things are not easily extricated). There is a methodology for examining how walking alters our subjectivity, a discipline with the lofty and vaguely threatening name of “psychogeography.” Theorist Guy Debord saw the practice as a means of reenchanting space and place, developing a concept called dérive, which translates from the French as “drifting,” whereby participants “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there,” as he is quoted in the Situationist International Anthology. Sort of a hyper-attenuated version of being the flaneur, psychogeographers perceived familiar streets, squares, and cities from an entirely different perspective. Other psychogeographical activities included tracing out words by the route a walker takes through the city, or mapping smells and sounds. The whole thing has an anarchic sensibility about it, but with the whimsy of the Dadaists, while just as enthused with praxis as with theory.

For example, in his travelogue Psychogeography the Anglo-American novelist Will Self journeys from JFK to Manhattan while on foot. Sneakers crunching over refuse alongside the Van Wyck, the metropolitan detritus that exists in those scrubby brown patches that populate the null-voids that exist between somewhere and somewhere else. Nothing can really compare to entering New York on foot, as Self did. It’s fundamentally different from arriving in a cab driving underneath the iconic steel girders of the Manhattan Bridge, or being ferried into the Parthenon that is Grand Central, or even disembarking from a Peter Pan Bus in the grody cavern of Port Authority. Walking is a “means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum” Self writes, with the walker acting as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveler.” For the psychogeographers, how we move is how we think, so that if we wish to change the later, we must first alter the former.

So it would seem. Writing in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in The Confessions that “I can only meditate when I’m walking… my mind only works with my legs.” In his autobiography Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche injuncted, “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement…. All prejudices emanate from the bowels.” Meanwhile, his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Most celebrated of the walking philosophers, Immanuel Kant, had daily constitutionals across Konigsberg’s bridges that merchants set their watches by him. Wallace Stevens famously used to write his poems as he stomped off across the antiseptic landscape of Hartford, Conn. He walked as scansion, his wingtips pounding out iambs and trochees with the wisdom that understands verse is as much of the body as it is of the mind, so that “Perhaps/The truth depends on a walk.” Walking is a type of consciousness, a type of thinking. Walking is a variety of reading, the landscape unspooling as the most shining of verse, so that every green leaf framed against a church’s gothic tower in a dying steel town, both glowing with an inner light out of the luminescence of the golden hour, is the most perfect of poems, only to be seen by she who gives it the time to be considered.

Image Credit: SnappyGoat

Writing, Still Writing

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A good friend of mine begins writing fiction again, after 25 years of not. And if anyone should be writing, she should be. She’s a friend I’ve kept close since college, and her work has always been so good, deeply emotional, grounded in settings of poverty and despair, but always with some hope glimmering around the corner.

I’m excited for her and ask about it the next time I see her: didn’t she say she was revising? And submitting to literary journals? She says yes, but these are stories she wrote more than 20 years ago. She feels like an imposter, she says, even though it’s her work, work she never had the courage to submit in the past. She recently received a very encouraging letter from a top literary magazine, but it ended up depressing her. Why bother now, after all these years? And will success now mean anything about new work she might create? She’s not sure that work from grad school, from her 20s, should count, because it’s not her current work.

Knowing how good her stories are, I’m inclined to say that they’ll get published and that she should be satisfied when that happens, even if they aren’t her most recent work. They should be read, because they’re worthy. It seems like hoarding to hold onto beautiful work that was meant to be shared.

And so what if they’re not new? So what if she never writes another good thing? I think she will, now that she’s back at it. And yet, it feels like another question is lurking here. Something about quality and how to measure it.

I find myself irritated and over the course of few days the ruminating begins to feel like an existential crisis. I’ve been writing fiction, and occasionally submitting, for those same 20-plus years. Sometimes I get something published, but mostly I’m just writing because it’s all I know to do with what free time I have, limited by the kids and the job. I could use an encouraging letter from a lit mag right about now. I wish I’d gotten more than a dozen or so in the last 20 years, but that’s my success rate. That’s about it.

If my friend thinks she’s a fool to bother, I muse, a fool to come close but not immediately hit the mark with this new effort, what about those of us who have been doing this same thing year after year for 30 years? Sure, I’ve had some hits or two, even a published short story collection, but that was a long time ago, and the novel drafts are still being revised. By my friend’s proposed math, I must be an exponential failure.

You hear it all the time in fiction classes: publishing is rare, publishing something that gains critical attention is even more rare, and don’t expect it to pay your bills, even it does get published. So with all these warnings, why is there also this idea that if you’re not publishing right at this moment, then you must not be any good? Do we judge people who keep at a sport they love? We know they won’t make the majors. But we don’t assume they’ll quit playing once they’re past their prime, nor do we assume they’re terrible players. So why with writing would we think there’s something wrong with trying for minor successes?

Of course writing is different than sports. Aging players can’t keep going to scouting events, into their 50s, to see if they’ll be tapped for potential greatness. They can’t take an impressive play from their 20s and show it to a talent scout for evaluation today. For writers, those lit magazines are like talent scouts. And if my friend is successful, she may want to maintain fresh momentum, and that may prove as difficult as she fears. In the face of all her measurement I can see how it might get depressing.

In the same friends’ circle, those of us who continue to write sometimes bring our work to each other for feedback. Another lapsed writer is in the group, also talented, but unremorsefully uninterested in writing. Her quitting writing doesn’t change the fact that she’s a great reader (or a great writer, either, despite her choice). We’re always eager to hear her critiques.

But a few years back, she started asking during these discussions, “What is your objective for this piece?”

I flinched the first time I heard it. I’ve worked corporate jobs for a long time, and this sounded like something in a war-room discussion about a product we were about to launch, one that had millions of dollars and years of R&D and market research behind it. My little short story had no such advantages. It just had this writer, and whatever I could do with the feedback my readers would provide.

My friend had a follow-up question to fill the bemused silence. “I mean, do you want to get it published, or is it something you just want to share with your kids someday, or …”

My ego was tweaked. Was she saying that the work would never be good enough for publication? Or that she would only provide rigorous commentary if I was willing to be more aggressive with my edits? And if I wanted it to be good, really good—if I wanted it to be published in The New Yorker and chosen for a Best American volume (which every writer wants, whether it makes sense or not) —then would she opt to bow out gracefully from this critique, like a lawyer who knows an unwinnable case when she sees one? Maybe she thought I’d need a professional editor, or a different story. Or I’d need to be a different author.

Or, on the other hand, if I set my sights lower—like if I just want my family to one day know that I sometimes tried my hand at writing—does that leave me free to revise one time and be satisfied with any old shlock? That doesn’t seem very kind to my family.

Dear friend: I want it to be beautiful. I want to work at it until it’s as good as it can be.

Or, more truthfully, I want it to set me free. By which I mean, I want it to sing for some reader, for many readers, so much so that the stories and novel drafts buried in the many corners of this house can be resurrected, that the undiscovered work of my 20s, 30s, and 40s will be found, and that I can feel satisfied that the world has finally caught up with my brilliance. Yes, that’s it. I want the world to show me that it gets me, and yes, I admit I want the world, I want more than my family. I want the world finally to let me be free in my expression.

I wish that I had said that to her.

But that would have exposed the dreamer. And the dreamer is vulnerable.

It’s true that I have more chance of my writing setting me free than if, with the same high hopes, I took up a pastime like knitting. There’s some reality to the dream. But even if my writing has better odds than knitting, the odds are still very, very low that I’ll achieve the kind success we hear and dream about with writing. And so, I have to also be okay with the dream not being realized.

The writing life, at least for me, is not like other avocations that can be measured in terms of sustainability or certified “new” material (my first friend), nor by the writer’s plan for the writing, a plan we can compare against later when evaluating the success of the piece (my second friend).

I tell myself it’s a hobby, sure, the one that works for me. I tell myself I’d rather have one story out there, one published story (and I already have a few of those) that moves a few minds, than a sweater I knitted, tucked away in my niece’s drawer, attracting moths. That’s it: my preference is that one story in a forgotten journal is better than one sweater in a drawer. (Nothing against knitting.)

Maybe the point is that we writers should appreciate writing for the very way it keeps us trying, keeps us dreaming. There’s no moment in writing, I hope, when it should become clear to the fool that she’s wasting her time.

I keep missing, I keep trying. It hasn’t set me free yet, but I still believe in it.

There’s a beauty to that. After all these years.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Wright, Zauner, Simon, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Richard Wright, Michelle Zauner, our own Ed Simon, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. ant to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
The Man Who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Man Who Lived Underground: “The power and pain of Wright’s writing are evident in this wrenching novel, which was rejected by his publisher in 1942, shortly after the release of Native Son. Fred Daniels, a Black man who lives in an unidentified American city, is on his way home after a hard day’s work for the Wootens, a well-to-do white couple. Before he can reunite with his pregnant wife, Rachel, Daniels is unjustly seized by three white cops for the murder of the Wootens’ next-door neighbors. After he’s beaten, Daniels signs a confession, naively hoping that doing so will enable him to see Rachel. The cops take him to see her (‘No one can say we mistreated him if we let ’im see his old lady, hunh?’ one says), and she goes into labor, necessitating a rush to the hospital, which provides an opportunity for Daniels to escape. From that point forward, Daniels hides out in the sewers. Wright makes the impact of racist policing palpable as the story builds to a gut-punch ending, and the inclusion of his essay ‘Memories of My Grandmother’ illuminates his inspiration for the book. This nightmarish tale of racist terror resonates.”

Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? by Jenny Diski

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?: “This effortlessly readable posthumous essay collection from Diski (1947–2016) (In Gratitude) shows her at her best. In ‘A Feeling for Ice,’ she writes about her troubled childhood and her longing to visit Antarctica: ‘I wanted white and ice as far as the eye could see.’ ‘It Wasn’t Him, It Was Her’ explores the reputation of Nietzsche’s sister, Elisabeth, known primarily for having ‘corrupted Nietzsche’s work.’ ‘He Could Afford It’ investigates Howard Hughes’s obsessive compulsions: ‘What made Hughes remarkable,’ she writes, is that ‘there was no practical reason for him to try to control his madness.’ In ‘I Haven’t Been Nearly Mad Enough,’ she compares writer Barbara Taylor’s memories of mental institutionalization with her own: in the midst of fear, both found a sense of community. Diski’s works are varied and surprising, and she puts a fresh spin on the personal essay with her bracing, singular prose, never veering into self-indulgence: ‘One of the basic beliefs we all have… is that we are who we are because we know that by definition there can be only one of us. I’m Jenny Diski. You therefore aren’t.’ To miss these essays would be a shame.”

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Crying in H Mart: “Musician Zauner debuts with an earnest account of her Korean-American upbringing, musical career, and the aftermath of her mother’s death. She opens with a memory of a visit to an Asian American supermarket, where, among fellow shoppers who were ‘searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves,’ Zauner was able to grieve the death of her mother, Chongmi, with whom she had a difficult relationship. Her white American father met her mother in Seoul in 1983, and Zauner immigrated as an infant to Eugene, Ore. In Zauner’s teenage years in the late 2000s, Chongmi vehemently opposed Zauner’s musical dreams and, in one outburst, admitted to having an abortion after Zauner’s birth ‘because you were such a terrible child!’ The confession caused a rift that lasted almost six years, until Zauner learned of her mother’s cancer diagnosis. After Chongmi’s death in 2014, Zauner’s career took off, and during a sold-out concert in Seoul, Zauner writes, she realized her success ‘revolved around [my mother’s] death, that the songs… memorialized her.’ The prose is lyrical if at times overwrought, but Zauner does a good job capturing the grief of losing a parent with pathos. Fans looking to get a glimpse into the inner life of this megawatt pop star will not be disappointed.”

An Alternative History of Pittsburgh by Ed Simon

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about An Alternative History of Pittsburgh: “Pittsburgh native Simon (Furnace of this World), a staff writer at The Millions, explores ‘the major thematic concerns’ of his hometown in this rich and idiosyncratic history. Beginning 300 million years ago, when Allegheny County was the swampy domain of giant amphibians and ‘sun-dappled mangroves,’ the petrified remains of which formed western Pennsylvania’s extensive coal deposits, Simon spotlights ‘representative moments’ from the region’s history, including the founding (c. 1142) of the Iroquois Confederacy by the Great Peacemaker, Deganawidah, and his follower, Hiawatha, and the birth of composer Stephen Foster in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1862. Simon also details Andrew Carnegie’s roots in the radical socialist politics of mid-19th-century Europe and sketches the steel baron’s rise from ‘bobbin-boy in a weaver’s shop’ to ‘the richest man who ever lived’; notes the influences of Pittsburgh on famous sons including playwright August Wilson, jazz composer Billy Strayhorn, and artist Andy Warhol; and details how Democratic mayor David Lawrence and Republican financier Richard King Mellon partnered in the late 1940s to ‘completely redesign’ the city’s ‘gritty, decayed, rusting core.’ Though consequential events such as the collapse of the U.S. steel industry get relatively short shrift, Simon marshals his historical snapshots into an incisive survey of the region and its inhabitants. Even Pittsburgh history buffs will learn something new.”

Also on shelves this week: We Are Bridges by Cassandra Lane and Permafrost by Eva Baltasar.

Bonus Link:
The Ed Simon Archives

Henry Vaughan’s Eternal Alchemy

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Mercury has a boiling point of 674.1 degrees Fahrenheit and a freezing point of -37.89 degrees, rendering it the only metal that’s liquid at room temperature. Malleable, fluid, transitory—the element rightly lends itself to the adjective “mercurial,” a paradoxical substance that has the shine of silver and the flow of water, every bit as ambiguous as the Greek god from whom it derives its name. Alchemists were in particular drawn to mercury’s eccentric behavior, as Sam Kean explains in The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, writing that they “considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe.” Within sequestered granite basements and hidden cross-timbered attics, in cloistered stone monasteries and under the buttresses of university halls, alchemists tried to encounter eternity, and very often their medium of conjuration was mercury. The 13th-century English natural philosopher Roger Bacon writes in Radix Mundi that “our work is hidden… in the body of mercury,” while in the 17th-century the German physician Michael Maier declared in Symbola aurea mensae that “Art makes metals out of… mercury.” Quicksilver which pools like some sort of molten treasure is one of the surprising things of this world. To examine mercury and its undulations is to see time itself moving, when metal appears acted upon by entropy and flux, the disintegration of all that which is solid into pure water. Liquid metal mercury is a metaphysical conceit.

Alchemy has been practiced since antiquity, but the decades before and during the Scientific Revolution were a golden age for the discipline. In England alone there were practitioners like John Dee, Edward Kelley, and Robert Boyle (who was also a chemist proper), and then there was the astrologer and necromancer Isaac Newton, who latter had some renown as a physicist and mathematician.  Such were the marvels of the 17th century, this “age of mysteries!” as described by the Anglo-Welsh poet Henry Vaughan–born 400 years ago tomorrow. He could have had in mind his twin brother, Thomas, among the greatest alchemists of that era, whose “gazing soul would dwell an hour, /And in those weaker glories spy/Some shadows of eternity.” Writing under the name Eugenius Philalethias, Thomas was involved in a project that placed occultism at the center of knowledge, seeing in the manipulation of matter answers to fundamental questions about reality. Though Henry is the more remembered of the two brothers today (though “remembered” is a relative term), the pair were intellectually seamless in their own time, seeing in both poetry and alchemy a common hermetic purpose. Four centuries later, however, and alchemy no longer seems an avenue to eternity. Thomas’s own demise demonstrated a deficiency of those experiments, for despite mercury’s supposed poetic qualities, among its more tangible properties is an extreme toxicity, and when heated in a glass it can be accidentally inhaled, or when handled by an ungloved hand (as alchemists were apt to do) it can be absorbed through the skin. The resultant poisoning has several symptoms, not least of which are muscle spasms, vision and hearing problems, hallucinations, and ultimately death. Such was the fate of Thomas after some mercury got up his nose in that apocalyptic year of 1666, when plague and fire destroyed London.

Despite Thomas being an Anglican vicar removed from his position for “being a common drunkard, a common swearer… a whoremaster” and who would be satirized nearly a century later by Jonathan Swift in A Tale of a Tub as the greatest author of nonsense “ever published in any language,” he was still in pursuit of something very particular and important, though it’s perhaps easy to mock alchemy nearly four centuries later. In works like Anima Magica Abscondita; or A Discourse on the Universal Spirit of Nature and Aula Lucis, or The House of Light, Thomas evidenced a noble and inquisitive spirit about nature, a desire to both “Have thy heart in heaven and thy hands upon the earth,” as he writes in the first of those two volumes. Thomas searched for eternity, a sense of what the fundamental units of existence are, and he rearranged matter and energy until it killed him.

“Their eyes were generally fixed on higher things,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets, and indeed whether in manipulation of chemicals or words, both Vaughans desired the transcendent, the infinite, the eternal; what Henry called “authentic tidings of invisible things.” This essay is not mainly about Thomas—it’s about Henry, a man who rather than making matter vibrate chose to arrange words, and in abandoning chemicals for poetry came much closer to eternity. Thomas was an alchemist of things and Henry was one of words, but the goal was identical—”a country/Afar beyond the stars,” where things are shining and perfect. This necessarily compels a question—how eternal can any poetic voice ever actually be? Mine is not a query about cultural endurance; I’m not asking for how long will a poet like Vaughan be studied, read, treasured. I’m asking how possible is it for Vaughan—for any poet—to ascend to the perspective of Aeternitas, to strip away past, present, and future, to see all as if one gleaming moment of light, divorced from our origins, our context, our personality, and in that mystical second to truly view existence as if from heaven? And for the purpose of the poet (and the reader), to convey something of this experience in the fallen and imperfect medium of language?

Because he was a man of rare and mystical faith, for whom the higher ecstasies of metaphysical reverence subsumed the lowly doldrums of moralistic preening, it can be easy to overlook that Vaughan—like all of us who are born and die—lived a specific life. The son of minor Welsh gentry (and whose second language was English, often writing “in imitation of Welsh prosody” as the editors of the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms note), Vaughan was most likely a soldier among the Royalists, brother of the esteemed scholar Thomas (of course), and a physician for his small borderland’s town, until dying in 1695 at the respectable age of 74, the “very last voice contained entirely within what many regards as the great century of English poetry” as Schmidt writes. Vaughan may not be as celebrated as other visionary poets, yet he deserves to be included among William Blake and Emily Dickinson as one of the most immaculate. Such perfection took time.

His earliest “secular” verse is composed of largely middling attempts at aping the Cavalier Poets with their celebrations of leisure and the pastoral, yet sometime around 1650, “Vaughan seems to have experienced a spiritual upheaval more in the nature of a regeneration than of a conversion. He violently rejected secular poetry and turned to devotion,” as Miriam K. Starkman explains in 17th Century English Poetry. This turning of the soul was perhaps initiated by the trauma of the Royalist loss in the English Civil War, the death of his older brother, William, and most of all his discovery of the brilliant metaphysical poet and Anglican theologian George Herbert. But regardless of the reasons, his verse and faith took on a shining, luminescent quality, and his lyrics intimated the quality of burning sparks from hot iron. “Holy writing must strive (by all means) for perfection and true holiness,” Vaughan writes in the preface to his greatest collection, 1655’s Silex Scintillans, “that a door may be opened to him in heaven” (the Latinate title translates to “The Fiery Flint” in keeping with his contention that “Certain divine rays break out of the soul in adversity, like sparks of fire out of the afflicted flint”).

He was, first and foremost, a Christian, and an Anglican one at that, writing his verse during the Puritan Interregnum when his church was abolished, and those of his theological position prohibited from their community and liturgy. In his prose treatise of 1652, The Mount of Olives, or Solitary Devotions, he offers “this my poor Talent to the Church,” now a “distressed Religion” for whom “the solemn and public places of meeting… [are] vilified and shut up.” To these traumas must be added Vaughan’s marginalization in England as a Welshmen, for as Schmidt writes “Wales, [is] his true territory,” indeed so much so that he called himself the “Silurian” after the fearsome Celtic tribe that had once made his birthplace their home. In championing Vaughan, or any poet, as “eternal,” we risk reducing them, of subtracting that which makes them human. Silex Scintillans is consciously written in a manner whereby it can be easy to strip the lyrics of theological particularity, which makes him an easy poet for the heretics among us to champion, and yet Vaughan (ecstatic though he may be) was an orthodox Anglican.

Vaughan’s particular genius is in being able to write from a perspective that seems eternal, for theology may be of man but faith is of God, and he is a poet that understands the difference. The result is a verse that though it was written by an Anglican Welshman in the 17th century, reads (when it’s soaring the highest) as if it came from some place alien, strange, and beautiful. Consider one of his most arresting poems from Silex Scintillans, titled “The World.” Along with John Donne and Dickinson, Vaughan is among the best crafters of first lines in the history of poetry, writing “I saw Eternity the other night, /Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” This is a poem that begins like the Big Bang. A simple trochaic rhyming couplet, its epigraphic minimalism lends itself to the very eternity of which it speaks. To my contemporary ear, there is something oddly colloquial about Vaughan’s phrasing, speaking of seeing “Eternity the other night” like you might mention having run into a friend somewhere, even though what the narrator has experienced is “Time in hours, days, years, /Driv’n by the spheres/Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world/And all her train were hurl’d.”

In its understatement there’s something almost funny about the line, as the casual tone before the enjambment transitions into the sublime cosmicism after the first comma. That’s the other thing—the narrator had this transcendent experience “the other night”—the past tense is crucial. Eternity is possible, but it’s only temporary (at least while we live on earth). Schmidt correctly observes that Vaughan’s lyric “does not sustain intensity throughout, dwindling to deliberate allegory,” though that’s true of any poem which begins with a powerful and memorable line—Donne and Dickinson weren’t ever able to sustain such energy through an entire lyric either. What’s so powerful in “The World” is that this inevitable rhetorical decline is reminiscent of the actual mystical experience itself, whereby that enchanted glow must necessarily be diminished over time. Leah Marcus argues in Childhood and Cultural Despair: A Theme and Variations in Seventeenth-Century Literature that the “dominant mood in Vaughan’s poetry is pessimism, and a sense of deep loss which occasional moments of vision can only partly alleviate.” Such an interpretation is surely correct, for loss marked not only Vaughan’s life, but his mystical experiences as well, where despite his spiritual certainty (and he is not a poet of doubt), transcendence itself must be bounded by space and time, a garden to which we are only sometimes permitted to visit.

Better to describe Vaughan as the poet of eternity deferred, an ecstatic who understands that in a fallen world paradise is only ever momentary. “My Soul, there is a country/Afar beyond the stars,” Vaughan writes in another poem entitled “Peace,” continuing “Where stands a winged sentry… There, above noise and danger/Sweet Peace sits, crown’d with smiles.” He writes with certainty, but not with dogmatism; perhaps assured of his own election, he doesn’t mistake his earthly present for his heavenly future, and that combination of assurance and humility has lent itself to the eternal mode of the lyrics. Note the reference to where perfection can be found, possibly an echo of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” as well as the cosmological associations of such paradise being located deep within the outer universe. Along with his contemporary Thomas Traherne, Vaughan is one of the great interstellar poets, though such imagery must necessarily be read as allegorical, the mystic translating experience into metaphor. “Private experience is communicated in the language of Anglican Christianity,” observes Schmidt, and such language must forever be contingent, a gesture towards the ineffable but by definition not the ineffable itself. “His achievement,” Schmidt writes, “is to bring the transcendent almost within reach of the senses.”

There are brilliant poets and middling ones, influential and obscure, radical and conservative, but the coterie of those able to look upon eternity with transparent eye and encapsulate their experience in prosody, no matter how relative and subjective, are few. During the Renaissance, Herbert with his “something understood” was one of these poets; Donne with his “little world made cunningly” was another. Among others include Gerard Manley Hopkins and the vision of God’s grandeur “shining from shook foil” in the 19th-century alongside Christina Rossetti who had “no words, no tears.” In the 20th there was Robert Frost (hackneyed though he is misremembered) intoning that “Nature’s green is gold” and Marianne Moore for whom “Mysteries expound mysteries;” Jean Toomer’s “lengthened tournament for flashing gold,” and Denise Levertov who could “Praise/god or the gods, the unknown;” Louise Gluck whose hands are “As empty now as at the first note,” Martin Espada who prays that “every humiliated mouth… fill with the angels of bread,” and Kaveh Akbar who “always hoped that when I died/I would know why.”  Then of course there are aforementioned Dickinson and Blake, frequently John Milton, often Walt Whitman, and most of the time Traherne. Hard to discern a thorough line through the eternal poets, eternal because they seem to have gone to that permanent place and returned with some knowledge. When Schmidt writes that “Vaughan’s chosen territory” was the “area beyond the senses, accessible only to intuition,” I suspect that same description could be made from those on my truncated syllabus.

Henry Vaughan’s poetry demonstrates the difference between eternity and immortality. The latter is the juvenile desire of the alchemists, this intention to transmute base metals to gold, to acquire the philosopher’s stone, to construct homunculi and perhaps live forever. Immortality is understood as being like this life right now, only with more of it. Eternity is something else entirely. Another difference is that immortality isn’t real. Writing in The Mount of Olives, Vaughan describes our lives as a “Wilderness… A darksome, intricate wood full of ambushes and dangers; a forest with spiritual hunter, principalities and powers.” By contrast, eternity is that domain of perfection—it is the gentle buzz of a bee in the stillness of a summer dusk, the scent of magnolia wafting on a breeze, the reflection of moonlight off an unrippling pond. “They are all gone into the world of light! /And I alone sit ling’ring here,” Vaughan writes in another of his perfect opening lines. One of the most poignantly sad sentences in Renaissance poetry. The world weariness is there, the estrangement, the alienation—but the world of light is still real. “I cannot reach it, and my striving eye/Dazzles at it, as at eternity,” he mournfully writes, and yet “we shall gladly sit/Till all be ready.” What faith teaches is that we’re all exiles from that Zion that is eternity, to which we shall one day return. What Vaughan understands is that if we seek eternity, it is now.

A Form of Mourning

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My friend Elizabeth Leo died unexpectedly two years ago. She was only 34 when she fell from a bridge that connected the campus Lutheran church to its parsonage, a crumbling four-story building where she was living for free. The church held a memorial the following August. There, over small plates of raw vegetables, with photographs of Elizabeth arranged on a table behind us, I talked to Natalie Homer, a mutual friend, about Elizabeth’s poetry. Elizabeth had published very little of it during her life. But her poems needed readers—we both felt that. They deserved to circulate.

Natalie and I spent the next several months editing her poems for publication and the next year arranging for publication. That process will culminate this spring in a chapbook, Bloodroot and Goldenrod.

We met in person and over the phone. Natalie had Elizabeth’s master’s thesis, 53 poems all told, and a folder with another 20 miscellaneous poems in it, all of them undated. We read the poems aloud and talked about each one, what we liked and didn’t. Often we marveled. Sometimes we complained: why this epigraph? why that final, hanging line? I loved these conversations. They were slow with lots of silence. We savored the lines. We grieved.

How do you make a selection from the relatively few extant poems of someone who can provide no explanation, offer no defense, and express no preference? What criteria do you use? By what standard do you decide which poems deserve to be published and so survive beyond the poet’s short life? Bloodroot and Goldenrod is the posthumous collection of a poet still in the early phase of her career. Do you simply choose the “best” ones? What if a “bad” poem has a “good” moment in it or even just a characteristic one? What if it tells an important part of the story? But what story?

Elizabeth’s book contains frightening hints of her own death, suggestions, even, of suicide. In one poem, she writes, “The breeze has cut out, or the sun has quit.” At the end of another: “And most of this, it’s all temporary./The slip of a fingernail beneath thin plastic—I could make it look like I was never here at all.” Immediately after news of her death broke, people began to speculate. On Facebook, there was talk of violence: assault, murder. For several days the police would not rule out homicide. The rumors of violence were finally dispelled when the police department released a statement saying that they believed her death to have been due to an accidental fall. They sketched a scene in which Elizabeth had gone out onto the bridge to smoke and fallen the 12 to 15 feet to the sidewalk, where she died from a traumatic head injury. So there it was: an accident. It made more sense than a random assault. Those of us who knew her, though, wondered about suicide.

In what condition had she ventured out of her apartment? With what purpose? Where exactly had she been standing when she fell? It was early May. The semester had ended. It would have been quiet, some traffic, the Mon River lumbering through town just down the hill. A big, mute moon. Did she say goodbye to it? Or was she frantic and inward and alone? Had she looked one last time through her favorite books, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems, Watership Down, The Outsiders, their pages marked up with pencil and stiff from cigarette smoke? And her cat, Jonas, had it watched? What even happened?

There are no answers to these questions. At least not ones for us to know. What happened and how and why: all that has been written down in the book of days in an illegible script. I don’t want to guess how or why Elizabeth died. Better to grieve for a friend and fellow poet who died way too young. She felt that she was at the end of something, and she was, in a way: recently divorced, apparently fired from her job at the university. She could not see a way forward. But her life’s work—her poetry—was just beginning.

Elizabeth’s poems are all heavy blooms and hidden centers, insistent but unmannered repetitions. They circle obsessively around an unnamed absence. Loss gives them their urgency, their dark humor, and their beauty. They risk beauty. I love that about them. They do not suppress their desire to sing, full- throated and purple-stained, to quote Keats (who hovers in the background of so many of these poems).
Adiantum

There was a magic cupboard and inside Adiantum danced.
Little girls could fall in sideways leaning too far
to sniff a heavy aster in the dark.
A heavy bloom in the dark.

A heavy bloom in the dark.
Flower as a cardinal destroyer, wrecker of hearts.
In life Elizabeth was shy and kind, critical, generous, full of secret reserves and keen judgments. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic. She knew their names but also how they looked and felt and what they needed to grow. She had a talent for helping things grow and flourish in the garden and in the classroom. The first two speakers at her memorial service were former students. Elizabeth worked as an adjunct instructor, a precarious job with low pay and little stability. She supplemented her meager wages from the university with part-time work at a garden store. When I knew her she lived in the country, in a dumpy, poorly lit apartment that she could not afford with her cat, her books, her many plants, and not much else, a few large, hard plastic cups that we drank wine out of, a bowl to hold candy when visitors came over.

She was wracked with doubt. She loved poetry. I hope that love comes across in the collection. And the rage, too, which simmers just beneath the surface—“Jack, we say. Jack, Jack, we sing. Jack: shrapnel edge of our last can”—and the wonder—“the tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile”—and the loss, everywhere that intimacy with loss. “Blue rose,” she writes in one poem, “layered petals on petals./Blue Lizzy. Someone once had a name for me like that.”

As Natalie and I read and discussed the poems, I kept wanting to ask Elizabeth why she had made the decisions she had, good and bad. To encourage her, to convince her, finally, that she was immensely talented and that her poetry deserved to evolve, become more and less itself over the years. The poems in this collection have within them such a big future, so many possible roads. We wanted that future to be present in the collection. To account not only for the poet she was but the poet she might have become. In moments I see her move beyond the influence of her mentors, move in the direction not of what a poem should be but what, in her hands, it is. I see her authority emerge. These are small moments, small and painful, because to see all that—in a turn of phrase or a stanza break—is to feel the loss very acutely.
“…We seek belief
in shoveling soil, in blisters.
And we find it there. There. There is no trouble
and the garden is lucky in the sun,
brothers. Running waters unfurl the ferns.
Let’s follow, together, the moonflower
tonight, when it blooms a silver trumpet…”
There. There. There, one right after the other. It’s like your foot got caught in a rut, or your shirt snagged on a branch. It’s stubborn, awkward, unmusical, and new. It disrupts the subtle iambic rhythm that had been established in the previous lines and that returns in the subsequent lines, when the music picks back up, and the poem shifts in an instant from the insistent, nearly inarticulate “there. There. There”—the language of someone just learning to speak—to the expertly rendered “Running waters unfurl the ferns.” The meter returns in the form of trochees, an anapest, and an iamb. The vowels sing: brothers, waters, unfurl, ferns, ferns becoming follow, follow becoming (moon)flower.

Or here, two lines from another poem:
November is good for quick dark and closing.
I’d like done with it. This or that or anything.
The plainness of that second line, made up as it is of pronouns—I, it, this, that, anything—the latter three of which lack any meaningful antecedent, contains such expressive force when set against all the beautiful names that run through the collection: adiantum, artemesia, trillium, “wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum.” This or that or anything. It has the effect of distortion in a pop song. I hear a fury buried in there and also a future, in which she is willing to push language all the way to collapse.

Her poems find an uneasy balance between blank verse and ordinary speech, what Robert Frost called the “strained relation” between these two contrasting musics. The sonnet—its size and compression—is the deeply etched blueprint under every poem in the collection.
Cricket Season

Mums and leg-fiddles on the air.
It is the season of astringents, of turning into
or turning away. The crickets sound quick
in the low weeds by the woods, but up here
on the porch boards they are huge, gun-gray
in the lamplight, are dead-slow, silent and heavy
as threat. Those away in the grass, they call
next, next, next: a tearing paper song.
Then, the startling luck-black of them beneath a begonia’s leaf
sings a deaf song, soon, soon.
The locust leaves are already yellow
and I am already sick of their falling.
I push my glasses on top of my head.
I let the world go blurry and still.
And so it was the sonnet, those sessions of sweet silent thought, that we felt should shape the collection, its characteristic movement inward and outward. Bloodroot and Goldenrod tells the story not of a life exactly but a consciousness, if the distinction makes sense. The story of a self walking and kneeling, breaking and mending. Of someone living close to the earth and its objects, in the garden “knuckle-drag[ging] through [her] mistakes,” digging dirt out of her nails with a paring knife “in the kitchen, under the kitchen lights.” Someone “low as a beast and holding.” In these poems we find Elizabeth on the porch or in the yard or at her desk, naming, remembering, musing, and then returning again to the world. That movement, the drift of consciousness, is hard to achieve on the page and harder to make compelling to a reader. Elizabeth does.
If You Are Worried, It’s Only Tomorrow; If You Are Scared, It’s Only the Dark

My Scilla, dear, as blue and low as the best sky—
              as Trillium blooms a green drake
              —nothing hatches broken, no bark breaks.
Wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum
              fall down your throat lightly: a collar.
              A collar, lightly falling down your throat.
The tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile.
There’s no word for our Liriope bed. Stay comes close.
The wall paint peels lovely and pink.
The sun sets upon negotiation only,
and I can forgive anything.
I knew Elizabeth mostly as a poet. I would have liked to have known her better. She left behind images and metaphors, the music of her lines and stanzas. And more than that. She left for us her desire to turn experience into something else, something more, something lasting, into wisdom, beauty, and form. To sing.

Tuesday New Release Day: Lispector, McCracken, Ozick, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth McCracken, Cynthia Ozick, 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.
The Apprenticeship, or the Book of Pleasures by Clarice Lispector (translated by Stefan Tobler)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Apprenticeship: “Lispector’s dense and singular romance (after The Besieged City), first published in Brazil in 1969, arrives in a rich new translation from Tobler and illuminating afterword by Sheila Heti. Lóri, a primary school teacher leading a solitary existence in Rio de Janeiro and unable to stomach her ‘bourgeois middle class’ milieu, becomes captivated by the elusive Ulisses, a philosophy professor and self-described excellent teacher (‘basically I like to hear myself talk about things that interest me,’ he explains). The two speak on the phone, meet for drinks, and visit a local swimming pool, but Ulisses tells Lóri she’s not ready for the relationship he wants, a claim that drives the bulk of Lori’s stream-of-consciousness analysis (‘she was bound to him because she wanted to be desired’). Ulisses speaks often of his ‘apprenticeship’ to something only aspired to—he’s ‘in the middle’ of it, he says, but Lóri feels he’s ‘infinitely further along’ than she is. The purpose of their apprenticeship is never expressed, though one of Lóri’s goals is to feel ‘alive through pleasure’ instead of pain, and Heti’s revealing afterword leaves the reader with much to chew on. This deep immersion into the vicissitudes of love will delight Lispector devotees.”

The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Souvenir Museum: “McCracken’s sly, emotionally complex collection (after Bowlaway) focuses on characters uprooted from their usual surroundings. In ‘The Irish Wedding,’ Jack Valerts brings his new love, Sadie Brody, from Boston to Ireland to meet his family at the wedding of his older sister, where Sadie confronts for the first time the slapstick and sometimes threatening dynamics of the Valerts while holding her own with a quick wit. ‘Miss Mickle All at Sea’ follows the increasingly fraught mental state of an actor known for playing the villain on a children’s show as she travels from Amsterdam, where she’s been celebrating New Year’s Eve, back to England, in the company of an elderly balloon animal artist. In ‘Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark,’ four-year-old Cody’s two fathers take him to a German-themed water park in Galveston, Tex., where older father Bruno’s fear of drowning comically affects his negotiation of a wave pool. McCracken has a gift for surprising similes—’shoes damp as oysters’; ‘bored lifeguards, staring like unemployed goats’—that ignite the reader’s imagination, making great fun out of ordinary settings and scenery. Each story opens to reveal a whole life spent within the web of a family, chosen or not. Full of gems, this collection is a winner.”

Farthest South & Other Stories by Ethan Rutherford

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Farthest South & Other Stories: “Rutherford (The Peripatetic Coffin) grips with evocative detail and subtle rhythms in this accomplished collection, where doubt and danger simmer underneath the surface. Illustrations by Anders Nilsen, often featuring animals or children in stark scenes of nature, reinforce the motif. In ‘Ghost Story,’ a father tells a bedtime story about ‘the seal lady’ to his young sons while waiting for his wife to return home after her nightly swim. The effects of a story being told on its listeners is more explicit in ‘Fable,’ an eerie tale involving a fox and a dead child (‘each scene, familiar and not, had emerged as though from some shrouded, timeless woods, taken physical shape on the table in front of them’). ‘Angus and Annabel’ centers on two young siblings who grieve their dead mother. The younger one, Annabel, makes ‘poppets,’ dolls with sticks and berries like their mother had taught them, an act that unsettles Angus as sparrows circle overhead. In the title story, an Antarctic expedition including children and dogs is stranded in ice near the South Pole, and those who survive are visited nightly by the skulls of those who died. Throughout, Rutherford conveys an organic, insidious creepiness. These fresh and provocative yarns are spun with craft of a high order.”

Nancy by Bruno Lloret (translated by Ellen Jones)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Nancy: “Lloret’s crushingly dark English-language debut follows a lonely, recent widow who’s dying from cancer as she reflects on her life in Chile. After her diagnosis, Nancy lost her husband when he was sucked into a tuna processor at work. He was drunk at the time, so she didn’t receive any insurance money. With nothing left, Nancy reminisces about her childhood with a brother who vanished one day, a sad father who turned to Mormonism late in life, and an emotionally and psychologically abusive mother who abandoned them. There is no joy or humor here, but the writing shines with piercing descriptions of pain, drawn up in increasingly fractured minimalist prose. Blocks of heavy Xs appear as forced pauses that dictate the rhythm of Nancy’s consciousness and forge black, angular reminders of death: ‘I slept in snatches full of sad dreams XXXX the kind you never remember after you wake up, but still, when you open your eyes there’s a real ache in your chest.’ Old Testament passages open each chapter (‘Honor thy father and thy mother, as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee’) and often trigger memories with stark brutality, such as Nancy’s mother’s threats to sell her to the Romany as a child. This visually striking fever dream is one worth braving.”

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Antiquities: “Ozick (Foreign Bodies) delivers a beguiling novel of a man living in the past. In 1949, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer estranged from his friends and his only son, has returned to live at the Temple Academy, the boarding school he attended as a child, which has been converted into a makeshift retirement home for its trustees. There, with his beloved Remington typewriter, he labors over his memoirs. His account revolves around two axes: his childhood fascination with the archaeological adventures in Egypt of his distant cousin Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, which Lloyd’s father impulsively joined, and a school-age infatuation with a mysterious classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who claimed to be from Egypt. Ozick is adept at capturing the vicissitudes of fading memory or flashes of lucid insight, and she unspools the story at a brisk pace. While Petrie’s lively venom and wit are sometimes overdone by Ozick’s overwrought efforts to develop his private-school mannerisms (Ben-Zion Elefantin has a ‘farcical pachyderm name’; Temple retains ‘Oxonian genuflections’), the novel becomes a fascinating portrait of isolation, memory, and loss as Petrie’s health and the state of Temple become more perilous. While it doesn’t reach the heights of her greatest work, this is impressive nonetheless.”

Also on shelves this week: Southbound by Anjali Enjeti.

Bonus Links:
A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: ‘The Complete Stories’ by Clarice Lispector
Evenings with Clarice Lispector’s Newest Translator
My Hour of the Star: On Clarice Lispector
A Story Made Purely of Feeling: The Millions Interviews Cynthia Ozick
The Good Place: The Millions Interviews Elizabeth McCracken
‘Bowlaway’: Featured Fiction from Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2008: Elizabeth McCracken
A Year in Reading 2018: Elizabeth McCracken

Must-Read Poetry: April 2021

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Here are six notable books of poetry publishing this month.

Welcome to Sonnetville, New Jersey by Craig Morgan Teicher

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

Connoisseurs of Worms by Deborah Warren 

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

If God Is a Virus by Seema Yasmin

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

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

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

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

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

32 Poems by Hyam Plutzik

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