I first read Kelly Sundberg’s work in 2015, with her publication of “It Will Look Like a Sunset” in Guernica; the essay gained a lot of attention online, circulating through social networks, and was later included in that year’s Best American Essays collection, for very good reason. It’s a stunning piece that chronicles Sundberg’s decision to call the police when her husband abused her for what would be the last time. “From that point on, everything changed,” she writes. She first regretted the decision to call 911 and stayed with him for two more days, even helping him find a lawyer. But with the encouragement of her friends and mother, she went to a domestic violence shelter where she talked to a counselor who helped her decide to leave. The title of the essay comes from the urgent care doctor who looked at her ankle, which her husband broke. He told her that the bruise would “take a long time to heal,” that it would change color over time and would “look like a sunset.” This signals the end of her marriage and the beginning of her journey to healing, with her son beside her. This essay becomes the 18th chapter of 21 in Goodbye, Sweet Girl, and I found myself eagerly reading toward it, not only because I knew that was her pivotal moment but also because I was stunned by Sundberg’s writing again, this time by how beautifully she paints the complexity of her marriage to an abusive man. One of Sundberg’s accomplishments in the book is her ability to illustrate all of the moments that led her to fall in love with Caleb and to rationalize away the red flags she saw early on, so that by the time we get to the more violent physical abuse toward the end of the book, we understand why she stayed under the misguided belief that she could help him. At the end of Chapter 8, which is about the somewhat pleasant summer she and her husband spent working for the forest service, she writes in italics, “But wait. I missed something,” and goes on to tell the story of how months before, she and Caleb fought and he threw a chair at the wall above her head, making a half moon in the plaster. “[T]he hole watched over me like a twisted sentry. It told me that I was not safe. Caleb never had to say a word.” That “but wait” illustrates how thoroughly she tricked herself into believing she should stay with him, how and why she moved through the warning signs that things were getting worse, that Caleb was getting more and more violent—and we, as readers, were lulled into a false sense of security along with her. Later, when the couple takes a trip to the mountains, Caleb veers onto a service road in an attempt to take a shortcut. Sundberg tells him that the road won’t lead them back to the highway. He gets angry with her for trying to correct him and angrier still when they dead-end at a meadow; she was right. Back at the road, he realizes he needs to pull over to discharge the gun that was (unbeknownst to her) fully loaded in the back of the car. When he gets out and realizes it’s jammed, he warns her before attempting to fire into the woods, in case it backfires and kills him. Finally, when he gets back in the car, safe, and having forgiven Sundberg for her supposed misstep, she writes, “I was relieved he was alive. Maybe even more than that, I was relieved that he was no longer angry at me. I could breathe again…I realized that my expression of concern had felt like criticism to him. I knew that I could be overly critical; Greg had said the same thing about me, and he, too, had so often been angry with me…I held Caleb’s hand, grateful for his forgiveness.” Much of the book’s power comes from Sundberg’s ability to relay to us how she felt with Caleb, how she believed, back then, that his anger came as a reaction to her supposed faults, how relieved she felt when their relationship was peaceful again. And this is why, for so long, she makes sense out of her decisions to stay. She always thinks she needs to help him get better, to heal. We understand, even when we’re frustrated by her choices and worried for her, why she keeps deciding to stay. “By the time Caleb first hit me,” she writes in Chapter 16, “I no longer understood where right ended and wrong began.” Now years into the marriage, Sundberg is in graduate school and winning awards for her writing; her husband at first seems supportive of her and her accomplishments. In one of the pieces she shows him, she’s written about their marriage and closes the essay with “the importance of forgiveness,” which she believed “was the key to our healing.” Caleb supports her telling their story, even though he says, “it hurts to read.” Sundberg says she “felt valued. As a writer. As a wife. As a person.” But her husband’s feelings of envy and incompetence eventually surface in his physical abuse of her. “Soon he was hitting me. Each time an acceptance letter arrived, he would brag about how proud he was of me, and there would usually be a delay of a day or two, but then he would find a reason to beat me. I didn’t make the connection because I believed his words [about being proud of me]. Still, my body knew better. Without realizing it, I stopped submitting anything for publication.” Her ability to appease him, her forgiveness of him is so frustrating and at the same time so compelling, as I can see in her choices all the choices people I love have made in the past, in their own damaging relationships, as well as the choices I’ve made in some of my own, too. I read her book so voraciously to better understand each of our nuances and complexities, how any of us rationalizes our decisions, and how we find the courage to take care of ourselves and to speak our truths. But the book left me with an unexpected gift, and that’s how she told her truth with a deep sense of compassion. Sundberg makes no final assessment of her husband, leaving that, perhaps, to us. At the end of the story, she turns to her life with her son, writing in her house with its dreamy office loft. Because she does return to writing. She does send out her work again. She does leap and find her own new life with her son. The book ends with the hope of her own passage forward, rather than the darkness of condemning her ex-husband; even though part of me wishes she would roar at him for all he did to her, in the days after I finished the book, I found myself grateful for her big-heartedness. The focus isn’t on him, after all, but her. We leave the story focusing on her strength and her beautiful work.
The difficulty of writing a novel means there are a lot of rotten novels out there, published or not. But sometimes writing is bad in a grand, towering way; sometimes the badness of a novel is so overwhelming that it warrants recording and remembering. Such is the case with Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose bad novels have a great deal in common. At a glance, the two authors have little to do with each other. Ros was an Irish teacher born in 1860 who lived a mostly quiet life and died in 1939; Penn is an American actor born in 1960 who has lived a flamboyant, well-recorded life since the early 1980s. Ros self-published her first book, Irene Iddesleigh, a slight novel of Victorian-style romantic fiction, while Penn’s first novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, which strains to be political satire, was published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster with wide availability. Although these writers are a century apart and completely different on the surface, their work bears astonishing similarities, from the way each author assembles sentences to the bombastic, preposterous ego hovering without sufficient disguise behind the work. Both books are bad, but “bad” does not suffice. A little word of three letters does not plumb the depth of these books’ failures. The critic Barry Pain wrote that Iddesleigh “is a thing that happens once in a million years. There is no one above it and no one beside it, and it sits alone as the nightingale sings.” The critic Claire Fallon called Bob Honey “akin to the product of a postmodern literature bot. It doesn’t seem quite possible that a human person wrote this mess.” Ros’s prose is so bad that little societies formed around her in the early 20th century, reading her work aloud as a contest to see how long one could keep from laughing. Penn’s prose is so bad that pictures of his sentences have been shared around social media for ridicule. Similarities abound. 1. Sentences, generally. Both Penn and Ros write terrible sentences. Both fall victim to the agony of overwriting, using phrases of unnecessary complexity; Penn writes that music “attenuates in amplitude” (i.e. gets louder) and that Bob desires to “recommit to the seeking of social connectivity” (i.e. make friends). In Ros, Lord Gifford “sat burying in the silver receptacle that lay by his side the deadened ashes of feathery manufacture produced by the action of his thin lips” (i.e. put out his cigar). Their sentences wind around the reader like boa constrictors, misusing vocabulary and syntax freely. Ros: “Now he stood supported by the strong giant he so often before had hugged because of its silence, its secrecy, its shade, trembling in every nerve lest the virtue his loved-one claimed would pass for ever from his crafty capture to that of some equally depraved digit of distrust and distinction.” Penn: “Normalization of commercial compromise had left this medium as one of dominantly irrelevant fantasies adding nothing to the world, and instead providing a perfect storm of merchanteering thespians and image builders now less identifiable as creators of valued product than of products built for significant sales.” 2. Absurd alliteration. What is it about continuous alliteration that makes bad writers revel, and that makes experienced readers cringe and cry out in pain? Penn and Ros both use handfuls of two-dollar words in long runs of purposeless alliteration. Penn: “He realizes that not only in road-roaming reality has romance been relinquished to ruins, but the cinemas themselves have been caged and quartered into quixotic concrete calamities or corporatized cultural capitulation.” Ros: “The living sometimes learn the touchy tricks of the traitor, the tardy, and the tempted; the dead have evaded the flighty earthly future, and form to swell the retinue of retired rights, the righteous school of the invisible, and the rebellious roar of raging nothing.” 3. Poetic rhythms. Ros wrote two volumes of poetry, Poems of Puncture and Fumes of Formation (alliteration was her lifestyle choice). Penn incorporates poetry into his novel to no real advantage. They favor similar rhythms. Penn: He observed a familiar sensation in sensing himself alone, Might next he go to prison, or die there on his own? Would his body be poked and prodded or simply left to rot? Then his recall brought back the words of Egypt’s own Sadat… Ros: I stood while the ground was hollowed To admit this pile of stink; They placed the coffin upside down (The men upon the brink). How the stony mould did thunder Upon the coffin’s rump, The louder grew the rattle, The deeper Jamie sunk. Penn also writes passages full of sentences with rhyme but little meter: But inside the room, the television is on. A Duck Dynasty star speaks conventionally for the artist of con. Pundits report their version, already inured to the preposterous perversion. A singularly immoral inversion. 4. Vituperative rants. Approximately once per chapter, Penn offers a few paragraphs of pointless ranting in the voice of an old coot with a well-thumbed thesaurus, thinly disguised as Bob Honey’s interior monologue. Here is something about the Pentagon, or possibly the Department of Defense in general: Dollars dispersed with impunity to contracting companies operating without elected oversight. Their employees, often good eggs doing the dangerous and difficult work, and just as often, assholes in need of attitude adjustments. A grab bag of seasoned former soldiers, security specialists, and small-town truck drivers toiling for tax-free tender, with government gifting grandly to these corporate gunslingers, be they of guts or greed. Ros, for her part, lashed critics, lawyers, and other enemies repeatedly with the same switch: her words. The preface to her second book is an 8,000-word, sentence-by-sentence response to Barry Pain’s review of Irene Iddesleigh, and a number of her poems are little more than exercises in gloating over deceased foes: Beneath me here in stinking clumps Lies Lawyer Largebones, all in lumps; A rotten mass of clockholed clay Which grows more honeycombed each day. See how the rats have scratched his face? Now so unlike the human race; I very much regret I can’t Assist them in their eager ‘bent’. 5. Outlandish ego. Here things get interesting. Of course Penn has a big ego; he’s a rich, famous, Oscar-winning celebrity who’s had rapturous praise thrown at him from all quarters for decades. And that ego bursts out of Bob Honey, both in the content of the novel (Bob Honey never doubts the rightness of his own behavior, even when that behavior entails murdering senior citizens with a mallet) and in the novel’s very existence. Penn evidently did not doubt that he could write a novel and it would be good. He, totally untrained as a writer, elected to write in potentially the most difficult genre to get right (satire), to imitate writers whose work stands alone in quality among many inferior attempts at its characteristics (Thomas Pynchon, mainly, but also Charles Bukowski), to write prose that individually offends an astounding array of people (women, people of color, Jewish people, military, anti-military, elderly people, non-Californians, non-Americans, dog lovers, Katrina survivors, just…anyone you can think of who isn't a middle-aged white man). With such hubris, it is no wonder his book is an artistic failure. But at no point did he appear to examine any of the presumptions behind this effort, to think that perhaps writing a novel isn’t as easy as putting words on paper for 150 pages. At no point did he think to himself, hey, maybe a person literally rowing through the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, observing floating bodies and houses on fire, should not be feeling “a cathartic sense of momentarily connected bliss; the kind he might, in a pinch, one day pick from his back pocket, were he ever in the greater Gulf Coast area again, and in need of sensory soothing.” Maybe writing that is not such a hot idea? No. Never. Penn can do anything; everything Penn does is worthwhile. That is the assumption underlying the awful reality of Bob Honey. It’s the same assumption that brought Ros’s work into the world. Everything divides the two writers; Penn has many years of fame and privilege on which to base his opinion of himself, but Ros would likely have lived a totally forgotten life had she not decided to put her work in print. Yet her voluminous correspondence records an ego that matches Penn’s. She once asked a friend if she ought to “make a dart” for the Nobel Prize in Literature, having just heard of it. “I am prouder of my Works than ever,” she wrote to a correspondent: Surely there must be something strangely great about my Works when they create such a furore amongst the World’s noblest and best down to the “Hogwashing Hooligans” whose sole foundation is based upon spleen. I pity such poor apes. This superiority complex bleeds through her novels. She looks down her nose at drinkers, Catholics, women, lawyers, anyone who is not a member of the peerage, and “that class who subsist on the prostitute penny” (i.e. prostitutes). Most chapters of Irene Iddesleigh begin with a paragraph of condescending purple prose meant to teach some kind of life lesson: Be grateful for blessings, beware of ambition, “Torture trifleth not.” The prose in these paragraphs operates in the mood of a hard-won, Melvillian revelation, even if the point is contradictory or incredibly obvious. What a boon to the sad, sorry human race that we have this countrywoman from Ireland to teach us such things. “I expect I will be talked about at the end of 1000 years,” she wrote. A thousand years! Even the major romantic novels of Ros’s time are hardly read after only a hundred and fifty. A similarity less obvious, but perhaps most instructive, is the sheer boredom in the subtext of both writers’ works. Ros could not have been satisfied with her life; she exaggerated its circumstances at every opportunity. Her books are (intended to be) breathless romances, where stakes are high and life is short. The opposite was true in her life, as she lived to 80, and her grand fantasies remained in her head and on the page. Penn’s book touches on some of the major political disasters of the recent past: Baghdad in 2003, New Orleans in 2005, Benghazi in 2012. It is jammed with pointless military jargon, often footnoted patronizingly, as well as large, unlikely accidents (a helicopter falls into a house for no reason). Through all this, Bob Honey’s life is practically static, and his motivations never emerge. Penn, too, must have a great deal of time to sit in his home and do nothing, now that he has purportedly retired from acting. Unlike his character, Penn has not been a propulsive actor in any world events; he has played roles around them, often very well, but that is all one can say of his life. It’s as if Penn is writing the boy version of Ros’s fantasies. His take place in the political realm, while Ros’s take place in the domestic. But both write of inflated lives from a perspective of no real consequence. Both possess the time and the ego to try at writing, fail at it, and move forward as if they have succeeded. It’s appropriate, then, that aside from the century that divides them, the major disparity between Penn and Ros is power. Penn’s power as a male celebrity propelled his book into print, granted him reviews from major publications, and landed him a blurb from no less than Salman Rushdie. So of course, he writes about power, about the political landscape. Ros, who had virtually no power at all in her lifetime, writes about marriage and manor-house intrigue, and her book’s initial publication was her husband’s gift to her—she could not even propel herself into print. Perhaps this is why Penn’s book is so unpleasant to read, while Ros’s book delights. The two writers’ sentences are equally risible, and their pugnaciousness is equivalent, but Penn rages at a world that has given him so much, while Ros sniffs at that world primly after being denied its pleasures. Penn’s book would be repellent if it were not so stupid, while Ros’s books would be stupid if they were not so funny. The uncanny similarity between the sentences and tendencies of each writer cannot be explained by simple incompetence, because incompetent writing does not always sound and feel like this. Although their similarity is amusing, it’s the distinctions between the writers that may reveal something significant about what happens when bad writing transcends obscurity. The difference may be the century that separates Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, but it may also be gender, or power—or some significant mixture of the two. Ros wrote three novels: Irene Iddesleigh, Delina Delaney, and Helen Huddleson. The first is available on Project Gutenberg, while the other two are more difficult to find. Thine in Storm and Calm, a short compendium edited by Frank Ormsby of Ros’s prose, poetry, and correspondence, as well as other treats, is highly recommended, if you can find it. A charming biography of Ros, O Rare Amanda! by Jack Loudan, has been out of print for some years, but may be available in libraries and sometimes at AbeBooks. Penn has threatened to write more novels. Let us hope he does not. Related: Millions Original Epic Fail by Mark O'Connell about Ros and many other purveyors of bad art.
1. A few days past, I stepped into my town's city council chambers to a sea of “Make America Great Again” hats and signs against “illegal aliens.” The council was meeting to decide whether the city would, in a largely symbolic gesture, oppose the idea of the Sanctuary City bill and sign onto the amicus brief suing the state. One after one after one, men and women stood at the podium facing the council, donning red hats, draped in American flags, and snarled abuses about criminality and violence, about illegal aliens and rapists—the same vitriolic language espoused by the president. Those in favor of the bill were outnumbered, and a gentleman in the seat next to me would regularly turn to my mother and I to record our reactions to the vitriol—my mother, being a hijabi, was an easy target. If eyes are the window into the soul, and racism is a malignancy within it, those windows showed very clearly what was in front of us; I refuse to believe that the council members did not see it. As the night wore on, one line kept returning to me from Terrance Hayes, sitting at the edge of my tongue, that I wanted to yell: “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” It sat in my mouth, and I wished I could let it fly. 2. In a section of The Diary of a Bad Year called “On the Curse,” J.M. Coetzee meditates on how the fear of a curse is very integral to American literature, becoming in fact the central theme of Faulkner: “The theft of land from the Indians or the rape of slave women comes back in unforeseen form, generations later, to haunt the oppressor.” This idea of a curse, a uniquely American curse, is an anxiety reflected even earlier in Nathaniel Hawthorne: I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent and ask pardon of heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer as their representative hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes and pray that any curse incurred by them—as I have heard, the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back would argue to exist—may now be henceforth removed. Even from D.H. Lawrence: “One day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the spirit of place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American soil will appear. As yet, there is too much menace in the landscape.” A question: the ghosts of whom? By this point, it may be redundant to claim that the idea of an American curse is integrally bound up with race, with the machinery of its violence, and the way it occurs in any contemplation of whiteness. Now read: America, you just wanted change is all, a return To the kind of awe experienced after beholding a reign Of gold. A leader whose metallic narcissism is a reflection Of your own. You share a fantasy with Trinidad James, who said, “Gold all in my chain, gold all in my ring, Gold all in my watch” & if you know what I’m talking About, your gold is the yellow of “Lemonade” by Gucci Mane: “Yellow rims, yellow big booty, yellow bones, Yellow Lambs, yellow MP’s, yellow watch.” Like no Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists. May your restlessness come at last to rest, constituents Of Midas. I wish you the opposite of what Neruda said Of lemons. May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust. 3. Terrance Hayes, recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award, the National Book Award, and a litany of other prizes, is one of the most gifted poets working in our language. His new book, a short volume of sonnets, American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, is a gift in a fraught moment. These sonnets, existential, political, personal, retain a moral ferocity and urgency that propels that entire cycle forward. These are not Shakespearean or Spenserian sonnets, but what ought to be called Colemanian sonnets after Los Angeles poet Wanda Coleman, whose improvisational free jazz approach to sonnets is the starting point for these poems. Hayes builds upon this conceptual framework for an idea of an “American Sonnet.” Absurd, pun-filled, shocking and ironic, there is a freedom in these poems that comes marching forward in the same way Coleman’s poems still measure toward a common formal language. Hayes’ voice is level, and his penchant for formal experimentation—which led him to creating his own formal conventions in Lighthead and Hip Logic (such as the Pecha Kucha)—find him immediately at home. What I am trying to say is that if poems are a house, and sonnets are gothic architecture, then Terrance Hayes is our Antoni Gaudí. However, more than an architect, Hayes is an alchemist whose poems can turn gold into copper or a house into a prison: I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame. I lock you in a form that is part music box, part meat Grinder to separate the song of the bird from the bone. I lock your persona in a dream-inducing sleeper hold While your better selves watch from the bleachers. I make you both gym & crow here. As the crow You undergo a beautiful catharsis trapped one night In the shadows of the gym. As the gym, the feel of crow Shit dropping to your floors is not unlike the stars Falling from the pep rally posters on your walls. I make you a box of darkness with a bird in its heart. Voltas of acoustics, instinct & metaphor. It is not enough To love you. It is not enough to want you destroyed These poems are acutely aware of the literary tradition Hayes works in, with as many references to James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, to Derek Walcott and Langston Hughes, wrestling with the implications of blackness and literary tradition. Hayes’ inhabits the deeply troubling historical moment. But these poems are timeless, by which I mean these sonnets annihilate any difference between past and future. A motif that appears regularly in these poems is the term, “There never was a black male hysteria.” He explains in his notes, “Many years ago the poet Anthony Butts told me he was writing a book called Male Hysteria…alas, the book never came to be.” In a book unwritten, there is neither future nor past—only the possibilities of both. These poems puncture a hole in time, fragmenting a grief, a rage, a rebellion, an irony so deep that one can only call them blue. These poems are true; they were true before they were written and will be true in whatever future we are slouching toward. Sitting in those council chambers, in front of this racism unmasked and parading as political theater, those lines sat on my tongue, and I wish—oh, how deeply I wish—I could have turned and said to each and every one of them, “May all the gold you touch burn, rot & rust.” I got home quite late that night but pored over these sonnets again and again, as if they were gospel.
As a Buddhist priest, I find in Louise Glück’s American Originality words for an increasingly bewildered and besotted country—a series of meditations on poetry’s power to orient, understand, heal, celebrate, and preserve the self’s “Individual, irreplaceable, human voice.” 1. America in Situ Glück’s America is “famously, a nation of escaped convicts, younger sons, persecuted minorities, and opportunists.” Nursed on “images and narratives of self invention,” our invented selves are insecure. Stretched between the need for distinction on the one hand and corroboration on the other, Americans dart about, encumbered by a hustler-complex: “Under the brazen ‘I made up a self’ of the American myth, the sinister sotto voce, ‘I am a lie.’” Thus the American is wonderfully original, aware of herself and her life as being both the origin—the place, the raw material from which she culls meaning—as well as the originator: the poet who mines herself, as it were, from nothing, to justify her purpose for being. This situation generates panic, as with Richard Siken, in whose poems (from Crush) “desperate garrulousness delays catastrophe...Everything is a trick...everything is art, technology—everything that is, can still change.” Of those who face the apparently contradictory task of creating an original—primary and distinct—self while burdened by that self’s need for broad accord: “The [American] artist must look like a renegade and at the same time produce, whether by accident or design, an aesthetic commodity, a set of gestures instantly apprehended as new and also capable of replication.” “The cost of this pressure,” says Glück, “has been immense.” 2. Louise Glück’s View “Against the background of the eternal, the void, stories are musical phrases, simultaneously completed formal shapes and inconclusive fragments,” Glück writes. America’s is the culture that forces the self to sell. One is made significant by virtue of having been copiously consumed (replicated). Given this state of affairs, the self’s substance is determined by consumer demand. Intuitively, we loathe and rebel against this situation: for the limitation it imposes on our freedom, for its disinterest in our claim to, need for, and enjoyment of particularity, and for its assault on our dignity. Witness Glück on Jay Hopler, whose “dreamy obscurities and rapturous effusions share with his more direct speech a refusal to be groomed into uncommunicative cool”—who, for protecting spiritual and artistic purity, “writes like someone haunted or stalked,” who “wants, simultaneously, to hide and to end the anxiety of hiding, to reveal himself...to give himself away.” 3. Voices In Part 3 of her book—“Ten Introductions”—Glück provides a series of 10 essays: introductions to collections she encountered during a busy-sounding period of her career, when, from 1999-2010, she served as judge for three separate prizes: the APR/Honickman First Book Prize, a first-book competition overseen by the American Poetry Review (1999), the Bakeless Prize, supervised by Michael Collier (2003), and the Yale Younger Poets Prize (2003-2010). She reports that these introductions were “thrilling to write,” for having felt that in the poet she introduced, she “had discovered an immense talent”; so that her act of describing the artist “took on a genuine urgency, not unrelated to messianic fervor.” In her choice of winners, one finds the poetic sensibilities Glück appreciates as answers to the American’s troubling dilemma: If Aristotle is correct, our meaning is found in community and connection, which is to say historically, temporally, and by corroborative consensus. How, then, does one preserve an individual sense of self while at the same time participating in a society that—in the name of order, security, subsistence—must pigeonhole and hammer flat its citizens’ edges, curtail their freedoms, and this the very society upon which the self depends for meaning? Glück’s answer to this dilemma is that we ought to live with awareness that the truths which hold society together—and in which we necessarily find ourselves enmeshed as its members—are not fixed. They are bound to an eternal cycle of change: forever subject to both deterioration and invention—a mirror, in fact, of the very same processes by which the self is governed. Our answers to the question of human purpose and meaning, for Glück, ought not to resemble the fixed, well-packaged commodities—the ideologies—thrown down for the sake of preservation, in the self’s and civilization’s march through time. Rather, they should constitute a performance that resists this tendency, that accurately assesses and provides a creative response to the activity which takes place at the self’s and society’s inception: a response to the event at our origin, in the tension between lyric and narrative possibilities—where, out of void, what has been recedes to make way for what’s new. One example of this is the poetry of Jessica Fisher, whose poems (from Frail-Craft) “move like dreams or spells” where momentum “seems less a function of will than an evolved form of passivity...that condition in which freedom from decision and choice makes possible a unique flowering of attentiveness and reflection.” From Fisher's “Journey”: Because the valley spreads wide, ridged with signs we read; or because what we needed was always at hand— reach down and there was a book, there a slipper, there a glass of ice cold water. Hopefully we walked the paths laid before us, there was a burr-bush, there a blue jay, quail and other creatures, too many to follow. Where did they go once we lost their lead? Which is to say, where did we not go? Quick, quick, they called to us, but we heard only the sound of our boots on dried leaves, and were mesmerized; we spoke to one another of things in the path, we chucked to our horses, when we had them, and when we had hats we took them in our hands and hallooed to the passersby (brahma bull, bright green bird) though we were not yet out of the wood, instead it closed in around us, deep were its streams and the trees thick around and thick together... [millions_ad] 4. Rilke et al. “Contemporary literature,” writes Glück, “is to a marked degree, a literature of the self examining its responses,” and in her essay “American Narcissism,” she traces the origins of this literature back through Freud, Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, and especially Rainer Maria Rilke, who postulated “a void, an absence into which the world flooded.” For Rilke, “The future had begun to disappear, and would continue—terrifyingly—to do so...all figures for continuity and trajectory began to seem false...[He] maps out a spiritual terrain never before visible or audible, never before necessary...an art that placed the self, actually or emblematically, at the center of lost time (the moment, the instant, just past).” 5. Poet as Secular Priest Born of “the moment, the instant, just past,” Rilke’s subject is unable to witness its own inception—only, rather, the trail of afterbirth assembled post-genesis. It only knows itself as an effect: as having been the result of—and subject to—time. Aware of itself, its environment, its history as having been granted by time, this self is equally aware that time, for all its generosity, will come to reclaim its gifts. Thus, in Arda Collins’s It Is Daylight, “The self in the present, always both performing and taking notes, becomes the self that acted and the self that remembers, the shift in tense making each self potentially whole. This, together with the atmosphere of searching or incompleteness, makes, despite the poem’s sadness, a model for hope. If something can end (the before of before and after), something can begin; time can begin, feeling can begin.” Time is such that gain necessitates loss. And Glück would have us see that what we use—what we do—to appease such loss is poetry. This is the sense in which it can be said that poetry, for Glück, is religious: “By giving form to devastation, the poem rescues the reader from a darkness without shape or gravity; it is an island in a free fall; it becomes his companion in grief, his rescuer, a proof that suffering can be made somehow to yield to meaning.” As a kind of secular priest, the poet strives to preserve by his expression what is worthy of edifying and sharing: that which, without his words, will otherwise perish. “His belief in art, and investment in art, in the dream of articulation, project him constantly into the future—the hypothetical moment in which comprehensive darkness acquires limits and form,” Glück writes. The life that has been granted, knowing it’ll be lost, invents itself through voice, narrative, words, bringing to its community and to its death a meaning that inspires “the compensatory fantasy that one can make a new self…The poem is a revenge on loss, which has been forced to yield to a new form, a thing that hadn’t existed in the world before.” 6. Two Examples Two examples of such “new form” are Katherine Larson and Spencer Reece. Here is Glück on Larson: A grave passivity infuses [Radial Symmetry]; experience is less sought than received. The poet is a kind of dazed Miranda, so new to the world that its very ordinariness seems an emblem of wonder....I think a reader will remember these poems for their beauty, the profound sense of being in the present that their sensuality embodies, and a sense, too, of its cost. [From Larson’s “Broke the Lunatic Horse”:] “The Milky Way sways its back across all of wind-eaten America like a dusty saddle tossed over your sable, lunatic horse. All the plains are dark. All the stars are cowards: they lie to us about their time of death And do nothing but dangle like a huge chandelier over nights when our mangled sobs make the dead reach for their guns. I must be one of the only girls who still dreams in green gingham, sees snow as a steel pail’s falling of frozen nails like you said through pipe smoke on the cabin porch one night. Dear one, there are no nails more cold than those that fix you underground. I thought I saw you in the moon of the auditorium after my high school dance. Without you, it’s still hard to dance. It’s even hard to dream.” And on Reece: How are we to master suffering? Over and over, the poems in The Clerk’s Tale discover in modesty a discipline by which the desire to affirm can overcome repeated disappointment that threatens to become withdrawal or despair. They take solace in simple decency; they admire dignity, as they admire the natural forms in which spontaneity survives...I felt emanating from Spencer Reece’s work a sense of immanence that belongs to religious passion; it is a great thing to have it again in art: [From Reece’s “Chiaroscuro”:] “When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens, when the rind cools down on the lime, when we sit here a long time, when we feel ourselves found, .... “we will turn at last, we will admire the evening’s fading clues, uncertain of what dark portends as another season ends and the fabulous visitors depart in luxury cars, we will savor the sharp light from the summer stars, we will rejoice in the fronds tintinnabulating down these empty streets, these beautiful streets with all these beautiful names— Kings, Algoma, Via Bellaria, Clarendon, Via Vizcaya, Via Del Mar, El Vedado, Banyan, El Brillo, El Bravo, Via Marina.” 7. On the Relationship of the Poet to Her Art Part 4, the final section of Glück’s book, includes three essays: “On Revenge,” “Estrangement,” and “Fear of Happiness.” Here Glück offers a kind of confession. It is not an offering she makes lightly. She has worked for it—on our behalf. She’s suffered awkwardness, anxiety, insecurity, darkness, despair. And yet she did not settle for, stop, or indulge these states. Rather, she examined them, and examined herself examining them. She clearly sought to understand their meaning, origin, and purpose, to move beyond—to shed—herself into art. And if her drive for such understanding was not initially motivated by an urge to educate, it seems she came to learn through self-understanding that her purpose—and purpose universally—requires one to make paradigmatic one’s suffering without losing the anecdotal particularity by which it commands temporal, corporeal substance, significance, meaning, and force. The essays of Part 4 are offered with a kind of “take these thoughts if you want; I found them to be a helpful working-through, and perhaps you will, too” attitude, exemplifying the humor, detachment, and modesty Glück extols as protections against narcissism. We are called to, summoned, invoked into ourselves by way of this poet’s contemplations—offerings, it seems, as equally fitting for “Goodbye” as “Hello.” Here is, perhaps, Glück’s conclusion: “Nothing in [the] past can be changed or restored. But the present can change the way it is thought about. In this new enactment, presence can replace absence, which is the best that can be managed in human time.” Let me leave you with her: “Occasionally something will give pleasure, will actually charm or divert or entertain, will, to use that terrifying word, disarm. Insofar as our fearful compulsive, rigid natures allow, I think we should welcome what follows.”
The term “hermit crab essay,” coined in 2003 by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their book Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, refers to essays that take the form of something un-essay-like—such as a recipe, how-to manual, or marriage license—and use this form to tell a story or explore a topic. These essays, like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit. And these borrowed homes, in turn, protect the soft, vulnerable bodies of the crabs within. As Miller and Paola write in their original description of the genre: This kind of essay appropriates other forms as an outer covering to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It’s an essay that deals with material that seems to have been born without its own carapace—material that’s soft, exposed, and tender and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, edited by Kim Adrian and published in 2018 by the University of Nebraska Press, is the first collection devoted entirely to this still rather new form. And if this lively and energetic anthology is any indication, it’s a form that will be around for a long time to come. Hermit crab essays are a fascinating genre, one that I’m drawn to as both a reader and a writer. There’s something about them that represents the spirit of our era—with our infinite distractibility and our distrust of meta-narratives. They capture, perhaps, the inability of traditional storytelling to tell our most traumatic, fragmented, and complex stories—and our longing for structures that can. Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it. For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium. Miller says in her foreword to The Shell Game that “with every iteration, both the hermit crab creature and the hermit crab essay become more deeply understood, and the possibilities for the form grow by the day.” And it is indeed a form that’s constantly growing and expanding. As long as there are new forms and structures created in the world, there are new possibilities for hermit crab essays. Kim Adrian’s introduction to the volume is itself a hermit crab essay. Subtitled “A Natural History of the North American Hermit Crab Essay,” the introduction takes the form of a field guide about hermit crab essays, as if they were living creatures. In a section called “Number of Species,” for instance, she says that the family is “theoretically infinite, realistically somewhere in the thousands. Maybe tens of. Some of the more conspicuous include: grocery lists; how-to instructions; job applications; syllabi and other academic outlines; recipes; obituaries; liner notes; contributors’ notes; chronologies of all orders; abecedarians of all types; hierarchies of every description; want ads; game instructions,” along with dozens of other examples. In other words, the forms that hermit crab essays can take are as endless and ever-changing as human culture itself. [millions_ad] Adrian raises in her introduction the possibility that hermit crab essays could “be a self-limiting phenomenon: a somewhat charming blip of literary trendiness.” Time will tell, she says, but it’s also possible: ...that instead of disappearing like a spent trend, the hermit crab essay may yet spawn an entire new breed of essays—essays we can’t even imagine from here, essays that refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction, that refuse even to acknowledge such a line, and that throw on disguises of every description...in order to more fully inhabit some internal truth and in this way do what the best specimens of the noble order Exagium have always done: get to something real. It’s interesting to note, as she says, that one of the things these essays do is to “refuse to draw a line between fact and fiction.” Many hermit crab essays are a strange hybrid between fact and fiction, calling attention to their constructedness and their made-up qualities even as they presumably tell “true” stories and are rooted in actual experiences. It’s difficult to consider them strictly nonfiction, since they are themselves inventions. When an essay in this volume takes the form of a legal document or a marriage license, after all, it’s pretending to be those things in order to tell a deeper story, or, as Adrian says, to “get to something real.” It’s no accident, I think, that this form is gaining popularity precisely at a moment in American culture when the distinctions between fact and fiction are becoming increasingly blurry. That’s not to say that hermit crab essays don’t teach us to think critically about that blurriness. Rather, they do just the opposite: They call attention to the ways that cultural forms and expectations create reality. They make us see something about the forms and the stories they embody, helping us to understand how the forms of our culture both shape and limit our understanding of the world. The essays in this volume cross a lot of territory and, as would be expected, take many forms. One of my favorites is “Solving My Way to Grandma” by Laurie Easter. It takes the form of a crossword puzzle in order to tell the story of the narrator’s coming to terms with becoming a grandmother. Since I love word puzzles, I worked on the puzzle as I read the essay, which was composed of small snippets of story turned into clues. Here, for instance, is 1 Across: “‘Mom, I have something to tell you. You might want to sit down.’ When my daughter said this, my first thought was Uh-oh, who died? Not Oh my god, she’s pregnant. (Expect the _______).” Solving the puzzle while reading the essay lets the reader experience the narrator’s own process of puzzle-solving about her life. It’s a moving essay that works especially well because the form and the content are so well-matched. Reading this essay is a visceral experience in puzzle-solving. The collection is full of similarly surprising and delightful essays. Sarah McColl’s “Ok, Cupid,” for instance, uses the form of a dating profile for self-revelation, with the narrator answering questions like “What I’m doing with my life” with elaborate and seemingly tangential answers that actually become more truthful than a real dating profile ever could. Brenda Miller’s “We Regret to Inform You” is a brilliant collection of imagined rejection letters from art teachers, dance teams, and would-be boyfriends and husbands. The essay ends, finally, with an acceptance letter from a pet rescue, congratulating her on the adoption of her new dog—a letter that comes in stark and moving contrast to the years of rejection. The essays in this collection bring with them a sense of hope about literature and its capacity for evolution and change. In Tell It Slant, Miller and Paola tell those interested in writing hermit crab essays to look around and see what’s out there: “The world is brimming with forms that await transformation. See how the world constantly orders itself in structures that can be shrewdly turned to your own purposes.” In a postscript to The Shell Game, there’s an eight-page list by Cheyenne Nimes of many possible forms for hermit crab essays, from game show transcripts to eBay ads. I couldn’t help reading this as a list of writing prompts, circling some that I’d like to try. It’s a fitting way to end a volume that is as much an inspiration for other writers as it is a definitive collection of a constantly evolving genre. Ultimately, maybe it’s this promise of transformation and adaptation that makes hermit crab essays so appealing. They encourage us to move forward, and they show us how many different paths we might take.
Tara Westover’s memoir Educated traces her evolution from the youngest child of seven in an Idaho family of Mormon fundamentalists to a cosmopolitan scholar of history in London. Through grit and bootstrapping, she leaves behind her homesteading, unschooled life by teaching herself enough math and grammar to pass the ACT and steps foot into a classroom for the first time as a freshman at the Latter Day Saints’ Brigham Young University. Her story is one of learning to question one’s given reality, and it also gives us the first real insight into an American subculture that is both extreme in its views and growing in popularity as it overlaps other fringe movements. When she was a child, Westover's father, Gene, espoused an absolutist libertarianism and paranoid end-of-days version of Mormonism, which entirely shaped her worldview. Her mother, Faye, was her father’s willing helpmeet: a lay midwife, herbalist, and then essential oils bottler who was equally committed to her husband's ideology against government, education, and modern science. I first came across essential oil promoters in a mama-and-baby’s group at my local yoga studio, and I’ve since seen them pushed as both a money-making endeavor and a general cure-all on “crunchy mama” blogs. I am generally—at least philosophically, if not in actual practice (hello, C-section, daycare, and supplemental formula)—in line with the all-organic, homemade, breastfeeding ethos of this brand of motherhood, so learning in Westover’s memoir of the close ties between the business of essential oils and extreme right-wing ideology was revelatory. “Herbalism,” according to her father, is “a spiritual doctrine that separated the wheat from the tares, the faithful from the faithless.” That’s not to say that every homeschooling parent who uses folk or non-Western medicine agrees with the misogyny, racism, and anti-Semitism that Westover reveals as the cornerstones of her parents’ belief system—but this appeal of essential oils to both fundamentalists and the “new new age” does show that the romantic pursuit of purity and freedom is common to both the fringes of the left and the right. The paths these countercultures take to reach their goals are often similar, even if the rationales differ: Turn to nature, turn to the spiritual, and disdain the obedient sheep who actually trust the systems from which the nonconformists are alienated. As Jonathan Kauffman discusses in his recent book on the rise of the natural and organic food movement, Hippie Food, many of the radical ideas that the ’60s and ’70s brought us, whether the acceptance of brown rice in the case of Kauffman’s book or out-of-hospital birth and the use of plants instead of painkillers in Westover’s family, have been taken up in conventional consumerism in the last two decades. Westover rejected her parents’ fringe beliefs and embraced liberal culture at college in the early 2000s just as the American mainstream did the opposite. Elderberry syrup is available in my local Walgreens (of course I bought it for my toddler, wanting to give him something to help his frequent coughs that seems, at the very worst, completely harmless). Along with what I consider positive outcomes of the 1960s trend of questioning our authorities and institutions—such as an end to involuntary sterilizations and an increased scrutiny of our government’s violation of citizens’ civil rights—the damage done to faith in American institutions has opened the door to the mainstreaming of paranoia and conspiracy theories. In the Westover family’s case, that meant the marriage of rabid libertarianism to authoritarian tendencies—exactly the spirit of the political wave that washed Donald Trump up in Washington, D.C. In their household, according to Tara’s diaries, this manifested in Gene using her and her brothers as child labor in his completely unsafe junkyard and Faye having them manufacture her oils and salves; it meant no access to texts beyond the Bible, the Constitution, and the Book of Mormon; and it created a patriarchal family structure so focused on female sin that it could excuse one brother, Shawn, behaving violently to Tara and her sister as proper efforts to curb their potentially immodest behavior. Westover’s retelling of her coming-of-age experience is a riveting tale that keeps dangling the question of whether or not she’ll escape from her oppressive surroundings, and how she’ll do it. Her story is close kin to memoirs of parental lunacy and misdeeds like Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Joshua Safran’s Free Spirit, and other “misery lit” about growing up with parents whose personal rebellions against society created unstable, damaging situations for their children. But Westover has written a memoir that says much more than “Thank goodness I survived that.” Westover escapes the trap of storytelling for self-justification that drives so many autobiographies by exploring both the reality constructed by her family's beliefs and her process of rebuilding that reality through her education. The memoir’s structure is a series of re-evaluations of her reality, with the reader walking alongside her as she travels through alternate universes, leaving and trying to return to Buck’s Peak. She also allows the reader to see, in her own doubts about her path away from her family’s beliefs, the version of the story her parents are telling: that she has been lost to them because she is “whoring after man’s knowledge instead of God’s,” as her father declares when she asserts a desire to attend college. Tara first has the opportunity to experience the world without her parents’ heavy-handed views of it when she attends BYU. Her subsequent experience of displacement and alienation from both her university peers and her family is a familiar phenomenon for first-generation college students from a variety of backgrounds. Through her father, Tara Westover writes, “I had learned that books were either to be adored or banned.” As Tara moves deeper into college and then graduate school in history at Cambridge University and Harvard, she is asked to work her mind not in service of confirming previous beliefs, but instead to analyze and synthesize, those key goals for college students every composition teacher is familiar with. She moves from reading books “to learn what to think” to realizing that “books were not tricks, and that I was not feeble.” To successfully learn to write as a professional historian, she must adopt a worldview that allows for multiple versions of events to exist simultaneously. In becoming a historian, Tara realizes she can apply those same skills to rewrite her own world and her place within it: “To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.” The self-determination that her parents sought, that they could not offer their daughter out of fear of losing her, she finds in the very intellectual tools they shun. This self-construction takes years, because for even the most rebellious scions, our parents’ values shape our understanding of the world at every level of experience and perception. Tara struggles in her years at BYU to conform to the family’s isolationist righteousness, resisting other paths offered by people who see her suffering through pain without analgesics and in danger of failing school because she is also trying to work multiple jobs. But despite her attempts to stay true to her parents’ teachings, with new knowledge comes new understanding. Learning about the Holocaust in her first weeks of college places her father’s rants against “globalism,” the U.N., and banks in their anti-Semitic context. Tara realizes that her father’s story about fellow Idaho “freedom fighters” who “wouldn’t let the Government brainwash their kids in them public schools, so the Feds came after them” was actually an FBI raid on a homesteader who sold guns to a neo-Nazi group. She recognizes that “white supremacy was at the heart of this story” and then makes the leap to realize it is also at the heart of her own family’s story—yet another brick knocked out of the foundation of trust and belief they instilled. [millions_ad] Relearning “feminist” as not an insult but a description of a woman who does not want to be subservient takes the longest for Westover, since it requires questioning not only the extremism of her parents but the dominant culture at BYU and her church writ large. Tara finally refuses to forgive the misogynistic abuse dished out by her brother Shawn, and her insistence that there be a reckoning ends up pushing her out of the family. In the world she has revised for herself, there is no space for a man to punish women in his family for disobeying him. In her parents’ world, that is his role and right. The introspection it would take to value their wayward daughter over the faithful son whose labor helps their businesses run would destabilize the core of their identities. Her parents interpret all acts and events as justifications for their ideology, an extreme version of confirmation bias. Their worldview can hold no other possibility. To even fear a bad outcome, in her parents’ eyes, is to doubt God. “I’m not driving faster than our angels can fly,” her father quips as he speeds with his seven children in the van, from which he has removed all seat belts. Tara reflects later on all the injuries they’ve suffered that a few precautions could have prevented: “Dad always put faith before safety. Because he believed himself right, and he kept on believing himself right…” Gene genuinely believes Ronald Reagan’s quip—“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’”—so he only trusts himself, his immediate family, and God. If you believe God is personally intervening for you, it gives your life significance, even as the American economy devalues the physical labor upon which you’ve based your and your children’s livelihoods. Her parents’ certainty that God speaks directly to them and that they understand him perfectly—as in Gene’s total confidence in his biblical interpretations and Faye’s use of “muscle testing,” interpreting her body’s twitches as subconscious divine guidance—is what ultimately makes their countercultural leanings dangerous rather than liberating. The breathtaking arrogance of interpreting one’s own desires as divine will and revelation means there’s no room for ever admitting error—that would mean doubting one's connection to God. For her parents, there can never be uncertainty; there is only one truth, so even incidences of great suffering are interpreted to confirm that God has a plan for them. In addition, over the course of the 15 years or so this memoir covers, her parents have gone from scraping by to running the biggest business in their Idaho county—Butterfly Express Quality essential oils (unnamed in the book, but easy to find on Google)—and employing the four children who never went on to higher education. It’s clear this success is seen by her family as a consecration; God is acting through capitalism to reward the Westovers’ righteousness. We liberal readers must realize that Tara’s story is not a clap on our backs for being right all along but rather an effort to tell the story of the dangers of moral absolutism. She was motivated to write history by her recognition that the truth claims of her childhood were only possible because she had no other information available to contradict them: “What a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.” What is proclaimed historical truth is a set of stories written to make sense of a mess of fragments according to the beliefs of the writer. Acknowledging that the truth is not absolute—rather unknowable—she reconciles herself to the groundlessness she had known since leaving the security of her family's righteousness: “In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.” She applies this to her memoir as well, acknowledging how her interpretation of events has shifted and how her siblings and she have different memories of the same experiences. Tara Westover does not use her memoir to prove her parents wrong but to assert that her interpretation is just as valid; she just wants them to accept that her reality is different but can interact and coexist with theirs. Tara Westover performs a vital sort of embedded anthropology in Educated, explaining her fundamentalist, libertarian and rural Western cultural heritage to the educated coastal elites among whom she’s chosen to live. In her parents, we see that the particular kind of “natural” rhetoric we associate primarily with whimsical, wispy Californians is just as easily assigned to the “Make America Great Again” campaign, emphasizing individual needs over the collective, the private family unit over civic society. Just as her mother’s oils are now bought by thousands of customers as an alternative to costly cures from experts, her family's political views, once considered extreme, are now also shared by such a large segment of the American public that they’ve taken over Congress and the presidency. Tara offers a personal history of a family withdrawing into extremism and vividly outlines the disbelief she experiences watching that extremism become the dominant narrative in her home community. She shows us how beliefs shape reality and, in turn, how ideological outliers end up centered in the American cultural consciousness. But this is also the story of a woman who loved her mother and father dearly and had to learn what it felt like not to be loved by them any longer. It nearly drives her crazy, and her loneliness breaks your heart.
Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures. There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse. As she describes in bits and pieces throughout this book, Tea started her literary career in the ’90s, sitting in San Francisco dive bars, drinking and writing about her love life, then reading the contents of her notebook out loud at open mics around the city. After leaving her hometown of Chelsea, Mass., the gritty little city located across the Mystic River from Boston—and a place that still haunts everything she writes—she made her way to the Bay Area with her queerness, brokeness, and punkiness as her guides. She soon plugged into the city’s underground gay community, finding her first girlfriends and discovering herself as a writer at the same time. Now a fixture in the San Francisco scene, she runs her own reading series, a nonprofit called RADAR that she founded to promote queer artists with affordable literary programming. (Disclosure: This reviewer once read at a RADAR event and had a lot of fun doing it.) Those of us who love her today love her for her steady stream of fearless, vivid writing about sex and love, working-class family life, bad jobs, city life, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and looking/feeling/being socially unacceptable. Tough-minded and naturally funny, charming and tattooed, Tea became both popular and respected—a bona fide literary figure—simply by writing about herself. So why is she now, after having made it such an important aspect of her writing life, against memoir? Well, she isn’t, exactly. But as she writes from her now-sober, more settled life, she recognizes it for the dangerous occupation that it is—a betrayal of friendships and confidences, the desire for revenge always slipping around under the surface like a shark. To illustrate this, Tea recounts in Against Memoir’s title essay the time she performed an old story about “the bitch who stole [her] girlfriend” to a packed bar, only to discover that the woman who’d done the stealing years earlier was in the audience—and not for the first time. The other time Tea performed this piece in front of her, the woman went outside and kicked a bus shelter in anger and broke her foot. In the same essay, Tea compares the drive to write memoir to alcoholism—an addiction she has kicked, though she vows never to give up her memoir habit. She also refers to her profession interchangeably as “writing” and the compulsive behavioral condition “hypergraphia,” and it’s not entirely clear whether she’s kidding. Though this book shows how Tea’s work has developed from straightforward memoir to a more nuanced form of self-reflexive cultural critique, memoir makes up about a third of it. The section “Writing & Life” is composed of the kind of stories she’s best known for: outrageous yarns about things like the Sister Spit reading tours she ran in the ’90s and the lousy part-time jobs she worked one summer as a teenager. But interestingly, her writing about art—the ostensibly critical pieces—are among the strongest in the book. When she writes about Eileen Myles’s lesbian classic, Chelsea Girls, or about Andy Warhol’s would-be killer Valerie Solanas and her SCUM Manifesto with tenderness and understanding, the electricity almost leaps off the page. “The City to a Young Girl,” a complex and affecting piece about the Trump presidency, a poem written by a teenage girl, and Tea’s own girlhood, is probably the apotheosis of Tea’s development as a nonfiction writer. Of course, writing about other people and their ideas can be a powerful way of writing about yourself. With the long-form essay “HAGS in Your Face,” Tea gives us good old-fashioned journalism, reporting on the gang of hard-living gutter-punk women who called themselves the HAGS and were notorious to San Francisco’s larger gay community during the ’90s. Tea interviews several of the HAGS who fascinated her back then, and they tell her how they traveled in packs, scooping each other up from the “black hole” of “addiction, homophobia, family abandonment, gender discrimination, all of it.” With her portrait of the HAGS, she shows us how being forced to the fringes of society can damage people irreparably just as it can forge them into something beautiful and brand-new. [millions_ad] When Tea seems less sure of herself, she can lean too heavily on a tossed-off charm to gloss over her discomfort, like when she worries aloud that her “hetero sisters are not getting the most out of their vaginas.” But on the whole, this book, like all of her best writing, bristles with life and a fierce intellect. Her voice is as distinct as ever, and her ability to conjure something—an album cover, the feeling of a hangover—in just a few phrases, like Zorro (zip, zip, zip!) is still wonderfully intact. The most delightful discovery—to me, anyway—is a version of a short, bright piece called “Pigeon Manifesto” that I have only ever seen in print as a Poems-for-All book the size and shape of a matchbook, put out in 2004 (the book credits it as a performance Tea gave in San Francisco that same year). Writing about herself and her fellow misfits as much as the maligned city birds, Tea says: “When you say to me, ‘I hate pigeons,’ I want to ask you who else do you hate. It makes me suspicious. …Pigeons…are chameleons, grey as the concrete they troll for scraps, at night they huddle and sing like cats. Their necks are glistening, iridescent as an oil-slick rainbow, they mate for life, and they fly.”
When I was growing up in Florida, we called it God’s Waiting Room, but not because we thought it was heavenly. The elderly retired in Florida, “waiting” for death, and we kids who joked about it were waiting, too. Not for death, but to leave for older, darker, nobler, safer states. I say safer because for a certain kind of person Florida can feel dangerous. It’s spread too thin over spongy limestone, sprawling in every direction except up or down. Everything is overexposed; the horizon oppresses; the ground might even swallow you whole. There are no hills or valleys or basements—no cuddling natural borders, no places to hide. Things and people spill out and stick together like cracked eggs in this gun-shaped frying pan. Leave if you can, but Florida will stick; Florida will follow. In fact, you can never really leave the Sunshine State, as Lauren Groff intimately apprehends in her excellent collection, Florida. In these 11 stories, Florida is not necessarily the setting or the subject, nor the sordid punch line it’s often made out to be. Instead, Florida is the thing that Groff’s fly-wing delicate characters can’t escape. That doesn’t keep them from trying. All the stories Groff tells here are, at some level, chronicles of flight. Women walk through the particularly creepy streets of Gainesville or the palmettos of its surrounding prairie, trying to escape what they hate about themselves or what they love too much. Men row into tea-hot ponds to evade the twilight of their own mythmaking. Others wade into swamps to cockfight with snakes, stimulating the bravery they otherwise lack. Mothers holiday in France or Florida’s tangled forests, fighting to escape the fact that they love their babies more than they can protect them. Children, young or grown, cloy for freedom from their parents, living or dead. All of them quake with trepidation about living just one more day: They love life too rapturously. “Ghosts and Empties,” the first story in the collection, prefaces these themes and introduces patterns that repeat throughout the book. Like most of the stories to follow, it exists entirely in the mind of its protagonist. Here, it’s a mother who has “somehow become a woman who yells” and takes up an evening ritual of walking through the charmingly tarnished Duck Pond neighborhood of Gainesville. She intends the walk to exorcise her rage, stoked from “reading about the disaster of the world…millennia snuffed out as if they were not precious.” Instead, she becomes a witness to the tiny but unceasing changes occurring around her, “gorgeous changes that insist that not everything is decaying faster than we can love it.” Her escape fails, forcing her to concede that to be alive is to overflow, and to accept that “nothing is not always in transition.” Failed flights of this sort form the narrative spine of Florida’s stories: Like this first protagonist, most of Groff’s characters fail to get too far from who and where they no longer wish to be. They are (deliberately) too empathic, handicapped by their hypersensitivity to beauty and filth, and they tend either toward hedonism or hibernation but cannot find a place between. Language, ironically, disappoints them; they hunger for touch in order to know the truth of things. In one way or another, they are all willfully globed in one-way glass, observing the world but utterly unable to communicate with it, let alone exist in it—perhaps for the best. Groff designs characters that embody the ambivalence of loving life itself while being terrified to live. The second story, “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners,” most richly embodies this kind of character in the form of Jude, who “was born in a Cracker-style house at the edge of a swamp that boiled with unnamed species of reptiles.” His father is an abusive, racist herpetologist at a thinly veiled University of Florida; his mother, a well-read woman worn out like a paperback by the man she married. The father grinds Jude down, too, disgusted by his oversensitivity. Words are no use to Jude, for whom “knowledge of another person was ungraspable, a cloud. He would never begin to hold another in his mind like an equation, pure and entire.” Though his mathematical brilliance takes him far away up North, he finds his way back to the quaint little bowl of Gainesville. Eventually, he loses his hearing inexplicably, forced to communicate even more through the body. Florida completely beguiles the body: It’s a place of flesh memories, and Groff is at her most delightful when conjuring Florida’s tingles and miasmas and gummy heat as they stimulate the skin. For Groff, Florida’s bodies are sites of congealment, quivering at the threshold of combustion. They fascinate her, and her prose exquisitely decomposes all emotions and experiences into their sensory components. Even when the characters crack out of their flesh, they hover in surreal planes that remain richly embodied, as in “The Midnight Zone.” Here, a concussed mother is marooned in a secluded cabin circled by a Florida panther, flowing in and out of consciousness, waiting for her husband to come back (men, in these stories, are for the most part either fleshy pillows, fickle vipers, or too far away to even matter). Her little boys fail to keep her awake, and she disassociates, “as if the best of me were detaching from my body.” Her spectral form glides into the humid night, where the “great drops from the tree branches left a pine taste in me.” [millions_ad] Though the emphasis on embodied experience certainly charges the stories erotically, it does not make them prurient. Instead, they have the bewildered innocence and wide-eyed wisdom of a child who sees things exactly as they are—as bad as they look, or more beautiful than older eyes can be bothered to see. Even the adults are terminally un-grown-up, perpetually resenting and yearning for parents who are dead, absent, or oblivious. Jude hallucinates the ghost of his father scolding him for living a life that was far too safe, too passionless. In “Salvador,” the narrator weathers a hurricane in the storeroom of a dubious man’s bodega, “praying, not knowing if she was praying to her mother or to either of the gods.” In “Eyewall,” the narrator confers with her own dead father in the midst of a hurricane, curled in a bathtub. In some cases, Florida itself seems to facilitate the communion, filled to the brim as it is with ghosts and failed ventures. “This land, he told her, was full of living twits and unsettled spirits, both,” Groff writes in “Above and Below,” which follows the downward spiral of a graduate student denied further funding for her research. “The spirits were loud and unhappy, and filled the place with evil. All them dead Spanish missionaries and snake-bit Seminoles and starved-to-death Crackers and shit.” Such are the refuse of a state that has been abandoned, orphaned, shuffled about, and sliced apart for almost 500 years, longer than any other state. For most of that history, Florida has been a feral, lawless place: Until the late 1960s, the state legislature met only every other year, for a single 60-day session, writes historian Gary Mormino in Florida: Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams. It’s a state that’s been ruthlessly cultivated by capital: phosphates poured into its aquifers, concrete into its swamps. And yet it markets itself as a place of natural beauty. But Florida is not a “land of contrasts,” and Groff avoids this flimsy and inaccurate conceit. Instead, she incarnates Florida’s grotesque continuity, warping the line between past and present, spirit and flesh, flourishing and decay. On account of all that collision, a hunger for shelter throbs in many of the stories. It takes the form of a sinkhole that becomes a bell jar for a mother on the brink; a bomb shelter where imagined nuns weather a fiery apocalypse; an empty tub in a windowless bathroom, which, as any Floridian knows, is the safest place to hide during a hurricane. But this search for sanctuary feuds with a love of freedom elsewhere in the collection, sometimes within the very same story. Both Jude and the protagonist of “Above and Below” chide themselves for clinging too much to safety, and the dazed, casually alcoholic mothers who lead most of the stories resent that they are too incompetent to take the risks they crave. We are not safe and we cannot pretend to be, and if Groff has a political objective with these stories, it’s that we as a species have so tightly cocooned ourselves that we cannot address the dangers at hand. Environmental catastrophe looms over Florida, amplifying the anxiety that crackles beneath its stories. Global warming, the death of coral reefs, and the gyres of plastic choking the oceans keep Groff’s characters awake at night. As Floridians, their concerns are well-founded: Their home is uniquely vulnerable to environmental and wildlife degradation, a situation made worse by the corrupt network of old guard conservatives that perennially governs the state. Things will get worse before they get better: Already the third-most-populous state, Florida, for all its weirdness, increasingly attracts immigrants in search of sun, real estate, and low taxes. All of this newness collides with the Southern gentility of North Florida, the Cracker pastoral of the interior, the pastel ostentation of Miami, the crypto-Alabaman of the panhandle, and the Sun Belt suburbia of Tampa and Orlando. They remain as discrete as the bands around a coral snake. Florida remains placeless, inchoate—an easy target for those who would rather be someone else somewhere else, like Grant in “For the God of Love, For the Love of God”: …as soon as he realized he would go up to Michigan alone, leaving behind the incontinent old cat he hated, the shitty linoleum, the scrimping, the buying of bad toilet paper with coupons, Florida and its soul-sucking heat, he felt light. A week ago, when they drove up to the ancient stone house framed in all those grapevines, he knew that this was what he wanted: history, old linen and crystal, Europe, beauty. Amanda didn’t fit. By now, she was so far away from him, he could barely see her. Florida is a place that is easy to hate. Its errors have not yet earned the dignified charm that gilds the flaws of places civilized in earlier centuries. The piss and malfunction of the subway are, in this regard, a price to be paid for all New York has to offer. Florida’s scum is, alternatively, a source of buyer’s remorse. For people like Grant, who is like many people who grew up in Florida, the place is as shallow as its soil, which isn’t even really soil but the gray of ceiling-fan lint that peels off in long, fuzzy worms. It is not a place to put down roots. It is a place to leave. I’ve tried, and I thought I had succeeded until I visited my favorite beach last summer, near the town where I grew up. I saw gummy grass poking through white sand off the Gulf coast, like mildew in the caulking of a tub. It wasn’t normal; I wasn’t normal, if only because I cared. Something had changed—the water, perhaps, poisoned by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or the beach itself, which is bound to be remade eventually in the image of its boardwalked counterparts on the Atlantic coast. How dispiriting to see this place change, and how much more dispiriting to care—and so much more deeply than I ever wanted to. “Of all places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself,” Groff writes in “Yport,” the final story. I cannot forget these sentences, which are somehow simultaneously hilarious and shattering, ominous and reassuring. It is this ambivalence that pervades Florida’s stories of the anxious, awkward love the Sunshine State kindles and keeps lit. Groff has grasped the true grotesqueness of Florida, an “Eden of dangerous things” spliced with stinking bodies, living and dead. In her hands, Florida as state and state-of-mind becomes an alembic, cohering these discrete stories as perfectly as if they were written in one sitting, though most of them were published years apart. Florida is so much, perhaps too much. Florida is just enough. In this collection, Groff’s powers transform that glut of vitality into something startlingly precarious and, even to a forsworn Floridian like me, something startling and precious.
Helen DeWitt’s great subject is genius, an ambitious undertaking made less so by the fact that she may just be one herself. DeWitt is less concerned with the nature of genius, or if such a thing even exists—in her fiction, it undoubtedly does—than she is with the ways in which capitalism, social conditioning, and gender serve to stifle it at every turn. Her debut novel, The Last Samurai, follows an impoverished woman named Sibylla as she attempts to educate her precocious son Ludo in the style that John Stuart Mill’s father raised the great philosopher: learning Greek by age 4, Japanese by age 5, then on to high-level statistics. Ludo eventually strikes out on his own to discover the true identity of his father. It’s a novel unlike any other, a work of tremendous intellectual and emotional depth—genius, really—and as Christian Lorentzen lays out in a 2016 profile for New York Magazine, it was “the toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries.” The novel was critically acclaimed, sold well, and was nominated for various prizes. But works of genius don’t exist in a vacuum, and a series of misfortunes—among them accounting errors, copyright issues, the subsequent folding of her publisher, and the release of an unrelated Tom Cruise vehicle that shared the novel’s title—cast DeWitt back into obscurity. Her follow-up novel, Lightning Rods, published in 2011—more than a decade after she finished it—is a scathing satire of the corporate world. As daring as Mel Brooks’ The Producers must have been when it first appeared in 1967, only two decades after World War II—the film is credited in DeWitt’s acknowledgments—the story follows a man named Joe as he implements a crude solution to workplace harassment: hiring undercover sex workers to service male employees who might otherwise take out their sexual frustration on their female colleagues. Joe’s inner monologue is saturated with workplace clichés (“It’s important to give that new job 101%, 25 hours a day, 366 days a year”). DeWitt has a gift for appropriating banal, colloquial language in an effort to make us consider the words that make our world. DeWitt told Lorentzen in their interview that if The Last Samurai had not been plagued by one publishing disaster after another, it might have risen to the status of Infinite Jest—certainly her style is similar to that of David Foster Wallace. If that’s the case, her new collection, Some Trick: Thirteen Stories, might be her Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Wry, playful, drawing on high-level mathematics and critical theory, these 13 stories read like experiments from a mad scientist’s laboratory. Once again, DeWitt takes up the idea of genius and the constraints placed upon it by the “real world.” Her style incorporates both the dryness of Lightning Rods and the dexterity of The Last Samurai. In “Brutto,” the standout first story, an artist behind on her rent is asked by a top gallerist to reproduce a piece she made decades ago. He values it for its ugliness. “If you set out to make something ugly,” the artist thinks, “it is like setting out to make something beautiful, you will just end up with kitsch.” She makes a series of compromises at the gallerist’s request—she needs the money—and by the end of the story, she is literally handing over her bodily fluids. The second story, “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” stages a lunch between a literary agent and an author of children’s books about probability theory. “I don’t really get it at all, but I don’t need to get it,” the agent says. The author seethes. “The fact that Jim could unashamedly admit to finding a perfectly simple explanation of the binomial distribution over his head, that he could unblushingly dismiss it as the province of a genius, only went to show how deep-seated innumeracy actually is in our benighted culture,” he thinks. In other hands, the joke might be on the character of the pretentious author. And certainly, the italics are a tipoff that we’re meant to read his grievances with a degree of irony. But they also serve to signify his genuine frustration, one shared by DeWitt, who has spoken often about her dismay at the philistinism of the publishing world. It’s hard not to read the trials of her publishing history into stories like this, or “Climbers,” in which a group of industry types attempt to profit off the brilliance of a reclusive author. Many stories directly take up the subject of a beleaguered or impoverished artist who has gone unrecognized. But in DeWitt’s universe, this suffering is hardly noble. It’s infuriating, inconvenient, and unfair. Gender is tackled in these stories, as it is in DeWitt’s previous books, not as the sole or even primary cause for her characters’ woes but as a significant factor nonetheless. In “Improvisation Is the Heart of Music,” Maria becomes exasperated as her husband Edward keeps telling the same anecdote over and over again. DeWitt takes up the question of authenticity in storytelling—we see the anecdote appear multiple times throughout the story, in different contexts—but the emphasis is on Maria, who feels the burden of reacting in a new way each time she hears it. “It seemed unfair,” she thinks. “She must improvise because he had rehearsed.” The following story, “Famous Last Words,” dramatizes a seduction between the narrator and a character called X, their conversation moving from Barthes to Boswell to Bob Dylan, when suddenly the narrator thinks: There is a text which I could insert at this point which begins, “I’m not in the mood,” but the reader who has had occasion to consult it will know that, though open to many variations, there is one form which is, as Voltaire would say, Optandum potius quam probandum, and that is the one which runs “I’m not in the mood,” “Oh, OK.” My own experience has shown this to be a text particularly susceptible to discursive and recursive operations, one which circles back on itself through several iterations and recapitulations, one which ends pretty invariably in “Oh, OK,” but only about half the time as the contribution of my co-scripteur. I think for a moment about giving the thing a whirl, but finally settle on the curtailed version which leaves out “I’m not in the mood” and goes directly to “Oh, OK.” X and I go upstairs. In the collection’s most arresting moments, DeWitt’s command of intellectual subject matter—statistics, critical theory, the fourteen languages she reads—rubs shoulders with the base, the bodily, the human. Moments like these do not appear as frequently throughout Some Trick as they might, but DeWitt has made clear her suspicion of people who read for emotional connection. “I don’t know how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use,” she told Lorentzen. “‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that has ever been my attitude toward any text. ...Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She aims to stimulate the head, not the heart, but her blistering sense of humor, rivaled today only by Paul Beatty and Nell Zink, keeps the stories earthbound. DeWitt writes as comfortably about musicians as she does painters, writers, and statisticians. “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” contrasts pianists with opposite styles: one precise and affectless and fluid, the other theatrical and showy; the latter dismisses the former, calling her an “automaton,” before coming to see her brilliance later in life. “Stolen Luck” opens on the disgruntled drummer of a rock band watching a novelty musician on the street, Crazy Nick and His Musical Traffic Cones, and finds himself coveting Crazy Nick’s freedom from record labels and marketing. The stories themselves aren’t bitter but rather take bitterness as their subject matter. In DeWitt’s world, there are Mozarts, Salieris, and the many suits whose livelihoods depend on them. No one is spared, the suits least of all. It’s safe to say that the stories in Some Trick have their rough edges. They are the farthest thing from the model writers’ workshop story, “plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew,” to borrow a phrase from Michael Chabon. But for sheer brilliance and humor, Some Trick delivers like nothing else, simply because DeWitt writes like no one else. Readers unfamiliar with her work should begin with The Last Samurai, which remains peerless, but Some Trick further cements Helen DeWitt as one of the smartest writers of fiction today.
“We prayed in Arabic everyday,” the poet Kaveh Akbar once wrote, “a language nobody in my family spoke.” His family spoke Farsi and English. Prayer, then, was a transformation: “From an early age, I was saying this mellifluous, charged language that was meant to thin the membrane between the divine and me. I didn’t understand what I was saying, but I understood if I spoke it earnestly enough that it would do that.” Akbar writes elsewhere of how another poet, Kazim Ali, explained that the Arabic word ruh “means both ‘breath’ and ‘spirit,’ and this seems absolutely essential to my understanding of prayer—a way of directing, bridling the breath-spirit through a kind of focused music.” Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. Peter O’Leary’s book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion. The subject matter is in capable hands. O’Leary’s a poet himself, but he also knows how to curate rather than perform—he offers a healthy amount of sample lines to let the poets shine. He’s also comfortable with God talk. Few things sour many contemporary critics of poetry more than authentic and earnest religious devotion. The problem isn’t always illiteracy of religious texts—and a working knowledge of theology might be a bit much to ask. There’s something else at play: doubt that skilled poets could be religious. The historical evidence towers in the other direction—and yet. The skepticism of these critics reflects the feelings of a fair amount of readers, for whom “the expression of religious convictions...can read as a nuisance or a vestigial remnant of a poet’s childhood faith.” O’Leary begins with a comparison. The contemporary religious poet is much like Moses in Exodus 20:21: “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” According to O'Leary, the poet charged with religion approaches that “gloomy and ominous” darkness because “the divine is present, and there is the prospect of law, covenant, revelation, and genuine power.” Although his roster is narrow, O’Leary’s project is ambitious: “The work of these poets suggests that a secular art, even in a secular age, is insufficient for representing reality completely. There must be sacred art. For poets, this means there must be religious poetry written.” They must: O’Leary’s poets are driven to write about God. He leads with Frank Samperi, a little-known poet whose collections were published in the 1970s. O’Leary acknowledges that Samperi is obscure, and the choice to begin with a relatively minor poet might frame such an inquiry in unfortunate terms: Perhaps religious poetry is provincial, if its examples are relatively unknown? No matter. Samperi’s lines are ardent, earnest, fractured. O’Leary describes his poetry as “epiphanic—it frequently resolves in radiant insights—it struggles through melancholic moods, a sense of rote and dreary stations, ones to which the epiphanies stand in sometimes stark contrast.” A Catholic, his “poems utilize a Latinate and church-inflected language...as well as delineating a usually mystical” sense of doctrine. O’Leary finds Samperi’s “principal innovation” to be his ability “to infuse the forms of modernist avant-garde poetry with the content and aspirations of medieval Christian theology.” From Lumen Gloriae (1973): “body in grass / elliptically formed / in turn inscribed / in square / in flame / flower / center / sustained / by / four / angels.” O’Leary is correct in describing Samperi’s mode as incantational; he’s not writing prayers so much as offering a new space for theology. That new space is a strange one—and Robinson Jeffers is on the same wavelength. O’Leary’s decision to follow Samperi with Jeffers is a good one. “Lyrically striking if frequently obtuse” could describe both religious poets, but Jeffers was prolific, famous, controversial, iconic, and Protestant. The “purity and the intensity of his religious convictions—pessimistic and damning but visionary and atomic—can make his work simultaneously so compelling and off-putting.” [millions_ad] Widely read during his lifetime, Jeffers now seems more like a “solitary genius” found more likely “in the pocket of a backpacker in the Rockies than in the satchel of a graduate student.” The subjects of his long, visceral poems were raw—murder, incest, degradation—and O’Leary cautions against academic attempts to sanitize him. Jeffers was coarse. He didn’t particularly like people. He wrote in fear of a “secular, godless, witless republic.” And he did so with the characteristic strangeness of earnest religious poets. “God is the least familiar thing about us but also the thing most native to us,” O’Leary writes, and Jeffers’s usage of strangeness is his defining poetic trait. In the unsettling poem “Hurt Hawks,” the narrator cares for a wounded bird for weeks. “I gave him freedom,” he writes, a bombastic proclamation that prefigures the morbid conclusion. The bird later returns, “asking for death,” and the narrator shoots him. The lines are particularly unsettling: I gave him the lead gift in the twilight. What fell was relaxed, Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what Soared: the fierce rush: the night-herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising Before it was quite unsheathed from reality. The pungent strangeness of Jeffers and the minor pyrotechnics of Samperi seem curiosities compared to the transcendent work of Fanny Howe. O’Leary’s chapter on the Catholic convert is the finest in the book: one of the best readings of an important poet, essayist, and fiction writer whose religion has affected her identity, worldview, and language. For O’Leary, Howe’s “expressions of her faith in the context of an experimental poetry lend her work an unmistakable aura of conviction and surprise and give to it a rare value in relation to much of the rest of recent American poetry.” O’Leary’s precision here opens Howe for, hopefully, a new group of readers. She is a poet of misfortune, yet one whose work is “inspired throughout by transcendental love, which comes mysteriously and unconditionally from God.” She’s not a poet of lyrical ramparts like Samperi and Jeffers; her smooth lines “coalesce into aphoristic or even gnomic statements or questions.” In “Plutocracy,” the homeless narrator thinks, “When you eat alone you don’t exist / for anyone but the dish.” There’s a sense of truth in Howe’s despair—the religious poet does not blink in the face of suffering; she documents it, weeps for it. “Catholicism is queer,” Howe says. “It is malleable and reaches extents of thought and culture that really can’t rest anywhere, in terms of nation or specific culture.” O’Leary demonstrates that Howe’s religious sense is marked by an electric, mystical theology, a veneration of the Eucharist, and a steadfast embrace of Catholic social justice. She is a poet of melancholy, a tradition inherited from the sad lines of Hopkins. O’Leary directs the reader toward “Catholic,” Howe’s long poem-essay. The work is an apologia for poets of faith. In Thick and Dazzling Darkness, O’Leary offers readers a reminder of the complexity of earnest religious poetry. He also offers critics a guidebook on how to examine religious verse: with the respect they should afford earnest subjects. If a poet chooses to believe, let’s hear her song. If we listen to Howe, we might hear this: “Doubt allows God to live.”