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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Science, Spicer, Sea Maidens, Sandwiches

February 28, 2014 | by

4_The_Scientists

Rita Greer, The Scientists, 2007

The Haggis-on-Whey World of Unbelievable Brilliance is McSweeney’s hilarious series of faux-science books. The latest volume, “Children and the Tundra,” is due out in May; it includes such edifying features as “Quick Fixes for the Growing Epidemic of Talking Child Syndrome,” “Snow Druids: Fact and Fiction,” and “Comparing Snow with Presidents Past and Present.” (Snow and Zachary Taylor share the following attributes: cold, white, usually on the ground.) In its tone and design, to say nothing of the sturdiness of its typefaces, Haggis-on-Whey nails the authoritarian aesthetic of 1950s textbooks. Most important, it is very, very silly. —Dan Piepenbring

Wordsworth looked forward to a day when poets would “be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science … carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself.” Alfonso D’Aquino is one such poet of sensation and science. Fungus skull eye wing, his first collection available in English, is dense with the tropical life of Cuernavaca: root systems, veins of mineral, tangles of foliage. Some of the poems are spookily nonhuman; in others, even the stones seem to speak: “I squint fixedly / and find / in this marvelous density in the hollow of my hand / in its livid insomniac paleness / and in its veins dialogues / that only for a moment crisscross.” Forrest Gander’s translation is another marvel. —Robyn Creswell

You could easily teach a whole seminar on Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (in this week’s New Yorker). You could prepare students by assigning them “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “The Dead,” which seem to me a sort of North and South Pole to Johnson’s story, and shape its beginning and end. Then you could have students compare the two paintings in the story, and the two newspapers called the Post, and the names Elaine and Maria Elena, and you could let those comparisons lead you into the narrator’s habits of mind. Or else you could spend a whole semester reading Denis Johnson, trying to pinpoint the quality of his prose that makes him sound both matter-of-fact and possessed. Or you could dismiss class and send everyone home to read the story again and stare at the wall, because “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is great and the questions it raises—like, What difference would it make if Whit could say he loved his wife, or that his daughters were beautiful or clever; or, What kind of fairytale is this—are too big for an English seminar to answer. —Lorin Stein

In Seattle, this year’s AWP is off to a rollicking start: picture 15,000 writers and all their attendant neuroses in one sprawling conference center. Madness! Luckily, no one bats an eye if you take a break to read some newly published poetry; that is, after all, what this thing is about. My first AWP purchase was Caroline Manring’s Manual for Extinction, which soothes the overstimulated soul with its lyrical surrealism and extraordinary formal experimentation. And of course one cannot help but see the mass of writers reflected:  “When we are arranged by crop // you can see we are a toothy, / forever naked, rag-tag lot.” —Rachel Abramowitz

I’m jumping on the bandwagon to recommend Silence Once Begun, the fourth novel by Jesse Ball (a past winner of the Plimpton Prize). There’s much to admire in the strangeness and precision of the images, interviews, and text that comprise the book: it’s narrated by a journalist, also named Jesse Ball, who is investigating the Narito Disappearances of 1977, that is, the silent disappearance of eight Japanese men and women from their homes. With its slinking, fragmented structure and its detective work, the novel reminds me of everything from The Wire to The Hamilton Case by Michelle De Kretser, and of Laurent Binet’s metahistorical novel, HHhH. But mostly, it reminds me of nothing else I’ve read before. —Anna Heyward

Jack Spicer is a provocateur; he writes poems that seem to come from someone indelibly wounded. He is capable of profound tenderness, too—in his Collected Poems you can read hundreds of his lines where his voice is violent, cruel, attacking, and then come to “Tell everyone to have guts / Do it yourself / Have guts until the guts / Come through the margins / Clear and pure like love is.” Spicer was always hunting something. This collection is titled My Vocabulary Did This to Me; those were supposedly his dying words. In a poem about Babel, he writes: “It wasn’t the tower at all / it was our words he hated.” —Zack Newick

Like Rachel, I’m in Seattle for AWP—my first time here in fifteen years. After a blur of connecting flights, wrong train lines, and book-fair booths, the only thing I needed was a good sandwich. Luckily, I found my way to Bakeman’s—down a flight of stairs on a sleepy side street, with a sign heralding the best turkey and meatloaf sandwiches in the city. I knew I was in the right place. The sandwich, roasted turkey with a twenty-five cent addition of cranberry sauce, hit the spot, but the real standout was the big slice of blueberry pie, which made me feel right at home in a distant city. —Justin Alvarez

2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. Frank Tempone | March 1, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    I like the “silly” nature of the Haggis-on-Whey series. It’s so beautifully rendered and no less factual than the ridiculous textbooks I grew up exposed to. Dave and Toph Eggers are celebrating the youth and irony they’ve never really let go of…

  2. Samuel Drusina | March 2, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    That is exactly how I imagine it looks like in the Paris Review office. And if it doesn’t look like this, then you should seriously consider instituting a similar dress code. I personally believe Lorin Stein would look killer in long flowing locks of hair, black hose, and velvet pumps.

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