April 16, 2013 | by Casey N. Cep
It was Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, so the bazaars in Istanbul were closed. We walked along the silent streets, wondering how thirteen million city dwellers could go so quiet and how we were going to spend our leftover lira before our departing flights in a few hours. Toward the Galata Bridge, we found a commotion of doves and pigeons by the Yeni Cami.
Birds of a feather do flock together: leading from Eminönü Square was an avenue lined with animal stalls. A menagerie of birds—cranes, ducks, fancy chickens, peacocks, and pheasants—called from their cages. In other wire cages, puppies, kittens, and rabbits formed furry masses. Another set of aquatic stalls had turtle hatchlings and goldfish. Bags full of seed, dry food, and wood shavings spilled into one another—supplies for every sort of pet.
We stopped before a collection of three-gallon drums. “Prof. Dr. Sülük,” read placards at the top of all the drums, each of which was two-thirds full of cerulean-tinted water. A man stood beside the drums, resting his weight on one of them, shifting his baseball cap with the other hand, gray hair falling from underneath.
“I saw a Man before me unawares: / The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.” This was not the Lake District, but in this busy market I thought of William Wordsworth’s “Resolution and Independence.” Facing these tiny barrels of leeches and their keeper, all I could think of was the Romantic’s leech gatherer.
Several hundred leeches writhed. They gathered like a black belt round the middle of each container, near the water’s surface. A few ambitious leeches left the waistband, inching their way toward the lid; a few fell from those curving heights to the bottom of the barrels. Read More »
November 19, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
“I used to want to live / to avoid your elegy,” Robert Lowell confessed in “For John Berryman.”
The death of one poet is an extraordinary occasion for another poet. It is like the day a stonemason dies and another has to carve his headstone. Like a rough ashlar, the elegy sits waiting to be shaped into a memorial for the one who is gone. The death of a poet so great as Jack Gilbert last week pains, but also promises remembrances fitting the one who died.
Gilbert devoted most of his elegies to his wife, Michiko Nogami, but poets have forever elegized one another. We can trace the canon through the poems that poets have written to mourn their own: Henri Cole grieving Elizabeth Bishop; Bishop remembering Robert Lowell; Lowell lamenting the death of John Berryman; Berryman longing for Roethke, Jarrell, Hughes, Plath, Schwartz, and William Carlos Williams; W.H. Auden elegizing Yeats; Shelley bemoaning the loss of Keats; all the way back to Ovid mourning Orpheus.
November 8, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
Computers, phones, radios, televisions, and carrier pigeons are chirping with talk of Tuesday’s hard-fought presidential election. The election is a time-honored American tradition. But long before there were exercises of democracy to occupy our collective attention, Americans were preoccupied with a different kind of election entirely.
The Pilgrims brought their belief in predestination with them to Plymouth, and the Puritans planted the doctrine in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many are called, they argued, but few are chosen. Those chosen by God for salvation receive mercy, while the reprobate receive the justice they deserve.
The question of whether or not one had been elected for salvation filled one’s wakeful days and dreaming nights. Read More »
October 11, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
“Prison,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in her interview with GQ, “is like a monastery—it’s a place for ascetic practices.” Member of the celebrated but incarcerated band Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova gave voice to the belief that prison can be a soul-changing institution: an idea that inspired the American penal system.
The same year that America declared its independence from Great Britain, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail opened. Its first major addition came in 1790 at the instigation of Quaker reformers who proposed “a penitentiary house” of sixteen individual cells for solitary confinement.
The penitentiary, unlike jails or prisons, set itself to the task of rehabilitating prisoners. Religious penance became the paradigm for criminal punishment; the monastic chamber served as the model for the prison cell. Walnut Street exemplified the philosophy of what became known as the Pennsylvania System, which separated prisoners from one another while enforcing silence and manual labor as mechanisms for transformation.
September 13, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
One of Mary Oliver’s poems begins “Something has happened / to the bread / and the wine.” A most unusual mystery, the comestibles have not gone the way of the plums in William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say.”
Oliver’s wine and bread, as she explains in the second stanza, “have been blessed.” These two central elements of the Christian faith have been lifted from their ordinariness, isolated in order to show the extraordinariness of even the most ordinary of things. The bread and the wine join water and words to become what believers call sacraments: Eucharist is a sacrament made from staple food and festive drink; baptism is a sacrament made of clean, clear water.
One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.
That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. Read More »
August 22, 2012 | by Casey N. Cep
The New Yorker made headlines this month by publishing “new” work by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Thank You for the Light” had been rejected by the magazine in 1936 when Fitzgerald first submitted it, but editorial judgments—like love, pain, and kitchen knives—have a way of dulling over time.
“We’re afraid that this Fitzgerald story is altogether out of the question,” read the original note spurning the story. “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him, and really too fantastic.”
Resubmitted by Fitzgerald’s grandchildren, “Thank You for the Light” was, at least by Fitzgerald’s own standards, ready for publication. Its condition differs greatly from his final work, tentatively titled The Love of the Last Tycoon but published as The Last Tycoon in 1941. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack before he could finish the novel, so what went to press was a version of his incomplete draft, notes, and outlines pieced together by the literary critic Edmund Wilson. In his preface to the novel, Wilson wrote, “It has been possible to supplement this unfinished draft with an outline of the rest of the story as Fitzgerald intended to develop it.”