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The Sportsman’s Code of Chivalry

February 2, 2014 | by

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Two Sundays ago, I watched the AFC Conference game with some friends. Picture a Venn Diagram; label one circle “Fans of the New England Patriots” and the other “People Who Have Studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” The person who exists at the intersection of those two circles was sitting on a couch across from me, anxiously eating chips and guacamole. As the Patriots slipped further and further behind the Broncos, talk turned to Arthurian legend, and to knightliness at large.

Peyton Manning, our group quickly agreed, was the Lancelot of quarterbacks. Like Lancelot, he’s unquestionably the most talented of his cadre—a fact confirmed when he was, to no one’s surprise, named this year’s league MVP. He’s also, like Lancelot, doltish and unbeautiful: in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, Lancelot is, to quote King Arthur, “the ugliest man I have ever seen”; Peyton can’t claim that honor, but he does have a grotesquely large forehead, scarred by the Riddell helmet he is forced to squeeze over it. And both Lancelot and Peyton are doomed to be surpassed by a dim younger relative—in the former’s case, it’s the unbearably pure Galahad, Lancelot’s son, the only knight allowed to glimpse the Holy Grail; in Peyton’s case, it’s his younger brother, Eli, whose childishly transparent expressions of disappointment have been turned into exemplars of gif art, and who already has two Super Bowl rings to Peyton’s one. Which made Tom Brady his Tristan: not quite as skilled, but achingly handsome.

Metaphors aside, there is a sort of gallantry we expect from our athletes. NFL players do not, of course, swear their troth to a code of chivalry; nevertheless there are rules, largely unspoken, to which professional athletes are expected to adhere. Off the field, if not on, while speaking to the press, if not while concussing one another, we want our athletes, like our knights, “to refrain from the wanton giving of offense”; “to eschew unfairness, meanness, and deceit”; and “to live by honor and for glory.” Read More »

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George Oppen’s “Boy’s Room”

March 15, 2012 | by

George Oppen.

“It is possible,” George Oppen wrote, in early 1962, “to find a metaphor for anything, an analogue: but the image is encountered, not found; it is an account of the poet's perception, the act of perception; it is a test of sincerity, a test of conviction, the rare poetic quality of truthfulness.” “Boy’s Room,” which is about just such a perceptual encounter, and truthful almost to a fault, appears in Oppen’s 1965 collection, This in Which, his second after a silence of more than twenty-five years. Between Discrete Series (1934) and The Materials (1962), Oppen raised a daughter; he worked as a carpenter; he joined, then became disillusioned with, the Communist party; he lived in Mexico; he fought in World War II (not necessarily in that order). What he did not do, for the most part, is write. When he returned to poetry in 1958 it was with a vigor that “Boy’s Room” amply demonstrates. The collection that followed, Of Being Numerous (1968), would win him the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1984, and though the details of his personal life are salacious enough—an affluent childhood, his mother's suicide; a car accident in which his passenger was killed, a first date that led to his future wife’s expulsion from college (they stayed out all night and she missed her curfew)—he is largely forgotten. It’s a real pity. “No ideas but in things” is a line from a William Carlos Williams poem, but Oppen’s work fits the bill as well as Williams’s does.

I can remember the first time I read “Boy’s Room” because of the physical sensation that accompanied it: I felt like I was falling. The drop occurs in the gulf between the first and second stanza: “A friend saw the rooms / of Keats and Shelley / At the lake, and saw ‘they were just / Boy’s rooms’ and was moved // By that.” I, too, was moved by that.

Of course, the friend is right in a purely literal sense: Keats died at twenty-five, Shelley at twenty-nine. Confronted with their actual rooms, there's a sense of surprise and sympathetic feeling: these towering figures of romantic poetry were not only real people, they were youngsters who had not quite outgrown their adolescence. But from the discrete thing—the rooms of Keats and Shelley—comes the broader idea: “indeed a poet’s room / Is a boy’s room.” Such a sheepish admission for the poet to make, to indict himself. Read More »

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Anne Enright on ‘The Forgotten Waltz’

October 25, 2011 | by

The writer Anne Enright, a native of Ireland, is perhaps best known for her 2007 Booker Prize winning novel The Gathering, a darkly beautiful novel about a family gathering in the wake of a suicide. In The Forgotten Waltz, her fifth novel and her first since winning the Booker, she takes up a seemingly more mundane plot: that of adulterous love. Gina, married to Conor, narrates her affair with Séan—himself married and father to a troubled daughter, Evie—which comes to a head as Ireland’s economy collapses.

It’s an affair whose outcome is known from almost the very first pages, and  Enright is not interested in judging Gina or Séan—Gina believes, ultimately, that there is nothing to forgive and, if Enright does not agree with her outright, she makes Gina a sympathetic enough character that it is possible for the reader to do so. The considerable narrative pleasures of this novel lie in Enright’s luminous language, as she sketches Gina’s attempts to figure out what happened and how and why. The author, who has a quick wit and a hearty laugh, as well as a refreshingly no-nonsense attitude, spoke to me recently from the West Coast, where she was on book tour. Read More »

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In Defense of Wanderlust

July 8, 2011 | by

Elisabeth Eaves.

When you’re young—a child, a teenager, a twenty-something—it seems, as Elisabeth Eaves says, “like it will never end. You can do anything because time is limitless, it’s infinite.” You can move to a different state or a different country. You can buy a one-way plane ticket. You can go to graduate school. You can move in with your boyfriend and get engaged and buy a house; and then you can move out. You can sublet indefinitely.

In her new book, Wanderlust, Eaves—a journalist and author who has worked for Forbes and previously published Bare: The Naked Truth About Stripping, about her time as an exotic dancer—does all of these things. Instead of making choices that follow neatly, one from the next—the job that brings you to a city where you meet the person you marry—the Eaves of Wanderlust makes decisions that consciously, thrillingly refuse to build on one another.

She travels to Cairo as a twenty-year-old college student. At twenty-three, she hikes the notoriously difficult Kokoda trail in Papua New Guinea. Fleeing the rekindling of her relationship with her ex-fiancé, Stu, she joins a husband and wife sailing from Whangarei to Tonga and nearly dies when their vessel is caught in a vicious storm on the open ocean. In person, Eaves may be slender and fair-haired, but she carries herself with a graceful, noticeable composure that makes it easy to imagine her haggling, at dusk, with a Jeep driver in Pakistan, trying to get him to lower the price of a ride she and her boyfriend desperately need. She maintains eye contact. She exudes competence.

And Wanderlust, though on the surface concerned with Eaves’s love of travel—a celebration of years spent indulging that love, moving from one town, one country to the next with little notice, living abroad for months and years at a time, cut off, in the days before e-mail, from family and friends—is also about the process by which she became the adult she is now. She doesn’t have regrets, though she would tell her twenty-year-old self to “spend more time trying to figure out what you want to do on your own. It’s easy to fall back on what somebody else wants to do.”

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The Punk Ballerina

May 25, 2011 | by

Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.

It’s easy to recognize young ballerinas. They own back-seamed pink tights; they keep their hair in buns and fill their backpacks with bobby pins; when they run, their toes are always slightly pointed. After school, they gather in groups to gain mastery of something frightening and foreign: their own bodies. For close to six years I spent hours each week in front of floor-to-ceiling mirrors aligning my shoulders with my hips with my ankles, trying to breathe without moving my rib cage. When I see a woman onstage in a leotard, extending her leg horizontally from her body and holding it in place, I recognize, in that long, beautiful, excruciating, terrifying movement, a woman awakening to her own body and its power.

Ballet depends on the power of a woman’s body but rarely celebrates it. If anything, ballet encourages women to torture their bodies, rewarding their ability to be strong while appearing physically vulnerable. What choreographer Karole Armitage and her Armitage Gone! Dance company offer is not precisely a refutation of this rule, but its counterpoint.

Armitage, who once danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov, is known in the ballet world as the “punk ballerina.” The suite of three dances I saw recently at the Joyce Theater, featured two of her more famous pieces, including the revolutionary Drastic-Classicism, which debuted in 1981 and is set to a live performance of what might plausibly be called punk rock (Ryhs Chatham wrote the score). A drum set and several electric guitars share the stage with the dancers. Before the lights dimmed, audience members in the first row were offered earplugs.

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Nan Goldin

April 21, 2011 | by

“Nan one month after being battered, 1984” © Nan Goldin.

Nan Goldin is running late. On a Thursday evening in the Theresa Lang Center, in a New School building on West 13th Street, the crowd—close to a hundred people—is growing restless. At the front of the room at a long plastic table, the other panelists have assembled: Benjamin Walker, the moderator and host of WFMU’s “Too Much Information”; author Lynne Tillman, whose petite frame is overwhelmed by an explosion of dark curls; French philosopher Ruwen Ogien, whose wisps of gray hair are messy and front-swept; French professor of aesthetics Carole Talon-Hugon, whose jet-black hair is combed back and secured with a leopard-print scarf; and a neatly dressed woman who is later revealed to be Talon-Hugon’s translator. A laptop on the table is connected to a large projection screen hanging above the stage. A folder is open on the computer, and file names are visible; the JPEGs have titles like “skinheadshavingsex.”

Goldin is probably best know for The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a collection of her photographs documenting her life and the lives of her friends—homosexuals and junkies, the poor and the marginalized—in the New York of the late seventies and early eighties. In one, titled “Nan one month after being battered,” Goldin faces the camera straight on; she’s wearing bright red lipstick, and her left eye is filled with blood, the area below it bruised a sickening brown. When Goldin arrives around 6:40 P.M., I find myself checking the face of the woman now walking toward the front of the room against my memory of the photograph. Her career is both remarkable and frightening for having provided everyone in the audience with that image as a point of comparison. She sits down and is immediately, endearingly apologetic.

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