What if you could remember every poem in the next life?
The dead play a sly trick on the living: in dying, they pass on the duty of interpreting what they thought, of arguing over what they said—or might have said, or even what they never said. This is how we get the fantasy, as stubborn as it is unrealizable, of interrogating the dead directly and without an interpreter. To meet them, just once, and to ask them to clarify what they’d said—or even, in certain cases, to ask if they said it at all. If only they would speak, all outstanding claims would be resolved, the contradictions smoothed over, the ambiguities explained. Confronted with the light of truth, all men would agree and no argument would be possible.
This fantasy has produced an entire genre of literature: the dialogue with the dead. One example of the genre in Arabic is The Epistle of Forgiveness (Risalat al-ghufran) by the eleventh century poet al-Ma‘arri, which narrates a journey to the life. Following the Day of Judgment, the hero Ibn al-Qarih is admitted into paradise, where he meets the poets he most esteems, or those whose verses have especially provoked his philological curiosity. During a sojourn in hell, he’s also permitted to interview the poètes maudits. And finally, returning to paradise, he meets Adam.
The Epistle of Forgiveness is a work of tremendous richness. My aim here is merely to examine what it says, directly or otherwise, about poetry and the forgetting of language. Read More
I’ve long felt that the best recommendations for photographic work come from other photographers. From Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan I learned about the work of Alex Webb, who, as luck would have it, has a show of photographs at Aperture right now. On view are Webb’s photographs from Mexico taken between 1975, when Webb was twenty-three, and 2007. He shot the images on the streets, in border towns, but it doesn’t feel right to call this street photography: there’s a theatricality to some of the photographs, but subdued, without the performative pomp of much American street work. One depicts a scene of mourning in which three anguished women are momentarily frozen in classical poses as they lament over a man’s body. Another shows a deserted boulevard of buildings under construction shot from an elevated perspective; the rocky terrain and buildings are mainly white, but in the foreground is a cardboard box from which an array of colorful women’s shoes bloom like a desert flower. There’s a sense of precariousness in many of these photographs, but it’s frequently offset by Webb’s brilliant use of color—acid green, sky blue, dusty rose—which light up each moment like a small celebration. —Nicole Rudick
I recently dove into C. K. Williams’s final collection of poetry, Falling Ill (which will publish posthumously early next year), and I’m in awe of it. As the title implies, it’s an unflinching chronicle of what it’s like to die, from terminal diagnosis—for Williams, the “alliterated appellation” multiple myeloma—to the difficulty of waking, to the things one says to oneself as the illness takes over, things like, Am I still here, Catch your breath, Are you ready. Williams writes carefully, matter-of-factly, of death’s crippling seizure: the pops and farts and groans his body makes in defiance of him, the fear that has “outwitted me again / changed its costume sharpened its knives.” The book is slender, with fifty-two poems: one per page, each five stanzas of three lines apiece. Williams voids every poem of commas and periods as if to weave his unself-conscious urgency and unease into the very fibers of the collection. The last poem, “Farewell,” leaves us with these indelible, inconsolable words: “there must be // a way to cry goodbye aloud to leave you / these inadequate thanks without resorting / to rending farewell oh dear heart farewell” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More
On confronting death, in the road and elsewhere.
The rented farmhouse in North Carolina sat at the midpoint of a dead-end street, where the only light came from a streetlight in my neighbor’s front yard. Every night before bed, my dog, Henry (David Thoreau), and I walked down the circular drive and into the road, going as far as the light reached and back again. This provided time for the night to settle in, the stars to announce themselves, and Henry to take care of business.
One autumn night, Henry found a dead frog where the light fell brightest on the pavement. I stooped to examine the creature. He lay on his back, red innards escaping from his perfectly still mouth.
The following night, I searched ahead for the frog as we walked out of the dark driveway and into the light. Henry sniffed him and moved on. The frog was in the same place as the night before, only flatter.
The next night he looked less like a frog. After staring at him for a while, I needed more. Read More
- Before YouTube, people were convinced that all poets were boring, lifeless people who made little ink marks on pages—very sparingly, at that. Fortunately, there’s online video, and there’s never been a better time to witness poets at their mediagenic best. Austin Allen writes, “However scruffy by academic standards, online video libraries have dredged some remarkable treasures from obscurity. Even as they change the way new poets present their work, they’re reshaping our relationship to the history of the craft. ‘Read at random,’ Randall Jarrell advised, and now poetry lovers can view at random too, free-associating our way through the most precious archival footage. It’s a new mode of research, a conjuring of spirits to our private theaters, where at a moment’s notice we can evaluate—or just savor—records that scholars a generation ago would have killed for … What videos give poetry fans above all are performances: windows onto authors’ conceptions of pieces we’ve carried in our own heads; cadences we never detected on the page; obscure material, curiosities, ‘extras.’ ”
- Honest question: Are you a jerk? No, silly, not a soda jerk—a jerk jerk! An asswipe! You probably think you’re not—that’s so like you—but maybe, giving you the benefit of the doubt, you’ve never had a reliable, fail-safe way to measure your own jerk quotient. Eric Schwitzgebel is here to help, with science: “The first step to the solution is to nail down more clearly what it means to be a jerk. I submit that jerkitude should be accepted as a category worthy of scientific study in its own right. The word jerk is apt and useful. It captures a very real phenomenon that no other concept in psychology quite does. Jerks are people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with, rather than as moral and epistemic peers. To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority. The nugget of folk wisdom in calling certain people jerks is to highlight this particular species of deficiency.”
I had to bury a dog in my backyard yesterday. She was a light brown mongrel and came up to about my knee—not huge, but not tiny, either. She showed up in the neighborhood a few months ago and gave birth to a couple of puppies under a neighbor’s water tank. She came around my house a few times and I fed her, so she and the puppies mostly hung around. A few days ago, she went off somewhere and came back with a wound. We tried to patch her up as best we could, and she seemed to be stabilizing, but eventually she died on the lawn, which had been stained violet from the iodine antiseptic.
But now I had to figure out what to do with her. I chose a spot at the back of the house, between the protruding roots of an old, flamboyant tree, right next to what’s now a well-fertilized plantain crop. (Years ago, one of my brothers, not grasping the reality of the situation, excitedly reported that our neighbor had “planted” one of his dead puppies.) With a rusty hoe and a crooked fork, I managed to loosen the stony ground before digging a hole a couple feet deep. I cut open an old flour bag, wrapped her in it, and lowered her in. There were no last rites, but I did mark her grave with a few pieces from the trunk of a fallen coconut tree. Read More