Judy Longley’s poem “First Breakfast at Home Following an Emergency Appendectomy” appeared in our Summer 1998 issue. Her collection My Journey Toward You was the 1993 winner of the Marianne Moore Prize for Poetry. Read More
This summer we’re introducing a series of new columnists. Today: cartoonist Vanessa Davis.
Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Max Porter revisits Francis Bacon’s painting Triptych May–June 1973.
What happens to Ben Lerner, or Ben Lerner’s character in Leaving the Atocha Station, when he has a profound experience of art cannot happen to a person too many times, or it stops being profound. I do not fall in love all the time, and I distrust the cultural vocabulary that insists I should. I’ve looked at a lot of art, and thought deeply about what I’m looking at, how I’m looking at it, and I think only two or three times has it been profound. This might be a failing on my part, and I could strive, like the ecstatic saints, to prolong the jouissance, the sweet heightened encounter. But for now, here is one of those times: Read More
Are you enjoying yourself at the moment? Please stop. It’s Thomas Hardy’s birthday, and he will wipe the smile right off your smug, contented, life-affirming face. You’re dealing with a man who knew how to deploy the word Niflheim, defined by the OED as “the region of eternal darkness, mist, and cold inhabited by those who died from old age or illness.” Hardy uses it to dispirited perfection in The Woodlanders, relating a kind of failure to connect: “But he continued motionless and silent in that gloomy Niflheim or fog-land which involved him, and she proceeded on her way.” Actually, The Woodlanders is full of an evocative, despondent murkiness. It extends even to the tiny twigs on the ground, which Hardy takes care to describe as they’re destroyed by a passing carriage: “they drove on out of the grove, their wheels silently crushing delicate-patterned mosses, hyacinths, primroses, lords-and-ladies, and other strange and common plants, and cracking up little sticks that lay across the track.”
But I’ve already digressed. I’m writing mainly to share a few excerpts from his letters that find him at his morose peak (nadir?). As a kind of warm-up, here’s a note from 1898 in which he critiques a prime minister’s funeral—always an exercise in good taste. Read More
- The forecast is calling for more rain this weekend. Why not stay in and curl up with a cup of organic fair-trade tea and a nice, laminated U.S. Geological Survey topographical map? Tom Vanderbilt does it from time to time: “For the past number of years, I have been collecting the U.S.G.S.’s maps, treating them as eminently affordable pieces of American art. A favorite is the 1977 map of Eureka, Calif., which contrasts, in stunning dualism, the rugged bathymetry of the Pacific Ocean against the rolling hills of Humboldt County’s redwood forests … On some gray afternoons, sequestered in my Brooklyn apartment, I will pull out, say, a map of Arches National Park, spread it over my kitchen table and trace imaginary pathways across airbrushed depictions of reddish sandstone with my finger … The beauty intrinsic to these maps is the byproduct of an entirely different mode of production, the last gasp of an antiquated way of representing the world.”
- While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
- Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes: “Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
- Claudia Rankine remembers facing young adulthood with Adrienne Rich as a lodestar: “As a nineteen-year-old, I read in Rich and Baldwin a twinned dissatisfaction with systems invested in a single, dominant, oppressive narrative. My initial understanding of feminism and racism came from these two writers in the same weeks and months … By my late twenties, in the early nineteen-nineties, I was in graduate school at Columbia University and came across Rich’s recently published An Atlas of the Difficult World. I approached the volume thinking I knew what it would hold, but found myself transported by Rich’s profound exploration of ethical loneliness. Rich called forward voices created in a precarious world. And though the term ‘ethical loneliness’ would come to me years later, from the work of the critic Jill Stauffer, I understood Rich to be drawing into her stanzas the voices of those who have been, in the words of Stauffer, ‘abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard.’”
- It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”