- Last night, we hosted our Spring Revel, and our guests came away with a special, unexpected treat: a Lydia Davis story on a bottle of mouthwash. “It hasn’t exactly been my dream to see my work printed on a bottle of mouthwash,” she told T Magazine. “I wasn’t even aware there was such a plan in the works … I was very surprised and amused … I actually had to go back and forth a few times with everyone to get the spacing of the story right—it makes a difference with those very short stories. They have to be read slowly, with pauses in between the lines, otherwise they go by too quickly. So I gave some revisions to the people at The Paris Review, and they went back to Aesop, and in the end we got it just right—it was tricky working in such a small space … So, if someone had asked me what I was doing that day, I would have had to say I was working collaboratively to revise a mouthwash label.”
- Today in books of photos of other people’s mirrors: try Mirrors, which is just that. It comprises pictures of mirrors advertised on Craiglist—a difficult prospect for the sellers, who always ends up showing more than intended. The photographs, as Rebecca Bengal writes, “innocently intrude into strangers’ bedrooms and trespass into their backyards. Unwittingly, the would-be sellers reveal themselves in bizarre and beautiful ways—a phantom hand, a pair of feet, a swath of wallpaper, a drawn curtain, a gaudy, overdressed living room, another one totally lacking in decoration or feeling. The sheer presence of the reflection interrupts reality, creating new graphic worlds, transforming even the most plain surface into an optical illusion. They invite a casual voyeurism; that lack of self-awareness is at the heart of their allure … A vase of flowers regards its reflection; a computer screen stares down its echo; a dog pauses before a reverse of itself. In these images, the mirror becomes a character, too, a palpable observer in the room, quietly enhancing and regarding everything in sight.”
- Look, normally I don’t go in for this type of thing, but come on: this is John Milton made of Stilton. Show a little respect, people. “I fell in love with John Stilton,” his maker, Christian Kjelstrup, says. “In Norway, Milton and Stilton are treated the same: both are enjoyed only by connoisseurs. The difference between John Milton and John Stilton is the latter is fat, greasy and sticky. I had a hard time making him. The fridge in my office now serves as his temporary mausoleum; I suspect his odor will survive him, perhaps even the fridge.”
- Shakespeare’s plays are full of lots things: murder, royalty, cheap penis jokes … and drugs, of course. It’s these that captured the interest of Meghan Petersen, who’s curated an exhibition called “Shakespeare’s Potions” at the Currier Museum of Art. It’s not about drugs, per se, but poisons and elixirs: “Titania, the fairy queen of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has four followers named for household remedy ingredients: Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed, and Moth. Oberon also sees Titania sleeping on a ‘bank where the wild thyme blows, / Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows, / Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine, / With sweet musk-roses, and with eglantine.’ The aromatic language precedes Oberon placing a love potion in her eyes. Petersen noted that while herbals relayed cures, they additionally included herbs ‘for provoking lust,’ such as sea holly, mustard, and peas. ‘Shakespeare’s Potions’ also explores perhaps the most famous of the Bard’s brews: the witches’ cauldron of Macbeth … While some of the components are outlandish, hemlock was a poison well-known in herbals, the “digged i’th’ dark” emphasizing, as Petersen stated, “the belief that plants harvested in the dark — without the light of the moon—took on evil and villainous powers.” The toxic plant also appears in Hamlet with this emphasis: ‘Thou mixture rank, of midnight weeds collected.’”
- Note to historical novelists: the Stalinist era is severely underrepresented in fiction, even though it was a demented hellscape whose horrors practically beg to be dramatized. Saul Austerlitz makes the case: “Life under Joseph Stalin was often brutal, dramatic, and short, so it’s curious that the period is still given such short shrift by fiction writers. Hitler’s Germany, by contrast, is very well-trod ground, and even the post-Stalinist era is a more regular fictional backdrop. Yet neither of these periods can match the mixture of paranoia, longevity, and callousness that marked the dictator’s three decades in power … In the West, the Soviet purges of the late 1930s or the gulag aren’t discussed with the same authority or regularity as Kristallnacht or the concentration camps. The fundamental illogic of the USSR, hellbent on consuming its own, is as hard for outsiders to explain as it is to understand. And the complexity of Stalinism’s impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe remains underexplored, literarily speaking. Lithuanian-American historical novelist Ruta Sepetys, author of the World War II refugee novel Salt to the Sea, is hoping to expand the frame of stories told about forgotten places and forgotten times: ‘I’d love to see more fiction about countries like Hungary, Armenia, and Ukraine. Through characters and story, historical statistics become human.’”
Elizabeth Bishop would have some words for the New York Knicks.
This past Sunday night, as the particular perfume of Thanksgiving faded from our house, I nibbled on Chinese food while watching the New York Knicks lose to the Houston Rockets. It was a game they had no business losing, even if they were without their best player, Carmelo Anthony, against a Rockets team that last season fell just two wins short of the NBA Finals. In theory, the Rockets are one of the strongest teams in the league this season; in practice, they’ve settled into an unsightly mediocrity that strangely seems to suit them. You might just as easily say that the Knicks lost a game that the Rockets had no business winning.
Up by fourteen points in the fourth quarter, the Knicks, with their subs on the floor, squandered their lead in the blink of an eye, giving up a game-tying three-pointer in the dying seconds. They proceeded to lose in overtime, allowing sixteen points in extra frame—a feat that, if you’re actively attempting to prevent the other team from scoring, is difficult to accomplish.
It felt all too familiar. Read More
The poetry of astrophysics.
It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots.
Five years ago I got my first job, as a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; in the stray hours between thinking about Milton or Donne, I finished my first book of poems. In college, a wooden ramp across the four-hundred-year-old stone steps is the only outward sign of its most famous fellow. Fifty years ago, Stephen Hawking arrived fresh from his Ph.D. (as I did) to take up a research fellowship at Caius, then never left. Within that community, where I would sit down to lunch with friends in maths, genetics, or cognitive science, traces of those conversations began to creep into my notebooks and even into poems. When I got the commission to write a poem on light for this year’s National Poetry Day—today, in the UK—my first thought was paradoxically of its absence: the black holes whose mysteries Professor Hawking has spent his career working to unfold. Read More
There is a coffee shop in my neighborhood called the Sensuous Bean. This is obviously a great name, and perhaps one key to the store’s longevity; it’s one of the few small businesses in the area to have lasted over thirty years. I think it’s tops. No precious nonsense here, but the smell of roasting beans and the clutter of brewing paraphernalia is like a comforting hug.
I’ve always hoped that their name was one of the few accurate Miltonian uses of the word sensuous in modern signage. After all, Milton came up with sensuous specifically to evoke a sensory experience innocent of leers and winks. And it didn’t really take. As Oxford Dictionaries would have it:
The words sensual and sensuous are frequently used interchangeably to mean “gratifying the senses,” especially in a sexual sense. Strictly speaking, this goes against a traditional distinction, by which sensuous is a more neutral term, meaning “relating to the senses rather than the intellect” (swimming is a beautiful, sensuous experience), while sensual relates to gratification of the senses, especially sexually (a sensual massage). In fact, the word sensuous is thought to have been invented by John Milton (1641) in a deliberate attempt to avoid the sexual overtones of sensual. In practice, the connotations are such that it is difficult to use sensuous in Milton’s sense. While traditionalists struggle to maintain a distinction, the evidence suggests that the neutral use of sensuous is rare in modern English. If a neutral use is intended, it is advisable to use alternative wording.
Some books are made to be read aloud—or, at least, they take on different dimensions when they’re heard or performed. The texts that make for great audiobooks are sometimes the ones you’d expect: Ulysses or Moby-Dick or just about anything by Wodehouse. Books whose poetry and humor are thrown into relief by a gifted voice actor.
Other times, a title will take you by surprise. My brother has always been a great book-listener, and over the years I’ve given him any number of audiobooks. I won’t say which were disappointing, but it was fun to hear how well Herzog took to the treatment, or The Savage Detectives. Leo McKern reads Rumpole far better than your head ever will. (And listening is, in my opinion, the only way to approach The Fountainhead.)
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Paradise Lost. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun—but it’s riveting, and I’m not just saying that because today is Milton’s birthday. (He doesn’t care. Depending upon your system of belief he’s either dead or has better things to think about.) Like a lot of people, I’d read Paradise Lost in college—or maybe studied is the better word—and I’d recognized its importance as a literary and philosophical work and a cultural artifact. But it wasn’t until listening to the nine-hour Nadia May version that I really appreciated the poem. Read More
A writer and poet whose verse recently appeared in the Spring issue of The Paris Review–Carol Muske-Dukes has long been interested and active in presenting a public face of poetry. A former poet laureate of California and a teacher for many years, she founded the Ph.D. program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and began a writing program, in 1972, at the Women’s House of Detention on Rikers Island in New York. On the heels of National Poetry Month, I spoke with Muske-Dukes at her home in Southern California about the many contemporary approaches to reading, writing, and thinking about the art of poetry, from hip-hop to “unoriginal genius” and how language matters.
What do you think the public face of poetry looks like?
Recently, a judge of the prestigious 2014 British Forward Prize for Poetry was moved to observe that “there is an awful lot of very powerful, lyrical, and readable poetry being written today,” but we need education, because “we have lost the sense that poetry sits halfway between prose and music—that you can’t expect to read it like a novel.”
A few years ago, the New York Times published an op-ed of mine, about learning poetry by heart. The response to it confirmed that people of all ages think about poetry as a kind of inspired music, embodying beauty and insight. On one hand, poetry has always flowed from music, as rap and hip-hop remind us big-time. Rappers know how poetry walks and talks. So we have music, or deeply felt recitations of poems that belong to collective memory. On the other hand, we have overly instructive prose poems, as well as the experiments of certain critical ideologies, or conceptual performance art. These aspects seem to represent the public, Janus face of poetry.
Is there a particular critical ideology you have in mind?
I’m thinking of the idea of “unoriginal genius,” though no one outside of the academy much cares about how some academic critics are now promoting it. “Unoriginal genius,” oxymoronic as it sounds, means simply that you can call yourself a genius in this age of technology if you’re savvy at editing, deleting, and erasing certain words from canonical poems and calling what remains proof of your genius. Read More