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Posts Tagged ‘Rivka Galchen’

Staff Picks: Turtles, Tornados, Teen Dirt-bike Racers

May 27, 2016 | by

From Works and Days.

“I’m not even sure anything happened to me. / Or to whom everything happened.” So ends Brenda Shaughnessy’s long poem of adolescence “Is There Something I Should Know.” Reading those lines, I realized I had been waiting for that wisdom—that formulation—a long time. Her new book, So Much Synth, is full of these moments. Soulfulness is not a quality I always look for in poets of my generation, but over the last two decades Shaughnessy has stripped herself down to a voice that can sing plainly about disappointment and love in hard circumstances and the lost art of the mix tape, here revived in verse:

As it records, you have to listen to each
song in its entirety, and in this way

you hear your favorite song with the ears
of your intended, as they hear it, new.

Lorin Stein

I’ve never been very diligent about keeping a journal, but the form is one I enjoy reading: the lists one makes, the mundane things that fill an afternoon. Works and Days is Bernadette Mayer’s forthcoming book, at once a collection of poetry and a dated record of a past spring: woven among her verse are her journal entries. I found myself pulled toward these other, more austere little notes. Comprising teensy, often inconsequential moments—like whether it’s rained or has been threatening to rain—these prosaic morsels are gorgeous and serene. Hardly any of Mayer’s days are spectacular, but her eye is so keenly attune to all that surrounds her that nearly everything feels touched with grandeur. She writes of the grackles that remind her of Donald Trump and her broken ulna, of the tornados in Duanesburg and the poems she wrote with Jennifer Karmin and Niel Rosenthalis. She says she hates rye bread and recalls the sound of New York City pavement being swept. But there are delectable, sometimes even bawdy bursts of excitement in the collection, too, like when she writes about the poet Bill Berkson bringing a dildo to sex camp or the heron that “ate my heart.” —Caitlin Youngquist Read More »

Babies in Art

May 5, 2016 | by

Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (1635), by Carlo Dulci

Carlo Dulci, Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist, 1635.

Babies in art mostly look nothing like babies in life. This is especially true of the baby Jesus, but also of babies more broadly, and this is true even, and maybe most noticeably, in paintings and sculptures that are, apart from the oddly depicted babies, realistic. Often babies are depicted with the proportions of small adults: their limbs are relatively longer than baby limbs, and their heads are not as relatively large as baby heads; in real life, babies have heads so large and arms so short that they can’t reach their arms beyond their heads. But one almost never sees this in a museum. I am told, also, that a major problem through the centuries for artists depicting the baby Jesus has been the question of what to do about the Lord’s penis. Read More »

The Shade of Mark Twain, and Other News

March 4, 2016 | by

Emily Grant Hutchings, who claimed to commune with Mark Twain’s ghost.

  • Today in exotic forms of posthumous success: In 1917, seven years after his death, Mark Twain wrote a novel called Jap Herron by communicating through a medium using a Ouija board. This led to some legal troubles (to say nothing of the metaphysical quandaries) because Twain had a deal to publish all his books with Harper & Brothers. Did his ghost have to make good on that deal, too? The New York Times gave a taste of the courtroom antics: “[I]t is possible that the Ouija Board will be made to perform in court and that the shade of Mark Twain, or what purports to be his spirit, will undertake to confound Mark Twain, the unbeliever. That Mrs. Hutchings intends to get into communications with that very important witness is an assured point.”
  • Vivian Gornick looks back at Constance Fenimore Woolson, who “was a popular American writer of the late nineteenth century whose friendship with Henry James has, among James scholars, long qualified hers as a distinctly lesser life. In all the James biographies, Woolson appears as a shadowy presence whose morbid anxieties simply echo those of the Master himself. Now, with the publication of a full-length biography and the reissue of a collection of her stories, Woolson emerges as a figure of some dimension in her own right … Turning to her Miss Grief and Other Stories is something of a shock; that’s how unexpected is the punch that much of the book delivers. There are seven stories in all, three set in Europe, four in America. The writing in all of them is remarkably good, but it is the American stories that will send the reader looking for more of Woolson’s work.”
  • Rivka Galchen envies only one thing about men, and it’s not (or not exactly) that men have traditionally been able to get away with behaving like cretins: “The first gender-envy thoughts I have had, really in my entire life, started maybe not immediately following the arrival of my daughter in my apartment, but shortly after … The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that his romantic partner doesn’t know about. This is a crazy thought, of course, but I find myself feeling it with such sincerity that I cannot see its edges. The thought seems a descendant of a thought I had while hoping to become pregnant, which was imagining a woman who was pregnant with twins but didn’t have the courage to confess this to her partner, whom she believes will be devastated by the news, and so she dreams up plans to come up with some ‘hysterical’ reason for not wanting her partner there for the birth, and then what? What will she do with the second child? Raise it in secrecy? I knew I wouldn’t be having a second baby.”
  • It’s Friday. Why not go on a little jaunt through Chekhov’s notebooks? That’s what they’re there for. And what do we find: “A passion for the word uterine: my uterine brother, my uterine wife, my uterine brother-in-law, etc.” “A conversation at a conference of doctors. First doctor: ‘All diseases can be cured by salt.’ Second doctor, military: ‘Every disease can be cured by prescribing no salt.’ The first points to his wife, the second to his daughter.” “A theatrical manager, lying in bed, read a new play. He read three or four pages and then in irritation threw the play on to the floor, put out the candle, and drew the bedclothes over him; a little later, after thinking over it, he took the play up again and began to read it; then, getting angry with the uninspired tedious work, he again threw it on the floor and put out the candle. A little later he once more took up the play and read it, then he produced it and it was a failure.”
  • Today in failing to follow instructions from the master: seems like we may have been playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” incorrectly all these decades. Specifically, our nation’s finest orchestras have made a mess of the part calling for French taxi horns to bleat: “The ambiguity stems from how the taxi horn parts are notated in Gershwin’s original handwritten score. To put it in Gershwin terms, we got rhythm: The score shows that the horns play sets of accented eighth notes. But when it comes to pitch, things are less clear. Gershwin’s score labels the four taxi horns with a circled ‘A,’ a circled ‘B,’ a circled ‘C’ and a circled ‘D.’ Those circled letters have been interpreted as indicating which note each horn should play—A, B, C and D on the scale—since at least 1945 … But the new critical edition will argue that Gershwin’s circled letters were merely labels specifying which horns to play, not which notes.”

Marcel’s Spurious Sponge Cake, and Other News

October 20, 2015 | by

Marcel Proust, date unknown.

  • Proust’s madeleine is one of modernism’s essential images—a cookie whose unique taste, whose absolute singularity, could conjure for the author a whole lost world. So it’s downright disturbing, then, to learn that the cookie was damn near something else: “A first draft of Proust’s monumental novel dating from 1907 had the author reminiscing not about madeleines as the sensory trigger for a childhood memory about his aunt, but instead about toasted bread mixed with honey … A second draft, the manuscripts showed, had the evocative mouthful as a biscotto, a hard biscuit.” Nostalgia is hereby ruined for everyone. Condolences.
  • Rivka Galchen has been spending a lot of time singing lullabies, which has given her ample room to consider their origins, their mysteries, and the plangent sadness they sound: “What, really, is a lullaby? We can define it functionally—a song used to lull a child to sleep … Another function is to let the singer speak. Maybe this is one reason the lyrics of lullabies are often so unsettled and dark. One way a mother might bond with a newborn is by sharing her joy; another way is by sharing her grief or frustration … When even relatively happy, well-supported people become the primary caretaker of a very small person, they tend to find themselves eddied out from the world of adults. They are never alone—there is always that tiny person—and yet they are often lonely. Old songs let us feel the fellowship of these other people, across space and time, also holding babies in dark rooms.”
  • Looking for a way forward, young writer? Embrace Ottessa Moshfegh’s scatological philosophy, and find truth in the ouroboros of your gastrointestinal tract: “My aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.”
  • John Clare, cast off in the nineteenth century as a minor poet, is today one of our most essential, especially in his treatment of nature: “He saw tragic ironies all over the place, but he never sought verbal ironies himself: he is about as sincere (if not naive) as poets get. Clare seems to have benefited from few of the changes wreaked on the planet since the invention of the steam engine and cannot be blamed for whatever brought them about: he may be the last significant white Anglophone poet for whom that was true.” Accordingly, poets like Lisa Fishman, Matthew Dickman, David Morley, David Baker, and Donald Revell have opened up a kind of dialogue with him in work that directly addresses his own: “Clare’s apparently unorganized—but minutely observed—poetry looks like a model for poets who want to stay true to a material world while rejecting the hypotactic, well-made structures that earlier generations preferred.”
  • You’ve probably spent hours in your toolshed puzzling over the etymology of monkey wrench—who hasn’t? Relief is at hand: you may now learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the history and origin of monkey wrenches, and their mystery runs deep. Charles Moncky, the alleged inventor of said wrench, is often believed to have inspired its name, but “he would have been only twelve years old in 1840 when the earliest known accounts of monkey wrenches appeared in print.” The answer may lie in a popular toy, the monkey stick—you decide.

Take My Breath Away, and Other News

December 2, 2014 | by


A still from Top Gun, 1986.

  • Rivka Galchen on Kafka (or rather, his biography): “It has been said of Kafka’s work many times that the thing to remember is that it is funny. Kafka was known to laugh uncontrollably when reading his work aloud to friends, and though that sounds more like anxiety than hilarity to me, the funny point endures. But what kind of funny is he? … One element of the comedy of Kafka’s biography is the way his life, at whatever moment, is dwarfed by his work.”
  • In the eighties, Hollywood’s big-budget movies were teeming with sex scenes: The sex was often in silhouette, yes, and usually accompanied by a saxophone, true, but it was there, just as it is in the human experience. “In the era of Top Gun, The Big Easy, Body Heat, or other steamy Hollywood thrillers, the goal was to appeal to both men and women with the promise of (among other things) onscreen sex. (Ergo the fabled ‘date night’ movie.) Now the goal is to appeal to adults and their twelve-year-old kids with the promise of the absence of sex.”
  • Kenneth Snelson’s Needle Tower, a sixty-foot sculpture at the Hirshhorn, comprises thin steel wires and barely touches the ground. How does it stay upright in strong wind?
  • “A couple of years ago, a Chicago-based corporate-identity consultant, Chris Herron, gave himself the ultimate challenge: rebrand hell. It was half gag, half self-promotion, but Herron took the project seriously, considering what it would take for a place like hell to become a premier destination in the travel market. Herron decided that what hell needed was a complete brand overhaul. The new hell would feature no demons or devils, no tridents or lakes of fire. The brand name was rendered in a lower-case, bubbly blue font designed to evoke ‘instant accessibility and comfort’. The slogan, which was once ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here,’ would be ‘Simply Heavenly.’ ”
  • Every December, the New York Public Library’s literary lions, Patience and Fortitude, have wreaths hung from their necks—and every year something seems to go wrong, somehow. (Last year the wreaths were simply too big.)


Desperate Measures: An Interview with David Gordon

October 27, 2014 | by

David Gordon_Credit Michael Sharkey

Photo: Michael Sharkey

David Gordon’s fiction doesn’t fall comfortably into one category. Depending on what you’re reading and who you’re talking to, he might be a mystery writer, a postmodernist, a satirist, or a hybrid. His new collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, runs an impressive gamut. Its cast is large and varied—there are gunmen, grad students, investigators, vampires, struggling writers, Internet sex trolls, and men named David Gordon. (One of these stories, “Man-Boob Summer,” first appeared in The Paris Review’s Fall 2012 issue.) Gordon’s sentences are crisp and often jarring. His plots unspool in strange, sometimes disturbing ways. There’s little to be gained in trying to situate yourself according to generic conventions; better just to enjoy the disorientation and to trust that you’re in the hands of an earnest storyteller.

I met with Gordon, who has also published two novels, on a Friday afternoon in Brooklyn. School was letting out next door, but Gordon’s booming voice carried over the two-thirty hysteria. We spoke over the course of the afternoon about repurposing genres, literary stardom in Japan (the Japanese translation of his first novel, The Serialist, was a major success), the risks of first-person storytelling, and the publishing-industry controversy swirling around him.

White Tiger on Snow Mountain is your first story collection. Did you approach the stories differently than you would a novel?

In conceptual terms, I do think there’s a difference, at least for me. A story usually comes into my mind like a three-dimensional object—something I can see and feel and rotate. I’m often completely wrong about what the object is, but it’s still there. Whereas a novel is more like a set of directions for a road trip to California, with a planned stop in, say, Colorado and a visit to the Grand Canyon. The truth is I have no idea what’s going to happen along the way or whether I’ll even get there, but I have this general sense of direction and an end I hope to reach.

Now that the stories are completed and assembled, are you surprised at any of the themes or images that crop up?

I wrote these stories over a period of years, so some of the thematic echoes that people point out seem fairly straightforward for somebody who’s been writing for a long time—you deal with certain recurring ideas and problems. But then there are very specific echoes that I wasn’t aware of, and those are really interesting to me. My protagonists eat a lot of Chinese food and go to a lot of cafés. People tend to have cats in my stories, and the women have long fingers. I have no idea where this stuff comes from. I have no lost love with long fingers. I guess these things just leak out of my subconscious. Read More »