The Daily

First Person

My First Dirty Joke

September 23, 2016 | by

davidsearcy-story

Photo: Michael Philip Manheim.

Revisiting is what I do. I am a pathological revisitor, I think—my ex-wife ventured to suggest a time or two when, late returning from some errand, I’d admit to having taken an excursion into one of my old neighborhoods. I’m always driving back through my old neighborhoods, the places I have lived within the city from the time I was four until my early teens. The five great ages of my youth, as I conceive them—each as sweeping and portentous, as distinctly toned and lit as Thomas Cole’s five stages of Empire in that famous series of paintings. When I drive through—pretty slowly with the radio off and the windows open—I’ll get into this tour guide state of mind. I’ll fall into this line of patter, actually talking to myself as if into a little microphone. I don’t intend to speak out loud. But here I go. Read More »

This Week’s Reading

Staff Picks: Border Towns, Brylcreem, Backstairs Intrigue

September 23, 2016 | by

Matamoros, Tamaulipas, 1978. © Alex Webb / Magnum Photos, via Aperture.

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 hereCatch your breathAre 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 »

Our Correspondents

Into the Woods

September 23, 2016 | by

What should I bring on my writing retreat?

Arthur Bowen Davies, Hudson Valley Landscape, 1914-18.

Arthur Bowen Davies, Hudson Valley Landscape, 1914–18.

I’m off to the woods to live deliberately! Or, just to live, as it were—all I can do is hope that my deliberateness (and discipline and patience) will kick in eventually, since my destination is an artist’s colony upstate, on the border of Massachusetts, in a forest-locked village called Austerlitz.

In an effusive piece for The Morning News, Alexander Chee once described the writerly boons of retreating to a solitary enclave like Austerlitz, where time and space seem to bend in one’s favor—more pages written, delightful colleagues, and bucolic settings. “Imagine, if you will, the Umbrian countryside in May,” he wrote of a particularly idyllic residency. “Hills and fields, forests, etc. You feel like you’ve wandered into a Merchant Ivory adaptation.” But I flinch each time I consider disrupting what is a perfectly fine routine in Brooklyn: I like my run-down apartment! I like the shitty folding chair I sit in every day to write! I like having to remember to spray down my roach-infested sink with borax while the minutes tick down to a deadline!

My irrational nervousness has to do, in part, with how wild it seems that everything will be taken care of for me: groceries replenished in the communal kitchen, dinners cooked by a chef named Donna. There are free linens and a cleaning person. Even distractions are warded away—a five-page Microsoft Word document explaining colony rules enforces headphones and bans visitors from overstaying their welcome or even using the kitchen or dining rooms. “Studios are private and require a personal invitation,” warns the guide, protecting residents even from each other. Read More »

On the Shelf

To Heaven with Buraq, and Other News

September 23, 2016 | by

Buraq with Taj Mahal, a poster from Delhi. Image: Sandria Freitag personal collection/Public Domain Review.

  • As the Quran has it, Prophet Muhammad took a night trip to heaven aboard a trusty winged pony-horse-mule-ish creature called Buraq. It’s an episode that’s inspired Islamic art ever since, because few artists can resist a theologically sound reason to draw a winged horse. Yasmine Seale writes, “The friction between the historical Prophet and his fantastical mount, between the sacred and the physical, reflects a similar divide within Buraq herself: she has been perceived both as a dream-horse—mythical, sexless, emblematic—and as a creature of flesh. And Buraq as animal, especially in her more sexualized incarnations, in turn raises thorny questions about the body of the Prophet himself. Artists generally elided this problem, or creatively eluded it; early images of the Prophet tend to show him with a veil, and more recently his body has been symbolized by a white cloud, a rose, or a flame.”

Read More »

From the Archive

Sand

September 22, 2016 | by

Gertrude Käsebier, Portrait of a Young Man, platinum print, 1907.

Gertrude Käsebier, Portrait of a Young Man, platinum print, 1907. 

Barry Yourgrau’s story “Sand” appeared in our Spring 1985 issue. It appears (in slightly different form) in his collection Wearing Dad’s Head, reissued this month by Arcade Publishing along with another of his books, Haunted Traveller.Read More »

On History

Rare Beasts, Birds, and the Calaboose

September 22, 2016 | by

A brief history of London’s Tower Menagerie.

royal-menagerie

Royal Menagerie, 1812.

It was New Year’s Eve 1764, and John Wesley—founding father of Methodism, horseback proselytizer, teetotaler—stood before the structure now known as the Tower of London, accompanied by a flautist, who was, in turn, accompanied by his flute. Wesley had traveled to this sprawling complex in the hope of testing a hypothesis. Could music soothe the most savage of beasts? If it did, Wesley might clear up a burning theological ambiguity—the question of whether nonhuman animals had souls. With his contracted companion in tow, he marched through the tower, determined to find some big cats and to smother them with song.

Zoos, as we know them today, did not exist in Wesley’s lifetime—the zoological garden is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Even the London Zoo, one of the oldest “scientific” outdoor sites for animal rehoming, opened six decades after his tower trip. If Wesley wished to glean the spirituality of lions firsthand, the infamous citadel, all arched cages and grilles, was his best bet in England. (Spoiler: the reaction to a live flute performance was mostly lukewarm—only one out of five lions stirred and stood up on all fours—not quite what our preacher had been hankering for.)

For those unfamiliar with the capricious usage history of the Tower of London, it might be hard to imagine parts of the site used as a full-blown menagerie—one that lasted about six hundred years. But through its almost thousand-year history, the place has morphed like a sort of Room of Requirement, having served variously as a palace, a public-record office, an armory, a torture chamber, a private ground for beheadings, and the Royal Mint. Its most recent incarnation is as a magnet for jewel-ogling, cash-happy tourists. Today the tower’s official website reflects this diversity—it includes a Peasants’ Revolt Quiz (“Are you revolting?”), details on venue hire for weddings, and an e-shop peddling miniature armor and replica Lionheart shields. Read More »