In her 1911 opus Toy Dogs and Their Ancestors, Judith Blunt-Lytton, sixteenth baroness of Wentworth, great-granddaughter of Lord Byron, wrote, “It has cost me years of research both in the British Museum and in the picture galleries of Europe to disentangle the truth from the cocoon of falsehood into which it was spun.” What Blunt-Lytton sought to recuperate from the cobwebs of history was the lapdog’s true form. Blunt-Lytton contended that many breeds had recently strayed from their roots, in large part due to the Victorian proliferation of “dog fancying”: a British term that evokes, at once, a group of people who like dogs and a group people who fluff up dogs’ fur and tie ribbons around their necks. Of the spaniel, Blunt-Lytton asserts that the contemporary model “was introduced comparatively recently, certainly no earlier than the year 1840,” and compiles visual evidence of its transformation. The spaniel in Titian’s Venus of Urbino is technically correct, as are eighteenth-century pooches painted by George Stubbs; for comparison, her book contains a mug shot of a puppy described as “noseless atrocity, bred by author,” while another dog’s portrait is captioned: “noseless toy spaniel, with wrongly carried ears and bad expression.”
Heavy: An American Memoir is Kiese Laymon’s third book. The first, Long Division, a novel, and the second, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, an essay collection, were both published in the summer of 2013—one in June and one in August. Laymon’s work is known for its honesty and courage, as well as for the way he reckons with his own past and our collective national one. In Heavy, he takes the stuff of his life and renders it on the page. Laymon discusses violence in many forms, gambling and addiction, the treatment of black students at predominantly white institutions, and more. He also discusses weight and bodies and the way all these things lend themselves to a heaviness that can be both physical and emotional. There’s a fable-like quality to the storytelling: it imparts its lessons in layers.
Laymon and I spoke on the phone as he was making the twelve-hour drive from Oxford, Mississippi, to Tampa, Florida, to meet with booksellers. The sounds of the highway occasionally made themselves heard in the background. In conversation, he is genuine and open, turning questions back around to his interlocutor with sincere curiosity. His work forces us to ask: What if everybody wrote like this to those who love and hurt them about the ways they have been loved and hurt? What would that do, and what would it look like? Until then, we’re just lucky that Laymon shows us a path toward reckoning.
What does heaviness evoke for you?
Heaviness evokes fear and desperation and, most importantly, a soulfulness. For me, it’s not one thing. I think I thought it was one thing before I started the book, but as I worked on it, I began to embrace the soulfulness in heaviness. It’s something most people try to avoid, but it’s also something that I need to make it through the day.
In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This week, Claire Schwartz is on the line.
I am one of you. I have been for a while. I am also jaded and worldly and often write with plenty of saltiness, irony, and smarty-pants-ness (enough to be taken seriously). I teach my students to “avoid cliches like the plague.” I tell them to keep their crushes out of their poems at all costs. I tell them to find new words for new feelings and to always surprise themselves with what they pen and present to others. But lately, I’ve fallen in love. I’ve fallen in love and all I have are platitudes. Percy Shelley is not helpful. W. B. Yeats is not helpful. Christian Wiman is too sad. Most of the contemporary poets I read are too angry or skeptical for what it is I actually feel—relief and an overwhelming joy that I have found a human such as the one who last week surprised me with the delivery of a baby pumpkin (a baby pumpkin, poets!) just because.
Give me fresh eyes. How do I write of such happiness and adoration while … “avoiding clichés like the plague.”
Dear Dumbstruck Poet,
You don’t have platitudes. You have a baby pumpkin! And you do have fresh eyes. Love gives them to you. What you need now is to give yourself permission. Finding ways to wrap this ineffable feeling in language requires innovation. Words can’t ever entirely hold that thing, not really. That’s why there are so many poems trying to say, I love. E.E. Cummings: “love is more thicker than forget …” June Jordan: “I SAID I LOVED YOU AND I WANTED / GENOCIDE TO STOP” Ross Gay: “Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.” There are so many shapes to that failure. There are so many things of beauty created in that attempt. Read More
Early in Chalk: The Art and Erasure of Cy Twombly, author Joshua Rivkin confesses that the book “is not a biography. This is something, I hope, stranger and more personal.” What, a reader may wonder, could be more personal than a biography? Chalk is one answer to that riddle.
Cy Twombly, a prominent abstract artist whose popularity has only grown since his death in 2011, is best known for his large, abstract paintings—“passionate splashes of color … curves of white chalk looping through darkness.” Rivkin describes the artist’s work as an actualization of “the bewildering slipstream between thinking and feeling.” Twombly’s most staunch admirers are ecstatically unnerved by his canvases; a woman once spontaneously kissed one painting, leaving behind a lipsticked print. (She was, as lovers often are, unrepentant.) But, outside the art world, Twombly’s messy, seemingly thoughtless style inspired confusion and disdain. His scratchy, hectic paintings have led the unimaginative to shrug, “My kid could do that.”
Rivkin is intensely focused on the “complex arrangements of love and domesticity” that filled Twombly’s life—from his early love affair with a married Robert Rauschenberg, to his impenetrable and improbable marriage to the Italian heiress Tatiana Franchetti, to his decades-long entwinement with his assistant and rumored paramour, Nicola del Roscio.
Sometimes I think the only thing we did in school was read Julio Cortázar. I remember taking tests on “The Night Face Up” in each of my last three years of school, and countless were the times we read “Axolotl” and “The Continuity of Parks,” two short stories that the teachers considered ideal for filling out an hour and a half of class. This is not a complaint, since we were happy reading Cortázar: we recited the characteristics of the fantasy genre with automatic joy, and we repeated in chorus that for Cortázar the short story wins by knockout and the novel by points, and that there was a male reader and a female reader and all of that.
The tastes of my generation were shaped by Cortázar’s stories, and not even the xeroxed tests could divest his literature of that air of permanent contemporaneity. I remember how at sixteen, I convinced my dad to give me the six thousand pesos that Hopscotch cost, explaining that the book was “several books, but two in particular,” so that buying it was like buying two novels for three thousand pesos each, or even four books for fifteen hundred pesos each. I also remember the employee at the Ateneo bookshop who, when I was looking for Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, explained to me patiently, over and over, that the book was called Around the World in Eighty Days and that the author was Jules Verne, not Julio Cortázar. Read More
This week marks the publication in English of Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. This is the third of three essays by the translator, Damion Searls, a Paris Review contributor and former translation correspondent for the Daily.
In the previous installment, I discussed some tricky words to translate, but the process and art of translation isn’t primarily about words. It’s about doing in your language, as a whole, what the original writer is doing in his or her language as a whole—and sometimes about reconsidering, or reimagining, what that language is.
For example, in German it’s much more common and normal to say “not this but that” than it is in English. In English, you’d say “I want a whiskey, not a beer”; in German you’d say the equivalent of “I want not beer but a whiskey.” You’d say, “The train leaves at not six but five thirty.”
This feels like a maddening little detour in English, but in German it feels like an earnest commitment to accuracy—you sort of slowly home in on the true situation because you care enough to keep pursuing it. In English, though, we tend to cut to the chase and say how things are, then give further details if necessary: “The train’s leaving at five thirty! Not six, like you thought, so now we’re running late.”