What We’re Loving: Stèles, Cellpoems, Converse


This Week’s Reading

I’ve been nosing around in Robert Hass’s recent collection of essays, What Light Can Do, which itself noses around in such subjects as writing from California, Korean poetry, landscape photography, and Immanuel Kant. There are some pleasurable moments in essays on the poet Ko Un and on Laura McPhee’s photographs of the Salmon River, which winds through the Rockies and into Washington. But I found bliss in Hass’s mediation on Robert Adams’s photographs of the Los Angeles Basin in the late seventies and early eighties. Just before the end, Haas includes a haiku—so appropriate to the city’s spare, industrial haze—whose author he has forgotten: “Cut flowers / in the drainage ditch— / they’re still blooming.” —Nicole Rudick

What does classical Chinese sound like when imagined by a French modernist poet and translated into English? Victor Segalen, a medical doctor and theorist of exoticism, published the first edition of Stèles in 1912, in Beijing. (A stele is an upright slab with an inscription; a stèle is a genre invented by Segalen.) Each poem in the book is surrounded by a black border and reads—spookily—like a lyric carved into stone: “To fuse everything, from the east of love to the heroic west, from the south facing the Prince to the too-friendly north—to reach the other, fifth, center & Middle // Which is me.” —Robyn Creswell

Stuck in the crush of traffic entering New York City on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, I scanned the radio stations for something to dispel my driving-induced blues. When I settled on WNYC, I found myself listening to a special on Connie Converse, a demure and enigmatic singer-songwriter active in the nineteen fifties who was rediscovered when an album of her music was released in 2009. The delicate tunes, in which finger-picked guitar accompanies Converse’s quirky lyrics, made me wish she’d been able to record more than these few tracks, which were preserved on reel-to-reel tape by a friend of hers. What’s known of Converse’s life story only makes the songs, which are often meditations on the lives of solitary or independent women, more haunting. —Emma Goldhammer

If Frost is right that free verse poetry is as inane as netless tennis, then tweetable poetry is the reverse: tennis played over a twenty-foot high sheet of plywood with greased oars for rackets. This is the fun and startling awesomeness of Cellpoems, “a poetry journal distributed via text message” that imposes a 140-character limit upon its bold contributors. This sounds like a novelty that could—at best—be good in spite of itself, but Cellpoems is so well curated that it’s just the regular kind of good. Scoff about the death of artistic ingenuity in the digital age all you like. But you’ll risk entombment alongside the guy who rage, raged against the development of the villanelle. —Samuel Fox

In a death match between a fifteen-pound monkey and a vicious, highly trained pit bull, who do you think would win? To find the answer, consult the Wikipedia report on the vile nineteenth-century British practice of monkey-baiting, which has received my vote for Wikipedia’s finest article. As it turns out, small monkeys can easily defeat ferocious fighting dogs, particularly when armed with small clubs. Yes, the piece is filled with revolting details that make even non-PETA members aghast at the cruelty of Georgian England, but there’s also something deeply satisfying in this rich David versus Goliath narrative. I can’t help but feel that these little monkey gladiators were fighting for the genetic home team, viscerally portraying the triumph of brains over brawn and acting out the entire drama of evolution in the process. To me, the victories of the great monkey fighter Jacco Maccacco are just one step away from Beowulf slaying the monster that preys on primal human fears. It’s horribly perverse, but the thought of Mr. Maccacco perched atop a dog’s back using his club to bash this symbolic Grendel’s head makes me just a little bit less afraid of the dark. —Graham Rogers