Staff Picks: A Mongoose Civique and a Maestro of the Rant


This Week’s Reading

Love Wins: Stephen Hiltner, our senior editor, designed this collage in honor of today’s Supreme Court decision.

heaven“Writing religious poetry in the twentieth century is very difficult.” So says Czeslaw Milosz in his 1994 interview with The Paris Review. This, he noted, could be one of the greatest challenges facing the poets of our time: “the incapacity of contemporary man to think in religious terms.” Twenty years later, Rowan Ricardo Phillips published a poem in our summer 2014 issue that begins “Not knowing the difference between Heaven / And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.” That poem appears again in Phillips’ new collection, Heaven. In contemporary poetry, there are few book-length meditations on heaven. It’s strange. What’s more, it’s strange how strange it is: Phillips constantly reminds us that the territory is well charted. His poems pinpoint and stitch together small, disparate nodes of heavenly wisdom scattered through our largely earthbound canon. (Ovid, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, to name a few of the patron saints.) The flow of astronomical allusions, like the subject itself, feels mundane at a glance and somewhat trite to mention. But as Phillips brings them close with the tight scope of his scholarship and lyric observation, they become unfamiliar, and heaven becomes something new, “this star-seized evening that’s / Unreeling and unreals.” —Jake Orbison

I managed to get my hands on a copy of Elena Ferrante’s fourth Neapolitan Novel, The Story of a Lost Child (out in September), and have been able to focus on little else all week. In this final installment of the story of Elena and Lila, Ferrante delivers some seismic-level surprises that somehow don’t feel contrived, that instead unearth a new internal symmetry beneath the dynamics established in the earlier books. As Ferrante shapes and reshapes her narrative, she watches generations of Italian intellectuals do the same for that of their country, continuously redefining the acceptable terms for political and social engagement. When they’re not fixating on Ferrante’s anonymity, reviewers like to talk about “the inner lives of women” and “female friendship” in these novels, as if Ferrante is venturing into entirely uncharted territory—as if women’s interiority hasn’t dominated a good part of the past several hundred years’ fictional output. Maybe Ferrante’s femaleness gets emphasized because we don’t have the vocabulary to describe what is indisputably different about her books, to explain why they read like a revelation to so many readers—this one included. —Rebecca Panovka

1958_Corsair_DatenThe new issue of Cabinet includes Matthea Harvey’s canny meditations on off-white, that most beguilingly impure of colors. Her column taught me some literary trivia. I should have known, but did not, that in the fifties Ford invited Marianne Moore to name its new car. They asked her “to convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.” (Would that today’s auto execs wrote with such style!) The names Moore suggested—Mongoose Civique, Thunderblender, and Pastelogram among them—are poems unto themselves, but Ford opted instead for the prosaic Edsel, and the car proved unappealing to American motorists; it was manufactured for only three years. Moore hid her disappointment well. She even mentions the episode in her 1961 Art of Poetry interview: “I got deep in motors and turbines and recessed wheels … That seemed to me a very worthy pursuit. I was more interested in the mechanics. I am interested in mechanisms, mechanics in general.” —Dan Piepenbring

410j4xhqPaLThomas Bernhard is the quintessential literary hater, a maestro of the rant renowned for his precisely calibrated shade—usually cast at the artistic pretensions of the Austrian bourgeois. I’ve recently been delving into perhaps his most celebrated novel, Woodcutters, structured as a monologue from a bitter and isolated figure. (Though aren’t they all, in Bernhard?) In this case, that figure is an unnamed writer hatefully fantasizing about the attendees of an “artistic party” (as its hosts label it) from the reclusive pose of his “wing chair.” “Their artistic preoccupations and their artistic activity made them seem somehow unnatural, at least to me: they had an artificial way of walking, an artificial way of talking; everything about them was artificial.” Bernhard delivers fugue-like waves of recursive thought, each level of guilt, regret, and recrimination following the next; his thick folds of self-consciousness accumulate until they collapse, revealing first the narrator’s loss of a friend to suicide, then his abandonment of a former lover at their “high point,” then empathetic identification with the guest of honor at the nefarious “artistic party.” —Casey Henry

In her foreword to Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Susan Sontag writes, “[This] is a classic in the truest sense. It is a book that seems, in retrospect, as if it had to be written.” Indeed, since its publication in 1955, the short novel has been recognized as no less than a modern masterpiece, a seminal text in Latin American literature—and one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. The book opens on Juan Preciado, a man returning to Comala, the town of his birth, to meet his father, the wealthy landowner Pedro Páramo. From here, the story cracks open to reveal an abundance of characters and narratives from both the past and present. Some are memories—like Pedro and his dying lover—and some are ghosts—like Juan Preciado’s ruthless half-brother—but the narrator treats each with familiarity and a distinct air of respect. In time, through Rulfo’s deft handling of language, style, and character, Comala emerges as a surreal representation of Mexico’s modernization, an image-rich depiction of the mood of an era. Sontag’s claim can also be applied to the storytelling itself. The writer conveys—and I certainly came to believe—that his character’s stories had to be written. —Jane Robbins Mize

I’ve recently discovered “If Our Bodies Could Talk,” a video series from The Atlantic hosted by the infectious James Hamblin. A former radiologist turned improv comedy student, Hamblin is a senior editor at the magazine, and as a host he’s more Conan O’Brien than Dr. Oz; he keeps a sort of ironic distance from the topic at hand, allowing his guests the space to comfortably do their thing. The effect is conversations that feel more like chats between friends than advice on health. The person behind the camera is producer Katherine Wells, and the show is at its most entertaining when the two banter. He’s funny especially in his pauses, when Wells has tosses him a barb that’s stumped him. In a recent episode, titled “A Rational Defense of Sleeping Alone,” someone off-camera asks him, “When was the last time you slept in a bed with another person?” His face is perpetually serene but somehow always expressive, and in this moment you can see in it that he’s working things out. “I’m not saying cuddling is a bad thing. I’m not a monster,” He says. “I just think people should be able to talk about it, that’s all.” —Andrew Jimenez