Staff Picks: Cuppy, Cloverleaves, Captain Cunt


This Week’s Reading

Illustration by Ed Nofziger, from How to Attract the Wombat, by Will Cuppy.

Lovers of dictionaries and nature can rejoice in John Stilgoe’s new book, What Is Landscape? Stilgoe, who holds the enviable title of Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, wanders the etymology of the landscape lexicon, from the ancient Hebrew word kittor (meaning a stream of water, but also a pillar of smoke) to the difference between a cart path and a cow path. He manages here, as in other of his books, to abut the old and the new, the outmoded and the contemporary in such a way that the differences are plain but the connections between them are still vital—in the way, say, a plowed field abuts a brushy fence line and the beach abuts both the sea and the edge of human civilization. These are marginal spaces, constructed spaces, spaces “easily taken for granted, all too easily half seen.” His examination of highway cloverleafs is particularly good. Though not villages in any sense, they nonetheless provide the basic commercial services of one, and he links them fluidly to their counterparts in the past: “Especially in rural and wilderness areas, the ‘sparsely settled regions’ that slightly unnerve urban and suburban travelers, every cloverleaf might be the isolated tavern or inn of European and British folktale.” —Nicole Rudick

On Nicole’s recommendation, I’ve been reading The Strange Hours Travelers Keep, the Griffin Poetry Prize–winning collection by August Kleinzahler. It’s as good as she says. I’m drawn to poems that revel in their own grit—ones that knead sex and death and deadpan humor in with the erudite and the literary; in Strange Hours, such moments come in delectable little bursts. In a poem to the philosopher Aristippus there’s a “Captain Cunt of the Roaring Forties”; in another, a young woman is chewed out for her unflattering exposé of an ex-lover: “ … Mark, who kissed and indulged you, opened his heart, / only to have you pick up your pen to write / about his belligerent penis …” Kleinzahler takes us to the natatorium, the marketplace, the Oxford River; he introduces us to Calliope and Erato and Lewis Bernard Castel; and all the while he muses on the peculiar hours we keep to eat, to fuck, to pass the time. And yet, my favorite lines are far tenderer. They’re from “After Lady Murakami”: “Just as I found myself / in the dentist chair / only yesterday / hands clenched against my thighs / so I find myself here / in this seat / heart in my throat / as you walk into the room.” —Caitlin Youngquist 

I’ve been listening to Packin’ Up: The Best of Marion Williams, a new compilation of songs recorded mainly in the 1980s and 90s, when the great gospel singer was in failing health and had lost the powerful upper register that had such an overwhelming effect on Little Richard (among many others). As her accompanist, Herbert “Pee Wee” Pickard remarks in the liner notes, “Some of those later songs took me to a whole other place. I started thinking of some poor woman, coming home from the factory or the laundry … Mama didn’t need no rock ’n roll.” A couple of earlier recordings, including a 1957 performance of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” with the Ward Singers, show what Williams could do when she was young, but my favorite for now is the direct, defiant “I’ve Come So Far,” recorded when she was undergoing dialysis: “I surprise myself with the strength God gave me … I believe I can run on some more.” —Lorin Stein


“The newt is just one of those things,” writes Will Cuppy in a characteristic chapter of How to Attract the Wombat. “You don’t have to know about him but you probably will sooner or later.” The book is, without a doubt, one of the stranger things I’ve picked up lately: a collection of short essays about animals, each more charming—and more vexing—than the last. Not sure what to make of it, I committed the intentional fallacy and went off in search of Cuppy himself, a humorist who, it turns out, was published regularly in The New Yorker before his untimely death in 1949. (He was also an early admirer of Ray Bradbury’s; Cuppy gave a favorable review to Bradbury’s first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, in 1947.) Cuppy’s most famous book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, was published posthumously in 1950—I already have it on order. —Stephen Hiltner

Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay “Teach Yourself Italian” captures the large and small upheavals of carving out a new life in a new language better than anything I’ve read recently. Perhaps that’s because she’s writing about it in Italian, and it appears, in the latest issue of The New Yorker, in translation by Ann Goldstein. Lahiri writes, “It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with. It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.” What’s the idea behind Lahiri’s choice to write in Italian? Is it just a kind of literary telephone game? A translation like this could be an unstable, fractured document, re-interpreted and reconstructed—and yet Lahiri’s prose is striking for its clarity and simplicity. Her effort is apparent. There’s something labored about her writing—that is to say, something especially painstaking and deliberate in the way she moves from one idea to the next. The essay crystallizes around an allusion to Ovid’s tale of Daphne’s metamorphosis from nymph to laurel tree. Likewise, Lahiri undergoes a transformation. Writing in Italian leaves her “renewed, trapped, relieved, uncomfortable.” —Hannah LeClair

Susan Cianciolo, Four-Page Advert for Dune Magazine #3 (detail), 1998, C-prints, collage, newsprint, and tape on gelatin silver print, 14 x 11″.

Susan Cianciolo’s clothing label RUN produced eleven collections between 1995 and 2001. The layered pieces are intriguing, with their meandering seams and colorful patches—they’re not like any clothes I’ve seen before. Cianciolo’s friends and family came together in sewing circles to produce the garments. Anyone who, like myself, missed the chance last summer to see her work up close at Bridget Donahue Gallery, can find solace in Nick Mauss’s “Radical Chic: The Art of Susan Cianciolo,” in the November issue of Artforum, with plenty of photographs and a pullout portfolio. I’ll be starting my weekend at MOMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition, which features six of Cianciolo’s films and a selection of her costumes. —Jessica Calderon

I’m leery of abstract art, which so often seems to be the output of shallow careerism. Although his pieces resist figuration, Alberto Burri is not of this ilk. On being interned in a POW camp in Gainesville, Texas, the Italian medic, captured by Allied forces in Tunisia toward the end of World War II, began to make art—“painting without paint.” He used the materials available to him in the camp, including burlap sacks, to conceive works that appeared to limn the pain and anguish of a war-torn world. Throughout his career, he remained cagey on whether his work possessed any meaning beyond the materials that comprised them. Nevertheless, it is hard to intuit the ripped-then-sutured burlap, mottled plastic, knobbly distensions and craggy impastos as signifying nothing more than their corporeality. Trekking up the Guggenheim’s rotunda (an even footing is impossible to find), eyes fixed on the scarred and distressed works, one feels Burri’s dizzying, breathless, and melancholic materials and techniques catch some of the febrile ambience of the present geopolitical moment. The words of another Alberto, Giacometti, come to mind: “The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.” —Joshua Maserow

Alberto Burri, Bianco B (White B), 1965. Image via the Guggenheim

To the aspiring novelist: put away your how-to books. Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” might not provide more thorough instruction, but it makes for more pleasant reading. As in many essays on craft by fiction writers, Bowen makes her points in short, quotable (and therefore memorable) axioms. To wit: “The novel lies, in saying that something happened that did not. It must, therefore, contain uncontradictable truth, to warrant the original lie.” The closest she comes to advice, rather than aphorism, is in the essay’s final section: “the most striking fault,” she writes, “in work by young or beginning novelists, submitted for criticism, is irrelevance—due either to infatuation or indecision. To direct such an author’s attention to the imperative of relevance is certainly the most useful—and possibly the only—help that can be given.” —Robert Magella