Staff Picks: Snails Eating Snails, Sailboat Lust, DISSS-CO!


This Week’s Reading

The Tarot Garden in Tuscany.

I’ve been impressed by Robyn Schiff’s new collection, A Woman of Property, especially the faithfulness with which it renders the buzzy dread of parenthood: not the fear of begetting but the fear that begetting occasionally begets. To see the world through Schiff’s poems is to see it magnified by motherhood and aswarm with potential menace. The collection includes poems about anthrax and swine flu, “unbearable / supercolonies of ants,” even the slow-motion spectacle of a snail eating another snail. (“Wolf snail rewinding / common snail up its trembling spool, // the wheeling / of the whelk / inside the whelk.”) The poems’ forms are often as relentless as their subjects—it’s the rare stanza that ends on a full stop—but they have their purpose: “The lyric makes me sing,” she writes “what I did not even / want said, to get to stop having / to keep thinking // it.” —Bobby Baird

I was just extolling the artistic virtues of Niki de Saint Phalle to a friend on Monday, complaining about how she’s discussed so infrequently and exhibited so rarely in the U.S. So Ariel Levy’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker was a welcome surprise. Levy’s focus is Saint Phalle’s fourteen-acre Tarot Garden in Tuscany, which she worked on for decades. It’s a site I’m keen to visit, especially given Levy’s apt description: “It is as if a psychedelic bomb had exploded in the most picturesque part of Tuscany.” Saint Phalle’s interest in the Tarot, her expression of an overt, joyful eroticism, and her assertion of her own creative value and purpose—especially in relation to intense, passionate affairs with male artists—remind me of her contemporary, Dorothy Iannone, who is likewise under-recognized in this country. Yet Saint Phalle, like Iannone, was never in doubt of her power: “If I didn’t want to be a second-class citizen,” she said, “I would have to go out into the world and fight to impose myself as an artist.”—Nicole Rudick 


In the midseventies, Douglas Crimp was “trying to get serious about being an art critic right at the time I became a disco bunny,” and fortunately, he kept notes. I read his disco project, DISSS-CO (A FRAGMENT), in one sitting. The piece is short (only thirty-one pages) but it carries the energy of “bodies moving en masse, like cogs in a machine” that dance in an industrial space until eight A.M. Crimp’s discos of choice had little in common with the exclusive straight discos of sixties-era London; these new discos, he explains, “aren’t even heirs to that tradition,” because they’re gay. His recollections are nostalgic and tactile: of his faithful dancing partner, Steven, he says, “Our bond was really about dancing … But to that we were extremely faithful. Having a dance partner who wasn’t a boyfriend worked well for disco: it kept the emotional experience musical and communal, uncomplicated by the petty jealousies that come with lovers who are just as attracted as you are to the guys dancing nearby.” Photographs by Alvin Baltrop accompany the fragments to “illustrate the ‘naturalness’ of gay men’s bodies during the early disco era, before the gym craze culture.” As much as words on a page can recreate a scene, these fragments do it. —Jessica Calderon

Earlier this week, when my colleagues had all gone home and the chirr of the office had quieted down, I curled up on our pink couch and pored over Joy Williams’s 99 Stories of God. It’s a slender book, easily read in one sitting, but the brevity of these stories belies their craft and gravity. Its vignettes catalog our run-ins with the enigmatic, the serendipitous, and the mystical—the inexplicable things some ascribe to God. And fittingly, since God himself is the most recurring and likely the most absurd character, many of these stories hinge on the sublime; others have a muted sadness. Williams writes of a woman who sends a postcard to her late mother and receives a note back; of the Lord, who attends a hot-dog-eating contest and calls it the “stupidest thing I’ve ever witnessed”; of “transgenetic dogs carrying florescent genes.” Look for cameos by Kafka, Ted Kaczynski, Philip K. Dick, Balanchine, and others. (N.B.: We published a few of these stories on the Daily in 2013. A hardcover will appear in July.) —Caitlin Youngquist

From the cover of Swallowed by the Cold.

The stories in Jensen Beach’s forthcoming collection, Swallowed by the Cold, are linked by reappearing characters—centrally, Henrik and Helle, lovers in an extramarital affair—but for me they were threaded together by a single scene from the opening story, “In the Village of Elmsta.” A man, Rolf, is resolved to reach out to his semi-estranged son, but he flips his bicycle on his way home, cracks his head open, and watches a sailboat (Henrik’s) drift by as he dies on the shores of a canal. We learn later that Henrik neither hears Rolf’s call nor sees the blood—he’s too busy checking out Helle’s breasts. This is the book’s quintessential tableau. It would be too easy for Beach to condemn Henrik for not noticing, or for the affair with Helle. No—Swallowed empathizes with the way we get too caught up in our own messes to notice when our fellow man is, however figuratively, bleeding out alone on a beach. Even when I was reading the final story, “Migration,” which we featured in our Spring issue, I just couldn’t shake the image of Rolf slumped in the sand. When I finished the book, I called my father, just to say hello. —Daniel Johnson 

I sat down with a translation of Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others yesterday, turned the final page this morning, and desperately looked around for someone to give it to. Fondane, a Romanian Jewish émigré to France, died at Auschwitz in 1944; his poems glitter with surrealist vibrancy, even as they live in the shadow of Jewish exile. Throughout this collection, heads search for their bodies, men transform into objects, and verses vacillate between Technicolor imagery and despondent paranoia. Though Fondane abandoned surrealism after Breton’s Second Manifesto (1929), the movement left its mark on him: his characters all seem to stand still as the narrative spins kaleidoscopically around them. This is the work of an artist grappling with the justification for his solipsism, in a world that moves as if unburdened by his genius. “The world may be there, but am I there in the world?” —Rakin Azfar