Staff Picks: Urine-colored Stains, Tortoiseshell Cats, Grimy Mirrors


This Week’s Reading

From John Aubrey: My Own Life.

When John Aubrey died in 1697, he left us with his Brief Lives, a collection of short biographies whose candor and color exploded the genre. As keen as his eye was, Aubrey seldom turned it on himself. Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, out last year in the UK and soon to cross the Atlantic, is an imaginative corrective: an autobiography assembled with care from remnants of Aubrey’s letters, manuscripts, and books. Against the turmoil of Restoration-era England, his sensitivities and proclivities make him an empathetic, surprisingly modern figure; unique for his time, he was fascinated with preservation, often pausing on horseback to sketch ruins or glasswork. Not infrequently, his writings find him distraught at how few of his countrymen appreciate the mundanities of their world. Scurr’s diary is a generous document of his life, and better still it demonstrates the easy beauty of his prose. “I am so bored, so alone,” he writes early on, yearning to leave rural life for Oxford or London. “My imagination is like a mirror of pure crystal water, which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth.” —Dan Piepenbring

I’ve been meaning to read Jennifer Grotz’s new collection of poems, Window Left Open, for months; when I pulled it from the shelf last weekend I near expected to devour it whole. Instead, I read the first couple poems, then closed the book until the next morning, when I did the same. I’ve been like this all week, dipping in and out of Grotz’s poetry. But my pace is proof of how fond I am of it: Window Left Open is a trove of morose and arresting moments that begs its reader to linger over it, to steep in its quiet gloom—the lonesomeness and despondence of the everyday. Grotz is an impeccable observer, too. (“I myself was / the hungry lens,” she writes.) One narrator watches the “longsuffering” cows in the forest, steam coming from their nostrils; another notices a student’s stomped-out cigarette on the library’s steps, “excreting urine-colored stains into the snow”; another prays for the apples that cling to their branches before the wind takes them to the ground. Grotz laces even the most benign occasions with beautiful devastation. —Caitlin Youngquist 


This week, I read Leopoldine Core’s collection of stories, When Watched, out in August. Core’s prose isn’t fancy, but it’s gemstone smooth, and that’s its most important quality: the writing is a seamless, nearly translucent vehicle that connects us to the tangled brushwork of her characters—their sorrows and desires and their so many attempts at striving for human intimacy more profound than strained conversations. Most of these stories are about two individuals engaged in some long-term, nameless intimacy, who struggle to embrace one another when they’re physically together—during sex, car rides, steak-house dinners, nights at motels—and celebrate each other’s suffering only in solitary thought. Almost every narrative is a quest between partners to be totally vulnerable with each other; most never succeed, and when they do, the epiphanies can be unpleasant. Perhaps the most powerful scene is in “Historic Tree Nurseries,” when two female lovers, fifty-nine-year-old Frances and twenty-five-year-old Peanut, embark on a road trip to purchase a Chihuahua named Tony from a breeder in Ohio. On the way back, they stop for tacos and eat outside while swarms of travelers from the parking lot approach them and ask to play with Tony. It is, Frances and Peanut realize, the first time strangers have gazed in their direction without scrutinizing their queerness; finally, with Tony running interference, they feel as if they own something beautiful.  —Daniel Johnson

 As late as last week, I had never heard of Kenneth Cox. I expect I wasn’t alone, even though Thom Gunn once said that he’d “learned more from Kenneth Cox’s essays than from any other living critic of twentieth century poetry,” and Eliot Weinberger had praised him as “the model for how criticism would be written if there were anyone other than Cox who could write it.” Who was he? By the time Cox died, in 2005, the question was a familiar one. He did not publish his first essay—his first anything—until he was fifty years old, more than three decades after he’d complained to Ezra Pound that he was “not allowed to do the work I want to do owing to my age, finances, obscurity, and the fact that I have been marked out for an occupation I abhor.” The occupation that Cox had abhorred was journalism, and the fear that he had confessed proved prescient: after working with distinction as a code breaker in Britain’s Intelligence Corps during the war, he went on to a career at the BBC. But once that first essay, on Basil Bunting, arrived in 1966, it was soon followed by others, on Robert Creeley, Lorine Niedecker, Hugh MacDiarmid, and Wyndham Lewis. Not everything was easy thenceforth—a collection of essays he’d long hoped to publish didn’t appear until he was eighty-five, and then at his own expense—though you would hardly know it from his style. Even his earliest essays are marked by a confidence, precision, and erudition that could only come from a lifetime of extraordinarily acute reading. Kleinzahler’s afterword to The Art of Language, a new selection of Cox’s criticism from Flood Editions, suggests that “as pure writing—literature, if you will—his essays deserve to be read and reread as one would those of William Hazlitt or Joseph Mitchell. They refresh and delight. They are a tonic for the mind and are best approached in the morning hours; one’s entire day will be the better for it.” I’ve only been following the prescription for a few days so far, but already I can heartily recommend the cure. —Robert P. Baird


I finally managed this weekend to make it out to the Noguchi Museum for Tom Sachs’s exhibition, “Tea Ceremony,” the first show at the museum by an artist other than Noguchi. Though at first glance the two are on odd couple, they share a spiritual thread. Sachs’s art is sci-fi inspired, in the vein of Star Wars—life imagined beyond Earth, but without the pristine, utopic shine typical of space fantasy. This is Sachs’s greatest distinction from Noguchi, whose sleek and organic sculptures feel like they’ve been pulled out of an alien world. Sachs’s work is makeshift, and his structures, built from bits of construction material and Con Ed barriers, trumpet their craftiness: a TIE-fighter built out of an old basketball, for example. But this great difference is likely what gives the pairing its sense: amid Noguchi’s alien-like architecture, Sachs’s work brings an all-too-human touch. This relationship plays itself out in the tea ceremony, around which much of his exhibition is centered. Sachs takes the traditional practice of the ceremony as a kind of natural, fixed landscape, and tries to find a modern, futuristic iteration that captures the influence of human activity. —Ty Anania

Published in 1970 and set in 1919, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles tells the story of Major Brendan Archer who—after recovering from “shell-shock” suffered during World War I—travels to Ireland to “claim his bride,” Angela Spencer, whose family owns a once-glamorous hotel (the Majestic) in Kilnalough. The hotel foyer has a “shabby magnificence,” arrayed with “dusty gilt cherubs, red plush sofas and grimy mirrors.” The only regular guests are a gaggle of old, withered women who send rumors and cackles throughout the hotel’s unlit hallways and empty, stale rooms. The major’s first suite has a decaying sheep’s head in the nightstand and no sheets (the latter almost a greater affront to early twentieth-century standards of hospitality—certainly the major is more obsessed with having no sheets than he is with the head). His greatest friend is a tortoiseshell cat who lives in the Imperial Bar. All of this amid uprising in Ireland, Victory and Peace Day parades, nervous headlines in the Irish Times, and marvelous similes: an apple has begun to “oxidize and turn brown, like an old photograph or love-letter”; silence collects between the tables in the dining room “in layers like drifts of snow.” —Caitlin Love


I’m (masochistically?) looking forward to digging through Princeton University Press’s new edition of Alexander Pope’s famous prose poem–cum-epistle, “An Essay on Man.” The introduction, by the editor Tom Jones, fills the first half the book, and his footnotes on the text dominate the second—an ideal setup for an antibeach read. I don’t mind an essay on man’s relationship to God if it’s rambunctious, and so far Pope’s philosophical inquiry is akin to an elbow thrown in a mosh pit—still, in a sense, as divisive now as it was during the Enlightenment. Because the Fourth of July is right around the corner, I must note that Abraham Lincoln was a great admirer of Pope’s work and thought that “Essay on Man” contained all the religious instruction necessary in life. So that’s it, folks, even honest Abe agrees: “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.” —Jeffery Gleaves