Staff Picks: Blush, Babble, Barbed Wire


This Week’s Reading

From the cover of Ardour.


I’ve found much solace in poetry since November, and this week (long live the NEA), it fell on Nicole Brossard’s recent book of poems, Ardour, translated from the Quebecois by Angela Carr, to help give my feelings shape. The book’s koan-like epigraph, by Anne Carson—“think of your life without it”—is apt; the nearly hundred poems in Ardour appear as fragments, but their brevity belies their breadth. Brossard’s poems are often concerned with points or moments of transition (“nightfall” and the horizon appear frequently, as do shifts in light and weather) that, though subtly rendered, can signal profound change. “Dawn does not darken,” she writes, “it has upper-case letters / can elegantly juxtapose / vivid smiles / and wounds, if you like.” The poems are flecked with small violences—bites and barbed wire, a “blow of murmurs”—but I feel saved by their intimacy, partly owing to their diminutive size: they feel like whispered truths, or at least consolations. “Whirlwind i also love / the species knotted in dog days and l’intimité / the very depths of respiration / our ‘us’ enumerated flaming new.” —Nicole Rudick

Last week, Giancarlo Di Trapano turned me on to Suicidal Realism, a short memoir by the Canadian painter Brad Phillips. It’s not exactly an edifying book. Phillips’s main themes are drugs and sex, in that order: “People who like to get fucked up with other people are not people I like to get fucked up with.” But Phillips has a watchful intelligence and self-knowledge, and an impatient sincerity, that sneak up on you (or at least, snuck up on me). He doesn’t ask to be liked, even by his groupies, but he does want to communicate: “I’m not interested in the ones who are drawn to the creator of the work, I’m interested in the ones who are drawn to the content.” —Lorin Stein 

A photo by Bill Biggart from the “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” exhibition.

In The Nation this week, Margaret Atwood advocated for “witness art”: diaries, photographs, anything that elevates facticity and observation. “Let’s hope,” she wrote in a major understatement, “that if democracy implodes and free speech is suppressed, someone will record the process as it unfolds.” Joe Kloc has gotten a head start with “Tower of Babble,” which went live on the Harper’s site the minute Trump was sworn in. Maybe it’s not witness art so much as artful witnessing: an indefatigable chronicle of every galling deed and speech act our new president has committed to the public record, all of it delivered in that impassive Harper’s style. (See also today’s Index.) It’s a pure distillate of events and words. Reading it brought me to an almost meditative state of anger. —Dan Piepenbring

The Age of Caesar: Five Roman Lives, newly translated by Pamela Mensch, brings together selections from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans that focus on Rome’s most politically chaotic era. Plutarch’s biographies, written a few decades after Julius Caesar met his end, aren’t concerned with history. They’re essays on character and influence—nonjudgmental essays on morality—and perhaps no other well-documented time in history saw more good-versus-evil political binaries derailed and repurposed in the pursuit of power. No matter what we’re reading at the moment, everything carries the weight of our increasingly vitriolic public discourse, one that would make even the most excitable Roman citizen blush. The story of Cinna the poet, originally told by Plutarch and later repeated and made famous by Shakespeare, provides a timeless example of the way that blameless bystanders often bear the brunt of collective divisions, and how the hoi polloi can be as fallible and rash in their judgment as the most malevolent. —Jeffery Gleaves

From Resist!

I also can’t wait to get my copy of RESIST!, a tabloid newspaper of political comics drawn mostly by women in reaction to the new executive administration. It’s being distributed for free today and tomorrow at various locations and protests across the nation. Selections are available on their website. —J.G.

This weekend, the Bronx Documentary Center’s timely exhibition “Whose Streets? Our Streets!: New York City, 1980–2000” made it clear to me that tableau vivant, that long outmoded art form, is alive and well. “Whose Streets” displays the work of roughly forty photojournalists who captured ordinary New Yorkers protesting issues such as AIDS, abortion, and police brutality in the eighties and nineties. Their images exude theatricality—faces wrench, arms punch, crowds cling, opposing sides address one another in silence. The photos testify to the power of reflection—which reminded me of tableau, wherein actors reenacted painted scenes in silent stasis, holding a pose for upward of twenty seconds. Before the age of film and photography, tableau allowed audiences to sit with an image, to meditate on its meanings. At the beginning of the twentieth century, suffragettes made use of tableau to win women the right to vote. Similarly, this exhibition’s tableau force us to slow down and engage. Now, “Whose Streets” insists, not only do we have the power to record; we have the power to effect change. —Madeline Medeiros Pereira