Staff Picks: Gunpowder, Gay Saints, Game Wardens


This Week’s Reading

From Escaped Alone.


In the February issue of Harper’s, the gospel historian Anthony Heilbut writes about gays in the black church, past and present: “Even when they haven’t been the preachers—and they sometimes are—they have constituted the pastors’ inner circle and praetorian guard. Music dominates the traditional black church; the minister is as much cantor as village explainer. In particular, a good ‘Mississippi whoop,’ or melodic growl, has been the making of many a preacher. And when the minister growled, the gay organist would accent his every moan, while the gay choir members made their joyous noise, and the gay saints (i.e., members of the flock) jumped to their feet, clapping and dancing in the spirit. The whole experience was orchestrated and annotated by gays and lesbians. This is one reason why many straight men have shunned the church—why, for example, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was ashamed to tell his mother that he had joined a choir.” —Lorin Stein

Caryl Churchill’s new play Escaped Alone is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for one more weekend. Go see it—it’s not even an hour long. Four British women, getting on in years, sit in the backyard and wonder where the time goes. They bicker, they ruminate, they joke about Tesco; in a manic outburst of nostalgia, they break into a skillful rendition of “Da Doo Ron Ron.” But there’s a nameless unease in the air—it might just be the apocalypse! Occasionally the stage goes dark and one of the women steps into a frame of terrifying red LED lights, where she recounts what I can only describe as fun facts about the end of the world. (“Smartphones were distributed by charities when rice ran out, so the dying could watch cooking.”) If Pinter had lived to see—and sniff at—Black Mirror, he might’ve fused it to Kitchen Sink Drama like this, but it would’ve wanted for Churchill’s warmth. Not to say she’s a softy: the tension, in the play’s best moments, breaks its neighborliness, and a dark, Beckettian ooze seeps out. One of its many fine monologues goes like this: “Terrible rage, terrible rage, terrible rage, terrible rage, terrible rage, terrible rage.” —Dan Piepenbring 

An illustration from Harper’s by Shonagh Rae.


“The combined light and shadow of passing / cars stutter-shifted across the walls the way, / in summer, / the night-moths used to.” This line, from a poem by Carl Phillips that opens the second installment of Aaron Stern and Jordan Sullivan’s “Dialogues” project, well describes what I find so appealing, so right about the book’s selection of poems and photographs. The play of light and shadow, of reflected and refracted movement in the photographs extends to the written work and elicits between the two mediums not a sameness but a sense of camaraderie. Karen Miranda-Rivadeneira’s buttery photograph of long blonde grasses waving to hills softened by low clouds—a transfixing haze of sunlight and fog—seems to reference what Martha Ronk elsewhere in the book terms “the shape of silence”: “the dissipating clouds over the San Gabriels, a wisp brushed / across the sky, its shaggy ends trailing … gases unseen, particles freewheeling.” —Nicole Rudick

Mad River Books rolled out their new 21st Century Essays series last month with A Mother’s Tale, by Phillip Lopate, and Don’t Come Back, by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas. Lopate’s book revisits thirty-three-year-old recordings of an interview he once conducted with his mother; a touching portrait emerges in what becomes a three-way conversation between Lopate now, his mother, and his younger self, with graceful honesty and thoughtfulness throughout. Don’t Come Back is Ferreira’s unflinching look at the space between languages—life, she shows her readers, is always lived in translation. Ferreira, born in Colombia, weaves her life into the country’s turbulent political history, adding a touch of ancient myth to give an extraordinarily intimate picture of the region, stretching back before the conquistadors and up to memories of her childhood, “when the whole country smelled of gunpowder and pork and burnt skin.” Ferreira is writing collage essays here, equipped with beautiful visual translations that I can’t stop viewing and unpacking. —Jeffery Gleaves

From Dialogues 02.


László Krasznahorkai’s book The Last Wolf & Herman can be read in two directions; as long as the spine is on the left, you can jump in on either side. Krasznahorkai revels in this kind of entropy. One half of the book, “Herman,” is the story of a game warden tasked with organizing a forest for public use. He senses “an invincible, stifling power already busily attacking his manicured paths and trails from all sides,” but the thought soothes him—in fact, he attacks anyone who would impose order on the forest, setting hunting traps outside of homes and waylaying the effete urbanites. But after he undergoes a beatific realization—“he saw a sign of grace in his sudden ability to behold everything with new eyes … everything that surrounds him carries exactly the same weight”—he goes to turn himself in and is promptly shot dead by the police. The two other stories in the book, “The Death of a Craft” and “The Last Wolf,” are similar: nature pushes itself on the human order, people vacillate in their sense of purpose. Krasznahorkai achieves a dramatic scale—but he also makes time for the particular and delicate subjectivities of his characters. —Noah Dow