Staff Picks: Bobby, Janelle, and Romeo


This Week’s Reading


Like most people who live in New York, I’m always threatening to move to Los Angeles, and like most people who live in New York, I likely never will. This winter, however, I almost made a visit. The impetus was an exhibit of Ellen Gallagher’s at Hauser & Wirth. The deterrent was the thought of taking the A train from Harlem to JFK. Luckily for me, and for people everywhere thwarted by inertia and a lack of cheap flights, Hauser & Wirth published Accidental Records, a catalogue of paintings, photographs, collages, and texts meant to accompany the show. In it, Gallagher patches together a series of strange seascapes populated by ruled lines, whale fins, and teeny, tiny spores. The images appear unpeopled but evoke a population that’s been willfully forgotten. In the liner notes to their 1997 album, The Quest, the Detroit-based electronic duo Drexciya writes, “During the greatest holocaust the world has ever known, pregnant America-bound African slaves were thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air?” The Drexciya myth is one that’s been taken up by a number of black artists, Gallagher included. In Accidental Records, she creates the imagery for a world in which these mothers and sea babies, dead or unborn, were able to survive. —Maya Binyam 



Ever since I read Joseph O’Neill’s first novel, the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning Netherland, I have eagerly sought out his careful language. A novelist of manners, like James and Wharton before him, he perfectly captures the feeling of obligation to social graces. His meticulous characters are consumed by the consequences of their inaction or with the injustice of the invasive demands made on their lives. This week, reading his forthcoming collection of short stories, Good Trouble, I found comfort in his cynical humor. In “The Trusted Traveler,” the narrator is concerned with how to handle a former student who annually invites himself over to dinner. The narrator cannot remember ever having taught the student, and his expression of distaste for the entire process, his dismay with the man’s forced acquaintance, is actually very satisfying to read. I, too, am often similarly powerless to resist such encounters, and yet, as a former student of Joe’s, I also felt a little “The Referees,” first published in The New Yorker, had me laughing throughout at the trials of poor Robert, who can’t manage to convince anyone he knows to write him a character reference for a co-op application. As an antisocial New Yorker, I found myself uncomfortably represented and yet certainly successfully amused. —Molly Livingston 

I’ve been eyeing New Poets of Native Nations amid the stacks on my desk, and though it doesn’t publish until July, I decided not to wait. I’m glad I didn’t: I think I’ve discovered some of my favorite new poets. The editor, Heid Erdrich, notes in her introduction that a comprehensive anthology of Native American poetry hasn’t been published since 1988; she selected twenty-one poets whose first books of poetry appeared after 2000, when, she says, poets of Native nations began publishing in greater numbers. It’s fair to characterize this moment as a Renaissance, but what constitutes this new prominence? Is it that more Native poets are writing or that publishers (some of them) are taking greater notice? In any case, this book is an ideal starting point. I’m enamored of the circularity, like a game of musical chairs, in Gordon Henry Jr.’s “How Soon”: “Then story goes from in a rainfall / to sister walking a field / browned autumn. And when she arrives / winter has come, so the old man / rises from his chair, picks up matches, pipes and tools, and / walks out to begin again.” The clipped yet fulsome imagery in Julian Talamantez Brolaski’s “Horse Vision”: “time is a thing that gets spent, like youth, $ and desire / n/t so lovely as a cardinal against the snow / or a tree w/ fruit on it.” The gluey pleasure in tripping through Tacey Atsitty’s “Nightsong”: “Look / down at your wrists, // down here where / the thick laps // the lips.” My favorite may be Margaret Noodin’s poems composed in Anishinaabemowin and English, side by side. The lines are shards of thought, keen and unblinking: “It’s easy to change our minds / to look through a window, fall into a lake / it’s harder to quit, / to wait or step off the main path / to discover a joyful life.” —Nicole Rudick



I know nothing about ballet. I’ve maybe, maybe seen The Nutcracker live, though I’ve seen the one with with Macaulay Culkin countless times on VHS. Other than that and my cousins’ dance recitals … nothing. If this angers you, keep scrolling. If you’re still here and willing to bear with my basic insights, let me tell you about Romeo and Juliet, a tiny dance production you’ve likely never heard of, which just finished up a timely February run at the New York City Ballet. Last Thursday, after scarfing down disappointing lime-tinged ravioli in Flatiron, my older brother and I rushed up to Lincoln Center. We were a few minutes late, so we missed the first couple scenes, but this made little difference. The beauty of a wordless art form is the ease at which one can dip in and dip out. And as soon as we took our seats, I was immersed. First of all, which one was Romeo? The guy with the goatee? No, no, couldn’t be. The little purple guy, twirling and twirling and twirling? Absolutely not. Too boisterous. Clearly the comic relief. I didn’t settle on a Romeo until the second act, but in the murkiness of those first forty minutes, I was able to throw plot aside and focus on the artistry of the movement. What a thrill it is to see these lithe superhumans toss each other around, to hear the satisfying thump of their feet on the stage. And the music! It swelled and swirled, enveloping the performers’ movements and somehow emphasizing them, drawing near-visible bold lines around their limbs. I get it now. I get why there’s a dance section in The New Yorker. I barely remember Shakespeare’s original, but as an introduction to a medium, the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet is perfect. —Brian Ransom

The cinéma vérité genre had its genesis in the late fifties, when cameras became small enough, light enough, and quiet enough to follow moving subjects with the plausibility, or willed delusion, that they could become the proverbial fly on the wall. There was the illusion that they were capturing “true” life, or at least approaching it asymptotically. It’s debatable whether such a complete forgetting of the observer is possible, though it might be—Richard Nixon, after all, installed his own automatic taping system and gradually became so used to it that he would say seemingly anything in its presence. All of my favorite cinéma vérité films have scenes that rush headlong into the ethical dimensions of this aesthetic possibility. That is, they feature moments of such seeming nakedness that the viewer asks, Have they truly forgotten the camera? If they have forgotten, is it ethical to watch these intimacies? The question that occurs to me most often is, Why are the subjects letting them film this? The documentaries The Queen of Versailles and Weiner, in which documentarians were filming as humiliating events broke over their subjects, are overflowing with these moments of queasy frisson. The moment, though, that I am most haunted by comes from a short documentary, Jingle Bells, made in 1964 by a pioneer of cinema verité, D. A. Pennebaker. In the short, he follows Bobby Kennedy as he campaigns for Senate in New York City around Christmastime. Bobby’s brother is dead. He goes to multiple public schools to sing “Jingle Bells” with the students. Sammy Davis Jr. meets them outside at one point—Bobby stands there glumly and impatiently, saying nothing. His son, riding in a car, asks why JFK Airport is so far from the city. In the final scene, Bobby is at another school, singing again, and the camera zooms in and stays on him as his expression revolves—when others are looking at him, he grins and sings; when he believes himself unwatched, his face sets into a pained, sunken-eyed, narcotized mask. Grief hovers about him like a mist, almost visible. The question of the veracity of what we are seeing, and whether we have the right to see it, hovers there too. —Matt Levin



I follow the work of Janelle Monáe close to religiously, so when I saw that she had dropped two new music videos, one of which stars her rumored girlfriend—Tessa Thompson, the love of my life—in a romantic role, I very nearly fainted. “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane” are singles taken from Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, expected in April. They are drastically different tracks. The first is, as the lyrics have it, an “emotional, sexual bender” in which Monáe channels her late mentor, Prince. The second is a fast-paced feminist rap that depends on wordplay. Though I love both of these tracks, the first Monáe has released since she switched gears to kickstart her acting career, I was even more taken with the trailer for the “emotion picture” that will accompany Dirty Computer. “They drained us of our dirt, and all the things that made us special,” Monáe drawls over flickering images, some from “Make Me Feel” and others unfamiliar and violent. It teases a return to Monáe’s decade-spanning Metropolis storyline, and it gives me chills every time I watch it. —Eleanor Pritchett

When you’re not able to get to sleep, it’s important to at least have good company. This week, I was awake into the early hours of the morning with Carly Joy Miller’s forthcoming collection, Ceremonial. The current of language swept me up and carried me with seductive grace. I found myself rereading phrases, sentences, and entire poems, eager to experience again how the words were strung together. This fluid linguistic elegance seems counterintuitive, as there is something unbridled at the heart of these poems. They are peopled with spitfire girls in tune with the wilderness of their surroundings. There’s an edgy magic to these characters and these verses, a fable-like quality that still captures the moxie and fire that simmers underneath female coming-of-age. It’s just the thing for when 2 A.M. comes knocking. —Lauren Kane