Staff Picks: Decadence, Doodles, and Deep Ends


This Week’s Reading

Ana Luísa Amaral. Photo: Mattias Blomgren (CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons.

If you think of poetry as a language at its purest and most distilled, and if you think of a language as, in a sense, a living thing, with a life story as unique and formative as any person’s, then the translation of poetry from one language (whichever) into another (whichever else) seems like the most impossible sort of transplantation: opportunity knocking twice, a miracle that repeats. A good way to see this lightning in a bottle is to pick up What’s in a Name, a collection of work by the Portuguese writer Ana Luísa Amaral. (Margaret Jull Costa’s side-by-side translation of the book will be published in March by New Directions.) Amaral has a remarkable gift for making the personal universal and the universal intimate, but for me the real joy of this book is seeing the conversation unfold between the Portuguese and the English, reflecting each other from left to right and back. Like creatures in a myth, nouns become verbs and verbs, nouns; syntax circles back and forth; subjects and voice change. They aren’t the same creature, the English and the Portuguese, but something like each other’s what-if selves. Having the opportunity to hold both before you at once is a truly remarkable gift. —Hasan Altaf 

A doodle of a woman in profile and a painting by Beauford Delaney. A photo of a public execution and another of an afternoon in the garden with friends. An LP playing Take My Hand, Precious Lord, a railroad tie, a handful of stones. This motley, meaningful assortment contributes to “God Made My Face: A Collective Portrait of James Baldwin,” on view now at David Zwirner. Curated by Hilton Als (an advisory editor for this magazine), the exhibition amplifies the personal and creative history of one of the twentieth century’s great writers through art, objects, and imaginative inferences. The first section of the exhibition is a creative portrait—a gathering of the biographical details, portraits, and places that give Baldwin dimensionality. Then Als leaps ahead, into an inquiry of Baldwin’s impossible and inevitable future. Here is recent and contemporary art that could not exist without Baldwin’s oeuvre and impact, presented in “platonic conversation.” Pieces by Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Ja’Tovia Gary, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby amplify and reflect Baldwin’s influence not just across generations but also across media. —Emily Nemens


Still from Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.


One of my favorite Wendell Berry poems, “For an Absence,” cocoons its reader in early-morning hush: “And when, restless, you wake / and see the room palely lit / by that watching, you will think, / ‘It is only dawn,’ and go / quiet to sleep again.” The feeling of comfort that Berry creates is one that seems further from our world with every news cycle shouting about our growing proximity to catastrophic environmental change. This week I finally got around to watching the film Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry, which sets images from Berry’s life in Henry County, Kentucky, against interviews with local tobacco farmers to create something between social commentary, moralistic folktale, and a meditation on industrial agriculture. It opens with Berry’s observation “I have grown or aged into difficulty in distinguishing between art and life,” and this echoes throughout the film, which forgoes plot and chronology to portray a dwindling American sensibility that values growth over profit. Much like Berry’s poetry and the cadence of his ongoing voiceover, Look and See is quiet and unassuming. This Portrait of Wendell Berry is exactly what it claims to be, and an impression of the writer is planted and watered into a narrative of advocacy reflected in the Kentucky farming communities and illustrated through looping footage of each harvest. It is the kind of film that impresses its message without bulldozing, a work of feeling more than fact. In a time that stresses urgency and anxiety, Look and See offers an inquiry into our contemporary relationship to nature, and the erasure of American farm life, without demanding immediate action. Berry’s diligence allows us to rest, just for a moment, until morning brings fresh eyes to confront the day. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite is a comedy of manners as true to the bewigged costume design of the eighteenth century as it is to the bawdy absurdity of Restoration theater. I settled into the cinema seat expecting manners, but I didn’t fully expect comedy, and The Favourite cracked me up, renewing my faith that there is still smart, satirical work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The Favourite is also unafraid to enter entirely into the past, without any of the fussy, mincing presentations most period pieces employ to unbearable effect. Queen Anne wailing about the gout afflicting her legs and vomiting into a pot held out by a footman so that she can continue to eat cake are just two examples of the film’s vivid portrayal of grotesque decadence. The Favourite is unique in style, but there’s something else rare about it: the absence of any male lead characters—no male protagonists, no important male love interests. The three main characters, Anne, Sarah, and Abigail (all brilliantly acted), are as uninterested in romance as they are interested in meeting their own needs: for affirmation, for power, for security. Selfish and unapologetic, Lanthimos’s women deliver “unlikable” in spades and, in doing so, become irresistible. —Lauren Kane

I first read Kaitlin Chan on The Margins, the online magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. “Deep End,” a graphic fiction, mourns the loss of the photographer Ren Hang and explores “the relationships we form with people from afar.” The closing image is my favorite: three figures bathing in a rice cooker filled to the brim with perfect white grains. I see a loneliness—the figures are faceless and turned away from each other—but I also see comfort and peace. Perhaps this is the nature of a reader’s long-distance relationship with any artist: one without explicit dialogue but with a sense of intimacy so intense it’s almost as if the person is sitting—or bathing!—right next to you. The fantasy of a rice cooker as the site of that intimacy is important. I can think of few objects that so reliably stir up a sense of home, and there’s something magical and safe about this staple food and the machine designed for its single sacred purpose. Chan’s rice cooker—and specifically this rendering, in clean black ink on white vellum—exemplifies her broader ability to blend the familiar with the sometime starkness of emotional life: the grief that we cannot always speak to or be physically close to those we love, but the relief of knowing their mere presence in the world helps us survive. In fact, I suppose I’m turning to Chan’s work again now because as a recent transplant to New York, I’m looking to those far away (friends, books, art) to stave off the small lonelinesses inherent to moving to a new place. As Chan turned to Ren Hang, so I turn to her now. I am also an avid follower of her Instagram and have been thrilled to keep up to date on one of her latest collaborative projects, the Queer Reads Library, a collection of internationally sourced queer publications and zines that has already traveled far and wide, from Shanghai to Hong Kong. I’m heartened that queer artists like Chan are actively building this kind of resource. And I’m particularly excited by how the “mobile” aspect of the project embodies the queer impetus (and necessity) to seek and shift. Indeed, the library seems to lean into new places—loneliness again and again—but each time with more dexterity, strength, and flair. Such is the spirit of “Deep End,” and such is the bravery necessary to build communities across borders and the Pacific. —Spencer Quong


Panel from “Deep End,” by Kaitlin Chan, originally published in The Margins. Image courtesy of author.