Staff Picks: Spells, Cephalopods, and Smug Salads


This Week’s Reading

Sarah Moss.

Around Christmastime, which seems as far away as the late Iron Age by now, there were whisperings of a book that was as yet hardly known on our shores: Ghost Wall. The slim novel by Sarah Moss is about a small knot of students doing extracurricular research credits for their college archaeology course by living like Iron Age Britons for a few summer weeks. They are joined by an amateur enthusiast and his family, and I set the book down at first for being too pedantic. Even the fierce loyalty of our grade school narrator toward her father can’t hide her nascent skepticism—or is it the author’s?—regarding his monomaniac devotion to a pure British past. A large portion of contemporary writing is a critique of the bourgeois condition: comfortable linen tunics, smug salads, and sparkling résumés. Ghost Wall left me feeling fine about food co-op bulletin boards and Dan Barber books, but the real treat of the novel is the fucking desecration of all men. The men in the book are bad—all of them. They are bad because they are abusive or objectify women or are complicit in these crimes. They are undeniably bad, and it is women who plot and pilot their escape and the rescue of other women, and it is women who provide nourishment, comfort, and, in the distance, the sweet, warm light of sexual gratification—finally. —Julia Berick

If you were to get an aerial view of Chelsea on a Saturday in early spring, it would probably remind you of an ant farm, the west Twenties beaded with people out to catch the first rays of five o’clock sun, bustling in and out of galleries. I scurried down Tenth to Twenty-Second, to Jasper Johns’s show at Matthew Marks. The painting that greets visitors is a deconstructed face on blue canvas, with cartoonish eyelashes beaming like rays of sunlight, a mustache cheekily off center above lips caricatured to look like tall, thin mountain peaks; the nose is a ruler. A smaller image of a celestial whirlpool has its bottom corner dog-eared, a trompe l’oeil trick to suggest that it’s been pasted onto the face. This work is the show’s keynote, one struck against the solemn tone often associated with Johns. A skeleton gazes out at the viewer from beneath a boater and is positioned against a backdrop pasted with old newspapers shouting ridiculous headlines. The eerily surreal is playfully adorned with splotches of primary color and the familiar shape of the vase-or-two-faces optical illusion, a classic in the canon of visual trickery. (The germ for much of this show is two photographs, one of the Vietnam War by a photographer for Life magazine, and another by Lucian Freud.) The zaniness of the clutter provides a certain delight, but there’s never a punch line to the joke. My companion pointed out how that flipped-up corner in Johns’s first painting is an assertion of superficiality applied to the mandala-esque eternity of the star pool; the show pokes fun at us, a little shake to our ant farm, for seeking out the key to deeper meaning on gallery walls. —Lauren Kane


Brenda Shaughnessy. Photo: Janea Wiedmann.


The cover of Brenda Shaughnessy’s latest poetry collection, The Octopus Museum, is adorned with cephalopod swirls that bloom around white text, plumes that entwine shadow with color. Inside, Shaughnessy’s poems contrast the mundane details of the everyday with the sublime. Birthday cards and sliced chicken are set alongside abstract notions of time and space. She imagines a future controlled by octopuses, one in which she grows a protective shell, “a cross between hardwood and Corian, the plastic stone stuff they used to make slightly cheaper kitchen counters.” This armor grows out of present dangers—gun violence, climate change, police brutality, inaccessible health care—to protect against a future of imagined disaster for her children. Shaughnessy yearns for control even as she names uncertainty. In “Gift Planet,” she writes: “When I learned to tell time I told it. I told it so; I stopped listening to what it tried to tell me: You’re already losing everything as you go and go and go.” A later poem titled “Are Women People?” questions our concept of humanity, particularly the caveats (race, gender) to who is considered a person and what happens to those definitions when we no longer exist in human forms. Like octopuses, Shaughnessy’s poems manage to be both fleshy and cerebral, concerned with a self that breathes through fragile skin. She offers up these beautiful innards through her words; they twist agony into acceptance only to return and be picked apart again, a recognizable cycle of motherhood and womanhood—humanhood, depending on your definition. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford 

I can’t quite remember when I first encountered Rebecca Tamás’s poems—a year ago, maybe, while reading the London Review of Books—but I felt such an instant kinship with them that when I got wind of her debut collection, Witch, I knew I’d have to get it shipped to New York as soon as it came out. Well, it’s now available from the London-based publisher Penned in the Margins, and it’s just as powerful as I suspected. In a series of poems with titles like “Witch Government” and “Spell for Agency,” Tamás explores the figure of the witch and her relationship to gender and the state in a way that feels strikingly true to the political and personal malaises of twenty-first-century life. “Witch and the Suffragettes” is a particular favorite: “The smell of freedom is the smell of vomit the witch can see / that now.” Is it too cheesy to say that I’m spellbound? —Rhian Sasseen

Within Invasive Species, Marwa Helal disorients space in a way that is both welcome and necessary. In the poem “V,” she describes passing through a tunnel in San Francisco: “I look at the fluorescent lights overhead and feel sure that I’ll find Cairo on the other side.” Here, and elsewhere, movements we’re taught to think impossible become manifest. Our minds are not borderless—we are saturated with the language of the state—but our imaginations can begin to warp the lines. As Helal articulates alienation, she begins to unalienate homes from each other. Moreover, she begins to show how alienation never made sense in the first place. The absurdity of the U.S. immigration system becomes especially clear when she describes, in detail, her path to citizenship: “To say that the immigration system has marked or defined me would be an understatement.” The markings brought to the pages throughout this collection are framed such that readers must look and think about how they, too, are complicit, to varying degrees, with the racism and tyranny of U.S. CIS, ICE, and the TSA. None of this should make sense: “These motherfuckers have a green card lottery while refugee babies wash up drowned at sea.” I would rather live in a world in which Cairo can emerge on the other side of a tunnel in California. In Helal’s imaginative future, movement is no less complex, but it is far more free. —Spencer Quong


Marwa Helal.