Staff Picks: Metaphors, Messengers, and Melancholy


This Week’s Reading

Jacqueline Novak. Photo: Monique Carboni.

Everything about the comedian Jacqueline Novak’s Off-Broadway stand-up show—recently extended through October 6—is clever, beginning with the title: Get on Your Knees. Before the curtain rises in the West Village playhouse, there is the theater within the theater of the audience—on a recent visit, amid the sea of bespectacled, fashionable young women, a famous British television host and an actress from the HBO series Succession were in attendance. As the lights go down, it is impossible not to feel a pang of anxiety for Novak, who has promised to entertain this crowd for seventy-five minutes, alone, on a barren gray stage. But she breaks the ice quickly, comparing the moment of approaching the microphone to the palpitating anxiety of moving your way down a lover’s torso until you reach their … She stands pointedly behind the mic, positioning it at her mouth. “Will she be able to do it?” she asks wryly. The show delivers on its premise: essentially, a dissection of the art of the blowjob, with all the critical faculties and language of a graduate-level seminar. Novak runs through the various words for male anatomy, lingering on the two syllables that make up penis, and encourages the audience to whisper the word to themselves. Doggy style, she tells us, should be given a more dignified name: “I prefer to call it the Hound’s Way.” The show is structured around anticipation, the erotic tension of will-she-or-won’t-she, and the ending, an explosion of poetic mania that expands into the profoundly philosophical, is worthy of her buildup. In a moment when the boundaries between high and low culture have all but dissolved, Novak has found one of the few remaining tensions to play with. —Nadja Spiegelman

To read a collection by Mary Ruefle is to experience an ideal and intimate conversation. In her latest book, Dunce, as in all her work, she seems to be creating metaphors in real time, appreciating the insights afforded by quotidian objects or small observations of the world around her with a dry and subtle sense of humor. Her poem “Muguet des Bois” begins:

I was an unopened
action figure
hidden inside
an egg inside
an ovary.
The next thing
I knew I was
on the couch
Madame Bovary.

In another poem, a woman is prompted to consider her own consciousness by “that sad little oboe note” playing in her heart. In my favorite poem in the collection, she can “hear the rain / taking the pins out of her mouth.” Ruefle’s short lines have all the halting thoughtfulness of someone freely associating what they are feeling with concrete and familiar things. She is unafraid of imperfection (“it was simply lying / (laying?) on the floor”) in the way that one can be only when they are saying something to you, something urgent but precious, the way one confides in a friend or a lover. —Lauren Kane


Ed Clark, Untitled, 2008–09, acrylic on canvas, 63 1/2″ x 81″ x 3/4″. © Ed Clark. Photo: Thomas Barratt.


Is it possible that in the second week of September, I’ve already found my favorite art show of the season? Hauser and Wirth has just opened a double whammy, concurrently presenting Ed Clark and Amy Sherald, on view at the Twenty-Second Street gallery through October 26. Over his long career, Clark, now ninety-three, has mastered his own color-full version of abstract expressionism. In his recent canvases, color and stroke converse. Sometimes it’s a shout—those pops of greens, those sweeps of scarlet (he’s been known to use a push broom when a paintbrush wouldn’t cut it)—sometimes it’s a quiet blend of color, a whisper that has you leaning into the canvas for a long spell. And upstairs there are eight new canvases by Sherald, best known for her portrait of Michelle Obama. Note the two paintings that are considerably larger than Sherald’s usual work. They’re stunning. When asked why she stayed relatively small for so long—the other portraits are a more familiar 54″ x 43″, all three-quarter length, all hung at eye level—she explained that she wanted to paint life-size, and those dimensions would fit into a friend’s SUV. Bad news for feet, good news for the American realist tradition. —Emily Nemens

Sometimes it’s great to be late to the party of an artist’s body of work; the later you show up, the longer the party lasts. This week, I feel the same way I did when I first discovered Wallace Stevens and Homestar Runner—overwhelmed, excited, seated hungry before a feast—about Devotion: Songs about Rivers and Spirits and Children, a four-disc box set from the band Hiss Golden Messenger, released in late 2018. Hiss Golden Messenger is really the singer-songwriter M. C. Taylor, plus backing bank, or it was during the period—2010 to 2013—covered by this set, which reissues three of Taylor’s early records and adds a disc of rarities. You could call his music alt-country or indie folk or maybe roots rock. Basically, it’s the kernels inside the loud rock songs—Taylor got his start in a hardcore band—without all the noise: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, a bunch of other stuff, and now this. Think of these albums—my favorite of the four included here is Poor Moon, the first with a backing band—as a no-frills alternative to a contemporary tradition of supposedly unfrilly music that has gotten a bit too fancy for its britches, overcome by ornamentation and ornamented egos; think Ryan Adams without the self-importance and misogyny, or Iron and Wine without all the gilding. Only what’s most necessary in terms of melody and instrumentation is here, and yet it all feels revelatory and surprising. Plus, Taylor is a wonderful lyricist. In “Call Him Daylight,” he sings:

Hey there, big as night
I think I’ll call him daylight.
And I’ll call him once with a little song.
He’s got nothing on,
he comes naked with the dawn.

In this box is four hours of proof of the old adage that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to write the perfect song. —Craig Morgan Teicher

My favorite thing to do this time of year is walk until I feel I am about to collapse. The first days of fall lend themselves to melancholy ruminations, and it is more enjoyable to experience them in motion, occasionally catching glimpses of models or lines for shows to which I will never be invited. Vivian Gornick’s 2015 memoir The Odd Woman and the City has been the perfect companion to this mood. She is also a walker, and her observations of the city provide delightful interludes to more in-depth analyses of love, friendship, and loneliness. I was drawn to The Odd Woman and the City after reading Gornick’s Art of Memoir interview, as well as her piece “Letter from Greenwich Village,” much of which went on to appear in the book. Here, I thought, is a woman who understands the need to be alone. I am always searching for these women, women with whom I feel a kinship, who I imagine myself to be, or hope I will one day become. She is funny, charming, self-assured. And sure, she is lonely—but who isn’t. —Noor Qasim


Vivian Gornick. Photo: Mitchell Bach.