Contributors from our Fall issue share their favorite recent finds.
I’ve spent the past few days thinking about a poem by Jericho Brown, published this summer in The Progressive. It’s an outtake poem, one that didn’t appear in his new book, The Tradition. That’s part of what I love about the poem. Its existence—in the world, but not in the book that contains five of its brothers—suggests to me the promise of continuity. The promise of continuity suggests that writers can see a project through to a kind of completion without the danger of having to be finished with that project completely. That, in the end, there does not have to be a finite end.
According to Brown, the duplex form—his amalgamation of a ghazal, a sonnet, the blues, repeated and inverted lines, and syllabic verse, with a nod to the concept of a building with two homes inside—was ten years and a near-death experience in the making. I love the idea that Brown is still writing his duplexes—or at least that he is still revising and publishing as-yet-unpublished duplexes—beyond the limits of his book. It seems important that a created form doesn’t just stay in one project. That it becomes, instead, part of a Poet’s life project. That capital P was on purpose. I’m thinking here of a person who builds a life of poetry in many ways.
The book is nearly closed on this summer. Most of the flowers in my garden have already started going to seed. But, tended correctly, a few seeds will overwinter. In the spring, I will revel in continuity. Until then, I will keep rereading this Jericho Brown duplex, and reminding myself of all that doesn’t have to be forever over. —Camille Dungy
Like many, I’ve been watching recent events in Egypt with excitement and concern. Demonstrators are back on the streets, promising to bring down the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President Trump’s “favorite dictator,” whose policies of repression and corruption are eerily familiar to all Egyptians. But is there any reason to believe these protests, even assuming they continue to grow, will succeed better than the massive demonstrations of 2011 and 2013—precisely the ones that ended up ushering el-Sisi into power? I’ve been reading Arwa Salih’s The Stillborn, a series of linked essays on the fate of an earlier generation of Egyptian radicals, the student leftists of the late sixties and seventies whose movement ended in defeat, cooptation, or worse (Salih committed suicide in 1997, one year after the initial publication of The Stillborn). Salih wants to extract lessons from her history as a communist cadre, but her passionate and unsparing analyses—of left-wing elitism, lingering patriarchy, and the misjudgment of state power—make clear that most of these lessons will be negative. “One of my major concerns in writing the book,” she says, “was to draw for future generations the portrait of an inheritance that they must repudiate.” Samah Selim’s translation is as fiercely intelligent as the original; her introduction is among the best primers for the present that I’ve read. —Robyn Creswell
At some point a week or two ago, I found myself in the middle of three books about medieval English churches. Escapism much? Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them, newly reissued by NYRB Classics as its fourth Warner title, is a masterpiece, as most people reading it in this edition seem to agree. It is the chronicle of a backwater English cloister in the fourteenth century, in which life goes on, run mostly by women; prioresses come and go, and the world is what it is—it’s a bit like Middlemarch, with all the human insight, more atmosphere, less plot, more events, and an incomparable evocation of historical reality even though Warner just made it all up out of her amazing brain. It was too intense a book to finish in one go, so I reread one of the first great NYRB Classics reissues, from back in 2000, J. L. Carr’s slim, exquisite A Month in the Country, about a shattered World War I veteran restoring a fresco in another backwater English church. And then there’s Julian Flannery’s Fifty English Steeples, whose majestic purple spine I saw in a library I sometimes work at—let’s hear it for open stacks!—and which is now one of the most beautiful book-objects I own. The drawings (elevations, plans, outlines, charts, details, maps dotted with icons to scale) and measured but passionate prose and unabashed terminology (pinnacles, chamfers, squinches, crockets, lucarnes, ogee-headed septafoil archlets, “the combination of falchions and supertransoms in the head, typical of eastern Yorkshire”) and sheer size and weight make the book a total delight to lose oneself in. When the news is too much, I allow myself one steeple a night. I’m afraid to finish it. —Damion Searls
Earlier this year, I spent four months, from autumn to winter, on a writing fellowship in Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand), where I grew up. About midway through the trip, I bought How I Get Ready, a new poetry collection by Wellington-based poet and essayist Ashleigh Young. The days were getting very short and rainy, and I cannot imagine a more luminous book to have carried with me into winter. I tucked the book into my backpack each morning as I set off to find that day’s writing spot, and read it all over the city, in coffee shops and libraries and, when the weather allowed, on park benches. The poems are so intelligent, moving, witty, tender, and vivid in their renderings of scenes and places. Some are both conversational and piercing, as with the immediately unforgettable “Triolet with Baby,” which begins:
You don’t have to have the baby right now
you just have to decide whether someday you will.
You don’t have to hold the baby high above a pressing crowd
don’t have to sprint to the boatyard and row
through a hurricane with the baby.
I love when a book comes to feel like a companion through a certain time. Walking from place to place in Auckland City, or watching the moody skies from café windows, I could both hear and see Young’s lines, how “the hills pull fog around themselves / and trudge to the sea / carrying all our houses.” Or “how birds lift certain trees / and carry them away // how others wait all year / to be lifted.”
Poets Meg Day and Niki Herd recently edited the remarkable Laura Hershey: On the Life and Work of an American Master, part of the Unsung Masters Series, which I cocurate. Hershey was a fierce and brilliant poet and disability and LGBTQ rights activist, and this book includes 130 pages of her wrenching and inspiring poems alongside photographs, essays by fellow activist poets, and a thoughtful introduction by Day. What might seem at first glance to be straightforward, politically fraught poems—and nothing wrong with that—transform, on repeated readings, into subtle, complex meditations on the disabled body, love, sex, frustration, and power. Hershey’s protest anthem “You Get Proud. By Practicing” encapsulates a range of feelings, yet manages a kind of directness of speech that most poets shy away from. And her poems about feeling “in the way,” about maneuvering a wheelchair through a political protest, about stairs that “have ceased to be poetic,” about the delights of cooking, suggest not just a fine mind at work on difficult problems but a fascinating, vital person alive to the world of justice and the senses. Rarely have I finished a book and felt that I came close to truly knowing not only the poet’s work but the poet herself. Laura Hershey was truly special, a poet I wish I’d been aware of when she was alive and I wasn’t listening. —Kevin Prufer
I called my dear friend Christine Schutt to tell her, “Listen to this! Such music!” I read her an early passage in The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915), by Ford Madox Ford, that begins:
I can’t believe that that long, tranquil life, which was just stepping a minuet, vanished in four crashing days at the end of nine years and six weeks. Upon my word, yes, our intimacy was like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose; and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us, always to the music of the Kur orchestra, always in the temperate sunshine, or, if it rained, indiscreet shelters.
Ford refers to the minuet, but as his novel advances, the dance it dances is no minuet, it is a most splendid and frenzied tarantella. And I was very lucky to come across Julian Barnes’s commentary on the radical tactics Ford employed in this book. He writes,
It is like coming upon a hysteric who insists that everything is normal and he himself is fine, thank you very much … This is a novel which proceeds, both at phrase-level and in terms of plot and character, by moments of disorienting readjustment, some sly and secretive, others dazzlingly brazen. Facts yield and deliquesce before impressions; impressions are crushed by subsequent facts.
Ford Madox Ford edited and published writers who have been and remain essential to me—Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway. —Diane Williams
My childhood was a sampler-box introduction to Christianity. I was raised in an assortment of churches: Lutheran churches with my father’s family; Baptist churches with my mother’s family; a Catholic church with my babysitter’s family on weekends when parents were out of town; a nondenominational church with my best friend’s family on weekends when we had sleepovers. One, two, sometimes three days a week, I would be led in and out of a building with a cross on the doors. It was, to say the least, an education. And in all the years since, I have never encountered a work of art quite like Gabriel Mascaro’s new film Divine Love—a work of art that manages to capture so brilliantly and so exactly both the good intentions and the blatant hypocrisies of modern Christianity. Set in a gorgeously dystopian Brazil, Divine Love depicts a near-future movement of Christianity that will likely seem as scandalously heretical to contemporary Christians as contemporary Christians would have seemed to Christians in the 1890s. The premise is fascinating, the narrative skillfully constructed—every scene, every character, every line of dialogue ultimately proves to have been included for a reason—but what I admire most about the film is that it’s a social critique that never fails to treat its subjects with bountiful compassion, even as the absurdity and the darkness are heightened to astonishing degrees. It’s a parable that never feels preachy. It’s a sermon spoken from the margins. It’s a film that includes a one-minute-thirty-seven-second shot that made my partner gasp aloud, covering her mouth with her hands. Divine Love is scheduled to release in the U.S. in spring 2020, but in the meantime it might be worth a flight to Brazil just to see it. —Matthew Baker
I’ve always loved the fact that company ballet dancers have class together every week. Recently, I discovered this video of the Royal Ballet’s morning class from World Ballet Day 2018. I grew up studying music and ballet, and practice has always been a part of my life. In my writing, practice allows me to regularly stretch my limbs. I give myself writing exercises or make myself write with constraints; I record observations, images, or overheard conversation. These notes become sketches, studies, études. For a while there, I kept the Royal Ballet’s class going in the background while I wrote. It reminded of the importance of practice and community in the arts. —Olivia Clare