Staff Picks: Girlfriends, Grenades, and Godheads


This Week’s Reading

Steven Garza in Boys State. Still courtesy of Apple TV+.

What I remember most about being seventeen is how infallible I felt, how naively but deliriously hopeful. So it didn’t surprise me, watching the documentary Boys State, that a group of a thousand seventeen-year-old boys imitating a political election would devolve into a raucous theater of ego. The film follows the 2018 Texas Boys State convention, a weeklong summer camp held every year in every state by the American Legion, and primarily documents the race for the coveted office of governor. Boys State won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, but still, I think I expected shallower thrills. I thought I knew how it would end—who would be the hero, the villain, the winner, the loser. But though it could have said something easy to believe about politics, something easy to believe about boys, the film provides more nuance. It offers a complex interpretation, something frightening but almost forgiving, of being seventeen. Even at the heights of the rampant manipulation and self-aggrandizing enacted by the boys (of which there is so much), every interaction feels like an attempt to be liked and to feel alike. “I thought if I played to that, then they’d love it,” one of them says when his misjudgment of his peers costs him an election. And while I could have told him that trying to read the minds of teenage boys is an effort destined to fail, the best moments are when the godheads come loose. The more heartbreaking moments are when, for some, their ego is only affirmed. Real life, I was reminded, is not a bildungsroman. But I am now barely the person I was when I was seventeen, and 2020 feels eons away from 2018, when the film takes place. These boys could be anyone now. Then again, they could also be exactly the same. —Langa Chinyoka 

The poems in Grenade in Mouth: Some Poems of Miyó Vestrini span the years 1960 to 1990 and serve as an introduction to the work of the Venezuelan avant-garde poet Miyó Vestrini for Anglophone readers like myself. Translated from the Spanish by Anne Boyer and Cassandra Gillig and selected by Faride Mereb and Elisa Maggi, these are poems that smash, that break, that throw themselves at the reader without apology and stay lodged in the brain long after the experience of reading is over. They cover death, suicide, love, and political repression. “Give me, lord, / an angry death,” begins “Brave Citizen.” “A death as offensive / as those I’ve offended.” “Sure, it’s beautiful to re-read,” goes a part in “The Smell, the Street, & the Sorrow.” “But somebody wrote it and that somebody was you. Fuck women’s poetry and the two days of labor that serve to help you scripturally weep … You are a poet and you don’t ejaculate. Something that is an unforgivable fault.” Vestrini’s own suicide, too, hangs over the work, such as in “Grated Carrot” (“The first suicide is unique”). In a brief note on translation included near the beginning of the volume, Vestrini writes, “We must admit that all of civilization depends on translation.” To that point, I find myself grateful for this translation for introducing me to a writer whose uncompromising radicalism feels like a necessary slap to the face. —Rhian Sasseen


Still from Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends, 1978.


It has come to my attention that Claudia Weill’s 1978 masterpiece Girlfriends is now available to stream. After years of demanding that everyone I know find and watch it (particularly if they mention Frances Ha, a film I enjoy as a sort of remake of or homage to Weill’s), I am now duty-bound to demand that you, readers of The Paris Review’s staff picks, watch it! Susan (Melanie Mayron) and Anne (Anita Skinner) are two bosom buddies sharing a Manhattan apartment and making art, and then Anne has the gall to desert for a man and a country house. Both women suffer, but the film sticks closer to Susan. Even in the seventies, it’s tough to pay the bills with just one artist’s “salary.” My favorite scene: After accepting yet another wedding photography gig in order to pay her overdue electric bill, she picks up the phone, pulls a Hershey’s bar from the nearly empty fridge, and, with no one on the other end, starts talking in a tone of weary entitlement about an imaginary upcoming assignment from Vogue. It’s a lovely, comforting moment of creative self-care—and then all the lights go out, and she’s in the dark with her chocolate (probably melting, maybe gone) and the vacant receiver. So she does what we all feel when we’re thwarted by the incompatibility of making art and making a living, which is to scream at the top of her lungs to the audience of zero, “I HATE IT!” I think about this often—I’ve never seen a truer depiction of what it’s like. But lest you think the movie is a downer, I assure you it is not. Vibing overall somewhere between the pie-in-the-sky Vogue spread and the sinking reality of wedding photos, Girlfriends manages to be both honest and buoyant. —Jane Breakell

Will Harris, whose collection RENDANG was published by Wesleyan University Press earlier this month, brings back my poetry education with nimble irreverence. His play (in the lines, in the margins, in the points of view) brings a kind of thrill more like Zadie Smith’s handling of E. M. Forster than a jazz musician’s bravado riff. Take “From the other side of Shooter’s Hill,” in which the reader enters the poet’s work space: “OK, you said, suddenly embarrassed, but wait, / why am I telling you this? Don’t you dare think about using me / in a poem, making me into some sad female cypher.” And she is there still, sad and lovely as any female cipher in, for instance, the work of Randall Jarrell or Yehuda Amichai, but here she is in her own voice demanding personhood. Or does she? The poem ends with the further complication of craft, musing on the difficulty of recall, the “impossible to tell who was speaking.” There is “Hanged Man,” a poem with a classic title (or a pseudo-serious reference to tarot) and an immediately relatable twenty-first-century voice: “I hate Bruce Springsteen, he thought. I want to eat better.” But is the third-person voice just a nudge and a wink to the assumption of the confession? Later, there is the line “Hanging there. His parents were alive and dead,” which is the stuff of dreams, though imagine it also as a game with the reader who, after noting references made throughout the book to ailing fathers and a Chinese Indonesian mother, wants to know truths about these people. Harris is so copiously talented that he begins the collection three times rather than once: with a concrete poem, a soliloquy and dedication, and, were you not convinced, a poem whose first line is “everywhere was coming down with Christmas”—which is, I’d say, a banger. Harris is also the author of Mixed-Race Superman, in which he writes about his multiracial background as well as those of Keanu Reeves, Barack Obama, and Friedrich Nietzsche. The desire to represent, to speak on race for himself, is in RENDANG, too, but so is an analysis of that representation and some dialogue with that desire. This would be enough to make RENDANG a standout collection, but Harris has had his time with a pen and in a workshop, and he shows rather than tells that his work is so many other things besides. —Julia Berick

Upon finishing my final semester of college from the (dis)comfort of my childhood bedroom, I felt as though I were being suddenly yanked from the security I’d cherished within small class discussions about books I could barely comprehend. So when a group of my professors emailed me and a group of my former peers about reading William Langland’s fourteenth-century text Piers Plowman over the “somer seson,” it was as if someone had offered me a kernel of truth I’d thought long lost. I can comfortably say that the kernel is still lost, because the endless digressions and inconsistencies of Piers make any sort of search for truth close to impossible. This is not to suggest I found Piers to be a waste of time. On the contrary, it proved to be one of the highlights of my quarantine summer! As our little team tackled the B text of the Middle English poem every week, I experienced the emotional ebbs and flows of comprehension attempting to gain a foothold on the beachhead of my literary training, only to be washed away every time Saint Truth herself felt nearby. Each passus brings you into a dreamlike state—not unlike the eight dream visions Langland himself endures—that presents you with ideals such as conscience personified, only for those personifications to jeopardize repeatedly their own symbolic attachments and logical integrity. The text contradicts itself constantly, frustrating all our attempts to wrestle with its lessons on truth, Christian theology, and the failings of all the virtues. However, in those contradictions lies a nearly imperceptible nuance that rewards trying to find some semblance of truth in equal part to its head-scratching confusion. Through a community of reading, I felt a certain solidarity in our bewilderment, which facilitated my acceptance of the fact that I will never fully understand this poem. The road to truth is inexhaustible; all I can recommend is calling up your former roommate who knows Middle English and spending some of your isolation so confused in the realm of dreams that when you reemerge, the real world feels slightly less erratic. —Carlos Zayas-Pons


Illustration from an 1887 edition of Piers Plowman, by William Langland.