My grandmother will be ninety-six this September. Lately she has taken to expressing herself with an almost childlike wonder, finishing television shows or simple meals or songs on the radio with jaw-dropping admiration, claiming them the best she has seen or eaten or heard in all her days. Thinking about this sometimes apt and more often comical appreciation for life’s otherwise ordinary details puts me in mind of another fanciful grandmother and her adventures around a small Finnish island on the heels of her six-year-old granddaughter, the spritely Sophia, in Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. In the twenty-two vignettes that make up the book, told in the third person and translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, the narrative focus is shared between the main characters, often drifting subtly over the course of a story, illustrating the delicate overlap between the two, one’s perspective mirroring or adding to the outlook of the other. In “The Tent,” Sophia learns to observe the outdoors anew, having “really listened for the first time in her life,” and her relation of that strange new experience helps Grandmother relive her own childhood experiences as “new images came back to her, more and more of them.” Youth and age, awe and understanding, innocence and experience—what beautiful complements they can make. To my grandmother, who now seems as much the seasoned matriarch as she is the imaginative girl, and to her youngest daughter, my incomparable mother, who has taken expert care of us both—happy Mother’s Day. —Christopher Notarnicola Read More
The second series of Poets on Couches continues with Sara Deniz Akant reading Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Missing the Boat.” In these videograms, poets read and discuss the poems that are helping them through these strange times—broadcasting straight from their couches to yours. These readings bring intimacy into our spaces of isolation, both through the affinity of poetry and through the warmth of being able to speak to each other across distances.
“Missing the Boat”
by Naomi Shihab Nye
(Issue no. 72, Winter 1977)
It is not so much that the boat passed
and you failed to notice it.
It is more like the boat stopped
directly outside your bedroom window,
the captain blowing the signal-horn,
the band playing a rousing march.
The boat shouted, waving bright flags,
its silver hull blinding in the sunlight.
But you had this idea you were going by train.
You kept checking the time-table,
digging for tracks.
And the boat got tired of you,
so tired it pulled up the anchor
and raised the ramp.
The boat bobbed into the distance,
shrinking like a toy—
at which point you probably realized
you had always loved the sea.
In The Shabbiness of Beauty, published this past month by MACK, the artist and writer Moyra Davey places her work in conversation with that of the photographer Peter Hujar. Before becoming a book, the project appeared as an exhibition at Berlin’s Galerie Buchholz in spring 2020. Thousands of miles away, confined to their New York City apartment, Eileen Myles printed out Davey’s and Hujar’s photographs and mounted their own private rendition of the show. The essay Myles wrote about this experience appears below.
Steve died. He was huge. He was fifty and lived in the apartment downstairs right by the front door. His Yankees sticker is still there. He went into the hospital on March 2 and died on March 22. Anna at the laundromat told me. Anna’s quite bent, deep into her eighties. I remember her in her fifties a mean and vivid woman. She got older the place is filthy many of the machines are broken but it’s on the corner and I’m weirdly loyal to it. Steve worked there usually standing outside and I think he delivered bags for Anna. He helped me lug things upstairs too. Years earlier he lived right next door to me with a crowd of people. I remember when he was a little boy and he was thrown butt naked into the hall as a joke. I was coming up the stairs and he was desperately pounding on the door. Your neighbor died Anna told me when I was getting my change. Steve I asked. He’d be standing outside my front door when I came home from wherever. Hey Steve. Was it COVID I asked. We don’t know. His sister comes once a week to get the mail Anna said. She comes on Tuesday. They still send it. I told her the post office doesn’t take you off for a while. They’re worried the landlord won’t give back the security she intimated. What’s it like five hundred dollars. Two. Two hundred and something. Then I turned hoping his sister would come in. And now this place is familiar less. I mean everything perpetually feels more unconnected to a past when I was young and the Tin Palace on East Second Street was a jazz/poetry bar and Stanley Crouch held court at the bar. He died last week. My friends who were bartenders lived in this building and I just went over here one day on my break and I could have it the super said and I moved in. This is like 1977. Time puts its stamp on everything.
This leg. I’m beginning to print the pictures out. Fifty-five or fifty-six of them. It looks lousy but you get the graphic thing of it. I have four hanging over my bed. Moyra was interested in the quality of hair smooshed when wet. It’s about not shaving. Isn’t it funny or cool that hair does this. And those droplets below the ankle. One on the calf. It’s a specimen leg, not unloving or dead. Just deeply specific. To take my leg or that leg and say this. The black line at the bottom further holds back the organic nature. Like suturing it. So the show goes Leg, Nude, Kate (without scruple). I’ll print out Nude now. Read More
My Catholic picture books made me think heaven was a town built on a layer of stratocumulus clouds, which disappointed me, because I wanted a heaven like the garden on the other side of the door in Alice’s wonderland. I considered myself the true owner of the library’s copy of Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, nesting in its puffy white VHS case until I could bring it home again. I studied Alice as she crept through the black woods and sat in disoriented defeat among the mome raths. I watched her shrink and grow. I was looking for the garden, too. Our lawn violets never spoke. There had to be a door somewhere, but I couldn’t even find a rabbit hole to fall down. In the woods, I turned over rocks, looking for the underworld, always fearing I’d find a nest of snakes instead.
Once I could read, I worked through the book enough times to memorize parts. Maybe my woods were already wonderland. Maybe my cat would dissolve into a hanging grin. At school, when boys played games that ended with the loser having to kiss me without my invitation, I understood I was stuck somewhere, like Alice: “There were doors all round the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.”
In the Disney adaptation, Alice faces only one door. It is locked, and has a talking face. “You did give me quite a turn!” the door puns, and makes sure we get the joke: “Rather good, what? Doorknob, turn?” Alice peers through the keyhole mouth at the garden. In my recollection of the movie, the viewer sees what she sees. I can picture it: fountains, hedges, rosebushes, topiaries.
But I imagined the image. Alice doesn’t look through a door-portal until the film is nearly over. She’s been crying in the woods, singing to the creatures gathered to gawk at her pain, saying to herself, “It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change!” when the Cheshire Cat, a puff of purple around a crescent moon of teeth, tells her there’s a way out. He makes a door appear in a tree trunk. Alice steps in to meet the tyrant queen in her garden. I should have seen this as a cautionary tale: the girl thinks she’s looking for something that makes sense, but the deeper she pushes, the closer she gets to the seat of senseless violence in the world. Read More
Every week, the editors of The Paris Review lift the paywall on a selection of interviews, stories, poems, and more from the magazine’s archive. You can have these unlocked pieces delivered straight to your inbox every Sunday by signing up for the Redux newsletter.
This week at The Paris Review, we’re spilling ink. Read on for Shelby Foote’s Art of Fiction interview, A. S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” and Jean Sénac’s poem “Young Deluge.”
If you enjoy these free interviews, stories, and poems, why not subscribe to The Paris Review? You’ll also get four new issues of the quarterly delivered straight to your door. Or, subscribe to our new bundle and receive Poets at Work for 25% off.
Shelby Foote, The Art of Fiction No. 158
Issue no. 151 (Summer 1999)
What precisely is a blotter?
This is a blotter [pointing] and if you haven’t got one you’re up the creek. You use the blotter to keep the ink from being wet on the page. You put the blotter on top and blot the page. I was talking about blotters in an interview, what a hard time I had finding them, and I got a letter from a woman in Mississippi. She said, I have quite a lot of blotters I’ll be glad to send you. So I got blotters galore. Ink is another problem. I got a phone call from a man in Richmond, Virginia who had a good supply of ink in quart bottles. I got three quarts from him, so I’m in good shape on that.
It is one of the ironies of literature that the Thousand and One Nights should owe its global fame to stories—“Aladdin” among them—that never belonged to the original collection in Arabic. They were the work, invented or recycled, of a young Syrian man named Hanna Diyab. Perhaps the most influential storyteller whose name is known, Diyab himself remained obscure until a memoir he wrote in eighteenth-century Aleppo was discovered at the Vatican Library more than two centuries later. The Book of Travels, edited by Johannes Stephan and translated by Elias Muhanna, appears today in English for the first time. The English edition, published by the Library of Arabic Literature, contains the following foreword by Yasmine Seale.
One morning in October 1708, two men walk into a room at Versailles where King Louis XIV is waiting to receive them. Between them is a cage of curious animals: a pair of honey-colored mice with giant ears and long hind legs, like miniature kangaroos. The older man, Paul Lucas, has just returned from a mission to the Ottoman Empire, where he was sent to hunt for coins, gems, and other precious things to feed the royal collection. Among the loot he has brought back are these strange, alert creatures. The king wants to know more. Lucas boasts that he “discovered” them in Upper Egypt, despite their being very difficult to catch. (He is lying: in fact, he was sold them by a Frenchman in Tunis.) And what are they called? Lucas, unable to say, turns to the young man by his side.
“I replied that, in the lands where it is found, the animal is called a jarbu‘.” Of how many people can it be said that their first words to the Sun King contained the Arabic pharyngeal ‘ayn? The pharynx, and the story, belong to Hanna Diyab, a multilingual monk in training from Aleppo who, around the age of twenty, dropped out of the ascetic life to be Lucas’s assistant on his voyage—translating, interceding, and, once or twice, saving his life—in exchange for the promise of a job in Paris. Read More