- Given our newfangled penchant for the darker arts, it’s probably time for a James Merrill revival. I do not mean this literally: we should not raise James Merrill from the dead. Still, we might commune with him. To aid our spiritual discourse, Dwight Garner points out, we should turn to the Ouija board, the supposedly harmless instrument Merrill used to write The Changing Light at Sandover. As it happens, Merrill’s own biographer, Langdon Hammer, recently dusted off his Ouija, although he was too ravaged by paradox to contact the poet: “We didn’t try [to commune with Merrill]. I guess it seemed beside the point. Who had invited us to the table and sat us down at the board if not James Merrill? We were already in contact … Looking back now, I think the board had a point to make. Using it puts you in touch with the soul. But it’s not the soul as we normally think of it—something singular and deep inside you. According to the Ouija board, it takes two people to create the soul, and it exists out there, between and beyond them.”
The artist Jim Shaw began collecting printed media when he was still a teenager, and his extensive archive, which serves as a primary source of inspiration for his paintings, was recently published as The Hidden World. The small book is made to resemble a bible: the edges of the pages are stained red, and the black cover bears only the gold-embossed title. The roughly five hundred images are presented without captions or commentary and were originally produced for pedagogical religious purposes: Freemason, fundamentalist Christian, Mormon, Rosicrucianism, Jehovah’s Witness, Opus Dei, Branch Davidian, and much more. “The Hidden World” was shown as an exhibition a few years ago, but in book form, the same images don’t have the feel of artworks. If it’s a book, you can read it—whether the pages are filled with words or pictures. The unbridged sequences between various brands of faith create a strange narrative: from, say, Left Behind pop culture to beatific Christendom, homemade cultism to UFO-related arcana. A Bill Mauldin cartoon featuring the grim reaper at work sits across the page from a book cover that reads “Good News to Make You Happy.” It’s a creepy book, especially if you aren’t a member of any of these clubs, but it also testifies to how deeply people want to believe. —Nicole Rudick
I was lucky enough to attend the New York premiere of Albert Maysles’s last documentary, Iris. As one might expect, the film offers no shortage of celebration for the buoyant and idiosyncratic style of Iris Apfel; well into her nineties, she’s still very much a commanding force in the world of fashion. But what interested me more than Iris’s style were the glimpses into the relationship between the “Rare Bird of Fashion” and Maysles himself, whose presence, more often than not, manifests only as a voice from behind his camera. To me, the film was an endearing look at two aging artists brought together by the longevity of their art—and, more largely, a tribute to their indefatigable grace. —Stephen Hiltner
From a distance, I’d always cast a cool eye on James Merrill’s epic poem The Changing Light at Sandover—his famous experiments with Ouija boards struck me as superstitious gimmickry, a rich boy’s attempt to swath himself in the aura of Yeatsian occultism. Well, file that under “moronic snap judgment.” Langdon Hammer’s new biography, James Merrill: Life and Art, has shown me the light. Merrill, who led a truly singular life, came to the Ouija board not for some self-serious dalliance with the afterworld but to buttress his playful, skeptical, fecund approach to poetics; as Hammer writes, he “renewed poetry’s ancient task of soliciting speech from the gods. He activated a source of inspiration existing in language itself.” And I hadn’t known that the poet and his partner, David Jackson, used the board in 1955 to commune with Wallace Stevens, who had just died and who expanded their sexual vocabulary from a higher plane: “‘Do you not know the lovely prologue kissing of nostrils, tongue in nostril and on rims?’ He described scenes of sex at court with Ethiopian slaves, dogs, oils, multiple positions and partners, and a tiger licking sweets from the genitals of the orgiasts.” —Dan Piepenbring
Stefan Zweig is one of those writers who mastered the art of memory—reading his short stories on prewar Vienna feels like walking into a sepia photograph. “Mendel the Bibliophile” definitely has that effect. The misfit book peddler Jakob Mendel, endowed with an encyclopedic memory, is typical of the vanished Vienna Zweig is always mourning in his work: a breeding ground for intellectuals where old books are cherished like secular relics, a comfortable, stimulating cocoon, doomed to splinter during the war. The tenderness of its nostalgia makes “Mendel” a gem. —Charlotte Groult
- On James Merrill, whose work “exists in part to reverse our bias against trivia”: “His work is replete with the transfigured commonplace, bits of the world reclaimed in his daily imaginative raids: an ‘Atari dragonfly’ on the Connecticut River, a joint smoked on a courthouse lawn, a trip to the gym, a Tyvek windbreaker … And Ouija boards: Merrill made the most ambitious American poem of the past fifty years, seventeen thousand lines long, in consultation with one.”
- “I am writing to you because I noticed that you did exceptionally well last semester … and I would encourage you to consider English as a major (or a second major) … flexible enough to fit in easily with your other academic pursuits.” Giving the hard sell to prospective students of literature.
- “A busting of the bucolic, a puncturing of the pastoral”: young writers are reckoning with the English landscape in unconventional ways, seeking its absences, its eeriness, “the terror in the terroir.”
- We’ve been Photoshopping images for twenty-five years. How did we dupe and retouch before that? Double exposure, montage, stage-setting; we’ve been manipulating photographs since nearly the moment they were invented.
- Picasso, in his posthumous life, is more than a mere painter—he’s a barometer of unassailable excellence in any and every field. Thus, I present to you “The Picasso of LEGO Bricks,” “The Picasso of Low-temperature Geochemistry,” and “The Picasso of Anal-Pleasuring Toys.”
- Discovered in Harvard’s library: three books bound in human flesh. (“One book deals with medieval law, another Roman poetry and the other French philosophy.”)
- One of the perennial dangers of interviewing writers is that they may turn the experience into a short story, with you in it. “Updike had transcribed—verbatim—their exchanges, beginning with the helpful suggestion that the interviewee drive while the interviewer take notes, and extending to trivial back-and-forth unrelated to the matter at hand.”
- The estate of Ted Hughes has ceased to cooperate with his latest biographer, barring access to Hughes’s archives. “The estate was insistent I should write a ‘literary life,’ not a ‘biography.’”
- Writing advice from James Merrill: “You hardly ever need to state your feelings. The point is to feel and keep the eyes open. Then what you feel is expressed, is mimed back at you by the scene. A room, a landscape.”
- Go on. Give your fingernails that sexy, on-trend Fahrenheit 451 look. You deserve it.
Writers often hate talking about the book they’ve just written. On the one hand, books are an exercise in preservation, an old-fashioned sort of external hard drive. But for the author personally, a book can also be an elaborate act of forgetting. I wonder sometimes whether I’m driven to write about certain things, especially difficult things, just so I’ll never have to deal with them again; I’ll capture my subject and be done with it. From a particular angle, the writing life for me is a gradual process of self-erasure—first the crisp details go, then the plot, the underlying obsessions—or else each book is a box in which something of myself can be stored away forever.
I’ve never felt this shrinking, unpublic side of writing as strongly as I have with the book about real-life murders I just finished—work it’s just not possible for me to be “done with.” The book tells the stories of killings, but I didn’t want to recount the cases with the heavy hand typical of stories that turn on crime and justice. The buffoonish, Wayne LaPierre–esque division of the world into good guys and bad guys may be an easy, reflexive way to organize the life around us, a busy firing of synapses that adds up to something less than thinking. I never saw the point of it, but I admit, in this instance, it would have made terrible stories easier to forget.
It’s stressful to keep in the forefront of our minds how real lives are pixelated with good and bad acts. It’s even worse when the real lives you’re writing about belong to murderers, and the acts—at least one of them—are as bad as possible. After all my research and all the interviews, I felt the weariness I imagine sin-eaters feel—the people who take responsibility for the world’s sinful deeds so others won’t have to. Read More
I’ve loved Pound since I was a teenager. My first lover, Charles Burch, who was a poet himself, used to read Pound to me and swoon over it. I feel that most of our enthusiasms are imitated from people we admire or are in love with, and so this particular poem I used to read to David Kalstone, the great poetry critic and champion of Elizabeth Bishop, who was also my best friend. He introduced me to so much great modern poetry—Merrill, Bishop, Ammons, Ashbery—so I was happy to introduce him to a poem that had so much resonance for us as two friends.
Ezra Pound’s beautiful translation of a poem by Li Po, from Pound’s great early book Cathay, is a compendium of all his many gifts. Somewhere Pound says that the ideas in poetry should be simple, even banal, and universal and human; he points out that the chorus in Greek tragedies always sticks close to home truths of the sort “All men are born to die.” “Exile’s Letter” has this universal simplicity (“There is no end of things in the heart”). It is about the sadness of parting from dear friends. As someone who was himself often living far from writer-friends, Pound knew all about the exquisite melancholy of leave-taking. Read More