- Leonard Cohen has died at eighty-two. Less than a month ago, David Remnick profiled him for The New Yorker, and Cohen knew his time was near: “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.” There’s so much to be said for this: he was ready. “Poetry is just the evidence of life,” Cohen said once. “If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.”
- Meanwhile, Shirley Collins, one of the stars of traditional British folk music, has started singing again in her eighties, after decades away from music. “It was only as Ms. Collins was approaching her eightieth birthday in 2014 that she started to seriously test the waters of performing again. ‘I was a singer,’ she said in a phone interview from her cottage in the English countryside. ‘I couldn’t bear to leave this world without giving it one more go.’ The results can be heard in the new album Lodestar, her first recording since 1979. The road to its creation snakes back twenty years, to when a younger friend of hers, the cult musician David Tibet, beseeched her to try and sing again. She demurred, repeatedly. But every few years, he’d nudge her again. Finally, two years ago, Ms. Collins said yes to a guest appearance at one of Mr. Tibet’s shows in Islington, a north London neighborhood. ‘That surprised me as much as anyone,’ she said.”
- If you’re having trouble focusing, and meditation hasn’t helped, and Adderall hasn’t helped, and whispering “focus, focus, focusssss…” to yourself hasn’t helped, you might try standing in the nude before a group of strangers. It worked for Tom McCarthy, who enjoyed its literary benefits above all else: “Every morning, I’d turn up, strip off, and stand on a small podium while they drew me. If it was a sculpture class, the podium would turn, like a lazy Susan, as the students’ clay figures rotated atop their easels … Nothing I’ve ever done, before or since, has afforded me such a state of concentration—intense, extended, charged. I would run whole passages of text—Baudelaire, Rilke, Ponge, whomever I’d been reading, even my own small works in progress—through my head, forward, backward, taking apart each image, amplifying each meter and sub-rhythm in the loaded silence. I probably learned more about literature in the six months I spent on the podium than in the three previous years of study.”
- Advice for young lovers: treat your amour to a fine, sturdy pair of brogues. Nothing says “I love you” like English footwear. When Marina Warner’s mother moved to England, she’d never left Italy before, and her husband-to-be knew what must be done. Warner writes, “My forty-two-year-old father took her—perhaps as a present for her twenty-third birthday—to be fitted for a pair of shoes at Peal & Co, a family firm famous for its clientele: Humphrey Bogart! Marlene Dietrich! Fred Astaire! The Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson! Each customer was measured, and the findings entered in a series of ledgers known as the ‘Feet Books’; the bespoke shoemakers then modeled wooden lasts to be used to make the shoes; these effigies were labeled with the client’s personal number—my mother’s was 289643—to be kept in the firm’s store for use when the next pair was ordered. The Peal dynasty of cobblers—which stretched back at least to 1791 or even, some claimed, to 1565, and showed at both the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain a century later—only stopped making shoes in 1965.”
Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago.
In 1974, when they were honeymooning in Atlanta, my parents bought a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant—not the one pictured above, but something close enough. They spent fifty bucks on it: cash they’d won on a bet with my grandfather, wagering that Nixon would not see out his term.
The painting hung above our fireplace in northeast Ohio when I was a girl. It matters only peripherally that Grant was an actual man who lived and died in the nineteenth century; who was the eighteenth president of the United States; and who, as commanding general of the United States Army, led the Union Army to victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War. What matters is how single-minded I found his gaze, his eyes staring down at me—to say nothing of the distinguished crinkle of the eyebrows above them, those bright buttons on his jacket, that thick beard and head of hair, sculpted like cake frosting. Read More
“As I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me…”
An excerpt from The Child Poet.
One Saturday toward noon in January 1951, three friends and I made our way home after playing soccer. The milky rays of a nearly white sun ploughed the damp earth, and our shadows moved neatly beneath our soles each time we lifted a foot to take a step. When we reached my house I waved goodbye to my friends. Without replying they continued on their way.
My solitary steps echoed along the sunlit corridor; my parents were at the store. And then I went into my brother’s room, although I hadn’t meant to go in … A shotgun someone had lent him was propped against the wall. As if moving by their own accord, my hands reached for it. I walked to the backyard and climbed onto a pile of bricks that were being used to build the new kitchen. There was no one around; the bricklayer and the peon were having lunch in the old dining room.
Standing on the bricks, I saw some birds alight on the sapodilla tree next door, to be momentarily covered by the branches … Until they returned to the air, over my head, high in the blue above … And without wanting to, I aimed the shotgun at them and fired, not intending to kill a single one.
I watched with relief as they all flew on until they were lost in the distance. But as I let the shotgun drop the butt hit the bricks and the second shell fired into me. Such was the blow I felt from the shots that I thought infinity had entered my belly. Read More