I’ve always preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad—preferring adventurous peace to adventurous war. But when I heard good things about Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Iliad, I decided to buy it. I wasn’t sorry. I’d say that Wilson’s translation is a perfect balance between common speech and the grandness appropriate for this story of great heroes.
As Slant Books wraps up its second year as an indie, nonprofit press, I’m full of gratitude for the authors and readers who have come together under our auspices to form a true “Republic of Letters.” And I’m writing now to ask you to help us grow and flourish in the years to come.
A writer needs mythology. A writer cares about this world first, but he cares about representing it by means of signs and symbols which reveal this world to be both itself and more than itself: a fantasy or, better yet, a theophany. Some New World writers have not let the clear light of history stop them from building a new mythology. Though most people would not call it that, I would say that Thoreau was embarked on this task, teaching himself, especially in his posthumous books, to create the primary material for a later American mythos
I miss the very close community that I believe we all felt when my family and other families in our conservative Baptist church saw one another as special and bonded. We counted on one another. Whenever the pastor turned the lights on, we were there: Sunday School, church, prayer meeting, young peoples’ meetings, vacation Bible school, mother-daughter banquets, midnight watches, potlucks, revivals, and car washes on Sunday afternoons.
Two weeks after the dramatic July 4, 1976, rescue of hostages—Israeli as well as non-Israeli Jews—from Entebbe International Airport, I learned my first word of modern Hebrew: savlanut. Along with seventy other volunteers, I was in a chapel across from the JFK terminal where our El Al flight would depart for Israel in a few hours. Savlanut, that’s the most important word, said Nurit, the director of Sherut La’am, told us.
Among the books I brought to read while on retreat was Marilynn Richtarik’s Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, which examines Irish writers who commented on and sought to strengthen peace efforts through poetry, fiction, and drama. Richtarik considers several influential works that treat violence in Northern Ireland obliquely, finding a deeper truth than the sum of daily news reports by telling things “slant.”
Among my favorite activities are writing, reading, and knitting. So when my sister told me about an essay collection with the aptly punned title, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, I of course bought it immediately. Here were three of my top pastimes all together: I could read what well-known writers wrote about their knitting experiences.
I accompany you as you hold onto your walker, taking one difficult step after another, inching your way, labored breath by breath, toward the dining room, a meal you refuse to eat. My life, as it always has been, is elsewhere. So, every day we FaceTime. We don’t have much to say to each other now. But with many words or few, distant or near, we still, as long as you are in this world, know each other’s presence.
Today, in honor of the new Nobel laureate, I’d like to look at the first of Jon Fosse’s works of fiction that I read, back in 2016, Aliss at the Fire. The most salient features of Fosse’s writing are present in this short novel from 2004. When I read Aliss at the Fire, Fosse’s monumental, mystical, prayerful Septology had not yet been published, but I knew Fosse had converted to Catholicism. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of what led to that conversion by reading the earlier work.
I’ve just had a poem produced by, then canceled by, ongoing scholarship. Perhaps. We’ll see what happens next. I wrote “Cathedral” this year in response to a television documentary produced, in part, by The National Geographic Society that told the story of a remarkable discovery: a human burial found deep in a cave that involved tools and symbolic markings 300,000 years before such cultural features were thought to have emerged.
Ann Patchett’s latest novel, “Tom Lake”, is a story in which a woman tells a story, in which she was, for a time, an actress—that is, a performer whose function is to tell stories. In the midst of these layers, or perhaps better, concentric circles, it is a story of ripple effects, of false signifiers, of questions of whether we really are who we think we are.
Accessible yet mysterious: that’s my overall impression of Olga Sedakova’s poems in the volume Old Songs, published by Slant Books this month. Published, I should add, in English translation—with each poem printed also in the original Russian. Sedakova published this collection in Russia (actually then the Soviet Union) in the early 1980s, but it’s just now appearing in this English translation by Martha Kelly.
Contemporary commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets privileges physical love over spiritual love and tends to focus critical attention on “pervasive bawdy innuendo” in the sonnets. To the average contemporary reader, it’s all about the sex, of course, and more importantly, it’s about transgressive sex, which these days is so much in vogue. But I think the sonnets have a different story to tell, one in which the final two sonnets provide the key to unlock the deeper meaning of the entire sequence. But we will have to acknowledge spiritual love as a genuine human possibility in order to find it.
This year, I’ll place my hope in books—history, poetry, Torah, and that most challenging book of all, the book of my life. Everything is in it—good and bad. I’ll try to catch myself when I’m tempted to skim, skip, cut words, sentences, paragraphs, lines, stanzas, pages, entire chapters that challenge and complicate the simple narrative I’d like my days and nights to tell.
Q: In his foreword to this translation, Rowan Williams says that you invite the reader to get “lost” in these poems—and that while we are lost we may become open to noticing something we hadn’t seen before. Does this description resonate with you?
A: What a profound and precise observation! It is the author, first and foremost, who “gets lost.” He (or she, in my case) is the one who must catch sight of something “we’ve never seen before.”
I actually don’t think there are words that properly convey what Sinéad conveyed with her music and this is precisely the point. The words mostly get in the way. They are too precise or not precise enough. The things that Sinéad was trying to say are not communicated as declarative sentences or explanations or anything like that. More than anything, what Sinéad did, I think, was to make sounds.
I was briefly in Santa Fe, New Mexico last month, where a good friend insisted we pay a visit to the Monroe Gallery of Photography. The storefront space displays images from a century of photojournalism: iconic pictures from the US civil rights era, quirky takes on famous writers, moody landscapes, and candid moments in the lives of ordinary people. Among the more recent images was a 2020 color photo of a nineteen-year-old native of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo dancing on a stone platform.
I’m going to have to bow out for a little while. In the middle of life’s way I have suddenly returned to school to study environmental science and law. Whether this is wandering in a dark woods—and if it is, whether I will emerge on the right side of the woods—time will tell. I don’t think of this wandering as a complete career shift, as I still have literary work to publish.
I can’t remember what moved me to pick up David Whyte’s recently revised Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words; but I’m having trouble putting it down. With the Table of Contents a list of common words in alphabetical order—and with a flip-through showing three to ten paragraphs per entry—you might think you’ve got in your hands a sort of dictionary. But you’ve got nothing of the sort.
By the time I got there, the walls had been down for nearly two millennia. The actual Temple walls. That was the year when, on the Western slopes of Israel’s Hula Valley, in a high school classroom used for Shabbat services, I was first drawn into Jewish prayer. May You rebuild it soon in our days, Jerusalem, the Temple, I prayed.