When Every Word Tells and Every Second Counts

Among my go-to examples of narrative efficiency is Isak Dinesen’s short story/novella, “Babette’s Feast,” more familiar to many through Gabriel Axel’s 1987 Danish language film adaptation, which is as economical in storytelling as its source. Not an image or action in the film is wasted, while Dinesen’s story is the Platonic form of Strunk and White’s Rule #17: Omit Needless Words.

The Word Made Strange

I take special delight in opening a new volume of poetry from a writer whose previous work I’ve read and enjoyed. As with a hike through familiar terrain transformed by taking new, previously untrodden side trails, what measure of comfort I take in familiar themes, language, and craft comes seasoned with the anticipation of fresh ground explored, new depths quarried. Three collections published this year serve as examples.

Transforming Narratives

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.”

Dancing Toward Common Memory

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.

Learning to Like the French

My interior life often proves a struggle between Teutonic Ordnung and Gallic laissez-faire. I’ve seen my German roots on visits to the Vaterland: tidy vegetable gardens like the one my father kept, a measured propriety bordering on obsessive-compulsion, and a dreamy Romanticism often overlooked by outsiders for whom German history and culture is a monotonous succession of wurst and potatoes, oom-pah-pa bands and lederhosen, and—most of all—lust for power and unspeakable atrocities.

Dispatches From the Front

To describe Lindsey Royce’s new collection, The Book of John, as a poetic meditation on her husband’s death from stomach cancer underestimates the scope of her project. The book’s opening poem, “Where Do We Carry the Dead?,” hints at what the remainder undertakes: practices of remembrance, the persistence of love, the ultimate unknowability of the other, an anti-theodicy indicting what a later poem calls a “Godthing.”

Four Women, Two Books, and Eternal Questions

Two books published in 2022, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, and The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin Lipscomb, finally give these brilliant minds their due by chronicling their friendships, conversations, disagreements, achievements, and personal affairs.

Down on the Farm

Some months ago, I overheard two writers whose work I admire conversing about what makes subject matter—the stuff writers write about—interesting. I’m sure it was rude of me to eavesdrop. “Eavesdropping”— a fabulous word in itself— calls to mind someone lurking unseen, intent on overhearing what’s being said around the corner. It’s the vehicle of mysteries and comedies, depending on how much one overhears and in what context. Without eavesdropping, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing would be a plotless bore.

Spiritual Bouquets

If, as is the case, the word “anthology” derives from a combination of Greek words meaning, “gathering of flowers,” then most poetry anthologies might best be described as mixed bouquets. Readers search them for a few spectacular roses and lilies amid the humbler baby’s breath and fern fronds that fill out the collection. Yet I suspect its far easier for twenty people to agree on the beauty of a particular flower than the merits of a recently written poem.

Bearing the Marks of Exile

Roger Kamenetz has published nine volumes of poetry. Each builds on his prior work, often revisiting, reconsidering, and reimagining previous poems in the Jewish tradition of midrash. As one critic observes, Kamenetz “recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery. In direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor.”

Gained in Translation

The process of translating from one language to another is often called an art. The late Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco, aware of translation’s inherent difficulties, called it, “the art of failure.” Every attempt is inexact and partial, getting some things spot on, whiffing at others. Translators are continually forced to compromise, choosing the least flawed option while rendering the original in the target language and—devotees of the King James version aside—no one translation proves definitive, once and for all.

Body, Spirit, Soul

For Plato, the fleeting, sensible things of this world (Doxa in Greek, from dokein, “to appear” or “to seem”) are no more than poor copies of their permanent, ideal forms (eidos in Greek) above, a sharp distinction called “Platonic dualism.” Saint Paul, however, gets a bad rap as a radical dualist, having for so long been viewed through a distorting Platonic—and later, a Cartesian—lens.

Frustrating Genius

The work of certain authors—Ivan Illich, Edward Abbey, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal come to mind—alternately fascinates and frustrates me. Their idiosyncratic takes on urgent enormities like war, the fate of the earth, and the future of humanity occasionally veer from well-crafted arguments and illuminating narratives to what are, in my opinion at least, tiresome rants and dubious anecdotes. Yet they are spot-on far more often than otherwise, which is more than I can claim for my writing.

A Man Who Did What He Could

Paul Farmer died in his sleep Monday, February 21, and we will not see his like again soon. Dr. Farmer, a physician, medical anthropologist, author, and tireless champion of the world’s poor had been working in Butaro, Rwanda, at a hospital he helped build. For someone who was never quite comfortable anywhere but among fellow human beings in urgent need, it was a fitting place to end an astonishingly fruitful life.

The Test of Time

A common feature of these two highly recommended books is their representation of religious faith in a medium – the novel – that has of late had little good to say about religion. Perhaps they point toward something analogous to the Bechdel Test, in which characters who happen to be religious are presented unironically as full, if flawed, persons who act upon and talk about their convictions without collapsing into the stereotyped roles of hypocrite, fanatic, or repressive killjoy.

Changing My Mind About Trollope

It turns out that people — dead novelists included — are complicated. That’s a lesson most of us are doomed to learn more than once. I know I’m capable of holding opinions and convictions others no doubt find contradictory, even offensive. I recognize the same in others, including writers who try to be, as Henry James wrote in The Art of Fiction, one “upon whom nothing is lost.”

A Life in the Material World

My sister’s listening habits introduced me to the Beatles, but I came to my own appreciation of them later, listening to reissued LPs and CDs at a temporal remove from the heady days when they and the Rolling Stones ruled the world of rock music.

A Homegrown Banquet

In a year when overdue attention has at last fallen on the dark legacy of Canadian residential schools for indigenous children and, to a lesser extent, the equally disturbing history of off-reservation boarding schools in the United States, there’s another, far happier moment for Native nations that should not pass unnoticed: 2021 has been a good year for Native writers.

Poetic Wholeness

The triadic relationship between poet, poem, and muse comes without guarantee. A passing observation or merest whisper of a phrase can lead to a successful end, while an idea that seems to emerge like Athena from Zeus’s forehead may soon wither and die. Most poets take each inspiration as it comes, following the scent of what’s given in search of a surprising and fitting wholeness.

Words of the Mouth, Meditations of the Heart

Worthwhile poems and heartfelt prayers share family resemblances. Both, for instance, run up against the very limits of what language can do, halting there as they must, but pointing (we hope) beyond themselves toward those deepest longings, fears, and sorrows we’re unable to articulate.