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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
What McEntyre brings to this messy table are two decades of experience teaching literature to medical students and other health care professionals in training, as well as the wisdom garnered from her own encounters with physicians as their patient. Befitting the author of the justly celebrated Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, her approach is highly practical, offering suggestions on how to steward that most precious resource — language — within a deeply flawed institution.
Howard Nemerov, far from an absolutist about form, meter, and rhyme, nevertheless
preferred to write within certain boundaries of poetic tradition. “I like filling out the old forms,” he’d say with a bemused smile as if referring to his income tax returns, “they keep me from being stupider than the law allows.”
In a suffering world, habits of mercy make strong medicine. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master, Rabbi Zusya of Hanipol, once said, “All God does is mercy. Only that the world cannot bear the naked fill of his mercy, and so he has sheathed it in garments.”
I’ve learned much from looking at visual art with my brother, John. He approaches a painting in stages, often bending close in search of clues to technique invisible to me. I got to thinking about his interest in how the finished work does what it does while reading two volumes of poetry published this year: Martha Serpas’s Double Effect (Louisiana State University Press) and Claude Wilkinson’s World Without End (Slant).
I went on an Anthony Trollope binge last year. It still seems a guilty pleasure, an unexpected detour in my reading list. My literary tastes are more Elizabethan than Victorian, and Trollope’s novels are thick, juicy slices of Victorian sensibility.
Reading the new poems by Hankins and Paino reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s claim that North American Christianity’s chief enemy isn’t atheism, but sentimentality. Christians, Hauerwas adds, can see just how sentimental they’ve become by their inability to produce interesting atheists.
I’m after accomplished poets who can’t stay away from those classic Catholic themes – suffering, death, sex, the pattern of sin and redemption – and habits – self-examination, ritual, memory, the honoring of community over self. Above all, there’s the centrality of the body as contested locus of power and punishment, pleasure and pain.
As we “shelter at home” during this pandemic, you might be wondering what to do with your involuntary down time besides binge-watching on Netflix. If you’re looking for what sense others have made of plagues and pestilence, I have a few bookish ideas.