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.
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.
What does that still, small voice “sound like”? Obviously we should be listening for it—always, unceasingly—but what are we listening for? What is it like to hear it? I’d like to offer a suggestion: that it’s like seeing a difficult work of art for the first time.
When the lockdown began in March of 2020, schools closed, traffic came to a halt, and the great buzzing marketplace that had always sustained us fell silent. Though it was frightening—those blurry photos of ghostly Covid patients on ven-tilators in packed intensive care wards—it was also weirdly thrilling. There was an emergency on, and we’d suddenly become explorers in new, dangerous territory.
A local DJ is spinning polkas on the radio. It’s Sunday morning. His name is Johnny Kotrick, and the radio station is WNCC in Barnesboro, Pennsylvania. This place is called Coal Country because its very life depends on the black mineral. The pocket of small towns here exists because of coal, and in the mid-1970s, it thrives because of coal.
Legend, the Google definition states, is a “a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.” Brendan, the 1987 historical novel by theologian Frederick Buechner, uses this term to its advantage. St. Brendan of Clonfert (c. AD 484 – c. AD 577), or Brendan the Navigator in Catholic tradition, is the novel’s subject
I got my first copy of On the Road when I was fourteen or fifteen. I’d purchased it on a whim when Jack’s name showed up in a biography of Jim Morrison. The Doors were never really my thing, but when I was fifteen, I spent a lot of time educating myself about the finer points of rock and roll. Kerouac’s book, when I found it, was a revelation.
If there are a thousand ways that we allow what we think are tensions between love and reason to destroy the one or the other, what a miracle it is that the poet has a vision of what is possible when a love and a reason hold together, and remain faithful. The poet says, “This is how transparency was constructed.”
Cormac McCarthy’s early novels are set in Appalachia—books populated by poverty-stricken characters who can’t comprehend the forces at work in their lives. McCarthy brings a rural culture to life through an examination of morality, personal beliefs, and the darker side of humanity. The author’s language viscerally draws readers into the themes that seem to pulse and breathe on the page.
James Joyce’s Ulysses is, famously, a difficult book. In grad school my professor introduced the novel by saying that most people who start reading Ulysses never finish it. Most of them, he said, won’t make it past the first paragraph of Episode 3. I’ve no idea what he said next, because I immediately turned to “Proteus” to see what was in store.
Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki once famously told his disciples, “Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.” In this he expressed a core Soto Zen teaching that practice is already enlightenment. To be fully, freely present “at a station” with no attachment to outcome is already awakening. Robert Duncan’s “Come, Let Me Free Myself” reflects this basic insight in a rich and original way.
A quarter of a century before Milton finished Paradise Lost, the young poet began listing topics for his future masterpiece. Ardent devotees who imagine the poet foreordained to create a great religious epic might be surprised to learn that his list of more than a hundred ideas contained thirty-three from British history. His leading idea, at the time, was an Arthurian epic.
My children are both at peak fairy tale age—four and two—so I have been studying up on the classics: Grimms, Andersen, MacDonald. But I’ve noticed something I never saw before: in fairy tales, the mother is almost always absent. Sometimes she’s dead, as in “Beauty and the Beast” or “The Little Mermaid”; sometimes there is a wicked stepmother like in “Cinderella” or “Hansel and Gretel.” But even when she is physically present, she’s often emotionally absent.
How do we render onto paper not what we hear but what we cannot hear? What is the story for what we do not know? I believe we look for it in doubt, fear, and uncertainty.
I believe we experience that mystery in the questions, and not the answers, the silence and not the noise.
Several years ago, stretching a lunch break from my office in a courthouse downtown, I happened upon the full text of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture in a favorite used-book shop down the street. A beat-up little booklet, Russian and English on facing pages, our burly author on the front, staring into the camera with what I’m willing to suppose is inimitable frankness.
The great voluntary silences in literature baffle me. Some really did just give this art up. For Gerard Manley Hopkins, burning his poems put away childish things so he could focus on the priesthood. Philip Larkin felt the Muse had moved on and didn’t write for the last ten years of his life.
My son and I have recently been enjoying the Opposites poems of Richard Wilbur.… These whimsical little verses came from a game Wilbur played with his family, where one person would choose a word and another person had to come up with that word’s opposite. I’m not sure what the rules were, exactly, but judging from the collection, extra points must have been awarded for unexpected opposites.
Three Decembers ago, during the first week of Advent, I took my kids on a weekend trip to see their grandmother and my aunt and uncle. My aunt and uncle care for my grandmother, who was ninety-three at the time, and had recently started to lose her ability to speak.
It’s possible to read Rae Armantrout’s short poem ‘The Way’ as a kind of mock confessional epiphany poem that winds up with an actual (if ironized, meta-poetic) “epiphany” in which a postmodern artist estranged from the language-game of church-life finds a way to “be herself,” to be a poet, precisely by the kind of humorous, disjunctive play in the field of religious language that the poem itself performs.
Contrary to popular misconception, White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” doesn’t recount a nostalgic journey back to a vanished world, to a sacred place cherished in one’s memory. White’s revisit to “old haunts” actually comes closer to a nightmare, as he experiences throughout the week a series of disconcerting and uncanny sensations resulting from the initial illusion that the passage of time has somehow dissolved.