My Mother is Mortal

“What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone,” asks Ellen Bass in her poem “If You Knew.” Did my anticipation of my father’s death change the way I behaved with him while he was still alive? I don’t know. Might it change my attitude toward and treatment of others, including annoying others, if I remembered, in every encounter, that they’re going to die?

Slant Books: A New Chapter

Dear Friends of Slant Books: It is with great pleasure that we announce that Slant has become a fully independent, not-for-profit press.
We are eager to launch into this new chapter in our story, but first a word of explanation….

The Republic of Letters

Every day, amid the maelstrom of words, images, and sounds that besiege us, we experience the unfortunate truth that communication is not the same as communion. Communion, of course, is the higher goal—not a mere exchange of information or ideas, but a deeper sense of solidarity grounded in our shared humanity.

Vermeer Day

Friday, November 12, 2021, was celebrated as Vermeer Day by Google. The reason for this celebration verges into the territory of the arbitrary, since the explanation for the special day of Vermeer-celebrating was that on November 12, 1995, exactly twenty-six years ago, there was a huge exhibit at The National Gallery in Washington D.C. where twenty-one of the thirty-five attested works of Vermeer were exhibited together.

Forget

You stood beside me while I crouched on the floor with a pair of bright red pumps, an oddity remembered only because of what happened next. There was the musty smell of sweat and old soap, the mold’s cool talcum in the shoe bed, the clatter of the bright room when we heard your aunt say to your mother-in-law: “You hurt me.”

Reticence and Recovery in Mary Lawson’s Novels

I talk with sister Amy every Sunday. So while I was reading Mary Lawson’s novels, that’s naturally what we talked about. One time Amy said: “Her novels are about the trouble we make for ourselves when we don’t talk about things.” I see this especially in two of the novels.

Reading Through the Years with Henry Adams

This is my third time through a book I’ve admired since I first read it during my twenties and then reread it, with equal admiration, in my forties: Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams (1905). And now, near eighty, I’m reading and admiring it again.

Physical Graffiti

Reading, I felt a physical wave pass through me, and I had to steady myself, as though there’d suddenly been a stiff wind blowing through. What is Time, that a simple piece of paper could make it actually contract in me? My sense of my own body, my own sense of presence in the world was, for a few unstable seconds, gone.

Distractions Are the Way to God

I, too, have a shofar, a ram’s horn, that I cannot sound. Well, sometimes I can get one rather tortured tekiah (one of four traditional sounds) out of it, but don’t choose me to blow shofar on demand as part of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

What Dante Means to Me

In recent years Dante’s Comedy has been important to my thinking about high fantasy. That phrase, as far as I’m aware, appears for the first time in Western literature in the middle of the Purgatorio and at the very end of the Paradiso. L’alta fantasia. It was a turning point in the history of the idea of fantasy, because now fantasy could be high—that is, heaven-sent, theophany.

Amazing Grease

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.

Deana Lawson, Photographer

I first became aware of the photographs of Deana Lawson because of a piece that Zadie Smith wrote about Lawson in The New Yorker a few years ago and I remember it being quite a good piece, which is not unusual for a piece by Zadie Smith and, to be completely truthful, I find that I am often much more moved and impressed when Zadie Smith writes about visual art than I am by the novels of Zadie Smith.

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.

Angel of Death, Angel of Life

The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.

St. Bernard’s Smile

Fr. Slater’s book on Bernard of Clairvaux is precious to me not simply as a good friend’s fine accomplishment. It is, for me, preciously timely. That’s because I had just been puzzling once again why it is that Bernard plays such a climactic role in the unfolding of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Essaying

“Here’s the very essence of what an essay is. If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; if it had already concluded its argument, it would be an article, not an essay; if it had something to teach or censure, it might be a critique, or an opinion, but not an essay.”

The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water

The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.

Days of Awe, Days of Fiction

Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.

The Books of September 11

I’m writing this as the national media in the United States are already well into rolling out their retrospective “packages” to mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11. Maybe I’m just listening to and reading the wrong things, but in all these retrospectives, I have only seen the cogitations of journalists and pundits and academics—and precious little exploration of 9/11’s effect on fiction.

Finding My Way to the Mourner’s Kaddish

On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.