Pissed Off Sun Salutation

We are equal in our mortality: mother, father, me, you, bosses, employees, friends, strangers, enemies. Enemies: I have a hard time believing that anyone is an enemy. A competitor, yes. Wealthier than I am, yes. More talented than I am, yes. More accomplished than I am, yes. Smarter than I am, yes. Jealousy, envy, self-doubt: that’s what I feel when I see others this way.

Close Reading Thomas Hardy’s “Hap”

Thomas Hardy’s novels are well-known and widely studied, and some of them, including Far from the Madding Crowd (1874) and The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), have become even more popular through film and TV-miniseries adaptations. Hardy is so rewarding as a novelist, that we tend to forget he’s an outstanding poet as well. He wrote close to 1000 lyrics.

Juturna’s Brave Lament

Juturna’s is one of the bravest laments I’ve ever read in Classical literature. And it’s one I’d never come across until a year or so ago when I decided, after too many years of delay, to read all of Virgil’s Aeneid, from beginning to end, in Latin. Alas, my Latin was and remains very rusty. But rustiness can be an advantage. It’s slowed my reading down, forcing me to dig deeply into each passage and savor it, with the result that details stay in my mind much more firmly.

Bret Lott on Food and Hope and the Holy Land

Since October 7, 2023, the world has been focused on the Holy Land. And not in a positive or hopeful way. So what better time for Bret Lott’s latest book—Gather the Olives: On Food and Hope and the Holy Land—to come out? As he notes in his foreword, Lott delivered the manuscript to his publisher in the summer of 2023, when it was possible to find in Israel the subtitle’s “hope.” And find it he does.

A Summer Reading List

This list is based partly on some reading I’ve been doing for a novel project now drawing near completion. Two themes govern the list. The more fun theme is that of adventure, romance, epic, enchantment—in a word, fantasy. The equally profound and urgent, if less obviously exciting theme, is that of georgics or the literary tradition that celebrates the cultivation of the earth, as well as its beauty and mystery and terror.

Books and Their Ghosts

The most amazing thing happened to me in the past few weeks. It was the kind of thing that I thought might never happen to me in exactly the same way, ever again: I fell in love with a book. The book was a novel, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha, originally published in 2020.

My Liberation

This year’s first seder: with strangers. Not exactly strangers. Poets. I knew the work of a few of them. One is a dear friend. Two spouses, one of whom is my wife. Sitting down at the diaspora seder table—(diaspora Jews hold two seders; Israeli Jews, one)—,I assumed most if not all of the twelve of us were Jews. Strangers? Not exactly.

Wallace Stevens’s “The Death of a Soldier”: History in a Poem

Professor David Ferry probed each poet’s words, noting details, asking questions about them, keeping his students focused and vigilant, pointing to a surprise, a turn in syntax, an implication in an image overlooked first time through. I never heard him speak about Stevens’s “The Death of a Soldier,” but I imagine he would have discussed the brevity of the poem in relation to the large solemnity of the title, the short lines, the choice of a four-stanza structure, the relation of each stanza to the next, even the punctuation.

Moses and this Moment

Our mouths, our words, can be used for good or ill, to liberate or enslave, to bless or curse or encourage, to ask difficult questions. We share our stories, so others might be invited to tell their stories in turn, allowing us to not simply scream at and past each other but to see what values we might hold in common, to perhaps one day even arrive at a place of mutual understanding and esteem.

The Grace of Accuracy: Robert Lowell and the Structure of Illumination

The poetic bookends which span thirty years of Robert Lowell’s life’s work, the first poem of Lord Weary’s Castle, “The Exile’s Return,” and the last poem of Day by Day, “Epilogue,” have a lot to say to us today. Considered together, they shed light not only on Lowell’s development as a poet, but also on what it means to be possessed by a religious-artistic vision.

Mixing and Matching in Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth”

In Commonwealth, Patchett does her storytelling in a way that captures how things in our own lives jumble in our minds. She has managed in this novel to create, in a most engaging way, a story—no, multiple stories—that feel uncannily true to the ways that we experience life.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 73, and Empson

It’s a pleasure to reread and analyze this first quatrain of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, looking at it and listening to it, the puzzles it generates and the questions it raises, and I am tempted to proceed to the rest of the sonnet. But in this post, I have another purpose, and that’s to quote and pay tribute to William Empson’s interpretation of the line about “choirs” in chapter 1 of his 1930 masterpiece of literary criticism, Seven Types of Ambiguity.

“This Encircling Compassion”: A Goy Puts Me Back in Mother’s Arms

Mother is gone, but compassion is still here. “[T]his encircling compassion,” Brian Volck calls it, rachamim, in his as-of-yet unpublished poem “A Goy’s Guide to TANAKH Hebrew: Rachamim.” Tanakh is the acronym for Torah (The Five Books of Moses), which with Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings), are the three major parts that make up the Hebrew Bible.

Gardening, Death, Infertility: The Poetry of Ada Limón

For my birthday, my sister sent me The Carrying, the 2018 collection of poems by Ada Limón, current U.S. Poet Laureate. I hadn’t read Limón’s poetry before, and found that getting to know it was very moving. The poems drew me into themselves, into the depths of Limón’s recurrent joys and concerns.

Indian Court Painting and an Eclipse

I was meeting my mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother is both a great lover of art and completely unpretentious about it. Often, she simply stands in front of objects of art and smiles. We found ourselves in an exhibit entitled Indian Skies: The Howard Hodgkin Collection of Indian Court Painting. We were both suddenly astonished. I don’t know why exactly. I do know why un-exactly. The paintings are extraordinary.

Travels in New France

For me, as an author of fiction who takes inspiration from a historian like Francis Parkman, perhaps the most salient of Parkman’s features is his prose style. Few can match his cadences and powers of description. The ability to describe a scene vividly is an underestimated and for the most part a modern virtue of the prose writer; in an age of screens it has fallen into abeyance.

Day One: Close Reading Dickinson

Students know lots of poems—songs from Disney films, lyrics written by Taylor Swift and other popular composers and performers, songs from Broadway musicals, hymns sung at church, Beatles tunes, rap and hip-hop…. But that’s not the same thing as the poetry that students are assigned to read and write about in college courses.

Impulse and Repetition: On Two Poems by Robert Frost

The “impulse” of the title is everything. The wife’s breaking of the branch echoes Dante’s breaking of a branch in Inferno’s Forest of the Suicides. This hints that the wife’s impulsive divorce—a finality “besides the grave”—is a kind of suicide, the marital bond slit like a wrist. Frost knew instinctively what psychiatry research has established: Most people who commit suicide think about it for ten minutes or less beforehand. It is an impulse.

Finishing Reading

Not finishing books is a recurrent habit in my life. I quit William Gaddis’s JR after only a few pages, which makes sense, but quit The Brothers Karamazov around fifty pages from the end, which doesn’t. As I write, I have been reading Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings since November 2016. I got a hundred pages in on a red-eye back from San Francisco, then quit until August of 2018, when I was on a vacation in a house with no WiFi.

Living Traditions

It’s not a good time for “organized religion.” “Nones” now comprise the largest single group in the American religious landscape. The dominant narrative seems less one of accelerating secularization than growing disillusionment with institutions and the communal practices they sustain. All the more interesting, then, when thoughtful writers breathe new life into ancient traditions of prayer, learning, and discipline. Two talented poets—one already well-known; another who soon will be—have new books that go against the contemporary grain.