One does not always think of German as a beautiful language. Okay, probably one never thinks this. It is the language of Hitler, after all. It is the language of spitting and of bringing up guttural noises from the back of one’s throat. The 1987 film Wings of Desire, though, and among many other things, is a movie about language and about how even German has its angelic side.
I’ve lain or languished on various gurneys in our local hospital’s ED in recent days—cardiac and GI disorders brought me there. But I’m not thinking now about the medical issues involved. I’m thinking rather about what enabled me to find joy and solace in what was otherwise a painful, tedious, disorienting, frightening experience. It all has to do with sounds, beautiful sounds, sounds echoing across centuries. Sounds that I’ve managed to memorize over the years.
The one common theme of all these one-off volumes is: they represent a singular creative movement amid the lives of their authors, that is ultimately evanescent. They are the opposite of the books or careers that are like immovable boulders, or worse, business franchises. They produced something, and then they moved on. They are the living personification of Diana Vreeland’s purported fashion dictum, Elegance is refusal.
Preparatory to discussing Cormac McCarthy’s new fiction, a duology comprising The Passenger and Stella Maris, with Greg Wolfe via Zoom on January 25th, I’d like to offer a few ways into the books. The surname of the main characters, siblings Alicia and Bobby, is Western. Novelists do not name characters carelessly. Bobby and Alicia are the children, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively, of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bombs.
What made me want to return to my favorite childhood book, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women”? Was it when I met my new dental hygienist recently? She introduced herself as “Amy”—which led me to tell her how, as a child, I’d named my newest baby sister “Amy,” because I was reading Little Women when my Mom was pregnant a fourth time.
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 Carol died, I thought it’s not my time. Carol was my shadchanit, Jewish matchmaker. On a Saturday night in July 1989, I went with Carol and Bob, her husband, along with two other new friends, also a husband and wife, to the Beaucatcher Cinema to see “When Harry Met Sally.” I had just moved to Asheville.
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.
Is it a curse? Or a blessing? I’ve been pondering this question for years, ever since I first heard in high school the expression “No pain, no gain.” Or maybe it was when I eyed a similar expression (my first experience of chiasmus?) in the notice tacked up on the wall of my high school boys’ locker room as we headed out for football practice or a game: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Gawain and the Green Knight begins in Christmastime, the turning of the year, historically a time of revelry and mischief. I like to read Gawain in this season, but this year I decided to watch the film The Green Knight, which came out in the summer of 2021, after observing on social media that it is apparently divisive, people either love it or hate it.
Almost exactly a year ago, Slant Books announced that it was becoming an independent, non-profit publisher. It was a bold, if not quixotic, thing to do at a time when a faltering economy has seen a number of small presses and journals closing their doors forever. Twelve months later….
A student showed me an article about a new development project in the Saudi Arabian desert. It is called The Line. The Line is the brainchild of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, who created something called NEOM, which I suppose is some sort of company, or brand. Does it even matter? Many rich and powerful people got together, is the point. They, in turn, assembled a group of experts, as such things happen.
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.
My mother is withdrawing from the world. The tires of her car know only short distances now and just a few turns: right on Brick Road, left on 73, left into the supermarket parking lot; right on Brick, cross 73, right into the shopping plaza where she gets her nails done. A few minutes out, a few minutes back.
This overwhelming self-referentiality is exceptionally ironic given the emphasis of current mainstream discourse on marginalized communities and their importance of “inclusion.” I’m all for Inclusion, but in my own experience, the inclusion that seems to be on offer is the mere gathering of difference—not its dynamic melding. We are a basketful of sullen turtles, pulled into our shells, I guess.
Recently I pulled some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry off my shelf, because I hadn’t read it for a while—not even since her death in 2010. Opening her books now and browsing in them felt like re-connecting with an old friend. The first thing that always strikes me about Clifton’s poetry is what’s missing: capitalization, punctuation, long and plentiful lines.
Henry David Thoreau was a profoundly religious man. He is called a Transcendentalist, and the term is taken to mean a kind of hippie or New Age guru, perhaps something like the founders of the Deep Ecology movement. That’s nonsense. Thoreau was a Yankee, the near descendent of (the grossly misunderstood) Puritans, and he comported himself as such in his life and thought.
Both Morgan Meis and Annie Dillard are trying, through the force of literary style, to peel through the layers of complacency with which we wrap, hide, and protect ourselves from the naked truth of our existence as created beings. For Dillard, the style is directed primarily at created things in nature. For Meis, the style is directed at created things mostly in museums: at paintings, to be exact.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
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.”