Art as Experience: Robert Irwin’s “Untitled (Acrylic Column)”

It is hard to describe the works of Robert Irwin. A typical work by Robert Irwin is, for instance, a piece called Untitled (Acrylic Column). Basically it’s a free-standing column of see-through acrylic about fifteen feet high. The column is constructed in a kind of ‘V’ shape so that it doesn’t fall over. Also, stuff happens with the light and with the refractions of vision in that shape.

Against Concepts!

More and more, I think, it’s this tyranny of concepts—the predetermination, pre-editing, and pre-thinking—that seem to plague our literature. Instead of opening the trap door to endless perspectives, endless transfiguration, this book, along with so many, seemed to end where it started.

My Mother’s Prayer Book

The prayer book’s title, Mishkan T’filah, comes from this verse: “And let them build Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). “Mishkan T’filah,” write Rabbis Elyse D. Frishman and Peter S. Knobel, editor and chair of the editorial committee respectively, “is a dwelling place for prayer, one that moves with us wherever we might be physically or spiritually.”

Pannierology; or, The Beauty of all Kingdoms

Finding myself in another difficult season of life, needing to discover anew a Christian virtue ethics, I’m delighted that the Davenant Institute is publishing Traherne’s Christian Ethics, modernized and introduced by Colin Redemer, in four very portable volumes, of which the first two are now available.

Telling the Truth

Enter Frederick Buechner’s Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, which explores the Christian gospel through the lenses of three literary genres: tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale. In essence, Buechner suggests that serious matters of the gospel are first matters of a human life well lived before they are a logical problem to be solved and systematized.

Mozart in Motion

The marvelous thing about the first paragraph of Mozart in Motion: His Work and His World in Pieces (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021), by Patrick Mackie, is how carefully the narrator builds Mozart’s world in front of our eyes, as if it were being created sentence by sentence as we read about it.

The Word Made Strange

I take special delight in opening a new volume of poetry from a writer whose previous work I’ve read and enjoyed. As with a hike through familiar terrain transformed by taking new, previously untrodden side trails, what measure of comfort I take in familiar themes, language, and craft comes seasoned with the anticipation of fresh ground explored, new depths quarried. Three collections published this year serve as examples.

Jon Fosse’s “Septology”: Coincidencia Oppositorum

Jon Fosse’s novel Septology (published in Norwegian in 2019) is a monologue beginning and ending in the mind of Asle, an elderly widowed Norwegian painter living in the countryside on the proceeds from the sale of his paintings. He communes throughout the next 667 pages with a self who becomes both him and not him.

Homer’s Iliad Afresh

I’ve always preferred The Odyssey to The Iliad—preferring adventurous peace to adventurous war. But when I heard good things about Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Iliad, I decided to buy it. I wasn’t sorry. I’d say that Wilson’s translation is a perfect balance between common speech and the grandness appropriate for this story of great heroes.

Research into the Human: The 2023 Slant Books Annual Appeal

As Slant Books wraps up its second year as an indie, nonprofit press, I’m full of gratitude for the authors and readers who have come together under our auspices to form a true “Republic of Letters.” And I’m writing now to ask you to help us grow and flourish in the years to come.

William “Hurricane” Gilbert

A writer needs mythology. A writer cares about this world first, but he cares about representing it by means of signs and symbols which reveal this world to be both itself and more than itself: a fantasy or, better yet, a theophany. Some New World writers have not let the clear light of history stop them from building a new mythology. Though most people would not call it that, I would say that Thoreau was embarked on this task, teaching himself, especially in his posthumous books, to create the primary material for a later American mythos

The Only Whole Heart

Two weeks after the dramatic July 4, 1976, rescue of hostages—Israeli as well as non-Israeli Jews—from Entebbe International Airport, I learned my first word of modern Hebrew: savlanut. Along with seventy other volunteers, I was in a chapel across from the JFK terminal where our El Al flight would depart for Israel in a few hours. Savlanut, that’s the most important word, said Nurit, the director of Sherut La’am, told us.

Transforming Narratives

Among the books I brought to read while on retreat was Marilynn Richtarik’s Getting to Good Friday: Literature and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, which examines Irish writers who commented on and sought to strengthen peace efforts through poetry, fiction, and drama. Richtarik considers several influential works that treat violence in Northern Ireland obliquely, finding a deeper truth than the sum of daily news reports by telling things “slant.”

Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting

Among my favorite activities are writing, reading, and knitting. So when my sister told me about an essay collection with the aptly punned title, Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting, I of course bought it immediately. Here were three of my top pastimes all together: I could read what well-known writers wrote about their knitting experiences.

Distance Is My Home

I accompany you as you hold onto your walker, taking one difficult step after another, inching your way, labored breath by breath, toward the dining room, a meal you refuse to eat. My life, as it always has been, is elsewhere. So, every day we FaceTime. We don’t have much to say to each other now. But with many words or few, distant or near, we still, as long as you are in this world, know each other’s presence.

Jon Fosse’s Fiction

Today, in honor of the new Nobel laureate, I’d like to look at the first of Jon Fosse’s works of fiction that I read, back in 2016, Aliss at the Fire. The most salient features of Fosse’s writing are present in this short novel from 2004. When I read Aliss at the Fire, Fosse’s monumental, mystical, prayerful Septology had not yet been published, but I knew Fosse had converted to Catholicism. I wanted to see if I could catch a glimpse of what led to that conversion by reading the earlier work.

Primordial Poetry

I’ve just had a poem produced by, then canceled by, ongoing scholarship. Perhaps. We’ll see what happens next. I wrote “Cathedral” this year in response to a television documentary produced, in part, by The National Geographic Society that told the story of a remarkable discovery: a human burial found deep in a cave that involved tools and symbolic markings 300,000 years before such cultural features were thought to have emerged.

Tom Lake and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

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.

The Intriguing Poems of Olga Sedakova

Accessible yet mysterious: that’s my overall impression of Olga Sedakova’s poems in the volume Old Songs, published by Slant Books this month. Published, I should add, in English translation—with each poem printed also in the original Russian. Sedakova published this collection in Russia (actually then the Soviet Union) in the early 1980s, but it’s just now appearing in this English translation by Martha Kelly.

Water Cools Not Love: A Reconsideration of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 153 & 154

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.