Alone in the World?

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.

Revisiting Little Women

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?

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.

It’s Not My 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.

Spiritual Bouquets

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.

Pain

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.”

The Humor of Romance

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.

The Cost of Independence: The 2022 Slant Books Annual Appeal

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….

The Line

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.

Pilgrims on the Way

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 Says No

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.

Your Witness; Your Word

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.

Lucille Clifton: Paring Down Poetry

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, Biblical Man

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.

We Should All be Wearing Crash Helmets

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.

Rabbi Jerry

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.

Bearing the Marks of Exile

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.”

Our Sunday Best: The Vastness of the Dark

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.

On “Brendan” by Frederick Buechner

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

Depression and the Castle

I always feel warmly toward Mark Fisher. I keep coming back to things he wrote in Ghosts of My Life: Writings On Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. Sadly, Fisher did not always feel so warmly toward himself. Or perhaps it wasn’t himself so much as what was going on inside. He discusses depression frequently in his writings.