I don’t know the desert. I’ve slept in a palm-branch hut, rented for $1 a night from a Bedouin, by the Red Sea in the Sinai Peninsula when it was under Israeli control. I’ve spent hours in a broken down Jeep waiting for help somewhere in the Sinai. I’ve watched the sunrise from atop Masada in the Judean Desert. Just a few weeks ago, I visited Joshua Tree National Park, where two deserts, the Mojave and the Colorado, meet.
To describe Lindsey Royce’s new collection, The Book of John, as a poetic meditation on her husband’s death from stomach cancer underestimates the scope of her project. The book’s opening poem, “Where Do We Carry the Dead?,” hints at what the remainder undertakes: practices of remembrance, the persistence of love, the ultimate unknowability of the other, an anti-theodicy indicting what a later poem calls a “Godthing.”
All spring, I have been trying to re-learn to read. I’m in a book club with a group of women friends in my neighborhood—the kind of book club that focuses on the book, rather than the wine. (Caffeine, actually, is better with this group, because one must always be ready to heed to the sharp discussion.) This month, our book is Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.
Two books published in 2022, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, and The Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Phillipa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, by Benjamin Lipscomb, finally give these brilliant minds their due by chronicling their friendships, conversations, disagreements, achievements, and personal affairs.
As I was reading through Richard Michelson’s new poetry collection, Sleeping as Fast as I Can, recently published by Slant Books, I felt I was reading his memoir. Not in a chronological sense—but because so many of the poems narrate or evoke events in his life. As he says in “Literature of the Body,” “But here I am, quiet / as death, writing my life, and sleeping as fast as I can.”
On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?
The Ukrainian-Russian writer Eugene Vodolazkin, an Orthodox Christian and professional medievalist, is preoccupied by history. A History of the Island is Vodolazkin’s latest novel to be translated into English and the most overtly concerned with the idea of history. I’m not sure I would describe any of Vodolazkin’s work as historical fiction. I would call it revisionary, allegorical, and neomedieval.
I’ve always liked the paintings and really all the art of Spaniard Joan Miró. You could call the art Surrealist and Miró was undoubtedly part of the Surrealist movement and spent much time with the French Surrealists and that’s an undeniable part of art history. Still those kinds of categorizations only get you so far. Myself, I like to think of Miró as an earthist. This is not such a facile term and I apologize for it.
When I am writing about subjects that touch my emotional life—my mother’s decent into dementia, my father’s murder—the forms help me constrain the passion, which heightens the energy. On a more prosaic level, my mother was a lover of crossword puzzles and word games, and there is definitely an element of challenge and fun for me to work in strict forms. Plus, I just like the way sonnets look on the page.
I love Jane Austen’s Emma so much that I re-read it every few years. During my most recent re-reading, I noticed something that I hadn’t quite gotten my mind around previously: this is a novel about how people misread one another. Misreading indeed drives the plot of Emma. Austen’s other novels usually contain a misreading or two—but none make it core to the book as Emma does.
In her new books The Scandal of Holiness and Reading for the Love of God, Jessica Hooten Wilson writes as a lifelong Christian to other Christians. She would like more people who profess the faith to immerse themselves in reading works of imaginative literature. This duology is part of new widespread interest in Great Books curricula.
Lo yadanu. “We do not know what has happened to him.” Moses, that is. “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him’” (Gen 32:1).
Some months ago I decided to read Vergil’s Aeneid, all of it, in Latin. A rash idea, given my spotty knowledge of the language. But curiosity and the uneasiness of having missed some essential wisdom by not having met the Aeneid in Latin drove me on.
Everything is connected in the end. That’s the sober pronouncement made near the conclusion, on page 826, of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in which the resolutely anti-modern, paranoid nun Sister Edgar arrives in the afterlife to find herself in an eternal cyberspace, instead of what she’d expected of heaven, alongside J. Edgar Hoover, her philosophical twin. The conclusion manages to be both ominous and incantatory all at once; grim and yet hopeful.
Blake Lemoine, the now (in)famous engineer at Google, had a conversation last year with LaMDA, Google’s version of the now (in)famous new generation of chatbots. He released a transcript of some parts of the conversation as evidence that the machine learning tool had become effectively sentient. That was the first shot. Lemoine’s conclusion was mostly ridiculed.
I can’t remember exactly what my sister and I were talking about on the phone when she suggested that I might find it interesting to look into ChatGPT, which went public just this past November. It could have been when I was telling her about this blog, with its focus on literature and language—and she mentioned the OpenAI language models. Whatever the prompt was, I did open a ChatGPT account. I was curious to see what chatting with ChatGPT would be like.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to fantasy is that I believe it offers the deepest sense of place that art can express. The criterion of fantasy is geographical. Fantasy is that form of storytelling which engages with the world that in the West for almost the past thousand years has been called Faerie (variously spelled). Faerie both is and is not this Earth.
Every act of welcome is a gesture of gratuitousness. There is no profit or calculation that shapes the relationship, but only unconditional love for the destiny of the other. We don’t need anything more than this love to welcome someone into our house and thus into our life. For this reason, gratuitousness is at the origin of every experience of welcoming or hospitality.
In my imagination, a vav lives in me. I visualize it, the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, along the length of my spine. The other letters of the tetragrammaton, too: yud, the 10th letter, rising like the small flame of an eternal light from the crown of my head; hey, the fifth letter, its roof stretching across my shoulders and its walls protecting each side of my torso, and, following vav, the second hey, its upper line resting on my hips, and its two parallel lines running down the sides of my legs.
Piccinini was an Italian surgeon at Sant’Orsola hospital in Bologna, a husband, a father of four, and a passionate leader and friend of thousands of high school and university students in Italy between the 1970s and the end of the twentieth century. He died at the age of 48 in 1999 in a car accident on the highway between Milan and Bologna. At his funeral in Bologna, celebrated in the basilica of San Petronio by the then archbishop Giacomo Biffi, there were seven thousand people.