I had occasion recently to watch the 1986 film Gothic. It’s a Ken Russell film and if you have ever seen a Ken Russell film, you know already that it is going to be over-the-top to say the very least. The film purportedly tells the story of the night that Mary Shelley conceived her classic novel Frankenstein. Through most of the film, the actors roam around a house and its immediate environs behaving wildly and with increasing levels of insanity.
What do they think of me, the core group of worshippers at Congregation Beth Israel, the independent conservative shul to which I belong, when, once a month, I lead an alternative contemplative Shabbat service in the small chapel while they davven (pray) the traditional service in the main sanctuary? I join them when I finish leading our group in chanting, meditating, and reflection.
My interior life often proves a struggle between Teutonic Ordnung and Gallic laissez-faire. I’ve seen my German roots on visits to the Vaterland: tidy vegetable gardens like the one my father kept, a measured propriety bordering on obsessive-compulsion, and a dreamy Romanticism often overlooked by outsiders for whom German history and culture is a monotonous succession of wurst and potatoes, oom-pah-pa bands and lederhosen, and—most of all—lust for power and unspeakable atrocities.
I think the closest close reading I’ve ever come across is the 2014 book Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, by political philosopher Danielle Allen. Notice that I didn’t say that this close reading is “in the book.” No, the entire book itself is a close reading.
I am always troubled by two things which are really one thing. One thing, or one part of this big thing, is religion: Why does it seem so broken now, so impossible? And the other part is the ecological crisis: How can my work as a writer, teacher, or father answer to these uncanny times?
Carolyn Forché is now a celebrated American poet. But she was far from that on the day in the late 1970s when a car pulled up outside the remote California beach house that she was renting. The driver idled the engine, then finally turned it off. At that, Forché, alone in the house and busily typing, noticed the sudden silence and became apprehensive. In her gripping memoir What You Have Heard is True, she narrates what happened next.
I suppose it’s sort of incestuous to write a blog post about another blog. But so be it. And anyway, Richard Osler’s website Recovering Words is much more than a blog. It does include posts. But the site also features descriptions of retreats that Richard offers on poetry as prayer, on poetry writing, and on poetry for recovering addicts; quotes by a range of writers about poetry; poems by some of his favorite poets; some of his own poetry; and more.
I was reminded of Bao Ninh’s impossible prose style recently. I was sent a book by a person named Cab Tran, who co-translated and edited a new collection by Boa Ninh. It is called Hanoi at Midnight. In the book, Ninh is still thinking about the past. The War still haunts him. But war is also always more than war with Bao Ninh.
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).