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Graham Greene's (Catholic) hopes for Charlie Chaplin

In marking one hundred years of publication, the New Republic is featuring a number of its most memorable articles and this week has uncovered what it calls one of “the wackiest things” in its archives: A 1952 open letter from Graham Greene to Charlie Chaplin, penned three weeks after Chaplin’s return to England amid allegations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the FBI of communism and the revocation of his visa by the attorney general. Greene expressed hope that at least one group in the U.S., and perhaps a certain publication now celebrating its ninetieth anniversary, might publicly stand with Chaplin:

Remembering the days of Titus Oates and the terror in England, I would like to think that the Catholics of the United States, a powerful body, would give you their sympathy and support. Certainly one Catholic weekly in America is unlikely to be silent—I mean the Commonweal. But Cardinal Spellman? And the Hierarchy? I cannot help remembering an American flag that leant against a pulpit in an American Catholic Church not far from your home, and I remember too that McCarthy is a Catholic. Have Catholics in the United States not yet suffered enough to stand firmly against this campaign of uncharity? 

(The) Commonweal seems not to have come through with quite the vocal backing Greene might have anticipated, though some years later it did comment on Chaplin’s plight. This from the editors in 1958, in a piece on the Soviet “campaign of vilification” against Boris Pasternak after the publication of Dr. Zhivago:

There are some observers of the American scene…  who are as dismayed and disapproving as anyone else over this latest example of Communist brutality but who seize upon it to remind Americans of their own failings in the area of tolerance for unpopular views. It has been suggested that America's treatment of Charlie Chaplin or, even more, of artists and writers who suffered from professional "blacklisting," is much like the Soviet treatment of dissenter Boris Pasternak….

The case of Charlie Chaplin seems … inapplicable. Most of the criticism of Mr. Chaplin is wholly unofficial; and, if his critics have sometimes taken the tone or the assumptions of the critics of Pasternak, they are in the minority. (It might also be noted that Mr. Chaplin's strictures on conditions in America lack the reasonableness and the weight of evidence that Boris Pasternak brings forth.) And if Mr. Chaplin has suffered economically for his unpopular views, it is because he has flouted public opinion--a freedom which must always be paid for--not because of any campaign to seek vengeance.

Which isn’t to say that the magazine was not critical of McCarthy, or that the Catholics of the United States in whom Greene placed his faith were as a whole particularly supportive of the senator—a fact noted in 1953 by the same New Republic, which after conducting a poll “estimated that McCarthyism was not representative of Catholic thought,” according to Rodger Van Allen in The Commonweal and American Catholicism. And though a January 1954 Gallup Poll “showed 58 percent of American Catholics favorable to the senator,” that number dropped to 46 percent by April, during the Army-McCarthy hearings. As for the hierarchy, and Cardinal Spellman specifically, Greene was probably right to be pessimistic about their support.

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Literary Links

There's a long tradition of poets annotating their own work: think of T. S. Eliot's notes on The Waste Land, or Amy Clampitt's notes on The Kingfisher. Joshua Mehigan, whose new book, Accepting the Disaster, I'll be reviewing in an upcoming issue, has just provided annotations for "The Cement Plant," one of his collection's many poems about work. Here is his explanation of the phrase "killed some of them":

As far as I know, there were surprisingly few accidental deaths at Blue Circle. One I remember was the result of an explosion when the kiln backfired and the doors blew off. Another occurred when a man fell into a screw conveyor. Of course the environment in the plant is not especially conducive to life, either, and it seems fairly certain that the plant causes plenty of less-obvious death and terminal disease. It might be useful for someone to perform a study comparing cement-plant employees with the general population for lung cancer, COPD, asthma, blood levels of numerous poisons, neurological function, life expectancy, etc. Death aside, men were of course maimed from time to time. Mostly they lost fingers, or maybe a hand. My father knew a guy who had his finger pulled off inside his glove when it got caught in a transport barge’s mooring rope! I knew an old belt operator who’d lost a few fingers on different occasions. More mundane injuries—such as dislocated shoulders, cuts, burns—occurred more often. As in many other factories, there was a large scoreboard in the shop that listed the number of days since the most recent “lost time” injury.

Rebecca Mead, whose My Life in Middlemarch Mollie Wilson O'Reilly recently reviewed in the magazine, has an interesting post on reading lists and the nature of "guilty pleasure" books:

We have become accustomed to hearing commercial novelists express frustration with the ways in which their books are taken less seriously than ones that are deemed literary: book reviewers don’t pay them enough attention, while publishers give their works safe, predictable cover treatments. In this debate, academic arguments that have been conducted for more than a generation, about the validity or otherwise of a literary canon, meet the marketplace. The debate has its merits, but less discussed has been the converse consequence of the popular-literary distinction: that literary works, especially those not written last year, are placed at the opposite pole to fun.

Tim Parks on whether reading Fifty Shades of Grey will lead you to try more difficult books:

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet

George Eliot, Thomas a Kempis, and Christian Wiman

I had a nine hour train journey and a Kindle with the complete works of George Eliot ($.99). The upshot? I had not read The Mill on the Floss and so I began. If you recall Maggie Tulliver, the heroine of the novel, faces unaccountable hardship. Her creator has the adolescent Maggie turn to Thomas a Kempis (The Imitation of Christ) to find the spirit of renunciation and acceptance to bear with the troubles that afflict her. So effective are a Kempis’s words that Maggie finds herself in conflict with her admirer Phillip Waken because she rejects the claims of the self and refuses to strike out to find her own happiness. Maggie’s self-denial, her rejection of self-love, underlies the moral courage that ultimately costs her her life in heroic self-sacrifice. The ways of the world, the temptations of self-indulgence, simply cannot break the integrity that is Maggie’s armor against moral failure. Her tutor in this, The Imitation of Christ, evokes this testimony from the narrator:

it is the chronicle of a solitary, hidden anguish, struggle, trust, and triumph, not written on velvet cushions to teach endurance to those who are treading with bleeding feet on the stones. And so it remains to all time a lasting record of human needs and human consolations; the voice of a brother who, ages ago, felt and suffered and renounced

I found an odd joy reading the passage Eliot quotes from The Imitation, as I traveled at seventy miles an hour on the train south. There was an unnerving and excited recognition of a voice very familiar and now strange, stranger sill for speaking out of a Victorian novel written by a very “advanced” religious and social thinker a hundred and fifty years ago. Written in the fifteenth century, The Imitation enjoyed on-going admiration among both Catholics and Protestants, and clearly affect the young Mary Ann Evans. I recalled that my copy of a Kempis’s book (I had to have been given it in my Jesuit high school) was yellow paged, printed in gothic script, and resonated with the word “compunction” which I dutifully looked up and attempted to feel. In the imagination it bore for me, as it must have for fictional Maggie, a sense of the sacred.

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Is this a new kind of ‘religious novel’?

Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments can be read in a single evening; Rebecca Mead says so in her cover blurb, and I can attest to it. Not that that should be among the criteria for a recommendation, but it does say something about the style of prose and pace of the plotting—“breezy and breakneck,” maybe, if more cover-ready copy is ever needed. But is it also a religious book? The blurbs offer no clues to that.

Little surprise, given the likely intended audience, whose ranks would probably include the kind of people who inhabit its pages: thirtyish New Yorkers in and at the fringes of the creative class. Like the novel’s art gallery employee with a secret fondness for the religious works of the Renaissance says: “I can’t even tell people I believe in God. They find it ridiculous.” Arts & Entertainments may not be about belief: Beha’s main subjects are celebrity obsession and the insidiousness of reality television, the narrative kicked into action by the sale of a sex tape. But belief is in its pages, even if sometimes tough to square with the occasionally unlikely turns of the plot.

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Getting lost and finding yourself in books

In the current issue of Commonweal you'll find my review of Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch, which I recommend highly, especially but not only to fans of the George Eliot novel. Mead writes perceptively about Middlemarch and Eliot, but also about reading and literature in general. Here's a passage that I especially admired:

Reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. But a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself.

As I wrote in my review, I share Mead's strong attachment to Middlemarch, and to Eliot in general. But I have also been "grasped and held" by books in a more fleeting way -- I think anyone who identifies as "a reader" would recognize what Mead is describing here, how a book, in the time before you finish it, can add dimension to your life even when you're doing other things. It takes me longer to get through a novel these days, with little children and very little time to read for pleasure. (Not counting reading with the kids, of course, which can be very pleasurable -- but they're still too little for anything that can't be finished in a sitting.) Thank goodness I have my commute a few times a week, because I realized at some point that I missed the sense of urgency and excitement that having a novel-in-progress brought to my life. A couple years ago I got a small pile of books for my birthday, as I often do. But I knew that I might not read them -- and that they would join the books I'd gotten the previous year, collecting dust on the shelf. So I made a resolution. Reading makes me happy, and not-reading makes me unhappy. So I would make a point of using at least some of my limited reading time to read books, and especially fiction -- instead of just the usual work-related stuff, and magazine articles, and Tweets and blog posts. I can easily fill up a train ride with that stuff, and sometimes I need to, but carving out just a little time to get lost in a novel has been a great mood-enhancer.

My choices have been varied, some favorite authors and some I've always wanted to read; some I've "found myself" in and some I've happily gotten lost in. Muriel Spark, Carson McCullers, Marilynne Robinson, Somerset Maugham, Alice McDermott, Valerie Sayers, Flannery O'Connor, probably others I'm forgetting. I have more lined up as soon as I'm finished with Middlemarch, which of course I'm reading again. (And there's a chance that may lead me to reread more George Eliot, but that wouldn't be so terrible.) One exception I happily made to my reading-fiction plan was The Wilder Life, by Wendy McClure, which I mentioned in a blog post a couple months back, and with which I followed up my weeks of reading the Little House books. McClure writes about her fascination with the fiction and reality of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and like Mead's book, hers is an insightful and entertaining look at how a particular work of fiction can grasp and hold and shape a reader.

So, readers, now that your summer is well underway: what are you "working on"? What books are giving your life extra energy and excitement? And: is there a particular book or author that has a Middlemarch effect on you -- something you found yourself in; something you keep returning to?

The books are free; the grace is up to you

One way to adjust to the cramped profit margins of book publishing is to reconceive of the whole endeavor as an altruistic one. This weekend the Boston Globe reported on a new publishing imprint, the Concord Free Press, founded by Stona Fitch with the idea of giving away titles for free and asking the recipients to contribute something to charity in return.

Amidst so much negative news about the future of publishing, Fitch is trying to create a way for authors to get their books to readers, the guiding goal of any writer. At the same time, Fitch hopes to encourage generosity among readers.

The publishers' website carries a blurb that sums up my thoughts: "For a project like this to work, the books have to be good." (It comes from a writeup in the L.A. Times by Carolyn Kellogg, who added, "And they are.") Not having read any of them, I can't pass judgment, but literary excellence is certainly part of their aspirations. If you're curious, you can find the available titles on their site, and you can also buy an electronic book -- "the ebooks support the free books," they say.

The press's biggest "name" author so far is Gregory Maguire, well known for his novel Wicked (the inspiration for the Broadway hit). You may remember this interview with Maguire that Daria Donnelly published in Commonweal a decade ago.

He contributed a book called The Next Queen of Heaven to the Concord Free Press -- the writers are unpaid, like the designers and other volunteers -- which has since been published by HarperCollins. In the Globe article, Maguire talks about the Concord Free Press project in decidedly Catholic language:

Maguire fell in love with the idea of the Concord Free Press because it bestows upon readers, not publishers, the power to decide how much each book is worth. The donation system recognizes that the true value of a book is what a reader extracts from it, he said.

“Anyone who loves to read has always known that,” he said. “It’s as we used to say in Catholic school, an outward sign of an inward grace.”

A book as sacrament -- or maybe a sacramental? It depends on the book, I suppose, but I like the idea.

Hillary’s reading, reading Hillary

Why do we care what political figures are reading? Do the books on their nightstands say something about them that the ones on ours can’t, or won’t? Maybe it’s reasonable to believe that one can draw general inferences about a politician who cites the Bible as his or favorite, different from those drawn when someone mentions Aurelius’s Meditations, Kagan’s The World America Made or Morrison’s The Song of Solomon (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Jeb Bush, respectively). But that could just as easily suggest we’ve internalized all the cultural signifiers and can pick up on the dog whistles: the titles are meant less to tell us about those figures as real people than to present them as packagable, electable brands to a core constituency or group of donors. Or perhaps I’m being cynical.

A little over a week ago the New York Times Book Review asked Hillary Clinton about the books she’s reading, likes to read, remembers reading, and wants to read. How you view her responses, both individually and in sum total, may depend on your feelings about Hillary Clinton in the first place. Some might see intellectual voracity, others a general and generous capaciousness; some might sense a lack of discrimination, and still others (and they’re out there) a carefully considered, maybe even market-tested, cataloging of titles meant to tickle the vanities and excite the particular interests of a range of existing and emerging constituencies—even if as far as I can tell no one’s actually called it triangulation.

Rarely content to provide one answer or a single example when several (or more) will do, she also exhibits the Clinton penchant for surfeiting the audience. The one book she wishes all students would read? Pride and Prejudice, Out of Africa, and Schindler’s List. The last truly great book she’s read? The Hare With Amber Eyes, The Signature of All Things, Citizens of London, and A Suitable Boy. Favorite genre? Cooking, decorating, diet/self-help and gardening books. Her roster of favorite contemporary authors runs to twenty, from the literary to the less-so, from Mantel and Morrison to Grafton and Grisham. She mentions poets and pundits and politicians, from Neruda to Dionne to Sen. John McCain. Kids’ books? You got ‘em: Winnie-the-Pooh and Nancy Drew and Little Women, and, from her time reading to daughter Chelsea, Goodnight Moon and Curious George.

And then comes… the Bible.

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Would it kill you to read a book?

The literary blogger Maud Newton used to run a feature called “books we missed our stop for,” in which readers were invited to share stories of being so absorbed in what they were reading they failed to get off the bus or train when they were supposed to. It came to mind while reading another piece about reading, called “Reading: The Struggle,” from Tim Parks at the New York Review of Books. Parks says “the state of constant distraction we live in” “affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.” The old days were more accommodating to leisurely immersion. Now? “Every moment of serious reading has to be fought for.”

But is it really now more difficult to read in the way Parks remembers doing so? He allows that everyone will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed—assuming they have—and that some have greater or less resistance to the forces calling them away from the page. Those forces, of course, are today’s usual suspects: Internet, email, smartphone. But it’s always been something. The reader so easily distracted by these is probably the reader who would have been distracted by the landline phone, by the television, by the radio, by the sports page or the promise of the mailman’s arrival, by the Jones’s new car or the chance to go fishing, or by coffee and a muffin. Not to sound like a scold, but this was sometimes more generally known as procrastination. A former editor of mine used to get angry when hearing his staff talk about all the television they watched because they were “too tired to read.” If you’re tired, he told them, go to bed. If you’re distracted by your device, turn it off; there is a switch for that.

If as adults we think reading harder now than it was, then it may be because we’re adults. Adults tend not to have the careless, open-ended days they had as kids, spending two or three or five leisurely hours inside A Hundred Years of Solitude. But that’s a function of adulthood—which usually comes with a job and family and other responsibilities. And reading seriously has always demanded serious commitment.

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Cheever to Weiner to Draper

The final week of May brought the confluence of John Cheever's birthday and the final-season mid-season finale of Mad Men, whose creator Matthew Weiner has lately been speaking on the record about the writer's influence on his show. Easy connections have been made from the beginning--1960s suburban setting; middle-aged malaise; alcoholism; adultery--the identifying of surface-level similarities tracking well with the general tendency to reduce Cheever's work to nothing more than a critique of post-war, upper-middle-class bedroom-community mores. But anyone who spotted the street sign reading "Bullet Park" (the title of Cheever's third novel) outside the Draper residence in one early episode probably knew to start looking for deeper links. One of the best came at the close of last season, when Don Draper went way offscript in a major presentation, recalling the ad-copy-writing narrator of Cheever's "The Death of Justina" turning in the Twenty-Third Psalm as his swan-song submission. Anyway, it's been fun hearing Weiner speak more directly to some of these ideas.

Some commenters have helpfully picked up the conversation, noting how Mad Men's central conceit--the conflicted selves of Don Draper/Dick Whitman--explicitly reflects what's central in Cheever's short fiction, namely, characters (usually men) like Neddy Merrill and Johnny Hake trying somehow to reconcile their warring halves and yet hold everything together on the work- and home-fronts, all while battlefield glories fade and the familiar metrics of success and happiness are challenged on something like moral grounds. (Others have inevitably touched on the "warring selves" the conflicted bisexual Cheever himself tried unsuccessfully to manage, which, fine, I guess; it's probably hard not to take up this obvious thread, so, why not?)

With the yearlong mid-season hiatus of Mad Men's final slate of episodes here, you could take a fresh look at Cheever's collected stories in light of what you know about the show. You could also turn to the novel mentioned above. Bullet Park, from its complementary/oppositional pair of main characters, Hammer and Nailles, to the lyrically conjured suburban setting and paens to better pasts that might never have been, seems to inform Weiner's work even more than some of the stories. Its opening page reads like something directly from the brain of Don Draper:

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Novels By Poets Week

A Twitter hashtag has informed me that it's officially #NovelsByPoetsWeek. Since this is one of my favorite genres, and since I've been prosthelytizing on behalf of poetry lately, I thought that I would recommend four instances of poets embracing the looseness and freedom of the fictional form:

1. James Merrill, The Seraglio. I love Merrill's verse--"Lost in Translation" is one of the ten best poems of the last half century--but I also love his prose. His memoir, A Different Person, is absolutely fantastic, and so is his first novel, The Seraglio, which is arguably weirder than it is fantastic. Imagine a Jamesian novel of manners filtered through 1950s Freudianism, complete with an actual castration scene. It's currently out of print, but check and see if your local library has it. 

2. Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze. This has the added bonus of being a novel by a poet about a poet. Foulds examines the last years of John Clare, a rare working-class nineteenth-century poet who wrote as beautifully of nature as anyone ever has. These final years were spent in the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum, and Foulds convincingly dramatizes the ways in which visionary genius might shade into madness. Another bonus: Alfred Lord Tennyson is a major character.

3. Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner's novel offered something rare in contemporary fiction: a vision of what the world would look like if we saw it, truly and deeply, through the lens of critical theory. Derrida and deconstructionism, Ashbery and self-reflexivity, pot and the process of translation: Lerner explores them all in a novel that feels relaxed in form but is actually rigorous in its argument.

4. Joshua Corey, Beautiful Soul: An American Elegy. It's a weird noir/modernist mashup, and it's terrific. I'm hoping to write on this for the blog soon.

The Virtues of Poetry

This week, while browsing at St. Mark's Bookshop, I picked up James Longenbach's The Virtues of Poetry, a book of criticism published by Graywolf Press in 2013. To call this a "book of criticism," however, is to make it sound stodgier and more specialized than it is. Longenbach's book is a collection of linked essays, all examining what constitutes poetic virtue: what, in other words, are the distinctive excellences that poetry possesses, and how can we recognize these excellences when we see them?

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A letter to Mama Bess (a.k.a. Laura Ingalls Wilder)

Last week, Rebecca Onion at Slate dug up and posted a document that might be of interest to all you Laura Ingalls Wilder fans out there: a letter from Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder's daughter, critiquing the first draft of Wilder's book By the Shores of Silver Lake.

Lane, as I wrote in my review of the Library of America edition of Wilder's books, was an advisor and editor to her mother as well as a writer herself. In that relationship she clearly believed herself to be the professional advising the amateur, but this letter makes it very hard for me, at least, to credit insinuations to the effect that Rose was the real author of the Little House books. There is no reply from Wilder, not online at least, but fans know that the finished product ignores much of her daughter's advice as contained in this letter. And thank goodness.

The biggest revelation in the letter is this bit of editing advice from Lane:

You have the brief scene in which Laura threatens to kill Charley with a knife, but that has to be cut out.

Wilder did accept that advice, which is why any fan of her books reads that sentence and thinks, Wait, what?! Preadolescent Laura pulling a knife on her cousin would certainly stick in the memory. Lane gives her mother a lot of psychological blarney about why it isn't "credible" -- which seems awfully presumptuous considering she's talking to her mother about something the latter (apparently) experienced in real life. But what I would guess convinced Wilder to take the scene out was Lane's admonishment that "if you do make it credible it's not a child's book."

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National Poetry Month, Continued

April may be over, but poetry lives on! Here are some poetry links worth clicking on.

Michael Robbins, a Commonweal contributor, has an essay on James Dickey in the new issue of Poetry. He opens with this rant against collected editions:

I would begin with a word against collected editions — or at least against the current trend of issuing them in gigantic, overpriced formats that resemble the compact OED. You should not be able to stun a moose with anyone’s Complete Poems. In recent years, we’ve had enormous, expensive editions of, inter alios, Robert Lowell, Barbara Guest, Kenneth Koch, Frederick Seidel, James Merrill, Lucille Clifton, Louise Glück, Jack Gilbert, and Denise Levertov. Even so skinny a poet as Philip Larkin, in FSG’s recent (and superfluous) Complete Poems, has bloated beyond recognition. I’m all for having these folks’ oeuvres in print (although I’d also say a word against the fantasies of totality that compel editors to include drafts, revisions, juvenilia, and the like). But what’s wrong with affordable and portable? The Library of America and Faber and Faber, for instance, manage to produce wieldy omnibuses (the former’s, admittedly, not exactly budget-friendly). Another world is possible.

Nina Kang on the "lost art of memorizing poetry":

These days, memorization, like corporal punishment, is something our culture has largely evolved beyond.  We might all know the first verse of Jane Taylor’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” but beyond that it’s hit and miss. In the age of search engines, perfect recall is no longer prized—just remember a couple key search terms and we’re good to go. Learning to remember has been replaced by learning to skim, and when yesterday’s viral video or trending tweet scrolls below the fold, it leaves barely any imprint on our collective consciousness.

Adam Thirwell on Gottfried Benn, an ex-Nazi poet who is "the equal of Eliot or Montale":

These late poems are extraordinary exercises in bare, forked writing: slouchy, polyglot, nicotine-nervous. They are as splintered as a pile of pick-up sticks—all dying cadences, where the rhythm falters or disintegrates. True, Benn was always a master of crazy tone-shifts. But in the early poems it was all flesh and tropicalia: “The violins green. The harp plinks of May. / Palms blush in the desert simoom.” Now the shifts were smaller, more like the quivers of 
a heart monitor.

The Victorian Detective Goes to Church

There is something profound in the literary trope of the odd couple. It may be the cliché that has launched innumerable forgettable buddy comedies and cop dramas, but the notion that two drastically dissimilar people—Holmes and Watson; Harold and Maude; Oscar Madison and Felix Unger—can value each other, and even function as a unit, implies an inspiring faith in human affection, loyalty and understanding.

That underlying resonance just adds to the appeal of Will Thomas’s marvelous mystery novels, which center on an oddball pair of Victorian sleuths—or, as they prefer to be called, “enquiry agents”—named Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn. Intensely colorful and atmospheric, filled with remarkably vivid (and sometimes eccentric) characters, and distinguished above all by a vision of a very cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse Victorian London, the series will receive a long-awaited new installment with the upcoming publication of “Fatal Enquiry,” scheduled for May (Minotaur Books).

The series kicked off a decade ago with the publication of “Some Danger Involved,” a high-stakes whodunit that introduced Barker, a former sea captain whose expertise includes encyclopedic knowledge of the Orient, as well as of London, and an intimidating command of weaponry and the martial arts. When he hires the endearing young Oxford University dropout Llewelyn as an assistant, the two make an improbable team. Barker is a tough, hard-headed, multilingual world-traveler whose demeanor tends toward terse intensity; Llewelyn—the narrator of the books—is an amiable, callow, novel-reading romantic who has survived a tragic past with a smart-alecky sense of humor.

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National Poetry Month - Geoffrey G. O'Brien and A. R. Ammons

Today, I have two poetry suggestions. The first--and a poet who I'll be writing about in a forthcoming column--is Geoffrey G. O'Brien, whose People on Sunday came out from Wave Books in 2013. 

O'Brien is a formalist, and we tend to associate formalism with conservatism. But O'Brien uses his regular verse forms--regular, stately seeming quatrains; clipped tercets--for radical ends. O'Brien has been associated with the Occupy Movement, and his collection expresses anger at the ceaseless commodification and endless suffering created by our market economy. Here is the opening to "At the Edge of the Bed":

No one yet has ever chosen misery
Those that seem to have done so
Haven’t any more than they have
Chosen this mist or is it rain

We would first have to own ourselves
Then give up on them entirely
Every day rather than once
And for all …

Several of O'Brien's concerns are expressed here: the sense that, in our current moment, the self is something that is bought and sold, that individual agency has been lost, if not given away. The collection's title indicates O'Brien's interest in what he has elsewhere called "desperate lesiure"--the enforced leisure of weekends and holidays that serves to distract us from a more radical rethinking of the relationship between labor and life. In “Thanatopsis,” O’Brien writes that “we’re taught to imagine days / As reprieves from other days,” and his poetry seeks to break out of this bind, to imagine, through collective and creative action, a new and less exploitative world.

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National Poetry Month - Mary Szybist

I could take the easy way out and tell you to read Christian Wiman, whose words are currently featured in the magazine. But instead I'm going to suggest Mary Szybist, whose 2013 collection Incarnadine won the National Book Award.

In Incarnadine, Szybist returns again and again to the Annunciation--or, it might be more accurate to say that she returns to "the annunciations," since she's interested not in a singular incursion of the eternal into the temporal but in an intersection that is more habitual. Think of Eliot's Four Quartets. There, Eliot describes epiphanic moments as "hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses," and goes on to claim that "The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation." For Szybist, the hint half guessed, the gift half understood is Annunciation, and this revision hints at some of the collection's major themes: motherood; the female body; the bewilderment and ecstasy of being called by love.

Like Wiman, Szybist is haunted by transcendence: yearning for something beyond her that can't be articulated completely but must be brokenly, desperately gestured towards. Take these lines from "Yet Not Consumed":

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National Poetry Month - Tracy K. Smith

Last week, I talked briefly about the prosy-yet-still-poetic work of Spencer Reece. This week, I wanted to draw attention to a very different writer: Tracy K. Smith.

Smith has truly catholic (small "c") tastes. The high and the low, the verbal and the visual, the jokey and the philosophical: all serve as lenses through which Smith--and, with her help, the reader--sees the world and culture anew. In 2012, Smith won a Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars, and it was a well-deserved honor. It has helped me to see the poetic possibilities of everything from cosmology (Smith mines the metaphoric implications of dark matter and dark energy), to science fiction (the film Soylent Green makes an appearance), to pop music (David Bowie hovers over the whole collection; see below), to the Iraq war. 

Here is the opening to "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?" Smith's work shows that wonder is the proper attitude to take towards the immense strangeness and beauty of the cosmos--and towards our place within it:

After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure

That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?

For the complete poem, go here.

National Poetry Month - Spencer Reece

To celebrate National Poetry Month, every Friday during April I will be recommending a contemporary poet worth checking out. Today, I suggest you give Spencer Reece a try.

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African Saints, African Stories

It's a bit late---but not too late!---to start a new book as part of one's Lenten observance.  If that's what you're looking for, Camille Lewis Brown's splendid little book, African Saints, African Stories: 40 Holy Men And Women would make an excellent choice.

The format of the book is simple and straightforward.  First Brown provides a short (1-6 pp.) biography of the saint's life.  Then she adds a brief passage from scripture, a prayer and questions for further reflection.  It's a wonderful format for Lenten prayer, but serves equally well at any time of year.  The book is divided into two sections:  "Saints, Blesseds and Venerables" and "Saints in Waiting".

African Saints, African Stories is a powerful reminder of the depth and breadth of the formative African influence on Christianity.  As Bishop Joseph Perry notes in his excellent foreword, "There is evidence of African contribution throughout Sacred Scripture. beginning with Genesis 2, where the sources of the Nile River are located, to the deacon Philip's baptism of the Ethiopian official in service to the Nubian queen, Candace, in Acts 8."  That influence continues with the witness and ministries of the early African saints:

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Christian Wiman: Hammer is the Faith

Last night, the poet Christian Wiman gave the 10th annual Commonweal Lecture at Fairfield University. The talk was entitled “Hammer Is the Faith: Radical Doubt, Realistic Faith.”

Among other things, Wiman exhorted his listeners to memorize poetry (“it can be a bulwark against all the cant that surrounds us,” he said); quoted from A . R. Ammons, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats ... the list goes on; and talked about the apparent--but ultimately illusory--pull between life and art: the sense, that is, that one can live happily and well OR create art but not both.

Most memorably, for me at least, he spoke of those Wordsworthian “spots of time” where we seem not just touched but called from something that exceeds us. We can feel these in our experience with nature (seeing a sublime waterfall) or in our experience with art (feeling wonder at the beauty of a line of poetry) or in our experience with people (being scoured and born anew in our love for another).

Religious faith, Wiman declared, is ultimately faith to these moments--a cherishing and honoring of the experiences when we felt, deep within our bones, an unexplained surplus of being.

If this all sounds intriguing, then you should buy Wiman's latest book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. Here is a link.

And here is a link to Wiman reading from his poem “From a Window,” which describes the wonder the speaker felt after a flock of birds flew up from a tree and ends like this:

Of course that old tree stood
exactly as it had and would

(but why should it seem fuller now?)
and though a man's mind might endow

even a tree with some excess
of life to which a man seems witness,

that life is not the life of men.
And that is where the joy came in.