A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


dotCommonweal Blog

Brett Foster, 1973-2015

It is a sad fact that a writer’s death is often what gets us to read him or her in the first place. We put off reading a poet or a novelist, telling ourselves that we’ll get to the work eventually, that the next book will be the one we try. And then, only when we know that there won’t be a next book, we finally start reading. 

Over the last few years, several readers who I trust praised the work of Brett Foster. I borrowed his first, wonderfully titled poetry collection, The Garbage Eater (2011), from the library last year, but life—classes to prepare, papers to grade, essays to write—intruded. The book sat unread on my bookshelf for several months before I brought it back to the library, promising myself that I’d return to it soon.

Two weeks ago, Foster died at the age of forty-two. An associate professor of English at Wheaton College, Foster was a poet-scholar. In addition to publishing poems in Raritan, Salamander, The New Criterion, and many other places, he translated the work of Cecco Angiolieri (a contemporary of Dante), taught courses on Donne and the Renaissance lyric, and produced scholarship on Shakespeare, Marlowe, and others. As with the best poet-scholars, Foster’s verse was sustained by his research, and his research was informed by his verse. Both circled around the same issues: literary tradition, Christian theology, the meaning of Scripture. He was beloved by his students and colleagues. You can read moving remembrances here and here and here.

Last week, after hearing of Foster’s death, I checked out The Garbage Eater once again. It is as remarkable as I had heard. Fitting for someone so versed in poetic tradition, Foster regularly shows the possibilities enabled by formal constraint, using some of the most simultaneously restrictive and liberating forms available to the poet—the sestina, the sonnet, the rondeau. Just as varied as the poems’ forms are their subjects. Foster writes of snow days and of Advent calendars (“You’re left / with only days, bare and perforated, / a liturgy of doors, perfect symbol”), of having tea with John Milton and, in a poem that delighted this baseball fan, of the former Kansas City Royals closer Dan Quisenberry: “He’d be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber: / those summer doubleheaders in the grim bubble of the Metrodome.”

Foster is a superb poet of place, writing about spaces both sacred and profane. In one poem, “At the City Church of San Francisco,” Foster asks, “How to preach with so much that’s beautiful // around us?” describing the “Golden Gate in the distance, those orange altars, / the bay beyond with its long, silver wings, / and perfect bursts of plant life everywhere.” In another, he opens with the speaker’s mean upbringing in “a backwater / cavity in the South, a rat-shit / state of peach-eating race haters, / debutante belles, and chain gangs / singing their exhausted souls / back to the stockade yard.” There is even a poem that takes place inside an Olive Garden:

No Menicus-threaded grove restful with panpipes and shepherd life,

just the chain restaurant off Sherman Street. But the manager

intends to make me think so—pastas on the poster, carafes

of Mantuan wine lined up by shades of red and gold and white.

In Palo Alto, Sunday sunlight stimulates the atmosphere

as do the lively, prerecorded violins’ piazza overtures.

Cormac McCarthy has said that the only writers worth reading are those who “deal with issues of life and death”—that is, those who take seriously the fact that life is always shadowed by death.

Foster’s poems reside within the shadow of death. The Garbage Eater begins with these lines, precise and enjambed:

Fear of dying, fear of death:

those phobias came easy, shaped

nightly by a little boy’s breath


talking out a clockwork afterlife

with parents till I fell asleep.

And it ends with these lines from “Longing, Lenten,” similarly precise, similarly enjambed, similarly concerned with how we live our mortal condition:

… The rest

of the blessed ash has vanished to a gray

amorphousness, to symbolize … not much.

Except a wish for those hallowed moments

to be followed by sustaining confidence.

Except spirit, which means to shun its listless

weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest

prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.

But in between these death-haunted bookends, Foster fills his collection with that which sustains: work and love, the dance of the mind, senses, and soul as they encounter the world. Here, for instance, is a sonnet, “Devotion: For Our Bodies,” that describes the joy found in work and in language: 

Yes love, I must confess I’m at it again,

struggling in vain with my Greek declensions.

I know it’s common, but I want to show

you what I found in Praxeis Apostolon,


chapter one, verse twenty-four: this exquisite

epithet, kardiognosta. Forget briefly its context, that the Eleven,

genuflecting, implore the Lord to give


wisdom. Between Justus and Matthias,

who replaces Judas? Let this word pass

to private sharpness toward love’s dominion.

Let me kiss it across your collarbones—


knower of hearts. Its sweetness fills my mouth

and our twin lots, as if they’d chosen both.

“The Foreman at Rest” ends with the desire to remember the world in all its particularity: “Thirsting for detail, / I want to notice the juice / on that pear, half-eaten and still / glistening in the lamplight.” “Passage” includes several litanies of human achievement—“water clocks, mercy seats, clay tablets / of Mesopotamia, lock and key, Jericho”—each a sign of “bright wonder transumed from modesty.”

As “Via Negativa” puts it, poetry is a form of celebration, even when what it celebrates is unassuming:

This could have been many things: the barren

field of elegy, a mass sung at Lourdes,

or some harmonious bed made of chords.

Instead, it celebrates its reticence.

The loss Foster’s family and friends feel right now is immense. So are the gifts that he offered—in his life, in his teaching, and in his poetry.



A Visit to The Museum of Feelings

Two blocks from the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan on a plaza facing the East River, behind a gleaming mall, sits a temporary museum. Or that is what Glade, a brand of SC Johnson, is calling it. The Museum of Feelings is housed in a small building with shifting colored lights projected on its white walls. Tuesday night, its opening night, a young man in black clothes ushers confused people inside or makes them wait at the door when it becomes too crowded.

The subway advertisements for the Museum promise only a URL, a street address, and the dates the exhibit is open. If your curiosity is sufficiently piqued by these ads or the Facebook event and you visit, the first thing you are cued to do is to create a MoodLens — a “living, emotional portrait that changes to reflect feelings,” the page explains. If you click “Get Started,” your computer’s built-in camera will photograph your face and with another click, your computer’s microphone can pick up your voice. This data is collected along with the weather in your current location and the “general feelings on social media in your region” to calculate your mood.

Read more

The Necessary Ordinariness of 'Spotlight'

The movie Spotlight depicts how the Boston Globe in 2002 broke the story that the Boston archdiocese was covering up the abuse of children by scores of priests. Coincidently, one of the abusers portrayed in the film, former priest Ronald Paquin, was just last month released from state custody after serving a criminal sentence for repeatedly raping an altar boy over a three-year-period beginning when the victim was twelve. (Paquin also admitted to molesting fourteen other boys.) Medical specialists determined Paquin no longer met the legal criteria for “sexual dangerousness,” and so the district attorney’s office had to withdraw its bid to keep him in custody.

“The church thinks in centuries,” one character remarks in Spotlight, and in watching it I thought of all the people—if you aren’t one you probably know one—who’ve decided to take the very long view themselves. Mark Ruffalo plays Globe reporter Michael Rezendes; in one scene, after learning of the archdiocese’s systematic cover-up, he says he used to like going to Mass as a child, and that he’d always expected to go back someday. “But now…” he says, leaving the obvious unspoken: Never. 

Read more

What Makes These Writers 'Unprofessionals'?

Moby-Dick sold all of two copies in the United States in 1876, and a total of 3,180 by the time it went out of print in 1887, a tally of futility that in the words of James Wood soon “narrowed Herman Melville into bitterness and savage daily obedience as a New York customs inspector.”

Melville--along with custodian/postal worker William Faulkner, insurance lawyer Wallace Stevens, editor-teacher-single-mother Toni Morrison--came to mind when reading the table of contents and introduction to The Unprofessionals, a new anthology of pieces that originally appeared in The Paris Review. Editor Lorin Stein sets up a superfluous distinction between “professional” writers and those who appear in these pages. The latter are apparently unconcerned with commercial riches--as evidenced by their commitment to short forms of fiction, essay, and poetry--unlike the many MFA students whose idea of success is to “leave school with a six-figure advance.” By this criterion, they’re unprofessionals--never mind their awards, their novels and book-length collections, or their masthead positions at well-known literary magazines. I’d wager that Melville--to say nothing of the many lesser-known and anonymous adjuncts, high school teachers, working mothers, service-industry employees, and others who struggle nobly to place work in respectable but low- or non-paying publications--would welcome so modest a designation if it came with the chance to appear alongside fellow scribblers Ben Lerner, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Zadie Smith, to name a few. They could also reasonably wonder whether being published by The Paris Review in the first place makes one a professional .

In any case, don’t blame the writers featured here. The work is almost uniformly excellent.

Read more

The Illuminations

True personality floats beneath surface consciousness, obscured by the fog of dementia or the fog of war. To meet what one is can affirm or destroy. This theme works its way ever so deftly through the parallel developments of two characters in Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations. Anne Quirk resides in a care home on the Scottish cost, west of Glasgow. Luke Campbell, her grandson, soldiers for a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan. Their self-recognition, respectively and jointly, is the climax of the novel’s plot; hence the novel’s title, the grand lighting-up of the English seaside resort of Blackpool. 

O’Hagan is a writer of many voices: he impersonates Marilyn Monroe’s dog in his earlier Life and Opinions of Maf, The Dog, and a pederast priest in Be Near Me. [The latter a work of insight and justice.] His third person narrations in The Illuminations offer us the surface life of the failing Anne through fragmented speech in dialogue and in carefully observed gesture or facial movement. In effect, O’Hagan takes on the fears so many of us have – the blank of demented senescence. He offers a conditional hope mediated by great respect. His male protagonist is a soldier, an officer, committed to his men, if not to his mission. Certainly his fractured self is alive in marvelously sustained dialogue, the “slagging” vulgarity which constitutes the verbal shield under which his squad operates amid the ambushes, the haze of marihuana, and the deceits of the Afghan war. The novel alternates its scenes between Lochranza Court, Anne’s care home, and a mountain road in Afghanistan where Luke and his men are in convoy on a so-say humanitarian mission. The venture ends in massacre and disgrace – the ignominious fall of Luke’s mentor, Major Scullion, and Luke’s own disillusionment.

Read more

Alice McDermott on Rules that ‘Subvert Compassion and Common Sense’

The New Yorker is currently featuring a new short story from Alice McDermott, “These Short, Dark Days.” The protagonist of the piece, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, is a nun named Sister St. Savior who endeavors to effect the burial in a Catholic cemetery of a young husband who has asphyxiated himself. In those days, recall, it was just as one character puts it: If word of suicide gets out, “there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him.”

The story exhibits a bit more in the way of traditional narrative drive than I’ve come to expect from McDermott’s short fiction, and it hits on familiar themes in the usual compelling fashion: certainty vs. uncertainty in belief (“There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor,” one character thinks); awareness of sin; the reality of human suffering; the limits of compassion. And, importantly, the limits placed on compassion. It’s this last that McDermott confronts in a fairly explicit way, by noting how the burdens of compassion have typically fallen to women (of the church and not), even as men (of the church and not) seem to have been bent on making its expression more difficult:

In her forty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could help surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular, and poor women in general.

But this all takes place more than a century ago, doesn’t it? Yes, but that doesn’t make it history. Lest anyone doubt McDermott’s intent, she makes it clear in an interview that accompanies the story.

Read more

'The Leech Woman'

I confess I didn’t know there was a third Berrigan brother who was also a political activist and peace protester, though not an ordained one. Nevertheless, he appears to have possessed the characteristic Berrigan sense of vocation and certitude.

And did you know that the gangster (Paulie) played by Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas (was it pasta he was cooking to serve with the lobsters in his posh prison cell?) was based on a Brooklyn mobster named Paul Vario? Or that it was an undercover cop, who also happened to be a former teenage delinquent from Brooklyn, who set up Vario and hundreds of other gangsters in one of the NYPD’s most successful sting operations? “As soon as the guy thinks you’re a cop, it’s just like him knowing you’re a cop,” explained Douglas LeVien, the detective who infiltrated the mob. “If he’s suspicious, he’s gonna ask you who’s your mother and who’s your grandmother. And that test you’ll never pass. Then you’re dead.” Ah, gangsters and their mothers. What’s up with that?

Or what about noir and B movie actress Coleen Gray, she of the “luminous skin”? Gray, born Doris Bernice Jensen, played an ingénue opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawke’s classic Red River (1948), and often complained of not being cast as more of a seductress. Later in her career that wish was evidently granted when she starred in The Leech Woman (1960), playing a predator who somehow used fluid from men’s brains to forestall aging.

Read more

Prominent Ladyjerk Gets Happy Ending

In the movie Trainwreck, the comedian Amy Schumer stars as a reckless but successful magazine editor who has been drinking for love in all the wrong places. Like Schumer’s sketch-comedy series Inside Amy Schumer (Comedy Central), Trainwreck contains its share of off-color humor. (“You dress him like that just so no one else wants to have sex with him? That's cool,” she asks her sister about her husband.) She may not be everyone’s cup of tea; critics deride her work as self-gratifying, crude, and offensive. But her fans call her a brilliant, courageous feminist leader. Whatever one makes of her work, there’s no denying that she is unapologetically herself. It’s not a shtick. Schumer wants to challenge the ways in which we talk about feminism—as loaded a term as that may be.

As my friends and I left the theater after seeing the movie, all we could say was how much we love Schumer. Her voice is refreshing in a time when the culture seems to see feminism through one or the other of two opposing lenses. There are those who believe that feminism means that women should be able to do anything they want sexually without any criticism or fear of consequences – “if men can do it, so can we.” Suggest otherwise and you’re keeping women down. And then there are those who believe that by policing our own behavior, we can flourish as true women. “True empowerment” means being modest, thinking about consequences, and avoiding risky behavior.

In the movie, Amy drinks and sleeps around and explicitly avoids seeking a long-term relationship—at least at first.

Read more

Summer Reading

Maybe no scene from a television series speaks so perfectly to my life as this one from season two of Gilmore Girls:

Like Rory, I spend far too much time debating which books I should bring with me when I leave the house. And like Rory, I always decide that loading up is the safer option than winnowing down. Just last week, I went to the doctor’s office and, before leaving my apartment, convinced myself that I needed to bring a book of poetry (Marie Ponsot’s Springing), a work of nonfiction (Clifford Thompson’s Twin of Blackness), and a novel (Octavia Butler’s Dawn). Rationally, I know that this kind of overpacking is unnecessary, even neurotic; emotionally, I’m panicked if I’m not carrying a library with me.

(For the record, I didn’t end up reading any of the above books in my five minutes in the waiting room. I found another novel, Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute, in the car and read that instead.)

This tendency to overpack causes a real problem when I go away for vacation. If I need three books for a trip to the doctor, how many do I need for a week away from home? In the hopes of helping out others out who suffer from this very particular literary problem, I’ll list five books that I’ve read so far this year that would be worth the precious space in your suitcase:

Read more

What is "I Refuse"?

The fiction of the Norwegian writer, Per Petterson, particularly his Out Stealing Horses, published almost a decade ago, has received general critical acclaim. Character, setting, mood and landscape open up a world familiar and strange. When I read him, I find a singular point of view, a consciousness shaped in a world in extremis – and all the more dramatically powerful for that.

The phrase, “I refuse” occurs three times by my count in Petterson’s new novel of the same name. It is spoken as an encouraging assertion of life over death – as in “I refuse to die.” So Tommy, one of the chief characters, to his mortally sick, adoptive father Jonsen – who dies soon after.  It is also a denial of family or marital obligation. Tommy refuses to bear responsibility for his aged, abusive, real father; and a waitress, Berit, refuses to wear her wedding ring, despite her husband’s demands, to free herself for an assignation with Tommy. Refusing becomes a form of independence, an assertion of the self, against the constraints of family ties, vows, or the menace of death. In their contexts, the refusals seem desperate, and ultimately unfulfilling. The sources or motivation for the decisions “to refuse” lie unexplored, rather stated as facts.  The Norwegian world of Per Petterson is not simply physically chilling, but deeply emotionally so.

This is a complex and teasing narrative, built around sharp disjunctures in time sequence and narrative voice. First person accounts by the two principals, Tommy and Jim, extremely close boyhood friends, reveal their chance meeting at the very beginning of the novel.  They have not seen each other for over thirty-five years. There are third person accounts of the events that caused the break in their friendship and reveal how Tommy’s mother disappeared and how he came to be raised by Jonsen. Siri, Tommy’s sister, recounts her brief romance with Jim, and his painful, inexplicable rejection of her.

The plot, if plot there is, takes its energy from the first, chance meeting, and through time shifts, alternation of voices, works its way to the frustration of any future meeting, and suggests the major theme of the novel – the isolation of each of us, and the corresponding inability to know the other person. Deeper still, Jim, whose adolescent ability in school, and his blond good looks, appear to set him apart and give him the advantage over his rough and unpredictable friend Tommy, suffers deep emotional depression, and scarcely survives a suicide attempt.

One typical Petterson scene points both to the inscrutability of motive and the lingering effects of guilt.

Read more

Atticus Lish and Next Lives

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish’s extraordinary novel seems material for the perfect melodrama: a vet returned from the horrors of war, Byronic wounds setting him apart; the plucky immigrant woman, a survivor, canny and intent on saving the wounded hero. The backdrop: New York City where anything is possible. Given the pretext of the work, a reader can’t help but wonder if the love affair can not generate the compassion to redeem the soldier and make real the dream of the woman? Lish’s world is not that of melodrama: he subverts the expectation through unsparing realism. In the process, his vision leaves desiccated flabby assumptions about PTSD and the underworld of illegal aliens. Love simply is not enough to buoy the pair above the wash of the City’s violence and exploitation. 

The novel has had high praise in many reviews, principally for Lish’s ability to create dialogue, or perhaps more accurately, the speech, demotic, of the outer boroughs of the City. The progress of the plot is almost cinematic – by way of montage, scene juxtaposed on scene. The abrupt changes of place and character create a sense of energy, almost manic energy, particularly in so far as Skinner (the Iraqi vet) and Zou Lei (the part-Uighur, part Chinese illegal) share an obsession with physical training. They literally pursue each other in sweat drenched, convulsive runs – or rival each other in squats and lifts.

In remarkable explorations Lish takes us into the shadow economy of undocumented immigrants – the punishing work in over-hot kitchens, or clattering rag-trade sweat shops. Skinner’s altercation with the son of his landlady puts him in the holding cells of a local precinct, and Lish manages to channel in rapid fire speech all the riot, aggression, taunting and fear of the men jailed. He has the same ability to convince that he knows the many different Chinese dialects and the Pidgin English that serves as common speech as well as the clannish tensions that push Zou Lei down the pecking order of kitchen hierarchies.

Read more

Jacob Lawrence—Again

Following up on a column I wrote about Jacob Lawrence's "The Great Migration," here is a NYTimes book review of the catalog accompanying the show now at MOMA (through September 7).

The review is by Isabel Wilkerson whose own master work, The Warmth of Other Suns, tells the migration story through the lives of several of those who made the journey. An impressive work in its own right.

Lawerence's great 60-panel work will open at DC's Phillips Gallery in 2016.  All of this apropos of so many events of the last several weeks, beginning with Charleston.

John Boyne's Lonely Priest

John Boyne’s A History of Loneliness asserts through its title that we will be confronted with a story of one isolated or excluded. The history is a confession, addressed to readers as “you” and by extension the history is a testimony. The narrator, Father Odran Yates, is a witness to the transformation of the Irish Catholic church – particularly to the esteem accorded priests and the institution of the church by lay people. At the end of his priestly career, Father Yates finds himself disillusioned and alone – divided in his self-condemnation and his remaining faith in his vocation and the church.

One would expect a hostile review of forty years of recent Irish Catholic history from a John Boyne who said in an interview: “my priests and educators made me feel worthless, and disparaged and humiliated me at every turn.” Indeed the author is gay, and records callous beatings and harsh spiritual strictures leading to extensive bouts of depression. His subject in the novel is the pedophile scandal that scarred so many boys and adolescents and which was willfully hidden, despite the risks to so many young people. The salvific aspect of the novel is that his narrator is a good priest, one who recognizes the strength of his own vocation, and in so far as he trusted the hierarchy which he obeyed he fell into the sin of omission. He refused in an unsettling denial to suspect those closest to him of “interfering” with children.

I use the word “salvific” carefully: the novel should be read as way to a just response to the great crimes of abuse. Boyne’s handling of Father Yates’s voice is the central achievement. The viewpoint is one of hindsight; the revelations of duplicity and complicity in suppressing the predatory treatment of children isolates Yates. He seems, in self-accusation, to lose affect, to view his ministry as one lived by false surmise – about the integrity of his superiors, the honesty of his fellow priests. The narrative tone resonates with the “loneliness” of the title; indeed, Yates might feel as if he alone did not see what was going on around him, particularly in the life of his oldest friend and fellow priest Tom Cardle.

Read more

Literary Links

Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric, has a piece in the New York Times Magazine about Charleston, race, and the problem with white liberalism:

The truth, as I see it, is that if black men and women, black boys and girls, mattered, if we were seen as living, we would not be dying simply because whites don’t like us. Our deaths inside a system of racism existed before we were born. The legacy of black bodies as property and subsequently three-fifths human continues to pollute the white imagination. To inhabit our citizenry fully, we have to not only understand this, but also grasp it. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, “The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical.” And, as my friend the critic and poet Fred Moten has written: “I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world and I want to be in that.” This other world, that world, would presumably be one where black living matters. But we can’t get there without fully recognizing what is here.

William Giraldi, whose work has been reviewed on this blog before, writes on the figure of the Catholic novelist:

If my being a Catholic must be predicated on the belief that the God of the Israelites decided to inseminate a peasant woman in the Levant in order to birth a human sacrifice who would rise from the dead and redeem the world, and whose resurrection would then inspire an apostolic company who could interpret the sacred while taking my money and demanding my servitude, then you’ll forgive me, but I can’t call myself a Catholic. In Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy admits: “I am not sorry to have been a Catholic”—“this sensuous life,” she calls it, and like Percy and O’Connor she speaks of “the sense of mystery and wonder,” of how in certain “exalted moments of altruism the soul was fired with reverence.” I’d like to second that: I am not sorry to have been a Catholic. An upbringing in the Church has, I suspect and hope, outfitted me well as a storyteller.

James Salter died last Friday. Here is Nick Paumgarten on his life and work:

He was modest yet certain about his talents, anxious yet cool about his reputation, and somehow both demure and effusive about his influences. When I asked him where he thought his style came from, he replied, “Who knows.” And yet, he loved to talk about his favorite writers and what he had learned from them. Still, a knack is a knack. “In a way, it’s the way certain people can keep a tune and others can’t keep a tune,” he said. “Certain people can keep a word tune, so to speak, and certain people cannot. And, above all, certain people can tell a story, and other people can’t. They don’t hear that point where something else has to come. This is an ordinary talent you can hear in any barroom. You’re sitting there listening, and it’s a terrific story that you just told, or that he’s just told. And somebody else is telling one and your mind is wandering. You’re waiting to interrupt. What is that? They don’t mean not to be interesting. It’s not a gene or anything. It’s just that little thing, like keeping a tune.”

The End of 'Mad Men'

In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.

People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.

Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.

A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.

Read more

National Poetry Month: Danielle Chapman

Danielle Chapman is a poet sensitive to life's intensities. Her new collection, Delinquent Palaces, regularly charts the fierceness of sensory experience, how the world, in its overabundance and strangeness, can strike us like revelation, as when she describes a "wad of gum" being dropped into a glass of ginger ale: "Bubbles rose like souls / unburdening from selves, bearing tiny spheres / of bliss that broke upon the surface / like sleepers to the touch of consciousness."

These lines, with their intricate linking of sound (bubbles/unburdening/bearing/bliss/broke), indicate another kind of intensity that Chapman is sensitive to--musical intensity, the way that language, in its play of sounds, can bear meaning beyond the merely semantic. Here is the opening to "Rituxan Spring," which echoes the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins's "As kingfishers catch fire": "As derricks draw ink / from parched plains / we've struck / Time, silky and game / as a stick streaming / snake roe."

This isn't the only time I heard Hopkins haunting the background of Delinquent Palaces. Like Hopkins, Chapman is a poet of religious intensity. Her poems engage with suffering head-on, looking to God not as a way to forget about loss but as a way to think through and with it. Here is the concluding stanza to "In Order":

Now that that grief's gone and others come

I come back again to understand

the first one, plum blossoms brushing

the attic window as I look out upon

a yard that has been left untended

by any hand but that of God.

And here she is in "Believer," which begins with the declaration that the speaker "hadn't wanted to believe myself / numbered among the unlucky ones" and ends with this description of the beautiful and haunting complexity of suffering :

In fact it seemed a blessing or a talent

sometimes, or its own kind of deeper luck,

the way I walked into each suffering

which was its own intricate world complete

with wild children wrangling to be king

of every broken square of concrete

and market stalls of shrimp kept cool on ice

whose infinitesimal limbs caught light

as if hauled glittering into genesis.

Finally, Chapman's poems return, again and again, to one of the primary intensities of lyric poetry: the intensity of love. We hear that "To love you is to love the grackles screaming / in Starbucks/ single tree"; to love you is "to build a teensy fortress of Dante's hell / within the real one, to read / while the underworld takes Texas back again." We hear of Chapman's love for her twin daughters: "You / murmur rapture / Life out of nothingness / Mother of beauties / you come through me / Unto us / Twice."

"Expressway Song" begins like this:

The expressway encircled me

and this was why I'd come: to love, 

believing in a love like work,

knowing the true work is waking

to pierce each morning with intent

and evening with irreverence

until the city surrenders,

lifts its iron, and lets one in

with the grace of a raising bridge.

And it ends like this: "a voice fell through me like cold chrome-- / we come to love what turns to stone." For Chapman, love is a matter of piercing, irreverant enchantments and chastening tragedies, a symbol of grace and an inevitable source of pain.

The poems in Delinquent Palaces show this again and again, and they suggest what poetry offers its readers, not just in National Poetry Month but the whole year-round: a reminder that, if we look, we will see a world bathed in beauty and terror, "the fire hydrants redder / than berries of blood on islands of thorn." 

Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

Read more

National Poetry Month: Langdon Hammer's James Merrill: Life and Art

Literary biography is perhaps the hardest genre to get right. Though spending lots of time in the archive is necessary, it isn’t sufficient. You need to turn this research—the lunch receipts and discarded drafts and report cards and love letters—into a compelling narrative; you need to present not just a sequence of events but a life, with its recurring motifs and central dramas, its rising action and sudden reversals. Likewise, though citing from the work is crucial, it’s not enough. You need to be a critic, able to tell us how the poems or novels or plays work, how they fit into the broader fields of literary and social history.

Finally, and most importantly, you need to have a theory of how the life and the work relate to one another. You can’t reduce the work to the life, but you have to show how the life informs the work. You can’t claim that biography explains any given poem or novel, but you have to show how the alchemical transformation happens.

There are so many ways to screw things up, and the list of those literary biographers who have screwed things up is long and venerable.

Read more

James Wood, Religion, and the Novel

This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:

  • Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
  • He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
  • Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.

Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:

I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.

I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.  

National Poetry Month: Claudia Rankine and Michael Robbins

My next column for the magazine features a review of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, so I'll keep my proselytizing short here. Rankine has written several strong collections before, but Citizen (2014) is of an entirely different dimension, especially in terms of formal originality. The book blends poetry, prose, and visual art, all in an attempt to show how race continues to shape and deform the American experiment.

Citizen makes for hard reading in two senses. First, it is difficult like The Waste Land or any other work of experimental literature is difficult. That is to say, our normal ways of reading aren't quite adequate here. And even when you finally feel like you're getting the hang of things, when you have gotten used to one mode of writing (say, Rankine's impressionistic prose poems), Citizen switches things up with fragments of lyric poetry written in free verse or snippets of overheard dialogue.

The book's second kind of difficulty: it shows us things that we'd rather not see or think about, how we as a society talk and imagine "the other"--in this case, brown and black bodies--and how this talking/imagining poisons not just the souls of "the other" but our own souls as well.  Here is a short excerpt from the book:

Some years there exists a wanting to escape—

you, floating above your certain ache—  

still the ache coexists.

Call that the immanent you—


You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.


Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.


And still this life parts your lids, you see
you seeing your extending hand

as a falling wave—

My second suggested poet, Michael Robbins, appears very different from Rankine on the surface. Where her work often seems to abjure poetic form, maybe even poetry itself, Robbins is committed to the formal constraints of verse. He writes most regularly in tight quatrains or quintets, regularly rhymes in surprising and inventive ways (you can hear the echoes of hip hop in many of his poems), and isn't above writing a sonnet or two. In a recent essay, Robbins, an occasional Commonweal contributor, has described the shifty term "form" as "those features that make a given verbal act shareable." His own work continually shows how poetic language might become shareable through the use of rhyme and meter--techniques that cause the community of readers to read with the same breath and cadence, to experience the same incantatory power of language.

Above all else, Robbins's work is comic: there are many, many lines in both of his collections, Alien Vs. Predator and The Second Sex, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that's a rare feat for a collection of poetry. In "Use Your Illusion," for instance, Robbins urges us to "Put the Christ back in Xbox," a line that I remember every time a war against Christmas is solemnly proclaimed on television and then is followed immediately by ads for Toys R Us. In "The Second Sex," Robbins writes, 

I say the wrong thing. I have OCD.
My obsessive compulsions are disorderly.
I say the wrong thing, did I already say?
I drive my dominatrix away.

The one thing that most clearly connects Rankine and Robbins? Their ability to make us see everyday language in a new light. For Rankine, this most often is the language we use in our encounters with the other; for Robbins, it is the language of American capitalism and patriotism: "Ask not what the Dew can do for you. / Ask about our special rates / for armed services personnel"; "Mistakes were made at Plymouth Rock." In a somewhat paradoxical manner, both poets, to quote Eliot, "purify the language of the tribe": they use the resources of poetry to distill and clarify the impurities of our society's language.