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Are You a Moderate? Are You a Syrian Rebel?

If so, apply now for funds, training, and weapons. Please fill in this form and return it to the White House, 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue, DC, USA.

From the New Yorker's Borowitz Report:

WASHINGTON—After announcing, on Thursday, that it would seek $500 million to help “train and equip appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition,” the White House today posted the following Moderate Syrian Rebel Application Form:

Welcome to the United States’ Moderate Syrian Rebel Vetting Process. To see if you qualify for $500 million in American weapons, please choose an answer to the following questions:

As a Syrian rebel, I think the word or phrase that best describes me is:
A) Moderate
B) Very moderate
C) Crazy moderate
D) Other

I became a Syrian rebel because I believe in:
A) Truth
B) Justice
C) The American Way
D) Creating an Islamic caliphate

Read the rest here.

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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Why isn't academic theology conservative?

Are conservatives underrepresented in the theology and religion departments of our nation’s colleges and universities?

This was one of the questions discussed at the 2014 annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America and already here on this blog. It’s a question I’ve been pondering for some time, and I wrote about it once in these pages.

The basic answer is Yes. When compared to the overall percentage of conservatives in religious communities or society at large, conservatives are underrepresented in academic theology.

However, when compared to conservatism as represented in other academic fields, theology is not very different.

That’s why I think the more interesting question concerns academia on the whole, of which theology is just one field that fits the trend reasonably well. The results of the limited sociological studies on this issue, notably that of Matthew Woessner and April Kelly-Woessner (good summary here) and, more recently, that of Neil Gross, show that self-selection is the primary reason the professoriate leans liberal. There are few conservative professors because, under the current conditions, few conservatives want to become professors.

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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.

Life After Life

Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life comes as something of a surprise. Her earlier books featuring a feckless Scottish detective, Jackson Brodie, were inventive in plot and quirky in characterization. There was little to suggest the rather heavy themes signaled in the epigraphs from Nietzsche and Plato that appear in Life after Life; they focus, appropriately enough, on reincarnation. The plan of the novel is simple: follow a character, Ursula Todd, through her lives. The plural, “lives,” offers the plot mechanism: Ursula is born once, but her days follow multiple sequences, the first being her still born birth. She survives more successfully in following permutations.  We return to her birthday in February 1910 and accompany her as she, after two fatal sidesteps, finally arrives at adulthood and again we experience her different life courses. Chance, yes, is the impartial determiner.

The novel is a fictional experiment of sorts: how consistent is Ursula’s character when subjected to various conflicts? And indeed what are the responses of her family as she challenges them with different life experiences? There is the close sister Pammy, the cherished younger brother Teddie, the risqué and sophisticated Aunt Izzy, and a host of boyfriends, suitors, husbands and lovers. Ursula is consistently “rather pretty,” but various in her sexual precocity and fidelity. She is well-read enough to quote appropriately from the classics and to correct the pretentious in their misquotations.

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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 tale of two cities, seventies-style

You don’t need to be a New Yorker to appreciate the 1981 documentary Tighten Your Belts, Bite the Bullet, which chronicles the near default of the city in 1975, or to be from Cleveland, which the film also features and which took a much different approach in confronting its own insolvency three years later. You could be from Detroit or Stockton or San Bernardino or Camden, or any municipality in bankruptcy, on the brink, or simply operating within a set of ever-tightening creditor constraints. Thirty-three years after its release, the documentary’s take on how private business interests exert a controlling hand in the financing of public services makes it perhaps even more timely now than it was then.

I saw it at the Queens Museum a couple of weeks ago, and readers in the New York area will have a second chance to catch up with it Monday, May 12, when it’s screened at the Bronx Documentary Center. The film mixes interviews from the period with archival footage to help viewers understand the scope and severity of the financial crisis New York faced in the 1970s, now too often recalled via the reflexive shorthand of the infamous Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” Intercut with stories from the frontlines of de-staffed hospitals, daycare centers, and firehouses are clips of a black-tie gala at Lincoln Center celebrating the acclaimed saviors of the city, including Felix Rohatyn of the Municipal Assistance Corporation and members of the Emergency Financial Control Board, whose cuts to public funding are portrayed as having disproportionately affected the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods. A tuxedoed attendee climbing from a limo tells an interviewer of the EFCB’s work: “It's great. It puts an intervening layer in there. It separates the politicians from the constituencies.”

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Documentary Revisits the Jayson Blair Scandal

A curious shift occurs towards the end of the new documentary “A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at The New York Times,” premiering on PBS on Monday, May 5. Up to this point in Samantha Grant’s thorough, thoughtful look back at the notorious newspaper scandal, Blair has come across largely as a troubled sufferer—a victim of mental illness who made a series of egregiously terrible judgment calls while coping with intense workplace pressure. In a major coup, producer and director Grant has managed to wrangle an exclusive interview with Blair, who even provided the filmmakers access to his private email account from the period leading up to his 2003 departure from The New York Times. On camera, Blair is a sober, soft-spoken fellow who gives off an older-but-wiser vibe as he analyzes his past journalistic misdeeds (plagiarism, outright fabrication), accepting culpability while at the same time attributing his behavior in part to the effects of bipolar disorder, aggravated by substance abuse.

But then the documentary reaches the point in the story where Blair, as a disgraced ex-reporter, starts pitching a tell-all to book publishers. The book, “Burning Down My Masters’ House,” was published in 2004. Suddenly, we see him discussing the book with Larry King (“The main reason I wrote the book, Larry…”), Howard Kurtz (“It’s part of the process of healing for me to go through this trial by fire…”), and Chris Matthews (“I think I’m going to write a novel [next]….”). And we see him offer wisdom, supposedly grounded in his own experience, on the speaking circuit. (He currently works as a “certified life coach” in Virginia.) Suddenly, Blair starts to seem like a sociopath—a sociopath who knows the value of spin. And you can’t help but wonder: Was his participation in Grant’s documentary just another creepily devious attempt at spin?

Fortunately, the Blair interview is only one source of material for “A Fragile Trust,” which is airing as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. (The air time is 10:00-11:30 pm ET on May 5; check local listings.) Grant has also interviewed a large group of Blair’s former colleagues, including Howell Raines, who was The New York Times’s Executive Editor during the Blair crisis, and who left the paper in the crisis’s aftermath. Interviewee William Schmidt, who as the paper’s Associate Managing Editor was in charge of personnel issues and disciplinary actions at the time of the scandal, is able to contribute some satisfying tick-tock details about what happened when, as Blair’s journalistic crimes came to light.

Complementing the spoken insights are a rich collection of images, including photographs and video of news events that Blair was assigned to cover; footage from television reports on the 2003 scandal; photos of Blair as a child; and even part of an old recruiting video for the University of Maryland (Blair’s alma mater) that appears to show the cub reporter walking to work in his earliest days at The New York Times. 

Two visual leitmotif intensify the documentary’s somber mood while also underscoring a key theme. Occasionally, bits of simple animation appear (an animated sequence depicts Blair making a phone call during the crisis, for instance), the contour lines scrawled white against a field of black. At other times, we see what appear to be photographic negatives of newspaper articles, the letters and photo shapes bright against a black background. The white-on-black shapes tie into the theme of contrasts and reversals of expectation: Readers of Blair’s articles found lies where they expected to find truth, and deceit where they expected to find integrity.

The black-and-white images in the documentary also echo the racial issues that have seemed, to some, to eddy beneath the surface of the Blair imbroglio: Blair is African-American, and some have wondered whether he was given too much leeway, and too many second chances, at the Gray Lady because the paper was trying to make its staff more diverse. “A Fragile Trust” raises this question, but it also asks another in passing: When reporter Stephen Glass (who is white) was found to have fabricated articles for The New Republic in the 1990s, why didn’t his race become an issue? Does the discrepancy between the way we discuss the two cases say something about our own assumptions and biases?

Ultimately, of course, there are questions that “A Fragile Trust” cannot fully answer: What was really going on in Jayson Blair’s head when he plagiarized and invented reporting? What is going on in his head now? Why—in the final analysis—was he able to get away with so much journalistic wrongdoing? Over a decade after the scandal broke, such questions still exert a tantalizing pull.

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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Resurrection: cosmic, communal; Hopkins, Karr

For Easter, here are two poems, inspired again by the Christian Wiman interview. The first, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection,” is, I would argue, neither primarily about Incarnation or about Crucifixion but instead about the cosmic relevance of the Resurrection. It also reminds me of the theology of Maximus the Confessor. The second, Mary Karr’s “Descending Theology: The Resurrection,” was one that Wiman himself mentioned in the interview as a poem about the Resurrection. Karr’s poem reminds me of the communal relevance of the Resurrection. And thus, it reminds me of the theology of Augustine of Hippo. Both, of course, are deeply Pauline (cf. Rom. 8 and 1 Cor. 12, among many others, of course)

Be sure to check out Karr’s poem “The Devil’s Delusion” and Wiman’s  poem “Witness” in the latest print issue of Commonweal.

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The Christic Imagination - III

All of the recent posts on the Triduum and Anthony Domestico’s interview with Christian Wiman have brought me back to one of my favorite living poets, Geoffrey Hill. In the interview with Wiman, Domestico classifies two types of Christian poets: those who emphasize the incarnation and those who emphasize the crucifixion. In the second camp, Domestico quite rightly places Hill. And so I thought dotCommonweal readers would be interested in two of Hill’s poems. “Canticle for Good Friday” comes from his first collection For the Unfallen (1960) and “LACHRIMAE ANTIQUAE NOVAE” comes from Tenebrae (1978). Hill’s Broken Hierarchies, Poems 1952-2012 has just been published by Oxford University Press.

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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.

A career full of "first-rate performances": Mickey Rooney, RIP

a promising performer

There's something unsettling about successful child actors, even the best ones -- especially the best ones. Watching them perform, I can't help thinking about the fact that they are performing. And I am not convinced that it can be good for any child to be good at acting.

Mickey Rooney was certainly one of the best, a professional even before he could read a contract (or anything else). I've long been fascinated by the films of the 1930s and '40s, and the way they reflect Depression-era and wartime America, and I have always had a soft spot for Mickey Rooney. And I have always been impressed less by his talent than by his obvious hard work. Rooney was a performer who held nothing back; a vaudevillian who wanted made sure the people in the very back row got their money's worth. Or, perhaps, a child who just wanted to please. He was, after all, born in a trunk, and put on the stage by his parents as part of their act when he was not yet two. They got him a part anchoring a series of shorts when he was only six, and had his name legally changed to match the character so that he could profit even when he wasn't shooting.

All the studio stars worked harder, or at least faster, in those days, and the kids may have worked the hardest of all. I noted in a post here just after Shirley Temple's death that she made a staggering number of movies from 1934 to 1939. Rooney had a similiarly incredible output. I had thought it might be fun -- and quick -- to honor him with a quick look back at what Commonweal's film reviewers had said of his work. Little did I know how many reviews I'd have to read through -- back then the magazine was a weekly, and every issue included several movie reviews. Just searching our archives gives vivid evidence of how busy Rooney was in his heyday.

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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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