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Rescuing Kitty Genovese

You needn’t be a New Yorker or even of a certain age to know the name Kitty Genovese. The murder of the twenty-eight-year-old woman in March 1964 came to serve as a symbol of the kind of collective apathy thought to have afflicted, if not defined, an era of soaring crime and imminent social breakdown. Thirty-eight people were said to have watched from their windows as she was stalked, stabbed, raped, and left for dead at three a.m. in the vestibule of a Queens apartment building, none having lifted a finger (or phone) even as her attacker returned to finish the deed. Books followed, courses of study were established, and an academic industry was built on the Genovese murder and “the bystander effect”—an interpretation dutifully tended down through the decades by a media reluctant to subject a story this “good” to the greater scrutiny it deserved. In fact, not nearly as many people witnessed the attack; few saw it in its entirety; and two called the police.

That might have been the scoop of James Solomon’s documentary The Witness, which follows Kitty’s youngest brother Bill as he pursues the nagging questions about just what happened to his sister and how in the fifty intervening years her murder became shorthand for a sociological phenomenon. But maybe more important than cataloguing the journalistic flaws—which had already been acknowledged in a 2004 New York Times story and by others reviewing the original reporting—the film helps reanimate a young woman known mainly for the notoriety of her death and by the photo accompanying almost every account of it, reminding us that this was a real person getting her life underway. The dramatic appeal of The Witness comes from the fact that Bill seems to discover certain facts about the life of Kitty Genovese just as the audience does.

As the driven sibling willing to admit the obsessive aspect of his quest, Bill Genovese, now sixty-eight, makes for a compelling guide. A handsome, articulate Marine who lost both his legs in Vietnam, he is polite but dogged in tracking down surviving witnesses and learning what they did or didn’t see. (That he is often shown wheeling himself to meet interviewees forcefully underscores the notion of his dedication to the mission.)  He learns just how an exaggerated and erroneous version of the story that originated with The New York Times took root and became a trope repeated in everything from reports on 60 Minutes to speeches by Bill Clinton to episodes of Law & Order and Girls. He also meets, and shows admirable compassion for, the son of Winston Moseley—the man who killed Kitty—now a middle-aged minister whose own skewed understanding of the crime reveals how damagingly it affected him.

Yet it’s the section of the film that (un)covers Kitty’s life that works best.

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Commonweal Interviews, in the News

Sunday night in New York, the Tony award for best play went to The Humans, by Stephen Karam (it also took best featured actress, best featured actor, and best set design). Mollie Wilson O’Reilly interviewed Karam for Commonweal back in February of this year. Among other things, the playwright spoke of compassion, prayer, and how faith and fear figure into his work. There’s more for Karam in 2016, including an adaption of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set to premiere on Broadway in the fall, along with two films. You can read Mollie’s interview with the acclaimed (and busy) Stephen Karam here.

In the New York Times Book Review this weekend, John Williams wrote on The Sport of Kings author C. E. Morgan, whom he notes “has never divulged much about her biography.” True in so far as it goes—although she shared a relatively good amount about herself with Anthony Domestico in a Commonweal interview in May. Williams cites Tony’s interview in his write-up and zeroes in on some key quotes, but you’ll want to read the entire thing on our site if you haven’t already. (It will also be featured in the print edition of our upcoming Summer Fiction issue.)

Rock of Ages?

There’s a scene in director Luca Guadagnino’s current film A Bigger Splash where Harry, the manipulative music-producer houseguest played by Ralph Fiennes, guides his hosts through a Rolling Stones track from the Voodoo Lounge album, revealing the tricks he used to get certain sonic effects. It’s not a bad song, but only a few bars are heard before he puts on another record. What plays now is the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue"[*] which Harry can’t stop himself from dancing to. Is it a better song? Yes, but maybe it’s the context—the way Fiennes, shirt open, is shot under a hot Mediterranean sun; the funny-creepy irony of the lyrics in that moment; the cranking up of the soundtrack; a glimpse of the LP spinning on the turntable. Another character asks if he produced this one too. “Honey,” Harry shouts back, “I was only sixteen when they did this!” For Harry, clearly it’s not just a better song, but a great one.

And what makes a great song—we’ll stipulate rock songs here—is different from what makes a song representative of the genre, criteria for which Chuck Klosterman discusses in a New York Times Magazine piece headlined “Which Rock Star Will Historians of the Future Remember?” On the same day it was reported that Gus Wenner, son of Jann, would be harnessing the brand power of Rolling Stone magazine to launch a website on video-gaming—“It’s the new rock-and-roll,” he declared—Klosterman predicted that three hundred years from now, almost no one would even know what rock-and-roll was, and that maybe just a single artist, based on the staying power of a single composition (think Sousa and “The Stars and Stripes Forever”) would be the future’s only link to what he calls the “most important musical form of the 20th century.” And that artist and song are?

Questionable premise, annoying certainty, a unilateral pronouncement guaranteed to elicit complaints about overlooked nominees—well, that’s all part of writing about rock-and-roll (see Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Pitchfork’s best-ofs). Tower Records at its height not only anchored street corners and retail centers but also produced its own monthly magazine, Pulse, pages of which were given over to “desert island discs,” reader-submitted lists of can’t-live-without records—the ceaseless output of a subculture defined by its compulsion to collect, catalog, and rate. Klosterman’s piece, if not explicitly intended to generate similar response, has of course done just that. It got about thirteen-hundred comments in a little more than twenty-four hours, many no doubt from people who went straight to the end to learn Klosterman hadn’t anointed Mick or Bob or Paul or Jimi or Aretha, or James Taylor or Janis Joplin or the Beach Boys or Radiohead or REM or anyone else who hands-down, no-doubt, unquestionably deserves it over the ultimate choice: Chuck Berry and “Johnny B. Goode.”

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It's Raining in Minnesota

My parents got me The Very Best of Prince album when I was about eleven years old. I had just received my first Walkman and with this new technology in tow, I thought I should begin to take myself more seriously a music-listener. I made concerted efforts to have my taste in music, movies, and TV mirror that of my siblings—who were the obvious standards for coolness at the time—and noticed quickly that classic rock and synth funk made me more admirable in the eyes of my older brothers than Jock Jams ever could. I’m not sure peer pressure has ever produced nobler results. Prince was my first real musical love.

In the early 2000’s, pop as a genre—which, as a preteen, I was expected to like—primarily referred to folks like Britney Spears and 3LW and Backstreet Boys. But there was something qualitatively different about listening to Prince; even though it was dancey and fun, his music didn’t feel cheap or hollow like the music I heard on the radio. It felt timeless.

Eleven is probably a weird age to begin a musical infatuation with an artist known for his “predilection for lavishly kinky story-songs,” but I loved that he told stories, set scenes—even if I didn’t always understand the subtle meaning underneath the words. It was easy to imagine the people and places he painted lyrically—they were all in vivid detail: “She wore a raspberry beret / the kind you find at a second-hand store” and “walked in through the out door;” or “Dream if you can a courtyard / an ocean of violets in bloom”—even a kid can latch on to imagery like that.

I suppose my parents weren’t too concerned about the subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) suggestions in his music, since, in addition to loving Prince, I was also the kid who requested books about Moses for Christmas and practiced spelling big words in my free time. They knew they could trust me to remain obstinately innocent while still exposing me to one of the most amazing musicians my homeland has ever produced—and indeed, they were right. It took me about a decade to realize and understand the almost incessant sexual references in his lyrics (I really thought “Little Red Corvette” was about a little red corvette), but the slow revelation just made it seem that his music grew along with me.

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Imre Kertesz, RIP

The Hungarian writer and Nobel Prize winner, Imre Kertesz has died (Thursday, March 31). His first novel, Fateless, is a strange and moving story of a boy (the boy Kertesz was) sent to a concentration camp in 1944. The boy's survival and Kertesz's were chronicled in two subsequent novels that departed from the usual account of holocaust survivors.

My review of Dossier K, a memoir, as stirring and elusive as his novels, tried to capture the interlarded account of the actual life and imagined life of a writer who expressed the perfect irony of survivng Nazism only to be suppressed by Communism. In a supreme irony, he spent many years in Berlin, where a younger generation of Germans welcomed the accounts of his life and the suppressed lives of the Nazi generation. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize by the Germans while Hungarians long refused to publish his works.

Messiahs & Temptations, Sandals & Centurions

Readers of a certain age may remember the original airing in 1977 of Franco Zeffirelli's miniseries Jesus of Nazareth on NBC. It immediately became reliable, parent-approved Easter-season fare, running several times up and into the 1980s -- appointment viewing, which was the only choice in those pre-on-demand days.

It was also familiar viewing, with its magisterial theme music and earnestly emoting players, its sandals and robes and desert settings. Some predictable casting -- Ernest Borgnine as The Centurion! Rod Steiger as Pontius Pilate! -- provided another sturdy bridge from Hollywood's then-still-not-so-distant past. While the presence of Anne (The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson) Bancroft as Mary Magdalene, Claudia (Fellini’s 8 1/2) Cardinale as The Adulteress, and Olivia (Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet) Hussey as Mary, the Mother of Jesus, lent a little cinephilic cred, make no mistake: this was safe, straightforward entertainment all the way. Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman were considered for the title role, but it went to the lesser known Robert Powell, whose penetrating blue eyes, Zeffirelli and others involved in the production believed, would better match the perception of Jesus held by the American public. In fact, he looked like Eric Clapton. Our family tuned in for every episode, every year, the way you might expect: religiously.

Jesus of Nazareth still shows up now and then on cable, and it's also available on YouTube. If  you’re looking for something on the big screen, there currently are two feature films dramatizing the life of Jesus. In one, you can "experience your faith through the eyes of the child" (The Young Messiah, whose moppish title character speaks in a delightful British accent); in the other, you can "experience the event that changed the world through the eyes of a nonbeliever" (Risen, whose brooding, stubbled protagonist wields a sword). Stubbornly making do with my my own middle-aged eyes, I chose to experience things through two films that come at faith in less familiarly broad fashion: The Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, and the period horror movie The Witch.

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"Romeo and Juliet" in Hartford

Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo and Juliet countered the effects of an icy Sunday afternoon. Happily the focus on young love had an effect on the age of the audience. There were many below sixty-five. The stage design was puzzling – an apparent back drop of large forms for pouring concrete, for some reason inset with flower sconces and lights – but then with the help of program notes it became clear. We were looking at crypts, stacked tomb enclosures that reached to the height of the curtain. Mourners who formed a mute chorus populated that back of the stage in many of the scenes, attentive to the players down-stage. We were not to forget the trajectory of the action: the maw of death.  My wife had to remind me that the costumes and design were inspired by post-war Italian neo-realist films (She read the program carefully.), and so the initial scene involving the brawl between the Monatgues and Capulets (“I do bite my thumb.”) made sense: street thugs taunting each other with shining knives, not sword blades.

Darko Tresnjak is a formidable director and designer. He made the setting work, certainly more so as the play evolved. Whether this is a look back to West Side story or not, the rivalry between the houses makes sense in a mean street context.

On the simplest level, I am continually admiring of actors’ feats of memory in learning lines. Surely the energy of passion has to drive the delivery, especially with the overwrought desires and fears of the speeches. Anyone who remembers reading Romeo and Juliet in school will attest that Shakespeare doesn’t always yield sense easily – especially in the punning interchanges of courtly love or in the confessions of longing or despair.

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Body of An American

We went to the Hartford Stage to see a performance of The Body of an American which will run there until the end of January. The play offered a great deal in a ninety minute, two-man performance. I scarcely felt the time pass, so quick and intense the shifts in characters’ voices and in the vignettes from the life of the photo-journalist , Paul Watson [Michael Cumpsty], who is the focus of the play. The playwright, Dan O’Brien, as his character [Michael Crane] makes clear, found Watson’s reporting from war zones, scenes of genocide, civil conflicts, and Artic Canada unavoidably compelling. He engaged in email correspondence and phone calls in an attempt to know the man who had taken such risks and witnessed appalling modern conflicts. The characters then offer the playwright’s personal search and the photographer’s response to his troubled experiences.

To make compelling theatre out of a series of stage interviews, by phone, email and finally in person, is a testimony to O’Brien’s art. The canny use of projected visuals and remarkable sound effects helped suspend disbelief. But in fact there was a distancing reassurance in the play’s mechanics, its notion of being a made thing. This was an imitation of an action – and with Aristotle in mind, there was a conflict, complication, and a muted climax, or perhaps series of high points.

The work of getting the story told, which could have caused awkward exposition, appeared effortless, in part because of the pace of the play and the ease with which the actors changed roles, dove-tailed their lines, and gave convincing portrayals.

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Staff Picks: 'Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs'

I read a lot of book reviews, have edited quite a few, and written dozens myself. The best reviews convey essential information about the book under consideration, but more important, either the reviewer’s honest disappointment or passionate endorsement. Dwight Garner is perhaps the most engaging, and fair-minded, of the daily New York Times book critics. I always make a point of reading him, and after coming across his utterly smitten review of the celebrated photographer Sally Mann’s Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, I went right out and plunked down $32 for the hefty volume. As usual, Garner was right. Not only is Mann an exceptional photographer, a fan of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Graham Greene generally, but she is also a remarkably talented writer with a gift for acute social observation and disarming personal confession. The woman writes one beautiful sentence after another. On the challenge of landscape photography, for instance: “Working in the inexhaustible natural pageant before me, I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might in fact hold the key to the secrets of the human heart: place, personal history, and metaphor.”

The daughter of an artistically inclined family doctor and a liberal-minded mother who ran a bookstore, Mann grew up in the 1950s and ’60s near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. Her father was an iconoclastic atheist from a wealthy Alabama and Texas family, her mother from more cramped and unconventional circumstances in Boston. As was the region’s custom, young Sally was raised by the family’s desperately poor but immensely dignified black nanny, always known as Gee-Gee, whom Mann remained devoted to as an adult. A rambunctious child and rebellious adolescent, Mann once returned home boasting of how she had defied local taboos by giving a young black man a ride in her car. Gee-Gee wasted no time in making it clear that what Mann had done was not an act of liberal-minded generosity, but had in fact greatly endangered the young man.

In writing about both her Southern and Northern ancestors, Mann is perfectly attuned to local culture and customs, whether the racial politics of the post-Civil War South or the social hierarchies of Brahman Boston. She also paints a disturbingly vivid picture of the thwarted ambitions and shocking murder-suicide of her husband’s parents, who struggled to climb the greasy pole of one of New York’s tonier suburbs. Mann herself graduated from the progressive Putney School in Vermont, and attended Bennington, only to return to her beloved Virginia where she and her husband raised their three children in modest circumstances. One of the more touching, if not astonishing, parts of Mann’s story is that she has been married to the same man since she was eighteen, a record of constancy hardly common among us baby-boomers.   

Mann is perhaps best known for a series of photographs of her young children, many of them nudes. The book, Immediate Family, was published in 1992, and caused quite a stir, with critics suggesting the material was exploitative, if not pornographic. Mann’s defense of herself and her art is rigorous and persuasive, and the photographs themselves have more than survived the test of time. On this controversy and others, Mann is as feisty as she seems to have been hard-headed as a teenager. Another of the great rewards of Hold Still is Mann’s detailed commentary on the process of making art, both as a photographer and a writer. As she ruefully notes, failure is far more common than success, and success when it comes is mostly a gift.

My only criticism of Hold Still is that Mann and her editors do not know what the Immaculate Conception refers to. Readers should also be aware that Mann is as fearless in confronting, photographing, and writing about dead—and even decomposing—bodies as young and healthy ones.

Staff Picks: 'Twenty-Thousand Roads—The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music'

Armed with my Ferrante (Elena) and my Levi (Carlo) and various guides and phrasebooks, I had plenty of Italy-specific reading to enjoy while visiting the southern region of Puglia last summer. Instead I spent most of the time with the biography of a singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who died of a drug overdose when I was eight years old.

Ask ten music fans about Gram Parsons and you’re likely to get eight negative responses, at least some of those hostile. But I’ve long been hooked on his music, the blend of country, western, and rock he christened “cosmic American.” But I knew far less about his life. There's the post-war, Southern-gothic, baby-boom upbringing (father a suicide at Christmastime; mother perishing of alcoholism the night of his high school graduation; a doting, flashy, and alcoholic stepfather who lent Gram his surname but helped plunder the family orange-grove fortune). There's the stint in the University Heights section of the Bronx while fronting the short-lived International Submarine Band. There's his “collaboration” with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, his symbiotic “involvement” with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones around the time of Exile on Main Street, and his “discovery” of Emmylou Harris (quote marks, because the stories are complicated).

After Parsons’s death in 1973 in a California hotel room, a group of acquaintances intercepted his body on its way to the funeral home, brought it to Joshua Tree National Park, and set it ablaze, purportedly to grant Gram his wish to be cremated in the high desert—a tale author David N. Meyer positions as the comi-tragic climax to this thoroughly researched, novel-like bio. No besotted fan, though, he leaves it to the reader to decide where Parsons went right and (sadly all too often) wrong.

Parsons’s harshest critics have called him a poseur and manipulator, a good-looking rich boy whose wan musical progeny include groups like The Eagles. Others point to his talent for wedding un-weddable genres and note we’d otherwise not have had the alt-country band Uncle Tupelo and their progeny (Wilco, Sun Volt), or performers like Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Read Twenty-Thousand Roads for the story of Parsons’s life and music; hold onto it for the end notes, discographies, and Meyer’s own extensive (and, I’ve found, indispensable) listening guide.

Staff Picks: 'Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph' & 'Journey by Moonlight'

I usually avoid thousand-page biographies, but I’ll make an exception for Beethoven. Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph is excellent on Beethoven’s life but truly superb on the music itself. I didn’t think there was much new to say about his Third Symphony (the world-changing Eroica), but Swafford’s thirty pages of analysis and musical examples not only draw fascinating conclusions from early sketches but propose a revelatory view of how the entire work fits together. The last movement, which can sound trivial and even anticlimactic after the energy and drama that come before, Swafford claims is based on a dance form that, to Beethoven, represented a true ideal society, a dance of equals. Long after I finished the book I was digging out recordings of other Beethoven pieces just for the pleasure of rediscovery. And what more can you ask of a composer biography than that?

Antal Szerb’s 1937 Journey by Moonlight (recently reissued by NYRB) was my fiction discovery of the year, a remarkable combination of luminous Italian atmosphere, haunting thoughts of suicide, and perhaps the funniest, most tumultuous baptism in fiction—a baptism that also, unexpectedly, saves a life.

Martin Sheen's Spiritual Activism

I was a student at Fordham when Martin Sheen came to screen 1983’s In the King of Prussia, a hastily and inexpensively produced “film” shot on video about the Ploughshares Eight. A friend active in social-justice issues, knowing I was a fan of Sheen for his performances in Badlands and Apocalypse Now, encouraged me to attend the daytime event. Certainly the organizers must have been counting at least a little bit on Sheen’s celebrity appeal, but as I recall the screening was lightly attended. As for the film—well, Sheen’s performance as a judge in the re-enacted trial of the group that entered a General Electric plant in 1980 and damaged nosecones designed for nuclear warheads doesn’t quite match the work he did for Terrence Malick or Francis Ford Coppola. That said, the appearances in the film of Molly Rush, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and the rest of the Ploughshares Eight did leave an impression. So did Sheen’s evident interest in social justice and other issues—which my mere fandom at the time had not previously admitted the possibility of.

Though still more partial to Sheen as Kit Caruthers and Capt. Benjamin Willard than as Jed (The West Wing) Bartlet or Thomas (The Way) Avery, I’ve since continued to follow his faith-driven activism. It’s what prompted me to catch up with his appearance last week on Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast. Now, I’m not much for Tippet’s style of interviewing, but this wasn’t such a problem with the garrulous Sheen on hand.

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From St. Nicholas to Santa Claus: An Interview

Christmas was an especially big production at my parents’ house. If you drove past our family’s white stucco bungalow, you could not miss the giant inflatable Santa Claus on the front lawn. If you ventured inside you would find a festive five-foot rug featuring another Santa, a fabric Advent calendar taking up three feet on the wall, stained glass angels in the window, and more than one crèche. That my father, Gerry Bowler, is a historian specializing in the social history of Christmas explains some of the enthusiasm. When we decorated the tree, he would lovingly insist on explaining the mythic history of the “Christmas pickle” to his daughters as soon as one of us reached for the pickle-shaped ornament. Around this time of year, reporters would call to ask him why we kiss under mistletoe or about the history of coal-filled chimney stockings. This year, I joined the fray and posed him some questions about St. Nicholas over email.


Hi Dad. First: How did St. Nicholas become associated with Christmas?

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Christmas with Richard Yates

If the prospect of your annual encounter with Dickens, O’Henry, or Jean Shepherd isn't providing the usual anticipatory joy this Christmas season, consider Richard Yates. True, spending time with the author of Revolutionary Road and other generally gloomy tales of domestic discord might seem counterintuitive. Even fans bemoan his projected self-hatred, with novelist Richard Russo (in the introduction to The Collected Stories) allowing that there “may be some truth to the charge” by critics that Yates revels “in the failures his characters must endure.”

Yet I’d submit there’s something to be gained, even or especially at this time of year, from reading two Yates stories in particular. One is “Fun with a Stranger.” It will probably resonate with anybody who can recall what it was like to be a child stuck in a classroom at this time of year. I actually hadn’t thought about “Fun with a Stranger” for a while, until my daughter recently complained that her seventh-grade class would not be having a Christmas party. So I told her an abridged version of Yates’s story, about a class of third-graders under the tutelage of the “strict and humorless” Miss Snell, a woman of sixty or so who “seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust.” She’s a recognizable type—“preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming... and, worst of all, coming to school without ‘proper supplies.’” The children fear and dislike her, yet “they could not hate her, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.... [they had] a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her.”

The story is driven by the teacher's promise of a classroom celebration on the last day before Christmas vacation, with a possible surprise in the bargain.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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