Foreword | July 17, 2011
I sometimes wonder why the best literature so often has a element of unlikelihood: why one of the great novels of the twentieth century is an 800-page description of an ad salesman and a student walking around one day in Dublin; or why one of the defining American classics is about living in a shack on a lake for a couple of years; or why one of the finest English lyric poems is a depiction of an antique urn in a museum. Why is the most memorable stuff so often the miraculous transformation of a seemingly limited subject?
A recent article by Burkhard Bilger in the New Yorker describes the work of neuroscientist David Eagleman. Eagleman is interested in the way the human brain assesses and handles time, from the briefest to the longest periods. His depiction of our temporal mechanisms turns out to be just one example of the currently evolving portrait of the human brain as a hodgepodge of overlapping and layered systems, a “Victorian attic” of devices that handle slightly different but related processes. A person with a neural illness or damage may be extremely limited in some ways while becoming acutely capable in related areas. For Eagleman and other contemporary neuroscientists, the human brain is less a perfectly tuned and fragile mechanism than a robust and hearty organ capable of surprising adjustments.
The best writing reflects a similar capacity because its medium is language, one of the mind’s most flexible and extraordinary tools. Literary writing at times can seem demanding and awkward—the clumsy novel, so seldom perfectly unified or consistent in quality and so often hard to conclude, or the short story, with its delicate needs—yet all literary genres run on the power and unique plasticity of language. A story or a poem can move through time by milliseconds or by centuries because a sentence can without strain unite Napoleon with our neighbor, our greatest hope with our greatest fear. Any given literary form may be something of a hack-saw wonder, but what’s under the hood—the constructions of language itself and the significances they convey—can be amazing.
The pieces in this issue are replete with that supple power of language. The subjects of many of them concern significant others, both in the usual sense of loved ones and in the broader sense of persons who, despite an unlikely connection, play a major role in one’s life. John W. Evans’s essay “Elegy and Narrative” is about the intersection of grief and craft. Evans writes about his attempt to document through poetry his grieving and recovery after the violent death of his first wife from a bear attack. He defines the difference between a narrative of death, a poem about loss and an elegy. In almost the same breath he chronicles his own pain: “I was a young widower writing poems. I was a poet writing about grief. It was a balance I could never quite zero out. The questions were of authenticity and scale, invocation rather than imitation.”
Daniel Anderson’s “Cruising through the Necropolis” is both a memoir of growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s and a meditation on mortality and memory. He describes a friendship, from kindergarten into his teens, with David Claymon. Anderson’s family was less affluent than his friend’s, especially after his parents’ divorce. His friend’s more comfortable circumstances and attractive, younger parents appealed to the essayist, though he also was aware of David’s volatility, which escalated in their teens and repeatedly got him into trouble. By the time they were in high school they no longer had much to do with each other, and one day David, in a rage over being grounded, hanged himself, naming Anderson in his suicide note (“Danny gets what he wants”). The essay is partly a description of David’s descent into depression and consuming anger; more than that, though, it is an homage to their friendship.
Amin Ahmad’s “After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes” is the story of a troubled relationship between a young Indian-American man, Ali, and his American graduate-student girlfriend. They travel to Barcelona for a scholarly conference, where they are separated. When Ali discovers a neighborhood of poor Pakistanis in the middle of Barcelona, it evokes in him nostalgia but also confirms that he is more American now than Indian. Still, his Indian background and sensitivity to the poverty and pride of the Pakistanis signal an unbridgeable difference in outlook between him and his girlfriend. Cultural conflict of a more dangerous kind is one theme of Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s “In the Mosque of Imam Alwani,” the epic story of three Kurdish youths, Bahj and Araz and their female friend, Asti, living in Iraq in wartime. After Araz is severely burned in a vehicle explosion caused by American fire, the three are separated and continue on their individual paths to adulthood. When they reunite six years later, Bahj has become a militant Islamic religious leader, Asti has married and Araz has been educated in London. It is a tale of friendship and love and despair and of living out the effects of growing up in a country at war.
In several of the aforementioned pieces the “significance” of the other person is partly that they provoke conflict in the protagonist’s life. That’s definitely the case with Tom Barbash’s story “Stay Up With Me.” Henry and Alice have an off-again-on-again relationship based on a strong attraction that keeps drawing them together. When Alice returns to Henry wanting consolation because a lover has left her, Henry wonders if they’re a couple that is magnetically attracted but fatally mismatched. Amanda Rea’s “The Silver Bullet” is a retrospectively told story of a girl growing up on a farm in Colorado in the 1980s. The father keeps trying to make it, while the mother lives for the moment and drinks and smokes too much. When the family’s economic situation becomes desperate, they pin their hopes on winning a thousand dollars in a promotional contest to find a silver bullet in a beer keg hidden in the wilderness. The significant others in this story are the whole family, particularly the parents, who are “so intrinsically opposed that their first conversation turned into an argument in which they poured beer over each other’s heads. Their union is volatile, passionate, as thrilling as it can be bleak.”
In Elisabeth Fairchild’s “A Heavy Breath,” Pauline, the young wife of a worker in a whale-oil refinery, has lost a young daughter who became ill after they moved to the area near the refinery. Pauline has also lost her love for her husband, Ezra. The story recounts a depressing morning on which she is overcome by disgust for the awful work Ezra does, the overwhelming stench of the refinery and the sickliness of her second baby. To escape, she takes a walk on the beach with her baby, toward an unexpected outcome that occurs after meeting a man who was once a whaler. It’s a mood story that evokes the hopelessness of a life governed by the need to labor at unpleasant work in a state of overwhelming earthly discomfort.
The poems of Diane Seuss are a study in lushness, their lines saturated with sensory and sensual images. They are also filled with the longing for a past lover, an intense romance made more passionate by grief and the fact that the romance was short-lived. “It burns my brain, the romance of it. The bitter jazz of it./Love’s axis painfully turning.” The loss of “bitter jazz” leaves her to “the lonely rot of it. The lowdown dive of it.” Steve Gehrke’s poems focus on a former marriage and include meditations that both lament the divorce and regard the relationship with a kind of objective curiosity. Gehrke is a virtuoso of metaphor, piling on lists of analogies and plying each one with resonance that matches his subject. Shippy’s significant other is neither lover nor spouse; it’s the persona he has created (Lucas), who is the poet’s projection of himself as an “everyman.” Lucas is likable, flawed, ordinary, eccentric, and witty. He is detached from the world so he can observe the world; he accepts the limitations of the self by letting himself observe and be amused by life’s absurdities.
This issue’s features include Patrick Hicks’s interview of Brian Turner, a poet whose open-spirited work concerns serving in the army in Bosnia and Iraq, where the significant others are the people caught in the crossfire. They also include Kristine Somerville’s portrait of “Kazimir Malevich: The Evangelist of Abstraction.” Malevich is one of the many Russian artists whose extraordinary work was nearly lost for a half century due to the suppressions of Stalin’s regime. Malevich was an early progenitor of what eventually became the dominant trend in twentieth century art—art for its own sake, unlimited by imitation or physical reality. As a young artist, Malevich came out of nowhere, born in the Ukraine, finally making it to Moscow, where by 1908 he was in the Moscow Artists’ Society along with Kandinsky and others. He worked in what he helped define as the Russian version of Futurism, which was especially interested in art as inspiration for redefining the social structure. Somerville focuses on Malevich’s costume designs for the Cubo-Futurist opera Victory over the Sun, performed in 1913 in St. Petersburg, a play that was in many ways before its time and at once both exhilarating and terrifying. With its rediscovery, this play has more and more seemed like one of the earliest and purest examples of Modernism’s declaration of independence over the received world order.
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