My Pal Keats: Contemporary Poets at Play in the Anthology
The Waste Land and Other Poems by John Beer. Canarium Books, 2010, 128 pp., $14 (paper).
Who Said by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Copper Canyon Press, 2013, 88 pp., $16 (paper).
Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles by Lee Upton. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015, 100 pp., $15.95 (paper).
gentlessness by Dan Beachy-Quick. Tupelo Press, 2015, 112 pp., $16.95 (paper).
That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Many years ago, to fulfill a class assignment, I memorized Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. I can still conjure the first fourteen lines perfectly and the next eight imperfectly before my memory falls apart, but it is the first line that floats up to whisper through my days. I have often listened to its grave rhythm and almost as often said it to myself as the most inside of jokes. Stuck in traffic that feels like a precursor to hell itself? Boy, is that the deep uncanny mine of souls!This line is the most frequent visitor from the poems of my past, but others pop up too—Frost’s What but design of darkness to appall? Auden’s If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones / are consistently homesick for . . . These snatches of poems come not as message or music but something in between. They feel like incantations, a kind of spell the purpose of which feels obscure yet important. My rational mind thinks they serve as antidote to my internet habits. In spite of many well-founded concerns about the persistence of our digital footprints, the online experience feels to me like the opposite of persistence. The pleasure of a well-made sentence still exists online, but the context is so immediate and dissolving that it seems to beggar our ideas about what it means to be well-made.
It is, of course, as old as Plato to worry and complain about the effects of new communication technologies on our mental capacities, so the problems the digital world presents for our attention spans and depth of thought are not worth rehearsing here. Besides, the web has been a boon for recordings of poets’ voices, connecting us to the heard quality of poems that gets lost in books, so maybe we poetry lovers will reap a net gain when it comes to new media. In any event, if you are an interested reader of poetry, there are inevitably some lines that stick for you the way Rilke’s uncanny mine does for me, lines you don’t need Google or Lit Genius to find or explicate.
The four books under review here are, in varied ways, about the pleasure of such echoes and the way poets cherish, cultivate, resist and revise the voices of other writers inside their heads. The poetic sources that recur across these collections include revered writers, the most canonical of the canon—Eliot and Dickinson, for example. Keats is everywhere, an intimate of whoever aspires to write poetry. Poe also pops up more often than one might guess; these poets testify that his rhythms in poetry are idiosyncratic and indelible. Prose writers like Henry James make their presence known as well. Together these recent poets’ responses to their forbears constitute a sampling of influential poets in English, showing both breadth of reading and the limitations of the tradition they inherit. These rewritings of the poetic past are irreverent, but it is significant that they mostly leave intact the sheer whiteness of the “greatest hits” list of poetry in English. Maybe the anthology heavyweights are most in need reinvention.
Of these books, John Beer’s is the most extensively engaged with a single poet and poem. By the audacious act of titling his book The Waste Land and Other Poems, Beer fully commits to his rewriting of a poem some readers might consider sacrosanct. Like Eliot’s poem, Beer’s “The Waste Land” surveys an urban landscape scarred by violence, but rather than international war, the violence is internal, often between citizens and the institutions that should serve them. His homage to Eliot is nervy, often funny, but also reflects a clear devotion to the poem. Like a good cover song, it hews closely enough to the original for readers to appreciate the skill of its imitation but departs enough to keep things interesting. Beer begins with a list of names for “the city I cannot name” and finds his way to an ironic take on Eliot’s iconic first line: “April is the coolest month, which brings / happy policemen the pleasant dreams of spring.”
Readers of Eliot may know that the original title for The Waste Land was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a reference to a character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Eliot’s title suggests that a single speaker mimics the various voices we encounter in The Waste Land. For Beer, the police (and the stories in the police blotter) are not an opportunity for dramatic reenactment—they are central to the decay spreading across the nameless city, which is and is not Chicago, as Eliot’s city is and is not London. Section III, “Ballad of the Police Department” is a retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the underworld of the North/Clybourn train station. Its rollicking “song of policemen,” composed in rhymed couplets, tells of a mass police action designed to round up unsavory elements (“Each anti-war changer, each car window soaper.”) but which leaves the city feeling empty and bereft.
In addition to questions about power and powerlessness, Beer raises concerns about the role of art in a decaying civilization. He transforms Eliot’s conversation between two women in a bar into a discourse on artistic ambition and its limits—financial realities, the problems of being original—interrupted repeatedly by the call “THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS. / WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.” In the final section of the poem, “Death to Poetry,” Beer writes of Orpheus wandering through the destruction of the city, but he interrupts this mythic journey with his authorial voice: “And once the poem ended, commentary began.” While Eliot had “fragments” of poetry to shore against ruin, Beer has only “footnotes.” Though his “Waste Land” is far from the dry exercise the word “commentary” calls up, this concern about being simply an addendum or an afterthought to the great voices of the past surfaces throughout the book. “I wanted to say something important,” says the speaker of “Theses on Failure,” “no, something profound—no something by which you might remember me. Why was I unable?”
“The Waste Land” is just the first in a varied and captivating collection of poems, which range in their references from Rilke and Keats to Swift Boat Veterans and the pretzel that felled President Bush the younger. While Eliot is the most obvious influence on this book, Beer notes that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations guided much of his composition. I felt this philosophical thrust most immediately in the latter part of the book, in poems that analyze how people make use of the inputs of our senses. If this sounds a bit dry, see Beer’s poem on the foundation of the perfume business Lancôme and his parody of celebrity spokesperson culture: “Uma Thurman is a contemporary woman and sole master of her life. / Uma Thurman is about style. / The key to her success? / Her ‘passion for life.’”
Like all the poets I will discuss here, Beer draws on a long list references, and though his poems are also engaged with contemporary politics, he suggests that their engagement with the past might complicate their stance. In the striking poem “John Beer 1969-1969,” the writer, “born dead,” speaks from the grave: “This is not, for example, a political poem, / Because the dead have no politics. They might have / A hunger, but nothing you’ve ever known / Could begin to assuage it.” He draws on a force that encompasses yet supersedes politics, the deep well of human desire.
The way these writers treat allusion suggests that poems are not—or not only—works under study but also songs that accompany our lives, so it makes sense that popular music gets mixed in with their literary references. A line from the Pixies’ “Gigantic” creeps into Beer’s parody of “The Waste Land”; Jennifer Michael Hecht mashes up Dickinson’s “I Measure Every Grief I Meet” with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This kind of blending is typical of her method in Who Said. In “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized,” she borrows a title from Plath and a rhythm from Poe to write about a photo of an ancestor: “It was any of many years ago / in this half townhouse, with this tree / that a woman lived whom I don’t know, / in a photo you can see. She baked bread, / ate with two fat men, / and her picture looks much like me.” The influenza epidemic that killed this ancestor comes on with an eeriness that echoes Poe, but the true anxiety of the poem arises from the speaker’s thought that she might have to witness horrors similar to those this woman saw at the beginning of the twentieth century, “because I know more than she / and, even from here, it near blinded me.” Hecht poses the strength of love, “She for her men, I for my / small and tall friends” as a counterforce to these haunting episodes, but she can’t seem to escape the “dark dream” this face, familiar yet strange, inspires.
In the introductory poem, “Key,” Hecht makes more explicit than Beer does the combination of devotion and irreverence that drives the collection. To new readers of poetry, Hecht professes that this work is made by “echo’s stolen golden tongue (my heart)” and to those readers deeply familiar with the poems she plays on, she offers “humbly, a little bit more.” Yet, of “obeying the rules of the dead,” in poetry, she asserts, “you’re right to ask yourself, Who said?” The book’s title is a question about echoes and authenticity. In the middle of these poems, a reader might stop to ask who said “Half in love with easeful Lenny Bruce”? The reader who heard that echo would be thinking of Keats though, of course, Keats said no such thing. In a different vein, Hecht questions articles of poetic faith. The speaker of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” claims “I have promises to keep”, but Hecht doubts it: “He had no promises to keep, nothing pending.”
In addition to a mix-master, Hecht is a technician of prosody. The forms she inhabits in this book include villanelle, pantoum and sestina. She takes on the challenge of these well-trod patterns with wit and invention. As interested as it is in received form, Hecht’s book is even more deeply infused with wordplay. Sound devices drive the poems on, and sense tags along with them. For example, in “Hard Won,” inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” she writes, “Passed over / without an honest past, we coast and feign. / Others feint and faint, we can’t get any fainter.” In “Valentine,” “Love is the song of the shovel. / Love shoves.” The punning and homonyms are substantive and funny both. The poem “Backyard Scene, or Fragment of a Vision” rewrites “Kubla Khan”: Coleridge’s phrase about the earth breathing in “fast thick pants” inspires her to these lines: “From this romanticism, with seetheless turmoil ceasing / wearing hot pants and panting hotly for this reason…”
If the force behind Beer’s playfulness is at least in part epistemological (How do we know what we know?), what underlies Hecht’s playfulness is existential dilemma. Why are we born? Why do we keep living? What meaning do we ascribe to life? These questions take one shape in a series of poems about an infant son. Hecht describes a parent feeling what parents feel, the impossible-to-prepare-for newness of love for a child: “So this is the tidal of the babe’s face! / The wave of blood-love ferns its way / under pendulum, behind round clock. Something about you alone / among my made things: you look back. Down / into the river, in love beneath the moon.” The questions appear in another form, and most bluntly, in poems that reject suicide as a possible answer to questions about life and death. Suicide is an issue Hecht has taken up elsewhere, in Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. Her poems revisit these philosophies in the intimate terms of the lyric. “No Hemlock Rock” begins with the plea “Don’t kill yourself” and ends with the promise, “I won’t either.”
Hecht usually makes note of which poems she is riffing on, but she presents her notes in a cryptogram readers must choose to decipher. For puzzle lovers, this is an added bonus. By contrast, Lee Upton’s Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles contains very minimal notes, leaving the reader to identify those places where she engages with luminaries of English language poetry, from Shakespeare to Gertrude Stein.
Upton’s poems have an unassuming air, perhaps because they tend toward short, irregular lines. They can seem casual, almost flippant, but the conversational tone admits opportunities for sharp observation and insight. Any apparent simplicity to Bottle the Bottles is deceptive; the poems are layered, as the title suggests. Upton surveys mundane scenes and finds apt language and imagery to communicate complex questions, such as how thinking guides action. In describing a man losing control in “Drunk at a Party,” the speaker asks, “What latch keeps a brain / from spinning like a prawn / dropped on a stranger’s parquet?” In “Gorged” she asks, “Weren’t even our first mistakes / copies of their original forms? / Every time I swallow / my philosophy hurts.”
The gustatory nature of these examples is typical of the book. Images of eating and drinking arise over and over. Given their allusive quality, I am tempted to read into this interest in consumption a metaphor for how readers ingest literature, but it is closer to the truth to say that for Upton the need to eat is a drive that creates action. In the case of “Hunger,” she notes that the story of Hansel and Gretel is propelled at every turn by eating, but perhaps any plot is driven by hunger of some kind. Drinking, on the other hand, offers an escape, for better or worse, from the plots pushing us forward. In “Beer” Upton writes, “I am dread’s quencher, / anxiety’s antidote, / guilt’s blotter. / You. You’ve had enough / existence for one day.”
Like the allusions in Beer and Hecht, Upton’s references to famous poems are sometimes iconoclastic. The poem “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May” begins “Like there’s another choice for ye.” Another poem is titled, “The Liar, Emily Dickinson.” In “The Mermaids Sang to Me,” she imagines an anti-Prufrock who finds at last that the mermaids are “a bunch of bores” who can’t stop committing “the crime of singing so much / about their own lives.”
Upton also composes by sound as much as by sense. In “Pandora,” the speaker looks at her box and wonders about its contents: “What if it is pillars, / golden birds, the mountains, and slow clover and snow cover…” The small modulation of a phrase changes its meaning entirely, and subtle moves like this suggest how delicate language can be as a container for our most crucial ideas and questions.
The most moving of Upton’s poems, and the most central to the book, is “A Terrarium.” In this poem charting a constellation of family deaths, the references to other poets largely fall away. In fact, Upton brings up Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” only to mention her failure to finish a poem about her mother called “The Belle Dame Sans Her Tea.” The mother and sister are the most immediate deaths in the poem, and the most painful to mourn. Their losses come so close together that they get mixed up in the speaker’s mind: “It was my sister, not my mother, lifting a cup / which made us believe she was recovering.” The poem also recognizes previous deaths and near-tragedies, like the baby and mother who survived even after the doctor insisted the only way to save the mother’s life would be to take the baby out “leg by leg, arm by arm.” Once the accounting begins, “The deaths spread forward and back. / My mother’s sister’s first child: polio. / Her great uncle who kept the eye of her doll / when his sister Anna died— / twelve years and two days old: typhoid.”
The terrarium in which the poem preserves the beloved sister is a memory of two young girls standing in the snow together: “We are laughing so hard the snow is landing in our mouths.” Upton returns to this scene several times, a moment of connection frozen by making it into an object d’art. When the poem seems to veer off at the end, describing a gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Flannery O’Connor, a “bottled cross . . . made up of an altar, / a ladder, / and a cross carved from wood,” we see the present from one writer to the other as another terrarium. Though the body of Christ is missing from this bottled cross, the display is another way of understanding “The body that bottles agony.”
In gentlessness, Dan Beachy-Quick takes on a project that is, in its scope, the most ambitious of the books under review here. gentlessness offers an abridged and idiosyncratic history of poetry, written as poetry and organized into sections like “heroisms,” “puritanisms,” “romanticisms,” and “modernisms.” These sections allude to famous poems that characterize the time periods, but their greater ambition is to reflect the common modes and obsessions of poems in each era. In “heroisms,” the hero returns from his journeys, “His penis grown so long he loops it through / His belt-loops to keep his pants up / And still its tip drags in the dust behind him // Drawing a line pointing backward / To everything the hero’s entered.” Like the other writers I have discussed, Beachy-Quick makes casual reference to earlier poets in a way that only one immersed in the tradition can do, but he does more than allude to beloved poems; he analyzes the deep structures that shape them.
Beachy-Quick’s archetypes of puritanism, romanticism and other eras can’t help but contain some fragments of the monumental poems that inform them. However, his aims seem more programmatic and less playful than poets like Beer, Hecht and Upton. In addition to echoing key words and phrases such as Pound’s “apparition” and “wet black bough,” he also, for example, highlights the modernist interest in portraiture and offers an interpretation of what that genre means to poets like Eliot and Pound, namely that it allows them to explore the tension between surface and depth we feel when we look at other people. In “Portrait (After Arcimboldo)” he writes, “I want to say the face is a thinking thing,” but it is not the face we see that constitutes a person: “The voice inside the mask but it’s the mask that sings . . .”
In a work with these aims, it’s hard not to see Beachy-Quick’s every invention as a potential metaphor for the book itself. The most persuasive candidate comes in “The New World,” which describes a man endlessly reading the same book. His knowledge of this book is such that he can perform an impressive trick: “Give him a push-pin and he can push it in . . . And by memory the nameless man recites / Each letter the pin he pushed pushed through.” This act not only testifies to his memory of the book; it also suggests the connections that arise when you cut through the text in a new direction.
One of the happy curiosities of this collection is that the influence of great poems seems to override Beachy-Quick’s rough division of the book into time periods. Keats’s personification of autumn sitting on a granary floor appears in “modernisms,” and a line from “Endymion” gives rise to a section of “puritanisms.” William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends” crops up in “overtakelessness,” and the very Dickinsonian word “Circumference” arises twice in “heroisms.” The book seems to be haunted, across several sections, by the image of a flower incidentally cut down by a passing plow. The image comes from Catullus 11, a poem in which the speaker curses his lover, who he imagines moving on to bed 300 men at once. The profane and nasty curse gives way to a last image full of pathos, in which love is the flower and the woman’s forsaking is the plow.
In “overtakelessness” Beachy-Quick explains the strange title of the collection: “gentlessness is a word / to describe that / which must deny itself / to exist. // It is a word I made up / to describe / to myself / myself and other fields.” This invented word reminds readers that no matter how prevalent and persuasive his influences, the poet is always making his way as he goes. It also suggests that poems contain their own disintegration.
These books are about the pleasures of knowing and remembering. Beer parodies the overload of our era in “Total Information Awareness,” mixing up political analysis from Thomas Friedman with gossip magazine reports about the coming and going of a hotel heiress and her boyfriend. Readers of poetry, however, cultivate a singular awareness. Screen-mediated information can feel like it is all surface—I am skimming over it, it is skimming over me, mind and matter barely touching. Even so, even now, the lines of poems we love nestle deep in the uncanny mines of our souls, valuable elements we can unearth again and again.
Poetry Feature: Patricia Hooper
Featuring the poems:
- My Junco
- In Tennessee
- Lakewood Path
- Sandhill Cranes
Poetry Feature: Phillip B. Williams
Featuring the poems:
- The Field
- Tabula Rasa
- In the Open Wound of the World
- Blade Set to Tear Away the Good Flesh
Poetry Feature: Allison Pitinii Davis
Featuring the poems:
- Arriving in Canada
- Language Loosened Back
- The Motel Clerk Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM
- Dead Language
- Song of the Dead Office
- Greetings from the End of the Line
The Polish Prince
During Prohibition, Granny Wiskowski sold bootleg gin out of her living room and, at the end of her life, she was still a skilled gambler. The night she won a gold-and-turquoise Miami Dolphins pendant at hospital bingo, she took down the box from her bed stand, held it out to me and poked a figure into my sternum. “Don’t take no shit from no one,” she said in her hoarse half-Polish, half-English whisper. I had never heard an adult swear except in anger, and now I wasn’t even in trouble. I hooked the clasp around my neck and wore the pendant for most of the decade, right through the tarnish. A necklace. My new favorite team.
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Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism
While we worked we uncovered wild garlic and snails and small new prodding flowers. Every material thing here is bound or connected to the past via bloodlines, via deep ruts in the fields, etchings on the surface of earth’s memory that reach deep down under the soil to places we cannot see but surely feel.
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I didn’t know it at the time, but his compass was already set east, toward the Israeli army, and that very spring he made aliyah to Israel and became a chayal boded: a “lone soldier.” At his funeral four years later, I saw the phrase written down in English characters for the first time and realized it wasn’t “loan,” as I’d always thought of it—like we were loaning Jonah out and would get him back eventually—but “lone” like only, like alone.
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Relics and Wonders
Giving tribute to the past is older than the pyramids. We can safely guess that it’s older than the most ancient known treasure-laden burials. Since the beginnings of civilized life we have collected relics and contemplated our relationship to the past. True histories, in which an effort was made not just to record important human events but to understand them, came as early as the fifth century BCE, when Herodotus and Thucydides described Greece’s triumph and its self-destruction in their vivid depictions of the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
The knowledge of history, and the interest in it, fell to a low point after the decline of Rome. Early and Medieval Christian art showed only occasional effort at historical accuracy, partly because there were so few resources for pursuing it. However, the chronicle form of recording events did survive and even became necessary in certain fields. By the thirteenth century, for example, English law depended on collected records of previous legal decisions. In Italy, with the Renaissance in full force by the fourteenth century, several writers went beyond record-keeping and antiquarianism with the rediscovery of the Classics and their own writing of local histories—for example in Leonardo Bruni’s History of the Florentine People, a narrative portrayal of the civic development and rise of Florence.
The spreading regard for the subject is apparent in the fact that over twenty of Shakespeare’s plays were historically set, covering the twelfth century BCE (Troilus and Cressida) to 1570 (Othello). Shakespeare was cannily using historical settings partly to avoid political censorship of his plays, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he and fellow playwrights had a passion for the subjects of Classical and English histories such as those of Livy, Plutarch, Ovid, and Holinshed.
However, few writers of the Renaissance were concerned with what we now consider to be essential historical methods. By the time of the French Enlightenment, intellectuals were fascinated by history and skeptical of previous historians yet still unable to come up with clear new approaches to its study. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth century that a memorably broad, detailed, synthetic history appeared in England. Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire covered classical Rome and the Eastern Empire, its several volumes published during the same years when Americans were fighting for our own Enlightenment- and Classically inspired republic.
Over the next seventy-five years, German scholars gave definite form to what we now think of as modern scholarship, demanding comprehensive research, along with clear views about how to approach and interpret subjects. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a prodigiously knowledgeable scholar of the Classics and classical history, as well as the Bible and economics. His dialectic view of history is now mostly remembered as the inspiration for Marx’s scheme of economic development based on methods of production. But it came from Hegel’s revolt against the then-dominant skeptical theories of Kant, who believed that we are limited to understanding a finite world of appearances and that any effort to reach some higher understanding is quickly lost in inconsistencies. Hegel’s dialectic theory was a hard-earned idealistic expression of faith in the broad progress of history and the power of the mind to understand it. Following Hegel in Germany was Leopold von Ranke, whose Zur Kritik neuerer Geschichtschreiber (Critique of Modern Historians) became the foundation of modern historiography, with its emphasis on detailed and comprehensive research using primary documents such as diaries and letters.
While German thinkers established the standard for modern scholarship, France was the home of sociology, which in the nineteenth century became one of several new directions in historical study. August Comte believed that two phases of history were already past—the theological and philosophical—and that we had now entered a human phase when the focus should be on the observable forces in social history. This turn toward broader human history led to the development and—especially after World War II—the dominance of sociological approaches, such as that of the Annales School. Annales historians Mark Bloch and Lucien Febvre emphasized the significance of psychology or “mentalities” in all levels of society. In his two-volume Feudal Society, Bloch looked at several areas, including persistent myths and beliefs (for instance, the conviction that a king’s touch could remedy illness), as well as local facts and forces and technological influences—the invention and importance of the water wheel, to name one example. The pragmatism and human focus of this approach led not just to a wider view of history but to some of the most readable and fascinating histories of the last hundred years.
In this issue’s Jeffrey E. Smith prize-winning essay “Portals: Cabinets of Curiosity, Reliquaries, and Colonialism,” Genese Grill discusses, among other things, the earliest examples of museums in Western culture. “Why have some people been mad to collect and accumulate, to capture the variety and vastness of the world in their drawing rooms and Schatzkammer, while others have urgently preached against avarice, materialism and clutter? Why has Christianity, a religion with such a complex relationship with the physical, spent so much time, money and energy creating elaborately ornamented objects (reliquaries) to house the physical remains of saints who are often honored for their transcendence of physical needs?” Her ambitious essay looks at both the damage wrought by civilization and our relationship to objects, which she sees as “portals” connecting our present experience to the past—and which connect us in space as well.
Among the fiction in this issue, Emma Torsz’s Smith Prize-winning “The Wall” is partly about the importance of relics in our connection with our own pasts. The American Jewish narrator is mourning the death of her brother, Jonah, who joined the Israeli army and fell in love with a lesbian woman soldier, Eva. Jonah died in a noncombat-related accident, and as the narrator tries to make sense of his death, she sleeps with Eva and learns that shortly before his death Jonah placed a written prayer in a crevice of the Western Wall in Jerusalem according to a hundreds-of-years-old custom. She becomes obsessed with finding and reading the prayer note, and Eva helps her cross-dress as a man so that she can gain admittance to the men’s side of the wall to attempt to find the last key relic from her brother.
David Zane Mairowitz’s “Greek Tragedy” is about a maker of relics and displays—a famous French stage sculptor whose career and life are on the rocks because of his alcoholism. He would rather hang out, drink, and fall into absurd altercations in his vacation home in a French hamlet than return to Paris and make a last-ditch effort to resume his position with the Comédie Francaise. It’s up to his teenaged daughter Amandine to try to get him out of a bar and to Paris, while he resists, picks another fight with a beefy local man and suffers the consequences. While Mairowitz’s story plays with the conventions and paraphernalia of classical tragedy, R.T. Smith’s “The Satans” is a brilliant relic in itself—an outright Appalachian folk tale concerning Jack, a trickster who proves to be more than a match in lovemaking to the Devil himself, not to mention all the women in the Devil’s family.
Alastair Daniel’s “Sade” tells the story of David, a mixed-race boy who is trying to find an identity and sense of belonging in England. His African father was imprisoned in apartheid-era South Africa while he and his white mother have returned to England. David is a talented soccer player who is harassed mercilessly by his white classmates and looked down upon by his grandmother for his race. His close companion is his sick, aged dog, a gift from his father. The story takes place on the day of the Live Aid concert in July, 1985, as David tries to find a TV where he can watch the show. He especially wants to see and hear Sade, whose early family history is a lot like his own. Finally he does get to see her perform in the televised concert, a moment that resonates even after he again has to deal with the brutality of his racist classmates.
E.J. Levy’s “I Spy” tells the story of an artist whose work imitates the wonders of nineteenth-century spirit photographs. However, she has fallen into the trap of her own past by becoming obsessed by the comings and goings of her ex, Geoff. She knows Geoff so well that she is able to guess his passwords and spy on his cell phone and email. The technology that allows even ordinary individuals to surveil each other is a modern echo of the photographic technology that allowed Victorian photographers to create spirit photos, as the former boyfriend becomes a cross between a living spirit and a demon due to the protagonist’s obsession.
John W. Evans’s wonderful essay “The Polish Prince” looks at the curiosity and inexplicable power of characters in pro wrestling. He tells about his Polish Granny Wiskowski, who sold bootleg gin during Prohibition and was a pro-wrestling fan. He also chronicles the career of his father’s second cousin, Ed Wiskowski, the “Polish Prince,” who adopted the persona of a South African racist, Colonel De Beers, for his famous wrestling act. Of the curiosity of the spectacle itself, Evans says, “Wrestling is not an enjoyable aesthetic experience. It can only be loved in sequences that are rampant with cruelty, violence, and sexism (less so now, homophobia and racism), which might account for the waxing and waning affections of wrestling fans themselves.”
Our Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize poetry winner Phillip B. Williams’s expansive poems probe such large issues as race, faith and our human capacity to empathize and to hurt and destroy. In these poems, the sense of alienation and wonderment, loneliness and compassion, go hand in hand. In a field of death and barrenness, we’re also led to see that “the world’s revision of itself roils through the sky.” On a T-shirt the speaker wears, we see not only the names of lives lost because of racism but also the speaker’s effort to gather these names and resist the erasure of an unjust history.
Allison Davis’s poems seek the intersection between personal, familial, and public histories. “My mother is a bookkeeper, / my father is an innkeeper. / I’m a keeper of a language,” the speaker tells us. Through language, both Yiddish and English, she takes us back to her grandparents’ migration to North America, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and her father’s lonely years working at a Youngstown motel. In addition, the speaker contemplates her connection with other Jewish writers such as Charles Reznikoff and Dahlia Ravikovitch, speculating whether poetry is capable of preserving the facts of the past and making them fully present again.
Patricia Hooper’s poems meditate on the cyclical nature of the world, in which the present moment is saturated with memories of the past and possibilities of the future. A junco’s death is “another of the world’s / beautiful ideas / lost, / but nourishing the next one.” A man and woman gaze into a lake, see a silver boat and wonder whether its occupants are their future selves. In this malleable world, autumn leaves are “wings of flame,” a mockingbird sings “against the signs of brightness vanishing” and one’s grief rises as two sandhill cranes take to the air.
This issue’s “Curio Cabinet” offers a look at the world of gallerist Julien Levy, who had an eye for discovering artistic wonders. In 1927 he returned to New York from his first trip to Paris, having purchased Salvador Dali’s iconic painting The Persistence of Memory. His gallery would become the major purveyor of Surrealism, making it instrumental in moving the avant-garde from Europe to the United States. His 1932 exhibit Surréalisme showcased the movement’s leading figures—Dalí, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Frieda Kahlo, Alexander Calder and Joseph Cornell—before they were part of the art world’s pantheon.
In this issue TMR is also proud to present as a found text, published for the first time, the manuscript that would become the prequel to Tennessee Williams’s iconic and first successful play The Glass Menagerie. In 1943, the newly christened “Tennessee” Williams was living hand to mouth—sleeping on friends’ couches, picking up night jobs that allowed him to write during the day and cadging meals wherever he could get them—when he received a telegram from his agent, Audrey Wood: “Come to New York at once. Arranged writing deal.” The new job eventually took him to Hollywood, where he was a scriptwriter for MGM for $250 a week. While he was supposed to be working on star vehicles, he was in fact typing away on the screen treatment that he called “The Gentleman Caller.” Fans of Williams’s work will notice in this rough but intriguing treatment the lyrical language that would ultimately become Williams’s poetic or “sculptural” theater.
He likes Spandau Ballet, and he loves Kershaw and Collins and Sting. But it’s Sade that he most wants to see. Sade is for grownups, David thinks. Her music is the soundtrack to the adult world—the world he can’t wait to join. It’s a world of trilbys and panama hats, of cream linen suits and black leather and the light slanting in through half-closed blinds. A world of mirrors and silk bedsheets and afternoon sex while a saxophone—even the word is almost sex-ophone—plays softly in the background somewhere. But he won’t get to see Sade or anyone else, not for five bloody minutes, not so much as a song, because his mum wants him to go outside and play. Alright, what she said was “get some fresh air,” but “play” is what she meant, he could tell. How old does she think he is?
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Now it happened their oldest girl was one-eyed, but she was the most wakeful and sly, Lilith, so Snake Satan dispatched her one evening to spy out Jack’s movements and see could she figure where he was squirrelling away the gold. But Jack was a right cunning mortal with the bean tree giant long behind him, and a wily fiddle player to boot, so when he saw her lurking behind the laurel shack, he took up his music box and commenced to sawing the bow across the ram gut strings. His fingers were a mischief, and what a mournful tune it was, soon sweetening off to a twilight hymn, then a lullaby, and sure enough her eyelid grew heavy and drooped shut. Directly she was snoring like some old redbone hound, and Jack got his plunder out of the wagon and laid it off in a dark place, which I can’t mention by name, as Jack has his spies among even the varmints and birds.
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