Foreword: Elemental Force

I happen to have discovered a direct relation between magnetism and light, also electricity and light, and the field it opens is so large and I think rich.

—Letter to Christian Schönbein (13 Nov 1845), The Letters of Faraday and Schönbein, 1836-1862

Michael Faraday’s note to his friend Schönbein describing what he was learning about magnetism, electricity, and light was understated, considering that he had just helped crack open the door of what would become modern hard science. James Clark Maxwell’s book about the interconnectivity of light, electricity, and magnetism, published twenty years later, had an influence as profound as Newton’s Laws. In providing the “second great unification in physics,” Faraday and Maxwell ushered in twentieth-century science to a degree that Einstein said, “I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell.”

Elemental forces are as present in the arts as in the sciences. Attraction and repulsion, positive and negative, illumination and darkness, disruption and symmetry are pervasive in both the methods and substance of art. Like alternating current and atomic structure, literature offers protagonists and antagonists, stasis and movement, magnetic and repellent characters, light and dark tones, every emotion and its opposite.

Poems: Javier Zamora

[ Immigration Headline ]

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PUERTO  BARRIOS,  GT—She  knew where

power came from. How the chord made

it bright once plugged into her wall. If she

really thought about it, the outlet looked like

a frightened porcelain doll, or a gringo.

She  knew  they  couldn’t  keep buying gas for

the generator. Not if the price kept increasing.

There must be an easier way.

Poems: Melissa Studdard

Because Deathbolts Illuminate the Wonderstorm


Cruel, the highway that

took the dogs.


I’ve seen its shoulders

convulse gently in the crying of nightfall


the way a teenaged girl can be

both vicious and vulnerable.


It doesn’t like what it has done,

and I don’t like to say it.


Sometimes I hold a kaleidoscope

to my beloved’s eye

and ask him

to never look at anything again

but me.


How can I trust a world

that hasn’t yet

honored the softness in his pupil?

Joy Comes in the Morning

I went over to Rosalind’s house because the Sunday Sisters had gathered to pray for me. I told them I didn’t believe in God but attended services with my mother because it pleased her, and I wanted to give her that, so they prayed for God to lift the veil from my eyes and soften my heart, that I might accept his love, which made me fidget in the wicker rocking chair—the only single-occupant seat in the room—but that was not the most uncomfortable part.

The most uncomfortable part was the man looking down at me from the photo on the mantelpiece. Pete, at possibly his peak of handsome and happy, arms wrapped around Rosalind and all that airbrushed bliss. The last time I’d slept with him had been over ten years ago, so it made sense that I wasn’t sure if I could recognize him, which is not to say that perhaps it wasn’t him, because it definitely was, but that he was maybe not the same person I once knew.

O’Herlihy (Née Noonan)

On the second of April 1923 she was born in the main bedroom of the family home, in Drumcondra. Her colour was deep blue. The thundery richness of this blue, almost purple, with the yellow marbling of the afterbirth strung tight across it, caused the midwife to fear cyanosis. The midwife said nothing but took strong measures. She smacked the baby’s blood into motion with the flat of her hand, made loud entreaties. “Come along, come along, comealongcomealong,” she said. Mary’s reluctance to commence life, to acquiesce to the torment of existence, earned her the reputation of a slow starter, which she was to retain into old age. When at last she cried out from the midwife’s blows, she did so quietly, as if apologising for making her small dent in the surface of things.

The next day’s Irish Times carried the following announcement:

NOONAN—April 2nd, at 2 Glendalough Road, Drumcondra, the wife of P. J. Noonan, of a daughter.

Purple Knot

My mother’s birdwatching mania began with my fourteenth birthday, when she gave me a pair of exorbitantly priced binoculars she’d bought from an enthusiast in Lexington, Kentucky. They weighed as much as a Bible and hurt my neck if I wore them for more than fifteen minutes. Almost immediately she reclaimed them, bought me a cheaper (and lighter) pair, and under the Kentuckian’s continued long-distance influence, we staked out eastern butterbills, Mexican snake-eaters, and greater pillowlarks in our old Subaru station wagon. One weekend she rented a cabin in Michigan so we could glimpse a rainbow mooncock (we didn’t see it, but we did spot a beautiful black-crowned night heron). Our avian résumé grew quickly, as did the Kentuckian’s influence and my number of unexcused absences from school, until at last we lugged our binoculars (we owned several pair now) down to Catspaw, Florida, to join our guru and his apostles in an attempt to glimpse one of the most elusive creatures yet: Drimble’s purple knot.

Neighbor Angel

When we first moved into the Golden River Mountain Apartments, we felt we’d been misled. They were indeed apartments, but that was as far as they lived up to their name. Their concrete facades—the ubiquitous beige of everything constructed in 1980s Seoul, discolored by decades of air pollution—could not have been called golden, even under the flattering glow of the late-afternoon sun. Nor did even the highest units afford a view of a mountain or river or anything but vast expanses of drab apartment blocks almost identical to our own, dotted by the occasional vacant lot slated for redevelopment. Technically speaking, we were just a kilometer from the Han River, but to reach it you’d need to navigate a maze of dimly lit underpasses filled with pigeon shit and puddles of mysterious origin. Not that we resented our new home for its deficiencies. We had no illusions about our situation and understood that if the place had been any nicer, we wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

The reason we were on such a tight budget was that Eunji had decided to quit her job at the university and devote herself full time to painting. Privately, I was less than enthusiastic about her decision. It was wonderful for her to be following her heart, and she was obviously talented, but I had no confidence that she had what it would take to ensure success in the fickle and irrational world of art. Even if things worked out for her eventually, our situation in the meantime would be precarious. My job at the logistics company paid barely enough to furnish our current lifestyle, and then there was the matter of the child we were trying to conceive.

Neo Rococo: The Work of Nine Contemporary Artists

“We must begin by saying to ourselves that we have nothing else to do in the world but seek pleasant sensations and feelings.”

—Madame du Châtelet, natural philosopher, mathematician, and author

The rise of rococo was presided over by Louis XV’s longtime official mistress, Madame de Pompadour. With a bourgeois background and a Cinderella-like ascent to the highest echelon of early eighteenth-century French society, she faced pressure to fit in at court and had to work hard to maintain her role as controller of the king’s daily life. She used patronage and collecting art to signify her authority. Her taste for the newness of rococo, with its emphasis on fantasy and imagination, soon made it popular among the French elite. Madame de Pompadour, one of several of François Boucher’s portraits of her, captures her beauty and taste and the sumptuous appeal of rococo as she reclines languorously on an elegant sofa in her boudoir, the epitome of ease and refinement. For twenty years, she reigned unchallenged as the “godmother of rococo.”

Interview: A Conversation with John Balaban

John Balaban is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including four volumes that together have won the Academy of American Poets’ Lamont prize, a National Poetry Series Selection, and two nominations for the National Book Award. His Locusts at the Edge of Summer: New and Selected Poems won the 1998 William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. In 2003, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2005, he was a judge for the National Book Awards. His new book of poetry is Empires (Copper Canyon Press, 2019). In addition to writing poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, he is a translator of Vietnamese poetry and a past president of the American Literary Translators Association. In 1999, with two Vietnamese friends, he founded the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. In 2008, he was awarded a medal from the Ministry of Culture of Vietnam for his translations of poetry and his leadership in the restoration of the ancient text collection at the National Library. This interview took place in October, 2019, at John’s home in Cary, North Carolina, and a month later in November during the Miami Book Fair. 

Joe Walpole: Your most recent book of poems, Empires, is very much concerned with the decline of what we may call the American empire. Is it a departure, a new direction, from your previous work?

John Balaban: The scope is different, but the direction has always been there. I’ve always been more interested in public issues than in personal complaint. What’s different in this book is that in the first part, the issues are largely global and cultural regarding the rise and fall of empires and those moments where a shift occurs that might not be perceptible at first, but nonetheless the change is complete and done. Sometimes the shift happens and we don’t know it. Other times, like the World Trade Center bombing, we know right away that something’s changed in our lives forever. And these things have gone on not just recently but ever since humans built empires. Empires have a youth and vitality to them and they have a maturity and then they start to decay. My notion is that ours is in that period of decay.

Review: Marching On: Rereading Little Women and Louisa May Alcott

You likely know the plot of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-9 novel, Little Women. Whether you’ve read the book or seen one of its adaptations to film or screen, you probably have some recollection of the four March sisters’ comings-of-age in New England during and just after the Civil War. Poor but resourceful, the sisters are Meg, who dreams of wealth and fame as an actress but finds fulfillment in marriage and motherhood; Jo, the strong-willed writer, who helps support the family by publishing potboilers, then sets aside her literary aspirations to launch a boys’ school with her husband, Professor Bhaer; Beth, gentle and musical, who succumbs to scarlet fever; and Amy, the artistic and urbane youngest, who ultimately marries their rich neighbor, Laurie. The girls’ mother, Marmee, shepherds them through the tumult of adolescence with support from Hannah, their housekeeper, and limited counsel from Mr. March, who is away as a chaplain in the Union Army for half the book and absorbed in his own ministerial and philosophical pursuits for the rest. 

I read Little Women for the first time in elementary school.