Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Query VI

vintage virginia

This is the fourth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here, here and here.

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Query VI: “Productions mineral, vegetable and animal”
A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.

At root, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a carefully curated syllabus, a structured list of discussion topics. Throughout the document, and most heavily in Query VI, Jefferson uses lists to elaborate the landscape and productivity of the Commonwealth. His catalogs preserve a lasting record of his attention, but paying attention was no passive enterprise for Jefferson. When we consider his lists, we have to remember the archaic meaning buried within the contemporary definition of the word. “To list” also means to intend, to want, to incline.

If the act of listing is an act of will, then every list is both artifact and verb. This is also true of a poem, which William Carlos Williams described as “a small or large machine made out of words.”

Taking up about a third of Notes, Query VI concludes Jefferson’s catalog of Virginia’s natural resources and connects to his subsequent analyses of society, government, and economic production in the Commonwealth. Despite his observation that “a complete catalogue of the trees, plants, fruits, &c. is probably not desired,” Jefferson furnishes the names of dozens of native species. European-derived crops flourish (or, in Jefferson’s parlance, are “elaborated from the soil”) in the cultivated agrarian spaces of the New World:

The gardens yield musk melons, water melons, tomatas, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.

The orchards produce apples, pears, cherries, quinces, peaches, nectarines, apricots, almonds, and plumbs.

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Review: SAD GIRL POEMS by Christopher Soto

Sad_Girl_Poems_FRONTSad Girl Poems
Christopher Soto
Sibling Rivalry Press; Jan 2016
45 pp; $10

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Being sad is such a fundamental part of a brown, girlistic experience that la Sad Girl is among the archetypal gang girl names brown girls may assume. She is the archetype Christopher Soto embraces, embodies, and animates in their revolutionarily abject collection Sad Girl Poems.

This collection’s jacked up heart beats in its final piece, “Hatred of Happiness.” “Hatred of Happiness” rejects and buries practically every trope proposed by the mainstream LGBTQ movement. Gone are the banners calling for marriage equality and positive representations of gay life. Gone is the assertion that “we are just like you.” Instead, Soto invokes an alternate queer poetics, one marked and defined by a sugary but tortured solitude:

But all I own are these little lips.

They kiss, then close [like the lid on

A casket.] Please let me die alone.

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Review: Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin

ytY.T.
Alexei Nikitin, translated by Anne Marie Jackson
Melville House Press, April 2016
144 pp; $15.95

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Y.T., translated by Anne Marie Jackson, is the story of Alexander Davidov, a corporate pusher of “American fizzy drinks” who in middle age in 2004 opened up his email address to find an ultimatum for a game he and his college classmates had played in the mid-80s at University, a game which “quantitatively simulated the partition of the Soviet Union” and which got Alexander expelled, arrested, and harassed by the KGB. Chapters alternate from the early eighties to the fictive present in 2004 until events come full circle, and Davidov finally discovers who sent the secret ultimatum, and why.

Immediately Y.T.—“Your Turn”—promises to be something like other “game” novels, such as Bolano’s The Third Reich, where the outcome of an innocent game comes to have life-or-death consequences. This kind of novel typically deploys sizable chunks of description to impart to the reader the stakes of the game itself. Y.T., however, does not do this; after introducing the mysterious ultimatum and providing a lengthy fictional history of Davidov’s alter-ego in the game—“Istemi…the last sovereign ruler of the Khanate of Zaporozhye”—Y.T. never goes into the strict details of game play. Only glimpses are offered, and the novel instead centers around the postgame: who Davidov and his old school friends were, why they played, who they became after their run-in with the KGB and expulsion from university. Continue Reading

The Best Poem I Read This Month: Sarah Sgro’s “Body as a Plant Expanding”

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I’ve read Sarah Sgro’s poetry for about four years, and remain a consistent witness to its various evolutions and concentrations concerning femininity, food, sexuality, and waste. In the past year, Sgro’s work has flourished, wreaked havoc, and run amok through many journals. Because her pieces keep sharpening their knives, it can prove difficult to write through, but this challenge proves to be an abundant endeavor for any reader. Her spirit is a mutating aura that unsettles and unhinges its jaw.

Sarah Sgro currently attends the MFA program in poetry at the University of Mississippi, where over the past few years a number of poets practicing in experimental poetic modes have made a home in degradation molds, whetting a practice that works in the worn-down world while foraging for new forays into revolution: a peak into their journal Yalobusha Review will begin to make meat of my brief gloss.

In her new poem for Glittermob, Sarah Sgro receives and rebels against fucked-up flowering formations of flesh. “Body as a Plant Expanding” details the process of a radical rush through soil, the webbing, clearing, and careening of Anthropocene metaphor.Continue Reading

Searching for Artifacts: An Interview with Sara Majka

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

Author photo credit: Chris Ward

In the opening piece in Sara Majka’s haunting debut collection of linked stories, Cities I’ve Never Lived In, the narrator announces that she is in the middle of a divorce and about to board a train into a city. Her solution to her problems is “to move from place to place, trying to thread together, if not our marriage and our lives, then something in ourselves.”

In their attempts to find themselves, the characters in Cities I’ve Never Lived In drift through towns that look like they belong to faded photographs of a lost New England. In one story, a character’s parents disappear and his island home can’t be found on any maps. Later, he befriends a woman who looks like his missing mother. In another story, a man sees a younger version of himself in a painting found in an attic. In yet another story, the narrator sees herself as a child in an old museum security tape.

This is a world of doubles and lost artifacts. “Perhaps I like the magical qualities of not being able to find a place again,” the narrator says at one point. And yet, Majka’s characters keep searching for a familiar view, for elusive childhood mementos—as if they “had all gone somewhere in a dream together.” If these characters travel in order to find themselves, they are successful in their endeavor: they find versions of themselves again and again.

A few weeks ago, Sara Majka and I exchanged long emails about what draws people to places they’ve never lived in, motherhood, and New England folklore.

Bruna Dantas Lobato: Tell me about the moment when you realized that your stories were thematically linked.

Sara Majka: I had a hard time finding an agent (I finally got my terrific agent, Sarah Levitt, through lucky circumstances just as the book deal with Graywolf/A Public Space was coming through), and so I had a finished manuscript for a year or two on my hands, and I would work on it a little bit each time I sent it out, and it changed dramatically from a loose association to linked stories. I’m a purist by nature so was resistant to pushing it into linked stories, but when I finally committed to it (about a year before it was published), it was easy and made the whole thing make more sense. Once I made that decision, I also wrote two new stories very quickly.

Jonathan Lee—who was at A Public Space and is now at Catapult—helped me think about ordering it, and then my editor, Brigid Hughes, who is also what I would call a purist, would sort of ask how the stories went together, and I figured she was suggesting that they might be more closely linked with a few changes.Continue Reading

Review: DIMESTORE by Lee Smith

417PvXD36WL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Dimestore
Lee Smith
Algonquin, March 2016
224 pp; $24.95

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Confession: Until picking up a copy of Dimestore, I had never read best-selling fiction author, Lee Smith, despite her praises routinely sung by friends and colleagues.

Although I’m not proud of this disclosure, as a creative nonfiction writer, I gravitate towards nonfiction reading in an effort to hone my craft—a sort of “two birds with one stone approach,” despite my intense love of novels and fiction in general.

Recently, on a particularly dreary commute, I tuned in to NPR just in time to catch an interview dedicated to Smith’s newest title, which to my delight, is a memoir—her first, in fact. Captivated by the warmth in her voice and her candid approach to each question, I listened from start to finish, waiting in the parking lot, walking into the office late, but not in the least concerned.

On my way home that evening, I stopped to pick up a copy of Dimestore, which I already suspected was an enchanting work of nonfiction, given that it is written by a woman long celebrated for storytelling.

The verdict?Continue Reading

When Women Writers Become Nightmares

Patricia Highsmith

When we go to inspect female-presenting writers, the canon is too familiar: Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen. There’s no purpose in arguing this. What’s more interesting is uncovering forgotten women writers—women who wrote poetry with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound in life, or produced movies with Alfred Hitchcock. It was Patricia Highsmith that Hitchcock, an expert on horror, found particularly interesting—knew that her writing would terrify, knew that like the important work of all female writers their writing isn’t forgotten for lack of merit, but tucked under the bed like a monster. A man’s nightmare.

Djuna Barnes

The definition of Barnes’ work as “lesbian” literature is a blunt description of a sharp object, or reductionist. Nightwood, specifically, explores gender fluidity and polyamory—in fact, Robin Vote is bisexual, not a lesbian. Like Barnes, it’s difficult to pin a certain sexual identity to many of the characters in Nightwood, since they’re never verbally declared; Barnes herself never identified her sexuality, simply writing that she “just loved Thelma.” The word “lesbian” is not inherently associated with polyamory (a practice) or trans identity (a gender identity), either, and so shouldn’t corner Barnes’ work only into the lesbian canon of literature. What’s more frustrating is the association of polyamory with non-hetero sexuality, as if alternatives to monogamy and heterosexuality are automatically deviant, other, or “lesbian.” As if “lesbian” is an umbrella term for these things, rain sliding down plastic panels never diluting the definition.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Review: A DOUBTER’S ALMANAC by Ethan Canin

a-doubters-almanac_0A Doubter’s Almanac
Ethan Canin
Random House, Feb 2016
576 pp; $28

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Mathematicians toil in obscurity, often for years, at work that will probably come to nothing. It doesn’t take a Fields Medalist to understand why a novelist, that most uncertain toiler of all, would be drawn to such a plight.

Milo Andret, the genius at the center of Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, sacrifices domestic tranquility and ignores social norms in the pursuit of solving “mankind’s great puzzles.” His Princeton colleagues hate him, and for good reason. Milo is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, and an egomaniac. Tragically, his single-mindedness is no guarantee of success. Milo loses a cushy job, alienates his wife and daughter, and suffers through a grotesque late life illness, all while chasing that one elusive accomplishment he needs to secure his legacy.Continue Reading

Review: PRODIGALS by Greg Jackson

61R95NwpqiL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_Prodigals
Greg Jackson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Feb 2016
240 pp; $25

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Consisting of eight short stories that focus on the inner lives and small experiences of (mostly) white thirty-somethings, Greg Jackson’s debut collection, Prodigals, is one that stands out for its mental acuity and philosophical athleticism. A former fellow of the MacDowell Colony, Jackson puts his gifts on full display here. No minute human experience is too small to unpack with high diction and zeal, for pages, until it gives way to revelation, and ultimately, the humanity resting at the core of these stories’ protagonists.

When reading, it’s easy to make comparisons between Jackson and David Foster Wallace or F. Scott Fitzgerald—writers who are generous with their interior world-building and can spend pages upon pages describing the journey of one particular feeling as it needles its way into something resembling transcendence. However, those comparisons are a bit short-sighted, as Jackson, unlike DFW or F. Scott, seems to be genuinely investigating life as someone in between the stations of youth and middle age via his characters.

Jackson goes about these investigations with a prose style that is equal parts ivory tower intellectualism and genuine pathos. Sentences read as a potent mix of the breathtaking and unsure, questioning as much they answer any question they’re hoping to navigate. Take this sentence, for example, from “Amy’s Conversion”:

What I see now is the twilit lake, soot clouds in the distance, sky that faint humid orange blur it could be some summer nights, a burning calico, heat rising from the water like the ghost life within it.

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