People want to believe that Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” though there’s zero evidence to back up his authorship. While others have claimed to know the quote’s true origin, most likely it’s one of those anonymous aphorisms passed down through the years. But doesn’t it just sound better if it was from Mark Twain?
The nature of the quote and the questions surrounding its authorship play perfectly into the nature of denial. Reality, for various reasons, is sometimes something we’d rather not face. Jodi Angel’s “Centrifugal Force” (Tin House, Summer 2015) explores the nature and tragedy of denial from the perspective of a group of young folks looking to find a fix for their boredom.
That fix comes in the form of Harold, who we discover is off his meds and behind the garage of his house, smashing garden snails with a hammer.
“There was a shitload of wreckage in front of him—all kinds of shattered pieces and bodies thick and wet as snot …we watched him do this for a while, nobody saying anything, and somebody whispered that maybe we should go find something else to do…”
This Is the Homeland
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.
The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading
What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).
In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading
Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.
Matthew Thorburn: How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?
Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.Continue Reading
Discussion surrounding the recent release of Harper Lee’s purported To Kill a Mockingbird prequel–or draft, or sequel–Go Set a Watchman has dominated the literary community for the past several weeks. Just about every article on Watchman touches on the question of either whether Lee consented to having the long stowed-away manuscript released. At The New York Times, Randall Kennedy asks exactly this.
The initial reactions to Watchman’s release are expectedly mixed, yet strong. An informal poll conducted by CNN, in which about twenty thousand people have now participated, reveals public response to the question “Are you planning to read Go Set a Watchman?” Just over sixty percent say they will, and there’s about a twenty percent split on either side between those who are flatly not interested and those who won’t because they “want [their] memories of the original unsullied.” Lee’s new novel is operating under the extremely unique condition of existing within the same realm as and including many of the same characters from Mockingbird, a text that has been so widely loved and taught. It is because of these conditions that we should consider some facts of the questionable circumstance.Continue Reading
Used poorly, second-person reads like a trope; used well, second-person as a narrative device adds inclusivity to literature, raises questions of authorship, and helps an author communicate politically-charged topics like globalization, race, and gender.
Mohsin Hamid utilizes second-person in his novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a tongue-in-cheek how-to for globalization. The unnamed narrator is born in an unnamed country and moves to an unnamed city for social mobility. “You” transcends preconceived notions of identity, and allows the reader to superimpose their own onto the narrator, which brings up questions of authorship—the writer has written the story, but the reader makes it their own. Hamid’s novel describes enough for the reader to remain grounded, but still vague enough, such as this description of the narrator’s move from the country to the city:
Dirt streets give way to paved ones, potholes grow less frequent and soon all but disappear, and the kamikaze rush of oncoming traffic vanishes, to be replaced by the enforced peace of the dual carriageway. Electricity makes its appearance, first in passing as you slip below a steel parade of high-voltage giants, then later in the form of wires running at bus-top eye level on either side of the road, and finally in streetlights and shop signs and glorious, magnificent billboards. Buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four stories, even five.
Because I’d just read “The Bridge,” which I only half-understood, rendering it sacrosanct to my wide-eyed freshman mind, I’d taken Hart Crane at his word when he wrote in an essay that “Sincerity is essential to all real poetry.” Rilke said it earlier in his own letter-turned-rule-book for all young poets: “Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity.” Rilke had written the Duino Elegies, which perhaps can only ever be half-understood, having come to him as “a nameless storm, a hurricane, in [his] mind,” during which “everything in the way of fibre and web in [him] split,—eating was not to be thought of, God knows who fed [him].” This he wrote in a letter to Princess Marie of Germany, which made me even more quivery. How could I ever be a writer if starvation was a prerequisite to good art? I wondered with a mouth full of sourdough pretzels. But Rilke wrote it, and anything written by Rilke was heaven-sent and inalienable.
So when it came time to teach classes of my own, I preached sincerity. I told my students that only sincere writing was worth reading. If Crane and Rilke believed it, then it must hold all the world’s water. “Be free of deceit. Be sincere to yourself,” I told a classroom of undergraduates sitting shoulder to shoulder, a population whose greatest fear on earth is looking vulnerable and foolish in front of each other. My words must have had the same concrete efficacy as yelling to a weepy Little Leaguer on the mound, into cupped hands, to just “Relax!”Continue Reading
Who doesn’t enjoy reading other people’s mail? There’s a guilty pleasure in eavesdropping on other people’s correspondence. In “A Daring Undertaking” (Shenandoah Volume 64, Number 2) by Ashley Davidson, we’re privy to a strange collection of letters, public and private, spanning from 1856 to 1933, examining the various transgressions—both personal and private—of a mid 19th century con artist. Through these letters, the reader is asked to piece together not just the narrative and the nature of the characters, but the art of the con.
The first letter is from the protagonist, Sergeant Erastus Snow, to then U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, dated five years from the beginning of the Civil War (1856). In it we discover that Snow has taken a group of men from his post in California to acquire a group of camels from another military outfit.
“Let me first inform you of the caravan of thirteen camels and dromedaries of mixed variety, transferred safely into Fort Defiance from among the cargo of thirty-three originally landed at Indianola, Texas by the storeship Supply on the tenth day of February, 18 and 56.”
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
Coffee House Press, 2015
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Job Ogbonnaya is a liar—or, depending on your taste, a dreamer. After his brother Samuel dies in the Biafran war, Job becomes the hope of his family. They send him to school in America to become a doctor. Job flunks out but keeps planning to go back, lying to his family and putting his father’s tuition money in savings bonds. After Job gets citizenship through a fake marriage with an American, and becomes a nursing assistant, he still tells everyone back home he is a doctor. His arranged marriage to Ifi is predicated on this fact.
After Ifi arrives to Job’s mysteriously run-down bachelor apartment in Nebraska, her husband still leaves every morning in a white labcoat (he changes into his nursing outfit in a parking lot). The lies mount and then begin to collapse. How can he speak with such certainty, Ifi wonders at one point, about what be both know to be false?Continue Reading
This interview is part 1 of a 2 part series on contemporary Greek letters and the economic crisis.
Literature survives. Always has, always will. Modern Greek letters alone have seen the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, followed by the Greek civil war in the 1940′s along with its recovery period and its military junta soon thereafter. And most recently, it’s overseen six years of Economic crisis, which has seen Greece on the brink of exit from the Eurozone. No matter—the literature survives. And in that there’s not only hope but celebration.
Some would argue, because of the crisis, that Greek letters are more popular than ever before. I talk with Evangelia Avloniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency about just that: the economic crisis, the future of Greek letters, and the author she’s most excited about right now.
Evangelia Avloniti founded the Ersilia Literary Agency in 2009 just as Greece began sliding into financial distress. Today, the Ersilia Literary Agency is considered the premier literary agency in Greece representing a select list of twelve Greek authors, locally and internationally, as well as thirty international publishers and agents among which are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Grove Atlantic, Kuhn Projects, Zoe Pagnamenta, Levine Greenberg Rostan, and Elyse Cheney Literary Associates.