Critical Essays Archive

Wislawa Szymborska’s Disquieting Jokes

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I think about jokes a lot when I read Wislawa Szymborska. Her poems build the way jokes do, with irony, misdirection, and distraction: setups that leave you completely unprepared for her disorienting final verses. Instead of leading to certainty, they take you somewhere else entirely.

Science and Literature: Coming Together for the All-American Solar Eclipse

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During the “All-American Eclipse,” everyone in the US will see at least a partial eclipse, but the difference between a partial and a total eclipse, according to astronomer Jay Pasachoff, is like standing outside the opera house versus attending it.

Chronicling Loss—and Humanity—With Kanishk Tharoor

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On Kanishk Tharoor’s radio series and in Swimmer Among the Stars, his stories remind us of the power of empathy and connection in our shared experience and the need for imagination, even playfulness, in times of adversity.

The Art of Climbing

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Recently, I began thinking how some of the poems I love most evoke this sense of motion; in particular, I began thinking about two pieces about the act of climbing: Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” and Carl Phillips’s “The Pinnacle.”

A City of One’s Own

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These days living and working as a writer in Istanbul requires a bravery that most American writers have never imagined they would have to muster, a bravery far beyond what it already takes to put pen to paper.

The Middle of Nowhere in a Comic Pane

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Self-hatred, alcoholism, small-town deprecation. Roughneck hits all the rural notes. When a character has a run-in with Oxycontin, the reaction is to immediately blame it on outsiders. “All the kids are getting it from down South,” someone says.

Making (and Breaking) a Poem

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One of the hardest things to learn about writing poems is how to break lines—where to enjamb or full-stop, where to leave sentences dangling into surprise, where to make one thing appear like it will be another.

Writing Appalachia

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One of the finest contemporary writers mining the extraordinary diversity of the complicated landscape of southern Appalachia is Ron Rash. Rash, whose work sprang to national attention with his novel Serena, writes almost exclusively of these mountains and her foothills.

Maternal Bodies in Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile

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In Vi Khi Nao's Fish in Exile, Ethos and Catholic are grief-stricken at the deaths of their infant children. It is Catholic, however, whose body undergoes substantive change and becomes directly conflated with trauma and death.

Spying on the Rich in Crazy Rich Asians and Moll Flanders

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In Crazy Rich Asians (2013), Kevin Kwan offers us a window into a world of wealth capable of altering the very ontological condition of the characters who enjoy it. Reading Kwan’s novel, I’m reminded of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722).