It’s been a little over a year since Ari Banias’s first poetry collection, Anybody, debuted to critical accolades and honors, including a nomination for the PEN America Literary Award. With all that has happened since 2016, this stunning, complicated book is worth revisiting and considering through the lens of our particular political moment. Donald Trump has fulfilled the divisive promises of his presidential campaign: Standouts among his many troubling actions are cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, attempts to ban immigration from Muslim-majority nations and bar trans people from serving in the military, and his support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, the bigoted, twice-fired Alabama judge and accused child molester. The #MeToo movement has also shed light on the systemic abuse of women by powerful men, including Trump himself, whose accusers are calling for him to be held accountable for alleged sexual assaults. At the same time, social media has amplified many historically marginalized voices, sparking crucial conversations on the national stage about racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ discrimination. In this way, Anybody feels prescient. Not because it deals with any specific politics, but because it dramatizes the individual’s search for wholeness and community within a broken society. More… “Anybody ’s Game”
Jen DeGregorio’s writing has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Collagist, PANK, Perigee (Apogee online), The Rumpus, Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Yes Poetry and elsewhere. She has taught writing to undergraduates at colleges in New Jersey and New York and is currently a PhD student in English at Binghamton University, State University of New York.
The Parson Weems moment, the young-Washington-chopping-down-the-cherry-tree moment, in the accepted mythology of George Herman “Babe” Ruth involves a kindly mentor who first spots the hint of deity under the hardscrabble-boy exterior. It was Xaverian Brother Mathias at Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys who first took Ruth into gentle tutelage in the art and science of baseball. There are a few persistent apocryphal tales from those years: tales of the teenage Babe beginning to display the eye and reflexes that would one day make him one of baseball’s most underestimated pitchers and the sheer hitting power that would earn him immortality as the Wazir of Wham.
It’s a familiar device, these Parson Weems stories. They grow up entwined in the facts of their subjects’ biographies, covering the bare dates and facts with a green and shifting foliage of folklore.
No other figure from the world of 20th-century sports equals Babe Ruth’s folklore status — with only one exception: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed “greatest,” the heavyweight champion boxer who taunted his opponents, sang his own praises, and by turns charmed and infuriated the world, had his own Parson Weems moment, or rather a one-two combination of them, and fittingly, it was a combination of outrage and showmanship — and the Parson was a cop. More… “Ali Alive”
Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its bookblogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.
About halfway through his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell offers a startling explanation for Leo Tolstoy’s notorious antipathy towards Shakespeare: Tolstoy is “trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share.” Further, “Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well.” As criticism of criticisms go, this one is nothing if not blunt. Is it possible that the basis of much of what we consider rational, disinterested critical discourse is really just a willful schadenfreude? That idea, in truth, is not too far from what masses of ordinary people have always believed: that cultural criticism and personal criticism are essentially the same and that to engage in either is merely to inflict pain under the pretense of honesty or concern.
Surely an idea as reductive as this needs no refutation. When in his essay “Charles Dickens” Orwell writes that Dickens’s whole message reduces to one “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent,” he isn’t trying to stick it to Dickens lovers, is he? He isn’t, in short, doing to Dickens exactly what he accused Tolstoy of doing to Shakespeare? Certainly not. Unless he is. More… “Let Me Ruin This for You”
In Dark Ladies & Other Avatars, her debut poetry collection, Joan Roberta Ryan pays exquisite attention to seeing, eating, feeling, reflecting, and remembering — acts of attention that define what it means to live fully and well. Lit up by sparkling specificity and wit, these beautifully crafted, mostly free verse poems focus on both lovely things and disturbing things. Ryan’s subjects range from contemplations of literature and art, to heart-breaking poems about a sister’s mental illness, to appreciations of family members and their prized possessions. Most touchingly of all, the poet writes of long-married love and the art of domestic life. Ryan’s language is erudite, but her poems are never obscure. Even when she deploys unusual words, such as “akathisia” (a movement disorder) and “anosmia” (loss of the sense of smell), she does in the service of exactitude; readers get to increase their vocabularies in the bargain. Ryan incorporates subtle half-rhymes and enlivening tonal changes. She writes smart poems with heart. More… “The Dark Lady Ryan”
Every literary season deserves at least one unexpected pleasure. For the fall of 2016, this pleasure appeared with the discovery and publication of a long-lost novel by Claude McKay. Known as the “rebel sojourner” of the Harlem Renaissance, McKay enjoys more than his fair share of supporters and detractors. His sense of rebellion persisted throughout his unsettled life, as compulsive and widespread as his travels. The newly discovered novel, with the suitably prickly title of Amiable With Big Teeth, won’t likely alter or settle McKay’s reputation conclusively, but it will complicate it, and in a good sense. Most striking, perhaps, is that the book has a deft plot, rather unlike his earlier narratives (recall that Banjo is subtitled A Story Without a Plot). Some issues and concerns recur from the previous fictions, but they often appear to be over-shadowed by the political questions of race and color. Amiable certainly continues in that vein, but adds to it a smoother sense of conflict and development, complete with revelatory surprises and a range of tonal situations, from romantic innocence to farce to grim burlesque. More… “Amiable with Big Teeth”
Shagga glowered, a fearsome sight to see. “Shagga son of Dolf likes this not. Shagga will go with the boyman, and if the boyman lies, Shagga will chop off his manhood.”
No, that’s not a parody of A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin; it isA Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. And if I begin my discussion of what is in some respects a remarkable creative achievement with a sample of bad prose, that’s because A Game of Thrones is virtually an encyclopedia of bad prose. It has bad exposition, bad dialogue, bad sex scenes, bad nature description, even bad free indirect discourse, to use the term for the narrative device Martin employs to advance the plot while taking us inside the heads of his principal characters.
It’s generally acknowledged that Eliot’s international fame began in 1922, with the publication of The Waste Land. Probably one of the strongest engines powering that fame was the set of Notes he appended to the work. Nothing like them had ever been seen in the first publication of a poem or volume of poems, a fact in part explaining the range of responses to the work, from hushed awe to hilarity to outrage. Objections were voiced along these lines:
Jobbing in dozens of classical bits wasn’t enough. He had to rub our noses in his erudition by naming his sources. Mr. Eliot, where did you get the idea that a poem is a post-grad seminar? And why shouldn’t we just call you the plagiarist that you are?
Answer: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” More… “A Guide to the Ruins”
“My characters are galley slaves,” Vladimir Nabokov bragged in the pages of Strong Opinions. He was railing against the notion that characters in novels “take on a life of their own” for their creators, authors often unaware of what that person on the page may do next. Nabokov was having none of it.
This is because he was an egotist. Each of the figures in Nabokov’s books is a separate and slightly distorted mirror of Nabokov. Humbert Humbert is VN as sociopath, Pnin is VN but clueless, John Shade is Nabokov the great poet. Ada and Look at the Harlequins tell no stories and hold no people in them: they’re merely fountains of solipsism designed to soak the reader in Nabokov’s self-regard — no extra charge for the big words and little girls. I’m not sure whether he could have created a “believable” character unlike himself even if he’d wanted to. But the spirit was not willing. More… “Chillin’ with DeLillo”
John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.
Existential crises are by no means exclusive to students in the liberal arts (think the bearded Beat emanating a cloud of hand rolled tobacco smoke, nauseated by these two options: to drop out and hitchhike cross country or attend his Intro to Western Phil class). The burdens of years of scholarly toil, the substantial time in esoteric animal labs, the hypercompetitive pursuit of graduate study lead many students in the sciences to also question: What’s the point of it all? The rigors of the pursuit of knowledge as a means to a career in medicine weigh down too many bright young minds such that by the time the goal is met, the soul is bruised and weary. More… “Death Meets the Doctor”
The Meanings of J. Robert Oppenheimer is an entry in the Iowa Series in Contemporary Literature and Culture. I was drawn to it because I am drawn to all things Oppenheimer. I was not prepared for the approach the author, Lindsey Michael Banco, takes, which might be likened to a statement exponentially increased since it is not so much a portrait of Oppenheimer as a series of portraits of Oppenheimer, not so much history as a history of history. Banco himself declares that “the book explores the workings of Oppenheimer as a ‘principal metaphor.’” In the course of this book, we are reminded of the uses that have been made of Oppenheimer as a central image, the ways in which books, movies, television shows, museums, his own writings, and even children’s books have presented him in relation to his personal history, the Manhattan Project, WWII, technology, science, literature, and visual art. If you have not yet read one of the standard and solid histories about The Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer’s role in it, this is not the book for you. But if you have, you will find it fascinating. (I did.) More… “The Eternal Oppenheimer”