In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”
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”
If you need to be mean
be mean to me
I can take it and put it inside of me
-Mitski, “I Don’t Smoke”
I have a picture of us from when we were ten years old — Rose, Audrey, Sam, and me. We’re standing on the gravel shoulder of the highway that cuts across our hometown like a life line across a palm. Our arms are wrapped around each other, affectionate and possessive with the weight of preteen desires. Have you noticed the way young girls cling to each other in photographs? Maybe we knew then the terrible possibilities of separation. If we hadn’t held on to each other so tightly through childhood, how would things have ended?
That was all before we grew apart. That was before I hopped on a plane, before Rose came to meet me, before we ended up in the mountains of Italy, alone in a 300-year-old farmhouse. That was when we still lived in our small universe of Halfmoon Bay, in homes secluded from the highway by long gravel driveways and undisturbed forest. What would have happened if the ghost had shown up then, when we were still so connected, instead of a decade later, across the world when there were just two of us in the middle of the night? More… “Gone Ghost”
No one would dream of painting such a picture now. A pubescent girl, half-draped in a Greek tunic and preparing for a bath in a reedy pool, covers her breast and turns her head as if surprised by an intruder. And though the pose may be based on classical precedents of “Susanna and the Elders,” this is unquestionably a real girl showing real discomfort. The male gaze has never seemed so possessive — except that it’s not a male gaze, it’s a female gaze, and a mother’s gaze at that. The painter is Elisabeth Louise Vigeé Le Brun, and the model is her 12-year-old daughter, Julie, posing for a pastoral portrait titled “Julie Le Brun as a Bather.” The possessiveness and the discomfort seem uncontrived because the mother/painter was rightly concerned for the happiness and security of her much-loved only child, and the daughter/sitter would have had to feel discomfort, as any normally restless 12-year-old would, holding an unnatural pose in a drafty studio for as long as it took to complete a highly finished portrait commission in 1792.
Discomforting as the subject matter may be, the picture holds us because, like most of Vigée Le Brun’s best work, it marries technical finesse to revealing characterization. They’re not all this good. Among Vigée Le Brun’s 700 paintings, a fair number seem less like works of art than commercial transactions. The nobles and potentates of Europe paid her very high prices to flatter them, and she did. “On seeing themselves in the mirror of her art, her sitters must have felt that they were smarter, prettier and livelier than they had imagined,” wrote Peter Campbell in the London Review of Books. Furthermore, she was an arch-conservative in her aesthetics as well as her politics. (She professed to believe, for example, that the Russian serfs were “happy” in their servitude.) You don’t get much innovation in Vigée Le Brun. What you do get, as in the portrait of 12-year-old Julie, is something like a glimpse into the human soul. More… “Mother/Painter”
She was a 14-pound lab-hound mix rescued with her siblings from a cardboard box on the side of the road in Kentucky. She was lanky and floppy, with big paws and ears she’d eventually grow into. When my husband picked her up and cradled her against his chest, she looked up at him and licked his chin, like she already knew she was ours. We called her Penelope Chews — Penny for short.
I was told getting a dog would be my gateway drug to wanting a baby. There are the obvious joys: When we get home from work, her tail wags furiously and she darts from my husband back to me, splitting her affection equally, pressing her body against our legs and turning her face up toward us, so grateful we have returned to her. When my husband and I take her for a run, she grabs the leash in her mouth to slow him down because I’ve fallen behind. When her velvet ears shift back on her head like a sail adjusting to the wind, or perk up into silky quotation marks, framing what I imagine to be thoughts of, “BONE!” “TREAT!” SQUIRREL!” When the light hits her sleepy eyes, making them into yellow wolf-like slits. When she circles the space next to me on the couch and drops into a tired pile against my thigh. More… “Puppy Parenthood”
In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the great filmmaker Werner Herzog explores Chauvet, which contains some of the most absorbing cave paintings yet discovered. They also appear to be some of the oldest, dated to 32,000 years before present. Herzog’s camera pans slowly across Chauvet’s bulbous tan walls while his crew moves handheld lights to make the many bumps and angles do a sort of shadow play. The lions, bison, horses, and rhinos outlined in black seem to flex and shift. They nuzzle, sniff, or maybe battle each other. At one point in a voiceover, Herzog says, “The strongest hint of something spiritual, some religious ceremony in the cave, is this bear skull. It has been placed dead center on the rock resembling an altar. The staging seems deliberate. The skull faces the entrance of the cave, and around it fragments of charcoal were found, potentially used as incense.” Amid the flickering beauty in this scene, that monologue got me wondering: How does he know this was a religious situation?
Well. He doesn’t. Nobody will ever know why that skull sits there. While archaeologists agree some prehistoric person did it, the reason why could be anything from a carefully-planned religious rite to a joke. That’s one of the greatest attractions — and the insidious trouble — with cave art. There is no context. Looking at it turns us loose in a wide-open playpen for the imagination where each of us fills the gaps with wishes for what should be there. More… “Cave Artists”
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”
By the time I was twenty-one years old I’d begun to think of myself as something of an accomplished poet; what I lacked — among other things — was a recognizable, consistent voice for my poems. For the most part, American poets make this search for a voice automatically — it’s part of our native Yankee gift for marketing, this straining after a voice that will make one’s poetry sound utterly unlike the work of other poets and hence a unique commodity. It is something like the equivalent — to cite another Detroit effort in the same direction — of adding gigantic tail fins to our cars to make them distinctive. And like the tail fins, it’s a mistake. When I read my work loudly enough to myself, it was clear it wasn’t prose; that it was not poetry was clear to most everyone else. Fortunately, the voice of my poems was in a constant state of change. Years later I realized that developing a voice before you knew what you needed to say was pointless at best, self-defeating at worst. You could spend years trying to sound as lyrical as Edna St. Vincent Millay or Hart Crane only to discover you wanted to write poetry incendiary enough to burn down General Motors or the Pentagon.
The young woman beside me on an airliner ready to head to France was nipping at her nails. Bells had begun to ping. Carbon particulates from overhead vents were besieging us and rendering us hyperaware of the air. She gnawed and nipped and peered through the porthole.
From the seatback tray-table clasp, her pink jean jacket hung. Weighted by brass snaps, it slumped as a human torso might if all the bones were to dissolve except the spine. She turned again to the vast expanse of tarmac. Her neck, as if broken, fell to the porthole’s height. She was wearing a red football jersey, and when she swiveled to regard me her widened eyes blazed blue. More… “The Security of Dirt”
History has remembered the Spanish-American conflict as a “splendid little war.” Between April and August 1898, over 72,000 American soldiers, sailors, and Marines steamrolled the larger forces of the decaying Spanish Empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had given up his position in the McKinley administration in order to create the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry (better known as the Rough Riders), became an all-American hero after the war. More importantly, America’s victories at San Juan Hill, Santiago, and Manila Bay showed the world that Washington had now entered into the age of empires.
The Spanish-American War is notable because it conclusively proved that the media can concoct a war without much evidence. The “gay ’90s” in America belonged to the press barons, otherwise known as the purveyors of “yellow journalism.” Competitors William Randolph Hearst (later portrayed as the character Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) and Joseph Pulitzer fed war fever prior to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor by writing sanguinary and exaggerated stories about Spanish atrocities against the innocent and helpless Cubans. While thousands of Cubans really did suffer in concentration camps, Hearst and Pulitzer often filled their pages with imaginary Spanish intrigues against the United States and American businessmen in Cuba. As a gross indication of the press’s power, one apocryphal story claims that illustrator Frederic Remington received a telegram from Hearst while covering the Cuban rebellion: “You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war.” More… “Invasions: Real and Imagined”