On Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin and Wife
The last thing I read this year, and probably my favorite bunch of stories. And so I sent my partner a photo of the last paragraph of the titular story to close it all out. Here’s the last sentence of this paragraph, which ranks among the best sentences of anything I’ve ever read: “And though they knew that eventually they would reach the boat and clamber inside, row themselves to shore and return to their shared home, as well as their separate lives, for the moment Dan and Lila were content to bob face-to-face, immersed in a unity that will elude the living until we learn to be utterly still.” So much of this year I’ve spent either at work or in motion, shaping my life into something I can share with the woman I love. And so much of this work has been so awful, so painful, so exhausting. But among this awfulness, we’ve shared these moments of stillness, in which we were both allowed, if only briefly, to block out the chaos that surrounds us. It’s not Fawkes’s surrealism or her blunt, beautiful prose that define her stories, but these instances of pauses, these fragments of grace, these brief, precious interludes in which her characters, and thus we, are permitted to not look away, to refuse to look away, to hold another’s gaze, to hold it, to hold.
On Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren
The only book I read this year comparable in length and quality to Delany’s Dhalgren was the first book I read this year, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, and it’s interesting to consider both novels in context of the other. What the two works share, besides their length, is the singularity of each author’s voice. In The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s fury acts as the engine of the novel, pushing its two central characters headlong toward their quest’s conclusion. In Dhalgren, though, Delany, through the chronological confusion and intermittent poetry of his narrator, the mononymous “Kid,” makes it clear that he’s up to something else. So much is going on in Dhalgren, after all. In Bellona, a fictional American city that might be fictional even in Delany’s reality, time seems to have ceased to arrive in neat, linear order. One night, two moons rise in the sky. One morning, a gigantic, blood-red sun assaults the city. Radios and telephones have ceased to work, and the only way in and out is over a bridge, by foot. And all the while, the Kid, who knows neither his own name nor his reason for arriving in Bellona in the first place, writes and publishes his first book of poems, thereby cobbling together some sense of beauty and meaning from the wreckage.
Why I like The Savage Detectives more doesn’t trace to my having a stronger grasp of that text, but having a stronger reason to care. Bolaño writes like he’s figuring something out for himself. What that something exactly is—the purpose of art, the reality of love, the identities of Chile and Mexico—matters less than the fact that Bolaño himself doesn’t quite know, but needs to find out. He is as desperate as any of his characters, and writes like it. In Dhalgren, Delany, by contrast, presents to us a thesis. That this thesis is as obfuscatory and fractured and sprawling as it is doesn’t change the fact that Delany is laying out an argument, and the words he uses to deliver this argument are necessarily cold. The Kid never stops striving, whether through his writing or his desperate sex with Lanya and Denny, but I never found myself bound up in his quest. He is nothing more than a cipher: the key to the city of Bellona, and thus the mystery that is Dhalgren itself. I just wish I cared enough to follow the Kid on his exodus out of (or back into) the city, and see where he leads.
On Arthur Schopenhauer’s On the Suffering of the World
In a year in which I read almost all of Schopenhauer’s major successors, it only makes sense for me to end my introductory tour of pessimistic philosophy with its founder. Even before reading him, I knew what I had signed up for. Here was the misanthrope of misanthropes. Here was the professor who scheduled his first lecture, out of spite, at the same time as Hegel, his much more popular senior, and preached to an empty classroom. Here was the man who thought that all was subject to a “blind and insatiable will,” locked in perpetual motion as we strove to endure, to propagate, to live another day.
And this was what I got, more or less. Schopenhauer is a frightening read, especially for someone like me. And maybe it’s no accident that I left On the Suffering of the World, a collection of writings from throughout his life, at my apartment while I was home for the holidays. No matter who you are, to read Schopenhauer is to be infected by his thoughts: humanity is vain, religion is illogical, death is nothing but a return to the nothingness that came before. These are not pleasant things to think, even during the lighter and warmer months of the year.
Nevertheless: searching the Internet for quotes to pull, after the fact, from the text, I found this quote. And I was surprised by it, and convinced again to revisit Schopenhauer in the near future, if for a different reason than before. “It is difficult,” he wrote, in some essay or other, at some point in his largely miserable life, “to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” His pessimism was not heroic, not as Thacker’s is or Nietzsche’s was, but heroism was there. It had to be. And I think it’s important to find out how this defiance arose, to figure out why Schopenhauer continued on in the face of such bleakness. As this year comes to its close, I can think of few other things I want to write about more.
On Maya C. Popa’s The Bees Have Been Canceled
Poetry and prose alike fetishize surprise. Act III of the horror movie finds our heretofore steadfast ally to be anything but. The fourteenth line of a sonnet is omitted, leaving the reader grasping, flailing in the wake of the poem’s premature termination. The lead singer who laments his loneliness, who lashes out against the heartlessness of others, is outed as a monster, an abuser, a hypocrite of the most irredeemable sort.
But there is something to be said for a thing that is exactly what you expected it to be. This was how I felt reading Maya C. Popa’s 2017 chapbook The Bees Have Been Canceled. In the unlikely event that you are off Twitter (but have found this blog nonetheless), Popa, to fill you in, is a big deal. Among a thousand-strong crowd of comparably-sized, poetry-promoting accounts, she is among the most consistent, posting a handful of poems a day. And these poems reflect a spectrum of taste; she is equally likely to share a scrap of Merwin as a fragment of Sappho, an uncompromising image of Dickinson’s as a shard of O’Hara’s clarity. The through-line, if there is one, is Popa’s respect for language: she acknowledges the power of it, the capacity of reticence and precision to turn a handful of words into the truth.
She is also a poet in her own right, and I am happy to attest that she is a very good one. She speaks both to and from the present moment in a way I find few poets capable of, commenting on our world’s fecund ugliness with detached, oracular insight. But she also writes into the steel of her rage in a way that evokes Gluck, Carson, Plath—all predecessors she herself has shared on Twitter more times than I can count. In “The Return to Nature Has Been Canceled,” she writes, “I used to think, if things got bad enough, / I could return to nature, its bell-less door ajar.” Present here is the calm of the bulk of the collection. One imagines Popa on a low cliff at the edge of a calm sea as a city burns at her back. Peeking through, though, like the scalpels of a surgery performed from the inside out, is her anger. Here we find the resigned eco-warrior, the exhausted prophet, the woman done with being scorned. Nature’s “bell-less door ajar” has summoned the irate ghost of Plath. And as The Bees Have Been Canceled reminds us about so many things, we should be grateful for her.
On Maya C. Popa’s You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave
You Always Wished the Animals Would Leave reads like it was written by someone who stopped and looked around themselves toward the close of the 2016th Year of Our Lord and said, “Things are going to get much, much fucking worse,” and then watched as they did. And with 2017 being the year it was, and with 2018 being the year it was, and with 2019 being the year it was, and with 2020, and 2021, and the year to come, and every year after, until the Earth is once more quiet and calm and, one hopes, green—this read feels right. Popa is tired, and she writes like it. This was true of her previous collection, The Bees Have Been Canceled, but now it feels like the point of Popa’s poetry—no longer a mere ingredient, but its defining ethos. “How to say that suffering should yield something?” she writes in “Knockout Mouse Model,” and it’s this question she takes up, gnaws upon, breaks to get at its marrow, relentless in her starvation. Confusion is an automatic, understandable reaction to exhaustion. Clarity is the rarefied territory of mystics and monks. Popa belongs to neither of these categories. She has found a way to both writhe and abide, to inhabit the unanswerable middle, to tell of what she’s found.
Poetry, I’ve found, is a way of answering without answering, finding a way forward where none exists. “I’ve held my human head / in my human hands so it would not / succumb to language,” Popa writes in “American Faith.” Climate change has poisoned me with meteorological metaphors, but I’ll use one now: even amidst the cyclone of Today, there endures an “I.” For about half a year, now, her posts on Twitter have provided my partner and me with a language of defiance and hope from which we would have otherwise been denied. Her own poems do the same. To manufacture light from smoke, to distill presence from absence—this is the singular prerogative of poets, at least when they are working at their best. To give without requiring recompense. For this gift to be, in fact, a gift: the act its own payment, all the return one might ever need.
On Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City
The third time I shared a section of Chronic City with my partner, I realized I was being played. Not by her—unlike that of any character in the novel, our trust is automatic, implicit, complete—but by Lethem himself. Up to this point, Janice Trumbull, our narrator’s apparent fiancée, has written a series of letters to him from the space station within which she is stuck. A loyal, lovelorn astronaut, trapped within the starkness of space by distance and a smattering of Chinese mines, she is front-page material for The New York Times. And Chase Insteadman, her washed-up, ex-child-actor boyfriend, despite remembering nothing about their relationship except for what’s included in these letters, is content to go along for the ride. But as Janice’s stakes steadily escalate—she develops cancer; loses a foot; sees her fellow crew members bite the bullet, one by one—Chase’s life loses what little structure it originally possessed. Following the destruction of a city block, Chase’s closest ally, the eclectic and messianic Perkus Tooth, goes missing. Meanwhile, Chase’s terrestrial side-piece, Oona Laszlo, begins to abuse him to a comical degree. And then Perkus reappears. All at once, things matter again. Chase Insteadman’s life has regained its stakes.
Chronic City is not a novel about love. Or, at least, love is not its thesis. Plot is, instead: how much we need it, the lengths we will go to seek it. Lethem doesn’t want us to believe in Trumbull or her love, not really. Just like he doesn’t want us to believe in the tiger rampaging through Manhattan’s underground, or the obsession with semi-mythical chaldrons that sweeps through its bougie one-percent. He wants us to want to believe. Life is messy, boring, ugly, short. A plot, even if it’s a grim one, even if death lies at its end, is not.
On ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
I have read things bleaker than ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere; I have also read things brighter. But I have read few things that do what Packer’s debut (and only) collection does, which is to make the bleak bright, the bright bleak. And I have read nothing that does it as well. In these stories, a freshman at Yale despairs, and searches, and finds exactly zero inner peace; a young woman at the dawn of the civil rights movement, meanwhile, sits at the counter of an all-white diner, only to find herself faced with a hint of greasy, treacherous light. My favorite of the collection, “Speaking in Tongues,” also happens to be its longest, a sixty-page beast that spans Packer’s preoccupations. The narrator, fourteen-year-old Tia, disappointed by the answers her Christian upbringing offers, runs away to Atlanta. She’s in search of her mother; more truly, she seeks what all kids do: adventure, meaning, a thing in which to believe. But she quickly finds herself in the company of watchful sex workers and a troubled, abusive man. Her state at the end of the story, objectively speaking, is the grimmest of any of Packer’s characters. And yet it feels the most hopeful, because that’s what Packer does. That’s how only she can tell it. It’s the only way she knows. “Tia stood up and brushed gravel and broken glass from her skirt,” Packer concludes. “And she ran.”
My initial reaction to a collection of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’s quality is to despair. My second, stronger reaction is to hope. There is a singular magic to short stories. There can be, at least. They can do something no other genre of art can. And Packer’s do it, time and time again.