Into and Through the Ellipses

by Marjorie Sandor

Dear Reader,

The poet Theodore Roethke once wrote, “I teach myself by going where I have to go.” A variation might be that each new poem, story, or essay has its own secret dynamic, just waiting for the writer to recognize it. Or at least it feels that way when a jumbled fragment of language at last releases a clue to its potential form. It can be a long wait, and in the meantime the project can seem quixotic and wrongheaded. Yet something won’t let you give it up. This was my experience in writing “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” which appeared in AGNI 85. It’s a short story whose particular “quixotics” included a first-person narration by a bored Russian dandy in early 19th century St. Petersburg—a character named Eugene Onegin, a fictional creation long-since made famous by the Great Poet of Russia, Alexander Pushkin.

A misbegotten project, God knows, and one I never thought would make sense to another person, let alone see print.  But somehow it happened—and I’m still surprised by what I learned along the way.

I want to say something about the “spark” of the story—as it is, itself, a little ass-backwards. In June of 2013 I had an assignment from Opera News and a very tight deadline: produce 1,700 words on the relationship of Pushkin’s 1830 verse novel, Eugene Onegin, to Tchaikovsky’s opera, composed three decades later. It was a daunting task for someone only dimly acquainted with either artist, and the sheer number of university library shelves devoted to each of them made me want to hide under a rock.

In the end, I found a way forward and made the deadline. But more crucially, I fell in love with the witty, wise-cracking narrator of Pushkin’s novel, a man who both adores his foppish pal Eugene, and mocks him mercilessly. The novel ends with the narrator leaving Eugene “for long, forever,” kneeling in an agony of unrequited love in the empty boudoir of his beloved. A set of ellipses follows…and that’s it for poor Onegin.

This narrator, with his wit and complex personality, was my favorite thing about the novel, yet he figures not at all in the opera, nor does the marvelous wit and satirical thread in the novel. I confess I was deeply disappointed.

But life goes on…a month or so after I finished writing the article, I still felt this peculiar, aching dissatisfaction, as if I had more to say. Stranger still, the “voice” in my head didn’t sound like my own. It sounded more formal, and more edgy, too: irked, bitter, prone to the rant. Why it came so easily to me I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over time, it’s that for me, that’s the sign of a story beginning to come to life. A voice with a distinct rhythm, and a certain drive—even if it goes around in circles and doesn’t have a character yet, let alone a situation. I typed a few pages in that voice, and set it aside. Not long after, I happened to be reading Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer. In the chapter on “Narration,” she explains how, as she embarked on her first novel, she tricked herself into finding the narrative voice and point of view. Rather than focusing on the question of “who is telling the story,” she says, we should really be asking “Who is listening? One what occasion is the story being told, and why?”

I gave that some thought, and considered that the “voice of Onegin himself,” pissed off at a whole future of readers who might not know him, is even more pissed off at the creator who stranded him in that damned boudoir for the rest of time.

Why not have him directly address Pushkin? Would that give the voice something to focus on?

Yet this decision created yet another problem: expositional contrivance of the worst kind. You’ve winced at this, I’m sure. Characters in dramas who go on long extended restatings of things their listener must already know?

Plus, Onegin was ranting away inside that lady’s sitting room. He didn’t have anything to DO or anywhere to go. What a bore. I broke up with him and walked away just like Pushkin, leaving him in his prison of chintz.

And there he remained, a sleeping-beauty in the form of a bored fop, until one day, I had another deadline—this time, a public reading. I gave myself a challenge: contain this thing in the number of pages specified for the public reading, and finish it, no matter what.

The pressure made me suddenly practical. “What’s missing here?” I asked myself. Every rant is spoken from a certain place and time, right? What if my ranter also had a destination? Where would poor Eugene want to go, if only he could be sprung, Houdini-like, from his prison? I decided he would go to the deathbed of his creator. Why? I didn’t know yet. I just knew where. And how the hell was I going to get him out of there?

I went back to the original novel and looked harder. Then I did more research, this time digging deeper into Pushkin’s biography, and was struck anew by the irony of his death—brought on by a fatal stomach wound sustained in a duel—a finale that eerily mimicked a key event in the novel itself.

Then I wrote an editor’s note, a frame I hoped would give my non-Pushkin-familiar readers the basics they’d need to read my own story.

But I still had the problem of the “physical universe” of Onegin’s situation: there were no windows or doors described in the final scene of the novel. Then I asked myself, “Well, what do you have?” I stared at the page.

At that set of ellipses.

And saw them differently now—not so much a form of punctuation as a form of transportation for my Eugene. Why couldn’t Onegin put his feet into them, and one-two-three, be out of there? Now the story was alive, and Onegin full of hope, and he could go on his mission, a desired fueled journey to see his dying—or already dead—master. This was the first of several surprises that seemed to come not from me, but from the story’s own physical constraints, and my character’s desire to get to his creator’s deathbed in time to say goodbye.

One last question: isn’t it risky to write in the voice of such a famous, already existing literary character? Probably, yes. But he didn’t feel that remote to me. I’ll confess that I let him say a couple of really wildly anachronistic things for the sake of a laugh, and these darlings I had to kill—they read like little vandalisms, break-ins to the story’s universe.

But the most surprising thing of all happened after the story was finished, and I was behind a podium, reading it aloud. Very suddenly, in the midst of reading, I recognized the voice of a dear, cranky, avuncular bachelor pal of my father’s, now long dead. When I was a child, Maurice Rudens was forever standing in my mother’s kitchen with a glass of Scotch, holding forth on music, literature, art, and my father’s imperfections. We all suspected he was in love with our mother. But the bottom line is this: Maury’s passion for literature and his ranty voice were in my bloodstream from early childhood. It was his voice, his bitterness, his yearning for the lover he couldn’t have, that made me feel I “knew” Pushkin’s Onegin so intimately.

There’s one more thing, something I never let myself see or say till right now. Onegin’s voice didn’t just belong to Maurice Rudens. It was my voice too, or one strand of it: my own secret yearning found its way in, under the voice of the cranky voice of complaint that is the story’s dominant mode. Writing into and through the ellipses, freeing Onegin from his bonds but keeping him close, became, at once, an elegy for my own lost Onegin. “A Letter of Complaint to Pushkin,” it turns out, isn’t a letter of complaint at all, but a love letter to literature, and to you, its passionate readers.

agni blog logo smaller

color sandor author photoMarjorie Sandor is the author of four books of short fiction and creative nonfiction, including the linked story collection Portrait of my Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, winner of the 2004 National Jewish Book Award. Her stories and essays have appeared in such journals as AGNI, The Georgia Review, The Harvard Review, and Opera News, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize. She edited the international short-story anthology, The Uncanny Reader, in 2015. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and teaches in the MFA Program at Oregon State University. See what she’s published in AGNI here.


Against “Unlikeable”: On the Occasion of What Happened

by Courtney Sender

When my novel manuscript was rejected in early 2016, I knew that Hillary Clinton would lose the election.

The problem with the novel, per almost every editor who saw it, was the main female character. She was too unlikeable.

The designation came as a shock to me. I—and my agents—had had no idea that my character was so off-putting. I hadn’t written, say, the intentionally vengeful, lying, unlikeable namesake of Gone Girl. I’d thought my character was a regular human person with a regular human internal life, if perhaps a bit more willing than regular humans to articulate that life, through the close-third narration she shared with the male protagonists. I had not known that my version of regular and human was so very upriver.

So what was it about her that was so unlikeable? ”I was put off by some of her forcefulness, which intensified over the course of the long narrative.” “Out the gate, I had issues with Hagar’s likeability, and I thought this might be intentional, they are still young. But as the book continued, it didn’t improve.” “I wondered if perhaps at times there was too much detail and writing delving into characters’ thoughts and feelings.”

The gendered nature of such statements—imagine calling a male character unlikeable because he displays force, or doesn’t soften into what is expected and palatable as he grows older, or is invested in the novelistic project of interrogating idea and emotion—is well covered in lively debates about, for example, Claire Messud’s novels.

And the thought I had above all, reading those responses in the summer of 2016, was: If my merely fictional imaginative creation is so unmarketably unlikeable based on the forcefulness of her desire, then what chance does a very real Hillary Clinton stand in her bid for president?

Because it seems to me that what makes a female character unlikeable is her wanting. (As Claire Messud puts it, “Women aren’t supposed to want stuff.”) In fiction, the single most attractive thing a woman can do is not-want. See for example Mohsin Hamid’s latest, Exit West. The first time the love interests speak, he asks her for coffee, and she does the sexiest possible thing in response: she says no. “She continued to gaze at him steadily. Then she said, ‘Maybe another time.’ He watched as she walked out…and rode off [on her motorcycle], disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dusk.”

This phenomenon, whereby women are only as attractive as their saying no, and lose attractiveness as soon as they say yes I want a coffee with you, is as true in our political mechanism as it is in fiction. To be a woman wanting—to be ambitious, a striver, to choose some object and exert all the force she can muster to achieve it from a young age and not back down—is still unseemly, in our characters and our politicians. It is what we mean when we say that a real or fictional woman is unlikeable. She wants too hard, and the wrong thing.

In my manuscript, the locus of unlikeability seemed to be the discrepancy between the character being a smart woman, and wanting above all a romantic/sexual/domestic partner—which in her case meant wanting, desperately, a man. She doesn’t wait to become old enough for such loneliness to be justified. She believes her loneliness is as justified at 25 as at 60. If she feels it, then it is valid as a subject of literary inquiry.

The aversion to wanting of this kind strikes me as aversion to specifically female-marked kinds of wanting. I see this dynamic played out in two of our most popular contemporary cultural juggernauts: Hamilton and Game of Thrones. In both, the male protagonists’ respective love interests function primarily as forces telling their men-with-big-destinies to give up destiny and stay home. In Hamilton, Eliza continuously asks Alexander to be satisfied, to come home from the war and “decide to stay“ with her and their children; in Game of Thrones, Ygritte wants Jon Snow to forget the game and “stay [with her] in that cave” where they first consummated their relationship. (I’ve written about this elsewhere.)

These fictional women want their men to participate with them in domestic life—a desire presented in both works as sweet-sounding in the short term but ultimately small-sighted, ignorant of or antagonistic to his broader fate in the world, indeed impossible for such men as these predestined.

But why should these women’s desires be so patently untenable? Surely we critics and readers and editors need to interrogate what makes us call female characters unlikeable, and to stop jumping reflexively from unlikeable to unmarketable—but we need moreover to stop thinking of certain character traits, coded female, as unlikeable or untenable at all. One oft-dispensed tip to counter gender inequity, codified in books like Lean In, is that women ought to act in more traditionally male ways. If men take up all the air in the room, women should learn to do the same. If women start sentences with “I’m sorry“ or “Maybe this is just me,” they should do like the men and cut those phrases out. Even the famous Bechdel test falls into the pattern of minimizing traditionally female-marked subjects: if women are talking about men—often, though not always, in a romantic context—their remarks don’t pass muster. Those conversations don’t, somehow, count.

But let’s consider for a moment what would happen if we flipped the script. What if we advanced gender parity by encouraging men to adopt more traditionally female modes of being, rather than encouraging women to drop those modes in favor of male methods? (At least one historian thinks we’ll all need to take on “women’s work” in our near-future economy.) What if we encouraged everyone to start sentences, where apt and appropriate, with the very-often apt and appropriate “Maybe this is just me”? What if we stopped tagging conversations about romance—that is, about the heart, about partnership, about domestic life—as unserious or unimportant? Could it be that war and work and politics have long been coded male, while love and romance have been coded female, and that’s why the latter are seen as unserious in the first place?

What if we decided that the ways and things that women want—an elected office, a partner, a platform to tell her own story as she sees it—were not unlikeable at all, but simply human, worthy of serious consideration in our art and our politics. What if we decided that that most fundamental desire, to tell our story, were not so unlikeable in a woman as to stir the heated debate surrounding Hillary Clinton’s very act of publishing a book.

This is not merely a thought experiment we should entertain; it’s a course of action we must take. I challenge all of us not just to drop the term “unlikeable,” but to interrogate, every time we think it, what set of actions and behaviors called it up. Until we can collectively accept a woman who wants—in private and public, in art and politics—I fear that no female challenger to even the most unqualified of men will stand a chance.

agni blog logo smaller

photo by Shuwei Liu

Courtney Sender’s fiction has won the Glimmer Train fiction open, the Boulevard emerging writers contest, The Mississippi Review fiction contest, and the Lawrence Prize for best story in Michigan Quarterly Review. Her stories also appear in The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, The Georgia Review, and others, and her essays appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books and Salon. A MacDowell Colony fellow, she holds an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. She currently studies religion & literature at Harvard Divinity School and teaches at Grub Street in Boston. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Person Principle: Writing Mental Illness

by David Ebenbach

The mad scientist. The batty neighbor. The homicidal maniac. From wild-eyed, mumbling homeless people to despondent teens dressed all in black and villains deranged by ambition.

There’s a long tradition of writing mental illness in fiction. Unfortunately, a lot of the time it’s been done poorly, relying on types and broad strokes rather than nuance and accuracy.

The stereotype.

The plot device.

The easy stock character.

When you write about mental illness, you are working in relationship to that hit-or-miss tradition, and you have to decide how you’re going to write.

What I would argue is that you really only need one principle: characters with mental illness are, in fact, characters. (Just as people with mental illness are, in fact, people.) Which means that they need to be written with the same care that all good characters are.

And what kinds of things do we care about when we’re trying to write good characters? Well, above all, we want them to be three-dimensional, because characters are supposed to be like real people, and real people are complicated and multidimensional. We don’t want our firefighter character, in other words, to only care about fighting fires; we don’t want a character from Kansas to care only about being from Kansas; and we shouldn’t want to write a character with mental illness in such a way that they are entirely reducible to that illness—a depressed person whose only attribute is sadness, say, or a person with a phobia who spends every scene being afraid.

But it’s bigger than the issue of dimensionality. When we write characters, we’re generally trying to make points of connection—people to whom our readers can relate in some way. That’s really why we make them dimensional. Even villains—the best villains often have some traits that we can understand, which makes them all the more fascinating. Points of connection are essential to fiction. But many times when people write characters with mental illness the result is a portrait not of commonality but of someone where oddness, difference, and otherness predominate. These portraits can get pretty offensive; they also make lousy characters.

I also think that this is the crux of why things go wrong when people try to get mental illness onto the page. Because it’s not just about the reader connecting; it’s about the writer connecting, too.

When you’re writing your way into a life that isn’t exactly the same as yours—whether the differences are slight or large—you’re faced with a decision: whether to empathize or not. Usually we embrace this opportunity, because there’s enormous pleasure in empathizing with people (even fictional ones). And you learn remarkable things, like how much you have in common with a wide range of human beings. It probably even makes you a better person, saying yes to that opportunity over and over again.

But what if the opportunity is threatening? What if you don’t want to find commonalities? What if you don’t want to blur (or even erase) the line between well and unwell, between you and a person with mental illness?

The fact is that there are commonalities whether you allow yourself to see them or not.

In my novel Miss Portland, the main character has bipolar disorder. (The book never comes out and says that, but it becomes clear soon enough.) Now, although I have wrestled a bit with depression, I do not have bipolar disorder. I’ve never experienced the kind of manic episode that my protagonist, Zoe, is experiencing throughout the book. But I chose Zoe as my protagonist because I have been very close to some people who have had bipolar disorder—close enough for their lives to inform and surround and shape my own. I wrote the book because I wanted to get closer still. And that meant treating Zoe like a character, which meant treating her like a person. A person with bipolar disorder, yes, but also a person with a great sense of humor and a very jumpy stomach and a nice brother and a person who is Jewish and from Philadelphia and who’s done a lot of different kinds of jobs in her life, including being a mindfulness coach. In other words: a person.

And of course the thing happened to me that always happens when I say yes to a character: I found myself in her and I found her in me. I found that the lines are in fact quite blurry, to the extent that there are any lines at all.

Characters—with or without mental illness—are not conveniences, not types to be slotted into places where the plot needs them. They are doorways into lives, into whole universes.

Some of those doorways might be frightening to you.

Open them anyway—all the way.

agni blog logo smaller

2017-03-23 01 King JoeDavid Ebenbach wrote this piece in honor of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month (September). He is the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the debut novel Miss Portland. He’s also AGNI’s blog editor. Find out more at

Accidents of Bread in Cheese: Trump at Table

by David Gewanter

Washington is both a city and a metaphor. In most ways, it is livelier as metaphor, a shining civics lesson, and a swamp of scandal. Day and night it gobbles and spews information, papers, and policies. The city’s residents live near unfolding history and important people—I walk by Senator John Kerry’s house daily—yet we exist, for the most part, outside of history. How many DC residents have real access to insider knowledge: 5,000? 500? As FBI man James Comey explained: “people talking about [classified information] often don’t really know what’s going on. And those of us who actually know what’s going on are not talking about it.” So, 699,500 city-dwellers must imagine the rest of the narrative, weaving together hunches, shreds of gossip, and speculation into some hazy image, a “what’s going on” that only the powerful know.

Washington insiders operate in political terms; DC residents are relegated to work in imaginative—that is, literary—terms. Now, literary thinking may seem a weak sister of political debate and machpolitik. Yet it has gathered new force in the Age of Trump: for even as terms are being thrown out to describe his presidency—from “autocrat” to “idiot”—the powerful sense grows that we have entered the realm of the absurd. A new healthcare law will deprive 23 million people of healthcare—millions of them Trump supporters. Russia meddled in the election; Trump fires FBI director Comey investigating it; the Kremlin, unasked, renews Trump’s copyright privileges in Russia. George Orwell’s 1984, with its “doublethink,” “newspeak,” and alternate math “two and two is five,” is back on the best-seller list. Absurd realities pile up daily, reporters can hardly keep pace. Some people, binge-watching the several investigations and reports, complain of a “Trump Ten” weight gain.

Are we ushered into the absurd by such local paradoxes? Paradox after paradox, stacked like lumber until we face a “big bundle of unified nonsense,” as today’s Washington Post wrote about healthcare deprivations. In art, the pleasure of accepting paradox is acknowledged by John Keats as Negative Capability: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Here, perhaps, stands the fault-line between our political instincts for debate, news, “fact & reason,” and our more loose-jointed art impulses, seeking symbols, hidden byways, “Mysteries, doubts.”

These two modes of thinking—political and literary—compete to dominate the Washington narrative. Does the city employ them equally? Not really: the literary remains Washington’s Unacknowledged Legislator, disliked and distrusted by the political. Demanding facts and logical coherence, today’s news-hunting Gradgrinds are irritated by paradox, dreams, or visions. They consider literary thinking, which does commerce with Mysteries and uncertainties, as feckless and soft, like Leslie Howard in the old movies: a sensitive, wan aesthete searching for a light at the end of the tunnel. But that light comes from a train about to barrel him over.

To be sure, literary “doubt” indicates doubleness, and that can include “doublethink.” But doubt and paradox are accepted elements of literary judgments, interesting and useful—even necessary. Why resolve them? But Washington politics sees doubt only as ignorance and weakness; as for paradox, it is called “contradiction,” and treated as a kind of hypocrisy. Both ignorance and contradiction must be resolved in debate.

Political thinking readily offers dark visions about the outcomes of literary, fanciful thinking. If we drift to sleep wondering how a cow jumps over the moon, well, we might wake up inside Kafka’s Metamorphosis, punished for our dreams by becoming a cockroach. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes warns us not to tolerate absurd nonsense terms such as “round quadrangle” or “accidents of bread in cheese.” From this view, artistic double-thinking—the “this-yet-that” capability that delighted Keats—leads to moral catastrophe. The actual, painful world will pop your dream-bubble. Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” Similarly, Orwell: “sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

The battlefield, certainly, provides a first home for the absurd, as literary novels from The Red Badge of Courage through Catch 22 have shown. Orwell, fighting in the Spanish Civil War, refused to shoot a fascist whose pants had fallen down. A battle-cry of that war: ¡Viva Muerte!, Long live Death. But it is a more civil war—fought jaw to jaw—that makes Washington’s daily bread. In James Comey’s recent senate testimony, political fact-finding and literary hunches would each contend for dominance: whichever narrative was persuasive, the other one would seem false, and absurd. It was not a moment when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald supposed, you can easily hold two opposing ideas in your head. Over 20 million people watched his testimony, more than the NBA finals (whose outcome was less in doubt).

By dawn, people started waiting in line at DC bars broadcasting the hearings. Comey quickly gave patrons their money’s worth: he claimed that President Trump told “lies, plain and simple” about the FBI, and that, at their White House intimate dinner pour deux, Trump spoke of Comey’s investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn, who had just resigned: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Comey said he wrote down notes immediately after every private meeting he held with Trump. Why? “The circumstances, the subject matter, and the person I was interacting with,” Comey answered. Regarding the nature of the person Comey was interacting with: “I was honestly concerned that he [Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting, and so I thought it really important to document.”

So Comey, before meeting with Trump, had worried that Trump might later lie; months later, he claims that Trump did indeed lie. The core issue in this narrative, then, is the question of character. To gauge character, Comey weaves together several literary strands—the setting, the dialogue, the tone, and his hunches about the man. Comey is finding his path through the realm of Mysteries, doubt, subtle readings of character—and yes, supplementing them with reasoning and fact: for Trump’s public lies had been well-catalogued before the January inauguration, and now number in the hundreds.

Can imagination work in tandem with practical knowledge? It seems so here. Perhaps the quaint notion of reading “character” has re-emerged as a master coin in Washington. It certainly held value a hundred years ago, when banker J.P. Morgan—who once bailed out Wall Street—testified before a Congressional committee on trusts. Morgan was asked how a person qualifies for loans—how someone’s ability to get credit is determined.

Q: Is not [someone’s] commercial credit based primarily upon [his] money or property
A: No, sir; the first thing is character.
Q: Before money or property?
A: Before money or anything else. Money cannot buy it.

For Morgan, character brought loans, credit:

A: I have known men to come into my office, and I have given them a check for a million dollars when I knew they had not a cent in the world.

Likewise, the question for Comey’s testimony became one of character, personal credibility. The committee senators, their faces dewy with Arnoldian high seriousness, focused on the primal political issue: what did Trump’s comments mean? Was he sharing a wan personal desire, or was he trying to press Comey to do his bidding?

Comey testified that Trump was pressuring him: “I took it as a direction.” Conservative and progressive senators divided on this question in predictable fashion, but each of them became, briefly, what Marianne Moore called “literalists of the imagination”: they tried to imagine tone, context, and intent for the term “hope,” a word echoing Bill Clinton’s home town in Arkansas, and Barack Obama’s bestselling The Audacity of Hope. Given that the country remains battered by an election filled with personal accusation, resentment, and cultivated fears, it was perversely satisfying to hear our public servants parse this term.

We needed John Le Carré or Thomas Carlyle to join the inquiry. Instead, we were left with Senator James Risch who, with a litigator’s precise reductionism, tried to maneuver Comey. “Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this—they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?”

Comey didn’t know of a case one way or another, but legal scholars later found cases where people have indeed been prosecuted for this. Senator Kamala Harris suggested that we certainly would understand a gunman telling us, “I hope you will give me your wallet.” As for tone: perhaps Trump was being playful, as he was when boasting of grabbing pussy, or shooting someone on the streets of New York. The anecdotes provided by juridical questioners couldn’t firmly establish the tone and context of Trump’s “hope” comments: they shrank the question to a prosecutor’s either/or. Dialogue, tone, context, character: can they be treated as essentially factual, or should they remain the stuff that literary Mysteries and hunches are made on?

Senator Angus King, though a lawyer, tried the literary route.

KING: When a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or—or “would you,” do you take that as a—as a—as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

KING: I was just going to quote that. In 1170, December 29, Henry II said, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and then, the next day, he was killed—Thomas Becket. That’s exactly the same situation. You’re—we’re thinking along the same lines.

Briefly, imaginative and literary thinking took center stage at the senate hearing: a shared cultural memory showed how an autocrat would stage a sly command. He said this; he meant that. It presented, in Marianne Moore’s metaphor, an imaginary garden with a real toad in it. Jobless English majors across the nation cheered, gratified for having taken their SAT prep course. There it was: a literary topos, not a political disclosure, that had finally spanned the DC knowledge gap—the gap between insider knowledge and the public’s general ignorance. It displayed how literary thinking, even as it seeks the marks and methods of human behavior, must weigh its observations against memory and misleading associations. Literary insights tempered by doubt and self-correction are not double-think absurdities, not political contradictions, but efforts at mature judgment.

With Comey’s exchange with King, the humanists had their day; yet within weeks of the hearing, Trump boasted that his tweets and remarks had forced Comey to tell his story, not—as most everyone else saw—that Trump’s lying about FBI morale had prompted Comey to disclose the “hope” comment publically, and thus to induce the FBI to hire a special investigator. And with that, Washington had shifted back: two and two might be five. Trump complains of “fake news”; meanwhile, his golf resorts have posted fake Time Magazine covers featuring his picture.

Hobbes contended that absurd statements should not be called “error,” but “nonsense.” Yet our experience with the absurd, after Beckett, Camus, and Co., has broadened beyond that; the absurd now offers a consonant world view one can live within. In Orwell’s geography of the mind, this should not be possible. “Plain, unmistakable facts [are] being shirked,” he complained, “by people who in another part of their mind are aware of those facts.” In Washington terms, this means that the 70% of Fox viewers who thought Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks were somehow, somewhere aware of the fact that he wasn’t. But cognitive dissonance may now be easier to suppress, given our divided, self-reinforcing news-watching habits. There is not “another part of their mind” where true facts are found. Orwell, curiously, was being optimistic.

Political and literary thinking move in parallel; sometimes they collaborate, and sometimes, as in the Comey hearing, they provide vastly different answers. Facts can pop the dream-balloon; but art, in its turn, can needle the bloated body politic. Each has its task. From political research we get Barbara Tuchman’s detailed narrative on the causes and vanities leading to the Great War: The Guns of August. From literary imagination we get Thomas Hardy’s ironic ballad “Channel Firing,” with its startling image of skeletons waking up to cannons roaring their “readiness to avenge” the attacks that have yet to happen. Hardy rhymes “avenge” with “starlit Stonehenge,” casting together the present political, the musical, and the mythic. And the prophetic: Hardy wrote the poem in April, 1914, four months before the war. Beyond the realm of reason lies a shadowland of doubt and uncertainty; we can only traverse it in sudden, leaping assumptions: of character, tone, dialogue, literary reference, and metaphor.

How reliable are such materials? Robert Frost warns us not to take metaphors too far. He lauds the “tantalizing vagueness” of poetry, its “way of saying one thing and meaning another”; yet he advises us first to gain “the proper poetical education in the metaphor” and, more broadly, in “figurative values.” We should “know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness,” Frost notes. Otherwise, “you are not safe anywhere”: “you are not safe in science; you are not safe in history.” Nor safe in the prosaic, treacherous city.

The avenging arts of poetry may be figured like that ancient, circle of sacrifice, Hardy’s Stonehenge; or like the circling ditches of Dante’s Inferno, found in the woods near the city that exiled him. Dante may have lost the political battles of his day, but he then created a literary, and post-mortal payback for evil action. After your death, your body will suffer endless punishment—punishment that is figured as a metaphor of your crime, but that has become as real and physical as fact. For Dante’s Ugolino, it was to eat the brains of the man who forced him to eat his children. What lies ahead for Trump? There may be some outcome beyond the body’s last meal, the “ashes to be eaten, and dirt to drink” (David Ferry). Perhaps Trump will be gorged on the suppurating diseases of 23 million sick people, and become the “infinitely suffering thing” that appeases “the conscience of a blackened street” (T.S. Eliot). Mr. Trump, welcome to your table.

agni blog logo smaller


David Gewanter‘s new poetry book, Fort Necessity (U. Chicago Press), will appear in March 2018. Previous books: War Bird, The Sleep of Reason, and In the Belly (all U. Chicago Press); co-editor, Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (FSG & Faber). Awards include: the Zacharis First Book Prize, Whiting Writer’s Fellowship, Ambassador Book Award, Witter Bynner Fellowship, James Laughlin Prize (finalist), Academy of American Poets prizes, Hopwood Award, and “Book of the Year” (Contemporary Poetry Review). He teaches at Georgetown and lives in DC. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Lee Upton

I love the 1964 novel The Garrick Year. It is stupefying to learn that Margaret Drabble wrote the novel (her second) when she was only twenty-four years old. I tell you, the book’s voice bears the intimate bitterness, the willingness to examine one’s basest impulses, the sheer energetic malice of a writer decades older.

Drabble was working on The Garrick Year while she was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and felt not quite of the company—on the fringes, cast in small roles. The novel’s narrator, Emma, is a sort of Emma Bovary in reverse, participating in a rather desultory, unimpassioned affair, and evincing a ready ability to detect and deflate the vanities of every adult she encounters. Her husband, an actor who has insisted on taking his wife and their two small children away from London and out to a provincial theater, is unbearably self-centered, and Emma is expected to grin and bear it. In an interview Drabble referred to Emma’s “really very malicious and satiric view of actors.” Drabble’s prose carries that view to unexpected heights.

I admire the concision of the novel—nothing wasted, the plot narrated in a pitch-perfect voice, as the lid comes off the character’s self-censoring impulses. In a life where many of us spend considerable time trying to be kind, Emma is a bit of a relief.

Of all the twists and turns of The Garrick Year, it’s the ending that surprises me most. The ending reverberates, presenting a repellent vision of marriage, and suggesting the narrator’s sense that she is both fed upon by others and unable, partly because of the varieties of her own bodily experiences, to alter her circumstances. In other words, the ending is horrifying.

Emma, her husband, and their two children take a drive into the countryside and stop to enjoy a bucolic meadow. The baby rests with Emma and her husband while their little girl runs among a flock of sheep. Triumphantly, the baby makes sheep sounds. It’s an endearing moment. But one sheep that the little girl playfully runs toward doesn’t move. This is what Emma alone sees as she approaches the sheep:

“I looked more closely and I saw curled up and clutching at the sheep’s belly a real snake… I did not want to admit that I had seen it, but I did see it, I can see it still. It is the only wild snake that I have ever seen…. One just has to keep on and to pretend, for the sake of the children, not to notice. Otherwise one might just as well stay at home.”

Those are the novel’s last words.

That concluding visitation—one deadly animal attached to and poisoning the stunned other—de-sentimentalizes the ending of the novel in a way that’s harrowing, and opens the imagination to appalling thoughts about some of our human-ordered and biological arrangements, particularly in a novel about the love of children that prominently features breastfeeding in an early scene.

Another visitation in fiction that stuns me in another way, but with similar eruptive force, comes from Alice Munro’s short story “Runaway.” A little goat—the spirit of freedom, that visitor from a realm where a being might be liberated and uncontrolled, that outward manifestation of a young woman’s soul, returns in a visionary moment:

“[The fog] had thickened. It had thickened, taken on a separate shape, transformed itself into something spiky and radiant. First, a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward, then it condensed itself into an unearthly sort of animal, pure white, something like a giant unicorn rushing at them.”

Every time I read that passage my experience of the image keeps expanding. Munro provides us with moments of beauty, and a re-balancing of possibility, before we learn that, backlit by a car’s headlights, the “little dancing white goat, hardly bigger than a sheepdog” will meet a terrible fate.

I can’t resist, whenever I get the chance, to proselytize for Mrs. Caliban, a short novel by Rachel Ingalls, and so I’ll offer one more example of what amounts to a visitation. In the novel a woman is hurrying to make dinner for her husband and his colleague when a six-foot-seven-inch sea creature who has been abused in an experimental lab enters her kitchen:

“She stopped before she knew she had stopped, and looked, without realizing that she was taking anything in. She was as surprised and shocked as if she had heard an explosion and seen her own shattered legs go flying across the floor. There was a space between him and the place where she was standing; it was like a gap in time.”

Obviously, the woman must offer the creature a celery stalk and have satisfying sex with him on the floor, the couch, the kitchen chairs, and in the bathtub. (A cause for rejoicing: Long out of print, Mrs. Caliban is being reissued on November 28, 2017 by New Directions.)

Visitations: an eruption into consciousness, a fierce apprehension of alien being, the ordinary outflanked and upended. Such moments are more radically disorienting than epiphanies, less comforting, and don’t necessarily give way to new realizations but to awe.

As the stimulus to the vision in each of these works of fiction, non-human animals appear: a sheep (with attached snake), a goat, a sea creature. In fiction, animals may seem like bitten-off parts of the psyche and, simultaneously, like irreducible beings. They suggest endurance and strength as well as radical vulnerability—and they resist our understanding.

My second short story collection, Visitations, came out on August 16, 2017, and so perhaps it’s inevitable that I have found all three of these “visitations” inspiring— these apparition-like encounters, brimming with portents. In the stories in Visitations animals often arrive unexpectedly. A woman grows furious when a groundhog pops up. A woman reveals her pregnancy while introducing a friend to an eel infestation. The son of a therapist suddenly acquires his mother’s pug. Accused of stalking a co-worker, a woman endures repeated encounters with a ferret. A member of the world’s laziest book club has a vision of a mammoth frog and believes she’s breaking “through some membrane into another world.” She’s both “gratified…and undone.”

In other visitations, a shadow flies through a window and orders a child to commit an act of violence. A woman believes she sees her dead friend among the prisms dangling from a magnolia tree. In another story, Venus and her young son float in a field toward a desperately lonely woman.

Visitations are, by their nature, sudden, and won’t be contained or prolonged. Disrupting our assumptions, they bring us a sense of the wild livingness around us—what we didn’t expect and thus didn’t have a chance to control. A crack in the world has opened and a mystery rises, imposing itself. We may be visited for only a short time in the flesh, but the initial shock reverberates in the imagination. That flashing apparition, that sense of shock, that uncanny approximation of life, that’s one of the experiences I read for.

agni blog logo smaller

Lee Upton photoLee Upton’s most recent book is Visitations: Stories, just released this August in the Yellow Shoe Fiction Series (LSU). Other recent books include Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems from the Cleveland State University Poetry Center (2015), and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Award, finalist for The Paterson Prize, and named one of the “best books of 2014” by Kirkus Reviews. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

At 74, I Whistle

by Sydney Lea

George MacArthur was a great one for whistling through his teeth.

He was, however, more renowned for other things. During the autumn of 1929, for example, he cut railroad ties, or sleepers, as they were known here in the north country, out on Lake Wabassus, whose name local people have always shortened to “Wabass.”

George made it a point to memorialize every significant season of his life and labor in song. He’d borrow a well known tune for the melody, and string his own words upon it. That fall of ’29 resulted in “The “Wabass Cannonball.”

I remember each note and verse:

Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar;
You could hear the ice a-bucklin’ up and down old Wabass shore.
When I arrived at old Wabass Lake, ‘twas early in the fall,
And Belding’s crew was glad to meet the Wabass Cannonball.

 I asked Belding for a job, and he filled me with surprise,
When he said “Go take your sleeper axe and start in makin’ ties.”
There was about a week and a half when the sun never shone at all,
The air was filled so full of chips by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then we went up to old Third Lake to have a little cheer,
And drove the length of Slaughter Point to try and shoot a deer.
Well, the big buck came down Slaughter Point, and he had no horns at all,
‘Cause his face was filled with buckshot by the Wabass Cannonball. 

Then the warden came into our camp and they thought they had us beat,
For cooking in an iron pot they found a little meat.
Then they hauled us into court but they had no case at all,
And the both of them were BEAT TO HELL by the Wabass Cannonball!

I may know why I thought about all this at dawn last May, alone in my room at the Park Hotel, which overlooks lovely Lake Bled in lovely Slovenia, even if this is a world about as far from Wabass as most I could conjure. I was to give a talk that day at a literary conference, in which I’d been asked to answer at some length this question: Where do poems come from?

If I had been completely truthful, as I wasn’t, I’d have answered by saying, “I don’t really know.” Fact is, poems just come. Or at least they used to. For the better part of my adulthood, they have simply been facts of life. I could say I learned as much from George: your experience brings you a poem—or not. Poems come—or they don’t.

Their coming is rarer for me now than in prior days, and at times I worry that my own will to string words onto experience may have retreated, indeed may have all but vanished. In any case, lately I often wake up with others’ tunes in mind.

Then I whistle them all day.

George could test people’s patience by the same habit: he whistled too, especially in hours of idleness, but at least the words in his head, I’m certain, belonged to him alone. I drive my poor wife to distraction with this all but tuneless whistling of compositions that have nothing to do with any creative spark of mine. It’s almost as though I’ve surrendered proprietorship of my own language.

Of course I’ve gone through similar periods of self-doubt before; they just haven’t been so protracted and unsettling.

Be all that as it may, I don’t romanticize when I say that George had a substantial literary influence on me. And yes, if it sometimes seems that what remains to me is just a patch on what my words once sought, if I can manage little but a less than birdlike song, this doesn’t mean I love those worlds any less than once I did.

This whistling is puny, and yet it’s likely still a stab at making the various worlds I’ve known or heard about cohere, no matter that the deeper those worlds sink into memory, the shallower my breath, the thinner my tune.

agni blog logo smaller

author photo craftsburySydney Lea has recently completed four years as Vermont Poet Laureate. His most recent publications are his fourth collection of personal essays, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long, and his twelfth volume of poems, No Doubt the Nameless. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.


by Rick Bursky

Someone once wrote, “everything I ever learned about myself I learned while looking in a mirror.” Hmmm, interesting. For years I thought it arrogant. Followed by a couple of years thinking it was stupid. For the last few days I’ve thought about it and now I might actually understand. Every morning I brush my teeth while looking at myself in a mirror. Then I shave. Looking in a mirror. Occasionally, I think about what I see. Occasionally, I write about it.

The mirror was invented by accident, or so the story goes. I’ve written poems about/with mirrors. None were accidents. Pliny mentioned mirrors in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Mirrors date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time.POST -- Bursky Rick Mirrors poem gray

Confusing the subject is easy. The poem was invented by accident, or so the story goes. Pliny mentioned poetry in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. Poetry date back to 2000 BC in China. People have been looking at themselves for a long time. Poetry.

Frustrated with a poem I was writing, struggling with, I held it in front of mirror and read it backwards. I was hoping some revision revelation might occur to me. It didn’t.

Mirrors are important to me. I don’t know why. Poetry is where you discover what’s important to you. Writing is exploring. But you already knew that.

There was a time I thought that the invention of photography should have made mirrors obsolete. I started to calculate how many hours I’ve spent looking at myself, in mirrors. While doing the math I started to become nervous and abandoned the idea.

In its simplest form, a mirror is a sheet of glass with a piece of aluminum or silver attached. Staring into a mirror for too long causes headaches and sadness. (Dr. Gorlick told me this.) There are occasions when staring into one is appropriate.

It is unfortunate the requirements of modern grooming have made mirrors a necessity. A world without mirrors would require more trustworthy friends. There’s something completely inappropriate about putting mirrors in wide, gold frames.

Mirrors should never be used as decorations. Large mirrors on the walls of restaurants make them appear larger, and to tell you the truth, I like that. Large poems on the walls of restaurants, I would like that, too.

We painted our faces in shades of green and black. This was when I was a rifleman in the army. Some of the soldiers used small mirrors from cosmetic compacts or signal mirrors from survival kits. Some soldiers preferred to avoid the mirror and have other soldiers paint their face. I was one of the latter and avoided the mirror. And after my face was painted, I painted his. Soldiers are like mirrors, you look closely at them you’ll discover a poem.

There was a mirror store on West Third Street in Los Angeles. Large mirrors in elaborate frames sat on the sidewalk and leaned against each other. A man walking past stopped, looked at himself in a full-length mirror and punched the mirror. A large piece of the mirror crashed to the pavement. He shook his fist and walked away. I was leaving the ice cream store across the street as this happened. I can’t tell you why he did this or what sort of damage he might have done to his hand. This is something better explained in a poem.

agni blog logo smaller

bursky_bio_photoRick Bursky teaches poetry for the Writer’s Program at UCLA Extension. His most recent book, I’m No Longer Troubled By the Extravagance, is out from BOA Editions; the previous book Death Obscura, was published by Sarabande Books. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.