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.

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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.

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Visitations

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.

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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.

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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.

Mirrors

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.

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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.

Van Winckel, Chang, and Mills: New Work up on AGNI!

We’ve got great work up on the main AGNI website—excerpts of an essay by Nance Van Winckel, two poems by Victoria Chang, and fiction by Bronwyn Mills. Check it all out!

 

AGNI NVW“From hour to hour I’d long first for more of Me-In-Charge, then for less, then please, none. This lasted weeks. I’d stand in the purply dark—that swirling admixture of all colors—until the stars of bulbs in other houses flickered on.”

 

from the essay “Sister Zero” by Nance Van Winckel

 

AGNI VC“Control—died on August 3, 2015, along with my mother. Suddenly I was no longer in the middle of the earth. Suddenly I could change the angle of the liquid pen so that the rocket went the other way.”

from the poem “Obit” by Victoria Chang

 

AGNI BM“One night in Lisboa, Ö. went into a fado bar. He went in late, to take shelter from cold, damp weather. The place was darker than the grave; and inside sitting at a table, he saw an older man eating a lovely fish soup. The music was rising to a wail. The singer was only practicing, so the music would stop now and then, unexpectedly, in the midst of an anguished cry. Wanting to strike up a conversation, Ö. sat down next to the old man.”

from the story “The Story of Ö” by Bronwyn Mills

 

 

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In and Out of Books: Kinds of Poetic Knowledge

by Rachel Hadas

Robert Frost wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.”

Like burrs…or maybe more like ticks, which are plentiful in the long grass this early July in Vermont. But we don’t want burrs and ticks to adhere—we strip them off when we come in from the fields—whereas presumably we do want knowledge to stick. So that (as Frost observes in his talk “Education by Metaphor”) at some point the analogy breaks down. Ticks and burrs don’t nourish us (on the contrary); knowledge does.

“Knowledge” is a clumsy and imprecise term for the kinds of connections I find myself making when, every summer, we come up here and I find myself walking through the fields. One kind of connection is derived from poetry. In the silence as I walk or pick wild strawberries or weed the vegetable garden, a line from some neglected corner of my memory will suddenly detach itself and slot into place, lighting up the moment.

Last week I was fretting about the long-neglected flower gardens my mother dug and planted here half a century ago. If my mother, who died in 1992, is anywhere, I believe she is here in these gardens, now overgrown and bushy but still retaining more than a hint of their original beauty. And I think of e.e. cummings’s poem that begins “if there are any heavens my mother will(all by herself have/one.” But “all by herself” sounds lonely, solipsistic—even though cummings then swiftly corrects that solitude by introducing the courtly ghost of his father into the paradisiacal setting the reunited lovers share.

When I think of my mother’s gardens, when I think of this house, I think of people—family, children, grandchildren, friends, various connections rippling out from a center of, yes, spacious solitude and meditative silence. Gardens and houses create space both for solitude and for company. But as the Greek poet George Seferis notes, in another line that came back to me recently, “Houses, you know, grow resentful easily when you strip them bare.” (The poem is “Thrush,” translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.) Part of the furniture of this house, and of my mind, inheres in poems. So that’s one kind of knowledge.

I’m also thinking of another kind of connection for which, again, “knowledge” isn’t quite the right word. The idea is captured, though, in phrases my father, the classicist Moses Hadas, used in the titles of two of his books: Old Wine, New Bottles and the subtitle of his

Hellenistic Culture, which is Fusion and Diffusion. For Moses, who had a strong impulse to democratize the study of the classics, those new bottles would be the fresh container of translation. According to the parable, new wine will burst the old bottles; but Moses saw that the old wine would benefit from a new delivery system. And Fusion and Diffusion aptly evokes both the transformation and the expansion that attend on cultural transmission. If fusion suggests a coming together of previous separate entities and the possible creation of something new, then diffusion evokes an opposing outward movement. In the 21st century, surely the digital world is both the new bottle and a powerful new diffuser.

The apple (as Frost might have said) doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’ve recently completed verse translations of Euripides’s two plays about Iphigenia, spellbinding dramatizations of war and politics, family dynamics and trauma. As I worked, and particularly when I was finishing the translations and teaching “Iphigenia in Aulis” last November, there was no need to underline the alarming yet also perennial relevance of a story which was already old wine when Euripides decanted it into the new bottle of drama.

Another recently finished project sprang into being unexpectedly in January 2017, when our granddaughter was born. We knew the child would be a girl; and according to the custom of her father’s Guyanese family, her name would begin with the same initial letter as her mother’s. A C-name then; and (I proudly claim credit here), I thought of Camilla, the warrior maiden, the swift runner, in Virgil’s Aeneid.

The name met with approval, and soon I found myself returning to the Aeneid, particularly to the poem’s dark second half, which one rarely reads in high school. It didn’t hurt that I was on sabbatical and had no classes to prepare or papers to correct. Almost every day I’d read a few pages in Sarah Ruden’s translation, moving to the Latin whenever something struck me. Here were extraordinarily vivid depictions of war fever and hysteria, anxiety attacks, sleepless nights, fearful mothers standing on the battlements watching their sons march past.

If the cummings and Seferis poems cited earlier were already somewhere in my mind, the Aeneid was more like a field through which I found myself intentionally but unhurriedly striding, always ready to pause and pick up a treasure.

Poems for Camilla consists of twenty-nine poems written between January and May 2017. Some of their titles have a contemporary ring: “Poetry Out Loud,” “Filing System,” “Weaponized,” “Special Effects,” “Anxiety Attack”; some, like “Iron Sleep,” go straight to their Virgilian source. Neil Gaiman and David Copperfield, Riverside Park and Central Park, all make appearances, and the unnamed menace of President Trump broods over several of the poems. Camilla is there—both Camillas—and my husband’s beloved younger brother, his fidus Achates. Lavinia, Amata, Latinus, Euryalus, Nisus, the Sibyl, and of course Aeneas are recurring presences.

Poems for Camilla will be published around Camilla’s first birthday. Will she read these poems when she’s older? The intention is there, at the very least, the possibility. When and if Camilla is ready or curious, the poems will be available. I love this durability of the intangible. Last week, in the first reclamation project of this particular summer, we replaced the grubby old kitchen stove (had mice been nesting in the oven or in the burner coils? So it seemed, but who wanted to know?) with a new one. “This should last your time,” said the cheerful Sears delivery man. The bittersweet expectation is, of course, that the next stove, the next roof repair, the next revisioning of the garden will be the task of the next generation. Whereas the beauty of poems, of the classics, of the kind of knowledge we accumulate without having to go to the appliance store, is that that they never need to be replaced. By definition, they outlast our time.

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rachel_hadas_hiRachel Hadas’ verse translations of Euripides’s two Iphigenia plays are forthcoming in 2018, as is a poetry collection, Poems for Camilla. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Dances Danced on Country Roads

by Sven Birkerts

Every summer for some years now we’ve been taking our family vacation on Caspian Lake in northern Vermont. Most of our rentals have been along the same little peninsula, and have had the same basic amenities—lake access, kayak or canoe, grill, internet. This year we were late in reserving and ended up taking a new place on the far shore and I’ll confess I did a little double-take when my wife inspected the rental sheet and announced that this year’s house had no internet. What quicker way to get a read-out of my convoluted psyche. I was at once relieved and anxious, idealistic and craven. Wonderful, I thought, I’ll read, I’ll walk and think, I’ll shed the news-cycle toxins…And then: Shit!

I had brought enough reading to see me through the week-long blackout. I had two books for eventual reviewing, John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 and a novel by Laurent Binet called The Seventh Function of Language, and then the book I’d been saving as my special reward, Adam Zagajewski’s new memoir, Slight Exaggeration.

But about that internet issue…Critical as I have been—and in my deepest convictions remain—I am as enmeshed as anyone, checking e-mail and Instagram, tweeting, tracking the daily outrage. I do this mainly in syncopation with the ongoing work of writing, and editing, both of which have me at the screen. So this week away was going to be a deprivation, never mind those ‘deepest convictions.’

One summer, early on, we had also been “without,” and back then we had dealt with what internet needs we had by parking outside the Greensboro library and borrowing its signal. We were not alone. Whatever the hour, you could always find a row of cars idling in the small library lot, see the silhouettes of summer people getting their fix. I supposed I would be doing the same thing this time when I needed connection.

The day we arrived it was drenching rain and nobody stirred. The next morning, though, the sun was out, and I set out to check out our new, unfamiliar place. Taking a left at the drive, I walked down the road toward the lake. After a few hundred yards the road ran out and became someone’s yard. Stopping, I looked over to my right and saw a beautiful stretch of pastoral. I took my iPhone from my pocket and framed a few shots. Then I headed in the other direction, back up the hill toward the bigger road.

I had gone only a few yards past our driveway when I felt it—a distinct burst of vibration in my front right pocket. I stopped and once again took out my phone. Where all along there had been no reception, the little abacus now showed one bar of reception. Showed it, and then, as I took a small backward step, disappeared it. Up again, back again— anyone watching me at this point would have thought I was practicing a dance move. I could not figure it out. Sometimes a single bar appeared, then it disappeared. Yes, no, yes, no, no, no…When it was on, I checked my internet. I saw I had a few new messages. One opened for me. But when I wrote a few words in reply nothing happened. No little whooshing sound to signify ‘sent,’ no small arrow icon indicating success…

Next I checked Instagram. There I had slightly better luck. I selected the picture of the field I’d just taken and tapped. The image posted.

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I could make my way further into this realm of psychological minutiae, but life is short. The point I want to make—the upshot—is that into my long-anticipated break from the agitations of daily modern life had arrived the whimsical and irrational goblin of signal. Standing on the side of a rutted dirt road, with woods on one side and a open field on the other, I was, by turns, connected to he world at large, the universe of all potentiality, and then abruptly barred (or “unbarred”) from it. And, fool that I was, and remain, I persisted, stepping outside again and again to try my luck, each time hoping that the exact right location, or angle, or some mysterious shift in atmospheric ions, would plant me inside the signal. I did this intermittently for a full week, and I was in every attempt both tantalized and frustrated.

I certainly don’t want to make it seem that I did nothing but dance from side to side in my flip-flops looking for deliverance. No, I did also make peace with the contemplative man. I sat for hours in an overstuffed armchair, reading. Lessened screen activity made for heightened concentration. I finished the Binet, and then, rather than turning right away to the McPhee, I decided I could treat myself and picked up the Zagajewski instead.

And what a delight that was, to be inveigled by degrees into the mentality of a truly poetic sensibility—observant, psychologically shrewd, alert to idiosyncrasy, brooding in the best ways. The pages were filled with Zagajewski’s reflections on the artistic vocation itself—on beauty, on what might be the proper expressive balance between the material and the ethereal.

And then this. Zagajewski is writing about inspiration, its unreliability—the great good days when it comes, and the bleak days when the “tremendous plans, the expansive hopes from those moments when everything starts afresh, all quickly deflate, leaving you to protect your abruptly diminished empire in despair.” I closed the book around my finger. I could not help but make the link. Between the all-too-familiar sense of the writer at his desk, waiting to see if the word-fall would happen, if the spark of cadence might arrive, and—

No two things could be more different than internet connectivity and artistic inspiration, yet I confess that after reading Zagajewski I found myself making analogies. Which is both ridiculous and untenable. The internet signal is a thing outside, a projected energy that reaches its user through specifically engineered channels. Artistic inspiration, meanwhile, manifests mysteriously in the psyche, opaque to psychoanalysis and neurobiology. Freud famously wrote that “before the mystery of the creative artist, psychoanalysis must lay down its arms.”

I don’t intend to settle the matter here, far from it. But I want to bring into momentary focus the particular feelings, the anticipation and doubt—the anxiety—that we register in the face of our larger unknowns. Not just creative inspiration and connectivity, though these have been prominent in my thoughts, but, via the most basic extrapolation, our anticipation day by day—moment by moment—of the unknown future. We often forget our existential situation, and it is our hubris as well as our salvation that we do, but inevitably there come moments, sometimes little dances danced on country roads, that remind us once again.

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FullSizeRender Sven Birkerts is the editor of AGNI. Formerly director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, he is now a member of the Core Faculty in Nonfiction. He has published ten books, most recently Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).