ZYZZYVA EventsMay 4, 2019
Bay Area Book Festival
Location: Outdoor Fair, Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Park, Berkeley
Description: Come visit our booth featuring new and select back issues, hoodies, T-shirts, and totes. More info here: https://bit.ly/2v0bedCMay 9, 2019
The Art Issue Celebration, San Francisco
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Featuring contributors Cate Lycurgus, Dean Rader, Jordan Cantor, Rusty Morrison, and Mira Rosenthal; hosted by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. More info here: https://bit.ly/2D6VZ7kMay 16, 2019
The Art Issue Celebration, East Bay
Location: 6 p.m., Traywick Contemporary, 895 Colusa Ave, Berkeley
Description: Featuring contributors Heather Altfeld, Dan Alter, Toni Martin, Troy Jollimore, and Diana Guerrero-Macia. Emceed by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free.May 30, 2019
In Conversation with Kathleen Alcott
Location: 7:30 p.m., The Bindery, 1727 Haight St, San Francisco
Description: Alcott, author of the novels "Infinite Home" and "The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets," discusses her new book, "America Was Hard to Find" (Ecco), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. https://bit.ly/2IEY2Ty
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Sallie Tisdale on touring the antiquities of Rome, Glen David Gold on tracking down a Gorey original, Heather Altfeld on the enduring gaze of John Berger, Paisley Rekdal on erasure and Paul Klee.
Ben Greenman’s “Polyptych” (a divorced man and a painting that must be observed just so), Toni Martin’s “Director’s Cut” (a woman’s life as reconfigured through a foreign filmmaker’s sensibilities), and Peter Orner’s “Pacific” (an elderly couple—a sculptor and a potter—and the very end of things).
Dan Alter, Denver Buston, Troy Jollimore, Rusty Morrison, Mira Rosenthal, and Alexandra Teague.
Dean Rader and Jordan Kantor on the visuals of poems and the textual of artwork.
Further Stories & Poetry
Rebecca Rukeyser’s “Pirates and Cowboys,” and Susan Steinberg’s “Machines” (“Parts of my brother’s brain, these days, don’t connect with other parts of his brain.”), poems by John Freeman, Molly Spencer, and Cate Lycurgus, and debut fiction from Min Han and Matthew Jeffrey Vegari.
Art: Featuring the work of Diana Guerrero-Maciá.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our third installment, we present “Midnight, Talking about our Exes” by Ada Limón from ZYZZYVA No. 94:
The sun is still down and maybe even downer.
Two owls, one white and one large-eared,
dive into a nothingness that is a field, night-beast
in the swoop-down, (the way we all have to
make a living). Let’s be owls tonight, stay up
in the branches of ourselves, wide-eyed,
perched on the edge of euphoric plummet.
All your excellencies are making me mouse,
but I will shush and remain the quiet flyer,
the one warm beast still coming to you in the dark
despite all those old, cold, claustrophobic stars.
Ada Limón’s most recent book is The Carrying: Poems (Milkweed). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harvard Review, and Poetry Daily, among other publications.
Francesca Bell’s first book of poetry, Bright Stain (104 pages; Red Hen Press), reflects a dark universe in which sexual pleasure and pain are intricately linked. There are bright moments of delight, but few without an aftertaste. This debut collection is impressive for it’s distinctive voice and pungent imagery.
Many of the poems deal with the jolts of adolescent sexual awakening, its heat and surprise and terror, and Bell is not afraid of putting both her vulnerability and hunger on display:
By fourteen, I had transformed,
body gone from tight-fisted to extravagant…
No blouse would button over my excess.
Nothing in the lingerie department could contain me.
The special-order minimizer cost me fifty babysitting hours
and was unyielding as a harness. I believe in brazenness
but no power was ever greater than feeling that tremble
in a surprised boy’s fingers as I removed that bra.
Oh my God, one said, I had no idea.
Many poems barely contain fury, the kind of fury that echoes Plath’s Lady Lazarus, as in the poem “You Can Call Me Ma’am.” This litany of “Having bled and sweated and nursed…dragged/three children to inoculations and speech therapists, to grocery stores and Jiffy Lube and my gynecologist’s office,/to one hundred and eighty drop-offs/and three hundred and sixty-five whining, shrieking/bedtimes…” ends with
Let me tell you, at forty two, it is a deep,
delicious pleasure not to be dewy
or fresh as a fucking daisy.
Not all of the poems calibrate the pain and pleasure of sex, motherhood, womanhood. Some have a religious cast, some have guns and gasoline and smoldering fires. Often the poems seem like prayers, even though the God in these poems is fierce, and his representatives on Earth often abusers.
Whatever the subject, the book abounds in fresh and startling imagery. Part of its charm is how is sneaks up on you in ordinary language:
I found beauty
waiting for me,
a fast car parked
on a lonely street.
* * *
I only send the softest underwear to prison.
* * *
If I were a blackbird, I would fly
sensibly over the stinking marsh
and spiked cattails, their tops fizzing white—
* * *
my lips opening wide,
in snarling contact with every bit
of his mouth, discovering nerves
in my tongue were hot-wired
down my body’s long center
Though many poems center on domestic life, Bell’s is not the easy domesticity of Robert Hass. Daily life here is filled with “the peril of ordinary objects.” The baby’s cry is “The sound of a pulled trigger,/spraying milk everywhere.” This poet’s world is one of “soft breeze and keening.” Danger and tenderness are inextricably mixed.
And salted through these intimate, fiery poems is the poet’s quirky sense of humor, noticeable just reading he table of contents: “Sending Underwear to Prison,” “In Which I Imagine George Washington Considering His False Teeth,” “On the Way to Chevron, My Father Tries to Save My Life.”
Most of the poems here are a page or shorter, but their intensity makes this a book to pick up, put down, pick up again. My favorites are the poems that find resolution, the way the God in these poems “gathers our shards/every splintered/fragment into His boundless hands.” A good example is “Prayer,” toward the end of the book, which starts:
When age sidles up,
a final suitor,
let me turn
and take it
the way my body
to a man.
I want to see
my breasts deflate
my lover’s hands
as even laughter
ruins me, crumpling
the surface of my face.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each weeek we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For our second installment, we present “My Madness is My Love Toward Mankind” by Devon Walker-Figueroa from ZYZZYVA No. 112:
People are mistakes and I
do not want to commit any. Opinions
are in me. God is in me. More
than anything, immobility is
an invented thing. I have two ends
and they are both on fire. Because I am alive,
I do not like the bygone centuries.
Because I am alive, swallows flee
at the sight of me. Exaggeration
is not in me, nor the will to kill tsars,
nor to live in the streets, nor to live
in men. (The war never stops
to think of me.) In order
to earn money, I will die
soon. I kiss my hands. I do not want
a scene, nor the death of senses,
nor any policy of wanting. I
eat meat, long for a streetwalker, and beg
the people, after I am killed, to start a war
in which I am the only casualty.
Cats scratch my soul and the stars
do not say good evening to me.
I shout Death! and stand
on my head so the public understands me.
They like to be astonished, ruin the Stock
Exchange and my nervous system.
I do not like their God. He loves me
only after I provide Him with the means
of existence. All over
the world, I flew an airplane and cried in it.
I smelled out the poor and pretended to be mad.
Devon Walker-Figueroa is co-founding editor of Horsethief Books. Her poems have appeared in Tin House, new England Review, The American Poetry Review, and other publications.
“And so do I return to the monologue of my life seen as an endless novel.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy (179 pages; Doubleday) is aptly self-identified as “unapologetically unclassifiable” on its jacket copy, and the poet Billy Collins called it a “torrent of consciousness” in his own review. Both descriptions are fitting for the short but powerful work by the now 100-year-old Ferlinghetti.
Little Boy begins as a rather fast-paced novel, narrated in the third person, based on Ferlinghetti’s childhood. It tells the story of Little Boy, who was raised by his Aunt Emily, later was moved to an orphanage, and then “adopted” by a wealthy but unaffectionate foster family of sorts. Just as readers settle into the story, the plot unspools into the lengthy monologue of a voice called “me-me-me.” “Me-me-me” becomes Ferlinghetti’s new central character as he transitions into the first person, and represents both Ferlinghetti and society at large, one riddled with narcissism and an obsession with the self. As Ferlinghetti abandons all punctuation and linear narrative structure, the writing reflects on the life he has lived and the world he was born into.
At times, the monologue seems circular as it returns again and again to the same few moments of his childhood, like the “cat’s eyes” tapioca pudding he remembers from the orphanage, or the bearded lover his aunt took when he was young. Among these recollections, readers are swept up in existential questions of agency, modernity, coming of age, and growing old:
I’ve summarized my past by theft and allusion and all I know is that I’ll be taking an escalator soon to the next level of existence or nonexistence and will it be the down-escalator or the up-escalator and thereby hangs the tail of this mutt and he still wagging it And how did he go from a youthful anarchism to humanitarian socialism as a creed to live by And how did he end up a painter and a poet always alienated in one way or another and still claiming that he was never ingested by the dominant culture that ingests so many rebels before they croak
Thoreau, Ginsburg, and other iconic writers are surely present, through both their influence and by reference, in Ferlinghetti’s meditations on the cultural shifts and stagnation he witnessed throughout the 20th century. He pays homage to his past by recounting his memories (he seems to remember everything) whenever they come to mind; it is almost as much a book about the 20th century as it is a book about Ferlinghetti. And since he believes the past informs the future, it is also a book about what is to come. In fewer than 200 pages, Ferlinghetti somehow touches on religion, capitalism, patriotism, sex, trauma, war, love, and more:
and what is the plot of this novel if not the remembrance of things still not past for the past is but a cautious counselor of what has yet to come what has yet to transpire or expire so farewell final albatross as time ticks on and all of us like insects in an anthill seen from space all nebulous figures dancing in a tropic night through the night-mazes singing a lyric escape again then and why not Are we to live in despair all the time thinking only of our certain deaths so why not live the highs and ignore the lows
Eventually, the “novel” settles back into full sentences and revisits the character it began with:
Little Boy grown up dissident romantic or romantic dissident has his youthful vision of living forever, immortal as every youth is, believing his own special identity would never, could never, perish.
Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy truly is a a deluge—not a stream—of thought that allows readers to witness the author as he grapples with the life he has led. It is a privilege to view the world—past, present, and even future—through his weathered, critical, and poetic lens.
Andrew Ridker’s first novel, The Altruists (308 pages; Viking), follows a middle-class family, the Alters, as they struggle with the impact of unexpected wealth. Ridker is merciless in skewering each member of the family, and nearly every aspect of modern culture, from campus identity politics and the queer dating scene to poorly planned foreign aid missions. The novel’s wickedly dark sense of humor combines with a complex plot to create a compelling debut.
The story centers around Arthur Alter, a rapidly aging, untenured professor at a middling St. Louis university who is close to defaulting on the mortgage for his family’s home. Desperate, he invites his two estranged adult children, Ethan and Maggie, to visit even though they haven’t spoken since their mother, Francine, died of breast cancer two years prior. The day before Francine’s diagnosis, Arthur initiated an affair with a much younger colleague, causing his wife to write him out of her will and instead leave the entirety of a mysteriously-acquired fortune to their children. Arthur naively hopes that, upon reconciliation, his children will gladly pay off his mortgage and save their childhood home, but he fails to anticipate the depth of their resentment or their troubled relationship with their newfound wealth.
Ethan and Maggie’s treatments of their inheritance reflect their naturally opposed personalities. Idealistic, ineffective Maggie has convinced herself she is going to “renounce” the money and donate it to charity, although two years after receiving it she has still failed to do so. She instead chooses to leave it untouched and live a life of relative poverty, performing odd jobs in her neighborhood while restricting her eating habits out of grief. Ethan, on the other hand, is deep in debt and has frittered his portion away on apartment renovations, expensive housewares, and a variety of delivery services. Due to his excessive spending, he has gained the freedom to become a recluse in his Brooklyn apartment, rarely leaving for any reason.
Arthur’s invitation provides the stimulus both need to make meaningful changes in their stalled lives, but also forces them to grapple with the question of what it actually means to live a “good” life and how to be recognized as doing just that.
In one particularly telling passage, Arthur listens in as his children argue over his character and decide his future:
“‘See, this is the thing. You always let him off the hook so easily. Like he’s a child who doesn’t know better. He’s a grown man, Ethan. More than that. He’s an anachronism.’
‘I’ll grant you that he’s out of touch. But what’s he supposed to do with that? Don’t we have a responsibility to him? To see that he makes it out of this okay?’
“You do. We both do.”
…Arthur stood in the doorway. He knew he should back away but he couldn’t. His heart leapt anxiously with every eavesdropped word. He stood there as the minutes piled up, listening, with defensiveness and hurt—and no small sense of self-importance—as his children debated his legacy.”
It is this idea of creating a meaningful legacy that preoccupies each member of the Alters. Although they purport to be altruists, they are blocked from acting in a truly selfless manner by their desire to be perceived as good by others. Ridker ultimately suggests that for them to overcome this deep-rooted limitation they (and by extension, us) must renounce any grandiose ideas of the self. What constitutes the “good” life could be just living simply and, perhaps most difficult of all, forgiving those who do not deserve forgiveness.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each week we will be taking a look back at ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. To begin the month, we present John Sibley Williams’ poem “Astray” from ZYZZYVA No. 112:A neighborhood gone missing. Only
the torn electrical tape that held it
together remains of the cul-de-sac
where most of us learned to drive in
circles. No bedroom windows left for
songbirds to strike each morning or
streets made of tin foil or walls of
spring bees. I believed the conquest
of weeds was enough, the broken-
down pickup in a garage full of tools.
I believed in launching range wars
with pinecones from rooftops and
neighbors, if they answered, would
not answer with bricks. That old
humiliation of wolves slinking hungry
through suburbs, made pets. And
evenings when we practiced our
howling in unison. The empty church
on the corner lit up in cobwebs. No
flies swaddled for dinner or sorrows
to atone for. I hold this photograph
up to the wild it’s become. When we
were still in them, for what it’s worth,
our homes were already failing.
John Sibley Williams is the author of the poetry collections Disinheritance (Apprentice House) and Controlled Hallucinations (FutureCycle Press).
When my friend Jule Treneer asked me if I wanted to start a literary festival, we were standing in a park, watching his son bounce up and down on a trampoline. It was summer, and I felt, like the boy, that I had excess energy to burn. The festival’s shape and focus were amorphous, but the location was definite. Orcas Island, a beautiful, two-lobed protrusion of volcanic plate in the San Juan archipelago in Washington State, but so far north the island is tucked into Canada. Orcas was a key place for Jule growing up, and his mother had recently moved there permanently. I lived in California, but was besotted with the San Juan landscape and seascape—the long clouds, the purple hills, the fjords. Taking the ferry to Orcas felt not like a boat ride, but a journey into a dream.
Like a poetic form, Orcas imposed constraint. We weren’t looking at a 100,000-person festival, a Miami or a Portland. We’d need to go smaller. But what would that “smaller” look like? Jule and I actually met at a reading—Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing—and our friendship always had books at its center. Talking about them, swapping them, arguing over them. We decided we wanted an intimate festival full of real conversation and aimed at readers. That is, a festival a little like our friendship.
How do you conjure a festival from thin air? Well, San Juan County supports the arts. Jule created our nonprofit legal organization (a process that will turn your hair gray), researched every angle of what it would take organizationally, brought a proposal to San Juan County, and walked away with $10,000 in starting money. That was half the needed budget—and was the moment I realized we were really going to do this thing. Jule and I roped in our first additional board member, Shannon, who introduced us to Jill, who introduced us to Iris. The Gaileys came on, and then Theresa. Suddenly we had a board. An intimidatingly competent board, from web design to institutional structure to communications to wrangling favors from local businesses. Each member also happened to be a writer, which was helpful for my anxiety. I kept fearing one of them would say, sorry, I can’t do all this work for free. Because we all worked for free, and it was a LOT of work.
Now we just needed writers who were so exciting and interesting they would entice people to an island. It was a high bar, and I thought I would start with people I knew. This was my role, after all. My first invitation was a Hail Mary to Jami Attenberg. She wrote back immediately, “What the heck, let’s do it!” Then we got yesses from two Pulitzer winners, Adam Johnson and Gil King. From there the board worked all our publishing, agenting, and friend channels to get Tara Conklin, Victor LaValle, Rick Barot, Robin Sloan, and many others. Our proximity to Seattle helped us bring in younger writers like Kim Fu and Urban Waite. Willy Vlautin, the novelist and singer-songwriter, said he would read and play a song. Then the panel proposals rolled in. Such bright ideas from such talented writers. We organized a lit walk event, a kid’s event, a late-night literary game show, and a Saturday evening variety show Words + Music.
Spoiler alert: the weekend was fantastic. I worried about timing and people being where they needed to be, but because of the festival’s size I actually got to talk to the attendees. The beer distributor from British Columbia, who’d taken a weekend to come down and see Robin Sloan. The on-island radical leftist who was most excited about Jami. The Seattle thriller aficionado who came for Urban Waite. We also did what too few literary festivals can accomplish: we sold stacks of books. I waited for Victor LaValle’s signing hand to cramp.
Last year, we had a modicum of funding and an abundance of talent. That remains true this year. But our line-up dazzles: Nicola Griffith, Mat Johnson, Terese Marie Mailhot, Judith Thurman, Eric Puchner, Rick Barot (again—thanks, Rick!), Kiwi Smith, Nicole Chung, and many more. Our children’s author and musical excitement is Laura Veirs. Laura Veirs! ZYZZYVA’s own Oscar Villalon will be moderating a panel on the short story and participating in another panel on what an editor looks for in great narrative. Check out the full schedule at oilf.org. (The festival runs April 5-7.)
To my surprise, that conversation Jule and I had while his son bounced up and down has grown into the Orcas Island Lit Fest. A few board members have left (Shannon, the Gaileys); two have come on (Paula and Mia). But we’re otherwise much the same. I hope the festival will develop into a long-lasting and solvent institution, but these early, scrappy years are magical. Out of nothing but an idea, a friendship, an incredible board, and a thousand little and large acts of generosity, we get to bring writers and readers together in a real and genuine way. For an entire weekend, over an entire island, everyone gets to talk about books.
Scott Hutchins, OILF vice president and cofounder, is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His novel A Working Theory of Love was a San Francisco Chronicle and Salon Best Book of 2012 and has been translated into nine languages. He lives in San Francisco.
Before we head off to Portland for AWP ’19, we thought we would share what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:
Katie O’Neill, Intern: The abundance of streaming services available online have largely killed any urge I have to watch live TV. Outdated advertisement breaks combined with the difficulty of committing to a set time make it more effort than it’s generally worth to catch a program as it airs. But, every Wednesday night at 9pm I can be found in front of my TV tuned in to SYFY to catch the latest episode of The Magicians.
Based on the trilogy of the same name by Lev Grossman, the show recently entered its fourth season, and the first to not be based on the books’ canon. Remarkably, it has largely avoided the stumbles that naturally accompany this sort of departure and is continuing to come into its own as one of the most inventive shows on air today.
The Magicians can be most succinctly described as, “Harry Potter meets The Chronicles of Narnia, but in grad school.” The series follows Quentin Coldwater, an awkward, deeply insecure Columbia graduate who is obsessed with the Narnia-esque children’s series “Fillory and Further.” Played by the wonderful Jason Ralph, who brings a sympathetic quality the self-hating Quentin of the books lacked, Quentin discovers that magic is real when he is selected to take an entrance exam for the magical grad school Brakebills University. He passes and is quickly pulled into the orbit of several older students, most notably the haughty, regal Margo Hanson (Summer Bishil) and the charismatic hedonist Eliot Waugh (Hale Appleman).
Three seasons later, after becoming the new royalty of Fillory, defeating several increasingly powerful villains, and killing a few gods, the Brakebills crew is struggling to restore magical freedom. On a show largely driven by the strength of its characters, it is the connection between Quentin and Eliot that is perhaps the most compelling. Many fans of the books believe their relationship is a fundamentally romantic one, and in the most recent seasons the show has embraced this idea. In season three, the poignant and beautiful episode “A Life in the Day” explored their relationship by sending them back in time to spend fifty years solving an impossible puzzle. They shared a brief kiss and grew old together, and fortunately for fans the duo retained the memory of their alternate lives once they returned to their real ones.
Their connection continues to develop in season four, even though Eliot’s body has been taken over by a malignant force known as the Monster. Their relationship is one of the best portrayals of queer friendship and love on the air, and only promises to grow stronger as the season continues. In addition to the queer experience, the series also explores issues of mental health, sexual assault, substance abuse, and the difficulty of maintaining healthy adult friendships. When combined with inventive plotlines, wonderful special effects, and a welcome embrace of whimsy, the series has become something truly great and arguably transcends the (already fantastic) books it’s based on.
Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: If you followed the round-ups of movies overlooked by the Academy Awards this year, you would’ve seen director Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace in any one of them. Set in the contemporary Pacific Northwest, her film (based on Peter Rock’s 2009 novel, My Abandonment) is a marvel of rich detail and moving understatement. Just as in her 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, we are presented with a community in crisis (vets afflicted with PTSD in this instance), and our entry into their lives is through the protagonist of an adolescent girl. The bond between the girl (Thomasin McKenzie) and her father (the underrated Ben Foster) is palpable. Their existence together—related in intimate scenes of them cooking, sleeping, foraging, traveling, and reading—is an anxious one but also enticingly warm. And the narrative that unfurls demonstrates again how wisdom comes with accepting how powerless you are to change the lives of some people, but that doesn’t mean you don’t keep showing your love for them as best you can.
Casey Jong, Intern: Released in 2017, Goodbye, Vitamin (256 pages; Thorndike Press) was Rachel Khong’s first novel. I didn’t get around to reading it until the following year, but now as I grow older alongside my parents, it’s become something of a staple on my bookshelf. The award-winning novel follows the life of our narrator Ruth, age 30 and single, as she moves back in with her parents. Her life isn’t quite falling apart, but her last serious relationship came to a devastating end, and her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, causing him to sometimes mistake his wife for his mistress or leave the house unattended and undressed. Ruth struggles to settle back into her childhood home and recover from her own heartbreak while watching her parents’ relationship become fractured by her father’s illness. Sometimes, it feels as though she’ll never find peace in the single life or her role as a caretaker, but Khong brilliantly coaxes the sweetness and the humor out of life’s tough moments:
If I were you is something I’ve never really understood. Why say, “If I were you”? Why say, “If I were you,” when the problem is you’re not me? I wish people would say, “Since I am me,” followed by whatever advice it is they have.
Goodbye, Vitamin, though one could argue its central theme is loss, doesn’t hang idly on what’s been lost–Ruth’s ex, Joel, or her father’s memory–nor does it ascribe too much significance to kernels of joy whenever Ruth comes across them. This novel, both distressing and utterly relatable, captures the ebb and flow of life through common themes of love and loneliness, the passage of time, and the gift of forgiveness:
You repeated about how nice the day was, either because you really wanted me to know it or because you’d forgotten you already mentioned it, but all of a sudden, it didn’t matter what you remembered or didn’t, and the remembering–it occurred to me–was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the day was nice.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Burning represents Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong’s (Secret Sunshine, Oasis) first film in nearly a decade, and it arrives with enough thematic heft to suggest Lee has had a great deal on his mind during that time. The movie draws its source material from a short story by internationally renowned author Haruki Murakami, though Murakami’s story serves as more of a skeletal framework – not unlike the wire frames of the abandoned greenhouses Steven Yuen’s character claims he is so fond of torching to the ground. Perhaps the most critical change Lee makes is reducing the age of the protagonist; whereas the narrator of Murakami’s “Barn Burning” is a married, seemingly successful novelist in his thirties, Yoo Ah-in plays a recent college graduate with a Creative Writing degree and few career prospects.
Toiling on his father’s farm near the Korean border, Yoo Ah-in is forced to listen day and night to the propaganda being blasted from a speaker across the Northern side of the DMZ. Yoo seems to spend most of his time alone, scrounging for odd jobs and deriving what pleasure he can from the rare smoke break. He is forced to contend with the realities of a modern Korean society that has whole-heartedly embraced the values of cutthroat capitalism and, in the process, left behind a generation of young people, those with no family or class connections to speak of. The sense of desperation and resentment experienced by Yoo Ah-in and his peers simmers just below the surface of the film.
At least Yoo Ah-in’s romantic life appears a bit more hopeful when he runs into a former classmate (a radiant Jeon Jong-seo in her screen debut) and soon finds himself in her bed. Their dalliance ultimately lands Yoo Ah-in in the middle of a love triangle, however, after Jong-seo connects with the wealthy and enigmatic Ben (played by Steven Yuen) on a trip abroad. It is only later, after Jeon’s sudden and unexplained disappearance, that Yoo Ah-in begins to suspect Yuen’s well-mannered exterior might be hiding something far more sinister.
Much in the way Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here updated Taxi Driver for our ugly and digital 21st century, Burning at times feels like Lee Chang-dong’s response to classic Hitchcock pictures like Vertigo and Rear Window. Even in a film year as crowded as 2018, Burning’s depiction of sexual obsession and economic rage holds a unique staying power. The film’s core trio delivery uniformly excellent performances, from Yoo Ah-in’s aloof, almost socially stunted protagonist to Jeon Jong-seo’s troubled young woman and Steven Yuen’s chilling depiction of an upper class sociopath. Somehow Yuen turned a yawn into one of the most disquieting movie moments of the last year (you’ll know when you see it). Newcomers should also find Burning a terrific entry-point into contemporary Korean cinema, as it’s likely to appeal to any viewer who appreciates thrillers that are light on action and long on mood.
Laura Cogan, Editor: After Free Solo won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature it reappeared in theaters so latecomers like me could have another chance to see it on the big screen. Rarely have I found a documentary that so rewards a large screen viewing, for part of the thrill here is the visceral, palm-sweating anxiety of watching Alex Honnold spirit himself up the mostly sheer face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes. It seems to me Free Solo is exceptional mostly for allowing so many to witness something rarely done (in the case of El Cap, to be specific, never done), and even more rarely seen. It’s an impressive feat of physical strength and mental focus and endurance. But I what I found most compelling was the understory, which was not so unusual at all.
To be clear, I have no knowledge of (or particular interest in) rock-climbing, mountaineering, or any kind of extreme sport. I came to the movie with only the near-universal curiosity that draws me to many a documentary, and left with the familiar sense that even in the most niche of human activities lies a microcosm of the entire universe of human pathos. Here, for example, we find a young man doing something most of us find nearly incomprehensible for reasons that are completely un-extraordinary. Family dynamics are the wellspring of so much suffering, and so much striving and seeking—and that seems to be at least part of Honnold’s story. Something that begins as the need to perform well for one’s parents can take all kinds of strange, distorted shapes over the course of a person’s life. (Granted, abnormalities in Honnold’s amygdala are likely a contributing factor to the direction he’s taken as well.)
Even as he works meticulously to plan every foot and finger-hold of his upcoming climb, a task that demands his full concentration and the personal stakes of which simply could not be higher, he seems most flummoxed—and profoundly challenged—by his fledgling relationship. Honnold is often rude and immature, especially in his commentary on relationships, and I had to laugh in sympathy when I heard other people in the theater call him a jerk at a couple points. But there were other moments when he’d say something almost profound and it seemed lost on the audience. At one point he’s thinking aloud, trying to balance his relationship against his ambitions, and notes with consternation that his girlfriend simply wants to be happy. But, he says (as well as I can remember the line), “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy.” He’s not entirely correct, of course, as a stable and nurturing home life has contributed to the great work of many. But he’s not entirely wrong, either, because there is always an element of personal exposure in attempting to do something great, or even to live a different kind of life. Perhaps dwelling mostly in literature gives you an appreciation for the eccentric. Certainly I have a well-established predisposition for rooting for an underdog, and a seeker. In any case, I found myself anxious for Honnold to complete his historic climb safely, but also to find the right words to say to his girlfriend when he called her from the top.
We poets often pride ourselves on exploiting the many interpretations that figurative language affords us, and so we may shy away from visuals for fear they will detract from this ability to embody multiple meanings without sacrificing substance that we think separates “real” poetry from most prose. And though we may write poems inspired by visual art, we rarely include images of these works in books. Not so with Patrick Coleman’s Fire Season (102 pages; Tupelo Press).
Initially, I expected the images paired with poems in the book to be too on the nose and/or to give away too much. However, the pairings—which include artwork by sculptor Alexander Archipenko and painters Guo Hui, Jules Tavernier, Agnes Pelton, Oskar Fischinger, and Diego Rivera—make sense. Firstly, the book seems to be something of an homage to Coleman’s first daughter’s early years, a time in which she would likely have been less than enamored of a book with no pictures. Secondly, I came to appreciate the insights the visuals gave me into the identity of the speaker behind each of these prose poems.
Coleman, who was an art curator at the San Diego Museum of Art, provides the reader with a gallery built around his poems, yet the experience of reading his book is as homey and welcoming as flipping through a family album. There are some diversions into work life that seem superfluous—in the poems “Being Lost” and “Arse Poetica”—but, for the most part, Fire Season offers intimate, lovely glimpses into new parenthood. In “Leda and . . .,” for example, we see the narrator navigating the busyness of parenting while coping with a mistake that puts a minor strain on his marriage—an accident in which a sculpture that has sentimental value to his wife is broken. Coleman writes:
. . . . The second time the wings broke
. . . . It was our anniversary. I told you and
you cried and fed the baby.
Lines later, we get this gorgeous, tumbling imagery:
. . . . Love is dropping into an abyss edged with
a hundred jutting branches and choosing instead to hold the
circle of daylight above, the image that grows smaller and
smaller as you fall: moon, dime, bead, star, pinprick, memory.
In other poems, we experience something of how a new parent falls in love with their child. Much of this happens as Coleman captures the idiosyncrasies of his daughter’s toddler-speak. In “Developmental Grammar/Equivalents,” he writes:
While brushing your teeth, you waved the brush in the air
before you, saying, “I’m painting, I’m painting.” Making circles:
“It’s a house.” A smaller circle: “It’s a door.” Then with your fist:
“Knock knock knock.”
Coleman’s relationship with his daughter is enchanting. He draws us into that falling-in-love state where even his daughter’s naughtiness is endearing. In “Deaccessioning,” he writes:
. . . . My daughter
wearing only a shirt, crouched slightly and pissed on the ground.
She took pleasure in watching her own springing pool and how
quickly the heat reduced it to a darker patch of pink-stained
concrete—her shadow, she said, waving to it.
As this excerpt illustrates, much of the charm from these moments comes from seeing the world interpreted through the eyes of a child who seems at once wide-eyed and wise. Coleman wrestles with this in a number of other poems, including “On Ice,” in which he compares his child’s perspective—her ability to “make a tile floor into a skating rink”—to his own, particularly his mind’s insistence on the literal (that a rock is a rock is a rock).
Although the book’s cohesion rests mostly on the subject matter—parenthood, the anxieties of a father helping to raise a young daughter in a dangerous terrain, and the terrain itself—Coleman also ties the poems thematically by giving many of them the same titles. We get some metacommentary that gives us a sense of Coleman’s thoughtfulness as a writer when, in the final and title poem, the speaker revisits an “error” he made in the book’s first poem, which shares the same title. There are also the “Developmental Grammar” poems, in which we get to read and parse the young daughter’s child-speak; the “Equivalents” poems, in which Coleman calls into question what is real versus what is fake through language that often enacts mirroring; and others. These poems are spread across the book so that one is initially surprised at encountering pieces with the same titles but then comes to expect it and begins to wonder what they have in common and what functions they serve wherever each of them is placed. This makes for a nice game, kind of like piecing together a puzzle.
Years from now, I am fairly certain Coleman’s daughter will appreciate Fire Season just as any reader might—both subjectively, as a labor of love, and objectively, as a solid body of work. It addresses timeless themes, and the visual art contained in it spans centuries and civilizations. There is intergenerational wisdom in this book.