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The Common Reader’s ‘James Baldwin & American Democracy’: Another Country, Another Time

The Common Reader James Baldwin issueNobody knows his name.

The literary and political legacy of James Baldwin is going through a revival through works like Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk.

Add to this, the newest issue of The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, published by Washington University in St. Louis, and its eleven essays that further explore the lasting work and meaning of the author.

High points of the issue, titled James Baldwin & American Democracy, include Cecil Brown’s piece, “With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table,’’ in which Brown recalls his days as a young novelist hanging out with “Jimmy’’ in Paris and at his St. Paul de Vence home in the south of France.

According to his biographer, David Leeming, Baldwin, then under attack from more militant—and heterosexual—activists and writers like Eldridge Cleaver and Ishmael Reed, was “so used to the crisis of the younger black writers that during his first meeting with Brown he said, ‘I thought you would hate me.’”

But the younger writer paints a portrait of a generous host, welcoming everyone from Miles Davis, Nina Simone, James Jones, and William Styron to the local mailman and village doctor, who became a drinking buddy, as he forged a writing life away from the parallel pressures of American racism and the pressures of being a representative of “black identity.’’

Gerald Early’s essay, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith and the Power of the Essay,’’ recalls the shock of recognition he felt growing up in Philadelphia when he first read Nobody Knows My Name and found a kindred spirit separate from other works of art being held up as iconic. (He later wrote an essay called “The Color Purple as Everybody’s Protest Art’’ that paid homage to Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright.)

He compares Baldwin’s belated appreciation of Bessie Smith to LeRoi Jones’ play Dutchman, in which a black middle-class character trying to seduce a white woman on the subway offers a final speech: “[Whites] say, ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.’”

And he locates Baldwin’s vision, and importance, outside contemporary standards of wokeness, category, or sexual preference: “There was always this sense of doubt about one’s racial identity in Baldwin, a sense that, after all, one can be, in spite of it all, a stranger to one’s own people, hopelessly so, or that maybe one might want to be a stranger to one’s own people.’’

Some of the other essays here are less successful, lapsing into an academic speak to which Baldwin would probably lift an amused eyebrow, but circling back to the complex love-hate relationship the author had to the American experiment.

William J. Maxwell’s “Teaching Baldwin Teaching: Three Class Notes’’ recounts his experience dealing with his “most influential student’’—a young woman who had spent the previous months on the front lines of the Ferguson protests—who vocally applied today’s standards of acceptable writing about gay identity to works like Giovanni’s Room, which she saw as internalized homophobia—“and I thought, under my breath, that she was not entirely wrong about that.”

Maxwell, a professor of English and African-American History at Washington University, takes in the critique, and recognizes that “there may be nothing more poignantly and gallingly estranging than a dearly departed exemplar who on second glance almost—but not quite—flatters the mood of the present.” Life is complex. Or in Baldwin’s words: “just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world.’’

Reading the various essays (and it is good to have them, even if many lack the first-hand verisimilitude of Brown and Early’s work) I’m reminded of an exchange between Dexter Gordon and Baldwin that Maxine Gordon, the widow of the great tenor saxophonist (and author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legend of Dexter Gordon) related at a recent Monterey Jazz Festival panel moderated by Angela Davis.

“They ran into each other at a party,’’ she said, “and Jimmy called out, ‘Hey Dexter, I keep reading that we’re expatriates. I thought we were just living in Europe.’’’

You can’t go home again, but you can’t leave it, either.

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‘The Painted Forest’ by Krista Eastman: Thoroughly Acquainted with the World

Krista Eastman nonfiction The Painted ForestKrista Eastman had been living away from her native Wisconsin for many years when she began writing her essay collection, The Painted Forest (144 pages; West Virginia University Press), and it was during this time that she began to consider the meaning of home. Once she left the small, working-class town in which she was raised, she told Poets & Writers, she found she often “had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been nothing at all.” That’s when she “became interested in the role of telling about a place, in talking back from the periphery.”

Eastman began asking herself what it means to be from Wisconsin, from the Midwest, or from any place at all. And what does it mean to leave one’s home, or to return? Though the nine essays of her book, she attempts to find answers, tapping into geography, history, and myth-making to do so, all while seeking out the least known corners of the country.

In the first essay, “Insider’s Almanac,” Eastman considers how we define being from a place and what distinctions exist within that sense of belonging. “Who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?” she asks. “Whosoever can produce the most detail.” The Painted Forest proves Eastman to be thoroughly acquainted with the world in which she lives; insatiably curious, she renders people and places in exquisite, elaborate detail.

Reading her extraordinary descriptions, it’s clear Eastman writes not just to inform her reader, but also to make sense of her surroundings, to create meaning and narrative where there previously may have been none. The opening lines of the prologue, “Scrap Metal,” in which she recalls driving through her hometown as a child, display Eastman’s gift for immersive narration:

This tubby steel machine, this 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon, careens a large family forward, makes tinny the sound of our quarrels and questions while highway approaches and then unfurls behind, approaches and then unfurls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculptures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird angles onto themselves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equipment, but forms whose slanted reaches skyward warp and mock the object of industry.

Most of the collection’s essays deal in hyper-specificity, focusing on little known locations and hidden stories. Eastman is drawn to eccentricity and complexity, and she revels in the act of uncovering. “My writing,” she told Booktimist, “[has] a tendency toward putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe.” She actively constructs her own universe by uncovering obscure histories and geographies, and letting in light.

Mostly, she attempts to play with our ideas of regionality and universality, challenging notions about which corners of America—and the world—are worthy of exploration. “The Midwest,” writes Eastman, “like many of the earth’s places, tilts toward under-imagined and overly caricatured, that it might not be a definite place at all.” This is one of the collection’s most important considerations. While Eastman spends much of the collection considering physical space—natural wonders, art objects, landmarks—she also delves into the psychological space each region occupies. The Midwest and many other places, she argues, are less defined by their geographic boundaries as much as their cultural and mythical ones.

The best essays in The Painted Forest are the most personal ones. Ultimately, it’s when Eastman taps into her own experiences that we are treated to the most moving moments of the collection. Take this reflective aside from the titular essay, in which Eastman returns to her hometown:

Born here, from this place, I knew how to move across the land, how to be raised up for the purpose of letting go, to be lifted and lowered, gathered and then released: to roll down and then to work my way up again, to the top of the ridge, to the modest view of more hills, to the shortest glimpse of eternity.

Sometimes The Painted Forest gets bogged down by its most distinctive features—Eastman’s descriptions and specificity. The florid language and narrow focus in excess can grow tiresome. Regardless, The Painted Forest remains an intricate portrait of place and belonging. Eastman is making an offering to us; she is sharing something special, a part of herself. “One way to share your home,” she writes, “is to place it carefully, in a controlled way, onto someone else’s map.” That is just what she’s done—and for that, we should be grateful.

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‘Blackfishing the IUD’ by Caren Beilin: Inflaming Technologies

Caren Beilin nonfiction Blackfishing the IUDJust over halfway through Caren Beilin’s newest book, Blackfishing the IUD (165 pages; Wolfman Books), she states the simple truth that we have already learned, have already felt and suffered with, over the course of our engagement with this work: “Reading is ruining my life.”

Recounting her own experience with medical gaslighting, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the copper intrauterine device (IUD), and what it means to have metal—a toxic thing, an inflaming thing—placed in the uterus, Beilin’s text is part critique, part personal essay, and part platform for the stories, worries, angers, and generous advice of other affected women. Her voice is unique, but her story necessarily isn’t; it’s a facet of this memoir which makes it both highly particular and eerily resonant. At times, Beilin’s work reads as a manifesto, at others, a poem. But always, as a plea: “…what is copper combined with woman?” she asks. “What does the IUD do when it is not doing that sentence? The womb is wet. It rusts.”

Reading this book will ruin your life. Not because the information will be new to many of us, but because it takes things women have known for some time, that they have felt burning in their abdomens and fuming in their blood, and grants them transfiguration. The relegated-fiction of online forums, systemically dismissed internal nervousness, visible and invisible pains—all of these things and the copper trail which follows them are reinstituted as meaningful. Here, meaningful means allowed to hold something. To contain truth, and to mandate that these truths, in these forms, be accepted as legible. Copper becomes a readable subject, as does the woman’s body, and the woman’s voice, emanating from that same entity which we must learn to trust. These things have always been trying to talk with us. Blackfishing demands that we listen, and that we say something back, even (or perhaps, especially) if it is just, I believe you.

This project is life-ruining in the sense that things must sometimes be shredded to be understood. Beilin takes her subject to its extent: her descriptions of pain—the pain brought on by her copper IUD and subsequent RA, the emotional pain of navigating the medical world—and the routine dismissal of that pain, are almost impossible to sit through without, at the very least, a break, or, more severely, intermittent panic attacks. Breakdowns at the thought of the birth control in one’s own body, and what it might be doing when it doesn’t perform “that sentence,” the sentence of Planned Parenthood and other providers, the phrases and gestures which market the IUD not just as healthcare but as a political proclamation. “Now we are awesome cyborgian women, feminists with metal we enjoy in our womb.” Blackfishing isn’t a testimony against birth control, nor against the right of all people to access it. But it does throw necessary skepticism at the way reproductive healthcare institutions wield the concept of choice. Choice is important, necessary. But perhaps the choices we have are very, very bad. Are inflamed.

Beilin, whose past works include Spain and The University of Pennsylvania, employs tactfully constructed prose, as beautiful to read as it is horrible—and overwhelming—to sit with. It incites anxiety, but also, invites community. To read this book is to never be alone, to find things funny as well as terrifying and to, at last, situate invalidated fears in a legitimizing network of corroboration.

Blackfishing the IUD is a little book from a little press (the wonderful Oakland-based Wolfman Books). A podcast series will accompany its release, as if its own smallness can acknowledge itself. The effect of reading Blackfishing is unfathomably vast, but like any well-executed critical project, it does not pretend to be an end, an answer, or enough.

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‘The Tradition’ by Jericho Brown: Bursts of Ecstasy and Longing

Jericho Brown The TraditionTo some extent, every poet creates a persona. Think of Berryman’s Henry, for example. But Jericho Brown has done so more fully and convincingly than most. Born Nelson Dimery III, he answered to the name Jericho in a dream. In that dream the name allowed him go through a door. He later learned that the loose translation of the name is “defense,” and he discarded his birth name and became the unmistakably singular poet Jericho Brown. In the same way, he has transformed his evangelical fundamentalist upbringing into spirituality, physicality, and song.

This transformation is showcased in his latest book, The Tradition (110 pages; Copper Canyon Press), recently selected for the National Book Award Long List. Brown’s voice is nuanced, proud, and profound. His work has an offbeat formality, a love of rhyme and blues. It proclaims its own construction, as in the poem “After Avery R. Young”:

The more you look like me the more we
Agree. Sometimes you is everybody.

The blk mind is a continuous
Mind. There is a we. I am among them…The blk mind
Is a continuous mind. I am not a narrative
Form, but dammit if I don’t tell a story.

The poem ends:

Blk rage. Blk city of the soul
In a very cold town. Blk ice is ice you can’t see.

This little punch at the end occurs in many of Brown’s poems. They praise, they explicate, they beseech and beguile, but they won’t let you be. The book is a varied texture of canny observation, the political, and fierce, incantatory praise. The love poems are especially strong:

All that touching, or

Barely touching, not
Saying much, not adding

Anything. The cushion
Of it, the skin and
Occasional sigh, all
Seemed like something worth
Mastering.

So skillful, and the word choice of “mastering” leads to the next, surprising passage:

…I’m sure
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Black.

Brown himself has said, “Every love poem is political. Every political poem must fall in love.” And this poem turns next into something more complex, more unknowable, while the reader follows, led by rhyme, by line break, by image, to a tender, unexpected conclusion—a virtuoso performance in a short love poem that encompasses so much.

Sometimes, reading this book, the bursts of ecstasy and longing remind me of Christopher Smart; sometimes they remind me of no one but the poet himself, loving, longing and twisting in his being. The presence of the poet is inescapable, even for himself, as in the wonderful poem “Dark”:

I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books. Sick of you
Laying me down
So I forget how sick
I am. I’m sick of your good looks,
Your debates, your concern, your
Determination to keep your butt
Plump, the little money you earn…
…I’m sick

Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new.
Everyone you know is
Just as cracked. Everyone you love is
As dark, or at least as black.

As every love poem is a political poem, the poems in The Tradition hammer home a message: We are imprisoned in our history, and there is a lot of wreckage—the compound debris of old wrongs, of perception, of the body—to clean up:

… I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
Each organ
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.

This vision of an inescapably fraught context (as with “mastering,” the choice of pansies as the flower here is anything but accidental) permeates the book:

Like the viral geography of an occupied territory,
A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white woman walking with a speck like me.

*          *          *

…Gratitude is black—
Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death.
Thank God it can’t get much darker than that.

The strength of his work is enhanced by Brown’s deftness with rhyme, by how well he uses it to underscore those punches. This is nowhere more evident in his dramatic reinvention of the sonnet that he calls the Duplex. These fourteen-line poems are couplets made from cut lines of old poems of nine or eleven syllables. (You can read Brown’s essay on the form https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/04/invention.) But briefly, the lines form an intricate rhyming, echoing pattern, each one building on or twisting the line before, with the first and last lines the same or nearly the same. My favorite of these appears on the back of the book, and like all of them it’s titled simply “Duplex.” The first and last couplets give you a sense of the form:

I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

…In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope, I’d like to end there.

And I’d like to end here, too, by saying The Tradition has a lot to say, and says it in a unique and powerful voice.

Jericho Brown will be reading at 12:10 p.m. on Thursday, October 3, as part of the Lunch Poem series at the Morrison Library in Doe Library at UC Berkeley. Admission is free. Brown will be reading later that day at 7 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, sponsored by the Marin Poetry Center.

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‘Hard Mouth’ by Amanda Goldblatt: What Grief Can Do

Amanda Goldblatt novel Hard MouthWhen Denny, the twenty-something narrator of Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel, Hard Mouth (242 pages; Counterpoint Press), flees Washington, D.C., for a mountain cabin to avoid witnessing her father’s final cancer-ridden days, the reader hesitates to judge; after all, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same in Denny’s place? We all grieve in our distinct ways, and in that regard Denny’s choice seems as sound as her father’s to reject treatment for his third round of cancer. After ten years of watching her father slowly decline, she realizes, “I needed an out…I did not yet understand that courage was unrequired in making such a decision. Only a dynamic cycle of folly, and an inability to break same.”

Although Denny tells no one about the cabin, she does not leave the city alone: sporadically making himself known is her invisible friend, Gene, a sort of vaudeville comedian with a long string of ex-wives and a habit of making his opinions known. Denny realizes her imaginary companion is just that, but, unable to connect with her co-workers and on edge from the stress at parents’ house, she finds Gene’s boisterous presence a welcome counter to her isolated existence. “I know: Gene was there and not,” she shares. “Like faith, or air. I only believe in one of these things, but—he was a modern convenience, a thing that you could use unthinking, on most days.”

Despite her impulse to flee from the dreariness of urban life—the rude passengers on the subway, the stifling crowds and empty chatter during happy hour—Denny would scarcely classify herself an outdoorswoman. “I am not a naturalist. I only wanted to leave,” she states. “…this wilderness walking was just an unremarkable commute. There was a greenish vestibule, a gray and gray and brown vestibule. I moved through this landscape like a mall-walker in poor condition.”

Still, a desire to leave the world behind does not alone mean one is equipped to survive in the wild, and much of the tension and excitement in Hard Mouth comes from watching Denny—in many ways, an average millennial—fend for herself against the unexpected developments that arise: sudden rainstorms, hostile animals, and the arrival of a suspicious guest named Haw. Even as Denny forms an attachment to an injured cat she calls Thingy, and less so to the potentially dangerous Haw, there remains at the back of her mind the notion that, in many ways, her sojourn to the middle of nowhere has been a death wish. “I wanted to be dined upon by some animals,” she admits. “What better penance could I offer to the world?”

Hard Mouth recasts the traditional adventure novel as an intense psychological portrait of contemporary malaise. Unlike so much writing about nature, the book remains decidedly unromantic. For whether she’s stranded in the depths of a mountain cave or yelling at a man-spreader back on the subway, Denny’s first task is to contend with herself. The narrator’s troubled mind is laid bare on every page through Goldblatt’s unflinching gaze—there’s little glamorous about Denny by the time her journey leaves her half-naked and caked in mud, but she is vividly real. And the pain of witnessing a loved one’s slow degradation is rendered excruciating enough for us to believe Denny would prefer the physical hardships of repairing a torn roof or scaling a watchtower in a rainstorm over having to say good-bye to her father. Grief can do that.

But Denny finds “the secret was that no matter what I did, I was alive,” and life is waiting for her on the other side of her mountain excursion. Along the way, she might be shaped for the better through tending to the wounded Thingy, letting go of the phantom Gene, and confronting Haw. For Denny, her journey is brutal but rewarding. For readers, though, Hard Mouth is all reward.

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‘Love and I’ by Fanny Howe: A Meander through a Singular Mind

Fanny Howe poetry book Love and IFanny Howe prefers to be alone—perhaps that’s what makes her such a perceptive poet. In her latest collection, Love and I (80 pages; Graywolf Press), the fruits of Howe’s solitude are on full display. Howe is introspective, curious, and content when she is by herself. Many of the poems in Love and I celebrate the comforts of being alone:

I’ll sit at the window
Where it’s safe to say no.
Won’t go out, won’t work
For a living, will study the clouds
Becoming snow.

That’s not to say Howe doesn’t grapple with the aches of loneliness as well: “Someone help find me an animal,” she implores, “Who will rescue me from / Being solitary.” When there’s no one with whom she can share her life, she asks, “Who will believe what I do?” The answer: no one—the only “proof that you lived is that you kept notebooks.” These sorts of autobiographical asides—brief flashes when Howe transforms herself from spectator to subject, and reveals herself to us—make for some of the collection’s most compelling moments.

In her poems, Howe paints vivid scenes and hones in on unexpected details, the kind that only catch the eye of the lonely. A keen observer and frequent traveler (she does most of her writing in transit), Howe’s gaze is wandering but sharp. She notices the child who “licked up the mist on the windowpane,” and the plane passenger who “clutched his head like an infant.” She conjures images of small, everyday beauty: “bridal curls,” “poppy seed cake,” “a grove of elms.” And for Howe, “the tinier the beauty the better.”

With a title like Love and I, one might expect the collection to be an excavation of romantic histories or an interrogation of the act of loving itself. But Howe throws her poetic net far beyond love, prodding at questions of memory and movement, of the body and nature and grief. We spend time both inside the poet’s head and within her well-crafted scenes, leisurely bouncing between introspection and dialogue, opinion and observation.

Fascinatingly, the collection’s most persistent motif is not love but children. They appear in poem after poem, playing, growing, and taking in the world. Children are everywhere: there’s one sleeping, another standing on her head. Howe finds their innocence remarkable, and she writes about them protectively, determined to safeguard their senses of wonder. “Children need a rest,” Howe writes, “their minds are swimming in junk / and fists.” And again: “Children need sugar. / Especially in danger.”

It’s hardly surprising that children are one of the governing structural elements of Love and I. In an interview with Jacket Magazine, Howe shared, “It’s very essential to me, the relationship I feel towards the future of young people, children in particular.” Unpacking this motif, on the other hand, is a more challenging endeavor. The recurrence of children inevitably incites nostalgic yearning, a desire for the ease and infallibility of early youth. But Howe’s connection to children runs deeper than that: in her poetry, Howe casts a maternal gaze, shaped by her own experience as a mother. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Howe, who retains a child-like sense of wonder and creativity, also sees children as peers, better suited to understanding her than adults. After all, she once told the Paris Review that if she “had to do it all over again,” she’d “like to be a wandering monk with some children traveling in my company.”

When Howe does turn her focus to the notion of love and its many permutations, the results are enthralling. She speaks bluntly about the pains of attachment, abandoning lush imagery to get right to the heart of things. “Is love one-way?” she asks. “Almost always.” As Howe has grown older, she finds “Love stood at a distance.” In the standout poem of the collection, “Destinations,” Howe mourns a lost relationship, writing simply, “On a side street (on my sheets) / one I love passed / as a shadow.”

One of Love and I’s most ambitious poems is “Turbulence,” a vast multi-pager that takes place on a plane ride and explores loneliness, faith, and death. A passenger, Howe notes the rain on the windows, the trembling wings, and the clouds below; wonders about the other travelers around her; and allows her mind to wander, as it inevitably does. Ultimately, she extends a comforting invitation to surrender, directed at both her fellow passengers and us, her readers—to unburden ourselves as best we can as we trudge through life:

Give up your wires, plugs, laptop, pills, water, cellphone,
Passport, ticket and shoes.
Give up your water, your wine, your songs and stories.
Put your arms up, your feet down flat and face ahead.

You have not reached the end yet.

Love and I is a meander through a singular mind, a mind that observes more sharply than many of us could ever hope to—or might want to. Howe, who at 78 years old has penned more than thirty works of poetry and prose, has little to prove to us now. Her approach may not always be accessible, but Howe’s inquisitiveness, generosity, and care are easy to appreciate and impossible to resist.

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‘Be Recorder’ by Carmen Giménez Smith: A Call to Action

Carmen Giménez Smith poetry book 'Be Recorder'Anyone who has ever questioned the capacity of poetry to do something needs to read Carmen Giménez Smith’s newest collection, Be Recorder (88 pages; Graywolf Press). Be Recorder refuses to pretend it lives elsewhere, in some untouchable world of the lyric. Rather, each poem is undeniably here, in the now of state-generated violence and imperialism, of oppressive immigration policies, of love, of motherhood, of writerly politics. This list, while certainly marking many of Giménez Smith’s major attentions, is painfully incomplete: Be Recorder sees everything, even what it has yet to witness.

It is this impulse –– to witness and uncover, while also pointing toward the unknown –– that makes this collection and its politics so compelling. You don’t even have to open the book to hear its first demand, conveyed through the well-chosen title: “Be Recorder.” To illuminate historical harms, personal traumas and joys, we must first record them; to spectate actively is to remember and to write down, to capture each occurrence and refuse to let it go unnoticed. A “recorder” is, however, not just the person who keeps records, but the apparatus of recording itself. This complicates things: the power of witnessing can be revolutionary for the unseen, but such an apparatus can also be wielded by those forces the revolutionary witness pushes against. The state, too, is a recorder, one which dictates and archives a dominate understanding of history, marks borders on the land, shuffles, expels, and kills those defined as deviant. Be Recorder understands the messy role of documentation and declaration:

can I trust your simpatico or will my dark repel / will you be frontier and border kiss me for the camera / can I have authentic depth and will you align with me / will you hold my curls when I’m expelling phantoms / who open tunnels into the past will you consider the sky / contra the west with its grinding machines will you Spartacus / with me will you jump in fight can it be your caravan too / record my face lover record my limbs record them for / us all I’m lucky I’m lucky I’m so lucky that I’m lucky

In a single stanza, both the “west with its grinding machines” and a lover recording limbs appear. The personal grace and closeness of being seen in a moment of intimacy, and the violence of being watched and restricted by the nation’s “frontier and border,” exist on the same plane. This is not the only instance of Be Recorder‘s play with oppositional truths and the paradox of radical gesture:

I hardly care that I’m doing / harpy that I’m a city’s pestilence / should I mother or write / serve art or the state

Can art serve the state? The state has certainly exercised art as a means of propaganda, and artists have often, quite willingly, chosen to allow it. In recognizing this dichotomy and historical tension, the poem highlights an important truth, a manifesto posed as a question. To truly serve art is never to serve the state in any capacity, which is to say, that which seeks to meet the demands of empire should hardly be considered art at all.

This is just one reading of this poem, this line, this book, yet it’s hard not to feel galvanized by the possibilities it offers. Be Recorder operates as both a mirror and an imagination. We are rallied by it, called to attention, to action, to sight:

can I expect / a chronicle of the moment or is it fraught with the lyric therefore fraught / with the vulgar density of people is that the hitch aesthetically / thus ethically does it seem impossible the desire for such validation / or could you break free and record / be recorder

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‘Home Remedies’ by Xuan Juliana Wang: Perfect Worlds

Xuan Juliana Wang collection Home Remedies“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” comprise the three sections of Xuan Juliana Wang’s first story collection, Home Remedies (204 pages; Hogarth). These categories describe this book better than much else could: Wang conjures an incredibly wide range of characters and plotlines, all tied together through notions of familial bonds, love, and temporality. There are no broad strokes or homogenizing glances in Wang’s work. These stories, concerned with Chinese young people and their engagements with culture, curiosity, and identity are complicated and specific, personal and detailed, messy and absurd. Each story Wang creates is so perfectly and wholly its own world; the only moment of disappointment they offer is in their brevity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the close of each universe, so vivid, full, and necessarily affecting.

The book’s opening story, “Mott Street in July,” centers on a Chinese family living in the U.S. over the course of a very hot summer, one marked by the national “Asian carp crisis.” The three children of the family, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy, watch as their parents leave their small apartment to join the “Fish Generation,” those who presumably have gone to kill the carp, which “could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged… to guide them back to their rightful home.” Political and surreal, this story is as heartbreaking as it is subversive, able to touch upon intergenerational trauma, abandonment, and love under systematic exclusion through almost mythic prose:

The fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too… The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong… They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children… They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.

“Days of Being Mild” (likely a reference to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild), by contrast, features a group of young people who have recently moved to Bejing, or Bei Piao, young adults out “to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless.” The group of roommates that the story recounts more than live up to this promise, filling their days with erotic fashion photography shoots and experimental filmmaking, punk shows, and new lovers. Visually, the story is a far cry from the crowded apartment on Mott Street where three children learn the limits of love. But both stories find their characters in orbit, albeit a precarious one, around family making; the difficulty of defining oneself in opposition to one’s parents, or the special kind of dependence that forms among young people when they no longer feel held by those who were meant to protect them.

It feels rare for a single book to do so many things, and to do each of them so well: an unrequited queer Olympic love story, a woman transformed by the designer clothes of a dead model, an aging machine, teenage violence, sexual yearning, unwanted marriages. Each vignette is magical, and critically real. It’s a gift to read something so attentive, able to traipse across time and space with the utmost care for each life brought into focus.

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‘The Churchgoer’ by Patrick Coleman: The Limits of Doubt

Patrick Coleman novel The ChurchgoerEven if Patrick Coleman’s first novel, The Churchgoer (354 pages; Harper Perennial), was not prefaced by a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the story’s noir flavors would be unmistakable. Mark Haines, a former youth pastor turned burned-out security guard and amateur surfer, lost his faith and more than a step when his beloved sister committed suicide years ago. In his rearview are a wife and a teen daughter who can barely swallow their bile to speak to him on the phone every so often. Meanwhile, always close at hand is the alcohol addiction he fights to keep a lid on. (“Alcoholics, like pastors maybe, are never recovered but always recovering,” he notes.) Mark spies a chance to do some minor good in the world –– a shot at redemption would be too much to hope for –– when he happens across Emily, a young woman by the side of the road, trying to thumb her way from Oceanside to Seattle.

Mark offers to buy her a meal at the local greasy spoon, an act of generosity he must shamefully admit is at least somewhat motivated by his attraction to Emily, but little does he know his good deed will go far from unpunished. Emily isn’t a femme fatale, but she might be that other noir staple, the Woman in Trouble:

She wrapped the leash around the tail of the board and walked up the beach, a classic California profile in nearly full shadow, her features existing only in a burned, golden shade, like the saints on Renaissance altarpieces that seemed to be inwardly self-illuminated. But Emily couldn’t be the surfer girl the Beach Boys sang out, the girl half the young (and not so young) men around her lusted for, laughing through evenings at bonfires and ukulele sing-alongs. That was just her darkened profile, a corresponding outline. And if she was in shadow, my face was catching the light, and she was coming my way.

The further Mark becomes enmeshed in Emily’s life, the further he enters a world of violent drug dealers, underhanded evangelicals, and powerful real estate magnates. “San Diego’s a small town,” Mark notes, “and the evangelical scene is even smaller.” Mark is far from a seasoned private detective like Phillip Marlowe, but his own self-loathing and guilty conscience will prove all the motivator he needs to dig deeper into the conspiracy once Emily vanishes without a trace.

The Churchgoer is populated with the kind of hard-boiled monologues one associates with the noir genre (“Time and perspective,” Mark muses, “two unrelenting, changeable assholes –– but not without a sense of humor”), and its cast of pistol-wielding drug peddlers wouldn’t be out of place in your average detective novel. But Patrick Coleman’s background is in poetry (his poems previously appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 94), a background that’s revealed not only in The Churchgoer’s lush language –– even the seediest and most squalid neighborhoods of San Diego County are rendered with great care –– but in the way Coleman is far more interested in Mark’s crisis of faith than a conventional plot.

As Mark’s amateur investigation (which includes impersonating a police officer when necessary) sends him undercover to one of Southern California’s most successful “mega-churches,” he comes face to face with what he views as a mirror of his former hypocrisy. He ultimately can’t resist the opportunity to ruffle the church’s Santa Claus-esque pastor:

He was a good actor, a professional preacher, face muscles that could bench three-hundred and open a beer bottle with nothing but a dimple. Speaking was his way of control, his lifeblood. I didn’t want to let him have it, kept taking it away.

Even so, Mark must eventually acknowledge that his quest to “save” Emily might merely be an attempt to make up for all the ways he’s let down his daughter –– assuming Emily needs any saving at all. In the end, Mark’s lot in life stems from one decision: the moment he turned his back on his religion and family when the foundation for his faith crumbled. But the numerous close calls he encounters while searching for a trace of Emily will cause him to question the dogma of hatred –– hatred for himself, hatred for the world –– that has served as his bitter fuel in the intervening years.

The Churchgoer is at once a cracking noir yarn and an introspective examination of the limits of belief and doubt. Late in the novel, Mark experiences his own “dark night of the soul”; with Mark trapped and in the dark, quite literally, this section allows Coleman to dive deep into Mark’s sensory experience and mental battle as he struggles for air. It’s a test of will as great as any faced by a Biblical hero (like Daniel tossed in the lion’s den), and Coleman renders the scene with language that recalls the opening of Genesis:

The silenced filled the darkness and the darkness filled the silence. Then the terror rose up.

Nothing. I was adrift in nothing. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Nothing to hear, except my own breathing and whispered profanity.

Back against the wall, Mark finally encounters a situation that his quick wits and smooth tongue can’t get him out of. Like so much of The Churchgoer, this moment serves as a reminder: no matter how far we think the past is behind us, no matter how self-reliant we claim to be, there always comes a reckoning. In this case, the reckoning packs a punch, but so does Coleman’s unsentimental prose in this stellar debut.

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‘Stubborn Archivist’ by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The Preciousness of a Moment

Yara Rodrigues Fowler novel Stubborn Archivist

The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:

But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.

Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:

Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it
Okay

Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:

Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.

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‘Stay and Fight’ by Madeline ffitch: Living Off the Land

Madeline ffitch novel Stay and FightBuilding family in the face of capitalist-driven environmental collapse might look something like Madeline ffitch’s first novel, Stay and Fight (304 pages; FSG), at once indulging fantasies of reclusive living outside the gaze of the State, while simultaneously narrating the impossibility of such an existence. This is not to say Stay and Fight denies the prospect of, or human capacity for, crafting alternative, distinctly non-traditional ways of surviving. On the contrary, ffitch’s characters sustain themselves, maintain a home, and even raise a child, all miles outside the comforts and confines of urban or otherwise familiar civilization. And yet, even in the wilderness of Appalachian Ohio, systems and their effects creep in: child protection services, energy companies, public schools. Even while off-the-grid, the grid watches.

A uniquely comprehensive and necessarily tangled understanding of what it means to live under normalizing forces and rapid climate degradation is present throughout Stay and Fight, though the plot pays these matters little explicit concern, and for good reason: it doesn’t have to. Told from four distinct perspectives, each character’s understanding of one another and themselves is fundamentally mediated by their conditions; ffitch doesn’t need a manifesto to demonstrate Anthropocenic stakes. The novel’s first narrator, Helen, a young college-educated woman from Seattle, arrives in Appalachia with her boyfriend Shane, looking to make it on their own on twenty acres of empty land. It doesn’t take long for their plan to collapse: put off by his girlfriend’s chattiness and their highly isolated life, Shane leaves after just a few months of “roughing it” in a small trailer and trimming trees with Rudy, a helpful but abrasive local drunk. Helen is alone, but doesn’t mourn for long. She soon takes over Shane’s job as Rudy’s assistant and is introduced to the rest of her neighbors, namely Lily and Karen, a lesbian couple living on “The Women’s Land Trust,” a separatist community. When Lily gives birth to a baby boy, Perley (the novel’s fourth narrator), the couple knows their days in the woman-only community are numbered, prompting Helen, eager to find company and purpose, to offer the new parents a place to live on her land. Lily and Karen have lived in Appalachia for years and know that Helen is clueless and, to make matters worse, thinks she knows everything. Despite their concerns, the allure of living rent-free is too good to pass up. They set off to build a house, unsure of what their life will look like inside of it. A happenstance family forms.

Stay and Fight is built on such moments of unlikely and nearly coincidental intimacies. Soon, the women begin to care for, feed, and shelter one another every day. ffitch, however, avoids the glossy, familiar narrative of feminist utopia this story could have easily reproduced. Life is primarily unpleasant and usually rife with conflict. Helen embraces “the great outdoors” with the gusto of someone who romanticizes fleeing conventional society, and, despite having almost no practical survival skills, tells Lily and Karen what to do and how to do it at every turn, obsessed with “best practices” for living off the land.

Helen’s overbearing behavior founds one of the novel’s most engaging and humorous critiques, that of liberal-arts-flavored elitism. While sparing no attempt to make herself seem native to the poverty-stricken area, Helen lives in Appalachia voluntarily. She loves the hardship, even, or perhaps especially, when it seems most unbearable. Yet Helen also feels fundamentally separate from those who were raised there, proud of her B.A. in liberal studies and overwhelmed by her felt obligation to share knowledge with those around her:

“I think you’re using the word yuppie incorrectly,” I said. The men looked at me, “Young urban professional, right?” I said. I looked at Aldi for confirmation, but Aldi, so ebullient with Rudy, gazed at me like the stranger I was. I pressed on. “That principal may be a professional, but he’s definitely not young or urban.”

“Helen’s from Seattle,” Rudy said. “She’s just mad because she’s a yuppie too.”

We all know a Helen. She is easy to dislike, and disdain toward her is merited. But like everything else in ffitch’s story, it’s complicated. Helen is the only one with a steady job, and she helps care for Perley, becoming an integral part of the toddler’s life. Even when they don’t want to, Helen, Lily, Karen, and Perley come to need each other: no one goes to the doctor, and rather than letting Perley play with toys, they teach him how to use tools. They share a skepticism of social structures, nationalism, and institutions that speaks to a well-founded distrust of government and Western-sanctioned ways of doing things, a distrust which, as a reader, resonates profoundly.

They might not enjoy it most of the time, but staying together is the only way this family can fashion a life that looks the way they want it to. This is not want in the pleasurable sense, but rather want as it relates to need. Amid fighting and hunger and a relentless snake infestation, they retain the power of self-actualization, straddling the hard-to-measure distance between agency and adversity. Each choice—such as not wanting Perley addicted to Western medicine and sugar, or brainwashed by patriotism in school—involves the hardship necessitated by doing everything without help, outside the rules of the State. No matter how strenuous, it seems the only way to make real their collective intent, one born out of love as much as principle. The impulse is utopian, even if reality proves less so.

Stay and Fight is smart and self-aware enough to refuse any confident solution toward forging intimacy and independence under our current sociopolitical circumstances. It knows that such a solution does not exist. Rather, there is staying, there is fighting, and there is fighting to stay. There is trying to protect your child from harm, and there is producing unforeseen harm as a result. There is State intervention, normalizing forces that (as always) refuse to let live those who try and turn away from its authority. There are pipelines slicing through the land, there is inadequate healthcare, there is hateful speech and addiction and hunger. Stay and Fight touches upon the most central, tender, and violent conflicts of our time without opting for simplicity, allowing the sadness and humor of family to guide its reader toward a more generative understanding of all the ways there are to stick around for something you believe in.

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‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada: A Long and Humid Afternoon

Selva Almada novel The Wind that Lays WasteA devoted man of God and his sullen teenage daughter are on the road to a church in a remote village when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves at the mercy of a grizzled mechanic who has sworn off religion and runs a garage alongside his wide-eyed son. Though the setting may be Argentina, the setup for Selva Almada’s latest novel, The Wind That Lays Waste (124 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Chris Andrews), feels as though it could be plucked from the pages of revered Southern author Flannery O’Connor. But while Almada shares some of O’Connor’s subject matter and spiritual concerns, this is largely where their similarities end. O’Connor’s stories are well known for their frequently doom-laden endings –– the personal violence building to almost apocalyptic proportions in the lives of her characters. Almada tends to take a gentler and more introspective tract.

The slender tome focuses on the tentative connections between Reverend Pearson, his daughter, Leni, and the sparse crew at the garage they find themselves marooned at: the elder Gringo Brauer and his progeny, Jose, nicknamed Tapioca. As Gringo works on the broke-down auto, and as a storm begins to brew over the countryside, Almada steadily reveals the characters’ backstories in alternating chapters.

As a young boy, Pearson was baptized in a river by a traveling preacher and has since taken to his role as Reverend with a zeal his disaffected daughter does not share. She still bears the emotional scars from the day her father abandoned Leni’s less-believing mother by the roadside. Regardless, Pearson clearly holds sway over his congregation, which Almada wonderfully depicts in an expressive passage:

When he lifts his head, he takes two steps forward and looks at his audience. The way he looks, you know he’s looking at you, even if you’re sitting in the back row. (It’s Christ who’s looking at you!) He begins to speak. (Christ’s tongue is moving in his mouth!) His arms begin to perform their choreography of gestures, only the hands moving at first, slowly, as if they were caressing the listeners’ heavy brows. (Christ’s fingertips on my temples!) Gradually his forearms and upper arms begin to move as well. The torso remains still, but already you can sense a movement in his stomach. (It’s the flame of Christ burning inside him!)

In contrast to the Reverend, Gringo Brauer is a practical, “salt of the earth” type whose days of hard-drinking and womanizing are far behind him; he’s since settled into a contented middle-age, satisfied with a life fixing cars and looking after his collection of stray dogs, as well as another kind of “stray” –– the son he never knew he had until the boy’s mother dropped him off at Brauer’s doorstep.

As the Reverend’s auto troubles lead to a long, humid afternoon of repairs and conversation, Brauer is none too pleased when Pearson begins saying grace over their meals and speaking of spiritual concerns. He tolerates the Biblical talk the best he can, but when Pearson takes a shine to Tapioca –– seeing in the boy a reflection of himself as a younger, untainted child –– conflict between the two men threatens to boil over. Almada proves adept at depicting the religious fervor that takes hold of Pearson when considering Tapioca; there’s an unnerving intensity and single-mindedness to his passion:

Tapioca, on the other hand, was as clean as a newborn child; all his pores were open, ready to take Jesus in and breathe him out again.

Together they would turn the Reverend’s work, which was still just the sketch of a long-cherished dream, into something concrete and monumental.

Tapioca, Jose, would not be his successor, but what the Reverend had failed to become. Because Reverend Pearson had a past, too, as he knew better than anyone else, and in that past there were mistakes, and those mistakes came back now and then to haunt him like a vague but persistent cloud of buzzing flies. There had been no Reverend Pearson to guide him. He had fashioned himself as best he could. But the boy would have him. With Reverend Pearson on one side and Christ on the other, Jose would be invincible.

The climax to The Wind That Lays feels appropriately Biblical: we watch these two very different men come to blows in the mud as rain pelts the earth and thunder cracks the sky. In the grim, often fatalistic world of Flannery O’Connor, this violent confrontation would have likely led to an irrevocable tragedy. But here there is a path forward for these characters, one in which they might learn to let things go and develop as individuals. Alamada’s nuanced approach leaves room to explore her characters’ pasts in some detail, but, crucially, these individuals –– even the Reverend Pearson –– are not defined by their mistakes.

No doubt there will be consequences for their actions, as Pearson’s determined quest to convert Tapioca against Brauer’s wishes only further drives the wedge between the Reverend and his daughter. But their mission will not end here, at this wayward garage in the country. For them, the road stretches far ahead; Almada’s novel offers but a brief glimpse of a moment in their journey, but it is one she renders with great and deliberate meaning.

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