ZYZZYVA EventsJanuary 9, 2020
Joan Didion: The 1960s & '70s: A Conversation
Time: 6:30 pm
– 7:30 pm
Location: The Mechanics' Institute, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Description: ZYZZYVA Contributing Editor David L. Ulin will be in conversation with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about Didion and the first volume of her work published by the Library of America and edited by Ulin. For more info: https://bit.ly/33kqu47January 14, 2020
Bay Area Issue Celebration
Time: 7:00 pm
– 8:00 pm
Location: City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco.
Description: Featuring Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Kevin Simmonds, Rita Bullwinkel, Chia-Chia Lin, Meg Hurtado Bloom, and Paul Wilner. Free. More info here: https://bit.ly/2pOClJNJanuary 24, 2020
Bay Area Issue Celebration, East Bay
Time: 6:00 pm
– 7:00 pm
Location: East Bay Booksellers, 5433 College Ave., Oakland
Description: Featuring Matthew Zapruder, Lydia Conklin, Nina Schulyer, sam sax, Andrew Roe, and Sara Mumolo. Free.February 6, 2020
Bay Area Issue Celebration
Time: 6:00 pm
– 7:00 pm
Location: Mechanics' Institute, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Description: Featuring Luiza Flynn-Goodlett, Michael Sears, Gloria Frym, and W.S. Di Piero. Free.
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
As October comes to a close, the Bay Area gears up for perhaps its favorite holiday: here’s hoping your Halloween involves more treat than trick! In the office, we’re also offering a seasonal Staff Recommends—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:
Scout Turkel, Intern: My music taste is defined by habit rather than preference. What makes a song good isn’t necessarily genre or content, but its capacity to fit into my rigorous and specific listening routine: for about a month at a time, I play one song, and one song only, on repeat, over and over again. Few songs hold up––most become unlistenable or annoying after a few goes. And of those select tracks that do withstand more than a handful of consecutive plays, hardly any are able to sustain me for the duration I demand. The song has to be versatile––joy-sparking but also a bit sad, appropriate for a long, crowded BART ride home or an early morning cross-campus trudge to class. It has to be sexy and danceable, galvanizing enough for chores and cleaning, calming enough to study with, and, more basically, just generally likable. I’ll be playing it all the time, so wide-spread appeal is important; I have two roommates and over one-hundred housemates, the hope is that they enjoy (or at least can tolerate) it along with me.
I’ve had many of these songs come and go over the years, but one stands up against the nonstop-listening test like no other. “Coconut Kiss” by Niki & The Dove is the soundtrack to all my seasons, and all my tasks. My breakups and my triumphs. My bad days and my dance parties, alone or, more usually, in the kitchen of my giant communal home, friends and peripheral acquaintances alike all writhing on the half-mopped floor to the synthpop anthem of our dreams. Maybe the dream is just mine, but Swedish duo Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf make me feel otherwise. Dahlström’s voice is powerful but a little eerie, high-pitched and slightly crooning with a disco-y pace and flirtation. I won’t pretend to know anything about this band––I don’t. I haven’t even really engaged with the rest of their 2016 album beyond its genius title, Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now. Which is true. “Coconut Kiss” isn’t quite a climate disaster ballad, but it’s hard to turn away from the possibility it offers for collective mourning; the planet is hurtling towards an uninhabitable state, and we all, in a truly worldly sense, are being forced to feel the crushing heartbreak of our doom together, perhaps for the very first time. And yet, in the true fashion of our times, it’s also campy. And sweet. And sensual. Karlöf’s lyricism is objectively sad, but the pop, electro-rhythm of the track begs you to dance. “I am a loner / And I paid my dues / And I don’t depend on nothing / Or no one / I am a loner / All confused / Waiting for that rainy day / While I spend my time / Walking in the sunshine”––believe it’s about climate change yet? If you don’t, well, that’s okay. It took me a few hundred listens to land on that take.
More fundamentally, “Coconut Kiss” is about heartache and the defensiveness that comes with that violation, be it carried out by the corporations warming our planet to its premature end or a first love who stopped feeling the same way. The answer it offers to this loneliness isn’t redemption, but something more removed, even cynical: “Swinging in my palm tree / Cause I love coconuts / I’m drinking Coconut Kiss / And you don’t get to know me / You don ‘t get to know me…” I love that impulse; it’s not that the mystical and heartbreaking “you” doesn’t know me, or shouldn’t know me, but rather that they aren’t allowed to. The isolation isn’t necessarily empowering, but it is a choice. As everything goes up in flames, we retain a little say in how the end plays out, sipping our syrupy, boozy punch in what may be the last palm tree on earth.
Even at the end of all things, planetary or not, Niki & The Dove puts a sleepy, warm haze over all of our sadness and confusion. “I like to / watch the world / The world is looking good today / It’s almost like I ‘m sleeping / I pull my head back to the sun” whispers Dahlström in her intimate drawl. There’s still some pleasure in watching, which might be a terrible thing to say. But it feels true when she sings it, and truer still when I hear it for the hundredth time, on the kitchen floor clutching my mop, now a mic, or too close to another body on the five o’clock commuter train, somewhere under the bay.
Sophia Stewart, Intern: Succession is a difficult series to distill into so few words. The show is so many things at once. It’s an amalgam of many genres: corporate thriller, family drama, workplace comedy. It pairs the course repartee of Veep with the aesthetic of Billions (that is, badly behaved rich people in New York). And as for premise, Succession borrows a bit from Arrested Development: a flawed family with a company to their name, law-evading patriarch, adult children vying for power.
I know what you’re thinking: who wants to watch rich, white, entitled people scheme for hours on end, especially at a time like this? Believe me, the thought crossed my mind, too. But Succession goes beyond the constraints of its premise to deliver something that is devilishly clever, emotionally resonant, and thoroughly addictive. Each episode is hearty, filling—stuffed with gripping drama and caustic wit. Dysfunction is the series’ organizing principle, and boy, does Succession do dysfunction well.
So here’s the story: the Roy family, who reign over a media empire, are a family in name alone. In reality, they’re a business operation. Unburdened by familial love or loyalty, the Roys are ruthless and conniving, conspiring against each other as they paw at power. The drama that plays out among the family members is downright Shakespearean—betrayals, back-door deals, attempted patricide. There is Kendall, the scorned heir; Roman, the twisted manchild; Siobhan, the focused striver; and Connor, the idiosyncratic recluse. And of course, pulling the strings is Logan Roy, CEO and father, in that order.
What makes Succession work is the thrill of seeing these personalities collide. These are terrible, terrible people, and watching them mistreat each other is truly delicious. (At one point, an observer of the family tells Kendall, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth,” and I have to agree.) We’re like anthropologists, studying these hapless, hopeless miscreants. The Roys are monsters, products of late capitalism, and what a joy it is to watch them run loose in Manhattan. But just because the Roys are despicable doesn’t mean they’re soulless. They still succumb to the pains and pressures that come with their high-stakes lives. And we are there to witness it all, as bystanders, voyeurs, or something in between.
Succession alternates between satisfying schadenfreude and heartrending tragedy, often within the same episode. Yes, we feast on the Roys’ suffering, maybe even delight in it. But we also suffer alongside them: no matter how removed from reality they may be, their humiliations, addictions, and rejections, in some sense or another, mirror our own. And that, dear reader, is the success of Succession: the Roys can disgust us all they want—we’ll love them just the same.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Ever since Robert Eggers’ name floated around a possible remake of the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, I’d imagined what The Witch director might do with a visual aesthetic inspired by German Expressionism. With Egger’s latest film The Lighthouse now in limited release in the Bay Area, I no longer have to wonder: the spirit of Weimar Era filmmaking is present in every shot of Robert Pattinson’s wide, startled eyes. While the Nosferatu remake appears to be on the back-burner for Eggers (maybe someday?), his latest is a black-and-white, shot-on-35mm chamber piece about a grizzled lighthouse keeper, played by Willem Dafoe, and his new assistant (Pattison) in New England circa the late 1800’s.
Beset by ill weather, their post begins to stretch beyond its scheduled four week tenure and the two men—dynamically portrayed by Dafoe at his spittle-on-beard best and an equally game Pattinson—find their relationship (and their sanity) tested by isolation, the elements, and the almost sensual lure of the lighthouse’s beacon itself.
I feel somewhat guilty trying to articulate my thoughts on this film after only one viewing—very early into The Lighthouse I knew I absolutely needed to see it again, if only to inhabit once more the wave-battered world Eggers has conjured here, one where seabirds carry the souls of long dead sailors and mermaids appear like sirens on the rocky shore. Much as in The Witch, Eggers’ influences here feel as literary as they do cinematic: one pictures an antique bookshelf where Herman Melville sits comfortably alongside H.P. Lovecraft. The dialogue registers as period accurate and studiously researched; much of the viewing experience involves listening intently to the performers, a reminder that part of the pleasure of cinema can be simply experiencing sonorous dialogue in the hands of actors who can truly rise to the level of the material. This is never more apparent than during the many scenes in which Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have cause to curse each other out: their exasperated tirades are bawdy, vulgar, and represent some of the best “setpieces” I’ve seen in theaters all year.
To say much more about The Lighthouse might give away some of the film’s many surprises and delights—I’m also underselling just how damn funny this material is—but rest assured the movie is worthy of the serious viewer’s time before it departs from theaters like a steamboat headed back to the mainland. Reports indicate Eggers’ next film will follow a 10th century Nordic prince on a quest for revenge; after impressing with both Puritan folk horror in The Witch and the nautical hypno-drone of The Lighthouse, Eggers seems poised to do much the same in the land of the Vikings. I’ll be purchasing a ticket.
Laura Cogan, Editor: Selecting which book to read next from the mile high stack and even longer list is an inscrutable process for me, one that is more emotional and intuitive than reasoned. I want to read them all, so why this book, today, but not last month or last year? I can’t say. I think there may be material to analyze here, perhaps not totally dissimilar to the way dreams reveal simmering, subterranean concerns. I find myself reluctant to interpret, but it is interesting to note areas of synchronicity or divergence. The two books I read this month, for example, are different in most ways except this: they both revolve around family life, the most profound fears of parenthood, and the outer edges of what we can fully understand about what transpires at home–especially our own.
First I read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, an expansive and engaging fairytale blending contemporary and classical ideas of trolls and witches. LaValle’s smooth prose and compact chapters gave me the thoroughly enjoyable sense of being told a story of adventure and enchantment by a practiced and authoritative craftsman. Yes, there were moments when the plot felt strained or central ideas over-explained, but it never felt worth breaking the spell of story to stop and dwell on them.
Next I picked up The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a book I’d been both drawn to and dreading. Over two tense days of reading I inhabited every taut sentence, every deft character portrait, every nuanced and loaded interaction between Louise (the nanny) and her employers and their children. Slimani is careful not to vilify the parents (painting a sensitive portrait of the working mother), while seeking to create context (personal and societal, structural) for Louise’s break down. The book raises thorny, un-resolvable issues of class, reminding us that such issues persist even when, with the best of intentions, we turn a blind eye. Ultimately, there can be no explanation or understanding for the devastating act of violence Louise commits: it is unthinkable. But Slimani turns the impulse to ask “why” and “how” into an exercise in humanity.
‘Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks’ by W.S. Di Piero: A Literary Time Capsule
The relationship between a writer and their notebook is a strange and sacred one. W.S. Di Piero has been keeping a notebook since he first started writing, and, in the poet’s own words, his notebooks have taken on many roles, including “workshop, interrogation room, [and] monk’s cell.”
In Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks (Carnegie Mellon University Press; 88 pages), we are treated to selections from three decades’ worth of De Piero’s notebooks. Through this collection, Di Piero hopes to “craft a shadow self-portrait composed of hopped-up episodes from my mental and emotional life.” The resultant book is a literary time capsule that brims with stray observations and confessions, citations and criticism—an intimate space for Di Piero to “say small things intensely.”
While Di Piero occasionally recounts his daily life (interactions on public transit, meetings with friends, overheard conversations on the street), he more frequently journals about poetry as a practice and form. As a critic and poet, he places poetry in conversation with other art forms, like painting and music, and puts himself in conversation with countless other poets, such as Wordsworth, Yeats, Baudelaire, and Keats. He is also amusingly opinionated about the role of the poet: “I think the poet’s work,” Di Piero writes, “is to tell the struggle, to attempt to reveal the order or our dream of it.” Examining the life of the poet, then, is an act of introspection; when Di Piero writes about “poets,” he is really writing about himself.
Each decade brings new interests. The 2000s, for example, see Di Piero writing often about cityscapes and transit; the 1990s, melancholy and Italy; the 1980s, childhood and Van Gogh.
Fascinations wax and wane throughout the years, but Di Piero’s curiosity remains constant. A sense of place is also continuous throughout Mickey Rourke: each entry is “saturated with wherever I was writing” at the time—indeed, the author brings places like San Francisco, Bologna, and Chicago to life in lovely detail.
Di Piero’s more diaristic writings prove to be some of his most engaging. In the 1990s, he is clearly struggling with depression, or as he calls it, “clinical melancholia.” His meditation on his own bed is one of his notebooks’ most moving entries:
The bed is the best and worst place. It’s the island where you’re safe, if not from the serrated confabulations of your own consciousness, at least from the afflictions the world beyond the bed will, you’re certain, bring you. It’s the worst place because the longer you’re there, the more it loves you, the more it renews its sticky torpor. It’s a safe place to consider killing yourself.
Di Piero often revisits certain ideas, sometimes in nearly identical words. In the 2000s, for example, he quotes Kierkegaard: “The whole of existence frightens me;” and in the 1980s, he recalls William James’ “horrible fear of my own existence.” He also repeats several maxims again and again, like this one about loss: “Writing about loss thrills and energizes because loss is another form of transformation.” It makes one wonder what it is about these repeated phrases that affect Di Piero so intensely. “For this here book,” Di Piero writes in the postscript, “I picked notes having to do with matters I still go round and round and that still lose my sleep.” This raises the question of how much of Di Piero’s journals have been expurgated, and why he’s “picked” certain entries over others.
Unlike other vignette-driven books, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the fragments of Mickey Rourke rarely connect with each other, and their order feels insignificant. But in this way, the book channels the true nature of the human mind: disordered and random, riddled with obsessions. “The entries,” Di Piero writes, “are undated floaters—that’s how they come into and live in my consciousness.”
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.
Krista 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.
Just 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.
On a Friday afternoon, I visited the Stephen “ESPO” Powers “Daymaker” installation at SFMOMA. “Daymaker” includes two site-specific wall-size murals covered in Powers’ signature ideograms: a simple illustration of an everyday object accompanied by witty, semi-aphoristic text. (Powers began his career as a graffiti artist under the moniker ESPO.)
Of the two murals, the one on the east wall is the more popular one for picture taking. It has more blank spaces between ideograms and better light. The picture-taking comes in two genres: selfies or portraits. You can pose next to the brick wall covered with the words “BACK GOES HERE.” Or you can stand next to the matte yellow Post-it that reads “WHO ASKED YOU?” These shots are perfect for social media; they provide a novel background with a caption already included.
Some of Powers’ texts edge into the territory of Instagram Poetry, a genre defined by pithy sentimentality. I can imagine the phrase “I GET LOST TO GET FOUND” adorning a timeline accompanied by a picture of a beach at sunset. In “Daymaker” Powers pairs the phrase with a cartoonish briefcase that looks like it belongs in a noir comic. It’s the visual equivalent of sarcasm, and it evokes the famous Barbara Krueger work that exhorts “I shop, therefore I am.” It’s not art specifically made for a vapid viewer, but art that is happily misread.
Some of the more ambitious photo-seekers will pose for whole minutes in front of Powers’ east wall. The most determined of the bunch that day were a trio of women with slick hair and thick eyebrows, who took turns posing and taking pictures. Observing them, I learned two important rules of modeling: 1) suck in your stomach and 2) the logo of your handbag should be facing out. It takes a lot of forethought to look this carefree.
The photoshoots blocked the art, and I felt the urge to look away. I didn’t want to interrupt, or worse, ruin the game of pretend in-progress. The relationship a person has with how other people see them is an intimate one; it didn’t feel right to intrude.
If I were to have my picture taken with one of Powers’ works, I would pick one of six canvasses on the under-observed south wall. My favorite of these has two, dark blue painterly fists bumping. I felt I was seeing the artist’s hand both literally and figuratively, with yellow action lines radiating from the point of impact. The fists are framed with the words “NOTHING TO SAY, SOMEONE TO SAY IT TO,” which describes most people on Twitter.
Every trip to the museum ends at the gift shop. Here you can buy toilet paper designed by Powers, packaged with the words “If only opinions were as useful.” It’s the perfect item for those who want a physical souvenir of the exhibit, and not just a digital one.
Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award. You can read her short story “The Story of a True Artist” in Issue 115.
Jonathon Keats and the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene: Pessimism is Not a Scientific Way of Thinking
Unbeknown to many in San Francisco, we are in the presence of several brave species helping to terra-form the city and stave off a future defined by man’s carbon footprint. These “volunteers,” as experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats calls them, represent the first members of his new organization, The Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, and they’re closer than you might think—they might even be under your feet.
These ambassadors are the plants that sprout from the sidewalk in even the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Though acknowledging that they are commonly dismissed as unsightly, Keats—previously known for creating Alien Instruments and Superego Suits—has taken to documenting these life-forms in a series of intimate black and white portraits. He hopes this approach lends the plants some dignity, and might cause people to view them in terms of the beauty, and not the blight, they bring to an urban environment. While taking the photos, Keats gets down on the ground to be at eye level with his subjects. Speaking of these plants, Keats admits, “I go back and visit them and water them sometimes. Even though they don’t need me to grow, it doesn’t mean there’s no benefit there.”
Keats’ portraits of the plants are currently on display and viewable by appointment at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. He suggests that, in many ways, this photography is representative of what he is attempting to do with the Pioneers, which includes “creating a model for a world to come, a world we would want to inhabit.” It’s a model in which no species is taken for granted, even if they sprout from cracks in the pavement.
Also at Modernism Gallery is a massive map of Northern California, which Keats invites gallery patrons to decorate with pins specifying locations they feel represent the world they’d like to see in the future. During the busy opening night event this month, the crowds took great delight in (quite literally) hammering their pins into the map. Anyone is also welcome to become a member of the Pioneers for as little as a one-dollar donation. Keats stresses that interested parties can also join for less, though a $40 donation will secure you a stylish Pioneers for the Greater Holocene T-shirt, a convenient way to show your fellow citizens your interest in preserving the current geological epoch.
The Pioneers formation was in part inspired by the upcoming determination by the International Union of Geological Sciences as to whether the current geological epoch, known as the Holocene, has come to a premature end due to man’s harmful impact on the planet, thus placing us firmly in the Anthropocene. While most scientists seem to take the Anthropocene’s arrival as a foregone conclusion, implying that the planet will be blighted by humans for millions of years to come, Keats argues, “Pessimism is not a scientific way of thinking…We cannot accept the catastrophic results of declaring the Anthropocene an epoch.”
He stresses that work can be done and changes made, even on an individual level, that could perhaps alter the Anthropocene from a multi-million-year epoch to something more like an unfortunate but brief episode during humanity’s time on Earth.
One might expect the Pioneers would find an ideal base in the Bay Area, where so many people believe in the reality of climate change. Keats explains this isn’t necessarily so. San Francisco, for example, is simultaneously “the best place” and “the worst place” to launch such an endeavor. Keats sees the Bay Area as having a culture of compartmentalization—people genuinely care, but often feel as though simply caring, even if divorced from action, is enough. He cites “a paralysis among those who recognize the problems of climate change” because “when there’s no clear path forward, people end up doing nothing, which is not tenable to me.” Yet the situation is not without hope: “We are unable to act on our beliefs when the situation seems futile, but I also believe that any small action can potentially pull us out of that stupor.”
Emphasizing the concrete, active nature of the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, Keats believes small gestures, from planting seeds across the urban environment to documenting and protecting what current plant life exists, can have massive ramifications. “Since the Industrial Revolution, we have had an attitude of antagonism towards other species,” Keats explains. “We take for granted that they will be compliant. But in reality, if we disappear, they will take over—so how compliant can they be? The Pioneers are about taking the opposite tack and advocating a sharing of power between species at every level.”
To this end, the Pioneers have distributed starter packets throughout the city, containing seeds for native grasses that will take root wherever people spread them, as well as a special nutrient mix for lichens capable of turning concrete into fertile ground. With enough time and effort, it’s possible the Pioneers could see San Francisco radically transformed into an urban forest. No doubt such a transition would create some measure of chaos, at least in the beginning, but Keats sees this as entirely in keeping with the Bay Area’s reputation for disruption. “Nature isn’t Disney or Bob Ross,” he reminds us. “It’s not altogether peaceful.”
Although the Pioneers’ vision for the planet includes a much more level field between man and nature, Keats argues, “This is in no way meant to be a Luddite move or a call back to the past.” This will likely register as good news to San Francisco’s pervasive tech industry, though Keats is leery of their involvement. “Technological industries have a tendency to see themselves as saviors of what technology has wrought in the past,” he states.
The truth, as the Pioneers see it, is that for the last 11,700 years the Holocene has been good to us—as stewards of the planet, we ought to try our best to see the epoch doesn’t come to an abrupt end many millennia before its time. For while epochs are generally defined as lasting millions of years, it’s all but certain the Anthropocene will not last as long; mankind’s accelerated destruction of the planet will see humanity’s extinction long before then, ushering in an entirely new epoch. “This is a reason for pessimism and soul-searching,” Keats admits, “but also optimism and soul-searching.”
Keats is not fazed by those who view the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene as something of a poetic but futile gesture. “When you start with the literal, you end up in a fist fight,” he says. “But the arts have a history of changing the way people think.” The Pioneers, then, do what Keats has perhaps always done: utilize “play and absurdity” as a means to “encourage re-thinking, re-framing, and re-alignment” on both an individual and collective level, and to “challenge ideas that seem entrenched.”
Admiring Keats’ stark black and white portraits in the Modernism Gallery, it’s difficult to dismiss the efficacy of his methods. The sight of these oft-ignored but persistent plants inspires one to both watch their step and consider the life that is all around us—if only we look for it.
To 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
So skillful, and the word choice of “mastering” leads to the next, surprising passage:
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
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…
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
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.
Jim Gavin’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Esquire, Slice, The Mississippi Review, and ZYZZYVA. Based in Los Angeles, he is also the creator of the critically-acclaimed television series Lodge 49, now in its second season. You can watch Lodge 49 on AMC every Monday night at 10pm. Issue 116 features a Q&A with Gavin, an excerpt from which appears below:
OSCAR VILLALON: As a prose writer, as somebody who conceives of narrative through the written word, how did you go about recalibrating your sense of telling a story for a visual medium?
JIM GAVIN: I have a dumb theory that “style”—as in the thing that defines a writer’s voice and relationship to language—comes about through an entirely negative process. You figure out what you’re bad at, and you avoid it whenever possible. The things I suck at include getting inside a character’s head, describing thoughts and moods through metaphor, constructing anything that might resemble a plot…the list goes on. What’s left for me is dialogue. That’s where I feel comfortable, and until a character speaks I have no idea what I’m doing.
Any sustained piece of writing I’ve done has started with a line of dialogue; I’ll hear a line that somehow defines the character entirely and I’ll write toward that. Only that character would say that line in that moment in that way. Everything starts there and it must hold true for every character on the page.
Another big thing for me: I want to entertain. I have nothing profound or original to say about anything, but I think I can keep some tension on the page, make you invest in a character, make you laugh, and make you at least want to know what happens next. So my “style”—all the things I avoid doing—happens to translate well to TV. As a television writer, my ears are more important than my eyes. I have to hear the voice of the characters and the dialogue has to have a rhythm that’s true to the character. Once that’s in place, the script goes to the director and cinematographer, who use their eyes and brains to translate the story visually and geometrically: frames, camera moves, etc. I will sometimes write those things in, but on set my main job is to make sure the tone, in terms of sound and delivery, is clicking along.
Most important, of course, are the actors who have to capture all of it—sight and sound—in one fluid package. Our amazing cast makes it look easy, but it’s an insanely difficult thing to do, and it has to be done under the pressure of the moment. Watching all of these elements come together is a special joy.
OV: To your point about dialogue, more than one writer has said how important it is that prose sounds “right” to the ear, in the same way, I think, that the words out of a character’s mouth sound “right,” too. I’m thinking here of Philip Roth’s writing, especially the Zuckerman books, and how one critic called Roth one of the great “talkers” of fiction.
Do you find yourself calibrating dialogue differently now that you’re familiar with how the show’s actors have conceived of your characters?
JG: The whole first season was written before we cast, so our actors could absorb much of the world and their characters right from the beginning. The joy of working with great actors is that they always elevate lines and moments. There are gestures, pauses, little spins of emphasis that I could never conceive of when writing it. Writing the second season was much different because I did have our actor’s voices in my head, and I could write toward that a little. Lodge 49 has a distinct tone and from the beginning all of our actors have been tuned into it and they amplify it beautifully.
OV: How would you describe that tone? To me it’s something like what Geoff Dyer wrote in his book Broadsword to Danny Boy to describe Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare: electric lethargy.
JG: That’s not a bad description. I think much of the tone comes out of the fact that our characters are not aspirational. Dud’s been described as a “slacker” when in fact he’s someone who had a job and vocation that he liked for most of his adult life and it’s been taken away from him. Our characters don’t ask much from life and find pleasure in small mercies like a good donut.
You can read the interview with Jim Gavin in its entirety in Issue 116, now on sale.
When 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.