“Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things” By Stephen Mead

 

 

Impressions from the Land of Vanished Beautiful Things

By Stephen Mead

 

As I type the words Living Room that occasionally perverse, peculiar voice from a darkly comic, mad quadrant of my brain asks: “Yes, well what about other rooms?  Aren’t they for living too, and what would be the opposite?” Come into the Dying Room, dear, you’re looking a bit a peaked.  See these nice shiny vials of embalming fluid? Just relax and we’ll fix you right up in a jiff.  

There were several entrances to the living room of the farmhouse I grew up in, all but one being offshoots from other living quarters, and one in particular which had the capacity for a allowing a person the semblance of a grand entrance.  This was the large space from the dining room which had two recessed sliding wood doors that I never saw opened the entire time I lived on the farm. These were kept hidden by a horizontal pole running along the top, used mainly for clothes on hangers (either hung there for drying or waiting to be put on for “dress-up” occasions), the pole itself bolting the doors in place with tarnished black screwed in metal clasps.  During the times we asked my mom if we could take out said clasps to at least see these intriguing doors she would respond, “Hell, no. They are dirty and full of dust. You’d have an allergic reaction. Don’t even think about it.” Thus these doors, that had the imagined potential of sliding back with dramatic gossamer magic, as if for the Loretta Young show, remained mysterious with their central gold plated slots where you could push a button and, presto, pewter handles would pop out.  “Quit playing with that!”, was the accompanying admonishment mom’s preyed-on-nerves would spout as if by rote whenever we did this.  Actually, even without access to the doors, there were a few times I can recall when my siblings and I put up sheets on this dining entrance pole and thus had makeshift stage curtains for brief plays and musicals we’d improvise.  (What can I say? We didn’t live in the suburbs and had to come up with some means of fending off the delirium borne of boredom during shut-in days of inclement weather.)

Now that I’ve started to write about it I see that trying to describe the living room is like trying to describe a water color painting in process.  Memories and emotions overlap transparently while nevertheless creating layers, this way, that, which shifts the substance of the views welling and disappearing first over here, then, over there.  In order to frame the canvas so-to-speak, a person has to find a way to ground the surface plane, center it, and then see what details are strummed forth. Continue reading

A Review of Jade Sylvan’s Kissing Oscar Wilde

Slyvan_Kissing Oscar Wilde

A Review of Jade Sylvan’s Kissing Oscar Wilde

By Ashley Paul

Kissing Oscar Wilde by Jade Sylvan is a collection of essays that will cause readers to lose their breath in wide-eyed expression. in particular because of Sylvan’s excellent use of tongue-in-cheek writing within each piece in this collection.

The essays in Kissing Oscar Wilde detail Sylvan’s life after college and the reading of her written work at various clubs and cafés across Europe. The essays create a visual of crashing couches at the home of new friends along with the progression of Sylvan as an artist. What is the allure of artists leaving the Midwest? A question most curious because of Sylvan’s Midwestern roots and inspiration to travel the world to immerse herself in what is being offered. A question also answered in her search to attain creative ability.

Whether delivered in the form of poetry, play, or prose, each essay is well written and showcases Slyvan’s unique voice. The poems are a stream of consciousness pulled deep from her mind. She does not have an airy approach to life and is more of artistic, experimental, thrill-seeker alongside friends Caleb and Thade, who are integral parts of each essay.

In the prose piece, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” contemporary meets modern. Internet. Nicholas Chauvin. Casablanca. Patti Smith. In the piece, Sylvan talks of her need to leave the Midwest and her conservative parents who said she was “confusingly artistic at the best of times and embarrassingly perverse at the worst.” She would sit with Caleb under a graffitied bridge and talk about their fears and every artist’s doom: having to work a 9-5. It was there, under the bridge, that she gained the desire to visit “different famous people’s graves.”

Sylvan’s awkwardness is beguiling, leaving the reader with an image of Sylvan shrugging her shoulders as she tells her stories, of telling us, “Eff it.” But spirits can’t be much more free than Sylvan’s. These essays become the words of an older sister telling us what or what not to do, which mistakes we want to make. Her words are a comfort, too, because maybe we’ve already been there.

Sylvan is not shy in disclosing to readers her fear of becoming suffocated by not being able to create art. Plenty of people can look back on their twenties and tell the same stories, but the decisions Sylvan makes and recounts for readers here present a twist on that recognizable narrative, an inspiration for trying something new. In “Halloween 2011, Boston,” Sylvan goes on a semi-rant after losing a job she never wanted. She does not even tell us what the job was, but she explains the context of her disappointment in this way: “Because I’d woken up again sweating bourbon into unwashed sheets in my ten-foot by ten-foot occupation in a house rented to me dirt-cheap by an entrepreneurial acquaintance out of pity/patronage….” Sylvan writes here with hardly any punctuation, showing readers the unfiltered fluidity of her thoughts that lead to her eventual decision to take half of her $1500 savings and buy a plane ticket to France, where she goes on to read most of her written work.

The essays have the commonality of not being rooted in plot. There is a reflection that comes through where the work does not follow the standard of fashioned essay writing. Her footnotes are an afterthought to a life well experienced. The essays detail everything from Patti Smith to how to be a “proper slut,” where Sylvan’s writing crescendos to worldly living. Patti Smith was of inspiration because of her book Just Kids and Sylvan’s subsequent emotional response. Sylvan writes of a joke between her and her friend Caleb that she was the Patti Smith to his Robert Mapplethorpe. Sylvan even brings her idolization into her physical appearance, with a “shoulder-length Patti Smith-inspired shag.”

Sylvan, who founded a group for queer artists in Bloomington during her college years, writes of her pansexual history and gender nonconformity as a vehicle that highlights her growth as an artist. In “An Epically-Abridged Catalogue of the Author’s Major Romances, Revealing the Young Midwestern Author’s Odyssey Through Fluid Sexuality,” Sylvan memorably shares her intimate experiences within the context of how her own identity is thus established.

Sylvan explains her connection to Oscar Wilde through the kisses people have put on his grave. Later in the collection, she writes of her own experience with kissing the grave. Sylvan delves even more into these ideas with “The Poem I Wrote For Louis and Later Gave To Adelaide,” as well as with the poem “Kissing Oscar Wilde.” The title of the collection does not quite compliment the corresponding essay, but maybe there is an irony to that. The title is romantic, a side-step from the tone of the essays themselves.

With in an intriguing title illuminating a work of nonfiction that fits fantasy and downright rearranges all forms of comedy, primarily sarcasm, readers will find many spontaneous moments of laughter make the lungs feel harmonious. This book could be finished in a single sitting, but readers will want to savor each word, marinating in the details. The chronology of Jade Sylvan’s story hits in small ripples that are uniquely brushed with tender attention, asking readers to lend that same attention as they take in her excellent work.

Jade Sylvan, Kissing Oscar Wilde. Write Bloody Publishing, 2013: $15.00.

***

Ashley Paul lives for a dried ink pen. Her blog, Harvey Dntd The Milk, details her love of film in all its glory. She is passionate about working with students on their personal development through education. Soon to begin pursuing a Master’s in School Counseling at New York University, Paul currently happily volunteers to help first graders spell “home” and third graders tackle shapes. Through 826LA, a non-profit writing organization, Paul works with high school students in under-resourced schools to help individuals develop reading-comprehension and writing-expression skills, and it makes her feel spectacular.

A Review of Eva Saulitis’s Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist

Leaving Resurrection cover image

A Review of Eva Saulitis’s Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist

By Randon Billings Noble

I read Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist in the cold and dark. I was not in Alaska, on various boats and beaches where the majority of these essays are set, but in a writing studio as small and snug as a ship’s cabin, during a power outage due to sub-zero temperatures. Never was I so grateful for a flashlight – and Eva Saulitis’s gorgeous, searching, and sustaining prose.

Her preface warns us that these “essays are set in the thin places … where the material and spirit worlds exist in close proximity,” and each contains elements of the concrete and the abstract. The first essay, “The Burden of the Beach,” describes the rough autopsy of a killer whale found dead on an isolated beach. Wearing thrift-store clothes (meant to be thrown away afterward) and heavy rain gear, Saulitis and her assistant take turns cutting into the carcass (“[s]plit open rinds of blubber fall away”) while the other sings to ward off bears. While they work to retrieve the whale’s stomach and determine the cause of death, Saulitis remembers stories about the island’s history, myths of women turning into bears, and rituals Alaskan Native peoples perform when they kill an animal. When Saulitis and her assistant leave the carcass of the whale behind, she imagines the animals of the island “biding time, waiting to reclaim what’s theirs, their eyes in the alders, watching.”

Saulitis is a scientist who can maintain a clinical distance from what she observes. But she is also a writer who can imagine an island watching her back, who conjures the past through photographs, and who isn’t afraid to ask questions that other scientists might acridly dismiss: “Is it ‘animapomorphic’ to ascribe animal traits to humans? If it’s wrong to suppose that animals might share qualities with humans, then how do we see ourselves?”

It is this combination of fact and philosophy that makes Saulitis’s writing so powerful, whether she is describing fleeting encounters with wolves or remembering the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. “Ghosts of the Island” blends personal, geographic, and Chugachmiut history. “One-Hundred-Hour Maintenance” weaves together engine repair, tai chi, oboe playing, and the many forms of love. “Wondering Where the Whales Are,” perhaps my favorite essay, charts Saulitis’s fascination with both the biology of killer whales and their mythology, their rarely-heard voices and the language of science, as well as mysteries not easily explained: “Science. It seems solid, but it’s mostly space, like a gill net I drop over the world.” Saluitis gives us what she catches – as well as that which the net of science cannot hold.

A perfect essay collection, like a perfect album, is rare. There is nearly always a piece or a track that disappoints. Not so in Leaving Resurrection. Even the essay titled “And Suddenly, Nothing Happened” – which describes what happens (or doesn’t) in the absence of whales – becomes a thoughtful meditation on the ways we recover from loss, insist on change, pick through wreckage, and reshape our lives.

Resurrection Bay, the body of water referred to in the collection’s title, may be a place that needs leaving. But this collection is one that I will not easily leave behind. I will return to it again and again, like the transient whales Saulitis follows, always searching for something new and mysterious, even off familiar shores.

 

Eva Saulitis, Leaving Resurrection: Chronicles of a Whale Scientist, Boreal Books, 2008: $18.95

***

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; The Massachusetts Review; Passages North; The Millions; Brain, Child; Rain Taxi Review of Books; PANK and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

Three Ways I Was Beaten

Credit: Till Krech flickr.com/photos/extranoise

Credit: Till Krech
flickr.com/photos/extranoise

Three Ways I Was Beaten

by Ariella Yendler

I.

It’s a really weird story. I was beaten. Not like—well yes, like beaten. With a tire iron. I KNOW, RIGHT. I knew him, the guy who beat me. It wasn’t just some random person who ran in and smacked me around at 4 am. I live on the eighth floor. No, I was just noodling on my essay, and this guy comes in—I know him, kind of, not biblically, he’s this small boy who comes up to my shoulder—and we talk. He doesn’t run in and start hitting me, we’re chatting and it’s a nice little conversation, and I go back to work. Some time passes and we’re both quiet and then–he starts hitting me. With a tire iron.

It was like the college edition of Clue: in the lounge, with a pipe.  I found out it was a tire iron later, which kind of ruined the joke. I had some staples in my head and my finger was broken, but I didn’t even get a concussion. You could say I’m very hard-headed.

I started making jokes like two minutes later, as I ran upstairs. I told the girls who came to the door that I wanted to be Carrie for Halloween and was trying out my costume a little early. I can’t decide if the worst part is the fact that he interrupted me while I was working on my essay (which was due in six hours) or if it’s because he ruined my favorite shirt. I was bitching incessantly about the essay in the ER. The doctor was stapling my head and I was busy inquiring if he thought I’d be in a mental state decent enough to finish it.

Oh! No, the best part is definitely why he did it: He didn’t like me. That’s what he told the cops. God knows I don’t like some people.

***

II.

It’s 4 am. It’s dark outside. I’m alone on the top floor of my dorm, in my lounge. The long hall outside is empty; behind the doors, everyone is asleep. The lights are always on in my dorm and it makes 4 am look watery and if I weren’t staring so hard at my computer screen, my eyes would be swimming.

It’s 4 am. It’s dark, and quiet. I am the only one there. I am working on an essay that’s due in six hours.

A boy comes in. I know him; he lives on the floor below me, and he’s dating the girl who lives across the hall from me. The girl and I are friends. She’s a sweet mouse of a girl. The boy I don’t really know that well. He’s very quiet and I only ever see him with his girlfriend.

I glance over my shoulder, my back to him, and offer a hello. It’s the week before spring quarter finals at 4 am, and obviously everyone is your best friend at this hour.  We chat for a bit, talking about housing for next year. It’s really pleasant, actually, but I apologize and turn back to my work.

Twenty minutes pass, in silence. The only thing you can hear is my keyboard and the irregular turn of pages behind me; there isn’t even a ticking clock.

It’s quiet.

And then he gets up and starts beating me. He slams me in the head with a pipe and I stand up—he keeps hitting me. I scream, I think.

When I run, slamming into my room across the hall, I can hear him outside my door, talking softly.

He says, like he’s keyed my car, like he’s broken a glass, like I’m his girlfriend and he’s upset me: “Ariella, I’m really sorry. You should call the police.” I can feel blood dripping under my shirt, over my stomach.

A girl tells me later when the EMTs are taking me away, she sees him standing a few feet away, shaking.

Here’s what happened.

I was sitting in my dorm lounge, working on my essay.  It was dark—4 am. I lived on the top floor of an eight-story building with alternate male and female floors, in a room smaller than my parents’ walk-in closet. I filled it with tea and books and pillows but I ended up with a stuffed gasp box, not a nest. I left my home, my family, my friends left me—and this was all normal, this was what college was but I was still twelve inside and eighteen slammed me down onto the campus green. I curled up on the grass, breathing hard, and my mother crouched next to me, rubbing slow circles on my back. When I say that my first year of college was awful, my friends don’t understand that’s what I think of, not what was about to happen. That was just a cherry on top.

It was quiet. I was the only one there and the only one awake. My essay was due in six hours.

A guy came into the lounge; my back was to the door, so I twisted to face him, say hello. He was someone I knew vaguely—he dated the girl who lives across the hall from me, one of my friends. The boy lived on the floor below but spent a lot of time up here. He was quiet, and no one really paid much attention to him. I’d been in a room with him alone maybe once.

“Hi!” I said brightly. It was 4 am, it was the week before finals. At this point I was willing to feel camaraderie with a fish.

“Hey.”

We chatted for five minutes or so, pleasantly, more pleasantly than I remember him being before, but it was 4 am and it was the week before finals. He told me he drank an entire pot of coffee and I clucked sympathetically. We talked about living situations for next year, and after a bit I smiled apologetically and turned back to my computer. The room was silent, and I sank into a brown study. My back was to him.

Roughly twenty minutes pass.

He gets up, and starts beating me.

***

III.

I remember I was very confused, and he was aiming for my head. My vision was blurry, I only remember seeing him holding some kind of pipe that he was using to hit me. I shot up, my hands shielding my face, and he continued to hit me, though I had something like half a foot on him standing, and he had to probably raise his arm to keep going. I remember thinking that standing would stop him because then he couldn’t reach me.

I took off to my dorm room, right across from the lounge—I leapt over a chair and I think I tried to push it in his way. I slammed the door shut, locked it, flipped on the lights. I started screaming for my floormates to wake up. My finger was crumpled like paper. Without thinking, I pulled and straightened it, and grabbed tissues for the blood dripping into my eyes.

I paused and heard the boy standing outside my door saying softly, “Ariella, I’m really sorry. You should call the police.”

“HOW?” I roared. “MY PHONE IS IN THE LOUNGE, YOU MOTHERFUCKER.” I continued screaming for my floormates. I resented how long it took until I heard doors slamming and feet and girls clustered outside my door.

“Get him away from the door,” I told them over and over until someone interrupted me and said, “Okay, he’s gone.” I sounded hysterical.

When I saw the girls staring, their eyes like marbles, I knew I had to be the calm one because there would be no one capable of saving me except me. “Hey.”

I was covered in blood and I knew I looked terrifying so I smiled a little and say, “I know, I must look like Carrie right now.” In the next few minutes I trotted out orders, asking for my phone, telling them ten times to call an ambulance and the police, please get our RA, is the boy off the floor, can I have an ice pack. There was absolutely nothing on my mind but the fierce need to make sure I stay alive in the next few hours. Head wounds bleed a lot and I know this, but I was terrified my skull was split, my brain was damaged—that the one part of me I treasure had been irreparably ruined and I was consumed with the need to keep it safe.

Someone brought me my purse. I grabbed my phone, I asked someone to get my insurance card for the ambulance when they came. I dialed my mother, who lives five hours away and I was very apologetic as I explained that I was attacked and I’m okay (I feel my blood soaking into my pants) but my parents should probably come down here.

“Hey, Mama,” I told her. “Just, go back to sleep, okay? Come later when you wake up. There’s nothing you can do right now.” My mother, to her credit, was as calm as I on the phone. She did not tell me I was ridiculous to tell her not to come right away but only to keep her updated. I was so relieved I had no need to reassure her.

Over the next eternity as I waited for the ambulance, I poured jokes out like vomit. Girls started laughing. The jokes were awful and about as black as you can get, since I had to keep switching out my tissues for a dry clump until someone thought to get me a towel. “Hey,” I quipped. “This is like college edition, Clue. In the lounge, with a pipe. Hey, don’t you bleed like this when you get paper cuts? Oh my god, I hope there’s no brain damage.” I look mock-horrified. “That is the only part of me I even like.” When I later changed, my shirt which has a cartoon ribcage doodled on it, was soaked with my blood. I still think it’s funny.

When the EMTs arrived, after I’d been snippy to a bunch of cops (“No, I do not want to give a statement, do I look like I can do that right now”), they strapped me into the board with a neck brace. The board was too tall for the elevator, so they had to tip me, and I dangled from it a little. I laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. The shakes started. They put me on the gurney proper and wheeled me out to the ambulance.

In the ambulance, my bravado finally started to leave, and I asked the EMTs inane questions, about their wives, about their lives. I begged for an icepack. I thought maybe I could stop thinking about myself now and rely on them to save me. They couldn’t find the fucking ice pack because they were firemen, not EMTs. It wasn’t their ambulance. I tensed up again, aware that I was not in safe hands yet. One of them informed me as I was being wheeled in there would be a cop to take my statement. I told the EMT that I refused and he started to berate me, telling me that he’d be the one in charge of the situation, not me. Had I been less drained I would have verbally clawed his face off and told precisely how little I trusted him to take care of a houseplant, much less a beaten teenager.

Probably the morphine and then Vicodin relaxed me, made me feel at ease, like someone else could keep an eye on me now. The nurses clucked over me, the interns grinned sympathetically, the doctor nicely explained every single thing he was doing. My quipping came back in full force. I wanted to reward them with a pleasant patient, with some kind of nice experience in the ER they might not normally get. When I asked about brain damage the doctor said it was unlikely, since I was “mentating” fine.

“Mentating? What’s that? Is it a vocab word? Can I use it in—OH MY GOD MY ESSAY.”

Everyone smiled. I was content.

Eventually a police officer came by and spent a long hour taking my statement. He coaxed it from me; he was handsome, and his name was Rory, who is one of my favorite characters on Doctor Who, so I didn’t mind at all.

He tapped his pen against the pad and asked, “Do you know why the guy might do this?”

I shrugged. “I barely know him.”

The doctor put eleven staples in my head and stitched up my finger, which sustained an open fracture. I’d later get it set very badly by a local doctor and have to keep a splint on for the entire summer.

The whole incident seemed like a fact of a random and unfeeling universe. “These things do happen,” I’d say, over and over. Everyone gets hurt eventually—everyone on this earth gets to experience horror. My rabbi said in a sermon that tragedy was as much a part of life as joy, and not an interruption. Horror is much of the same, I think. There are things you cannot explain and you just have to take it. Being beaten was my dosage.

I slept in my parent’s hotel room while my dorm room was processed as a crime scene. I became rabid and snarling about everything involving the university—the university attempted to transfer me to a different room, attempted to let me off of finals which started next week, attempted to be kind and understanding. I politely ripped apart all of their efforts to treat me like a victim and moved back into my dorm room the moment they got the blood stains out of the carpet. He did not even manage to put a proper dent in my skull; I wouldn’t cede an inch of myself further.

The boy was placed under custody, under a half-million dollar bail. I idly concocted revenge fantasies, filled with passive rage that someone attempted (managed) to hurt me. I daydreamed about beating him until his nose pointed backward. I thought about where to twist knives in him that it would hurt the most, about kissing his ex-girlfriend in the court room in front of him. Every time I got into the shower this summer, I had to unwrap my hand and see my mistake of a finger.

It was like a yo-yo—in between coming up with satisfying tortures, I felt such pity for him and his parents. He’d sacrificed his education at a third-tier school to beat some girl for ten minutes. He didn’t even manage to kill me.

Everyone from my psychiatrist to my mother pointed out that he had been punished quite a bit—he spent the summer in the county jail. I spent the summer in the Bahamas. I didn’t care. I wanted revenge on the universe, and an institutional punishment was merely proof of a working legal system. It was not me getting a little of my own back. Someone else had made the decision for me how my damage could be recompensed. His being in jail was less of a symbol that he had hurt a person and more a reminder to those who violated societal agreement. This is what happens to you if you hurt a member of our society: we take you away. I did not like that a benevolent government felt the right to take care of my problems.

And yet—sitting in the assistant DA’s office, being told that I could have a hand in his punishment, I could help decide his future, I recoiled. I did not want that. I wanted him to disappear out of my consciousness. It was four months later, my finger was out of its splint, and I had a midterm in two weeks. This is the kind of story that can have a clean ending, with the villain in jail and the victim climbing some metaphoric path to recovery.

Instead, I read his psychological report. I talked to my psychiatrist. I did nothing. I don’t care what the ending is anymore. I have become some kind of statistic and that’s fine—this is not the narrative I am interested in. I care more about the grade on that essay.

***

This essay was originally published by The Toast and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Ariella Yendler currently attends college. She would like to apologize to her mother for writing under her real name. She knows her father is probably giving her high-fives though, so that’s fine.

Book Review of David R. Slavitt’s Re Verse

Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets
David R. Slavitt
Northwestern University Press
ISBN: 0-8101-2084-4


David Slavitt´s Re Verse: Essays on Poetry and Poets is at once a meditation on his long and varied career, an investigation into the nature of poetry, and an homage to some of America´s finest (if not always most celebrated) poets. Slavitt has studied with or been friends with many of the biggest names in writing and publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, and for that intimate vantage point alone, this collection of essays is a must-have for every academic library, every scholar and student of American literature, and every would-be poet.

Re Verse immediately strikes the reader as well suited as a supporting text to a poetry workshop. In the reworking (with present-day, memoir-like commentary) of his Master´s Essay on Dudley Fitts (the original essay having been written for his MA at Columbia), Slavitt shows a profound understanding of how poetry works and how we learn to become poets. Slavitt writes: “You learn to write defensively, as you learn to drive defensively, always looking out for sudden wacky things those with whom you share the road are likely to do. But there is a limit beyond which caution becomes anxiety so that you can´t even get into the car.” How true. But this essay offers more than just wise, quotable catch phrases. It, and the collection as a whole, “gives the reader the tools with which to construct a canon out of the labor of thought and reading,” as Mark Rudman´s blurb on the book´s jacket claims.

Its usefulness is therefore not limited to the workshop environment, but would also serve well as a warmer companion text in advanced and intermediate American Literature courses. Daniel Mark Epstein writes of Re Verse: “David Slavitt has known some of the finest poets and teachers of the twentieth century and writes about them with delightful humor and enthusiasm. His tone is a unique blend of fireside storytelling, literary analysis, and heartfelt reflection.” In place of a jargon-laden text destined to make students who once loved literature switch their major to pre-law, Re Verse will deepen the understanding and appreciation literature fans bring to the classroom, while at the same time instructing. But Re Verse is more than mere textbook. These are personal essays as much as they are essays on literature.

It would be a lapse not to mention Slavitt´s ponderings on his own career in Re Verse. Slavitt has published some eighty-odd books in his career. He has been included in numerous anthologies (Best American, Norton, et cetera), and he has made millions writing under pseudonyms, while at the same time being respected as one of the premier literary translators. By all respects, he has had an astonishing career. Yet we find references to himself as a “minor” author, or lines such as this one, from his essay on Winfield Townley Scott, occasioned by an article Slavitt read in TLS in which Scott is dismissed as minor: “The word that stuck with me, though, was ‘minor,´ which hurt as much as anything else because it is probably true, and I have been thinking about what that means.”

There is also an undercurrent of investigating what it means to be Jewish that intermittently pops up in Re Verse. It does not define or restrict the essays in any way, but it is there. Offhanded remarks such as the claim that comedy is to the Jewish people what the Blues are to African-Americans, or the notion of the Jew as the sayer of the unspeakable (e.g. Freud speaking candidly of sex in an age that repressed sexuality, or Marx pointing out class struggles when it was uncouth to mention such things in polite company).

Slavitt can be scathing and dismissive, and often the most enjoyable pieces in this collection are ones in which he is saying what no one else will. In his essay on (against?) Harold Bloom, Slavitt aptly points out much of Bloom´s intellectual posturing. The following passage shows Slavitt´s deft, harsh dismissal of Bloom:

“His [Bloom´s] bullying classroom habits are not easy to put aside, however, and addressing us common readers he can be abruptly confrontational. I cannot otherwise explain why he would write: “My late friend Paul de Man liked to analogize the solitude of each literary text and each human death, and analogy I once protested. I had suggested to him that the more ironic trope would be to analogize each human birth to the coming into being of a poem…I did not win that critical argument because I could not persuade him of the larger human analogue; he preferred the dialectical authority of the more Heideggerian irony.’

This is pure Bloomishness, graceless, pretentious, and absurd” (p. 92).

Slavitt goes on to point out that Bloom´s “late friend” was a Nazi collaborator and that Bloom should not have been so concerned with not convincing de Man, but rather concerned that he, “in the intricacy of the engagement, […] neglected to call him a fucking collaborator, slap his face, and then do [his] best to see that he got fired.” Bloom mentions de Man with warm regard, failing to so much as acknowledge the disgrace de Man heaped upon Yale (and humanity), in a typically defiant gesture, “a show of Bloom´s refusal to be intimidated by mere evidence.”

From his heartbreaking, elegiac essay on Thomas McAfee to his friendly essay on Fred Chappell (“Ole Fred”) to his investigations into the nature and uses of depression, or his illuminations on Robert Penn Warren (under whom Slavitt studied at Yale), Re Verse never panders and never obfuscates for the sake of sounding smarter than it is. This collection is the real thing, a rare find, and probably the best book about poetry published in years.


Okla Elliott


[The above review originally appeared in Pedestal Magazine.]