I have very few heroes. Who does, these days? Maybe that’s why the loss of Nelson Mandela seems to compel such reflection. Maybe it’s because another of my heroes, former US Congressman Howard Wolpe, passed away two years ago, and for me the legacies of Wolpe and Mandela are inextricably bound together. Growing up in Michigan, I knew little of Africa, and less about apartheid. But in the 1970s, I met Wolpe, first when I was a babysitter for his son, and later as a volunteer on his congressional campaign. Wolpe, an African Studies professor who had lived in Nigeria, chaired the Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Those qualifications meant very little to the voters we met on the campaign trail in Kalamazoo—they were much more interested in jobs and the failing economy. Wolpe wasn’t elected because he knew Africa, but it is through his work on Africa, both as a member of Congress and later as a Special Envoy for both the Obama and Clinton administrations, that...
Pity the Land that Has No Heroes...
Make Love, Not War
“Witty and incisive, but insubstantial.” Somewhere someone must have a rule that says never begin a review by citing another review. And yet here I simply can’t resist, in part because the Kirkus Review’s final word on Tabish Khair’s brilliant new book, How to Fight Islamic Terror from the Missionary Position, explicitly retreads its earlier judgment on his magisterial novel, The Thing about Thugs. In that case, “Smart, entertaining—but not quite satisfying.” When successive, generally competent commentaries stumble twice into same mainstream error, I tend to think something interesting is afoot. What that something is, in brief, has already been observed by Indra Sinha, the author of Animal’s People. Of reading Islamic Terror, he notes that “its...
The American Heart of Islam
A Review of Benjamin Hollander’s In The House Un-American
It would be one thing if not fitting in in America were something clear. For Puerto Rican Jew Carlos ben Carlos Rossman—the main character in Benjamin Hollander’s new book In The House Un-American—if not fitting in were something he could put his finger on, he could then either proceed to overcome it, or to make peace with it, as he saw fit. The understanding he seeks is his life’s journey. Along the way he hears...
A Measure of Power
I discovered Anselm Kiefer around the same time as I saw Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire and I’ve been occasionally obsessed with both ever since. Kiefer and Wenders are linked in my mind not only by the accident of timing but also by angels; Wings of Desire follows an angel who tires of consoling the spirits of Cold War Berlin and falls for a circus performer, and Kiefer has several important works built around the orders of celestial beings and the mythic belief in purification through fire. I’ve got a poster from Wenders’s film at the top of my staircase at home and a postcard reproduction of Kiefer’s Book with Wings taped above the light switch in my bedroom. Of course, then, I had to see the major Kiefer installation at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) before its scheduled closure next week.
New Poems by Ralph Angel
“True genius can get an idea across even to an inferior mind.
She imagined that she took his remorse in hand and changed
it into a deeper understanding of life. She took all his shame
away and turned it into something useful.”
-- Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”
Good poems are hard to find. A good poem doesn’t have to be short. It doesn’t have to be loud. Hell, a quiet poem can leave us frozen in the heat of the final moment. I recently read some of Ralph Angel’s newest poems. They were fun. They had something to say. They intensely expressed feelings and ideas by the use of a distinctive style and rhythm. For example, here’s “All Night Long” from his forthcoming book, Your Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize):...
The Importance of Being Editors
After I’d first begun serious work on my dissertation, the head of the English department greeted me at a semester-end shindig and asked what I was working on. “Magazines,” I said. “Little magazines, and the women who published or edited them.” I rattled off a few names—Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap of The Little Review, Bryher of Life and Letters To-day, Harriet Shaw Weaver of The Egoist—while he smiled very politely and nodded. “So,” he said when I paused, “are you going to write about anyone important?”
During my research, I realized fairly quickly the dynamics of literary prestige: writers and poets top the list as artistic geniuses, fueled by inspiration and the undeniable importance of their work, followed distantly by those astute patrons whose money and connections carried artists through difficult times, and finally, often, in the way back, editors and publishers toiling long hours to ensure the publication of that genius. I’ve spent more...
The Art of Grace Williams
Grace Williams, Global Warming (2010)
In the Augusta Savage Gallery in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, a radiant jewel box awaits. If you enter, it will change as you change. Even if you don’t, it will be there, shifting and shimmering in the altering light. This is the work of Grace Williams, a Harlem-based artist who composes luminous mixed media works of paint, glass, mirrors, metal, and wood. These works display Du Bois’s own desire to “let this world be beautiful,” as well as Zora Neale Hurston’s “will to adorn” it. Williams’s canvases are saturated with orange, mint, peacock, gold, rose, and green. They flaunt intricate textures that recall Williams’s work as a...
Beer does not resemble wine so much as it resembles music.
– Garrett Oliver
October’s upon us once more!
But before you head out to the bar
To assuage your Fall thirst,
Hit the library first
So you won’t imbibe brew that’s subpar.
O Lolita may trip down the tongue,
But fine beer takes a path more far-flung.
From the bite of the hops
To the back-finish drops
Of the malt, beer’s delights must be sung!
A poetics of beer I’ll intone.
For our civilization has grown
From Egyptians’ first zythos (1)
And ancient beer mythos
To hops from American zones.
In The Oxford Companion to Beer (2)
You’ll find gleanings from all hemispheres....
Release Tarek Loubani and John Greyson
Detained without charge in Cairo
Since August 16, 2013, thousands of people internationally start their days by checking the website tarekandjohn.com, hoping for news of the release of physician Tarek Loubani and filmmaker and scholar John Greyson, two Canadians arrested and detained without charge at the Tora prison in Cairo, Egypt. Loubani’s and Greyson’s friend and colleague Justin Podur and their family members—especially Cecilia Greyson, John’s sister—have worked tirelessly alongside Canadian consular and government officials and a privately-appointed attorney in Cairo for their release. Change.org hosts a petition with 115,000 signatures from all over the world demanding their safe return to Canada. As befits both Greyson’s and Loubani’s work, social and traditional media have been...
All is Not as Well as It Ends
In Ruth Ozeki’s intricate novel, A Tale for the Time Being, there are multiple strands running through the narrative, themes that span generations and continents. Nestled among the meditations on Buddhism, time, and cats is a powerful story of a young Japanese woman who is struggling to find a place for herself in the bleak urban landscape of contemporary Japan. The story of Nao, told in journal form, is a story within a story, one that first engages the narrator Ruth as well as the reader. Nao is fifteen when the story opens, a person suddenly lost when her father loses his job in the United States where she was raised and her family has to go back to Japan. More American than Japanese, Nao tries to fit back into Japanese society and relearn enough Japanese to take the...