Don’t Just Stand There. Squint

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My approach to Clint is to grace him with a mighty hat and a bodacious cheroot. Outside the frame he’s packing heat, of course. Clint Eastwood personifies a school of movie acting whose slogan is “Don’t just do something. Stand … Continue reading

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‘Confound, Torment, Swallow Us Whole’

Illustration by Nicholas Konrad / The New Yorker

To write, first and foremost, is to choose the words to tell a story, whereas to translate is to evaluate, acutely, each word an author chooses.

Thus starts Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay drawn from the afterword of her translation of “Trust” by Italian novelist Domenico Starnone. Through the prism of a translator’s eye, Lahiri noticed how frequently the Italian word invece (“instead”) appeared in the novel.

Invece invites one thing to substitute for another… I now believe that this everyday Italian adverb is the metaphorical underpinning of Starnone’s novel… “Trust” probes and prioritizes substitution… Invece, a trigger for substitution, is a metaphor for translation itself.

Lahiri’s wide-ranging discussion of the craft of translation includes this assessment:

… Language (or, rather, the combination of language and human usage) is impossible to comprehend at face value. We must enter, instead, into a more profound relationship with words; we must descend with them to a deeper realm, uncovering layers of alternatives. The only way to even begin to understand language is to love it so much that we allow it to confound us, to torment us, until it threatens to swallow us whole.

(Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Book That Taught Me What Translation Was,” The New Yorker, 11-6-2021)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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The Moons of Poesis

Cover design by Gretchen Achilles. Cover art: “Saturn,” from a 1985 mezzotint by the artist Vija Celmins.

When reading poetry I try to think like astronomers. They are a doughty lot, trucking with the unexpected, stalking questions that defy asking.

What I really hope for is something we don’t expect” [John Mather, Goddard Space Flight Center, on what he’s looking forward to studying with the James Webb telescope]… “The [Webb] telescope was built to answer questions we didn’t know we had.” [Klaus Pontoppidan, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute].

(Dennis Overbye, “Webb Telescope Prepares to Ascend, With an Eye Toward Our Origins,” NYTimes, 12-20-21)

“The universe is queerer than we can suppose,” said Arthur Eddington.

I encounter poetry that emits a waveform outside my sensory range. It triggers an attraction-repulsion quandary. Do I try to sharpen my sensors and orbit it to pick up signals? Or do I blow past it and keep prowling for detectible mass and gravity?

I’m currently in orbit around Louise Glück.

… Waveside, beside earth’s edge, / Before the toward-death cartwheel of the sun, / I dreamed I was afraid and through the din / Of birds, the din, the hurricane of parting sedge / Came to the danger lull. / The white weeds, white waves’ white / Scalps dissolve in the obliterating light. / And only I, Shadrach, come back alive and well.

(From “The Inlet,” in “Louise Glück: Poems 1962-2012”)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Paula Rego Likes to Work

“Possession I,” from 2004. Art work © Paula Rego / Courtesy Collection Fundação de Serralves, Museu de Arte Contemporânea.

Portuguese-born artist Paula Rego (b. 1935) studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, London. She lives in the UK.

Quotable saying: “Doing work, that is to say, drawing, is an erotic activity.”

Anna Russell writes that the urgency of Rego’s work “in all its savage, tactile vitality” is keenly apparent in her large pastel portraits.

The Pillowman,” from 2004. Art work © Paula Rego.

After years of collage, oil paint, and acrylic, switching to pastel was a revelation. (She has called the stick “fiercer, much more aggressive” than the brush.)

(Anna Russell, “The Fury and Mischief of Paula Rego,” The New Yorker, 7-7-21)

I’m intrigued by the skewed angles in both paintings; the prominence of the sofa in “Possession I”; that of weirdly inexplicable objects and detail in “The Pillowman.” Is the latter a surreal takeoff on descent from the cross?

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Kafka’s Drawing Isn’t Kafkaesque!

Drawing of a whip-wielding jockey on a horse vaulting over an obstacle. Kafka was deeply interested in art while studying law at university in Prague. Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama.

A trove of drawings by Franz Kafka was brought to light in 2019. They share, says Philip Oltermann, features with paintings Kafka describes in his fiction: “… men riding flying buckets, singing mice and creatures made of household detritus… dream-like tales [which] often seem to defy the visual imagination of his readers.”

Drawing of a male figure, entitled “The Dancer” by Kafka’s executor Max Brod. The drawings reveal humour and lightness in the author. Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama.

Oltermann quotes philosopher Judith Butler’s comment “that Kafka’s creations often become harder to visualise the more detail he describes them in,” such as a creature that looks “like a flat star-shaped spool for thread.” Another creature called Odradek, writes Butler, “is described in detail but that description yields no fixed image… Readers have sought in vain to draw Odradek, its bits of multicoloured thread, its spool, crossbar, star, and rod.”

Drawing of a horse and rider. Kafka had instructed his friend, Max Brod, to burn the drawings and his manuscripts after his death. Photograph: Ardon Bar-Hama.

If Kafka’s drawings were not “Kafkaesque,” his antipathy to illustrating his writing does seem so. He begged his editor “never to visualise his most famous creation. ‘The insect is not to be drawn,’ he stipulated in a 1915 letter about the cover of Metamorphosis. ‘It is not even to be seen from a distance.’”

(Philip Oltermann, “Franz Kafka drawings reveal ‘sunny’ side to bleak Bohemian novelist,”, 10-29-21)

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Never Send to Know for Whom the Tale’s Told

(Continued from

Did the ancient Texans practice cannibalism? The jury’s out on the matter. It’s possible they gorged on animals rather than human flesh. Data fracking in the Huntsville Shale encountered coprolites of an extinct bovine species — possibly a food source.

Those same sediments yielded human residues showing signs of poisoning. Some anthropologists posit a cult of human sacrifice; others theorize miscreants may have been executed with the poison. In one of history’s many happy twists, analysis of the toxic residues by Isthmian paleontologists furnished a crude chemical blueprint for the marvel that became Texas cologne. The unlikely legacy of a backward culture that burned and bartered carbon syrups near a nameless gulf eons ago jumpstarted the Isthmian toxicology industry, backbone of the duchy’s economy.

I hear you whispering, “What became of Siddhartha Huff?” As we know, Sidd threw his expendable dupe Claw Hammer under the bus. Sidd thus narrowly escaped detection for his ruse to hack Fort Zuckerberg during the Lunation Gala to nick non-fungible hormone tokens for his transition. Chastened and demoralized, Sidd resigned himself to a Rhipidistian decadence frittered away in gilded squalor and frolicky doldrums on sterile rivieras aboard morally vacant yachts.

The best laid plans can come a cropper, however. An uprising led by the ascendant Beni Hammer clobbered the autocracy, upending Sidd’s future such as it was, and rendering Isthmia as we know it unknowable.


(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Mean or Not, It’s a Feat

Poetry, December 2021. Cover art by Haein Kim/Canvas.

Can a poem hurt the reader into glimpsing its cargo? The poem discussed is ‘From “Banana [ ],”’ Poetry, December 2021, by Paul Hlava Ceballos.

I encounter poetry I perceive to be all kinds of icky: cryptic, elliptic, hierophantic, delphic, hermetic, jesuitic, typographic, (occasionally ironic); also oblique, discontinuous, nondescript, arbitrary, formless, aimless, obtuse, aleatory, taunting, unforthcoming, inchoate, withholding, slangy, out of reach; a shrill small thing, a large no thing, or a some thing between.

Reading such poems has for me the under-wallop of picking up a stickle of glub stuck to a rugosity, sliding fingerishly over its crigginess, finding no tactible sally for the poesy squat but to drip the bobbit where it lagged, step over its void sprockets, and bumble griffishly along my starry-idle flustered way.

How does that make me feel? It feels like being told to stop feeling with my head. To read harder. To locate my heart’s cockles. Does it have cockles?

A poem that is somehow about bananas, or that is referentially involved with bananas, or that is inflamed thematically by bananas, may have taught me a lesson.

Arrogant, indulgent, outlandish, glib, provoking, insulting, flagrant and intolerable was how it loomed. Its first 3 pages have a skittering of verbiage inhabiting hyper-space.

Third page of “From ‘Banana [ ]’”

Then it settles into a one-hundred-fifty-line banana blitzkrieg:

… to banana / be banana / a banana / domesticated banana / object banana / overripe banana…

At this point, bent solely on reaching the end as soon as possible, I ceased reading aloud and shifted into scan mode. Then I realized, reading against the grain, that a vertical sequence of quasi-utterances emerged:

to…be…a…domesticated…object…overripe…as…an…empire… / what…manufactured…nanostructure…prevents…grace…blossoming

These are not necessarily jejune utterances. They are sort of poetic. Does the poem succeed in some way on its own terms by rubbing me so wrong that I give up on it midway in disgust? Then having forced me into the very expedient I took, reduce me to glimpsing strands of message? If I dwell rosetta-stonishly on the poem, might I perceive they twist into a thread? Is it worth the trouble? Should I not, after all, drip the bobbit where it lagged?

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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Last Call for Fomalhaut

(Continued from

There was no continuing aspect to the rapture. It did not unfold — it was never folded. It simply was, was over, and that was that. Few in the Posse of Matrons had witnessed a Ministering to the Lamb. The ritual capitalized on the low-hanging fruit of Texas cologne: its capacity to make the recipient embrace death, indeed copulate with it, smile on lips, song echoing in stopped heart.

Astrid bint Wanda had pre-boarded her bier and was starting her climb to glory. All muscle activity was largely shut down. She still managed to blow bubbly kisses to blushing boys seen only by her, and to talk a blue streak, although her lips didn’t move to the words. The verbal activity registered only as a rocky mountain range of excited light on the monitors.

Lavendar Larchmont was at the controls, flanked by her sombre Posse cohort. She keyed and knobbed tenderly, dealing as she was with a Matron of the first order who also foreshadowed the penultimate end of a telling. She mastered a ripple of emotion as she dialed Astrid toward the threshold, minding closely the gradient of ecstasy. Lavendar wanted to give her senior colleague the longest death-glide possible before the coup de jet intercepted the brain’s last flare, held in reserve for the ultimate emergency, inducing a what-the-fuck instant even in deep metempsychosis, and the élan vital ran out of road. Lavendar would never have thought her first duty as newly invested Brilliant Maximx of the Posse of Matrons would be to gas her predecessor. It was a complex honor.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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‘Except for Perhaps Poetry…’

Independent publisher David Godine, shown with his press in his backyard barn, has sold his company and published the retrospective “Godine At Fifty.” PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF.

In 1970, David Godine started a small publishing company in an abandoned cow barn in Brookline, Massachusetts. After a distinguished history of publishing select titles in well crafted editions, he has sold the company. I enjoyed reading what he did NOT publish.

We didn’t publish any books on society or current events. We were not heavily engaged in the 21st century or where it was going… We didn’t do any books on celebrities or glamour. Nothing on material culture. We did absolutely no books on weight loss or exercise. We had no books on horror, no fantasy, and no graphic novels.

Godine concedes that a publisher has to turn a profit to survive.

Except for perhaps poetry, I don’t think we deliberately published books where we knew we were in for a big loss. Also, we published a lot of books that sold many, many copies and paid for a lot of books that didn’t sell many, many copies, but which you feel a responsibility to do.

The interviewer presses Godine about the exception he makes for poetry:

Q. You say every self-respecting publisher has a responsibility to support poetry, but celebrity, weight loss, and graphic novels would have sold a lot better than poetry, right?

A. [Laughs] Absolutely. Publishing poetry is like dropping a rose petal off the rim of the Grand Canyon and anticipating the echo. It’s Dante-esque in the purity of its hopelessness. It’s not an arena one enters with any expectation of making money.

(Mark Shanahan, “Q&A with David Godine about ‘Godine at Fifty’ and the press he founded to publish ‘books that matter for people who care,’”, 11-18-21)

Discussing the poetry of Tommy Pico, Alan Gilbert writes: “Poetry is a form of nourishment based on need, yet one that can turn into a choice.” Later in the same paragraph Gilbert says, “A world driven by consumption can only in the end devour itself.” (“Refuse to Settle,” Poetry, December 2020, p. 304).

For me, Gilbert’s comment hints at what must be a deeply unexamined but compelling rationale for supporting the verse habit of the few who never quite go away. Much respect to Mr. Godine for being a gladiator for poets in the publishing arena.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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What We Know About Astrid’s Predicament

(Continued from

Remember that the city-state enshrined in this telling was a last-ditch outpost on the sere waste of the Wisp Isthmus. Conjecture establishes that Astrid bint Wanda harbored a vestige of erased indigene biopolymer in her gizzard. One or another of the washed-up duchy-founders fucked the mother of the mother of the mother of Astrid’s mother’s mother in olden times. Mamasutrianism proceeded to fork matrilineal down her bloodline. The Rhipidistians were simple semen sacks elevated to lords and douches of the duchy as a sop to their base proclivities. It’s no wonder that Siddhartha Huff longed to transition out of his Rhip wrap.

Texas cologne messed with Astrid like firewater. The dosey doe that stunned the Gala socialites stalled Astrid in full-blown psychic orgasm. By design, the cologne induced pre-mortem euphoria before stopping the heart. The gasee — normally an organ donor — experienced impending oblivion as the happiest outcome imaginable from a whole series of possible happy outcomes.

Three weeks after the Gala saga, in Astrid’s belfry it was still a pie-in-the-sky rodeo; she had clocked her eight seconds astride a pedigreed Bramer bull and was spanking the bucking beast with her free hand. No amount of finger sniffing by bigwig toxicologists posturing over Astrid’s predicament could extricate her from her trance. There was little recourse but to administer the whiff de grace.

(c) 2021 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

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