Staff Picks: Hipster Stewardesses, Swedish Paper Mills, Soil

From the cover of Afterland

“In American Apparel I feel old. Especially when I ask one of the hotties for help.” So begins one of the dozens of prose poems in Jeremy Sigler’s new book, My Vibe. Another one: “I want to be watched so bad. I want a voyeur to be here so bad. A secret admirer.” Some of Sigler’s lines read like poetry (“Words like flat barges trace slowly past the jagged architecture. Buildings punch the sky like staple guns.”), but by and large, the poems are nimbly unpoetic. They’re conversational, and Sigler’s persona is like that weird, boozy guy who corners you at parties and won’t stop talking and one subject leads seamlessly into another and you keep looking over his shoulder for escape but he doesn’t notice and sentences keep spilling out of his mouth. Except that in this instance, I don’t want to escape. I find the poems incredibly charming because they are observant, indulgent, and funny: from flirting with a hipster stewardess to get an aisle seat on a plane by admitting bladder-control issues, to awkwardly complimenting a woman on her Yayoi Kusama hoodie and then discoursing briefly to the reader on Kusama’s art. “Being a Freudian,” Sigler writes in another poem, “my research is, um, dreaming. So I’ll have no choice but to drop my pen and take a nap.” —Nicole Rudick

I already mentioned it this week, but I haven’t been able to shake Rebecca Mead’s New Yorker profile of Gerhard Steidl. I’d heard that Steidl, who runs the world’s most meticulous photography press, was an eccentric, but Mead brings the intensity of his commitment into sharp relief. He is, somehow, a technician aesthete, consumed equally by specificity and beauty. (Maybe only Germany could produce such a person.) His fastidiousness flirts with the ridiculous: even the notecards for his dinner table were custom-made at a Swedish paper mill dating to the nineteenth-century. But there’s no denying the almost monastic clarity of his vision. Steidl lives onsite at his factory in Göttingen, and he leaves as rarely as possible. His advice on this point flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about work/life balance, but I find it difficult to ignore. “It makes a huge difference,” he says, “when you are not isolated from your work, when working and living is a symbiosis. Normally, when you have a business and you produce something industrial, you have the plant somewhere and it makes a lot of dirt, and poison, and noise, and destroys the environment. You are working there all day, and then in the evening you drive home and you have your pleasant place to stay, with clean air, while poor people have to live with the dirt you are producing. I control my noise, because I am sleeping there, with an open window, every night.” —Dan Piepenbring 

Everywhere in Mai Der Vang’s 2016 collection Afterland, people are on the run, on the defensive, and searching for a new home, burdened by memories of the families and countries they left behind. In her poems, specters follow refugees like heirlooms, as painful and haunting as they are cherished; mourning and memory are the watchwords for dispossession “I go to funerals to meet the ancients. /  go to funerals /  keep.” In her poem “Final Dispatch from Laos,” she writes about prehistory, loss, and the importance found in remembering it:

Concerning our hollow breasts,
Lice factions multiplying in our hair.

Concerning our unused stomachs
Molars waiting to chew, taste buds

Obsolete. By then, we won’t remember
We’re alive. We’ll be the soil covered

In mines

Vang, a young poet of Hmong descent, succeeds in capsulizing her ancestors’ war-torn identity and consequent diaspora. We now know that traumas are genetically heritable—they’re not isolated instances but cascades of generational grief. What can’t be erased can be overwritten, but only if the pen is bold enough. Vang’s certainly is. —Jeffery Gleaves

Nathaniel Mackey’s new novel, Late Arcade, gathers its meaning and propulsion freely, akin to the jazz it describes. The book is epistolary, a series of letters addressed to the “Angel of Dust” from a musician, N. In one, describing a bandmate’s solo, N. writes, “There was a sense of something weary to what he played, infinity’s blue redoubt, a sense of having come to be daunted by endlessness, bask and abide by and celebrate it though he did.” In Mackey’s writing, whether it’s poetic prose or prosodic poetry, there’s a sense of redoubt, endlessness, and celebration. In a letter recounting a visit to Detroit, N. notes a rumpled man on a bus loudly repeating the sentence “None of y’all don’t know nothin’ about this.” Those words hold something of the sense of Late Arcade. And Mackey’s musical, willful sentences make the collection move a bit like a burst from Ornette Coleman’s saxophone, with notes and phrases twisting ahead of the narrative until, with the next note, coherence is there, exact and bright. —Noah Dow

Bernard Purdie

Anyone looking to complement John Colpitts’s excellent Daily essay about the joys of drum method books—tell me I’m not alone here—can get into YouTube drum tutorial videos. I may or may not have watched them for two straight hours recently. Drummers are not, as a rule, terribly articulate people, and to hear them attempt to relay their talents is weirdly enchanting; imagine a cooking show where the chef speaks entirely in onomatopoeia and you get a rough idea. Of special note is the great Bernard Purdie—dressed here, as a friend noted, like an airport-shuttle-bus driver—giving a stream-of-consciousness narration about the way he discovered his trademark shuffle beat: “I was always rockin’, always groovin’ … nothing is ever precise … all right, oh, that works … and from, there, I had this, wait a minute, well, what can I do … cymbals … oh, yes … I got some air in my hi-hat … whoa! The first time that that happened to me, it was an accident.” —D. P.

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