Staff Picks: Society Wives, Siege Poems, Strippers

From the first edition of Two Serious Ladies.

The other day in conversation, a friend compared Ottessa Moshfegh’s stories to the work of Jane Bowles, so out of curiosity I picked up Sadie’s old copy of Two Serious Ladiesand, for the first time, from the first page, felt utterly at home with Jane Bowles. Why had her fiction seemed so strange before? A phobic society wife gets dragged by her husband to Panama and ditches him for life in the red-light district; meanwhile, another rich eccentric drags her hangers-on to a crummy house on Staten Island, and starts haunting the docks … Maybe Moshfegh has opened my mind. Maybe we all go strange sooner or later. For whatever reason, a reason I can’t explain, it all makes perfect sense to me now. —Lorin Stein

Late last year, Ugly Duckling Presse published Written in the Dark, a small volume of startling poetry, the first of its kind: a collection of verse written by five men from within the Siege of Leningrad, an event that can be counted among the great horrors of war. “My soul, / to defend itself, pretended / to be wooden. There was no light,” writes Dmitry Maksimov in the epigraph to one of his poems. These “Seige poems” were, with small exception, unknown and unpublished in their authors’ lifetimes: the imagery of “frozen mummies,” of “lying and living, / In the grave with my dead wife,” of eating “Rebecca the girl full of laughter” ran counter to the official history of patriotism, stoicism, and Soviet might. The book’s editor, the poet Polina Barskova, links the poets’ works to those of the OBERIU, to which some of the authors are directly connected. Their trauma verse becomes a modernist salvo, not poems “after or about the Siege,” writes the scholar Ilya Kukulin in his afterword, but “poems through the Siege.” —Nicole Rudick 

Still from Shakedown.

This weekend is your last chance to catch the Whitney Biennial—but my favorite part of it, Leilah Weinraub’s film Shakedown, has already come and gone. I’ll just tell you about it anyway. Following the changing fortunes of a black lesbian strip club in South Central LA, Shakedown unfurls in a kind of trance state: it’s a vignette of a close community of women leading bifurcated lives. Within the club, the dancers bask in the sublime pleasures of a subculture that reveres them; without it, they try to get by in a city that marginalizes them. Weinraub shot hundreds of hours of tape for the film, but the cut she showed at the Whitney eschewed a rigid structure. It runs for a gauzy, intimate sixty-four minutes, with the Shakedown parties themselves serving as ebullient set pieces. At the peak of their powers, the women dance in the center of a boisterous circle of onlookers; bursts of light and color break through the grainy half-darkness, and a steady stream of dollar bills rains down on them. Everyone is having the best time—and this in itself, the openness of their pleasure, feels radical. The club is a queer utopia, conjured from a provisional, almost liminal space, with no stage, lots of folding chairs, and long boards of plywood in evidence. It feels too good to last, and it doesn’t: eventually, the cops show up and shut it down. —Dan Piepenbring

I discovered the Middler, an apartment gallery in Brooklyn, late last year, and I keep returning. It’s the kind of gallery experience I’ve been dreaming about since I read Chris Kraus’s essay collection Where Art Belongs, a study of contemporary artists working on the periphery of the commercial gallery and museum system. Anthony Atlas, the Middler’s creator, opened his door a year ago with “Reseda Man,” an exhibition of works on paper by the musician Zane Reynolds, whose trippy visual style is born from his vexed relationship with California’s San Fernando Valley. Last June, the Middler was operating as a summer-long pop-up; now it’s extended into something semipermanent, though there’s no definite program for the gallery’s future, and Atlas doesn’t formally represent any of the artists. In its short existence, the Middler has presented five exhibitions by established artists, including Rafael Delacruz and Sophy Naess; collaborated with the Swiss publisher Nieves; and created an opportunity for artists to show their work in their own way. The setting is loose, but the execution is staggeringly precise. To celebrate its first year, the gallery is presenting an art fair from June 22 through June 25, featuring works by other galleries operating in a spontaneous way: “to celebrate the idea that if anything can be art, anywhere can be a gallery.” —Jessica Calderon

I’ve been spending my mornings poring over Yasunari Kawabata’s lusciously peculiar novel Dandelions, which New Directions will publish later this year. Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich, the book, Kawabata’s last, was unfinished when he took his life in 1972. It’s a story of love and loss and mania, told in sparse, arresting prose. At its start, a young woman, Ineko, is sent to a madhouse to cure her of “somagnosia,” a condition that leaves her blind to her lover Kuno’s body. Kuno and Ineko’s mother, who’ve committed her, walk through the hills toward home, listening for the three o’clock temple bell Ineko has promised to ring and debating the extent of her madness. Their thoughts and conversation form the bulk of the novel, roaming from the existential to the absurd. The mother, upon seeing a beautiful child running past, swears he’s a fairy with powers to soothe her daughter’s mind; Kuno, hearing the nine o’clock bell, is overcome with darkness and paranoia. By the book’s end, I found myself returning over and over to one of Kawabata’s casually unsettling questions: “Each of us carries inside of us the potential for madness, don’t you think?” —Caitlin Youngquist

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