Staff Picks: Degradation, Demolition, Disillusion

Brianna McCarthy, Garden of Lost Things. From the cover of Electric Arches.

Eve Ewing is a sociologist of education, so it’s no wonder my favorite poem in her first collection, Electric Arches, observes the small, curious eddies of interaction in an elementary school. In “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went On Then,” she writes in the style of Greek epic poetry about invisible, individually insignificant moments—about the science teacher, for instance, watching fourth-grader Javonte Stevens telling the gym coach “that Miss Kaizer will be sending over three kids / who did not bring in their field trip money / and cannot go to the aquarium / is that okay”—that accumulate, by poem’s end, into an enthralling, powerful narrative. Elsewhere in the book, which also contains visual art and prose, Ewing writes trenchantly and tenderly of the demolition of a hospital (“the dynamite never says ‘but my uncle died / here … and I still smell the ammonia / and see the misshapen pound cake’ ”) and of her childhood neighborhood in Chicago (“once you got to about Albany and Fullerton you could see / every place my brother had ever been, if you knew where to look”). Her language is conversational, her verse lulling the reader into territory that feels immediately familiar, even when it isn’t—into a world of “Kool cigarette green,” “lime popsicles,” and “promised light.” —Nicole Rudick

This week, I’ve been reading the first-ever English translation of Guido Morselli’s The Communist, a political coming-of-age novel about Walter Ferranini, a Communist party member and deputy in the Italian parliament. If that’s not the kind of escapism you’re looking for these days, trust me when I say that Ferranini is William Stoner reincarnated as Communist politician in 1950s Italy. Ferranini hates parliamentary proceedings; he finds them boring. He can’t seem to reconcile his political career, a reward for his years spent as a labor organizer, with his beliefs: he is having—has had, for most of his life—an existential crisis. The novel goes on like this, grumpy and disillusioned, sometimes funny and often sad. Morselli shot himself in the head in 1973, apparently out of despair that not a single publisher had accepted any of his manuscripts. Shortly after his death, all seven of his novels were published. —Jeffery Gleaves 

You wouldn’t expect a novel that begins with a man crawling his way out of an ice bath to take you through the wild expanses of the nineteenth-century American territory—with its accompanying cast of natives, immigrants, scientists, and bandits—but that’s exactly what Hernan Diaz’s first novel, In the Distance, does. Perhaps most striking is Diaz’s ability to describe the known as unknown, the all too familiar when it is yet unfamiliar. The nature of his protagonist, Håkan Söderström, a lost and wandering Swedish immigrant in the rough, largely uninhabited American territory, allows Diaz to write of what it is like to encounter the foreign or forgotten, such that the reader has a similarly enlightening experience, encountering it anew. When Håkan sees the human form for the first time in ages, I feel as though I am, too: “Those flailing arms sticking out of the upright trunk. Those legs, like ridiculous scissors. Those forward-facing eyes on that flat face with that beakless, snoutless hole for a mouth. And the gestures. Hands, brow, nose, lips. So many gestures. Those misshapen and misplaced features and their wasteful, obscene movements. He thought nothing could be more grotesque than those forms. His next thought was that he looked just like them.” —Joel Pinckney

From the cover of In the Distance.

Sometimes you need to put down the newspaper and take a break from the harshness of difficult times, and sometimes you need to face it head on. For the latter, I would prescribe the strength of a poetic voice like Nicole Sealey’s. Her collection, Ordinary Beast, makes eye contact with the forces that write history, in this case often a divine force, and hold it in a piercing stare that demands justification: “The West in me wants the mansion / to last. The African knows it cannot. / Every thing aspires to one / degradation or another. I want / to learn how to make something / holy, then walk away.” “Candelabra with heads” is a striking poem that rings in my brain long after it’s finished, reminiscent in many ways of Lucille Clifton’s “the photograph: a lynching.” Sealey’s virtuosic command of language presents itself in varied forms of verse, from quick, tight strophes aerated by wide spaces in the poem “and” to traditional blocks of free verse to “happy birthday to me,” which begins with fifteen lines of crawling periods. Sealey holds nothing back, in an artistry that is both frank and finessed, that is deeply personal while never losing sight of the fact that personal experience is intimately tied to a greater narrative. —Lauren Kane

“Now is the most dangerous, most seductive moment of all. If you believe you would be a better head of the government than our president, you may be correct. Hubris and reality have aligned. The Satanic fantasy has become a fact.” That would be J. D. Daniels discussing “the Apprentice”the Goethe-and-Mickey version—over at Los Angeles Review of Books. —Lorin Stein

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