Staff Picks: Morphine, Martyrs, Microphones

McDermott & McGough, The Stations of Reading Gaol (IV. Oscar Wilde taking his constitutional.), 1917 (detail), MMXVII, oil and gold leaf on linen, 24″ x 18″.

The other evening, after my colleagues had all gone, I slouched into one of our office reading chairs and dipped into Paul Yoon’s latest collection of short stories, The Mountain. I didn’t get far—I read “A Willow and the Moon,” which opens the book, and stopped—but only because Yoon’s prose is far too mesmerizing to rush through. The story, a beautiful amalgam of sorrow and longing and hope, follows a boy through to adulthood, from the First World War to the Second, from the sanatorium high in the mountains of the Hudson Valley, where his mother volunteers, to the basement of an English hospital, where bombs fall around him. As a boy, he looks on as his mother wrestles her addiction to morphine, as his father loses his interest in the family, as his best childhood friend falls ill, all the while making of himself what he can on his own. Though every page of the story heaves with lonesomeness and despair (for the lives that could have been had his parents never married or wars never begun), “A Willow and the Moon” nevertheless warmed my heart: the boy harbors neither resentment nor rage for the lot he’s been given, only sadness for all that’s happened and hope for all that’s still to come. —Caitlin Youngquist

On Monday, I went to the opening of the Oscar Wilde Temple, an installation at the Church of the Village by artist duo McDermott & McGough. The temple’s Stations of the Cross depict phases of Wilde’s arrest, trial, imprisonment, and release; its altarpiece is a linden-wood sculpture of the author; and the walls are draped in fabrics and hues from the contemporaneous Aesthetic movement. It also includes a half dozen small portraits of LGBTQ “martyrs,” such as Brandon Teena, Sakia Gunn, and Martha P. Johnson. If the installation sounds minimal, its impact is otherwise: housed in a small room underneath the church, the temple feels consecrated, and also invigorating. Wilde celebrated his homosexuality openly, even in the face of persecution, and in him, McDermott & McGough have found a martyr and a saint for today’s LGBTQ community. The temple is a project the pair started thinking about in the eighties and have only now produced. But the timing is apt, McGough says; considering the political moment, he quotes Toni Morrison: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” Wilde’s example provides inspiration for resistance of all kinds: his subversion was public and powerful. —Nicole Rudick 

I’ve been reading The Essential W. S. Merwin, a collection whose heftiness isn’t surprising when you consider Merwin has written nearly fifty books of poetry, plus numerous translations and prose works. It’s hard to describe Merwin’s oeuvre, partially because of its volume over the past sixty-five years, but also because it inhabits a strange space between elegy and ode (you can read more about him in his Art of Poetry interview from our Spring 1987 issue). Merwin sees the world as fallen, or falling, yet through this chaos he sees the divine. Take the poem “Rain Light,” originally published in The New Yorker and collected in his Pulitzer Prize–winning collection The Shadow of Sirius:

All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning  —Jeffrey Gleaves

W.  S. Merwin

Whether performing as the Microphones or Mount Eerie, Phil Elverum has devoted most of his career to the careful study of a few central themes: loneliness, chiefly, but also the insignificance of humanity before nature, the stark beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and our odd relationship with technology. Elverum’s latest album as Mount Eerie, A Crow Looked at Me, is of the same stock, but it also grapples with the loss of his wife, Geneviève, to cancer last July. “Conceptual emptiness was cool to talk about,” he sings, “back before I knew my way around these hospitals.” Elverum set out to perform the album in its entirety at Murmrr Theatre in Brooklyn this past Monday but found that he could not. Wiping his eyes, he apologized for skipping the middle section of the album; some of the songs still ached too much. If you think this sounds bleak, you’re right. Elverum is a compelling writer, and his lyrics read like poetry. (Side note: if this new album is too much, try the Microphones’s Mount Eerie, which is also bleak but less autobiographical and more folkloric.) —Brian Ransom

In The Art of Death: Writing the Final Storythe Haitian author Edwidge Danticat finds solace while dealing with the debilitating loss of loved ones. The slim book weaves the author’s personal narrative of her mother’s death with the stories of celebrated novelists who have also grappled with—and have written about—catastrophic loss. Danticat turns to the work of Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and Audre Lorde, among others, during some of the most difficult days of her life. The result is a portrait of the emotional toll of death as well as a cathartic guide to finding peace. —Ryan Strong

After picking up Myriam Gurba’s Mean, I almost dropped it, the way one lets go of something delivering a powerful electric shock. Gruba charges the first pages of her memoir with a voltage of violence. I eventually kept reading—and was captivated. Gurba writes as a mixed-race Chicana growing up in California (and being forced, at one point, to apologize to white girls for their own racist comments). She writes as a young queer woman moving through adolescence into adulthood. She writes as a victim of sexual assault. I was enthralled by her sharp honesty and her piss-and-vinegar voice. She writes, “I want to be a likable female narrator. But I also enjoy being mean.” She captures something at the core of girlhood that is so rarely addressed: the ability young women have to enact, and often relish, intentional meanness without asking for forgiveness. —Lauren Kane

While there’s no shortage of literature about World War II, German author Ralf Rothmann’s To Die in Spring, recently translated into English, is a welcome addition to the genre. The novel tells the story of Walter Urban, who, forced to volunteer for the Waffen-SS as the war nears its end, lives out its final months driving transport vehicles and experiencing the horrors of a desperate German military machine. Walter’s son narrates the novel and, as an attempt to understand his father after his death, reimagines the war years about which he never spoke. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes / and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” reads the epigraph. To Die depicts the cynicism prevalent among Germans toward the close of the war, as soldiers fought long past any hope of victory. Particular images are resonant: Hungarian Germans with patches of skin, where square mustaches recently grew, that are now “paler than the rest of their stubbly faces”; Hermann Göring in a prison camp, his eyes tearing as he hears the line “Finished, finished, it doesn’t even hurt any more!” from the film Romance in a Minor Key. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but Rothmann’s novel holds particular value in translation: it provides a perspective with which many American readers may not be familiar. —Joel Pinckney

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