In the living room of my parents’ home in Tripoli, Lebanon, an elaborate family tree is displayed in a golden frame. It is a constant reminder of a fatalistic vision of life’s ultimate purpose: reproduction. Males are depicted as branches; females as leaves. The thriving of the tree relies on branches like mine. A single man who bears no new branches or leaves could condemn an entire lineage to an end.
Philip Nikolayev is editor ofFulcrum. His poetry collections include Monkey Time (Verse/ Wave Books) and Dusk Raga (Salt).
Alexander Pushkin (1799-83) is widely regarded as the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature.
It’s for you that my soft and affectionate voice Disturbs at this late hour a silent night’s repose. Where by my bed a melancholy candle glows, My verse rushes along, burbles and overflows In brooks of love, filled with you, and at last I see Your eyes, out of the dark shining, smiling at me, And finally my ear makes out the cherished words: My gentle, tender friend… I love you… I am yours!
August 2020 Poetry Feature #2: Philip Nikolayev translates Alexander Pushkin
The events of Clare Beams’ debut novel, The Illness Lesson,start with the founding of a school for girls in 19th-century New England, but the novel begins just before that with an omen. A flock of mysterious red birds visits the Massachusetts estate of Samuel Hood for the first time since the collapse of his previous social experiment decades earlier, a failed agricultural commune called the Birch Hill Consociation. Some find the birds beautiful, but to Samuel’s daughter, Caroline, their “shape might be a red so bright and so unexpected, so unlike the colors of her life, that it held a violence.” Samuel is a noted idealist in the tradition of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he, Caroline, and his acolyte David live off the income of his Transcendentalist essays. The girls’ school is an attempt to prove his latest hypothesis: that girls can be ushered into the world of ideas as easily as boys.
These two poems by George Seferis explore the disorienting confusion and fear that arises from living through war and catastrophe. Seferis spent his life as a spokesman for the Greek state and Hellenic culture, working as a career diplomat and poet. He lived through the Balkan Wars, World Wars I & II, and the Greek Civil War as well as continual political crisis.
His poetry interprets Greece’s contemporary tragedies as the result of a mythical hubris, especially internecine murder in the heroic past. Bloodshed in the present is due to an endless chain of retribution set in motion by ancient Greeks who transgressed against the laws of nature, the gods, and the rights of their fellow men in pursuit of power and self-gain.
We’d expected extremes of weather while we were on the Coast Path, British weather. Wind, rain, fog, occasional hail even, but not the heat, the burning, suffocating heat. By lunchtime we’d crawled out of the shade of Woody Bay into an intensely hot afternoon. We shared a cereal bar and banana, looking west across some of the highest cliffs in England. Near vertical faces rising as high as 800 feet and stretching away to the Great Hangman, at 1,043 feet, the highest point on the whole of the South West Coast Path. But between us and the Hangman was a series of savage rises and falls, which even Paddy admits are steep. From the cliff top to near sea level, from sea level to the cliff top. And repeat. This was why I’d wanted to start in Poole. Then it got hotter.
Did you grow up in the GCC countries? If so, The Common wants your work for its Fall 2021 Issue, which will feature a portfolio on migration, disorientation, and complicated relationships to “place” in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman.
This is the first in a series of features highlighting the Black writers our editors and staff have been reading. To read The Common’s statement in support of the nationwide protests against anti-Black racism, white supremacy, and police brutality, click here.
Recommended by Elly Hong, Thomas E. Wood ’61 Fellow
The cover of water & power calls it a novel. Both author Steven Dunn and the book’s narrator describe it as a “fictional ethnography,” and this broader term is perhaps a more fitting description of a book that defies classification. Most of water & power resembles a novella in flash, written in prose that comes in bursts no longer than a page. Yet there are also moments of poetry, as well as photographs, found documents, and collages. The book’s dynamic structure was immediately striking, and both its form and its content continued to stun me as I read.
But he could have been. My father was a similar man. His name was Richard Cheney, though he never went by Dick, and he never lived at the Naval Observatory. He was an orthopedic surgeon in suburban Kansas City who said stupid things like, “These hands are gold,” to people at dinner parties where he was often the one who ate more than his fair share of Shrimp Scampi and dove into the pool drunk in his clothes because he thought everything he did was a fun spectacle.
On February 29, 2020, Jesmyn Ward visited Amherst College to headline LitFest and host a masterclass with students. The below interview is adapted from her public conversation with The Common’s Editor in Chief Jennifer Acker.
[JA]: I think what comes through so clearly in that passage are all of the details of that property and all the norms of the community. So I want you to just tell us a little bit more about this place you’ve created, Bois Sauvage. Tell us what this place is like, and why it’s a fictional place, because it is very much inspired by your home.
[JW]: When I came up with the idea of creating a fictional town that’s based on my hometown, one of the reasons I wanted to do so was because I felt like the place where I’m from is so small that it would be harder to write about if I didn’t transform it. Sometimes I feel like the Bois Sauvage that I write about is this idealized version of my hometown, and not my hometown. Even though Sing, Unburied, Sing takes place in 2016-2017, I feel like Bois Sauvage is the idealized version of DeLisle, my hometown, from maybe in the 1980s when I was a child, when it was even more rural than it is now. Both DeLisle and Bois Sauvage are small rural places where community is very important, where families have been living for generations, because everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s history. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate or explore in Bois Sauvage is this idea of community and what community looks like in a place like that, and how a community can help its people survive in very specific, particular ways. I think I am also trying to convey the beauty of that area and that region.
Jesmyn Ward on writing honest novels with good titles, inhabiting ghosts, and learning to love Faulkner