Richard Wilbur first visited Rome with the American Fifth Army that liberated the city, just behind the fleeing Germans, on 5 June 1944. By 10:00 p.m., his division, the 36th Texans, in trucks, in jeeps, and on mobile artillery, followed the tanks of the First Armored Division into the southern outskirts of Rome, where it paused, expecting to camp and rest within Cinecittà—then, as now, the sprawling center of Italy’s movie industry. Ever the explorer, Wilbur wandered into an abandoned viewing room and found, already loaded into an editing machine, a costume drama set in the Roman Empire. He turned the hand crank and watched a Fascist version of ancient history until his disgust overcame his curiosity. Around midnight, the 36th received an order to cross the city, mount the Gianicolo (Rome’s westernmost hill), and be ready to chase the Germans into Tuscany. But Wilbur’s signal company interpreted the order loosely, slept in, and didn’t cross Rome until the next day, setting up their Message Center inside the Vatican gardens.
Julia PikeThe Poet in Rome: Richard Wilbur in Postwar Italy
We agonize over breakfast choices in the towering Ferry Building food market, then walk the piers eating flaky empanadas. But it’s cold and too windy, February, so we turn inland toward North Beach. Our cousin, a local, will meet us there for lunch. He’s suggested a tour of the neighborhood’s old Beat Generation haunts.
My twin sister and I are visiting San Francisco, ostensibly to see a concert but also just to see each other, since a year ago she moved away to the suburbs of Philadelphia. For the few short days we’re here, the West Coast experiences torrential rain. LA is flooding and the Bay Area is even drizzlier than usual. Becky and I are strategic—Saturday is going to be the driest day, and we want to see everything.
Blood seeps through the gauze on Salima’s foot. It’s what we notice first: the dark, rusty seepage a sharp contrast to the pastels of her pajamas and room. She’s thirteen, we learn, but the distant look in her eyes belongs to someone much older. She sits squat on the bed, chin resting on her knee. She seems mindless of her burns. Her mother and sister also survived, but three others in her family were killed when the American helicopter opened fire on their tent in Kandahar.
Disney, the warship, captured the Star Wars universe, firing off in quick succession two movies: The Force Awakens, which continues the picking-over of the Skywalker family bones, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—that is, a side quest between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, which I paid sixty dollars to see, including four sets of black plastic 3-D glasses. Rogue One is proper Star Wars canon because Disney says so: The once-untold story of how the Rebel Alliance—scrappy and in disarray as ever, a true coalition seized by occasional rancor, debate, disagreement, and speeches—steals the schematics of the original Death Star from the Galactic Empire—decidedly more economical in its internal organization than the Rebels, as there is no debate who is Emperor and who is Lord. The Empire’s grip on the galaxy tightens as its weapon of mass planetary destruction nears full operation. The hardscrabble Senate, relic of the felled Republic, appears too busy dissecting its own demise to perhaps take a lesson or two from the other side, who plotted sedition, executed revolution, then brutalized the defeated.
We are barreling north out of Salt Lake City, and David is talking about the clouds. “They don’t look like the clouds in the East,” he says. “They’re uniform, but fuzzy.” Out the window, the topaz sky shimmers over the mountains. The snowy peaks echo the color of the fuzzy western clouds, which stretch across the air like floating bedsheets.
I think we can agree that Donald Trump has been bad for literary fiction. Many people, myself included, have turned to non-fiction (not to mention gorging on news) to understand how the U.S. elected an authoritarian who orders bombings while eating chocolate cake, calls the army “my military,” lies compulsively, and spends half his time golfing. I, for one, am reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. And it doesn’t make me feel a bit better.
Julia PikeReading Gabriel García Márquez in the Age of Trump: The Autumn of the Patriarch
Outside the town of Price stretched hundreds of miles of dusty sagebrush ringed by near and far cliffs of dirt and rock. Yet in the little town proper, thanks to a primitive grid of irrigation canals—mud walls buttressed by ancient Model-T wrecks—there were grassy lawns and trees, like the glorious apricot tree under which my father, my mother, my sister, and I sat that late summer Sunday afternoon with the Russian couple whose names I can no longer recall.
He calls me and says, “I got a good North Country story for ya.” Then after the story he says, “I don’t know, man. I just feel like it would be cool to write something about the people up here. They’re such fuckin’ characters.” Or he’ll say, “If we could just write something about Mom and Dad, you know. I think our upbringing was super unique.” He has also talked about writing rants about people who don’t know the fucking speed limits around here, who hold him up on the two-lane highways that wind through our mountains. Or about making a website that would provide snarky news about the North Country, with headlines like Wilburs Still Fucking Inbred and Way to Fuck It Up, APA. We’ve been having one-way conversations about his writing projects for years. Sometimes he talks about working on them together, and sometimes he talks about doing it himself. I tend not to say much.
The paintings may be best known for what they are not. They were made on the heels of work now considered Matisse’s most groundbreaking, the paintings from the period between 1907 and 1917 when he engaged with the early perceptions of modernism. His trajectory through these years widened his ambitions and shows him becoming more cutthroat within them, first leaving behind the saturated exuberance of fauvism, then, by degrees, flattening color and form into strange and austere near-abstractions.
Julia PikeThe Radical Familiar: Matisse’s Early Nice Interiors