Eleanor Wilner, a recipient of the 2019 Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry and MacArthur-winner, had to be coaxed to publish her first collection at age 42. Arthur Vogelsang, her co-editor at the American Poetry Review, “threatened various forms of physical harm if I failed to follow through.” Her reluctance, she says, was “probably a universal fear of rejection but intensified by a woman’s trained reluctance to put her own work forward.” The skid marks in resisting publication, even in Gone to Earth: Early and Uncollected Poems 1963-1975, Wilner’s ninth book of poetry, are further evidence of such modesty. On the acknowledgments page, Wilner includes an excerpt from a poem by her then-young daughter, begging her mother to publish. This is followed by “To the Reader,” a note which assures readers that the poems “belonged to the realm of imagination and not to the world of opinion,” then an italicized eight-line epigraph ending with “she much preferred / what she could not afford: / the luxury of words and light,” and a prelude poem, “Ritual,” set in prehistoric Africa, mourning the muse, “the blackened stone / that once poured fire from its heart.” Only then, a page later, does the book begin, all poems fully fledged.
Unwarranted Reticence: A Review of Eleanor Wilner’s GONE TO EARTH
Summer ends, fall begins; back to school. And as the seasons transition, we’re reading books that combine comedy and tragedy—or, as our recommenders have it, mix “humor and horror” or “poetry with play.” These are tales of “heels and faces,” each book growing “pleasurably darker” as it’s explored. This fall, embrace a little cognitive dissonance with us and choose a book that is its own mirror image; let one of these titles reflect your own many selves as you read.
To Drink Boiled Snow by Caroline Knox, Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The Sweetheartby Angelina Mirabella, Interpreter of Maladiesby Jhumpa Lahiri
With the arrival of spring we’re leaping bravely into unfamiliar worlds—safe in the hands of experts, of course. An eerie peripheral dreamscape; quotidian life viewed from upside down or inside out, never as expected; the dark bureaucracy of the criminal underground; messages ferried to and from ghosts—these are unmapped terrains, and what better companions than these authors, their first cartographers? Expand your world(s) this month with these suggestions from our contributors and staff.
Bone Map: Poems by Sara Eliza Johnson, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins, Blood and Money by Thomas Thompson, Self-Portrait in Greenby Marie NDiaye, Elegies for the Brokenhearted: A Novelby Christie Hodgen.
Begin with the cover of Dragon Logic: double Garamond italic ampersands. Inverted they propose elegant dragons against a green hide background. “TWO dragons,” Stephanie Strickland writes in the eponymous poem, “keep a pearl/in the air untouched/if yes then no if no then yes.” Their “dragon logic” insists that the reader consider sets that consist of themselves, a common problem in questions of reflexivity where the self of the self-reference is a human self. This proposition enlarges the idea of the juggling proposed by John Keats’ concept of negative capability—“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Terese Svoboda is the author of several books of poetry and prose, most recently the novel Bohemian Girl, which Booklist named one of the ten best Westerns of 2012. Her fourth novel, Tin God, was re-issued this year. Zinzi Clemmons caught up with her during a mild August to discuss Sudan, life in foreign cultures, and multi-genre writing.
Zinzi Clemmons (ZC): Your story “High Heels,” in Issue 05 of The Common, is set on an unnamed island in the Indian Ocean where Swahili is spoken. Which country is this? Did you intend for the reader to gain a sense of a specific location through the story?
Terese Svoboda (TS): It’s Lamu, off the coast of Kenya. It should evoke the disorientation of an extreme change of location for the characters — and, of course, of an island in the Indian Ocean.
The Writer as Foreigner: An Interview with Terese Svoboda
There’s smoke and there’s children burning their fingers on the cashews they pluck from the fire.
The boatman wants us to hire him, says the Swahili-speaker among us, but first this boatman is searching for wood for a new tiller. The Swahili-speaker also says not to try for the cashews in the fire ourselves. Papayas will fall, we’ll whack them down with sticks, he says. Let the children have the nuts.