Top Ten Tuesday: Best Books I Read in 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve done a list of any sort, but with the new year upon us, I think now’s the perfect time for another. This post is part of Top 10 Tuesday, a project currently hosted by Jana, known to the Internet as That Artsy Reader Girl. This week’s theme: the best books we read in 2018.

This year, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in my reading habits. In years past, the great majority of books I’ve read have been thin poetry collections, with a smattering of prose works to balance things out. This year, the ratio has more or less reversed, for reasons that I’ve previously detailed on this blog. So, in case you’re wondering why someone who writes about poetry so often doesn’t have more poetry on his best-of list, there’s your explanation.

Before we get to the list, two honorable mentions that I’ve chosen to exclude from the list for potential conflicts of interest: Alice McDermott’s 2017 novel The Ninth Hour (she was a professor at Johns Hopkins while I was a grad student there) and Nausheen Eusuf’s 2017 poetry collection Not Elegy, But Eros (I was paid to review her book for The Hopkins Review, and afterwards very briefly corresponded with the author). Both books come highly recommended, but there’s your disclaimer.

And with that out of the way, the list proper:

10) Plunge, by Alice Jones (2012)
When it comes to poetry collections, I often find formal experiments to be more memorable than the content of the poems themselves. Such is the case for Alice Jones’s Plunge. Jones is of course capable of crafting a striking image or allowing the language to carry the reader on its music. But what has stayed with me over the past year is the structural conceit. Each poem is an incremental series of smaller pieces, starting with a haiku and building toward a sestina (or vice versa), with certain key words repeated and recontextualized in every iteration. My favorite of the collection, “Valle d’Aosta,” perfectly summarizes Jones’s strategy: “Before we ever saw mountains / we imagined them, heaps of gravel and snow, islands / floating above all we knew.” It’s far from the best collection I’ve ever read, but it’s among the most I’m eager to imitate.

9) Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward (2013)
Equal parts memoir and memorial, Jesmyn Ward’s account of the deaths of five young black men from her hometown takes a little while to find its footing. The narrative alternates between Ward’s own story and the five deaths that touched her life, with the memorial segments told in reverse chronological order, it’s a bit of a struggle to settle into the world of DeLisle, Mississippi. But once the reader gets accustomed to the narrative flow, Ward’s powers of description prove devastating, especially as the book begins to circle the first and final death, that of Ward’s younger brother Joshua. Yet through all the heartache and tragedy, Ward finds a way to press on. “We love each other fiercely,” she writes near the very end, “while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.” I’m looking forward to diving into Ward’s fiction in the coming months; I want to see her powers of lyricism and imagination really shine independent of the facts.

8) The Life Around Us: Selected Poems on Nature, by Denise Levertov (1997)
Conventional wisdom holds that love and death are the two most difficult subjects to write good poems about, but I’d personally add nature to that list. Handled poorly and a nature poem is just a pedestrian landscape rendered in language, or else a polemic without any craft. What makes Denise Levertov’s poetry so delightful is the variety of ways she has of approaching the natural world, whether it’s placing uranium mines in the context of colonialism in “What It Could Be” or turning “The Cabbage Field” into a painterly, almost surreal portrait of the sea. This collection would be much higher on the list if not for one baffling editorial decision: the last third of book is dedicated to nothing but descriptions of mountains, and it’s stunning how quickly the book becomes a slog in the home stretch. Had that proverbial mountain range been broken up and spread out, this would probably crack my top three.

7) My Life as a Foreign Country, by Brian Turner (2015)
Brian Turner first came to the attention of the literary world with Here, Bullet, a collection of poems inspired by his time as an American soldier in the Iraq War. It comes as no surprise, then, that his memoir of overseas service, My Life as a Foreign Country, functions as poetry in multiple senses: lyrical language, fragmentary progressions of ideas, and associative leaps between the different threads of the narrative. As with Men We Reaped, this book takes some getting used to, both with its structure and its content. Turner’s recollections are often stomach-churning and infuriating, as any response to war is bound to be, and what makes his account especially gripping is how far the effects of war spread. It colors Turner’s family, his life after returning home, and even his past: there’s a memorable sequence from his childhood where he and his friends make a war film, and the presentation of their backyard fun becomes unnervingly graphic. This is really the only book on this list that I “hyped” myself for, and in the end it surpassed (and circumvented) my expectations.

6) Wolf Moon, Blood Moon, by Edward Falco (2017)
When I write about poems, I usually find myself thinking about the poetic argument, the idea or narrative that the writer wishes to get across as the poem unfolds. This approach, granted, risks treating poetry as essay writing rather than on its own terms, but Ed Falco’s Wolf Moon, Blood Moon is bold enough to embrace this approach. The pieces in this collection present themselves as essays aaddressing large topics, from grief to quantum theory, but along the way their whirlwinds sweep up the intimate details which mark successful poems. “On Language,” for instance, begins with the prosaic notion that “[t]he words we use to instill a sense of the ineffable / Carry us on a journey that’s mysterious,” only to use that thesis to frame a boy’s evolving relationship with his aging father. There were moments reading Falco’s work that made me feel how I did when I first read the later poems of Larry Levis, which coming from me is high praise indeed. Falco is primarily a novelist, but I sincerely hope that he returns to poetry in the future.

5) Ms. Marvel, Vol. 4: Last Days, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona (2015)
Kamala Khan’s position as a (diegetically) marginal figure within the Marvel universe comes to a head in Last Days, as the world appears to be on the cusp of ending and the fate of Jersey City looks like an afterthought next to that of New York. Yet it’s in that milieu of hopelessness that everyone’s humanity bursts through most clearly. Kamala’s inevitable team-up with her idol Carol Danvers naturally takes center stage, but it’s her conversations with her mother and brother that make this collection an aesthetically fulfilling experience. And while I’m in no way qualified to discuss visual art, Adrian Alphona’s artwork throughout sells the characters’ emotions and the mood of the world just as much as G. Willow Wilson’s dialogue. Had the world in fact ended for Kamala and company, I couldn’t have asked for a more satisfying conclusion to the story.

4) Proxies: Essays Near Knowing, by Brian Blanchfield (2016)
Here’s a book that I admired enough to write a 2400-word blog post about it while imitating its style. Brian Blanchfield effortlessly manages to blend the abstract and the erudite with the grounded and the intimate. A series of self-searching essays which rely solely on Blanchfield’s memory as a reference for all facts, Proxies is a book which imbue supreme power in words as words, for they are his only certain path to understanding. It is much easier, for instance, for the author to confront how he left (abandoned?) his teaching position at a Massachusetts boarding school if he first interrogates what it means “to withdraw”: “To withdraw—when it doesn’t take an object, like: an offer, or a question, or the troops—to withdraw, as an intransitive verb, is, as it happens, always reflexive. If I withdraw, I withdraw myself. From what?” Proxies is a book that teaches us through example that before we can even hope to sort out our lives’ decisions, we have to figure out what the questions even are.

3) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (2000)
This is the part of the list where I start praising books that don’t need anyone else’s endorsement, but to hell with it—I love these books. First up is Michael Chabon’s most beloved novel, the story of a Jewish-American duo in the golden age of superhero comics. Sam Clay and Joseph Kavalier’s friendship and art perseveres through business hardships, through anti-Semitic sentiments, through war, and it’s one of the most touching relationships that I’ve read about in a long time. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is also miraculous in its structure, a modern 600-page novel that feels epic but is never sprawling; by the time I closed the covers on it, I only wanted to cut about 50 pages from its length. (Normally, that number is closer to 300.) Even when he’s indulging himself with an extended digression on comic book history, Chabon never loses sight of the novel’s focus, its richly developed characters.

2) Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell (1938)
Earlier this year, when I wrote about the use of dark comedy in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, I said that the author’s ability to “find humor in such dire circumstances feels like a testament to human freedom.” The more I think about the book, the more that sentiment rings true for me. Homage to Catalonia is a despairing book, make no mistake. To see how the Communists sold out the leftist cause in the Spanish Civil War to help put the Fascists in power is enough to put a permanent hole in the reader’s heart. Yet months after reading it, I find myself thinking back to Orwell’s time in the P.O.U.M. camp, and the sense of wholly equal comradeship that existed—nay, thrived —in the early days of the conflict, and that tells me that Orwell’s account is no mere exercise in hopelessness. Eighty years after its initial publication, Homage to Catalonia remains vital, and I really mean that in every sense of the word.

1) Middlemarch, by George Eliot (1871-1872)
Between this book and Silas Marner, I’ve come to the conclusion that George Eliot is the most precise observer of human behavior to ever set pen to paper. A depiction of life in a provincial English town circa 1830, Middlemarch has more memorable and fleshed out characters than I could ever hope to discuss coherently. From the emotionally distant and impossibly verbose Casaubon, who wouldn’t feel out of place in a Dickens novel; to the charming but underhanded Rosamond, who is so adept at justifying her secret schemes that one starts halfway siding with her; to Chettam, the Platonic ideal of an elitist jerk. And at the center of it all, we have Lydgate, as brilliant at medicine as he is inept at managing social connections, and Dorothea, a woman so moral and self-sacrificing yet internally conflicted that I’m tempted to call her my new favorite protagonist—except to do so would mean reducing the novel to Dorothea’s story. No, Middlemarch has far more to offer, far more it wishes to offer, than any summary could ever convey. I only finished this book about two weeks ago, but I’ve put it on top because more than anything thing else that I read this year, this is the book I want to shove into the people’s hands and say, “Read this immediately.” You’ll become a better person for the experience.


There’s my list for you. But what are your thoughts on all this? Have you read any of my favorites from this year? Any books you’ve read this year that you’re dying to share with others? Let me know in the comments! And if you’re looking for more book recommendations, you might want to check out my list of modern poetry classics.

How My Reading Habits Have Changed This Year

I like to think of myself as an omnivorous reader. I always have multiple books on my currently-reading shelf at any given moment, and they tend to be from disparate modes and genres. I’ll switch from a piece of music criticism to a poetry collection to a classic novel with little in the way of direct connections between pieces. Still, despite all this variety, my reading habits have tended to be fairly stable. About 2/3 of the books I’d finish would be poetry collections, with a hodge-podge of novels, nonfiction books, plays and comic books making up the other 1/3.

This year, however, that ratio has flipped. Only about 1/3 of the books I’ve finished this year (22/64) have been poetry collections. That’s a pretty significant and sudden shift, and it got me wondering: what’s behind this change in my reading habits?

It’s not as though I’ve lost my love of poetry, far from it. Sure, I’m no longer in a graduate school environment where I’m required to think about poetry more or less constantly. But I still write poems and pieces about poetry fairly frequently, and I believe that over time I’ve developed a more mature understanding of the art. And reading an excellent poem like Lynn Powell’s “Kind of Blue” or Ted Kooser’s “A Spiral Notebook,” to name two recent examples, still fills me with an unmatched sense of joy.

No, what’s changed is that finding the time to read poetry, at least how I think it best to read it, has gotten more difficult this past year. Quite simply, I’m rarely alone for long enough.

I’ve mentioned before how I believe that all poetry ought to be read aloud, that the sonic dimension of poetry is difficult if not impossible to appreciate unless one literally hears the words as they are reading them. I can’t tell you how often some aspect of a poem’s playfulness, form, or even meaning has eluded me until I’ve read it aloud to myself. Granted, there are poets such as Harryette Mullen or Jaimee Hills, whose work often defies the reader to wrap their tongue around it, but even when the experience of reading the poem aloud is unpleasant, that unpleasantness often helps me to start unlocking the work.

However, because I insist on reading all poetry aloud, I effectively limit the number of environments in which I can read poetry at all. It’s socially unacceptable, or at least awkward, to read aloud to oneself when other people are present; to do so imposes one’s private activity, even one’s private thoughts once interpretation is factored in, onto an unwilling audience. It’s bad enough that reading in someone else’s presence may give them the impression that you don’t value their company. But reading aloud at them more or less says, “I’d prefer you weren’t in my world at the moment.”

Now, when I was in grad school, this wasn’t that significant a limitation, because I lived by myself, and even if I happened to be on campus it wasn’t that difficult to find a secluded place. (The lounge we had access to, for instance, was usually empty.) Now, though, I’m more or less surrounded by people. I’ve moved back into my family’s home, and for various reasons I’ll not get into, my bedroom is effectively a living room. Further, I take mass transit into work, and if there’s one place where no one wants to hear anyone else talking, it’s a long-distance commuter bus.

The plus side of my current reading arrangements is that I’ve had more success than ever in tackling weighty tomes. I’ve had books like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my shelf for years, and I’d been reluctant to tackle them for their sheer length. But now that I find myself trapped on a bus for an average of four hours a day, such books no longer seem intimidating. In fact, their size has become almost welcome, for I know that they’ll last me several trips into and out of the city before I reach the conclusion. I just spent the past month working through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and I’m sure I read at least 90% of that book on the bus. Those were some of the best hours that I’d spent all year.

Going forward, I know that I’ll have to make a more conscious effort to keep up on poetry, whether that means sneaking a few poems before bed, or during my lunch break, or what have you. But I think I’ll also just have to adjust my expectations. After all, I pursued an MFA precisely so I’d have more time to think about poetry. I shouldn’t be surprised that once I finished the program, I lost a lot of that time as well.


What do you think about all this? Do you find that changing circumstances change the sort of books that you read? If so, how so, and how do those changes make you feel? Let me know in the comments! And if for some reason you’re curious as to how else my new job has affected my reading style, here’s a link to a piece I wrote about dictionaries and the pure love of language. (No, really, that piece was inspired by pharmaceutical advertising. We take inspiration wherever we find it.)

My Classics Club Reading List

I’ve never been one for reading challenges, but I’ve never quite been able to figure out why. I don’t like the public performance that taking on such a challenge represents—but then again, I’m maintaining a blog, which is its own sort of public performance. I don’t like how they turn the meditative act of reading into a competition against time—but then again, the mere act of rationing of, for example, a comics trade paperback over six days does something similar, tying the reading experience to something arbitrary and external. And I don’t like committing myself to tasks unnecessarily—but then again…well, I don’t have a ready counterpoint to that one; that one’s just true.

This has been a lot of throat-clearing to explain that I’m joining The Classics Club, whose main selling point is functionally a reading challenge.

The rules of this game are fairly simple: make a list of at least fifty classic books, read them within no more than a five-year span, and write a blog post about each one. That comes out to a leisurely pace of ten classics per year, which at least at a distance seems manageable.

What I find a bit more intimidating is requirement that one write about each book. I don’t generally write reviews in the traditional sense, offering up-down aesthetic appraisals. I prefer essays and the like, exploring a piece of writing because I find it interesting, because it opens up some larger conversation about craft or context. But I can’t guarantee that any given book will avail itself to such a post. I’ve read plenty of books which I enjoyed immensely but never wrote about because I couldn’t find an “in” to the text beyond saying, “It was good, and you ought to read it.” But I fear that’s because I’ve been too shallow in my own reading habits, neither analytic or emotional enough to my thinking. This little challenge is an attempt to rectify that.

In drafting this list of fifty classics, I’ve tried to go for a broad cross-section of the “genre,” as it were. Chronologically they range from before the common era (Virgil’s Aeneid) to 1993, which was the compositional cut-off date when I first started drafting the list (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I’ve gone for kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama. It’s a hodge-podge, and that’s both an advantage and a hindrance. It may be difficult to draw connections between these books, but if I find one style is not my taste, the whole project won’t become stale.

Now for the technical specs. This project will begin on December 22, 2018, and conclude no later than December 21, 2023. Should I get through all the titles on this list, I will add more books to it based on my discretion.

And so, presented alphabetically by author, the fifty books for my Classics Club list:

          Auden, W. H.: The Dyer’s Hand
          Austen, Jane: Sense and Sensibility
          Austin, J. L.: How to Do Things with Words
          Bacon, Francis: New Atlantis
          Baldwin, James: Giovanni’s Room
          Behn, Aphra: The Rover
          Boccaccio, Giovanni: The Decameron
          Böll, Heinrich: Billiards at Half-Past Nine
          Brooks, Gwendolyn: Annie Allen
          Butler, Octavia: Parable of the Sower
          Cather, Willa: My Ántonia
          Cavendish, Margaret: The Blazing World
          Chekhov, Anton: Uncle Vanya
          Dickens, Charles: David Copperfield
          Ellison, Ralph: Invisible Man
          Fitzgerald, F. Scott: The Last Tycoon
          Flaubert, Gustave: Madame Bovary
          Gordimer, Nadine: The Conservationist
          Gunn, Thom: The Man with Night Sweats
          Harper, Frances: Iola Leroy
          Hauptmann, Gerhart: The Weavers
          Hemingway, Ernest: For Whom the Bell Tolls
          Hume, David: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
          Ibsen, Henrik: A Doll’s House
          Jelinek, Elfriede: Wonderful, Wonderful Times
          Le Guin, Ursula K.: The Lathe of Heaven
          Middleton, Thomas: A Chaste Maid of Cheapside
          O’Neill, Eugene: The Iceman Cometh
          Ovid: Metamorphoses
          Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country
          Pope, Alexander: An Essay on Criticism
          Radway, Janice: Reading the Romance
          Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
          Russell, Bertrand: The Problems of Philosophy
          Schmitt, Gladys: The Collected Stories of Gladys Schmitt
          Schuyler, George: Black No More
          Sexton, Anne: Transformations
          Shakespeare, William: Twelfth Night
          Shute, Nevil: A Town Like Alice
          Spenser, Edmund: The Faerie Queene
          Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row
          Stevens, Wallace: Harmonium
          Strachey, Dorothy: Olivia
          Toomer, Jean: Cane
          Treadwell, Sophie: Machinal
          Twain, Mark: Pudd’nhead Wilson
          Valenzuela, Luisa: He Who Searches
          Virgil: Aeneid
          Wright, Richard: Haiku: The Last Poems of an American Icon
          Zola, Émile: Thérèse Raquin

This ought to be fun. And in the words of Neil Young, “We’ll keep good time on a journey through the past.”

Recent Publication: Maryland Literary Review

I’m pleased to announce that I have a poem in the inaugural issue of the Maryland Literary Review. It’s called “We Sleep However We Can,” and it’s an ekphrastic poem inspired by Fernard Léger’s Animated Landscape, a 1921 painting in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art. I lived in Baltimore for almost three years while pursuing my MFA, so it’s nice to have a poem published that can rep for the Old Line State.

Special thanks and good luck wishes go to Nathan Leslie, the editor of the Maryland Literary Review. May your new journal find its audience!

You can read “We Sleep However We Can” by clicking here, and you can see the BMA’s listing for Léger’s painting here.

Joseph Brodsky’s “December 24, 1971”: An Analysis

In my last post, I mentioned that I’ve been working my way through a lot of large, sprawling books of late. But I neglected to mention the one that I’ve been reading for the longest time: Joseph Brodsky’s Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999. Brodsky, a Soviet-born poet who later settled in the United States and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, is a poet with a dazzling command of the formal aspects of verse; his use of slant rhyme is particularly admired, and in my mind rivals that of Sylvia Plath’s in terms of its inventiveness.

But rather than dwelling on the poet’s technical mastery, which I am wont to do in these close readings, I’d instead like to look at Brodsky’s handling of subject matter. Brodsky wrote a number of Christmas poems during his career, and seeing that it’s December and all, I thought now would be a good time to look at one of them: “December 24, 1971,” which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website.

The poem begins with a rather bold assertion: “When it’s Christmas we’re all of us magi.” As a universal claim, it’s an inherently arresting statement, but it’s also one that demands proof, and also clarification. What does it even mean to say that people are magi at Christmas? Certainly we’d want some sense of what the speaker is getting at before we sign onto their argument.

First of all, for anyone unfamiliar with Christian tradition: “the Magi” refers to a group of a nebulous figures who appear in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. I say “nebulous” because there isn’t an agreed upon translation of the word magi: the King James Version refers to them as “wise men,” some more recent translations call them “astrologers,” and in more colloquial contexts they’re often described as “kings” (e.g., the popular carol “We Three Kings”). Whoever they are, in the Biblical story the magi, after following a star signaling the birth of a new king, bestow their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh upon the infant Christ.

From this story, we can draw out several connotations of the word “magi” that the speaker would likely wish to evoke. First, the magi are dignified people, either learned or regal (or possibly both). Second, the magi are gift-givers, and lavish ones at that: all three of their gifts were expensive commodities two thousand years ago. And third, the magi are travelers, leaving their homelands in pursuit of the wondrous and the miraculous. So: to what extent do we see those connotations in Brodsky’s poem?

Well, the gift-giving aspect is the easiest to see in those first few stanzas. The beginning of “December 24, 1971” is positively littered with material goods. Given the poem’s title, it’s not surprising to see the whole city seems caught up in last-minute Christmas shopping. People “[a]t the grocers’ [are] all slipping and pushing,” while elsewhere the crowds are “heavy-laden with parcels” (lines 2 and 5). Foodstuffs appear to be the most common purchases, as the air is filled with their various scents: “Reek of vodka and resin and cod, / orange mandarins, cinnamon, apples” (9-10). Perhaps vodka and cinnamon are the modern frankincense and myrrh. But despite all this commerce, one aspect of gift-giving doesn’t come up in the poem: the recipients. For all of us to be magi in the sense of gift-givers, we in fact need someone to bestow gifts upon. They are plenty people in the city, but as it it seems, few relationships: “[E]ach one [is] his own king, his own camel” (6).

The people of this poem don’t appear especially dignified, either. One gets the impression that this city’s streets are always on the verge of chaos. The speaker succinctly captures the mood of unchecked consumption when they say that “a tin of halvah, coffee-flavored, / is the cause of a human assault-wave” (3-4). Instead of refined, composed attire, they see “caps and neckties all twisted up sideways”(8). Even “the bearers of moderate gifts,” the people who one might think to be above the fray, “leap onto buses and jam all the doorways” (13-14). Christmastime in the city is no regal pilgrimage, but a struggle for survival.

In trying to figure out why Brodsky evokes the magi, by process of elimination, we’ve left ourselves with just the journey towards a new hope. So that’s the solution, right? Except the people of the city seem to be journeying without any purpose. The “[f]loods of faces” the speaker describes leave “no sign of a pathway / towards Bethlehem” (11-12). And even if that holy place of purpose were within sight, the people wouldn’t expect to find anything. When they get off the buses and enter the courtyards of their apartment buildings, “they know that there’s nothing inside there: / not a beast, not a crib, nor yet her, / round whose head gleams a nimbus of gold” (16-18). The whole Nativity is out of reach. There is little hope, but rather, as the fourth stanza begins with, “[e]mptiness” (19).

Thus far, “December 24, 1971” has read like a remarkably somber Christmas poem, but that is perhaps to be expected. Brodsky wrote this poem during a period of great uncertainty in his life. As both an individualistic poet and a Jewish man, Brodsky had been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for almost a decade; he’d been sentenced to hard labor in the Arctic, institutionalized for fraudulently-diagnosed mental illness, and barred from traveling freely in his own country. By Christmas Eve in 1971, Brodsky was a candidate for exile from the Soviet Union. If the “magi” of his poem seem to wander aimlessly, it is only because Brodsky himself could not be sure where he’d be going, either.

Yet there was hope for Brodsky in 1972: his situation drew the sympathy of the Western literary establishment, and the poet W. H. Auden in particular helped to settle Brodsky in the United States. At the time of composition, the prospect of safety and security may have seemed distant. But the mere possibility of escape is a powerful hope, and it’s that hope which ultimately turns the poem:

Emptiness. But the mere thought of that
brings forth lights as if out of nowhere.
Herod reigns but the stronger he is,
the more sure, the more certain the wonder.
In the constancy of this relation
is the basic mechanics of Christmas. (19-24)

Particularly significant is the reference to Herod, the ruler in Matthew who, in response to the birth of Jesus, orders the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem. He is a tyrant, one whose authority must be fled. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt with their child ahead of the massacre, and the magi, “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod…departed into their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12, King James Version). Even the magi must flee. When it’s Christmas we’re all of us refugees—but ones who know the new king has come.

Perhaps that is not much hope to cling onto, but in a world so hectic, so somber as the one presented in Brodsky’s poem, it’s more than enough to justify the festivities:

That's why they celebrate everywhere,
for its coming push tables together.
No demand for a star for a while,
but a sort of good will touched with grace,
can be seen in all men from afar,
and the shepherds have kindled their fires. (25-30)

According to the speaker, those celebrating Christmas don’t “demand…for a while” some ostentatious miracle à la the Star of Bethlehem, but instead seek—and more importantly, find—”a sort of good will touched with grace… / in all men”. That universal kindness and acceptance may in fact be crucial for the Christmas miracle, as the speaker later makes clear: “He who comes is a mystery: features / are not known beforehand, men’s hearts may / not be quick to distinguish the stranger” (34-36). Again, one can’t help but see the parallels to Brodsky’s own situation at the time.

I’ll close this analysis with a note on the weather. I haven’t mentioned it up to this point, but as the speaker comes closer to consolation, the weather becomes more wintry. “Snow is falling” during the sixth stanza (31), and in the final stanza the “drafts through the doorway disperse / the thick mist of the hours of darkness” (37-38). Normally, we might expect this turn in the weather to signal a darkening mood, but that’s not what we get. Instead, it signals a personal transformation, a closing epiphany:

...a shape in a shawl stands revealed,
both a newborn and Spirit that's Holy
in your self you discover; you stare
skyward, and it's right there:
                                                           a star. (39-43)

It’s a wonderfully unexpected way to set up the final sentiment, linking the Holy Spirit to the cold air blowing through a house. There is something terrifying about the Nativity story, with messages from otherworldly beings and the threat of state-sanctioned murder, and Brodsky, perhaps because he can approach the subject from a non-Christian perspective, is able to capture that reality so well. The fact that he can apply that story to his own state in life makes it all the more startling.


Thanks for reading! If you have a favorite poem for the holiday season, or want to shere your thoughts on Brodsky’s piece, then let me know in the comments. And if you liked this piece, then you may be happy to learn that I write a new close reading of a poem every month. You can start catching up on them with my previous installment in this series, on Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps – ].”

Something You Swear You’d Never Say Again: Guster’s “Lost and Gone Forever”

Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.

Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.

On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)

Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.

Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.

Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:

The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.

Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.

Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:

You don’t know how far you’ve gone
Or recognize who you’ve come
How’d you grow to be so hard?
Sick of playing my part

(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)

Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).

The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.

The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:

Like your father said,
“Just do what was done unto you, always”
In your father’s steps
You’ll do what was done unto you
It won’t be hard to start again

This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.

Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”

I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.


Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.

Emily Dickinson’s “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”: An Analysis

Something that makes Emily Dickinson a poet worth revisiting is the sheer quantity of her output. In his 1998 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems, R. W. Franklin identified 1,789 different poems to include in the collection. Even if most of her poems are on the short side—the piece we’re going to look at today is only eight lines long—that is a vast amount of material for the reader to appreciate. Once one gets tired of “[Because I could not stop for Death –]” and “[I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –]” and all the other classroom staples, there’s still so much more of Dickinson’s work to discover. And the fact that so much of her poetry has survived for our enjoyment has some bearing on the poem I’d like to look at now.

In Franklin’s numbering, this is poem 930; if you prefer the older Johnson numbering system, it’s 883. Either way, this is a slightly lesser known entry in Dickinson’s bibliography: “[The Poets light but Lamps –].” Let’s give it a quick read-through before we start pulling it apart.

            [The Poets light but Lamps –]

            The Poets light but Lamps –
            Themselves – go out –
            The Wicks they stimulate
            If vital Light

            Inhere as do the Suns –
            Each Age a Lens
            Disseminating their
            Circumference –

If you know anything about Emily Dickinson, you’ll know that there were two big ideas that possessed her, that she returned to time and again in her poetry: death and immortality. We see both of those obsessions on display in this poem, as the speaker grapples with the question of how, or whether, art can endure when the ones who create that art are mortal beings. And, if you’ve been following my poem analyses for the past few months, this problem should be a familiar one.

Back in July, I covered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” and I made much of how his poem complicates the traditional narrative of achieving immortality through art: the statue of the great king Ozymandias is a near-ruin, and the speaker’s account of the monument is filtered through multiple layers of hearsay. The reader is thus denied the consolation that comes from a poem such as Edmund Spenser’s “[One day I wrote her name upon the strand],” which promises that one may live forever through verse.

Like the speaker in Shelley’s poem, Dickinson’s speaker is not content with the easy comfort of that traditional poetic narrative, but I think her argument is more optimistic than the one we find in “Ozymandias.” One would not suspect as much, though, from reading the opening lines. We are told that “[t]he Poets light but Lamps” (line 1)—and as it turns out, a lamp is a complicated metaphor for poetry.

On the one hand, lamps are a source of illumination, of literal enlightenment, which is just what readers come to poetry to find. They even have some divine connotations, as seen in the Beatitudes: “Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house” (Matthew 5:15, King James Version). On the other hand, lamps are a fleeting source of illumination. True, they provide a more sustained source of light than an uncontained flash, or a stray spark from a flint. But candles are only so long, and fuel, when it burns, is spent. It would seem, that from the starting premise, the immortality of art is in doubt.

What’s not it doubt is the mortality of the poets, for “Themselves – go out” (line 2). To say that they “go out” is, I think, a surprisingly stark way of putting it. They are not “put out” or “snuffed out” by some external force. There is no dramatic, violent end to the poets’ lives, in the way that the statue of Ozymandias makes for a striking ruin. Nor, if there is no external force at work, is there any obvious way of preventing their demise. No, the lives of the poets simply cease when the last drops of life energy are used.

So, if the poets “go out” and their works are “but Lamps,” that is, if neither is immortal, then how can one say that Dickinson’s poem is optimistic? The key is that the speaker, after laying out these rather bleak premises, finds an unexpected continuation to the argument: “The Wicks they stimulate / If vital light // Inhere as do the Suns” (lines 3-5). Dickinson has set up a whole domain of images around the theme of illumination. On the one side, we have the temporary “Lamps” and “Wicks,” and now opposing them, we have “Suns.” At least relative to all human affairs, “the Suns” are an everlasting light source, and are themselves divine rather than being symbolic of it.

Perhaps your first response is to say that Dickinson’s speaker has just contradicted herself: the poets cannot both “light but Lamps” and have those “Wicks they stimulate” be like “the Suns.” But the speaker might respond that she is not stumbling into a contradiction, but is rather setting up a deliberate tension.

First, let’s take a look at that word “Inhere.” “Inhere” is the verb from which we derive the more common word “inherent,” a synonym of words like “intrinsic” or “essential.” Grammatically, “inhere” requires an adverbial complement: X does not “inhere,” but rather “inheres in Y.” Yet Dickinson’s poem does not present us with an obvious adverbial complement for the verb; Dickinson is never one for unambiguous syntax. We know that the wicks inhere “as do the Suns,” but that describes the manner in which they inhere, not what they inhere in.

I would be most tempted to say that “vital light” is part of the intended adverbial complement here, with the word “in” elided for the sake of the ballad meter. This reading has a certain appeal. To call light “vital” not only says that it’s important, but also that it’s life-sustaining (especially given the context of “the Suns”). If the works of the poets inhere in that light, then perhaps it doesn’t even matter if their work will never be immortal, for it will always be necessary. That would, in a sense, be its own kind of immortality.

I find this reading a little unsatisfying though, and that dissatisfaction hinges on one word: “If.” That word presents two potential problems for what I’ve suggested in the above paragraph. First, the more natural reading of lines 3-5 is something like, “If the Wicks they stimulate are vital light, then they inhere as do the Suns.” This reading still leaves the adverbial complement of “inhere” unclear. Second, the phrase “if vital light” is conditional; there is the logical possibility that the light may not actually be vital. But if the light’s vital nature is conditional, then how exactly can it be an essential or intrinsic feature of anything, whatever it’s supposed to inhere in?

The effect of lines 3-5 is to unsteady the poem, as well as the reader’s progress through it. The pat message suggested by lines 1-2, that poets and their work are both immortal, no longer seems tenable, at least so baldly stated. But the rebuttal that lines 3-5 appear to offer, that the poets’ works will always be life-sustaining, proves illusory, because the speaker presents that suggestion in conditional and ambiguous language. There are only three lines left in this poem, and we seem to be further from the answer than when the poem began.

Here’s my proposal for how to proceed. That whole business about finding the adverbial complement for “inhere”? That was a feint, an act of misdirection on the author’s part. In addition to poems about death and immortality, Dickinson was also fond of riddles, and a good riddle needs to temporarily lead the reader astray before they find the solution. In the case of this poem, the word “inhere” makes us consider inherent properties. We’re tempted to ask questions like, “What property of poetry might make it immortal?” or “What property of light might make it vital?” As it turns out, those questions are simply of the wrong sort.

Lines 6-8 are where the riddle makes it last-second, clarifying snap. Instead of thinking about an object’s inherent properties, we need to think about its relational properties. What matters is not what poetry or light is like, but what they are like in relation to something else: the observer, the audience. “Each Age,” the speaker tells us, is “a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference.” In the same way that a lens will focus or disperse sunlight, “Each Age” (i.e., each generation of readers) will interpret the poets’ works in its own way. Something of the original intent may be lost through these interpretations, but the speaker’s use of the word “Disseminating” reminds us that something survives the process, too.

In the end, Dickinson’s poem is neither the celebratory ode to immortal art seen in the traditional narrative, nor is it the ominous counter-narrative that we find in “Ozymandias.” Rather, it’s an acknowledgment of the importance of poets’ readerships in preserving their work. To perhaps extend her metaphor beyond its purpose, the poets’ lamps may go out, but maybe the audience can replenish the oil. Dickinson’s own work, it’s fair to say, has survived in the exact same manner.


But what do you think? What are your thoughts on “[The Poets light but Lamps –]”? Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem that you wish got more attention? Either way, feel free to share in the comments!

Normally, there is where I’d link to another post of mind of that is tangentially related to what you just read, but in this case, I’ll just point you back to that analysis of “Ozymandias” that I linked above. I spent weeks thinking my way through that poem before I felt comfortable analyzing it, and the result is one of my favorite posts on this blog.

And as always: thanks for reading!

Recent Publication: Visiting Bob

Here’s a project that I’ve been excited about for quite some time! One of my poems, “The Fury of the Moment,” has been included in the anthology Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan (New Rivers, 2018). This one has been a long time coming, so it was such a thrill to finally get this book in the mail on Friday.

To have a poem in this anthology is a great honor for me. First, as you may have gathered if you’ve read this blog for a while, I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan’s music. I’ve dedicated blog posts to the rhyme scheme of “Queen Jane Approximately” and to placing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” in the ballad tradition, but neither compares to contributing to the conversation around Dylan’s work through my own poetry. Second, it’s a privilege to share space in this anthology with such esteemed writers as Johnny Cash, Yusef Komunyakaa, Dorianne Laux, and Paul Muldoon. Certainly my work is put to shame by their example, but for the moment, I feel like I’m getting away with something.

Here’s a little background as to how this came about. New Rivers Press, which is based out of Minnesota State University Moorhead, announced that they were planning this tribute to Bob Dylan in early 2016, and in response I wrote a handful of new poems inspired by Dylan’s work. The one they eventually selected, “The Fury of the Moment,” attempts to capture the feeling of listening to “Every Grain of Sand,” the last track on his last born-again album, Shot of Love. I submitted my work in August 2016 (not too long before Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature), received the acceptance contract in December 2017, and at long last got my copy yesterday. Like I said: a long time coming.

Special thanks to the editors, Thom Tammaro and Alan Davis, for including my work in this project, and for accommodating a last minute change of address!

Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan is published by New Rivers Press, Moorhead, Minnesota. As of this writing, the book is listed as temporarily out of stock through both Small Press Distribution and Amazon, but with any luck it’ll be back in stock soon!

2 Good 2 Be 4-Gotten: Lucinda Williams and the Country Music Tradition

This week, Lit Hub reprinted the introduction to Gone Country, a collection of interviews with country artists edited by Jesse Montgomery, Peter Nowogrodzki, and Alex Spoto. Given the title “On the Complicated Legacy of American Country Music,” it’s an essay that I had to read the moment I got the chance, because I’ve got some complicated thoughts on the genre. On the one hand, I adore country music, broadly construed. When I was living in Pittsburgh, listening to WYEP’s “Roots and Rhythm Mix” was my Sunday afternoon tradition, and most of my favorite artists are a least a little rootsy. On the other hand, I rarely call myself a fan of the genre in conversation, and I find contemporary Nashville country to be borderline unlistenable. So, yeah: right up my alley.

Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto hit a lot of interesting points in their piece, so you should definitely read it for yourself. But one paragraph towards the middle of the essay caught my attention more than anything else. The authors argue that country music is

in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.

It’s not that other genres don’t value their traditions and lineages; I wrote a whole post on how latter-day folk music has rewritten a 16th-century murder ballad. But country music is especially overt about it, with songs that name-check the genre’s greats as though they were figures from Scripture. And all of that got me thinking more critically about an all-time favorite of mine: Lucinda Williams’s “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten.”

Released as part of her 1998 album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song soaked in country music’s evolution. The instrumentation features both plucked and strummed guitar strings, light hints of accordion that whisper of the genre’s distant past, and an almost mechanical drum beat to kick-off the track. (And that’s to say nothing of the title, whose spelling is incredibly of the 1990s.) The song is so many different kinds of dated that the track actually ends up being timeless, a quality that the best country music strives for.

Lyrically, the song is equally beholden to the past, and I find this song’s particular reference to tradition especially compelling. Now, Lucinda Williams has never shied away from invoking the musicians who have come before her, and she has an uncanny ability to select the right artist for the song’s mood. For example, the depressed speaker of “Ventura” listens to Neil Young, in a song that sounds like it belongs on side two of On the Beach. By contrast you have a song like “Metal Firecracker,” a warm yet bittersweet reminiscence on a former relationship, which has the speaker and her partner “put on ZZ Top and turn ’em up real loud.” She’s got tunes, and she knows how to use them.

Still, the context of Williams’s musical references tends to be pretty straightforward: the speaker is listening to a recording of a song. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” on the other hand, presents something more complicated. The first verse ends by mentioning how “Mr. Johnson sings over in a corner by the bar,” and that he “[s]old his soul to the devil so he could play guitar.” These lines refer to blues musician Robert Johnson, and like the Neil Young and ZZ Top examples I’ve mentioned above, his music fits the mood of the song well. “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” is a song of heartbreak, so the writer of “Love in Vain” is the perfect choice to underscore the sentiment. But I think this reference does even more than that, because the speaker seems less interested in the music itself than she is in the music’s context.

The speaker opts to close the couplet that references Johnson not by describing his performance, but by invoking the legend that surrounds him. Tradition holds that Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads one night, whereupon he sold his soul to become a blues virtuoso. It’s well-trod ground, invoking this myth; I dare say the story overshadows Johnson’s music in the public imagination. But I like how Williams treats the legend with some understatement. She doesn’t make it out to be a monumental event, even though she could totally cast it as the origin story of the blues. Instead, it’s an interesting bit of trivia, just a background detail to help paint the scene.

And just what scene is that? “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” takes place at the “Rosedale, Mississippi, Magic City Juke Joint,” with “juke joint” meaning a kind of establishment that catered to African American patrons in the Jim Crow–era South. It is the exact sort of place where the real-life Robert Johnson would play his blues songs, so it’s no surprise to find him “over in a corner by the bar.” And it’s also the exact sort of place that country music has had a tendency to erase from its history.

Country music, as Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto note, is the product of artistic and commercial forces that have combined and flattened a wide variety of influences, from the ballad tradition to gospel music to zydeco. But if you were to judge from the demographics of country music’s fanbase and most of its prominent artists, you would assume the genre’s origins were entirely of white America. This state of affairs is not the result of happenstance, but of calculated decisions from within the industry. “We might say country forgot its debt to the blues,” they write, “when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.” By writing a country song that breathes in the origins of commercial blues music, Williams offers up something of a corrective to that history.

Of course, I’m making that effort sound like an intellectual exercise. In Williams’s hands, the world of the Magic City Juke Joint is lively and personal. It’s a place that is always on the verge of a little anarchy, where “[t]here’s no good, there’s no bad.” (Not for nothing, the speaker keeps listing off the establishment’s countless rules for behavior.) It’s a place of religious devotion, where a Pentecostal man “says he wants to take up serpents” and the “[b]athroom wall reads, ‘Is God the answer? Yes.'” But most importantly, it’s a place where the speaker can find solace.

After all, the speaker enters the song with a very bleak assessment of life: “You can’t depend on anything, really / There’s no promises, there’s no point.” But for the first two verses, the speaker keeps the source of this despondency to herself. Montgomery, Nowogrodzki, and Spoto mention the tradition of country songs “about struggling to articulate heartbreak,” and “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” belongs in that conversation. Williams’s breathy delivery in the final verse, where the speaker reveals her dramatic break-up, sounds exactly like someone finally getting something off her chest. Just listen to how that accordion soars after that last verse; it’s the sound of someone having an epiphany. It’s a wonderful moment. And it took a “dirty little joint” and the music of Robert Johnson to let her reach it.


Thanks for reading! If you’re looking more of my music writing…well, I don’t have all that much, but I do have a post about Steven Hyden’s Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock that I’m fairly proud of. You can check it out here if you’d like.

Searching for Bobby Fischer’s Soul: A Reflection

EndgameThere’s a moment near the end of Frank Brady’s 2011 biography Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness which both caught me off guard and,did not surprise me in the slightest. In late 2007, as Fischer was slowly dying in an Icelandic hospital, Dr. Magnus Skulasson, a psychiatrist (though not Fischer’s psychiatrist), frequently came to visit him, just to give Fischer some friendly company in his last weeks.

I’ll let Brady pick up the moment from there:

Bobby asked him to bring foods and juices to the hospital, which he did, and often Skulasson just sat at the bedside, both men not speaking. When Bobby was experiencing severe pain in his legs, Skulasson began to massage them, using the back of his hand. Bobby looked at him and said, “Nothing soothes as much as the human touch.” Once Bobby woke and said: “Why are you so kind to me?” Of course, Skulasson had no answer. (p. 318)

Just in terms of the prose, it’s clear that Brady finds this moment arresting, too. There’s that colon right before Bobby’s question, which signals that whatever follows is going to be significant. And that tossed-off “Of course” right before the last clause just underscores how difficult answering that question is. Why should Skulasson be kind to Bobby Fischer? Or rather, why should anyone be kind to him?

And if we’re going to hope to answer that question, then we’re going to need some context.

Bobby Fischer, at the very least in the United States, is history’s most famous chess player. His 1956 “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne is one of the most celebrated games ever played; his triumph over Boris Spassky in the World Chess Championship 1972 represents the height of chess’s cultural and political relevance. Every rising American player from Joshua Waitzkin to Fabiano Caruana is heralded as “the next Bobby Fischer.” His name may as well be synonymous with chess.

Fischer was also a wretched human being. Even in our current political moment, when antisemitism and violent rhetoric are once again on the rise, his comments on Jewish people and September 11th are still shocking in their virulence. I had long known Fischer was “politically incorrect,” to dress things up politely, but reading excerpts from his press conferences and radio interviews made my eyes bulge. And that’s to say nothing of his day-to-day interactions with people. Fischer was consistently petulant, dismissive, ungrateful, and paranoid. The fact that anyone could stand to be in his presence for more than three minutes is itself a revelation.

Reading Endgame, I kept waiting for the moment when people would finally give up on Bobby Fischer. But no matter how many paranoid and hateful rants he’d subject his friends and colleagues to, no matter how often he’d respond to generosity with bile, people kept reaching out to him, kept giving him second chances. Chess masters would give him companionship and a place to stay while he was a fugitive. Admirers would write him letters and plead for his picture. A whole consortium of Icelandic public figures spent godless amounts of time and effort to extract him from his imprisonment in Japan. All that attention and affection, given to someone manifestly unworthy of it. Why?

Part of the answer, undoubtedly, lies in Fischer’s celebrity status. Fame invariably will grant one the benefit of the doubt in the eyes of the public. After all, one might argue, Fischer’s accomplishments in chess are undeniable: aesthetically, theoretically, technologically and economically, he did so much for the game. His victory in the World Chess Championship 1972 more or less put the city of Reykjavík on the map. It’s disappointing that so many people were willing to overlook or excuse his behavior, but I can’t say it’s too shocking, either. It’s not like the world is free of Cosby and Polanski apologists.

Second, especially in his earlier years, it’s not as though Fischer the person was wholly undeserving of sympathy. His childhood was far from idyllic: his family struggled financially for many years, and his mother was under government surveillance due to her left-wing political activities. And he seems to have been searching for purpose in his life for decades. Before he really embraced antisemitism as a guiding ethos—the same way, I suppose, one might try embracing a cactus for comfort—Fischer was an unofficial member of the Worldwide Church of God, an apocalyptic Christian denomination to which he tithed a good chunk of his world championship winnings. However, there’s only so much that a difficult life can account for, and calling for the mass murder of Jews is way, way beyond that.

That’s why, to bring this back to the beginning, Magnus cannot possibly have an answer to the question, “Why are you so kind to me?” It’s a level of kindness that defies reason, perhaps even rejects it. We can say, as Brady does off-handedly a few paragraphs earlier, that Magnus “had a great reverence for the accomplishments of Bobby Fischer and an affection for him as a man” (p. 318). But that’s not really an explanation; at most, it just pushes the question back down a level: “Why do you have affection for me as a man?” I mean, I still get chills watching Fischer’s mating combination in the Game of the Century, and I wouldn’t want to be in the same country as him.

Still, whereas every other time someone helped Fischer out filled me with frustration, Magnus’s leg-stroking inspired some more ambiguous feeling in me. The end of Fischer’s life is the rare spot in Endgame where he seems truly helpless. Yes, he’d been facing the threat of extradition to the United States for 15 years, but he also had the resources and stature to evade that threat for just as long. Yes, he’d gotten roughed up while in custody at Narita International Airport for traveling with an invalid passport, but that felt like perverted justice rather than injustice per se. But Fischer lying prone, vulnerable, in a hospital bed? That was something almost pitiable.

Tony Hoagland has a poem called “Lucky,” whose opening stanza has stuck with me ever since I first read it back in 2013:

If you are lucky in this life,
you will get to help your enemy
the way I got to help my mother
when she was weakened past the point of saying no. (lines 1-4)

I’ve never been certain what Hoagland means here. Is this a wish that we treat our enemy with pity, that we find a way to be a better person? Or is helping someone when they are “weakened past the point of saying no” a sort of cruelty, an act of revenge we’d be dying to enact?

And, however you answer that question, is that the sort of thing that you would want to do to someone like Bobby Fischer?