Domenico di Michelino: Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem (detail)
Dante, myth, masks, illumination & lies predominate in the February issue, a thematic crystallization focused on contributions by Pat Keane, Paul Pines, and Mark Jay Mirsky who has earlier appeared in these pages as a reviewer (of Genese Grill’s Robert Musil translations) and as a fiction writer. Mirsky’s fiction created a sort of love quadrangle comprising Dante and Beatrice, a teacher and his much younger inamorata. Dante obsesses the narrator as he obsesses Mirsky. This month Mirsky throws off the mask of fiction and offers an essay on his passions: Dante, humour, translation, and influence. It’s a surprise essay in many ways, salient among them is its emphasis on the comedic irony of the, well, Dante’s Comedy. Mirsky shows how at least one translation misses the comedy in an attempt, perhaps, to be clear. Fascinating to read him. Erudite and yet informal and approachable and present.
Mark Jay Mirsky
I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.—Mark Jay Mirsky
Elizabeth Thomas, who has already contributed a gorgeous Australian childhood essay, returns this month with an extension of her memoir into her teens, redolent of a place and time nearly forgotten these days. Just read the places names in this excerpt out loud and you will be transported.
IN THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south. —Elizabeth Thomas
Jacob McArthur Mooney
From the Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney, we have edgy, witty, wry, even dystopian little poems, also quite funny when he’s writing about the jun that falls out of airplanes onto the world below.
We need to accept that the doom will foster monsters.
We think the end will be a noun when it will really be a verb.
No. Best to collapse the future in front of you:
You will die or your child will be taken by the dying.
Also two chapters from a memoir What Brought You Here by the Irish expat writer Aine Greaney, who I actually knew in the mid-1990s, when she was a student in a workshop I ran in Albany for the New York State Writers Institute. We had lost contact, now we are brought together by the good offices of Senior Editor Gerard Beirne.
No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”
Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. —Aine Greaney
Gregory Howard I found when he started exclaiming about NC’s fiction offerings on Twitter, expressing his astoundingly good taste. Such a fine coincidence: a terrific young writer who followed the magazine. I got in touch, and, Lo!, he sent me a fantastic short story, deeply strange, quirky, surprisings and grand.
He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. —Gregory Howard
S. D. Chrostowska
Jeff Bursey reviews S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches, just out with Punctum press. We ran an excerpt in the January issue.
An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. —Jeff Bursey
From NC multiple recidivist (novel excerpts, interview) Donald Breckenridge, a stern, sad memoir excerpt with a nouveau roman-ish dis-affectedness, obsessive detail, and a cumulative emotional punch.
On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. —Donald Breckenridge
From our own Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a fascinating interview (with stunning images) with textile artist Sean Riley.
I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear.—Sean Riley
Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Henry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.
Pat Keane contributes what is at once a great essay in the history of ideas (the idea of masks from Blake to Wilde to Nietzsche to Yeats) and yet another approach to his Irish eidolon. I say “approach” because much of what Pat writes is in the nature of approaches to the obsessional brotherhood of his mind (Nietzsche, Emerson, Yeats, Wordsworth, Twain), using affinities to illuminate and reveal aspects of each in the other, In this case, Wilde is the starting point of the essay, but the thing leaps at the moment when, reading Nietzsche, Yeats made a little explanatory diagram in the margin.
On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche.—Patrick J. Keane
Patrick J. Keane
Palermo wall mural
Erika Mihálycsa, who has already sent us stories and translations, contributes a dreamy and evocative essay on living in Palermo, Italy.
Balcony for dreamers. There is no floor: abandon gravitation ye who step out here. Turned so entirely outward that it got refined out of existence, there not to detain but to accelerate the gaze. The wrought iron railing as an exercise in minimalism in this least minimalist of cities: how to draw the minimal line that can hold the maximum of time. —Erika Mihálycsa
The Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World (Woodcut) 16th Century
Paul Pines, a poet, novelist and psychotherapist, offers yet another essay, the third, in a series of meditations on the legend of the Fisher King. Part cultural exploration, part dream analysis, part memoir, part prose poem, the essay and its earlier avatars is a brilliant exposition of symbolic structures that are both out there (culture, the world) and inside (the soul, the mind).
In my twenties, as a merchant marine crossing both oceans and several seas, I spent hours at the rail watching the mysterious relationship between sea and sky. At times they existed peacefully, like sleeping lovers, fused, with no defining horizon. Afloat in seamless space, I glimpsed the plenitude of timelessness. More often, water and air colluded in creating spellbinding iterations of light. Most incredible were their sudden declarations of war. And with each shift of mood between them, I identified a corresponding one in myself so that concentrated thus, in this floating world, the only secure anchor was the observing eye that contained the image linking both worlds. —Paul Pines
Our newest contributor Joe Schreiber does a masterful review of Rafael Chirbes’ newly translated novel On the Edge.
Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber
There is more, of course. There always is. NC at the Movies, a review of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage by Jason DeYoung. And maybe more than that. I dunno. I’m only the editor, an accidental participant.