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Ma Jian. Photo: Flora Drew. © Flora Drew.

Ma Jian’s China Dream, translated by Flora Drew and published earlier this month by Counterpoint Press, is a short, sharp-toothed satire of Xi Jinping’s China. The novel depicts a corrupt bureaucrat’s attempts to implement a new government initiative to overwrite people’s dreams. Ma, a dissident writer who lives in exile in London, portrays a contemporary China in which consumerism goes hand in hand with totalitarianism, and memories of the Cultural Revolution surface at the most inopportune events. China Dream is funny in a kind of hopeless way—the title itself comes from a slogan popularized by the Chinese government in 2013, and a Red Guard–themed orgy scene halfway through reads like a nightmare—and it raises questions about political violence and the suppression of memory that stay with you long after the book has ended. —Rhian Sasseen 

Aaron Kunin’s Love Three is a three-hundred-page study of George Herbert’s eighteen-line devotional poem “Love (III).” There’s a clear pattern of advancement and hesitation in Herbert’s poem, and everything—redemption, sanctification, creation—is boiled down to the simplest words in the English language, which is why I’ve been in awe of what Kunin has done in his expansive study. Kunin takes elements of the poem and creates something else entirely. Each numbered section of the book is a restatement of Herbert’s lyric, followed by a paraphrase: “Try to think of it as a third kind of love. The first / kind is nice / The second kind is nasty. Another / kind is nice because it’s nasty. Love three.” Then comes a series of contemplations on what his paraphrases have missed—“Here’s something Herbert might have been thinking about. Magdalen Herbert, his mother, was a powerful woman … How would I want to change Herbert’s poem?”—and a study of what other critics have written: “Herbert’s style covers the aggression of the penultimate line so that many otherwise careful readers hear only the sweet tone. Sweetness that overpowers every other suggestion.” Then Kunin writes about the poem through his own sexual history; the book is his extensive process of working through a wide range of memories, sexual experiences, fantasies, and limits on the page, and Herbert’s poem is the key. Open Love Three to any section and you get an intimate portrait of both poets, and honest reflections on our most complicated feelings. —Camille Jacobson

Ron Padgett. Photo: Pascal Perich.

If Ron Padgett ever returned to Twitter (his account has been dormant since 2016), he would be great at it. I mean this as a high compliment—his short, quotidian observations are profound for their simplicity and occasional absurdity (his poem “How to Be Perfect,” illustrated by Jason Novak, delivers this effect in a way both satisfying and delightful). His latest collection, Big Cabin, is broken into three parts: the first and third are verse poems, the second a long series of prose entries. All were written over three winters in a Vermont cabin. Padgett’s way of literally presenting reality creates a postmodernist’s world. His poem “It’s Good” begins: “It’s good to have a heater / you can hold your hands in front of / to get them warm enough to hold a pen / to write ‘It’s good to have a heater.’ ” When he’s not thumbing his nose at language, he’s writing silly homages to sandwiches and chickadees. Both are deeply pleasing to read and would probably be right at home if shared on your newsfeed. —Lauren Kane

Back in 2017, Suzi Wu’s “Taken Care Of” was the pep in my step, the bass in my pace. I replayed it each morning like a mantra. Suzi Wu’s second EP, Error 404, came out at the end of March this year, and its fusion of dancehall bounce and the “occult pop” of her debut EP, Teenage Witch, immediately became the soundtrack to my train delays and late-night grocery runs, instilling me with a city-kid confidence and the feeling of wearing thick-soled boots. The commanding title track alternates between a rhyming monotone and a growling chorus straight from the internet generation: “I simply am not there.” “Hungry,” an absolute bop, has the slick cool of Destiny’s Child and the intimidating banter of M.I.A. Perhaps part of Suzi Wu’s appeal is that even when she’s joking, she does so with a wry realness seldom found on a party playlist. Her voice is elastic, with a drawling accent that wafts from performative pomp to hoarse confession. In many ways, she feels adjacent to a grungy British sensibility—a more feminine King Krule. She takes grime and shoves it through a rosy filter to produce songs filled with swagger, underestimated sweetness, and electronic bite. —Nikki Shaner-Bradford

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Starling Days is an exquisite rendering of love, sadness, and misunderstanding. When the protagonist, Mina, is hospitalized following a suicide attempt, her partner attends to her: “For the whole visiting hour, his face was twisted with confusion. ‘Why did you do this?’ he’d asked. But she couldn’t point and go, There, that. That’s what’s wrong with me.” The dynamic of this scene replicates itself throughout the novel—the effort to make sense of the inexplicable; the figures’ ensuing confusion; a face always twisted. But just as much as Buchanan maps her characters’ attempts to find answers, she also reveals how in some cases, to press on sadness, to try and root out a single cause, might only push it deeper into the skin. Starling Days is an exploration of depression without clear resolution, but it is all the more precious for that refusal. I want to share this book with everyone I know and say, Look: here is a way to be with an emotion without anticipating its meaning. Sadness ebbs and flows but never goes away, and it’s good to know a few more of its edges. I closed this book with a sense of clarity brought not by information, but by submersion. —Spencer Quong

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.

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Carolus-Duran, Equestrian portrait of Mademoiselle Croizette, 1873, oil on canvas. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Michel de Montaigne is best imagined on horseback; firstly, because that was how he traveled around his own lands and between his estate and Bordeaux, as well as elsewhere in France—to Paris, Rouen, or Blois, and even farther afield (during his great journey in 1580 he traveled through Switzerland and Germany all the way to Rome). But he should also be pictured this way because he never felt more comfortable anywhere than in the saddle; it was here that he found his equilibrium, his seat:

Travel is in my opinion a very profitable exercise; the soul is there continually employed in observing new and unknown things, and I do not know, as I have often said a better school wherein to model life than by incessantly exposing to it the diversity of so many other lives, fancies, and usances, and by making it relish a perpetual variety of forms of human nature. The body is, therein, neither idle nor overwrought; and that moderate agitation puts it in breath. I can keep on horseback, tormented with the stone as I am, without alighting or being weary, eight or ten hours together.

First of all, traveling enables us to experience the world’s diversity, and Montaigne insists that there is no better education. Traveling shows us the richness of nature, proves the relativity of customs and beliefs, and shakes up our certainties; in short, it teaches us skepticism, which was Montaigne’s fundamental doctrine.

Next, Montaigne gains particular physical pleasure from riding horseback, which allies movement and stability and gives the body balance and rhythm conducive to contemplation. Riding frees us from work without encouraging idleness; it lends itself to daydreaming. Horseback riding puts Montaigne in a state of “moderate agitation,” a lovely combination of terms he uses to designate a sort of ideal intermediary state. Aristotle both thought and taught while walking; Montaigne has his best ideas while in the saddle, an activity that even allows him to forget about his bladder and kidney stones.

However, Montaigne also admits—as is his wont—that his taste for travel, particularly on horseback, could also be interpreted as a mark of indecision and powerlessness: “I know very well that, to take it by the letter, this pleasure of travelling is a testimony of uneasiness and irresolution, and, in sooth, these two are our governing and predominating qualities. Yes, I confess, I see nothing, not so much as in a dream, in a wish, whereon I could set up my rest: variety only, and the possession of diversity, can satisfy me; that is, if anything can. In travelling, it pleases me that I may stay where I like, without inconvenience, and that I have a place wherein commodiously to divert myself.”

To be too fond of traveling is to prove yourself incapable of stopping, of making a decision, of settling down; it is to lack confidence, to prefer inconsistency to perseverance. In this, for Montaigne, travel is a metaphor for life. He lives like he travels—aimlessly, open to the attractions of the world: “They who run after a benefit or a hare, run not … and the journey of my life is carried on after the same manner.”

So great is Montaigne’s love of riding that if he were able to choose the manner of his death, “I think I should rather choose to die on horseback than in bed.” Montaigne dreamed of dying in the saddle, off on some voyage, far from his home and family. Life and death on horseback represent his philosophy perfectly.

—Translated from the French by Tina Kover

Antoine Compagnon is a professor of French literature at Collège de France, Paris, and the Blanche W. Knopf Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, New York. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and holds honorary degrees from King’s College London, HEC Paris, and the University of Liege.

Tina Kover’s translations include Négar Djavadi’s novel, Disoriental, which was short-listed for the National Book Award; Anna Gavalda’s Life, Only Better; and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, by Adélaïde Bon. Kover is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for the translation of Manette Salomon, by the Goncourt brothers.

Excerpted from A Summer with Montaigne, by Antoine Compagnon, translated by Tina Kover. A Summer with Montaigne is published by Europa Editions.

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TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., On the Origin of Species – Instinct (after Darwin), 2015 (Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein)

“Today we make history.” This was the constant refrain from Tim Rollins, as a group of teenagers filed into the South Bronx studio every afternoon after school. The group had named itself Kids of Survival and the lofty idea of making history became ingrained in the fabric of our collective consciousness. Our aim was to change our lives and become immortal through the creation of art. Today, Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, the longest running art collective in history, is included in over 120 museum and public collections. Since its inception in a junior high school classroom in the Bronx, it has exhibited hundreds of times at major galleries and institutions worldwide

I was fortunate to have grown up in the South Bronx in eighties. Yes, there was violence. No, it wasn’t necessarily the safest neighborhood. Drug dealing and prostitution were rampant at the time, and the AIDS epidemic hit our neighborhood especially hard, but there was an energy ignited by music, fashion, and the visual arts. The South Bronx was the epicenter of hip-hop and its effect on the community was palpable. Despite the abject appearance of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, there was a certain defiance born from genuine pride in the community. If you had some sort of special talent, like drawing for instance, you garnered respect, including respect from drug dealers and other rough entities. They left this nerdy kid alone. In ways both physical and metaphorical, the making of art provided me safety.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., By any means necessary – Trapped/Caught, 1985-1987 (Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Matthew Herrmann)

In 1986, at the age of twelve, I joined Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival. I first met Tim as a seventh grader at the Intermediate School 52 where he was teaching at the time. Tim had only intended to stay at the school for a few weeks. The students had made charcoal drawings on the ceiling of the classroom, and the walls were covered in graffiti. Tim often described the art room as the “Hip-Hop Sistine Chapel.” He was convinced that there was a profound reason he was there.

Timothy William Rollins was born in 1955 in a small town in central Maine. Similar to the South Bronx, Pittsfield was economically downtrodden and its youth struggled against the pitfalls of low expectations. Tim was extremely motivated and precocious. He was a gifted artist, an avid reader, and an amateur scholar of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s writings and speeches, combined with Tim’s Sunday school teaching, would form the basis of his pedagogical philosophy with K.O.S. Tim earned his BFA from SVA in 1977 and after graduate studies at New York University, in art education and philosophy, he began teaching in the New York City public school system. In 1982, Tim stepped off the 2 train at Prospect Ave in the South Bronx for the first time.

Although I.S. 52 had a reputation for being one of the worse schools in the worst district in New York City, this wasn’t always the case. One of its graduates was Colin Powell, who attended I.S. 52 in the late forties. Times had changed, though. This was the eighties, and the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman, contained more truth than fiction. In order to avoid walking the three city blocks to  I.S. 52, I took two buses to attend one of the first charter schools in New York. Alas, in the seventh grade, I no longer had a choice and was forced to attend I.S. 52. That first day of school was as chaotic as I had imagined it would be. The halls were littered with paper and the students ran rampant. But as seventh period came around and I walked in to room 318, there was a collective hush. We were scheduled to attend art class and there Tim was at the head of the classroom wearing a red three-piece suit. As a steadfast Marxist, this was his uniform back then. He insisted that we take our seats quickly because there was a lot of work to be done. Tim introduced himself and proceeded to give us all a handout that looked like a test.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., Amerika – For Karl, 1989 (Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Matthew Herrmann)

Indeed, it was a multiple-choice test. On the first day of school! With questions such as: “Out of these four artists, which one is not a Cubist?” and “What year was the first Surrealist Manifesto written?” I could read the questions, but had no idea what the answers were. Tim collected the tests and told us, with his classically mischievous smile, that we had just taken what would be the midterm exam, and he would not change a word of it. He assured us that we would know all of the answers by then and guaranteed we would all get A’s. It was this unorthodox, brilliant protocol that made me realize I was where I belonged.

Several months later, Tim met my parents during a parent-teacher conference. He told us about the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an after-school program that he had developed using education as a medium for making art. The next day I arrived at the studio in a nearby community center, which had been secured through a $8,000 NEA grant in 1984. Not quite grasping the immense scope of the project, I had my precious Crayola watercolor paints in hand. The entire studio erupted with laughter as I wielded the silly set. Although I was embarrassed, I wasn’t discouraged. I had a visceral feeling of being home.

At the time, Tim and K.O.S. were preparing for a major exhibition at PS1 called Out of the Studio: Art with Community. This exhibition included John Ahearn and David Hammons, among others. There were large-scale works in progress. One painting consisted of a cacophonous assembly of golden horns based on Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Another was a constellation of wounds reminiscent of planets or airy cosmos, inspired by Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted over the text of Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. This spoke to the daily challenges we faced as young folks growing up in the South Bronx.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison), 2014

All of the works were painted on texts carefully assembled in a grid-like fashion. We discussed the books, and all their significant symbology, under Tim’s guidance. These visual manifestations were much more than illustration. We considered them to be conversations with the authors and composers. We followed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that books are to be used, not just read.

Although the project was an egalitarian form of a Renaissance studio, there was no room for condescension. The high demand for excellence required that all of us, including Tim, check our egos at the door. I would not realize until later the importance of this social experiment that mixed racial identity with cultural and sociogeographical ones. Despite Tim’s Caucasian skin and rural Maine upbringing, the connection we all had was concrete and kindred. The works became a by-product of the relationships forged in the studio. A photo album of sorts, evidence of significant research and life-changing discovery.

The group went on to see astronomical commercial and critical success. We participated in two Whitney Biennials in 1985 and 1991, as well as the Venice Biennale in 1988, and documenta 8, among others. Tim pressed upon us his belief in the importance of first-hand empirical knowledge. Through sales of the work, we were able to travel to the national and international galleries and museums that were exhibiting us, providing life-changing experiences. We endured tremendous peaks and valleys in the nineties and 2000s. Identity politics in the art world and beyond had put us in a place not quite easily understood or compartmentalized. People began to assume the worst of our unique collaboration. There were whispers of mutual exploitation and attempts, intentional or not, to tarnish the extreme sincerity of our project. We persevered. Members of the group came and went organically. A few key members of the group, such as Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Jorge Abreu, and myself, remained constant fixtures. With Tim’s encouragement, we attended college. Tim pushed us all to engage in our own individual practices as well, which informed the project in turn. The work matured as we did, both physically and mentality. We became Tim’s colleagues, rather than his students. With this shift, the work grew to be more conceptual, appearing as if it was done by one hand, though this was not the case.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2014

In essence we morphed into a think tank, using literature and philosophy as tools for engaging social justice. We began conducting workshops in conjunction with institutional exhibitions outside of our community. We were grown men now, but we were still a family and we would always be Kids of Survival.

In late 2017, Tim suddenly passed away at the age of sixty-two. It shattered my world. Tim was not only my mentor, but my father figure, best friend, and collaborator. This is true for all of the remaining K.O.S. members. Over the last year and a half, we’ve come together often to talk about how we can continue the legacy of a man who gave so much to everyone he encountered, and especially to us. I picture a twelve-year-old Tim, full of promise and ambition, reading Dr. King’s sermon from 1957. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” It is with this in mind that Rick, Robert, Jorge, and I will continue the work and keep Tim’s spirit alive through Studio K.O.S.

The exhibition “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” will be on view at the Lehman Maupin Gallery until June 15.

Angel Abreu is an artist, writer, and educator. He is a member of Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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In our column Poetry Rx, readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match. This column has run weekly for over a year, and now, our dear and busy poets must slow it down to once a month. Never fear — they’ll still be here, just a bit less often. This month, Claire Schwartz is on the line.

©ELLIS ROSEN

Dear Poets,

Two years ago, I came out of the closet to my family by introducing them to my girlfriend. They responded fairly negatively, expressing their disbelief (“we would have known if you were gay”) and disapproval (“it’s not something we believe in or support”). I have pushed back in many ways—bringing my girlfriend to family functions, being hypervisible online, and proclaiming the steadfastness and validity of my relationship in frequent and intense fights. In the wake of this, my relationship, which did not have a strong foundation to begin with and shouldered the normal fears and anxieties that accompany any romantic partnership, suffered greatly. The more unstable my relationship became, the more strongly I held on to it—I fought for her so hard in the public arena that I didn’t know how not to in the private one. At times, it was volatile and abrasive, yet I fought for it still. 

After two years of what felt like pushing the boulder of “us” up a mountain, we decided to call it quits. Now I am both heartbroken over losing her and losing myself. In her absence, I am struggling to find mooring. How do you mourn a relationship whose primary purpose was to validate your queerness, both to yourself and others? How do you maintain an identity in the absence of the person it was formed around? Perhaps most of all, can I keep her in my life without making her my compass?

Sincerely,
Broken Heart, Broken Self

Dear Broken Heart, Broken Self,

I’m sorry your family did not respond with the affirmation you deserve. Your queerness doesn’t need to be validated. It is valid because it is. You need—you deserve—to find a way to enter the truths of yourself regardless of how other people see you. That is difficult, beautiful work. I want to offer you a poem I hold very close because it stabilizes me to do just that: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck.” The poem begins with the speaker preparing for their journey by making use of the instruments the world has offered them:

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.

As the speaker descends, the received stories—the book of myths—will not serve. The speaker needs to cast them off to find the truth they need:

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth

You now need to let go of the story—the messages you have received about what counts as valid—so you can get to the thing itself: the truths of your own beautiful desire.

The wreck is a space where everything is broken. That is to say, it is a space where everything can be assembled anew. It’s a terrifying and possibility-filled place. Your former girlfriend is not your compass there. She cannot be the tool by which you navigate your own interior space. When we use someone else as an instrument in our own story, we do them damage. In reconciling them with what we need to believe about ourselves, we cannot remain attuned to what they need. And we harm ourselves, too, because we deny ourselves the power of looking directly at our own truth. I don’t know how or whether you can keep your former girlfriend in your life. That is, of course, something that is up to both of you. I do know, however, that as you take on the ongoing work of learning who you are and what you believe, you will be better equipped to move toward relationships—in whatever form they come—from a place of truth and generosity.

—CS

*

Dear Poets,

I have been submerged in a sea of grief since March, when my father passed away suddenly. He is my one and only constant thought everyday. His absence feels more like an echo than a silence. There is a void in me that I know will never be filled. But my sadness intensifies when I attempt to understand the pain of others, mainly that of my mother, who has lost the love of her life too soon. We live in different countries, and I think about her, about the heaviness of the word widow, about her broken mornings. How she has to make one cup of coffee instead of two, or how she sits at the table to eat alone every evening. Is there a poem about the pain of others? How we can carry it as if it was our own, hoping that this might lessen its weight? 

Sincerely,
A Sad Daughter

Dear Sad Daughter,

I’m so sorry that you’ve lost your father—and that your mother has lost her love. When I read your note, I thought immediately of a Ross Gay’s poem “Ending the Estrangement”:

from my mother’s sadness, which was,
to me, unbearable, until,
it felt to me
not like what I thought it felt like
to her, and so felt inside myself—like death,
like dying, which I would almost
have rather done, though adding to her sadness
would rather die than do—

This poem considers the ways we carry the sadness of those we love—how their sadness becomes our sadness, even as we hold it differently than they do. The jostling of the poem’s opening lines reflects the child’s motion, as they try to position and reposition themselves in order to find a stance that might allow them to support their mother without buckling themself under the weight of her suffering. As the poem ends, the speaker grows still so that their mother’s sadness might reach them. When the sadness finally reaches the speaker, it arrives with that particular kind of beauty that connection brings:

…when last it came
drifted like a meadow lit by torches
of cardinal flower, one of whose crimson blooms,
when a hummingbird hovered nearby,
I slipped into my mouth
thereby coaxing the bird
to scrawl on my tongue
its heart’s frenzy, its fleet
nectar-questing song,
with whom, with you, dear mother,
I now sing along.

Your father’s absence turns you toward your mother. Look how, thinking of him, you trace the contours of her life: her making coffee, her sitting down at the table alone for breakfast. What care limns your noticing. Perhaps, in time, there is a way to turn that care into company. Send your mother a mug to offer her a bit of happiness when she pours her coffee, send a sweet text when you know she is sitting down to breakfast—these are notes to a song you can sing with her, even across distance.

—CS

Dear Poets,

After an extended struggle with his health, my paternal grandfather passed away last month to little fanfare. My father’s sisters don’t get along so they decided, without deciding, that there would be no obituary and no services. While I wasn’t particularly close to my grandfather, the thought of his life going unacknowledged hurts in ways I cannot describe. Can you offer any soothing words?

Thank you,  

Craving Acknowledgement

 

Dear Craving Acknowledgement,

In her memoir, The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander writes about the period following the sudden loss of her husband:

I am feeling very Jewish, I keep hearing in my head, thinking not of my actual Jewish Jamaican great-grandfather but rather about a wish for a religious culture that reveres the word and tells you what to do … I want rules. I want the prayers to say every day for a year at dusk and I want them to be beautiful and meaningful. I want to sit shiva and have the neighbors come at the end of the week and walk my family around the block, to usher us into the sunlight.

Grief is an unwieldy thing. Ceremony performs the dual function of paying tribute to a person who has passed and mapping a way forward for those of us who remain. Ritual gives form to formless territory, offering us a route to the other side.

For you, Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372),” which insists on the possibility of a path through disorienting difficulty. The poem ends:

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Dickinson’s poem reminds me that time itself holds the transformative function of ceremony. As you move forward, you will remember your grandfather. If it feels useful to you, you might consider offering that memory an external form. Perhaps you might conduct a private ceremony. On the anniversary of his death, take a walk to a lake he loved—or one that you do. Plant a tree in his honor so that, if you choose, you have a flowering spot to return to.

—CS

Want more? Read earlier installments of Poetry Rx. Need your own poem? Write to us!

Claire Schwartz is the author of bound (Button Poetry, 2018). Her poetry has appeared in Apogee, Bennington Review, The Massachusetts Review, and Prairie Schooner, and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in The Iowa Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.

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Photo: Paxson Woelber, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)).

Still sometimes late at night it slides in—what it felt like to think of my brother Tom outside. In the coldest seasons of his years of homelessness, it would rise up late in the day if I was alone in the hour in which darkness descended.

Each year as the seasons shifted, as leaves fell and the frosts came to Santa Fe or New York, I would grow tired and short-tempered, my body aching. The small muscles along my spine would seize up and I would get tight headaches. A knot would form at the base of my skull as my shoulders lifted and pinched, causing a tingling pain to come on along the backs of my arms. I would have to distract myself, get my mind off Tom—have a beer, talk about movies, pop a Valium left over from a prescription for back spasms.

I came to rely on certain facts about his relationship to winter. That he had been a skier, a camper, a mountain climber. That Alaska was, aside from a few years in Boulder, the only home he had ever known. He knew how to survive outside. He had the skills to stay warm, to make a camp in the woods. As long as he could keep track of his gear. Find enough food. That was my biggest worry at first—that he was always hungry.

Nights, I tried not to imagine the worst possibilities of where he might be. Instead I placed him in the safest, warmest camp I could conjure. I led him into the thickets beside the Coastal Trail, built him a snow cave, stuffed him into a fat sleeping bag on a thick foam pad, filled his pack with dry gloves and long underwear, placed new socks on his feet. What else was there to do.

If it gets really bad, I thought, he can always go trespass somewhere and get arrested. I knew he knew that. I knew he wouldn’t forget that.

A kind of long, jagged breath became habitual. A quick, sharp intake and a slow, unsteady exhale. When roommates noticed, inevitably, I felt the strangeness of the question Are you okay? How could I know? By what measure? Usually I seemed fine. And maybe I was. But sometimes I went sideways, unexpectedly, for no obvious reason. Sometimes I would lie on the sofa as if inside a shell, a hard stillness, trying to will myself to move.

Dad kept spare clothes at the house, shirts and boots and hats in Tom’s size, offering them when he could. Any clothes or winter gear Tom might need. Extras of everything, since Tom never kept things for very long. Since they’d be given away or dropped or forgotten or stolen.

Part of me was glad I didn’t know too many details. What I already knew of Anchorage winters was enough. Biting cold and obsidian skies folding down over him, the bright sharp darkness of nineteen-hour nights. The air crisp as if shot through with ice. It made your eyes water and then froze the tears against your lashes. And then there was the thick, dull feeling of body parts slowly going numb. That wooden sensation all around your thighs, and your earlobes and toes too, if you weren’t careful.

I dreamed of being the one to hand Tom a wool cap, a thick coat, some flannel-lined carpenter pants. Sturdy leather hiking boots, weatherproofed, solid—or fat Sorels, rubber-and-leather snow boots lined with sheepskin.

During cold snaps, Dad would drive around looking for him, stopping if he saw him on the sidewalk, inviting him back to the house for dinner and a shower. Tom often said yes, just for a while. Sometimes Dad would give him a haircut, do his laundry. Always he gave him some cash. And then Tom would want to leave again, go back outside.

In the background, memories. Dark evenings when, home from college, I’d been in the habit of putting on long johns under my jeans and a down coat and a fleece hat and going out walking. Alone in the streets of Turnagain neighborhood, between the intermittent streetlights, trudging through the layer of scraped, compressed snow. As I roamed past the houses we had always lived among, hugging the edges of the plowed roads, I communed with the split-level homes—their wooden siding, their mailboxes and garage doors and driveways. I was looking for ghosts, I think, and trying to unravel the secret of what my life was.

Maybe there were flashes of former selves. Friends, crushes, my atmospheric solitude. Our mother there but gone. And more—the potential of youth, its fullness. Did I find those ghosts or let them go? I wonder, still, who was the self I had expected Tom to help me become.

One year I sent him a gift package of cookies I made every Christmas. But several weeks later Dad said Tom had never come by, so he ended up eating them himself. After that, he told us there was no point in sending anything but cards. Tom could read our notes someday, he said, when he was getting better. Then he would know that we had been thinking of him all along. But my letters were awful—full of platitudes and stilted prose, tight with all I didn’t say.

Mornings, Dad would scan the Daily News for bits about homeless men, reading close when a body was found in Chester Creek or Kincaid Park or somewhere else nearby, looking for the name: not Tom. He stopped taking trips during the winter, wanting always to be home to answer the door if Tom stopped by on a cold night.

Ignorance as a black hole, its event horizon limning every wintry hour.

There could be no Christmases, no Thanksgivings, no New Year’s Eves without that thing. The wondering, the demands it made. Inside or outside, warm or cold, hungry or fed, desperate or content. His own birthday, late December. Family dinners, celebrations. There were no moments at all, really, without his absent body and the absent knowledge it signified.

People helped. His friends, my friends, family friends, neighbors, friends of friends. A teacher from our high school drew Tom indoors with the ruse that he needed someone to read aloud to, picking up Moby-Dick, keeping Tom listening as long as possible. A friend’s parents left the outer door to their front vestibule unlocked when they were not home, so he could warm up in there anytime. A friend of Zach’s, running into Tom on Spenard Road, gave him a pair of expensive fleece pants he happened to have with him.

The tension inside, whatever it was—always about to overtake me. I became a minor paranoiac, fretting over trivialities, my days pervaded by a sense of danger, ruled by panicky indecision. I stopped doing yoga, though I had practiced it off and on for years, finding the releases that came as I stretched and breathed too overwhelming. My heart would pound hard and my face would flush and I would feel dizzy and have to sit down. So instead I hiked, charging hard uphill, or I went out and laughed and drank and danced, or I closed myself in, watching DVDs alone in the dark, hour after hour.

Snow. Its faceted quality, the way it caught light, flashing at random angles as you moved. Frost. Rime. Hoar. Powder. Slush. Hail. Graupel. Névé.

Friends would say he came by their houses. They would say they ran into him at the library, they passed him in their cars. He was standing in the rain. He was in the parking lot beside Westchester Lagoon, staring off into space. They cooked him dinner or gave him a few bucks or let him take a shower. He was seen on C Street, on Fifth Avenue, or at a corner of the lagoon that we called the Ducks. They were worried, they were unsure what to do, they were impressed. I was impressed. Our friend Russell said to me, “In some ways I think of him as the ultimate Alaskan man.”

I thought he was brave. I thought he was stupid. I thought he was smart. I thought he was stubborn. I knew, of course, that he was ill. When friends who saw him out walking asked me what they could do, I said, “Feed him.”

Flake. Crystal. Bank. Drift. Cornice. Field. Glacier. Pack. Blizzard. Storm. Flurry. Shower. Slide. Burst. Avalanche. Crevasse.

Fear conflates the present with the past, makes one forget how to distinguish what has happened from what will happen yet. I have moments when, remembering those days, I feel a sudden pulse through my head and find myself wiping at tears. Then I register that it is a memory and as I catch my breath I hear myself saying, It’s over now. You don’t ever have to feel that way again.

Marin Sardy’s essays and criticism have appeared in Tin House, Guernica, The Rumpus, Fourth Genre, the Missouri Review, ARTnews, and Art Ltd., as well as in two award-winning photography books, Landscape Dreams and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby. She has also been the arts editor in chief at Santa Fe’s Santa Fean magazine. A Pushcart Prize nominee, Sardy has twice had her work listed among the year’s notable essays in Best American Essays. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

From the book The Edge of Every Day, by Marin Sardy. Copyright © 2019 by Marin Sardy. Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., On the Origin of Species – Instinct (after Darwin), 2015 [Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein]

“Today we make history.” This was the constant refrain from Tim Rollins, as a group of teenagers filed into the South Bronx studio every afternoon after school. The group had named itself Kids of Survival and the lofty idea of making history became ingrained in the fabric of our collective consciousness. Our aim was to change our lives and become immortal through the creation of art. Today, Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival, the longest running art collective in history, is included in over 120 museum and public collections. Since its inception in a junior high school classroom in the Bronx, it has exhibited hundreds of times at major galleries and institutions worldwide

I was fortunate to have grown up in the South Bronx in eighties. Yes, there was violence. No, it wasn’t necessarily the safest neighborhood. Drug dealing and prostitution were rampant at the time, and the AIDS epidemic hit our neighborhood especially hard, but there was an energy ignited by music, fashion, and the visual arts. The South Bronx was the epicenter of hip-hop and its effect on the community was palpable. Despite the abject appearance of the abandoned buildings and vacant lots, there was a certain defiance born from genuine pride in the community. If you had some sort of special talent, like drawing for instance, you garnered respect, including respect from drug dealers and other rough entities. They left this nerdy kid alone. In ways both physical and metaphorical, the making of art provided me safety.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., By any means necessary – Trapped/Caught, 1985-1987 [Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Matthew Herrmann]


In 1986, at the age of twelve, I joined Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival. I first met Tim as a seventh grader at the Intermediate School 52 where he was teaching at the time. Tim had only intended to stay at the school for a few weeks. The students had made charcoal drawings on the ceiling of the classroom, and the walls were covered in graffiti. Tim often described the art room as the “Hip-Hop Sistine Chapel.” He was convinced that there was a profound reason he was there.

Timothy William Rollins was born in 1955 in a small town in central Maine. Similar to the South Bronx, Pittsfield was economically downtrodden and its youth struggled against the pitfalls of low expectations. Tim was extremely motivated and precocious. He was a gifted artist, an avid reader, and an amateur scholar of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King’s writings and speeches, combined with Tim’s Sunday school teaching, would form the basis of his pedagogical philosophy with K.O.S. Tim earned his BFA from SVA in 1977 and after graduate studies at New York University, in art education and philosophy, he began teaching in the New York City public school system. In 1982, Tim stepped off the 2 train at Prospect Ave in the South Bronx for the first time.

Although I.S. 52 had a reputation for being one of the worse schools in the worst district in New York City, this wasn’t always the case. One of its graduates was Colin Powell, who attended I.S. 52 in the late forties. Times had changed, though. This was the eighties, and the film Fort Apache, The Bronx, starring Paul Newman, contained more truth than fiction. In order to avoid walking the three city blocks to  I.S. 52, I took two buses to attend one of the first charter schools in New York. Alas, in the seventh grade, I no longer had a choice and was forced to attend I.S. 52. That first day of school was as chaotic as I had imagined it would be. The halls were littered with paper and the students ran rampant. But as seventh period came around and I walked in to room 318, there was a collective hush. We were scheduled to attend art class and there Tim was at the head of the classroom wearing a red three-piece suit. As a steadfast Marxist, this was his uniform back then. He insisted that we take our seats quickly because there was a lot of work to be done. Tim introduced himself and proceeded to give us all a handout that looked like a test.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., Amerika – For Karl, 1989 [Courtesy Studio K.O.S., Lehmann Maupin. Photo: Matthew Herrmann]

Indeed, it was a multiple-choice test. On the first day of school! With questions such as: “Out of these four artists, which one is not a Cubist?” and “What year was the first Surrealist Manifesto written?” I could read the questions, but had no idea what the answers were. Tim collected the tests and told us, with his classically mischievous smile, that we had just taken what would be the midterm exam, and he would not change a word of it. He assured us that we would know all of the answers by then and guaranteed we would all get A’s. It was this unorthodox, brilliant protocol that made me realize I was where I belonged.

Several months later, Tim met my parents during a parent-teacher conference. He told us about the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an after-school program that he had developed using education as a medium for making art. The next day I arrived at the studio in a nearby community center, which had been secured through a $8,000 NEA grant in 1984. Not quite grasping the immense scope of the project, I had my precious Crayola watercolor paints in hand. The entire studio erupted with laughter as I wielded the silly set. Although I was embarrassed, I wasn’t discouraged. I had a visceral feeling of being home.

At the time, Tim and K.O.S. were preparing for a major exhibition at PS1 called Out of the Studio: Art with Community. This exhibition included John Ahearn and David Hammons, among others. There were large-scale works in progress. One painting consisted of a cacophonous assembly of golden horns based on Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Another was a constellation of wounds reminiscent of planets or airy cosmos, inspired by Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, painted over the text of Stephan Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. This spoke to the daily challenges we faced as young folks growing up in the South Bronx.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison), 2014

All of the works were painted on texts carefully assembled in a grid-like fashion. We discussed the books, and all their significant symbology, under Tim’s guidance. These visual manifestations were much more than illustration. We considered them to be conversations with the authors and composers. We followed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that books are to be used, not just read.

Although the project was an egalitarian form of a Renaissance studio, there was no room for condescension. The high demand for excellence required that all of us, including Tim, check our egos at the door. I would not realize until later the importance of this social experiment that mixed racial identity with cultural and sociogeographical ones. Despite Tim’s Caucasian skin and rural Maine upbringing, the connection we all had was concrete and kindred. The works became a by-product of the relationships forged in the studio. A photo album of sorts, evidence of significant research and life-changing discovery.

The group went on to see astronomical commercial and critical success. We participated in two Whitney Biennials in 1985 and 1991, as well as the Venice Biennale in 1988, and documenta 8, among others. Tim pressed upon us his belief in the importance of first-hand empirical knowledge. Through sales of the work, we were able to travel to the national and international galleries and museums that were exhibiting us, providing life-changing experiences. We endured tremendous peaks and valleys in the nineties and 2000s. Identity politics in the art world and beyond had put us in a place not quite easily understood or compartmentalized. People began to assume the worst of our unique collaboration. There were whispers of mutual exploitation and attempts, intentional or not, to tarnish the extreme sincerity of our project. We persevered. Members of the group came and went organically. A few key members of the group, such as Rick Savinon, Robert Branch, Jorge Abreu, and myself, remained constant fixtures. With Tim’s encouragement, we attended college. Tim pushed us all to engage in our own individual practices as well, which informed the project in turn. The work matured as we did, both physically and mentality. We became Tim’s colleagues, rather than his students. With this shift, the work grew to be more conceptual, appearing as if it was done by one hand, though this was not the case.

TIM ROLLINS and K.O.S., A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2014

In essence we morphed into a think tank, using literature and philosophy as tools for engaging social justice. We began conducting workshops in conjunction with institutional exhibitions outside of our community. We were grown men now, but we were still a family and we would always be Kids of Survival.

In late 2017, Tim suddenly passed away at the age of sixty-two. It shattered my world. Tim was not only my mentor, but my father figure, best friend, and collaborator. This is true for all of the remaining K.O.S. members. Over the last year and a half, we’ve come together often to talk about how we can continue the legacy of a man who gave so much to everyone he encountered, and especially to us. I picture a twelve-year-old Tim, full of promise and ambition, reading Dr. King’s sermon from 1957. “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” It is with this in mind that Rick, Robert, Jorge, and I will continue the work and keep Tim’s spirit alive through Studio K.O.S.

The exhibition “Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” will be on view at the Lehman Maupin Gallery until June 15.

Angel Abreu is an artist, writer, and educator. He is a member of Tim Rollins and Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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Amy Irvine (Courtesy Torrey House Press)

Amy Irvine is a writer and a mother, a competitive rock-climber, an activist, a caregiver and a truth-teller. (She is also a friend.) Her latest book, Desert Cabal, is a fiercely tender and provocative response to Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire—his classic and now-canonical account of the desert West—on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Desert Cabal is about Irvine’s own life in the West—raising a family, falling in love with the land and working to protect it—and it explores the myths of Western masculinity, the sublimity of endangered territory, and the kinds of intimacy enabled by spaciousness and proximity.

Near the beginning of Desert Cabal, Irvine evokes Abbey’s seductive evocation of solitude as “loveliness and a quiet exaltation.” But her book challenges his understanding of solitude in nuanced and surprising ways. “Now that I have been a working mother wrangling a special-needs child in a complicated and congested world,” she writes, “my definition of solitude has changed.”

As soon as I read that line, I thought, Yes! Solitude means something different for women. It has to do with the intense expectations we face around caregiving—the assumption that we’ll take care of places, people, objects, schedules. Before I became a mother, I remember thinking, how does parenting work for introverts? These days—as someone who loves my ten-month-old daughter so intensely I can hardly stand it, but still loves to be alone—I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about the vexed relationship between care and solitude.

I’m not an expert in wilderness literature, but Irvine’s book is written for all of us: those of us who know the literature of the wilderness, and those of us who don’t. Because the wilderness matters to us all. We are all beholden, and we are all culpable. In proposing a new way of thinking about the wilderness—not in terms of solitude, but in terms of relation—Irvine is posing even broader questions about how we understand ourselves in relation to one another. This is a book written for anyone who has ever wanted to be alone, and for anyone who has ever realized solitude is a delusion.

INTERVIEWER

At one point in your book, you point out: “Solitude, for women, is a different animal entirely.” Let’s start there. Can you talk more about solitude and gender?

IRVINE

Re-reading Desert Solitaire in its 50th year, I compared my wilderness experiences—as a backcountry explorer, park ranger, rockclimber, cowboy, hunter and wildlands firefighter—to those of Abbey’s. On one hand, I thought,  yes, we both share a deep, abiding love for the wilderness. In this way, I am quite aware of my own privileges as a white woman who has the time and the means to access wild places and embrace a certain adventure aesthetic. But I was present when a man entered a neighboring tent and put a knife to a woman’s throat. I have been part of a climbing community in which another female climber went out for a run and was taken by a serial killer. Indeed, there have been many instances in which I felt my wilderness experience, if not my life, has been menaced by my own species. And while this hasn’t stopped me from exploring the American West, I would say it means the scope of what I consider pleasurable solitude is far narrower for me than it is for Abbey.

As for caregiving: Edward Abbey had five wives and just as many children—and other women on the side.  And yet, he was able to leave them all behind, to live this romantic life as a seasonal ranger and writer in a remote and rugged landscape. I can’t tell you how much I coveted such a job—but when I worked for the Park Service, I was assigned to an urban setting, giving daily cave tours to throngs of people. I didn’t last long. I quit so I could be out in the backcountry more, and so I could write more. I too, wanted to find the “loveliness and quiet exaltation.”

Then my daughter was born. I swaddled her against my chest and made every effort to get outside with her, although the extent of my adventures was dialed way down. I was mostly okay with that; I figured it was just for a few years. But writing hardly happened. I was blindly driven to be there for this small but overwhelming wonder of a human! At the same time, it was assumed by most everyone around us that I would forego the long, focused hours that writing demands to tend to her needs. Sure, her father was willing to care of her so I could get a few things done, but it was by no means a fair trade-off. Research shows that working mothers put in far more hours of unpaid, domestic labor than working fathers, and I’d say that was my experience. Meaning that, when I tried to carve out more time for myself, my guilt and others’ blowback conspired against all plans. Yes, I managed to write and publish a book during those first years of motherhood, but I really couldn’t follow through with publicity efforts, or the teaching and magazine assignments that followed—opportunities that would have improved my earning capabilities. My mental and physical health suffered. Later, when I filed for divorce, my daughter asked, “But who’s gonna do the shopping, make dinner and tidy the house for us?” That was sobering; to know that at ten years of age, she believed that was Mom’s job after a full day at the office. That kind of compressed day-to-day does not allow for solitude, if we go by Abbey’s definition. It was lonelier than being alone—and that is not the takeaway I want my daughter to model.

But there are other relationships to solitude: This summer, I was teaching a writing workshop at a very nice retreat center set in nature. A group of female veteran soldiers with PTSD was also there. One day, as I was walking along a forested path to my classroom, I came across an African American woman, frozen in terror. I approached and asked gently if I could help. She grabbed my arm and said, “Please, get me out of here!” So we headed up the path together. I said, “It’s ok. You are safe here.” She turned to me, incredulous, and said, “Don’t you ever tell a black woman that she’s safe in the woods!” This was a watershed moment for me, in understanding just how contextual solitude is.

INTERVIEWER

When you talk about being blindly driven to care for your daughter, I can’t help but think of another beautiful moment in your book when you describe your life as a mother: “With my daughter, there have been so many, many sleepless nights, so many close calls. I didn’t keep a journal, I kept vigil.” I find that haunting: I didn’t keep a journal, I kept vigil. Not only the necessary recognition of writing itself as a privilege, but the observation that attention is not always ours to hoard. Some of the most beautiful writing in this book is about your daughter, Ruby, and her fierce and generous spirit.

At one point, you describe finding a reference to Abbey’s wife and children in an early manuscript of Desert Solitaire that he deleted from the final version. You wonder about that deletion, asking his spirit directly: “Why did you delete this line? Why is it that the juniper tree and the scorpion figure largely on the page when the people you loved do not?” From all this, a few questions: How has your relationship to writing changed from your years of keeping vigil? And what do you make of that deleted reference to Abbey’s family in the original manuscript? Why do you think he took it out?

IRVINE

This project began as a commissioned essay, to serve as a foreword to a facsimile of Abbey’s original manuscript of Desert Solitaire—which has Abbey’s handwritten annotations on it. These were produced as a limited edition by Moab’s iconic bookstore, Back of Beyond Books, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their best-selling book of all time.

In that original draft, there is a line that plainly references Abbey’s wife and kids, but that line is crossed out! This stunned me, to know that Abbey had made, or agreed to, such a choice—because I find it impossible not to write about human relationships in the context of my experiences in the natural world. So I began with the question: Why did he use solitude as a literary device, and what impact has that trope had on his cult-like following—in terms of a national lens on wilderness, and its embrace of a rugged and hyper-masculine kind of individualism?

I won’t presume to know why Abbey chose not to include his intimates and only write about acquaintances. But I am guessing that it is because it is far easier, far cleaner, to write in such a way. Imagine, writing a novel with only one character!

Mentors and colleagues in the nature-writing realm often caution me to scale back the personal aspects of my writing. But I am convinced that it is that aloofness, the separation of wildness and humanness, that has made it impossible for us to develop a broader constituency for protecting wild places. It’s also a false narrative. People have always lived together; we evolved with the visceral understanding that to go it alone meant certain death by way of freezing, starving, or being eaten by something with teeth and nails far larger, sharper, than ours. And we know from the diaries of gold rush brides and homestead wives, that even if one survived one’s singularity in the wild, one might go mad in the process.

The madness waned when I began writing again—despite the ongoing-ness of my daughter’s nocturnal epilepsy. I had to—to pay the bills and to save my soul. The nighttime vigilance and the profound sleep-deprivation have meant that writing residencies and long periods of deep immersion are no longer possible. In their place, I have learned to write on the steering wheel, at sixty-five mph. To hold my daughter at night and type on my phone because the glow of my laptop screen was enough to trigger seizures. I now listen to audio books in the dark, rather than reading—so I can be next to her when the convulsions happen. Those times definitely fail to qualify as the romantic kind of solitude one imagines when one signs on as either writer or mother.

INTERVIEWER

Yes! And pushing back against the familiar kinds of romance we associate with the wilderness is such a necessary part of bringing it to life in all its glory and all its complexity. I love your commitment to pushing back against romance—against clean lines and simple morals. Elsewhere in the book, after telling a difficult story about going into the wilderness with your sister—a story I loved because you absolutely refused to tie it up with a bow; you did justice to the ragged confusion of living instead—you concede that writing about solitude feels clean while writing about others often feels more “messy.” I’ve found this to be true as well. But I also think the most worthwhile writing is almost always messy—in its truths if not its craft.

So as a counterpoint to that first question about solitude, can you speak to what feels worthwhile about bringing the mess of other people into your work?

IRVINE

We live in a time that feels particularly dehumanized, and it doesn’t help that the planet is so crowded. When Abbey worked in what is now Arches National Park, it was often void of people. Now the traffic is bumper to bumper, all day, almost year-round. Overpopulation looms as one of the greatest threats to the planet, but the consumption habits of America rival it—a fact we don’t want to look at for even a moment. So we, like Abbey (who drove a big, gas-guzzling red Cadillac and tossed his Coors cans out its window), distract ourselves with population growth in developing countries, and related issues such as immigration. This avoidance of our complicity in the planet’s demise feeds nationalism and bigotry, and this is where we must take another hard look at Abbey, who groused about wanting to send Mexicans back to where they came from. He also espoused population control among the Navajo—whose homelands are included in the place the writer deemed “Abbey’s Country.” (Can you imagine, if—despite my pedigree, which includes being a sixth-generation Utahn with noteworthy Mormon ancestry—if I had, in my previous book about the desert, called it “Amy’s Country?”)

To wax psychoanalytically here: the distractions, avoidance behaviors, and projections associated with going it alone all converge as a misanthropy we cannot afford—not with so many of us living in close quarters, competing for finite resources. To do so is to turn on one another in ways that dehumanizes us entirely. And then, we’ve squandered our souls, so what would be the point of surviving? It not only feels important, but necessary, to discontinue our romance with solitude and begin to question what is missing in our lives and communities that has us trying to “get away from it all.”

To write as a woman who has had such grand adventures, felt threatened by her own species, and who is raising a child to survive and thrive in the wild, is to refuse the Otherness assigned to me. This, I hope, invites others in, to share their own Othered experiences of wild places—experiences we have not yet heard about that would help to garner broader public support for maintaining large, intact ecosystems. To this end, it matters hugely that two African-American writers/poets, Camille Dungy and Major Jackson, are publishing/anthologizing black nature writing. That indigenous journalists like Jenni Monet and Jacqueline Keeler are reporting on Standing Rock, and Bears Ears, and the outrageous numbers of Native women and girls who go missing and whose cases are never investigated. These are counter-narratives to Abbey’s—and those of other privileged white nature writers—which means they are exclusive narratives. They are gilded with a mythos that the rest of us cannot inhabit, a mythos that fails to truly wrangle with humanity the way Charles Bowden’s writing about the U.S.-Mexican border succeeded at doing. No longer can we afford to speak about nature separate from its intersections with race, poverty, misogyny. That we ever thought we could, and should, is a failure of community and conversation.

Which brings me back to Abbey’s misanthropy and exclusivity: He was not alone, in writing this way. Thoreau’s work is quite disdainful of fellow humans, as Kathryn Schulz pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker piece titled “Pond Scum.” More than any other writing, Schulz says, “the Thoreau piece earned me mountains of hate mail.”

It’s hard for me not to read the response to “Pond Scum” as an attempt to put yet another female writer in her place—a response I’ve also experienced with Desert Cabal, for daring to tackle a man who many wilderness lovers view as a sacred idol. But I think the backlash says something about our desperation to project our vulnerability elsewhere: Onto non-white bodies. Onto female bodies. Onto animal bodies. And onto bodies of land. I think that’s the whole point of exclusion: to sanitize the mess, to quiet the chaos we cannot control.

INTERVIEWER

It makes me think of what happened after Eula Biss published her essay “White Debt” in the New York Times Magazine: our shared editor Jeff Shotts said that the vitriolic comments posted in response to her essay were the most powerful argument he could imagine for why it had been so necessary to write in the first place. In that vein, I wonder what you make of some of the backlash to your work: What larger nervous system is getting illuminated by the nerves your work seems to be striking? Where does the resistance to your project come from and what does it suggest—to you—about why the project is necessary?

IRVINE

The pushback has come from a select few who belong to an older generation of wilderness writers and activists—all of whom are very white and privileged, all of whom have been at the center of the wilderness movement for decades. These people have been mentors and colleagues, and yet, a few have been outright bullies—insisting that I had no business challenging Abbey. One even pulled a blurb for the book—which was fine, that’s her right—but we are a community! A cabal! Wouldn’t you want to have a conversation with one another, about why you can’t come together, on a particular project? When did we start avoiding that kind of civil discourse and debate? Actually, we know when it happened: when Trump was voted into office. And yet, no matter what that man does, his base remains devout to him. Meanwhile, we’re feuding over whether or not I get to write about Edward Abbey? When we have a fucking planet to save?

This isn’t just a failure in the wilderness community, to build a constituency that is broader, more diverse—and therefore more powerful. This is a failure of progressive politics in general. The in-fighting, the holier-than-thou responses to one another are poisoning what should be common ground. Meanwhile the Right marches on, gaining hideous momentum.

Whatever reasons Desert Cabal’s critics give for being so opposed to its publication, it looks an awful lot like an attempt to preserve their places at the table inside the Ivory Cabin. Excuses have been made on Abbey’s behalf: “The man was writing in another time, and therefore we can’t really fault him for using sexist or racist terms.” This is so laughable! His writing came on the heels of World War II—the western world was hyper-aware of the dangers of using language to Otherize groups of people! The civil rights movement and the women’s movement were unfolding, too! To excuse Abbey’s bigotry just becomes another version of “boys will be boys.”

This is precisely why I thought it important to challenge Abbey, even as I paid tribute to his work and the galvanizing effect it had on so many generations, in terms of wilderness preservation.  I knew there’d be backlash, but the truly daunting thing was articulating my own desert dialect, and admitting I was quite bored with nature-writing, with its lack of human characters and conflicts. It’s hard for me to separate bodies of land from the love affairs, the marriages, the suicides, the infidelities, the post-partum depression, the kid with epilepsy. For me, when I retreat into solitude, I am likely running away from something or someone—and in this dark new era of intolerance, that feels like both a pathos and luxury that I, we, cannot afford.

Leslie Jamison is the author of the essay collection The Empathy Exams, a New York Times bestseller, the novel The Gin Closet, and, most recently, The Recovering. Her second essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is forthcoming from Little, Brown in fall 2019. Read Leslie Jamison’s essay, “I Met Fear on the Hill,” in our Winter issue

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“Everyone is a collector in one way or another,” the English-teacher-turned-art-dealer David Schulson would tell his children. “Everyone has the impulse to collect.” What Schulson didn’t say is that the impulse to collect often contains within it another: the drive to keep, to hoard, to hold on. Schulson spent his weekends trolling New York’s flea markets for oddities, searching for the stories behind strange objects, and though he often sold what he found, he couldn’t bring himself to part with some of his most treasured discoveries. Over the course of his career, he amassed arguably the most impressive private collection of drawings, scribbles, and autographs in the world. The book Scrawl: An A to Z of Famous Doodles showcases this trove of miscellany for the first time. A selection from Schulson’s collection—including Queen Victoria’s donkey doodles, Stephen King’s spookily jubilant stick figure, and an erotic painting by Tennessee Williams—appears below.

Tennessee Williams

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

Tennessee Williams, one of the twentieth century’s most important American playwrights, also painted with oils and pastels. On the back of an eight-by-ten-inch black-and-white photograph, he painted two male figures with thick brushstrokes. Near his initials, he writes, “Frankenste[in] Monster,” and between the two figures, framed in orange, he titles the drawing World of Morrissey. This is likely a reference to the director Paul Morrissey’s 1973 horror film Flesh for Frankenstein, also known as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. The figure labeled “Joe D.” must therefore be Joe Dallesandro, who played a starring role in the film. Williams’s paintings tended to express his homosexuality, which was largely absent from his plays.

Queen Victoria

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

Before she became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India, Alexandrina Victoria was a royal princess affectionately called “Drina.” Her mother, who raised her following the death of her father in 1820, believed in the importance of outdoor activities, and that included riding; Victoria not only enjoyed riding horses, but also donkeys.

The cursive handwriting on these pencil sketches suggests she drew them when she was a young adolescent in the early 1830s. She captions the first image, “Mama in her Phaeton,” which is a horse-drawn open carriage. The drawing below the phaeton appears to depict a girl sitting in a seat on a donkey, perhaps a memory from when she was a child—it remains unclear whether this could be a very early self-portrait.

Victoria’s interest in art grew and she eventually became an accomplished watercolorist. This pencil artwork offers a fascinating glimpse into the childhood of one of the world’s most powerful women.

John le Carré

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

This humorous self-portrait from May 1996 depicts John le Carré struggling to “finish an EARTH SHAKING novel.” With fountain pen in hand and sitting over a jumble of pages, he clearly looks distraught, but this belies the fact that his spy novel, The Tailor of Panama, was about to be released. The image was rendered with blue ink, and perhaps wash, on eight-and-a-quarter-by-eleven-inch white card stock.

Jean Cocteau

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

This fanciful ink-and-crayon drawing depicts Count Orgel, the protagonist of the controversial 1924 novel by Cocteau’s friend Raymond Radiguet, Le bal du Comte d’Orgel. Radiguet died a year before its release at the age of twenty. In 1953, the date Cocteau writes twice on this piece, his suite of eponymously titled etchings was published by Éditions du Rocher, Monaco; this drawing resembles the etching titled, “Le Comte d’Orgel XII,” and likely depicts both the count and the young man (facing forward) at the center of an adulterous relationship involving the count’s wife.

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

“I am in Paris without being there,” Cocteau writes, after a car accident while driving between Avallon and the capital forced him to reschedule a planned lunch date. “That’s why I can’t meet.” He illustrates his anguish after what happened, and sets a new date before drawing a little star and signing his name.

Stephen King

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

This pen-and-ink sketch seems at first to have been drawn by a child, but in the lower corner, Stephen King signs his name in expressive cursive. Its content, meanwhile, is clearly more sophisticated than meets the eye: the bed’s headboard, which is styled as a headstone, sports the abbreviation for “Rest in peace,” with the R written backward. The E in “ME” is also backward, as are the C, N, and Ls in “ROCK N ROLL.” Is there a hidden message here, or could this sketch have something to do with King’s 1979 novel The Long Walk, first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman? In this dystopian story about teenage boys going on a forced walk until only one is left standing, one of the boys starts threatening the others, telling them he will dance on their graves. Perhaps King is echoing that threat above his signature.

Roland Topor

Courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

Roland Topor was best known for combining humor with the grotesque, often using the human body as a subject, either whole or in parts, as seen here. This pen-and-ink signed sketch was once glued to a board, and visible residue shows along the edges. Although the paper is not in great condition, there is something bizarrely enticing about this field of heads, whose hair is being braided for an unknown reason.

Excerpted from Scrawl, by Todd Strauss-Schulson, Caren Strauss-Schulson, and Claudia Strauss-Schulson. Published by Rizzoli Books. All images courtesy of Schulson Autographs.

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Daša Drndić

The most convincing literary pessimists are superior stylists. They smooth their nihilistic impulses into pleasing shapes. Despair is largely inimical to art, while melancholy—its pensive, perfumed cousin—makes of the void something paradoxically seductive. I think of Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I with its horizon of bats and comets, its alchemical implements and carpenter’s tools laid in disarray. This extends, perhaps extends especially, to literary art. If the negative radiance of Giacomo Leopardi or Fernando Pessoa arises from a certain nihilism—that existence is evil, say, or without meaning—that message is nonetheless palliated by the intrinsic beauty of their craft. This is a kind of strategic enticement. If we are to follow the pessimistic artist into his annihilating vision, a little poetry goes a long way.

The Croatian novelist Daša Drndić, who died of lung cancer last June, gives her readers no such poetry. She would have us take our medicine straight. “Les belles lettres is a heavily outdated term,” Drndić told me in a 2017 Paris Review interview, “therefore today a concept with hardly any weight. Art should shock, hurt, offend, intrigue, be a merciless critic of the merciless times we are not only witnessing but whose victims we have become.” Her novels, several of which have been translated into English by Celia Hawkesworth, orbit the criminal violence of European authoritarianism. An archival impulse animates much of the work. Trieste—the best-known of her books—features a forty-four-page list of some nine thousand Jews who were killed in Italy between 1943 and 1945. (The names, stacked four-wide across each page, are tragic in how little they ask of us.) Whatever she rescues from obscurity—photographs, courtroom testimony, case files, maps, scraps of song—achieves an uncanny wavering quality, as if already at home in the immaterial. Like those of W. G. Sebald, to whom she has been favorably compared, Drndić’s fictions creak beneath the weight of their own reclamation. They are load-bearing structures whose formal wonder is how such a painfully burdened edifice could remain standing upright in the first place.

In her final novel, EEG, published posthumously in English this April, the protagonist, Andreas Ban, is a writer and clinical psychologist reprised from Drndić’s earlier work Belladonna. Ban is aged, ailing, whip smart, comically brusque, and almost Bernhardian in his inexhaustible enmity. His screed-like digressions leap across decades and continents, alight on war criminals and ex-patients, rummage through national and personal histories, and rage (often quite funnily) against what he sees as the gross indecency of our times. He is like sentient amber, compulsively fixated on what has been caught in the hardening resin of his memory. As might be expected from its title, the novel enacts something like a scan of Ban’s brain function. It unfolds in a series of loosely connected micro-histories, which, taken together, delineate their cantankerous author’s obsessions.

These invariably intersect with the twentieth century’s archive of atrocities. Ban’s own records—patient files, family documents, a lifetime’s ephemera—serve as staging grounds for deeper inquiries into the horrors of Europe’s recent past. Ban’s research into the disappearance of his uncle’s one-time fiancée Frida Landsberg, for instance, gives Drndić room to explore the occupation of Latvia. Fascism’s disparate machinations blend with Ban’s paranoia. He becomes convinced that the father of a woman he once loved, Arvids Mazais, a “long dead Bavarian-Latvian with Hitler’s medal in the bottom of a cardboard box,” directly participated in Frida’s killing. Such leaps are not conspiracy theories so much as attempts to make meaning. Ban’s associative ramblings are a form of disguised longing. He reconstructs his skeletons from a boneyard heap of indistinguishable fragments.

In another lengthy section, Drndić juxtaposes two very different formal rigors—chess and genocide—in a pocket history of Europe’s grandmasters of chess. We are told how a generation of eccentric geniuses leaped from windows, suffered heart attacks, threw themselves beneath trains, and dropped dead during international competitions. “There’s nothing abnormal about the fact that chess players are abnormal,” Nabokov, who wrote the wonderful chess novel The Defense, once said in an interview. But chess players were also seen as potential subversives. “Chess is imagination,” Ban reminds us, “the negation of rules, the negation of directives, it is art, challenge and autonomy.” Chess champions were murdered by the Nazis in appalling numbers. Drndić here blurs the boundaries between play and reality, the strategies of the game and those employed for slaughter. Chess was an elegant contest nested within a larger and far deadlier one: “Reality was so noisy (and bloody) that it suppressed the imagination,” Ban says, “reality imposed its own game, mercilessly and cruelly.”

The materiality of the past—its shocking, sickening thingness—suffuses Drndić’s fictions. Every dusty record, every banal household object, represents an intricate network of unknown relations capable of arousing melancholy or horror. The inadequacy of memory is perhaps her great subject. “I now name people fanatically,” Ban says, “too weightily for literature, that is, unnecessarily, obsessively, because I see more and more clearly that this, their name, is perhaps the last cobweb thread that separates them from general, universal chaos, from the cauldron of turbid, stale mash.”

The question of literary aesthetics is a thorny one for Drndić. Throughout EEG we find hectoring asides on bourgeois literature’s “unwritten laws.” Take Ban’s dismissal of well-rounded characters: “Am I ‘rounded,’ existentially and publicly? Who is ever and anywhere rounded, and is it necessary to be ‘complete’ and rounded in order to exist—to live—in a complete and rounded way? Unbelievable idiocies.” Or the illogic of orderly literature: “All of that exists, the disorder, the fragmentation, the din, in reality and in dreams, but in literature and in life, the public and the market want order, harmony … simplicity, so that the little gray cells empty tidily and painlessly.” Or the tedium of continuity: “A life of continuity, how tedious. How monotonous, monochrome. A tepid, limp flow in one direction. Like literary continuity.” Drndić’s prose—hard, sneering, and aggressively, exhilaratingly ugly—contorts itself to avoid the exigencies of beauty. Moral urgency dispossesses style.

The highest distinction of pessimistic fiction is that it undermines its own project. As we do from the desolate, God-baiting novels of Hardy, the gaunt dramas of Beckett, or the post-national horror of late Bolaño, we emerge from Drndić’s writing feeling both vanquished and invigorated. Such formidable intelligence and Homeric intention cannot help but thrill and exalt. Drndić ends her final novel with a quote from Kierkegaard, the philosopher of angst and despair: “My misery is my castle which is set, like an eagle’s nest, among the clouds on top of the mountain. No one can conquer it. From it I fly down into reality and snatch my prey.”

Dustin Illingworth is a writer based in Southern California.

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Prague

 

Karlovy Vary—Plzeň—Český Krumlov—Prague

In August 2017 my family and I traveled to the Czech region of Bohemia, my mother’s homeland and the setting of my new novel, The Organs of Sense. At the airport in Prague we rented a car and drove directly to Karlovy Vary, the birthplace of my grandfather, who had died the year before; then we swung southeast through Plzeň and Český Krumlov before returning north toward Prague. It was meant to be a tour of our heritage, but it would also, I hoped—though the melding of my familial obligations with my artistic ambitions gave me a twinge of guilt—provide material for the novel of which I was then in the middle.

Karlovy Vary


In the spa town where, a century earlier, my grandfather was born, a local genealogist I’d found online and to whom I’d sent a pdf of my grandfather’s death certificate took us first to the spot where once stood the dress shop of Felix and Elsa, names he uttered in a tone of such hushed revelation, as though he had taken us to a site that would obviously mean a great deal to us, that my mother did not dare ask him in what way the people who bore them were related to us. From the dress shop of Felix and Elsa we walked to the apartment building in which Helene and Max lived shortly before the First World War, and from there we climbed a steep staircase to the villa on the hill where the twin sisters Frieda and Clara (both murdered by the Nazis) grew up. Then we drove to the abandoned porcelain factory once run by Frieda’s husband, Julius. At each stop my mother’s mood grew bleaker; she reproached herself for her estrangement from this world; these names meant nothing to her, and the fact that it was now too late (but only just) to ask her father who they were and what they were like caused her—this was clear—exquisite pain, which, however, she kept to herself. Only upon returning to our hotel and locating some online reviews he’d managed to suppress did I learn that the genealogist, driven presumably by compulsions of his own, was notorious for taking foreign tourists to the former residences and workplaces of his own dead relatives, every day the same sites. My mother, who I had never known to give online feedback, later left him a three-star review.

Plzeň

Plzeň

At the Pilsner Urquell Brewery—which, besides the Great Synagogue, was the only attraction in Plzeň we had time to see—we met a couple, both retired physicians, who had recently completed a tour of the Jewish cemeteries of Bohemia, beginning and ending in Plzeň, the birthplace of the man’s mother, who had died earlier that year. While sipping unfiltered pilsners, the couple explained that though his mother had been buried in the States, they’d come to Plzeň to have her name engraved on her parents’ tomb, which was located in a characteristically ramshackle Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city. It was raining when they arrived; the tombs were eroded and askew and overgrown with moss; it took them two hours to find the right one. Only then did it occur to them that they had no idea how to have it engraved; certainly there was no one there tending to the tombs. When, however, they left the cemetery, dripping wet and covered in mud, and told the first person they passed that they were looking for the caretaker of the old Jewish cemetery, that they were looking, in particular, for whoever did the engravings there, the passerby said: I am the engraver of the old Jewish cemetery. You are the engraver? they asked. I am the engraver, he said. Yes, I am the engraver. Yes. For $250 he could engrave whatever they wished. They wrote down the mother’s name and dates, described the location of the tomb (Yes, I know this one, the passerby said), and handed over the money. And you are really the engraver? And I am really the engraver. He told them the engraving would be completed in three weeks, three, he said, holding up three fingers. As the man walked away they concluded that they had probably been swindled. But they decided to return in three weeks to see. In the meantime, at the wife’s suggestion, they visited as many old Jewish cemeteries as they could. In each small town they asked where the old Jewish cemetery was, and were pointed into the woods; and they walked into the woods; they walked deep into the woods, really deep, the woman recalled; they always began to suspect that they had, as in Plzeň, been deceived; they always reached a point where it began to seem unthinkable, particularly to the husband, that a cemetery could be found this deep in the woods, let alone a Jewish cemetery, an old Jewish cemetery; It can’t be this deep, let’s go back! he’d cry, the woman recalled; when there, suddenly, was the old Jewish cemetery. Now they’d returned to Plzeň to see whether the passerby had, indeed, been the engraver. My husband, the woman said, is a little bit nervous: first he wanted a beer.
When the couple left for the cemetery we realized that the husband hadn’t said a single word the entire time; the story, though it was more his than hers, had been related by the wife, who, as she noted more than once, was not herself Jewish.

The encounter was striking in several respects, and my father insisted I write it down, it was perfect for me, perfect, he claimed. Yet in the end it proved useless for my novel, as did the whole of Plzeň.

Český Krumlov

Krumlov Castle in Český Krumlov

In the charming but kitschified town of Český Krumlov, where Schiele—whose mother was born there—once scandalized the locals by painting their daughters naked, I hoped to catch a glimpse, for my novel, of the room in Krumlov Castle where the prince who inspired one of my characters spent the last days of his life. I wasn’t aiming for verisimilitude; I had no intentions of describing the room; but I hoped that standing on the spot where the young man had died (supposedly from an ulcer suffocating him when it ruptured in his throat) might in some occult way intensify the effect of my book. The earliest available tour was at one o’clock; I signed my family up; then we went to the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. I was standing before a painting of a nude adolescent girl with shyly splayed legs when an old man appeared beside me, leaning on a four-legged cane. This is a very interesting painting, he said—very interesting indeed. Yes, I said. Are you enjoying the exhibit, young man? he asked. Very much, I said. Good, good, he said, enjoy! He stood there. I asked: Are you the curator? Yes, in a manner of speaking, he replied. In a manner of speaking, I am the curator. Not, of course, in any official capacity. And now, young man, I have a question for you. He waggled a finger at the painting. Is this art or is it pornography? Ha, I said, yes, that is the question, isn’t it? He said: And what is the answer? Is it art or pornography? Well … I said, I suppose I have to object to the framing of the question. I think I would argue that thinking about art in those categories, though of course it has become the fashion, deprives us of—No! the man cried. Don’t philosophize! Just answer, art or pornography? Don’t philosophize! Don’t philosophize! Art, then, I said. The man smiled. It is pornography, he said. And I ought to know, young man, for this painting, before it was taken from us, was once in my family’s possession. It used to hang in my parents’ bedroom, right over their bed, above the headboard … Now, perhaps you think it was the Nazis who stole it, whenever one hears of stolen art in this part of the world one thinks of the Nazis, but it was not the Nazis, it was my own brother, my own older brother! It actually would have been better had it been the Nazis, for in the case of Nazis the state always intercedes, there is immense pressure on the state to intercede, to correct the injustices of the Nazis, but in the case of brothers there is no such pressure and so the state never intercedes and the injustices of the brothers are left to stand. Of course, the Nazis were not uninvolved, the man said. I saw that my parents were gesturing at me from the entrance to the gallery; my father was tapping his wrist; our tour was about to begin; but I motioned for them to go on ahead, I’d catch up with them. My father could not comprehend this after all I’d said about Krumlov Castle, its centrality to my novel, et cetera, but my mother took him by the hand and led him out. After the war, which only the man and his brother survived, having fled early on to Santa Barbara, they laid out the family art—which their mother and father and little sister, having stayed behind for this purpose, had secretly shipped them piece by piece—and divvied it up, each picking a painting in turn, the man selecting on the basis of artistic value, his older brother on the basis of monetary value, the irony being that the man eventually had to sell all his paintings in order to support his work as an independent scholar of the philosophy of history—a field he intended to show, contra Popper, was still possible—whereas his brother made so much money in the telecommunications industry that he could afford to donate all his paintings to cultural institutions, and even to do so anonymously, and thereby to acquire the reputation of an extremely generous anonymous art donor, a friend of the arts. Now at some point, the man said, the works of Schiele began to rise in value, two million, five, ten—and suddenly it occurs to me, didn’t we have a Schiele? When we laid out our paintings on the floor, there was no Schiele among them, and yet our family did have a Schiele, I knew it for a fact, we had one once! For the first time in fifty-seven years I make contact with my older brother: Whatever happened to our Schiele? And after a while my brother replies: We never had a Schiele. Yet I knew we had a Schiele, I knew it for a fact, because, young man, I’d pleasured myself to it as a boy, it was the first thing I had ever pleasured myself to, one does not forget that, as I have told the board here many times … How many times have I told the museum’s board of directors that the first image to which I ever pleasured myself was a painting  hanging over the headboard of my parents’ bed of a young girl in a blue blouse? With my head where their feet went, and my feet on their pillows, and one eye always on the door, which could swing open at any moment … One does not forget that sort of thing … Now, when my brother died, I was living in rather diminished circumstances, I am not ashamed to say, and a modest bequest from him would have helped a great deal in my effort to resurrect the philosophy of history from the supposed death blow Popper dealt it; but he left me nothing, everything went to institutions, causes and institutions … Shortly thereafter I read in the newspaper of an anonymous donation to this institution: Schiele’s Young Girl in Blue Blouse. There was a picture of it in the paper. Suddenly I am twelve years old again, I am lying on my parents’ bed, my parents’ massive bed, one foot on my father’s pillow, one foot on my mother’s pillow, one eye on the door, my family chattering in the distance, and looming above me the girl in the blue blouse … This is a scene I have described many, many times over to the museum’s board of directors … I describe the scene, they say it is no proof of ownership, we have done this song and dance many times over now … And we will do it many more times to come … Of course, I’m no longer so foolish as to think they’ll change their minds … Yet I feel I must describe the scene to them anyway … It must be described … To me, if not to them, it is dispositive.

The old man bowed.

I thank you for your attention, young man, he said. Yes, this is a very interesting painting indeed.

He hobbled off.

It was too late to join the tour of Krumlov Castle, but I sensed now that to set foot inside the castle I intended to write about would very likely prove fatal to my book. When I rejoined my family afterward I asked them not to tell me what they had seen.

Prague

Letná Park, Prague

By the time we approached Prague, my mother’s birthplace, I had come to understand that there is nothing more ruinous for a novel than a research trip. Because writers so often ruin their novels at home, domestically, they think that a research trip, especially an international research trip—to see the things they are writing about, or so they imagine!—will do the opposite, i.e., save their novels, when in fact a research trip is just a more expensive, farther-flung means of novel ruination. In our rental car on the way to Prague it struck me just how close I had come in Český Krumlov to ruining my novel; if I hadn’t been buttonholed by the crazy man in the Schiele museum, I would have seen the interior of Krumlov Castle; only because I hadn’t seen it did it remain intact in my imagination. I now understood that the list I’d put together of sights to see in Prague was really a list of sights I must not, under any circumstances, lay eyes on: Prague Castle; Saint Vitus Cathedral; the astronomical clock; the house at the Golden Griffin where the imperial astronomer Tycho Brahe once lived; the Old Jewish Cemetery; the Altneu Synagogue; Charles Bridge; the medical faculty of Charles University, from which my grandfather had graduated. To come all the way to Prague and yet not see these sights—many of them the most important sights in all of Prague—was, for my father, inexplicable, as was the vehemence with which I looked away, for the sake of my novel, each time he drew my attention to anything Kafka-related, the Kafka Museum, the various plaques attesting to Kafka’s residence in various apartment buildings, the bust of Kafka’s head, the statue of Kafka riding on the shoulders of a headless male figure, et cetera, sights which over the course of three and a half days in Prague my father—whose belief that I was keen to see them never flagged or wavered—never failed to point out to me. Whole Baroque-era squares (and this, too, gave him trouble) had to be traversed with my eyes shut, my mother guiding me by the elbow, for the sake of my novel, while I, and probably my father too, reflected in a melancholy way on how greatly our family trips had changed since my siblings and I were children. Aesthetic considerations such as these led us inexorably away from the Old Town, toward districts more recent and farther out that posed no threat to the Prague of my novel. And so, on our final morning, while my father browsed the nonfiction section of an English-language bookstore, my mother and I found ourselves, not entirely by accident, half an hour from the castle, among the constructivist complexes of Letná, across a busy street from the apartment building in which she grew up. This street, with its four lanes of heavy traffic bifurcated by the two tracks of a tramway, had been the site of a small but notable incident in my mother’s life, when, as a young girl, to test her will, or perhaps her mastery of her world, she’d crossed all four lanes and two tracks with her eyes shut, only to receive, when she reported her triumph to her father, the lone spanking of her childhood. For all its seventeenth-century scientific frills, my novel about a blind astronomer had its origins in this image: my mother as a little girl squeezing her eyes shut and running across the street, her ears already ringing with her beloved father’s raucous applause. I wondered aloud, therefore, whether, for the sake of my novel, and perhaps this would even salvage the research trip, which I think my mother could sense had been a disappointment, a little reenactment—it was a good thing my father was in the bookstore, he would not have seen the point—might not, in some occult way, intensify … Or, now that her father had died, and she herself was a grandmother, and I a father of a little girl, might add a drop of pathos to … Whether, in other words, she might consider squeezing her eyes shut and … And she mustn’t think, by the way, that I had been planning this all along, that it was the whole point of the Bohemian research trip, far from it, the idea had only occurred to me just this moment … Whether she might consider shutting her eyes and running, at my signal, which of course I would give only when there was no traffic and no trams, straight toward her childhood apartment building, as fast as she could, while I—in one of the two Moleskines I had bought specifically for this research trip, imagining I would fill both of them up, but which were both still basically blank—would take down richly detailed notes on the emotions induced in me by this sight, i.e., of my mother in her mid-sixties careening blindly toward the Communist-era apartment building of her youth, shortly after the death of her father, emotions which would appear nowhere in the novel, not directly, but which could not help but irradiate the whole of it. (Here it is, I added, the glimpse into my writing process you’re always asking for!) And so, if you’re willing, you might hand me this, this, and this, I said, taking her hat, purse, and sunglasses, and, orienting yourself like so toward your erstwhile apartment building, squeeze your eyes shut, tightly shut, while I wait for a break in the traffic, whereupon, when I say the word now, it would be wonderful, and artistically invaluable, if, for the sake of my novel, you could take off running, truly running, as fast as you possibly can, without looking. For a moment I watched the cars zip past and felt that the research trip I had undertaken might have a point to it after all. Okay, I said. Now.

Adam Ehrlich Sachs is a writer in Pittsburgh. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, n+1, and Harper’s, among other places. For his first book, Inherited Disorders, he was named a finalist for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and received a 2018 NEA Literature Fellowship. In 2019 he received a Berlin Prize. His second book, The Organs of Sense, was recently released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

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