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Ever since Nicole first handed me “Scapegoat Child,” the gorgeous yet harrowing piece of short fiction by the late Kathleen Collins in our Spring issue, I’ve found myself returning, time and time again, to the writer’s first posthumous collection of stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? The book’s cover, which features a collage by Lorna Simpson of a young woman with a wash of purple ink for hair, sets the tone, and the stories that follow are just as arresting. In them, we hear from people of all shades, each of whom experience torment and love in equal measure. Collins writes of an uncle who can’t keep himself from crying (“I began to weep for him, weep tears of pride and joy that he should have so soaked his life in sorrow and gone back to some ancient ritual beyond the blunt humiliation of his skin”); of a girl who cuts her hair (making her look, in her father’s words, “just like any other colored girl”) and later falls for her professor; of interracial love (“I want to be a Negro for you,” says a white boy to his girlfriend). Put simply, Collins is a marvel, her prose ethereal and haunting and sharp. As Elizabeth Alexander writes in the book’s introduction, “She flinches from nothing.” —Caitlin Youngquist
As Tatyana Tolstaya states in the title story of Aetherial Worlds, her first collection of short stories to be translated into English in over twenty years, “Spring in the states, on the East Coast, is basically crazy.” The collection—which is out the same week as the spring equinox (next week, for those less in tune with their almanacs)—anchors a collection of dark, funny folkloric tales. Each is masterful in its ability to keep apace with the world’s banalities and frustrations while moving seamlessly into the surreal. Her characters are haunted by ghosts, but also by the alienation they feel among Americans. Tolstaya is funniest when observing life in American universities and darkest when writing—as she does in the stories “Aspic,” “Smoke,” and “Shadows”—about a melancholy deadening the hearts of her characters. Tolstaya’s conscious aversion to sentimentality makes you feel as if you alone are catching a glimpse into the secretly vulnerable and deeply captivating souls of her characters. —Lauren Kane
In my tote and under my pillow this week is Ashleigh Young’s essay collection, Can You Tolerate This? I’ve been reading the book since its New Zealand publication last year, but its upcoming U.S. release put it back on my radar. The longest essay is just over thirty pages, the shortest fewer than two; most hover around a mere eight or ten. Young’s voice is soothing, unsure, and searching as she narrates her childhood in provincial New Zealand and pokes into the lives of those who populated it—her father, her brother, her chiropractor. Can You Tolerate This? asks its titular question at every turn, and the answer always seems to be yes. —Eleanor Pritchett
Big Big Wednesday is a beautifully crafted literary magazine produced in Portland, Oregon. Since 2013, they’ve published one issue per annum, and each is chock-full of poetry, art portfolios, and blissfully short fiction. The fifth and most recent issue features a watercolored cover with a seaweed seascape and charming sock-footed divers. I devoured their contributors notes, in which each writer issues a recommendation. Perhaps it’s odd to staff pick another literary magazine’s staff picks, but I can’t help myself. Laura Brown-Lavoie recommends “grabbing a few cucumbers on your way to the beach and eating them after you swim so the seawater on your lips salts them up.” I was compelled, at Stephen Tuttle’s direction, to seek out “Willie, the Operatic Whale,” a Disney animated short from 1964, voiced entirely by Nelson Eddy, and I caught myself singing for an obnoxiously long time afterward. (NB: Big Big Wednesday is accepting submissions for its sixth issue until May 1.) —Molly Livingston
Samuel Hynes’s On War and Writing (out next month) is a collection of essays that drives home a point: war is unimaginable but has nevertheless “captured the world’s imagination.” Throughout the collection, Hynes discusses his own experiences as a Marine Corps pilot, the accounts of others who have fought in war, and the literature of people who did not fight but who wrote about war. Originally published at varying points throughout the last half century, these essays together lead readers toward a kind of solution: it is impossible to imagine the unimaginable, but it is possible to find meaning in always wanting to try. —Claire Benoit
Still from The Death of Stalin.
Self-seriousness has always been fertile ground for comedy. From the obscene marginalia in medieval religious manuscripts to eighties slob vs. snob comedies, people who can’t joke about themselves are irresistible foils for irony and mockery. There’s no system less capable of joking about itself than an authoritarian regime. Laughter is understood by those in power to be a threat to obedience. Tyranny requires a state of constant crisis—that things remain serious, in other words, at all times. Absurdity, in turn, grows in the hollows of these rigid, cloistered systems as naturally and irresistibly as mold. Such absurdity is the animating feature of Armando Iannucci’s hilarious new film, The Death of Stalin, which tells the story of Stalin’s deputies, who jockey for power after his sudden departure. In the lingering atmosphere of fear and toadyism conjured by the now-dead dictator, unanimity and grief become punch lines. After seeing the film, I returned home and reread another great comedy of the Soviet Union, Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. Distributed as samizdat in 1969, it draws comedy not from the anxious terror of the Stalin era but from the apathy and cynicism of the Brezhnev era. Erofeev’s quick, jumpy prose mocks nearly every passion and invention of the Russian literary soul. While Iannucci collects absurdities from a temporal and physical distance (Putin’s Russia has banned the film, unsurprisingly), Erofeev clowns right under the noses of the humorless. —Matt Levin
Zoe Leonard, TV Wheelbarrow, 2001, Dye transfer print, 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm). Collection of the New York Public Library; Funds from the Estate of Leroy A. Moses, 2005
Never have I wanted to touch a photograph as badly as I wanted to touch Zoe Leonard’s Red Wall 2001/2003 (Leonard typically includes two dates with each photograph, the first signaling when the photo was taken, the second when it was printed). It’s an image of such saturated—such tactile—redness that it was, for a beat, difficult to accept that it was only a representation of a wall, flat and smooth and framed. Red Wall is a minimalist monochrome wet dream that inspires a maximalist yearning—an outsized, outrageous need.
Zoe Leonard, “I want a president,” 1992
Leonard is a photographer and a sculptor. She is also an activist, and her work with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) serves as a model for conscientious, personally risky political involvement. Her samizdat poem “I want a president,” originally written to celebrate Eileen Myles’s 1992 “openly female” (in the poet’s words) run for the presidency, was originally meant to run in a small journal that shut down right before publication. In 2006, it was printed as an insert postcard in the journal LTTR, and in 2016 it appeared on a billboard at the foot of the High Line. “I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president,” the poem begins. It ends, “I want to know why we started learning somewhere down the line that a president is always a clown. Always a john and never a hooker. Always a boss and never a worker. Always a liar, always a thief, and never caught.”
As the scholar Ann Cvetkovich has written, Leonard is an archivist of feeling. What might otherwise remain inchoate—rage, mourning, loneliness, alienation—coalesces in her photographs and in her installations of collected ephemera. Leonard’s work is an invitation to interrogate how our depressions, despairs, and desires can be harnessed as political perspectives. Our emotional responses, according to Leonard, are a form of political positioning. The resulting pieces caress the eye and prod at the conscience. They are demanding, but also witty and companionable, and together they articulate how one might take action in a society that incentivizes passive complicity.
Zoe Leonard, Red Wall, 2001/2003. Dye transfer print, 29 11/16 × 20 7/16 in. (75.4 × 52 cm), Collection of the artist; courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York
Zoe Leonard: Survey, the title of her current mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, suggests the importance of looking from many angles. As the wall text at the exhibition’s entrance has it, “’to survey’ is…to look out a place or site and gauge it from multiple viewpoints in an effort to understand and describe it.” One of Leonard’s newest sculptures, How to Take Good Pictures (2018), is comprised of over one thousand copies of the eponymous Kodak manual, stacked in columns of varying heights. Evoking a cityscape or a bar graph, and set against the grand expanse of the Whitney’s westward-facing floor-to-ceiling fifth-floor gallery windows—all sea, sky and skyscraper on a clear pre-spring day—the work instructs us in the ways of image making. How to Take Good Pictures is breathtaking and a little funny, but it’s also mournful and elegiac. Outside the picture windows we can see large scale excavations, which will make the way, eventually, for new buildings. In her Analogue series, a collection of pastel snapshots document the vanishing landscape of mom-and-pop shops and expand to reflect on the global rag trade. The results are a form of poetry, the sort of thing that cannot be summarized. They are miniature vitrines, diamond sharp.
Leonard’s photographs include the telltale black lines of analogue photo development, which indicate the edge of the exposed film. These lines point to the camera as a framing device, acting upon its subject rather than passively capturing it. In a 1997 interview with Anna Blume, Leonard expressed surprise that people think a photograph captures a real moment: “It’s not reality; it’s a subjective view. It’s a picture. I go out and I see things my way and take my photograph among all the millions of photographs that can be taken.” Leaving “the mistakes”—the dust, the borders, the holes—is a way of signaling to the viewer that the image is a product of labor, and that it was made by a person whose truth “is no more true than anyone else’s.”
Zoe Leonard, New York Harbor I, 2016. Two gelatin silver prints, 21 × 17 1/8 in. (53.3 × 43.5 cm) each. Collection of the artist; courtesy Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth, New York
Yet there is something special about Leonard’s truth. In his catalog essay, Bennett Simpson, who is one of the curators of the show, describes Leonard’s aesthetic as one of “subjective authenticity, sentiment, and sincerity.” Her sentiment-without-sentimentality spans her photography and her sculpture and ties her artistic practice to her work as an activist with ACT UP. As Leonard recounts in a 2010 oral history of the organization, she participated in “die-ins” and set up needle exchanges, which were illegal at the time. The needle exchange initiative was two-part: ACT UP enabled access to needles, and then, when activists were arrested and subsequently arraigned, they worked to set precedent for legalizing the exchanges. In the oral history, Leonard speaks of her mother, who had been involved in the anti-Nazi resistance in Poland, noting that “it was translated to me really early that you stand up for what’s right and do what you believe in at whatever the cost might be. That’s just what you do.” (Survey includes several images, re-photographed in the artist’s studio, of Leonard’s mother and grandmother arriving in New York Harbor.)
The AIDS crisis inspired one of Leonard’s most iconic works, Strange Fruit. The sculpture was made between 1992 and 1997, at the height of the crisis. It was inspired by the death of the artist David Wojnarowicz, a close friend of Leonard’s and the person to whom Strange Fruit is dedicated. Leonard attended her first ACT UP meeting on the day she found out Wojnarowicz was diagnosed. An update of the vanitas paintings of the old masters, Strange Fruit is a floor-display of emptied fruit peels—orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado—held together with thread, buttons, and zippers. Decayed and dried, Strange Fruit is part still-life, part graveyard, part participatory artwork. It addresses the viewer as someone with a conscience, who can act against the tyrannies of silent, lethally complacent governments, but also as someone with a body that must eventually succumb to the realities of mortality.
Installation view of Zoe Leonard, Strange Fruit, 1992-97. Orange, banana, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric, and trim wax, dimensions variable. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art; purchased with funds
In The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writers that loss is a cousin of loneliness. Thinking of Strange Fruit, Laing suggests that “Physical existence is lonely by its nature, stuck in a body that’s moving towards decay, shrinking, wastage and fracture.” Strange Fruit¸with its titular reference to queer sexuality, as well as its invocation of Billie Holiday’s 1939 anti-racist protest song by the same name, is a work of personal politics. One imagines Leonard painstakingly sewing a banana peel, but then, one also pictures her attaching buttons: there is sadness here, to be sure—the fruitless attempt to avoid decay—but also something defiantly hopeful, a full-throated peal of laughter in the face of the plague. Strange Fruit speaks to fragility, to impermanence, but also to agency, and to the refusal to do nothing even when it seems there is nothing to be done.
My first significant encounter with Leonard’s work was during the 2014 Whitney Biennial, the last to be held in the museum’s former location on seventy-fifth street. For that show, Leonard transformed one of the fourth-floor windows into a projector, a form of camera obscura. Madison Avenue was projected topsy-turvy on the museum wall. It was immediately recognizable and completely strange, a world turned upside down but still alive.
Yevgeniya Traps lives in Brooklyn. She works at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, NYU.
On Kay Nielsen, Disney, and the sanitization of the modern fairy tale.
A concept drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid.
The mermaid in the illustration was lithe, mysterious, sylphlike. She perched on a rock, inscrutable. For years, I’d been bombarded with the images, books, merchandise, and endless one-offs of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Disney’s Ariel was redheaded, cheerful, an open book—voluptuous in that squeaky-clean cartoon way. She was certainly not the mermaid Hans Christian Andersen envisioned when he wrote his tragic tale. But here was a sad water sprite who was the perfect embodiment of the ambiguous virtues of folklore. I’d stumbled across her online, in a series of concept drawings for Disney’s The Little Mermaid. They had been drawn in the fifties and shelved for thirty years.
A concept drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid.
Who was this illustrator, Kay Nielsen? What happened to his version of the mermaid?
I grew up during a losing streak for Disney. They were putting out live-action films, and while their classic fairy tales were still beloved, they were scarce. As a child, I was more familiar with the source material: I had devoured the Grimms, the Andersens, the Perraults with gusto. I have noticed that younger generations tend to be shocked to learn the original plot of Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” (spoiler: she kills herself), hence the scores of articles revealing the real stories behind Disney fairy tales. Disney made his versions cannon; the originals were reduced to curiosities.
A concept drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid.
Perrault and the Grimm brothers collected the folk stories peasant women had told their daughters since prehistory. They repackaged them for the landed (and literate) gentry. Dark tales told as warnings gained some lightness and lost a bit of savagery in these retellings. But they still retained the elements that Bruno Bettelheim approved of when he wrote his classic, The Uses of Enchantment, where he posited that children resolve their fears by imagining themselves up against fairy-tale monsters. When Hans Christian Andersen, George MacDonald, and other writers set to work in the mid-nineteenth century, they braided their modern, national stories with the wild strands still at work within fairy tales. There were plenty of writers who used fairy tales to preach moral values. But there were others, such as Andersen and the Grimms, who saw themselves as recorders rather than interpreters. Andersen had spent his childhood tagging along with his grandmother as she tended gardens at the town insane asylum, listening to the surreal tales the women there spun.
Kay Nielsen, Rapunzel, 1925
Enter Kay Nielsen. Nielsen was born in the late 1800s in Copenhagen, and so straddled the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. During the the Golden Age of Illustration, Nielsen and other artists, such as Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré, found themselves illustrating expensive, exquisite gift books of fairy-tale stories. Nielsen took a Nordic coolness and married it with a love of strong line work and fantasy, creating strangely graceful creatures and spirits. According to the Nielsen scholar Noel Daniel, Nielsen loved the theater and the ballet, and was particularly taken with the fantastic costume and art designs of the Ballet Russes when he was an art student in Paris.
As Kendra Daniel points out in her introduction to the gorgeous East of the Sun and West of the Moon, reissued from Taschen, Nielsen chose to illustrate stories with a strong thread of irrationality: “they take their power from the snowdrifts of Scandinavia.” Cold, unpredictable, and indifferent to human need, these frozen landscapes heighten the danger of the fairy world inherent in the fantasy.
Though the books they illustrated were expensive, these artists were paid so little that they were forced to show their artwork at galleries to make money. On the side, in the twenties and thirties, Nielsen began designing sets and costumes for the theater. In 1924, his art was featured in the new edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. His fellow Dane wrote stories at once modern and ancient, sensual and cold—dualities always at work in Nielsen’s illustrations.
By 1936, expensive gift books were no longer sought-after. With his theater background to recommend him, Nielsen moved to Hollywood to work on Max Reinhardt’s Everyman, staged at the Hollywood Bowl. Elsewhere in Hollywood, Walt Disney was leading groundbreaking animation in films like Snow White. Disney distilled the cheerfully Puritanical values proscribed by the censorious Hays Code into fairy tales for a new generation. As Jack Zipes writes in his essay “Breaking the Disney Spell,” “animators sought to impress audiences with their abilities to use pictures in such a way that they would forget the earlier fairy tales and remember the images that they, the new artists, were creating for them.” Walt Disney was less concerned with children’s souls than he was with their parents’ wallets, and he built his empire around the bet that happily ever after sells better when untroubled by nuance.
Kay Nielsen’s illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, 1924.
These tales had been the one place that women, however flawed, were allowed to take up space. Disney’s versions still featured heroines, but the action in the stories fell to the princes, dwarves, and, of course, villains. (In the newest version of Beauty and the Beast, the beast and Gaston take a central role, while Belle’s sisters are done away with entirely.) The politics of colonialism and racism pervaded films like The Jungle Book and Song of the South. But the biggest coup d’état of all in the Disney film was the total dissolution of the dark. Nuance was lost to the bright glare of intentional innocence. As Zipes writes, “The diversion of the Disney fairy tale is geared toward non-reflective viewing. Everything is on the surface, one-dimensional … It is adorable, easy, and comforting in its simplicity … Disney wants the world cleaned up.”
Artwork by Kay Nielsen for Fantasia.
Kay Nielsen strode into this Disney-studio atmosphere in 1940 ready to embrace the uncanny, the odd, and the unnerving. According to Noel Daniel, a sort of internationalism followed in the wake of Romanticism, bringing a more cosmopolitan version of folk and fairy tales with it, and “took a seat at the same table of widespread interest in vernacular culture.” Nielsen, like many of his fellow artists, illustrated folk works for multiple nations and cultures, his source material as diverse as his artistic influences—a mix of Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Japanese woodcuts and watercolors. Before following his star to the animation studios, he had lived in Paris, London, and Copenhagen. But he arrived in Hollywood too late. Nielsen was hired to work on Fantasia, and he designed one of the most original sequences in all of Disney’s films, the “Night on Bald Mountain” piece. After that, he began work on conceptual art for an upcoming film version of “The Little Mermaid.” But by the end of World War II, a soft nationalism had firmly settled into the works of American animation, and in particular the work of Walt Disney. Nielsen’s multicultural, mythical designs for the film were too dark, too morally ambiguous. The artist’s slow, painstaking style was at odds with the assembly-line speed of Disney Studios, and even when other artists were brought in to take his concepts and develop them into animations, he was worn down by the pace of the work. Nielsen and Disney parted ways, and his concept drawings were shelved. He was brought back briefly to work on Sleeping Beauty—in my opinion, the most visually striking of all the Disney films, with a strong Gothic look inspired by the period—but was let go again in the fifties.
From East of the Sun and West of the Moon.
The kind of design Nielsen specialized in—decadent, beautiful, and opulent—was no longer in vogue. He did very little profitable work in the few years before his death, in 1957. He worked on a few murals for churches and locals schools, and then, to try and make ends meet, became a chicken farmer. He and his wife relied on their friends for support, and without their help, they almost certainly would have been homeless. Nielsen died in poverty and obscurity. The age of Disney was on the rise, and the age of illustration was over. Nielsen’s art would have to wait fifty years to see new printing and popularity, and, by then, like Andersen’s mermaid, he was just foam on the waves of a long-ago world.
Amber Sparks is a novelist and essayist. Her work has appeared in Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Burnaway, Fanzine, and other publications. Her most recent book is The Unfinished World and Other Stories
In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
If the lavish feasts and epic drinking sessions of The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas (1802–1970), are any indication, seventeenth-century France was the era of the gourmand. The musketeers—Athos, Porthos, and Aramis—and their young friend d’Artagnan, the Gascon nobleman who is the book’s hero, are frat boys of a different era, men for whom an ordinary evening at home is thus:
Porthos was in bed, and was playing a game of lansquenet with Mousqueton [his servant], to keep his hand in; while a spit loaded with partridges was turning before the fire, and on each side of a large chimney-piece, over two chafing dishes, were boiling two stew-pans, from which exhaled a double odour of rabbit and fish stews, rejoicing to the smell. In addition to this … the top of a wardrobe and the marble of a commode were covered with empty bottles.
The musketeers know no moderation. They order multiple bottles of wine for a quick drink, and at one point, one of them consumes an entire wine cellar. When Aramis plans to eat an omelet with a side of spinach, his friends ultimately convince him to say to the waiter, “Return from whence you came; take back these horrible vegetables … Order a larded hare, a fat capon, mutton leg dressed with garlic, and four bottles of old Burgundy.”
Dumas was a bon vivant and passionate cook who wrote in many genres, and his Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, a sprawling volume that traveled the alphabet from absinthe to zest, was the great project he felt he must complete before he died. (It was published posthumously.). According to the introduction to my abridged, translated version of that volume, Dumas “wrote novels and stories because he needed the revenue but produced his masterpiece, the Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine, because he loved the work.” The book includes recipes, society gossip, bits of culinary history, and the writer’s meditations on hosting and entertaining. It is not, the introduction says, “a basic cookery book for an untaught bride.” I found it fun to read that a recipe for ortolans, a rare songbird, tells us that to kill them, we must “asphyxiate them by plunging their heads into very strong vinegar. It is a violent death that improves their flesh.”
I made three dishes mentioned in The Three Musketeers—the rabbit stew and fish stew cooked concomitantly in the passage quoted above (the mingled smells really did cause rejoicing) and a spinach salad to exonerate the spinach forgone in the book. For all three, I worked from Dumas’s cookbook, choosing a rabbit-stew option that seemed possible to execute for a person who had never cooked rabbit and a fish stew calling for eel in the spirit of adventure. Since drinking was so essential to Dumas and the musketeers, I paired the food with wines, either those mentioned in the book or approximations.
This cooking called for an eel head, rehydrated morels (they were great), and an old-fashioned soup-thickening technique called beurre manié, all well outside my comfort zone. I took as my inspiration these words of the musketeer Athos upon being sent into danger: “So let us go get killed where we are told to go. Is life worth the trouble of so many questions?”
Wines of the Musketeers
Let us drink, my dear D’Artagnan, morbleau! let us drink while the wine is fresh! Let us drink heartily, and while we do so, tell me a little of what is going on in the world yonder.
—The Three Musketeers
D’Artagnan and his friends mostly drink wine from Burgundy, though the now-obscure region of Beaugency is also mentioned, and there’s a subplot about a mystery gift of a wine from Anjou. They swill it in such great quantities that the modern reader imagines either the wine was weaker than what we’re used to, or that the bottles were smaller—though in all likelihood people back then just drank more. With the help of owner Jeremy Block at Some Good Wine on Eighth Street in Manhattan, I tried to approximate their experience, choosing French wines (with one exception), from regions the Musketeers would have been familiar with, and which also would pair well with my menu. For the salad, with its acidic, fishy vinaigrette and root vegetables, I served a rosé from crisp, northern Sancerre; here the presence of pinot noir offered an earthiness to match the salad. For the eel dish I found a “natural” wine from Jura, one of France’s most obscure wine regions, where they’re known for making wines in the most traditional style, close to what the Musketeers would have imbibed. This Côtes du Jura chardonnay from Didier Grappe (a hip vintner who also makes a cult wine called “The Clash,” after the band) uses organic grapes and indigenous yeast. It’s unfiltered and has no additives, just like in the 1600s, and the slight oakiness worked with the buttery finish of the soup. The Burgundy to pair with the rabbit was a difficult score—red Burgundy wines are made from 100-percent pinot noir grapes, considered by some to be the best expression of pinot noir in the world; thus, they’re expensive, and become more expensive depending on how specific the bottle gets about where within Burgundy the grapes are grown. “Borgogne” on the bottle means “from anywhere in Burgundy,” and this $24.99 bottle from Joseph Faiveley was very good. Lastly, the Anjou wine the musketeers received that in that mysterious gift (“ ‘My faith! never mind where it comes from,’ said Porthos, ‘let us taste it, and if it is good, let us drink it.’ ”) would have been a cabernet franc, and Long Island, upon whose citymost tip I happen to live, is a good region for growing that grape. The Red Hook Winery next door to me sells a cabernet franc that uses grapes from Marcari vineyard, one of the premiere wineries on the North Fork. It made a pleasing substitute for the Anjou.
Unfortunately, unlike Musketeers, my husband and I did not manage to consume all four bottles with dinner.
The Salad that So Fascinated Poor Ronconi
Finally, I made a salad that satisfied my guests so well that when Ronconi, one of my most regular guests, could not come he sent for his share of the salad, which was taken to him under a great umbrella when it rained so that no foreign matter might spoil it….
[This salad was] of great imagination, composite order, with five principal ingredients: Slices of beet, half-moons of celery, minced truffles, rampion with its leaves, and boiled potatoes…
First, I put the ingredients into the salad bowl, then overturn them onto a platter. Into the empty bowl I put one hard-boiled egg yolk for each two persons—six for a dozen guests. These I mash with oil to form a paste, to which I add chervil, crushed tuna, macerated anchovies, Maille mustard, a large spoonful of soya, chopped gherkins, and the chopped white of the eggs. I thin this mixture by stirring in the finest vinegar obtainable. Finally, I put the salad back into the bowl, and my servant tosses it. On the tossed salad I sprinkle a pinch of paprika, which is the Hungarian red pepper.
And there you have the salad that so fascinated poor Ronconi.
—The Dictionary of Cuisine, edited, abridged and translated by Louis Colman
Serves 6 – 8
For the salad:
1.5 cups of beets, boiled until fork-tender, and sliced
1.5 cups of potatoes, boiled until fork-tender, and sliced
1.5 cups of celery, sliced
large handful of spinach, chopped
For the dressing:
3 hardboiled eggs, separated into yolks and whites
1/2 cup olive oil
4 anchovies, mashed
2 tbs fresh tarragon, minced
1/4 cup good-quality canned tuna
1 tbs Maille mustard (from Dijon, available in every supermarket)
1 tbs soy sauce
1/4 cup chopped gherkins
1 tbs vinegar or more to taste
1 pinch paprika
salt and pepper to taste
Prepare according to the method outlined above.
Note to readers: Dumas’ instructions on dressing salads are very precise: They should be dressed “an hour before the bowl is broached” and tossed three or four times during that period. Moreover, only the “master or the mistress” of the house” should season the salad, and only “if they are worthy of such a priestly duty.”
Matelote of Eel Mariniere
Take a Seine carp, an eel, a tench, a perch, and cut them in pieces. Slice 2 large onions. Put the onions on the bottom of a copper pot, then all the heads, then the body pieces, so the pieces from nearest the tail are on top. Season with salt, pepper, a bouquet garni, and a few cloves of garlic. Pour over all 2 bottles of white wine. Bring to a quick boil. Add 1 glass of cognac and flame. Add 20 or 30 little onions fried in butter. Make little balls of flour and butter and sprinkle it into your matelote. Shake to mix well. Serve hot, garnished with croutons and crayfish cooked in Rhine wine.
—The Dictionary of Cuisine, edited, abridged and translated by Louis Colman
For the bouquet garni:
a few leaves of sage
a few springs of thyme
1/2 sprig rosemary
1 bay leaf
Tie all the ingredients together and place them in a piece of cheesecloth.
For the croutons:
Slice the baguette and fry the slices in butter till crispy, salting liberally.
For the soup:
1 eel, fileted, head reserved
2 catfish, fileted, head reserved
1 bass, fileted, head reserved
1 white onion, in segments
4 cloves of garlic
1 bottle of white wine, preferably Sancerre
2.5 cups of water
20 or 30 little cippolini onions
2 tbs butter
1/4 cup flour
6 tbs butter
Salt and pepper, to taste
Make a fish stock. Put the fish heads and the head of the eel, the onions, the garlic, the wine and the water in a large pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20 minutes and strain.
Brown the onions in the butter on medium low heat until they’re very soft, about 30 minutes.
Prepare the fish. I followed Dumas’s directions and cut my fish as steaks, but they were bony and difficult to eat. In this recipe, I suggest using fillets.
Dry the filets and season them thoroughly. Fry skin side down in 2 tbs of the butter until the skin is crisp.
Prepare the beurre manie: Mash the remaining butter with the flour until it forms a smooth paste. Make the paste into teaspoon sized-balls. These will be used to thicken the soup.
Reheat the fish stock to a simmer, add the onions and filets and simmer until the fish is cooked through.
Add the beurre manie balls, and continue to simmer until the balls have dispersed and the sauce had thickened.
Salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with croutons.
Young Rabbit Fricassée
Cut 2 very young, tender rabbits into pieces, wipe off the blood. Put into a pot with water, a few slices of onion, a bay leaf, a spring of parsley, a few scallions, and a little salt. Bring to a boil. Drain. Wipe dry. Trim.
In another pot, sauté the pieces in butter, sprinkle lightly with flour, add some of the water in which they were parboiled, being careful to stir so that no lumps are formed. Bring to a boil. Add mushrooms and morels, cook. Reduce the sauce. Thicken it with 4 egg yolks, mixed with butter or cream or with some of the sauce, chilled. Finish with the juice of a lemon, or a dash of verjuice, or a dash of white vinegar, and serve.
—The Dictionary of Cuisine, edited, abridged and translated by Louis Colman
1 rabbit, cut into pieces
1/2 onion, sliced.
1 bay leaf
a few sprigs of parsley
a few scallions
2 tbs butter
flour (for dredging)
a large handful of Hen of the Woods (maitake) mushrooms, chopped
a handful of morels
2 egg yolks
1 tbs cream
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 365.
Put the rabbit in a pot with water, onion slices, bay leaf, parsley and scallions. Bring to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat. (Parboiling the rabbit is said to remove the gamey flavor.)
Drain, straining and reserving the parboiling liquid.
Wipe the rabbit pieces dry. Season them thoroughly with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour.
Add the butter to a large skillet, and heat. Add the rabbit pieces and fry them until they’re well browned on all sides.
Fill the skillet about 2/3 of the way with the par-boiling liquid, and put it in the oven, covered, to braise until the rabbit is tender and falling off the bone, 2 hours.
When the meat is done to your liking, return the skillet to the stovetop and reduce the braising liquid if necessary until you have 3/4 of an inch of liquid left in the pan.
Add the mushrooms and simmer until cooked.
While the mushrooms are cooking, put the cream and the egg yolks in a small bowl and stir to combine. Take about 3/4 cup of the braising liquid and combine it slowly with the egg-mixture, stirring constantly so the egg doesn’t scramble.
Return the liquid to the skillet and simmer on low heat, a few minutes until the sauce has thickened, stirring and being careful not to scramble the egg.
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 week, Kaveh Akbar is on the line.
I am currently experiencing a strange period. My husband passed away last year, on the day before Thanksgiving. We held a small family memorial in November, a public memorial in February, and will inter his ashes at a small ceremony in April. I am dreading the end of these memorials because I have read that after the final ceremony, usually the burial, the spirit of the recently departed will know that all is well and they will leave to allow the family to move on. We have received many signs that he is here with us, and I don’t want that to end. I dread it so much. Is there a poem for me?
Don’t Let Him Leave
I won’t pretend to have any experiential referent for the dread you’re feeling, nor will I serve you up any impotent platitudes. What I will offer is “I Wash the Shirt,” by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan. Swir grew up miserably poor in war-torn Poland but wrote some of the most rending love poems of the era, including a long suite for her parents, from which this poem is taken.
For the last time I wash the shirt
of my father who died.
The shirt smells of sweat. I remember
that sweat from my childhood
When someone leaves us, no invocation, no elegy, no sense can summon them back entirely. “Washing this shirt / I destroy it / forever,” Swir writes, but of course, the smell of the shirt was always a totem, a synecdoche. Her father was gone before the scent washed away and also still present after. An old shirt, a picture in its frame, a voice on an answering machine can, under the right conditions, bloom into a moment of wholeness—an instant of being-with-again, of visitation.
You mention that you have received many signs that your husband is still with you, and this tells me that you have made yourself permeable to such check-ins. What makes you think your husband would stop these to “allow” you to move on? Such an allowance would imply that such “moving on” is what you want or need, which doesn’t seem to be the case. “In the twentieth century, grief lasts at most a year,” the poet Nazım Hikmet laments—but of course, real grief never really goes away absolutely. As in Swir’s poem, some relics fade while others remain and new ones appear. The trick is in knowing where to look. Remain open to the visitations when they come.
I’m a super newly sober human. I’m having a time dealing with it. As a nonbinary/gender-nonconforming person, I don’t see myself reflected in a lot of poetry, especially poetry that centers on addictive behaviors. Any guidance would be much appreciated.
Newly Sober and GNC
Dear Newly Sober,
First of all, shout-out to you and your new sobriety. For an addict in early recovery, any period of sobriety can be a Herculean trial. An hour, interminable. Twenty-four hours, unimaginable. The intersection of addiction and queerness, and the way in which one of these things can sometimes limit the availability of support for the other, is a foundational obsession for the young nonbinary poet torrin a. greathouse. Here’s a link to their “Burning Haibun” (content warning for homophobic language).
If alcoholics drink to forget and poets write to remember, then alcoholic poets find themselves in the center of a fascinating friction. “once, i tried to drink myself into blackout or erasure myself into something more poem than memory,” greathouse writes. For me, so much of recovery has been centered on salvaging, pouring verse (my own and others’) into the cavities of my own knowing. “Burning Haibun” examines the virtues and limitations of this process while also deftly leaning into the doubleness of erasure experienced by so many queer addicts—erasure by addiction, yes, but also erasure inscribed by domestic, familial, or cultural violences: “we have languaged our history / into burnable things.”
Do you have a poem about how America-centric this world is when you’re a non-American who’s bitter about it?
I don’t know that any single poem could adequately encompass that, and I wouldn’t even describe “The Difference,” by Ishion Hutchinson, as being particularly bitter—but! I do think it’s invested in the ways “America first” jingoism pollutes not only our relationships to the world but also our relationships to language.
This poem was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of The Paris Review, and I bring it to you here in full:
They talk oil in heavy jackets and plaid over
their coffee, they talk Texas and the north cold,
but mostly oil and Obama, voices dipping
vexed and then they talk Egypt failing,
Greece broken and it takes cash for France not
charity and I rather speak Russia than Ukraine
one says in rubles than whatever, whatever
the trouble, because there is sea and gold,
a tunnel, wherever right now, an-anyhow-Belarus,
oh, I will show you something, conspiring
coins, this one, China, and they marvel,
their minds hatched crosses, a frontier
zeroed not by voyage or pipeline nor the milk
foam of God, no, not the gutsy weather they talk
frizzled, the abomination worsening
opulence to squalor, never the inverse.
“I rather speak Russia than Ukraine // one says in rubles than whatever, whatever / the trouble”—entire nations, histories are flattened to a currency, and then there’s a syntactical placeholder—“whatever”—that cipher. The horrifying thing is how unsurprised any of us would be to overhear these sentences while sitting in a coffee shop or walking down a busy Manhattan street. The horrifying thing is how their presence in Hutchinson’s poem defamiliarizes them, makes us alive to the violences inside our own vernacular.
“They marvel, / their minds hatched crosses,” he writes, and the marvel, the crosses appear right there in the poem itself—“voyage or pipeline,” “the milk / foam of God.” Then Hutchinson’s ending. This ending! Is there a better, more succinct description of American colonialism (of land, of politic, of mind) than “the abomination worsening / opulence to squalor”? And look at all those negations in the last third of the poem—“not,” “nor,” “no,” “not,” “never.” The poem is almost resisting itself, resisting the reinscription of violence inherent to its very grammar.
How do we oppose the rah-rah bravado that dismisses anything not American as ancillary, important only in its proximity to Americanness? How do you cut out a worm once it’s already burrowed inside your tongue? Roethke tells us that the serious problems in life are never solved but that “some states can be resolved rhythmically.” Hutchinson’s poem invests itself deeply in that promise.
Kaveh Akbar’s poems have appeared recently in The New Yorker, Poetry, the New York Times, the Nation, and elsewhere. His first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, was published by Alice James in the U.S. and Penguin in the UK. Born in Tehran, Iran, he teaches at Purdue University and in the low-residency M.F.A. programs at Randolph College and Warren Wilson.
In the fall of last year, I found myself in Tenth Avenue’s 192 Books, chatting with a stranger. The man (whose enviable green coat had temporarily distracted me from his visage) was thumbing through a copy of Gertrude Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation. This volume was, we quickly learned, a shared obsession. I was about to ask the man’s name when I suddenly realized there was no need: it was the critic, poet, novelist, performer, and academic Wayne Koestenbaum.
A few weeks later, I traveled to Koestenbaum’s nearby apartment to sort through manuscripts, long-forgotten first drafts, personal notebooks, and correspondence as far back as his undergraduate years at Harvard. I had begun cataloguing a daunting portion of his collected works—from academic journal articles to Vogue magazine columns—into a comprehensive bibliography. (The bibliography was the distillation of Koestenbaum’s literary archive, purchased last year by Yale University.)
To handle a writer’s work in this way puts one in the privileged position of speaking with the writer about it. The release of Koestenbaum’s new poetry collection, Camp Marmalade, which was published last week, provided another occasion for us to talk of his work. This excellent book is the second volume in a trilogy of what the author calls “trance writing”; the first is The Pink Trance Notebooks. Put simply, the approach allows language to move freely through Koestenbaum as he improvisationally explores subjects dear to his heart and intellect, including stars, sex, and Susan Sontag. The language that appears does not often adhere to expected thematic, syntactic, or logical patterns.
Throughout our conversation, we discussed the book’s eccentric aesthetic, as well as subjects ranging from Agnes Moorehead to the theories of Donald Winnicott. Though the interview took place virtually (Koestenbaum in New York, me in Tel Aviv), our sensibilities jibed the same as ever.
The recording is on, so now we have to behave. The very first stanza of Camp Marmalade is a guy whispering “fag” as he walks by you. Why inaugurate a stay at Camp Marmalade this way?
Tonally, it felt right. Faggotry is what I investigate. Then I move to Sontag, a fellow investigator of faggotry, who in her journals is noting gay bar slang—that the word jam should mean gay but it means straight. At the beginning, I’m kind of wanting to say that the strange framing of sexual experience and of scapegoated experience through coded language is what constitutes the curriculum of Camp Marmalade. Figuring out the origins and phenomenology of this possibly punitive lexicon. And where’s the me in the jam of it.
About halfway through, I thought of Pauline Kael’s negative review of Antonioni’s Blow-Up. She couldn’t stand it. She felt like she could detect, behind the stream of consciousness, a desire to make it all add up to something. That’s so not what’s going on in Camp Marmalade, and that’s what’s so divine about it.
At the end, I do admit that the particles pass through the membrane of my perceiving self, without my knowing which are the worthwhile and which are the worthless particles. And maybe there’s no difference, but in that case, I’m not trying to assemble them. I’m letting the universe top me, spoon me onto its cracker. I’m the marmalade. I had this phrase written down, “Sifting equals halo,” and I thought, That’s probably Benjamin’s hashish notebooks, but then I couldn’t find it. Then I thought, It’s probably from Thoreau’s journals, and I couldn’t find it there either. I think I was saying that Benjamin, on hashish, was sifting through the particles of workaday consciousness trying to find the revolutionary sparks. Or that Thoreau in the forest, or in Walden, was sifting through the natural phenomena around him in weather and birdcall and temperature fluctuation, trying to find if not the truth then at least the touchstone.
I was thinking about Gertrude Stein a lot when I was reading these, and the affinity between her writing and the trance stanzas. They rarely connect thematically in an obvious way, sort of like Stanzas in Meditation or A Novel of Thank You. How much were you thinking of Gertrude while you were writing the trance stanzas?
I’m always thinking about Gertrude Stein. The point of Stanzas in Meditation is that she is allowing language at its most elemental and unspecific to fall through her as she sits in the room of the stanza. In A Novel of Thank You, she’s saying that the posture of gratitude is all that you need to write a novel. It’s a feedback loop of praise to the universe as a cosmophagic, autophagic twin. Stein grounds writing in physical sapience and physical stasis. Simply that you are there in your pulchritude, you’re sitting there in your flesh, letting time fall through you. It doesn’t mean that one is some awakened Buddha. Writing is simply a tool for making a gift for others of one’s experience of time falling through one.
In your essay “Stein Is Nice,” you call her style “baby talk.” Your trance stanzas are like that, too—there’s a refusal to grow up. Assemblage versus intellection, its aesthetic MO, is a refusal to stop playing.
I believe in the persistence of play. All my writing is grounded in the practice of reckless verbal improvisation. I think it’s Winnicott who says somewhere that health is the ability to play.
Norman O. Brown too.
Yeah, and so I believe that the ability to play is the ability to create. I say that Stein is talking baby talk because she called herself Baby within the familial erotic bond with Alice. She was also the emperor, so for her, literary authority at its most sublime and terrifying involved the keeping of babyishness as a permanent adult possession. I certainly have a Gertrude-Alice feeling with my boyfriend where I am totally Baby. I love that, and I understand how Baby is power or Baby is literary creativity and permission.
But there are a lot of little warning signs that the play and babyishness might be about to stop. You’re doing the Marmalade thing for stanza after stanza, and then we’re bombing Iraq. There are these little moments of “this might not last.” And of course, it doesn’t last because you can never actually return to that infantile state of play. Perhaps you’re admitting it at the end with what you said about sifting, that it was all artifice all along, in a way, even though there’s so much of you in Camp Marmalade. I don’t mean it’s insincere. Artifice doesn’t mean insincere.
When history interrupts the jouissance of play—I’m aware of that happening largely through death in this book. Call them indexically historical punctuation points. The effect, for me, is that I read Camp Marmalade as more of an audible oscillation between the puncturing effect of history and death on the one hand and on the other hand this playful assemblage.
There’s a lot in both trance volumes that many people wouldn’t even put in their private diaries.
Things that other people might consider TMI that I consider part of my subject matter include any discussion of anatomy. I consider myself an explorer of the spectral sexual body of all genders. So anything having to do with the body, I always keep it. Anything having to do with sex within the family, I keep. Anything having to do with the sexualization of daily life, I keep. And anything having to do with culture—Elaine Stritch, Agnes Moorehead. If I can get an intersection of my sexual imagination and the culture, I keep and consider it my subject matter. My critical books from Double Talk onward have been about fringe sexuality. The incest taboo and the construction of heterosexuality are the bread and butter of this civilization and its literature.
But sometimes the incest feels like a threat to the play, which is an old psychoanalytical idea. There’s this: “Mother’s finger in heated milk saucepan to test temperature.” But then there’s: “Why always is my suicide fantasy poised on mother of baby I adore more than dignity allows.” You are the baby. It’s the baby in you. The innuendo is literally dripping in the saucepan, but the narrator hasn’t had time to feel conflicted about that one. It’s all love there, Baby. But then in this “House of Usher”–like image, it’s very dissociative.
The reading that you’re giving me, which I’m congratulating you on the brilliance of, had never occurred to me. My strategy is to keep mother and father and baby very floating and nonspecific so it can be those positions rather than specific proprietors and occupants of those positions. I’m really thrilled that you’re not thinking of the specific person I was thinking of. You’re just thinking of the baby in me or the baby in you.
Even more frightening than that one is when you peek in and your mother is sleeping, but there’s blood encrusted around her lips.
You have a different sense of TMI than I do. For me, part of the pleasure and catharsis of writing is putting down all this stuff, often with a sense of glee, not of being traumatized. It feels like pointing to a meteorological phenomenon and getting it just right, scientifically.
I understand. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t pick up on when you were describing disturbing things with a gleeful naïveté.
The thing I thought you were going to say is, I do reenact a primal scene, and I visualize the mother and father having sex in a kind of—
“Frozen moment of mother lifting nightgown to admit father.”
I can’t help it. There it was. I consider these little visitations, and if you see something, say something. But I remember when I wrote that, and I thought, For a lot of people, that’s something they don’t want to picture. But I’m a reader of Dennis Cooper and Elfriede Jelinek, so I do want to picture those things.
About halfway through Camp Marmalade, something gets darker, by my lights. As opposed to just a threat of a fall from baby-talk paradise, it was like it was almost happening. You even mention the expulsion from Eden. I think that you, or the narrator, is more capable of malice all of a sudden. It appears in this stanza—“Dead pet turtles starve, dry, aswim in fecal pond of my cruel making.” That’s the strangest line in the whole book, in my opinion, because it’s the only time that the speaker acknowledges any capability of cruelty.
Totalitarianism is one of the secret subjects of this book. I think that what you’re noticing about the turn toward darkness there is that the very strategy of anarchic, improvisatory, jouissance-oriented playfulness does bump into history. What do you hear that’s more disturbing?
Not only that you killed the turtle but that it’s play with fecal matter and knowing that it’s fecal matter. Like, I’m not just throwing shit around without any self-consciousness. I know it’s waste. I know it’s disgusting, and I’m using it for evil.
I note here, rather than issues of culpability or intent, an imagistic timelessness that enwraps the inextricability of my cruelty and the turtle’s fecal-surrounded death. Is anything I make cruel? Or is it just the fecal pond in the past that I made cruel? We’re delving—that’s a very close reading.
I’ll have to think about it some more. It’s just a little more ominous than the rest of the book.
I’m grateful to be thought ominous. I’m a serious eschatological guy. I’m scatological, but I’m also eschatological.
I’ve always been struck by your Virgoan, Flaubert-like discipline. The book is about play and refusing to grow up, but you are a grown-up. That was very Lana Turner of me. You are a cripple! You are a grown-up!
I make lentil soup.
You know how to placate the pleasure principle. You do Brahms’s piano exercises, maybe even at the same time every day. Is it possible to do trance writing in a structured way?
I’m now trying to figure out how to do things like the trance writing in a more scheduled way. Since January, I sleep in a little later, which is the pleasure principle. Then I get up, and I sit with my laptop, and I type up my dreams, but I let myself go a little more trancey.
You told me one time that the “heretical” influence on The Queen’s Throat was Manuel Puig. You like to have writers whom you’re imitating but who have nothing to do with the subject at hand. I don’t know if it applies to the trance notebooks or to Camp Marmalade, but did you have a heretical prophet in your midst while you were putting them together?
For The Pink Trance Notebooks, one of the prophets was the Austrian poet Friederike Mayröcker, particularly her book Brütt, or The Sighing Gardens. It’s a series of rants and arias, and it’s such a torrent of language. I found it incredibly inspiring. Another really inspiring book was Hervé Guibert’s The Mausoleum of Lovers. I don’t think there’s any source as far from the scene of the crime as Puig was from the composition of the somewhat academic treatise on opera.
Let’s end with what you’ve been reading lately.
Michel Leiris’s Rules of the Game, called Fibrils in French. I’m a total fan of Leiris, but this book is crazy. It is such a labor of genius love for Lydia Davis to have translated it. The thing I want to read next, Ben—I just got sent this by Semiotext(e), and it’s called Now the Night Begins, by Alain Guiraudie. Bruce Hainley just finished reading it, and he said to me, “I’ll just tell you one word—grandpa.” So there must be something really sick about a grandpa. I think I’m going to like it.
Ben Shields is a writer, journalist, and teacher. He lives in Brooklyn and Tel Aviv.
From September 1966 to February 1969, the Oracle of the City San Francisco—better known as the San Francisco Oracle—published twelve issues of poetry, mysticism, and psychedelic art. Produced in Haight-Ashbury, with contributions by Bruce Conner, Rick Griffin, and Allen Ginsberg, among others, the underground newspaper became exceedingly popular among counterculture communities. Its back-of-the-book classified section was full of sexual propositions and pleas. But it was also populated by ads from parents who begged, longingly, that their kids come home, or at least pick up the phone. In Where to Score, a pocket-size paperback coming out later this month, Jason Fulford and Jordan Stein collect the best of these classifieds and present them anew. Here is a selection.
From the book Where to Score, edited by Jason Fulford and Jordan Stein. Copyright by San Francisco Oracle. Published by arrangement with J & L Books.
Last month, I made an appointment to get “wrixled.” I knew little about the practice except that it was a new service available only online. Wrixling.com describes its product with language that is simultaneously straightforward and frustratingly opaque: it’s an “abstract therapy” that draws upon LARP (Live Action Role Playing) and attempts to “rescale” the “self.” Wrixling is a “one-on-one online participatory-psychic scrambling” and “word surgery,” which, to me, suggested that the experience would be invasive, entertaining, uncomfortable, and perhaps therapeutic.
A few days later, at the time of my scheduled appointment, I used Wrixling’s proprietary video chat to log in. It didn’t work: blank screen, spinning pinwheel. A few minutes later, I tried again, this time using Skype (as the site recommended). At twelve thirty-five, I connected with my practitioner, DirB Wentt.
All six wrixling practitioners use the prefix DirB, an abbreviation for “director of behavior” and a self-descriptor that the artist behind the project, Michael Portnoy, has often used in his work. Portnoy sees his primary material as human behavior—his own, his collaborators’, his audience’s—and delights in manipulating it in his performances. His most recent project, Progressive Touch—Total Body Language Reprogramming (2017), involved a private, two-on-one performance in which Portnoy and his collaborator, Lily McMenamy, sang into the pubic bone of a single, naked white man—the only audience member—for forty-five minutes. He did this with twenty men in twenty performances because, he claimed, he wanted to reprogram “the corrupted source code of the white male.” Portnoy’s work often embraces absurdity as its own form of logic and attempts to solve real-world problems—mental health, the distribution of power, the insidiousness of social media—with absurd solutions, blending his own punny humor with his frightening intensity.
Michael Protnoy. Photo: Bogdan Kwiatkowski
Portnoy spent the early days of his career in New York’s downtown performance and alternative comedy scenes, and he’s since taken on the confrontational aspects of both. In 1998, he famously performed the so-called Soy Bomb intervention. Hired as a dancing extra for Bob Dylan’s live performance at the Grammy Awards, he broke out of his background role and leapt onto the stage, beside Dylan. Shirtless, with SOY BOMB slathered across his chest, he flailed his limbs aggressively, in a kind of angular vogue dance, until security pulled him offstage. According to Billboard magazine, “The phrase became an iconic part of late-’90s pop culture overnight—eventually earning parodies on SNL and The Tonight Show With Jay Leno—and remains Portnoy’s greatest moment of mainstream exposure.” Portnoy has since mostly inhabited the art world, but Wrixling, by virtue of existing online, reaches beyond museums and galleries and back into the public.
As a Wrixling practitioner, Portnoy goes by Sen (aka, Senior) DirB PartanakootiG. Other directors include DirB Romorenge, DirB Kalbish, and DirB Danjtorb, who I recognized as Carlos D, the former bassist for Interpol. My practitioner, DirB Wentt (a pseudonym? a role?) is Jon Wan, “a rising star of alt comedy,” according to Portnoy, and an “expert tidier!” according to Wan’s website. When he appeared on my screen, Wentt looked precisely like he did in the picture I had seen online: bob-cut wig, blood-red lipstick, and dandy-ish attire. Wentt knelt and stared back at me, framed in a kind of bedroom lounge, bathed in red light. The perfection of the cinematically arranged set only exaggerated the unflattering angles and lighting of my own low-res camera.
The session began, like much online communication, awkwardly. Video chat technology remains cruder than our cultural ambitions, and we learn this anew every time we try to use it. I roamed the house until I found a corner where Wentt didn’t stutter and freeze on every other word. Nevertheless, entire phrases were dropped, obscured, and repeated throughout the session. Disorientation, I realized as the session progressed, was built into the performance. A Wrixling video ad on Portnoy’s Instagram announces, “When the world gets confusing, we get confusinginger … tax pumps!”
If Portnoy’s material is human behavior, his main tool for sculpting that behavior is language. His work explores the spectrum of linguistic abstraction: improvised and crafted, poetic and comedic, literary smart and infant dumb. Recently, he’s been posting Instagram clips of himself speaking in foreign accents. His rants are run through a captioning app he had designed by linguists at the University of Amsterdam, and the resulting translation is superimposed onto the videos in cartoonish speech bubbles. On March 12, he posted a selfie of himself singing, “I’m a sulochrome collector do you have a swimswuit low room for me?”
When he was an undergraduate at Vassar, Portnoy described himself as “a full-on Oulipo and [Raymond] Roussel junky.” He studied literature and theater, Mark Leyner and Artaud. He became attracted to what he calls “parasense poetics,” a “particular almostness of sense, its irresolvable ambiguities and incongruities, its unstable radioactive compounds.” He rejects the term nonsense for its noncommittal definition and its pejorative connotations.
“All the goofy, cutesy nonsense with its wacky images, dumb puns, and loping chimeras, it’s this stuff that sullies the whole field [of nonsense literature],” Portnoy tells me. “I’ve sometimes called what I’m after lutosense from the Greek luto for “mud,” something that’s constantly slipping between frames of reference, semantic fields, abstractions, theoretical terrains, emotional registers, and tongues, where the ‘what’ of the sentence is always being challenged, effaced, rewritten.”
“One of the goals of Wrixling,” Portnoy continued, “is to learn from language rather than putting our learning into it. To experience with another person the collision of those radioactive compounds in the haze—to mainline those isotopes together, and to have those isotopes reshape the self.”
Portnoy’s refusal of nonsense is, of course, his obligation as an absurdist, which requires that the artist push against familiarity. In order to create Wrixling, Portnoy drew upon the hypnotherapist Milton Erickson’s “psychological confusion” technique, which uses a series of contradictory actions and conflicting messages to disarm a patient of their inhibitions. Likewise, Portnoy wants to break down personal boundaries—of intimacy, timidity, identity—by encouraging participants to embrace true bewilderment. In an orderly, comfort-loving society, we tend to reject chaos, but Portnoy argues that it is a primal state of mind. It pushes us outside of systematic, logical thinking into more physical, immediate kinds of behavior.
So, while Portnoy didn’t make my Internet connection terrible, he anticipated it—he hoped my fuzzy connection would enhance his service of uncertainty.
My session began:
Wentt: [long pause]
Me: Hello? Can you hear me?
Me: Can you see me?
Me: Is this good?
Wentt: Find an area where the light is on your face.
Me: How bout here? Better?
Wentt: Yes, I —
Wentt: Are you alone?
Wentt asked me to clap in all four corners of the screen, as if we were configuring my senses with the technology.
Wentt: Now, when I say bloom, you say leasing. Bloom.
Once the connection was stable, we began “infixing modifiers into [my] root-self,” which, like a lot of the Wrixling vocab, gives language a physical presence. We placed petro (the prefix meaning “stone”) into my own name. For the duration of the session, I was be called R-petro-SS. Wentt asked me to repeat the name several times and then revealed that I had placed this “talismanic” rock into my “D.E.F.T.,” which, I learned, is an acronym for “Defenses. Expectations. Fantasy. Truth.” I was told to give the stone a name. I chose Charles.
I’ve done enough therapy to be familiar with the basic form of a session:
I’ve tried hypnotherapy, psychoanalysis, osteopathy, kinesiology, gestalt, acceptance and commitment therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, Reiki, and talk-chiropractic work, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of need. Many of these practitioners have worked with me over the phone or via Skype, and some have even been effective in doing so. (Portnoy told me he was especially put off by text-based therapy. He’s tried online therapy services, like BetterHelp, with disappointing results. )
Many of these psychoanalytic-adjacent traditions share a belief that the deepest well of human experience is the subconscious. I’ve always been enamored by the possibility of an underworld inside us, but I’ve also been suspicious of talk as an effective means of treatment. We spew chitchat all day long—it’s how we navigate the waking, monkey-mind world—so how could those same words help us speak to the unknown parts of our selves?
Carl Jung has said that images, not words, are the language of the subconscious, but if you do have to use words, then it makes sense to sidestep the ones with which we’re familiar. The poetry of nonsense can be invoked on the level of story, phrase, word, or even syllable. The latter of these is the approach Joyce took in Finnegans Wake when he depicted dreams by using a vast network of syllabic sounds, simultaneously divorced from and jammed with meaning. Likewise, Portnoy points to the definition of nonsense as not a lack of sense (as the name suggests) but an excess of it.
In creating Wrixling, Portnoy—along with cowriters Dan Fox and Joanna Ruth Evans—culled vocabulary and methodology from his past verbal improvisations. Ultimately, for Portnoy, the single most important requirement of these terms is “good mouthfeel and fecund irresolvability.” According to the Wrixling website, this vocabulary includes phrases like “flirt walling,” “transcursive drawl,” and “shade neglect.”
In my session, Wentt spoke a variety of words at me in a kind of verbal Rorschach test— Klarm, Klornipatrix, Kalakrínsoron, Feethrish, Fakárpsidrew. I responded, as quickly as possible, with the first thoughts that came to my mind: mollusk, drug, island, illness, river. (Many of the words recalled tech companies—Google, Hulu, Kaggle, Etsy, Zynga—who use gibberish brand names to appeal to our infantile desires.)
Then Wentt asked a series of questions, all of them language focused:
What words are stuck in my mind?
What words grate me?
What question keeps me up at night?
Whose name is on the tip of my tongue?
What words energize me?
If I couldn’t come to an immediate answer, I was told to sound out the word with my mouth: physicalize it. Then, Wentt “wrixled in” an “agglutinate” through “rapid guesting,” which, as far as I could tell, meant that my answers were plugged into a formula and assigned a kind of treatment. What followed was a private, dramatic performance.
Wentt began role-playing as my wife, supposedly wearing a smock to prepare for a party that we were (fictitiously) throwing that night. “These dinner parties are futile! I haven’t showered in five days!” Wentt bleated like a baby goat, then told me that we had moved into a small room with lactating breasts on the walls. They were filling the room with milk, he told me, and I was about to drown.
Wentt switched to the role of my father and began screaming—“Rpetross! You’re just a wipedown wishbone protein!”—and demanded that I respond in a complementary vocabulary. “I’m just an undone Twinkie!” I said.
Then we were, according to Wentt, transported to a paradisiacal landscape where I was forced to give a sermon to villagers. Wentt screamed and, while rolling on the ground, described a “muscled creature, blood dripping from him.” He told me to “stand up! Pull the drain! Slap the wave! Slap the wave!” I mimicked Wentt’s commands, trying to keep up, but was never quite able to follow the motions quickly enough. Wentt began flapping arms, gyrating, and hollering “accept!” into the screen, repeatedly.
Eventually, the fight about the party (which Barack Obama was attending) was somehow resolved. Wentt relaxed back into a kneeling position and concluded by asking me to say my name a final time: R-petro-SS.
My Wrixling lasted twenty-five minutes, the standard length of a session. It’s shorter than traditional psychoanalysis (fifty minutes) but the same length as a television sitcom (not including commericals). For Portnoy, the experience is like “Chat Roulette for L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets,” an “immersive telenovela,” a “fever dream you cowrite.” The sessions are just long enough to get a kind of episodic narrative going, something you might consider continuing. In this way, Wrixling recasts therapy as a show. It was something I’d often felt in my own therapy sessions but had never fully articulated to myself.
For me, the most vulnerable, intimate time I’ve ever had in therapy was through past-life regression (a subpractice of hypnotherapy). For this dubiously named practice, the patient is walked through a kind of trance dream. In it, the patient is a different person from a different era, engaging in a narrative entirely of their own imaginative making. Past-life regression is an exercise in storytelling and can be analyzed in the same way as a novel or a dream.
To guide patients through this process, hypnotherapists avoid directives and instead rely on the sonic aspects of language—rhythm, pitch, timbre, delivery. Words become vehicles for sound, and the pace of talk acts as a trojan horse that enables the hypnotherapist to enter the mind of the patient, who is asleep, alone, and unprotected. For me, it was as memorable and affecting and useful as any good story.
Wrixling.com clearly states that the practice “is for entertainment purposes only and is not therapy,” a disclosure that’s issued, I’m sure, for the express purpose of legal protection. Portnoy has said, explicitly, that he wants to “reengineer the logic, language and movements of human exchange.” He wants to get in our heads, and he’s doing it in plain sight, using the sharpest psychological tools around: talk, humor, poetry, intimacy, confrontation, and of course, the Internet. Personally, I can’t say that Wrixling transformed me, but it certainly did something, and I’m willing to admit I don’t yet have the words to describe quite what that is.
Ross Simonini is a writer and artist. His debut novel, The Book of Formation, was published last year.
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