A Journal Turns 40 and Delivers Melancholic Masterpieces
AGNI 75 opens with an essay by editor Sven Birkerts about book love:
Here in my house I am surrounded by books, books I have read and books I intend to read, many of which have been in the same spot on the shelf for years, my gaze sweeping over them day after day until they metamorphose into a kind of protruding wallpaper. They recede, becoming what they were before they were first singled out: possibilities. They need to be singled out again in order to be seen. They need to be touched, stirred, their narrow profiles turned to full face.
Birkerts settles on W.G. Sebald, admitting I have always been stuck on melancholy brooders, melancholy European brooders especially, and here was one from central casting.
The extract of melancholy brooding is a consistent ingredient throughout the lush and memorable writing in AGNI 75: an ode to lambs by a lip-licking carnivore (“Lamb” by Hadara Bar-Nadav), a miscalculating rider thrown by a horse (“Coffin Bone” by Ansel Elkins), the un-touristed castles in Ireland (“The Minor Castles of Ireland” by Chad Davidson, draught in Texas “In the Backyard after the Dust Storm, Meditating on Paradise” by John Poch), serving a prisoner coffee in Guantánamo (“Coffee for Everyone” by Jill McDonough), Christians ankle deep in their own blood (“At Nero’s Circus” by Ciaran Berry), and death: how to die slowly (“Coyote Road” by Lise Haines), how to be remembered after death (“Final Instructions for My Disposal” by Vince Passaro), how to look (in both senses) in the coffin (“Bess” by Andrew Hudgins).
The brooding is often sanded with fine grit. In Ciaran Berry’s terrific “At Nero’s Circus,” Christians are the main act.
Dressed up as dogs, they’re torn apart by dogs,
nailed to their own crosses, or set aflame
as if to prove the body’s wax around
the soul’s frail wick. If the scribe’s to be
believed, a martyr chooses death. Therefore,
our emperor gives them what they desire.
The horror is not sentimentalized, equal weight is given to the point of view of the spectators, and Nero gets his just deserts later when, betrayed/by his pleasures, he takes up a knife/to slit his own fine throat.
Some of the prose in this issue is quiet by contrast. One is “Coyote Road” by Lise Haines. There’s no car crash here, just one lover trying to figure out how to die, and the other how to stay at the right distance:
We had been together eleven years, and I continued to thrill at seeing the water sheet down her body onto the hand-painted tiles each day. Swimming kept her strong and lithe. I watched with a mix of pride and lust as she pulled her suit away from her body and let it drop wherever it landed before heading into the outdoor shower. Then I would retrieve her suit and soak it in our of our sinks.
This issue also includes a good amount of translation, including “Sooner or Later” by Husch Josten, translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. The storyline is somewhat diffuse and meandering, the narrator apologetic and second-guessing, and the characters perhaps not fleshed out enough to follow their motivations, or perhaps this is a piece of something larger, or they are grappling in a German way that remains a bit out of reach. Another translation is “Heaviness, tenderness…” by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who perished in Siberia where he was sent as a political prisoner. Eugene Serebryany translates this poignant poetry from Russian.
The volume features a special 50-page tribute to Robert Lowell, beginning with a series of photographs taken by Robert Gardner in 1959 after the release of Lowell’s Life Studies. The lean, black and white shots situate a professorial, suit-clad Lowell in a Boston neighborhood, at BostonUniversity, in his home and with a youthful Elizabeth Hardwick and their toddler Harriet. There are moving reflections from writers including Fanny Howe, Honor Moore, C.K. Williams, Kevin Prufer, Robert Pinsky, and many others. These vignettes paint Lowell as complicated, blunt, nurturing, inspiring, unstable, eccentric, unforgettable.
A journal named after the Vedic god of fire and guardian of humankind has some big shoes to fill; it is published at BostonUniversity, housed two floors below Room 222 where Robert Lowell taught. The contributors are highly accomplished, including Grey Gowrie, who offers his remembrance of Lowell, and who later, after his time with Lowell, served on Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. Perhaps he visited some of the minor castles of Ireland, featured in the poem by Chad Davidson where
… even Kylemore,
whose plain gift shop, you swore, boasted Ireland’s best scone,
which is, if not outright hyperbole,
surely no major triumph. Just a minor grace…
And there is wisdom. Vince Passaro has written a masterpiece in “Final Instructions for My Disposal.” Engaging, amusing and so, so true, I want to shrink it down and tape it to the inside of my glasses. This living letter from imagined death, to the dearly beloved, pastiche of memories, musings, and directives, nimbly picks its way through the awkward detritus of a human life, as well as summoning the grace to leave with love. I give Passaro the last word:
Once we’re older – very few people from middle age onward won’t claim this – youth and its problems seem to scream out for our advice. It all looks so clear to us now, so much more manageable than it is when you’re in it. But the advice we have to offer is almost entirely ridiculous. It’s like telling a drowning man all he needs to do is swim.