Distractions Are the Way to God

I, too, have a shofar, a ram’s horn, that I cannot sound. Well, sometimes I can get one rather tortured tekiah (one of four traditional sounds) out of it, but don’t choose me to blow shofar on demand as part of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

What Dante Means to Me

In recent years Dante’s Comedy has been important to my thinking about high fantasy. That phrase, as far as I’m aware, appears for the first time in Western literature in the middle of the Purgatorio and at the very end of the Paradiso. L’alta fantasia. It was a turning point in the history of the idea of fantasy, because now fantasy could be high—that is, heaven-sent, theophany.

Amazing Grease

It’s possible to read Rae Armantrout’s short poem ‘The Way’ as a kind of mock confessional epiphany poem that winds up with an actual (if ironized, meta-poetic) “epiphany” in which a postmodern artist estranged from the language-game of church-life finds a way to “be herself,” to be a poet, precisely by the kind of humorous, disjunctive play in the field of religious language that the poem itself performs.

Deana Lawson, Photographer

I first became aware of the photographs of Deana Lawson because of a piece that Zadie Smith wrote about Lawson in The New Yorker a few years ago and I remember it being quite a good piece, which is not unusual for a piece by Zadie Smith and, to be completely truthful, I find that I am often much more moved and impressed when Zadie Smith writes about visual art than I am by the novels of Zadie Smith.

A Life in the Material World

My sister’s listening habits introduced me to the Beatles, but I came to my own appreciation of them later, listening to reissued LPs and CDs at a temporal remove from the heady days when they and the Rolling Stones ruled the world of rock music.

Angel of Death, Angel of Life

The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.

St. Bernard’s Smile

Fr. Slater’s book on Bernard of Clairvaux is precious to me not simply as a good friend’s fine accomplishment. It is, for me, preciously timely. That’s because I had just been puzzling once again why it is that Bernard plays such a climactic role in the unfolding of Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

Essaying

“Here’s the very essence of what an essay is. If it knew where it was headed, it would be a report, not an essay; if it had already concluded its argument, it would be an article, not an essay; if it had something to teach or censure, it might be a critique, or an opinion, but not an essay.”

The Lilies Break Open Over the Dark Water

The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.

Days of Awe, Days of Fiction

Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.

The Books of September 11

I’m writing this as the national media in the United States are already well into rolling out their retrospective “packages” to mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11. Maybe I’m just listening to and reading the wrong things, but in all these retrospectives, I have only seen the cogitations of journalists and pundits and academics—and precious little exploration of 9/11’s effect on fiction.

Finding My Way to the Mourner’s Kaddish

On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.

Definitely My Cup of Tea

What makes just the right novel be just the right thing for my bedtime reading? Well, it has to be engaging, but not gripping. (Gripping would make me too stimulated to sleep.) No violence (physical or psychological) allowed. And while any novel takes me out of myself, which is exactly what bedtime calls for, the world it takes me into must be one of an underlying peace.

The Tutelar of Place and the Turn of a Civilization

I’ve begun re-reading the work of David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and artist and champion of the sacred and the crafted (what he called the extra-utile). Jones was a proponent of sacramental poetics, among the few really able to behold art as efficacious sign—the symbol that is also what it symbolizes, or a window upon that other world that art allows to show forth.

A Homegrown Banquet

In a year when overdue attention has at last fallen on the dark legacy of Canadian residential schools for indigenous children and, to a lesser extent, the equally disturbing history of off-reservation boarding schools in the United States, there’s another, far happier moment for Native nations that should not pass unnoticed: 2021 has been a good year for Native writers.

Drawing the Blanks with George Saunders

As George Saunders so persuasively reminds us, in his engaging book about storytelling, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a story is a way for a writer and a reader to think and imagine together.… “We imagine a story as a room-sized black box,” says Saunders. “The writer’s goal is to have the reader go into that box in one state of mind and come out in another. What happens in there has to be thrilling and non-trivial.”

Gitanjali

I read Gitanjali again in a Mount Desert Island cottage on a chilly June day, nursing a summer cold but keeping the window open to the sea air and the sound of the water. I am a mother to another woman’s orphans now, I am a wife to their father. I can hear the children on the lawn and discern their voices one-by-one, unseen but mapped on the green as they play.

The Beauty of Fundraising

I was asked recently to speak, in a seminar series for professionals, on “the Beauty of Fundraising,” but as I sat down to reflect on what my remarks would be, I realized that the work had gone way beyond the activities of “just a job” to become an essential discipline—and, in case there are any worried parents out there, a profitable end point for a meandering, expensive college education.

Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy

I’ve been thinking about joy in writing. I believe I know by now what it feels like for the writer to be working joyfully. Can you detect it in someone else’s writing? I think so, and I think I know the first time I saw it on the page, and knew that that was what I saw.

How It Ends

I’m sixty-seven. I was twenty-eight when I heard Stephen Dunn read “Men at 40” by Donald Justice in a gymnasium at New Jersey’s Artist Teachers Institute. A year later I would be Justice’s student. But for now I was Stephen’s, all Stephen’s.