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    Turning in My Card

    “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “I don’t know. How many?” “You wouldn’t know. You weren’t there.” In the American military, identity is an enduring obsession. Long before debates swirled through cultural institutions about the value of hyphenated American identities or the relative fixity of gender-based pronouns, the…

    Writing and Slaughter

    I The Thousand Year Reich had come to an end after twelve bloody years. The “belated nation,” which had drawn the short straw when it came to dividing up the overseas colonies of the world and so colonized inwards with the expulsion and destruction of the Jews (this was the writer Heiner Müller’s thesis), had…

    Notes on Assimilation

    There is a passage in Democracy in America in which Tocqueville observes that in a mass of land spanning the width of the continent and extending from “the edge of the tropics” in the south to the “regions of ice” in the north, “the men scattered over this area do not constitute, as in Europe, shoots of…

    The Fall of the House of Labor

    In 1927, there was a deep economic crisis in Palestine. Unemployed workers would gather in a workingmen’s club in the cellar of Beit Brenner in Tel Aviv to bitterly vent their difficulties. One evening, David Ben-Gurion, then General Secretary of the Histadrut (Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine), addressed them about the future of Zionism and…

    And That is Why

    And that is why I paced the corridors Of those great museums Gazing at paintings of a world In which David is blameless as a boy scout Goliath earns his shameful death While eternal twilight dims Rembrandt’s canvases The twilight of anxiety and attention And I passed from hall to hall Admiring portraits of cynical…

    Winter Dawn

    It happens in winter, at dawn, that a taxi takes you to the airport (yet another festival). Half-awake, you recollect that Andrzej Bursa used to live right here, just outside. He once wrote: the poet suffers for millions. It is still dark at the bus stop, a few people huddle in the cold, seeing them…

    Border

    The scent of gasoline crickets Vladimir Holan Poor people wait by the border and look hopefully at the other side The scent of gasoline crickets skylarks sing the abridged version of a hymn Both sides of the border face east The north is east And the south is east One car holds a giant globe…

    Sambor

    We drove through Sambor quickly, almost instantly, it took five minutes. But my mother, as I recall, passed her exams here. Dusk fell without funeral marches. A lone colt danced on the highway, though it didn’t stray far from the mare; freedom is sweet, so is a mother’s nearness. Over fields and forests gray silence…

    Mountains

    When night draws near the mountains are clear and pure — like a philosophy student before exams. Clouds escort the dark sun to the shaded avenue’s end and slowly take their leave, but no one cries. Look, look greedily, when dusk approaches, look insatiably, look without fear. Translated by Clare Cavanagh

    Do No Harm: Critical Race Theory and Medicine

    In the winter of 1848, an epidemic of typhus ravaged Upper Silesia, a largely Polish mining and agricultural enclave in the Prussian Empire. Months earlier, heavy floods had destroyed large swaths of cropland, leaving the peasants to subsist on a paltry diet of clover, grass, and rotten potatoes. Weakened by starvation, they readily succumbed to…

    Three Tales

    MONDRIAN Mondrian’s closest friend was the Dutch painter Eli Streep, a Jew who was caught in a raid in Paris in 1942 and murdered. Mondrian had escaped by then, via London to New York. Streep and Mondrian saw each other almost every day in Paris during the many years they both lived in the same…

    Honey and Poison: On Corruption

    I For as long as human beings have had governments, they have worried about public corruption. The Hebrew Bible warns repeatedly that those in authority — especially judges — should not take bribes, “for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those in the right.” The Arthashastra, a third-century Indian text on the…

    The Enigmatical Beauty of Each Beautiful Enigma

    Above the forest of the parakeets, A parakeet of parakeets prevails, A pip of life amid a mort of tails. (The rudiments of tropics are around, Aloe of ivory, pear of rusty rind.) His lids are white because his eyes are blind. He is not paradise of parakeets, Of his gold ether, golden alguazil, Except…

    Illusions of Immunity

    In an already classic episode of Black Mirror, called “Arkangel” and directed by Jodie Foster, a single mother has her daugh- ter grafted with a cerebral implant connected to a screen. The system, known as Arkangel, allows Marie to monitor Sarah’s every action, and also to suppress stimuli that might cause her daughter distress. The…

    Sahara Dust

    The air is sharp with dust: it’s hard to breathe. The sky’s scraped white with it, the light turns gold And ominous. I cough and cough and cough. It blows each year from Africa, a seethe That Pollocks the parked cars with ochre, rust, The powdered pigments for the nimbus on The icon of a…

    Time, Signature

    When I was small, my grandmother, who taught piano, told me someday I would learn to “read” music; I was astonished! What ogres, what emperors, what gingerbread, what coffins of glass? Perched on five telephone wires, birds noted their gibberish, like an unspooled Phaistos disk. When grown-ups crescendo-ed overhead, when discords tensed for the felted…

    The Caryatid

    Even though she has set down The unwieldy entablature And walked back into her life,   Her posture, Her disheveled intricate coiffure, Betray preoccupation.   Preparing dinner, she slices The fluted celery stalk into drums, The mushrooms into ionic capitals.   She is too old to be young anymore, The moonlight petrifies. She has left…

    What Brings Bad Luck

    Hat on the bed, A peacock feather Dragged indoors From the blue-eyed weather,   Reflection smashed, A baker’s dozen, Chain letter from An estranged cousin,   The bumbershoot Bloomed in the hall, The ladder’s lintel, The owl’s call,   The horseshoe’s frown, The salt knocked over & not tossed across The left shoulder,   A…

    Jump Rope Song

    (with a nod to X.J. Kennedy)   The rope that makes of air a sphere, Or else a grin from ear to ear, Is something earth-bound feet must clear   When the parabola swings round. Right before the snapping sound, You have to float above the ground.   The trick is tempo, neither slow Nor…

    American Inquisitions 

    Fyodor Dostoevsky published the first installment of The Brothers Karamazov in February, 1879. The novel was the culmination of a decade of ideological strife, during which Dostoevsky had noted a steady slide toward populism. Socialism, the passion of Dostoevsky’s youth, was an enthusiasm still on the march. The author of The Brothers Karamazov was a…

    Staple Lady

    Next time her skull is sliced open, she must have a mind limber as rubber, bending to the pain. Under the bright lights of the icy theater she will melt, allowing the saw’s buzz to fade into the sound of the surgeon entering her interior, surveying the field of tumors for the bad one. When…

    For the Afterlife

    She wanted a crypt like the temple of Dendur, an enormous monolith unshakeable as their marriage. He favored the granite sarcophagus gaily decorated with Victorian swirls and oak leaf cornices. She wanted poplars tall and straight—leafy and shameless as Italian trees of summer, if sadly deciduous. He preferred cypresses, their constancy through the seasons: shrubs—yew…

    Invalid Afternoons

    1. Precocious in her dotage, she teeters like a top unravelling, now spinning, now faltering, now lunging across living room carpets, over William Morris tendrils and Bokara medallions, past the leather sofa and beyond, arriving at the south window. She stoops over the hope chest with her watering can, drenching the amaryllis, dotting orchids and jade with ice, then pruning the cactus…

    Nine Little Girls 

    Some years ago, deep into a confounding research assignment for which I had been combing through the website of the South Dakota legislature, I stumbled upon the recorded testimony of a woman describing in detail her own rape and torture, and the tortures of her sisters by the same hands. In her account the acts,…

    “The Wise, Too, Shed Tears”

    I How close to the world can one be? How far from the world should one be? Those questions represent two mentalities, two doctrines — the aspiration to nearness, the suspicion of nearness; engagement as a form of strength, engagement as a form of weakness; the hunger for reality, the horror of reality; the nobility…

    The Murder of Samuel Paty

    I It was Friday, October 16, 2020, the last day of school before the All Saints’ Day break at the Bois-d’Aulne middle school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine on the outskirts of Paris. In front of the school, a man named Abdullakh Abouzeidovich Anzorov decapitated Samuel Paty, a professor of history, geography, and civics. The knife-wielding executioner was…

    The Unsettled Dust

    SICILIANS AND GREEKS To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, the Italian newspaper  La Repubblica is reissuing his books, one a week for twenty weeks. In theory, I have read most of them: when I first lived in Italy, I used to buy them at the newsstand in…

    Putin’s Poisons

    Russia is a country of symbols. Major political shifts here are always accompanied by a change of outward trappings, as a graphic demonstration of a rupture with the old. In March 1917, as the Russian throne stood empty after the abdication of the last Czar, the crowned double-headed eagles — the symbols of the fallen…

    Reckoning with National Failure: The Case of Covid

    Epidemics are not part of America’s collective memory. The colonial era’s smallpox and yellow fever epidemics, the three cholera epidemics of 1832, 1849, and 1866, the great flu pandemic of 1918 — none of these left a deep imprint on the national consciousness. None fit into a larger national story, at least none that Americans…

    Lament for the Maker

    At the museum of his life, his leather duffle coat is behind glass. It felt like a poem-protection center. It was my responsibility to go home, put food out in the same place every day, talk to the people who came to eat, then organize them, food and poetry being a nourishment that shares a…

    Guns

    Stick in the mud, old fart, what are you doing to get the guns off the street? I am not here to pick on anyone. But now that they have shot Yosi, who ground my meat in Hingham, and his shiny pink meat-truck is for sale, I feel desolate. A gun is a vengeful machine…

    Glass of Absinthe and Cigarette

    This is a poem about a man who is dead. Sodomy laws treated him like a second-class citizen. There were ripple effects. With the aid of stimulants, he spoke like a truthteller and hungered for touch. Even when repugnant, his disinhibition seemed godlike, and what came out of him ravished me. Alas, tolerance builds rapidly,…

    Slowly in Haste

    Those leaf blowers sure make a lot of noise. Since love is the way, we nuzzle in the morning, but wake up to high-decibel screaming, dust, and exhaust smoke. More and more, being myself seems to oppose the nature of the world. I don’t want updated privacy statements; I don’t want to accept cookies; I…

    Horace

    We were driving North. A sign read, There will be no more wilderness; I thought of my grandfather’s softness whilst hugging him when I was a little boy. It was as if God hadn’t created us naked or defenseless and we had all we needed. It was as if wilderness would never cease to be….

    Sanctimony Literature

    As many have noted and some have lamented, politics are multiplying: these days everything seems to have one. The search term “the politics of” yields over a million results in my university’s library database. There is “the politics of dirt,” “the politics of sleep,” and even the politics of abstracta, such as “presence” and “absence.”…

    A Modest Utopia

    I. Every quixotic idea has its origins in books of chivalry. Mine began in reading about English political history in the eighteenth century. From Macaulay and Namier, I learned how the Whig Party governed England for seventy years on the basis of a parliamentary majority secured through a corrupt system and fraudulent elections. This strange…

    The Individual Nuisance

    A single sentence sufficed to seal my veneration for Harold Rosenberg. It comes in the midst of the bravura conclusion of “The Intellectual and His Future,” an essay from 1965. “One does not possess mental freedom and detachment,” it reads, “one participates in them.” Here was a dictum worthy of adoption as a creed. “Intellectual” is…

    Hals at Nightfall

    The “war against water,” the Dutch struggle to wrest their country from the sea, is strangely invisible now. Concerns about global warming are just that, global. The little local struggles — the rush to get the livestock to higher ground, the nervous pacing along the village dam — belong to dangers from olden days, like…

    At the Bookcase

    Accept my greetings, ancient scrolls, and favor my kiss in your dusty slumber. From sailing to foreign isles my soul has returned, and like a wandering dove, trembling and with weary wings, once more it knocks at the entrance to its childhood nest. Do you recognize me? I am he! Your bosom-child from way back,…

    Gods and Pathogens

    What does piety have to do with public health? In several recent rulings concerning restrictions on in-person religious services during the pandemic, the Supreme Court has repeatedly confronted the question, but it is hardly a new one. Humans have probably been asking similar questions for as long as they have clustered together in sufficient densities…

    Romance Without Love, Love Without Romance

    THE ETHICS OF BREAKUP I have only ever had one friend as crazy as I am. Once we painted a giant fireplace onto the wall of her apartment as decoration for a dinner party we were hosting — and then, at the end of the party, she led our guests up the stairs onto the…

    The Beliefs of Cyclones

    Don’t we shudder when we think that in a time of  popular emotion all it takes is a word, just one word imprudently spoken without hatred by an honest man, to provoke so horrible a murder? EUGÈNE SUE, THE WANDERING JEW The most illuminating book ever written about social media was published in 1895. It…

    Josquin’s Secrets

    “A certain famous man said that Josquin produced more motets after his death than during his life.” So joked the German music publisher Georg Forster in 1540, nineteen years after the death of Josquin des Prez, the most celebrated composer the world had known. He had lived and died admired and respected, then as now….

    Rosalind

    Back when I was a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man I found myself able to summon a range of emotions that ran the gamut from common to not-so-common. The checkout person at H Mart trying to scan my fish sauce puts me in mind of a Roman housewife trying…

    Chipmunk

    Ain’t that God’s own truth? Just one more flame-streaked roadster fresh from the spray-booth.

    Viral

    1 Any one of these masked avengers might be moonlighting as another Captain Rock, might set out not only to censure but incinerate a rich farmer dreading his knock at midnight, a cowpuncher, a calf-drencher, a dweeb journalist, a helmetless jock courting death by misadventure, a negotiator trying to break the deadlock between boss and…

    A Bull

    Every day putting a fresh spin on how he maintains that shit-eating grin despite his notoriously thin skin. The quagmire of what-might-have-been. Every day shouldering an invisible tray. Hello, hello. Olé, Olé. His musing on how best to waylay a hiker passing through a field of Galloways. Every day aiming to swat the single fly…

    Stealing Kisses

    There was a pounding in my dream. Could it be the surging chant of the Crystals’ killer line, “And then he kissed me”? It seemed to me I was about to have the wild gaze and wilder hair of Natalie Wood or Harpo Marx descend on me. But as I awoke I realized that the…

    The Pluralist Heart

    “Purity of heart is to will one thing,” Kierkegaard famously proclaimed. He was right about purity but wrong to aspire to it. It is a common mistake, made all the more familiar to ordinary people because it is a quality that heroes and fanatics, the characters who spice religious liturgies, history books, novels, poetry, and…

    Where Are the Americans?

    They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way, To do something, to speak on their behalf Or at least not to close the door again. DEREK MAHON In foreign policy, the remedial efforts of the new administration, the post-Caligula administration may come down to this: the position of the United States in the…