15 May 2024
“Well, I just got lost in the art,” Garrett Hongo said during his recent visit to Athens to promote The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo, his current book about a lifelong obsession with music, stereo equipment, and the art of listening. This remark came during the Q&A, when someone—a dear friend of his from Atlanta—kept pushing, quite doggedly, to locate the presumably real reason behind an anecdote he shared about a pivotal moment in his devotion to music. He had been a fan of opera before his first visit to La Scala in Milan, but the way the acoustics and ambience of that storied site made the performance he attended an immersive and palpable experience drove him to tears. When we cry from art, we are usually crying about something else, the interlocutor asserted. “Was it about your father?” she pressed. Garrett conceded that his childhood experience listening for his father, who, despite his near-deafness, built stereos for a hobby was not negligible. And throughout the night he had drawn clear lines from other life happenings to his vocation as a writer. But he stubbornly resisted designating anything outside of the opera experience as the cause for the powerful overflow of feelings. “I just got lost in the art,” he opined, hands up and head down in a shrug of resignation.
To get lost in the art is not some escapist notion divorcing aesthetic pleasure from everyday life, as Garrett’s poem in this issue, “Figura: Homage to Erich Auerbach,” can further clarify. “Figura” starts with the word “prefigurations,” its prefix the poet’s opening touch, which signals his engagement with the titular critic’s work by locating the poem’s concern anterior to the experience of figurative—that is literary—language, at least as far as it’s commonly understood. By way of Auerbach, Garrett’s poem asserts that literature of the past offers its individual reader prefigurations of life that he/she/they will encounter in due time. It is not so much that literature reflects life, or represents life, per se. Rather, literature provides us figures—complex, pliable networks of feelings and meaning—that can guide us through and give shape to certain passages in our individual lives. “Prefigurations of fulfillment lie in wait, timeless / in their abeyance, . . . the future contained within each one, / not the malediction we once feared, / but an apparition come to save us from our follies.”
This is not predetermination or predestination, though. The “multiform, changeable, and deceptive” nature of figura, “a figment of words,” allows figura to be “something real and historical [in its composition]” while “anticipating another thing equally real and existing in its own time, / seen by its similitude.” The rigorous fungibility of the beautifully wrought figure makes beloved literary moments a canny guide for any of life’s pressing moments, whether the moment’s meaning gained legibility before, during, or after the lived experience. We see this when the spots of time start, when Cerberus leaps onto the scene, or, rather, from the scene. When the poem opens the curtain (i.e., garage door) to the first mise en scène of the poet’s life, the boyhood poet “felt heat / as though Cerberus had leapt upon me.” Notably, Cerberus does not appear by way of any canine in the garage, but rather as a sense of the atmosphere. This Dantean beast is not an object for engagement, but rather the means by which the engagement unfolds and takes shape. This “as though” suggests that figura’s “similitude” is not so much a transference through objects, but rather semblance made through the transport of a literary passage.
This is a very Wordsworthian poem; I use the adjective with unmitigated approval here. Not only does “Figura” beautifully dramatize “the growth of a poet’s mind,” it does so committed to “plain living and high thinking.” One of the poem’s brilliant achievements is to shed light on the ways in which Dante and Wordsworth feed into each other. (Indeed, Wordsworth’s second language was Italian.) In the epilogue to his magnum opus, Mimesis, Auerbach states that the “original starting point [for Mimesis] was Plato’s discussion in book 10 of the Republic . . . in conjunction with Dante’s assertion that in the Commedia he presented true reality.” Through this poem’s thoughts and movements, Garrett teaches us that the seeming opposition between Dantean allegory and Wordsworthian autobiography can, through beauty—if we get lost in it—be part and parcel of the same process of bringing life to letters.
Elsewhere in the issue you can find work about living a life in letters. Lucy Scott shares an excerpt of her lively translation of Dutch-Surinamese writer Karin Amatmoekrim’s novel based on the revolutionary figure Anton de Kom, an anti-colonial activist and writer who spearheaded the independence movement in Suriname. We also have new poems by Alicia Ostriker that give us poignant snapshots of her late life in love amidst the past isolating years as well as Brian Henry’s translations of the inimitable Tomaž Šalamun and beautiful poems by Joshua Weiner that capture days near, far, and beyond death.
This issue also features work from our inaugural prose prize, judged by Jennine Capó Crucet. Of the winner, Brian Truong’s “Fake Handbags,” she writes: “ ‘Fake Handbags’ lures us into the world of counterfeit name-brand goods and quickly moves us past the superficial to the substantial. . . . There is nothing at all phony about the heart on display in this captivating and engrossing essay.” For the full citations, visit our website.
From around the office:
• June will be SoPoCo month here in Georgia when the winners of our SoPoCo emerging writer contest—Aria Curtis, Sadia Hassan, and Tanya Rey—come for their residency at the Bowers House in Canon, Georgia. We will have a reading in Atlanta on 3 June, with our friends Lost in the Letters, as well as one in Athens on 22 June. Both are free and open to the public.
• We will be in Washington, D.C., from 4–6 August, participating as a partner of the 2023 Asian American Literature Festival, which is organized by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. We will be tabling the entire weekend and hosting a pair of events that Saturday, showcasing cross-currents between Asian- and Latin-American cultures and communities. One will be our GR Prose Prize reading, with Jennine Capó Crucet and Brian Truong. The other will feature GR Books by Brandon Som and Michelle Har Kim.
• This past spring saw the release of Brandon Som’s much-anticipated Tripas in the GR Books series. Brenda Iijima’s debut novel, Presences, will appear in January 2024.