28 July 2022
We begin every one of our weekly staff meetings with what I call “Poem, Paragraph, Passage.” Each week, one of us—we cycle through alphabetical order—simply reads aloud a poem, paragraph, or passage from what he or she has been reading of late. On 28 June, designer Scott LaClaire went. One in the office who persistently insists “I am not a writer” (despite what his college degree states), Scott typically shies away from the assignment, turning to video clips of poems in movies or of skits about literature. But on the rare instance when his turn aligns with an occasion that compels him to embrace the task, he has done so profoundly. There was Lucille Clifton’s “4/30/92 for rodney king” days after police killed George Floyd and on 28 June “What Kind of Times Are These” by Adrienne Rich, a poem I had not known before that day, which haunted me as it unfolded. To have the poem introduced to me vocally, that is line by line and out of sight, through Scott’s voice, in our meeting room, and just days from the Dobbs decision, and in the United States, was, as Soham Patel called it while we texted after the meeting, “Scott magic.” Soham and I agreed it was “necessary” in a moment we—at least Scott, Soham, and I—were reeling with the uncertainty of dealing with and being in a world rearranged by court order.
For me, the aura of prescience glowed brightest when, at the end, I recognized the occasion and interlocutor for the poem: “Because you still listen, because in times like these / to have you listen at all, it’s necessary / to talk about trees.” “What Kind of Times Are These” is an engaged riposte to Bertolt Brecht’s “An die Nachgeborenen” (“To Those Born after Us”), a poem whose translation started off our previous issue. “What times are these, when / talking about trees is almost a crime,” Brecht asserts. Here are two writers I admire equally disagreeing about the politics and art that drive their respective work, and I’m caught in the middle. Congenitally a kumbaya guy, I want to negotiate a compromise between the two, but I haven’t been able to—even though they are debating as comrades—and, moreover, to this moment, I can’t position myself closer to one than the other with any certainty.
I’ve gone back and forth rereading the poems in tandem since, but it’s only been a month or so. So I’m still caught in the uncertainty, vagaries, and precarity of beginning thoughts. But a few observations for now. First, both poems directly address the reader and make the poet-reader relationship in the lyric poem a central topic of meditation. (Stay tuned: our winter issue will feature an essay by poet Jenny Johnson on Adrienne Rich’s modes of poetic address, which is definitely part of the conversation going around in my mind here.) However, Brecht figures the reader as one from generations after, whereas Rich defines the reader as a contemporary. Also, Brecht demands attention from the reader, whereas Rich elicits it. Both see a pastoral avoidance of recognizing atrocities in the reader. Brecht tries to shake us out of it; Rich indulges it in order to lead our attention thither. This distinction falls in line with, on the one hand, Brecht’s famous, and still powerful, declaration that “really, we live in dark times” and, on the other, Rich’s title, which signals an effort to define the times together, through poetic communion. It might seem that Rich’s MO is more participatory and potentially liberatory—less doctrinal. But the differing historical relations between poet and reader matter, forcing the comparison into one between matrices, rather than points. Moreover, Rich’s deliberate withholding of historical context—the full embrace that defines pastoral, the otherworldly essence of pastoral negotium—unsettles me, especially in dark times.
I had a rich conversation with graduate editor Sarah Shermyen and high school interns Chadzmin Jefferies and Carolina Turner to figure out what the poem that starts this issue is doing. (This summer we had the privilege of participating in a program that provides local high school students internships in UGA Libraries departments.) This was in a two-day poetry workshop we held for them. We used four submission packets as common texts, and when, during the second day, I asked which poem they wanted to talk about, they both chose “Two Women” by Janice N. Harrington.
We went through the poem looking for patterns and variation, with a particular eye for poetic terms introduced at the beginning of the session. Among the dozen or so patterns cataloged, we found the string of similes that concluded the first portion particularly powerful, especially as it culminates in a proper noun which “gets ruined,” Carolina said, by the intrusion of the modern industrial world. “Dragonfly” is an act of nominalization, which, by the end of that first section, we see as metaphoric work of the imagination. The poem’s opening section is powered by a string of instances in which the transformative power of the imagination pushes the reader from one sentence to the next. The comparison of a fish with a woman’s face makes “a woman-fish,” clouds become some water lilies, and the sun a fish egg. When the velocity of the figuration lends itself to nominalization, time horns in. Anecdotal time intrudes by way of “death” and the durational process of imaginative making comes in through the halting syntax, both troubling an air of certainty established by the masterful assertiveness of the metaphor-making that had been happening up to that point.
When we transitioned to the second half of the poem, we noticed that the presiding element shifts from water to earth/fire. Chadzmin noted that the bones, like the woman-fish, are an image in which the human and the animal are inextricable; the two are fused together so fully that the distinction between them is indeterminable. The second half is as rich with imagination and imagery as the first, but the latter half builds out the world in need of interpretation through narrative and realism, as Sarah pointed out. Just as death and duration could not be fully repressed in the opening half, the evocative work of figuration is not completely bracketed away from the final half. The beauty, accuracy, and strangeness of the mise en scène give the story of the child an undeniable air of parable. This, I see, is, in part, a powerful rewriting of William Wordsworth’s Winander Boy. We had to adjourn, for time’s sake, just as we got started, for we found there was so much to talk about.
It was such a rich pleasure to talk about this poem with these three, writers (I’m convinced) and women all. I simply had to start the issue with “Two Women.” I talk about poetry with others quite often, within myriad contexts and for myriad purposes. But this instance, within the wake of Scott’s occasional reading and with the pedagogic charge of getting back to the basics, reminded me that the special, bifurcated sort of communing that happens with literature is something that I cannot do without. There is the rapturous, ecstatic communing with the world built out of lyric words. And then there is the communion when we talk about literature with each other over this individual experience. Time is the pivot point between Brecht and Rich, and the discussion they make has to do with the messy conjuncture between historical and literary time. It is no coincidence that after Saint Augustine makes his famous statement in Confessions that everybody knows what time is until they are asked to define it, he promptly turns to prosody. But, as William Faulkner once said—as I learned from translator and novelist Javier Marías—about the enlightening nature of literature: if literature is illuminating, it should be like a match struck at night that ultimately makes us recognize the surrounding darkness, a darkness grown darker and more prominent.
From around the office:
• We would like to welcome the aforementioned graduate editor Sarah Shermyen to the team. She is a PhD candidate in the UGA English Department, whose dissertation focuses on representations of her home state of Florida from the nineteenth century to the present.
• We congratulate Felicia Zamora for winning the 2022 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize with “A Quadriptych: Sonnets to Break the Crown of Invisibility,” chosen by Dawn Lundy Martin.
• I am excited to announce our inaugural Georgia Review Prose Prize, which will be judged by Jennine Capó Crucet. Submissions will be accepted 1 November–15 January. The best short story and essay will both be published. The overall winner, chosen between the two, will receive a $1,500 honorarium and an expenses-paid trip to read with Crucet at the 2023 Smithsonian Asian American Literature Festival in Washington, D.C. The runner-up will receive a $600 prize. We invite writers of all backgrounds to submit. More details on our website.
• We have a number of events lined up for the fall, including ones for editor emeritus Stephen Corey, Singaporean poet Marylyn Tan, Ugandan novelist Doreen Baingana, and the work and legacy of the late Valerie Boyd. All events are free and open to the public. Visit our website for more details.
• We will be at the Decatur Book Festival on October 1. Drop by and say hello.
• I am also pleased to announce the publication of The Harm Fields by David Lloyd in the GR Books series.