Sunday Review: Lincoln in the Bardo
a novel from George Saunders
[ Random House / 2017 / 368 pp ]
Lincoln in the Bardo is delightfully weird. Before picking it up, I’d assumed that the novel’s force stemmed from its subject matter: Abraham Lincoln! The heart-rendering death of his beloved son! What curious pleasure, then, to discover that the novel’s constructed of fragments—George Saunders defines them as ‘a series of monologues’ and ‘samples’ in an interview with Granta Magazine. This, above the poignant story, is what makes the novel truly remarkable.
The ‘samples’ are extracts from varied historical books and other sources, judiciously juxtaposed. They set the scene and tone of the epoch, building narrative but also questioning narrative.
Take the building blocks of description that create the portrait of Willie Lincoln, for instance:
Willie Lincoln was the most lovable boy I ever knew, bright, sensible, sweet-tempered and gentle-mannered.
In “Tad Lincoln’s Father,” by Julia Taft Bayne.
He was the sort of child people imagine their children will be, before they have children.
Randall, op. cit.
His self-possession – aplomb, as the French call it – was extraordinary.
Willis, op. cit.
And this section below, discussing Lincoln’s aesthetic appeal or lack thereof:
The ugliest man I have ever put my eyes on.
In “The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln,” by Frederick Hill Meserve and Carl
Sandburg, account of Colonel Theodore Lyman.
The homeliest man I ever saw.
Piatt, op. cit.
Not only is the ugliest man I ever saw, but the most uncouth and gawky in his manners and appearance.
In “Lincoln,” by David Herbert Donald, account of a soldier.
The second sort of fragments, the ‘monologues’, are – well:
And there came down upon us a rain of hats.
the reverend everly thomas
Of all types.
roger bevins iii
Hats, laughter, crude jests, the sound of fart-noises made by mouths, from on high: these were the harbingers of the approach of the Three Bachelors.
the reverend everly thomas
The monologues (and dialogues) are from the spirits who dwell in a transitional realm—a ‘bardo’, in the Tibetan tradition - who absolutely refuse to admit that they are dead (they call their tombs ‘sick-boxes’).
You could argue that Lincoln in the Bardo is a metafictional novel, examining the narratives and dialogues that make up that ambiguous thing we call ‘History’. Think about it: the book’s constructed of accounts and opinions of people from all classes, writing down their views of one man and the tragic death of his son, civil war erupting all around them. You also have people (OK, dead people—but written history will always be a kind of Great Book of the Dead) reflecting and constantly re-telling the story of their lives, constructing a narrative of themselves, attempting to make sense of what they’ve done and where they are today. The bardo isn’t just an earthly-spiritual realm: it’s a place of transition, of denials and affirmations, where the spirits try to find some lucidity in the surreal chaos of life. Isn’t that history, after all, a constant agglomeration of fact, interpretation and erasure? In this sense, Saunders has created a brilliant, self-reflexive, thoroughly postmodern novel.
Visit Random House to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie
Five Things with Alice Stevenson
1. The last thing that made you smile.
A copy of The Japan Edition of The Lodestars Anthology that arrived in the post today as a gift from a lovely client. I’m off to Japan on holiday tomorrow.
2. A secret.
I don’t like the taste of water.
3. The last thing you wrote.
A piece about a walk along Oare Creek in North Kent.
4. Favourite city.
My heart will always belong to San Francisco.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
A Japanese Seven Eleven convenience store. (It would have to be a big time capsule.)
Alice Stevenson is an author illustrator, artist, educator. A native Londoner, her travels on foot around her home city, inspire her writing and artworks. Alice has been commissioned by a wide range of international clients including: Crabtree and Evelyn, Faber & Faber, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Vogue, Hugo Boss, and Sainsbury’s. She is the author of two books, Ways to Walk in London and Ways to See Great Britain, and a set of colouring postcards London perspectives, all published by September Publishing.
Venus in Art Therapy
a poem from Anita Olivia Koester
“The self is a house that can only be abandoned once.”
Today’s poem was written by someone who already delivers so much to the poetry reading community through her website Fork and Page—a book review site where poetry collections are arranged in a flavorful and thoughtful composition alongside plates of food and sprigs of flowers. With such an eye for color and balance, Anita Olivia Koester’s passion perfectly translates to this imagined prose-like poem about the goddess of love “opening and closing like a cactus flower” in an art therapy session.
What I love about this poem is how down-to-earth Venus is, how I too relate to the “state of endless falling” of experience with men. There’s pain and hurt in the poem’s emotional background, but it’s never one-dimensional. It’s because of lines like “[a]ll that’s left of the shutters and doors are golden / hinges gleaming in sunlight” that damages us as deeply as it does, but not without eventual repair.
Visit Muzzle to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
dark lord of the rainbow
prose from Monique Quintana
My mom told me a story, a story she heard from her own mother, a curandera in southern New Mexico, about a man who made an unholy deal with the Devil. The details of the deal are lost to me now, but I remember the moral: that Devil walks amongst us, inveigling proximity to humans with an intimacy no Godly creature would stoop to—and that you’d know him, and could avoid the pitfalls of moral peril, by his feet. Some celestial physics restricted his human disguise to everything above the shin bones, so while he may wear shoes to hide them, his feet must remain cloven, goat feet, or sometimes, depending on the version of the story, chicken feet. That same specific reference in Monique Quintana’s micro-essay, “dark lord of the rainbow” immediately summoned phantasmagorical memories from my childhood of a powerful, charming dangerous man who I understood, even then, symbolized everything we were meant to suppress to become “good” Christians: sensuality, sexuality, power, self. Of course, we were warned away from him, a matrilineal edict that Quintana examines. How, in making everything he symbolizes off-limits, he becomes the very thing we want most.
Visit Rag Queen Periodical to read the piece.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
a poem from Chen Chen
The Texas sky changes color like a vast PowerPoint very proud of itself.
This week, I have a poem for you that feels analogous to a trip, or an expedition. Published in The Lifted Brow, Chen Chen’s ‘Summer’ is an exercise in shifting perception, folding reality as if something two-dimensional, and finding what is on the other side. How to see through the lens of standard procedure, of protocols and policies and form-filling. We find the world condensed down to the the small universe of your own house. We find sur-reality settling in the drywall. A dulled grief, or, the sensation of latent stagnancy, like dust hanging in the air.
You feel like a cockroach except you know how to use the microwave.
Sometimes, every living thing just sounds like: Please.
Chen Chen has this habit of taking quiet moments, the mundane or familiar, and writing it into something else entirely, mostly through a shift change. An altercation of the camera lens, or context, or form. Displacing the stagnant, the unmoving, defined perimeter with connotations of transportation, the home becomes an airplane cabin, a busy street, a misplaced subway. Travelling without really moving anywhere. It’s less the home that changes shape and place, but the self that becomes transported, finds itself elsewhere. Loss itself is a room, with its own walls and windows that we've built up around us.
In the event of a sudden loss of cabin meaning, back-up meanings will drop from the overhead compartment.
The Texas moon shines like a misplaced clue.
Please grab hold of a meaning & pull it to your face.
Visit The Lifted Brown to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Generosity as a Social Justice Reading Practice
an essay from Emilia Phillips
Recently, a particularly ungenerous, cruel, and (to use a more technical term) shitty poetry review was published that brought poets out in droves to the defense of the author. The review was cynical, written in bad faith, and included at least one breathtakingly heartless quip on alcoholism and recovery.
But this post isn’t about that review or its writer—neither deserve your time or attention. What I’m interested in today is the conversation over poetry reviews themselves, and what, if any, responsibilities reviewers have. There’s been an on-again, off-again discussion on what purpose poetry reviews serve, and if there’s room for real-and-actual negative reviews of poetry.
There is room for such writing, but I want to back up for a moment. You don’t need me to tell you there is no money in poetry for 99% of its creators. Unlike fiction, which has many potential paths to some sort of financial future, poets are sustained more by the ethereal currencies of community and affirmation than they are by agents and book contracts.
And those currencies are precious, important things. Even more so today. Trump didn’t create the current climate of nihilistic cynicism that pervades every corner of our lives, but his arrival certainly has amplified it to an enormous degree. Poetry needn’t be hidden from that, but, again and the again, the word I return to is generosity. I believe we need and deserve generosity.
Emilia Phillips wrote the following back in September, and it’s an important distillation of this value:
Generosity is the word I use for this reading practice, as it suggests that I give something—my attention, my curiosity, my ear—to (almost) all poems. This is not to say that I like every poem that I encounter, only that I do not attempt to pass judgment on it because of its style, author, or tradition alone. At its core, this reading practice demands that the reader seek out work by writers who were doing something entirely different than the writers one holds most dear, and work by writers with different backgrounds and experiences than one’s own. With racism, misogyny, and xenophobia at a visible boiling point in the United States, and literature’s resilience as an art form that allows one unique access into the lives and challenges of others, reading generously seems more important than ever.
Back to “negative” reviews. It’s not that poets are too soft for criticism—it’s that the act of tearing something down is far easier than building something up, it’s that we have a responsibility to each other to sustain something resembling a healthy community of poetry. There is no rubric for this, nothing’s set in stone, but let’s start with generosity—not spite, not anger, but generosity.
Visit Ploughshares to read the essay.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
a poem from Meghann Plunkett
How do you account for the truth when you’re not sure if you fully recognize it? ‘Gaslight’ offers the option of laying out all the “truths” you know and funneling through them until you find some consensus. When the speaker says, “there was no art to the refusal of unpacking,” it felt weighed: in this context, the unpacking of all this trauma only makes them question their memories more. They’re constantly prodding and re-investigating: no; maybe I didn’t; yes, that’s true; didn’t I? This winding mental landscape is mirrored in the poem itself that flips through and turns over scenes of everyday violence—chickens dying off at the hands of the butcher, the cats risking their bodies under the chain link fence, the baby rats huddled & fighting against each other in the wall. The speaker has an acute awareness of the danger of this landscape across multiple bodies—their own, those being snuffed out by butchers, unfortunate creatures who must scrape by. Whether or not the gaslighting allows them to fully process their position in this conflict, their mental notes of the cacophony surrounding them only make the relative silence of the conflict between speaker and partner magnified: him growling in their ear instead of raising his voice, his body overtaking theirs so completely that all they use the kleaver outside as a way of marking time against their likely erratic breath.
There’s a real proficiency to the layout: all orbit of this interpersonal conflict only further clarify and add emotional weight to the center. Throughout their processing, it’s less important to me that every moment be 100% factually honest when each feels carefully and meticulously placed. Here, it’s most crucial to build empathy for the speaker by seeing what they see, and fracturing where they fracture. The unpacked books felt so heartbreaking because reading not only provides escape, but also a way to become intimate with yourself. But the speaker here has limited access to this self-processing. They’d have to contort their body to even reach the contents and given the overbearing nature of their partner, I don’t imagine they’d have much time to kick back and find themself in a different universe. They only seem to locate themself next to / in the viscerally wounded, scraping, or dying. It’s in this stripping of possibility that we consider just how much gaslighting robs you of any other focus.
[Correction: in an earlier version of this blurb, I used the term “mastery”, which I’ve come to realize is a loaded and problematic way to discuss someone’s work. There should be no conflation of possessor of enslaved people and someone with learned skills in their creative field. We shouldn’t erase or underplay the anti-black violences that have been enacted globally, but rather continue to hone our language.]
Visit Narrative to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse