Getting Real

I had to admit it: I was never going to read all the issues of the London Review of Books that were sitting in two tall stacks on my office floor. They’d been there for months, and some of the covers had started curling up with age. I went through and clipped only the essays and reviews that interested me the most, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve been making my way through that stack—also a large one—quite happily. I thought I’d share a few of the gems with you here.

  • I read “I’m an Intelligence,” a long-form review by Joanna Biggs of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. The essay looks at the last years of Plath’s life (and briefly and very poignantly but amusingly imagines what her life might have looked like, had it lasted a lot longer). Because of this, it is largely about Plath’s relationship with her dreadful husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and her own mental health and sense of self. It’s also about the varying ways we portray ourselves (or hide ourselves) in communications with other people. ‘Ted may be a genius,’ Plath wrote to her mother in 1962 or ’63, just a few months before her death, ‘but I’m an intelligence.’
  • I read art historian Eleanor Nairne’s short essay about Keith Haring, published last year on the occasion of the first large-scale exhibition of his work in the UK. Haring is an artist I have a lot of affection for and, along with the many other New York street artists of his era, a real fascination with. In Nairne’s piece I learned about an aspect of his graffiti art that I didn’t know: In New York in the early 80s, when a subway ad was taken down it was temporary replaced with black paper, and Haring used these as canvases for his chalk drawings. He made 5,000 of them between 1980 and 1985 and was arrested several times for doing it. 
Tseng Kwong Chi photo of Keith Haring
  • I read LRB editor Andrew O’Hagan’s essay, in an installment of the paper’s Diary (usually my favorite section), about funerals, which I clipped because the first sentence was about the poet Philip Larkin. It ended up being not about Larkin’s poetry but his funeral, as well as the funerals of a few other poets and O’Hagan’s own father: “When I read it now, I see his order of service was a publication chiefly for people who hardly knew him, and when all’s said and done, that’s fine, isn’t it, even appropriate, if what mattered to the person in question was cultivating the admiration of strangers? A lie can confirm a truth.”
  • I’ve read two pieces about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. One was a dense, poetic little piece about the changing face of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the 60s and 70s by the poet Padraig Rooney. The other was a chilly account of the Birmingham Six, the six Irishmen who were wrongly convicted for two 1974 bombings that killed 21 people and seriously injured 170 or more, by Chris Mulilin, the journalist who wrote a book that helped prove their innocence (though not until many years after they were imprisoned). The people who committed the crimes have never been brought to justice, though Mullins knows who they are. He writes that the purpose of his reporting was to prove the innocence of the Six, and “Journalists do not disclose their sources.” A reporter’s account of his own reporting makes for fascinating reading. As I read his essay I remembered the powerful film In the Name of the Father (and its impeccable soundtrack), then looked up the movie and remembered that it was actually about a different case, the Guildford Four, in which four different Irishmen were falsely accused of a different bombing in England. Like the Birmingham Six, those men spent some 15 years in prison before their innocence was proven and they were released. 
  • In Barbara Newman’s review of a Jack Hartnell history book, I read about “medieval bodies.” Newman reports on extremes of feasting and fasting; exaggerated depictions of whiteness and blackness; laws governing what people wore for the purpose of identifying them by their profession or social status (“French prostitutes could not wear embroidery, pearls, gilt buttons, or robes trimmed with squirrel fur”); Pope Joan, the 9th-century lady who cross-dressed and fooled everyone into letting her become pontiff until she got pregnant and either died giving birth or was murdered (modern scholars think that most likely none of this actually happened); women who shaved their eyebrows and wore cone-shaped hats during a period in the 15th century when having a broad forehead was considered very beautiful; and the idea that witches could cast a spell to make a man’s penis disappear. Bodies: They’re weird! 

  • I read an unusual meditation on the idea of “the beach” by Inigo Thomas. He first discusses the meaning of the word “pebble”—its etymology is obscure, but he writes that “Pebbles begin as a fragment of rick that through natural agency has broken away from the rockface” and quotes Clarence Ellis’ book The Pebbles: “The weather, very slowly, but very surely, breaks down even the hardest rock.” Later, he evokes Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Mar-a-Lago, which was made from two thousand square meters of black Doria marble from Genoa and thirty thousand Moorish tiles purchased from an American collector, among other materials. Very grand indeed, but Thomas reminds us, “There’s no argument about rising sea levels, only their causes. … eventually Mar-a-Lago too will be worn down by the actions of the waves. A house on the shore is no less transient that a pebble on the beach.”
  • I read Madeleine Schwartz’s review of two books by Kathleen Collins that were prepared for publication posthumously by her daughter Nina some thirty years after they were written. Collins, a Black writer who worked in the 70s and 80s, wrote stories, plays, and films, though many of them did not see the light of day during her lifetime. Collins wrote stories that showed, in her words, “African Americans as human subjects and not as mere race subjects.” Schwartz writes that, though Collins’ characters tend not to be overtly political themselves, the title story of her book Whatever Happened to Interracial Love looks at “the pressure and lies created by racism.” When her only film, Losing Ground, was made in 1982, it couldn’t get distribution in arthouse movie theaters “because they couldn’t imagine who would want to watch it,” Schwartz writes. She refers to an essay on the film by Phyllis Rauch Klotman, who writes that “audiences complained that the movie had no ghettos, ‘no ‘poor suffering black folk.’ ” But Schwartz reminds us that the Collins stories that were released just a few years ago were received with a similar bemusement; critics seemed unsure of what to make of these “stories of black love and conversation” that don’t fit easily into the walled-off categories of our understanding of art or race.
American writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins

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