No oyster could create a pearl the size of the earring in Vermeer’s famed painting, poet Lloyd Schwartz writes, making the earring a reproduction of the pearl, and the painting a reproduction of the girl, and the poem Schwartz writes jeweling it all together. Schwartz, poet laureate of Somerville, professor at UMass Boston, and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, has a triumph of a collection out this week. “Who’s on First” (University of Chicago), a volume of new and selected work, gathers poems from each of his previous four collections, as well as welcome and thrilling new work. These are not grim poems, but death hovers. Schwartz pays much attention to work — specifically the work of art-making, of devoting one’s life to music, painting, writing — but our main task, he seems to say, our highest effort, is preparing for death. Of an artist painting a portrait, he writes: “Stop too soon, the person might not yet have begun to breathe; take too long, the person could get brushed completely away.” To make art, he argues, is an act of “challenging the gods.” Ars longa, after all, and death is everywhere. Schwartz is attuned to the beauty of conversation, the gaps, the unsaids, and the shimmering moments of union. “‘What do you like in these paintings?’ ‘What isn’t there is more important than what is.’” Part of the job of the poet is to bring the light to the space between what we sense and what we understand. And so Schwartz does, a glint in the eye, a flash of grin, and a profound sense of the ways everything and all of us are all the time vanishing.
The Salem Literary Festival kicks off this Thursday evening, bringing a weekend full of readings and discussions, primarily still in virtual format. The festival opens with a conversation between Paul Tremblay and Chuck Wendig on timely, topical “Horror, Hope and the Apocalypse.” Friday evening’s keynote speaker is celebrated novelist Rumaan Alam, and Saturday morning’s keynote is Janet Skeslien Charles, followed by a number of panels throughout the day. Sigrid Nunez and Deirdre McNamer will discuss “The Human Condition,” and Sadeqa Johnson, Alena Dillon, and Laurette Folk will talk about “Mothers & Daughters.” There will be conversations on witches, fantastical detectives, writing what you know, and villains. Sunday’s events continue with a discussion on “Inner Lives” with Alexandra Chang, Deesha Philyaw, and Khalisa Rae, and “Writing Science in Fiction” with Meghan Brown and Jeff VanderMeer, as well as discussions on suspense, “Secrets in Time,” and “Retelling the Classics.” There’s a smattering of YA and children’s events as well. All events are free, and pre-registration is required. For a complete schedule and to register, visit salemlitfest.org.
What does the rest of the globe view the United States’ response to the attacks on Sept. 11th? How did that response pave a way for the election of Donald Trump? How will the unfolding aftermath play out in the midterms, and in the next presidential election in 2024? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in a panel discussion organized by Writers for Democratic Action. On the 20th anniversary of the attacks on Saturday, poet and essayist Caroline Randall Williams, historian Heather Cox Richardson, and novelists Elias Khoury and Paul Auster will discuss “September 11th and Its Aftermath” moderated by NPR host Jacki Lyden and introduced by cultural historian Todd Gitlin. Writers for Democratic Action works to bring the literary community together to demand racial and economic justice, resist white supremacy, and work for suffrage for all. This free discussion is the first of a monthly series of discussions that will continue into the spring. For more information and to register, visit writersfordemocraticaction.org.
“Martita, I Remember You” by Sandra Cisneros, translated by Liliana Valenzuela (Vintage)
“How to Wrestle a Girl” by Venita Blackburn (MCD X FSG)
“Grievers” by Adrienne Maree Brown (AK)
Pick of the week
Cheri Anderson at the Bookloft in Great Barrington recommends “The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones (Gallery/Saga): “Four friends from the Blackfeet Nation make a grave mistake with the natural world and the consequences are horrifying. I wouldn’t characterize this as a typical ghost story, however the characters are all haunted and the book itself has been haunting me since the last page. Jones blends horror with a beautiful narrative style that reminds me of Stephen King and Ramsay Campbell. Dark, violent, and grisly in all the best ways.”