Wherein Gillian Cummings pens an achingly beautiful tribute to Sylvia Plath and death; Natalie Singer praises the sharp eye of Lia Purpura, a talent for observation so keen it rekindles her own; Brendan Lorber goes fragmentary and nautical in his shout-out to Rimbaud; and Caroline Leavitt tunes in to Maggie O’Farrell and the beauty beyond the darkness. Please read and enjoy…
by Caroline Leavitt
I’m under the influence of the sublime Maggie O’Farrell. I first read her After You’d Gone because the premise so excited me: a young woman deliberately steps off a curb in a teeming city and goes into coma. What? Why? As she’s in coma, we learn about her life, the person she achingly loves, the secrets that rise to the surface. I was hooked.
Recently, she’s taught me yet another lesson—in her latest book I Am, I Am, I Am, which is about the darkest, thorniest thing you can imagine. Her experiences nearly dying, and then her daughter’s experiences—how close death is to us at all times. Yep, totally dark, but exhilarating, because I was learning that writing dark does not mean you are pulling people under. It doesn’t mean that you have no hope. I haven’t listened for a long time when people say, “Oh, readers want pure entertainment, they want escape, they want dragons and romance.” Nothing wrong with those things, but sometimes facing the dark, looking at death, is all about the brave beauty that is life.
Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, as well as Cruel Beautful World and 11 other books, or 12 if you count the one she’s writing now, and yes, they are all dark and she hopes they are also brave and beautiful.
by Brendan Lorber
3 a.m. at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Open reading about to start. An impossibly old man, maybe 24 or 25, passes me the Lettres du voyant, Arthur Rimbaud’s how-to of the visionary. After hours, early in life, the perfect instant to intercept their call for rational disordering of the senses. To let my keel break and sink into the sea, and so become a seer. I copy a passage ritually on the back of a poem I’m about to read into the dented mic. My bad poem is only good here in the café’s predawn altered alertness, as the single misstep that begins a wild journey.
Brendan Lorber is the author of If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? and several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). His work appears in in the American Poetry Review, Fence, McSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Since 1995, he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.
by Natalie Singer
For years, I’ve kept Lia Purpura’s words on my nightstand, often her essay collections On Looking and Rough Likeness. I discovered Purpura a decade ago when I moved from journalistic writing to the more personal. I was struggling to maintain my honed objectivity and close observation skills (the “eye”) while burrowing into the intimate, subjective “I.” I couldn’t calibrate the two, until I found Purpura. If it’s possible to turn a microscope, with its ocular and objective lenses, on the world, Purpura does, magnifying the miniscule and mundane (window pane, thawing snow, spires), and gathering and bending the light to focus and contextualize the image into the most affecting specimen. Whenever I forget how to look, I turn to Purpura and the world opens again.
Natalie Singer is the author of the lyric memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, 2018). She teaches creative writing and has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. Natalie hold an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she now lives in Seattle. Her website is nataliesingerwrites.com and she forces herself to use Twitter (@Natalie_Writes).
by Gillian Cummings
I first read “Elm” as a college freshman: “I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.” As a young woman who’d attempted suicide by overdose just two years before, I could feel Plath’s sadness as if borne in my own bones. Older and closer to my own death, I can feel it. I wrote about it in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, as if it had already happened—because in a way it had: During my suicidal depression of recent years, I had experienced coma. I am shy, quiet. I want my death to be like a dandelion spore that just lifts and lightly floats off, unnoticed by the world and unfelt except by the stem that once held me firmly to earth. But I want my words to stay, as Plath did; love may go off “like a horse,” but some stone remains, “echoing, echoing.”
Gillian Cummings is the author of My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize, as well as the chapbooks Ophelia, Petals as an Offering in Darkness, and Spirits of the Humid Cloud. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, the Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts Review, Quarterly West, Verse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.
There are all sorts of mediations. Some, the traditional, religio-philosophical sort, have us concentrating on not concentrating; chanting, intoning, and/or third-eye seeing a synesthesia of peace and joy. There are musical mediations and sonic meditations, artistic meditations and mathematical meditations. Then there’s the literary brand of the meditation, something that can countenance a multiplicity of subjects, a grouping of which this outro would be but one.
Above, you have mediations on beauty and darkness, life and death, observation and…Rimbaud. What unifies them isn’t tone, subject matter, or even style. It’s the fluidity and calmness of mind you sense reading the output.
For me, and I think for a lot of writers, being able to lose focus on the physical world, to concentrate only on what you’re setting down, is one of the great joys of writing. The feeling of being immersed in (reading) a book is similar. You lose time, lose yourself. And it doesn’t have to be because of story or plot. You can lose yourself in ideas or prose. That is possible, though not as easy for the average bear as certain very serious, exceedingly literary writers might wish it to be.
But what’s born of the literary meditation, of immersion in subject? An understanding of the subject, obviously; but also, an understanding of self. That’s the healing aspect of writing—the self-directed psychotherapy of it all. Which, I guess, breeds a different sort of stillness of mind, one born not of forgetting but of understanding.
Admittedly, the logic of these outros is getting dodgier as Under the Influence chugs forward into the double digits. I’m free-writing more than I was at the beginning of this, back in April or May or whenever. My points are getting more elliptical, at best. And I still haven’t pulled my trump, much as I hate to use that word these days. I still haven’t started trotting out my own influences: brazenly forcing you to listen to me talk about Martin Amis and Don DeLillo. I could do that, but I’m trying hard not to. So, send me your submissions!