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Why the Most Beautiful Poems Defy Understanding

At The Walrus, Matthew Zapruder examines his relationships with poetry and with his father. Despite being two men with great facility for precise language, they were unable to use it to bridge the distance between them. In likening poems to people, Zapruder says that the most beautiful thing about the poems most important to him is that their meaning cannot fully be articulated.

I have found that the poems which have meant the most to me, to which I return again and again, retain a central unsayability, a place where the drama of truly looking for something essential that can never quite be reached is expressed. Somewhere in the poem, or at its end, knowingness stops. You can feel the intelligence in the poem truly exploring, clambering along the words and down the page, and also that intelligence stopping at what cannot be known. Those moments where a limit is reached can often be the greatest, and most honest, in poetry. They can come first as a surprise, then immediately afterward feel inevitable, at least for a little while.

This is why asking for a certain kind of knowledge—that way of knowing we automatically, and justifiably, expect from other texts, anything other than a poem—limits our experience with poetry. If we imagine a poem as something to be answered or solved, we will most likely find ways to do so. But I think we would be better off to think of “understanding” in a poem as an ongoing process of attention.

Simone Weil writes that attention is the purest form of generosity. A generous, open, genuinely focused attention moves us through the poem, just as it moves us through an experience, through a friendship, through anything else that means and keeps on meaning. If a poem is really good, you can’t really say what it’s “about,” that is, what its central “message” is, any more than you can do so for a painting or a piece of music or a person or a mountain.

A poem is like a person. The more you know someone, the more you realize there is always something more to know and understand. A final understanding could probably only begin upon permanent separation, or death. This is why we come back to certain poems, as we do to places or people, to experience and re-experience, to see ourselves for who we truly are, and to continue to be changed.

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‘This Place, This Moment, Unplanned’: On Surviving a Heart Attack

After a heart attack (perhaps two heart attacks), Jeff Sharlet searches for meaning in his own mortality, “This brilliant darkness, with which I am coming to terms.” Read the full essay at VQR.

For two years I’ve been walking into the tall grass to take snapshots of this field at the top of the “crooked mile,” a winding hill that leads into the shallow valley of swamp and stream in which my house stands, just past the sign that reads pavement ends. I use my phone. I want the rough eye. The note. The diary. The record. The document. This time, this moment, unplanned.

This moment: stopped on the drive home from another trip to the hospital. One of many during the past two weeks, after two heart attacks, or maybe it was only one, rising and falling like a tide, across thirty hours. It began as night fell, as I wrote what I thought were the last words of a book I had begun two years before, following my father’s heart attack. Mine, like his, was “mild.” I’m told the pain can be instantly alarming. Not for me. I had been hitting snooze on this pain for months. Maybe years. Doing so was easy. It was only an ache, or sometimes a ripple, weak as chamomile, never sharper than nettles. That is, I did not know it was a heart attack. Then, after midnight, my chest began to fill as if with heavy water. My breath was cut into small and ragged pieces. I was being pressed, as if by a hard hand, back into the rocking chair in which I sat until dawn.

Waiting for the words to return. I’ve always had words, sentences that knitted themselves, paragraphs that fell into place. Always there was language, easy as air. I used to love a line by Catullus: “Calling all syllables!” They’d come. Now they don’t. I’m not sure I need them to. Even a snapshot of the dark-that-isn’t-dark-at-all might be more than I want to set down. Never before in my life has just being here—with the fox and the doe and the owl, with my pulse and my fears and the frozen air hot in my throat—felt so close to enough.

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Cory Taylor Answers Your Questions About Dying

Celebrated Australian novelist Cory Taylor was diagnosed with cancer in 2005. Rejecting the taboos that prevent humans from talking openly about death, she goes on the record with her answers to some of the most typical questions people have asked her about dying. In her piece at The New Yorker, she talks about her regrets, fears, priorities, what she’ll miss most, and how she’d like to be remembered. Taylor passed away on July 5th, 2016. Her book, Dying: A Memoir was published in the United States on August 1st, 2017.

A few months back, I was invited to take part in a program for ABC television called “You Can’t Ask That.” The premise of the show is that there are taboo subjects about which it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation, death being one of them. The producer of the program explained that I would be required to answer a number of questions on camera. She said questions had been sent in from all over the country, and the ten most common had been selected. I wasn’t to know what these were until the day I went into the studio for the filming.

It turned out that the producer of the program herself had a need to talk about death, as she had recently lost her father to cancer, and was struggling to cope. This is so often the case with people I talk to about my situation: they listen for a while, then they tell me their own death story, but always with a vague sense that it is shameful, that the whole sorry business is somehow their fault. In taking part in “You Can’t Ask That,” I wanted to do my bit to change things around, to win back some dignity for the dying, because I don’t think silence serves the interests of any of us.

The questions, as it turned out, were unsurprising. Did I have a bucket list, had I considered suicide, had I become religious, was I scared, was there anything good about dying, did I have any regrets, did I believe in an afterlife, had I changed my priorities in life, was I unhappy or depressed, was I likely to take more risks given that I was dying anyway, what would I miss the most, how would I like to be remembered? These were the same questions I’d been asking myself ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, back in 2005. And my answers haven’t changed since then. They are as follows.

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Diet Is a Four-Letter Word

In recounting the history of America’s obsession with thinness, Taffy Brodesser-Akner explores her own struggles with weight loss and the weight loss industry. She relates how “diet” has become a four-letter word, out in favor of a new form of personal imprisonment — “eating clean,” “getting fit, and “being strong” — none of which offer any magic in a lifetime of struggle between body acceptance and losing weight.

I went to an intuitive-eating class — intuitive eating is where you learn to feed yourself based only on internal signals and not external ones like mealtimes or diet plans. Meaning it’s just eating what you want when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full. There were six of us in there, educated, desperate fat women, doing mindful-eating exercises and discussing their pitfalls and challenges. We were given food. We would smell the food, put the food on our lips, think about the food, taste the food, roll the food around in our mouths, swallow the food. Are you still hungry? Are you sure? The first week it was a raisin. It progressed to cheese and crackers, then to cake, then to Easter candy. We sat there silently, as if we were aliens who had just arrived on Earth and were learning what this thing called food was and why and how you would eat it. Each time we did the eating exercise, I would cry. ‘‘What is going on for you?’’ the leader would ask. But it was the same answer every time: I am 41, I would say. I am 41 and accomplished and a beloved wife and a good mother and a hard worker and a contributor to society and I am learning how to eat a goddamned raisin. How did this all go so wrong for me?

I nodded into the phone because I didn’t want Oprah to hear me crying. I wanted to quit dieting, but had come to realize that dieting was all I had. I was completely perplexed by food — food! Stupid food! That’s what this was about! I dieted because I wanted to maintain hope that I could one day manage my food intake, because my bewilderment around the stuff was untenable. When I didn’t have that hope, I was left with too much worry about pain, about how much my knees hurt now and how much more they would in just a few years. I could be enlightened about my body. I could have acceptance. But nobody would tell that to the people who saw me as a target; nobody would tell that to my knees.

Weight isn’t neutral. A woman’s body isn’t neutral. A woman’s body is everyone’s business but her own. Even in our attempts to free one another, we were still trying to tell one another what to want and what to do. It is terrible to tell people to try to be thinner; it is also terrible to tell them that wanting to lose weight is hopeless and wrong.

I don’t know if diets can work in the short term or the long term. For the first time, I began to think that this was something worth being made crazy over. Our bodies deserve our thoughts and our kindness, our acceptance and our striving. Our bodies are what carry our thoughts and our kindness and our acceptance and striving.

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Making Your Own Appointment to Die

At the Walrus, Dave Cameron profiles David Forsee, a man with a fatal lung disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), who chose to end his life under Canada’s right to die legislation. As his time diminishes, Forsee and his friends and caregivers struggle to be at peace with the choice he made and the time he has left.

Forsee says he’s trying to be “conscious of being curmudgeonly,” but he can’t deny that dying, and the ipf in particular, has made him impatient with small talk. In his prime, he rarely hurried a thought, and in his illness he can’t afford to. “It’s not always necessary to fill the air with empty words,” he once scolded Ollmann during a drop-in.

Truman again appears at Forsee’s back. “It’s strange, rooting for someone to be able to die,” she says. “He could be with us, cognizant, for a couple more months, but it’s not up to us.”

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Why Fiction Haunts Us: Pulitzer Prize Winner Viet Thanh Nguyen on His Ghosts

In a profile at New Republic, Josephine Livingstone talks with Viet Thanh Nguyen about the ghosts that inhabit his life, his writing, and his birthplace in Vietnam. Nguyen’s book, The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The ghost is an apt figure for the war that is fought a second time. It is a metonym for the memory of a living person, as well as the vocalizing embodiment of death itself. The ghost is a kind of walking death-in-life principle. “I don’t think I have ever seen a ghost,” Nguyen told me. “But I do know people who have.” He believes in them “as a figurative sign of haunting, given everything that [he] experienced growing up in the Vietnamese refugee community.” Back in Vietnam, Nguyen explained, “I had an adopted sister that we left behind.” He only knew her by a black and white picture that belonged to his parents. “So I grew up literally knowing there was a missing person in the family, and not really understanding why. That is a kind of a haunting.”

In a way, the novelist’s role in the culture is similar to a ghost’s within a family. A work of fiction haunts us: It watches over the shoulder, inspires memories, encourages reflection. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s books are almost overwhelming in their capacious embrace of a war that was so very, very big. But Nguyen’s career is evidence that patience and memory are intertwined parts of the brain. Sometimes a writer must wait and remember, until the voice of memory emerges. Then, like a ghost, it can never die.

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Square Dancing At Nudist Summer Camp: Do-Si-D’Oh My!

For Racked, Jamie Lauren Keiles spends a week at a naturist camp to learn “why people get naked.” As she exercises, sun tans, and square dances her way through a week garbed for the most part only in shoes, she gets stripped not only of inhibitions around her own body, but also of notions around naturist intent: most enthusiasts take off their clothes not for sexual reasons, but simply to feel free.

I was visible as a newcomer by the fact that I was at least 20 years younger than any other guest…I tried my best to answer their questions: How did you find this event? Why are you interested in learning about naturism? It was hard to feel professional with my bare ass on a chair. In my best journalist voice, I told them I wanted to learn why they got naked. This wasn’t really true, but it sounded okay. The leather-skinned woman turned in my direction.

“Well,” she asked, exasperated. “Have you ever been completely nude in the sun?”

After dinner, I walked to the lake, down an isolated trail in a thicket of trees. The sun was not scheduled to set for two more hours. The light came green and filtered through the leaves as I stopped midway to pull off my shirt, then continued down the trail, fully nude except my shoes. A breeze off the lake took stock of every fine mammalian hair on my body. Walking naked in the woods makes you feel like a real goddamn Homo sapiens. My posture looked stupid, like it had been formed in a time before women were dainty. My brain was a mass of electrical signals; I wanted to kill an animal, or maybe be killed by one.

But here, in stretching class, naked old people weren’t a secret. Aging bodies were taken on their own terms — not feared, but accommodated. Without the tell of age-betraying clothes (Costco sneakers, Reagan-era windbreakers), it felt easier to believe that their bodies could be mine. As I watched a woman lift her leg over her head, I wondered if I ever knew anything about time.

At night I walked to the canteen for a square-dancing lesson. I had never square danced before, but I was looking forward to learning something I could take with me out into the clothing-mandatory world. The canteen was a big, open rec room with old arcade games and bad fluorescent lighting. At the center of the floor, the rough shape of a square had already begun to form — three women, four men. It turned out that everyone else already knew how to square dance, with some having square danced their way into adulthood all the way from elementary-school gym class. They forged on with the lesson for my sake only. I felt the familiar flush of gym-class humiliation, except now I was also naked.

The first thing I learned was that square dancing is not the same as line dancing. Line dancing is a synchronized group dance where everyone faces in the same direction and nobody touches. Square dancing is an elaborate coupled dance with lots of touching and changing of partners. My partner was a shy man in black tube socks and a Casio watch. I did not feel eager to have him hold my naked body, but soon he proved a dependable dancer. Our first song was a wife-swapping routine called “Push Ol’ Pa, Push Ol’ Ma.” It opened with a jaunty fiddle and a move called “grand left and right” that involved shaking hands with different partners around a circle. As the ladies traveled clockwise and the men counterclockwise, I took extreme care to connect with each outstretched hand. I shook the hand of a 7-foot-tall man with back hair. I shook the hand of a gay man in pearls. When the song was over, everyone agreed that I was a really good square dancer. It is easy to learn quickly when the risk of failure is grabbing a stranger’s penis.

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Have Gin, Will Travel

At Tin House, Alexander Chee reflects on his affinity for gin and how over the years, in various permutations alongside vermouth in cocktails like martinis and negronis, it has more than kept him company, becoming “almost a travel companion.”

My first taste of gin made me sick. I was fifteen or sixteen, and, on a night I’d been left alone, and for reasons now lost to me, I drank down a great deal of my parents’ Tanqueray. I remember specifically opening the exotic wood doors of their liquor cabinet as if it could admit me to some secret chamber of adulthood by virtue of its magic.

He was being polite, I think, when he agreed to come up to the party. I should mention that I was wearing a Viking helmet when I issued the invitation. He was not known to socialize with the visiting writers. He requested a gin martini, which I made for him. When he took the first sip, he said, “This is excellent.” He looked at me over the top of his glass, and his eyes were full of recognition. As if I was finally a real person to him.

For this member of the old guard, the taste of a correct gin martini is like a passport or a gang sign. We were friends for the rest of my time there. Our friendship always mystified others at the college, but we knew why we liked each other and I miss him still.

If, before this, my gin reveries were dreams of the future, and might-have-beens, they are now as often memories. If I really did enter adulthood, on that distant, almost forgotten day when I pulled open those liquor cabinet doors, it was not a single transformation ahead of me, but a life of transformations. Not one potion, but a life of them. Glass by glass.

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Alice Driver on the Passion to Create and the Fear of Failure

In telling stories of her father’s handmade, wood-fired kilns at Arkansas Life, Alice Driver reminds us of the risks and rewards inherent in creative pursuits and the deep personal satisfaction that comes from the effort and sweat you put into your craft.

“How did you deal with failure?” I asked my dad as I watched him throw pots on a potter’s wheel in his studio. Over the course of the week I was home, my parents and I had ongoing conversations about failure and making art. As a writer, 99 percent of my life involves rejection and failure, and I constantly questioned how I could best learn from failure and continue writing. “It was emotionally devastating to build a 3,000-brick kiln, fire it and get nothing out of it,” my dad said. “I went down to the creek and cried. But I got up. Who could explain—for some people, things crush them, and it did crush me, but it didn’t stop me.” Persistence—I had inherited that.

In May 2017, 35 years after my birth at home in the Ozarks, I worked the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift on the last night of the firing of my dad’s new kiln, which was roughly the size of two VW vans parked back to back. It was the first time that I, the daughter of a potter, had fired a kiln…I was stationed on one side of the kiln that had a round opening the size of two fists. Each time I took hold of the wire knob to open the small hole in the kiln, I looked directly into a pile of flames and ashes. Adrian Leffingwell, a potter and a farmer who met my dad at a farmers market in Fayetteville, oversaw the shift. He shouted “stoke!” every few minutes. If I didn’t push the pieces of kindling through the opening in the kiln at the right angle, they got stuck and immediately caught on fire, causing flames to burst out toward me. After six hours of managing the fire, I was physically reminded of the amount of work and lifeblood that my dad put into making ceramics. It had taken him 2 1/2 years to build his fourth and largest kiln, which he designed, by hand. He did not know if the maiden voyage of the kiln would be a success, and I could see the worry written on his face.

That evening, everyone gathered around the kiln, handmade ceramic cups in hand, to toast the first firing with bourbon. “What happens with wood firing is that when you get it right, you get a pot that could change your life,” my dad said. Then he asked everyone to make a half bow, clap three times, and drink in honor of teachers and mentors. For good measure, he poured a bit more bourbon into everyone’s cups and said, “It doesn’t hurt to toast the gods a little bit more.”

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Open Burning: A Banned Practice That’s Poisoning America

At ProPublica, Abrahm Lustgarten offers an in-depth report on how munitions plants across America continue to irresponsibly dispose of bomb and bullet waste by “open burning.” The practice, banned 30 years ago, still takes place nearly every day under a permit loophole, putting millions of pounds of toxic chemicals and pollutants into the air, essentially poisoning residents and the environment.

Shortly after dawn most weekdays, a warning siren rips across the flat, swift water of the New River running alongside the Radford Army Ammunition Plant. Red lights warning away boaters and fishermen flash from the plant, the nation’s largest supplier of propellant for artillery and the source of explosives for almost every American bullet fired overseas.

Along the southern Virginia riverbank, piles of discarded contents from bullets, chemical makings from bombs, and raw explosives — all used or left over from the manufacture and testing of weapons ingredients at Radford — are doused with fuel and lit on fire, igniting infernos that can be seen more than a half a mile away. The burning waste is rich in lead, mercury, chromium and compounds like nitroglycerin and perchlorate, all known health hazards. The residue from the burning piles rises in a spindle of hazardous smoke, twists into the wind and, depending on the weather, sweeps toward the tens of thousands of residents in the surrounding towns.

Nearby, Belview Elementary School has been ranked by researchers as facing some the most dangerous air-quality hazards in the country. The rate of thyroid diseases in three of the surrounding counties is among the highest in the state, provoking town residents to worry that emissions from the Radford plant could be to blame. Government authorities have never studied whether Radford’s air pollution could be making people sick, but some of their hypothetical models estimate that the local population faces health risks exponentially greater than people in the rest of the region.

More than three decades ago, Congress banned American industries and localities from disposing of hazardous waste in these sorts of “open burns,’’ concluding that such uncontrolled processes created potentially unacceptable health and environmental hazards. Companies that had openly burned waste for generations were required to install incinerators with smokestacks and filters and to adhere to strict limits on what was released into the air. Lawmakers granted the Pentagon and its contractors a temporary reprieve from those rules to give engineers time to address the unique aspects of destroying explosive military waste. That exemption has remained in place ever since, even as other Western countries have figured out how to destroy aging armaments without toxic emissions.

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