Tin House
Summer Reading

Dear Indie Booksellers,

Without you, we are nothing.

Forever yours, Tin House

In January I was in Denver for the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, where I had the honor of hanging out with six hundred of the most passionate readers of contemporary literature I have ever encountered. Their enthusiasm was infectious and after a single afternoon with these tireless, ruthless pushers of the written word it was easy to understand why bookstore sales are up, and why the number of indie bookstores, which in the dark Amazonian year of 2009 numbered 1,700, has increased to over 2,300. Booksellers like the ones I met in Denver challenge us to keep seeking out the most exciting and thoughtful work by new and established writers from all over the world, and because of them we’re confident there is an audience for their work. In this issue we’re proud to bring you five fabulous translations, among them Dorthe Nors’s “By Sydvest Station,” translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “The Dress of Honey,” translated from the French by Edward Gauvin. Alexis M. Smith’s debut novel, Glaciers, was an indie sensation, and here we feature an excerpt from her follow-up, Marrow Island. Smith is joined by other indie darlings, Deb Olin Unferth, Josh Weil, and Saša Stanišic, as well as esteemed poets Dorianne Laux and John Ashbery, who return to our pages. We’re also happy to welcome new-to-us poets Anna Journey and Sam Riviere.

To all of the booksellers who have carried us and who continue to carry us, we thank you. To all of our readers, who have carried us and continue to carry us in your backpacks and handbags, on planes, trains, and buses, we are so grateful.

Current Issue #68

Summer Reading


Dorthe Nors

BY SYDVEST STATION · Hello, we’re from the Cancer Society, would you like to support our work? · Translated by Misha Hoekstra
expand expand

Malerie Willens

BODY ELECTRIC · This person’s got a name, but let’s call her “you.”

This person’s got a name, but let’s call her “you.” You pop into Butterwell Bakeshop after work, to huff the vapors of a thousand mille-feuilles. You eat a complimentary stub of zucchini bread from the basket on the counter while pretending to survey the case, despite the fact that you know its contents by heart and could probably evoke them in the middle of the night, a memory exercise to help you sleep. From left to right: chocolate chip pretzels, organic Irish soda bread, hot-crossed prosciutto buns, blue velvet cupcakes, and on and on. You’ve considered the sensual possibilities of lying naked, lengthwise, along that case, the literal “feeling” of cookies and rolls and brain-sized scones adding a tactile, calorie-free fillip to an already tumultuously hot lust.

You wrap up your charade as a moderate, everyday customer who just casually happened in, and you leave Butterwell with two big bags. The greasy, dense weight of the pastries begins immediately weeping through the wax paper.

You walk up Ninth Avenue, past the pastiche of prix fixe enthusiasts and Hell’s Kitchen derelicts—the ones that still bray and howl and forget to wear pants despite the fact that their neighborhood’s now got more brunching ad execs on Vespas than urine-soaked klepto-crackheads. You start fingering your stash of starch but you do not remove anything because you must never, ever unearth the food in public. Walk instead with hand in bag, pinching off pieces of object. Doesn’t matter if object is wet, viscous, cheesy, sloppy, or frosting-covered. This bag, this object cover-upper, must never be peeled back to reveal contents to you or to passersby.

Collapsibility is key when walking with vessels of objects. Consolidate everything into one bag quickly. You want mobility: no balls, no chains. You will eat the cake once you’re on the subway. You’ll be sitting and you can keep the cake in the bag and dip into it with the fork. That way, train companions might assume you’re eating dinner—some salad or hummus or other acceptable takeout—not the second massive slice of lemon mousseline cake you’ve consumed in ten minutes.

You have perfected the public eat-weave, the sidewalk sojourn with objects in tow. Pinch/eat/pinch/eat. If you walk fast enough, no oncoming walkers will catch more than one cycle of pinch/eat. Your sequence is a matter of personal preference, and depends upon that session’s objects. Not crazy about the tomato-feta brioche? Just eat it. Pumpkin strudel’s drier than you’d hoped? No matter! Down the hatch! This is about consumption—not discernment, not discrimination. You made the decision a half an hour before you left work and now there’s no turning back.

You decided as the workday ended. It had been this kind of Tuesday: You walked to your morning train and already your outfit was twisting and pulling, unflattering, too tight in the armpits. By the time you got to work, you were sweating between your breasts and at the small of your back. At work you were bound to your seat. You drank too little water, peed only once, ate a lunch that was unhealthy, unsatisfying, and left a greasy patina of onion on your fingertips, despite washing them repeatedly. You sat there, hunched and tense, writing things that made bad people sound good, made stale ideas seem pioneering, while your coworkers left midday for sample sales and returned in a jasmine-scented mist of giggles and shopping bags. You knew they knew you hadn’t left your desk all day. You knew they knew you sat there squinting, shifting, furrowing your brow, which, unlike theirs, was not slathered with an age-defying cream mined recently from the Andes. And when you finally finished writing your paean to something that will only make the world worse, your boss had already left for a meeting at Cipriani that wasn’t really a meeting at all but was in fact a lovely little prosecco and smoked fish tête-à-tête with a man who found her attractive, despite her resemblance to a bosomy Peter Lorre.

Imagine the sensation of having just eaten a mountainous Thanksgiving dinner, except for the fact that you’re not surrounded by similarly engorged family members who love you. There is no Ultrasuede® sectional into which you can sink, no televised sporting event or dog show to watch, no The Twilight Zone marathon, no kitty to stroke, and no assurance that this is a nationally sanctioned once-a-year occurrence, and one of the few moments you feel American. No. Instead you are underneath Port Authority, waiting for your train while a wild-eyed Korean man plays hymns on what appears to be, but isn’t, a flute. His open-closed eyes have settled at half-mast, as eyes tend to for the rapturous and exhausted. Your coworkers—the girls—take cabs to and from work, but none of them live deep in the outer boroughs. You lean against a dirty pillar and scan the tracks for rats, the bulging Butterwell bag in hand. Express train approaches, doors open. You’re seated, moving, grateful to be at the mercy of a machine, to cuddle up between the cogs and just let things happen.

You disappear half of a porous black currant scone before the first stop. It would’ve been easier and you would’ve eaten more if you had a little lube. Liquids are essential to the breakdown of objects. Gulping dry scones is no picnic, so you transition to a four-inch-high slice of creamy white birthday cake as the subway doors close after three tentative bounces, and you continue heading downtown. The cake goes south like butter; it’s practically doing the job of a beverage. You imagine it liquefying the crumbly contents that came before, and there is comfort in the thought, a soft sensation of inevitability. Then the train just stops. It is totally still, poised somewhere between Fourteenth and Canal Streets, due to a “police incident.”

There’s always a “police incident.” They generally freeze the train for about twenty seconds. A twenty-second incident is hardly an incident. Can legitimate upheaval resolve itself in twenty seconds? It’s doubtful, though it takes a firing squad less than half that time to dissolve a line of people . . . and twenty seconds is enough time to vomit up a Number Seven Value Meal. But as police incidents go, twenty seconds is unimpressive. You ride these trains daily and the continued announcements of police incidents that end up lasting twenty seconds have begun to reassure you; they disrupt you for long enough to feel that something has gone awry, then they wrap themselves up before your imagination kicks in. It’s like setting the alarm clock for 6:00 AM on a Saturday, just so you can fall back asleep with the sweet awareness that things could be worse.

But tonight, this night of mass consumption, this night of all nights when you’re on the clock, tonight your train stays put. The twenty-second mark passes. It’s been at least a minute, maybe two. The only remaining object in the Butterwell bag is a six-inch-by-six-inch square of artichoke-gruyère focaccia, which you’d planned to heat up at home.

If your binge/purge purgatory’s unexpectedly protracted, you scrape some serious mental resources from your barf bag of tricks. Whence comes the subversion? If person lives in New York, it’s likely the subway. First rule of thumb when averting this brand of blue balls: never consume thousands of calories before boarding the train. This strain of blue balls does ache, but not in the bollocks. The irrefutable truth of matter trapped tautly inside, whether cum or cream puffs, is a conundrum of physics, a problem of space, and another problem entirely. The physical discomfort is easier than the awareness of having a load to shoot when something prevents you from shooting it. Shooting, spewing, ejecting, squirting. Sentient beings are the only beings that get blue balls. Other beings just eat, mate, sleep, expel: whenever, however.

Small amounts of starch are digested by the amylase present in saliva, and the resulting bolus of food is swallowed into the esophagus and carried by peristalsis to the stomach. Food travels down the esophagus at a rate of approximately one to two inches per second.

The process is afoot. You are stranded, metaphorical balls growing bluer in increments. You are glad that tonight’s bolus is poorly lubed; it slows things down. Another factor that’s slowing down absorption is the high fat content of the objects. You are looking on the bright side. You remember that the alimentary canal is thirty feet long from end to end. Whether or not you should be encouraged by this is unclear. You decide to be encouraged, that thirty feet is terribly long and that there are proverbial miles to go before the bolus sleeps—whether in your bowel or the bowels of the New York septic system, should you make it in time.

They scoff, the ones who’ve not performed this fox-trot, doubters who think it bourgeois, imaginary, muliebral. What they don’t know is that the moment of commitment—the one at the office—is the same as a dope fiend’s, a drunk’s, and a gambler’s. The pin pricks the balloon and—pop!—it’s done. A switch is flicked and the machine spasms into motion. There is no decision but the one that gets made adrenally, nonverbally, and possibly in the womb.

Pleasure? There is little. You have a smallish appetite, so gorging gets uncomfortable fast. The first object or two, especially if you’re actually hungry, can allay the itch the way a good orgasm or a hot bath can. Like that first beer after a hard day. Why can’t you be satisfied by these acceptable means of winding down? Why eat ten cookies? Why not two? You’ve been told it’s a control thing and that it’s got little to do with food. You think perhaps it’s related to your love of rejecting and ejecting: the sliding away from boyfriends before you’re married and pregnant, the returning of more than half of the items you buy—often thrillingly on the final day covered by the return policy. This eleventh-hour declaration of freedom from constraint—caloric, emotional, financial—can be quite a rush. As with all the best rushes, fear supplies the horsepower.

The “police incident,” according to comically muffled loudspeaker Esperanto, is now the more graphic but equally vague “problem on the tracks,” and this muzzy doublespeak would be funny if you hadn’t just consumed five thousand low-quality calories of refined something or other—refinement in this case meaning coarse, crass, totally unlovely.

You think you might actually feel the process. Your body, outwardly, is still. The stiller you sit, the more internal motion you detect. It’s a terrible tug-of-war, to have to sit, literally sit, with the knowledge that you’ve just bombarded yourself with filth, and too much of it. On a normal night, you’d be in that delirious transit between consumption and expulsion, not forced to sit still while the gastric show begins. This is a vile punishment, this moment of reckoning with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. You wonder whether you look as distraught as you feel. You are fidgety, jerky, shifting—but so are your fellow travelers. Have all the passengers just visited Butterwell Bakeshop? Have they all just slithered naked in the pastries, waiting now to vanquish their bad day? The peristalsis of fifty-some humans, the buzz of their rotors, loud against the subway’s dumb inertia. You all want to go home and expunge your bad day.

There is nobody attractive on this train. And no obvious crazies. You want chocolate chips straight from the bag. Or mixed into gelato. Pad Thai first, then the gelato. You make a mental note to incorporate these objects into some other night’s binge. If the train moves within ten minutes and gets you home without additional stalls, you should be fine. This is unscientific, of course. You set the cell phone alarm for ten minutes from now. More than fifty people on the train if you include babies. Approximate number of calories consumed? More than a few Big Macs. Maybe the equivalent of a large pizza with three different meats. Fine for a wrestler, bad for a five-foot-eight-inch woman who didn’t exercise this morning, whose metabolism is probably slowing prematurely from real and imagined stress and strain.

A family of four is directly across from you. Caucasian, almost certainly tourists. Mom and Dad are fortyish, five-year-old son on Mom’s lap, already-pretty twelve-year-old daughter sits between parents. They’re on their way to dinner, as evidenced by talk of a certain steakhouse.

“What kind of steak do I like again?” the daughter asks, sibilant with braces.

“I think you like a rib eye,” says mom.

“I thought I liked filet mignon. What’s filet mignon again?”

Dad explains that “filet mignon is really tender. But there’s very little flavor.”

“What steak do you like, Mom?”

“New York. Dad likes porterhouse.”

“What’s the difference?”

“New York steak is a strip steak. It’s very flavorful. Porterhouse is big. I think it’s a New York steak plus the filet.”

Two steaks? Gross. Would I like New York steak?”

“You might,” says Mom. “You can try mine.”

“What do I like?” asks the little boy.

“You like lamb chops,” says Mom.

“No! I like steak! Mommy! I like steak!”

You think you’ve had this exact conversation. The cuts of the cow always eluded you, but you took comfort in the fact that your mom had hers and your dad had his. You tarted around a bit, never really committing because you never really loved steak. You were slightly repulsed by your parents’ insistence on marbling and rareness, but the rules of this particular meal—the ritual—intrigued you. You felt taken care of when the white-jacketed old codger appeared with the special knives, the gravy boat of some sherry-laced reduction. The disciplined crispness, heavy bleached napkins, the solemnity and grainy wood. And then the eating, when Mom and Dad got exactly what they expected. What looked to you like offal was manna to Mom and Dad. There was nothing so adult, when you were twelve, as adults and their steak. The solemn theater of it made you want to learn the rules, acutely aware of your own spectatorial lack of engagement. Like so much else, it was something you assumed would make sense when you grew up.

You’ve got some minutes before your cell phone alarm sounds, after which time you may not be able to access the objects, though there’s always a margin of error with these things. Because as much as the body operates like clockwork, in many ways it doesn’t. Chaos and order in vying measures. This is why we will never master our bodies. If we live to be a hundred, we will never know why.

You hear someone wail. A childlike wail on the motionless train. A splash. Somebody has vomited. Somebody has vomited and it’s not you. He’s crying now. It’s a Puerto Rican boy, a second or third grader, skinny, big ears, nervous, crying into his mother’s puffy lap. Mother’s young and flustered, crispy ringlets shellacked, and she’s trying to clean up the mess on the floor with the receiving blanket that belongs to her other kid, an infant in a stroller, and she’s balancing all of this while the passengers avert their eyes from the dogfoodish barf. You breathe as little as possible in an effort to avoid the smell; your generally tolerant stance on vomit does not extend to other people’s. The other family, the steak family, they’re sitting next to her and they look spooked. But then the steak-mom offers to take the stroller to free up the barf-mom so that the barf-mom can finish cleaning up the vomit and console her embarrassed son. The steak-dad gives the barf-mom a handkerchief from his pants pocket so that she can wipe up the last bits, and everyone looks to be completely unwound. Your cell phone says five minutes left. The twelve-year-old steak-girl’s face betrays what could be empathy. Or maybe she just thinks it’s gross.

And then, as if the thin Puerto Rican boy, whose name must be Alejandro—It’s okay, Ale. Don’t worry baby—as if his puke has greased the skids and set the train in motion, you lurch back into play, southbound toward your stop. There is still a chance, barring another “police incident” or “problem on the tracks,” to neutralize the acids of the evening.

But the movement is temporary. Sham progress. It’s enough to get you to an actual station, albeit not yours. The doors open at Canal Street and an announcement is made in the MTA’s new abbreviated style, which edits out words like “the” and “is” in order to minimize what’s known as “dwell time,” the few seconds it takes for the train to disgorge passengers while new ones board. This announcement cites a switch problem over the Manhattan Bridge. Your home is over that bridge. Everyone must leave the train.

Above ground, the fishy-fungal bedlam of Chinatown is a comfort. Rows of durian, long bean, jackfruit, and dried shrimp vibrate, their careful arrangement imparting structure to so much gnarled irregularity. You beeline, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, while tourists buy underripe coconuts and drink the bitter juice through straws, trusting that this is how it’s supposed to taste.

It’s Chinatown. No public bathrooms and no place to hide, so you’ll have to patronize a business with a bathroom. You enter 888 Bun, one of so many modest dim sum joints. There’s a restroom sign in the rear of the narrow restaurant. You order one steamed cha siu bao, that pillowy round of dough filled with barbecued pork that’s red as garnets. You sit and eat half of it, watching twilight deepen out the window, and when you’re done, you approach the bathroom of 888 Bun and hope that the proprietor, who is old and hopefully going deaf, can’t hear you.

“No, no! Not working!” He sees you jangling the doorknob.

“Bathroom broken! Sorry about that!”

You’re now half a cha siu bao older than you were five minutes ago.

You walk west toward the dying sun. You wonder whether it’s possible to feel stoned from overconsumption, not in the way of the tryptophan daze or the terribly named food coma, but more energized, less leaden, a state more akin to an MDMA high minus the benevolence. Each block you walk is identical; you don’t notice, process, see. You say to yourself, “I’m going to think about every person in the world right now.” You try this and of course you fail, but the trying hints at connection, a connectedness, although it’s not clear to what.

You’ve arrived at an intersection near enough to the Hudson River to discern its radiance through the buildings. The light is now the light reflected by water. It’s a big intersection, this one. You’re stopped while left turns are made, or not, and drivers judge each other’s judgment calls about these made and unmade left turns in a cacophony of horns. You imagine yourself as a jogger at the corner, jogging in place so as not to disrupt your momentum for as long as the light is red. But one can only begin jogging in place if one has already been jogging. You can’t suddenly start to jog in place from a state of stillness, especially if you’re not in workout gear and are in fact wearing suede gladiator sandals with a three-inch platform heel. And so you wait and then walk.

Next corner is more desolate. There’s a blue USPS mailbox, a green relay mailbox, and some free phony newspapers on metal racks chained to a streetlamp. You think in a vague way about all of the important mail you’ve sent and received, half a life’s worth of mail, and it occurs to you that none of it was really so important. Not even the actual letters. There is always another mode of communication, a different way to pay a bill. You pull down the small door of the blue mailbox with your left hand while your subway-dirty right hand jerks into position and you begin to deep-throat yourself. Your index and middle fingers affect staccato gullet-plunges and within seconds there is the cha siu bao and some starchy stuff from earlier in larger than normal chunks because there was no beverage and you chewed too fast. You’re no Nancy Reagan, you think to yourself. Nancy chewed each grape thirty times. Nancy, sylphlike and lollipop-headed in size zero Adolfo suits, whose disciplined chewing made international headlines in the 1980s. A child of the ’80s, you’re still irked by your inability to chew a single grape thirty times.

The first wave of relief is palpable but the angle’s awkward, your neck necessarily crooked to ensure precision of aim, and the doughy, creamy contents begin to land on those suede gladiators and your bare toes. Why should you care? Your hands are filthy from the subway, from money exchange, from vomit. Do your feet deserve better?

Because you sense the arrival of people, and the angle is proving impossible, you stop before the bile comes. Bile is what you want. Bile is the goal, the proper terminus, but it’s not to be. You shake yourself off like a dog. Either nobody sees or if they see they don’t watch. You remove your soiled right shoe and then the left, and you deposit them together into the mailbox, which takes a bit of doing, produces an audible thud. You walk gingerly in bare feet toward that final sweep of watery western light, feeling like a defaced but terrifically serene lady-Jesus. Your bare arms and legs are visited by one of those elusive July breezes that feel like a gift. Your steps reset the night, put the needle at zero. You’re as fresh and lucid as you are when you wake up with humors aligned, and as sanguine about the future as you sometimes are when you raise your glass in a toast, and as awed as you were as a child, when you first understood that you’d never see the inside of your own body.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint

THE DRESS OF HONEY · Marie sometimes ventured beyond fashion into speculative territories. · Translated by Edward Gauvin

Saša Stanišić

THE CHICKEN RUN · Before you build a chicken run, get to know all you can about both chickens and foxes. · Translated by Anthea Bell

Deb Olin Unferth

THE FIRST FULL THOUGHT FO HER LIFE · The mother and girl walked around the shooter’s fender, and started up the dune.

Michael Braunschweig

THE TSUCHINOKO · It may have accidentally come here in a shipping container. · Translated by Amanda DeMarco

Alexis M. Smith

MARROW ISLAND · At 9:09AM the ambient noise of the cities and suburbs and seaside towns went mute.

Eric Puchner

TROJAN WHORES HATE YOU BACK · Wasn’t pissing on danger what Trojan Whores were all about?

Josh Weil

THE ELK-CALF · Her eyes were gone: red holes opened to the sun. Her belly, too: bowels spilling a mess of wet green grass.

Sean Ennis

VISITATION · I was not interested in other women, had good reason to doubt their interest in me, and really just valued time by myself.

Jackson Tobin

THE CAT · Coop stepped forward and stood over the bag, his head cocked. “What the fuck did you do?”
expand expand

Michael Dickman

JOHN CLARE: MUD MAN PUNK ROCKER · Who knew punk rock had roots in the English countryside of the nineteenth century?

apologies to M.O.

These are the bands

(listened to by me):


Circle Jerks

Suicidal Tendencies


The Cramps

Minor Threat

We’re just a Minor Threat!

We’re just a Minor Threat!

We’re just a Minor Threat!

These are the bands

(listened to by him):

The morning wind

Crows in spring

A summer shower

Sand martins


Fern owls


Hedgehogs! Foxes! Badgers!


7th grade

Portland, Oregon


Did it rain all the time? Not all the time. Some sunlight here and there. Trees everywhere. Heroin everywhere. Gus Van Sant’s Portland. Skaters vs Rockers. Straight Edge vs Skinheads. Fuck the Skins! Fuck the Southside White Pride! Punks vs Everybody. I was a skater. Graduated from Mrs. A’s to Cal Skates to Cal’s Pharmacy to Rebel Skates. I could ollie down a flight of stairs. Nollie. No Comply. Not sick but not a poser. Once a friend flubbed a railslide slammed hard into the handrail. His crotch was bleeding through his jeans. He used duct tape to repair his balls. Turn up the Circle Jerks! I couldn’t grow my hair long enough to be a rocker. You could get a pretty good Mohawk to stand up with enough egg whites and Aquanet. My mother said she liked the Suicidal Tendencies even though she couldn’t understand what they were saying and their name made her nervous. Hypodermic needles made me nervous. I stayed clean because I was a coward. Stacy Peralta for President, said the bumper sticker on our family car. All I ever did was skate and listen to music in my room with the door closed. When I took a bath I would set my new skate deck on the toilet so I could stare at it. I had never even read a poem. I didn’t know what a poem was.

Fuck the Skins!

Fuck the Southside White Pride!

  • ··

My mom worked like a dog to keep us in Catholic school, Christian Brothers, through a series of schemes that mostly flew and still I did my best not to read anything, no, not anything, not anything at all. Now as an adult I have to make up for it. Sorry, Mom.

Reading The Iliad and The Odyssey in my thirties.






Moving backward in time through poetry like this is also moving forward, rereading automatically every contemporary poet I ever loved.





John Clare. John Clare. John Clare.

Mud man punk rocker. I came across his poems for the first time in Paul Muldoon’s anthology The Faber Book of Beasts. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. He can start and stop on a dime. He does. Breakneck speed. No punctuation. It reminded me of something. What did it remind me of?

John Clare could play the fiddle, some gypsies taught him how.

I like to think he was good at it.

He could have started his own band!

A prehistoric punk band.


This from John Clare’s “The Hedgehog”:


But they who hunt the fields for rotten meat

And wash in muddy dyke and call it sweet

And eat what dogs refuse where ere they dwell

Care little either for the taste or smell

They say they milk the cows and when they lye

Nibble their fleshy teats and make them dry

But they whove seen the small head like a hog

Rolled up to meet the savage of a dog

With mouth scarce big enough to hold a straw

Will neer believe what no one ever saw

But still they hunt the hedges all about

And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out

They hurl with savage force the stick and stone

And no one cares and still the strife goes on


I hear a half-broken drum kit in that dyke. I hear three loud chords run the dogs. Feedback in the fields. And then the whole thing falls apart at the end. Everything stops dead after And no one cares. A loud-as-fuck caesura. A guitar smashed against a speaker. And then the whole world gets terribly quiet and still the strife goes on.

Who moves this fast?

Who is in danger of coming apart at the seams all the time?

Now I remember what Clare reminded me of.

I mean whom.

Ladies and gentlemen . . .

MUTHA . . . FUCKIN . . . IAN . . . MACKAYE!!!


This from Minor Threat’s “Cashing In”:


We don’t care. We don’t pose.

We’ll steal your money. We’ll steal your shows.

Yeah, we don’t care and we don’t pose.

We’ll steal your money. We’ll steal your shows.

That’s the way it is in this world . . . Right?

Isn’t that right? Boy, you had us pegged all along . . . damn.

There’s no place like home.

There’s no place like home.

There’s no place like home

So, where am I?


Where are we?

MacKaye having some trouble finding a home at home. The whole thing falling apart at the end. Repetitions can be comforting. I’m all right I’m all right I’m all right. Or they can be the music of things unraveling. I listened to this album at home alone in my bedroom. 12 yrs old. I thought the whole thing could come apart. The house. My family. Should come apart. I wanted something to explode.

Two guitars and a drum.

A mosh pit.

A black eye and a broken jaw.

Gypsies with shaved heads and Mohawks.

Hammering it home.

John Clare


Early 1800s

Did it rain all the time? Not all the time. Some sunlight here and there. Hay everywhere. Ale more potable than water. In love with a pure rural old-school idea of HOME. In love with his high-school sweetheart, called Mary Joyce. In love with writing poems. In love with Byron. The smallest change in the landscape could tear his mind up. His heart. In love with CHILDHOOD, where all of this could stay perfect and live forever:


The past it is a majic word

Too beautiful to last,

It looks back like a lovely face—

Who can forget the past?


In love with gypsies.

In love with birds.

Clock-a-clays. Clodhoppers. Firetails. Pinks. Puddocks.

Then the landscape started to change. People changed it. Money. Old mere marks busted. Hedges gone. Nests removed. His brain started to fall apart.


homeless at home

There’s no place like home.

So, where am I?


Before my son was born.

Doing his thing in the dark, his mama said.

Growing bones.

Growing fingernails.

Growing eyeballs.

I would sit on the floor next to the worn yellow couch where my wife sat and put my mouth next to her huge watermelon stomach like it was a microphone and read John Clare poems to whatever was inside. Whoever.


The past it is a majic word

Too beautiful to last,

It looks back like a lovely face—

Who can forget the past?


For months I had been flooded with memories of my childhood. Skateboards. Cassette decks. Black Flag singing “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie.” Pizza. Television. Cheers and The Dukes of Hazzard. Physical memories humming along right beneath my skin. I could suddenly remember every smell in the house I grew up in. Superman sheets on the bed. Dog piss in the wall-to-wall carpets. The mown grass. Rain.

I’m not going to be a kid again, I said.

I’m not going to be a kid again.

But you can.

You whoever you are in the whorl of your mama’s stomach sitting inside a dark radio listening to my voice.

Hello? Hello?

You be a kid. Come out, come out. I want to read you some poems. I want to start a band.

I want to see your face.


Before my son was born.

His mama asleep but the two of us awake.

Stretching his legs.

Punching the dark.

Humming along.

Kicking away in the middle of the night. That would be him jumping in place as I watched the comforter move in a sliver of streetlight. Whispering lines from Clare. To him. To the room. To the dark. To anything at all. Do you want to live inside a poem? We called him “The Thing.” Do you want to see what a poem looks like in the air?


Each noise that breathed around us then

Was majic all and song . . .


The wild bee in the blossom hung,

The coy bird’s startled call . . .


Could he hear everything? He could hear everything. Hey now, hey, this is my voice. Coming to you live. This is what a poem can sound like. 100 mph. Love songs about childhood and birds. Straight up from the Helpston mud.

A majic noise.

A homing device.


Clare was always trying to get home.

In poems.

In person.

He moved away (once) from his home cottage but the slight change in landscape turned his mind overcast.

He spent time (twice) in asylums.

The first time he walked out the front door and home to Northamptonshire convinced that his childhood heartbreak, Mary, would be waiting for him. But she wasn’t ’cause she was dead. Some walk. Gypsies showed him a road out of the Epping Forest that proved useful. A shortcut. A secret. Everyone living on the margins. Clare on the edge of his psyche. The gypsies on the edge of society. No wonder they loved each other.

The birds of his childhood singing from a stulp, a seam, a ride.

The second asylum he died in.



I can’t keep up

Can’t keep up

Can’t keep up

Out of step with the world


I like to think of MacKaye walking for miles in circles around Washington, DC, at night in the early ’80s.

1980s. In combat boots.

What birds would have been there?

No birds. Just traffic lights.

What sang for him was other bands:

Bad Brains

Teen Idles

Slickee Boys

From the trees outside Dischord Records.

From the trees inside Helpston, Clare walked for miles too.


Wore boots. Walked borders.

Walked to and from asylums.

Listened to music (fiddles, poems, birds).

I want so badly for there to be an echo between these two poets. Some sonic recognition. I want them to be lost brothers. Band members. I want them to shout across the different parts of my life like birdsong or wildfire. Stitch it all up. Like Clare and MacKaye, I’m homesick for something that doesn’t exist anymore. The past it is a majic word. We don’t get to stay there.

My son is there. My son is here.

My past is gone.


When my son was born.

I would walk him around at night for miles in a circle in the front room of our apartment. Singing little songs. Trying to help him sleep. His face, any parent will tell you this, was all I ever wanted to know. It blew things apart.

Poems can do that.

Punk music does.

I used to walk for miles around Portland, Oregon. A book of poems in one hand. A club stamp on the other.

Also at night.

Back and forth over the river.

My ears shaking out and settling back from a night at the X-Ray Cafe.

The black water through the grates of the Hawthorne Bridge looked so far away. And then it looked close. And then it disappeared.

It can be difficult at times to convince your newborn family to listen to punk rock music first thing in the morning. But you can do it.

Next up, The Adolescents.

Next up, The Misfits.

Next up, nothing but pure unadulterated screaming joy.


When my son was born.

I would take him down to the kitchen early mornings, still dark out, end of January, to let his mama sleep.

Making coffee in the almost-dark.

The baby sounded like a percolator.

Once the coffee was made I would hold him in one arm on the couch and read John Clare poems aloud. Staring up at the ceiling. His eyes would blink open and it was as if a new species of birds or stars were being born in the middle of our living room in central New Jersey.

The apartment smelled like coffee and books.

I read


And oft we urged the barking dog,

For mischief was our glee,

To chase the cat up weed-green walls

And mossy apple tree


I read


I seek no more the finch’s nest

Nor stoop for daisey flowers;

I grow a stranger to myself

In these delightful hours


A gray morning light was turning pink.

Soon I’ll put on a record.

Something to wake us up.


We’re just a Minor Threat!

We’re just a Minor Threat!

We’re just a Minor Threat!

Marin Sardy

LIGHTNING, OR FEATHERS · A former competitive gymnast explores how Svetlana Boginskaya turned the gymnastics world on its head.
expand expand

Dorianne Laux



Sam Riviere


John Ashbery


Joseph Millar


Michael Burkard


Per Aage Brandt

97 · Translated by Thom Satterlee

Anna Journey


Nathan Gauer

ON NICHOLAS BOUVIER'S The Way of the World · There is a big difference between traveling to see lands and traveling to see peoples.

Alexandra Pechman

ON EMILY HAHN'S China to Me · The prolific New Yorker writer chronicled her time in post World War II China.
expand expand

Sarah Bridgins

ON WILLIAM SHIRER’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich · After the death of her father, the writer felt the need to submerge herself in a past infinitely darker than her own.

When tragedy strikes, some people find religion. I found history, and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was my Bible.
My father died of a heart attack in January 2014, two days after his sixty-second birthday. It came out of nowhere. On Thursday I was talking to him on the phone about an upcoming trip he had planned, and on Monday morning I was calling the police in my hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, because I hadn’t been able to reach him all weekend. They found him dead in his bedroom a few hours later.
My father was the third close family member I had lost in less than two years. His death followed my mother’s and my grandmother’s. I had no siblings and I wasn’t married or even in a relationship. I was twenty-nine and I had no one left. I felt cursed.
I took two weeks off from my job at a literary agency. When I told a friend how much I was dreading my return, he told me to pretend I was going somewhere to read the Internet for eight hours and get paid for it. “Right now,” he said, “your only job is getting through the day.”
I took this to heart, but even sitting at a desk and watching cat videos all day proved taxing. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to be anywhere. That’s when I turned to books about World War II.
Even though history was one of my favorite subjects in school, in my adult life I hadn’t evolved into much of a history buff. My last boyfriend had been fascinated by military history, though, and helped me rekindle my interest. We watched Ken Burns’s documentaries about the Civil War and World War II, which led to long conversations with my father, who had been a history and religious studies major in college. I loved finding something new to share.
It was partly a desire to feel connected to my father that drew me to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I also felt an instinctual need to submerge myself in a past that was infinitely more tragic than my own. My mother’s death had been awful, but I could at least wrap my mind around one parent dying. But both? Within two years? And before I was thirty? I didn’t know anyone who had gone through this. Before my father died I’d had a place to go for Christmas, and someone I could call in the middle of the night if something was wrong. Now, suddenly, all of that was gone. I was disoriented and unmoored, and it became very important that I learn everything I could about the Nazis’ rise to power and how it led to World War II. The logic seems crazy in retrospect, but part of me believed that if I could gain some understanding of one of history’s most unimaginable events, my own mess of a life—and maybe the world in general—would start making sense again. A horrible sense, but sense nonetheless.
I started looking up books online, but everything that turned up felt either lurid or poorly researched. There was one titled Doctors from Hell about experiments performed on concentration camp victims and a YA book by Bill O’Reilly about Hitler’s last days. I wasn’t looking for grotesque details or wild speculation. I wanted facts and the ability to apply logic to horror. What was the political atmosphere in Germany when the Nazis came to power and how were they able to gain such a strong foothold? When did the rest of the world begin to learn of their atrocities and why did it take so long to stop them? The crimes against humanity committed by the Nazis represented for me the furthest extremes of inexplicable tragedy. Through learning about them, I hoped not only to distract myself from the events of my life but also to find a new landing place for the question tossing around my head a thousand times a day: “How could this have happened?”
I eventually asked my ex what I should read. He had only one suggestion: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
The next day on my lunch break I found a first-edition copy at the Strand.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is massive: 1,245 pages printed in tiny type. Published in 1960, it was written by William Shirer, an American journalist who lived in Europe from 1934 to 1940 and reported on the war for CBS. The copy I bought had a swastika prominently featured on the dust jacket, which I removed to avoid confusing strangers.
The book is divided into six parts, beginning with Hitler’s youth in Austria and ending with Goering’s suicide in a Nuremberg prison. Because Shirer was a journalist and not a historian, the book has been taken less seriously by some scholars, but his engaging prose makes it a compelling read. Shirer livens up descriptions of complicated military maneuvers and the history of the Prussian Empire, otherwise dry material, with his humor, personal insights, and clear, concise descriptions of complicated political matters. He treats the Nazi leaders with equal parts horror and disdain. He describes Alfred Rosenberg, the official tasked with drawing up a blueprint for Operation Barbarossa, as a “dolt, with a positive genius for misunderstanding history, even the history of Russia, where he was born and educated.” Of the Nazi foreign minister he writes, “Incompetent and lazy, vain as a peacock, arrogant and without humor, Ribbentrop was the worst possible choice for such a post.”
Nonetheless, it’s a dense book. Reading ten pages could take me an hour, more if I stopped to cross-reference a particularly confusing passage on Wikipedia, which I frequently did. Reading began to feel meditative. My lack of background knowledge meant that fully comprehending and retaining new facts required my complete concentration. When I was reading I wasn’t thinking about how much I missed my dad, or how tired I was from not sleeping through the night. I was thinking about the millions who suffered, what it must have been like to feel as though the entire world was—literally, not figuratively—collapsing. As upsetting as it was to contemplate these things it was also, in its own way, a relief. The hours I spent reading were the only time I didn’t feel consumed by sadness.
In addition to lugging around my battered hardcover copy, I also bought the e-book so I could read it covertly on my computer at work. I spent entire Saturdays reading on the couch, and drove all of my friends nuts spouting half-remembered facts about the burning of the Reichstag and the Beer Hall Putsch. At some point I told one of them how great it was to be learning so much about European geography. “Now I know where Yugoslavia is!” I said. She gently explained that it was not a country anymore.
It took me almost a year to finish The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This was also how long it took me to start feeling like a human being again, rather than a branch broken off in a storm. I learned a lot about World War II, but the further into the book I read, the more I realized and accepted that I would never be able to process all of the war’s complexities. What I truly gained was the understanding that my suffering was not special or anomalous. Rather than alienating me from others who hadn’t lost as much, my experiences gave me a greater ability to relate to those who had lost even more—which, when you take into account all of the catastrophic events of the past and present, is most of humanity. At the lowest point in my life, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich provided the most we can hope for from a piece of literature: no matter how dark and incomprehensible the world might seem, at least I had the comfort of knowing I wasn’t alone.

Joel Drucker

ON BROOKE HAYWARD'S Haywire · When do we learn that life is tragic, that our journey will include not only the sun but also the moon?

Whitney Otto

ON ANN PETRY'S The Street · The example of the Harlem Renaissance illuminates the trouble of being a hyphenated author, which is that it, the hyphen, fucks with the work.