Tag Archives: American literature

In the Beginning, the End: Some Initial Thoughts on Susan Elizabeth Howe’s Salt

2.21.13 | | 4 comments

Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books

Salt Cover by Ron Stucki for Signature Books


This past Saturday, my review copy of Susan Elizabeth Howe‘s new book, Salt, arrived. I’ll be reviewing it for AMV and expect to have my essay completed and posted sometime in the next month or two, but in the meantime I wanted to post my initial response to the collection.

While I haven’t yet read beyond the first poem, I’m anxious to sit down and keep company with Susan’s words, in part because of the first poem. As all stories arguably do, Salt‘s narrative begins with Adam and Eve—or at least with a revision thereof: his name is “Bob,” while she remains nameless. In the collection opener, “Python Killed to Save Woman,” Eve (I’ll call her) wrestles with a snake: “Lucy, / short for Lucifer,” the couple’s “pet python,” which they let “slither about [their] bedroom.” Probably not the smartest idea, as you can imagine, something Eve realizes the night she wakes because Lucy has “wrapped around [her]” like the snake would live meat. Which, of course, the woman is—at least to a hungry snake. Sensing the struggle beside him, Bob wakes and grabs his “Swiss army knife” to take care of the snake, but instead he gets “enmeshed” in the wrestling match, though not so much that he can’t grab the phone and call for help.

And that’s where this allegory of a poem leaves the pair: struggling for life in Lucifer’s tightening squeeze, Eve wondering “whose death” will come first, although the poem’s title is a clue as to who wins. Little matter, though, because in the end, of this poem as of life, death gets the last word (until Christ speaks up, that is).

Death: the heritage of a world fallen away from Paradise, the proper end of that system’s decomposition. By beginning Salt with Eden’s end, Susan reminds readers of their mortality, which was made possible by the Fall, and opens the way to explore the impact of death on life and language. Salt‘s opening poem, then, is a memento mori in a poetry collection that positions itself as a preservative—salt is, after all, essential to animal life. As such, it’s pretty valuable thing to have around. Hence Christ to his disciples: You are the salt of the earth—your presence here should preserve and thus extend the principles of Life. Hence Paul to early Christians: Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt—let your language tend toward preservation of the principles of life. Hence the implication of Susan’s title: here are some words dear to me as salt. May they preserve you as they have preserved me.

Here’s hoping.

(Cross-posted here.)

Stop trying to ape the final paragraph of The Dead!

9.23.09 | | 12 comments

Many thanks to Mark Athitakis (@mathitak) of American Fiction Notes for bringing to my attention an excellent commentary on the contemporary American short story by John Barry at City Pages. In his commentary Dead End: Has a single James Joyce short story unduly influenced contemporary American short fiction?,” Barry complains that American short story writers focus too much on the, admittedly awesome, ending of “The Dead”* — the lovely, longish short story (almost novella) that concludes Joyce’s pitch perfect story collection Dubliners:

And I haven’t been to a class on the American short story that hasn’t involved a paen on the merits of “The Dead.” It’s the greased flagpole we’re all trying to climb, just because we know we can’t.

I know, because I’ve been in a few of those classes, and I’ve taught a few. And while I’m not going to say that it’s Joyce’s fault, I will say that our nation is full of aspiring writers, some better than others, swinging and often whiffing for that gentle melody that comes with the perfectly tuned final graph. more

What Should Mormons Know About Mormon Culture?

6.9.08 | | 34 comments
Sor Juana by Miguel Cabrera.

Last week on the NPR radio program On The Media, in a segment titled “Vanishing Reviews,” I heard a great story from Steve Wasserman, a past editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. It seems that Wasserman had been told by Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes that his ignorance of an early Mexican writer and Saint, Sor Juana de la Cruz, would be, in the Spanish-speaking world, “as if you said the word Shakespeare and got a blank stare.”

So, when Penguin Classics came out with an English translation of the works of Sor Juana de la Cruz, Wasserman decided to feature the author on the front page of the Book Review. But his American-educated superiors at the Times objected saying “Sor Juana who?” Wasserman then carried the mockup of the issue into the executive lunchroom and sat it on the table while he ordered lunch. There, a Mexican-born waiter noticed it, and exclaimed: “Sor Juana!” Wasserman asked, “You know who this is?” “Yes,” the waiter replied, “every school child in Mexico knows Sor Juana de la Cruz.”

Wasserman won the day and the issue was published and gained a flood of reader response. It seems one third of the Times’ audience speaks Spanish as their native language. The responses acclaimed the Times for finally recognizing their culture.

Now, I have a couple of questions about this:

  • First, could you substitute a Mormon writer who is as important to Mormons culturally as Sor Juana de la Cruz is to Mexicans? Is there a writer that fits this bill? Or is it just that you don’t know enough about Mormon literature to know if there is one? *(see my note on this at the end of this post)
  • Second, If there were such a writer featured in a major book-related publication, would most Mormons even know who the writer is?

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