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Announcing NER 36.2

Categories: News & Notes

With its focus on China, NER 36.2 brings us up close to an old, new world of art and history, nature and poetry. Also in this issue, we traverse our own country from the Atlantic to the Pacific with authors as they remember collective pasts, brave their own presents, and escort the most foreign of foreigners from our halls of ivy to our backroads theaters. The new issue of NER has just shipped from the printer and a preview is available on our website. Order a print or digital copy today!


Kazim Ali • David Baker • Christopher Bakken • Joshua Bennett • Bruce Bond • Luisa A. Igloria • Vandana Khanna • Rickey Laurentiis • Katrina Roberts • Ed Skoog • Xiao Kaiyu (translated by Christopher Lukpe) • Ya Shi (translated by Nick Admussen) • Yin Lichuan (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain)


Steve De Jarnatt • Joann Kobin • Carla Panciera • Sharon Solwitz • Michael X. Wang.


Wei An’s ruminations on nature just north of Beijing (translated by Thomas Moran)
Wendy Willis on Ai Weiwei’s blockbuster show at Alcatraz
Marianne Boruch discovers the diagnostic value of poetry
• Interpreter Eric Wilson relives the encounters of a Faeroese poet with American activists, academics, and alcohol
• James Naremore considers the considerable Orson Welles at 100, looking beyond Citizen Kane
• Jeff Staiger makes a case for how The Pale King was to have trumped Infinite Jest
• Camille T. Dungy is more than welcomed to Presque Isle as she finds herself in Maine’s early history
• “The Gloomy Dean” William Ralph Inge revisits Rome under the Caesars

Order a copy in print or digital formats for all devices.


Best American Series Gives Three Cheers to NER

Categories: News & Notes

11164839_697846580326266_7587790925888781084_nWe are thrilled to share the news—Best American has chosen three pieces from New England Review, in a range of genres, for publication in the forthcoming 2015 series.

We congratulate Laura Lee Smith for “Unsafe at Any Speed,” chosen for Best American Short Stories, Steven Heighton for “Shared Room on Union,” slated for Best American Mysteries, and Kate Lebo for “The Loudproof Room,” which will appear in Best American Essays.

NER Digital | Sean Warren

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


Rondanini Pietá | Sean Warren

In Milan, the travel books direct us first to Leonardo’s Last Supper, the opulent fresco of high Renaissance color faded by moisture and rattled by Allied bombs during World War II. Contrary to Michelin, Lonely Planet, and the rest, however, I recommend—no appointment necessary, as with the Last Supper—a visit to the Sforza Castle, where there stands in splendid isolation a sculpture of such muted mystery and power that it is liable to alter your perception of reality, and of life and death, in a way that Da Vinci’s masterpiece will not: Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietá.

I saw the sculpture in person for the first time several years ago, while on a bus tour of northern Italy whose trajectory ran from Venice to Turin. But more than a decade before, I had gazed upon a black and white photograph of the Rondanini in the last pages of the profusely illustrated biography of Michelangelo from the ’60s Time-Life series of artists’ lives, which I had picked up second hand at a bookstore in Van Nuys, California. Not only did the sculpture in the photograph look so much more diminutive than the artist’s David and two previous Pietás, but its otherworldly detachment seemed like a repudiation of the sublime athleticism and anguish of those more celebrated works.

Cut to Milan, day three of the four-day bus tour. Willi, our German guide, had arranged for lunch, followed by a little shopping, and then to see the The Last Supper. When I told Willi that I would be spending my time instead at the Sforza Castle and asked him how to get there, he answered by saying he wouldn’t hold the bus if I weren’t back in time, and walked away.

Although I had a city map, I had no idea what the Castle looked like, got lost riding the street cars and, having forsaken lunch, began to suffer the desperation of the hungry, dehydrated, bladder-challenged tourist searching under a severe time constraint an object of profound personal pilgrimage. Eventually, I found myself standing before the imposing, crenellated walls of a medieval fortress. Along with the Bargello in Florence, the Sforza Castle is the most un-museum like of buildings. After finding the entrance and purchasing my ticket, I speed-walked through centuries of Lombardian armor and pennants and statuary and comparatively unrenowned paintings—and then, in the last space before the museum shop, there it was.

The Rondanini Pietá was not diminutive as I had imagined, appearing slightly larger than life. The dead Christ’s smooth, bare legs rise from the base of the statue in a finished state; his knees are particularly well-articulated. But as the legs rise into the hips and the hips into the torso, the marble becomes rougher and the chiseling more visible until, from the shoulders up, Christ and Mary, who is supporting his corpse from behind, look to be, at first glance, almost featureless. Gradually, however, I was drawn into the ostensibly hollow gazes of the two figures and their anguish, loss, and tenderness. What makes these emotions more compelling for me than in Michelangelo’s more realistic Pietás is that the Rondanini seems on the verge of succumbing, like the bodily Christ, to the physical dissolution of death: This is not merely a scene of death, but of death becoming, which reminds us that death, like life, is an organic state. And yet, in the midst of death’s dynamic crumbling, mother and son’s eyes, only three of them, remain open. There is something inextinguishable at the back of their gazes, perhaps a light transcending human emotion and decomposition that Michelangelo saw as an old man standing on the brink of death himself.

These mysteries that I had first seen in a photo, were profoundly enriched by my in-person contemplation of the Rondanini. But I was completely unprepared for the startling momentum shift in the work that is visible only when viewing it in person from the side or back. From the front Mary appears to be supporting the body of her son in the convention of the genre. But walk to the right of the statue, stop at a ninety degree angle, and see how it changes: Instead of Mary supporting her son, Christ is lifting her in a surge of wave-like energy. This surge is further evident from the back of the sculpture where Mary, whose legs are merely sketched in the marble, seems to be wrapped around her son’s shoulders as he prepares to lift them both away.

At some point in absorbing myself in this last work of Michelangelo’s, so suffused with life and death and eternity, I looked at my watch. My tour bus had left for Turin. After the panic of missing it had subsided, I settled in to spend a little more time with my Rondanini. I recalled reading the comment by an American author of European guidebooks that the sculpture was unfinished, which seemed to ignore the fact that Michelangelo had labored over it for almost a decade before his death. Although I thought the guidebook author wrong, his mistake was perhaps excusable: After being overrun by the torrential vitality of the artist’s other work, would it not be natural for most observers of the Rondanini to conclude that the old man, then in his eighties, simply lacked the energy or focus to properly finish it?

In my view, however, the sculpture is not only finished, but its technique speaks to the obsessive and alienating materialism of our own times with the disorienting eloquence of Picasso or Matisse. The Rondanini’s dissolving forms, its blurred gazes, its startling, wave-like surge of energy that becomes apparent only after a prolonged, in-person viewing—all these are the hallmarks of a work that points toward the dissatisfaction with realistic representation that is perhaps the most significant aspect of our own modern art.

After immersing myself in the Rondanini for over two hours, drifting between reflection and an extra-rational state that some may call meditation and others prayer, I awakened to the challenge of having to train out of Milan and find my tour group in Turin. My last thought before leaving the sculpture behind was an incredulity at how not more than a handful of museum-goers had visited the Rondanini during my stay. But had the small room been thronged, my visit would have been much shorter and less intimate.

Therefore, instead of asking why the Rondanini remains so obscure, let us head to the Sforza Castle and, in the gratifying absence of the vast majority of art-going tourists who have chosen to gaze upon The Last Supper, witness for ourselves the magnitude of what they are missing.


Sean Warren’s short story, “The Last Romantic,” appeared in NER 35.2, and is part of a novel, My University: The Early Life and Times of Tom Powers, United States Navy. He writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.

NER Digital | Sofi Stambo

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


Florence | Sofi Stambo

The correct answer is, abandon everything in New York—the futon, the desk, the chair, and the dishes—and move here. I’d already abandoned Bulgaria, decades ago, along with the family, the books, and the bicycle. Biciclette in Italian. Also famiglia and libri. I am good at either decision-making or abandoning.

I will stay here in Florence and become the lady with the highlights working at the corner café, making cappuccini and selling cornetti to the same neighbors her entire life. They lean on the counter, sip the foam of the cappuccino, nibble the crumbs of the cornetto, and talk. Their voices go up and they laugh and I don’t catch any of the meaning, just the pleasure people get when they know each other for life and share good feelings—sentimenti. I want to be that woman, to know that language and these people, to invite them in to my apartment upstairs and to never have to leave.

It almost looks like a theater set, it is so well lit and glamorous. The actors are dressed well and are very polite. No one has anywhere else to go so they stay where they are, talk as much as they can, and laugh a lot. What the joke is is hard to tell when you don’t speak the language.

Florence has the same careless aura that my childhood city of Varna had. A small tourist town, where people rent out rooms and have a small sandwich or crepe shop in their basement and money is not a problem. There are no problems, especially in the summer, when you only worry about burning on the beach or rainy days, or the ice cream melting before you eat it. It’s the carelessness of our grandparents, with their gold teeth and bracelets, their foreign hats and Italian slippers. We stay out late with them on long summer nights. They sit in front of the apartment building, talking to neighbors for what seems like days. People bring cherries or apricots or lilies, because they had too many in their orchard and they don’t want them to spoil. But they won’t go bad, nothing will. We somehow know that and run lighthearted around the building in the dark. It isn’t scary because of the laughing, motley crowd of our people right over there, under the porch light. The nights smell like garlic and dill and roasted peppers.

Arriving in Florence was like opening the lid of the jar where we keep happy younger summer versions of ourselves. I listened and looked and sniffed and licked and couldn’t get enough.

The streets are washed with soap and strewn with flower pots for the tourists. The buildings are freshly painted in warm yellow, orange, and cream. The gardens are watered, the lilies smell sweet, and swallows throw themselves in the air with the abandon of people dancing.

What I left in Bulgaria was peeling gray paint and broken sidewalks, homeless dogs and poor retired people begging you to buy a bunch of dill in front of the church. I bought everything from everyone just to see a smile on someone’s face. All I got was a heartbreaking “Thank you son” from toothless mouths. My grandma used to call us each “son,” regardless that we were all granddaughters. But she had gold teeth and silver bracelets, beautiful scarves and brooches and so many different smiles. We took walks and talked to neighbors. That’s all we ever did.

In Florence people live that way too. In the corner café I wait for the long conversation to finish so I can order a cappuccino. I would never wait in New York—I’d highjack the conversation, and rightfully so. You don’t get to have long conversations when people are late for work. Coffee is medicine and Starbucks is the ER. Speed in New York is a matter of life and death. In Florence speed does not exist, like a vegetable that simply doesn’t grow in that climate. You take life in small foamy sips and warm crispy bites. It’s all about good moods and the pleasure one gets from a good conversation. No need to hurry. All will be there a little later too. It has been there for two thousand years.

I wanted to buy a book by a poet of my childhood, Gianni Rodari, for my daughter to read. I waited in the bookstore where three girlfriends, class of 1950, with auburn hair, bracelets, and strong perfumes, talked to the young salesgirl about the new novellas she just got in. Sentimenti, emozioni, passioni, nodded everyone and each bought the new novella. They smiled and said their grazie and buona notte.

When my turn came I asked where the English books were. The young girl apologetically told me that they didn’t have novellas in English. What else would a woman look for but a novella with passioni?

I passed by a sign on the wall that read “La felicitá é a ridere di niente.” It looked important, because it was written in red. Growing up during Communism I was conditioned to react to signs in red. Felicitá. There was a song by Al Bano and Romina Power, “Felicitá, ta-ra-ra-ra-ra-ra, felicitá.” They sang it at the Golden Orpheus, the international song festival that happened in Varna. We took our children’s chairs and listened outside with half the town who couldn’t get tickets. Romina Power, in her white dress, was a gorgeous long-haired singer the entire Bulgarian population adored. Al Bano was a graceful older man. They eventually divorced and disbanded, because everything good ends, no exceptions apparently. “Felicitá, ta-ra-ra-ra-ra”—what did that mean?

The bookseller smiled at me and paused, trying to organize her thoughts in English. “It mean happiness is laughing . . . happiness is laughing about nothing.”

Grazie,” I say.

Va bene,” she says and gives me the novella I will not be able to read but will carry with me to make me look a little more Italian. Like a brooch. People will start talking to me and I will stay in the circle of neighbors in front of the light and absorb large amounts of human warmth and contact with the ten words I know. If it gets embarrassing I can always run away into the dark.


Sofi Stambo is the recipient of the first prize in fiction in the 2015 SLS Disquiet literary contest. She holds a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from Sofia University, St. Kliment, Ohridski, Bulgaria, and was a graduate student in Literature at City College. Sofi Stambo had been published by Promethean, Epiphany, Plamuk, and the Kenyon Review Online, among others. She lives in New York City.

NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.


New Fiction from Mario J. Gonzales | NER 36.1

Categories: Fiction

Malditos | Mario J. Gonzales

[view as PDF] Cabezon’s mom OD’d there, me and my cousins Tug and Tweety would go to the hill and hang with Manny, an older guy from the Projects. Long time ago, the hill was where the mojados lived in small houses built by farmers to keep their illegals near work. Now the place is torn up, the rooms tagged, walls falling down. Piss-stained mattresses and bent cooking spoons litter the place. I mean, bums and junkies have hustled their way through, no doubt. In fact, some tweakers had a lab here and it blew up in their faces. You could see the smoke for miles. One dude, Palo, burned himself good and wore a mask like that Phantom of the Opera guy for a while.

But that’s not why they say the hill is haunted or cursed. It’s really cause some farmer, Gandangi or Gandansky, shot himself here, when all the wets were getting off work. Tug and Tweety’s stepmom, who was the farmer’s maid, said she heard he had went gay for a mojado. Who knows? Maybe the Mexican laughed or fucked him up when the farmer tried to put the moves on. But for sure he died bloody on the hill.

Haunted or not, the hill was the place to kick it. It was where I’d smoke a bowl and watch the sun burn down without no one bugging. Things got crazy, though. It started with this game Manny made up: seeing who could hold a lit M-16 firecracker the longest. Tweety always won, until one day Manny offered Cabezon twenty bucks to hold the cuete until it exploded. Cabezon did and ended up shredding his middle finger.

[read more]

Mario J. Gonzales currently lives and works in Santa Fe. He was raised in Parlier, California, a farm-worker community outside of Fresno. His short fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Cossack Review, Rio Grande Review, and other literary publications. He has finished a collection of short stories entitled The Importance of Being Elsewhere, which he hopes to be published soon.

New Poetry from Ocean Vuong | NER 36.1

Categories: Poetry

To My Father / To My Unborn Son | Ocean Vuong

“The stars are not hereditary.”—Emily Dickinson

There was a door & then a door
surrounded by a forest.
Look, my eyes are not
your eyes.
You move through me like rain heard
from another country.
Yes, you have a country.
Someday, they will find it
while searching for lost ships . . .
Once, I fell in love
during a slow-motion car crash.
We looked so peaceful, the cigarette floating from his lips
as our heads whip-lashed back
into the dream & all
was forgiven.

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Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). A 2014 Ruth Lilly fellow, he has received honors from Kundiman, Poets House, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets, as well as a 2014 Pushcart Prize. His poems appear in the New Yorker, Poetry, the Nation, Boston Review, Best New Poets 2014, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, New York.

New Nonfiction from Jill Sisson Quinn | NER 36.1

Categories: Nonfiction


Big Night | Jill Sisson Quinn

[view as PDF] US contains more species of salamander than any other country, but in an entire lifetime you may never encounter one. Salamanders—secretive, fossorial, nocturnal—exit underground harbors only in darkness. Even those that gather in great masses to breed do so without a sound, moving monk-like through the yammering of wood frogs and spring peepers to ephemeral ponds.

In the country’s eastern half, many folks would be surprised to find they share their neighborhoods with Ambystoma maculatum, the spotted salamander, a creature that looks like it belongs in the Amazon. Two uneven rows of big, bright yellow dots extend from head to tail on its dark, glossy body, a body I have always thought looks purple, though most field guides describe it as steel gray or black. Spotteds are stout and medium-sized; at four to seven inches long, they look like they’d make a good meal for something. But they’re not easy to find. Scientists tracking them with radio telemetry, through tiny transmitters surgically implanted into the salamanders’ midsections, discovered one spotted salamander living four feet underground. To find one of these brightly colored animals beneath a rock or within a log feels like hitting the jackpot.

My interest in salamanders renewed with surprising force the same spring my husband and I began the process of adopting a child. I had recently moved away from an area of high salamander density (from New Jersey, which has sixteen species, to Wisconsin, which has only seven) and ceased teaching environmental education; instead I was teaching English and spending my workdays indoors. Nevertheless, I aimed to be present for the annual nocturnal mass breeding of the spotted. There was a chance I would see them and a chance I wouldn’t, these creatures that seemed scarce but were relatively numerous, that lived singly all year long but on a single evening gathered in multitudes. It was just this odd combination of uncertainty and possibility that I would need to embrace in my journey to becoming a parent.

[read more]

Jill Sisson Quinn’s essays have appeared in Orion, Ecotone, OnEarth, and many other magazines. She has received the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, a John Burroughs Essay Award, and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her work has been reprinted in Best American Science & Nature Writing 2011. Her first book, Deranged, was published by Apprentice House of Loyola University Maryland in 2010. A regular commentator for Wisconsin Public Radio’s Wisconsin Life series, she lives and writes in Scandinavia, Wisconsin.