NER

Pages by NER

Posts by NER

 
 
 

Announcing the new NER: Vol. 35, No. 3

Categories: News & Notes


THE NEW ISSUE OF NER HAS ARRIVED!

POETRY
C. Dale Young’s last issue as poetry editor presents 20 poems from his 20 years at NER, poems that he says “not only never left me alone but actually changed me as a reader and writer,” including works by Debora Greger, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Carl Phillips.

Agha Shahid Ali • Reginald Dwayne Betts • Jericho Brown • Gabrielle Calvocoressi • Victoria Chang • Jordan Davis • Geri Doran • Debora Greger • Jennifer Grotz • Laura Kasischke • Brigit Pegeen Kelly • Khaled Mattawa • Tomás Q. Morín • Matthew Olzmann • Carl Phillips • Paisley Rekdal • Natasha Trethewey • Ellen Bryant Voigt • G. C. Waldrep • David Yezzi

FICTION
Fiction writers Jonathan Durbin and Lenore Myka make their NER debut in this issue, and Brock Clarke, Dennis McFadden, and Christine Sneed return to our pages with stories of freedom and slavery, marriage, and a battle-axe. Also, an unforgettable story by Belgian author Kristien Hemmerechts appears for the first time in English.

Brock Clarke • Jonathan Durbin • Kristien Hemmerechts (trans. Margie Franzen & Sandra Boersma) • Peter LaSalle • Dennis McFadden • Lenore Myka • Christine Sneed

ESSAYS
The essays in this issue examine age and time, music and notoriety, the great American West, and the mutability of language and rock walls:

  • J. E. Uhl listens closely to the rhythm of New Orleans “Piano Wizard” James Booker
  • Robert Pogue Harrison unravels the question: how old are we, really?
  • Natasha Lvovich tallies the gains and losses of a language left behind
  • Vincent Czyz follows the bread-crumb trail of affinities
  • Elizabeth O’Brien, in praise of names, congruencies, and the letter Z
  • Alexandria Peary discovers the lives layered beneath our not-so-solid walls
  • Richard Tillinghast, out West on Wagonhound Road
  • Boris Sidis considers an epidemic of religious revival

COVER ART
Katherine Minott

Don’t miss this ambitious and unpredictable collection of writing—just published and now on its way from the printer.

See the full table of contents, and order a copy today. Or better yet, subscribe!

The Spirit of the Beehive | Sally Keith

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070040/Most of the village is sitting in this one room, dark except for the lines of cigarette smoke that twist in the projector’s pale white cone. James Whale’s Frankenstein is playing. It’s 1940 on the Castilian plain. The Spanish Civil War has just ended. Two sisters are watching as a man in a tuxedo warns the moviegoers that the story they are watching is not to be taken too seriously. Now there is a man’s face in concentration, just visible behind the grid of his beekeeper mask, as he pumps smoke into his hive. The hum of the bees replaces the clicking projector wheel.

I’m watching Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). A woman, not yet seen before, is writing a letter, presumably to a lost lover: “Something tells me perhaps our ability to really feel life has vanished along with the rest.” She leaves the house for the plain, turns the wheels of her bike down a road and into the sound of the train’s steady approach. It intersects her path. When she turns to walk alongside the train, she moves through the steam it has produced and momentarily disappears. She posts her plaintive letter to a slot on the train, full of soldiers, and then she departs. Now, we watch the man whose face we’ve seen before—beekeeper, poet, husband, father—return to the empty house. We watch him thinking, in his study, as the words from the Frankenstein script overlay the scene: “Haven’t you ever wanted to take a chance … What if we went beyond the limits of the known? Have you never wished to see beyond the clouds and stars or to know what makes trees grow and changes shadow to light?”

He opens the sun-drenched windows, made of pentagonal panes, remaking the hive in the house. The sisters keep watching the movie. Now the monster meets the young Maria and they float flowers at the edge of the lake. That night as the girls go to bed, Ana whispers the three long syllables of her sister’s name, “Is-a-bel.” She asks, “Why did he kill the girl and why did they kill him after that?” But Isabel won’t answer right away, she is falling asleep. When finally she relents, she explains the monster as a spirit you can access pronouncing your own name in the dark. “I’m Ana, I’m Ana,” Isabel whispers to demonstrate. We hear the sound of the father’s footsteps above them, as if offering a response.

The words the father writes in his notebook, like the sound of the hive in his head, describe his glass beehive “with its movement like the main gearwheel of a clock.” Now the woman, again, who cannot sleep. There is no containment—neither night, nor book, nor hive, nor house—that will suffice. In The Life of the Bee (1901), Maurice Maeterlinck describes an “invisible ailment,” as necessary to the bees as honey, that is derived from a bee when it leaves the hive and results in a craving that might “explain the spirit of the laws of the hive.” This movie is like that—like strokes of paint not quite connecting one part of the composition to the next. Eerie flute melodies turn on and off. Wanting to see more, you watch and watch and watch.

 
Sally Keith is author of the forthcoming River House (Milkweed) as well as three previous collections of poetry. She teaches at George Mason University.

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.  

 

 

 

On Hal Hartley’s “Trust” | Stacey Swann

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Trust PhotoIn broad strokes, Hal Hartley’s 1990 film Trust looks like melodrama—Maria, a pregnant seventeen-year-old, is dumped by her boyfriend. Her future love interest, Matthew, lives with his physically and mentally abusive father, meek at home but volatile and violent out in the world. There are multiple fistfights and a stolen baby.

Melodrama tends towards stereotypes, but Hartley subverts expected outcomes. Following Matthew’s impulsive marriage proposal, instead of Maria’s happy acceptance or crushing refusal, we get a decidedly unmelodramatic conversation about the definition of love. Maria asks Matthew why he would want to marry her. (She is, after all, melodramatically carrying someone else’s child.)

MATTHEW: Because I want to.

MARIA: Not because you love me or anything like that, huh?

MATTHEW: I respect and admire you.

MARIA: Isn’t that love?

MATTHEW: No, that’s respect and admiration.

When I first saw Trust, the film felt both familiar and like nothing I had ever seen. I loved the shot composition, the palette of blues and grays, the soundtrack. But more than anything, I loved the dialogue. Perhaps I was connecting it to other films I loved; the deadpan delivery and comedic timing of Golden Age screwball comedies like The Philadelphia Story and classic noir like The Maltese Falcon were here brought into a contemporary setting. After Matthew returns to a job he hates (to get benefits for Maria and the baby), she finds him watching TV, something he never does.

MARIA: Can you stop watching TV for a moment?

MATTHEW: No.

MARIA: Why?

MATTHEW: I had a bad day. I had to subvert my principles and kowtow to an idiot. Television makes these daily sacrifices possible. It deadens the inner core of my being.

MARIA: Let’s move away, then.

MATTHEW: They have television everywhere. There’s no escape. [. . .]

MATTHEW: I’m just trying to be practical. Levelheaded.

MARIA: What’s so practical about being levelheaded?

Also like many masterpieces of screwball comedy and noir, Trust (as well as most of Hartley’s films) conveys multiple tones at once, forming unexpected chords. The movie is both serious and funny, often at the same time. When Matthew’s intense father tracks him down at Maria’s house, their conversation escalates into a fistfight. Matthew, never before able to stand up to his father, now pushes back. The resulting fight is cathartic, and yet Hartley also combines elements of slapstick—a head slammed in by the refrigerator door, a hand crushed in a drawer—both funny and flinch-inducing.

Later in the movie, Maria tells another character she likes Matthew the way he is: “Dangerous. But sincere.” The woman replies, “Sincerely dangerous,” but Maria counters with this remarkable line: “No, dangerous because he’s sincere.” This may have been what I was really tapping into twenty years ago when I first saw Trust. Just as the snappy comebacks of Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart mixed the jaded with the sincere, Hartley showed me that dialogue could be funny, dark, and smart while also being heartfelt. Sincerity isn’t melodrama. As a writer in a culture that often defaults to flimsy irony, I still need to remember this.

 

Stacey Swann’s fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, and other journals. A former Stegner Fellow, she teaches with Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio.

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.  

 

 

 

T. L. Khleif to Receive Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award

Categories: News & Notes

Jaffe-T.L.Khleif2We are pleased to announce that fiction writer and New England Review contributor T. L. Khleif will receive a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, which is given annually to six writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the Rona Jaffe Awards have helped many women build successful writing careers by offering encouragement and financial support at a critical time. The Awards are $30,000 each and will be presented to the six recipients on September 18th in New York City.

T. L. Khleif received a BA from Brown University, an MA in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and an MFA from the University of Michigan, where she is a lecturer. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in New England Review and the Normal School, and she is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship. Ms. Khleif is working on a novel tentatively titled The Absence of Layla Halabi, and will use her Writer’s Award to take time off from teaching to focus on this novel full time. 

In addition to T. L. Khleif, the 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award recipients are Olivia ClareKaren Hays, Danielle Jones-Pruett, Mara Naselli, and Solmaz Sharif. Congratulations to them all from New England Review.

www.ronajaffefoundation.org.

Celebrated novelist Rona Jaffe (1931-2005) established The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program in 1995. It is the only national literary awards program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively. Since the program began, the Foundation has awarded nearly $2 million to emergent women writers, including several who have gone on to critical acclaim, such as Elif Batuman, Eula Biss, Lan Samantha Chang, Rivka Galchen, Aryn Kyle, Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Tracy K. Smith, Mary Szybist, and Tiphanie Yanique.

 

Marat and Sade in Las Vegas | Stefany Anne Golberg

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

By Antony Stanley from Gloucester, UK (A line in the sand  Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsIn the days before personal computers, when Xeroxing books was a punishable crime, I hand-typed the entirety of The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade for my personal collection, as such a book was not generally available in 1980s Las Vegas. I’d borrowed a copy from the UNLV library. Marat/Sade is a play written by the German postwar playwright Peter Weiss. Weiss incorporates a play within the play, one written by de Sade, to be performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. So Weiss’s actors play lunatics staging de Sade’s play, and also act as various historical figures with whom de Sade has philosophical dialogues.

What was the appeal, for a fifteen-year-old girl, of a story about a nihilistic and lecherous Revolution-era Frenchman—portrayed by a postwar German avant-gardist—who writes and directs a play in an insane asylum? In Marat/Sade, an actress plays a somnambulist who plays the part of Charlotte Corday, assassin of the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, as he lay in the bathtub. Marat is played by a paranoid schizophrenic. The radical priest Jacques Roux, who stabbed himself to death in prison, is played by an inmate in a straightjacket. These characters felt very true to me, their concerns urgent ones. They screamed for freedom, and for justice, and then broke into ecstatic singing, and laughed until the asylum staff beat them back into the corners.

The passage that affected me most was a conversation between the Marquis de Sade and Jean-Paul Marat on the nature of life and death. Peter Weiss wrote this dialogue between the two historical figures—who had never met in real life—as a playing-out of the psychological motivations behind the French Revolution, about which I knew very little at that time.

MARAT:
I read in your books de Sade
in one of your immortal works
that the basis of all life is death

SADE:
Correct, Marat
But man has given a false importance to death
Any animal plant or man who dies
adds to Nature’s compost heap
becomes the manure without which
nothing could grow nothing could be created
Death is simply part of the process
Every death even the cruelest death
drowns in the total indifference of Nature . . .

The Marquis goes on like that, and Marat counters:

Against Nature’s silence I use action
In the vast indifference I invent a meaning
I don’t watch unmoved I intervene
and say that this and this are wrong
and I work to alter them and improve them . . .

It was always important to intervene and say this and this are wrong—Marat’s argument here was solid. I couldn’t understand what he meant, though, about inventing meaning against nature’s silence. Meaning was not something you could paste onto death. It was like the Marquis de Sade said, death was important only insofar as it made way for new life, and nature didn’t care about either.

I hadn’t really thought about nature until then—I lived in Las Vegas and didn’t think deserts counted as nature. Though often I would stand in my backyard at night and look up at the stars. They were indifferent to me. The vast treeless sand-scape of Vegas, the mountains that dwarfed the casinos in the valley—all unmoved by my small, individual experience. Surely, it mattered little to the stars or trees whether I lived or died. The house next door looked as calm as it ever did, even though our neighbor Mark had died only the year before. I eventually decided that the Marquis de Sade also meant human nature, because he realized that the heart of man was fundamentally apathetic and all acts of kindness manipulation and façade.

I spent a year’s worth of evenings in my father’s office typing up Marat/Sade. I did not know how to type properly and did not intend to learn. I typed and retyped the words until I had a complete manuscript. I had never been so close to anything in my life as I became to that text. I learned its message letter by letter, and when I was finished, I never read the play again.

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and artist located in Schwenksville, PA. She is a columnist for the Smart Set magazine and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University.

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.  

 

 

 

Announcing the new NER: Vol. 35, No. 2

Categories: News & Notes

Presenting a junk store of dreams, an island of dreams, a beautiful dreamer. Death by cancer, death by dismemberment, death by suicide bombing; also hearing loss and loads of loot; Calypso, Ozymiandas, wild turkeys, and Freud (and more Freud). Roaches (and more roaches), a cross-country cycling trip, Nicaragua in 1987, professorly love, and a porn epidemic (plus mermaids!). In other words, you won’t want to miss NER 35.2, just published and now on its way from the printer.

In poetry: NER welcomes Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Matthew Lippman, January Gill O’Neil, April Ossmann, Christopher Robinson, and Wesley Rothman, and welcomes back Ash Bowen, Patricia Clark, Peter Cooley, Joanne Dominique Dwyer, Debora Greger, Bob Hicok, James Hoch, and Matthew Thorburn.

In fiction: NER welcomes Sands Hall, Jessica Langan-Peck, Lou Mathews, Goran Petrovic (trans. Peter Agnone), Sean Warren, and welcomes back Stephen Dixon.

In nonfiction and drama: John R. Nelson Watches E. B. White Watching Forbush Watch the Birds; Ben Miller, on Vigilance and Love Among the Roaches; Kate Lebo Surrenders to the Echo Inside Her Skull; James Naremore on the Passion and Precision of James Agee, Film Reviewer; Carl Phillips Goes Looking for the Ghosts that Haunt a Poem; Lucian Travels to the Island of Dreams, by Way of A. J. Church; Savyon Liebrecht Imagines the Fury Freud Left Behind

On the cover: Colorcode by Duncan Johnson

See the full table of contents, and order a copy today. Or better yet, subscribe!

I’m Gonna Cry | Rita Mae Reese

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

ImGonnaCryWhen I was a little girl, my mother would play George Jones and Tammy Wynette on the 8-track player. The only radio stations in Charleston, West Virginia, played country music, or so it seemed. My older sisters were fine with this arrangement. I was not. I hated the crying-in-your-moonshine misery of it all, the endless stream of women leaving their men, of men not coming home, of jobs that broke you and then left you. One evening when Jones was crooning between the heavy thumps of the 8-track, I sat beneath the kitchen table and began crooning my own country song, about my job leaving, my woman leaving, my damned dog leaving. My sister laughed at first, but when I wouldn’t stop she warned me that one day, when I was older, I would like country music. I stopped singing and sat under the table, contemplating the grim future. My sister went off to another room and after some time I tracked her down, begging her to be more specific—when exactly would this terrible thing happen? She wouldn’t say.

♦♦♦

There have been country songs since then that I have enjoyed. I’ve monitored them anxiously like symptoms of something fatal, or at least disfiguring, but they’ve been few and far between. I live in Wisconsin now. I drive a mini van. I have an English degree. What I’m trying to say is, I have enough problems. A couple of weeks ago my wife and I went to a concert at the Stoughton Opera House. The Opera House has been lovingly restored to a glory that startles me every time I see it. It seems more like a cathedral than a concert hall, an oversized grotto where what is worshipped is sound and tradition. The act has to be spectacular to distract from the beauty of the walls and the hardness of the old wooden seats. My expectations were low. I would have happily sat with a numb butt just gazing at the gilded, giddy fleurs de lis while not doing laundry or listening to knock-knock jokes. But the Sweetback Sisters came out and started singing “I’m Gonna Cry.” It’s a bouncy, funny song about pleading for mercy from a boss, a landlord, and repo men, all met with the same refrain—“I’m gonna cry, cry, cry, lay right down and die, ball my little hands up, rub my eyes.” All of the good things about country music hit home at once—the humor, the honesty about life being more than a romantic endeavor, failed or otherwise, but being that too. And it had been there all along. By the end of concert, when they played a couple of moonshine songs from West Virginia, I knew that my sister’s prediction had finally come true. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna lay right down and cry.

 

Rita Mae Reese, author of The Alphabet Conspiracy, is a recipient of numerous awards, including a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship, and a “Discovery”/The Nation award. Visit her at www.ritamaereese.com.

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.  

Cheers to Best New Poets 2014!

Categories: News & Notes

1406596928486Congratulations to NER poet Wayne Johns for the selection of “Delirium” for the 2014 edition of Best New Poets. “Delirium” first appeared in NER 33.4.

Congratulations, as well, to all fifty emerging poets who will appear in this year’s anthology, NER contributors Richie Hofmann, C. L. O’Dell, and Jacques J. Rancourt among them!

Read the complete list of this year’s poets here. 

 

Vivian Maier’s Self-Portraits in Black and White | Maud Casey

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The ones I like best are the ones where she isn’t even there. A shadow on a lawn, a shimmer in the shiny head of a sprinkler. A shadow sliver of her wide-brimmed hat and her broad shoulders on the sidewalk at the feet of two women, creamy legs crossed on a bench, leaning in to conversation. A shadow puppet, dancing on the side of a Chicago building. She is several shadows at the beach. In one, trees grow out of her shadow head; in another, possibly my favorite, the shadow brim of her hat almost touches the hair-rollered head of a sunbathing woman.

I wanted to figure out who she was, says John Malouf in the documentary Finding Vivian Maier, co-written and co-directed with Charlie Siskel. Malouf’s the intrepid, endearing guy who discovered the treasure trove of Maier’s undeveloped photographs—over 100,000 negatives!—at a thrift auction house in Chicago and made them public after her death. Why is a nanny taking all these photos? Malouf asks. The only unimaginative part of the movie involves those peculiar questions (Why is she childless? Why is she unmarried?) occasionally discernible in the subtext of interviews conducted with her employers and the children in her care.There was also her stubborn eccentricity. Why does she speak with a possibly fake French accent? The woman with the twin-lens Rolleiflex camera was a mystery.

I keep misremembering the movie’s title. It should be called In Search of Vivian Maier, I keep insisting. Maier was a mystery fascinated by the mystery of the self. She understood there’s only ever in search of, never finding. No pinning the butterfly—its roving expansive wanderings, the poignant flapping against its cage. Maier took lots of photographs—intimate, wonderfully strange street photographs on par with Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus. But it is the self-portraits in stark black and white, the color of the world bled out, their smoky elusivity, that I can’t stop looking at (http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/self-portraits/). Maybe it’s because I’ve recently spent time looking at 19th century forensic photography—women diagnosed as hysterics, alleged criminals. Proof. See? That’s what crazy looks like. That’s what criminal looks like. Maier’s self-portraits (the black and white, in particular, because of their liminal, dreamlike quality) are questions. Am I her? Her? Am I here?

The self-portraits are dated, 1953 to 1971, except for those with no date at all. She is not always a shadow. There she is, tall, startling, beautiful, reflected in a silver platter in an antique store, in a hubcap, in a bathroom whose mirrors extend her into infinity. There, reflected in a store window, a little girl (her charge?) hamming it up beside her; there, in another store window, the reflection of two women in her skirt, as though they’ve taken refuge there. There’s only one where she’s smiling, reflected in a full-length mirror hoisted out of a dumpster by a man whose face you cannot see. There is no getting to the bottom of her.

Maud Casey is the author of three novels, including most recently The Man Who Walked Away, and a collection of stories, Drastic. Her essays and criticism have appeared in A Public SpaceLiterary Imagination, the New York Times Book ReviewOxford American, and Salon.

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.  

Charles Hood | Song of the Angels

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

Song of the Angels and Other Middle-Class Compulsions

Hood imageFramed in faux-Gothic spires that look like badly cut organ pipes, Song of the Angels is one of Forest Lawn’s top crowd-pleasers. You know Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Museum, I suppose—Evelyn Waugh parodied it viciously and Jessica Mitford scalded it as well. As a proper lit major / knows-his-salad-fork-from-his-dessert-spoon art snob, my inclinations would run that way too, except my parents’ final nursing home was nearby in Glendale, as was the hospital they rotated through for two years.

In naive middle age I had once said that between cancer and divorce, my divorce had been worse. That was nothing like the sorrow of parenting my parents, who some days were not even coherent, let alone cooperative. To process the grief, before driving home I would go to Forest Lawn and stare at Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau, 1881. Proximity drove this more than preference: I could see Forest Lawn from the nursing home parking lot. They shared a brick wall. It was the closest refuge I could find.

Needing whatever it is art gives us, I would drive around the block, pass though the formal entrance with wrought iron gates and grand fountain, cross sections named Vale of Memory and Eventide, and end up at the museum. The grounds look like a page from The Watchtower: bucolically landscaped hills with implied hints of deer browsing and cherubs picnicking. Most people think of Forest Lawn in terms of Hollywood royalty, as last known locations of Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart and Lon Chaney and Michael Jackson. Walt Disney is here, assuming his head is not in cryogenic storage, awaiting medical resurrection; Errol Flynn and Clark Gable are here; many early studio moguls. Ronald Reagan got married here. Anybody remember Joan Blondell? She’s here. She said her ex-, Mike Todd, had held her by her ankles out of a hotel window. We assume he never did that to his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who’s also here—along with Sammy Davis and Sam Cooke and two of the Marx brothers.

Besides hosting traveling exhibits, Forest Lawn’s museum also owns a quirky, mostly cheesy permanent collection. One good name for this would be schmaltzy sentimental pseudo-Victoriana, but another would be, a manifestation of the American fear of death, and a third would be, stuff my mom would really, really like.

Bouguereau was a sincere, polished, salon favorite whose academic perfection epitomized everything Impressionists hated; his wistful peasant girls and bland, de-eroticized nudes display what Degas called a licked finish: all technique, no heart. Even so, I spent entranced hours. Everybody in this painting is so clean and white it feels like laundry day. Look at that hair, those feet: the Madonna has a good pedicure, that’s for sure. The cloth drapes convincingly; light falls with gentle, flattering radiance, as if from a China ball, to use the language of film sets. And the seemingly specific (yet still generic) vegetation—see, even the weeds quote Palm Sunday—matches the actual landscaping of Forest Lawn. True, the wings are a bit paltry, with hardly enough lifting surface to propel a duck, but you’ve got to admire how they direct the composition: the V of the violin angel’s wings guides us down to her face and bow arm, which point to sleeping Jesus. Even the French government collected Bouguereau; the Orsay owns twelve.

For most people, arrival into the middle class must feel like hunkering down under a wool blanket after a long night at sea in an open boat. My parents, for example—I would like to say they survived poverty and war and never looked back, but the fact is, no matter how much they squirreled away in their IRA, they never stopped looking back.

Can we escape our own longing? Maybe your family praised Rothko at dinner but in my house we were more about Mt. Rushmore placemats and Thomas Kinkade desk calendars. We went to John Wayne movies and drove Buicks. Sure, it was all easy promises, but then so is a Twinkie and we know what they go for on eBay. Is that why some small, lewd part of me now likes these angels the painter force-feeds us with sentimentality and too much sugar? Brush your teeth twice before leaving. If you had to look at just once piece of art every morning for the rest of your life, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud might provide more to think about, but once you got used to them, angels by Bouguereau might more often send you out the door whistling.

In a painting like this the lute is forever in tune, the air is always thermostatted at 72 degrees, and the demure headbands always double as halos. So be it. It’s not my heaven but it sure is somebody’s. Do I wish this were a Vermeer? Well, of course—but then I don’t live in London or Den Haag. I live where I live and my museums have the art that they have, and maybe my most middle-class secret of all is that I am fine with that.

I don’t expect more, and in fact, I know that to demand too much puts the whole damn ship in peril. Accept your lot in life: that’s one message of the American dream; even the lottery is more lower class than middle, though my mother had some secret tickets hidden away most weeks. If she had won, she would have bought my brother a car, something small and sensible, and written a quiet and probably anonymous check to the Presbyterians.

I would like to think she also would have treated herself to a framed print of Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau.

If so, what would I have done with it? After my folks passed I loaded almost everything on the Salvation Army truck.

This one, though—this one I think I would have kept.

 

Charles Hood is a Research Fellow with the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. His most recent book won the Hollis Summers Poetry Award from Ohio University Press.

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.