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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.  

NER Digital | The Movie Inside the Movie | Erica Ehrenberg

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital

The Movie Inside the Movie:
Variations on Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander

In Fanny and Alexander there is a season that doesn’t exist. It’s an endless winter. Interiors even in their warmth emit the same white glare as the air outside. In the outdoor scenes, in the streets of Uppsala, I hear the same creaking in the trees as I hear in the floors of the living rooms, the bedrooms where people sleep.

The camera sees like a remembering mind—every snow-drift, every glass glinting in the light belongs to the same person, to the same memory, the same dream. The camera is searching the places inside a mind: Bergman’s mind? Alexander’s? Now mine?

The winter moves in waves underneath the houses in summer. It is the ringing when the mother undoes her hair while her husband sleeps; it is the wailing that pierces her when he dies; later, it is the silent room in the new husband’s house the children must pass through without being heard or detected.

In my memory of the movie there is another movie—the movie that has no beginning or end—the movie that changes as I grow and remember it differently. I can access the winter in that movie at will. It’s not even strange that the children are dressed in white gowns, or that someone is cruel to them. There is a thaw—a rushing river, another winter.

I first saw Fanny and Alexander as a child and I’m still haunted by it. The children’s fears felt like my own fears. To think of it is to access a certain time in my childhood, when I could hear the sounds of my father watching a movie on the other side of the wall.

In some part of my mind it is Bergman’s Sweden in summer. I hold my hand out the window and mosquitoes come. The mother is in the house. I can hear the way the faucet runs. I can hear but I can’t see her children.

What is important is not to remember the movie but to return to it—to return to it as one would return to a house whose walls may have shifted or begun to lean more deeply into one another, while the movement of your body through it has also changed. Sometimes what you recognize is a place you have been, and sometimes what you recognize is the memory you have visited many times since. The actors walk through rooms like visitors, like people remembered after their deaths.

My father walks into the living room acting out the scene when the uncle farts up the stairs. I can’t stop laughing, but the uncle’s laughter is already the laughter of a ghost. The staircase will go blank; the child alone on the staircase after the death of his father will disappear into the landing where the winter air is bright but sealed inside a window. Is that window really there? How many times have I walked into the living room and the movie was on—my father there in the afternoon, some moment in the movie out of order—and even when I see the movie again all the way through—that scene is not there.

I don’t know what drops in my stomach when someone in a movie dies. This time I think it’s the child understanding that he dies.

Even in the longest movies everything is condensed. It’s a relief that life isn’t like that, that we don’t see things change that quickly. Sometimes I don’t want to be aware.

Winter is hanging over the children’s bed as if the ceiling of the house in Sweden was suddenly pliant, suddenly made of cloth. Why can’t we see the mother? Why can’t we lie against her?

In the stepfather’s house, the breath has been knocked out of the furniture.

While the mother is berated behind the locked door, the anger in the boy turns his mother into snow to protect her. Snow, the raging river, the glass of oil on the table, the cracking ice.

Erica Ehrenberg’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies including Slate, Octopus, jubilat, the New Republic, CURA, the St. Ann’s Review, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet Series (Knopf 2008), and Guernica. She has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and at the Vermont Studio Center, a writer-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and will be a resident this summer at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and at Yaddo. At Fordham University she teaches writing and creative writing courses that often focus on the connections between literature, architecture, sculpture, film, painting, and photography. She has also given talks at the Storm King Sculpture Center on poetry and sculpture.  

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.  

NER DIGITAL | La Sagrada Familia: Spires | Alexandra Teague

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


SagradaFamiliaMy husband, his parents, and I stand at the top of La Sagrada Familia, spires spiking and tilting around us like great stone ocean waves, as if we are on the crow’s nest of a ship that is simultaneously pitching into sky and sinking. I’m usually scared of heights, but up here, even fear is under construction. After a century, only eight of the eighteen spires. After a century, the first stones of the Glory Façade: its roads to God and Hell both equally unbuilt.

After a decade, my husband still sleeping nightly on a pillowcase speckled with blood from his brother’s death, still angry at his father for, in the hours immediately after, disassembling his brother’s cage of finches, giving them all to somewhere. The sky. The ground. The noise his brother made gurgling blood into tubes because he had AIDS and no one had yet drawn the plans for pills to save him.

Gaudi wanted the Passion Façade to strike the onlooker with fear, the guidebook tells us. We are supposed to feel Christ’s sacrifice, to believe in death with high purpose. Forgiveness. But nothing is finished. The spire for Mary isn’t started yet; her body only more air.

My husband believed—does he still believe?—he would betray his brother’s life if he let grief go. He carried what he had—the fading stain on a pillowcase, the space where finches once rustled in the corner of a California apartment—like stone for a medieval cathedral. That blood:  brown into blue into white. He hated the inevitable washing. “Color is life,” Gaudi said. Also:  “My client is not in a hurry.”

Everything is possible in God’s time, but nothing is for sure, an Irish singer we love tells us. My husband’s family is Irish and Mexican Catholic. Mine, Irish Protestant. My husband and I are atheists. We believe in suffering for love. My mother is three years dead. We travel everywhere as a family. We play Quiddler and drink sidra and take pictures leaning into the blue between stones.

Asked why he’d lavished painstaking care on the tips of the pinnacles no one could get to, Gaudi answered, “The angels will see them.” My mother-in-law believed when her oldest son first came out he was a sinner. He died knowing she loved him. She still wouldn’t forgive herself for having to build backwards from faith to love.

My father-in-law never talked, in the six years I knew him, about the cage of finches. That hammering. The way the finches belonged to no one. I never talked about what I feared: that I could not go on carrying, around the world, the same unchanging stone.

Still: only eight apostles. Still no Virgin or Jesus. The guidebook says not even Gaudi drew plans for the whole basilica. He couldn’t know how others would need to complete it. A new subway tunnel shakes beneath now, like jackhammers, like heartbeats. The engineers say this is threatening the foundation. The engineers say this is threatening nothing. The angels say nothing. They roost, invisible on invisible spires.


Alexandra Teague is the author of Mortal Geography, winner of the 2009 Lexi Rudnitsky Prize and 2010 California Book Award, and The Wise and Foolish Builders (Persea 2015). She is Assistant Professor of Poetry at University of Idaho and an editor for Broadsided 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. 



Sincere Thanks to Our Donors

Categories: Uncategorized

In the first issue of each volume it is our tradition to acknowledge the many people and institutions who support our efforts. All of us at NER offer our sincere thanks to the authors, subscribers, and readers who continue to sustain us, and in particular to the numerous donors who have demonstrated their commitment through their financial support. Each of these gifts makes an immediate impact, and we are deeply grateful. We’d also like to acknowledge the Middlebury College administration and the Office of College Advancement, who have provided continuing fundraising assistance, and the National Endowment for the Arts, for a 2014 ArtWorks grant.     ­—CK



Announcing the new NER: Vol. 35, No. 1

Categories: News & Notes

The new issue of NER has just been shipped from the printer, and a preview is available here on our website. A startling array of new voices is accompanied by new works from established authors, in this first issue from editor Carolyn Kuebler.

New poems by Elizabeth Spires, William Fargason, Troy Jollimore, David Hernandez, Kelli Russell Agodon, Rebecca Morgan Frank, Elizabeth T. Gray Jr., Carl Phillips, Rachel Richardson, Campbell McGrath, and Melissa Stein appear alongside new fiction from Glen Pourciau, Ricardo Nuila, Laura Lee Smith, David Guterson, Polly Rosenwaike, and Steven Heighton.

In essays, Jehanne Dubrow walks with Phillip Larkin, Francis-Noël Thomas examines Flemish painting, Rüdiger Safranski writes of Richard Wagner’s work to create a revolutionary “mythos,” Joshua Harmon takes us for a spin with the Cocteau Twins, Kathryn Kramer learns from her father in and out of the classroom, and Larry I. Palmer integrates the Phillips Exeter barbershop of the 1950s. Translations of prose by Valeria Luiselli, Juan José Saer, and Esther Tusquets reveal three very different Spanish-language authors from three countries, and cover artist Raïssa Venables contributes a photograph that disorients even as it invites readers inside.

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


C. Dale Young Receives Award for Literary Editing

Categories: News & Notes

Dr. C. Dale Young, Poetry Editor of New England Review, is the recipient of the 2014 Stanley W. Lindberg Award for Literary Editing. This award is presented by the Rainier Writers Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University to someone who has labored to uphold the highest literary standards in a magazine or small press. It is given in honor of the late Stanley Lindberg, a well-known man of letters who brought The Georgia Review to national eminence. The award will be conferred at the annual residency of the Program in August.

Young works full-time as a physician and has been editing poetry at the New England Review for 19 years. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, he is the author of four collections of poetry, including Torn (2011) and The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016).

Young teaches part-time in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers and lives in San Francisco. Poets published by Young very early in their careers include: Nick Flynn, Jennifer Grotz, Cate Marvin, Patrick Phillips, and the Poet Laureate of the United States Natasha Trethewey.

New Books for May from NER Authors

Categories: NER Authors' Books, NER Community

413IG2ug3HL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Hypnotic as it is profound

We are pleased to announce that NER contributor Norman Lock‘s new novel, The Boy in His Winter, is out from Bellevue Literary Press. His most recent story for NER, “A Theory of the Self,” appears in 34.2.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author, Gilbert King: In this surreal and otherworldly river journey through time, Norman Lock transports Huck Finn down the Mississippi and deep into America’s history—and future. Elegant and imaginative, The Boy in His Winter is a tale that’s as hypnotic as it is profound.”

Norman Lock is a recipient of a fellowship from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, saw his play The House of Correction revived in Istanbul, and published a new collection of stories, Love Among the Particles, featuring three pieces of fiction originally published in New England Review.


9781556594663_p0_v1_s260x420Mythical sea beasts, loads of laundry, and high school athletics 

Congratulations to NER contributor Laura Kasischke on the publication of her newest collection of poems, The Infinitesimals (Copper Canyon Press). Laura Kasischke’s poetry first appeared in NER 16.1 in 1994, and most recently in NER 32.4.

Publisher’s Weekly describes Kasischke’s latest work: “Mythical sea beasts, loads of laundry, and high school athletics all populate Kasischke’s rich imagination.”

Laura Kasischke is currently the Allan Seager Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. She is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Space, in Chains (Copper Canyon) and has recently been honored by the Michigan Library Association with the 2013 Michigan Author Award.


9780544074811_p0_v2_s260x420A story of second chances

We are pleased to announce Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s publication of Wonderland, the newest novel from NER contributor Stacey D’Erasmo. Her essay “Influence: A Practice in Three Wanders” appears in issue 31.4.

Publisher’s Weekly calls this “A story of second chances . . . meticulously crafted. . . .”

Stacey D’Erasmo is the recipient of a 2009 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in Fiction. Her essays, features, and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine,  New York Times Book ReviewBoston ReviewBookforum, and Ploughshares, among other publications.


As much prayer as it is poetrySamaras

NER is pleased to congratulate Nicholas Samaras on the recent publication of his newest collection of poetry American Psalm, World Psalm (Ashland Poetry Press). His poetry has been published in NER several times since 1994, and his most recent contributions (“Approach” / “At Night”) appear in 28.3.

From The Daily Beat News Blog: “Samaras … has reinvented modern poetry with this groundbreaking book … The poet combines a sense of morality that is virtually unmatched with a concrete abstraction reminiscent of the likes of a Pablo Neruda.”

Nicholas Samaras’s first book, Hands of the Saddlemaker, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1992. His poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, New Republic, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. In 1997, he was a recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts Poetry Fellowship.

NER DIGITAL | On Dostoevsky | Emma Lieber

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


000600 Two Boys - BarcelonaI have been in love with The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, but for a long time I was unable to write about it. Dostoevsky’s last novel is about many important things—sin and salvation and crime and justice and neighborly love—but, to me, it has always been mostly about the death of a child. Dostoevsky dedicated it to his wife; their son had died at age three two years before it was published, and every page of it screams their shared anguish and their passion.

There is beauty here in the death of innocents. At the end of the book, when Ilyusha, dead at age ten of tuberculosis, is lying in his grave, flowers are blooming, and a crowd of his schoolmates has gathered; they promise to love and remember each other, and they are full of grace and lust for life and boyish exuberance and appetite for the funeral feast and in their excitement they shout “Hurrah!” The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov is taken from the same lines in the Gospel of John that, a year after the novel’s publication, would become the author’s own epitaph: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” There is a fellowship and a flourishing to be found in death; a single death can feed a multitude. Yet Dostoevsky offers no easy assurances, and The Brothers Karamazov is equally about Ivan Karamazov, who hates God for letting children suffer. If God’s kingdom is one in which even one child dies, then Ivan will return his entrance ticket, and while his nauseous rebellion is the flipside of the novel’s concluding picture, it is equally as passionate and true. The most haunting figures in the book are the mothers of dead children, women who cannot be consoled.

Several years ago, I was in the middle of a long dissertation, the last chapter of which was supposed to be on The Brothers Karamazov. That year, we also wanted a child, and I found that I could not start writing the Dostoevsky chapter until I was pregnant. By the end of our son’s first year I understood why I had been saving the book for so long. With the birth of any child, parents are confronted, in their very joy, with the fact of mortality, the “Hurrah” of life always echoing with the murmurings of death: the dangers of childbirth, the pitfalls of infancy, the simple fact that all children are born to die. Amongst all of the triumphs of modern medicine, which assures us that so very many of our babies will survive childhood, one of the few drawbacks is how infrequently parents are able to avow their fears. We have been left unable to mourn the births of our children, and the anguished cries that would have been so familiar in Dostoevsky’s era have been muted into an underground melancholia, or a free-floating anxiety. I think I was saving The Brothers Karamazov until I had a child of my own as a way of making me confront head-on my horror at my baby’s mortality. What I couldn’t have known was that my son would have made me do that anyway, and that the intensity of my need for Dostoevsky’s novel was more profound than I had imagined.

He was born on December 30, in the evening. It was a difficult and strange time. The doctors put him in the NICU, and once, as my husband and I entered the room to visit him, we heard shouting and panicked; we were relieved to realize that it was the sound of New Year congratulation, a few moments of well-wishing, the only celebration the staff allowed themselves. We were able to leave the hospital within a few days, though over the course of the next year we were back often, twice for long and complicated surgeries, the first longer and more complicated but the second—because he was older and, when the mask descended to put him to sleep, knew something scary was happening—more harrowing. After it was over someone asked me whether at any point during those hours in the waiting room I thought he might die, and I responded that I didn’t know what “think” meant in that context, although I do remember one day, shortly before the first operation—the one that changed his face most visibly, took away the gaps in his upper lip and smoothed the skin under his nose and corrected the beautiful defect that made his smile preternaturally wide and joyful, my baby—when the weather was stunning and we played outside nearly all day and I only brought him in when it was time for a late-afternoon nap, planning on heading out again once he was awake to walk our “loop”—a route in Central Park that I used to amble with him in the Snugli, the first times in my life that I have felt things to be as they should—and as the nap went on and on, and five o’clock turned to six and six to seven, I realized he was down for the night, and in the hollow of his unplanned absence I felt horribly and mutely bereft. In that moment, perhaps, I dimly thought the unthinkable.

Readers often cry at the scene in which Ilyusha’s father, having just lost the boy, notices his child-sized boots still standing in the corner and is overwhelmed by hysterical pity: for his dead son, for himself, for the shoes that are too small to go forever unworn. The year that my son was born I was surprised to find myself crying at an earlier scene in which Alyosha Karamazov, Ivan’s brother, approaches the group of schoolboys—Dostoevsky has no illusions about children, they are seething with childhood perversity, tormenting the already sickly Ilyusha, no sublime brotherhood yet—and, by way of intervention, starts making conversation with them about their school bags: “I used to carry a bag just like yours, but we always wore it on the left side,” for easy access. Just the right way to speak to a child, practical and kind. In my imagination, when Alyosha walks up to the boys their brows unfurl and they begin to smile. It is Alyosha who, along with Ilyusha, will teach the children to love each other better.

My dissertation adviser was the mother of two now-grown sons and once told me that when her boys were little and they lived in California she always had to send them to their first day of school with two backpacks each: the one that they would use all year, to carry snacks and number two pencils and maybe a calculator when they were big enough, and one red one, with meaningful trinkets and a note, to be stored away in a special locker, in case at some point during a school day an earthquake were to sunder parents and child. I thought that if I could paint I would paint a child, back facing the viewer, walking away, wearing a red backpack, taking with him his things, the instruments for his life. My son starts school this year; just preschool, so maybe too early for a backpack, although maybe not. He may need to carry snacks, and I think he will enjoy the feeling of independence and responsibility. I hope people talk to him in just the right way, and that they make him smile. I hope he will have everything that he needs.

Emma Lieber teaches Russian literature at Rutgers University.  Her work has appeared in New England Review, her essay Realism’s Housewives” in 33.4The Massachusetts ReviewSlavic ReviewSlavic and East European Journal, and Nabokov Studies Journal.

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. 



NER DIGITAL | A VIsion and a Voice | John Poch

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital



Todd Murphy: Untitled (1994)

When I changed my studies from nuclear engineering to poetry writing (Georgia Tech to Georgia State), my new adviser told me I had to choose a minor. If I were going to be a poet, she said, it was either philosophy or art history. I didn’t know there were more options, so I chose art history. I loved the image and mistrusted the abstract.

About that same time, a friend of mine and I used to go around to the art galleries on weekends wherever we knew there would be an opening. Free wine. The Lowe Gallery was a place where we often ended up because Bill Lowe represented the best work in the South and the wine was drinkable. It was there I became familiar with the work of Todd Murphy. Through a number of coincidences, I was introduced to Todd at one of his openings, and he gave me a great deal of respect as a poet. He ignored a lot of rich people right then and there to talk to me. I was going to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa in a few months. He had recently been to Iowa to photograph the floods! I had hardly read or written anything, but he said he wanted to stay in touch, and he struck up a small correspondence with me.

When I had dropped out after only a year in Iowa, I came back to Atlanta. I got in touch with Todd, and he invited me to his gigantic studio down near the old Mattress Factory so we could talk about art and poetry. I must have visited him there only three or four times over a few years.

One winter morning, I paid him a visit. I remember he showed me around to see his latest work. I followed him up to the loft that overlooked the warehouse. We drank coffee, and we talked about Pound. Todd brought out some of the Cantos and he read to me. I believe I recited a few poems that I had committed to memory. After I had sufficiently taken up the time of an actual artist, I felt I should go. Somehow it came out during our conversation that it was my birthday. We were headed down the stairs on the way out, and he pulled a big framed artwork off the wall. He pushed it toward me and said, “Happy birthday.”

I said, “I can’t take this from you.” His smaller work even then was worth many thousands of dollars.

He said, “Okay,” and started to put it back on the wall. Then he smiled and said, “Please, take it. I don’t have anything else to give you.”

I said, “But I don’t have anything to give you, either.”

“You give me your poems,” he said. This was true. I had been pushing my dreadful poems too full of feeling on him whenever I visited.

I said, “But your paintings are worth a lot. My poems are worth nothing.”

“They’re worth a lot to me,” he said, and he held the painting out to me. I didn’t actually believe him, but I took it, and walked out into the December morning. I put it in the back seat of my little car where the 36 x 39 frame barely fit. I drove off thinking that no stranger had ever done me such a kindness in my life. I hardly knew him! He believed in my poems, my art, when even I wasn’t sure what in the world I was doing.

The artwork is a huge piece of thick white cotton bond with a small figure at the center. The image appears to be made of broken beer-bottle glass and there are drops of the polyurethane all around it.

Todd told me this: at work one morning, he had peeled away the skin from the surface of an open can of polyurethane to use for the surface of another work, and when he cast these pieces aside, he saw they resembled a butterfly. And he had been working on a series in which butterfly images figured in various ways. So he rearranged the pieces on the paper and signed it with his trademark MURPHY.

The artwork hangs on a wall behind my chair in our dining room. I like that it hovers over me, a kind of encouragement, a reminder that an artist saw art in me. Over the years, I have followed his work. The larger body of it continues to amaze and challenge me as a poet. He seems to be relentlessly pursuing a vision that reminds me I might do the same with a voice.

John Poch’s poems have appeared frequently in NER, most recently in 34.3–4 with “Pomegranate Queen.”

You can see more of Todd Murphy’s artwork on his website:

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. 



NER Vermont Reading Series | Thursday, April 17, 2014

Categories: NER VT Reading Series


Please join us in Middlebury on Thursday, April 17, 2014,
7 p.m., at Carol’s Hungry Mind Cafe
for the 
spring reading in our quarterly series,
with Emily Casey, Don Mitchell,
April Ossmann, and Ross Thurber.

NOTE: We regret that Emily Casey will not be able to make it to the event, due to a family emergency, but we leave her bio here for those interested in knowing more about her work.

 Emily Casey’s writing (Burlington) has appeared in Mid-American Review, South Loop Review, upstreet, Sonora Review, and The Salon. She is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts’ MFA in writing program, where she was nominated for an AWP Intro Award in Fiction. She teaches writing at the Community College of Vermont and is currently at work on a collection essays about loss and longing.

DonMitchell_CreditEthanMitchell_LR-1Don Mitchell (New Haven) is a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter whose most recent book is Flying Blind: One Man’s Adventures Battling Buckthorn, Making Peace with Authority, and Creating a Home for Endangered Bats (Chelsea Green, 2013). He’s also the architect and builder of more than a dozen low-cost, energy-efficient structures on Treleven Farm, and a shepherd with thirty-five years’ experience managing a flock of sheep there. He taught creative writing at Middlebury College from 1984 to 2009.


April Ossmann Author PhotoApril Ossmann (West Windsor) is the author of Anxious Music (Four Way Books, 2007) and the recipient of a 2013 Vermont Arts Council creation grant. Her poems have appeared widely in such journals as the Colorado Review and the Harvard Review, and in anthologies. The executive director of Alice James Books from 2000 to 2008, she is Editor-in-Residence for the low-residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and an editing and publishing consultant (


RossThurberRoss Thurber (Brattleboro) is a farmer and poet. He manages Lilac Ridge Farm, an organic dairy, vegetable, and maple sugar operation in Brattleboro. His poetry has been published in the Chrysalis Reader, Root Stock, and in a new poetry anthology So Little Time published by Vermont’s Green Writers Press.