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NER Digital | Lauren Acampora

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital


Clair de Lune | Lauren Acampora

Johan_Jongkind_-_Clair_de_lune_à_OverschieThese vibrant May mornings, the half-moon lingers low in the sky as if the night has forgotten to take it away. It’s pale and gentle behind a watery scrim, a sleek creature arching from the sea.

The moon, my father’s pale blue eyes during his last days. The lids wavered as he drifted in and out of morphine dreams, in and out of the wood-paneled room where we’d put the hospital bed, the dark paintings on the walls, the glow of the computer screen like something from another planet.

Through that computer, I played music for him. I believed that it could reach him whether he slept or woke—that it could occupy and calm him, wend through his consciousness with pattern and purpose, the things about life I felt unable to articulate myself. He would sleep, and I would sit with him, watching the drooping eyelids, the half-moons of blue drifting below.

He loved Chopin, but Debussy’s Clair De Lune was his favorite piece.

The third movement of Suite Bergamasque is arguably the most recognizable of Debussy’s work. It was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem of the same name, with lines such as:

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
that sets the birds dreaming in the trees

Debussy’s musical rendering has a wandering, reluctant cadence that demands stillness, patience. The pause between notes is held just longer than expected, that additional moment containing a truth, an almost unbearable beauty that speaks of holding closely and letting go.

It’s as if the music is the moonlight—the sonic equivalent of that calm, wondering quiet.

It’s the moonlight on the streets of Venice in winter. My father, nineteen years old, AWOL from his post in Trieste in 1946, seeing the city for the first time. Walking the nearly deserted alleys in these days after the war, hearing only his own boot steps on the pavement.

It’s the peace of painting with my father in the basement, two bare light bulbs hanging over our heads. Breathing in the sweet, citrus smell of turpentine. Chiaro e scuro, he tells me. Make your darks dark and your lights light.

It’s the serenity amid the chaos in the lobby of the cancer hospital. A young man at a grand piano playing Clair de Lune beside a waterfall—a floor-to-ceiling slab of black granite with water rippling down its length, sheer and supple over the hard fact of mortality.

There is a flourish at one point in the piece, an ascension of notes like birds suddenly inspired toward flight, one after the other. Then, it’s back to the give-and-take of longing and resignation. Acceptance, and, finally, reverence.

After listening to Clair de Lune in that wood-paneled room, it has become an unending loop in my mind. But thinking of it now, I find that can’t remember the way it ends. The last notes escape me.


Lauren Acampora is the author of The Wonder Garden, a collection of linked stories (Grove Atlantic, 2015). Her short fiction has appeared in New England Review, as well as Paris Review, Missouri Review, Prairie Schooner, Antioch Review, and elsewhere.

Translation from the French courtesy of Chris Routledge.

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 | Douglas J. Penick

Categories: Confluences, NER Digital



"Help Yourself," John Frederick PetoIt is one of the small paintings he makes for the summer tourists who visit the seaside, or who are drawn to the tent revival services where he plays the cornet. It is already hot and muggy. He is finishing a picture that shows a crumpled paper bag on its side, spilling out pastel taffy, red and white peppermint sticks, divinity fudge, golden caramel squares, hard fruit candy. They pour out on a surface of black polished wood. They seem to float above their reflection

As a boy, he often went with his father to a store owned by a kindly widow who always gave him a piece of candy. When she turned her back, when his father also couldn’t see, he’d steal another piece or two, shoving them quickly into his pocket. He felt ashamed almost immediately. He is still ashamed. He cannot understand why he did it and did it often.

He looks at the picture. He is sweaty. His back burns with pain, but he is pleased. The miniature haphazard world of sweets is bathed in a silky silver light like that of Vermeer’s View of Delft. It is a veiled, silent seaside light where things may be themselves, isolated in their own secrets.


All around him was the night. Stars coursed silently in the depth of the sky. Below he could sense the dark fragrant cloud-forms of elms and maples. Scattered among them were a few windows still lit by sleepless watchers, readers nodding. Summer winds, scented with leaves and drying grass, moving across the stillness.

The dusty plank floor of the belfry creaked, just as it had when he stood there with his father long ago. The steeple below had a faint white glow. He remembered the excitement. The bands were arranged around the town, waiting for the sunrise. His father was tense and gleeful.

The sun rose, a shy pale red touched the treetops, the steeple was lit up, his father made the downbeat. Four bands in four parts of town began to play. A sudden brilliant gold brass, bright reed and rat-a-tat snare drum: not-quite-cacophony, brought all the atoms in the air to life.

2. It is in the night where, behind paler clouds, the ambient light of stars and moon appears and vanishes into a greater depth. It is from the depth and darkness that the subtle pulse emerges, a strengthening pulse that becomes a rhythm, deep and slow, subdividing into many rhythms, each beginning and sustained by many timbres, some thudding and almost inaudible, like the distant sea, some deep and round like iron being struck, or like the quick tapping of wood on stretched skin, a tree branch scraping a window pane, a man tapping his foot, thunder rumbling, a bell in the wind, an infinity of tempi like an infinity of colors and lights, all dwelling in the vast night and waiting to emerge, waiting but unhurried, ready to manifest into the brightness of day, pouring through the body’s veins as sound and bliss and elation and pain and heat. All the rhythms, coursing through the body, heart and soul, into full consciousness, as the immensity of harmony adored and sought and never, never, never final.

He knew that and never didn’t know it ever again. He found himself as an instrument, a lyre, a trumpet, a piano, a voice. He strained himself to the finest tunings, those most unimaginable tunings. The lilac clouds pervading night.

3. Now he was holding onto the banister and thumping down the stairs from his attic studio. She knew something was wrong, or different anyhow. He came into the dark paneled sitting room where she sat near the window, holding a book as if she were reading. When she looked up, she could see he was crying. Not sobbing, of course. He was too stoic for that. But tears were pouring down his cheeks, and he made odd hiccoughing sounds. In two hours he had aged a decade. He was an old man now. She waited. Finally he looked at her.

“It’s over.” The look of anguish was terrible, but she made herself stay still. Finally he came and took her hand. “I can’t do it anymore. It’s finished.”

He was a harp unstrung, a silence in the night.


Douglas Penick has written libretti for two operas, King Gesar (Sony CD) and Ashoka’s Dream (Santa Fe Opera), with composer Peter Lieberson. On a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, Penick wrote three book-length episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic (Crossings on a Bridge of LightWarrior Song of King Gesar, and The Brilliance of Naked Mind). He is also the author of the novel A Journey of The North Star (Publerati, 2012), as well as Dreamers and Their Shadows (Mountain Treasury Press, 2013). Penick’s short fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in Tricycle, Parabola, Porte Des Singes, Publishers Weekly, Agni, Descant, Chicago Quarterly, New England Quarterly, Kyoto Journal and elsewhere. He has written novels on the third Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), the adventures of spiritual seekers (Dreamers and Their Shadows) and, most recently, From the Empire of Fragments, a collection about cultural displacement.

NER Emerging Writer Award Winner—Dr. Ricardo Nuila Takes the TEDx Stage

Categories: Nonfiction

Ricardo NuilaWe’ve learned that The New England Review/Bread Loaf Scholarship recipient for 2015, emerging writer Dr. Ricardo Nuila, has spent a little time on the TEDx stage, telling his stories out loud.

“My first thought was, wait, someone else must be a doctor . . . how might I explain myself to the flight attendant? ‘Excuse me kind m’am,’ I’d say, ‘I literally became a doctor yesterday. What this means is, I don’t know what I’m doing . . . if you want to know the truth, I’m done with medicine. I’m off to become a writer.’”

Listen to Ricardo Nuila tell his TEDx story here, from the stage at Rice University

Dr. Ricardo Nuila is an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine, where he works as a hospitalist at Ben Taub General Hospital and teaches internal medicine and classes on the intersection of medicine and the humanities to both residents and medical students. His essays have been published in numerous prestigious medical journals including The New England Journal of Medicine. Additionally, Dr. Nuila is an accomplished fiction writer who has been published in New England Review, McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter, and Indiana Review, among others.

Winner of the inaugural NER Award for Emerging Writers, Dr. Nuila will attend the 2015 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference this summer on the first annual NER/Bread Loaf scholarship.

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.