In Which We Resleeve Ourselves Into Something More Familiar

Important Men

by ETHAN PETERSON

Altered Carbon
creator Laeta Kalogridis
Netflix

In this future story from novelist Richard K. Morgan, we are thrust into a world where anyone can look however they want. That James Purefoy wants to look like James Purefoy makes sense on its face, but who would want to look like Joel Kinnaman? Joel Kinnaman looks like the “before” picture in one of those old advertisements in Archie comics, the shrimp who would get beat up at the beach or a dinner party (see below). Kinnaman explains fairly early on that he is an Envoy, which is some kind of soldier. The basic point we are meant to get across about this individual is this: he has a rich and storied history, and could tell you things of which you are probably unaware.

Instead of doing so, Kinnaman’s version of Takeshi Kovacs is only interesting when he is thinking about killing himself. It would have been an important moment to have a suicidal main character if I already didn’t want to cut myself when I saw Matt Damon’s goofy face.

It was a mistake to cast Joel Kinnaman in this role for so many reasons:

1) He admits he has never brushed his teeth.

2) His cloying overacting may have singlehandedly torpedoed House of Cards in retrospect, sparking a sexual harassment revolution.

3) The only time he ever had chemistry with a co-star was in The Killing, and that co-star was ostensibly a corpse,

4) His penis is shaped like a soda can and from some angles cannot be viewed by the human eye.

5) His transparent overtraining to look like a soldier (what a fucking Christian Bale wannabe) makes him have the practical dimensions of the star of Where’s Waldo,

6) He is Asian when he dies in the show’s opening scene, and when he wakes up, he’s Joel Kinnaman. We lost so much just right there.

There comes a point in your life when you realize you’re dating yourself. In real life, the Swedish-born Kinnaman is married to a tattoo artist. Her skin resembles a sheet of paper that’s been written over too many times.

Kinnaman’s main antagonist is a Latina police officer named Kristin (Martha Higareda). Kristin is pretty tiny, and the two have so many scenes together that it is very awkward to see them both in the same frame. Perhaps wisely, creator Laeta Kalogridis puts as much focus on the surrounding mise-en-scene as she can. (She even refers to it as mise-en-scene.) The future, in Morgan’s imagining, is basically like now except some people can live forever if they have enough money. What they are really paying for is for a version of themselves to be hosted on satellite and beamed back into a new cortical stack should they be murdered.

This has in fact happened to Mr. Bancroft (The slovenly James Purefoy, who has the biggest mole imaginable, gross, disgusting). He wants Kovacs to solve the murder, but despite his ample resources and connections within the resleeving industry, he cannot find an Asian body for his private detective to inhabit. That this is racist is indisputable, so Altered Carbon papers over it with a bunch of roles for African-Americans in which they play second bananas or omnipotent, advisory god figures.

If you think I’m trying to discourage you from watching Altered Carbon, think again. There may in fact be a future, or even a present where someone would want to look like Joel Kinnaman – all gangly and soda-canesque. I’m pretty sure Kinnaman has ruined everything he has ever been in. I don’t even remember who he was in Suicide Squad, which is probably for the best.

The worst part of his casting is that Altered Carbon would basically be John Wick if Keanu Reeves would do television. In any case, an actual actor was required for the role.

Ethan Peterson is the senior contributor to This Recording.

 

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In Which We Ask If He Moves His Mouth

I Wrote This By Hand

by LISA GETTY-FRANCIS

Monday

He is riding the 2 train and getting off four stops before mine. He has that glazed over look. Something has gone terribly wrong.

Tuesday

I think of the right book to be reading, the one that not only piques his interest, but piques his interest in me. My roommate Joann suggests a novelization of the Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy. My mom suggests a book about training puppies written by a bunch of a monks. “He’ll know, on some level, that it is about him,” she says without a trace of irony.

Wednesday

Irony is the only thing never in short supply. He is reading now. Well, he is playing a game on his phone also. The object of the game, I can reveal to you all now, is to put a series of frames in sequential order.

When he becomes frustrated or unable to put them in the right order, he pulls out a book. It is a rather tawdry biography of Johnny Carson, who never trusted anyone.

Thursday

I decide on a book that will suggest a variety of nuances about myself. You don’t know me, but I am like a parade: you can have brief snippets of fun, but you can also be trampled.

Friday

I notice that when he is reading, his mouth forms some but not all of the words. My roommate Joann says that he is probably learning disabled. My mom says a lot of people do that when they read, which is code for her saying she has been known to mouth a word here or there.

Saturday

I went to the Met. All the paintings seemed woefully inadequate. Why didn’t they talk, or dance? Remaining still is only useful in death.

Monday

OK. I have heard his voice. It sounds like when someone who is a bit too much up his own ass says the word ‘research.’ He talked to a latino girl who admired his shoes (they are gorgeous, they should be in a museum). He told her that they do not feel as good as they look, and turned back to his new book: a paperback copy of Rosemary’s Baby. I am ashamed to say I was a little turned on by that.

Tuesday

Some ducks climbed up on an old woman’s leg in the park. She was feeding them too much. When they reached for her hand, she said she had to go.

Wednesday

My roommate invited me to the Hamptons, but I can’t/don’t want to go. The faces of the people there remind me too much of scars.

Thursday

He wore his workout clothes around five, which suggests that he changed into them at the office. He is quite fit, but his arrangement suggests an almost accidental theme. He took out a gym bag and changed his shoes. I would be lying if I said they looked great, but the last time I looked at a pair of feet and felt pleased was in the shower.

Friday

Look-alikes:

Me, Audrey Hepburn’s mediocre sister
My mom, Katie Couric
Him, An incredibly handsome velociraptor
Joann, a female birthed from Channing Tatum’s embryo

The possibility of being someone else is the rabbit dogs chase around the Aqueduct.


Monday

What a weekend. I did not see him once, and I rode the subway back and forth too much. It used to be that the very first car was always the emptiest, but people caught on, and now it is as crowded as the others. Then a train crashed in Valhalla, and it was only those in the first car who perished in the flames. It goes back and forth like that.

Tuesday

He is back! On an impulse I sat down next to him. He looked up at me and smiled! He was reading The Interestings! (What crap!) I searched for what I would say, and it did not take me very long to come up with something that I believe we can all agree is compelling on the merits: “I’m Lisa. You are? Wait, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

Wednesday

Joann made me go to the Guggenheim. It is like being inside an egg, which leads to us spending most of our time there reading the wikipedia article about eggs. We need something to distract us because the Kandinsky exhibit is so bad.

Joann thinks it is best not to overthink a first date. “A great first date sets up too many unrealistic expectations,” she says. She also believes you should always drink on a first date, as a sort of litmus test to find out if he is an alcoholic. Her last boyfriend drank too much, and his skin smelled like Crown Royal Apple.

Thursday

The date is on Saturday, so I just take the bus until then. Buses are full of divorced dads with their kids and seniors wrapping their wrists in gauze. Someone had the not-so-bright idea to put fabric on the seats instead of plastic, and it is all worn down and discolored, like hair dyed too many colors. When someone (a male) first asked me to describe myself, I found I could not do it. Since then I have put some real time into knowing what to say in response to that question. This makes it seem like I know who I am.

Friday

Joann and I cleaned the apartment today. We found three twenty dollar bills in the sofa cushion and paused the mopping for a real meal. She thinks they belonged to her ex-boyfriend. “Don’t date a guy who is always losing things,” she said. “It’s a waste of time.” I almost tell her that I lost a pair of earrings she gave me last year, but I decide to wait for a better time. They are probably on the first car of a train somewhere.

Saturday

How did it go? How did it go? How did it go?

He was working in Rhode Island, he tells me. He says the explanation is going to sound weird, and I don a solemn countenance, preparing myself to say, “But that’s not weird at all!” (In this restaurant, all the flames shine in candleholders shaped like golden retrievers.)

He (his name is Jeffrey) was in charge of all the lost and found in the entire state of Rhode Island. It was a job his uncle got him after he dropped out of law school, he says. I ask him what things people lost that were recovered.

“Oh anything,” he says, and launches into a list that it feels like goes on for the better part of an hour. Honestly I mostly start touching him just to quiet the barrage, but also because I always wanted to.


“I saw you on the train a few weeks ago,” I say.

“What made you notice me?”

“Oh, you were reading some trash.”

Saturday

His apartment is more meticulously arranged than any museum. I used to like going to those places, the kinds of empty environments you could fill with your own thoughts and turn into a completely idiosyncratic experience. I think that possibility has vanished or is at least seriously diminished. (My youth!)

He applies a full layer of cocoa butter to his body before sleep.

Sunday

An arm and a leg.

Joann met someone, too. His hair is short but oddly covers his ears. She sent me a picture. I asked if he moves his mouth to form the words he is reading, and she says so far, no, but the only books in his apartment are by Jacques Pepin and Foucault.

Monday

In the last car, where you are the least likely to run into anyone you know, a chorus sings, “I Think We’re Alone Now.” The train breaks down at 96th.

Lisa Getty-Francis is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in New York.

 

In Which We Could Not Be This Married If We Tried

Our Home in Aspen

by ETHAN PETERSON

Fifty Shades Freed
dir. James Foley
105 minutes

Sex during the honeymoon. At the beginning of Fifty Shades Freed, Christian (Jamie Dornan) and Ana (Dakota Johnson) are married in a lovely ceremony. The resulting honeymoon is incredibly tame. At one point, Christian is chaining Ana’s arms to her legs, but he never really goes anywhere after he secures her. He just performs cunnilingus for a bit and I guess she can’t move, but why would she have to or want to? Later, Ana is punished by her husband for disobeying her, and she is angry that he brought their dispute into the bedroom. She does not scream, “Never go to bed angry!” but it might as well be the subtitle of this inoffensive film.

Previously, Christian Grey was something of a maniac who acted extremely rashly and would use the excuse of a troubled childhood to explain the various trials he put Ana and others such as his brother Eliot (Luke Grimes) through. As a married man, Christian has mellowed. He is very protective of his new wife, and she feels much the same. When a lively blonde architect (Arielle Kebbel) flirts with him, Ana attacks like a mealy-mouthed tiger. She is so brave we forgive the fact that her teeth look horrendous.

Methods of birth control. Although Ana tells Christian that she is taking the depo-provera shot to prevent his demon spawn from incubating within her, she actually “forgets” to take her shot. She never admits to this passive-aggressive dereliction of duty, but perhaps she can think of no other way to convince her husband to bear her the children she feels she deserves. The Depo shot is about 99 percent effective; that is, one out of every hundred times a baby will be born who is unexpected and possibly even unwanted.

Later – much later – we see Ana and Christian’s daughter. Both parents are happy in the glow of their child. The implication is that even though the conception of the child was a mistake, the result is a pleasant one. I try to apply this basic philosophy to all the unintended consequences in my life, but it does not tell us what is probably more important – how to react to the things we chose for ourselves.

A marriage’s rules. Ana’s friend Kate (Eloise Mumford) is in an unhappy relationship with Christian’s brother. When he proposes to her, she happily accepts, except it escapes no one’s notice that he is doing such a thing in an Aspen nightclub. Onlookers don’t know whether to applaud or cry. Christian’s Aspen home is configured much like his other living spaces, featuring large open rooms complemented by small kitchens. He does not prize the excess of a large kitchen because in all his time spent learning how to control women, he never figured out how to manage a stove.

When Ana goes out to a bar and has a few drinks with Kate, Christian is incensed. “Keep the martinis coming,” Kate tells their server, and Ana explains that “Christian will be so mad” and “I’m going to get in so much trouble.” Kate never responds by saying, “Do you think this is maybe an unhealthy marriage if you can’t go out for one night without having the fetish of the month (were those butt plugs?) foisted upon you?” Ana just sips her martini and returns home an hour later, where she is almost killed by one of Christian’s disgruntled employees.

Cooking a marital stew. Christian senses that Ana is uncomfortable in this apartment where she was almost murdered. Fortunately, he has begun making plans for a home where they can both be completely comfortable. It looks something like a haunted house, so understandably Christian hires an architect to tear the entire thing down. Ana is grief-stricken at this thought – you see, she likes authentic things that retain their own charm as ages pass. In other words, she is attracted to someone who is not like her.

Instead of differentiating herself from her husband, the newly-named Ana Grey seeks to become more like him – mysterious, at times even beguilingly aggressive, but with a warm and chewy center. As the most phenomenal soundtrack plays, including an ironic song by Sia, the two fight over whether or not she should use his name in her professional life. Even though she works as a fiction editor at her husband’s publishing company, Ana’s friends and coworkers keep emphasizing that she has attained her position entirely through merit.

Like most caricatures, Christian and Ana Grey never do anything wrong, or contemplate something we would not do ourselves. In one scene, Ana finds a loaded gun her husband has left in a drawer. (The drawer was evidently not child-proofed.) She walks into the next room and asks him why he has it. I was stunned by this, since if I found a loaded gun in my husband’s drawer I would never tell a soul. But he just calmly tells her to get rid of it.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

 

In Which We Know All Of Our Weaknesses

Anger

by LINDA EDDINGS

I make the dark sea out of my hands. It is a restless, needy dough that presents itself as salve and illness both. Are you expecting someone (me) to get so upset she can barely breathe? I am not that kind of person. I am the sort of individual who packs the snow in my hands before the rain breaks.

I had done a lot of things for you by that point. I never made a list, or even counted them. I knew it was a lot because of the way you thanked me.

Your pet peeve — what you hated — was feeling worthless. A therapist named Dr. Walters had imprinted into your brain an incredibly dangerous word: value. She neglected to mention that the phenomenon went both ways.

When we place value on ourselves, we call that self-esteem. (Some people also call it snitching.) When you placed value on me, you neglected to mention that it was entirely conditional on the converse. But actually, once I recall asking you if you believed in unconditional love. You said, “Like, no matter what?” It was the same as telling someone what a pencil was.

I knew I was an angry person at the age of 12. I saw a girl print out an encyclopedia entry and submit it as a book report and I wanted to put her on a raft and push her out into the ocean. Now I feel a weird compassion for her plight. At least she knew, without the slightest shred of doubt, that she was a fake.

As a teenager we made repeated trips to a lighthouse where an old man lived with his wife. He let us go to the very top. I couldn’t help but think we were not seeing very far from there. Certainly not as far as we should have been able to, given the height. Fog stopped us, rolling in off the ocean.

Twenty years have passed since those days, and I do not even think about them anymore. I think of the pope’s attitude towards women in the clergy, the mileage on my car and my next meal.

I talked already about what you hated most, You disliked many other things: my mother, my tendency to repeat myself and apologize for doing so. You rolled your eyes when I said “The long arm of the law.” Why do I remember that so vividly?

Most people I could pick apart. It’s a matter of knowing their weaknesses, as well as your own. I deliberately did not do that to you — not because I thought it was important to be nice, but because I was afraid you would return that attitude in kind. I think it is the real me.

Linda Eddings is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn.

 

In Which We Experience Da Vinci Through The Eyes Of Another

DSC036192

Charm with a Negative Sign

by ANDREI TARKOVSKY

Let us look at Leonardo’s portrait of “A Young Lady With A Juniper,” which we used in Mirror for the scene of the father’s brief meeting with his children when he comes home on leave.

There are two things about Leonardo’s images that are arresting. One is the artist’s amazing capacity to examine the object from outside, standing back, looking out from above the world — a characteristic of artists like Bach or Tolstoy. And the other, the fact that the picture affects us simultaneously in two opposite ways. It is not possible to say definitively whether we like the woman or not, whether she is appealing or unpleasant.

She is at once attractive and repellent. There is something inexpressibly beautiful about her at the same time repulsive, fiendish. And fiendish not at all in the romantic, alluring use of the word; rather beyond good and evil. Charm with an negative sign. It has an element of degeneracy — and of beauty. In Mirror we needed the portrait in order to introduce a timeless element into the moments that are succeeding each other before our eyes, and at the same time to juxtapose the portrait with the heroine, to emphasize in her.

If you try to analyze Leonardo’s portrait, separating it into its components, it will not work. At any rate it will explain nothing. For the emotional effect exercised on us by the woman in the picture is powerful precisely because it is impossible to find in her anything that we can definitely prefer, to single out any one detail from the whole, to prefer any one, momentary impression to another, and make it our own, to achieve a balance in the way we look at the image presented to us.

And so there opens up before us the possibility of interaction with infinity, for the great function of the artistic image is to be a kind of detector of infinity… towards which our reason and our feelings are soaring, with joyful, thrilling haste.

Such feeling is awoken by the completeness of the image. It affects us by this very fact of being impossible to dismember. In isolation, each component part will be dead — or perhaps, on the contrary, down to its tiniest elements it will display the same characteristics as the complete, finished work. And these characteristics are produced by the interaction of opposed principles, the meaning of which, as if in communicating vessels spills over from one into the other: the face of the woman painted by Leonardo is animated by an exalted idea and at the same time might appear perfidious and subject to base passions.

It is possible for us to see any number of things in the portrait, and as we try to grasp its essence we shall wander through unending labyrinths and never find its way out. We shall derive deep pleasure from the realization that we cannot exhaust it, or see to the end of it. A true artistic image gives the beholder a simultaneous experience of the most complex, contradictory, sometimes even mutually exclusive feelings.

It is not possible to catch the moment at which the positive goes over into its opposite, or the when the negative starts moving towards the positive. Infinity is germane, inherent in the very structure of the image. In practice, however, a person invariably prefers one thing to another.

I am always sickened when an artist underpins his system of images with deliberate tendentiousness or ideology. I am against his allowing his methods to be discernible at all.

1986


 

In Which We Become A Quick Kid In A Caper

Nothing At All Certain

The letters of Elizabeth Bishop to Marianne Moore at first reflected a close kinship. The two were always placed in the same sentence despite the vast differences between their oeuvres. Bishop and Moore both eventually chafed at this rotten incorporation, and something of that must have filtered into their relationship. Over time, they found themselves less in unanimity than before. When Bishop moved to South America, she encouraged her friend to come visit her not this summer, but next.

Bishop’s letters, whether to Moore or her friend Robert Lowell, were always excessively detailed. Reading them in full they seem a cataloguing of her various thoughts and feelings, usually ones she could not fully come to terms with until she wrote them down. Miraculous moments occur when you least expect them, and the collection of Bishop vignettes that follows includes excerpts from letters to Marianne Moore, Robert Lowell as well as her friend the lesbian poet May Swenson.

I am so sorry we were late last evening — sorry both to have interrupted you and to have missed that much of your talk. We thought we had timed the subway carefully, but I’m afraid we hadn’t. You looked so nice down there on the platform: the black velvet is overwhelmingly becoming, and you should not have apologized for the shoes — they looked extremely, small, shiny and elegant, to me. I enjoyed everything you said and blamed the IRT to being so slow and the audience for not laughing more as I thought they should have at your many excellent jokes. And were really quite baffled with admiration when you had to make those impromptu answers.

I enjoyed every moment except the one in which my own name struck me like a bullet, and I felt myself swelling like a balloon to fill the auditorium.

Dr. Williams is even nicer than I had imagined.

+

The page of reports of my useless, unclean and bad-tempered pet delighted my heart. She had never had a bed before. I have always found that starvation was the best method of inducing her to drink milk. And I know she has a deplorable tendency to eat string – also lick glue from envelopes, etc. Perhaps I should have written to you immediately to reassure you about the constipation but I noticed that always seems to happen when she is taken from one place to another and rights itself which is so much worse in a day or two. I have been haunted by so many of my past unpleasant scenes with her.

+

In Cuba & Mexico they have special two-pronged forks for mangos, but you can use a kitchen fork. You stick it in the stem end & if you do it right the fork will go in the soft end of the seed & hold the mango firm. Then you peel it down from the top and eat it off the fork like a lollipop, being very careful not to get the juice on your clothes because it stains badly.

You speak of being “handicapped by solitude”, but to me you seem the very height of society. It is terribly lonely here & I feel myself growing stupider & stupider & more like a hermit every day. I’m going to try to stay in New York all winter.

I wish you could have seen the beautiful sight I saw from the bus going to Miami nine tall white herons in a group, each on one leg, standing in shallow water where mangroves are just beginning to spring up just an arch here & there with a few leaves on it. The bus was stopped for almost ten minutes only one moved all that time, took one slow step & looked from the bus down into the water.

This is too long, but I want to talk.

+

Maybe I’ve felt a little too much the way women did at certain more hysterical moments people who haven’t experienced absolute loneliness for long stretches of time can never sympathize with it at all.

I really feel that you should struggle against your feeling about children…but I suppose it’s better than drooling over them like Swinburne. But I’ve always loved the stories about Shelley going around Oxford peering into baby carriages, and how he once said to a woman carrying a baby, “Madame, can your baby tell us anything of pre-existence?”

+

The missionary is dictating a letter to his wife at the next table. They are so sad, and the worst aspect of the trip has been the two Sundays we’ve spent at sea on which he held a “small interdenominational service.” There are so few of us we all had to attend and sing “Nearer My God To Thee” (after he told the story of how the people on Titanic sang it as they went down). The three tiny boys sang “Jesus loves me this I know” in Spanish, and a song, with gestures, about how the house built on the sand went splash. I’d always wondered how it did go, but I had never thought of it as splash somehow.

+

I am puzzled by what you mean by my poems not appealing to the emotions. (I’m sorry to be so full of myself but your letter has brought it on.) What poetry does, or doesn’t? And doesn’t it always, in one way or another? A poem like “Never until the mankind making” etc. one feels immediately, before one starts to think. A poem like “The Frigate Pelican”, one thinks before one starts to feel. But the sequence, and the amount of either depends as much on the reader as the poem, I think. And poetry is a way of thinking with one’s feelings, anyways. But maybe that’s not what you mean by “emotion.” I think myself that my best poems seem rather distant, and sometimes I wish I could be as objective about everything else as I seem to be in and about them. I don’t think I’m very successful when I get personal rather, sound personal one always is, of course, one way or another.

+

I bought Pablo Neruda’s poetry (he & his wife have been very nice to us) & am reading it, with the dictionary, but I’m afraid it is not the kind I — nor you — like — very, very loose, surrealist imagery etc. I may be misjudging it; it is so hard to tell about foreign poetry, but I feel I recognize the type only too well. His chief interest in life (or did I tell you about all this) besides communism seems to be shells, & he has a beautiful collection most of them laid in the top of a sort of large, heavy, specially built coffee-table, with glass over them.

+

Sammy, the toucan, is fine — a neighbor built him a very large cage in which he seems quite happy, and I give him baths with the garden hose. Someone also brought him a big pair of gold earring from the Petropolis “Lojas Americana” (5 & 10) and he loves them. He has two noises – one a sort of low rattle in his throat, quite gentle, if he is pleased with you, or cranky, if he isn’t, and the other, I’m afraid, a shriek. He also has the shortest intestinal tract ever known I think, and has to eat constantly, and is far from neat.

Just a few minutes ago I found a hummingbird in the pantry — quite a big one, yellow and black. I got it out with an umbrella. There are such varieties of them — and now the butterflies have come for summer – some enormous, pale blue iridescent ones, in pairs. I gave Loren one in a box once maybe you’ve seen it at her house. And I’ve never seen such moths — I wish I had my equipment with me & I’m going to try to get some in Rio. The house is all unfinished and we’re using oil lamps so of course we get thousands and mice, and large black crabs like patent leather, and the biggest walking-stick bugs I’ve ever seen well it is all wonderful to me and my ideas of “travel” recede pleasantly every day.

+

The first time I met Dylan Thomas, when he spent a day with me doing these recordings in Washington, he and Joe Frank and I had lunch together, and even after knowing him for three or four hours I felt frightened for him and depressed and yet I found him so tremendously sympathetic at the same time. I said to Joe later something trite about “why he’ll kill himself if he goes on like this” etc, etc and Joe said promptly, “Don’t be silly. Can’t you see a man like that doesn’t want to live? I give him another two or three years…” And I suppose everyone felt that way, but I don’t know enough about him really to understand why. Why do some poets manage to get by and live to be malicious old bores like Frost or probably pompous old ones, like Yeats, or crazy old ones like Pound and some just don’t?

Elizabeth Bishop met Lota de Macedo Soares in Mexico in 1942. Lota was traveling with her girlfriend at the time, the American dancer Mary Stearns Morse. When she visited Lota in Brazil, she fell victim to a violent allergic reaction to cashews. Nursing Bishop back to health in 1951 led to the two falling in love and spending the next 15 years together. A talented architect, Lota built a studio for Bishop on her property in Rio.

In the late sixties, Lota suffered a nervous breakdown brought on in part by political circumstances in Brazil. Eventually, Bishop couldn’t take it anymore and returned to New York. Lota followed her there in 1967 after a year of threatening suicide. Upon her arrival in New York, she took an overdose of valium and went into a coma before passing away. The following excerpts from Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell as well as her therapist and various amateur biographers detail the years following Lota’s suicide.

I’m afraid you thought I was drunk when I called you, but I really wasn’t — just closer to hysteria, or more hysterical, than I have ever been in my life, and although I realized there wasn’t much you could do or say all those thousands of miles away it helped some just to hear you. I am afraid by now you are pretty bored with me and my neurotic friends, etc. — but I thought you liked and admired Lota when you were here and I sort of wanted you to know, maybe, that I wasn’t entirely wrong in my complaints from Seattle. I felt at the time that you thought I was being loyal and unsympathetic about her work, etc. — but as you can surely see now, it is all much worse than I thought, even.

I suppose the person closest is the last to realize how terribly sick someone is — but things have been getting worse and worse for several years now.

I only wish to God I knew if they are doing the right thing. Her nurse comes here to see me once in a while and yesterday said she is staying awake more now, and eating more — but talks of me constantly, etc.

She has had violent fights with all our friends except two — and it seems they all thought she was “mad” severally years before I did. But of course I got it all the time and almost all the night, poor dear. I do know my own faults, you know. But this is really not because of me, although now all her obsessions have fixed on me — 1st love, then hate, etc. I finally refused to stay alone with her nights any longer — she threatened to throw herself off the terrace.

I have almost decided to try the U.S. thing. I don’t know what is right really, and wish God would lean down and tell me. I hate to leave Lota like this, but it seems almost as if it were a question of saving my own life or sanity, too, now.

+

Have you ever gone through caves? I did once, in Mexico, and hated it so I’ve never gone through the famous ones right near here. Finally, after hours stumbling along, one sees daylight ahead — faint blue glimmer — and it never looked so wonderful before. That’s what I feel as thought I were waiting for now — just the faintest glimmer that I’m going to get out of this, somehow, alive.

+

One phrase I can’t abide — it may be what everyone says at present, but it always offends me — is “to have sex.” (Even Isherwood has used it.) If it isn’t “making love” — what other way can it be put? (I first heard about it years ago when the famous fan dancers was talking about her pet snake — maybe that prejudiced me.) It seems like such an ugly, generalized sort of expression for something — love, lust, or what have you — always unique, and so much more complex than “having sex.”

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I’ve never studied “Imagism” or “Transcendentalism” or any isms consciously. I just read all the poetry that came my way, old and new. At 15 I loved Whitman; at 16 someone gave me the book of Hopkins that had just been re-issued. I never really liked Emily Dickinson much, except a few nature poems, until that complete edition came out a few years ago and I read it all more carefully. I still hate the oh-the-pain-of-it-all poems, but I admire many others, and mostly, phrases more than whole poems. I particularly admire her having dared to do it, all alone — a bit like Hopkins in that. (I have a poem about them comparing them two self-caged birds, but it’s unfinished.) This is snobbery — but I don’t like the humorless, Martha-Graham kind of person who does like Emily Dickinson.

In fact I think snobbery governs a great deal of my taste. I have been very lucky in having had, most of my life, some witty friends, and I mean real wit, quickness, wild fancies, remarks that make one cry with laughing. (I seem to notice a tendency in literary people at present to think that any unkind or heavily ironical criticism is “wit,” and any old “ambiguity” is now considered “wit,” too, but that’s not what I mean.) The aunt I liked best was a very funny woman: most of my close friends have been funny people; Lota de Macedo Soares is funny. Pauline Hemingway a good friend until her death in 1951 was the wittiest person, man or woman, that I’ve ever known. Marianne was very funny — Cummings, too, of course.

Perhaps I need some people to cheer me up. They are usually stoical, unsentimental, and physically courageous.

I have a vague theory that one learns most — I have learned most – from having someone suddenly make fun of something one has taken seriously up until then. I mean about life, the world, and so on. This is again a form of snobbery. I dislike extremely bookish people (I do happen to love some, but I think they’d be better off if they weren’t so bookish), and I don’t enjoy writers who talk literary anecdotes all the time or are preoccupied in putting other writers in the proper pecking order. Criticism is important, “weeding out has to be done,” (R. Lowell), but I don’t want to do it. I feel that art would probably struggle along without it in very much the same way, probably. I trust my own taste and usually don’t want to explain it — at the same time I occasionally wish I could explain it better.

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I had meant to remark that I have been seeing some poems around by an Anne Sexton that reminded me quite a bit of you and also were quite good, at least some of them — and the same day your last letter came Houghton Mifflin sent me her book, with your blurb on the jacket and that sad photograph of her on the other side of it. She is good, in spots, but there is all the difference in the world, I’m afraid, between her kind of simplicity and that of Life Studies, her kind of egocentricity that is simply that, and yours that has been —what would be the reverse of sublimated I wonder — anyway, made intensely interesting, and painfully applicable to every reader. I feel I know too much about her, whereas, although I know much more about you, I’d like to know a great deal more, etc, — oh well it is fairly obvious, isn’t it?

I like some of her really mad ones best; those that sound as thought she’d written them all at once.

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I liked Roethke when I saw him — huge people like that often have that lightning quickness. I went to Grand Central with him in cab; he was almost missing his train to the west and I suggested my doing something while he did something else — I forget what, but to help him catch the train, and his last words to me were, “You’re a quick kid in a caper.”

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The biographical note in Who’s Who is correct — or was, the last time I saw it. I never lived in Worcester, however —  I left before I was a year old and spent only a few months there was I was 6-7, with my father’s parents. The rest of my childhood I spent with my mother’s parents in Nova Scotia – mostly long summers, although I started school there — and with a devoted aunt, in or near Boston, until I went away to school at 16. I also went to summer camp on Cape Cod for 6 summers. I’ve never lived in Newfoundland — I took a walking trip there one summer when I was at Vassar. Since Vassar I’ve lived in New York, Paris, Key West, Mexico, etc — mostly New York, and Key West until about 1948. Then since late 1951 Brazil — with several trips back, of course, one of 8 months or so.

Robert Lowell compressed my life even more, recently, into a very short poem that was in the Kenyon Review, called “The Scream.”

THE SCREAM

A scream, the echo of a scream,
now only a thinning echo . . .
As a child in Nova Scotia,
I used to watch the sky,
Swiss sky, too blue, too dark.

A cow drooled green grass strings.
made cow flop, smack, smack, smack!
and tried to brush off its flies
on a lilac bush—all,
forever, at one fell swoop!

In the blacksmith’s shop, the horseshoes sailed through the dark,
like bloody little moons,
red-hot, hissing, protesting,
as they drowned in the pan.

Back and away and back!
Mother kept coming and going—
with me, without me!
Mother’s dresses were black
or white, or black-and-white.

One day she changed to purple,
and left her mourning. At the fitting,
the dressmaker crawled on the floor,
eating pins, like Nebuchadnezzar
on his knees eating grass.

Drummers sometimes came
selling gilded red
and green books, unlovely books!
The people in the pictures
wore clothes like the purple dress.

Later, she gave the scream,
not even loud at first . . .
when she went away I thought
“But you don’t have to love
everyone,
your heart won’t let you!”

A scream! But they are all gone,
those aunts and aunts, a grandfather,
a grandmother, my mother—
even her scream—too frail
for us to hear their voices long.

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The trouble is — excuse my clichés — as people grow older, non-artists, that is, they do have to steel themselves so much, forget so much and try to pretend everything’s all right so much. They are afraid, probably rightly, that poetry — any art — if they take it hard, might upset them — so they pretend they like it at the same time they resist it absolutely — Nao e?

I’m feeling so much better these days.

1936-1970


 

In Which There Was An Element Of The Obscene

Postenumerated

by LEAH BUCKLEY

Lying in bed next to me, you begin to tell me about another woman you are seeing. I wonder if, to an outsider, this enumeration of your conquests would feel misplaced post-coitus. I am familiar with your breed of flirtation.

You tell me sure, she’s hot. She has a decent body, small tits like you like them, tall like you like them, she’s all right in bed.

When people ask me about you, how would you feel if I told them you were a lazy lover, that you had a belly that hangs over your belt and the back of a woman?

WDnEsYn

Instead, I say you are a “banker type,” and I fly to Mexico because I hope it will validate me, as a sexual trophy for you – your choice spoils. I pray for something to fill the hole in my heart left by the last man who brought me through that airport.

I sleep next to you – you, who have no passion for pleasing me, and no interest in the woman I am – rich in flaws and complexity. You don’t hear me when I speak, so I stop.

I follow you silently down narrow cobblestone streets as you trip over your shoes, checking your phone. Staring at the back of your head, I feel so lonely. I’m too apathetic and ashamed to fight you when you patronize me. I sleep with you despite myself, with my eyes clenched shut. I will it to be over before it begins; take the morning after pill thinking, “God, I deserve this.” I watch you get down on your knees in church and am amazed that you still have faith. What do you believe in, if it isn’t love?

Leah Buckley is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Art by Claire Lee.