ESSAY Every Last Myth and Slander

by Adrian Nathan West

The minstrel, and its countless permutations on television, radio, film, and advertising in the century since vaudeville’s decline, poses a challenge to those who would dismiss black Americans’ complaints of enduring racial injustice with the line: ‘The Civil War ended a hundred and fifty years ago.’ For many whites, certainly those I grew up around in Tennessee, informal history — not the work of historians, but the partial, flawed version of history that suffuses popular conceptions of self and community — has tended to emphasise the monumental importance of the Civil War as a way of overlooking the subsequent evils of Jim Crow, redlining, convict leasing, or forced appropriation of black-owned lands. As to the possible effects of a two-century-long reduction to the wily, red-lipped buffoons seen stealing chickens or running from alligators on stage and screen, to lawn jockeys or mascots for Nigger Head Oysters and Pickaninny Peanuts, stock responses are ignorance, baffled embarrassment, or pointless affirmations about the pitfalls of judging yesterday by the standards of today. [read full essay]

ESSAY This is Not Sentimental Verse

by Ed Simon

African-American literature is a literature of syncretism. Critic John Leland writes in Hip: A History that ‘slaves and freedmen worked an early form of verbal jiujitsu, imposing African values about the foreign vocabulary’, and this is abundantly clear in Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassins. If the poem is haunted by the lacunae of the first African-American poets, and if it engages an African aesthetic of signifyin(g), then it also enacts this syncretism, not least of all in the form which Hayes has chosen to write in. Few poetic genres are as ‘Western’ as the sonnet (even if it can be historically traced back to the European periphery as a form used heretical Albigensians during the Middle Ages). The earliest of 13th-century sonnets were written in languages from Sicilian to Provencal, Arabic to Ladino, so that Hayes’ post-modern sonnet sequence drawing from the patterns of Wolof and Yoruba becomes its own continuation of tradition. [read full essay]

Between Life and Death

Esther Kinsky, trans. Caroline Schmidt, Grove

reviewed by Daniel Baksi

In his 1953 essay ‘Les Tombeaux de Ravenne', the French poet Yves Bonnefoy remarks upon a frequent motif found in the ornamentation at Ravenna that decorates the many resting places of the dead: ‘It represents two peacocks. Erect and facing each other, skilfully done and yet simple, like hyperbolae they drink from the same chalice and peck at the same vine. In the tangle of the mind that takes up and completes the one in the marble, they stand for death and immortality.’ Together... [read more]

The Sole Substance of Politics

Theodor W. Adorno, trans. Wieland Hoban, Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism

reviewed by Stuart Walton

In April 1967, the Frankfurt theorist Theodor Adorno gave an invitation lecture to the Austrian Socialist Students' Association at Vienna University. He had been asked to address the growing challenge presented by the resurgence of far-right movements and parties in both Austria and the Federal Republic of Germany. The National Democratic Party of Germany, founded in 1964, and uniting right-wing constitutional conservatives and avowed racial supremacists, was on the advance, winning seats in... [read more]

What is to Be Done?

Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn

reviewed by Neil Dawson

Why isn’t Britain a democratic socialist country — or rather, why hasn’t the Labour New Left prevailed over British state and society? These are the questions that the academics Leo Panitch and Colin Leys seek to address in Searching for Socialism. They contend that the New Left has failed because the British working class has been prevented from becoming a ‘class-for-itself’ by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and ‘the mainstream media’. There are a number of problems with... [read more]

Avian Histories

Richard Smyth, An Indifference of Birds

reviewed by Alexandra Marraccini

Just before the pandemic, nature books were a bookseller’s table lure in London. Urbanites in Foyles and Waterstones wistfully turned over copies of H Is For Hawk, various titles by Robert MacFarlane, and even Ali Smith’s seasonal novels, with their tempting Hockney-landscape jackets. There was a certain yearning for escapism there; the need for another England secreted just outside the M25 from our own. Then the lockdown hit. It turned out that with everything shut down, shut off, and a... [read more]

Instead of Sheets, Dirty Tablecloths

James Wood, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays: 1979-2019

reviewed by Rod Moody-Corbett

The title (and title essay) of James Wood’s most recent selection, Serious Noticing: Selected Essays: 1979-2019, recalls a line spoken by a character in Saul Bellow’s The Actual and this feels significant: loyalties, from the first. The Bellow line, ‘first-class noticer,’ which enjoys explicit page time in Wood’s review of Norman Rush’s Mortals (collected in The Fun Stuff but unfortunately absent here), recurs throughout much of the criticism: a nifty barometer of aesthetic taste,... [read more]

Metal on Mount Olympus

KFB Fletcher & Osman Umurhan (eds.), Classical Antiquity in Heavy Metal Music

reviewed by William Poulos

I never would have survived as a classicist if I hadn’t first been a heavy metal guitar player. After hearing the highly technical guitar playing in bands like Metallica, I quickly formed a pantheon of guitarists and treated them with daily reverence. To me, a guitar player in a metal band was a long-haired Hercules, and his guitar a long-necked Hydra he was trying to conquer. No one ever ‘conquers’ an instrument — there’s always something else to learn — but I was about 12 years... [read more]

Crackle and Prod

Christian Wiman, Survival is a Style: Poems

reviewed by GE Stevens

‘Most criticism is like most poetry; it simply leaves you indifferent’. True, but also not great to bear in mind when beginning a review of a poetry collection by the person who wrote it. It helps enormously that Christian Wiman does not write ‘most’ poetry. He is a poet and prose writer who occupies that mystical section of the Venn diagram where belief crosses over with unbelief, lack with fulfilment, stillness with noise, reverence with cynicism, prayer with first-class bitching.... [read more]

One Little Room An Everywhere

Xavier de Maistre, trans. Andrew Brown, A Journey around My Room

reviewed by James Riding

Emerging from six weeks of isolation in the spring of 1790, deprived of the stimulation of friends and social gatherings, you might assume Xavier de Maistre would be feeling restless, his joie de vivre depleted. Not so. The young aristocrat’s confinement left him exhilarated. In a breathless account, de Maistre wrote how he had undertaken a journey in isolation that had given him a rewarding new way to see the world and led to surprising reflections on his own life and character. ‘My heart... [read more]

A Square of One’s Own

Francesca Wade, Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars

reviewed by Hattie Walters

In December 2019 I found myself in Mecklenburgh Square, at the heart of Bloomsbury in London. I was staying briefly at the Goodenough College – situated in the buildings that form part of the square’s contentious redevelopment after its bombing in World War II – and while I was keen to visit the Tavistock and Gordon Square stomping grounds of the Bloomsbury Group (those individuals frequently described as having ‘lived in squares . . . and loved in triangles’), it was not until... [read more]

Against Cancer Memoirs

Anne Boyer, The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness

reviewed by Liam Harrison

The slogan, ‘Fuck cancer,’ is always the wrong slogan, writes Anne Boyer, ‘because “cancer” is a historically specific, socially constructed imprecision and not an empirically established monolith.’ Fuck Cancer Memoirs might have worked as a far less poetic title for Boyer’s book, The Undying, which is a cancer memoir against cancer memoirs. More accurately, it is a challenge to ‘cancer’s near-criminal myth of singularity,’ addressing the way that any writing about cancer is... [read more]