A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux
Photo: (from left) Tim Hout; © Frantzesco Kangaris/Eyevine/Redux

By Parul Sehgal, Tin House Summer Issue, 2013

Sinclair Lewis wrote that “every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.” Few writers have so flagrantly flouted these pressures as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the celebrated Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and The Thing Around Your Neck. Her new book, Americanah, will be published in May by Knopf and, like its predecessors, it’s a thrilling and risky piece of writing that takes on taboos, shatters pieties, and combines forthright prose, subversive humor, and a ripping good story.

The fifth of sixth children, Adichie grew up in Nsukka, a university town in Nigeria, in a house once occupied by the celebrated Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, who became a great influence on her.

“It was Achebe’s fiction that made me realize my own story could be in a book,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “When I started to write, I was writing Enid Blyton stories, even though I had never been to England. I didn’t think it was possible for people like me to be in books.”

Adichie studied medicine briefly and moved to the United States at nineteen, eventually receiving an MFA from Johns Hopkins. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was well received; her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, was a sensation. An unflinching look at the horrors of the Biafran War of the 1960s, it earned her an Orange Prize and comparisons to Achebe. In 2008, she was awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.”

“Here is a new writer endowed with the gift of the ancient storytellers,” Achebe praised her. “She is fearless.”

In Americanah, Adichie fearlessly takes on what is so euphemistically called “American race relations.” Our heroine, Ifemelu, a Nigerian transplant to the United States, writes a blog, the tartly titled “Raceteenth or Various Observations about American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,” in which she scrutinizes Obamamania, white privilege, the politics of black hair care, interracial relationships, and the allure and savagery of America.

Adichie and I chatted over e-mail.

Parul Sehgal: I just finished the book and find myself moping and missing Ifemulu beyond all reason. She feels terribly real to me. Where did she come from? More broadly, how do your characters announce themselves? As a gesture? A voice? An argument?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: All of those, and more. Sometimes a character just forms in my head; other times a character is based on somebody real (although the character often ends up being quite different from the “real” person). Ifemelu is a more interesting version of me. Both Ifemelu and Obinze are me, really.

PS: How so?

CNA: I think I have Ifemelu’s questioning nature, Obinze’s longing. Like them, I’m always looking to learn. A bit of a romantic, but I hide it well.

PS: Ifemelu is the “Americanah” of the title, yes? Can you unpack this term a bit?

CNA: It’s a Nigerian (actually, perhaps more regional than national, it’s more often used in the southeast, where I am from) way of referring to a person who affects Americanness in speech or manner, or a person who is (genuinely) Americanized, or a person who insists on her Americanness. It’s not exactly a polite word, but it isn’t derogatory either. It’s playful.

PS: Obinze and Ifemelu are that real literary rara avis: a happy couple. With romantic happiness so difficult to render on the page, I very much admired how you made them come to life. Did you have models, literary or otherwise, for their relationship?

CNA: Well, I had the old and grand tradition of the Mills and Boon romance novels that I read as a teenager! More seriously, my vision as a writer is dark. I am more drawn to the melancholy, the sad, the nostalgic. And so I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to write a love story, a love story that would be both unapologetic and believable.

PS: Let’s stay on love a moment more. Ifemelu writes on her blog that the solution to the problem of race in America is romantic love: “real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.” Now, I find Ifemelu utterly persuasive and charming and—sometimes, I must confess—a bit of a bully. For all these reasons, I’m inclined to agree with her. Do you?

CNA: I have been told that I am a benevolent bully, so I suppose Ifemelu gets that from me. I do agree with her, very much. I completely believe in the power of love. I think that race, as it has been constructed in America, makes it almost impossible for people of different races to have a real conversation about race, let alone understand how the other person feels. Storytelling helps. Storytelling can be an entry point.

PS: But why are we at such an impasse?

CNA: Race is, I think, the subject that Americans are most uncomfortable with. (Gender, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion are not as uncomfortable.) This is an American generation raised with the mantra: DO NOT OFFEND. And often honesty about race becomes synonymous with offending someone.

Continue reading “A Conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie”

Writers and the Women They Worship

By Parul Sehgal, The New York Times April 17, 2013

These three delightfully deranging books offer alternatives to your staid biographies. They’re a bit dangerous, a bit rude — free from the tyranny of good taste. The authors, first-rate obsessives, riff on the women who’ve consumed them — bearing out Frank Bidart’s line, “What you love is your fate,” with mischief, feeling and a rare frankness. That’s the thing about obsession. It can’t be faked.

17jackie-articleInlineWayne Koestenbaum has written frequently and fondly about his favorite heroines, but there’s a Wildean clip and glimmer that distinguishes “Jackie Under My Skin” (1995), his take on Jackie Kennedy. “Writing about Jackie, I enter a terrain of embarrassment, error, excess. When I speak about Jackie, who do I become? A weirdo? A stalker? A fan?” He concedes that “the quest for self-realization via Jackie contemplation isn’t a standard male route,” but when he thinks about her, he’s at his “most collective and communal.”

Mr. Koestenbaum zeroes in on his subject with an unhinged intensity, Humbert Humbert fresh from a course on semiotics. “I am so hermetically contained by the perimeters of Jackie contemplation that I can only point to Jackie, and interpret her, from within the circle of terms that originate with her,” he writes.

Everything she touched becomes swollen with significance. Her laddered stockings. Her pink maternity shift. He practically swoons when he notices “the faint blond hair along her arm” in a photo. He mines the many meanings of her unpolished fingernails, her eyebrows that never looked “effortfully plucked,” her slimness. We feel his shiver of pleasure at Jackie’s memo to her staff requesting the curtain braid in the Blue Room be turned lest it be further sunburned.

And who else could shake out such a wealth of interpretations from Jackie’s shellacked bouffant? “From the hairdo we learn that she is composed and contained; like an armadillo or a turtle, she carries built-in protection,” he writes. “Her hairdos remind me of the bubbletop over the presidential convertible — the bubbletop that should have been lowered in Dallas.”

As a young man in the 1970s, the novelist David Plante had a talent for ingratiating himself with famous older women. “Difficult Women” (1983), his account of squiring around Sonia Orwell (wife of George), Jean Rhys and Germaine Greer, makes for fascinating if squeamish reading. Scenes of an elderly Rhys falling drunkenly into a toilet and getting stuck, or Ms. Greer accidentally flashing the author, are so uncharitable they make Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” look like hagiography. But there’s tenderness here, too. Mr. Plante is frank about what drew him to these women — their fame excited him, yes — but it was their misery that he fed on. “I was in love with the unhappiness in her, and yet reassured that, no matter what I did, what I felt it my duty to do, to lessen that unhappiness, I couldn’t,” he writes of Orwell. “I had been drawn to her darkness because she, who commanded a place in the world, was justified in her darkness, and justified mine.”

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How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

15815364By Mohsin Hamid

Parul Sehgal, New York Times Book Review, March 29, 2014

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” begins under a bed. With you — yes, you — under a bed. Once you quit cowering, you’ll be the hero of this novel written in the second person, although there’s nothing remotely heroic about you at the moment; you’re so sick you can scarcely speak. The only remedy at hand is a large white radish, which your mother cooks up in a foul brew.

Courage. You’ll live and what’s more, you’re only seven steps from getting Filthy Rich, according to the narrator. (You’re also nine steps from ruin, but we’ll address that in a minute.) The marriage of these two curiously compatible genres — self-help and the old-fashioned bildungs­roman — is just one of the pleasures of Mohsin Hamid’s shrewd and slippery new novel, a rags-to-riches story that works on a head-splitting number of levels. It’s a love story and a study of seismic social change. It parodies a get-rich-quick book and gestures to a new direction for the novel, all in prose so pure and purposeful it passes straight into the bloodstream. It intoxicates.

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Red Doc>

9780307960580_custom-689066379ad8cb7f9c4b62c3af2a1dec4dd50f8f-s6-c10By Anne Carson

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, February 2013

When Anne Carson was a child, she read Lives of the Saints and adored it so much she tried to eat its pages. The Canadian classicist and poet has never lost this desire to merge with the text; if anything, she’s created forms that allow her to eat as many pages as she possibly can. In her translations and recastings of the classics, she enters the books she loves, tilts and deranges them and makes them her own. Nor has she lost her appetite for the physicality, the thingness, of a book. She eulogized her brother, Michael, in Nox (2010)—a translation (of sorts) of Catullus’s poem 101, his own elegy for a brother—illustrated with collages, photographs, and scraps of letters. The pages folded concertina-style into a gray box, its shape suggesting the self-enclosure of grief and the cold slab of a headstone. In 2012, Carson updated Sophocles’s Antigone, another story of a sister grieving the death of her brother, in Antigonick, a hand-lettered translation with playful drawings and enough creative license to include references to Virginia Woolf and Hegel. Even if one of her books looks conventional, trust that hidden architecture undergirds the story. In her novel in verse, Autobiography of Red (1998), Carson retold the myth of Herakles and his tenth labor: slaying the red, winged monster Geryon and stealing his oxen. She made the two men lovers and narrated their romance in a nonchronological hodgepodge of styles—the academic essay, the interview—the chapters formally different and discrete as rooms.

In her new book, Red Doc>, Carson picks up the story of Geryon again, fashioning from it yet another curious object. The sentences are squeezed into a tight column, about an inch and a half long. Scenes are sequential and cut occasionally to witchy pronouncements from a Greek chorus who call themselves the Wife of Brain. Surrounded by acres of white space, the text looks like tracks in snow.

When we left Geryon in Autobiography, he was in Buenos Aires, the unhappy party in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles’s new lover. At the beginning of Red Doc>, he’s older, still unlucky, still tending his animals and losing his looks. “Am I / turning into one of those / old guys in a ponytail and / wings he thinks sadly.” He’s spent the last seven years reading À la recherche du temps perdu.(“Reading it every day,” he tells his mother, “was like having / an extra unconscious.”) Fortuitously, he’s shaken out of his stupor and self-pity by the reappearance of his old love, now a war veteran who calls himself Sad. They meet a delightfully deranged artist named Ida, and embark on a desultory journey over a glacier, into a body shop–cum–psychiatric clinic. They pick up Hermes—in Greek mythology the cunning messenger of the gods—as a hitchhiker. They sleep with each other and squabble and leave Geryon at his mother’s deathbed. It’s Alice in Wonderland without the philosophy, just the nonsense and surreal size play: “Ice bats . . . the size of toasters” and “crows as big as barns / rave overhead.”

In Carson’s work, philosophy and literary criticism (or even their parodies) have functioned as a trellis around which scenes are strung. Formal structures and especially the fragment allow her to pose questions with and within her work, to insinuate and tease, and she’s at her best in the interrogative mood, as in her book The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2001). Because Red Doc> lacks this scaffolding, her players skitter in constant and confused motion. This wouldn’t matter so much if the story were strong enough to hold them, if the characters were, on some level, enacting psychological or philosophical questions. But Red Doc> is only superficially interested in narrative. It’s a long, lovely line to nowhere, a beautiful surface. The language doesn’t exist to take us inside the characters; it’s just so many daubs of paint, utterly its own end.

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The Wayward Essay: ‘The Fun Stuff,’ by James Wood, and More


In its quality of attention and faith in the salvific power of the right words in the right order, the essay resembles nothing so much as a secular prayer. That, at least, was the original point. The essay has proved wayward, which has been the great secret to its longevity.

Invented in France by Michel de Montaigne, the 16th century’s great oversharer; perfected in England by Samuel Johnson and William Hazlitt; the essay found America very agreeable: “The United States itself — and even its name, according to some sources — is partly the outcome of the essayistic brilliance of the radical English artisan Thomas Paine,” Christopher Hitchens, one of its finest modern practitioners, wrote. Its health, however, has never been guaranteed.

Virginia Woolf had to reassure the public in 1922: “Oh, yes dear reader: the essay is alive. There is no reason to despair,” even as journalists crowed over the death of “that lavender-scented little old lady of literature.” “Everybody is forever saying that the essay is dead,” John Leonard observed in 1982. “This is always said in essays.”

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The Power of Books


By Parul Sehgal, The National Endowment for the Arts, Sept. 19, 2012

We are not supposed to be in the study. The books live in the study. The study is dim and fragrant and forbidden. The books are forbidden. We are not supposed to be in the study.

We are always in the study. We do our best reading in those years when the books are forbidden and my mother sleeps. A sensible woman, she warned us early and often that Novels are a waste of time and Some books are dangerous if read too early and don’t you have homework to do?

She says this while maintaining a wonderfully idiosyncratic library full of dangerous books. She’d been a professor of political science back in Delhi; so naturally, Plato, Mill, Marx, and Hegel are well represented. But so are Sartre and Gide, D.H. Lawrence, Muriel Spark, Graham Greene. So are Sue Miller, Ira Levin, Irving Wallace, Irving Stone, and lots of grisly true crime. And all the staples of the Indian bookshelf: Freedom at Midnight. R.K. Narayanan, Ruskin Bond, Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, mountains of moldering Penguin paperbacks.

We had no system; we were governed only by access and appetite. Jeanette Winterson describes reading her way from A to Z through a local library in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal. How charming, how fastidious. My sister and I, first generation immigrants, temperate in all things save our book lust, grabbed what we could; we gobbled and glutted. We’d pick up books at random and as long as we could understand the first few sentences, we’d begin, always with a hope that this was the book we’d been warned about. One especially desultory month when I was nine and she eight, we worked our way through Oscar Wilde’s plays, Lee Iacocca’s memoir, The World of Suzy Wong, a rereading of In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (mainly for the photos of a young Imelda Marcos), and Machiavelli’s The Prince (not quite the historical romance we had hoped).

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery,” wrote George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write.” Joan Didion took it a step further in an essay with same title. She argued that very act of “setting words on paper” is “an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” Both establish as the reader as passive, even as the victim. Both are wrong. Some of us read rapaciously and with mysterious agendas of our own. And I’d hazard that the more we—or our communities—have been disenfranchised or humiliated, the harder we’ll read when we come to books. Because we’re not just reading, are we? We’re spying. We’re reading ourselves into societies and narratives that have excluded us. We’re trying to get inside your head.

Breaking into my mother’s library was just the beginning. Books are all about trespass; they deliver what romantic love and citizenship only promise. They let you enter other consciousnesses, cultures, conversations. Would my sister and I have read the way we did if we hadn’t felt our difference so keenly, if our experience of smallness, femaleness, foreignness hadn’t been so painful? I’m not sure. The racism we encountered was imaginative and energetic. But the study smelled like vanilla. So much was explained and restored to us in that dim room. W.E.B. DuBois put it best: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas…I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.”

No scorn, no condescension. We read first for distraction then consolation then for company. And finally to be worthy of the company we kept.


By Zadie Smith

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum Sept/Oct/Nov 2012

Pity; they used to be such nice girls. Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake grew up together in a grim housing estate in North West London. They acquired university degrees, good jobs, political convictions, pretty husbands. And they’re miserable. Now in their mid-thirties, they’re pickling in bile and coming apart. Leah has become fixated on a local woman who bilked her out of thirty pounds. She’s secretly taking birth-control pills, scuttling her husband’s plans to start a family. Keisha, who’s gotten posh and changed her name to Natalie, is spending a bit too much time on a website catering to people with specialized sexual interests (specifically, black females aged eighteen to thirty-five). They’re not so nice anymore. They’ve become the kind of women who are “on a war footing, constantly, even at brunch.” They hate their friends. They hate their mothers. They believe “happiness is not an absolute value. It is a state of comparison.” They believe that friendships between women are rooted in “ruthless comparison” and that “marriage [is] the art of invidious comparison.” They sing songs in the key of contempt.

Zadie Smith’s new novel, NW, is at once a subtle investigation into the intersections of race and class, and a kind of detective story—what’s eating these two? What’s turned those plucky pals into women so slack they can’t even revolt properly? They’re girls gone mild, quietly rattling their cages, contemplating insurrection and going online instead. They can’t even find harbor in each other. It’s Smith’s bleakest book yet, telluric and about as nihilistic as this sunny writer can get. NW is more restrained and emotional than the kinetic White Teeth and The Autograph Man, and it achieves its control without the scaffolding of On Beauty, Smith’s retelling of Howards End set at an American university. Instead of the riffs and jokes, the hectic camera angles, the busyness (tics the critic James Wood once derided as “hysterical realism”), she relies, in NW, on long shots and close-ups. She fades in and out of scenes slowly, particularly a recurring scene of a man and woman in bed. She lets the book breathe. Instead of the usual mushrooming subplots, NW sticks to the two women, Keisha and Leah, whose accounts flank a third, the story of a young man named Felix. Sweet, simple Felix, the book’s sacrifice. His death, like the suicide of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, is a death of his time and town, a memento mori that forces the women into a crisis. The three stories intersect during Carnival. Smith guides Leah and Natalie’s narrative, which takes them from childhood deep into the intrigues of their secret lives, all while Felix goes about his unremarkable, final day. He checks up on his dad. Buys a secondhand car. Sleeps with an ex-girlfriend. Hops on the tube.

Smith’s fiction has never been this deadly, direct, or economical—and she’s still having more fun on the page than Wood would think is strictly necessary. NW is embroidered with eccentric flourishes—a (baffling) prose poem here, a section in numbered sequences there. And the staccato street scenes let her strut. There’s a bit of Frank O’Hara and a lot of Mrs. Dalloway in these descriptions. Smith takes Virginia Woolf’s delight in “life; London; this moment of June,” the city’s “swing, tramp, and trudge,” and remixes it with the “sweet stink of the hookah, couscous, kebab.” There’s a distinctly modernist cast to NW, in the parsing of the march of the mind, how it speaks to itself in clipped images and directives. Here’s how the book begins: “Shriveled blossom and bitter little apples. Birds singing the wrong tunes in the wrong trees too early in the year. Don’t you bloody start! Look up: the girl’s burned paunch rests on the railing.” It’s a miracle of mood: Hear the jeer in the bursting b’s of blossom and bitter and birds and burned. Leah, sulking in her garden, is spitting these words. Like an overture, the opening hints at all the themes to come—unwelcome, forsaken fertility (those withered blossoms and apples), the creep of time (the birds)—but the star of the sentence is that little paunch and all that it connotes of unseemly and oddly poignant (it’s in the sunburned) flesh-bound femaleness. For it’s in this realm that the trouble began, set off by a flurry of e-mails from their friends.Continue reading “NW”

Lionel Asbo: State of England

By Martin Amis

Parul Sehgal, NPR.org, August 29, 2012

Too much is made of literature’s ennobling qualities. There are those of us who come to books for the debasement and danger, for Hannibal and Humbert. For Faulkner’s Popeye and Hedda Gabler. We want to meet the monsters.

And monsters are Martin Amis’ specialty. Amis traffics in pathologies — people who are born bad and get worse, Disney villains with crazy names and sexual predilections. Enter Lionel Asbo, antihero and antagonist of Amis’ newest book. This savant of sociopaths was declared “uncontrollable” at 18 months and slapped with his first restraining directive at 3 years old. He’s even changed his name to match his sentence (“Asbo” stands for Anti-Social Behavior Order). Lionel now handles the “very hairiest end of debt collection” with the assistance of two pit bulls that he raises on a diet of hot sauce, regular beatings and beer. His nephew and ward, Desmond, is a Dickensian naif: a wide-eyed orphan bent on self-improvement but dabbling in a little trouble of his own: The teenager is having an affair with his grandmother and is terrified that Lionel will find out.

It’s a terrific setup, a taut mousetrap ready to go off. But the trap never snaps. Lionel Asbo is essentially five characters in search of a plot. Lionel wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, and the plot quickly becomes a litany of the ridiculous ways he spends his money, allowing Amis to indulge in his most unfortunate tendency: cruelly caricaturing poor people. His reproofs are ripped from Bill Cosby’s infamous “pound cake” speech: The poor stay poor because of their laziness, obesity and drunkenness, their propensity to give their children silly names, their butchering of the English language. It’s that last sin that he really can’t abide. He devotes a mystifying amount of attention on Lionel’s pronunciation. Every time Lionel says a word ending in “k,” Amis spells it out phonetically so we won’t miss how he mangles it.

It’s a shame. These politics are harnessed to electric prose. There’s not one limp or lazy sentence to be found. Continue reading “Lionel Asbo: State of England”

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti

Parul Sehgal, The New York Times Book Review, June 15, 2012


“A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” Hanif’s first novel, drew favorable comparisons to “Catch-22” — both are stinging sendups of life in the air forces, but the similarities run deeper. Like Joseph Heller, Hanif specializes in a kind of horror and humor joined at the root. Stripped of the slapstick and magic realist special effects, “Alice Bhatti” is a blistering broadside on the socially sanctioned butchery of women and girls in Pakistan. It’s an abecedary of how women are hunted, how they’re choked and chopped up and thrown away. It’s an attempt to understand and render, with varying degrees of success, what life is like under siege from the world’s oldest, most deadly kind of terrorism. “Cutting up women is a sport older than cricket but just as popular and equally full of obscure rituals and intricate rules,” Hanif writes.

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My Poets


By Maureen McLane

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, May 2012

Readers are not created equal. Frances Ferguson observed, rather dolorously, that the “reader can only read the texts that say what he already knows,” but let’s be frank: There are gifted—or maybe just thirstier—readers among us who, by dint of stamina or plain need, won’t be stymied by boredom, offense, incomprehension. There are varsity readers, and then there is Maureen N. McLane, a poet, professor, and prizewinning critic. To read McLane is to be reminded that the brain may be an organ, but the mind is a muscle. Hers is a roving, amphibious intelligence; she’s at home in the essay and the fragment, the polemic and the elegy. She can be confessional and clinical and ludic—sometimes all in the same sentence. What I’m trying to say is that McLane has moves. In her new book, My Poets, she invites us to read over her shoulder as she combs through “her” poets, including Chaucer, H.D., Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Louise Glück. It’s a work of personal and poetic archaeology—“I am marking here what most marked me,” she writes. The prose is thick with quotation and self-interrogation; voices serried and overlapping, combining in chorus, splintering into argument. Forensically close readings dovetail with spirited defenses of the poets posterity has misunderstood, fresh readings of the familiar, and formal experiments (an abecedary of her favorite translators, a cento of beloved lines). She positions Emily Dickinson as a 9/11 poet. She recasts cerebral Marianne Moore as the “the stealth weapon of American poetry” and mistress of “a languid, lethal, acrid sexuality.”

It’s a visceral kind of criticism, sexy, strange, and suspenseful. Nabokov said to read for the tingle at the tip of the spine. Dickinson spoke of poems that took off the top of her head. Language enters McLane’s body like a current. Her whole body bucks and shudders. Her responses are forcefully somatic—“Some of her poems bypassed my brain and registered directly on the nerve endings”—and matched by the syntactical sophistication of her thought, her attraction to contradiction. Witness her response to the conclusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” (“everything / was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow! / And I let the fish go”): “Some days this seems coercively tidy and moral and obligatorily epiphanic and another instance of romantic ideology and sickening other days it seems a parable for living or rather attending.” Criticism is a temporal art, she reminds us. Our judgments are subject to mood; they are various and fickle. McLane destabilizes the authority of the critic—and the poem. “Poems aren’t for teaching; they insinuate,” she writes.

Poems insinuate and lodge themselves within McLane. The lives of the poets become blueprints. (“Elizabeth Bishop was gay and a traveler and a gay and sad traveler,” she writes. “I did not know this and I came to know this. I became this.”) She handles her poets with reverence, but also treats them as rich sources of gossip, heaping her exegeses with delicious gobbets on internecine squabbles, bloated reputations, what Alice and Gertrude got up to in bed, the “bovine worship” Bishop elicits in some circles. A splendid mimic, McLane sometimes riffs on poets in their own styles. Here she is in fine Gertrude Stein mode: “Robert Lowell is so Lowelly you must unLowell him to lower him into you. This I found. He was not sound.” On the topic of herself, she is wickedly deadpan and self-deprecating—she tots up her youthful academic success to “a talent for aligning with authority.”

Continue reading “My Poets”