A unity of ashes

Calls for unity

pleas for understanding

let the world burn

fire and fury and all that jazz

heroes will stand in the epicenter of a nuclear rage

rage at what? at whom? to which end?

from here it just looks like a lot of hate

from here it just looks like terror

from here it just looks like unchecked mob violence, the sort that

strangles democracy, suffocates infants in their sleep, bombs churches,

burns ghettos, shoots those who are unarmed and backing down

from here it looks like fear

yet i see courage too

heroes will stand in the eye of the storm

the epicenter of a nuclear rage

fire and fury and all that jazz

any call for unity today

is a unity of ashes

 

it may be right to love your enemy

and it may be right to welcome him into your home with open arms

and it may be right to call for dialogue

and it may be right to let someone who sees you as lesser have his turn

it may be wise to rise above

there is no right here! there are no politics! save it for another day

and i’ll save forgiveness for when the ones i love hurt me by mistake

it may be a sound course of action to condemn hatred and call for unity 

hatred my ass

it’s only rage and fear

unity my ass

it’s only ashes.

 

how do you win? how do you not perish?

i see no answer on this day.

i only hope this monster is backed into a corner

and soon might fade away.

 

what i mean to say is i will not dull my senses, reject anger, become sage and unfeeling

what i mean to say is i will not accept torched unity

even when the torches go away it will still be too soon.

what i mean to say is

#blm

New Paperback Edition for Cadivel

WOAH! There’s a brand new (and absolutely gorgeous) paperback edition for Cadivel, Parts I & II available for purchase on Amazon.com!

Get it at this link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1521994870

I hadn’t thought about Cadivel in quite a while, but suddenly had a blast of inspiration to get a hard copy out there. Truthfully, I haven’t read it in at least a year and a half, and there’s no doubt that my writing ability as well as my state of mind have carried me far past Cadivel. In order to update the book for 2017,  I included a short story that I wrote this spring entitled “A Well of Dandelions” in the edition.

It’s a bit pricey at $16.99, (printing is expensive too!) but the edition is a really beautiful, sturdy, and impressive paperback with over 500 pages of years of hard work, so I do hope you would consider doing me a great honor and making my book a part of your home library.

The next step? Hopefully you will see Cadivel in bookstores near you!

A Roadside View of the American Landscape

Dear friends,

Over the last two weeks, my friend Joe and I did a road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Along the way we saw a lot of America: stunning mountains, sprawling oilfields, dirty roadside gas stations, historic jazz clubs. Here I invite you to take a look at some of my favorite photos and moments from the adventure. America is a huge place, overflowing with land, crises, and opportunities, ripe with swift and unexpected changes from road to road and town to town. Enjoy the journey.

Harrisonburg, Virginia

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The Appalachians are as forested as they come. 

Nashville, Tennessee 

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Nashville is a strange city. You descend out of the Appalachian mountains into the Tennessee Valley, flatter, but just as lush and forested. And then, with no warning, several pointy-eared skyscrapers appear, and at their base a town that resembles a small historical railroad crossing. Nashville is a party town for rock and country music.

Meridian, Mississippi

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Flat forest and flatter fields. There were intense thunderstorms, with rain as hard and heavy as hail all the way from Nashville to the Gulf of Mexico.

New Orleans, Louisiana

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Ruby-red sunset over a working neighborhood in New Orleans.

French Street, New Orleans

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One of the most famous jazz bars in New Orleans, Fritzel’s, represents the curious transatlantic history of jazz. Despite New Orleans being one of the birthplaces of jazz, Fritzel’s is styled after a German pub. Jazz hit Europe in a big way after the Second World War, and is more persistently popular on the other side of the Atlantic in comparison with America. Fritzel’s was packed the brim with tourists when I went. A musical tradition had crossed the ocean and come all the way home. Somehow, it didn’t lose the bluesy bayou soul along the way.

Jackson Square, New Orleans

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New Orleans has incredible historic architecture, a beautiful mix of tropical arches and patios and baroque French, with narrow streets, wide plazas and flowers hanging from every porch.

Jean Latiffe National Historic Preserve, Louisiana

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The bayou is hot. 90 degrees with 90% humidity is almost unbearable in the direct sunlight. Fortunately, deep in the bayou, thick tree cover shades your skin, melting together a thousand chirping crickets, humming bullfrogs, and singing birds. Most of the animals hide just out of sight, but you can feel and hear them.

Somewhere, East Texas

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Once you get into Texas, the land gets big. Despite the tree line you can still see field after field following the horizon into a hazy blur.

Austin, Texas

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There’s an oasis in the middle of Austin, a cool and clear spring river that runs through a park that centers the city. Austin is clean and modern, and the prehistoric spring at its center serves as a strange complement.

Somewhere, West Texas

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Somewhere in western Texas, the prickly pear cactus begins to thrive. Besides unidentifiable scraggly brush and short trees, it was the single most prominent plant all the way from Austin to Santa Fe. Even in Arizona and California we saw some tall and monstrous prickly pear, blackened and purpled at the base, paw-like green fans knotted together until they reached six feet. You can eat the berries if you cut them open with a knife (watch out for spines) and you can easily find prickly pear juice in this part of the country. Unfortunately, the berries weren’t ripe when we foraged a few.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico

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As you travel from Austin into New Mexico, the trees get shorter and shorter, and the scrub sparser and sparser as scorching desert climates take over. But even the desert has its treasured secrets. This natural cave leads 750 feet underground, past a thousand swarming bats and into the darkness. It goes to the unforgettable Carlsbad Caverns, full of monumental and expressive stalactites and stalagmites. These reaching, howling, recoiling, flexing mineral beings take on every imaginable form: slim porcupine spines, curved katanas, embracing lovers, Mayan temples, pungent mushrooms gusting spores. Some are over fifty feet tall. In the dark underground the air is cool. A good place for a nap.

Lincoln Forest, New Mexico

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It’s amazing what a little bit of elevation can do to a landscape. In twenty minutes we rose four thousand feet out of baking, shrubby desert into a full-blown evergreen forest. Just out of sight there is a field of fifty elk grazing. Within an hour we were back on scorched sands.

White Sands, New Mexico

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White Sands is an alien landscape. Long ago, a lakebed dried up. Strong winds blasting across the mountains blew its silted and dusty bottom into a hundred square miles of pure white sand dunes. At noon the white lizards come out for the dose of Southwest sunshine.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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A geodesic dome north of Santa Fe. In the center of the dome, sound and energy seems to pool around you, pressing down and pushing out. Northern New Mexico is a region of mountains and art galleries, encouraging meditation for the mind and yoga for the body. The whole region feels a relatively strong connection to Native American practices, history, and beliefs. Native art, architecture, and contemporary politics are visible on murals, the main streets of towns, and in the daily papers.

Española, New Mexico

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Cliffs, hills, and grassy desert landscape. Hummingbirds, snakes, jackrabbits.

Sedona, Arizona

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We climbed a mountain for this view. First by we followed narrow trails up through jagged brush, and then climbed up chunks of crumbling stone. The tricolored bluffs of Sedona extend in diverse formations in every direction.

Arcosanti, Arizona

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Arcosanti is an eco-commune founded on principles of sustainable urban design. The fundamental idea? Urban sprawl is destructive to the environment and human psychology alike. Arcosanti feels like a different universe entirely on the inside with its 70s space-age concrete aesthetic and mediterranean gardens. On a Sunday, young people relax in the garden, talking or sketching, and the sounds of a piano trickle out from music rooms hidden beneath the patio.

Sonoran Desert, Arizona

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The desert is fucking hot. 110 degrees at noon gave me a headache in 120 seconds. And yet, somehow, the Saguaro Cactus pokes up its bald head, claiming the desert as its own without a second thought.

Joshua Tree, California

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Welcome to Joshua Tree. Being here feels like being underwater, in a surreal landscape with plants and rocks of bizarre forms. The humanoid rocks gives this part of the park a sense of urban density and unexpected community. Chipmunks, rabbits, spiny lizards, tarantulas. Outside the stony city, a diverse and baffling mix of dancing Joshua Trees and low-lying colorful scrub abounds. Bighorn sheep roam the rubble mountains beyond.

Downtown, Los Angeles

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Los Angeles is an unusual city. It has no real sense of gravity, no real downtown center of great importance to the people who live there. Yet even though the streets below are empty, at this rooftop bar an unexpected skyline emerges. As my friend said to me, “This does not feel like LA.”

Pacific Palisades, California

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I made it to the Pacific. The shadows of massive mountains cap the view to the north and east, and a strong wind comes in with the waves. Compared to the Atlantic, the Pacific is a different beast. Swimming in it you can tell it is bigger, more powerful. More force stirs in its endless depths, delivering surf-worthy waves for the sunny California Coast. I biked down from Pacific Palisades to Venice and had tacos and a fruit smoothie. 

*NEW MUSIC* Album Review: Daruma Ringo/達磨林檎 by Gesu no Kiwami Otome/ゲスの極み乙女

Disclaimer: Am I in over my head with this? Definitely. I’m neither steeped deep enough or versed well enough in Japanese language and culture to be really accurate or even respectful in this blog post. However, the music is amazing, so I will quietly use my Get Out of Jail Free pass. Hopefully I will introduce you to something new and exciting!

This is a fascinating, perplexing album, by a fascinating, perplexing band, especially to an American. Gesu no Kiwami Otome, which roughly translates as “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl”, was formed in 2012 by the front-man of Japanese rock group Indigo La End, Enon Kawatani.

He transformed his band from a catchy, guitar focused indie act into a who-the-hell knows-what. Gesu no Kiwami Otome’s first album, Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, which very roughly translates as, “If you can’t dance then you must be a lowlife piece of shit”, is a frantic, out of control, piano-centric romp of an album. It storms through 29 minutes of music about dancing, interpreted as crazy piano riffs alternated with power guitar-rock, hush-hush rapping, male and female band members shouting back and forth, super catchy choruses, with the ugly, fierce, and relentless drama of life as a curtain to pull down at the conclusion of the frenzied dance.

Well, “The Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” is back with a full-length LP, Daruma Ringo, which translates as “Apple Dharma” (as in the Buddhist concept and historical figure Bodhidharma).

Besides the fact that I can’t even quite wrap my head around the title of the album, Kawatani is back with a vengeance. This time it’s not just about dancing, though, and it features some of the strongest songwriting, musicianship, and creativity that I have thus heard in an album by an artist from any country in 2017. It’s fast and frantic, beautiful and tender, expansive and progressive stampede of music, with all of the energy of Odorenainara Gesuninatte Shimaeyo, but with a lot more color to it, influences ranging from progressive rock to hip-hop, and has a lot more sonic invention to soak in along the way.

The album kicks off with “Happy Apple”, a frantic piano dance with one of the band’s typical stellar jazz piano solos, and one of the catchiest choruses of 2017 (piano chord progression is on point). The album moves through a series of moods, each compelling in its own right: the highway cruising, beat-focused groove of track #2 (Shadow Song); those cases where the groove kicks into overdrive and loses itself to progressive drumming (track #3, Mr. Bodhidharma) and insane background doo-wops (track #4, That Tokyo); chilled out, textured atmospheres (tracks #5 and 11, id2 and id3). My personal favorite section of the album is “Selfish Youth” (track #9) to the end. Selfish Youth is an incredible mixture of catchy-as-fuck guitar licks, and a complex structure that builds carefully to a finish, keeping track of its own momentum.

From there on out, you get a crazy math-rock tirade (track #10, “I want to be your kind of novelist”), an emotional, fast-paced ballad (track #12, “Dancer in the Dancer”), and it all ends on a nutso funk jam (“Story of a Lowlife”).

Each track is unique in its own right, and altogether creates an album that, while not quite cohesive, fits together through its forceful ambition and inventiveness. It’s weird, for sure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like most of it.

I’m not going to attempt to analyze the lyrics and meanings of the songs, since my Japanese level is simply not there yet. But there is a lot of interesting material to soak up, especially in tracks 3, 4, 8, and 9. The image of the “Most Extremely Vulgar Girl” strikes me as an ironic interpretation of the stereotypical sexy Japanese schoolgirl, an interpretation that can be seen in J-pop artists such as Oomori Seiko. For Seiko and for Kawatani as well (I think), the cutesy desirability implodes and reveals how fucked up its own concept really is. From there, identity moves on to either self-destruction (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s opening track “TOKYO BLACK HOLE”), or to revealing that self-acceptance and a motivated overcoming of cartoon stereotypes might lead to something truly good (through dance for Kawatani, as seen in Seiko’s closing track “Shonen Manga and Shoujou Manga”).

Bottom line: Apple Dharma is a worthwhile listen for anyone who likes music, regardless of your knowledge of or experience with Japanese culture. The catchy choruses and fiery solos are simply too fun to ignore, and the creativity is inescapable. There are plenty of parts where Kawatani overreaches: where things get too weird, or certainly where ideas get overdone or in the way of the listening experience. But that’s to be expected for an album with this level of explosive force behind it, and it still manages to wrap up at a neat 53 minutes. I respect that.

CHECK IT OUT ON SPOTIFY! Search Gesu no Kiwami Otome!

My rating: 8.9/10

In Memory of the Paris Agreement

I was walking Lucy today in the neighborhood, and decided to sit down on a bench beneath some shady trees low to the ground like green turtles. Sunlight slipped through the gaps between leaves and made the pair of us look speckled. My neighbor was passing by and asked if she could join us. I greeted her and said that she could. Lucy went sniffing at my neighbor’s toes. I mentioned that today Trump had announced he plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, and wondered what she thought about it.

This is what she said:

The earth in itself is beautiful.

I was walking down a grassy path today. There was a breeze. I saw two things: a blue jay, and a rose.

Humans too, in themselves, are beautiful. I was walking downtown today and saw two things. I saw a little girl trying to touch the nose of a huge black poodle. And I saw an old man humming a Beatles song to himself—A Day in the Life. Today was the 50th anniversary of Sergeant Pepper, you know. 

I think that humans are at their worst when they are apathetic. When they choose to not care. So I think the tragedy of today is that it shows how capable we are of apathy. We can be so apathetic that we will tie and untie knots to demonstrate that we simply don’t give a damn.

I asked her if she had strong political opinions. She smiled and said not particularly. Lucy was getting restless and chewing on her leash. I said goodbye to my neighbor, and Lucy and I started walking back home. I wondered if my neighbor was being dramatic. I decided that she wasn’t. I wondered if the next winter might be be colder than the last. After all, the El Niño is supposed to be over, so I heard, or had it ended last year?—I couldn’t remember. Either way they say that mild winters follow mild summers, and May has been so cold.

Three poems by Gan Tanigawa

Gan Tanigawa’s poetry is mysterious and haunting. I worked on a few translations of some of my favorite poems by him, doing my best to preserve the stylistic quirks (and meaning/effect over exact words) from Japanese to English. Enjoy!

谷川雁の三つの詩

Three poems by Gan Tanigawa

Translated by Eric Margolis

十四歳

はなびらのにがさを
だれがしってるの
ぴかぴかのとうだい
はだしでのぼったよ
かぜをたべた
からっぽになった
わたしいま十四
うみよりあおい
はなびらのにがさを
だれがしってるの
だれが

Fourteen

who knows the bitterness of flower petals

I ascended the glittering lighthouse barefoot

I ate the wind

I became hollow

and now I am fourteen

and bluer than the sea

who knows the bitterness of flower petals

who knows

 

 

 

薔薇のゆくえ

ばらは さだめ しり
かぜと でかけ た
まちも むらも ない
いしの あれの で
ばらは かたち とけ
うたに なった よ

うたは かおり すい
つばさ ひろげ た
ほしも みずも ない
いわの はざま で
うたは くだけ ちり
ゆきに なった よ

The Whereabouts of the Rose

the rose   knows   its fate

is to vanish   like the wind

at a desolate   wilderness   of stone

its body   becomes   undone

it becomes   a song

 

breathing   the scent   of the song

that spreads   the wings   of the stars

at a starless   desert   gorge

the song   smashes   to dust

it becomes   snow

 

 

傘もなく

傘もなく雨 午後の店 雨
つめたい 首すじ
百合を買うのは いまを売ること
この手の くぼみに しずくをためよう
靴にしむ雨
葉書の 一文字
ながれうかび消えて

傘もなく雨 鳩のむれ 雨
ひとの名 ぬれてゆく
霧を買うのは 影を売ること
めがねの くもりを そのまま あるこう
泥と襤褸 雨
この世は ただよう
うすみどりの波に

Without an Umbrella

Rain without an umbrella, a shop in the afternoon, rain

Chills the back of my neck,

I buy lilies and sell this moment.

The palm of my hand gathers water drops

And the rain fills my shoes.

On the postcard, a single word

Rising to the surface and vanishing

 

Rain without an umbrella, a flock of pigeons, rain

Goes on soaking my name,

I buy fog and sell my shadow.

My glasses are clouded and I walk as is:

Mud and rags and rain.

This world drifts

On pale green waves.

 

A Guide to Shakespeare: The 15 Best Plays Ranked

Another year, another ranking! I was going to write a poem SAVAGING Sen. Pat Toomey’s cowardly ass, but that might have to wait until I figure out how exactly I should do that. I’m taking on a somewhat weird project, to try to rank some of Shakespeare’s plays. But I think it will be a useful exercise for those of you wanting to read or see a Shakespeare play, but unsure of where to start. So while I’ll try to keep my descriptions brief, I also hope to give you an idea about the experience of reading each of these plays. Shakespeare can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. The language is mind-blowing, the plots are thrilling. If you have the time and patience for close reading and rereading, anyone, regardless of what you typically read, can get a lot out of a Shakespeare play.

1. Hamlet

Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet

The British actor and director Kenneth Branagh holding a skull in his hand in Hamlet. 1996 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

With a gripping plot, brilliant language, haunting imagery, memorable characters, and philosophical investigations that will follow you long after the play’s conclusion, Hamlet has it all. It’s often said that we see ourselves in Hamlet (the character)–that we’re all caught up in this fantastic experiment called life, with no notion of where it’s going or how to make the most of it. So, we try. We try and we try to resolve our relationships, our careers, our talents, our problems–oftentimes we try to the uttermost verge of our hearts and our sanity. The tragedy of Hamlet is that we can try, and still fail.

2. King Lear

Lear is the saddest of the major Shakespearean tragedies (Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth), occupying a crushingly dark world that allows a constant ray of hope that disappears without conciliation at the conclusion. This persistent chance of a happy ending drags us along, keeping us at the edge of our seats from start to finish. Where Hamlet is closed and interior, within a single family and singular minds, Lear is exterior, dealing with multiple families, where we see the same mistakes repeated and reflected in different circumstances. A challenging play with a complex structure and the breathtaking language of storms and some radical politics on top of it all, Lear is another undeniable paragon of Shakespeare’s brilliance.

3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Featuring arguably the most beautiful poetry of any Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream tells a romantic, clever, funny, and wonderfully timeless tale that has been loved generation after generation. Every moment of the play is enjoyable, from the problems of an overbearing father at the beginning, to a petty fight between fairy King and Queen, to the chaos of love potions and couple-swapping, and of course the unforgettable Nick Bottom. A Midsummer Night’s Dream will always be worth a read.

4. The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale feels in part like a structural exercise, with the first half of the play being a tragedy and the second half a comedy. Sexual jealousy forms the core of the tragic plot, culminating in the shocking demolition of a family, and the infamous stage-direction “Exit pursued by a bear”. But the second half explores redemption with a comic and endearing sensibility, creating an idyllic pastoral setting that, free of the politics and corruption of the city, leads towards a reconciliation that seemed impossible. Yet this fusion of flavors lends The Winter’s Tale a feeling of its own: the feeling of a story that grows and evolves for its own sake. The Winter’s Tale combines Shakespeare’s tragic and comic skills into a single, marvelous work.

5. Twelfth Night

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Grown out of Shakespeare’s five years of writing comedies, Twelfth Night weaves together all of Shakespeare’s best comedic elements. A witty fool, drunken idiots, long-lost twins and divided families, a romantic idiot of a man after a woman that’s way better than him, and hardcore gender-bending. Twelfth Night has it all. And it also feels like it has a powerful emotional spine in the story of Viola and Sebastian. Bound to make you laugh, but without foregoing any art or drama along the way, Twelfth Night is Shakespeare’s comedic masterpiece.

6. The Tempest

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About an usurped magician-prince living with his daughter and a cannibal on a deserted island revisiting those who betrayed him, The Tempest is Shakespeare’s final play, and really feels like it.  Its poignant poetry, rehashing and redrawing of plots and themes explored over his career, and its captivating use of sorcery (as a symbol for art and writing) create a powerful sense of conclusion. The Tempest is also a fascinating work of literature, as one of first pieces of English literature about the colonial encounter, and due to its relentless and inventive use of symbolism and allegory. The plot in itself is a romantic vignette and a dive into the mind of a master artist. But seen in the context of the rest of his work, this play is important because it concludes Shakespeare’s line of thinking about revenge. Countless plays, from Titus Andronicus to Hamlet, are about revenge, and in The Tempest, Shakespeare at last shows a path to escape from its violent course.

7. Macbeth

The shortest of the tragedies besides Romeo and JulietMacbeth is a whirlwind tour of ambition, murder, and madness. Strangely, despite his reputation of villainy, Macbeth has a strong moral compass, and yet he is still driven to unimaginable acts, which makes a thrilling arc to watch. Combine his arc with a vivid picture of historical Scotland, and the witches with their tumultuous and awesome speeches, and you have an unforgettable play.

8. The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is often neglected for its questionable portrayal of the moneylending Jew Shylock. However, this play might be Shakespeare’s most thought-provoking comedy, not for just its look at how society deals with diversity, but also for its strong heroine Portia and a fresh look at relationships and marriage. Shakespeare feels far ahead on issues of gender equality for a late 16th century male poet, and is just as likely to portray idiotic husbands as shrewish wives; The Merchant of Venice is no exception. This is a play exploring the implications of a capitalist, globalist society on our familial and social relationships, flirting with homosexuality and poetry along the way. Its shocking, brutal conclusion also forces us to reconsider how we treat the “Other” in our society.

9. As You Like It

A carefree poetic fantasy, As You Like It is Shakespeare’s ultimate rural play, featuring a merry band of Robin Hood-like woodsmen, a perfect pair of sisters, and the miserable nihilist Jacques. As You Like It does not focus on building to any logical conclusion (the ending is as nonsense as they come), but rather takes a reader on a ride through betrayal, seduction, idyllic pastoralism, philosophy, wrestling, and of course, gender-swapping.

10. Henry IV Part 1

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Henry IV is a complex play that is difficult to understand at times for different reasons. Shakespeare’s presentation of the outbreak of rebellion in England in the wake of Henry IV’s seizure of the throne reveals great insight about political authority, English-Welsh relations, the creation of modern politics, and the mechanics of revenge on a national scale. Meanwhile the presentation of the inimitable Falstaff and his world of drinks and tricks thrills with its endless jokes and reminds a reader of a whole other side to the English state, and a darker side to England’s great ‘hero’, Hal/Henry V. The two-sidedness of this play is what makes it enjoyable, balancing epic warfare with tavern jokes.

11. All’s Well That Ends Well

One of the “problem plays”, All’s Well is a comedy that feels way too dark to be a comedy. It presents a world that is irredeemably flawed, characters that are truly corrupt and morally bankrupt, and yet allows the logic of a comedy to take place with witty and sexual banter, coming of age, bed-swapping marriage tricks, and a redemptive ending. Parolles serves as the fast-talking scoundrel that tempts the doofus/stud Bertram to an ill-advised military career; the whole play sits on the backdrop of an aging state with the younger generation unable to compensate for the fading of the older. Familiar tropes are revisited and dissected, as even the wholly impressive heroine Helena has her moments of baffling stupidity. All’s Well That Ends Well is a fun read, but at the end, you’re left wondering why you laughed.

12. Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado feels like it defines many of the elements that we love about Shakespearean comedies. There’s the unforgettable Dogberry and his malapropisms, the infinitely witty love story of Benedick and Beatrice, a head-over-heels romantic in Claudio, and the wholly unexpected concluding redemption that leaves all involved smiling, celebrating, and married. Much Ado simply doesn’t push beyond these typical elements, but is still a lovable play beginning to end.

13. Romeo and Juliet

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Classic^^

Featuring stunning poetry and an insistent exploration of the mechanics of revenge, Romeo and Juliet is a more intelligent play than many would make it out to be. Nevertheless there’s something about it that feels youthful and stupid… Hm… oh wait, I know, it’s the idiocy of not just the title characters, but all the characters. Verona is in a perpetual, pointless urban turf war, old Capulet and Montague wheezing and waving their canes at one another. The tragic ending is as much of the result of mere chance as it is of the ruthless workings of unchecked violence, and while the play is hardly nuanced, the intelligent ideas beneath this unforgettable romance make it an impressive early accomplishment.

14. Measure For Measure

Measure for Measure is a brilliant examination of the city and political authority. How should authority in a city function? What moral standards should its rulers, its citizens be held to? How should a governor engage with the populace? Duke Vincentio asks these questions about his city-state Vienna, disguised as a Friar in order to get a first-hand look. He sees the corruption and deterioration of the city, and yet at every turn makes wrong assessments and questionable judgments in order to have fun at “playing god” in his own city. Featuring bed tricks and head tricks, Measure For Measure poses the strongest critique to the logic of comedies, instead crafting a world that is hauntingly realistic.

15. Antony and Cleopatra

Featuring the most scenes of any Shakespeare play, Antony and Cleopatra is a wild ride through Rome and Egypt, war and peace, and a bizarre love story. Staged more like a fast-paced thriller, Antony and Cleopatra exaggerates as much as it exhilarates. But what holds it together as an excellent play are the title characters- both compellingly torn between beliefs and motivations, and yet in the end, they do love each other. It’s an adult version of Romeo and Juliet– true love, but divided up by political realities and engaging complexity of emotion.

The 20 Best Albums of 2016

co-written by Gersham Johnson

In such a dichotomous and divided year, it ends up coming as no surprise that the prototypical albums of 2016 are represented by two distinct camps. On the one hand is the expansive opus, fearlessly drawing on diverse musical styles and assertive politics. The artist refuses to compromise, and indulges in lengthy interludes, bizarre collaborations, and experimental and at times questionable tracks. While it values the artist over the band, it embraces a community-oriented process, drawing on a wealth of producers, collaborators, and influences. While these records lack a unified theme, their power lies in their relentless grasping towards undefined greatness. Albums released by artists such as Rihanna, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, and The 1975 are all clear examples of this approach.

On the other hand is the insular record, relying on unwavering and unified musical and lyrical ideas to depict one central theme throughout the album’s run. Every track is anchored to the same aesthetic, be it a noise rock soundscape, or a strings-enhanced rock power trio, or a shehnai melodic hook. While these records can still be expansive in their reach, each musical and lyrical decision is tailored to the artist’s message, thus allowing continuous narratives of dissolved love, racial pride and soul-searching to coalesce into one record. Albums released by artists such as Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, Swet Shop Boys, Whitney and Solange capture this spirit. Notwithstanding, both of the aforementioned artistic approaches often reflect the artist’s desire to transcend the mundanity and pain of a current situation, as they search for meaning through their music.

Hip-hop and R&B continue to dominate the scene in terms of musical, political, and popular significance. But in 2016 there seemed to be a sense of pressure–perhaps due to the year’s politics, perhaps due to the need to follow up towering accomplishments such as To Pimp A Butterfly— to evolve artistically, correspondingly resulting in experimental projects. The rock and indie scene continues to thrive under the radar, creating stellar albums that maintain the traditional sense of what an album is in a way that the aforementioned styles are beginning to defy, but even here we see the crushing pressure to define oneself as individual, leading artists on both sides of the spectrum to eschew many of the formal features that make 21st century pop popular in the first place. Whether it’s in the form of an 11-minute epic with multiple refrains, or a New Orleans-infused country ballad that embraces its genre as much as it redefines it, 2016 has demonstrated yet again that the rules of music are meant to be twisted and reinterpreted as art and society evolve. Each of our twenty listed albums, along with quite a few more that didn’t make the cut, makes a compelling effort to move music–structurally, thematically, politically, melodically–forward.

All in all, the results are fantastic.

  1. “Light Upon the Lake,” Whitney

“Light Upon the Lake” doesn’t sound like much else in 2016, at first glance for the wrong reasons. The opening track “No Woman” sounds like a Neil Young cover down to the falsetto. On the other hand, the croon of vocalist Julian Ehrlich recalls the late 2000s band Girls, who crafted an atmosphere of pain, listlessness, and reckless nostalgia. And even if in theory it feels wrong, to the ear it feels so right. The methodical arrangements create beautiful, complete songs, and the album itself feels whole, mixing upbeat guitar jams with piano ballads, starting with slow sunrise, picking up to a joyful noon, and duskily fading out. Whitney earns the number one spot not by beating out everyone else at the race to create the biggest, most complex, most personal, and most meaningful record, but rather by making the album that is simply the most fun to listen to. “Golden Days” perfectly encapsulates the meaning of this record, anachronistic and yet instinctively relevant to a chaotic 2016: “It’s a shame we can’t get it together now / Cuz I’m aching for those golden days.”

  1. “We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service,” A Tribe Called Quest

“We Got it From Here” feels like a canonical work of hip-hop, representing simultaneously the present and the past: it maintains the sprawling structure and stylistic diversity of 2016, while bringing back a focus on the bare bones of hip-hop and the reasons A Tribe Called Question were so revolutionary when they came on to the scene in 1991. Their rhythms and rhymes aren’t inventive like they were back then. But they’re still fresh, combining elements of funk, jazz, and cleverly applied sonic effects–all with a grooving, spacey, futuristic undertone. They embrace retro vibes as well as nuanced production, and are cleverly self-referential about their status as old folks in the contemporary music scene. Like many great hip-hop and R&B albums of this year, “We Got It” hones in on politics, Black selfhood, and the marginalization incipient and unique to this year, but cuts the bullshit and sidestepping. Due to its length and refusal to develop a single cohesive theme, “We Got It” is in many ways self-indulgent. But Quest’s work is self-indulgent for all the right reasons: after nearly 20 years off, they’ve got a lot to show us.

  1. “Teens of Denial,” Car Seat Headrest

Those ready to declare the death of rock music at the close of “Oldchella” were no doubt unfamiliar with Car Seat Headrest, a band that, through careful mining of lo-fi sensibilities and unorthodox guitar-based structures, have emerged with one of the greatest distillations of ‘80s and ‘90s indie rock seen in years. And all of this is due to lead singer Will Toledo, a prodigious auteur who is simply the best lyricist of his generation. (For all you college-age and slightly-post-college-age kids, that’s us.) Titles like “(Joe Gets Kicked Out of School for Using) Drugs With Friends (But Says This Isn’t a Problem)” conjure entire narratives even before the first listen, and a seemingly inexhaustible set of hypnotic melodies are paired with turns of phrase that make the dullness of young adult life cut like a razor. So whether he’s dabbling in self-therapy, existential philosophy, or merely receiving an acid-induced visit from Jesus Christ himself, Toledo speaks truths that resonate as clearly as the droning guitars that underpin this adolescent opus.

  1. “Malibu,” Anderson .Paak

Paak is one of the most important new artists of 2016, putting out not one but two albums, both excellent for their own reasons. While “Yes Lawd!” is a crafted declaration of triumph, “Malibu” is the honest, tender work that got him there. With a uniquely versatile voice, Paak hits the always-relevant themes of hard work, relationships, and big dreams right on, with a warmth that enfolds a listener. It has sweet and slow moments, bumping and grinding ones, proud and loud ones; its joy and pain is tangible. Malibu feels like more than one man’s album, with its rapping contributions from Talib Kweli and Schoolboy Q, production contributions from the likes of Madlib and 9th Wonder, creative and fun-spirited revival of old-school R&B, and a sense of shared experience in the spine of every song.

  1. “A Seat at the Table,” Solange

One of the most stylistically cohesive releases of the year, the marriage of Solange’s gorgeous soprano with the equally gorgeous upper-register piano passages that dominate the record underscores an essential record “for us, by us.” In a year rife with racism, every lyric feels like a sort of shield, encouragements and declarations of black empowerment that are as vulnerable as they are strong. But it’s in this place of beautifully uncertain strength where the record also achieves something universal. The six-song run from “Rise” to “Don’t Touch My Hair” (plus interludes) is the strongest uninterrupted musical sequence you’ll find this year, and each moment takes the fragility we often experience from both internal and external forms of oppression and fashions it into defiant mantras of resistance. But on top of all that there’s “Mad,” featuring one of Lil’ Wayne’s all-time best verses.

  1. “Anti,” Rihanna

Though this doesn’t have any narratives of adultery or empowerment to hold things together, the strongest pure pop release of the year does embrace the spirit of musical experimentation, liberating Rihanna the Artist for perhaps the first time in her career. Simply, the myriad bold production and style choices here make the record stick, even on the less-than-exciting tracks. Songs like “Love on the Brain” prove that Doo-wop changes aren’t dead. Songs like “James Joint” prove that 1-minute bass grooves can be just as hook-filled as 7-minute jams. And songs like “Work” prove that sometimes an annoyingly repetitive dancehall earworm is the best musical treat for the moment.

  1. “Puberty 2,” Mitski

Mitski feels like a genuine individual, a real person who invites us into her personal life and artistic universe, more so than perhaps anyone else in 2016. She achieves this by balancing personal reflection and memory with meaningful storytelling. The former is articulated by the chorus on the standout “Your Best American Girl” that soars like a roaring jet plane: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me, But I do, I finally do”; the latter by the concise mantra of the last track that finishes the album’s arc: “Today I will wear my white button-down, I’m tired of wanting more.” The songs are haunting, beautiful, and thematically develop over the album’s course; the most impressive part of her songwriting is how she can paint evocative images with so few words. She relies on the emotional power of the music–a full and textured palette of guitars, somehow both gritty and shimmering, and ‘60s pop-psychedelic hooks–and its growth, development, and climax to give her words so much more meaning even as they repeat. You’re left yearning to hear them one more time.

  1. “Heavn,” Jamila Woods

It’s easy to just look at this as another strong R&B record, but it feels almost ekphrastic in the way it so cleanly combines the sometimes at odds disciplines of poetry and songwriting. Much of the poetry, like on Solange’s similarly spirited record, provides a platform for much-needed emotional solidarity in a difficult time for many people of color. But as with all great art, this single notion multiples itself as it’s refracted through several lenses. Freedom fighting, escapism, and even grieving are given equal weight, hammering home the point that blackness, though unashamedly defining in its own right, is also a part of the greater continuum of the human experience. And where the poetry becomes music is at an intersection rich with samples from The Cure, dense choral harmonies and gentle instrumentation. This is blk girl magic.

  1. “Life of Pablo,” Kanye West

Ye gives us another fractured, bizarre, wonderful, terrible, fascinating record in “Life of Pablo.” There’s something cohesive about its incohesiveness, the ugly use of auto-tune, the scream “Would everybody start fucking?!”, a spiritual spoken word track, and of course “I Love Kanye.” But Kanye can’t make a record without moments of ecstatic brilliance, like the prophetic, celestial shine of “Ultralight Beam” with its simply breathtaking Chance verse, the irreverent and creatively structured “Famous,” and one of Kanye’s personal best verses in “No More Parties in LA,” set to a flawless Madlib-crafted dark funk jam. Kanye continues to challenge our hip-hop sensibilities, creating another flawed, attention-seeking, unfulfilled but pretty awesome album.

  1. “Human Performance,” Parquet Courts

It stands as probably the best in 2016 rock guitarism, if only because Parquet Courts understand how to make their twitching licks and shimmering chords sound as deadpan as the humor of their lyrical insights. Dust mites and dead cops populate a record that’s as lovelorn as it is socially critical, featuring some of the most bittersweet love songs this side of Jonathan Richman. Beautifully chosen minor chords help ask the question of when love is truly deserved, and pained but affectless vocals help search for a true place to feel at home. But more often than not, the music serves to help uncover those simple moments that remind us how pretty a day in the life can be.

  1. “Lemonade,” Beyoncé

There’s only one song on this album that you need to know: “Formation”. It is without a doubt the best song of 2016. From that first bounce, “Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess,” to the drop, and the music video, and “If he fuck me good I’ll take his ass to red lobster,” and the sudden release, the Super Bowl Half-Time show, the background horns, every lyric, every sound, and every dance-move–it’s a modern “Song of Myself.” But it’s not just for anyone. “Formation” makes no compromises, to the point where SNL was inspired to make a skit about the song called “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black,” depicting white people screaming upon their realization that Beyoncé is, in fact, black. Beyoncé went “political,” but she remained the Queen (and even more awesome than she was before). And the rest of the album is pretty good, too.

  1. “Coloring Book,” Chance the Rapper

Chance’s evolution is perfectly articulated by the first track, All We Got. Whereas on Acid Rap he started off on the euphoric, drugged up piano gospel “Good Ass Intro”, he starts this album off about ten shades more mellow, tender, and sophisticated, but with all of the same brilliant wordplay and fearlessness to sing, rap, moan, and laugh. Coloring Book is an album of good vibes, loving hums, and honest self-introspection. It’s also the album of a changed man, who has embraced spirituality and family even as he struggled to connect with them on Acid Rap. Coloring Book can feel a bit plodding and one-sided as it goes on, but moments of colorful brilliance abound: from the clink and release of “when the blessings go up” to the triumphant singalong “Finish Line / Drown”, on Coloring Book Chance has really grown in a powerful way. He extols the gracious and flirts with the sublime, creating his fullest and most memorable album yet.

  1. “I Had a Dream that You Were Mine,” Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam

Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam have created a true chamber pop record. Their rich arrangements contain acoustic guitar, pounding drums, piano glimmer, and the swell and backing of a full orchestra; what makes “I Had a Dream” unique for a chamber pop record is its sense of groove and rhythm that emerges from time to time. The album sings sunrise progressions and birdflight melodies that meander through myriad worlds: misty dreams of love, post-industrial narrative landscapes, and New Orleans moonglow iced with lemon and sugar. The stunning conclusion “1959” is perfected by the guest vocals, as Angel Deradoorian has a voice beautiful enough to match the music and imagery. Hamilton’s voice is far from perfect, but his cry, at times rough and blistering, helps make this album stand out as an exceptional piece of chamber pop.

  1. “Robert Ellis,” Robert Ellis

No praise is too excessive for a man who can fashion an album’s worth of ideas within the span of a single song. “Perfect Strangers” starts off as an observational piece of songwriting on new romance before dovetailing into a personal tale of failed love, in just three and a half minutes. And in the same timespan, bouncy pianos suddenly become hopeful strings, only to change again to winsome piano. It’s more impressive still that Ellis can link these mini-sagas all together for the duration of a full album. Jazzy electric keys and Spanish-tinged guitar do not compete but complement each other on what is ultimately a really good-sounding breakup record. Truth be told, this is an album that refuses to fully resolve itself, but the questions it raises always seem to become a bit more clear the next listen around.

  1. “Blonde,” Frank Ocean

Frank Ocean – ‘Nikes’ from DoBeDo Productions on Vimeo.

After his long absence, Frank Ocean returned with more of a series of lapping, starlit waves than a tsunami. Ocean is one of the better lyricists in pop music, combining a hip-hop style full of double-entendres with catchy melodies and striking imagery. The lyrics are really what makes this album worth listening to, as the music–though it has its brilliant moments–often feels repetitive and narcotic, with its slow pulse and lack of beat. But Ocean truly sings his heart out on this album, creatively and sometimes cryptically discussing love, isolation, sexuality, adolescence, and the occasional musical or political reference that he feels like slipping in. Blond is a lonesome, beautiful listen.

  1. “Home of the Strange,” Young the Giant

At the heart of this record is an immigrant story of self-discovery that’s invaluable in this day and age. And while that theme isn’t carried out uniformly throughout the tracks, delicate guitars, heavy beats and lush synths unify this collection around a narrative of personal re-definition to produce a strongly cohesive moment for alternative rock. Lead singer Sameer Gadhia has one of the strongest voices in the genre, and each song is centered around his deeply nuanced vocals and melodies. In an era of pop music dominated by heavily disjunct “soundbite” melodies (see “Don’t Wanna Know” by Maroon 5), it’s nice to hear a band attempt to thoughtfully craft full and catchy tunes that tell stories of their own.

  1. “Cashmere,” Swet Shop Boys

In several ways a direct descendant of Public Enemy’s landmark “It Takes a Nation of Millions,” rappers Heems and Riz MC (both of whom simultaneously invoke Chuck D and Flavor Flav) team up with the hybrid soundscapes of minimalist hip-hop beats and South Asian instrumental hooks as they wrap their dense wordplay around a litany of political issues–this time pertaining primarily to the Muslim community. The instrumental samples are striking but effective in this context, allowing the songs to build around concise but persistent musical loops. This consistency allows the emcees to focus on their greatest asset: their shared sardonic sense of humor. “Look Zayn Malik’s got more than eighty virgins on him/There’s more than one direction to get to paradise.” In other words, the year’s best cultural, political, and religious insight.

  1. “Shishamo 3,” Shishamo

This Japanese girl-rock group’s third album demonstrates the true musical diversity of 2016. Shishamo rocks, rocks hard, with smashing drums, slashing guitars, and a restless bass, which is more to be said than any modern American band. They’ve also, in “Nakaniwa no Shoujoutachi,” quietly written one of the best melodies of the year, seconded by an equally catchy guitar riff. While maintaining their positive energy, Shishamo aims towards the climactic pop anthem at the album’s end, missing the mark only because of their commitment to instrumental fun over produced mastery. Non-Japanese speakers aren’t missing much, as the real joy in Shishamo is their restless energy, spirited arrangements, smart rhythmic sensibility, and the way you might accidentally find yourself dancing.

  1. “I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It,” The 1975

Like One Direction, the 1975 have been referred to as a post-modern boy band several times over, but what makes them one of the standout acts of the past few years is the very same thing that aligns them with many of their contemporaries. Throughout their excessively long-titled second album, frontman Matt Healy embraces the kind of diversified, genre-less eclecticism that defined other 2016 albums as far-ranging as “Lemonade” and “Anti.” But the key to the 1975’s approach is the transparency with which they operate. They shamelessly exploit their varied influences, donning Bowie funk riffs and The Blue Nile’s heavy synthesizer atmospheres, making it sound original by sheer force of will. Here, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, each part forms its own distinct statement on 20th and 21st century pop, making this the great chameleonic act of the year.

  1. “Everything You’ve Come to Expect,” Last Shadow Puppets

Half of the lyrics don’t make any sense, but a lyricist as talented as Alex Turner (and also, I suppose, Miles Kane) knows how to make the nonsense of his poetry as musical as the music itself. Aside from a string-section assist from Owen Pallett, a very busy and at times vitriolic bass-guitar-drums section constructs the backbones of songs that love ceiling-reaching melodies, Minor-IV chords, and late-afternoon atmospheres. “Miracle Aligner,” the epitome of those qualities, towers above the rest of the record as one of the prettiest songs of the year. But just about every song here works. It’s not the Arctic Monkeys, but perhaps that’s why it’s able to put its own distinct stamp on retro, guitar-oriented rock.

just missed the cut: “Hero”- Maren Morris, “Seoulite”- Lee Hi, “Blackstar”- David Bowie

The Thorn

A contemporary translation of “The Thorn”, by William Wordsworth (1798)

There is a thorn, and it looks old,

wrinkled, sagging, fat,

hard and cold as buried bone.

It’s old and gray and shorter than a child.

Lichens cover its knotted limbs,

its gnarled brow, every joint, every

chin, pressing into the bark, dragging the thorn down.

It spikes out of a dry alleyway like a bee’s stinger.

All the lonely dusty streets surrounding—

penetrated and emptied by metal

gales whenever wind blows—

are bare, resplendent, stony as coffins,

besides this one thorn and

a little muddy pond of water, never dry;

and a hill of moss, sparkling with every

color, hint and hue: olives and cardinals,

pearls and fish scales, meadows, it’s the size of an infant’s grave.

Alone besides this one thorn and muddy

pond and hill of moss and a

woman in a red jacket.

 

“How’d she get there?

She’s barely more than a child,” you snarl.

“What the hell is she doing?”

She’s crying, I respond. Tears run down her cheeks,

they drop on to her jacket.

She’s there day and night, known to

“Well, what’s she doing there?” You respond, anger tempered,

somewhat, by her pain.

She comes from Texas, college age,

and she’s the only one that haunts those streets, I say.

I might also mention in this world,

of thorn and alley, moss and water,

the angry old guard had their way.

A dead man didn’t make a difference,

old understandings reversed, a legacy cast aside,

by the supreme authority of the land—

it was all for women’s health.

And how she got there, I’ll tell you what I know.

But it’s not much.

It’s more of a guess, because the

woman in the red jacket—

well, she could be any Texas woman.

Her name is Martha Ray, she had

a fling with Stephen Hill,

Hill’s a star and Ray’s a babe,

adored by college council, club baseball, premed society;

but whether he’s a crook and liar, or a sage

and she a porn star or a nun seduced and raped,

or a Spanish major, or a Physics major,

it wouldn’t make a difference.

Steve moved on, and so did Ray,

but when three months had passed and she stayed dry,

burnt like cinder, blood congealed,

the situation clarified.

She was destabilized, they say, but then again

they say a lot of things; they

called her a Slut—and it’s true she slept around a bit—

but they also called her a Bitch, and a Prude,

and a Lying Bitch, and a Lying

Slut. But yes, she stressed and considered all the options.

Only one friend could abide her madness, sad case

for a brain to hold communion with a basket case.

Knocked up, failing classes, hell, she couldn’t pay tuition,

took out loans at her parents’ bidding.

She worked a part-time job too, but that

was the first to slide, and

still she told herself it would be fine and

still she called her younger sister every day and

still she never skipped a class until

250 miles she went, driven by

this one final friend, this one woman that cared.

Meanwhile up in the mountains

and down in the alley where the thorn grows,

All of the sudden it started to snow.

In fucking Texas it started to snow.

She’d have to drive another 250 miles, they told her,

and wait another three weeks. And at that

she cried again.

Months passed.

Now that’s the last I heard of her

before she showed up in the alley.

And there she sits in her red jacket,

crying. Never sighing, few dare go

there, though she’s no more mad than you or I,

only sadder. Still vultures circle,

coyotes prey, robins pray in the morning light,

and when the snow melts in the forceful shine,

a bludgeoned beating from the man upstairs,

fists at the stomach, hands yanking on your

hair, the pond is overfull.

Water gathers, slick and shrill, trembling over the

concrete, it gathers at the roots of the thorn

and the base of the hill of moss.

 

“So what happened to her?” you ask.

I don’t know. But what difference

does it make? She’s just one in a long list.

She’s no different from the rest, though some

are brainless, most are bright, some will cross

borders and pay the price. Martha Ray did

none of that, I’m sure.

 

They say

a baby’s ghost is buried there, in the

colored heap of moss. When the wind blows through

the dangling fibers of lichens, lovers’ fingers, lullabies

swim out of the dense teal fabric and into the air

where they mingle with birdsong. And ever since she

went there, the thorn’s growth froze forever.

A statue of a wrinkled bonsai, immigrant

from a foreign land, cast in stone,

made a monument, weighed down with life. Yes, a ghost

is buried there, but that’s just our fancy,

a fantastic trick of the imagination…

She’s the one that’s really buried.

She’s the one that’s really dead.

Though some say she hanged the baby on the tree,

and others that she drowned it in the pond,

I say a doctor did it there, in the street,

in a tempest as the skies broke loose.

Some say the scarlet moss is red

with drops of that poor thing’s blood,

but to kill a newborn! I don’t think she could.

but a fetus, maybe.

A fetus,

just maybe.

Though it was too little too late, in any case.

 

Regardless, there she sits,

no matter the stage of moon or color of the sky—

sometimes tropic blue, sometimes iron grey,

sometimes the color of blood oranges or baby showers—

no matter if there’s Texas snow or Texas shine,

no matter if the fire ants on the street’s lush side

make their own mound and bite her ankles,

or the sharpened wind whips at her ears.

I can’t know for sure what’s true,

but some things are clear: the thorn is bound

with heavy green moss, the pond is

shallow, rank, and muddy, the mound

whispers infant’s cries and basks

in its glorious sunset hue.

But still

I know by day, and in the silent night,

when all the stars wink clear and bright,

that I have heard her cry.

The Existential Holiday

What is a Yalie deprived of food, drink, work, and sex?

Hungry and bored, probably. But also, as Yom Kippur proves, well equipped to ask and even answer questions about morality, faith, identity, and existence. The Torah tells us on this one day every year to refrain from eating, drinking, work of any kind, and sexual intimacy, so that we can grapple with the sins we have committed over the past year, and ask for atonement. This is the basic purpose of Yom Kippur.

Interestingly, in the recited prayers, we do not ask for forgiveness for disobeying the laws of the Torah, or forgetting the Ten Commandments, or not observing Shabbat. Instead we admit to sins of the ordinary sort: unkindness, dishonesty, gossip, oppression, mistrustfulness. Yom Kippur is a day about philosophical self-reflection—what have we done in our daily lives over the past year? And what do we seek in the coming one? To aid in this reflection, the Yom Kippur service has several special elements: a repeated confessional, an extended mourning service for the deceased, a service about martyrdom and the Holocaust, and at the end of a 25 hour fast, the epic blowing of the Shofar for as long as a large bearded man can hold his breath.

My two favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service are the confessional and the Holocaust memorial. In the confessional service, all sorts of crazy lines are thrown about—“Who shall die by fire and who by water? Who by sword and who by beast? Who by earthquake and who by flood?” It’s completely over the top. It demands us to imagine our death in archaic, obscene ways. It asks us to be a part of a really, really old vision of the sheer power of god. Fortunately, we live today outside the scope of this arcane apocalyptic universe. So then, what is the purpose of imagining ourselves as a part of it?

I think the answer to this question lies in my other favorite part of the service, the deeply moving and poetic service on martyrdom. The Jewish people do not have a happy history, and this service explores that darker past. Israel under Rome, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian Pogroms, and the Holocaust are just a few instances of the murder of the Jewish people throughout history. The service therefore takes us through space and time, from an ancient Middle Eastern past where the temple still stood, where the vision of the Messiah and the resurrection burned like truth, towards the present day, linked by a trail of martyrdom and death. The memorial service brings the past into the present, and makes us confront the stakes in every case—life, or death. Yom Kippur uncompromisingly confronts us with visions and a history of death.

Yom Kippur is an existential holiday. We recite in the piyyut: “Our origin is dust, and our end is dust. We are like grass that withers in winter, like flower petals that fade away, like passing shadows and vanishing clouds. We are a dream that dissipates.” And yet, in spite of this knowledge, we ask passionately for forgiveness for both the greatest and smallest of misdeeds. We plead for one more moment as the thin band of clouds passing over the sunset. And though we are ephemeral, we clearly have some importance, or at least some importance we can give to ourselves. On Yom Kippur, though our lives are fading dreams, it remains important for us to confront our mistakes, and to confront death.

Forgiveness is powerful. It leads quickly to compassion and charity. And perhaps it becomes easier to forgive in the wake of an encounter with death. Though it demonstrates my weakness as a human being, nothing makes me turn further towards compassion than recalling those who I have wronged, and remembering that my people have been the victim of systematic murder. So how could I look away while others in America are systematically murdered? And around the world? Yom Kippur forces us to approach forgiveness, to approach empathy, to approach truth within ourselves.

I’m by no means religious, but I love Yom Kippur. I don’t think that Yalies should celebrate Yom Kippur, or abstain from Mory’s, Woad’s, or extracurriculars for even a single day. I didn’t manage it myself this Yom Kippur. But I do think that Yom Kippur is an example of a process every one of us should go through. For just a moment—question faith, question doubt, imagine death, create ethics, demand charity, expand empathy, listen to a sustained note that pierces past the physical—and after, stuff your face with bagels, lox, and cream cheese.