Reviews & Ramblings
Vivian Maier: A Life in Photos
Why Religion by Elaine Pagels, a Review
I'll Buy You A Bird Instead, a Review
Radiant As Rapeseed, a Review
Vivian Maier: A Life in Photos
Perhaps you are acquainted with the memorable street photography of Vivian Maier – a woman who snapped thousands of images of streets, people, and events for decades, apparently for no other purpose than to catalogue life and living around her. Maier never published any photographs in her lifetime. She was also extremely reluctant to have her work shown anywhere to anyone for any reason.
Maier had a passion for taking photos since a young age. She even created an artistic persona who went around town and to public events with a camera, or two or three around her neck, dressed in a trench coat and looking like a typical photo-journalist of her day. She carried herself as a type who had a press-pass and who legitimately belonged in places where photos would be great but somewhat complicated to take – like President’s Nixon visit to Chicago in 1960. And if that is not enough to set the stage for the discussion of art, boundaries, and imagination, Maier has had a very unique creative practice – which somehow does not surprise me either. She never developed thousands of rolls of the film she used – so she never saw her own photography outside of the moment when she framed images in the lens. Maier kept her undeveloped rolls in a storage facility until towards the end of her life when she was no longer able to pay the rental fee, the storage was seized. At that time, thousands of rolls of film were discovered. And the rest is art history.
If Maier did not take the photos for later developing, looking and showing, why did she capture these images? What was her drive? If you incessantly take photos, you probably guess. But this fact of her taking photos for the sake of taking photos definitely opens as many avenues for speculation as you may wish to explore, anything ranging from Maier being a genius to Maier not being in possession of her wits. Still, when studied and evaluated, her work shows knowledge of then current styles of photography, aesthetic sensitivity, a consistent and diverse body of work, and yes – changes and improvements, which means that she must have been very intentional in what she did. As far as I know, she never wrote notes or explanations for her images. Some of her photos, although available for only a decade or so in 2023, have already become iconic and widely admired. Maier was not a lost artist or someone who merely coped with life by pushing the shutter release button. She has been called a troubled horder, I am going to say that Maier was a collector.
An important American female artist ’whose creative work overlapped chronologically with that of Maier was Sister Mary Corita, a pop artist, activist and educator extraordinaire who was hard at work roughly at the same time that Maier was taking photos. They did not know each other. But Corita might have the skeleton key to Maier’s practice that’s why I bring her up. See, Corita was an educator who taught and art trained many young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds. Corita taught creativity, because she believed that art saves lives, hearts and minds, that art makes the world a more tolerable place to live – perhaps, a place one can even improve. Rule 6 of the 10 Rules of the Art Department where Corita taught states Nothing is a Mistake. There is no Win and no Fail. There is only Make. If you already know what creative life feels like, you know Corita nailed it for any contemporary art practice. Maier seems to have had an intuitive grasp of Rule 6 - her body of work was completely unknown in her lifetime but numbers 150,000 photographs and spans 50 years of the 20th century. The caveat, it is all really amazing - the practice, the photography, the fortitude to keep making.
Please visit Vivian Maier’s website to take a look at her photography:
Sister Mary Corita’s 10 Rules
by A. Non
I’ve been reading Japanese literature, translated into English. When I read a book like “Snow Country” by Yasunari Kawabata, I know I’m missing things. There are some spots in the text where I get glimmers of meaning, but I know I’m also getting things wrong. Of course that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the book at some level, or enjoy the process of reading. I enjoy following the development of landscape and character; I notice how incredibly important beauty is to the text; I feel the power of the snow and the silken joy of the bath-room.
I create meaning, and yet I know that the meaning I create, and the meaning that a traditional Japanese reader creates cover some similar territory, but nowhere near enough for me to assume we see substantially the same thing. Here’s an example: there’s a review by Andrew Lee which warns “while “Snow Country” is often called a love story — between an onsen (hot spring) geisha and a rich Tokyoite — for Western readers the “love” involved may, at times, seem as frosty as the novel’s setting.”
It’s not a love story. Not to me, and not to any of the people I know who have read it. I accept that for most Japanese readers it is a love story, but to see it that way, they must have underlying assumptions about the roles of men and women, the moral value of privilege, and the ethical boundaries of relationships between husbands, wives and lovers, that I do not share. I do not share them because I am a Westerner and I have very different assumptions. It’s not that the assumptions are wrong. It’s just that we don’t share the same ones.
Of course what that means is that when traditional Japanese readers read “Pride and Prejudice” their assumptions must be as violated as mine are at “Snow Country.” That’s a profoundly interesting thing to me. The implication: that in a world of shared literature, of equal representation, an author must deal with the reality of readers that don’t share fundamental concerns and beliefs. That makes us unreliable readers. A writer can no longer assume that their reader knows that up is not down.
The existence of unreliable readers poses two questions that need to be further explored. The first: how does a writer come to grips with a reading public that doesn’t share core beliefs about their subject matter? The second, and I think more important: How far should a reader go to bridge the gaps they know they have?
Fundamentally, the growing heterogeneity of the human world, the presence of a multitude of Others, means that the responsibility for comprehension, for shared meaning, for communication, rests more and more on the reader. Whether we like it or not, we readers are now responsible for the human capacity to appreciate and understand difference. I suppose that can be frightening, but I find it liberating, and terribly exciting.
Why Religion by Elaine Pagels, a Review
by Benjamin K Herrington
Before I offer a few words on the lovely, moving and sparklingly wise latest book by Elaine Pagels, I must disclose that my review of “Why Religion” (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2018) is anything but unbiased.
My biases surrounding Prof. Pagels having been formed, initially, by my awareness of her academic and professional prowess, as an historian, researcher and author, in light of her being not only the current Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, but the prior recipient of a National Book Critics Circle Award (1979) and National Book Award (1980) (both for “The Gnostic Gospels), a Rockefeller Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the Howard T Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities, as well as holding degrees from Stanford (B.A., M.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D).
My initial biases were significantly reinforced after I read her book, “The Gnostic Gospels” (Random House, 1979). I had recently sourced a first edition hardcover copy of which in one of Chicago’s used bookstores (for $8.50, a bargain with the devil I was willing to make on the spot).
Notably, to me if no one else, the book is dedicated to, among others, the poet Sharon Olds (whose seminal poem “Sex Without Love” left an indelible imprint on my adolescent brain ever since my attractive Grade 9 AP English teacher read it aloud to a classroom of semi-stunned hormonal teenagers).
Once I actually bothered reading the Gnostic Gospels a few weeks later (yes, yes, yes, we’ll get to a review of Why Religion shortly, I beg your patience, this backstory very much matter), I was so moved and inspired that I crafted an anxious sort of desperate-shot-in-the-spiritual darkness e-mail to Prof. Pagels, to thank her for writing such a remarkable tome on such a remarkable subject, and to share with her the profound and instantaneous impact her book had on me.
Another note: bit more backstory, but a day or two before I stumbled across The Gnostic Gospels in the aforementioned used bookstore, I had had an intuition of sorts, a little trickle of inspiration into my conscious awareness about the 2nd century, so you can imagine my surprise when I pulled the Gnostic Gospels down from a dusty bookshelf and opened it to see its subject matter and the era in which its subject matter is believed to have been produced. As well, later, to see one of its dedicatees…a sweetly divine series of synchronicities.
How could I have expected, at the time, that this would lead to a subsequent exchange of e-mails in which Prof. Pagels thanked me for my kind words, and even offered to send me a copy of her latest book, “Why Religion” (the soon-to-be subject of this review). I was struck dumb with wonder and awe and a sense of deep and abiding gratitude that some one as brilliant and accomplished as Prof. Pagels would (a) be reading random babbling e-mails from somewhat lost and stumbling spiritual and writerly novices such as myself, much less (b) take the time to thoughtfully respond, and, (c) be so impossibly kind and so kindly generous as to personally mail me a copy of her latest book.
Nonetheless, as you can see, this is precisely what transpired, and I fear if not for the encouraging words of Prof. Pagels to me at that time, I would not be sitting here writing this praise of her as a person and author, much less an ostensibly brief review of her latest book, to which I shall now turn (yes, at long last).
To me, as both reader and reviewer, much of the beauty to be found in “Why Religion” arises not just from the well written prose of Prof. Pagels, or her to be expected scintillating knowledge of early Christianity and religious history, but the way in which she is willing to bare her soul to the reader. More importantly, she freely shares how her life’s work and the subject matter of The Gnostic Gospels, irrevocably transformed her own views on religion and spirituality in the face of enormous and nearly unfathomable personal losses, and, out of understandably trying periods of staring into the abyss seeking to make some sense of these events and occurrences.
Not only, however, does Prof. Pagels do so, she engages in a remarkable sort of dialogue with the reader, one in which she speaks about her own life experiences, and by doing so, invites the reader to consider their own spiritual and religious journeys. In short, I cannot recommend highly enough “Why Religion”, “The Gnostic Gospels”, or any of the other masterful books that Prof. Pagels has penned in her distinguished and lauded career. In almost-closing, I will note too, that perhaps Prof. Pagels, in her inimitable style, could have titled her latest book “Why Not Religion” and appealed to those concerned that the book would be a simple praise of institutions and religious organizations, which, it is most certainly not.
A skillfully written example of a more subtle sort of Socratic arts, Prof. Pagels’ book “Why Religion” pushed me to consider my own spiritual and religious practices (to the extent I retain much of the latter these days), as well as those of other persons, with a far more open-minded, compassionate and contemplative ken. This kind of thinking is critically important, imho, for all of us to do as best we are able in any given moment.
Prof. Pagels’ ability to both write, not preach, such powerful words, and to live what she writes in “Why Religion”, in her personal life, and in her relationships, all the way down to her email exchange with me, a total stranger, some unknown person who popped up randomly in her email inbox to thank her for writing The Gnostic Gospels some 40+ years ago, speak far more highly of the power of her writing, and the depth of her compassionate and authentic spirit, and the importance of her book “Why Religion” than anything this unabashed fan boy of hers could write in this rambling and not at all brief nor unbiased review. Thank you Prof. Pagels for your brilliant contributions to your fields and to our lives. And the rest of you, go read all of her books. You, too, can then thank her via e-mail once you’re done. And with that, this no longer brief review shall now conclude. Amen.
I'll Buy You a Bird Instead, a Review
It's amazing what some poets can do with a first book. Easton appears to be one of those authors whose development as a writer will be exciting to watch. In this slim volume of 22 poems, the author has managed to build a complex range of method and subject matter that satisfies. It also leaves the reader some room to participate in the narrative.
I’ll Buy You a Bird Instead addresses the complicated mother-daughter relationship in the face of the mother's dying.
Method first—there are 4 “scarlet” poems. Poem 1 is about the daughter's childhood scarlet fever and opens the book. Poem 2 is about the mother's dying and the complicated relationship with the (apparently) semi-estranged family. It is poem 14 in the collection. The third “scarlet” poem—Scarlet III. The Dishes in the Sink—poem 15. It gives the reader an image of the shifting rules of relationship as the mother gets closer to dying. “And that was how we cried—for the reality / of dish soap.” That's got to be one of the most memorable lines of poetry I've ever read. I think that's in part because of the focus: the mundane matters in this book. Our day-to-day is the ground of our lives together, and the poetry in this books shows the poet understands this. The last “scarlet” poem is the 18th poem in the book. Its title “Scarlet IV: Thermography” traces one of the complex veins of inheritance. In this case, the genetic shadows of potential disease.
Easton uses method as an aid to telling the story. Of course, this is what poets should do, use the form of poem, line, phrase, white space, to represent the sensation of the story. I mean it's unlikely that long, sinuous lines will adequately tell a short, sharp story of mental disintegration. Form and subject work together to create poetic worlds. Easton gets this at a manuscript level. I'm happy about this, partly because I read a lot of poetry that appears to ignore the connection between form and subject—as if you could set Les Misérables in an upper-east side condo and make it work as anything other than a parody of human dignity.
As for subject—all the hurts, grievances, love and humour are here. The mother's faults, the daughter's wounding are told with clarity, and with a solid dose of compassion. I couldn't have done as much in the retelling of my own mother-daughter relationship with a mother who struggled with addiction and mental illness. Easton manages to be both honest and, at the end of the book, pull out into a kind of panorama of her mother's life that returns a soft-focus objectivity to how we as the reader see the now dead mother. That's a gift of grace which, for a first book, promises great things to come. If you're a poet, just starting, or getting ready to send in your own manuscript, there are things you can learn from Easton. It's yet another reason to read, what is a great book of poetry.
This is a wonderful book of poems, and is also one woman's experience of rape culture. It tells a story about re-empowerment, despite the apparent unwillingness for our shared cultures to face squarely the world women are asked to tolerate.
The structure of the poems, from villanelle and sestina to much shorter and experimental forms such as the poem “how to get away with rape”
Sakamoto has made a book in which the structural movement mimics women's forced negotiation of unsafe spaces whilst trying to heal from abuse. It's a book I recommend not only for survivors, but for allies who want to understand what help might look like.
It's a difficult process. It's not just about belief, but about substantive aid. But more than anything, it's about reclamation of the violated mind/self.
I walk into the office
and am noted
wow you look radiant
than you've ever been
I believe myself
don't you mean
you believe in yourself
It's here that healing takes hold, and in the arc of the book, it's a process that fruits in some delightful ways, one of them, being this book of poetry.