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identity

Forward Thinking

Claire Schwartz: According to the poet Marie Howe, who studied with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia, Brodsky said: “You Americans are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” You’ve written about the relationship between language and the social imagination—in particular, about the ways that totalitarian regimes in Russia and, more recently, the current government in the United States, have eroded public speech. Would you describe what you mean by that and how you see language functioning in public space right now?

Masha Gessen: For totalitarian regimes, language is an instrument of subjugation. It’s a way of controlling both behavior and thought. Attempting to ensure that words mean what the regime says they mean is a way of undermining people’s ability to inhabit a shared reality outside of what the regime says reality is. There are all sorts of tricks the regime performs along the way—such as using a word to mean its opposite, or almost its opposite. 

<i>Magdalene</i>. By Marie Howe. Norton, 2017. 96p. HB, $25.95.

Selvages

Perhaps poets are attracted to edges because, as Anne Carson puts it in Eros the Bittersweet, “Words…have edges. So do you,” and perhaps also because notions of the self tend to form in response to and because of those limits. Identity—what Emily Dickinson called the “Campaign inscrutable / Of the interior”—has always concerned the lyric poet, but what might constitute a “self” has perhaps never been more prevalent on the public radar than in our current moment. In three new, mercurial books—Magdalene, by Marie Howe; In Full Velvet, by Jenny Johnson; and Milk Black Carbon, by Joan Naviyuk Kane —poets resist, succumb to, and transgress the identities—familial, social, ecological, biological, sexual—to which they attend.

<i>Calling a Wolf a Wolf</i>. By Kaveh Akbar. Alice James, 2017. 100p. PB, $16.95.

Toward a New Masculinity

If you are hungry for complicated layers of displacement spiked with an uneasiness of any sort of assimilation, as I am, Alex Dimitrov’s poetry might feel like just the right home for your homelessness. Bulgaria-born and Detroit-raised, Dimitrov [...]

A page of Jacob’s travel diary during a trip to India, 1996. Photo by Sarah Blesener.

Mira Jacob’s Notes to Self

It began, as so many cultural inquiries do, with some confusion about Michael Jackson. The summer of 2014, Mira Jacob’s son (we’ll call him Z) was obsessed with the singer, which is to be expected of a six-year-old who knows what’s what. But any path into Jackson’s story, especially for a child of color (Jacob is Indian American; her husband is Jewish) invariably ends up in the territory of disconnect, the before and after of his complexion, making the pop star’s story, like the larger American one, a bit difficult to explain. What began with an obsessive imitation of the backstep from “Beat It” led to heavy rotation on the family turntable, with albums strewn across the room. “And then it was obvious,” Jacob recalls, “because Michael’s face is so big on those albums. You can see his skin get lighter. So of course Z begins to ask: Who is this person? How did this thing happen? Will it happen to us?”

Photography by Mathias Depardon

Boomtown on the Caspian

The nation of Azerbaijan, wedged into the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Iran, is small, geopolitically vulnerable, and relatively new to the contrivance of nationhood. Most of its history has been spent on the fringes of someone else’s empire; millennia of successive imperial occupations ended with the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and, over the twenty-five years since, Azerbaijanis have been experimenting with novel forms of national pride. 

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