On the twenty-third of June, 2009, we met at Newtonville Books for a reading in celebration of issue 69 of AGNI. Editor Sven Birkerts introduced himself with an apology; he’d just returned from a writers’ retreat, where several times daily he was made to stand behind a lectern introducing fresh new voice after fresh new voice. In front of us, standing behind another lectern making yet more introductions, his explanation implied a request that we please “disregard any hint or tone of pre-packaged praise in what I am about to say about these talented authors; I am burnt out on introductions.”
He took the chance to share his perspective from the editor’s desk, concerning the sea change in how submissions arrive at the magazine, Nowadays, they all arrive by email. The uniformity and flatness of digital submissions have taken much away from that first encounter with a new text: the slope of a handwritten address, the weight and color of an envelope. He reads on-screen submissions with bemusement, confirming my long-standing hope that the hand-laid paper on which I send my own queries is noticed and appreciated.
Bret Anthony Johnston, the first reader, sent his first story submission to AGNI by email, though this seems not to have been held against him. Birkerts recalled that from the first sentence to the last, the story “Caiman” impressed him as a model of “suggestive brevity.” Johnston confessed to a complicated relationship with “Caiman”: “You’re not supposed to say you like your own story… but I do! And Sven liked it, and then it came out in AGNI, and now, I love it.” He wrote the story in moments stolen from his novel-in-process, a diversion he likened to a romantic affair – fiction as infidelity.
Johnston stood to read at a lectern on a Persian rug; the floor was otherwise bare cement under bare fluorescent bulbs. The reading space at Newtonville Books has the feel of a speakeasy back room – brick walls and a battered cast-iron radiator. We sat on our folding chairs drinking Sam Adams; Birkerts sat on a granite ledge in one of the alcoves of arched brick set into the wall. The unadorned setting was well suited for the lean prose style of “Caiman.” The few moments of figuration were accordingly more prominent – “Your mother closed the window and the kitchen went as quiet as a secret”; the son’s body lengthening “slow as growing coral.” By restricting the story’s perspective to a surface account of dialogue and setting, Johnston seems to suggest that the speaker, a father, is guarding himself, reluctant to dwell on certain emotions. One of those emotions, we suspect, is fear; the love he feels for his son exposes him to the prospect of suffering when or if or as his son suffers. The flash of interiority at the story’s ending is crucially macabre; interested readers can see how by picking up the magazine.
Next up was Rosamond Purcell, who is probably most widely known for her photography. Birkerts praises her visual work as philosophical as much as it is aesthetic, “what the eye would think if it thought.” Her writing he calls lucid and perceptive. She reads from Owls Head, a nonfiction story of her dealings over the years with a Maine scrap yard. Its owner, Mr. Buckminster, was reticent for the first ten years or so she visited, though eventually he warmed to her and the delight she takes in his junk; one day, Purcell recalls, he surprised her by calling to complain: “We got a bad review!” He meant the book had gotten a bad review.
Purcell read a passage about the time she brought her students to the junkyard for photographic inspiration. They discovered a cache of decaying books, “a subterranean library, the book hole.” With great gravity her students took the ruined books to Buckminster, asking to buy them. He agreed to sell them, but she thought he wasn’t asking enough money. Despite their “terminal rot,” she insisted on paying more, and he goggled – “This is the kind of thing I take to the dump! What will you do with them?” Well, she explained to him and to us, she couldn’t quite say how, but they were worth a great deal to her and her students. I couldn’t help but think this was a self-conscious confession to Purcell’s own passion for books as artifacts, as objects. I think I saw Birkerts nodding in agreement, thinking of bygone days when poems and stories came to him on paper.
Purcell notes how the junkyard owner meticulously records each sale in his small notebook, of even the most wasted or inconsequential trash. She shows the same care in cataloging the junk in the yard: dials, switches, harness and tractor parts, pots and pans “burnt, squeezed, and pulverized into singular forms,” a vein of iron streaking through the heap. With Whitmanish energy that never veers into indulgence, she rattled off the signs of injury suffered by all this stuff, “to which so much has happened”: fraying, tattered … crumpled, moldy, clinched … bashed in, scooped out, and so on.
She once brought with her a friend, a lover of order, who she thought might enjoy at least the intellectual experience of the visit. This friend was “confounded by the disparate homogeneity of the ruins.” Where she sees undifferentiated chaos, Purcell – with her discriminating, composing photographer’s eye – sees each of the parts in the whole. Purcell wrapped her reading with a swerve, worthy of David Foster Wallace, in her characterization of Mr. Buckminster. She and the neatnik go to watch the junkman play pool at a local dive, in which world he is known as Bucky, and as lithe and agile as a lizard. In addition to running a scrap yard, he’s a ringer. His prowess with a cue once took him to Las Vegas with sponsorship from Budweiser, to compete for the national championship.
Managing editor William Pierce stood to introduce the final reader of the evening, Melissa Green. Before stepping aside for the poet, Pierce admitted the anxiety of introducing to an audience someone you don’t know – and the greater anxiety of introducing you know deeply personally; one wants to know how to make everyone know her just as well. His strong effort: “Melissa Green writes about the tragedy of the world, of our lives, and makes it beautiful with her language, a language tremendously elevated in the ‘great tradition’, but which at other moments is gritty and real and immediate, the language of the street and of lived suffering.”
Green began by telling us how when she was a young poet, starting out, a tall handsome Ukrainian birch of a man came to her and offered to publish poems of hers in his magazine. He was Askold Melnychuk, the magazine he edited and had founded was AGNI, and the poems he published would eventually appear in her first, acclaimed book, The Squanicook Eclogues. Of Sven Birkerts, she recalled hanging out with him back in the day at The Dolphin Restaurant in Central Square, eating fish and learning but keeping secret his MI5 name. Of Bill Pierce, she said she didn’t know friendship could carry you on its back.
Her readings were drawn from her just-finished manuscript, Akeldama. She revealed that she has been thinking about this book for twenty-five years, and that she needed the time to be old enough and wise enough to finish it.
She began with a ritual reading of “Waiting for Evie,” in which a young woman is taken and transformed by the Atlantic, and though no longer present she remains ever present in the sound of waves and cry of seabirds. Green read this in memory of a dear friend who died a few years ago of a tumor on her heart. Until she’s learned to make this grief a part of her life, instead of a chasm in it, Green says she’ll read this poem at the start of any reading she gives.
Akeldama is the story of 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abélard , told new in verse and prose. In writing it, Green explained that she’s never been “so deep in the earth” before. “If someone had put ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ in front of me, I would have thought it was Swahili.” Before reading from her pages, the poet gave us a brief but charged lecture – Abélard is an unorthodox brilliant Breton traveling from town to town to teach, magnetizing, drawing packs of rowdy students everywhere he goes, handsome, articulate. There’s a buzz about Heloise, too, the girl who has anomalously learned Latin, and taught herself Greek without the aid of a written grammar, puzzling it out from books like solving a Rubik’s cube. She was the finest student, he the finest teacher, and finally her uncle consented to allow her to take lessons from the greatest living Master. Their shared love for knowledge led inevitably to mutual attraction, infatuation, passion:
“Abélard, At Mass a blush rose so violently, I was sure not veil nor my damp palms in prayer could mask it.”
How difficult it was to listen to Green tell us the story behind her book, and not want to snatch it from the lectern and pore over every page—her passion was so evident in her bright eyes and expressive sweep of arms. She told us more about their ill-starred love; they had a child out of wedlock. The uncle of the ruined girl sent musclemen to break into Abélard’s room and castrate him. Green did not read the scene, but assures us she describes the mutilation in great detail as if she had been there. All we are told is that “the blood-and-sun-colored poker blackened the sockets…”
Green read a passage in the voice of Heloise:
When my son, my Astralabe was born in Brittany, I felt heavy with abundance. I slowed. My plaints put down roots, my body carving itself anew out of shimmering marble, veining my hips with flemes, my legs with wriths, and I bloomed like a settled Juno on a pediment of scaur. When my babe fell asleep on my breast, I kindled with light, like the overarching welkin, his milky breath on my nipple, showering a rowthe of starry cinders across the summer evening of my skin. I was the earth itself then, I was Daphne, Demeter, at rest in the blue grotto of motherhood, not the Virgin’s pristine niche, but a shadowy, cooler, sybilline grove, older than time, a glade all women know.
Flemes are small streams or brooks. A writh is a stalk, as of a plant. Scaur is scoured stone, bare rock. Green has written a book about the twelfth century, but admitted knowing no Old French, nor Old English or the Latin of the era. Instead, she’s larded her text with a magpie’s hoard of vocabulary gleaned over the course of years spent immersed in old books and libraries. (She expects it will give the linguists yips.) This is a rich hoard, a treasure hoard; even so, she proved as supple with plain English in the excerpts she read for us:
“A fluid music swells the nettle’s yellow stars.”
After her disgrace and her lover’s exile, Heloise lived in a convent for forty years. Between passages, Green wondered with us how she learned to forgive God, or rather, whether she did. I can see the figure of Melissa Green, standing before us in a Newton bookstore, and in the mote-filled light of an ancient inhabited abbey. In her figure, I think I can see both Abélard—the best among the wisest, broken by the end—and Heloise—enduring, bereft of love but never ceasing to love her beloved. The last line she reads echoes in the stone chamber where we sit to hear her:
“The world still yatters about our love, as if there’s been none since.”
Zachary Bos is an MFA candidate in Poetry, and the online editor for the poetry annual Fulcrum. He also took the photographs included in this post.