The Sewanee Conglomerate
Named for the uppermost rock formation in Sewanee's corner of the Cumberland Plateau, the Sewanee Conglomerate is the magazine's blog. Check here for short pieces about books and current events written by SR staff and guest contributors.
A rusted-out Alfa Romeo, stranded in a grove of cherry trees; a one-armed, amnesiac veteran, estranged from his aristocratic family while living in their home; unshakable visions of an unnamed woman, her face hidden as though from the glow of a crescent moon emblazoned on her forehead—these images would be memorable even in a conventional novel. But place them in post-revolutionary Tehran, then filter them through a psyche that has literally split itself in two, and you get the first chapter of Shahriar Mandanipour’s Moon Brow, the most eye-opening novel I’ve read this year.
About ten years ago, Richard Powers began to try his hand at short stories. His novels, starting with Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance (1985), had brought home honors of all sorts, including the 2007 National Book Award for The Echo Maker. Praise-singers, among them Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead, hailed his ability to wring drama out of hard science, for instance in The Goldbug Variations (1991), which played Bach even as it unraveled DNA helixes. Yet this combination also had its naysayers.
I spent a lot of time last year thinking about the death of rock and roll. This is not a new concern, I realize—critics have been hearing the genre’s death rattle for longer than I’ve been alive. But after David Bowie kicked off 2016 with an elegy to himself, after Bob Dylan reluctantly accepted the Nobel Prize for literature, after Springsteen took up residence on Broadway, and Tom Petty suddenly passed, I found myself truly afraid that rock music was headed for the history books.
In the summer of 1937, Clark Mills McBurney and Tennessee Williams (born Thomas Lanier Williams) set up a “literary factory” in the basement of the McBurney family home. Huddled in the corner by the coal furnace and the washing machine, the factory consisted of two tables, two hard chairs, two typewriters, a bookcase, and a beat-up sofa. The aspiring young writers had been driven underground by unsatisfactory conditions above: the McBurney home was all glass, affording little privacy, and the summer heat had made the attic where Williams usually wrote in his own home unbearable.
Leslie Harrison’s The Book of Endings is a deeply meditative collection, buttressed with images of harvest, death, and other “endings.” Winter especially haunts the volume, whose second poem, “December,” situates those to follow within “this winter of no more miracles/in this season of so much beauty such harm.” Even Harrison’s diction feels iced-over through her omission of punctuation.
Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead opens with “summer, somewhere,” a long and remarkable protest elegy, where the twin preoccupations of lyric poetry, eros and tragedy, buckle under the fact of racial violence in the United States. Smith evokes a series of stolen summers, a chronicle of black youth in which childhood ends far too soon. Its “boys brown / as rye” live, play, and, too often, die at the hands of law enforcement, disease, or from suicide.
When Ken Burns’s landmark mini-series The Civil War was first broadcast over five nights on PBS in September 1990, it was perhaps the most star-studded documentary ever produced. Morgan Freeman and Sam Waterson voiced Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, respectively, with Arthur Miller as William Tecumseh Sherman and Garrison Keillor as Walt Whitman. Jason Robards was Ulysses S. Grant, and George Black his Confederate counterpart, Robert E. Lee. Unfamiliar with that last actor? George is my great uncle.
My grandmother wore long Mexican dresses every day, had nine children in thirteen years, and could smoke cigarettes with her toes. I love telling people about her, though less so the end of the story: she died of lung cancer. Does the fact of her death make her party trick morbid? Probably, but it still makes me smile, and, for reasons I cannot fully explain, it makes her more real to me. If she sounded like a character in a story at first, she might now sound like something more.
William Brewer’s first collection, I Know Your Kind, is set in Oceana, West Virginia, a little town so awash in prescription drug abuse that it’s been nicknamed “Oxyana.” Brewer is from there, and many of his poems deal with dramas of addiction, withdrawal, and overdose. It’d be easy for a poet to be pigeonholed by subject matter as readily sensationalized as this, but Brewer avoids melodrama in these earnest, confessional poems.