Talk to Me in Letters


By Alissa Wilkinson

Dearest Cal: Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
— Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960

Dearest Elizabeth: I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.
— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1963

My office bookshelves are segregated topically, and one entire shelf is devoted to books of letters between writers. Most are towering mid-century literary figures about whose lives I obsess like one might Facebook-stalk a crush, looking for new bits of information or examining the edges of pictures for other famous people lurking in the blurry background.

There’s the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the missives Simone de Beauvoir sent Jean-Paul Sartre, decades of letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, others between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent his wife Vera, stacks more.

Obviously I’m not alone in this: Carlene Bauer wrote Frances and Bernard, a fictionalized correspondence (and entirely fictional romance) between characters modeled on Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, who met at Yaddo in 1948. I have my students review the book every term, purely for my grading pleasure. [Read more...]

Poetry Friday: “George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” by William Wenthe

Each Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

I love William Wenthe’s “George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” for many reasons. It is, of course, a tribute from a contemporary poet to one of the greatest poets in the English language—the seventeenth century “Metaphysical” poet who was also an Anglican pastor, as Wikipedia puts it, “of the small rural parish of Fugglestone St. Peter with Bemerton, near Salisbury in Wiltshire.” (What’s not to love about “Fugglestone St. Peter?”) The scene Wenthe depicts is as simple as it could be: the poet-pastor encounters a man on the road whose horse has “fallen under its load.” The pastor conveys a message of compassion to the man, asking him to be merciful to the beast if he “loved himself,” but he doesn’t stop there; he puts his shoulder to work helping the man get himself and his horse sorted out. Wenthe places us directly in the scene by asking us to image what it sounded like: the simple music of rope and wicker and two grunting men. In short, the poet-pastor puts charity into action, making a poem of the encounter. An act of grace, a tuning of human instruments to the music of charity.

—Gregory Wolfe


George Herbert on the Road to Salisbury” by William Wenthe

That if he loved himself
he should be merciful
to his beast: the gist
of what Herbert said
to the man whose horse had
“fallen under its load.” [Read more...]

Sleeping in Slave Quarters at Sweet Briar College

6857565386_0a417e38d2_zFrom my office window I can see the pale yellow plantation house, its sharply pitched roof peeking from behind a huge conifer, its two Italianate cupolas, one at either end of the house.

Since 1901, Sweet Briar House has been the home of the president of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, a bucolic place of towering trees and beautiful architecture, but also a place that was once home to nearly one hundred slaves.

Nearly all traces of this history are gone, except for possibly the most telling trace: a small log slave cabin thirty paces from the president’s home.

For years the cabin was hidden in plain sight, because it served more antebellum uses—chapel, bookstore, coffee shop, and, most recently “Farm Tool Museum” labeled on the campus maps and college website when I joined the English faculty five years ago.

Ever since arriving I have wanted to write about it, but my attempts have come off as sentimental and unearned. It has never felt like my story to tell. [Read more...]

Poetry Friday: “Canticle of Want” by Marjorie Stelmach

hawkEach Friday at Good Letters we feature a poem from the pages of Image, selected and introduced by one of our writers or readers.

I like a poem to surprise me, and Marjorie Stelmach’s “Canticle of Want” (Image issue 86)  is full of the unexpected. Recently I’ve been praying St. Francis’s famous “Canticle”: “All praise be yours, My Lord, through all that you have made.” But Stelmach’s initial address to the Lord is far from praise; it lists images of a nature that’s worn down, stunted, in ruin. Then later there’s this shock: “No one doubts who owns the heavens: // American drones…” The overall longing of the poem—its “want”—is for a Lord whose “good intentions” we can believe in, a Lord we can feel in tune with. But the closing lines suggest that our mortality separates us permanently from the “Lord, whose name is Everlasting.” There’s more, too, in the poem that keeps pulling me into it: the base iambic pentameter beat over which alliteration intones, while the “want” (as both verb and noun) pulses its yearning.

—Peggy Rosenthal

[Read more...]

The Art of the Realist Crime Novel: From Dashiell Hammett to Henning Mankell


The Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell died October 5, 2015. He was sixty-seven years old. Mankell was diagnosed with cancer a year ago during a trip to the orthopedic surgeon. Mankell thought he had a slipped disk. Turned out he had tumors in his neck and lung. The cancer had spread.

Henning Mankell wrote plays, children’s books, and short stories. But he will always be known for crime fiction and for his detective Kurt Wallander. The Wallander books became a huge sensation, selling millions of copies and spawning movies and several television series.

Kurt Wallander is a great character. He is a great character because he comes off as a real person struggling with mundane aspects of everyday life. He is a melancholy complainer who gets many things wrong even as he gets a few things right. [Read more...]