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...]

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...]

Lucia Berlin: A Master of Catholic Fiction, Part 2

By Jenny Shank

a manual for cleaning womenContinued from yesterday.

Catholic imagery appears throughout Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, the posthumous selected stories that has brought her singular fiction out of obscurity.

The magnificent “El Tim,” a story about a charismatic adolescent Mexican-American boy who disrupts a Catholic school with his sly behavior, begins: “A nun stood in each classroom door, black robes floating into the hall with the wind.” The grade school nuns keep perfect order, but the middle school ones have a harder time: “They could not use awe or love like the grade school nuns. Their recourse was impregnability, indifference to the students who were their duty and their life.” [Read more...]

Lucia Berlin: A Master of Catholic Fiction, Part 1

By Jenny Shank


In September, Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection of selected short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women hit the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction.

Vice called Lucia Berlin “the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of.”

Marie Claire predicted that this “highly semiautobiographical collection will catapult [Berlin] into a household name.”

And John Williams wrote in the New York Times, “She put much of her roving, rowdy life onto the page in vivid stories that garnered the respect of a modest audience and now could be on the verge of making her posthumously famous.”

I count myself as part of that “modest audience” who was lucky to know Berlin and her work before her death in 2004. I met Berlin when she was my teacher in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Colorado, and I was immediately taken by her as a writer and as a person. [Read more...]

The Harboring Silence, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

The following editorial statement from issue 86 of Image is adapted from a commencement address given at the Seattle Pacific University MFA in creative writing graduation in Santa Fe on August 8, 2015.

rainierDenise Levertov’s poems nearly always contain vivid reminders of the oral nature of poetry, of poetry as speech addressed to a hearer, and thus in some sense always a conversation. In her seminal poem “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus,” Levertov chooses to honor the disciple of Jesus who, after the Resurrection, needed to place his hand inside Christ’s wound in order to believe.

“Didymus” means twin, and Levertov intends us to see that she is identifying herself as the other twin. Thomas will not be satisfied until he sticks his hand inside the emptiness in Christ’s flesh—the void or silence that will ultimately speak to him.

The poem, which is separated into the traditional parts of the Mass that are sung by a choir, begins with a Kyrie, a plea for mercy in the face of our terror at both our mortality and the potential destruction of the world itself. Here Levertov can only address a figure who is entirely “unknown.” [Read more...]