Throwback Thursday featuring Andrea Potos from issue 289.2

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Andrea Potos’s poem, “Each Self” won the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2004. Her poem is featured in issue 289.2, Spring 2004.

Notes from the author: As my daughter is now on the verge of leaving for college far away from home, I reflect again on what she inspired in me when I wrote this poem years ago:  all the invisible, infinitesimal, yet totally inescapable changes that propel us forward, willingly or not,  into new lives.

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Each Self

My six-year-old daughter stares into the purpling
copper sky and names it dusk, a just-learned word
she is happy to declare, comparing it to evening
and afternoon. We talk of how the Earth turns away
from the sun each night,
a motion so encompassing,
our bodies cannot know it.
I don’t tell her how the child
part of me still disbelieves it – that this globe
actually spins while we breathe, while my daughter
changes invisibly before my eyes,

her infant body submerged inside her
with her toddler waddle and her four-year-old skip,
each swallowed within the other
like the nesting dolls she keeps
on her new desk, each self
perfectly preserved, forsaken
for the one that must come after.


Andrea Potos is the author of six poetry collections, including An Ink Like Early Twilight  (Salmon Poetry, 2015), We Lit the Lamps Ourselves (Salmon Poetry, 2012), and Yaya’s Cloth  (Iris Press, 2007).  She has twice been the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association, and her works appear widely in print and online.  She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her daughter (on the verge of leaving), her husband, and her cockapoo Penny.


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On Aging by Maceo J. Whitaker

basketball-dreams1-1024x731For the second straight night, I had a basketball dream. I was playing in the Final Four. In my dream, I scored a basket for the second straight game. Just one basket in each. A statistician might note my crisp 2.0 PPG average—not exactly Hall of Fame numbers.

Scoring in the Final Four is a delightful dream (especially when compared with my recurring zombie-gator apocalypse dream) but a decidedly modest one.

Some people achieve impressive feats in their dreams. My wife, for example, flies whenever she wants in her dreams. Why must my ceiling be one field goal per game?

Why couldn’t I hit a game-winning buzzer beater to spoil Kentucky’s undefeated season?

Why couldn’t I dunk over Jahlil Okafor?

In my younger days, I’d have been the tournament MVP; now, I’m happy to earn a spot in the box score.

I guess time humbles us even in our dreams.

On Sunday, I ran my first half-marathon. It was the “Fallen Comrades Run at the United States Military Academy. West Point. Featuring views of the Hudson River, the Hudson Highlands, and the historic campus, the scenery was beautiful. Each mile marker commemorated a fallen soldier.

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I finished, but my leg bothered me throughout the race. By the tenth mile, my balky knee failed me. Unable even to jog, I limped the final three miles. My early-morning euphoria had worn off completely.

When younger, I never had knee pain.

Aging sucks.

My poem in this issue of the North American Review features a woman named Althea. I don’t believe in breaking down my poems for others, but I’ll say that some people* found the poem sad. And perhaps it is.

The titular character’s best days are behind her, but she has lived a long life. This poem merely attempts to capture one late moment of it.

Our words all too often fall short of evoking true poignancy.

On Sunday, feeling sorry for myself, I hobbled to the twelfth mile marker. As I approached, I saw a woman cheering runners on, encouraging them before they embarked on their final mile. She stood next to the mile marker, which honored a young man who sacrificed his life for our country.

I realized she was the fallen soldier’s mother. Our eyes locked, we thanked each other, and my heart grew heavy. Needless to say, I felt foolish for bemoaning my knee’s misfortune.

Aging sucks, true, but aging is also a gift.

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Althea lived a long life, a life with an inevitable end. Yet, we must be content with the miracle that we experience moments at all, even when they involve frivolities such as running, writing poems, or making wide-open layups in dreams.

If you read “Althea,” feel free to listen to Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five play “Gut Bucket Blues”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MgxQQk1vadw

* It’s proper etiquette to force all of your friends and acquaintances to stop whatever they’re doing to read your published work immediately, right?

Recommended Poems by Maceo J. Whitaker

I love sharing poetry. In February, I wrote a guest post for Tahoma Literary Review with links to some of my favorite poems. Here are four more poems I’ve enjoyed recently:

“Dinosaurs in the Hood,” by Danez Smith

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/249154

Powerful, energetic, humorous—this will be one of your favorite poems.

“Dear 2Pac,” by Jonathan Moody

http://www.thecommononline.org/dear-2pac

A poem about Tupac’s lasting effect on how we live and imagine.

“In Two Seconds,” by Mark Doty

http://aprweb.org/poems/in-two-seconds

A moving tribute to Tamir Rice by the Whitman devotee.

“Fix,” by Alice Fulton

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/04/poetry-alice-fulton-fix/39669/

This poem was first published in The Atlantic in 2000. I love lines like “count cricket beats to tell the temp, count / my breaths from here to Zen.” Fulton’s new book, Barely Composed, is a wonderful read that I recommend highly.


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Maceo J. Whitaker’s poems appear this spring in The Pinch, PANK, The Florida Review, The Paterson Literary Review, and Juked (online). Maceo’s poem “Althea” is featured in issue 300.2, Spring 2015

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Flashback Friday featuring Devi Laskar from issue 294.2

Necessity breeds invention!

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I was in an online poetry boot camp and had a few hours to come up with that Tuesday poem. Everything I had written that day stunk like raw fish baking on a dry dock. I overheard my children discussing their favorite movies at the time. My oldest said “Little Mermaid” and my middle said “Sleeping Beauty” and my youngest said “Snow White.” When I asked my youngest why, she said the wicked stepmother had the best laugh. And a poem was born.

“Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother” first appeared in issue 294.2, March-April 2009. Here is a flaskback of the poem as well as link to purchase your very own issue.

How to Cackle like a Wicked Stepmother

First you’ll need the accessories,
dazzling with mischief and ill-
intent: poisoned apples, floor-length
mirrors that talk back in iambic
rhyme; sinuous black evening
gowns, eye-shadow the color
of a bruise, lips too crimson to
be kissed, a castle with a working
dungeon; stone stairs always in need
of mopping, henchmen, preferably
hunchbacked, a charcoal forest whose
trees disappear into the abyss
of moonless nights, a thunderstorm
thick with jagged rain; oh, and a man
with a charmed life standing before
you, confessing his abiding
love for your sister, or best friend
since the second grade. The rest
is easy, look into the glass, bite
through to the core, delicious,
forbidden down to the guttural,
and feel the crows’ wings fluttering
in your belly finally rise.


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DEVI S. LASKAR was born and raised in Chapel Hill, N.C. She holds a BA in journalism and English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and an MFA in writing from Columbia University. Ms. Laskar is a photographer and writer—and a former crime reporter in Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Illinois. Her poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, the Squaw Valley ReviewPratichi, the Tule Review, and the North American Review, where her poems were finalists for the James Hearst Prize in 2009 and 2011. 


CLAIRE STIGLIANI (b. 1983) is a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), RussellProjects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

Thursday Throwback blog featuring Ted Kooser’s “The Corpse of an Old Woman” by Michael Jackson

Ted Kooser’s poem “The Corpse of an Old Woman” can be found in Vol. 251, No. 6 (Nov., 1966), p.14, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25116500.

THE CORPSE OF AN OLD WOMAN

It has been lying on a braided rug
with a teacup in its hand since yesterday
at supper-time, and the neighbor-ladies shrug
and say “She lets the lights burn night and day.”

Its cat sits in the window, watching birds,
and the phone rings now and then, mistakenly;
the mailman bangs the box-lid to be heard;
Someone may stop this afternoon for tea.

– Ted Kooser


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Some years ago, on a typically freezing Iowa February morning, I went out to start my car, in order that it could warm up a tad in the 20 below weather. Doing so at 6:00 a.m. in the morning was nothing unusual for me at that time as I started my cubical-based life by 6:30 am every morning. Returning to the car a few minutes later, not having paid heed to the icy conditions overnight, I slipped in my dress shoes and fell straight back. The only thing that saved me from a concussion was the back pack I had slung over my right shoulder which provided enough of a cushion between me and the unforgiving cement that I was able to avoid smashing my head. However, by that time in life, I had developed back problems and everything immediately went into what felt like a full body spasm, driven by the wreck that is my back. As I lay there, a morbid thought did more than just cross my mind: I was going to lay there in the pre-dawn darkness and freeze to death before anyone found me (I doubt I was wearing a jacket).

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This was more than just a random thought as I knew not one of my neighbors beyond saying hello occasionally if we happened to cross paths entering and exiting our apartments, and anyone I have a personal relationship with lives at least a hundred miles away. After laying on the ground for a minute trying to regain my senses, I realized the car was still running and I needed to get it turned off before I went back into the house. Unfortunately my ability to stand up was compromised by the back spasms, and I had to crawl from the sidewalk to the car and drag myself into the driver’s seat far enough to reach the ignition, shut it off, and pull out the keys. Somehow I managed to crawl, drag, walk myself into my apartment where I collapsed on the couch and lay in pain for the next four hours waiting for my back to shut the hell up.

The good news, at least partially, is that had I failed to show up for work, remained laying there in that parking lot, someone would have noticed my absence and eventually found me before the day was over. Whether or not I would have frozen to death by the time my neighbors started their day is doubtful, but still a powerful enough memory that I’m still holding onto it years later. What isn’t good news is that were I to fall in my apartment now, coffee mug in hand like Kooser’s corpse, I shudder to think how long I would lay there before I was found. I still don’t know any of my neighbors save one, and I only speak to him on a highly sporadic basis, and I no longer have a job to show up for at a strict, regulated, cubical-based time.

Because of this possible scenario, and the morbid thoughts it conjures up, I am immediately drawn to the use of the word “it” in Kooser’s poem. The corpse is not a person, a man, or a woman, but rather an “it,” a non-entity that serves only for gossip for the nosey, but not compassionate, neighbors. There “it” lies, burning those lights like “it’s” made of money. I wonder then if I am an “it,” a thing in a place, rooted to nothing. Will my neighbors complain about my lights burning? Doubtful. Would they notice a smell if I dropped dead and lay unclaimed for weeks? Maybe. What’s more absurd is that for a time period of about eight or nine months, I lived without a phone of any kind; no landline, or cell phone. 911 for me during that time would have consisted of pounding on the wall of my neighbor’s apartment, hoping to hell they called security to come scoop me off the floor, assuming of course I hadn’t had a heart attack and was incapable of dragging myself to the thin and poorly constructed wall.

4043384111_998bb069f9_zSuch thoughts also lead me into ruminations on death itself, outside of thoughts of my own demise. Having buried a few too many family members already, including my father, it’s odd to observe the grieving process we all have as individuals. Or the dying process for that matter. My father, for example, spent his last few weeks acting childish and immature. Though this is not particularly surprising if you knew him, it was still odd to watch his behavior through what was then my thirty-two years of experience with him. I vowed then, and still do, that should I know my time is coming, whenever it does, that I will maintain dignity until the end. But perhaps I am lying to myself, perhaps I will act even more ridiculous, decrying all the wrongs that have been done to me in the past, cursing God as my father did, defiant until the end. But who’s to say, who can tell the future?

The corpse of the old woman, it appears based on the teacup in her hand, died suddenly. Perhaps then this idea of sudden death is the one to hope for, should it be that one has the option. Or not, as she, or “it,” clearly lacks dignity after her death, left to rot on her living room floor, apparently missed by no one.

The problem with death, apart from death itself, is that it is such a difficult topic to discuss. Not as a concept necessarily, but as a more concrete and personal thing. Some people outright refuse to discuss the topic, perhaps out of fear that it will come true, perhaps out of immense sadness and a lost love one, you can never tell. They simply won’t discuss it. Others see the topic as morbid, judging those who would discuss it (I’m sure if you’ve read this far you’ve formed an opinion on my opinion of the subject).

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And yet death remains a fact of all of our lives, the one absolute inevitability that we all must face at some point or another. On occasion I like to fool myself and act as if I’ve come to terms with it, not as a concept, but as a reality. For example, with recent news of a purposely crashed commercial airplane, I tell myself that had I been on that flight, I would have had my brief moment of panic at the realization of what was occurring, before taking a deep breath and accepting the circumstances at hand. My last thoughts would be that this was okay, that I have already made my peace with death and the universe, that my dignity would remain intact, and that my acceptance would be absolute.

But here I am, writing about my fears of dying alone in my apartment, not to be found for weeks until I’ve rotted into a nuisance smell, something for the neighbors to complain about. Clearly I am not yet at peace with the reality, though I’ll still pretend to be with the concept. I’ll also assume that Kooser had similar thoughts, at least in some manner, before writing this poem, which is what led him to the concept of using “it” instead of “she” to describe the corpse. Maybe the fear is death, maybe not. Maybe, more likely, the fear is that once we die we no longer exist to the outside world, the one we try so hard, for so long, to get to understand us.


Michael Jackson is a graduate student of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is also an intern here at NAR. Other work can be found at hobopancakes.com.

The first and third image are from wikimedia commons.
The second and final illustration are by NAR’s very own contributor Anthony Tremmaglia.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Between the Personal and Political: Writing the Stories of Gay Liberation by Bradford Tice

I am very grateful to North American Review for publishing the poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another,” featured in the spring issue of NAR, as it is part of a project that is very near and dear to my heart. In the introduction to Carolyn Forché’s landmark anthology Against Forgetting, Forché advocates for a space between the categories of the personal and political poem—a space that she calls “the social.”[1] I have always liked the implications of this. That between the personal and the political there is conversation, gossip, culture, socializing. A fertile ground for poetry indeed! That space Forché describes is where I wanted this poem to reside.

A Rosetta Stone for Directors

The personal: I came out of the closet in high school, so I feel intimately the desire of individuals to carve out a space that is private, separate from politics and the media’s glare. I’m also aware that the act of carving out such a space can be a political gesture. That’s perhaps why I became so fascinated with the story of the Stonewall Riots of 1969. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college that I learned about the Stonewall, the efforts of Gay Liberation, and I remember being shocked at the time that I had lived as long as I had having never caught a whiff of any of these narratives or histories. It wasn’t even in a classroom or book that I learned about them, at least not at first, but rather through word of mouth, interactions with older gay men in the community who knew a thing or two about gay history. At the time (the late 1990s) it seemed that gay and lesbian history was an idea that was still trying to take shape. The commotion made by this silence (and silence can indeed make a lot of noise) propelled me into this project. I wanted to make sense of these stories, and perhaps more importantly, I wanted to make sense of what they meant to me. How was I a part of this history? How much of my life did I owe to these men and women?

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The political: So a word on the Stonewall. The Gay Liberation movement is said by many to have started on a hot summer night in 1969 in New York City’s Greenwich Village when a group of street kids with few options and nowhere else to go chose to resist police harassment of known homosexual establishments. The poem “I Heard They Were Queer for One Another” is a piece included in my most recent poetry collection What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), wherein the myth of Cupid and Psyche—their epic account of love discovered, lost, and eventually reunited—is re-envisioned and threaded with the accounts of the Stonewall Riots. The voices that speak within these poems are those of the oppressed and unnamed, those who live between the traditional categories of sex, gender, and sexuality in a time when the only names given to such individuals were slurs. Many are the voices of street kids and queer youths, hustlers, panhandlers, and survivors who have come to New York in search of both the city’s great anonymity and the promise of a space, however meager, to meet and love one another. The spirit of these youths are vocalized in the character of Psyche, the name given to a transgendered runaway from Nebraska who comes to the urban streets at the age of thirteen with only the clothes on her back, a fist full of faux jewelry, and a desire for a new kind of love.

The poem featured in this issue of North American is set at the moment when the crowd and commotion outside the Stonewall Inn became a riot. On June 28, police raided the bar. The riot trucks idled outside waiting to be loaded with the patrons, all of whom would be arrested, their names published in the paper, which meant jobs would be lost, marriages would implode, and lives would be ruined. This was nothing new. Raids were a part of life during this era in gay culture, but for whatever reason, on this night the patrons, many of them those street kids mentioned above, had decided enough was enough. The poetic speaker in the poem is a kind of collective voice—the voice of those street kids gossiping about what happened, speculating, but the poem watches the police. Once the riot started, the police were forced inside the Stonewall, barricaded inside. There was only one exit, and they were ordered by their superior to wait for help to come.

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The social: I wanted this poem to tie the experiences of those officers to the lives of those rioters beating on the doors of the Stonewall. I wanted to show a point of connectedness in the midst of chaos, the one side reflecting the other. Brutality is always easier when we deny our commonalities, and so I chose to make everyone present bound and intimate, even as it all came apart. As this brotherhood of officers stands together facing their fears of what might await them on the other side of that door, they effectively mirror the fears of the Stonewall’s patrons who often faced daily homophobia and potential police harassment. Effectively, in that moment the police are queered. They are made strange, or perhaps more accurately, they are brought into the strange—that liminal and uncertain space at the margins. They feel their power slipping away, and they are oppressed. I would like to think that for a moment the two groups psychically approached one another, perhaps recognized themselves in each other’s faces, and I’d also like to think that it was indeed the queerest thing.

[1] Carolyn Forché, introduction to Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 31.


Bradford Tice is the author of two books of poetry: Rare Earth (New Rivers Press, 2013), which was named the winner of the 2011 Many Voices Project and a 2014 Debut-litzer finalist, and What the Night Numbered (Trio House Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 Trio Award. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such periodicals as The Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, The American Scholar, Alaska Quarterly Review, Mississippi Review, Epoch, as well as in Best American Short Stories 2008. His poetry was also selected as the winner of Prairie Schooner’s 2009 Edward Stanley Award. He currently teaches at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

My Daughter Asked Me Once To Write Her a Poem by John Guzlowski

Otherworldly Grounds: Page 1When she was about nine years old, my daughter Lillian asked me to write a poem about her. I told her I would try.

She had seen me writing poems since she was a toddler, and she had heard me give poetry readings, and she had seen journals with my poems in them.  She knew I could write poems, and she really wanted me to write her a poem.

So I tried and tried.  I thought that I could write her a poem about how she was my angel.  That seemed simple enough.  I would start out with the line “I never called you angel.”  Or maybe that would be the title.  Then the poem would go on and on about how even though I had never called her “angel” or any of the other dozens or hundreds of endearing things (honey, sunshine, mouse, sugar, etc.) parents called their kids, she was still my angel.  You get the picture.  It should have been easy.

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But it wasn’t.  I tried over the course of about a decade to write that poem and failed over and over.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t write about her.  I couldn’t write about anyone I was really close to.  I couldn’t write about my wife either.  And this is an ongoing problem.  Even though my wife and I will have been married for forty years this April 4th, I have never ever written her a poem.  In the thousands of poems I’ve written, there is no “Ode to Linda.”  There isn’t even a single poem that indirectly mentions her!  If I could Google all of my poems, the search engine would come up “No Results.”  Nothing about how much I love her.  Nothing about the color of her hair or her smile.  Nothing about the way she’s made my life perfect in ways I could never have imagined.  Nothing like that at all.

Some future literary critic (if there are still literary critics in the future) looking over all my writing would have to conclude that I was either unmarried or divorced or unhappily married, and that’s why there aren’t any references to my wife and only one reference to my daughter Lillian, the poem “Advice to My Daughter, A Sonnet” that recently appeared in the North American Review.

So why haven’t I written more about my wife and my daughter?  For that matter, why haven’t I written about myself?  In all my forty-some years of writing poetry, why haven’t I written about them or me?

The answer is probably pretty simple, and I probably should have gotten around to spelling it out sooner, and I apologize for not having done so. Here’s why I can’t write about my wife or my daughter or me:

I’m overwhelmed by the story of my parents.  They are the only people I seem capable of writing anything about.  Let me explain.

The Battle of Imphal

My parents were two Polish Catholic farm kids who were taken to Germany as slave laborers during World War II.  My dad was captured in a round up in his village in 1941, and he spent the next four years in Buchenwald concentration camp.  My mom was captured in 1942 after seeing her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby killed by German soldiers.  My mom spent the next two and a half years in various concentration camps in Germany.  Like about 12,000,000 other people, my mom and dad were put to hard labor working in German factories and on German farms to support the German war effort.  My parents were starved, beaten, and brutalized.  My dad saw friends castrated and hanged.  My mom saw guards cut a woman’s breasts off with a bayonet.  She saw babies thrown in the air and shot to death.

I’ve written four books of poems about my parents, and a fifth called Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald is coming out next year.

When I sit down to write a poem, it’s their voices that come to me.  I can hear my mother telling me about the day the Germans came to her house in the woods west of Lvov.  I can hear my dad telling me about standing at a barbed wire fence and day after day watching the slow collapse of men starving to death.

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When I was still teaching creative writing, back before I retired ten years ago, I used to tell my students to find a muse and listen to her.   They would always think I was joking.  Nobody believes in muses, they would say.  Muses were just some kind of ancient Greek convention, something Homer thought up.  But I wasn’t joking.

I really think my parents are my muse.


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John Guzlowski’s creative writing has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac, Ontario Review, North American Review, Salon.Com, Rattle, Atlanta Review, and elsewhere.  His poems about his parents’ experiences as slave laborers in Nazi Germany appear in his books Lightning and Ashes and Third Winter of War: Buchenwald.  His critical essays on contemporary Polish, Jewish, and American novelists have been featured in Modern Fiction Studies, Shofar, Polish Review, and other journals.  His novel Road of Bones, about two German lovers separated by war, is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.  Of Guzlowski’s writing, Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz said, “He has an astonishing ability for grasping reality.”


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

Should White Poets Write About Race? by Holly Karapetkova

Reginald Dwayne Betts wrote in a recent issue of Poetry magazine,  “Don’t write about being white,” a quote the editors thought important enough to reprint on the back cover of the magazine. Certainly Betts and the editors wanted to raise a few eyebrows, and certainly a careful reader will relate the statement to a quote elsewhere in the essay: “I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.” The comment, which Betts attributes to an unnamed “reviewer,” happens to belong to Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963, and it highlights the dilemma at the core of the American experience where whiteness is taken as the given and anything questioning (or even calling attention to) the centrality of white experience is marginalized and disparaged.  But the essay, and the response it elicited from some white readers, raises a good question. Should white poets write about race?

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I am certain that many white poets who are sensitive to the subjects of racism and injustice are wary of the potential to inflict harm. Many of us fear that because we are not fully aware of what it means to move through this world in non-white skin our words might, no matter how good our intentions, cause others pain. Hasn’t racism as an ideology and an institution done enough damage without white poets putting their foot in the hornet’s nest? This fear is closely connected with another reason I believe white poets shy away from the topic of race: the sense that we are not really the experts here. What white people do know about race is often enough to assure us of just how little we don’t know about the impact it has on the lives of people of color.

Indeed, contemporary poetry offers us some key reminders of what can go wrong when white poets attempt to take on the subject of race. In the worst cases, the text can come across as ignorant and dismissive, and insensitivity to the insidious nature of racism can create hurt and offense, as in the famous case of Tony Hoagland’s “The Change.” We do not, of course, have to identify the poet with the white speaker of the poem. We can also appreciate Hoagland’s comment in a later interview that “white anxiety about race is an under-represented, under-articulated part of American society”; the poem is intended to make such anxiety visible. But the response of Claudia Rankine on The Academy of American Poets website reveals the potential harm in such a piece, whatever its intent. 

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Major Jackson takes on the reticence of white poets on the subject of race in his 2007 essay in American Poetry Review, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black,” attributing white silence to a desire for poetry to create a politically correct, emotionally safe sphere for language and thought: “so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create ‘speakers’ in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable.” Of course, he also notes the desire to censor one’s own more embarrassing thoughts in a genre where the speaker is typically received (whether true or not) as a thinly veiled representation of the writer herself.

But at the end of the day he finds (and I agree) that all of this logic begins to sound like sorry excuses. At the end of the day, white silence is potentially as hurtful as getting it “wrong.” This gross ambivalence toward, or even indifference to, the subject of racism allows it to continue, passing itself off as invisible. Even a seemingly more noble reluctance to overshadow non-white voices on the subject of race implies a troubling fact: the relative absence of race from the conversation in contemporary American poetry in general. As one of the key traumas marking the American experience, race is relegated to a shockingly small portion of what is published, read, and written about. And all poets, including white poets, would be well-served by demanding more space for this conversation. Without a more fully developed discussion of racism in all of its various guises, we cannot truly understand its impact. We will remain, as Jackson claims, spectators on one of the key issues of our time.

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Poetry is a space where, as many poets before me have remarked, several things can be true at once. Moral judgement is not required; right and wrong are not required. The truth, which is always more elusive than words can lay their fingers on, is allowed to be complex and bewildering. Racism is complex and bewildering. It is often boiled down to matters of right and wrong, just and unjust, but the truth is not always what we think. I have both benefited from and been traumatized by whiteness. I have been both oppressor and victim. I have been complacent in my racism and I have grown furious, raging against it. Poetry, with its silences and absences, with its contradictions and its refusal to make logical connections, makes excellent territory for grappling with racism.

If we are going to finally confront the sickness that has dominated life in America since its foundation, then we need a literature that explores its impact from as many angles as possible. We need a complete picture, and we very much need poets willing to explore what whiteness is and what it does, even if they sometimes get it wrong. We need more white poets willing to enter the conversation.


Holly Karapetkova’s poetry, prose, and translations from the Bulgarian have appeared in Mid-American Review, Huffington Post, 32 Poems, and many other places. Her first book, Words We Might One Day Say, won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize for Poetry. She is also the author of over twenty books for children. She lives in Arlington, Virginia, and teaches at Marymount University. Holly was a finalist for the James Hearst Poetry Prize 2015 with her poem “Big Hair” which can be seen in issue 300.2.


Illustrations by  Clay Rodery, an illustrator who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Clay’s illustrations have been featured in the North American Review issues 298.4, 299.1, 299.3 and the most recently is in issue 299.4, Fall 2014 and most recently 300.2, Spring 2015.

On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance, or Postscript to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume” by Karen An-hwei Lee

If I could sprout wings and fly anywhere in the world, where would I go?

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Maybe to an overseas parfumerie where I’d try new fragrances all day long, or fly back in time to the earliest history of perfume ~ a narcotic blue lotus ancient Egyptians would hold right to their noses, for instance, or unadulterated rose petals distilled in copper florentines only centuries away from modern laboratories of ethers and esters, and oils such as horseradish, olive, and sesame mixed with a resinous fixative, as described in Jean-Pierre Brun’s “The Production of Perfumes in Antiquity” in The American Journal of Archaeology. “A Short Autobiography of Perfume,” appearing in the Spring 2015 issue of The North American Review, arose from these inklings.

Concurrently, I was teaching Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of the Senses in a lyric essay workshop where I invited students to write a short exercise inspired by the olfactory sense.  Here is an excerpt, quoted from Chapter 1 (“The Body of Memory”) of Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, one of our required texts:  “Which smells in your life are gone for you now?  Which ones would you give anything to smell again?  Have you ever been ‘ambushed’ by a smell you didn’t expect?”

Laden with vials of perfume, subsequently, I’d fly to a village in the Jiangyong county of Hunan province where Chinese women, for centuries, lovingly hand-stitched books as gifts to their daughters.  Sisters and grandmothers, what is the aroma of your memories? Would you teach me a few words of your language?  This special language, nüshu  女書, not only existed in written form; as an oral literary tradition, it was sung aloud by memory, too.  In exchange for showing me books of nüshu 女書, I’d share the essence of this language in the form of perfume.

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Sadly, the last surviving writer of nüshu  女書, Yang Huangyi, passed away in 2004.  According to Henry Chu of the Los Angeles Times, “At a time in China when most females were illiterate and considered the property of men, these women turned objects of domestic life into avenues of escape and found solace among ‘sworn sisters’ with whom they communicated in their own language.”  As a tribute to nüshu  女書, here is my sister-poem to “A Short Autobiography of Perfume.”

              On a Secret Language of Women as Fragrance

If I could, I would bottle nüshu as perfume.
What is the aroma of a secret language written only by women?
How would gynocentric proverbs translate to our daughters
via memory as fragrance or vice versa?
Without vessels, where would we pour
our grievances against the patriarchal order?
On the broom-swept dirt in the village?  Dust raised by bicycles?
The threshold of a school we could not cross as girls?
If our language enfleuraged as perfume –  no other linguistic traces
aflame  – we could revive the chemistries of aroma
without translation, wafting the base notes of female experience
at a draught.

Mexican women create their own paper from scratch using boiled ash, lye, and peeled bark. Brazilian chapbooks or foletos are sold on a string outdoors in folk-art markets.  I love hand-stitched books.  In Massachusetts, where I spent most of my girlhood, I read about Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and loved her poetry.  Nüshu  女書 is unique in Chinese, however, not only in its matrilineal transmission via handwritten journals, but the type of cursive script Hunan women invented.  To share their wisdom in a language transmitted only to daughters, the Hunan village women hand-bound their cloth journals and wrote nüshu女書 inside the pages.  In other words, without access to formal education, the women developed their own culture of literacy.

Japanese professor of socio-linguistics, Orie Endo of Bunkyo University, hosts a digital archive of research on nüshu 女書. Not purely derivative of tetragraphs, not quite pictographical nor alphabetical, nüshu  女書 (nü = 女=woman or women; shu = 書=writing or script) was written by ink brush with a thinner, finer hand than the robust strokes of classical calligraphy.  Incidentally, the eponymous poem of Kimiko Hahn’s electrifying collection, Mosquito and Ant (W. W. Norton 2000), refers to the culture of nüshu 女書The fine script was originally compared to the legs of a mosquito or ant, a dismissive observation initially made by patriarchal contemporaries.

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When I lived in Berkeley during the late Nineties, I’d visit a shop displaying (for sale) reams and rolls of handmade paper from all over the world.  Once, I used long sheets of handmade paper ~ turquoise, gold, crimson ~ for a giant accordion chapbook as a part of a family literacy program. The chapbook, like a tall child, stood on the floor to the height of my arms.   What if all this paper suspended from the ceiling, layer upon layer of color as self-revelation ~ gave voice (i.e. wings) to the memories of women who made them? 

After I moved south of the Bay Area to a coastal mesa in southern California, I would make recycled paper.  The year-round sunshine in Orange County is good for shredding old paper, re-soaking it in glue and hot water, then drying the mess with zoysia grass, one-winged samaras, and bougainvillea.  In my little art closet, scraps of silk-screened washi mulberry and dyed rice paper sang forth in a range of vivid hues: cerulean, ochre, scarlet, midnight, dove-gray, fuchsia, saffron, or ultramarine.  If saffron were a woman, how would she hum in a language of windborne pollen: a diasporic fragrance of this late season?

Summer, summer, summer, I imagine.
Xiatien in Mandarin, the women echo.
. . .
Fragrance of ellipsis in honor of nüshu 女書.


Karen An-hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of Joy (Tupelo 2012), Ardor (Tupelo 2008) and In Medias Res (Sarabande 2004), winner of the Norma Farber First Book Award.  Lee also wrote two chapbooks, God’s One Hundred Promises (Swan Scythe 2002) and What the Sea Earns for a Living (Quaci Press 2014). Her book of literary criticism, Anglophone Literatures in the Asian Diaspora: Literary Transnationalism and Translingual Migrations (Cambria, 2013), was selected for the Cambria Sinophone World Series. She earned an M.F.A. from Brown University and Ph.D. in English from the University of California, Berkeley. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, she serves as Full Professor of English and Chair at a liberal arts college in greater Los Angeles, where she is also a novice harpist. Lee is a voting member of the National Book Critics Circle.


Top and bottom illustration by Claire Stigliani, a drawer and painter known for her works inspired by paintings, photographs, magazines, posters, YouTube clips, literature, performance, and plays. These works explore the act of watching and being watched and blur fiction with reality. Her recent shows include The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, (WI), The Dean Jensen Gallery, Milwaukee, (WI), Russell/Projects, Richmond (VA), and the Jenkins Johnson Gallery (NY). She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Art in Drawing, Painting, Printmaking and Photography in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The Wait” by Nick Kolakowski from issue 300.2

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New York City never sleeps, but late at night it pauses to take a breath. Deep underground, on the subway platforms, the floods of people empty out; those who remain keep their distance from one another, for safety. You stand and wait for the next train to arrive, your ears straining for its rising rumble, your teeth gritting with frustration as the minutes creep past.

At that low ebb, the repair-work begins in earnest. You see it first as a white flicker at the edge of your vision, which resolves into a flashlight beam bobbing down the black throat of the nearest tunnel: subway workers checking the lines for wear and tear. Sometimes they emerge into the station, climbing onto the platform to await the train that will carry them to the next point on their shift. And it’s not just repairs; with each passing day, the urban miners drill a little further into the bedrock beneath our feet, creating the routes that (the mayor promises) will ease the crushing crowds, the delays, the collective irritation.

It takes a lot of effort to keep the great metal heart of the subway system beating at roughly the right tempo. With each passing year, though, it seems that tempo becomes more and more arrhythmic. The trains take longer to arrive, or never appear at all. Sometimes they stall in mid-tunnel, under the river, sparking your latent claustrophobia. The best way I’ve found to get through the daily commute is to adopt a certain Zen attitude, and bring a book.

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One night, as the M train crawled its way through Manhattan’s arteries, I glanced up from my copy of Philip Levine’s poems (Detroit crumbling majestically, line by measured line) to see a pair of grimy boots float past the window, at eye level. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to that exterior dimness, to realize that I was looking at a worker standing on the narrow concrete walkway that runs the length of some subway tunnels. I couldn’t see his face; but at that moment, separated by a smeared pane of glass, I wondered about his thoughts. Does spending most of your life in the dark, sharing the tight space with steel leviathans that could crush you in an instant, create its own Zen? Or does it just wear you down?

I reflected on the titanic effort necessary to keep these hundreds of miles of track alive, and the toll that takes on the human body: the broken bones, the weakened knees, the sooty lungs, the long shifts, the fearful prospect of death by fire or electricity. There’s a price in blood and spirit for the frameworks that support us, and it’s largely paid outside of our sight. That was the kernel of “Sandhog,” my poem, although it didn’t emerge fully formed; I made a point of tinkering with its structure every time my train stalled for a lengthy period of time, as a sort of ritual to goad the system into moving again. I like to think the writing made me more empathetic—and less frustrated—about the wait


Nick Kolakowski’s fiction and poetry has appeared in the North American Review, The Evergreen Review, McSweeney’s, Carrier Pigeon, Shotgun Honey, Crack the Spine, and The Adirondack Review. He is also the author of How to Become an Intellectual, a book of comedic nonfiction. He lives in New York City, where by day he writes about science and technology for a number of publications.


Illustrations by: Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/

Throwback Thursday featuring Travis Mossotti from issue 294.2

Travis Mossotti’s poem “The Dead Cause” won first place in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2009. His poem is featured in issue 294.2, Spring 2009 and can be still be purchased through our online store.  grasshopper-249115_640

The Dead Cause

On the porch, a grasshopper waved its serrated foreleg at me while I juggled

groceries for keys; it was the kind of friendly wave I might expect

from a loved one, recently dead, reincarnated into this green husk.

The whole ordeal triggered an alarm of distant thunder, stuffing my head

with dark seeds; so after waving back, I ducked inside, fearful

of inadvertently giving the dead cause to haunt me—the last thing

I needed. Regina was off doing research in Glen Rose again, otherwise

she would’ve identified the grasshopper using the scientific precision that always

fussed my mouth with cobwebs. As it was, I dialed her number

just to make sure she was okay, that she wasn’t yet a grasshopper.

Probably nothing more than a locust—Melanoplus spretus, she said. It could’ve been Buddha, maybe,

I should’ve invited it in for tea, I said before saying goodbye. Raindrops the size of doorknobs

began chasing a garbage truck past the kitchen window. I set the kettle

on the stove to boil, and with curtains curled back slightly, watched a procession

of locusts lope out from the tall grass, apparently no longer waiting for an invitation


TravieTravis Mossotti was awarded the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award for his first collection of poems About the Dead (USU Press, 2011), and his second collection Field Study won the 2013 Melissa Lanitis Gregory Poetry Prize (Bona Fide Books, 2014). Mossotti has also published two chapbooks, and recent poems of his have appeared in issues of the Antioch Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Southern Review, and elsewhere. Photo by: Regina Mossitti


Illustration Link

“Professor Tolkien’s Rebel Readings of Beowulf” by Ted Morrissey

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In my review (issue 300.2) of J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of the Old English poem Beowulf, I allude to the Oxford professor’s radical interpretations of certain sections of the poem; however, space limitations in the print magazine didn’t allow me to elaborate on those interpretations, so I spoke with NAR editors about using their blog to further discuss Tolkien’s rebel readings.

The word rebel is not used merely for dramatic effect. Scholarship devoted to Beowulf has been a thriving subculture in the academic world for more than 150 years. Opinions are often held passionately, and challenges to those opinions can be contentiously and even bitterly met. Tolkien held the post of Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University from 1925 to 1959. It was an esteemed professorship, of course, and brought with it respect, but also a host of jealous rivals. Tolkien seems to have been keenly aware of his colleagues who were ready to pounce on anything he might have to say about English literature.

Christopher Tolkien, who prepared his father’s translation for its very posthumous publication, quotes from a letter that the professor wrote to his publisher in 1965 regarding his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:  “[I]t cannot be doubted,” said Tolkien, “that the book will be read by students, and by academic folk of ‘English Departments’. Some of the latter have their pistols loose in their holsters.”  Tolkien went on to say that he had “made important discoveries with regard to certain words, and some passages”.

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It is important to note that Sir Gawain was composed in Middle English—not Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon—and therefore was not in Tolkien’s primary field of expertise. We can imagine the profundity of the discoveries he made in his study of Beowulf, his pet project, and also the pressure he must have felt from the itchy-fingered academic pistoleers who were watching his every scholarly move. This factor combined with what Christopher Tolkien describes as his father’s determination “to make a translation as close as he could to the exact meaning in detail of the Old English poem” (8) accounts for the work never fully reaching completion in the professor’s mind. Though a draft was finished in 1926, Tolkien continued to refine his translation, tinkering and annotating, for at least the next twenty years.

Besides the professor’s expertise and his obsession to render a perfect literal translation of Beowulf, another reason to pay particular attention to his reading is that he occupies a very special place in the history of the poem. It was his now-legendary address to the British Academy in 1934 (published two years later as “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”) that altered the way scholars viewed the poem. In essence, interest in the poem had been primarily as a historic and linguistic artifact, but Tolkien made the case that Beowulf was a beautifully rendered piece of art by a single poet who was at the top of his game when he brought it to its final form, represented in the lone surviving manuscript dating from about the year 1000.

Indeed, Beowulf scholarship tends to be thought of as either B.T. or A.T., Before Tolkien or After Tolkien. Thumbing through A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, one finds scholar after scholar referring to Tolkien’s 1934 address in terms like “major achievement,” “renowned,” “a revolution,” “famous,” “rhetorically powerful call,” and even “manifesto.”

I want to speak in particular to two of Tolkien’s rebel readings. As I noted in my review, the translation itself takes up just over 100 of the book’s nearly 450 pages. Tolkien’s lectures, or commentaries, on the poem—though only a small excerpt, according to his son—constitute the lion’s share of the book.

Several pages of commentary are devoted to explaining the professor’s first rebellious passage, which comes early in the poem (lines 166-69 in the original). After the monster Grendel has begun his murderous assaults on King Hrothgar’s hall, Heorot, the Danes try to save themselves by abandoning Heorot at night. In the conventional rendering of the poem, we are told that Grendel often visits the empty hall but is prevented by God from approaching the king’s throne. In Michael Swanton’s well-respected prose translation of Beowulf, he writes, “On dark nights he [Grendel] dwelt in the treasure-decked hall, Heorot. Because of Providence he could not approach the precious throne, the source of gifts; nor did he feel his love.” In his end notes Swanton emphasizes that the passage is especially challenging.

Tolkien read the passage very differently. Because the poem was composed by a Christian poet who was telling a tale of pre-Christian people (a juxtaposition that is made clear at several points in the poem), the professor believed that it was Hrothgar who was not allowed to approach “the precious Throne of grace” (17), with Throne being a metaphor for the Christian God’s love. In other words, Hrothgar wasn’t able to seek solace in God’s love in his people’s time of need because he had the misfortune of living before Christianity made its way to his part of the world. Tolkien writes in full, “Heorot’s hall bright with gems in the dark night he [Grendel] dwelt. (Never might he [Hrothgar] approach the precious Throne of grace in the presence of God, nor did he know His will). That was great torment to the Scyldings’ lord [Hrothgar], anguish of heart” (17-18).

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In his commentary, Tolkien calls lines 168-69 “perhaps the most difficult [couplet] in Beowulf” (181), and not because they are corrupted due to physical damage or faulty emendation, but because one must bring to bear on them an extensive knowledge of Old English (including the work of Cynewulf, another Anglo-Saxon poet) combined with a firm grasp of their historical context in order to make accurate sense of the Beowulf poet’s meaning.

The other rebel reading that I want to discuss is especially important to me because it substantiates my own unconventional reading of one of the poem’s final images. In the summer of 2012, I was working on my monograph, The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, and translating passages in an effort to support my trauma-theory analysis of the poem. I was interested in the female mourner at Beowulf’s funeral who appears in lines 3150-55a, just thirty lines from the end. The typical translations of the passage describe her as a woman or, frequently, an old woman who is devastated at the loss of her king and the thought of the coming attacks by the Swedes and others.

Swanton, for example, writes that she is “a Geatish woman, sorrowful, her hair bound up.” Seamus Heaney, in his award-winning and bestselling verse translation, writes, “A Geat woman too sang out in grief; / with hair bound up . . .” In Burton Raffel’s widely read and often anthologized version, he refers to her as “[a] gnarled old woman, hair wound / Tight and gray on her head.” R. M. Liuzza, in one of my favorite translations, calls her simply “the Geatish woman, / with hair bound up,” and in a footnote explains how uncertain the description is and why many translators opt for her being a woman of “advanced age.”

Indeed, when I looked closely at the original Old English I discovered just how open to interpretation the mourning woman’s age is. The Anglo-Saxon word used by the Beowulf poet, meowle, could be “young woman” and even “virgin.” It seemed to me that a young, inexperienced woman (from a modern perspective, an adolescent girl) would be even more terrified by what was taking place than an adult or, perhaps especially, an aged woman. After much deliberation I decided to go against tradition and translate the passage as “Likewise, a sorrowful Geatish woman, young and virginal, her tresses bound, sang out painfully and repeatedly of the coming days of anxious mourning and acute dread, of the legion bringing horrifying slaughter, of humiliation and captivity.”

My translation went unchallenged when the book came out in 2013 and was reviewed by eminent Beowulf scholars, including Robert E. Bjork and James W. Earl. Nevertheless, I was surprised and pleased when I read Tolkien’s translation in May of 2014 and came to the passage “There too a lamentable lay many a Geatish maiden with braided tresses for Beowulf made, singing in sorrow, oft repeating that days of evil she sorely feared, many a slaying cruel and terror armed, ruin and thraldom’s bond” (104-5). So Tolkien, too, saw her as young and virginal.

Unfortunately, Professor Tolkien doesn’t speak to this reading in his commentaries, but in Christopher Tolkien’s “Notes on the Text of the Translation” he explains that his father originally went with “his lady aged” for the female mourner but changed his mind in what became the final version of the translation’s manuscript with no direct explanation for his revision. Christopher infers that his father had been tempted to force a reading onto the passage that he was attracted to for other than philological reasons (128-30).

My hope is that Tolkien’s lectures will be published in their entirety as they would be an invaluable resource to scholars and serious students of not only Beowulf but Old English literature as a whole.

Ted Morrissey is the author of The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters, winner of the D. Simon Evans Prize for distinguished scholarship, as well as the novels Men of Winter and An Untimely Frost, and, most recently, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God. Visit at tedmorrissey.com.

Images: Wikimedia Commons & Photobucket

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