Staff Picks: Broccoli Puzzles, Bot Poetry, and Banana Pudding

Emily Ruskovich.

I spent Christmas with my boyfriend’s family in Hudson, New York. Among other goodies, my stocking was stuffed with books, and I squirreled Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho over to the wood-burning stove and ate through page after page as log after log went up in smoke and the iron became too hot to touch. The stove was etched with a MADE IN BELGIUM label, but it said America to me, like Idaho did: both anesthetizing in their beauty, dangerous and commonplace. Ever since reading Ruskovich’s essay about Watership Down, I wanted more. In that piece, she writes about those rabbits like she knows the insides of their den from long personal experience. And Idaho does bring us the dear interiors of the animal world, the musky quiet and the secrecy, but Ruskovich also brings human imperfection right to the surface of the novel without the tedium of other contemporary realism. I drove through Idaho, nine years ago now, with the same boyfriend on the way to California. It was beautiful and vast, and we quarreled there for the first time on our cross-country trip. As we rounded the switchback of a pitch-dark park-service road and saw the headlights of a lone pickup, I was terrified again of the land that could kill me quick and of the people who made their home there, who knew it and persisted. —Julia Berick 

Nina Leen captured midcentury America as a time traveler from our era might have. Maybe it’s because she was born in Russia and raised in Europe and so, like Nabokov, arrived here an outsider, sensitive to our corn-fed strangeness. Leen’s subtly subversive black-and-white photographs communicate her charmed bewilderment. You can feel her affection for her subjects, who try to be serious models and hide that they’re having the time of their lives. She turns Norman Rockwell scenarios mysterious and surreal with film-noir publicity lighting. She balances artifice and spontaneity in a way that somehow captures her subjects’ interiority and self-awareness, which is why the images seem to break the fourth wall and wink across time. Take her pictures of the Helena Rubenstein beauty school, for example, their performance of midcentury femininity, the aesthetic mix of Frankenstein and something like synchronized swimming. Leen practiced fashion photography and portraiture, and she did one inexplicably captivating portrait of a block of ice, but generally speaking, she had two subjects: humans and animals. She had a gift for capturing the charms of each group—though according to Time, she was “well-known for liking animals far more than she liked humans.” An important moment in her life and career came when she discovered the orphan puppy Lucky while on assignment in Texas. Though not as celebrated today as Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, Lucky became Leen’s muse, and—on account of her portraits in Life, her film The Lost Dog, and her book, Lucky, the Famous Foundling—a star was born. If you want to experience the shock of cognition behind the sometimes lobotomized-feeling aesthetic of midcentury Americana—or you just want to see a squirrel modeling dresses or being towel-dried after a bath—then “Nina Leen” is the Google Image search for you. —Brent Katz

 

Franny Choi.

 

To pass a Turing test, a robot must trick an examiner into believing it is human. It must perform or passwhich sometimes involves performing errors to appear more humanlike. But even the errors are part of a design to make the robot work, in the sense of function: achieve what they were designed to achieve. There is something disturbingly teleological about the test—that robots should and will arrive at humanness. Like capitalism, the test is (or at least has become) competitive. It demands that everything and everyone be productive. Franny Choi’s forthcoming poetry collection Soft Science adopts the Turing test as a structural frame with six “TURING TEST” poems spaced throughout the book. The reader might understand Choi as the cyborg taking the test. But if so, she’s a cyborg in revolt, not allowing the examiner to let her pass. What’s more, the examiner is a cyborg, too, as is the reader: “remember / all humans / are cyborgs / all cyborgs / are sharp shards of sky / wrapped in meat.” Choi tells us what we need to hear: that we possess the radical potential of the glitch and the possibility of unbecoming productive machines of capitalism. Do humans “work,” or are we already broken? Do we want to work? Is unchecked production our ambition? Should we design robots to act like humans, when humans can be so despicable? My favorite poem from the collection describes the life of Chi, from the manga Chobits, a broken android whom the protagonist rescues from a trash pile. Choi writes from the android’s perspective, remembering the trash, lamenting, “as if I could rot / as if they didn’t make us / to last & last.” I think Choi wishes we could be allowed to rot and return to the soil. She reminds us elsewhere that it’s okay to wither, to “commune with miles of darkness,” to reach into our circuit boards and pull ourselves apart. The beginnings of our way out of capitalism will involve such pulling both delicate and violent—tiny hands wrenching, striving for clarity, honest and ruthlessly specific language like what Choi offers up. —Spencer Quong

At breakfast, my boyfriend and I huddled over a bowl of tonkotsu ramen for roughly thirty-five minutes. Does the chili-specked egg go here? Or perhaps she’s closer to the elegant strands of enoki? I’m not describing a cosplay of Tampopo but instead Areaware’s Little Puzzle Thing jigsaws, roughly seventy-piece puzzles depicting different beloved dishes. The Chicago hot dog seems easier, with lots of defining details; the broccoli, a verdant challenge. We began our day without phones or a calming episode of The Sopranos but with an honest-to-god workout for our brains. Now we’re dreaming of a dinner party, our long table splayed with tasty puzzle pieces and their edible counterparts. No need for small talk—all our guests would have to do is solve and marvel at the unparalleled cuteness of a 2-D eggplant. —Eleonore Condo

In Ishmael Reed’s newest play, The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton writer is in a sort of bardo, but instead of the liminal space between life and rebirth, he is stuck between past and present. Haunting had a four-day reading run at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, where the play’s director, Rome Neal, moved through the crowd, alternating between the sound booth and a punch bowl at the end of the bar, from which he served his homemade banana pudding. Haunting is a reading person’s play, obviously the product of extensive research and composed mostly of monologues. The first several come from four ghosts, two black slaves and two Native Americans, who appear to Miranda with grievances about the inaccuracies of his musical. Reed’s play is aware of how sticky historical moralizing can be, taking aim even at itself as the spirits bicker about land rights, and while the script is smart in presenting how the project of correcting one another’s perspective on history can divide when it should unite, it doesn’t pull punches or mince words. Reed makes Miranda his main character not to crucify the man himself (though there are a few Mary Poppins jabs) but rather to use him as a way of mirroring our hopepunk society, seduced so quickly by easy answers to difficult questions—even more so if those answers come with a catchy hip-hop number. Reed depicts Miranda as a well-meaning pawn in the white capitalist game; he’s repeatedly reminded that Hamilton is not his play but his investors’, who care not about making a contribution to history but about their payday (the musical currently rakes in a hundred million dollars a year). Not to spoil anything, but Miranda does ultimately change his way of thinking, and in a final speech, the script offers some suggestions for how Miranda (the real one) could undo some of the harm that Hamilton has unintentionally done. The play can start to wax didactic; however, Reed understands the benefit of a spoonful of sugar, and his humor and wit do much to ease the characters off their soapboxes to meet the audience in a place that is smart and unpretentious, critical without cruelty. If you missed the reading, fear not; the Nuyorican Poets Cafe is raising funding to stage a full production of The Haunting of Lin-Manuel Miranda in May. —Lauren Kane

 

Ishmael Reed. Photo: Kathy Sloane.

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