This past week was jammed to the rafters with visitors and events. On Tuesday, friend and brilliant writer Thomas Glave came through town and spoke at the university, both to my class and to a general audience at an event jointly hosted by the English Department's Writing Major program and the African-American Studies department. In my class, Thomas discussed his career in great death, as well as two essays by Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer and a poem, "Children of Our Age," by Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, all three of which focused on the moral imagination and writers' moral and ethical responsibilities and actions. He succeeded in taking the discussion to realms I hadn't, including discussing the idea that the imagination should not ever be limited and how he was attempting this in his own work, and kept the class utterly engaged until it was time to end and head to his talk. Then, at the public event, Thomas read excerpts from three of the essays in his powerful new book of essays, Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent: "Toward a Nobility of the Imagination: Jamaica’s Shame (An Open Letter to the People of Jamaica)," "Abu Ghraib: Fragments against Forgetting," and "Regarding a Black Male Monica Lewinsky, Anal Penetration, and Bill Clinton’s Sacred White Anus," the last of which may have occasioned the first and I would imagine only time, to my memory, that the words "sacred white anus" were repeated in a departmental gathering, public or private. What would have been the result if President Clinton's consensual sexual partner had turned out to have been a Black gay man? Thomas probed that counterfactual scenario, and his own class's deep and strong resistance to it, in the process getting the assembled audience to engage in a discussion of sexual and racial difference, "pollution" and the presidential and national bodies as well. As always, Thomas was provocative, cogent and profound, particularly in terms of posing questions about the nature and necessity of critique and dissent. It was wonderful to have him visit, even if only briefly.
On Thursday, the critic, writer and translator Daniel Mendelsohn, whom I'd never met or heard read publicly, came through the Center for the Humanities to present his new translations of the major Greek poet C. P. Cavafy's (1863-1933) poems. I was particularly interested in hearing Mendelsohn's work, as I have been a fan of Cavafy's poetry for years and have even used it ("So Much I Gazed...," "Days of 1903," etc.) as the grist for some of my own poems, and Mendelsohn, an exceedingly brilliant man, didn't disappoint. He rendered some of the early poems, from Cavafy's Victorian period, in close meter and rhyme, which I found a bit jarring (though in fact this is probably how they should be translated), while capturing the later poems with tremendous aplomb and skill. Mendelsohn also contextualized the work quite thoroughly, discussing Cavafy's importance as an out homosexual, the moment of his shift from coded to more explicit language, and his use of classical themes, symbols, figures, and rhetorical forms and genres, in particular the epigram, as a means of exploring the relation between modern Greece and its historical antecedents. One of the most outstanding examples of Mendelsohn's translations was his rendering of Cavafy's sublime short poem "Walls" ( Τείχη, 1896), in which the poem utilizes two different, homonymic linguistic registers of Greek, the Demotiki (or everyday language) and the Katharevousa (or artificial, elevated literary language), to create work that construct inner metaphoric and metonymic walls and mirrors that embody the poem's themes. Mendelsohn concluded with translations of Cavafy's last poems, which have never been translated into English before, and some of them, including a very brief and exquisite four line poem, will be revelations when they finally appear.
From late Thursday through Saturday, the newly admitted, prospective doctoral students in English and African American Studies, came to campus for a visit. I finally got to briefly meet two of the truly dazzling admittees (talk about smart, friendly, personable, and ready to start cogitating!), Frank Léon Roberts (Brooklyn Boy's Blues) and Blac(k)ademic. They had the opportunity to hear two of the top English department fifth year students present their work, as well as the inaugural lectures of the new Leon Forrest Professor, African American Studies chair and English professor Dwight McBride, who gave a short, tight talk that covered topics including the geneology of racial respectability, Alain Locke and the New Negro, which he linked to the anti-gay ethos of the organizers of the Millions More March, and newly appointed Board of Governors professor and eminent historian Darlene Clark Hine, who introduced listeners to the pioneering efforts of early 20th century South Carolina midwife Maud Callen. It was very exciting to have these remarkable young folks on campus, and I hope as many of them as possible decide to enroll.