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‘The Only Woman’ in the Room



“Why her and only her?” the Oscar-nominated documentarian Immy Humes writes in the introduction to THE ONLY WOMAN (Phaidon, $29.95). She is looking at a 1961 photo of the filmmaker Shirley Clarke with her cast and crew, all 22 of them men. “What does her onliness mean?”

Once Humes noticed this phenomenon, it wasn’t difficult for her to find more examples, 100 of which are collected here: images from 20 countries between 1862 and 2020, of politicians and athletes and scientists and writers and university students and jazz musicians and painters, the figures either posing or not, all male except for one. Why was she there? Did the men see her as an “infiltrator or cherry on top”? More important, how did she feel being there?

“Tokenism is the first thought that leapt to mind,” Humes admits, but tokenism is a “performance of inclusivity” that requires an audience; most of these groups did not yet feel any pressure to open their doors to the excluded others. “This was something else,” she concludes, “something older.”

These women played various roles: trailblazers in their field, “mascots” to bestow good luck upon the surrounding men, wives and daughters, cooks and assistants. But always she is an exception, and one who “proves the rule,” Humes writes: “the rule being that women do not belong here.”

Above, Shirley Chisholm appears with her fellow Democratic presidential candidates on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in New York City, 1972.

The American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn reports from Cassino, Italy, in 1944. Just months later, on June 6, she would become the only woman of 150,000 present on the beaches of Normandy to witness D-Day.

At the time this photograph was taken, in 1903 at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China’s Empress Dowager Cixi “was perhaps the most powerful woman in the world,” Humes writes. And yet: “Cixi was only able to rule in a deeply patriarchal society because of her prodigious ability to create an identity that, while very much female and her own, adapted traditional male aspects of power.”

The photographer Ming Smith poses with the Kamoinge Workshop collective in New York City in 1973, a year after she became its first female member (and its youngest). “We never saw images of our great culture anywhere, anywhere,” Smith said of the collective. An offshoot of the Black Power movement, the group approached images with the intention to “have another point of view from what the media was showing us.”

The “First Lady” of Afro-Cuban jazz, Graciela — pictured in New York City in 1947 — was born and raised in Havana before moving to New York in her 20s, to sing with the band the Afro-Cubans.

In Manchester, England, around 1945 — at the beginning of Britain’s postwar decolonization — the Oxford-educated anti-imperialist Amy Geraldine “Dinah” Stock meets with the future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah (seated at the far right), his Pan-Africanist movement the West African National Secretariat, and the West African Students’ Union.

Amid martial law in Cambridge, Md., in 1963 — a town where Black unemployment was 30 percent — the civil rights leader Gloria Richardson stands up to a National Guardsman’s bayonet. “If I was upset enough, I didn’t have time to be afraid,” she said. “Fight for what you believe in, but stop being so nice.”

The English suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst is arrested outside Buckingham Palace on May 21, 1914.

The revolutionary Ieshia Evans protests the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., in 2016. This now famous image “is so much about contrast,” Humes writes. “One versus many, female versus male, Black versus white, vulnerable and flowy versus hard shelled and robotic, right versus wrong, peace versus violence.”

Lauren Christensen is an editor at the Book Review.


Love, Absence and Loss, Filtered Through Philosophical Poems



This makes perfect sense, because in the Shaughnessy multiverse, everything contains everything else, or has that capacity. “There are no opposites,” the poet tells us. “There are only dimensions, relations, recurrence, series.” Elsewhere she says: “But nothing’s natural./And nothing’s unnatural either.” For Shaughnessy, the self is fluid, inquisitive, acquisitive and porous. “One person, that tangle of matter and energy, that bag of broken clocks dreaming of ness-ness, can never be only that one person nor the entirety of that person, but they can be more.”

If you had told me when I was in college that I could love a book of poetry that mentioned “the self” as frequently as this one does, I would have heaved a dictionary at your head. Yet Shaughnessy’s vibrant dives into the possibilities of that phrase invest it with multitudes. “I always wanted self/to be a magic scroll/the universe kept safe,” Shaughnessy writes. Me too. Maybe that’s why my younger self became irate when she felt poets were flinging the concept around lightly. Luckily, the self and its youthful prejudices can sometimes be revised.

Femaleness and iterations of feminism provide a framework for “Tanya.” The collection can be seen in part as a version of midlife stock-taking, via odes to women artists, mentors, lovers, frenemies and former selves. Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” Shaughnessy’s doing that here, tracing her own derivation and education through myriad mothers, stretching definitions of “mother” to include frictions, crushes, heartbreaks and inspirations that became part of her DNA.

No surprise then, given all this permeability and interpenetration, that boundaries, outlines and doors, those would-be enclosers and barriers, occur frequently in these poems. Shaughnessy asks whether artists have the right “to weigh and lay/to rest the question of half, of division, of border, of definition, of edge?” Elsewhere, in one poem she describes a ballerina as crossing “the strange wide water/between flower and force.” The beauty and economy of that line called up for me an image of the dancer bridging a riverlike division between delicacy and power, embodying both.

The book ends with the “long, careening” title poem, a 43-page surge that feels like high tide after the rising ocean that precedes it. (Structurally, this is similar to the way the last and title poem in Shaughnessy’s earlier book “Our Andromeda” becomes a crescendo, rallying and deepening the collection’s concerns.)

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And You Thought Your Family Had Problems



Indeed, one questions the motivations of a woman who casually relays to her brood over spare ribs and scallion pancakes that her late father was in fact a Black man. Sandy has always known, though he presumed she might spend a lifetime explaining away her kinky hair and olive skin: “Who knew that instead she would carry those facts like a suicide vest into a Chinese restaurant on Amsterdam and 69th? On Christmas Day, no less, the year’s strangest day for Jews, no less for him, a former celebrant.”

A fiercely unapologetic Naomi dismisses her own disclosure out of hand as “an asterisk.” In Row’s studied 2014 satire “Your Face in Mine,” white characters gladly volunteered for “racial reassignment surgery”; for Bering, though, the news is shattering, a core truth of her selfhood cruelly withheld.

By then she has already begun and ended a sexual relationship with her brother — a bombshell the book returns to intermittently as it bobs and weaves between other fraught narratives: Patrick’s post-collegiate spiritual quest in Nepal and monastic self-exile to Berlin; Winter’s struggles as an immigration lawyer in Trump’s circa-2018 America and the looming deportation threat against her Mexican-born fiancé; Sandy’s emotional reckonings and Naomi’s fresh romance.

Looming over them all is the novel itself, an anthropomorphized thing that serves alternately as spirit guide, secret architect and scamp — one that Row both engages with and interrogates, like a recalcitrant pet. “Suddenly, the novel wants to say. Suddenly something happened,” he writes, on the occasion of one startling revelation. “The novel opens its hand. Let me shock you, let me embarrass you. Cover your eyes, cover your mouth. Turn the music up.”

And the music here is very much turned up, a symphonic chorus that can be undeniably stimulating but also wearing. Can’t the Wilcoxes ever catch a break? Or, one wonders, do they want to? Likability might be for the lazy, but this family eschews it to an almost heroic degree: They are strident and congenitally stubborn, hamstrung by grievances and wounds they can’t or won’t close.

Even from the grave, Bering — her Hotmail drafts folder becomes a primary posthumous source for the text — remains something of a prickly enigma: a mercurial girl too scantly explored to really be known before she’s gone (though her journey allows Row to paint a deft, vivid sketch of the quagmire that is Palestine and Israel). The incest subplot feels like gilding an already rococo lily, the pure shock of it never entirely earned or explained, and Row’s heady prose occasionally tips into lit-major bombast, his paragraphs dappled with references to Barthes or Borges.

It can be delightfully tactile though, too: TV makeup is troweled on, “the consistency of hummus”; root vegetables lie in a crisper, “the warty stepchildren of the vegetable kingdom.” This is a book of warty, messy things, intractable and strange — but stumbling, maybe, toward a state of grace.

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Welcome to Immortality. Your Body Can’t Come With You.



The novel is set circa 2030. In America, the authoritarian right has jettisoned democracy, surveillance drones sweep the sky, deportation officers in skull masks patrol the subways, Florida has been nearly wiped out by tsunamis, there is talk of cannibals and doomsday cults running amok and … whatever. This critic feels as if he’s perpetually wandering, lately, through a mall bookstore called Dystopias R Us. The bookstore has locked its doors and will not let him out. Aiieeee!

Kalfar’s dystopia feels thirdhand. Happily, he has other things to work with. His heroine, Adela Slavikova, lives in a Czech village. On the novel’s first page, she learns she has not long, perhaps a year, to live. Her doctor, “a great poet of the macabre,” doesn’t give her the option of denial. He is determined to tell her exactly how awful it’s going to be: “crumbling bones, renal failure, death by brain bleed or fungal infection.”

Not long after, Adela is drunk on box wine in her bathroom, sliding off the toilet, as one does, when a carp she is keeping in the tub begins to speak to her. “Find your daughter, go, go now,” it says. “Idiot. Your destiny awaits in the New World.”

Adela gave a daughter up for adoption at birth, and she decides to go to America — the world according to carp — to find her. Kalfar’s inventiveness rolls as if on wheels. Adela flies on an ultra-budget airline where the seats have no cushions, each passenger is limited to one cup of water and you have to pay in cash to use the toilet. In New York, at MoMA, she sees a life-size hologram of Vincent van Gogh pop up and chastise a boy for touching a painting.

There’s a slight tentativeness to Kalfar’s written English (he was born in the Czech Republic, and immigrated to the United States at 15) that endears his protagonists, and renders them believable. He makes a virtue of a limitation. He has a Kurt Vonnegut-like satirical touch, at his best, as well as Vonnegut’s interest in science. He also has an old-world melancholy, beneath the humor, that will put some readers in mind of writers like Mordecai Richler and Jerzy Kosinski.

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