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Author Archive: "Matthew Sharpe"

Things That I Couldn’t Figure Out How to Fit into My Other Blog Posts

In graduate school I took a class with the French semiotician Michael Riffaterre, who one day told a story about refusing to study Latin as a child. His father was concerned enough about this that he brought a famous local writer over to the house to convince his son of the importance of learning Latin. This is how the eminent man convinced the stubborn child: "My dear boy, if you do not learn Latin, how will you quote?"

I will devote my last blog of the week to answering that question. I'll begin with this remark by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which ended up on the cutting room floor of the post I wrote about the paintings of Michele Araujo, and which I first read in a beautiful and soon-to-be-published book by Lisa Cohen called All We Know:

Every book is a quotation; and every house is a quotation out of all forests and mines and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors. And this grasping inventor puts all nations under contribution.

And here is the work of a ...


First Chaldaic Oracle, or How to Read a Poem

I was having dinner a few weeks ago with a friend who is highly accomplished, a true polymath, and one of most inquisitive and open people I know. I don't remember how we got there, but at a certain point he asked me, "What is poetry?" just like that . I think I said something like, "Poetry is whatever a given community of poetry readers agrees it is," which may be true, but wasn't very satisfying to either of us. It became evident that he was talking about the kind of poetry that has no regular meter or rhyme scheme, and may not feel so different from prose chopped up with line breaks — in other words, free verse, the dominant way of working for contemporary poets, at least in this country. I told him something that I'd heard the poet Galway Kinnell say about free verse, that it does all the same things formal verse does, just not in a predictable pattern. That is, it intensifies the physical properties of words — their acoustical (rhyme, assonance, alliteration, etc.) and their visual properties (how the poem looks on ...


Christopher Columbus and Faye Dunaway

Today I'm going to try to talk about two paintings by Michele Araujo, with the caveat to myself and to you that one of the things I find interesting in them is how much they push back against being talked about. In fact, both paintings contain elements that are ordinarily legible — writing in one and a photograph in the other — but whose legibility Araujo has obscured.

About the large black goopy marks that seem to move from right to left across this painting from 1994, Araujo writes that they are "a detail of a Spanish text from Columbus' journal. I never translated it. My father was Spanish-speaking but rarely spoke it in our home." Even if you can read Spanish, the letter forms are so engorged and distorted that you can't make out the words. Maybe a painting in which a text is both untranslated and illegible is a visual correlative of a father who speaks a language his child doesn't understand, and hardly ever speaks it in her presence. Just as the father's native mode of meaning-making is ...


The Sadness of Michael Westen

Every episode except the pilot of the wonderful and troubling TV show Burn Notice begins with this image:


Burn Notice was created by Matt Nix and stars Jeffrey Donovan as a spy who has been excommunicated — "burned" — from the CIA and is trying to get back in. The deciders at the CIA have ousted Donovan's character, Michael Westen, who worked freelance for them, because they've been led to believe he has done something bad, not regular spy bad but, presumably, against-America's-national-interests bad. They have frozen Westen's accounts, revoked his passport, and banished him to Miami. The short arc of each episode of Burn Notice consists of him helping some innocent who's being threatened by a gang or has been bilked by a con man or whose child has been kidnapped by a bad guy (the terms good guy and bad guy come up a lot in the Manichean world of this show). To do this he draws upon his prodigious spy skills and inexhaustible resourcefulness. The long arc of each season of Burn Notice consists of Westen's efforts to get ...


The Echo Maker

I'm going to introduce the loose theme of the five blogs Powell's has kindly asked me to write by saying a few words about a novel I've thought about a lot since I read it several years ago , Richard Powers's The Echo Maker. In it, a man named Mark Schluter suffers a brain trauma in a car accident, goes into a coma, and when he wakes up, a strange thing happens. His sister, Karin, walks into his hospital room. He apprehends that she looks like Karin, moves like her, acts like her, talks like her. But he does not recognize this person as Karin. He comes to believe she is a government agent hired for some nefarious purpose to impersonate his sister. This fictional character's affliction can happen to real people, and is called Capgras Syndrome.

With Capgras Syndrome, the part of the brain that processes visual, aural, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory stimuli may be intact, but the part that recognizes them is not. Mark knows he's been in an accident and has a brain injury. He ...


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