Kathleen Jamie writes about her time on Rona, a Scottish island in the North Atlantic. Her companions are Stuart Murray, a naturalist, and Jill Harden, an archaeologist, who are conducting research. The full essay can be found in Issue 16.
While Stuart spoke to the birds, Jill communed with stones. First she concentrated on Saint Ronan’s chapel. It’s just a shell now, the stones of its western gable much collapsed. It stands at the southern wall of an enclosure, and within the enclosure is a little graveyard, very old. The turf has risen over the centuries, so the humble gravestones, hewn of the sparkly island feldspar, tilt this way and that like little sinking ships.
Nothing is known of Saint Ronan but his name, which, oddly, means “little seal”—as if he’d been a Rona selkie who’d swapped his sealskin for the habit of a monk. Doubtless he was one of the early Scots-Irish monks who sailed from his monastery to seek “a desert place in the sea” where he could live a life of austerity and prayer. Hundreds of years later, the people built the chapel in his name and buried their dead beside it. Now those people are gone, too, and their graveyard is a poignant place.Continue reading
Silence is as important as words in the practice and study of translation. This may sound like a cliché. (I think it is a cliché. Perhaps we can come back to cliché.) There are two kinds of silence that trouble a translator: physical silence and metaphysical silence. Physical silence happens when you are looking at, say, a poem of Sappho’s inscribed on a papyrus from two thousand years ago that has been torn in half. Half the poem is empty space. A translator can signify or even rectify this lack of text in various ways—with blankness or brackets or textual conjecture—and she is justified in doing so because Sappho did not intend that part of the poem to fall silent. Metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define. Every translator knows the point where one language cannot be translated into another. Take the word cliché. Cliché is a French borrowing, past participle of the verb clicher, a term from printing meaning “to make a stereotype from a relief printing surface.” It has been assumed into English unchanged, partly because using French words makes English-speakers feel more intelligent and partly because the word has imitative origins (it is supposed to mimic the sound of the printer’s die striking the metal) that make it untranslatable. English has different sounds. English falls silent. This kind of linguistic decision is simply a measure of foreignness, an acknowledgment of the fact that languages are not sciences of one another, you cannot match them item for item. But now what if, within this silence, you discover a deeper one—a word that does not intend to be translatable. A word that stops itself. Here is an example.Continue reading
There is an altitude above every planet where a moon can orbit forevermore. In millions of miles of ups and downs, there is one narrow passageway of permanence. If a moon can reach this groove, it will never crash down like masonry nor drift away like a mood; it will be inalienable; it will circle its planet at the exact speed that the planet rotates, always over one site, like the Badlands or Brazzaville or the Great Red Spot, so that the planet neither drags the moon faster nor slows it down. Moons not locked into this synchronous orbit are either being perturbed up or down.Continue reading
Descendants of Chief Justice John Marshall return home for a family reunion. Peyton Marshall reports, in the new issue.
In September 2003, the descendants of John Marshall, the fourth and arguably greatest Chief Justice of the United States, gathered at the Richmond Marriott for a weekend of cocktails and lectures. I flew home to attend the reunion and arrived at Dulles International Airport a few hours before Hurricane Isabelle. Baggage claim was in pandemonium. The falling barometer had driven everyone a little mad and I had a hard time locating my parents in the crowd. I found my mother first and when I hugged her I smelled the tang of mothballs.Continue reading
There is a tiny Southerner inside me. Whenever I try to sleep she sets to work kicking the soft sides of my stomach. At my in-laws’ house in North Carolina, I toss with her, hearing again what my husband’s father asked at supper, “Are you sure the sonogram was right?” He’s kept hope alive that my baby might be a boy, someone to carry on his family name. I thought he was kidding and I was wrong.Continue reading
We begin with the first function.
I. One of the Members Absents Himself from Home. (Definition: absentation.)
I didn't exactly leave home for Nicaragua. I'd been leaving home for years, felt like, living in Boston, Iowa, Manhattan. Nicaragua was just the furthest I'd gone.
Near a city called Granada I taught Spanish to kids who knew their language better than I ever would. I worked in a school with two concrete classrooms sometimes invaded by goats or stray dogs. The dogs were skinny. Some of the kids were too, though they were always buying treats from an old woman who sold bags of old potato chips and bright pink cookies from huge straw baskets. She sat in the shadows under their rusty swings.
I liked the kids. They touched me--literally my arms, legs, my whole body--more than anyone else I'd known. I knew their families by sight and sometimes by name. Many of their mothers sold chewing gum and cashews in the parque central next to the bus station. Their fathers and brothers called out "Guapa chica!" every time I passed. I should have been offended. I wasn't.
It would seem simple for most: my brother, who still lives in Boston, has managed to get tickets to game two of the American League Championship Series between the Red Sox and the Yankees, enough for me to take my son and two friends. But after leaving work, I stop before entering the subway: I have a momentary lapse of faith, and it keeps me from going underground.
I hesitate for different reasons: The first is that I’ve always been scared of riding the New York City subway—being greeted by the turnstile arm to the genitals, and then the blast of inhuman-human odor, mixed with dead rat in the walls: like the filthy mop-head smell I remember from being a stock boy in a grocery, it reminds me of being a chump.Continue reading
Forget its telegenic cast: the real star of CSI is Luminol. If neo-noir torchlight defined the look of nineties television in shows like The X-Files, the fluorescent glow of Luminol is its twenty-first-century successor. Sprayed in the dark onto a carpet or a car trunk or a bathtub, Luminol turns invisible traces of old blood into light. It makes death itself visible, as if registering the body’s secret neon, by bringing its traces to sudden, glowing life. It’s no coincidence that CSI is set in neon-lit Las Vegas, and that each episode opens with a sequence of aerial shots of the city’s sunsets and shining casinos in hyperreal, glowing color. In CSI even the city seems to have been sprayed with Luminol, to offer itself up, radiant and transparent, to our gaze.
I’m obsessed by CSI. I watch it for the light. I watch it for the exaggerated sheen on the roofs of new tract houses on the desert’s edge as the camera pans across them; for underlit laboratories as sleek as display kitchens; for the gold of a desert sunset igniting a suburban lounge room. I love its saturated colors, the waxy polish of black cars, the squeaky patina of its hallways. I love the light’s excessive, even gleam, the implacable glassiness of its cobalt blues and pinky purples; the sense that objects are always on the verge of flaring into further brightness. I love the way the handsome cast of CSI move through this exquisite brilliance, their faces overcast with color, as if in the grip of some limpid thought made visible: the way the sky, as the camera glides above the city’s casinos and dusky lots, appears to flash and stutter.Continue reading