Sometime on Tuesday, November 8, 1960, a 66-year-old widower and self-described “moderate Republican” went to his polling place in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to vote for his state’s junior senator for president. Never the most forthcoming of men, Norman Rockwell hadn’t told his family he was backing John F. Kennedy. He’d painted portraits of both candidates for the Saturday Evening Post, and he just didn’t like Richard Nixon’s face.
It was only a short walk down Main Street from the two-story Colonial house supposedly once occupied by Aaron Burr, whose derelict red barn Rockwell had converted into his fastidiously tidy studio. He’d called Stockbridge home since relocating from rural Vermont six years earlier, mainly for proximity to its renowned Austen Riggs psychiatric center. His second wife, Mary, who struggled with alcoholism and depression, had been a chronic patient there.
In those newly cosmopolitan times — the Mad Men era, for shorthand’s sake — the Anytown, USA, that Rockwell had depicted on hundreds of Post covers was becoming a curio at best and an object of derision at worst. Nixon still espoused a mealy-mouthed fealty to those pseudo-Rockwellian virtues. By choosing Kennedy instead, Rockwell might as well have been casting a ballot to hasten his own obsolescence. But nobody could disagree that he’d had a good run.
Heimaey is the largest of the Westman Islands, an archipelago south of Iceland mostly inhabited by puffins. On Stórhöfði peninsula, at the southernmost point of Heimaey is an outcrop that juts into the Atlantic Ocean. The local weather station here claims to be one of the windiest places in Europe.
It was here, in the early hours of March 12 1984, that 23-year-old Guðlaugur Friðþórsson stumbled towards salvation. His bare feet were bleeding from deep cuts caused by the volcanic rock hidden beneath the snow, his clothes soaked in seawater and frozen to his body. He should have already died several times over, but something deep inside Friðþórsson propelled him forwards.
Chefs and restaurateurs on both coasts take a dim view of the future, not because of the numbers but because of their own experience, going to work and talking to their peers: Too many restaurants open and then close too fast, after months, not years. And closures are an equal-opportunity phenomenon, nationwide. If you live someplace that grows or raises the food these city chefs sell, you might want to make sure your local Applebee’s is still open before you pile the family in the car and head over—the chain just announced a new growth strategy, but it centers on catering and delivery, not restaurants.
That sound you hear is doors closing, no matter where you live or where you go out to eat.
Part of my love for Lady Macbeth comes from this ability to perform gender to her advantage. I can imagine Lady Macbeth grabbing her husband by the arm and telling him to pull it together at several points. She frequently questions his manliness, outright asking, “Are you a man?” when he acts mad after seeing Banquo’s ghost at a banquet. When Macbeth returns with the daggers, she must return them to the crime scene, bloodying her own hands, and she tells him, “My hands are of your color, but I shame / To wear a heart so white.” Ultimately, she’s the one who secures their power, telling him to wash his hands, put on his nightgown, and pretend it never happened, though Macbeth can’t overcome guilt so quickly. Then he descends into madness—more hallucinations and murders; the illness Lady Macbeth once hoped would attend him has now consumed him. “Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,” he tells Lady Macbeth before Banquo’s murder. She once had to keep Macbeth together just long enough to murder, but now she has lost control of him.
Really great poetry is difficult to read. I don’t just mean it’s challenging, though it usually is. I mean it’s hard to make progress, because the density of meaning in the language stops you; it makes you read in loops. Alice Fulton has called poetry “recursive”: “It sends you back up the page as much as it sends you forward.” Because of this effect, it once took me all afternoon to finish reading John Ashbery’s long poem “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” — I kept wanting to stop and start over again. Alice Notley’s best work feels this way: intensely recursive, almost too good to read. In its semantic density, great poetry gives you the sense you’ve skipped over and missed some available shade of meaning. You certainly have.
At the heart of “Barn 8” is love, specifically the longing that comes from missing someone you love, and how that love can, if catalyzed, move the lover to do great things. Great things like hatch a plot to steal a million chickens.
I will swing my lasso of headlights
across your front porch,
let it drop like a rope of knotted
light at your feet.