PRINT December 2018


Simone White

Inside the chaos of late September, when “we” received the sneering physiognomy of Brett Kavanaugh into “our” homes with varying degrees of grief and cynicism, I became even more sure that Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava (Pantheon) (a public defender by day who became a literary legend before you could buy his work) was the best book I read this year. Here converge a superrich and unlikable woman-football-baron and her factotum-slash-mentee (both booty-trance-inducing Brown grads) between whom Joni Mitchell’s music stands in for actual tenderness; a criminal genius who may or may not lose his mind in solitary confinement on Rikers Island; and others who hold threads of events that are the aftereffects of a death by impaling. I don’t like novels, I say when people ask, Read any good novels lately? I prefer the smoke signals, incomplete statements, and anti-narrative gestures of experimental poetry and critical theory, because the barest comprehension feels truer to me than story. Talk to me in riddles, please. De la Pava’s writing is transporting, with near-wicked or obsessional kinds of knowing (about the “three-four defense” or emergency medicine or the paintings of Salvador Dalí or cleaning the kitchen floor) replacing orthodox modes of characterization. This is a great relief: to be, in the act of reading, excused from the belief that we know people in and through their essence. Poetically, de la Pava is of Herman Melville’s party. Other things that perennially clank about my mental space (in no particular order) include rap music, sex with men, phrases from hundreds of poems, ideas about black people, the dialectical relation between smoking and extreme forms of exercise, and the question of whether or not I am a girl. I sensed the circulation of all these matters in this truly great American novel.

Simone White is a poet and the author, most recently, of Dear Angel of Death (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018). She lives in New York and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.