Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
This week, three pieces about bodies: the mortal in a stark piece of Chinese non-fiction, the political in a stirring Brazilian poem, and the insane in a magical English short story.
I found this story while researching Chinese literature on bodies for my Hugo House writing class (Winter term class catalogue available tomorrow!). Originally published in 2005 and translated into English in 2019, Ma Jinyu explores the art of corpse preservation in Shanxi mining towns in this piece of creative nonfiction. The detail is astonishing, you can almost smell the oil cakes and mutton, the bitter fragrance of a Chinese medicine counter, the stark nihilism of the villagers. You’ll shudder at the mention about the scalding water where the morticians bathe the bodies of dead miners, cough at the dust rising up with the motorcycles. It’s just a plain good story that makes you feel unmistakably, ferociously alive even when all it talks about is the dead.
But no matter how you washed the deceased you couldn’t get them clean, because their blood had stopped circulating and their pores wouldn’t open. Especially around the eyes, the skin was always as dark as if it had been covered in eye shadow. Old man Liang said that they usually used laundry detergent, dipping a towel in a little water to scrub the skin clean. But even if they used a lot of detergent, places like the face, hands and any areas that had been injured or had open wounds would remain covered with coal dust and soot that couldn’t be cleaned away, “not with a lifetime of scrubbing.”
In the US, the word impeachment is everywhere. But before we even arrived at the possibility of impeachment we witnessed an inauguration, before that, a victory and a defeat, and before that, an election, and before that, a different president, and before that, a different world. In the latest issue of one of my favorite magazines, Asymptote, a journal of translation, published a 2010 poem from Brazilian poet Alberto Pucheu, “Poem to be Read on Inauguration Day.” This poem first ran in one of Brazil’s largest newspapers the day before the October 2010 election, where the outgoing president was one of the most popular of all time, and the eventual victor was Brazil’s first woman president, who six years later was eventually (and controversially) impeached for corruption – a strange, paralleled inversion of our own political reality.
Pucheu was inspired by “Praise Song for a Day,” the Elizabeth Alexander poem read on the day of Obama’s inauguration. You can see the echoes: strangers passing each other the streets, the mundanity and violence of our lives, the hope of love, communion, and survival. But Pucheu’s is also a defiant refutation of the political apathy that has led to a world where “killable bodies” flee “athletic gunshots,” where we dream of “bar codes on the backs / of necks… making / bodies available to a machine that would insist / on recognizing them by some number/ in which we would never recognize ourselves.”
Going up or going down a street,
we attest to this hiatus of unknowing
between the abandoned body and the different lives
that try to colonize it, between the naked life
and the living garments that cover it,
between raw life and whatever part of it is cookable,
between open life and lived life.
A vinegary excerpt from a short story by Victoria Manifold in The Lifted Brow, an Australian magazine, is a ride through lunacy, decay, death, village gossip, frogs and Old Testament-like natural disasters. If you liked the magical claustrophobic intensity of One Hundred Years of Solitude, you’ll love reading this. Two sisters, the pretty and glamorous Mina and the sharp and wry Mirka, become widows simultaneously, and move back into the dilapidated mansion where their mother is, quite literally, shrinking away from the burden of sanity. I won’t give too much away, but it’s so visceral and acidic, you’ll find yourself clutching your tongue to your teeth the whole time.
Every day the milk would sour as soon as the sun rose but neither Mina nor myself would condescend to acknowledge it. Instead we drank it in lumps from the bottom of china bowls, each daring the other to admit the taste was vile. Mina would stare straight into my eyes and ask “Are you enjoying your breakfast Mirka?” and I would stare straight back and answer “mmmmmmmmm,” whilst rubbing satisfied circles all over my paunch, “And you Mina?” I would ask, “how is your breakfast?” “mmmmmmmmm,” she would say too, rubbing her own paunch even more vigorously and displaying even more satisfaction.