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NEW ENGLAND LITERARY NEWS | nina maclaughlin

Bodies in detail, Kipling in Vermont, and Shakespeare in the park

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © Stella Bloom Trust Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

In the flesh

Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death (MFA) accompanies an exhibition that opened last week at the MFA exploring the work of Boston artist Bloom, who lived from 1913-2009, whose vital, vivid paintings of the human body in life and death exist in that taut place between seductive and revolting, between beautiful and terrifying, which is to say, that edge up against the sublime. Bloom was a wanderer in the occult, gathered with the Order of the Portal, a “Boston-based, Christianized offshoot of the Rosicrucian Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” according to an introductory essay, which studied metaphysics. In a thoughtful, informative essay, Erica E. Hirshler writes of Bloom’s interest in the mysteries, his journeys on LSD and psychoanalysis. His paintings hold the rich colors of life — fuchsia, geranium red, gold — as well as the colors of decay — grey-yellow, beige, black. He captures slack flesh hanging off a face, the lifeless hang to a hand. Bodies are flayed open, ripped apart at the ribs, viscera spilling, hung like cattle at the butcher; sores and lesions bloom on skin. He shows the meatness of us, in its beauty, and its horror. “I had a conviction of immortality,” Hirshler quotes him, “of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being.” “Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death” runs through February 23, 2020 at the MFA.

Brattleboro the hard way

Rudyard Kipling, born in Bombay in 1865, wrote The Jungle Book in Brattleboro, Vermont, having married his agent’s sister, Carrie Balestier, a native of the state. Mount Holyoke professor and Amherst resident Christopher Benfey’s focused and illuminating new biography of Kipling, If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years (Penguin), looks at the decade Kipling spent in New England, calling these years “the key creative period in his entire career.” Kipling’s literary luminance was unparalleled (he won the Nobel Prize in 1907 at age 41); but with the rise of post-colonialism, Kipling’s reputation began to shift, and he fell out of favor, understood as “a jingoist of Bard of Empire, a man on the wrong side of history.” Benfey, whose award-winning A Summer of Hummingbirds (Penguin) looked at the intersection of Dickinson, Twain, Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, steers his attention here on the ways in which the United States impacted the author, and the ways the author impacted the United States, arguing that Kipling’s influence spanned literature and politics, and altered perceptions of masculinity and the supernatural. Benfey does a masterful job detangling a complex figure.

 Words on play

In tandem with Shakespeare on the Common’s performances of “Cymbeline,” the Boston Athenaeum is offering an evening of discussion preceding the play. Anita Diamant, bestselling author of a dozen books including “The Red Tent will be in conversation with Fred Sullivan Jr., a 13-year veteran of Shakespeare on the Common, and a first-time director. The two will be in dialogue about the mystical fairy-tale mood of the story, looking at how forgiveness and fortitude play into this tragicomic romance fraught with mistaken identities. The event takes place Thursday, July 25 at 6 p.m. at the Boston Athenaeum, Beacon Street, Boston. Tickets are $20 for the lecture only; $65 for the lecture and a reserved seat at the performance on the Common that night. For more information visit www.bostonathenaeum.org.

Coming Out

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Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon (Counterpoint)

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The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda (City Lights)

Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh (Ecco)

Pick of the Week

Emma Ramadan at Riffraff in Providence recommends Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman: “A sinister, creepy story about a young girl’s arrival at an orphanage that practically demands to be read in one teeth-gnashing sitting.”

Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin @gmail.com.