by Greg Jackson
from the April 29, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

A few years ago Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” was published in The New Yorker. I really liked it, and that was the common reaction in the comments (you can see our thoughts here). Later Jackson published Prodigals, his debut collection of short stories. I’m afraid that I never followed up on my admiration, and that collection remains unread by me. I’m glad to see Jackson is still writing, and I’m curious what he’s got coming next. From his interview with Deborah Treisman, he makes it clear that he is working on his first novel, but this story is not part of it.

So what do we have in “Poetry”? An insufferable narrator, perhaps? At least, that’s my feeling after reading the first short section:

The volcano sat like a pointed cap at the head of the island. But this we knew only from photos, since, whenever we were near enough to see the volcano, it was covered in mist and clouds. The clouds suggested rain, and rain suggested that Celeste would not enjoy the hike, but so, frankly, did Celeste’s dislike of hikes, and, anyway, I had convinced myself the weather would coöperate.

“Coöperate” is an interesting word in this context, because it implies a natural alignment of interests — mine and the volcano’s — and the history of humans and volcanoes, as I understand it, does not encourage confidence in this direction. But the volcano was there, and so we had to climb it. That was how things shook out for me. Once, Celeste had spent the afternoon in a high-altitude rifugio while I hiked to the top of an Italian mountain in sneakers and shorts, among people with poles and crampons, who looked outfitted, basically, for an expedition to Mars. So maybe Celeste did have a choice. But maybe not. There was the looming question of marriage and children, after all, and of the deeper compatibility of our interests, tendencies, compulsions, and so on.

“James needs harrowing ordeals to prove he’s not already on the long downslope to death,” I once heard her tell an acquaintance at a dinner party.

“Death?” I said. “I’m worried about living. I’m worried about embracing eternity before the time comes.”

Celeste looked at me as though I’d proved her point. And maybe I had.

I do hope that the rhythm, the self-conscious eloquence, the resulting pretentious tone are intended to make us resist the narrator a bit. If so — and I think that is the case, and I like James’ brief willingness to concede at the end of the section — I’m on board to see what happens to James and Celeste as they climb this volcano.

How about the rest of you? How did this story strike you? What’s going on in their ascent? I’d love to hear it. Please feel free to comment and discuss below!

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