Spotlight: Nathan Manley

Nathan Manley on ekpyrōsis

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Fragment on [ekpyrōsis] is one poem in a sequence of twenty eight so-called “fragments” that I wrote to mimic the format of scholarly translations of Pre-Socratic treatises on cosmology. With a handful of notable exceptions, these texts survive only in disjointed remnants and make up an unusual and tantalizing genre of ancient literature which unexpectedly obsessed my attention last year. 

When antiquity transmits to us the partial remains of a text, we receive those remains in one of two ways. Very rarely, a piece of writing will materially endure the vicissitudes of history until it resurfaces, often under extraordinary or strange circumstances, many centuries after its initial production and final circulation in the ancient world; a piece of papyrus, for instance, or some other kind of proto-paper is recovered by archaeologists in such a state that it remains at least partially legible. More frequently than acquiring such an artifact through an exceedingly good fortune of historical circumstance, we retrieve fragments of lost texts from ancient or medieval commentators who quoted them. The Cilician commentator Simplicius, writing in the sixth century AD at the last Neoplatonist school in Athens, was undoubtedly one of the modern historian’s best unwitting collaborators in this respect. Simplicius’ commentaries are copious, rich, tedious, and utterly indispensable to restoring our knowledge of pre-scientific cosmological perspectives of the distant past.

Ekpyrōsis, to turn now to the matter at hand, was a cosmological belief in the periodic conflagration of the universe and an idea which greatly influenced the philosophers of the Hellenic age, namely Plato, Aristotle, and the Platonist and Peripatetic schools that succeeded them. The doctrine of ekpyrōsis, however, is sometimes attributed by historians to the Ephesian philosopher Heraclitus, whose fragmentary work survives in the quotations of later writers and commentators (including Aristotle, who cites him in Rhetoric as an example of bad style). Even among his contemporaries in the sixth century BC Heraclitus’ was often hailed with a telling epithet: “the Obscure.” Given the consequent difficulty of interpreting what remains of his only book, On Nature, the attribution of the ekpyrotic cycle to Heraclitus’ school of natural philosophy can be made only hesitantly, despite the apparent emphasis of Heraclitean cosmology on the primacy of fire among the elements. Nevertheless, the notion of some recurring, fiery, and total consumption of the earth utterly captivated the ideological descendants of Pre-Socratic Greece. Plato, in a bizarre treatise on the creation of the world called the Timaeus (a work which curiously lapses into a kind of medical text in its final pages), writes of a cyclical destruction of the earth by fire occurring at a periodicity of once every 36,000 years, an interval which scholars have since termed the “Platonic” or “Great Year.” Though the Stoic philosophers of the late Hellenic period were undoubtedly the first to popularize this particular dream of destruction and renewal, such fantasies have by turns enchanted and haunted human beings down the long centuries since. There is what might be called an ekpyrotic or eschatological impulse throbbing beneath many of our most potent visions of the future. 

Insofar as the historical record is sufficient to indicate, humanity’s every generation has imagined that the times in which it was living might be the very last. Proceeding from our fears about the horrific capacities of the future is a phantasmagoric stream of apocalyptic literature, peopled with the risen dead, with creatures alternately grotesque and sublime, with dire angelic beings flexing wing-stalks inlaid with eyes. I have often suffered to fester in me, if not exactly these monstrous visions, then certainly the dark apprehensions which underlie them. I look out on the increasingly nightmarish implication of humanity’s presence on this planet with nothing less than a vague sense of apocalypse. If it be true 1) that mankind, being uniquely capable of stewarding the environs of its own activity (living space it necessarily shares with other living beings), is charged thus with the moral imperative of stewardship; 2) that our species’ best efforts at stewardship have precipitated the desperate realities of floral and faunal collapse, of the disruption of biogeochemical cycles which only a century and a half ago seemed intractable, timeless, fundamental; and 3) that humanity has swelled to such a stage that it has now taken up the mantle of a geologic force, tending inalterably toward extinction— If all this be true, then the only possible vision of a better world that presents itself to me is a world empty of human beings, a world over which some lost divinity drifts in bereavement, silent and alone, above the cockroaches and dandelions—whatever pertinacious forms of life still scuttle and bloom among our cities’ cinders.

In both the routines of daily life and the habits of mind by which they are accompanied, we must reject this vision.

What fascinates me in the end about the literary fragments of classical antiquity is not merely the prospect of contact with some little shard of thought which time has rendered beautiful and strange in its illegibility, but the stark and fecund emptiness of the missing text around the fragments. In that void, one longs to touch something like the spirit of a god, hovering over deep, primordial water.

Spotlight: Ivan Veljković

Ivan Veljković on “Utility

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I wrote “Utility” for a young Hebrew artist whom I’ve ‘met’ on Discord once (I still have the early sketches), but he didn’t have the time to do it. Then, back in 2018 at the Balkans Festival of Young Comics Creators in Leskovac, Serbia, I came across Efi. I say ‘came across’ because we didn’t actually meet then and there. But roughly a month later, I added her on Messenger and we got to talking. Then I did some research of her art and I found it to my taste.

If I recall correctly, it was in early 2019 that I sent Efi Theodoropoulou several of my scripts, “Utility” included. She chose that one and we started working on it, trying to reach a deadline for a Slovenian comic book competition. Naturally, we also considered publishing the short comic somewhere. However, both Serbia and Greece are known as countries whose publishers don’t pay their comic book artists or writers jack shi—I mean, diddly-squat. Needless to say, we couldn’t hope to earn any money from domestic publication. Sadly, I can’t pay my artists anything either, and Efi was aware of this. That’s why I decided to enter “Utility” in as many competitions as possible, to send it to as many editors and as many publishers as possible, and she did the same. I didn’t and still don’t want her art to go to waste, so the least I can do is get it published. Fortunately, Split Rock Review liked our lovely little creation, and here we all are.

There is very little to say about the creative process, at least on my end (Efi will surely read this text before publication, so she might provide more info regarding the subject, at least from her perspective as an artist). There wasn’t any grandiose moment of revelation that made me write “Utility.” I just liked the idea of seeing a red-haired girl and a dog walk in the woods, so I wrote it. As dull as that is, that’s how it happened.

You’ll permit me to say a few words about Efi, however. She did both the art and the coloring for this piece and, interestingly, during our working process, the only thing I asked her to change was two very minor details in two panels. She literally drew the piece almost exactly as I wanted it; if I recall correctly, she just shifted a few of the panels around to fit the narrative better, which I always appreciate with my artists. She never complained, never argued and never showed any signs of stress or fatigue, even though I know for a fact that she works extremely hard on about a billion other things.

But more interestingly, I finally got to meet Efi this year in person, again at the Balkans Festival in Leskovac. She is not only an amazing artist, but also an honest, real friend. A proper pal, so to speak. I never saw a person that adorable who loves a good swig of beer. We became friends quickly, as most Balkan-based comics authors do. Hopefully, if luck will have it, we will stay in touch for some years to come. Neither one of us is sure that we will work together on a new project in the near future, but there will always be room for beer. And, depending on where we are, either a gyros or a ćevap (Google those, you won’t regret it).

Spotlight: Angus Woodward

Angus Woodward on “The Witchy House

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I’m a writer, but recently creating visual art has become almost as important to me as creating prose. Maybe a year ago, I started to make drawings based on old photos. These photos showed people and places that were important to me at some point when I was growing up – my family of nine standing on the back deck in 1970, or my dad standing next to the old car he had decorated with fake zebra fur. I began spending more and more time on these drawings because I found that making them was a way to really think through a memory, almost like I was reliving it.

I realized that touching these memories with my pen gave me ideas for writing about them. And so I drew “The Witchy House” and then wrote words to go with it, and it became my first foray into graphic narrative. I am now working on a series of similar pieces, under the working title What Happened Here?

One of the challenges of creating “The Witchy House” was that the reference photo shows the house in 2019, when the fence I’d been thrown over was long gone. I rebuilt it with my pen. That’s the only element of fiction in an otherwise completely true account.

Spotlight: Maison Horton

Maison Horton discusses “On Drought

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Every year, Midwestern late-summers act out the same seasonal drama—the sun, the storms, the triumphant resurgence of green—but to me, Nebraskan late-summers in particular always come with an overwhelming feeling of closure. That closure is something I wanted to capture in “On Drought,” a poem that also deals with some themes I find myself returning to in my writing inheritance, time (especially transitions and endings), and nature’s omniscience. 

When I wrote the first draft of this poem, we’d had a particularly hot and sunny few weeks without much rain. The lethargy permeating both the people I knew and the landscape felt so heavy. Then I had thoughts about the Dust Bowl and how eternal those tribulations probably seemed at the time. To me, the connection between the past and the present here was far too apparent to ignore. When these droughts happen, I think it’s easy to pass them off as bad luck or to curse the weather, but times of drought have happened in every generation; in this way, none of us are truly removed from these natural cycles.

The speaker in “On Drought” ruminates on the idea that the land passes down its times of suffering like a gene, and so for the land, suffering is inevitable. It’s fate. The end of the poem sees the beginnings of a union between the defeated addressee and the “locust-trill,” an omen that preludes the land’s eventual (and on-schedule) move into autumn and winter. I look at “On Drought” and many of my poems as ways to explore cusps of great change, whether “cusp” means movements beyond personal thresholds or thresholds that natural cycles create. The poem is simply a means of crossing a boundary into the next cycle. That’s when the truth of a matter starts unraveling.