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Contemporary Black poets celebrate Phillis Wheatley in new volume; ‘Moby-Dick’-inspired video installations at ICA

A roundup of literary events around the region

A view of Wu Tsang’s installation “Of Whales,” which opens this week at the ICA.Matteo De Fina. © Wu Tsan

Contemporary Black poets celebrate Phillis Wheatley in new volume

Phillis Wheatley, the first formerly enslaved person to have a book published, is understood by many as “the mother of African American literature, and a luminary of United States letters,” as noted in the introduction to a new anthology celebrating the 250th anniversary of Wheatley’s poetry collection “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” For “Wheatley at 250: Black Women Poets Re-imagine the Verse of Phillis Wheatley Peters,” edited by former Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges and Artress Bethany White and published by the Cambridge-based Pangyrus, poets were invited to “reinscribe, translate, or interpret a Wheatley poem,” and their reinscriptions, translations, and interpretations sit beside Wheatley’s originals. The result is a powerful then-and-now document that deepens engagement with Wheatley’s work, revealing her roots reaching deep in the American literary tree and the branches from it that continue to leaf and bloom. “What I’ve learned, through ache/ and shame, is a crumb/ of what you stayed knowing,” writes Tracy K. Smith, responding to “On Virtue.” Other contributors include Florence Ladd, aracelis girmay, Mahogany L. Browne, Evie Shockley, and Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, among others. Responding to “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” Georges writes, “In us the flood,/ The moon & tides, horizons,/ uncut shores & lines, and more: the rays/ and versed libations to the waiting Sun.”


“Moby-Dick”-inspired video installations on view at ICA beginning Feb. 15

Worcester-born artist Wu Tsang came late to “Moby-Dick,” but once she entered it, the book offered her new depths of imaginative pathways. This week, “Of Whales,” one of the three “Moby-Dick”-inspired video installations she’s created, opens at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. “Of Whales” approaches the story from the perspective of the sperm whale, and is told from below the surface of the water. She notes a moment in the book when Pip falls off the boat and is “carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps,” as Melville puts it. He sees “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom,” and when he tells his crewmates, they think him mad. This place, this deepest deep, is the place Tsang wanted to explore. The sperm whale dives deeper than any other mammal, and for Tsang, these creatures became symbols for the unknowable, the mystery; they are beyond us, and like us, too. The CGI ocean in this wonderworld is a dynamically generated real-time continuously looping installation, made in collaboration with musicians who created an accompanying soundscape. Wu Tsang’s “Of Whales” opens on Feb. 15 and runs through Aug. 4 at the ICA/Boston.


“Last of the Mohicans” reimagined from Indigenous point of view

What is it to be Indigenous and to be separated from familial land and traditional knowledge as the result of generations of colonial violence? It’s a question that drives Jordan Abel in his new work, “Empty Spaces” (Yale). Abel uses language as stand in for direct physical, geographical contact. The result is a singular, incantatory work, one that reimagines James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” a novel which propelled the notion of “the vanishing Indian,” the grave myth that Indians were assimilating or dying out and offering their land to settlers. Told from the perspective of a contemporary city-dwelling Nisga’a person, the book feels as though forest itself is speaking, sky itself, river itself. “There is scattered driftwood and the scent of roses. There are glimpses of roses and rocks and shrubs in the spring rain. . . . Somewhere out there is the wilderness.” Setting lives and breathes as character, as force; it is a book grounded in the physical world — of rocks, water, paths, highways, trash piles, bodies, heat — and has a pervasive ambience of all-connection, an awareness of the right-now highway and the back-then blood and the right-now blood. “There is lightning and then there is stillness. There are echoes that rush through the forest until they disappear. . . . Some waters carry the dead.” It is a visionary work, looking at great theft and worse, centuries ago, reverberating to this minute. “What are the deep shadows? What forms out of the damp morning air? What bitterness? What glory? What country?”


Coming out

“Ten Bridges I’ve Burnt” by Brontez Purnell (MCD/FSG)

“Neighbors and Other Stories” by Diane Oliver (Grove)

“Your Utopia” by Bora Chung, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur (Algonquin)

Pick of the week

Peter Sherman of Wellesley Books recommends “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire” by Lizzie Johnson (Crown): “Johnson focuses on the near total destruction of the town of Paradise. Visceral accounts of overwhelmed first responders, parents struggling to save their families, and everyday citizens fighting against the odds alternate with damning evidence of the fire’s origins in aging, poorly maintained infrastructure. These threats to our communities are becoming a terrifying and heartbreaking norm. This book is a must-read.”