I met Samantha Bernstein in 2009. She had just completed research for her Master’s thesis on youth movements, epistolary narratives, and autobiographical literature. She told me she was writing a memoir. Then she casually confided that she was the youngest child of Irving Layton, the legendary and leonine poet who shook up the conservative Canadian literary scene in the 50s and 60s. Layton described himself as a “hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter.” Leonard Cohen once said, “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us.”
Tightrope Books will publish Samantha’s memoir, Here We Are Among the Living, later this spring. Quill and Quire calls it “a confrontational coming of age story.” The book is composed of email exchanges—the epistolary mode; because, as Samantha explains, “writing letters to friends is a vital part of many people’s development, and because of the form’s association with self-reflection and social criticism.” The excerpts that follow are, in Sam’s words, ”the clearest contemplations” on the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. “I think that even if for middle-class people like me politics always are in some way aesthetics,” she explains, “our predilections can help us better understand the world, and live more ethically.” Of course, literary inheritance is an important part of this, for as Sam admits, “Irving is hovering ’round here: coming to terms with his belief in the poet as prophet, this frighteningly powerful faith in art that governed his life. Coming to believe that creativity need not be tied to destructiveness in the way it was for him.”
You can also read Samantha Bernstein’s gripping short story “The Neighbour” at The Broken Pencil’s “Deathmatch V; read it and vote before February 5th.
— Cheryl Cowdy
We’ve All Gone to Look For America…
(from Here We Are Among the Living, Tightrope Books, Spring 2012)
By Samantha Bernstein
We’ve All Gone to Look For America…
10/ 15/ 2002
Tonight when I came home from taking Joe to the airport Mom was yelling into the phone, at Baba of course. Okay, so? You always were miserable, so you’re still miserable. I’m very sorry, Mother. Tse maisse frum drek, e medaf lecken de finger. (The world is a bowl of shit and you have to lick your fingers: a favorite expression of Baba’s grandmother.) That’s right, Mother, if all you do is sit and worry, then you’re going to feel sick. Mom rolling her eyes on the couch amid a sea of newspapers, TV on silent. Walking in was like being pushed from a height in a dream, my futility ringing in my ears as I plummet. For six days when Joe was here I felt young, beholden to no one; suspended in the melancholy peace of his eyes I was just a long-haired kid with a car and a pack of smokes, music blaring and adventure everywhere. I imagine that’s what it felt like to be young in the Sixties. When being young was what was going on, and your jeans, weed, music all signaled freedom, all meant infinite possibility, radical choice, the indescribable magnitude of Right Now.
In that spirit, Joe and I hopped into the car on Friday night and, to Mom’s distress, headed for Detroit (Oh, you have to go look at the poor people? Smiling rueful love as we nodded and laughed. Oh well, she said, Joe’s with you, you’ll be okay). So off we went to find the ghost of America’s golden years, though we got lost on the outskirts of Buffalo, where the all-night gas station clerk laughed at me and said the fastest way to Detroit was back through Canada. But we didn’t mind covering a lot of road. I drove as long as I could stay awake through the subdivision-sown fields, Joe horrified and fascinated by the size, the immense pre-fab impermanence of millennial Ohio. On a dark misty patch of highway, a deer appeared and we watched its beautiful, terrified head vanish into the bushes at the back of a strip mall.
Approaching Detroit, Joe balanced his torso out the sunroof and took pictures of the skyline: the city ahead, and to the north a pile of mangled industrial shit that looked like the steel skeletons of a thousand dinosaurs. We parked beneath an empty building – a miniature castle – and started walking. I got a shot of Joe by a boarded-up garage that someone had spray-painted, in green, WITH OPEN EYES I. If I were going to get a tattoo, I said to him, That’s what I’d get. The sun very white reflecting off the dirty building, Joe squinting at me, legs apart, hips slightly askew, a portrait of suspended motion as always.
I took another shot of Joe standing in the middle of a six-lane road by a steaming sewer grate because we thought it would be iconic, but the street was too sunny and leafy for what we had in mind. Still, it looked as sad as we expected as we got to the heart of downtown. Everywhere garbage, boarded-up department stores, forsaken restaurants, ornate hotels ghostly as sacked palaces, the tattered remains of awnings flapping from their rails. The sunshine making strangely sweet the dirty bricks and flaking gilt shop-signs, we had our flitting visions of post-war American families congregating outside diners on a morning much like this one: ladies in hats entering department stores, bright, chrome-rimmed cars rolling down the streets, a war just won, factories a continuous hum except on Sundays. You can still feel what it must have been like. American cities seem to have changed less, there’s a thicker residue of decades past; downtown Toronto feels so deliberately polished in places. Scrubbed so meaninglessly clean.
What is the meaning of looking at dirt, that’s a question. Driving home at twilight, looking at the ragged fields I wondered what stories I am always looking for in dereliction. History, sure, but there’s something else, too, and less disinterested. The desire to look feels cruel, like taking pleasure in pain; but is wanting not to look more ethical?
Anyway, my dear Eshe, it was good to be on the move again, even for two days, what with that post-trip travel bug still gnawing at my gut. Though it’s excellent to be in school, learning new things. I’ve had moments taking notes on maquiladoras or discussing the causes of bi-polar disorder that I am so completely happy I actually smile to myself. Just being a proper student, taking in facts, ideas.
We missed you at Thanksgiving. We did a colossal thing, must have had forty people over the course of the night. It was a little maddening at times – for awhile people were constantly coming and going, there were plates, bags, shoes everywhere, the phone unceasing with people needing buzzing up. Of course it was a buffet, people perched on sofa arms, cross-legged on the floor, leaning against the kitchen counter, but that was rather satisfying – it seemed people were eating for hours, in every corner of the apartment. As usual the preparations were all stress and horror at how much everything costs, Mom harrumphing into the fridge wishing she lived in a big house with a big proper fridge, muttering about how when Baba had the house there were two fridges but she had to go and sell it…. But when people arrive Mom is rosy-cheeked and beaming, perfectly in her element bearing massive trays of turkey, ladling out steaming sweet potatoes. A basic, primal thing, to feed and be fed. The ritual of shared food. I’ve always particularly liked Thanksgiving; Mom first decided to do Thanksgiving dinner when I was maybe nine, and I remember being so excited, making little place cards for everyone, acting the cheery sprite of a child I wasn’t by nature but desired to be. Which I suppose means I was naturally that way in some sense, but I had to work at it; at least, I remember pondering the lives of Pollyanna and Josephine March, those lessons in feminine virtue, in gaining strength through hardship. I realized it made me and others happy when I emulated them, bustling around in a little apron, humming a little tune, arranging gourds in a basket or tidying the house.
Though I always knew, giving thanks at the laden table, that it wasn’t the same as in olden times; that bounty meant something different since I had never known real scarcity. We’d bought this food like we’d buy anything else, from the ever-full supermarket; there were no winter stores being put by, no cellar full of pickles and preserves for the lean months. Arranging store-bought gourds in the wicker cornucopia I adored, I knew that image – food tumbling from a cornucopia – had become purely representative for us, not quite false but fundamentally unmoored from the original meaning. Nonetheless it always made sense to me to take the opportunity of Thanksgiving to thank the earth for what we have, though I’ve never so much as harvested a tomato. So that is what we did. Mom’s work friends talking shop on the couch as Bri carved her tofurkey, Flo gave Joe a back-rub, and Ty rolled joints and hollered gleefully about anatomy. Wonderful Franceszka washing dishes, insisting Mom sit down, putting things to order in her bossy, smiling way. A properly modern, haphazard celebration.
Tell me when you’re coming home for American Thanksgiving, maybe I can pick you up from the bus.
The Truth of Beauty
06/ 05/ 2003
Hooray for New Beginnings! I think social work is going to be perfect for you; you’ll be mired in all the hard-living stories you could ask for while trying to do some good in the world. Though I understand your concern that it could all be aesthetics – your draw to people on the skids, the desire to enter into their troubles and tragedies. I’ve always wondered about the same thing in myself – why on earth did I love to watch World Vision ads when I was four years old? What drew me to those swollen bellies and tin shacks? I remember trying to explain to Mom when I was about seven, saying, It helps me remember how fortunate I am; but even then I knew it wasn’t the whole truth, was aware of something unsettling in my interest that I couldn’t pin to words. It’s a kind of voyeurism, of course, and guilt at having the luxury of wanting to look in. But also a sense of being something I could not understand, part of a world I didn’t understand. What can we do? That was where my first instincts, my childhood desires took me, and ultimately there’s no way to say why I found poor people interesting and not rich ones, no more for me than for you. Of course there are reasons – you can and should analyze your desire to help the underprivileged – but in the end it will still boil down to the fact that you and I and people like us are compelled by the powerless, the people getting gored by the bull of life rather than doing the goring.
What makes it disquieting is that we’re not alone in our curiosity; lots of people want to know how dirty life can get. I remember when Trainspotting came out, watching fascinated as those emaciated, sexy junkies revealed the scummy lives of poor Scottish kids – that’s when I first noticed people’s fascination with the poverty and violence we’re supposed to fear. How to know where the moral aspects of the impulse to look give way to the immoral?
Surely, knowing which forms to file in which offices to procure basic necessities like food and shelter – being able to convince people to fill out those forms – must be a good and true use of the interest in others’ pain. I have no such certainty about my ability to justify my early compulsion toward Ethiopian famine victims. How does it help the Iraqis for me to envision their bombed-out homes, their dead children? And yet I’d rather do that than see Paris Hilton’s titties, or take a TV tour around Jude Law’s home; those images are not compelling, but a shot of an Afghani man drinking from a shit-encrusted puddle is. It feels like looking is a charm against blindness – like if I stare hard at what threatens my tidy white middle-class life, I’ll ward off the cataract of righteous self-interest.
Speaking of aesthetics, and of having no fucking idea why we do the things we do, I’ve been accepted into the Creative Writing program! (Part Two of the process: there’s an introductory year, then you apply for the full-on program.) At first I was very sure I’d be accepted – there can’t be that many people all that serious about writing anyway. But then I started thinking, only 25 people out of more than 100 get in; there might be people in the other classes that are way better than me. But now my worries are over; I got the letter yesterday. So it looks like Mom was right, and York is the place for me. Why study creative writing? Who knows. Possibly very silly, possibly a familial tic, possibly all sorts of things. Nonetheless I’m very excited.
Indicating other forms of progress, good old Chrétien, that savvy crook, has allowed some law to lapse because of a medical marijuana case; so at the moment, pot is in legal limbo. Not that this affects in any way my behavior, but it does give me a little smile to know, when I walk down the street with my joint, that there’s nothing anyone can say about it. Mom is very funny; she still doesn’t really believe I won’t get busted. She cannot get past the fear that if the cops see you with some dope, they’ll throw you in the paddy-wagon like they used to do in her Yorkville days. We were discussing this walking through Yorkville in fact, headed to Baba’s apartment earlier today. Watching the Porsche parade, the Botoxed and bejeweled passengers glistening in the sunshine.
Every Saturday night! she said. Every Saturday night there they’d be at the corner of Hazelton and Yorkville, herding the hippies into the paddy-wagon.
Oh the times they are a-changing.
Maybe so, she said, But I still think it’s best to be careful.
I blew smoke toward a tanned middle-aged man with a thick gold bracelet, who caught a whiff and walked past us with a twinkle in his eye.
What irony, Mom said, That I’ve always loved this neighborhood, and your grandmother who never gave two shits about it is the one living here.
Well, I reminded her, It was an excellent deal for what she needed, this apartment.
Yeah well, remind your grandmother of that when she starts going on about wanting to move. This place isn’t fancy enough for her, she has to be at the Renaissance. She can’t afford to live there, those are like million and some dollar apartments. But I constantly have to hear about how this place, this Yorkville apartment, isn’t good enough. As if I were going to move her again, after what I went through getting her out of the house. I don’t even want to think about it. Look what a pretty day. This is where the Mynah Bird used to be (pointing at a brick structure probably built in the eighties.) There used to be girls, go-go dancers, in cages outside. Can you believe it?
I thought of Mom on this street thirty years ago, wearing sandals and panhandling. (“Panhandling! she said to me recently. You see, I wanted out of my parents’ house so badly I was prepared to panhandle in the street. I asked her why she didn’t get a job. I got a job, she said, My father fired me for being late. No, I said, A real job, like a shit job, any job. I don’t know, she said, That’s a very logical question.)
What fascinates me, I told her, happy to turn the conversation away from Baba, Is that a lot of the same people are here now as then. The same people who were here forty years ago barefoot and stoned are who’s in these cars.
Maybe so, said Mom vaguely. I hadn’t changed the topic as well as I might have. I knew she was contemplating the wealth by which we were surrounded, wondering how she’d missed out on her piece of the pie; wondering, too, what happened to her generation, that this is what it became.
And I flicked my roach into the gutter wishing I could defile this whole carnival, sink it like a tent.
Howl, or Robert Johnson Blues
03 / 10 / 2005
My dearest dearest Joe,
you know what fucks me up? “Howl” fucks me up. The first time I read it, I cried over its beauty, over the intensity of this era I missed. I just re-read it now, and cried because no work of literature will ever unify people like that again. Imagine what it was like in that room in San Francisco, this wild gay Jew making gorgeousness of a generation’s gore. His hearers “digging” that this poem, this moment of the poem’s arrival holds the possibility of changing art, and perhaps society, forever.
We have no certainty like that of our ancestors.
Today my half-brother was informing me about New Spain. As often happens, our conversation has left me feeling young and stupid – run down, as Ginsberg said, by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality. David reads so much, provides example after example to prove that everything I think about the world is simply ridiculous. Predictable bourgeois lefty bullshit I’ll grow out of in ten years; less.
We went to see Capote, which begat a good discussion about writing and ethics. From the theatre we went to some swish bar in Yorkville where David is clearly a regular. Walking over we were arguing about Hotel Rwanda, which we had debated seeing but the timing didn’t work. He thinks it’s grand they’ve made a movie of it; I think it’s perfectly indicative of our twisted culture that we’d do sweet fuck-all about the genocide, and then appease our consciences by watching a movie about it. Oh the heroism, the good one man can do. Let us applaud him.
David said, Well would you rather it was just not an issue? You might appreciate this film as a kind of progress, because historically people haven’t really given a fuck about the death of people in some far-off country. And maybe, Samantha, maybe if enough people go see Hotel fucking Rwanda, next time there’s a genocide about to happen, people will step up and call for intervention if that’s what you want. Not that it’s necessarily a good idea – you might remember, for instance, what happened when the States tried to intervene in Somalia, which was a different situation but you see what I mean. Or the intervention in Bosnia which the Administration was given so much flack for. But at least you can’t say they were idle.
Are the options really bomb the shit out of a country or let it destroy itself?
Well that’s a whole other issue. We’re talking about Rwanda and if what you want is for people to give a shit, Samantha, then here you are, people give a shit.
It’s not a sign of people giving a shit. It’s a sign that people feel bad about not giving a shit. And not just about things in far-off countries we can’t really affect, but about stuff in our own society. People are stepping over homeless people to line up for Hotel Rwanda so they can bury that twinge of guilt they had stepping over a person.
I was happy walking through the narrow Yorkville streets having this rancorous conversation with my brother. He was waving his arms and smiling belligerently as he made his points, always seeming a little like he was taking the piss out of me but always eloquent, delightedly ignoring the stares of the neighborhood’s patrons. Settled on the bar’s heated patio he bought the drinks and told me about Cortes and those two brothers whose name starts with a P. Who conquered the whole of Central and South America by sheer will, brawn, fearlessness and ruthlessness. You see Samantha, he said, That’s what human beings have always done, that’s how this world we now enjoy was built. You have to respect what’s been accomplished, even if you despise the means. Humans are violent animals. So you want a world with no more genocide well, sweetheart, I hope you get it but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.
My mind is a petrified havoc of images. I think I opened Ginsberg to read someone who cares desperately – thought he might remind me of the potential good in looking hard, even with reverence, at awfulness.
But what do I see?
Empathy – the word keeps surfacing in my brain like a water wing. This clumsily bobbing hope that there is a moral purpose to these visions of people suffering which crowd my brain during political conversations. That to feel sadness and anger for the fates of others – to refuse consolatory resolutions – is part of believing we can lessen our travesties. I hold these hopes even as I know my mind is reproducing images created to inform me about the world, and my place in it. As one who watches, who is informed; who is learning what my brother knows, that This Is How The World Works.
I feel there is something wrong with David’s explanations, something defensive and predictable in his proclamations about humanity – but my feeling itself seems defensive and predictable.
Michael says if I can believe in anything, I must believe in love; the drawing toward. And I want to, unequivocally, but then too love can seem a lousy trick, a crossroads deal: You shall know beauty and make it live, tend it chained to a bone jutting from your plot on this mass grave.
We can trick the devil, though; win out on the bargain. Chained to ugliness, we sometimes carve the bone beautifully – make it a flute. Stare at our compulsions and hypocrisies until they can be wrought into instruments that conjure our better selves.
xo, Sweet Joe
– Samantha Bernstein