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Aug 072016
 

Ray

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A complicated wood 

I spend my morning wondering
about your covered wrists,
the long silences, like those left
in the treacherous sounds
between islands after ships are lost.

I watch the precision
as your fingers navigate a paper-clip,
unlock, then remake the bends,
again, again, again.

At night I exhume, re-wind
Klein and Jung and Winnicott.

My grandmother had a music box
her father made; each time I visited
she’d wind it up, lift the wooden
lid to let the mechanism plink
its mournful Hornpipe
as a siren pirouetted on a rock.

It sits above my desk.
She lies beneath the knotted wood
wrapped in a familiar scent.

Diatom1The glass images between the poems are examples of work by the poet Michael Ray. More can be seen here and here.

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An island turning over on its side

Like insomnia, our meeting wasn’t planned.
She sat opposite the only empty chair.
Madame Bovary lay shut beside her tea.
There was music in the thinness of her wrists.
We talked until the café dropped its blinds,
walked across the city to her bed.
After the tide receded we lay naked.
The gutter pipes were choked,
sheets of rain cascaded.
I watched as she turned over on her side;
the sweep of headlights undoing her youth.
In her left eye, a small red island
floated in a blue unstable sea –
a country I was too young to understand.

 

Livres de la solitude
…….
After Louise Bourgeois

The room is lit
for an interrogation.

The floor, a raised
white platform.

A ring of grey sticks
is growing up –

a cleft fence
or whittled children.

Inside, books of red
cloth are stacked;

the raw edges, bound
with blue thread.

A column
as tall as a woman.

This is love
balanced, sewn shut.

couple

Speed my slowing heart

Outside, liverish leaves are falling
on the lawn, reticulated by the wind’s
bitter this way and salt-flung that.

Autumn has left our picnic spot side-parted.
A bald patch shows the blackbird’s small
white packet and in the air a flick-knife

panic to where he perches in the tree,
and no doubt wonders why dawn and worms
and cats always come in that order.

The thought of breakfast takes me from last night’s
failure, to the cloud gathering above our kettle,
and the sky which couldn’t be more loaded.

Snow begins to fall, reminds me of spring
and us looking out beneath the willow’s
canopy of fluff, speculating why the foxglove

only trumpets every other year;
and how its stem of empty seed-heads
stands like a spent and tattered phallus.

 

That life 

Who paints the bargeboards blue and oils
the gate that used to creak? And despite
seagulls littering the roof, risk of full moons
flooding the yard, who chose the ruined
church, sinking into bracken, for their view?

Who walks a lurcher along the shore,
parks their battered black car a cat’s
hiss from the window box, rioting
violets massed along the sill?

Who sleeps in this cottage with its attic
room of wormy boards sloped towards
the early morning sun? And who
is stood barefoot, on those kitchen
flags that gave such cool relief?

Melt

We break milk

move to solids
and trees shoot
leaves like a fix
for breath

we break ice,
and boats move
like small fingers
through slush

we break cruths –
truss the feet
of young girls,
vacuum pack fruit.

We break down
and listen with
the psychomechanic,
to the fault.

— Michael Ray

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Michael Ray is a poet and glass artist living in West Cork, Ireland. His poems have appeared in a number of Irish and international journals, including The Moth, The Irish Independent, The Shop, Cyphers, The Penny Dreadful, One, Southword, The Stinging Fly, Ambit and Magma. In 2012 he was a winner in the Fish International poetry competition. In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Hennessey award. In 2016, he won the Poetry Ireland Café poetry competition. Michael’s visual art has been collected by the Irish Craft and Design Council, the Department for Foreign Affairs and the National Museum of Ireland.

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Jul 142016
 

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Michael V. Smith’s short film triptych “Wolf Lake” brings three poets together with three colliding narratives: two men driving on a country road, the unconscious or dead woman who they come upon, and the man who abducted her who is lifting her from the trunk of a car. The first two films focus on Elizabeth Bachinsky and Matt Radar‘s two poems, both also titled “Wolf Lake.” The films use impressionistic footage to simulate memory and visual desire to disturbing, haunting, and beautiful ends. Michael V. Smith is a writer, award-winning filmmaker, comic, and drag queen. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a harrowing, adrenalin-driven flight into vulnerability and revelation. Continuing our conversation about film from last month when Smith interviewed me about my film “zack & luc,” here we explore his work-in-progress and how he sees this narrative, filmic, collaborative collision playing out.

RWG: How did the collaboration for the first film of “Wolf Lake” come about?

MVS: I signed up for a free course on making Super 8 films. My friend Juli Saragosa was running a workshop. And Liz Bachinsky and I got to talking about wanting to make a film, and I said, “Let’s do it for this.” And then we picked her poem “Wolf Lake,” because I loved it, and just started brainstorming what that might look like. What kind of images worked best, or what approach. And together we had one of those aha moments, where we realized the film footage would be from the perspective of the stalker. Everything clicked after that, like tumblers opening up the project.

RWG: The super 8 format for the first film, the “Bachinsky Version,” and the way you shoot lots of long shots is very voyeuristic, pervy. This seems in conflict with the very personal voice of the poem. Are you intending to create conflict between the persona of the poem and the man?

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MVS: I always call it “stalker footage.” The idea is that what we see in the film is the footage captured by the assailant, so we’re indirectly voyeurs, as well. If I remember this correctly, one of the reasons Liz wrote her poem in response to Matt Rader’s original version of Wolf Lake—itself a great poem—was because she took issue with how the girl in the poem is an object, a nameless body to serve the male narrator. She loved his poem and wanted to give a voice to that girl. So part of the strategy in making the film was to play into that conflict between the girl as object and subject. We get her story, but she is the object of someone else’s gaze—the filmmaker, you might say, recording in the subject position of the imagined assailant. There’s a quiet critique in this approach, I hope, that draws our attention to the fact that most women on film are objects. Their clothes are tighter, we show close ups of their eyes more. Their hair is flawless, even after a windstorm, right? Those goddamn high heel shoes in Jurassic World. So unreal. That’s the protagonist not being allowed to be a fully-realized subject. Nearly every actress is made a Barbie. And we’re the creeps who don’t care, or notice, or expect better. So I hope a bit of that critique plays out here, putting the audience in the perspective of the creeper. What exactly are we looking at? Why are we looking? What does it say about me that I’m watching? How am I complicit?

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RWG: I am fascinated with how you double the voices, the narrative reading and the whispering voice which begins before the narrative but then echoes on a delay. It’s haunting and it feels like it troubles or bridges the words and the images. What inspired you to double the voices?

MVS: I’m glad you found it compelling. I love this affectation too. The choice to double was just practical, at first, but then when something works, it’s because it does other things as well. It complicates or compounds. The story is, I’d asked Liz to read her poem a few different ways, to try things out, you know? It’s hard to imagine in advance what all the pieces put together will do—so I know I want the voiceover and I know I have these images captured, but you really do remake the film again in editing. There are so many variables when shooting, that by the time you get to editing you have to work with the materials at hand. So I said, “Okay, now read it more slowly. Now can you whisper? Can you read it without much emotion, just as fact?”

When it came time to marry the rough cut and the voiceover, neither the whisper nor the flat delivery worked. They just felt hollow, somehow. Like, they were missing something. They were too literal, maybe? And so I did that thing you do, and played with it. I laid both tracks down, and the clouds parted. It worked for me. With little need to alter their pacing. Suddenly, there was some mystery with the multiple voices—like, which tone do we believe?

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My sense of how it works—or why it works for me, I can’t really speak for anyone else—is tied to a few ideas. One is that we don’t believe women enough—like we don’t believe blacks, we don’t believe queers—so multiple voices are necessary. We have to tell our story over and again and still people doubt the truth of our experiences. They doubt how we describe our assaults. So here are two versions of an assault that are identical. There are no discrepancies in the different tellings, no room for doubt. They do not contradict each other.

Another way the doubling is effective has to do with how I don’t think we know whether that girl survives her attack or not. So the two voices work like the voice of the dead girl and the voice of the one who survived. For me, poetry is always multiple. It functions as an ‘and’. It is this and this. She dies and survives both. Here are her two voices, each as true as the other. In many ways, it’s an embodiment of an emotional moment, right? We don’t have a singular emotion in any one crisis, we have multiple feelings. We are multiple. And so she gets to have at least two of her emotional truths present in the one telling—the candid one, and the subtext, maybe, compelling her to whisper. Ands.

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RWG: The voices run at different speeds so that by the end when the narrative finishes, the whispering continues, haunts. Something about this felt like it echoes how memory or trauma work.

MVS: Yes. That too. The delay speaks to the lingering of a moment, to the memories that haunt. Trauma as a resounding echo through the telling. The echo begins before the plain spoken delivery starts—the trauma and fear are present before the regular voice begins—and they persist even after the telling. Exactly.

RWG: How did the idea for the second version, the “Rader Version,” come about, or have you always seen this as a triptych of films?

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MVS: It just seemed obvious to me that I’d make the other films to complete the trio of poems. I loved Matt’s poem first—he wrote his first—and we just ended up making Liz’s poem into a film from circumstance. So it seemed necessary, even, to make his. My poem is the third, told in the voice of the assailant. I know what I’m shooting for the third poem—which I don’t really want to reveal—I just need to find the time to make it.

RWG: You used two different shooting formats for the two films, super 8 and an old digital camera. Why the shift?

MVS: For two simple reasons. I like shooting on different cameras to see what they’ll look like. I like to try new things. And I thought the formats suited the characters, to some degree. Like, they’re two different characters, two different perspectives behind the cameras, so of course they’d have different cameras.

RWG: In “Wolf Lake,” the “Rader Version,” the footage seems closer than the “Bachinsky Version,” feels more home movie like, on the brink of being erotic. There’s this sort of homosocial space, intimate masculinity, that is then brought up against a violent face of masculinity. What are you exploring with that tension?

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MVS: Matt’s poem really is a coming of age poem, in a way. They are innocent boys on the day they see a man toss a girl’s body over his shoulder. And then one of them reaches for his gun. What follows next, we can assume, is a horror. The narrator, I think, is nostalgic for that innocence. So at its most basic, I wanted to capture something very, very simple, something naïve, that spoke to that sense of nostalgia.

The long singular shot couldn’t be much more flat, or romantic, in the naïve sense of romantic, a world without irony, a world of rosy glasses. Much of Matt’s film is landscape, a world with few humans, so it’s maybe easier to be romantic. The contrast, then, comes from the imagery run alongside the content of the poem. That road they’re traveling down, it’s literal, and metaphorical, both. Around a bend in the road, a hell awaits. That simplicity, I would hope, creates a kind of tension of sophistication, a tension of maturity. If they seem homosocially intimate, great. Because those boys are about to be thrown into a tragedy, as featured players.

RWG: You’ve said there will be a third piece in this project, forming a triptych. What will it be about and how will it extend this project and how will it differ technically and aesthetically?

MVS: I don’t want to say what the third will be, not yet, but the time of that third film will take place after the incident. The aftermath. The third poem is a confession, of sorts.

I’m hoping when all three are complete I can do a gallery showing and have them all run at the same time, in loops. Because they’ll be slightly different lengths, the images will collide with each other in new triptychs. The sound would play through three sets of headphones in the centre of the room, each playing only one of the three voiceover poems, so you’d get a different story depending on which you picked up.

RWG: Running through these two films and in places in your other work seems to be a theme of the destructive, violent side of masculinity, present as a sort of vertigo. In relation to your memoir My Body is Yours I think you even refer to your own failures at masculinity. What is that vertigo and, for you, is there a counterpoint, an expression of gender or specifically masculinity that doesn’t end up at “Wolf Lake?”

MVS: Oh man. That question is the hardest, Rob. Okay, vertigo. Yes. I think that’s a succinct word for how I felt growing up—there was this masculine place I was meant to occupy, and I just couldn’t seem to find it. Every time I tried to be a ‘boy’, I just felt dizzy with failure. I couldn’t read the signals, I couldn’t manifest the signs. I was like an alien who couldn’t make his three arms fit in a straightjacket. It was disorienting.

I didn’t see much tenderness in masculinity. And if I did, it was often complicated with shame, because tenderness and affection were also part of sexuality and desire. If you’re raised a fag in a straight world, and you’re afraid of being a fag, then male affection of any kind is always complicated. I think I’m more nuanced and secure as an adult, for sure, but we see symptoms of this still in films everywhere. All those goddamn super hero movies with protagonists that only win by might—by brute force—rather than any cleverness or ethic. We don’t build heroes that win because they make moral choices. We build heroes that win because the hero wins. And the tools of their victory are the same tools as the evil they are battling. And everything is a competition, rather than a dance. So if my masculinity in films seems violent, and destructive, I think it’s because that’s the only way we can recognize masculinity. If it’s destructive, it’s masculine. And if it’s affectionate, well, chances are we read that as feminine, regardless of the gender.

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RWG: In your novels, (Cumberland (2002), Progress (2011)) your memoir or non-fiction pieces, and in your various films, you seem to alternate between very direct autobiography and more indirect pieces like “Wolf Lake.” Why do you think you have both impulses in your work? What do the two forms of expression offer you?

MVS: In my novels, and films like “Wolf Lake,” which are more imagined, I’m interested in the fairy tale, I guess. The parable. I love the puzzle of making and inventing and discovering characters, as an exercise in negotiating structure and character. Characters and personalities drop out of our imaginations who are not us. That’s a thrill. That’s something magic, that is greater than myself. I love it, the experience of that discovery. And much of the thrill comes from trying to build the mechanics to embody the emotional or spiritual or psychological insights that come with the intimacies of that character and their life they present to me.

I love autobiographical work, like memoir, and confessional poems, for how that personal story—someone’s version of truth—is a fiercely singular perspective. I love the voice in autobiography. I love building a character that is close to myself—‘cuz no character is the self, right?—drawing a reader in close so I can share my private vulnerabilities. That shit is magic. We learn by experience, but some of that is also the experience of reading someone else’s life. They’re gifts we lived ourselves.


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Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.


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Jun 142016
 

R W Gray

For Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month we welcome writer and experimental filmmaker extraordinaire Michael V. Smith who in this month’s issue interviews our own R.W. Gray about his film “zack & luc.”Gray wrote about this short film in his article “Love at First Sight, or The Problem of Beginnings.” Next month, R. W. Gray will interview Smith about his film work and will turn the dialogue the other direction.


 

R. W. Gray’s short film “zack & luc” is a polyphonic love story, a duet that follows two young gay men falling in love then breaking up. Told using a pair of split screens which play out either character’s perspective, the images create a tension between its moments: tender first encounters play alongside the machinations of separating. The film feels contemporary and vintage, all at once. It feels at once innocent and experienced, as much weary as it is refreshing. It’s a lovely film, and sly. I had a discussion with Numero Cinq’s intrepid senior editor to get his thoughts on this little gem of a story.

MVS: There was this wonderful moment for me watching “zack & luc” where the split screens began to clearly do two very different things. And I wondered, isn’t he worried about us missing something in the film? We might miss an important clue, maybe.

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RWG: The ongoing conversation was always what does it matter most that the audience get and what can be left to subsequent viewings or never be noticed at all. When near the end of the film you see on the left the first moments they met, the tree / bird scene, the characters are physically further apart, the shot wider, because we and they know it’s going to end even as we remember the beginning. That changes the memory. I was conscious I was layering in details that might never get noticed.

MVS: Yes, the characters are also missing signs from each other. The small moments that lead to resentment. One doesn’t notice how he’s being irritating to the other. One character sleeps through an intimate touch in the night. So that we see through some of those moments how their information is incomplete.

RWG: I suppose in a larger sense I wanted this to be a film where you might wonder why the relationship doesn’t work out, might see some clues, but not be able to decide beyond the shadow of a doubt. One of my favourite films, Une liaison pornographique, has a similar conceit, where the two lovers meet for some unspecified sexual act in a hotel room, and they and the narrative never let you know what it was, though they do describe having a sore back, thighs and I think point out that they can’t really do it twice in one day. With “zack & luc” I wanted the same flirtation, but with heartbreak.

MVS: Yes, that incompleteness, that made me think about romance. The filmmaker has a god-like perspective on this piece. So do we. We can play it over and again and collect each half. I don’t think it’s the act of replaying that is romantic, necessarily, but the desire to do so. The filmmaker’s desire to capture all those conflicting intimacies strikes me as romantic. I’m going to be a jerk and say that that perspective—that we can know anything in its entirety—is naïve, because I suspect you can run with the provocation.

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RWG: I agree. I hope the film plays a little more with omniscience, the way fiction or the novel can more easily, but I didn’t want it to claim one could know another, the beloved. Each can never fully know the other. And, truly, they are never absolutely present in terms of time except in a throwaway staring contest in the epicenter of the film and in their final moments together. The two sides are never simultaneous except with the staring contest.

I’m attracted to that modern irreconcilable structure of narratives, what Kurosawa does in Rashomon with the three versions of the story that cannot be resolved into one truth. Intellectually. Luc and Zack, like the rest of us, are stuck in their little goldfish bowls, bumping against others hoping to find time and space to be together.

MVS: That sounds maybe a little jaded. A little anti-romantic.

RWG: Yet there is no romance, no desire, without that separation. But yeah, it does sound a little nihilist I guess.

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MVS: Balanced, I guess, which is ironic, because I was going to ask you about nostalgia next, which is like romance’s dreamy cousin. I want to argue that both the content and the aesthetics of the film are nostalgic—the characters are looking back on their relationship, the film quality is what? Early 1970’s split screen, where the voiceover in the story replaces dialogue, making two times overlap. I’ve seen lots of that overdubbing in ‘70s gay porn. Are you consciously remaking a history, or filling in the silences in a history? Is this telling a kind of love story we haven’t had in romance films? Is it showing the intimacies from those porn worlds, like we’re seeing the footage the films have left out?

RWG: Never thought of a porn connection. Super 8 film is very much home footage though, which taps it into the personal / subjective / memory category instantly. I love the memory pieces in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, though I don’t know if those were specifically super 8. I knew from the start that I wanted the look to be grainy, flawed, over saturated the way memory is.

Super 8 film has no sound, so no matter what I did there was going to technically be a gap between sound and image. But I wanted any dialogue or voice over to be stylized, dream like, dislocated slightly. I imagine this is the way dialogue or talking appears in dreams.

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MVS: There is also this sense of time standing still, or all times existing at once. Time repeating. Like with the repetition of the line, “Can I kiss you?” The strategy is tied to that delicious ending. What’s your sense of nostalgia’s relationship to time, playing out here?

RWG: The seed of the film was a relationship I was having where, in a sense, I think I was the man’s first love. On the other side of that, as I am sure you know, I have had a few more loves. We would have these conversations as we were starting to go out and as we were breaking up where I would invariably say something the gist of which was “So now this will happen,” like I knew how the story goes. Yet he didn’t. And, often, I was wrong about how the story would go.

In “zack & luc” there is Luc in the right hand, chronological frames, experiencing the relationship in real time. On the left hand side, there is Zack, who even from the first moment of the relationship has a sense of the ending on the left. And in the end, he is remembering the beginning. Some of us are more nostalgic creatures. The end is in the beginning. Once you have loved and lost a few times, firsts and lasts are layered this way I think.

MVS: I’m always interested in how metaphor is made from two things that in turn create a third. In “zack & luc,” the split screen sort of does this, making emotional ironies. There are bittersweet moments created with the tensions between happy and sad images sharing the screen simultaneously. I’m being reductive when I say happy and sad, but you know what I mean. The film celebrates the grey scale between white-and-black polarities. If this film is using the in-between as a strategy, I’m curious what you think it is between? “zack & luc” resides in a spectrum between what and what?

RWG: Technically, this was such a nightmare challenge for the composer Christian Berube. I am in awe of how he was able to read the two frames together musically.

I like what you’re saying about the idea of metaphor here. It’s like Eisenstein’s montage: two images clash to make a concept. The frames paired were always intended to clash, but some more than others. I don’t think they resolve themselves so much. At least for me it becomes about the irresolvable bits in a relationship. Moments of toothbrushing joy clashing with irritating cereal slurping. Sad break up conversation silences with first date breathless silences. These can’t be mulched up into one new thing so much as emerge as a feeling of ambivalence (seeing more than one direction at once, not apathy). A melancholy ambivalence. One that can look forward and backward at the same time. But also one that can see both joy and sadness in the same beloved at once.

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MVS: It displaces us, to some degree. Unsettles what we think we know—like a tap on the shoulder, we know more than we think, or care to admit.

I’d like to also ask about Kristjana Gunnars’s poem which is referenced in the credits. Was that where the story idea came from? If “zack & luc” is an answer to Gunnars’s poem, what do you think her next response would be? What do you imagine Gunnars’s answer would be to this film?

RWG: Her poem is the one Zack is reading next to the bathtub. For Zack, who in the film always seems to have his face in a book, I wanted a poem that had that tension, of great love yet terrible restraint, fear. I love Gunnars’s work, so much so that I wrote a dissertation on melancholia and focused partly on her work. She’s moved to painting now so I think her response to the film would maybe also be visual. Then of course I would have to move to something like 3D animation so I could respond to her in turn. Maybe it carries on into infinity.

MVS: At the end, one of the young men delivers a voice-over in a different voice. It’s reflective, more a narrator’s voice, and we’re listening in on his internal monologue. I’m assuming it comes from that poem? Why the switch? Why is that moment prior to the end self-reflective? It’s like he’s talking to himself, looking in the mirror. What’s your relationship to that pause? You’ve left us there for a reason, so I want to know your reason.

RWG: I’m not sure. I think on the one hand I wanted a direct intimacy between Zack and the audience there. He speaks in the second person. He implicates the audience. I think, too, he is pointing out to the audience that they are already implicated. They now have all these memories, they are now in this last moment carrying all these other places in time, all these other moments of love. What follows is a bit of a quick montage of memory fragments, because I couldn’t bring myself to end the film as Zack leaves the truck in the rain.

As I was saying before, Zack’s side of the film is more nostalgic from the start. And, truly, he wins. The film is nostalgic. I don’t think anyone would argue that the moral of the story is that Luc’s version of reality—being more present, in the moment, nostalgia-free—is the way to live. It’s built to offer you a chance for your own nostalgia.

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MVS: The film implicates the audience, opens itself to a dialectic.

RWG: Exactly. I wanted this film to be a series of significant yet nothing moments and in between the gaps I hoped the audience would bring their own archives, their own nostalgia. From the start I kept thinking about Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. He says something like, and here I am butchering it, that we carry this lover’s archive with us. It’s why when a friend tells us about their heartbreak we tell them about ours. One broken heart reads another. I bring you mine, you bring me yours. We go get new loves. From a poem to a film to a painting to infinity. Our longing can be this place where we commune.


 

MVS112

Michael V. Smith is a writer, filmmaker, comic, drag queen, and an associate professor at UBC Okanagan. His most recent book is My Body Is Yours, a memoir detailing his emancipation from masculinity.


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Apr 192014
 

 

In Michael Venus’s music video for “The Hunt,” a woman (Katja Danowski) blanched and polyestered by life is haunted by the band Parasite Single, two outfit-coordinated hipster angels, who call to her and torment her with their pop song and provoke her to the possibility of something other than her sweat-pant suit life.

From the first shot in the furniture store we are in an uncomfortable space: the angles askew, florescent lights running to the left of the frame into the distance, their static hum scratching our ear drums, the woman’s prone body running from the centre off to the right. She’s wearing a yellow sweatsuit, but this is yellow drained of any allusion to lemons, sunshine, or fluffy baby chickens. This is yellow defined by the absence of yellow.

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Sidebar: I don’t think mattress merchants as professionals are prepared for the intimacy and vulnerability of people going prone. They should have to have some training or certification to prepare for this burden.

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In the second awkward shot, a foot’s eye view, we look up the length of the woman, up her nose, and along her arm outstretched, spanning the empty side of the bed to the right of the frame. Either she sleeps like a horizontal crucified Christ each night, board straight and perpendicular, or perhaps her arm and that space of empty bed signify something.

Then, in an insert shot, we see her fingers fumbling with the mattress’s plastic cover, trying to get past the plastic or pondering the empty space that is the other side of the bed to her. Her eyes close slowly in pained longing as the plastic cover crinkles in deaf response and we see that the back corner of this cold furniture store is reserved for longing.

Venus composes each of the first shots with awkward angles, plays with empty space and underscores the sequence with a minimalist sound design, just crinkling plastic and the buzz of the lights, all to emphasize this woman’s loneliness and isolation before the hipster angels’ music begins.

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The musical duo proceed to plague and torment polyester woman in various locales: the furniture store, her work at a car garage, the grocery store and a laundromat. In what follows there are three small moments that define her journey: the sack of unshelled peanuts, the discarding of the shopping cart, and when she mimics the band.

The first moment is just after her second sighting of the band, in her office at work: she escapes outside where she sits on a potted palm, shelling and eating peanuts from a sack slight desperation.

Sidebar: unshelled peanuts must be the unofficial snack for depressed polyester wearers. It explains why country and western bars are littered with their remains.

Sidebar to the sidebar: unshelled pistachios, on the other hand, are too coy, salty smooth, and hard shelled to every get caught in a country and western bar, though they have, undoubtedly, seen it all before.

The second moment is when she sees the band in the grocery store and, not so coincidentally the word “love” on a cake decorating box. Here she breaks, shoving the grocery cart away from herself.

Then, around the 1:47 mark when the hipster angels take a break for coffee in the laundromat, polyester woman has had enough and she picks up their instruments and mockingly pretends to play with the same hipster joy they do. It’s a tiny moment and if you blink you’ll miss it, but it foreshadows the angry catharsis to come.

These three small moments define this character, her resistance to the gaudy coloured pop angels that are pressuring her to break out of her drab life.

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So when catharsis comes for her, after the hair salon and dressing up, in a bar full of gambling machines, angry, glorious dancing is the answer.  In a nice turn, the strobed shots draw her in to the same frame as the hipster angels, showing us they were part of her all along; they are connected. Moreover, Venus places her in the centre of the frame, positions her as their lead singer, their missing piece.

She is, however, not done. In the last shot, ragged and sweaty from her angry dancing, she stands in profile, then turns her head and looks at the camera, a mix of defiance and Teflon:  if at any point we, as audience, lacked compassion or took amusement from her journey, here she wins, and its her victory not ours.

Over at the site Director’s Notes,  there’s an interview with Venus where you can read more about his work with Curtisfilm  and about how they shot the film. If your German is better than mine you can consider supporting the band and their future creative endeavours through their crowdsourcing campaign.

— R. W. Gray

Aug 152017
 

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Not sure why they want to fuck us. Is it because we look like children never been adults? Or is because we look like adults always been children? Either way the pretty tall boys keep on coming down from Colorado and California and stay at the El Paso Camino Real looking for a KILLVest® and some hot dwarf action. They say they can’t die up north anymore. KILLVests® illegal now. Dwarves mostly exterminated back in ’48. They tired of sitting around in their big houses going to work everyday, making money. Tired of all that life, all that living. They ask at what point living no different than death? They need a way to tell the difference. To remember who and what they are. Get themselves fake-killed. Be fake-resurrected. Fuck a dwarf. Maybe then they see the point of living again, go back to work refreshed, happy, love their wives like they should, give to charity, be good.

Problem is we don’t have no KILLVests® in the Free Zone of El Paso neither. We poor. All we got is my Big Billy Boy’s bowie knife and some old Texas Army Kevlar vests. We got to real kill with fake-KILLVests® just they like they got to fuck a dwarf so they ain’t cheating on their tall fake-boobed blonde wives. It makes sense somehow. Not to me, I’m just a dwarf, but to somebody somewhere, I suppose.

Billy Boy gives them a fake-vest don’t look nothing like a real vest and I start taking off my clothes real slow. Then right when they getting all into it, get a little taste, Billy Boy starts hacking. They excited for the knife until they realize they ain’t got no real vest and they going to real die. Or maybe not. Maybe they real die just like they fake die. Who can tell the difference? Not me. I can’t even watch.

Sometimes I get cold feet, beg Billy Boy to stop. I ask, can’t we just take the man’s money? But Billy Boy says how we going to let him go, Darling? Where they going to go to? They got to die because that’s what they really want to do, that’s why they here in the first place. He says if we let them go they just go back and tell more people where we are. Then they’ll come with the drones and the dogs and they’ll kill us for sure. I don’t know, I say. They people. My mama taught me all people got a right to live, tall, short, everyone. But he says life don’t matter much, anyway. All life meant to die. Whether they do it now or later just a matter of time, and time ain’t anything at all.

Can’t argue with him. He’s been all over the old U.S. with the Texas Army before he went AWOL and settled in the El Paso Free Zone. He’s done read a bunch of books too. Well, one book actually. But he’s read that one a lot. It’s a book about science. Explains the universe. Says we just bugs, all of us, talls, dwarves, even Billy Boy, and we all come from the sea and one day we all going back.

Hard to believe that’s true but I never read no book or seen no sea. Been in this desert ever since my mama brought me all the way to El Paso from Brazil when I was a little dwarf just like my grandmother took her from Naples to Brazil when she was a little dwarf. I told Billy Boy the other day I want to see the sea with my own two eyes, see if it’s true. I want to make it to the real water before I die. I tell him that’s how I know the difference between life and death.

Billy Boy smiles real big. Billy Boy thinks that’s the funniest thing in the world. Sea’s so big, he says. You so small! Go ahead and laugh, I tell Billy Boy. You know for a scientific fact we dwarves fuck. Think we can’t swim too? Think we scared of the sea?

***

Three weeks back I was coming out the Camino Real bathroom in a poofy-white halter-top antebellum number with more makeup than an albino clown and this boy says his name’s Absalom and he’d like to buy me a drink. But he says it all nervous like, like he doesn’t know how to use the words he’s saying, like they don’t sound right to him or he’s reading them from a book. He’s hardly a man at all, not tall, a boy really, might even have a little bit of dwarf in him, with those wrinkles around those bright blue eyes and pretty lips. I take his hand and lead him to the blue circle bar and say why, certainly I’d like a drink, we dwarf ladies do get parched during the summer months.

Billy Boy’s waiting in the truck outside. Good thing too. Way Absalom’s friends laughing on the other side of the blue bar, making faces and sticking fingers in finger holes, Billy Boy might start the slaughter early, then we’d never see no sea; we’d be murdered by the robot police or strung up on a West Texas crucifix. I ask for another Shirley Temple. Talls always love that. Think it cute. Sure tastes like shit though. Tried getting the bartender to slip some gin in there on the sly last year, but he’s an ancient Mexican with cataracts the size of dimes, thinks I’m a little girl. Always asking me about my momma. She’s upstairs I tell him. Got a wicked headache.

Absalom’s saying he’s here to economically develop the area around the Camino Real. He wants to revitalize the Border, show the South what the West can do for them because we all friends in the end. His friends saying they’d like to revitalize something all right and it’s about three feet tall with boobies like a Texas Barbie doll. I say I think that’s right and proper, decent of him, being so concerned with our border welfare and the good people of the El Paso Free Zone. The boy blushes real hard and I feel bad because I can’t remember the last time I blushed actual rather than used a brush. Days like this I don’t want to fuck no mark and certainly don’t want to see a man die. Days like this I just want to go home and watch a movie with Billy Boy, a movie about a different world than this one, ones that used to be or the talls used to imagine the world might be. But Billy Boy don’t watch no movies. Says they rot the mind.

“Aren’t you the sweetest thing I ever did see,” I say. Absalom’s friends think this is funny. “You sure are sweet, Absalom,” one of them says. “Absalom too sweet for a dried up dwarf.” Absalom tells them to shut up, but I say it’s all right, putting my small hand on his forearm, giving them other boys a meaningful stare. “We just having a good time,” I say. “Don’t none of us here mean no harm.”

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Billy Boy drives Absalom and me to the hotel like he a cab service and says he always likes seeing young love and for a little extra he can get the both of us some real thrills. Got him some authentic KILLVests® back at the place. It’s the same old song and dance. Absalom don’t know what to say. He tongue-tied. Keeps on looking into my eyes like he found something he’s been looking for his whole life. But his is a short life, maybe twenty years, going to stay short too. What he know about what he’s been waiting for? How someone live so little know anything at all?

Back at the apartment, Absalom’s feeling the whiskey and starts talking about his wife, how they just married and she don’t really know who he is and he don’t know if he loves her, because what’s love? Billy Boy’s already got the fake vests out, lined up on the table like they bumps of coke. He’s telling me to get comfortable too, show off my lacy underpants, telling Absalom what fun it is to die and then come back again, pushing the murder and the sex along, like he heard what Absalom’s friends were all saying to me inside, like he sees in this poor baby Absalom all those other men Billy Boy’s seen kill and rape and pillage dwarves and talls in those battles he fought on the other side of the border, or like he’s seeing Absalom for a number in that book he reads, like this boy all boys and all boys the same boy and it don’t make no difference how they die and who makes them die because they all already dead.

“Billy Boy,” I say. “Maybe Absalom just wants another drink. Maybe Absalom don’t want no KILLVest®. Maybe he just wants an old-fashioned good time. We don’t even know the boy yet. As an individual.”

Absalom’s picking at the vest, holding it up to the exposed light, eyes lizard big. Ever since they banned them up north ten years back, these northern boys want to know what the fuss’ about. Want to know why you got to ban something that kills and don’t kills a person. You think people would’ve sense enough not not kill themselves, especially one as pretty as Absalom. But next thing you know he’s got it on, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Feels himself a man now, big, taller than Billy Boy even, and sits down next to me on our old couch, a smile on his face like he just popped the prom queen’s cherry.

“You want a good time, don’t you, Absalom?” asks Billy Boy. “You want you to have a good time with Darling here. Maybe get yourself into a fight. Maybe get yourself killed. You want to see what it’s like don’t you? What it’s like to live like us? We got real lives down here in the El Paso Free Zone. This ain’t no Denver.”

Absalom’s laughing now. Thinks he’s a man. They no good. I know that. Even a pretty one like Absalom. They gladly fuck me and then see me strung up on the tiny crosses lining the road to Colorado. Wouldn’t even blink their giant eyes. Take all kinds of pleasure in beating me up. In seeing me hurt and then forgetting that dwarves can hurt all at the same time. But that don’t mean I can’t stand the light in their eyes going away. Light ain’t meant to go away. That’s all it ever seems to do. Especially with Billy Boy around. He’s got something awful for the light.

“Absalom’s friends saw me at the Camino, Billy Boy,” I say, pulling my dress back on, over my lacy underthings, not really thinking, just stalling, not liking the way the knife just stop things, all sudden. “Friends got big mouths. We don’t want trouble from the law. Maybe we should play with the KILLVests® some other time. Maybe Absalom needs to go back to his mama.”

Billy Boy gives me a look like he might kill me instead. He’s got big features, like a bat ate too many mice and then got so sick it can’t fly. Makes me want to laugh sometimes. Hard to imagine a face like that saw all the violence it seen, did what it did to these northern boys. Hard to imagine a face like that hurting cockroaches skittering up our apartment walls. But don’t matter how many dwarf wrinkles you got or if your face pretty and smooth as a baby’s butt, stabbing a knife is stabbing a knife, don’t take no monster to do it.

“Absalom’s a grown man,” says Billy Boy, pulling out that knife, staring now like Absalom a fish with a hook in the lungs, can’t go back in the water, going to die anyhow, so someone’s got to be a man, someone’s got to stand tall, finish the flopping thing off. Absalom got a big grin on his face, glancing back and forth at me and Billy Boy, like we at a movie about a dingy El Paso apartment with roaches on the walls, water leaking through the ceiling, like his life something his momma didn’t give him, just be thrown away like ours already has been. “Pull up that skirt now, Darling,” said Billy Boy. “Give pretty boy a sight to see before the end.”

I started pulling up my skirt, taking my underpants off, and then stop. Absalom crying. Scared. Like my momma was before the militias shot her in the head. Like I was before Billy Boy found me in a rain gutter up underneath Highway 10, eating banana peels and drinking Thunderbird, turning tricks for a motorcycle-meth gang. Billy Boy says you can’t show pity. You show pity, you die. But I can’t help it. I go to rub Absalom’s crotch, like I’m going to take off his pants. Absalom starts sobbing hard and I roll around him, onto the floor, kick Billy Boy in the shins. Billy Boy so surprised he drops the knife. It clatters on the linoleum like a gunshot. “Run!” I shout. “Run, Absalom! We going to kill you. You really going to die!”

Absalom’s not crying no more. Rubs his face. Backs toward the door.  “You can’t,” he says. “I can’t die.”

“We all die,” says Billy Boy, picking up the knife. But Absalom’s already off, stumbling through the door, down the stairwell. I hear shouts down the way, illegal boarders cussing him something awful for messing up their hallway blankets and their tents. Billy Boy picks up his knife, goes through the door, stands at the top of the stairs, his shadow hunched. I’m laying on the couch my skirt hiked up, my organ showing to the world, thinking about my dead mama, where dwarves and talls come from, wondering why there’s so much coming and going, so much undressing and putting back on, why we can’t be naked and stay that way, without no vests or knives.

Billy Boy walks back in, stands over me. “I’m sorry, Billy Boy,” I say. “I couldn’t do it.” Billy Boy leans down from up high, kisses me on the forehead. Says it ain’t no fault of mine. Says softheartedness an evolutionary condition. Price of being a dwarf, says Billy Boy. I aint got no perspective. Can’t see the big picture. I grab his fingers, tell him to come close, lie down, relax for a bit, talk to me. But he says he’s tired. He says he’s going to read his book, book says alls there is to say.

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Absalom had friends in high places. Should have known, pretty tall like that. Turns out he’s the son of a north general in charge of an army wants an end to all dwarf sanctuary towns, sick and tired of dwarf lies, wants peace forever and ever. They say on the loudspeakers and on the floating televisions screens if the El Paso Free Zone can’t control our dwarves then they can’t economically develop the city and if they can’t economically develop the city we all going to die and kill each other like wild dwarves so they going to clean up the city with their drones and their robots and their Assault Rifle Patriot Clubs.

But first they have to kill us. It is beautiful from the top of a mountain—the killing. The city glows like it never done from inside. Dark shadows, could be talls, could be dwarves, explode like moths flaring up in candles the size of Jesus. Drones dart in and out of the fire, putting it out with more explosions.  Camino Real and a few other hotels crumble. Highway 10 breaks in half. Billy Boy says many cities have done the same. No use getting upset. Billy Boy had some friends of his, Indian tribes come down from Ruidoso, take me up to Franklin Mountain to be safer. He says what’s going to go down no place for a pretty dwarf like me. I say it’s my fault. He says it ain’t no one’s fault. Bound to happen eventually. I say I can fight just like the rest of them. He smiles and says Darling, you a lover, not a fighter. I said he the same. That’s why we in love. But he says, no. He don’t believe in love. We just bugs in the end.

So I’m sitting on the Franklin ridge, holding Billy Boy’s science book, split like a hump between this world and the next, my small body peering down into the crackling flames, smelling the charring, waiting for my Billy Boy to come back, not believing it but knowing in my heart that he will, and then just when I’m about to give up hope, picturing him head shot like my Mama by some boy in blue, Billy Boy does come back, crawling up a path guarded by two fat young Indians. The Indians tell him to put his arms up but he says he can’t, his legs no good, shot to hell by drones. Indians says they better shoot him just in case. To be safe. Billy Boy says he just needs to say goodbye to his Darling. One Indian tells the other it be easier to shoot.

I scream, “Don’t you dare shoot!” and push past the Indians to embrace my Billy Boy. His face gone black with gunpowder and dried blood. He smiles. His teeth red as Texas wildflowers. They got my legs good, he says. Ain’t felt this kind of pain in a while. Ain’t felt anything this real in forever. Reminds me of the old days.

“Bullshit,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Stop your moaning,” I say.

“But, Darling, this is the end.”

“Answer me a question,” I say. “Why you ever alive then, you don’t like life?”

“Why Darling, I don’t know. I’m hurting. I can’t think right. I’m in pain.”

His legs bone white and chunked red and black. Smells like burnt bacon. Fatter Indian smoking a cigarette now, says it sad but Billy Boy’s a goner, cooked like a turkey. Says they’ll bury him with the dead Indians if I want. Maybe he go with the dead Indian God though they seen no evidence of their god being a particularly powerful God, being how they living on a mountain and still dying in droves even five hundred years after they got their land taken from them. I tell them to shut their depressing mouths. We ain’t dead yet, I say.

Billy Boy tells me to calm down. Tells me he wants a kiss before he goes, one more kiss from Darling. I bend down to kiss but stop short, rip my skirt off. Indians start hooting and hollering and whistling. I rip my dress in half, wrap Billy’s boy’s legs above the knee, shove a piece of dress in Billy Boy’s mouth. Take his knife, jab it in the campfire for a minute. “Wha yo don?” Billy Boy mumbles. He’s fading fast. “Don’t burn my knife. My knife a good knife.”

I bring the knife down on his thick good thigh meat above the knee. “You the devil!” Billy Boy screams, spitting out the cloth. I do the same to the other. The Indians watch on, taking swigs of purple liquor, like they feeling his pain, like they wearing KILLVests® and I’m doing it to them. “Shit,” they saying. “Shit.” I cut harder, all the way through the bone, until I’m down in the dirt stone, until I’m stabbing into the Franklin Mountain itself.

“I thought you said we just animals?” I scream at Billy Boy, wiping spit and tears and blood from my mouth. “How I a devil too?” But Billy Boy can’t hear me. He’s passed out, drops of sweat beading like clay on his forehead, teeth sticking out of his lip, blood all over the place, like he a mosquito been popped by Jesus. The city burning harder now down below, more robots and drones and rampaging armies coming in from the South, and East and West, Mexicans, Arizonans, New Mexicans, Texans, Americans, Hell’s Angels, Banderos, Rangers, Zetas, Christian Nationalists, Jihadists, Shiks, Nazis, Communists, Libertarians, Anarchists, Russians, Brazilians, Montenegrins, all going to clean the place up, make it pure again.

I get the Indians to help me drag Billy Boy’s legs to a green bush, the only one on the mountain not burnt. We dig a hole and put the legs and Billy Boy’s science book in there. Then we drink purple liquor together, damn sight better than a Shirley Temple. “I never bury no legs before,” says one of the Indians after the last clod goes over Billy Boy’s chopped legs. “Don’t seem right.”

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We make it across Texas in Billy Boy’s truck, stopping only in small towns, telling them Billy Boy’s my papa. Cars and empty buildings flicking by so I feel like maybe I’m dead, maybe I died in El Paso with everyone else, and now I’m just running like I’m on rewind, repeating like a stuck video. But it’s not a bad feeling. It’s better than being afraid of ghosts like I was, killing and whoring because I didn’t know no better, because I can’t imagine a world different than it is. Billy Boy’s mostly quiet, sweating bullets, begging for death. But I tell him to hush. I tell him all you talls think you get to choose when you die, like you in charge of heaven and earth. But that’s not how it works.

Politician on the radio say dwarves’ evil. Got no soul. Maybe it’s true. How something with no soul know it ain’t got one? I don’t got no answer, so I turn the radio off and keep on driving, passing green trees, green lawns, green fields, so green it hurt my eyes. Then the truck’s engine and brakes screaming something awful, like a thousand child demons being cut to pieces under the hood, and I’m thinking we have another few hours driving left at most. I take Billy Boy’s hand. He’s moaning now, kicking his stumps, saying he don’t want to go back, go forward, go anywhere and in the engine racket I almost think this is the end, that the Four Horsemen caught up to us, going to split us in half, worse, split us apart, won’t let us be together. But then I look down and my stomach flips up into my chest: the sky’s in the wrong place. It’s come all the way down and around, rolling and running along the earth, eating up the green and the black and the brown all the way to the truck tires.

“Billy Boy,” I whisper, pulling to a stop, turning the engine off. He mumbles something I can’t make out. “Billy Boy!” I shout. I can’t wait. I’m already out of the cab. I’m taking off my clothes, my burnt white skirt, my bloody t-shirt, my underpants, peeling them off like shredded skin, like I’m a snake and venom in my scales not my teeth. I stumble on the soft gold sand and roll into the blue.

When I’m far enough out, when I coughing and choking on tinfoil blue, when it’s running along my hair and in between my toes, up my mouth and out my nose, I look back to shore. Billy Boy’s managed to get out the door, out onto the sand, and sits with his back against the truck’s burnt red-black wheel, bandaged stumps white eyes staring back at me. Truck hood puffs a string of gray smoke up into dark-bottomed clouds.

“The sea, baby!” I shout, standing up, letting the water run down me, like I’m a frog-fish and this the earth’s first day. “What I tell you? We made it to the sea!”

“We in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Darling,” he shouts. “It’s just a lake. We miles from the sea.”

I laugh and kick water, stumble back onto shore, out into golden sand, crawl up to my Billy Boy, lean over, touch his stumps with white-blue drops, kiss the drops one by one, suck the water up into my no-soul.

“What do you know of life?” I ask him real soft, touching his lips with mine. “What does a man like you know of the sea?”

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He holds an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Aug 112017
 


Okay, the scoop. Aidos, a short film by our senior editor R. W. Gray, marks Douglas Glover’s first credited film work (at 3:44). (It is not, however, his first onscreen appearance since he had an uncredited role as an extra in Michael Douglas’s 1979 movie Running; check out the start of the marathon. In terms of an acting career, this early success led nowhere — it is a galling fact of dg’s life that many things have led nowhere, though he remains optimistic.)

R. W. Gray has edited NC at the Movies for years, decades even, it seems. In between times, he’s been writing (his story collection Entropic last year won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award) and making films.

He shot Aidos in the winter-spring of 2014 when he and I were both rooming in Mark Jarman’s house in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Some of the scenes were filmed in Mark’s house or nearby (you can see the old railway bridge through the stained glass window in one scene and the cathedral in the background of another).

The film has traveled the world (Tel Aviv, Romania, Lithuania, and all over the U.S. and Canada) and was programmed in twelve festivals. And now that it has finished its festival run, Rob has posted Aidos on Vimeo where we can all see it.

Aidos is, on the surface, about love and mourning. A young gay man has died, the voice over narration tells is that 21 people avowed their love for him before the end. What follows is 21 different actors saying “I love you” with the sound muted, just the faces, eyes, expressions.

When Rob filmed my bit, he told me nothing of the film’s structure or point. Actually, he told me nothing (I got no contract, no star in my door, we are still in litigation about the star on the door thing). He just wanted to film me saying the words “I love you.” This took a long time because he wanted a spiritual depth, a vulnerability, one is not used to performing in public. One, moi, I am so bloody shy. He coached me. He told me to visualize someone I loved and address that person. I thought of my sons. In my bit, I am thinking of my boys. That in the film this thought is translated into a completely different meaning is a revelation to me, a revelation about the nature of acting, which included, yes, an object lesson in the difference between acting and pretending — I was not pretending, though I was summoning up an image to cue myself. I am still mulling over this experience. I think I learned some, though I am not sure what.

That quality of vulnerability is what Rob was after in the film, I think. The word “aidos” bursts with complex implication, which you must think about as you watch the film. It’s a Greek word that means, as a quality, a mix of reverence, modesty, and shame and is meant to be one of those aspects of personality that restrain us from doing evil.

Here it is personified in Hesiod, where she appears as a goddess, a companion to Nemesis.

And then Aidos and Nemesis, with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.

The shame aspect is interesting because it involves the consciousness of being visible to others, of being seen, not just as a projection but as an emotional, thus vulnerable, self. The words “I love you,” so easily spoken in private, expose this inner self to ridicule (which, in itself, is an element of acting).

So re-watch Rob’s film and pay special attention to the interior contortions embodied in the faces of the actors (and, of course, they are mostly men, so the shyness/modesty quotient is very high — ah, we are a limping gender!): the effort to be real.

—dg

 

 

 

 

The R. W. Gray NC Archive Page

 

 

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

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Numéro Cinq at the Movies (series editor)

Aidos (film)

zack & luc | Introduction & Interview (film)

Alice & Huck (screenplay)

Crisp (short story)

Sketches of an Orange (poetry)

When I’m in the Swamps, I Just Need Questions (interview)

 Comments Off on The R. W. Gray NC Archive Page
Jun 082017
 

Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death…Each reading inspires visions and revisions. —Michael Carson

Josh Emmons
A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales
Dzanc Books, 2017
184 pages; $16.95

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Josh Emmons has a peculiar approach to literary sex. His first novel, The Loss of Leon Meed, follows a menagerie of eccentric characters haunted by a banal messianic vision. “Are you saying,” a married elementary school teacher asks her boss in the first pages, “that the only way I can keep my job is if I fuck you?” The principle stutters. “If that’s all it takes,” she says, before pulling down her underwear. His second novel, Prescriptions for a Superior Existence, features forced indoctrination, apocalyptic prophecy, and an anti-sex religious cult. In the opening pages the protagonist is shot for sleeping with the cult’s founder’s daughter.

The twelve short stories in the Iowa graduate and UC Riverside professor’s first short story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, dip even deeper into the delightfully bizarre and drolly promiscuous. They relate orgies, suicide epidemics, medieval warfare, Biblical floods, and Egyptian gods. Protagonists include stuntmen, cultists, nuns, tigers, child prostitutes, and a giant talking egg. Characters attempt to murder spouses and end up falling in love with them. They give up on a sex party and are killed in a car wreck on the way home. They get in arguments with Edenic snakes about tigerness. The sexual ministrations of shape-shifting women give them voice.

Yet for all this titillating fairy-tale whimsy, nearly all the characters seem to be chastely drowning. They come off of failed relationships. They have no direction. They wander in darkness. “The north of France is like the south of France,” says the first line of the collection’s first story. “The tiger stopped at a break in the rain and realized he was no longer on the path he’d been following,” opens a later story. “Nu,” the account of a betrayed wife hiding in a cabin in the woods, begins, “the stream behind Alice’s house fed into a river that led to the ocean.” A sense of similitude and ennui pervades even the most exotic settings. No difference and no point. Definitely no climaxes or climaxing. “There is no north, there is no north, there is no north,” repeats a medieval king at the moment of execution.

Emmons’ jeweled prose exacerbates this disjunction. Here is Bernard, the protagonist of the first story, “A Moral Tale”—the one that begins with “The north of France is like the south of France”—coming off a failed relationship and deteriorating career prospects, living in his cousin’s apartment, judging her for being lazy and drug-addled, and ignoring her insistent requests to set him up with Odette, a friend of hers:

Bernard went to bed and for an hour heard laughter coming from the living room television, then forty minutes of panting, then a long, low-grind blender. He kept on flipping his pillow over to get to the cool side. Eventually it became morning and he took a walk on sidewalks slick with black ice and saw that in this part of the city what broke and was abandoned stayed broke and abandoned. The cold made it all throb in place. He passed empty storefronts and Halal butchers and Gypsy kids selling iguanas and block-long souk with spices like varicolored dunes rippling across linked tables.

Sentences pivot from simple cumulative lists to simple subject-verb-direct object sentences and back to cumulative lists. The effect is that of a slow drip, a terrible occlusion of grays at odds with all those sharp cracks and abrupt shifts that pop around characters like fireworks (whether they be of others masturbating, feudal political-strategizing, or Emmons’ reliable humor). Often the protagonists feel stuck in quicksand, sinking slowly, at a committed puritanical remove from baroque exigencies and St. Teresa ecstasies.

Bernard from “A Moral Tale” moves back into life, into color and noise and warmth, but not in the way the reader might expect. He does not fall for the girl with the mysterious scar across her throat at church. He does not even fall in love with Odette, the girl his cousin wants him to sleep with. Instead, when Odette and Bernard are alone in a room, with him lying on two beanbags and she in bed, Bernard spells out the dramatic incidents and clever dialogue that will not take place; Bernard also baldly states his problems, the story’s ostensible “climax”:

She rubbed her arms and her nightgown didn’t slip down her shoulders. She didn’t sigh or propose that they work on linear equations or say, Bernard, I’m going to tell you something you already know but won’t admit, although if you did then a lot of what’s wrong here, like you lying on those stupid bean bags when I’m cold and alone on a huge mattress, and your having invented that text from your friend, and your unmerciful speech to Veronique about fraud might be fixed: your aunt didn’t ask you to move in with your cousin because she thought you could save her. On the contrary.

Bernard abruptly gets up from the beanbags and goes over to Odette’s bed. As he adjusts to the darkness, “Odette came into view as gradations of black and clothes, he saw, without surprise, with a kind of relief, that what lay beneath the surface was just a darker version of what lay above.”

After the night in bed with Odette, Bernard gets high with his cousin in a park and calls the girl with the scar on her neck to tell her he is watching a mime. The girl asks if this is the kind of mime that pretends to be trapped inside a box. He says that this one doesn’t do that. No one speaks. Wind comes from the west.

Then there are the stories where the characters do not get up and go to bed with Odette, stories where the characters realize too late that they should have. “BANG” is of this variety. It relates a worldwide suicide epidemic from the perspective of a character already given to suicidal thoughts pre-dystopia. Like “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist has the opportunity to go into the bed of someone else. But, unlike “A Moral Tale,” the protagonist backs away in horror from the opportunity. She resists for fear of what her mother might think. She fears the man’s age, his previous marriage, intimacy and the self-redefinition it requires. Now the roommate is dead. The protagonist missed her chance to become someone else. “BANG” concludes on a rooftop. The naked protagonist looks down at rectangular, boxy cars. Its final unpunctuated line—“she aimed a tentative”—returns the reader to the story’s very loud title.

Finally there are those like “Jane Says,” stories somewhere in between, with characters watching on as another rejects sex and with it life. It begins with characteristic drollery: “People say what a tragedy when you are thirteen and selling it on the street.” The thirteen-year-old prostitute-narrator then complains of the janes who pick him up who don’t really want sex—“the sick sad deviants who made you wonder even though you were a prostitute what happened to them.” He doesn’t mind the sex, he says, what freaks him out is pretending to be some jane’s dead son. “It was the pitiable,” the thirteen-year-old prostitute complains, “pitying the pitiful.”

Later in the story, a new jane picks up the narrator. She drives him to the woods and signs her worldly possessions over to him. “People use you and don’t see you for who you really are,” she tells him, “and it’s that way with all of us.” She leaves him in the car, walks into the woods. A sharp crack follows. “Lady!” the boy yells. “You got to take me back to the city.” He flounders about in the darkness. He falls. He asks for her in a whisper, quietly, “as though speaking softly would close the space between us, as though about existence she’d been wrong.”

Emmons writes tightly knit, engaging plots. Each phrase, paragraph, and scene carefully reticulates into the next. His prose is uniformly eloquent, clean and precise. The stories have meticulously considered desire-resistance patterns. But these are not simple, straightforward literary short stories. Neither are they strict moral tales as the title suggests. The often passive, sexually chilly characters do not change or reveal character so much as try to do everything they can to disguise it and forestall revelation. Pair this with fantastic environments and whimsical humor, and many of these stories left me with an odd sensation, as disoriented as the characters themselves.

This is not a criticism. Maybe it’s the point. Clearly, Emmons is tired of literary stories that pretend at some kind of conclusive change with respect to character, whether that be in relationships, family, or matters of life and death. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Emmons said that many of the characters in A Moral Tale are stuck on the idea of themselves they don’t want to give up because the cost would be too high. “We have to keep revising our understanding of ourselves forever,” Emmons said, “and this is okay.”

The same could be said of not just the characters but also the curious stories in this curious collection. They do not lend themselves to easy analysis or classification. Each reading inspires visions and revisions. What they have to say, their “moral,” comes—if it does at all—in whispers, as though speaking softly might close the distance between Emmons and the reader, as though about both moral tales and literature we all have been wrong.

—Michael Carson

N5

Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts

N5

May 152017
 

Michael Catherwood

 

Radio Jazz
“No photographs of Pinetop Smith are known to exist.”

The gray riverbank
was dry with snakes of tree roots
and the radio

waves bounced the static-
charged air with night time jazz.
Pinetop Smith clicked keys

in a fresh boogie
woogie: “hey don’t move a peg
until you shake that

thing.” Pinetop Smith killed
in a Chicago dance hall
by a stray bullet.

The clear evening sky
is fresh ink now as I stand
by the Missouri

forty years later.
Music dances on my arm
like breath. The full moon

shines blue where stars
dot my wrinkled hands
steps from the river.

Tires kick and crunch
in the gravel where the past
clings to the thick light

while Pinetop pounds keys
over distances of years,
over brave currents.

 

Public Works District Yard 6

 

I
I organize these summer months
and reduce tasks to numbers,
fixate on numerals in a mantra:
rise at six, work at seven, lunch
at eleven-thirty, break at two,

punch-out at three-thirty, drink
Absolut from five to twelve, sleep at one,
cut four swipes into an overgrown lot
then circle three times along the fence line.
We search for addresses of empty lots

to mow: at 3123 Patrick there’s no house:
broken bottles and weeds and gravel.
If I find a house at 2958 Burdette, 3016
would slide in here. Often we cut
the wrong lots. We unload the Bush Hog,

cut fence wire from the flail blades
after the previous job. Then mow.

 

II
My last day at District Yard Six,
I bolt on flail blades and my hand
slips, my forearm catches
a jag of metal. The blood stands
like Jello. My foreman finds

some butterflies and we make
a quick patch job. Driving home
I think in a week I’d be back
combing newspapers, searching for work.
I drive home along the Missouri River,

by the automobile boneyards,
past factories and welding shops, by
the trailer courts filled with kids
celebrating in their blue plastic pools,
past the faded Go-Go Lovelies sign

and shaggy parks and a dim cafe. Along
the river I turn onto an access road and park,
watch the current churn up logs
and bright litter. I stand there for a long time
as the bank boils whirlpools,

then think for a moment the world is dying,
that we were all suffocating. The moment
passes and I get back in my rusted Pontiac,
turn on the radio, fire up a cigarette,
then spin over the gravel in triumph. In

the rearview the gray dirt rubs out the sun.
The gravel sings along in my fender wells.

 

The Subject

Both I still see dead—Mark
thin on a gurney in the hospital,
Pat sitting on his living room floor,
tv on, his chemo pack pulsing.

I could have done better, could have
looked out for my younger brothers
more. We all took defiance seriously
so we laughed at death, expected,
courted it, a gift Dad gave us,
along with excess.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWe are in the park,
climbing pine trees,
the sticky balm on our hands,
its scent in the air.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWe ascend with grace,
grip tightly the branches,
always moving up to light.

—Michael Catherwood

 

 

Michael Catherwood’s second book of poems, If You Turned Around Quickly, was published by Main Street Rag 2016. In 2006, The Backwaters Press published his first book of poems, titled Dare. His third book, Projector, is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin Press in 2017. He has published poems, reviews, and essays in various magazines, including Agni, Aethlon, Black Warrior Review, Borderlands, Burning Bush 2, Georgetown Review, Hawai’i Review, Laurel Review, Louisiana Literature, Midwest Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Sycamore Review, Westview, and others. He writes essays for Plainsongs and has recently published poems in The Common, Poetry South, Solstice, Louisiana Literature, Measure, the minnesota review, New Plains Review, Bluestem, and the Red River Review. His awards include Intro Journals Award for Poetry from AWP, two Lily Peter Fellowships, the Holt Prize for Poetry, and National Finalist for the Ruth Lilly Prize. In 2003, he received an encouragement award from the Nebraska Arts Council. He was nominated for a Pushcart prize in 2014. His website is http://michaelcatherwood.net.

 

 

May 022017
 

Michael Carson

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

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“An artist always incites insurrections among things,” says the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “The Structure of Fiction.” This is a grand claim. It makes art seem like the exception to everything else in experience—the things. I can’t speak for all aspiring writers, but I imagine this is what draws many would-be writers to literature in the first place: the impression that art is exceptional in its relationship to experience, that literature, unlike every other endeavor, allows the writer to shake things up, to rescue the magical from the mundane. So how do we make Shklovsky’s declaration less abstract? How do beginning writers—and here I very much include myself—accomplish this radical transformation and shake up the world around them to the point of insurrection?

Simply put: Artists shake things up through conflict and the primary vehicle of conflict is plot. While at first glance this response might seem reductionist or even crude when speaking of something exceptional like art, it is actually crude and reductionist for beginning writers to ignore what is in some respects the most difficult aspect of craft. A writer can do little with his or her brilliant ideas, characters, sentences or settings (much less start an insurrection) unless they appreciate what plot is and how effective stories require plotting.

Douglas Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story,” in his Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, describes a short story as a “narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs B).” This conflict, he argues, “needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.” He describes this conflict as “a desire-resistance pattern.” A character desires something and another character resists (sometimes this can take place internally too, within a single character). According to Glover, this “central conflict is embodied once, and again and again, such that in the successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.” These articulations give a story “a rhythmic surging quality,” and they make possible the aesthetic space for the writer to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual implications of the conflict.”

This essay examines how three canonical writers—Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and John Cheever—arrange a conflict between two poles to systematically draw the reader deeper into the “soul or moral structure of the story.” Through the course of the essay, we will see that even though each selected story possesses a unique conflict and writing style, all three possess congruent desire-resistance patterns, and each of these patterns provides its artist the aesthetic space necessary to incite insurrection.

 

Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” begins when a bull wakes up Mrs. May. The next morning Mrs. May enlists the help of Mr. Greenleaf, her farm foreman, to remove the bull from her property. She finds out from her sons, Wesley and Scofield May, that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. She lets Mr. Greenleaf know this and reminds him of her order to get rid of the bull. She goes to the property of O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf to let them know their bull is on her property. She cannot find them and tells the boys’ foreman to give them a note telling them about the bull. Back at her farm, Mrs. May’s boys mock her. She cries. The boys fight each other, upending the kitchen table. Mr. Greenleaf appears at the door, asks if everything is alright, and Mrs. May reminds Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull. The bull returns to her window that night. The next morning, Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to get into her car. They drive to the pasture and Mr. Greenleaf leaves the car to kill the bull. He and the bull disappear into the forest. Mrs. May follows him into the pasture and then gets out of the car to wait. She falls asleep on the hood of her car. She wakes up to the sight of the bull charging at her. The bull gores her. Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull in the eye four times.

Flannery O’Connor

“Greenleaf” is a 9,500 word story related in the close third person. O’Connor divides the text into three sections, the first relatively short and the next two very long. Unlike the other authors we will look at, O’Connor’s section breaks do not denote a jump forward in time, or, more precisely, there is no chronological pattern to her section breaks: she has no problem jumping forward in time—like say to the next morning—within a section as well as between them. This is all to say the logic of the section breaks is different in O’Connor. The first short section details her first confrontation with the bull. Only in the second section does she confront Mr. Greenleaf and begin the desire-resistance pattern in earnest. Mrs. May wants the bull off her property and Greenleaf does not want to remove the bull from the property. He resists her desire through the second section. In the third section she takes active measures to remove the bull herself (but, interestingly, not actually do the work herself), first by going to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf’s property and then by picking Mr. Greenleaf up in her car and forcing him to go the pasture with her.

O’Connor delays the actual conflict—the literal back and forth between antagonist and protagonist—until the second section. And yet O’Connor definitively establishes the conflict’s parameters through both backfill and the conditional tense. After being woken up by the bull, Mrs. May reflects on how for “fifteen years” she “has been having shiftless people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.” She blames Mr. Greenleaf, her foreman, for this ongoing oppression, and then imagines what would happen if she went to wake Mr. Greenleaf up just then and what he might say. “If hit were my boys,” says the imagined Mr. Greenleaf, “they would never have allowed their maw to go after hired help in the middle of the night.” This not only helps frame the conflict but marks the first iteration of a curious form of “recycling” where Mrs. May imagines the desire-resistance pattern and the different ways she might end it by telling Mr. Greenleaf what she really thinks of his wife (an eccentric religious enthusiast).

After this two-page section—again, much shorter than the other two sections—O’Connor places her two characters in the same room, establishing and clearly delineating the desire-resistance pattern: “The next morning as soon as Mr. Greenleaf came to the back door, she told him there was a stray bull on the place and that she wanted him penned up at once.” Mr. Greenleaf immediately begins his resistance, which takes a shape of a denial that there is any kind of conflict at all: “Done already been here three days.” Much of the story’s comedy derives from this passive–aggressive (or, in Mrs. May’s eyes, just plain aggressive) refusal by Mr. Greenleaf to admit to a problem. The scene’s internal calculus plays with this too, as Mr. Greenleaf, standing on her back porch, speculates, “He must be somebody’s bull,” rather than answer her questions. The reader also waits for Mr. Greenleaf to simply admit there is a problem.

The scene moves inside to an “off-angle” interaction, this time between Mrs. May and her two sons, each boy uniquely horrible. They are, in a sense, active manifestations of Mr. Greenleaf’s reproof, his resistance, which boils down to the fact that no matter how lazy or troublesome he might be, at least he’s not as bad as her two sons. Inside the house, they threaten to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf when Mrs. May dies and gleefully let her know that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. This is a long careful delay—note that the Russian formalist writer Shklovsky considers digression the essential component of narrative art—with much backfill on how Mr. Greenleaf was hired and a fleshing out of the two worthless sons, but the scene ultimately returns back to Mr. Greenleaf outside the house (never in the house) and Mrs. May ordering Mr. Greenleaf to put the bull “where he can’t bust out.” Mr. Greenleaf resists, comically, given the desire-resistance pattern, stating the obvious—“he likes to bust loose”—not answering, and not clearly saying whether or not he will follow her order.

At this point of the story the conflict and plot has consisted of the single—if prolonged and disjointed—interaction, this resistance on Mr. Greenleaf’s part to admit there is a problem with the bull or do anything about the problem. The first battle is undecided thanks to Mr. Greenleaf’s refusal to admit a conflict. Given the amount of characters involved—Mr. Greenleaf, Mrs. May, the two pairs of sons, and Mr. Greenleaf’s wife—a less experienced reader might get distracted here by not only the characters, but also the pervasive and pronounced symbolism. Does the derelict bull represent faltering class hierarchies in the post-World War II United States’ South? Is the bull emblematic of Mrs. May’s denial of Christ, her faux-Christianity and unacknowledged hubris? Why did O’Connor create doubles of the antagonist—the successful Greenleaf sons—in her own unsuccessful sons? Yet all of these questions should be put aside: they are reformulations of the basic conflict between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf over the literal fate of the bull. The conflict is the story. It is dangerous to mistake ancillary material and symbolic implications for the backbone plot (though these too are crucial); if we do, we risk missing the central narrative importance of the interactions between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf.

Thus we should take Mrs. May’s movement in the second scene, her journey over to the modern farm of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, as a plot-step variation, a delay and reformulation of the actual conflict between Mr. Greenleaf and Mrs. May (Douglas Glover calls this movement a “stepping out,” a delay in an event by creating steps within the event). That the Greenleaf boys are not home (we never meet them in the story) frustrates again Mrs. May’s desire to get rid of the bull; yet only when she returns to her own house, and after getting in another fight with her own boys, does Mr. Greenleaf appear on her back porch. What follows is the second tangible iteration of the conflict—remember that these plots almost always come in threes—and Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf again to get rid of the bull, this time threatening to shoot the bull, upping the ante really and signaling conflict-driven change and development in Mrs. May’s character. Mr. Greenleaf resists first by pushing the climax off, “Tomorrow I’ll drive him home for you,” and, when she shuts that down by repeating her order, through silence (this seems to be the go-to resistance reformulation in the modern short story: all three authors examined in this paper resist through silence in the second iteration of their respective desire-resistance pattern).

Mr. Greenleaf only breaks this silence not by discussing the bull, but by interrupting Mrs. May’s self-pity “quick as a striking snake” (a favorite O’Connor simile) to point out that she has two boys to do what she is asking him to do (again, the unstated assumption that Mrs. May can’t get rid of the bull herself, or without the help of a man, allows for the basic conflict and forces the reader to wonder if there is a sexual element to this conflict). The scene moves again to her bedroom and the nighttime and the bull munching away just outside the window. There is no line break here like the line break after the last nighttime interaction with the bull. This would possibly imply that O’Connor sees this entire scene, from the movement to the boy’s house to the next morning and the climatic confrontation with the bull, as one dramatic unit. The next morning Mrs. May arrives at Mr. Greenleaf’s house, “expressionless,” ordering him to “go get your gun.” Mr. Greenleaf reluctantly retrieves the gun and Mrs. May smiles at the thought that he would like “to shoot” her “instead of that bull.”

The third and final instance of the conflict, the climax, takes place in a secluded environment; the protagonist and antagonist are alone in a new story setting where the antagonist forces the desire to its conclusion. The bull must die. Mr. Greenleaf, characteristically, avoids the problem and runs the bull off into the woods. Determined to make this the climax of their long-running fifteen-year war, Mrs. May exits the car and waits on the hood. She falls asleep (again—she sleeps a lot in this story) and with the sleep comes the impression of a sun like a bullet bearing down on her head (the third instance of this image in the story). Also in these final moments we have more speculation from Mrs. May where she imagines the climax and resolution turning out differently, with Mr. Greenleaf gored by the bull and her being sued by Greenleaf’s sons. She calls this “the perfect ending.”

It is not in fact the “perfect ending.” It is the perfect ending for Mrs. May, who sees her entire life as one perceived injustice after another, an endless series of insults against her, her race, her class and her work ethic. The actual perfect ending, the ending necessitated by the story O’Connor constructed, immediately follows the imagined ending: the bull crosses the pasture toward her ‘in a slow gallop” and “buries his head in her lap” like “a wild tormented lover” (a deft reformulation and return the “uncouth country suitor” outside her window in the story’s first pages, and the ongoing “courtship” between her and Mr. Greenleaf). “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she shouts just before the goring, remaining “perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.” Her unbelief dooms her in a literal sense—I can’t help but feel this a joke from the Catholic O’Connor here—but the conflict has already been settled earlier, when Mr. Greenleaf runs the bull into the woods (the sight of Mr. Greenleaf’s wife’s ecstatic religious rituals).

What always fascinates me about this story’s ending is the way Mrs. May’s literal perception is changed by the bull’s horns. The horns lift her up and she continues to stare “straight ahead” but “the entire scene in front of her changed”; the tree line becomes “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky,” and Mrs. May has the look of “someone whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the sight unbearable.” She then, from this upside down position, and even though she doesn’t face Mr. Greenleaf, watches Mr. Greenleaf approach with the gun, “outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.” This marks a return to Mr. Greenleaf’s earlier trait, his sullen-shy tendency to create an invisible circle around those to whom he speaks. (Also fascinating is Mrs. May’s imagined switch to Mr. Greenleaf’s point of view in this ending where he witnesses her “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.”)

Sometimes when reading O’Connor I feel overwhelmed by the “on-the-nose” nature of her symbolism and thematic pretensions. This bull must then be another moment of that “grace” peculiar to the Catholic imagination, right? The scenario seems to have all the subtlety of a symbol for Truth or Unresolved Issues running up and attacking the protagonist (which is exactly what happens). But this reading willfully and lazily misses the carefully detailed desire-conflict resistance pattern that makes up the actual story. In a book review of William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo, O’Connor herself defines “genuine tragedy and comedy” as the place where “the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight.”

The key word here is “definite,” and with the definite comes a refusal to let one habit of perception—or urge to reduce the story to one meaning or another—dominate the other levels, levels of structure and craft O’Connor worked very hard to make definite; it is to ignore the desire-resistance pattern that actually frames the story and makes it a story at all. Though new writers often claim to resist detailing the specifics of plot out of a fear of unfairly “reducing” the story to the banal and everyday, the temptation to reduce a story to a certain reading or moral is actually strongest when we dismiss the importance of craft in the articulation of a writer’s vision. In other words, the awful vision of grace in “Greenleaf” is created not by the fact that O’Connor set out to write about the awe-filled vision of grace but because she found an interesting desire-resistance pattern and followed this desire gracefully through to its awful conclusion.

 

William Trevor’s “Teddy-bears’ Picnic” begins with an argument between a newlywed couple, Edwin and Deborah Chalm. Edwin, a stockbroker, does not want to go to a Teddy-bears’ Picnic, a get-together Deborah and her childhood friends attend every few years at the home and gardens of an elderly couple, the Ainley-Foxletons. Due to planning the Teddy-bears’ Picnic, Deborah forgets to cook Edwin dinner. Deborah attempts to make dinner. They argue more. Edwin drinks excessively. Edwin apologizes the next morning. They drive out from London to Deborah’s childhood neighborhood on a Friday, spend Saturday with Deborah’s parents, and attend the picnic at the Ainley-Foxletons’ on Sunday. At the picnic, after Deborah thanks Edwin for attending, Edwin excuses himself from the garden picnic to go to the bathroom. He drinks excessively in the house. He remembers a time from his youth when he made a spectacle of himself at a party. He goes outside and pushes Mr. Ainley-Foxleton over the edge of the lawn and the old man cracks his head on a sundial. Edwin returns to the picnic. Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton discovers her husband’s body. Edwin leads the picnickers over to the corpse, declares Mr. Ainley-Foxleton dead, and takes charge of the proceedings.

William Trevor book cover image

“Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is about 9,000 words long and told through the close third person, switching from the consciousness of Edwin to Deborah and then back to Edwin again, with occasional rare moments of non-POV-dependent authorial summary. There are five sections to the story, each divided into substantial chunks of backfill and dialogue. Trevor’s “Picnic” features a protagonist who resists the action of the antagonist. But here it is Edwin, the husband, who resists his wife Deborah’s desire to go the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. The story’s first section, the longest, initiates this confrontation; the second provides backfill on the couple’s relationship and a short dialogue confrontation; the third, the shortest, escalates the conflict between the couple (if in a somewhat indirect way); the fourth consists of an extended memory/backfill from Edwin and the climatic action; the final scene provides aftermath by detailing the consequences of the already settled desire-resistance pattern.

Trevor registers Edward’s resistance to his wife’s desire to go to the Teddy-bear Picnic in the story’s very first line: “I simply don’t believe it,” Edwin asks, “grown-up people?” She tries to explain the Teddy-bears’ Picnic tradition, to continue to push her desire, in a way that hints at the fundamental miscommunication between the two personalities, which will surface again and again in the story. “Well,” she says, “grown-up now, darling. We weren’t always grown up.” This disconnect between Edwin’s understanding of maturity and his wife’s frames the desire-resistance pattern. Edwin’s next response—“I’ll absolutely tell you this. I’m not attending this thing”—makes obvious Edwin’s violent resistance to what Deborah sees as a perfectly harmless desire.

Through the course of the apartment scene—snippets of dialogue followed by a paragraph or two of summary, both of the principles drinking more and more—the desire-resistance pattern surfaces again and again. Deborah cannot understand why her husband would refuse to have “a bit of fun” while Edwin cannot understand how mature adults could “call sitting down with teddy-bears a bit of fun.” The idea of maturity pops up again and again, expertly “loaded”—to reference another Douglas Glover analytical term—through significant history, juxtaposition and word splintering, but the reader does not lose sight of the plot due to the recursive dialogue exchanges, all of which circle around whether or not they will go to the Teddy-bear’s Picnic. The scene ends with a silent truce. We are told that the next morning Edwin apologized, the implication being the first round of combat has gone to Deborah rather than Edwin.

In the next scene, Trevor’s continues his deft POV switches, showing, somewhat comically, how one side does not see this conflict as a big deal while the other views sitting down with teddy-bears as an existential insult. Because Deborah finds “the consideration of the past pleasanter than speculation about the future,” she spends much of the scene providing relationship backfill and seeing “little significance” in their quarrel over the picnic. Edwin, for his part, thinks about the future, his persistent anger, and how he can give the marriage “a chance to settle into a shape that suited it.” Yet only at the end of the scene, on the way to the weekend getaway—and in yet another admirably concise dialogue exchange—does Trevor push the conflict to the surface again. Deborah interrupts Edwin’s story about the stock exchange to tell him the story of Jeremy’s “Poor Pooh,” her adult male friend’s teddy-bear. Edwin “didn’t say anything.”

This silence constitutes the second movement in the conflict. Edwin’s passive resistance, his stony agreement to attend yet not substantively interact with others at the Picnic (a sort of adult pout really), colors both the second scene and the third. It persists through his arrival at the elderly couple’s house and as they sit down for the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. Edwin drinks heavily through this scene and privately rejoices that he “smelt like a distillery” during his introduction to the elderly Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton. He internally mocks the ridiculousness and ugliness of all of Deborah’s friends. He only breaks this silence at the end of the third scene, when he tells Deborah, he has “to go to the lav,” after Deborah whispers, “thank you.” (Interestingly Edwin makes no comment about and does not seem to have an opinion of the elderly Ainley-Foxleton, who will ultimately bear the brunt of Edwin’s rage.)

Edwin’s interpretation of his wife’s thank you is of course couched within his understanding of the desire-resistance pattern, which is to say Deborah sees Edwin’s attendance as a nice gesture, a moment of loving appreciation and give-and-take between understanding spouses, while he takes her words for a sinister reminder of his earlier humiliation. It also provides for the movement toward the third stage of the desire-resistance plan and the story’s climax; Edwin has in a very literal sense left the Teddy-bears’ picnic. It does not matter that he is just going to the bathroom and that this would seem a perfectly natural thing to do; within the framework of the short story this movement constitutes a definitive and provocative action, yet another resistance on Edwin’s part, and the necessary plot step that brings about the third, climatic confrontation.

After an extended reverie on Edwin’s part, where he drinks the Ainsley-Foxton’s whiskey and reflects on a time in his youth when boredom, anger, and a need to come out on top pushed him to ruin a perfectly pleasant garden party—“within minutes it had become his day”—Edwin goes out to the lawn and tells Mr. Ainsley-Foxton that he sees fungus on the lawn below the rockery. He then murders Mr. Ainsley-Foxton. Deborah is not present in this scene but Edwin’s action cannot be interpreted as anything other than a violent resistance to her original desire. They are still within the same “room”—the sentimental and, to quote Edwin, “gooey,” world of the Ainsley-Foxton’s, Teddy-bears, and Deborah’s childhood (and, by implication, perpetual childhood, the antithesis of Edwin’s stockbroker “manliness”). Whatever the aftermath’s specifics, the consequences, the Teddy-bear Picnic will come to an end and no one will ever again—at least within Deborah’s circle of friends—be attending any Teddy-bears’ Picnics.

Trevor’s final section details the moments following the violent act of a protagonist, moments where he waits for the consequences of his actions. Trevor becomes hilariously mordant (and also philosophical) expertly juggling the juxtaposition of nostalgia and fear, violence and maturity, and innocence and experience in Edwin’s reflections on the blissfully unaware picnickers. And yet even though action does occur—Edwin and everyone else hear Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton scream and Edwin takes “charge of the proceedings,” becomes the grown-up in a world defined exclusively by death—this Teddy-bear’s Picnic has already technically ended because Edwin has already categorically and triumphantly resisted his wife’s desire.

The problem for readers like me is that we tend to mistake these endings for the heart of the story, which they are, in a sense. One leaves Trevor’s story impressed not by the conflict between actors, but by the profound emotional effect and intellectual questions the conflict allows. The effect is never simple; it inverts assumptions and resists explication. In a sense that is the “conflict” of literature. Most readers desire human experience be explicable within some heuristic; literature resists, heroically so. These stories are remarkable artifacts of that resistance; and yet they are nothing at all and mean nothing at all without their perfectly explicable internal desire-resistance pattern. All talk of heart and soul and transcendence aside, these stories—to quote Edwin—would be simply “gooey” without a plot to help substantiate them.

 

John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” tells the story of Lawrence (Tifty) Pommeroy’s visit to Laud’s Head, a summer place on the shore of one of the Massachusetts islands. Lawrence’s family—including the middle brother and story narrator—awaits the brother’s arrival with some trepidation, as Lawrence, the youngest brother, has not visited the family in four years. Lawrence shows up with his wife and two boys, begins complaining about the summer home’s proximity to the shoreline, and refuses to drink with the family. His mother gets drunk. Lawrence goes to bed and the rest of the family goes swimming. The next day Lawrence refuses to play tennis doubles with the narrator and the family goes swimming to escape Lawrence. That night, Lawrence disapprovingly watches the family play backgammon. Later in the week the narrator and his wife help plan a costume “come as you wish you were” dance at the boat club. The narrator tries to convince Lawrence to enjoy himself and attempts to physically force him into the dance. Lawrence resists. Everyone at the party goes swimming. The next day the narrator goes swimming and finds Lawrence on the beach. Lawrence agrees to walk to Tanner’s Point with the narrator along the beach. The narrator confronts Lawrence about his bad attitude. When Lawrence insults the narrator and walks away, the narrator hits him on the back of the head with a root. The narrator goes swimming. A bloodied Lawrence returns to the summer home and tells his family he is leaving. Lawrence leaves.

John Cheever

“Goodbye, My Brother” is about 8,000 words and is told in the first person, from Lawrence’s brother point of view. Cheever breaks up the story into six sections using line breaks. The major conflict—Lawrence (or Tifty) wants to show his disdain for his family; his family resists—takes places in sections three, four, and five. These major conflict sections take place chronologically, over the course of the two-week family vacation. The first section provides backfill, summary of the family’s history. The final section imagines and reflects on Lawrence’s leaving (aftermath rather than plot). It is important to note that of three stories examined, Cheever’s possesses the most complicated plot structure. Not only is the story told through a narrator who is physically implicated in the desire-resistance pattern only in the story’s second half, but the desirer—Tifty—also expresses his disdain for specific family rituals as well as specific characters. This creates a more elegantly algebraic plot pattern, less A vs B in three different rooms, than A vs X1, and then A vs X2, and then A vs X3. Further, each of these X variables is subdivided into a somewhat consistent pattern of smaller plot iterations—a1, b1, and b3.

The story’s conflict takes a definitive shape about a page into the story’s second section. This scene is defined almost exclusively as a confrontation between Lawrence and his mother, with the other family members watching on. Initially, there is “a faint tension” in the room at Lawrence’s arrival, but Lawrence does not press his disdain on the family and no one actively resists this disdain until Lawrence reappears from a visit to the beach. Here, in a short dialogue exchange, Lawrence’s mother asks Lawrence what he thought of the beach and if he wants a Martini: “’Isn’t the beach fabulous, Tifty?…Isn’t it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?’” She calls him Tifty—one of two family nicknames for the youngest brother; the other is “Little Jesus”—and essentially answers the question she asks for her son, rhetorically providing him an “out,” what he needs to say to elide his four-year separation. Lawrence response—“I don’t care…Whiskey, gin don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum”—makes clear that he will not fall back into the family banter and habits and has arrived not to rejoin but has come to disapprove of the family. “We do not have any rum,” says the mother with the “first note of asperity.” The narrator then goes on to provide more backfill, to explain Lawrence’s original separation from the family after their father’s death, when Lawrence originally disapproved, when he decided that his mother was “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.”

Unlike the other stories examined, Lawrence’s initial attack seems misdirected. He first gets into a fight with the mother, then makes a snide comment about the sister’s promiscuity, and finally ridicules the dead father’s “damn fool idea to build a house on the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline.” The scene concludes with the mother getting “unfortunately” drunk and declaring that if there is an afterlife, she “will have a very different kind of family,” one with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children.”

Because Cheever’s story is narrated by a character who has no direct exchanges with Lawrence in the first plot scene, the reader might conclude that this long first family interaction with Lawrence is not plot. This reader would be wrong. Lawrence’s disdain here addresses a particular family pastime—getting together to have drinks—and—with this—the process of coming together, of reuniting after a long separation. Lawrence’s challenges—which come in three neatly forceful dialogue exchanges with the mother—represent an assault on the family’s “delight at claiming a brother,” their efforts “to enjoy a peaceful time,” and, most importantly, their ritualistic drinking, which refreshes “their responses to a familiar view.”

Douglas Glover, in an essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” argues that Munro is “almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns” because “her story organization is heterodox.” In other words, the more complicated the plot structure, the more important a precisely delineated desire-resistance pattern. This holds true in the first scene of Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Because Lawrence is in conflict with an idea or family ritual rather than a specific person and knowing that Lawrence will be conflict with another ritual in the following scene, Cheever must guide the reader carefully through the scene, expertly modulating the conflict’s pressure, insistently reminding the reader of what is in fact at stake. We have seen in the other stories that a desire-resistance pattern tends to work best in three iterations. Cheever knows this, so he gives the reader this three-pronged pattern within the scene itself (think back to the “stepping out” observed in the O’Connor story). Lawrence’s rejection of the family’s ritualistic drinking comes three times—remember the three almost parallel dialogue exchanges?—that leads to the mother drinking too much and insulting the family. The scene itself could be a story. It has its own desire-resistance arc (a+b+c=A (Tifty) vs X1 (family drinking)), one that the consequent scenes (where A will be in conflict with new rituals, new X variables) will reformulate and expand upon.

In the third scene we finally have direct story interaction between the narrator and Lawrence. The narrator asks Lawrence if he wants to play tennis. Lawrence, through indirect dialogue, says “no thanks,” and the narrator excuses Lawrence’s decision because “both he and Chaddy play better tennis than I,” but then, just a few lines later, “Lawrence disappears” when family doubles are about to begin, which makes the narrator “cross.” This frames the later direct confrontation with the narrator and Lawrence—which will be the climax of the story—while carefully and consistently perpetuating the desire-resistance pattern established in the previous scene. Here Lawrence shows his disdain of family tennis doubles, then comments on the house’s specious gentrification—“Imagine spending a thousand dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck”—and finally the family’s eating habits. We have again the three iterations, but this time of three separate family rituals; and yet—since we just had this in the last scene and the key to quality plotting is reformulation, as Viktor Shklovsky says in his Energy of Delusion, plotting requires “inversion and parody”—these three expressions of disdain function as a prelude for the scene’s central dissatisfaction, that is, Lawrence’s disdain for family backgammon (the X2 in the basic plot pattern).

Unsurprisingly, given Cheever’s previous patterning, the backgammon scene-let can be further subdivided into three iterations also (a+b+c) that blooms from the climax of the original three iterations (tennis, house, food):[1] Lawrence watches on with disdain as the narrator plays his other brother’s wife (a), the narrator plays his other brother (b), and finally the other brother plays their mother (c). As the games proceed, the narrator is sure that Lawrence “finds an inner logic” to this innocent family ritual, and “it will be sordid.” He will, according to the narrator, see each loss and victory as evidence of “human rapaciousness,” that they battle not for money, for fun, but for “one another’s souls.” It’s also important to note here that all of this is filtered through the narrator brother, who, importantly, not only internalizes his brother’s criticisms but also interprets and voices them. While one might think that this distancing might mitigate the intensity of the desire-resistance pattern (why not just have Lawrence verbalize these accusations?), the fact that this interior monologue of disdain comes from the narrator’s imagination of Lawrence actually increases the conflict’s intensity. The disdain Lawrence feels for the family is bottled up by the narrator and fermented, and the narrator “resists” Lawrence’s disdain by trying to articulate it, trying to frame it, which again foreshadows his eventual failure.

Lawrence wins this scene’s desire-resistance pattern. He effectively expresses his disdain for this family ritual through silence (which the narrator verbalizes) and then, in the final paragraph, actively states, “I should think you’d go crazy” and “I’m going to bed.” Here, about halfway through the story, we have a seeming break from the desire resistance pattern, as the narrator makes a point to avoid Lawrence over the next few days, to enjoy his vacation and plan for the “Come as You Wish You Were” dance. But this is not an actual break in the plot. Like Mrs. May’s decision to go look for the Greenleaf boys and Edward’s pouting, this is an attempt to resolve the conflict by a new form of resistance (escape). It is another plot step, but one accomplished in the form of a delay (remember Shklovsky on digression and delay). Lawrence might not be physically present or even mentioned through the majority of the scene, but the reader waits for his return, which roars back at the end of this fourth scene with the same puritanical disapproval, this time of the dance party ritual (A vs X3). The narrator resists by pushing Lawrence into the party—the first physical resistance of the story—and Lawrence fights back limply, asking, “Why should I? Why should I?” The narrator returns to the party without Lawrence and they all dance and drink and “chase balloons”—another attempt to escape the conflict, and also the satisfying and logical climax to that scene’s desire-resistance pattern.

The fifth and climatic scene follows the pattern established in the previous scenes, but Cheever adjusts the movement, reformulates it in a way that speaks to the increasing pressure of Lawrence’s disdain on the narrator specifically. It might be useful to think of this in cinematic terms. The first part of the story has a distant shot of the desire-resistance pattern and Cheever moves in closer and closer until the conflict becomes a physical one (a close-up) between Lawrence’s disdain for the family and the narrator’s resistance. This is not to say Lawrence in this final section does not despise a family ritual too. He very much does—he despises the very idea of a beach vacation. After Lawrence’s wife’s vacation laundering affronts the narrator—her “penitential fervor,” iteration “a”—he goes to swim and finds Lawrence at the beach (iteration “b”). He swims with Lawrence watching. Upon exiting, the narrator imagines Lawrence’s criticisms—this again comes in a neat three-iteration cycle; remember that Cheever constantly has the third iteration give birth to a subset of three iterations, like algae blooms of conflict—and the narrator confronts the way Lawrence “kept his head down” as they walk along the beach (iteration “c”). Lawrence responds with the first explicit expression of disdain: “I don’t like it here.”

Following this blunt description of the desire-resistance pattern, the narrator resists verbally by repeating, “come out of it, Tifty.” Lawrence then insults the narrator physical appearance. The narrator strikes Lawrence from behind with a “sea-water heavy” root. This violence comes fast and is surprising, yet at the same time it is expected; through the successful cycles of desire-conflict exchanges, how Cheever reformulates each in their movement toward this particular confrontation, and the fact that the narrator has been verbalizing Lawrence’s disdain for the family through the entire story, it only make sense that the narrator would end up committing violence on a family member and, by extension, on the family.

Why? Because this is the exact pattern established in the first confrontation with the mother and the drinking— her afterlife with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children”—where Lawrence’s disdain for the family produces a disdain for the family from the family itself. This action is a plot twist and yet is also firmly within the established pattern. So too the narrator’s actions after the violence—his binding of the wound, his silence about the action, and his decision to go swimming yet again, to throw himself into that baptismal font, that “illusion of purification,” the one place in the family’s world that Lawrence “neglected to name,” and thus the one place resistant to Lawrence’s powers of “diminution” (one gets the sense that the narrator cannot name it either, and that is what keeps it redemptive and viable even after the events of the story; it is also, of course, where their father drowned—ironic conflict means syntactic excitement!).

In the next scene, the narrator imagines his brother leaving and reflects on the morning’s intensity and wonders whether anything can be done with “a man like that.” He then looks out his window to see the women of the family emerging naked from the water. In terms of story, the sublime imagery and wordplay are ancillary (though no less important). The plot has already ended. The conflict itself came to a conclusion on the beach. Likewise, the narrator’s philosophical ruminations, all the varied reasons he gives for Lawrence’s disposition and disdain, are tempting to privilege (as they come at the end), but this misses the fact that the actual story, the plot, would not work at all if not for Cheever’s determination to follow the original conflict—that of Lawrence’s puritanical disdain for the family—through the course of the story and to let them play out in three similar yet distinct scenes. This nuts and bolts craft substantiates the lyrical prose and philosophical digressions to follow. Missing this craft does not mean we miss the point of the story; it simply means we will likely have a good amount of trouble writing one.

In his Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argues that “art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced, or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence it is to be experienced through the senses.” Each of these three stories has a pronounced musicality to them, and it certainly feels at times that the reader is carried along through the background music alone (whether that comes in the form of syntax or theme or psychology). But this is not what makes a story. As E.M Forster declared in his Aspects of the Novel, a story qua story has but one single merit: that it “makes the audience want to know what happens next.” This merit exists only in an author’s capacity to create a “walking dance to be experienced,” a determination to follow with “the body,” an investment with “the senses.”

We have seen this play out in the three stories analyzed. Each takes a specific character’s desire and invents a situation where another character or group of characters resists this desire. It then takes this conflict and reproduces it at least three times in at least three distinct scenes, and each iteration is reformulated to provide a sense of syntactic excitement, irony and elaboration without ever abandoning the original desire-resistance pattern. This steadfast commitment to the original conflict creates the aesthetic space for the “movement of the body” because this plotting is, ultimately, a commitment to the senses on the part of the author and the reader, to exploring—to quote O’Connor again—“the definite to its extremity.”

Culturally Americans tend to treat literature as an unknown quality, unique with respect to other art forms and disciplines, both urgent and enduring precisely because it cannot be planned, described, and compartmentalized. But this isn’t quite true. The urgent and enduring qualities of literature extend directly from the fact that literature is, as Douglas Glover says, “a process of thinking with its own peculiar form.” Contrary to popular belief—a romanticized and lazy understanding of what art accomplishes and is—this peculiar and specific form provides literature its unknown quality. Writers create interest through, as Glover argues, “variation of form, surprising turns or denials of expectation, dramatic action and emotional resonance”; writers move readers through a walking dance, never for a sentence forgetting that there would be no dance without conflicting bodies and no interesting bodies without this formulaic dance.

—Michael Carson

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: First Vintage International, 2000.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Glover, Doug. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2012.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Energy of Delusion. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2007.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 1990.

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin: New York: Penguin House, 1992.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A note here on syntax: Cheever actually reproduces this exact plot pattern on the sentence level in much of his writing. He likes to use the three-beat pattern and then lightly disrupt it, extending the sentence into a six-beat pattern. Here is a particularly strong example from the ending of “Torch Song”: “Jack emptied the whiskey bottle into the sink./ He began to dress./ He stuffed his dirty clothes into a bag. He was trembling and crying with sickness and fear. He could see the blue sky from his window, and in his fear it seemed miraculous that the sky should be blue,/ that the white clouds should remind him of snow,/ that from the sidewalk he could hear the shrill voices of the children shrieking,/ “I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain.”
Apr 032017
 

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. —Michael Carson

Spoils
Brian Van Reet
Lee Boudreaux Books, 2017
304 pages, $26.00

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In his 1955 preface to Isaac Babel’s Collected Stories, Lionel Trilling confesses to being disturbed by the “terrible intensities, ironies, and ambiguities” of Babel’s Red Cavalry. “They were about violence of the most extreme kind,” says Trilling, “yet they were composed with a striking elegance and precision of objectivity, and also with a kind of lyric joy, so that one could not at once know how the author was responding to the brutality he recorded, whether he thought it good or bad, justified or unjustified.”

Brian Van Reet’s first novel, Spoils, also disturbs. A veteran of the Iraq War and Michener graduate, Van Reet has published award-winning short stories about the U.S. occupation of Iraq and U.S. soldiers returning home from Iraq. There is a tenacity in his prose unique to soldier writers, a furious exactness, and yet a delicacy also, an earned incandescence. Reading him, one understands that this is not a young man recording his war experiences, a “moral witness”—this is an artist, an artist compelled to write war.

Spoils opens several weeks after the 2003 Iraq invasion. Cassandra Wigheard, a female Military Police specialist, pulls security in a Humvee at a roundabout outside Baghdad. Two males, one crass and bigoted, the other paternal and sentimental, keep her company. It’s unclear why they have to sit there exposed. It’s also unclear why they are in Iraq at all. The Why is muddled. All that matters is the now. The fact of war. “This one is bored tonight,” says the narrator. “She would move closer to the war’s hot center.”

Mortars answer her prayers: “Down below, the driver’s door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe.”

Black blood. Stringy flesh. Clutching. Entangling. Stumbling. Close-third person. Present tense. A hot center. Van Reet’s opening scene establishes the motif of within and without—a hall of dissimilar but equally destructive mirrors, of characters who seek escape and end up tangled in razorwire. The section concludes as another soldier drags Cassandra into a canal “over which streams of glowing red and green tracers hurtle gracefully like a hail of burning arrows launched from the wall of a medieval fortress.” She sinks down “into the dark tangle of fluid reeking of pungent, musty life.” She is no longer bored.

The next narrator, one of those responsible for the mortar attack, also seeks an end to boredom, an escape from the aimless ennui of civilized hypocrisy. Al-Hool abandons an upper-middle-class life in Cairo for that of a mujahedeen in Afghanistan, then Chechnya, and then, eventually, Iraq, because this is what the logic of exit demands, the rotating absolution of movement toward ever-greater violence. Al-Hool has many justifications for his jihad adventurism, none of them especially religious—he, like all the protagonists, have little patience for or with God—the most succinct of which is this: “Exit. War.”

That warm hot center. Later, trapped in an apartment in Fallujah, Al-Hool can’t bear to think he has been repeating the same mistakes over and over again, “that the years have taught me nothing or, worse, that I have learned something vital but am unable to apply it.” His fellow mujahedeen video the beheadings of U.S soldiers. They saw off heads. Their broadcasts send the war spinning out of control (if war is in fact a thing controlled) and give the adventurers the lack of control they thought they craved. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hood prays, remembering his dead son, swallowed by jihad.

The final narrator, a U.S. Army tanker, alone relates events in the past tense. A “watcher” with a fainting problem, Sleed leaves his parents’ basement and pill snorting to find “a higher purpose” in the Army. He talks much about thing getting “real.” His tankmates take pictures of massacred Iraqis. They steal from Saddam’s Palace. They accidently kill civilians. They blow up buildings. Things become “real.” He has found that place where “everything matters so much, it is pointless to worry about anything.” “Believe me,” Sleed says after escaping an IED blast, “I’ve tried them all, and there’s not much that will get you higher.”

His tank crew speeds back and forth across the hot center, touching it and running away, like a child’s game, a dare. Sleed picks up the shattered skulls of Americans who didn’t make it to the other side: “A deep pain beat at the center of me, and I thought I was going to faint again, but all I did was retch up water.” They bumble forward in their ten-million dollar machine blowing up mujahedeen and civilians and everything in between. “The whole world watching,” says Sleed, “and no one but us knew the truth.”

Mistakes are made. A quest plot is twinned with an escape plot (and what is the difference, really?). Later, in another cell, a captured U.S. soldier: “Come and do it!” he shrieked, the kind of unmodulated shrillness that can only from a human being pushed to a place where the lines between fight and flight approach a vanishing point. “Just get it the fuck over with!”

This is not a story about patriots. No one defends home and hearth in this book. Not Al-Hool, not Sleed, not Cassandra. This is not a story about disillusionment. This is a story about people who seek out the lines between fight and flight, those in love with this vanishing point, who perhaps want to vanish into the point. This is a story about people escaping home. This is a story about adventurers—those already disillusioned, and who seek out war to bury what is left of illusion.

How do you write a war story about those who are not patriots in the traditional sense? You triangulate their desires: you make a trinity that sabotages the either/or of war, what Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory called “adversarial proceedings” or “the gross dichotomizing” that “great imaginative habit of modern times.” You create a form to fit the subject, a trinity that does not allow any neat parallels, but a chaotic orbit of clusters, forever trading places around that warm sun of war.

Choric voices converge in Triangle (!) Town, a suburb of Baghdad, a derelict backwater populated by crippled Iraqi children and their destitute elders; it is a new warm space, another of those spots that draw the adventurous like moths—a geography, like Afghanistan, “at the edge of the known world and at the same time, its obscure, violent nexus.” There, freshly trapped in Humvees, tanks, factories, basements, and ditches, our heroes find an escape. They escape into darker cells, new prisons.

One of their number, Cassandra, knows this already. Her story, related entirely in the present tense, risks becoming nothing but the present, becoming nothing at all: “No matter how much she wants to, she can’t close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it’s working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses atomic color and becomes clear.”

This clarity, this moment, this invasion, the videotapes, the American money, spawns “forward progression,” more invasions, more death, more money, a rippling effect not unlike a tide pool with waves going to and away from and parallel to shore. Triangle Town will be destroyed. Iraq too. We (of the future) know the ending. But that doesn’t stop the story does it? No one listens to Cassandra. Clytemnestra murders Agamemnon; Orestes, Clytemnestra. Athena saves no one. Time stretches thinner and thinner. We move ever onward to that warm center. Clarity.

Sleed, the voyeur, the fainter, the trophy-hunter, claims “the whole world watches but no one but us knows the truth.” But the truth deceives, takes away when it gives. “The night before,” says Sleed. “I’d been destroyed by regret, but now it turned inside out, to anger, like when you do something wrong and get called on it.” Regret becomes anger and anger violence and violence regret and regret anger and anger violence. Sleed has his own prayer: “There’s a certain way of doing it where the good guys become bad guys and the bad good, and there’s another way I wish I do where there are no categories.” He still wants an exit. But he is already at war.

Near the novel’s end Al-Hool looks on the Iraqi landscape. The beauty surprises him: “It was the palm groves, I think, the neat rows of them, the way they appeared from the moving car, each tree shifting in parallax with those in front and behind, creating an illusion of infinite depth, as if you could walk forever through the groves.” From the right angle, the prison bars offer hope, from another, a hall of mirrors. The sins of Al-Hool and the Americans—the decapitated heads and destroyed neighborhoods—are resurrected on televisions and computers across the globe. “Praise God that what is gone, is dead,” Al Hool prays.

“This is the end of boredom,” says Baulin, a war-wasted frostbitten twenty-two year old platoon commander, to the feckless narrator of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry—that voyeur, that “milk-drinker.” There is nothing Babel’s narrator covets more. But neither is there anywhere to go from there. That’s the point. The myth of Cassandra is not a happy one; it is, however, an artful one.

In his discussion of Red Cavalry, Trilling describes writers predisposed “to create a form which in itself be shapely and autonomous and at the same time unusually responsible to the truth of things and events.” This writer “concerns himself with the given moment, and, seeming almost hostile to the continuity of time, he presents the past only as it can be figured in the present.” Van Reet’s novel does not merely replicate war experience like the ubiquitous recording devices in the novel itself, or as a moral witness might, eager to expose the horror of this or that incident of war for hope of a better, less violent, future; neither does Spoils offer excuses, justifications, that sliver of hope which comes with the past tense, that perspectival arrogance of a known future.

Instead, Spoils offers us shared tragedy—our shared attraction to the vanishing point and perhaps our shared hostility to the continuity of time. The enemy, it turns out, stumbles for an exit too; the enemy, it turns out, recoils in horror at not just the violence at every exit, but the way in which time transforms and redeems this violence. The enemy is us and we are the enemy. Thus are the spoils of war. Van Reet’s prose is supple. There is a kind of “lyric joy” in this brutal record. It never drags. It is we who drag—the way we inch ever closer towards war’s hot center.

—Michael Carson

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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Apr 142016
 

 

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In James W. Griffiths’s “Room 8,” a prisoner finds a box with a dark, intriguing secret in his new jail cell. A psychological Escher painting of a film, it thrums with claustrophobia as we watch the protagonist step into the undertow of his own curiosity.

Griffiths’s film is one of five different films from the same script, created as part of Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series. Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) was selected to provide the source text and wrote a script stripped of any stage direction or character names, then the contest asked people to imagine their version of a film around that simple script.

Five films were developed from the winning scripts. The five embrace the imaginative exercise, each striving to tell distinctly different stories: in “The Mrs,” the malaise of a long term relationship finds sudden criminal excitement;

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“Water Song,” tells the story of a hearing impaired competitive swimmer and a secret;

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the animated film “Crab” has two crabs collide over what to do with a magic bottle on the beach, their curiosity having fatal consequences for the entire universe;

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and in “Concrete,” a cleaning lady and business man face off over a magic box.

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The films incorporate some small dialogue changes but these are, for the most part, cosmetic and Fletcher’s original text is at the foundation of each of the diverse stories.

“Room 8” takes that simple scenario and applies it to a perfectly small premise: two men in a jail cell and a small, horrific warning against curiosity. The loop of the plot here is in itself particularly satisfying: this happened and will continue to happen after the film ends, due to the nature of human curiosity and the desire to be, externally at least, free.

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The most marvelous shot is also the most nihilistic perhaps: the Michaelangelo-esque Adam touching the hand of God moment, a sense that we are our only chance for divine intervention; there is no God, which, in this world, means we are left to our own flawed devices, our own horrible choices, the world turning in on itself as we hurl ourselves into awful endings.

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I did find myself wanting a little more from this iteration of the script. In its present form I am not entirely clear what the man in the cell gets from the loop. If, for instance, he wanted the cell to himself, or found others too noisy, then he would have a personal stake in this peculiar collaboration with his jailers. As it stands his stake is unclear so he remains perhaps too simple an antagonist. Regardless, that doesn’t take away from the horror of what is in the drawer and the pleasure of a vertiginous window into possibility that then torques into a narrow hell.

Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series seems to be ongoing: in 2014 the second series of films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, these built from a new script by Geoffrey Fletcher. “Room 8” is Griffiths’s third short film and it went on to win the Bafta for Best British Short Film.

—R. W. Gray

 

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Jan 112015
 

IMG_0002Michael and Kate


PART I (June 2014)

Two years ago I wrote an essay on returning to reading following the death of my wife. She was forty-four. We’d been married four years and nine months. She had breast cancer for twenty-one months. She left me with two kids (eight and eleven) and an ex-husband to negotiate. More accurately, she left her ex-husband with two kids and a second husband and step-parent to negotiate.

I intended to follow up my essay a year later with another on reading through grief, but I couldn’t manage it. The flow of grief left me unsettled to the extent that I never felt secure enough to speak. Never felt grounded, is what I mean. How could I write an essay on anything when every time I tried to put my thoughts together they shifted? Also, I had wanted to write how, one year later, I had “read through” grief, and about how I was now on the other side looking back. Except I wasn’t on the other side. Not only did I feel nowhere near the other side, I felt increasingly in ever deeper, ever more tumultuous water. For eighteen months, I felt concussed. And when those symptoms relieved, I felt something worse.

The grieved get used to people asking, “How’s it going? Better?” Things are supposed to get better. We have clichés for that. Time heals all wounds. We all know about the stages of grief. Denial. Anger. Sadness. Acceptance. As a grieved person, you are granted a certain leeway to be crazy. Emotionally overloaded. Out there. Behaving irrationally, unpredictably, outside the norm. And then you are supposed to “get over” all of that. You are supposed to acknowledge that folks have “allowed” you this period of disrupted expectations. You are supposed to be grateful how everyone has been “there for you,” which they have been, on the whole, even if it really seems that all anyone has really done is try to wait you out. Wait for you to declare, “I’m back.”

Early on I decided I was never going back. In my wife’s final months, I read The Five Ways We Grieve by Susan A. Berger and I’d absorbed the message that grief was transformative. You may respond to it in any number of ways, but you will not remain unchanged. After my wife died, I read Healing Through the Dark Emotions by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended to me by one of my wife’s friends who’d lost her only son at age four to cancer. The transformation message was reprised there and to it was added a second: feel your feelings. Do not fear the darkness. Open your heart and mind and let the grief process carry you on its current. Healing will come in stages, and you will experience unexpected gifts.

I did experience unexpected gifts. Many involved suffering a rainbow of unremitting pain. All the better to teach you resiliency, my dear. Off in the distance a witch cackles. Ah haha. That I can write this now shows that I am released from this spell, which as I said was concussion-like. After my wife died, I chose to read Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Woolf was my wife’s favorite author, and Mrs. Dalloway was her favorite book. I’d never read it, and I chose it to honour her. Waiting for Godot called to me. I felt I was caught in an absurd, Beckettian situation. I had spent so many hours sitting in hospital waiting rooms with my wife (waiting! rooms), so many months waiting for the disease to progress or not, so many weeks, then days, then suddenly minutes at the end, waiting for death. I felt I had confronted the void, and I felt I needed Beckett. Woolf, too. (And I did.) But what next?

Michael

I once made a list of the ten to twelve books I read that first year. It’s still around the house somewhere, but I’m not going to search for it. There were as many books, likely more, I started and set aside. I fell into no rhythm, felt no progression, struggled against despair. I believed in prescribing myself books. I felt I could self-medicate with literature and get through my hard times, but while some books clicked, in general I felt myself slipping downward. Of course, downward is a literary journey, too, but I decided against attempting Dante. Early on I tried Hamlet, a tale of grief and madness, and I thought it fantastic. I read it about the same period of time after my wife’s death as the period of time between the death of Hamlet’s father and the re-marriage of his mother. Too soon! Holy smokes! I also re-read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Hamlet and thought (again) that he was full of it. The capture of Hamlet by chaos and his urgent need for sense, pattern and meaning gripped me as perfectly sensible. Order had been overthrown, and what was it now?

In my own life, I had lost my role as husband and my role as a step-father became severely ambiguous. The children continue to spend time with me, but half what they spent before. The three of us were the ones closest to their mother, and we have a bond that has been forged in fire and is unbreakable, and my separation from them terrified me. If we can make it through seven more years, and get the youngest one out of high school, then we will have achieved something remarkable. It once seemed barely plausible. Now it seems more likely.

Levi

I decided to read Primo Levi. I started with The Periodic Table. I loved it. I wanted to stay with him forever. I thought, “This is what you do when you confront the void. You turn it into something like this.” Years earlier I had read Philip Roth’s interview with Levi. That was my only previous exposure to him. One of my wife’s friends had also told us a story about professional advice she’d received to help her deal with a toxic work environment. The advice was: read Holocaust literature. The premise was: it will make your toxic work environment seem less severe. At least that was her interpretation. I said, “Maybe it means your work is comparable to a concentration camp.” Except, of course, no mass murder. I had both interpretations in my mind when I started reading Levi. I had found the cancer period Beckettian, and the death administration equally so. Again and again I was confronted with the absurdities of our bureaucratic modernism. Trying to deal with my wife’s estate, I tried to process a cheque through the bank, but they wouldn’t do it. I complained to customer service, and got a lecture on the phone from a woman who explained to me that bank policy trumped the law. “We need to protect our customers,” she said. I explained to her that her customer was dead, and I was her husband and executor and that I WAS THE ONE who was responsible for protecting her, and the she was in fact thwarting her customer’s interests. No dice. I lost. I had to find another way of cashing the cheque.

Now that, it’s clear, isn’t a concentration type problem. No. Never. But the gift of Levi is his incredible ability to classify behaviours and identify sub-strata of groups within groups. Even in this darkest of dark environments, the concentration camp, the lager, Levi shows how meaning can be made and maintained, and how victims can create victims. As he notes, the survivors survived because often they were the ones who were able to find an advantage. An extra bowl of soup. An extra piece of bread. Avoiding beatings. Levi himself survived because of his chemistry training. He was put to work in a lab, and even then barely made it out alive. The Periodic Table is framed around chemistry. Each chapter is named after an element. It tells the story of his early life, his chemistry training, the rising anti-Jewish restrictions in Italy, his budding romances, his radicalization, capture and transport to the camp. The camp itself, and later liberation, his return to professional chemistry, and his interactions with Germans, both through his work at a paint factory and through his writings. What a profound life. What a profound contribution to humanity.

After reading The Periodic Table, I read The Drowned and the Saved, which I also found moving, but not as brilliant as The Periodic Table. I started to read Survival in Auschwitz, but put it down after a couple of dozen pages. My interest had shifted. I felt that Levi had given me as much as I could get from him at that time. I reflected on the horrible bureaucracy of the camps, the savage efficiency they implemented, and the homicidal logic they represented. Going through the healthcare system with my wife, we had often remarked, “You’re just a number.” When sit in the waiting (!) room, anticipating your five minutes with the world class specialist, lining up your questions, and wondering what koan he’s going to drop on you for the next week or three until you see him again, you remind yourself that he doesn’t know you. He doesn’t know your life, your ambitions, your dreams, or anything more about you than the list of numbers he sees on your chart, your blood work results, your hormone levels, your this and that and you don’t even know what because they won’t tell you. In the camps, though, you literally were a number, and it was tattooed on your arm, and the purpose of the camp was to kill you, while the purpose of the hospital is to save you. Except for many, they don’t. For my wife, they didn’t. After her mastectomy, back in her hospital room, she said, “I wonder where my breast is now,” and I said, “I know where it is. It’s in the lab.” Because that’s where the doctor had said it would be, to analyze the cells, and include the results in their database and research project. They had asked her permission to do this, of course, but that didn’t make her any less a statistic and a research subject. Catch-22. As a patient you want the benefit of that research, but as a patient you also want your doctor to see you as a human being. Sometimes this happened, and other times, not so much.

For eighteen months I felt concussed, but when that lifted, I felt worse. What was going on? Emotionally over-whelmed. Exhausted. I had survived the cancer period with the help of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills, sedatives, blood pressure meds, extra strength Tylenol, beer, wine, gin of increasing proportions. Little by little, I let go of those. The anti-depressants first, then the blood pressure meds. The need for Tylenol diminished. I cut the sedative dose in half. I tried to cut back on the drinking. I kept the anti-anxiety pills in reserve. I went to grief counselling. “Remember you have a body,” the counsellor said. You can’t think your way out of this. Like Miriam Greenspan said, feel your feelings. I wrote a blog throughout this period. I tried to chart my changing emotions. I felt I was getting better. I’m not sure I was getting better, only changing. I couldn’t convince myself that my wife was gone. I knew she was dead, but she felt present. I cried daily, often in sharp painful jags. They were just about the only thing that offered any relief.

What was going on? I had absorbed a blow so powerful, the bruise was taking months and months to work its way out. My head was a cloudy mess. I couldn’t anticipate a future. I tried to write new fiction, but I couldn’t. I could barely read, and often I couldn’t. Television struck me as trivial and dull. The news attracted me not at all. In her final months, my wife had spent a lot of time playing Scrabble on the ipad. I couldn’t even open that application, but I sat most evenings and weekends (when the kids weren’t here) plugging away at various online strategy games. And then I downloaded Candy Crush Saga. The distance between The Periodic Table and Candy Crush Saga, I’m here to tell you, isn’t as vast as it first seems. The attraction, in fact, was similar. At least in my case. Each both excited and calmed my mind, took the random and chaotic and led it into patterns, filled up the time on the clock. Time heals all wounds, the cliché says. Not so, but wounds do need time to heal. Some lots of time, months, even years. As I am relieved from one wound, I seem to confront yet another and then another. Through the cancer period, we looked only forward, never back, and it was a horrible time that we filled with much joy (because we were alive and together and it was our mission), and at first I thought my wound was her death, but after eighteen months I realized that it was also the way she had died. Just the other day, while I was at work in the office, I found myself asking: “Dear God, Why? If you had wanted to take her, why didn’t you just take her? Why did she need to suffer so first?” Thinking like this, makes me think the comparison to the concentration camps isn’t so misplaced. Except one is an act of God, and the other an act of Man.

In March 2014, I felt violent palpitations remembering her mastectomy surgery in March 2011. The memories came upon me suddenly, unexpectedly. I tried to puzzle out why. I had violent images of her scar and “drainage tubes” and her pain and struggle to overcome the loss of muscle under her arm also removed. At the time, we had remained calm, focused, constructive, forward-looking. In 2012, we hadn’t been looking back. Things for her we so much worse. In 2013, I had only been thinking about 2012, her last months, the process of her dying. In 2014, my memory took me back to 2011. I felt ill. I took a couple of days off work. I felt violently shaken with disbelief that they had cut her breast off. Oh my fucking God! What savagery is that!? And we had just let it happen. We had been glad that it happened. We had praised the good work of the surgeon. What a clean, beautiful scar line! All of this seemed impossible to me now. No way. How horrible all of that was. How abnormal. How perverse. What knots we tied ourselves in to make it all seem permissible. No. It was brutal and horrible and a lasting terror. And then, as quickly as they had come, those dark feelings lifted.

I read three J.G. Ballard novels in the first year after my wife died, and one more in the second. First three: Concrete Island, The Day of Creation, Super-Cannes. The forth: Millennium People. I had read Cocaine Nights previously, and some of his short stories. I had a sense that Ballard would be good to read, and he was. Why?

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PART II (Nov 2014)

It is now over four months since I wrote the first part of this essay, and I have not written a word towards answering that one word question. Life intervened, and also writing the first part of this essay exhausted me. Reading it recently, I was surprised by the anger it contains. I remembered it as “cool” and “dispassionate,” but it is nothing of the sort. I had written about my wife, Kate, without naming her, a distancing strategy. Coming to terms with grief requires a distancing strategy. It is a distancing strategy. Letting go of the past. Trying to get up some momentum for the future.

In September I attended a three-day “Camp Widow” conference in Toronto. Organized by Soaring Spirits International, a California-based grief support organization, this event brought together 120 widowed individuals (110 women, 10 men) and offered a variety of workshops, seminars and peer support opportunities. I wasn’t sure I would like it. I wasn’t sure I would get anything out of it. But I did like it, and I did get a renewed sense of vigor and momentum out of it. Primarily, it helped me realign my heart and my head, accept that I am a widower now, and a widower forever, and understand, perhaps for the first time, that moving on does not require letting go.

I mean, I knew that. I was living that. But this is where the peer support was so important. In my life, I have no peers. I know no one my age who has lost a spouse. People my age tell me things like, “Divorce is like a death.” And they tell me how horrible it was to lose a parent. These events are horrible, and painful, but these people are not my peers. I go to work day after day and try to be a productive person, but my sense of belonging in my life is shattered. Everyone wants me to get “back to normal,” but there is no normal to go back to. If I have a new normal, it will be something I need to build out of the shattered remains of my former life. “Camp Widow” made that crystal clear.

J.G. Ballard was a widower. His wife died in 1964, suddenly from pneumonia, leaving him to raise three children. Of course, he had also spent part of his childhood in a prisoner of war camp in Shanghai. His novels chart the shattered remains of the (post-)modern world. Life after the catastrophe. If Levi was life within (and after) the catastrophe, Ballard is also charting “after the end.” I felt at home in these novels, which are more often read as pre-apocalyptic visions, but I think that’s a misreading. One paraphrase I read in a book on grief noted Heidegger said it was best to live as if the end had already come. This is exactly how I felt after Kate died. Where was I? How could she suddenly be gone? How could we be separated? That wasn’t supposed to happen. What was this place, without her? It wasn’t the world I had known. It was a place “after the end.” I felt pain, but I also felt free in a way I had never felt before. I could do anything, anything at all, and yet all I wanted to do was nothing. Just sit in front of a fire in the woods and poke at it with a stick.

I told these thoughts to a friend, and he told me about Walter Benjamin and his Angel of History:

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

I believe I had said to my friend that Kate’s death had freed me into a land of infinite choice, and yet I felt powerless. The world rumbled on, and I watched it in horror, wondering why it was full of shit. Violence. Madness. Degradation of such variety it was impossible to keep up. None of this was necessary, and yet none of it could be stopped. I seemed to have a front row seat and an awareness heightened beyond anything I had ever experienced. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Ballard

Concrete Island (1973) is a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, except the island is a traffic island lost in a sea of traffic lanes and overpasses. It’s a slim book, and if I wasn’t specifically interested in Ballard I don’t think I would have picked it up, but it gripped me. A middle-aged man on his way home from a rendez vous with his mistress goes over the barrier in his fancy car, rolls down a hill and is trapped in an odd parallel universe, which is within reality and also outside of it. He discovers the island has other denizens, a self-supporting ecosystem, and no way to escape. His expectations of life are fundamentally and suddenly altered, and he must adjust, or die. I identified with that.

The Day of Creation (1987) is also an “after the end” novel. The action takes place in Central Africa, a parched and desert-like place. An Englishman, Doctor Mallory, goes on a Heart of Darkness-type quest after a mysterious river is suddenly sprung free from the earth. In a chaotic world, ruled by paramilitaries, bureaucrats and a freelance television crew, Mallory brakes free and leads all and sundry upriver, seeking its source. There’s some high adventure in this one, but also lots about a world under stress from capitalism, militarism, technological expansion and, let’s just say it, men. The mystery of the natural world is set against all of this. The power of women and girls, too. The new great river. The land mass of the African continent. A wild, post-pubescent, silent girl, who enters carrying a gun, and is equally terrifying and heartbreaking. The novel quickly reveals the foolhardiness of those who think they “know” anything about anything. Propelled backwards into the future, we go. Fuck ya.

Super-Cannes (2000) takes us into a world of ultra-capitalism and a different kind of desert, a kind of intentional community, though it is built for Forbes 500 companies, not 1960s back of the landers. It is also a post-catastrophe novel, in this case a murder rampage which had disturbed the perfectly controlled, micro-managed village just before the arrival of the protagonists, a husband and wife. She is the new doctor (replacing the doctor turned mass murderer), and her husband is the narrator, who has a lot of free time to investigate the goings on of his new surroundings. The genre explored here is whodunit? Or more precisely, whydunit? The plot thickens and thickens, as our hero is introduced to the reigning psychiatrist, who explains the theory and practice of the super village. It is designed to take care of its residents’ every need, so that they can be as productive as possible, and rake in the dough for the multinationals who are paying all of the bills. Taking care of everyone’s needs leads to an unexpected result. Folks are bored. All work and no play, it turns out, isn’t healthy, and the dark side of the soul needs to be exercised. So the folks organize under-the-cover-of-darkness vandalism brigades. Plus much more. I didn’t identify with the plot here, not in a “post-grief” way. But the undercurrent of swirling chaos felt very real. It made me think of the cancer period. It made me think of the dark truths hidden by systems.

Millennium People (2003) continues down this path. The action is set in contemporary England. A bomb has gone off at Heathrow, in the arrivals luggage area. The protagonist is a senior psychologist and his ex-wife is among those killed by the bomb. Through his job, he becomes involved in the investigation, but he begins his own independent research as well, getting drawn deeper and deeper into a shadowy world of domestic terrorism and anti-capitalist rebellion. The book contains an enlarged critique of big money and the faux surface “realities” of consumer culture and mass media. As with Super-Cannes, the plot plays with the idea that violence leads to a truer engagement with life, an idea that Ballard has returned to for decades. See, for example, Crash (1973), where characters stage car accidents for sexual pleasure. I found Millennium People to be the least satisfying of the four Ballard novels I read in this sequence. Some of the ideas felt recycled. The protagonists were starting to blur together. But the insights about an outer shell of mass media images obscuring and inner crust of essential “being” expressed what I felt to be intuitively true in my post-grief blurriness.

Being in a “liminal” world, is something Kate spoke about, as she lived with terminal cancer. Liminal = in between, life and death, here and there, fear and hope. And so on. I often felt in that space, too. Outside the main flow of life. And as I watched her die I felt as close as you can get to the other side without slipping into the void. Kate had spoken to a friend about the writing of Stephen Jenkinson, a palliative care specialist. She seemed to like what he had to say, but we didn’t talk about it much. She didn’t like to talk about dying, at least with me. She wanted us to just life, stay in our groove. But one of the things Jenkinson focuses on is fear, confronting fear, specifically. One story he tells is how most people when they confront death, aren’t actually confronting death; they’re too lost in the fear. He says that meeting death is like meeting love. You meet a new lover and at first you confront feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Is this going to work out? Can I actually connect with that person? And you go through those emotions, and then you connect with love. Connecting with death is the same, he says. And that describes what I felt, waiting, watching Kate get sicker, knowing that death would come soon, but never really sure when. Months, then weeks, then days. Imminently.

Five days before she died we were at the hospital for the last time, and her bloodwork was terrible. The numbers were not good, and she knew what that meant. She said, “I guess this is it.” Later, she asked me what my biggest fear was. I said it wasn’t that she was going to die. I wasn’t afraid about that. Now, reflecting on then, I’m stunned. We were there with death and we were both, “Oh, well. I guess it’s really going to happen.” The fears I had were about what would happen after she died. I told her that, but I also told her that I knew she didn’t want to discuss any of that with me. She didn’t. We sat in the sun outside the hospital, and I told her I wished we could just stay there forever. It wasn’t the disease that was the problem; it was time. We said some other things to each other also. It was really beautiful. Then we had to go home and re-enter reality and play the drama out. Three days later she was no longer speaking. She died two days after that.

Have I made it clear how Ballard’s multiple levels of reality felt just right to me? I hope so.

Just recently I recounted Jenkinson’s story about going through fear to get to death to my psychologist. I wanted to make the point to him that nobody told me I would have to go back through the ring of fear to get back into ordinary life. For a long time, I didn’t want anything to do with ordinary life. I liked being in the liminal space. I wanted to just stay there. It was a place full of insight, and a level of quiet peace that was sustaining, even if not fully real. But you can’t stay there. At least, I couldn’t. It’s that infernal engine of time again (another of Ballard’s obsessions, also; there’s some fantastic short stories that attack time savagely, but that’s for another…well…). Time wouldn’t let me drift in a void-like space for long, and getting back to a sense of normalcy was very, very painful. Ballard didn’t help with that. Levi, not so much, either.

I didn’t seek out novels about grief. I tried to read Murakami’s nonfiction about the sarin gas attack. I couldn’t get into it. I thought I would feel an “after the end” connection to it, but I didn’t.

On the first Valentine’s Day after Kate’s death, I bought Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). God, I hated this book when it came out. Everyone who told me about it made it sound horrible. I found the title unforgiveable. I had tried to read a number of different Eggers titles and found them unwelcoming to my tastes. But Kate liked his stuff. And this was a novel about grief and moving through it and past it, and in a moment of perversity I bought it, then devoured it quickly. I then put it on the shelf with Kate’s other Eggers titles (her books are still separate from mine). I felt, in a way, that I had read it for her. I know that sounds weird. There was more than a little magical thinking going on. I really hated the “Dave” character, pretty much all the way through, but I also got what he was doing, and I knew that I only got it because I was going through something so, so similar. I felt that I was in a place that only I could understand, and I was having visions that were like x-rays, but I knew none of this was because of genius, and also that it was heartbreaking in a quotidian way. It was pretty simple. My wife had died when I was 43. I had been 38 when we married. Eggers was in his early twenties when both of his parents had died from cancer in short succession, leaving him with custody of his much younger brother. Holy fuck, I thought. Now that’s a raw deal. And the novel is often raw, and sometimes it’s just plain stupid, but it is a song of pain that is staggering, heartbreaking, and even, yes, at times, genius. But it still left me trapped in Jenkinson’s wall of fear.

levels-of-life

Julian Barnes lost is wife in 2008, suddenly to cancer. In 2013, he published Levels of Life, a memoir of his grief. In 2011, he published The Sense of an Ending, a novel deeply reflective of the mysteries that haunt our lives. I read both of these books in close succession in the past year, and they are each remarkable and each marked, I believe, with the sharp pain and clarity of vision that grief can bring. Levels of Life is specifically about Barnes’ own grief and he tells of hard, hurting moments, but he also gives us a magical story about balloons. It’s really amazing, how he grounds the reader with enormous weight, and also makes us feel lighter than air. This is an incredible book, and it lifted my heart. The Sense of an Ending is also an incredible book, and now that I think about it it has grief at its core also. The protagonist is an older man, reflecting on the death of a close friend when he was young. Recent events draw him back into the past, and he discovers that things he thought were so, weren’t at all. He wonders if he has made a mess of his life, but he is not without opportunities to correct it, at least partly. I bought this book at Heathrow on a visit to London, and read it in the lounge and on the plane, completing it before landing in Toronto. Both of these Barnes titles are about transition, and in the past two-and-a-half years that has been my life, over and over. Will this bloody transition ever end?

I was already feeling a new sense of something when I went to “Camp Widow,” but that experience broke open emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time. It made me realize and articulate, finally, that Kate would never leave me and that I would also move on past her, and that these two facts weren’t in contradiction. She will always be with me, but I can’t stay here, in the now, which is the past. What is that thing, that sense of an ending? Is it a different level of life? I will have my own, new future, and she will be part of it, but she also won’t be part of it. Is that what happens when you get old? You realize that the past is always with you, and nothing ever really ends?

I said to my psychologist, “Returning to ordinary life is fucking horrible. Ordinary life is fucking horrible.” I meant this in an Angel of History way, but also just: my magical powers are fading. Grief is an extraordinary emotion, and living deep in grief is an extraordinary experience. At “Camp Widow” I heard of others who had contemplated suicide, others who had succeeded. Going back through the ring of fear and re-entering ordinary life is a risky period of “time.” To let go of the magic of the grief: hard. To let go of the dreams of being with the loved one: hard. To accept the new reality of here/not here: hard. Some don’t make it. Eggers’s older sister didn’t make it. Barnes muses about suicide as an option. Levi either killed himself or died in an accidental fall. Ballard’s vision includes violence as a kind of release. I was never suicidal, but one question pounded in centre of my mind: why should I go on? Why, without her? As I have gone on, I’ve realized again and again that I’m not without her. I don’t know how to explain that, except I have a glowing certainty that it’s so. And my PTSD pain, the memories of her suffering, etc., fades, too. The soul is lighter than air, it rises like a balloon.

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CODA

Okay, the PTSD pain. Yes, it fades, but it also comes and goes. The concept of “trigger warnings” is growing in common usage, and I was initially skeptical. I’m naturally skeptical. But the first week of November, the date I’m writing this, is the week Kate had her first chemotherapy. I’m self-conscious of anniversaries, and careful. Better to anticipate feeling crappy than to have it sneak up on you. Well, this week snuck up on me. Yesterday I felt like utter crap. Not as bad as I have often in the past, but worse than I’ve felt in a while. What happened at this time? I asked myself, and then I knew.

Here’s the thing about that first chemotherapy. We took a video camera. I have about a dozen video files of Kate from that day after various stages of the process. I had forgotten that entirely and then a while back found these files. We must have been crazy. We were crazy. Kate was adamant, however, that the disease wasn’t going to change her. She is seen plugged up to the machine and laughing. She is seen at home in bed, towel on her head, complaining of a headache and laughing. In one video she has the camera and she points it at me. I make a funny face. Looking at her doesn’t automatically make me sad any more. Looking at myself, was shocking.

I want to be that guy again, but I cannot. Nor can I tell him, buddy, hold on. You are in for a wild ride. If there was one thing I could tell him (me), it would be that the strategy of laughing your way through cancer will fall apart. You may think, dude, that cancer was bad; and it was; but losing her, this will be worse. (You will not laugh your way through grief, though your step-daughter will expect it of you. So like her mother, she will say, “I don’t like to see you cry.”) To put it in terms of this essay, I read and wrote through the cancer period. I clung to my reading (as did Kate) like a life raft. I read in many hospital waiting rooms. I wrote a book review weeks before she died. All of that fell apart in the tunnel of grief. This essay has been about putting my reading life back together. I have piles of books scattered all over the house, as I did before she died. I am reading widely and randomly, as I have always liked to do. On this good news, I will end.

— Michael Bryson [1]

Link to Kate’s Photos: http://kateorourkephotos.blogspot.ca/

 

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Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is a story “Survival” at Found Press. In 2011, he published an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review, and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. TDR resumed publication in 2011. He blogs at the Underground Book Club.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Here’s a short list of some books I’ve read recently that I’m enthusiastic about:
    Mad Hope, Heather Birrell
    How Should a Person Be?, Sheila Heti
    Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
    Nothing Looks Familiar, Shawn Syms
    Interference, Michelle Berry
    Polyamorous Love Song, Jacab Wren
    Bourgeois Empire, Evie Christie
    The Desperates, Greg Kearney
    You Must Work Harder to Write Poetry of Excellence, Donato Mancini
    The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven, Sherman Alexi
    Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Cambell Scott, Mark Abley

    Here’s some books I hope to get to soon:
    Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
    What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, Lynne Tillman
    Come Back, Sky Gilbert
    Stories in a New Skin, Keavy Martin
    All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
    I know you are but what am I?, Heather Birrell
    Ellen in Pieces, Caroline Adderson
    The Outer Harbour, Wayne Compton
    Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder
    Life is about losing everything, Lynn Crosbie
    Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson
    Gender Failure, Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote
    In the Language of Love, Diane Schoemperlen
    Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
    Boundary Problems, Greg Bechtel
    All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
    The Incomparables, Alexandra Leggat
    Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed, Jacob Wren
    Professor Borges, Borges
    Rap, Race, and Reality, Chuck D
    The Collected Stories of Stephan Zweig
    Tobacco Wars
    , Paul Seesequasis
    Voluptuous Pleasure, Marianne Apostolides
    Sophrosyne, Marianne Apostolides
    Consumed, David Cronenberg

    Read on.

Sep 072014
 

Michael OatmanMichael Oatman in London in March 2014 with Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1982 mural for the Tottenham Court Underground Station, completed the year he started college at RISD. Photo credit: Jen Kollar.

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Michael Oatman is brilliant. He calls his practice “the poetic interpretation of documents,” and much like a poet in love with the lyric moment, he captures hundreds of still-lifes, bits of magic, preserving the quality of the painterly images he works with by using them in his constructions, simultaneously reverent and irreverent. He works in collage and installation, making pieces that can be extremely large scale.

His work, studio, and intellect set up a seduction not unlike a labyrinth, and shortly after entering, you realize you’ve willingly let go the thread. Time no longer exists. You want to go down every rabbit hole. His downtown Troy studio is jam-packed, floor to ceiling. Yet it is also highly organized and makes your fingers itch with excitement and curiosity. There are books everywhere. Thousands. And objects, in stacked files and bins overflowing, whose stories and histories are locked away, subject to the imagination, some known only to their collector. Oatman unlocks or reinvents these images and objects for us as painstakingly as a surgeon.

Oatman’s influences, surprisingly (and not) include Cage, Duchamp, and Hitchcock. His installations are utterly immersive projects, and he’s constantly got things in the works. Many of you will have seen one of his recent pieces, a four-year collaborative effort, “All Utopias Fell,” installed at Mass MoCA. It includes jars of tomatoes his mother canned, a stationary exercise bike from the seventies, power tools, a record turntable and collection of vinyl records, and a fascination of knobs, gizmos & do-dads, which remake odd instrument panels. Of course there are books, among hundreds of other items, housed in a re-purposed Airstream trailer, whose outside is graffitied with phrases including “Ignore alien orders,” “One word changes everything,” and “Build your wings on the way down.” This trailer has become a spaceship, a satellite that has crash-landed, and the collection inside & out tells the story of a man.

We get the feeling that Oatman’s work is suffused with his biography. Because he is so deeply engaged in the world around him and in art as a means of communication, I was inspired to speak with him primarily about collaboration and connection.

  —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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“The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”

—Marcel Duchamp

Mary Kathryn Jablonski (MKJ): Michael, I see here in your studio that you’re working on a new collage using images of cloaked body parts. They remind me of Nina Katchadourian’s “Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style,” and make me want to ask you, what would you do if you were trapped on an airplane for twenty hours?

Michael Oatman (MO): I’ve had that happen before. 38 hours one time to go to Montana, and it only took me 27 hours to go to Easter Island, the most remote place in the world. I’ve been in that kind of situation. I’d probably get everyone on board to do something together to kill time, because everyone’s got a video camera on their phone. Also, what I used to do a lot of when I was waiting, when I didn’t have a car, when I was a student, I had my sketch book, and I’d just draw. Everybody. Bus stations, train stations, airports, waiting to get on the subway. And I find when I travel I sometimes go back to that a little bit. I like drawing people. For me, it’s not part of my work any more, but occasionally I’ll draw the figure. I taught it for 10 years, but the kind of drawings you get out in the world are really different from the kind of drawings you get of the body in the studio. Sometimes a body makes a scene seem more real somehow. I don’t live in a sketchbook quite as much as I used to, but I think Nina’s really figured out something hilarious.

MKJ: Yes, I especially love the clandestine “Bucklehead” photos of other passengers reflected in her seatbelt.

MO: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I just saw the movie, Finding Vivian Maier. It’s about a woman who was a self-taught photographer who produced over 100,000 images in her lifetime. Quintessential street photographer, easily as good as Robert Frank. She was a nanny to make her money, but she also wanted a job that wouldn’t take up a ton of her time, that would get her out onto the streets all day, so she worked for seemingly dozens of families from something like the 1940’s until the 90’s, maybe longer. 50, 60 years as a nanny. Sometimes you can tell she had a Rolleiflex that you looked down through the top of. It was easy for her to take pictures with no one noticing her. But other times it’s clear that the subjects are looking right at her. She had the ability to get people to trust her enough to take that photo. It’s a wonderful movie.

But going back to the visual relationship to Nina’s things. What I obviously like about those photos where she mimics the Dutch Masters… These photos I’m currently working with are actual pieces of diseased skin that the doctors or authors of the book (titled “The Jacobi Dermachromes”) framed out with cloth to look a bit like relics. They’re kind of honoring the disease and the person by beatifying it, and that’s what I really like. I did some work many years ago with images from life saving manuals, and in all these scenes of mayhem with broken legs and bones sticking through arms and people unconscious and bleeding, everybody, including the victims, looked so calm. And that was something I drew on.

Similarly, what I like about these diseased skin images is the devotional quality, and that is actually how I think about the images I use in my collages. Generally speaking, the pictures that I’m using, nobody cares about anymore, because everything on the Internet is a photograph. Why have a painting of a sea urchin or a horseshoe crab when you can have a photo of it? The illustrators that I use whose work comes mostly from between the 1920s and 70s made everything by hand, by painting. I guess it’s a little nod to the fact that I used to be a painter, so I really like images that started as paintings and ended as reproductions in books. With this project, in breaking my own rule, I’m working with photographs, but I feel like they’re altered enough by the process of being framed out with the fabric around the figures, and the hand coloration, and the separations for printing, that they feel more like illustrations to me than straight photographs.

Collage parts in preparation as decals, studio view, 2014

Because there are often hundreds of illustrators in one image that I make, and it has to work somehow, I’m trying to maintain the “official quality” of these original picture sources, which were so authoritarian, and at the same time, confidence in the judgment of the selector.

MKJ: Your work seems at once nostalgic and futuristic. In that way it reminds me of some of Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Handmaids Tale, Oryx and Crake. And all of your work, whether the two-dimensional wall pieces or the three-dimensional installations, I see as collage.

MO: That’s interesting, kind of “fugistic.” It’s funny you say that you see all my work as collage, because I now call the collages “flat installations.”

And I have these new frames that my dad has been making, which nobody’s written about yet. It’s really interesting for me because I’ve always commissioned my folks to make work for my projects, so I’ll hire my mom to do sewing or my dad to do carving or knife making or frame making and I’ll ask for 10 frames, as I did recently for this piece called “The Branch,” which is 30 feet long, which Ian Berry commissioned for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College. My dad made these rectangular frames that I kind of assembled together on the wall in the form of a branch. But two Thanksgivings ago he called me excitedly to ask if I was coming home for the holiday, saying he had this idea he wanted to run by me, an art idea he didn’t think anyone had done before. So I went up to Vermont and he had this beautiful drawing on vellum, a drafting of a Native American thunderbird shape. And he said, “I’ll make these shapes and you fill them.” I’ve been waiting for this for 30 years, for him to propose a project. Because it’s always been, “Dad, I need this. It’s this dimension. Here’s how to make it.” Now he’s picking the shapes: fish, butterfly, bat, thunderbird, anvil. I guess I influenced him on the anvil [see bio: Falling Anvil Studios].

He just gets them done whenever he gets them done and delivers them, and he’s an amazing resource. But it’s a real challenge, because the way that I’ve been working with imagery is in the classical manner of the Renaissance model: single viewer, a scene that unfolds in the world. I generally don’t make pieces that are pure abstraction, although I’ve made a few. One was in a Tang show and called “Code of Arms,” which was a human DNA helix. It’s pretty abstract, but it was still made out of pictures of things. Or a piece I made titled “Germinal Velocity.” Having the shaped edge means that you’ve really got to work with it or ignore it in a fantastic way. It’s been an opportunity for me to think dynamically about what’s been going on. It’s also given me an opportunity to change scale.

3-Germinal Velocity “Germinal Velocity (by the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising),” 2013, collage on paper with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman.

Like in this new piece, it’s not a landscape in a traditional sense, the zoom-out of the surface of the earth, but when I began to move the butterfly frame around, I realized that Africa fit in the upper right hand corner and the rest of it was blank. It’s a piece kind of about the butterfly effect, you know, the butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon, changing the weather, and this is more like a creature of human invention, the Pegasus, which is the Mobil Oil Corporation mascot. I’ve been collecting them. So they’re kind of the storm spiraling out. The working title for this piece is, “Convenience Storm,” a play on convenience store, which is a place where you get things like gasoline, cigarettes, condoms, beer. This piece is a bit about convenience store culture, a weird “Ode to Stewarts,” our regional shop, and I’m sure I’d be shocked if I learned how much I spent at Stewarts over the years. This piece is still very much in progress, and I’m not sure where it’s headed. I think things started to snap when I got the red working with the rest of the colors in the map. This is going to be one of the pieces in my upcoming show in October at the Arts Center in Troy with Colin Boyd called “Abecedarius,” which, as you know, follows a kind of A, B, C format. We’re each taking 13 letters of the alphabet and making a work, and we’re going to do one ampersand work that we make together.

4-Convenience Storm in process“Convenience Storm,” 2014, collage on map with frame custom made by the artist’s father, Gordon Oatman. Process, studio view.

5-Convenience Storm - process detailDetail view of “Convenience Storm,” 2014, in process.

MKJ: Has it ever felt forced to you to have your father make the frames first and you having the task of filling them? Have you ever dreaded the challenge or has it thrilled you instead?

MO: Totally thrilling. And what’s really thrilling is his process. He finds a shape online, so my non-computer-expert Dad has been surfing Google looking for animals. He’s thrown a lot of things out there that we’ve decided weren’t so great. We thought a manta ray was good, but he couldn’t really find a geometry that he liked. He thought a shark might be interesting, but it was a little too goofy. And then he found this bat, and it got stylized, not quite like the Batman logo, but it’s very baroque. I asked him years ago to find a way not to cast a shadow as much with the frames, and he came up with this bevel on the surface, which tapers down to about a quarter of an inch. Previously it was a three quarter inch edge. I asked him to start making frames like this when I came back from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and saw these really plain frames around Dutch paintings. I’d been teaching that semester in Rome and took a trip to Amsterdam to meet my then wife. In Rome the frames were like somebody threw up on them and then gold-leafed it, but in Northern climes they wanted this severe Calvinistic frame. So that’s what my father and I started doing, and we just painted them black instead of the Jacobean brown, which he was using earlier.

His process includes finding an image and printing it out at home. He goes to an old fashioned Xerox place, blows it up, then uses his 30-60-90 triangles, protractors, and other tools, as he averages the geometry. I think you have to admit that it’s a very good configuration of that shape, and I hope to actually show these drawings that he made someday, because I love them: the graininess of the Xerox and the calculations of the angles written at each point. I think this frame has 32 compound angles. Not only is he beveling the surface, he’s mitering each angle, you know, it’s 25 degrees, 60, 15, 45, 30, 60. It’s a lot of work to make these frames! So I really appreciate it, and I’m glad we’re finally getting to do something that’s a real 50-50 team effort. I’d long hoped to do a project with my whole family, my brother included. He’s in finance, but he was great at sewing when he was younger. I want to do an “Oatman Family Robinson” type show, where they would make everything. We would make everything together. That may happen someday.

MKJ: I made the assumption that when you work in the studio on your 2-D collage works it is a very solitary, meditative practice, based on the exacting quality of your cutwork. In the project “Beautiful Moths,” even the book you cut is intact! At Mass MoCA, however, the wall label for “All Utopias Fell”  reveals an amazing collaboration of over 20 names. I recall thinking that the canned tomatoes in that installation must have been your mother’s. I was going to ask you to speak about the differences between the (seeming) privacy of your studio practice and the social, collaborative aspects of your installation works, yet you’ve just been describing the blurred lines between the two, haven’t you?

6-Beautiful Moths“Beautiful Moths,” book.

MO: There were way more than 20 involved in the Mass MoCA piece; like maybe 60. And, yup, Dad grew the tomatoes; Mom canned them! Well, if my dad continues to make these shaped frames for me I’d be happy to work in nothing but the shapes, although I do have a lot of projects that are earmarked already for rectangular frames. It’s a really good question. I used to do the installations completely by myself and then my ambitions got bigger and museums wanted bigger pieces, and I had longer time frames within which to work. Now, I’d probably say that I wouldn’t do installations without working with a lot of people because I like it. I get to be like a director on a film. When you work with a lot of people you have to have a certain control over the overall project, and I think you also let go of a lot. And that’s much more surprising for me. There’s much more of a chance element if you say to a student, “All right, if you want to make a video for this piece, make a proposal and we’ll include it in the reel.” If I’m asking a helper use beer labels to make them into a kind of wallpaper in the ship, and they get to determine what the layout is, then I get to be surprised by that. My longtime editor that I worked with for many years is a former student. He’s now editing out in Hollywood. He began to know what I was interested in after awhile, so he could do a lot of work on his own that would be in the vein of how we’d work together. I miss that relationship greatly, and I’m looking to rekindle or replace that, working with a new editor. But I think collaboration is interesting not just because of the high, but also because of the surprise. That’s why I do it now.

I’m currently working on a big project for Toronto with my friend Brian Kane, an artist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, curated by Denise Markonish from Mass MoCA, titled “Nuit Blanche.” It has changed, because of venue changes and budget changes, literally a dozen times. It’s been super-interesting, and I think we’re going to have a great project in the end. We’re also collaborating with Paul De Jong, the cellist and former member of the now disbanded group The Books. He’s an amazing composer, studio craftsman, and performer. This sort of “secret” project is being deployed at Union Station for 12 hours only, at a sunset to sunrise art festival, on October 4th. It’s deeply collaborative, curatorially, and even in terms of working with the city managers. It has had its challenges and its delights, and I think that’s the nature of collaboration. I don’t know of any collaborations that were completely smooth. I think they’d probably not be so interesting.

MKJ: I want to know if you conceal yourself in your works, particularly your collaborations, or if you reveal yourself. Of course, most viewers who walk into the Airstream at Mass MoCA must ask if Michael Oatman is the hermit.

MO: When I was an undergraduate student I was churning out a lot of stuff. After I was a freshman and chose my major, which was painting, I was making a lot of collages, and I think it was my friend Todd Bartel who pointed out to me one day that every single image that I’d been making had a hand in it somewhere. Sort of, the Hand of God, or maybe the Hand of the Maker. It was a symbol that had crept in, and hands were in sculptures and pointing down from the sky and jutting into frames. Ninety-five percent of what I made that year in prints and collages and paintings had no full bodies, not even heads or faces, but hands coming into the frame. And once I saw it, I began to do it in earnest to try to figure it out. I guess I began to see it as a reluctant portrait in a way, but also mentors, parents, and partners, an absent body. Later, when I was making paintings in graduate school that were all about bodies, they were very distanced. Even later still, I used imagery of objects used by the body, the tools of a surgeon or artist. If there was a body in the picture, it was often an unconscious body or disembodied body.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the great tiny piece by Rauschenberg called “Portrait of Iris Clert.” I think the story is that he was supposed to be in a portraiture show featuring this woman in particular, and he telegrams the gallery, addressing Iris Clert and saying basically, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so / Robert Rauschenberg.” Her name was in it. His name was in it. Her picture was nowhere to be found, and it was just this completely conceptual move. Remembering that piece has been useful in answering this question. I do get asked a lot where I am in “All Utopias Fell.” I think that the short answer is that my biography drives a lot of the material and image choices. Not any readily available facts about me, not my own image, obviously. It’s really how sensations, stories, memories from my own life help me make choices for what’s going to go into a piece, and that’s beautifully indirect. That piece at Mass MoCA on some level is about a romantic relationship that ended, on some level it’s about historical figures that have influenced me. In the stained glass there are references to Tom Phillips, author of The Humument, my girlfriend in college, and my mentor, Alfred DeCredico, both of whom are now gone. There’s also reference to Chinua Achebe, author of When Things Fall Apart, who was alive when I made the window, but recently died. His book is also in the installation. You know, it’s riddled, riddled, with personal information that is not easily obtainable by the viewer, because I don’t think it needs to be, but it needs to be there for me to make a choice about something. For me it isn’t every work that’s deeply autobiographical, but the large ones tend to be. I’ve made something like 24 installations in my lifetime now, some big, some small.

MKJ: “All Utopias Fell” is actually a project in three interrelated parts: “The Shining,” “The Library of the Sun,” and “Codex Solis.” Let’s talk about the solar panels/coded text aspect, titled “Codex Solis.” I recently attended a wonderful panel talk at the Arts Center in Troy on The Creative Process, and among other things the discussion touched upon topics including success & failure, submission & rejection of works, and intrinsic value of the work as well as public recognition. So often you speak about art as a form of communication; would this piece be a “failure” in your mind if it were never deciphered? Or, if it is deciphered and publicized, does that devalue the piece in your mind? Or, is its value intrinsic, making these issues irrelevant? How do you process this piece?

MO: If it’s solved is it a success? If it’s not solved is it a failure? Or if it’s solved is it a failure? If it’s not solved is it a success? Actually, one person has solved it. The analogy for “Codex Solis” for me is a Duchamp piece called “With Hidden Noise,” which I think is one of his greatest contributions to the idea of art. It is two plates of metal with a ball of twine in between, and there’s some French and English words on the top and bottom of it, and right before he closes up the two metal plates with four bolts, he gives it to his friend and patron Walter Arensberg, and tells him, “Put something inside and don’t tell me what it is.” That’s what Arensberg does, and supposedly nobody’s ever opened it. It’s highly unlikely in the world of curious people and conservators that nobody’s X-rayed the thing. People have speculated that, well, Arensberg wasn’t a particularly risky guy intellectually, and probably knowing Duchamp’s interest in chance, there’s a die or coin or something related to chance hidden in there. They’re good guesses. They may be totally off base. Hopefully we’ll never know. In my mind, that’s the perfect artwork: where the artist makes something extremely deliberate, and there’s a great deal about it that he doesn’t know. That’s what I want to do.

In “Codex Solis” I still know what the message is. I had to look for it in a very unorthodox way. It had to be a certain number of characters. I could have as many mirrors and blank spaces as I wanted, but I had to have a certain number of solar panels. It took me six months to find something that would meet the electrical load of the piece, which is a weird requirement, kind of Duchampian. And I needed something that would relate content-wise to my overall project. It’s not something that I wrote. It’s something that I transplanted into the piece. Now, would it have been a better piece if someone else chose the text? Probably, on some level, because then I wouldn’t know what it is, sort of invisibly beaming into the heavens every day.

I think that the person who solved it generously decided to keep it to himself, because to answer your question, something will change when it is revealed. I think it will be interesting for people, some more than others, to know what it says.

MKJ: Yes, yes. Toshiko Takeazu also made closed ceramic vessels, inscribing the inner walls with hidden messages before she sealed and fired them. One final question, Michael. Does your artwork ever teach you things about yourself?

7-Who Me- Pornithology series“Who, Me?” (from the ongoing series “Pornithology”), 2014, collage on paper, 10″ x 13″.

MO: All these books to look through… It can be wildly inefficient, because I stop to read. I cut things out and leave them in a pile and forget about them and come back to them, and don’t quite remember what they were for specifically, but they take on a new meaning, and that’s a sort of gift of working with physical material. There are a few in this folder titled “Pornithology,” birds and guns and things I think of as a perversion of the birds through human weapons. But I also make deliberate notes and sketches. Almost every collage or installation has anywhere from a few to hundreds of drawings. Then there’s like a rule that comes along. Like the Moth Book Rule of removing only shaped things. For instance I wouldn’t bother to remove rectangles from the dictionary, but if it’s a book of birds and they’re in that shape, then that’s a much more interesting book to cut out. Otherwise, I would never tear a book apart, but I’m choosing books that are beautifully laid out, and there’s an acknowledgement that the designer, the illustrator were masterful.

I think that the studio is a place of great discovery. I don’t even know if I’d call it learning as much as I’d call it discovery. It’s not knowledge in the way that I’m consuming it. It’s trivia. I would say that there’s loads of interesting trivial information, lots of experience that happens in the studio. I don’t think I’d do it if there weren’t some sort of payoff of consciousness or realization or growth. Certainly the studio has been a very sustaining part of my life. The first thing that saved me was probably reading. The second thing that saved me was an outlet for ideas. But the studio is always like an old friend.

There’s second hand smoke knowledge in the studio all the time. But I learn a lot more in the collaborative works, from other people, students, teachers, friends, audience members, people who start out as audience members and become collaborators. They’ve seen something and they get in touch with me and want to become involved. I try to think, if there’s a place for them that would be great. It’s an easy decision to make, because help is help and it’s going to change the piece. It’s going to change the way I think about it.

— Michael Oatman and Mary Kathryn Jablonski

 

Michael Oatman was born in Burlington Vermont in 1964. He received his BFA in painting from RISD in 1986. His installations integrate thousands of found, modified and handmade components, including artifacts of material culture, painting, drawing, video, sound, food – and objects at the scale of architecture. These ‘unvironments’ have been installed at museums, public spaces and private homes.

His collages, also realized on a large-scale, typically contain vast numbers of hand-cut images culled from discarded and unloved books – children’s encyclopedias, scientific texts, product and armament catalogs. His father, a carpenter, makes the frames. His rigorously researched subjects include genetics and eugenics, capital punishment and prisons, the history of knowledge and the exploration of space. Often using large amounts of material from archives, libraries, flea markets, garage sales, abandoned stores and the collections of private individuals, he refers to his practice as ‘the poetic interpretation of documents.’ He has also written about art and has curated several important exhibitions, most notably Factory Direct, a new version of which was mounted by the Andy Warhol Museum in 2012.

Similar to the Situationists’ notion of the dérive, his works often begin with an aimless foray into psychogeographic terrains, on foot, in a car, or occasionally by dreaming. In order to perform his research he has posed as a salesman, pollster and journalist; sometimes this playacting gives way to legitimately operating as a private detective, technician or personal assistant.

In addition to his studio and post-studio practices, Oatman teaches first-year and thesis in the School of Architecture at Renssealer, in Troy, NY. His Extreme Drawing course – as well as seminars on Duchamp and Hitchcock – are popular, even with students from non-art disciplines. He has also taught at Harvard, The University of Vermont, SUNY Albany, St. Michael’s College and Vermont College. He has been a visiting critic at RISD since 1986.

Oatman’s installations are ‘context-specific,’ and demand from him a total immersion into physical location, sonic/haptic realms, local history and the personal stories of those he encounters in the process of making a work. He is prone to collaboration, and, since 2004 has worked with gifted students under the name of Falling Anvil Studios. Privileged to study with Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, the most significant conceptualists/social activists of the 1980s/90s, he has also studied with Ana Mendieta, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Edward Mayer, Jim Dine, and his RISD mentor, Alfred DeCredico.

Oatman has shown his work extensively in the U.S. and abroad. Recent projects include All Utopias Fell, a permanent commission for MASS MoCA, which opened in October 2010; a large-scale commissioned collage for the newly opened Wellin Museum at Hamilton College; a recent book for graphic design firm id 29, and a long-term outdoor video environment. He is represented by Miller/Yezerski in Boston, MA; Lenore Grey in Providence, RI; Stremmel Gallery, in Reno NV; and Mayson Gallery in New York, NY.

Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

 

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Photograph – Veronica Carroll

Raymond Deane was born on Achill Island in county Mayo, the largest island off the squally West Coast of Ireland.  The artist Paul Henry lived and worked there from 1910 to 1919 and his paintings of Achill, such as his depiction of the pirate queen Granuaile’s castle, entitled The Tower, capture the unique meshing of light, sea and landscape. Raymond’s compositional oeuvre including works such as Seachanges (with Danse Macabre) for ensemble, Ripieno for Orchestra, and the electro-acoustic Passage Work also seem to inhabit this dramatic Atlantean lit world. An inheritance, surely, of his boyhood in Achill. Embers for string quartet with its stark and ethereal beauty was composed when Deane was only 20. This remains the composer’s personal favourite and perhaps the most widely performed of all his works.

His work is finely crafted and exquisitely textured. Black humour pervades as in the subject matter of his latest opera (libretto by Gavin Kostik), The Alma Fetish, based on the true story of the love affair between artist Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler and the “anatomically correct” doll that a distraught Kokoschka had made in Alma’s likeness when the affair ended. Doll and artist lived together until ultimately Kokoschka had her publicly “executed”.

Raymond is also known for his writing. The gothic novel Death of a Medium (Published by Odell & Adair, UK, 1991) describes the quest of a failed composer in 19th century Dublin to find his father who himself is embroiled in a quest of his own to find the libertine Duc D’Urval with a phantasmagoric dénouement in guillotine-ridden Paris. The novel currently has the interest of a film production company.

— Siobhan Cleary

 

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Minerva Owl from Raymond Deane’s new Noctuary album (Resonus Classics), played by Hugh Tinney – release date June 2014

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If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst. – Thomas Hardy

A substantial body of work exists comprising of the memoirs and autobiographies of composers. The most eulogised of these is Hector Berlioz’s moires, published posthumously a year after his death in 1870. This is a rollicking, colourful testament of Berlioz’s life equally intimate and tender, particularly when writing of his heartbreak, sense of failure and loneliness even after becoming a celebrated composer.  More recently John Adam’s Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life  released in 2008 is a wry but informative look back at Adam’s life combining childhood memories, cultural history and music criticism.

In My Own Light released this May is a welcome addition to this repertoire. Bob Quinn, the Irish filmmaker, writer and photographer describes it as “a superb and shocking memoir. Elegant prose first lulls us into complacency with a rich, obsessively detailed, account of an Irish childhood. Cleverly, inexorably and despite a warning prologue, we are drawn into a subsequent nightmare recalled dispassionately. The absence of self-pity heightens the horror of a life almost destroyed. Only a very talented artist could have survived the self-inflicted travails described and at the same time become one of Ireland’s finest composers. The book leaves one with a feeling of relief, even joy.”

The memoirs were written in an attempt to re-examine his past, and in particular, his descent into near fatal alcoholism. No misery memoir this, however, as Deane’s honesty, wit and humour allow a lightness on even the darkest subject matter. He was determined not to romanticise his relationship with drink which he describes as “shabby, squalid and sordid.”

The memoir is in three parts corresponding perhaps to the three movements of a symphony, each with its own tempo and style. The first accounts for his first 10 years as a boy in Achill. Contrary to the narrative of memory he previously held of an adverse childhood, he found writing this part of the memoir that his childhood was perhaps not the source of his alcoholism. Instead he describes a comfortable, middle-class background with everything provided for in an idyllic setting. Probed, he admits to have been an anxious child and was bullied by his less well-off peers, but not as badly as he had previously conjured up in his mind. His father is described as a “very nice man” who had his own battles with alcoholism. This was carefully hidden from Raymond (a drunken gait was described as the effects of prescribed medication for example) until one of his siblings spilled the beans when he was 14.  One wonders how this secrecy contributed to a young boy’s anxiety, and indeed a mere three years later, at the age of 17, Raymond had embarked on his own drink-ridden path of self-destruction.

The second part of his memoir picks up when the Deanes moved to Dublin in 1963. Raymond was thrilled at the move and didn’t miss his rural idyll. Dublin provided more stimulation by way of libraries, museums, concerts, and Raymond began to compose there at the age of ten, deciding at that tender age that a composer is what he would be.  He left school at the age of 14 wanting to concentrate on music and writing and embarked on a self-designed course of study, “reading everything that was worth reading”  including Kafka, Woolf and Faulkner (not regularly prescribed reading on any school syllabus at the time).  He matriculated into university where he studied music at UCD.  The isolation of his previous years study had its consequences and Raymond found it difficult to socialise with his colleagues. Drink became the answer to this solution bringing with it its own set of problems from which he was unable to escape for the next 18 years.

The terseness of the language of the third part underlines the torment of these years when Deane reaches hellish depths mired in the grasp of severe alcoholism. Brief sojourns as a pupil of Stockhausen in Cologne and Iseung Yun in Berlin were cut short as Raymond tried to balance his heavy drinking with the demands of rigorous 20th century compositional technique.  A further decline on his return to Dublin left him on life’s edge. He chose to admit himself to St Pat’s Hopsital and began his road to recovery.

The next part of the story is unwritten but thankfully less troubled.  Raymond successfully remained off alcohol becoming a prolific, flourishing and esteemed composer, writer and activist (he is a founding member of the Ireland–Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC). He describes himself as “happy” and fulfilled, and although he abstains from alcohol, as a “hedonist enjoying life’s pleasures”. He divides his time between Dublin, France and Germany.  He feels very lucky that he escaped the alcoholic lifestyle, no doubt mindful of countless of his contemporaries that were less fortunate. He remains optimistic about his future with his opera “The Alma Fetish “ due for a full production by the Dublin company “Wide Open Opera”,  a commission by the exciting new ensemble “The Robinson Panoramic Quartet” and he is in talks about a movie based on his Death of a Medium. He is toying with a follow up to the memoir, this time more “hallucinatory” in style. At age 61, it is clear Deane has faced and conquered whatever demons he had and is grateful for the second chance that life handed to him. In spite of terrible odds he has come through due to his own determination and resourcefulness. An inspiration indeed for those who may find themselves in similar desperate circumstances.

SC: What prompted you to write a memoir and why does it end when it does, at the relatively young age of 35?

RD: That is when I stopped drinking. The memoir was an attempt to explore the reasons why I drank so destructively and what, if any, were the childhood roots of this.

SC: Did you find a reason?

RD: No… Maybe there is no reason. Perhaps it is genetic… I was an anxious child who was terrified of growing up. I saw my father, having responsibilities, paying bills etc. and I didn’t want to be an adult. But I discovered through the writing of the memoir, that my childhood wasn’t nearly as bad as the one I had dreamt up in my imagination. I was bullied at school because I was different. I lived in a big, comfortable house and came from a more middle class background than my peers but on the other hand, I lived in an idyllic setting for a kid. I had plenty of freedom, and I was given every opportunity I could wish for, music lessons for example. But I ended up squandering all of this.

SC: Growing up in Ireland in the 1950’s by current account, seemed to bring its own set of troubles, in particular the oppressiveness of the Catholic Church. Do you think this had anything to do with the stresses that may have propelled you into alcoholismalong with many of your contemporaries?

RD: No. I don’t think so. I think it was just part of who I was.

SC: The second part of the memoir begins when you move to Dublin at the age of ten.  This seems to be a significant turning point for you.  Why did your family move? And did you miss the rural island setting of Achill?

RD:  We moved to Dublin in 1963 because my two brothers had left home and my sister was a boarder in Loreto, Stephen’s Green. I was thrilled and I didn’t miss Achill at all. I missed my piano which was still in Achill, and while waiting for it to be transported, I visited the Dublin public libraries and studied all the available piano scores. It was then at the age of ten, I decided I would be a composer. I hid this from everyone though because I was afraid of being called a sissy!

SC: By whom; Siblings? Friends? Parents?

RD: I grew up in a time and place where gender roles were very rigidly assigned. A little boy was expected to be a little man. Any perceived deviation from this – such as an interest in the arts rather than in sports – was subject to explicit mockery from peers (the word “friends” would have been too strong in my case). However, I may have been over-sensitive to this possibility. I used to hide my manuscripts behind the radiators which would cause a smell whenever the central heating was turned on in the winter!

SC: Was there a particular composer or piece of music that influenced your decision to become a composer?

RD:The “most influential piece I heard as a child” (as described in my memoir, in fact) was probably Nicolai Gedda singing the Flower Song from Carmen.

SC: Did you do any writing at that time? Short stories? Essays?

RD: Yes. Prose mainly.

SC: Do you find a difference or a similarity in composing to writing?

RD: Composing is more abstract, but I find that in either, I enter a world inhabited by characters. So if I am walking down the street, these personalities, themes, images are in my head while the real world passes by.

SC: You left school at the age of 14.  An unusual decision for a boy of your background and academic potential. Why was this?

RD: I left school because I wanted to concentrate on music and writing, and because I was fed up of mathematics, history, geography, Greek, and the likes…I felt completely relieved and not particularly anxious – I was confident of getting in to university because I could concentrate on studying English, French, Irish, Latin, and music (it was possible to do only those in the Matriculation) and I knew I was reasonably competent at all those subjects. I started reading a lot and by the time I was 23, I had read everything that even now I feel was worth reading. I practised piano, wrote and composed. I also walked the dog a lot!

SC: You studied music at UCD.  Did you enjoy this? Looking back, do you find it was particularly helpful for a subsequent career in composition?

RD:I didn’t particularly “enjoy” studying music in UCD, because I hardly did any study – I “knew it all already”. I found some of Seoirse Bodley’s lectures on modern music helpful. In 1974 when I graduated, I went to study in Switzerland, in Basel, with Gerald Bennett who was, himself, a pupil of Pierre Boulez. I studied then with Stockhausen in Cologne and with Isang Yun in Berlin.

SC: You were drinking quite heavily at this time.

RD: Yes.

SC: What were the circumstances of you giving up drink?

RD: People don’t give up drink because x, y, or z – they give up because they’ll die otherwise, or because they just age out of it, or whatever. I had reached “rock bottom,” on the verge of death, having to make a choice between life and death and choosing life… But in fact no choice being involved – given a firm push by the good people in St Pat’s.

SC: You have been sober now for nearly three decades. How easy or difficult was it to make this resolve and does it remain a temptation?

RD: In 26 years I’ve never had the slightest twinge of temptation to go back on the hooch. It’s not a question of resolve – just of the absence of temptation.

SC You later spent some time in Paris. How did this come about?

RD My sister worked for 12 years at UNESCO in Paris. She bought a small studio apartment in the 17th arrondissement (she lived in the 15th) as an investment, and put it at my disposal. I spent a few months of the year there between 1990 and1994. I came to love the place, and I still do.

SC You still spend lot of time there and in Fürth (Northern Bavaria). Do find this time away from Ireland beneficial?

RD:I need to be “away from home” for appreciable periods, be it in Germany or France, because I thrive creatively on a certain feeling of alienation from my surroundings. I don’t mean the kind of alienation I feel in Ireland – despite its cultural and political conservatism, which are repellent to me, I still feel “at home” here, a kind of insider – but the sense of being an outsider, being surrounded by people speaking a different language (which, fortunately, I also speak and understand) and having different customs. In such an atmosphere I feel freed up to work without interruption, and with a clearer perspective on what I’m doing, and also to pursue my culture vulture instincts…

SC: How did you become a political activist?

RD:I was involved in a detached kind of way in the East Timor-Ireland Solidarity Campaign, which evolved into the Ireland-Palestine SC in 2001. Its first chair was Tom Hyland, who was head of ETISC since its foundation but who soon found that he didn’t really want to continue heading the Palestine group and resigned. I was elected chair in absentia, so I was more or less thrust into intensive activism.

SC: Would you describe yourself as a reluctant activist?

RD: Yes.

SC: You’ve had some very nasty (and untrue) comments written about you in the press as a result of your activism.  Does this get to you?

RD: Press defamation DOES get to me, at least for a while. Actually, the old AA slogan helps: “This too shall pass.”

— Raymond Deane & Siobhán Cleary

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

cover image by Jerry Cassidy

 Extract from the last chapter of In My Own Light

 

That April I moved into a first-floor bedsit overlooking Upper Leeson Street.Increasingly I concentrated my drinking on Grogans, a famously bohemian public house presided over by the legendary Paddy O’Brien, a man who had served and refused service to Patrick Kavanagh, and who was benignly disposed towards me. Here I fell among thieves, and not just in the figurative sense. Among the hardened drinkers who became my regular cronies was Danny, a dapper rogue with an enviable way with women and an unenviable prison record. Danny rapidly ascertained that I possessed a cheque book, and seemed convinced that it was intended primarily for his benefit. He would play chess with me on my tiny portable set and would cheat shamelessly and without subtlety, taking back moves and moving pieces around when my back was turned. Eventually, when I tired of this and told him I would play no more, he simply appropriated the set and found other victims.

A more congenial companion was my old friend John Jordan. Nowadays, frustratingly, he lapsed into a comatose state after one or two drinks. John had a fine mind, had known everyone worth knowing, and could, when he wished, converse with an eloquence that contrasted blatantly with the drivel spouted by most of my associates. He was a generous man who, when compos mentis, would always stand me a pint or a short. On seeing me he would invariably exclaim “Ravel! Ma mere l’oye!” and reminisce fondly about Annaghmakerrig.

No matter how shaky I felt, I was never too self-conscious to sidle into Grogans and sit in a dark corner with a pint of water until such time as a willing victim entered the premises and either plied me with drink or “lent” me money (or both). Sometimes Paddy O’Brien or Tommy Smith, one of the pub’s co-proprietors, would let me have a few drinks on the house. When my cheques bounced they did not make too much of an issue of it, although they kept a tab of what I owed them.

Of course I had a major orchestral work to write, and this necessitated periodic trips to Bunclody. Whether I arrived drunk, hungover or semi-sober, my father always met me at the bus-stop and was always welcoming and non-judgmental. He would “feed me up” and slip me a few pounds when I left.

That summer my drinking, already excessive, took a turn for the worse. It required increasing quantities of alcohol to relieve the horror of my hangovers, yet my capacity for the stuff was diminishing drastically. This meant that by the time I had begun to feel semi-human, usually in the early afternoon, I was ready to stagger home and collapse into a short-lived and unrefreshing stupor. At seven or eight p.m. I would emerge from this with a fully reconstituted hangover, and start the whole awful process again.

This harrowing schedule often entailed waking during “the hour of the wolf”, at three or four a.m. Unable to get back to sleep I would lie there until morning, racked with anxiety, soaked in perspiration, trembling, nauseated, and dreading the delirium tremens that somehow remained at bay. I ate little, although sometimes Danny dragged me into a restaurant during the “holy hour” when he would eat with a healthy appetite while I picked at a snack and concentrated my attention on the wine. I would pay for this with a cheque, whether or not I had the funds to cover it.

On 8th July as I lurched homewards I collapsed somewhere on Leeson Street. I awoke to find myself in bed in an unknown environment. Someone had apparently taken the unacceptable liberty of inserting a wire into my penis. When I sought to remove it, my hand was clasped by an attractive young woman in a white uniform, whose firm but gentle words were: “Don’t – it’ll be very sore.” I drifted back into pleasing unconsciousness. When I came to, I was in a different bed, surrounded by curtains. My body was free of intrusive appendages. I felt drained but peaceful, and sought in vain to remember how I had arrived wherever I was.

The curtains were drawn aside and a doctor materialised. He told me I was in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, an ambulance having picked me off the street three days earlier. I had suffered an epileptic fit, and been “transferred to Casualty comatose, feverish, with abnormally low blood pressure and a severe metabolic acidosis”, to quote the medical records that I accessed a quarter century later (metabolic acidosis is an excess of acid in the body fluids). I was also suffering from dangerously rapid heart rhythm. On resuscitation I had been able to inform them that I had been drinking an average of ten pints of beer daily prior to my collapse (a figure plucked out of the air, and omitting any reference to wine, vodka and whiskey).Growing increasingly agitated over the following days I had been heavily sedated and indeed “became unrousable due to excess sedation”, which necessitated my transfer to intensive care.The words that most horrified me were “epileptic fit”. The doctor reassured me that I was not an epileptic, and the fit I had suffered was probably due to withdrawal from alcohol; such fits need not recur were I to avoid getting into such a state again.

Later that day my father visited me, bringing me a copy of Thomas Flanagan’s novel The Year of the French, which turned out to be an excellent piece of hospital reading. He had been summoned by the hospital when it seemed that my life was in danger (interestingly, this is not mentioned in the medical records). Of course he had been terribly worried but, he gently concluded, I was better now, and perhaps this was the shock that would lead to my changing my life… Yes, I responded fervently, definitely! I had learned my lesson, and everything would be different from now on.

I was taken for an endoscopy. Liquid Valium was injected into my arm to sedate me while a tube was inserted down my throat to ascertain the condition of my gastro-intestinal tract. I coughed and retched and sweated and sobbed. The doctor, disconcerted, ordered more Valium, to no avail; I went on retching and weeping until the procedure was finished. An hour later the doctor visited me, expecting to find me in a state of unconsciousness. Instead, I was sitting up in bed reading The Year of the French. He appeared baffled, and almost disapproving. The medical records mention Valium, but not my failure to respond to it. My stomach was fine, and a biopsy revealed that my liver was “as well as could be expected”, and would undoubtedly recover fully “if I gave it a chance.” Had this latest and most spectacular collapse not occurred on the street but while I was at home, nobody would have known about it and I would certainly have died.

Of course I emerged from hospital a new man. I had seen the error of my ways and henceforth would shun the embrace of Dame Ethyl. I had no fewer than three lucrative commissions waiting for me and I completed them, working mainly in Bunclody, in an unprecedented spate of concentrated work. These, like Écarts, were avant-garde pieces, quite remote in style from my earlier (and later) works, but effective for all that.

I was busy, healthy, sober, and making money. Each evening I went on a pub-crawl, drinking litres of non-alcoholic beer just to prove that I could resist temptation. Once more I anticipated amorous adventures and was undaunted when they failed to materialise – after all, it was just a matter of time until Anette and I were reunited.

We agreed to spend a week together in the Canary Islands that autumn. On 4th November I flew to Gran Canaria, where she had booked us into a German holiday resort (where the restaurants advertised Kaffee wie zu Hause! – “coffee just like at home!”). We were reasonably at ease with one another, although I felt from the start that she was insufficiently appreciative of my self-reforming zeal. I half hoped that she might confine her drinking to mineral water in solidarity with my virtuous abstemiousness. I resented the pleasure she clearly derived from a glass of wine with her meals, and envied her ability to slake her thirst in this warm climate with glasses of cool, refreshing, tempting beer.

We visited the Playa del Inglés and sneered at the crass loutishness of the Brits. We swam twice a day. We hired a car one rainy day and drove into the mountains, terrified by the absence of barriers on the abyss side of the wet winding road (lucky Anette could calm herself afterwards with a cool, refreshing, tempting beer). We took a boat trip to Tenerife, where I admired the snow-capped volcano and fantasised that it was the Popocatepetl of Under the Volcano.

As the holiday wound to a close, it became clear that it would not give renewed impetus to our relationship. I believed that I had proved my readiness to change my life in the interests of such a renewal, but that she was unwilling to meet me half way. I felt cheated, and bitterly resentful. We were leaving on successive days, so I saw her off at the airport, continued by bus to Palma, and booked into a hotel. Soon I was sitting at a terrace overlooking the sea, a large, cool, refreshing beer in front of me.

Four months without alcohol had toughened my system, so that it took a while for me to disintegrate again. After Gran Canaria I practically severed contact with the rest of my family. I learned that my father was spending Christmas in Dublin with John and his new wife Ursula, but there was no question of my inviting myself around. Instead, I accepted an invitation from the poet Michael Hartnett to partake of Christmas dinner in his house, which was a few doors away from my Leeson Street bedsit. When I arrived, Michael nervously ushered me into his sitting-room, where the table was laid for one. He himself was on the dry and his wife, fearing contagion, had ordained that I should eat alone, be given one single glass of whiskey, and sent on my way. The impulse to walk out in a dignified huff seized me momentarily, but I had little dignity left, was hungry, and “had a mind for a dhrop”.

A week later my Dublin Millennium piece, Thresholds, was performed at the NCH, conducted by Proinnsías Ó Duinn. I had attended no rehearsals. I sat in the reserved seats with a retinue of Groganites, as the habitués of that drinking establishment are known. After the concert I refused to see in the New Year with any of the musicians or even to congratulate Prionnsías on his exertions.

The year began in a blur and degenerated steadily. I stopped shaving, and took to sleeping fully clothed on the couches or floors of various cronies’ flats, which were mostly dirty and often malodorous. I began to smoke heavily and soon had acquired my first and last nicotine stains.

On my birthday, 27th January, I trundled homewards before the holy hour and decided to have a quick drink in O’Dwyer’s at Leeson Street Bridge.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m sorry, we’re all out of Smithwicks.”

“Oh? A pint of Harp then.”

“Sorry, there’s not a drop left.”

“Guinness?”

“All gone.”

I gazed at the flippant young man, and noticed my image in the mirror behind him.

“Look, I know I look a bit ratty because I haven’t shaved in a while, but today’s my birthday…”

“Happy birthday, then. Maybe you’d be better off going home for a nap.”

I went around the corner into the neighbouring pub, O’Brien’s.

“A pint of Smithwicks, please.”

“I’m afraid we’re all out of it, sir.”

I bought a half bottle of vodka in the nearest off-licence and went home. I had broken my last remaining glass, so I mixed the vodka with water and sipped it gloomily out of a cup. If desperation mixed with desolation has a taste, then this was it.

—Raymond Deane

siobhan

Siobhán Cleary  was born in Dublin.  She studied music at the NUI, Maynooth, the Queen’s University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin where she completed a Masters in Music and Media Technology. She has composed in all the major genres, producing in addition to orchestral, chamber and vocal works, a number of works for electronic media and film scores. Her pieces have been performed and broadcast widely in Europe, USA, Canada, South America and Australia.  Her orchestral work ‘Threads’ was selected by Vienna Modern Masters for performance at the Second International Festival of New Music for Orchestra in Olomouc in the Czech Republic and later released on CD. In 1996 as a Pépinières European Young artist Laureate, she was composer in residence in Bologna with the Argo Ensemble. In January 1998 a concert devoted to her music was given at Cité International des Arts in Paris, She has been commissioned by The National Symphony Orchestra The Irish Chamber Orchestra, The National Chamber Choir, the Arts Councils of both England and Ireland, Cité International des Arts in Paris as well as many individuals soloists and ensembles. She is the founder of Ireland Promoting New Music which promotes the performance of contemporary music through its series New Sound Worlds. She was elected to Aosdána, Ireland’s state-sponsored academy of creative artists in 2008.

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Raymond Deane was born in Co Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, on 27 January 1953. He was brought up on Achill Island, Co Mayo. From 1963 he lived in Dublin, where he studied at University College Dublin, graduating in 1974. He was a founding member of the Association of Young Irish Composers, and won numerous awards as a pianist. He subsequently studied in Basle with Gerald Bennett, in Cologne with Karlheinz Stockhausen (although he doesn’t consider himself “a Stockhausen pupil”), and in Berlin with Isang Yun. He was featured composer in the 1991 Accents Festival (with Kurtag) and the 1999 Sligo New Music Festival (with Roger Doyle). He has featured in several ISCM festivals (Mexico City, Manchester, Hong Kong), in the festivals l’Imaginaire irlandais (Paris 1996), Voyages (Montreal 2002), Warsaw Autumn (2004), and regularly in the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers (his Ripieno for orchestra winning a special prize in 2000).

He was artistic director of the first two RTÉ Living Music Festivals (Dublin 2002/2004),  showcasing the music of Luciano Berio and contemporary French music respectively. In 1992 he published Death of a Medium, a novel (Odell & Adair), and he continues to publish essays and articles on culture and politics. He was awarded a Doctorate in Composition by the National University of Ireland (Maynooth) in 2005. He has been a member of Aosdána, the government-sponsored academy of artists, since 1986. He is now based in Dublin, Paris, and Fürth (Bavaria).

Mar 202014
 

 

Patrice Leconte’s La fille sur le pont  (Girl on a Bridge) tells the story of Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a knife thrower, who returns to a certain bridge in Paris looking for suicidal women to be his assistants, for they, usefully, have nothing left to lose. When he meets Adele (Vanessa Paradis), he finds more than an assistant, he finds a woman who might as well be throwing the knives back.

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Though I encourage you to see the whole film, there is one three-minute scene that stands on its own as a well-wrought short film. In this scene, Gabor throws knives at (or, more accurately, near) Adele. The scene derives its power primarily from the intense anxiousness of Gabor and the ecstasy of Adele.

We begin in the audience and then we pinball between the knife thrower, the target, and the faces of those who watch enraptured, fearful, and envious. Much of the pleasure in this scene is derived from the expressions of others in a way similar to  Woodkid’s “I Love You.” The chorus of faces in this film that layer and shape how the story is told: the face of a woman in the audience as she leans to see better and, backstage, the various circus performers, the small woman with the massive floral headdress and the stricken clown with the oblivious dog. The circus performers, more than the others, instruct us to be fearful, because they do this for a living every day but they seem worried.

We are all of them and yet we are not simply them. The camera lets us behind the sheet and in a medium shot we get to see what Gabor cannot: Adele’s ecstatic experience. We also see what Adele cannot, in close-up: Gabor’s concern, his worry, his focus. Later in the film, Adele and Gabor are able to communicate with one another over great distances, letter writing to one another without the writing, and this seems possible because of their intense connection. This moment reads us back to the theatre and the knife throwing where we, the audience, were caught between them and the sheet lightening connection to the enraptured onlookers. We see we inhabit the air between them all and were, perhaps, amorousness itself.

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Of all the spectators in the montage, it is particularly Irene, the woman backstage dressed somewhat like a showgirl, who stands in counterpoint. Irene gives us every indication that she is vicariously deriving a great deal of pleasure from the spectacle. She is identifying with Adele. Does this envy encourage us to also identify with Adele’s pleasure or does it just make Adele’s pleasure more real? Regardless, what plays across her face is a pleasure both envious and nostalgic, as though she too once knew a pleasure like this.

The worried faces, we find out at the end of the scene, were right to worry: one of the knives has nicked Adele and drawn blood. It is for Gabor an admission that he can’t see the way he used to. It also foreshadows that he cannot see Adele clearly enough and this might not bode well for them.

For Adele, the cut is more complicated. What would be different if every knife had lodged perfectly around her and there had been no cut? This is in some ways the knife thrower’s version of Michael Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.”

what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar

The ecstatic joy on Adele’s face seems connected to this, wounded, the experience now written on her body. Indeed, if all the love songs tell the truth, then the amorous experience threatens the lover the way the knives do here. There is always the threat of loss of the self but the pleasure of being made specific.

12 The Girl on the Bridge(La fille sur le pont) 1999 Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil

That the film is presented in black and white makes this a nostalgic cinema with a hankering for the way romances used to appear on the silver screen. This coupled with Marianne Faithful’s broken glass and whisky vibrato creates a peculiar tension between the nostalgic and the primal. As Roger Ebert notes in his review of the film, its take on romance stands in resistance to the current take Hollywood has on the genre:

Occupations like knife-throwing were not uncommon in silent comedy, but modern movies have become depressingly mired in ordinary lifestyles. In many new romantic comedies, the occupations of the characters don’t even matter, because they are only labels; there’s a setup scene in an office, and everything else is after hours. Here, knife-throwing explains not only the man’s desperation to meet the woman, but also the kind of woman he meets, and the way they eventually feel about each other.

What Ebert is essentially saying is that Leconte here presents a romance that is specific. This is echoed in Gabor’s act of knife throwing. He cannot throw the knives the same way twice. We see him study the contours and outlines of Adele’s body before he pulls the white sheet over her to begin. She has become specific. Even the gesture of pressing his index finger to her forehead pins her in that specificity.  Amorous discourse is this battle between the specific and the generic. When “I love you” is the most cliché thing one can say, the rest must conspire to free the sublime experience from the generic.

— R W Gray

 

Jun 222012
 

Occasionally, in the structure of a larger film there will appear a scene or sequence that can stand on its own, discretely, as its own short film. Here I would include the opening scene to Neil LaBute’s Your Friends & Neighbors, the seduction / meeting scene in Julio Medem’s Sex and Lucia, the “Hotel Chevalier” short shot alongside Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited (a separate film but theatres often screened it with the feature and it contains events referred to throughout the film), and this short set of scenes spanning the story of a goldfish on a freeway in the middle of Miranda July’s first feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Structurally each of these shorts can be viewed discretely from their feature films and some, as in the case of July’s goldfish story, may even seem like an aside, though I think it still adds something tangentially to the larger film it belongs in. Some like “Hotel Chevalier” are subplots. Others like the opening to Your Friends & Neighbors and Medem’s seduction scene are building blocks of the main plot but could still exist as separate entities. Despite these differences, what they do have in common is that they provide enough narrative cohesion and catharsis to exist on their own if they had to. Or if you wanted to see them that way.

The goldfish sequence is tonally and stylistically similar to the rest of the film it appears in but is also similar to “Are You the Favourite Person of Anybody?” which was previously featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies. In July’s worlds we find absurdist realities where what happens is probable, realistic, but told in an overdrawn way, here particularly evident in the dialogue between Christine (Miranda July) and Michael (Hector Elias).

There are also strong similarities between this oversaturated reality and the style of Jane Campion’s short films (which were also featured in Numero Cinq at the Movies) which is no surprise as July commonly cites Campion as one of her inspirations and influences.

Though the goldfish short fits within the feature it is a part of, viewed on its own it offers a different experience. It is then a short film about loss, about condensed meaningful moments, and connection between strangers witnessing those moments. This isn’t at odds with the feature film it belongs to, but is in hues and tenor more melancholy than the rest of the film.

There are two things which tonally shift this shared sad experience, though, and keep it from plummeting into melodrama: 1) the couple in the vehicle that is the goldfish’s penultimate landing place are oblivious to the goldfish’s last moments, even though, as Michael notes, “at least we are all together in this.”

2) It’s about the death of a goldfish, possible the world’s most disposable pet. Truly, for the goldfish, these last moments hurtling down the freeway in his little bag of water might be a much more euphoric way to die than the neglect and probable toilet bowl funeral ending that would have awaited him at the little girl’s home. Regardless, the accidental death that connects these strangers is light on tragedy as a result.

All told this mixes into something sublime: a little accident, a little collision between strangers, a little loss, all finding something meaningful and significant that is more than a little beyond words.

None of this is intended to disparage the larger work, July’s absurd and lovely first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s just there’s a pleasure within the pleasure. And this might be worth tasting on its own.

–R. W. Gray

Dec 082011
 

Is it possible to film a dance piece with a corpse as a dancer?

Bravo!Fact describes Pedro Pires’s “Danse Macabre” as “The intimate journey of a body after its death.” Pire elaborates: “For a period of time, while we believe it to be perfectly still, lifeless flesh responds, stirs and contorts in a final macabre ballet. Are these spasms merely erratic motions or do they echo the chaotic twists and turns of a past life?”

The camera moves more than any body does in this film. And, indeed, for the first major shots, there is an absence of bodies, life instead represented by the flutter and dart of birds caught inside cathedral ceilings and hallways. We don’t see the body in question until it lurches from a chair and is suddenly hanging from the ceiling. It is the largest movement this body will make and the most violent as it marks the end of a life, though not the last time the body will fall.

The only body we get then is an abject body which soon turns fluid in ways that disgust and horrify: the dance of bubbling embalming fluid, the blossoming of blood in water draining from the autopsy table, and the body’s rigor mortis contortions. The film finds beauty in all this. In one section, an underwater ballet, the dancer’s dress and gestures resemble blood staining water, then the shape of her turns almost uncannily in utero, glancing back to birth.

And then the shot fades to a heart in a glass jar. The body is all these things on its way to becoming none.

In another section, as the body is lowered to the autopsy table, there is grace, edged with something unspeakably almost like longing in its repose, where the body touches the earth with one torqued foot, then one slack hand dragging the table, each a last tenuous connection to this earthly plane.

There’s a long tradition of representing “Danse Macabre” in painting where it is usually represented with a group of people, usually from different walks of life, to emphasize that death has dominion over everyone – no one escapes.

In another film representation of the “danse,” the final shots of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, death drags the characters along the hillside, they fight his pull, a chain of suffering, and still a dance.

If these images of “Danse Macabre” signify that no one escapes death, they also, perhaps, suggest that because no one escapes we are connected to others in this experience.

But not for Pires’s dead dancer. For her, death is reached alone. No other body, no one else ever enters the frame. The coroner, the undertaker, loved ones of the deceased, anyone that might have come into contact with the body . . . they are all absent. The body is always alone except in the flash montage of photographic images we see once the body has been lowered to the autopsy table. There are images of the body alive, dancing, and an image of a child. We see fragments of a life which just further emphasize how alone this body is now in death.

The film is built from an idea by the Canadian artist extraordinaire Robert Lepage who Pire worked with on Lepage’s Possible Worlds.

Pedro Pire’s second short film, Hope, also produced with the Phi Films collective, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September. Promotional material describes it as “Inspired by the play JIMMY, CRÉATURE DE RÊVE by critically acclaimed playwright Marie Brassard. . . [it] explores the fragmented violence of war seen through the eyes of a General on his deathbed. Accustomed to a life on the battlefield, he surrenders to a stream of consciousness, mixing death, brutality, and finally, one last gesture of hope.”

— R W Gray

Nov 242011
 

John Bolton’s “Breakdown” is both a study in economy – doing much with little — and in the joy of having fun. It features a who’s who of working actors in Vancouver. They all came out to have fun, and for many of them, I’d suggest, make fun of the high stakes melodrama many Vancouver shot TV shows and movies specialize in.

The tagline for the film is “A disaster film disaster.” Perfect. The tropes of the disaster film have basically become self-parodic in films like 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow: where the world conspires to bring a broken family back together. It’s a tired formula, unwatchable. Bolton and his crew show us how tired the conventions are as they manage to shoot the major plot points and character development all in under fourteen minutes in a casting room.

It’s a beautiful disaster and strangely cathartic if you’ve been harboring low-level anger towards Hollywood disaster films the way I have.

Part of Vancouver, BC’s 2006 Crazy 8 Competition, Bolton and his team along with seven other teams were given eight hundred dollars to produce their short film. This year Crazy 8s enters its thirteenth year of supporting and challenging Vancouver filmmakers to make great short films.

The film stars Christopher Shyer, Amanda Tapping, Carly McKillip, Winston Rekert, Sonya Salomaa, Gary Chalk, William S. Taylor and Michael Coleman as themselves (in a way).

—R. W. Gray

Aug 012011
 


Photo credit: Kate O’Rourke


Here’s a timely (always timely) essay (exhortation) on the art of reviewing from Michael Bryson who has already contributed mightily to these pages (see his stories “Niagara” and “My Life in Television“). Taking Pauline Kael (the late, great New Yorker movie critic) and Susan Sontag (the late, great novelist, memoirist and critic) as his models, he makes a case for articulate, argumentative, critical criticism, the cut and thrust of literary debate, and the healthy expression of superior literary taste (READ: criticism as demolition) as a corrective to the marketplace. For several years Michael edited the magazine The Danforth Review, a lively, inventive online short story journal that went into mothballs in 2009. He is restarting the magazine this fall, getting ready to take submissions (see full bio and details below the post).

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Sontag & Kael: Criticism is demolition?

By Michael Bryson

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For years I’ve wanted to write an essay about criticism: what is good criticism, what is poor criticism, what frustrates me about criticism, what makes me go, yes, yes, yes.

Increasingly I suspect this essay will never get written.

My mind is unsettled. Sometimes I want critics to be harsher: stop waffling! Sometimes I want critics to be more judicious: stop rushing towards unfounded conclusions! Sometimes I abhor mis-readings; sometimes I’m pleased to be shown an unexpected side of a work. Sometimes I’m keen to read a gender-based analysis; sometimes I just can’t take any more; enough already.

Yes, I’m finicky. I’m not the ideal, consistent reader. I don’t have a still point upon which to ground direction to others about how criticism ought to be done.

As I’ve said before, I write reviews. In my reviews I engage the work; I try to provide evidence-based analysis; I try to recognize that interpretation is dialogic (it’s part of a larger give-and-take process). Reviews need to be able to stand alone, be a unit of communication, transmitting meaning.

But I don’t believe in still point truths, or monologues. But, then, sometimes I do. Every once in a blue moon I enjoy a good polemic blasting.

Craig Seligman’s Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004), a brilliant compare-and-contrast essay on the work of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, has returned me to my unsettled thoughts about criticism.

T.S. Eliot said: “Between the real and the ideal falls the shadow.”

Seligman could be paraphrased: Between provocation and judiciousness lies the graveyard of failed criticism.

Okay, the parallelism is rough. Here’s some real Seligman:

You can’t be a great critic–you can’t even be an interesting critic– without a talent for provocation. An imp of the perverse perches on the shoulder of the critic as she formulates her sentences, a still, small voice will warn her, “Caution! A statement like that is bound to land you in hot water!” And if she’s a genuine critic, her imp will throttle that voice. The aim is to make people think; the means is, much of the time, to make them mad. Judiciousness may be central to all criticism, but judiciousness without provocation of some kind is like nutrition without flavour. Who cares if a boiled turnip is good for you? Through angry responses to something you’ve written can be unpleasant, they’re not nearly so demoralizing as no response. At least they’re evidence–sometimes the only evidence–that the audience has listened (95-6).

Argument is how we learn; argument is how we think (166).

Ninety percent of everything, as Theodore Sturgeon observed, is shit; in criticism, the percentage must be ninety-nine (167).

[Adler] just can’t stand [Kael]. And that’s where criticism begins. Call it sensibility or call it taste, we embrace what we love and trash what we loathe; but the response–the recoil–comes first. In articulating her loathing, Adler gives me a better handle on my love. That makes her a real critic (168).

[Kael] and Sontag were magnificently uncompromised, but their work isn’t bursting with “sympathy and understanding.” Those who can have a moral obligation toward those who can’t, the obligation that Henry James articulated so beautifully when he counseled, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.” But criticism–unfortunately for the criticized–isn’t human life. Notwithstanding their many enthusiasms and their palpable delight in praising, Sontag and Kael don’t deserve any rewards for kindness. And that’s as it should be. Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith (186-7).

We’ve all read hatchet jobs by critics who are scandalously inferior to the artists they’re judging. … I’m talking about geniuses, though, not nitwits, and geniuses, almost necessarily, are monsters. There’s something monstrous in the titanic will it takes to produce a world-class oeuvre, not to mention the coldness it takes to pronounce somebody else’s work wanting (187).

Demolition is probably the primary critical task; to be the bad conscience of one’s time, as Nietzsche charged the philosopher, has now become the critic’s responsibility. In any age, and especially in an age driven by hype and wholly given over to, in Sontag’s phrase, “mercantile values,” somebody has to say no (188).

It’s a measure of [Kael’s and Sontag’s] greatness that what we take away from their work isn’t the no but the yes. They fret, they recoil, they prophesy–but their enthusiasms sweep them away. No one can write great criticism without bringing so much passion to the task that she risks making a fool of herself (189).

Passion. Provocation. Demolition. Titanic wills and monstrous somethings. Argument is how we learn, how we think. The bottom line: how to be a great critic.

Seligman doesn’t waffle. He’s not finicky.


He clearly loves his two subjects, but he rages frequently at Sontag and finds numerous occasions to wish Kael had written something different, something better.

Here’s more Seligman:

I hope you don’t think that because I’m crazy about her writing I bought all of her opinions. “Infallible taste is inconceivable,” she wrote; “what could it be measured against?” If Sontag’s taste seems less controversial, surely that’s because she’s allotted most of her criticism to Olympian work. This determination to play the admirer is what, in her view, justifies her claiming she’s not a critic: “I really do think an important job of the critic is to savage this, to say this is garbage, this is terrible, this is pernicious.” So do I, but her distaste for that side of the job doesn’t free her from the mantle of criticism; it just makes her a critic who doesn’t do half her job. … For a critic to address only what she loves is as skewed as it is for her to confront only what she hates (187-8).

I savoured this book. I didn’t want it to end. I wish I could say one of my well-read friends recommended it to me, but the truth is, I picked it up off a used book table at a sale my employer was having to raise funds for charity.

Chance, in other words, introduced me to Seligman (and a Google search has pointed me–grateful–to more of his work). Kael and Sontag, of course, I was somewhat familiar with. My bookshelf includes Kael’s collected movie columns, For Keeps: Thirty Years at the Movies (1996), and Sontag’s canonical Against Interpretation (1966) and Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (2008).

Here’s part of the entry of December 19, 1948, the year Sontag turned 15:

There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read–Here are just a few:

The Counterfeiters – Gide
The Immortalist – Gide
Laccadio’s Adventures – Gide
Corydon – Gide
Tar – Sherwood Anderson
The Island Within – Ludwig Lewisohn
Sanctuary – William Faulkner
Ester Waters – George Moore
Diary of a Writer – Dostoyevsky
Against the Gran – Huysmans
The Disciple – Paul Bourget
Sanin – Mikhail Artsybashev
Johnny Got His Gun – Dalton Trombo
The Forsyte Saga – Galsworthy
The Egoist – George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways – George Meridith
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel – George Meridith

poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heinie, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderon, Shaw, Hellman… [This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]

… Poetry must be: exact, intense, concrete, significant, rhythmical, formal, complex

… Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere intelligence …

… Language is not only an instrument but an end in itself …

Kael is not so easily quoted. Let’s just note that her selected/collected weighs in at 1291 pages.

Both of these women, Seligman notes, were lightning rods for adversaries. Both also became major critics before the late-1960s expansion of feminism.

Titanic wills? Here’s the quotation chosen for the back cover of Reborn: “I intend to do everything… to have one way of evaluating experience–does it cause me pleasure or pain, and I shall be very cautious about rejecting the painful–I shall anticipate pleasure everywhere and find it, too, for it is everywhere! I shall involve myself wholly…everything matters!”

Nothing was going to hold Sontag back, and nothing did. What Seligman finds in her criticism, however, are swells of contradiction and intense sophistication to both hide and reveal herself. She was gay, but for a long time didn’t say so. She identified with the North Vietnamese, but then broke with the ideological left in the 1980s.

On February 6, 1982, Sontag gave a speech at a Town Hall in Manhattan at what was supposed to be an evening of left-wing solidarity. She said:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who ready only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

Over boos and catcalls, she neared the end of her speech:

Communism is fascism–successful fascism, if you will. … I repeat: not only is fascism (and overt military rule) the probable destiny of all Communist societies–especially when their populations are moved to revolt–but Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.

Uproar. Accusations of betrayal. Surprise from Sontag that the reaction was so vocal.

Seligman uses the example to reinforce that this is what great critics do; they get our attention and make us think. He asks:

Would Sontag’s detractors have been happier if she’d gazed with fiery eyes into the crowd of the Town Hall and declared, ‘Communism resembles fascism’? Oh, God, some of them probably would have. But Sontag has too much pride in her craft to let her language turn into mush (95).

A similar example from Kael, from a 1992 interview with The Oxford American:

OA: I’ve heard a few people say that they have stopped reading you because you have made them feel stupid at times for liking something they shouldn’t. Have you ever–

Kael: Tough (140).

Yes, tough. Good answer. But what I didn’t find in Seligman was a way to separate the geniuses from the nitwits.

If the geniuses are “monstrous,” what are the nitwits? Evil?

If 99% of criticism is shit, what are 99% of critics? Pigs?

And what of the process of reviewing, criticizing, and dialoguing? What of give-and-take? What of that thing superficially called the literary community?

If demolition is “probably the primary critical task,” what of community building? And how much weight should be give that “probably”?

The further I get from the book, the more my finickiness returns.

Yes, demolition is a legitimate PART of the critical process, but the primary task? Isn’t the primary task to know thyself and to be aware of your own biases? And to present a strong (not mushy!) argument (evience-based) that acknowledges the biases? And always, I’ll say it again, to acknowledge that argument is dialogic? That no single argument can dominate and end the debate?

In December 2010, the New York Times ran a series on “Why Criticism Matters.”

The Times introduced the series as follows:

We live in the age of opinion — offered instantly, effusively and in increasingly strident tones. Much of it goes by the name of criticism, and in the most superficial sense this is accurate. We do not lack for contentious assertion — of “love it” or “hate it,” of “wet kisses” and “takedowns,” of flattery versus snark, and assorted other verbal equivalents of the thumb held up or pointed down. This “conversation” is often lively. Sometimes it is fun. Occasionally it is informed by genuine understanding as opposed to ideological presumption.

 But where does it leave the serious critic, one not interested, say, in tabulating the number of “Brooklyn novelists” who receive attention each year in publications like this one (data possibly more useful to real estate agents and sociologists than to readers)? Where does it leave the critic interested in larger implications — aesthetic, cultural, moral?

At the time, I started to make notes to provide my own response to this series, but I couldn’t complete it. My wife, then, was in the middle of four months of chemotherapy to treat her breast cancer. While thinking through questions about literature is part of what sustains me (I have my own titanic will and youthful journals, though they’re nowhere near as intense as Sontag’s), my life-energy was needed elsewhere.

Life/art: it’s a separation rife with unintended consequences.

Anger, Seligman notes, can be a source of great criticism. I distrust my anger. I have written out of anger and later regretted it, though even in reflection I usually think my impulse was true. And the result, pace Seligman, if often more interesting.

I was angry at the Times series. It didn’t go deep enough, I thought. It didn’t provide me with what I felt I needed out of it. Which was what, exactly? I can’t recreate that now. I was in a unique situation then, one what swelled with fear and an intense need to live simply one day at a time.

The situation reinforced my natural impatience for stupidity.

I wanted to write an essay: “Why I hate social media.” But I don’t hate social media. I hate that people post banalities. I don’t care that you’ve just crossed the street, brushed your teeth, or are meeting your friends at the art gallery.

I’m okay with receiving links to YouTube videos, sharing one of your favourite songs from the 1990s, but, please, not twenty times a day.

What I wish more people did, is write reviews, write commentary, write analysis. Don’t just send witticisms about Toronto’s Ford brothers (yes, you’re clever; and Atwood may well make a good mayor), provide argument.

Argument, as Seligman says, is how we learn. Argument is thought.

Go deeper. Compare and contrast. Risk being wrong. Risk contradicting yourself. Risk offending someone.

Risk alienating your friends.

It will make you more interesting.

Please. Please. Pretty please.

Thank you.

—Michael Bryson

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Michael Bryson has been reviewing books for twenty years and publishing short stories almost as long. His latest publication is an e-version of his novella Only A Lower Paradise: A Story About Fallen Angels and Confusion on Planet Earth. It’s a book about, well, angels and shit. His other books are Thirteen Shades of Black and White (1999), The Lizard (2009) and How Many Girlfriends (2010). In 1999, he founded the online literary magazine, The Danforth Review and published 26 issues of fiction, etcetera, before taking a break in 2009. In fall, 2011 TDR will once again be accepting fiction submissions. He blogs at the Underground Book Club. He has new fiction forthcoming in The New Quarterly (Fall 2011) and new fiction (“The Places You’ll Go”) recently online at Urban Graffiti. He co-parents a daughter and a son. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 months ago. She has survived the disease, the treatment, and a lot else besides.

Oct 282010
 

AMP

Alan Michael Parker is an old friend and colleague from my stint as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College in North Carolina. (Coincidentally, we have two Davidson graduates who appear frequently on Numéro Cinq—Contributing Editor Gary Garvin and Cynthia Newberry Martin of Catching Days.) Among his many claims on my affection, Alan had the good taste to marry a Canadian, the painter Felicia van Bork. He is a prolific poet and a novelist, a poet-novelist, a wry, energetic presence with a gift for teaching and satire. His most recent book of poems is Elephants & Butterflies (BOA Editions) and his most recent novel is Whale Man (WordFarm Books) which is due out February, 2011. It’s a great pleasure and delight to introduce him to the pages of Numéro Cinq. These three excerpts are from a new novel in progress, The Committee on Town Happiness.

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All Swimming Pools

No diving. No skipping. No three-legged competitions. No talking to the lifeguard from behind the lifeguard stand. No eating in the shallow end. No keys in the water. No unlabeled towels. No food dyes.

All swimming pools are to be skimmed daily with the use of skimmers attached to telescopic poles, those good ideas made better. All swimming pools are to employ regulation geometric symbols: triangles for fish, circles for rescue rings, squares for the Snack Hut, rectangles for chaise lounges, etc. Color coding may apply. Primary colors may apply, given the recent popularity of goggles.

No hiking boots inside the fence. No pets in water six inches above their heads. All swimming pools offering consumer services shall employ kitty corner entrances and exits—the latter through the gift areas, to encourage community. When we buy together, we are together. No indecency. No metal belts.

All swimming pools shall appoint a Wildlife Officer who shall successfully complete Level Three Wildlife Training. All swimming pools shall post the hours of All Swim. All swimming pools shall offer shallow ends and deeps, to remind us of our progress in life, with demarcations clearly marked in graduated units, to remind us of all we trust.

In case of emergency, all swimming pools shall be prepared to accept displaced persons; all Snack Huts must be equipped with sleeping bags and hurricane lamps. Sterno and a flare gun, safety cones. One torch per every three employees. In case of inclement weather, T-shirts may be awarded. “I Survived…” slogans are acceptable. No underwater lighting. No realistic inflatables.

The Marching Band

Petitioned by the Active Mothers in Support of the Marching Band (AMSMB), we considered previously undirected funds. Granted, the timing of the request seemed carefully timed, raising more than one eyebrow, our fiscal year concluding, earmarked monies marked for non-displaced expenditures and needing to be spent. We saw there were expenses, naturally: the unfortunate state of the glockenspiel, for example, and the need for eighteen sets of snap-on straps. No one mentioned the excessively woolen caps. Was it all so serendipitous? Is serendipity to be believed? We wondered, when the AMSMB was joined in an amicus motion by the Pre-Holidays Happiness Sub-Committee (M. Barriston, W. Weiss). Of course, every petition has petitioners, every dollar its admirers.

If only. In the subsequent filing period, the “cooling off,” due diligence and discoveries. Around the practice field, an empty trombone case, a bell. Two uniform shirts balled in the trash behind the former Sewing Notions store (now boarded up with cardboard, tightly X-ed with tape). Then there was the unfortunate bassoon that no amount of cleaning would unclog. And the note intercepted from the clarinetist: such antipathy between a first and second chair.

After four, we could still hear the muted, brassy airs from far away, drums quick as a rabbit’s heart. Not that anyone would deny a child music, but. Who was that playing, considering the recent losses? The AMSMB appeared perplexed. So we voted, 5-2, to wait. “Maybe they can march in place,” quipped F. Czerniwicz, not all that helpfully.

Report from the Committee on Town Happiness

It would not have been feasible to keep adding members to our ranks, even though we had our feelings and our losses, so we voted, 4-2, not to open up the rolls (S. Avumito and W. Weiss abstaining, since they were so new). When the vote was tallied, we were wide-eyed. There was the outside prospect of a pall.

But on to business: the Committee on Town Happiness has been thinking about the Community Garden. All those mirrors of our personalities; who grows the cukes, who the cosmos, who the daffodils, who the ornamentals; who comes to dig at night rather than go home. Who composts, who sprays and with what. Who shares. We have voted, 6-1 (M. Barriston recused, due to her portfolio) that Community Garden plots shall hereby be awarded based on the applicant’s commitment to the Community Garden Market. We have voted, 6-1, to establish a Community Garden Market, staffed by volunteers who already work for the town. Not strictly “in this time of need,” although the phrase was entered into the minutes.

We think that growing and marketing vegetables and flowers together will bring us all together. Our bodies are what we have in common, after all. The organism business, the willingness to participate as people. We voted, 5-3, to recognize the relationship between togetherness and happiness—and maybe, as M. Espinoza said, the tightness of the vote was telling, but maybe not.

We, the Committee on Town Happiness, would like to thank the three representatives from the Community Garden who came so promptly despite the sirens, and who shall henceforth be recognized as the three representatives of the Community Garden Market. We thanked them formally, 8-0. The smiles accompanying our unanimity were what we most encouraged all to see.

–By Alan Michael Parker

 

Jun 122010
 

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Here is a story by my friend Michael Bryson from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. For several years Michael published a terrific online magazine in Toronto called The Danforth Review, which is sadly defunct although the pages now reside in the Library and Archives Canada and can still be accessed there. This was before online magazines had much legitimacy; Michael was ahead of his time, and his magazine was a useful lens on what was new and coming in the Canadian literary world while it lasted. He also writes. I put one of his stories in Best Canadian Stories (2005). And he publishes a blog called Underground Book Club.

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When I was sixteen, a man spoke to my parents. A week later, he bought me a new set of clothes and I flew with him to California. His name (and I’m not making this up) was Sly. Maybe my story starts with the arrival of Sly. My parents will tell you straight out he’s an evil bastard, which is true enough, but Sly’s character was nothing if not Byzantine. He looked a bit like Santa Claus, an fact he exploited with the young and the old. It took me a long time to see the bits of him that I can claim to know, because for a long time I couldn’t see over his wake. I would look at him and see just the crest of his wave. He was my substitute father, my mentor, my guide in the world of glitter he had brought me to, and I was his servant. I was his paycheque, too, but it took me a long time to figure that out. I’m trying hard not to cloud my judgement about Sly here. I’m trying to tell you things that are simple and real. I would like to say things about Sly that even Sly would agree with, if he were here to agree with them, which he isn’t, since he’s dead.

Maybe that’s where we should start.IMG_0220

It was a dark and stormy night in New Hampshire (I’m not making this up). I was in L.A. with Lily (more on her later). Sly was in New Hampshire. I was trying desperately to get him on the phone. In recent days, we had argued. I had been in a professional slump. At the time, I blamed Sly. “Patience,” he counseled. In my condo on the outskirts of the city, Lily laid out the last of our drugs. It was approaching nightfall. Lily was still wearing her bathrobe. Beneath her robe she wore only her bikini bra. She was seventeen. I was twenty-one.

“Sly, you fucker!” I screamed into the phone. I kept getting his answering machine. He had gone to New Hampshire to meet a new client. A potential new client, anyway. I was afraid that I would lose his attention. Before he had left for the East Coast, he had been reassuring.

“I have a script on my desk right now. It’s perfect for you. The producers want you. It’s a role that could really make you.”

“Well, shit! Send it over!”

“When I get back,” he promised.

The circus was his favorite metaphor. “Life’s the Big Top, kid,” he would say. “Don’t ever forget that.”

After he died, I kept hearing his voice over and over. “Life’s the Big Top, kid. The Big Top, kid. Don’t ever forget that.”

Let me tell you one thing clear and true: I haven’t forgotten that. Life is a carnival. The carnival is the centre and source of all life. Sly taught me that, and now I’m telling it to you.

Continue reading »

2016

 

Vol. VII, No. 12, December 2016

Vol. VII, No. 11, November 2016

Vol. VII, No. 10, October 2016

Vol. VII, No. 9, September 2016

Vol. VII, No. 8, August 2016

Vol. VII, No. 7, July 2016

Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2016

Vol. VII, No. 5, May 2016

Vol. VII, No. 4, April 2016

Vol. VII, No. 3, March 2016

Vol. VII, No. 2, February 2016

Vol. VII, No. 1, January 2016

Uimhir a Cúig

 

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Uimhir a Cúig means Number Five in Irish, and henceforth there will always be a little part of Numéro Cinq that is Irish. Herein you will find exhibited some of the best in contemporary Irish literature and art. We launched Uimhir a Cúig with the amazing and uncanny Galway artist Louise Manifold — text and voiceover from the massively celebrated Kevin Barry, winner of last year’s Dublin IMPAC International Literary Award for his novel The City of Bohane as well as the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Our second installment was John MacKenna‘s short story “The Angel Said.”

 

Uimhir a Cúig | On Being There and Not Being There; or Cotard’s Delusion, A Case Study: Text & Video — Kevin Barry & Louise Manifold

Uimhir a Cúig | The Angel Said: Fiction — John MacKenna

Uimhir a Cúig | From Out of the City: Novel Excerpt — John Kelly

Uimhir a Cúig |Dánta le Doireann Ní Ghríofa – Poems by Doireann Ní Ghríofa & Videos in Collaboration with Peter Madden

Uimhir a Cúig | Tinnycross: Fiction — Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Uimhir a Cúig | Moorfield Street: Prose Fragments — Martin Mooney

Uimhir a Cúig | In My Own Light — A Memoir: Extract and Interview with Raymond Deane — Siobhán Cleary

Uimhir a Cúig | The Chief Radiographer Considers: Poems — Paula Cunningham

Uimhir a Cúig | An Apple in the Library & Memory House: Two Stories — David Hayden

Uimhir a Cúig | Poetry-Performed-Out-Loud-In-Public: Essay & Poems — Sarah Clancy

Uimhir a Cúig |Like A Rolling Stone: Irish Language Literature and Art in a Modern Cultural Context — Liam Carson

Uimhir a Cúig | Route: Fiction — Belinda McKeon

Uimhir a Cúig | Déjà Vu: Fiction — Mary Morrissy

Uimhir a Cúig | Grand Union Bridge: Poems — Ian Duhig

Uimhir a Cúig | Winter With Catherine: Poems — Thomas McCarthy

Uimhir a Cúig |A Callows Childhood: Memoir — Patrick Deeley

Uimhir a Cúig | The Ghost Estate: Novel Excerpt & Interview — John Connell

Uimhir a Cúig | Sons Are Older At The Speed Of Light: Poems — Macdara Woods

Uimhir a Cúig | Apology: Poems — Victoria Kennefick

Uimhir a Cúig | The Ice House: Fiction — Jaki McCarrick

Uimhir a Cúig | The Poets’ House, Portmuck — Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons, James Simmons and Michelle Mitchell-Foust

Uimhir a Cúig | Screen: Fiction — Claire Hennessy

Uimhir a Cúig | Roma Walking Around: Prose and Poetry Translations From Mexico – Dylan Brennan

Uimhir a Cúig | A River of Familiars: Poems — Afric McGlinchey

Uimhir a Cúig | What Brought You Here? Memoir — Áine Greaney

Uimhir a Cúig | Interview & Poems — Adrian Rice & Matthew Rice

Uimhir a Cúig | The Vogue: Novel Excerpt — Eoin McNamee

Uimhir a Cúig | Primordial Irishwomen & Other Texts — Mary Byrne

Uimhir a Cúig | Speed My Slowing Heart: Poems — Michael Ray

Uimhir a Cúig | A Junkyard Full of Flowers: Poems — Paul McMahon

Uimhir a Cúig | Barbaric Tales: Poems — Catherine Walsh

Uimhir a Cúig | The County Manager: Short Story — Dave Lordan

Uimhir a Cúig | Stealing Life: Memoir — Eamonn Sheehy

Uimhir a Cúig | Trust in Me: Fiction — Mia Gallagher

Uimhir a Cúig | Life Erupting: Excerpt from Four – Billy Mills

Uimhir a Cúig | Bad Weather Days: Memoir — Amanda Bell

Uimhir a Cúig | Angel’s Wing-Lashed Fire: Poems — Afric McGlinchey

Uimhir a Cúig | The Beaching: Poems — Denise Blake

Uimhir a Cúig | Dunamon: Poems — Jane Clarke

Uimhir a Cúig | Hollow: Short Story — Paul McVeigh

Masthead

 

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Capo di tutti capi
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Douglas Glover, Theatre Passe MurailleDouglas Glover’s obscurity is legendary; he is mostly known for being unknown. He has been called “the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” (Maclean’s Magazine, The National Post). But for sheer over-the-top hyperbole, nothing beats the opening of a recent piece about him in Quill and Quire in Toronto, which elevates his lack of celebrity to the epic: “Certain mysteries abide in this world: the Gordian Knot, the Holy Trinity, and the literary obscurity of Douglas Glover.” Luckily, he owns a dog and is not completely alone in the world. And occasionally someone actually reads what he writes: He has also been called “a master of narrative structure” (Wall Street Journal) and “the mad genius of Can Lit” (Globe and Mail) whose stories are “as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature” (Los Angeles Review of Books) and whose work “demands comparison to [Cormac] McCarthy, Barry Hannah, Donald Barthelme, William Faulkner” (Music & Literature). A new story collection, Savage Love, was published in 2013.

Glover is the author of five story collections, four novels, two books of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son and Attack of the Copula Spiders, and The Enamoured Knight, a book about Don Quixote and novel form. His novel Elle won the 2003 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, was a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was optioned by Isuma Igloolik Productions, makers of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. His story book A Guide to Animal Behaviour was a finalist for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award. His stories have been frequently anthologized, notably in The Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories. He was the subject of a TV documentary in a series called The Writing Life and a collection of critical essays, The Art of Desire, The Fiction of Douglas Glover, edited by Bruce Stone.

Glover has taught at Skidmore College, Colgate University, Davidson College, the University at Albany-SUNY and Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, the University of Lethbridge, St. Thomas University and Utah State University. For two years he produced and hosted The Book Show, a weekly half-hour literary interview program which originated at WAMC in Albany and was syndicated on various public radio stations and around the world on Voice of America and the Armed Forces Network. He edited the annual Best Canadian Stories from 1996 to 2006. He has two sons, Jacob and Jonah, who will doubtless turn out better than he did.

See also “Making Friends with a Stranger: Albert Camus’s L’Étranger,” an essay in CNQ:Canadian Notes & Queries; Consciousness & Masturbation: A Note on Witold Gombrowicz’s Onanomaniacal Novel Cosmos,” an essay in 3:AM Magazine; “Pedro the Uncanny: A Note on Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo,” an essay in Biblioasis International Translation Series Online;A Scrupulous Fidelity: Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser,” an essay in The Brooklyn Rail;Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought,” an essay on the history of ideas also in The Brooklyn Rail; and a dozen extremely wise epigrams at Global Brief

 

Senior Editors

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Book Reviews

Jason DeYoungJason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has recently appeared in Corium, The Los Angeles Review, The Fiddleback, New Orleans Review, and Numéro Cinq.
Contact: jasondeyoung@numerocinqmagazine.com.
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Numéro Cinq at the Movies

R. W. Gray (Numéro Cinq at the Movies) was born and raised on the northwest coast of British Columbia, and received a PhD in Poetry and Psychoanalysis from the University of Alberta in 2003. His most recent book, a short story collection entitled Entropic, won the $25,000 Thomas Raddall Fiction Award in 2016. Additionally, he is the author of Crisp, a short story collection, and two serialized novels in Xtra West magazine and has published poetry in various journals and anthologies, including Arc, Grain, Event, and dANDelion. He also has had ten short screenplays produced, including Alice & Huck and Blink. He currently teaches Film at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton..

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Editor-at-Large

Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is the author of Dysfunctional Males, a story collection, and Shetlag: una novela acentuada. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. He tweets at @f_sd.

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Translations

WoodardBenjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, Spartan, and Numéro Cinq. His reviews and essays have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, Numéro Cinq, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other fine publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com.
Contact bwoodard@numerocinqmagazine.com.

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Poetry Editors

aizenberg-thumbnailSusan Aizenberg is the author of three poetry collections: Quiet City (BkMk Press 2015); Muse (Crab Orchard Poetry Series 2002); and Peru in Take Three: 2/AGNI New Poets Series (Graywolf Press 1997) and co-editor with Erin Belieu of The Extraordinary Tide: New Poetry by American Women (Columbia University Press 2001). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in many journals, among them The North American Review, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Blackbird, Connotation Press, Spillway, The Journal, Midwest Quarterly Review, Hunger Mountain, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer and have been reprinted and are forthcoming in several anthologies, including Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier UP) and Wild and Whirling Words: A Poetic Conversation (Etruscan). Her awards include a Crab Orchard Poetry Series Award, the Nebraska Book Award for Poetry and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Levis Prize for Muse, a Distinguished Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council, the Mari Sandoz Award from the Nebraska Library Association, and a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner award. She can be reached through her website, susanaizenberg.com..

gillisSusan Gillis has published three books of poetry, most recently The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), and several chapbooks, including The Sky These Days (Thee Hellbox Press, 2015) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Volta (Signature Editions, 2002) won the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She is a member of the collaborative poetry group Yoko’s Dogs, whose work appears regularly in print and online, and is collected in Rhinoceros (Gaspereau Press, 2016) and Whisk (Pedlar Press, 2013). Susan divides her time between Montreal and rural Ontario..

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Managing Editor.

Deirdre thumbnailDeirdre Baker is a freelance web and copy editor living in Toronto. She worked for nearly three decades at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, most recently as manager of the Legislature’s website and intranet. After years of bills, proceedings, debates, policies, and procedures, she is delighted to finally have something interesting to read for work.

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Chief Technical Officer/Internet Security

Jonah Glover is a twenty-three-year-old human male. Jonah was hired into a technical role despite a long history of shoving chalk into the Glover family VCR. His tenure as CTO is a brazen act of nepotism by DG, so he says. In truth, he has rescued the magazine from malware attacks and hosting issues over and over again. He also designed the logo (many years ago). He works as a software engineer in Seattle and is completing a degree at the University of Waterloo.
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Contributing Editors.

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Riiki DucornetThe author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

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Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).

HeadsJulie Larios is the author of four books for children: On the Stairs (1995), Have You Ever Done That? (named one of Smithsonian Magazine’s Outstanding Children’s Books 2001), Yellow Elephant (a Book Sense Pick and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book, 2006) and Imaginary Menagerie: A Book of Curious Creatures (shortlisted for the Cybil Award in Poetry, 2008). For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work has been chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University on July 13th, 2013.

Sydney Lea2Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013. In 2015 he published a non-fiction collection, What’s the Story? Reflections on a Life Grown Long (many of the essays appeared first on Numéro Cinq). His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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Special Correspondents

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Victoria Best small photoVictoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).

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Jeff BurseyJeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen (Verbivoracious Press, 2015) and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010), both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His forthcoming book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (Zero Books, July 2016), is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

Garvin thumbnailGary Garvin lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and reflects on a thirty-year career teaching English. His short stories and essays have appeared in TriQuarterly, Web ConjunctionsFourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel. His architectural models can be found at Under Construction. A catalog of his writing can be found at Fictions.

Genese Grill

Genese Grill is an artist, translator, writer, and cultural conspirator living in Burlington, Vermont. She is the author of The World as Metaphor in Robert Musil’s ‘The Man without Qualities’ (Camden House, 2012) and the translator of a collection of Robert Musil’s short prose, Thought Flights (Contra Mundum, 2015). She is currently working on completing a collection of essays exploring the tension between spirit and matter in contemporary culture and a room-sized, illuminated, accordion book inscribed with one of the essays from the collection, along with many other fanatical projects. You can find Genese online at genesegrill.blogspot.com.

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JasonJason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction.

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Bruce Stone4

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he edited a great little book of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His own essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. He currently teaches writing at UCLA.
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Trimingham_Julie

Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Production Editors

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Alyssa green backgroundAlyssa Colton has a PhD in English with creative dissertation from the University at Albany, State University of New York. Her fiction has been published in The Amaranth Review and Women Writers. Her essays have appeared in Literary Arts Review, Author Magazine, Mothering, Moxie: For Women Who Dare, Iris: A Journal about Women, and on WAMC: Northeast Public Radio. Alyssa has taught classes in writing, literature, and theater at the University at Albany, the College of St. Rose, and Berkshire Community College and blogs about writing at abcwritingediting.
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Nowick GrayNowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months..

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Nic Leigh has had work published in Juked, The Collagist, UNSAID, Atticus Review, Requited, Gobbet, and DIAGRAM. A chapbook, Confidences, won the Cobalt/Thumbnail Flash Fiction contest and is forthcoming from Cobalt Press. Leigh is also a fiction reader for Guernica.

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CaptureKathryn Para is an award-winning, multi-genre writer with a MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have been published in Grain, Room of One’s Own, Geist, Sunstream, and Vancouver Review. She is the 2013 Winner of Mother Tongue Publishing’s Search for the Great BC Novel Contest with, Lucky,  her first novel, which was also shortlisted for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 2014. Her stage play, Honey, debuted in 2004. She has also written, directed and produced short films.

Daniel Davis Wood is a writer based in Birmingham, England. His debut novel, Blood and Bone, won the 2014 Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia. He is also the author of Frontier Justice, a study of the influence of the nineteenth century frontier on American literature, and the editor of a collection of essays on the African American writer Edward P. Jones. He can be found online at www.danieldaviswood.com..

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Assistant to the Editor

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mary-brindley2Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born copywriter living in Boston. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction, performs improv, and is about to move to London.

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Contributors

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Anu2A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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dylanbrennan-croppedCurrently based in Mexico City, Dylan Brennan writes poetry, essays and memoirs. His debut collection, Blood Oranges, for which he won The Patrick Kavanagh Award runner-up prize, was published by The Dreadful Press in 2014. His co-edited volume of academic essays Rethinking Juan Rulfo’s Creative World: Prose, Photography, Film is available now from Legenda Books (2016). In addition to his work as Mexico Curator for Numéro Cinq, he regularly contributes to the online Mexican literary site Portal de Letras. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan.

jeremy brungerJeremy Brungeroriginally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology, The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He helps edit the Wrath-Bearing Tree and is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Laura Michele Diener author photoLaura Michele Diener teaches medieval history and women’s studies at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She received her PhD in history from The Ohio State University and has studied at Vassar College, Newnham College, Cambridge, and most recently, Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her creative writing has appeared in The Catholic Worker, Lake Effect, Appalachian Heritage,and Cargo Literary Magazine, and she is a regular contributor to Yes! Magazine..

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Daniel Green is a writer and literary critic whose essays, reviews, and stories have appeared in a variety of publications. He is the author of Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism (2016).

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A gallerist in Saratoga Springs for over 15 years, visual artist & poet Mary Kathryn Jablonski is now an administrative director in holistic healthcare. She is author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met, and her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including the Beloit Poetry Journal, Blueline, Home Planet News, Salmagundi, and Slipstream, among others. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.
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OgburnCarolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. Her writing can be found in the Asheville Poetry Review, the Potomac Review, the Indiana Review, and more. A graduate of Oberlin Conservatory and NC School of the Arts, she writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights. She is completing an MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and is at work on her first novel.

Paddy Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Frank Richardson lives in Houston where he teaches English and Humanities. He received his MFA in Fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Mark SampsonMark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

Natalia SarkissianNatalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was an editor and a contributor at Numéro Cinq from 2010-2017.

 


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Joe SchreiberJoseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s] and The Scofield. He tweets @roughghosts.

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captureDorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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Authors & Artists of Numéro Cinq

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Aug 132017
 

Doris Lessing writingDoris Lessing

 

“I think Miller was an early essay and Lessing a much later one, by which point I had grown quite practiced at entering imaginatively into an author’s life (and was probably overconfident about it!). I really loved writing these essays because every writer I chose, once you got down to it, was a hapless flake, making the most terrific mess of their life and yet stalwartly, patiently, relentlessly processing every error, every crisis and turning them all into incredible art. How could you not love these people and their priceless integrity? I felt like I had found my tribe. Didn’t matter in the least that they were pretty much all dead. There was just that precious quality – vital, creative attentiveness to everything wrong – that I cherished.”

 

1942 in the land that used to be Rhodesia. A 24-year-old mother spreads a picnic blanket out on a lawn beneath the delicate leaves of a cedrillatoona tree. On the blanket she sits her two children: John, a lively three-year-old and Jean, a sweet-tempered baby. They watch their mother with steady interest.

She explains that she is going to have to abandon them.

She wants them to know this is a carefully considered choice. She tells them ‘that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful, perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice, and so forth.’

Her comrades in the Rhodesian branch of the Communist party have been encouraging her for several months now to break away from her family. For the first time in her life, the young woman feels solidarity in her aims and her principles; the group has given her both strength and freedom to take this extraordinary step. But it is not really – or at least not wholly – politics that has provoked it.

‘Much more, and more important: I carried, like a defective gene, a kind of doom of fatality, which would trap [the children] as it had me, if I stayed. Leaving, I would break some ancient chain of repetition. One day they would thank me for it.’

The children, she believes, are the only ones who ‘really understood me’, unlike her husband, who is bewildered and shocked by her decision, and her mother, ever a stern critic and now in possession of a righteous rage. ‘Perhaps it is not possible to abandon one’s children without moral and mental contortions,’ the young mother would later write. ‘But I was not exactly abandoning mine to an early death. Our house was full of concerned and loving people, and the children would be admirably looked after – much better than by me.’ In her own mind, her act was one of desperate self-rescue. ‘I would not have survived. A nervous breakdown would have been the least of it… I would have become an alcoholic, I am pretty sure. I would have had to live at odds with myself, riven, hating what I was part of, for years.’

The young woman went on to become Doris Lessing, author of 27 novels, seventeen short story collections, numerous non-fiction works, and winner of the Nobel prize for literature. But when she left her children she had scarcely begun to write. She was Doris Wisdom, a bored and miserable housewife, irritated by her husband, ambivalent towards her babies, and terrified of repeating the strains and traumas of her parents’ marriage. All she had was her literary ambition and a hatred for the inequalities of the country she grew up in, which was almost as fierce as her love of the land.

From these disparate ingredients she would produce a first novel of raw, corruscating power, a novel that would take London by storm when she arrived with the manuscript in her suitcase, and inform a colonising power of the desperate abuses that took place on either side of the colour bar.

But before she left Rhodesia, she was going to make the same mistakes of marriage and motherhood all over again.

Doris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in LiteratureDoris Lessing with 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature

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Doris Lessing was born in 1919 to the dispirited aftermath of the First World War. Her parents met in the Royal Free Hospital in East London. Doris’s mother was Sister Emily MacVeigh, the clever but unhappy daughter of a disciplinarian father. Doris’s father, Alfred Tayler, had lost a leg, his optimistic resilience and half his mind in the trenches. While Emily nursed him, the doctor she intended to marry went down with his ship. Neither could have the life they wanted, and so they determined to make do with the shared burden of their disappointments. Alfred married in order to make restitution to the woman who had saved his life and his sanity, whom he knew wanted children. Emily did indeed want children, but marriage meant she had to refuse the offer of a matronship at St George’s, a famous teaching hospital, which would have been a fine post for a woman in her era. She did not do so without inner turmoil. And then, depressed and shell-shocked still, Alfred Tayler was insulted to the core when handed the white feather of cowardice by a group of women in the street who could not see the wooden leg under his trousers. Unable to tolerate his feeling that his own country had betrayed him, he took a post in a bank in Persia.

Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeighLessing’s parents, Alfred Tayler and Emily McVeigh

Doris Lessing believed that her mother was as depressed as her father, conflicted over the choices she had made, the sudden emigration, and the weariness of having worked so hard in the war. As a couple they had been advised not to have children too soon, but Emily was already thirty-five and may not have wanted to wait. They joked that she fell pregnant on their wedding night. In Persia, after a difficult forceps birth, she was handed not the son they wanted, but a daughter for whom they didn’t even have a name. The doctor suggested Doris. ‘Do I believe this difficult birth scarred me?’ Lessing would later write in her memoirs. ‘I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important.’

The early years in Persia were, in fact, to be some of the happiest her parents would know. On arrival, it was as if they sloughed off old identities, her mother taking on her middle name ‘Maude’ and renaming her father ‘Michael’, which she felt sounded classier. Maude loved the rounds of colonial parties with the ‘right sort’ of people, her husband was content at the bank, and another baby arrived, the much hoped-for son. Doris Lessing’s earliest memories were of slouching against her father’s wooden leg in social gatherings, hearing herself relentlessly discussed by her mother: how difficult and naughty she was, how she made her mother’s life a misery. Her baby brother, by contrast, was perfect. To the cross, elderly nursemaid who ruled the children’s lives, Maude would say ‘Bébé is my child, madame. Doris is not my child. Doris is your child. But Bébé is mine.’ It was a psychologically unsophisticated age, in which childcare was dominated by the strictures of Truby King, who advocated strict discipline in the nursery. Lessing never forgot her mother’s gleefully recounted tales of how she had nearly starved her daughter on a rigid three-hour feeding regime that failed to take into account the thinness of Persian milk. Doris and her brother were potty trained from birth, held over the pot for hours each day. ‘You were clean by the time you were a month old!’ Lessing remembers her mother saying, though she did not believe it. Nor did she believe her mother’s romantic expressions of love as the basis of her mothering. ‘The trouble is, love is a word that has to be filled with an experience of love. What I remember is hard, bundling hands, impatient arms and her voice telling me over and over again that she had not wanted a girl’. Doris’s birth had been inauspicious, and now her upbringing was proving catastrophic. ‘The fact was, my early childhood made me one of the walking wounded for years,’ she wrote. ‘I think that some psychological pressures, and even well-meant ones, are as damaging as physical hurt.’

In 1924 their time in Persia ended, but after a few months in an England that felt as depressing as ever to the Taylers, Michael went to the Empire Exhibition and was seduced by the thought of farming in Southern Rhodesia. With ill-prepared impulsiveness they sailed to Cape Town (though they both had all their teeth removed on the unsound advice that there were no dentists in Rhodesia). Michael was laid low with seasickness and remained in the cabin for most of the journey, whilst Maude had a wonderful time consorting with the Captain, regardless of the rough weather. They enjoyed ‘hearty jollity’ together and Doris found to her discomfort that the Captain was a keen practical joker. He told her one day she must sit on a cushion ‘where he had placed an egg, swearing it wouldn’t break… My mother said I must be a good sport.’ Doris was wearing her party dress, which was spoiled, and the Captain roared with laughter. There was worse to come. ‘When we crossed the Line I was thrown in, though I could not swim, and was fished out by a sailor. This kind of thing went on, and I was permanently angry and had nightmares.’ Looking back, she did not believe her mother was a naturally cruel person; she was simply grasping at a good time with both hands, drunk on pleasure and anticipation, falling in with the ‘done thing’ on board. But for Doris, it was an early, wounding lesson in how those in control could so lightly and easily humiliate others, barely noticing what they did.

By the time they arrived at the Cape, Doris was starting to steal things and to lie. ‘There were storms of miserable hot rage, like being burned alive by hatred.’ She took a pair of scissors, thinking she might be able to stab her much-disliked nursemaid, Biddy, with them. Then a sudden and unexpected balm to her spirits: for five days and nights they travelled in an ox wagon, leaving behind the niceties of home – Liberty curtains, trunks of clothes, silver tableware, Persian carpets and a piano – to follow on later by train. For Doris, bumping along the rough track into a vast emptiness ‘there is only one memory, not of unhappiness and anger, but the beginnings of a different landscape.’ Her impressionable sensitivity was being given a new world to work on. The spiralling horns of a koodoo, the glistening green slither of a snake, anthills for shade, beetles and chameleons, thick red soil churned by the monsoon rains. It was a landscape to echo the intensities and vastness of her misunderstood emotions, a harsh landscape for sure, but one of overwhelming beauty.

Her parents had chosen a grand hilltop site for their home, but they could only afford to construct a traditional mud house with a thatched roof upon it. It contained both the piano and furniture fashioned out of petrol boxes, the Liberty curtains and bedspreads made of dyed flour sacks. There were no ‘nice’ people in the district, to Maude’s despair. She had had dresses made for entertaining, calling cards printed, bought gloves and hats that she would never wear. Instead of the glamorous life she imagined, she had a toilet that was a packing case with a hole in it over a twenty-foot drop. The farm was too big for a man with a wooden leg, but too small to make any profit. The heat was crippling. They all had malaria. Twice. Maude took to her bed for a year with a ‘bad heart’, enraging Doris with unwanted, burdensome pity for what she understood even then to be depression.

European settlers on fruit farm Southern Rhodesia early 1920s via Wikimedia CommonsSettler farm in Southern Rhodesia, early 1920s, via Wikimedia Commons

Maude’s illness brought Mrs Mitchell and her son into their lives, supposed to act as ‘help’. Doris experienced them as another chip of nightmare, the woman a heavy drinker and her son a bully. Writing about them in her memoir, she realised they came from the extreme end of white poverty, from a life she could not have imagined as a child, and which the immigrant farmers around them never wanted to acknowledge as a depth to which whites could sink. Mrs Mitchell and her son roundly abused the black workers, and decried Michael Tayler’s attempts to treat them well. It was, Lessing remembered, the first encounter she had with the ugly white clichés. ‘They only understand the stick. They are nothing but savages. They are just down from the trees. You have to keep them in their place.’ The Mitchells left after a few months and Doris and her brother took to joining their father down on the land. Eventually Maude rose from her bed, having decided it was the weight of her hair that was giving her headaches. She cut it all off, reducing her children to tears as they rolled in shanks of it on the bed, then she bundled it up, threw it in the rubbish pit and set to work.

Doris Lessing with mother and brotherLessing with her mother and brother

***

Doris was eight years old when she was first sent away to the Roman Catholic Convent. The main subject was fear. The dormitories held grisly images of the tortured Saint Sebastian, the broken, crucified Jesus, whose swollen heart disgorged gouts of blood. At bedtime, one of the nuns would stand in the doorway and tell them: ‘God knows what you are thinking. God knows the evil in your hearts. You are wicked children, disobedient to God and to the good sisters who look after you for the glory of God. If you die tonight you will go to hell and there you will burn in the flames of hell’. They were allowed a bath once a week and were supposed to wear boards around their necks that prevented them from seeing their own bodies. In her memoirs, Lessing calls the atmosphere ‘unwholesome’, a notable understatement. Her parents’ attitude towards her was disquieting and she had a dawning sense that all was not right for the blacks on the farm. But this must have been her most clear and immediate experience of abuse by authority. She had never known power except self-indulgent or corrupt.

When a bad kidney ailment brought Doris into the sickroom and the care of one of the few kindly nuns, she found a power of her own in illness. It was a button she could push that made her mother jump, and she pushed it repeatedly. Lice and ringworm would sign her release papers from the nuns. At the next boarding school, measles gave six weeks of blessed quarantine and then a bad eye infection – violent to look at but not serious – set her free. She insisted she could no longer see properly, and made her mother take her home.

And so, at fourteen, Doris finished her meagre education and gave her full attention to the covert cold war with her mother. ‘I was in nervous flight from her ever since I can remember anything and from the age of fourteen I set myself obdurately against her in a kind of inner emigration from everything she represented,’ she wrote in her memoirs. When she returned to the farm, it was to a new level of her mother’s intrusive care. Her father had diabetes by now and had entered a long, slow decline that cemented his general air of helplessness. Maude nursed him with obsessive attention, and extended her compulsive care to her daughter, fretting over what she ate, and worrying about her going alone in the bush. It was not love that provoked this behaviour, Doris believed, but a struggle over control. For the biggest argument between them was over clothes: her mother wanted her to wear smart, frilly dresses, entirely inappropriate for her age and surroundings. ‘I knew what it was my mother wanted when she nagged and accused me, continually holding out these well-brought-up little girls’ clothes at me. “Well try it on at least!” They were sizes too small for me.’ When Doris sewed herself her first bra, her mother noticed, called for her father, and then whipped her dress up over her head so he should see it. ‘“Lord, I thought it was something serious,”’ her father grumbled, edging away.

Doris Lessing age 14Doris Lessing, age 14

Both Doris and her father hated the way she treated the black servants, always talking to them in a ‘scolding, insistent, nagging voice full of dislike’. ‘“But they’re just hopeless, hopeless,”’ she would wail when confronted. The ‘Native Question’ had become a topic of hot debate between Doris and her parents. ‘I had no ammunition in the way of facts and figures, nothing but a vague but strong feeling that there was something terribly wrong with the System.’ She read letters in the Rhodesia Herald, arguing that the black workers were inefficient because they were housed and fed so badly, and Doris felt ashamed at how little they were paid on her own farm. But such opinions felt vague against the pervasive conviction that blacks were simply lazy and stupid. Her father was kinder in his views but he was as ineffectual against her mother’s virulent opinions as he was in everything else. Small wonder that Doris was determined to escape, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Doris had already created a false self, a kind of persona she could hide behind in an attempt to keep her mother out of the private parts of her mind. She had early realised that ‘it was [my mother’s] misfortune to have an over-sensitive, always observant and judging, battling, impressionable, hungry-for-love child. With not one, but several, skins too few.’ After a bout of family enthusiasm for A.A. Milne when she was a child, Doris began to live up to her nickname of ‘Tigger’. Tigger Tayler was a daughter in her mother’s image, capable and resilient with brutal good humour, a good sport with a thick skin. At 18, she heard there were jobs to be had at the telephone exchange in Salisbury and moved there, mastering the easy work by day and joining in with the party crowd at night. Tigger Tayler was all about love and excitement, proud of her strong, beautiful young body. She smoked, she drank, she danced – and was a good dancer. It was 1938 and she knew, as everyone did around her, that war was coming. Tigger dreamt of becoming an ambulance driver, a spy, a parachutist, whilst throwing back the cocktails and losing herself to the rhythms of the music. The adventure she actually chose would be the most mundane on offer.

‘A young woman sensitised by music, and every molecule simpering in abased response to the drums of war, a young woman in love with her own body – she did not have a chance of escaping her fate, which was the same as all young women at that time,’ Lessing would write in determined self-absolution in her memoir. Tigger Tayler with her gung-ho attitude and smouldering sexuality had found a way to coincide with the lost, lonely, hungry-for-love child she was trying to cover up, although she would describe her reckless rush into marriage as happening under the effects of ‘the same numbness, a kind of chloroform, that overtakes someone being eaten by a lion.’

And so it was that, at 19, she returned to the farm with a fiancé in tow to introduce to her parents. He was Frank Wisdom, a civil servant – a respectable profession for which her parents were grateful, though they assumed Doris was pregnant. In fact she was, but didn’t know it at the time. They had a ‘graceless wedding,’ which in retrospect she claimed to have hated: ‘It was “Tigger” who was getting married.’ And then there were two children born in quick succession: a demanding and hyperactive boy, John, and a sweet, affectionate girl, Jean. For a few years, she played at the conventional role of housewife and did so with competence and much inner anguish. ‘There is no boredom like that of an intelligent young woman who spends all day with a very young child,’ she wrote. She was perpetually exhausted, partly from the demands of the children, partly from the pretence of being Tigger, partly from suppressed rage at her mother who now visited regularly and criticized her decisions, often calling her selfish and irresponsible in a way that must have utterly infuriated her, given her own memories of childhood.

Salisbury Rhodesia 1930 via Wikimedia CommonsSalisbury, Southern Rhodesia, 1930 via Wikimedia Commons

Frank did not understand why Doris took to bed, weeping with fury, once she had gone. But then Frank and Doris had quickly grown apart. The war was on, but Frank had been turned down for active duty on medical grounds. He nursed his resentment and shame over too many drinks at the club. He agreed that Doris would write when she had the time and energy, but he grew angry when the poetry she produced was fiercely critical of apartheid, afraid it might undermine him in his job. She would become increasingly involved with subversive organisations, and he would become a cliché of conventionality.

Not long after Jean was born, Doris made the decision to take a month off and travel to Cape Town with John. Her health had been suffering; she was tired all the time and had fainting fits. ‘I was miserable and confused, being torn apart by these two babes,’ she wrote. The demanding task of caring for two small children was complicated by an unformed, unarticulated sense of profound self-betrayal. A neighbour, who, according to Lessing, had longed for a daughter all her life, was lined up to take baby Jean. ‘I did not feel guilty about this then, and do not feel guilty now,’ she wrote. ‘Small babies need to be dandled, cuddled, held, comforted and it does not have to be the mother.’ This was to be a formative month, in which she met, at the boarding house where she was staying, a woman from a Christian organisation promoting good race relations by way of the sort of straight talking that hypnotised Doris. ‘“How can one describe a country where 100,000 white people use 1 million blacks as servants and cheap labour, refuse them education and training, all the time in the name of Christianity?”’ she asked, and Doris found it a ‘revelation’.

She returned home rested, revolutionized and newly inspired to write. Frank agreed help was needed and it was a sign of the times that a mother leaving her child for a month never raised an eyebrow, whereas hiring a black nanny and inviting her to live in the house was cause for scandal. Doris’s mother even ambushed Frank in his office to express her outrage. The nanny had to go, and Doris’s political and personal claustrophobia worsened.

It was at this time that she joined the Communist group that would have such an influence; Communist, socialist, progressive, these were very blurred lines at the time for her, but she knew for sure that her attitude marked her out pejoratively. ‘All over Southern Rhodesia were scattered people whose attitude toward race would be commonplace in a couple of decades, but now they were misfits, eccentrics, traitors, kaffir-lovers.’ The persona of Tigger Tayler – briefly Tigger Wisdom – was finally breaking down, under sustained assault by subversive political ideas and her suppressed rage and resentment. She was destroying her energy with domesticity, when she could be doing something of vital good to the world. Her situation was chaotic, messy, emotionally distraught. Frank hated her politics but didn’t want her to leave. Doris felt she hated him – because she was treating him so badly. She was desperate to be free. The holiday she had taken now turned out to be a rehearsal for something altogether more audacious, and her new political friends encouraged her. Those years behind the false self had left her feeling she was a stranger to herself and she could not bear it. Nor could she tolerate the ‘terrible provincialism and narrowness of the life.’ She knew that if she left she would be doing something ‘unforgiveable’.

She left anyway.

***

Doris Wisdom abandoned one family in 1942. In 1943 she married again, this time a man whom she didn’t much like even when she married him. Gottfried Lessing was a committed Communist, a hard-working lawyer, a German intellectual and, in Doris’s eyes, a cold, humourless soul. But they had met through the Rhodesian Communist group and he was at least a match for her politically. ‘It was my revolutionary duty to marry him,’ Doris wrote. Gottfried felt it would increase his chances of obtaining British nationality, for both he and Doris now longed to escape South Africa for England, and he believed that marriage would protect him from the threat of the internment camp, where his political interests could still land him. But what was really going on? Why would Doris, even out of a misplaced sense of duty, rush back into marriage with such impetuous self-abandon? She would claim it was because the marriage was a sham, just a matter of convenience, but it seemed as if she needed the impetuosity and the thoughtlessness to whitewash a deeper, more shameful need.

She was struggling hard to find out who she was. After leaving her husband and children she fell ill for a long time because, she believed, ‘I was full of division.’ The Communist group that she had placed so much faith in was not providing her with the certainties she hoped it would, for it had swiftly ‘dwindle[d] into debate and speculation. We were too diverse, there was too much potential for schism.’ Doris’s family were ever more horrified by her political engagements and her messy personal life. And her sex life with Gottfried was a disaster. But one positive change had been effected: she had finally started to write with commitment – the first draft of a serious novel about the deep inequalities that wracked her country and had spoiled her early life. Division might have been destroying her, but it would be translated with power and beauty into her writing.

Then, as if in sabotage of this step in the right direction, around Christmas 1945 Doris fell pregnant again. She and Gottfried had to be married for a while, so they might as well ‘fit in’ a child, they told their friends, ‘we’ve got nothing better to do.’ Her parents were horrified. ‘My father said: “Why leave two babies and then have another?” My mother was fiercely, miserably accusing.’ Lessing’s own explanation was casual and bizarre. ‘I believe it was Mother Nature making up for the millions of the dead… Besides, I wanted another baby. I yearned for one.’ Doris was at the mercy of her own poorly understood compulsions, and more so than ever as she tried to find her authentic self. But maybe her instincts, or the experience of thinking and writing seriously about the inequalities of power, were covertly working on her side, for when baby Peter was born, something seemed to click into place. Now having a baby was ‘easy going and pleasant.’ ‘I was in love with this baby,’ she wrote in her memoir, in a way that seems a thoughtless judgement on her abandoned children. One thing seemed to make a huge difference: she had discovered Dr Spock and the idea of feeding on demand. Her mother’s insistence on the timed feeds of Truby King had felt wrong and punitive to her when nursing her first two babies. Now she fed this one on demand, to her mother’s outrage, to her own exquisite relief. Now feeding was a dialogue with her child, not an act of oppression.

Finally at the end of 1948 the official papers arrived, permitting Doris and Gottfried to leave South Africa for England and the decision was made that Doris would sail to London ahead with Peter. In her suitcase she carried the manuscript of the novel that she had worked on in fragmented and frustrated fashion, between the demands of her baby, her mother, and her wide circle of political acquaintances. She hoped it would make her name.

What she did not know, in her elated escape to London, was that she was heading for a decade of single motherhood. Of all her situations, this one might seem on paper the worst of them all, scraping a living by writing whilst bringing up a son alone. But later she would claim this child had saved her. Although she finally sent Peter to boarding school aged twelve, those interim years saw her stuck to her writing from sheer necessity. She could not go out and party and find new lovers and make more disastrous marriages. She was obliged to commit to work, despite fatigue and loneliness. It is not certain whether Peter had the kind of mother that textbooks idealise, but it was these years of hard apprenticeship that transformed Doris Lessing from a natural talent to a phenomenally successful writer.

***

When she arrived in London, Doris Lessing sold the manuscript of her first novel quickly and easily to the publishing house Michael Joseph. The Grass Is Singing was the novel that had been written as she searched long and hard for her sense of a true self, that came out of the mire of hatred and resentment at the injustices she had suffered as a powerless child, and which she saw mirrored in the cruel country around her, where native ‘children’ were oppressed by a harsh and loveless white authority. In that shared suffering she had found her story—though the great audacity of her novel was to speak of racial prejudice in the voice of the white oppressor, to make the ugliness and the injustice of the colour bar stand out starkly.

The Grass is Singing collageCover and author photo from first British edition of  The Grass is Singing, via dorislessing.org

She had been warned over and over as a child against the dangers of black men and one true story had stuck in her mind: in Lomagundi, a white woman had been brutally murdered by her black servant. That memory provided the opening of her story: a (fictional) notice in a newspaper of the death of Mary Turner, a white farmer’s wife at the hand of her manservant, Moses. The opening chapter takes place in the shocked aftermath of the discovery of Mary’s slaughtered body by Tony Marsden, a recent arrival at the farm who is learning the ropes of colonial stewardship. Tony is dumbfounded by the attitude of the other men on the scene: the police sergeant and Charlie Slatter, the nearest neighbour and a farmer of the rich, efficient and brutal kind. The two men have more contempt for the victim than for the killer, for after all, a black man will always kill if suitably provoked. Tony wants to tell them the truth of the situation as he sees it: that Moses and Mary Turner had a strangely close and complicit relationship. But he comes to realise ‘in the silences between the words’ that he must never give voice to his testimony, because it opens up possibilities that cannot be held in the colonial mind. He understands his own social survival is at stake: ‘He would have to adapt himself, and if he did not conform, would be rejected: the issue was clear to him, he had heard the phrase “getting used to our ideas” too often to have any illusions on the point.’ And so it is understood that Mary nagged her servant and he killed her for it. The rest of the novel returns to the beginning of Mary’s story to reveal the unspeakable, complex truth.

Mary is an indigenous white whose parents belonged to the lowest echelons, her father a harmless, useless drunk and her mother a bitter woman who treats her husband with ‘cold indifference’ when alone and ‘scornful ridicule’ in the presence of her friends. Mary is pulled into her mother’s orbit as her unwilling confidante and escapes home at 16, as Doris did, to an office job in town. Here she lives mindlessly and contentedly in a sort of arrested development, feeling only relief when her parents die, until one day in her 30s when she overhears the unkind gossip of her friends at a party. They poke fun at her girlish clothes and make snide remarks about her unmarried status, and she is distraught: ‘Mary’s idea of herself was destroyed and she was not fitted to recreate herself…She felt as she had never done before; she was hollow inside, empty, and into this emptiness would sweep from nowhere a vast panic’. It is enough to propel her into the arms of the first available man. He happens to be Dick Turner, a cautious, uneasy man who dislikes the town and only feels comfortable on his beloved veld. For years he has been farming in a small, unprofitable way, loving his land and managing nothing more than meagre self-sufficiency. It has recently occurred to him that a woman about the place might be nice; someone to comfort and support him, and to boost his wavering morale.

What follows is the slow, painful and inexorable failure of their marriage. Mary is left to fend for herself in a tin-roofed shack, prostrated by the heat and half-dead from boredom. Dick, meanwhile, fritters their money away on overly optimistic schemes – pigs, turkeys, rabbits, all of which fail gently. Dick longs for love but is too isolated in himself, too caught up in his own foolish schemes and ventures to give Mary what she needs to be happy. Mary can’t assert herself against his implacable small-mindedness, her energy ebbing away as she realises she is stuck in a situation designed to drive her crazy. It is all too like her hated childhood, and their relationship starts to mirror that of her parents. For Mary is capable and intelligent; if she believed there were any happiness to be had she would work hard for it. Instead her feelings for Dick drift towards fury and contempt, which she then has to work hard to subdue because it is unbearable to admit they are wrong for each other and lack the ability to change.

Mary’s emotions are vented on the succession of black servants in her household without her even fully realising it. She is enraged by their neutral submissiveness, which she reads as shifty dishonesty, finding in the lack of relation between them an uncomfortable analogy to her marriage with Dick. The servant is ‘only a black body ready to do her bidding’ which angers her even more. When Dick falls ill with malaria she is obliged to oversee the men on the farm and the experience turns her into a vicious bully – her fear and insecurity, her frustration and claustrophobia channelled into an acceptable outlet. When one man insists on fetching himself a drink she brings her whip down on his face rather than bear his disobedience, and several months later she is horrified when Dick brings the same man to the house as their new servant.

Mary and Moses now begin a psychological dance to the death around each other. The scar of the wound she inflicted reminds Mary inexorably of her mistreatment of Moses, a crime she cannot admit to herself for then she would have to unpick a whole series of feelings that lead to even more unbearable truths. And so her anger and her violence turn inwards instead and she becomes terrified of him. Moses is aware of this and his blank, neutral servitude becomes tinged with other emotions – curiosity, contempt, his own unresolved anger. As their situation intensifies Mary’s ‘feeling was one of a strong and irrational fear, a deep uneasiness and even – though this she did not know, would have died rather than acknowledge – of some dark attraction.’ Mary gives up the fight in her own mind and the narrative shifts to a different perspective. Now we catch glimpses of her allowing Moses to help her into bed for her rest, and buttoning her dress when she gets up again. Whatever their relationship, it is untenable. Unable to tolerate the situation any longer, Mary sends Moses away, knowing he will return to kill her.

Doris Lessing had taken all the ugly, entrapped, rageful relationships she had experienced – her mother and her father, her mother and herself, old Mrs Mitchell and her son, herself and Frank Wisdom, every relationship she had ever witnessed between a white man and his black slave and had distilled the awful essence from them. What she wrote in The Grass Is Singing was that any relationship based on domination and submission was doomed to disaster for all parties concerned; the dominant had to rule so absolutely, the submissives had to be so crushed, that no full humanity was available to either of them. Instead they were locked in airtight roles, waging a futile war to maintain a status quo that damaged and reduced them both. On one side would be fear and contempt, on the other resentment and bitter self-righteousness. Compassion and sympathy – love itself – had no room to breathe, no space to nurture joy and pleasure. The complex reality of the individual was lost, and in the absence of that true self, perversity set in. She had witnessed it and she had lived it, over and again. She had come to understand that thwarted people lived stubbornly in self-division, pleading with others for the things they didn’t want, setting their faces obdurately against the things they did. Her unholy triangle of Mary and Dick Turner and their houseboy, Moses, provided a graphic, psychologically brilliant diagram for how the catastrophe took place.

Doris Lessing would go on to write more detailed autobiographical novels about her upbringing and early marriages in Africa, but this was the one she wrote as she waited impatiently to leave behind everything that was hopelessly wrong about her life. It was the one she wrote as she struggled to put her false self behind her and find a way of being that corresponded more accurately to her genuine desires. For the rest of her life she could be shockingly lacking in self-awareness when it suited her; it was a strategy that she never abandoned for its usefulness was too great. But when she wrote this first novel she was trying most sincerely to be as truthful as she knew how. She had done ‘unforgivable’ things in order to win herself that freedom. And in the shift from one family to another, in that new relationship she forged with her third child, she did seem to break free from the tyranny of motherhood that had haunted her for so long. Right back at its origins, the imbalance of power began at the mother’s breast, and the consequences could be seen in the colonised nations. She believed she could mother differently to her own mother, and in doing so she would break a vital chain – the figurative chain that kept all slaves in their place.

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Under My Skin Walking in the Shade collagex

Notes on Sources

All the biographical material in this essay is drawn from Lessing’s two magnificent volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). The story I have picked out here represents a tiny fraction of the wealth of incident and insight that the books contain, for they are, as one might expect from her, wonderfully wide-ranging, brutally honest and suggestively rich. I warmly recommend them.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

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Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books. http://shinynewbooks.co.uk

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Aug 112017
 

Huck Finn and Jim on the Mississippi drawing

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For Doug Glover

When Doug wrote to me this morning, to announce that he had “decided to cease publication” of Numéro Cinq, and “find a new life,” he added two points. The first was funny, if self-effacingly untrue: “Maybe I’ll try to become a writer.” As we all know, that attempt has long since been an actual and impressive achievement. The second remark was both truthful and encouraging: “I’m not gloomy or regretful.” Considering what he has accomplished over the past half-dozen years—making available a trove of fiction, poetry, art, and critical commentary, and bringing together a community of writers and artists in this warm place on the web—neither Doug nor the rest of us have reason to be gloomy or regretful. Quite the opposite.

I believe that the cliché that “All good things must come to an end,” has its origin in Chaucer’s great 14th-century narrative poem, Troilus and Criseyde. As it happens, that five-book masterpiece is Chaucer’s only complete long poem, and, for all its tragic love-story, it does not end with either its author or the poem’s hero “gloomy or regretful.” In the finale, at last aware of everything, Troilus ascends to the eighth of the heavenly spheres, from which celestial vantage point he looks down upon the world and “laughs” at all that “cannot last.” But Troilus’s laughter is not merely disdainful; from his observation point in eternity, he sees all in amused perspective, and knows that in his mortal ending there is a new beginning.

Numéro Cinq will survive in its own, secular, version of eternity. As Doug said at the end of his announcement, “All the pieces we’ve published will stay up on the internet.” No new issues will be added, but “the site won’t disappear.” The magazine’s temporal ending coincides with a never-ending beginning, its internet afterlife. By way of valediction, I would like to dedicate to Doug, in admiration, affection, and gratitude, this new essay on beginnings and endings. In truncated form, it was presented, on August 4, as a talk at the eighth Mark Twain Quadrennial Conference in Elmira, where Huckleberry Finn was completed in 1885, precisely five centuries after Chaucer published Troilus and Criseyde.

Pat Keane  July 12, 2017

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***

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The beginnings and endings of all human endeavors are untidy…the writing of a novel…and, eminently, the finish of a voyage.

John Galsworthy, Over the River (1933), 9th & final novel in The Forsyte Saga

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1.

In The Pound Era, Hugh Kenner introduces T. S. Eliot in what may seem an odd way: “Elegant, shy from great sensitivities and great gifts, the youngest of eight children, he came, by way of several Academies, from a birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.” As Kenner goes on to note, Eliot’s was “a family of some local prominence, connected, moreover, with the Massachusetts Eliots.” Of course his family also had deep and distinguished roots in England, in East Coker, in Somerset, and, when young Eliot left Boston and Harvard for the continent and then London in 1914, he rapidly became, in manner, dress, and speech, more English than English, certainly more English than American. Just as Sam Clemons of Missouri had reinvented himself as “Mark Twain,” the world-traveler decked out in that iconic white suit, so Tom Eliot of Missouri, the American who, along with Henry James, most thoroughly reinvented himself as an Englishman, became “T. S. Eliot,” an Anglophile who, in 1928, pronounced himself “classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion”; affected a disdainful English accent that caused an annoyed Robert Frost, in that same year, to dismiss him as a “mealy-mouthed snob”;  and took to wearing a white rose on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, in memory of Richard III, whom Eliot, Shakespeare notwithstanding, considered the last true English king.[1]

T. S. Eliot in 1923 via Wikimedia CommonsT. S. Eliot in 1923

Equally worth noting, however, once he was established as a major literary figure with a comfortable income, Eliot made trips back to the United States. After a visit in the late autumn of 1950, these trips were to become part of his routine, “a regular event” in the final decade and a half of his life. There was, as Peter Ackroyd observes in his biography of Eliot, “a sense in which he was returning home.”[2] Eliot was returning in 1950, not to his own St. Louis and Twain’s Missouri but to Boston, where he visited, along with relatives, old friends Emily Hale (who had preceded Eliot’s first wife, Vivien, as a romantic interest and hoped to succeed her) and Djuna Barnes (whose lesbian novel Nightwood Eliot had admired and shepherded, delicately edited, through Faber & Faber in 1936). Novelist and translator Willa Muir, who also saw him at this time, reported: “Tom Eliot is much more human here than in England. He was less cautious, smiling more easily, spontaneous in repartee, enjoying the teasing he was getting from Djuna,” in whose “company he seemed to have shed some English drilling and become more American.”[3]

Eliot may have “become more American,” in part, because he had just written an Introduction to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[4] Perhaps like “most of us,” Eliot suggests early in that Introduction, Mark Twain “never became in all respects mature. We might even say that the adult side of him was boyish, and that only the boy in him, that was Huck Finn, was adult” (322). In the transformed Eliot Willa Muir described in 1950, we may have not only a man loosened up by the liberated Barnes, but, as Ackroyd suggests, filled with memories of his own  childhood, “still to be wished for although lost and gone forever” (301-2).

Willa Muir’s observation of the American humanizing of Anglican and priggish Eliot in 1950, her refreshing account of his spontaneity and boyish enjoyment, may indeed remind us of the Huck he had recently been writing about. That relaxed pleasure might also remind us, if we have been rummaging among his unpublished papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library, that Eliot confided to Ezra Pound in 1961 that there had been only two happy periods in his life. The last was during his second marriage, to Valerie. The first, he said, was “during his childhood”: a lost boyhood that may have been glimpsed, in part through the prism of Huck, by the adult and successful Thomas Stearns Eliot (in 1950 almost as world-famous as Mark Twain himself had been), returning to America to lecture and see his sisters.

Young T.S. EliotYoung Tom Eliot

Huck’s impact would have been all the more powerful since, as Eliot tells us in the second paragraph of his Introduction, the novel, deemed “unsuitable” by his strict parents, was kept from him as a boy. Thus it was “only a few years” prior to writing the Introduction that “I read for the first time, and in that order, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn” (321). Eliot perceptively saw Mark Twain as a “composite” of Tom, applause-seeking, and Huck, “indifferent” to fame and conventional success; and he may have had in mind his own situation as a famous public figure in describing Mark Twain as a man who sought success, approval, and reputation, yet simultaneously “resented their violation of his integrity” (322).

But there are two interrelated problems with this 1950 connection between Huck and Eliot’s inner boy. The first is that the one phrase Ackroyd quotes from Eliot’s Introduction (the impossibility of either Huck or the river having “a beginning or end”) may remind us of Eliot’s defense of the much-disputed ending of the novel. Eliot insists that “all great works of art,” among which he numbers Huckleberry Finn, “mean much more than the author could have been aware of meaning….So what seems to be the rightness, of reverting at the end of the book to the mood of Tom Sawyer, was perhaps unconscious art” (326-27).

One can agree with Eliot that for Huck “neither a tragic nor a happy ending would be suitable” (327), and that no “book ever written ends more certainly with the right words: ‘But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.” But one resists his repeated insistence on the “rightness” of the novel’s reversion, in the so-called “evasion” chapters, to the mood of Tom Sawyer.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn cover image

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2.

Eliot’s final formulation—“it is right that the mood at the end of the book should bring us back to that of the beginning” (326)—seems more appropriate to Eliot, as poet and as man, or to Mark Twain himself, who famously came into the world, and left it, with Halley’s Comet lighting up the sky, than to the conclusion of Twain’s novel. Eliot’s Four Quartets enacts that rondure; and his own ashes rest in the Parish Church of St. Michael’s, East Coker, in Somerset, the place of origin from which, centuries earlier, his ancestors had emigrated to America. Eliot had his memorial tablet circumscribed by the opening and closing lines from “East Coker” (1940), the second of Four Quartets: “In my beginning is my end….in my end is my beginning.” But to apply, as Eliot does, a similar circuitous journey to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is to rationalize the flaw in Mark Twain’s masterpiece and to endorse, in Huck’s case, a regression that betrays the boy’s instinctive and gradually more articulate commitment to freedom. For most readers, freedom is the principal theme of the book, even if it takes the limited form of “sliding down the river” on the raft, “free and easy”—Huck’s and Jim’s joyous freedom in harmony with nature, in contrast to corrupt civilization: the societal violence, malice, and vulgarity exhibited in the towns along the shore.

Mark Twain 1882Mark Twain in 1882, two years before publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The second, and intimately related, problem is that Eliot, who here privileges rondure above almost all else, seems less interested in “freedom”—embodied in, and symbolized by, Huck and, of course, Jim’s ultimate goal (Eliot does mention, as an illustration of the voyage-controlling power of the River, that “it will not let them land at Cairo, where Jim could have reached freedom” [325])—than in literary form, the supposed coming-full-circle structure of the novel. Though, as a non-specialist, I am unfamiliar with details, I am generally aware that—beginning with James M. Cox as early as 1966, followed by two close readings in 1991, by Victor A. Doyno and Richard Hill—there have been many sophisticated post-Eliot defenses of the sustained ending of Huckleberry Finn.[5] “But”—to quote Huck himself rejecting (at the end of Chapter 3) the early fooleries of Tom Sawyer (as I wish he had rejected his later Gothic grotesqueries at Jim’s expense at the Phelps Farm)—“as for me I think different.”

I’m hardly alone. As early as 1932, in Mark Twain’s America, Bernard DeVoto, the scholar-critic whose professionalism made accessible Twain’s scattered papers, said of the ending of Huckleberry Finn: “In the whole reach of the English novel there is no more abrupt or more chilling descent.”[6] The landmark attack on the ending came in 1953, in the wake of the publication of both Eliot’s and Lionel Trilling’s introductions to popular editions of Huckleberry Finn. In an eloquent and immensely influential essay, Leo Marx took issue with both these major critics and men of letters, arguing persuasively that, while “both critics see the problem as one of form,” it is the content, “the discordant farcical tone and the disintegration of the major characters,” that “makes so many readers uneasy because they rightly sense that it jeopardizes the significance of the entire novel.”

This is no minor matter since, as Marx forces us to remember, the ending “comprises almost one-fifth of the text.” For Marx (as for much of the book’s audience, if not for its author, whose experience of slavery made him more realistic about racial matters), the novel has “little or no formal unity independent of the joint purpose of Huck and Jim.” Those yearning for a more affirmative conclusion to Huck’s and Jim’s “joint purpose” are bound to find the ending—in which Huck is again subservient to Tom Sawyer and Jim is reduced, as a result of Tom’s antics, to a caricature of a slave—particularly egregious. The formalist stress of both Trilling and Eliot, in particular their defense of the ending, comes at a considerable human and ultimately aesthetic cost.[7] We register the pressure of historical realism, but, for Marx and many others, myself included, the movement of the novel, however episodic, into a serious moral world is betrayed by the return at the end to buffoonery and cruel slapstick at Jim’s uncomplaining expense.

Eliot should have known better. In his Introduction, singling out as the best illustration of the relationship between Huck and Jim, he chose the conclusion of the chapter (15) in which, after the two have become separated in the fog, Huck in the canoe and Jim on the raft, Huck, “in his impulse of boyish mischief,” persuades Jim for a time that he had dreamt the whole episode. Heartbroken at the “loss” of Huck, and weeping “thankful” tears to see him back again, Jim realizes what has actually happened, the trick Huck has played: “En all you wuz thinkin‘ ’bout wuz how you could make a fool uv ole Jim wid a lie. Dat truck dah is trash; and trash is what people is dat puts dirt on de head er de fren’s en makes ’em ashamed.” It was “fifteen minutes,” Huck tells us, “before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger—but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards neither.”

Jim asleep on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Aware that the passage had been often quoted, Eliot quotes it again, not only because of the obvious “pathos and dignity of Jim,” which is “moving enough,” but because of something often “overlooked” and even more profound: the “pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man” (324). Given that insight, it is all the more painful that Eliot should so glibly accept Huck’s resubmission to Tom Sawyer’s leadership and to the protracted “practical joke” at Jim’s expense in the final chapters, even celebrating those chapters’ “rightness”—all under the aegis of rondure: a reversion at the end to the novel’s beginning, even to the “mood” of Tom Sawyer rather than of Huck’s own book.

 To embrace as “right,” even “inevitable,” the “Evasion” chapters violates the integrity of Huck’s own maturing character, from his instinctive alliance with Jim (“They’re after us”) to his momentous, “awful,” decision, in Chapter 31, to defy the law and contemporary “morality” rather than betray Jim. Having just written a note to Miss Watson, revealing Jim’s capture, Huck, as we all remember, holds the letter in his hand: “I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

 Whether or not he recalled that Huck had earlier chosen to go to the “bad” rather than the “good” place, providing Tom Sawyer was there, Eliot says not a word about this crucial decision. That seems remarkable since, as epitomized by his reading of the fog episode, Eliot is attuned to the “kinship of mind and the sympathy between the boy outcast and the negro fugitive from the injustice of society.” He even remarks, finely, that Huck would be “incomplete without Jim, who is almost as notable a creation as Huck himself,” and that “they are equal in dignity” (323-24). Earlier, in the context of praising Twain’s pivotal decision to write “in the person of Huck,” Eliot adds that “the style of the book, which is the style of Huck, is what makes it a far more convincing indictment of slavery than the sensationalistic propaganda of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (322-23). But just as he forgets that, unlike Twain’s, Stowe’s novel was written when slavery was still an issue,[8] Eliot is silent about Huck’s defiant willingness to “go to hell” rather than turn Jim in as a runaway slave. One can imagine the conservatively religious Eliot resisting that last assertion as hyperbole, sympathetic or blasphemous, even saying, in a favorite and recurrent formulation of Huck’s (repeated in Chapters 3, 15, and 34): that was one “too many for me.”

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3.

Eliot was of course impressed by Huck’s demotic but rhapsodic descriptions of the Mississippi, its majesty and movement. Eliot stresses its power and thematic unifying force: “It is the River that controls the voyage of Huck and Jim,” the River that “separates…and re-unites them….Recurrently, we are reminded of its presence and its power” (325). Eliot had personal experience of the power of the Mississippi. In evoking that power in his Introduction, Eliot refers to “the great Eads Bridge,” the river-spanning steel structure which, unlike earlier bridges, “could resist the floods” (325). Two decades earlier, Eliot had told an interviewer that, as a boy, “the big river” made a “deep impression on me; and it was a great treat to be taken down to the Eads Bridge”—at the time of its 1874 opening the largest ever built—“in flood time.”  It is a useful reminder of Hugh Kenner’s emphasis on Eliot’s “birthplace by Twain’s Mississippi in Twain’s lifetime.”

Eads Bridge between 1873-1909 courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection_1Eads Bridge, St. Louis, Missouri, between 1873-1909, courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collection

In a much later interview, referring to the “sources” of his poetry, Eliot said that, “in its emotional springs, it comes from America.”  He was referring less to American literature than to American locale, landscape, and language.[9] In 1953, Eliot noted that in Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

reveals himself to be one of those writers, of whom there are not a great many in any literature, who have discovered a new way of writing, not only for themselves but for others. I should place him in this respect, even with Dryden and Swift, as one of those rare writers who have brought their language up to date, and in so doing, “purified the dialect of the tribe.”[10]

These linguistic observations had been anticipated in the Huckleberry Finn Introduction. “Repeated readings of the book,” says Eliot, “only confirm and deepen one’s admiration of the consistency and perfect adaptation of the writing. This is a style which at the period, whether in America or in England, was an innovation, a new discovery in the English language.” Other novelists had achieved “natural speech” in relation to particular characters, “but no one else had kept it up through the whole of a book,” and flawlessly: “there is no sentence or phrase to destroy the illusion that these are Huck’s own words” (323).

Mark Twain (Clemens) family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was publishedTwain with his family around the time Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published

That last point is, Huck himself might say, a bit of a “stretcher.” Though the history is wonderfully recast in his own terms, the unschooled Huck knows more than seems plausible about British and French royalty, not to mention Hamlet’s soliloquy, as rendered by the rapscallion “Duke.” It might be added that, in terms of Eliot’s own poetry, despite his linguistic insights here, while he may have purified the dialect of the tribe, he seldom varied from his increasingly British-inflected diction; and even there he could not catch the working-class vernacular required for the pub-scene of The Waste Land without the help of his wife, Vivien, her ear attuned to “lower-class” speech. Eliot never approached the vernacular innovation of Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn. A semblance of that achievement was reserved to William Carlos Williams who, while admiring the brilliance of The Waste Land, deplored and feared its impact. In his Autobiography (1951), written three decades after he registered the shock of The Waste Land, Williams described Eliot’s poem as a “great catastrophe” that “returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were at the point of escape to…the essence of a new art form” (164). Though it  took years to come out from the shadow of the Eliotic rock, eventually Williams emerged as the pioneer who, fulfilling Whitman and perhaps Twain, achieved a distinctively American poetry employing colloquial speech, and so became, for future generations of American poets, more influential than Eliot.

To return to Twain’s masterpiece:  Eliot had asserted from the outset that in “the writing of Huckleberry Finn Mark Twain had two elements which, when treated with his sensibility and his experience, formed a great book: these two are the Boy and the River” (320). The Boy “is the spirit of the River,” and we “come to understand the River by seeing it through the eyes of the Boy” (325), whose human voice is as much a unifying element as the River. Considerations of style and speech shift attention from the river itself to the life on the raft the river makes possible for that boy and for Jim; and to the language, the dialect, Twain invents for Huck to express his love of the river. The vital center of the novel, early in Chapter 19, precedes the intrusive arrival of the “King” and the “Duke.” The days and nights, Huck tells us, “slid along so quiet and smooth and lovely….you see the mist curl up off the water and the east reddens up, and the river,” and then from across the river, “the nice breeze springs up and comes fanning you, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell, on account of the woods and the flowers,” though “sometimes” there is also the rank smell of dead fish; “and next you’ve got the full day and everything smiling in the sun, and the songbirds just going it!”

Jim and Huck on the raftIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

Two paragraphs later, our attention is turned to the night sky and to some seemingly casual but in fact rather significant cosmological/theological speculation: “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made, or only just happened—Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.” Though far more cheerful than the author of The Mysterious Stranger or Twain’s other late, dark fables, Huck seems as much a skeptic or agnostic as Mark Twain. And he is a loner. His companionship with Jim, however warm, is temporary, ultimately unsustainable. Huck is, as Eliot notes, “alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction” (322). And, as suggested by this passage, stressing chance rather than divine design, Huck—while he believes in providence, heaven and hell—has no god, riverine or celestial. He has, instead, his alert senses and native intelligence, even something of Coleridge’s “shaping spirit of imagination,” made flesh in the incomparable language given to him by Mark Twain.

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To re-focus on the second of Eliot’s two elements: If it is “Huck who gives the book style,” it is “the River” that gives it “form,” and makes it a “great book.”  Eliot contrasts Twain’s Mississippi to the Congo of Conrad, who, in Heart of Darkness, constantly reminds us of “the power and terror of Nature, and the isolation and feebleness of Man.” But unlike Conrad, who remains always “the European observer of the tropics, the white man’s eye contemplating the Congo and its black gods,” Mark Twain “is a native, and the River God is his God. It is as a native that he accepts the River God, and it is the subjection of Man that gives to Man his dignity. For without some kind of God, Man is not even very interesting”

At this point (325-26), agnostic Huck and agnostic Twain have been pushed offstage to make way for theistic T. S. Eliot, a committed Christian believer, who has, nevertheless, more than a few things to say about animistic River Gods. “The Dry Salvages” (1941) famously begins: “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/ Is a strong brown god…” This poem, the third of Four Quartets, is set on the New England Coast, but its opening movement summons up, along with “The River” section of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, Twain’s river, which becomes, as Eliot notes in his Introduction to the novel, “the Mississippi of this book only after its union with the Big Muddy—the Missouri” (327). The specifically “Southern” muddiness of the river in “The Dry Salvages” becomes uncomfortably clear in lines 117-18:  “Time the destroyer is time the preserver,/ Like the river with its cargo of dead negroes, cows and chicken coops.” “Cargo” casually evokes the commercial heritage of slavery, the antebellum world of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; and, like the more notorious “spawned” and squatting “jew” in “Gerontian” (elevated, more than forty years later, in 1963, to the uppercase), the dead “negroes,” tossed in with cows and chicken coops, are, if it is not too politically correct to note, subordinated to lowercase status.

This is hardly the place to relitigate Eliot’s anti-Semitism; but we may legitimately wonder if, despite his expressed admiration for Jim as Huck’s equal in “dignity,” the apparent indifference to Jim’s plight implicit in Eliot’s endorsement of Twain’s final chapters has something to do with vestigial racism. We were alerted to Eliot’s early attitude with the publication, in 1997, of notebook poems written when he was in his twenties, especially the scatological and racist doggeral starring “Bolo,” a sexually well-endowed Negro monarch, attended by a “set of blacks,” a “hardy” and “playful lot/ But most disgusting dirty,” and the poem featuring an imaginary interview with Booker T. Washington alternately titled “Up From Possum Stew!” or “How I Set the Niggers Free!”[11] It is unfair to saddle the mature poet and critic with ribald juvenilia never intended to be published; and, as we have seen, there is nothing offensive or racially insensitive, quite the opposite, in what Eliot has to say of Jim in the Introduction to Huckleberry Finn. But readers hostile to Eliot might wonder if it is possible that, in making the case he does for the final Jim-imprisoning chapters of Twain’s novel, Eliot was, as late as 1950, still less than passionately interested in setting Niggers free.

Huck Finn thinkingIllustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

To return, with relief, to the River: it is always capitalized by Eliot, who personifies and deifies the powerful, all-controlling Mississippi. Like Huck, “the River itself has no beginning or end. In its beginning, it is not yet the River; in its end, it is no longer the River.” Having flowed from many headwaters, it “merely disappears among its deltas.” But, since the people who “live along its shores or who commit themselves to its current” are all subject to its flow, “the River gives the book its form. But for the River, the book might be only a sequence of adventures with a happy ending” (327). In the finale, Jim is revealed as free, Pap as dead, and Huck has $6,000 to fund his next adventure, in the Indian Territory. But Eliot had earlier said that it would be “unsuitable” for Huck to have either “a tragic or a happy ending.” And in the worst reading of the latter, Eliot may have decided that the novel’s Evasion chapters, taken as a whole, not only illustrate rondural “rightness,” but constitute a “happy ending.” If so, he would seem to have adopted the attitude of Tom Sawyer, who thought keeping Jim locked up the “best fun he ever had in his life,” and hoped to delay his escape indefinitely (Chapter 36).

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Since Huck, like the River, “has no beginning and no end,” he, too, can “only disappear.” And, Eliot adds, crucially and dubiously, “his disappearance can only be accomplished by bringing forward another performer to obscure the disappearance in a cloud of whimsicalities” (327). But the more-than-whimsical torments inflicted on Jim by Tom, following the “rules” of Romantic escape-literature, include snakes, spiders, and rats, a menagerie that kept the terrified prisoner awake since “they never slept at one time, but took turn about” (Chapter 39).  In all of this, though he occasionally offers practical suggestions to counter the more absurd of his friend’s literary fantasies, Huck defers to Tom’s authority.

The only time he is seriously critical comes at the very beginning, when Tom, yet to work out what will become his ever-more-elaborate “escape” plan, agrees to help save Jim. Huck merely wants him “to keep mum and not let on,” but “Tom’s eye lit up, and he says: I’ll help you steal him!” An outlaw at peace with his own decision, Huck is shocked to discover that Tom, a mischief-maker but a “respectable” member of the law-abiding community, is more than willing to help Jim escape. “It was,” says Huck, “the most astonishing speech I ever heard—and I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!” (Chapter 33). Only when Tom belatedly reveals that Jim has already been freed in Miss Watson’s will does he regain full respectability in Huck’s eyes!

If, despite his development in the course of the novel, Huck is still of the South, so, and even more obviously, is Tom. Whatever we make of Tom’s behavior, we join Huck in admiring his friend’s fertile imagination as well as his “pluck.” The gunshot leg-wound he received during the escape, welcomed by Tom as a badge of honor, might have proved fatal if not for Jim’s help. And yet an inescapable premise of the prolonged ordeal to which Tom subjected Jim is that its victim was somehow subhuman. The real villain is not Tom, but the society that produced him. “All Europe,” Conrad tells us in Heart of Darkness, “contributed to the making of Kurtz”; so all of the American South—though unnoticed by Conrad-admirer and Missourian T. S. Eliot—contributed to the making of the racially-unenlightened if far more appealing Tom Sawyer. Nor is Huck untainted. [12]

Tom Sawyer, Jim, and Huck Tom, Jim, and Huck — Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

This recalcitrance of history is often lost in our tendency—not unlike the American love affair with the film Casablanca—to lavish affection on a book which for many, especially in the wake of Ernest Hemingway’s encomium in the mid-1930s, is the “great American novel.” Placing Huckleberry Finn in the context of longstanding American cultural debates, historicist critic Jonathan Arac registered the virtues of the novel while also pronouncing it mean-spirited. Writing in 1997, he warned against that overloading of the book with cultural value that had led to feel-good white liberal complacency regarding race. And what he called the “hypercanonization” and “idolatry” of Huckleberry Finn was a flaw-forgiving development contributed to, Arac claimed, by Eliot’s Introduction to the novel.

Four years later, Ann Ryan examined Arac’s view that the now iconic Huckleberry Finn has an undeserved reputation as a novel that somehow resolved the issue of racism. In Ryan’s concise synopsis of Arac’s argument, critics since the 1940s, “self-consciously engaged” in an interpretive process, “equated Huck with tolerance and love, Twain with Huck, and America with Twain.” Reacting to the “self-serving criticism” of the “white literary establishment,” Arac represents Huckleberry Finn, not as healing or resolving, but “as a novel with a mean spirit and Twain as an author with a hard heart.” Countering Arac, Ryan argues that “it is precisely this raw quality, in both the book and its author,” that makes Huckleberry Finn a valuable asset in contemporary discussions of race, in general and in the classroom. She argues persuasively that, while Twain “evades political entanglements,” he “intentionally represents this evasion”; and that while the novel clearly “operates on racist assumptions and privileges,” it “unflinchingly illustrates how both are expressed and defended.”

Finally, there is the matter, troubling to so many critics, of Twain’s sense of humor and penchant for practical jokes. Registering Huck’s empathy even for rascals, Ryan reminds us that, sickened by the final tar-and-feathered plight of the King and Duke, Huck concludes, “It was a dreadful thing to see. Human beings can be awful cruel sometimes” (Chapter 33). Ryan then notes the final ironic twist: that “Twain ends his novel with a grotesque practical joke at the expense of Jim, the most ‘human’ being in the narrative.”  Regarding Twain’s employment of humor as a possible “imaginative response to our racist history,” Ryan concludes: “If Twain imagines that race is a joke, he does not necessarily mean that we should not take it seriously.”[13]

We can appreciate this multilayered irony. And, whether “serious” as opposed to common readers like it or not, there are genuinely funny moments in the final chapters; Twain himself certainly enjoyed trotting out Tom’s shenanigans in his stage performances, and drew the laughter he always sought. Still, it hurts to see Huck subordinate himself to Tom, whose extravagant, ever-proliferating machinations simply go on too long (as virtually every critic, even Eliot and Lionel Trilling acknowledged), sometimes becoming as tedious as they are otiose and cruel. If Jim, reduced to a minstrel character, even emasculated, rigged out in Aunt Sally’s calico dress, doesn’t mind, we do, or should, especially since Tom withholds, even from Huck, the fact that Jim has already been legally freed.

Mark Twain may have been “cheating” at the end, as Hemingway famously charged in nevertheless celebrating the novel as “the source of all modern American literature.”[14] Or Twain may have reverted to his customary cap and bells simply because he remained confused, troubled as he had been from the beginning of his work on the book in 1876, as to how to bring the journey of Jim and Huck to a successful conclusion. Or he may just not have been able to resist a practical joke, even one as strung out and seemingly anticlimactic as Tom’s Great Escape, especially not if, as Ann Ryan suggests, it constitutes a racial joke that Twain “does not necessarily mean we should not take seriously.”

One can understand how, psychologically, back in the shore-world and under the sway of a self-confident leader like Tom Sawyer, an adolescent boy, even one as experienced and practical-minded as Huck, might regress, and the mores of Southern society reassert themselves. But, all joking aside, realism needn’t require farce, sporadically funny but finally dehumanizing. Eliot insists that the chapters detailing Tom’s protracted buffoonery at Jim’s expense (with the painful complicity of Huck, who hasn’t a malicious bone in his body) have the “rightness” of “art,” whether conscious or “unconscious.” I remain unpersuaded.

Like the issue of racism itself, the debate over the final section of Huckleberry Finn—a debate as protracted as Tom’s evolving escape plans—may be ultimately irresolvable. But those on my side of that debate can only regret that T. S. Eliot—given his immense authority circa 1950, as world-famous poet-critic and Nobel laureate—should have put his imprimatur on what seems to us an error. As Eliot had announced in 1928, re-invented, now more English than American, he was not only royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion; he was a “classicist in literature,” and so, though a modernist poet, still wedded to what he called (in the subtitle of the book in which he made that triple announcement) “style and order.” In the case of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in mounting so eloquent a rondural defense, evoking the venerable symbol of the ouroboros, Eliot in effect validated Mark Twain’s original sin against his own (or Huck’s) book—a book which is not only, as Eliot himself asserted by emphasizing the unifying power of the River, a series of picaresque adventures, but something of a bildungsroman. In defending what many readers continue to find indefensible, the formalist Eliot himself paid too high a critical price in order to have Mark Twain’s novel, to quote one of Eliot’s favorite poets, “end where it begunne.”[15]

Huck striking for the back country_1Illustration by Edward W. Kemble from first ed., via University of Virginia

—Patrick J. Keane

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

American Literature and the American Language. Washington U Studies, New Series Language and Literature, No. 22. St. Louis, 1953.

Arac, Jonathan. Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (1966); excerpt as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 305-12.

DeVoto, Bernard. Mark Twain’s America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1932.

Doyno, Victor A. Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Eliot, T. S. For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order. London: Faber & Faber, 1928.

________. Four Quartets, in T. S. Eliot: The Complete Poems and Plays. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952.

________. Inventions of the March Hare, ed. Christopher Ricks. London: Faber, 1997.

________. Introduction to Huckleberry Finn (1950), in Twain, 320-27.

_______. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden, 7 vols. to date. London: Faber & Faber, 2008-2017.

Epstein, Joseph. Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

Graff, Gerald, and James Phelan, Eds. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Controversy. Boston and New York: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Hemingway, Ernest. Green Hills of Africa. New York: Scribner, 1935.

Hill, Richard. “Overreaching: Critical Agenda and the Ending of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language (Winter 1991); cited as reprinted in Graff and Phelan, 312-34.

Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1971.

Marx, Leo. “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn.” The American Scholar 22 (1953), 423-40; cited as reprinted in Twain, 328-41.

Moody, David A., ed. The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1994.

Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work. New York: Penguin, 1977, 2nd series.

Ryan, Ann. “Black Genes and White Lies: The Romance of Race,” in Trombley and Kiskis, 167-91.

Sigg, Eric. “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, 14-30.

Trombley, Laura E. Skandera, and Michael J. Kiskis, ed. Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship. Columbia and London: U of Missouri Press, 2001.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Norton Critical Edition, ed. Sculley Bradley, Richmond Croom  Beatty, and E. Hudson Long. New York: Norton, 1962.

Williams, W. C. The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions, 1951.

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics(1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2008).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. On Eliot’s wearing of the white rose, see Joseph Epstein, “Anglophilia, American Style,” in his Narcissus Leaves the Pool, 241. For Frost’s comment, see The Letters of T. S. Eliot, 4:286, n.1. Eliot’s own famous pronouncement about his stance in literature, politics, and religion—a cause of much consternation among modernist literati—occurs in the Preface to his For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on Style and Order.
  2. Kenner, The Pound Era, 274-75. Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot: A Life, 300-01.
  3. Muir, Belonging: A Memoir (London: Hogarth Press, 1968); as quoted in Ackroyd, 301.
  4. The edition Eliot introduced was published in 1950, by The Cresset Press in London, and Chanticleer Press in New York. It is reprinted in The Norton Critical Edition of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Twain, 320-27. I quote parenthetically from this edition.
  5. In Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor, Cox insists that, since Huck’s journey has never been a “quest,” but an “escape,” a flight “from tyranny, not a flight toward freedom,” his behavior in the final chapters is in character; and that, while we “become uncomfortable when he submits to Tom’s role,” Mark Twain knew what he was doing: “The entire burlesque ending is a revenge upon the moral sentiment which, though it shielded the humor, ultimately threatened Huck’s identity” (312). Two adroit defenses of the ending appeared in 1991, the first by Victor A. Doyno, whose extensive study of the manuscripts of Huckleberry Finn informs his Writing “Huck Finn”: Mark Twain’s Creative Process. In his 10th and final chapter, “Repetition, Cycles, and Structure,” Doyno defends the novel’s unity, including the ending. In arguing that, “in a complex way the ending is aesthetically and thematically appropriate,” he questions both the social and genre-assumptions of those who want a bildungsroman rather than a series of “adventures.” In establishing a strong contrary case against those critics put off by the novel’s final chapters, he notes that, however “severely criticized” it has been, the ending “does resolve several problems,” not least the issue of Jim, who is “decriminalized” (223-27). In his informed and acerbic essay on critical “overreaching” in assaults on the ending of the novel, Richard Hill attacks Leo Marx and the critics who followed his lead. Hill, too, finds Huck in character in the final chapters. “To expect Huck to give up instantly both his ongoing personality and Tom Sawyer is to push the epiphany aspect of his decision to tear up the letter to Miss Watson into the excesses of modern social-agenda fiction.” Nor, he argues, is Jim reduced to a caricature. (320, 323-27)
  6. DeVoto, Mark Twain’s America, 92.
  7. Trilling’s Introduction to the 1948 Rinehart edition was reprinted in 1950 in his The Liberal Imagination. Marx, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn,” 329.
  8. What Jonathan Arac has called the “hypercanonization” of Huckleberry Finn  at the specific expense of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began in the 1920s and has continued—despite praise of Stowe’s novel by Edmund Wilson (Patriotic Gore, 1962), Ellen Moer (Literary Women, 1976), and Arac himself (1997). That Twain’s novel, a “work of art” written well after the Civil War, has been judged a more powerful attack on slavery than Stowe’s novel, which appeared as a book in 1852,  galvanized Arac into writing his reassessment and partial debunking of Twain’s novel. One catalyst was Eliot’s Introduction, which put the prestige of the “mid-century’s leading man of letters” and recent Nobel Prize winner on the side of Twain’s novel rather than the “propagandistic” Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the “far more convincing indictment of slavery.”  This “mythicization of history,” Arac continues, “by which Huckleberry Finn gained the prestige of abolitionism despite its having been written at a time when slavery did not exist and was defended by no one, helped provoke me to this book.” Huckleberry Finn as Idol and Target: The Functions of Criticism in Our Time, 92-93.
  9. Both interviews mentioned in these paragraphs are cited by Eric Sigg, “Eliot as a Product of America,” in Moody, ed., 24, 28. In the first, Eliot is quoted by M. W. Childs, “From a Distinguished Former St. Louisan,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (15 October 1930), 3B. For the second, see Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton, 110.
  10. American Literature and the American Language, 16-17. Stéphane Mallarmé’s imperative “to purify the dialect of the tribe” occurs frequently in Eliot, most notably in the nocturnal encounter with the “familiar compound ghost” (mostly Yeats) in Part II of “Little Gidding,” the finest section of the last and best of Four Quartets.
  11. Eliot, Inventions of the March Hare, edited with scholarly thoroughness and annotated, copiously, brilliantly, and protectively, by Christopher Ricks.
  12. We recall the opening exchange (Chapter 32) between Aunt Sally and Huck (pretending to be Tom, and to have experienced an accident on the boat): “Good gracious! Anybody hurt?” “No’m. Killed a nigger.” “Well, it’s lucky,” replies this affectionate woman; “because sometimes people do get hurt.” Though admirers of Huck would rather repress the memory, there is that two-chapter stretch between the running over the raft by a steamboat, with the apparent loss of Jim (toward the end of Chapter 16), and the moment, in Chapter 18, when he is rediscovered by Huck (less emotionally than we would expect, even though Jim weeps with joy). In the interim, Huck, engaged in onshore adventures, has had not one thought of a friend he doesn’t know is dead or alive. This is troubling, whether we attribute the thoughtlessness to a Southern-inflected flaw in Huck’s character; or to Mark Twain, guilty of episodic and careless plotting or to a short memory regarding offstage characters.
  13. Ryan, “Black Genes and White Lies: Twain and the Romance of Race,” 169, 170. For Arac, see  n.8, above.
  14. Hemingway’s hyperbolic but endlessly repeated praise/ criticism of Huckleberry Finn occurs in that half-memoir, half-fictional account of a safari, Green Hills of Africa, 22. H. L Mencken was no less effusive in his celebration of Huckleberry Finn (a book he read annually) as “Himalayan,” a masterpiece that soared in solitary splendor above all other American novels.
  15. John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” concludes with his brilliant compass-image—lines addressed to his wife, who remained at home while he was compelled to roam abroad:  “Thy firmnes makes my circle just,/ And makes me end, where I begunne.”
Aug 082017
 

The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.

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Rome is burning. Every day it catches fire somewhere. On the edges a spark blazes up in the vibrating air, in its place a blue ghost-flame quivers and burns a hole into the map. In the pine forests of Villa Ada, Castel Fusano, along the Flaminia and Casilina the fallen pine-needles rustle softly, start glowing and burn through like the finest cigarette paper. The flames pile ever higher, the angle of their crests is that of the summer’s temperature curve. Smoke brims the holes, thick and black: in the unstirring heat-wave it spreads, flat on the ground, like the riverside mist on humid winter nights, is soaked up into the house walls of Prati, Monte Mario, Monteverde, rolls its cottonwool waves relentlessly along the Orbital.

The pine-tree needle catches fire with a tiny snap, like a thread of hair, one needle is one snap, but the needles snapping in at the same time flare up with a hollow boom. In the explosion of flames the black needle glares up white and falls to ashes in an instant, but black flies from it, becoming smoke, colour-ash, which flakes down on the burnt soil, it rains down, black, in the air, on the travertino facades, on the granite cobblestones, moves into the sky, into the blue: fossilized scent, resin becomes the colour of time, black. In Ostia’s pine forest, where in August people gather cones to pick the pineseeds, tall orange-red grass is undulating around the tree-trunks. The pine-trees do not catch fire from below though, but from above, as if they needed the sun to harry the last heat through them to be filled with fieriness. They stand the firestorm the way they stand tempests: not bending but stretching taut like a veil, as if the sky pushed down on them with all its weight, their needle foliage undulating in all directions at the same time, like bird-swarms in the evening. The papers report arson. Roghi, stakes send up their smoke everywhere, places of execution; fires are general all over the country. In northern Rome, in Torrevecchia, on the street named after Cesare Lombroso, the tent camp of the Roma goes up in flames, the makeshift lodgings and covers burn with greasy smoke. Every hour the ululation of a siren breaks into the hardened noise of traffic.

In Palazzo Sacchetti, close to the river, an inward-curving hairlock, on which the photographic light had lit up with such blond reflexes, and the neck’s soft skin above the high blouse neck, where it is the whitest, flare up – the picture burns into its negative, its contours blaze white-hot, showing up the face for one more instant. Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt. Its edges curl inward like ferns, the wide stretch of the forehead resists yet, its place now fire-torn; the smile born on the teeth’s mineral white turns into a ghost flame, then smoke-black. Time sediment. White and light, consumed, Verlorne, in the flame-shelter, bearing still the shining and the pain in the descending evening light, between the wind-sheltered walls of Palazzo Sacchetti, where her name is not written. The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it.

*

On the street climbing up the Celio, under one of the drooping little trees that hem in the Ospedale Militare’s parking lot, a thin African boy sleeps on the asphalt, face upwards. He looks barely twenty. Abandon of sleep that makes the arms fall open and the head roll sideways in the syncopated noise of cars speeding upwards across the speech noises; trust that the feet stepping over will not kick him in the face. Or a tiredness beyond circumspection. He is lying on the asphalt cracked up by the inveterately trespassing cypress roots that will not accept the status quo of street maps. As if a gently rippling sea had washed him up here, quietly depositing him on an asphalt dune, for some awed grown-up to clumsily hoist him up in his arms. The sea sends its voice up here: beyond the wall, in the gardens of Villa Celimontana the wind pendulating cypress and pine, oleander and myrtle scent is the radial ripple of sea-waves in the air. On their surf the ancient marble paper ship, the Navicella had once sailed up, to be shipwrecked on the crest of this wave-shaped hill, in the vineyards overgrowing the debris. Across the street, among blackish-green foliage, the 5th-century monolithic bulk of Santo Stefano Rotondo; in its external ambulatory thirty-four scenes of martyrdom, variations on a theme: how gracefully the beturbaned centurio moving on mannerist dancer legs gathers momentum, to chop off the hand of the girl standing in counterpose. According to the script, during Hadrian’s reign Eustachius was burnt together with his Christian mates inside a bronze bull. The brown animal stands with head thrust up and feet planted wide apart, in an opening in its side several praying men huddle together, smoke is already rising under its belly. Tuning-in of a giant tuba in an orchestra; cleft-hoofed ancient death truck. A funerary monument removed from the mosaic floor stands alone beneath the splendid spoglio columns, a compact hooded effigy. Only the cut of the majuscules and the Latin diction signals that, although born in a faraway, frosty land, he belongs here: Roma est patria omnium. The deceased, Johannes Lazo, was the commissioner of the first Renaissance chapel on the edge of the known world, Transylvania: frail Italian souvenir, the filigree monument, carved with urns, fruit wreaths and sea-shell niches, of the homesickness for Rome. Entering the park of the Celimontana, on the pebble path that coats the sandals with white powder, an improvised sign bids those who have come to the birthday party of the little Francesco follow the butterflies. Pink, orange, violet, green plastic butterflies are hung on the greenery, jolly Christmas decoration in June: in the tangible half-shadow of pines, magnolias and oleanders, minute buoys signalling the haven of parents giving out generous helpings of ice cream from thermal bags. At the park’s further end space is hollowed out into a bay around a fontanella’s babble. The name on the signpost is new: Largo delle Vittime di Tutte le Migrazioni. In memory of the dead of the 2013 shipwreck at the shores of Lampedusa. A reminder that the sea-mill grinds pneumatic boats and bodies. In early July five thousand refugees are brought ashore in one single day by the rescue ships. Eight hundred land in Brindisi. One woman sings when she steps on dry land. On the boat a child is born, they baptize him Cristo. Below in the news a report of a Bangali refugee savagely beaten up by a group of teenagers because he obtained social housing.

The name of the street descending from the Lateran to the slopes of the Celio, along the walled-in complex of Ospedale San Giovanni, is Amba Aradam. It has an outlandish ring. One evening I stray there, spotting no sight-buoy that could lead me back to one of the known places. As it turns out, I have ended up behind the Celio: I climb back to the Navicella and to the parking lot where the African boy had been sleeping with his head on the asphalt. There are people sleeping here at all hours in the shallow niches of Severus’s walls on cardboard sheets, staffage figures in the Roman landscape, like the vedutists’ shepherds, signs that the place is populated. Amba Aradam, Celio: names. That of the celestial-sounding hill is the name of an Etruscan king, Caelius Vibenna, Rome’s first conqueror. That of the street at the feet of the hill is the name of a giant mountain in Ethiopia. In February 1936 General Badoglio’s troops, complete with fighter-bombers and several blackshirt and alpine divisions besieged the mountain and the mountain pass leading to the capital, Addis Ababa. In a few days the battle is won: the Ethiopian defence entrenched high on the mountain is caught in the enemy’s clench, and for four days on the remains of Mulugeta’s fleeing army the Italian aircraft drop forty tons of mustard gas. Mulugeta’s son is killed by members of the Galla tribe, allied with the Italians, his corpse mutilated; the father, who returns to recover his son’s body, is killed by an Italian bomber. Beneath the name of the mountain covered in contorted bodies suffocated in the poison gas a tunnel is dug, the third subway line will cross sedimented time in this direction from the Colosseum. During the excavations a spectacular discovery is made, a frescoed villa from the imperial age, a rare wooden structure destroyed in a fire; among the remains the skeleton of a dog comes to light, together with what is believed to have been a puppy, probably trapped in the building on fire.

*

The refugees have been cemented into the structure of this city made of images in the form of other imaginings. The Trojan refugee who was to found Rome, Aeneas, stumbles toward Rome clad in heroic nudity, in the body’s beauty, with his father astride him. Anchises, who saddles his son’s shoulder, bears aloft the statue of the house-gods with his thinning but still vigorous arm, while Aeneas’s young son holds on to his father’s knee: petrified dance movement, the allegory of the three ages of man, of the three human times. The young body spiralling inward with the energy compressed under high pressure, like a pillar, the promise of history.

Refugee human times are not always as muscular as on Bernini’s statue. On undergrowth and under foliage that are at once a Renaissance cliché and could be a grove in Villa Celimontana or Villa Ada, in the half-shade two exhausted adults and a baby receive a guest on their flight: a messenger with tempestuous drapery blown here from non-natural light, an angelos who – for what language could he indeed use with them – makes music. Embarrassingly bare-assed, on a tangible fiddle and from a score that Joseph holds for him – the one who has not given in to sleep like Mary, whose bun and hand embracing her child have come loose. Joseph holds the score and hides one bare foot with the other with the same old man’s clumsiness as his lookalike Matthew, whose lumpy hand is folded on the pen by the patient teen angel boy. The only one to look both at the angel and out, at us, is the half-hidden animal: one difficult non-human eye, its expression more unreadable than the angel’s backside. We see the music: although it can be played from the score, the fiddle’s voice is the fluid light itself, coming from an unlocalizable source, making everything freeze and setting everything aquiver at the same time. It doesn’t draw the contours of the body but wraps them up in aural shining. Magnetic storm, in which only the angel’s hairlock, unfolding loincloth and fluffy plumes of the lower wing stir, because he has two pairs of wings: one that looks like a chicken’s wing at most, and one leaden-heavy, folded into a strict vertical, perhaps a raven’s wing, in any case one that can by no account be supported by the malleable puberal shoulder. Teen cherub. Across the painting’s plane, the donkey’s dark shoulder echoes it. Mary, the chosen one does not see, does not hear the angel, but her red robe’s hem dropping to the ground starts glowing, as if shot through with radioactive rays, and is lifted from the ground in the same way in which the leaves curl back, their edge turned phosphorescent. Useless, gratuitous, almost inappropriate gift: it doesn’t feed or quench the thirst, it doesn’t even soothe the poor blistered feet, doesn’t offer directions or background info; no help or compassion, only an instant out of joint in the time of those whose lives have come out of joint. To receive it, to connect to it is only possible in the way in which the unpracticed hand does as it holds up the score, or the quietly radiating stone between the angel’s and Joseph’s feet, on which it is not the angel but Joseph who casts light. Perhaps in fact it is all about an angel descending to practice his instrument and do field research who, finding himself a live stand for the score, with his newfangled knowledge composes a mellifluous ciaccona on what it is like to give birth in a manger.

Self-abandon, the body’s surrender starts on the edges: the ankles and knees give way, the hands hang dumb and senseless, the neck is broken into an impossible angle by the dropping head. One of the most bewildering statues to be copied in Rome captures the stages of the body’s resistance and self-surrender: the Gaul killing himself and his wife erects a memorial to the vanquished that puts all triumphal symbols between inverted commas. In the pyramid-shaped composition everything is in movement, before the collapse everything fills up with life like a wound filling up instantly with blood: the warrior’s stretched thigh, stepping forward, the acute angle inscribed by the underarm that thrusts the blade into the neck, with the outward-turning head and the blade, and the other acute angle to echo it, that of the Gaul’s left hand holding up the collapsing woman’s left to keep her from falling to the ground. The direction of the step forward is also the direction of falling; the line of the supporting right leg, about to kick itself away from the ground, is repeated with stormy flutter by the cloak which, for one sole moment evicted from the passage of time and even from itself, resists gravity. In the spot-light streaming down from the museum ceiling the marble sends out into the room the taut skin’s mortal beauty: do not go gentle. The upward-spiralling movement is escape artistry. It starts from the helplessly toppling two feet of the stabbed woman, who is now only supported by the still living arm.

The childlike, soft soles turn outward, giving up balancing, they tumble the way the hem of the dress falls: living flesh and lifeless matter fold onto one another, unresisting, the clothes still preserve the warmth of the breathing-out body, but they fall upon one another with the great, meaningless co-belonging of organic matter that starts decomposing that very instant, while above them life rages in an acute angle against the dying of the light.

To look up at it are the fallen barbarian horses on the lowest layer of the giant sarcophagus placed to one side, trampled by four layers of victors and vanquished. The figures of the uppermost layer are too busy slaying the last enemy in trousers, lifting the eagle banner, or blowing with puffed-up face into the trumpet that winds round their head like a halo. In the museum rooms quietly sizzling light splashes against the plinths and pedestals and, breaking on them, splatters shiny drops up the marble feet.

In the afternoon the sky moves closer and pours down its liquid light down the bodies, the walls, covers the skin and the windows’ volute consoles in shining. With its overflowing waves it washes off all the dull, leaving a wet sheen on the stones, windows, faces, the bare legs of tourists pushed onwards by the systole-diastole of Via dei Fori Imperiali. Every single gull crossing the blue, every travertino facade, cornice blotting up the light radiates into the blue that stretches like a dome and opens with a lantern: oblique light cascades upwards and downwards at the same time.

*

On the crest of the Celio the two courtyards of Santi Quattro Coronati are sluices that let the noises of the outer world trickle into the acquarium of silence inside in a thin stream only. In the shade a man and a woman stand talking. The woman must be fiftyish, slender legs on tall sandal platforms, slender neck tilted slightly toward her interlocutor. Trespassing beauty: for how long does form hold its contours together in the face of time. The cloister is soundproofed by light-striated air walls, the background noise is caught up on the small twin columns’ grid of shadows.

It was built in the early 13th century out of the Roman debris of the Celio: the toy-size plinths grow water lily capitals from the rich soil of inscribed marble slabs, frieze fragments; the fraying-edged majuscules are larger than the blunt stone leaves curling upwards on the plinth corners. Under a filigree arch, a densely engraved marble slab: the squares, x-es, triangles of ancient draughts, fossilized friendliness in a convent.

The corridor’s stones, which can be read like a library, are deep black, only their worn-off, polished edges are bone-white; every engraving, inscription seems to add yet another layer of deep black. On the sunlit side the columns modulate from sun-bleached brownish-white to deep black: the  most light-worn white trickles down in thin lines on the inner, shady side, then from the parapet down to the stone floor, white light-inundation areas on the corridor. Restoration started a few years ago: the nearly thousand-year-old dirt, pollution is cleared away, erased from the stones with laser, with dentist’s instruments. The restored patches are almost ostentatiously white – small-scale transfiguration. Black: the colour of time, its material: dirt, stain, pollution, smog. The miniaturist’s painstaking back-erasure leaves sharp black-and-white contrasts. In only a few years the difference between the two ends of the cleared cloister corridor becomes visible: time starts silting immediately.

Into the stones faces are inscribed, face-stones. The statues of the historical collection of Palazzo Altemps did not only dilapidate but also shot new limbs. The collectors had the unearthed marble bodies restored, that is, the famous sculptors of the day, Algardi, Bernini supplied the missing arms and legs, sometimes even placed heads from other statues on the torsos: marble prostheses, transposed ancient heads. In the collection there is a monumental bust of Antinous: of the portrait of emperor Hadrian’s lover made into a god on account of his beauty only the nape with the thick locks, the neck and the shoulders was found. The face had been consumed by erosion, smashed in by iconoclasts or lime burners perhaps, its inward-turned gaze long soaked up into walls that had themselves crumbled since, adding to the debris.

To recognize among hundreds of torsos, from the angle of the nape, the arc of the shoulders, the tilt of the faceless head, the peerless loved one: to see back the face and the gaze, the shining, the pain and the name. Face transplant bridging one and a half thousand years.

In Rome the stones are more brittle. They had been tenderized by the incessant touchings, fallings, by the procession of wheels, sandals, hooves. Their species are as known, tended and pruned as fruit trees in other lands. A pulvinum, cushion receives the weight of the architrave before passing it onto the capital, a mediator between two kinds of hardnesses: there exists an imaginary that would carve even a pillow out of stone. Working in soft matter is out of the question here.

In the Ghetto, in the courtyard of Palazzo Mattei, paved with ancient reliefs, there is a stone seat for the weary: a stone cushion carved to measure onto a small sarcophagus, complete with tassels, mattress-like dimples, seams and bumps. Stone upholsterer, a Roman craft by excellence: to upholster the brittle lid of stones, sooner or later put to practical use, with stone layers against the engraving of human bodies; to wrap into stone. The fraying and thinning of the stone-down-filled marble brocade is in fact acquired burnish.

*

On the Trastevere side of the river, the stretch of embankment between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini is populated with a spectral procession that is barely visible at first sight. Its figures are too large and too tangible to be truly visible and identifiable; the joints of the embankment wall and the weeds growing in them keep pushing themselves into the foreground.

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The images themselves seem to have been deposited here by the river, to belong together with the driftwood and plastic bottles stuck on the pillar, cemented into a compact cream by algae. Seen from the other side, however, they lose their tangible materiality, becoming merely visible. The place they ought to be looked at from, their true audience is the river itself. The pageant of triumphs and losses is headed toward Ponte Sisto, the Tiber’s triumphal arch on William Kentridge’s giant frieze, engraved into the material of Rome. The images are negatives: they are not painted on the stones, it is their background that has been carved out, the patina has been cleared away, so the drawings stand out in sharp black-on-white contrast. Their material is the stuff of time: dirt, silt, pollution, smog. The ceaseless procession performed to the river doesn’t remove itself from time: in time, the contrast will fade and eventually vanish, together with the images, as smog is deposited, thick and black. The parade of the triumphal symbols of history and of Rome is literally in decay, and of decay.

 

The silhouette of Marcus Aurelius’s equestrian statue is still complete, only the white patches of light on the shin and the horse’s rump foretell the coming erasure of edges and distinctions, but the horse and chariot arriving after him are themselves ruins: the horse appears to be a ghost animal patched together from spars and barbed wire, body posture without a body; the chariot’s wheel and gearbox stick out, lean silhouettes, as the vehicle rolls unmanned into the void.

The flesh of the Capitoline she-wolf seems to be melting downwards, two jugs placed under her dugs; a skeleton-wolf lopes along after her against an empty horizon where only a tree stump grows.

In a black square rolling on four wheels, the white-on-black shadow-puppet silhouettes of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, a vehicle or a blown-up ad on the vehicle’s side, which pulls a barrow with a gigantic statue head, perhaps Constantine’s head, the pendant of the Capitoline gigantic foot. In the easily recognizable composition of the Rape of the Sabine Women, the man brandishes an oversize machine gun.

Everywhere the images freeze on the threshold of recognition, with their transpositions, re-orchestrations and bewildering contingencies slide into foreignness, displace and evict that which we believe to be our common visual heritage, our common fatherland of images.

Agallop on his shady horse, a long-maned skeleton with drawn sword: perhaps one of the mutant horsemen of Dürer’s Apocalypse, perhaps death flogging the blood-curdling blind horse of the Palermo Trionfo della Morte – but the debris which it tramples is indistinguishable: the body of an infant blown out of proportions? a shapeless heap of corpses?

The two figures pushing a wheelbarrow are perhaps transporting a body with a bishop’s mitre, the scene is that of the translation of relics, the de rigueur element of a saint’s legendry, but perhaps they are depositing a plague corpse. In the procession they are followed by a group picture with execution: stooping men with hands tied behind are pushed before a man who stands with sword raised high, and will most probably cut off their heads; at their feet, an almost amorphous trunk – the transfiguration, disquietingly stripped of context, of what scene of martyrdom, by what painter? Who are the ones to be executed, where, when does the slaughter happen? Rome’s archive of images is here the collection not of knowledge but of the imprints of unsettling gaps and lacunae, of non-knowing: everything looks vaguely familiar, but is dislocated to the point of unrecognizability. A Goyaesque figure with a goat’s (or wolf’s?) head and hooves bows down to a piously kneeling, headscarved heap of clothes, giving a gift or offering communion, an oversize espresso coffee pot in his hands. On a forward-pushing horse with head thrust up and one foreleg lifted into an improbable height, a faceless figure in frenzied, cambered Napoleon posture; the horse pulls a Fiat Cinquecento weighed down by a pile of bodies, which distantly evokes the pyramidal composition of the Florence Pietà. On top of the pile, Bernini’s Saint Theresa collapsing in ecstasy, beneath her the murdered Aldo Moro. The horse’s lifted and supporting forelegs are in pieces, the hooves hang in thin air, there is nothing to prop up the body, which is itself an image-ruin, the sole thing that rests of it is the blind forward thrust. Left behind, a monolithic figure in diagonal foreshortening, one of the corpses; it lies face downward, its shirt slid up to the shoulder-blades. What is the blackness smeared around the upper body: a pool of blood? the arm, twisted back? torn clothes? Four men leaning forward in Roman tunics carry indistinguishable objects on their shoulders, among them a menorah. The image is the imprint of the relief inside Titus’s arch – but only here does it become conspicuous how porous the image is, how full of gaps: the first man in the row has no legs whatsoever, he propels himself forward into the void on what appears to be a single crutch, according to the impossible physics of drawing; the others all lack a limb, part of a face. What the eye fills in readily on the arch’s worn-off relief, now suddenly appears uncannily holed, perished, fallen to pieces – we see what is, not what we know. The moment the historical context does not shroud the image into reassuring loftiness, patina, it is revealed that what we believe to know is a mere ruin, and to what extent the material of our images and stories, taken for granted, is filled in with the mortar of imagination-supplement.

About halfway in the procession in a black square it is written in brackets, QUELLO CHE NON RICORDO. But the image-less field is not blank, it is not erased, cancelled, scraped away, on the contrary: it is black deposit, unstirred time. The archive can also be empty, useless, if all silted layers are at our disposal. Here where black is the colour of saturation, of time, and white, that of emptiness, of non-time, the colour of erasures, damnatio memoriae and tabula rasa, the saturated black archive becomes the place of non-knowing. Perhaps it is no accident that in this very place someone scribbled a graffiti over the black – time takes back and inscribes these non-knowing images without delay. Below, a portion of the path is cordoned off with yellow tape where in a storm branches from the plane-trees of the Lungotevere broke and fell a few days before: the mound of debris started growing instantly, it is only a question of time when it will reach the bracketed words.

On a plank two men are crossing over water into a boat’s bow, one bends double under the weight of a chair: what are they loading in, where is it they are bound, where they can make use of a chair? The image doesn’t continue in a shore, as logic would demand, but in the prow of a boat full to the brim with people staring at some horizon: from the visual echo of the group propped up above the dying and looking up at their frantically waving mates on the Raft of the Medusa, it is impossible not to think of the cockleshells setting out every day across the Mediterranean. The boat itself is unaccountably strange, metamorphic. What seems to be drawn-in veils or an improvised awning that can hardly give any shade, looks disconcertingly like a horizontal gallows. Beneath, the water surface morphs into something that is at the same time a row of beam-thick oars (who are these men, galley-slaves?) and a makeshift raft’s cross-beams, half submerged – another echo of the Raft of the Medusa. Yet, in front of the raft of hope or hopelessness no rescue ship comes in sight on the horizon: in an empty wasteland the ghostly skeleton of the Capitoline she-wolf slogs, all that remains of her is the bones and the hanging dugs. In front of her, uncannily unlocalizable images, a group of faceless men carrying heavy bundles on their shoulders: history as ceaseless lugging, coming-and-going, eviction, removal with the dead, house gods, shapeless bags, lives. In front of a general’s prancing horse, the advance guard is a hussar-shakoed dummy saddling a vaulting-horse, the legs of his mount are gun barrels and crutches, its head a flag – unforgettable summing-up of the nauseatingly repetitive iconography of nationalisms. A big-maned silhouette dashes ahead with an oversize machine gun, like Ronan the barbarian, the foldover flaps of his combat boots flutter after him like Hermes wings. A horse skeleton drops to its knees in front of him, its clutch-legs put together from gunbarrels. Behind him, a quixotic vehicle rolls in: a bathtub in which Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg kiss as water (or gas?) pours down on them from a showerhead hanging from a pole that is fastened to the tub. The imprints of the images of culture are hauled hither and thither among the other bundled goods, becoming ever more brittle, their edges break off, their fate is that of classical or early Christian iconography: they can be deciphered only fragmentarily, painstakingly, and with gaping lacunae. Our culture as ruin. Overlooking the procession that sets out in the direction of the two bridges from the black square of non-knowing and non-remembering, under Ponte Mazzini, two meters above the driftwood island, humanity in ruins: the gaudy plastic tents and shapeless piled-up bundles of refugees and of the homeless.

*

Pizza bianca, focaccia al rosmarino. Salt, rosemary and oil: taste of friendliness. L., stranger, unknown friend. Flashing blue eyes, flashing white teeth. She talks about the flavor of the soil in pizza dough and in vegetables. At the shaky small table our plates touch, we taste one another’s food. It is only steamed leaves – my favourites, bietola, cicoria – she refuses, for their substance, she says. On the first evening, a group of cheerful half-strangers, we walk up the Palatine hill after closing hour, when the gulls and songbirds take it back from the crowds. All through she talks about the poetic justice in the fact that the erstwhile triumphal arches, the columns of the forums are taken apart, the emblems of one-time victory become lintels, construction stones, the symbols of power do not survive the demise of power but as objects of daily use, shedding their former meanings. The triumphal arch is turned into a gate in the shrunken walls of the shrunken city, lime-burning stoves spring up inside what used to be a theatre, weavers spread their starched linen, goat herds graze beneath the columns of Fortuna Virilis, on the ruins a little, scarce life sprouts. She speaks in Italian, fast and with gusto, mixing in some Spanish turns-of-phrase every now and then: mongrel Romance, she says. We toast to mongrelizing. Every day early in the morning she walks up the Aventino hill to the Giardino degli Aranci, when there are no people there yet, only the birds, the trees and the sky. Thirty-five kilos of animation. She is first and foremost interested in the way the language of science frames the body. Before becoming a freelance she was an engineer and designed attack helicopters for the US army. It is from there she took to the world, lived on orange and oil farms, started speaking in other languages. At one of the lectures, about the biopolitics of the early 20th century, there is a lengthy quote from a letter reporting with wry humour the death of one of the imprisoned participants of the Easter Rising. To demand prisoner-of-war status, he goes on hunger strike, the authorities try force-feeding on him, but in the course of the operation the bougie is jammed into the larynx instead of the aesophagus. It couldn’t have escaped her that they share a surname. At dinner she relates how she got ill with a sombre autoimmune disease, and was hospitalized for a long time; she was declared an anorexic, so she was excluded not only from the numbers of the healthy but also from those of the anorexic, who sensed she wasn’t one of them. One morning she faints on the Gianicolo hill – having walked up all the way in the merciless sun, crossing half of Rome; the physician who consults her is of the opinion that she is critically undernourished and prescribes infusion, but she rejects the idea of hospitalization. It’s only the level of her blood sugar that tends to drop, she says. She is walking away on the immense, treeless square, Giacometti woman, fluff-haired bare life, her thigh the width of a child’s wrist, sore skin and bones in the moving boots, away into the glaring light. The university doesn’t take responsibility for the costs of eventual treatment, the doctor’s diagnosis is anorexia, so they would send her home halfway through the program, with the recommendation to heal; she turns down the offer of a flight the next day and will not accept the diagnosis, prefers to travel on southward, seaward; in a farewell message she invites me to a good meal somewhere, sometime.

*

On the right side of Termini the Via Giolitti’s row of palaces is a breakwater, against which the relentless waves of tourists smash, to be drained into the Piazza della Repubblica, or along Via Gioberti and Corso Cavour into the communicating pools of Santa Maria Maggiore and the Forum. Only the spumes are splashed into the parallel streets; they, too, mostly seek out the cheap little souvenir shops and street vendors, and the kebab and pizza-a-taglio shops pouring out their burnt oil smell day and night. Tourists grown into strange centaur forms with their backpacks count their coins in the sqeezed-in little places where with sparing movements, Filipinos eat their supper at the end of a day’s cleaning, or Africans who spend most of the day in the blade-wide shade on the deserted end of Via Giolitti, between the De Chirico tower with its winding stairs and the shell of the Tempio di Minerva, hoping for some daywork. In the district mornings start very early: the mercatini move out on the streets, the always too narrow pavements brim over not with passers-by but with hurriers-to and luggers. The intonation of Filipino and Romanian blends readily into that of Italian, while the various Chinese, Indian and African languages stand out distinctly with their vowels hollowed out by different configurations of the throat, tongue and palate. On the instantly heated asphalt, amidst the general busy-ness there are a few islands of slowness, unwashed-looking shopwindows, unopened-looking doors. On a corner, the once modern art deco masks of Cinema Moderno watch over a few parking motorini and the rear entrance to a deposit. Above an exchange office, an antiquated font from the ’60s proclaims in a husky voice, CAMBIO; in its shop window rows of commemorative medals and 19th century coins, a whole numismatic collection – as if sullenly drawing aside, outside of time; the day’s exchange rate is posted almost apologetically sideways. With calligraphic letters, as though in the hand of some award-winning primary-school pupil, a painted sign above a shop window in which dust gathers on military orders and decorations: Ma Mi – La Sartoria del Militare. Ma mi: Giorgio Strehler’s song about the hardened thug of the Milan malavita who, past his years in the resistance and facing a long term in prison for some unspecified criminal act, when the captain offers to set him free in exchange for the names of his mates, refuses to chirp, standing the clouts in San Vittur prison quaranta dì quaranta nott, as he once had at the hands of the todesch de la Wehrmacht. Ornella Vanoni removes her earrings and with head thrown back sings out in her untamed throaty voice in the sixties, sbattuu de su sbattuu de giò, like a real duro. Up-yours spite, the tomcat stink of the ballad of the malnati growing up on the streets like feral kittens sprays the uniforms that step over the threshold; the words of the explosive hit of the antifascist generation are sewn into the military finery of retired army officers. Two outlandish words in a faraway dialect, remnants of the republic’s sun-bleached spirit, blend in with the Chinese names on shop windows.

The largest island of the archipelago of stillness is the improbably silent little park in front of the Acquario Romano, meant to be a monument to water. Under the two flights of stairs leading to the entrance, safely out of reach at the bottom of a minute fake grotto, a toy fountain sends out its tantalizing gurgle to the thirsty. There is no fontanella on the surrounding streets, only throat-parching exhaustion gas, heat that massacres the feet; in the shops mineral water bottles are everywhere placed well in sight. In the prolonged draught not only Rome but the whole province is suffocating: with the level of Lake Bracciano, where most of Rome’s water comes from, at a historical low, and environmental disaster pending, the city administration decided to switch off the water of the fontanelle, free for all in all parts of the city. A sentry box guards the entrance; a uniformed policeman watches over the few Africans who sit in loose groups on the benches of the shady side, immersed in their cellphones  or merely trying to get a few hours’ comfortable sit instead of sleep. In a corner of the park, a group of singular objects: a haphazard structure, a shaky assemblage of a few elements, and two chairs put together from a few metal sheets and circles.

 

Two examples of Yona Friedman’s communal, utopian, improvised shelters, variable at will and designed for those in need. Friedman obviously knew quite a bit about scarce, improvised dislocated life – himself a survivor of fascism in Hungary, who first moved to Israel after the war, then to Paris in 1957. His oeuvre is a collection of shelters, homes, spaces that anyone can join together according to their needs out of ‟crumpled sheets” and supports chosen at will – the polar opposite of postwar International Style subordinating life to the structures born on the drafting table; one of his insights is that a sheet, if crumpled, gains in solidity and resistance. The chairs are here as part of a Friedman show at MAXXI. There, in Zaha Hadid’s sculptural, ostentatious space, in the histrionic museum light Friedman’s mobile mock-ups sit awkwardly, like blistered feet in a posh shoe shop; the project of the street museum – bearing the motto, it is the exhibits that make a museum – is especially ironic here, where the building is the main spectacle, pushing all the exhibits into the background.

Inside and in front of it museum death is general, not even Mario Merz’s glass igloo and Piero Gilardi’s carnivalesque, anarchic set of demonstration masks and still lifes cut out of psychedelic-coloured polystyrene can resist its pull. The two chairs stand in the park corner like two exhibits with attached labels – extensions of the architecture centre inside the Acquario. None of the Africans occupied either of them, although they were made for them, even if not placed here for them. I sit down in one, it’s surprisingly comfortable and roomy: radical design for the middle-class flâneur. Inside, beyond the cafè  an exhibition of the works of the visionary architects of the ’60s, Mario Ridolfi and Mario Fiorentino, among the first to sense that modernity’s faith in reason cannot hold. In the bookshop on a stand, designer’s items, bookmarks with catchy mottos and maxims from Confucius to Bob Dylan, you must change your life, one euro apiece, the price of three bottles of mineral water in a neighbourhood grocery.

*

A fresh globe of horse-turd is smoking, gleeful find on the Via Appia. On a cypress trunk a sign with picture missing Titù, friendly medium-size black female dog, lost on the stretch around San Sebastiano. Waif on the petrified luggage conveyor silted in sand, from which the soutward-bound carts, litters, odd-toed or cleft hooves, the entering and exiting troops, those destined to promotion or execution have long tumbled off, only the funeral monuments, steles rest with a petitioning look on their portraits, unreclaimed luggage. The feet get used to the passage from the uniform basalt cobblestones to the broad, flat lava-stone slabs with their humps and hollows, with their notches impressed by cart wheels: unfinished lithography, its technique long forgotten, its forms can be only intuited. Functional roads leading somewhere are the most nondescript buildings, non-places. The Appia Antica, too, leads, but not somewhere: pure procession without goal,end, terminus, and without a route – it became Antica when it ceased to be a roadway. Wayward road, only proceeding wayward, into itself. Space evicted from journeying, space become time: its face stopped aging, like the effigies on the funerary steles. It ran out of time.

This is probably the world’s most refined grand orchestra of cicadas: it does not concentrate on the beauty of sound, it treats rhythm as a sound architect, and doesn’t fidget too much about the odd mislaid tone. Of Rome’s many skies this is the widest and of its many lights, this is the most caressing even at its brightest. Among the bitter little cotton-tufted herbs a propped-up marble statue, with a hole where the head should sit: perhaps a standard half-figure with custom-made head, available in right- or lefthanded version. In the hollow in place of the neck a handful of pine needles, cypress cones, seeds gathers: humus that will germinate with the first autumn rain, unrepeatable vegetal life in the mass produce antiquated into uniqueness. Below their multi-storey flowerings, preposterous drawings, the bone-hard agave leaves twist and coil like octopus arms seeking to free themselves. To the right side, a forward-looking little arboretum, its saplings barely rise above the wilted grass.

From San Sebastiano bus 118 drives to the Ardeatina among walls and clouds of greenery, then on to trafficky Appia Nuova. The landscape spreads out wide. On a tall hillcrest against the sky, in counterlight the washed-up backbone of a prehistoric whale, the Villa dei Quintili. In the late imperial age the largest of Rome’s suburban villas stood here; to lay his hands on it, emperor Commodus, who loved posing as Hercules, ordered the killing of the two Quintilianus brothers, the most cultivated patrician heirs of the day. Slow light- and sunward ascent in the descending afternoon brightness. A seamless inverted v-shaped board fence, undulating matte eel’s spine establishes the directions; in the dried-up soil cracks go in all directions, lines of flight.

Fourten years: at the two ends of rising and falling light, the elongated shadows cast on the pathway, their contours do not overlap precisely. Perhaps not even the skeleton building’s contours overlap precisely. In that other time there was wild origano to gather here, and dried-up wild figs whose astringent sweetness lingered in the mouth for days. Perhaps they fell victims to systematization. The unauthorized little farm, too, disappeared from among the ruins, with its sad-faced, drooping-eared sheep and goats that obdurately practiced land occupation with their stench: now crows sit aligned in geometric order on the fence, uniformed uni-squatters, trickling musical notes on a splintered score. But at the entrance from the Appia Nuova a hoopoe bird is hopping, gleeful anarchist, light-discharges at the ends of its orange crest.

The caldarium’s gigantic window is practicing how to capture the most of the sky. How to turn entirely into sky, and the walls, into openings. First it shed its alabaster windowpanes, the ceiling mosaic, then its sills and in the end it stripped down to the brick layering. Its edges are now drawn by the blade-sharp shadows. Lidless eye gone blind in the incessant procession, into which things swim, so it responds to them with its substance. In the early Middle Ages a lime-burner set up shop among the ruins, marble excavated from here had the reputation of yielding prime lime, after it had been broken and matured in deposits for years like wine. Giant stone tuning-fork: to sound it one doesn’t need the wind, the touch of the gaze is enough. Its A is the purest, distilled Rome-homesickness, Rome-sickness. It can only be heard in silence, for otherwise the other, more mixed Rome-sicknesses outvoice it: the street noises, the gull noises, the fluttering of the tree-crowns, the wind-shielded shade, the grass scent, the pine scent stocked away for years in a cone, the undulating tread of sandalled feet, the laughing together.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Source of quotations and paraphrases in the text:

…summer’s temperature curve: Zsuzsa Takács, The Pillar of Salt [A sóbálvány] (2016)

harry the last heat through them: ‟harry the last few drops of sweetness through the wine”, Rainer Maria Rilke: Herbsttag, trans. Mary Kinzie

Und jede Ferne macht sein Herz verrückt: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen]

White and lightVerlorne wind-shade: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

The nave is empty, the stone is blind, no one is saved, many are stricken, the oil will not burn, we have all drunk from it: Ingeborg Bachmann, Of a Land, a River and Lakes [Von einem Land, einem Fluß und den Seen], trans. Michael Murray

sea-mill: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

do not go gentle… rage against the dying of the light: Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

…the shining, the pain and the name: Paul Celan, Weiß und Leicht

…humanity in ruins: Samuel Beckett, The Capital of the Ruins (1945)

quaranta dì quaranta nott…todesch de la Wehrmacht…sbatuu de su sbattuu de giò: Giorgio Strehler, Fiorenzo Carpi, Ma Mi (1959)

you must change your life: Rainer Maria Rilke, Archaic Torso of Apollo, trans. Stephen Mitchell

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Erika Mihalycsa
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature TodayThe Missing SlateTrafika Europe, and B O D Y Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.

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