Audible has just (September 13) released the audiobook version of my novel Elle. This audio version is narrated by the replendent Severn Thompson who adapted the novel for the stage last year. Click the image above to go to Amazon and hear a sample of the novel.
Editor-in-chief prepares to leave the building.
Now is the moment for reflection, gratitude, and farewells. Not that I am going away or anyone else connected with the magazine for that matter. It’s just that we won’t appear again in quite this form. (And I am going to sell the white horse, which has started to attract attention.)
The magazine started with a group of friends feeling outsiderish and piratical, and it has persisted in that light, though the names have gradually changed over time. There are 40 people on the masthead today; the list of artists and writers who have appeared in the magazine could fill a small town; and then there are our readers, most of whom we will never know, though some, in keeping with our policy, have become writers for the magazine and friends.
The fact that we got so big and lasted so long (on fumes) is miraculous.
It would be invidious to single out individuals, but there are some who by their intelligence and loyalty have altered my thin view of the human race. And others whose sheer bloody-minded willingness to throw their support behind an upstart magazine and persist have taught me something about the nature of friendship and the value of art. I will never forget the decency, kindness and camaraderie that have characterized NC’s inner workings. You are an astonishing tribe. I am eternally grateful.
My sons grew to adults under the sign of Numéro Cinq (while my dog — the blue dog of NC fame — grew ancient and incontinent). It was ever a topic of dinner table conversation (Mission Control has always been in the bedroom, where my laptop lives). Jonah designed the logo. Jacob still reads with the analytic eye he learned writing reviews for the magazine.
Now the feeling around here is distinctly autumnal, and I am a bit anxious about what I am going to do with myself when I don’t have to get up in the morning and attend to the magazine chores.
As for the site, it will remain live as a monument to us all. All your work, the archives, the special features and anthologies, will be available. Possibly, I will post in the NC Blog now and then on matters relating to the magazine. I’ve been using the “Out & Back” blog category as my personal blog; I might have to sort that out (or not).
There are going to be loose ends. Story of my life.
A few issues back I mentioned a speech from Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander that seemed to capture the feeling. It’s very early in the film. Oscar Ekdahl is making his annual speech to the cast after the Christmas pageant in the little family-owned theatre.
Dear friends, dear fellow workers, dear family! For twenty-two years I have stood here and made a speech. I am not really any good at this sort of thing. My only talent, if you can call it a talent in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse. And I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world, and sometimes the little world succeeds for a moment in reflecting the big world, so that we understand it better. Or is it perhaps that we give the people who come here the chance of forgetting for a while, forgetting for a while the harsh world outside. Our theatre is a small room of orderliness, routine, conscientiousness, and love. I don’t know why I am so awfully moved today of all days. I feel so comically solemn. I can’t explain how I feel. I had better be brief.
(He shakes his head, raises his glass, and looks at the people gathered around him.)
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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 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.
Love Letter from the Anthropocene
In my mind a waterfall. A coldness of water, dark cola currents in circular swirls. Rapids in miniature. I thought of some murky oil painting in the back of a gallery, this cove in the depths of the woods. In the shadows staring, shedding myself of people who parted like phantoms around me. This was a violent, childhood confrontation with the beyond, with possibility. If I entered the pool, I would forego my grounded, mammalian safety. I was young enough to know, to taste danger. This wasn’t salt water; there were no waves to toss me up, return me and hurl me to a distant shore where strangers would save me from the curious urge of myself. I would be sucked right down to the deep.
Was this a pre-experience of drowning? Did it happen in a dream? I recall the Secret Forest, exploring every nook and cranny of stone engraved, of foreign trees and mysterious huts. Gnarled wood and nonsensical drawings. I could hear birds whose origin was beyond me. A mint-coloured cascade made visible by the gaps in the emerald canopy, these mottled disco lights of gold and green. Years later I would be alone, then with a lover; splinters in my fingers, leaves in my hair, skin pressed close to the soil. I felt like the mystery crickets, my little croaks buried in needles and the mulch of insects, peat. Six dark streaks to my cheeks. I was wild.
I used to dream of drowning in dark and two-dimensional waters, the kind you find on ancient video games. I would be slipping, falling like Alice through perilous pixellated water; nothing buoying me up, strength fading, lungs choking as they filled with this water. It hurt so bad it was a sort of burning. I’d wake up, suffocating on my pillow, unable to breathe for a good five minutes. It was terrifying; the sensation scored in my skin so I’d never forget the shot of panic, adrenaline. Terrifying, but a necessary encounter with elemental intimacy. In such moments I’d forget myself, fully and nearly.
No floundering involved; instead an essential plunge. The rush of imaginary air. I’d invented a zone, a kind of sublime. Always quite out of reach, always there beyond some brink. Soon I was drawn to any trajectory. My life splintered its lines of desire; I was always trellising a net of crushes and loves and plans and regrets. The sight of a robin in the snow by the ice-crusted Kelvin would kill me, move me to tears. I let the flesh fall off, felt myself fragile and clear and hard. I soon realised that I was an alien being, not really human, hardly animal. There were the transcendentalists, their promises of freedom and spirit. There were matching green bruises on each of my hipbones, the soft impress of moss on my feet. I let all my wounds slip away, a form of abscission.
Where were these flat, transparent waters? Where was the tug of pondweed, the evil fishes with their Coleridgean flash and sparkle? I had nothing to empathise with. I could not whistle to the trees, could not whistle the way they did to me. I was ill-equipped for Aeolian thoughts. I had to crack open the fissures of my mind, fill them with eerie powders and aculeate drugs which tingled the skin for hours. I swooned to the window to watch the golden streams of light, the way they caught on the leaves of the summer limes, this glimmer I could only in the moment call mystical. This was temporary suspension, the end of depression’s snaring loop. I unravelled my net, felt each feeling take shape in the air around me. There were new zones. Clutching a cup of coffee, I felt the weight of tangible ceramic, the ooze of surly stuff I could not trace. Again, that gaping sensation of origins lost. I wanted to know everything about this coffee, its transit from deep in the soil, across oceans, lulling in lorries and jarred in factories. How it would groan like an old jazz singer when stirred in boiling water. You do not do, you do not do. The hot rush of caffeine made my veins jolt close to my skin. Through the solarised surface, the blue lines wove their fluvial currents and again I thought of electric space, the nuanced beauty of his distant face. Eyes of moss-green, the shadowy canopies. I was aflame in frozen bronze, clung to a friend’s sofa; life-raft upon a rising ocean. Soon the funereal cataracts would swamp this city. Spill over as easy as New York underwater. He brought me garlands of roses, which soon furled at the edges, browned and rotted to a pungent decay. I didn’t mind dying; it was the condition for existence. The petals fell upon the carpet, I swept them up and felt each one bloom into orbs of light. It made me shaky, like violins shredding their trembling key of sharp; great gashes of sound filling the room with their dissonant, abstract emotion. I longed for it all to end that dramatic, for the shivering minims to draw out each breath with irony alone.
Only the petrified stone retained its sincerity. The burst bits of sorrow and quartz lay all around me, a thousand refractions of my poisoned aura. Again I saw the oil painting; glimpsed its dark torrent of petroleum, the flickers of sheep. When I stared too long, the flat black sky began to fluoresce with unguent neon colours, this arsenic rich red that blossomed into coruscating orange, yellow, coral. The chemical soda of panic; I drank it in, felt in my chest its urgent fizz. Overlaid was the image of the Lake Project, David Maisel’s poetic mastery, this jagged array of shuddering lines, planes of nasty vermillion. I thought of hardened lava, bicarbonate dreams, the catalysing forms of inevitable pollution. From a bedroom window I drank Coca Cola. The forest was ready, warm in my thought, the breeze so crisp on my dehydrated face. It was burnt up in flames another day, the phosphorylase taste of sticky glucose, dissolving sugar. A new arrangement of needles, the amethyst bruise planted on my neck. Gluttony.
On the image, there was no place to rest the eye. Every capillary was always shifting. A constant dissolution of perspective, parallax melting to absolute flatness. I thought of the time I asked what an A road meant, and the boy said arterial. As if the world was a great bodily network, the flow of currents and traffic with every cell of life just some minimal part in the clotting transience of meshing blood. Such a thing was what, a Latourian plasma? A spilled can of molasses, darkling its presence on the concrete, treacle-thick and of godly opulence. I studied the lines with glyptographic precision, looking for the cracks underneath. These are the times I have loved you, loved you as I have loved the steam from a kettle, the way smoke gets in your eyes or smoulders the crack of your mouth. How your hair is a freshness of curls and gold; makes me think of the colour of harvest, the ardent ache of late summer, sunburn, long afternoons. Every pore of this skin is a window; I let the bacteria sink in and together we share a form, a body. We are a strangeness of strangers. I wrote a litany and called it coexisting. There is always more of what I would be with you.
Sometimes, the arabesques of knotted wood. The die-back that kills the ashes. The writing that stings me. The eagles that tumble from the sky, shot down by showers of poaching bullets. The eternal time of the stone before it is ground to dust, smoothed to glass or marble. All rendering machinery merely an extension of the eye’s aesthetic violence. I see before me all transformations, all subtle undulations of everything in its right place, pulled out from the roots of primal being. These shadow forms, these chasms. All claustrophobia. The world is too much with us. I lay down my words in favour of a strong cobalt promise of ocean. Dash my crayola on the blank white surface, wait for the waves to take shape, to suck in and swallow me. There is no world as such. A lonesome note pulls its magnetic sadness from across the bay, cry of the faraway island; it knows me, salt-studded, glazed in the air, sweet and easy as falling octaves. The tang on my tongue that reminds me of you. When the sea comes, when the windmills collapse, the sky blackens and there’s nothing we can do, I’ll remember you. The helices of me, these planted cells and their algorithmic beauty, remnant of bone and blood in the starving soil; all will be love in the warming waters, the subduing horror, the coming of nothingness. Mutated creatures, muted symphonies. I ask that you join me in melting, just for a second while the air is still, some clarity around us. All we have is the sounding of our lips, the whistling trees, the sullen transmissions of a faltering breeze.
At the corner of some imaginary meadow, a lime tree. You had no idea for years what to call this tree, you only knew how green it was, how well-formed the leaves against the cool cobalt of a summer sky. How precious these things are to you now, far away where everything is always static, a vague and pressing grey. The tree sheds its honeydew and the aphids clamber for a taste of the limes; I have scratched that pitch with my fingers and placed its resin on my tongue. A taste of nature, extra-natural, too sweet and weird as if tasting chlorophyll itself, some abstracted process of photosynthesis taking place in the mouth. If the world has ended, I try to get closer to its remaining parts. These leaves are shaped like hearts. I once had a heart-shaped necklace, studded inside with the blackest sapphire. It’s a sin to forget who gifted this necklace; but I was only a child then, loose in my memories, vulnerable.
There’s a song called ‘Lime Tree’ on a favourite record and the singer says the string arrangements make him nauseous. This is a commentary on beauty, on how beauty marks the wonderful perception of an object’s weakness. When I see that minuscule split in the stem of a leaf, the thumbnail cleaving chain of daisies, I am overcome momentarily by a thing’s thingness, its originary mark of uniqueness. This whole secret life, this hidden agony. A heart-shaped stud of sapphire. In the mud there are all these tiny peridot aphids, glistening like something unknown beneath a microscope. I look forward to the taffyish pull of waning cirrus, the sky moving westwards in tandem with sun. It’s beautiful to not know how the atmosphere works, but instead to observe with that naivety of spirit, the hurt perception that longs for its heart-shaped necklace, its heart-shaped leaf. Place one on the tongue like a tab of acid. Again that taste, nature with added nature. You can taste too much of the natural. The chemical, the actual synthesis of light that is perhaps organic. Tiny nut fruits fall in October, pea-sized and gleaming in the old gold sun. Obsessed with the smell of the nectar, I return to the meadow, year after year. Children may spend their lives lying in fields, waiting for something to happen. I was content in the long shoots of aureate wheat, the true blue sky. I made promises to myself I could never keep.
Lime flowers cure headaches. I break them up in my tea and long for respite from insomnia. You had no idea for years what to call this tree. You named it a miracle tree; that was then and this is me. The wood is especially yielding. Somebody has sculpted great things from its pliant bark, its soft and workable material beauty. The elegant formations of time literally scar in the carved wood, making etchings and notches; each year a wound. Love’s young dream among the lindens. I feel more empathy with the tree than with anything. There are creases around my eyes, creases around yours too. Each one a scar of something dark and true, this honest mark, remark of the soul; elastic abrasions which ripple, sea-like, their former traumas. We make them new. Each expression brings life to the dark parts, the tears and rips and folds. In the forest, the leaves shiver shrill as a choir of children. I heard that line from elsewhere, a song or a whistle from a cup of coffee. Drink me, drink me. The leaves seem to sing. Time seems to sing; I can feel it, hear it shimmer in the sweet parts of the blood which rise in silence, subside in bright and flowery noise.
Underneath the autumn limes, a whole pastoral display of molten coppers and golds, we sip from miniature cups on tables built for urban grace. Somebody in the distance plays the flute, so intricate and soothing these tunes so old, so new. I have forgotten the origin. Almost the refrain from a video-game, imaginary landscapes materialise from somewhere inside my recessive mind.
Sweet-smelling trees that bear no citrus. Native, strangely ridged, slender of twig. Already craving the dull yellows, the fresh fade of autumnal cycle. These trees, hybridised, bred for flourishing in dirty cities. Little vapourers scavenge, triangular moths cling to sunspots. There’s such a lushness of syrup and pollenating dreams, I could lie in the bow of this lime tree like someone before me, merge my identity with a strange freedom, this crooked figure turning liquid, fading in the hum of the bees, the ornamental quality not quite what it seems. Sense of flourishing, slowly floating; the life-giving gold of arborescence.
There is an idea of an island. Sometimes purely retinal, the glory of excess gold. It is birthed from the flickers, pieces between consciousness when dreams make use of the temporary coves, holes which give in the mind for need of will. For a while, obsessed with the sore points in a honeycomb, cox in the blood that blocked all manner of aspirin, felt a cool white sky of powder, the outwards dissolve. There is now an island. Maybe archipelago even. The one and the several. Songs about auras, auroras.
We summon boats from out of the blue. There’s a pureness to our sun-bronzed bodies, plucked ripe from the ether as if never as free as now. This perpetual experience of floating. On the topic of jewels, she was a sweet one, always lusting for easy agates and sometimes the dream blue larimar. You traced either bubbles or lines, endless trajectories of the inward, arterial. A secret vault for the excess passion, her hoarded meaning. Teardrops of dolphins, hardened remnant of basaltic lava. The certain pendant of the still-moving earth, simple inclusion of ebbs and flows.
The collected anemones. Her velvet case. The cool tide in the cool blue. She lived here a hundred years and didn’t age one bit. Not even the sun could. I was always pursuing that anamnesis of the mind and skin, feeling again the heart-shaped cliff. I have questioned the island, receding before all westerly gossamer of waves. Glimmers across another bay, the potential invisibles. Ships and buoys. Remember we came here as children, hopped on a boat and we were so sure of where we were going. It was a case of following lights. Right across the bay, a blueness distinct from the bottle-green sea. It was so soothing, so easy.
There is an idea of an island. I mark it in writing, make of its rock and grit a topic.
Sometimes the tide sweeps over me.
Maria Sledmere is an MLitt Modernities student at the University of Glasgow. She is co-editor of two Glasgow-based poetry zines, SPAM and Gilded Dirt. Her work has been published in Bombus Press, DATABLEED, Fluland, Foxglove Journal, Germ Magazine, GUM, The Kelvin Review, Murmur House, Quotidian, and Thistle Magazine. When not lost in the gelatinous mulch of a dissertation on dark ecology, she contributes features and music reviews to RaveChild and GoldFlakePaint, and blogs regularly on everything from Derrida to Lana Del Rey at http://musingsbymaria.
My Red Heaven is collage in form. This piece centers on Walter Benjamin, and moves back and forth in time as he sits on a bench on Unter den Linden, beginning what will become The Arcades Project.
1.The only way of knowing a person is to love him or her without hope, Walter Benjamin pencils in his notebook, hunched on a dark green bench in the dark green shade of a linden.
A bear occurs, a man playing a flute followed by twenty beautiful children.
Walter crosses out the sentence. He has spent his entire day here, the last three, in this park running up the center of Unter den Linden, in combat with a three-page essay about Parisian arcades for the Frankfurter Zeitung. The essay refuses to stay in its skin. It keeps wanting to unfurl into something larger, messier, less itself.
Suppose I were to begin by recounting, he pencils in his notebook, how many cities have revealed themselves to me in my expeditions through them in pursuit of books. Suppose I were to speak of a time, ours, when even the best readers have become frightened of imperfect, torrential monographs — ones that fan out into a maze of dangerous branchings.
Suppose I were to bring up how easy a certain kind of completeness is.
He crosses out that paragraph, writes in a choked scribble I am falling in love with lostness, then the brakes, a woman’s shriek.
When he raises his head everything already exists in another tense.
An old truck, advertisement for a brewery across its side, run up onto the curb in front of the Adlon Hotel. Several empty barrels burst on the sidewalk. A smartly dressed man splayed in the street, pedestrians vectoring in.
(When a world war breaks out, all you can do sometimes is begin to translate the works of Baudelaire as faithfully as possible.)
The bear man stops. His triad of notes. The twenty beautiful children stop, at first confused about where to look.
One points, a perfect girl, mouth opening, nickel-blue eyes wide with the world.
Walter squints through his chunky spectacles to determine if the man is alive or the other thing.
Suppose, he considers, his weak heart twinging, I am falling in love with disjunction. Medieval alleys full of flowers. Suppose I am falling in love with learning to interrupt my —
Three years ago. Island of Capri. Ernst Bloch crumpled down the newspaper he had been reading and glared at Walter over the dried-seagull remains. The pair reclined in chaise lounges on their pension’s balcony amid a tumble of shiny white houses overlooking the Bay of Naples.
How just so fucking absurd it must seem, Bloch proclaimed, for an immortal soul destined for heaven or hell to find itself sitting in the kitchen in the form of a maid.
The bear waiting for orders.
We may call these images wish images; in them the collective seeks —
But most of all the tiny squares. Medieval alleys full of bougainvillea clinging to stone walls. Plumbago. Yellow, red, powder blue rowboats pulled up on the Marina Grande’s pebbly beach. And Bloch saying: The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security. It is the loss of the capacity to imagine things other than they are.
For you were born under the sign of Saturn, planet of detours and delays, blunders and stubbornness; of those who see themselves as books, thinking as a method of gathering, organizing, yet always knowing when to stray, wander off.
For to lose your way in a city or a person requires a great amount of willpower.
It is Bloch proclaiming from his chaise lounge, newspaper seagull crumpled in his lap, and emaciated Rilke all those years after that first meeting at the University of Munich, praising in a letter to Walter from somewhere among the Swiss Alps Mussolini’s New Year’s Eve speech.
What soaring language! What beautiful discourse! Fascism, our great healing agent!
The hotel doormen holding onto the driver of the truck until the police show up, and the belief Jewishness means a promise to further European culture, each epoch dreaming the one to follow.
These moments, those hours, the other days: Had Walter really accomplished anything at all?
It is Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap of paper Sois toujours poète, même en prose — Always be a poet, even in prose — and the ambulance disturbance rising on the far side of the heavy, coal-smoked Brandenburg Gate, and the found object, the readymade, the already extant message, the chance encounter, the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, that half of art of which the other half is eternal and immutable.
There was the juncture at which he understood he was not to become an academic instructor.
There was that injury.
Wine. Bread. Thickly sliced salami.
The lizard with azure scales panting rapidly on a fence rail.
The sun, a glossy orange in the sunset sky: Capri.
There was that juncture, and there will be the one in which he can no longer remember what he wants as he reaches languidly for the bottle of tablets on his hotel nightstand in room number three.
Yet now it is those days with Bloch on that balcony, the nights with Asja Lācis in her bed, long umber hair tousled.
Her unselfconscious stretching, her body Y-ing on the mattress.
Walter was completely open about the Latvian Bolshevik theater director when his wife, Dora, asked in her letters.
But only when she asked.
(She asked only once.)
Writing about a given place at a given time puts its existence between quotation marks, plucks it from its native context by engendering unanticipated new ones.
This is collage’s capacity, through cutting up and cutting off, to open up and ou —
We won’t be getting married, mana saulīte. I find divorce too hard on the nerves.
Asja footnoting in mid-stretch.
Dora remaining behind in Berlin with their nine-year-old son, moody anxious Stefan, and Asja introducing Walter over dinner to Marxism as historical mutiny and late night Prosecco to sex as whirlwind.
Writing that looks like writing, however, thinking that looks like thinking, has come to feel to Walter progressively flat, faded, fated.
Suppose, he pencils in his notebook, I were to rethink everything.
Suppose I were to start all over again.
And thirteen years later, twenty-some-odd changes of address, standing outside the Bibliothèque Nationale on a thick spring day, twenty-four hours before the Germans howl into Paris with orders to arrest that Jew intellectual at his flat, Walter hands over his color-coded notes — green language, yellow, red; diagrams; copies of images that have collared his curiosity — to his grouper-mouthed librarian friend Georges Bataille.
Over Georges’ shoulder, Walter’s last glimpse of the filthy Seine glistering.
Asja’s double enlivening: the erotic and the political slurred into a single unfathomableness.
Or this man, weak heart, weakening lungs, a mobile intelligence unit moving through the metropolitan streets, he likes to think of himself as, likes to believe he believes, maybe others, too, although what would happen if you began to imagine the essay you are composing, not as a —
After this shitty war, Georges telling Walter outside the library on that balmy pre-invasion day, Europe will resemble a de Sade novel. Watch out for Duc de Blangis. He will be everywhere.
Georges not grinning then, but rather turning away, repairing to work.
Walter watching his friend’s lightly pigeon-toed gait decrease in size down the sidewalk.
Suppose you began to imagine the essay you are writing, not as a piece of music that must move from first note to last, but rather as a building you could approach from various sides, navigate along various paths, one in which perspective continually changes?
This building, we might submit, would constitute a literary architectonics that pits itself against narrative’s seemingly inflexible arc from birth to the other thing.
These lines written by the man who earned his Ph.D. cum laude eight years ago with a dissertation on art criticism amid German Romanticism, yet who has been assiduously unable to find academic employment ever since.
That injury, too.
There is that brief deliberation over emigrating from Germany to Palestine and how the bottle of morphine tablets catches the caramel sun in his tiny room at the Hotel de Francia on the Catalonian coast one autumn afternoon in 1940, police guard posted outside Walter’s door demurely clearing his throat every now and then.
Written by the thirty-four-year-old journalist unable to support himself, let alone his family, through his own labor, and so forced for a time to ask his wife to stop loving him so he could return to Berlin to reside with his parents.
To reside with his —
Ne cherchez plus mon coeur; les bêtes l’ont mange.
Baudelaire scribbling on a scrap.
There is that slightly less brief deliberation over emigrating to the United States through neutral Portugal as the Germans howled closer, and how Max Horkheimer negotiates a travel visa for Walter, who will only be able to flee as far as Spain over the Pyrenees before the Franco regime cancels all transit permits and orders the authorities to return those carrying them to France.
And on 25 September, 1940, there is that Spanish official with the pinched lips telling the group of Jewish refugees Walter has joined to prepare for deportation the following morning, and the emptiness on Hannah Arendt’s face taking in this information, on her husband the poet and philosopher Heinrich Blücher’s, on their friend the Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler’s, on the German photographer Henny Gurland’s, her son Joseph’s.
Yet, despite the future, the bear man steps into motion again, melody picking up.
One by one, the beautiful children.
Do not look for my heart anymore; the beasts have eaten it, scribbling the poet who spent his last two years between Brussels and Paris, semi-paralyzed and unable to speak after the massive stroke.
The emptiness on the ambulance driver’s face as he employs a plain white sheet to cover the bodily fluids held in by tender skin.
Or the emptiness on the doctor’s face during each of his four visits to tiny room number three through that late September afternoon and evening, administering injections and blood letting as if these things might in the end somehow alter the configuration of that space.
It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Asja’s body in her bed, sheetless in silvery sun, along with the belief writing as collage draws attention to the sensuality of the page even as it strips itself of the tedious, tendentious pretense of originality.
Suppose, therefore, it could be argued —
Suppose we were to call it a meditative practice that allows one to be surprised by what one says next.
A practice, we could even submit, of reading.
Or the other manuscript, completed, which Walter will carry in his suitcase from Paris to Portbou, which will disappear forever.
That manuscript, too.
Suppose, therefore, it could be argued that we are all collage artists, pencils Walter, then crosses out the sentence, for there will be that juncture in two years at which Dora and he will have become separated, then divorced, the juncture in thirteen at which the other Jews in his party of refugees for no discernible reason will be allowed sudden passage through Spain into Portugal.
Four days later all will safely reach Lisbon.
It is the ambulance driver’s face, even at this distance, and Hannah Arendt admiring the terracotta rooftops, the pale yellow dwellings, bunching down the steep Lisbon hillsides into bluegreen seasprawl.
The Spanish police will refer to the deceased forty-eight-year-old in their correspondence with Max Horkheimer, who will query about the details of his friend’s passing, as that German gentleman.
That German gentleman about whom you inquire, the Spanish police writing, died of heart failure.
Cerebral hemorrhage, the medical certificate will state.
The town judge listing Walter’s possessions at the time of death thus: suitcase leather, gold watch, pipe, passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, one pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, a few papers, contents unknown, and some money.
A few papers, contents un —
How, because of confusion surrounding his identity, Walter will be buried in leased-niche number 563 in the Catholic section of the Portbou cemetery. When no one remembers to keep up the payments, Walter’s remains will be quietly exhumed and moved in the summer of 1945 to the town’s common burial ground, where their exact location will over time become unremembered.
Four days after Walter reaches for the bottle of morphine tablets he brought with him from Marseilles, just in case, Hannah Arendt will lean out the window of her hotel room in Lisbon, relishing the act of breathing, just that, while admiring the terracotta rooftops and pale yellow dwellings bunching down the steep hillsides into the bluegreen seasprawl.
Below, the streetcars clanking by.
Mosquitoey scooters revving.
That greasy scent of reprieve billowing up around her a flash before she steps back into life.
Lance Olsen is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative writing. His latest is the novel Dreamlives of Debris (Dzanc, 2017). A Guggenheim, Berlin Prize, D.A.A.D. Artist-in-Berlin Residency, N.E.A. Fellowship, and Pushcart Prize recipient, as well as a Fulbright Scholar, he teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.
The Marquis had a grandson, Jake. As a child, Jake would spend weekends with his grandpa who’d make a very nice from-scratch pizza before retiring to the inner sanctum to play Halo. These pizzas that the Marquis lovingly made were really something. To see the smooth globes of dough sitting on the counter—a little dusting of flour on top like little round baby bottoms in talc—makes me sad to remember.
For they are surely gone. All gone.
Well, the kid could have grown up to live a straight, true, and happy life, but, man, things can get messed up. For Jake it was not so much the stuff that most kids have to go through these days, now that the maturing process and its rites of passage require the use of handguns. Like it or not, Glocks are the new normal for these kids. Like it or not, it’s become part of growing up. That first court restraining order is now a milestone equal to a driver’s license, high school diploma, college admission, and so on. Happily for Jake, the Marquis gave him a sort of happy, dopey reality apart from all that. As a consequence, he was as close to innocent as a young man could come in these withered days.
At a young age, Jake married and settled down in a modest split-level ranch house with his new wife, Fanni, let’s call her. Jake learned to make pizza for her, just like his grandpa’s, and they settled in for life…as it were. Here’s the future he saw: he’d cook pizza and after dinner he and Fanni would play computer games, kissing now and then. On Fridays they’d have grandpa le Marquis over and play Halo. They’d drink root beer. What he neglected to figure into this delightful scenario was the fact that Fanni also had a notion or two about what married life ought to be like. Unfortunately for Jake, she was of the opinion that her life with her husband ought to be different in important ways from her husband’s life with his grandpa. In particular, the eating of pizzas and the playing of computer games was boring to the point of wishing that her high school biology teacher would come by and “pith” her with a straight pin in the frontal lobe, just as he’d done with frogs. After a month or so of Jake’s idea of happiness, buyer’s remorse was the primary fact of her life.
Jake was a simple person. Fanni was not a simple person. She did not have Jake’s stable, happy background sharing time with a grandparent in blissful side-by-side interface with the good old X-box. What Fanni had was a single mother who lived on the left side of a brick duplex in the spiritually destitute region just south of Chicago. Their house was one of those structures that census workers look at and say, “Does this count?” Her mother supported their little family through frequent “presents” from various “close family friends” in the form of cocaine or cash equivalents. What these friends got in return is irrelevant or almost. In spite of all that, Fanni grew up a smart kid capable of wandering away from the daily horror show at the old duplex. She thrived at school, went to college, met the son of a Marquis (!) and, without giving it a lot of thought, married.
In the sad thereafter, their marriage counselor suggested to her that she should have known what Jake was like, she’d been to his house before they married, hadn’t she? And she said, “Yes, I knew what he was like, but I thought he was kidding.” Then she added, “And he did kiss me once under the grain elevator, and so I asked him with my eyes to ask me, and when he did I thought, ‘Well, as well him as another.’”
Jake was sitting right there, holding her hand as she said these hurtful things. The therapist’s response was to put his head in his hands (the closest he could come to neutral affect in the moment). The counselor, at least, knew that it was too late and Fanni had already gone to blazes. On the other hand, he could now also confirm that Jake’s form of innocence was, just as Fanni claimed, morally exhausting. He could see how it could drive a person to unpleasant extremes.
As for Jake, he didn’t yet quite know what to make of it all. But when he saw the counselor bury his head in his hands he had to wonder, “Is that how I should be responding to what she’s saying?” He looked at her sitting by his side. She was smiling pleasantly.
There was something damaged in Fanni, something broken. She was, in a sense, not “there,” not present. For instance, she could not seem to tell the difference between the good things that she did and the bad things. Make breakfast? Hit their barky Yorkie with a shovel? Essentially the same for her. But when Jake showed how they were not the same, she would get confused and start crying. “How can you be so sure about everything?” she’d ask, and then she’d go after the dog with a hoe because it had stuck its cold snout inside her summer shorts and smelled her fur. (She kept garden implements in the kitchen for such moments.)
She was also someone with the interesting and organic conviction that if the world spread out from her, it was her job to take it all back in. Perhaps it was some sort of bizarre maternal instinct gone wrong, but she had faith in the thought that everything should go back to her empty inside.
And then there was the shopping. She shopped with tenacity knowing that it was her responsibility to buy it all, to take it all inside. She was the Imelda Marcos of any- and everything. She didn’t shop in Big Box stores, she shopped for Big Box stores. She created shopping lists like the card catalogue at the Library of Alexandria.
When she wasn’t shopping, she was eating. Unfortunately, this duty, this “moral imperative to internalize the world,” had horrible consequences in restaurants. She did not understand the purpose of a menu. The idea that she should choose only one thing from each section—one salad, one entrée, etc.—simply made no sense to her. The idea that there were sections didn’t make sense to her. Appetizer. Entrée. What? Explain as Jake surely did, it was all beyond her. She thought Jake was yammering metaphysics when all he might be saying was, “Darling, you don’t start with the chocolate mousse. It is not an appetizer.” There were some meals that took the form of quest legends. It was as if she believed that there was some food, some perfect food, that would make her world right if only she could find it. In spite of all his goodness and his love for her, Jake lacked the will to enforce what he called, for her benefit, “food reality.”
When he said things like that, in what she took to be a knowing and superior way, she would say, “There is nothing so dull as innocence.”
Once during the Christmas season Jake and Fanni were eating at the legendary Stockyard Trough down in Decatur. She started in her pell-mell way with a dilled Blanquette de Veau. The chef had prepared six portions for the evening and she ate them all. She followed that with dozens of pizza hot-pockets off the children’s menu. (Yes, some of the little darlings cried when they were told that there were no more pizza hot-pockets, but she insisted that some people would have to sacrifice for the greater good, and she volunteered the children.)
The headwaiter scrambled with a sponge to erase the featured dishes as they fell from the little chalkboard out front, inexorably, one after another. At neighboring tables, the waiters sensed the drift of things and began encouraging guests to order quickly while there was still something more than bread and butter to eat.
“What!!??” one obese old-timer complained, a Cargill seed cap cockeyed on his head, bloody stains from rib-eyes past on his overalls. “No beef? None at all? Not even an old piece of flank? Not even a burger? How is that possible? This is the Stockyard Trough, isn’t it? Do you know what a stockyard is? What’s that you say? Her? That little girl over there with the Marquis’s boy? Are you saying she’s eaten the entire cow? I’ll be damned!”
Having decimated the main courses, she retreated to the soups and polished off one pot each of borscht, split pea, and, soup du jour, potato/leek. (“André! Scratch the soups!”) At this point she observed that her napkin was soiled and asked for another. Pitiless, she ate the herbed caviar roulade, the crepes with caviar filling, potatoes with caviar, caviar éclairs, oysters and caviar, and—a coup de main, de resistance, de theatre, d’etat, de grace, and de foudre—a cobbler with knuckle truffles (the low, obsequious sort common to the Aberdeens), creamed clotters, and crushed sweet-rind. (If you’re looking for the recipe, it’s in Mark Bittman’s Cobblers and Gobblers: Cooking with Cottage Clusters and Custard Clotters.)
And why did she eat these things? She ate these things because that’s just the kind of gal she was.
“Dining at the Stockyard Trough” is an excerpt from Lacking Character, forthcoming from Melville House Press, 2018.
Curtis White is a novelist and social critic whose work includes the novel Memories of My Father Watching TV and the recent book We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data (Melville House).
These two poems are excerpts from Wayne Koestenbaum‘s forthcoming book, Camp Marmalade, to be published in February 2018 by Nightboat Books. Camp Marmalade is the sequel to The Pink Trance Notebooks, which Nightboat published in 2015. Both The Pink Trance Notebooks and Camp Marmalade consist of notebooks — chains of aphorisms, linguistic tidbits, aleatory ruminations, lyric or narrative fragments…
#20 [thick book on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er Tums]
Lee Krasner proves it—stay
awake to the redemptive glyph
………….scrutinized first chapter
and thought every statement dead wrong
except chartreuse and neon orange
hurts right lung—even when I don’t
cough, the right lung has a lumpy
vanilla crunch feeling—in my arteries too
………….M said Faerie
Queene is boring but thick book of it
on mother-shelf pinnacled me o’er
receives hate mail USPS
grab bag of slain doll parts
or oneiric gabbing
like 4-H club for gay hoofers
and Oona O’Neill
will be there and Nicole Kidman
good Nicole not bad Nicole
like moon Nicole versus Apollo Nicole—
but moon isn’t versus Apollo
………….what is the
Harlequin Romance equivalent of
“friends, Romans, countrymen”?
is an ob word like obscene or
oblate or obsequy—
one’s loins across the public domain—
do shrinks even when off-duty
refuse warmth and ebullience?
or do I specialize
in non-ebullient shrinks?
use her talky head to block
the blinding sun
tidbit was dead woman’s word, we
shared tidbit and also transcendent
and now she’s dead and I never told
her we shared tidbit and transcendent
………….seeing I Never
Sang for My Father with my mother
long ago in a movie theater—
be glad you never sang
for your father
………….trying to prove that I
was Jewish despite ignorance
of the covenant—
……………………..I saw a disgruntled
bride in flipflops lift her wedding dress
and walk at rush hour past Penn Station—
stretched out like her dead
nurse mother whose
malted milk taste I still can’t fathom
………….mother whose car
we wrecked in stop-and-go traffic
en route to Richard III or The Oresteia
toward narrative but not necessarily
approving of the reach
which Kafka was I glad to meet
in Mykonos dream?
or a Massenet opera that might
not exist like La Bouillabaisse—
a long river cutting through Manon—
a good river advocating conversion
reunion cakewalk for retiring
kindergarten teacher who
expresses recognition when seeing me—
reflected on dull warehouse, blue
sky shined flat and pink by emigration
of rival color—
sped up from pink extrojection,
wanting to subdue him in a scenario
of erotic torture based on my thinness
and his fatness—
woman who ran a French
restaurant in St. Croix—
I envied her boozy
writing on a paper napkin
a few un-causal enlightenment
nouns, like junk, hazard,
………….two hours of giddy
a few stunned lyrics
to signalize my stupor
again the hilly outline’s Pompeii
lump as the Jew hears it—
“the Jew” means not a
generality but a specific listener
who actually likes sex
and told me so
………….unless I’m this Jew, too,
doublecrossing the earlier,
spread-out, novel Jew—
………….stiff box for requested pearl
granted but lost, a pearl I didn’t
understand though I craved it
as girl-sign under night-cover
everyone has a nadir, a
Nadja—even Nadja has a Nadja
………….I spoke about
the solidity of nouns,
a U in the regarded
eggy or jizzy corner
is not my own, it has become
a colony of national interests
………….green soot posing
as lake cover
………….cream of spinach
soup, my mother’s body when she suspected
food poisoning or experienced its greeny
revelation about her ex—
I love triangulating
via unwise confessions
logical except when I teach
my baby sister the art of shoplifting—
Miltonic or Latinate relation to sideburn
length and thickness, George
Burns and Robert Burns and
Raymond Burr and Burl Ives—
off the list of treasured burns
Blythe Danner isn’t burly
was once my mother’s friend—
is that fact her property?
………….we have in common
a predilection for killing plants—
no ability to keep a plant
alive—that’s an exaggeration—
three roses in her sideyard, maybe more
………….Carlotta my unmet
to designate her with regal sobriquet
another green succulent
covering a pond
surface with scum
………….skim the nitwit
coating off my tongue
………….Thoreau died at 44,
killed by Apollo
………….you have to be killed
by someone, might as well
be killed by Apollo
#15 [imprisoned within Busby Berkeley or the ethereal phlox]
………….I draw butt
well because butt is elementary
we say nautical because
we want to avoid naughty
imprecise speech stovepipes
our position and we come
to love the stove
and its scarred pedigree
immoral penis is the obvious
place to juxtapose somno-
fascist and dewlap?
figuration and abstract bagel?
is Tachisme a movement
celebrating rough clumsy
texture—why sigh again like
Ophelia or her supporters?
dipping into Frigidaire
we praise the book and
know its contours are
orderly, governed by proxy
and whim in lower region
the sick mental wife drops
glove, and law helps,
law is recourse
when stents bloom, if bloom
squeezes his daffodils
or the ethereal phlox
he pretends to know my sex
and photos it—
………….1940 is she ten and
reading Black Beauty
watching Waterloo Bridge
………….1958 I’m reading
Marjorie Morningstar, sending
emails to Leigh’s agent
has credibility and purse-like
we see syntax and can predict
its maneuvers and love
and forgive them in advance
like teen friend dick-bush still
lichen too has an unconscious—
………….but his face
is so improbably handsome I
could die, his hair so phenomenal
I might need to do something radical—
putting on lipstick
I wrote about fashion
classics in the Catskills
himself like a hamburger,
hep to the hemisphere, an ass
presented to the camera
was Jewish and she died and I
really hope she doesn’t
show up because that would hold
a certain amount of bliss
in its pocket
yellow dream mother was
coherent, and the coherence fell
away like the difference
between ages 83 and 89—
he treats me suddenly
with knife voice
Brünnhilde upon me
………….the leaf of
when she thought I was her
favorite son and I leaned
upon her knee or its in-
dentation like A Star Is Born
like a handsome guy in
basement doing laundry
and refusing to recognize me—
my mother’s draught
of raw egg, raw beef blood
and onion—to ease
the ache of being
a girl in that household
men were attracted to me
because of my big hips
cup with Sudek facets—
specialize in simple
forms and render them clearly—
syntax contains only a few
available slots, capitalize
my mother and she resorted,
bless her, to polite formula
the recourse was mah-jongg,
the caregivers were three
he sees me as evil but has
no prosecutor with whom
to share his verdict—
………….it boils down to
a strange narcoleptic
cult of seriousness, to
be considered evil
by a quorum
a consciousness defined by
the status (washed, unwashed)
of a coffee pot or a
cock (cut, uncut)—
carving out a piece of
my Nachtigall stomach
………….an eye imprisoned
within Busby Berkeley
eros in blankness,
then behold his blotches—
don’t cry, he survives his
blotches and neither splices
nor censors them—
Wayne Koestenbaum has published eighteen books of poetry, criticism, and fiction, including Notes on Glaze, The Pink Trance Notebooks, My 1980s & Other Essays, Hotel Theory, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films, Andy Warhol, Humiliation, Jackie Under My Skin, and The Queen’s Throat (a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist). He has had solo exhibitions of his paintings at White Columns (New York), 356 Mission (L.A.), and the University of Kentucky Art Museum. His first piano/vocal record, Lounge Act, was issued by Ugly Duckling Presse Records this year. He is a Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and French at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City.
A note (unedited, in English).
Buenos Aires. 20.12.2016. A return — this seems to be one of the things I’m expected to write about. And now that I return, now that I find myself here, I haven’t even left the airport and I’m already toying with the idea of writing a return, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from that mandate. To write about a return to a hot place, by a fictional character, broken by (self)exile and memories. But how could this return be any different? What could this writerly return add to this well-trodden path? People — broken by (self)exile and memories — have been returning to hot places, for an audience, since Ulysses (the first one). And it’s a terrible destiny, to find oneself in the mouth of a lyrical poet. This is very likely the most dangerous part of returning, that poetic possibility, the dangerous and fake nostalgia all poetry entails.
Missing Buenos Aires is a daily routine. Some days the longing arrives after a sound — memories are triggered, homesickness kicks in. Other times it happens after a smell, any smell, heavenly or foul. Most times the longing comes after the wanton recollection of this or that corner, any part of Buenos Aires that in my mind looks like Buenos Aires should look. Some days the feeling is overwhelming and I can spend hours wallowing in self pity. Most times the situation is manageable. I am writing this, listening to Astor Piazzolla, because today is one of those days where I can’t handle homesickness very well. And the music helps with the fantasy, it feeds it.
Because the thing is: I never lived in Buenos Aires. I frequented Buenos Aires a lot. But I never lived there, never managed to settle there, had my name on a bill there, or a fixed abode, or a favourite café, or a library card. Unlike Dublin, Paris, and later London, Buenos Aires was too much for me — I couldn’t tame it, own it, call it my own. I used to spend many a weekend in Buenos Aires but I would spent this time coach surfing, mostly off my head after rock concerts, preparing a landing that never materialised. So I miss the possibility of Buenos Aires. And by missing its possibility I can miss my own hometown without the uncomfortable bits, without all the impossibilities, the proximities, the complexities and familiarities. The parts that can hurt.
I miss an imaginary Buenos Aires instead of a real Rosario. Homesickness is safer this way. And besides, like this I can plug into some universal motifs of Argentineanness — perpetuated by literature, tango, film (Argentine and international) — that I no longer wish to contest, since I have long given up trying to express the nuances and the complications of being an Argentinean. Of course I miss Buenos Aires. Of course I play football. Of course I am a gifted tango dancer. Of course I am a charming Lothario. Of course I am prone to fits of passion and — unlike British guys — fits of tears. Of course I can ride a horse. Of course I am a streetwise intellectual who likes to sit in cafés to solve the problems of the world.
I have, during these past fifteen years away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, become a simplified version of myself. My life is better without corners. And more importantly, in (self)exile I have become what I always wanted to be: the stereotypical porteño.
I miss Buenos Aires. How could I not write about this now that I am here, now that I return to the city I never left, the city where I never lived?
Ariel Ruzzo, professor of Latin American Literature in some college, University of London, arrives in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. Actually make it professor of Comparative Literature, it will be easier to market. And Comparative Literature sounds less of a con. It sounds like he went abroad to do the vini, vidi, vici. Professor of Latin American Literature, for an Argentine character like Ariel, sounds like he escaped an economic crisis to then accidentally find his way into a modern languages department, where he ended up teaching unsuspecting and overpaying students the soporific drivel known as magical realism.
So Ariel Ruzzo — professor of Comparative Literature — lands in Buenos Aires after a hiatus of five years. He has come to sell a flat, a flat he inherited a while ago from an auntie, a flat in which he barely lived back in the late 1990s. He has found an overseas buyer, so it is only a matter of signing a couple of papers at the notary’s, some other papers at the solicitors’, receiving the money in his British account, and then back to London, to his musty office overlooking a central square. But there is also the thing with the boxes: he has to remove some boxes from his flat. Rita, an ex girlfriend, has been living there all this time, paying a symbolic rent. He would much rather avoid this, for a series of reasons, but he has already arranged to meet her tonight, have dinner together, old friends and all that, get the boxes out of the small storage corner under the stairs tomorrow. There must be five or six of them, said Rita. It can’t take him that long — most will go in the bin anyway.
I don’t remember where I was or why I was searching for images of Buenos Aires — it might have been a moment of procrastination; it could have been research towards an essay; it could have been anything. The reason for my search is no more but I remember very well the words, scribbled on a wall in some porteño suburb, in blue: “morirse no es nada, peor es vivir en Argentina,” — “dying is meaningless, worse is living in Argentina”.
These words pin down very well the atmosphere of the 1990s and early 2000s — my 1990s and 2000s. The decade felt like a slow death, punctuated by a long series of socio-political and economic upheavals. Like many others, this slow death — peaking with the crash of 2001 — sent me away. In my particular case, away from the possibility of Buenos Aires, on a journey to become Argentinean. No I don’t know what I was before; I only know that I became Argentinean abroad, probably while I was cleaning a toilet in Dublin, and the toilet was full to the rim with shit. This was a defining moments in my life. The realisation must have hit me then and there, or during the series of crap jobs I had for years on end. Somehow, suddenly, it was clear: who I was, where I was from, what I could aspire to. It was both humbling and enlightening.
I know Ariel Ruzzo left for the same reasons, even if he likes to play the scholarly card. But I still wonder if he became Argentinean abroad. Is it a generalised disease, this displaced becoming? What was his “cleaning an overflowing toilet” moment, if he ever had one?
Ariel has had a stellar career. From his undergraduate studies in Puán’s School of Filosofía y Letras, to an MA in Cambridge, to a PhD in Princeton. A stellar career, from the very start, in all the right places. His thesis, which surveys the detective story from its birth in the mid 19th century all the way to the cinema noir, has become one of those rare documents that manage to leap outside of the reduced spaces of academia, in order to become a non-fiction classic. Reading the Detectives is into its sixth edition and in the process of being translated into French and Japanese. And Ariel is only forty.
And yet, success aside, here is Ariel, back in Buenos Aires, like any mortal, after a hiatus of five years, and even from before getting off the plane it is clear that it will be a difficult trip, that coming back to Argentina always involves a process of readaptation and submission. There is a transport strike and among the people exercising their right to piss off everyone else we should count those in charge of driving Ariel and his fellow passengers from the plane to the airport. And no, the captain won’t let them walk the scant hundred metres to the terminal, because it contravenes a series of safety regulations, even if passengers from other planes seem to be able to do the walk. A two hour wait, then, until British Airways manages to find a scab to do the job, in several trips, old people and those with kids first, no mention of literature professors — tenure opens doors but not all doors.
Ariel is back in Buenos Aires, after a hiatus of five years. He will have to come back later to get his suitcase — the strike — or get a courier to pick it up on his behalf. But he is back. Really back.
I should be taking notes, there are so many things to remember, so many things that could go into that piece about a return, things that add realism, the details, the lived feeling. Now that I find myself in Buenos Aires I should be noting things down, focusing on the contradictory bits, because people love the contradictory bits, not only of returns.
In the subte, Línea B, between Gallardo and Medrano: a mother with a disabled kid. She is having a loud go at him when he tries to eat a cookie and the crumbs fall all over the place, as he contorts visibly in pain with some muscular malfunction. The mother, tired, aged too soon — she resents the child, not that I have to guess this, because she says “I can’t stand you anymore,” in Spanish obviously, and then realises she needs to get off, and makes her move, politely asking the other passengers in the carriage to make room for her and the wheelchair-bound kid, all charm. This must be the first time in my life I hear a porteño say sorry, please, thank you. I am impressed.
This differs radically from my first experience of Buenos Aires on my own, perhaps in the mid nineties. I was walking down the avenue connecting the Retiro bus terminal with the city centre — it was an ocean of people. I was a bleary eyed lad coming to the smoke from a place where we swallowed the Ss at the end of the words. I was bleary eyed and scared and walking maybe too slowly and maybe in the wrong side of the pavement. A redhead guy suddenly turned up before me, kindly shouted in my face that I kindly move aside and pushed me aside, kindly. I almost fell kindly on the floor but I didn’t.
I wonder if this kind redhead is now as polite as the mother on the subte.
The car flies down the Riccieri. Thank god the driver is quiet and Ariel can dedicate his time to watching the ugly houses both sides of the highway, sprouting like verrucas. Many an Argentine house built since the big migrational waves of the early 20th century is an example of Feísmo, the modernism and beyond of the impoverished European, at home and abroad, he reminds himself, almost as if he were thinking in footnotes. Who lives here? What is it like to live by the side of this road that never sleeps, with planes over your head, in one of these eyesores?
He is about to find a provisional answer to this question when the love motels catch his attention. He might have gone to all of them, here at the outskirts of civilisation. What a perfect site for love motels. A perfect place to stop for a shag before you make it to Buenos Aires and get lovelessly screwed by the city. He once was in one of these love hotels — or he imagines he was in one, or I imagine he was in one, which for a fiction piece would be the same — called “París”. He might have gone there with Rita, before he got the flat, when the options where shagging against a tree or in a rented room, shifts of two hours, mirror on the ceiling, adult channel not included in the standard rate. They might have gone to a room called “La Torre”. There might have been a photo of the Eiffel Tower glued to the window, both blocking potential perverts peering in from the parking lot and providing the ambience. Or, like I said, he could have imagined all this, or I could have, thinking about his ghosts, planning his return in my head.
But it doesn’t matter who imagined or imagines this — soon Buenos Aires is there, to the right and to the left, tower blocks, barrios, more lack of planning, advertisement hoardings that look like soft porn, seen from the elevated Avenida de Mayo. And a song starts playing in his head, make it a tango, make it Piazzolla, make it legible for foreign audiences, the ones likely to read this piece about a return.
And the poor, their dark faces underground — it is always a matter of skin, whatever Argentineans might tell you. The pregnant woman with several children, begging barefoot in Pueyrredón, when I get off to change to the line that will take me to Once station, where I have to catch a suburban train to Ituizangó. The kids’ dirty faces, their shredded clothes. They might be the same poor kids I see later on the train — poor but with air conditioning. Poor but spoiled after the tragedy of Once in 2012, when fifty one died crushed like sardines, when the 3772 from Moreno to Once, decided to enter the station at full speed. I can’t guarantee trains are able to stop now, but at least they have aircon.
These kids or other kids, around eleven or twelve years old, drinking warm white wine from a plastic bottle, happily and prematurely off the trolley. And the itinerant salesmen, offering everything from sweets and colouring books to a CD with the latest hits of x radio — they are playing the songs with a contemporary ghetto blaster, the salesman showing off a voice probably acquired during a journalism degree. And the Africans. Africans in Buenos Aires — they are back. Speaking a language I can’t pin down, sitting in groups of two or three, ignored by the other passengers, for better or worse, travelling to provincia with bags and suitcases. What are they doing here? Where are they going? There used to be many of them in Buenos Aires but then they vanished — blended into the white population over the years, according to some; decimated by the flu and the war with Paraguay, according to the ones who know better. And now they are back. Like ghosts. Is there any other way of being back than as a ghost?
Everywhere is full of ghosts and ghosts taking down notes.
Ariel uses his keys and comes in unannounced. The door is heavy. He remembers the door being heavy but it must have gotten heavier during these past five years.
Soon he is riding the lift all the way to the sixth floor. It is an old Otis with scissor gates. He thought they had been banned — children kept getting their hands and feet crushed by the gates. But here is this lift with scissor gates and it feels like being in a film, cinematically moving up with the numbers of the floors painted on the walls turning up one after the other and this irregular chiaroscuro of shadows and lights, scrolling in vertical pans.
And soon the sixth floor. Ariel leaves the lift, closes the scissor gates behind him, and the lift disappears towards the ground floor, called by another person and the door of his flat opens and Rita is there, unwilling to be taken by surprise. And she looks beautiful, the same, she hasn’t aged a single minute. Or maybe he never paid attention.
The dead. If I were to write that piece about a return, of Ariel’s return, I should make a reference to the dead of Buenos Aires. The dead might explain the ghosts, or add some material basis for them, or just some colour.
The dead of Buenos Aires, underground. Not as in buried six foot under but given a platform in the actual metro stations, on station names and writing on walls — the battles, violent men, terrorist attacks, catastrophes, accidents, disappeared writers. Caseros — Ejercito Grande versus Juan Manuel de Rosas (another station and a tough we love to hate) 1852. Pasteur / AMIA — vaccination / suicide bombing. Carlos Gardel — plane crash, Medellín, 1935. Rodolfo Walsh — killed in Constitución, 1977, disappeared. But maybe I am exaggerating, forcing wanton connections. Or maybe not, because Cromañón.
By the tracks, in the depths, a small mural consecrated to the dead in the fire of Cromañón, where almost two hundred music fans burned to death during a rock concert, in 2004. The choice of words in the mural, on the black wall, links to other deaths: Cromañón Nunca Más. Nunca Más, Never More. The words chosen back in the mid 80s to attempt to quantify and qualify the crimes of the juntas between 1976 and 1983. Nunca Más was the title of the book by the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP), two words that would also become a call to stop death. In the mid 1980s the call was to stop state terrorism. In the early 2000s a call to stop another type of death: one born out of the state’s disappearance, all the corruption and oversights that would make it possible for almost two hundred — many of whom were children — to die in a blaze.
A piece about a return to Buenos Aires wouldn’t be a piece about a return to Buenos Aires without some paragraphs dedicated to the dead. This is, of course, another trope I am expected to write about, another form of surrender, part of the demand that Argentine writers fill the page looking back towards this or that violent past. Disappeared, victims of terrorism or petty crime, any of these will do to please the reader. Perhaps the dead might grant me the attention of a publisher too.
And of course they have fucked by now. Ariel is smoking a cigarette, lying in his estranged bed. Rita is smoking too. Of course they are smoking.
And of course a dialogue will here ensue, one of those dialogues full of love, longing, and bitterness. Like Graciela Dufau and Héctor Alterio talking while promenading by the rotten Riachuelo in a 1982 film about another return, Volver, unimaginatively named after the tango tune with the same name.
Alfredo (Alterio) comes back to Argentina, tortured by (self)exile. He comes back for work, although not only for work. He is a successful businessman in the USA, and he comes back to Buenos Aires, in 1982, when the dictatorship is crumbling, and the Malvinas idiocy is yet to happen. He returns, and he works and he beds Beatriz (Dufau), an old flame. And then — or even before they get laid, I can’t remember and I don’t wish to watch this film again — they are walking by the Riachuelo, in a clichéd postcard spot better avoided, yet abused by art, cinema tango and literature. There are still dock workers here and there, because they had not yet been decimated by Menemism. And Alfredo and Beatriz walk, loving one another and hating one another in dub, in sepia, with corny phrases, so much to say, in so little time. And of course Beatriz is a journalist, just like Rita, who starts speaking over the dialogue in Volver, perhaps reading my mind, or Ariel’s, or perhaps to stop me from reproducing the original exchange of platitudes.
“Why did you come?” asks Rita.
“To sell the flat, you know that,” says Ariel. “And to see Buenos Aires…”
“I mean why did you really come? You didn’t really need to…”
“I was curious…”
“Tourists,” says Rita bitterly. “In just a few days they want to see everything: visit all the museums, watch the tango, the football. Everything. As long as it is authentic.”
“And I really wanted to see you,” says Ariel. “I’ve missed you.”
“Have you realised how much we sound like characters in a bad Argentine film?” asks Rita.
“It’s the fate of all Argentine characters,” says Ariel and lights up another cigarette. Or I might say that. But he definitely lights up a cigarette because I quit smoking years ago.
And the dead of the AMIA, murdered in the terror attack of 1994. How many of them? Was it eighty five of them? The names are painted on the walls at Pasteur / AMIA — white traces against a black wall, also underground. I don’t count them.
The ideologues behind the attack were never found. The investigation pointed towards a cocktail of islamist terrorism, state and police complicity, inefficiency, and old school Argentine antisemitism. There was an Iranian connection and a national prosecutor in charge of the investigation. He was found dead twenty and so years later, in January 2015, a day before declaring before the congress, in a move that according to some would have compromised the then president Cristina Kirchner (who had recently signed a controversial deal with Iran in order to advance the investigation, if you ask some, in order to shelve it, if you ask others). As his death was investigated things started to turn up about him, dirty laundry. Inappropriate exchanges of information with the American embassy, bank accounts abroad, links to foreign secret services. No one will ever know who suicided him. Like very likely no one will ever know who bombed the AMIA in 1994, or the Israeli embassy some blocks away, two years earlier. Justice is so slow in Argentina, that frequently it never arrives. And everyone is a bit dirty, make sure to make this clear.
I can’t remember if it was after the attack on the embassy or the AMIA when a old lady on the telly, reflecting upon the atrocity, outraged and emotional, ended her speech with “why do they have to put a bomb here? They haven’t only killed Jews today. They have also killed Argentine people, innocent people.”
Ariel spends the night with Rita. The next morning he goes for a walk.
If the piece had taken place during the 80s Ariel sooner or later would have bumped into a disappeared-theme demo. If it had taken place in the 1990s, he would have bumped into one against the political corruption and the economic misery that characterised the decade. In 2001 he would have bumped into a horde of angry citizens demanding that all politicians go — que se vayan todos. In the past fifteen years he would have bumped into demos for or against the populist saints or sinners who saved or destroyed the country, that bunch of holy crooks, the Kirchners — Argentina is a country of radical binaries, don’t ask me to explain this in this limited space.
And now, after hanging around Florida and Lavalle, Ariel is walking down Carlos Pellegrini heading towards Corrientes, being the tourist he is, when he bumps into a demo, pure coincidence. The posters betray the same lack of imagination as in any demo anywhere. The semiotics of red and black, block capitals, synthetic slogans. A large flag with Che’s face confirms that the lack of imagination in this opportunity is left-leaning. And here a closer look at the posters and signs: they don’t make any sense. Ariel feels dizzy but nevertheless starts to walk with the demonstrators, gets in the midst of the noise, unable to understand the language they speak (metaphorically) and he crosses 9 de Julio avenue with them, and then stops and watches them disappear banging their drums and singing the chants against the traffic down Corrientes, with that obscene erected Obelisk behind him.
He watches them disappear. Unable to process what is going on, what do they want, what is it about now? He can’t understand because he has spent five years away, because he has slowly disengaged himself from his country, because he doesn’t belong here any more — Rita is right: he is a tourist. And yet he is already thinking of a possible conference paper, why not a journal article: “Peripatetic Literature: Argentine Politics and the Poetics of the Demo”. The title just turns up in his mind. He doesn’t even need to know what the demo was about in order to write this — the reason can be found out later, or just invented. He only needs to know that the demo happened. That it will happen again. That Argentines love a demo. And that demos are just another form of literature. And that all literature can and should be compared. vivisected, CVfied.
I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires and never make it home, to the place where I was born and where I spent twenty five years of my life. Let’s just say that a number of personal and work-related commitments impede it. I get to see my family, most of them. But I don’t see my friends, except for the ones who have turned the possibility of Buenos Aires into a reality. A natural order is repaired by my inability to bridge the 350 kilometres that separate me from Rosario. Some friends verbalise their disappointment and I stop responding to their messages. Others stop replying to my fake apologies. The important part is that a heavy ballast is dropped: we should have stopped talking years ago — we were victims of the Dictatorship of Nostalgia that comes with social media.
I spend two weeks in Buenos Aires, meeting this or that writer or publisher or filmmaker, sorting out papers, buying books and films and eating meat and drinking wine. Working but not only working and having a reason to be here, for once. And taking down notes — I take down lots of notes, on my notebook. Obviously I take notes with a fountain pen, on a Moleskine — this is part of my process of simplification, of embracing the stereotype.
I take notes in bars, on the bus, on the train and the subte. And people peer at my notes but the notes are in English. A girl on the train speaks to me in English after eyeing my writing, “where are you from?” she says. I reply to her in Spanish. She seems disappointed and asks why I write in English, then. I reply that I don’t know. She laughs. She is beautiful and young, and gets off at the next station, Villa Luro. This girl was some moments ago sitting zazen on the train floor. I had never seen anyone sitting zazen in Buenos Aires. It is never all about poverty or misery, is it? Not even when I think for an audience, for the page, speculatively, erasing the complexities and colours, in order to please, to be read, to be synthetic and available.
At some point I start missing London. I count the days. Thank god the days fly. I can live a different lie there, one that feels real.
After one more session of love with Rita, more tender than passionate, and very likely sterile, hopefully, Ariel sets to the task of getting the boxes out from the storage place.
What he finds will colour the nature of his return, whatever else happens before or after. Perhaps he finds notes. Or notebooks. Yes, notebooks of his years as a porteño intellectual, the years before the Big Leap into other continents and into a properly structured way of life, a career. Or maybe he finds nothing of any significance. The thought makes him anxious.
He does open the boxes. The first two house old books eaten away by damp and cockroaches (do they eat books?). He moves these aside, keeps opening. Old clothes, old readers from his undergraduate degree years. Everything ready for the skip, smelling of moist and time and somehow death.
But the smell of coffee soon starts to fill the flat, the melancholia is aborted, and Rita turns up with a cup, wearing a long white shirt, barefoot, all post-coital happiness. She moves next to Ariel, crouches next to him, passes him the cup, kisses him on the cheek.
“It’s all rotten,” he says, Ariel, opening another box.
“It’s very humid down there,” says Rita; she sits on the floor, careful that the t-shirt clothes what some minutes ago was exposed in the open, because this is how old friends sleep together.
Paper, this is all paper, and yes, he finally gets to the notebooks. He had the foresight of wrapping them in cling film. They seem unharmed. Two notebooks, pseudo-Moleskine, national production, they will fall apart as soon as the cling film is removed. He moves them to a side, doesn’t bother with them, not now.
“All this can go in the bin,” he says, pointing at the rest of the boxes, the six stinking boxes, with their mouths open towards the ceiling.
“Polo,” says Rita, referring to the building doorman, “he can sort this out when he clears the rest of the rubbish tomorrow night, after I leave.”
“Is Polito still alive?” asks Ariel, surprised.
“He looks like,” says Rita.
“He must be,” says Ariel. “I’d love to say hi to him,” he adds. He won’t.
I am waiting in the departures lounge, Ezeiza airport. I lie to myself, that I will be back before the end of the year, that this time I will make the effort to go back home, not to an ideal or imaginary place, but to the only place I really left behind, to whoever still speaks to me there, to my mother’s house, my childhood things, the books I wish I hadn’t read, the places where I used to spend my time.
They have wi-fi in the airport now — it works quite well. I play with my phone, read the news in English, respond to banal messages, and when I run out of battery look at the passing people, singling out my compatriots without effort, their familiar ways and blue jeans and gigantic Nike trainers sticking out in the flurry of wealthy Brazilian tourists, mugged Europeans on their way home, and air hostesses and pilots with their small suitcases rolling over linoleum floors.
I sit here, waiting to fly back to London, and I think about Ariel’s return, about how the rest of his journey might unfold for him.
In the next days, after relocating to an AirBnB flat in Palermo, he will dedicate full-time to sorting out the final details pertaining the sale. Rita will be too busy, organising her move first and settling into her new place later, to meet him until the very last moment. He will welcome this space, spend his time in the bookshops of calle Corrientes, the bars, perhaps even go watch a film in one of the old cinemas left in the centro, if any hasn’t been turned into an evangelic temple. He will end up signing the papers by the end of the week and receive the confirmation of the bank transfer the following morning. The notebooks will remain unopened until after the sale, the transfer, after all the to dos, and Rita. Until he has had time to breathe and properly realise that he has nothing left in Buenos Aires, that all his traces in this place are contained in these two notebooks. So he leaves it until this very last moments, when I am sitting at the departures lounge in Ezeiza airport, waiting for the plane that will take me to London, to the place we call home.
The cling film comes easily and the notebooks don’t fall apart. The first one — a clutter of blue and black ink — contains mostly quotes from this or that book. The second one, this is the one that matters. The first page makes it clear.
A note (unedited, in Spanish).
Ezeiza Airport, April 13, 2002. A departure. This seems to be one of the tropes I’m expected to write about. And now that I depart, now that I’m here waiting for the plane that will take me away, I toy with the idea of writing something about a departure, perhaps just to surrender, to stop running away from this mandate, or from the fact that I’m leaving. I’M LEAVING. And I don’t have a clue what will happen with my life, where I’ll end up, doing what. It’s such a cliché, for an Argentinean to depart, and to write about it. It’s a terrible destiny. But at least it’s something to do. And what’s more: departing is meaningless; worse is living in Argentina.
Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd
Bees are the Overseers.
-Bees are the overseers of the world of light. The moon belongs to them,
…………as does the sun.
-Those who insult the moon are within the moment stung with lightning.
-Just as the kitchen is the navel of the house, so the bee is the navel of the air.
-The Devil paves his streets with bees.
-Seven, that auspicious cipher, numbers the ways one may disencumber oneself
…………..of a corpse:
It may be set in a slipper-shaped jar and buried in the sea, sinkhole, well,
but if some continue to dress their dead in aprons and caps of threaded shells,
it is no longer fashionable to entomb the dead among ants.
The dead may be kept in honey, or wine, or salt, or tar, or aromatic gum.
-Death is about change; architecture isn’t.
-As it may be entered, the mausoleum offers an adequate receptacle
…………….for the idea of the departed
without offending propriety.
-If the mummy, official portrait or bust are symbolic facsimiles of the deceased,
the dome both acknowledges the buried skull and anticipates its sequel.
The dome suggests stubborn persistence; the pyramid, infinity. As for the obelisk,
here vertiginous loss is dwarfed by vertiginous height.
-In the charged company of thugs, the skull both breathes and barks.
-Power, as embodied by architecture, is less fickle than the mourners who, sooner
will abandon their black weeds for sexier attire.
-Power never abandons its funereal mantle, nor its funereal appeal,
yet some continue to mistake the dubious attractions of secular authority for
the natty garments of seduction.
-One has a tendency to ascribe intention to the Abyss, even a logical scheme,
although it has been demonstrated, time and time again, that any given hypothesis,
is contingent on provisory facts. As the nursery rhyme asks:
In the mouth of of despot, what is more fickle than facts?
Thus is Philosophy forever seated on the horns of chronic uncertainty. Science,
……………Her Right Hand,
insists that the First Quality of the Abyss is surprise.
-Space is measured by the time it takes for one bee to fly to another.
If it were not for the bees, there would be no astrological computation,
nor could the transit of the human soul across the planets be observed.
-Wind, air and trees: these animate and exemplify the gardens of the bees,
which are intended for the ears and lungs only.
Sight is seduction, says the philosopher, evoking the whore’s commons
with their deep beds of blossoms, smoking furnaces, the dubious fascination
of mechanical songbirds.
-Like sight, sound sails the air on strings.
Compare, the philosopher entreats us, the fleshy arguments
…………..of the whore’s parterres,
to the spontaneous infinity of the sage’s bower.
-The word on the page transcends all things made of brick and bone.
Spoken, it rends the air, as do the bees, beams of light,
the stars that elbow their way across the night.
—Rikki Ducornet, Collages By Allan Kausch
The 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.
San Francisco Bay Area illustrator Allan Kausch has edited over 1,100 projects for Lucasfilm Licensing (including the manga adaptations of the original Star Wars trilogy, for which he won the Eisner and Harvey awards), five volumes of the Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick, plus hundreds of projects for Tachyon Publications, Black Widow Press, Night Shade Books and PM Press. With Michael Moorcock, Kausch coedited London Peculiar and Other Nonfiction. Kausch’s semiautomatic writing has appeared in Antiseptic, Furious Fictions, Athena Incognito, Leviathan IV, Fantastic Metropolis and John King’s VERBAL.
We are half-drunk and the alcohol cracks us open, lets in some air. We’re not entirely relaxed but we’re better than we were when we left home, all stiff and silent, wedged into the opposite corners of the back seat of a cab.
Now, my husband says, “But if you had to? Five grand.”
“Okay, maybe the one with red hair. With the tattoo. But probably not,” I say. The one with the red hair with the tattoo is one of the three bartenders. The game is of what if. What if I had to sleep with a woman. For five grand.
I used to get crushes on girls in university. They all dressed better than me or seemed more comfortable than me in how they were in their bodies, their clothes—I wanted to be them and on rare occasion I wondered if I maybe wanted to be with them.
And I wanted to kiss Helen before, in high school. I would watch her plump, small mouth talk and talk and think of penises she sucked and I would get jealous. I wanted to kiss that mouth. I was curious. She drunkenly confronted me about it once, at a party, asked me in front of people if I wanted to make out. She said I was creeping her out with the way I stared at her. She laughed and I laughed along with her. I left the party as soon as she left to get another bottle vodka from the kitchen.
“Why not? She’s beautiful,” my husband says.
She is. I would kiss the redheaded bartender. I’d probably do it for five bucks or for free but I like lying to my husband, pretending to be hesitant about it.
I think he lies to me all the time. I have no proof but if you lie you think everybody else is.
There are other women here but the bartenders he can see best; they’re displayed right behind me. I wonder if my husband still sees me as beautiful. He never tells me I’m beautiful, any more.
His eyes never leave the girl display. “That would be incredibly hot.”
I say, “Your turn. Which one? The waiters.”
“They’re all men,” he says. “It’s different.” He finally looks back at me.
“Ten grand. Just a blow job.”
“No way,” he laughs.
The patio is full, most of the tables occupied by couples similar to us, slightly crumpled stylish 30–40somethings. Perhaps they all play same stupid games. Perhaps, like us, they are parents set free for one night. If this is true, if you were to total the amount of money spent on tonight’s outing for this whole patio, it would be in thousands: outfits, sitters, cabs, dinners, booze, hotel reservations for some.
The restaurant itself is one of those places where car parts are used as decoration and drinks are served in mason jars with twine wrapped around them. Inside, the walls are exposed brick and air ducts under the ceiling and chandeliers made out of deer horns. Outside where we are, there are no special accents unless you count the waiters who all have moustaches and tattoos. It’s been like this for years now in Toronto, and there’s no sign of these sorts of trends going away. I try to imagine what the next trend will be, perhaps something to do with space, again like in the 80s but with some new twists: everything shaved off even eyebrows but armpit hair and it will be dyed; everyone will sit on the floor in restaurants, the walls will be empty and white, metal ceilings.
For now, this is one of the it restaurants downtown. You need double income to sit in these barbwire chairs without getting nervous about the injury and the prices, and you need high tolerance for hipness, which is why people like us eat in restaurants like this one. We’re not hip but we try to hang on to our youth. The way everyone does in their 30–40s. I don’t know if everyone else hates this shit secretly, like I do.
I share my observations with my husband.
“Yeah, if you’re right, we could probably live for a year on what’s being spent here tonight,” he says.
“Buy a nice car. Travel to China. I could travel to China where I would meet a man who’d murder me quietly in a dark alley somewhere.”
“You should try to go back to writing,” he says. “You always make things into stories.”
“It was a lame story anyway. You mocking me?”
“Yes, everything is a hidden insult.”
“I’m sorry. I thought you were mocking me.”
“No, I mean what I say. There’s no hidden agenda. You like to live in an imaginary world.”
“Not true,” I say even though it’s true. Despite the alcohol and the sudden ease it affords, I know I will never bring up how things are between us. I don’t know if he caught on that I’ve been fantasizing about leaving him. On some level, he must feel it—he must know that there’s something wrong, he must be aware of this ultrasonic scream that I scream. Then again, I’ve been pretending to be me for so many years that perhaps it is impossible for him to tell deception from the truth. The world he thinks he lives in, with me, is real to him but it’s something that I’ve created. He’s completely right about the imaginary world.
He sighs. “Fine. Not true.”
“Are we having a fight?”
“Of course not.” He laughs. “But do you remember when you thought I was this big playboy? You had this idea of me that had nothing to do with the truth?”
“You’re trying to have a fight.”
“No I’m not. I just always wonder why you need to make up these little dramatic scenarios. Life is quite interesting the way it is. Just write about penguins. You’d be great at writing childrens’ books.”
“I thought you were the novelist in the family. Anyway it was just a joke. About China, come on. Relax.”
“I’m relaxed. But think about the penguins,” he says and tries to ruffle my hair but I move back.
“Okay. I’m a bit testy tonight. You’re right,” I say when he grimaces.
I empty my glass of wine.
He says, “So has this thing with Helen and Rick been in works for some time?”
“No. It’s new. She just told me last week.” A lie.
“Did you know things were bad between them?” he says.
“Kind of. She wasn’t too happy. You know their baby issues.”
“Rick doesn’t want a baby.”
He says, “Yeah, I always forget. I don’t think about babies. But there must be more to it. Divorce is a pretty drastic thing.”
I say, “Babies can be enough reason for women. I don’t know. Babies are a big deal.”
A moustachioed waiter brings us the next thing to eat. It’s broccolini; it slides on the plate in greasy sesame sauce and soya sauce as the waiter puts the dish on the table. The way the waiter describes it, he makes it sound like it’s a fancy gazebo. I can’t wait for him to go away. He does eventually.
I’m hungry so I scoop most of the thing onto my dinky plate and my husband looks on, “Glad you’ve got your appetite back.”
“What about my appetite?”
“You’re too skinny.”
“Like unfuckable?” I still care to be fuckable to him. Or I just care about being fuckable.
“You’re a skinny white mattress,” he laughs. “Just joking. I always want you.”
“I am what?” I say. I’m impressed with this joke. But it sounds like he thought about it a lot, like he just couldn’t wait to say it out loud. So now that he says it, I play the game where I will have to return the banter. I come up with something.
“A skinny white mattress. I could sleep on top of you and it would be pokey,” he says, “pokey, pokey, pokey.”
“I like heavy blankets.”
“Bam,” he says. He chews on his broccolini. “This is like eating an asshole. Like inside of an asshole. Like the asshole passage.”
“Small intestine. I read about it when I was looking up what my mother has been up to lately. She eats things that will pass through it undigested. It’s some new diet,” I say.
“I like that she has hobbies now,” I say and the same waiter or one that looks just like him, with tattoos of words and symbols shows up with another dish. Some kind of shavings of meat like scraps of roadkill. Apparently a pork something.
“You have it,” I say to my husband after the waiter leaves.
“It’s not fattening,” he says.
“I know it isn’t. But you have it. I can’t eat pigs.”
Because I read an article about pigs being intelligent like dogs or even more intelligent. Because I watched a documentary about a slaughter house when I was 13 and had to cook for my mother and myself and I decided we should become vegetarian and she didn’t mind. I’ve never had bacon. The documentary, what I remember of it, was of pigs marching toward their death by taser and an ax to the tunes of Carmina Burata. It made me think of Holocaust. I told my husband the story a million times and he still doesn’t remember. He thinks this is about weight.
He eats the scraps as I gulp my glass of wine and motion for another.
I don’t know if it’s the same thing at other tables but when I look around, the other couples look as tired as I imagine we are. I picture them like us, in cabs, disgusted with their partners and horny because of wine, and resigned. Everyone wants to move the hell out of their lives.
I’m projecting. The proof is in a couple next to our table. The man reaches for the woman’s hand and she looks at him and it’s like a viagra commercial: her face beams with happiness.
“You think this is his secretary?” I say.
“It could be his wife,” my husband says, his voice low. I know he loves me more than I love him. It used to matter; now it doesn’t. He’s told me recently that he feels lonely. That ended up in sex; I had nothing else to console him with.
Another dish shows up and we split it; it’s a vegetable and at this point I don’t care what kind of vegetable; it’s marinated and so full of flavour that it shuts my mouth up. I count backwards from 20 then from 10 then from 20 again and order another glass of wine.
When we get home, we relieve the babysitter, my husband’s friend’s daughter with thick glasses and a 10-year-old blog. I read her blog to see if she ever writes about us; she never does. I can’t tell if I’m disappointed or not that we’re not important enough or not more important than the food she eats and writes about.
“You should check out Anhedonia,” I tell her. It’s the name of the restaurant that we just ate at. It’s a name too lazy even for a hipster lowball of being nonchalant.
“I have. My boyfriend is a waiter there.”
“Which one?” my husband asks as he hands her a stack of 20s.
“He’s got a beard.”
I’m in a satirical novel about intentionally funny dialogue, which is not funny; it’s trying too hard.
“Oh, him. Yeah, he was good,” my husband says as if he could identify the waiter.
“Mark. He’s got my name tatted on his forearm.”
“Yeah,” my husband says and winks at me. This makes me cringe but then I feel sorry for him immediately, for his inability to hide his age. I think about how we used to be a glamorous young couple at events, how there were no babysitters—the luxury of being able to pay for babysitters, too!—in our old lives and the biggest conundrum was which high heels to wear with what dress.
The last summer before Henry, we decided to become novelists. We would both finish books by the time summer was over and we would quit our boring jobs after publishing offers would start to roll in. My husband no longer took pleasure in attending launches of condos or multi-blade razors, and I kept bouncing from one administrative assistant gig to another.
The idea to become novelists came about after one of those TV shows about unusual jobs. Someone was a writer. He seemed to be doing really well. It was the first thing we both got excited about in months.
We rented a small cottage in the woods by a lake. We spent mornings writing, afternoons fucking, evenings watching movies; every night a movie from the convenience store in the small town where we got groceries. Movies about funny love coincidences, with blonde actress daughters of blonde actress mothers, or comedies; everyone with big twinkly eyes.
Somewhere in the middle of this idyll, I abandoned my novel. Or it abandoned me. When I read what I had written so far, it turned out to be just a string of words, characters complaining about other characters. No plot.
I did not tell my husband about it. To look busy, I wrote long emails to friends. To Helen mostly. Back then she was dating someone who had children. There was a lot of drama. I had to analyze things he’d say to her, give feedback. It was ever-absorbing.
For a short while I thought about using our emails in my story, see if a plot would evolve on its own, organically, out of the emails, but it didn’t. Helen and the guy kept not breaking up. They also weren’t having any breakthroughs. It was a slog of bitchy little arguments between them. Nothing else. Exactly like the characters in the book I abandoned already.
After writing and lunch, my husband would take his nap.
One afternoon, I read what he had written as he napped.
The plot was solid because the story had really happened. All he had to do was type it up and give people different names; call himself Mark, which he did, and write from third-person—now it was fiction.
I knew the story because he told me it when we first started dating. The thing was already few dozen pages-long and right away I could tell who it was about. It was a story of his ex-girlfriend who had disappeared. He had found her eventually but by then she was married and pregnant and she lived in a small town and she was fat although he didn’t write that.
I hated that the story was about the ex-girlfriend, not about me. The long descriptions of her body, elastic and light brown, and the way she made elaborate dinners for him, shaking her ass as she cooked—why was that still in his head seven years after he’d last seen her. Why wasn’t I?
The writing wasn’t bad.
I didn’t tell him I had read his novel and that I wasn’t writing mine. My disappointment was speechless with indignation. It wasn’t a novel, it was therapy, I wanted to say to him but instead I just kept that thought inside me
I thought of emailing Helen about this but it was too humiliating. I didn’t want her to think my life was imperfect too.
I started taking his sleeping pills in secret. I’d swallow them during our evening movie time. I’d be passed out by the time the movie would end.
He’d lead me drugged and mostly asleep to bed. Maybe he’d have sex with me maybe he wouldn’t; I didn’t care. I didn’t have to think of her brown elastic body that was in his head, when he would or wouldn’t fuck me.
That summer, I felt there was something different about me even before we came to the cottage but I ignored it. I was always very cavalier about my female body. I had no idea how many days passed between my cycles, I didn’t do self-exams of breasts. I didn’t take birth control pills because I didn’t even have a family doctor and I smoked.
In any case. We weren’t trying to have a baby. He’d always pull out of me and wipe me carefully afterwards. I never asked him why he was so paranoid about it but once when I turned over too quickly, he grabbed my shoulder and said, “What are you doing with your hand?”
He thought I was impregnating myself.
Ever since that time, I’d lie there like a cadaver, waiting for him to clean me up till he deemed me satisfactorily sperm-free.
But something got through. One little determined tadpole. And once at the cottage, it was the peacefulness of nature and the quiet that made me stop ignoring what I could feel already: cells multiplying, weakening me inside.
Out in the country, there were no honking cars around me, no sirens, no houses on fire. Just rustling of leaves, and at night, cicadas, frogs; a gold-wire sound of August insects in the grass during the day. All of that calmed me down; I was also slower because of the sleeping pills in my system. A nervous, whirring machine inside me stopped.
It was that quietness that made me pay attention, admit that there was a possibility inside me. I left early one morning to walk into the nearby town to a big grocery store, to buy a pregnancy test.
In the big grocery store, I locked myself in the bathroom and peed on a stick.
Not far where we rented our cottage, there was a farm. A big meadow where horses ran free and ate grass. After peeing on the sick and seeing two pink lines, I walked around the meadow, changed, no longer myself. There wasn’t just me now. There were two of me.
The horses didn’t come up but would look toward me occasionally. I felt spiritual in those moments, like I was connected to everything—the horses too, of course. “I am going to have a baby,” I told one of the horses and it looked at me uninterested.
My husband comes home smelling of cigarettes and beer. He says, “Helen was at the bar.”
“She had an argument with Rick.”
“I should call her.”
“You should,” he says and stands there with his hands hanging against his sides.
In the past, he’d be sitting on the couch beside me, trying to kiss me, grope my breasts. But my body no longer invites it. And he tries very little to break through it. Mostly in bed. And even then, only if I turn a certain way. Often only if we both drink, our bodies come together under questionable consent according to the magazine articles.
“How was she? Was she okay?”
“She was fine. I walked her home.”
“That’s sweet of you,” I say. “Come here.”
He walks up to me then and bends down, stiffly.
He kisses my forehead with his lips.
Up close I think how he smells kissed-already. I picture a blonde 20-something-year-old throwing her thin arms around him, his baldness cute to her, manly. His body is a body of a former athlete. Women like him.
It arouses me to imagine this some girl kissing him and I pull him down by the neck and kiss him too, kiss him properly.
His mouth is surprised but only for a flash.
We stumble upstairs.
My orgasm is easy, fast. A build-up orgasm.
He pulls out of me and before he comes I angle my body so that it won’t land anywhere on me. The wetness grazes my shoulder. I picture the box of Kleenex on the night table on his side.
I told him after at the end of that summer that I would leave him if he were to try to publish it.
At the end of that summer, my body too was brown—brown like the body of the girl in his book—and smelling of sun. My hair went blonde from all the walks on the hot beaches. I was tall and gorgeous like a swimsuit model. A girl you marry so that others won’t fuck her.
I stood in front of him, with that body, in a swimming suit with my hair like that and I gave him an ultimatum. He was immortalizing someone else not me. The novel was not a love letter to me. He married me but it didn’t matter, all that sun and the body wouldn’t matter if he were to publish the novel.
And he said, “Then you have to leave.”
I didn’t believe he was truly a writer like that, that he really meant it. His stance surprised me.
Later on I thought that it was maybe his independence that he was standing up for. We were both blending in with each other as people tend to do in relationships, and he was fighting it.
We flew home on the same plane, different seats, without speaking.
I started looking for apartments.
He started reading and revising what he had written. He cursed in his office, “shit shit,” as he read it; I could hear him groan at night.
I heard him joke on the phone to someone telling this someone he would pay a dominatrix to not degrade him sexually but instead to insult his intellect, his creativity, to tell him how bad the writing was because he could no longer tell if it was as bad as he suspected. He wanted to destroy it but somebody else had to tell him to do that. It has to be a stranger, he said to the person on the phone.
Eventually, there was silence, no more cursing late at night.
I felt as if I’d won and it felt terrible. It felt as if I killed him in some small way. Now, desperately, I wanted him to go back to the manuscript. I couldn’t tell him that.
I found an apartment and put a deposit on it. I couldn’t imagine myself living on my own but here I was, about to do it. I had a vague idea about having to get a crib, set up a space for the baby-to-be. But I felt no enthusiasm about it.
I waited for my husband to tell me not to leave but he never did.
He took on extra shifts, wrote copy for magazines about dick products and shitty cars.
He would come home late and not check on me in the guest room where I lived now. We didn’t speak to each other, more than it was necessary: “Have you seen my umbrella?” “Rick is coming over.” “Helen called.”
I began packing. My plan was to do it loudly, obnoxiously, but he was never home. I cried but only out of frustration of nobody witnessing my misery.
After he’d go to bed I read what he had written so far. I read it again.
It was even better than what I’d read before. The writing was sharp, disciplined. The parts about the girl were tender but nothing over the top. Just simple words describing the protagonist’s desire and madness and self-loathing passages about loss: He felt offended by the world—it had the nerve to go on despite him being dead in it.
“You have to go back to it,” I told him, finally breaking our silence.
He was working late that night and I waited for him and he came home and I said that to him. It was almost midnight.
“You have to.”
“Have you found a place to live?” He asked without looking at me and his voice broke.
“Yes,” I said and we stared at each other and then we were kissing and it felt as if I could finally breathe.
“It’s so good,” I said, “your book, it’s so good.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“If you want us to work out we can’t talk about it any more.”
“It’s so good.”
“I’m pregnant,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “Good.”
And that was all. Good. He said nothing else about it then and we made love and fell asleep wrapped around each other, his hand on my belly.
The pictures online show a small house, a lake, a small beach. Another year, another vacation.
Inside the cottage, there are chairs, bookshelves, old comfortable couches. A large TV to watch DVDs on.
I move the cursor over the pictures. In some of them the lake is almost black against the washed out blue of the sky. The beach is all pebbles. There are Spectacular Sunsets!! advertised in the posting. A deck so you can look at our Spectacular Sunsets!!!!
The sunsets. And after the sunsets end, and the sky turns darker and after little Henry goes to bed, a deck to sit on, with a glass of wine, thinking up stories: me stories about penguins, my husband stories about former girlfriends.
Later on, we can make love by the Working Fireplace!!!
But first, before we do all that, I need to find his manuscript.
It will be like breaking a spell, finding this manuscript, having him go back to it
It will break the spell between us.
I don’t know what exactly I mean by that. I don’t believe in magic. But I suppose I do now: I have been reading horoscopes and articles about relationships on-line and I’ve played Solitaire obsessively like it’s an Oracle; playing till I win because I need positive answers to everything: Should I stay, should I go?
Yes, I still want to leave but I always come back; I place bets but the answer never comes—I’m always betraying myself in the end, even if I make a decision. I’m driven by chaos, not logic, emotions, not intentions. So perhaps the only thing left is magic, spells, breaking spells.
I go into my husband’s office to find the manuscript.
I’ve looked in the basement already but there’s nothing there, just crates of tax returns, hammers and rubber boots. No manuscript.
In his office, there’s nothing in the file cabinets, nothing on the shelves in the banker boxes. Lots of papers but none of them are the manuscript.
Perhaps he destroyed it.
I even look in a wooden box full of pens, hole punchers, staplers, magnifiers, a mirror with tiny grits of wet cocaine powder stuck in the scratches. Because maybe on the bottom.
Not on the bottom. Instead, I find a hotel key card, but not from the hotel we went to.
Once I find the key card, I become a detective, determined to find more evidence of whatever I think I’m about to discover. The manuscript is no longer important; the key card is.
I look behind the ship in the bottle. I don’t know why I look there. Maybe because I notice that the photograph of me pregnant is gone; it used to be right there, next to the ship.
How does this happen in movies? What is the buildup?
I try to recall specific movies, specific scenes, actresses, too, but I can’t; it seems there are so many—scenes of female characters going through drawers like me—through the pockets of her husband’s jackets, and the laundry. Kate Winslets, Michelle Pfeiffers, Cate Blanchets looking looking. Lipstick smudges on collars. No suspicion until the moment and it’s always a surprise, a hand to the mouth, a close-up on shocked eyes.
I see myself as if in a movie when I finally come across the item that confirms what I didn’t know but what I was looking for.
It’s tucked in behind the ship in a bottle. Not the photograph of me pregnant. A note.
I hold it in my fingers. I don’t have to unfold it. I can just stick it back where I found it.
I unfold it.
It reads: Can’t wait to fuck you again.
Then two hearts. A face with tongue sticking out.
The note is teenager-like but there’s carefulness even to the multiple exclamation marks that gives away this pretender. The writing is familiar, instantly familiar, actually; it’s Helen’s writing.
I have a quick, physical reaction to my discovery, a funny taste in my mouth, metal. Then, like a swift electric zap, desire to self-harm, too. To scratch my skin or smash my head against the wall. My body lunges forward inside me but I don’t move my body.
I get up and go downstairs to the kitchen where I drink a glass of water.
I drink the glass of water; the desire to self-harm passes.
It’s getting dark outside. My husband and my son are at the museum looking at dinosaur bones. They will be home soon.
I drink another glass of water. Two glasses.
I walk up the stairs and go into his office.
I stick the note back behind the ship in a bottle.
I don’t know why I do this, like I’m not going to confront him about it but maybe I’m not—I can’t even tell.
All I feel is deep cold inside me, like everything is freezing. Like I’m freezing. The world is not the world. It is a movie. Maybe this is what betrayal feels like. Unreal. Unbelievable. Impossible to absorb.
There’s noise outside the door. My son shouting something. Boots stomping.
When I open the door, my husband shoves a bouquet of flowers in my face and then pulls me close to smash my mouth against his.
Henry is squealing, trying to pretend-push us apart.
It’s impossible. It was a joke. Some leftover thing from a party, maybe we played Charades, maybe Cards Against Humanity, maybe it was some sort of dare…
The was a party like that at someone’s house, last year. Songs. Charades.
I had to do “Love will tear us apart,” and I emoted—arms flying open from my heart, pretending to tear my hair out next, him watching and smiling, unsure.
It was hot outside, the windows were open, letting in the sticky, moist air.
We took a break from games and someone brought out cocaine. It was clumping from the humidity so everyone shouted, “hurry, hurry.” We cut it on a big butcher’s table and snorted big cloying lines and went back to Charades.
That was the last time we played. Helen and Rick were there but I don’t remember any notes, nothing like that, there were no games that would produce notes like that, everyone just talked fast, and later we couldn’t fall asleep, although we must’ve fallen asleep eventually.
But if the note is a leftover thing, a jokey thing why hang on to it, why hide it?
As we kiss now, my tongue becomes a feeler, trying to feel out this secret, the wetness of his tongue not telling.
His mouth smells of mint and cream. I lick the corners of his mouth to figure out the taste. Some kind of dessert.
There was the card key, too, from a hotel.
He makes a sound, a muffled growl. I kiss him deeper, licking now and biting. It’s like an athletic endeavour almost, this kiss, me tonguing, tonguing. Kissing like I’m buying myself more time to figure out what I need to figure out.
“So so so gross,” Henry says and walks away, his shoulders drawn forward, feet stomping in a performance of exaggerated annoyance.
My husband breaks the kiss and laughs, “Whoa!” His face is red.
Perhaps this is good. The note. Perhaps it will make things easier, maybe this will be the thing that will put me over the edge. This is a substantial thing, a thing people commit murder over. Infidelity. My best friend. How could he?
I’m an actress with tragic eyes; I should run to the basement and grab all the things and burn them in the backyard.
Rick answers the phone right away, “Nina.”
“Can we meet?” I hold my breath.
“Sure.” He laughs. It’s not nice laughter. But this is especially not nice laughter. It’s nasty. It’s laughter that knows why I’m calling.
I want to shout at him, tell him—what? Him knowing why I’m calling, laughing like that makes things easier for me.
“When can you meet? Can you meet today?” I say. I try to keep my voice as straight as I can. A line of a voice, a strong line. No wavering. Fuck him.
“Sure, let’s meet.”
I show up at their house.
He’s wearing a middle-age-crisis jacket, kooky patterns, too much red. He seems to be on his way out, “Hey,” he says.
“Can I come in?”
“No. Let’s go,” he shakes his head and I don’t ask where but follow him instead.
He drives without speaking.
The silence is uncomfortable. I find it arousing too. The same repulsion-attraction I’d felt when he licked my ear that time when we played Charades and he was supposed to whisper a word in my ear.
We check into a small boutique hotel converted from an old rooming house. The concierge is a young Indian guy who checks me out. He’s unusually attractive with wide features—wide nose, lips—and I wish I was going with him.
“Coming?” Rick says. The concierge gives me a small smile.
Inside the room, the walls are raw bricks. They make hotels out of old asylums, doll or glycerine factories, remove all the innards and stuff them with slick sculptures and beds with sheets and quirky art on walls. Blown-up photos of female body parts in black and white.
We are silent.
I sit on the bed, under a photograph of a shaved armpit.
He goes to the bathroom and stays there for too long.
I take my coat off.
I fluff my hair. I need to wash my hair. I haven’t washed my hair in a while. It doesn’t matter.
He comes out, his face red, shining with wetness.
He sits in a chair across the room.
He watches me sitting on the bed.
Outside, there’s a courtyard, an old van with an airbrushed mermaid parked in it. Garbage bins and garbage bags. A tree with sparse, sickly leaves—a tree that wants to die and can’t.
“What are we doing here?” I say.
“We’re here because our spouses are shitty human beings and we are going to get revenge by fucking like crazy,” he says.
“Is that a good idea?”
“Why are you here?”
“Because I thought it might be a good idea.”
“There you go,” he says but doesn’t make any move.
I say, “When did you find out?”
“I paid someone. To follow her. Like they do it in movies,” he said. “I have pictures. I can get into her texts. It was almost fun. I felt like a kid detective. Nancy fucking Drew.”
“You actually paid someone.”
“Yeah. I can’t just spend my days spying on her. I was worried I’d hurt her, too,” he laughs. The laugh is short, fake. “I thought it was this little douchebag from her workplace. I wanted to see pictures of him, of them together. But then surprise!”
We fall silent again.
I look out the window. A man gets in the mermaid van. He doesn’t start the car. I wonder if he’s a detective too.
“Well I’ve always wanted you,” he says.
“That’s natural. Proximity.”
I say, “I should be angry. But I’m only doing what I think I should be doing, calling you. I don’t feel angry.”
“You’re trying to convince yourself you don’t feel angry,” he says.
“I love him.”
“I’m sorry,” Rick says. He gets up. He comes up to me and wipes under my eyes with his thumb.
He bends down to kiss me. His kiss is soft, softer that I would’ve expected from a mouth that says so many idiotic things. I kiss him back, take a clue from his softness, make my mouth pliable, submissive.
I wait for a bite but it never comes.
When he pulls away I let out a sigh. To him it probably sounds like desire.
But it is desire, too. It’s despair and desire.
He undresses me quickly, and I undress him.
We don’t spend much time on foreplay.
Our coupling is dry and fast. It’s unpleasant for a moment but then my body takes over, overcomes the initial discomfort: it lubricates.
Rick breathes rapidly, and I start to breathe rapidly too and I move along with his rhythm, close my eyes and let it take me away.
I can feel his rage, how it makes him hard.
He kisses me again and this time he bites.
I bite him back.
“Dammit,” he shouts. He touches his lip, looks at his fingers. No blood. “Dammit.”
He goes at me, faster now, to punish me, perhaps. He groans like an animal. He sweats a lot. Our bodies slick and slide. I adjust to this new rhythm quickly and I groan, too. A fucking panther. Fucking. We’re a sex zoo.
I feel the warmth: contract, pulse, squeeze.
I pull him even deeper inside me.
I clutch onto him, I love you, I think, feeling my orgasm fire off inside me.
After he collapses on top of me, I push him over.
He goes to sleep.
I lie with my eyes open.
I fall asleep briefly into a quick, satisfying dream. I dream of being made love to by a short, old man. Nobody I know. He holds my legs down as he kneels above me. We are both amused by how flexible I am, by how my open thighs touch the ground completely flattened out as he thrusts.
When I open my eyes, Rick is in the shower. I put my clothes back on and leave the room.
I walk through the underground shopping maze to get to the subway. When Henry was born, I used to come here all the time with the stroller. It was one of the places that opened very early. Like most new mothers I needed to have all kinds of stupid things to do before noon in order to prevent dying of boredom and guilt from not loving my child enough.
My favourite store was a large bookstore with bright lights inside.
I would go in and read all the magazines I would never buy. Tabloids and magazines about how to parent, or repair bicycles, and magazines targeted to lesbians, and music magazines.
There was a condo building above the shopping maze that was nicknamed “The Menopause Manor” because it was mostly occupied by the elderly. They, like the stroller-pushers, would come out first thing in the morning. They would buy expensive coffees and English muffins and eat them while in the little food court by the bookstore, watching everyone who wasn’t them. People like me, the young.
If I would sit down, there would suddenly be two or even three women with trembling white hair and lip-smacking fuchsia mouth, cooing at the baby, looking up at me with what I read as a plea: Get me out of here. But the “here” was age and we were all going that way. I wanted to shout that at them, tell them to leave my child alone.
Later, I softened. I thought of how carefully they dressed to display themselves to the world, to prove that there was nothing wrong, no loneliness, no death.
I recalled reading about sick animals, how often you couldn’t tell they were sick because they would present themselves as healthy—the outward appearance was a defence against a world that is ruthless in discarding its weak.
As Henry grew, I would take him back to the shopping mall and we would sit down and wait for the first cloud-haired lady and we would tell her what Henry’s name was and what he liked to do the most—art— and was he good to his mummy, yes, he was.
I felt like I was being charitable.
Today is the first time since long ago that I walk through the mall.
The bookstore is bright and shouty with front-store shelves displaying the latest hits: books on gluten, gardening, how to overcome being an asshole.
The elderly are occupying every table in the small food court by the coffee shops.
A stooped man in a t-shirt that reads “pushing 95 is enough exercise for me” stands at a table occupied by a flock of white-haired ladies. He says things that make them laugh.
He looks at me and winks and I wink back, without thinking.
I try to imagine who he was—I try to imagine him as my sexual counterpart.
As him, he is tall and his eyes are bright blue, not cloudy, and he has wide shoulders and wiry, black hair on his strong chest; he is a rugby player, a guy who drinks and fucks and laughs on yachts.
I think how that guy is trapped inside this twisted body, how there’s no getting out, how his desire must learn to die but it is refusing to die. The desire drives him, it tells jokes to ladies, the way it used to; it is a wink, a lighthouse in the darkness: I am still here.
I cannot get on the subway yet. There’s too much time between now and later. The house is empty. That note.
I need a distraction.
I worry that in the empty house, I will behave badly, look through old photos, go on the Internet and do quizzes. I will compose emails to Helen or to a relationship advice columnist and I will never send them.
Many of the elderly look up when I halt in the middle of my walk. Sharp eyes. Anticipation. Maybe I will start screaming, fall down. A woman alone, disheveled.
There’s a movie theatre on the main floor of this place and I turn around, decide to go see a movie. A movie that will make me not think for a few hours, any movie will do.
I pick a movie about people in space. Three-D glasses.
The people’s space shuttle gets blown to pieces by cosmic debris and there are only two survivors.
They float in space to try to get to other shuttles to get back to the earth. It doesn’t work out for the guy; he floats off to his death. She survives somehow; it is a movie after all. There are dozens of scenes where she almost doesn’t survive. Almost dies all the time.
—Jowita Bydlowska, Photos & Text
Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, was published in 2017. Her short story “Funny Hat,” published on Numéro Cinq, was selected for the 2017 edition of Best Canadian Stories. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.
They took the district psychologist for a body search
to the drugstore office thanks only to her professional
myopia, because she couldn’t have imagined
that the substitute security guard with erection
problems could flop so badly as to take her
for a thief, and that he was so hard on her
heels in the empty store minutes before closing
time, solely to catch her in the act. So she was
summoned to return at once the (old) blush
she had sunk into her handbag, while conscientiously
placing an identical one in her shopping cart
so that, after payment, she could powder her cheeks
with it for the award ceremony of the Freud medal
for lifetime achievement, to be handed her
by the minister of education himself. ‘But I’ve seen her
steal it with my own eyes!’, the security guard protested
and in his indignation kicked a cardboard box
full of condoms, making a sizable hole
in it. The therapist’s face had no need for the blush
to burn. But her calling, to ease the guard’s bewilderment,
proved stronger than her shame, and with the battle
cry, the patient is always right, she sprang to the guard’s
defense in front of the manager who, blaming
the heat wave, in his embarrassment
hastily put on his long winter overcoat.
Revolt of the Extras
We long to be continued after the last
episode, although the producers opened
the champagne and gave us a small farewell
party. This afternoon even we sit
on the kitchen stools in front of the camera
hoping to see ourselves in the new chapter: we have
played our part for a full year and this recent
indifference to our fate, the plotlines unfolding
without us in the new scenario
hurt us to the quick. No, this is not
what kept us pacing up and down the street,
shivering as usual at winter’s
end. Is it possible that the audience is losing
interest in us? Has our time passed
for good, our story passé, even though we are still
stirring? Coming and going we can hear
the camera’s buzz. As before, we tread with nimble
feet, but a low growl comes from the machine’s
jaws. We fear it might be disapproving.
The Other Side of the Coin
To bear the unsayable agony
of the lovers seated on an anthill,
the rhythmic squeaking of bedsprings at the moment
of climax, a rumble of the stomach in the midst
of an ardent declaration of love, to mix up the dear
addressee’s name when reunited at last.
While contemplating suicide by the open
window, to be soaked not in springtime
melancholia but in grenadiermarsch stench.
To suffer the priest’s flu-inflected
staccato prayer over our dead body.
After a night spent awake due to the weather
turning, to drowse off when our life
sentence is announced.
Instead of ours, to enter the hotel room
of the lust killer who is shaving naked
in front of the full-length mirror. To go raspy
when given the right to the last word.
To meet ourselves on the staircase
(she going upstairs, I tumbling down).
Incensed, to shove our manhood
into the bread slicer instead of bread.
To knock on our own door, waiting to be let in.
With our mouth full of spinach to choke
convulsively on some antediluvial joke
on the silken sofa of the newly wed.
To eat gilded-edged caramel custard
while changing diapers. To shake
hands with the disciple who tries
to sell us the dead master’s gold tooth.
To see the light under shadowy circumstances.
To remain standing for good, half-dressed,
in front of the cupboard, or sitting
in the bathtub until icicles grow on the tap
out of a penchant for parallelism.
…………………………………………..And if not, let go!
Then the day will come: the grenadiermarsch
smell in the open window, the killer
with the razor will come to cut off the ice
from our skin. And spring! spring will come!
A Royal Day
During his visit now and then the king
stops on a whim, and throws a look
across his realm. Winter has worn out
the city, the fences lean in, the frost drove
new cracks in the pavement.
Snow, black, is blocked in the gutter mouths.
Open lorries carry sand to a nearby
construction site, fine dust
drizzles down. With light fingers he wipes
the grains from his brow. On tram fifty-nine
homeless bums are yelling across to each
other over the passengers’ heads
in a tongue of the realm he barely understands.
He arrives at Déli Station. Descends
into the subway’s draughty inner
halls. The brass band strikes up
a fanfare. He spots the mutilated
Romanian sitting in the same corner,
a babbling would-be greeting on his cardboard sign.
So his faithful subject has come to him,
travelling all night on the blackened train,
or defecting across the green border of hope!
He waves at the man kneeling at his feet, whose
eyes run over with tears. Daily routine.
On a mouth organ a duke plays operetta.
The hailing, the attention directed at him,
the loud calling of his name, the hands grabbing
the hem of his robe wear him out, he feels repulsion.
And yet: he was born for this, when all the bells
spoke of hope, I will be one of them,
he said, but now it is as if he were watching
in a microscope the beings, invisible to the naked
eye, scurrying, worming on the ground.
I dreamed I gave birth to a child: by him.
But they warned me beforehand: it is stillborn.
The most awful of all was my indifference,
I didn’t care what was happening with me,
I felt not pain but ennui rather. A huge,
waxen newborn was laid out on the table
covered in transparent nylon.
Next to it, under a damask cloth,
props of an unfinished breakfast.
We must behave as if he were alive, the midwife
said and cried out twice: Look,
how cutely he is wobbling!
I knew I was to be sentenced
I started eating. On the newborn’s brow
above the bridge of the nose, a wound cut
with a blade appeared, I tried to smooth it out,
fighting my repulsion, but couldn’t. No
blood oozed from it: it was final.
Like the outcome of something long-planned,
done in cold blood, it was: concrete.
I knew I was the one who wounded him, unawares
when slicing the bread. I even recalled how
the knife ran into the still protesting skin.
I felt fear and hazy remorse.
I knew I was to be sentenced.
For everything around us is: life
Surely I cannot be the killer of our love?
Surely it was the child of another, a stranger,
not yours, and by no means mine?
It was a strange child laid out on the table,
stillborn, since the wound didn’t bleed:
this should be sufficient evidence.
Most likely it was a wax doll. Someone
must have made a savage joke,
for everything around us is: life.
And inside me too: you surely know me!
Even if leaves are falling on the rails
and the tram turns the corner with long shrieks.
The Chain and the Link (A Lánc És a Szem)
…(1) The most exquisite movement (A legszebb mozdulat)
It is now clear that the forcefully united
stands out in parts. Needless to resist
anymore: as I have always wanted,
the chain and the link crumble a-part.
(I never managed, as I now realize,
to align, however hard I tried.)
Leaf, how gently you fell on the lake’s
water. Gentler than any lover
on the craved pudenda.
This was the most exquisite movement, thank
you, leaf. You didn’t mingle. You didn’t quiver.
This was the most exquisite movement.
…(2) To leave (KIMENNI)
the crowded room at the height
of ovation when the arch-funereal
clowns perform their lightning-fast
jest, not to be duped by their countless
tricks, to break through the elated
row, to reclaim from the mesmerized
cloakroom girl hat, coat and umbrella
for a song, to cross the city when its theatre wings
are being rearranged but the night shift
has not arrived yet, the clocks stand
still, our sole companion the disinfectant
smell on the last pestilential streets.
…(3) Going on (FOLYTATÁS)
Not to call anyone (the greenery will
outgrow their pots anyway and, pushing
open the window, lean out),
not to avenge, nor to get over
insult, not to have tooth-ache, inflamed
cornea, leukemia treated,
not to open the door when the house is aflame,
not to cling on when drowning, to turn back
from the loathed door at the moment
of arrival. Not to look forward on the way
but backward only. To stand up to the clash.
Then on the water a leaf may fall.
Yearning for an ancient cup
To not rebel, even if you possess the necessary
skills, but execute the emperor’s order.
To smuggle my remembrance into the manner of the farewell,
the moral of experience paid with blood, the gift
of clear-sightedness, before my eyesight is
blurred and my pupils hitch upward.
Where does bargaining begin, the withdrawal
of consent, the defensive fidgeting, the living
for the last moment, the hour stolen
for banqueting, or making love? I might
lapse there as well – our emperor left the decision to us,
but Socrates forbids cowardly action.
If I linger on among you for a while, it’s only
to say, I owe a cock to Asclepius.
But since you had promised to pay my debt,
what would hold me here still? The command
summons me, to quote the tragic poet, and it’s high time
to arrange for a bath. I’ll drink the cup right after.
The sand sifting from my eyes will settle on
the borders of Athens. I have never believed in borders,
yet feel no triumph. My legs go heavy,
I lie down on my back, as the man
who brought the hemlock advised.
The world loses its contours, grows cold.
— Zsuzsa Takács, Translated from the Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa
Zsuzsa Takács is the doyenne of Hungarian poetry. She started publishing in the early 1970s, gradually developing a consciously understated, slightly elegiac lyric voice coupled with profoundly personal themes, addressing both private and historical traumas. A former professor of Romance literatures, she has translated St. John of the Cross, Pessoa, Borges and others into Hungarian. Her story “Conference Hall” originally appeared in her 2007 volume A megtévesztő külsejű vendég. Önéletrajzaim [The Deceptive-looking Guest. My Autobiographies]. Her work is widely anthologized, and has been translated into English by George Szirtes, Laura Schiff, and Ottilie Mulzet, among others. Her poems and stories have appeared recently in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, and Locomotive Magazine. Reviews of her work and an interview can be read on Hungarian Literature Online. She lives in Budapest.
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 Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika 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.
- Translator’s note: Potatoes and pasta stewed with onions, some sort of meat or bacon, and eventually anything else that could be thrown in – in this respect, a bit like the famous Irish stew. It is very consistent, and became a food of the poor. The smell would have been of onions stewed in pork grease, into which the mixture is then thrown with water. Appropriately bathetic.↵
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.
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast
by Megan Marshall
365 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $30
Elizabeth Bishop is a poet whose work during her own lifetime failed to reach as wide a readership as her more celebrated contemporaries. She published relatively few poems – approximately one hundred poems constitute her entire body of work. Since her death in 1979, however, Bishop’s reputation and readership have grown exponentially; she is now considered by many critics to be one the best American poets of the 20th century.
Many of her poems were considered masterpieces by her contemporaries. They are full of formal intelligence, clear and elegant language and charm. But they exhibit a complicated emotional distance and reserve; her work stood in direct contrast to the more popular work of confessional poets like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich who dominated American poetry in the last two decades of Bishop’s life. A famously private individual, she held information about her life and emotions close to the chest, even with good friends. Her books were few and far between. And living abroad for many years, she kept herself apart from the turbulent cultural shifts of the mid-1960’s. Readers heard little from or about her.
The renewed interest and celebration of Bishop’s work might be partially due to the discovery of letters made public in 2015, written by the poet to her psychiatrist and friend, Ruth Foster. In them, we learn much more about her early traumas and frustrations, her sense of abandonment, her experience with incest and physical abuse, her long struggle with alcoholism, and her consistent belief that poetry provided the one stabilizing force in her life. The satisfaction poetry gave her was more reliable, even, than love. Near the end of her life, she had this to say about her work:
“What one seems to want in art is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. (In this sense it is always ‘escape,’ don’t you think?)”
Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, Megan Marshall’s much-anticipated new biography of Bishop, limns not only the poet’s work for insights about what made her tick but also the more confessional mode with her psychiatrist. Those letters, quoted from extensively by Marshall, help readers understand Bishop’s sense that she was an “outsider” among the privileged class of people who surrounded her. The biographer, who studied briefly with Bishop at Harvard, also uses her training in poetry to unpack many of the allusions in the poet’s work. With both of those perspectives – confessional and professional – the emotional core of Bishop’s poetry becomes even more powerful and accessible.
A father dead when she was eight months old; a mother institutionalized for mental illness when Bishop was just five; removal from a well-loved home in Nova Scotia; incest involving a paternal uncle; life among a privileged class of people with whom Bishop felt ill at ease: Is it any wonder the poet kept some of these insecurities and traumas hidden? Is it any surprise she searched for a “life preserver” that could help her survive her addictions as well as the string of broken relationships she had with her lovers?
Bishop began to write poetry after an exclusive prep-school upbringing and entrance to Vassar. She was very much influenced by Marianne Moore, to whom she was introduced by a Vassar librarian. Bishop admired Moore’s technical mastery and ability to write directly from experience without sentimentality. In “Efforts of Affection: A Memoir of Marianne Moore,” Bishop said that Moore’s book Observations was “the self portrait of a mind…not as a model, and not as beauty, but as experience.” Moore urged Bishop not to submit poetry for publication until it was absolutely ready to send in, or “not at all.” Bishop followed that advice throughout her life, leaving many fine, unpublished poems among her papers. Her desire for perfection comes across in the biography as almost pathological.
As important as Moore was to Bishop, it was the poet Robert Lowell who played one of the most important roles in Bishop’s life. They became fast friends after being introduced by the another poet, Randall Jarrell; Lowell was “well-positioned” to connect her with other influential poets, many of whom offered lovely places to stay and sometimes funds to go with them. It was Lowell who named Bishop to succeed him as Poet Laureate (at the time called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress) when she was only thirty-eight years old and had published only one book. It was Lowell who “nudged” people at Harvard to hire her when she finally did need a job, and it was Lowell who “wangled” grant money for her from a series of organizations including the Rockefeller Foundation. He also brought her to the attention of another well-connected person, Howard Moss, poetry editor of the New Yorker, to whom Bishop sent most of her poems as she finished them.
Elizabeth Bishop with Robert Lowell on the beach in Brazil, 1962
Lowell was authentic in his admiration; he carried a copy of Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo” in his wallet for years. Granted, Bishop’s work was excellent, but what might have become of her without these Good-Old-Boy connections? The list of them is long. A small trust fund from the Bishop estate to “cover rent and necessities” helped her survive for years as a non-teaching poet. But, truth be told, she depended on the loving, patient, and sometimes indulgent support (economic as well as emotional) of many friends and long-term lovers.
Marshall does a fine job of explaining Bishop’s desire not to go public with her sexual orientation. The atmosphere of tension and persecution in the United States during McCarthyism – attacking communists and “perverts” during the straight-laced 1950’s – was intense; Bishop felt no need to have her homosexuality be a factor for people reading her work. Perhaps she avoided teaching in the 50’s and 60’s because she knew what kind of price would be paid if her sexual preferences became public.
Her long-term relationship with a Brazilian landscape designer and architect named Lota Macedo de Soares (described by Wikipedia as “well connected” – a phrase which comes to mind so often in the reading of this biography) began to fail in the late 60’s. But Bishop still preferred not to align herself with “women poets,” believing the phrase to be demeaning. She refused to let her poems be published in anthologies which contained only work by women. She did not admit her lesbianism even when social tensions dissipated and persecution was becoming a thing of the past.
In a letter to her psychiatrist Bishop once wrote that when she was young, “I got to thinking that they [men] were all selfish and inconsiderate and would hurt you if you gave them a chance.” But she never went public with that feeling, and she was no feminist. In fact, she was apolitical, describing the Watergate hearings on the “god damn TV” during the summer of 1973 by saying, “If this is witnessing history – I’d rather not.”
Bishop’s 16-year relationship with Macedo de Soares was the longest sexual relationship of her life, a life sprinkled with love affairs before, during and after that time period. Most of those sixteen years, minus a few periods of time spent at friends’ homes in New England, Bishop lived in Brazil. Possibly because of her long absence from the United States, her reputation suffered.
If so, she didn’t seem to care. She believed in working hard on both poetry and her love life, less so on her reputation. She took on domestic life with a passion, fantasizing about it with some humor: “I can set myself up with a little shop in Rio, an impoverished gentlewoman, selling doughnuts and brownies.”
Impoverishment, though, was never a real threat to her in Brazil. Macedo de Soares was very wealthy, and she supported Bishop during their years together. When she and Bishop returned from New York to Brazil after a short separation, they traveled with “twenty-six pieces of luggage, as well as three barrels, four large crates, and seven trunks, packed in the ocean liner’s hold.” Hardly an impoverished poet’s baggage.
Eventually, the relationship ended (with Bishop beginning another affair before the break-up – “How could finding love again when she needed it be a sin?” Marshall asks, imagining what Bishop herself might have been thinking.) Bishop came back to the United States in need of distraction, and she began reluctantly to teach. She was the first woman to teach a creative writing course at Harvard, and the first woman to be listed in the Harvard course catalog.
Her drinking, a problem throughout her life, grew worse. She fell several times over the next few years, breaking bones and making rumors fly about her alcoholism. As Marshall says, “…poetry and alcohol had become organizing principles” in Bishop’s life. A long list of pharmaceuticals were added on – pills to wake up, pills to go to sleep.
Eventually, another new lover, a young woman more than thirty years her junior named Alice Methfessel, proved to be a loyal partner, tolerant of Bishop’s alcohol and pills. Marshall takes advantage of a collection of letters to Methfessel unavailable to biographers until after the woman’s death. There was a short period when the two separated, but once Methfessel returned to Bishop, the couple stayed together until the end of Bishop’s life. Still, they did not express affection in public – they referred to each other as friends, and they behaved as the same, never embracing, never holding hands. In fact, they seldom touched, even around close friends.
Marshall, who studied for a brief time with Bishop at Harvard, justifies a unique approach to the book’s structure by quoting this passage from The Confessions of a Biographer by Gamaliel Bradford:
Every living human being is a biographer from childhood, in that he perpetually studies the souls of those about him, detects with keen and curious thought the resemblances and differences between those souls and that still more present and puzzling entity, his own, and weighs with the most anxious care the bearing and effect of others’ thought and actions upon his own life.
The book opens with Marshall’s recollections of the Harvard memorial service for Bishop. She then adds, in its entirety, a Bishop sestina titled “A Miracle for Breakfast,” from which the subtitle of the book is taken. The sestina – a particularly difficult and rule-heavy form involving lines with a series of six end-words repeated in a ornately strict order in six stanzas, followed by an envoy containing all six words – ends in a melancholy mood, suggesting that the “miracle” of happiness was happening just out of reach, on “the wrong balcony” – not Bishop’s.
Like the sestina, the book is organized into six chapters, using the same end-words Bishop chose for her poem (Balcony, Crumb, Coffee, River, Miracle and Sun.) Those chapters are interspersed with sketches which jump forward in time and involve Marshall’s interactions with Bishop. And like the sestina, the biography ends with an envoy.
Unlike some reviewers, I found the occasional chapters about Marshall’s first-hand experiences with Bishop to be intriguing, not disruptive. We see the poet through a different lens altogether, focused specifically on how she performed (or, sometimes, failed to perform) as a teacher. We also see the future biographer at work as a poet; we’re able to consider why poetry, for her, comes up short (and why she comes up short for poetry.) And, as the epigraph suggests, we are given a theme: How do we read biography as a way to understand the resemblances and differences between someone else’s life and our own?
Should a biography end by focusing on the biographer rather than the biographer’s subject, as this one does? It’s unusual, but the approach stays true to the opening epigraph. Marshall clearly wanted to explore, sestina-like, the “resemblances and differences” between her choices and Bishop’s, measuring the effect Bishop might have had upon her own life. She does know how to look at Bishop’s poems intelligently and understands how to describe their word-choices and intricate rhythms. Her early training in poetry, her understanding of the poetic toolbox, makes her well-qualified to take poems apart to see how they work.
I found myself wishing occasionally that more of Bishop’s poetry had been quoted at length rather than given to us in short bits and pieces. Taken out of context, a line of poetry – especially one by Elizabeth Bishop, whose control of tone and sound was unique – can lose its author’s idiosyncratic voice, its musical qualities and its mystery. Prose from Bishop’s journals and letters also suffers too often from being taken out and quoted in phrases and small snatches.
But Marshall does do a good job of letting her readers know what early versions of Bishop’s poems sounded like. The revision process – essential to Bishop, who sometimes kept her poems “in process” for years before publishing them – is underscored, and we see how perfect the final version is.
Much of the last section of the book (“Sun”) describes the writing and revising of a villanelle that is Bishop’s most famous. Titled “One Art,” it is everything a poem should be: restrained, wise, clever, technically perfect, and (in combination with these, and most important) heart-felt. Facts gleaned from Marshall’s biography (places Bishop meant to travel, names she forgot, homes she left behind, people she loved and lost) are evident. This is a poem written from Bishop’s own experiences, less emotionally distant than many previous poems. The sorrow in it increases with each interpretation of the word “losing”:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it might look like (Write it!) like disaster.
The book ends with 44 pages of notes – interesting if you want to follow-up on some of the sources from which the author compiled her account of Bishop’s life.
Marshall’s research skills cannot be faulted, and this new biography makes for a revealing, if oddly structured, examination of Bishop’s complicated life and work. A fine follow-up book would be Colm Toibin’s examination of Bishop’s poetry (including biographical details) in his 2015 book On Elizabeth Bishop, part of the Writers on Writers series. You can also read a wonderful response by Toibin to the 92nd St. Y’s recording of Bishop reading her work in 1977, just two years before her death.
Julie Larios has written several reviews and essays for Numéro Cinq. You can find them archived here. 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. She recently retired from the faculty of The Vermont College of Fine Art and currently lives in Bellingham, Washington, about ninety miles north of Seattle and forty-seven miles south of Vancouver, B.C. For approximately the next three and one-half years, until the election of 2020, she will be fantasizing about becoming a Canadian.
The poems below are the work of Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934), a Russian poète maudit who ended his days as a professional beggar on the streets of Leningrad. They are, to my mind, every bit as vibrant and prickly as they were when they first appeared a century ago. Tinyakov was a difficult man: a combative alcoholic, resentful of his fellow poets’ success and perfectly willing to compromise his own principles (that is, if he had any to begin with) for a good meal. And yet, his verse remains compelling – not in spite of his flawed character, but precisely because of it; he is completely and electrifyingly honest about his baseness, his desperation, his animalistic drive to survive at any cost. For a number of reasons – many of them quite legitimate – Tinyakov’s fellow poets began to lose patience with their colleague in the 1910s, and most broke all ties with him in the 1920s. In the third poem below, “Joie de vivre,” Tinyakov predicts the death of Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), one of the era’s major poets. Gumilyov would be arrested by the Soviet secret police (Cheka) on August 3, 1921, for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, and executed on August 24. The poem appeared after Gumilyov’s death, and was interpreted as a celebration of his demise. This may have been the final straw. For the rest of his life, Tinyakov was a pariah.
How blessed to be a gob of spit
racing down a dirty gutter –
I can hug a stubbed-out cig,
find a piece of fluff to cuddle.
Say they spat me out in fury,
in a moment of despair –
skies are clear, I’ve got no worries,
breezes fill me with good cheer.
I may hunger for the freedom
of the river’s blue expanse,
but for now I’ve got the pleasure
of this dirty gutter dance.
Bitter cold – the puddles slumber
under frosted panes.
An old rook, all stiff and lumbering,
flaps a heavy wing.
He lingered here despite the chill –
it’s almost blizzard time.
Now he can’t escape the pull
of warmer southern climes.
He scrapes his beak with icy foot:
Must he really fly?
While fallen leaves circle about,
rustling their goodbye.
Joie de vivre
Lovely new coffins are headed my way,
full of the finest young men.
Pleasure to see them, simply a joy –
pretty as birches in spring!
You’ve kicked the bucket, you pitiful dogs.
Me? Well, I’m doing just fine!
They’ve sealed you tight under big heavy lids.
I can look up at the sky!
Say every coffin holds some kind of genius,
say that one there’s Gumilyov. . .
But I, who am hated and spat on by everyone,
am fit as a fiddle, you know!
Sure, soon enough I’ll be one of them – carrion,
nothing but worm-eaten filth.
For now, I’m still here and rejoice at the sight of them –
people that I have outlived.
July 28, 1921
A Prayer for Food
Fate, I beg you, I implore you,
give me food that’s good and sweet –
promise me a single morsel,
I’ll commit the vilest deed.
I would curl up like a ram’s horn
and go crawling on my knees.
I’d blaspheme the Lord in heaven
and defile even my tears.
I’d befoul the purest soul,
trim the wings of lofty thought.
I would burgle, I would steal –
lick my enemy’s bare feet.
I’d go down to hell, plod barefoot
through the Russian frost and mud –
for a piece of bread and horseflesh,
for a pound of rotten cod.
Put a yoke around my neck,
just as long as I can eat.
Life is sweet for well-fed lackeys –
honor’s bitter without meat.
—Alexander Tinyakov translated by Boris Dralyuk
Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.
A couple lived on a farm far away from the rest of the world. They had land to grow vegetables, chickens that gave eggs, and a well for water. Nearby, there was a stream jumping with fish and, right at the edge of their land, a wood with trees to chop for the fire.
The couple had everything they needed except for one small thing.
On their wedding day, to mark the occasion, the couple had planted an apple tree at the entrance to the wood and, exactly five years later, it bore fruit for the first time, as though celebrating their anniversary.
“Surely, it’s a sign,” the wife said.
The husband patted her stomach and smiled.
The years passed and the woman’s belly showed no swell, and though deep love slept within them, the couple stopped lying with each other.
The man took to going to the edge of the wood at the end of his working day to sit underneath the apple tree. At times, when he hadn’t come home for supper, the woman would go looking for her husband only to find him sleeping against its trunk.
“See what you’ve done,” she said, one evening, while helping her husband to his feet. “You’ve worn a dent in the tree with your back.”
She smiled through a sting of jealousy. Being of a sensible nature she shook her head and laughed at herself, returning to the calm she knew.
One day, when the man was tired from his work and felt the cool of the setting sun in his bones, he went to the wood and sat, leaning in the nook he had worn in the trunk of the tree. This groove his body had made over the years seemed to welcome him. Before long he drifted off to sleep.
In his dream, he was exactly where he’d sat to rest but the heat was unbearable. He took off his shirt, then the rest of his clothes, and lay naked at the foot of the tree. Despite the heat, a blanket of cool damp leaves covered the earth beneath the shade.
I wish there was a breeze, he thought, and closed his eyes.
What felt like a cool breath, ran over him, making the fine, blonde hair of his stomach stand and his skin bump and tingle. When he opened his eyes, the five-flowered blossoms on the apple tree waved. The branches swayed. He knew it wasn’t the wind but the tree itself fanning him. The branches came toward him, wrapping around his body and pulling him up and in until he was pressed against the trunk of the tree.
He placed his hands on the bark and looked up at the dance of the branches above.
“How beautiful you are,” he said, then kissed the tree tenderly. “How I’ve ignored you all this time. Have I been blind?”
The groove he had made with his back was now hip-height as he stood, and it yielded as he pressed against the tree. Leaves whispered in his ear and the smell of apple blossom filled his head and he became aroused. He made love to the tree in way that dreams allow. As he came, the tree caved, and he sank deep inside the damp, darkness of the hollow.
When he woke, he found he was lying naked on the earth. He tried to piece together what had happened, grasping at images from his dream, but, like snowflakes, they disappeared the instant he touched them. All that remained was a feeling of deep shame. He was cold and became self-conscious. Dressing quickly, he hurried home, his head thick with fog and full of fear and the sense of something very important lost.
The tree waited for the man to return. Every day, as the sun rose, the tree unfurled its leaves to the cottage in the distance. Every afternoon, the tree waited, hoping to see the man appear walking towards her through the long grass. But he was never again to rest himself on her bark.
As the days grew hotter, apples burst from its branches, tiny and sore. One, sprouting from the tip of the highest branch, caused the most pain. Within a week it had grown ten times the size of the others. It weighed down the branch until it rested on the earth. As the summer had its way, while the other apples matured and fell, the huge fruit stayed and did not stop growing.
One morning, as the tree opened for the sun, something was different. The large apple had disappeared. The branch that had held it now led inside the hollow that had been made the last time she saw the farmer. The tree pulled to bring the fruit out, bark cracking from the strain. The tree called upon its deep roots to help. And with the strength of the earth itself, it strained until there was a cry. A human cry. Now the branch came easily. It rustled out from the hollow and with it a baby boy, the tip of the branch attached to the boy’s belly.
The tree slid some branches under the baby and lifted it off the ground. The tree wept leaves and blossoms of joy at the sight of the boy. The boy screamed and cried. The tree curled a branch around a rock and bashed its trunk until its bark split. It brought the boy to the bark and he drank the sap.
The tree was devoted to the boy. It shaded him under its branches when he was hot and sheltered him in the hollow when he was cold. It let him drink his fill of its sap, held and rocked him till he slept. And the boy was content, playing among the roots. The farmer never returned.
When the boy had been with the tree for seven years, and the autumn had painted them both brown and orange, a tiny figure appeared in the horizon and came towards them. The tree became frightened for the boy, ushering him into the hollow and concealing it with its branches.
A little girl emerged from the grass swinging a small basket. She sat on the ground and picked the apples, throwing away the bruised and wrinkled but keeping the golden and shiny for herself. The girl began to sing. Clear, high and pure, her voice hung in the air like a sweet smell.
The tree resisted as the boy pushed at the branches to escape the hollow. The boy growled, a sound he’d never made before. The little girl jumped. The growling became a whimper. The girl looked at the tree, glanced back at the cottage in the distance, then stood. Flattening down her skirt, she tip-toed towards the tree trunk.
“Hello,” she said, tugging at the branches that covered the hollow. The boy struggled on his side, too, and soon the two of them were standing face to face.
“Who are you?” she said.
The boy reached out and touched her hair then touched his own. The girl spat on the hem of her skirt then wiped the earth from his face. The tree shivered at this, its leaves whispered a warning.
“That’s better,” the girl said.
The boy glanced back at the tree and then at the girl.
“I’m not supposed to come here,” she said. “It’ll be our secret.”
She held her finger to her lips.
“I have to go, but I will come back.” The girl smiled, picked up her basket, and off she skipped.
The boy run after the girl until the branch that led from his belly to the tree snapped him back. He pulled at the branch. The tree felt those tugs deep in its sap. As the girl disappeared over the horizon, the boy dropped to the earth with a thump.
The boy didn’t return to the tree straight away but sat watching the sun grow tired and heavy until it sank from the sky to rest. When the chill of the dark came to rouse him, the boy stood and, with his foot, made a circle of turned-up soil around the tree, mapping his boundary.
As the autumn darkened, the girl came to the tree every afternoon. She brought books with drawings inside and taught the boy about the world beyond the field. Even after he understood her talk, he would not speak back. He was ashamed of the rustling whispers that came out of his mouth when he practiced alone. The girl didn’t seem to mind that he was always silent – except when he laughed. He couldn’t keep the wet, sticky clacking sound inside.
The next summer, while the tree was busy bearing fruit, energy low, busy with so much life, the girl came all day, every day. The children started whispering. They were keeping secrets. When they did this, the tree would tickle them with leaves or drop apples on their heads. They’d laugh then move further away.
One sticky, late summer’s day, under the pale blue sky, the boy ran to greet the girl. This time they lingered at the very limit that his branch allowed. The summer had been a hot one, and the apples on the tree had grown heavy and begun to drop before their time.
When it happened, it was like an explosion. Every branch shook, every apple fell. When the surge passed, the tree saw the girl and the boy running across the field, hand in hand. In the girl’s other hand, shears glinted in the dying sun.
The boy’s hand felt crushed by the girl’s, but he didn’t mind. He ran through the field, down and then up the hill. He breathed deeper than before. Running in a straight line, knowing he could go on, running until he dropped, amazed him. But soon he grew tired and felt sharp, stabbing pains in his chest. He’d never felt so frightened. He stopped, trying desperately to breathe. The girl didn’t seem to notice. She pulled, dragging him on.
Ahead he saw a cottage, just like the pictures the girl had shown him. It was where people lived. People like him.
At the door, the girl said, “Wait here,” and kissed him on the cheek. He nodded and watched her go in. The door clicked but didn’t catch and remained slightly open. The boy was glad for a moment to breathe and rest but, left alone for the first time in his life, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. He watched through the gap in the door.
“Daddy! I’ve brought my friend home,” the girl cried.
“A friend? Where?” The father squinted at his daughter. “Don’t leave the child outside.”
“It’s the boy I’ve been telling you about,” she said, “the boy from the tree.”
“The apple tree, in the far field?” her mother asked. “That’s your father’s tree.”
“I’ve told you to stay away from that tree,” her father scolded. “And it’s not my tree!” He glared at his wife. “No wonder her head is full of nonsense.”
The girl ran out the door and grabbed the boy by the hand. He was scared and reluctant to come, but she dragged him in and helped him onto a chair.
“See,” she said, pointing at the boy.
“Oh yes, he’s a lovely boy, isn’t he?” the mother said. “He looks a little familiar.” She winked at her husband.
“Can we get him some clothes?” asked the girl.
“You’re not dressing a piece of wood,” her father snapped.
“When I start school, he can come too,” said the girl. “We can say he’s my little brother.”
The father slammed his hand on the dinner table.
The mother laughed. “He does have his father’s eyes.”
At that, the girl’s father jumped up, lifted the boy from his chair, snapped him in half over his knee, and threw him on the fire.
As he burned, the boy saw the little girl cry on her mother’s lap while the father picked up an axe and walked out to the field.
Paul McVeigh began his career as a playwright in Belfast before moving to London where he wrote comedy shows, which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival and in London’s West End. After turning to writing prose, Paul’s short stories were published in literary journals and anthologies, and were read on BBC Radio 3, 4 & 5. He is co-founder of London Short Story Festival.
The Good Son, Paul’s first novel, won The Polari First Novel Prize, The McCrea Literary Award, was Brighton’s City Reads 2016 and chosen for the UK’s World Book Night 2017. It was also shortlisted for The Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, a finalist for The People’s Book Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Prix du Roman Cezam in France. His work has been translated into seven languages.
After living in London for 20 years Paul has returned home to live in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
McVeigh will be in the U.S. in October to promote his novel. Catch him at Litquake in San Francisco or the Los Gatos Irish Writers Festival.
I made a vow to love whoever I encountered.
It wasn’t true yet, but came to me in the bathroom
looking at the purple tufted rug that boys’ shoes had trucked on.
There was a salt jar there too. And all these abstract paintings
I was entering and leaving. I stepped out
of the bathroom and saw the host’s white bedspread,
a corner of it, and some fabulous pillows.
I pictured a slew of children and mythological characters
sleeping together in front of the television. It was cozy there
in the silence, words floating up from below.
And it made me want to try harder.
In Italy, the buildings are for beauty,
and beauty, says Joseph Brodsky, is the enemy
of a hostile world. “Salve,” says the customs man
when he stamps my passport.
Which means, “Hello.” With the ve
jutting out its lower lip. Salve, at the bar.
And in the chapel built by plague survivors,
salve, says the cupola. Salve, says the floor.
In the Giovanni and Paolo hospital
the old wing opens out like fields and windows
in a Van Gogh painting, light penetrating halls
and making space in silence. No one’s there at all,
but—salve, salve, salve, salve.
When I return to my more brutal realms
the word comes with me. I don’t declare it.
How light in my suitcase it is, how old-fashioned
and almost ethereal, but in some lights
real, and close enough—to salvage.
Appointment in Samarra
30 people in chemo today multiplied by
x hospitals in y countries and z universes.
Back here, H smiles through 4 syringes of chemicals, 2 bags of saline,
and a flush of life-giving killer liquid.
Twin sisters in their 70’s share clippings of their modeling days
with shirtless men in big cars, take selfies holding up their matching drips.
A woman in the corner looks exactly like what is happening to her.
Pale and bald like coal after a fire.
Slap me good and hard with mortality while I’m strong.
My body wants to run as though it’s seen a ghost.
My Sisters’ Sisters
I am one of my sisters.
The one who refuses, goes inside
and draws her knees to her heart in a small ball
turns toward the wall waiting for someone to come
and for no one to come.
I am one of my sisters: I do not cross
the threshold where danger lies, its flank
on a couch of cossacked hopes
roaring its helplessness through the malice
of tongue and hands.
That one who closes the door
who remembers only enough
of what was inside to stiffen at its name.
I am one of my sister’s sisters who pounds
more than a thousand nails,
one for each name of her missing sisters, into dead wood.
I can feel her shiny hammer on my shiny head.
One sister raises her sisters
on her hands in an auditorium of her sisters.
I am the cancelled and begun again sister, reinsistered,
the one who goes back into the room
to tear the air from the walls.
A Blessing for the Waning
Here’s to the last suck before the birth of separation, before gums have teeth.
To skin that’s soft, brown, rough, cracked, bruised, itching, callused,
folding over, touched. To the body held, whole unto itself.
Here’s to what the body was before anything changed, which was never.
To the original flat chest of everyone.
Here’s to the growths, hoped for and maligned.
The deletions, depilations, bargains and beseechments.
Here’s to loss of consciousness remembered waking up in the morning, in recovery,
bewildered, with toast in your mouth.
To the sleep that was good but is now interrupted and induced.
To pain that lodges and travels.
Desire breathes like a tide, goes a long way out
and surprises when it comes back in a swell.
The way grief does.
Here’s to falling and to falling, and to falling falling.
To the curse of forgetting and its gift, forgetting.
To the gift of remembering and its curse, memory.
To having had a life. Us creatures and our smells.
Here’s goodbye to clothes that fit another body.
To the last embrace you didn’t know was last until there were no more. Here’s to
kissing the last mouth on yours. Pucker up. Pucker up now and go.
Then the light on the television went out.
I turned over on the heating pad trying
for a comfortable position on the floor. I got
to the section of the 400 page book called epilogue
and did not want to go on.
I went for my notebook, but the pen
was just too far on the dark field of the carpet.
Maybe the radio.
Instead I lay quietly listening
to the subway, feeling it under me
like an animal rubbing itself
along my personal earth
and beginning to enjoy it.
Ronna Bloom has published five books of poetry, most recently Cloudy with a Fire in the Basement (Pedlar Press, 2012). She is Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her new book, The More, in October 2017. Her website is www.ronnabloom.com.
On the other side she’s there with me too. But not in this way, amongst these salts, with this compact touch. We come to the same room of the same house at the same hour, to inhabit the same translucence…
Was there any doubt? Of course I would come back to this seaside town. Lucky I got here when I did, two days after the storm that made waves lash the shore, ripped precarious habitations from the sides of the hill, filled hallways with water, swept away kiosks, dragged the mayor before bobbing cameras to speak the expected set phrases in his low voice, changing nothing. We watched the scenes of destruction on television, and this formed part of our romance.
Now, cracking open shells and forking out the rubbery flesh, rolling our tongues over these fruits of the sea and washing them down with the cherries, blackberries and spice of a good Carménère, I ask myself: Is life sensuality, and death silence?
Visible from the window of our home, two dogs, one black and one beige, lie with their noses poking over a sand cliff. At home on the beach, oriented by instinct toward the sea, they don’t even open their eyes at a stranger’s approach, just turn over with complete trust for a scratch of the belly. Matilde covers my hand with hers, and we watch as an intrepid young man and a young woman in raincoats ruffle the canines’ fur with affection, before continuing on their way.
The two of us used to have a chow-chow named Panda. A ridiculous ball of fur, that creature. He went straight to heaven, not even stopping briefly in this half-here, half-not-here place where Matilde and I spend our days, apart, together, waiting for a storm.
Matilde is there in the other life too, of course, but it’s not the same. There we are together as minds, not as bodies. When we move toward each another, it is as if we are in a dream. But the rains allow us to move in a different way, one that is capable of grasping, one in which our glistening opacities, our half shells with their lustrous insides revealed, enter into irresistible contact with the pearl of life between us.
For me, the relationship between life and non-life is something like the relationship between the ear and the sense of hearing. In non-life, the flesh is guided by reason; in life, it is guided by instinct. In non-life, the self becomes pure abstraction, while in life the whole body is receptive, an ear. An oyster still alive and in the sea, capable of movement and thrashing fury.
A pigeon lands on the beach, and from far off I can see the gleaming waves come in, the colored blocks of the Hamburg Sud storage containers. It’s the hour to make scratches on paper, to stretch out, to listen for the barks of the sea lions taking shelter. On a sunny day I might hop the bank and go down to the beach to pile sand into a mound. Or perhaps I’d choose not to descend, and just stay here, where I want to be.
Our forks scrape the plates. I remember just how I felt when I wrote my poem ‘The disinterred’, with its line about the ‘furious oyster’. At that time I was quite taken by the Count of Villamediana, a Spanish poet born in the 16th century. I was living in Rangoon, and in despair because for the first time in my life, I could not understand what I was living for, in such loneliness, in a place so far from where I was born, spending my days sunk in alcohol, filing piles of paperwork that mattered to no one, grappling with a local woman who was violently and jealously in love with me.
The Count of Villamediana did not suffer from these doubts. He knew how to live well; he wrote satire and carried on the business he liked at the theater, at court, at dinner parties, at the brothel, not caring for social norms. He was murdered under suspicious circumstances by those jealous of his relationship with the queen, and was buried a knight. I couldn’t help but think about him and the contrast between his brilliant life and the quiet of his existence afterward, under the earth. My poem imagines his restoration to life amidst ‘brimstone and turquoise and red waves and whirlwinds of silent coal’, a clanking return to sensuality.
I want to see a flesh waken its bones
and a special smell run in search of something,
and a sight blinded by earth
run after two dark eyes,
and an ear, suddenly, like a furious oyster,
rise toward the thunder,
and a pure touch, lost among salts,
come out suddenly, touching chests and lilies.*
It can only be obvious that I wrote this poem with a sense of anticipation for my own end and what follows. In the poem, the Count rises up on the Day of the Dead, a fanciful holiday that I have always liked. I didn’t know then about the other life and its in-between way of being, incorporeal but capable of returning on certain days, when in the heavy rain and wind, the flat expanse of the Pacific surges up to push great masses of water onshore.
When the count is resurrected, he is also given back the ‘furious oyster’, his sense of hearing. All at once the flesh of the ear opens up, and unblocked of dirt, it is enraged and delighted by the rich variety of sounds available to it after so long in silence. Something similar happens when the power is cut and one’s hearing begins to sharpen, one sense replacing another in a forced transition to a different way of understanding. The oyster is unhinged to reveal the nacre, the waiting treasure, the ability to pursue sound as well as other senses…
Matilde and I move into the other room. Three times during the night, her face turns to mine. It’s always the face first, or is it the hands, so subtle they make the drawing near of all else both possible and necessary. One body pressed to one body, subtle axis spin, angular momentum of composite particles. Beneath my hand her hair is wire fluff; beneath my other hand, her belly firm elastic. Metatarsal joints, cuneiforms, fibulae, all the parts of her feet meet with mine in the search for heat.
Her legs are pure cold bone, torque and scissor. Like that, yes, it does take a few moments to ease the way in. Slight fatigue after travel sharpens every sensation; warm and soft in my hands, all at once she is tense: what is living is both delicate and firm, hard exoskeleton and tender inner mussel. My salt flesh gives out a substance of pearl capable of vanishing with no trace, dissolving within to form a part of her essence. Outside the window, a soft gray smears into white, an oil of flowers, an anointing that lulls us into sleep.
Would I want to live forever in this particular moment, this precise patch of time? It never happened just this way, yet it is always happening. This is our collective dream, the dream I share with Matilde. A dream into and not away from life; a vivid picture drawn in aquarelle crayon, so intense that when made possible by the rains, it brightens into reality.
She rustles in her sleep, waking when she feels my presence. Her kisses alternate soft and hard. I wrap my arms around her, but already her shoulders feel less firm; our time is nearly up. We must go back now, I know. I know, I know. And with a swift change of the tide, we are back in the other life.
* ‘The disinterred’, an homage to the Count of Villamediana by Pablo Neruda, appears in Residence on Earth, translated by Donald Walsh
Jessica Sequeira is a writer and translator from Spanish and French, currently in Santiago de Chile. @jess_sequeira
Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” — Natalia Sarkissian
For Isabel: A Mandala
Translation by Elizabeth Harris
Archipelago Books, 2017
144 pages; $16.00
Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.” So states Antonio Tabucchi (1943-2012) in the opening note to his posthumous novel, For Isabel: A Mandala. Recently translated from the original Italian into English by Elizabeth Harris, For Isabel revisits a theme that is dear to its author: that of the journey during which truths are revealed.
Thus, the one hundred luminous pages of For Isabel follow the narrator, Tadeus, as he travels from Lisbon to Macao to Switzerland to the Italian Riviera, looking for Isabel, the love he lost during the dark days of Salazar’s Portugal. A leftist, Isabel seems to have been arrested while a university student. Rumored to have been pregnant, not only did Isabel disappear, but so did any trace of a child. Proceeding from eyewitness to eyewitness, Tadeus assembles the pieces of the puzzle. As he progresses, not only does he learn of Isabel’s fate, but he also arrives at a clearer understanding of photography, of writing, of the impermanence of life itself while meeting wild and zany figures, some of mythic proportions, from the past.
Divided into nine sections, here called circles, the novel’s structure evokes the mandala of the subtitle. Indeed, the word mandala refers to a circular figure that in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism represents the universe. As a spiritual tool, the mandala serves to focus attention and aid meditation. Tadeus is conscious of the power of the mandala. As he states: I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the center, and I’m trying to reach that center…. It’s simple to reach consciousness, you photograph reality.”
The story begins with the First Circle, the circle of Evocation, which is set in modern day Lisbon. Tadeus states he is from The Greater Dog, or the Canis Major constellation. According to myth, Canis Major guarded Europa, but failed to prevent her abduction by Jupiter. Likewise, Tadeus failed to protect Isabel from Salazar’s thugs. It is therefore his fault she is gone: “You might say I’ve lost track of her and I’ve come from the Great Dog just to look for her, I’d like to know more about her.”
He meets her childhood friend, Mónica, who recounts how she and Isabel would catch frogs, slice their heads off and then turn their legs into a sumptuous dish à la Provençal; it was while chopping off the frogs’ heads that Isabel tells Mónica how she might commit suicide: “Listen, Isabel would say, someday if I kill myself, I think I’ll go just like this, with a few kicks, because if you can’t cut off your own head, you can always hang yourself, which is something similar, four kicks into empty air, and goodnight everybody.”
But at university, Mónica too, loses track of her friend when she joins the Communist party. Not able to give up-to-date news, Mónica directs Tadeus to Isabel’s old nanny, Bi, in the Second Circle, who also doesn’t know what has happened to her. Tadeus proceeds onward. In the Third Circle, the circle of Absorption, set in a Lisbon nightclub, nostalgia reigns. Not only does Tadeus drink absinthe straight up, because in so doing it’s a serious drink, like in the past, but he meets Tecs who plays tributes on her saxophone to Sonny Rollins, one of the greatest jazz saxophonists of all time. Tecs sadly informs Tadeus that long ago Isabel was arrested and taken to Caxais prison:
“… we heard news of her from a prison guard who risked coming to the university and giving us a note, he was a prison guard in the opposition, who aided political prisoners … I went off … and when I returned, they told me Isabel had died, that she committed suicide in prison and they showed me her death notice in the paper … But they told me that she killed herself in prison … that she swallowed glass.”
Not convinced by this version of events, Tadeus prods Tecs who finally remembers the prison guard’s name, Mr. Almeida.
In Circle Four, the circle of Restoration, Mr. Almeida relates what happened in prison to students protesting the Salazar regime. They arrived beaten to a pulp and then were beaten some more. While Isabel suffered this fate too, Tadeus also learns that not only was Isabel not pregnant, but that she did not commit suicide. Rather, Mr. Almeida and ‘The Organization,’ helped her escape. Her contact in The Organization, according to Mr. Almeida: “It was Mr. Tiago, he said, enunciating each word. … He had a photography studio in Praça das Flores.”
In the Fifth Circle—Image—Tadeus rings the bell at World & Photo photography studio, where he meets with Tiago, a foppish, elegant sort, in a linen jacket with an Indian foulard around his neck and a cigarette in a long ivory holder. The two reflect on the nature of photography; Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is alluded to, in particular to Barthes’ idea that the photograph attests to death, to what has been.
When Tiago gives Isabel’s photograph to Tadeus he says: “I’m reminded that someone said the photograph is death, because it fixes the unrepeatable moment.”
But unlike Barthes, Tiago wonders if the photograph, if indeed, art as a whole, can also be life:
…but I still ask myself: and what if [the photograph] were life instead? –immanent, peremptory life that lets itself be caught in an instant, that regards us with sarcasm, because it’s there, fixed, unchanging, while we instead live in variation, and then I think the photograph, like music, catches the instant we fail to catch, what we were, what we could have been, and there’s no way you can counter this instant, because it’s righter than we are …. life against life, life in life, life on life?
In the Sixth Circle, the circle of Communication, a dreamlike, hallucinatory chapter, Tadeus visits the Grotto of Camões in Macao. For a time, this was the home of Portugal’s greatest poet, Luis Vaz de Camões (1524/5-1580), the author of the epic poem, The Lusiades. While in the grotto, next to a bronze bust of the dead poet, Tadeus converses with a bat possessed by a woman named Magda, an old comrade of Isabel’s, who directs him to speak with a priest. Tadeus then confesses to the priest that he is an author who has sinned: “I wrote books, I whispered, that is my sin…. There was nothing dirty, just a sort of arrogance toward reality…. I got it into my head that the stories I imagined could recur in reality … I’ve steered events, this is my pride.”
In the Seventh Circle—Worldliness—Tadeus, still in Macao, meets The Ghost Who Walks. A poet, European in origin and always dressed in white, The Ghost Who Walks is Tadeus’s guiding light:
“… you, in your infinite wisdom, might be able to tell me where to find [Isabel]…. I’m looking for Isabel … I’m making concentric circles, like the concentric circles squeezing my brain at this very moment.”
“The Ghost Who Walks took a long pull from his pipe. Isabel, he said, there might be an Isabel in my poetry, or in my thoughts, they’re one and the same, but whether she’s in my poetry or in my thoughts, she’s a shadow who belongs to literature, why are you looking for a shadow who belongs to literature?”
“Perhaps to make her real, I answered weakly, to give some meaning to her life, and to my rest.”
“You have to look in the country of William Tell, he murmured. And then he was quiet again.”
In the final two circles, Expansion and Realization, Tadeus journeys to Switzerland and then to the Italian Riviera. In Switzerland, he learns that the universe has no boundaries, that cardinal points can be infinite or nonexistent, and that a man who has lost his way “needs to symbolize the universe with an integrative art form,” such as the mandala. On the Riviera, from the Mad Fiddler, Tadeus discovers that he has finally arrived: “We’ve reached the center, he whispered, give me Isabel’s photo. I gave him the photo, and he laid it at the center of the circle. Then he stood up, raised his violin to his shoulder, and quietly began to play Beethoven’s Farewell Sonata.
And while the Mad Fiddler plays, Isabel appears, as if from thin air. She tells him:
“… you think your search for me is over, but you were only searching for yourself…. you wanted to free yourself from your remorse, it wasn’t so much that you were searching for me as yourself, to pardon yourself, a pardon and an answer, and I’m giving you that answer tonight, the night we said goodbye… you’re released from all your guilt, you’re not guilty of anything, Tadeus, there’s no little bastard child of yours in the world, you can go in peace, your mandala’s complete…. If you walk up the narrow road leading from the Riviera station where you arrived, she said, halfway up the hill, you’ll find a very small cemetery, and down the central path, in among the plainest graves, there’s one that no one visits, with a few wrought-iron flowers and a simple headstone that has no dates, no photograph, just an epitaph….”
Tadeus opens his eyes and the Mad Fiddler erases the circle he has drawn in the sand. “Because your search is through, he said, and it takes a puff of wind to lead everything back to the wisdom of nothing.” Because impermanence is the way of the world.
Antonio Tabucchi (1943-March 2012) began writing For Isabel long before it was finally published. His wife, Maria José de Lancastre, a Portuguese translator and critic, together with Carlo Feltrinelli, the Italian publisher, explained in a note to the first edition—in Italian (2012):
He had written it over the course of many years and spoke about it enthusiastically in interviews…. In the meantime, he wrote other things, going in other directions; he traveled, went to different countries; he gave the manuscript to a dear friend for safekeeping; in the end he asked her to give it back so he could reread it, possibly publish it. But it was the summer of 2011, and that autumn he became ill.
Tabucchi himself said of For Isabel, “it’s a wacky novel, a strange creature, like an unknown beetle frozen on a rock.” Be that as it may, it shares elements with other works by the author. Its mixture of reality and hallucination recalls Indian Nocturne, Tabucchi’s 1984 novel, where the protagonist embarks on a metaphysical search in India for a mysterious friend, all the while looking for his own identity. For Isabel also shares elements with Requiem: A Hallucination (1991). In this latter novel, Tabucchi centers his narrative on an Italian author who meets the spirit of a dead Portuguese poet.
An academic as well as a writer, Tabucchi divided his time between Siena, Italy, where he taught Portuguese language and literature, and Portugal, where he was director of the Italian Cultural Institute. During his lifetime he won numerous prestigious international prizes including the Campiello Prize and the Prix Médicis. He was also named a Chevalier des Arts et des Letters. After his death, the Portuguese cultural minister declared Tabucchi’s work was the most Portuguese of all Italians. His novels and stories have been translated in over forty languages.
After the publication of Salman Rushdie’s publication of the Satanic Verses, and the controversy that ensued, Tabucchi helped to establish the International Parliament of Writers, an organization that highlights censorship and the loss of writer’s freedoms around the world.
Translated elegantly and seamlessly by Elizabeth Harris who wrote an MFA thesis in translation and who teaches creative writing, For Isabel brings, as she says, “good, complicated fiction to American audiences.”
Like Tadeus, Tabucchi’s mandala is now complete. If we listen, perhaps we can hear the Mad Fiddler playing, softly, very sweetly. And if we look up, we might see Isabel as Tabucchi describes her in the last line of his book. “Waving a white scarf, and saying goodbye.”
— Natalia Sarkissian
Natalia Sarkissian holds a BA and MA in art history, an MBA in international finance and an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Corriere della Sera, The Huffington Post, Numéro Cinq and other publications. She divides her time between Italy and the United States.
The she-wolf of Roman legend from William Kentridge’s reverse graffiti frieze along the Tiber Ricer in Rome. All photos by the author.
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.
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.
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 light… Verlorne … 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
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 Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika 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.
They were known principally for the clarity of their communication, having abolished speech, leaving them only writing. This happened in the reign of Graphus I.
The technology of speech was first banned from public use on grounds of its fallibility in conveying the intended meaning and its restrictiveness in access. Recording media, until then ubiquitous, had failed to convey all of the complex nonverbal visual cues that not just accompany but are integral to oral communication and modulate its sense. At the end of decades of crippling unrest, a time known as “the Troubles” and sparked by a series of miscommunications of this kind, writing emerged as the only viable solution. All communication of political importance would be instantly disseminated in the written language used by all—“taught until learned” in every school in the realm. The program (“Taught until Learned,” or TUL) was instrumental in the enormous advances in clarity and transparency that came with implementing the resolution.
Of course, much nuance was lost in the process, but it was not mourned for long; the baby, orality, was thrown out with the bathwater of facial expressiveness. Gradually and naturally, even private communication was being conducted exclusively in writing. Writers seen in the act of writing adhered strictly to the no-expression rule, which diverted attention from their face to the text committed on the transparent scroll interposed between interlocutors. Emotional concepts and terms, after a period of proliferation (when they were desperately needed to substitute for previously unconstrained nonverbal expressions), all but vanished as the suppression of expressiveness became normalized. The gestures, habits and practices that underpinned and imbued words like “love” with meaning were gradually lost. The reduction of conflict which this unforeseen consequence brought about was hardly to be believed.
While speech did become obsolete, it never disappeared completely. The long reign of Codus II saw periodic mass protests against the hegemony of writing. The latter, once so elementary, had evolved a number of distinct symbolic systems, such that it was ever less likely for any one individual to be fluent in all of them. In effect, while most speakers could communicate in one or another system, the occasional cases where no common “language” could be found became a source of social upheaval. Predictably, the development of further specialized government-sanctioned “languages” to handle increasingly complex defense and security operations made such incidents, where communication between groups was impossible, more frequent. With the erosion of trust entailed by this state of affairs, many accused the government of fostering divisions among the people. The government in turn charged the protesters with conspiratorial activity and with undermining the legitimacy of the state. The regime of Cryptus I, under whom most of these de-universalizing changes took place, became known as cryptogarchy.
Then ambiguity began to creep into the practice of writing, much of which was again being done by hand in a broad movement to re-personalize communication. It started with the attribution of significance to any number of previously “invisible” features of the writing act: the urgency and speed of typing, the angle of the hand, and of course the formation of the symbols themselves, whose decoding exceeded the skill of our most competent graphologists. This attention eventually resulted in the development of a secondary system, whose significance took a long time to become known but whose meanings were notoriously ungraspable and uncommunicable in any language, detracting from the clarity of the written word. Over time, this delicate emotional dimension and the potential for “equivocation” with which it corrupted all writing became the main invisible threat to state power. As the art of reading by insinuation spread so the conscious use of this new communicative channel became more pronounced and its connection to the written message more legible. Arrests followed of those seen as responsible for its promotion; tremendous amounts of funding were funneled into the effort to decipher “chirographics.”
The threat, however exaggerated, was real. It soon became clear that things would not stop at communicating by hand, and that this “supplementary” system would claim the whole body, and finally, despite all counter-measures, also the face. And from there it was but a short route to the vocal chords. By such slippery-slope arguments radical changes could be justified that would otherwise seem irrational, lending support to the government’s repressive policies. Once the inept Cryptus II succeeded his uncle, the paroliements rallied popular support to outlaw writing altogether. Everyone agreed it was the best thing. And then they fell silent.
—S. D. Chrostowska
S. D. Chrostowska is the author of Literature on Trial (2012), Permission(2013), and Matches: A Light Book (2015). She teaches at York University in Toronto.
When I was recently invited to deliver a talk at the institution where I have worked for the past thirty years, it was suggested to me that while I was free to speak about anything at all, my hosts would be pleased if I spoke about something that interests me deeply. So, after long and extremely contentious negotiations with myself, I decided to speak about literature. And more particularly still, about fiction. And still more particularly still, about the kinds of spaces that fiction defines. For we are creatures of space, after all. We dwell in many different kinds of space, often simultaneously. We think about space in a variety of ways, some of them fairly straightforward, others more than passingly vexed. It is legitimate to say that as much as we inhabit space, space inhabits us, significantly shaping the way we imagine ourselves and the way we come to be in the world.
Granted that, it seems to me that the notion of space is far more intriguing when it is conceived as a cultural topos than when we think of it as a natural phenomenon. Rather than something merely given, something that simply is, it is productive to think of space as something constructed, something forged both in and through culture. That sort of perspective provides more room for maneuver, more room for speculation, more room for play—in short more room for us.
Observations such as those may seem to be perfectly patent when it is a question of literary space, rather than of the space defined by the Grand Canyon, the Kalahari Desert, or the Mariana Trench. Yet I would like to suggest that there is no compelling reason for us to read those latter spaces more literally than we do the spaces we encounter in the books we read. And conversely (but in that very same light), it is from time to time both useful and tonic, I think, to imagine literary space in a very literal manner indeed—a relatively easy task for those literalists among us. I count myself as one of that breed, as a person consistently delighted by letters, and by the spaces that they limn.
Among the many pleasures that fiction puts on offer, the opportunity to lose oneself in mild abstraction is by no means the least; and I imagine that all of us have availed ourselves of that opportunity, whether sparingly or in a more insouciant manner. For my part, I am intrigued by the different shapes that state of abstraction assumes, and by its conditions of possibility. I would propose to parse it closely and methodically here, were it not for the fact its dimensions are so mutable, as mutable in fact as individual readerly experience can be. Instead, I shall focus on a few textual passages that seem to me to incorporate clear invitations to the kind of abstracted state that interests me, hoping thereby better to understand that phenomenon.
The first passage I would like to visit occurs when the narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom is gazing out of his window into a rainswept Parisian street:
It was raining. The street was wet, the sidewalks dark. Cars were parking. Other cars, already parked, were covered with rain. People were crossing the street quickly, going in and out of the post office in the modern building across from me. A little vapor began to cover my windowpane. Behind the thin coat of mist, I observed the passersby sending their letters. The rain gave them a conspiratorial air: stopping in front of the mailbox, they would draw an envelope from their coat and thrust it through the slot very quickly so as not to get it wet, meanwhile pulling up their collars against the rain. I put my face close to the window and, eyes against the glass, suddenly had the impression that all these people were inside an aquarium. Perhaps they were afraid? The aquarium was slowly filling. (20)
Many things could be said about this textual moment. I am chiefly interested, however, in the way that the narrator imagines his own situation with regard to the world around him. On the one hand, he is clearly inside his apartment, looking out at the street and at the people hurrying along it. On the other hand, as soon as he imagines that those people are in an aquarium, his position shifts to that of someone on the outside looking in. That inside-outness is more than passingly uncanny; and yet it seems to me perfectly exemplary of the kind of site that we inhabit when we read fiction.
For clearly, reading is a real-world activity. By that I mean that it takes place in the world of phenomena, a behavior that is conditioned (and sometimes constrained) by real-world considerations. We sit upright in our favorite chair or sprawl flat out on our sofa; the dogs are barking or they are silent; the telephone rings or it does not; our gimpy right knee is bothering us or it feels okay; we have paid our taxes on time or we are badly in arrears. Yet when we read fiction, we also dwell in the fictional world. Therein, we partake of the heady fruit of the lotus and lose ourselves. We gaze aghast upon the tortured souls in the eighth circle of Hell; we listen as a peer of the realm sounds his horn too late; we test the keen edge of a harpoon honed by a tattooed Kokovokoan; we detect the very particular aromas emanating from the kitchen as a middle-aged Irishman prepares to dine on the inner organs of beasts and fowls; we taste a perfectly prepared martini cocktail, shaken, not stirred.
In other terms, we are always divided when we read fiction. We are here, but we are also there—and vice versa, as it were. And in that light, we are very unlike the fictional characters who fascinate us. In her novel Western, Christine Montalbetti remarks that “only fictional characters are completely wrapped up in what they are doing” (Western 53). She is undoubtedly correct, insofar as fictional characters remain within the boundaries of their fictional worlds. For one imagines that if Emma Bovary or Stephen Dedalus were to set foot in the phenomenal world, they might find themselves just as divided as you or me. On the face of it, that latter eventuality seems absurd; yet we readers emigrate quite blithely from one world to another. We step into a fictional world, and thrash about therein in an effort to make it our own, suspending certain ways of thinking about the world, and heightening others, depending upon local circumstances.
One can be more literalist about this matter, or more coolly figuralist. Either way, one is obliged to realize that our readerly self is significantly divided. Ross Chambers has argued that certain kinds of literature promote that kind of divided attention far more than others. Pointing toward works that play upon the dilatory, upon apparent idleness and diversion, Chambers coins the term loiterature to designate them. “Critical as it may well be behind its entertaining façade,” he argues, “loiterly writing disarms criticism of itself by presenting a moving target, shifting as its own divided attention constantly shifts” (Loiterature 9). That kind of literature wagers squarely, I believe, upon our own willingness to be divided. Jean-Philippe Toussaint, in the passage that I quoted, invites us to read in that divided manner through the mediation of his protagonist, whose attention is so patently divided. Now, it is reasonable to imagine that the extent of that division (or the proportion of our attention devoted to the real or the fictional world at any given moment) will depend upon a variety of factors: the excellence of the text; the suggestibility and general humor of the individual reader; the local circumstances in which the act of reading takes place; and other considerations still more imponderable. Yet it is legitimate to say that any reading will entail a division of the subject’s attention, to a greater or a lesser degree—or, in other terms, an abstraction.
Seen in long focus, what is surprising about our behavior as readers is how easily we migrate from the phenomenal world to the fictional world, and back again. Indeed, that migration is so fluid and so constant that it may be more useful to imagine the reader as inhabiting both worlds simultaneously. In his study of the mise-en-abyme, Lucien Dällenbach suggests that that figure can assume three broad shapes. First, the simple emblazonment of like within like: a play within a play, a novel within a novel. Second, a structure of infinite emblazonment: the Quaker on a box of Quaker Oats holding in his hand a box of Quaker Oats upon which a smaller Quaker holds a box of Quaker Oats, and so forth. Finally, an aporetic emblazonment in which the relations between container and contained are shifting and unclear (Le Récit spéculaire 37-38, 51). That latter structure is a good way to conceive of our situation as readers of fiction, I think, because it accounts for the difficulty we experience as we try to analyze the relations between our divided readerly selves, and it allows us to imagine the real world and the fictional world in an isotopical and mutually implicative fashion, rather than in a hierarchical manner where one is always subordinated to the other. That perspective provides us in turn with a more lucid vision of our behavior as readers, a set of gestures that is sharpened, intensified, and refined by the immersive power of fiction.
Fiction constantly reminds us that the real and the imaginary are both mobile constructs rather than static ones, that they can be conceived only in their reciprocal mobility, and that we, too, are constantly in motion. We cannot survey either world, thus, from a fixed and stable vantage point; rather, we must apprehend things in their proper flow while we ourselves are in a state of flux. Such a process can be extremely arduous, and sometimes our mind rebels. Sometimes our need for stability is so imperious that we persuade ourselves of our stillness, against the evidence of our senses. Chris Scott constructs a scene like that in To Catch a Spy: “The train’s hydraulics hissed and the station moved backwards as if jolted by an unseen hand” (310). The sensation that his character experiences is familiar to most of us (though these days it is more likely to occur when a plane we’re in pulls back from the jetway). The very brief moment that it takes for us to recalibrate and realize that it is in fact we who are moving never fails to produce an uncanny feeling, one that hinges largely on a jarring shift from subject to object. We prefer to occupy the former site if we can, until incidence or coincidence evicts us, for it is a place of privilege with regard to everything that surrounds it. It enables us to survey things as if we were not part of them, nor subject to the laws that govern them. It allows us to think that we are central. It indulges our wish to believe that things are about us.
Upon rare occasion, one may experience a sensation that plays out in a fashion contrary to the one I have just described, that is, where one has the impression of moving, though one is in fact remaining still. Consider for example this scene from Hélène Lenoir’s Le Répit, where a man seated in a train at rest in a station gazes out the window at another train: “The train slowly pulling out on the other side of the platform made him think for a few seconds that he himself was leaving” (122; my translation). The impression that this event produces in the man is no less uncanny than the one that Chris Scott’s character experiences, even though the circumstances appear so different. In both instances, it is a question of misinterpretation, of course; yet that misinterpretation is itself brimming with meaning, a meaning that focuses most fundamentally upon how we conceive the world and our place in it.
The Red Queen and the Red King in “Through the Looking-Glass And What Alice Found There” (1871).
I wonder if we may have been struck by the sensation that Scott and Lenoir invoke in yet another context. I wonder if we may have had a very similar feeling from time to time when reading fiction. When some event in the phenomenal world jolts us out of our immersion in the fictional world, for instance, and we shake our heads for a moment while we recalibrate, not quite knowing which world trumps the other. Much like Alice, waking from her dream, when she wonders if the Red King was a figure in her dream or if she was a figure in his dream (344). I am encouraged in this line of thinking by another passage in Toussaint’s novel. Once again, it takes place in a train, traveling between Paris and Venice:
I had spent the night in a train compartment, alone, with the lights out, immobile. Aware of motion, only motion; of the outward perceptible motion that was transporting me despite my immobility, but also of the inner motion of my body that was destroying itself, an imperceptible motion that began to occupy my attention to the exclusion of all else, a motion I desperately wanted to seize hold of. But how to grasp it? (39)
How indeed? The narrator’s situation is a peculiar one, for he feels himself to be immobile contrary to all evidence. Immobile both with regard to the world outside, as the train speeds across the landscape, and with regard to the world inside, as his own bodily processes push him toward death. Belonging thus neither to the outside nor to the inside, where in the world can he be? Once more, it seems to me that the sites toward which Toussaint is pointing are spaces that fiction constructs; and his text invites us again and again, in a variety of manners, to inhabit those spaces. It is not simply a matter of suspension of disbelief, nor of a deliberate forgetting. It is more like an invitation to multiply ourselves, to imagine our selves as dwelling in different places simultaneously, and acting productively in each. Toussaint’s invitation involves thus a choice taken deliberately and lucidly; it puts on offer a significant franchise in the production of meaning; and it inevitably prompts us to reflect upon literature and its uses—an activity that is almost always advantageous, in my experience, and very unlikely to cause permanent damage.
My brief for an abstracted, inside-out mode of reading is a simple one, and undoubtedly naive. Though it may seem utopian to some, it is chiefly founded in pragmatics, for to my way of thinking it describes the way we actually behave when we read fiction. It suffices to realize that we are far more supple, more tolerant, more agile, more playful when we approach a fictional world than we typically are when we grapple with the phenomenal world. It also helps to recognize that we can immerse ourselves up to our necks in fiction, while never abdicating our critical faculties, that the one gesture does not debilitate the other. To the contrary, immersion actuates our critical sense, and our critical sense stokes our desire to inhabit the fictional world. If such were not the case, Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s protagonist would see nothing more than a rainy street when he gazes out the window. And gazing upon him, we would see no more than random scribblings on a page. Odysseus, Panurge, Eugénie Grandet, Gregor Samsa, Humbert Humbert, Oskar Matzerath, all of them from Ahab to Zeno, mere constructs! And their worlds pure figments: no more flying carpets, no more hansom cabs, no more magic lamps, no more tartar steppes! Such a perspective does not bear contemplation for long. Its very bleakness urges us toward another position, I think. One that we can occupy at our leisure, and wherein we are no longer obliged to choose between subject and object, self and other, inside and out.
Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. In Martin Gardner, ed. The Annotated Alice. Seaton: Bramhall House, 1960. 167-345.
Chambers, Ross. Loiterature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
Dällenbach, Lucien. Le Récit spéculaire: Essai sur la mise en abyme. Paris: Le Seuil, 1977.
Lenoir, Hélène. Le Répit. Paris: Minuit, 2003.
Montalbetti, Christine. Western. 2005. Trans. Betsy Wing. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2009.
Scott, Chris. To Catch a Spy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
Toussaint, Jean-Philippe. The Bathroom. 1985. Trans. Nancy Amphoux and Paul De Angelis. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008.
Warren Motte is College Professor of Distinction at the University of Colorado. He specializes in contemporary French literature, with particular focus upon experimentalist works that put accepted notions of literary form into question. His most recent books include Fables of the Novel: French Fiction since 1990 (2003), Fiction Now: The French Novel in the Twenty-First Century (2008), Mirror Gazing (2014), and French Fiction Today (2017).
“It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” —Laura Michele Diener
When writing a review of two recent biographies of Jane Austen, it is difficult to resist the temptation to begin with a pithy line that parodies her most well-known openings. “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” for example, “that every biographer of Jane Austen, in possession of the exact same sources, must find an entirely different character, one most suited to their own inclinations.” Or perhaps, “No one who had ever seen Jane Austen in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine of literature honored by one and all on July 18, 2017, the two hundredth anniversary of her death.” But then I would be veering into the ridiculous, not to mention the overdone. So I channeled some Elinor Dashwood-style self-control and forced myself to focus on the project at hand, which was more a pleasure than a task, as both Helena Kelly and Lucy Worsley write with the lively spirit of true Austen devotees.
For the youngest daughter of a rural clergyman, an unmarried woman of no fortune who died two hundred years ago, Jane Austen bequeathed a surprising amount of source material for her biographers. In addition to her six completed novels (four published in her lifetime and two posthumously), her unfinished novels and her childhood writings, there are over a hundred and fifty letters to friends and relatives detailing her failed courtships, her hopes for publication, and her increasing poverty, as well as her jewelry, her writing desk, a few pages of a corrected draft of Persuasion, a lock of her hair, and the still–standing Chawton Cottage, her last home, now the Jane Austen Museum.
Well, forget them all, Helena Kelly, author of Jane Austen, The Secret Radical, tells us. If you want to understand what Austen truly intended in her novels, forget the beloved canonical facts of Austen’s life—her broken engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither, her flirtation with Tom Lefoy. Ignore the turquoise ring and the topaz cross on display at Chawton Cottage; in fact, don’t bother with the Cottage–“if any trace of Jane remains, then the thousands of tourists who trudge through the rooms each year will have driven it away.” If you must make the pilgrimage, step to the windows, look outwards, and imagine the changing landscape of the late-eighteenth-century British countryside, envision the seaside bustling with sailors and soldiers preparing to meet Napoleon’s armies, with civilians gearing up for a French invasion. Stretch your eyes across the Channel to the revolutionary ideas overturning the existing order, and even further, across the oceans to the wider world of Britain’s colonial holdings in the West Indies.
Most importantly, look to the novels, which, Kelly argues, “are as revolutionary, at their heart, as anything that Wollstonecraft or Tom Paine wrote.” Austen lived during extreme times in a Britain that was “an essentially totalitarian” state, where such revolutionary ideas could land you in prison. Thus she wrote in a type of code, so that only the truly insightful readers could tease out her arguments, “just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write.”
This Jane Austen is a severe lady, more akin to earnest young Mary Bennett than her witty sister Elizabeth. Kelly’s Jane doesn’t have time to smile at a dashing young clergyman—she’s too busy crafting a subtle critique of the church’s stance on slavery to spare a thought for who will partner her in a quadrille.
She intended for readers to read her books slowly and deliberately, perhaps aloud in the evening, accompanied by discussion. In each chapter, Kelly deciphers a novel, explaining how to read beyond and around the narratives of courtship for the radical social critiques on issues from class to inheritance law to human trafficking.
Northanger Abby, she argues, parodies popular gothic novels by suggesting the real horrors that await women in marriage, where birth control was nonexistent and childbirth was a Russian roulette. Austen herself lost two sisters-in-law to childbirth, and watched a healthy niece wear herself out with perennial labors.
Marrying might kill women in Northanger Abbey, but not marrying will most certainly destroy them in Sense and Sensibility, where the inequities of primogeniture could leave women impoverished and homeless. Sense and Sensibility, in Kelly’s retelling, reads as downright creepy, full of secrets, untrustworthy men, and dangerously sharp objects lurking in parlors. If you put out of your mind, as she cautions, the broodingly sexy Alan Rickman and the loveably clumsy Hugh Grant of the popular 1995 film adaptation, Colonel Brandon and Edward Ferrars suddenly look decidedly dodgy, and just two more of the men who betray the women whom the law prevents from protecting themselves.
Mr. Darcy still retains his romantic sheen, as he embarks on the most radical relationship of an Austen novel. Kelly declares Pride and Prejudice to be “a revolutionary novel,” even “a revolutionary fairy tale,” in which Austen permits her heroine Elizabeth Bennet to mock aristocrats and eschew conventional courting rituals, and rewards her for it with a happy marriage and wealth. In doing so, Austen critiques the more reactionary writings of Edmund Burke, who defended the established order after witnessing the excesses of the French Revolution.
Kelly’s chapter on Emma, is undoubtedly her strongest, and is based on her earlier dissertation on enclosure (the closing off of common or unclaimed lands by private owners) in English literature. Emma, she argues, directly addresses the effects of enclosure on the laboring class. Between 1795-1815, England witnessed dramatic increase of Enclosure Acts, with Surrey county (where Emma takes place) undergoing thirty new enclosures in twenty years. Emma herself may live comfortably, but the novel chronicles her encounters with poverty in its many shades, from struggling cottagers, to begging gypsies, to the genteel but penniless Bates women.
In Mansfield Park, which Kelly considers Austen’s most flagrantly radical novel, Austen attacks no less a mainstay of establishment values than the Church of England itself, which she condemns for its tacit support of slavery. The lack of reviews on its publication indicates that the public comprehended Mansfield Park not only as “an inescapably political novel,” but also “a deeply troubling,” one full of lecherous fathers, neglectful mothers, and hypocritical clergy harassing the heroine on the homefront while the sinister shadows of sugar plantations and slave trading lurked abroad.
Persuasion, in contrast, may be Austen least revolutionary but perhaps most philosophical of novels. Alone among her works, it possesses a concrete context, set specifically in the coastal town of Lyme Regis during the year of peace when Napoleon languished in restless imprisonment on Elba. Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth marry during the exact week he escaped, plunging Britain into war again. But rather than merely a diatribe on the hazards of war, Persuasion fixates on the progress of time, the inevitability of change, and the ephemerality of all certainties. Nothing under heaven escapes—family names, national identities, happy marriages–even the limestone cliffs of the British seaside must succumb to ruin.
How radical is Kelly’s argument? After all, few readers will have missed that Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice decry the practice of primogeniture, not to mention the careless fathers and callous brothers who failed to ensure against the legal inequities barring women from receiving inheritances. And even the most cursory reading of her novels suggests a critique of women’s place in society, the boredom of the social whirl, and the merits of character over title.
Certainly Kelly isn’t the first to address these issues critically, either. Perhaps to appeal to a popular audience, she rarely references other scholars, many of whom have made similar arguments regarding the political nature of Austen’s works. Which is a shame, because Kelly provides a lively counterpoint to many of them, particularly Marilyn Butler’s 1975 Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Butler famously argued that Jane Austen wrote in a political vein, but a conservative one, actively opposed to the revolutionary stirrings around her. Kelly, who holds degrees in Classics and English and lectures at Oxford, is clearly well-versed in Austen criticism, and could easily have included a few attributions.
The book contains a few other frustrating tendencies. Kelly can throw out a game-changing point and then move on in the next paragraph– if Harriet Smith really is Miss Bates’ illegitimate daughter, then the theory deserves more than a tantalizing paragraph at the end of a chapter. Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, is Kelly’s first book; in her subsequent publications she will no doubt gain polish without losing her passion.
Most Austen readers will find something about which to quibble in Kelly’s work. But those issues are precisely why reading the book is such a genuinely pleasurable experience. Like your favorite high school literature teacher, Kelly stirs you up about your favorite characters and forces you to join the conversation with sails up and guns blazing. Don’t just read Jane Austen, Kelly demands, read her wisely, read her openly, and then read her again.
Lucy Worsley, the author of Jane Austen at Home: A Biography, resembles none other than Austen’s charmed heroine Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” who “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.” With her closet full of Boden dresses, her dream job as the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, and her endearing speech impediment, Worsley is a familiar figure to the British public through her BBC presentations on some of the plumiest of historical topics, including the Romanov Tsars, the Tudor Queens, British murders, and most recently, Austen herself, in the program Jane Austen: Behind Closed Doors.
A historian by training (she earned a DPhil from the University of Sussex), she plunks Jane firmly in the middle of the Georgian period, reminding us that even a Georgian woman of aspiring gentry had to get her hands dirty, digging potatoes, making jam, and repairing shirts. While some of Austen’s characters may idle about in drawing rooms, the authoress herself spent as much time in garden, cellar, and kitchen. Thus, in addition to the works of Paine and Burke, Worsley has consulted Georgian cookery books, household manuals, and medical treatises. Yes, she agrees with Kelly, you need to consider the revolutionary ideas in sweeping across the Channel and the debates raging in Parliament in order to comprehend Austen’s world, but also the daily grind of chores considered the rightful sphere of a dutiful daughter and spinster aunt, the “grimy, unexciting, quotidian domestic.”
Worsley, who has written the book If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home, in which she delights in splendid tidbits about bed linen and water closets, not surprisingly finds an obsession with homes to be one of the driving forces of Austen’s fiction—“homes loved, lost, lusted after.” And homes to escape, fitting for a woman who spent “a lifetime of being passed around between relatives like a parcel.” Especially after Austen’s father retired in 1800, giving the family home to his eldest son, and leaving her and her sister effectively homeless and forced to sell their beds, the piano, the music collection, and their books. “The whole world is in a conspiracy to enrich one part of our family at the expense of another,” Austen wrote after the family’s move to Bath.
So Worsley leads her readers on a tour of Austen’s homes, the modest Steventon Rectory, where George and Cassandra Austen raised their seven children and ran a boarding school for boys, the splendid Godmersham Park, where her older brother Edward lived grandly after inheriting a fortune from genteel relatives, the drafty apartments in Bath where Jane and her sister Cassandra settled into spinsterhood, the various vacation quarters along the seaside where her parents sought out therapeutic waters and cheap living, and finally, Chawton Cottage, where by her brother’s grace Austen lived with her mother and sister until she died. These homes illustrate Jane’s “downwardly mobile” status, as she moved from a marriageable young woman of prospects to the every-helpful Aunt Jane with no life or room of her own.
Worsley doesn’t eschew the world of ideas, but she exhorts us to look squarely at the material objects of Austen’s life—the cast-off shoes of her pet donkey, her bad pens, her bonnet ribbons, because, she argues, those material things shaped her life as much as the ideas she absorbed. In this approach, she draws inspiration from Paula Byrne’s remarkable 2013 The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things, a biography told through a catalog of her possessions.
For all their different approaches, Kelly and Worsley agree on a number of revisions to the classic narratives of Austen’s life and work. Both proffer extreme skepticism about the memoirs of Austen family members, who softened the political acumen of Aunt Jane through a romantic Victorian haze. Both writers are cognizant of Austen’s awareness of the wide world beyond Britain. Even the domestic ties of home bound her to other lands and peoples; she herself may never have left England, but she possessed close relationships with two brothers in the navy, with an aunt who traveled to the West Indies for marriage and became the mistress of Warren Hastings, the Governor-General of India, and the offspring of their union, and with her colorful cousin Eliza, whose life was filled with the kinds of gothic escapades in which Catherine Morland delighted. With such a cast in her immediate beloved circle, Austen in her novels could hardly be “resisting or avoiding that other setting,” namely Britain’s colonial holdings or any other setting, as Edward Said claimed in his chapter on Mansfield Park in his 1993 Culture and Imperialism. Like Fanny Price, she asked questions about the slave trade, she read Thomas Clarkson’s abolitionist writings, and she knew exactly where her sugar came from.
In recent years, Jane Austen has received the dubious title of the great-grandmother or fairy godmother of chick-lit, and both Kelly and Worsley caution against the general tendency to read Austen’s novel as romantic escapism. Yes, courtship and marriage are at the center of her plots, but these are hardly lighthearted tales of romance. “Marriage as Jane knew it involved a woman giving up everything to her husband—her money, her body, her very existence, as a legal adult,” Kelly reminds us, and as Worsley points out, most marriages in Austen’s novels are unhappy, tragically or comically so.
And for all their well-done scholarship, neither Kelly and Worsley can help succumbing to genuine fan-girl love for Jane Austen. Worsley admits to being “a devotee and a worshipper,” who wrote every word of her biography with love. And Kelly maintains a Twitter identity as @MsAshtonDennis, the pseudonym Austen used (acronym MAD) when corresponding with the publisher who had bought the rights to her first novel but refused to bring it to press.
Kelly and Worsley have given us a politically and socially aware woman who attacked the established order with irony and ingenuity, an Austen for the global age whose desire to remake society from the ground up extended into the servant’s quarters and across the oceans to the outskirts of empire. Worsley has suggested that, “every generation gets the ‘Jane Austen’ it deserves.” I don’t know what we have done to deserve this Austen, but perhaps she is the one most suited to 2017. Two hundred years after her death, she appeals more than ever. As an artist and intellectual, she refused to be complacent in a stultifying society, and she used the limitations of her own life as a springboard for clever critique. Worsley and Kelly, two extraordinarily clever authoresses in their own right, urge us to find new meanings in her classic works. Women may no longer lust after the sizable fortunes of baronets, but truths can still be universally acknowledged, and Jane Austen, in her novels, her letters, and her life, can certainly teach us quite a few of them. Who knows what the next two hundred years shall yield?
— Laura Michele Diener
Laura 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.
Three days after the fortuitous capture of Salah Abdeslam, Europe’s most wanted man for four months, the BBC published a profile of his lawyer, Sven Mary. The title of the piece was deliberately incendiary and utterly telling of the sentiment prevalent in Paris, in London, in Brussels, in Europe: “Sven Mary: The Scumbag’s Lawyer.”
Despite his notoriety in Belgium as a high-profile defense attorney, I had never before seen a photograph of Sven Mary – indeed, I hadn’t even heard the name until I clicked on the aforementioned piece. Hence, it’s fair to say that I had never really had much of a chance to build a balanced image of the lawyer in question, my judgment necessarily skewed by the tone of the very first notice I had of the existence of this man. This circumstance immediately made me think of Atticus Finch, the hero in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
The connection, I must confess, was neither fortuitous nor particularly inspired. I had already been working on a tribute to Lee, and the parallels are, of course, immediately obvious: set in 1935, in the archetypal small town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird spells out in endearing terms the tense situation that unfolds when Tom Robinson, a black man, is unfairly accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a disenfranchised young white woman. Entitled by law to a defense lawyer, Robinson is paired up with Atticus Finch, the unofficial standard-bearer of integrity and fairness in a town where prejudice is rife – though no more so, I would suspect, than in any real-life small town of the South at the time.
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962.
Narrated from the perspective of Atticus’ eight-year-old daughter Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird vividly portrays the life-changing consequences faced by the Finch family once Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson: Scout and her elder brother Jem are relentlessly bullied by the other children at school; most people in Maycomb start looking at the Finches with suspicion; Atticus even has to put his physical wellbeing on the line to prevent a choleric mob from lynching his client. And yet, all along, even before the trial starts, one overarching argument comes to the surface: for the sake of justice, Tom Robinson’s story needs to be told.
No matter what anyone says or does, Atticus tells his children, don’t kick, don’t spit, don’t even insult anyone back, because in a world governed by laws, rational arguments must prevail over passionate exultations. Atticus knows that the first instinct of the vast majority of people in Maycomb is to be violent; he expects everyone to assume Tom Robinson to be guilty; he expects everyone to demand revenge. But he is also confident that once the dust of the emotions settles, the sheer weight of the facts will give them prominence against the background of so much speculation. This is not to say Atticus has any expectations about an all-white jury acquitting his client – he knows full well that he has not enough time in his hands to allow the dust to settle anywhere near enough to stand a chance of winning in court. But he still gives his all in a lost battle, just because it’s the right thing to do.
Atticus Finch is maligned by his peers, not so much because he is forced to defend Tom Robinson but because he wants to. That, however, is the full extent of the parallel between To Kill a Mockingbird and the drama that unfolded in Brussels following Abdeslam’s capture. Like Atticus Finch, Sven Mary wanted to represent this universally hated character: Mr Mary, it seems, had been contacted by Abdeslam’s family in January 2016, and he immediately made public his willingness to act on behalf of the runaway. But while Atticus is ready to defend the rights of a man who is being wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit, Sven Mary was engaged by a man who was involved in a heinous bloodbath that claimed 130 lives, and who has been connected to another terrorist attack that killed thirty more people – a man whose ill intentions are way beyond reasonable doubt, and indeed, a man whose murderous delusions have long come true.
Though Atticus Finch and Sven Mary share a desire to defend the outcasts of their respective societies, the two of them stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in most other senses. For instance, one of the weaknesses of To Kill a Mockingbird might be how clear-cut Tom Robinson’s case is: not only is he crippled and consequently unlikely to have been capable of coercing his alleged victim, but he is also facing a trial against the most vulnerable element in Maycomb, bar the black population. Uneducated, inbred, amoral, and hopelessly poor, the Ewells are regarded by just about everyone in town as the lowest form of white life – white trash, quite literally – which enables Atticus to build a case of sorts. Had Tom Robinson been accused of raping any respectable member of Maycomb’s society, he would in all likelihood never have made it to the courtroom, and even if he had made it, his attorney would not have been allowed to call into question the other witnesses’ account of events. The only reason Tom Robinson enjoys the privilege of a fair trial (if not a fair sentence) is because he is up against a member of the nearest rung to his own on the social ladder – even if, ultimately, the gap between the two proves infinite, unbridgeable.
Evidently, this circumstance could not be further from the specifics of the case against Salah Abdeslam. Indeed, the situation is so different that Sven Mary indicated his client had no intention of claiming he wasn’t at the scene of the Paris attacks, and he even went as far as to say that he wouldn’t have been prepared to defend Abdeslam had he chosen to make that claim. There is no question that Abdeslam is a jihadist fighter; no doubt that he was part of the cell plotting and carrying out the attacks of 13 November 2015; no uncertainty regarding the innocence of his victims, the atrocity of his crime, or the extent of his involvement. So what’s the point in defending him? Why would Sven Mary have wanted the job in the first place?
The simplest and most cynical answer is, of course, that the notoriety the case was always going to bring. For better or worse, there’s no denying that the case made Mr Mary an international celebrity. But this explanation alone rings far too simplistic, and while the allure of fame might have played a role in his decision, there is something more pressing, something far greater, that needs to be taken into consideration.
Like every other suspect and perpetrator of the Paris and Brussels attacks, Salah Abdeslam is a second generation immigrant from a Muslim family. He holds a French passport through his Moroccan parents’ link to Algeria, but he was born in Brussels, he was raised in Brussels, he attended school in Brussels, he speaks with a Belgian accent, he committed his first misdemeanors in Brussels. By all standards, bar the most radically conservative, Salah Abdeslam is Belgian. Salah Abdeslam is as Belgian as J-Lo is American; he’s as Belgian as Charles Aznavour is French. Yet in some sense the problem is that he is as Belgian as Tom Robinson – whose ancestry is never touched upon in To Kill a Mockingbird – is American.
Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson because his side of the story needs to be heard; Atticus Finch steps between the cell where Tom Robinson is kept and a crowd of people ready to take his life because, in a world governed by laws, there is no room for trial by mob. But Tom Robinson is a good man. Salah Abdeslam doesn’t deserve any leniency, he doesn’t deserve any consideration, he doesn’t even deserve to be heard. However, when Sven Mary told the press he was contemplating suing the French prosecutor for quoting from his client’s confidential statement, when he condemned the abuse of power entailed by describing his client as “public enemy number one”, Sven Mary was effectively stepping between Salah Abdeslam and the mob, because in a world ruled by laws there is no room for trial by media either.
The sad and thorny fact is that the vast majority of European societies continue to this day to struggle to avoid the pitfalls of discrimination, inequality, and social injustice in their dealings with the large immigrant communities that by now have come to be an intrinsic part of their fabric. For many years, ghettoisation was seen as a mutually beneficial arrangement both for newcomers and for “indigenous” members of European societies, which would then be able to coexist with little or no interaction necessary. For the migrant communities, this would satisfy a natural disposition to bunch up and create as similar an environment as possible to the one they’d left behind – after all, there’s safety in numbers and comfort in familiarity. Meanwhile, native communities would easily be able to avoid contact with these outsiders merely by staying clear of the areas where they were concentrated, habitually peripheral zones or rather undesirable destinations in the first place, be they Brixton, Finsbury Park, or Notting Hill for the West Indians from the Empire Windrush generation, or the area around the Hauptbahnhof in Munich for the Turkish guest workers, the Gastarbeiter, who were invited into Germany in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, to name but two notorious examples.
The problem with this approach took some time to flourish, but once it did it proved to be of monumental magnitude: in Germany, for instance, whole neighbourhoods became so uniformly Turkish that all shop names and at times even street signs were in Turkish, not German. The social and economic conditions experienced by these communities were also drastically disparate compared to the average “indigenous” community’s experiences: effectively being on the margins of society, these ghettoes were, and in many cases remain, prone to all sorts of adverse circumstances, from overcrowding to social exclusion, ideological, religious and cultural segregation, lack of opportunities, concentration of power on single members of the communities, the emergence of gang cultures, and so on. Yet, somehow, the general perception was that the immigrants enjoyed a privileged life in Germany, where they were after all employed and therefore entitled to free education and extensive healthcare, compared to what their lives would be like back in Turkey. The fact that there was widespread discrimination against them – not least with regards to Germany’s archaic citizenship laws – was not even considered to be a major issue until a generation of children born in Germany had grown to be neither Turkish nor German. In England the policy of ubiquitous social housing prevented the proliferation of vast ghettoes across large urban sprawls in the manner that banlieues came to surround most cities in France, but this alone is not a sufficient condition to create social cohesion. Racism, xenophobia, and resentment found as fertile a ground in Britain as elsewhere in Europe, partly due to the seriously trying period Britain’s economy went through from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, but ultimately because in a fragmented society where you have your space and I have mine, where separate groups live their parallel lives without ever crossing paths, there will always be substantial issues of inequality which will eventually result in major conflict.
When Mother Merkel publicly acknowledged in 2010 that multiculturalism had proven an utter failure in Germany, she wasn’t so much sentencing the longstanding social policy to death as she was offering closure, a state funeral with all the pomp demanded by the occasion, to a notion that for too many years had reeked of obsolescence and decay. The academic establishment beat the political one to this realisation by over a decade, with the emergence of transcultural studies as a viable alternative to analyse the workings of cosmopolitan societies. Transculturalism places an emphasis on the human ability to feel empathy, given a series of shared or recognisable conditions, instead of enshrining the value of legacy and heritage central to traditionalist views. At its best, a transcultural society would emulate the dynamics of an irreversibly mixed one, something similar to the phenomenon prevalent throughout most of Latin America, where historical, demographic and social factors have confabulated to produce the ultimate hotchpotch in the form of mestizaje.
Because Latin America provides us with myriad different versions of deeply mestizo societies, we already know wherein lie the dangers of transculturalism, and what are its consequences. We know that economic factors are as important as cultural ones; we know that no society is colour-blind, no matter how heterogeneous it might be; and we also know that even in those societies that reach a relatively high level of colour-blindness, classism soon emerges as a similarly oppressive counterpart to racism. Most of all, we know that for transculturalism to really work, society at large must feel more positive about the present than about the past; it must disdain to some extent what came before and embrace with enthusiasm, with gratitude, the opportunities afforded to it by the present; it must, in many ways, be formed by exiles, emigrants, and castaways in search of a better future elsewhere. In this sense, perhaps Australia is better suited to face the challenges of the twenty-first century than we are.
But that is not a major problem either, for transculturalism isn’t an end in itself but rather an analytic tool to align and measure the success of the social policies that might erect the foundations of a more harmonious, fair, and equitable future. That is the true objective, a condition which cannot be imposed on people by laws or even by force, but rather a natural process that must necessarily take time, that must equally necessarily be consciously led in a given direction, and that ultimately ought to result in integration – the holy grail of modern life.
The problem with integration is that, if it is not to slip into assimilation, it will always produce changes, sometimes even substantial changes, in society. This, of course, is the unavoidable consequence of any influx of people into any previously established community, but while some might find this refreshing and enlivening, more conservative citizens find it threatening because they would ideally want to raise their children in an environment that is perfectly comparable to that of their own infancy, no matter how stagnant this might seem to others.
Integration entails shifting the weight of society even if just a fraction closer to the frame of mind of the minorities within it, in order to take care of their needs as if they were the absolute majority. This doesn’t mean society has to meet every minority halfway – that is neither reasonable nor, in all likelihood, feasible. It’s almost a simple equation of weight: societies are monolithic and not very malleable masses, so it’s quite reasonable to expect minorities to be more flexible, more adaptable, to do more towards achieving social harmony. But even concerning the responsibility that befalls minority communities in the effort to make integration successful, the extent and focus of their agency must be clearly outlined, monitored, and regulated by society from the start.
Over the past twenty years, these and other questions have been raised and revisited time and again in the seemingly futile diplomatic meetings where the future of the EU is regularly discussed. But then, like flotsam in the middle of the ocean, the issues go underwater again, only to resurface at a later stage with the same frustrating result. Haphazard attempts to come up with patchwork solutions to what are essential problems have often ended in moving the goal posts, sometimes even in the right direction. But today’s rules cannot be used to judge the behaviour of communities inscribed within a different legal and social arrangement. For instance, in Germany there is now an integration scheme that imparts free German language and culture lessons to migrants, surely a necessary and commendable initiative – but one that does not apply to the attitude of the Gastarbeiter of the 1970s, who chose to live in relatively small areas almost exclusively among themselves. Moreover, the results as well as the shortcomings of the strategies currently in force to prevent social fragmentation (and the discrimination that we now know inevitably comes with it) will only be fully evident in many years to come, surely long after the conservative party has lost its grip on power in the German political scene.
Harper Lee was conscious of the dangers of widespread discrimination within a society, and she made it clear through an oblique – if somewhat anachronistic – comparison between the condition of the African-American population in the deep South and the persecution of the Jewish population in Germany under Hitler’s Nazi regime. In this sense, there might be one more point of contact between Atticus Finch and Sven Mary: Atticus knows that Tom Robinson is doomed but he is willing to go through the ordeal of defending him in the hope that his case might change things, even if just a little. Similarly, Mr Mary must surely have been well aware that the book would be thrown at Salah Abdeslam, but ensuring that the rights of this cruelest of citizens were upheld meant that Mr Mary was actually safeguarding the rights of everyone, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or faiths, regardless even of their crimes. Thus, in fact, neither Atticus Finch nor Sven Mary truly act on behalf of their clients – they are, ultimately, working towards the improvement of their, of our, societies.
In the current climate, the challenges posed by mass migration from drastically different cultures will only become greater and the long-term fate of the community quite likely hinges on its leaders’ abilities to respond to new and ever more pressing issues of social cohesiveness. Many are the attitudes that at one point or another will attract their share of the public limelight, especially in these times of extreme and often irresponsible demagogy. Yet, after all is said and done, to me it seems quite clear that integration is truly the only positive option, the only alternative which, rather than fear and hatred for the Other, carries hope for a more harmonious future.
— Montague Kobbé
Montague Kobbé (montaguekobbe.com) is a German citizen with a Shakespearean name, born in Caracas, in a country that no longer exists, in a millennium that is long gone. He is the author of the novels The Night of the Rambler and On the Way Back, both set in the Caribbean island of Anguilla, and in 2016 he co-edited Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela, a collection of thirty texts by thirty Venezuelan authors – the first collection of its kind to be published in book format in the English language.
The stage adaptation of his bilingual collection of flash fiction, Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges, is set to début at London’s Cervantes Theatre as part of the inaugural Contemporary Latin American Writers Festival in 2017. He keeps a regular column in Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald and has translated dozens of photography books with Spanish publisher La Fábrica.
When I first read Maria Rivera’s “Los muertos” (“The Dead”), translated from the Spanish here by Richard Gwyn, I was blown away. I just needed to share it with an international audience. Maria is a fearless poet and activist. It is a pleasure to feature her work in Numéro Cinq.
— Dylan Brennan
Poema leído al finalizar la marcha nacional por la paz el día 6 de abril de 2011,en apoyo al poeta Javier Sicilia y en exigencia de la paz. México D.F.
Dylan Brennan: Why did you write ‘Los muertos’ (The Dead) and how has it been received?
Maria Rivera: I wrote ‘Los muertos’ in the year 2010 (the year of the Mexican bicentennial celebrations). At that time Mexico found itself immersed in homicidal violence, produced, in part by the military anti drug-trafficking policy undertaken by president Calderón from the beginning of his six year term, an attempt to legitimise his presidency in the wake of electoral fraud. I found myself writing a book about the relationship between poetry and politics (from 2006), a long and ambitious poetic project which attempted to question the strata of the poetic tradition, speak about the different forms of violence, beginning with misogyny, representation of the female body, sparked by the violent repression of female protestors in Atenco carried out by president Fox and then-governor of Mexico State, Enrique Peña Nieto (currently president of Mexico), a crime that remains unpunished. The poem that deals with these events is entitled ‘Oscuro’ (Dark) and was published in 2012.
The unexpected and tragic direction the country has taken since that time became a dark and intense night for me, seeing as I was immersed in the investigation of different forms of social violence and its relationship with poetic discourse. Massacres began, disappearances, clandestine burials, terrible tragedies. In the midst of all this horror was the tragedy (at the time completely silenced) suffered by Central American migrants on their journey through Mexico at the hands of both the authorities and criminal groups. Many were murdered and/or kidnapped.
The dominating discourse in the media at that time was rooted in the governmental narrative that criminalised those who were killed (they were not considered ‘victims’ only occasionally ‘collateral damage’). Both the political class and the intellectual class embraced the government’s argument, legitimising killings and strengthening Calderon’s policies. Faced with international scandals, they even embarked on campaigns to convince the media not to cover violent acts, while at the same time they celebrated the supposed virtues of the country, converting the deaths into mere statistics.
In August 2010, the criminal group known as the Zetas killed 72 migrants in the town of San Fernando in Tamaulipas. This tragedy was a turning point for a citizenry that, for the first time, was forced to take note of the grim brutality faced by migrants in Mexico. Unlike the other massacres the government was unable to criminalise these victims, though initially the event was reported as the discovery of a ‘narco-graveyard’, a survivor was able to tell his story and reveal the true nature of the crime.
At that time, I had realised a great deal of my documentary research, about migrants, victims and violence against women. The San Fernando story plunged me into a profound sense of restlessness and rage: just a few days later came the Bicentennial celebrations, our most important civic celebration. I watched these celebrations filled with bitterness. It was within this context, as part of a larger project, that I composed ‘Los muertos’, taking up a very generous invitation from Antonio Calera, a friend, poet and editor, to participate in an anthology to celebrate the Día de muertos (Day of the Dead), which would be launched that November. This gave me the opportunity to place in the centre of Mexican poetry, in its very heart, that which was really happening in the country, events that didn’t seem to disturb the majority of poets, events that were being silenced: clandestine graves, the mass murder of migrants, anti-female gender violence, agony that occurred without being given a name. I was interested in subverting the official discourse, fascist in nature, that had taken root in the country. Discourse that occurs within language when it has been seized by propaganda. In order to achieve this I denatured poetry, divorcing it from the aesthetic function still assigned to it by many. This decision implied an aesthetic and political gamble as I discovered that the poetry that had previously been written on this theme, covered up the real horror: it seemed to me, in fact, to constitute complicity. This consciousness of the nature of political language determined how I wrote. The composition of the poem was guided by a large and problematic reflection on the social function of art, the ethical problems associated with dealing with victim’s testimonies, the limits of poetry and, in a very concrete way, with Mexican poetry.
As far as its reception goes, the first very positive reaction came from some poets and writers who referred to the poem as a political event in columns, articles and blogs. It was poorly received by other poets (still under the influence of Paz’s normative ethics) who thought that poetry shouldn’t (or couldn’t) deal with these themes, who recriminated me for the decision to not “poetically elaborate” (erase) the brutal violence suffered by those people. This, as far as I’m concerned, constitutes a form of open complicity with the crimes. I was even subjected to the machista suggestion that I should just concern myself with my interior world (with my husband and daughter). As far as the elite intellectuals closely associated with the government, they didn’t like the poem as it contradicted the official discourse, challenged president Calderón, exposed the authority’s criminal collusion, and damaged the image of Mexico.
For these reasons, the poem suffered some political censure from two of the most famous Mexican literary magazines, those favoured by the government. The director of Letras Libres, Enrique Krauze, decided to withdraw the poem despite favourable comments from the responsible editor and the fact that it was ready for publication. I came face to face with the reality that, in Mexico, a supposedly democratic country, poetry can be censored by intellectuals and writers (transformed into the executing hand of the government), that the degree of collusion, in order to render victims invisible, not only implicated the criminals and the authorities but, also extended to members of the intellectual class who actively participated in the silencing of this Mexican horror. Just a few months later, some writers featured in anti-violence movements, when the political context altered due to the emergence of the Movimiendo por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace, Justice & Dignity) headed by the poet Javier Sicilia after the murder of his son, a movement that lent dignity to the victims of violence.
In my own experience, the most brutal part of political censure came from discovering its meaning; from becoming conscious that what was continually attempted to be silenced was not really my voice, but the voices of others, the collective experience, painful and unjust, of those who had been discarded from the national consciousness for reasons of class and gender: poor women and men, Mexican and Central American migrants who were murdered, commercialised, completely dehumanised, silenced by organised crime, authorities, intellectuals and, even by poets who were made indignant by the fact that it were these voices, these victims of the Mexican classist system, that occupied the pristine page of poetry. The censure that I suffered, luckily, confirmed for me the dangers of poetry and the nature of poetry: It is far from an aesthetic, classist and insignificant artefact dominated by the reverberations of light or the trivialisation of horror.
After the initial reception of the poem, in April 2011, I read it at the first demonstration called by Javier Sicilia in the Mexico City Zócalo. The poem was read in front of thousands of demonstrators, recorded by the journalist Janet Mérida who uploaded it to YouTube and it went viral.
The reception it received in the main square was completely unexpected for me: I wasn’t really fully aware of the effect that the poem had caused until some time later. The poem transgressed the literary sphere, and was taken up, nationally and internationally, but other artists: video-art, music, performance, theatre, painting. In the same way it was adopted by those involved in activism, read at demonstrations outside the country and within Mexico, read in front of legislators (by Javier Sicilia, who claimed it was the best poem written in Mexico on the theme), appropriated by migrants, victims of violence in the US, and inspired various collectives such as the group known as ‘Bordando por la paz’. It was translated into various languages, conserving its evocative power (the Argentinean poet Jorge Fondebrider not long ago commented on the impression it made on audiences in the UK after Claire Potter read Richard Gwyn’s translation). The poem has also been anthologised and studied in various countries. The phenomenon of its reception has been, without a doubt, an anomaly within the context of Mexican poetry: it has become the emblematic poem on violence in the country.
Another aspect of the poem’s reception was due to the fact that it was shared on websites that focus on drug-trafficking. I received some emails in which I was asked, for example, how I could know such precise details of massacres, and I was invited to some lost towns of the sierra. For years, I chose not to travel to such places I was disturbed by the wide dissemination of my reading in the Zócalo and these unforseeable results. Though I understood, very quickly, that the poem had now ceased to be mine, that I couldn’t expect a traditional trajectory, that the poem now belonged to the readers who had freely reproduced, copied, altered, shared, appropriated it without even telling me. It’s ironic, but it is the highest aspiration of a poet: to disappear from the poem.
DB: Did you find you needed to carry out much research in order to compose the poem? There are details in the poem, names etc… Are they real or invented?
MR: As mentioned, the poem is the product of a long investigation into violence sparked by the femicides from Ciudad Juárez. The facts that I narrate are all true, occurring at some point during those years, I made a sort of tour of the most significant violent acts up to the year 2010, the sum of the atrocities that make up the recent history of Mexico. I researched the locations of clandestine graveyards that had been discovered, the way in which people had been killed, their origins, their histories. It’s all based on journalistic reports, mostly from the Special Migrants Report from the National Human Rights Commission, from 2009, and an investigation I carried out in Honduras on some of the 72 migrants killed in 2010. Naturally these facts become the basis of a literary invention: their return to life on the Day of the Dead. As far as names are concerned, some are real though mixed up. I decided to expose their history, their wounded bodies, their vulnerable human nature. I tried to be sufficiently specific to avoid seeming ‘literary’, using them, cannibalising their story, which is what the rhetoric of violence does. I believe that poetry has extraordinary powers and that there are ethical borders that should not be transgressed. The use of testimony, for example, is problematic. The dead, the victims, are not literary capital that can be used for gaining authorial prestige. In fact, the poem avoids testimony, focusing instead on naked facts. The dead are defined by their relationship with the living: they are the mirror in which they see themselves and permit us to see them and to recognise ourselves in them. They are called I, you, we.
DB: Do you think that poetry can make a real difference?
MR: Poetry can speak better than any other art during regimes in which language is damaged in order to hide atrocities, systematically used to cover up and simulate, as is the case in Mexico: a country in which everything happens and nothing happens, a victim of the rhetoric of an old dictatorial regime. Dismantling the discourse that legitimised homicidal violence became, for me, a form of resistance in a country that practices torture, forced disappearances, killings, secret burials, brutal femicide, total disappearance of human remains via calcination or chemical disintegration. This terrible violence is perpetrated on all of us, hence the use of the ‘lymph’ metaphor: we are not separate from those who commit the worst atrocities, they are our own organs, our own limbs, our sickness, ourselves. Art’s field of action is rooted in the symbolic. Language unearths, it’s civilising. It returns the hidden, the dismembered, the disjointed, to articulate itself in the country’s centre of political power, in the spaces of the elite which is, as I have said, no longer an innocent and passive participant.
Of course, poetry can make a real difference when it is free to speak, when it is not associated with aesthetic restrictions which are, in reality, political and serve the powerful and their ends: silencing voices and registrars of reality; when it is not linked to the very government that commits atrocities and authors can detach themselves from the classist apparatus promoted by the governmental cultural institutes. Otherwise, the importance that poetry holds will continue to be circumscribed to a reduced number of readers protected by classist institutions beset by the corruption of their members, each patting each other’s shoulders ($houlders). The importance of poetry, of course, has also to do with its capacity to move into other aesthetic experiences, to offer a new vision of the concrete world in which we live. If poetry is not an expression of critical and intellectual passion, it rarely travels far.
DB: Do you think that the poet has a responsibility to write about real events, about politics, social reality etc.?
MR: I believe that each author constructs herself politically. All poetry, if it is public, is political. It all serves a function. Aestheticising poetry, for example, can serve to erase the collusion of the authorities with criminals, to decorate the scenes of horror, to avoid public mourning. Beautiful poetry can serve as a painkiller or a real cure. I, unlike some others, have always considered poetry as a form of responsibility in itself. We all have this, a social responsibility, shared citizenry.
DB: Would you describe yourself as a political poet? Why/why not?
MR: Of course, I consider myself a political poet. I form part of the public discourse and have freely inserted my work in that space. I also associate my work with my gender, writing from a gendered perspective, though deliberately avoiding the personal. I have occupied myself with exploring the experiences of misogynist sexual violence through language and, in the same way, in my poem ‘Los muertos’, I decided to place that in the centre of the aesthetic experience.
DB: Finally, what’s next for you?
MR: The publication of this very long project about which I have been speaking to you, which includes ‘Los muertos’, ‘Oscuro’ and other poems. The book will be entitled, naturally, Política.
— Maria Rivera and Dylan Brennan
Here they come
the torn into pieces,
the women with their coccyx split apart,
those with their heads smashed in,
the little ones crying
inside dark walls
of minerals and sand.
Here they come
those who sleep in buildings
that house secret tombs:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,
their hands tied,
shot between their temples.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
Here they come
the dead who set out from Usulután,
from La Paz
from La Unión,
from La Libertad,
from San Salvador,
from San Juan Mixtepec,
from El Progreso,
from El Guante,
those who were given the goodbye at a karaoke party,
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one they forced to dig his brother’s grave,
the one they murdered after collecting a four thousand dollar ransom,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight year old son
Where do they come from,
from what gangrene,
Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead that they found in a ditch in Taxco,
the dead that they found in remote places of Chihuahua,
the dead that they found strewn across plots of crops,
the dead that they found shot in la Marquesa,
the dead that they found hanging from bridges,
the dead that they found without heads on common land,
the dead that they found at the side of the road,
the dead that they found in abandoned cars,
the dead that they found in San Fernando,
those without number they cut into pieces and have still not been found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of the dead
dissolved in drums.
They are called
remains, corpses, the deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose children do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose wives do not tire of waiting,
they imagine them in subways, among gringos.
They are called
baby clothes woven in the casket of the soul,
the little tee shirt of a three-month-old
the photo of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
they are called
in the tummy
and the newborn’s cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (a girl) who fell in love at primary school,
they are called wanting to dance at fiestas,
they are called blushing of hot cheeks and sweaty hands,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
giving food to my children,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, estates, offices,
they are called
crying of children on earth floors,
the light flying over the birds,
the flight of pigeons in the church,
they are called
kisses at the river’s edge,
they are called
in the scrubland,
in the gardens of ranches,
in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,
in some forgotten wilderness,
and in secret,
they are called
secrets of hitmen,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called sobbing,
they are called mist,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called I,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called sobbing.
Here they go
their bodies burned to a crisp,
their bones polished by the sand of the desert.
They are called
the dead women that no one knows no one saw being killed,
they are called
women who go out alone to bars at night,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
they are called meat,
they are called meat.
without an age,
without a name,
they sleep in their cemetery:
its name is Temixco,
its name is Santa Ana,
its name is Mazatepec,
its name is Juárez,
its name is Puente de Ixtla,
its name is San Fernando,
its name is Tlaltizapán,
its name is Samalayuca,
its name is el Capulín,
its name is Reynosa,
its name is Nuevo Laredo,
its name is Guadalupe,
its name is Lomas de Poleo,
its name is Mexico.
a las que les partieron el coxis,
a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,
los pequeñitos llorando
entre paredes oscuras
de minerales y arena.
los que duermen en edificios
de tumbas clandestinas:
vienen con los ojos vendados,
atadas las manos,
baleados entre las sienes.
Allí vienen los que se perdieron por Tamaulipas,
cuñados, yernos, vecinos,
la mujer que violaron entre todos antes de matarla,
el hombre que intentó evitarlo y recibió un balazo,
la que también violaron, escapó y lo contó viene
caminando por Broadway,
se consuela con el llanto de las ambulancias,
las puertas de los hospitales,
la luz brillando en el agua del Hudson.
los muertos que salieron de Usulután,
de La Paz,
de La Unión,
de La Libertad,
de San Salvador,
de San Juan Mixtepec,
de El Progreso,
de El Guante,
a los que despidieron en una fiesta con karaoke,
y los encontraron baleados en Tecate.
Allí viene al que obligaron a cavar la fosa para su hermano,
al que asesinaron luego de cobrar cuatro mil dólares,
los que estuvieron secuestrados
con una mujer que violaron frente a su hijo de ocho años
¿De dónde vienen,
de qué gangrena,
los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,
engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,
con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,
su espeluznante ternura.
los muertos que encontraron en una fosa en Taxco,
los muertos que encontraron en parajes alejados de Chihuahua,
los muertos que encontraron esparcidos en parcelas de cultivo,
los muertos que encontraron tirados en la Marquesa,
los muertos que encontraron colgando de los puentes,
los muertos que encontraron sin cabeza en terrenos ejidales,
los muertos que encontraron a la orilla de la carretera,
los muertos que encontraron en coches abandonados,
los muertos que encontraron en San Fernando,
los sin número que destazaron y aún no encuentran,
las piernas, los brazos, las cabezas, los fémures de muertos
disueltos en tambos.
restos, cadáveres, occisos,
los muertos a los que madres no se cansan de esperar
los muertos a los que hijos no se cansan de esperar,
los muertos a los que esposas no se cansan de esperar,
imaginan entre subways y gringos.
chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,
camisetita de tres meses,
la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,
se llaman mamita,
en el vientre
y el primer llanto,
se llaman cuatro hijos,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
y una viuda (muchacha) que se enamoró cuando estudiaba la primaria,
se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas,
se llaman rubor de mejillas encendidas y manos sudorosas,
se llaman muchachos,
se llaman ganas
de construir una casa,
darle de comer a mis hijos,
se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,
casas, haciendas, oficinas,
llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,
la luz volando sobre los pájaros,
el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,
besos a la orilla del río,
en jardines de ranchos
en parajes olvidados,
secretos de sicarios,
secretos de matanzas,
secretos de policías,
se llaman llanto,
se llaman neblina,
se llaman cuerpo,
se llaman piel,
se llaman tibieza,
se llaman beso,
se llaman abrazo,
se llaman risa,
se llaman personas,
se llaman súplicas,
se llamaban yo,
se llamaban tú,
se llamaban nosotros,
se llaman vergüenza,
se llaman llanto.
los pechos mordidos,
las manos atadas,
calcinados sus cuerpos,
sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.
las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,
las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,
mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,
se llaman carne,
se llaman carne.
duermen en su cementerio:
se llama Temixco,
se llama Santa Ana,
se llama Mazatepec,
se llama Juárez,
se llama Puente de Ixtla,
se llama San Fernando,
se llama Tlaltizapán,
se llama Samalayuca,
se llama el Capulín,
se llama Reynosa,
se llama Nuevo Laredo,
se llama Guadalupe,
se llama Lomas de Poleo,
se llama México.
—Maria Rivera, English translation by Richard Gwyn
This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, selected and translated by Richard Gwyn, was published in November 2016 in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.
María Rivera, poet and essayist, was born in Mexico City in 1971. She is the author of Traslación de dominio (Fondo Editorial Tierra Adentro, 2000 y 2004) for which she won the “Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven Elías Nandino 2000”, Hay batallas (Editorial Joaquín Mortiz, 2005) for which she won the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes 2005, Rota (EDAU, 2006) and Los muertos (Calygramma, 2011). She has received grants from the Centro Mexicano de Escritores and the FONCA Young Creators programme. She is currently a member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Arte.
Richard Gwyn is a poet, novelist and translator, based in Wales, where he is Professor of Creative Writing at Cardiff University. His most recent book is an anthology of recent poetry from Latin America, The Other Tiger (Seren).
Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan
From a work in progress.
The kid takes a steady, probative sip, but still the half-moon ice clatters in the glass and he feels the jolt on the lip like electrocution. He’s pretty sure that it’s possible to ascribe volition and malice to the Alpha. The kid had been out in the yard, tossing wieners to the dogs, per ma’s standing request, and the dogs had gone apeshit, per usual, racing wildly around the dog run, stamping frenzied at the frozen soil, Dolt so aboil with nervous ecstasy that he seemed practically to levitate, and when the kid had backed into the door, his own heart buzzing with the infectious joy of the animals’ apeshit cavorting, the Alpha had timed his standard rebound off the trailer’s side wall—a kind of climactic farewell trouncing of the aluminum-sided hull—and struck the still-canted door such that the knob had nailed the kid right in the balls, and as he lunged reflexively forward, convulsing into a protective fetal crouch, the blade edge of the door panel itself, somehow missing the protuberant schnoz, smacked him square in the mouth with enough residual maentum to ding the buried nerves in his gums and split the top lip, which subsequently swelled up like a gumdrop.
Before he could boot the door closed, three or four dogs had breached the aperture, and they set upon him like a felled carcass, deploying tongues, sniffing furiously, basically giving him concerned what-for.
The pain, each time he dips his face into the cup, is uniform, the same low-voltage sting of slung acids on raw skin, and it bothers him not too much because he is, above all, a compound kid, and has long since grown inured to all manner of grievances and disappointments, physical and spiritual. This shit is atmospheric, elemental. Like eight fit Dobermans who have never known a leash, a non-negotiable term of existence. Like most of the compound’s kids, he’s learned to live with it.
The kid has mastered the ability to see himself clearly, and to love himself somewhat, regardless. He reads his life’s unfolding as if it were an entry in a dictionary of North American childhood, a dictionary with a narrative logic and sensibility, as if every experience were representative and definitive.
See, for example, his pose, in his Eddie t-shirt and toughskins, Indian-style on the oval weave rug superfluous in the carpeted living room, near enough to the tv to change the channel manually, as needed, glass of cheap cola off one knee’s port bow, craptronic Intellevision controller in his clawed grip. It feels, to the eye as much as the hand, more like a calculator than a joystick, like someone’s crude idea of futuristic technology, a flat plastic plank with a nonsensical keypad and an odd disc-lever for steering. Slick game-specific inserts of flimsier plastic slide over the buttons to sheathe the worst of the keypad’s nonsense. The cord connecting controller to console is coiled and insulated like the one for the touchtone, the gizmo’s basic color palette echoing the unit’s own drab interior, its mix of wood-paneling and dingy laminate—the technological future being, in this case, just a hodgepodge of the here and now’s constitutives recombined in the most awkward way possible.
The cola is RC, Royal Crown, the kid’s ma’s beverage of choice for reasons unbeknownst to him, though the kid sometimes speculates. The console is Intellevision (not Coleco or Atari); the cartridge, Burger Time, and the kid steers his avatar up and down ladders, across spindly girders, shambling over cross-section components of a deconstructed hamburger, with veg, while fried eggs and hot dogs for some reason try to thwart his tiny chef’s progress. The guy has to march across the surface of, say, a bun, the traversal of which makes his jaunty steps go gummy, as if the guy has to sort of smoosh the bun’s dome with his wingtips to get it to descend to the next layer of the board—this being the game’s sole object. And he has, in some apron pocket too detailed for capture by code this primitive, a pepper shaker with which he can dust the bogeys and slow them down. They flop on the ground, wither and writhe as if they’ve been effectively singed or tased. The kid, as he plays, feels an appropriate amount of resentment for the gift’s quality and thoughtfulness quotient. He keeps things in perspective. The dogs in the yard are quiet, the winter cold more without than within.
After a while he knocks off, does an air-kung-fu roundhouse that makes the coffee table wobble, scarfs a few bland ChipAhoys with a finger-swipe of low-sucrose frosting from his birthday cake, and before snuffing the last lamp and bedding down on the sofa, he peers through the slats of the home’s port window, sees the light still glowing in the trailer opposite, where the twins used to live, the current occupant just a suspicion or phantasmagoria behind the heavy curtains, and the dogs all seated in a row like eight little Indians, backs straight, rumps down, pylons of darkest night at the fenceline, peering too.
Morning, the kid wakes to the sound of an infant wailing. He strides to the far end of the trailer to dress, inspects the lip in the mirror (less swollen and tender—just a small scabbed divot in the flesh betraying injury), then doubles back to the kitchen where he gulps a shard of kringle before stepping out into the dog run. Nighttime temps above 25, the dogs sleep outside, ass to muzzle in the shed. Most of the dogs rush him (he counts incursions by Intake, Mischief, Dolt, Pinto, and Hammer, though the Alpha still sits, distracted, at the fenceline and nothing could disturb the inviolable idiocy of Dipshit), jaws open and teeth gleaming in the icebox air, all menacing smiles and corded muscles, stump tails waving. The kid’s bottom half’s bedecked in the other jeans, the heavier wool sweater up top, so he acclimates pretty fast to the weather situation, and he hauls out the kibble bin from its slot under the trailer, peels off the lid, and the dogs’ snouts descend ravenous, lifting to nip at his sleeves, dragging tongues that leave a trail of chill across his hands in genuine canine gratitude. Though he stands amid eight adult, feeding Dobermans, the kid feels not a jot of fear, and he slaps at their flanks, pats their skulls, congratulatory.
The dogs hoist inquisitive heads and emit woofs, ears antennaed, jaws still chomping, when they hear the cage door rattle: that’s the kid making for ma’s Concord, the button locks erect as golf tees behind the frosted glass. The kid’s got large-denomination birthday money in his billfold, but he slides in and roots in the cupholder where he scores three gunked quarters which he funnels into a pocket with an air of permissible transgression: ma’s said she doesn’t begrudge him as long as the dogs get fed. She’s still snoring in the front bedroom. Fewer kennel sounds, pacified infant, maybe the kid hears her. The closed climate of the cabin alerts him to the fact that he’s squashed a fresh turd under his Pumas. He inspects his soles, takes it all in, and he feels that sensation, almost like discovery, dawning inside him, some knowledge that’s always at the edge of his consciousness but never countenanced squarely and redressed. He lets the knowledge fester like that, subcutaneous, an ingrown hair.
If there had been a time before the dogs, the kid couldn’t recall it because, far as he was concerned, ma had always been breeding. He’s still not sure whether dad’s untimely exit was cause or consequence of ma’s decision to surround herself with seedstock Dobermans, but he’s seen the nativity photos of the dogs dipping their muzzles like jailbreak felons into the laundry basket, where the kid lay cushioned on beach towels, that placid dazed expression of a baby contemplating umpteen canine teeth and whiskers stiff as brush bristles. Also inexplicable is how the kid survived infancy when the possibilities for carnage were so numerous and imminent, but here he is, lo these dozen years later, still consuming resources and riding upon the Earth’s surface under the lucky Dog star of his birth.
He’s long since stopped trying to deduce ma’s angle in this, her apparently unremunerative second side business. Because she doesn’t actually breed Dobermans, the lone attempt to integrate a female into the pack having ended catastrophically (ma refused to disclose details), so now, ma just trafficked in purebred semen, which she collected in labeled vials by mysterious means, though the kid sometimes speculates, and shipped still refrigerated during winter months only to likewise icebound clients in the upper Rust Belt. Excepting these business transactions, ma showed little interest in the dogs, expressed no affection for them, and harbored no fondness for wildlife in general, broadcasting her mute, tough-titted scorn via pitchfork and wheelbarrow when tetrapod vertebrates got flattened in the compound’s drive. For ma the non-human world held about as much fascination as the human, which is to say, not much.
The kid knew, obviously, what the other kids thought of ma in her role as the compound’s property manager—this being her main side business, which secured for ma and son the dubious privilege of tenanting the first accessible unit lot, nearest Sheridan Road, as well as screening potential occupants. To the other kids, ma was just a flabby troll in a battered housecoat, dark southern Italian, with the kid’s large schnoz but her own large pores, eyes black and smeary as motor oil.
The kid has time to kill before the arcade opens. He feels the contours of said time, its spongy form and mass, like the pressure of the chill air seeping through his meager layers, clamping down on his frame with escalating firmness and conviction. Still the kid lingers at the roadside in his soiled Pumas, tests the damaged lip with his tongue, takes in this view of the #2 trailer, its blue waffle cone siding and balustered porch deck, the notch in the gravel where the twins used to park their Spree. Decorative wedges of beveled 2×4 ring the welcome sign that abuts the main drive, and the kid’s wheeled to scrape, head down, his shoe clean against them, but the process leads him, wedge by wedge, in a tight semicircle until he’s fronting again this diagonal view of units #1 and #2, slice between them of the pointless field that borders the compound, fanning out across space between here and the drive-in before arcing around to bracket the park’s far west end. Along the pointless field’s near margin runs a single track scuffed into the earth, like a property demarcation line, just a wobbly foot-scrawled boundary drawn between the compound’s something and the pointless nothing of low scraggly vegetation legible only in the language of bees, bent stalks of indestructible weeds, pendant shapes of burst seed pods, general aura of interred garbage, eighty-sixed cola cans’ slow erosion, lumpy hillocks of cast-off moped tires, and motley slumbering soil-borne contaminants—a topographical barrier of what isn’t, walling off stuff that evidently is—along which track the kid was last summer speeding on the twins’ Spree, spraying soft apples at bug-bit runts skulking in between-unit yards, spewing streams of smacktalk in the compound’s unrepeatable vernacular, and the kid’s hair’s all torn up by the wind of his loco-motion, shit-eating grin stretched from ear to ear. Kid’s scouting loci of memories.
Aladdin’s Castle’s change machine converts quarters into flimsy faux-gold tokens, stamped with the arcade’s logo and a suitably Arabian backdrop (oil lamp, minaret). The kid recognizes that this is a shrewd business practice, on the casino model, requiring kids to burn their money at this arcade, instead of strewing quarters all over town. Bun N Games, the nearest competing sanctioned arcade hall, is practically audible from the parking lot of the Market Square mall-space housing the Castle, but every retail outfit, gas station or bowling alley, with both cash register and wall socket boasts a cabinet console to sop up the city’s flow of loose change. The kid’s even heard tell of a porn-style game at the train station—reportedly called Cherry Popper—whose graphics, per his informant, were virtually jerkable. This kid himself has dropped incalculable amounts into the Punch-Out! machine at the southside Supervalu, but he still can’t beat the third Bald Bull, a kind of cartoon Clubber Lang whose savage uppercut combination, preceded by a crouched, pogoing bull rush, is all but unstoppable. A good game, he concedes, can be enjoyably vexing. The Aladdin’s Castle token strategy feels tacky, bespeaks an abject desperation with which the kid can readily identify, but if the kid were a betting man, he would pick this chain, with its shameless pandering and anxious larceny, to outlast all contenders and comers.
The kid has a feel for these things, the slow creep of death’s stench across everything that’s knowable.
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies, Review of Contemporary Fiction and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.
Reading, around the same time, Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders, “Money” by Douglas Glover (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015), and “The Evil Gesture,” by Russell Working (Numéro Cinq, 2017), I have the sense that each of the stories could have been written by either of the other authors. What is it about these stories, characters, and prose styles that makes them appear to have come from the same hand?
I have to answer, verisimilitude—a word that appears in Saunders’ title story, when the guy playing caveman in the theme park gets a memo from his boss:
In terms of austerity, it says. No goat today. In terms of verisimilitude, mount this fake goat and tend as if real. Mount well above fire to avoid burning. In event of melting, squelch fire. In event of burning, leave area, burning plastic may release harmful fumes.
In terms of verisimilitude, indeed. Saunders in the earlier story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” features a narrator whose job (at another theme park) is “verisimilitude inspector.” Which I suppose is what I want to be in this essay.
While Saunders’ premise is typically absurdist—a middle-American couple has a precarious job at a theme park playing cave people, a kind of kitsch Flintstones—the lens of the characters is our given anchor in that sketchy reality, and so it comes across with a convincing punch.
In Glover’s “Money,” a miserable con-man named Drebel is painted faithfully, without fanfare, just as he is (“His favorite words were liquidate and fester”). Even as Drebel imagines himself (at the end) as “a demonic messenger, an immense black figure towering above a smoking, lifeless plain,” we have seen him from the inside out, knowing him, for all his self-serving crimes, as fellow human.
Russell Working’s protagonist, a boy named Jordan, invites us to inhabit his existence for a spell, fixated on his quest to go trick-or-treating, thwarted by the funeral of his uncle Aaron, beheaded in Afghanistan.
In each of these stories our immersion in the characters is so complete that we become them, and in that merger the larger themes of exploitation, evil and violence are absorbed in our experience: not so much cogitated but integrated.
Other masters of ironic realism come to mind. Thomas Mann launched a career with his unstinting recreation of bourgeois life in Buddenbrooks; wherein all the weaknesses and limitations of the society and its citizens are exposed to full view. Invited to see the unforgiving truth of our commonplace nature, we can smile with scorn, yet earn the gift of distance from such foibles. We emerge with a larger capacity to see the failings not only of others around us, but then also ourselves, because the muscle of discernment has been well toned.
In the case of Mann’s last work, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, the verisimilitude of character works to earn the roguish con-man our sympathy because we have been so hospitably welcomed into his, yes, confidence. In this merger, again, comes sympathy, empathy, forgiveness of sins—because he and we are one.
The verisimilitude is achieved with a recreation of the culture, whether in the manner of Saunders’ (or Glover’s, or Working’s) fabrications of superficial Americanisms, or Mann’s faithful rendering of the furnishings and fixations of the German bourgeoisie. Along with the convincing setting, whether elaborate or sparse, the diction of the characters and narration is organically suited to convey the same conditions and values, exposed to the witnessing eye.
Realpolitik and the Moral Imperative
In his own essays and interviews, Saunders notes that an early influence was Isaac Babel, and he also cites Tolstoy, particularly Resurrection. Babel’s Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003) offers the war correspondent’s firsthand depiction of the Polish front under the assault of the murderous Cossacks—the leading wave of the Bolshevik Revolution trying to export itself by force upon its western neighbor. This unnecessary campaign, presented with complete reportorial objectivity, is at once horrifying and galvanizing. In response I feel with vicarious rage and repulsion the contrary of this bloody senseless human history—rather, the necessity to shout the moral imperative, to love one’s fellow human. But first we must taste the fresh blood of murder.
Between battles, Babel rides with the Cossack horsemen across fields of rye littered with corpses, sparkling in the sun. They find lodging in ruined villages, each with its churches desecrated, its women raped, its foodstocks looted, its prisoners shot point-blank or slashed with sabers, its livestock slaughtered summarily for the single pleasure remaining for the syphilitic soldiers: eating.
These men so degraded by war inveigh to their superiors about injustices concerning ownership of horses; they stumble in bloodsoaked rags, insisting on slogans of the people’s party; they sleep when they can on piles of louse-ridden hay; they gnaw at green meat, awaiting the next village to plunder. And they long, like Babel himself, for home and the peaceful life.
Babel’s war, like every war, is hell on earth. The enormity of its suffering stands in contrast to the comfort of our privileged existence, apart from such madness and strife, coercion and fear. Yet our private fate, in war and peace, is compromised just as it is in the collective evil of war. In Babel’s pithy phrase, “To save his own goods and chattels a man will gladly set fire to another man’s hide.” (Glover’s Drebel stands as exhibit A of this uncomfortable truth.) And regardless of one’s own circumstances and moral choices, the arrival of hell looms in the chaotic demise of one’s own body, subject to the nonpetitionable torture of decay, that universal finality of death.
Literary realism, to be complete, it seems, must, like Saunders in his latest work, the novel Lincoln in the Bardo, bravely make a centerpiece of death. The frequent theme and device of Saunders’ short stories, complete with likeable zombies and unfortunate Asian women strung on wires as lawn ornaments, is precisely that dark heart of reality, giving us the gut punch that will wake us past the corporate-speak and juvenile pablum that passes for speech in our day. Death is a wakeup call for all.
Luckily we get to try it out first, while we have the luxury of living, if we try on the world as it is according to Babel, or Tolstoy, or the characters of Saunders’ world. That world, so truly painted and finely drawn, in spare lines, yet in details and phrasing so breathing and alive, is none other than ours.
In the face of human depravity and suffering, if one fully identifies with its victims and perpetrators, one is moved to the moral imperative of human love, instead. Saunders quotes Tolstoy to that effect:
“If once we admit—be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case—that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds…. Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances.”
Yet, Saunders qualifies the temptation to assign too much moral or thematic impulse to the creation of the story.
The assumption trickles down that artists have this viewpoint we want to ram down your throat.… I’m not really trying to say anything. Most people assume you have an intention and then you execute. There are some writers like that. But for me, I’m trying to not have an intention. I just have a little fragment and start working with it to see where it goes. When I’m done, sometimes I go, Wow, I said that? I didn’t know I thought that.
In the end, the purpose is more “literary” (Babel), objective in the sense of Buddhist “witnessing,” and “simple… almost invisible.”  The morality is not expressed but felt, in the successful literary rendering of reality, no matter how disturbing: “Love, at least in the fictional sense, is… clearer sight.”
Praxis and Witness
In Babel’s notes published with the Red Cavalry stories, I’m struck by certain phrases that seem like a manifesto for minimalist realism:
Simply a story… Very simple, a factual account, no superfluous descriptions.
No continuity… Pay no attention to continuity in the story.
Short chapters saturated with content.
[and from the concluding remarks by his daughter, Nathalie]: “Babel’s ultimate aim in the stories … was literary effect.”
What can we make of this confluence of realism and literary effect? If the aim is verisimilitude, then it seems almost as if writers achieving that aim would sound the same as each other: as indeed the school of Raymond Carver spawned a generation of barebones writing, lean of telling and laconic of both narrative and dialogue… or Hemingway before him, another primary influence Saunders cites in a New York Times Magazine interview.
Yet intrinsic to the “literary effect” of the realist is each writer’s given praxis. For Saunders, that means stylistic devices such as the use of extra question marks; jargon such as “due to,” “plus,” and “per”; speech authentically bastardized from media and corporate tropes; the use of capital letters for the iconic branding of everyday aspects of mundane American life. And there is that particularly American flavor to the thoughts, actions and speech of the characters. Parroting trends in the superficial culture, steeped in bureaucratese, fearful of stepping out of conditioned roles.
Compared to Babel’s graphic tapestry of setting, elemental in its rye fields full of corpses, its ruined churches and commandeered farmhouses, Saunders’ settings are stage sets for the play of the characters in dialogue or monologue; outlines constructed only for context, as the real world that is created resides in the characters themselves. The character is the world, and herein lies Saunders’ spiritual depth of compassion for any and all personalities enacting the divine and wacky human (or animal: dog, fox…) experiment.
In the absence of elaborate framing of setting, or any kind of authorial interpretation offered, there is allowed on the part of the reader a complete identification with the character/subjects. The monologues in the form of letters, reports, columns, or diaries all immerse the reader in the world of the character, richly rendered to allow us to experience fully the living of that life.
Saunders has said, in a recent CBC interview, that it is detail which, because it makes the character come alive, earns them sympathy from the reader. Thus Saunders distinguishes between realistic description, and “nondescript” writing.
In terms of irony, it is the humor which flavors the reader’s final evaluation, knowing that no malice is intended, but only truth—which is understood dispassionately, or compassionately, as we are invited with Saunders to simply witness all that is—in the Buddhist way that Saunders is known to subscribe to.
A key dimension of Saunders’ realism is the absurdism embedded within it: a natural discovery given the inherent absurdities of American culture (“America has always been nuts.”). And it is the absurdist dimension that gives free reign to the writer’s unique imagination, that sets him apart from contemporaries who might strive only for a more limited realistic approach.
The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to “real life”—he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit.… Our most profound experiences may require this artistic uncoupling from the actual. The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.
The absurdist imagination allows not only the distinctive style of the writer to emerge; it encourages us to question everything. In this more profound state of decoupling from a reality that is at once both transparent and weird, we are jarred from our own comfort zones of self-satisfaction and denial.
“If you have a negative tendency and you deny it, then you’ve doubled it. If you have a negative tendency and you look at it… then the possibility exists that you can convert it.” The truth will set us free: or at least, it gives us the possibility of freedom, if we so choose.
Does George Saunders translate this stance from its spiritual, aesthetic and moral grounding into any kind of real-world political action imperative? Or is it left for each of us to find our best way forward, better attuned to the lives of others?
The latter course is pointed to by
the idea of abiding, of the way that you can help people flourish just by withholding judgment, if you open yourself up to their possibilities, as Saunders put it, just as you would open yourself up to a story’s possibilities.
Cited and Selected Works
Douglas Glover, “Money” (The Brooklyn Rail, 2015)
Russell Working, “The Evil Gesture” (Numéro Cinq, 2017)
Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry (1920, rpt. 2003)
Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901); Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996) (short stories and a novella)
Pastoralia (2000) (short stories and a novella)
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) (novella)
In Persuasion Nation (2006) (short stories)
The Braindead Megaphone (2007) (essays)
Tenth of December (2013) (short stories)
Fox 8 (2013) (novella)
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) (novel)
George Saunders Interviews
“George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year”, Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.
2014 George Saunders interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.
“Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” George Saunders, NPR, January 6, 2013.
“George Saunders: On Story,” by Sarah Klein & Tom Mason, Redglass Pictures, The Atlantic, December 8, 2015.
CBC interview, Q, 13 April 2017.
Numéro Cinq production editor Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. His writings span an eclectic range of themes, structures and styles in fiction and creative nonfiction. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. His mystery of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter, was published in 2015 by Five Rivers. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg
- Tolstoy quoted in Saunders, “Adjust Your Vision: Tolstoy’s Last And Darkest Novel,” NPR, January 6, 2013.↵
- Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star, January 11, 2014.↵
- Saunders in interview with Jon Niccum, Kansas City Star.↵
- CBC Radio, Q, 13 April 2017.↵
- “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” Joel Lovell, The New York Times Magazine, January 3, 2013.↵
- CBC Radio interview.↵
- CBC Radio interview.↵
- New York Times Magazine interview.↵
- New York Times Magazine interview.↵
- Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine interview.↵
This excerpt comes early in Igiaba Scego’s novel, Adua, available from New Vessel Press, and follows the character of Zoppe, Adua’s father, as he adapts to life in an Italian prison. Scego is journalist and novelist born in Itay in 1974 to Somali parents.
Adua was translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards.
Zoppe knew that the best escape route was through his head.
That was the place where he found all the lost scents of his childhood. There, caano geel, shaah cadees, beer iyo muufo.
Candied ginger. Marvelous cinnamon. His Wonderland Somalia.
Zoppe thought about all this crouched down on the cold floor of his cell in Regina Coeli. His head between his knees and his thigh anxious against a battered chest. Vertigo and stabbing pain coursed through his tired veins. And his aching limbs felt defeated. He suspected he had two broken ribs. It was hard for him to breathe and even to bend over.
“Those bastards really mangled me.”
And as if that weren’t enough, they had tossed him unceremoniously in solitary. “This way you’ll learn what happens when you mess with us.”
Beppe gave him a pat on the head before handing him over to the prison. He touched him like a mother her young. Then he had him sip a yellow liquid.
“Drink, nigger, drink.”
Zoppe gulped with difficulty. He made a horrified grimace and felt something burning inside. Was he dying?
Beppe patted him again. “Drink up, you’ll feel better.”
And Zoppe drank and died once, twice, three times. Then with the fourth sip, the warmth began to reach his spent cheeks.
“My aunt’s walnut liqueur can revive even the dead. You’ll feel better soon, you’ll see,” the soldier said, smiling.
In that miserable cell where they’d stuck him there was a cot and a bowl of slop. Limp potatoes floated alongside prickly worms. Zoppe was young, he was famished, but he couldn’t bring himself to eat.
“I don’t want to shit myself to death in this stinking cell.” The room was square, gray, repugnant. Words inscribed with bloody fingernails covered the walls with pain. Zoppe started reading to try to figure out what lay ahead in his increasingly uncertain future.
Mauro da Pisa, Alessandro da Bologna, Antonio da Sassari, Lucio da Roma, Giulio da Pistoia, Simone da Rimini, have all passed through here. The oldest date was 1923. The best inscription was dated 1932. Zoppe recognized it immediately, the supreme poet was one of his favorites:
Through me is the way to the city of woe.
Through me is the way to sorrow eternal.
Through me is the way to the lost below.
“They’ve never cleaned up, that’s clear,” he said, addressing an imaginary audience. Actually, he didn’t mind the quiet of that isolation. It was a reprieve from the torture, from the senseless beatings that had defiled him down to his soul.
His tormenters would soon appear with their stinking farts and vulgar taunts. But in the meantime there was that strange, rat-scented calm to cradle him.
The pain didn’t subside. It was his groin that hurt to death, especially his testicles. Beppe had really beaten him badly. Zoppe asked himself if after all those hits his seed would still be fertile. His testicles throbbed and a yellowish liquid dripped from the tip of his penis. He felt heavy. And he could barely open his puffy eyes.
At the age of twenty he was an old man.
A premature oday, with a drooling mouth and achy bones.
He had his visions to comfort him. His mind catapulted him back into the home of Davide the Jew and his little girl, Emanuela.
He had recently been their guests, and the details were still so effervescent and fresh in his mind that he could almost remember without trying.
He could see the sour cherry preserves that Rebecca, Davide’s wife, had prepared for dessert. He’d filled up on that delicious tart and had also relished what had come before.
“What is this dish called?” he’d asked, astonished at his overflowing plate.
“It’s rigatoni con la pajata,” Rebecca replied.
Just then Zoppe noted how much mother and daughter resembled each other. The same wide forehead, the same big ears, and those sparkling emerald eyes. But whereas Emanuela was exuberant like all children, Rebecca had something mysterious and seductive about her.
Zoppe envied Davide.
And he said: “It smells good. I envy you this rich dish.” Davide accepted that sweet envy.
Looking around, there was really little to be envious of. It was all so small. Even the furniture was tiny. The house was composed of two rooms united by the reddish light that filtered in through a small window. The kitchen with an iron stove was in plain view. In the middle, a table, some tattered chairs and a flesh-toned armchair. The space was packed with furnishings. In every detail there was a certain affinity for symmetry that made such a chaotic space endearing. Zoppe was drawn to a blond walnut cabinet with drawers covered in faux vellum. It was an exquisite object that did not fit well with the overall simplicity. It was a little bit like Rebecca, that cabinet, too refined to be the centerpiece of that set.
Rebecca … Davide … Emanuela …
It was incredible for him to see white Jews. Zoppe had known only Falasha Jews, the Beta Israel, from Lake Tana, even though his father had told him that in the West there were Jews “with skin as pale as the moon.” These were pink Jews, so cordial, and their Roman house so cozy and inviting.
Zoppe was blinded by the ochre walls that matched harmoniously with the violet flooring. He was impressed by the hoard of books; they formed a cathedral. And the knickknacks scattered all over the place: ceramic dolls with real hair, decorative wall plates, tasseled colorful boxes and lots of photographs of old people in shiny, faux, silver frames.
Zoppe liked this middle ground where sour cherries intermingled with knowledge.
If he had his basin with him he’d have read the fate of those three people. He would have seen their beginning and their end. All their happiness and their atrocious suffering. Their passionate kisses and betrayals. If only he had his basin he would have warned them about all the dangers and joys of the world.
“Water,” he requested to the guard. “I’m thirsty.”
“Not so fast, Negro,” was his answer. “You’re not at the Grand Hotel. Learn some manners. You say ‘Water, please.’”
“What dfference does it make? You people don’t have good manners anyway,” Zoppe retorted.
“Ah, we’ve got a rebel here,” the guard said. “If times were different,” he added, “we would have shown you, you piece of shit. In Regina Coeli we don’t like rebels. You’re ticks, useless lice of humanity. In Regina Coeli it’s easy to die of hunger or thirst, learn that. It’s easy to bring down that cocky crest you’ve got. In Regina Coeli it’s a short path to the graveyard. But you’re a damned lucky louse. They told me not to let you die. So I’ll bring you your water. But mind you, I might not be able to kill you, but put you through hell, that I can do.”
Zoppe said nothing. He wanted to smash that fatso’s face. But he was in chains. And weak all through his insides. Eventually he ate the slop of potatoes and prickly worms. From the very first bite he could tell that his stomach would refuse to digest it. Vomiting was the logical consequence of an unwanted meal.
Zoppe was a cesspool. The worms dropped from his mouth whole. Restless worms, still alive and a little stunned. He could see them creeping slowly over his wasted body.
“Where’s my water?”
He needed to try to sleep. But could one sleep in such a state?
He wondered whether his father, Haji Safar, knew that he was in prison now.
“I’m sure he had a vision.” And Zoppe prayed that it hadn’t made his father suffer too much.
Happy images from his former life stopped the pain. The lively eyes of his sister, Ayan, his father’s gentle hand, the discipline of the Jesuits who had taught him Italian, and the intense letters from his Ethiopian friend Dagmawi Mengiste. They surrounded him and urged him not to give up. He saw their prayers spiral around him in an embrace of courage. “They love me,” Zoppe thought, “and they’re thinking about me right now.” Even the Limentani family was thinking of him.
He could hear the little girl asking her mother, Rebecca, “How do you draw a wildebeest, Mama? Do you think it has the same hump as a camel? Why don’t we invite the brown man over for lunch again and ask him to draw one for us?”
Zoppe saw Rebecca’s face tensed in a mask of fear. Maybe she knew about him.
Maybe news of his arrest had spread.
He’d ended up in trouble over Francesco Bondi, that Romagnolo with the flat nose and yellow teeth.
Zoppe appreciated nothing about that man. He was too tall, too invasive, too chatty.
He detested the droopy mustache and red hair that the Romagnolo showed off like a trophy. Bondi was always there asking question after question, waiting for amazing answers that Zoppe was never able to give.
And also, he only ever talked about women—bottoms, bosoms, lips, sex. Zoppe found him vulgar. Obviously.
“Do you have a girl?” the Romagnolo often asked. But Zoppe didn’t open up.
Of course he had a girl, but he had no intention of telling that guy about it. Asha the Rash was his woman. Every night in his dreams he savored the moment when he would make her his. But he didn’t want to share such private thoughts with anyone, let alone that lout Francesco Bondi. He didn’t want to sully her beautiful name with a filthy person like him. The Romagnolo ruined women, for sure. Every day he went bragging about his conquests. Mirella, Graziella, Elvira, Carlotta. All of them with big busts and big bottoms. All snatched up under the nose of distracted husbands. These provincial Don Juan routines bored him. He didn’t have all that time to waste. He had to work, not dawdle around. Zoppe’s greatest desire was to impress his superiors. He wanted honors. He wanted cash. So he had to look active. Lots of work didn’t scare him. Especially when he thought of the nice gifts that he would be able to give his Asha the Rash one day.
But then that strange morning came.
Francesco Bondi pounced on him with breath that still smelled of sleep.
Zoppe wasn’t alone. In that miserable and miniscule room he was ashamed to call an office, there was a man with yellow hair.
“Hey, Negro,” Bondi yelled euphorically. “I saw another Negro like you on the street yesterday. I thought you were the only one in Rome.”
Then the Romagnolo noticed the man with the yellow hair. “You’re not military,” Bondi said, a little irritated. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t judge by appearances. I’m even more, in a sense. The name’s Calamaro.” The two men shook hands hesitantly.
“And this Negro you saw on the street, what was he like, if I may ask?”
“He was a Negro, what do you think he was like …”
“They’re not all the same, did you know that?” said the man with the yellow hair. “There are different types, in every region. Their hair and noses diverge wildly. It depends on the climate.”
“Hair? That stuff this guy has on his head, you expect me to call that hair?”
“Yes,” said Calamaro, calmly.
“Are you kidding me?”
Zoppe buried his nose in his papers and mentally wandered through the city of Rome in search of the other African Bondi was talking about.
There was definitely Menghistu Isahac Tewolde Medhin. The Eritrean hothead. He ran into him one day around the Pensione Tedeschi on Via Flavia. The Eritrean walked slowly, he didn’t worry about being seen too much like Zoppe did. Medhin didn’t want to hide, let alone disappear. His movements were filled with pride. He walked with his head high. He had just finished at the Monte Mario international college run by the Methodist Episcopal Church and was trying to figure out what the future held for him. Zoppe didn’t like the man. His words were too learned, complicated. And his avid anti-Italian ferocity terrified him. That man would soon get himself into trouble. “I shouldn’t have anything to do with him, otherwise he’ll ruin me.”
As he was lost in these thoughts he saw Francesco Bondi’s hand sink into his curly hair.
“You call this hair? is is wool, not even good quality wool!”
“It’s hair,” Calamaro replied calmly. “It’s not pretty, but it’s hair. The gentleman is a Negro, but his features are less Negroid than the anthropological specimens I examined in the Congo.”
And then he too, no different than Bondi, sank his hand into the hair on Zoppe’s exhausted head.
The Somali exhaled with all the strength he had in his lungs and sat there despairingly listening to the two Italians.
He couldn’t say exactly when the discussion turned into something more serious. Had it been Bondi who offended Calamaro, or maybe the reverse? Zoppe was confused. He saw only, through his hair, that the two had moved on to hands—their hands. Fists, in short.
“Please, gentlemen,” said Zoppe, disconsolate. “Please,” he repeated. Then he got the inauspicious idea of trying to break it up.
The police arrested only him for that strange morning brawl.
— Igiaba Scego, Translated from the Italian by Jamie Richards
Published with permission from New Vessel Press
Igiaba Scego is an Italian novelist and journalist. She was born in Rome in 1974 to Somali parents who took refuge in Italy following a coup d’état in their native country, where her father served as foreign minister.
Jamie Richards is a translator based in Milan. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Oregon. Her translations include Igort’s Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks, Giovanni Orelli’s Walaschek’s Dream, and Jellyfish by Giancarlo Pastore.
With the publication of Paul Lindholdt’s wonderful essay on living in Spokane, we’ve reached the end of the line for our What It’s Like Living Here series. But now you can see the whole series (7 1/2 years worth of essays listed alphabetically by author) on our What It’s Like Living Here page. Now you get an idea of what I envisioned when I started this series. We have some magnificent pieces of writing, great photos, deeply felt connections to place and home. These essays (along with Childhood series, the My First Job series, etc.) were meant to be the human face of the magazine, the place where writing, emotion and sense of self found an aesthetic meeting point.
It’s difficult to make a list of favourites (because I loved them all), but check out Shawn Selway on living in Hamilton, Ontario; Carrie Cogan on Salt Spring Island, Stephen Sparks on San Francisco, and Tiara Winter-Schorr on Manhattan. Also look at Court Merrigan’s essay on Torrington, Wyoming, and Brad Green on Denton, Texas, and Gary Garvin on Cupertino, and John Proctor on New York.
I’ll list them all if I’m not careful.
“So what do we have now in its place?”
In place of prudence this tumble of gulls
and vultures effervescing from bulldozers
along archipelagoes of landfills.
In place of justice, hybrid tea roses
and cockapoos, puggles, labradoodles.
In place of temperance, pop-up surveys,
monogrammed collars, logoed zipper pulls.
In place of courage, postal holidays.
In place of faith, profiling, surveillance,
data mining, intelligence satellites.
In place of hope, adjustable-rate loans,
spin-offs, takeovers, derivatives, bailouts.
In place of love, speed limits in school zones,
reflective vests, flashing yellow warning lights.
“You love anybody yet?”
Which one you counting on love to transform:
you or your lover? This lover love you back?
Figured out how to stick to one at a time?
Find familiar sweeter than exotic?
Always prefer what you got to what you don’t?
Believe you’re the exception to the rule?
Think things’ll get easier at some point?
Sure this time love will prove too big to fail?
Storybook, destined for a happy ending?
Not planning to get old like the rest of us?
Botched it before, but you know what you’re doing
this time? Have a backup plan in place?
How much more inventive will your lover’s
treatment of “fidelity” be than yours?
“What happened to the suburbs, the exurbs, the shopping malls, and the edge cities?”
That one year in high school Kevin Wilton
bought a Gremlin that didn’t look like much
(had been wrecked, body didn’t quite sit on
the frame), and didn’t so much roll as lurch,
but got us to track practice and the mall
and once a double date (I remember
his date but not mine). He was tall,
strong, broad-shouldered, but (I learned much later)
his father still raped him and beat his sister.
One time, only once, he drove us backward,
mall to freeway, by the off-ramp, faster
than I’d have driven even faced forward.
No cars were exiting, we lived. Too late now
to pay him that gas money I still owe.
“Go back to what?”
Go back to storm warning and rain delay.
Go back to parchment, papyrus, vellum.
Go back to land line and gravel driveway.
Go back to blent, unbent light, pre-prism.
Go back to samekh, yodh, zayin, aleph,
great auk, ivory-billed, passenger pigeon.
Go back to cave painting and petroglyph.
Go back to mask, to God from the machine.
Go back to compacted cosmos, the size
of a penguin’s egg, steadied by webbed feet,
stayed from snow, against God’s belly feathers.
Go back to left hand does know what the right.
Go back to stage fright, recurring nightmare,
back to Houston, we’ve had a problem here.
“That something has to come undone?”
Or that, of what in fact did come undone,
we have to tell ourselves it needed to?
The same way I say I had no part in
the things I’ve done but can’t believe I’d do?
Or that, because we think we’re better than
others and could teach them a thing or two,
some blemish we’d managed to keep hidden
from ourselves will force its way into view?
Or that the something now coming undone,
much bigger than we are, includes all our
trivial undonenesses in its one
vast undoing, entails that we ourselves are
undone already, no matter what we do,
and undone ultimately, through and through?
—H. L. Hix
H.L. Hix’s recent books include a poetry collection, Rain Inscription (Etruscan Press, June 2017), an art/poetry anthology, Ley Lines (Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, 2014), and a translation of selected poems by Estonian peasant poet Juhan Liiv, Snow Drifts, I Sing (Guernica Editions, 2013), translated in collaboration with Jüri Talvet.
A centuries-old encomium to romantic love and longing, Kuruntokai is one of the classical anthologies of love poetry from the Cankam era of Tamil, South Indian literature. Written in a formal style involving a first-person monologue by any of a number of characters in a love drama, these poems reconstitute the field of human emotion by plunging it deep into its source in the cycles of landscapes, seasons, times of day. The characters are represented as anonymous and archetypal (talaivi is the heroine, and talaivan the hero), but no reader experiencing these poems full of detail and fine nuance avoids getting turned inside out. For a beautiful exploration of the history of this genre of poetry (called akam) and the central role of poetics in South Indian culture, refer to the recent book by David Shulman, Tamil: A Biography (Belknap/Harvard, 2016).
Poem of the desert road
As though a sliver of sacred conch shell
in the reddened sky, there it is,
the slim moon, risen again.
Could he ever forget me and my tears?
Striding in that wide wasteland
he’s just like a bull elephant
that for his limping mate splits a tall yā tree,
stabbing it with his tusks to take the white bark,
which wounds him with its dry taste. He swallows
then thunders to the outer bounds of what the heart can bear.
Kuruntokai, verse 307
Poem from the jasmine-filled forest
Under the spiraling horns of our dark buffalo,
the grinning bell on the rope tied to her thick neck
peals each time she moves in the dead of the night.
He hasn’t returned.
Massive black boulders forget what it is to be washed by rain
and stand waiting like dust-covered elephants,
where hills beyond hills curve the path he took.
He doesn’t think of my yearning shoulders and bamboo-like arms at all.
Maturai Marutan Ilanākanār
Kuruntokai, verse 279
Poem amid avenues lined with ornamental trees
We live in the same city, but he avoids my street.
When he does come down my street, he doesn’t step in to visit,
and as though he’s strolling past some strangers’ cremation grounds,
he takes an eyeful and keeps walking,
as though he’s not the one who has driven me out of my shyness
and my mind. Such love, like an arrow shot from a bowstring,
soars for only a moment and then falls someplace irretrievable, far away.
Pālai Pātiya Perunkatunkō
Kuruntokai, verse 231
Poem of the cool, purple-flowered hillsides
Talaivi’s friend says—
She’s got stomach to flirt and risk without hesitation.
Who’s to judge if he’s a gem or a good-for-nothing?
Her dance teacher says she’s got the clearest head,
but the day that she set her eyes on the dark pond
covered in green and a profusion of tight, bursting buds,
she coveted the long petals of the blue lotus inside.
Now, her fiery eyes choose heartache
and she’s set her jaw, resolute.
Kuruntokai, verse 366
Poem of the mountainside wildflowers
On charred and newly sown land, the rhythmic beat of the cane in my girl’s hand
entranced a pandemonium of parrots, which lay down
seduced by her waving and her cries: the music of music.
Those parrots, mistaking her menacing for a greeting, wouldn’t fly off,
and I saw her furious eyes flood like a pair of mountain spring waterlilies
shot with heavy rain droplets and dotted in a lush flight of beetles.
She is the poem that has drowned my soul to its last drenched flower.
Kuruntokai, verse 291
Poem from the blue lotus seashore
Flowers from morning glory beach vines and waterlilies,
plaited into long garlands, drenched our tresses there
as slick crabs fled from me and my friends
and into the sea. Just one day’s
raucous games with that god of the shore has bitten off
our entwining friendship. Strange what a dearth desire makes.
Kuruntokai, verse 401
—Translation by A. Anupama
Resources: Vaidehi Herbert’s translations at learnsangamtamil.com and Robert Butler’s translations. I owe much gratitude to T. Kabilan for material assistance with this set of poems.
A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including Drunken Boat, Waxwing, Monkeybicycle, and Fourteen Hills. 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 organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.