I dunno. You don’t see this very often. But for today (March 27, 2017) Attack of the Copula Spiders as a double #1 on the Canadian Amazon site in the very strange “Canadian Literary History & Criticism” category.
But I’ll take it.
We…advocate that melancholia be positioned as a distinct, identifiable and specifically treatable affective syndrome in the DSM-5 classification.
Melancholic patients respond better to broad-action tricyclic antidepressants than to narrow-action antidepressants (e.g., serotonin uptake inhibitors). They respond well to ECT. In comparison to those with nonmelancholic mood disorders, melancholic patients rarely respond to placebos, psychotherapies, or social interventions.
from “Issues for DSM-5: Whither Melancholia?”
The American Journal of Psychiatry
Dürer’s engraving Melencolia I draws from the theory of humors that goes back to classical times, where states of body and mind were determined by four essential fluids. It once was the basis of medical practice and found widespread cultural representation. Balance of the four brought health, but that was an ideal that we could not always maintain, or that not all of us could not find, or, in Christian times, a perfection none of us could reach at all since and because of the Fall of Man. A predominance of one in excess led to pathology, but in lesser amounts set phases we all went through or determined different personality types among us. I regret loss of this system, as it gave us variety and cut us some slack. Moody was something we could be. Today our vast catalog of mental aberration depends solely upon the empty term “normal” that is defined only by what it is not, that denotes a state that is a balance of nothing. Yet we stray from it at our peril.
Black bile was the fluid of melancholy, which brought lethargy and stinginess. The melancholic was the most dreaded of the four personality types, as surfeit could lead to insanity and even death. Its representations, a grim miser clenching his purse, an indolent woman asleep at her spinning wheel, were sedative expressions that suppressed that fear. And intrigue—madness and death have always had that pull on us. Dürer’s figure, however, is not a common person but a winged angel, intensely alert and deep in thought, surrounded by the elements and tools of creation. Dürer has given us a picture of the artist, and in her face we see the power of her potential. But the tools lie scattered at her feet, untouched. She is grounded, locked in thought, does not fly, does not create, while in the background a comet flares and a bat cries terror. The dread has been released in a scene of darkness and disorder. I’ve had a print on a wall for decades, and every now and then I look at her for inspiration. She does not look back. This is as it should be.
Perhaps her block and the disarray show the broil and fruitless mulling that precede creation. But according to Erwin Panofsky, in The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, from which I take my material, that work will never come:
Hers is the inertia of a being which renounces what it could reach because it cannot reach for what it longs.
The artist is limited to the visible, what can be shown, what can be represented, and is removed from higher thought that might transcend, from the light of divine understanding, always beyond us.
But Dürer’s stalled angel also gives us one of the most compelling images of the artist we have. A picture that shows failure to create is a complete creation itself, consummate and marvelous in its workmanship, its expression. The midnight figure is bright in contrasts, the whites of her eyes against her somber face, the luminous folds of her robe against a darkened space. A scene of inactivity is charged with dynamic, in the energy of her arched wings, the push from the outlines of the many shapes, in the spiraling line of composition that runs from the eyes of the bat through the eyes of the putto, of the angel, of the sullen dog.
There is no contradiction in any of this, as there are no contradictions in art. Nor is there irony, as we see exactly what we should expect. We are shaped by our conflicts and contradictions, our reaches, our misses, and our doubts: these give us life. And the failure to represent the divine visibly points all the more to its invisible presence. It is our balanced, symmetrical representations and our clear resolutions into action that are ironic because they always fall short of our desires, of our projections, and they touch a different kind of madness.
The engraving is built on a correspondence of symbols based on theology, philosophy, and common understanding that connected the universe from the material to the celestial, that ran deep in Dürer’s culture. The four humors “were supposed to be coessential with the four elements, the four winds (or directions of space), the four seasons, the four times of day, and the four phases of life.” His angel, holding, beneath instruments of measurement, echoes a prior woodcut “Typus Geometriae,” a woman representing geometry, the study that in the Renaissance was the foundation for creating art and understanding the structure of the world. Saturn, the original creator, inspired geometry as well as fueled imagination with furor melancholicus. The dog and bat were his. I won’t develop all the sources and connections, however, because I’d only repeat what Panofsky has so thoroughly and beautifully written. Also we know today none of the assumptions and correspondences are true.
But what we know is false now wasn’t true then, yet still we have Melencolia I, who still holds us captive. There’s a paradox here that needs to be sounded. If we reject the divine, and we have, we need to replace it with something else. Our lives, like our art, depend upon how much we can draw from within and reach without.
I will leave the magic square and the devices for measuring weight, time, and space hanging on the wall and ignore them. Mathematics, like our logic, we now know talks only to itself. They will also serve as reminders to deflect a world that cannot tolerate imprecision or imperfection, or indulges them too much.
I will keep the tools on the floor because I still have dreams of constructing and peopling homes and cities and worlds. But I will add a jackhammer and wrecking ball to test their strength, or demolish the facile abstractions that now surround us or any I might create.
The bat stays where he is, soaring above a leaden sea, who will scream my every waking minute to help me maintain vigilance, see terror overlooked, or induce it when I fall complacent.
I will get a dog, lean, clenched, and perpetually morose, and have him lie at my feet to anchor my flights.
And I will ponder my next project, moved by what is not there, what might be, what always never will be. Or let my amanuensis putto scribble away idly while I brood in dark brilliance and do nothing.
I thought I’d call this simply THE REALLY BIG issue because, hard as I try to beat back the tide, the issues keep getting bigger, and this one, well, this one is out there in the stratosphere of issue bigness. But then I saw Susan Aizenberg’s interview with Nance Van Winckel with Nance’s inventive hybrid visual works and I realized that what we are doing here is creating imaginary maps. Everyone who contributes fills in a little personal section of the territory. So I’m calling it the IMAGINARY MAPS issue.
We have this month some truly amazing work. I hope you all read and dwell on these gems. In particular we have gorgeous essays: Warren Motte on the late Harry Mathews, Jeremy Brunger on Kafka, “The Metamorphosis,” and what it means to be a bug, the London-based Italian writer Daniela Cascella on reading Isak Dinesen’s story “The Blank Page,” and a lyric essay by Abby Frucht. We also have performance art by Quintan Ana Wikswo, poetry by Michelle Boisseau and Patrick O’Reilly, new fiction by Russell Working and Tatiana Ryckman, and a My First Job essay by Roberta Levine. As I mentioned, our poetry editor Susan Aizenberg interviews Nance Van Winckel. And from Ireland in our Uimhir a Cúig series, we have poems by the inimitable Afric McGlinchey. From Russia, we have poems by the great Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Mary Jane White. Julie Larios reviews Make Yourself Happy, a new poetry collection by Eleni Sikelianos (we also have an excerpt from the book and an interview with the author). Newcomer Michael Carson reviews the new novel Spoils by Brian Van Reet, Joseph Schreiber reviews the novel Frontier by the Chinese experimental writer Can Xue, and Ben Woodard reviews the long-awaited novel Blue Fields by Elise Levine.
In October, we published new poems by Okla Elliott, an energetic, prolific, young writer and political activist (oh, how I enjoyed retweeting his comments through the election last fall!). And then last night, Allan Cooper emailed me to say that Okla had died suddenly of an apparent heart attack. He was just 39. This happened two nights ago, the night or March 19. In my dealings with Okla, I knew he was generous, helpful, probably overworked. He had a lot of irons in the fire from fiction, translation, essays, and poetry to publishing (new and neglected writers). He wrote Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide, which came out last year. I think it took a good couple of years to finally get those poems. But I liked him. I thought this relationship would burgeon into a friendship as so many other have since I’ve been publishing the magazine.
But it was not to be. A short and busy life.
There is a nice obituary with many comments at Stanford’s Book Haven blog.
And here is one of the poems we published, which seems, now, prescient.
Antinomies and Intensities
Askew, askew, I float. The darkling waters
turn my helpless boat round.
The rippling dots of starlight—dead stars, dead.
The rippling of starlight on the water
and overhead. Silently, I merge the world
with my mind. Silently, it becomes one world.
I wobble myself upright and balance.
The body’s warm intensities, its needs,
its abilities. All of this, turning slowly
on the night’s river.
I watch the weather gather
yellow doom into its belly.
The water will wash runnels through the sand.
It will wash away the self-monuments of man.
Say your prayers. The sky won’t listen.
Say them anyway.
The sound of human voice in the storm,
this might be of more value than we can guess.
There is a vowel in the wind. A voiceless vowel.
There is joy in the void. A hopeless joy.
I will ride the waters over the cliff
into the abyss.
I will embrace this apocalypse—
Here’s a nice little note about my novel Elle by Eugene Mirabelli. Read the teaser below and click on the link to read the rest. This is a lesson in synchronicity. I was just talking to Michael Carson (a writer soon to appear on these pages) about Curzio Malaparte. I am rereading Kaputt, and Michael was extemporizing about La Pelle. And then Eugene shows up with a reference to La Pelle here.
Other aspects of this novel that set it apart are its fascinating surreal passages. Very few novels depicting historical events are also, in part, surrealist fictions. I recall a novel by Curzio Malaparte, La Pelle, that came out shortly after the second world war, a novel in which the real horrors of the war joined easily and smoothly with surreal passages. Douglas Glover makes similar moves in Elle, transitioning from the factual terrors of being marooned on a small island in a merciless Canadian winter to Marguerite’s hallucinations to the presence of a real magical bear – or maybe it’s a real bear.
By the way, the surrealism in Douglas Glover’s novel isn’t just another name for authorial invention. In an earlier brilliant and underappreciated novel, The Life and Times of Captain N., published back in 1993, the author presents a horrific vision of battles in Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, but the nightmarish visions in that book are nailed to the commonplace world of human violence in realist fashion. In both novels, Glover mangles and distorts the facts to get at the truth.
And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,—
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!
from Hart Crane, “To Brooklyn Bridge”
A routine is a repetition that both breaks the day and places us in it, giving our lives the appearance of structure, of order. A bridge is a repetition of structural elements that orders a way beyond our routines, to thoughts of other things, or that appearance.
I have a routine where after the morning’s work I walk to the St. Johns Bridge and down to the Willamette River. If I miss a day my life feels incomplete. I live across the street from the playground of an elementary school and leave late morning to avoid the shouts and shrieks of the kids at recess, an inseparable mix of joy and chaos, though sometimes I take their noise with me. By that time I’m fatigued anyway, and bogged down in some unresolved disorder. I leave thinking the walk will provide inspiration, that I will return with fresh insight and rejuvenated resolve.
From the east entrance
I descend a side street
down to Cathedral Park, beneath the bridge, where north Portlanders run their dogs, fly drones, and get married.
Then, after following a long viaduct of approach,
I reach a small floating pier, beneath the span, and walk to its end, my terminus,
where I take a break—I have a bit of a climb back.
And I stand and look out on the river, and free my mind, and wait to see what comes, from without, from within.
Designed by David Steinman, an engineer of considerable reputation, the bridge was the result of local initiative and remains a source of civic pride and identity. Boosters staged vaudeville acts throughout Multnomah County to promote funding; images have since multiplied across St. Johns, on the banner of the neighborhood newspaper, on storefronts, on posted bills and t-shirts. Construction started a month before the Crash of ’29.
Yet while it set several records when built, the St. Johns Bridge is not well known and pales before more recent structures that move us to greater awe. Really, there was no compelling need to build it and it serves no large purpose now. The plan then was to connect the small industrial communities of Linnton and St. Johns, some five miles north of downtown Portland. Today it joins no major freeways on either side. But that is what I like about it, a modesty that encourages intimacy, that it is not especially useful, that it is largely there for itself, that it is distant from the noise of our wonder.
The east anchorage expresses its mass in a squat concrete structure, the energy of its function in steeply curved posts and buttresses, this function formalized in a compressed stance embellished with abstract emblems and stabilized and capped with cornice work,
the energy released in the ascent of the cables to the towers, the cables carrying a tension hard to imagine,
the tension easing into the sweeping curves of the cables that hold the deck. The suspense of anchorage discharges in the process of suspension. The bridge entire, in the arcade of concrete piers, the latticework of trusses supporting the road deck, the network of thin cables holding the deck from above, scarcely visible, in the division of bracing within the towers—is a complex orchestration of compression and tension brought together into a whole that is graceful, effortless, seemingly weightless, almost ethereal. To me, with my limited knowledge of engineering, such a feat isn’t possible and the bridge is simply marvelous. My spirits lift every time I see it.
The bridge was built at a time when the ruling esthetic demanded an honesty of structure, a welding of form to function, and Steinman spoke to the integrity of his design. But another desire, another wish, competed with utility, the American technological sublime, which complemented then supplanted the natural sublime once found in the American landscape. John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge carried the spirit, and Steinman, like Hart Crane, grew up in proximity and professed his close attachment, its influence.
Then there is the other spirit. The gothic arch, once used to elevate belief and bring in light, provides the motif played throughout, in the concrete piers and components of the towers, arches of varying width, height, and pitch. According to Steinman the pointed arch added contrapuntal tension to the rhythm of the suspending cables, but the structure he called “a prayer in steel” also brought past associations and higher thoughts. Today, maybe only nostalgia, and fading questions.
I’ve had a touch of vertigo the times I have walked across, however. That used not to bother me. Yet it’s two hundred feet down, and when I look out from the deck I feel the downward temptation. There is this about bridges as well, that they move us to the edge, to another launching point. In the movie Pay It Forward a woman climbs on its railing to make the leap but is saved by a recovering drug addict who walks by and talks her down.
Still, the bridge is always there, a point of continuity and stability, an anchor of connection and communication with, yet also of structural separation from, with, from nature that surrounds, its variations through the seasons, with, from the ambiguous, overcast moods of Portland weather that call for some kind of brightness, with my shifting thoughts, from the fog of my moods.
But only this is certain one day to the next: our structures are just structures, our function is undefined.
I wait at the end of the pier until I realize I am waiting. Nothing ever comes, in fact I put my work aside and let it drift. But I always get this release, this revelation: I am free and I am alive, and I don’t have answers to anything.
Jonah told me to watch this Ted Talk video. We’ve both been troubled by the decline of civil discourse and the growing intransigence when it comes to allowing the other to have a voice. Megan’s talk is not about what’s wrong with the Westboro Baptist Church but about what kinds of dialogue (on Twitter, my fav) that made her begin to question herself and find avenues for change. It’s a simple but engaging message about some old values — seeing the other as a person, showing grace, courtesy and even humour, keeping cool, and, above all, engaging instead of dismissing or shutting the other down. Something to keep in mind these days when all the net media and cable news seem to do, right or left, is call out the stupidities of the enemy.
Here’s yet another news item out of Winnipeg where Elle, the play, is currently enjoying a three-week run (through to March 12).
The latest play at the Prairie Theatre Exchange is required viewing for anyone who wants to catch up on Canadian history usually shrouded in shadows. Elle is a touring production from Toronto-based Theatre Passe Muraille.
Severn Thompson stars as the titular character and Jonathan Fisher features in a supporting role. Thompson adapted the play from Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel of the same name.
“I discovered (the story) from a book in my grandmother’s bookshelf. It had won the Governor General’s prize, but I had somehow missed that in 2003,” Thompson said in an interview Tuesday.
“When I finally read it, it just was illuminating to me of a time in history that I thought was fairly – hmm, I don’t want to be rude – but fairly dull from my memory of early school days,” she said, laughing.
I have a new essay out in The Brooklyn Rail this morning, the upshot of an epic obsession, which has riddled my writing style with semicolons and taught me the value of plot triangles. Much gratitude to Wayne Hankey for his marvelous essay “Conversion: Ontological & Secular from Plato to Tom Jones (NC, July, 2014),” which introduced me to the word “kenotic” in regard to Fanny Price, to Laura Michele Diener, who taught me the meaning of “apophatic,” and to Jacob Glover for talking me through the ins and outs of absolutist ethics. You see, it was very much a Numéro Cinq co-production, though the obsession was all mine.
Here’s the closing section. Read the rest at The Brooklyn Rail.
What is truly paradoxical in Mansfield Park is the way it reaches beyond its satire on the marriage customs of Regency England, beyond the conventions of the romantic comedy, and beyond even its theological torque to tell a very modern story about the construction of a self. Much like Wolf’s Christa T., Fanny forges her self not in any positive way but in resisting imperatives, the forms imposed on her by her society and the gaze of the individuals around her. She is not simply a passive character; she is symbolic, fused with theme. I don’t want to, I can’t act, I won’t do that—Fanny Price’s refrain. She defines what action is by not acting. She defines morality by refusing to act.
The climax of Fanny’s non-plot is the sequence of scenes after the ball when she steadfastly persists in refusing to marry Henry Crawford. The fact that she cannot tell anyone that she loves Edmund, least of all Edmund himself, who is obstinately smitten with Mary, makes her appear irrationally stubborn. She remains cagey about her distrust of Henry. She can’t tell Sir Thomas about it at all; she confides in Mary (discreetly) and Edmund (explicitly), but Mary passes Henry’s flirtations off as harmless, and Edmund, too, minimizes Henry’s faults and suggests that time will prove his constancy (weasel words).
Above all, Fanny cannot escape their watchful, measuring eyes. Fanny is alternately cajoled, coerced, bludgeoned, and sent into exile, but she remains true to her principles. She is the poor, underclass cousin who has never stood up for herself before; but in these chapters she asserts herself against every authority, including the wishes of the man she loves. She even makes a speech (unique for Fanny) in which she enunciates what might be called the novel’s quintessential moral (in a novel full of moral discrimination).
“I should have thought,” said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, “that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man’s not being approved, not being loved by someone of her sex, at least, let him be ever so agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself. (292)
This speech reads like a feminist call to arms; those sentiments certainly existed. It asserts Fanny’s right of self-determination, and in the context of the novel, this radical selfhood stands against the ubiquitous dogma of property, propriety, income, estates, inheritance, class, and rank. By extension, it claims for any individual the right of refusal in the face of what the world offers. The basis of self is apophatic: the ability to say, I am not that, and I am not that either. What the world offers is contingent, mired in circumstance, calculation, and history, rated by pre-existing discourses (habits, traditions, forms). The soul proceeds by denial. Its struggle is less a matter of knowing itself as essence than of knowing when it is not itself. Sorting and discarding the trivia of life is the existential duty of the modern.
That Fanny (and the novel) can’t quite live up to this transcendent declaration is a sign of the tension that exists between Austen’s inspiration, the time in which she wrote, and her preferred genre, the romantic comedy. Fanny must marry Edmund Bertram despite the fact that as Edmund himself concedes, she is “too good for him.” Even the narrator is only dimly celebratory about the upshot.
With so much true merit and true love, and no want of fortune and friends, the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be.
This passage is sometimes construed as Austen’s ironic commentary on the romance genre or the institution of marriage. But we must wait another 150 years for a manifest critique of that ending in the form of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman in which the author offers readers the possibility, among others, that the disgraced, impoverished, abandoned female lead might continue to exist on her own and even prosper. When her lover finally appears after a gap of years, she remains cool, aloof – inviolable; she has her own life and no need of rescuing by a man.
In the slider at the top of the page this month, we are featuring creative nonfiction selections from the magazine’s vast archives picked by the indispensable Laura Michele Diener (look her up: essays, reviews and her scintillating letter from Florence). In keeping with the magazine’s eclectic approach to creative nonfiction, Laura Michele’s choices are astonishingly diverse. But she’s found some gems: a Christmas sermon by Hilary Mullins, Melissa Fisher’s prize-winning “My First Job” essay, Natalia Sarkissian’s haunting photo essay on the annual Feast of Sacrifice in Alexandria, Egypt, Mark Jay Mirsky on reading Dante, Genese Grill’s essay on Italy and meaning (with illustrations), Domenic Stansberry on Leonard Gardner and his novel Fat City and Diana Whitney’s lovely essay “Kissing.”
Our eminent and irrepressible senior editor, Fernando Sdrigotti, has a new book out today! A collection of stories entitled Dysfunctional Males. With La Casite Grande Editores. Here’s the publisher copy:
Dysfunctional Males is a collection of five short stories set in contemporary London.
A satirical critique of the weaknesses and obsessions of the ‘stronger sex’, this ambitious work of fiction focuses on the misadventures of its characters to explore life and alienation in a contemporary megalopolis.
At times uproarious, at others pathetic and dark, the fables in the collection share a distinctive atmosphere beyond fantasy and realism, inviting readers to take part in an onward flight that could land them anywhere.
Check out the publisher’s website: Dysfunctional Males by Fernando Sdrigotti — La Casita Grande Editores
What is needed is a chart, a plan, a set of rules. Or at least a dance chart to tell us where to put one foot after the other…
We all want to believe that a light shines on us individually and makes us each protagonists in life’s contests. Plot restores our faith in action and makes our lives seem real. It is a way to order events and give them direction in the stories we tell about ourselves, to take us from beginnings to endings, to chart our paths in the world. A mistake, a flaw, a motive separates us from the baseline of the world, causing tension that rises over time and propels the plot and increases our distance from the world until a point is reached beyond which the strain can go no further, the climax, which is followed by an unwinding that returns us to the world, a falling into one kind of resolution or another.
Plot depends not just on our understanding of who we are and what makes us tick, but also on the way the world works, or the way we think it works, and what moves it. But more than that. Plot can also be built on an idea, an understanding, a projection of who we can be, should be, what matters, how our lives should begin and end, what is beyond us. Plot implies perspective.
A horizon is set towards which lines that define space converge, theoretically at infinity. A central point on the horizon, the eye point, marks the spot and determines the overall cast. It’s a device for creating the appearance of depth in two-dimensional pictures that look like something, a way of establishing relationships, consistent and proportional, between up and down, here and there, anywhere in the frame.
But more than an appearance, a metaphor. There’s a figure in the figure. Not just a way of relating parts, of ordering space consistently and proportionally, but also a vehicle for notions of consistency and proportion. Not just an orderly picture, but a picture of order. Not just deep space, but a schema for the concept of depth. Since the eye point lies at an infinite distance, we are given a container for all the world. And since we can see that point and all it determines, we have the means to comprehend it. Perspective implies perspective, a framework that holds the world we see, a world where we see each other and are seen, where we have a place, where everything fits, a world governed by whatever it is that exists between and beyond us and holds all things together.
In his fresco The School of Athens, Raphael set the Greek philosophers in a volume of Renaissance architecture. At the center stand Plato and Aristotle, representatives of ideal forms beyond and their particular manifestations here on earth, these two surrounded by the others in animated talk and gestures, their disputation contained by and aligned within the receding vaults determined by lines of perspective, those lines leading in the distance to soft clouds and open blue sky, their focal point placed behind the two commanding figures.
In Leonardo’s The Last Supper, the vanishing point, God’s eye, is directly behind Christ’s head, which sets the perspective that frames the chamber and aligns what he lays before his agitated disciples. In the distance, mysterious blue hills and the fading light.
In both a box is constructed that proposes, contains, and opens up, each holding and balancing turmoil and reason, spirit and the body, each setting a trajectory that tells a story about disorder and resolution, fall and redemption, each plotting a course for our life on earth and a life everlasting.
Supply and demand:
A graph that tells a story and paints a picture, where desire and assertion find happy intersection in the world.
The place we have in the order of things may not be the place we want. Perspective space was also used to sound the depths of hell. Or, in the works of Piranesi, set ruins of antiquity in deserted landscapes or create vast, dark prisons, intricate and seemingly endless.
It is hard to stare down the throat of infinity very long.
There are no absolutes.
Corot, Cézanne, cubism, etc.
Supply and demand, concerns:
Jack Levine, The Feast of Pure Reason.
I’m calling this issue the Magic Box, Numéro Cinq‘s magic box issue, mostly because I am so taken by the image above, a ceramic box by the Swiss artist (and fashion designer) Michel Pastore. Pastore, together with his partner Evelyne Porret, are a truly remarkable duo. They live on an oasis outside of Cairo, where they operate their studio and a ceramics school and live in exotic splendor. We have a ton of images from their desert hideaway, stunning objets d’art that are both utilitarian and dreamy, fantastic shapes and colouring. All courtesy of Rikki Ducornet, who knows the couple well.
But to paraphrase the excerpt from Agustín Fernández Mallo’s poem below, inside a box there is always another box, and another, and another…
Even I am astonished and the depth and variety in this issue.
And from Rikki herself, an essay on Gnosticism, a dramatized evocation of the beginning of everything and the light.
Attempt to imagine – and the task is futile – an absence, as when the night sky is empty of her moon, of moonshine, of stars, of starlight. Imagine a void in which you are without purchase (there is no place to stand); a night as unfathomable as a pool of ink (there is no pool, no ink) in which the vast firmament has dissolved. There is nothing but absence. (And you, the one who attempts this imagining, are nowhere to be seen.) —Rikki Ducornet
Kelly Cherry sent us a story with a promising title — “Burning the Baby” — of course, we’re publishing it. And more.
The constant sun enervates. Yes, night still arrives, but one’s skin is burnt so bad that sores appear on arms, legs, and bald heads. People give up on clothes, abandon their garments, for it is too painful to wear them. Everyone gives up. —Kelly Cherry
And something truly special, writer/translator Jessica Sequeira interviews Costa Rican/Puerto Rican novelist Carlos Fonseca on his brilliant novel Colonel Lágrimas.
Then again, you can never escape your obsessions. So the novel ended up addressing some of the ideas that intrigued me at the time: the idea of a history as a giant museum, the inability to pass from thought to action, the Borgesian notion of history being reduced to a giant encyclopedia or archive. And then, there is also the story of how – as an adolescent – I wanted to be a mathematician. Perhaps, now that I think about it, the novel was a way of rethinking my past. —Carlos Fonseca
Also inside the box this month, we have new fiction from Ben Slotsky, recommended to us by no less than Curtis White.
Flow, content wording, prioritize critical information, establish a model and keep it. These are precepts, they are tenets. Processes, forms. You are not paying attention. It doesn’t matter. There is too much, a wave, a wash, and it is over, over, and you are gone. —Ben Slotky
James Joyce & Sean Preston
From East London, we have a short story by Sean Preston, ex-pro-wrestler (among other things).
She had her habits. One of them was buying cheap furniture from places that were so fucking far away, by the time you paid for travel to the ungodly zones of south-west London, you hadn’t really saved much money at all. —Sean Preston
And we have poems — and then MORE poems — wonderful poetry by Maura Stanton, Susan Elmslie, Fleda Brown (who has a new collection just out), and, from Spain, the legendary Agustín Fernández Mallo translated by Zachary Rockwell Ludington.
Trust me. I’m one who loves all fogs—
misty, yellow, blue, rolling or grey—
I’ll walk your fog down busy thoroughfares
at any hour, clean up its wet messes,
pull it away from streetlamps and hydrants
but let it sniff around in the shrubbery
or blow its light breath against a window.
Agustín Fernández Mallo
Underneath this skin is another skin,
and under that another, and another, and another,
and thus, as many layers as you like, until n∊N→∞
antecenter of the center which is finite.
That center is the mask.
……………………………………….—Agustín Fernández Mallo
After the chaos there is silence,
a failure of words but not of sound,
which we know travels in waves,
and the speed of which is still the distance
travelled per unit of time.
Good, the blatant coffin, the procession,
the undertaker, the taking under.
To turn a body to ash—I can see how
it flies in the face of full-on facing
how slow the earth means to be.
Our Book Review Editor, the inimitable Jason DeYoung, reviews the latest from that other inimitable — J. M. Coetzee.
By the way, no one in this novel is clearly named or called Jesus. Only the title teases that one of the characters is—perhaps—the historical Jesus. Perhaps post crucifixion, perhaps not? Perhaps this isn’t the historical Jesus at all—perhaps Coetzee is playing a game on us. Perhaps not. But the reader can’t help looking for parallels. —Jason DeYoung
Anne Hirondelle’s Aperture 14, 16″ x 16″
Anne Hirondelle returns to our pages with a mix of drawings and ceramics. Readers loved her work last time, and she has a new show just opened.
Mark Sampson reviews Cynan Jones’ “otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating” novella, in which ducks appear.
In The Long Dry, Jones writes very well about ducks, their sex lives, and their feces. In fact, if there were an International Literary Prize for Writing about Ducks, Their Sex Lives, and Their Feces, Jones would easily win it. These passages are moments of levity in an otherwise dark, brooding, brutal and devastating novel –Mark Sampson
Also we have from Steven Moore, a vastly detailed (lots of images) and fascinating essay on the protean, prolific and once famous “avant-pop” novelist-cartoonist-screenwriter J. P. McEvoy.
But literary historians have overlooked a novelist from the same decade who deployed these same formal innovations largely for comic rather than serious effect, adapting avant-garde techniques for mainstream readers instead of the literati. —Steven Moore
Linda Chown is a new voice at the magazine. She’ll be back. But first this lively review of a new anthology of essays by Michel de Montaigne.
Repeatedly, Montaigne thinks of his efforts as flawed, monstrous or distorted. To become his reader, I have had to become a kind of ventriloquist engaged in an act of translation and projection, of time, genre, gender, language and many translations. It was only when I found how uncertain, fearful and tentative he was that I could begin to write of him wholeheartedly. —Linda E. Chown
The Greek poet Yannis Livadas, whose poems have appeared on these pages in the past, returns with an essay on the theory and inspiration behind his experimental work.
What is born is condemned to death and to being absorbed by the newly born. The newly born is more specifically regulated by death. The newly born is the exchange value of death. Life, is the daemon – poetry, is the teaching of the absolute nullity. The irreversible perforation of what has been poetically affirmed by those who are still spendable. —Yannis Livadas
From Ireland this month, we have a beautiful and evocative Childhood memoir from Amanda Bell.
The boat bay was fringed with hazel scrub and thorn trees, and purple loosestrife and blue scabious grew in the coarse yellow sand. It was a very good place to catch grasshoppers and daddy-long-legs for dapping, and because I was small and moved quietly I was the champion hopper-catcher. —Amanda Bell
Timothy Ogene – photo by Claire MacKenzie
The Nigerian poet Timothy Ogene (whose poems have appeared here) has written an essay on the American poet Ruth Lepson (whose poems have appeared here).
In Lepson’s work, thought reveals itself in the choice and structural placement of words and, in other instances, a reluctance to carry an emotion to an expected end. The goal, it seems, is to create a binary that balances overt emotions with critical deliberations. —Timothy Ogene
And our own Carolyn Ogburn pens a rave review of Melissa Febos’ memoir Abandon Me.
I’m told if you score a bullet across its tip with a pocketknife, first lengthwise then across, your shot will penetrate its target cleanly, but ravage the organs inside. I thought of this when reading the blunt, clean prose of Melissa Febos in her new memoir, Abandon Me. —Carolyn Ogburn
But there is MORE!
First review from the Winnipeg run, and it’s good. Go Severn!
What makes it work as well as it does is that Thompson puts the narrative inside her heroine’s head. She comes to this new country with a completely inadequate dictionary of Indian words written by Cartier himself. By the time she meets a real native, an Inuit hunter named Itslk (Jonathan Fisher), she achieves equilibrium with him because he understands the woman’s new lexicon of dreams and visions as well as he happens to understand French.
The upshot of the play an be glibly summarized: You don’t inhabit the land; the land inhabits you.
But that would diminish the richness of the work, and especially of the character, brought to vivid life by Thompson’s performance, alternately comic, tragic, and bracingly primal.
Read the rest: Fight for survival in 1542 – Winnipeg Free Press
. . . beginning in 1984, many of the men there were recruited by a California flower-grower who needed workers for his farm, in Somis, an hour north of Los Angeles. The Zapotecs were taken by train to Tijuana and smuggled to Somis, and there they were enslaved: held in a compound in perpetual debt, frightened into submission by warnings about the Border Patrol, and forced to work sixteen hours a day. Some of the men eventually sought help. In 1990, a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted the grower on charges of slavery.
William Langewiesche, speaking of Zapotecs from the mountain village of Santa Ana Yareni, Mexico, in “Invisible Men,” The New Yorker, February 23, 1998. More on the story and trial here. Some of the workers fled to a ravine in San Diego County where they became squatters, illegally, out of sight, hence the title.
I taught the essay to my comp classes in Silicon Valley over the years, telling students how it reminded me of and added insight to Diego Rivera’s painting The Flower Carrier, 1935, above. We saw afresh the burden. Recent events bring further illumination, more colors and contrasts.
Really, it is gorgeous what is being envisioned now in this country, simple and direct in its formal symmetry, bright in its assumptions, beautiful and impossibly light in its composition, in its solution to the tensions it proposes to ease.
There are all kinds of walls and all kinds of invisible men. We’ll want to follow not only what the proposed wall to the south will keep out, but also what it will contain and allow to blossom. So much that has been hidden behind walls will be revealed; other invisible men will come to light.
Here’s an interview with Severn Thompson, the actress and playwright who adapted Elle for the stage and who has made the role her own. This is in the venerable prairie newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press. The play opens tonight at the Prairie Theatre Exchange and runs till March 12.
“She was somewhat rude and she had this impulsiveness. She had strong appetites, including sexual appetites, which get her into trouble,” Thompson says. “And like me, she resorts to humour when things get bad. That was one of her coping mechanisms and I just really appreciated that.
“She was shaped by the 16th-century aristocratic culture that she came from, but definitely lived on the fringes of it,” Thompson says. “She was a misfit.
“She had no interest in being a wife or a nun and those were the two options really available to her,” Thompson says. “In this account, she volunteered to go on this journey to see a new world. I don’t think she had plans to live there for the rest of her life. She wanted to have an adventure and see something she wasn’t familiar with.”She had no idea what she was getting herself into.”
Elle, the play, opens in Winnipeg at the Prairie Theatre Exchange tomorrow (February 23) night. I am told that tonight’s preview performance is sold out (upwards of 300 seats). Go Winnipeg!
This is the Theatre Passe Muraille production on tour. With Severn Thompson as Elle (she adapted the play from my novel) and Jonathan Fisher.
Some very nice poster art to go with the play.
So I go to the Warhol show at the Portland Art Museum. Memories pop—the term is apt—pop through the layers, fresh and flat. It’s the ’60s. Marilyn, Mao, JFK, Jackie, 20 kinds of that soup, including, of course, tomato:
Liza, Ali, Mick, Birmingham, the hammer and the sickle, a pointed gun, and the chair:
Seeing all the Warhols on the walls is like looking, way back when, at the layout room, early stages, of a magazine that will never go to press, never go to press because there isn’t one, a press. Which I guess is kind of the point, if there is a point. Maybe.
Richard Avedon made a portrait of the Warhol Factory, which was shown at a retrospective at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, fairly large and a going concern at the time. This is a huge photograph, life-size or more. Click to enlarge. I worked at the museum while a grad student and did a good bit of the lighting for the show, including this one. I spent hours on a rolling scaffold, hanging, adjusting the floods and spots, making sure the faces and bodies came out, evening the white space and removing pools. Avedon and crew were there, advising, helping out.
A Berkeley regular, Abe Lincoln we called him—he had the beard, defiled the portrait by spraying iodine on Warhol’s face, taking moral offense or something. Who knows. I lived with four others two houses down from where Patricia Hearst was kidnapped, though I never saw the bullet holes. A year before I worked at The Daily Cal and was there the night the Jonestown mass suicide story broke, in Guyana. Reports came in over the AP wire machine in fragments that made no sense, the body count kept rising as the night wore on. The summer before that, my first in Berkeley, a scene for a made-for-tv movie of the Hearst abduction was being shot in Ho Chi Minh Park, a few blocks away from our house. Extras stood around in designer t-shirts. This one won’t be put to bed, either. It’s the late ’70s.
I think the working title for the movie was Get Patty but it changed when the movie aired, which quickly fell into oblivion.
I took one of my housemates, E—, an undergrad, to opening night of the show. I had to. She was weaned on Vogue and grew up looking at Avedon’s fashion shots. Berkeley via LA via New York, quite sharp, quite sharp looking, not a princess, not easy to pin down and I won’t try. Not my age, not my league, I wasn’t her speed, but I liked her and we got along. She was our entry to the music, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, the others—more memories but these don’t pop but sizzle, but fall into stupor—we are Devo, we’ve been on tenterhooks ending in dirty looks, fade away and radiate, I can’t sleep ’cause my bed’s on fire, I wanna be sedated, get pissed, destroy. We were waiting for the end of the world.
Half of San Francisco was there, dressed to impress in all the different ways San Francisco knew how. The museum was packed, literally packed. All the galleries were mobbed and we couldn’t move. The heat from the lights, from each other, melted our edges, our anticipation. E— and I got stalled before Avedon’s pensive Marilyn it seemed forever.
Avedon, really a gracious, humble man, threw the staff a dinner. Once more I took E—. While we ate he went around with a Polaroid, taking candid shots. But he kept missing our table, so I flagged him and asked if he would get E— and he immediately complied. E— froze, then broke into an exotic pose, hands and elbows thrown into the air.
When Avedon returned with the developed picture, she took it, stood, touched his arm—this memory breaks through the layers now, through the noise—and kisses him on the mouth.
I don’t know Lincoln Kaye, but anybody who calls me a “CanLit superstar” is okay in my books and will no doubt find a special spot waiting for him in Heaven. The reviews coming out of Vancouver have been great, but this might be the best (and not just because he calls me a “CanLit superstar”). Here’s a quote. Follow the link below to read the rest.
And it’s as “Elle,” an unnameable, unimaginable “she”-bear, that she impossibly manifests in a Paris cemetery to maul to death the perfidious uncle decades after that ill-starred outbound Canadian voyage.
In Thompson’s commanding stage presence, all these “Elle” avatars nest within each other like Matryoshka dolls. Her body language and her stream-of-consciousness narrative slide fluidly backward and forward along the story-line, just like the text of CanLit superstar Douglas Glover’s novel from which Thompson herself adapted the script.
Here’s a generous and smart take on Elle, the play, from a critic and writer — Colin Thomas — who saw it the second night in Vancouver. I like the part where he says the audience was “deliriously appreciative.”
As if that starting point weren’t already thrilling enough, Glover and Thompson have wrought a magical realist telling of Marguerite’s story in which they explore—poetically and with great humour—themes of female sexuality, colonialism, and our spiritual relationship to nature. As Marguerite struggles for survival, killing birds and eating books, as she starves and hallucinates, as she rubs up against First Nations cultures and experiences the pull of a different world view, the shadow sides of patriarchy and colonialism gain force. Marguerite’s femaleness, her untamable libido, the relentless beauty of the wilderness, and her growing understanding of the fluid relationship between humans and animals, between waking reality and dreams; all of this pulls Marguerite apart and reshapes her. She has heard, vaguely, of a First Nations god, whose help she solicits—at a price. “One god guarantees my faith is true,” she says. “Two makes it a joke.” Marguerite begins to turn into a bear. “You cannot inhabit,” she says, “without being inhabited.”
The play’s language is as rich as its ideas—and it’s unpretentious. The fog off the coast is “as thick and oily as fleece.” “The smell of this new world is so fresh it has almost no smell at all.” And I mentioned humour. When Marguerite sees human footprints in the snow, she says, “A man was here. And now he is gone. I am suddenly not dead. It feels like a social life.”