Feb 252017
 

Ceramic box by Michel Pastore

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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 Egyptian 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.

Ceramics artists Michel Pastore & Evelyne Porret

Pastore/Porret house and studio at Fayoum, outside of Cairo

Rikki Ducornet

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

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

Carlos Fonseca

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

Jessica Sequeira

Ben Slotky

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

Maura Stanton

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.

……………………………………….—Maura Stanton

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

Susan ElmslieSusan Elmslie

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.

…………………………………….—Susan Elmslie

Fleda BrownFleda Brown

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.

………………………..—Fleda Brown

J. M. Coetzee

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.

Anne Hirondelle working in studioAnne Hirondelle

Cynan Jones

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

Show Girl in Hollywood page

J P McEvoy still from Woman Accused 1933

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

Steven Moore

Montaigne

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

Linda E. Chown

Yannis Livadas

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

Amanda BellAmanda Bell

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

Melissa Febos

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!

Feb 232017
 

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.”

Source: Banished and left to die – Winnipeg Free Press

Feb 152017
 

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G rainy video and tinny sound are not what one expects from a professional music video, but the opening to Wintersleep’s video for “Amerika,” the anthem from their most recent album, melds form and content to make for an explosive one-minute prelude. A pale, young, red-headed woman informs us flatly of the apocalyptic decline of the human race, in a clear rejection of humans by nature, animals and trees. Then, an anonymous child’s voice details how members of a family are interconnected even when far apart. These are clearly trying times.

This video, released on January 8 of 2016, foretells Trump’s election ten months later. Although he’d been campaigning for a while, Trump was only nominated as the Republican candidate in May of 2016, four months later. A Trump speech is the third voice added to the narrative at the 4:29 mark, talking about his “incredible country,” on a fifties television, in a house that is half finished, drywall unpainted, a scattering of furniture. The setting clearly situates us in grassroots America, Trump’s electoral base.

In a corner of the room is a vintage poster for a 1942 film, Vengeance of the West. In this classic Western made by famed B-Movie director Lambert Hillyer, a masked rider called “The Black Shadow” helps a young woman find out who murdered her father and stole his property. Trump’s appeals are to the average American, whose country has also seemingly been stolen away by various (literal) “dark figures.”  Amerika’s “K” then is perhaps also foreshadowing the KKK’s support of Trump’s candidacy.

In the video, the repeated image and sound of a fireball rushing downward through a blue sky, but never reaching the ground, is followed closely by a burning barn, television reports of natural disasters, and right-wing religious figures raising their arms towards the cross in an otherwise empty church. Buildings burn throughout the video, as if in an enigmatic cleansing ritual while other religious symbols abound. It is only at the end of the video, from another a television report, that we discover that the fireball is a mysterious comet seemingly coming to destroy the planet.

The song lyrics, written by songwriter Paul Murphy, were inspired by Walt Whitman’s short poem “America” from his celebrated Leaves of Grass collection, first published in 1855 with 12 poems but revised throughout the poet’s life. The poem “America” was added to the so-called “deathbed” edition Whitman published in 1892 which contained 383 poems. Wintersleep’s song borrows the short poem’s verse, “Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”:  “What am I trying to find? Are you alive, oh my Amerika? Perennial with the Earth and freedom, love, and law, and life. Perennial with the earth, my freedom, I don’t wanna die.”

In the Wintersleep song, Amerika, intentionally spelled with a K, is reminiscent of the German spelling and Kafka’s unfinished first novel, Der Verschollene, The Disappeared One, titled Amerika when it was published in 1927. Much like this video, Kafka’s novel uses “a technique that traces and abstracts reality as it attempts to portray the deeper motivations that surge below the surface of daily life” (Shields Dix).

While the protagonist in Kafka’s story is looking for a way out, an escape from war-torn Europe, Wintersleep’s “Amerika” does not really offer much optimism for change. Extreme solitude and isolation are reinforced by images of people mostly alone, in different locations: churches, diners, dining rooms, and bedrooms. Some moments of the video recall Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting from 1942, its artificially bright interior contrasting with the dark lurking exterior. Here melancholia and solitude prevail.

In the video, along with the imminent menace of the comet, sickness, disease, and death are everywhere implied, in one figure’s cigarette and another’s oxygen mask, drugged-up young men wielding guns, drug dens, bloodied faces, and gangsters. Young lovers look bored and unmoved, lying in each other’s arms. There is no life or joy portrayed or concealed in any of the actors’ faces.

Yet nature prevails. Near the end of the film, the mix of the sound of the crashing water from the falls and the whooshing wind blend to remind us again of the of nature’s power. This reverence is mirrored on the pimply-faced adolescent’s expression as he observes the waterfalls. It is only after the cleansing water that the video shows us gentleness, echoing the song’s refrain “I don’t want to die”: a shirtless man takes his young child in his arms, a woman takes another by the hand, and the young lovers clasp each other’s hands, as if in preparation for the apocalyptic conclusion.

The band Wintersleep, originally formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and now based in Montreal, has been making music since 2001 and won a Juno in 2008. This song is from their most recent album, The Great Detachment, released in March 2016. The music video for Wintersleep’s “Amerika,” ranked in the top 50 videos of 2016 by Muchmusic, was written, directed and edited by award-winning Toronto filmmaker, Scott Cudmore. Co-recipient of the 2014 Arthur Lipsett Award, Cudmore is a member of Revolver Films.

–Sophie Lavoie

Works Cited:
Shields Dix, Douglas. “The Man Who Disappeared: Kafka Imagining Amerika” The Kafka Project by Mauro Nervi. http://www.kafka.org/index.php?aid=239

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Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Etudes Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.

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Feb 142017
 

susan-rubin-suleiman_photo-by-tony-rinaldo_373px

Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. —Laura Michele Diener

nemirovskyquestion

The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France
Susan Rubin Suleiman
Yale University Press, 2016
376 pages; $35.00

“It is impossible, as many liberals believe, to belong to two nations, the Jewish and the French,” –Robert Brasilac, 1938, Je suis partout, French newspaper

“What have I in common with the Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself”
–Franz Kafka, Diary

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Exquisitely erudite and boundlessly empathetic, Susan Suleiman’s newest book, The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France, is far more than a literary biography of Irene Némirovsky but rather a study of twentieth-century Jewish identity with one writer’s life as the fulcrum. Irene Némirovsky, now most famous for the miraculous posthumous adventures of her novel Suite Francaise, was during her lifetime, a respected and successful writer on the French literary scene. Born to a wealthy Russian Jewish banking family in 1903, after the Russian Revolution, she moved to France as a teenager where she wholeheartedly embraced the language and culture of her adopted country. Classified as a foreign Jew under the Vichy regime, she was arrested by the French police in July 1942, and subsequently transported to Auschwitz where she died a month later. The unfinished draft of a novel (actually two novels, the first of a proposed five) survived with her two young daughters, Denise, age twelve, and Elisabeth, five, to be published to acclaim in 2004. That year, it won the prestigious literary Renaudot Prize in 2004, the first time the award was bestowed on a deceased author.

First French, and then English speakers have adored Suite Francaise, two beautifully executed studies of French civilians under German occupation, rife with tender relationships and written in real time by a sharply observant narrator. World War II has become part of the collective consciousness of many Americans and Europeans, and with its portrayals of the quiet upheavals and wartime romances of an occupied village, Suite Francaise fulfills many twenty-first century fantasies of vintage wartime. Publishers seized the opportunity to reissue her older books and translate them into English, but their portrayals of prewar immigrant Jewish characters—particularly the 2007 translation of David Golder—struck some readers as more archaic and even disturbing. Its original publication in 1929 was Némirovsky’s first big break in the literary world, but she also received criticisms from Jewish readers who questioned the value of a story about an unscrupulous banker.

In the article, “Scandale Francaise,” that appeared in the January 30, 2008, issue of the New Republic, critic Ruth Franklin boldly and uncompromisingly states that “Némirovsky was the very definition of a self-hating Jew” who “made her name by trafficking in the most sordid anti-Semitic stereotypes.” Although she admits that Suite Francaise “is a fine novel,” she questions the absence of Jewish characters, suggesting that “perhaps Némirovsky was incapable of creating sympathetic Jewish characters. Franklin’s article followed other condemnations, including a review of The Dogs and the Wolves in the Times Literary Supplement by Naomi Price, and an article Jewish Ideas Daily, by Dan Kagan-Kans, titled, “Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Hating Jew.” In the end, the crux of these arguments rests on two points, the visibility of Jews and the invisibility of Jews in her fiction, neither of which critics find acceptable. Some of the reviews, like Kagan-Kans’, display an almost astounding blindness towards historical context (he writes scathingly of the absence of Jewish characters in All Our Worldly Goods, a novel Némirovsky published in 1941, when she was already wearing a yellow star and writing under a pseudonym, because Jewish authors were banned), and Susan Suleiman treats them with more politeness than they deserve. On the other hand, Ruth Franklin, herself the author of the recent well-received biography of Shirley Jackson (Shirley Jackson: A Haunted Life, Liveright, 2016) as well as a A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (Oxford University Press, 2011) presents a conundrum. She has done her homework, and Suleiman’s book is partially a continuation of an in-person conversation at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, on December 12, 2008, which Suleiman describes as heated. Both women, like Némirovsky, are Jewish women writers deeply concerned about Jewish women as writers as well as women writing about Jewishness. The debate centers around Némirovsky’s views on Jewish assimilation into French society. As Franklin interprets them, assimilation in Némirovsky’s novels is doomed to fail because their inherently negative Jewish characteristics will inevitably surface. “Though the Golders [characters from the 1929 David Golder] have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.”

Suleiman carefully outlines the debate and rightly asks, “why reasonable readers can argue with such passion about the alleged self-hatred (or not) of a Jewish writer who has been dead for almost three-quarters of a century?” and why these reasonable readers have always been exclusively Jewish. Non-Jewish critics display little desire or interest to enter that inflammatory conversation. Much of Sulieman’s book examines Némirovsky’s writing as an exploration of deeply divisive questions about Jewish identities, a group as divided today by language, ritual, class, and politics in the 1930’s as they are today.

To do so, she delves into the thorny question of Jewish self-hatred, a concept dating back to the nineteenth century, when the political climate allowed a number of German, Austrian, and French Jews to escape the ghettos and enter mainstream society. The resulting identity crises among assimilated Jews contributed to the outpourings of Jewish artists and intellectuals. In every conceivable medium, Jews questioned who and what they were, and how they fit into the growing nationalisms of nineteenth-century Europe. Can a Jew be a good German? Or a good Frenchman? Or even entirely French?—the latter an incendiary question that burst into full-scale flame in 1894, with the Dreyfus Affair. In addition to questions of patriotism, for assimilated Jews, the even larger question loomed—What is a Jew? If a person distances themselves from language, ritual, and belief, what inalienable element continues to define them as Jewish, and somehow of a piece with other Jews? Suleiman explains:

It is this estrangement experienced by Jews themselves from other Jews that some people call self-hatred or Jewish anti-Semitism. But the fact is that it existed and continues to exist, not only among Jews but also among other devalued minorities, and not only in Europe.

Accusations of self-hatred have been leveled at a fairly respectable group of intellectuals and artists including Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, Joseph Roth, Isaac Babel—proving at least that Irene Némirovsky is in good company and perhaps that the definition of Jewish self-hatred, if such a thing exists, is so all-encompassing as to be meaningless. After all, anyone who explores their genetic and cultural inheritance with anything but the most unflagging enthusiasm could effectively be considered self-hating. Suleiman views the question of Némirovsky’s or anyone else’s Jewish self-hatred as insolvable, and certainly ahistorical, and argues that “rather than speak of Jewish self-hatred, it makes historical as well as philosophical sense to speak of the ambiguities and ambivalences regarding Jewish identity and self-definition during this period.”

The title of her book, The Némirovsky Question, plays on another nineteenth century concept, die Judenfrage, one that Suleiman proffers as “a useful alternative to Jewish self-hatred if one wants to think about dilemmas of Jewish identity in modern times.” Today, the Jewish Question possesses ominous connotations of cattle cars and concentration camps, but before the Nazis repackaged it as “how to get rid of the Jews,” Jewish intellectuals themselves, including Theodore Herzl, Oskar Jaszi, and Anna Lesznai interpreted the question as a series of inquiries into the place of Jews in mainstream society, Jewish group identity, and most acutely, how people characterized more by division than similarities related to each other.

As Suleiman argues, the Jewish question haunted Némirovsky, who lived out the complexities of interwar Jewish identity. Many of her Jewish characters were reflective of her own family members, eastern immigrants to France, wealthy, on the path to assimilation, but at most a generation away from the ghetto. Her father, Leon Némirovsky was from a poor Yiddish-speaking family near Odessa while her mother came from a wealthy Jewish family more assimilated. As in her family, so in her books, the choice of French, Russian, or Yiddish language declares affiliation. The family lived the elegant and fashionable life of the French upper class, and Némirovsky received her education first through a French governess and then the Sorbonne. She enjoyed close friendships with French Catholics, notably the siblings Rene and Madeleine Avot, who would care for her children after the war. But the husband she married at the age of twenty-three, Michael Epstein, was another Russian Jew from a banking family, and one more religious than her own. The couple converted in 1939 to Catholicism, sent their children to Catholic schools, and in their own words, considered themselves entirely French-Catholic. But waves of refugees from Nazi Germany as well as a growing antipathy to foreigners challenged their self-identification with their adopted country. Between 1920-1939, the number of Jews in France tripled, with many of the newcomers Yiddish speaking, religiously observant, and poor. In her novels David Golder (1929), The Dogs and the Wolves (1940), and The Wine of Solitude (1935), she considers the tensions between these groups ostensibly sharing an identity. In her short story, Fraternité, published in February 1937, these uneasy cousins literally confront each other in the encounter between a wealthy assimilated Jewish banker, brilliantly named Christian Rabinovitch, and a Jewish immigrant from Russia, also named Rabinovitch.

No character in Némirovsky is so successfully assimilated that they aren’t haunted by the specter of their poor religious antiquated Jewish selves. These internal tensions among French Jews play out against a context of French anti-Semitism, which in the end, renders issues of Jewish identity null. Ruth Franklin’s accusation becomes Suleiman’s explanation: “Though the Golder’s have tried to assimilate into French society, Némirovsky makes it clear that Jews can never escape their identity.” Sadly, her stories were prophetic, as she lived to experience. She moved through her life from exile to beloved and feted community member and, finally, to exile again, dying far from the home she had claimed. In 1942, she wrote chillingly, “I have written a lot lately. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but at least they make the time pass.”

The scope of Suleiman’s book extends beyond Némirovsky’s life and even her posthumous fame. She devotes the last third of the book to the story of Némirovsky’s daughters, Denise and Elisabeth, and along with them the collective stories of child survivors of the Holocaust. After the arrest of their parents, the girls spent the last two years in Occupied France living under false identities, constantly on the move, mainly under the care of their nurse Julie Dumot. They joined the more than ten thousand Jewish children who had lost one or both parents during the war, and Suleiman considers them as such, employing trauma theory and the literature on children with hidden identities to discuss their experiences. Through their own writing, particularly Elisabeth’s 1992 memoir, Le Mirador, and editing of their mother’s papers, Denise and Elisabeth, both raised and educated as Catholics, sort out their complicated legacies and memories. Suleiman’s own relationships with the family, especially Denise whom she interviewed extensively before her death in April 2013, form the heart of this section, which is entirely unique in terms of Némirovsky scholarship.

The Némirovsky Question represents the culmination (at least so far) of Suleiman’s prestigious academic career. A professor of comparative literature at Harvard, she has written seven books and edited three others on avant garde French literature, women writers, collective and individual memories of the Holocaust, and artistic expressions of trauma and exile. Suleiman portrays Némirovsky as a woman always writing from the middle, a place defined by difference, occasionally by unease, and like Némirovsky, although a generation younger, Sulieman shifted between the fluid identities in post-war Europe. As she reveals in her memoir, The Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook, she was born into a Hungarian Jewish family a few weeks into World War II, and spent her earliest years living under a variety of false identities before immigrating to America after the war. Her parents, with their varying degrees of faith, reflect the extremes of Jewish identities. Only as an adult with two children did she revisit the country of her birth and connect her fragmented memories of a disrupted past. Her familiarity with intercultural identities obviously predisposes her to empathize with Némirovsky’s Russian-Jewish-French-Catholics selves, and the book reads as a labor of love from writer on behalf of another.

Irene Némirovsky is an odd choice for critics to attack and defend. Surely, in any political climate, let alone today’s, more obvious proponents of anti-Semitism exist than a woman who wore a yellow star and died at Auschwitz. But she asked uncomfortable questions in uncomfortable times that quickly became dangerous times. As Suleiman writes about Christian Rabinovitch, which could well apply to Némirovsky’s other Jewish characters, as well as the author herself: “[He] may not be to everyone’s liking. But the questions his story raises continue to resonate.” Issues of identity predominate in the twenty-first century among Jews, for whom politics, particularly American-Israeli relations, even more so than faith, frequently become the dividing line. European Jews also grapple with renewed waves of anti-Semitism, particularly in France, where ultra-nationalists and terrorists make strange bedfellows. But Suleiman’s book reminds us that the Jewish question can become anyone’s question, whenever people struggle to define themselves against a majority society. In a 1934 radio interview, Némirovsky explained her choice of Jewish characters. “I contrive to depict the society I know best, which is made up of dislocated people who have left behind the milieu where they would normally have lived and whose adaptation to a new life is not without shocks and suffering.” Dislocated people, from a myriad of ethnic backgrounds, find themselves just as vulnerable in 2017. The surge of revolutions, occupations, genocides, and dictatorships doesn’t appear to be slowing down, and readers may find Némirovsky’s books increasingly relevant in a world that continues to yield refugees and exiles. One can only hope that they find a more welcoming society than she did.

—Laura Michele Diener

N5

Laura Michele Diener 2

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.

Feb 132017
 

allan-cooper-cropped-imageAllan Cooper by Frédéric Gayer

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Just to whet your appetite. These are brand new poems by Allan Cooper. One of them — “I Have My Silence” — will be published in his imminent collection Everything We’ve Loved Comes Back to Find Us to be published by Gaspereau Press in April.

 

EVENING PRIMROSE

How often they’ve come back to me
in the tall house of summer
like the scent of the evening primrose
rising from the earth

men and women who worked the fields
and woods and kitchens,
who dreamed and loved and despaired
the same as we do, who held new infants

in their arms and rocked them
by oil light burning down
to a small flame, the rhythms
of their conversations

gone out further now
than any star we will ever see.
My grandfather opens
the woodshed door, a pail

in his hand, walking to the fields
where he will dig the new potatoes
before the heavy rains. My grandmother–
who at eighty taught me how

to clean the spring head
where the water flowed from bedrock–
is singing to me through my fever, her voice
mingling with the sound of the brook.

I swear my small body rose above the house
and looked down on the black roof,
the winglike shadows cast across the lawn
as if someone would come and carry me

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away, and maybe they almost did.
When my fever broke, I could feel the damp
cloth on my forehead, replaced again
and again throughout the night.

I could hear my grandparents
talking low in the kitchen. It’s good
when they come back to find us, hold us,
guide us. They loved us unconditionally.

Someone places a hand on my forehead,
then their footsteps fading down the hall
as I drift in the sound of the running spring,
the deep sleep of boyhood.

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GLENN GOULD PLAYING

My moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky
—Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould, in large rimmed glasses, is stooped low over the
piano
like a rider on a horse. His face is what music looks like
when it takes on a human form. His fingers are ten reins guiding
the notes,
eighty-eight of them, low notes as if rising from Hades,
high notes like the feminine tone of spring.

His hands change positions, the right playing the low notes
quickly,
like fox sparrows suddenly arriving in spring, the sounds
that a human heart makes when it’s totally in love with the
world.

Glenn Gould is playing, and he seems a little unsteady in the
saddle,
his chair a bit rickety, as if it might fall at any moment;
but it doesn’t, and he hovers so close to the keys he can taste
them,
coaxing the flavour and fragrance from each note. Now he’s
singing to the keys,
like a monk saying prayers, and the notes move faster,
almost too fast for us to follow;
it’s as if the piano could resonate at a certain frequency
and suddenly implode, the strings collapsing on the sound board,
the sound board falling through the wooden frame…

Things grow softer. These are notes we’ve heard before, but never
so gently,
feathery, like a father singing to a child, the last words we’ll say
to someone,
an entire barren field suddenly filled with volunteer poplars.

The notes begin to chase each other. They are waves breaking
over waves
on the shore of Lake Superior, thousands of neutrinos moving
through our bodies
at once. It’s a Bach fugue, and the sound is like losing yourself in
something
for the first time, the sound of cells dividing, and you’re nameless
again
as you were the moment you were born.

Glenn Gould is playing, and for the black horse of the piano
there is only one rider, and for that rider
there is only the light drawn from the gloom
and darkness clinging to the edges of the light.

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x

THE SNAIL AND THE ROSE

Is there a symbiotic relationship between these pale yellow-
green snails and the old Irish roses? This one has climbed over
three feet up a stem which is guarded by thorns that would
pierce my finger if I grasped it. The snail is about the size of a
quarter, although there’s no money in this snail’s life. He lives for
free, as most things do on this planet. I’ve seen them before,
clinging to a leaf, or making their way up through a wild jungle
of leaves.
More and more it is the quiet things around me that give me
pleasure. If this snail makes any music, or has a voice, I can’t hear
it. He lives in the heaven of his day, carrying his house on his
When he dies the house will be left behind a little while, like
the spinsters’ house with grey clapboard, the dolls in the cedar
chest still waiting for the whisper of a child.

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THE APPLE TREE

—in memory of Galway Kinnell

One afternoon in the 1940s, in summer,
a car from the Boston States or the Carolinas
or the tip of the Florida Keys
drove by this gravel bank,
and someone opened a car window
and threw out an apple core, that landed
precisely here, and one dark brown
seed, the oval of a water shrew’s eye, took root
and began to grow, at first a thin, small question,
then a wiry, almost defiant voice…

Its thick, squat trunk is as shaggy as a Shetland pony,
wild as those Zen Buddhist monks
who sit quietly, cross-legged,
smiling inwardly.

In late May or early June
the blossoms begin to open from taut buds,
at first a rosy pink, then
a rich whiteness blending in,
like cream poured into a china bowl.

And when the rain falls, the leaves
make a tapping sound,
like someone knocking lightly
at a door, someone who has
come a long way to be here, now,
in this world; someone rich
with the odour of spring, pungent
as wet earth, the first blades
of new grass, the smell of bark,
like an old keeper of small horses.

And an old woman, rich in perfume
that carries with it
rosewater to an altar
where the earth is worshipped,
and the transformation that will happen
when a winged one comes near
and enters a blossom…

A grandmother, who loved Evening in Paris,
gathered apples from the wild trees each fall
and carried them in buckets or bowls
to her steaming autumn kitchen;
she made apple sauce, apple
pies, apple strudel, apple crisp,
and baked apples in brown sugar,
where nothing is wasted.

So many wild trees at the side of the road,
in ditches, in sudden meadows and clearings,
growing from stone walls, cellar holes,
through ribs and femurs
gathered back by the earth.

And for every ancient tree that
falls, another takes its place,
and another, in the long lineage
of trees, one ring at a time, one
blossoming and fading at a time.

Apples ripen, and the deer come,
and some stand on their hind
legs like men reaching up
into the highest branches for
the sweetest and most coveted apples,
which have been kissed by the sky.

Old apple trees that, if they were love poems
would be both male and female, male and male,
or two young girls holding hands beneath the branches
as the rain comes down
on a day that will never end for them.

A day when the blossoms were ready
to fall, and high up
in the branches
three dozen cedar waxwings in a row,
and as one petal fell
it was taken in the beak of the nearest bird
and passed to the next,
and the next, male to male,
male to female, until it reached
the last waxwing at the end
of the branch, and she ate it…

Not one thing is wasted,
not one petal or word, like these words
that I pass to you now: compassion,
care, tenderness, hope, joy,
forgiveness; and love, that final word
at the end of our branch, the end of our rope,
that stubborn word we carry with us,
tough as a seed, the best for last.

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I HAVE MY SILENCE

I’ve lived a good time.
Not as long as a saguaro cactus
or a sequoia, but a good time.
One second can last a thousand years.
And no amount of study or joy can prepare us
for the ecstasy that Rumi and Mirabai felt.
I’ve seen and felt things
and remained silent.
I’ve watched the fox sparrows migrating in fall
and kept quiet, although inside
I’ve felt a wing rising,
moving out across the waters.

The last thing I like to do
at the end of the day
is walk out and greet the dusk.
I say nothing.
But I might just show
this multi-coloured coat
like Joseph’s, woven from everything
I’ve ever loved. Can you see it?
I’ve lived a good time.
I have work to do. I have my silence
as the sky does
every morning when the sun breaks over the hills.

—Allan Cooper
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Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

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Feb 122017
 

two-urns-and-the-sea

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Brindisi

Start out to the centre of a city chosen at random, let it be Brindisi. From the train station a promenade leads straight to the sea, lined with palm trees: their shadow striates the pavement in the noontime sun, horizontal window grids. The town is daydreamy, as if caught in an endless afternoon, all the shops about to close. The promenade saunters at leisure into a tree-lined square, then continues seaward: the circle that can be drawn in the middle of the square has two fountain crescents on its sides, water trickles on a squat wall’s horizontal yellow, red, green mosaic strips into a basin painted deep blue. The promenade leaves the early afternoon park behind, in it the few Africans sunken into themselves, whose aloneness is not alleviated, but rather thickened by their cellphone music. The music reaches out after the shadows of the passersby, always one step behind. From the windows, the clinking of cutlery.

The promenade has its palm trees and its procession: light processes on it all day long. Before reaching the sea, it slows down in a little park among four symmetrically planted olive trees. There are no two olive trees that look alike. In the middle a clamant white marble statue, the two twisted animals at the poet’s feet, a dog and a lamb, look as if carved from preposterously bleached, knotty olive-tree wood: here Virgil lay dying on his return from Greece.

The poet looks out on the sea, on the tongue of land closing in the sea behind the two harbours, and beyond them, to the wider outer sea. Because the town has two waterfronts: city between two waters, with a sea locked between two land strips. Levante and ponente harbor basins, the water-faces turned to the upward- and downward-going sun.

The lungomare is one sole theatre balcony gazing out at the sea: its consoles are the palm trees that by their hair fasten it to the sky, so it can’t drift out on the high waters.

Go up a flight of stairs to the one-and-a-half column marking the end of the Via Appia: one fell and broke into pieces, its capital a pedestal today, in Lecce, for a saint. The fragment of its trunk lies sideways on a tall base, broken not in splinters but along knotty sinews. Like a slice of some gigantic flayed animal, a tuna trunk laid out on a counter, in it the muscles’ inward-turned cramp, the inward-glowing gaze of the stone flesh. The divinities on the intact column’s capital are caught in the instant of their winged dash, just about to hurl themselves on the blue, on a liquid crystal airwave, their gazes their wings. Their flight throws the sky open and lengthens distances.

column-in-brindisi

The column stands in the air, not on the ground: in the light, compacted into a slab it froze into the instant of stepping out of the blue and entering our space, to become flesh. The height is situated at the place where the seno di levante, the harbor basin turned to the upward-going sun, abuts the seno di ponente, the harbor lying towards the downward-going sun, close to the old town’s cape east where it presses its face on the water, like a statue on a prow. Across the water, the canal between the two harbours leading out into high water: a sea gorge. The columns look beyond the landmark willed by Mussolini, the monument of the seamen fallen at sea: the capital of the intact column is windblown hair, while across it the human figure on the oversize reddish-ochre wedge cutting into the water is a monumental trinket, indomitable carved cliché. At the foot of the stairs, a patient little archaeological collection: the volutes of its Attic, Italic vases glow like candelabra in their showcases; the goose, deer, drapery fold sketched in white on the lacquer-like blacks, dark browns and reds of Gnathian vases resist the pull of museum death. The flavor of ancient oil or wine impregnates their walls, as the August sun, a memory shred, impregnates the bleached, graying skin at winter’s end.

The yellow triangle of the square in front of the cathedral is there to fence in the sky. Its lines of sculpted bishops’ staves and downward-turned faces are choruses answering one another from the galleries. Shadows are razor-sharp in the blazing sun. The animal-faced consoles, thick like a comb, supporting the Gothic balcony of the palace that obliquely closes the square on the right, are fulgent apparitions. The façade clings to the balcony, lest it rise with slow wingbeats above the roof of the palace opposite. A dancer’s naked back drifts across the square, bearing a vertical message inscribed along the spine, its beauty a see-through lightning.

Animal-faced-consoles-Brindisi

The orange circolare connecting the peripheral districts meanders on the patched-up asphalt among concrete fences, roof-terraced blocks of flats, to the sea. Now and again an unwitnessed transfiguration on the empty streets: magenta masses of bougainvillea spread out on a wall, the gigantic foliage of a pine tree which, as light traverses it in the wind, looks deciduous. In the frame of burnt-out lawn and unbroken façades only the colours of awnings gesticulate wildly. With their short shadows, the empty bus stops are banal sundials, the whitening afternoon oozes away around them. Now the bus is driving straight ahead between the barbed-wired fences of the military and civil airport, leaving the inhabited areas behind. The Indian figs pay no heed to the barbed wire, they are both inside and outside, nonchalantly showing off their red and yellow figs. Where the bus drops me off (you go ahead, there’s the sea), the road forks: in the bifurcation the hideousness of an unfinished dark gray concrete building is trying to withstand the assault of green and blue. In front, a short concrete fence: its sediment of graffiti, rain and sun looks like a Cy Twombly.

its-magic

On one side of a gaping hole in the fence, a sign prohibits entry and warns of crumbling structures; on the other side, a graffiti points at the hole: IT’S MAGIC. Beyond the wall a row of aligned squat bungalows, their whitewash long washed off: a brittle youth summer camp above the waterfront. Inside, in the forbidden zone, a few teenage boys are dressing, their radio turned to the maximum. The shores of the little gulf are impatiently lapping up the rolling waves with flat rocky tongues. To the right, the road continues in a long pier; beyond the pier lies the industrial port with its cranes and tows. To the left, several fishermen, unstirring anthropoid cranes; on this side in a hollow, two women are sunbathing in deck chairs they somehow balanced on the rocks. A graffiti points the way to the pier: PUNTA RISO, Cape Ridicule. Tucked in the underarm of the industrial port, this no-man’s-land is a secret passage to the sea, a postindustrial outing destination, private adventure park, ridiculously beautiful garbage dumping site fitted out with billboards FOR SALE/TO LET. I’ve always imagined the Algerian seaside in Camus’ L’Étranger like this, stripped of picturesque adornments, a compact horizon within concrete lines and unrestrained stone growth, where the deeper and the higher blue touch.

abandoned-white-buildings-brindisi

The shore pitted to reach the sea’s horizontal line has nothing to do with those inexhaustibly photogenic cliffs modulating from deepest black to bone white, on which the coast towns are built. Here the stones are dark brown and dull red, with a reddish-yellow silt, as if springs high in iron were welling up among them. Looked at from above, they seem a broad, petrified strip of mud or argile that has been trampled, kneaded into these forms by invisible cloven-hoofed, web-footed, elephant-legged herds: edges and hollows everywhere, a plain of saw dents, pits, precipices, minute ravines squeezed among sandpaper pumice, against which the whipped-up Veronese-green water, blue only in the distance, lashes mercilessly. Deuterium. When a wave tumbles down and the tidal backlash sucks water out from among the rocks, for a moment a check pattern trembles on the dimpled water surface above the well-like hole: tugging in two directions, the flow tightens perpendicular water-threads woven above and beneath one another, the water fabric cambers upward like drum skin, before hollowing in again, to be broken into chips by the next wave. At the juncture between the water-threads tiny points of light vacillate, projected on the rocks: their spectral reflection still drifts on the rough matter, barely touching it, when the texture below is torn up by a new wave. Time captured in the trap of light.

water-threads-brindisi

When the sky is clouded over, the indigo blue of the distant waters is transposed into indigo green, and the golden reflections are supplanted by dimmed mercury light. The direction of the clouds cannot be guessed: they thicken above the sea, rise like dough, as if they were spreading out into several directions at once. After a while, metallic raindrops start falling from their blackish mantle. Between the heavily rolling lower and the rarefied upper waters a few oblique light beams, taut tightropes, measure distance like a jet airplane’s condensation trail, or a gull’s flight. The rocks on the shore retain all waste. On the bottom of a pit that fills up with seawater through invisible cracks, three springs from the deck chairs of yesteryear: they lie in geometric order, their rust colour delicately tuned to the rock, growing a spectral reddish-silver halo on the water surface, rich and strange. A few steps away, iridescent black rubber or plastic stains sea-changed into mineral sediment lead, like a path strewn with lentils, to another hole, tiny marginal sea, on which a white stain hovers: osso di seppia, the cuttlebone of a Sepia. The find asks for edgy Montale words. What ebb has shipwrecked the bone blade lighter than water? Like a paper cutting knife, to cut up the thickly inscribed pages of the waves folding upon one another.

channel-to-sea-brindisi

A short-headed fisherman with a stout Guttuso frame is meticulously tenderising the day’s catch on the Polignano rocks: with one brutally proficient movement he sticks two fingers under the squid’s mantle, tears out the ink sac and something I presume to be the viscera. He gathers the ink sacs into a plastic bag and throws the other entrails, of the size of a fingertip, back into the sea, among the bathers. The thus-eviscerated creature he first smashes against the rocks with sparing movements, then methodically hammers and mangles into the rockface with a flat wooden bat, until the elastic arms are reduced to an amorphous jelly. Torn out into the empty air that burns its skinless limbs like acid, the creature bleeds a foamy, mucous liquid that looks as if secreted by a flock of snails. Its torment is perhaps only registered by the arms of its fellow creatures touching it along the linear network of pain. The smaller squids and octopuses do not get the bat: them the fisherman kneads, punches, rolls with his palm on the rough stone like dough, or clothes at the creek. Now and again he rinses them in the sea: I imagine the mollusks being hauled back into their own element, away from the scorching and suffocation, only in order to regain sensitivity for the first blow. The octopus is caught not with a net or spear but with the bare hands, the fisherman says, you need to have a good eye: il polipo è il migliore mimetizzatore. When it spots you it freezes, because it fears humans: this is the moment to grab it.

shore-pot-holes-brindisi
Several times I swim past a woman who is scanning the waters along the coastal cliffs, with a knife fastened to her wrist and a net in her other hand: a marine shopping bag. Out of the water, she cuts up the sea urchins gathered in the net, spoons out their flesh into a plastic bowl. Then aligns the empty, upward-turned shells on the stone, walnut or lychee peels; death has hatched from their sticky inside. The breeze smears the pebbles with the smell. The foaming, viscous blood of the octopuses dries on the stone into a rainbow. My last morning on the lungomare: fishermen toil on the massive breakwater rocks, vanno a faticà. In front of each of them, a plastic basin; one has a baby’s bathtub: they rock them like a cradle, not even looking. The congested mollusks are knocked together in a swill-like liquid, death’s whisks in the baby-tub. Below them, the unbroken, deep blue distance from which they have been evicted into the asphyxiating air. The foam whipped by the creatures short of sea and the pungent smell is all we hear of their agony; above them, bitten-off, close-vowelled words, with an intonation swinging to the rhythm of the rocking, narrate about sea weather.

meteor-debris-sign-brindisi

At the entrance to the camp a sign warns of infiltration of acque meteoriche from the airport. Meteoric precipitation on the lunar landscape. Obviously the dark red stria cutting deep cracks into the rocks like tiny canyons are heavy metals that ended up here from a different planet. The rain dripping from the indigo clouds is in fact falling-star dust raining from outer space in drops the colour of mercury, pulled by the gravitational force of the tossing blackish-green water.

meteor-sediment-brindisi

Going toward the pier, the riotousness of the stones is flattened out, like the waves running up on sand banks: it is drowned in the sand which has assimilated the glass chips and bottle corks. In the splinter-sand, a broken mosaic, the floor of an extravagant outdoor bathroom in the deserted camp: the archaeological find of a 1970s summer, it glows, turquoise and sky blue, from under the debris, determined not to gray for the fall. In its waters the fish and sea stars of the late antique mosaic, uncovered under the cathedral’s floor, could swim.

broken-mosaic-brindisi

Summer’s layers can still be detected in the light storming the pine tree’s crown, like on the skin of the chic middle-aged ladies walking the Corso, whose tan is several hues darker than their honey-blond hair. Here the landscape doesn’t go bald and stiff for the winter, but rather, folds its wings like a bird. Es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß. You can see from a distance that the bar at the foot of the pier is closed: the tropical colours of its spaghetti curtain get drenched in the evening. The Berlin-blue sentrybox squatting in the parking lot in front of the bar watches over the cold dust with its shortsighted windows. In the pavement, in an unfilled square where nobody has bothered to plant a shrub, a heap of peach juice boxes lie, sucked clean, their straws breathing a fruity bouquet: summer’s used-up condoms. In the evening, outdoing the racket of parakeets on the palm trees, a flight of swallows dementedly swarm around an exotic cypress. The crown preserves light for a while yet, moving ever upward, but the wind is let loose on the square.

ugly-concrete-building-brindisi

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Trani

From the protuberance of land into the sea, two long piers broken in angles set out like strong swimmers, then become disheartened: the sea renders all distances meaningless. At the end point where the piers turn back, two lighthouses stand like stout inverted exclamation marks; the sentences they introduce run beyond the horizon. Practical considerations aside, everything here serves the view: on the anthropodal piers’ end-points facing each other but tactfully looking away, the stocky lighthouses perform a rare stunt all day long. Almost jumping forward with their complementary green and red, like a Venetian painting’s red or white brushstrokes applied with calculated casualness, they push the sea into the background but, at the same time, their iridescent axis brings all the aqueous hues of blue, violet, mother-of-pearl, green to boiling point and show that the real drama is the one that takes place in the background. Figure and ground are thus continually oscillating, the shadow of a passing translucent cloud is enough to dull the green or red tower and push it back to ground.

green-lighthouse-trani

As sunrays swim into the open from behind a cloud, lighting up the red and green lighthouses echoing one another on the two piers’ ends, first the one, then the other, the water is striped with turquoise-green, Berlin blue; closer up, Veronese green and, at the farthest point, navy blue. A stone bench made of a single block in front of a slender metal railing, nothing to detain the gaze. The Trani stone breathes, decomposes white into colours like Rome’s travertino, and captures every light. It is filled up with light and starts glowing: light-active stone, it radiates like radioactive metals. Between two layers splitting like slate, the cement of petrified shells: time’s congested ebb and flow.

red-and-green-lighthouses

Il mare non è il massimo a Trani, they warn me. As if it were not the same sea, of the same taste, burningly salt-bitter; as if it didn’t leave the same salt dust on the skin. As if our lego cities, toy trains could interest it in the least. Yet obviously the sea is not the same: the waters mouthing the coast cliffs of the undulating near-horizontal karst landscape are different from the sea that touches the crouching pebble shores further south, and whose backward-tossed waves sweep in the pebbles from the shore with a loud thudding and cracking. The amorphous waters dissolve different colours from the various stones and soils, as the maturing wine dissolves different flavours from the barrels made of wood of differing ages and qualities.

Those who know it well go to the sea in boats and yachts, not like the landlocked. The seagoers have their own well-trodden (well-glided should be the word) paths, waterways, bustling main thoroughfares and quiet side alleys; the sea surface is just as variegated for these flâneurs as the streets with their porches and shop windows. A few kilometers to the north, in capital letters on the Barletta sports yacht harbour’s blue corrugated iron barracks: CHI AMA IL MARE SARÀ SEMPRE LIBERO. At the landward bend of the asphalt path and running track that goes around the barracks, beyond the railings of the waterfront, a loaf of bread left out. Bread cast to the sea. This is my body. Let me in.

lighthouse-another-angle

The anthropodal pier divides the waters: outside, the wider sea is thudding; crashing against the massive breakwater rocks, it boils up in foam; for an instant the stones get a sheen of a mirror’s silvering when water runs off them. It is impossible to decide the colour of the waves, their green glass side looks engraved, black looms in the hollows. There are many first-rate landscape painters on whose canvases the air is in movement, trembles, vibrates, but the sea has no truly good painter. Those who paint it mostly paint the reflections on the sky, on the landscape, in the air, of its tumultuous change of consistency. The great Dutch sea-painters paint ships first and foremost: convoluted knots and prow ornaments, forests of masts and sails to disentangle. Their sea is an embossed tapestry background. On the protected side the taut water surface mixed from turquoise and jasper is in still movement, it is no mere defoamed mini-sea smoothed out into a monumental pool. In the late afternoon a couple of porpoises venture into it. The breakwater rocks are patches of blotting paper in the glaring light, their porous surface retains all the reflections of the blue-white.

On the shore, the cathedral. They had to mark the place with a sign that is not dwarfed, not ridiculed by the distance measured in the horizon. Stone bread cast to the sea. Its cornice is something rich and strange, a gigantic frieze that could easily belong to an ancient temple’s architrave, were it not for the animal faces serving as its consoles. The sky rising from the cornice dilutes blue paint in sky water. It gathers in the white, the air around fills up with electric discharges. Immediately below on the corner, white glows. The interior is traversed by light as if by a magnetic wind, from the spokes of the rose window that starts spinning in the light like a pinwheel, to the apse that opens one sole, giant window to the east, onto the sea. One cannot tell which is the true façade, the one with the winged bronze door, or the one with the giant window looking out on the sea. The coast towns line up the Romanesque headquarters of light which turn their apse windows flanked by elephant-borne columns, their most precious ornament, to levante. It is not the relics and likenesses, but the light that is their holiest possession: the incessantly showering, radioactive light that solidifies into a block in the upward and forward propelling space, and which casts white shadows on the white walls.

gargoyles-trani

Like most of Apulia’s cathedrals, this one, too, was restored “back” in style in the 1920s–30s, into homogeneous Romanesque, the crust of late Baroque (here, ottocento, antiquated even in its own time) stucco theatre wings, concave windows, boisterous statuary peeled off its rose windows, capitals, sculpted portals. Elsewhere, once the skins covering one another are removed, the spaces left behind are sterile, school textbook-like, and restoration turns out to have been retouching: against the intent to restitution, it is not their original, hidden life that buildings reveal, but the empty place of time, the imperishable and unbreathing would-be-alabaster china skin of fake eternity. But here everything is breathing: the wide-open-eyed animals of the capitals, the spoglio columns brought here from Roman buildings, the inscribed steles built into the walls, the stone folds. The church is like the archaic Greek statues: we know that they had inlaid pupils and were painted over, yet for us it is the whiteness of marble that drives time back into them. It is light that returns the erased gaze into Trani’s white, uncovered eyeball that now gleams in all its power: the wall is a scripted membrane through which time oozes in and out. The only ornament of the triumphal arch before the crossing is a fragment of the cornice’s stone frieze running around the building outside: da capo repetition without closure. Every view of the building is in balance, unalterable, yet stirs like the statues that can never be entirely reduced to canons. White painted on white, coloured exclamation mark between the upper and lower blue: the flocks of retired French and German Kulturtouristen are beautified when it shines its face upon them.

cathedral-trani

The towns’ cells precipitate themselves on the promontories that jut out into the sea. The city walls and the Norman, Hohenstaufen castles pointing the acute angles of their bastions radially outwards at the outer world cannot deceive: above, around, next to them every side, flank of the city, all its profiles overlooking the sea are hollowed out into ovals, amphitheatre audiences whose fourth wall is the immense sea. They are sails offering themselves up to the light: stitched to the odd tumescence of land, the facades along the coast fold back, carve in, are constantly capitulating to light, willingly uncovering their soft parts. The concave little squares are tubular flowers, light vibrates on the wood of their closed shutters like on the inside of an eyelid. The mouths of the little streets, vicoli, flare seaward like estuaries, it is the tidal waves of light that carved them out. The hour of the day, the changing sky mixes the colour of the walls: every house, every window a Danae, their encounter with the light no tucked-away, inane secret of state, but an event that can only manifest in the undisguised.

To rest in this light yet. Ask for delay every day: a few more southern days, to harry the last sunbeams through the flesh.

lido-bella-venezia

Above the angel wings flapping over the fallen in the world wars, the parrot-rackety, tropical enclave of the Giardini Pubblici extends its throbbing fervor. Below the seaside alley’s balustrades a wooden pavilion built directly on the water, its vacuity spells out more than season’s end. Above its flat roofs is written with oversize letters, Lido Bella Venezia – Ristorante Bar Pizzeria. The landscape makes the planking’s grating sky-blue pale, as it does with the phantom image of Venetian pizza and lagoon-colour canals meant to be seductive. All around, beauty sits on the view with such immovable matter-of-factness as the cathedral’s weight on the pages of the sea-sky. Its slender vertical gravity balances the inexhaustible horizontal. Above the pavilion’s flat roof four poles reach up into empty space: turned-up bar stool placed on the table after closing time. Below, the clean-swept water surface is waiting for the opening.

—Erika Mihálycsa

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Erika Mihalycsa

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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.

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Feb 112017
 

Mark Jay Mirsky

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

x

He stepped out of an imposing limestone hall in the streets between the New York Public Library and Rockefeller Center. He was in a corridor of private clubs, one of the last remnants of a handsome 20th-century midtown Manhattan aping the 19th, where a book party was ending for a woman he had not seen in ten years.

Surprised by the invitation, fingering the creamy paper of the envelope containing it as he entered the hall, still he reasoned, book parties are not exclusive social gatherings, though it was addressed in broad loops under the postal stamp in the blue ink of a fountain pen. Publishers want at all costs to fill a space where reviewers or agents for the movies may be lurking.

The invitation was in his breast pocket. Under the gold embossed print was a brief note in the author’s hand, “Dear Harry . . .” expressing the hope that he would attend. Gale’s book had not been published under her married name.

She was tall, imposing. Watching her strong back, broad hips, the thrust in her breasts, he had imagined what it might be like to encounter her in bed, to lie under a woman from the professional world of Manhattan. In her presence he felt short, diminutive, an amateur. At the party, circulating through the crowed, he recognized editors who determine the rise and fall of reputations. Something had urged him to come, but he saw that he was invisible to men and women who, when he was reviewing for newspapers with a national reach, gave him a respectful greeting. Gale, though, greeted him with a warm hello and he followed her around the room for ten or fifteen minutes, close to her elbow. After that the writer knew his presence would become obnoxious.

Gale’s husband was dedicated to social causes, also a legal scholar, writing essays difficult not to respect. Her husband had become engaged to Gale shortly after the writer had first met her. This had inhibited Harry’s thoughts about Gale under her clothes.

He had paused in the doorway leaving, feeling the chill air, before going out. He could turn back to where the book party was winding down. If he did tease her, would she slap him or be flattered? Seeing his age in a head of hair that had turned from pepper to white, the circles under his eyes, he recalled his first stare at her sharp, handsome features, the hectic flush in her cheeks. Was it twelve years before?

He set his shoe down on the cold sidewalk, swept of snow but treacherous in icy, early March; pausing to face a red brick façade across the street—the Harvard Club. The college was his alma mater.

At the party, a woman well tanned but breezy, firmly attached by a regime of exercise to the visual line between thirty-nine and forty, (but possibly seven years older), had noted his threadbare college tie emblazoned with Latin in its shields—Veritas. She asked, as if he were flaunting the association, “Do you belong to the Harvard Club?”

“I can’t afford it,” he answered, the edge of his mouth curling into his cheek, “Just the tie.”

Observing that she shifted her attention at this, turning away, he was free to listen as she began to talk with Gail, whom he had been standing beside for ten minutes or so. He knew no one well enough in the imposing space to go up and start chatting but he followed the movements of this confident, and he guessed successful professional, her trim, well-muscled backside. Was she an agent, an editor, a publicist? From the fragments of the conversation in the noisy room, an identity was hard to construct. “I’m Jewish but I drink,” he heard her say. As she wheeled on her high heels in svelte black slacks, he caught her goodbye.

“Your husband is so thin,” she barked.

“Yes,” Gail agreed.

With a pang, he saw the woman disappear in the crowd. His quip had cost him his existence in her eyes.

x

Facing the brick propriety of the Harvard Club he saw a familiar face, coming out, mocking, ironic, then looking through him, and walking away before he could identify her. Was it the editor of a review that had consistently rejected his stories? The Harvard Club—that was another world. What had happened to his early prospects? He felt as if back in the hall where the party was ending, as he had faded out of the woman’s eyes, a death sentence had been pronounced upon him.

Gale, how much he had been attracted to Gale, despite the sour shake of her head. The brusque, self-assured carriage that she brought from the snobbish world of her college campus; her slightly disheveled appearance at times, her disapproval of his manners, which reminded him of his mother; made him think there might be a link between them. She was statuesque but distant even as a woman in her early twenties. His former wife had once remarked on Galen as “belonging to the past century.”

“Exactly,” he had assented over their breakfast. Galen looked like one of the imposing carved figureheads that coasted the pages of Henry James and Edith Wharton; not their confused naive heroines, but the stiff, starched cousins, whose proper behavior and choices set the rules that heroines are born to break.

He had met Galen, or Gale (as her name had been fixed in his head), at a Jewish Studies Conference in Boston. It was a gathering he usually avoided; a place for specialists, and self-promoters, with panels and lectures on fine points of history, rabbinic learning, Hebrew or Yiddish linguistics. He was interested in many of the subjects but clichés of criticism were rife and with a tenured position at a college, he wasn’t hunting employment. Galen Edwards now Mussorgsky had attended a panel discussion, which he was induced by an old friend to join. Its subject was the possibility of establishing an American Jewish canon. The members of the panel were assembled almost at the last moment, and not listed correctly in the Association’s booklet of events.

He recognized among the participants as they gathered for a hasty session beforehand, a man whose articles celebrated the new lights of the Holocaust industry. He had awarded paeans to several “emerging” writers, whose work was hopelessly thin. With a sinking feeling, Harry sat down at the “planning” lunch to map out an outline for their discussion. The food at the famous Seafood restaurant proved insipid. A skinny sliver of cod loin, contrary to the waitress’s reassurance—“fresh”—had either been taken from a freezer in the frenzy of lunchtime lines or over baked. “Kafka’s cod,” he joked to the company about the mealy fish steak. They looked at him, puzzled, “Eaten by the worms of anxiety.”

The editor seated with them, paying for the lunch, was complacent. No one complained over the plates and as a guest Harry didn’t want to send it back. Earlier he had flirted with the waitress. Distracted by her and the fish, he had not followed the conversation about the seminar’s planning. Joining it now, he found he was not to present a paper he had prepared. His friend, a scholar whose work was respected in the academic bureaucracy, had scanned the paper, said it was fine but between forkfuls, the chair of the panel ruled “Not on topic. Speak spontaneously.”

Earlier, he had been told to speak on the theme of a novel, which had won him his college appointment. It had challenged the clichés of the social critics who were predominant in the academic field. A Crazy Jew, Not Like You had a brief life getting mixed reviews in the national newspapers and literary journals but then faded from view.

He had written other novels, and books on the irrational, but none of them had won him much attention. Now working on a study of female devils in contemporary literature, he had hoped to simply read a few of this manuscript’s pages.

He suspected that it would never find a university press or trade publisher. He had conceived of a book into which he could disappear. Not just a commentary on older books but one in which its author lost himself like the Zohar’s author, seeking mystical union with the Unknown. He invented a world where narrators were taken up by a dangerous female presence fluttering over the universe. He linked Franz Kafka’s obsessions with women to Biblical heroines, spoke of the Jewish writers whose mothers were prostitutes, insane matriarchs, feminist “bitches” and succubae.

His friend had a sense of humor, and loved a good joke. But the panel’s chair, with a flat Mid-Western voice, interrupted his friend’s plea for the prepared pages. It was far a-field from a canon. “No paper,” Harry was warned, but the chair encouraged the writer to go over some of the ideas ad hoc. “Be spontaneous!” Spontaneity meant hours before the seminar making notes, unpalatable bits of fish grinding away in his stomach.

He did finally sway majority opinion at lunch on the fish, “Yes, yes,” they agreed, “awful”—cleaning their plates. Otherwise excluded, he went to a corridor of the hotel to find a chair and try to make an outline for an irrational “Jewish” canon.

At the seminar table he found himself assigned the last slot. The panelists droned on. Halfway through, two critics in the audience whose recent work he admired, filed out. “Come back!” but he tried to cry but stifled it. Depression fixed him to his folding chair. Only five or six people were in the seats by the end. As he spoke, his words sounded random and senseless in his own ears.

His eyes lighted on a young woman in the second row of seats. He clung to whatever her attention he could perceive. In the question period no one asked him anything but gathered up coats and scurried away. Dashing out of the room, to avoid apologizing to his friend, who lingered, he saw an impressive back and waist, a female form. It swayed in the lobby’s crowd as if detached from John Singer Sargent’s portraits of Boston debutantes. Strands of auburn hair fell over her shoulder. He caught up and touched an elbow.

“You were at my seminar,” he blurted.

Without waiting for an acknowledgment, he began a monologue mocking his own remarks at the seminar.

She did not disagree but interrupted him to single out one pronouncement of his with which she agreed. When asked for her reaction to the other speakers, instead of answering, she turned and left him standing under the ceiling of the hotel lobby.

Was she twenty-three, twenty-four? He had forgotten even to ask her name. Too far now for him to follow he watched her swim away into the crowd.

x

He was sitting at her elbow the next evening. “Do you know Gale?” his host, a professor at Harvard, asked, motioning Harry to a place beside her at a crowded supper table set for a dozen guests in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, restaurant.

“Are you Gale?” he asked.

“Gale, Galen, whatever you like best.”

She wasn’t, it seemed, Jewish, and that made her presence at the conference even more interesting.

“What do you do?” he asked.

She was a reporter for a major American newspaper, even though she was barely out of college.

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As he turned from the red brick front on the opposite side of the street, leaving the book party behind, the opaque mirror of limestone and glazed crimson brick in the Harvard Club’s front seemed to reflect his tie, frayed at the edges. Veritas? Gale, now, forever Galen, a friendly but distant professional, had been more than attentive to him at her party than he deserved. Given the high-powered circle around her, however she seemed to be sailing into their horizons.

Why was that painful? What did he want from her? He grasped at the thought of a much younger woman whom he had met a few months ago.

Over forty years separated them. The girl, only nineteen or twenty, had recently met with him in his position as editor of a small journal he continued to edit despite the waning of his career as a writer. She wished to discuss a piece she wanted to submit. It would be about myth and the sex life of Jewish women in religious worlds. In her eyes a streak of green ribbon darted out points of orange. She had laughed, puckering her lips as if teasing him, then told a story about an older man, her teacher—a rabbi in a religious high school, who molested her.

Reliving the moment it seemed, she spoke about the paralysis that gripped her as the rabbi’s hands began to wander. He reached under her blouse, into her pants. When the young woman finished, the silence in the air was charged. Harry had been unprepared for this when he asked her to meet him in a coffee shop, curious about what she might submit.

“No,” he admitted, taking one step after another over the icy sidewalk, afraid to slip and lose his balance. He had been more curious as to the person who would write the essay. Catching sight of her at the coffee shop in the blue denim jacket and dungarees, she told him she would be wearing, his heart stopped. She looked like a teenager. He was momentarily shaken into a state of vertigo, dizzy, afraid to meet her eyes, trying to take in the rest of her in the booth where she crouched as he slid in against the bolster on the opposite side.

How was it that she so quickly shared that story with him? A question kept running through his head when he got up to leave an hour later. Did she feel that he was attracted, even before she told him the anecdote whose purpose he started puzzling over later? Was it a warning shot across his advancing bow, or a provocation to come on faster? She touched him but it was not her body that was spinning him around but an idea.

x

Anger distorted her face as the girl had told about leaving the rabbi’s study, seeing the rebbitzin, his wife, washing dishes in the kitchen, pretending, the young woman said, bitterly, not to notice her agitation.

Who was she describing? Was there a rabbi?

He felt the magnetism this girl was exerting as she left, seeing himself against her in the flesh. Was that “bad” trying to imagine what she looked like without her clothes?

He wondered if she could imagine him looking at her.

How did she see him?

Was she setting up a trap? Did his caution mean he was he losing the force of a curiosity that had guided him to the worlds of platonic forms? Was he now just one of them”?

“I thought of him as my grandfather.” Her wriggle against the bolster of her booth’s seat back had stopped. She stiffened, displaced her smile. She stared as if daring him to stare back. Had the thought of physical penetration become worse than the taboo against commission? Was the act irrelevant if the thought had been committed? Was this the cursed life of angels when they rebelled in the story of the Flood?

x

He quickened his step outside the Harvard Club as the image of the girl who had come to see him slipped away.

What did he want? The stoplight at Forty Second Street, which separated the professor from the stream of traffic, brought him to a halt. The glaze of ice on the asphalt reflected nothing but he was conscious in this dark, slick surface of his body. He had lost some weight since his fifties. What did he look like? Teasing an undergraduate about his weight loss several years ago, he had asked, only half joking, “Aren’t I more attractive.”

“No,” she snapped. “You’re old. Aren’t you still married?”

Could the life he had constructed out of books answer what he wanted? And what was that intimacy which he brushed against in pages and sometimes in the faces of others?

“You are too naked,” his former wife had told him when he complained, a decade before, of his inability to speak with colleagues at the college. That nakedness, of course, had led him to behavior, which exhausted her patience. He saw himself in her clear blue eyes as a willful child, “You pay no attention to other people.”

Was that so? “You can be,” she admitted, “generous, attentive, but only because you feel that way, not because you see that whomever you are speaking to wishes for your attention.” Then his wife added, “Or that they want to articulate thoughts of their own.”

He stopped at the curb. He had paid attention to his teachers, and the older scholars he had befriended, their whispers out of the classroom, in the corners of comfortable, living rooms, He had collected stories of nakedness, forbidden unions—the annals of wife swapping sects of Turkish Jews, experiments with multiple unions through Polish towns, the far reaches of Hungary, Romania, villages beyond Prague—not merely for pleasure but in breaking a taboo, to go naked, to touch?

The rabbis were men of flesh. Yes, cautionary tales follow on the heels of breaking the law. Chaos sweeps up those who search for the Messianic when the universe will be remolded—that moment in Creation when matter separates, worlds divide, the rules of order still unset. Genesis’s first moment is cataclysm. Still, between the lines lurk a quixotic encouragement to overturn, to disorder—the Talmud’s adage, “Without evil there is no perfect service.”

What is the slight divide between a young woman now and my own adolescence; time is relative according to Einstein? And if I could go back in time, how far back? Would I travel to the abyss before the Beginning?

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Do I in fact exist?

If I do, though disintegrating, the myth is to draw an angel into one’s arms, wrestle with it until ribs and tendons are exchanged; not boxed, wrapped in tinsel. Celan’s cry, “Über dich, Offene, trag ich dich mir zu.” Through you, Open ones, I bear you to me.”

One of the purveyors of the hip, the editor of a magazine New Judaism had crossed Harry’s path several years before when he was still being solicited to write about books. “Jazz it up,” she suggested after he sent his first draft in. He was reviewing an academic tome on the origins of mystical fantasies the mysteries of Lilith among medieval Jews.

“Jazz up a female Devil?” he asked. No one had previously required him to revise, not prominent newspapers or academic journals.

“You know—make her ‘hot’!”

He put down the phone, stunned but on the tip of his tongue, “Give me a lesson?” Like Gale the editor was tall, with an imposing body and a way of moving that attracted the eyes of every man in the room, though her voice had the grating accent of the Long Island Jewish mafia. He had snapped the remark back between his teeth. Would it amuse her—to be brazen? And why did he so frantically want to please while stung by her attitude?

x

“Why aren’t you funny, anymore?” a student had asked in his last class at the university. She was from New Jersey and had written a paper on the implications of hairstyle among suburban high school princesses. She had read his first book where good-natured laughter had made an impression that once had won him attention.

“What I found funny at your age, I can’t return to,” he answered. “What strikes me as comic now, after the death of my parents; after a career watching idiots advance, mediocrity triumph . . .” paused, but then said it, waiting to hear if she would react “a divorce.” After a moment of silence in which he could detect nothing from the expression on her face, he finished his sentence, “is different.”

She came to class in a skirt with a slit up its side, midway between her knee and her waist, a window of opportunity for someone as she tossed the ringlets of her long hair like a curtain, to the side. Does one have a right to desire her? And what did he desire?

x

He turned to the story of Dante, who was not afraid to characterize himself as lecherous. The poet speaks of Beatrice’s eyes, whose light seems to touch him.

Still teetering at the curb, he wondered again about that woman, the editor, coming out of the Harvard Club, who seemed for a moment a double of the one who asked about his tie. Again the girl he had met a few weeks ago appeared to stare with an invitation into his eyes.

x

A former student of Harry’s, responding to his whining when she called to inquire about him, had offered an interview. She occasionally placed articles on a Web site about Jewish topics. “What are you seeking for in your books?” she read from a sheet when they met at his favorite coffee shop,.

He grasped for a formula that would be more than a vacuous generality. He named writers who had influenced his work. She broke into his catalogue, asking, “What did you find in those books?”

“I found voices that spoke to me.”

“What does that mean?”

“Take Dante trying to answer Beatrice’s accusation that he has been unfaithful.”

“You keep quoting books written from a male perspective. Your putative author of the Zohar, Moses de Leon, used women as the portal to sexual congress with Divinity as a mere vehicle of male passion.”

“You think that all things are sexual,” she added, smiling but with a faint pout of disapproval in her full mouth, cherry red, bright with newly applied lipstick.”

“Up to this point, sexual desire has been my most powerful experience of the ecstatic. To be swept up beyond your own self when voices speak through you is even more electric, overwhelming when you write.”

“It is the unhappy truth,” he continued, staying on topic—since she had come to demand an accounting for his “male perspective”— “that these are the books of men but they are also the imaginings of men and women. Dante had a wife, children, but he imagined a woman, Beatrice, who imagined him. A man becomes what a woman imagines him to be and so the woman becomes what the man imagines. Mystical union is impossible without that union in imagination through which they pass into each other.”

What does she make of that? he wondered as she smiled, picking up her notebook. They exchanged a polite, goodbye. She had been the brightest student in his class through several semesters. Who did she imagine he was?

x

He had tried to speak about these matters to the young woman wrestling with her rabbi against the booth, adolescence clinging to her. “What we imagine is real. Did Dante sleep with Beatrice? Almost all the scholars deny it and yet Beatrice tells Dante, ‘Never did nature or art present you / with a pleasure equal to the beautiful limbs in which I / was enclosed…’ How explicit can a courteous poet be? Dante is told he cannot have the body of Beatrice until The Last Judgment. He goes blind in Paradise when he is told this.” He wanted to ask, “Would you have been angry if the rabbi had only imagined making love to you? Was it the idea or the real touch of his fingers that appalled you?”

The professor had stared into her green eyes instead, and said, quietly, “Dante’s only hope for another consummation of adultery will be the day after the final sentencing.”

The young woman exchanged a smile as he whispered across the table. “Yet he is told he can ‘touch’ her through light, the light in her eyes.”

Only it was not only Beatrice Dante had desired, just as it was not Gale, or this girl, who he wanted to find on the sidewalk.

Only one woman had ever reconstituted herself through light in his imagination. Dante was afraid to mention her and like the poet, he shied away from that thought and once again summoned another image. It was Freud who understood Dante, poet and lover of the mother.

x

Why had he teased the girl about “touch”? Was he asking for trouble? After their meeting she sent in an essay was called, “Legend of the Patriarch, study in Lechery.” She had addressed it at the magazine to him. She was only a few years from the incidents she described. In the essay she had called into question the behavior of the Biblical Abraham through his final years. As an editor he didn’t see how he could publish it and yet he was loath to break off contact.

x

“Why did you write me?” he had asked the young woman, after they had introduced each other at the coffee shop.

“I read your article.”

Yes he remembered it. Frustrated by his inability to place “Age, Eros and the Dream of Time” anywhere else, he had broken a rule and published it in his own magazine.”

Now, on the cold corner, he wondered. Did you come to meet Abraham or your grandfather? And if it was the old patriarch, you imagined, what did you want?

A part of love is loyalty, he thought. One turns to hide against the breasts or breast of the beloved, as a refuge from both the world, and the fear of death; to twist desire into a dream of flight to another world. To escape in metamorphosis into another body . . . ?

What did the rabbi want from the girl, and what did she want from him? Her story of seeking another life was complex. Was she fleeing a family, a dangerous patriarch, or looking for the disinterested love of another one?

x

“Tell me that I exist!” It was craven, but he wanted to cry, “Desire me!”

Was it possible to be desired through a whole life? Would children have changed him? Was that the true conduit for desire?

He recalled the lines of Yeats, who had evoked the other woman from whose shadows Beatrice had taken shape.

Being mocked by Guido, for his lecherous life
Derided and deriding, driven out
To climb the stair and eat that bitter bread
He found the unpersuadable justice, he found
The most exalted lady loved by man

And a moment later, about to cross the street, he wondered why, apart from the evening’s reception, the verse summoned Galen.

She had lost that fragile edge he and his wife had noted— adolescence blossoming into womanhood with hardly an awkward moment. Despite the whirl of recognition, publicity, in the hall behind him, he suspected it wasn’t a career, but babies to whom she would give her breasts, thighs, and the last glimmer of power as he had imagined her, “that fierce virgin,” fading.

It was . . . He stopped again, noting the danger—traffic was heavy.

x

Gale was still handsome, but at the reception she had whispered, happily that she was expecting. She was passing, content, into child bearing and where she might forget a career. It was only in that friend’s cruel eye on his tie that he had felt a searching intensity, a desire that touched him with light from a world of fantasies.

x

The father in Kafka’s story “The Judgment” sees his son’s sexual interest in anyone else as a betrayal of the mother. “Because she lifted up her skirts,” the old man mocks, referring to his son’s girlfriend; disgusted by the sight of a woman’s vulva. Kafka and his friends thought this very funny but the writer set the accusation down and was never able to marry. Harry paused about to take the last steps into the street, as if his mother could hear him, “Who am I?

“Is life an idea, a leap forward to find that flash of light, sun burst that it escaped from but now wishes to fix in the disintegrating matter of the universe? Can I escape into a book and lie there waiting for the embrace of another to take flesh again?”

Does what we do write in the universe? Do we write only in our bodies and those of others? Spinoza thought that in the ocean of being our experience inscribes itself on matter? Does it matter? The pun asks—are matter’s components indestructible, do they face extinction in a black hole? Before the Big Bang and after the last whimper, does anything matter?

An old man or woman’s fantasies—leagues away from the girl, Gale caught up in the publicity of a first book, or children. Who is real at this moment, Galen, the girl, my wife?

I am stepping into Kafka’s suicidal point, he thought, recalling the end of The Judgment. The son grasps the railing of a bridge, its traffic “just starting up,” cheerfully accepting a father’s verdict: “I sentence you to death!” Kafka read this to friends who burst into roars of amusement, rolled on the floor. “‘Dear parents, I have always loved you all the same,’ and let himself drop.” At that moment, Harry heard Manhattan’s unending stream of traffic blare. The light changed and he and his thoughts dropped into it.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School and Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob, was a bestseller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009 as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: “A Satire to Decay.” He edited the English language edition of the diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies and The Jews of Pinsk Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, and Jane Delynn, and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.
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Feb 102017
 

sonnet-l'abbe

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These three poems are a selection from Sonnet L’Abbé’s current book project — Sonnet’s Shakespeare — an “erasure-by-crowding” in which she overwrites or “colonizes” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

I make prosey poems you’d have to erase to find Shakespeare again. Think of the blank page as a territory I want to live on, and Shakespeare’s sonnet as culture I find already there, where I want to be. I don’t stress: I just patiently occupy the space, letter by letter, in between and all around the letters of that first nation until you can’t see it anymore. But it’s still all there, each letter of Shakespeare’s poem, in order, inside mine. The whole thing’s an analogy for colonialization.

— Sonnet L’Abbé, in an interview published in Partisan, August 18, 2015.

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XXXIX

O holy night, what should my words do at this wishful time? Humans want their Charismatic Day. I sing when night thoughts star the dark familiar holiday theatre. A better poet’s art softens me when that cynical enmity threatens to make me disown praise. A poet whose mind frees its owned self brings a kindness I wish for, that isn’t about making sincerity shows for occasion. When Emily praised, the space between her verbs opened onto formless, ethereal consciousness and let us drift above its depths. Would that William’s verse animated our dinner conversations, or that his love’s eloquence seeped into family get-togethers! If only Gertrude’s jingles were intoned in the malls! People might buy back their lost selves, by paying visionary attention. Tonight may I give that sweet duende to those sad-hearted, whose gifts reach out hopefully toward undeserving takers. Christmas loneliness mourns the absence of fellowship that wants story and meaning, of kin that would strengthen our practice of love. We gather together to imitate a normal family that hardly exists, but our likenesses find pleasure in comforting avoidance, in taking sweet leave together from commitments. There are those happy families, resembling each other, whose intimacies we either inhabit or have to struggle to achieve. The rest of us love awkwardly, shoving purchases at family members, adding and subtracting from the account of our generosity. These poems delight a sensibility so sweet and acutely seldom cultivated, that despite their craft and expensive inspiration, they do not charm most of the fellow humans I treasure. Couldn’t the sonnet be how to make an occasion felt? What if instead of buying, we praised in mad flyting the epic mystery of our togetherness? Brother, for whom I stupidly forgot to purchase a thing, let this evidence of your gift prove your mattering to me.

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LXXII

Hole was the mother, fucking. Women smashed. Pennyroyal tea drunks holding out for rupture. Loud substance, a fuck-you for teens to recite—what mess, a pre-Ritalin smellivision, a neediness murderess. Alt-bitch beauty contusions. Housewife on ludes. Love, after Grammy nods, after Kurt’s death—dogeared Love is on the floor, getting media requests. Little Frances is in Vogue. Prove your authentic pop-metal contempt, affect a high-energy nothingness, swore the nineties. Apathy approves the tuneless melody of fucked-up. Washington punk grrrls dated peevish boymen whose fuckboy mentality trivialized grrrls’ true hardcore sound. Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile do more for me now than mainstream frontwomanned crews like Veruca Salt did – I was innocent, awkward, hanging around more popular party girls who threw up on boyfriends’ records, who teased Rollins boys with ambition. Niggaz barely registered in the truth-wound of plaid thrill-will; Fishbone’s singles played in campus late rotations but let’s face it: Olympia’s revolutionary sluts were acutely pale. Overanalyzing grunge may seem false, but its nevermind ethos informs the anti-sympathy humours of today’s hipster disinclinations. Its alternative to the spoiled, makework eighties rocked Billboard but felt meaningful and true—or maybe my nostalgia just remembers Bikini Kill subculture with more foreshadow than it deserves. My body, having dissociated the anger Dickless expletived, had faith no more but could thrash shame in mosh pits. No one ever mentioned riot grrrls’ lyrics to us, lines full of rape gripes and mock slut-shame. College douchebags played 7 Year Bitch’s anti-patriarchy CDs while coercing frosh virgins; bros being bros before there was a name for such dudes. How shocking that we could be yelling that loud, yet be so Lovelied, mouthing screams like sweet nothings we weren’t worth.

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LXXVIII

The son of the father vanquishes the villain; the values spoken in undertones heretofore, now mighty: multiculturalism, liberalism, a blonde wife. Don’t misunderstand; I’m much relieved, less fearful of this heir than his predecessor. A critical stance in my verse was evidence of my contrary, alien penchant to that government; my words could be used against me. Order under the Trudeau theocracy will, surely, return poesy to its sponsored position? Poetry was once the nation’s keen mythbuilder, the stuff that taught the dumb Ontario high school kids to sing Acorn. Today what earnest verse can stay the ignorance algorithmically grafted into our flag-flying psyche? What kid grieves Canada’s debt to Sacred Feathers? In Toronto the liberal aura now reddens the right wing. I wake and give thanks to unknown grace that Canada’s troubled majesty’s government might yet be most proud of its Charter. The lines which I compose can register less war-whoop, less policed influence. “It’s two thousand fifteen” is the comeback from the golden child, born of the father, who includes mothers and wows dorks. I’ve been the brown mug for do-good leftists before; my trust wants mending, with more than style and nods to the arts. With defaced faith I try to answer to the poet’s grace and sing the braced heart’s belief in the boys’ clubs’ better natures. I’m Cohen’s ohm, saying Joshu was a rapist. I’m Duncan Campbell Scott’s masculinity, articulating Canada’s id. I’m those boys’ meritocratic ideal, my self-governance as highbrow as Literature’s. How now, Justin? How savage are my rude designs on your inheritance?

—Sonnet L’Abbé

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Sonnet L’Abbé is the author of A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, and was the 2014 guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry. Her first chapbook, Anima Canadensis, came out from Junction Books on November 19, 2016 at the “Meet the Press” Indie Literary Market in Toronto. L’Abbé lives on Vancouver Island and is a professor of creative writing at Vancouver Island University.

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Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

 

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As a young man, Daniel Green had hopes for academic criticism, but as this excerpt — take from his essay “Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” — shows, he had to set those hopes aside, as more and more academic criticism tended to subordinate literature to political and theoretical agendas. Later, weblogs, too, disappointed him because they pursued sensational or trendy books instead of considering literary works in depth. —Jeff Bursey

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I aspired to become an academic critic precisely because so much general interest criticism was focused on the “mushy middle” of literary fiction and avoided the books I was most interested in reading. Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers (some journals concentrated exclusively on such writers) and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews. Academic criticism no longer manifests these virtues, however. It is as agenda-ridden as literary journalism, although its agenda emphasizes a different kind of propriety, the propriety of political and cultural analysis (in its way similar to the kind of analysis favored by the New York Intellectuals). And while academic journals continue to offer longer and more sustained commentary, this commentary is more concerned with context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former. Academic criticism of contemporary fiction no longer provides a more rigorous, expansive, open-minded alternative to the popular reviewing media. For text-based criticism, the general interest book review is what we’re stuck with.

At one time I held out hope that the “literary weblog” would provide a plausible alternative to print book reviewing. I still think that, in theory and potential, blogs could still be perfectly good sources of serious literary criticism. There is nothing in the nature of the cyber medium that precludes the blog from being the publishing vehicle for serious writing of any kind. If serious critics, facing the likely demise of newspaper and magazine reviewing in the not distant future, turn to the cyber/blogosphere as an available substitute, literary criticism will flourish well enough. Such book reviewing sites as The Quarterly Conversation and Full Stop have already demonstrated that online reviewing can be just as credible as print reviewing, in many cases going far beyond, both in length and in critical heft, what is offered in all but the most studious general interest print publications. They are also much more likely to cover experimental and translated works and books from independent presses, which are at best sporadically reviewed in mainstream print book review sections. Unfortunately, it cannot at this point be said that the literary blog has validated hopes it might sustain a form of general interest criticism that could replace, perhaps even surpass, what is left of print criticism. There are indeed some very good literary blogs offering worthwhile criticism, but on the whole the literary blogosphere has become largely an echo chamber for book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective. Literary blogs have become not an alternative to the established critical order but part and parcel of it.

Those blogs now calling themselves “book blogs” in particular have pledged themselves to this order. Mostly devoted to superficial appraisals of potboilers and best-sellers, these blogs actively seek to be conduits of publishing propaganda (in the guise of “promoting” books). They have apparently become the most popular type of “literary” blog, and if “book blog” eventually becomes the name applied mostly to such weblogs, the future of literary criticism online is bleak indeed. But even those still self-identifying as “literary blogs” have settled in to an overly cozy relationship with both publishers and the print reviewing media. (Many of the bloggers have themselves sought out reviewing opportunities in the print media, as if the ultimate purpose of creating a literary blog was after all to attract enough attention to catch on as a newspaper reviewer). While in general one does get from literary blogs a fuller sense of the diversity of fiction available to readers (more emphasis on independent presses) than from the print book reviews, too many of the posts devoted to specific books are discussions of the newest and hottest from mainstream publishers. Much time is spent obsessing over lists of various inane kinds (the Top 10 ____), and in preoccupation with prizes, the dispensing of which apparently substitutes for criticism absent the real thing.

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its fifteen seconds. The more potential readers come to assume that this is the main function of lit blogs, the less likely it is that the literary blogosphere will have any lasting importance. Literary blogs might let you know who reviewed what in the New York Times, but that The New York Times might not be the best place to go for intelligent writing about books is not something they’ll have the authority to suggest.

—Daniel Green

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Daniel Green is a literary critic and sometime fiction writer. His reviews, critical essays, and fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, both online and in print. He has a Ph.D focusing on postwar American fiction and an M.A. in creative writing. His website is http://www.thereadingexperience.net/tre/

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Feb 102017
 

Dan Green

When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout he is a combatant, if an unwilling one. —Jeff Bursey

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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism
Daniel Green
Cow Eye Press, 2017
$14.95; 150 pages

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Introduction


Many readers of critical writing and attendees of literary conferences will have been either treated or subjected to this or that paper where the literary tail of theory wags the dog of an abject author. The image is more apt when it’s changed to theory having between its slavering jaws the corpse of a work of art, or the corpus of an artist, that will be softened by Gallic or Slavic salivary glands, masticated by deconstruction, postcolonial or queer theory until it becomes digestible matter, followed by its voiding. It’s uncommon in books of criticism nowadays to not encounter references to some or all of the following: Adorno, Althusser, Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, Blanchot, Cixous, Deleuze and/or Guattari, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, le Man, Shklovsky, and Wittgenstein. What these figures focus on, as do those who cite them, dispute with them, rely on them, and build upon their foundations, is theory, not literature, which has become a resource to provide examples that upholds the Weltanschauung of the theorist. “To the extent that the kind of focus on the ‘literary’ qualities of poetry and fiction, that is, on those qualities that make them first of all works of art,” says Daniel Green in Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, “for which I advocate has been dismissed as old-fashioned or superficial, new books are in danger of receiving only the most cursory notice, the most uncritical celebration or ‘takedown,’ otherwise left to fade into future obscurity.” Without dwelling on the experience of my own reviewing, I’ll simply say that I recognize his spirit as the mark of someone conscious he is writing outside the mainstream as embodied, for Green, in such venues as New York Times Book Review, The National Review, and New York Review of Books (regardless of their political leanings), but not in The Quarterly Conversation (or, I would add, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and Rain Taxi, each offering alternative points of view of little-discussed books or fields of study).

At times that first group of journals—one could include the TLS and the London Review of Books—“regard contemporary literature simply as material, sometimes ammunition, sometimes a target, to be employed in the ongoing culture war.” (66) A pirate navigating waterways ruled by this or that thalassocracy, Green nails his colours to the mast:

Readers and critics are perfectly entitled to regard literary works in any way they want, of course, but to deliberately avoid initially engaging with them for their artistic value—the value with which their creators presumably most resolutely attempted to invest them—seems hardly in keeping with the animating purpose of literature as a form of expression. Perhaps readers need not seek out what Nabokov insisted on calling “aesthetic bliss” (although why not?), but that a work of literature might in fact produce such bliss would seem to be a fact about it that a literary critic, at any rate, should need to account for.

The method Green has found that best brings out the literary aspect of a work, and what, in part, makes him think he may be “old-fashioned,” is New Criticism. Not a blind adherence to it, however, for he has the flexibility to modify it and allow other approaches, but as he says, “…I am inclined first of all to read fiction the way the New Critics read poetry, for the integrated effects of language, for the way the parts of the text make a whole and how the parts interrelate. Ultimately, of course, you can’t avoid discussing such things as characters and point of view, but those are themselves the textual artifacts of language.” That will appear untoward or restrictive, refreshing or niche, depending on how well Green defends and advocates for his position.

Beyond the Blurb is set out as follows: Introduction; Part 1: Critical Issues; Part 2: Critical Failures; Part 3: Critical Successes; Bibliography. (There isn’t an index). The Introduction is a concise explanation as to why Green has assembled this book, where the pieces have appeared, what its purpose is, and the rationale behind his thought. He offers six “core tenets” that emphasize that reading a book is the way to get to its meaning: “The experience of reading is the experience of language,” goes one tenet. Part 1 has essays on such topics as close reading, the authority of criticism and critics, and blogs. (Green has his own well-written blog.) Part 2 addresses those critics found wanting, such as James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, and academic criticism. Part 3 focuses on Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, and William Gass, among others. Each section is packed with argument, generous quotations, and fair-mindedness.

As usual in books of this type that offer up criticism that has appeared on blogs or in the Los Angeles Review of Books there is a certain strain of modesty: “While I do not argue explicitly in these essays that reflection on such issues might be especially important in the critical discussion of current/contemporary literature, nevertheless this is a necessary and underlying assumption.” Sometimes the implicit is much stronger than it appears. When these pieces were isolated in space and time of publication they meant one set of things; placed alongside each other they assert themselves more pointedly. In the culture wars Green refers to throughout, he is a combatant, if an unwilling one.

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I.

The essays comprising Critical Issues (as with the other parts) generally use one person to centre the argument. Daniel Mendelsohn, in “Close Reading,” comes under the gaze of Green for leaving out one vital feature of a critic: “the ability to pay attention.” This allows for an explanation as to how opinions are only that unless they are backed up by evidence taken from the text, not from such a thing as “taste,” which is a code word used by “guardians of literary culture.” Disliking or liking Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith is insufficient. Critics need to argue from the evidence of the work, not from a theory that embraces (or smothers) the work while speaking about anything but its language. This is a mild essay to lead off the book, to my mind, but things pick up with “The Authority of Criticism,” wherein Ron Silliman, whose views are rooted in Marxism, is praised for his “pragmatic perspective” on criticism, and for fitting himself along the Pound-Olson-Creeley axis, one that viewed New Criticism with caution. We are given a thumbnail sketch in literary history (which, like military history, has its own share of pointless wars), a grounding in the work of someone Green respects who challenges New Criticism from a learned perspective, and a rebuttal that takes on board Silliman’s negative comments on New Criticism with poise.

Johanna Drucker is the lightning rod in “Aesthetic Autonomy.” By quoting her right off Green gives readers a taste of her work: “Fine art, artists, and critics exist within a condition of complicity with the institutions and values of contemporary culture,” Drucker says in Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity. Green responds: “I am ultimately fine with this argument, although it’s unfortunate that a defense of aesthetic value in art has to in effect make common cause with mass culture in order to ensure that ‘art’ survives as a viable endeavor to begin with.” Here we have the commodity argument: a painter has truck with commerce (in the purchase or rent of supplies, studio space, models, and then on to labour and selling the finished product). Green’s well-reasoned objection is that this is not a new idea or particularly revelatory, for it is the interpretative framework that supplies the commodity argument, not the art work itself. Through Drucker, Green is able to address the notion of art in service to ideologies as weapons, when, for him, “their refusal to submit to the expectations of ordinary discourse” signifies the autonomy many would deny them.

“The Authority of Critics” is a title that should make us pause. We rarely think of our critical writing as authoritative, especially when it’s spread over a variety of journals that have specialized and small audiences. Yet we maintain the belief that opinions, interpretations, and eisegesis sway the hearts and minds of an unseen multitude. John Carey is the subject of this essay, and Green shows how confused his thinking is in What Good Are the Arts?, classifying it as “absurd in the extreme, essentially inane” after demolishing its principal ideas: that art doesn’t exist, but that it does and that it “does some people quite a lot of good.” It would, perhaps, have made the book stronger to leave Carey out and to focus instead on someone dismissed in the Introduction, Jonathan Franzen, due to his malign and lingering impact on how the literary world divided itself according to his Status and Contract notions. While no more valid than Carey’s, they were more pernicious and, since they drew in various figures, such as Ben Marcus, this could have widened Green’s consideration of classes of fiction.

“Blogs and Alternative Literary Criticism” sets out some arguments for and against this venue of art commentary. It begins with Richard Kostelanetz’s view, from The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America (1974), of the “‘New York Intellectuals’” of the 1960s and 1970s as “agenda-setters [who] influenced critical discourse to the extent that challenges to their critical principles (and to their liberal anti-communism) were summarily dismissed when not simply ignored.” From the journals discussed—Partisan and Commentary—it is a short step to academic criticism, which Green once thought would be a suitable place for him. “Academic journals were much more likely to feature experimental and unconventional writers… and gave them more than the cursory treatment afforded by most book reviews.” Times changed, however, and soon academic criticism cared more for “context—historical, culture, theoretical—than with the text, the latter serving only to illuminate the former.” The result is we must find less theory in the hodgepodge of book reviews found in a handful of newspapers that are all too eager to waste column space to the same top 10 titles per season.

Green misses those earlier days, and is dismayed, too, about the online contemporary scene. Once, literary weblogs offered the possibility of “a plausible alternative to print book reviewing,” but this promise never became widespread. It should be said that his blog is substantial and varied, with much long-form writing. But The Reading Experience, as well as Stephen Mitchelmore’s This Space and Litlove’s Tales From the Reading Room, to name two others, are numerically swamped by other blogs that present “…book business gossip, pseudo-literary trivia, and the establishment perspective.” As with print journals, weblogs are haphazardly interested in books, but rarely those that are older than ten months to a year unless it’s an undisputed classic. There’s no hope on the Internet, then, for a renaissance of critical thought.

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II.

It is beneficial to Green to write against something or someone that irritates him. In Part 2 he targets James Wood, Christopher Hitchens, Morris Dickstein, Hershel Parker, and Joseph Conte for particular failings. Two essays stand out above the others.

I agree with Green, in “James Wood,” that the subject of this essay is “a particularly pernicious influence on contemporary criticism” whose “obvious biases” towards his favoured mode, realism, exclude most fiction that does something else, especially if such works “challenge orthodoxy…” Like Green, when reading Wood I’m conscious that he is reducing the world of literature down to one preferred method of approach, that this is ungenerous to those who think in alternate ways, and that the aim of making anything different conform to a critical perspective rather than choosing to learn something new is to limit oneself needlessly. Quoting Wood on how readers analyze characters, Green states the obvious: “Why would we want to regard characters in a novel as if they were actual people, people with minds and motives and a ‘consciousness’?” This is a common thought, not a special insight Wood has; many publishers still insist they want manuscripts with characters their readers can warm to. But the common reader invoked by Wood might find it unhelpful to use their interpretation of the characters in Bleak House or The Ambassadors to negotiate with colleagues at their workplace. Figures we encounter in books are solely marks on a page, not living beings. (How a champion of realism can’t distinguish between a book, just another object in the world, and the rest of the world is not a subject that troubles Wood much.) In Green’s judgment:

Wood’s account of “how fiction works” is prescriptive, not descriptive: he wants to convince his common readers that the way of reading he presents in his book [How Fiction Works] is the one proper way of reading and that the kind of fiction that most directly satisfies the specified readerly requirements is the only kind really worthy of our attention.

Essentially, Wood regards books primarily as instruments to understand the so-called real world and that therefore impact moral decisions.

In conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard in The Paris Review, Wood attempts to classify the Norwegian author’s six-volume My Struggle, a tremendous and deliberately unwieldy amalgam of confession, dialogue allegedly recalled from years and years ago, metaphysical conceits, realism, contradictions, airy pontifications, miserable muttering, self-lampoons, artistic manifestoes, wretchedness and hilarity, as realism of a newer kind:

I think it is a general problem. One of the interesting things that’s been happening—in Norwegian literature certainly, but also in British and American fiction—has been an insistence on breaking the forms, not because there’s a postmodern rule that one has to break the forms, but for almost the opposite reason, out of a desire to achieve greater verisimilitude, and a belief that the only way to get there is to break the grammar of realism precisely as you’re describing. In Book Two you say that you’re sick of fiction, you’re sick of the mass production of fictions that all look like the same. You write that the problem was “verisimilitude and the distance it held to reality was constant.” I think this is well put, because it doesn’t rule out fiction-making. It just makes fiction-making harder.

You can sense the strain as Wood tries to squeeze Knausgaard’s epic into a box labeled Realism by appealing to some mythical “greater verisimilitude,” as if there are levels of reality. If there are, then there’s no need for the words greater and, by implication, lesser, but if reality isn’t the same all the way through, then Wood is in serious epistemological trouble. One could also make much of how he feels supremely at ease reading the minds of writers in three countries. That’s just breathtaking.

Green has much more to say about Wood in an essay that he worries might go on for too long, but such is the general obeisance to him and the value of his imprimatur that a considered, and well-mannered, close reading of his words is welcome.

For some reason, Christopher Hitchens was considered to be a worthwhile literary critic and commentator, a low-grade Orwell. In his examination of Hitchens, whose criticism is rarely “non-political,” Green summarizes his contribution to literary criticism this way:

The poets and novelists Hitchens writes about are important to him for what they represent, for the way in which they illustrate historical movements and political ideas, for their beliefs and their habits of mind. Presumably, from Hitchens’s perspective about the most praiseworthy thing that might be said about an author is that he “conducted himself ” as a writer particularly well, not that he (or she—although Hitchens considers very few if any women writers in any of his reviews and essays) actually wrote something especially admirable.

The remainder of this cast of failures, out of one motivation or another, obscure literary works with other matter, although Green finds things to appreciate and regret in the work of the academic Joseph Conte:

If Conte’s discussions of Barth and Sorrentino illuminate qualities of their work that have not previously been as clearly identified, his chapters on White Noise, The Universal Baseball Association and Gravity’s Rainbow to some extent retrod old ground in the critical consideration of these novels. Conte uses information theory, systems theory, complexity theory, and the ideas of the mathematician Benoir Mandelbrot to map the design and debris strategy at work in these iconic postmodern texts, and while the readings that result seem perfectly cogent in elucidating that strategy, nothing very fresh is really added to the commentary on the novels themselves beyond what has already been offered in the voluminous existing criticism of them.

Conte’s final remarks on a move from print to digital reading are briefly mentioned. Green believes in the possibility that “…academic criticism will turn to electronic forms as the subject of ‘advanced’ analysis,” and it’s odd he doesn’t mention that this kind of study is going on at Electronic Book Review.

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III.

Part 3: Critical Successes presents the literary aesthetics of Susan Sontag, Harold Bloom, Richard Poirier, William Gass, Michael Gorra, David Winters, and S.D. Chrostowska. (It’s a Parallel Lives of the Ignoble and Noble Critics, you could say). Green repeats the well-known encapsulation that Bloom’s thoughts on Shakespeare, the canon, and much else emphasizes “the evidence of influence” over the “formal or stylistic features” of a work and downplays the use of language. “There is still much to be learned from Bloom’s provocations, but probably his kind of reading can’t really be done by anyone else,” Green concludes, and this remark applies equally to Gass, whose idiosyncratic essays will find appeal for anyone who is already a proponent of this very different writer. As for Poirier, an academic critic, Green praises him for his work on Emerson and on style: “…unfortunately there are now few critics like Richard Poirier around to return us to the significance implicit in the reading experience itself, where the reader’s struggle to make the most of the text mirrors the writer’s struggle to allow language to make what sense it can.”

Susan Sontag occupies the polar opposite position in this section from James Wood. Her words are quoted at length, especially from the essay “On Style” that appeared in Against Interpretation. Daniel Mendelsohn’s criticism of Sontag clashes with Green’s own views on her work in a fruitful way as Green examines her theory of writing as erotic and containing a “‘sensuous surface.’” From the following Sontag quotation, it’s easy to see why a current proponent of New Criticism would find her ideas compelling:

To treat works of art [as statements] is not wholly irrelevant. But it is, obviously, putting art to use—for such purposes as inquiring into the history of ideas, diagnosing contemporary culture, or creating social solidarity. Such a treatment has little to do with what actually happens when a person possessing some training and aesthetic sensibility looks at a work of art appropriately. A work of art encountered as a work of art is an experience, not a statement or an answer to a question. Art is not only about something; it is something. A work of art is a thing in the world, not just a text or commentary on the world…

In keeping with his independent streak, Green is not wholly satisfied with Sontag either, for she “can’t finally unburden her argument of the criticisms of aestheticism made by the moralists she otherwise castigates.” By speaking of moral aspects to art she diminishes her own response. “‘Art is connected with morality,’” she says, and this is a needless connection in Green’s eyes. She also doesn’t spend enough time on style—linking her to Hitchens and others—which is another fault. As with Wood, he spends a great deal of time teasing out her thought, and these twin pieces are, to my mind, the best in the book when read in tandem.

Gorra and Winters come in for different types of praise, for their positions on the role criticism can play—paying attention to the art, as Winters does, through “meticulous description and analysis,” and less to the person behind it—while refraining (especially in Gorra’s case) from indulging in the personal:

Of course, very little that is actually offered to general readers in book reviews, magazines, or trade publishing could be called academic criticism. Via the latter, the only attention given to literature is through biographies of writers, which in turn become the prompt for what passes as literary criticism in periodicals such as the New York Review of Books, noodling essays in which the reviewer makes sweeping statements about a writer’s work, often simply repeating the conventional wisdom, while otherwise mostly recapitulating whatever biography is under review.

Both writers earn Green’s respect for devising refreshed approaches to literary works.

Concluding Beyond the Blurb with a sustained and enthusiastic review of S.D. Chrostowska’s Matches: A Light Book, Green takes comfort in how this collection of sharply worded and compact aphorisms is “less a specific model of what criticism might become in the digital age than simply a challenge to seriously reflect on what Matthew Arnold called ‘the function of criticism at the present time.’” It is certainly a way to bring attention to stale methods, yet to some extent I have to disagree. In the same review Green writes:

[C]ertainly readers expecting conventionally realized critical essays, close readings, or historical analyses, the kind of book Chrostowska describes in her introductory “Proem,” in which “the words, erect, line up in columns and salute from every page,” will have to adjust their assumptions about what “criticism” properly entails.

The language in “Proem,” and throughout Matches, comes from a poetic sensibility aligned with a finely tuned critical mind. Most works of literature that we consider personally important—our own canons, not a list of books we’re told we should read—contain revelations and social criticism. They can affirm what we believe in better language than we possess or upend our complacency, even if only temporarily. They undercut long-held beliefs in what can be talked about and what kind of language can be used to get across ideas. Matches is the agonized, at times wry, lament of a liberal mind watching as a general deterioration of the world is leading to a final darkness, and the liberal narrator’s mind becomes inflexible and grim. Without distortion, Green’s “conventionally realized critical essays” can be seen as a set of assays in story-telling forms: the dialogue, the homily, the lecture, the fantastic tale, the pensive meditation on the mundane, the humourous quip, and so on. While not wholly new, the form of Matches confidently includes academic criticism and novelization. “Indeed, it would not be wholly implausible to regard Matches as itself a novel of sorts,” Green admits. What is dispensed with is scenery, character (except for the persona), plot, and so on, and what is most prominent is the attention to form and language; these are hallmarks of much postmodern fiction. Matches is a Janus-faced work.

With this review we come to the abrupt end of Beyond the Blurb.

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Conclusion

There are some questions raised by the contents of Green’s book. I wonder why Steve Moore, a critic who has redefined what the novel is, and written on many current books, is not the subject of an essay instead of (or in addition to) Michael Gorra. The same goes for Stephen Mitchelmore, whose own excellent collection of essays, This Space of Writing, came out in late 2015. Green does review that book on his site, along with others, and in that review Green describes Mitchelmore’s book as follows:

After reading the entirety of This Space of Writing readers will likely have an adequately clear understanding of what Mitchelmore means by “silence” (and why it’s missing from most conventional literary fiction) and why its lack of “horizon” makes literature uniquely rewarding, but I confess to finding his critical language at times somewhat impalpable or cryptic, at least according to my own admittedly more buttoned-down approach to criticism.

There is a definitely a restraint in Green’s language—though certainly no hesitation to point fingers when required—and it’s only a minor quibble, a matter of taste (a word I use hesitantly here), that some might prefer a more free-wheeling style. The omission of essays on Moore and Mitchelmore strike me as a missed opportunity.

If it appears that I’ve gone on rather long about a book of criticism, it’s partly because in Beyond the Blurb Daniel Green has written an accessible and contrary-minded work that is at war or in agreement (mild or strong) with prevailing trends of critical writing, and the incorporation of so many strands of thought warrants due space. As he writes about a subject that some writers would be thought to have a vested interest in—how their works are received and, potentially of less significance, used—this book can be recommended to them, as well as to the general reader who may be less and less inclined, and with good reason, to rely on the book pages in their local papers (if such a section even exists) for guidance.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

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

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Feb 092017
 

Billy Mills

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It’s a pleasure and honour to present these lines of verse from the Irish poet Billy Mills. This is the second section from Four, a work-in-progress, a seasonal poem with elements of the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, the four dimensions and the Pythagorean tetractys — a mysterious triangular figure made up of four rows of dots increasing from one at the top to four at the bottom (all sorts of marvelous hermetic and mathematical wisdom attached thereto).

CaptureImage via Digital Ambler

As Four follows the old Irish year, this is the spring section. Four is a collaboration with the composer David Bremner, who will set the complete cycle for soprano and instruments. To give you an idea of how such a collaboration works, here is video excerpt from an earlier Mills-Bremner piece, Logical Fallacies. The performers are Andreea Banciu (viola) and Elizabeth Hilliard (soprano).

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one small bird
whose note’s heard
sharply pointed
………….yellowbill

whose notes fly
on Loch Laig
blackbird’s branch
…………..yellowfilled

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  ……..  *

the buds signal
& sugars rise
plane of each leaf
opens slowly

unfolding its curved
surface to air
& dawn
ever earlier

& vivid with
life erupting
listen: it is
sun on the grass

crisp & flat
‘with all her hues’
that moment between
shower & shower

when nothing happens
but life itself
stirring the green
this sudden spring

sap flows
answer ascending
ask what it is
light eases through

the surface of things
as they awaken
as they arise
imperceptible heat

not heat but not
its absence
a softening
slowly thawing

earth.. water.. air
of which it is
the time not yet
the third is this

new surface stirring
tentative & alive
a mould supports
air’s burden

which is one
& many streams
converge the oak
draws in

that which it needs
is what it will
an aura defined
by light embodied

this morning low
glow cloud around
the far plane
glimmers everything

breathes again
blackbird sings
high in the trees
each to its

other catch then
now wind from
the east chills
incipient life

itself becomes
& is contra-
distinction skim
the skin of things

stretched fine
& breathing light
suffused flat just
as day breaks again

face it feel
the grain of air
refract the early
beam of life

ascending spring
it is now
softly smooth
it spreads itself

pushing through
earth’s meniscus
breaking green
the vivid air

—Billy Mills

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Billy Mills was born in Dublin in 1954. He has lived and worked in Spain and the UK, and is now living in Limerick. He’s the founder and co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardPressed poetry and the Journal. His books include Lares/Manes: Collected Poems (Shearsman, 2009), Imaginary Gardens (hardPressed poetry, 2012), Loop Walks (with David Bremner) (hardPressed poetry, 2013), and from Pensato (Smithereens Press e-book, 2013).

Since 2007, Billy Mills been a regular contributor to the books section of The Guardian website, including the popular Poster Poems series http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/billymills. He blogs at https://ellipticalmovements.wordpress.com/.

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Feb 082017
 

abigail-allen-500px-may-be-replacedAbigail Allen

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I was in a pet store looking at the fish. I had stopped in for no other reason than to look at them. I was standing before a tank full of tiny, almost microscopic, goldfish. They were the smallest ones I’d ever seen. Small creatures, the ones that are the tiniest versions of whatever they are—have always fascinated me. When I read about the discovery of the skeletal remains of thumb-sized monkeys some years back, my imagination was piqued. I couldn’t stop thinking about these animals, which had existed long ago, somewhere in Asia, I think. They couldn’t venture out of their hiding places during the day for fear of being eaten by something bigger, something the size of one of the mice I had seen in a cage a couple of aisles over. The thumb-sized monkeys had to sneak out at night to look for small insects and seeds to eat. Even at night they were prey to owls, which ate every part of them except their bony little feet. Their feet must have had so little meat on them that the owls didn’t bother with them, leaving the miniscule bones—the phalanges and metatarsals, the cuneiform, cuboid, and navicular bones, as well as the talus and calcaneus bones (all so small they were barely visible)—jumbled together in little piles for the archeologists to discover eons later. I thought about the thumb-sized monkeys as I stood in front of the tank full of these infinitesimal fish. I had come in here for the express purpose of looking at the fish, and these were the ones I had settled upon. I had made my way past tanks containing larger goldfish and other fish. I remember looking at black angelfish and mottled angelfish, as well as catfish, tetras, and guppies, none of which especially interested me. There was one really ugly fish called a loach. It was in a tank all by itself and looked like a miniature eel. I had stared at it for a few minutes before going on to the tank with the smallest goldfish in it, where I stayed for the remainder of the time I was in the store, about ten minutes, twenty at the most. I wasn’t bothering anyone. There were few customers looking at the fish that morning, and none of them wanted to look at these—almost microscopic, as I’ve said—goldfish.

You might wonder how anyone could possibly stare into a tank containing a few fish the size of grains of rice for that long, but the truth is I wasn’t really looking at the fish after the first few seconds, after my amazement at stumbling across such small creatures, which, as I said before, put me in mind of the thumb-sized monkeys I had read about years ago and, thus, stirred my imagination. As I stared at the aquarium, I saw my reflection—the reflection of a small woman with brown hair—and then I saw a driveway, the long, winding gravel driveway that leads to my garage. As I stood there, staring at the fish, I felt as though the tank were a crystal ball and I could see into the past or into the future. I seemed to be seeing into the future at first, watching an angry man rush along the driveway toward my house, screaming obscenities, kicking at the gravel like a maniac, and then I remembered that this had really happened, not that long ago—a few months ago, maybe, certainly less than a year—but apparently long enough ago that I didn’t realize, at first, that this—or something quite similar to this—had already happened to me, and I became more and more alarmed. Then, as I said, it had gradually dawned on me that this—or something approximating it—had already happened, and I remembered this red-faced man rushing up my driveway screaming, much as the man I had been envisioning was doing as I looked at the aquarium, seeing my reflection but not seeing it, knowing my reflection was there but not paying any attention to it, seeing instead the angry man, who was too far away in my reverie for me to be sure whether he was the red-faced man who had visited me before, the man who had sprained or broken his ankle—I would never know which because he’d been taken away in the ambulance I had summoned and I’d never seen him again. The red-faced man had sustained his injury when he went to the aid of an owl he had seen lying on the side of the road as he was walking along, and the owl, which the man thought had probably been hit by a passing car, suddenly regained consciousness, and just as he was about to touch it, the owl flew away, frightening the man, causing him to jump and land in the ditch with his ankle bent under him, or so he said.

At first I was relieved to remember that unpleasant occasion, the red-faced man coiled like a snake on my driveway, holding the plastic bag of ice I had brought him to his ankle before the ambulance came and whisked him, still cursing, away. It was a relief because I thought the scene I had just imagined while gazing into the aquarium where the tiny fish were swimming around, some hovering near the bottom and others drifting through the windows of a little castle at one end of the tank, was a scene from the past and not a prediction of a future event, necessarily. I breathed a sigh of relief and then noticed my reflection in the glass again, the fish moving behind and through it, and I was struck by that, by the image of the fish, tragically small fish, swimming not only behind my reflection—the reflection of my face, my head—but through it. It was while I was staring in awe at this optical illusion that it dawned on me: I had switched images. I had replaced the image of an angry man coming toward me on my driveway with the image of that earlier angry man, who had been limping and whom I had perceived to be limping even from a distance, and having replaced the angry man I had imagined at first today while staring into the tank of the smallest goldfish with that red-faced man who had actually existed, there was no way I could recapture the one I had first imagined, no way to rewind the workings of my imagination to see whether or not this man was limping, as the red-faced man had been. I had a feeling he was not limping because I distinctly remembered him kicking angrily at the gravel in my driveway before I replaced him with the memory of the other man, the red-faced man, and so there was still a danger that what the fish tank—the crystal ball—had been showing me before I switched images was the future and not simply the memory of a past event.

I left the store, thinking vaguely about the possibility of another angry man appearing in my driveway, went out to the parking lot, and got in my car. I was parked next to a white SUV with its motor running. The same woman was sitting there, the same one who’d been sitting there when I went in the store. Maybe she was waiting for her dog to be groomed, I thought, but she was wasting gas, polluting the atmosphere with the fumes from her gigantic SUV. It could be she had to be alone so she could think. Maybe she had troubles and could sort things out only when she was in her car. I remembered a sad time in my life when I had gotten up in the middle of the night and driven around, going no place in particular, just driving. It had a calming effect on me. Then I could go home and fall asleep.

Right after my husband left, I tried to be an artist. I thought it would take my mind off my failure as a wife. I bought all these paints, oils and pastels, brushes, canvases. I was always pretty good at drawing things, but I found out I couldn’t paint. Not only did everything I tried to paint look one-dimensional, like a child’s effort, but I was so messy. I got paint everywhere—on the floor and the furniture—and even though I wore a smock I got paint on my clothes. My clothes were ruined. The smock didn’t cover my entire body, so there was purple paint on the cuffs of my shirt, yellow paint on my jeans, and I even ruined a pair of canvas shoes by spilling paint on them. I gave up after a few months. I had tried really hard for those months, but I had to admit I was no good at it. I still like to draw, though.

There was once a voyeur in my life, but now he’s dead. He was killed in a tractor accident on his family’s farm. He came around every night for a while. The first time I saw him I was sitting in the living room in my nightgown, watching TV. I looked away from whatever I was watching, wondering whether I’d locked the front door, and saw the shadow of his head slowly rising behind the lace curtain on the window in the door. This was right after my divorce was finalized. It was only much later, shortly before his death, that I found out who he was. He came by every night and scraped his fingernails over the screen in my bedroom window, but I had begun closing all the drapes and shades in the house after I’d seen him at the living room window. I don’t know why he kept coming around. I guess he figured I would slip up and forget to close the drapes sooner or later. He was a young man, ten years younger than I was, yet he wanted to stare at me the way I had been staring at the tiny fish today. Maybe he thought it would help him think.

Once I went to a party in an antebellum mansion near Marksville. I had been in a play with the woman who was giving the party, and she had invited everyone who had been involved in the play to the mansion, which was a home her husband’s family had owned since before the Civil War. I enjoyed going to the party and seeing the wonderful antique furniture in the house, along with the other people who had been in the play, which was set during the American Revolution. I had a small role in the play, and this woman—the one who was hosting the party—had had the starring role. It was a musical, and she had a lovely soprano voice. We stood and talked, eating hors d’oeuvres and drinking punch in one of the main rooms of the mansion (I think it was the living room or the dining room), and then we went outside and strolled around the gardens, which were beautiful, as you would expect the gardens of such a grand place to be. I remember there was a gazebo, and the hostess, whose husband was upstairs watching a baseball game or something on TV, came out of the gazebo and went around kissing everybody, talking in an exaggerated Southern accent, calling people “honey-chile” and things like that, as though she were living in the time of slavery, and the more she had to drink the more obnoxious her behavior became. I had arrived with my cousin Patty, who was also in the play, and we left early, claiming Patty had to pick up her daughters from their grandmother’s house.

I wish the voyeur hadn’t died. If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I attended a much-anticipated concert with my friend Larry, the voyeur might still be alive because I wouldn’t have seen him peering in through my bedroom window when we got back, when I went in the bedroom to kick my shoes off and put on some slippers while Larry was looking through the liquor cabinet (We had planned to have a drink and discuss the concert, which we had both been blown away by). If I had remembered to close the drapes and blinds before I left for the concert, I wouldn’t have screamed and Larry wouldn’t have rushed into the room and gotten a glimpse of the voyeur’s red shirt. He wouldn’t have insisted on phoning the police, and I wouldn’t have told them a man had been peering in at me and had been coming by trying to do so for months. I wouldn’t have alerted them at all because the drapes would’ve been closed, as they had been all the other nights since I’d seen him at the living room window. He wouldn’t have startled me, and the cops wouldn’t have caught him running through ditches and across fields, trying to get back to his car. The next day they brought me his picture, and I recognized him, but I didn’t press charges. His father leased some of my land and planted hay on it. I couldn’t bring myself to press charges, and now I think if I had pressed charges maybe he would still be alive, maybe things would have played out differently and he wouldn’t have been working on his family’s farm that day, wouldn’t have been driving the tractor that had fallen over somehow, near a small ravine, and crushed him—or maybe the tractor had run over him first, after he was thrown from it but before it fell over on him.

My neighbor, Larry, the one I’d attended the concert with, came and told me about the voyeur’s death. I still think of him as “the voyeur” even though I now know his name was Brian. Larry sat me down on one of the rocking chairs on the front porch, and he sat in the other one and took my hand. He said he had bad news, and I was afraid something had happened to Larry’s mother, who is getting old and frail, but it wasn’t his mother. It was Brian, whose father leased part of my farm. Larry broke it to me as gently as he could, rubbing my arm, I remember. He’s such a kind person, always was, even when we were children—I guess people don’t change much—but I wasn’t thinking about his kindness at that point. I was thinking about the voyeur, his head rising so slowly behind the lace-curtained window in the front door, and wondering what had run through his mind when he saw me sitting there in a faded pink nightgown, having recently gotten the news that my marriage was officially over, when he saw me getting up and running toward the door, yelling at him to go away. Did he notice his reflection in the glass or did he ignore it? Maybe, in the few seconds he was standing there, he stopped seeing a distraught woman in her living room and began to envision something altogether different, not knowing whether it had already happened or was yet to come.

—Abigail Allen

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Abigail Allen grew up in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana. Her work will appear or has been published in Big Muddy, Columbia College Literary Review, Valley Voices, The Louisiana Review, Birds Piled Loosely, Big Bridge, Pilgrimage, Coup d’Etat, Xavier Review, Mississippi Review, Mid-American Review, Confrontation, and others. She has also published work in New World Writing, Many Mountains Moving, Forge, and others under the pseudonym Hiram Goza. Her novel, Birds of Paradise, was published under that name in 2005.

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Feb 072017
 

Kate Evans at work.

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—Kate Evans

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Kate Evans, author, mother, artist and cartoonist, lives in the West of England with her husband, two children and two cats. Her latest book Red Rosa: a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg was released by Verso, November 2015, to general acclaim.

She is also the author of graphic non-fiction books The Food of Love: your formula for successful breastfeeding, Bump: how to make, grow and birth a baby and Funny Weather: everything you didn’t want to know about climate change but probably should find out. The above comic now forms the first chapter of her forthcoming, feature-length graphic novel Threads from the refugee crisis, to be released Spring 2017 from Verso Books. Blog: www.cartoonkate.co.uk. Twitter: @cartoonkate.

 

 

 

Feb 062017
 

Photo Credit: Arnell Tailfeathers

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Paper dreams of my mother

Paper dreams of my mother
Dream of my mother on paper
My mother dreams on paper
On torn scraps from colonial
and Government funded
assimilated magazines
long discarded
and unsubscribed
I dream of my mother’s
unfinished dreams on paper
I try to see what she was dreaming of
when she was alive
on paper
on faded paper
it is getting harder to see
with these fading eyes
it is getting harder to see
this fading paper

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Bannock

His colonized addictions
Lured him out on the street
The cold that took his toes
Long after he huffed himself asleep

The blood soaked prairie grass,
Roots long frozen in defeat;
There’s a new fight
The Indians battle now

Goldilocks takes off her wig
And crawls under the blanket
Where small pox lives

When the bears returned
From their vaca house
They called the pigs

And no one
Ate the bannock
She’d been baking

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Assimilate

Assimilate, survive
Assimilate, thrive
Assimilate, leave
Assimilate, succeed
Assimilate, spread lies
Assimilate, compromise
Assimilate, plagiarize
Assimilate, steal
Assimilate, bow down
Assimilate, kneel
Assimilate, sell your ancestors land
Assimilate, call it earnings, money in hand
Assimilate, hurry
Assimilate, judge
Assimilate, jury
Assimilate, blood
Assimilate, re-con-cili-ate
Assimilate, future
Assimilate, fate
Assimilate, rape
Assimilate, hate, your Indigenous body, hair, eyes, skin
Assimilate, turn your back on family, on friend
Assimilate, shame
Assimilate, take the white man’s good Christian name
Assimilate, residential school legacy put to good use
Assimilate, un-recognized scoop survivor, foster child abuse
Assimilate, declare Indigenous languages dead
Assimilate, let that white Canadian praise go to your colonized assimilated head
Assimilate, exploit Indigenous pain
Assimilate, believe you’re humble when vain
Assimilate, turn a grave a stage
Assimilate, stomp out, invalidate Indigenous rage
Assimilate, be blind to them digesting the Indigenous in you
Assimilate, and make all your assimilated dreams come true

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A Way

IS IT the nomad
in me,
who always…
eventually,
wants to pack up
and move,
and walk
away?
OR COULD IT BE…
that ONCE WILD!
that ONCE REZ!
NDN!
foster child???
Who USED to be…
somebody’s daughter,
Who USED to be…
somebody’s cuzin?
Who USED to be…
Somebody’s sister & friend?
Who USED to be….
Somebody.
Else.

We ALL knew
how to fight
(that was the one thing we ALL did rather well)
But we did not know
“HOW!”
to
fly
away.
We did not fly
away
We did not fly
away
We did not fly.
We often leave now
without saying goodbye.
We pack up and move,
without going anywhere,
& think…
we are moving away.
You see…they did not teach us
how to stay,
Only to pick up,
(whatever you can)
and go away.
Always
away,
Always
away.
But…where…is…THAT…away??
That some…where?
That some…day?
Will we ever get there??
When & Where
‘away’
turns into
A WAY
A WAY
to fly
A WAY
to take flight
and RISE
and SING!!
and DANCE!!!
and PRAY!!!!
OUR WAY!!!!
A WAY
TO REBUILD
and (maybe this time)
Stay.
Is there A WAY…
to stay…
WHO WE ONCE WERE…
before
they came??

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“No Genocide”

Dedicated to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights

No genocide in the streets.
No genocide between pewed rows.
No genocide hitch hiking on the sides of dirt roads.

No genocide to remember.
No genocide to forget.
No genocide native homeless cast aside,
to push aside or over step.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide ghosts moaning when everyone sleeps.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide thirst or endless numbing drink.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in dreams.
No genocide in flesh.
No genocide flies with the owls to their nest.

No genocide broken body.
No genocide life to live.
No acts of genocide to acknowledge or forgive.

No genocide erased.
No genocide replaced.
No genocide child’s good “welfare” displaced.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in hoarding.
No genocidal wink.
No genocide blood to scrub out of the kitchen sink.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in spic & span.
No genocide in an elders aged hand.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in unmarked or forgotten graves.
No genocide on mothers day.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in the ground.
No genocide in the air.
No genocide over there or
over there or over there.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide on your spirit.
No genocide in your soul.
No genocidal privileged settler
rapist afterglow.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide to keep us separate.
No genocide to keep us bound.
No genocide in missing, murdered or found.

No genocide in your groceries.
No genocide in your stores.
No genocidal bolts to lock all your incarcerated doors.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide question marks to be marked.
No genocide paper trail names to be named.
No genocidal land for the raping.
No genocide redskin fan will be defamed.

No genocide darlings.
No genocide CBC.
No genocide at all really,
because what the fuck does that have to do with me?

I am with you in genocide.

No catchable smallpox in genocide.
No ravenous hunger in genocide.
No put me back in the bucket genocide.
No running out of places to hide genocide.

I am with you in genocide.
I am with you in genocide.
I am with you in genocide.
I am with you in genocide.

No genocide in white supremacy.
No genocide in a settler state.
No genocide in dealing with
All your bullshit & your hate.

No genocide headdress to give away.
No genocidal stage.
No genocide to encore for.
No genocide to take its bow & walk away.

No genocide in domestic violence.
No genocide in poverty.
No genocide in you.
No genocide in me.

No genocide in silence.
No genocide in language lost.
No genocide in neo-colonized &
White male violence
No genocide at tax payer cost.

No genocide in your government.
No genocide on your flag.
No genocide in your museum.
No genocide to make you feel bad.

No genocide for all those afraid to say genocide.

I am with you in genocide.

No genocide.

They lied.

No genocide.

—Sarah Scout

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Sarah Scout is a Nitsitapi Blackfoot writer and Indigenous artivist. From 2000 – 2002 she attended Lethbridge Community College where she studied print journalism and communication arts. Her work has been published in print mediums such as The Endeavour, The Lethbridge Herald, Say and Beatroute Magazine and Lastrealindians.com. From November 2006 – February 2009 she was the managing editor of New Tribe Magazine. Founding the Aboriginal Writer’s Circle Calgary in 2007, Sarah created this group for Aboriginal writers, authors and storytellers to come together in celebration and exploration of the written word and oral storytelling tradition until its retirement in 2014. In her spare time, she also creates and distributes her own independent zines which document personal anecdote, stories, life writing experience and poetry in a mixed collage of black and white photography and experimental graphic design. Winner of the Royal Bank of Canada Aboriginal Student [two-year] Scholarship in 2009, Sarah studied at the University of Calgary in pursuit of her BA in English. She currently is writing her first ‘life writing’ novel (of working title) Incomplete Indian: The Indigenous Life Writings of Sarah Scout.

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Feb 052017
 

Jamaluddin AramPhoto credit by Jonny Griffin.


The boy’s right leg quivered and he had to lean against the mud-wall of Sarkanda’s house to assess his wounds. He pulled up his pants and looked at the two deep holes, slightly below his skinny calf, where the dog’s canines had sunk in. With the tips of his fingers, he carefully pressed around the wounds and then limped off towards Khala’s house to borrow some salt for dinner. As he walked, he hoped that the rumors were true and that Qatel had been kidnapped and killed. But he worried how he could avoid Shah Wali Sarkanda, his friends, and Qatel too, if the rumors were not correct.

He had not yet turned the corner when the first shot went off. He slowed and looked up at the two startled turtledoves as they hastily flew away from the dead electric lines overhead. In the stale summer afternoon air, the shot sounded like a heavy hammer colliding against a thick sheet of corrugated, rusty metal: lonely, removed, yet lethal. By the time he approached the main street, the shooting had begun to intensify.

He looked around for Qatel; he tried to sneak a peek inside the checkpoint, a small primitive square structure of assembled plastic sandbags with a scanty roof of flattened oil barrel steel. The dog was not there. He glanced under the window of the bakery across the street where Qatel sometimes sought refuge when the heat of the day became unbearable, his tongue sticking out, panting. To his relief the dog had disappeared. “They’ve indeed taken the bastard,” he thought to himself, and felt the beginning of an unmanageable delight.

.

The boy was the youngest of his four siblings, and as the rules of the house dictated, he had to run all the errands. Mother sent him around to the neighbors and relatives to borrow a loaf of bread, the coal-fired pressing iron, a mortar and pestle, a painkiller, a cough syrup bottle, or a big shawl when she needed to step outside the house to attend a funeral or visit her sick and dying acquaintances. When unexpected guests showed up at their door, he had to find and carry plates and silverware and pillows and blankets. He usually brought most of these items from Khala’s, which meant he had to cross the checkpoint and the narrow, unpaved main street. Last week, when Mother needed to go to the funeral of Uncle Khanjan, who was killed by a stray bullet in front of his house, she sent him to borrow Khala’s black leather shoes, and the two militia guys, Sarkanda and Habib Charsi, had urged Qatel to chase him. Under the midday sun, they were sitting against the big whitewashed wall across from the checkpoint, high on Chars, their Kalashnikovs lying by their sides. When the dog charged after him and knocked him to the dirt, they had rolled on the ground, laughing.

.

Now Qatel was missing. Habib, Nasro Puchuq, and Zaman Dashka huddled in the freshly dug trench near the bakery, the dark, wet soil still piled against the bare electricity pole. Zaman manned a long-range Soviet DShK machine gun. He was planting his left knee into the fresh soil of the trench and using his right leg as a support for his right hand as he pulled the trigger. He was the only one who made an effort to aim before he shot, while Habib and Nasro, crouching on either side, fired their Kalashnikovs aimlessly in the general direction of the enemy’s position, a few hundred meters away at the end of the street. Sarkanda didn’t aim either. He was lying flat on his stomach right outside the trench in the middle of the street, his feet bare, the front of his long and loose navy blue perhan-tunban covered in dust. He fired with a maniacal passion, and the hot empty brass casings thrust out and fell by his side, bouncing and clinking.

The boy watched Sarkanda in disbelief. He had always seen him with a foolish smile on his face, but now he looked serious and determined. The boy tried to think why Sarkanda and his friends were fighting and how long the skirmish would last before he could go get the salt. He knew that Mother would straighten him out with the end of the broom if he took longer than usual.

Inside the bakery above the trench three men went about their work. One of them, with a dirty off-white piece of cloth wrapped around his head and covering his mouth and nose, bent down and came back up with a practiced efficiency and rhythm. With his back to the street, he fixed the flattened dough on his rafeda and put it into the oven, not caring the least what was going on outside. Across from him the fat owner of the bakery leaned against the soot-darkened wall, drinking his afternoon tea.

The shopkeepers whose shops were in reach of bullets had stepped outside and now stood in the safety of the whitewashed two-storey building. They talked and laughed, and the pedestrians who were blocked because of the gun fighting joined them. The porter rested in his wheelbarrow, his hands folded under his head, and shyly laughed at the vegetable seller’s silly jokes. The only people who did not participate were the two women covered in big dark shawls who came out of the same alley as the boy. When they saw the shooting, they sat against the wall, a few meters away from the men, in absolute silence.

.

The fighting went on. The boy cupped his ears with the palms of his hands and the shooting was drowned as if in a wind tunnel. As soon as he lifted his hands the sound of gunshots came back, loud and ludicrous. He closed his ears with the tips of his fingers this time and pressed them hard. The sound of war seemed as distant, as unbelievable, as a dream.

It looked as if people had stepped outside of their houses and shops at the first sign of a shallow earthquake, and now that they were out they thought why not catch up with their neighbors. Baba, a shopkeeper in his late fifties, didn’t even bother to leave his shop, an old, red shipping container insulated with a thick layer of mud and straw, right behind where Sarkanda and his friends had dug out the trench. In his impoverished, half-empty shop, he sat deep in thought, perhaps believing there was no way a stray bullet could find its way to him because the door of his shop opened perpendicular to the direction of the bullets of the Panjshiris. Still, he had to leave some room for his ignorance of the laws of physics, the intricacies of geometry, and above all some room for chance, and it made him worry. A bullet might take an inappropriate swerve and enter his shop. Now in the heat of the crossfire there was no way he could get out, so he sat there taking thoughtful sips of his steaming green tea and silently wishing a quick end to the reckless shooting.

The rain-filled clouds hung low, and it had become very hot. The boy leaned against the edge of the big whitewashed wall and looked past Sarkanda and Zaman. At the mouth of Khala’s narrow alley a group of people waited patiently for the shooting to cease. The boy folded his hands behind his back, balanced his weight on both heels, and started to wriggle. Then he stopped and looked down at his big toe sticking out of the tip of his right shoe, dirty and unwashed, exposed to dust and humidity. He tried to work it back into his shoe, but the hole was too generous. So he wiggled his toes and wondered when and where he had lost the lace on the left shoe. He felt a shudder of grief that his only pair of shoes was disintegrating faster than he’d expected. That meant he would have to switch back into hard plastic galoshes that cut the back of his heels and smelled terrible. To fight off this disturbing thought, with the tips of his fingers he took hold of the scanty sleeves of the old, discolored yellow sweater that he was outgrowing fast, and pulled them down. The collar of the sweater overstretched, revealing his scrawny neck and his fragile collarbones.

Then he fixed his gaze on Sarkanda, who still rested on his stomach on the ground, his whole body, particularly his shoulders, a constant tremor. A bullet whizzed past Sarkanda’s ear and hit the dry mud wall behind him. The boy, and the few others, who saw it, let out a cry of bewilderment mixed with a chill thrill. “Da kos khowar shomo to that vagina of your sisters!” Sarkanda gurgled aloud in a raspy voice and jolted forward as if the smell of heated copper and burned sulfur nitrate and the proximity of death fired up his determination. The two women who had been sitting against the wall became uncomfortable, hearing their most private part spoken of openly. The older woman made a failed attempt to swallow her laughter, but her lips puckered. The younger woman maintained a serious look and stared at the ground in front of her feet. The shopkeepers gave out a lighthearted laughter at Sarkanda’s effortless way of saying Kos, but also at the fact that the bullet could have easily smashed his face had it been an inch to the right. “Kam bod Sarkanda ra wardar kadod!” said one man. “Nah, I guess even death avoids that motherfucker. I bet even in hell he would rob people in open daylight and extort money,” responded another.

“Or a pack of cigarettes,” said the porter, adjusting his wheelbarrow.

The bakery owner shifted his weight on his left hip and glanced out the window to see what had happened. The baker put the rafeda down and turned for a quick peek at the street below. As soon as he realized that the moment was gone, he went back to his work.

“They’re wasting ammunition on such useless matters,” said the vegetable seller.

“How did all this begin?” said a bystander, a skinny man, constantly moving his jaws to adjust his dentures.

The boy moved closer to the men to hear what they were talking about.

The vegetable seller paused longer than he should have, trying to look important. “I heard that the Panjshiris kidnapped Qatel,” he finally said.

“Who is Qatel?” asked the man.

“The dog,” the vegetable seller responded.

“Oh, they’re out to kill each other over a dog?” said the man grinding his jaws, his plastic teeth making an empty sound.

“Yeah, these guys sent someone to bring the dog back, but the Panjshiris slapped the messenger in the face and sent him empty handed,” said the vegetable seller, raising his eyebrows and maintaining a faint smile. He was proud to know something that the others didn’t. Although he had said everything there was to be said about the shooting, he couldn’t stop himself, so he continued. “Did you know that Sarkanda had stolen that dog from a house?” He looked at the man with dentures for a reaction, but the man was busy looking at Sarkanda and his friends, who were still shooting relentlessly. The vegetable seller turned towards the boy, hoping he was listening to him. The boy, too, was watching the shooting. So the vegetable seller with a servile look on his face helplessly turned his attention to the fighting.

They all were looking at Sarkanda admitting that he had earned his nickname “the headless,” and they secretly admired his inexorable fearlessness in the face of death, a quality they well knew they didn’t possess. All of a sudden Sarkanda ducked his head. The bullet hit the hard steel in the corner of Baba’s shipping container that stuck out of a thick layer of mud, then rebounded and caught the skinny man above his right knee. “Akhhhh!” was the only sound the man made, and he sat on the ground holding his wounded thigh. The two women looked in the man’s direction, their faces warm with pity. Baba put down his glass of tea on a cooking oil box next to him and stood in his place to assess the situation. That was the maximum movement he allowed himself to make. The fear of getting hit by a stray bullet was tangible now that the man’s thigh started bleeding.

The porter ran with his wheelbarrow to help. The vegetable seller lifted the wounded man and placed him in the wheelbarrow.

The boy’s toes felt numb, especially the one that stuck out of his shoe. He saw the agony on the man’s face, and he noticed that for once the man was not adjusting his dentures, but clenching his jaws and shaking his small head from side to side as he lay on his back, his face pale, his legs dangling off the edges of the wheelbarrow.

“Would the compoder compounder be in his shop?” the porter asked, not particularly directing the question at anyone, but thinking out loud. He hurriedly pushed the wheelbarrow towards the pharmacy, negotiating the bumps, and disappeared into the alley.

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Nasro and Habib had stopped shooting, their cartridge magazines lay empty, but they stayed low in the trench amidst piles of spent shell casings. The shooting from the other side also died down. Zaman was dissembling his DShK. Every now and then a bullet rang in the air, and Sarkanda fired back. This went on for a couple of minutes as if no one wanted to bear the burden of being the first to accept defeat.

Eventually the shooting ended just as it had begun.

The crowd started crossing the street as soon as they thought it was safe enough. The two women got up. The vegetable seller went back to his shop and started sprinkling water over the fresh vegetables: basil, scallions, spinach, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, and carrots, neatly organized on big inclined tables.

The boy crossed the street and stood at the mouth of Khala’s alley, his eyes set on the empty casings that lay in and around the trench.

Zaman stood up, and asked Nasro and Habib to help him carry the DShK back to the checkpoint. They carelessly flung their Kalashnikovs onto their shoulders, and each man held and carried one stand of the heavy machine gun. Sarkanda was the last to get up. He held his old, Russian PK by the muzzle and dragged it across the street into the post, and then came back for his sandals that lay face down on the ground.

As soon as Sarkanda went into the checkpoint, the boy rushed to the trench. He took fistfuls of the spent shell casings and fitted them into his pockets hurriedly, his heart racing as if he had struck a gold deposit, but others could come and loot him any minute. Two kids he had not noticed before jumped into the trench beside him. One of them knelt on the wet soil and held the plastic sack, while his friend shoved the empty brass casings with both hands into the bag. Although the boy’s pockets and palms were full, he wanted to pick more. Then he stood there in the middle of the trench calculating how much money he would make from selling the casings in his pockets. The amount seemed insignificant compared to what the two kids would get. He envied them and their bags.

Silently but bitterly he walked out of the trench holding his waist-band and headed to Khala’s house. He knew that he had taken way longer than he should have, and that Mother was waiting for him with the broom in hand, but the jingling sound of the shells in his pockets comforted him.

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By the time he returned with the salt, life on the main street was back to normal. People stood in the line in front of the bakery to buy fresh bread for dinner. Zaman, Sarkanda, Nasro, and Habib sat in the checkpoint, exhausted yet at peace. They leaned their heads against the sandbags. The dog issue was not settled and the fight would go on, but for now they could enjoy the two joints that went around in the circle.

Across from the checkpoint, the porter scrubbed the blood from his wheelbarrow, and the vegetable seller was pouring water on his hands from a green plastic pitcher. Baba stood next to them holding his cup of tea. They talked, and every now and then they all laughed and shook their heads.

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The boy turned the corner towards home. He felt the first drop of rain on his bare collarbone. He looked up at the dark clouds and knew it was about to rain hard. He started to run, but his leg felt numb, just where the dog had bit him and where the man had bled. He stumbled, then found his footing, and ran again, limping. The shell casings jingled in his pockets with the sound of empty brass.

— Jamaluddin Aram

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Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and short story writer from Kabul. His documentaries My Teacher Is a Shopkeeper (part one, part two) and Unbelievable Journey have been screened in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. He is the associate producer of the Academy Award-nominated film Buzkashi Boys. He is currently pursuing a major in English with a concentration in creative writing at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

Feb 052017
 

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In this excerpt of Coming, his latest work in English translated by Charlotte Mandell, French Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explores the elusive and titillating word jouissance. This section is the second of a five part interview between Nancy and Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy. Through Van Reeth’s astute questions, Nancy discusses and elaborates on whether or not jouissance can ever be considered a solitary act by exploring some of his most favored topics: the body, sexuality, community, psychology, and Plato. —Melissa Considine Beck

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Adèle Van Reeth (AVR): Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the questions of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Jean-Luc Nancy (JLN): It is because, in jouissance, these two questions of object and subject are linked, that jouissance can be in such a proximity not only with joy, but also with réjouissance , exuberance in general. Exuberance is a word marked by femininity: It is the swelling of the breast (uber in Latin), the milk that gushes forth. We can also think of ecstasy, a word of Heidegger’s and Schelling’s that signifies “being outside of oneself,” or rather “élan, impetus, outside of oneself.” In this outside-of-self, appropriation is impossible, because in it the subject is not a thing, a substance, but a simple punctual “I,” which allows us to unify our representations. But this relationship no longer functions in jouissance, which implies rather that we abandon representation, and thus leave that “I” that can no longer accompany the experience of jouissance. I think that is really what we are talking about, that loss of a subject capable of saying “I.”

AVR: Yet jouissance, far from being abstract, is always an experience, which means that it holds meaning only for a particular person. For instance, if we confine ourselves to sexual jouissance, the one who is coming [jouit] can say, “I’m coming…” Who is this “I,” then, who comes?

JLN: This crucial question finds a privileged inscription in Sade, for whom the one who comes enters into a twofold relationship with destruction. First of all, the relationship of the one coming with the one with whom he or she comes is a relationship of possession pushed to the point of destruction; he is enjoying [jouit] the risk of opening a gaping chasm in the very place where what is causing him or her to come exists. But this relationship with destruction turns against the one coming himself, who can try to go as close as possible to his own death. In Sade, we find heroes who have themselves hanged in order to ejaculate, after asking their valets to cut the rope at just the right instant. It’s in these sorts of situations that, often, the Sadean hero says, I am coming [je jouis]. That is: I am being carried away by jouissance. The exclamation is torn from him. Often some sort of blasphemy is added: “Fucking God!”—which also testifies to his being carried away.

AVR: But does this mean that jouissance is inseparable from pain? Here, the person who says “I am coming” says it simultaneously with the experience of pain.

JLN: Pain is always present in jouissance, tangentially or asymptotically. The extreme intensity becomes unbearable, and perhaps one comes precisely from being at the limit: there where the height of excitation is exceeded and is beaten back, only finally to fail.

The Sadean hero intensifies the ambivalence of that instant when he cries out “fuck! [foutre],” which means baiser, and which he uses as a kind of condemnation or insult for what he is in the process of doing or undergoing. Today, we don’t say foutre much anymore, or else just to designate sperm (cum). The Sadean hero, though, says, “Fuck! In the name of God, I’m coming!”—It’s a proclamation. We can find these proclamations in a number of erotic poems, in Apollinaire’s Poems to Lou for instance, where they are addressed to the other: “You are coming!” We hear it, too, in the “come” [viens] of Deguy that we mentioned earlier. What’s more, in English, jouir is to come, venir.

AVR: …which we don’t hear in the French term of jouissance.

JLN: In fact, the term jouissance is difficult to translate in a certain number of languages. In English and German, there is no word that is in the same family. Either the register is sexual, or, more rarely, legalistic. In German, Genuss evokes more the idea of satisfaction. But being satisfied with something signifies having enough of it, which leads us to the opposite of jouissance. Of course, the possessive aspect of jouissance is also linked to the idea of satisfaction: I want to have enough of it. But what does “having enough of it” mean? That implies the idea of an objective measure, which can be that of my means: I possess so much money and I will be satisfied if I obtain everything this money allows me to possess. But can I have enough of something that has no measure? That makes no sense. If my desire is measureless, it will never have enough, it will never reach a threshold. That is what happens for jouissance: It occurs outside of any measure or any idea of a threshold. Which does not mean that it never terminates, but rather that it is very difficult to know that that stopping-point is made of.

I would even say that the property of jouissance is to be endlessly renewed. This is very striking in the case of aesthetic jouissance, which we find in works of art, and to which we will return. Why doesn’t art stop, why do people continue to create? Because in art as in sexual jouissance, we never say we’ve had “enough” of it. This idea makes no sense. If people continue to create and jouir, it’s because desire doesn’t stop when it takes one particular form. Because there is a constantly renewed desire, the desire to make new forms arise, that is, to make a new sensibility perceptible [sensible]. And this new sensibility is desired and created not because we lack something, or out of a compulsion for repetition, but because what is desired is the renewing of meaning as such. What art testifies to, then, is our desire to make sense infinitely.

AVR: Do you think that jouissance expresses a desire to meaning? If that is the case, this desire must emanate from someone, thus presupposing a subject of jouissance. But you have insisted on the dissolution of the subject in jouissance. Isn’t there a contradiction?

JLN: Unless we wonder if it’s desire itself that is the subject. In the same way that it’s language that speaks and makes us speak, it’s desire that is the subject of our desire. This desire has no relationship to self: It is impulse. When Freud says, “Impulses are our myths, and our doctrine of impulses is our mythology”—an extraordinarily bold, even provocative statement—he is expressing something very important. Here, we should understand “myth” in the sense of fiction, that is that space where explanation becomes useless; but we should understand it also as muthos, uttered speech. It is Plato who defines myth as a lying fable, whereas in Homer muthos refers to speech. There can be logos only because at a certain point, muthos opened the way to it, with Plato especially. What’s more, Plato set about fabricating his own myth, which is called philosophy.

Let’s return to Freud: What is an impulse? The term designates the fact of being unable to think of ourselves otherwise than as driven on by something, which you could call gods or material forces (you can choose your myth). Heidegger would say we are driven, set off by the very fact of being. Freud, however, does not tell us by what we are driven, but this movement is precisely what we find in jouissance.

AVR: Not only does jouissance have no precise subject, but might it be the sign of belonging to a community, something that surpasses the subject and makes us join with being? We are almost in the Kantian experience of the beautiful, which attests to a sense shared by everyone. Jouissance might be the locus for such a shared meaning, a common sensibility.

JLN: Exactly, because since I am not the owner of my jouissance, I still experience it in a way that I can actually be there where however I cannot find myself. It is not enough to say that the subject is lost in jouissance—rather it is as if the self is subjected to it, in the earlier sense of subject, the subject of a monarch. Jouissance is stronger than me, but this subjection I know comes from elsewhere. It comes to me from the other, from others. This is why there is no solitary jouissance. Already I can hear the objections pouring forth: “Of course there are solitary jouissances, everyone talks about solitary pleasure!” But precisely, the pleasure in question is not in fact solitary, because it cannot take place unless the subject places himself in exteriority in relation to himself—this can take several forms. First of all, this relationship is always imaginary, fantasy-based. Then, procuring pleasure by oneself implies a splitting in two [dédoublement] It’s a little like the famous chiasmus of Merleau-Ponty: When I touch my hand, I am both the hand that touches and that hand that is touched, I am both inside and outside. And when I touch myself, I experience this self as being outside of myself. I refer [rapporte] back to myself. This experience raises a classic question: Do I have a body or am I my body? To this very pertinent question we must reply: both. Because when I say I am my body, I cannot disregard the fact that I also possess it; and when I say I have a body, I am forced to note of this body that…I am it. Having a body refers to the object, being a body refers to the subject. But I myself am object as subject. At least so long as I regard my body not just as a tool. If I touch my body, and if my body touches itself to give itself pleasure, it is outside of itself. That said, masturbation is not exactly the same thing as the sexual relationship, since, precisely, in masturbation the other is reduced to the state of a fantasy. Whereas in the sexual relationship the other is not based on fantasy—although a certain kind of psychoanalysis says there is no sexual relationship without fantasy…

—Jean-Luc Nancy with Adèle Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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Jean-Luc Nancy is a widely published French philosopher. His books in English include Inoperative Community, The Disavowed Community, Being Singular Plural, The Birth of Presence.

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Adèle Van Reeth is the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy.

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Charlotte Mandell is an American literary translator. She has translated works by Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, Jules Verne, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Maurice Blanchot, Antoine de Baecque, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Jean-Luc Nancy and Jonathan Littell.

Feb 042017
 

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In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure?     —Melissa Considine Beck

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Coming
Jean-Luc Nancy with Adele Van Reeth
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Fordham University Press, 2016
168 pages, $22.00

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In this age of addiction and excessive consumption where massive modes of pleasure are readily available, have we completely fucked ourselves into oblivion? Do we give a fuck about fucking anymore? And now that we have come to the point of post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-privacy and post-truth, have we also arrived at the era of post-pleasure? There are just a few of the provocative questions that French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy raises in his book Coming as he explores the tricky, elusive and titillating French word jouissance and its various associations with orgasm, sex, coming, pleasure, joy, property and consumption.

Coming, which is the English translation of the French title la jouissance, takes the form of an interview, divided into five part as Adèle Van Reeth, the producer and host of France Cultural Radio’s daily program on philosophy, asks Nancy a series of questions about the idea of jouissance.  Through the course of this dialogue, Nancy lays out the original meaning of jouissance, which was used solely as a legal term, and he takes us on a fascinating linguistic journey to discover how this word evolved to become associated with sexual pleasure and orgasm and from consummation is now associated with the modern idea of consumption. This book is an excellent introduction for those who are new to Nancy or for those who are familiar with his prolific writings as it contains some of his most favored topics: community, modern psychology, linguistics, Christianity, the body, sex and Platonism, just to name a few.

Nancy made the suggestion of using the infinitive, “To Come” for the English title of this book but Charlotte Mandell thought that the gerund “Coming” would be a better choice to capture the continual nature of movement associated with jouissance. Included in the edition published by Fordham University Press is a beginning note that Nancy writes himself in which he explains the problem with rendering jouissance into an appropriate English title:

In English, sexual orgasm is expressed by the verb “to come.” This has no corresponding noun. What is shared by both lexical registers is an idea of accomplishment. In French, we say venir (to come) for “reaching jouissance,” but the word is mostly used between sexual partners (“viens!” for example.) In choosing the gerund “coming,” Charlotte Mandell aptly brings out action or movement, something that is in the process of occurring, which, in fact, is attached to jouissance and to jouir; that is, precisely, what remains irreducible either to a state or to an acquisition, to an accomplishment or to an appropriation.

It is interesting to note that throughout the text of Coming, jouissance is simply translated in brackets as “pleasure” or is not translated at all, a constant reminder of the elusive nature of this word that has no equivalent translation in English.

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Defining Jouissance: What the fuck does this French word mean?

Nancy is a master at speaking about the nuances of language and uncovers, unpacks and explains specific French words, with their etymological roots in Latin, that are closely related to jouissance. He begins the discussion with an examination of the French verb Jouir, which means “to enjoy” and “to have an orgasm,” and is derived from the Latin verb gaudere, “to rejoice,” and therefore has no etymological relationship to sex or sexuality. At some point there is a shift in meaning of jouissance from property to sexual pleasure and orgasm. Nancy speculates that this shift begins with the middle French use of joie (joy) which denotes the sensual or sexual feelings of the troubadour poets; these poets have a joy of love that is sensual but jouissance, in the sense of reaching orgasm, is avoided. Nancy exclaims, “One of the ordeals of courtly love even consisted of the knight sleeping with his lady without making love!”

He further explores this shift in meaning by comparing the French words jouissance [pleasure] and joy [joie] and how they are different. Nancy argues that jouisssance corresponds to what Kant called pleasant—when something is pleasant it is something that is felt inside of me because something suits me. Joy, however, is outside of me and carries me towards something else. Nancy goes one step further in the etymological connections of various words to jouissance and explains réjouissance (rejoicing), whose root and meaning are very close to jouissance. Nancy points out that réjouissance is not used very often today and when it is used it describes something that is public such as popular festivities. Nancy concludes about the etymological connection between réjouissance and jouissance:

The idea of festivities, réjouissances, refers to festive excess, to a certain suspension of everyday activities, but also to obligation and finality. That is where we find jouissance, in the sense of joyful acclamations greeting the arrival of an important person, like the jouissance of the people at the arrival of the king.

We can say, then, that joy and réjouissance are like jouissance in that they all denote an excess. The idea of excess and its association with jouissance will be a topic brought repeated throughout Coming. Jouissance is an experience of excessive sexual pleasure in the form of orgasm which experience we seek over and over again.

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Jouissance as a shared experience: Is it possible to fuck alone?

The style of interview works exceptionally well for Coming because not only does Van Reeth adeptly sum up Nancy’s complicated thoughts, but she also asks him precise questions which elicit more of his ideas; Van Reeth is able to challenge Nancy to expound on his positions and she keeps the dialogue moving forward rather fluidly. In this part of the interview that deals with the subject and the object in the context of jouissance, Van Reeth begins:

Jouissance as experience implies a dissolution of the subject as well as the impossibility of appropriating its object. How then can we define what makes us enjoy [jouir]? And above all, since the question of object goes back to that of the subject: Who is it that enjoys [jouit]?

Nancy insists that jouissance has no specific subject because I am not the owner of my jouissance. How can it be possible for a person to own an orgasm if his or her sexual climax involves another person, another body. What I take pleasure from is just as much my pleasure as it is the pleasure of the other with whom I am engaging in a sexual relationship. Nancy brilliantly anticipates his critics who would argue that masturbation disproves the nonexistence of subject and takes his argument a step further by stating that when pleasuring oneself the other is still present in the form of a fantasy. So when we fuck, we are never fucking alone even if there isn’t another physical body in the room.

It during this part of the discussion that Nancy brings up Lacan and his exploration of jouissance in relation to the pleasure principal. Lacan believes that a subject attempts to go beyond, to transgress the pleasure principal and this brings about pain. It is with this excess, with this reaching of pleasure beyond a limit that Lacan defines jouissance. Although Nancy has been critical of modern psychology throughout his career, he credits Lacan with his effort “to try to find the meaning of jouissance, beyond the fulfillment of satisfaction, into a sortie, outside oneself, into exuberance, ecstasy….”

Van Reeth’s importance in this philosophical exchange is underscored in this section as she further presses Nancy on Lacan’s examination of jouissance:

How do you understand Lacan’s phrase asserting there is no sexual relationship? If there is no sexual relationship, there is no sexual jouissance. But wouldn’t it be truer to understand not that jouissance is impossible, but that it is inconceivable? Just as the fact that there is no sexual relationship would signify that there is no thinkable relationship. It would be a way to preserve the space unique to jouissance as experience.

Nancy’s insight into Lacan is a starting point for his thoughts on jouissance as a shared experience and it will also serve as a prompt from which to discuss the links between aesthetic and sexual jouissance in the next section of the interview:

That is probably what Lacan means. ‘There is no sexual relationship’ can be understood in several ways: There is no proportion, no commensurability, no conclusion either. The sexual relationship cannot be written down. The implication is: there is no account of it, no ‘report’ [rapport, which also means ‘relationship]’ But it is precisely to that extent that there is a real rapport, which demands incommensurability and a form of non-conclusion. A relationship is maintained [s’entretient]. It is not completed. A completed, accomplishment is either a breakup, or a fusion. And in fusion there is no longer any relationship. It would be truer to say, then, that jouissance is inconceivable, not impossible.

In sum, pleasure comes down to a matter of shared meaning whether there is a sexual partner or not. At the end of this section dealing with subject and shared pleasure, Nancy makes one of the simplest, yet thought-provoking statements in this entire volume: Where does sexuality begin and where does it stop? He concludes, “Perhaps it begins very, very far from the sexual act itself.”

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Aesthetic and Sexual Jouissance: Fucking in motion

Even though Nancy argues that jouissance is never a solitary experience, he also explains that pleasure is unshareable, much in the same way that aesthetic pleasure is a singular experience, unique to each individual.  As he opens thoughts on the link between sexual jouissance and aesthetic jouissance, Nancy points out that it is Freud who first establishes the transfer of aesthetic jouissance to sexual jouissance. Nancy’s criticism of psychology becomes apparent as he disagrees with Freud on his speculation that there is a specific order in which seduction happens—gazing, hearing, touching, must happen first, Freud argues, and only at the end of this progression does Freud finally come to the genitalia through which the tension in the form of orgasm is released.

This part of the discussion in which Nancy brings his reader to understand the connection between sexual and aesthetic jouissance is typical of his very dense, erudite, and multifaceted writing. He references various texts of Freud, he dissects more Latin words via Spinoza, he mentions the young Chilean philosopher Juan Manuel Garrido, he quotes David Hume, and he reaches all the way back to the ancient texts of Plato to make a point about pleasure. As I carefully read his text which is thick with history, philosophy and literature, I take notes, I read or reread authors whose books are sitting on my shelf to whom Nancy has referenced, I search the Internet for authors unknown to me, which laborious activities sometimes feel like a feeble attempt to absorb the full scope of his genius. But all of a sudden, at the end of a complicated series of thoughts, Nancy composes a short, simple, beautiful, concise paragraph that grabs me so forcefully that I pause my frenzy of research:

What we enjoy in an aesthetic form is the movement of this form, even though it ends up being completed. What’s more, an aesthetic form is probably never exhausted and, on the contrary, does not stop enjoying itself (jouir d’elle-meme).

And a bit further on in the same discussion:

In jouissance, they [bodies] become almost formless. Which is radically opposed to that call to eroticism, in advertising or movies, always summoning beautiful, perfected forms. Whereas in eroticism, in eros, these forms become undone.

Nancy reveals in these two simple yet erudite statements that in art there is no formula for what is considered beautiful. Furthermore, we can carry this over to jouissance in which there is no formula to be followed; each person experiences beauty, art and sexual jouissance in his or her own unique way this experience is impossible to share. In a relationship there are no accepted forms or defined forms of beauty, these forms are uniquely decided by the persons within a relationship.

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The Creative Power of Jouissance: Is There an Art to Fucking?

Nancy’s discussion of the link between sexual and aesthetic jouissance, with a particular emphasis on the art of writing, is the most accessible and interesting piece of this interview. Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again. “The artist,” he argues, “is in action in his work, and he also takes pleasure [jouit] from being in the process of working. He suffers too, it’s always laborious.”

Nancy is a prominent and well-known contributor to the studies of art and his cultural writings have covered the topics of literature, poetry, theater, music and film. Nancy has written books on the subject of art and has also written pieces for international art journals and art catalogs. He has a text from a lecture given 1992 at the Louvre displayed with the painting ‘The death of the virgin’ by the Italian painter Caravaggio. It is fitting that Fordham University Press has used a Caravaggio painting for this edition of Coming thereby reminding us of Nancy’s interest in the Italian painter.

In order to lead Nancy into elaborating on the similarities between the pleasure of art, specifically the art of writing, and sex, Van Reeth reads a passage from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in which the author asserts that writing and sexuality bring about the same pleasure. In a letter dated April 13, 1903 from Viarregio, near Pisa, Rilke writes:

And in fact artistic experiences lies so incredibly close to that of sex, to its pain and its ecstasy, that the two manifestations are indeed but different forms of one and the same yearning and delight.

Nancy picks up on the idea that Rilke is speaking of writing as working toward the unknown, without a goal, which is also true for artists who work with music or paint. The art passes through the artist to the spectator who experiences the work of art through a plethora of senses. In the end the artist has no real understanding of how his or her work is received, of the various ways in which someone experiences pleasure through his or her art. The pleasure that is experienced by the spectator as a result of interacting with his work is unshareable just as the experience of sexual jouissance. When we speak about sexual pleasure and orgasm, is there really a word or phrase that captures a good fuck? How can we truly and accurately describe the best fuck we’ve ever had? The experience is unshareable when we make any attempt to put it in words.

The true brilliance of Nancy’s dissection of language comes with his elaboration on the verbal similarities of art and sex. Artistic media such as color and rhythm are used to describe both art and sex. Rhythm, for instance, is present in an art’s use of color and can also be applied to the lover’s caress of the body. The best sex is enjoyed when lovers find a rhythm and Rhythm is a coming-and-going, a constant movement a repetition. Nancy concludes about rhythm:

Rhythm in general is born from what is never definitively there, from what does not stay in place and causes us to return, what leads to jouissance. Rhythm is fundamental for humans, bur for nature as well; think of the rhythm of the stars.

Art and sex cannot exist without movement. It is the seduction, the process, the rhythm that leads to artistic and sexual jouissance

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Suffering and Fucking—Christianity’s Influence on jouissance

The fourth part of the book, dealing with Christianity and its influence on jouissance is the shortest and the least stimulating part of the dialogue. Nancy has been interested in and critical of Christianity throughout his career and we get a cursory survey of his thoughts in this section. Throughout their dialogue on pleasure, Nancy and Van Reeth both tangentially bring up the close relationship between pleasure and suffering. Nancy sites the works of de Sade as an example of jouisssance being the result of pain inflicted on another or on oneself. Pain and pleasure have an intensity in common and in the moments before orgasm the tension that one experiences can be painful. Van Reeth uses the example of Proust’s narrator who, in the beginning of Sodome et Gomorrhe, describes the very noisy sexual encounter between Baron de Charlus and Julien as akin to the sound of a man having his throat split. The narrator concludes, “if there is one thing as loud as suffering, it’s pleasure.”

Nancy begins the section by arguing that Christianity was the calming solution to the disintegration of the theocratic regimes, the loss of which political system caused great anxiety and unrest. Christianity brings to mankind the idea that life is simply a passage to another spiritual side, a passage that is marked by suffering. It is the Passion of Christ that provides us with a redemptive kind of suffering and suffering is specifically attached to life on earth. One must pass through suffering in this life in order to attain salvation. As a result there is a definitive break and distinction between heavenly joy and human joy. Because of Christianity’s condemnation of the flesh, earthly pleasures such as human joy and jouissance become evil and separate from heavenly joy and jubilation. It is fitting that their discussion on Christianity and suffering, even in relation to jouissance, is the most somber part of Van Reeth and Nancy’s dialogue.

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From Consummation to Consumption: Do we give a fuck about anything anymore?

Nancy explains that Christianity was an attempt to organize people into one community, but the appearance of a modern state served to divide individuals until the invention of capitalism. “which would insert the individual subject into the circuit of a new jouissance: no longer the jouissance of excess, but that of accumulation and investment. It’s a jouissance that can no longer bear that name.” Van Reeth asks Nancy what, exactly, has changed to cause the meaning of jouissance to shift once again.

It was Communism, Nancy argues, that provided the connection between jouissance and profit, which political theory believed that everyone’s hard work will produce profits that can be equally shared by all –this sharing of profits would be a source of jouissance. But nowadays, people are working harder than ever and the profits are accumulated by a very small percentage of the upper classes. Nancy argues that jouissance has now come full circle to be associated with its legal meaning which is that of possession and acquisition.

Today, jouissance has become confused with and associated with profit as well as property.   Excess has now taken on a quantitative definition in that we must possess the greatest possible number of things that we can. Nancy concludes: “It has left heaven, joy, to land again on earth.” With the ubiquity of things that we consume that push us to the brink of addition—little blue pills, a plethora of opiates, internet pornography—jouissance today has evolved into a kind of greedy consumption in which excess has become the norm. With the disappearance of excess what is left that gives us pleasure? Have we landed in an epoch of post-pleasure?

In this final part of the dialogue when Nancy brings up modern ideas of consumption and their relation to jouissance he shows that he has continued to think about philosophical topics and how they can be applied to current social and political situations. Orgasm, masturbation, sexual pleasure, addiction, and jouissance itself are topics that seem more fitting for the field of psychology and have not been explored by philosophers. Despite his years of suffering through grave illnesses and his advanced age, Nancy proves in the publication of Coming that he is as relevant and progressive as ever in his field.

Although Coming is a short book, some might be intimidated by the breadth and depth of Nancy’s thought. It is, however, an excellent and thorough introduction to the wide range of ideas on which Nancy has expertly written and a scintillating discussion of pleasure, sex, orgasm, fucking, desire, pain, and how we experience these things with our bodies. The interview style of the text in which Van Reeth summarizes Nancy’s main points and propels the conversation forward with her questions makes Coming one of his most accessible and fucking enjoyable books.

—Melissa Considine Beck

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m-beck-bio-pic

Melissa Beck has a B.A. and an M.A. in Classics. She also completed most of a Ph.D. in Classics for which her specialty was Seneca, Stoicism and Roman Tragedy. But she stopped writing her dissertation after the first chapter so she could live the life of wealth and prestige by teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to students at Woodstock Academy in Northeastern Connecticut. She now uses the copious amounts of money that she has earned as a teacher over the course of the past eighteen years to buy books for which she writes reviews on her website The Book Binder’s Daughter. Her reviews have also appeared in World Literature Today and The Portland Book Review. She has an essay on the nature of the soul forthcoming in the 2017 Seagull Books catalog and has contributed an essay about Epicureanism to the anthology Rush and Philosophy..

Feb 032017
 

ingrid-valencia-photo-by-pascual-borzelliPhoto by Pascual Borzelli

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Flesh, destruction, the city at night, ash and fog—at times Ingrid Valencia’s poems hint towards some kind of apocalyptic landscape through which she wanders with a keen eye. However, throughout her prize-winning recent collection, Oscúrame, the destitution is always tempered by the presence of the sensual, the bodily, the physical. In the black city that calls her name she is not really alone. Her dark night of the soul belongs to us all, there is solace to be found. The poems collected here are translated by Jack Little. — Dylan Brennan

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OF THE FALL

It is not the tremor but the wound
that sinks his eyes
under night’s water
and gives an incandescent voice
to the suburbs of the tongue.

They are the gears of time
those which polish our way
for a life full
of rivers that criss-cross.

It is the dumbness of the show
a manner of speaking,
to give to another, the days.

It is not the flesh but the destruction,
the slight sound of machines
which form circles in the plaza of the body.

We are merely eyelids
which open to the night,
to the endless noise
of urgency.

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DE LA CAÍDA

No es el temblor sino la herida
la que hunde sus ojos
bajo el agua de la noche
y entrega una voz incandescente
a los suburbios de la lengua.

Son los engranes del tiempo
los que pulen nuestro paso
por una vida repleta
de ríos que se cruzan.

Es la mudez del espectáculo
una forma de hablar,
de entregar a otro los días.

No es la carne sino la destrucción,
el leve sonido de las máquinas
que forma círculos en la plaza del cuerpo.

No somos sino párpados
que se abren a la noche,
al ruido interminable
de la urgencia.

§

IZTACCÍHUATL

This is the volcano
upon a wooded canvas.
This is the same sky
which assembles the dance.
This is the fog
which encloses the forest.
These are the eyes of my parents.
The bodies of children
offered to water
like scorching stones.
This is the ascent to the mountain,
the lightness of these steps
aching
between the highest trunks.
This is the sun appearing
between the hills.
This is the slowness
of humid earth
which spreads.
This is the night
that stains
an aged body.
I charge the lanes of the skin,
the fragility of its bridges,
the act of forgetting, the defeat.
This is life, one afternoon
which folds and traverses
fear, supplication
to return, one day more,
to the alleyways of astonishment

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IZTACCÍHUATL

Este es el volcán
sobre un lienzo arbolado.
Este es el mismo cielo
que recoge la danza.
Esta es la niebla
que cierra el bosque.
Estos son los ojos de mis padres.
Los cuerpos de los niños
ofrecidos al agua
como piedras ardientes.
Este es el ascenso a la montaña,
la levedad de los pasos
que duelen
entre troncos altísimos.
Este es el sol asomado
entre los cerros.
Esta es la lentitud
de la tierra húmeda
que se esparce.
Esta es la noche
que mancha
un cuerpo envejecido.
Cargo las veredas de la piel,
la fragilidad de sus puentes,
el olvido y la derrota.
Esta es la vida, una tarde
que se pliega y recorre
el temor, la súplica
de volver, un día más,
a los callejones del asombro

§

THE DAYS

I

I look at the dust, the days,
the cage of the streets, the coins, the faces.
I recognise the rain
in this open city,
on this gray bridge,
on a jaunt
of those who lose
their body between ashes.
I am where the wind agitates
and I hear the distance,
the steps of the people,
childhood at the center of a town square
to the centre of a box,
a letter which names me.

II

I am attached to the silence
of trees
when they sway the night.
I walk between eyes
that close,
that return
that inhabit the spectral zones
of a cradle,
images sprout
the eyes light up in horror.
Eyes that forget.
Eyes that deny
the projection of shadows,
of slender trunks
to the bottom of a stage,
of a corridor,
of the prolonged years,
spent.

III

Eyes that stop
in the crevice, in the neck
of afternoons.
Eyes that bury
lights, the marks
the gaps, the flesh.
I look at them in the dust,
in the days,
in the cage of the streets
and I hear the sounds,
the beginning of the journey,
the future of the city
inside mildewed fountains.
They are the eyes, they are the skins
the show, the triumph
of approaching the light,
The look that touches
even what is not,
that which disappears.

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LOS DÍAS

I

Miro el polvo, los días,
la jaula de las calles, las monedas, los rostros.
Reconozco la lluvia
en esta ciudad abierta,
en este puente gris,
en este andar
de los que pierden
el cuerpo entre cenizas.
Estoy donde se agita el viento
y escucho la distancia,
los pasos de la gente,
la infancia al centro de una plaza
al centro de una caja,
de una carta con mi nombre.

II

Estoy adherida al silencio
de los árboles
cuando mecen la noche.
Camino entre ojos
que se cierran,
que regresan,
que habitan las zonas
espectrales de una cuna,
Las imágenes brotan
Los ojos se iluminan de horror.
Ojos que olvidan.
Ojos que niegan
la proyección de sombras,
de troncos esbeltos
al fondo de un escenario,
de un pasillo,
de los años gastados
que se prolongan.

III

Ojos que se detienen
en la grieta, en el cuello
de las tardes.
Ojos que entierran
las luces, las marcas
los vacíos, la carne.
Yo los miro en el polvo,
en los días,
en la jaula de las calles
y escucho los sonidos,
el comienzo del recorrido,
el futuro de la ciudad
dentro de fuentes enmohecidas.
Son los ojos, son las pieles
el espectáculo, el triunfo
de aproximar la luz,
la mirada que toca
incluso lo que no está,
lo que desaparece.

§

EVERYBODY’S NIGHT

They are our words
that we abandon,
ours, the stars
that bring us closer
to the mire, to the cross, to the circle,
to the chains of humans
who cry and sing.They are yesterday’s trails
those of tomorrow,
the leaves on the trees,
the wind, the mouths, the wheel,
the chair, the staircase,
the swing and the eyes.
They are our languages
which we forget, burials.
Thus we are full of objects,
of seams, of borrowed hands
towards the final day,
everybody’s night.

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LA NOCHE DE TODOS

Son nuestras las palabras
que abandonamos,
nuestros los astros
que nos acercan
al lodo, a la cruz, al círculo,
a la cadena de humanos
que gritan y cantan.
Son los senderos de ayer,
los de mañana,
las hojas de los árboles,
el viento, las bocas, la rueda,
la silla, la escalera,
el columpio y los ojos.
Son nuestros los lenguajes
que olvidamos, los entierros.
Así vamos llenos de objetos,
de costuras, de manos prestadas
hacia el último día,
la noche de todos.

§

I AM

I am the stone hurled
several hours ago
at the street curb,

in the black city
that calls my name.

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SOY

Soy la roca lanzada
hace ya varias horas
a la orilla de la calle,

de la ciudad negra
que me nombra.

§

OPENING

I bite at daytime’s notebooks,
I tear out the letters on the clock,

I lose myself in each hand,
in the water that covers me,
in the people who remember,

in the words that open
night’s ashen petals.

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APERTURA

Muerdo los cuadernos del día,
arranco las letras del reloj,

me pierdo en la mano,
en el agua que me cubre,
en la gente que recuerda,

en las palabras que abren
los pétalos cenizos de la noche.

— Ingrid Valencia, Translated from the Spanish by Jack Little.

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Ingrid Valencia was born in Mexico City in 1983. She is a poet, editor and arts and cultural manager. She founded and ran the arts journal La Manzana, arte & psique from 2005 to 2010. For the past six years she has acted as coordinating editor for Cuicuilco, revista de ciencias antropológicas for the ENAH (National School of Anthropology and History). She has written six books of poetry including La inacabable sombra [Literalia Editores, 2008], De Nebra [La Ceibita / Conaculta, 2013], One Ticket [French trans. by Odelin Salmeron, La Grenouillère / Literalia Editores, 2015], Taxidermia [Ediciones El Humo / Conaculta, 2015], and Un círculo en otro sol [English trans. by Don Cellini, Ofi Press, 2016]. Her most recent book, Oscúrame [Diputación de Salamanca, España, 2016] won the Premio de Poesía “Pilar Fernández Labrador” prize at Salamanca in 2016.

§

jack-little-picture

Jack Little is a British-Mexican poet, editor and translator based in Mexico City and Palma de Mallorca. In 2015, Jack participated in the International Book Fair in Mexico City, reading his work in the Zócalo of Mexico’s capital. He is the founding editor of The Ofi Press, an online cultural journal with an international focus now in its 51st edition. Jack will publish a series of e-books of young Mexican poets in translation throughout 2016 and 2017, the first three of which are available to download for free from The Ofi Press website, one of which was written by Ingrid Valencia. His first pamphlet ‘Elsewhere’ was published by Eyewear in the summer of 2015 and his most recent work has been published in Periódico de Poesía, Otoliths, Wasafiri, Lighthouse, M56, The Human Journal and Numéro Cinq. Jack was the poet in residence at The Heinrich Böll Cottage on Achill Island in the west of Ireland in July 2016. www.ofipress.com

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Feb 022017
 

Version 6

x
ABSTRACT

As a three-year-old, my son was a philosopher king. One day, in all sincerity, he asked, Why can’t the good people just kill all the bad?

I have a personal relationship with Jesus, who was able to procure a list that his father’s meticulous angels had drawn up. My credit cards are linked to air miles, which I have never spent. With the list, free global travel, and my (legal) assault rifle, I was able to dispatch the undesirable. The babies initially posed a quandary: on the list, destined for a life of casual cruelty and selfishness, but what would happen once I offed their inevitably corrupting parents? What if the babies were raised by kind people? It’s always nature versus nurture.

If I thought any of this would work, yes. There is nothing I wouldn’t try to make this world safe for my son. What to do?

You can’t promise the child a just, or kind, or beautiful world. But you can teach him where to find it, in snatched glances and in-between spaces. You can teach him how to look.

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LITERATURE REVIEW

The pig running with a knife stuck in its back is already roasted. The bent-over nun is bare-bottomed. Baked fish fly from stream to plate, the shacks are made of sugar, the pastry roads flake under your feet. You are never cold and can sleep all day. A paradise, a parody, a broke-back peasant’s dream. You come to Cockaigne by way of Breughel, or medieval poems. Cockaigne, variant Cockney. Coken, of cocks, and ey, egg. Meaning, the cock’s egg, an impossible thing.

The men of Plato’s Republic shared wives, children, and resources. The original Utopians – Thomas More’s – shat in gold chamber pots. Their slaves were shackled with gold, and their prisoners were crowned with riches. Wealth was dirty, something to be eschewed. These were theoretical – or satirical – attempts to deal with enduring human problems: sex, money, work, power. The jealous guarding, coveting and/or avoidance thereof.

Superimpose the dream of a just society onto the vision of a lost city of gold and you will, like Candide, see Voltaire’s El Dorado. Built of gold and silver, the city is stately and well-proportioned. Children play with unhewn chunks of ruby, emerald, and sapphire; a sense of ease derives from this great wealth. Peace and great contentment, beauty and science. There are no prisoners or priests.

Utopia literally means no place. An impossible thing.

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Seaside

The town of Seaside is privately owned, which means that the developers were able to make it almost exactly how they wanted. Architects of the ideal. The village is designed to be walkable, with useful and attractive public spaces. Located on the coast as the name suggests, or rather, prudently set back several hundred feet, it is the town where The Truman Show was shot. The pastel houses come in various flavors: Victorian, Neoclassical, Modern, Postmodern, and Deconstructivist, all with friendly front porches. The town has a motto: A simple, beautiful life.

My mother and father took me and my sisters and their families to Seaside one year for a holiday get-together. Although I was still single, my sisters had small children, and the Florida coast seemed like safe bet for an easy and pleasant beach vacation. It was all that: easy, safe, pleasant.

The Seaside Institute, founded and run by the town’s developers, has an “academic center” in the middle of town. The Institute’s mission is to “help people create great communities.” Apparently, it was founded on the premise that great communities can be created, ex nihilo, by a group of hard-working, well-intentioned, great people.

I remember walking the streets in search of a meal. The streets, the sidewalks, the manicured yards, and the friendly front porches were always empty.

seaside_florida_architecture Architectural styles in Seaside, Florida (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Ecotopia

In Ecotopia, trees are worshipped, love is free, technology is embraced, and a woman is president. The borders are secured; a hefty arsenal keeps the little country safe. The late Ernest Callenbach, earnest prophet, early recycler, organic gardner, film buff, and author of the eponymous novel from the 1970s, imagined what might happen if the feminists, Black nationalists, and environmentalists of that time created a great community and seceded from the union. The book’s form is that of a visiting journalist’s diary; it is widely taught in colleges now.

In Ecotopia, Black people have retreated to Soul City – formerly Oakland, CA – their own country within a county.

The culture of Soul City is of course different from that of Ecotopia generally. It is a heavy exporter of music and musicians…

The people living in Soul City are flashier, drinking high quality Scotch whisky, trading in luxury good, driving private cars.

And, the (white) Ecotopians love Indians:

Many Ecotopians are sentimental about Indians, and there’s some sense in which they envy the Indians their lost natural place in the American wilderness. Indeed this probably a major Ecotopian myth; keep hearing references to what Indians would or wouldn’t do in a given situation. Some Ecotopian articles – clothing and baskets and personal ornamentation – perhaps directly Indian in inspriation.

This, despite the presence of any real Native Americans.

Non-lethal war games help men discharge their natural aggression. Kind of:

Goddam woman is impossible! Got really turned on at the war games…and made no resistance when one of the winning warriors came up, propositioned her, and literally carried her away (she weighs about 130)…Later…she was relaxed and floppy, and I tossed her around on the bed a little roughly, wouldn’t let her up, more or less raped her. She seemed almost to have expected this.

Can’t blame Callenbach for trying, but a single author will always be limited in his vision for other people. Stereotypes, segregation, erasure, rape. All with the best of intentions. And with some good ideas mixed in.

eftelingthemeparktalkingtreeEfteling Theme Park Talking Tree

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Cascadia

If Ecotopia took a deep breath, expanded its borders to include parts of British Columbia, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, it would be Cascadia, the bioregion where I live and for which there are occasional secessionist agitations. There is a flag for Cascadia and I’ve seen bumper stickers around town, though have yet to see a referendum on the ballot. Not surprisingly, the cultures and the boundaries of the two hypothetical countries more or less align with one another and with the real Pacific Northwest.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, before Ecotopia or Cascadia were dreamed up and named, this area was home to a number of communes and experiments in ideal (white) society. The West was a place for imagination and ambition; smallpox and colonialism had made vast swaths of it almost unpeopled. Men with grand socialist ambitions believed that the Pacific Northwest – Washington State in particular – could be a petri dish in which socialist colonies would take hold, and then infect the whole country.

Harmony, Freeland, and Home were all well-established colonies in northwest Washington. Equality thrived until an arsonist burnt it down.

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Omelas

I was a child who regarded the adult world as inherently corrupt or, at best, misguided. I felt affirmed in this when I read about Ursula Le Guin’s Omelas, the perfect world made possible by the existence of a single spot of suffering. A child locked in a cramped, filthy basement, a child who is kicked and beaten, fed just enough to keep alive, a child who is alone and unloved. A child who is taken from the good life once s/he is old enough to remember the good life; this point of reference allows the child to understand the depth and injustice of his or her suffering.

The prosperity, health, kindness, and gentle wisdom of Omelas, are all because of the child’s misery. Most citizens of this Utopia accept that this is simply the way their perfect world works, but some are appalled, and blow that popsicle stand. Walk away, and never come back.

A side-note: Omelas, or at least its namesake, would be located in Ecotopia. Omelas is Salem, the capital of Oregon, spelled backwards. With an O slapped on for euphony.

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America

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. – Preamble to the United States Constitution

And. What we lock in the basement.

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Z.1

We don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. – Howard Zinn

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Z.2

The Mato Grosso region of Brazil is covered in trees. It’s a jungle. According to legend and rumor, there was a grand city tucked away in the Amazonian rainforest. Many men of European descent searched there for what they believed might be the true El Dorado. Percy Fawcett, a British explorer of the early 20th century, was obsessed with the place. He took clues from Indigenous stories and Manuscript 512, a document he came across in Rio de Janeiro library archives in 1920. The account, presumably by the Portuguese bandareinte (settler and fortune hunter) João da Silva Guimarães, is titled Historical Relation of a hidden and great city of ancient date, without inhabitants, that was discovered in the year 1753. It tells of gold in the streams and buried treasure, as well as of a grand, abandoned city.

Fawcett wanted not gold, but to name, claim, and chart the world. A knowledge conquest. He called this city Z, and referred to it only cryptically in his notes and letters. Fawcett made it his life’s work to find Z. In 1925, on his eighth expedition, Fawcett, his son, and his son’s best friend vanished into the jungle. They were last seen crossing the Upper Xingu River.

There were rumours that Fawcett had been eaten by cannibals, rumours that he’d gone native and become a tribal king. Z was dismissed as yet another El Dorado delusion, the entire Amazon was seen as a counterfeit paradise, incapable of sustaining urban life, and Fawcett was dismissed as a crank and a dilettante.

Crazy, but Fawcett was right. Z was there all along. Within reach, or almost.

Kuhikugu is a vast archeological complex at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Brazil. Where Fawcett thought the City of Z would be. The Kuikuro are likely descendants of the estimated 50,000 people who lived in Kuhikugu about 1,000 years ago. When archeologists started listening to the Kuikuro and then looking at satellite imagery enhanced by LiDAR, they started seeing Kuhikugo. The towns of Kuhikugu are mathematically laid out on cardinal points, connected by roads, bridges, and canals, protected by palisades and concentric moats. The presence of terra preta, a type of soil that is formed by long-term cultivation, and of earthen berms likely indicate agriculture and fish-farming.

kuhikuguKuhikugu archeological complex

Increasingly, there is thought that the Americas were populous, urbanized, and widely farmed prior to European contact. The myth of El Dorado didn’t spring from nothing: conquistadors, bandeirantes, European explorers, Jesuits did see gold, riches, and great cities. But like the physics principle that tells us observation changes what we see, the European reporters infected the subjects of their reportage with disease. The natives died. In the Amazon, the jungle swallowed the cities whole.

What failed in the quest for Z, for El Dorado, was imagination, or sight.

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Z.3

Every alphabet comes to an end. From sea to shining Z. There is speculation that American democracy – our attempt at a just society – is at an end. Our new President won by promising safety and freedom for some people at the expense of safety and freedom for other people. By promising the return of a lost Utopia. Make America Great Again.

If Americans had been able to see this country has never been just and great for all who live here, and, too, if Americans had been able to see the very real – if imperfect – greatness of a country founded on ideals of equality and justice, maybe they wouldn’t have felt a need to make it great again. Maybe they would’ve voted more modestly, for making America incrementally better.

mapofutopia1Map of a Utopia

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METHODOLOGY

I look for meaning in a small room. My analyst is a tiny, birdlike woman. She speaks softly, and can say shocking things. She sits in her chair. I sit on the couch. It is too soft. I would never dream of lying down. There’s a view of a parking lot and also a microbrewery.

The purpose of my visits with her are wholeness, integrity. She is a Jungian, so she comes at all this from the perspective that you have to dredge the unconscious, sift through your dark, ugly, unseen, painful matter. You must unfold, unpack, remember, shake out everything that’s been pressed: depressed, repressed, oppressed. Everything you’ve locked up, you must release. Everything in the basement gets hauled upstairs, into the sunlight.

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PRESENT STUDY

A few years ago, my husband, our young son, my mother and I went to a villa in Baja that both friends and the internet promised was heaven on earth. It had been a hard winter.

What we now call Baja California was thought by Spanish conquistadors to be an island, quite possibly the island paradise described in a novel popular at the time.

At the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to that part of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was inhabited by black women without a single man among them, and they lived in the manner of Amazons. They were robust of body with strong passionate hearts and great virtue.  – Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, The Adventures of Esplandián

islandofcaliforniaIsland of California

We took a rough dirt road – an arroyo, really – from the airport on the Pacific coast to our destination on the Gulf. It was night. My mother was buckled in, she’s religious about seat belts and safety, if not about God or anything else. She was also clinging to the handle above the car’s door and offering helpful driving tips, like slow down. My husband was driving, maybe a little fast. My son was bouncing in the back seat next to me, thrilled for any kind of adventure. There were no villages, no houses, no streetlights along the way. Our world was limited to the wan beams of our headlights. When we finally came to the other side, we unknowingly shot by the villa, and had to backtrack to find it.

Morning, and we woke to beauty.

We wandered up to a palapa for breakfast – buckwheat pancakes and great slabs of papaya – and then one of the owners gave us a tour. He was a soft-spoken gringo of late middle age, polite, not effusive. The villa was comprised of a main house, where the owners lived, and a number of casitas. The workmanship of the place was meticulous; the balconies and curved balustrades, the tilework, the fountains. The owners themselves had built the place. Please stay away from the main house, on the paths that wind through the yucca, the palms, the plumeria, and hibiscus. I saw a wild fox perched atop a saguaro.

As my mother, my husband, our guide, and I stood on a terrace gazing out to the sea – I remember I was running my hand up along a smooth, coral-colored Tuscan column – we heard a splash behind us.

My then five-year-old son was at the bottom of the pool. He didn’t know how to swim. Fully clothed, I jumped in to save him. I was wearing a long skirt which covered my face as I entered the water. I reached out blindly. My boy wasn’t there.

When I tugged the skirt off from face and could see, our guide was hoisting him out of the pool. He’d calmly knelt down at the edge, reached into the pool and grabbed my son as he’d surfaced for air. He didn’t even get his sleeves wet.

The pool had mermaids mosaicked on the bottom.

Before we wandered down the hill to the beach, I buckled my son into the life vest I’d packed. Beaches back home in the Salish Sea are gray-green and rocky, covered in kelp, barnacles, and eel grass. This one was absolutely blank, just hot sand and blue water.

We encountered another young boy at the shore. Named after an archangel, he was a grandchild of the villa’s owners. Oh, so-and-so? I asked, naming our guide. No, all of them, he said. I learned that a wealthy, graying, seemingly happy commune owned the villa. My boy and the other played in the ocean waves for hours, laughing. The sand glimmered as if with gold as it was kicked up by the clear water.

inbajaIn Baja

We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. – The television director who controls Truman’s world in The Truman Show

The Lyman Family, also known as the Fort Hill Community, was the creation of Mel Lyman, a banjo and blues harmonica player. Photos, including one shot by Diane Arbus, show a man of thin body, hollowed cheekbones, a hot gaze.

In the 1960s, the group attracted some wealth and intelligence, and members included architects, artists, and the daughter of a famous painter. Although they dabbled in LSD and astrology, they hated hippies. Men wore their hair short, and women did as they were told. Wives were not shared concurrently, but serially. Mel fathered at least 5 children by 4 women. As with children in Plato’s Republic, the Lyman kids were removed from their parents and raised collectively. The Family also dabbled in guns, racism, and bank robbery. One member was shot to death at the scene of their single attempted heist and another, actor Mark Frechette, was arrested. Frechette later died in a weightlifting accident in prison.

The Lyman Family recovered from the bad publicity, and continued to buy and develop properties for their communal living. A farm in Kansas. A base in Los Angeles. A loft in Manhattan. A compound on Martha’s Vineyard. A villa in Baja. They started selling their skills, and incorporated a high-end construction company, which designs and builds homes for Hollywood directors and movie stars.

According to the Family, Mel Lyman died years ago, on his fortieth birthday. The cause and location of death were never disclosed, and his body was never produced, leading to speculation that he went into deep hiding, and may still be among us.

Some of the Family spend most of the year down in Baja; the grandkids don’t visit as much as the elders would like, so they’ve started renting out casitas to tourists.

The villa was self-sufficient: solar-powered, eco-friendly, off-the-grid, farm-to-table. At one dinner, after an owner slid a huge plate of food in front of me, I asked if the chicken was one that he’d raised. Costco, he said. Similarly, when I complimented the person I thought was the cook, I was told that actually, the Mexican did all the cooking.

I never saw this Mexican, nor any of the other workers, though ostensibly it was they who kept the pool so clean, the garden so lush with water trucked in weekly from afar. I heard, occasionally, the voices of children. Once I peeked into the off-limits zone and saw a tiny shack. That must’ve been where the Mexicans lived.

I was a big empty HOLE trying to fill itself with TEARS – Mel Lyman, Autobiography of a World Savior

Seen from the beach, the villa’s grounds were an island of green in the sere brown land. Baja is a bone dry finger that pokes into saltwater. It presents two obvious possible deaths: one by drowning, the other by thirst. A third struck me as we were climbing up the stairs from the beach to the summerhouse: death by sunburn. Although I’d assiduously reapplied sunscreen to my child’s skin throughout the day, I hadn’t done so on my own. I was scorched, and hurt for days.

My thighs are now freckled, sun-spotted from the burn. Skin damage because of Baja. When I think of that time, I try to remember that the beauty and kindness shown, I try to remember that people sometimes grow and change, that every family is an expression of an attempt, that I am judging based on very little. The archangel and his mother, both progeny of the Family, were lovely. But really what I think about is Mel, and the shuttered away Mexicans, and the fact that there are no trees.

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FINDINGS

  1. Utopias are dystopias or satires; the kings are harmonica players.
  2. Actual attempts at ideal society fizzle out, as do actual attempts at living. Which is not necessarily a value judgment.
  3. Now you can strap the world you want onto your head. It’s in a box, this virtual world, this reality. You are immersed, as if in liquid. You move through this liquid world, seeing everything as if you’re right there. One can easily imagine an ideal world (safe, beautiful, egalitarian, fun) being successfully marketed and inhabited. Maybe you’ll be able to spend most of your life there. But from the outside, you’re still just a person with your eyes covered.
  4. Once, while walking along a river in the Canadian Rockies, hand in hand with a poet with whom I was wildly infatuated, I saw a vast herd of elk. I pointed them out to my companion, who was confused. I looked again. What I’d taken for elk were simply the dark spaces between trees in the forest. It is possible to confuse absence and presence.
  5. The Kingdom of God, I’ve heard, is all around us, if we have but vision to see.
  6. When not advocating wholesale genocide, my then three-year-old son sometimes (at least once) had moments of coruscating wisdom. One night on the tiny ferry we take from the mainland to our island home, he climbed out of his car seat and started speaking, as if in tongues:

    I am everything
    I am a grizzly bear shark deer
    I’m all the animals in the world
    I am everything

    I’m looking at the moon and the stars
    I’m the ocean and the fish
    I am everything

    I’m the boats I’m the trains I’m the excavators
    I’m all the pieces of equipment
    I’m the roads I’m the cars
    I am the signs

    I’m the houses
    I’m everything in the houses
    I’m the cupboards I’m the oven I’m the cereal I’m the food
    I’m the computers I’m the lights
    I am electricity

    I’m the windows I’m the grass
    I’m the trees I’m the birds I’m the sky
    I am everything

    Then he went back to potty talk and whining. We are all of us occasional prophets trapped in bewildered flesh.

  7. Utopia is a fertile lick of land in the floodplain of the Skagit River in Washington State. There were Utopians there once, briefly. They fled to higher ground during the first wet season, but the name stuck. My husband recently bought a plot of land there, in Utopia. On it, he will grow trees. They, the big leaf maples, acer macrophyllum, will be the new Utopians.

maple-in-vitro

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CONCLUSION

Jesus spit on the blind man’s eyes, and put his hands upon him, and asked him what he saw. The blind man looked up and said, I see men as trees, walking. –Mark 8:23-24

When my son was an infant and started to cry, I’d take him out under the Japanese maple. The green light under the leaves would calm him. Or maybe it was the aerosols. Trees talk with one another by releasing tiny chemical particles into the air. These arboreal perfumes are believed to make people feel healthier and happier. The Japanese invented a phrase for walking through the woods to enhance good health: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. These same aerosols seed clouds to make rain and cool our planet down.

Aerosols are tree cafe chatter, you’re not quite sure which tree is saying what. An even more sophisticated communications system, tree-to-tree talk, lies underground. The mycorrhizal network, also known among scientists unafraid of bad puns as the Wood Wide Web, is the connecting of various tree roots to one another by fungal filaments. The trees give necessary carbon to the fungi, the fungi reciprocate with food and drink, and act as carriers for chemical missives, nutrient love letters. A tree under attack by aphids or fire in one part of the forest can sound the alarm to other trees far away. Do they have feelings, these trees? Is it why a mother tree will fend off the growth of other trees nearby, but make space for her children? Why she will give them everything she has?

mycorrhyzalnetworkMycorrhizal Network

Charles Darwin, after Origin of the Species, turned his attention to plants. He believed that trees were like very slow-moving, upside-down animals, burying their root-brains deep in the dirt, and flashing their sex bits up above. Among the ancient Greek, the Druids, the Italian streghe, trees spoke with the gift of prophecy. Oracular trees.

Consider the trees.

Where I live now, on Coast Salish land, tree-people were the first people, then salmon-people, killer-whale-people, crow-people and others. After a while, human-people came along. I have no doubt that life was hard, and I don’t wish to romanticize – or to have lived in – any time other than my own. I do, though, wonder what justice looks like when trees are considered teachers and equals, as they were. I’d think that differences in our own species – language, culture, color, gender, ideas about god, fashion, all that – would look smaller, hardly worth mentioning, or at least more gracefully negotiated. If you can respect a cedar, might it be easier to respect someone who is not a mirror of yourself? Maybe we wouldn’t regard the world – or each other – simply as resources. In a world where everything is holy, the sun glints off the raindrops on the web of the divine, making the connection between all things visible.

Balance must look different, too, when man is not the fulcrum. No architect or author. No pale king.

It is easy to lapse into utopian thought. This world is bruised and marked and hardened. But still, it flickers between what it is and possibility. We must imagine what we cannot yet see, or can glimpse only through the cracks: a society made up of all these different kinds of tree, animal, and human people, learning the ways of one another and of the air, the water, the living dirt.

oz

—Julie Trimingham

REFERENCES

The Republic, Plato, http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1497

Utopia, Thomas More,http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2130

Candide, Voltaire, http://candide.nypl.org/text/chapter-18

Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885–1915. LeWarne, Charles Pierce: Seattle: University of Washington Press

The Return of the Utopians, Akash Kapur, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/the-return-of-the-utopians

Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach, Bantam Books

Ernest Callenbach New York Times obituary: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/27/books/ernest-callenbach-author-of-ecotopia-dies-at-83.html

The Ones Who Walk Away form Omelas, Ursula Le Guin, http://engl210-deykute.wikispaces.umb.edu/file/view/omelas.pdf

Utopia, Thomas More, available online at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm

Autobiography of a World Savior, Mel Lyman, http://www.trussel.com/lyman/savior.htm

Steven Trussel has an online compendium of Mel Lyman information: http://www.trussel.com/f_mel.htm

The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America, David Felton, http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/the-lyman-familys-holy-siege-of-america-19711223

Once Notorious 60s Commune Evolves into Respectability, http://articles.latimes.com/1985-08-04/news/vw-4546_1_lyman-family/2

The Lost City of Z, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2005/09/19/the-lost-city-of-z

Under the Jungle, David Grann, http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/under-the-jungle

More links and information on Percy Fawcett: https://colonelfawcett.wordpress.com

A translation of Manuscript 512: http://www.fawcettadventure.com/english_translation_manuscript_512.html

1491, Charles C. Mann, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/03/1491/302445/

The Island of California was a common misconception among the Spanish in the 16th century. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_of_California

The Island of California was thought to be a paradise, inhabited by Black women, ruled by Queen Calafia/Califia.

The Atlantic Monthly published an article on The Queen of California in 1864, Volume 13. https://books.google.com/books?id=pd9rm7JwShoC&dq=%22Queen%20of%20California%22&pg=PA265#v=onepage&q&f=false

The Power of Movement in Plants, Charles Darwin and Sir Francis Darwin, 1925, available for reading online at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5605

The Intelligent Plant, Michael Pollan. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant

Do Plants Have Brains? http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/152208/do-plants-have-brains

Radiolab on tree talk: http://www.radiolab.org/story/from-tree-to-shining-tree/

Suzanne Simard’s TED talk on how trees talk to each other: https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en

Information on very old trees in Britain: http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/discoveries/newdiscoveries/2010/The+Pulpit+Yew

Photographer Beth Moon has taken pictures of some ancient, powerful trees. You can see some of these photos from Portraits of Time and Island of the Dragon’s Blood. http://bethmoon.com/portfolio-page/

Beth Moon’s stunning images capture the power and mystery of the world’s remaining ancient trees. These hoary forest sentinels are among the oldest living things on the planet and it is desperately important that we do all in our power to ensure their survival. I want my grandchildren – and theirs – to know the wonder of such trees in life and not only from photograpshs of things long gone. Beth’s portraits will surely inspire many to help those working to save these magnificent trees. — Dr. Jane Goodall

I believe it is through the unique vegetation that the spirit of Socotra is defined, with mythical trees like the dragon’s blood tree or the fabled frankincense trees and the island’s culture so closely linked to nature which sets this island apart from the rest of the world.” — Beth Moon

The observer effect in physics simply states that the act of observing will change that which is being observed. It is similar to, though different from, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which states that increased precision in measuring the position of a particle will diminish precision in measuring the momentum of the particle, and vice versa. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

Smithsonian archaeologist Betty Meggers (1921-2012) is credited with coining the phrase counterfeit paradise, referring to the Amazon. Her book Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise was, and remains, controversial in its contention that pre-Columbian Indigenous populations were, due to environmental restrictions, small and not very complex.

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Julie Trimingham is a writer and filmmaker. Her fictional travelogue chapbook, Way Elsewhere, was released in May 2016 by The Lettered Streets Press (https://squareup.com/store/lettered-streets-press/). She regularly tells stories at The Moth and writes essays for  Numéro Cinq magazine. Gina B. Nahai blurbed Julie’s first book, saying, “A novel of quiet passion and rare beauty, Mockingbird is a testament to the power of pure, uncluttered language—a confluence of feelings and physicality that will draw you back, line after graceful, memorable, line.” Julie is currently drafting her second novel, and is a producer with Longhouse Media (http://longhousemedia.org) on a documentary film about the Salish Sea.

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Feb 012017
 

Jugando con Candela 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxJugando con Candela, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

Ramon Alejandro

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A few short months ago, Rikki Ducornet introduced me to the paintings of the Cuban-born artist Ramón Alejandro. Awe and delight. Then she introduced me to the man, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. Awe and delight squared. Ramón Alejandro is an inspiration and an avatar. When he lived in Paris, he was written about but no less than Roland Barthes, who admired his robotic giants and specifically referred to his aimiability  — “son amabilité (ce qui fait qu’on l’aime)”. He’s genuine, wise, prolific and warm. The paintings are gorgeous, outsized, sun-drenched. He makes me think of the line from Don Quixote: “There might giants.” And the giantish “sons of God” in the Old Testament. A world under the sign of the imagination, more alive than life itself.

But to give you the flavour of the man, here is a bit from an email he wrote to me before Christmas. We were talking about the roots of his art, his cheerful and migratory life (he lives in Miami now). This is how all artists should be.

It helped me to be radical in my choice that one of my father’s usual phrases was that when one was no good for anything one could always become an artist. He was also born into a family that raised cattle for milk and cheese and apple trees for cider in Asturias in northern Spain. The mountains did not permit planting many crops in such a hilly landscape and the pieces of land were too small for those who had a whole lot of children to feed. Most young people had to go to America to make a living. He was a real disciple of Diogenes the Great without knowing anything about the Cynic school of philosophers or any other philosophy, but he had managed to make one for himself out of his life experience. I chose the wisdom of Aristippus of Cyrene also before knowing anything about his existence. Generally, all the arts, and pleasure itself by the way, are a real scandal for most of those who were brought up outside city limits. I was kind of lucky that my grandfather on my mother’s side was a marvelous copyist of ancient paintings in the Prado Museum in Madrid. He failed to be a good painter himself, but art and literature was all that counted for him in life. He was my inspiration though — or maybe just because — he was never able to earn his life decently, and when he and his wife became old, by the time I knew him the short time of my first 13 years, had to be materially taken care of by the husbands of his two daughters. I love all mythologies, religions, musics, paintings, poetries and philosophies but do not believe in any of them. I think that deep inside I don’t even believe in Reality or in the different ways of conceiving it. All of them have been my movies and TV since I was a child. And lately I have had the feeling I will be including more and more divinities in my paintings.

The paintings we’re featuring on NC this month are brand new, and they are part of a show of Ramón’s work currently up at the Latin Art Core gallery in Miami.

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La Guanabana 2003 oil on canvas 20 x 24 in 500pxLa Guanabana, 2003 — oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in.

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Aprendiz de Brujo 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 24 in 500pxAprendiz de Brujo, 2015 — oil on canvas, 24 x 24 in.

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Virgen de Medianoche 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 18 in 500pxVirgen de Medianoche, 2015 —— oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in.

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Demonio del Mediodia 2015 oil on canvas 24 x 18 in 500pxDemonio del Mediodia, 2015 — oil on canvas, 24 x 18 in.

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Detras de la Cruz esta el demonio 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxDetras de la Cruz esta el demonio, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

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xEl universo esta iluminado por las llamas del Infierno 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxEl universo esta iluminado por las llamas del Infierno, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

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Combustion Espontanea 2016 oil on canvas 40 x 30 in 500pxCombustion Espontanea, 2016 — oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

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Energy flows in both opposite directions 2016 oil on canvas 24 x 24 in 500pxEnergy flows in both opposite directions, 2016 — oil on canvas. 24 x 24 in.

——Ramón Alejandro

Latin Art Core expoCurrent show at Latin Art Core gallery, Miami.

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José Ramón Alejandro is a Cuban painter and writer. Since the late 1960s, his work has appeared in one-man shows in private galleries in Paris, Geneva, and Miami, as part of exhibitions in Israel and cities across Europe, and in exhibits of limited edition books illustrated by artists of note. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Bibliothèque Municipale d’Angers in France, the San Diego Art Museum, and the Miami-Dade Public Library all include his works in their permanent collections.
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Alejandro left Havana in the 1960s to live in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Paris, where he stayed for thirty years. In 1995, he moved to Miami. There he founded Editions Deleatur, a publisher focusing on Cuban writers within Cuba and abroad. Alejandro and his work are the subject of the essay collection Ramón Alejandro (L’Atelier des Brisants, 2006).

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