Mar 262015
 

BervinAuthorphotoJen Bervin

Call this the Other Worlds issue, the liminal issue, the ghost issue. It’s our best yet, no doubt about it. It has come together fortuitously with contributions from Iraq, Brazil, Ireland, Australia, Canada, China, Argentina, and the United States (maybe there are more, I am getting lost and the issue is still taking shape as I write). And the other worldliness is just a matter of geography. We also have pieces on the after life, on Hell and Judgment, on ghosts — real fictional ghosts and ghosts that are figurative as well as ghost literatures and shape-shifting art forms, fluid and combinatorial. This issue is a symptom of where we want to go. It is always a mistake to think that NC is any one thing, is achieved; it is protean, it is always on its way to being something else, something future and possible, or, perhaps impossible.

In this issue Darren Higgins interviews  the peripatetic and brilliant experimental poet/artist Jen Bervin on her latest project, the Silk Poems…

an experimental book (if “book” is defined loosely) that takes silk, in Bervin’s words, “as its subject and form, exploring the cultural, scientific, and linguistic complexities of silk, mending, and the body through text and images nanoimprinted on transparent silk film.” If you were to hold up a piece of this translucent material, what would it look like? What might you see? Very little at all—until you shine fiber-optic light through it. Then the words and pictures would jump up, projected into bloom. 

 

IMG_4455Agri Ismaïl

American English, English-English — English is the world Leviathan, and what is it like to write a novel in a language spoken by only a few and in a script that is neither Roman nor Arabic nor Chinese? Agri Ismaïl is a brilliant Iraq & Swedish-based writer tackles the issue for the Kurds, a people with no country to their name and a literature that trembles on the edge of disappearing.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

Keane1Four Woodcuts from Pinamonte’s Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It

Patrick J. Keane, our insanely prolific contributing editor (so much so that he bumped his own piece from the last issue AND he has two pieces in this issue), pens here a gorgeous, dense, erudite and deeply personal essay/memoir on death, judgment and that pernicious notion of Original Sin that condemns even babies to the eternal torments of Hell.

In short, because of Original Sin, we are all guilty, and deserving of hell. And when that stain has not been cleansed by the sanctifying grace of baptism, it follows, and Augustine unhesitatingly followed that appalling logic—even if the prospect of babies in hell is more hideous than the doctrine of predestination itself— that unbaptized infants must be damned: a singularly atrocious example of what “was due to all.”

 

photo(33)George Szirtes

We have poems, yes, wonderful poems, from the Hungarian-English poet, essayist, translator George Szirtes.

That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve.
The box was empty bar the usual cards
advertising the usual services of night.
One lives for such small favours, such rewards.
One lives for what night keeps up its loose sleeve.

tsvoboda-early-pix2Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda offers our readers an embarrassment of riches, two short stories, electrifying, so precisely written they seem etched in stone.

My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway. (from “Rugby”)

David Zieroth travel picDavid Zieroth

And this month our production manager (currently holding down a beach blanket in Hawaii) Kathryn Para interviews the Governor-General’s Award winning Canadian poet David Zieroth, who also offers a clutch of poems in the shape of a Slovak lexicon.

rozhádzaný

means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe

I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—

KittyAuthors2Richard Kraft & Danielle Dutton

Natalie Helberg reviews wildly combinatorial arts of Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton in the just published Here Comes Kitty….A Comic Opera.

Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton’s Here Comes Kitty, a collage project (Kraft’s) with written interludes (Dutton’s), beautifully, wantonly, defies review. Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking.

Siglio_Here_Comes_Kitty_Cover

cid-gregCid Corman & Gregory Dunne

We have a comprehensive and erudite re-assessment (resurrection) of the Boston poet Cid Corman, overlooked and forgotten perhaps, by Gregory Dunne, an excerpt from his book Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman published by Ekstasis Editions. While curating this piece, Senior Editor Gerry Beirne wrote: “…the more I look at his work/life, the more he grows in my estimation and I share a sense of the sadness he felt about being “forgotten”- I think the piece is timely and it would be good to share his significance with a literary/artistic community that may be unaware of him.”

Sem títuloToni Marques

From Brazil (yes, we are branching out a bit this issue, have I mentioned that?), we have a little magic realist tale that puts me in mind of Peter Carey’s novel of Australia, Illywhacker, a magic history of  Australia-cum-novel in which Australia becomes a museum diorama for Japanese tourists. In somewhat the same vein, Toni Marques takes us to a Brazil in the future where the notorious slums have become tourist sites where outsiders come to get a taste of the real — only, of course, the real bites.

“We’re Brazilians, ok? We should do this, we should do that, but we don’t do anything because we are Brazilians, period. Nowhere else in the world can you get something like this tour. Yes, this is something totally new. Yes, we need to improve lots of stuff. But, hey, you’re in Rio’s oldest favela watching a typical day of a crack-cocaine torn family. It’s a crack-o-rama if you will. Anything can happen to a crack-cocaine favela family, what else can I say? You see the girl running around like crazy? Perhaps right now she’s high, you know.”

Get_In_Trouble-683x1024

Senior Editor Ben Woodard reviews the new Kelly Link short story collection Get in Trouble.

Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make these kinds of tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader.

john

And in Uimhir a Cúig, our regular Irish feature edited by Gerard Beirne, this month we offer an interview with the Irish-Australian novelist John Connell and an excerpt from his new novel The Ghost Estate, a book about the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger and the effect that has had on the lives of the Irish and east European immigrants as well.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

IMG_3233B. D. Love and Maura Kennedy

The indefatigable and prolific Pat Keane doubles this month as a music critic, penning a short essay on a brand new song by Maura Kennedy (t0 lyrics by poet B. D. Love). We have the song! Play it while you read.

But the highlight for me was a song titled “I Cried to Dream Again.” Maura wrote the music, to accompany lyrics by a poet-friend, B. D. Love. As the title indicates, Mr. Love is playing off one of the most beautiful, and utterly unexpected, passages in Shakespeare: lines spoken by Caliban in Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. When the fools Stefano and Trinculo are frightened by the music created by the invisible Ariel, Caliban responds:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

CaptureFrom The City That Flees by Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel

And in Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month, Sophie Lavoie introduces readers to Lucrecia Martel’s stunning short documentary on the rise of gated communities in the cities of Latin America.

These compounds have become playgrounds for the rich, featuring country clubs with golf courses, polo grounds, shopping malls, bilingual schools, and medical centres, as the film points out. They provide the illusion of an oasis for the wealthy, allowing them the freedom to circulate freely within the confines of their fences.

Martel’s short documentary juxtaposes the steady, foreboding view of the wall with shots of the neighbours across the street, emphasizing the fact that her film crew was not allowed into the neighbourhoods, in spite of their many attempts. The outsiders, like the film’s viewers, are left to muse about the wonders contained within.

And need I add: There is more…

Mar 192015
 

Capture

Correction! Okay, a few hours after I put this up, reader Larry Bole left an illuminating comment (see below). This isn’t a woman (the video description, as you can see, does say it’s a woman); it’s a man named Ronnie Moipolai, and based on this video (or a similar one), the musician still anonymous (and often misidentified as a woman because of the kerchief on his head), a South African singer named David Kramer went to Botswana and tracked him down (to begin with, going from village to village and asking).

You can read a South African news story about Kramer’s detective work here (includes some fascinating context and folkloric information). I am particularly grateful to Larry for the comment, the link, and the education. I will leave my original text because at least it gives a sense of my initial enthusiasm, and I don’t mind learning something new. (And I have always had a difficult time telling men from women — this goes back to early childhood.)

Here’s what I wrote this morning, prompting Larry’s correction:

Mid-week slump. Late March. Snow turned to ice all around. My brother sent me off to look at some African musicians and I happened upon this brilliant, anonymous woman who takes your breath away and takes the wince out of the words “human” and “beauty” written in the same sentence. There’s no identification on the video. At one point you can see the word PINA and the number 5.00 marked on the guitar. One of the comments suggests that “pina” is the Tswana word for song. Tswana is a language spoken in Botswana and South Africa. I don’t really know if it is Tswana myself, can’t find it on the Internet otherwise. Several comments point to the cheapness of the instrument (and what magic she makes with it). Her technique is, well, what? Great walking base, bored young man in the background, everything lights up when this woman smiles part way through.

dg

YouTube Preview Image

And, now that I know who he is, here are more videos. There are a lot!

YouTube Preview Image YouTube Preview Image

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Mar 142015
 
Capture

NC has no idea who this woman is; this image came with the news article. Is this one of the porn women, a model, or a happy reader exploring the stacks barefooted? (The editors, of course, think she’s just a barefooted reader.) Note the visual shout-out to Emily Dickinson clearly visible in the stacks in the bottom right corner.

Can’t resist this. It turns out a library in Windsor, Ontario, has been the setting for a bunch of professional porn shoots. Young women go in there, pretending to be innocent readers, find a quiet nook (not Nook), and get up to all sorts of hanky-panky in front of a camera. The article makes a connection between quiet, private spaces and porn sex (also education and porn — go figure). The really interesting thing is that the act and the article reflect an ancient connection between books, privacy, the self and illicit sex. As we are suspicious of the proliferation of pornography on the Internet today, early critics believed books were meant primarily to promote unhealthy ideas (porn) and practices. Don Quixote is seduced into his romantic madness by books (his friends burn his books). In Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the young people are led astray by reading and acting out a play (the father burns the book copies of the play). So it’s kind a cute that online porn producers have picked up on the age old erotics of books.

dg

Libraries are an easy choice because they afford plenty of semi-private space, and according to the Ontario source, “many cam girls are quite young and probably spend a fair amount of time in libraries as it is.”

She added, “contrary to what one might think, cam girls – and boys – are usually in school/educated.”

via Public libraries a new hot spot for risqué — and risky — erotic webcam performances | National Post.

Mar 132015
 

Okay, so I got a little obsessed with the trees and shadow patterns. These were taken yesterday, again along the Hudson. Cold after two warm days, the trail chopped up and icy. When you look carefully you see the trees, the shadows and the columns of light between the shadows. The snow simplifies the scene, makes it an abstraction. The trees are more or less straight and sharp-edged, but the shadows follow the contours of the snow, which, in turn is following the contours of the rocks, gullies, stumps, and down trees underneath. And then you start to notice the angle at which the light is hitting the trees, going across the frame or coming toward you (with a focal point at the sun). So you get a very complex and layered images. Then I started looking at the birch trees!

dg (Ask him what he is supposed to be doing instead of this.)

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Mar 122015
 

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In the short animated film “The Approximate Present,” Filippo Baraccani juxtaposes journeys across impressionistic landscapes with an etch-a-sketch rendering of chaos and its patterns. The impressionistic landscapes appear in a repeated visual narrative where we pass over them on a sunny day and then with stormy weather, illustrating how weather alters our emotional and psychological experience. This intense personal experience of landscapes stands in stark contrast to the measured, diagrammatic, and decidedly non-impressionistic illustration of the patterns of chaos as it unfolds in black and white. As the lines progress, it is as if NASA with all its scientific authority has mapped the trajectory of our emotions. Despite this authority and clarity, the graph ultimately cannot triumph over the beauty of the landscapes. Like the man who dies from beauty at the beginning of Paulo Sorrentino’s The Grand Beauty, Baraccani positions the short film’s spectator to swoon at the limits of the self, troubled between the self and beauteous landscapes, gripped by something akin to awe or wonder.

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For this short, Baraccani chooses a simple, retro animation. As he notes, “I knew from the outset that I wanted it to be stylized, minimal and solid (for lack of a better term), somewhat reminiscent of early flight simulators. At the same time, I strived to convey a certain sense of place and emotion, drawing inspiration from my own experiences of various weather phenomena.” This might seem counter-intuitive, choosing low resolution graphics resembling something as utilitarian as a flight simulator to render landscapes, let alone to present them as an experiment in the kind of emotional landscapes Baraccani seeks. Yet here the blocky animation renders emotional what would have, in a calendar-like photo realism, been beautiful but perhaps not moving.

He himself compares the light and emotional effects he goes for here to the paintings of J. M. W. Turner, the 19th century English landscape painter.

j-m-w-turner-ulysses

In his article “The Paintings of Turner and the Dynamic Sublime,” George P. Landow points to how “in place of the static composition, rational and controlled, that implies a conception of the scene-as-object, Turner created a dynamic composition that involved the spectator in a subjective relation to the storm.”

turner 1

Thus, one of the things that distinguishes Turner’s work as sublime is this sense of dynamic composition. In similar fashion, “The Approximate Present” uses a perpetually moving camera and constantly changing perspectives to maintain a dynamism between the viewer and the images. The film instructs us through this movement and these perspective jumps that our perspective is limited: if we are moving past the landscape, if we have many perspectives and are always moving to the next one, our time with these landscapes is fleeting.

Fleeting, yet recurring, as the film in coda like fashion repeats and we revisit the landscapes and the perspectives; the second time, however, they are altered by weather systems: repetition, but with a difference. We can return but our return is bittersweet, as the landscapes we return to are altered.

Approximate

Landow’s analysis is part of a long tradition of artists and art critics seeking to account for this dynamism in landscape art: a tradition of the sublime. As Christine Riding and Nigel Llewellyn define it, in their article “British Art and the Sublime,”

‘the sublime’ is many things: a judgement, a feeling, a state of mind and a kind of response to art or nature. The origins of the word in English are curious. It derives from a conjunction of two Latin terms, the preposition sub, meaning below or up to and the noun limen, meaning limit, boundary or threshold. Limen is also the word for ‘lintel’, the heavy wooden or stone beam that holds the weight of a wall up above a doorway or a window. This sense of striving or pushing upwards against an overbearing force is an important connotation for the word sublime . . . By the seventeenth century, the word in English was in use both as an adjective and as a noun (the sublime) with many shades of meaning but invariably referring to things that are raised aloft, set high up and exalted, whether they be buildings, ideas, people, language, style or other aspects of or responses to art and nature.

Up to the limit, or, in other words, at the border, at the threshold of experience. Yet there is also this sense of a force they describe, here a beauty that exceeds words or even realist photography, sending hipsters everywhere scrambling to add instagram filters to approximate aesthetically what photorealism fumbles and drops at its feet. To be human is to take luckluster photographs of wondrous sunsets and glorious fireworks, these photographic failures each reminders that we can’t take it with us — the moment — that perhaps the most beautiful and experiential moments cannot be carried into the future with us, that, truly, you had to be there.

The-Approximate-Present3

The sublime is vista, is landscape, but rendered in a way that is meant to challenge or engage the self and its aching, pleasurable sense of its own limits, but the sublime representation must also maintain the tension of that limit. To understand this, we need only look at a grotesque and excessive example of the sublime limit transgressed: the viral and eternally mocked and quoted “double rainbow.” You could argue that part of its viral force was due to its relatability, how words fail us when we are faced with the sublime. That the man gushes over the double rainbow does not maintain the tense limit of appreciation throws the sublime moment into the comic grotesque. The obviously high man on the brink of a possible triple rainbow makes a fool of him and what could have been a sublime moment.

This sublime tension, not to be exceeded, is wrought from two forces: a sense of melancholy failure, and the opposing and enduring hope of holding onto beauty and the experience of beauty. So it falls to artists to imagine how this might be possible. As Riding and Llewellyn point out, “It was at this point in the history of the word sublime [during the Enlightenment] that visual artists became deeply intrigued by the challenge of representing it, asking how can an artist paint the sensation that we experience when words fail or when we find ourselves beyond the limits of reason.”

app3.preview

In “The Approximate Present,” the absence of words means that the film can avoid the traps of pathetic fallacy, or worse, the trap of double rainbow blather, as it resists locating the vistas in one troubled or amorous psychology. No one tells us why we are looking at these landscapes, why we are traveling by plane, train, and car, or who we are in all this. There is no character referent, no avatar in the film standing in, interpreting or defining meaning for us. In addition, the repetition of the landscape with and without the weather locates contrasting emotional states, of wonder and more melancholy awe. These are inescapably our landscapes and there can be no singular awe.

Baraccani’s film, unlike the sublime Turner paintings he says inspired his lighting techniques, leaves human images out of the landscapes. The airplane appears as a condensation trail or the edge of a window that frames the view of the clouds, similarly the train appears as a line in the distance, and the shots from the train and the car are also framed by window edges, traces of the real world that barely edge the impressionistic landscape. Cars, buildings, and other human effects when they do appear are more impressionistic in “The Approximate Present,” where in Turner’s paintings the emotional landscapes are almost grounded by more realistic images like the ship in the painting above.

As a result, “The Approximate Present” is a consistently impressionistic and emotional landscape, and the absence of realist markers means we can’t look back at ourselves, can’t locate ourselves in any way that is not emotional. We are at sea, at sky, at landscape, inescapably.

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The only break away from this impressionism are the animations of chaos’s patterns. These patterns play out an oddly narrative frame for the weather: The lines drawing themselves, weaving around previous lines, even doubling back, define trajectories and demonstrate the past, where previous lines of weather have gone. As lines of chaos go, these seem oddly soothing and consolatory, signifying a logic or magnificent design, some sort of meaning behind the chaos. This, too, layers the weather and the landscape with significance, makes us see chaos as part of a larger pattern. For this reason, perhaps we are reassured, we are not wrong to feel these landscapes. They are significant, though we don’t know how.

Baraccani’s  retro-animated shapes, constant camera movements, perspective shifts, and images of chaos cartography, combine to create a sublime landscape that avoids the had-to-be-there trap of landscape photography, creating animation that shares more with painting than film. “Approximate Present” creates a weather and chaos simulator that ultimately engages us in a game with our own emotions via vistas of our own experience of beauty in a virtual and always almost present.

—R. W. Gray

Mar 122015
 

Cordelia Strube

Ten novels in twenty years. Cordelia Strube is no slouch, and bear in mind that she is also a long-time dedicated creative writing teacher at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. I’ve always been deeply impressed by the mix of heart and smart contained in her novels, and when you add a steely sharp writing style and dialogue that feels overheard rather than written – well, don’t take my word for it. In the section below you have a chance to read a chapter from a novel not yet published. On The Shores of Darkness, There is Light will be published in the spring of 2016 by ECW Press.

 Along the way in her career, Cordelia has been nominated for most of the Canadian national literary awards such as: The Governor General’s award for literature; The Giller Prize (long listed); the Re-Lit Award; Books in Canada/W.H. Smith Award for best first novel – and she has won the CBC Literary Competition.

—Ann Ireland

 

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THERE’S A BABY STUCK in a car.” Harriet waves anxiously at the crowd of parents watching T-Ball. They don’t notice. She runs back to the SUV, across grass turned to straw. It hasn’t rained in six weeks. Smog chokes the city.

The baby, mottled pink, purplish around the eyes and mouth, is strapped to the car seat. Wailing, she jerks her chubby arms and legs, her cries muted by the latest technology in road noise reduction. She looks like the baby Harriet pictured when her mother told her she was pregnant; a cute baby with a normal head and curly blonde locks. Harriet presses her nose against the window, causing the cute baby to stare at her as though she is the one who has trapped her. “Don’t blame me,” Harriet mutters. “When in doubt, blame Harriet.”

Just this morning her mother blamed her for losing the plastic pitcher for bagged milk. “Why can’t you put things back in their place?” When it turned out Harriet’s little brother used the pitcher to shower his plastic animals, her mother didn’t apologize to Harriet. Or scold Irwin. There’s no doubt in Harriet’s mind she’d be better off without her little brother. She should have snuffed him when she had the chance, after they took him out of the incubator and handed him to her, all red and wrinkled, with his stretched head, and veins pulsing weakly under his see-through skin.

“Say hi to your brother,” her mother said. She no longer looked like her mother because she’d stopped eating and sleeping when Irwin was cut out of her. The furry-lipped nurse, who’d helped Harriet put on the sterile gloves, said, “Your brother is a miracle baby.” Harriet didn’t see why. The other preemies in incubators looked like fat turkeys compared to Irwin.

The cute baby trapped in the car seat has stopped wiggling and isn’t pink and purple anymore, just pale. Harriet tries the doors again before scrambling back to the crowd of parents. She pushes her way to the front of the pack where her mother and her boyfriend coach Irwin as he swings wildly at the ball balanced on the T.

“Keep your eye on the ball, champ,” her mother’s boyfriend says, bending over, revealing his butt crack above his track pants. Gennedy claims he was a jock in high school and consequently unable to kick the track pants habit. He has a shred of Kleenex stuck to his chin from a shaving cut. Harriet considered telling him about it this morning but decided to see how long it would take to drop off.

Harriet’s mother, in short shorts because, according to Gennedy, she’s still got the gams, fans her face with her hand and says, “Try again, peanut, you can do it.” The other parents pretend they don’t mind Irwin getting extra turns because he’s developmentally challenged. They order their unchallenged kids to be nice to him, and Irwin thinks people are nice because everybody acts nice around him, they just don’t invite him for play-dates, so he is in Harriet’s face 24/7. Harry, check on your brother. Harry, help your bother with his buttons. Harry, be a sweetheart and wipe your brother’s nose.

She squeezed toothpaste into his slippers this morning but he went barefoot.

“Good swing, champ,” Gennedy calls.

What Harriet knows about adults is that they say one thing while thinking something completely different. For this reason she doesn’t believe a word any of them say. She won’t have to deal with them anymore when she gets to Algonquin Park. She has two-hundred and forty-eight dollars in her bank account, but because she’s only eleven, her daily withdrawal limit is twenty dollars. Emptying her account requires thirteen withdrawals, and she’s worried the ladies at the bank might rat on her because Harriet’s mother worked there before Irwin was born. She’d often pick Harriet up from daycare and take her to the bank to finish up paperwork. As the doors were closed to the public at six, Harriet was allowed to sit at a big desk and draw with an assortment of pens. After Irwin was born, Lynne quit working at the bank and lived at the hospital. She came home on weekends to do laundry. Trent, Harriet’s father, sat in the dark absently plucking his eyebrows, until he started going to farmers’ markets and met Uma.
Harriet tugs on her mother’s arm.

“Bunny, please don’t do that, you’re not a two year-old.”

“There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

When Harriet’s parents divorced, her mother went back to work at the bank until her breakdown. Harriet loved the bank and plans to work in one when she grows up. She craves the quiet, and the soft sound of bills being counted, the clicking and sliding of metal drawers, the tapping of keyboards, the dependability of safety deposit boxes, the finality of stamp pads. Everybody’s polite at the bank and nobody shouts or swears. She tugs on her mother’s arm again. “Somebody’s forgotten their baby.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. The baby’s probably just napping.”

“It’s not.”

Irwin bats the ball and it bounces feebly to the side. “Way to go, champ!” Gennedy shouts. “That was awesome!” Other parents jerk into phoney smiles while Irwin chortles, bobbling his big head.

Harriet sewed some rags together to make a voodoo doll of Gennedy that she sticks pins into daily. Last Christmas she asked her mother why he moved into The Shangrila with them. “You wouldn’t understand,” her mother said but Harriet insisted she would. She pestered her mother until Lynne slumped on a kitchen chair, fiddled with a busted angel decoration and said, “Because when he says he won’t leave me, he means it.” Harriet understood then that she was doomed to co-habit with Gennedy, the shouter and swearer, who says she’s negative, and can’t even cook a decent tuna casserole. When her mother’s at the hospital, Harriet lives on Lucky Charms.

“The baby isn’t sleeping,” Harriet repeats, more loudly this time even though her mother hates it when she’s loud.

“Harry, it’s none of your business. I’m sure the parents are here somewhere and keeping an eye on the car.”

“They’re not.”

“What’s the problem here?” Gennedy asks, wiping sweat off his nose. The Kleenex is still stuck to his chin.

“No problem,” Lynne says, swigging on a water bottle.

“There is a problem,” Harriet says. “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Irwin stumbles towards them. Gennedy grabs him and swings him up in the air. “How ‘bout some burgers, big guy?”

“Wowee, wowee, burgers with cheeeezze!” Irwin squeals, causing other parents to stare and jerk into phoney smiles again.

“There’s a baby stuck in a car!” Harriet shouts.

“Harriet.” Her mother grips her arm but Harriet jerks it away and shouts even louder, “There’s a baby stuck in a car! Right over there.” She pushes through the crowd and points at the SUV.

“Oh my god,” a rumpled man in a Blue Jays cap cries before charging to the SUV. He gropes frantically in his pockets for his remote, repeating, “Jesus fucking Christ” and “Fucking hell.” His T-ball player son chases after him, hooting and flapping his arms. Finally the man unlocks the car. “Tessy,” he croons in a baby voice as he ducks in and frees the listless infant.

*

“Whassup?” Darcy asks, lying on her tummy on the couch painting her fingernails black.

“Did you shoplift that polish?” Harriet asks.

“Damn fucking straight. No way I’m paying eight bucks for this shit.” She flashes her fingers at Harriet, “Like it? Black is the dope, dude,” and sucks the straw on a can of diet Sprite. “I’m going on a date later. I am single and ready to mingle.” Darcy moved into The Shangrila a month ago. She’s twelve and knows how to give blowjobs, suck on bongs and inhale fatties. Harriet has no interest in blowjobs, bongs or fatties, but she feels flattered that an older girl wants to be her friend—although, in her experience, friendships don’t last. Eventually the new friend finds out Harriet has no other friends, can’t text because she doesn’t have a cell, or an iPod, or an allowance, plus a freak for a brother. Darcy’s mother rips ladies’ hair off with wax. She doesn’t shout or swear and lets Darcy eat junk food, go on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr and watch whatever she wants on YouTube. Gennedy only allows Harriet an hour of computer time per day, and he’s constantly looking over her shoulder to make sure she isn’t frittering away her time absorbing useless pop culture. He shouted at her when he caught her watching the Brazilian cab driver singing Thriller just like Michael Jackson. Harriet didn’t know anything about Michael Jackson, except that he died a long time ago and looked creepy. But Darcy showed her the Thriller video and Harriet was impressed by his moonwalk. Gennedy caught her practicing it while watching the cab driver from Brazil singing Thriller. “How is this improving your mind?” he shouted. According to Harriet’s mother, Gennedy is the only criminal lawyer in history that’s broke. If he works at all it’s legal aid, defending drug addicts, thieves and vandals. Lynne could have done better than Gennedy, Harriet thinks, because she’s hot. Men have always ogled her mother. Construction workers and loiterers all whistle and snicker Nice ass, Come to papa, or Whatever you need, I’ll give it to you, baby. When Harriet was little she’d turn on these pervballs and shout, “Stop looking at my mother! Leave my mother alone!” She doesn’t defend her mother from pervballs anymore because she can see her mother likes the attention, especially now that she’s older and has had two kids.

Darcy flaps her hands to dry the polish. “The Shangrila is a downer, dude. How can you stand living here? It’s, like, seven floors of seniors, a freakin’ old people farm. My mom says the carpets haven’t been replaced since man wiped his dirty feet on the moon. She says they’re moon carpets and she’s going to split her head open tripping over a crater.” She sniffs the polish in the bottle before screwing the lid back on. “Want to go to Shoppers World?”

Harriet sits in the armchair Darcy’s mother keeps covered in plastic to protect it from cat hairs. “You just said you had a date.”

“Before that.”

“Not really.”

“Don’t be such a douche bag.”

“Do you even know what a douche bag is?”

“It’s a bag, duh, to put douches in.”

“Do you know what a douche is?”

Darcy pulls on the cat’s tail, causing it to dart across the moon carpet. She hates the cat because she has to feed it and clean its litter box.

“You don’t even know what a douche is,” Harriet says, “so why are you always calling people douche bags?”

“LOL, so what is it then, Miss Super Brain?”

“It’s a nozzle women shove up their snatches to clean them out. The douche bag has water in it, and other stuff.When you squeeze the bag, the stuff quirts up.”

“Cool story.”

“It’s true. My dad’s girlfriend squirts herbs up her hoo-ha to make her mucous friendlier to my dad’s sperm.”

“FML, would you shut up, that is so gross. That is like … nobody does that. That’s sick.”

“I just think you should know what a douche bag is before you call people douche bags.”

“Okay, fine, thank you, Einstein. OMG I was just joking around.”

Darcy moved into The Shangrila because her parents got divorced. Her mother, Nina, is being fucked over by her ex, Buck. “Buck’s fucking me over,” she often says, or, “Fucking Buck is fucking me over.” Harriet has adopted this phrase and consoles herself, when alone, by muttering that … fill in the blank … fucked her over. Lynne doesn’t say Trent is fucking her over although, since he cut back on child support to pay for Uma’s expensive infertility treatments, Lynne has been referring to him as the asshole.

“I wish my dad was here,” Darcy grumbles. “He’d take us to the DQ.” Harriet likes Buck because he calls her The Lone Ranger and drove them to Canada’s Wonderland in his MAC truck, bought them candy floss and ride tickets. But, according to Nina, Buck’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. This is why she divorced him. Lynne doesn’t say Trent’s a pothead and thinks with his dick. Harriet’s not sure why her parents divorced other than her dad freaking over Irwin, and meeting Uma and deciding she had a brilliant mind. He wouldn’t have met Uma if Irwin hadn’t had a seizure at the farmers’ market.

“You reek,” Darcy says. “Have you been dumpster diving again?”

“I found some wood, not warped or anything.” Harriet paints on primed plywood or stiff cardboard because she can’t afford canvas. It consoles her that Tom Thomson sketched on wood. Uma, when she first started dating Trent, took Harriet to a Group of Seven show. The painters’ worn wooden paint boxes and palettes fascinated Harriet. Tom Thomson’s box was small, just a rectangular box. Frederick Varley’s was fancier, with compartments. Even though Tom Thomson died too young to be officially part of the Group of Seven, Harriet thinks of him as her favourite Group of Seven painter. She was mesmerized by his small, simple box, imagining him hiking through Algonquin with the box stuffed in his rucksack, entranced by a piece of sky or water or a tree and sitting down to paint them. She imagined him taking out the box, balancing it on his lap, rubbing his hands together to warm them, and resting his wooden sketch board against the box’s lid. She yearned to watch him pick and mix his colours, and make his first stroke, touching his brush to the board. She felt if she could sit quietly behind him, he wouldn’t mind. He was so handsome, even though he smoked, and she loved it that he never went to art school. “Harriet,” Uma huffed, “we’re here to look at the paintings, not the paint boxes.” Harriet memorized the colours on Tom’s palette, determining to recreate them at home. It seemed as though the lights dimmed when she moved away from his paint box, and the studio paintings held none of the vibrancy of the sketches he made in the wilderness. She couldn’t feel him in the studio paintings the way she felt him in the paint box, palette and the sketches. She wanted to understand why he died at Canoe Lake, why he let that happen when he could paint like that. She couldn’t imagine letting herself drown if she could paint like that. In her room, she tried mixing the colours but they were lifeless on the board and it occurred to her that maybe Tom Thomson let himself drown because he could no longer paint like that.

“One of these days,” Darcy warns, “you’ll get the flesh-eating disease from a dumpster and die.”

Harriet searches the capybara on YouTube again.

“OMG, quit looking at that giant hamster,” Darcy says.

“It’s the world’s largest rodent.”

“Who gives a fuck?”

“They don’t bark. My mother won’t let me have a dog because it barks and might scare my brother.”

“You hate dogs anyway.”

“Just Mrs. Schidt’s.” Mrs. Schidt is eighty-one, lives down the hall in 709 and pays Harriet fourteen dollars a week to walk her skinny white dog with yellow eyes. She’s been paying Harriet fourteen dollars a week for three years and always has to scrabble around in bowls and drawers for toonies and loonies to make the fourteen.

“I bet giant hamsters shit bus loads,” Darcy says. “You’d spend all day stooping and scooping giant hamster turds.”

“You can house train them, and you don’t have to walk them.” Harriet avoids dog people because all they talk about is dogs, and they act snarky when you don’t let their dogs jump on you, lick your hand and sniff your crotch.

The capybara’s lady owner holds a green Popsicle and the capybara nibbles it. The lady lifts the Popsicle just out of the capybara’s reach. The world’s largest rodent taps the lady’s shoulder gently with its paw to signal it wants some more. Repeatedly the capybara and the lady exchange pats for nibbles on the green Popsicle. This looks like so much fun to Harriet.

“What kind of name is Harriet anyway?” Darcy asks. “I mean, it’s like, an old lady name.”

“It’s my father’s mother’s name. And my grandfather’s name is Irwin. My parents named us after them thinking it would make them forgive them for eloping. They’re rich and my parents keep hoping they’ll give them money, or drop dead and leave them money. But they’ll never die.”

“Everybody dies.”

“Not mean and cheap people, they live till a hundred. Look at Mrs. Butts.” Mrs. Butts lives next door in 702 and sends Harriet on errands for a quarter. She’s fat, eighty-two, humpbacked and addicted to pain-killers and sleeping pills. When she wants Harriet to do something she smiles and puts on a nice little old lady voice, but if Harriet brings back Minute Maid orange juice with, instead of without, pulp, or beef, instead of chicken flavoured Temptations for her cats, Mrs. Butts turns into a mean junky.

The word among the seniors at The Shangrila is that Harriet will go down to Hung Best Convenience for a quarter. Mr. Shotlander in 406 has her picking up the paper on Fridays for the TV listings, and Harriet suspects she’s under-priced herself, but at least the errands get her away from Gennedy.

What she can’t understand about her mother shacking up with Gennedy is why Lynne has to be with somebody in the first place. Harriet prefers to be by herself than with anybody. Around people she feels bound in one of Gran’s pressure stockings. She also doesn’t understand why Gran is nice to her but mean to her mother, even though Lynne cleared the junk out of her house when Gran was evicted for health violations after Grandpa died. Lynne furnished Gran’s new place with nice things from IKEA, but still Gran complains about her, Where’d that know-it-all mother of yours put my muffin tins? Where’d that high-and-mighty mother of yours put my electric frying pan?

It seems to Harriet people are better off by themselves and not caged together in apartments and houses. When she escapes to the ranger cabin she won’t have to talk to anybody. Lost Coin Lake is isolated from road and canoe routes, and the marshy shoreline is unsuitable for swimming. Nobody goes there. This makes it perfect.

—Cordelia Strube

©   All Rights Reserved  Cordelia Strube  2014

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strube 1

Interview

Ann Ireland (AI): The new novel features a brainy, observant, original sort of girl as narrator. This isn’t the first time you’ve used such a main character to tell the story, I’m thinking of your novel, LEMON. Obviously there is something about entering this kind of character that feels natural to you, that attracts you. Care to comment?

Cordelia Strube (CS): There are 2 narrators in On the Shores of Darkness There is Light (you wouldn’t know this from the first chapter)–the story is told in two movements. The Before segment is told from Harriet’s 11-year-old POV. The second segment, After, is told from the POV of her younger brother, Irwin, 7 years later, when he is 14. Writing a 338 page novel through the eyes of children was risky. My biggest fear was sounding twee, or being forced to use a limited vocabulary, but both Harriet and Irwin are so uniquely sighted, I stopped worrying. Harriet’s voice came at me forcefully, but Irwin’s required more patience. She is a comet, he is the Milky Way. Spending time inside the head of a developmentally-challenged, hormonal boy isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It took me many walks and thinks to figure out how to approach his side of the narrative. After is a completely different rhythm than Before.

Lemon, the narrator in Lemon, is 16 and already jaded and pissed off. I used her as a reference point because she is an avid reader and I could counterpoint her 21st century sensibility with that of 19th century fiction where the psychological novel took off thanks to Ms. Austen, the Georges, the Brontes, Sam Richardson etc. My objective in Lemon was to say to the reader, “Look at what we’ve done, are you okay with this?”

There’s a massive divide between the mind set of a 16 year-old and an 11 year-old. Harriet is free of conditioned responses to things. She has no filter. This informs on the art she produces, and her interactions with the self-absorbed adults around her. Societal expectations, peer pressure and pop culture overload can beat the originality out of us. Harriet, at 11, has nothing to lose because she has lost so much already and is consequently fearless; unsettling for the reader who fears for her. Peril keeps us reading.

AI: Darcy and Harriet scene: lots of current slang. How did you manage that? Eavesdropping? And what about slang dating; do you worry about that, that by the time the novel is published no one will be saying OMG?

CS: I eavesdrop whenever possible; hard to do with all the ambient noise. I never worry about “dating” my fiction. I use the current world as the backdrop for my novels. We live in interesting times. Part of my job is to document them. Before takes place post recession, after Kate and Will’s wedding. I use the wedding (and what was current in People Magazine: hashtag, Jennifer Anniston, and Obama) to date it because After takes place 7 years later. The 2008 recession had a devastating impact on Harriet; her father was laid off, her parents divorced and lost their house, her brother was hospitalized, her mother took up with a deadbeat who tried to control Harriet. We are the result of what happens to us.

AI: Your sentences always have pop and energy. You have been teaching creative writing for many years now; do you think it is possible to teach how to write ‘live sentences’?

CS: Listening, I believe, is what creates good dialogue. We can’t write down word for word a conversation we hear because that would be boring, but we can use fragments and build from there; reveal the essence of a character through their phrasing and word choices.

AI: You are prolific and I know you rewrite a good deal. What is the nature of your work discipline or routine?

CS: I am prolific because I don’t stop. Without a novel to swim around in, I sink, but I don’t write for hours a day, don’t push myself to produce a particular number of pages. Some days I write nothing new, just revise. Rarely does a first run at a sentence work for me. I rewrite constantly, especially at the start of a novel when I’m trying to figure out the voice.

AI: It’s been noted that your characters live in a dangerous world where bad things happen, sometimes really bad things. We all know that the world is a perilous place and that no one lives without suffering. What do you make of the current ‘Happiness’ fad? So many books written about how to achieve happiness.

CS: The title of this novel is a line from a Keats poem:

Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
And precipices show untrodden green,
There is budding morrow in midnight,
There is triple sight in blindness keen.

This poem is full of light and hope while acknowledging the dark. We can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark. Shadows, as Harriet points out, are produced by light. Imagining that your life should be free of suffering is debilitating. Suffering adds perspective and makes joy vibrant. It’s when we become immobilized by pain–physical, emotional or psychological–that we need help. That’s when I reach for a book written by a mad man, or woman, like Mr. Blake or Ms. Dickinson. It makes me feel less alone, stranded in our “think positive” culture. Happiness isn’t a constant state for me. It’s a piece of sky, a brief human interaction, a glance at a painting, a scrap of prose or poetry, a child’s expression, the feel of a loved one’s hand, a good cup of coffee.

AI: Do you see yourself as having an ongoing Project in your writing? Is there something you seek to do in all your books? Something you continue to explore?

CS: My ongoing project is not to go completely mad like Mr. Blake. A critic once described my novels as “exceedingly well-written pleas for awareness.” I don’t have answers, just many questions. Above all I aim to entertain my readers, keep them turning the page while laughing and crying. I hope also to provoke thought about how we’re managing things (or not) during our time on this miraculous planet. Fiction allows us to fly straight into truths, both ugly and beautiful. We don’t need to be careful when we’re making it all up.

strube 1

All photos by Carson Linnéa Healey.

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland‘s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture  called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, recently reprinted by Dundurn Press, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.

Mar 112015
 

AVT_Edouard-Leve_8970

Few proper names appear in the book. No dateline attends the stories. Locations generally unspecified. It’s a newspaper, sans columns, a readymade novel, one event follows another. And like any daily newspaper, Newspaper can be riveting reading, and at other times dry (deliberately so) to the point of numbing.
—Jason DeYoung

Newspaper

Newspaper
Edouard Levé
Translated by Jan Steyn & Caite Dolan-Leach
Dalkey Archive Press, 2015
$13.95

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“Approximately twenty people have died in a suicide bombing at a seaside resort hotel.”

“Two young people, ages sixteen and eighteen, are being investigate for the rape and murder of a sixty-night year old grandmother.”

“High-speed trains are once again running late.”

“A simulated airplane crash has gone badly wrong.”

“Internet site seeks numerologists and astrologists. Work from home, flexible hours. Urgent.”

“The rains that have been sweeping over the west since early this morning are moving across the region.”

Such is the news in Edouard Levé’s Newspaper, a 124-page fictional newspaper packaged as a book. Organized into eleven sections—International, Society, Economics, Science & Technology, Classifieds, Weather, Sports, Arts & Culture, etc.—each part is comprised of individual news stories or items of interest. Few proper names appear in the book. No dateline attends the stories. Locations generally unspecified. It’s a newspaper, sans columns, a readymade novel, one event follows another. And like any daily newspaper, Newspaper can be riveting reading, and at other times dry (deliberately so)  to the point of numbing.

Newspaper is Edouard Levé’s second ‘novel’ but his fourth book to be translated into English and published by Dalkey Archive Press. The first book was Suicide in 2008, followed by Autoportrait in 2012 (which I reviewed for Numéro Cinq) and Works in 2014. Owing a self-acknowledged debt to George Perec, a founding member of the Oulipo (short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle—”workshop of potential literature”) Levé’s work is often formal experiments that reframe reality and bring into focus the fragmentary nature of memory. In his books Suicide and Autoportrait, he writes pointillisticly, without the traditional patterns and techniques of fiction, and the sentences seem written down at random. Works is a catalogue of 533 ideas for future art works—some he completed, most he didn’t (Levé committed suicide in 2007). What these singular books explore is a kind of aesthetics of the incomprehensible as it acknowledges the multiplicities within its author and his world.

As a book, Newspaper plays with some of these same ideas, and stands as an intriguing testament of life in the early aughts (it was first published in France in 2004). Themes of power and death and terrorism dominate the international news. Suicide, murder, rape, pedophilia, robbery, white-collar crime fill out the local news. The economic report is all about interest rates and household consumption, worker strikes and worker rights, money laundering and a downturn in the market. Science & Technology fills us in on meningitis scares and radiation exposures, experiments with human cloning and risings in average yearly temperature. And so on, with the banality of good and bad weather, triumphs and letdowns in sports, the weirdness of the classifieds ads, births and deaths, the smallness of arts and culture reporting. Finally the book peters out with its Entertainment Guide and Television listings. How do you want to spend your time? Naval sculptures in the morning, a film about parallel universes in the afternoon, and tonight we can check our lottery number at 8:25 before getting to the sports update and then falling to sleep while watching the nine o’clock movie. What’s it about? A woman who is “a member of a narcotics agency, [who] picks up a little extra money serving as bate for the vice squad.” I hear she’ll be scantily clad and heavily made up.

It could easily be today’s paper.

Like most of Levé work, Newspaper leads to speculation about how to read it: it is one thing that pretends to be another after all, and the mind wants to resolve this discrepancy. Before the publication of his novels, Levé was better known as a conceptual photographer. His photographs were often composed scenes that were not as transparent as their titles would suggest, as in his collection Pornography in which models, fully clothed, contort into sexual positions, or his collection Rugby, a series of photographs of men in business attire playing the titular sport. In both, the photos represent an action but are not the real thing. As Jan Steyn points out in the Afterward to Suicide: “We cannot see such images and naively believe in the objective realism to which photography all too easily lays claim: we no longer take such photos to show the truth.”

eEdouard-levésperet1Edouard Levé, Pornography

The college-like, frame-by-frame structure of a newspaper surely appealed to Levé’s sensibilities. In Autoportrait he says his own memory is like a disco ball, and in Suicide he goes a bit further in explaining his understanding of perception:

A dictionary resembles the world more than a novel does, because the world is not a coherent sequence of actions but a constellation of things perceived. It is looked at, unrelated things congregate, and geographic proximity gives them meaning. If event follow each other, they are believed to be a story. But in a dictionary time doesn’t exist: ABC is neither more or less chronological than BCA.

As with a dictionary, the daily newspaper is a fragmented view; instead of the potentialities of words, however, it’s a portrait of worldly and local events. Just as with his photography, Newspaper rejects “objective realism,” ironically by posing as something we often consider (perhaps incorrectly) to be the realest of the real. But the map isn’t the territory. Newspaper is an artifact that represents the on-goings of the world… as determined by whom?  In many ways, Newspaper reminds me of Alfredo Jaar’s Newsweek.

As a formal experiment, Newspaper is worth reading. Unlike common novels, its impartial and unadorned prose evades interpretation, while still revealing a human comedy. Here are two examples:

…The former dictator is coming back into style. The municipality, in agreement with the hotel-owner’s union, is promoting this image, hoping that this ‘fashionable’ dictator will attract tourists to the area. The leader’s former residence, which was commandeered from a rich family whose son committed suicide rather than collaborate with the regime, has been transformed into a five-start hotel wherein delighted tourists pay the equivalent of one month’s salary to spend one night in the ‘big man’s’ bedroom suite. The national poet responsible for writing all the dictator’s speeches lived nearby; his former chateau welcomes two hundred thousand visitors each year.

The government has stepped down from the power and the departing prime minister has formed a new cabinet. This new government, in which the prime minister is also the minister of defense, no longer includes any deputy prime minister. The ministers of home affairs and of foreign affairs have switched roles. The ambassador to an important nation has become the new head of diplomacy, and the home affairs minister’s chief of staff is now himself the minister.

Yes, there’s humor here, yet it doesn’t come with a gentle touch, but as an unsteady a last resort. By removing the context from these stories (and removing himself as a narrator) Levé shows a kind of stark gory truth about people—their avarice, chicanery, vice. There are very few stories here about kindness or selflessness. But the daily newspaper doesn’t report that anyway. Conflict, hopefully bloody, is what readers want, right? All the same, words like terrorist, minister, dictator are tossed around, but we are not made privy to who decided upon these terms, and the lack of history and understanding puts us at odds with what we’re reading. Ambiguity turns this world on its head. One of the things Newspaper seems to ask is do we really have understanding of our world or just a craving for spectacle.

In a small essay called “Approaches to What?” George Perec writes: “Has the newspaper told us anything except: not to worry, as you can see life exists, with its ups and its downs, things happen, as you can see.” Perec had a scornful view of daily newspapers, and I wondered while I read Newspaper if Levé didn’t feel similarly. The ‘novel’ didn’t move me in any way except toward the bigness of life and its confusion and its ultimate banality. What Newspaper provides is an oblique view of a ghostly and incomplete world. We all know more goes on that what is reported. What’s been left out? I cannot say whether I liked Newspaper. It’s not that kind of book. Like and dislike don’t really seem to matter, just as with a regular newspaper—generally criticized for its coverage and less as an entertainment.

—Jason DeYoung

NC

jason

Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Mar 112015
 

r f langley 2 copyR. F. Langley 1938-2011

“By the end of my time spent with Langley’s work that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice.” —Julie Larios

 

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LIKE SEVERAL OF THE POETS I’ve written about for Undersung, Roger Francis Langley (known as R. F. Langley) was seriously unprolific. Seventeen poems were gathered together for one book, twenty-one poems for another. Apparently eight other poems appeared uncollected in The London Review of Books and PN Review. But unlike most other poets I’ve written about, Langley has not been a secret favorite of mine for years. In fact, I just heard about his work this January, when a friend mentioned a memoir titled H is for Hawk by the British writer Helen Macdonald. Macdonald, whose book recently won both the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Samuel Johnson Award for Non-Fiction, mentioned in an interview for The Guardian that, among a few other influential books which “opened her eyes to nature,” she had enjoyed a collection of diary entries by a poet I’d never heard of: R. F. Langley. Her description of that book, titled simply Journal, hooked me:

“These journals, Langley wrote, are concerned with ‘what Ruskin advocated as the prime necessity, that of seeing’, and pay ‘intense attention to the particular’. They speak of wasps, of thrips, grass moths, stained glass, nightjars, pub lunches and church monuments, everything deeply informed by etymology, history, psychology and aesthetic theory. The prose is compressed and fierce, and its narrative movement is concerned with mapping the processes of thought, the working out of things. It is founded on careful, close observation of things that typically pass unnoticed through our world.”

Being a fan of all things which pass unnoticed (or rarely noticed) I figured Langley’s journal might be worth looking through. Macdonald’s list of subjects (from thrips –thrips? – to pub lunches) intrigued me, and I was betting that Langley’s attention might be both focused and digressive, a combination that often produces fine essays. First, though, I had to see what kind of poetry he wrote.

I don’t own any of Langley’s books, and I couldn’t find individual poems anthologized in anything on my shelves. His work is not in my public library, and a search of databases produces not much more than basic biographical material (born in Warwickshire, England, 1938, educated at Cambridge, studied with poet Donald Davie, taught high school, retired to Suffolk, died 2011) and obituaries in major newspapers. Reviews and articles are few and far between, most of them simply remembrances. The obituaries warn that Langley did not produce a large body of work, having only begun to publish seriously in his sixties when he retired from forty years of teaching literature and art history to high school students.

There are only a few links to his poems online. Over at Amazon, his earlier out-of-print books/chapbooks are listed as “Unavailable at this time.” Later books listed there “may require extra time for shipping” which is code for any book that takes weeks to arrive from the U.K. and is obscure, published probably by a small European press. Luckily, I found two of Langley’s books (Collected Poems – 2002 – and The Face of It – 2007 – both still in print, published by Carcanet) at the university library near me and spent a slow afternoon reading them. The 2002 edition of Collected Poems (nominated for a Whitbread Book Award) contains only seventeen poems. It would be better titled Selected Poems; fortunately, a new edition is forthcoming from Carcanet in September of this year, and it is the definitive collection. It contains everything from the 2002 edition plus previously uncollected poems and supplementary material — I believe the total number of poems is 48.)

By the end of my reading that afternoon in the library, I was smitten. Here was a poet whose poems combined so many of the qualities I search for: precise attention to details of the physical world, control of rhythm, love of language, large-heartedness, confidant risk-taking, and an ability to balance ideas with images and sounds. Contemplative, yes, but not confessional. Both serious and seriously playful. Neither undemanding nor obtuse. Big plus: a modern, original, identifiable voice. Langley’s poem “To a Nightingale” was awarded the 2011 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem:

To a Nightingale

Nothing along the road. But
petals, maybe. Pink behind
and white inside. Nothing but
the coping of a bridge. Mutes
on the bricks, hard as putty,
then, in the sun, as metal.
Burls of Grimmia, hairy,
hoary, with their seed-capsules
uncurling. Red mites bowling
about on the baked lichen
and what look like casual
landings, striped flies, Helina,
Phaonia, could they be?
This month the lemon, I’ll say
primrose-coloured, moths, which flinch
along the hedge then turn in
to hide, are Yellow Shells not
Shaded Broad-bars. Lines waver.
Camptogramma. Heat off the
road and the nick-nack of names.
Scotopteryx. Darkwing. The
flutter. Doubles and blurs the
margin. Fuscous and white. Stop
at nothing. To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine. Mites which
ramble. Caterpillars which
curl up as question marks. Then
one note, five times, louder each
time, followed, after a fraught
pause, by a soft cuckle of
wet pebbles, which I could call
a glottal rattle. I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

In this poem, Langley opens directly onto the physical world, minimizing the human presence, unlike “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats, where the speaker (all agony, in the Romantic mode) dominates the first forty lines of the poem. Nature is somewhere out there in Keats’s poem; his speaker says, “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,” though he’s willing to take a few guesses. Langley’s poem, on the other hand, goes down to the ground immediately and sees clearly the non-human world: petals, burls, mites, lichen, flies, lemons, moths. The speaker of Langley’s poem is present only in his desire to name correctly what he sees and hears (a flower, “Helina / Phaonia, could they be?’ and a color “I’ll say / primrose-coloured” and  a sound “which I could call a glottal rattle.”) Human involvement in the scene comes quietly:

               Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff. It
is anyone’s quelque chose.
No business of mine.

He does not romanticize nature, as Keats does when he compares the bird’s “full-throated ease” to a man’s being half in love with Death. Instead, Langley celebrates what is mysterious and even nervous about the natural world (“Caterpillars which / curl up as question marks” and the “fraught pause” of the nightingale, the bird finally making its appearance at the very end of the poem. The man in the scene stands still , but nature is in motion; for Langley, the speaker’s role is that of a careful observer of an active, natural world.  William Wordsworth’s “Ode to a Nightingale” also begins with a man on a bridge and involves a nightingale’s song in the distance (no coincidence there – Langley is surely building on the English tradition of ornithological poems) but the center of that poem is also, as with Keats’s poem, clearly Man, not nature. Langley’s hidden subject might turn out to be the same upon careful observation, but his poetic trick is indirection. Langley, like many good poets, uses the tools of a good magician.

Look, too, at the subtler technical details of Langley’s poem, beyond the large idea it offers. It starts by saying “Nothing on the road.” Then, structurally, the poet unfolds his long list of everything that is actually there. He slows down after the opening four words and takes another look. And the poem come back structurally to that “nothing” by the end; the design of the poem is curvilinear, almost like the little caterpillar’s question mark.

                                          I am
empty, stopped at nothing, as
I wait for this song to shoot.
The road is rising as it
passes the apple tree and
makes its approach to the bridge.

Like many of Marianne Moore’s poems (and like the quantitative verse of ancient Greece) this poem is built on counted syllables, with seven syllables per line, but without the lines feeling unnaturally stunted. Langley’s inspiration for this attention to the syllable was Charles Olson’s essay on “Projective Verse,” in which Olson says, “It comes to this: the use of a man, by himself and thus by others, lies in how he conceives his relation to nature, that force to which he owes his somewhat small existence. If he sprawl, he shall find little to sing but himself, and shall sing, nature has such paradoxical ways, by way of artificial forms outside himself. But if he stays inside himself, if he is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing through himself will give him secrets [that] objects share.” Olson goes on to say that the syllable is “king and pin of versification” and describes what syllables do as a dance. “It is by their syllables that words juxtapose in beauty, by these particles of sound as clearly as by the sense of the words which they compose.”

Counted syllables are not in and of themselves what a poet wants a reader to be aware of – the counting is simply part of the puzzle-making challenge the poet sets himself in order to see what kind of words will fill the particular vessel of the poem. Peter Turchi discusses a poet’s delight in this kind of challenge in his book A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery and Magic, reviewed in the January issue of Numero Cinq. Turchi also talks about nursery rhymes in that book; several of Langley’s poems involve nursery-rhyme rhythms:

You grig. You hob. You Tom, and what not,
with your moans! Your bones are rubber. Get back
out and do it all again. For all the
world an ape! For all the world Tom poke, Tom
tickle and Tom joke!

(excerpt from “Man Jack”)

Meter established by syllable count is not the only technical tool used in the poem; there is also a generous amount of internal rhyme:

To stop here at
nothing, as a chaffinch sings
interminably, all day.
A chiff-chaff. Purring of two
turtle doves. Voices, and some
vibrate with tenderness. I
say none of this for love. It
is anyone’s giff-gaff.

A light touch with alliteration also plays its part in the appeal of the poem: petals/pink, hairy/hoary, bridge/burls/bowling/baked, shells/shaded, nick-nack of names…alliteration runs through the poem, as does near-rhyme (“the soft cuckle/ of wet pebbles….”) With such a tight syllabic count, the choice of words that manage to chime off each other like that is especially difficult.

Then there’s the specificity of the Latin names, countered with the goofy sound of giff-gaff and chiff-chaff (which is actually a type of bird.) Langley had a naturalist’s command of information, a linguist’s command of etymology, plus good comedic timing and a modern voice in the style of Wallace Stevens. Some of his phrases in this poem seem non-sensical on first reading, until you look up the less-familiar meaning of a familiar word – the “coping of a bridge,” for example, refers to the architectural detail of its capped wall; “mutes on the bridge, hard as putty” are bird droppings.

Retired in 1999 at the age of 61 and able — finally — to turn his full attention to writing, Langley might have anticipated two decades to do so. But “To a Nightingale,” which appeared in the London Review of Books in November of 2010, was his last published poem; he died in January of 2011. As Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote in his remembrance of Langley for the Cambridge Literary Review, Langley managed to personify Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” that is, the state of “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In one poem about a medieval church in the moonlight, Langley says, “There are no / maps of moonlight. We find / peace in the room and don’t /ask what won’t be answered.” In “To a Nightingale,” there are no blunt answers, no overt message, nor is there any clear metaphor-making to draw lines between speaker and scene, yet we feel the mystery and melancholy in both, and we understand Langley’s play on the double-entendre of the word “coping” as it relates to both man and bridge, and the slight rise (of hope?) for both road and man as the poem ends. Daniel Eltringham summarized Langley’s skill in his article “‘The idea of the bird’: Bird Books, the Problem of Taxonomy, and Some Poems by R.F. Langley,” when he said, “Roger Langley’s writing lies between two worlds: the certainty desired by the amateur naturalist and its implications for artistic and taxonomic records, poised against the uncertain, plural, deferred, evasive character of an experimental artist. But poised without explicit tension: he is not a tense writer, more curious and exploratory, content to allow contradictions to remain contrary.”

Here is one more poem, offered up without commentary, other than to mention the character of Jack, who makes his appearance (like John Berryman’s Henry) in many later poems. There is also a noticeable use of end rhyme in this poem in addition to the internal rhyme, and the use of counted syllables (ten to the line.)  You’ll see the same sensibility at play, the same fine control of sound, the barrage of images, the refusal to straighten it all out and over-explain. Some of the work, Langley seemed to believe, belongs to the poem’s readers.

Jack’s Pigeon

The coffee bowl called Part of Poland bursts
on the kitchen tiles like twenty thousand
souls. It means that much. By the betting shop,
Ophelia, the pigeon squab, thuds to
the gutter in convulsions, gaping for
forty thousand brothers. So much is such.
Jack leans on the wall. He says it’s true or
not; decides that right on nine is time for
the blue bee to come to the senna bush,
what hope was ever for a bowl so round,
so complete, in an afternoon’s best light,
and even where the pigeon went, after
she finished whispering goodnight. Meanwhile,
a screw or two of bloody paper towel
and one dead fledgling fallen from its nest
lie on Sweet Lady Street, and sharp white shards
of Arcopal, swept up with fluff and bits
of breadcrust, do for charitable prayers.
The bee came early. Must have done. It jumped
the gun. Jill and the children hadn’t come.

How hard things are. Jack sips his vinegar
and sniffs the sour dregs in each bottle in
the skip. Some, as he dumps them, jump back with
a shout of ‘Crack!’ He tests wrapping paper
and finds crocodiles. The bird stretched up its
head and nodded, opening its beak. It
tried to speak. I hope it’s dead. Bystanders
glanced, then neatly changed the name of every
street. Once this was Heaven’s Hill, but now the
clever devils nudge each other on the
pavement by the betting shop. Jill hurried
the children off their feet. Jack stood and shook.
He thought it clenched and maybe moved itself
an inch. No more. Not much. He couldn’t bring
himself to touch. And then he too had gone.
He’s just another one who saw, the man
who stopped outside the door, then shrugged, and checked
his scratchcard, and moved on. Nothing about
the yellow senna flowers when we get home.
No Jack. No bee. We leave it well alone.

Jack built himself a house to hide in and
take stock. This is his property in France.
First, in the middle of the table at
midday, the bowl. Firm, he would say, as rock.
The perfect circle on the solid block.
Second, somewhere, there is an empty sack.
Third, a particular angry dormouse,
in the comer of a broken shutter,
waiting a chance to run, before the owl
can get her. The kick of the hind legs of
his cat, left on the top step of a prance.
The bark of other peoples’ dogs, far off,
appropriately. Or a stranger’s cough.
His cows’ white eyelashes. Flies settled at
the roots of tails. What is it never fails?
Jack finds them, the young couple dressed in black,
and, sitting at the front, they both look up.
Her thin brown wrist twists her half open hand
to indicate the whole show overhead.
Rotating fingernails are painted red.

Who is the quiet guard with his elbow
braced against the pillar, thinking his thoughts
close to the stone? He is hard to make out,
and easy for shadows to take away.
Half gone in la nef lumineuse et rose.
A scarlet cardinal, Jack rather hoped.
A tired cyclist in a vermillion
anorak. Could anyone ever know?
Sit down awhile. Jill reads the posy in
her ring and then she smiles. The farmer owns
old cockerels which peck dirt. But he is
standing where he feels the swallows’ wings flirt
past him as they cut through the shed to reach
the sunlit yard, bringing a distant blue
into the comfortable gold. How much
can all this hold? To lie and eat. To kill
and worry. To toss and milk and kiss and
marry. To wake. To keep. To sow. Jack meets
me and we go to see what we must do.
The bird has turned round once, and now it’s still.

There’s no more to be done. No more be done.
And what there was, was what we didn’t do.
It needed two of us to move as one,
to shake hands with a hand that’s shaking, if
tint were to be tant, and breaking making.
Now, on the terrace, huddled in my chair,
we start to mend a bird that isn’t there,
fanning out feathers that had never grown
with clever fingers that are not our own:
stroking the lilac into the dove grey,
hearing the croodle that she couldn’t say.
Night wind gives a cool hoot in the neck of
Jack’s beer bottle, open on the table.
Triggered by this, the dormouse shoots along
the sill, illuminated well enough
for us to see her safely drop down through
the wriggling of the walnut tree to find
some parings of the fruit we ate today,
set out on the white concrete, under the
full presentation of the Milky Way.

Though Langley’s work is new to me, I want to put his name in front of readers here at Numero Cinq and to recommend that we all make the effort to find his work and read it. I’ve purchased his Journal and now wait for it to wing its way across the Atlantic and into my mailbox. If your library responds to World Cat requests, you might find copies of his books through that resource. Meanwhile, listen to the wonderful audio recordings he made for The Poetry Archive – he has a perfect reading voice, not melodramatic but full of feeling, which is no small accomplishment. There are two recordings available: first, the odd and interesting “Cook Ting” and then his compelling “Blues for Titania, ” which you can read along with as he reads it – it’s a complicated and masterly poem, four stanzas long, nineteen lines each stanza, eleven syllables per line, and swoon-worthy.

—Julie Larios

 

With Jackson at Mo's 2

Julie Larios’s Undersung essays for Numéro Cinq have highlighted the work of George Starbuck, Robert Francis, Josephine Jacobsen, Adrien Stoutenburg, Marie Ponsot, Eugenio Montale, Alistair Reid and The Poet-Novelist; her own poems have been featured in our pages as well. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets prize and a Pushcart Prize, and her work has been chosen twice for The Best American Poetry series.

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Mar 102015
 

First day it was warm enough to take the old dog on a longish hike, so we went to the Palmerston Range,  Adirondack outliers cut through by the southern branch of the Hudson River. Actually, we went out a couple of days before, too, but it was positively Antarctic on the exposed shoulder near the top and the trail was drifted over, and it was not so much fun. Saw a female pileated woodpecker and a barred owl (last week I saw a snowy owl while I was snowshoeing in the ravine behind NC HQ — you can see I am working hard on something or other, right?). We also scared up a flock of turkeys, exploding out of the treetops as we came down from the ridge. This about cured my SAD for this year.

dg

LucyDog of the North

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALooking down to the Hudson River where we started

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClimbing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACrossing the ridge

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA little birch grove

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Barred owl (okay, I am not a photographer; it was far away)

Mar 092015
 

bag air strike

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February 23, 1991

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You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

What on earth is Eliot talking about? I should know: I’m an English teacher. But that doesn’t mean anything. I should know that, too.

It is Saturday morning, early, or early for me. I’m sitting by the gar­den, our garden on a hill that overlooks South Bay, reading his Four Quartets. On the bench beside me, coffee, a radio. Every now and then I turn the radio on to catch the news.

I’m reading the Quartets the way I have always read them, in fits, bits and pieces here and there, skipping around. I’ve read the whole work over the years, but have never read it all the way through in one effort, and I only know it as so many frag­ments. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding—I can at least put the poems in order, but if there’s any order to that order, it has escaped me. All the shifts in voice, the abstractions, the faint sym­bols, the ghosts of allusions—the thing tries your patience. It’s not a poem I would try to teach, if poetry were what I still taught. I don’t even remember our spending much time on it back in grad school. Still, I come back to it. There’s a meditative lilt to the sounds, to the rhythms that has stayed with me. It’s the closest I get to religion.

Today, however, Eliot irritates me. His words sound like chants of an old man trying to settle the uneasiness from a worried life, of the ache of brittle bones. I woke at six with a rush of purpose, full of resolve, only to real­ize there wasn’t any­thing I particularly had or wanted to do. Too much wine last night. I ended up here by default. It’s not the kind of thing I do, sit by a gar­den. It is not like me to sit still, and after an hour of sitting here, dipping into the Eliot, lis­tening to the news, look­ing at the garden, I feel I have come to the end of something. No ecstasy—do I get points for that?

The news is not news. We have been bombing the shit out of the Iraqis for over a month. The deadline approaches for invasion, 9:00 here, noon in Wash­ington, some other time in the Gulf, soon to pass. Rumors of last min­ute nego­tia­tions. Nothing will come of either. Bush won’t give this war up—he needs it. But he won’t commit troops as long as he can keep up the aerial attacks. And it has been a clean, pretty war for us, the U.S., from what we see on the tube. Vast stretches of desert sands, the floral splendor of night raids over Baghdad—the bombing will continue. We will keep bombing until there isn’t anything left. That way we maintain world order.

Our garden is not pretty; it is a disaster. We were hit by a hard freeze a few months ago, around Christmas, the worst in more years than I have been here. Everything is dead or looks dead. Dead plants on dirt—dead leaves, dead stalks, dead vines, dead buds of what­ever it was that bloomed in winter—a brown mesh of deadness blending into darker shades of brown. Even the few plants Margaret had been holding out hope for it can now be safely said are safely dead. The only green has been the weeds, which she pulls as soon as she sees them.

After a light rain last night, the rich, bitter smell of decay.

Yet it is a beautiful day, shirtsleeves in February, another freak of Cali­for­nia weather. Cloudless, smogless skies, the skies an unqualified blue. Not the transpar­ent blue that threatens ethereal dissipation, but a blue soft and full, with unforced presence. The morning chill has already burned off and the warm air caresses with­out crowding, as if you belonged here, as if the world were a place where you could live without protection.

The bombing, dead plants in a garden—there is seeming correspon­dence. I will not be sucked into pathetic fallacy, however. Nature has its rules, we have our own, such as they are. One has nothing to do with the other. Only the sentimental would make something of the accident that has brought them together. And even if I tried, I can’t imagine what kind of causal link might be established or what could be made of the balm of this morning sun.

But back to the Eliot. I also feel vaguely guilty, or vaguely sense the need to feel guilty. Perhaps the poems will give my life this grace. And the poet has gone through a couple of wars himself. In fact he wrote these some time around the Big One. Maybe he can give me some pointers on how to do this war, or at least on how to sit it out.

In order to arrive there—

He is talking about a kind of humility, a kind of vigilance. His point, I think, is that if we’re ever to get closer to anything larger, anything beyond our­selves, we need to deny the self in some way, get outside the self in order to see the self and whatever might lie past it, presumably a whatever that is worth the trip. He is trying to get us closer to Something Else. The figure of travel is a metaphor for that desire. This is too myste­ri­ous, or too mysterious for a Satur­day morning, too mysterious for a hangover.

Time present and time past—someday I should go through the whole poem, beginning to end, alpha to omega, soup to nuts, because I think there is a progres­sion, an argument that unfolds, at the end, a conclusion to be reached, maybe an understanding, maybe, God forbid, a revelation. I sus­pect if I did, though, I would only be disappointed. One more literary nut shelled and digested. Better to keep the possibilities of ignorance alive. In the cracks of doubt, of the unknown, maybe a chance—

Margaret—

The English teacher’s wife—

Comes out with her coffee, sees me, and winces softly. Winces because though she’s an early riser, she wakes slowly, also because she did not expect to find me here, by the garden. Softly because that is how she would wince. Then packing her surprise, she lingers a second, composing the Margaret face, a face that respects the decorum of a working marriage, that recognizes that I exist, will continue to exist and have a right to con­tinue to exist, that shows that, even though I have existed with her in civil matri­mony for almost twenty-five years, she has not yet lost fondness for this existence nor will she take it for granted—but today a face that also says she does not want to come to me just yet. Fair enough. Instead, she walks over to the garden and stands there surveying the dam­age, arms folded, coffee cup poised above their cross, her cheeks furled before the winds of a dilemma, as if she is trying to decide what to do about it.

Margaret, not Madge, Marge, Margie, Maggie, Mag, or Meg—she made that clear at the outset, her only condition for marriage. A native Californian, there is such a thing, and some of them have some sense. Second wife. My first marriage was to English, while in grad school, which blew up before either of us had fin­ished our dissertations. We both reached a critical mass of literature and frayed egos, of our exhilaration and desperation over criticism no one cares about, or should. Next a period of celibacy that I thought I chose but really just happened. Then Account­ing. Not that Margaret is another convert to the faith of the busi­ness of business; that is just what she teaches. Every day, before meeting the hordes who have chosen her discipline as the light and the way, she dresses in a sober suit, before the mirror flounces her scarf to a calculated carelessness, then puts on the face, a face of businesslike compassion, that hybrid of concern and practicality that seized me when I first saw her standing before her class at State where we both still teach, the face she now wears before the garden, before the thought of me, a face that doesn’t fend off despair and disorder as evil or unnec­essary but takes them as giv­ens, matters not to be questioned but measured and arranged. Accounting is not a subject but a manner, a way of dealing with what­ever life dishes out and finding it a place. Margaret is all manner and manners. I don’t think I could live without her.

Now she steps through the garden in a winding pattern, following some invisi­ble map, still pondering. It is not fair to her that I pick this day to be out by the garden. Except for minor demolition on my part, it is all her work, and her work lies in ruin, ruin brought into relief by this bright, smiling sun. And given my ignorance about plants, she knows I don’t appreci­ate what has been lost.

I don’t understand much about what makes things grow and am perversely proud I do not. I do know, however, that a garden at best is a complicated problem. I know because she gives me quarterly reports, and now it has become an im­probability. After three years of scant winter rain, last sum­mer she shifted to drought resistant plants, but then these cannot stand the cold. And while it sel­dom freezes here, after last December and the deadness now, she now has to factor in that chance. But plants that can take a freeze need lots of water and are averse to too much light, yet it does not rain here in summer and we have little shade, so anything she puts in next has to be able to withstand a full season of sun—and until the drought lets up, another season of ration­ing. I take these contradictions as evidence that we really aren’t supposed to be here in Califor­nia, any of us, though we have all gold-rushed here and over­run the place, straining the water supply, our dreams of a better life. Margaret does not think that way, however, about our intents or fool­ish­ness, or about the vagaries of the weather. She takes things as they come.

But I know she is not thinking about her plants. She has said she will wait until late spring to deal with them, when the rain stops, the weather settles, her classes are over and she has the time, and she always sticks to the Plan. What she is really doing is debating whether or not she wants to deal with me today. She has read my look and sized me up: she has seen that I have the desire to talk. Yet if she is bothered by me, by the garden, she does not show it.

I’m her second go around, too. I don’t know anything about her first. She never talks about him, I never ask. Not that she’s hiding anything. It’s just part of the decorum, I suspect. She won’t say anything about me, either, if we ever split up. I admire that in her.

Just the two of us. The girls have flown the coop.

She slides her foot through the dry waste, making static noise, then nudges a bush with her toe It does not spring back.

I try to get a rise out of her. I pick a passage at random and read aloud:

Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.

“What do you think of that?” the English teacher asks.

“Sounds like good advice.” She doesn’t turn, but bends over and tugs at the withered stalk of some unrecognizable plant. She still looks good in jeans.

No rest for the weary is what I think the poet means. I don’t think Mar­garet heard me. I try again.

“The war will start soon.”

No response. She does, however, succeed in pulling up the plant, and, holding it close to her face, examines the shriveled leaves.

“It will be a bloody mess. Body bags on the way.”

She taps the roots gently, shaking off the dirt.

“I’m thinking of enlisting.”

She throws the plant over the fence. My heart goes with it.

“I’m thinking of retiring.”

“Fine,” she says. With that, she mumbles something about breakfast and goes in. She knows I’m in one of those moods, that I want to start some endless conver­sation that will only result in my getting both of us upset. Mar­garet will not indulge me today.

She’s a good woman.

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No word of war. High noon in Washington, the deadline has come and gone. The English teacher has suc­ceeded only in rising to get a stack of papers to grade, which now rest on a bench by his chair, unmarked, unread. Students fear his judg­ment—they don’t know what a sweetheart he is—but he has decided to spare them another day. He is not up to see­ing what they have done to words and still has a headache from his hang­over to boot. So he’s just sitting by himself by a garden on a hill, a hill that overlooks the valley by the bay, the valley that is called Silicon Valley, the bay that is called the Bay. On his lap, a poem by T. S. Eliot; on top of the papers, more coffee, a radio.

Saddam lobbed another Scud missile at Israel a few minutes ago—that much is clear. And the reports that he has been setting oil wells on fire, hun­dreds of them, have been confirmed: smoke can be seen on the hori­zon. But the other reports are confusing. Negotiations have failed, they still continue. Our troops are rehearsing for assault, the invasion has been put on hold. Either Kuwaiti civilians have been rounded up, tortured, and executed—or they have not.

He has a tough job, the newscaster, casting the news, juggling what his report­ers can scrounge up and what little the government lets him know with what he wants to tell me. And he has to find the pitch that prepares me for sud­den drama yet won’t frustrate me with false anticipation if I have to wait—or if nothing happens. He does that very well. A poet, my newscaster. And he needs me, he wants me, he loves me, and does not want to let me down. For this I will never forgive him—

But I leave him on, just in case.

I don’t know how I got hooked on this war except that I watched it on the tube a few times from boredom, and then once I started, could not let it go. First the six o’ clock news, then the late night special reports to see if any­thing had changed. Then the car radio frozen on the news station, then this portable I carry to school, around the house. Much has been said, day to day, and there has been much to see, but all that I have heard and seen over the past months could be summed up in a few sentences. Still, I feel that if I ever stop following, if I step just once out of the flow of current events, I won’t be able to get back in it again. A continuity will be lost, and we’re running out of those. Besides, how are you going to know when the parade passes you by unless you watch it?

This quarter has not gone well. Listless students, flaccid prose, insin­cerity, incoher­ence. More dropouts. Ted, a colleague, thinks it’s the war, that it has depressed them. I doubt that. Their spirits have never been very high and they drop out all the time. It’s the dismal business at home that gets them down. If anything, the war is a good distraction. It gives them the illusion that some­thing is being done somewhere about something. And perhaps it will stir up some jobs in Silicon Valley, now languishing at my feet. What really depresses them, I told him, is our mak­ing them write papers. Nonetheless, the school is sensitive to our stu­dents’ psy­chological states, and the Dean has recom­mended that we talk about the war in class to ease whatever tensions it may have caused. So I have been holding discussions:

Anybody bummed out about this war?

—Not really. Maybe. Are they supposed to be?

Why is Saddam Hussein there?

What are his interests?

Why are we there?

What are ours?

—Oil. The rest is fuzzy. Uneasiness in the class, though. They sense the teacher is trying to wrack their political souls, to exact from them a confes­sion. I assure them I am not. It’s the young guys in the department, the guys with ideo­logical hairs up their butts that have made them suspi­cious. They talk about empower­ment, difference, and liberation. Really, it’s their way of tell­ing students they’re unreformed boobs. I tell students I respect their freedom. I tell them lots of things.

Who is on our side?

Who is not?

Who is Saddam?

Who are we?

Where is Kuwait?

No one seems to know much of anything. More questions from the teacher: they have grown tired of them. I am tired of them myself. There is con­sensus among them, though, that Saddam Hussein is evil and should be taken out. At least here we have moral clarity. Bush has done his job.

Do they realize that if there is a ground war, it might be a long one, that they could be drafted and have to fight?

The guys are not concerned. Yet why should they be? Why would the gov­ern­ment trust them with its complicated, expensive machines when it doesn’t trust them with anything else? Computers in the tanks, computers in the jets, comput­ers in the foxholes—they’d only screw them up.

Why should anyone wrack their brains over this one? Someone will tell us what it all means later.

But then this is how to do it, stage a war. Dazzle us with technology, mini­mize our risk. Bomb, bomb, bomb. This way Bush maintains the symbol without spill­ing the sub­stance of American blood. Because my students know what we all know, that he does not want to lose our hearts, much less our lives, because he wants us, he needs us, he loves us, too. He wants us to have a good night’s sleep. He wants to give our lives Meaning, to give us a word that does not mean Viet­nam. And to show that he loves us, he has to put on a good show. Our generals pride themselves on their precision bombing, but if those bombs are so precise, why do they need so many? And the TV cameras they use with smart bombs aren’t for guid­ance but are part of the production. In the cross hairs, on the screen: city, block, building, roof, air shaft—boom! Boffo! We are amazed, we are ful­filled, we are head over heels in love.

No war today—too much is at stake.

The world is as thick as our skin.

But what to do?

Where’s my wife?

Margaret has not yet returned. She was busy at her desk when I went in to get the papers, or was busy looking busy and did not speak. She will come when she wants to come. There is still the aging poet to keep me company—but I have lost my place. I’ll start again, somewhere else. Which is the one with the garden? Today I’m in a mood to read about gardens.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

Burnt Norton, first quartet, first page. I have some notes:

1936
Norton: manor house, Gloucestershire. Burned down, 17th. cent., rebuilt. TSE went to 1935 w. Emily Hale (wishes had married instead?)

You can’t read Eliot without notes. He visits a garden at some old house, or remembers visiting it, and takes off from there. Each of the Quartets is linked to a place that has some personal significance, which is what I think he is trying to do, locate himself in space and time. Not a bad idea—I’d like to know how that is done. Not a bad idea for Eliot in ’36, given the noise in Germany. Nothing else on Hale—I don’t know who she is—but at the bot­tom of the page, another note with an arrow pointing to rose, circled:

Rose: symbol sexual love/Divine Reality (Dante)

How can a rose be a symbol of both? I’ll have to get Margaret’s opin­ion on this. She has—had a dozen bushes in our little plot, though I doubt she saw blooms past the aphids and mildew. And before they had a chance to wilt, she lopped them off and threw them in the trash. I’ve never gotten around to Dante. I was an Americanist before I moved down into comp. Maybe tomor­row, maybe the next war.

Down the passage we did not take—who is with the narrator? Is he still hung up on Hale? Or is he trying to take us all along? The door we never opened—so do we open it now, or just imagine? Are we contem­plating opportunities missed? Should we have married someone else? We all know better than that. Maybe we’re just trying to recoup from the mess we’ve made of our lives.

Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick, said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush?

What is this damn bird? No notes on the echoes, either, but we follow, or pre­tend following—what else is there for us to do? The door we never opened, the first world—is he talking Paradise here? Has he fallen? Have we fallen? Do we care? Or the first world might be something private, something personal—a chance he had but blew? A garden could be any­thing and suggests too much to pin down. Another Eliot ghost. But we follow and open the gate, or maybe we don’t, but somehow

There they were

He shifts to past tense—is that a memory? Yet since we never opened the gate, is it something we imagine might have happened? Anyway, somehow there they were, but we don’t know who they are, there they were in the gar­den, dignified yet invisi­ble, saintly people they must have been—maybe it’s their echoes we heard, they must know something we do not, they must know Something Else—and the pace relents, and still we followed, now slowly, there they were, whoever they are, our guests he calls them, accepted and accepting, there they were, and they moved with us, in a formal pattern, but not as if in memory or imagination, but as if in a trance, in a dream—

Jesus, this stuff makes you dizzy. The old poet is so careful to be so con­fusing. Each time I read these lines, I feel I have never seen them before. They only recall from past readings echoes of vain attempts to fig­ure them out. But this is not the wry Waste Land Eliot; I sense we are supposed to be lightly moved. And there is, I suppose, something lightly moving, moved lightly with the rhythms, with the sounds, with the scar­less words. And there was, I sup­pose, a time when I could be thus lightly moved—

But we aren’t so stupid now. Yet we followed then and we follow now because we’re hungover and can’t think of anything else to do, we follow the movement in the figures of motion, of flowers, of sight, of patterns and light, whose delicate associations rise and connect in airy matrix, building scaf­folds around what they reach for, try to construct, to contain, and still we fol­lowed, we follow, follow them along the empty alley, into the box circle, follow to the drained pool, where we stop, where we think we have a glimpse—

And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light

Zen stuff here—the poet also listened to voices from the East—but a cloud passes, the pool is empty, and the moment, the light is gone.

Glimpse of what?

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

Blue skies soft overhead, a poem on one’s lap, a freeze-dried garden, a news­caster’s pleasant voice, the news of war, a pounding in one’s head; a long, black ghoul, the shadow projected from a teacher sitting in a lounge chair on his deck: these things are real, and they’re as far as one can go. They’re also more than one can bear.

Glimpse of what?

The scaffolds collapse.

There’s no there there.

There’s nothing there but words.

More Eliot hocus-pocus.

I realize I know little about the poet’s life, save for some gossip, but then I make a point of not learning about authors’ lives. Let’s save our questions, our revenge for the living and unlettered. And it is the measured words, not a writer’s beliefs and other casual slips that deserve our attention. Today, however, I am curi­ous. The poet has gotten under my skin. What else do I have? I flip to the front. Next to the title page, the epigraphs:

Heraclitus. I don’t know Greek, and only have scribbled a translation for the second:

The way up is the way down.

I have forgotten what that is about. Underneath the title, more notes:

T. S. E. 1888-1965
royalist in politics!
classicist in literature!!
Anglo-Catholic in religion?
anti-Semite????

At the end, Little Gidding, he makes some kind of one-for-all-and-all-for-one pitch for England, if I remember right. I must have written those notes in grad school, back when such things could surprise me, back when Modernists were still modern. I doubt Eliot is a hot item at Stanford now—but we all screw up sooner or later. Yet this is one fear I have about the Quartets, that for all their delicacy, their complexity, their diffuse sug­gestion, what they mask is very small.

My other fear is that Eliot wants to convert me.

A screech—

The patio door—

Margaret at last, love of my life, the yin to my yang. But she stands there in the opening and waits for me to speak—a bad sign. I hit her with this, con brio:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

She stares at me. No games today.

“You’re not serious, are you.” She does not raise her voice at the end to make a question. She seldom does.

“No, never.”

“I mean about what you said.”

“What, about enlisting?”

“I mean about retiring.”

“Sure. Why not?”

“I don’t think you could stand it.”

“What is there to stand?”

“I don’t think you could stand yourself.”

Suddenness, maybe anger from Margaret—another bad sign.

She remains a moment, either giving me a chance to reply or trying to think of some way to mollify the abruptness of her remark. But neither of us finds anything to say. I make a mental note to fix the door. She takes a slow breath, releases a gen­tle heave. Then the door scrapes shut.

I read aloud to the door, its cry still scratching in my ears:

The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars

Nothing happens.

Couldn’t stand myself—not irony, not from Margaret. What has got­ten into her? She must be in some kind of a funk. I suppose I should be careful with my sar­casm. Then again, she could tell me when she is going to take me liter­ally. Something has started here. More later. Film at eleven.

But why should she be upset? She must know I wouldn’t do it. I’ve never really thought about it, yet now, for the first time, it occurs to me: I could. I’m not that old and don’t feel old. I can still go three sets at the courts with­out tripping off a riot in my chest. Old age, disease, death—those worries I displace each month with the slice the school takes from my check. But I could retire. I’ve put my time in for the state, the house is almost paid for, and I have enough socked away. The girls won’t need help. Eliza­beth’s mar­ried to a lawyer handling Apple’s suit against Microsoft, so she’ll be set up well into the next millennium. And Mary wouldn’t ask if she did. As for Marga­ret, she wouldn’t know how to quit. It would be against the Plan. She’ll clock in until she’s 65, so she won’t need anything, either. And if I can do it, why not?

Why should anyone be upset here? Because it also occurs to me I have been lucky. I had the right age for the wars, too young for Europe and Korea, too old for the rest. I got into the state system when California was still flush, when the pay showed some respect for the profession. And we moved to Sara­toga when a teacher could buy a house, when you didn’t have to be a million­aire to buy a house in the hills. Because isn’t that sup­posed to be part of what we work for and look forward to, a place of quiet, the means to inhabit it—a house with a garden out back, a garden, our peek at paradise, our reward for not getting divorced too often, for not covet­ing our neighbor’s wife, for rais­ing two kids who did not turn into junkies or wel­fare mothers, for kneeling twenty-five plus years in the temple of American higher education?

I look at our garden—

Only lucky.

There is a plan to a garden, practical and esthetic. She studies the habits of insects and fungi—Margaret has an aversion to spraying with chemicals—and our odd lot has to be factored in. The terrain is uneven; ground water comes up in unexpected places. Dig down one spot, and the hole fills; a few feet away there is nothing but hard clay. And plants have to be arranged in a pat­tern by their size, their foliage, and the color of their blooms, and the times of their blooms scheduled, annuals interspersed with perennials—

None of which matters now. Yet if the loss of the garden has disturbed her, she hasn’t shown it. And if these plants have meant anything to her over the years or moved her in any way, I have not seen it, or know what it is. There is no plan to her Plan. It is just something she does.

War news, then. But my newscaster has beat a retreat to make way for other news. The other news: a bloodless military coup in Thailand, a military crackdown in Albania, bloody; divi­sion in Yugoslavia, some hope for some reform. In the USSR some guy named Yeltsin wanting Gor­bachev to step down. Software piracy by a firm in Chicago, a hefty fine slapped on Du Pont for toxic waste, the Administration’s proposal to deregulate banks. Governor Pete’s railing against the state teacher’s union, the snow pack down in the Sierra, more drought predicted. The usual murders and rapes.

I spin the dial.

On the other stations: self-help on investments, cars, computers, home improve­ment, and divorce. No sports yet, but plenty of music, some cham­pagne classical, the rest pop stuff I no longer recognize, run­ning a spectrum from raw to schmultzy sentimental.

Not retire. One might as well work until he is feeble-minded enough to believe his life has been worthwhile.

I thumb through the poems, looking at my notes—when did I write all these? My scratches crowd the margins, different hands in varying slants with varying cramped postures, ciphers on the yellowed pages of my vari­ous selves, fading voices from the past. The temptation is to trace a progression, like fail­ing eyesight, of a falling from legibility, but I don’t know when I wrote which or if they follow that order.

I look at my notes on Little Gidding. 1942 minus 1888—actually, Eliot wasn’t that old when he finished the Quartets. He went on another twenty years, but I don’t think he wrote much else.

Somewhere in the pines, the raucous call of a Steller’s jay.

He was a year younger than I.

She’s right. I couldn’t stand it, retirement. But I have stood the self I have been stuck with long enough, and could stand him a few years more.

Bitch.

.

.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.

It’s a prescription for a hangover. It’s not working. The poem is not becoming any clearer and the English teacher’s headache is getting worse.

Still stuck in Burnt Norton. He picks up themes and reconsiders them in other contexts, other images, other rhythms, different voices. I guess he’s talking back and forth to himself, like instruments in chamber music, hence Quartets. Hence the teacher’s head. But here he must be getting down to brass tacks so I’ll give it my best shot. Not this, not that—he’s trying to talk about Something Else again. There must be a Point to the still point, and he’s trying to figure out how we can get it. Dancing is a fig­ure of partici­pation, our move­ment in the world. But since Something Else is beyond the transience of life, the metaphors of place and motion are not enough. We can only make our best guess at what it might be, what our relation­ship might be to it. But if we’re caught up in the move­ment of the dance, we lose sight of what we’re doing, so we have to step back and let go.

First:

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving

Then:

both a new world
And the old made explicit, understood

But we have to dance first to find that out. Yet since beyond us, we’ll never get it right, our eyes deceive us, our best guess will fail, so we detach our­selves from our selves, purge our desires, our wish, don’t look, don’t hope,

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation

No ecstasy—maybe then the light will come. We attach ourselves to the world and do the best we can, or negate our attachment to it and put on hair shirts.

The way up is the way down.

It’s the way the poem works back and forth, up and down, move­ment and countermovement, assertion and denial, hope and despair. One is the way of sub­tle adjustment, the other of prostration.

I’ll never make the first and am not ready for the other yet.

The way up is the way down.

Both somehow get you there.

Both will drive you crazy—

What’s with Margaret? The English teacher is lonely. Today, how­ever, he may have to fend for himself.

Back to the war, then. Still more talk of negotiations from the box. Aziz, the Iraqi Foreign Min­ister, has left Moscow; Gorbachev’s been on the horn with Bush. Meanwhile, the Security Council is meeting behind closed doors. Every­one is just talking. My newscaster hides his shame.

Saddam upset us all last week with his bid for a truce. He can’t be seri­ous, though, yet has to pretend that he is so he can buy more time to save his skin and/or wear us down. Then the Soviets got into the act, and they’ve been shuf­fling plans back and forth with Iraq all week. They can’t be serious, either, but have to try to look more so than we if they’re going to get anything in the Mid­dle East when the show is finally over. And Bush has to pretend to be interested so he won’t offend our Arab allies or embarrass the struggling Gorbachev too much, but he won’t give in—he can’t and keep his face. Yet if he isn’t careful, he will lose his gorgeous war and have to fight, or worse, settle for some kind of peace.

But no one’s serious. More bombs today. We’ll bomb again tomor­row. And there is always this to lift our spirits: we’ll never run out of bombs.

Or words.

Back to the poem.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

Words, words, words. Eliot talks about them, too, words. He talks about the difficulties of making sense of one’s life, of getting it down in words. About whether or not what one writes is worth the effort, whether there is anything that can be said that hasn’t be said before, or if anything can be said at all. Speech/reach, a nasty rhyme—he has his doubts. As if what a poet says makes a difference.

Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness

The pattern, the stillness, and music again—these are only words about words.

When in doubt, transcend.

It’s what I did in grad school. I wrote some junk about the influence of nine­teenth century Transcendentalism on the American novel in the twenti­eth. There isn’t any, of course, which was kind of my point: those scabrous novels were determined by what wasn’t there. We all need something to pee on. When I got the job at State, I cleaned up the disser­tation, sent it out, and some­one published a few copies, which was enough to get me tenure. For all I know it’s still buried in the basements of a couple of university libraries along with the rest.

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish

I took over freshman comp because no one else would do it. No regrets on leaving lit, however. I was tired of having my students make me feel I was pull­ing one over on them. Also I was beginning to wonder if I wasn’t. Traipse through this century and see what you get. You learn the writers are made of the same stuff as the rest of us. We’re crude oil, they’re high octane—the only difference is that they have been refined.

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.

Actually, I did have a plan, a reason for doing comp. My idea was to let students figure out the world for themselves. If I could get them to under­stand the order of words, just look at what they were saying, they might come up with something better, or at least something different.

Who am I kidding. I was unsure of myself in school and lacked ambition. Also the ex wanted to stay in the area.

Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

All these damn papers—I know what I will find. The topics, the play­ers have changed over the years, but I always get the same responses. From some, righteous approval, anger against unseen enemies; in a few, holy indignation, the whimpers of martyrdom. Either way, the furious desire for self-justifica­tion. But for the most part, resentment against any assault on their place in the middle of the curve, and grunts, groans, and stammering, a frenetic dash to get to the last of a thousand words. Yet why should they bother? They know school is just a way to weed them out for the corporations. If they ever get a job, busi­ness will tell them what to think later and pay them for it.

I got the awards that come if you stick around long enough.

A few students have come back to say hello.

I could have gone higher in this racket. I also could have gone lower. But I couldn’t have done anything better or worse—

I haven’t done a damn thing.

You spend a lifetime trying to gain the quiet that comes from comple­tion, the coming together of parts—

All you get is the quiet.

Maybe it is time to get out.

The Word in the desert
Is most attacked by voices of temptation,
The crying shadow in the funeral dance,
The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.

Margaret really looked pissed off.

Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

Burnt Norton, last lines.

The English teacher is getting depressed.

.

.

An hour past the deadline, still in the garden, the garden is still dead. You get used to it, though, and sit here long enough it takes on its own esthetic. All the subtle shades of umber, the intricate pattern of vines and leaves—it looks like a cubist painting, or wild embellishments, rococo. And there’s something about the smell of dirt and deadness that stuffs the sinuses but clears your head. But this will pass too. You can’t even count on the perma­nence of decay.

The sky is still blue, but less soft, and the sun is almost overhead, but hot­ter, less kind. The English teacher who sits by a garden that sits on a hill still has not found resolve or reason to get up. He is still hung­over, but the focused pain of his headache has become a sloppy blur. Worse, the coffee pot is empty.

Margaret’s in the kitchen, cleaning up, banging pans. Whatever is bugging her, there are repairs to be made. But they can wait. For now, I wish she’d keep it down.

And I wish they’d get this damn war over. It’s getting on my nerves. One moment my newscaster tells me preparations are being made for the inva­sion, that Saddam’s time is running out; the next he says the White House is reviewing Gor­bachev’s plan. Israel, he claims, is in a state of panic after the Scud missile and fears another attack. Our troops, massed on the bor­der, are restless, and our generals worry that the moment will be lost. I suspect, how­ever, my newscaster is making all that up. He is the one who is panicky and restless. He has lost his art, is fumbling badly, and has run out of things to say.

Every­one’s on edge and sloppy today. More bombs will calm us down.

Or more Eliot:

In my beginning is my end.

East Coker—I have straggled into the next Quartet. There is a time, he tells me, for houses to rise, houses to fall, for houses to live and die, a time for building and generation, a time for the wind

to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

My notes:

1939-40
East Coker: West Country village. TSE’s ancestors departed from, 17th. cent.

Departed for the New World. I don’t know if they made it to Califor­nia, though. He returns to his ancestral home, then harks back to the past. I sup­pose you have to start somewhere, and home as good as any. It’s where you end up that is the problem.

In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman

He imagines some ancient rite. Too close, too close—the repetition is haunt­ing, but the rest is rather quaint. Dancing again—we are supposed to be reminded of the still point, of the pattern. Of whatever. Now he adds mar­riage to the stew.

In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde.

Eliot’s first, as I recall, was less than stable. But we won’t hold that against him. I think he was weird about sex, too. So hard to be normal—we won’t hold that against him, either. My note in the margin:

E Coker: home of Sir Thomas Elyot—related? Wrote The Boke named the Governour, 1531: moral treatise on education of rulers; dancing/soul

He has slipped in a direct quotation from Elyot’s book, he does stuff like that. It’s what endeared him to us in grad school. What’s his point? Good dancing makes good marriages, good marriages make good kings? We should all dance to the music of the spheres? Eliot the royalist rearing his purple head. But someone as subtle as T.S. couldn’t be so obvious.

Then again, maybe that is where subtlety leads.

Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time

He is getting sentimental—is Glen Miller next? Lots of corn has been nour­ished since Elyot’s time, more is on the way for Eliot, because as he writes this Germany has run through Poland and France, and England is waiting its turn. I suppose he is trying to find an anchor in a time of crisis and turns to the past. And his point here is not final, he has more to say—

But why look back at all? What can we learn from the past except how to perfect the mistakes we have repeated?

Tedious crap!

Rite, ritual, and romance—they are ways to make us blind. Good tyrants make good kings. Try to get them to dance to another tune. And marriage gives us the illusion we are together, then sets us up to be led by the nose. Marry us off, get the flocks together, beat the tribal drum. Put clogs on our feet, dress us up like rubes, and have a hoedown. Dance, dance, dance. Dance our blues away. Then stick a gun in our hands. Hitler and Mussolini knew that very well. As does Saddam. And Bush. And every­one else.

And good craftsmen make good fascists. I’ve listened to recordings of the poet reading his work, heard his careful pronunciation of all those dif­ficult for­eign words in his tremulous, singsongy voice—it is the music of a fastidi­ous, failing fop who licks the first boot that comes along.

Dance, dance, dance.

Bomb, bomb, bomb.

Here there may be correspondence.

Because how did this thing happen? OK, Saddam’s not a very nice guy, but Jesus, what a dancer! Because didn’t Saudi Arabia and Kuwait foot the bill for Saddam’s holy war against Iran a decade ago because of their uneasiness with their Persian brothers in the faith? And while the Soviet Union pro­vided arms, didn’t Europe’s weapons merchants cash in as well? And, in spite of the Soviets, didn’t we kick in a few bucks and support him, too, because of our holy hatred of Khomeini who deposed that angel of democracy, the Shah our coup stuck in? And then, in our soft-shoe shuffle of linkage, didn’t we also sell arms to Iran so we could maintain balance against all those wayward Muslims, so we could fund our own sacred war against the Sandinistas next door? Eight years of stepping to the music of mass slaughter—the world trained Saddam how to boogie very well.

And now Gorbachev has his generals on his back, mad about his los­ing Soviet presence in the Gulf, so he does his two-faced two-step, he tries to strike a deal. And now Saddam wants to get Israel in the dance. A few well placed bombs, if he can get them there, would do the trick. But the Israelis have too much to lose if they hit the floor because that would break the coalition and could turn the Arabs against them, against us. We have to show Israel we won’t skip a beat—our Holocaust guilt, the Jewish lobby, our love for non-Arabs who will bear the brunt of Mid-East flack—yet still tap-dance to the tune of peace because our bombing of Iraqi civilians has upset the Arab world. Europe has been upset with us, too, and only grudgingly follows our lead, yet they can afford to waffle—they aren’t so much involved. And what did they expect when they armed Saddam, or when they passed the baton to us? England, how­ever, Eliot’s precious England, has been behind us all the way, Eng­land who, after the Nazi waltz, left the political mess in the Gulf when they pulled their Empire out. We could trace this tune back to the Crusades.

But the blood from the bombing is nothing compared to what will be shed if we attack. And if more Arab blood is spilled, the poor Arabs will see their oil rich Sheiks shake and shimmy in their dependence on us, their part­ners in this dance. And spilling U.S. blood would not play well with us, or the mixing of our blood with Arab. So we dance and we bomb and we bomb and we dance. This is the way the world works, this is the new world order. This is the tune of linkage, the music of the spheres, this is the dance along our arteries, the circu­lation of oil through our lymph.

And we probably would have let Saddam take a little of Kuwait, maybe a lot, because that would not have broken up the dance. Saddam’s only crime is that he got too greedy. Or not even that. He was just unlucky: he was left standing without a chair when the music stopped—

But the thing will happen.

It will happen, and it will have to happen soon.

Because how much longer can we let all that oil burn? And not just because of the oil, or not even because of the oil, because we never kidded ourselves about that, but because of the lyrics, because of the words, because if Bush waits any longer, Gorbachev will come up with a plan whose terms match his own, because then we will all see what we don’t see now, what lies behind the words or, rather, what does not, because when words fail because they always fail, the only thing left to do is act—

I read aloud, to the garden, everyone, all together now:

O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody’s funeral, for there is no one to bury.

It is only the Eliot who doubts I can believe.

Margaret—

At the kitchen window—

What is she looking at?

She is looking at me.

Now she’s gone.

How much longer is she going to keep this up?

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there

No help from my ancestors. My people were Scotch-Irish, the Low­landers King James sent to Ireland to tame the unruly Catholics. When they got to Penn­sylvania they became Americans: they cleaned the slate. Only a few words from a great-grandfather who fell at Chancellorsville, letters from Libby Prison of desperate, starved faith.

Give us the time and the resources, and we will find a way to clean the slate for good.

Not retire—

.

.

“What will you do.”

Saint Margaret—

“What will I do about what?” I didn’t hear the door. She has come straight to me and stands in a rigid pose that struggles with ease. Her long narrow face, serenely, solemnly attractive when unworried, is taut not with anger, but with her attempt to compose her indignation and turn it into something pleasant. From her breasts, a weary sigh. She is preparing to get down to busi­ness.

“What about school.”

“What about it?”

“When you retire.”

“When am I retiring?”

“When you do retire.”

“They will replace me. They’ll hire two part-timers and save a few bucks.”

“What about your students.”

“They won’t know the difference.”

“What about you.”

“What about me?”

“What will you do.”

“What am I doing now?”

The muscles in her cheeks ratchet one notch tighter. Her tone, how­ever, does not waver. In her eyes, the avoidance that comes with a direct look.

“What will you do with yourself.”

I will not give in to this. “I will write a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will eat a novel.”

And tighter.

“What will you do.”

“I will burn a novel.”

Still tighter—it is not a pretty sight. If she would just lose her temper so we can both see what this is, then we could take it where it should go, or at least have a decent fight.

“What will you do.”

“I will dig a hole and bury myself in the garden. Maybe something will sprout this summer. Why don’t you sit down?”

“Why don’t you turn that damn radio off? This war has made you morbid.”

“Someone has to listen.”

“Someone could find a better way to spend his time.”

“Better an honest bum than a busy fool.”

“Better to do something worthwhile.”

“It is because people are trying to be worthwhile that the world is so screwed up.”

“I’m not as clever as you—”

“I’m not clever at all; I’m an idiot. And you could do a better job of hid­ing your contempt.”

“It is difficult to appreciate what is put to ill use. You will only get worse at this.”

“I will get better.”

“I don’t pretend to have all the answers—”

“Then what do you have?”

She stops and retreats without lowering her eyes, gathering herself inward to that wordless, weedless place where she wants to put me. Prone on the deck, side by side, two shadows, dwarfs of a married couple; one slouched, one erect, both sadly comic, not touching.

“I have a life,” she says at last.

There is no reply to that. I stare at her, her cheeks go slack, then she loads up to start again.

“I think I could take your becoming an alcoholic.”

“It takes practice.”

“Or maybe you could have an affair with one of your students.”

“I will give the matter full consideration.”

“I don’t care that you don’t care about me. I don’t care what you care about. I think I could take your scorn, I’ve taken it so long. But if you think I’m going to spend the rest of my years watching you abuse yourself, you are wrong. You’d bet­ter find someone else to do it.”

“Then I shall become an accountant. I will learn to keep the books on men’s souls.”

With that she turns and goes back into the house.

That shriek, the door—

She isn’t serious. We’ve been at it too long to start over. This one’s good for two or three days, a week, tops. We will avoid each other the rest of the day, then have din­ner without speaking. One of us will stay up late until the other falls asleep. Sunday will be a little tricky. But gradually we will get back into the rhythm. Her pointed silence will yield to embar­rassment over losing her cool, then she’ll start acting as if nothing happened, and we will pick up where we left off. It’s part of a dance rou­tine we’ve worked out. It’s called not stepping on each other’s toes. We will find little things to talk about, then our jobs will take over. Neither of us will apologize, a frivolous step we dropped years ago. And I will man­age to behave. It is a good diversion and I can be good at it—

I will not give in to her. I will not be turned into something pleasant.

But her first time. I’m always the one who talks about splitting up.

She isn’t serious—

Her car—

.

.

You think you know someone, but all you know are the habits, the posi­tions you work out to keep each other at arm’s length, at that unbreachable distance that comes when you are close, and then some­thing disrupts the rhythm, a pause in the music, a break between numbers, the noise of a war, and you wonder who she is before you, her stiff hand already sliding from your shoul­der, you wonder what it was that kept you together, and then you find yourself in the middle of the dance floor, by your­self, and you wonder where you are, you hope the music starts back soon—

We dance and we dance and we follow—

And the bombs keep coming down.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin

Little Gidding. 1941-2. My note on dove: Nazi bomber—the irony is too large to be ironic. Germany has finally made it to Eliot’s front door. He sees himself as a fire warden surveying the damage after an air raid in London, a nice pose for a poet. Then a schizophrenic passage where he pretends meeting someone on the streets who reminds him of himself yet also other poets, the greats, long dead and gone. He imagines them talking to him, and they give him this advice:

‘From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.’

Still the worry, still the doubt, but I sense elation breaking through. Terza rima without the rima—he’s hitting his stride, he must feel he’s got his hands around something at last. He is only a man, only a poet, one of us, but has decided what is true for him could be true for us all, that, in case we missed it in the first three poems, to dance we need to pray.

Little Gidding, my note: the site of an Anglican religious community cleared out and burned down by Crom­well and his faithful Puritan crew. It is where Eliot wants us to return to contemplate Nazis, where he wants us to get dive-bombed again.

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Because now the dove has become the Holy Spirit, a flaming angel pound­ing us into absolution, redeeming us from the fire of destruction with the purifying fire of faith.

What’s the difference?

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame

Because since we can’t love ourselves or each other but only what flees from us, what is beyond us, we turn love over to Someone, Something Else. But Something Else is only the burning residue of our selves extin­guished by the flame, selves collected and displaced, selves hidden from us by the act of conse­cration, selves blinded by the purity of our beseeching. And in the after­glow of self-immolation, our pain becomes a joy, we think we have found something. We call it meaning. And we think we can go on.

So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

And all shall be well.

Let us pray.

Either:

We take despair, our failures and throw them up into the air, then let them fall on our heads until we are beaten senseless. They fall, we fall, we hug the ground and chastise ourselves with our selves and make them bleed and sing.

Or:

There is no other course but the one we have chosen, except the course of humiliation and darkness.

Or someone does the burning for us.

Saddam Hussein. He said that a few days ago. My newscaster has just quoted him, trying to set the stage for today’s events. Now he puzzles over Saddam’s words, trying to figure out what they might mean. A ruse, he’s bluff­ing, he’s putting up a front to scare us—

Or Saddam could be pure and humble, too. Also Bush and all the other Roundheads. Because who’s to say they’re not believers? They’ve just found the way to turn faith inside out, to turn it not on themselves but on everyone else.

Because what’s the difference between their fire and our Anglican’s? We get turned into ashes either way.

And one kind of faith may feed the other.

Now he measures his words carefully, with reverence and with awe. Over a half million troops on either side, the newscaster tells me, and it is difficult to know how many of theirs we’ve taken out. Between us and them, just as many land mines. And miles of berm and razor wire. And kill zones all mapped out. And trenches they’ll fill with burning oil. They have been months getting ready for the attack, have buried themselves deep in sand and cement. No airplanes, but they still have big guns. And chemicals—we’d bet­ter count on all stops being pulled.

Now his voice lifts cautiously as he talks about our preparations last night. Mas­sive carpet bombing to soften them up, and cluster bombs, steel rain. And phosphorous shells. And fuel-air explosives—the mist that turns air, lungs, and spirits into living fire. And napalm—there’s a memory, our dove in Vietnam. The argument about how many soldiers we’ve hit is largely a debate over degrees of hugeness. As for the living, only the Republican Guard is well trained, which Saddam may try to protect. The rest are poorly trained civilians pushed to serve—poor slobs like the rest of us, like us all.

Still talk of negotiations, but they’re only a formality, he says with a joy he can scarcely contain. He is happy now, my newscaster, he sounds ecstatic. He sounds not only as if the thing has begun, but as if it is already over.

But his ecstasy is premature. Those slobs can’t go back to Baghdad in defeat, nor can they expect anything from us. Either they lie down and get slaughtered or they come out and fight. They will have to become believ­ers, too. The faith of the world has given them no other choice.

History is now and Kuwait.

Let us still pray.

It will be a long and bloody war.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will be able to claim a word, and that word will be Victory.

It will be a long and bloody war, but we will restore our faith in our­selves and in our faith.

It will be a long and bloody war, but it won’t be long before we find the need to forget it.

Not retire. Maybe it is time to enlist.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her cry.

.

.

Eliot, objective correlative:

a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the for­mula of that particular emotion; such that when the exter­nal facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emo­tion is imme­diately invoked.

I went into the house to find this. It’s a theory of poetic expression.

Against the back fence cling the corpses of desiccated vines. The fine, fern­like leaves on the jacaranda have lost their color and curled even finer. The delicate patterns they once made against the sky now look like so many fish skeletons, hanging limp from the tree. The pods that carry its seeds, hard and black, have started falling, too soon, too dead. Whole limbs have dropped from the other trees. The leaves on a cape honey­suckle by the house, which she pruned to look like a tree, rained down last week, almost at once, still green, now brown. At the base of its thick stem, black cracks have appeared where water gathered, froze, and swelled. A jade tree and some other succu­lents, whose names I do not know, have turned into dark rubbery monsters, crip­ples with gnarled, drooping limbs.

And there are many more plants whose names I never learned, each differ­ent in its individual decomposition, in the writhing twists and breaks of its stems, the failing filigree and serration of its leaves, the particular clench of shriveled petals if it was a plant that flowered in winter—all of them now beyond identification. On the ground the litter of debris piling upon debris, a complexity of runners and roots and vines and fallen leaves and branches, resolving into the simplicity of dirt.

The roses—a dozen bushes—only show their thorns.

What do I feel.

.

.

On a clear day like today, if I got up and looked over our fence, I would see all the way from the foothills to the bay, the hills green with indifferent, indige­nous weeds, the bay a sliver of silvery reflection. And I would see all that is between them, the valley, the roads, San Jose and the other towns where we have transplanted ourselves, miles and miles of the spread of our sprawling lives, of the grid of our motion, of the cross­ings of our lives together, of the improbable constructions that house our aspira­tions, of the breath of our uncertain, weedlike growth—

But I do not get up.

If I looked up, I would see a sky that thinks it’s blue, a hot sun short of midday that strips me of that illusion, of the illusion a sky can fill empty space—

But I do not look.

Instead I stare at a poem.

He tells me he does not know much about gods, but he thinks the river is a strong brown god.

I have skipped The Dry Salvages. How did that happen?

I skim through this one without reading it. Not much underlined, no notes. Either I understood it well enough some time past, or did not under­stand it at all. Or perhaps I understood it too well. Salvages—Eliot provides his own note—some rocks off the coast of New England. Rhymes, he tells me, with assuages. He can’t wash the New World off his hands.

There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,
No end to the withering of withered flowers,
To the movement of pain that is painless and motionless,
To the drift of the sea and the drifting wreckage,
The bone’s prayer to Death its God.

He should have stopped there.

Better not to have said anything at all.

.

.

The sun is directly overhead, white hot; the blue has gone away.

A portable radio has been thrown over the fence—

A rose is a rose is a rose.

A rose was a rose was a rose.

Light is light is light.

The world is the world is the world.

A word is a word is a word.

The world is a word is a war.

The way up is the way down.

The way down is the way up.

The way down is the way down. . . .

.

.

The sun. . . .

.

.

The door—

Margaret—

She’s back—

I didn’t hear her car—

She stands again at the opening, wearing leather gloves and black rub­ber boots that trumpet at her calves. Dry-eyed, without expression, she pauses there a moment, gazing over the fence. In her hands, across her chest, a new pruning saw with a bright chrome handle and the straight smile from a blade of large, angry teeth.

This is how the day has gone. This is what one should expect—

But she acts as if I am not here. Instead, she goes over to one of the rose­bushes and hacks away with vigorous yet steady strokes. The thorns grasp and tear her clothes. She doesn’t seem to notice. She stops, she drops the saw, then stands back and contemplates her butchering, par­tially complete. A hushed world gives silent approval. On her face, the look of satisfaction.

Pathetic. This gesture was meant for me—

Back to work. She stoops and yanks a small shrub by the rosebush. It breaks off at the roots. That does not satisfy her and she hurls it against the fence.

Because what she is doing to the garden is what she thinks I have done to her—

She shakes her disappointment, turns, and, crushing crisp deadness under her boots, trudges to the cape honeysuckle. Grabbing high on its trunk, she pulls back with all her weight. A few hard tugs and it snaps; she falls on her rear. But she is up before I can think about giving her a hand, and holding half a tree, she stares at it without anger or regret. It is heavy, she lets it fall. On the shoulder of her white blouse, already dark with sweat, a few spots of blood.

But what she is doing to the garden, what she thinks she’s doing to me, she’s also doing to herself. Still, I don’t get up, but sit and watch. There is nothing to think about here, nothing that can be done. I know I cannot stop her.

She steps back, and, arms folded, considers what to do next. She has decided. She walks to the house, unloops the hose from the hook, opens the faucet, and goes back to the middle of the garden. Then she adjusts the nozzle to a narrow, violent spray and turns it on the plants. Vines jump, branches shudder, the spray deflects and scatters. Dry leaves crack, snap, and fly, which she beats back down with the hose.

Not to me, not to her—

Yet still she keeps on spraying, eyes focused where the stream hits, strafing long strips, then shooting individual plants until they are drowned in mud and water. A few minutes is all it takes to turn the garden into thick soup.

I don’t know what this is—

Now just the loud but even sound of the torrent from the hose and a splashing in fresh puddles. And still she keeps on spraying, her face still serene and full of pur­pose. And still I don’t get up, but sit and stay. It’s the least I can do for her. But I can’t watch this anymore, so I pick up a book and read.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is un—

The stench hits me, a fecal smell of dirt and rotten life, heavy, wet, and sick—I can’t sit still any longer. I don’t know what she’s doing, but I might as well get up and join her.

When I come back from the garage, she is stooping, lifting plants, and throwing them against the back fence. It splatters with mud when they hit. Already at its base, a small pile growing larger.

I plug in the extension cord and run it to the jacaranda. Then I con­nect the cir­cular saw. Whatever this is, I will make quick work of it.

The purplish mist of the tree’s tiny blooms always embarrassed me some­how when the thing was alive. What is now left disgusts me. The pods, the fronds, the way they cling—lock­ing the switch on the saw, I reach high and rip through slender, sapless branches. With a few flour­ishes I have the tree down to a stump.

I try to pull the stump up. The bastard will not budge. I kick it hard, and still it doesn’t move. I go to the garage and bring back an ax. Swinging at the base, I aim for its roots, not knowing where they are. When I’ve cir­cled the stump, I try to lift again, but it has scarcely weakened. So I swing wildly, deep into the ground, not thinking about my feet or damage to the blade. Then I try once more to pull it out, and now it comes out easily.

I stare at the upturned stump—a black, gnarled hand with severed fin­gers—feeling queasy and contrite. Then I look at myself—I’m a mess, and I forgot to change my clothes. Then I look at the carnage in the dirt, then down into the pit I have just made. Lightness in my head, a vacant joy. Mur­der must feel something like this. Or suicide. Or both.

No passion on Margaret’s face, but squatting now, she has found momen­tum. She thrusts, she grabs, she tosses; plants sail and slap against the fence. The pile is huge—she’s almost half done, the fence is almost half cov­ered, almost half the gar­den is down to dirt. A kind of passion, though, in the rhythm of her motion, a kind of passion in the sensuous mud that clings to her and makes her pulsing torso shine. It is the kind of passion that has moved the world today.

What next? I’m at a loss for procedure here. I decide I might as well pull the remaining roots, which don’t come up without a fight. Then I go to the cape honeysuckle and finish it off with the saw, then give its stump a hard yank. But it comes out with all the roots intact—her spraying must have loos­ened the ground. Then I saw the roots and branches of both trees fireplace length and stack them on the deck. When I see the neat pile sit­ting there, I feel the passion myself.

The roses, then. I take the ax to the nearest bush, the one she first attacked.

“Keep an inch or two off the ground,” she says, not turning, before I have a chance to swing. I am not going to argue with her again today.

I don’t trust my aim with the ax, however, so I try the circular saw. But the branches are too low and the thorns too thick to get the blade on its base, so I start at the top and attempt to work my way down. Yet as I shove the saw into the upper branches, they close around my hands and scratch, and I can’t push the blade hard enough against them to raise the metal guard. So I hold the saw with one hand and pull back the guard with the other, baring a full half circle of its whining rage.

I lunge, I feint, and still get scratched. My hands sting, my back hurts from bending; the passion turns to fury. But only after many fierce attacks and quick retreats do I finally succeed in taking the bush down to a stub. Then I lift the branches gin­gerly and carry them to the deck, and still get scratched. And still eleven more to go.

I charge into the next bush. When I finish, my hands are screaming. Then I realize I should have worn gloves, but no point in going back to get them now. When I finish the third, I look at Margaret, and see she’s three-fourths done. I rush through another and throw its branches on the deck instead of carrying them, trying to catch up with her, but doubting I can.

Mister Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth, Eclipse, Camelot, Cathedral, Honor, and Pink Peace—I tear through rulers, virtues, cosmic events, and mythi­cal and religious places, and slash memories of their buds’ subtle colors and soft flesh, turning them all to caustic dust. But I tire and begin to lose the passion. Then my method decays to sloppiness, then to desperation. And anger dissi­pates into numbness, the pain from scratches into to a dull burn. Then I don’t feel that. Then I’m on my knees at one bush, and don’t rise to go to the next. This must be the way that a massacre goes. I don’t know, how­ever, why it took me over fifty years to realize such behavior is normal.

I look up, and she is nearly done, the ground is almost clean.

I look up again, and she is gathering the debris and putting it in plastic bags.

I look up again, and the bags are on the deck.

I look up again, and she is smoothing the ground with a rake.

When I finish the last bush, weary and still kneeling, I look at my red hands. The pain, I think, will come back after they heal. What I feel now is what one feels when he has passed the point of feeling. Then I stand. My knees cry, my back cracks, blood rushes from my head, the sky, the earth turn black—

When my eyes regain focus, I see she has finished raking the last bush, then see the result of our separate labors. Dirt one somber color, dark but no longer slick with water, the ground clean and level, with faint, even fur­rows from the rake that cross the terrain in so many parallel lines and circle the stumps of a dozen roses—the yard looks grimly marvelous, like a Zen garden or something else. Then I see Margaret, leaning on the rake. Filthy, ever expressionless, she doesn’t look like anything, yet looks mar­velously grim in her exhaustion. She looks sublime.

Only now do I see her plan today: she just wanted to clear out the dead accounts.

Also that there’s a chance I have made a few other mistakes.

So much can be predicted at this point. A hot shower, some place of seclu­sion. One of us will probably go out to dinner. Maybe I’ll drink again, but I doubt it. I really don’t enjoy it that much. Besides, Sunday I’ll need to be sober to prepare for Monday’s classes. Maybe instead I’ll give Eliot another shot—there may be a point or two I missed. And then I’ll watch the news tonight to see if anything has happened in the Gulf. But this is the miraculous part: after the news, I don’t know what will happen next.

“The roses will come back” she says, but not to me.

She tells someone they are sturdy.

— Gary Garvin

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Gary Garvin

Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. His short stories and essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Numéro Cinq, the minnesota reviewNew Novel ReviewConfrontationThe New ReviewThe Santa Clara ReviewThe South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review.  He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel.

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Mar 082015
 

Pamela PetroPamela Petro (Photo: Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Sometimes we meet people through the strangest of connections. Almost two years ago, a dear friend of mine introduced me to the poetry of John Weiners, a Boston College (high school and university) classmate of his. In researching this lesser-known but no-less-great Beat poet, I came across Pamela Petro’s article on Weiners, “The Hipster of Joy Street,” initially published in the Boston College magazine and reprinted in Jacket 2 soon after Weiners death in 2002. I was so moved by Petro’s writing, I sent her an email. She responded and we’ve been exchanging letters since.

Living in Northampton, Massachusetts, Petro is a writer and an artist, and prefers to be both simultaneously, but that doesn’t happen very often, she says.

She has written a handful of books including “Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey Through the American South” and “The Slow Breath of Stone: A Romanesque Love Story.” Central to her current work is the concept of hiraeth, a slightly untranslatable Welsh word that means longing or yearning, missing something or someone absent. At the moment, she is working on a memoir called “The Slant Space: A Memoir of Wales and the Presence of Absence,” a book about an idea, using the hiraeth of the foreigner—someone who loves Wales but can never really be Welsh—as the way into the subject.

On the artist side, Petro posted on her blog, The Petrograph Gallery, moved-camera images taken at dusk. The idea behind what she calls “The Dusk Series” is an effort to deconstruct conventional landscapes. And that makes sense as many of the images resemble the aurora borealis although technically the Latin word aurora means sunrise or the Roman goddess of dawn. From this work, she hopes to create a new word-and-image book (read simultaneously artist and writer) called Invisible Landscapes inspired by Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Here, Petro says she will investigate hiraeth as an ecological “keyword” as Raymond Williams used the term. She explains:

“I like the idea of “documenting” nature with an ostensibly objective tool like a camera to create, rather than recognizable landscapes, images in a state of spatial and temporal mutability. The dusk photos aren’t petrographs, but they investigate the same territory: the liminal spaces between seen and intuited, light and dark, day and night. Because they focus on transition instead of stability, they blur the boundaries between what we see and what we expect, hopefully making us reexamine our relationship to landscape and redefine what we call ecology.”

Earlier this year, Petro launched “AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative” at the Lesley Creative Writing Residency in Cambridge. This book came out of her Artist’s Residency at the Canyon in 2011. It looks at the hiraeth of deep time and geology, paired with the loss of both her father and her dog in 2012.

With a B.A. from Brown University (Independent Honors Concentration in Writing and Illustration) and a M.A. from the University of Wales, Petro teaches creative writing at Smith College and in Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

—JC Olsthoorn

/

JC Olsthoorn (JCO): In your book Sitting Up with the Dead one passage in particular struck me:

“A story’s only half the equation,” he said. “The context you tell it in makes all the difference, twists the meaning. Ignore the context and you’re being irresponsible…. The context,” reiterated Akbar Imhotep, . . . “is everything.”

How important is context for you?

Pamela Petro (PP): I’m in complete agreement with Akbar. The only reason Sitting up with the Dead works—assuming it does work!—is because the Southern storytellers whom I asked to tell me tales didn’t tell them in a vacuum. They told stories to me; I told stories about them. What they looked like, where we met, where they were from, what they did for a living, what generation they belonged to. All of this mattered immensely. It mattered that Orville Hicks told me a centuries-old Jack tale, out of medieval England, at the Blowing Rock Recycling Center, where he holds court, and that Kwame Dawes told me an equally ancient African tale, The Girl and the Fish, in his office at the University of South Carolina.

I find context probably the most important part of any attempt at communication. In fact, I do a warm-up exercise with my writing students where I give them a premise—say, a couple about to kiss—and then flash up different contextual images, from a beach to a bedroom to an office to a gallows. Context tells more than half the story, often contradicting expectations.

JCO: That makes a lot of sense for storytelling. What about with art? Todd Bartel in the comments section of a NC interview addressed a question of context for viewers and an artist’s intentions saying:

“Because I am all too keenly aware that people, myself included, bring whatever they experience with them when looking at art, or experiencing any creative expression for that matter, I tend to select things that have several meanings, that can become springs boards for more than one lineage of thought, association or feeling. … I spend a lot of time looking for things before I ever set out to make something. I search for objects/images that have specific meaning for me on the one hand and general references to larger topics on the other hand. I look for things that can spark double meanings. That way, I am assured of at least a couple of readings I intend, while also allowing for others, I cannot yet imagine.”

PP: Yes, I utterly agree with Bartel that the finest works—words, images, performances, you name it—are those which spark the most multifaceted meanings. In fact, that’s why I’m so drawn to the concept of hiraeth. It is a distinctly Welsh idea, deriving from the historical, linguistic, economic, religious, and cultural experience of Wales. But it truly is, also, a universal experience, and the most useful, memorable ideas are both specific and universal at once.

JCO: What is hiraeth and is a Welsh context important to understand it?

PP: Hiraeth refers to the “presence of absence.” Call it a yearning for something or someone irretrievable, beyond place or time, lost to the wars we can never win: the ones against time, mortality, and injustice. It is what we seek in the past, yearn for in the future, and invent in the present to placate our absences. As to whether a Welsh context is important in understanding it: Yes and no.

As Robin Chapman, a British linguist, says about hiraeth, “…it denotes, paradoxically, both an enduring human feeling and something essentially Welsh.” So it depends on which side of that paradox concerns you. The moment a Welsh person starts to describe hiraeth, the rest of us invariably say, “Oh! Yes! I know what you mean! Is that what it’s called?” So you can say No, a Welsh context isn’t important—it is a universal human experience.

On the other hand, we can’t neglect to ask why Wales and its language made room for this word when all but one other of the world’s 7000+ languages—Portuguese, with its lovely word, saudade—didn’t. So, a knowledge of Wales is indeed critical in understanding hiraeth; or, to put it another way, a knowledge of hiraeth is critical in understanding Wales. But that’s just the first step: it opens up to encompass all human experience.

JCO: It is no accident you hear so many of the Portuguese Fado singers singing about saudade. The word itself is peppered in many of the mournful fado songs.

YouTube Preview ImageSaudades de Coimbra | José Afonso ao vivo no Coliseu

Your installation from late 2013 using gravestone carvings is related to your work with petrographs—silver gelatin photographs printed on stone, especially, but also on other natural detritus like leaves, logs, and bark, as well as concrete sidewalks and, in this case, glass windows. It seems that the marks we make on stone, from scratches to engravings to petrographs, are a part of our primordial humanity. You mention on your website that “petrographs exist in the gap between human consciousness and the world around us”. It almost sounds like that is where hiraeth resides.

PP: I’d long been wanting to work with old 18th century New England gravestone carvings—not to mention the hiraeth inherent in cemeteries. That longing turned into the interactive installation you just mentioned, Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, from which I derived the “graphic script” I’m working on right now called Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs.

On my website there’s an explanation of the project, including a video in which I describe it all, how I derived the graphic script, the images are of the cover, and the cast of characters.

YouTube Preview Image Video of the installation Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing with Pamela Petro explaining its context.

List of the cast of characters in Petro’s upcoming “graphic script”
entitled Under Paradise Valley: A Play for Epitaphs

JCO: Having the context of Hiraeth in Northampton: An Exploration of Longing, especially watching the video, helped me better understand what it is you want to do in Under Paradise Valley. Both of them give different, nuanced meanings to hiraeth. You seem to be making personal (for the people involved in the installation) connections between very disconnected things, 18th century gravestone carvings, 21st century living beings, words new and old, and the mix of technology, photography, print, old windows and glass, bringing them all together, using disparate pieces to create a narrative.

Petro-PB087887

PP: The idea is simple enough, in some ways. You know the feeling you get when you walk through very old cemeteries? A kind of frustration that you can’t ever know these people, even though testaments to their lives are right there before you. Truly, a “long field” separates you and your time from them and their time. In old Welsh hiraeth actually means “long field”.

So, I wanted to find a way to connect with them—and that’s the brilliance of hiraeth. Longing for the impossible inspires creative connections rather than simply despair. It’s why, I think, Wales is such a creative place, full of tales and poetry and music and art.

The windows I used in the installation made an ideal metaphor for peering across time. And by virtually “wearing” the gravestone images and borrowing their owner’s epitaphs, we—the contemporary NoHo’ers—added our choices to theirs. It’s a way of communicating across the centuries. All I did was string the images and captions together into a kind of “found” surrealistic narrative.

JCO: You write in the Introduction to Under Paradise Valley that you forced yourself to work within a strict set of limitations in creating the “found” text of the graphic script from the interactive component of the installation. What did those limitations entail, and did you entertain easing the limitations at any point? Or did you feel bound by them?

PP: I loved working within the strict set of limitations—it was like a playful puzzle, stringing those captions together. Because I asked viewers at the installation to have their photos taken through the windows of their choice, with the captions of their choice, I wanted to honor their selections. So for the graphic script, I assigned the characters represented by each window ONLY lines taken from the texts that viewers chose for their windows. For instance, if four viewers selected the phrase “I go cheerfully”—one of the epitaph excerpts—and chose to stand behind Phebe Pomeroy’s window holding that caption, Phebe has to utter the phrase “I go cheerfully” four times in the script.

I had so much fun working this way! And I also felt less pressure than I normally do when I write, I think because it felt so wonderfully collaborative: I was working with the words of 18th century epitaph writers (mostly) and the choices of the gallery-goers. It felt like we were assembling a puzzle together. I’d love to do it again.

Petro-unknown2

As I strung the words together, a bizarre and funny story emerged: One of the dead, Phebe Pomeroy, is bored by eternity and wants to kill herself, which her friends try to explain is impossible as she’s already dead. But then a graffiti artist comes along and changes the name on her gravestone to Pheben, and she decides to spend the rest of eternity as a male. Chaos ensues, along with a same-sex relationship. Very Northampton, very funny, and yet poignant at the same time.

JCO: What context, then, needs to exist in these word-and-image pairings, or are they self-contextual, the words and the images, separately? Together?

PP: I’d hazard a rash statement that most word and image pairings—if they’re successful—are self-contextualizing. I don’t need to know more about Alison Bechdel or her family to understand her superb graphic novel, Fun Home. But no blanket statement covers everything.

Petro-unknown1

It’s definitely richer to know the background in the particular case of Under Paradise Valley than to read the script cold; but then, I provide background information in an Introduction, so hopefully that provides the context.

It matters to me that the death’s heads and soul effigies in the 18th century gravestone carvings derive from Puritan religious imagery; but you don’t need to know that for the exhibition or graphic script to carry a wallop. A young man I just met associated them with contemporary video games, yet still understood that we overcome a “long field”—the gap implied by hiraeth—between what the images represent and our own experience when we marry those images and our choices of captions. He understood that, coming from a completely different perspective. That made me very happy.

JCO: When are you planning to release Under Paradise Valley and what form will it take?

PP: I don’t have a release date yet. I’ve just put together a template, and now have to decide if I want to keep it local—and look for a Northampton publisher—or if it can transcend it’s setting and make sense beyond a local context. There you go—context again! It always matters. Dylan Thomas wrote “Under Milk Wood” about a small town in Wales, yet when we hear it in North America, it makes sense to us and we picture our own communities. Hopefully that will be the case for Under Paradise Valley as well.

JCO: I was wondering about the relationship of our North American concept of nostalgia to hiraeth? We yearn for “back when…” or “in the old days…” or “when I was young(er)…” clearly something we cannot have. Does the cultural context differentiate hiraeth and nostalgia?

PP: North American hiraeth and nostalgia form a real web, hard to tease apart. When I was discussing this once, someone said, “Well, hiraeth is really creative nostalgia, right?” He was on to something. We all look back at what we’ve left behind—childhood, old timey holidays that we miss, people we miss, simpler lives. I think of that as nostalgia. It becomes hiraeth when there’s an element of imagination added—or that’s how I see it, anyway.

The grandfather of a friend grew up in Italy and came to the States. He spent years telling stories about his village outside of Naples. Stories that mutated and changed over the years—became more about his longing than the place itself—but were nonetheless true for him. The Italy his family came to know is a make-believe place, not just because of his errant memory and heart, but because it’s utterly changed—his village is a suburb of Naples now. Yet his Italy is the one my friend and her family still long to visit.

There’s always an element of the self—a collaboration of memory and desire that makes something new—in hiraeth that makes it more creative than simple nostalgia.

We mutts of the Americas ALL experience it—longing for places we can’t go to and can never know—yet we don’t have a word for it in English.

—JC Olsthoorn & Pamela Petro

 

Pamela Petro is an artist and writer based in Northampton, Massachusetts. She has written three books of place-based creative nonfiction—about traveling around the world to learn Welsh, storytellers in the American South, and the relationship between geology, stonecarving, and photography in Southwest France—and she also teaches creative writing at Smith College and on Lesley University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. Her artwork derives from environmental installations of petrographs, and has been shown throughout New England and at the Grand Canyon, where she was an Artist in Residency in 2011. Pamela’s latest artwork is the artist book AfterShadows: A Grand Canyon Narrative, which was launched in January 2015.

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JC Olsthoorn (Photo: Lois Siegel)

JC Olsthoorn spends time at the Domaine Marée Estate near Otter Lake, Quebec, writing raw poetry, creating coarse art, and cooking scratch food. His poems have been published in a chapbook, “as hush as us” and have appeared in literary magazines. JC’s artwork has been exhibited and has appeared in several publications. He is a curator at the Arbor Gallery – Centre for Contemporary Art in Vankleek Hill, Ontario.

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Mar 082015
 

Callows 2

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The cuckoo flower.

“Oh, that one’s bad luck if you take it into the house,” my mother said, so we left it where it showed four pink petals and a greeny yellow heart.

The devil’s bit scabious.

“No,” my mother said, examining the bluish purple blossom.  “I don’t know what it’s called either.”

I learned cowslip, white clover, oat-grass, creeping buttercup, meadow barley, meadowsweet and – floating at the tranquil edges of the croaking, churning quagmire – watercress and forget-me-not. When it came to the rarest Callows flower, bell-shaped and creamy white and hidden among the prevailing browns and greens, I would have to wait, as with the devil’s bit scabious, until a book identified the “summer snowflake”.

I hungered for books but books were scarce in our house.  Though my mother appreciated the value of books, money was often too short to afford them and the nearest library an inconvenient eight miles away, in Loughrea.  I made do for a long time with a huge tome called Flaming Flamingos that my uncle Mattie had brought.  All of nature seemed contained in that book.  The Camargue, Lake Nakuru, the Orinoco, that book whetted my hunger.  It widened my thought even if I often got stuck in the mud of its ornithological intent.  Over time it grew shabby and dog-eared and its spine broke.  Finally someone must have fecked it into the fire while I wasn’t looking.  But still it lingered even as I walked the Callows with my mother and the flamingos lit up those river meadows in my imagination.

The Callows was big when I was small.  It flooded or was supposed to flood in spring and autumn.  Flooding is too strong a word.  It stayed dry on higher areas and even in winter offered more a splashy sheet of wetness than a flood.  It held marshy tracts as well but we and the handful of neighbours who shared it always called it Callows and this, together with its four rivers, made it one.  I’m certain that the further back I go into my childhood, the slobbier, wetter, more unstable the Callows becomes.

Callows 1

It was entirely treeless apart from a few diminutive blackthorn bushes nibbled by the wind as much as by any grazing animal.  Its rivers, too small to carry names, trickled beyond their banks in some places but in others made me gawp at the force of the fresh current that linked them to the main river flowing across Foxhall Little and away outside the reach of my thoughts.

Several harsh-throated, drab-plumed birds depended on the Callows.  Greenland geese flying in V shape made weary-sounding, high-pitched cries and the creaking of their wings – together with their feral smell – filled my head.  Shyer than my mother’s geese, they wheeled their large white-fronted bodies about and chose to land well away from where I stood.  Whooper swans stuck out their black and yellow beaks, hissing a warning as I skirted the turlough.  Golden plovers, more white than gold, reeled in flocks, resembling miniature pieces of flickering litter as their bodies caught the sunlight.  Wild ducks, the males with their vivid plumage, dipped and dabbled.  The corncrake broadcast his arrival in late spring by “serenading” the world night after night, his voice harsher than two rusty nails being scraped together.

Some birds stayed all year.  The curlew rose almost straight up and made me feel melancholy by the way he called his own name as he glided back to earth.  The sound of the snipe’s drumming tail-feathers always stopped me in my tracks, and his zigzag flight easily deceived my eye.  The skylark dwindled to a heavenly dot, singing as he rose.

“Closer, closer,” the quagmire croaked when my mother let me go alone.  I would step and thrill and step until my wellingtons got stuck.  More than once I had to scramble back or even to step out of them in order to escape.  I gave up this game the day one wellington slowly filled with mud and sank without trace.

Callows 3

The Callows became a kind of outback to which I could escape and go walkabout.  I never felt less lonely than when alone there.  Often I felt sad as a child, the sadness of disappointment.  I wondered what the disappointment was.  Maybe, I told myself, it involved the waiting that had to happen before I could do the ‘great thing’ for which I had been born and would be remembered.  Maybe it included the worry of being responsible for this great achievement, the nature of which I had not the least inkling.

Mostly I tried to coax the sadness to behave itself the way I might Jack, our jet-black pony, a kicker and a biter.  Everyone must carry the disappointment that is part of them, I decided.  But in the Callows the disappointing mope in my heart would shrink and I’d find exhilaration by sprinting barefoot and fast.  A salt taste tanged my mouth and heat rose behind my ears; sometimes a stitch jabbed at my heart.  Later, a similar abandon erupted in fights with other boys – the thrill of landing a telling blow, of ending a pent-up frustration.  In my teens the drumbeat and the squawking of an electric guitar across the darkness from the dance carnival at Mullagh Cross also tapped into this sensation as powerful and primal and worth bringing on.

The Callows let me live in the moment and the moment could run and run until I completely forgot myself or, for that matter, other people’s opinions of me.  I was in my own manner “forgetting human words”, as W. B. Yeats said of Synge.  I see now that I didn’t have even the most basic sense of how to care for myself.  I went without a coat in rain or frost no matter how often my mother might advise me to wear one.  The cold and the wet and the pain served as balm against the sadness I felt.  They couldn’t stop me from exulting each time I sprinted and turned and sprinted again.

Years later, when I was a young teacher, I worked with boys who reminded me of myself as a child.  They, too, went without.  Some, unlike me, lived in utter poverty or wilful neglect.  Others suffered a lack of physical affection similar to my own.  Cold and hunger were second nature to them.  They had far more genuine excuses for being difficult or disruptive than I ever had – but I still recognise the boy I was, the boy who thought himself king of the Callows and who would happily have thrown away the blanket of mist and the cold kiss of a frog for the touch of human warmth that wasn’t given – not out of any meanness on the part of my parents, for they didn’t have a scrap of meanness in them, but because in the way of that time such things just weren’t done.

My need deepened as I grew older.  At first I cycled to and from St. Brendan’s College in Loughrea.  Cycling meant breezes and drenchings, but I refused to wear an overcoat.  Cycling also meant avoidance of talk, especially with girls.  And when the bus took the place of the bike, the driver – lamp-headed, incandescently so – said go up the road to Castlenancy or I won’t stop for you.  There they were – the girls, their long hair shining and the shape of their breasts and thighs suggested behind the ruck and pucker of convent uniforms.  I stole looks at them, racked my brain trying to think of something smart to say.  If I could only speak the first sentence… but no, I looked away again, stayed dumb for five years, give or take, and the girls stayed dumb with me.

“Look down,” the wet meadow whispered.

Black oily goo oozed from a wound in one place, while in another a seepage of glorious rusty orange happened.  I saw feathers scattered where a fox or hawk had struck, and a crow standing on a dead sheep’s head, trying to lever out its eye.  I didn’t wonder about ugliness or beauty, cruelty or compassion, or if I did the Callows wasn’t bothered.

Nor was it bothered when one spring a group of about twenty men arrived with nets – an extensive network of nets – and used thin rods to set them in place in the shape of a huge, open-mouthed pen.  The men spread out along the perimeter of the Callows and beat the vegetation, shooing and hallooing.  Hares rose and ran ahead of them until eventually there was a drove of maybe a hundred hares.  These were flocked into the pen, where they frantically scrabbled against the netting even as it closed on them.  They would be used at coursing events in various country towns where most, if not all of them, would be torn asunder by competing hounds.

I felt powerless.  The big world couldn’t be kept away.  Its entertainments were the same as its hungers: they required to be fed.  A small dread started in me there.  The future would happen, changing everything, including myself.  I understood at some basic level that I would have to leave when the future came.  My only solution was to immerse myself ever more deeply in the Callows.

Callows 5

At each visit I would lift the large flat stone that lay at the Callows’ edge.  There I might find a slug the colour of a lemon drop, a centipede that resembled a frazzled piece of twine, or a harvestman taking slow, articulated steps as if he were a flimsy wound-up toy.  They couldn’t stand the light of day and maybe that’s why I loved them – they were shyer even than me.

Then I would enter the cold, queasy pottage of what I would later describe in a poem as “land aspiring to be water; water wanting to be land”.  It had the raw look of a place still beginning.  It didn’t hold out much hope of anything remarkable.  But if you leaned into it, if you stayed quiet enough for long enough, its creatures would forget you and make free.  So I heard the pheasant hiccoughing as though drunk with sunset, and I found the eels – collectively if implausibly known as “a fry” – slithering their way across the waterland.

One evening I dug below the dank mat of roots and soil and clutched up a fistful of white dripping clay.  It was marl, but I didn’t know that then.  Slowly I crumpled its gritty sponge and found isolated on my palm three small egg-shaped shells.  Smooth and whorled and beautiful to my eye but, after holding onto them for a day or two, I gave them to my mother.  She could hardly have looked happier if I had given her a pearl necklace.

“Maybe the Callows was a lake,” she suggested.  “Maybe water snails lived there long ago.”

“But when was that?”

“Oh, not since Adam was a boy.”

She let the shells drop into the torn pocket of her apron where she assured me they would be safe, and I have no recollection of her ever mentioning them beyond that.

Callows 4

The Callows stayed with me long after I’d grown up and “become sensible”.  Its landscape turned into thought.  I wanted to preserve its sights and sounds and smells the way I tried to restrain three pheasants in a furze clump once, “flocking” them with my hands for several minutes until finally they burst upwards past my chest and face to escape.  Nearly four decades later I recalled

the marl excavations: white, with small
tell-tale shells remembering a lake
where the Callows found its first
foothold – and where your heart’s pangs
are shallow waves, breaking still.

My mother had become old and enfeebled now, laid up in Portiuncula Hospital after yet another stroke, one more sweeping of the ground from under her.  I had drawn the bed curtain across, sat with her through the night.  I stayed awake listening to her breath, her scraping restlessness, and staring at the Callows meadow scene painted on the curtain itself.  Flowers aplenty there, patches of water, tall grasses.

Towards dawn I held her wrist while the doctor clumsily took blood.  Some blood squirted from his syringe onto the curtain where it formed a black flower among the lightening colours of the wetland meadow – one more beauty to add to the forty plus species per square metre that river meadows are capable of supporting.  I thought of the many walks she and I had taken together.  And I found myself wishing for the shells back, or maybe for the moment of offering them to her again.

—Patrick Deeley

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patrick-deeleyPatrick Deeley via Five Glens Arts Festival

Patrick Deeley was born in Loughrea, Co. Galway in 1953, and currently lives in Dublin.  His poetry collections published by Dedalus Press include Intimate Strangers (1986), Names For Love (1990), Turane: the Hidden Village (1995), Decoding Samara (2001), The Bones of Creation (2008) and Groundswell: New and Selected Poems (2013).  He is the recipient of a number of bursaries and poetry prizes, and translations of his work to French and Italian have come from Alidades Press and Kolibris Edizione respectively. “A Callows Childhood” is an extract from a memoir, The Hurley-Maker’s Son. His personal website is here.

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Mar 072015
 

Ralph-Maud-via-commonground.caRalph Maud via www.commonground.ca

A mappamundi of values is what we are after, / the satisfaction we need before we die. / It’s why older people, even dying people, / read the paper avidly. / Shall we revise the prayer?

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Ralph Maud, an old friend of novelist Keith Maillard and his wife, Mary Maillard, died on December 8, 2014. Ralph is best remembered as a scholar ahead of his time — an authority on Charles Olson, expert on Dylan Thomas, a Welsh Nationalist, a collector of northwest aboriginal mythology, and documentary film maker — but he also, as he was approaching death, considered that topic in a purely personal way, leaving behind an eight-page monograph entitled “Make My Way Plain.” In the found poem that follows, Mary Maillard has attempted to distill the essence of Ralph’s thoughts. Every word is Ralph’s.

Poetry and AudiencePoetry and Audience, edited by Ralph Maud

Hereford Mappa Mundi c.1285Hereford Mappa Mundi c.1285

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Ralph Maud’s Prayer: Distilled

1.

Is this the way?
The complexities of being human
on the edge of chaos?
Faced with an edge-of-chaos problem,
I found a way out.

Is this the way?
My father’s innate reticence,
my mother’s Celtic duplicity,
that spark of camaraderie and laughter
in the most dire circumstances?

Is this the way?
Minted in the molecules,
repeated throughout our life,
we are always the next step.
Given matter, the rest follows.

Is this the way?
In a materialistic world we get a sense
of making decisions for ourselves.
Hang onto that feeling;
it’s where value lies.

We can be self-satisfied in our originality,
as we are modest before the fact of determinism:
creatures of medical science, laboratory animals,
we are deluded to think
that we can be known.

2.

My subject is a prayer:
“Make my way plain.”
To whom am I addressing this plea?
As an atheist, I have to say
that I have nobody in mind.

I find myself saying, “Thank you, Lord,”
once a day. After a successful bowel movement –
“Thank you, Lord.”
Breathing is, of course, quite as important,
so perhaps later I will bless my breaths.

Who will make my way plain, then?
Why, Jiminy Cricket, of course.
The mechanism for self examination and guidance
seems common to all humans.
I have seen stubbornness avoid such consultation,

rage obliterate conscience.
I have lived a sheltered life.
I have seen the wholly bad as an exception,
the stony face of unreason: “And if you disagree, you die.”
I made my escape as soon as I could.

3.

A mappamundi of values is what we are after,
the satisfaction we need before we die.
It’s why older people, even dying people,
read the paper avidly.
Shall we revise the prayer?

“Make my way complicated?”
The mappamundi seems to be such
when we consult the abacus of the heart,
that tool for pinning down value,
our excitement is immense and rewarding.

Add goodwill and time to complexities –
that’s what we mean by “making plain.”
One works on one’s own map
and contributes to the world map.
No, we haven’t time to settle things properly.

4.

Down in this eternity of the moment,
we have in us the vestiges of hope for heaven.
Our end in perfect blackness, materialistic determinism –
most of us cannot let in that kind of hopelessness.
We just can’t.

“We just can’t.” There is the rock,
in spite of all our pathologies,
the rock on which we build.
We go on with our lives.
We can’t do otherwise.

We would find our place in Zion.
We would make our own destiny.
We could not do otherwise.
I lived the archetype of the immigrant.
The implication is that one can escape.

5.

William Saroyan’s words still sing for me:
“If I have any desire at all, it is to show the brotherhood of man.”
If there is a solution to “make my way plain,”
it will have something to do with
“the brotherhood of man.”

6.

The pilgrimage now reaches its end.
I am entangled in the end game.
Make my end plain.
I’m not quite there or I could not be writing.
What can I say hurriedly, for us, the dying?

The only sensible thing – when the line is crossed,
the nightmare should be short.
Joking and sociable to the end: I do not think so.
I am breathing with anxiety.
Make my end plain.

One wants to get out of life “with dignity,”
not waiting until life is unbearable.
One should be able to choose when enough is enough.
In principle, the way is perfectly plain
but the practicalities are elusive.

7.

As one puts in the bookmark and turns out the light,
there is the feeling that at least tomorrow is assured,
since the world would not, surely, deny one the solution
to come with the next day’s reading. There’s also the fellow feeling
as we get used to the idea of death.

 Ralph-Maud

Lines distilled by Mary Maillard, January 3, 2015, from Ralph Maud, “Make My Way Plain,” privately distributed, Vancouver, February, 2013.

 

Mary-Maillard-Photo-

Mary Maillard is an independent scholar and documentary editor from Vancouver, British Columbia. Her primary interests are in 19th century southern women and mixed race studies. She is the editor of the Skinner Family Papers and has written a monograph introducing three collections of southern antebellum coming-of-age letters, A Map of Time and Blood: An Introduction to the Skinner Family Papers 1826-1850 (2014). Her article, “‘Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:’ Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends,” appeared in the July 2013 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, and, in 2013/2014, she received an Albert M. Greenfield Foundation Fellowship in African American History from the Library Company of Philadelphia for her research on the letters of Louisa Jacobs and Annie Purvis to Eugenie Webb, 1879-1911. Mary has contributed biographical entries to blackpast.org, including Frank J. Webb, Julia Chinn, George Lowther, and Pierre and Juliette Toussaint.

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Mar 062015
 

tunnelweb

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AT 9:00 AM ON A SUNNY MORNING, while your teenage son sleeps, make plans with your husband to visit the city of Briançon and the stronghold of Mont-Dauphin. Just over the Italian border in France, these are World UNESCO sites where the military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre Vauban (1633-1707), designed forts and walls for the Sun King, Louis XIV.

Wake your son. Don’t tell him about the history trip ahead. You know he’s always hated history—facts have always proved slippery, elusive, dull. Instead, tell him you want to take him to France for a crêpe. When he hops out of bed without a complaint, hand him an espresso. While he’s in the shower, charge your camera batteries. Pack chocolate.

Smile when your husband says, surprised, “That was easy.”

At 10:30 am, let your son sit in the front seat next to you while you drive west. Hand him your camera. Direct him to take pictures of the road slicing through granite and slate. Remind him of Hannibal the Carthaginian and his elephants, of the Romans who fought the Gauls, of the Duke of Savoy who fought the Sun King. Tell him that armies have always climbed through the Alps first one way, then the other, shifting boundaries first one way, then the other.

Inhale when he nods.

RoadBrianconweb

Pull into a scenic lookout when he says “Stop.” Climb out and gaze at the rock scantily clad with snow while he takes pictures.

Agree when he says, “This road is tough, but without the asphalt and tunnels it was tougher.”

GatewayCityViewBrianconweb

Where Italian and then French flags blow, at the top of the pass at the Col du Montgenèvre, say to your husband and son, “Bienvenus en France, mes chers.” Then, since you’ve forgotten your son’s ID, panic when you see gendarmes at the booth ahead scrutinizing arriving traffic. Look at the police straight on though, and smile when they wave you through.

Agree when your husband says, “Borders are porous these days.”

buildingcliffbriancon

fortandrooftops

At 11:30, stop at the old walled city of Briançon that Vauban fortified after the Duke of Savoy pillaged the surrounding countryside in 1692. Park your car. Wind down steep streets to the main square. Buy a guidebook in a bookstore. Find a café. Order crêpes and pommes frites. Point to the fort on the crest looming above. Say, “Those rocks are a reminder of the past.”

TunnelBrianconChurchTowersweb

Agree when your son says, between mouthfuls of buttery food, “These mountains are tough, but the men were tougher.”

BoySoldiersMoatBrianconweb

At 2:30 suggest getting ice cream down the road. Drive south for thirty minutes, alongside the Écrins National Park. Admire the winsome villages with spiky churches and red geraniums. At picturesque Eygliers turn left. Note that your son’s breath catches at the sight of Mont-Dauphin, Vauban’s citadel that crowns the Millaures plateau which means ‘at the cross of the winds’ in Occitan.

Ask what he’s thinking.

Nod when he says, “Those towers above are a cliff full of mystery.”

ViewMontDauphinBridgeweb

Together climb over grass-clad ramparts. Cross the bridge that fords the empty moat. Explain how Vauban began building this citadel in 1693 but that it came to a halt with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 when the border was pushed elsewhere. Listen when your son reads aloud from the guidebook: “No actual battle ever took place here.” Shake your head when he adds, “too bad these walls went to waste.”

Buy ice cream. Lick the drips.

iciserepose

Circle clockwise. Photograph the church that was never completed. Photograph the remaining wing of the Arsenal where guns and ammunition were kept. Listen when your son reports, “the flanking wing was destroyed in World War II when Italians flew over and bombed it.” Agree when he adds, “So this place saw some action after all but it was only one brief blaze.”

Visit the cemetery. Look at the rusting crosses and dates. See how they’re relatively recent.

ChurchmontDauphinweb

Arsenalsideviewsunshineweb

EntireArsenaleSunshineweb

Photograph the main street where officers once lived. Together imagine how they waited for war that never materialized. Tighten your scarf around your neck again and again when the wind—the incessant wind—blows through. Notice how some places are boarded up and others are for sale.

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Nod when your son observes, “This has always been a ghost town even when the soldiers were here.”

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At 7:00 pm, climb in the car, head back down the hill, turn right onto the highway. Drive north along the Écrins National Park toward Briançon and the Alps. Honk at a camper hogging the road. Swerve left when a stream of bicyclists in black nylon and silver helmets encroach on your lane.

Agree when your son, who is now in the back seat, says, “Look, these are today’s road warriors.”

lookoutweb

Ask your son his impressions of his day in France. When he says he liked the crêpe and the ice cream, sigh, but say “Good, I’m glad.” When he says, “I know it was a ruse to get me to come,” deny it. But smile broadly when he says, “The best part was walking where the armies had been. We should do this more often. Can I see the guidebook again?”

Don’t remind him you’ve always done it. Don’t list the museums and sites you’ve gone to together.

Vaubanweb

Shake your head when your husband says, “That was easy.”

Then hand over the book, pull out the chocolate you packed, and share it.

  —Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010. Natalia divides her time between Italy and the United States.

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Mar 062015
 

StaffordWilliam Stafford via the Poetry Foundation and others

 

At the library of Congress in 1994 there was a memorial tribute to William Stafford, the brilliant American poet who, in 1970, had been what is now called the Poet Laureate of the United States.

There were the usual accolades: Bill Stafford was a poet whose plain language fitted his flatland Kansas sensibility. He was a man who thought peace (Stafford was a conscientious objector during World War Two) was good; war was wrong. There were other kind words. About the self-evident and the oblique stories in his poems. About those poem’s gifted reticence. Then something extraordinary was said. One of his children, his daughter Kit I think, told us of her father’s repeated advice to them as they were growing up: “Talk to strangers.”

By chance I was Bill Stafford’s student in the sense that I learned from him about writing and life: Do it all and do it all now. The threshold is never so high as you imagine. The beginning may not be the beginning. The end may not be the end. These aphorisms applied not only to his craft and mine, but to the way we lived. And there was a sense in what I learned from Bill Stafford that the two might not be easily separated.

Not far where I live in Kansas (and about the same distance from where Bill Stafford grew up) there is a high school in a town of roughly a thousand that has a video security system of which they are especially proud. I had been asked to be part of a literary program there (my talk was on Bill Stafford), and came to know about the surveillance cameras because I saw one posted in the room where I was speaking. Later, I saw the black and white glow of the monitors in the school’s office. I watched as the system projected pictures of the gymnasium (empty on this autumn Saturday); various hallways (also empty); our meeting room (adults milling around drinking coffee and eating donuts); and finally a shot outside the school: the wide Kansas prairie as background, a small Kansas town in the foreground.

One of the school’s officials and a parent stopped to say that you couldn’t be too careful these days, what with Columbine and Amber alert. Bad things happen in schools. And out of schools. Better to be vigilant than be sorry. When they left, I could see them on the monitors as they walked across the buffalo grass lawn to where they were parked. They talked for a moment over the bed of a pickup truck, and then drove off, safe, I suppose, in the knowledge that someone might have been watching them.

Over the years Bill Stafford and I wrote back and forth: letters, post cards, copies of our work sent to one another with inscriptions. As he was one of the most prolific poets of the 20th century, I got plenty more of the latter than did he. But no matter how far apart we were, Bill in Oregon and me in Kansas or in Europe, he would sign off with something like “Adios” or “Cheers”, and then, as if we were just across the pasture, he’d note: “And stop on by.” My sense now is that when I’d get to him, windblown and dusty from the walk over, he’d want to know if I’d met any strangers on the way, and what stories they had to tell.

Have we become an America where it is stupid to give the same advice to our children that Bill Stafford gave his, and where stop on by means please don’t? Have we come to believe that surveillance cameras in the high schools of tiny prairie towns will teach our students the eternal vigilance they’ll need to live in towns beyond their own? Or in their own? What with Columbine and Amber alert. Or is the answer from Bill Stafford’s poem Holcomb, Kansas?

Now the wide country has gone sober again.
The river talks all through the night, proving
its gravel. The valley climbs back into its hammock
below the mountain and becomes again only what
it is: night lights on farms make little blue domes
above them, bring pools for the stars; again
people can visit each other, talk easily,
deal with real killers only when they come.

Or are we all real killers?

There may be no reclaiming Bill Stafford’s vision of America, but once upon a time, in his plain voice, didn’t he speak for you?

— Robert Day


Robert Day

Robert Day is a frequent NC contributor. His most recent book is Where I Am Now, a collection of short fiction published by the University of Missouri-Kansas City BookMark Press. Booklist wrote: “Day’s smart and lovely writing effortlessly animates his characters, hinting at their secrets and coyly dangling a glimpse of rich and story-filled lives in front of his readers.” And Publisher’s Weekly observed: “Day’s prose feels fresh and compelling making for warmly appealing stories.”

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Mar 042015
 

perec

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions. As translator David Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. –Jeff Bursey

il condottiere

Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
Georges Perec
Trans. David Bellos
University of Chicago Press
Cloth, 144 pp., $20.00
ISBN: 9780226054254

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1. OVER THE LAST number of years small presses have been addressing gaps in the knowledge of English-language readers when it comes to the shorter works of the acclaimed French writer Georges Perec (1936-1982), best known for his novel Life A User’s Manual (1978; translated into English in 1987), by issuing An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (2010), The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise (2011), La Boutique Obscure: 124 Dreams (2013), and I Remember (2014). Now we have his first novel, Portrait of a Man. In 1960 it was rewritten for the publishing house Gallimard, who had issued a contract and paid royalties ahead of receiving the completed work. According to David Bellos, when Perec finished revising it he affixed these words to the typescript: “YOU’LL HAVE TO PAY ME LOADS IF YOU WANT ME TO START IT OVER AGAIN.” Even after that effort the manuscript failed to succeed, and it gradually fell out of sight until rediscovered by Bellos while he wrote Georges Perec: A Life in Words (1993; rev. 1995). In 1960 Perec predicted that his first novel would experience one of two fates: either he would revisit it in later years and turn it into a “‘masterpiece’” or he would “‘wait in my grave until one of my faithful exegetes comes across it in an old trunk… and brings it out.’” There’s no word on if the former approach was tried, but as Bellos says, “it’s not like anything else that he wrote,” and perhaps there was no way for the Perec we are more familiar with to venture back to that earlier version of his writer self. (What goes unexplained is why it took until 2012 for the novel to appear in French.)

The plot of the book is simple. Gaspard Winckler, a forger of painters, works for a group run by the shadowy Anatole Madera. After 12 years in this occupation, preceded by four as an apprentice to Jérôme, an older forger who also works for Madera, Winckler chooses, as his next task, to create a painting supposedly by Antonella da Messina, based on the latter’s Portrait of a Man known as Il Condottiere (1475). This new work would have to come from Winckler’s soul and not be a technical exercise, yet having inhabited for years the habits and work of other painters, it is not going to be easy for him to find out who he really is. In addition to burying himself in studies of the esoteric natures of painting, wood, and visual perspectives over the ages, Winckler has been cut off from people and world events since he started his career as a posturer in 1947. What he runs into is a blunt fact: masterpieces can’t be willed into existence, and originality doesn’t emerge based on wishes. The failure of his attempt leads him—or rather, it may be one of the reasons—to rebel against his employer, and to do that he must commit an act that irrevocably cuts him off from his former life. He kills Madera, and then flees the isolated house that contained his laboratory.

Portrait of a Man is divided into two parts: the first describes Gaspard’s attempt to escape from his past; the second is comprised of a set of chapters where he tries to describe, to an inquisitive friend named Streten who is sheltering him, what he had done and why, how he entered into a lucrative career, and what propelled him out of it. Part I is filled with action and pell-mell sentences, and for a while it seems like this novel will fall into a pattern found in the “detective novels” Winckler reads now and then for mental release from the pressures of work. (This puts in mind We Always Treat Women Too Well [1947] by Raymond Queneau, written under a pseudonym, Sally Mara. Apart from being set in Dublin in the mid-1910s and using names found in James Joyce’s Ulysses, this novel ramped up, in protest and with deliberate irony, the violence and sex present in gangster novels then popular in France. Perec and Queneau were friends and members of Oulipo.) The opening lines of Portrait of a Man are startling for their pulpiness:

Madera was heavy. I grabbed him by the armpits and went backwards down the stairs to the laboratory. His feet bounced from tread to tread in a staccato rhythm that matched my own unsteady descent, thumping and banging around the narrow stairwell. Our shadows danced on the walls. Blood was still flowing, all sticky, seeping from the soaking wet towel, rapidly forming drips on the silk lapels, then disappearing into the folds of the jacket, like trails of slightly glinting snot side-racked by the slightest roughness in the fabric, sometimes accumulating into drops that fell to the floor and exploded into star-shaped stains. I let him slump at the bottom of the stairs, right next to the laboratory door, and then went back up to fetch the razor and to mop up the bloodstains before Otto returned.

On the novel’s cover a cascade of crimson obscures the top half of the Antonella painting that gives the novel its title; and that passage, with its shadows, the descent, and that dance, brings to mind the fondness the French have for murder mysteries and Edgar Allan Poe.

2.

As Bellos makes clear, this novel captures more than a taste for graphic death. It reflects a substantial debate, summed up in a work on authenticity and inauthenticity by Jean-Paul Sartre titled (in English) Anti-Semite and Jew. The figure of the forger bundles that thorny topic together with Perec’s “extensive learning” in art history, the controversy in 1945 surrounding the arrested Dutch art dealer and forger Han van Meegeren (readers of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions [1955] will recall that name and his importance in the creation of that novel), and, to my mind, looks directly at uncomfortable historical events: in the 16 years covered by Winckler’s training and output to his abrupt retirement—so, beginning in 1943—France endured, among other things, the Occupation, collaboration with Nazi Germany, the role of its citizens in sending Jews to death camps, the Resistance, and the violence of the Algerian War (1954-1962). In these atrocities, state scandals, and actions some Frenchmen led false lives. Also, during the Second World War Perec’s father was killed in battle and his mother died either in Auschwitz or on the way to it. It’s impossible to read this book, which in the second half turns into a confession-cum-self-exculpation, without wondering, in a cautious and limited way, how Winckler’s half-life symbolizes an absence within Perec (what he might have been like if his parents had lived) and within the soul of his country.

Unlike the bloody events and fevered prose of Part I, the second part is hesitant and revolves around a set of intellectual and emotional questions. Asked by Streten why he killed Madera, Winckler replies: “‘But I had to wake up one day … It didn’t matter when or where … It happened, it had to. It happened because of Mila [a girl he had some interest in], but it could have happened because of something else. It doesn’t matter.’” Further along Winckler will say: “‘My own story written down once and for all, in a closed circle, with no way out other than dying ten or twenty or thirty years on. Needing to go on to the end without meaning, without necessity …’” Streten, in his search for precise answers—he comes off as a character who has been placed in the wrong novel—pursues what he sees as a vital question:

“Why did you kill Madera?”

“I don’t know … If I knew, I wouldn’t be here … If I’d known, I suppose I wouldn’t have done it … You think it’s easy … You commit an act … You don’t know … you can’t know … you don’t want to know … But after a while it’s behind you … You know you did it … and then …”

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

“No reason … It doesn’t matter … I killed Madera … And then? It doesn’t make things any simpler … A last act, the least act of all …”
“Just to see …”

“As you say … Just to see what would happen …”

“And what did happen?”

“You can see for yourself … Nothing yet … Perhaps one day something will happen … Something worthwhile …”

Meaningless, nothingness, lack of understanding, and events sans repercussions (Bellos points out that Winckler reappears in Life A User’s Manual)—these are themes returned to, with variations, particularly in Part II. Streten insists this or that “‘doesn’t make sense,’” acutely observes that Winckler “‘pretend[s] to be a victim,’” and repeatedly demands that there be explanations for why his friend behaved as he did, which Winckler argues against: “‘You’d like there to be a solid point of departure, a sudden insight […] There wasn’t any turning point in my existence … There wasn’t a story … There wasn’t even an existence … Of course, if things had been logical […]’”

(As an aside, Perec uses ellipsis to slow the momentum of the second part of Portrait of a Man, and it’s worth noting how the same device, in the hands of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, achieves the complete opposite: in his books those three dots act like stones that trip you down an endless set of stairs at breakneck pace, leaving you breathless, dizzy, and bruised at the fall of the last line.)

Inside the “false world… a world without sense…” occupied by Winckler, where there are no narrative arcs, where he is cocooned from national and world events, where other countries exist as study locations (galleries, libraries, museums) or vacation resorts, where nothing is connected, where the insignificant and the significant weigh the same, and where fate is first invoked and then denied, the forger fitfully dreams of the possibility of a cohesive existence: “To be at long last, in your own right, the captain of your soul and the world in an irrefutable ascent, a single movement towards unity.” Winckler believes he can achieve those aims by painting a new Antonello, with its subject a man who is kin to the Condottiere—a figure who “…has nothing to lose: no friends, no enemies. He is brute force.”—yet who is sufficiently distinct so that experts will accept the forgery. How the painting turns out is not predictable (like so much else in a novel that relies on the words logical, perhaps, nothing, and so on), and the result shows Winckler what he needs to know about himself:

I looked at myself in the mirror in the middle of the night. That was me. That was my face, and my year of struggle and sleepless nights, that oak board and that steel easel, that was my face too, and so were those pots and those hundreds of brushes and the rags and the spots. My story. My fate. A fine caricature of a fate. That was me: anxious and greedy, cruel and mean, with the eyes of a rat. Looking like I thought I was a warlord.

It might be this revelation that is the impetus for the murder and the escape, but as Winckler states numerous times, it could be any reason, or simply something that just happens; even the notion of fate, shaky though it is, could be why his life went along as it did. No final justification or motive will be found, and that debate is a sizeable portion of the content. What is easier to conclude is that in this novel Perec, via Winckler, tends to explain everything (while answering little), leaving less of the pleasurable ambiguity readers might prefer. As Bellos observes: “This is a novel, not an essay. Almost.” The action of the first part is replaced by rambling talk in the second, yet nevertheless, Portrait of a Man is at times an engrossing read, with early hallmarks of the later author—a fascination with exactitude, on painting techniques and on numbers, an intellectual apparatus that undermines the structure of the novel—as well as unusual features that Georges Perec fans will want to encounter for themselves.

—Jeff Bursey

 

Excerpt from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere
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Bellos makes clear that Perec started educating himself in visual art in the mid-1950s, and proceeded from there. He “visited exhibitions and galleries in Paris and made a trip to Berne to see a large collection of works by Paul Klee,” studied general and scholarly works and catalogues, and engaged in discussion with “Yugoslav art historians he had befriended in Paris…” Using these sources and his imaginative powers, he invested Gaspard Winckler with the language and thought processes that get across the practical, physical, and mental aspects that lie underneath the act of painting, as this extract shows.

—Jeff Bursey

The hardest part obviously was that celebrated tautness in the jaw. It was impossible to pastiche without creating a double, and there was no sense in that. In the end I settled for using Memling’s portrait as my model: a very thick and powerful neck, with the first minute signs of a double chin, very deep eyes, a line on each side of the nose and a fairly thick mouth. I would put the strength into the neck, into the articulation of the head, in the very high and straight way it was held, and in the lips. It was all fine on the drafts. On the trial paintings in gouache it even turned out rather splendidly: a complex melange of Memling and Antonello sufficiently corrected, with a very pure look in the eyes, immediate contours that yielded easily at first and then thickened, became impermeable, turning hard and merciless. No cruelty, no weakness. What I wanted. Pretty much exactly what I was after . . . It was another month before I started really painting. I had to get my pots, brushes and rags ready. I took three days’ rest. I began to paint sitting in the armchair, with my palette within easy reach, and the panel set on the easel with its four corners wrapped in cotton wool and rags so that the metal angles that held it in place would leave no mark. I had an elbow support and a crutch to keep my hand steady, a huge visor to keep the glare of the spots off my eyes, and wore magnifying goggles. An extraordinary set of safety devices. I would paint for twenty minutes and then stop for two hours. I sweated so much I had to change three or four times a day. From then on fear never left me. I don’t know why but I had no confidence at all, I never managed to have a clear vision of what I was trying to do, I couldn’t say what my panel would be like when I’d finished painting it; I wasn’t able to guarantee that it would look like any of the dozens of more or less completed drafts lying around the room. I didn’t understand some of my own details, I was unable to get a grip on the overall project, to recognise it in the smallest touch, to feel it taking shape. I was stumbling onwards, despite the innumerable safeguards I’d set up. Previously, I’d been able to paint any Renaissance picture in a couple of months, but now, after four months’ work, in mid- September, I still had the whole face to do . . .

Reprinted with permission from Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere by Georges Perec. Published by the University of Chicago ©. © 2012 by Éditions du Seuil Introduction and English translation © 2015 by David Bellos. All rights reserved. Published 2015.

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NC
jeff again (3)

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian literary critic and author of the political satire Verbatim: A Novel (2010). He is a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review and an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon. His reviews have appeared in, among others, American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Rain Taxi, The Winnipeg Review and Review of Contemporary Fiction. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.

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Mar 032015
 

Julie2 (1) - Version 2

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HER MOTHER WOULD give her lovely teeth. Pale slabs designed for wide smiles in long afternoons, for precise first kisses with elder boys. She’d never see crookedness or the tang of blood swirling in a porcelain basin. She’d never need to mute her grin or remember it in photos as lukewarm, a twitchy ordeal. Hers would be tough things, tougher than sticks and stones and the growing pains that would grip her peers.

Her mother had planned for this. She’d grown up poor in the West of Ireland where there were no orthodontists. Like the rest of the kids in her village she’d walked miles barefoot to school in summer. During the wet months, she was taken out of lessons to help her family plough fields. In the evenings she’d stare up at framed photos of her American cousins, fixated on their plumpness and neat teeth.

At sixteen, she got the boat over and moved in with relatives with hearty laughs. She took a job cleaning a church in Chicago, sweeping dust from its steps and nave. She was lonely but didn’t mind. She’d make up great romances, their melodies pinballing the sides of her skull.

Her Aunt Nancy and cousins never stopped talking when she got in when all she wanted was peace and a sit down or to write a letter to mammy about the things she’d seen. It was true — everything was bigger over here. They were a more evolved people compared to the Irish who’d crawled from a peat bog, squinting at each day’s new sun.

Aunt Nancy was not a strict sort and encouraged Brenda to go out to dances, to enjoy herself after a hard week’s slog. Brenda and her cousins would get ready together, cinching and spritzing themselves for excitement in the dark. She could not stop staring at their tanned fullness, their scarless feet. These were girls who had never gone hungry, who’d never stooped in fields, whimpering from the weight of toil and equipment cutting into their young hands. There was no sadness lurking heavy in their flirting. She was jealous of their exuberant smiles. Her own teeth were fighting bread queues too aware of their humiliation.

More than brains and beauty and a reliable father figure, she wanted perfect teeth for her daughter. Hard confidence you couldn’t argue with or underplay. It’s what people saw first, what said the most about you without speech. A dream that wouldn’t fade long after the sag of age that curdled faces and the parts underneath. People noticed careful maintenance — American girls wouldn’t get far with a lippy grin. Never mind that the girl was shy or struggled with fractions and ran across roads to escape oncoming dogs. She’d be known for her smile.

Brenda moved up the job ladder into a country club in the suburbs, backed by gentle sweeps of land and manicured lawns out front. She worked as a kitchen porter, wiping surfaces and loading plates into a dishwasher, her face a blur in vast steel. They were heavy days, but every hour stood closer to straight slabs for the girl. When waitresses called in sick, Brenda would volunteer to help deliver meals and drinks. She’d pour generous measures while chatting to golfers about what it was like back home, the differences between Ireland and America, the relatives and funerals she missed, what Irish kids had to go without. Despite mixing up their orders, they enjoyed her stories, her lilting accent, her soft pear body leaning toward the more expensive bottles. They listened with slow nods, imagining her Jaysuses as they stabbed her flesh in rapid spurts.

Sometimes, they’d offer to drive her back to her home in the city. “You can’t wait out in the cold for the bus, Brend” they’d say, their eyes milky with drink. “Oh, don’t worry about this tough old girl”, she’d reply while polishing the last glasses, the light dusting of fur on her top lip lit by a chandelier at its brightest.

He walked her to the car with cowboy legs — all loose, gossipy. She waited at the passenger side, counting, not sure for what and how long it would take. For how quickly to get into the warmth? For when was too late to say no, she preferred to get the bus back? He unlocked the car on his second attempt. She sat down on the leather seat which squeaked. “What’s that?” she asked, looking straight ahead. “Sorry, that’s Finley’s toy.” In the rear-view mirror sat a dog showing off its fat bacon tongue. The sky dropped as they pulled out of the drive. The man seemed to have his eyes closed a lot. There were no other cars. She toyed with the radio dial, hoping to find a song she liked, remembered, an intimate voice in the dark. “Sorry, it doesn’t work doll”, he drawled. Trees both sides of the road were scant, tight-fisted. “I couldn’t live out here”, she said. The road disappeared under them and kept making itself anew.

The man rubbed her thigh like a tide keen to break free from the moon. His nails were too short. She wasn’t sure she’d finished her period. They sky was turning dusty pink but held onto its cotton. The dog’s tongue went nowhere in the mirror.

The man parked the car cleanly, overlooking the town. “Come on Finley”, he said as he led the dog out by its collar. Street lights winked at them below.

The dog spindled among grass gone blonde at its stubby lengths, immersed in scent. In the car, Brenda’s face fused with glass as she watched the oblivious animal. Cats have barbed cunts don’t they. She breathed a pale O. The dog disappeared.

The man groaned behind her, willing his thumbs round her waist to kiss. Each pulse into her made her face move further up the window. This must be how you get to heaven. Her smudged eyes clocked the dog again, a rabbit twitching in its mouth.

“Oh god, oh god, ohhhhh I’m sorry I can’t help it.” He groaned again then inspected the condom, offering its contents to the last of the light. “Sorry that was a bit fast. The old chap had one too many whiskies.” “It’s fine,” she said, pulling her knickers out of her stockings, looking for the dog outside. “Did you?” “Yep.” “I can never tell with you, Brend.”

The dog jumped up and scratched at her window with the rabbit still in its mouth. The rabbit’s bloody head was connected by a strip of fur to the rest of its body.

“Leave it! Finley! Finley! That fucking dog.” The man got out of the car, tossing the condom into dark.

“Here’s just fine.” He pulled the car over into a bus-stop. A pruned woman in a rain hood glared at the car. The man leaned his head against Brenda’s. “You’re so special.” His breath stank of dead animal. “The babysitter will be waiting”, she said, rubbing mascara from under her eyes.

“She’s asleep”, said the woman removing the chain from the door. “I’m really sorry. I had to cover at work again”. “You need to give me a bit more warning. Shoes off, if you don’t mind.”

The child’s mouth was ajar and spelling slow breath, the kind reserved for last words and hexes. The metal across her face was a cold spider. Brenda sat down on the bed, bathed by the night light. “Maaaauuuuuuuuugh! I thor you wurrr a monnnshta.” “Shhhhhhh, sleepyhead. Let’s take this thing off.”

—Julie Reverb

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Julie Reverb is a London, UK-based writer whose fiction has appeared in publications including The Quietus, 3:AM magazine and Gorse journal. Her début novel – NO MOON – explores language, grief and a family-run porn cinema. It will be published by Calamari Archive in Summer 2015. Find her at www.juliereverb.com and @juliereverb on Twitter.

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Mar 022015
 

Tom McCarthy
By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express. —Frank Richardson

satin-island-cover

Satin Island
Tom McCarthy
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, $24.00, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0307593955

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ATIN ISLAND BEGINS, appropriately, with an epigraph from Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Limited Action.” Beyond anticipating themes and motifs, this epigraph is felicitous for two reasons: first, Mallarme’s symbolist poetry prefigures Tom McCarthy’s multilayered, intricately patterned novels, and second, like the French poet, McCarthy is hailed as his generation’s avant-garde. Now in his mid-forties and living in London, Tom McCarthy has been described as inheriting the literary mantle of unconventional authors such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Maurice Blanchot, and J. G. Ballard.

Author of the acclaimed novels Men in Space, Remainder (winner of the 2007 Believer Book Award), and C (shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and Walter Scott Prize), McCarthy has also published a book of literary criticism (Tintin and the Secret of Literature) and numerous essays. In 2001 McCarthy, with friend Simon Critchley founded the International Necronautical Society, a “semi-fictitious” organization of artists, writers, and philosophers that promotes a diverse range of art projects. McCarthy calls the INS “a literary project . . . played out through the art world.” McCarthy’s newest novel, Satin Island, a palimpsest of meditations on life in the twenty-first century, is as ambitious as it is rewarding.

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The Construct

For now, let’s call the book a novel, the only subtitle not crossed out on the cover of the US edition. Some of the nixed ones? Confession. Treatise. Report. Confession comes closest, for that is the tone that the first-person narrator, known only as U., adopts. U., a 40-something man living in London in contemporary time, an anthropologist by training, works as a corporate ethnographer for “the Company” – the type of business whose least sinister operation might be the personalized pop up ads on your web browser. Consider how U. describes the Company’s Koob-Sassen Project:

It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. (12)

Between U.’s single-initial name and organizations like the Company, the influence of Kafka’s legacy is clear.

Apart from his daily work for the Company, U. has been charged with creating a “Great Report,” a document that will be, in the words of U.’s boss Peyman, “The First and Last Word on our age,” a summary vision of the world, a “brand-new navigation manual.” Flummoxed by his exuberant boss’s request, U. spends most of his time compiling vast dossiers on subjects as diverse as oil spills, parachuting accidents, and the rituals of native Pacific Islanders. Eventually, his research begins to merge with the assignment, and he becomes lost in a quest of anthropological hermeneutics:

What fluid, morphing hybrid could I come up with to be equal to that task? What medium, or media, would it inhabit? Would it tell a story? If so, how, and about what, or whom? If not, how would it all congeal, around what cohere? (71)

U.’s attempt to complete Peyman’s mandate is the nominal plot of the novel. The chronology moves toward a notional present from a moment a few years in the past when U. was stranded in the Turin airport. Except for a few dips into the past, the narrative time is linear. The novel’s form, although of the memoir type, feels scientific, like entries in a lab notebook: fourteen numbered chapters are subdivided into numbered paragraphs designated by decimals (e.g. 1.1, 1.2). There are no other section breaks. The only dialogue is summarized by U. or reported within his paragraphs without quotation marks. As arid as this may seem, it is this very style that McCarthy mines for this novel’s greatest rewards. Like a Chuck Close portrait composed of a thousand painted squares, McCarthy’s mosaic of paragraphs has a gestalt quality – the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997Chuck Close, Self Portrait, 1997

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Call me U.

McCarthy said in a 2011 interview (The White Review) that his character Serge in C, like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses or Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow, is “a kind of prism.” The same could be said of U. – he filters information. When he introduces himself, McCarthy’s protagonist borrows the form of another famous eyewitness with the sentence “Call me U.” But U.’s occupation forces him beyond mere observation of the world; Peyman expects him to synthesize a meaningful interpretation of it. Inevitably, U. fails at his Great Report, for what could U. achieve that would satisfy Peyman’s requirements? Uncertain how to proceed, U. moves from day to day through a haze of depression and mounting obsessions (a signature characteristic for McCarthy’s protagonists). Besides his boss, U.’s only interactions are with his colleague Daniel, his friend Petr, and his girlfriend Madison. U.’s tone can be terse, clinical, the tone of a scientist. For example, when Peyman texts him the news the Company won the lucrative Koob-Sassen Project, U. replies:

Good, I texted. The answer came more quickly this time: Good? That’s it? I deliberated for a few seconds, then sent back a new message: Very good. (7)

But this isn’t U.’s sole voice, and while he may be a scientist by training, his musings are by turn philosophical:

People need foundation myths, some imprint of year zero, a bolt that secures the scaffolding that in turn holds fast the entire architecture of reality . . . (3)

poetic:

as I slipped into a flecked and grainy sleep, oil seemed to lie around the very cloud-patches the wing-lights were illuminating: to lurk within and boost their volume, as though absorbed by them, and to seep out from them as well, in blobs and globules that hovered on their ledges, sat about their folds and crevasses, like so many blackened cherubs. (11)

and mystical:

That final spur, the one that carried skydivers across the threshold, out into the abyss, was faith: faith that it all—the system, in its boundless and unquantifiable entirety—worked, that they’d be gathered up and saved.[1] (78)

Although haunted by the ghost of Camus’s Meursault, especially in his apathetic interpersonal relationships, U.’s character is buoyed up by sentiments such as these and his genuine desire to find meaning.

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A Choir of Images

Several of U.’s favorite subjects are present in the quotes above. The subjects and words McCarthy chose are not accidental. Regarding Ulysses, McCarthy said:

Everything becomes this huge network in which any division between outer space and inner space collapses. There’s a total consistency and continuity. And I love that – it’s what life is actually like. It’s what literature should try and somehow produce. (The White Review)

In Satin Island, McCarthy delineates his own network. U. is obsessed with buffer zones and with domains both outer and inner: a parachutist falls from the sky, oil bubbles up from below, and both meet in the present. Between the poles of outer and inner extremes, U. searches for connections, for the networks that link them together. He compiles dossiers and connects literal strings between images pinned to his walls. The question is, will some “this is it” coalesce? This is what Peyman wants for the Great Report. He wants U. to “name what’s taking place right now” (57).

McCarthy is a master weaver of recurring images, and he does so to great effect in Remainder and C. Repetition of words and ideas in a novel creates patterns of images that lend structural coherence to the story and suffuse it with a poetic quality. Satin Island is a tour de force of interwoven image patterns. The central image pattern is of something lying beneath, some mystery that might be revealed. On the first page, U. is shown thinking about the shroud of Turin, and how the image of Christ (or so it was supposed at the time) emerged after people examined photographic negatives. U. tells us that “We see things shroudedly, as through a veil, an over-pixellated screen” – a metaphor that recurs at the end, framing the novel. If the allusion to Corinthians is extended, then U. might hope, despite seeing the world through a glass darkly, to someday see clearly. Indeed, this is his primary conflict: how to make sense of the world, to see it clearly, to reveal the underlying, secret substrata of existence. While working in his basement office U. hears noises through the ventilation, finds patterns in them, and indulges his imagination:

Sometimes these patterns took on visual forms, like those that so enchanted eighteenth-century scientists when they scattered salt on Chladni plates and, exposing these to various acoustic stimuli, observed the intricate designs that ensued – geometric and symmetrical and so generally perfect that they seemed to betray a universal structure lurking beneath nature’s surface . . . (15) [my emphasis]

Stephen Morris, Square Chladni plateStephen Morris, Square Chladni plate

Such musings on underlying structures, on something hidden beneath a surface occur repeatedly throughout the novel. For example, U.’s job is to “lay bare some kind of inner logic” (21); regarding his hero, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, U. writes:

Describing sunsets, he saw spun webs of lit-up vapour [sic], a whole architecture of reflective strands that both revealed and hid the source that lay behind them; even landscape seemed to him to withhold, in its layers and strata, some kind of infrastructural master-meaning of which any one layer was a partial, distorted transposition. (28)

Revealed patterns, buried layers, structures hidden beneath – this is the language of McCarthy’s central image pattern. U. imagines giving a presentation on oil spills, claiming “Beneath all these dramas . . . there lies a source code” (103). The oil image repeats often; here in context with Petr’s cancer:

the dark lumps were still pushing up from under the skin’s surface, clouding it . . . . If Petr’s flesh was turning black it was because he’d let the world get right inside him, let it saturate him, until he was so full of it that it was bursting out again . . . (133-134)

All the Company’s actions “creep under the radar,” beneath the perception of the people it affects. Even in rare descriptions of physical movement, McCarthy capitalizes on the pattern: “We pulled into a docking bay beneath this building, parked beneath huge arches and got out” (93). Intersecting with this backbone, this infrastructure, are the recurring images of a different type of mystery, the mystery of faith: parachutists and Vanuatans taking literal leaps of faith; the shroud of Turin; Muslim pilgrims performing the Hajj.

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Mysteries

From U.’s obsessions McCarthy composes a mosaic of images that forms the backbone of the novel. This harmony of images, more than a conventional plot, gives Satin Island its coherence and its poetry. Direct assaults on the mysterious, the ineffable, rarely yield anything but sentimentality. The image patterns that McCarthy creates are a method of approaching the mysteries of the human condition – what U. tries and fails to tap – indirectly.

By allowing us to extend our perception to multiple images simultaneously, the image pattern creates a sense of multiplicity, a feeling of participation in a larger, more complex process than our experience in the present allows. That is one of the great rewards of reading, and when a story is crafted with the care and attention to detail like Satin Island, then sometimes, for brief moments, we might recognize something familiar, yet beyond; something we know is true, yet are unable to express.

McCarthy has spoken of Remainder, C, and Men in Space in terms of the protagonists’ failed transcendence (Interview Magazine). And so it goes for U. But his loss is our gain, for in the wake of his failure to write the Great Report, comes “this not-Report you’re reading now, this offslew of the real, unwritten manuscript” (114). Where U. fails, McCarthy succeeds in letting image patterns work their peculiar magic. Here we can stretch our sensory perception from oil oozing from a cracked pipeline to the cancerous tissue bubbling up under Petr’s skin; here we can imagine a parachutist plummeting to his death at the same time a Vanuatan plunges off a tower in a jungle clearing; here we begin with the image of Christ emerging from the shroud of Turin and end with the image of a ferryboat crossing the river Styx. Here we might make a connection with the mysterious, with some meaning lying beneath the surface of our lives. McCarthy leaves us, not with a confession, manifesto, treatise, or essay, but “a novel.” He might equally have borrowed another line from Mallarmé’s poem and called this peek behind the curtain “a choir of pages.”

—Frank Richardson


Frank Richardson bio pict 2

Frank Richardson lives in Houston and is pursuing his MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His poetry has appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Montucky Review, and Do Not Look At The Sun.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Hear McCarthy reading this excerpt in a clip from a promotional film made by the author in collaboration with Johan Grimonprez.
Mar 012015
 

diane-williamsDiane Williams photo by bill hayward

Diane Williams studied with Gordon Lish between 1985 and 1986. “I recall his saying that my work was so other? out-there? eccentric? that if he attempted to publish it at Knopf, he might not get any of his other books through,” she says. Lish would eventually get his hands on The Stupefaction, a collection of stories and a novella, and publish it at Alfred A. Knopf in 1996, but not before Grove Weidenfeld published Diane’s first collection, This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate, in 1989, and a second, Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear, in 1992. She published two more story collections containing novellas: Romancer Erector with Dalkey Archive Press in 2001, and It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature with FC2 in 2007. Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty, a collection of stories, was published by McSweeney’s in 2012, and a seventh collection – its title and publisher revealed by Diane at the conclusion of our interview – is due out next year.

In a review of The Stupefaction, Ben Marcus writes, “These are stories in which every sentence is potentially a revelation, a devastating summation, an entire story smashed together into the confines of a line, a sentence, a paragraph.” Diane’s prose pieces are the briefest of fictions, yet each one covers major ground. Reading her is like being hit on the head. Fundamental requirements of the text are coded, revoked, or absent completely. When reading a Diane Williams story, I am instantly trying to orient myself, locate the contextual connective tissue I need to continue reading. But Diane goes where she pleases, often without warning. She shows us what’s possible on the page, and that to classify her work in any genre would be a futile pursuit.

Diane and I spoke through email in November and December. The following is the result of our exchange.

—Jason Lucarelli

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In the novella “Romancer Erector” the narrator says, “I have storyish ideas but no story in me.” Has the real Diane Williams ever said anything slightly resembling this?

Diane Williams (DW): I don’t think I said it. I think Ben Marcus told me this years and years ago. Not one hundred percent sure. We could ask him. Of course, in his case, it certainly isn’t true. It’s crazy brave to say so. I couldn’t bear to say so.

Jason Lucarelli (JL): The genre of short short fiction has been called “a vehicle for expressing all those scraps of experience that are fascinating but too thin for a traditional “rising-conflict-to-resolution” story” by Charles Johnson; “neither poetic prose nor prosy verse, but the energy and clarity typical of prose coincident in the scope and rhythm of the poem” by Robert Kelly; and “a structure of words that consumes itself as it unfolds” by Joyce Carol Oates. Could you take a stab at defining this ephemeral story form?

DW: I admit that the definition of a literary genre doesn’t interest me. Language gathered into a composition is vivid and consequential or it isn’t.

JL: How do you see this type of fiction functioning differently from one that sustains itself for more than a few pages?

DW: Examples of prose fiction (from every or any era) as displayed in nearly identically-sized, squat stacks of text will vary so fundamentally in ambition and quality—topic, music, engineering and structure that their similar height and width are irrelevant tools by which to classify them. Would anyone create a genre for small paintings?—and a special technical term for these? How about giving a Robert Ryman, all white painting (9 ½ inches X 10 inches), Paul Klee’s Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black (15 inches X 15 inches) and Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare (10 inches X 9 inches) the same designation? Further, would you want to ask how these small paintings function differently from Rembrandt’s Man in Oriental Costume (5 feet X 3 1/2 feet) or from one of Cy Twombly’s vast paintings in the Bacchus series (10 feet X 15 feet)?

KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

JL: It takes me a good while to read through any collection of your “deceptively simple stories.” As I imagine all readers of Diane Williams do, I am constantly re-doing re-read-throughs. Sometimes I feel more barred by these “indigestible remnants” than others. Do you see these barriers yourself, or, how do you see them?

DW: I hope to see these barriers as you describe them—otherwise I’d be stirred up once by the story, but never again. How unlifelike to understand perfectly.

JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?

DW: Yes, uncovering what feels new is very important to me. I’ve been advised that boredom is healthful. It defeats me.

The Stupefaction

JL: Reviewing The Stupefaction Ben Marcus writes, “One does infrequently sense that the brevity of a particular piece enacts unfortunate injustice to the world it has started to invoke. At these rare times the length is itself a genre that Williams adheres to over the deeper demands of the story at hand.” I think this appears as a common critique of stunted prose pieces. Two parts: What is your defense? How do you know when a piece is finished?

DW: I don’t have any defense to offer in the face of Ben’s criticism. If, as he says, my stories, in rare instances, fail—likely they do. I celebrate his words “at these rare times.” If such criticism were leveled at all of my work, I’d be extremely disappointed.

Anyone’s short fictions may succeed or fail. We’d need to review specific stories.

How do I know when my story is finished? This is as difficult for me to answer as: how do I know if it began advantageously—or, how do I know if it was carried forward into its most promising direction? These are the ferocious challenges. Which ending to choose is particularly vexing.

I’ve read about a chimpanzee named Congo who loved to paint, and if anyone tried to take a painting away from him too soon, he’d have a tantrum. If, however, he considered the painting completed, no amount of coaxing could persuade him to continue with it. I only pray I’ve inherited the same or similar trait that is of use here.

JL: Many authors I love stick to writing stories. Yet your novellas—composed of hyper-precise shorts—The Stupefaction, Romancer Erector, and On Sexual Strength seem to elongate the “latitude of implication” of your “miniature fictions.” The condensed leanness of the novella seems suited for Diane Williams. Is the novella an underrated form? What are a few of your favorite novellas?

DW: Hmm…a great maxim, poem, story, novella, novel, essay—the great ones—they’re all great. The Pilgrim Hawk—a novella by Glenway Wescott—is a favorite.

JL: When we talk about fiction we sometimes talk about authors who lack plot and authors who lean on plot. If an author lacks plot, what replaces plot? Sam Lipsyte says, “You need motion, of course, always motion, always momentum, motion or the semblance of motion…” What’s your stance?

DW: A splendid plot cannot rescue a project spoiled by deficient language. And, of course, Sam is correct. A reader needs a compelling reason to move forward word to word—some would say even phoneme to phoneme—sentence to sentence.

Tender Heart

JL: After the completion of your first and second books—This Is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate in 1989 and Some Sexual Success Stories Plus Other Stories in Which God Might Choose to Appear in 1992—you said you saw an “end to a sort of personal evolution” and “certain obstacles…overcome.” Later, your collections Romancer Erector in 2001 and It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature in 2007 seemed like two different artistic feats, with It Was Like My Trying To Have A Tender-Hearted Nature representing a real leap in your story construction in terms of how much you might successfully leave off the page. Do you see an evolution between those books now? What obstacles are recently in your way as a writer?

DW: I looked at the titles you refer to so that I could answer your question with good will and yet am unable to give you my reflections on any artistic evolutions. I don’t proceed with abstract goals and I do not enjoy my own analysis of my work. When I once referred to “obstacles overcome”—I likely meant life challenges.

What obstacles are in my way as a writer? That’s easy to answer. Everything that has ever stood in my way still stands there—insufficient character, confidence, intellect, ingenuity.

JL: As you wrote during your early years at the University of Pennsylvania and later when you studied under Gordon Lish, what authors did you turn to who aligned with your concern for brevity, the least of all the literary devices you leverage? Who do you turn to now?

DW: I’ve never searched out particular writers aligned with my concern for brevity. I have no special concern for brevity. I’d rather view the shape and size of my results as the fruit of the tree. Somebody—perhaps Maillol?—said, “I am like a pear tree. I make pears.” I’d be equally delighted to announce that I am an acorn. At Penn, I read with fascination Chaucer, Cheever, Kafka, Flaubert, James, Shakespeare, Philip Roth, and, god, I am leaving out all of the poets here and an avalanche of other author names—many anonymous. Such a list has always seemed to me impossible and certainly misleading. Early on, yes, when I was writing my first books, I was overjoyed to discover Sharon Olds, Kawabata, Freud, Jung, Davis, and Lish. My taste in literature has always been eclectic. I do love Murdoch, Singer, Anderson, and Brookner. Of course, I am infatuated with every author we publish in NOON and am equally eager to read works of history, anthropology, philosophy, literary criticism, psychology…and so on.

JL: Yet brevity shapes, structures. My fascination with your work is partly because of how much you accomplish in such a short space, and when I think of short short fiction, I think of something Rusty Barnes says: “Somewhere between the linear narrative and the post-postmodern fracturing of narrative there might be a third way, dependent on its brevity as its primary descriptor.” On the other hand, a favorite musician of mine, Ryan Adams, commenting on his 1984 7-inch, says, “The brevity of those songs…is irrelevant to the structure and the content.” And so I ask you: how can this be so?

DW: Perhaps it remains a mystery why—but brevity is impactful.

NOON4

JL: I understand you were trained as an editor at Doubleday and went on to Scott Foresman. You co-edited StoryQuarterly and are the founding editor of NOON. Who are some of the great editors you have learned from over the years? Who helped hone, specifically, your editorial eye for fiction?

DW: My early assignments often involved radical editing. I worked in educational publishing at J. G. Ferguson (a subsidiary of Doubleday that produced career guidance texts, cookbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries) and I can’t recall much guidance. At Scott Foresman I created primary reading materials and discovered my affinity for what the company defined as the immature mind. Research at the time proved that children under the age of nine could not manage abstract concepts and we were, therefore, directed to keep our language concrete. This meant we avoided history altogether! I have no idea if this theory is still current. In addition, I worked for several years at SRA (Science Research Associates, then a subsidiary of IBM) where I also developed elementary educational materials.

The great editors I have known? Well, of course, Gordon Lish was my teacher and the editor of my fiction for many years. I have often spoken of the cardinal importance of his influence on my writing and editing life.

And who forgets her first published story? Nearly ten years before I studied with Gordon—it was Dan Curley who first edited my fiction—the esteemed editor of Ascent. He informed me that I had managed to interest him in a thoroughly repugnant woman (I had thought she was hapless, but still appealing) and that if I’d make the recommended changes, he would publish the story. He attached several pages of single-spaced line edits.

Nowadays, I am very fortunate when Christine Schutt reads and comments on my new work.

JL: Your work with education materials and the concrete language of your target audience, did this influence your writing then, and was this effect lasting?

DW: I did not write my own stories during this period, so I can’t say.

JL: Can you talk about the importance of frequent contributors to NOON’s success? What do you make of the success NOON brings its frequent contributors?

DW: I am not sure I understand the question. NOON’s purpose is to feature singular fiction. If Deb Olin Unferth, for example, is generous enough to keep sending her fiction to us, then we are eager to keep publishing it. We are equally keen to discover new, distinguished voices. NOON 2015 introduces the first published work of Susan Laier and Mary South. And 2015 includes five first-time contributors: Darrell Kinsey; R.O. Kwon; Erin Osborne; Kevin Thomas; and Kristof Kintera. We continuously celebrate the success of NOON contributors.

JL: I’m excited for the new issue. My question comes from the feeling of opening a new issue of NOON and seeing these familiar contributors. To name only a few of my favorites (because every author in NOON is worth mentioning): Anya Yurchyshyn, Greg Mulcahy, Chiara Barzini. NOON authors share something special. What is it they have in common?

DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.

Vicky-Swanky2

JL: Are there plans for teaching in the near future? When might a meager me, say, make his way to New York for a class instructed by Diane Williams?

DW: Hardly a meager you! I don’t have any plans for teaching at present, but if enough interested parties were to come forward, I might consider this in the future.

JL: You have a new collection due out soon. Is there anything you’d like to tell us about it?

DW: Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine is due out from McSweeney’s early next January, 2016.

—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli

NC jason-lucarelli-2

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

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Feb 282015
 

Capture

Top of the Page, that is, featured in the slider at the top of the home page, this month is Patrick J. Keane, a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq since 2011 (the February issue) when we published his essay “Convergences: Memories Involving The Waste Land Manuscript.” Pat quickly followed that up with an essay about his cat Rintrah, which, as I recall, was originally going to be an essay about a race horse (the race horse essay has never materialized — note to self). Since then he has been a steady and formidable contributor of essays, reviews, fiction, and memoir, covering everything from John Steinbeck to Nietzsche to Emily Dickinson to Keats to Emerson to Wordsworth and to Yeats. His most recent piece for us was his essay in the February issue just past on the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the Pope, and Islamic terrorism. His essay on The Grapes of Wrath, movie and novel, is one of the top five most popular texts ever published in the magazine.

In short, it wouldn’t be the magazine it is without Pat Keane. His erudition, his gift of language, his ability as a raconteur, and his astonishing energy are an inspiration to us all.

Note that what I have displayed at the Top of the Page is only a portion of Pat’s prolific output. Take a look at his Archive Page to see everything he has published here.

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