Dec 032016
 

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A Symposium on Love

“Damn the word,” said Justine once. “I would like to spell it backwards as you say the Elizabethans did God. Call it evol and make it a part of ‘evolution’ or ‘revolt.’” — Justine, Lawrence Durrell

Age is an evolution – or devolution – of lust.
To be lost in revolt, as one must be growing up,
invites erotics into the palace of the family.
Air spiked with ecstasy. xWe all know it.
So voluble in bed might signify lust
or politics, depending on whether
you live in a hovel, where the velocity
of wildlife, certainly a mouse, about its vital business
shadows the movements of governments,

or a hotel, hovering over the chasm
between mountains, where we stopped.
Olives. Lupine. The sound of violins
through the balcony window, resinous,
heard through steam: treatments for the liver.
Into the porches of our ears pours music
reverberating through marble spaces. “That old man
wants to live,” whispers a medic,
mopping up. His vulpine mask is a blur
through silk curtains as he bends over
to lave bodies slippery with oil. He cares for us.

Here, in the mountains, where we feel free,
olives are served in gin straight from the freezer.
The menu reports that olev is an alternative,
a citrus fruit found in the garden below.
A solo viola with piano plays at a wedding on the patio.

Is olev a word in another language,
an oval fruit used in a harvest ritual,
a kind of citron, a renewal, a stand-in for love?

Maybe instead you wrote, “Nearby some wedding party is tuning up.
It’s hard to hear their voices. We’ve enough lunacy on this balcony
overlooking the ceremony to interpret youth and age. Drink up!”
She whispers, “I’ve loved you for half my life.”

To reprise: voluble in bed can signify
the exhaustion of lust and the birth of politics
depending on where you live, a hovel,
or next summer’s hotel on a coast, where olives are eaten
crushed with oil and tomatoes on pasta. Viols can be heard
from a balcony overlooking the river.
In a hotel notebook become a diary you can signify a place
where you stayed one summer, the air an oven
you entered to make love or sleep.
Your bed linens were streaked with damp.
Remember oval windows above his elbow,
trimmed with red and yellow light? I don’t.

A mirror in the corner showed us at the moment
we became another person, tiny and contorted
for a few beats, who might change into
a dolt with a scar, or a dwarf,
a violinist of genius but peculiar, hard to reach
until the world called out to him and he went.
He appears tonight on the program.

Let us return to the moment, please.
Your new partner is to be found at the next table,
voluble, thank God, after months of silence.
What’s he onto now? Oh, the volume of trade
on the stock exchange. I’m interested. Are you?

Here, in the mountains, after sunburnt children with their dogs
are put to bed, conversation veers toward the intimate.
Of course the subject is money. A plunging market.
What’s to be done? Be patient. The people will speak.
Vox Popular in November. The new black may be white.
Be patient. “I grew up in a Victorian melodrama,” overheard,
might seem to change the stakes. For me, at least.

In a corner of the room, under satin swags
that frame the mountains, three women lean
toward the axis of their table and whisper.
You can barely hear their hisses over the swipe
of VISA through the bar machine.
If you . . . you’ll disappear . . . Escape?
But how? Where do they think they’ll go?

Meanwhile the elderly are falling in love.
You can. Erotic is the reverse of deathly.
Dour Mr. Thanatos rents out accordions
at base camp if you’ve a mind to dance.

And while we’re speculating here,
if you have a comrade with a mind so rigid
you can hear the crack on the page as you read
his work, what can you do at 8,000 feet?

Maybe you can write some evolved and looser squiggles
to depict the guy on the plane en route, in the next seat,
depressed because no one will talk to him
so his head droops onto his chest
seemingly ready to be released into a basket.
Wasn’t that the French Revolution?
That guy only wanted to convert us, not seduce.

Nearby some wedding party is tuning up.
It’s hard to hear over his voice what they’re saying.
Certainly we’ve enough lunacy on this balcony
overlooking the pool. Drink up!
A bridesmaid hands over a hanky. The best man is a she.
Their fathers link arms. Their mothers smile.
By now we’re sobbing into tissues and taking pictures.

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Surely next comes midlife revolt. What do you think?
Oh look. A moose lopes over the top of the mountain.
The bell for dinner sounds. I’ve a mind to bolt
this place. Echoes reverberate on the balconies.

You know, I’ve loved him for half my life.
At the end, it seems the rest of the relatives died.

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Autobiography

I’ve stolen a chair for you, sawed off the arms.
For breakfast stirred up plovers’ eggs. xOnce
I flew to the moon in order to press your hands to her face.

I strung a magic key around my neck for my roller skates.
On my feet they clanked, threw sparks on the sidewalk.
My mom wore an apron when she wasn’t wearing gloves.
I wore silk to the dance, midnight blue with a keyhole neckline, a soft bow.

I married for the childbed and didn’t die.
I walked out the door on my own two feet.

Alaska wove color through the sky.
The dog sled team at a full run shat frozen turds that missed me.

Up again at night I learned hot milk beats tea every time.
The walls, all color, wore well and framed up paintings I accumulate.

My house has four bedrooms.
Much of my life is over.
Pleasing others is my greatest sin.
When my ribs knit I swore never again to surrender. I lied.

My knee healed with a scar.
Four husbands vanished on horseback but the crops didn’t fail.
Winter is a season like any other.
Now spring is all. Spring, moving into summer.
Sleep in wind, in voices.

What’s under pressure breaks out in cactus flowers.
Ants abound in the arroyo and coyotes.
Some of what I couldn’t stand to lose I lost.
In every room a pencil.

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Meditation

I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t
Who’s talking?  Shut up, compassion.

Put on socks and shoes meditation

Walking meditation
…………Once around the desert
…………no dog, nobody

Counting heart stones meditation
…………in the basket, on the ground

Walking the dog meditation
…………out loud, out loud: listen dog.  Metta

May i/she be safe may she/i be happy may she be/feel well may she live/die lightly

Gratitude meditation:  each day a white stone
…………picked up by the front door by the back garden
…………put down on the ground white stones to a make a mouth:

…………If my mouth were as wide as the seven seas
…………it would not be enough to praise Thee

Be quiet.  Make lunch. Notice the thumb, the work of the thumb. Notice the edge of the
…………knife blade

Wash the dishes meditation.  Metta

may our friend be safe may she be happy may she be well may she live/die lightly

I can’t sit still                 death death death death.  I can’t i can’t i can’t i
…………Who?
…………May she walk in the shadow of death and fear no evil thy arroyo rock and thy
cottonwood staff      comfort

Breathe breathe / breathe breathe

Rausch means soul means breath   is breath   is soul
…………breathe breathe / breathe
…………until the body/ stone
…………fractures
…………to release

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One Toe, Crooked

Let me tell you how it is with me:
a bad back, spine like a snakeskin
shed in the shadow of a pinelet,
weakened innards, a liver fit for soup,
and a brain the size of a lentil.   The worst
is the one toe, crooked like a staff
carried too long by shepherds.

One day, a fine mid-autumn
with sun’s eye full open against air’s chill,
I took to the woods to find my dinner.
What with one thing and another
I swayed and shimmered my way along
the path, gravel sticking to my knees from a fall,
my felt shoes catching stones.
But still, I got to the gate where geese cross
coming home from the pond.

What would do me that night?
I was one only, with an oven fit
for a child with money, my prize.
Each night I lit it with a fagot
of wormwood and some willow leaves
with an iron basket suspended over the fire.
Good for roasting corn and potatoes.
Tonight I was hungry against the chill coming.
No ice yet, that was full winter
but now a clutch of eggs to boil in the kettle?

Truly then I saw a girl
lovely as a stalk of silver grain
come around a corner that an oak made
with my barn wall. She carried a bundle
squirming like a peck of tadpoles
and clutched to her chest a stack of books
bound with a strap. She saw me
as a wraith and ran. Was I a wraith?
My toe hurt like hell itself gaped open.
But Ectoplasm I wasn’t. Plain flesh.
Still, she was afraid. Then I could see her babe’s
mouth open, its cries louder with each bounce,
the flannel it was bound with coming loose.

As I watched, standing bent over my toe,
she dropped the books. The belt around them opened.
Pages fanned out on the ground
like parchment put to flame.

What did all this mean in the daylight?
The girl, her babe, the lost books cascading
and over everything pain ascending,
covering our light, all that hope,
the future somehow gone dark as a cavern.
I bent over the mess, began to gather it up.

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Truncated Sonnet

The woman once upon a time
put on pajamas under a cloak of feathers.
Instead of in bed she swam on the Grande, a swan.

Breakfast in the sun room
raspberries from the gardens (paths, stones, silver props)
clotted cream sour on the table, an etched spoon.
After a while she dropped her knitting along with the gun.

Childhood during war, so many novels and hunger.
The dead stayed invisible, quiet as usual.
She read the London Times and swallowed.

Somebody yelled, “What do you think I mean?”  Hit the table.
She puts aside her food, leans forward to say:

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Yom Kippur Crumbs
………………………after Sandra Gilbert

Forbidden mash, sweet in our aging body
I stole chunks from the communal table, at dawn

You are the profane yeast of my sins
disintegrating, flowing away under our resolve

The breathed air made you stale, thirsty for water
as we are, here in the desert of our actions

Be the emblem of our resolve:
make bitter the sweet yearning, for cruelty

Dissolve the sour milk in our middens
to empty our stomachs of sin.

Stale loaf, you’re bread from my kitchen
I purge from the shelf, carry to the river
to cast upon waters

You’re promise for an emptied day
of sorrow. No more will I gulp you

as toast to begin a day of distractions
Your molds will float down the waters

to redeem my thoughtless actions
make room for loving kindness

I will hope to absorb as well as give out.

—Hilda Raz

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Hilda Raz lives in Placitas, New Mexico, where she is poetry editor of bosque magazine and series editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen endowed poetry series at the University of New Mexico Press. She is Glenna Luschei Professor of English and Gender Studies, emerita, at the University of Nebraska, where she was editor of Prairie Schooner and founding editor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prizes.  Her work has been widely published in twelve books, many anthologies and journals.

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Dec 022016
 

hallucineMovement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016

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The daughter of glow-worms painting portraits of mysterious females and the reindeer’s ghostly double, all perfectly cracked like glass, like an intrusion, like a flight into the obscurity of uncharted whispering. A slight touch on the shoulder, the movement of an affair between invasion and emanation, the pitch of bone against bone, faces merging in the moisture of a single word chosen among all the others. A vampire word…

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Clarity is often a flower burning a table out of a corpse, an immoral sense of having secretive codes, acknowledgements of a tentative gambling, a mere walk in the park. The spores of wild animals, the crawling of your flesh, light growing on water. Words like landmines.

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The glow between living and ceasing to live, emulates the long-legged cascade in her whispering circuitry, the gaze of rain is corrupted film, caught in the act, disguised by pleasure purring in gradually brightening passwords. The catapult of an unfinished sentence, turned to provoke, to stroke and latent in state, the light separates your body from its own darkness.

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The ancient horned flower of your psyche attracts the devoted milking machines, the aboriginal veins of a fabric that propels your footsteps as determined as her threads slipping into light, vanishing in the blink of an eye.

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navigateAnd still the navigators 38’ x 38” 27.6.2016

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Dark and greedy, the always secret and ever vanishing body of torrential mirroring.

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Dark gravitational assignations seduced into amulets the color of glass, evolving in sequential chiaroscuro, tempting blood where (in the Manor of Sighs) the barbarian sign language seizes the images of your being in the rich, antiquarian lucidity of your extinction. Your face, or the features of night in the fever of graceful spirits that still come to drink the liquid of life out of your hands, the pendulum… An evening of theater runs ahead…

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Trapping belladonna between the lines, between her legs, between phases, to embrace the blindness of your murmuring, pushing out between her lips, the lost hermeticism of albino checkmates.

*

Black pyramid of erratic nights, sphinx crystal for abnormal motion, language absorbed by light hibernating in darkness, invisible shield, hormones of endless fusion and refusing to chalk the edges of bodily words taking root. On a street corner in another country, where the wheels of dance herald small but irreplaceable transgressing devices, shedding deceptions buzzing with veiled faces. You are sleeping with the enemy, unafraid and glorious.

*

An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance…

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sirensSirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016

Sirens In The Evening House… 40″ x 66” 5.1.2016*

One superb maneuver is the moon under your skin that pivots on the bones of a spider’s web, when it shines in the eyes of the animals that come close to you for light.

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Bright calipers of the alloy-laden arch, light-birthing heaviness, a fire between the air and the water, the arc of the dive into disappearance. Desire is not beautiful, but an invisible flame, a knife thrust into the heart, a moment of oblivion. The figure is translated, disfigured and set spinning into the tall and languid codes of light, violent codes, aching darkness of codes deceiving stature… who is dismantled. Words pulled out of lead. Breath of crystal. The rain of deer in the plateau of whispers…

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A bright spirit made of wolves, a throat in the fountain of analogies.

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Neither life nor death, but the same descent, the same loping, transfiguring, moving across the edges highlighted in ivory as bright as sunlight clutching at animal optics, scavenging, sight-shaping all the female phantoms in a row, crawling with antlers through the moth-memory of an escape hatch bigger than the either and the or… where the bell-veil toys with the heretic and his contraries, introducing a vow worthy of destruction, sealed with a kiss.

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Highly unreasonable notations raise pinnacles outside of the hour, narrate plumes, positions of sleep. The air spirals and sudden sparks. Your body of the orchid feast, thief of the mask. Night hood. “Teach me how to kill, and I will teach you how to love…” Only the wail of silence, in acrobat, even yourself hieroglyphing in lunar light.

*

The slow movement of her hand, the reflections cast by night, travelling by déjà vu.

§

The visual works I make are photo-based digital collages created in Photoshop, using printed media scanned into the computer, then using many layers, cloning, erasures. This allows taking the essence of collage quite beyond cut and paste. It becomes a much more fluid conjuration of matter, transforming the everyday into a magical space, where anything is possible. The sizes of the images are always approximate. Although, usually larger, depending upon whim. Since these live on the computer, they are subject to change.

—J. Karl Bogartte

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elbogo

J. Karl Bogartte, born September 8, 1944, of Dutch and Irish descent, is both an artist and poet, schooled in anthropology, photography and various esoteric traditions. He has been an active participant in international surrealism for more than 50 years, and cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions.  He presently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bogartte, is both an artist and poet, having published eight books of poetic writings: The Mirror held Up In Darkness, The Wolf House, Secret Games, Luminous Weapons, Primal Numbers, A Curious Night For A Double Eclipse, Auré, The Spindle’s Arc, and Antibodies: A Surrealist Novella.  Long aligned with international surrealism, Bogartte is also a cofounder of La Belle Inutile Éditions. His work has appeared in the following anthologies:  ANALOGON #65, Melpomene, Hydrolith #1 and #2, La vertèbre et le rossignol #4, Peculiar Mormyrid #2, Paraphilia,  and The Fiend online journal.

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Dec 012016
 

Michaelangelo torment-of-st-anthonyMichelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Standing aside from the busy doings of mankind, and drawing NIGH to the divine [pros to theio gignomenos], he is rebuked by the multitude as being out of his wits, for they know not that he is possessed by a deity [enthousiazon].
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX— Plato, Phaedrus

NEARLY mad, I found myself yet able to throw out a hand to ward off the foetid apparition which pressed so close.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX H. P. Lovecraft, The Outsider

The pattern he has selected may seem queer, out of the way, and VERGING on insanity; but this happens because it is isolated from its inner context, and is appraised mechanically and superficially, by the outer and conventional measures of normality. Very often, the inward aim of the dynamic patterns animating the lives of such apparently insane persons is God, or Truth.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxXXXX Meher Baba, The Wayfarers

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Madness, an obscurely essential theme in The Cloud of Unknowing, appears there in several modes traversing the boundaries between human, God, and devil.

First, there is the madness to which all demons are driven by “the werk of the soule,” the apophatic forgetting of creation and dwelling in the cloud or darkness between oneself and God.[1] “Alle seintes and aungelles han joie of this werk, and hasten hem to helpe it in al here might. Alle feendes ben wood whan thou thus doste, and proven for to felle it in alle that thei kun” (3).

Second, there is the madness to which phantasmatically deluded contemplatives drive themselves under the devil’s guidance by perceptually confounding and inverting the natural order of corporeal and spiritual things. This spiritual mis-work “is neither bodily worching ne goostly worching. . . . it is a worching agens kynde, and the devel is the cheef worcher thereof. And it is the rediest way to deth of body and of soule, for it is woodnes and no wisdom, and ledith a man even to woodnes. And yit thei wene not thus, for thei purpose hem in this werk to think on nought bot on God.” Not sensing the true mystical or hidden prepositionality of spiritual ascent—“how a man schal drawe alle his witte withinne hymself, or how he schal clymbe aboven himself”—they “turn theire bodily wittes inwardes to theire body agens the cours of kynde; and streynen hem, as thei wolde see inwards with theire bodily ighen, and heren inwards with theire eren, and so forthe of all theire wittes, smellen, taasten, and felyn inwardes. And thus thei reverse hem agens the cours of kynde and with this coriousté thei travayle theire ymaginacion so undiscreetly, that at the last thei turne here brayne in here hedes.” Thus set in error, the contemplative falls prey to the devil who, hiding under this distorted remembrance of God—“the mynde of God wol he [the devil] not put fro hem, for feerde that he schuld be had in suspecte”—intensifies and validates the delusion with “fals light or sounes, swete smelles in theire noses, wonderful tastes in theire mowthes, and many queynte hetes and brennynges in theire bodily brestes or in theire bowelles, in theire backes and in theire reynes, and in their pryvé membres,” so that without the intervention of a “merciful miracle” they “schul go staryng wood to the devil” (51-53).

Third, there is the pure madness of the devil’s essential infernal nature whose direct sight instantly causes permanent madness, which the Cloud-author addresses in the context of judgmental religious zealotry and the loss of discretion. Persons suffering from this condition are deceived by the devil, who “ful wonderfuly . . . wol enflaume here braynes to meinteyne Goddes lawe, and to distroie synne in all other men.” Reproving everyone, they “sey that thei ben steryd therto by the fiire of charité and of Goddes love in theire hertes. And trewly thei lighe, for it is with the fire of helle wellyng in theire braynes and in theire ymaginacion.” While not defined as madness per se, this inferno-critical zeal formally participates in the devil’s own nature, as reported by “some disciples of nygromauncye . . . unto whom the feende hath apperid in bodily licnes.” For when the devil thus appears, he always has “bot o nose-therel, and that is grete and wyde. And he wil glady kast it up, that a man may see in therate to his brayne up in his heed. The whiche brayn is not elles bot the fiire of helle, for the feende may have none other brayn. And yif he might make a man loke in therate, he kepeth no beter; for at that lokyng he schuld lese his witte for ever” (55). So, as the devil “figureth in some qualité of his body what his servauntes ben in spirit,” such indiscreet reprovers “have bot o nose-therel goostly,” in contradiction with the naturally split nostrils of humans that “bitokeneth that a man schulde have discrecion goostly, and kun dissevre the good fro the ivel, and the yvel fro the worse, and the good fro the betyr” (55).

Fourth, there is the near or virtual madness of the real mystic who, in working to destroy the final and foundational obstacle between himself and God, namely, the “the nakid wetyng and felyng of thin owen beyng,” goes “ni wood for sorow.” “Alle men han mater of sorow, bot most specyaly he felith mater of sorow that wote and felith that he is. Alle other sorowes ben unto this in comparison bot as it were games to ernest. For he may make sorow earnestly that wote and felith not onli what he is, bot that he is. And whoso felid never this sorow, he may make sorow, for whi he felid yit never parfite sorow. This sorow . . . makith a soule abil to ressseive that joye, which revith fro a man alle wetyng and felyng of his being. This sorow, yif it be trewly coseyvid, is ful of holy desire; and elles might never man in this liif abide it ne bere it. For ne were it that a soule were sumwhat fed with a maner of counforte of his right worching, elles schuld he not mow bere the pyne that he hath of the wetyng and felyng of his being. For as ofte as he wolde have a trewe wetyng and a felyng of his God in purtee of spirit, as it may be here, and sithen felith that he may not – for he findeth evermore his wetyng and his felyng as it were ocupied and fillyd with a foule stynkyng lumpe of himself . . . – as ofte he goth ni wood for sorow; insomochel, that we wepith and weilith, strivith, cursith, and banneth, and schortly to sey, hym thinkith that he berith so hevy a birthen of hymself that he rechith never what worth of hym, so that God were plesid. And yit in al this sorrow he desireth not to unbe, for that were develles woodnes and despite unto God” (44).

robert-fludd-utriusque-cosmiIllustration from Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi (via Wikimedia Commons)

I am interested in the principle of necessity at work within this de facto mystical typology of madness. Why? Because I do not see that there can be any real theory of madness, any intellectual vision of it, that is not a knowing of its necessity. Seeing madness for what it is means seeing that it must be, its self-identical immanence, at once in itself (the space wherein the mad one, to truly be mad, must be mad, really at his wits’ end) and in relation to madness’s own end, what it is driving one to (the space where the mad one is mad for some mantic reason), in this context, hell or God. Nietzsche expresses this necessity, identifying madness as a vital condition for noetic novelty, the only way new ideas become real: “when . . . new and deviate ideas . . . again and again broke out, they did so accompanied by a dreadful attendant: almost everywhere it was madness which prepared the way for the new idea . . . Do you understand why it had to be madness which did this? Something in voice and bearing as uncanny and incalculable as the demonic moods of weather and the sea . . .? Let us go a step further: all superior men . . . had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad.”[2] Crucially, Nietzsche’s words attend without nomination to a kind of Quixotian play or indetermination between actual and virtual madness, indicating a subtle relation between madness’s noetic necessity and its nearness, a secret intersection between the power and the proximity of madness.

Such is the dynamism that is communicated between the hands and madness, for example, in the clenched and hidden hands that reveal a turning of the manual power back into the mind.[3] Likewise, Augustine’s mind reaches for a hand to hold still the heart in a vision of the real Present: “Who will hold fast the human heart so that it may stand and see how eternity, standing beyond past and future, speaks both past and future? Is my hand capable of this? Or can the hand of my mouth accomplish such a great thing through language?”[4] The hand of madness, the haptic nearness of its power, is a matter of present time. Its necessity pertains to the temporal substance that is neither chronos or aiôn but the too-immanent dilation or stretching open of the present beyond the limitations of past and future. The need to be mad is itself the nearness of the active or creative present, a must-be that belongs, not to the twin hallucinations of instant and eternity (the duplex apparitional phantasm of what is always/never passing), but to the more original and universal now that demonically exists beside them, that attends like weather from a cosmic outside and waves from dark inner seas. Madness is so intimate with time, so fiendishly present to it, that it is radically reasonable to say that madness is time. Discover this equation. It is the broken, present-at-hand yet paradoxically nevertheless and all-the-more ready means of warding off the foetid apparition, the foul stinking lump of oneself, which presses so close.

The identity of time and madness is visible in Augustine’s perpetuated remark about time’s inverted apophatic intelligibility, its being known in negative unknowing, that is, not negating that you know, but in purely negating, as if in absolute spontaneous preemption, that you do not: “What therefore is time? If no one [nemo] asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone questioning me, I do not know.”[5] The literal meaning is supreme: time is known in the negative-without-negation presence of a nemo, a not-man (ne + homo) who asks what is time, a question posed by nobody. Time is known mantically, through a positively mad intuition whose madness lies in its having no time to be about time in the form of answer to anyone’s question, in its necessarily being a knowledge that answers (to) no one.  The explanation of time to someone, by contrast, is a negatively mad ignorance, the madness of an explaining that eclipses knowledge of the explained.[6] Note the formal similarity between such knowing of time through no one’s query and the negative, solely monitory wisdom of the Socratic daimon, never named as a spiritual entity, but only as an impersonal but familiar divine sign—a prophetic presence whose singular doubling of identity is occasionally there yet never inoperative (Socrates says it always [aei] warns him) and thus deeply analogous to consciousness itself as a necessary, inevitable dilation of the momentary, so that there is, for example, time to do anything.

Time-madness identity is more clearly visible in Meher Baba’s speedy distinction between God, man, madman, and mast (divinely mad person): “Mind stopped, is God. / Mind working, is man. / Mind slowed down, is mast. / Mind working fast, is mad.”[7] Here it is the temporality of mind itself that ontically modulates between God and human on a spectrum of madness (though it should be emphasized that the ‘human’ has no genetic or historical specificity in his evolutionary cosmology; it simply means the form in which the development of consciousness is full and thus capable of God/Self-realization). The human, vis-à-vis self-conscious divinity or God, is flanked by opposed but temporally correlative forms of madness such that its own ordinary operative nature looks like only a median mind-speed, a mediocre or B-minus madness that both ensures practical functioning and displaces radical development. Doubly framed by insanity and God-intoxication, the human emerges as a utile but essentially obsolescent state of time. “Level-1 or world space,” writes Nick Land, is an anthropomorphically scaled, predominantly vision-configured, massively multi-slotted reality system that is obsolescing very rapidly. Garbage time is running out. Can what is playing you make it to level 2?”[8] Land’s term garbage time eloquently captures the complex of an expiring or evaporating state (perforce ungraspable as such from within its sanity-to-itself and perceivable only in near-madness) in which production of and concern for refuse are constitutionally fused into self-obsolescence or being-garbage. And there is every reason to keep open the comparison here between the anthropocenic ecological echo of the idea—the spectacle of homo sapiens garbaging itself to death—and the negative or tensional complicity between mystical madness and filth. Just as the cloud-dwelling contemplative goes nearly mad for sorrow over his own foetid facticity as the only and ultimate escape route out of individuated existence,[9] so is global eco-emergency a form of mass secular and semi-insane mystical sorrow expressive of deeply vexed impatience with, and desire for, intensified immediacy of the forced temporariness and disposableness, or more essentially, the necessary disposality, of human-being. Note furthermore the important psychic link between sorrow, or affective counter-volitional refusal,[10] and refuse as what is rejected and cast away. Here is found the weird paradoxical link between madness and filth, the madman’s personal affinity for dirt that is grounded in rigorous and essential indifference towards it, an indifference that may radically express or be rooted in real mental cleanliness, the perfectly careless purity of a playing soul that will not be washed, yet a non-innocent purity strangely continuous with the deathly seriousness of someone who must be clean of oneself.[11] “I forgot danger, reason, and cleanliness [says a Lovecraftian hero] in my single-minded fever to unearth the lurking fear.”[12] And filthiness too is a matter of proximate affinity: dirt itself is clean. So near-madness can be visualized as the achievement of a purifying and essential cleanliness of being-in-dirt. Or as St. Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

teodor-axentowicz-the-anchoriteTeodor Axentowicz, The Anchorite (via Wikimedia Commons)

To see the necessity of madness in the Cloud of Unknowing demands, not diffusive explaining or theorizing, but the single-mindedness of envisioning or theorying the unitary time of its fourfold appearance, intellectually entering the wholism of its must-be. In other words, seeing this madness with the radical, transcendent-immanent literalism of photography, described by Laruelle as “a hyperphenomenology of the real” that thinks the “undivided giveness of the apparition,” the givenness that “is the thing itself in-its image, rather than the image-of-the-thing”[13]—a blind but open visioning homologous to knowing when no one asks or answering via questioning-by-camera. Such seeing is itself proper to the supreme, unconquerable ordinariness of mysticism as a mode of vision that finds ultimate truth in a flattening of knower and known which inversionally releases, like a Petrine cross, the infinite and total intensive depth of reality.[14] “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me.”[15] I.e. the eternally identifying vision-in-One whose durational projection is the proverbial too long it takes to go mad looking in a mirror. This is the world where the image looks back,  a capacious no-place whose abyss sees into you and the lovely reflection loves Narcissus. Similarly, perceiving the Cloud’s madness is needing to see it all-at-once, in a way that makes it look back as the very mode of its perceiving, in the inescapability of a now that is not instantaneous but fluidly frozen or solidly dilated, just as a photograph, or the multiple sense of medieval scripture, finds different forms pressed within a unitary temporal plane. A vision of necessity that madly intersects with the necessity of vision itself and thus also sees the moment of vision within the principle of madness.

All these criteria are precisely confirmed in the Cloud’s four-form scheme, which stretches the unwitnessability of madness itself between the pure fiery dementia of the demonic brain and the supremely proximate madness of the ecstatic mystic so that what-madness-is, its substance, is prismatically refracted across the space between human and demon, the entities who are photographically close, one to the other, in each definition of madness the text provides. This proximity is itself co-substantial with time, insofar that demon, as fallen angel, is simultaneously what negatively precedes and preconditions human and what perpetually strives to retard its afterlife towards chronic sub-eternity or damnation—a striving that is formally inseparable from and providentially bound to what it inverts: spiritual aspiration towards the eternal present.[16] The near-madness of existential mystical sorrow, dangerously shadowed by the rigorous volitional logic of the desire “to unbe . . . that [is] develles woodnes and despite unto God,” is the perfection or more properly apotheosis, of this proximity, its extremest realization that at once fulfills and fatally exceeds all other instances of it in the moment of becoming-divine. It is the anagogy or being raised up of the four senses of madness, the one that realizes and shows the necessity of their identity. Read this way, the real mystic is revealed to be, not one of several distinctions, but the truly immanent human as a madly inverted experientia crucis, a heretic body constituting—and needing to constitute as its only way out of itself—the upside down crucifixion of time. Not an essence, but a unitary hybrid never once and now no longer human, a friendly no-one or ‘nameless wild one’[17] for whom near-madness is not a flirtation or perilous approach of the mind towards its loss, but the putting-to-use or wielding of the very necessity of time as an operational nearness, the turning of time into a virtue or power by letting it fall to a never-ending halt. “Live more and more in the Present, which is ever beautiful, and stretches away beyond the limits of the past and the future.”[18] This near- madness—inverted name for intimacy with true, singular sanity—is the human becoming capable of being mad. Hanging in effortless liberatory flight, its body stretched across the intersection of the evolutionary or human need to ‘become what you are’ and the chaotic or demonic ‘desire to be everything’, this weirdly inevitable creature here touches all at once the four temporal dimensions of its loved torment. From this perspective what matters is not what each intellectually ‘means’, but the immediate and as-if neutral significance of their time-structure.

crucifixion-of-timeAuthor’s illustration of the Crucifixion of Time

At the right hand: the non-stop continuity that must end of demon-tormenting contemplation, that is, allegorical time, time whose truth lies in signifying other than it is. At the left hand, the instantaneous once-and-forever singular moment of looking through the devil’s nostril, that is, literal time, time whose truth lies in perfect and unique irrevocability. At the head: the illusory false present of perverse, seeing-what-you-do-not-have aesthetic imagination, that is, tropological time, time whose truth lies in the projection of what one must do/become. At the feet: the let it be now of mystical impatience, refusal of every this for the real Present, that is, anagogical time, time whose truth lies in absolutely untimely suspension—heels kicking at everything.

The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that only frees one more and more from being a subject of needs. Near-madness is the only alternative for staying close to being what one must.

On the other hand, Firdawsi reports in the Book of Kings that the followers of Mazdak, the heretical 6th-century Persian wise man, “were planted there head down, with their feet in the air, like trees….If you have any sense, [he says] you will not follow Mazdak’s way.”

—Nicola Masciandaro

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nicola-masciandaro

Nicola Masciandaro is Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY) and a specialist in medieval literature. His non-pseudonymous works include The Voice of the Hammer (Notre Dame), Sufficient Unto the Day (Schism), and Floating Tomb (Mimesis).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Patrick J. Gallacher (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1997). References are to chapter number.
  2. Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, trans. Maudemaire Clark and Brian Leiter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), §14.
  3. For artistic examples, see Sander L. Gilman, Seeing the Insane (New York: Wiley, 1982), chapter 3.
  4. “Quis tenebit cor hominis, ut stet et videat, quomodo stans dictet futura et praeterita tempora nec futura nec praeterita aeternitas? Numquid manus mea valet hoc aut manus oris mei per loquellas agit tam grandem rem?” (Augustine, Confessions [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1951], 11.11).
  5. “Quid est ergo tempus? Si nemo ex me quaerat, scio; si quaerenti explicare velim, nescio” (Augustine, Confessions, 11.14).
  6. Note how the logic identically applies to madness as explanation for all-too-intuited horror: “madness . . . was the explanation spontaneously adopted by everybody so far as spoken utterance was concerned; though I will not be so naïve as to deny that each of us may have harboured wild guesses which sanity forbade him to formulate completely” (H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness, [New York: Modern Library, 2005), 38). That time itself a horror is a maddening horror is of course central principal of this work: “the labyrinth of rock and masonry that clawed up corpse-like through the eternal ice . . . we felt that we had established an unprecedented and almost blasphemous link with forgotten aeons normally closed to our species . . . we were wandering amidst a death which had reigned at least 500, 000 years, and in all probability even longer . . . The pictorial bands . . . had an artistic force that moved us profoundly notwithstanding the intervening gulf of vast geologic periods. Their method of design . . . embodied an analytical psychology beyond that of any known race of antiquity” (46-56).
  7. The Wayfarers, 19.
  8. Nick Land, “Meltdown,” in Fanged Noumena, eds. Robin Mackay & Ray Brassier (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 456.
  9. Cf. Hegel’s understanding of the necessity of madness (for development of higher rationality) as expression of contradiction in individuated being – “The necessity of madness, that is, the necessity of going through the stage of madness, is due to the fact that ‘the soul is already in itself the contradiction of being an individual, a singular, and yet at the same time immediately identical with the universal natural soul, with its substance’ (Enz. 164, 125)” (Ferit Güven, Madness and Death in Philosophy [Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005], 37) – and Levinas’s definition of the grounds of escape: “escape is the need to get out of oneself, that is, to break that most radical and unalterably binding of chains, the fact that the I [moi] is oneself [soi-même]. . . . It is being itself or the ‘one-self’ from which escape flees, and in no wise being’s limitation. In escape the I flees itself, not in opposition to the infinity of what it is not or of what it will not become, but rather due to the very fact that it is or that it becomes” (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape, trans. Bettina Bergo [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003], 55). Rosmini comments on Hegel: “What reason could we find for this whim that being would have to negate itself, to refuse to recognize itself, to make this mad attempt to annihilate itself?” (Saggio storico-critico sulle categorie e la dialettica). See also Nicola Masciandaro, “The Sorrow of Being” Qui Parle 19 (2010): 9-35 and “Eros as Cosmic Sorrow: Locating the Limits of Difference in Julian of Norwich’s Divine Shewings and The Cloud of Unknowing,” Mystics Quarterly 35 (2009): 59-103.
  10. “[C]um . . . dissentimus ab eo quod nolentibus accidit, talis voluntas tristitia est” (Augustine, De civitate Dei, 14.6, ed. Bernard Dombart and Alphonse Kalb, 5th ed. [Stuttgart: Teubner, 1981]) [sorrow is the will’s disagreement with something that happened against our will].
  11. “From general standards of society, religion, health, morality and so forth, cleanliness of body and mind are indispensable. It is, however, very easy to keep the body clean; but cleanliness of mind is very difficult indeed. The more one gets attached to body cleanliness for merely selfish reasons, the less are the chances of having a clean mind. If, however, one is given up wholly to mental cleanliness, which means becoming free from low, selfish, impure desires and thoughts of lust, greed, anger, backbiting, etc., the less is one’s mind attached to bodily needs and bodily cleanliness. All this applies to ordinary persons. Now of the five types—God-merged, God-intoxicated, God-absorbed, God-communed and God-mad—the God-absorbed and God-communed can more or less keep their bodies clean. Their minds are almost automatically clean due to their being absorbed in God, or in communion with God. But the God-mad, the God-intoxicated and the God-merged all invariably have dirty bodies, live in dirty surroundings, and may have dirty physical habits. A God-mad has a clean, pure mind. A God-intoxicated has a mind, but no thoughts, for his mind is simply enjoying the intoxicated state. A God-merged has no mind—he is fully merged in God. So in these three cases their mental cleanliness and purity cannot be questioned. Now why should their bodies and environments be dirty? You will find that the majority of ordinary mad people have very little consciousness of their bodies. So if an ordinary mind, when mad, does not pay attention to bodily cleanliness, then the three types of God men, who unconsciously or consciously know all the universe to be zero, body to be a shadow, and whose minds are absolutely unattached to the body, cannot be expected to keep their bodies and surroundings clean. When the mind does not pay attention to the body, the body, naturally, automatically survives and looks after itself. Now because of a kind of universal working on the gross plane, a sort of automatic attraction takes place, which causes a man who is indifferent to cleanliness to be attracted to place himself in dirty surroundings. He does not purposely choose an unclean place, but tends to gravitate towards it, for he is himself quite indifferent either to cleanliness or to dirt on the physical plane. For those who are God-mad, God-intoxicated, or God-merged, this dirtiness does not affect their health, because the mind is not attached to the body. For these souls, good or bad, cleanliness or dirt, a palace or a hut, a spotless avenue or a filthy gutter are all the same, and they are driven into any of these places according to circumstance. It is natural for a mast to have a dirty body, and it is natural for him to be driven to dirty surroundings; but if the devotee of a mast happens to give him comfort and cleanliness, he takes it because it is forced on him—but he is quite indifferent to it” (Meher Baba, Wayfarers, 33-4).
  12. H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear,” in The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Penguin, 2004), 75.
  13. François Laruelle, The Concept of Non-Photographyi, trans. Robin Mackay (London/New York: Urbanomic/Sequence, 2011), 95.
  14. “They hanged him this way and he began to speak. ‘Learn ye the mystery of all nature, and the beginning of all things, what it was. For the first man, whose race I bear in mine appearance (or, of the race of whom I bear the likeness), fell (was borne) head downwards, and showed forth a manner of birth such as was not heretofore: for it was dead, having no motion. He, then, being pulled down—who also cast his first state down upon the earth—established this whole disposition of all things, being hanged up an image of the creation wherein he made the things of the right hand into left hand and the left hand into right hand, and changed about all the marks of their nature, so that he thought those things that were not fair to be fair, and those that were in truth evil, to be good. Concerning which the Lord saith in a mystery: Unless ye make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above as those below, and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom. This thought, therefore, have I declared unto you; and the figure wherein ye now see me hanging is the representation of that man that first came unto birth’” (Acts of Peter).
  15. Meister Eckhart, Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 57.
  16. The inversion is precise in Dante’s representation of hell-dwellers as permanently blind to the present, as Farinata explains in Inferno 10.100-8. Infernal knowledge advances only towards a frozen chromos, pure archivicity: “tutta morta / fia nostra conoscienza da quell punto / che del future fia chiusa la porta” (Inf 10.106-8) [all our knowledge will be dead from that moment when the door of the future shall be closed]. Cf. worry as a displacement from the present that demands absolute release: “Worry is a necessary resultant of attachment to the past or to the anticipated future, and it always persists in some form or other until the mind is completely detached from everything” (Meher Baba, Discourses, 3.122).
  17. “One bright Sunday, as he was sitting withdrawn and deep in thought, there came to him in the calmness of his mind the figure of a rational being who was sophisticated in speech but inexperienced in deeds and who overflowed with rich ostentation. He began speaking to the figure thus: Where do you come from? It said: I never came from anywhere. He said: Tell me, what are you? It said: I am nothing. He said: What do you want? It answered and said: I want nothing. And he said: This is very strange. Tell me, what is your name? It said: I am called nameless wild one. The disciple said: You are well named ‘the wild one’ because your words and answers are completely wild. Now tell me something I shall ask you. Where does your wisdom take you? It said: to unrestrained liberty (Henry of Suso, The Little Book of Truth, Chapter 6, cited from Henry Suso: The Exemplar, with Two German Sermons, ed. and trans. Frank Tobin [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1989], 326). A hyper-negative liberty that must be distinguished from the deferred nothing-but-not-yet offered by nihilism: “That one must lose sight of names and nouns does not suggest that one must turn away from the world, which predication does serve to organize. The Nameless Wild One merely turns from this world when letting go the conventional delusion that this one is the only world possible (”Nameless Wild One: The Ethics of Anonymous Subjectivity – Medieval and Modern,” Common Knowledge 12 [2006]: 219-251).
  18. Meher Baba, The Everything and the Nothing [Beacon Hill, Australia: Meher House Publication, 1963], no. 37.
Dec 012016
 

capture

Much work at NC goes unheralded. Our Senior Editor Fernando Sdrigotti gets his name on hardly any of the contributions he makes to the magazine, yet he is indefatigable and inspired in his curatorial duties. At the Top of the Page this month we are featuring a little of Fernando’s own work (essay and fiction) but also work by several of the wonderful writers he has brought to the magazine, writers like Jeremy Brunger (now on the masthead himself), Tomoé Hill, Chris Campanioni, Martin Dean, and Agri Ismaïl. There are many others, but these must stand for the rest.

Nov 262016
 

Michaelangelo torment-of-st-anthonyMichelangelo, The Torment of St. Anthony (via Wikimedia Commons)

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The last issue of Volume 7, the end of the 7th year — we’re calling it the Hallucination Edition because, well, you’ll see; it’s a bit twisty, startling, destabilizing and hallucinatory. I’ve always been interested in the madness/mysticism nexus (R. D. Laing and Carlos Castaneda were my spirit guides). It pops up in my novels especially: Hendrick N.’s mad conversation with his Iroquois torturer in The Life and Times of Captain N. (“Becoming a savage is like entering a swarming madness. But it might redeem you.”) and the heroine’s mysterious and alarming (hallucinatory) transformation into a bear in Elle. And I was dipping into The Cloud of Unknowing the other day when I happened to discover the brilliant scholar and writer Nicola Masciandaro. I read some of his things on Academia, then contacted him, and Lo!, he had a piece on madness, mystical knowledge, and The Cloud of Unknowing pristine and unpublished. If this was not the Forces of the Universe aligning, I don’t know what is. But it’s also one of those dreamy confluences, hallucinatory in itself. Like the world and my mind are talking with my knowing it.

The necessity of being at one’s wits’ end is a pure necessity, a necessity without object, and thus a necessity that only frees one more and more from being a subject of needs. Near-madness is the only alternative for staying close to being what one must. —Nicola Masciandaro

nicola-masciandaroNicola Masciandaro

hallucineJ. Karl Bogartte: Movement Is The Antechamber Of Hallucination 32” x 40” 28.3.2016

Also we have these images and texts, both swirling and surreal, one of the images actually called The Antechamber of Hallucination, from J. Karl Bogartte, lunar, lapidary, and loony (surrealism marks the line between madness, art and wisdom).

An intimacy of longing dwells in us like words that have no meaning, but animal cries, torn linen, a loving defiance… —J. Karl Bogartte

elbogoJ. Karl Bogartte

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_croppedS. D. Chrostowska

S. D. Chrostowska returns to our pages with a story called “Opferlingen” — a nightmare otherworldy vision of obscene rites of kingship and power.

Everything is permitted. There are no rules, no stroke is too indecent. All of it is equally obscene. The Opferlingen are unusually strict in everyday sexual mores. To me the prince might be a living relic, a martyr worthy of public veneration, but he is subject to treatment normally beneath the dignity of his “subjects.” Let me be clear: this is no carnival, with merriment and overturned hierarchies, presided over by the Prince of Fools. They are acting out the lowest human urges—possibly to exorcize them, but without a doubt to make a political point that still remains obscure. — S. D. Chrostowska

Dawn PromislowDawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow’s story “Cat” — all too brief — gives us a vision of Florence, an intensely concentrated sculptor working over his metal, striking sparks, and a gray cat winding through the shadows.

And everywhere you look there are black and grey metal forms that are sculptures, on old wooden tables and on worn wooden shelves, at every height and covering every piece of wall and space. Some are just shapes: spirals and curves, or angular and sharp. But some are animals, or people, metalled. They’ve been melted and smelted and reworked, forged and reforged, into these metalled, living creatures. —Dawn Promislow

David Smooke with a tiny birdcageComposer David Smooke

Our intrepid contributor Carolyn Ogburn interviews composer David Smooke, the man famous for performing his own works for the miniature piano.

I mean, I grew up a punk and goth, right? So…yeah…Just so you know, I’m kind of looking that way because have a toy piano sitting right there, and I keep looking at it…—David Smooke

karen-mulhallen-wearing-indian-dress-1996Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen grew up in a brilliant, artistic, cultured, writerly family in Woodstock, Ontario, a gilded place. But her mother taught her to make her own stylish clothes; she grew up with a sense of style, taste, and fashion at her fingertips. In this issue, we have a hybrid essay, part memoir, part catalogue, and part exploration of fashion in fiction (there is also a great collection of personal photos).

But when I got my first real job, as a teacher in a university, my mother spent months with me going to the fabric mills, just east of Kitchener-Waterloo, and then making me suits and dresses, some from elaborate Vogue patterns. Was this because I was gainfully employed and needed to present a professional appearance, or was it because I became beautiful for the first time since I was a little girl? Now I could be a brooch on my mother’s lapel. Or, as Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own remarked, women are the looking glasses who enlarge men at twice their size. —Karen Mulhallen

elsa-crossElsa Cross

In Numero Cinco, our Mexician lit series, we’re featuring poems by the brilliant Elsa Cross, translated by Anamaría Crowe Serrano. Not only that, but our Mexico contributor, Dylan Brennan, conducts a wide-ranging interview with the translator.

They are a white shadow
innocence in the yellow phrases
…………..…………..…………..……….of a dying man
the catastrophe of the voice

—Elsa Cross, translated Anamaría Crowe Serrano

john_kaagJohn Kaag

Our splendid new production editor Melissa Considine Beck has transferred her prodigious talents to book reviewing, this time giving us the lowdown on John Kaag’s philosophical memoir, his encounter with an almost forgotten library, 10.000 books in an unheated New England stone house.

Kaag stumbles upon an opportunity to heal his soul in the form of West Wood’s stone library which, upon entering, he discovers is home to more than 10,000 books. The books that Kaag finds inside this unlocked and unheated building, especially the number of first editions, are the stuff of dreams for any bibliophile. Among the rodent droppings, porcupines, termites, various other bugs and dust Kaag finds Decartes’ Discourse on Method–first edition from 1649, Thomas Hobbes’s Levithan-first edition from 1651, the complete, leather-bound volumes of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government from 1690, Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft from 1781, Emerson’s Letters and Social Aims–first edition, 1875 and on and on. To think that this horde of precious and irreplaceable books was sitting in the woods less than 2 hours away from my home in New England sends chills down my spine. —Melissa Considine Beck

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

wiinkler-picDonald Winkler

Donald Winkler has translated a fascinating historical poem by the great French-Canadian poet, Pierre Nepveu, three-time winner of the Governor-General’s Award for poetry and nonfiction.

Early morning, scarred fire, noble bones, woodland song, men’s and women’s voices among the trees. I am the dust of ages, whirlwind of the deeps, escapee from the first caves. I tremble at being what I am, do you hear me, woman of the woods, of wool woven under the lampshade and the trellis of blood that shivers in the window? —Pierre Nepveu, translated by Donald Winkler

nepveu-picPierre Nepveu

 

bennets1Rauan Klassnik & Russell Bennetts

This is an amazing first: dual or dueling poets, collaborative or conspiratorial poems, mad, surreal, comical, by Rauan Klassnik and Russell Bennetts.

salted chocolate
orange  tea, i ha sailed
the trembling, blow-meat seas. And I have blue trousers sports ones on
last night’s pizza scattered for my mouse

—Klassnik & Bennetts

ducornet01_bodyRikki Ducornet

Rikki Ducornet wrote me shortly after the news came out that Leonard Cohen had died. She said she’d written a poem “as big as a small truck” that seemed to have echoes and rumours of Cohen through it, as if she were dreaming out her mourning onto the page. I wrote back: “Send small truck.” (This is how the editorial work at NC gets done.)

They come together
in the sudden rain
beneath a sky unhinged.
Their losses sweeping down
veiling, unveiling their faces.

She says:  I come to you
as my father leans into his departure.
We have a hour.  An hour, only.

—Rikki Ducornet

cassidy-mcfadzeanCassidy McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean is a Canadian poet, discovered and solicited for us by our new poetry co-editor Susan Gillis.

A woven chain around

his neck, secures the unicorn
to a wooden pen, seated therein
amidst white irises and Madonna

lilies, carnations and clove,
orchids and bistorts, dragonflies
dashing over the wallflowers

and white thistle, the cipher’s
tasseled cord hanging from a tree,
bearing its riddle mysteriously.

—Cassidy McFadzean

eamonn-sheehy-use-on-top-450pxEamonn Sheehy

Eamonn Sheehy I met on Twitter. I am increasingly surprised at how much you can intuit from a couple of 140-character texts. You can guess tilt, torque, and taste. We moved from tweeting, to DMs, to emails, and suddenly I had these excerpts from his memoir-in-progress for our Irish series Uimhir a Cúig.

The ferret – the hot steel of nature. Jumping from his master’s hand onto the grass with a bounce, he is off at speed towards the rabbit burrows. A high pitched curling. An unnatural sound. It was the first time I heard a rabbit scream. —Eamonn Sheehy

hilda-raz2-500pxHilda Raz

And from Susan Aizenberg, the American side of out dual or dueling poetry editors (collaborative and conspiratorial), poems from Hilda Raz.

Age is an evolution – or devolution – of lust.
To be lost in revolt, as one must be growing up
invites erotics into the palace of the family.
Air spiked with ecstasy. We all know it.
So voluble in bed might signify lust
or politics, depending on whether
you live in a hovel, where the velocity
of wildlife, certainly a mouse, about its vital business
shadows the movements of governments…

—Hilda Raz

 

henry-greenHenry Green

We have a new reviewer starting out this issue (well, two, counting Melissa Considine Beck).  Dorian Stuber was suggested by Joe Schreiber, and we are very glad he spoke up. This is a terrific read and a great introduction to the work of Henry Green.

Young Henry was fascinated by Poole, even though the man did not like Green’s mother and spoke badly about her to the boy. (The family legend is that he never forgave her for making him bowl sugar beets across the lawn for her to shoot at.) Green, who adored his mother though he seldom saw her, was torn apart by these calumnies yet unwilling to repudiate the one who made them. —Dorian Stuber

green_loving_2048x2048

ratika-kapurRatika Kapur

And from Natalia Sarkissian, somewhere in Italy, we have a review of Ratika Kapur’s trans-cultural novel The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma.

One of her tools toward creating Mrs. Sharma’s particular, vivid voice, is to flavor Mrs. Sharma’s speech with genteel titles—bhaisahib, mummyji, papaji, Vineetji—drawing the reader into an intimate space. Another is to refer to places and things with acronyms without giving explanations—SDA, IIT, BeD—treating the reader as an insider, a friend, a confessor. But it is the style of the sentences themselves—the breathy, delicious sentences, the declarations that the reader knows are rationalizations—that render Kapur’s The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma with its unreliable narrator truly memorable. —Natalia Sarkissian

private-life

And there is, gasp! MORE! (At my wit’s end. I dunno, being the editor here really is hallucinatory, schizoid, and surreal, also kind of fun.)

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Nov 142016
 

laura-thompson Picture: Roger Wyman

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. —Laura Michele Diener

the-six

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters
Laura Thompson
St. Martin’s Press, 2015
$29.99, 400 pages

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I.
Thanks to Tolstoy, we know all about happy and unhappy families, and why unhappy families are by far the most interesting. Few families experienced quite such unique interesting incarnations of unhappiness as the Mad Mad Mitfords, the six sisters and one brother whose fates spanned the ideological spectrum of the twentieth century, and whose lives read like great English novels, except they actually wrote the novels, or they were friends with the novelists. Unity Valkyrie, the sister who adored Hitler, was conceived in the town of Swastika, South Africa. What writer could have invented a more perfect irony? As Laura Thompson, author of The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters, declares, “Never again will there be six such girls, raised in such a way, at such a time.” And what times they were, those bright young years between the wars, before the world caught wholly afire. Nancy Mitford, the oldest of the sisters, although by no means the only authoress, wrote about the fictional Radlett family in her bestselling novel The Pursuit of Love, that, “they lived in a world of superlatives.” And rarely was it more clear that she found inspiration in her blood kin.

Their charm was collective as well as singular. Men from John Betjeman to Winston Churchill fell in love with one or the other of them or more likely, the whole lot of them, brother Tom included. After reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy wrote to Evelyn Waugh: “So true to life being in love with a whole family, it has happened in mine.” Waugh himself was a lifelong devotee of the Mitfordian charm. He fell in love with Diana for a time but admired Nancy far more. Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love were both published in 1945, the year the war ended, and when great families like the fictional Flytes and the real Mitfords wondered where they fit into the new order. Both novels contain a melancholic nostalgia, but Nancy approaches her’s with out-and-out humor and what Thompson terms “a will to joy” that delighted a war-weary English audience.

Thompson identifies herself as a longtime admirer of Nancy Mitford. She has written a biography of her alone, Life in a Cold Climate (2003). “When I first read her, aged about thirteen, I could scarcely believe (so weighted down was I with Eliot and Hardy) that one was actually allowed this kind of pleasure, that literature could be souffle-light as well as monolithic, and still hold monolithic truths.” It is this tone of truth, delivered with a light and gracious hand that Thompson strives to imitate in The Six. She sparkles, delights, and barbs in the voice of Nancy. In Nancy’s classic style, Thompson peppers her book with epigrammatic gems:

“Feminism notwithstanding—female cleverness is still most acceptable when it spouts orthodoxies, or in some way conforms to a type.”

And then there’s that sharp Mitford prickle: “Few are the women who do not relish Nancy (her sisters were among the exceptions, but that’s another story).”

And a choice amount of dry observations:

“She [Nancy] was not especially good at men. In truth all her sisters (but especially Diana and Deborah) were better at handling men than Nancy. When the men in question include Adolf Hitler, one might justifiably say that this was not a gift worth having.”

And just as Nancy could unexpectedly lapse towards the lyrical, Thompson trills out a lovely turn of phrase. She describes the fortune of Diana’s first husband, Brian Guinness (of the brewery), as “the kind of wealth that shrugs off slumps and depressions, like coats falling from one’s shoulders.” Later she refers to “the strange echoing poetry of the Times social pages.”

Nancy Mitford in 1931Nancy Mitford, 1931

In addition to Life in a Cold Climate, Thompson has previously written a biography of Agatha Christie—Agatha Christie: An English Mystery (2007)—and a biography of the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 may or may not have attempted to murder his wife before he may or may not have committed suicide—A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan (2014). Her first book, the history of greyhound racing in England, won the Somerset Maugham Award. She is clearly fascinated with the eccentric, the wealthy, and the lovely (and, why wouldn’t one be? one of her genteel subjects might easily declaim). And while being healthily critical of class, she waxes nostalgic for the confident cleverness that sustained the Mitfords as they sailed through the grimmest years of the last century, writing, fighting, and speaking exactly as they pleased without apology.

Thompson attempts to describe the particularly Mitfordian way of stringing words together as “part-childish, part-posh, part-1920’s exaggeration . . . yet what makes it durable is the edge of perceptiveness, the nail on the head quality.” Not to mention an insistent British cheerfulness coupled with a blithe self-confidence. As Nancy wrote reassuringly to Jessica, worried about her daughter on holiday in Mexico, “People like us are never killed in earthquakes.”

Although Nancy’s writing became the most celebrated, all the siblings practiced wordsmithery. As children, they remoulded the English language into something quite thoroughly Mitfordian. Like the Brontës, the sibling pairs invented their own languages—“Boudledidge” and ”“Honnish”—and created an increasingly ludicrous string of nicknames: “Muv and Farve” (Mother and Father), “Boud” (Unity and Jessica), “Honk (Diana), and Stubby (Deborah).

II.

Without doubt the Mitford girls were born into immense privilege. Their family was of fine Saxon stock, dating back to pre-Conquest days. Although Nancy famously described their childhood home as unheated and uncomfortable, the girls occupied a cozy space right in the center of England’s interconnected maze of peerage. They possessed all the connections they would ever need to marry men like their father, David, Lord Redesdale, the first cousin of Clementine Churchill’s cousin (and if rumor was to be believed, potentially her half-brother.) Like other men of his class, he exercised his noblesse oblige in the classic manner, chairing charity committees and decrying the Labour Party in Parliament. In his spare time, he mismanaged his dwindling fortune and prospected for gold whenever he needed spare cash. His daughters later insisted they never had any money, and Nancy “came out” as a debutante wearing a homemade dress at a ball in her living room, with her aging uncles as dancing partners. But of course, Thompson remarks, “as poverty went, it was relative.”

Over the next ten years, three more sisters debuted into society, and the world darkened significantly. When the rumbling currents of Fascism and Communism exploded, the sisters gravitated to all ends of the political spectrum. Thompson pinpoints 1932, the year of Unity’s debut, as the moment when the charmed lives of the Mitfords all went to pieces, the year when Diana, sedately married to the charming if somewhat mousey Lord Brian Guinness, met the odious Lord Oswald, and for better or for worse (the reader can decide, but it’s pretty obvious where Thompson’s sympathies lie) hitched her glorious fortunes to his Fascist wagon. In 1932, Mosley was apparently walking sex, Flynn and Fairbanks combined, and had mesmerized a group of disenfranchised working-class men into believing that Fascism was the cure for a Depression-era Britain. An admirer of Mussolini and Hitler, he had begun the New Party, which then became the British Union of Fascists. His appeal to the unemployed working class was somewhat inexplicable: he dripped money, having married one of the daughters of the immensely wealthy Lord Curzon, all the while blithely sleeping with the other two, their step-mother, along with a dizzy array of chorus girls and peeresses. Despite, or perhaps because of his supreme self-confidence, Diana left her incredibly nice husband and his immense fortune, and set herself up in a little Eaton Square house near Oswald, faster than you could whistle “Lili Marlene.” “From that moment the Mitford family began to fall apart,” Thompson writes, “Unity and Jessica’s actions would be influenced by Diana’s nonpareil act of rebellion.” By the following year, the Black Shirts were promising change and threatening violence, and Diana’s adoration of Mosley led her to Berlin. After the unexpected death of his first wife, Diana and Oswald married in Berlin in 1936, with a begrudging Adolf Hitler by their side (apparently he too nursed a crush on the ethereal Diana.)

Diana Mitford, 1932

To research The Six, Laura Thompson spent many dreamlike hours in the company of an aging Diana (who died in 2003), and experienced firsthand that heady charm that somehow captivated some of the brightest, the best, and the evilest men and women of her age. She struggles to reconcile that utterly gracious soul of her acquaintance with the same Lady Mosley who elegantly heiled Hitler in old photographs. There must have been something to this woman who counted Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington among her closest friends, and it must have been more than beauty (although golly gosh, she was beautiful, with a glamor that only existed between the wars, the kind only captured by black-and-white celluloid. On aesthetic grounds alone, it’s not hard to see why Nancy’s great friend Evelyn Waugh defected to Diana’s side for a few pre-Mosley years, dedicating Vile Bodies to her and adding in her husband Brian Guinness for form’s sake. “She seems to me the one encouraging figure in this generation,” Waugh wrote besottedly in 1929. Like the rest of his Bright Young generation, he was in line for a great deal of disillusionment.

Diana is a little too clearly Thompson’s favorite Mitford sister, and the number of comparisons she makes between Diana and fine sculpture verges on the excessive, (well-defined cheekbones don’t exactly outweigh a vacuum of human compassion), but Thompson does sincerely investigate her moral complexity. In fact, it is a credit to her biographical endeavor that she doesn’t dismiss Diana out of hand, but rather tries to sift through her paradoxes and view them in the context of her age. For generations, the English upper classes had admired all things Teutonic. Their paternal grandfather had been on intimate terms with Wagner, just as their father had been fast friends with his son Siegfried, hence Unity’s middle name of Valkyrie. Others wanted to simply avoid war at all costs. Even Nancy, the staunch patriot of the family, wrote after the war that everyone had gone to the German embassy in London. “They deny it now, of course.” Yet Thompson returns to the same question: “How, one wonders, did the Mitford love of laughter not cause her to fall about at the sight of Mosley in his black and his boots? Similarly—how could she have watched Hitler, screaming his nonsense at full volume, without the family sense of the ridiculous kicking in?”

In discussions of the sisters, Diana and her younger sister Unity get lumped together as the two who were pals with Hitler, but whereas Diana flirted with evil, Unity muddled merrily into its center. Thompson tackles the unexplainable Unity Valkryie, the artless, clumsy, Mitford giantess, who trounced guilelessly into Hitler’s affections, such as they were. At the very least her milkmaid good looks and childish prattling entertained him, so that before 1939, they met about 140 times, at tea parties, opera boxes, embassy balls, and other extraordinarily civilized settings. For all their Germanophilia, her family was baffled by increasingly unstable behavior and responded in their characteristically unhelpful ways. Her vile brother-in-law Lord Mosley referred to her as “stage-struck.” Nancy sent her mocking poems: “Call me early Goering dear/For I’m to be the Queen of the May.” Her alarmed mother tried to distract her with a cruise. Nothing changed, and Unity attended the Olympic games in Berlin alongside the Goebbelses, with whom she had become fast friends.

Thompson refers to her as an innocent, unstable, and generally mad young woman who fell in with the wrong (really the most absolutely wrong possible) crowd. “Perhaps they found the evil in her, as well as the madness.” Had she been born today would no doubt have been diagnosed on one or the other end of a spectrum and heavily medicated. When England declared war with Germany, she shot herself with a Walthur pistol. To her family’s guilty regret, the bullet left her alive but also incontinent and even more childlike (she was said to have the mental age of ten). With “something resembling human emotion,” Hitler returned her to the care of her mother in England, where she chattered away to kindly bewildered strangers about how Adolf would be the perfect name for the eldest of the ten children she knew she would have one day, and bestowed all the lively affection she used to reserve for Hitler on farm animals. “Oh, Boud, I have a Goat!” she wrote ecstatically to her Communist sister Jessica living in America. “In a strange way she had been the happiest of the sisters,” Thompson surmised. “Yet she had not a clue as to how to live.” She died in 1948 at the age of thirty-four from meningitis caused from the bullet wound.

unity-hitlerUnity Mitford and Adolf Hitler, 1936

Unity and Diana defy easy explanation. It’s too easy to dismiss them as monstrous, without plumbing why they chose to spend their days among monsters. “The times in which this pair lived were terrifying: most people crossed their fingers, shut their eyes and prayed for it all to be over. For reasons that can never quite be explained, these aristocratic young women embraced it instead.” Perhaps with the cushions of youth, family, beauty, and money, they thought they had nothing to lose. Unity may never have understood what was at stake, and Diana (no one could call her cowardly) was always willing to risk it. “I can’t regret it,” she freely admitted in 1989. She was referring to her friendship with Hitler but could have meant the rest of it too—the love affair with Mosley, the break with propriety, and even the vitriol that awaited her in her home country.

After Britain declared war on German, the family fortunes shifted to a new set of extremes. Back in England, Diana and Oswald Moseley spent the war in prison as collaborators. Serves her right. She recalled it as an incredibly happy interlude, as for the first and only time in their marriage her husband was entirely faithful. And for a moment, you feel sympathy for this extraordinary woman and the cost of her choices. Family feeling was running high against her, as the other Mitfords did their bit for the war effort and then some. Tom, the inglorious but beloved Mitford brother, fought first on the North African front and then in Burma, where he died from a bullet wound in 1945. Pamela’s first husband, Esmond Romilly, serving as a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, was shot down somewhere over the North Sea in 1941. Nancy, experiencing the terror of the Blitz firsthand in London, went so far as to suggest to her friends in the Foreign Office that Diana was “an extremely dangerous person.” She had been throwing herself into war work since 1939, when she traveled to France to help Spanish refugees, and then back in England, where she operated a first aid post, drove an ambulance, and opened her home to Polish Jewish refugees, to the outrage of her mother (Hitler was her favorite son-in-law, Nancy always quipped). She also informed on her sister Pamela, whom she suspected of Fascist tendencies. Intriguingly, neither Jessica nor Nancy ever blamed Unity for her bizarre adulation of the Führer and the three shared gossipy loving letters throughout the war years.

III.

With their vastly different politics and their lifelong rivalry, Nancy and Diana act as the twin poles of The Six. Yet, as Mitford sisters go, it’s hard to resist the obviously spunky Jessica, who ran off during her debutante season to fight with the Spanish Guerrillas, and then married a Jewish lawyer in San Francisco, while her sisters were enjoying tea in Munich with Hitler. She later became deeply involved in the Civil Rights Congress, campaigned to legalize abortion, and basically fell on the right side of every modern feminist cauJese. She makes Lady Sybil Grantham look like a Tory living comfortably in Sloane Square. Yet Thompson cuts Jessica no breaks, portraying her as an extremist, just “more acceptable to history than that of her sisters. Such is the luck of the left.” She spends almost no time on Jessica’s acclaimed investigative journalism, including The American Way of Death, an expose of the money-grubbing funeral industry.

Jessica MitfordJessica Mitford

Poor old Pamela gets the least amount of space, but she appears less mysterious and controversial than her colorful sisters, spending the bulk of her adult life raising chickens and dairy cows, although apparently she innovated legendary technologies in the field of animal husbandry. Of Pamela, Thompson writes, “She had the unignorable presence of one of her grandfather’s shire horses.” Her rebellion may have been quieter. After her divorce from scientist Derek Jackson (himself a Fascist, but with the good grace to keep his beliefs to himself), she lived discreetly with a Giuditta Tommasi, and according to Jessica, “became a you-know-what-bian.” Like all her siblings except for Nancy and Jessica, she lunched with Hitler before the war, but was chiefly impressed by the chicken served.

The youngest sister, Deborah, came of age while her sisters were already making headlines on either side of the Atlantic. She rebelled against her mad mad family by embracing utter normalcy, at least for her rarified context. Two weeks into her successful debut season, she met her husband, a good Cambridge man, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. When fate kindly swept him aside and made her Duchess, she resolutely managed her estates, holding up under the impositions of death duties and Labour politics. Despite her sex appeal, “the divine Debo,” as the press nicknamed her, stuck by her first sweetheart till death did them part. Very unMitfdorian, according to the sisters’ general self-assessment. “Debo’s absolutely pure,” Nancy reminded Diana, who had proclaimed, “We’re all adulterers and adulteresses.” While she spent literally three days at school, which she later recalled with self-deprecating horror (“no dog, no pony, no Nanny!”), she clearly inherited her fair share of family wit, publishing her own well-received chatty memoir, Wait for Me! (2010). Her death in 2014 was received with the kind of national outpouring of nostalgia reserved for the Queen Mum.

IV.

What with Unity’s antics, Diana and Lord Mosley’s unrepentant Fascism, and Lady Redesdale’s cheerful Teutonism, the Mitford’s were no one’s favorite family by the end of the war, and a prime example of why the average Brit wanted to chuck the class system down the chute along with the rationed coal. Hence the importance Thompson ascribes to the The Pursuit of Love in the creation of the Mitford myth: “Just as Diana led the troops into the darkness of battle by her defection to the Fascist cause in 1932, so Nancy did the same with her shift into the sunlight of public adoration.” The Pursuit of Love was not Nancy’s first book—she had been a successful novelist since 1931—but it was and would remain her most beloved. The delightfully eccentric Radletts are obviously the Mitfords refracted with affectionate nostalgia through Nancy’s effervescent voice. Their story is narrated by kind sensible cousin Fanny, who experienced life at her cousins’ estates at Aconleigh (based on Asthall Manor) during holidays, and later witnessed their multiple marriages and madcap escapades.

mitford-sistersMitford Sisters

Nancy crisply layers the poignant and the hilarious together with a social observation worthy of Austen. On meeting her aunt’s new betrothed Fanny states: “My immediate impression was that he did not seem at all like a husband. He looked kind and gentle.” Her characters deliver social cuttings, devastating in the innocence of their delivery: “Oh the horror of important people—you are lucky not to know any.” All the elopements and scandals of the Mitfords are played for laughs, as when Linda Radlett leaves her banker husband for a Communist (a playful nod to both Jessica’s elopement and Diana’s affair, although neither appreciated the gesture). Linda innocently laments her new social life:

But I’m always saying to Christian how much I wish his buddies would either brighten up their parties a bit or else stop giving them, because I don’t see the point of sad parties, do you? And Left-wing people are always sad because they mind so dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly.

Despite the ingenuousness of its characters, The Pursuit of Love contains a fair amount of darkness as the war threatens and then explodes around the Radlett children. But like Nancy herself, they cheerfully plunge forward into the new world that awaits them.

After the war, flush with the commercial success of her novels, Nancy moved to Paris, from whence she wrote fantastically funny letters to her family in that same tone of wide-eyed knowingness. She was always on, always entertaining. And even though Nancy was the intellectual of the bunch, the sisters were all clever and witty. As Diana wrote, referring to Jessica’s second marriage: “When all was said and done, Jessica was the only Mitford to ever harm a Jew.”

To be honest, it’s difficult to read Thompson’s book and not fall just a little in love with the intelligent, mysterious, and utterly original Mitford girls. Despite having only about two terms of school between them, they produced over twenty-five books, many of them award-winners and bestsellers, suggesting that childhoods full of animals, reading, and prodigious free time are highly underrated. Somewhere between riding to hounds and debuting, they must have learned something besides not putting the milk in first. They were funny enough and joyful enough that people still read their letters, and not just for the references to famous people who clustered around them. And their upper-class mannerisms, while out of fashion, are laced with just enough self-deprecation to read as charmingly ironic rather than insufferable. “After agricultural shows, Marks & Spencer is the place to go shopping, and then Paris,” Deborah declared definitively. “Nothing in between seems to be much good.”

“These girls are prize exhibits in a museum of Englishness,” Thompson insists. “And whatever one’s opinion of what they represent, it is impossible, in truth, to find them boring.” Rather.

—Laura Michele Diener

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Laura Michele Diener author photo

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

Nov 142016
 

babysitter

George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. — Benjamin Woodard

The Babysitter at Rest
Jen George
Dorothy, a publishing project, 2016
168 pages, $16.00

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Late every semester, as attention spans wane and final project deadlines loom, I treat my Composition students to a day of stress relief by cobbling together Exquisite Corpse stories as a class. I usually write the openings ahead of time and then pass them to one student, who adds his or her own lines, and then carefully folds the paper, accordion style, so that the next writer can only see the most recent sentence of the growing story. This continues until the pieces have circulated around the room and the pages look like tiny venetian blinds. Then I unfold the stories and read the results aloud. The students get a kick out of hearing me say some pretty bizarre things—once they realize I’m going to perform each story, they take it upon themselves to add in a naughty word or two—but what always impresses me is the coherence of these tales. Without seeing anything but a few words written by their tablemates, my students somehow create these Frankensteinish narratives that abide by perfect dream logic, where characters bounce from scene to scene, yet never lose sight of a singular goal. Ideas lost between students sometimes reappear five lines later, as if the air itself whispered a clue to a writer further down the table. The cheesiest way of describing these stories is to say they’re like catching lightning in a bottle, but there’s something true to employing that phrase. The room feels electric as my students and I realize the consistency that threads our crazy tales together, and that electricity vanishes the moment the class is over.

Jen George’s wild, funny debut collection, The Babysitter at Rest, gives me that same electric jolt only the feeling doesn’t fade. Perhaps this is partially due to the form the volume’s five stories take, as they—like an Exquisite Corpse exercise—often contain dreamlike swerves. Yet there’s also a vivid realness at the core of each piece. George understands that weirdness can only succeed if tethered to the familiar, and she exploits these common moments to load her stories with images that burrow into the reader’s brain. For example, the following sequence, from “Take Care of Me Forever,” sees George’s protagonist, a sick woman waiting to die in a hospital bed, deciding to walk to the bathroom:

“In the bathroom, I notice a large hole in the wall. An opening. I enter the opening with my mobile IV. I make my way through pipes, drywall, and rotten wood into what seems to be a strip mall dentist’s office hallway. All of the office doors are locked and the snack vending machine at the hallway’s end is empty.”

From here, the character finds both a bucket of teeth and another passageway inside a janitor’s closet. The passageway leads her outside the hospital and into a football stadium, where a naked painter with a small penis sits on a stool at the fifty-yard line, surrounded by bookcases and a television. The characters know each other and talk about their past love affair—“The great love of my life with whom I wanted to have children left me because of the penis,” the painter admits—and the woman takes a look at the man’s artwork, conveniently displayed nearby, before returning to her hospital room. The progression, one of many found in “Take Care of Me Forever,” is surreal, certainly, and its non sequitur unraveling resembles a language game like Exquisite Corpse, but the unpredictability of the events here keeps the narrative consistently lively. A thousand questions flood the reader: Is this really happening? When were these two characters lovers? And, most importantly, what the hell is going to happen next? This liveliness creates curiosity, and it helps drive George’s stories, shuttling the reader into unique worlds where just about anything is possible. But within these worlds, characters confess their dark thoughts alongside jokes, and the author anchors her stories with just enough reality to never lose her audience.

In addition, George peppers her collection with a brilliant series of inventories and lists that maintain audience interest while also setting rhythm. “Guidance / The Party” relies heavily on this technique while telling the two-part tale of a woman learning how to throw a party from a drunken “Guide” and then following through with its—The Guide is genderless—instruction. When learning how to present herself, The Guide rambles off a series of lists to the woman, including:

“Wear makeup, jewelry, and something you cannot afford, in order to ensure you will not feel like a chubby street urchin halfway through the party. Refer to the manual for information on weight loss via dieting/cleansing prior to the party, taking saunas, eating cotton balls soaked in castor oil, ephedrine use, Epsom salt baths, and salt flushes.”

Then, as she hosts her party, the woman is faced with the revelation that her female guests are pregnant, which results in the following passage regarding the pregnancy-adverse foods the host planned to serve:

“All of the French cheeses are unpasteurized, then there’s the matter of the raw oyster bar, which was the second main spectacular food item, and also the raw egg, the mercury, the shaved mad-cow boar hoof, the tuna, the tonsil stone, and the lorazapam in the 10,101-ingredient mole.”

The baby-related lists continue in “Futures in Child Rearing,” where a woman, hoping to get pregnant, states all of the traits she expects from her child:

“She will look good in clothing and without. She will be adored but respected. She will follow a clear life path, free of too many obstructions, full of loving and successful friends who wear beautiful dresses, have lovely parties in the desert or at the beach, and who have about them an airy lightness. She’ll know how to go about getting what she wants. She will be capable. She will not have crying jags.”

These lists and inventories are equal parts funny and peculiar. They establish a rhythm within the text, yet they also jolt the stories with a sudden burst of prose, adding a new layer of captivation to each story. Like the rambling, zigzag narrative paths already mentioned, George’s lists keep the text active, create charming juxtapositions, and root the reader to the page.

In early press and reviews for The Babysitter at Rest, George’s writing has been compared to the playfulness of Donald Barthelme and Chris Kraus, but the collection’s title story, both in subject matter and structure, also brings to mind Robert Coover. Though George shies away from giving the story a metafictional shade, she does, like Coover, capitalize on the classic Penthouse Forum fantasy of an affair between a man and his child’s babysitter. Also like Coover, the relations between these characters are highly sexual and graphic, broken into short fragments, and it’s here that George ratchets the strangeness of her story to comment on gender inequality. The husband saunters through life wearing cool guy sunglasses, acting as a generic vessel of affluence and depravity, while the babysitter, who lives in a group home with a slew of degenerates, spends nearly all of the narrative prancing about in a bikini—she loses her other clothes—valued solely for her sexuality and youth. This exploration of primal and stereotypical instinct is frequently hilarious—more than once, the babysitter says she’s, “Seventeen. But I might be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-two,” a clever quip commenting on men’s justification of the well-worn fantasy of the sexy schoolgirl—but it also provides the collection with a universal thread of female exploitation, which comes up again and again. “Take Care of Me Forever” contains a sexual relationship between the dying hospital patient and her doctor, as well as a crudely worded help wanted ad that seeks applicants willing to “listen to problems and musings of (all male) staff,” be “flirtatious with all,” and who must “not have boyfriend,” and hopefully live with “cute roommates A+.” And in “Instruction,” the collection’s final story, a young female pupil becomes both the star student and sexual plaything of her professor, known as “The Teacher/older man with large hands.” In his conquest, he feigns interest in her ideas (“‘Welp, cool idea. Really neat.’ He succeeds in stifling laughter.”) to get in her pants, and the explicit results draw the ire of the student’s peers.

What is Jen George trying to say by including so many examples of older man/younger woman exploitation in her collection? It’s easy to argue that the answer is up to the reader, but the author offers up several hints as to her potential mission. The student artist in “Instruction” eventually breaks away from her instructor and wanders the country, sparking artist revolutions and turning “The Teacher/older man with large hands” into a lost soul, who eventually begs the student to explain to him why she abandoned their relationship. Meanwhile, “The Babysitter at Rest” sees the title character, after all of her adventures, holding her charge, a “forever baby” who will never age, in her arms and deciding that he is fortunate to never grow up into his father’s good looks or fortune, that remaining a baby is far more advantageous. If he never grows up, he can never become a predator.

In a way, these two women gain an upper hand in their situations, and while their moments of clarity may be short-lived, this evolution speaks volumes. And maybe this is what George wants her readers to notice. Then again, perhaps the ultimate goal for The Babysitter at Rest is to provoke the reader into considering the ways we all use one another to our own advantage. In any case, the collection is a wonderful experiment, full of electric twists that linger.

— Benjamin Woodard

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Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in HobartCorium Magazine, and Storychord. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his criticism and nonfiction has been featured in The Kenyon Review OnlineGeorgia ReviewElectric Literature, and other fine publications. He also helps run Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Nov 132016
 

background-el-saltoLeslie Ullman

 

Renderings of some Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas) by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt.-

In 1975, the authors created the original pack of over 100 oblique strategies cards, a project born from their approaches to their work respectively as musician and artist. Each strategy is designed to help composers get “unstuck” by encouraging lateral thinking. 

§

Ask people to work against their better judgment

Go ahead—fling yourself against it
As in: take away the net; thrum
with vertigo; surprise yourself in dark
glasses and brimmed hat pulled low,
so mysterious, you might ask yourself
for an autograph. As in: slip
from the conference room and not tell
yourself where you’re going—

out of the neighborhood and all
the dependable gridlocks. Into a fifth world
that simmers beneath the topography
of your thoughts. Beyond the language
that has served you like a slipper
and the careful walls that kept out
rains fragrant with dirt and damp leaves….
You may not see yourself again

but watch for someone
faintly familiar, still
in transit, fumbling
a new tongue into hand signals
and hybrid phrases, fingers
alight, alive, and something
about to be said perhaps
for the first time.

 

Consider different fading systems

Maybe they’ve moved
elsewhere, now seen by
other eyes—or what might pass
for eyes—as patterns of
sound-wave, molecular traces,
jet streams and planetary
wanderings still vivid where we
can’t follow. We’ll never know.
They leave in their wake threads of gravity and broken

chains, half-outlines
sketching themselves beyond
the mind’s canvas.
the mind must break out of itself
to paint something new
over itself—the vanished parts,
embellished. So, when a few notes
rise from the universe of half-sleep
and then start to fade, consider
the invitation.

 

A line has two sides

if you let your eyes soften and even
cross a little as you stare at that line.

Soon you find yourself seeing from a soft
third eye, one you didn’t know

was there, and the line’s two sides blur
to three. It’s like teasing apart

then reuniting voices of rain all night while drifting
in and out of sleep: bouts of wind

and soft drops that rustle the leaves
and then torrent-noise that fills the open window

as a gutter overflows, drowning out what started
so gently. But the three sounds

remain, rushing and subsiding
and inviting you to listen for the ones

you can’t hear, or didn’t hear at first. And you can
do this all night, through the one ear

not buried in the pillow
then both at once.

 

Are there sections? Consider transitions

Consider an absence—space
between dots, no-man’s land dividing
claimed turf, mundane event left
off the page, break in dialogue, intake

of breath, pause before decision—
as volte. A presence. Where something quiet
happens or holds up or is preparation

for the next demand. Not a completion.
Not the blank I drew when I first
learned to jump horses, so relieved
to have cleared the fence and stayed
aboard, I forgot for a moment

there was another one ahead.
I forgot to breathe. I stepped away
from myself and then

had to regroup, all monkey-mind
and indecision as we approached the next
place to leave the ground. The horse
flicked an ear, wondering if I was

still there. Hence the difference
between apprentice and master—
seeing the demand between demands.
Showing up inside it.

 

Destroy-nothing-the most important thing

This journey is not sanctioned

or trackable. Where it
leads cannot be

found on the map
wrought from spyglass
and ink, artifacts embalmed

in history, plumed pen
and the scent of parchment

anchored beneath a circle of quiet light.

Step into a
something, a nothing

or the slow burn that renders bone
to sand, to ash, loved body
returned to the elements

from which it arose. This

is a form of kneeling. Now
wait. Two legs may not be

enough to raise you
this time. You’ll need
wings. Eventually

you’ll have to grow them.

 

Do the washing up

and, since you’re in a tepid
state, sponge cat hair from the sofa,
water that desperate plant—the one
dropping leaves all over the tile—
gather the leaves and dump the trash—
there’s something to be said for

empirical progress. Run a substance like
baking soda only more complicated
through the coffeepot, returning it
to what’s said to be its pristine
brewing condition, which may not
be obvious right now, but will be
tomorrow morning when your brain
is tricked into the taste of coffee resurrected…

is it time for a cocktail? Do you really
want a cocktail? By now you like
the idea of cocktail, and this slight shift
of inner weather is encouraging —you
started to say “slightful.” Slothful. Sightful.
Still off your stride but warming, you
strip off the rubber gloves.

 

Cut a vital connection

Your childhood, by
all accounts, was much
better than average. You want
to age gratefully, you want
to honor those who ruled there, all
rectitude and good intentions,
and you want not to abandon
memory’s seat at the table

around which a viable family
gathered each night, circle
of feet facing each other
underneath as the faces did
over the four food groups,
everyone’s right to be there
unquestioned. In this sense
you were loved.

The albatross that returns
now and then, trailing something
broken from where you’ve tied
and tied it down, is how you,
what little you then knew of you,
remained in question: That’s all
in your imagination, said their
tunnel vision. You’re wrong, said

their notion of what it meant to have
their version of the world and you
be theirs. In this sense, you remained
half-known, a cipher bearing a weight
of fears they harbored where they
had no words and, until you yourself had
the words, you were cloaked in wrong   
and later learned to thrive below a surface

none of them could penetrate.
They did their best. You would
do anything for them now
but where to put the voices
that sometimes dig up that unproven
you, drag it into the light
and place what you’re slow to
recognize, even after all this time,

as a gloved hand across your throat?

—Leslie Ullman

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ullman-book-cover-image

Leslie Ullman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Progress on the Subject of Immensity, published by University of New Mexico Press in 2013. Her third book, Slow Work Through Sand, won the 1998 Iowa Poetry Prize (University of Iowa Press), and her first collection, Natural Histories, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1979 (Yale University Press). Dreams by No One’s Daughter was published by University of Pittsburgh Press. Her hybrid book of craft essays, poems, and writing exercises, many of which began as lectures given at VCFA, is titled Library of Small Happiness is just out with A Taos Press. She also is the recipient of two NEA Fellowships.

Now Professor Emerita at the University of Texas-El Paso, where she taught for 27 years and established the Bilingual MFA Program, she has continued to teach on the faculty at Vermont College, which she joined in 1981. She also does freelance manuscript consultations and teaches skiing every winter at Taos Ski Valley in northern New Mexico.

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Nov 122016
 

Jeremy Brunger

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This year I will attend the University of Chicago, a school whose reputation for serious academic study is nigh unparalleled; it compares to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, yet is half a mile from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the North American continent, the South Side, and a mile or two from neighborhoods like Auburn Gresham and Englewood. My area of study, one of general humanism, will have me pondering Foucault, the implications of Marx’s commentary on literature, the meaning behind Schopenhauer’s peculiar use of Latin. In a city that can boast of having over forty shootings in one weekend, I have to wonder what I can possibly learn of humanism while living in its own refutation. Many poor Chicagoans consider the city to be the very bustling embodiment of Hell: it is the nexus of Midwestern drug trafficking due to its convenient location and enduring sense of segregation, nearly a tenth of its citizens are out of work and live in what sociologists call deep poverty, and it out-competes every other US city in the arena of addiction to heroin. In 2015, the longest period of reprieve from gangland-style murder lasted only five days. Odd, that I have the privilege of moving to study at Chicago’s premier ivory tower when many of its citizens wish, above all else, to flee the Windy City and never look back.

That, of course, is the crux of my wonder: privilege is another word for access, and the underside of college towns is that their long-term residents rarely study past high school. I have access to an oasis in Chicago because I have a certain kind of privilege largely denied to those who want to escape those economic black holes which pepper the city. I am white—whiter than white, I already have a college education, which negates my lower class socioeconomic status—and so can graze the finest courses of education this country has to offer. The city of Chicago has one of the biggest, most developed economies in the country, and manages its own stock exchange, but half of the population starves for the fruit of that industry. Poor Chicagoans get murdered outside of one- or two-storey apartments with names riffing on Martin Luther King and faux-Parisian boulevards, not in front of Trump Tower.

Bigger Thomas, the murderous anti-hero of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would have lived ten minutes away from the University of Chicago when he smothered rich, white, and educated Mary Dalton in her bed. Bigger grew up poor and hated in the 1930s, but he did not grow up uniquely: today one in five children in Chicago live in the sort of poverty Bigger would have found familiar. Wright was a Marxist who found in urban misery a powerful signal that the proletariat not only can but ought to revolt against the nervous conditions which characterize the lunacy of poor life in big cities. Were he alive today he might find the inspiration to pen a sequel to Native Son, this one bleaker, more starkly realistic: Bigger would belong to one of the fifty-nine gangs in the metropolitan area, shoot other twenty-year-olds with a stolen Glock, and become addicted to black tar heroin before getting gunned down in retaliation.

The picture is one of apartheid—what should not be a first world complaint—which provides a perfect rendition of what is most wrong with America. Wealth inequality in Chicago is steep and is the source of its plague of violence; it is also an example, writ larger, of how those who live in other cities work and die without ever seeing the benefits of liberal progress. The city’s average income hovers around sixty thousand per annum, but its most violent districts earn a third of that market share at their luckiest. It is not for nothing that Chicago is the basis for Gotham, that grim, imaginary playground where Batman battles petty criminals and domestic terrorists. Gotham, too, is a wealthy city whose people are poor, but it just might have the better reputation. Chicago has no vigilante Batman, it only has vigilantes. In fact, its police force is currently being investigated by the federal government for racist retaliation against poor black people unaffiliated with gang activity and for structural racism ranging from street-level police murders up to its own city government. The city which harbored the country’s first serial killer, the Haymarket anarchist killings, and Upton Sinclair’s socialist fervor against corrupt business practices edges toward anarchy once again. Carl Sandburg would ill tolerate the city which gave him his richest poetry a century ago. Nelson Algren, who was more honest in his portrayal of Chicago, wrote in Chicago: City on the Make that “in the Indian grass the Indians listened: they too had lived by night.”

That night has lasted long for the city’s worst off and most abandoned, who, if they cannot recite Dante’s Inferno, can no doubt compare its concentric circles to the neighborhoods of Englewood and Auburn Gresham. The specters of lust, greed, wrath, fraud, treachery, and violence inform the news which Chicago exports, and haunt the lives of Chicago’s indigent all-pervasively. Recently, on the South Side, a body was found bound and burned to death; a pregnant woman was murdered in a drive-by shooting; several teenagers were shot for reasons unknown. All this within walking distance of a university that caters to the children of the elite and teaches the economists of the world that neoliberalism is morally useful.

What salve will a national election year offer Chicago? It has already produced a president, who maintains a house in the South Side for when his tenure in the Oval Office is at an end. Since 2008 the city’s murder rate has steadily increased, while black employment has steadily decreased. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton offer anything of worth to the most distressed groups in the city; both seem entirely at odds with the well-being of the urban underclass to begin with, since Chicago supports Clinton by political default and provides hefty ownership royalties to Trump by virtue of his properties.

 

Chicago, then, is a chimeric political animal. The rapper Common once called himself “a veteran of the Cold War” after witnessing gang violence and epidemic poverty in the city of his birth, and knew such horrors were but natural extensions of national policy. As neoliberalism wrenches Europe with its support for austerity, it wrenches likewise even the most dynamic of American economies, and exerts a special stranglehold on Chicago, which produced its main tenets radiating outward from the University of Chicago, to the White House, and back to the multiple slums which cluster for miles around the South Side grove of academe.

The late economist Milton Friedman, powerhouse and public intellectual of neoliberalism, has more to do with the phenomenon of gangbanging than any of his triumphant followers of the last half-century care to admit, for neoliberal policy was in large part his brainchild, and remains the cause and effect of Chicago’s ganglands. That the university, which has its own sub-department of Marxism in the humanities and social sciences, gave birth to the Reaganite policy of eliminating public budgets for the benefit of the private sector, says volumes about how the class schism operates in a city of three million people. The vocal support for one direction of the political process is naturally underscored by a real support for its neoliberal opposite. Slash money to schools, slash money to public aid, slash money to cultural works, slash money to housing—all in the name of promoting a capitalism which considers the advantaged and disadvantaged equals in market theory—and behold a polity which casually declares itself a war zone.

The few like Friedman, who spoke for the many, condemned the many to a suffering that has lasted for generations. Never mind that a monetary regime which considered abundance of cash flow preferable to a deficit—that abundance only needed to reach the rich—categorically impoverished those who had long benefited from New Deal policies. Hell features drive-bys and stray bullets, and the murdering of toddlers whose only crime was being brought into the world by drug dealers. Neoliberal economics is another name for social Darwinism, and on this, if little else, the laissez-faire capitalists of the Reagan-era Chicago School and the street gangs of Englewood agree. Gang life is capitalism in miniature. Neoliberal policy spread beyond American borders and beyond the borders of liberal democracy to influence the world from pole to pole and wreaked a havoc so similar between them one wonders why Chicago hasn’t been declared a national emergency.

That this war zone generally only encompasses a third of the city—those parts which white people like me can afford to not live in, nor rarely traverse—speaks pitifully to the legacy of racism which neoliberalism has inherited and maintained. Jean-Paul Sartre, in typical sardonic style, wrote the following impression of American cities, with 1940s-era New York City as his model:

But these slight cities…reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom. Here everyone is free—not to criticize or to reform their customs—but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.

Long after the death of that urbanite philosopher, the prospect of fleeing an American city looks more and more, and merely, to be the stuff of dreams for most.

—Jeremy Brunger

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Jeremy Brunger is from Tennessee and now attends a humanities graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests tend toward the Marxian: finding devils in the superstructure, studying the effects of poverty on mental life, railing against the dumb, brutal figure of capitalism. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Nov 112016
 

nell-zink

Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. —Carolyn Ogburn

nicotine

Nicotine
Nell Zink
Ecco Press, 2016
304 pages, $26.99

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It’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems, one character tells another in Nell Zink’s new novel, Nicotine. “That was something your dad used to say, about how it’s the stories we tell ourselves that cause all the problems. If you look reality straight in the eye, you end up a lot less confused. It’s a matter of signal-to-noise ratio. Any story you tell has to be all signal. Any distraction is noise. Anything extraneous is noise. Now try to define extraneous. In life, nothing’s extraneous. There’s no noise. It’s all signal.”

In Nicotine, Zink returns to areas she’s taken on in her previous novels: identity and identity politics, class, race, and sex. Lots of sex. But it’s really the stories surrounding these rather than any particular issue itself that seems to interest Zink, and she’s not writing to convince anyone of anything. In fact, she doesn’t seem to care what the reader believes, or doesn’t believe. Zink’s writing is immersive, demanding the reader’s trust. You’re either on board, or you’ve missed the boat, with Zink.

Every aspiring midlife novelist will likely be familiar already with the oft-recounted biography of Nell Zink, but her story seems to remain somehow blurred, evocative, just enough like every one of us to be any one of us but also distinctly, markedly unique. It doesn’t dull with repetition. Zink, like many of us, missed the “5 Under 35,” and the “20 Under 40,” mailed off her first manuscript in her late 40s to the novelist Jonathan Franzen, with whom, in a twist of fate that only real life can contrive, she’d begun exchanging emails about the songbirds of the Balkans. Her emails (which he would describe using words like feisty and presumptuous) were both remarkable and relentless; Franzen assumed she was a writer he’d met already, and playing some sort of a joke. When he finally understood she was not, he actively encouraged her to try writing fiction. Zink is said to have replied: “Oh, I’ve already done that.”

Nell Zink was born in Corona, California in 1964; she and her two brothers were raised in rural King George County, Virginia. She finished high school at Stuart Hall School in Staunton, VA, then majored in philosophy at the College of William and Mary. After undergrad, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived in anarchist coops (not unlike the ones she describes in Nicotine) and where, from 1993-1997, she published Animal Review, a ‘zine that interviewed punk musicians about their pets. She moved to Tel Aviv, then Berlin. She earned a doctorate in media studies at the University of Tübingen. She got married, and unmarried, and married again. She’s worked as a secretary, a technical writer, a translator; she’s waited tables and worked construction. She worked for four years as a bricklayer in the Tidewater area of Virginia, a job, she told Kathryn Shultz in the New Yorker, that was “more valuable for my intellectual life than my entire college career. In college, they allow you to be entertained and let your mind wander, which is not good training to do anything difficult.”

In other words, she lived the kind of private life of many people who, not being famous, do not have to explain their lives. As Zink says, “there’s a very clear distinction between taking your career seriously and taking your writing seriously.”

Because Zink was taking her writing seriously. For over fifteen years, she wrote fiction that she showed no one but the Israeli writer Avner Shats, to whom she’d been introduced by her second husband, the Israeli poet Zohar Eitan. (Two of the novellas Zink wrote for Shats have been published this month under the title Private Novelist.)

At the age of 50, Zink’s first published novel, Wallcreeper, was named as one of the New York Times’ 100 Most Notable Books of 2014. Wallcreeper explores the topic of marriage through bird watching and eco-terrorism. Her second, Mislaid, takes on racial and sexual identity; it was long-listed for the 2015 National Book Award.

§

Nicotine is the story of Penny Baker, a young woman in her 20s. Her father, Norm, is a self-help guru with massive real-estate holdings and a following of self-actualization groupies. His second wife, Amalia, is Penny’s mother; Amalia was a child of 13 when Norm first met her in the Colombian town of Cartagena. He adopts Amalia in order to bring her back to the United States after his first wife disappears, leaving her two sons, Penny’s half-brothers behind. In this free-wheeling familial structure, one that echoes the anarchist households in which the adult Penny will live, the boys’ mother’s absence is barely noticed.

Here’s what’s Zink writes about those self-help groupies who seek the promise of a better life, a description which again harkens forward to those communities Penny will find herself in as an adult:

There is tacit agreement among Norm’s followers that they make the world a better place by loving in it. They don’t change it. They redeem it, through the searching way they live their lives. The cult is populated by realist aesthetes. A cult of personality for those cultivating personalities. Expecting nothing more from life than self-actualization, accepting nothing less. Willing to settle for others’ self-actualization if their own turns balky.

Amalia is first shown at the age of thirteen; Penny is first shown at the age of twelve, naked and smoking and, shortly thereafter, accusing her decades-older half-brother Matt of attempting to rape her. The accusation is quickly dismissed both by her father and even Penny herself, but incest hovers like a palimpsest throughout.

The story proper opens in April 2016, exactly a year from the novel’s actual date of completion in April 2015. She tells us Penny, now in her 20s, is a graduate of an unnamed business school; her half-brothers, Patrick and Matt, and her mother, Amalia, are in their mid-40s. Her father, Norm, dies within the first pages of the book, and it’s his death that triggers a series of dissolutions that frames the narrator’s existence, if not the plot of the book itself. Zink’s book describes as closely as I’ve ever seen the transient nature of a certain variety of intimate relationship.

The first dissolution is Penny’s first encounter with death. She loves her father, seemingly the only one who does. She stays by his side as he enters Hospice care, whose dictate to do nothing to either prolong life or speed death means that he doesn’t get pain relief, and it’s up to Penny to swab out the crust from his throat. It’s not every novelist who would take on Hospice care in a satirical manner, but Zink’s attention is a serrated knife that takes no prisoners.

Once Norm dies, the family enters the well-known stages of estate management, another form of dissolution. In Norm’s case, this means primarily real estate holdings, some of which have already been sold, and others claimed. But, Penny is told, there is Norm’s parents’ home in Jersey City, which had been abandoned for years. When Penny is evicted from her father’s rent-controlled apartment upon news of his death, her step-brother offers her the abandoned house, advising her to evict the squatters living there. Instead, she falls in love, and moves in as a squatter herself.

As it turns out, the home, called Nicotine, is one of many semi-organized illegally occupied group houses throughout Jersey City. Though Zink describes only one of her many characters as “ageless and about thirty-five,” this breezy description could apply to just about everyone living in these collectives. There’s Stayfree, a feminist collective (“of both men and women”); Tranquility, whose residents protest for indigenous peoples’ rights; the DJD, the environmental collective that’s named for the enormous and enormously expensive couch that resides in the house. Nicotine’s ostensible purpose is to advocate for tobacco users’ rights, but most of the residents’ abundant free time is spent in the kinds of discussion familiar to anyone who’s ever spent any time with the rootless, international community of artists, grad students, armchair philosophers, and trustifarians who, while drawn from a diverse cross-section of racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and gender identities, share the same attitude, both cynical and speculative, toward identity as they do towards property in general. That’s globalization; that’s modern life, Zink seems to be hinting. The reader quickly loses track of residents who come for discussions of, say, class or gender privilege, only to disappear, never to be heard from again. The dissolution of identity, whether politics, gender, sexuality or any other belief system also plays a major role in the novel. Forget the regional distinctions of nationalism; forget the myth that some people are indigenous and others aren’t. When a character (Sunshine) tells Penny, “It’s just context-dependent! That’s how identity works,” the reader, like Penny, starts to feel a little queasy. There’s a vague feeling that we’re being led on: a lot of this is satire, after all. But where the lines of satire are drawn is far from clear.

Aphorism may be Zink’s most natural setting. “Smoking is like moving to Fukushima for the privacy,” she writes. Or, “You can’t understand the modern world if you can’t imagine selling what you love best.” Zink’s cultural references are drawn with journalistic precision: she briefly references Donald Trump’s campaign, and a fictive President Hilary Clinton; includes 2016 state-of-the-art Virtual Reality sex toys, and describes a character retreating to her bedroom where she eats an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s and watches two episodes of Nurse Jackie. But the most contemporary element in Nicotine may be Zink’s slightly manic level of attention which offers what it needs to in two or three sentences before moving on. Almost everything is said via dialogue, in this style of writing, the ideas expressed more important than the character expressing them. This is literature styled by Twitter-feed, hashtagged by topic. Facebook is for old people.

Like Twitter, Nicotine is written in a relentless present tense, which has the effect of relinquishing any feeling of trajectory towards a destination. It’s a kind of self-actualization of a narrative arc, pushing the reader into stasis, to rest in whatever is already known in the moment rather than pulling the reader towards what isn’t yet revealed. There’s a reason thrillers and mystery novels aren’t typically written in the present tense, but in the past. “And then I saw the gun, there, on the bed,” is inherently more suspenseful than, “I see the gun, there, on the bed.” (In fact, both a gun and a bed, make appearances in Nicotine; though both are used as guns and beds are often used, and occasionally in ways they’re not, there’s little in the way of suspense, which I place squarely on the use of the present tense.)

Zink herself refers to her choice, in a playful tongue-in-cheek way that’s characteristic of her writing. The rally against the TTIP (no one can quite remember what it stands for, but it’s clearly referencing the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership) is coming up and two Nicotine residents (Rob and Anka) are brainstorming slogans which can be converted to hashtags for their protest signs:

“How about TTIP SUX?” he suggests.
“Present tense is a tactical error,” she says. “Makes it sound like we already lost.”

And maybe we have, in fact, already lost. We, westerners of whatever background or belief, live in a time of global dissolution and climate collapse that none of us understand. There is a despair that pervades this seemingly light-hearted novel. When Zink writes, “A cigarette fights intense humidity in utter darkness. Its dim firefly of tobacco flies upward and brightens with an intake of breath. It falls and comes close to dying,” the reader almost feels the deep, smoky intake of breath herself, can almost see that breath drift across the warm night air. It’s one of the few passages that’s written to slow down attention, to welcome reflection.

The novel’s end finds the residents of Nicotine scattered—another form of dissolution—and the home itself transformed into a different kind of community center. Penny takes a job at her mother’s bank and shacks up with the no-longer-asexual Rob. The ending seems to belie the premise of the book’s title: nicotine, after all, is the addictive portion of tobacco. Nicotine isn’t what kills the smoker, not directly. Nicotine is what makes smoking so difficult to quit.

At one point, the novel’s sexy siren Jazz looks up from reading Jean Cocteau’s memoirs, sighing “He’s got that breezy, casual sophistication I’m always aiming for and never hitting.” Zink surely aims for breezy, casual sophistication, and in Nicotine, she almost hits it.

—Carolyn Ogburn

N5

Carollyn Ogburn

Carolyn Ogburn lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina where she takes on a variety of worldly topics from the quiet comfort of her porch. She’s a contributing writer for Numéro Cinq and blogs for Ploughshares. She’s studied at Oberlin (B.Music), UNC-Asheville (MLA) and Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA). She writes on literature, autism, music, and disability rights and is at work on her first novel.

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Nov 112016
 

author-photovia UnionHidalgo

 Pho

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Regardless of the common wisdom that, as Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen,” writers cannot escape being influenced by their environment, at any age. Just so with the Mexican writer Agustín Cadena, Mexican born, raised and educated, who has been living for years in Hungary, returning to México only for the three months of summer. In his recent collection of stories, Las tentaciones de la dicha, (The Temptations of Happiness) 2010, the permeating influence of Eastern Europe can be felt in at least four of the eleven stories. “Maracuyá” is one of these, set in a Black Sea resort town at the height of the season, in a vast club by that passionflower name, where one drinks Becherovka and meets people of a dozen nationalities, including an old Russian with a mysterious briefcase. What makes the story Mexican is its Spanish, the use of words like “cornudo” which fit smoothly in Spanish but seem so awkward when we write “cuckold” in English, and in this story, there’s a different twist on that characterization.  

— Translator Patricia Dubrava

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WE WENT TO that Black Sea resort because Dasha wanted so much to go back there. She had been once, six years ago, and said it was incredible: every summer, in August, the little fishing town transformed into the biggest tourist attraction of the Crimea. For a week, clubs, bars and restaurants stayed open 24 hours, hosting hundreds of tourists from all the Slavic countries and more distant places. Dasha fondly remembered dawns dancing on the beach among drunks singing in incomprehensible languages and couples who slept in each other’s arms on the sand after making love.

I agreed to go out of curiosity, but also because I wanted Dasha to have a rest. She was sick of working at the Peep Show, exploiting the beauty of her no longer so adolescent body and performing fellatio on fat tourists for twenty Euros.

So we pooled what money we had and, a day later, were on the train crossing the pine forests of the Carpathians, toward the Ukraine lowlands. To save money, we hadn’t wanted to pay for a sleeper, so made the whole trip in a coach compartment; during the day we talked, read, looked at the countryside, had brief conversations with passengers who accompanied us for an hour or two, on their way to some intermediate town. And at night we took turns: one watched so no one stole our backpacks while the other tried to get some sleep in spite of the cold, with our shoes on and wearing all our clothes. If we wanted something to eat, we had crackers.

We arrived tired and hungry, with barely enough energy to put up the tent in a more or less quiet section of the beach. But there was the sea, at last. The sea: a longing to live intensely and forever, escape to a timeless space where one could be eternally young, where love was imperishable. We sat contemplating it a long time, without talking.

We left stuff in the tent and went to town to look for something to eat. It was much as Dasha had described it: an idyllic place full of light, as if from a book of ancient poems. One high, winding street of old houses and shops full of shadows climbed a hill at whose peak stood a church, its twin towers topped with golden onion domes. The glow of polished metal, the sounds, the smells…it seemed as if we were seeing everything through the glass pane that separates reality from dreams.

We were starving, but didn’t want to go to a restaurant; we’d agreed that alcohol and entertainment were top priorities for our money, and we’d keep the minimum for secondary things. We bought four slices of bread, a quarter pound of bologna, another quarter of cheese, some pickles, and ate on a bench from which, in the distance below, the sea was visible.

We drank sweet wine in a small tavern, then went down to the beach to wade in the surf, watch the sunset and as it was getting dark, bathed in a public bathroom. An hour later, we arrived at the biggest nightclub: Maracuyá. They sold admissions for a day, for three days or for the whole week. Dasha wanted to buy the last even though it would take half our money.

“It’s cheaper that way,” she said. “And besides, I don’t intend to miss even one evening.”

The place was decorated as if it were on the Caribbean instead of the Black Sea: hammocks, fishnets, barrels half buried in the sand and live palm trees growing beneath large crystal domes.

We worked our way through the crowd, found a free table and looked over the menu: there was an incredible quantity of liquors, beers and wines from exotic places.

“What is this?” I asked Dasha, almost shouting because of the loud music. At the end of the wine list there was a question mark with a price; below that, two question marks, also with a price; then three, then four, five…

“Those are drugs,” she responded, also shouting. “One question mark is marijuana, two is hashish, three is cocaine; the others, I don’t know. Do you want something?”

“No,” I told her. “Pretty pricey. And you?”

“Get me a Becherovka.”

I went to the bar for the drinks. The place was a zoo. There were strange people of all ages, races and nationalities: old lechers, nymphs, aging women in search of adventure, young men with bare torsos covered in tattoos, Japanese, Scandinavians, Arabs…In the walk from our table to the bar, I overheard random words in unrecognizable languages; my sense of smell was saturated with a mix of sweaty skin, salt water, expensive perfumes, common deodorants…there was a line at the bar; I had to wait until the bartender took care of a six-foot blond and then a gay guy in a pink suit who didn’t know how to ask for silk stockings.

Finally, I returned to my table.

“Thanks, baby,” Dasha said, dancing in her seat to the music.

She took a sip of her drink, smiled at a guy who was giving her the eye from a nearby table and went to dance with him. I thought dancing a primitive display, so we had an understanding: she was free to dance with whomever. And “dance” meant whatever else also. It didn’t bother me. On the contrary: poor Dasha, it was only right that at least once in a while she could sleep with someone she liked. And in reality, she almost never exercised that option.

She didn’t exercise it with that guy. She danced with him a while, then changed partners, then sat to drank a glass with me, danced some more, sat some more…Near dawn, already a little drunk, I left her enjoying herself and went to walk on the beach. With each stride I took, the music of the various discos faded and mixed with the hiss of the waves that came in to break near my feet. Like weary fireflies, the lights of the little town floated in the distance.

We went to sleep in the tent at seven, woke around noon and after polishing off another package of crackers, swam in the sea. Dasha seemed happy: she smiled and hummed a song. She asked me every little while if this wasn’t a marvelous place, if I wasn’t enchanted, if I wouldn’t remember these days forever when we were no longer together.

In town we ate at McDonald’s, the cheapest alternative after bologna sandwiches, and walked through the streets, visited the Orthodox church. In the souvenir booth at its exit we stole a small fake icon. Then we returned to the tent to sleep at least a few hours before the new round of drinking and dancing in Maracuyá.

That night was very like the previous one, with the difference that a gang of 30 or 40 bikers dressed all in leather arrived, and set about making more noise than there already was. Before dawn I saw them on the beach, doing acrobatics with their motorcycles, the moon casting glints of light on the chrome of those enormous machines.

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Leo appeared the third night. Dasha and I were sitting in the disco drinking Becherovka.

“Look at that!” she suddenly exclaimed. Near our table a man in his sixties, dressed in white, wearing sunglasses and a Panama hat, danced alone. But what was even more odd was that he was dancing without letting go of his briefcase; he had it hugged to his chest as if he was afraid someone would steal it.

“Perhaps it’s full of money?” I asked Dasha.

“Or drugs?” She speculated, amused.

We continued watching him. He didn’t tire of dancing nor of having his arms in that uncomfortable position, because no matter how little the briefcase weighed, anyone would be tired. But he, on the contrary, seemed to be enjoying himself enormously; he danced clumsily and it didn’t matter to him; nor did it bother him not to have a partner. A smile of satisfaction, of an old man realizing a long cherished dream, illuminated his face.

“What a marvel of a man,” Dasha declared. She downed in one swallow what was left in her glass and got up to dance with him.

After a few minutes she came back to the table. “Either he’s dancing with his eyes closed or he’s blind,” she told me, taking a drink from my glass. “He didn’t even notice me.”

“Why don’t you talk to him?”

And that’s exactly what she did, when she saw that he was going to the bar to get a drink. She approached him in English. The man answered her amiably, and by his accent, Dasha understood that he was Russian. She then changed to that language, which was also her mother tongue, and that’s how everything started: his name was Leonid and he was from Novosibirsk. Dasha brought him over and introduced me. The three of us had a drink together and then they went to dance. All this happened without Leo letting go of his briefcase.

At some point he disappeared. He didn’t say goodbye to us; we simply didn’t see him anymore. Dasha was upset.

“Do you think he thought I was an idiot and got bored?” She had that complex; it surfaced every once in a while.

“No. I think he liked you.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Didn’t you see how he looked at you? He even stopped dancing with his eyes closed.”

 “You think so?”

“Yes. Why don’t you have a fling with him? He seems like an interesting person. It would make you feel better.”

Dasha stared at me.

“But he’s gone,” and she twisted her mouth into that bad girl look the Peep Show clients liked so much.

“He’ll be back tomorrow.”

And in fact, the next night, Leo returned to Maracuyá. With his briefcase. Dasha avoided looking at him. If he’d left without saying goodbye, she said, he ought to make the first move now and apologize. “Men always scorn what’s easy,” she explained. That night she was especially seductive, with a black sleeveless dress—the best that she’d put in her backpack—that contrasted in a harmonious way with her tanned skin; a black choker around her long neck and a gold-plated chain on her left ankle.

Confirming the correctness of her theory, Leo came to sit at our table as soon as he saw us and apologized for having left like he did.

“The strange food,” he explained in English out of courtesy to me, without for a moment letting go of his briefcase. “It set off a revolution in my stomach. I was barely able to reach the hotel.”

More relaxed than at our first encounter, he mopped the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief, bought us a drink and began chatting about how difficult it was to prepare well an apparently simple dish from his country: Shuba, potato salad, carrots and peas with mayonnaise, anchovies and beets.

“Of course, it doesn’t go all mixed together,” he said. “The salad goes inside, like a filling. The beets and the anchovies smother it. That’s why it’s called shuba, which in Russian means “overcoat,” and he continued talking about that and a pasta dish with mushroom sauce that didn’t matter much to us. What we wanted was to ask him about the briefcase, but we didn’t find the right opportunity. Finally he took Dasha out to dance.

It soon became obvious that he wanted to seduce her. And she began plying him with all the tactics learned in her not very long life. “Old men like you to make them believe you’re innocent,” her philosophy went. “Only young men are capable of valuing experience.” But Leonid didn’t look like an idiot: he couldn’t really believe that an inexperienced young woman would be vacationing with her boyfriend at an amoral beach resort, drinking Becherovka in a disco where anything and everything was for sale. Regardless, he seemed to enjoy Dasha’s company.

The night passed, along with her plan and desires. At three a.m. when Leo seemed more lively than ever, the young innocent said goodnight. She wasn’t used to staying up so late, she said, and was already very sleepy.

The next day we spent resting on the beach, walking around town and speculating about the mysterious briefcase.

“I tell you, it has to be money. It has to be the lump sum of his retirement, or pension, or liquidation of his assets or whatever, and he came to spend it here.”

“What if he’s a terrorist? From Chechnya? He doesn’t look like it, but he could be. He could be carrying a bomb, one of those that you make explode with a cell phone.”

Dasha was disposed to uncover the mystery and with that objective, employed the rest of her many charms that evening, with the result that she disappeared with Leo and I didn’t see her until the following morning. About eight, she appeared in the tent. She lay down by me without saying anything and also without saying anything, began to make love to me. It was her custom when she’d had an adventure. She said that was how she rid herself of the other skin.

We woke after eleven.

“O.K.,” I said. “What’s in the briefcase?”

“A book,” she told me, without the slightest sign of disappointment.

“A book?”

“Yes, a manuscript. He wrote it. It took him twenty years to finish it.”

“But, why did he bring it here?”

“Because he came here to throw it into the sea,” Dasha explained with a surprising naturalness, as if she were talking about the most normal thing in the world. “Only before doing it he wants to have a good time. It’s his double farewell.”

“Why double?”

“Leo’s saying goodbye to his book and to his literary career.”

“But, why?”

Dasha shrugged her shoulders.

“I didn’t understand his reasons at first either. But after he told me the whole story I began to get it. He spent twenty years working on that mountain of papers. And you know what for? For nothing. He’s taken it to more publishers than he can remember and all of them told him to go to hell with his book. Some—the least stupid—simply told him no. The others suggested that he change things, cut this or that. But Leo doesn’t want to change anything and I understand that. Why let a bookseller tell him how he ought to write? He got sick of it. If his book is trash, he told me, well then it will go to the trash.”

I didn’t ask her anything else and didn’t want to keep thinking about Leonid and his story. I was hungry. “Let’s get something to eat.”

“Leo invited us to dine at his hotel. He asked me if you would want to and I told him yes.”

“Good,” I said, “but let’s go. I guess we don’t have to take the backpacks?”

“No, leave them here. Only let me get my wallet and cell.”

The lunch was very pleasant. When he wasn’t talking about food, the old Russian was an excellent conversationalist. And the whole time he comported himself with Dasha in a respectfully paternal manner, as if there’d been nothing between them nor would there be. He told us that the next day he was going home.

“Would you read me something from your book before throwing it into the sea?” Dasha asked.

“Are you really interested?” Leo seemed incredulous.

“Of course I am. And I would love to hear it in your voice. That way I’d remember it forever.”

“Well, if you want…” He responded in the tone of a grandfather resigned to complying with the whim of a favorite granddaughter. “We can read something this afternoon.”

After a few minutes, he clarified, looking at me. “The book is in Russian.”

“No problem,” I told him. “Anyway, I can’t join you. I have a date with a friend at Maracuyá.”

It wasn’t true, but I wanted to leave them alone. The role of complicit cuckold isn’t comfortable. But a cuckold who knows himself cuckolded, accepts it and still makes a nuisance of himself is the most pathetic of all.

I spent the remainder of the day on the beach and when I got bored, went to play soccer with the bikers who had arrived two days ago. I made friends with one of the girls—a platinum blonde, thin as a stick—and that night accompanied her to Maracuyá. After a while we went to walk on the beach. We arrived at the end of the jetty, where the music from the discos could barely be heard and sat to look at the moon. Although it wasn’t full, it still looked enormous and orange, hanging quietly over the sea.

In the morning, Dasha arrived to wake us at the tent. She couldn’t even wait until I introduced my friend. “Come on, “ she said. “I want to show you something.” She looked very happy.

“What?” I asked, opening one eye, groggy with sleep.

“I’m going,” said the blonde, who perhaps didn’t want to be an inconvenient presence. And in fact, she dressed rapidly, gave me a kiss and left.

It was very early and somewhat chilly. The tide was still high and the last stars appeared and disappeared as if winking. From somewhere came a scent of roses and gladiolas.

Seeing that the territory had been vacated, Dasha crawled into the tent. “Look,” she was carrying Leonid’s briefcase. “He gave it to me. He gave me his book!”

I’d never seen her so happy, so satisfied.

“Did you read it? Is it a good book?” I asked.

“What does that matter? It took him twenty years to write it, do you realize that? As long as I’ve been alive he’s spent working on it. Something like this is a treasure regardless of what some critic or editor might say.”

She took out the manuscript, bound together with cardboard covers and put it in my hands with great respect.

“He’s gone,” she sighed. His train has to leaving right now.”

Dasha had never been sentimental, but at that moment she seemed on the point of tears. She turned to put the book back in its briefcase, took off her clothes and squeezed herself into the sleeping bag with me.

“What nasty perfume that woman left here,” was all the comment she made before embracing me and falling asleep.

At noon we went to eat in town. Bologna and pickle sandwiches. We told each other everything we’d done. We hugged. We promised that, come what may, we’d always be together.

We walked along the beach holding hands, talking again about Leo. We were happy—even more—we were deliriously happy. Stupidly happy.

When we reached the tent, our joy vanished: someone had robbed us. The backpacks were there, but the briefcase had disappeared. “Money or drugs,” the thief must have thought, who surely had seen it when it was still in Leo’s hands.

—  Agustín Cadena, translated from the Spanish by Patricia Dubrava.

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Agustín Cadena was born in the desert region of Valle del Mezquital, México, 1963 and currently teaches at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Essayist, fiction writer, reviewer, poet and translator, he has published over 20 books. His awards include the University of Veracruz Prize for short fiction and essays, in 1992; the National Prize for Children’s Literature, in 1998; the San Luis Potosi National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2004; and the José Agustín National Prize for Short Fiction, in 2005. His works have been translated into English, Italian, and Hungarian, and adapted for radio and TV broadcasting. Cadena blogs at elvinoylahiel.blogspot.com.

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Patricia

Patricia Dubrava was born in New York and chaired the creative writing program at Denver School of the Arts. She has published two books of poems and one of stories translated from the Spanish. She is an essayist, poet and translator whose recent translation publications include a dozen Cadena stories, most recently in Fiction Attic, Exchanges and Mexico City Lit. A Cadena story was included in NewBorder: An Anthology, in 2013. Dubrava blogs and has more information on her publications at www.patriciadubrava.com.

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Nov 102016
 

BGE IBA brand mark CMYK blue 2015


Great to see that a number of Irish writers featured in Numéro Cinq‘s Irish series Uimhir a Cúig have been shortlisted for the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. Patrick Deeley’s memoir, The Hurley Maker’s Son, has been shortlisted for Non-Fiction Book of the Year. I am thrilled to have published an extract from this memoir, A Callow’s Childhood, in March 2015 before it had been accepted for publication. A well-deserved nomination for Patrick. Claire Hennessy (whose short story Screen was published in October 2015) has been shortlisted for Children’s Book of the Year. And in a nice stroke of luck/coincidence/inevitability, both John Connell and I have been shortlisted in Short Story of the Year category. I was pleased to publish an interview with John and an extract from his debut novel, The Ghost Estate, in April 2015. My own shortlisted story, What a River Remembers of its Course, I am proud to say, was published in and nominated by Numéro Cinq for the awards.

At this stage in the process, the winners are chosen from the shortlists by readers themselves. You can vote for the award categories HERE  and have the chance to win one of four prizes of €100 of National Book Tokens. Voting closes at midnight 11th November.

—Gerard Beirne

Nov 102016
 

Mark Cox

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Level

Each evening when they stop at a campground, he helps his father level the trailer. Everything has to be just right. You want the water to flow correctly, don’t you? You want the floors to be just like home and to wake up refreshed without a headache, don’t you?  They move from corner to corner, tightening the jacks. The boy looks at the bubble in the level. He calls out when it centers itself. Everything is ready then. There is a calm when they place the folding chairs in a semi-circle around the fire pit. They hang the gas lantern from a limb and lug the cooler onto the picnic table. Then there is always the sun’s glow against it all as it lowers beyond the trees. Now his father can begin drinking in earnest and without pretense. Now it is time for the night animals to stir.  The strong can stalk and the weak must cower from place to place feeding as quietly as possible. The boy knows how it looks to the neighbors. A happy family. Everything calculated just so. What did it matter? The leaves fell each autumn and were replaced. All the foliage here would be reduced to dirt before he could even drive a car. The light would still glow blood red on leaves at sundown. The dark was sure to come. There was nothing for him to do about it. He knows just two things for certain: he never wants to become like his father and he must control everything he can. It is just a matter of time. One day he will have a family of his own and things will be done his way– his way and no one else’s.

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Suncatchers

His sister is home already. A school bus drops her off at the door to their apartment building. The boy, though, has a short walk home, first along 57th Street, then west on McNeill. There is a row of fast food franchises on the latter, so he usually grabs takeout before the dinner rush. Their father works even later now.  He will check on them by phone around 4:30, just to make sure they are safely there. After that, who knows when he’ll get in. Sometimes the two are in bed already, having left any schoolwork out for him on the breakfast nook table. The boy looks up into the glass and steel that rises around him on all sides. It seems he lives in a world of mirrors, mirrors that reflect only other mirrors. From the street, the windows, with the sun striking them, seem the blazing scales of some book’s ancient beast. He walks faster, but not out of fear. He doesn’t want his sister’s shake to melt. He’s almost there. Mike the doorman spots him at the corner, toots his whistle and waves him into the crosswalk. Upstairs, the girl has set up TV trays in front of the sofa. She has lost weight since March. He brings her bigger portions, but that doesn’t seem to matter. She stands at the apartment’s picture window and looks across into the office building across the way. The business of the world is getting finished. Papers are being stacked, desk drawers are being opened and closed, files are being filed, phones are being answered. None of it seems real to her. Everything now seems temporary. When her brother arrives, they will choose a movie. It will be hard to watch, it always is, but they can’t help doing it. At the park feeding ducks, a Christmas morning, a day at the zoo. Somehow it doesn’t matter that they’ve seen them before, there is something new to focus on every time. They ask each other questions. They help each other remember. In some, her brother is so young that she is nowhere to be found. Time, now that is real. Sometimes they pause or slow the movie so it doesn’t pass as quickly. You can truly see the faces then, the small changes in features between smiles and complete sentences. Sometimes her brother goes to the screen and points things out in the background, things he remembers that she does not. Sometimes they freeze Mother’s face right as she is talking to them. And they finish homework that way, while her suncatchers in the window flare brightly, then dim.

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Prisoners

The girl has grown up beside the prison. She sees the walls every day. She sees the sun glint on the razor wire and imagines she can feel the massive doors opening and closing beneath her feet. State vehicles often rumble by, rarely with more than momentary faces in a window. Some nights, the girl dreams of a prisoner’s hands at her throat. The man wants help escaping. Food or a weapon. The girl is frightened and runs to tell her parents, but always they lie murdered in their bed. What is she to do now? Alone in this life with a baby sister to protect? The girl readies herself for the worst, the prisoner has followed her to sister’s room. The girl has her body between the crib and the door. And always at this point she wakes, charged with drama, unable to sleep, her heart having quickened. Tonight, she opens a window to listen. There is a distant siren, but not so much as a tomcat on her neighborhood streets. The wind bristles in the elm trees. She thinks about life behind the walls. What the cells must be like compared to her comfortable bed and her bathroom with a door on it and the air hundreds of men have breathed first. What could be yours in a place like that? How could you stay you? Who wouldn’t kill or kidnap a school girl to get out of town? Now, her mother comes in and puts her back to bed, away from the window. A mother just knows. In fact, she has her own unsettling dream of the prisoner, as does the father, as does everyone in the town. Even the prisoner dreams, though he dreams of waking up to breakfast with loud children and a wife, then facing a job which he isn’t trained to do. But soon enough the dreams will stop. Soon enough it will be morning again. And only the sun will be vaulting the guard towers, only the birds will be flying to and fro over the high prison walls.

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Headstrong

Their skeletons are still below the spillway. There is even some ravaged hide left, if one would call it that. Tough way to go, the boy thinks. The two goats even seem to be facing each other, just as they must have on the dam itself, barring each other’s passage along the narrow walkway. Not quite halfway across is where it seems to have happened, they met here and could go no further. The boy kicks a stone down and feels it in his stomach as it drops and strikes the earth. It hasn’t rained much this summer, the crops are withering, the county lake is low. The spillway is as dry as–well, as dry as these bones, now uncovered and bleaching in the high sun. Goats are gifted climbers; even plain old billies are nimble by nature. It would have been easy enough to pass. Or for one or both to turn and walk the other way. Headstrong, his mother calls it. She says it with a mixture of disdain and resignation, and just a touch of pride. She says he comes from a long line of stubborn men. Men, he knows, who get things done. Men who finish what they start. Men who make things happen no matter what the cost. The boy knows that some people thrive on conflict. He has seen the aggressive kids get their way. Maybe people are just angry that life is brief. That’s why they want everything now. The boy kicks another stone over the spillway, then a bottle cap packed with parched dirt. It lands squarely between the two dead goats, their skulls still poised at one another. What does anyone really want? To have been understood in this world, to have walked this spillway, the hallways of his school, the streets of his little town, and to be acknowledged for having been. To be considered. To be reckoned with. To be taken into account. The boy stands at the spillway till he can feel the skin burning on the back of his neck. Then he turns and goes back the way he came.

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Balls

The boy’s testicles hurt. This is something new. He straddles his bike gingerly, one foot still on a pedal, the other on the guard rail of the overpass. It is 10:30 in the morning. Traffic has lessened but is steady on the interstate. It is the long distance travelers now, not the commuters. It is the people who are really going places, seeing things he would like to see. A hundred years ago, he would be a boy by a river, watching his bobber dip in the water, watching driftwood make its way downstream or the occasional barge. This tenderness, the internet says, is part of growing up. It has to do with need and physical change in the body. He can expect a lot more where this came from. If he times it right, he can spit onto the roof of a tractor trailer. He doesn’t know why this matters, that even a little bit of himself swept out of town is better than none at all. To him, it comes out more like contempt and just feels like the thing to do. He thinks a long time before he starts tossing rocks, gravel at first then larger, trying to see how much he can get away with. There’s contact, but to his amazement it goes unnoticed, the world just speeds by, no one pulls over or calls the highway patrol. It is going to be a long summer. He could look for Jimmy and his friends, they always seem to bike around in a pack. Or he could head south and check out the new construction in that neighborhood next to school. He could snag a beer from the workers’ coolers. Anything with an element of risk. He can’t go home yet, there is nothing there but chores he’s been avoiding, help his single mother needs around the house. Cars are still streaming beneath him. The spit on that truck, it is in the next county already and he is still here on this overpass in the searing sun watching the world in its various colors pass him by. None of it, none of it sets quite right with him. He squirms a bit to get comfortable and he tugs at the crotch of his jeans, making room.

—Mark Cox

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Mark Cox’s most recent book is Natural Causes, published in the Pitt Poetry Series. More recently, he edited Jack Myers’ posthumous poetry collection The Memory of Water (New Issues). New poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Green Mountains Review, The Florida Review, New Ohio Review and Miramar. He teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 092016
 

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Winter arrives. The cinder has come to rest over me, too, in the silent mist of it. I’m alive, I tell myself, for a little while longer at least, during these unbound and bygone days. I still struggle the anguish in my voice, the cold I wrest it from. Rest, just rest here, in this cold furrow the weather has dug, go on with it, and suffer the hours death won’t complete. It is no use. Outside, around me, in every distance is something heard but too faint to interpret. Sometimes I wonder if I even hear anything at all. I lie motionless to listen with a purpose I never tire to deny myself. I am tired, though, I give it up easily, fidgeting amongst the foliage, the moss, the seethed sod. It’s the same hope I hear, words spoken to me without sound but a sensation I shiver. They are my words, of course, coming from me. Soon I will also struggle for warmth, under the shade I’ve chosen to reside, for the time being that becomes, not unusually, longer than I intended. I’m still here, after all that has passed, and now I can see my breath in the grayscaled evening, leaving me by a listless kind of labor. When I raise my head to receive the Emu of the sky, I find instead heavenly bodies I can no longer name, disappearing behind a tunnel of trees and appearing again when the leaves have ceased shaking. With great care, repeatedly, I trace the constellations that are yet discerning, gnostic to me, and follow them before they flee, before the morning recovers them. It is no use, even if the aurora will never ascend again. My sight trains itself on the space between paling embers, gathered in the darkness, and I can feel the earth spinning on its axis. I had been sleeping, it seems, with dreams of my decease, promised to me, swarming the embers’ dying glow, wanting not to restore their radiance but to collapse with them on the horizon. I had come to stop here after a walk, yes, a long, lonely peregrination, that at first brought me elsewhere, possibly, before leading me here. For how long have I settled? Under what conditions has my roaming stayed me? It is no use. I have not the ambition or strength to get up, go on, from here to where, for now at least, but I find my ways, have always. I thought I had seen Gulfoss, the Iguaza Falls, other cliffs my eyes felled on from out of reach, but that was another time, eating away at another’s marrow. I would have plummeted, but I chose the dirt over the sea, wherever my wanderings have taken me, the least hospitable, and a final resting place. I am afraid I may have missed my chance to go quietly, that’s why I stay here, and wait. Despite my confusion I still have reasons, must still make excuses. I do not worry, someone will find me here, eventually, some day, maybe not. I think now I am close to ending, the streetlights have turned out, dormant, inert, cockroaches emerge to herd on my skin, it begins to snow, or is it ash that comes down, no matter, it is no use, no impetus to move. Except now my surroundings begin to frost over, and to maintain the mire for which I had grown accustom I turn from my back to my stomach (I am numb at present). I press my face to the soil and till it with my cheek, creating a depression to fit comfortably the profile of my head. I hear a strong gust of wind with one ear lifted to the sky. Is it still night? Perhaps it’s another night now, to fall once more and recur again. The grass has died here, in the slough, perhaps it was I who killed it with my body. Perhaps this small patch of lawn will grow back when the season’s over, or it will be given seed and sown when I have left it, in one way or another, below or a part of. For now it’s hard to determine, too far for conjecture, I’d rather not say, pay any more mind to the point. Holding in my hand a small portion of surface I hollowed out from the marl. I presume the earth no longer belongs to me, crumbling to dust through my fingers. What thought will lend itself, heed me next? There’s hardened mud below my eye, like a teardrop, like a teardrop, like a teardrop I repeat, before memory mellows me, but it is no use, it is really just filth, I can be carrion now, though, unencumbered, when in my youth, under my father’s roof, to keep clean was a chore to be performed with the utmost care, or witness a harsher punishment than public humiliation. A foul stench is offensive, he would say, better to be kempt in this world. My father, he was a wretched man that nobody liked, I may have left because of him, but that is not likely, no, I was ill-fated to leave, without a reason but surely with blame, probably, or I was ditched, left alone, so I went. He didn’t die alone, though, like I am sure to do, dirty, feculent, soon, surely, with no food or water to nourish me. Somewheres along the way I hid what little possessions I had on me, brought from the beginning or otherwise purchased, begged for, thieved, found, or collected, until all that was left was the pursuit of images, real or perceived, it makes no difference. They are all but gone now, the objects and the effigies. With difficulty I can conjure them, which keeps me living, form unfaithful relics in their stead. I am unwilling, mostly, in this effort, I wish them not to be mine. I tried to leave them behind, but out of fear or regret, someday, even remorse, I kept record of their locations, maintaining with careful detail instructions on how to retrieve them again, had my mind changed about their meaning to me. I used to believe I would want them back, to taste again the whisky from Islay, the Dokha smoke on my tongue, to feel the weight of my notebook, the rough material of my change of clothes, to hold in my palm the silver ring passed down to me, gifted, then regained, but meaning is a brittle thing. Nonetheless the record has been lost, forgotten at the last gutter I came to rest at, and for this I feel great relief rush over me. It’s all memory, is it not, taking into consideration the extent to which it has been modified, over time becoming or long passed, reemerging. I would rather that which is not, when to be is to become a ditch. I don’t know where I am anymore, where I will go, if I am able, if anywhere, it’s no use, stay, I’ve made a nice little nest for myself, in spite of the temperature and the clouds, which are fine to me anyhow. Even the snow, which now coats, a thin layer, the lower region of my body. More sounds a far ways off, lulling me, guests arriving, perchance, it could happen. Feasibly it’s the birds, undecided if they should flock and fly south, or the pale rider, ringing the dinner bell with his horse’s hooves, more audible over ice and rime, but no less forgiving. I can never know, anyhow, never really have known, have I. It is a short field to march. A sound draws me nearer to the soil, voices maybe, and now I am frostbitten. I have not managed my appearance so well. To weep, to weep, to weep and to blubber, and grieve, would save me from perishing, but this indecency has become strange to me. It’s no use, just the slightest excuse, for having lived licentious and ugly. Dying in the silence has its uses, too, when death is not a consequence but a commencement, unsaid.

—Jared Daniel Fagen

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Jared Daniel Fagen is a writer living in Brooklyn. His prose has appeared in The CollagistPLINTHThe Brooklyn RailSleepingfishMinor Literature[s], and elsewhere. His nonfiction has been published in The Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. He edits Black Sun Lit and studies at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Nov 082016
 

I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. —Lawrence Sutin

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My Private Property
Mary Ruefle
Wave Books, 2016
128 pages, $25.00

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As I am a friend of Mary Ruefle, I will not pretend to be an objective reviewer, if there is such a thing. But as I loved her writing before I ever knew her, I am no mere shill. I have praise to offer that you can trust if you are looking for something good to read that spins your head in spare American prose that cannot be safely stashed in any genre. Ruefle kneads imagination and thought together into a delicate yet chewy dough that rises into brilliant little lyric rolls and pastries. The kicker is that, after eating your fill with delight, you may find yourself unsettled. Nothing you think makes sense any more because Ruefle’s language has untamed your mind.

In the two longest pieces in the book, “Pause” and the eponymous “My Private Property,” Ruefle makes use of diametrically different forms. “Pause” is made up of multiple short sections that are sometimes only a single sentence. “My Private Property” is one long paragraph that goes on for fifteen pages. “Pause” is about menopause of which Ruefle writes in bile-filled warnings as one who has moved on to “happy old age” with its “grace and gentle words, and ways that grim youth has never known.” The essay thus encompasses the lifespan of woman, as viewed by Ruefle, with menopause serving as the liminal passage out of the past of human ties, procreative ties, that have inhibited one’s creative evolution—“there are no longer any persons on earth who can stop you from being yourself.” “My Private Property” is about shrunken heads in all senses, not only the fearful physical shrinkings but also the bejeweled, bedaubed and photographed miniatures favored by every human culture as a form of remembrance. Ruefle takes in colonialism at its worst, the sketchy consolations of her own psyche, and the tenderness of loss and death. Having seen the Congo Museum in Brussels as a teenaged student abroad, she recounts in vividly accurate prose the shock of waking up, as an adult, to the history behind the museum’s sanctimonious cultural acquisitions—“wealth acquired by force of so filthy an unspeakable an evil our heads cannot fathom it and have no single word for it, but must resort to endless corridors of words, each corridor turning into another corridor a thousand miles longer than the last in our hopeless search for some inner chamber of understanding that does not exist.”

The inadequacies, the pliabilities, the mutabilities of language are frequent points of exploration for Ruefle, who well knows the roles of both writer and reader in language games. In “Lullaby,” Ruefle sketches in a Daoistic manner the pleasures of succumbing to somnolence, an oft-overlooked effect of artistic receptivity, be it to music, the visual arts, or writing. The examples Ruefle employs are the classical composer Brahms (his Lullabies), the Swiss sculptor Giacometti (his supple elongated figures) and—the surprise choice—the American writer Henry Miller. Ruefle’s portrayal of her hypnagogic psyche taking in Miller is a model of how, languidly and hilariously, to disarm a male language harangue without disturbing one’s composure: “I often fall asleep while reading him. When he uses that hard word cunt again and again, it finally becomes something soft, so very soft, which is startling because a cunt really is soft, it’s a warm, soft, wet-while-young place, a spot really, given the size of the universe, the way a star is a spot, but there are so many of them—I mean cunts—who can keep track?”

Scattered throughout the book (untitled on the pages themselves, though single-word color labels—Blue; Purple; Black; and so forth—are given in the table of contents) are a sequence of eleven short takes on sadness keyed by color—the other shades being gray, red, green, pink, orange, yellow, white, brown. These allow Ruefle to display her gift for imagistic writing as emotionally compelling as Expressionist paintings. Ruefle does not stray into psychological judgments of the natures of her sadnesses. By using precise details that are not strictly tied to color scheme (so as to avoid becoming too matchy-matchy), she rivets the reader by revealing the prismatic secrets of her sadness spectrum. Take, for example, green sadness, which is, among other moments in Ruefle’s imagination, “the funeral silence of bones beneath the green carpet of evenly cut grass upon which the bride and groom walk in joy.” Because vivid, specific details inherently (given the nature of human consciousness) contain multiple emotional valences, Ruefle’s pieces take on a trans quality. Ruefle’s note at the back of the book is astonishingly accurate: “In each of the color pieces, if you substitute the word happiness for the word sadness, nothing changes.”

To be fair, something does change. With the substitution, each piece remains subtle, vivid, and true. But the reader discovers that happiness and sadness happen in the same colors, which we can paint howsoever our minds allow. My one complaint about the design of the book is that I think the color-sadness pieces should have been given a sequential section of their own so as to foster their cumulative impact, rather than be scattered here and there between other writings.

My single favorite piece in My Private Property is a short work entitled “The Sublime.” In it Ruefle employs a trick often employed by poets though relatively seldom by prose writers. One chooses a title that serves, as it were, as the answer to the riddle of the ‘secret’ meaning of the piece. In this case, Ruefle describes a literally hair-raising drive over hair-pin mountain roads. The closing line: “Could see from the corner of my eye that there was an incredible view, but couldn’t look.” Again, as in the color-sadness pieces, Ruefle allows us to see that first-rate writing reveals more than we can possibly expect, which is why we read.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Larry Sutin

Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West. In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com. In 2014, he and his wife Mab Nulty founded See Double Press, devoted to unique interfusions of text and image.  Its first two titles are Mary Ruefle’s An Incarnation of the Now and his own The Seeming Unreality of Entomology.  An essay written and illustrated by Lia Purpura is coming out in Fall 2016.  For more, check out seedouble.press. Sutin teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Nov 082016
 

Jose de Trevi photograph_2José de Trévi

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In his 1944 existentialist play No Exit, Sartre famously wrote, “Hell is other people.” He was, of course, referring to the “perpetual ontological struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object in the world of another consciousness,” but the phrase has been misinterpreted and misused to suit our needs ever since. In my experience, Hell came in the form of a man named José de Trévi, a Belgian tenor who sang with the National Opera of Paris from 1930 to 1943. Tenors at that time were regarded as “princes among singers,” and de Trévi was a rare breed of tenor, one who could sing outside a tenor’s typical vocal range. Because of his talent, he made a career singing the most coveted lead roles in the most prestigious theaters all over Europe, specializing in some of Wagner’s most famous operas: Tristan and Isolde, Tannhauser, all four epics of the Ring Cycle. Over the course of his career, he sang in over three hundred performances throughout France, and was hailed repeatedly by critics for his singing, his acting, and his dashingly good looks.

de Trevi letterExcerpt of letter from José de Trévi to his wife, Elsa

All letter excerpts are from the author’s personal collection.

I first encountered de Trévi when I purchased a couple of his letters at a Parisian flea market in August, 2014. The letters were correspondences between him and a woman named Elsa—who I learned through the letters was de Trévi’s wife. I was captivated by the outpourings of “my dear beloved” and “my adored love” that de Trévi showers on Elsa. He tells her how much he misses her and their young son, Billy. He writes that he hopes he will see an end to their miseries soon, that he wants only to be with his little family. “But, my beloved,” he writes in one letter, “I am obligated to stay here, obligated by necessity, by money—that accursed metal that prevents you from doing many things, and prevents me from seeing those that I love!”

Elsa and Edouard de Trevi photoElsa and Billy 

His letters offered small glimpses into the personal life of a man who, in the 1930s and early 1940s, was a pretty big deal. But aside from a couple of short biographical articles about his career and a few brief mentions in out-of-print books about the opera, I could find nothing else about de Trévi. It seemed that he was quickly disappearing from recorded history. So I kindly took it upon myself to track him down and tell his story.

At first, it was all fun and games—deciphering his handwriting, translating his letters from French to English, digging into archives to read reviews of his performances. I fancied myself a kind of private detective, and everything de Trévi wrote about the opera, the people he spent time with, the way he spent his days, even his tone and the expressions he used were clues into who he was. But de Trévi’s life still remained largely a mystery. I could find nothing about who Elsa was, why de Trévi left the opera, or even how he died. I followed every lead and hit hundreds of dead ends and gave up on the project altogether more than once. And then, after a time, I’d feel the nag of unanswered questions, and I’d return to the books, the operas, the letters, and let de Trévi lure me back into the lonely hole of biographical research.

de Trevi letter fragment_2

If you are wondering if these road blocks I’ve encountered aren’t due to my amateur status as a biographical researcher, I’ll admit I’ve wondered the same thing. So I interviewed the much more seasoned biographer, Deborah Baker, who has written three critically acclaimed biographies on vastly different subjects. Her first book In Extremis was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography about the life of the writer Laura Riding, an obscure and enigmatic poet who was one of the most influential figures in British-American literary history before she renounced poetry and spent the last fifty years of her life as a recluse in the swamps of Florida. Baker’s second book, A Blue Hand: The Beats in India, traces Allen Ginsberg, a poet and leading figure of post-WWII counterculture, on his spiritual odyssey in India in the 1960s. Baker’s third book, The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, was a finalist for the National Book Award and my introduction to her biographical chops.

The Convert is about the life of a woman named Maryam Jameelah, born Margaret Marcus into a secular Jewish family outside New York City in 1934. In her teenage years, she converted to Islam, and in 1962 she moved to Pakistan to actively live her faith under the guardianship of a man named Abdul Ala Mawdudi. Mawdudi was an influential leader in the mid-century Islamist revival and the father of its political movement. While living in Pakistan, Maryam began publishing essays on the evils of Western culture and the righteousness of Islam, and quickly became an active player in the growing divide between Islam and the West.

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Baker’s interest in Maryam, like mine, began with letters, a set of twenty-four that she found in the archives of the New York Public Library. And like me, she quickly became obsessed and spent the next several years reading and analyzing Maryam’s letters, her diaries, and her published essays to understand why she converted and how Islam served her spiritually. What Baker uncovered was a life fraught with peculiar events, strange circumstances, and ever-straining relationships with those who took Maryam in. Almost immediately after her arrival, Mawdudi began to pressure her to marry, though Maryam showed little interest in anything but her work. A year after her move, Mawdudi had her committed to an insane asylum, where she spent several months before being released into the guardianship of Mawdudi’s friend and political colleague, Mohammad Yusef Khan. Within days, Khan married Maryam without Mawdudi’s permission, and their relationship grew further strained. Eventually, Baker traveled to Pakistan to meet Maryam and discovered not the idealistic and hopeful woman of her letters, but a lonely old woman whose dreams of Islam did not seem to match her lived reality.

The book is an intersection between Maryam’s story and Baker’s tale of discovery. It weaves back and forth between Maryam’s letters and the events in her life and Baker’s research and reflections on what she has found. Reading Baker’s finished work on Maryam Jameelah was like looking at a perfect example of what I wanted my story of de Trévi to be. It combines mystery and adventure, is insightful and reflective, and follows Maryam’s life from her troubled childhood, to her awkward teenaged years, to her conversion to Islam. It details her life in Pakistan, probes into why she is committed to the insane asylum, teases out the truth about the circumstances surrounding Maryam’s marriage to Khan, all while exploring some of Baker’s own burning questions about cultural perspectives, the meaning of faith, and the seemingly irreconcilable tensions between Islam and the West.

But, misery certainly loves company, and so I was thrilled to learn that Maryam, as a research subject, was no less hell-inducing for Baker than de Trévi has been for me. In both the book and an interview I conducted with Baker about her research, I discovered just how frustrating biographical research is. It is not all fact-finding and mystery-solving. First of all, it involves a ton of tedious background research, road blocks, and dead-end leads. Second of all, you have to work for the truth. And finally, you spend years of your life researching and analyzing your subjects only to find that their lives are nonlinear, chaotic messes that you have to put into some semblance of a narrative.

Of course, if I had read the epigraph in the opening of Baker’s book, I might have avoided the frustrations altogether by never choosing to engage with de Trévi in the first place. The epigraph reads: “Whoever undertakes to write biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery….Truth is not accessible. —Sigmund Freud.” But I skipped it or at least didn’t pay much attention to what Freud had to say, and so I’ll share with you now three hard-learned insights into what makes other people so hellish to research and write about.

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1. Other people play hard to get.

One of the first things that drew me to de Trévi was his obscurity. There were a few biographical articles written about him, but they were just brief overviews of his career path and the major roles he played. The letters gave me some details of his personal life not present in the biographical articles about him, such as the name of his wife and the fact that he had a son, but there were whole pieces of his life that remained opaque, and I was excited to be the one to unearth the mysteries. But obscurity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes for a more interesting subject, but on the other hand, the lack of information is an obvious roadblock to research.

de Trevi letter fragment_5

In researching de Trévi, I was particularly interested in why his career with the opera ended in 1943. There was plenty of evidence in his letters to show that at least through 1942, he was demanding more roles and new contracts, and that he was trying to continue singing until at least as late as 1955. So had he left willingly, or was he forced out? Had his voice begun to fade, or had he gotten too expensive, or perhaps too demanding, to keep on the cast? One article said he was let go for refusing to sing in German, but I couldn’t verify this claim, and so I added this possibility to the list of questions the end of his career posed.

Unfortunately, if your subject hasn’t given you the answer himself, a simple Google search probably isn’t going to yield an answer either. Furthermore, finding the answer to a question usually doesn’t mean finding the answer directly. When I began researching de Trévi’s career, I thought that I was looking for a letter or contract or newspaper article that would tell me exactly what had happened, but of course, there was nothing of the sort. But answers are usually buried in clues, and finding them means researching around the question itself, asking new questions and speculating about possible outcomes. And this means doing an absurd amount of background research so you know what questions to ask of your question.

If this seems obvious to you, then you are probably someone who pays attention to epigraphs. I, on the other hand, as someone who likes to just dive right in, thought that because I was writing about a particular person and not a history of the French Opera, a general understanding of the culture and time would suffice. I quickly learned that without being nearly an expert on pre-WWII Paris and the French Opera—or at least consulting with one—I wouldn’t know how to put together the clues given to me in the letters.

I looked to Baker’s book to see the kind of research she had to do in order to write the story. In all, she cites forty unique sources and sixty-eight unique citations, excluding the letters themselves. But she told me in our interview that, even before she began pursuing the answers to specific questions about Maryam, she read hundreds of books on Pakistan and political Islam, India, anti-colonialism, and general history of the 40s, 50s, and 60s in the Middle East and America. She also read English translations and analyses of the Qur’an, scholarly works on Islam and the modern world from both Islamic and Western perspectives, and any available biographical information about the people Maryam knew, most extensively Mawdudi. By immersing herself in Maryam’s world and her immediate environment, Baker was better positioned to answer questions raised by Maryam’s strange life.

Deborah Baker

One of these questions that the book tries to answer is why Maryam was sent to the insane asylum. In a letter home to her parents, Maryam writes that Mawdudi sent her to the asylum for various “transgressions” she had committed against him, but she does not go into detail about the nature of those transgressions. She also expresses fear of Mawdudi’s politically driven intentions, leaving Baker to wonder about the circumstances around the incident.

One of the great things about Baker’s book is that we can actually follow her train of thought as she investigates a particular question. In order to understand why Maryam was committed, she turns first to Maryam’s character, asking herself what she already knows about Maryam: she is outspoken, idealistic, and faithful, and though she rejects the West, is still of the West. She can then ask herself what the transgressions might have been: an argument with Mawdudi about a tenet of the Qur’an? Maryam’s refusal to marry anyone Mawdudi suggested? Or could they have been related to some cultural misunderstanding on Maryam’s part? Baker also asks questions of Mawdudi’s character: What were the nature of his religious beliefs? How did he feel about Maryam? What was his involvement in politics? Each of these questions gives way to new, broader questions: How does Islam view unmarried, working women like Maryam? How does it view mental illness? What was the political atmosphere at the time?

Every avenue of research that Baker pursues requires a constant interplay between Maryam’s character, Mawdudi’s character, the events in Maryam’s life, the social and cultural factors at play, and the larger sociohistorical backdrop in which the incident took place. And every possible answer gives way to new questions, new speculations, and asks Baker to reassess what she already knows. Answering the question, then, is not always a matter of finding the answer, but of eliminating possibilities and inferring an answer based on what you know about the person, her immediate environment, and her place in history. In the end, Baker concludes that Maryam suffered from some kind of mental illness, but that she was also a victim of the cultural divide between the Middle East and the West.

Sometimes, though, even your best efforts to answer a question yield nothing but dead ends. Where this is the case, Baker suggested “hanging your hat on something else.” In other words, don’t get too attached to a particular fact you hope to uncover about your subject’s life. Rather, allow your research to make way for something else—another dramatic moment or a new revelation about your subject’s character—that will hold your story up.

I have not yet found an answer to why de Trévi left the opera, and perhaps I never will. While I thought that this would be the scandal around which the rest of my story revolved, I’ve had to let it go for now and pursue answers to other questions. But there is also space in the story for unanswered questions. Toward the end of The Convert, Baker asks: “How well did Maryam’s pronouncements on the true Islamic way of life serve her as a wife and mother? How well did her frail spirit withstand a life defined not by abstract notions but by whooping cough, typhoid, malaria? Had she achieved something noteworthy, or had she squandered her life on a dream? If the story didn’t end happily, how did it end?” (Baker, 211). She never finds answers to these questions, but by acknowledging them, she reveals something about the mystery and complexity of Maryam’s character, and of life itself.

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2. Other people are liars.

If unanswered questions and dead ends are sound reasons not to engage in biographical research, then the ability to go through their personal letters and diaries is a rather tempting reason to engage. In fact, I’ll admit, my first interest in de Trévi was born of sheer nosiness. I pored greedily through his letters hoping to find some mention of an affair or confession of a crime or exposé of a deep, dark family secret. But I soon learned that even in personal letters, people are not so forthright as you’d hope them to be. You really have to work for the gossip.

de Trevi letter fragment_3

de Trevi letter fragment_4

For example, in one letter to Elsa, de Trévi writes, “As you know, it is necessary that the affair of M.C. gets definitively settled.” In another letter, he writes, “I see more and more that nothing has been done about M.C.” But he’s never told me who M.C. is, and I’m left feeling like an outsider to an inside joke, or even worse, an outsider to what I am convinced was the juiciest secret between them.

Not only does de Trévi leave out information, but also he makes conflicting claims about his intentions and desires. Remember when he told Elsa how much he longed to be with her but had to stay in the opera for money reasons? Well, in another letter that same year, 1937, he writes to Elsa that he had a busy upcoming winter season at the opera and promised that this would be his last season, the end of their miseries. But in letters that I discovered in an archive, written around the same time by de Trévi to the director of the opera, Jacques Rouché, de Trévi shows no sign of wanting to leave the opera at all. In fact, right up through the last letter of the collection dated in 1942, five years after he tells Elsa he is going to leave the opera, de Trévi demands to sing more roles, claiming that he is the Wagnerian tenor of the Paris Opera. Reading these letters, I couldn’t help but feel that de Trévi had misled Elsa and me, that in fact he never wanted to leave the opera, that he was an artist first and a father second.

Letters and other personal documents are full of missing or misinformation like this. Some amount of missing information is to be expected, of course, because like everyday conversations, the person at the receiving end of the letter already knows what is being referenced, and as a researcher, you are eavesdropping halfway through. But in many cases, the writer is intentionally vague or misleading in order to deceive the recipient, or perhaps keep a secret between them from a third, unintended reader, such as a nosy but well-intentioned researcher like myself.

Even the most intimate letters, where we hope to find honest confessions, and diaries, where we expect a writer to really open up, have an implicit audience and therefore, the writer will twist his thoughts, feelings, and accounts of events ever-so-slightly—or perhaps drastically—in the interest of presenting a positive public view of himself. The person on the page, then, is a kind of invented persona. But where the writer slips up and we can spot a misstatement or a lie, we see glimpses of the real person behind the façade.

Spotting a lie can be as simple as recognizing an inconsistency with a known fact. Maryam’s earliest letters comprise a memoir published in 1989 called Quest for the Truth: Memoirs of a Childhood and Youth in America, 1945-1962: The Story of One Western Convert. In these letters, Maryam describes being bullied at school, at summer camp, and generally feeling estranged from her own family. She details her questions about her Jewish faith and growing fascination with Arabic history and culture that gradually turns to a sympathetic understanding of them, to her parents’ disapproval. In letters written after her move to Pakistan, Maryam describes finally feeling a sense of purpose, of meaning, and of home among her Islamic brothers and sisters in Pakistan (Baker, 18). Through these personal pieces of writing, Baker sees Margaret Marcus evolve from a troubled misfit, to a soul-searching sympathizer with the Arabic plight, and finally, to Maryam Jameelah, devout Muslim and champion of Islam.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-5-20-33-pmLeft: Young Margaret Marcus, Right: Maryam Jameelah

But Maryam was also a liar. Aside from the memoir’s too-long title with one too many colons, it had a few issues. First of all, Maryam incorrectly dates one letter November 31, 1949. Secondly, she refers in the letter to a speech delivered by Eleanor Roosevelt at Maryam’s high school the previous evening, which, Baker discovered in a newspaper article about the event, actually wasn’t delivered until the following February, 1950. It seemed that Maryam had forgotten to fact check a few things, but luckily for us, Baker hadn’t. She determines that the letters were inauthentic, that they had been fabricated as a kind of backstory by Maryam while she was living in Pakistan.

We can also spot lies by being aware of conflicting accounts and statements, either within the writer’s own writing, or between the writer’s accounts and the accounts of another person. In letters she wrote home to her parents, Maryam describes her life with Khan, “I am now home with my Khan Sahib, my co-wife Shafiqa, her children and aging mother, and many relations… After a long search, I have found my place and I will never exchange it for any other. You no longer have to worry about me. I believe I’m going to be very happy now” (Baker, 159). But this fairy-tale ending to Maryam’s strange life began to show cracks after Mawdudi’s son, Haider Farooq told a different version of the story, one that reveals Maryam to be an aggressive, mentally unstable woman who essentially tricks Khan into marrying her. Of course, Farooq might have been lying as well. But Maryam had already lost a little credibility, and even in her own writing Maryam shows a lack of interest and, in fact, an aversion to marriage. Baker wondered if this sentiment was sincere. She asks in the book, “For whose benefit…had [Maryam] narrated her happy ending?…Had she written this to allay her parents’ fears about her welfare or to establish her triumph? Was it meant as a piece of entertainment or of propaganda?” (Baker, 191).

A third way lies are revealed to us is through inconsistencies in the writing itself. When we read letters, we get accustomed to the tone, style, and ticks of the writer, and sudden changes in these established patterns can alert us to some kind of lie. In the case of the fabricated letters, Baker was further tipped off by the fact that while in her other letters, Maryam always referenced family news, these letters were missing any reference whatsoever. Baker notices a similar inconsistency in the letter in which Maryam explains that she has been sent to the insane asylum. Whereas Maryam tends to be wordy and detailed about everything else in her letters, in this instance, she is reserved, almost flippant about the incident. Baker suggests that there is something she doesn’t want to admit to her parents or even, perhaps, to herself.

What, then, do we make of all the lies? While they can be frustrating and require more outside research, they also reveal more about our subjects than the content of the letters themselves. Truth here isn’t just about the accuracy of stated events and feelings, but about the implications of the writer’s lies and secrets. What motivates them to keep secrets, to misstate things, to invent other selves? How do they view themselves? What agendas, desires, denials are revealed about the subject through their lies? In considering Maryam’s fabricated letters, Baker writes:

Maryam had composed these letters as missives to posterity, a Cinderella backstory plotted to foreshadow how her embrace of Islam had rescued her from America. The evils of Western civilization amounted to no more than a stage drop for her private travails. It was as if [Margaret] never ceased mining the material of her own life to establish certain proof that Islam was the answer to all the riddles it posed. (Baker, 208)

Baker doesn’t believe that Maryam necessarily made up the stories about her childhood, though she does disregard their content. But the fabrication of letters reveals something deeper about Maryam: her desperate desire to prove that Islam had been the solution to all of her problems and, more generally, the problems with Western culture. Furthermore, the positive spin Maryam places on her life in Pakistan tells a much bleaker story than if she had admitted that things weren’t going so well right up front and begs the question to what extent she wanted to believe, or did believe, her version of the story.

With personal documents, we are not dealing with facts, but rather secrets, personas, and lies, and it is up to us to interpret them, distinguish fact from fiction, and determine what the lies are saying about our subject. The real truth about our subjects often lies not in what is credible, but in what is false. Where the views diverge from reality or statements differ from facts, we see our subject ripped wide open, their imaginations revealed, and their deepest desires exposed.

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3. Other people’s lives are messy.

When I started researching de Trévi, I was under the delusion that with enough persistence, I could uncover his entire story from birth to death, unearth all of his secrets, and discover some universal truth about opera singers or history or life. For nearly two years now, I’ve pursued every lead, followed every avenue of research, and unearthed a smorgasbord of facts and details and speculations about de Trévi. It is easy to get caught up in secrets and lies, and tempting to continue the research until we’ve answered every question. But sooner or later, we have to stop researching and start telling the story.

de Trevi portrait and signatureJosé de Trévi: photo and signature

Lives do not unfold in a narrative fashion like we’d hope, and as researchers, it is up to us to make sense of what we have, to connect the dots and create some order out of all the chaos. So after we’ve uncovered everything we can about our subject, what do we actually have? First of all, we have a general chronology of the events in the subject’s life, a list of events pulled from letters and interviews and historical accounts of the person. De Trévi’s major life events included his first performance with the French Opera, his marriage, the birth of his son, and the end of his opera career. From such details as this, we can identify particular dramatic moments, conflicts, and places that we can turn into scenes and settings. With some imagination, for example, I can write the scene where he first steps onto the stage or a scene in which he pens a letter to Elsa from his room at the Hotel d’Iéna. We also have a general historical chronology in which these events took place, in this case, just before and during WWII in Paris. We can see where the events in the person’s life might have intersected with larger events. For example, in German-occupied Paris in the early 1940s, the German soldiers made up the majority of theater audiences throughout Paris, and de Trévi would likely have sung for them on many occasions. These historical events give us a more believable and interesting backdrop and shed light on the lives of our biographical subjects. Finally, we have a sense of character, inferred from both the truths and the lies we discover in their writing, from what others have said about them, and from placing them in their sociohistorical surroundings. Sounds like all the makings of a pretty compelling narrative, if you ask me.

How then do we create order out of the chaos? Baker suggested defining the scope of the narrative. A biography does not need to give equal weight to, or even to include, every moment of a subject’s life. Defining the scope means, first of all, determining the chronological boundaries of the narrative. This is determined by both what information is available to us, as well as where we think the most interesting and dramatic moments are. In Baker’s book, for example, she focuses Maryam’s story primarily on the part of her life covered by the letters, from her decision to move to Pakistan, to her arrival, to the insane asylum and finally, to her marriage to Khan. She does some backstory about Maryam’s childhood, but covers her entire adult life in Pakistan after her marriage, including her life as a mother, in less than a chapter of the book.

Defining the scope also means determining the larger focus of the story itself. What themes can we tease out of our subject’s life, and what larger questions does their life answer? Baker asked me to consider my own story about de Trévi. Is it a love story? A war story? A 1930s Paris story? These things are not mutually exclusive, but defining the scope of the narrative can help us see connections between events in the subject’s life, and between the subject’s life and historical events, and we can ask how this particular life reflects life in a wider sense and what questions it answers for us. In The Convert, Baker asks What is the nature of the divide between Islam and the West? Maryam’s story, then, encompasses the larger cultural, historical, and metaphysical issues raised by this question. But by encompassing certain themes, we necessarily exclude other themes and issues, which helps to focus and direct the story and the research.

Creating order is also a matter of structure. Though we are attempting to recreate a life, we do not need to put that life into chronological order. The Convert is structured, not according to the unfolding of events in Maryam’s life, but rather according to Baker’s gradual discovery of Maryam’s life. The book begins with what is arguably the most pivotal moment in Maryam’s life, her move to Pakistan, and then follows Baker’s line of questioning as she investigates Maryam’s life and tries to answer the root of the disconnect between Islam and the West. The story jumps back and forth through time, as each question that arises for Baker necessitates new investigations into Maryam’s past and inspires new reflection in Baker’s present. This structure in turn teases out the peculiarity of certain events, heightens the mystery, and allows the questions themselves to create tension and drama within a larger story.

Finally, creating order is a matter of self-reflection, about answering why we chose this particular subject in the first place. For Baker, Maryam Jameelah’s search for faith and truth mirror her own and help her confront her own biases and assumptions about the world in which she lives. At first, I didn’t think my de Trévi project was anything more than a completely selfless attempt to recreate another person’s life. But one residency, when I was excitedly telling a faculty member about the letters I’d found and my research of de Trévi, she stopped me mid-gush and said, “You love him, don’t you?” The question took me by surprise, but she was absolutely right. As much as I hate de Trévi for coming into my life and sending me on an endless goose chase to discover his, I love him, because he tells me something about myself and about the fragility and purpose of human life. De Trévi ends one of his letters, “Goodbye my dear, adored Elsa. You are my whole life and my reason for being on this earth.” In some ways, I think that de Trévi has become my reason for being, or in the very least, my reason for writing. At some point, the biography itself turns back on the biographer, and understanding what our subjects say about us can help us understand what we are trying to say about our subjects.

So researching and writing biography isn’t all bad. Despite the frustrations, the road blocks, the chaos, in the end, it is an act of self-discovery, of love, and a little bit of narcissism. It is also an act of creation. If Hell is (researching) other people, then Paradise is bringing them back to life, and it stands to reason that as researchers and writers, we are gods: we listen to their lies, clean up their messes, and try to make something beautiful out of them.

Works Cited

Baker, Deborah. The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism. Graywolf Press: New York, 2011. Print.

De Trévi, José. Letters to Elisabeth de Trévi. Trans. Mary Heitkamp. Personal Collection.

—Mary Brindley

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Mary Brindley is a Vermont-born, Boston-based copywriter currently living in London. A recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, she writes creative nonfiction and is excited to make her publishing debut on Numéro Cinq.

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Nov 072016
 

lordan-viaDave Lordan via West Cork Lit Festival


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In the middle of the night The County Manager called to my door. I murdered him with the ceremonial dagger I always bring when answering my door, whether or not it’s in the middle of the night. I stabbed him in the voice-box. It was an efficient kill, then, although also, with hindsight, in this case something of a mistake. Actually, a big mistake, a major mistake, the consequences of which I am still paying for. He bled to death voicelessly and so he did not get the opportunity to explain to me why he, of all people, had taken it upon himself to call to my door in the middle of the night, a time when both he and I should have been in bed, sleeping. Of course I do not sleep very much, and never have, especially not in the middle of the night. I have since come to the conclusion that The County Manager was also, like me, a light, daytime sleeper, and that when he called to my door he was entirely and – for him – ordinarily awake. There is also the possibility – I don’t consider it much of a possibility – that he was sleepwalking, meaning that, when he died, he died in his sleep, somnambulantly, unknowingly. It’s the kind of lie about a gruesome death that no-one minds telling or pretending to believe. Although we all die unknowingly, don’t we? And I would go further than mere somnambulance, mere automatism in the case of The County Manager. I would say that when he died it was in the middle of a beautiful dream of managing a future county perfectly divided by a canal of his own design, named, in fastening honour of his eternal prestige as The County Manager’s Canal. On one bank lies the district in which it’s always day, and, on the other bank, the district where it’s always night. On the one side the things of the day, on the other side the things of the night. Everyone would, under The County Manager’s constant supervision, have strictly regulated access to both sides, and behave accordingly when in either. No mix-ups. No twilight. I say he died happy then, in a perfection of his own making. It was, if so, an ineluctably joyful death. Nevertheless, the County Manager is dead and surely he has left behind him several close ones, in several kinds of close relationships with him, all requiring that he not be dead, that he be anything but dead. These people must be feeling unhappy, perhaps also guilty, for reasons clear or unclear to them, that The County Manager is dead, or missing, presumed dead, or even worse from the point of view of emotional and, perhaps yet more grievously again, financial complications, missing, presumed alive. I am sorry to be so uncouth as to mention finance here in what is, in effect, The County Manager’s Obituary, but I don’t want to come across as insincere and stupid, as missing something so obvious, no matter what. For posterity’s sake, I suppose, for the sake of my reputation in eternity, I wish to be absolutely clear and complete in my sentences. There is more than my own microbial legacy at stake, I know; it’s to the afore-insinuated associates, colleagues, friends and relatives of The County Manager that justice calls for reparation, for the dead themselves remain forever unreparable. There’s no doubt in my mind about that much, most of the time. I am really writing this not for my own sake but so that interested parties, no matter what their particular species of interest might be, will be able, now and forevermore, or for at least as long as the present lingua retains its presently fading legibilty, to learn exactly what happened to The County Manager on the night of his sudden, unexpected, tragic, and, for certain, horrific demise. Now, consider this in my defense (not that I am seriously considering defending myself for an act so many out there are bound to be steaming in silent envy of): what if I were also sleepwalking at the time of this death? Would that not mean that just as he had innocently died in his sleep then I had innocently killed in my sleep? Would this not mean that, in legal terms at least, the event we are discussing never took place? It never legally took place. Well, whether it was within the zone understood by the law, or outside that ever-indeterminate territory, he bled to death rapidly on the rough ground outside my front door, his blood fleeing copiously downhill from him, a forlorn stream bound to dry out long before it reached the sea, to dry out within sight of its source. It must be the worst result for any kind of stream not to be able to forget that it has a beginning. Imagine if every time you turned around you saw your mother’s open legs, pouring the blood and gunk of your beginning. I live on top of the hill, by the way, in view of the sea, but in no danger atall from it. I have not had to take part in the furious debate about whether our coastal plains, upon which the far majority of our stacked and close-quartered County populace exists, are or are not in imminent danger of catastrophic inundation; and if they are what precisely it’s that he, The County Manger, should be urgently doing about it. Pity whoever the people select to be their saviour from the sea. I suspect – it’s one among many vociferous contending suspicions within me – that he called unannounced to my door in the middle of the night with the idea of apprehending me dozily off-guard and canvassing me to agree to make some personal contribution to The County’s Major Inundation Plan. Whether financially, or, more likely, through accommodating fleeing refugees. The County’s Major Inundation Plan is currently, according to all the media, under intensive review, by County Manager’s Order. Well, I put the dagger through his neck and the request or order or whatever it was never got uttered. Unsurprisingly, even though I may well have been technically and legally asleep, the sudden, unexpected occurrence of a death, and a messy death at that, in my demesne, catapulted me into that anciently inscribed emergency mode we now call panic. When I panic I call P. P is not calm, but he is calming, to me. P keeps secrets. P has a car. He was with me within half an hour, during which I had had the presence of mind, despite perhaps being asleep, to mop the blood and wrap The County Manager’s remains in a blanket. Together, we dismembered the body quite artfully, and rapidly – P was once a doctor and knows his anatomy, and he saws like a lumberjack – and wrapped the bits again in separate plastic packages. In my opinion the bits gain greatly in individual distinction and beauty, gain aesthetically that is, from their dismemberment. In isolation, under the contemplative gaze of the gallery goer, or at least one who understands how to act in a gallery, and separated from the coherent, preprogrammed, utilitarian mainframe of the body entire, hands, feet, genitals, and so on gain a new aura; numinous significances emanate, which nature never intended, and which, from nature’s point of view, are useless. The release from intention and utility is brief, but beautiful, or beauty-making. Rough speech I know, but what else have I? It’s a long time since I sat in a classroom. Or read a book. Or heard one read. Well, it goes to show that there is something at least to gain from being chopped up, and that we all have our own idea of beauty. We drove off, still with hours of dark to come, and distributed the packages in various lots and woods and tips and reservoirs among the scarcely populated uplands hereby; where, by now, nature’s making use again for sure, for nature’s purposes, whatever they are. The best way to hide a body, P told me, (several times – he is so fond of repeating his bon mots, as well as entirely lacking in short term memory, so that it’s never possible to diagnose which of these causes his habitual retellings) the best way to hide a body is to hide it severally. Anyway, he went on, you can’t hide a body on this earth. Bodies are always found, if not by humans, then by dogs; if not by dogs, then by rats; if not by rats, then by ants, and so on all the way down to the bacteria that are patiently devouring the spherical corpse we call earth. When we returned to my house on the hill the light was also returning, the cold, soggy, miserable light of a dawn hereabouts. P said goodbye and drove off downhill into the impenetrable mist that hovers beneath, covering everything everywhere, often for weeks at a time. Back to his wife, whom he informed me, not without shadenfreude, was always overflowing with erotic enthusiasm at this hour of the morning. I inspected the rough ground outside my front door; I inspected the door; the doorstep. No spatters. No suspect material whatsoever. Nothing seemed amiss, either inside or out. I wondered then if the County Manager had called in the middle of the night to launch a surprise, high-level inspection of my premises, with the idea of finding enough irregularity to justify my eviction? Did he want my out-of-way house on the top of the hill for himself? For a command post? Who knows? I went back to bed, and fell into a deep sleep for about seven minutes. I admit that. I know falling asleep means I wasn’t feeling any guilt, or even a mild sadness. But I maintain the possibility and the defense that, before I fell into this deep sleep, I was already deep in another one. I was in a sleep within a sleep then, and therefore was not consciously responsible for either my actions or my emotional disposition. I will, by the way, take the appearance of grief and guilt at any future point, about this or any other matter, as a sign that I am finally, indisputably awake. Anyway, these events are nearly three weeks past now and I still don’t feel guilty, though I am terribly anxious. I am racked day and night by pangs of regret that I did not wait until The County Manager had announced to me his reason for calling to my door so interruptedly in the middle of the night, before sticking him through the neck with my dagger – that overwhelming surprise at the end of his life, that bloody exclamation mark I climaxed his story with. I must allow for the possibility that there was no reason atall why he called, and therefore that he died, and I killed, for no reason atall. Such thoughts condemn me to restlessness all day and all night. I have, like Mishima, considered seppuku. I have the equipment for it after all. And I also believe I possess the necessary high courage, the rigorous and unflinching fortitude for a sacred act of self-punishment. It’s only seppuku if someone we know witnesses it, however, someone who can confirm to others we died honourably, staring oblivion in the eye, welcoming the dark in with more steel in our gaze than in our gut. I don’t know who I could ask to be my witness. Not P. He would only laugh at me. He wouldn’t understand atall. He’d say don’t be thick. Don’t be such a contrary bollox. Disembowelling yourself, ha? You will in your arse. Sure I’ll get you a pill and it’ll be over in no time. You’ll fucking enjoy it my friend. And the worst that’ll happen is that you’ll shit yourself in a happy hallucination like my mother did. She, when the priest came to give unction, mistook him for Donald Duck, and chucklingly farted her last. Instead of seppuku I try my best not to move, not to fidget. TV is the best aid. The best servant. I glue to TV for news of The County Manager’s death. But, there has been no report. No mention whatsoever. No talk of a replacement. No talk of contenders, front-runners, also-rans, or outside chancers for this prestigious, powerful, enviously remunerated, limitlessly influential position; no talk of sideways moves from other departments, nor of messianic reformers transferred from other, even more important counties than ours; no talk of drastic reshuffles in the county offices. Everything carries on as it was, as if the county manager, poor man, and also the esteemed office of County Manager itself, have been removed all at once from the planet, and not one living soul out of all those who, until that point, had been under his constant county manager management has noticed. Except for me, the man who stuck him at my own front door in the middle of the night, while almost all in the county surely were sleeping, or sleeplessly stretched out abed anyhow, awaiting a knock or a tremor or boom that would call them forth anytime now to rise, to kill or to die, at last to end their supine longing.

—Dave Lordan


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Dave Lordan is a multi-genre writer, performer, editor and educator. His latest publications include the short story collection First Book of Frags, the poetry collection Lost Tribe of The Wicklow Mountains, and the Young Irelanders anthology of new Irish fiction, which he edited. He is the researcher for the popular RTE Poetry Programme and is a regular contributor to Arena, RTE Radio 1’s flagship art show. He has appeared at numerous festivals and venues in Ireland, UK, Europe, and North America as a performer, panelist, workshop leader and MC. He edits bogmanscannon.com, Ireland’s alt.culture hub. Last month he launched The Pirate Show, an alt.lit radio show on Dublin Digital Radio. Listen here.


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Nov 062016
 

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Studio Stills

img_0924Wave 16-1, 12x13x7″, stoneware and paint

img_0921Wave Cradle 16-1, 13x14x6″, stoneware and paint

img_0922Wave Cradle 16-2, 13x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0917Wave Cradle 16-3, 13.5x15x5.5″, stoneware and paint

img_0911Partners 16-1, 18x12x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0913Partners 16-2, 11.5x16x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0915Partners 16-3, 13x20x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0916Partners 16-4, 13.5x22x5″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0912Partners 16-5, 14x21x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

img_0914Partners 16-6, 15x22x4″, stoneware, paint and birch wood

—Anne Hirondelle

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Anne Hirondelle was born in Vancouver, Washington, in 1944 and spent her childhood as a farm girl near Salem, Oregon. She received a BA in English from the University of Puget Sound (1966) and an MA in counseling from Stanford University (1967). Hirondelle moved to Seattle in 1967 and directed the University YWCA until 1972. She attended the School of Law at the University of Washington for a year before discovering and pursuing her true profession, first in the ceramics program at the Factory of Visual Arts in Seattle (1973-74), and later in the BFA program at the University of Washington (1974-76). Anne Hirondelle has lived and worked in Port Townsend, Washington, since 1977.

Hirondelle’s beginnings as an artist were with clay. For over 20 years she was drawn to the vessel as an abstraction and metaphor for containment taking ideas from traditional functional pots and stretching them into architectural and organic sculptural forms. In 2002, to explore more formal ideas she abandoned her signature glazes for unglazed white stoneware and moved the work from the horizontal to the vertical plane. A year later she began painting the surfaces. Simultaneously, her drawings, once ancillary to the sculpture, took on a life of their own. Derived from the ceramic forms, drawn with graphite and colored pencil on multiple layers of tracing paper, they are further explorations of abstraction.

Hirondelle has exhibited nationally in one-person and group shows including: New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Scottsdale and Seattle. Her pieces are in myriad private and public collections including: The White House Collection in the Clinton Library, Little Rock, AR; The Museum of Arts and Design, NY; The L.A. County Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum.

She was the recipient of an NEA Fellowship for the Visual Arts in 1988. In 2004, Anne was a finalist for the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award. In 2009 her accomplishments were recognized by the Northwest Arts Community with the Yvonne Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. The University of Washington Press published Anne Hirondelle: Ceramic Art, a book about her work in February, 2012. In 2014, she was one of four Washington State artists selected to participate in the Joan Mitchell Foundation’s Creating a Living Legacy (CALL) Program.

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Nov 052016
 

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This passage illustrates how neatly Jim Gauer merges financial terms, computer-speak, wine connoisseurship, literary allusions, and the demotic, along with somewhat recondite words, sly wit and smugness, as a “liquidity crisis” threatens the narrator, a venture capitalist, and his partners. —Jim Bursey

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So at this point we have more investors, three, than we do employees, two, and we are well on our way to everlasting greatness. The rest of the Book of Genesis, detailing the actual buildup of the company, the hiring of twenty or thirty software and silicon engineers, the circuit designs and Verilog testing and ASIC tape-outs and wafer lot shipments, and launch of the product, and failure of the market, we can let these run, in computer jargon, in background mode, while we run in main memory. VCs have nothing much to do with building companies; we have everything to do with Board Meetings, and most of all, Board Dinners. The Board Dinners at Elicit were strictly regimented, drinks first upon arrival while the five of us gathered, standing room only, at the marble-topped bar, then on to our upstairs table where the first wines would be ordered, two or three bottles of Cabernet to get us started, while we contemplated the menu, though we knew it by heart, and a bottle of Chardonnay, in a silver ice bucket, standing next to Chase, to supplement the reds. The reds would start out at moderate levels, maybe a Mondavi Reserve or Phelps Insignia or Silver Oak Cabernet, before progressing to the true cult wines, the signature wines of the great 1990s technology bubble, wines like Araujo and Bryant and Dalla Valle “Maya”, Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Grace Family Vineyards, and maybe Colgin or Dunn’s Howell Mountain or Sine Qua Non, with its magnificent Rhone-style “Red Handed” Syrah, each of them ten times what I’d paid for my first car. If we were feeling particularly optimistic about the coming quarter, we might follow our sixth or eighth or twelfth bottle of Araujo with something more lavish from the Bordeaux region, a Chateau Lafite or Mouton or Margaux, particularly the 1982s that made Robert Parker famous, when he showed more than a few of these indelible creations a grave and sententious 100-point enthusiasm. For the moment, however, while the quarter looks adequate, we’re going to have to order another bottle of the Araujo, a wine that combines extraordinary power and richness with remarkable complexity and considerable finesse, a saturated purple/black color in the glass, followed by aromas of sweet vanilla and crème de cassis, intermixed with riveting scents of black currents and exotic spices, with overtones of minerals, coffee, and buttered toast, a subtle yet powerful giant of a wine, a wine that should age effortlessly for 30 or more years, though in this case we’re drinking it at the tender age of four, and while it is, undoubtedly, an alcoholic beverage, it’s so fucking tannic that you can’t feel your teeth, which seem to be cracking under the wine’s brute ferocity. Parker’s rating? Precisely a 98. In spite of our stomatological problems, we’re seriously discussing business, how the whole thing has stalled, how ATM to the Desktop doesn’t seem to be happening, how we’ve just had our eighth or twelfth or sixteenth quarter in a row of the exact same revenue, the company is going nowhere, while we sip another glass of an exquisitely fragrant but pugilistic beverage with a vicious left hook and anger management issues. One night in particular stands out from the rest, the memory is a little hazy, when one of my firm’s investors had come to check on his investment; at this point we’re the market leaders in a $0 billion market, with our losses slightly bloated by Board Dinner expenses, when we’re joined by Dan Leary, from the self-proclaimed legendary firm of Hartley, Budge, et al., systematic and analytical and precise investors, with riveting scents of Pynchon intermixed with a pithy skepticism, and just a hint of the paranoiac when it came to their money, which was gradually being converted into ethanol molecules, in order to pass cleanly through the blood brain barrier, and Dan wasn’t much of a wine connoisseur, no matter what sort of analytics were precisely applied, although he was, apparently, capable of counting, and the wine-bottle body count was shall we say staggering. Dan was…I think appalled would be the word…I’m not sure he understood the nature of true power and elegance, and everlasting innovation in the ATM field, and may well have regarded our drunken Bacchanalia as somehow inappropriate with the company under siege, and a liquidity crisis rapidly approaching, as we appended a couple of snifters of Delamain Très Vénérable, and savored its lingering fade from Russian leather to Eastern spice, and steeled ourselves at last to face the dark winter evening, knowing that while the real work had finally been completed, we still had to undertake some vital unfinished business: to stand up, in a stupor, and negotiate the stairs.

—Jim Gauer

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Jim Gauer is a mathematician, poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist.

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Nov 052016
 

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Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes. —Jeff Bursey

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Novel Explosives
Jim Gauer
Zerogram Press, 2016
722 pages, $15.95

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Introduction

For a long time, writers have been advised to be economical in their speech; to exercise restraint in the use of adverbs and adjectives (if they were compelled to use them at all); to show, not tell; to keep in mind that consumers want (or can only handle) friendly texts that are easy to grasp, mentally and physically; and to not mix genres overmuch for fear of sowing confusion. Exceptions to these rules include the works of Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Richard Powers, and Joseph McElroy, living exponents of the encyclopedic novel. (Past members range from Gustave Flaubert through James Joyce and Robert Musil to William Gaddis, Roberto Bolaño, and David Foster Wallace.) After reading Novel Explosives, with its rich vocabulary owing much to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Marx, Heidegger, Kierkegaard and others, to armaments manuals, to oenology, and to the inner workings of Mexico as well as the geography of Ciuldad Juárez, among many other apparently unrelated groups and sub-groups of knowledge, I consider Jim Gauer of the United States a member of that select group. I also feel, foolishly and falsely, that, at various times in my reading of his long, but never too long, first novel, I would be able to identify guns despite never seeing or touching them in real life, to know the purpose of different scalpels, and to slow down the world so as to notice everything, from the perspective of a turkey buzzard or a child astride a garbage heap.

What I mean to say is that in his novel Gauer, self-described on the back cover as “a mathematician, published poet, and possibly the world’s only Marxist Venture Capitalist,” gathers together facts and data, transforms them into knowledge about systems that are then distributed among his main characters, and through this understanding of how things work, the author creates a narrative that indicts his home country for, at best, and only in some instances, willful blindness, but more often for serious and long-standing morally criminal activity concerning drug use and commerce in weaponry. It is also a performance that expresses deep anger, and possibly loathing, for his country, authority, and human behaviour. Those emotions are not plentiful enough in our better-known contemporary novelists, and may be considered impolite, unseemly, undisciplined, and not easily aestheticized. Yet this book is not a rant or screed. Alongside the anger, and not contrarily, it is playful, replete with narrative ingenuity and a command of form. It has a middle finger unflaggingly raised against the rules described in this review’s opening sentence. Gauer’s novel is a burst of fresh air, and it resembles a Tarantino movie in the energetic drive of the prose, the jumbling of time, unexpected humourous lines or scenes, quasi-rhapsodic passages about the quotidian, direct addresses to the reader along with other meta-fictional flourishes (“Even characters in books deserve an evening now and then… [to] laugh at the creations they’d somehow been ensnared in, and the mind-numbing narratives they’d been forced to adhere to…”), and the threat or use of violence, though for anyone who’s seen The Counselor or Sicario (let alone the Saw movies) this novel is sedate, in its way.

I.

Set out in three parts, the action takes place from 13-20 April 2009, mostly in cars, hotels, houses, and buildings in El Paso and, primarily, Juárez and Guanajuato, Mexico. The book begins with an amnesiac trying to figure out who and where he is. A “United Kingdom driver’s license, with an address in Scotland,” identifies him as Alvaro de Campos, one of the many heteronyms[1] created by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), with an 80-year-old photo of Pessoa to match. The amnesiac isn’t taken in, and later on becomes Probably-Not Alvaro for a short while. Underlying the surface calm in the presentation of his situation is an edginess of mood when faced with no idea who he is, how he came to occupy his hotel room with a crude photo card, an ATM card with no PIN, and a large bump on the back of his head, or why a FedEx package with clippings showing mass graves relates to his life.  The second narrator is the nameless capitalist who provides a brief summary of his early life, mostly from the business angle, leaving out the identities of his first and second wives, but eager to discuss his financial successes, aside from a venture involving Dacha Wireless. The third narrative thread follows two gunmen, Raymond and Eugene, as they search for the venture capitalist whose financial gain from Dacha bothers their Mexican cartel drug lord boss, the Shakespeare-quoting Gomez. There are a few ancillary men and women whose lives intersect, briefly or longer, with these figures.

Despite Alvaro’s understandable bewilderment as to his own identity, he has a great deal of knowledge about money, poetry, and a host of other things; the nameless venture capitalist, who comes to be called Douchebag, understands computers, the stock market, wines, resorts in other countries, and more; while Raymond, whose thoughts we are privy to more than Eugene’s, is a veteran from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and therefore equipped with combat experience. Alvaro and VC narrate their (partial) lives; an omniscient third-person narrator describes the gunmen’s adventures and misadventures.

What will strike a reader early on in this book, apart from the fact that no one really goes by his or her name (in addition to Alvaro and Douchebag/VC, Raymond and Eugene are often called Ray and Gene), is the vocabulary each character has. Alvaro is aware his alleged name is a Pessoan invention, and that he can explain “how Riemannian geometry laid the foundations for General Relativity…” As well, his “meditation on wealth and irregularity, while seated on the Cathedral steps, personifying the streets, viewing them as sentient beings, reminded me once again that I still had a tendency toward poeticizing reality.” VC speaks in the language of hedge fund managers:

We’ve structured the deal as a Redeemable Preferred, with a 40% slug of cheap Common, with $4 million going in at $2 million pre; assuming the company cashflows on plan, we’ll get our Redeemable bait back in 36 months, and own 40% of the company with nothing at risk. If the company sells before the redemption, we’ll be holding a standard Participating Preferred, with a 4X liquidation preference, so even a real fire sale, at $20 million, leaves us with just under $18.7 million of the proceeds…. We set the Protective Provisions at a two-thirds supermajority, and have dragalong rights on the 28% of common held by the Founders, so we can block a sale even if we’re holding common, or force a sale under either scenario.

Ray and Gene, while negotiating a drug deal, think in their own terms:

The Russians, or Montenegrins, or Bulgarians, or whatever, were waving around oh shit not-this-again Micro Uzi’s, apparently intent on speeding up the process, a use for which the Uzi is an excellent selection: not only does it fire at 1,200 rounds per minute, but its grip-mounted 50-shot sheet-metal magazine gives it a highly distinctive and memorable profile, while the telescoping overhung bolt, wrapping as it does around the breech end of the barrel, makes for a nice clean compact well-balanced weapon, ideal for clearing bunkers in a timely fashion; the only real drawback, out here in the open desert, was that the Uzi has the exact same open-bolt blowback-operated who-gives-a-shit design that made the TEC-9’s prone to firing parabellum rounds almost anywhere in the world but where they were intended.

It might be concluded, from the second and third examples, that the usual language of the novel form has been abandoned in favour of prospectuses and Jane’s military publications, as if Guar had pasted in dry chunks of inert technical prose to pad out a long novel. (Anticipating objections to the length of this book and/or charges of logorrhea, Gauer has Alvaro say early on: “To make a long story short, before once again beginning the process of making a short story longer…”) The unfamiliarity of the terms can slow the reading down, but if the language is allowed to wash over one then a general sense of what’s going on gradually becomes clear.

For some, these may remain as serious obstacles to enjoyment, and bring up the questions: Why? And how is this literary prose? Years ago, someone I once knew came up with a handy triad (or else appropriated it from goodness knows where) that can be applied in diverse situations: esoteric—knowledge of which you approve; arcane—knowledge of which you are afraid; anachronistic—knowledge of which you are ignorant. It is no less intrinsically worthy to read about “Redeemable bait” than a description of a park or a character’s haircut. What matters most is that these distinct vocabularies assist in presenting and thickening the milieux the characters’ thoughts spring from. What at first look to be unwieldy fragments of language are entirely germane to the worlds inhabited by VC and Ray. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—a definite touchstone for Gauer—says in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922): “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Of course, nothing says those defining limits are claustrophobically confining.

II.

Novel Explosives itself is not restricted in theme and import simply because it is set in the United States and Mexico. Life in this novel, like life in any society—for example, a camp in Calais, pre-Brexit Great Britain, US cities where at any moment a uniformed individual will shoot a citizen, a leaking boat in the Mediterranean—is filled with terrifying precarity. There’ll be more blood, decapitated corpses, and gruesome backyard and desert graves due to cartels fighting over turf and riches than most of are likely to see, but that’s a matter of scale. Many people—to use shorthand, the 99%—are one blow (to the head, or wallet, or from snorting cocaine or partaking of another drug) away from losing their livelihoods, memories, and identities. This novel—an aspect not hidden by random and premeditated acts of mayhem or the specialized language—is built on connections: VC and Alvaro need each other, Ray and Gene are friends, the drug leaders feed off each other as well as their customers; one world crosses over into other worlds, not so much disregarding Wittgensteinian limits as never having heard that theory.

Very near the end the narrator speaks to us: “We warned you all along to stay out of Juárez… What were your [sic] even doing in Juárez in the first place? What’s that you say? That wasn’t you? You had nothing to do with any of this? We should leave you out of it? It’s a little late now to be protesting your innocence. It’s as if you think the world is somewhere else, somewhere far away, without you in it.” The connections are drawn more sharply a little later:

…fortunately for all of us, this [mass and indiscriminate killing] is a Mexican problem, the Mexicans, while lovely, are evidently quite a violent people, and through it has nothing at all to do with us, and the $30 billion in drug profits we lend to the cause, much of it repaid in armaments purchases, we are, let’s say, concerned for their health, which is why we read these stories with such avidity, since the moment the last true Mexican dies, we’ll feel totally bereft of violence pornography…. You’ve been wandering around Juárez like a zombie in a thought experiment, an experiment in collective guilt, where the zombie is shown the morgue-slab photos, and responds by saying I’m truly sorry, and making out a check to Amnesty International…

III.

Almost 700 pages in, an extraction or confession that rings a change on E. M. Forster’s “Only connect!” is demanded of us, a charge that we should accept that our participation in the world’s ways—through drug use, support of governments that deal in arms, passivity, short-sightedness, and greed, however we might like to describe it—have led to the condition of present-day Juárez, as it has before to the detriment of countless other places. The omniscient narrator refers to Germany before the Second World War: “How, after Auschwitz, is beauty even possible?… Brecht’s warning to the world, and those born later, about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, and we, those born later, having already been warned, why do we act as if we haven’t heard the news?” (Yet in a puzzling omission, at no point does the omniscient narrator refer to the famines, purges, dispossessions and mass population movements in the USSR that killed many and destroyed in other ways the lives of others; or even to Mao or Pol Pot.) What is our response to another story about bodies spread across the Mexican landscape? The narrative calls on us to be aware of our actions and to take on the burden—not the guilt, Jim Gauer isn’t Graham Greene—of the ramifications of those actions.

Novel Explosives ends twice, in two registers, but it would go against the skillfully wrought architecture of this fizzy, fierce, maximalist, encyclopedic, allusive and word-drunk book to give away the conclusion. It deserves to be read and connected with.

—Jeff Bursey

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Jeff Bursey

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

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. A heteronym is something like an alter ego to which Pessoa, the originator of this device, gives characteristics that set it apart from his or her creator, and it lives an independent existence.