Dec 142014
 

wordfest b&w more

For your Sunday morning delectation, along with coffee, croissants and the crossword, you can follow the link below (or click the image) to a page containing two lectures I gave at Vermont College of Fine Arts on reading. Like a broken record, I am always saying that 80% of what I teach when I teach writing is how to read (and to write about what you read). I have twice lectured at VCFA on reading and managed to record both for a possible future essay. Go to the page, and you’ll find the recordings plus all sorts of amusing goodies (um, lecture handouts) including some hilarious examples of VERY BAD readings, a marked up reading copy of Elizabeth Tallent’s little story “No One’s a Mystery,” a reading rubric I give to students, and a 90-page pdf of excerpts from my letters two students on reading (evidence of a deeply compulsive personality).

For my money, the first lecture is more fun (it has the bad examples). The second lecture is rather more pointed at students in the program who are struggling with their critical papers.

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The lectures are here! 

 

 

 

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Dec 122014
 

Opening Night 2Fides Krucker in Julie Trimingham’s Opening Night

Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq’s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her third article, “Raising Hell.”

Reading Trimingham’s reflections on film is for me like reading someone else’s love letters. It led me to reminiscing about my own film loves, and here, specifically, the moments that have made me gasp and filled me with wonder. We’d love to hear about your favourite film moments of wonder in the comments.

— R. W. Gray

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III. Raising Hell

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The first time I saw Les Quatre Cents Coups I felt like I’d found myself. It is the film, the story, on which I stand. Awkwardly titled in English The 400 Blows (as if this were a film about hitting) the title comes from the French idiom faire les quatre cents coups which means to raise hell.

400 Coups

A boy steals a typewriter; his stepfather and others yell at him; the boy runs away from reform school to the ocean he’s always dreamed of seeing; these are scenes that define the arc of the film. These are scenes – writing, raising hell, beauty – that act as code on the double helixes that determine my self.

Truffaut was a delinquent; writing saved him. I never had to steal a typewriter; my auntie gave me a red plastic one when I was four (a proper dictionary soon followed). My thefts have been less tangible, as has the trouble; I have never had to reach beyond my own head for difficulty.

400 Coups 2

When I was a girl, I would often see myself and the situation I was in as from a surveillance camera. When I’d hear news of the classmate who’d gone down in his uncle’s small plane, or of the classmate who was riding in a car that spun out on gravel and fatally flipped, or the one who overdosed on Tylenol and even stomach-pumping couldn’t save her, or the one who cerebrally hemorrhaged after a tackle on the football field, or the one whose boyfriend pushed her out of the moving car, I’d imagine these horrific last moments, the terror of these children, as if I were there, an intrusive and unhelpful observer. It was a short step from what used to be called an overactive imagination to what is now called anxiety disorder, where the brain becomes crowded with disastrous possibilities rendered so believable that the body reacts.

Leolo

And when the anxiety, when the suffering overwhelms, imagination as escape: Jean-Claude Lauzon’s 12-year-old Léo escapes his schizophrenic home life by fantasizing another self for himself: he becomes Léolo in the eponymous film, a boy conceived when his mother falls into a heap of semen-studded tomatoes.  Imagination is Madeleine Stowe’s only refuge from torture in Closetland.  A stargazing boy muses on the life of doomed Russian space dog Laika in My Life as a Dog because he can’t countenance the recent deaths of his own dog and his mother. Too much loss: no wonder the boy barks.  A mother I know once told her young daughter that the great thing about imagination is that it’s always there when you need it. The daughter, though, pinpointed the tragedy of imagination when she  tearfully countered her mother: but it always goes away.

My Life as a Dog

It took me a while to figure out that the engine for imagining disaster is the same as that for delight; the image machine spits out images. I became a filmmaker because films are the most direct expression of how I think and perceive the world. Making films was an attempt at transcription, at shaping the content, keeping drama, whether revery or catastrophe, on the screen and out of my life.

When I was a filmmaker, I was married to my producer. When we divorced, I made a film (that he produced, good sport that he is) about divorce. Kind of. The project was structured like a matryoshka, a nesting doll, with music video that stood alone and was also part of a short fiction film, which in turn stood alone and was part of a documentary. The subject was voice, how you can lose it, how you can get it back. The subject was a woman’s relationship to a man, how she loses herself, how she gets her self back. How it can be hard to tell a suicide jump from a leap of faith, spiritually or artistically speaking. Both require the abyss. How to tell falling from flight?

Closet Land

Being in front of a camera scares me, but I forced myself into the documentary because I thought I might find clues to my life in the editing room. Likewise, the fiction was shot to mirror and provide clues to the documentary (or vice-versa). If it was filmmaking as forensics, it was also filmmaking as desperate alchemy: the same impulse that led me to give my wedding ring to a young jeweler rather than throw it into the cold Bow River compelled me to make the film. The fictional singer’s troubles imperil and enrich her performance on Opening Night, which is what I called the film. I wanted to open up night, rip the dark fabric of sky, see if the stars were glued-on sequins or tiny holes that revealed a great light behind. It is a film I never watch, but making it got me through a rough patch: film as refuge.

Opening Night 1From Opening Night

YouTube Preview Image

We think of causing trouble when we think of raising hell, but I also like a more literal interpretation: hauling hell up out from underground and letting light work on it, transforming it. As an anxious depressive, I’ve careened through countless therapists and quaffed various mood-changing substances (mostly caffeine and zoloft) all in a grasping search for non-suffering. It never occurred to me that equanimity might be had by diving headlong into nightmares. Literally. My analyst Sharon and I dredge up scenes from my subconscious and expose them to the sun. The dreams and anxieties, bathed in conversation, develop like a reel of film into an understandable narrative that gets projected back into my waking life.

I’ve always known that my own work cuts close to the bone, but  apparently I was sleeping during anatomy: it has taken me two decades to realize that my very first film, Gravity’s Angel, was autobiographical.  The woman’s tail, which she initially hides from the man she loves, turns out to be part of what her lover loves best, it is what makes her her. This is practical information that my younger self has sent across time to my current self; I am less neurotic now that I get, finally, that I’m not, by virtue of being, defective.  Such psychic shake-ups, though, I suppose are their own form of trouble, disturbances in the field.

Raising hell also implies its opposite: bringing heaven down. After you have stolen the typewriter and been sent away to prison, after you break free and run, how much more lovely is the ocean, how heavenly? Film stock is graded for sensitivity, for how well it can hold shadows and brights without losing clarity or detail. Empathy opens us up to beauty. We choose how much to see: to be willfully blind to either darkness or light is to be a one-eyed king.

Smoke Signals

If there’s a sound that can crash the divide between heaven and hell, it’s a roar. Laughter is a convulsion, a disruption of the body, an eruption of sound, air, mirth, relief. It’s rebellion against constraint: when we die laughing, we surrender to something outside our selves. I know that when I am laughing, truly, I am not afraid: hell is here, likewise heaven, and I can take it all. I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches.  I give part of my heart to anybody, or any film, that makes me laugh, but rarely can I remember a joke or gesture or situation that gets me in stitches. Aristotle’s treatise on Tragedy has survived the millennia, but the one on Comedy was lost. My movie mash-up, the shifting montage that flickers amongst my synapses, is short on funny scenes not because I haven’t laughed and loved, but because I can’t find the scenes once I start looking. Wise humor can fling off the yoke of comedy and tragedy, free us from time’s straightjacket, and let us hold all our absurd contradictions at once.  It’s a wide-angle lens, the long shot: the cosmic Ha! Give me Lester Fallsapart in Smoke Signals, Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor in The Lion in Winter for such perspective. I never feel closer to the God I don’t believe in than when I am cracking up.

Lion in Winter

The apocalypse is coming –it always is –endings unfold in myriad ways around us. The people we love most are bound to suffer. Increasingly, I feel a need to write in a way that both acknowledges the end of the world and trumps it.  I have introduced my little boy to the notion of soul, because I want him to learn to tolerate despair; however, he is an empiricist, and dismisses the idea of soul as imagination. I understand: ever since I can remember, I have been agnostic, neither believing nor unbelieving.  And yet, I find comfort in acknowledging the limits of cognition; I like the idea that our lives are projections of something beyond our collective grasp. All the world’s a multiplex.

God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions, Jung wrote. Might films, our collective dreams, nudge us towards awakening? Might these images allow us to see the wonder and brutality that are  always with us, not as individuals but as a species?  We are made bigger than our single selves when we bear witness to the truths of others.

Movies may be conceived of and executed by a specialized team, but they are set loose upon us all. Our subtle minds splice scenes we’ve watched into those we’ve lived into those we’ve imagined; the montage, the film, of our shining selves. We may dream alone, but who can say we’re not stealing scenes from the dreams of others? We’re all together, watching the same unspooling frames, seeing light in the darkness.

—Julie Trimingham

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DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

Julie Trimingham’s films mentioned in this essay (Parts 1, 2 & 3)
Gravity’s Angel: not available online
The Former Mrs. Butterfly: http://vimeo.com/90229603
From an Opera about Divorce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5OQsx94W-3g

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Dec 112014
 

Looking-upward

The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem. —A. Anupama

moon before morning thumbnail
The Moon Before Morning
W.S. Merwin
Copper Canyon Press
120 pages, $24
ISBN: 978-1-55659-453-3

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The waning moon and a streetlight offered to help when I lost the silver pendant of my necklace walking my puppy in the early morning twilight. But after a moment’s search I let it hide, something precious and intimate concealed, and now it endears that part of the neighborhood to me, as W.S. Merwin’s The Moon Before Morning does with every poem.

On one of the many double-dog-eared pages in my copy, in the poem “How it happens,”  the sky speaks:

The sky said I am watching
to see what you
can make out of nothing…

This poem appears in the last of the four sections of the collection and is followed by the poet’s ars poetica, “The wonder of the imperfect.”

Nothing that I do is finished
so I keep returning to it
lured by the notion that I long
to see the whole of it at last…

§

W. S. Merwin is prolific and draped with honors. His last book of poetry, Shadow of Sirius, won him his second Pulitzer Prize.  He has served as U.S. Poet Laureate (also) twice (1999-2000 and 2010-2011). He was born in 1927 in New York City but grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. His influences are deep and personal. His father was a Presbyterian minister; he knew John Berryman and R.P. Blackmur at Princeton; Robert Graves’s son Merwin was his tutor for time. Now he lives with is wife Paula in Hawaii, on a 19-acre palm forest, which he planted from seed. Earlier this fall, the Merwin Conservancy announced permanent protection for the forest, in cooperation with the Hawaiian Islands Land Trust.

Merwin’s new collection begins with a scene in this forest garden in a poem called “Homecoming.”

I looked across the garden at evening
Paula was still weeding

The poem is typically (for Merwin) unpunctuated. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, suggesting the core thematic structure: couple and place.

Likewise, in “Theft of morning,” the beautifully described (anapests — “to the sound” — accented with alliteration and internal rhyme) palm garden grounds the meditation.

Early morning in cloud light
to the sound of the last
of the rain at daybreak dripping
from the tips of the fronds
into the summer day
I watch palm flowers open
pink coral in midair
among pleated cloud-green fans
as I sit for a while after breakfast
reading a few pages
with a shadowing sense
that I am stealing the moment
from something else
that I ought to be doing
so the pleasure of stealing is part of it

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Stealing moments is a theme of age. In the sonnet “Young man picking flowers” the poet delights in twisting up time and age to nullify their effects. Beginning here:

All at once he is no longer
young with his handful of flowers
in the bright morning…

and then ending:

the cool dew runs from them onto
his hand at this hour of their lives
is it the hand of the young man
who found them only this morning

The couplet’s question becomes almost a non-question because of the absence of question mark and because of Merwin’s precise tightening of line and thought by the repeated words (“hand,” “them,” and “morning”). Notice that the man is “young man” at the end.

In “Beginners,” time and memory hold hands for a moment and explain the game.

As though it had always been forbidden to remember
each of us grew up
knowing nothing about the beginning

but in time there came from that forgetting
names representing a truth of their own
and we went on repeating them

After this running start in rhymes (“nothing,” “beginning,” “forgetting,” “representing,” “repeating”), he goes on repeating variations of forgetting and remembering until “the day we wake to is our own.”

§

Merwin repeats the word “frond” frequently in the first section of this collection, anchoring us firmly in that garden home. It appears first in “Theft of morning,” and then recurs in several other poems, often aligned with time of day (to be precise, of course, for the garden changes with the light and weather). “White-eye” starts: “In the first daylight one slender frond trembles / and without seeing you I know you are there…” In the poem “From the gray legends,” “the screen of fronds” appears “before daylight,” and then in the poem “One day moth” he starts this way:

The lingering late-afternoon light of autumn
waves long wands through the arches
of fronds that meet over the lane

A poem titled “High fronds” gives us the image from a distance:

After sundown the crowns
of the tallest palms
stand out against
the clear glass of the eastern sky
that have no shadows
and no memory
the wind has gone its own way
nothing is missing

In “Garden notes,” the repetition summarizes itself at its zenith, encompassing all times of day and night:

All day in the garden
and at night when I wake to it
at its moment I hear a sound
sometimes little more than a whisper
of something falling
arriving
fallen
a seed in its early age
or a great frond formed
of its high days and nights…

“A breeze at noon” brings the repetition of “frond” to a close when the moment

drops a dead Pinanga frond
like an arrow at my feet
and I look up into the green
cluster of stems and gold strings
beaded with bloodred seeds
each of them holding tomorrow
and when I look
the breeze has gone

The word “frond” shares doubled consonance with “friend,” which Merwin repeats in the poem “Footholds.” The lines, specific in their setting of time and place, favor memory over forgetting.

…Father and Mother friend upon friend
what I remember of them now
footholds on the slope
in the silent valley of this morning
Wednesday with few clouds and an east wind.

§

The word “echo” takes over as a primary repetitive motif  in the second section of the collection and beyond. Again, the repetitions shift in their references, beginning with “Another to Echo,” which offers praise to Echo, the famous nymph in Ovid’s The Metamorphoses who could only repeat the last words of others, and who loved Narcissus in vain.

you incomparable one
for whom the waters fall
and the winds search
and the words were made
listening

Later, in “Garden music,” the echo as sound and echo as memory of sound coalesce.

In the garden house
the digging fork and the spade
hanging side by side on their nails
play a few notes I remember
that echo many years
as the breeze comes in with me…

And in “Variations on a theme,” the penultimate poem in the collection, Merwin personifies memory in the line “thank you for friends and long echoes of them”.

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In an interview with Bill Moyers shortly after The Shadow of Sirius was published, Merwin mentioned having been pleased and encouraged to hear that children had no trouble understanding his poetry. To test this, I chose a few poems from this collection to share with my five-year-old daughter. I picked “The palaces” for its clouds like “gray cliffs / icebergs in other lives” and for words like “white-knuckled,” “pocket” and “crag.” My daughter wanted more. She asked, “What comes after that?” And so I continued with  “Old plum tree” and “Old breadhouse,” which won her approval, too.

Reading the poems aloud confirmed another of Merwin’s comments in that interview: that poetry relies heavily on the sense of hearing. The poems are full of sounds — the dripping leaves, the whisper of things falling in the night, those echoes, real and figurative. However, his use of “frond” seemed to me particularly visual. I remembered learning that the filtering of light through fronds and other kinds of leaves can even act like pinhole cameras, projecting images of the sun or moon across the ground, a fact I once used for watching a solar eclipse. But Merwin turns the strong visual aspects back to sound.

In “Lear’s wife,” the speaker says twice “I looked at the world” (visual). But the poem’s hinges are fastened to “if he had listened to me / it would have been / another story” and “only Cordelia / did not forget / anything / but when asked she said / nothing” (auditory). In “Another to Echo,” Merwin begins “How beautiful you must be / to have been able to lead me / this far with only / the sound of your going away” (visual metamorphoses to auditory). In “From the gray legends,” the color and texture of Arachne’s weaving opens the poem and carries its thread through to the end, all reflected in the strong visual of Minerva’s gray eyes. The only sound here, “all night her own bird answered only / Who”, is another uppercase exception to Merwin’s usual punctuation rules.

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The silvery language hidden in plain sight on these pages only awaits a little breath of reading to reveal the pure way that dawn itself listens.

 —A. Anupama

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A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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Dec 102014
 

1818  (2012)

Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, moved to Woodstock, Ontario, as a teenager, knew no one, found solace in the library, learned to read, learned to write. Like another famous Pole, Joseph Conrad, she made herself a writer in a foreign language. (Try it some time.) Last year she published a stern and unforgiving memoir called Drunk Mom, about life as an alcoholic mother of a months-old child. She also takes photographs. The ones I like (I picked them) project a dark femininity, a gender-bending, violent, transgressive girlhood (womanhood). They are erotic, fretted with death, both fearful and fearless, compulsive, defiant, disturbing, and secret.

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blow up, the yellow houseblow up, the yellow house (2014)

LevitationLevitation (2014)

wolves evolveWolves Evolve (2014)

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now (2012)

Ghost bridesGhost Brides (2012)

Merry ChristmasMerry Christmas (2013)

On Sale!On Sale! (2012)

WillinglyWillingly (2014)

Red CarpetRed Carpet (2012).

—Photographs by Jowita Bydlowska

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AuthorJowita2014

Jowita Bydlowska is a writer and photographer living in Toronto. Her first book, Drunk Mom, was a national bestseller. Her novel, Guy, is coming out in 2016. You can view more of her photographs at Boredom Repellent.

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Dec 092014
 

Lisa Robertson Author Image 2

Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now. —Natalie Helberg

Cinema of the Present Cover Image

Cinema of the Present
Lisa Robertson
Coach House Books
112 pages, Paperback ($17.95)
ISBN: 978-1552452974

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Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present arrives lean and reels in intellection. It’s delicate and circumspect and gutsy at once. Like so much of her work, it astonishes the sentence. It is an attempt to pressure writing away from habitual crutches, as in the trappings of the heavy hitters, not just what we learn in Poetry 101. It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rely on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with. Robertson claims that she does not know how to write, each time, then begins. Cinema of the Present attests to this attitude: Writing, it insists, is the attempt to write itself: it is humility, excitation, and persistent process. It is integrity and risk.

While much of Robertson’s work—The Apothecary (1991), Debbie: An Epic (1997), XEclogue (1993), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), Nilling (2012), and many, many other collections—embrace a lush, amped-up take on the sentence (the baroque), Cinema of the Present proceeds comparatively economically. It is close to Robertson’s 2010 work, R’s Boat, which in many ways anticipates it.

Robertson’s ‘baroque’ can seem semantically impenetrable: It arises from the creative ‘verbing’ of nouns—“rooms with no middle ground, differently foxed” (Occasional Work)—the use of “improper” adjectives—“Don’t be afraid tulip for time is fat / with our indiscretion” (Debbie)—general adjectival lavishness, or a more general clashing of unlikely but suggestive sentence-parts: “Loose-armed impostors, we’ll hone an incendiary calendar, from the still bosco contrive the days that shall give us History, that saline, perplexed crux: Day of Parked Cars; Day of Physical Secrets; Day of Consonant’s Lip; Day of Lucite…” (XEclogue). But it can also seem exquisitely clear and referential: “[A]nd then the theorist sauntering purposefully from her round hips, her heavy leather satchel swinging like an oiled clock” (Occasional Work).

If Robertson’s language-based interventions are at times rogue and rude, they are also well-informed. Robertson is somewhat of an extinct species, a bit of a Virginia Woolf figure, one of those rare writers who has had a chance to devote her life more or less exclusively to reading and writing, without the intrusion of anything like regular employment. She’s someone who’s survived by being innovative, by being communally embedded, and by scrounging.

She spent years living rent-free in a cabin on Saltspring Island, during which she gobbled up Phyllis Webb, Heidegger, Barthes, Jean Genet, Ezra Pound, and Proust, among others. She is well-read in general, and her influences are as myriad as they are motley: Virgil, Plath, Lyn Hejinian, Rilke, Lucretius, Susan Howe, bpNichol,  etc. She was involved with the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver for several years in the nineties, where she became acquainted with key figures in the American Language movement as well as Russian Formalism (Viktor Shklovsky and his injunction to quicken perception by defamiliarizing language), post-structuralist theory, and feminist criticism. Before the Kootenay School, she attended Simon Fraser University, where she took courses from writers like George Bowering and Roy Miki and studied the Canadian avant-garde (a few names to mention: The Four Horsemen, Erin Mouré, and Nicole Brossard).

Of her early, baroque approach to the sentence, Robertson has said: it is a pursuit of a particular internal sound-structure, an attempt to produce a “full knobbly quality, or a torsion or a jaggedness or a swoony kind of movement from syllable to syllable.”[1]  The resultant sentences may not mean in conventional ways, but the fact that they do not only serves another of Robertson’s professed aims: to create sentences that startle, and, in startling, produce new emotional and intellectual terrain.[2] The aesthetic Robertson adopts in Cinema of the Present is less gnarly, and yet it still glimmers; it finds alternative ways to invigorate language:

You are fundamentally forgotten and veiled or you are deeply erased and diverted.

It was a place like the farm, but near the ocean.

You were poverty shivering in an old turquoise city.

(from Cinema of the Present)

The intention animating Cinema of the Present is related: the piece is an attempt to construct a pronoun. The confessional voice that invokes the ‘lyric I’ risks sounding cliché and cheesy, but any work’s organizing pronoun, says Robertson, is in danger of becoming the site of formulaic, dry, taken for granted language; we need to trouble that site if we’re going to keep it. Cinema of the Present troubles its organizing pronoun by making it self-thematizing.

The text begins: “What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem? / You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.” ‘You,’ the pronoun, a few lines down, sets “out from consciousness carrying only a small valise.” The poem, which consists of a hundred or so pages of double-spaced, one-line statements (sometimes questions, sometimes fragments), some of which are repeated in slightly altered form at irregular intervals, continues:

A downtown tree, the old sky, and still you want an inventory.

You were an intuition without a concept.

A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis.

Pure gesture.

Many of the poem’s subsequent lines likewise explicitly qualify this ‘you’: “You are the silence they exchanged,” “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such,” but many do not. As in the above (“A gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis”), some are fragments which refer to the perceptual world, or just the world more broadly (“Atoms, theatres, famines”), and yet the pronoun/subject, situated with its valise at the frontier of consciousness, arguably absorbs them:

Each line that makes up the poem, though it can function independently, can also be read forward and backward (as in ‘you were an intuition without a concept: a gallery, a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture’); meaning can cascade forward or backward as many lines or as few as suits a reader’s fancy (you were ‘a hospital, an hypothesis, pure gesture,’ and, as the next line goes, “a gate made of carpet tape”). The poem posits consciousness as spongiform and figures poetry and poetic practice as a gate between subjectivity and objectivity. The “gate made of carpet tape” recurs throughout the poem as a figure for the mind’s immersion in the perceptual vista: it is a gate constituted by all manner of encountered materials: it becomes “a gate made of gas pumps,” “a gate made of bread and screws.”

The subject/pronoun the poem is preoccupied with, then, both surges up from and recedes back into language (“Your pronoun leaks thus”). The statements or fragments that seem to concern it least still become its tissue, and the pronoun, conversely, becomes the poem itself (“It was not your voice at all, but it can’t stop nor does it think”). It is this pivot which allows the poem to produce its meta-commentary: By the time we get to the line “You are banality,” or “You are no longer aesthetical,” for example, we can read these lines as referring to the poem itself. Besides its pronoun-anxiety, Cinema of the Present shares with R’s Boat, its precursor, a willingness to embrace what Robertson refers to as either flat, outright bad, or banal sentences, a willingness, in other words, to embrace everything—“What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”; “You presuppose a free, opened and unlimited space”— while sequencing these materials in such a way that they come to work aesthetically (which sometimes means that the resulting arrangement has actually opened up a new aesthetic possibility: “at the edges of banality, there is sensing”).

Sequencing may be one of the keys to Robertson’s title, as well: In “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Walter Benjamin notes that a reality presented through film, which is pure in the sense that it bears no sign of the technology used to produce it, is only pure in this sense because technology has purged it, has edited itself out, cutting shots and assembling shots taken at different times, while mindfully orchestrating transitions between them. Robertson has used the essay in the past to stress the extent to which writers—and this reflects a deep dimension of her own approach—are mindfully patterning, or texturing, a linguistic surface; they are arranging materials, and, like filmmakers, are orchestrating transitions between the text’s moments. The double-spaced lines which make up Cinema of the Present, the arrangement of this text as an uninterrupted sequence of these lines, and the arrangement of these lines themselves make the text, perhaps more than her other works, the book-analogue of film. It exists as the effect of a complex form of visual reduction, as well as of a cinematic sensitivity to time and rhythm.

Gertrude Stein’s “Composition as Explanation,” in which Stein offers an elusive articulation of her own approach to composition, “writing the present,” provides another insight into Robertson’s title. “Writing the present” à la Stein involves, among other things, an attention to time in the work, which is the effect of “distribution and equilibration,” or what, in keeping with the above, we might call sequencing. “To construct a velocity is what you want” (Robertson). It also entails “using everything” (as in the way both R’s Boat and Cinema of the Present do) “by beginning again and again” (Cinema of the Present, like much of Stein’s work, unfurls along descriptive axes—it makes reference to the sensory world, but also to the project itself, its pronoun and the act of writing it—and does so in a playfully repetitious manner).

Stein’s essay also affords a pre-echo of Cinema’s open-ended spirit and structure. Robertson writes, “Curiosity, limbs and momentum: because of form you kept playing,” “You carried the great discovery of poetry as freedom, not form,” and “If you speak in this imaginary structure, it’s because other choices felt limiting.” Stein writes “No one thinks these things when they are making…no one formulates until what is to be formulated has been made” and “Composition is not there, it is going to be there and we are here.”

The open structure that characterizes Cinema of the Present and the vocabulary that Robertson has let loose in the work are also relevant to the work’s thematic content. The diction in Cinema is drawn in part from philosophical sources. There is explicit reference to Nietzsche and Aristotle, an injunction, at one point, to eliminate all contradictions (which is contradicted), and the repeated mention of “the indispensable horizon of all that occurs or appears.” There is even a possible reference to Foucault, the great theorist of disciplinary spaces: “Thus you were led to describe hospitals, prisons, remote villages, monasteries.” And to Hannah Arendt: “So you came to nilling” (nilling being a passive form of willing, or an active form of not-willing).

Robertson has used Arendt as fodder before, in an essay on Pauline Réage’s controversial Story of O. In the novel, the eponymous protagonist, O, is made into a sex slave; more specifically, her boyfriend asks her to be a slave whom many other men—provided they are ring-bearing members of a certain salacious organization (at Roissy)—can make use of as his proxies. O is subjected to excruciating forms of corporeal torture; her body is mutilated, assiduously penetrated, yet at every moment she agrees to her treatment: she submits herself to it. Robertson reads Story of O as an allegory for the formation of the subject through the paradoxical form of agency that is nilling: the subject’s self-conscious self-submission to a power beyond itself (an Other), as occurs in the act of reading, during which the reading subject gives itself over to, and is transformed, however violently or benevolently, by text.

Cinema of the Present, seems, at times, to refer to this reading: It makes mention of “O, Rosy-booted.” Its organizing pronoun is said to want “to wear the feathered mask of a owl” (at the height of her subjection, O is shaved, attached to a dog-leash, and displayed naked at a party wearing just such a mask; she is afterward desecrated in the mask, on a table, as the sun comes up). The degree of permissiveness that characterizes Cinema as a curated space (it embraces banality, and anything: “What you wanted: total, gestural plasticity”), its ‘openness,’ aligns the work with Story of O (something like Robertson’s take on it), as well. O is obligated, as a slave, ordered, to remain ‘open’: her lips must remain parted at all times, for penetration, as must her legs. Cinema of the Present marks itself as likewise radically accommodating, and accommodating in such a way as to enable self-change. “Your problem is again your own transformation,” it says. “You are a transitional figure who sees yourself as such.” “Once again you acquire a new surface.”

Robertson’s whole enterprise is in this way encapsulated in Cinema. The work is concerned with writing’s (contingent and alterable) conditions of possibility, as well as with the subjective possibilities which are related to them. What it is possible to write, in a given time and place, is an index of what it is possible to be, since it is a subject who writes, or since writing is, ultimately, a subject’s possibility. To alter writing is to alter subjectivity: “Only the rhyme of discourse transforms you,” Cinema says. “Still,” it says, “you’re totally in love with subjectivity,” and “Still, at this late date in the political, you remain intrigued by fucking”:

O is fucked by her Other, entered, conditioned and created and, as a subject, beholden. Cinema is open to an Other that takes the form of un-aesthetical, flat-toned language, and, in being so open, is engaged in producing a counter-pressure to a second Other: ‘writing proper.’

In challenging and altering literary norms, Robertson has also produced new possibilities for the legitimate use of language, for language practices, and for the subjectivities that are what they are partly because they engage in these practices. Cinema of the Present persists with this Sisyphean endeavour: “It’s time for your late style”; “That your mouth lovingly damaged the language”; “You would like thought to release something other than laboratory conditions.” Is it any good is the wrong question; how is it changing the terms of our enjoyment is the right one. Cinema of the Present is a threshold experience I pin brilliant. It bites the fruit it invents and brains us, tingling. It is behind-the-scenes, pink wrench-work: It is an action on us. Now.

— Natalie Helberg

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helberg pic

Natalie Helberg completed an MFA in Creative Writing with the University of Guelph in 2013. She is currently studying philosophy at the University of Toronto. Some of her experimental work has appeared on InfluencySalon.ca and in Canadian Literature. She is (still) working on a hybrid novel.

Lisa Robertson is one of Canada’s most celebrated experimental poets. She is associated with Vancouver’s Kootenay School of Writing but also resists being associated with any particular aesthetic. Her chapbooks, one-off essays, pamphlets, and scattered poems are too numerous to list here. Her books include The Apothecary (1991), XEclogue (1993), Debbie: An Epic (1997—a finalist for the Governor General’s award in 1998), The Weather (2001), Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), The Men: A Lyric Book (2006), Magenta Soul Whip (2009), R’s Boat (2010), Nilling: Prose Essays (2012), and, most recently, Cinema of the Present. She currently lives in France.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Kai Fierle-Hedrick. “Lifted: An Interview with Lisa Robertson.” Chicago Review (Volume 5.1/5.2, Spring 2006)
  2. Mark Cochrane. “Stuttering Continuity (or, Like It’s 1999): An Interview with Lisa Robertson at Cambridge.” Open Letter (Thirteenth Series, No. 6, Summer 2008)
Dec 082014
 

Mary-Morrissy-NLB

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The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

As I halted in front of the pub, I wondered if I could still rightfully call it ours, since on the outside it had clearly been made over. The masonry is now a fuchsia red and there’s a new name over the door – it’s called Billy Pilgrim’s now. I suspected that inside would be similarly altered ─ primary colours, stainless steel, loud music, themed. Superstitiously, I’ve never gone back there. But needs must. Migrainous from the sun, I knew if I didn’t take the weight off my feet soon, I would fall down on the street. I pushed through the pub’s double doors with the same milky glass panels I remember from before, and became a visitor in my own past.

I made my way through the outer bar to our spot in the long back room, under the big station clock, so, you said, we wouldn’t be reminded of how little time we had. The relief of sinking into pub leatherette was ecstatic. I looked around furtively in case I had registered out loud to the fact. But there was no one in the pub except for the bar-tender, a blocky, shaven-headed young man, with his sleeves rolled up and nothing to do. Apart from him ─ and he was probably still in short trousers when we were meeting in here ─ the rest of the pub was unchanged. The same polished oak, marble-topped counter, partitions of dimpled glass, brass rail to lean your feet on, a snug in the front of the shop, a back room and a mirror behind the bar so that even before you’ve got drunk you’re seeing double. The smell was just the same too. An oozing mix of stale porter and pungent urinal. I sat in our corner gratefully and ordered a mineral water. (A bald woman wearing a wig downing vodkas alone at four in the afternoon would have seemed as big a cliché as our affair – the older married man and the youngish single woman trysting in a pub. These days I’m trying to avoid clichés, even age-appropriate ones.) The electively bald barman landed the glass on the low table with a clink-clunk and obligingly opened the bottle and poured. I drank thirstily. The flinty taste of the carbonated water set my teeth on edge ─ funny aversions afflict you with chemo. I pushed the glass to one side where it spat effervescently still trying to be the life and soul of the party.

I confirmed the barman’s suspicions that I was a mad old bat when I called him back and ordered coffee instead. It came in a thick cream catering cup, slopped obligingly in the saucer. It was thin and bad, from a jug stewed for hours on a hot plate of torture. But it was like a madeleine to our long lost affair. With each sour sip, I was no longer visiting my past, I was right back in it.

After treatment, most sensible people would go home and crawl into bed. But post-chemo, the last thing I want to do is to give in to sleep during the day. If I do, it means I’ll be awake – and alone ─ in the blackout hours. Ironically, I live alone, or should that be I live alone ironically? I have made it a practice to call out “Honey, I’m home” when I let myself in as a joke to myself, on myself, and to puncture the squeamish silence of a house unmolested since I left it. I try to imagine the Sanforized existence that would match my smooth and hearty greeting. The set of “I Love Lucy” comes to mind, a gleaming kitchen rich in appliances, a brave suburban light. Not my dim and over-shadowed household. I use all the tricks of wolfish loners to combat solitude. I talk my way through tasks aloud. Trina, I say, time to sluice the tub. And so I set to, wiping down the surfaces, the tiles, the wash-hand basin and colouring the bowl with a squirt of lemony liquid. And because I can never manage to keep the towel wrapped around me ─ and now my body geometry can’t support it – I end up naked and sweating amidst the disinfectant fumes, the closest I get to a sexual glow these days.

This was the time of day we used to meet. It annoyed me that you would arrive breathlessly as if you were just managing to squeeze me in. But once you sat and calmed, we entered another time zone where all other pre-occupations fell away. So absorbed would we become that a parade of our nearest and dearest could have passed by and we wouldn’t have noticed. This place absolved us from being furtive; it was the only time we were not mindful of our situation, where it became just the pair of us, alone in the world. Perhaps that’s why it was so intense; for an hour-and-a-half twice a week we played ourselves. No wonder I hadn’t wanted to come back. But as I sat there, I found myself soothed by the atmosphere, not haunted by the associated memories. In the torpor of an empty afternoon pub, I realised I’d found the perfect asylum for the chemically blasted.

It didn’t stay empty for long, of course. Students started trickling in, a few pensioners arrived, men with caps and newspapers, and embroidered the bar. A family of tourists, Italians, guide book in hand, joined me in the back room. Mama, Papa, Silvio and Chiara. They took photos of themselves with their phones. Papa tried a pint and didn’t like it; the children bought crisps and released salt and vinegar into the air. I ordered another coffee and settled in. Not out of nostalgia. I cannot be nostalgic for something I destroyed myself; I am not that perverse. I stayed because it was easier than going home. And then, coming up for five when I was totally off-guard, when I had made my own of the place, you arrived.

Really, it was you. You, as a boy, that is. Slender – you always said you’d been a beanpole in your youth ─ a thin hollowed-out face, gaunt almost, a mop of black curls and eyes to match. It was uncanny. The boy wore a sludge-coloured rain mac over a faded t-shirt, a pair of navy drainpipe jeans, dilapidated Beatle boots with pointed toes. If it wasn’t you, this boy must have raided your youthful wardrobe. He sat in the outer bar in the corner but right in my line of vision. He – you, what pronoun to use? ─ nodded at the barman. He was a regular, it seemed. (Did you have a life in this bar before it became our haunt, I wondered?) He fished a paperback out of a canvas satchel and began to read. When the barman steered a pint towards him, he raised his eyes to say thanks and his gaze met mine. Well, I was staring. He raised the pint to his lips – I almost expected him to raise it in a toast – and then over a moustache of foam he smiled directly at me. Then I knew. Knew it was you, because that crease appeared between your eyebrows (the one I thought had come only in middle-age from too much worry) and your mouth turned downwards. You don’t smile up like most people. It isn’t – wasn’t ─ a mirthless smile, just one tempered with a clownish sadness. I felt myself weaken all over again. Shyly, I smiled back. Why shyly? Because I felt all my old uncertainties return as if I too had been spun back in time. To a time before I met you. To a “you” you’d never known. You settled into your book. By right it should have been one of those orange-covered Penguins – Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene – but without my specs, I couldn’t work out what it was. After the initial startlement, I felt invisible and pleasantly voyeuristic. I was happy to sit and watch you. After all these years, I finally had you all to myself.

Sharing. That’s what usually dooms an illicit affair in the end. The mistress not wanting to share. But I didn’t care about that. In truth, I didn’t feel I was sharing you with anyone. She was just the silent partner as far as I was concerned. I just didn’t want anything broken because of our association. I hated it when you talked about your past. Not because it contained her, but because it contained you. You blamed the past for our predicament. Bad timing, you would say. If I’d met you when I was younger we could have. . . We could have what? Obliterated your mistakes? Had children? When I still could. You could have brought out the maternal in me. If you’d known me then you’d understand. . . Understand what, though? That you weren’t always this rueful self? The trouble was I couldn’t imagine you younger; I could only see you as you were. Acting old, your role to impart wisdom, already writing me out. Don’t do what I did, you used to say, don’t marry for gratitude. As if I were inundated with suitors seeking my hand. I was 37 and considered past it. Worse than past it, because I was engaged in a fantasy relationship that couldn’t stand the light of day. That’s what my girlfriends told me. Even if you had managed to leave the silent partner, I’d have got the worst of you, an old man with sagging dugs and slowing walk, enduring a guilty superannuation trying to win back his wounded off-spring. I would get compromise while the silent partner would have had the wholehearted best of you. That ardent, warrior youth you seemed so nostalgic for. I would become the bath-chair pusher, the caretaker, witness to your decline. That was never my style. For one thing, I’ve always been careless. Careless with people. Other people might mistake it for carefree; not the same thing at all. I am free of care because I care less. I was not vigilant enough even about myself, as it turned out. If I had, I might have noticed the giveaway pellet of hardness on the underside of my breast, right over my heart.

The clock struck six and a girl breezed in. She had long, sand-coloured hair and a gapped fringe. She wore something filmy and floral. Not my type at all, but then that’s presuming I was your type. She looked like the kind of girl who’d stand on the shore with a towel to dry you off if you were in swimming. Girlie was territorial about you, fixed you with her big eyes and talked – a lot – some breathless account during which she would snatch your hand for emphasis, or poke you playfully on the arm.

“And then he asked me if I’d cover the late shift. . .” She exhaled indignation. “I mean, really!”

You played with the ends of her hair and gazed at her with an unseemly kind of yearning that made me look away. Then you leaned in and kissed her. She was bruised into silence by your lips. That was something you used to do with me. In mid-flight I would find my words smothered by your mouth. It used to infuriate me that you couldn’t bear my small talk. Looking at it now, I recognised desire. As you disengaged, another person joined you, a boy this time. I thought maybe I’d be able to identify him. Maybe he’d be someone who had survived into my time? But I couldn’t. He had a face whose features seemed in untimely progression. He had a boy’s eyes and soft chin, but a man’s brow and nose. His mane of nondescript hair grazed his dejected-looking shoulders. I christened him Lionheart, but it was you, with your dark looks, that consumed my attention. I kept you constantly in my sight-lines and every so often our eyes would meet and lock for a moment, though as the pub filled up with office workers, it was harder to maintain a clear line of vision. Girlie produced a phone and I could hear you planning the rest of your night. You wanted to go to a gig with a band called Methuselah, Girlie wanted to go for something to eat. Lionheart eyed Girlie, then you – he seemed to have the casting vote. I wasn’t sure who he was most in love with, you or Girlie. Between the standing army of drinkers, I kept on catching your eye. A quizzical eye, at first, lightly sardonic, then more calculating, curious. This is how it was when we met. Even with age you couldn’t cloak your emotions so everything got played out on your face. I felt, somehow, you were communicating with me, over the heads of your friends and the Friday night crowd. But what were you saying?

I hadn’t thought of you in years. Really! Not in that way, I mean. Not in the pained malignant way of the unrequited. But no, that’s not true. I was requited. During that time with you I was more alive and more unhappy than I had ever been. Maybe the two go together. Now I am chronically content and half-dead. Though even at the time I knew what we were doing was a recipe for heartbreak – someone’s. Yours, as it turned out. In the end, I couldn’t stand the tension of waiting to see who would break first. You? Me? Or the silent partner? I wasn’t slave enough to the cliché to wait for you to say – I can’t leave my wife. So I ended it. Chop chop. A swift guillotine. I remember your face when I said it – here on this very spot. Everything fell, as if I’d struck you. You started bargaining furiously.

““I’ll do it, right now.”

““It’s not that,” I said but you weren’t listening.

““Here, I’ll phone her now,” you said, lifting the mobile like it was a brick with which you were going to smash your life to pieces. On my account. A gesture. Our gestures give us away.

““Put it away,” I said. “It’s over.”

It’s not every day you get a chance to see the prequel to love. That’s what kept me in a sticky, airless Friday night pub sipping cold coffee. I’ve never liked being alone in a pub – call me old-fashioned. Even when we were together, I hated being early. Waiting for someone I was never sure of, full of dread about being hit upon by amateur predators. That wasn’t a problem now. If anyone was a predator in this situation it was me. But I couldn’t bear to leave before you. It seemed important this time around that you leave me. Finally at half seven, the three of you rose, gathering up your stuff and pushed out into the main thoroughfare of the pub. Immediately, in a pincer movement, three of the suited ones moved into claim your space. I felt the betraying heave of disappointment that goes with the beloved’s withdrawal of presence. You turned to go; then you stopped and whispered in Girlie’s ear. She looked back at you briefly then bounced towards the exit where Lionheart was waiting patiently. I could see his face lighting up as she approached. Ah, so it was her he was after. He pulled open the door and she darted through it. He followed her. You turned towards me. I felt panicky but told myself to stop. You were going to the toilets, maybe, or using the side-door, the one that opened out on to a laneway, the one I used to favour when we were together. I could see your head bobbing up and down as you weaved your way around the crowd that stood between us. I was trapped; this was too close for comfort. I had not banked on our worlds actually colliding like this. You stopped in front of me.

Chemo fugue, my friends say. It was your ex-lover’s son you saw. But no, I knew you had fathered only daughters. A trick of the mind, the light. But no, it was none of that.

“Do I know you?” he asked.

When I didn’t answer – well, how could I answer? ─ he rephrased it.

““Do you know me?”

He was more earnest than I expected. You were never earnest; had it beaten out of you, you said, in the rough justice of boarding school. You were playful in company, serious in bed.

““It’s just that. . .” he started. A lighter voice than yours; age makes us growl and grate.

““Yes?” I said, feeling the bloom of ambiguous trepidation show on my face.

““Can I . . .?”

I nodded.

He folded himself on to the small stool opposite me that had remained empty except as a repository for bags and jackets. He laid these carefully on the banquette seat beside me. If it was a delaying tactic, it worked. What was he going to say? Could he do me for harassment? Young people are touchy about this sort of thing and I had not kept custody of the eyes, as we were instructed in convent school.

““You’ve been staring at me all night,” he said simply. No outlandish accusations, then.

““I’m sorry,” I said, rising to go. I had been a bad voyeur; I’d attracted attention by the focus of my own. “I have to go. . .”

I tried to squeeze by him but he grabbed my arm.

“Why is that?” he demanded. “What do you want?”

To turn the clock back, I wanted to say. He gripped my wrist and looked up at me imploringly.

“Are you my mother?”

That broke the spell, the chemo fog.

“What? No!!”

“Are you my mother?” he repeated and stood up. There was the steel I knew from your eyes, the grit of refusal. I shook him off, my folly made manifest.

“My natural mother,” he hissed in my ear.

The airwaves had been full of stories of adoptees trying to trace their natural parents; I felt I had stumbled into someone else’s reality show. I tried to wriggle out of our awkward embrace.

“Are you the woman who gave me up? Who gave up on me?” He raised his voice. “Who refused to meet me but feels free to spy on me? Are you?”

There was a ripple of anticipation in those around us; a pub crowd recognises when there is a row brewing. What I wanted to say was yes. Yes to everything. Except to the accusation of motherhood. To that I wanted to say – do you think, dear boy, that if I were your mother, I wouldn’t rush bald-headed to claim you?

“Is it you?” he pleaded, “come for me?”

Oh God, I couldn’t bear the interrogative. I had come for you. But the wrong you. I yanked my hand away and ploughed my way through the crowds of drinkers, jogging elbows and upsetting drinks as I went. A couple of aggrieved “heys” followed in my wake. I stepped out into the laneway where more shirt-sleeved drinkers had spilled out into the golden evening. Once clear of them, I ran. I ran, clutching my false hair in case I should lose it too. In my haste I crashed into a stack of shopping trolleys parked in a bay outside one of those late-opening supermarkets. I ducked in and found myself in the refrigerated aisle. He didn’t follow me, or if he did, he didn’t find me. I counted it as a lucky escape, a remission of sorts.

—Mary Morrissy

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Mary_Morrissey_300_200

Mary Morrissy is an award-winning Irish novelist (The Hennessy Award, Lannan Foundation Award) and short story writer, the author of three novels, Mother of Pearl, The Pretender and The Rising of Bella Casey (long-listed for the 2015 IMPAC Award), and a collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye. A second collection of linked stories, Diaspora, is forthcoming from Jonathan Cape. Her website is available here.

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Dec 072014
 

Lise GastonLise Gaston. Photo by Josh Davidson.

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Occupation 

What nonsense we talk
What nonsense we’re told
What nonsense we are
But I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are

bbbbbbb…bbbbb—John Newlove, “Insect Hopes”

What nonsense we talk:
we scratch names into smoked glass, tongue
the caulk between the stones,
hiss our lies through air conditioning.
We scratch names into smoked glass, tongues
speech-torn, felted and furred.
Lies hiss through the air conditioning:
what nonsense we’re told.

Speech-torn, felted and furred
we press our warm bodies into the walls,
what nonsense. We’re told
what’s written into drywall and plaster

where we rub our beautiful bodies
against the pockmarked paint, our bodies
written into drywall,
what nonsense we are.

Under pockmarked paint our bodies
are ghosted rooms and emptied words,
what nonsense we are,
we’re crab-walking the hallways, faces gaped upside-down
through empty ghosting rooms.
We plug water fountains with our ripped and bitten nails,
we crab-walk the gaping faceless hallways,
we graffiti our genitalia into the ground.
We rip out the water fountains, biting each other,
our bones grind through the escalators,
we graffiti our genitalia. On the ground,
we press red ears to the thrumming,

the grinding of bones up escalators.
We push our breasts against doorways, letting
ourselves in, red ears pressed to the humming
red intestine of the building where the plaster’s peeled off,

we push our chests against the doorways,
press our sweet soft fingers into
the red intestine of the building, the plaster peeled off,
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are.

Our hard, skilled fingers nothing but
caulk between the stones—
but I wanted to tell you still how lovely we are,
in our grave and vital nonsense.

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Sunday

He kicks me out of bed for leaving no crumbs, none of me.

In front of the metro a big man’s swinging his hips.

The sun arrives late today, knocks empty the sky.

Last night we got high until the room shook.

Oh, the way smoke settles on his mouth.

At the market strawberries are sliced and piled like little tongues.

Last night I had tucked his feet in, touched his thighs.

Sweet little tongues.

The radishes show lipstick on their teeth.

Tonight he will eat with another woman, a fragile woman who dislikes me.

At home: bread, cream cheese, avocado. A damp eighteenth-century novel.

My herbs are wilting, and pigeons live in the air conditioner.

He will ask me back to him, tonight. And I . . .

She will be at her apartment, removing the bones from her hair.


Monday

And sickness comes. It bats your head with greasy paws.
You’ve missed the sun, it’s out there now, the glass
warm against your face, your broken face. For you had planned

on riding, triangle seat wedged between your legs,
white helmet bulbous on your careful head.
It’s so sunny now, and you aren’t in the sun.

That feeling when hands behind your face pull skin into your skull.
The day is filled with federal custodians trying to contain
leaks, and other hierarchies of willful abstraction.

Wanted, you, you wanted to ride, ride
past the street that’s sputtering gas, the firetrucks dominoed there,
sirens waking you in morning, you

believed they were coming for you, in dreams you had
pulled a trigger. Now your head
won’t let you enter the sun. When you awoke

the lazy cat had remembered his green-eyed catness
and teased a mouse through the night.
He offers it to you now.

..

Les Rues

Montreal

Berri

the balcony in July’s sweet heat sucking
bbbbbbyour fingers we were high and fascinated
with difference of the other it seemed
hours with your fingers in my mouth seemed hours
up and down each one teeth against your knuckles

bbbbbb waiting on the street’s slim corner for me
you so immaculate in white and sun-
glasses neck rooted over your phone
a nun once glared me across this street my
bbbbbbbright purple shorts inscribed too small on my
legs when I left you the whole city
was shaking enragée the nun so cool
in her baby-blue shift and wimple you
bbbbbband I have the same-sized hands remember

.

Resther

we didn’t come here looking for a fight
bbbbbbmais la bataille commence les lignes ils sont
écrivées entre les francophones et les
autres
anglos students shaking with the weight
of their idealism enemies from Ford
bbbbbbNation ou mes amis living here for
half a cold decade turned away by the
interpreted code le domicile
c’est quoi ça le gouvernement change
their
bbbbbbgros collective mind if we don’t move our tongues
to our mouths’ roofs in the right correcte way

we had worn red boots and marched les rues in
thousands and they had loved us red paper
bbbbbbsquares clotted the sky like blossoms

 

Saint-Denis

all streets here more familiar after
bbbbbba bottle of dépanneur red yours
only two blocks out of my way it’s not
enough to mind but enough to notice

walking down in the city’s popular one
bbbbbba.m. light your old bedroom faces the
ambulance route of Saint-Denis shrieking and
unsleepable in summer all windows
open to the night in need trucks pouring
bbbbbbinto your third-story room the ugly
brown curtains you never did change that first
time all my limbs went numb and my face I
lost what control I entered with and went
bbbbbbgargoyle on you under an empty turret

.

Saint-Dominique 

you pulled me from a marching crowd you looked
bbbbbbso crisp in your dress shirt ironed and tight
shorts beside the anarchists we didn’t
touch till after dinner politeness
we decided to call it there is part

bbbbbbof this old street you can’t walk past without
recalling how we kissed you said for
hours in front of that fence pas de vélos
s.v.p.
coming in the early light
bbbbbbfrom Village bacchanals I never told

you I don’t remember this let you
shake yourself alone on your way to
another part-time job imagining
bbbbbball the dark angles of my open mouth

.

Sherbrooke

we ran some walk-up stairs against the slam
bbbbbbof riot shields watched bar patrons shoved from
les terrasses a cloud of grey a crowd of men
a spurt of red one eye lost to the spray

we marched for that stitched-up hole we marched against
bbbbbbCharest we haunted him in daylight I
marched for the sun that caught the hidden grey
in your black curls for memory of your
tired body slamming me against the wall

bbbbbbyour sweet heat my other rising ended
alone on an office carpet months
before the marches so-so-so-
solidarité
how little we were
bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbwilling to

—Lise Gaston

.
Lise Gaston‘s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in magazine and journals including Arc Poetry Magazine, The Fiddlehead, Lemon Hound, The Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, and Prairie Fire. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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Dec 062014
 

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype_-large-


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Given the magnitude of her achievement, it is hard to believe that Emily Dickinson’s poetry was not presented in an accurate text until 1955, almost seventy years after her death. And since those poems (almost 1,800 in number) continue to surprise and dazzle us with their linguistic ingenuity and psychological penetration, it is even harder to believe that Emily Dickinson was born 184 years ago!—on December 10, 1830. Famously, she spent much of her later, secluded life in her garden or writing in her room in the family house in Amherst. Yet, on Keatsian “wings of poesy,” she traveled the universe, from the microscopic to the cosmic. Her penchant for privacy far exceeded that of Thoreau, who had augmented Nature, the seminal work of his mentor Emerson, with Walden, the record of a temporary retreat to the woods, to live and write in solitude. Emily Dickinson’s only rivals for creative eminence in later nineteenth-century America were notably expansive: world-famous, globe-trotting Mark Twain, sea-voyaging Herman Melville, and that “kosmos,” Walt Whitman, who spread himself amply, in line-length and in the panorama of his Democratic vistas. In contrast, reclusive Emily Dickinson’s genius was in scrimshaw-like concision, economy, distillation. Yet her reach matched theirs in capaciousness. She took “For Occupation—This—/ The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise—” (657).

But what did Emily Dickinson think of when she imagined “Heaven” or “Paradise”? More often than not, she clung to Emersonian and Thoreauvian “nature.” Her poems and letters on death and paradise, in which the human and the floral are often conflated by this gardener-poet, provide examples of what Thomas Carlyle, in Sartor Resartus, termed “natural supernaturalism,” a phrase made part of Romantic criticism’s permanent vocabulary with the publication of M. H. Abrams’s landmark study of the secularization of the sacred—Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (1971). In an August 1856 letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, Dickinson’s natural supernaturalism and her pervasive human/floral analogy are explicit, with a fortunate exception: “I’m so glad you are not a blossom, for those in my garden fade, and then ‘a reaper whose name is Death’ has come to get a few to help him make a bouquet for himself.” This follows a passage that assumes the analogy, claiming that this earth would be Paradise enough were it not for frost and that Grim Reaper. This paragraph begins (Dickinson’s letters often combine prose with poetry) in modified ballad meter: “If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not awaken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below, and if God had been here this summer, and seen the things that I have seen—I guess he would think His Paradise superfluous” (Letters, 329).

The relatively open-minded Christianity of Elizabeth Holland and her husband may have freed Dickinson to confide such thoughts. A few years later, she would put this fusion of Nature and Heaven, of the physical and spiritual senses, into poetry. What we see, hear, and know is Nature: a harmonious Heaven whose simplicity is superior to our supposed wisdom:

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity. (668)

Dickinson’s Romantic vision of an Earthly Paradise, its minute particulars as cherished as its sublime manifestations and all the more beautiful because it is under the shadow of death, is reminiscent of Wordsworth, before he froze over, and of Dickinson’s beloved Keats, who never froze over. Keats told a religiously conservative friend, Benjamin Bailey, that his own “favorite Speculation” was that “we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone, and so repeated” (Letters of John Keats, 1:184-86). In one of the most beautiful passages ever written by Emily Brontë, Catherine Earnshaw’s daughter (the second “Cathy” in Wuthering Heights) describes her “most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness.” She would be “rocking” at the heart of the natural world, “in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side,…grass undulating in waves to the breeze; and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy….I wanted all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee” (Wuthering Heights, Norton Critical Edition, 198-99).

William_WordsworthWilliam Wordsworth

Such passages explain Dickinson’s reverence of “gigantic Emily Brontë” (Letters, 721), one of whose poems (“Last Lines,” also known as “No Coward Soul Was Mine”), a favorite of Emily Dickinson, was appropriately read at her funeral service. Wonderful as it is, Brontë’s description of a naturalized “heaven” or “paradise”—a world in motion, in which the speaker actively and joyfully engages in her surroundings—is both Keatsian and Wordsworthian. The final gathering (waves, breeze, woods, water, the whole world awake and joyous), especially Cathy’s wanting “all to sparkle and dance, in a golden jubilee,” unmistakably recalls Wordsworth’s (and Dorothy’s) “host of golden daffodils,/ Beside the lake, beneath the trees,/ Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” Those flowers, which outdo “the sparkling waves in glee,” comprise “a jocund company” in whose presence a “poet could not but be gay,” a joy recalled whenever “They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.” (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”)

Wordsworth_Excursion

Wordsworth’s head-“tossing” flowers are personified in a delicately pagan manner, their “sprightly dance” allying them with sprights or sprites: elfin supernatural beings. That disciple of Wordsworth and mentor to Emily Dickinson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also attuned to the sort of earthly paradise that appealed to both Emilys. He began his famous or infamous 1838 Address to the Harvard Divinity School by fusing the “gladsome pagans” in what was his as well as Keats’s favorite Book of Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Excursion (those pagans who “looked” and “were humbly thankful for the good/ Which the warm sun solicited, and earth/ Bestowed” [4:932-38]), with the “pagan” of “The World is Too Much With Us.” Quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet, Emerson shocked his pious audience from the outset by declaring that he, too, would rather be “A pagan suckled in a creed outworn” than a Christian impoverished by being cut off from a vital, fecund nature sacrificed to both an austere religion and a crass materialism of “getting and spending.” Accordingly, he began the Divinity School Address with his own deeply responsive evocation of nature’s vital, sparkling, floral beauty. In “this refulgent summer,” it has been “a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold” (Essays and Lectures, 75). Those meadows were alive with flowers aglow with the light of Wordsworth’s “golden daffodils,” and sharing the pagan vitality of their “sprightly dance.” Emerson, like early Wordsworth, would have concurred with Emily Dickinson’s speculation in the letter to Elizabeth Holland: Had God “seen the things that I have seen” this summer, he would—Dickinson boldly or blasphemously surmised—“think His Paradise superfluous.”

It seems a shame that Emily Dickinson, who knew and admired Emerson’s essays, stayed in her room when, in 1872, the great man, after a lecture at Amherst College, visited her brother and sister-in-law, living just next-door. With his acute eye, Emerson would surely have recognized genius, just as he did when he first laid eyes on Whitman’s then-unpublished poetry. There are many passages in which Emerson, a peculiarly grounded Transcendentalist, evokes an earthly paradise. In his essay on Swedenborg in Representative Men, Emerson claimed that the only thing “certain” about a possible heaven was that it must “tally with what was best in nature.” It “must not be inferior in tone…agreeing with flowers, with tides, and the rising and setting of autumnal stars.” “Melodious poets” will be inspired “when once the penetrating key-note of nature and spirit is sounded,—the earth-beat, sea-beat, heart-beat, which makes the tune to which the sun rolls, and the globule of blood, and the sap of trees.” (Essays and Lectures, 686-87)

iemersr001p1Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like Keats’s “a finer tone”—descriptive both of the unheard music in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and of the repetition of earthly happiness “here after”—Emerson’s “not…inferior in tone,” and stress on key-note, melodiousness, and tune, echoes a text familiar to both Keats and Emerson: Wordsworth’s Excursion, and the Solitary’s reference in Book 2 to “Music in a finer tone” (2:710). Even later Wordsworth, tamed-down and religiously orthodox, never ceased to be a lover “of all that we behold/ From this green earth” (“Tintern Abbey,” lines 104-5), a poet who found his “Paradise, and groves/ Elysian”—provided the human intellect was “wedded to this goodly universe/ In love and holy passion”—to be a “simple produce of the common day” (“Prospectus” to The Recluse,” lines 43-55). Even in revising from a more conservative perspective his account of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, Wordsworth never recanted the desire initially expressed, to exercise his skill, “Not in Utopia” or some other ideal place, “Heaven knows where!/ But in the very world, which is the world/ Of all of us,—the place where, in the end,/ We find our happiness, or not at all!” (The Prelude [1850 version]), 11:140-44).

“Oh Matchless Earth,” Emily Dickinson exclaimed in a one-sentence letter, “We underrate the chance to dwell in Thee” (Letters, 478). She was borrowing from the “Prologue” to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell. Having sailed into the heavens in his little boat in the shape of a crescent moon, and having described the constellations and planets, the speaker asks rhetorically, “What are they to that tiny grain,/ That little Earth of ours?” And so he descends: “Then back to Earth, the dear green Earth…See! There she is, the matchless Earth!” (Peter Bell, lines 49-56). Dickinson herself might be “glad” that others believed they were, in the opening exclamation of her early poem, “Going to Heaven!” But, for herself,

I’m glad I don’t believe it
For it would stop my breath—
And I’d like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth! (79)

There is yet another parallel to Emily Dickinson’s thought that “Nature is Heaven,” or that Heaven would be superfluous, if only our earthly Paradise were free of frost and death. In a passage familiar to Wordsworth, Keats, Emerson, and Dickinson, Milton’s archangel Raphael offers a speculative analogy. Explaining to Adam the mysteries of celestial warfare by likening spiritual to corporeal forms, he adds: “Though what if Earth/ Be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein/ Each to the other like, more than on earth is thought?” (Paradise Lost 5:573-76). Emily Dickinson echoed and altered this passage in an 1852 letter to “Dear Susie” (her soon-to-be sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert). Reversing Raphael’s “therein,” Dickinson locates love “Herein,” and concludes by taking literally the angel’s rhetorical but intriguing question: “But that was Heaven—this is but Earth, Earth so like to heaven that I would hesitate should the true one call away.” (Letters, 195; italics in original). Milton himself may have been open to the idea of Heaven as a projection of earthly happiness complete with a terrestrial landscape. In his fusion of the Classical and Christian in “Lycidas,” the pastoral elegist leaves us free to imagine the risen man as either “saint” in Heaven or as the “genius of the shore,” drowned, but now, through the power “of him that walked the waves,” mounted to a place “Where other groves and other streams along,/ With nectar pure his oozy locks he laves” (lines 172-75).

In a jocoserious, life-affirming poem looking back to Romantic and Emersonian “nature worship” and ahead to the earth-centered female persona of Wallace Steven’s “Sunday Morning,” Dickinson rejects religious ritual, a formal “church,” and an other-worldly Heaven in favor of an earthly paradise, a God immanent rather than transcendent, and salvation as a daily process rather than a static end-state:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—
With a Bobolink for a Chorister—
And an Orchard for a Dome—

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings—
And instead of rolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton—sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman—
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along. (324)

In an 1863 letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in which she describes herself as “not reared to prayer,” Dickinson pronounces “the ‘Supernatural’…only the Natural, disclosed” (Letters, 423-24). In a poem written that year or the year before (Johnson dates it 1862, Franklin 1863), dawn and noon seem symbols of what she calls “Heaven.” The skepticism implicit in the setting of “Heaven” in quotation marks is confirmed in the final two stanzas:

The Rapture of a finished Day—
Returning to the West—
All these—remind us of the place
That Men call “Paradise”—

Itself be fairer—we suppose—
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace—
Not yet, our eyes can see— (575)

In two letters of 1873, Dickinson subverts Paul’s text (“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality”) about the dead being raised and changed as a consequence of Christ’s Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:52-53). In the first letter (April 1873), she pronounces the novelist George Eliot (whom she knew to be a woman, Marian Evans) a “mortal” who “has already put on immortality,” adding that “the mysteries of human nature surpass the ‘mysteries of redemption,’ for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite” (Letters, 506). Later that year, in a letter to Elizabeth Holland, Emily notes that her sister Lavinia, just back from a visit to the Hollands, had said her hosts “dwell in paradise.” Emily declares: “I have never believed the latter to be a supernatural site”; instead, “Eden, always eligible,” is present in the intimacy of “Meadows” and the noonday “Sun.” If, as Blake said, “Everything that lives is holy,” it is a this-worldly truth of which believers like her sister and father are cheated: “While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’—it has already done so and they go defrauded” (Letters, 508). In a notably legalistic affirmation of earth, included in an 1877 letter to a lawyer, her increasingly skeptical brother Austin, she goes even further:

The Fact that Earth is Heaven—
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not
If not an Affidavit
Of that specific Spot
Not only must confirm us
That it is not for us
But that it would affront us
To dwell in such a place— (1408)

Wallace Stevens, who, in “Sunday Morning,” imagines his female persona asking if she shall not “find in comforts of the sun,” in any “balm or beauty of the earth/ Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?” insists elsewhere that “poetry/ Exceeding music must take the place/ Of empty heaven and its hymns” (“The Man with the Blue Guitar,” section 5); that we must live in “a physical world,” the very air “swarming” with the “metaphysical changes that occur,/ Merely in living as and where we live” (“Esthetique du Mal,” section 15). Stevens seems to be recalling Wordsworth’s “Prospectus” and Emerson’s seminal book Nature, along with that ardent disciple of Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche. He might as well have been thinking of Emily Dickinson, and her audacious, even blasphemous preference for the tangible things of this earth, to be cherished above thoughts of an otherworldly Heaven, an abstract place offensive to our nature. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra’s beseeches us in his Prologue to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak…of otherworldly hopes!” She never accepted the Nietzschean premise, the Death of God, but, when she was only fifteen, Emily confided in her friend Abiah Root that the main reason she was “continually putting off becoming a Christian,” despite the “aching void in my heart,” was her inability to conceive of an existence beyond this earth as anything but horrible: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you?….it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity.” Two years later she tells a friend that, while she regrets that she did not seize a past opportunity to “give up and become a Christian,” she won’t: “it is hard for me to give up the world” (Letters, 27-28, 67). She is not referring to that material “world” of getting and spending that is “too much with us,” but to this “matchless Earth” indistinguishable from, and perhaps preferable to, Heaven.

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The problem, of course, is that this Earth, however “matchless,” is not free of frost and death, so often almost indistinguishable in Dickinson. The invasive force in her Earthly Paradise was less the worm than the frost. The link between the fading and freezing-by-frost of her flowers on the one hand, and the death of those she cannot waken on the other, becomes a dominant motif. Her cherishing of a Heaven-like Earth is sometimes connected with the pain inflicted from above. In one poem, while noting the “firmest proof” of “Heaven above,” she significantly adds that, “Except for its marauding Hand/ It had been heaven below” (1205; my italics). In another letter to Elizabeth Holland and her husband, Heaven’s “marauding Hand” seems both a grim Reaper and a cruel Leveler. Writing during a period (autumn, 1858) when an epidemic of typhoid fever had struck Amherst, she cries out, not in concluding but in opening the letter: “Good-night! I can’t stay any longer in a world of death. Austin [her brother] is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week—our man, Dick, lost a little girl through scarlet fever….Ah! Democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden,—then deep to his bosom calling the serf’s child” (Letters, 341).

virginia-woolfVirginia Woolf

This letter has become controversial. The admittedly jarring reference to the “serf’s child,” both “politically” and historically incorrect, has been described as insensitive, shocking, an indication of casual snobbishness at best and class-conscious callousness at worst, compounded by (in the phrase of Albert Habegger) her “equating ‘the serf’s child’ with her frost-killed flowers” (My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson [2001], 363). We may be reminded of Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who imagines people saying of her, “she cared much more for her roses than for” such human but distant “victims of cruelty and injustice” as those who perished in the Armenian genocide (Mrs. Dalloway [Norton Critical Edition], 88). But the best response to the attack on Dickinson’s “callousness” in this letter seems to me that of Judith Farr. After acknowledging the “insensitivity it projects,” she reminds us that “Austin’s [serious] illness and the coming of winter are also equated” in the letter. She then makes her central point, one I would emphasize as well:

To begin with, it is simply the case that Emily Dickinson loved flowers quite as much and as if they were human; her implicit comparison was…not intended to diminish the “little girl,” as she is rather tenderly called….With the cadences of Ecclesiastes and the Elizabethans always vivid in her ear, it was only natural that Dickinson should express the communion and equality of all living forms in death. Indeed, her letter’s zinnia and child commingling in Death’s grasp calls up such lines as Cymbeline’s “Golden Lads, and Girles all must,/ As Chimney-sweepers come to dust.”….Not snobbery, but the power of the aesthetic impulse to which she was subject is chiefly manifested in Dickinson’s much-discussed letter. (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson [2004], 56)

I would add only that Dickinson’s equation, not limited to the influence of Ecclesiastes and Shakespeare, also had Romantic auspices. Between Death’s “grasp” on a proud flower in her royally purple garden and the death of the little child of a servant there is no more gap than we find in “Threnody,” Emerson’s elegy for his little boy, Waldo. Also a victim of scarlet fever, dead at the age of five, that “hyacinthine boy” and “budding man” was never to blossom, though his father prepares for him, in the conclusion of the elegy, an appropriate Heaven: not “adamant… stark and cold,” but a rather Wordsworthian or Keatsian “nest of bending reeds,/ Flowering grass and scented weeds” (“Threnody,” lines 15, 26, 272-75). In a less-discussed but similar letter to Elizabeth Holland, whose child had suffered a crippling injury, Dickinson notes that “to assault so minute a creature seems to me malign, unworthy of Nature—but the frost is no respecter of persons.” In other letters, starting in the 1850s, Dickinson assumes this floral/frost/human analogue, making explicit what is implicit in poems like “Apparently with no surprise,” where “the Frost beheads” the “happy Flower” (1624): namely, her pervasive connection of flowers and frost with human life and death. At times at least, she includes a vision of transcendence for believers, the hope of spiritual resurrection.

Even when “the frost has been severe,” killing off flowers and plants that try in vain “to shield them from the chilly north-east wind,” there can be an imperishable garden. I am quoting from a touching letter of October 1851, anticipating the arrival of Austin. She had “tried to delay the frosts,” detaining the “fading flowers” until he came. But the flowers, like the poor “bewildered” flies trying to warm themselves in the kitchen, “do not understand that there are no summer mornings remaining to them and to me.” But no matter the effect on her flowers and plants of the severe frost brought by the “chilly north-east wind,” she can offer her brother “another” garden impervious to frost. The theme kindles her prose into poetry, minus the line-breaks (in fact, Johnson prints it as a poem, #2). She offers a bright, ever-green garden, “where not a frost has been, in its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; prithee, my Brother, into my garden come!” (Letters, 149). As Judith Farr remarks, such a garden—which “could never exist, except in metaphor”—is “the garden of herself: her imagination, her love, each of which, she says, will outlast time.” As much as any poem in her canon, this early letter-poem, probably written when Dickinson was twenty-one, “discloses the rapt identification she made between herself, her creativity, and her flowers….‘Here is a brighter garden’ instinctively focuses on the garden of her mind, with its loving thoughts that transcend the ‘frost’ of death.” (The Gardens of Emily Dickinson, 56)

A third of a century later, we have a remarkably similar letter in which, at least for her beloved brother, there is an autumnal harbinger of a spiritual as well as a natural spring to come. In this late letter of autumn 1884, the same year she wrote “Apparently with no surprise,” she tells a family friend, Maria Whitney:

…………...Changelessness is Nature’s change. The plants went into camp last night, their tender
armor insufficient for the crafty nights.
……………That is one of the parting acts of the year, and has an emerald pathos—and Austin
hangs bouquets of corn in the piazza’s ceiling, also an omen, for Austin believes.
……………The golden bowl breaks soundlessly, but it will not be whole again till another year.
………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………(Letters, 848)

Anthropomorphizing (as in the 1851 letter, where the flowers try to “shield them[selves]” from the autumn wind), she presents the “tender armor” of her flowers as inadequate to protect them against the autumnal frost. So, alert to their needs, she brings them indoors, into the “camp” of her conservatory. She ends by quoting the admonition from Ecclesiastes, that we are to remember God before the body disintegrates, before “the silver cord be loosed or the golden bowl be broken” (12:6). But Emily differentiates herself from her brother Austin, a closet skeptic who, for the purposes of this letter, “believes”—has faith, that is, not only in the seasonal rebirth of corn from seeds, but in the spiritual resurrection of the body. His sister, adhering to a seasonal form of natural supernaturalism, confines her hope to a natural spring; her “golden bowl” will “not be whole again till another year.”

Two of Emily Dickinson’s most beautiful, and most Keatsian, poems, mark her major seasonal transition, from summer to autumn. In “As imperceptibly as Grief,” summer has “lapsed away,” a beloved season that can’t quite be accused of “Perfidy” since she was always a “Guest, that would be gone.” The poem ends with summer, like Keats’s nightingale, having “made her light escape/ Into the Beautiful,” a Platonic realm beyond us, leaving behind only the memory, which is to be cherished here on earth (1540). In “Further in Summer than the Birds,” which has been described, by Charles R. Anderson, as “her finest poem on the theme of the year going down to death and the relation of this to a belief in immortality” (Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway to Surprise [1966],169), Dickinson employs liturgical language to commemorate, as in Keats’s “To Autumn,” the insects’ dirge for the dying year. “Pathetic from the Grass,” that “minor Nation celebrates/ Its unobtrusive Mass,” their barely noticeable requiem nevertheless “Enlarging Loneliness.” The music of the crickets, coming later in the summer than the song of birds, is a “spectral Canticle.” Their hymn typifies—in the transition from summer to autumn, with “August burning low”—the winter sleep to come, a “Repose” perhaps implying eternal rest on another level.

In the final stanza, Christian and Hebraic vocabulary yields to pagan. At this moment of seasonal transition, there is, “as yet,” no “Furrow on the Glow” of sunlit, burning August, “Yet a Druidic difference/ Enhances Nature now” (1068). That final religious image, whether we take the Druidic reference as stressing primarily the sacrificial or the animistic element in Celtic nature-worship, powerfully reinforces Dickinson’s own reverence for Nature, its beauty enriched and intensified less, perhaps, by what Anderson calls a “belief in immortality” than—again, as in the ode “To Autumn”—by time’s evanescence and the pathos of mutability, the deeply moving contrast between seasonal return and human transience. That transience extends to all animal life. This poem, written in late 1865 or early 1866, was enclosed in a laconic January 1866 note to her epistolary semi-mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom she had not corresponded for eighteen months. Referring to her beloved dog and constant companion, Emily Dickinson restricted herself to a single statement, and a wry question, less pleading than ironic, perhaps bitter: “Carlo died….Would you instruct me now?” (Letters, 449).

Samuel-BowlesSamuel Bowles

Though of course haunted by the thought of immortality, Dickinson was also dubious. In an 1858 letter to Samuel Bowles, she adopts an ironic, pretension-mocking tone. Distinguishing between nature and “us,” she at once anticipates and deflates modern “species chauvinism,” wondering, tongue-in-cheek, how it is that we mere humans, described by her pastor as a “worm,” should also be the very species singled out for a majestic and special end: a resurrection allegedly obviating any need for mourning, including mourning the death of what would seem to be paradise enough for us: summer with its cherished fields, its bumblebees and birds:

Summer stopped since you were here. Nobody noticed her—that is, no men and women. Doubtless, the fields are rent by petite anguish, and “mourners go about” [Ecclesiastes 12:5] the Woods. But this is not for us. Business enough indeed, our stately Resurrection! A special Courtesy, I judge, from what the Clergy say! To the “natural man,” Bumblebees would seem an improvement, and a spicing of Birds, but far be it from me, to impugn such majestic tastes! Our pastor says we are a “Worm.” How is that reconciled? “Vain, sinful Worm” is possibly of another species. (Letters, 338-39)

By this time, the 1730s’ thunderings of Jonathan Edwards against the moral ills of New England’s sinners in the hands of an angry God had lost some of their resonance, even in Calvinist Amherst. But in his debasement of man as a “worm,” Dickinson’s pastor may (the trope is hardly restricted to Edwards) have been echoing the great Puritan’s description of man as “a vile insect,” a “little, wretched, despicable creature; a worm, a mere nothing, and less than nothing” (The Justice of God in the Damnation of Sinners [1634]). Edwards himself—whose “Martial Hand” of “Conscience” Dickinson presents threatening “wincing” sinners with hellfire, the “Phosphorus of God” (1598)—was echoing Bildad, the second of Job’s false comforters. From the outset, he had advised the innocent sufferer to abase himself. In his final discourse (Job 25:2-6), Bildad wonders if it is even possible for man to “be righteous before God.” To this fear-instilling God of “dominion,” even the moon and stars are unclean; “how much less man, that is a worm? and the son of man, which is a worm!” How indeed, as Emily sardonically inquires, is that abject status reconcilable with our potential for “stately resurrection”?

Man’s biblical genesis and Fall seemed to put that glorious end in doubt. Prior to ejecting guilty Adam and Eve from Eden, the “Lord God” tells them, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Gen 3:19). For Hamlet, man is “the paragon of animals.., how like a god,” and yet, to him, “what is this quintessence of dust?” (2.2.305-7); Wordsworth, in the opening book of The Prelude, tries to “reconcile” the contradiction: “Dust as we are, the immortal Spirit grows/ Like harmony in music” (1:340-41). Dickinson can engage this tension in the grand tradition, observing that “Death is a Dialogue between/ The Spirit and the Dust,” with Spirit triumphant, “Just laying off for evidence/ An Overcoat of Clay” (976). But she takes a different tack in a couplet-poem she opens by ironically addressing God as “Heavenly Father”:

“Heavenly Father”—take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband—
Though to trust us—seem to us
More respectful—“We are Dust”—
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity—(1461)

So much for Bildad-like groveling! Like the image of the worm, that of dust reflects the Calvinist estimate of human worthlessness. But here the “worm” turns, with the “sinful” creature finding fault with the Creator. Despite his seeming straightforwardness, God committed a dubious act (an inconsistency emphasized by the alliterated candid and contraband). In fashioning us as he did, he set up, between dust and immortal spirit, not so much a creative tension as a radical contradiction. He thus stands accused of double-dealing, and any “apology” we make to so duplicitous a God will be less an acknowledgement of our own guilt, or a seeking of pardon, than a self-justifying defense—an apologia in the form of j’accuse directed against a divine adversary. That vindictive God himself supplied the right word. “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children” (Exodus 20:5). Dickinson, who, like Mark Twain, cherishes the role of lawyer for the plaintiff when it comes to amassing evidence against God’s supposedly benign providence, has the children of Dust visit the charge of injustice upon an anything-but-paternal Heavenly Father, accusing him—blasphemously, though appropriately, given his supreme power—of “the supreme iniquity.”

Emily Dickinson 2

If this reading is accurate, our apology to God for his “own Duplicity” allies the poem with the most blasphemous of Omar Khayyám’s quatrains addressed to God, at least as adapted by Edward Fitzgerald in a translation the Victorian world accepted with a shock of recognition:

Oh Thou, who Man of baser Earth didst make,
And ev’n with Paradise devise the Snake:
……….For all the sin wherewith the face of Man
Is blackened—Man’s forgiveness give—and take!

The work of such writers as Carlyle, Tennyson and Arnold, and, later, Hardy and Housman, all responding in their different ways to Darwinian and other scientific and rationalist challenges to religious belief (including Biblical Higher Criticism) places an imprimatur on the judgment that Fitzgerald’s version of the Rubáiyát “reads like the latest and freshest expression of the perplexity and of the doubt of the generation to which we ourselves belong.” That acute observation was made, however, not by a British Victorian but by an American—the scholar and man of letters Charles Eliot Norton, writing in 1869, a decade before Dickinson wrote “‘Heavenly Father’—take to thee.” Not only the “doubt,” but the “perplexity” as well, is reflected in Dickinson’s poem, for the syntax of her opening lines suggests petition even more than protest. James McIntosh (Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown [2004]), identifying “humankind” as “the supreme iniquity,” takes these lines to mean: “Father, take humans, who are the supreme iniquity, to thee” (47). Perhaps; but what, then, of the poem’s final lines? My own reading is closer to that of Magdalena Zapedowska, in her 2006 American Transcendentalist Quarterly essay, “Wrestling with Silence.” She argues that, in this poem, Dickinson focuses, not on the Fall as original sin,

but on the subsequent expulsion from Paradise, which she blasphemously construes as the original wrong done to humankind by a God who first offered people happiness, then distrustfully put them to the test, and finally doomed them to suffering. Undermining the dogma of God’s benevolence, Dickinson contemplates the terrifying possibility that the metaphysical order is different from Calvinist teaching and that the human individual is left wholly to him/herself, unable to rely on the hostile Deity against the chaos of the universe. (“Wrestling with Silence,” 385)

At such moments, Emily Dickinson sounds like her considerably more public contemporary, Mark Twain, who made no secret of his religious skepticism, but who nevertheless refrained from publishing his most vitriolic attacks on the Judeo-Christian God, a divinity he described, even before his dark final decade, as both duplicitous and cruel. As the examples of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain illustrate, for all our immortal longings, we are haunted, and angered, by the death implicit in our originating dust—in the case of both Dickinson and Twain, what Byron called “fiery dust.” And if the “Heavenly Father” who presides over this beautiful but doomed world really is an indifferent and “Approving God” (1624), Emily Dickinson seems to care less for him and for a posthumous, perhaps empty Heaven, than for this Earthly Paradise—the perishable beauty that must die, everything she wishes could “transcend the ‘frost’ of death,” but which she strongly suspects will not.

“Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” That haunting question was posed by W. B. Yeats in one of his greatest poems, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He was not suggesting anything so trite as that we love things and then they disappear. He was reminding us that we love beautiful transient things because they are mutable, doomed to vanish. That is precisely why we cherish them so, recognizing, as Wordsworth poignantly acknowledged even in the great Ode in which he claimed intimations of immortality, that “nothing can bring back the hour/ Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.” These splendors and glories are part of a “supernaturalism” that is “natural.” That great enemy of otherworldly hopes and cherisher of the earth, Nietzsche, referred in a December 1885 letter to irretrievable beauty. In a floral image that would have appealed to Emily Dickinson, who would die shortly after this letter was written, he spoke of Rosengeruch des Unwiederbringlichen: the faint rose-breath of what can never be brought back.

Of course, with Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson as her precursors, we do not really need Emerson’s disciple Nietzsche and Nietzsche’s disciple Yeats to explain why Emily Dickinson’s Earthly Paradise is not only beautiful but death-haunted. I quote Yeats and Nietzsche (and Emily would, I think, approve) for the poignant beauty of their language in commemorating the pathos of mutability, what Wordsworth—deeply moved by the humblest “flower” that blossoms and blows in the breeze—called, in the final line of the Intimations Ode, “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

— Patrick J. Keane

Author’s Note: Though most Dickinson scholars prefer the three-volume edition of R. W. Franklin (Harvard U.P., 1998), Emily Dickinson’s poems are here cited by number from the one-volume Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Little, Brown, 1957, and often reprinted). Her letters are cited from the three-volume but continuously-paginated The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Harvard University Press, 1958). Wordsworth, Keats, and Emerson, are cited from: Wordsworth: The Poems, ed. John O. Hayden, 2 vols. (Yale UP, 1981); The Letters of John Keats, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Harvard UP, 1958); Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (Library of America, 1983).

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PAT kEANE

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

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Dec 052014
 

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Fiction writers often struggle with various questions related to subplots: How should I structure my subplots? How much space should my subplots consume? What kind of relationship should the subplot bear to the main plot? Should the subplot be congruent or opposed to the main plot? Let’s consider the novels Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler as an entry point into the study of subplots in general and the related techniques of character grouping and gradation.

Aristotle taught that the best plots proceed through a series of reversals and recognitions. John Dufresne is his book The Lie That Tells a Truth tells us that episodes do not necessarily make a plot. He says, “Plot is the writer’s arrangement of events to achieve a desired effect. It is the magnet to which all other narrative elements attach.”

Plot is something, I believe, that can be coaxed into being. John Dufresne says that “a plot begins to form as soon as you ask yourself the appropriate questions: what does my central character want? What is preventing her from getting it? What does she do about the various obstacles in her way? What is the outcome of what she does? What climax does this all lead to? Does she get what she wants in the end? Plot, then, is the element of fiction that shapes the other elements—character, theme, point of view, language, and so on—into a story.”

JDJohn Dufresne

Now let’s turn our attention to subplots, the main topic of this essay. In The Enamoured Knight, Douglas Glover says this about subplots: “In its simplest and most direct form the subplot is another plot, involving another set of characters, weaving through the novel.” Subplots can vary in size but every novel must have at least one to achieve the resonating or echoing effect that a novelist tries to achieve by modulating or reduplicating situations and characters, by having several people falling in love or dying or praying in different ways—dissimilar people solving the same problem or similar people confronted with dissimilar problems.

In his essay “Emotion of Multitude,” W. B. Yeats says that “the Shakespearean drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the subplot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of King Lear less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of one man and a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children, and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women, and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.” Yeats seems to imply that if we read the experiences of one man, we may imagine it rooted in his own unique personality or providential in nature or the result of unprecedented or uncommon play of events. But if we notice similar dramas unraveling in several individuals’ lives we may be forced to look beyond the characters and we may end up understanding the thematic issues the authors wants to highlight.

Usually, subplots have graded characters closely related to the main characters. On the topic of graded characters, Glover offers us this: “Graded characters are characters in narrative who share, in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion, thematically crucial experiences in such a way as to create structural parallels” (The Enamoured Knight). A group of friends or schoolmates or army buddies make good subplot characters. “The advantage of the near relations between characters on plot and subplot lines is that they can interact with and observe one another naturally” (The Enamoured Knight). However, we must keep in mind that the different character groups we see in novels often—class, family, working groups—are options we see frequently, but they are not the only possibilities for running subplots.

EK

All right, now let’s turn to Sense and Sensibility to better comprehend what might have led Jane Austen to make use of a plot-subplot structure with graded characters. In this novel, after Henry Dashwood dies, his three daughters and his wife inherit a small and insufficient sum, so the Dashwood girls must marry to find respectability and secure their futures. Although their stepbrother, John Dashwood, promised his dying father he’d take care of his stepmother and sisters, he decides to offer them nothing under the influence of his greedy wife, Fanny. Then, a pleasant unassuming man, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, visits Norland and Elinor, the prudent Dashwood girl, gets attached to him. Fanny disapproves of the match and complains to Mrs Dashwood, Elinor’s mother, which results in the hasty departure of Elinor, her sisters and mother from Norland to a small rental cottage they’ve found for themselves in Devonshire. Marianne, the younger sister, full of fine sensibilities—which is a euphemism indicating her excessively emotional and impetuous temperament—disregards Brandon, an older, mellow, reserved man and finds her soul mate in a dashing young man named Willoughby, who, not surprisingly, resembles Marianne. Demonstrative and passionate, Willoughby and Marianne never leave each other’s side, leading to much public speculation about their relationship. Then, all of a sudden, Willoughby leaves. Marianne, a romantic, suffers a “violent oppression of spirits” while waiting for him to return. Soon she learns of Willoughby’s engagement with someone else for monetary reasons and falls sick and nearly loses her life as a result of the heartbreak. Like Marianne, even Brandon is wronged by Willoughby: Willoughby flirted with and impregnated a girl-child, Eliza, under Brandon’s guardianship. Even Elinor faces ill-luck in love—Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, a girl who suffers from a want of delicacy and integrity of mind. But Elinor does not share the news of Edward’s engagement with her family for a long time and bears hardship with a sense of forbearance. In the end, Elinor turns out to be the fortunate one, although just by chance: Edward’s fiancé, Lucy, breaks her engagement with Edward so he can unite with Elinor; however Marianne must content herself to be with Brandon, although she didn’t care for him before.

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, anonymously, brought its writer no fame during her lifetime, although it was an instant success. With a recent surge of interest in Jane Austen, the novel is more widely read and proclaimed today than it ever was. Written in third person from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, the novel explores the problem of finding a life partner and whether sense or sensibility leads to a better match.

In this novel the plot and the subplot occupy nearly equal space and are accorded equal consideration, forming parallel plot-subplot structure. Right in the beginning, on page three, Jane Austen sets the stage for parallel plots with graded characters.

Jane_Austen_coloured_versionJane Austen

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to learn. (3)

Note the way Elinor’s character is described in relation to that of her mother and her sister. In the next paragraph, the author offers us this about the younger sister, Marianne.

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great. (3)

Throughout the novel, the author uses the words “prudence” in reference to Elinor and “eagerness” and “imprudence” in reference to Marianne and her mother, Mrs Dashwood. Elinor and Marianne—sisters, young, unmarried, constrained by their financial situation, the fact they are women, and the fact they must marry to secure a future for themselves—belong to the same character group, even though they are temperamentally apart. They are both well brought-up girls, who enjoy books and are fond of arts, although Marianne’s fondness for arts is more vehement in nature. Elinor draws and Marianne plays piano. They love their mother and each other. But to illuminate the theme of the novel the author must draw out the differences in the outlook of the two Dashwood girls. So to accentuate their heterogeneity, the sisters form pairs with men who reflect their personalities. Like Elinor, Edward has a quietness of manner and is amiable, warm and affectionate. Willoughby is frank and vivacious and as passionate about music and dancing as Marianne. Not just Elinor but even Edward and Brandon represent sense and the pair, Marianne and Willoughby, sensibility and indiscreetness. Edward and Willoughby mirror the dispositions of the women they are with, though not entirely. Elinor is not as shy as Edward, and Edward doesn’t have the same interest in arts as Elinor. The narrator tells us this about Willoughby and Marianne: “The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or if any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.” Jane Austen takes time to define the spectrum of her characters’ beliefs and their propensities, and then these graded characters will trudge along parallel plot lines to explore the central theme of the novel: when looking for a life partner, is it better to follow reason or sensibility? Whether sense or sensibility is the winner in the end?

Both sisters fall in love; they are presented with obstacles and find resolutions. The novel unfolds in a pattern. We see some event bear down upon one of the sisters and observe her reaction to the life event and then we see a similar occurrence in the other sister’s life and witness her response and learn what others think of the whole business. “In fiction,” E. K. Brown tells us, “the rhythmic arrangements that move us most are those where repetition is enveloped in variations, but never so enveloped that it appears subordinate.” That is exactly what Jane Austen seems to want to accomplish. Although the arcs of the two parallel plots cover the same points and are a bit repetitive on the surface, they are designed to achieve the opposite effect: highlight differences and illuminate the theme.

Compare Elinor’s gentle anguish, when she discovers Edward is engaged to Lucy, to Marianne’s finding Willoughby with a woman at a party.

Elinor for a few moments remained silent. Her astonishment at what she heard was at first too great for words; but at length forcing herself to speak, and to speak cautiously, she said with a calmness of manner, which tolerably well concealed her surprise and solicitude—‘May I ask if your engagement is of long standing?’ (87)

Here’s Marianne’s comportment in a somewhat similar predicament.

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

‘Go to him, Elinor,’ she cried, as soon as she could speak, ‘and force him to come to me. Tell him I must see him again—must speak to him instantly.—I cannot rest—I shall not have a moment’s peace till this is explained—some dreadful misapprehension or other.—Oh go to him this moment.’ (119)

When the sisters are about to leave their childhood home in Norland, Marianne sheds tears, but Elinor finds the decision to move prudent and refuses to dissuade her mother, even though her love-interest is in Norland.

A romantic, Marianne says, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” “Grandeur has but little,” says Elinor, “but wealth has much to do with it.” Elinor falls for Edward who is not handsome, and his manners require intimacy to make them pleasing. Marianne, who doesn’t approve of her sister’s beau entirely because Edward has no spirit and is not striking enough, falls in love with Willoughby, a charming personality in everyone’s opinion. Even Mrs. Dashwood commends Marianne’s choice and finds Willoughby faultless, although Elinor can clearly see a problematic propensity, in which Willoughby strongly resembles Marianne, of saying too much what he thought on every occasion, without attention to person or circumstances.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

In the end, Elinor, although prudent, selfless, calm, hardly fairs better than Marianne, even though Marianne is eager and imprudent. Elinor’s cautiousness is not entirely a helpful trait, given that she cannot discuss her feelings openly and is unsure how Edward feels for her. Ultimately, she unites with Edward only because of happenstance. So, in a way, the author declares “sense” as the winner somewhat grudgingly. We see the same pattern reappear in the cast of characters supporting the two parallel plots: Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward Ferrars. Shy and sensible, Edward loves Elinor but gets engaged to Lucy because of a past commitment. If Lucy didn’t abandon him, he could count on a miserable life ahead of him. Brandon, another calm, rational, caring man, never marries his first love, fails to protect the child, Eliza, under his guardianship, and finally unites with Marianne only after Willoughby deserts Marianne. True, Willoughby finds himself in a frightful place toward the end of the novel, but then, he has abandoned sense and even sensibility for that matter—he has lived a life of extreme indiscretion: rejected Marianne, flirted with and impregnated a young girl, and married solely for monetary reasons. The author has placed Willoughby near the edge of the spectrum of her characters, but with the help of her other characters, she argues for and against her ideas imparting depth to the discourse.

It is clear that the main benefit of having closely related characters and a tightly interwoven plot-subplot structure is to act as the glue holding and unifying the story and bestowing a direction and a sense of purpose. The author shows several characters struggling to find life partners so we get a flavor of the emotion of multitudes. The plots and the subplots point in the same direction so the theme is emphasized and we get a sense of the larger world. How else would we recognize the complexities inherent in identifying a life partner, and the fact that it is so hard for anyone to be right in this matter?

So what other benefits Jane Austen reaps by having parallel plots with graded characters. As I read Sense and Sensibility and considered the topic of graded characters, I also realized that having two sisters driving parallel plots was also serving as a subtle memory rehearsal device by reinforcing and comparing constantly. When Elinor expresses her thoughts on the subject of move from Norland and then Marianne wails over the same issue, the reader knows for sure the family is moving. Let’s take a moment to appreciate the role this repetition plays. The more a bit of information or an idea is repeated or used, the more likely it is to eventually end up in long-term memory, to be “retained.” People tend to more easily store material on subjects that they already know something about, since the information has more meaning to them and can be mentally connected to related information. So if you want your readers to retain bits from your novel in their long term memories you may want to consider closely related characters and an interlaced plot-subplot structure so these characters can frequently cross each other’s paths and reflect on each other.

In the end, we must recognize that narrating Marianne’s story, along with Elinor’s, doubles the length and makes the novel more interesting. Far more engrossing, Marianne and Willoughby serve as a balance against Elinor and Edward, who are shy, reserved and not so amusing. Does that mean if a protagonist is ill-tempered or morose, we should consider a lively and more engaging character driving a subplot to relieve the strain off a difficult topic? Definitely something we should keep in mind.

Now let’s turn to The Accidental Tourist to see the plot-subplot structure in that novel. After Macon Leary’s twelve-year-old son gets shot and killed, Macon and his wife Sarah separate, because Sarah cannot find any comfort in her husband.

Left alone with just an unruly dog for company, Macon has difficulty sleeping and wishes his wife would return. Then he breaks his leg and is forced to move to his sister Rose’s house where Rose and Macon’s two brothers, Charles and Porter, live. To help train his dog, whose violent tendencies have increased as a result of the move, Macon hires Muriel Pritchett. She is a divorced woman and the mother of a seven-year-old reclusive boy with medical problems from the time of his premature birth. At first Macon refuses to get involved with Muriel, but, ultimately, her eccentricities and her problems draw him out of his shell. He cohabits with her in her house, which is in a slummy neighborhood, and teaches her son math and plumbing techniques, even though he is not in love with her or even entirely comfortable with her, for that matter. Disorganized, unsettling and unpredictable, Muriel has a “nasty temper, a shrewish tongue and a tendency to fall into spells of self-disgust.” Not surprisingly, Macon’s siblings disapprove of the relationship and try to convince him she is not the right woman by reminding him she is much younger and just out there to catch a man so he could provide for her. At this point, Macon’s ex-wife, aware of Macon’s live-in relationship, tries to woo him back. As Macon has never really gotten over Sarah, he cannot help but move back with Sarah; but Muriel, unwilling to give up on Macon, follows him around when he goes on a business trip to Paris. Finally, after an argument with Sarah, Macon realizes that he and Sarah “have used each other up.” He realizes he must embrace his new life with Muriel and leave the memories of his dead son and his ex-wife behind.

SS

Anne Tyler’s tenth novel, written in 1985, The Accidental Tourist was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. With a clear plot-subplot structure, the main story has Macon Leary as its lead character, and the subplot features his sister Rose. The minor subplots are about Macon’s two older brothers, Porter and Charles.

Just as in Sense and Sensibility, the subplots in The Accidental Tourist are driven by close relatives, the sister and brothers of the protagonist. As if the fact that Rose and Macon are siblings isn’t enough to bring them together often, Rose has a relationship with Macon’s boss, Julian, and this gives the author an opportunity to talk about Rose every time Macon meets Julian. Even Macon’s estranged wife, Sarah, is close to Rose and when Macon and Sarah reconcile they discuss Rose’s situation in life. The relationships form a tightly woven pattern so the characters can observe each other and compare and contrast.

Just as the two sisters in Sense and Sensibility are both similar and different, Macon and his sister and his two brothers resemble each other and have traits that establish their distinctness as human beings. All of the Leary children are grammar fanatics, orderly, somewhat socially stunted, and idiosyncratic. They even look alike: “Their hair had an ashy cast and their eyes were a steely gray. They all had that distinct center groove from nose to upper lip. And never in a million years would Alicia [their mother] have worn an expression so guarded and suspicious.”

Rose has her kitchen so alphabetized that she keeps allspice next to ant poison and considers it perfectly normal to live with her brothers. Macon sleeps in a body bag, does not use a dishwasher, and stalks around in circles while showering, sloshing the day’s dirty clothes underfoot. Even though the details differ, the siblings have the same strange quirky feel about them, as if they are different shades of each other. But the siblings wouldn’t become real in our eyes if the author didn’t list their unique characteristics to round them up as human beings.

Books Anne TylerAnne Tyler

So Anne Tyler lets us know that Rose is the only social Leary, who helps out neighbors and old relatives; Porter is the best looking Leary kid, talkative, and able to run finances and plan taxes; Charles, a sweet-faced man who never seems to move; and Macon, even though he shares several character traits with his siblings, is not always comfortable with the idea of abiding with Rose and his brothers. He experiences moments of anxiety when he wonders if has gone any further in life since his childhood days. And he is also the only one who considers the fact that that they might be unconventional. When Julian visits Rose’s home, Macon tells Rose that Julian was there just because “he hopes we’ll do something eccentric.” Macon wishes none of his siblings would say or do anything awkward around Julian.

Unlike her three brothers, Rose wants to experience love. Rose says, “Love is what it’s all about. On soap operas everything revolves around love.” But Charles and Porter, after their failed marriages, seem content in Rose’s house with Rose overseeing the housekeeping for them. Even Macon does not seek romantic associations actively, although he can get entangled into them. To a certain extent, Macon and Rose share the desire to be in romantic relationships, and therefore, their lives evolve in a similar fashion, creating a congruent plot-subplot structure. After Rose marries Julian and lives with him for a while, she begins to get disoriented with the newness of her life and moves back with her brothers. Similarly, Macon abides with Muriel for some time and then moves back with his estranged wife. In the end, both Macon and Rose unite with their lovers, although in variant ways—Macon leaves his estranged wife and goes back to Muriel and Julian begins to live with Rose and her brothers. .

Now let’s focus for a minute on the textual space devoted to Macon versus that devoted to Rose. As this novel has a clear plot-subplot structure, Macon enjoys the lion’s share of space. Rose does not appear in the first chapter—there is not even a mention of her. She appears for the first time in the second chapter and then disappears till the end of the fourth. The fifth chapter is dedicated to describing Macon’s siblings, particularly Rose. And from then on, Rose is mentioned in every chapter, even if it is just to let us know that she drove Macon to Julian’s place. In the last chapter, although we don’t get to see Rose, Macon’s ex-wife, Sarah, informs Macon that Julian has moved in with Rose and the brothers. Of the twenty chapters in this book, Rose occupies significant space in just four and the brothers are given much less consideration.

So why have Rose and the brothers? What purpose do they serve? Several, in my opinion. First, with the help of these subplots, the author highlights the theme of the novel—the nature of love and the fact that for successful love relationships one has to reach a point of wisdom or a compromise between the desire for order and chaos. As we see Macon and Rose struggling to understand what they want and where they belong, we get the “emotion of multitudes,” a feeling that even though we are reading a novel with a simple structure and few characters we are in a large and teeming world where everyone is trying to fathom the meaning of love, marriage, and compromise in an ever changing world.

Note how all the Leary kids seem to drift back to their place of origin. After Macon breaks his legs, he moves in with Rose and his brothers and experiences quiet contentment. Macon gets involved with Muriel only because his dog, Edward, is unsettled in unfamiliar surroundings and begins to attack everyone. Even though Macon misses some aspects of his life at Rose’s place, he is lulled by the ease and simplicity of his childhood routines and hardly seems to desire new relationships. Even though he says his lack of interest in sex is a result of his son Ethan’s death, one cannot help notice that he has always shunned newness and unfamiliarity. Even when he was young, it was Sarah who initiated and drove the relationship forward, not Macon. Anne Tyler sheds light on the same appeal for one’s native environment through Rose. Rose, fascinated by the concept of love because she’s never been in a relationship before, falls for Julian and marries hastily, but within a few days of her wedding, she leaves her marital home and comes back to live with her brothers. She unites with Julian only because he sheds his traditional idea of a marital home and moves in with her brothers. Julian says, “She’d worn herself a groove or something in that house of hers, and she couldn’t help swerving back into it.” Even Charles and Porter have the same regard for familiarity as Macon and Rose. And all the Leary children love and deeply care for each other. Rose ministered to the needs of her ailing grandfather and cooks and cleans for her brothers, and they, in turn, care for her in a subtle, heartwarming way. Looking at Macon, Rose, Porter and Charles, readers may begin to wonder if, at some level, we all have the same affinity and weakness for our first homes. We do not know if this is the effect Anne Tyler wanted to achieve but nevertheless with the help of her subplots and graded characters, she underscores the human tendency to value familiarity—the sense of well-being we associate with our childhood home—and the intimacy we share with our siblings and other blood relations.

What other purpose do the subplots serve? What other “emotion of multitudes” does the author hope to evince? Let’s consider the partners the Leary kids are attracted to. Rose, a sober, prim woman, who “folds her hair unobtrusively at the fact of her neck where it wouldn’t be a bother” and wears “spinsterly and concealing” clothes, finds love in Julian, a playboy, living in a Singles apartment. Rose’s brothers try their best to dissuade her from getting involved with Julian but for some reason she cannot resist. Even Porter and Charles were married to women unlike them, who made fun of them. Macon, a man in his forties, obsessively organized, grammar fanatic, has a strange attraction for Muriel, a talkative, neurotic, disorganized woman. Every one of Macon’s siblings thinks Macon and Muriel are unsuitable for each other. But when Macon moves back with his ex-wife, he misses Muriel’s eccentricities and her misusages. Even though Macon and his sister and brothers have a fondness for the familiar, they are also enthralled by the unfamiliar, and the same can be said about their spouses. We, the readers of The Accidental Tourist, wonder if most of us “in a more or less exaggerated or more or less attenuated fashion” exist in a confused state, drawn toward and repelled by the familiar.

Accidental Tourist

Now let’s turn our attention to the two married couples in The Accidental Tourist. Even though Macon and Sarah have been together for decades, even though he loves her dearly, the only comfort they seem to accord each other is the comfort of routine. When Muriel tells Macon she wants to marry him, he says, “I don’t think marriage ought to be as common as it is; I really believe it ought to be the exception to the rule; oh, perfect couples could marry, maybe, but who’s a perfect couple?” And then later, thinking about a conversation Macon had with his wife, we learn this: “Thinking back on that conversation now, he [Macon] began to believe that people could, in fact, be used up—could use each other up, could be of no further help to each other and maybe even do harm to each other.”

On the other hand, Macon enjoys the cozy, sloppy presence of Muriel, a woman he does not love. At times he is ashamed of Muriel but still ends up making a home with her. And Rose loses her fascination for marriage soon after she gets married and returns to her childhood home. Although she is attracted to Julian, a traditional wedding and a married life provide no comfort to her. Ultimately, her marriage survives because Julian moves back with her forming an unconventional arrangement. So is there some truth that the author wants to shed light on here? Is it possible to live and find comfort in unorthodox relationships and arrangements outside of marriage with people we do not even love? Is marriage as an institution worthy of the respect we accord to it, given that people and their conditions change so frequently?

After studying these two novels, Sense and Sensibility and The Accidental Tourist, it is clear that their subplot structures are different in key ways. Rose occupies far less space than Marianne, probably because Jane Austen wants to initiate a dialogue with her readers, but Anne Tyler seems to open our minds to a new idea, one that may not have too many takers in the middle class. The key thing to note is the fact that subplots must parallel or reflect the main plot, otherwise the various elements of a novel fly apart and the text lacks rhythm and unity of thought.

—Shambhavi Roy

 

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Shambhavi Roy, a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, lives in Saratoga, CA, with her husband and two kids.

Dec 042014
 

139056374STranslator David Need

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When poet and translator David Need began translating Rainer Maria Rilke’s French poetry in 2001, it was in part an attempt to get closer to one of his favorite writers, to fashion a “close workshop with someone” of remarkable ability. Rilke’s often-overlooked second-language work presented a convenient inroad for Need, whose proficiency in French at the time exceeded his knowledge of German, the poet’s first language. This practicality proved fortuitous as he began to focus his attention on a discreet series of short “rose poems,” written by Rilke in 1924. Need felt the rose poems constituted a unique arm of Rilke’s oeuvre, one that if considered on its own terms can be found to contain the generous whole of the poet’s vision in miniature. As he continued to translate Rilke, completing work on the rose poems and moving on to the German material, he began to incorporate his ideas on Rilke’s aesthetic into a book that would present a variety of the poet’s German and French pieces along with an essay and commissioned ink drawings, all serving to support a thesis embodied by the heart of collection: the rose series.

Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke is first and foremost a set of fine translations. Each two-or-three-stanza poem in the rose series is given its own page opposite the French original, which encourages the reader to proceed slowly and attentively. If one wants to stop there, satisfied with Need’s fresh take on these under-read poems, the book is a worthwhile read, an enlivening encounter with one of modernity’s greatest poets. But a patient reader eventually realizes that Roses, like the flower that inspired Rilke’s meditations, is constantly seeking to open up for us toward a more potent aesthetic revelation. This is because Need has invested the book with a varied and generative infrastructure that forwards a larger argument through a series of dialogues. Most conspicuous in this regard are the 27 sketches by artist Clare Johnson that react to each brief rose poem with an image that engages the text, but does not attempt to “portray” its content in an overtly literal or didactic way. The images, which range from atmospheric depictions of silhouettes on a city street, to rain-streaked windows, to abstract patterns, act out of Johnson’s response to widen the confines of the multi-media dialogue. The sketches echo the poems and in so doing help us to reconstrue their meaning. Another important interlocutor in Roses is Need’s essay, “The Room Next Door: The Impossible Affordance of the Rose.” The essay is a convincing distillation of the translator’s ethos that considers the influence of Aestheticism and figures like Rodin and Cezanne on Rilke’s vision and situates the poet’s artistic response within a millennia-old incantatory tradition in poetry that goes back to the Rgveda, India’s pre-Hindu epic written around 1400 BCE. Need argues that Rilke uses the rose motif to take a firm stand against the reduction of the material to a kind of impenetrable surface, urging us to consider the ways in which nature creates room, or “affordances,” for the various—at times contradictory—facets of our being. The combined effect of the essay, sketches, and poems is one that collaborators across genre and medium strive for: a ringing of distinct yet concordant tonalities that elevate the piece to something more than the sum of its parts.

David Need teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. A specialist in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism, he sees confluence in philosophies of religion and art and often speaks of them in overlapping terms. It’s a point of view I found instructive when I was his student at North Carolina State University in 2003. We’ve kept in touch over the years and, upon learning of the publication of Roses, I was eager to set up an interview. He invited me to his home in Durham, North Carolina, where we talked at length about Rilke, translation, and the implications of an existence that might somehow be, in the poet’s words, “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.”

—Dan Holmes

 

Dan Holmes (Holmes): What brought about this turn toward translating in earnest? How is this situated in your creative development?

David Need (Need): There are two parts to that. One is that I think it’s always good for an artist to be working in two modalities. It’s important to think about your medium in a couple of different ways, or to think about a problem in a couple of different ways. I’ve noticed that when I spend time doing a lot of singing, I start to have ideas about writing that are new and fresh. There’s something about the singing that presents a set of problems to me, like problems of rhythm or problems of shape, but it presents them in this other form. Then when I come back to write, the music of the writing is being informed by what I’m doing with the other thing. For me it doesn’t happen just by listening, I have to be involved in some kind of making. Same thing with translating. Translating gives you this really close workshop with a particular writer’s language. When you translate really good writers you’re getting a close workshop with someone whose ambitions or skills in poetry is extraordinary. In translation, you get what’s going on completely, but you have to make some decisions about it. And in some ways those are the same problems you have with respect to your own gestures and skills. When working on my poetry, I can pull out an image and put it down, but I learn something from working with Rilke about how heavily to weight that image. And I learn other things, like, reading him I’ve learned he leaves messy things in his poems sometimes deliberately. He just leaves little thumbprints and you know he’s clearly got an ability to be smoother and it hasn’t happened there. That was an important lesson for me: that I didn’t always have to smooth and that I could mix diction at times if that was the way the poem was emerging.

The other thing is that I think any art is basically translation. Talking now, I’m translating. When I’m teaching I’m constantly translating—that’s all I’m doing. I’m standing in front of a class, I’ve got this body of information I’ve been interpreting, then I’m putting it into forms for the students, and their ability to understand this stuff is related to the reading they’ve done, and what they bring to the class, how old they are, the ideas they already have about spirituality. I have to see those and figure those out and translate to them. Also when I’m working with different religious traditions I’m constantly needing to translate, from talking within a Christian context to talking within a Buddhist context to talking within our context here—it is a lot like translating. “Now I’m in this field. Now I’m in this location. And this is the way you think inside this situation.” I have a sense of the world, or music in the world, and I’m trying to get that vision or image to happen for you. There’s a translation or a telepathy there that happens in the reading. I know as a reader and writer that’s what I’m looking for—to make other people see things that aren’t visible commonly but might be common in our imaginations.

Holmes: I can imagine two approaches to translation: one is to render as clearly and accurately as possible what you’re seeing within the context that you understand the writer wrote it, and one is to draw out the germ of it and further express it.

Need: I’m a really more the first kind of translator. A lot of times when I’m looking at other people’s translations, I’m impatient if I see they’re getting away from the word count, the words that are there in the original. If there is any “thing” that the poem is, I don’t think it’s the ideas, or only the ideas—I think it’s the words. The words are these little material edges that are the latticework of the poem that the reader catches on. Some people that have their own lyric sensibility take a poem and say, “I see the image and I’m going to render that image in my own lyric terms.” I’m not comfortable with that. I think it brings too much of your own reading to the material and doesn’t leave the material open enough in something like its original form.

The people that I’ve translated so far are good for the kind of translation I do. I have a lyric sensibility, so when I’m faced with choosing some words, I go for a quiet music that will work as a poetics for the reader, so it will read lyrically. But the word count and the grammar I’ve almost always just transformed it into an English word count, and grammar and line count, and things like that. Rilke is not a poet where there’s a lot of punning. He tends to use words directly and simply so he’s easier to translate. I can establish a word without worrying about the fifteen meanings the word Rilke chose in German has that a reader might pick up. Celan has been more challenging for me because there’s a lot more play going on and what’s worse, or better, is that Celan is a translator, so the puns aren’t even just in German. He’s constantly making these really wicked puns with English and English phonemes that are buried in German and French. So sometimes I find that I actually leave the third language or fourth language that he’ll use, and I don’t translate it. I’ll run into objections with readers who don’t want to put the time in. But if that person is interested and curious then that little thing—which is like a little smear that Celan has left there because he shifted into the other language—will look like a smear instead of being fixed out of being a smear. There is a way in which that multilingual capacity can grow in a reading and still be connected to the writing that he does.

551-12.jpgRainer Maria Rilke

Holmes: Rilke wrote these poems in French, which was a second language for him. Is that different for you than translating a German Rilke poem?

Need: Not in the end. When I first sat down and did it I didn’t have German yet. I had the sense that the French was a little strange, but I didn’t try to do anything to make the strangeness apparent. I just translated the weight of the language. My approach is the same with German. I’m not as comfortable in German so I have to do more dictionary work and I have to go, “Okay, that’s a dative” and work out what all the grammar is, but my approach isn’t that different. He’s not a completely different person in French.

Holmes: Like Beckett’s French. It feels to me like a second language.

Need: Yeah. And there’s been some great second language writers like Conrad, who are just unbelievable, but there’s a little bit of the haunt of it, that fact that it’s a second language. Or Kerouac. People are starting to focus on that, that he is actually a second language writer.

Holmes: What drew you to the rose poems? Have they been neglected? Are they emblematic of your aesthetic in some way?

Need: I did work with them because they were in French, and they were a discreet set, and because I like flowers and they haven’t been translated that much. So French because back then I didn’t have German and I wanted to work with some Rilke. Roses because it’s a discreet set and kind of simple. And I have a bit of a disposition to the pastoral. So the rose works for me at the level of motif. I’m similar enough for finding floral or seasonal things as the beginnings for certain kinds of meditations. There was a rapport there.

I translated them back in 2001 and even then I was beginning to develop an argument about Rilke in relation to contemporary poetics. So there is actually an aesthetic argument that I’m using Rilke to make. I think when it comes down to it it’s the idea that post-60’s and 70’s there was this turn to the surface in poetry. To lots of attention to the surface and a distrust of any kind of depth at all… a criticism of depth as always referring to the romantic subject that we were supposed to dispel as good progressives, because somehow the romantic subject was this feudal encrustation that could only create bad things in our relationships with other people. So I already knew that in Rilke I had somebody that I could use to argue for interiority—for the aesthetics of interiority. In the writing itself, right from the first one he says, “Rose you’re this thing that’s infinitely unfolded and absolutely withdrawn at the same time.” That really fit with ideas that I was having at the time about the human situation, that the human is a being who has this exteriority that continues to unfold; there continues to be this play on the surface, but there is also this interiority that never gets completely seen by anyone else or even by the person, or gets completely exhausted. That seemed to be really important in terms of arguing for a place of freedom despite the way people were thinking about language and culture, because so many people felt that we were in this hegemonic era with commercial culture dominating all production and value and I felt: no, that’s not quite true. We’re buying into and shutting off access to something within ourselves that we shouldn’t cut off access to, that actually is freer that we imagine, but also at stake. And what people who want freedom can never quite understand is—and obviously this reflects a kind of commitment but—we don’t have some kind of “drive your car in all directions without ever having to be accountable to anything” kind of freedom. We have life, but we’re in relation to others and we’re always at stake in those relationships.

Rilke just seemed to be another person coming out of modernity—early on in modernity—who seemed to be really caring about the world, and arguing that the lyrical and what we feel as beauty and desire are not to be shut off, or cut apart, or dismantled because of the harm we do each other. We have to work hard to make the choice not to harm each other. And I felt like a lot of peoples’ construction of interiority and the unconscious has been wrong, so I felt that the rose poems were a good small vehicle, a simple study, that were themselves making an argument that was consistent overall with the way Rilke used the trope of the rose in his work. The idea I’m arguing I think is an idea that was Rilke’s, actually rooted in what he was doing with the rose.

cover

Holmes: Do you see the Rose poems as a culmination in miniature of Rilke’s vision? Or an anamoly?

Need: I think it’s a miniature. He finishes the Duino Elegies and writes the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922 and he spends a lot of the rest of the year finishing a translation from French of Paul Valery. There are two things that are going on: he’s already starting to work on ongoing lyric projects in German. One of the things I translated (for the book) was actually a suite. Most of the poems are from ’23 and ’24 in German and he put it together at the end of his life and gave it to his publisher as something to bring out for the estate. And there are about 80 poems there. He was working in German but I also think he got the idea from working with Valery to do some studies in French. And he had started doing the Valais Quatrains within about a two-week period. They were studies. I think he was a good enough artist to apply himself to a material. But not just any material; it was one of his leitmotifs, something he’d brought up at different times to try and make a certain kind of argument. And that argument is there again in miniature. It’s almost like somebody who had been painting larger scale paintings of roses decided to do a series of line drawings. That’s not because he doesn’t want to do the big project. It’s because he’s decided to do a setting that’s a line drawing setting. So I see this as yet another setting.

A lot of them are what I call—and I think this is important regarding surface and depth—a lot of them are half-sonnets. Not “half,” but what you can call broken sonnets. He wrote often in the Italian sonnet throughout his life, and once he found the Italian sonnet it appears in all the published books. Not all of the Rose poems are broken sonnets, but many of them are just two quatrains, which means for the Italian sonnet he didn’t add the two tercets at the end. But I feel like he was still thinking “sonnet”. He just drew the sonnet that far and then left it blank, so it feels to me like he drew in the visible part of the sonnet and left the turn part not visible. They weren’t casual at all. He was still working and thinking on a project that was related to the ideas he was working on in his life.

Holmes: Rilke describes the rose in #3 as “Infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” He’s always showing us the rose as paradox, as something interior that is inseparable from its surroundings. He considers the relational nature of “features” and forms in order to glean something of their essence. Can you talk about what you think he’s doing by setting up and undermining these dualities?

Need: Thinking in terms of antimonies is characteristic of human thought. Certainly in Europe post-Hegel, thinking in terms of antithesis tended to be a mode of thought that people thought was a real structure. Any kind of opposition you found, its resolution would be in this dialectical process. That’s how you worked with problems like the tension between mind and body, or spirit and body, or life and death—any thing that you could think of in those terms. I think lyric poetry in general, and post-Romantic poetry, was trying to argue for a different status. To actually argue for “both/and” rather than a conflict. Even though Hegel’s model—thesis, antithesis, synthesis—moves towards a “both/and,” the synthesis actually erases the difference. I think Rilke was really interested in the fact that another way of thinking would say that impossibly we were “both/and.” So his problem is how to get us to break the Hegelian way of reading, or to recognize that there’s another way to resolve that kind of antithesis.

Hegel’s model is a very combative model. It’s a model of unresolvable antagonisms. It can’t imagine the resolution. Rilke is trying to say “I want to have a relationship to the world that doesn’t erase it. I want to have a relationship to other people where I’m not taking away the space or being taken over. I want to somehow be in a situation where impossibly this difference can exist, together.” So I think he’s presenting us over and over again with a problem, but also trying to get us through contradictions to consider impossible things, such as the possibility of being “infinitely restrained and infinitely lavished.” We’re encouraged to think of both of those at the same time. And we could be like that. We are fundamentally limited by being incarnate at the same time we have openness in us. It’s not that one or the other wins, but that we’re impossibly both of those things.

Holmes: Had he read into Eastern religions at all? That cutting away of dichotomies is an insight that I associate with that kind of thinking and it’s interesting if he had that insight on his own. Had he read any of that?

Need: No. The stuff he writes about the Buddha is not…it doesn’t look to me like he read the material about Buddhism. I take Buddhism as arguing for both/and but a lot of people take Buddhism as arguing for just one. Just this. I think Buddhism is saying that impossibly there is both form and emptiness at the same time. And that it isn’t possible to work it out, but you can bear or realize that, impossibly, appearing forms are what they are without any grounding and it doesn’t hurt.

pic1Illustration by Clare Johnson

Holmes: These poems feel linked to me, almost like a single poem of many stanzas. Some of the most gratifying reading I had was when I would read it for a long time and feel the perspective shift just enough; it starts to mount and become a larger aesthetic experience.

Need: He’s a suite poet. He composes suites. All of his books are set up—this one feels musical to me—but other ones are set up as picture galleries, where you’re supposed to walk through and see this image and then that image and then that image. Each poem has a setting in relation to the other ones. He thought a lot about that. And it is really gratifying. There is an intelligence about theme and variation that I’ve been moved by in my own life. I can’t imagine trying to write any longer except in that way. He recognizes that any poem is a version, and therefore what links the poems is the project of starting out. The series of poems don’t have to be about a particular argument. They’re essays, and they can be linked essays by which you don’t just tell people there is a series of infinitely repeating moves. The one freedom we have is that when we’re crossing the street, and we’re doing the street-crossing routine, we can shape through “crossing the street” in different kinds of ways. In the same way, when you’re working with “the motif” you can show an interesting aesthetic freedom by showing there are a number of different aesthetically valid ways through this space. Like when you go through a well-hung show at a museum, you feel instructed by it. It’s an experience that has informed you beyond what any one poem could do.

Holmes: There seems to be a larger ontological inquiry happening here, something beyond the Rilke poems (or perhaps a continuance of their gesture) that is uniquely yours. Are you conscious of employing the poems, the drawings and the essays toward the end of a personal aesthetic statement?

Need: Yes. I think it would be hard not to. I’m pursuing a line and Rilke is a co-conspirator. I don’t feel I’m being unfaithful to him. It is part of a larger aesthetic related to looking for beauty or care, and an argument about beauty and care in the face of other arguments about freedom or power that other people have.

Holmes: And if you just read the poems themselves, that’s one thing, but if you read the whole book there is a kind of collaboration. You mention in “The Room Next Door” that Rilke thought of the poems as sketches or “brief drawings.” Did this provide the impetus to commission the sketches? How did your collaboration with Clare Johnson come about?

Need: Right from the beginning the poems seemed like little line drawings—very careful line drawings that I saw right from the beginning. I wanted to bring that plastic quality out by having a series of images commissioned. I wanted someone who would create a set of images that weren’t illustrations of the poems; I wanted them to have their own integrity as a suite and yet somehow have a relationship to the poems, and Clare got that. She thought it was an interesting project and wanted to try her hand to it. I was grateful and Clare’s been doing other kinds of projects in this post-it note series, working in a small space, and also doing black and whites on a larger field.

When you work with somebody you’re looking for a kind of intelligence. You could, I guess, be looking for someone that had precisely your sensibility of the beautiful. I had a sense of Clare’s commitment and her effort. She had serious standards about beauty; she has graphic problems that she’s working on. The actual images might or might not be the first thing that would come out of my mind, but when you’re working collaboratively, what’s more important is that there has to be a common agreement about that workshop practice side of it. That the person is actually thinking about the work, and has a project going on in which they are thinking again and again about certain kinds of problems. She seemed to connect with the project.

One thing to add to that is that Rilke was planning to bring out another one of his French suites that would have drawings that were commissioned in exactly that kind of “Not an illustration, but alongside.” His partner who was an artist was going to do that. So I felt like this wasn’t far from what Rilke was thinking at that time anyway.

Holmes: The multimedia approach feels apt here, because the poems themselves are dialogical. One way to look at this book is as a framing of dialogues: of the rose with its surroundings, of Rilke with the rose, of you with Rilke, of Clare with Rilke, and of you with Clare. Even the way the print interacts with white space. To what extent was it a conscious structural decision to embed a series of dialogues within the book?

Need: One of my fundamental principles—and I don’t know if it’s one of Rilke’s fundamental principles, but I think we might agree—starts from this idea of “impossible doubledness.” One correlate of that for me has been the idea that things acquire resonance and open up for the reader in ways that are hard for us to talk about, like a dream that we have that somehow has an affordance for us. So I have some kind of—I don’t know if it’s metaphysics—some sort of desire in general in my work to try to create things that have the possibility of opening up these affordances for others. Right now my guiding thought has been that you do that by establishing dialogue and difference, and what happens because of that isn’t that you just keep bouncing, but that actual resonance happens. And if resonance happens then the imagination can come alive.

It’s deliberate about keeping the difference there, especially in America where there’s so much pressure all the time to make everything common, or to erase difference, or to act as if difference doesn’t exist. And I feel like, “No.” We actually deprive ourselves of some of our dignity and some of our real worth by doing that. We don’t actually become common with each other and we lose the ability to talk about our differences. Our whole economy is based on a zero-sum game. So how do you make money that’s not there? How do you make energy that’s not there? What I’m curious about is, if you’re rigorous about doing this, is it possible to create this thing-that-isn’t-there for other people? So that they actually have energy they didn’t have before, because of paying attention to the dialogical structure. I don’t know if that’s for real or not.

Holmes: I think it is. I’ve read multi-genre books before but this one really popped for me and I think it’s because it’s so well thought out and holistic.

Need: And you know that thing when people get together and they want to go a multimedia thing, so they get some musicians and they throw some images on the wall and they do a couple of other things. But nobody is actually thinking about those things as being different, the idea is that they’re just kind of letting them loose in there. I think that’s a dead end. It doesn’t produce what people would hope a multigenre or multimedia thing would do.

It was hard at times. Dave (Wofford of Horse & Buggy Press), Clare, and I have really different ideas at times and I had to make some decisions. For the image weight and the image layout, Clare’s the boss. It just doesn’t matter if I like it. In terms of finally being the person that was paying for it, there was some level at which I got to make decisions like that—some of the decisions were actually not to make decisions, which ended up sometimes being frustrating for me and for the other people too.

Holmes: When you ran into those difficulties, what was your guiding light? Was it always back in the poems or in your larger aesthetic project?

Need: My aesthetic. I keep talking. This is the kind of directorial move that is consistent with the overall project. We did talk about that and just sort of set that out intellectually at the beginning. But when it got down into it, with actual material things…it’s easy to have an idea, but it’s harder when you’re deciding “is the book going to be blue? Red? What’re your color choices?” I’m not very good at those decisions. You could show me a blue one and a beige one and a yellow one and a red one and I’d find ways to like each one. So I’m not great at that. I had to make decisions at times with what that person has generated. But I also felt that was consistent with my overall practice there. If you thought about it as a bandleader, I really did have to let this person bring this kind of music out. I couldn’t get in the way of that because they couldn’t be a part of it unless they could do what they do. I had to go with their notes.

Holmes: That’s the only way to make it strong I think.

Need: I think so. I got that from Miles Davis actually. I was listening to a lot of Miles Davis when I was working out these principles. I was listening to the Columbia session recordings.

Holmes: That’s how he put those great bands together. He was a nurturer of talent, not just the bandleader.

Need: Right. And that’s consistent. My goal is to bring out the possibility of each person’s capacity but in a structured way, not just “here is the thing, now run.”

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Holmes: Translation is perhaps often misunderstood in its creative potential. Can you say something about what happens in this dialogue between poet and translator?

Need: When people think about artists, they tend to like the idea of “out of nowhere” creation, but I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think we’re playing along with the reading that we’re already doing. We’re already reading in the world and we’re reading the options that people are presenting to us, whether it’s music, or reading a lot of books, or looking at paintings. We have seen options. Some people have this idea, kind of a Platonic idea, that the real poem is there somewhere. I might say that the real painting is there in a way that the real poem isn’t ever there. And I feel like maybe the real song isn’t ever there. We have these different ways that we mark the song; we write down music, we make “a” record of the song. But even when we write down music there’s a gap that exists between the piece and the various performances of the piece. Even for the author of the music itself.

If we’re talking about a piece where the author sits down and writes a piece of music out and then plays it, I bet that something happens that’s not recorded in the writing down of the music. And I know as a writer, one of the things that happened for me was, in the beginning, I was more of an oral poet than a written poet; I would write and I would hear it when I wrote, so it wasn’t that I wasn’t having the performance when I was writing. When I would read it out loud, it would come alive, but I was trying to perform again that thing that I was hearing, and sometimes that meant that I would do things that we’re not that reproducible on the page. A page only has a line break. It’s hard to create a word that somehow gets suspended. Type doesn’t give you the ability to create that sense of suspension easily. But suspension can be done in music. You can create these kinds of suspended turns. So I would look at that and see there’s a suspension happening there, but how do I mark that? So from the very beginning I never was bothered by the idea that my translation of the poem wasn’t the real poem, because I’ve always felt that the poem exists in reading anyway, and I’m in a sense creating a translation of some kind, or I’m doing a reading of it that heads toward being a translation. And I have my own sense of music and a sense of the music that I see some echoes of in Rilke’s work but I never try to go beyond, or ambitiously try to get some fine move he made if it didn’t come simply in my own language. I never got hung up on those.

Holmes: Like you were saying with the Celan, “that’s a fourth language, I’m not going to be able to tackle that.”

Need: Right. So I’ll just leave it. Because I want to create a text that does something of what the original text does in some way. Or not the original, but the one that we have. Because they are all how people set them as printed texts. So to some degree I have decided to commit to printed settings.

The other things I’ve felt—and this is probably just my own romantic imagination—I really felt with Rilke that his poetry had interceded in my life; it had given me a possibility that didn’t exist before I read it, when I really read it in grad school. I sat down and it was just “Oh my God, there’s more. And there’s somebody with me.” And I was stunned by the sense of “This is somebody who knows some of the things that I experience that are so hard to talk about to other people.” He’s made a place where we are laughing across the surface of the poem together in the way that people that are chronically sick nevertheless have joy. When I did the translations I felt, “I’m being allowed into the room where I’m getting to sit down with this poet and his intelligence is still present in the poems, even though he’s dead. This isn’t just somebody who’s teaching me how to think, but is somehow making a place for me.” So you can make art that isn’t just an artifact, but actually has energy and can come to life years after you’re dead. The translations are a way of trying to do that, of trying to make settings or versions. It’s not going to work for everybody but there is some of that, “Wow, this medicine really worked for me; I hope it works for you.” It was about the pleasure of being taught by this profoundly caring intelligence whose instincts I wanted to get something from.

Holmes: Was it in part the encounter with that intelligence and the intimacy of it that made you feel the existing translations were not quite adequate?

Need: Sure. The existing French translation, it wasn’t quite…I felt that there was only one and I wanted to try my hand at it. It wasn’t that I wanted to cancel it or erase it, but I felt like I could try my hand at it and not be too influenced by all the other translations and the whole process. It was still simple enough for me to take a swing at it. (Translator A. Poulin) had made some choices that seemed less musical than the French. I thought I might have slightly better instincts at the level of music in some cases. There’s only so far the translation can go. I didn’t struggle to not use words that he used and things like that. I made decisions so that I could feel it was my own, but I didn’t try to force that either.

Since I’ve been translating the German, I’ve been trying to place the German within the larger project of me ventriloquising Rilke. At this point, I feel like I’ve developed a voice that is my voice-language in which Rilke is translated. So when I now turn to things like A Sonnet to Orpheus, or things that have been translated a lot, what I’m doing is my Sonnets to Orpheus based on the voice and practice that I’ve already established. I’m hoping that the passion I feel in the voice produces a poem that has more of that passion in English.

I really want to see if I can bring out these two unpublished German sequences that Rilke put down (before Orpheus). They haven’t been worked over that much, so they’re like Rilke exhibits that people haven’t been taken through yet. I remember a couple of years ago I was thinking, “God I wish there was just one more thing by Rilke that I’ve never read.” Then somebody brought something out that I hadn’t read and that was exciting. But I can’t be the only person who’s read Rilke enough that it would be cool to see one more film by him.

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Holmes: Can you tell me about your work translating the Rgveda and how that informed this work?

Need: I learned translation working on the Rgveda and Buddhist texts, and early Sanskrit material. There is some connectivity there. It was one body of literature that I worked closely with, that I thought was actually still relevant, looking at the way poetry and art are working now. I don’t think our relationship to the world or language is in certain important ways that different. It’s not clear to me that we’ve solved the problem they were working on. A lot of that has to with the imagination, with understanding the relationship of the imagination to the world. I think that we have this radical capacity to amplify the world for ourselves through weaving our imagination into physical forms and the kind of amplification that occurs through doing that—I think human beings have been using and then refining a whole range of media for staging their imaginations and that it’s always been important.

Holmes: Like what you said earlier about the reaction toward poetry that is more surface… Rilke seems to be unapologetic about what he thinks poetry can do, and there’s that link to the Rgveda, or other religious scriptures, where there’s a willingness to go further with it.

Need: Yeah. I know some people feel that they can’t go there but I don’t know what else we can do. We have not solved it by just becoming secular creatures or by killing the romantic subject in ourselves. We’re just as hostage to the violence that we do each other. I think that in doing that we rob ourselves of a great deal of possibilities that we might bring to bear in our relation to each other.

I think World War II and everything since then indicated that we do tremendous violence to each other and certainly one response to that would be to want to have a huge revolution to change that, or to become deeply suspicious of any desire that you have. You can almost see that as a coherent trauma reaction if you were dealing with things on a smaller scale. But I think we would get a lot more if we really understood that it’s not just what we’ve done but that we continue to be at stake in our relationships now. And we still desperately need to finds ways to nurture, to create affordances for each other, to create impossible economy and space for each other. And we can’t do that just through strict rational means. The 20th century has pretty much proven that just getting grain someplace is not what makes culture happen or nurtures people. Not that art necessarily does it, but at least art is making the argument that it should be our goal.

—David Need & Dan Holmes

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David Need is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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DanHolmes

Dan Holmes lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro, Numéro Cinq, Paste, and Digital Americana.

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Dec 032014
 

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The following selections from David Need’s Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke provide an illuminating glimpse into the ways Rilke uses the rose as motif. The poems seek to elucidate how time’s ceaseless transformations do not rectify or allay the contradictions they invoke. The living rose is “fully awake” but discreet, possessing “many pages / of detailed happiness / we will never read.” Rilke is fascinated by these irreducible relationships: the flower’s vitality belies its eventual death; its blooming won’t diminish the impenetrable density of its petals. Clare Johnson’s attending illustrations reinforce Rilke’s assertion that the rose of these poems is “a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things” and that this “framing” constitutes a relationship binding our transitory hopes to “the tender moments / in the continual departure.”

—Dan Holmes

cover

Roses
Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation by David Need
Illustrations by Clare Johnson
Horse & Buggy Press, 2014
224 pages, $27.34

 

I

Si ta fraîcheur parfois nous étonne tant,
heureuse rose,
c’est qu’en toi-même, en dedans,
pétale contre pétale, tu te reposes.
 
Ensemble tout éveillé, dont le milieu
dort, pendant qu’innombrables se touchent
les tendresses de ce coeur silencieux
qui aboutissent à l’extrême bouche.

 

I

If your blooming sometimes so astonishes us,
happy rose,
it’s that, petal against petal, you rest
within yourself, inside.

Fully awake, your petals, whose surroundings
sleep, though numberless, meet
this silent heart’s tendernesses
which end in these urgent lips.

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II

Je te vois, rose, livre entrebaîllé,
qui contient tant de pages
de bonheur détaillé
qu’on ne lira jamais. Livre-mage,
 
qui s’ouvre au vent et qui peut être lu
les yeux fermés…,
dont les papillons sortent confus
d’avoir eu les mêmes idées.

 

II

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,

which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …
from which butterflies scatter, confused
to have had the same ideas.

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VI

Une rose seule, c’est toutes les rose
et celle-ci: l’irremplaçable,
le parfait, le souple vocable
encadré par le texte des choses.
 
Comment jamais dire sans elle
ce que furent nos espérances,
et les tendres intermittences
dans la partance continuelle.

 

VI

A single rose, it’s every rose
and this one—the irreplaceable one,
the perfect one—a supple spoken word
framed by the text of things.

How could we ever speak without her
of what our hopes were,
and of the tender moments
in the continual departure.

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XIV

Été: être pour quelques jours
le contemporain des roses;
respirer ce qui flotte autour
de leurs âmes écloses.
 
Faire de chacune qui se meurt
une confidente,
et survivre à cette soeur
en d’autres roses absente.

 

XIV

Summer: to be for a few days
the contemporary of roses;
to breath what drifts about
their blooming spirits.

To make of each who dies,
a confidant,
and to outlive this sister
among the other, wandering roses.

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XVIII

Tout ce qui nous émeut, tu le partages.
Mais ce qui t’arrive, nous l’ignorons.
Il faudrait être cent papillons
pour lire toutes tes pages.
 
Il y en d’entre vous qui sont comme des dictionnaires;
ceux qui les cueillent
ont envie de faire relier toutes ces feuilles.
Moi, j’aime les roses épistolaires.

 

XVIII

All that we feel, you share,
yet we ignore what happens to you.
There would have to be a hundred butterflies
to read all your pages.

There are ones among you like dictionaries;
those who gather these
are tempted to bind all the pages.
Me? I like the roses which are letters.

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David Need (translator) is an Ohio/Massachusetts boy who has lived in Durham, North Carolina since 1994. David’s academic background is in Asian Religions; he has taught at Duke University in the Department of Religion and the Slavic and Eurasian Studies Department since 1997. His poetry and essays on poetry have appeared in Hambone, Talisman, Golden Handcuffs Review, Spoke, and Oyster Boy. Since 2009, he has curated an occasional long-poem reading series “Arcade Taberna.” David’s chapbook, Offshore St. Mark, is scheduled to be published by Three Count Pour in 2014.

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Dec 022014
 

ZinkPhoto by Fred Filkorn

 It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf… — Benjamin Woodard

Wallcreeper

The Wallcreeper
Nell Zink
Dorothy, a publishing project
200 pages ($16.00)
ISBN 978-0-9897607-1-3

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With The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink has crafted a novel that’s truly difficult to summarize, for while one could say the book is a lampoon of modern relationships, or an elongated joke about eco-terrorism, or a satire concerning birdwatchers and American expats stumbling through life in Europe, each of these interpretations fails to capture the pure insanity that rockets through the narrative’s gnarled veins. Instead, the novel begs for a more naked description, one finding focus not in recapped transgressions, necessarily, but in simple adjectives: sexy, funny, strange, and clever. It is the kind of novel that sticks to the brain, that floats on neurons long after returning to the bookshelf, that demands close reading to decipher subtle verbal jabs, yet one that also remains mysterious in its rambling success, that covers so much ground with so few words that the reader is provoked to ask, “How does such a crazed book work so well?”

At the heart of the novel rest Tiffany and Stephen, young newlyweds who move from Philadelphia to Switzerland after Stephen lands a job in research and development for a shadowy company based in Berne. Their story opens with a marvelously loaded sentence: “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the miscarriage.” Immediately, Zink tags the reader with an immense amount of physical, spatial information—travel, pregnancy—as well as four turns in action (“looking” “swerved” “hit” “occasioned”). In a more conventional narrative, such a line would function as a springboard for a sad novel circling the loss of an unborn child, yet Zink employs this sentence for two reasons: to set the rhythm of what’s to come, and to use the trauma to simply replace the unborn child with a wallcreeper bird, the actual cause of the accident (“I thought it was dead,” Stephen claims. “I just wanted to get it off the road.”), who the couple—birdwatchers, naturally—take home and begin to nurture. The miscarriage does linger for a few pages, particularly in a sequence where Stephen tries to entice an uninterested Tiffany to have sex standing up in the kitchen, yet the couple’s lives continue forward with the same sharp efficiency of the novel’s compact opening line. Thus, it isn’t long until Tiffany strikes up an affair with a local named Elvis, the wallcreeper grows large and is released into the wild (where it meets a swift, entertaining demise), and Stephen takes an interest in a politically charged upstart committed to halting the expansion of hydroelectric power in the Rhine. The couple moves to Berlin to be closer to the upstart’s action, and as they continue to dabble in extramarital flings, Tiffany—unemployed, living off of Stephen’s income, and attempting to write a screenplay—strays toward more violent methods of invoking environmental change.

To say more about the plot of The Wallcreeper would be a disservice to both it and the reader, for half the pleasure of the novel is seeing just how far Zink will take her characters. It’s this fearlessness that makes the novel so immensely potent. Zink writes without restraint, and the result feels something like a trip through the best kind of haunted house, one where you have no idea what’s around the next bend, where you’re simultaneously laughing and cringing at the rapid fire of ghosts and goblins crossing your path. She is a master at crafting exchanges both blunt and hilarious. Take this initial scene between Tiffany and Stephen:

“Tiffany,” he said. “That means divine revelation. From theophany.”

“It means a lampshade,” I said. “It’s a way to get around the problem of putting your light under a bushel. The light and the bushel are one.”

He didn’t back away. It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck.

In just two lines of dialogue, Zink tells the reader exactly who these two characters are: the idealist and the realist; the thoughtful and the sarcastic; the astute and the naïve. This truncated conversation not only allows Zink to skip generic paragraphs of character description, but it helps to reinforce the zippy groove pace of the novel. Add to this the sequence’s final punch line—“We will definitely fuck”—and the future indiscretions of Stephen and Tiffany seem inevitable: can one truly be surprised of their flexible fidelity when sex seems imminent from such a strangely banal chat?

Zink has tremendous fun with such punch lines. Before relocating to Berlin, for example, Tiffany describes the residents there (“No one was sleek or fluffy in Berlin, not even me. In four weeks I didn’t see a single good-looking person on the street.”), only to follow up her distaste with the admission, “Accordingly, Stephen insisted we move there.” Yet while such direct guffaws are satisfying, The Wallcreeper also succeeds when looked at as a whole, for Zink binds the eccentricities of her characters with an admirable, satirical commentary on modern life. There’s a “disposable generation” quality to Tiffany and Stephen. These two hold very little close, be it apartments, lost hopes, careers, or lovers, and so it is brilliant when such a pair, so willing to toss emotional and material possessions aside, decides to change the world through environmental activism. There’s a wonderful paradox at play here, one the characters never quite realize, and it speaks to the way so many of us try to erase years of futility with a single act of generosity.

In addition, Zink pokes fun at the concept of female dependency throughout the novel. Tiffany, in need of male companionship to support her financially, willingly shuffles around Europe with her husband. Her motivation also comes from the men surrounding her, and her engagements reflect their interests. She is our narrator, yes, but even while seeing the world through her eyes, it becomes obvious that she is also a character in serious need of a jolt of independence, and Zink relishes in this awareness, commenting nimbly on Tiffany’s false sense of freedom and prodding young women to, perhaps, reconsider their own forged paths, to avoid the trap of a legacy defined by the men that enclose them. Moreover, this jab speaks to the way in which The Wallcreeper has been received by the critical mass. As is often the case when reviewing a novel from a relative unknown, one tends to compare the work to that of a celebrated contemporary, and with Zink, that contemporary quite often has been Don DeLillo (his name even comes up on the back cover blurb from Keith Gessen). While such comparisons are certainly understandable, writing wise, they also reinforce the patriarchal stereotype Zink clearly parodies in her novel. With so many wonderful, successful female writers also crafting funny, sexy, strange, clever novels, why choose to hang Zink’s debut over the shoulders of a man?

Questions like this help The Wallcreeper extend its life beyond the page. This is a novel that clicks both instantly and in hindsight. It’s rare to read a book that so fruitfully welds so many elements without flailing, especially from a debut novelist.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

Benjamin Woodard lives in Connecticut. His recent fiction has appeared in Cheap PopdecomP magazinE, and Spartan. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his reviews have been featured in, or are forthcoming from, The Kenyon ReviewPublishers WeeklyRain Taxi Review of Books, and other fine publications. You can find him at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.

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Dec 012014
 

Chaulky-WhiteChaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

The following is an excerpt from SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’—a book that is based/extrapolates on an MFA thesis my brother Kevin White wrote in 1990 entitled ‘SSES” ‘SSES” wherein he recapitulated Joyce’s Ulysses‘ recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey to a trip he took across Asia in search of our father (who committed suicide a few years before). ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ takes his recapitulation 1 step further, folding in his journals, unpublished stories + artwork he made before himself dying of a drug overdose. ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’ is also a literary work that reflexively interrogates the very transcription processes used to produce/copy it, mobilizing reflexive loops between original imagined intent + editorial deterritorialization … a «gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but the first entelechy, the structural rhythm»—as Stephen Dedalus says in Ulysses.

This is episode 1 (the 2nd episode—episode 0 is up on Sleepingfish if are interested in seeing the continuity/more background on the project: http://sleepingfish.net/13/000_SSES.htm).

Chaulky White is the pen name given to our combined effort.

Derek White

SSEY 01-1Click on the individual pages for larger views.

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Chaulky White is the pen name given to the combined effort of Derek (R) & Kevin White (L) in creating ‘SSES” ‘SSES” “SSEY’, a book that is forthcoming from Calamari Archive in 2015.

Nov 302014
 

Adrienne Love author photo

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I am beyond hot for Jeremiah, who’s only 20, half my age, and in a relationship. But the relationship isn’t the problem because Jeremiah’s not in love with his girl—he’s in love with me. And it’s not our ages either, though I could be his mother. The problem is that while I would love to shag Jeremiah silly—God knows I would—I’m in love with my husband, Thomas. Really. It’s these darned herbs I’m taking—Shitavari: Capable of 100 Husbands and Ashwaganda: Strength of a Horse—to get us pregnant.

After all baby makes three and all that crap.

I am a horny mess, what with all this bewitching of my ovaries, and Jeremiah knows I’m hot for him, Good Lord. If that boy presses his cute little checkered pants arse against my apron one more time I’m going to lose my cucumbers.

§

One day, in the kitchen at the restaurant where Jeremiah and I work, I’m snatching meatballs from the hot line, smiling at the cooks, hungry, and hoping I can flirt my way into getting all of us, all the waitresses, fish for dinner instead of fried chicken (because my doctor says fish have enzymes, which are good for womb juices and such), and Jeremiah, cooking, shoots the daggers of his deep blue eyes right into my own, My Lord.

“Oh, I know what you want, Elsie,” he says.

Shifting my hips around, trying to hush the hunger in my groin, I pretend not to hear him.

“Oh, I know you hear me, Elsie,” he says.

I’m trying so hard not to smile, and I won’t look up for anything because I know he’s still throwing those daggers at me.

“Say, Elsie,” he says.

“Yeah?”

“Whatcha doin later?”

“What do you mean?” I shift again, but it’s no use. Twitching all over, I focus harder on my meatball.

“Oh, Elsie, you know what I mean.”

My eyes betray me. They look up at him, dog gonnit. Just as he closes his mouth over the breast of chicken in his hand, searing his tongue. Liquid juices down his nude forearm and streams into the sleeve of his chef’s coat. Eyes watering from the heat, his smile cracks open when he’s finished chewing. His tongue swoops down the back of his hand, still cupping the breast, and he laps up all that moisture. When he laughs it’s so damned sexy. But I melt when tears stream down his face. Sensitive men drive me wild.

Speechless, I back my own arse out of the kitchen fast as I can manage. Head thrown back, palms pressing my pulsing thighs through my apron, I sway through the dining room as if in a dream. Dear god what on Earth am I going to do?

§

The next morning when I pull up to work on my motorcycle, Jeremiah’s puffing away on a cigarette out front. It’s still early, dark as night, and the breakfast crowd won’t be along for a while.

“It’s cold out here Elsie,” he says, hands in his pockets, cigarette puffing between his lips.

“I know. You shouldn’t be smoking.”

He shrugs and looks away, hands still stuck in his pockets like he’s after something. There’s something wrong this morning, I think. Or maybe he’s just tired. For a moment I think we’re safe—that I won’t be tempted by him any longer. He’s just a kid, after all, and I’m, well I’m just not. Something inside me wants to press his head to my breast, but not like that. I want to do it like a mom. I want to take care of him. Rubbing my fingers together and breathing heavy into them, I try to warm up while he smokes.

After his cigarette, he looks up.

I follow him up there, looking where he’s looking, but it just looks like sky to me. Little stars piercing the darkness. He keeps on looking, searching, so I search his face, which is long and sad. “Hey,” I say to him. “You okay today?”

His head still angled up, away from me, hands still in his pockets, fingers wiggling wildly around in there, he’s still searching. Shoulders shrugging, he says nothing. He blinks back tears.

“Hey,” I say to him. “Jeremiah, what’s going on?” I warm my fingers with one more big exhale and then I touch him on the forearm. I wait a few minutes, just like that, and neither of us moves. “Do you want me to go?” I ask him finally.

He shrugs.

“Do you want to be alone?”

His gaze descends back down the ladder of the sky until it finds the earth. In our four years working together I have never known Jeremiah to look at the earth unless he’s bending to pick something up.

“Sweetheart,” I say, stepping in closer. “It’s me, Elsie. Sweetheart, Jeramiah, you can talk to me.”

Maybe I should have stopped right there. Maybe I shouldn’t have pressed him anymore, but I couldn’t help it, seeing him in pain like that.

“Jeramiah, I love you, you know.”

The passion I’d been harboring for him drains from me. I want to protect him. I suppose it’s a different type of passion. One passion replacing the next. Stepping closer, I wrap him up in my arms. If someone drives past, this is what they’ll see: a tall, gangly young man, hands stuffed in his pockets, staring at the earth beneath his gnarled shoes; a middle aged woman, arms wound round his middle, pressing herself into his side, her head on his bicep. It might look like the end of an affair, which it is, sort of.

“Time for work,” he says, and spins round on his heel, preparing to leave me dumbfounded and raw, but I stop him. “Jeremiah,” I plead, “wait.”

“Why?” he asks. “What’s the point? We’ll talk and I’ll tell you I love you, and you’ll go home to your husband, and I’ll still be alone, I’ll still be missing you. Forget it, Elsie. Just leave me alone.”

“Jeremiah,” I begin, but I don’t know what to say. What can I say? Sinking down onto the curb, I hide my face in my fingers. He stays. He waits for me to say something to make it better. “Sweetheart,” I finally manage, “I’m old enough to be your mother, and I love my husband. You don’t love me—”

“I do, Elsie,” he argues, and spits at the earth. He kicks the garbage can with the steel toe of his boot. “You see?” he asks. “I knew you’d say this. I know you love Thomas. But you love me, too.”

“No,” I lie. Because lying to him is the only thing to do.

What can I possibly say to Jeremiah? Yes, I love you, but not in the way you want me to love you? That I’m out of my mind, all jacked up on herbs, a last ditch effort to achieve pregnancy without IVF at my age? That trying to achieve pregnancy might be just a last ditch effort to revive my stale marriage? That all love goes stale eventually, and that you have to find the one you want to work through the staleness with? Is that even true? Does all love, eventually, go stale? Do I still love Thomas? Does he love me? Or are we fooling ourselves? I’m older than Jeremiah, and I’m supposed to be wiser. But I feel like a fool.

After Jeremiah leaves, I cry, head in my hands, until he hollers at me through the open kitchen window, announcing the first table of hungry breakfasters waiting to be served.

§

That night, groggy from an evening nap, and still recovering from my morning outside the restaurant with Jeremiah, I’m nestled into the sofa in my living room, drinking hot buttered rum (something I do when Thomas is gone and I’m feeling lonely) when the door bell rings. The mantel clock, a wedding gift from Thomas’s mother, shows quarter past midnight. The San Francisco skyline twinkles at me through the porch window. Haggard and drunk, I stare out onto Russian Hill. The city is sleeping. I should be sleeping, too. Disoriented, I rub my forehead with the back of my arm and ignore the bell. Perhaps I imagined it? Thomas is on the east coast for super bowl parties with his buddies, and I’m not keen on being left alone at our apartment in the city anyway. Sipping my rum, I begin thinking to myself, All those people out there
The bell rings again.

This time I’m a little startled. “What?” I call from the sofa.

“Elsie, it’s me, Jeramiah.”

“What?”

“It’s me.” Rightfully wondering whether I’ll scold him, ignore him, or permit him to enter my home, he waits a minute. But then, “Jeram—”

“I heard you,” I holler. My mug I place on the coffee table, and I pad on over to the door, bumping my knees on the hearth and my hip on the corner of the hallway wall. I wish for a mirror in our foyer, but we don’t have one, so I can’t notice my hair and all that. I just open the door for him and turn away before he enters. In a moment, he hovers over me as, rum in hand, I resume my nest in the sofa. “There’s hot buttered rum on the stove. Mugs over the sink.”

“Thanks.”

I watch him as he helps himself in the kitchen, sort of guffawing for a moment when I remember in my haze that he’s not even of legal drinking age. Suddenly I feel old.   And very lonely. But as I watch his body at the stove, his long, strong arms stirring the pot of rum as it reheats, there’s an awakening in me, a hunger licking its chops. How long has it been since I craved Thomas like this? I can’t remember the last time we made love because we wanted to. We fuck now and then because we should, because we’re married, because we’re telling ourselves we want to make a baby.

“How did you find me?” I ask.

“I followed you.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think, Elsie?” He enters the living room with two steaming mugs. One he hands to me, “Your old one is probably cold.”

I take the hot mug from him and stare hard into his eyes, bold because I’m drunk. For a moment I’m lost.   “It doesn’t matter,” I lie. “Rum’s rum.”

“Taste them side-by-side,” he says, and his smile erupts. The irony is inescapable. What if I could taste Jeremiah and Thomas side-by-side? Who would I choose?

I sip from both mugs. Obviously, the hot one tastes better. The old one, I discard.

Smiling wildly, Jeremiah buries himself in the pillows on the sofa next to me. He presses himself so far back into the cushions that I think he might disappear, and in that moment I know I’ll be hopelessly lonely without him. Sipping our rum, we’re quiet together, which is odd. Quiet’s how I knew something was wrong this morning. I’m not sure whether it’s the quiet between us or my rum haze or the left over grogginess from my nap or what, but I don’t bother him about the fact that it’s after midnight and he doesn’t bring it up. Smiling, instead, I lift my head from the pillows and face him. His face is closer than I expect, so I wind up inches from him, staring straight into the daggers of his eyes. The blue is twinkling. I can’t tell in the moonlight whether his eyes are full of tears or whether I’m drunk and the lights from the skyline in the window behind him are reflecting onto my own eyes, but nevertheless his eyes look moist to me. I wonder if he’s been crying.

“Jeramiah, Sweetheart, I have no idea why you would follow me home,” I lie, knowing how he wants me.

“Yes, you do.”

“No.” I wait. I sip my rum. “Besides, Jeramiah, I’ve been home since 4:00 this afternoon.”

“Not today.”

“What?” Now I am surprised.

“I didn’t follow you today.” He brings the side of his leg closer to the side of mine. My insides gasp and purr.

With one hand I grip my hot mug like it’s my lifeline; with the other I reach for the blanket on the armchair next to me and yank it over my lap. A chastity belt.

“Elsie.”

I don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. He’s a child. I’m a middle aged woman. I’m married. He’s confused. So am I. This is wrong. I sip my rum.

“Elsie.”

I sip my rum.

His nude forearm brushes my knees as he reaches for my lifeline.   Unwrapping my fingers from my mug with his calloused hands, rough and burned already from only a handful of years cooking other people’s food but still so soft and tender because of his nascent age, he leans into my space. I’ve never been this close to him before and looked. I follow the veins from his hands to the rolled up sleeves of his gingham shirt, and imagine them circulating all his want throughout his whole being, making it possible for him to follow me home, to pursue me like this. When the veins disappear inside his clothing I follow their imagined routes to his heart. Then I climb the ladder of his anatomy, from heart, to hairs poking out above his shirt collar, up his neck to his jaw. He bites down on something and his jaw bulges, and I imagine that he’s imagining what it might be like to taste me, and I know I want him to taste me. My eyes crawl up his sideburns and over the bridge of his delicate nose to his eyes. I don’t know what I expect or want to find there, in his eyes, but it’s exactly right. There is so much sadness. In him. In me. He watches me watch him, both of us quiet.   Effortlessly, like water moving, he suddenly slips his hand inside the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, cupping my naked breast. His movements are liquid, dreamlike, and I have no time to protest. Holding his hand there, breathing, we’re still, and I think for a moment that perhaps I’m not awake.

“I need you, Elsie,” he says, squeezing my nipple between two fingers, hand so big he holds my rib, my breast and my sternum in one palm. I feel small, so feminine; this feels so right.

“I know,” I say.

“You need me too.”

“I do,” I say.

“Can I kiss you, Elsie?”

Falling forward, I burrow into his chest with my forehead. If I let him kiss me, I’ll dissolve into him, all the way. I’m the kind of woman who falls in love fast. I’ll end up loving him more than I already do if I let him take me to bed. Deeply, I inhale him. “Not tonight,” I whisper, because I’m too drunk and lonely now to stop him from taking me to bed if I let him kiss me. And because it’s true what I said in the beginning, I love Thomas, too.

There’s a silence at the center of unrequited love, the deafening kind of silence that tells you you’re alone—that you always have been alone, and always will be alone. If love is a storm, unrequited love is a hurricane, most destructive at the outset and ending, quiet in the middle. I had known Jeremiah was in love with me for years, and I’d relished the attention, sure. Who wouldn’t? And at my age? My own love affair with my husband having grown into something dormant like the center of a hurricane, though I’m told love evolves—becomes less and less pregnant with passion over the years, but ever more rooted and fierce if it’s real. Perhaps our dormancy is sending a message to my body—Do not get pregnant! There’s not enough love here! Maybe you need that pregnant passion to get through the unbeautiful parts of childbirth together.

According to a National Geographic article I read once, biological love lasts only three years in human beings—about the time it takes to court, seduce, impregnate, gestate, deliver and regain sufficient post-partum independence for survival. I remember wondering about supposedly happy couples with multiple children. Were they somehow able to fall in love over and over again? Or was there a lie in there somewhere? And what about Thomas and me? Nine years. Had we been able to expand the storm of our love? Is that three-year storm elastic? Or are we trying for children to delay the inevitable? To keep the clouds from passing, and carrying us over to the other side, closer to the end?

As I fall asleep on the couch in the twinkling light from the city and the glowing moonlight after Jeremiah leaves I think about Thomas, and how we once ached for each other the way Jeremiah and I now ache for each other. I wonder whether my having an affair might be just the thing to shake things up, to help Thomas and I move toward the other edge of the hurricane. The thought of it makes me shiver, I’m so sterile and cold in my reasoning.

§

I stay on the couch, sleepless, still a little drunk, as morning rises. By the time daylight whispers into the living room I’m lost in a fantasy. My head presses back into the corner of the sofa, my legs drape over its back, my body turns away from the windows. I writhe. My breast pokes out from beneath the slack neckline of my pajama blouse, and I remember Jeremiah’s fingertips, so young, so desperate. My nipple stings with the memory of him squeezing.

I’d wanted to tell Jeremiah that love gets easier, but it isn’t true.

As sunlight breaks into the living room I reach for my old, cold mug of buttered rum, the one I’d been contently drinking before Jeremiah arrived. In one, hurried gulp, I take it in. I don’t want the night to end. As the rum slithers into my body my eyes roll back, and then I reach for another mug, and then the other. Three, I think. Three mugs. Sufficiently drunk, again, I fling myself back into the couch as if I’m thrown in a fit of passion. Whose passion? It hardly matters. I just want passion. I want to feel alive. Cupping my hands between my legs, one palm over the other, and pressing my head into the corner of the sofa until it hurts, and then pressing harder, just to feel it, just to feel something, I shove my fingers into my insides and I imagine one of them, Jeremiah or Thomas, or maybe both of them, there. They’d be pinning my arms to my sides with their knees, smiles erupting, the daggers of their blue eyes piercing right through me.

And then the locks on the door rattle, and Thomas is standing in the doorway. Bemused by my spectacle he crosses the room in his work suit, and still holding onto his luggage he comes to hover over me. We’re speechless and still. Inspiration stirs in him—I know him well enough to recognize it instantly. After all, he’s all geared up on herbs for procreation, too. Momentarily, I wonder whether he, too, has been lusting after some hot young thing. Probably. Men are like golden retrievers. If you don’t pet them, they’ll find someone else to do it. The thought of Thomas lusting after someone else chokes me, but he drops his suitcases and yanks his tie off so suddenly my mind is erased as the longing inside me grows louder and stronger. Stepping out of his shined up dress shoes and jingling the change in his slacks, he strips everything off in a hurry. As suddenly as he’d appeared in the doorway my husband is nude before me, the grey morning light and the fog outside matching the grey in his hair. Saying nothing he kneels in front of me, and with soft, manicured hands, those hands that shake other hands in boardrooms in the financial district before the sun comes up every day so that he can provide this fancy apartment in the city for us, for the family we’re supposed to create, he pulls back the layers of my blankets and pajamas, one by one. He finds the back of my head beneath all the pillows and cups it with both hands. Lifting me up so he can see my eyes he hovers just above my face, his hazel eyes—they’re hazel, not blue—are dark and hungry. He slips a small hand over the front of my neck and it’s clammy, but familiar. The grizzle of his beard scratches my sternum but it’s all hot and wet as he licks and oozes his way down between my breasts, skipping them. He’s always skipped my breasts. My nipples sting again with the memory of Jeremiah, but I forget Jeremiah as Thomas licks all the way down. Maybe one day I’ll ask Thomas not to skip my breasts, I think, as I watch him squat back on his haunches like an animal. My husband laps at the moisture between my thighs, my legs thrown over his shoulders.

The pad of his thumb bursts it’s way inside me, and then it’s gone. For a moment I panic. Where did he go? Suddenly we’re not touching anymore and I can’t feel him anywhere. I can’t live without him. I know this. Scared, my eyes fly open, and I discover him standing over me again, watching, licking his lips.   Fast, he swoops down and lifts me up off the couch, carrying me into our bedroom. With me in his lap, both of us sitting up, he enters me. As he does, he finally speaks to me. His team didn’t win the super bowl, he’s not sure if I know. The truth is, I don’t even know which team is his team. Before, I believed this was a problem. Not because I don’t know, but because I don’t care. But, wrapped up in him, I know none of that bullshit matters. Nothing matters, as long as I have Thomas, as long as we can connect like this. How long have we been disconnected?

Laughing. Suddenly we’re laughing so hard, and then, heads thrown back, bodies rocking in time together, arms and legs wound round and round like knots keeping us from falling apart, we come together.

When I wake up on the couch it’s after 1:00 in the afternoon, and I’m alone. Thomas is still on the east coast. Rubbing my eyes, I vow I’ll never lose him.

§

Two months later, carrying my husband’s child, I pull up on my motorcycle to work the lunch shift at the restaurant. I barely notice Jeremiah waiting for me out front. I hurl myself off my motorcycle just in time to lose my helmet and barf in the bush on the sidewalk. Groaning, knuckles in my eyes, I sink down on the curb to recover.

When Jeremiah re-appears minutes later and offers me two mugs, one with hot water and lemon, the other with Sprite, I stare up at him for a moment, jaw slack, and then turn and wretch in the bush again. He searches in his pants pockets after setting the mugs down on the sidewalk, jingling change.

“Jeremiah,” I beg, “please don’t smoke. It’ll be too much.” I gag, and hurl again.

His smile erupts and he bends down to rub my back. “Soda crackers,” he says, and produces two packets from his pockets.

“Thank you.”

“Do you want to be alone?”

“No. Not right now. Please stay.”

“Worse than yesterday, huh?”

“Yeah,” I say, wiping my mouth with my sleeve.

“Here.” He thrusts a stack of napkins at me.

“Thanks.”

“I thought this was only supposed to happen in the morning.”

I want to laugh, but I wretch again.

He looks up at the sky, and when I’m recovered I follow him. A few minutes later he asks, “Have you figured out yet when it happened?”

“No.” My gaze falls to the earth.

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“It’s too soon I think.”

He keeps his eyes up in the sky. “Have you told your husband yet?”

“No.”

“When?”

I’d promised Jeremiah that I’d tell him. That I’d tell Thomas about our affair, even though it’s over. Somehow the truth is important to Jeremiah, in his nascent age. But the truth would only hurt my husband, and we’re finally connecting again. I don’t want to spoil it. So I lie to Jeremiah: “Soon, but not tonight.”

—Adrienne Love

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Adrienne Love lives in Sausalito. She earned her MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Art in 2013.  Her work has been published in Numéro Cinq and Yoga Journal.

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Nov 302014
 

Bruce-Stone2

In the slider at the Top of the Page this month — Bruce Stone, who, although he only recently joined the masthead  as a Special Correspondent, has been an ongoing part of the magazine since he first contributed a short story in the June, 2010, issue. He has published reviews and essays intermittently since then, always closely argued, erudite, controversial. Last month (November) we published his horrific short story “FPS,” the account of a school shooting, much like Sandy Hook, from the point of view of the teenage mass murderer. I say “horrific,” because it is; it does what are is supposed to, render the catastrophe in words.

Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a good book on DG’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in MirandaNabokov StudiesReview of Contemporary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books, F. Scott Fitzgerald Review and Salon.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Straylight and Numéro Cinq. You can hear him talk about fiction writing at Straylight Magazine. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.

Nov 272014
 

Apocalypse NowApocalypse Now: Photo by Jowita Bydlowska

It’s the turning-of-the-year, the hinge of the world creaking, the door shutting behind us, much new horror anticipated for the New Year (but before that, Christmas shopping, Black (Death) Friday, stockings hanging by the fire (image: fire leaping onto stockings, blazing up the mantelpiece, consuming the house — the usual Christmas nightmare; it used to be images of Santa dead and roasted on the glowing embers Christmas morning — I had a healthy childhood). And so we call this the Apocalypse issue, the raising of the veil issue, the revelation of a previously unfathomable future complete with dancing girls and hoola-hoops courtesy of photographer-novelist-memoirist Jowita Bydlowska who contributes to this issue a selection of disturbing, subversive, gender bending photographs of what might be best described as a dark femininity, which lifts my heart.

Chaulky-WhiteKevin & Derek White

From Derek White, the legendary artist-writer-editor at Calamari Press, we have a stunning collaboration, a multi-hybrid work of nonfiction created out of his brother Kevin’s MFA thesis, itself a recapitulation of Joyce’s recapitulation of Homer’s Odyssey written as a trip through Asia in search of his father, dead by suicide years before — Kevin himself died subsequently of a drug overdose. White adds (think: collage) Kevin’s drawings, journals, unpublished short stories and his own commentaries to create a massive art/text thing full of rhyme, cross-reference, and startling juxtaposition. This is part of a book that will be published next year under the name Chaulky White, the nom de plume of the two brothers together.

SSEY 01-1By Chaulky White

Lisa Robertson Author Image 2Lisa Robertson

Natalie Helberg contributes a review of Cinema of the Present, a new book by the Canadian experimental writer Lisa Robertson.

It is eclectic, rarified, and dense, scatterbrained and philosophical: It tells us that the stakes of writing are high, that writing sculpts subjects as much as it sculpts the domain they dwell in, and that, consequently, there is no trick-bag to rest on, no set of writing techniques we can master and remain content with.

emily_dickinson_daguerreotype_-large-Emily Dickinson

Contributing editor Pat Keane, snowed in in Syracuse, delves into the state of Emily Dickinson’s religious belief, her alignment with the Romantics, her natural supernaturalism, as he calls it.

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse—the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—

Mary-Morrissy-NLBMary Morrissy

From Gerard Beirne, editor of our Irish feature Uimhir a Cúig, we get “Déjà Vu” a gorgeous, lush story by the novelist Mary Morrissy, about a cancer patient who, instead of going home after chemotherapy, drops into a pub and falls into a chemo fugue, as she calls it, remembering old loves and betrayals, only to be, shockingly, mistaken for a bar denizen’s mother.

The treatment doesn’t make me sick, it makes me dazed. And tired. Dog-tired. Fatigue strikes like a power cut and I have to sit down ─ now ─ or I think I’ll die. The hospital is a stone’s throw from Suesey Street, the part of town I used to frequent a decade ago, when we were an item. Last week, after my session, I found myself wandering there when I had one of my turns. It was a thundery kind of day; the sun was spiteful. There I was, passing “our” pub. Where we would meet on days like this one, hot and humid, or on brown afternoons threatening rain, during our two seasons together. Either way, this was where we would meet in secret and hide from the prevailing climate of prying eyes.

Adrienne Love author photoAdrienne Love

From Adrienne Love, a funny, knowing short story about love, marriage, babies, and sudden illicit lust for a handsome young man. The story is called “Hot,” and it is.

I am beyond hot for Jeremiah, who’s only 20, half my age, and in a relationship. But the relationship isn’t the problem because Jeremiah’s not in love with his girl—he’s in love with me. And it’s not our ages either, though I could be his mother. The problem is that while I would love to shag Jeremiah silly—God knows I would—I’m in love with my husband, Thomas. Really. It’s these darned herbs I’m taking—Shitavari: Capable of 100 Husbands and Ashwaganda: Strength of a Horse—to get us pregnant.

After all baby makes three and all that crap.

I am a horny mess, what with all this bewitching of my ovaries, and Jeremiah knows I’m hot for him, Good Lord. If that boy presses his cute little checkered pants arse against my apron one more time I’m going to lose my cucumbers.

rilke babyRainer Maria Rilke

From translator David Need, we have Rilke poems about roses, in French first, then the English, from his book Roses, just out with Horse & Buggy Press. And then an interview with the translator, Need, by Dan Holmes, who last appeared on NC interviewing the travel writer Richard Grant.

I see you, rose, book half-opened,
having so many pages
of detailed happiness
we will never read. Mage-Book,
which is opened by the wind and can be read,
eyes shut …

Wallcreeper

Ben Woodard contributes an review of the Nell Zink’s debut novel The Wallcreeper.

Shambhavi Roy2Shambhavi Roy

Shambhavi Roy pens an illuminating essay on the mysteries of subplots in novels, yoking together for her purposes two disparate works: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist.

I counted seventeen different occasions when Jane Austen brings out the striking diversity in the conduct of these two sisters. The sisters form two parallel mountain ranges reflecting sound off each other so the echo reverberates in the reader’s mind. The author seems to pitch antithetical ideas because, I believe, human beings do not understand in a vacuum but in relation to one another. In E. K. Brown’s terms, the two sisters “irradiate each other and become clearer by irradiation.” By offering contrasts and similarities the author is according greater depth to these characters and the social milieu, while trying to get at the hidden truth.

Lise GastonLise Gaston

Also a clutch of poems from the delightful Lise Gaston, now living in Berkeley (via Fredericton, Victoria and Montreal).

.………from Village bacchanals I never told

you I don’t remember this let you
shake yourself alone on your way to
another part-time job imagining
bbbbbball the dark angles of my open mouth

Looking-upwardW. S. Merwin

Also a review of the latest W. S. Merwin collection by A. Anupama.

A scene from this garden opens the new poetry collection in “Homecoming.” Specific in place and time, the setting for the silent arrival of a migrating flock of birds takes shape in almost one sentence. I say almost one, because the line break that marks the end of the first sentence (I looked across the garden at evening / Paula was still weeding) suggests the conjunction “and,” which then begins two of the consecutive lines just after. The assonance and half-rhyme between “evening” and “weeding” fold the lines together, keeping the unpunctuated sentence break smooth. At the dramatic arrival of the birds, however, the line break splits a prepositional phrase: “…and at that / moment from behind me….” The other such line break splits silence open between the last two lines of the poem: “but home now arriving without / a sound as it rose to meet them.”

Trimingham_JulieJulie Trimingham

And last but never least, from Senior Editor R. W. Gray (locked away somewhere doing the last edits on his forthcoming book of stories), the last of Julie Trimingham’s triptych of essays on influences, avatars and the art of filmmaking at Numéro Cinq at the Movies.

dg

Nov 182014
 

BenedictPinckney Benedict via artoftherural.org

Here’s a lively book you all ought to read. I reviewed it in 1992 for The Chicago Tribune, which at the time had a wonderful weekly book section and sponsored the annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award. Again, this is one of those Lazarus texts, not quite dead and gone but hibernating on a hard drive. Some aren’t worth keeping, but others, like this one, serve at the least to remind me of good books that I once carefully read. You’ll have to pardon the anachronisms. Pinckney Benedict can no longer be described as a young writer. And Cormac McCarthy is much better known that he was then.

dg

WY

The Wrecking Yard
by Pinckney Benedict
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

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Pinckney Benedict is a young writer who hails from the hills of West Virginia and is blessed with a natural gift of southern Bible-belt oratory, part-lyric and part-hammer-and-tongs sermon. He doesn’t write like one of those precious minimalist or K-Mart realist northerners — his stories rise in the heart of a non-existent, mythic America, a no-time and no-place of elemental characters and pure narrative.

At his best, he reads like a cross between Barry Hannah (at his best) and the great, though lesser known, Cormac McCarthy of, say, Blood Meridian or Outer Dark. All three are inheritors of the southern (Faulknerian) tradition of violence and bombast. All three work a vein of exaggeration and hyperbole that is a kind of pure macho poetry.

The Wrecking Yard, Benedict’s second story collection (his first included “The Sutton Pie Safe” which won him the Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award), runs the gamut from a Hemingway homage set in Nicaragua to a tale in the form of a radio play about a sideshow freak who was once struck by lightning and kills her lovers by electrocution.

The aesthetic keystone of The Wrecking Yard is “Washman,” a long story about a crippled hunchback killer, a limping evil, who shoots down a man in a gunfight over a mule, steals his girl (previously stolen from someone else) and leads a posse of upright citizens to a strange and terrible fate.

Of the twelve men who chase Washman into the mountain fastness where he lives, five die before they find him — two in avalanches, two to drowning and one to a diamondback rattlesnake. Five more die in a forest fire after they hang Washman, and the last two go mad.

The girl reaches the valley town with her hair burned off and lungs scorched, and pregnant, though she is not sure who the father is. “It will be a monster,” she says. “I’ll be mother to a monster that has eyes but no other part of a face. The flames sang it to me when their curtain passed over. They took my hair but they left me alive.”

This story takes place in a country of the imagination, not any place recognizably real. It is a peculiarly American country, a country invented by Ambrose Bierce and Bret Harte — white, poor, rural, southern and western, just at the edge of civilization (represented by women, sheriffs and doctors), just at the edge of the twentieth century (cars mix with mules and horses).

It is an eerie country of aimless, spectacular destruction, of gruesome and obsessive (or mechanical) evil. It is a place where fine speech goes for nought, where sly understatement and violence are the preferred modes of human intercourse, where retribution outweighs self-preservation, where insult and death are one, and where women are either absent or occasions for volcanic testosterone explosions.

In “Odom,” a pair of hillmen, father and son, clearing a piece of land for a new house, slowly become obsessed with blasting their parcel of forest to smithereens. The house, the original point of the exercise, is forgotten in an orgy of destruction, of pine and hemlock rocketing skywards, impelled by explosions of contraband dynamite.

“Farther away, the trees are down, but they have not been cut. They have been blasted wholesale from the ground, and the seared trunks lie at startling removes from the tangles of their roots. The trees are tumbled pell-mell over one another, two and even three deep, in a welter of sap and pith and broken wood. Odom has cleared enough space for a mansion, for the home of a giant.”

Odom even blows himself up in a premature blast — though this doesn’t stop him. At the end, bandaged head and hands, he is starting on the bedrock of his lot, hand-drilling a blast hole, father and son joined together, driving “a narrow shaft toward the hidden bitter heart of the rock.”

In Pinckney Benedict’s imaginary universe, life is a constant Coyote and Road Runner cartoon of despair. And Odom is a typical Benedict hero — obstinate to the point of stupidity, half-cartoon, half-god, huge, terrible and funny.

In “Bounty,” a gruesome shaggy dog story, a piece of poor white mountain trash named Candles drives into town with a rusty truckload of dead animals claiming a five-dollar-apiece wolf bounty from the sheriff. Candles drags the sheriff out to his truck and starts dropping the bodies of dogs on the street. It slowly dawns on the sheriff (and the reader), as the bodies accumulate, that these are family pets, mostly snagged in steel leghold traps — hounds, Alsatians, beagles.

“When Candles opened his mouth to speak, the sheriff held up a forestalling hand. ‘I don’t need to hear it,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure exactly what went on here.’ he said, indicating the back of the truck, ‘and I don’t believe I care to know.'”

Benedict’s style is laconic and deadpan. He gets comic mileage from the tension between the dry, matter-of-fact way he writes and the terrible and outlandish things he describes — from three men crawling up Washman’s hanging body to snap his neck to Odom’s blast-blackened fingers to the come-hitherish whispers of the deadly Electric Girl (whose boyfriends are all suicides).

It is not clear that Benedict has a message to get across. Rather, I think he has tapped into a deep lobe of the American psyche, a fragment of that lawless and ambiguous frontier that the nation has internalized and repressed but not forgotten.

He is weakest when he moves away from this vein of material, when he strays into the present or the real — that Hemingway homage or the title story in which a junkyard employee muses over the people who die in the cars he cannibalizes.

He is at his best when he ignores the contemporary Siren calls of sentimental realism and interpersonal sensitivity and simply lets the violence overflow, propelling his reader into a world of strange and macabre beauty.

—Douglas Glover (Published first in The Chicago Tribune Books, January, 1992)

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Nov 182014
 

This is a photo of Black Kettle and other Cheyenne chiefs during peace talks with Major Edward W. Wynkoop at Fort Weld, Colorado (September 1864). Three months later in November, Black Kettle and his people were massacred at Sand Creek.

Difficult to read, but sometimes we have a duty to read difficult things. Alan Gilbert gives a detailed account of the run-up to the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, and then tracks the collective amnesia that has allowed some of its perpetrators to maintain historical reputations unblemished. Among other things he quotes this letter, an eyewitness account by Captain S. S. Soule, who commanded a company.

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The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees, have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One Squaw was wounded, and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, she held her arms up to defend her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand, and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One Squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives, of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing—when one succeeded in hitting the Squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children, and then killed herself. One old Squaw hung herself in the lodges—there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians [take] hold of one anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and were both shot together, they were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. One woman was cut open, and a child taken out of her, and scalped.

Read the rest as Amnesia: Spain, Sand Creek, Oklahoma, Germany » 3:AM Magazine.

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Nov 162014
 

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Numéro Cinq at the Movies readers should recognize Julie Trimingham‘s name from one of our first entries when we featured her lovely, haunting triptych of films beauty crowds me, a pseudo-adaptation of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

In keeping with Numéro Cinq‘s penchant for reflecting on the creative process, NC at the Movies is asking filmmakers we’ve featured to reflect on why they make movies, what compels them to tell the visual stories they tell. Presented with that question, Julie Trimingham came back to us with a triptych (she likes to work in threes) of articles that look at her relationship with film: “Rosebud,” “The Horror,” and “Raising Hell.” This month NC at the Movies features her second article, “The Horror.”

— R. W. Gray

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Part 2: The Horror

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The horror. He says it twice. Marlon Brando’s hulking Kurtz in Apocalypse Now has witnessed and done things a person should never. I wish I could unsee the scalpeling of an eye in Un Chien Andalou. The severing of an ear in Reservoir Dogs. The rape in A Clockwork Orange. The flaying of a man in Red Sorghum.  A thug in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover tortures a young boy by stuffing him with buttons torn from his apprentice cook’s white coat, and then finally the most awful button, the excised one from his own belly. Paul Newman swallowing too many hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke leads to him digging his own grave at the end. Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout begins with a man trying to kill his children. A diligent boyfriend’s investigation into the disappearance of his girlfriend in the Dutch film The Vanishing ends with him, and us, finding out what happened by sharing her fate: buried alive with no hope of escape. Celluloid images of brutality –nightmares – are belched up from our species’ shadow side.

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Part of me wants to cling to Anne Frank’s belief that we are all good at heart; another part wants to figure how it is that all these good hearts are involved with genocide, murder, torture, stupid wars, as well as more intimate and prosaic barbarities. It is a question against which I bang my head. My son, now in kindergarten, has suggested that the good people should kill all the bad people in the world. I am become death, destroyer of worlds.

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Australian security recently reported that they had broken up a plot in which zealots would randomly seize people of the streets of Sydney, cut off their heads, and videotape the killings so all the world could see. The White Rose, an intellectual, non-violent resistance movement, bloomed in Munich in the early 1940s. Comprised of university friends, the group anonymously wrote and distributed leaflets that decried Nazi policies. Sophie Scholl, a girl of 20 who loved hiking and books, children and God, was one of these activists. I clap my hand over my eyes as she is beheaded by Nazis in the film that bears her name.

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Nor can I bear to watch the beheading of Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons, the beheading of King Henry’s smart, proud queen in Anne of the Thousand Days, the beheadings of Daniel Pearl, of James Foley, of Steven Sotloff, of Hervé Gourdel in virally distributed jihadist propaganda film clips.

Even when unseen, these scenes have made their way into me as if I have swallowed dark pills.  Does it matter that some are fiction,  some historical dramas, some news, some threats? Yes, but the images are all queasily spliced together in my mind; they describe the same arc of an unjust blade.

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Aristotle would have us feel cleansed by tragedy, scrubbed by pity and fear. Screaming, crying, gasping at something that happens on screen allows our bodies to release some of the horror we feel simply because we’re human, because suffering exists, because the world is as cruel as it is beautiful. Too, the dramatic form is a container for collective emotional experience, a means by which we can feel connected, if briefly, to one another.  We can mourn together. We can vicariously survive the tragedy, and come out the other side. We can empathize with the protagonist who, by dint of pride or error, has come to a sorry end. If Anne had held her tongue, if More had signed the oath, if Sophie had discreetly distributed the tracts rather than flinging them into the air, they all would’ve kept their heads. We all screw up and behave foolishly, and we are reminded and relieved that we get away with it when we watch the heroes of these stories fall.

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But what of the character who snuffs out, who desecrates the hero? What of the executioner? The eye-slicer, the ear-cutter, the flayer, the flogger, the imperious king, the dictator, the jihadist, the torture artist? What of Laurence Olivier’s dentist in Marathon Man, the Nazi sadist? Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver, taking turns inflicting pain in Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden? I do not feel purified by watching them; I feel stained.

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Brutality is suffering inflicted for selfish gain, cruelty of a particularly human strain. Witnessing it in movies seems not catharsis but admonition: the veneer of civilization is thin.

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I should know: I have hacked a man’s throat with a small, blunt knife and watched as his life gushed out. I have allowed the police to cart off my innocent young daughter, and then I have denounced her as she is tortured, her face pressed against a white hot iron. And often, sometimes nightly, I’ve had to run through the narrow streets of Montreal and Jerusalem, climbing up walls, out of windows, hiding behind dumpsters, I’ve had to run for my life from the oppressive state, from the minotaur, from my university painting instructor.

Carl Jung’s description of dream structure is not so different from Aristotelian dramatic principles or North American film script conventions: what Jung calls Exposition is our Act I, setting the stage with theme, character and place; Development is classic Act II, the playing out of conflict and action; Crisis is the Climax; Lysis is the resolution or conclusion, Act III.  Filmmakers structure films in order to create emotional momentum, to keep us from getting bored. Jung structures dreams in order to read us.

Some neurobiologists think that dreams are rehearsals for survival, if we run from disaster in our sleep, we’re more likely to do it when awake. Freud stripped dreams down to a single, telling essence, be it conflict, neurosis or wish-fulfillment. Various cultures have seen dreams as prophecy, healing, or divine intervention. As all human bodies are variants of the same basic genome, so our psychologies simply play off a fundamental human psychology: Jungians read dreams as messages from this unconscious, collectively held and personally expressed.

Sharon is a tiny, blonde woman who dresses in pale silk and pearls. She speaks softly and is, as far as I can tell, fearless. I suspect that if she weren’t an analyst she would tame lions.  Her talent and work, whether with adult neurotics or troubled kids, is to behold a psyche – that messy, alive, invisible thing – and to accept it, understand it, reflect it. To give it back to itself, nudge it toward wholeness. Her take on dreams is informed by Jung and also by decades of experience, of witnessing people thrash out meaning in their lives. She takes the internal narrative –dreams– as reflection both of the dreamer’s own psyche and the human consciousness we all share. Sharon translates, and transforms, nightmares: killing is repression; I am the killer, I am the innocent, my self is refracted in the violence of my dreams. The images are all clues.

Seeing our selves more clearly is a kind of spiritual proprioception. As these selves of ours are always caught in the sticky web of culture and history, seeing the web more clearly allows for more nimble navigation of it. If we can intelligently read our dreams, our own moving pictures, we are not bound to act blindly according to buried fears and desires.

Ditto, perhaps, for films. If we peer into the collective darkness, if we peel the text from the subtext of our cultures, might we be better off?

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I am a filmmaker who no longer makes films: after a series of short films, my first feature was, despite a flurry of meetings with producers and a lovely actress in Montreal, never produced; it became a novel instead. While not explicitly violent, the work does explore how decent people (namely, a drifting actress) come to take morally questionable action, how our most altruistic motives can be twined with the most selfish. My husband has asked me why my characters aren’t better people; he doesn’t understand, and doesn’t like my need to traffic in what he sees as tawdry, what I see as human. He doesn’t like that my brain even comes up with this stuff. I don’t think I’m coming up with anything; I’m just watching, and trying to describe.

If we can see the ways in which we are wounded and the ways in which we wound, aren’t we more likely to be kind? If we can see the ways in which we are blind, isn’t our vision at least partially restored?

Too: the light in chiaroscuro works so well because the darkness is so thick. We are barbarians with moments of grace. Cruelty sometimes inspires resistance, transcendence.

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I once wanted to make a movie based on Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, which is a compilation of letters and journals of her time during World War II. Photographs show a young woman with short, dark hair, bright eyes. She lived in Amsterdam, was a secular Jew, and wrote as a way to figure out her path in life. Living in a non-Jewish household, and consorting with the bohemian class, her writings limn the city in which she lives and her coming into her self, sex and her physical desires, the world of ideas opening to her. Politics and religion stayed in the margins until the Nazis invaded her life and her pages. She was recruited to the Jewish Council, where she performed administrative duties, but she hated this work and requested a transfer to Westerbork, a camp where she worked in the department for Social Welfare for People in Transit. These people were in transit to death camps. In time, and despite chances to escape, she became one of those sent. She accepted this fate. I came across, and was stunned, by her journals when I was 29, the same age as she was when she was gassed at Auschwitz.

Although unmade, scenes from this hypothetical film are cut into the montage that slow-burns at the back of my brain:

INT. WESTERBORK TRANSIT CAMP: She nurses the sick and comforts the anxious in the barracks. They all know what they’re waiting for. Etty tries to get a smile out of a fraught new mother. She can’t. The nursing infant unlatches from his mother’s breast. He gurgles, milk-drunk. The mother can’t stand it, she tries to contain herself. She hands the baby to Etty while she goes off to scream.  Etty gentles the baby, coaxing him to sleep. Kisses the top of his little bald head.

INT. CATTLE CAR CROWDED WITH FAMILIES – DAY:  Etty scrawls on a postcard. From outside, we see her fingers reaching through the slat, letting loose the card which flutters down and settles on the gravel ballast of the railroad,

INSERT POSTCARD:  her last written words: We left the camp singing.

A common interpretation of this act is that Etty had achieved great spiritual maturity, going Christ-like to her death. I prefer to see it as a beautiful fuck you to brutality.

—Julie Trimingham

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DSC_0053 - Version 3Julie Trimingham was born in Montreal and raised semi-nomadically. She trained as a painter at Yale University and as a director at the Canadian Film Centre in Toronto. Her film work has screened at festivals and been broadcast internationally, and has won or been nominated for a number of awards. Julie taught screenwriting at the Vancouver Film School for several years; she has since focused exclusively on writing fiction. Her online journal, Notes from Elsewhere, features reportage from places real and imagined. Her first novel, Mockingbird, was published in 2013.

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Nov 162014
 

Agamben

I don’t know how many of you have been following the story of Kaci Hickox, the amazing nurse who went to Africa to treat Ebola patients then was jumped on by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and her home state Maine Governor Paul LePage. She was locked up, then quarantined and threatened with jail, despite having no symptoms. She was quite outspoken in her disdain for the efforts to control her behaviour.

I put this story next to another, the recent Canadian decision to simply revoke the citizenship of Canadians deemed to be behaving inappropriately. One used to thing that citizenship was irrevocable. Clearly not.

These stories reminded me of Giorgio Agamben’s concept of State of Exception, an idea I am only loosely beginning to understand (something like the gambit by which so-called modern democracies unilaterally exclude citizens from the bare rights to citizenship, make them non-people, and thus tend ineluctably toward totalitarianism — okay, tell me how wrong I am).

So I put together a couple of items. First, a little animated explanation of Agamben’s concepts of Homo Sacer and State of Exception. Then a lecture by Slavoj Žižek, at the beginning of which he takes a wild detour into an explanation of how western liberals mistakenly interpret the concept to State of Exception to refer to people traditionally thought of as dispossessed and voiceless. No, Agamben says. We are all in a State of Exception.

The case of Kaci Hickox just proved it.

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