May 172017
 

When asked if Compass is a political novel, Énard replied affirmatively, but said its politics are unifying, to show our dependence on each other for growth and to emphasize the strength in great diversity. —Frank Richardson

Compass
Mathias Énard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
New Directions, 2017
$27.95, 448 pages

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On a drizzly December night in Vienna, a solitary man stares out his window, his agonized reflection another self with whom he feels interchangeable, as indistinct as the water molecules within a droplet condensing on the glass. The window vibrates with Shahram Nazeri singing a poem by Rumi, and the shadow self becomes interlocutor in an internal monologue that will last through a sleepless night—a night of remembrance, regrets, and desire—a night in which a dying man considers his past and present.

But Compass (Boussole)—Mathias Énard’s ninth published work and third novel to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell; winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt and longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize—is not only a novel of memory and identity, it is a novel that celebrates centuries of cross-cultural exchange between the East and West: a vital novel, arriving when we need desperately to be reminded of the strength in diversity, of the reason in embracing the other.

Born in 1972 in Niort, France, Mathias Énard studied Arabic and Persian languages at INALCO, has traveled widely in the Middle East, and is now a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona. His multi-award-winning 2008 novel Zone (reviewed by Numéro Cinq’s Mary Stein), a stream of consciousness meditation on the cycles of war, finds a perfect companion in Compass, where the interconnected lives of fictional and historical musicians, writers, explorers, and asylum seekers are woven in a great tapestry of thought, a balm for one man’s soul and an appeal for peace to all.

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The Blind Owl

The man at the window, Franz Ritter, a forty-something professor of musicology living alone in Vienna, should be reviewing a student’s dissertation, or better yet, sleeping. But this will not be a night for sleep, even if he didn’t suffer from chronic insomnia, a symptom of his undiagnosed disease. We are plunged directly into the stream of Ritter’s consciousness and his first-person narration in a page-length sentence. The exhausted professor has received a disturbing communique from his friend Sarah, a scholar of oriental literature and a specialist, like him, on Middle Eastern culture.

Sarah, who has a “passion for monstrosities” and a “penchant for the lower depths of the soul,” has sent him an old-fashioned offprint of her most recent academic article, an article whose frightening subject Franz will spend the rest of the night contemplating. For Sarah, writing from the distant jungles of Sarawak, Malaysia, isn’t just another “orientalist” colleague, she is the unrequited love of his life.

Franz gives himself up to thinking about Sarah, whose guiding philosophy is that “there is no such thing as chance, everything is connected.” He struggles to find some significance in the article which arrived without an enclosed letter. The Sarawak article sends him to sifting through every trace of her he owns: books, photographs, academic articles, letters—all become fuel for his fervent reconstruction of his memory of her. Excerpts from this archive, printed in different fonts, are sometimes accompanied by photographs, reminiscent of the novels of W. G. Sebald.

The first excerpt from Franz’s memorabilia comes from Sarah’s doctoral thesis, Visions of the Other Between East and West. Her thesis, significantly, concerns Sadegh Hedayat and his novel The Blind Owl—a novel that inspired Compass and with which it shares many parallels. Apropos his unrequited feelings for Sarah, Franz begins reading her thesis at the opening sentence of The Blind Owl: “There are certain wounds in life that, like leprosy, eat away at the soul in solitude and diminish it.” Like Hedayat’s narrator, Ritter is ill, feverish, obsessed—a man whose only interlocutor is his own shadow. Ritter isn’t writing a story as a conscious attempt to arrive at some general conclusion, but we follow his internal monologue and thus learn his history with Sarah, his desires, his regrets, and, along the way, a vast history chronicling the interconnectedness of Eastern and Western culture.

Franz’s sleepless night takes place on December 1, 2014, in Vienna, the apotheosis of European music cities and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “gateway to the East.” Although the novel’s chronological time follows the course of the night and Franz never leaves his apartment, his a-chronological reconstruction of his past with Sarah ranges from their first meeting seventeen years prior in Hainfeld, Austria, to other locations and time points throughout their shared history. The cities of Paris, Vienna, Damascus, Aleppo, Palmyra, Tehran, Istanbul, and others, serve as nexuses in the web of Ritter’s recollection.

Throughout the 451-page novel, Énard uses paragraphing and chapter breaks to indicate interruptions in Ritter’s thought. Ritter periodically notes the hour, and nine of these times are labeled chapter headings: 11:10 p.m., 12:55 a.m., etc. Furthermore, as Ritter’s meditations weave through his subjects, to entertain himself he composes a whimsical, imaginary book he titles On the Divers forms of Lunacie in the Orient with subdivisions such as “Orientalists in Love” and “Encyclopedia of the Decapitated.” These pseudo-chapters serve as a second set of breaks (including a table of contents listing them); however, these divisions are only part of the stream of his thoughts and always arrive mid-sentence, although they do provide opportunities for Énard to shift the focus of Ritter’s contemplations.

Ritter displays a prodigious erudition as his thoughts glide from one subject to the next. Nevertheless, he is modest to the point of self-deprecation and disparages academics (often hilariously). Whether he’s feeling nostalgic, contemplative, or even despairing, Ritter’s tone is engaging, especially when uses the first-person plural: “let’s try to breathe deeply, let our thoughts slide into an immense white space . . . let’s mimic death before it comes.” We share his space through his thoughts; we turn the pillow with him, listen to his neighbor’s dog, read Sarah’s letters, and look at her photographs.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is the seamlessness with which Énard effects shifting between use of the present and past tense: the present tense for when Ritter describes his puttering around the apartment and current thoughts; and the past tense which Ritter uses to narrate his recollections. Adding to the verisimilitude of a man talking to himself, his interior monologue also includes rhetorical questions that range from the mundane (“Where did I put my glasses?”) to the philosophical (“What is universal?”). Naturally, these questions often serve as segues for new associations.

The narrative is necessarily discursive in so far as the story is Ritter’s mind unleashed. But rather than an unhinged, amateur historian like the narrator of Zone, here Énard gives us a scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of music, literature, and history. In Zone, an endless run-on sentence mimics the protagonist’s disturbed mind, and as such complements his identity, i.e. form follows function. In Compass, the style Énard chose to depict Ritter’s consciousness serves greater goals; he wants to mimic consciousness but also create a platform for illustrating the cross-cultural influences of East and West. The interior monologue of a scholar is as appropriate for the content of Compass as the interior monologue of a war criminal was for Zone.

Strict autonomous monologue—exemplified by the “Penelope” chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses—presents thought undisrupted by characters reporting their actions using action verbs and the first-person pronoun. Énard never pushes his style to such an extreme, and Ritter’s internal monologue departs from a high-mimetic mode in several ways, including Énard’s use of (mostly) conventional punctuation, Ritter declaring his perceptions and reporting past events with dialogue, and the inclusion of objective, external documents (e.g. Sarah’s texts).

Despite his insomnia, Ritter does give indications that he falls asleep, or at least enters a semi-sleep borderland where dream mingles with his conscious memory. According to Ritter’s mental state, Énard modulates the narrative distance, using more conventional syntax during Ritter’s lucid moments and fluid, run-on sentences for those times when Ritter is either in a semi-dream state or emotionally disturbed (excited or angry). The shifting between these narrative modes, especially as Ritter’s subjective recollection is shaped by his perception of objective documentation, is a tour-de-force in the representation of consciousness.

Sadegh Hedayat, 1951

Alterity

Throughout the night, Ritter seeks refuge in music[1] and each selection triggers a new set of associations. After all, he is an expert in the history of music, and so it is not surprising that whether he hears Berlioz or Beethoven, he will know their (and everyone else’s) stories. He knows that Mozart used a Turkish march for his Piano Sonata No. 11; he knows that Goethe’s West–östlicher Divan was inspired by the poetry of Hafez; and he knows that Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Strauss (among others) composed music for Goethe’s poems.

Énard favors run-on sentences whenever Ritter becomes indignant, as he does when he thinks of Félicien David, whom he describes as the “foremost Orientalist musician, forgotten like all those who have devoted themselves to body and soul to the ties between East and West” (paralleling how Ritter sees himself):

I’ve shown that the revolution in music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries owed everything to the Orient, that it was not a matter of “exotic procedures,” as was thought before, this exoticism had a meaning, that it made external elements, alterity, enter, it was a large movement, and gathered together among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, Berlioz, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov, Debussy, Bartók, Hindemith, Schönberg, Szymanowski, hundreds of composers throughout all of Europe, over all of Europe the wind of alterity blows, all these great men use what comes to them from the Other to modify the Self . . .

Alterity, otherness, is a concept Énard introduces conceptually on the first page with Franz confronting his reflection in the rain-soaked window, and a few pages later, specifically, in the excerpt from Sarah’s thesis. The relationship between oneself and the other—the central theme of the novel—emerges repeatedly though the patterns of interconnected musicians and writers, through the histories of Franz and Sarah, and through Sarah’s articles and Franz’s preternatural memory. Énard continually circles back to this concept, giving textual realization to Sarah’s philosophy of interconnectedness.

Occasionally there is a storm of references and Ritter will meditate on a dozen or more historical characters in the span of a page. For example, on a single page we learn of Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall’s attending a soiree in Vienna, hosted by Antoine and Thérèse Apponyi—friends of Chopin, Liszt, Sand, Balzac, Hugo, and Lamartine—at which Beethoven plays as Europe celebrates peace after the exile of Napoleon, whose army stormed the Orient beyond the Balkans:

Knowledge rushes behind the soldiers and the merchants, into Egypt, India, China; texts translated from Arabic and Persian begin to invade Europe, Goethe the great oak started the race; long before Hugo’s Les Orientales, at the very time Chateaubriand was inventing travel literature with his Itinerary: From Paris to Jerusalem, as Beethoven is playing that night for the little Italian countess married to a Hungarian surrounded by the finest costumes in Vienna, the immense Goethe is putting the final touches on his West-östlicher Divan, directly inspired by the translation of Hafez that Hammer-Purgstall published . . .

Such barrages of names and works are not the norm, and Ritter’s associations usually move at a less frenzied pace. But it is these associations that make the novel more than just a catalogue of facts. The philosophical and moral foundation of the novel—specifically articulated through Sarah’s guiding mantra—is that everything is connected in a meaningful way; that without the one, you would not have the other. Énard presents Compass as a metaphor itself—the story as a compass with which to get our bearings, and if the needle seems to spin at times, it should only serve as further reminder that regardless of the direction in which we look, everything and everyone is connected.

One the many pleasures in reading the novel is discovering (or rediscovering) new writers and musicians. Ritter’s description of the premiere of Félicien David’s symphony Le Désert, for example, traces its immediate influence:

The desert invades Paris—“by unanimous opinion, it was the most beautiful storm music had ever produced, no maestro had ever gone so far,” Théophile Gautier writes in La Presse, describing the storm assailing the caravan in the desert; it’s also the premiere of the “Danse des almées,” the Dance of the Almahs, an erotic motif whose subsequent fortune we know, and surprise of surprises, the first “Chant du muezzin,” the first Muslim call to prayer that ever sounded in Paris: “It’s at that morning hour we hear the voice of the muezzin,” Berlioz writes in Le Journal des débats on 15 December, “David limited himself here, not to the role of imitator, but to that of simple arranger; he erased himself completely to introduce to us, in its strange nudity and even in the Arabic language, the bizarre chant of the muezzin . . .”

Comparisons of Compass with The Thousand and One Nights and with Proust (and Ritter thinks about both) are not only inevitable, but necessary. And some historical figures you might assume should be present—Khayyam, Rumi, T. E. Lawrence—all have their place. But Énard excels in his revelation of the unexpected: musicians like Félicien David and his student Francisco Salvador-Daniel, the influential diplomat and translator Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, or the journalist and explorer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (one of Sarah’s heroes and whom her character parallels).

Raymond Bonheur, Félicien David, c. 1835

Where East Meets West

When Franz opens Sarah’s thesis at the novel’s beginning, we hear in Sarah’s voice what could serve as a prologue for Compass:

we propose to explore this crevice, to go look inside the cleft, to enter the drunkenness of those men and women who have wavered too much in alterity; we are going to take the little man by the hand to go down and observe the gnawing wounds, the drugs, the elsewheres, and explore this between-space, this bardo, this barzakh, the world between worlds into which artists and travelers fall.

In Zone, Énard used a train trip for his frame story to explore history, much as W. G. Sebald used a walking tour of England or Claudio Magris[2] a boat ride down the Danube. Here, Franz’s delving through his collection of Sarah’s writings is the framework for Énard’s excursions into the links between East and West. These authors all share an exceptional talent for storytelling and revealing, with a poet’s voice, the history of people and place.

While Compass is not plot-driven in a conventional sense, Franz’s retelling of his relationship with Sarah is a compelling narrative, complete with its own mysteries: Why is he so ashamed? Do they have a sexual relationship? What is the nature of Sarah’s enigmatic Sarawak article? Considering Franz’s discursiveness, these questions are like a Javier Marías mystery, namely it’s about the journey, not the destination, although the destination will unify and underscore the novel’s intricate image patterns.

Sarah is Franz’s idée fixe, his emotional compass—she gives him direction. How ironic then, that she gifts him an actual compass, a reproduction of one owned by Beethoven, but with a flaw—it’s designed to point east. Metaphorically, Franz is to Sarah as West is to East. He is marooned in the west, in Vienna, famous as a central hub for the Orient Express, while Sarah recedes ever farther to the east, to India and Malaysia. The name “Ritter” is German for “knight,” and Énard conceived of a medieval romance for the two. Franz’s quest is for Sarah, his unreachable love; hers is for “a long road to the East . . . ever further towards the Orient in search of something indefinable.” When he remembers their time in Aleppo—a painful memory that fuels his feelings of shame—he thinks:

Time has reasserted its power over the Sissi House; the Baron Hotel is still standing, its shutters closed in a deep sleep, waiting for the throat-slitters of the Islamic State to make it their headquarters, transform it into a prison, a fortress, or else blow it up: they’ll blow up my shame and its ever-burning memory, along with the memory of so many travelers, dust will settle again over Annemarie, over T. E. Lawrence, over Agatha Christie, over Sarah’s room, over the wide hallway (geometrically patterned tiles, walls painted in high-gloss cream); the high ceilings will collapse onto the landing where two great cedar chests rested, coffins of nostalgia with their funereal plaques, “London-Baghdad in 8 Days by Simplon Orient Express and Taurus Express,” the debris will swallow up the pompous staircase I climbed on a sudden impulse fifteen minutes after Sarah decided to go to bed around midnight: I can see myself knocking on her door, a double wooden door with yellowing paint, my fingers right next to the three metal numbers, with anxiety, determination, hope, blindness, the tightness in the chest of one who is undertaking a great endeavor, who wants to find the being guessed at under a blanket in Palmyra in an actual bed and pursue, hang on, bury himself in oblivion, in the saturation of the senses, so that tenderness will chase away melancholy and greedy exploration of the other opens the ramparts of the self.

This passage shows how Ritter’s thoughts flow from current events to historical figures to the specific memory of his anxious sexual overture; the refrain of the relationship between the self and the other frames the memory. The Baron Hotel is now a refugee shelter and the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel in Palmyra (another significant location of the novel) and the nearby 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, once viewable from its terrace, have been destroyed.

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Porochista Khakpour writes in her introduction to The Blind Owl, “we are taught to read a novel all over again—in its pages there exists a collection of codes, variants, repetitions, cycles . . . .” Such is the case with Compass. As dawn approaches, Franz reads an account he wrote of his and Sarah’s time in Tehran and the story of Sarah’s thesis advisor, Morgan. Morgan’s story is also a tale of unrequited love and serves as a mirror for Franz. Franz describes the process of rereading himself as a strange sensation, and he is “attracted and repulsed by this former self as by another.” He concludes that “Being exists always in this distance, somewhere between an unfathomable self and the other in oneself.” As a unifying dual concept for the novel, alterity means not only seeking an understanding of others, but of the other in ourselves.

East and West are words of convention and it seems archaic today to speak of an Orient and an Occident. Besides, every country has its own idea of “east.” Of course, such divisive denominations persist, somewhat out of convenience perhaps, but surely also from our natural tendency to separate ourselves into families, groups, tribes, and nations. When asked if Compass is a political novel, Énard replied affirmatively (WDR), but said its politics are unifying, to show our dependence on each other for growth and to emphasize the strength in great diversity.

At his lowest, Ritter despairs of the human condition: “The human species isn’t doing its best these days,” now when the “stench of stupidity and sadness” are omnipresent. But, when have we ever done our best? During the Renaissance? The Enlightenment? We’ve always burned people alive, beheaded them, gassed them, and Énard doesn’t fail to remind us. Ritter’s despondency notwithstanding, the novel offers the opposite message: that cultural diversity stimulates great art and music and literature; and that, despite our exceptional talent for butchering one another, we also help one another, and we learn from one another.

Compass is dedicated to the people of Syria.

—Frank Richardson

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

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Compass is a music-lover’s delight with over forty references to specific works. Fitzcarraldo Editions assembled a playlist available here: Compass playlist.
  2. ]Franz and Sarah argue about the “Austro-centrism” of Danube.
May 162017
 

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The following is a story of desire and memory. It comes to us from Franci Novak, a poet and story writer from Slovenia. Novak’s debut story collection, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes), was originally published in Slovene by LUD Literatura. This English translation is by Olivia Hellewell. Hellewell has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

— Benjamin Woodard

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The first thing I remember is the first bonfire and that drunk guy who came staggering out of the woods with a big log on his head, grinned, and then threw the piece of wood into the flames. It flickered fiercely, it was as if a storm was brewing over the fire, it was beautiful and magical. It was then that I summoned up the courage to go up to him, he was sat on the other side of the bonfire, on a bench, with friends, I asked him if he wanted to come and dance with me, his friends smirked and cracked jokes, the way boys usually do. I watched him all evening, I knew that it was him, that he was the right one that I had to have for myself. He was meant for me. I felt awkward, I was trembling inside myself, not that I let it show from the outside, but I knew that I had to do it. I led him away from the bonfire, away from his friends, and then the two of us danced; it wasn’t easy at first, then he yielded to me entirely, even starting to lead me over the pebbles which ground beneath our feet. We went back towards the bonfire where we talked and made jokes and stared into the flames, some girl was dancing around right in front of us, she was swaying back and forth as if making love to someone.

Whenever someone threw something onto the fire, thin red veins pulsed into the dark air, a fountain of sparks erupted again. The two of us were drinking a sweet spirit from a glass and our breath smelt strongly and intensely, but neither of us was bothered as we kissed; we had our eyes closed, as did the girl who was swaying with a glass in her hands and laughing and bending her knees.

A few of us stayed right up until morning, I remember the large warm rocks around the smouldering bonfire and the tiny lizards that darted over them.

But then I also remember those things before, even further back; it’s crazy how I return to the past so easily, how like lightning I dart back and forth, like lizards over warm rocks: I remember how I had longed for a boyfriend months before. I’d had guys, just like all girls my age, but I no longer wanted to search for anyone else, I wanted a boyfriend to just—materialise. So I took a piece of paper and described him: tall, dark-haired, slender, friendly and so on, I filled the entire piece of paper with beautiful handwriting—the best I could manage—and more, I imagined him in every detail. I pictured him vividly, how he moved, how he smiled and spoke, I really did imagine everything about him, then I jotted that image down, with all the details, on the piece of paper, even though I couldn’t jot all of it. But the image was complete, the pen and paper didn’t know how, but it would know how to see the image, how to create it out of the components I’d noted down, I thought to myself at the time. I pinned the paper to the wall, there above the table, and just beneath it made a mini altar. I wasn’t religious, not in the way others wanted me to be, but in my own way; I’d got a figurine of Mary and baby Jesus from somewhere, but any god would have been fine, it could have also been Buddha or some other god, as long as my image found a way, a passage. I stood the figurine in a corner of the table and surrounded it with flowers, and then I placed a whole armful of tea lights around and lit them, making my room quiver and prance in the flames. Then I put my hands together and prayed for my wish to come true.

If you truly wish for something, your wish comes true, for your wish affixes itself to strings of energy, that’s what’s written in books, that’s what I’ve read, a wish is like a plectrum which glides along the strings of a guitar and compels them to release a certain sound: the sound of your wish coming true. And what is written in those books is true, that is just how it happened, there I am once again, sat with my boyfriend, the drunk guy carrying a big log on his head, the dancing girl bending her knees, a fierce flickering, as if a storm is brewing above the fire, beautiful and magical. The two of us are sitting and dancing, sitting and dancing, his breath smells of strong, sweet spirits, my breath smells too, I look at him and quiver, he is here, my wish come true, we drink and we kiss and we chat long into the night, right up until morning.

And then there’s one other day I remember too, the one when the two of us went for a walk together: it was around a month after our first bonfire, it was an unusual day, the wind was blowing, storks were hovering high above in the sky and the white track that we were walking along was sunken in tall, wavy grass, like a long white tongue with small birds hopping along it. Our hair was tangled, I felt the wind on my body like a third body, we held each other’s hand and walked. A thick smoke swirled in the air, we heard the crackling of branches and leaves and noticed how smoke was coming from a bush beside the path and thought that the bush must have burnt down spontaneously like in those biblical tales; then we caught sight of people who were stood behind and setting fire to the abundant undergrowth. We laughed at their stupidity. I stroked the long, slender grass. We passed a woodpile, I placed my palms on the planks, on their skins which were warm from the afternoon sun.

“Why don’t we light a fire too,” I said. I took out a lighter and tried to light one of the planks with it. He pulled an amusingly serious face and looked around worriedly. I wanted us to play, but he was too serious for games, it seemed like he didn’t understand. I burnt my fingers from holding on to the lighter for a long time.

“I’d need petrol to light that,” I said to him with an entirely serious look on my face. “Shall we go and look for a can?”

He looked at me in astonishment, almost frightened.

“Just kidding,” I smiled, then we lit a joint behind the woodpile, it was getting dark, the clouds were piling up in the pure red sky, the wind blew and the tall grass rustled. For a moment it seemed as if he wasn’t beside me at all, so I had to take hold of his hand in order to feel him.

Then for a few months we lived together, the two of us went to lectures and worked, we never went out anywhere, only for walks nearby, or to the cinema or nearby town. He had his own flat, we cooked together and talked together and loved each other. It was nice.

But one day the fires came back, what had to happen, happened.

Tea lights were burning on the tables of the bar, in the half-light the DJ was dropping some crazy good house, we drank sweet, intoxicating drinks and danced, me and my friends, he and his friends. Before we set off to the party he said that he didn’t want to go, that he’d rather just be with me, that he was fed up of these so-called friends and useless parties and that he was already past all this. But I said that we had to go out, because people had to get together and re-establish contacts and build networks, like ants, colliding with each other all the time with those flickering, quivering feelers. So we just went, it was great, we all danced. When it came to the time that we’d all been waiting for, we ran out with glasses in hand and watched the fireworks. Shadowy figures ran across the car park in front of the bar and placed trembling rockets on the floor until blinding flames spurted out of them; the rockets shot into the sky, sparks hissed through the cold winter air and explosions rattled the window panes; the floor was illustrated with glorious patterns of light and a translucent smoke was carried away across the car park; it was like the start of some insane, new war. Light and shadows, the whistle of rockets and the smell of gunpowder settled into our bodies whilst fires bloomed in the sky.

Some guy wearing tattered gloves and a hat that was too big for him was stood in the car park, looking gloomy with a starting pistol in his hand, whilst the reflection of the fires slid along the metal of the cars like flowing magma; I felt sorry for him, but I knew that not everyone could be a wish come true and that’s the way it had to be. I looked into his eyes as I walked past, all the others looked away.

Then we returned and everyone sat around the table together, we ate, drank and talked, it was happy and noisy. Sometimes I looked at him, at my boyfriend, I saw that he couldn’t wait for the two of us to leave, but I didn’t want to go yet. The waitress came over to us and lit some sort of strong spirits with a lighter, we were drinking cold blue fire, we were drinking fire, the drink extended warmly in my body, I stood up to go and dance. I was wearing insanely good shoes, really tight light-brown boots, then I went to the bar and drank more blue fire; when I went back to the group and sat on a stool, I wanted to dance with him but he didn’t want to, as if his body was numb, he just sat and watched as if he were half-dead.

That guy with the tattered gloves and the hat that was too big came inside, he just came inside with his starting pistol in his hand; a throng of people gathered, everyone looked at him askew, because he was not anybody’s wish come true. The guy fell to the floor, the gloves came off his hands and the hat skidded across the floor. When he got back on his feet, I slipped a glove back on his hand and popped the hat back on his head, as if I were putting a new man together, while the others were laughing; then I stroked his face, his sad, angry eyes shining like tiny fires.

I went back to sit next to my boyfriend, people were still laughing at the guy, who’d left the bar with the starting pistol in his hand. Then it happened, I don’t remember too well, it was like a dream: I was gently embraced by a veil of smoke, it wrapped itself around my legs like a playful cat and crept up and tickled my skin and my shins from the inside. I felt a warmth in my boots, on my heels, burning me, it seemed as if I were burning from all the fire that I had drank; something in me was kindling, the fire was glowing, I jumped on the table and danced with burning boots, like in some film, but I only remember fragments, only still images come to mind: someone brought some water and poured it on my feet, someone else took one of my boots off, we were all laughing a lot, I remember fingers stroking my bare foot and the smell of burning, thick and intoxicating like the trains that once used to pass through my village. I cried out: “Find me the one who threw his fag end at my boots, find him, kill him”, but my voice was like the voice of another, separate and outside of my body. A glass smashed on the floor, from it slowly grew a damp star, blue flames shot out from the glass.

I took off my second boot and walked around barefoot for a while. I went back to him, my wish come true. He’d been sat at the table the whole time and he didn’t budge, he was just watching; I sat on his knee and asked him if something was wrong, he stroked me and said that nothing was wrong. He asked me if it stung at all and if everything was ok, without looking me in the eye. Then I asked him if he was ashamed, and he said he wasn’t ashamed, but I knew and I got angry, I sat on his friend’s knee and said to him that if he was ashamed of me I’d go with someone else who wasn’t ashamed of me. I then drank a whole load of other drinks and sat on his friend’s knee and danced barefoot on the tables.

He came up to me, drew me in towards him and said that I wasn’t capable of love. I stared at his talking mouth, his face turned into fire, went up like a piece of paper thrown into the flames; I didn’t tell him how big, how enormous the love inside me was, how in a moment of complete clarity, complete focus I cautiously look around, how I slowly, tenderly, lovingly let go of the burnt-out cigarette onto my boot, how I feel a slight sting, a slight ignition, a warmth down there, how I then dance, I light and extinguish my own fires, how I am my own fire myself.

When I stepped outside, everything was insanely open, winter was vast and free and thousands of fires trembled above, and a shot fired from a starting pistol burst into a single white flame in the sky.

— Franci Novak, translated from the Slovene by Olivia Hellewell

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Franci Novak is a poet, who after leaving secondary education took classes in theory and practice at Ljubljana’s School of Art. His first poetry collection, Otroštvo neba (Sky’s Childhood), was published by Mladinska knjiga in 2011. In 2010, Novak was awarded the title of Knight of Poetry for Pivec Publishing House’s Poetry Tournament, marking the best unpublished Slovene poem of the year. His first collection of short stories, Podnebne spremembe (Climatic Changes) was published by LUD Literatura in 2014.

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Olivia Hellewell is a literary translator from Slovene and is currently writing her PhD thesis on ‘Translation and Cultural Capital in a Small Nation: The Case of Slovenia’ at the University of Nottingham, UK. In 2013 she was awarded the Rado L. Lenček prize by the Society for Slovene Studies for her essay on translating the poetry of Dane Zajc. Olivia has previously translated short stories and poems, and her first book-length translation, None Like Her by Jela Krečič, was published by Istros Books and Peter Owen Publishers in 2016.

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May 152017
 

Michael Catherwood

 

Radio Jazz
“No photographs of Pinetop Smith are known to exist.”

The gray riverbank
was dry with snakes of tree roots
and the radio

waves bounced the static-
charged air with night time jazz.
Pinetop Smith clicked keys

in a fresh boogie
woogie: “hey don’t move a peg
until you shake that

thing.” Pinetop Smith killed
in a Chicago dance hall
by a stray bullet.

The clear evening sky
is fresh ink now as I stand
by the Missouri

forty years later.
Music dances on my arm
like breath. The full moon

shines blue where stars
dot my wrinkled hands
steps from the river.

Tires kick and crunch
in the gravel where the past
clings to the thick light

while Pinetop pounds keys
over distances of years,
over brave currents.

 

Public Works District Yard 6

 

I
I organize these summer months
and reduce tasks to numbers,
fixate on numerals in a mantra:
rise at six, work at seven, lunch
at eleven-thirty, break at two,

punch-out at three-thirty, drink
Absolut from five to twelve, sleep at one,
cut four swipes into an overgrown lot
then circle three times along the fence line.
We search for addresses of empty lots

to mow: at 3123 Patrick there’s no house:
broken bottles and weeds and gravel.
If I find a house at 2958 Burdette, 3016
would slide in here. Often we cut
the wrong lots. We unload the Bush Hog,

cut fence wire from the flail blades
after the previous job. Then mow.

 

II
My last day at District Yard Six,
I bolt on flail blades and my hand
slips, my forearm catches
a jag of metal. The blood stands
like Jello. My foreman finds

some butterflies and we make
a quick patch job. Driving home
I think in a week I’d be back
combing newspapers, searching for work.
I drive home along the Missouri River,

by the automobile boneyards,
past factories and welding shops, by
the trailer courts filled with kids
celebrating in their blue plastic pools,
past the faded Go-Go Lovelies sign

and shaggy parks and a dim cafe. Along
the river I turn onto an access road and park,
watch the current churn up logs
and bright litter. I stand there for a long time
as the bank boils whirlpools,

then think for a moment the world is dying,
that we were all suffocating. The moment
passes and I get back in my rusted Pontiac,
turn on the radio, fire up a cigarette,
then spin over the gravel in triumph. In

the rearview the gray dirt rubs out the sun.
The gravel sings along in my fender wells.

 

The Subject

Both I still see dead—Mark
thin on a gurney in the hospital,
Pat sitting on his living room floor,
tv on, his chemo pack pulsing.

I could have done better, could have
looked out for my younger brothers
more. We all took defiance seriously
so we laughed at death, expected,
courted it, a gift Dad gave us,
along with excess.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWe are in the park,
climbing pine trees,
the sticky balm on our hands,
its scent in the air.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxWe ascend with grace,
grip tightly the branches,
always moving up to light.

—Michael Catherwood

 

 

Michael Catherwood’s second book of poems, If You Turned Around Quickly, was published by Main Street Rag 2016. In 2006, The Backwaters Press published his first book of poems, titled Dare. His third book, Projector, is forthcoming from Stephen F. Austin Press in 2017. He has published poems, reviews, and essays in various magazines, including Agni, Aethlon, Black Warrior Review, Borderlands, Burning Bush 2, Georgetown Review, Hawai’i Review, Laurel Review, Louisiana Literature, Midwest Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Sycamore Review, Westview, and others. He writes essays for Plainsongs and has recently published poems in The Common, Poetry South, Solstice, Louisiana Literature, Measure, the minnesota review, New Plains Review, Bluestem, and the Red River Review. His awards include Intro Journals Award for Poetry from AWP, two Lily Peter Fellowships, the Holt Prize for Poetry, and National Finalist for the Ruth Lilly Prize. In 2003, he received an encouragement award from the Nebraska Arts Council. He was nominated for a Pushcart prize in 2014. His website is http://michaelcatherwood.net.

 

 

May 142017
 

Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. —Dorian Stuber

Carl Seelig
Walks with Robert Walser
Translated by Anne Posten
New Directions, 2017
$15.95; 127 pages

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For years readers seemed regularly to be rediscovering the work of the idiosyncratic Swiss modernist writer Robert Walser (1878—1956). To be sure, Walser had always had his partisans—readers who delighted in the syntactical and tonal shifts of his quicksilver and devious prose. Already in 1929, for example, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin made Walser the subject of a perceptive and still influential essay. More recently, W. G. Sebald included a lyrical meditation on Walser in his collection of linked essays, A Place in the Country. Yet Walser remained relatively unknown. Even though the great Austrian writer Robert Musil once described Kafka as “a special writer of the Walser type,” Kafka not Walser became a literary and cultural adjective.

In the last decade, however, Walser has become a fixture, not least in the English-speaking cultural world. (This is a turn Walser himself, who never travelled further than Germany in his whole life, and who wondered, “Why should writers travel, as long as they have imagination?” could surely never have anticipated.) Yet I don’t think it’s right to say Walser is now canonical. Something more interesting has happened to him. He inspires creative homage rather than dutiful respect. His most ardent admirers aren’t academics but rather contemporary filmmakers, visual artists, and of course writers. This resurgence has been made possible by the dedication of translators like Damion Searls, Tom Whalen, and above all, Susan Bernofsky, who have made more of Walser’s work available in English than ever before.

But perhaps nothing demonstrates Walser’s unlikely ascent more than this edition of Carl Seelig’s Walks with Robert Walser, first published in 1957 and now translated into English by Anne Posten. English-speaking audiences are getting not just Walser’s own books but also books about him. And this book is definitely worth it. To use a word much favoured by Walser himself, it’s delightful. In it, Seelig resurrects the nearly forgotten Walser and lovingly shows him in all his contradictory but mostly charming moods.

Born into a wealthy family, Seelig was a writer, editor, publisher, and patron to writers across the German-speaking world. His correspondents included Joseph Roth and Kafka’s close friend Max Brod. In 1949 he helped Albert Einstein compile a best-selling autobiographical volume.

Undoubtedly, however, his greatest legacy is his friendship with Walser. Seelig, who became Walser’s literary executor, orchestrated the first Walser rediscovery: the current revival wouldn’t have been possible without Seelig’s attention to the man and his work.

Seelig first corresponded with Walser in 1922. But they didn’t meet until 1936. In the intervening years, Walser had been admitted to the psychiatric clinic Waldau near Bern and then transferred to a sanatorium in the Appenzell. He had written nothing since entering Waldau. Seelig, who “felt the need to do something for his work and for him personally,” arranged with the head doctor to be able to go for a walk with Walser.

Over the next twenty years, until the writer’s death on Christmas Day in 1956, Seelig and Walser met several times a year to go for extensive day-long rambles across eastern Switzerland. Walks with Robert Walser records their itineraries, their conversations and, indelibly, their meals. Walking in Switzerland, then as now, is a civilized affair: even on the remotest mountaintop a refreshing inn or a café awaits.

Walser had always been a passionate walker, as he described in his brilliant autobiographical novella The Walk (1913). In the 1920s, as his mental health frayed and his writing began to dry up, Walser ever more desperately sought solace in walking. He once made it from Bern to Geneva in a single night without stopping, and, another time, again in the middle of the night, from Bern to the top of a mountain in the Bernese Oberland, where, as he later told Seelig, he “blithely devoured a piece of bread and a can of sardines.”

Walking was thus the ideal way for Seelig to draw out the reticent and mistrustful Walser. Everyone knows the best conversations come on long walks, where speech naturally matches pace, and where silences are almost always comfortable. In his description of their first walk, Seelig called silence “the narrow path on which we approach[ed] each other.”

Seelig seems to have been a true mensch: gentle, kindly, and unassuming. We never see him make demands of Walser or expect anything in return for his interest other than the pleasure of the older man’s company. Seelig’s literary talents seem to have been fairly modest, but in Walks with Robert Walser he wisely sticks to a straightforward style and, as his title suggests, focuses his attention firmly on his companion rather than himself.

For the most part Seelig lets Walser be himself, though he can’t help but occasionally prod the older man to resume writing, suggesting for example that the asylum would surely make great material for a novel. (Walser dryly responds, “I should hardly think so.”) Later he asks again: if it could be arranged for Walser to leave the asylum, would he start writing again? Walser is categorically and characteristically evasive: “There is only one thing to do with this question: not answer it.”

Over and over, Walser declares himself satisfied with his life: “In the asylum I have the quiet I need… It suits me now to disappear, and inconspicuously as possible.” He rejects Seelig’s proposal to arrange for Walser to have a room to himself: “ I wish to live with the people and to disappear with them. That is the proper thing for me.” He takes seriously the work asked of him in the asylum—sorting lentils and gluing together paper bags, among other menial tasks—and becomes grumpy when it is interrupted by anything other than the chance to go walking. He seems reasonable, interested in the world, eminently sane.

Robert Walser, c. 1898

Yet he is also withdrawn, sometimes moody, unresponsive to the news of the deaths of his brother Karl and sister Lisa, the siblings he was closest to. He vividly describes the tribulations that led him to be institutionalized: “During my last years in Bern I was plagued by wild dreams—thunder, shouting, a choking in my throat, hallucinatory voices—so that I often woke screaming.” And when Seelig asserts Walser’s literary importance, the writer becomes so agitated—“Quiet, quiet! How can you say something like that! Do you really think I believe your society lies?”—that Seelig has quite a job of it to soothe him.

Seelig has more success getting Walser to talk about what he has written than anything he might write in the future. Walser proves a shrewd, though sometimes harsh reader of his own work: “That is the error of my novels. They are too whimsical and too reflexive, their composition often sloppy.” He describes his writing process, explaining he couldn’t write to commissions: “Everything must simply grow out of me without being forced.” He speaks admiringly of writers, like Dickens and Gottfried Keller, about whom “one is never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.” When Seelig rightly suggests Walser is such a writer himself, Walser begs him not to make such comparisons: “Don’t even whisper it. It makes me want to crawl into a whole, being named in such company.”

Yet Seelig is right, both about sudden shifts in register that characterize Walser’s prose and its general brilliance. Although he also wrote four novels, Walser is best known for the hundreds of miniatures he wrote for European newspapers in the decade before and after WWI. In these small prose pieces, Walser—who once called himself “a clairvoyant of the small”—considered in sometimes rhapsodic and sometimes arch prose encounters with ordinary things: one of his most beautiful pieces is called “Ash, Needle, Pencil, and Match.” He also drew liberally on his own experiences: working as a bank teller, enjoying a balloon ride with his publisher, studying at a school for would-be servants.

Example of Robert Walser’s Microscript

For this reason, to write about Walser’s writing is invariably to write about his life, even though it was by his own account singularly modest and largely undramatic. His prose, almost always told by a first person narrator who like Walser is bemused and surprised by the world’s richness, is at once autobiographical and not, neither fiction nor non-fiction. He offered a fine description of the strengths of his own work when he told Seelig:

I am immediately wary of writers who excel at plot and claim practically the whole world for their characters. Everyday things are beautiful and rich enough that we can coax poetic sparks from them.

With their vivid first-person narration, wealth of observation and reflection, and total disregard for the trappings of conventional plot or character, Walser’s texts anticipate those of contemporary writers like Lydia Davis, Teju Cole, and Ben Lerner.

But in traipsing with Walser through the Swiss landscape, Seelig reminds us that Walser is a small giant of world literature only because he is grounded in such a particular place. For me, Walser exemplifies a particularly Swiss impishness, the kind I encountered regularly in my Swiss relatives, most of whom came from the villages near Biel, the little city where Walser was born and where he spent many of his most productive years. These relatives loved to tease, to take the piss out of everyone and everything, even while they espoused a conventional morality that often descended into sententiousness. Walser’s genius is to ironize these conventional sentiments, so that readers never quite know to take what seem like ingenuous, almost artless exclamations of delight, especially since they reverse so quickly into sharp criticisms of all manner of conventional pieties, from bestsellers to car culture to banking regulations.

Yet although the ideal reader of Walks with Robert Walser will already know and love Walser’s work—anyone who doesn’t will without doubt want immediately to seek it out—and will therefore be intrigued by Walser’s assessment of that work, the real attraction here is Walser himself. By the time Seelig knew him, Walser had largely withdrawn from the world, in his younger days he had cut quite a figure in artistic and even high society. From 1905 Walser joined his brother Karl, an artist who found fame as the set designer for the theater director and impresario Max Reinhardt, in Berlin, where he spent most of the next eight years. The Walser brothers were famous for eating everything at the parties they were invited to or crashed. Their refusal to follow rules of genteel decorum extended to the literary world. Walser impressed the playwright Frank Wedekind with a canary yellow checked suit and mocked Hugo von Hoffmansthal, whom he is said to have asked whether he ever got tired of being famous.

We get glimpses of that impish young man from the provinces in Seelig’s portrayal of the much older mental patient. We watch Walser devour eight tartlets in a single sitting. We observe his horror of overcoats (even with 20 cm of snow on the ground he refuses to wear one) and his love of umbrellas (“under an umbrella one can feel quite at home”). We see him steering clear of barking farmyard dogs, adding “Have you noticed that dogs nowadays are much quieter than they used to be, as if electricity, the telephone, the radio and such robbed them of speech?” And we see him warm up to the patient and kind Seelig, revealing the excitable boy inside. At the end of their outing on April 15, 1938, Walser “shakes my hand several times, runs after my train, and waves until it disappears around the corner.”

Above all he eats. Despite the privations of the war years (on a walk in January 1943 Walser is “amazed” that he and Seelig “need ration cards for a portion of cheese”), food seems plentiful, and he and Seelig eat and drink with gusto. A typical passage reads: “Lunch at Schäfli in Trogen. We both have a huge appetite and clean every plate: the oatmeal soup, the bratwursts, the mashed potatoes, the beans, and the pear compote.” They’ll have a few drinks, smoke a cheroot or a cigar, and then walk ten more miles. None of the food and drink is particularly fancy, but it’s devoured with the gusto and glow of wellbeing of those who have been out in the fresh air no matter the weather.

Earlier I named some of the excellent translators who have tackled Walser’s difficult works in recent years. All of them follow in the footsteps of the great Christopher Middleton, the poet and scholar who was the first to translate Walser into any language. In an entry dated Good Friday, 1955, Seelig tells Walser that Middleton has translated two of his texts “with admirable subtlety,” Walser answers “with a curt ‘Really!’”(In the original, Walser says “So, so!”, a response that acknowledges the interlocutor without committing to agreeing with what he’s said; it’s the very phrase my uncle would use all the time when our conversations reached an impasse and, in its passive aggression, quintessentially Swiss.).

Robert Walser, 1949

Anne Posten—admittedly translating Seelig’s Walser rather than Walser himself—is not quite up to the high standards of English language Walser translations. Her work is more dutiful than excellent. She struggles in particular with Walser’s Swiss idioms. Some of these are impossible to translate (Znüni, literally “a little something at nine o’clock,” is a second breakfast: calling it a “morning snack” is reasonable; I don’t know anything that can capture the full sense of this lip-smacking diminutive except maybe Paddington Bear’s “elevenses,” though that is too twee even for the Swiss). Others are easier to translate, but Posten misses the mark. A Grind is a head, even, depending on context, a mug; Posten’s “noggin” sounds impossibly quaint. And the Postauto is a bus, not a mail van.

Writing this review I came across a reference to a translation of Seelig’s book in progress by a Bob Skinner. I don’t know anything about Skinner or the fate of his translation. Presumably it’s been nipped in the bud by this one. (None of the links I’ve found online to the text of his draft work anymore.) That’s too bad, because the excerpts I’ve seen are terrific, more lively and vivid than Posten’s.

Take this excerpt from the entry for February 5, 1950. Here is Skinner:

In a confectioner’s Robert rolls a shapeless cigarette which starts a little fire when it’s lit. A couple nearby snickers; they think he’s a hick. He says that in the sanitarium he’s now sorting and untying string for the Post Office. This work is all right with him; he’ll take what comes.

And here is Posten:

In a pastry shop Robert rolls a misshapen cigarette. Since it isn’t well tamped, it flares a bit when lit. The couple next to us begins to giggle; they apparently take Robert for an unworldly farmer. He tells me that now he sorts and unravels twine for the post office. But he is content with the work. He simply takes what comes.

Seelig’s original reads:

In einer Konditorei rollt sich Robert eine unförmige Zigaretten. Da sie nicht gut gestopft ist, gibt as beim Anzünden ein kleines feuer. Ein benachbartes Paar beginnt zu kichern; es halt Robert offenbar für einen weltfremden Bauern. Er erzählt mir, dass er jetzt in der Anstalt Schnüre für die Post sortiere und aufknüpfte. Aber ihm sei diese Arbeit auch recht. Er nehme eben, was komme.

Posten’s version is more faithful to the original than Skinner’s. She keeps the explanation of the poor tamping, which Skinner cuts out, and “an unworldly farmer” translates “einen weltfremden Bauern” literally. But the passage is better with the elision, and “hick” is punchy and effective. When it comes to the string, “untying” is a better translation than the portentous “unraveling.” And saying the work is “all right with him” reads better than “he is content with the work.” Skinner makes Seelig come alive. In fact, he seems to be a better writer than Seelig is himself.

But if Posten’s translation sometimes disappoints, this sensation is quickly overcome by gratitude to her and the publisher for bringing the book into English. We’re lucky to have it.

Walks with Robert Walser is a joyous and affirming book. Readers will be left feeling as Walser does when, at the end of one of their excursions, exclaiming over the beauty of the day, he tells Seelig, “Are we not returning richer than we left?”

—Dorian Stuber

 

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College. He has written for Open Letters Monthly, The Scofield, and Words without Borders. He blogs about books at www.eigermonchjungfrau.wordpress.com.

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May 132017
 

Denise Blake

x

The Beaching

The pod of whales beached themselves on Rutland Island,
chose the isolated sweep of the Back Strand to come ashore.
My grandmother in her final years would have understood.

Those long-finned pilot whales suffered some trauma,
became distressed and confused. And so for her that winter
when told her grownup daughter had died suddenly.

Three years later, hearing that her eldest had also
passed on threw something within her off-kilter.
Sent her mind homing towards the Back Strand.

The whales had wandered together, over thirty of them,
swam through Scottish waters to the Sound of Arranmore,
heading towards the crescent of shoreline and their ending.

She would have understood, the Rutland-born woman
who had long left the island but yearned for that place; called
for it constantly, rose from her sickbed in the middle of the night.

I need to go now. They will be waiting; it will soon be low tide.
She wanted to journey, follow those already gone,
float ashore, let grief beach her there on the Back Strand.

x
Circus Days

You don’t have to run away to join,
it comes to you around their thirteenth year.
You hadn’t even noticed they were in-training
until you sense excitement,
strong as fumes, building up in your home.

Music gets louder, nights and mornings confused,
every room is taken over as the friends, arriving
in single file, increases to friends of friends
to claim every available seat, even yours.

The circus builds around one son, then the next
and the next until soon, three rings are running
full flow. You try to become the ringmaster,
the one in control, while you collect tickets at the door,
take further bookings, supervise training, do the laundry,
provide meals for the performers, refreshments
for the audience, try to watch all that is happening.

And just as you notice that one son is putting his head
into the lion’s mouth, the other is walking a tightrope
without a net, you look over to the furthest ring
at the clown juggling madly. He makes the slightest
gesture, out of sync with his act, and your heart stops.

His show has become the riskiest. He is juggling
frantically, the big smile really is painted on,
his hands are shaking and he is about to drop
everything, as those who you thought were his friends
are not laughing but jeering. You clear the ring,
silence the noise, take him into your arms and hope
that he will begin to talk, tell you what is wrong.

You watch when he starts to go back to his ring,
lifts a club, two clubs, four, until he is juggling well again.
While in the distance, his brothers are starting to pack up.
The show goes on until the troops move to another city.
Your house has become calm, you miss the circus days.

x
Mother Goddess

Demeter: mother of Persephone, goddess of the harvest
and the cycles of life. The Universal mother whose daughter
went missing, who did not drink, eat or bathe until she found her.
Mother of grain and crop, the bountiful gift, blessings on
those who looked after her own. The curse of unquenchable
hunger on those who brought harm to the ones she had borne.
Mistress of the home, producer of life, she sent her cubs
through a darkened cave into immortality and a blessed afterlife.

As it was with her, it was with my grandmothers and my mother.
Good mother, blessed mother, working mother, fairy godmother.
Guardian angels; tooth fairy, baker of birthday cakes, lovelorn healer,
soother of hot fevers, stitcher of torn hems, night-time story teller
who taught us how to walk, talk, sing, dance, cry a river and then smile.
Mother Nature full of fresh berries, wild roadside flowers, lilac
filled fields. A lioness, black bear, white vulture, all-present mother.
Watch over my clan, watch over their future, watch over their care.

The Goddess mothers: Anu, Gaia, Toci , Rhea, Durga, my own;
a Cailleach and Bríghde, Glinda the good witch, moody woman, crazy
kitchen-dancer. Mommy, Mummy, Mum, Ma, Granny, a Mháthair.
Creator of cycles, unconditional love and hurricanes. The core of peace.

Give me guidance, nourishment and strength. Help me to hold on
and let go, be present and absent, wise and foolish, the past and future.
Help me to be the mother my own sons need, the person they will cherish,
and the woman who will warm a hollowed soul in those who need a mother.

x
The Dream Turns

Everyone sees what happens on the front porch,
we were lucky to have a swing-set in the back yard.
I was going to be a ballerina, until I saw how much
practice it took be left standing on my tippy toes.

Holy smokes Batman. My mother saw me belly-flop
off the high diving board. She was stuck behind the fence.
There were birthday parties on picnic tables in the park,
lightning bugs and fireworks on the fourth of July.
The Yellow Submarine was just one long cartoon.

I was thrilled when Oswald was shot. Hated LBJ, Nixon.
How could they ever trump that? They should have seen
when the Cuyahoga River went on fire,
that pollution takes a long time to implode.
How are things in Glocca Mora, will you go lassie go?
We used to throw the cat down the stairs, to prove he would
land on all fours. We wondered why he turned vicious.

x
Aboard

Wave-beaten pier, a leap into the craft, lap of sound against the boat,
gurgle of bilge pump, life jackets, life saver, the punt propelled in motion,
surge of cloud on sea-blue heavens, rudders through the harbour, thrash

of buoys, tangle of ropes, crush and curl, swell of turning white waves
washing back to the Port. The growing roll of engine denotes
a journey has begun, anchors long lifted, our spirits buoyant, emotion

crests with the plunge and surge, waves of wind. Grey seagulls splash
into bottle-green depths, rise above the stern, fly overhead and behave
as victors, irritate the vanquished with shrill calls from sea-scorched throats.

The ferry passes. Dorys slop, splash, roll and fall in our southwesterly vision.
Sweep of air, taste of salt, tinge of marine, flounder of foam. Wave-wash
lifts the hull, turn of spring tide, sink to low tide as seafarers brave
gales: small craft warning Sea area Erris Head to Carlingford Lough.

Oar, tiller, winch and moulding, bulkhead, portside, aft and mooring.
Crab nets, lobster pots, leap of dolphins, slink of seals, diving oystercatchers,
mackerel, herring, hook and sinker. A cuckoo calls. Light abounds as we follow
the coastline, the full flow of seawater in our blood, head to the open ocean.

x
Seaweed and Rotten Potatoes

This ridged inlet of shale and rock facing the Atlantic
contains a cruel, cragged beauty and a fierce knowledge.
Its history holds a summer’s day when a white fog stole
up the sides of these cliffs, over the hills, in a cold trail
that left a black blight in its wake and a terrible odour.
A bank of shingle covers the coastline and my boots shift
as I try to walk along the shore. I can’t hold my balance.
I think of that question, why did they not eat fish?
Some whose lineage survived still question their resilience.
But boats were stripped to bare bones and pawned off.
Makeshift fishing gear was sold for bags of meal.
Fragile currachs smashed off the savage shoreline.
Fish rotted putrid if left sitting out for any length.
Men rowing home drowned in sudden squalls
and when the ocean stilled, what remained was silence.
Others who edged along the sheer cliff-face searching
for black tar lichen and kelp trails met brute-force waves.
So they came to this beach in their droves. Whole families
climbed steep rocks, barefooted through jagged shingle,
searching for limpets, periwinkles and seaweed,
scraped out what minuscule nourishment could be found
inside a small shell and ate it raw. They fed from barnacles
and salt-soaked bladderwrack straight from the shore.
They scavenged until the limpets and bárnachs
were depleted, until the bare stones could give no more.

—Denise Blake

x
Denise Blake’s collections, Take a Deep Breath and How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, are published by Summer Palace Press. She is a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1. Her poems have been published in many poetry journals. Denise facilitates creative writing in schools and with adult groups.

x

May 122017
 

Sombrero Galaxy composite image from Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes

x

I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing; that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.

—Yeats, Per Amica Silentia Lunae

 

The Soul. Seek out reality, leave things that seem.
The Heart. What, be a singer born and lack a theme?
The Soul. Isaiah’s coal, what more can man desire?
The Heart. Struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!
The Soul. Look on that fire, salvation walks within.
The Heart. What theme had Homer but original sin?

—Yeats, “Vacillation,” VII

 

“Her favorite reading as a child was Huxley and Tyndall,” Virginia Woolf tells us of Clarissa Dalloway. As Yeats was fond of saying, “We Irish think otherwise.” He was quoting George Berkeley, reinforcing his favorite philosopher’s resistance to Lockean empiricism with his own defense of visionary powers. In the section of The Trembling of the Veil covering the period 1887-91, Yeats says he was “unlike others of my generation in one thing only.”

I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions… passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with some help from philosophers and theologians.[1]

Though Yeats was never “religious” in the normative sense, he did seek a world, as he says later in this passage, that reflected the “deepest instinct of man,” and would be “steeped in the supernatural.” That was his own instinct. It was his conscious intention, as well, to offset the scientific naturalism of John Tyndall and T. H. Huxley, “Darwin’s bulldog,” and to buttress his rebellion against his skeptical father’s Comptean positivism. In making up his own religion, Yeats relied essentially on art (“poetic tradition,” “poets and painters”), but he included in his “fardel” strands from interrelated traditions Western and Eastern. Seeing them all as a single perennial philosophy, “one history and that the soul’s,” he gathered together elements from Celtic mythology and Irish folklore, British Romanticism (especially Shelley and Blake, whose Los tells us that he “must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”); Platonism and Neoplatonism; Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, Cabbalism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, along with other varieties of spiritualist and esoteric thought, including Gnosticism. Though Yeats was not a scholar of Gnosticism, neither a Carl Jung nor an Eric Voegelin, let alone a Hans Jonas, there are persistent themes and emphases in his thought and poetry that Gnostics, ancient and modern, would find both familiar and congenial. Others, not so much.

William Butler Yeats by George Charles Beresford 1911Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911

After this preamble, I will, in discussing the spiritual dimension in Yeats’s work, focus more often than not on Gnostic elements. But this is an essay on Yeats rather than Gnosticism. Having mentioned Gnostics “ancient and modern,” I should make it clear that, for the most part, I bring in historical Gnosticism and the tenets of certain Gnostic sects only where they illuminate particular poems; for example, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman.” Otherwise, I will have little to say of the religious movement drawing on, but competing with, Judaism and Christianity in the Eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries, CE.[2] Instead, I will emphasize gnosis as differentiated from historical Gnosticism, precisely the distinction made at the 1966 international conference, the Colloquium of Messina, convened to examine the origins of Gnosticism. In the colloquium’s final “Proposal,” the emphasis was on the attainment of gnosis, defined as “knowledge of the divine mysteries reserved for an elite.”

Such knowledge was individual: one’s “intuition” of revealed truth. For most Gnostics, this intuitive esoteric “knowledge” had nothing to do with either Western philosophic reasoning or with the theological knowledge of God to be found in orthodox Judaism or normative Christianity. For spiritual adepts, such intuition derived from knowledge of the divine One. For poets like Yeats, it was identified with that “intuitive Reason” which, for the Romantics—notably, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their American disciple, Ralph Waldo Emerson—was virtually indistinguishable from the creative Imagination, which, for Yeats, was most powerfully exemplified in the prophetic poetry of Blake and Shelley.

At the same time, there is no denying the centrality of spiritual quest, of esoteric knowledge, of mysticism and “magic,” in Yeats’s life and work. In July 1892, preparing to be initiated into the Second Order of the Golden Dawn, he wrote to one of his heroes, the old Irish nationalist John O’Leary, in response to a “somewhat testy postcard” the kindly old Fenian had sent him. The “probable explanation,” Yeats surmised, was that O’Leary had been listening to the poet’s skeptical father, holding forth on his son’s “magical pursuits out of the immense depths of his ignorance as to everything that I am doing and thinking.” Yeats realizes that the word “magic,” however familiar to his own ears, “has a very outlandish sound to other ears.” But “as to Magic”:

It is surely absurd to hold me ‘weak’…because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make, next to my poetry, the most important pursuit of my life….If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write….I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a greater renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect—now beginning in the world.[3]

Just as he had emphasized art and a “Church of poetic tradition” in the creation of his own “new religion,” even here, in his most strenuous defense of his mystical and magical pursuits, Yeats inserts the caveat that they were paramount, “next to my poetry.” But this is hardly to dismiss the passionate intensity of Yeats’s esoteric and mystical pursuits. What seemed to W. H. Auden, even in his great elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” to be “silly” or, worse, to Ezra Pound, to be “very very very bughouse” (it takes one to know one), or by T. S. Eliot to be dreadfully misguided, was taken, not with complete credulity, but very very very seriously, by Yeats himself. His esoteric pursuits, in many heterodox guises, remained an energizing stimulus, if not an obsession, throughout his life. In his elegy for Yeats, written just days after the poet’s death in January 1939, Auden says, “You were silly like us; your gift survived it all.” But it was more than that. What Auden and Eliot and Pound dismissed actually enhanced Yeats’s artistic gift.[4]

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I just mentioned the Golden Dawn, which makes it time to briefly fill in Yeats’s esoteric resume, some of which will be familiar to many readers. He was, along with his friend George Russell (AE), a founding member, in 1885, of the Dublin Hermetic Society. It quickly evolved, in April 1886, into the Dublin Theosophical Society. Though, as he tells us in an unpublished memoir, he “was much among the Theosophists, having drifted there from the Dublin Hermetic Society,” Yeats declined to join, believing that “Hermetic” better described his own wider interests as a devotee of what he called the study of “magic.” He did join the Theosophical Society of London, in which, eager to push mystical boundaries, he became a member of the “Esoteric Section.” In 1891, he resigned; he was not, as rumor sometimes had it, “expelled,” let alone “excommunicated.”

Yeats was, of course, for more than thirty years a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which he joined in London in March 1890; he stayed with the Golden Dawn until it splintered, then joined one of its offshoot Orders, the Stella Matutina. During its heyday in the 1890s, the G.D and its Inner Order of the Rose of Ruby and the Cross of Gold (R.R. & A.C.) was “the crowning glory of the occult revival in the nineteenth century,” having succeeded in synthesizing a vast body of disparate material and welding it into an effective “system.”[5] Yeats took as his Golden Dawn motto and pseudonym Demon Est Deus Inversus (D.E.D.I.). That sobriquet’s recognition of the interdependence of opposites is a nod to both William Blake and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the 11th chapter of whose seminal text, The Secret Doctrine (1888), bears this title.

's Rose Cross National Library of IrelandYeats’s Rose Cross, Order of the Golden Dawn, photo © National Library of Ireland

The most extraordinary of the many exotic figures that gathered in societies and cults, making Victorian London ground zero in the revolt against reductive materialism, Madame Blavatsky (HPB to her acolytes) was, of course, the co-founder and presiding genius of the Theosophical Society. In a letter to a New England newspaper, Yeats referred to her with wary fascination as “the Pythoness of the Movement.”[6] Unless we accept her own tracing of Theosophy to ancient Tibetan roots, the movement was born in 1875, in part in Blavatsky’s New York City apartment, where she kept a stuffed baboon, sporting under its arm a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species to represent the creeping tide of scientific materialism she was determined to push back—though it should be mentioned that The Secret Doctrine was an audacious attempt to synthesize science, religion, and philosophy.

While he never shared the requisite belief in the Tibetan Masters who supposedly dictated her theosophical revelations, Yeats, without being anti-Darwinian, did share her determination to resist and turn back that materialist tide. And he was personally fascinated by the Pythoness herself, whom he first met in the considerable flesh (she then weighed well over 200 lbs.) in 1887 when he visited her at a little house in Norwood, a suburb of London. She was just 56 at the time but looked older (she would live only four more years). Young Yeats was kept waiting while she attended to some earlier visitors. Finally admitted, he “found an old woman in a plain loose dark dress: a sort of old Irish peasant, with an air of humor and audacious power.” Their first conversation was a whimsical exchange on the vagaries of her cuckoo clock, which Yeats thought had “hooted” at him. On subsequent visits he found her “almost always full of gaiety…kindly and tolerant,” and accessible—except on those occasions, once a week, when she “answered questions upon her system, and as I look back after thirty tears I often ask myself, ‘Was her speech automatic? Was she a trance medium, or in some similar state, one night in every week?’”[7]

Her alternating states were adumbrated in the phases, active and passive, HPB called, in Isis Unveiled (1877), “the days and nights of Brahma.” Yeats had read that book and Blavatsky’s alternating phases tally with, and may have influenced, his lifelong emphasis on polarity, the antinomies: the tension between quotidian reality and the spiritual or Romantic allure of the Otherworld, in forms ranging from the Celtic Faeryland to that city of art and spirit, Byzantium; and, early and late, between things that merely “seem” (Platonic “appearance,” Hindu maya) and the spiritual reality perceived by Western visionaries and Hindu hermits contemplating on Asian mountains. After reading Isis Unveiled, Yeats had delved into a book given him by AE. This was Esoteric Buddhism (1883) by Madame Blavatsky’s fellow Theosophist and sometime disciple, A. P. Sinnett, whose earlier book, The Occult World (1881), had already had an impact on Yeats. “Spirituality, in the occult sense,” Sinnett declared, “has nothing to do with feeling devout: it has to do with the capacity of the mind for assimilating knowledge at the fountainhead of knowledge itself.” And he asserted another antithesis crucial to Yeats: that to become an “adept,” a rare status “beyond the reach of the general public,” one must “obey the inward impulse of [one’s] soul, irrespective of the prudential considerations of worldly science or sagacity” (101). That Eastern impulse is evident in Yeats’s three “hermit” poems in Responsibilities (1914).

A quarter century earlier, three poems in Crossways, his first collection of lyrics— “The Indian upon God,” “The Indian to his Love,” and the lengthy (91-line) “Anashuya and Vijaya”[8]—were written under a more direct and visceral influence. For the lure of the East had another source, also related to Madame Blavatsky. Yeats had been deeply impressed with the roving ambassador of Theosophy she had sent to Dublin in April 1886, to instruct the members of the Dublin Hermetic Society in the nuances of Theosophy. The envoy was the charismatic young Bengali Swami, Mohini Chatterjee, described by Madame Blavatsky, with perhaps more gaiety than tolerance, as “a nutmeg Hindoo with buck eyes,” for whom several of his English disciples “burned with a scandalous, ferocious passion,” that “craving of old gourmands for unnatural food.”[9] Despite his inability to resist the sexual temptations presented to him (he was eventually dispatched back to India), Chatterjee preached the need to realize one’s individual soul by contemplation, penetrating the illusory nature of the material world, and abjuring worldly ambition. His book, published several months later, described reincarnational stages, and ascending states of consciousness. The fourth and final state, which “may be called transcendental consciousness,” is ineffable, though “glimpses” of it “may be obtained in the abnormal condition of extasis.”[10]

Madame Blavatsky photo taken between 1886 and 1888Madame Blavatsky, photo taken between 1886 and 1888

Yeats later said that he learned more from Chattterjee than “from any book.” Hyperbole; but there is no doubt that he was permanently affected by the concept of ancient and secret wisdom being passed on orally from generation to generation, fragmentary glimpses of an ineffable truth. There are distinctions between East and West, but, as in Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, the Theosophy of Madame Blavatsky and Mohini Chatterjee presents an unknown Absolute, from which souls emanate as fragments, or “sparks,” separated from the divine substance, and longing to return to the One from which they came. The principal Eastern variation is that, to achieve that ultimate goal, they have to “make a long pilgrimage through many incarnations, live through many lives, both in this world and the next.”[11]

Many years later, in 1929, Yeats wrote an eponymous poem, “Mohini Chatterjee.” Its final words, “Men dance on deathless feet,” were added (though attributed to various “great sages”), by Yeats himself “in commentary” on Chatterjee’s own “words” on reincarnation. There is no reference to a personal God, and we are to “pray for nothing,” but just repeat every night in bed, that one has been a king, a slave, a fool, a rascal, knave. “Nor is there anything/ …That I have not been./ And yet upon my breast/ A myriad heads have lain.” Such words were spoken by Mohini Chatterjee to “set at rest/ A boy’s turbulent days.” When that boy, almost forty years later, published “Mohini Chatterjee” in The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), he placed it immediately preceding what is certainly his most “turbulent” poem of spiritual purgation and reincarnation:  “Byzantium,” in which impure spirits, “complexities of mire and blood,” are presented “dying into a dance,/ An agony of trance,/ An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.” Yet, like most of the other poems we will examine, “Byzantium” participates, though in this case with unique fury and surging energy, in the dominant Yeatsian agon between Time and Eternity, flesh and spirit.

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As we’ve seen, Yeats wondered if, on heightened occasions, HPB’s speech might not be “automatic,” and herself a “trance medium.” But, since he never gave full credence to the “astral” dictations of Blavatsky’s Tibetan Masters, it is ironic that his own major esoteric text had a related genesis. His book A Vision, first published in 1925 and revised in 1937, is based on the “automatic writing” for which Mrs. Yeats discovered a gift when, in the early days of their marriage in 1917, she sensed that her husband’s thoughts were drifting back to the love of his life and his Muse, the unattainable Maud Gonne, and to her lush daughter, Iseult, to whom Yeats had also proposed before marrying his wife. Whatever their origin, psychological or occult, the wisdom conveyed to George by her “Communicators,” and then passed on to her husband, preoccupied the poet for years. Alternately insightful and idiosyncratic, beautiful and a bit bananas, A Vision may not be required reading for lovers of the poetry, even for serious students. As one Yeatsian wittily put it, speaking for many, “a little seems too much, his business none of ours.”[12]

But Yeats’s purpose was serious, and, as always, a balancing attempt to exercise individual creative freedom within a rich tradition. In dedicating the first edition of A Vision to “Vestigia” (Moina Mathers, sister of MacGregor Mathers, head of the Order of the Golden Dawn), Yeats noted that while some in the Order were “looking for spiritual happiness or for some form of unknown power,” clearly Hermetic or historically Gnostic goals, he had a more practical and poetry-centered object, though that, too, reflects the intuitive Gnosticism of poets and other creative artists seeking their own personal visions. Even back then, in the 1890s, he claims, he anticipated what would finally emerge as A Vision, with its circuits of sun and moon and its double-gyre, its tension between Fate and Freedom: “I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of one history and that the soul’s” (A Vision [1925], xi). A few years earlier, T. S. Eliot, though he had no more patience than did W.H. Auden with Yeats’s esoteric pursuits, had memorably described creative freedom operating within a larger and necessary historical discipline as the interaction between “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

If it is not mandatory that those drawn to the poetry read A Vision, it was absolutely necessary that Yeats write it. It illuminates the later poetry, and even provides the skeletal structure for some of his greatest poems, the single best known of which, “The Second Coming,” was originally accompanied by a long note, reproducing the double-gyre, that central symbol of A Vision. Yeats tells us, in the “Introduction” to the second edition of A Vision, that, back in 1917, he struggled for several days to decipher the “almost illegible script,” which he nevertheless found “so exciting, sometimes so profound,” that he not only persuaded his wife to persevere, but offered to give up poetry to devote what remained of his own life to “explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences” which he believed contained mysterious wisdom. The response from one of the unknown writers was welcome news for him and for us: “‘No,’ was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry’.” [13]

Yeats's GyreYeats’s Gyre

Yeats was a man at once credulous and skeptical. His lifelong quest for esoteric knowledge was countered by the circumspection of an intelligent, self-divided man and a notably dialectical poet. But he had no doubt that there was a spiritual realm. He strove to acquire knowledge of that world through any and all means at hand: studying the “perennial philosophy,” but not excluding the occasional resort to hashish and mescal to induce occult visions, and belief in astrology and séances, of which he attended many. A séance is at the center of one of his most dramatic plays, Words upon the Window-pane (1932), which helps explain the emphasis on “a medium’s mouth” in his cryptic poem “Fragments,” written at the same time, and which I will later discuss at some length.

Though it is difficult to track and disentangle intertwined strands of thought and influence, let alone make conclusive pronouncements, two significant Yeats scholars, Allan Grossman (in his 1969 study of The Wind Among the Reeds, titled Poetic Knowledge in Early Yeats) and that titan, Harold Bloom, in his sweeping 1970 study, grandly titled Yeats, both concluded that their man was essentially a Gnostic. The same assertion governs an impressive though unpublished 1992 Ph.D thesis, written by Steven J. Kelley and titled Yeats, Bloom, and the Dialectics of Theory, Criticism and Poetry. My own conclusion is close, but less certain.

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There is no question that Yeats was a lifelong Seeker and that the “knowledge” he was seeking, whether poetic or Hermetic, was compatible, often in close alignment, with the quest for gnosis: that internal, intuitive knowledge of spiritual truth believed by Gnostics, ancient and modern, to provide the one path to deliverance from the constraints of material existence, and thus to be essential to salvation.  On the other hand, he wanted, as he told “Vestigia,” to participate in a spiritual tradition that “would leave my imagination free to create as it chose.”  The power and passionate intensity of much of his best poetry derives from Yeats’s commitment to the paradox that the “sacred,” unquestionably valid, was to be found through the “profane,” and in the here and now.

A profound point was made three-quarters of a century ago by a perceptive student of Yeats’s life and work, Peter Allt, later the editor of the indispensable “Variorum Edition” of the poems. Allt argued persuasively that Yeats’s “mature religious Anschauung” consists of “religious belief without any religious faith, notional assent to the reality of the supernatural” combined with “an emotional dissent from its actuality.”[14] In Gnostic terms (which are not Allt’s), Yeats, as a student of secret wisdom, responded, not to the orthodox Christian emphasis on pistis (God’s gift of faith), but to gnosis: the esoteric knowledge derived from individual intuition of divine revelation, often, as in that most formidable of Gnostics, Valentinus, in the guise of myth garmented as philosophy.[15] What Allt refers to as “emotional dissent” illuminates Yeats’s resistance to Christianity, and his occasional need to “mock Plotinus’ thought/ And cry in Plato’s teeth,” as he does in the final section of “The Tower” in the very act of preparing his “peace” and making his “soul.” But emotional dissent and the making of one’s own soul in an act of self-redemption are hardly alien to the concept of individual gnosis.

Paramount to understanding Yeats as man and poet is recognizing the tension between the two worlds, between what he called the primary and the antithetical, the never fully resolved debate between the Soul and the Self (or Heart). As we will see, that tension plays out from his earliest poems to the masterpieces of his maturity. The theme begins with his first published major work, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), a lengthy quest-poem centering on the debate between paganism and Christianity, between the Celtic warrior Oisin and St. Patrick. The theme continues with his pivotal Rosicrucian poem, “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” (1893), and culminates in the great debate-poems of his maturity: “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” (1927) and the condensed, career-synopsizing debate between “The Soul” and “The Heart” in section VII of the poetic sequence revealingly titled “Vacillation,” which appeared forty years after “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time.”

The final section of “Vacillation” ends with the poet blessing, yet—gently and gaily, if somewhat patronizingly—rejecting the Saint, here represented by the Catholic theologian Baron von Hügel, who had, in his book The Mystical Element of Religion, stressed “the costingness of regeneration.” In the last and best of his Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot aligns himself with von Hügel by endorsing, in the conclusion of “Little Gidding” (lines 293-94), “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).” In section 2, in the Dantesque ghost-encounter (seventy of the finest lines he ever wrote and, by his own admission, the ones that had “cost him the most effort”), Eliot respectfully but definitively differentiated himself from the recently deceased Yeats. In that nocturnal encounter with a largely Yeatsian “compound familiar ghost,” Eliot echoes in order to alter Yeats’s poem “Vacillation,” and the refusal of “The Heart” to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire!”[16] In the context of the theme of this essay, the contrast between Eliot and Yeats is illuminating; and Eliot is right to perceive as his mighty opposite in spiritual terms, W. B. Yeats, whom he pronounced in his 1940 memorial address, the greatest poet of the century, “certainly in English and, and, as far as I can tell, in any language,” but who was also, from Eliot’s Christian perspective, an occultist and a pagan.

The charges were hardly far-fetched. The final section of “Vacillation” begins with the poet wondering if he really must “part” with von Hügel, since both “Accept the miracles of the saints and honor sanctity.” And yet he must, for although his heart “might find relief/ Did I become a Christian man and choose for my belief/ What seems most welcome in the tomb,” he must

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxplay a predestined part.

Homer is my example and his unchristened heart.

The lion and the honeycomb, what has Scripture said?

So get you gone, von Hugel, though with blessings on your head.

In sending the poem to Olivia Shakespear, his first lover and later most intimate lifetime correspondent, Yeats, having just re-read all his lyric poetry, cited that line, and observed: “The swordsman throughout repudiates the saint, but not without vacillation. Is that perhaps the sole theme—Usheen and Patrick—“so get you gone Von Hugel though with blessings on your head’?” (Letters, 790)

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In referring throughout to Yeats as a Seeker, I am alluding to a very early, little-known “dramatic poem in two scenes” with that title. Though Yeats later struck The Seeker from his canon, its theme—the perennial quest for secret knowledge, usually celebrated but always with an acute awareness of the attendant dangers of estrangement from “mere” human life—initiates what might be fairly described as the basic and archetypal pattern of his life and work.[17] The “Seeker” of the title is an aged knight who sacrifices the normal comforts of life and shirks social responsibilities in order to follow a mysterious, beckoning voice. In his dying moments, he discovers that the alluring voice he has been pursuing all his life is that of a bearded hag, whose name is “Infamy.” That final turn looks back to Celtic mythology and to Book I, Canto ii of Spenser’s Faery Queen, where the evil witch Duessa, outwardly “faire,” is actually “fowle.”  It also anticipates Rebecca du Maurier’s short story, “Don’t Look Now” (later turned by director Nicholas Roeg into a haunting film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie). Of course, Celtic mythology also has instances of reversal. In the most famous modern version (Yeats’s 1902 play Cathleen ni Houlihan, written for and starring the poet’s beloved Maud Gonne), the old hag is climactically transformed into a beautiful woman: “a young girl with the walk of a queen,” who is Ireland herself, rejuvenated by blood-sacrifice.

Maud Gonne in Cathleen Ni Houlihan Project Gutenberg eTextMaud Gonne in Cathleen Ni Houlihan

As in that seminal precursor poem for Yeats, Shelley’s Alastor, this theme, with its tension between the material and spiritual worlds, is at once Gnostic and High Romantic. As such, the Seeker-theme illuminates, along with several of Yeats’s most beautiful early quest-lyrics, two quintessential, explicitly Rosicrucian, poems: “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” and, a poem I will get to in due course, “The Secret Rose.”

“To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the italicized poem opening the 1893 volume The Rose, establishes, far more powerfully than The Seeker, this poet’ s lifelong pattern of dialectical vacillation, of being “pulled” between the temporal and spiritual worlds. In his 1907 essay “Poetry and Tradition,” Yeats would fuse Romanticism (Blake’s dialectical “Contraries” without which there can be “no progression”) with Rosicrucianism: “The nobleness of the Arts,” Yeats writes, “is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy, perfection of personality, the perfection of its surrender; and the red rose opens at the meeting of the two beams of the cross, and at the trysting place of mortal and immortal, time and eternity.”[18]

In “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” the symbolist poet seeks to “find” the immortal within the mortal; yet there is an inevitable tension between “all poor foolish things that live a day” and “Eternal Beauty wandering on her way.” That mingling, or contrast, concludes the first of the poem’s two 12-line movements. The second part begins by invoking the Rose to “Come near, come near, come near…,” only to have the poet suddenly recoil from total absorption in the eternal symbol. He may be recalling Keats, who, at the turning point of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” suddenly realizes that if he were to emulate the nightingale’s “pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy,” by dying, he would, far from entering into unity with the “immortal Bird,” be divorced from it, and everything else, forever: “Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—/ To thy high requiem become a sod.”

Yeats’s recoil in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” is no less abrupt, and thematically identical:  “Come near, come near, come near—Ah, leave me still/ A little space for the rose- breath to fill!” This sudden recoil, marked by a rare exclamation-point, is a frightened defense against the very Beauty he remains in quest of—like his precursor, the Shelley of the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.” But Yeats hesitates, afraid that he will be totally absorbed, engulfed, in the spiritual realm symbolized by the Rose. Along with Keats at the turning-point of the “Ode to a Nightingale,” another parallel may be illuminating.

The Latin Epigraph to The RoseSero te amavi, Pulchritudo tam antiqua et tam nova! Sero te amavi—is from The Confessions (“Too late I have loved you, Beauty so old and so new! Too late I have loved you”), a passage (X, 27) in which St. Augustine, addressing God, longs to be kindled with a desire that God approach him. Yeats would later, in 1901, quote these same Latin lines to illustrate that the religious life and the life of the artist share a common goal.[19] But the plea for “a little space” in “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time” may remind us of a more famous remark by Augustine, also addressed to God, but having to do with profane rather than sacred love. A sinful man, still smitten with his mistress, he would, Augustine tells us, pray: “‘O Lord, give me chastity and continency, but not yet!’ For I was afraid, lest you should hear me soon, and soon deliver me from the disease of concupiscence, which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished” (Confessions XIII, 7:7).

Title page of Summum Bonum by Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd 1629Title page of Summum Bonum by Rosicrucian apologist Robert Fludd, 1629

In pleading with his Rose-Muse to “come near,” yet “leave me still/ A little space for the rose-breath to fill,” Yeats also fears a too precipitous deliverance from the temporal world. Augustine is “afraid, lest you [God] should hear me too soon.” Yeats is afraid “Lest I no more hear common things that crave.” Becoming deaf to the transient world with its “heavy mortal hopes that toil and pass,” he worries that he will “seek alone to hear the strange things said/ By God to…those long dead,” and thus “learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.” The hidden wisdom and eternal beauty symbolized by the Rose is much to be desired. But this quester is also a poet; and “a poet,” as Wordsworth rightly said in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is above all, “a man speaking to other men.” The “rose-breath” is the crucial “space” between the two worlds. Here, as elsewhere, self-divided Yeats is pulled in two antithetical directions. Hence the debates, implicit and often explicit, that shape so many of his poems.

§

A memorable paragraph in his most beautiful prose work begins, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”[20] Almost forty years after he wrote “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” Yeats presented, in section VII of his poetic sequence “Vacillation,” a debate between “The Soul” and “The Heart.” Once again, and more dramatically, the more Yeatsian of the interlocutors resists the option of chanting in “a tongue men do not know.” The Soul offers “Isaiah’s coal,” adding, in an imperious rhetorical question, “what more can man desire?” But the Heart, “a singer born,” refuses to be “struck dumb in the simplicity of fire,” his tongue purified but cauterized by the spiritual fire of that live coal the rather Promethean angel took from God’s altar and brought to the prophet’s lips in Isaiah 6:6-7. Having just refused to “seek out” spiritual “reality,” the “Heart” goes on, after indignantly rejecting Isaiah’s coal and “the simplicity of fire,” to adamantly spurn Soul’s final promise and threat: “Look on that fire, salvation walks within.” The Heart anachronistically but dramatically responds, “What theme had Homer but original sin?” Though it firmly stands its antithetical ground, the Heart does not deny the lot-darkening concept of original sin, and accepts the notional distinction (Platonic, Neoplatonic, Christian) between spiritual “reality” and material “things that [merely] seem.” But since it is these resinous things of the world that fuel an artist’s fire and provide a “theme,” the Heart emotionally dissents. The tension between contraries, and the titular “vacillation,” persist, as does the desire to merge the antinomies at some “trysting place,” Yeats’s language characteristically “mingling” the spiritual and the erotic.

Before turning to “The Secret Rose,” which appeared in Yeats’s next volume, two other poems from The Rose merit comment: “Who Goes with Fergus?” and, immediately following, “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland.” Both are beautiful, and both embody the tension between the two worlds. The first suggests that the peace promised by an alluring Otherworld is more tumultuous than it appears; the second, like The Seeker and “The Stolen Child,” emphasizes the human cost of seduction by Otherworldly dreams. I intend to return to “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” later in this essay, juxtaposing it with “What Then?,” a poem written almost a half-century later, and which, I believe, amounts to a point-by-point refutation of the earlier poem—except, crucially, for the refrain.

“The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” is a catalog of might-have-beens. The “tenderness” of love; the “prudent years” that might have freed him from “money cares and fears”; the maintenance of “a fine angry mood” leading to “vengeance” upon mockers; and, finally, “unhaunted sleep” in the grave: all have been lost, spoiled by the repeated “singing” of “an unnecessary cruel voice” that “shook the man out of his new ease,” paralyzing him so that he dies without ever having lived.[21] The voice—a variation on the siren call of the faeries in “The Stolen Child” (“Come away, O human child!”) and on the “voice” that beckons and deceives the victim of The Seeker—emanates, of course, from the Otherworld, in this case from a Celtic “woven world-forgotten isle,” where

There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race

Under the golden or the silver skies;

That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot

It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit;

And at that singing he was no more wise.

The poem ends, “The man has found no comfort in the grave.” But that closing line is immediately preceded by a rather cryptic couplet: “Why should those lovers that no lovers miss/ Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?” Presumably, in Faeryland, where the boughs are “changeless” and the waves “dreamless,” all dreams are fulfilled, as are the desires of those perfect lovers, who are together, and therefore do not “miss” one another.[22] Thus, there is no need for further dreaming, “until” (always a pivotal word in poems, and notably in Yeats’s poems) “God burn Nature with a kiss.” This volume, The Rose, has its apocalypses, the most dramatic the windblown Blakean conflagration in “The Secret Rose.” But the apocalypse in the Faeryland poem is unexpected, unless one has come across Yeats’s story “The Untiring Ones,” where the faeries dance for many centuries “until God shall burn up the world with a kiss.”[23]

We also have a supposedly perfect world, with the “deep wood’s woven shade” and lovers who “dance upon the level shore,” in “Who Goes with Fergus?” Originally a song in the earliest version (1892) of Yeats’s play The Countess Kathleen, it was a favorite among the early Yeats poems memorized by James Joyce—the song he sang in lieu of the requested prayer at his mother’s deathbed and whose words haunt his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, throughout Bloomsday. Fergus, the king of Ulster who put aside his crown to live in peace and “pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,” invites a young man and maid to join him in his forest paradise, where, he promises, they will “brood on hopes and fear no more”;

And no more turn aside and brood

Upon love’s bitter mystery;

For Fergus rules the brazen cars,

And rules the shadows of the wood,

And the white breast of the dim sea

And all disheveled wandering stars.

That enchanting final line has sexual precursors; it fuses the “golden tresses” Eve “wore/ Disheveled” and in “wanton ringlets” (Paradise Lost 4:305-6) with Pope’s echo in The Rape of the Lock, which ends with Belinda’s shorn tresses consecrated “midst the Stars”: “Not Berenices’s Locks first rose so bright,/ The Heavens bespangling with disheveled Light.” Those sexual undercurrents are present in all three of the concluding lines. Despite the emotional respite promised by Fergus, the poem’s climactic imagery—“shadows of the wood,” the “white breast of the dim sea,” the “disheveled wandering stars”—embracing earth, sea, and the heavens—extends to this supposedly peaceful paradise all the erotic tumult of “love’s bitter mystery.”

§ 

The quest-theme first established crudely in The Seeker, beautifully in “The Stolen Child,” “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland,” and “Who Goes with Fergus?,” and, perhaps most seminally in “The Rose upon the Rood of Time,” also provides the thematic structure for the two Byzantium poems, featuring, first, a sailing after knowledge and, second, a process of purgation, both of which turn out to be simultaneously spiritual and erotic. Looking ahead several decades, therefore, I’m compelled to note that something similar happens in both Byzantium poems, whose subject is the opposition of flesh and spirit, life and death, natural flux and spiritual form, but whose shared theme is that these antitheses are polarities—Blakean Contraries ultimately and inextricably interdependent. The Byzantium poems seem proof of the artistic truth of Yeats’s Golden Dawn name, Demon Est Deus Inversus, and of Blake’s proverb, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.” That proverb is from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake’s affirmation of the polar nature of being, privileging, in the dialectic of necessary Contraries, “Energy” and the active “Prolific” over the “Devouring,” the passive and religious.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” a sixty-year-old and temporarily impotent poet, painfully aware that the world of youth and sexual vitality is “no country for old men,” sets sail for and has finally “come/ To the holy city of Byzantium.” Everything, yet nothing, has changed. The opening stanza’s “young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,/—Those dying generations at their song—” are reversed yet mirrored in the final stanza. “Once out of nature,” the aging speaker, his heart “sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal,” imagines that heart consumed away and himself (with what Denis Donoghue once wittily characterized as “the desperate certainty of a recent convert”) transformed into a bird of “hammered gold and gold enameling,” set “upon a golden bough to sing/ To lords and ladies of Byzantium/ Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Yeats later in lifeYeats later in life

In a 1937 BBC broadcast, Yeats glossed the golden bird and Virgilian golden bough as symbolic “of the intellectual joy of eternity, as contrasted to the instinctual joy of human life.” But these golden artifacts are still, however changed, recognizable “birds in the trees,” so that, whatever the ostensible thrust of the poem, the undertow of the imagery recreates—as in the “white breast” and “disheveled” stars of the supposedly tumult-free final stanza of “Who Goes with Fergus?”—the very world that has been rejected. Further, the now-avian poet is singing to “lords and ladies” of Byzantium, the sexual principle surviving even in that “holy city”;  and his theme, “What is past, or passing, or to come,” repeats—in a Keatsian “finer tone,” to be sure—the three-stage cycle of generation presented in the opening stanza: “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” “Caught in that sensual music,” those “dying generations….neglect/ Monuments of unageing intellect.” But that golden bird set on the golden bough, however symbolic of unageing intellect, seems still partially caught in that sensual music, singing of the cycle of time to lords and ladies. Nature is the source of art, which, in turn, expresses nature; and the audience will always necessarily be men and women.

I’ve already referred to “Byzantium”—borrowing the adjective from “Mohini Chatterjee,” the poem that immediately precedes it—as Yeats’s most “turbulent” engagement in the tension, marked by conflict and continuity, between flesh and spirit, natural and supernatural, Time and Eternity. Though he admired the first Byzantium poem, Yeats’s friend Sturge Moore expressed a serious reservation: “Your Sailing to Byzantium, magnificent as the first three stanzas are, lets me down in the fourth, as such a goldsmith’s bird is as much nature as a man’s body, especially if it only sings like Homer and Shakespeare of what is past or passing or to come to Lords and Ladies.” It’s difficult to believe that this was news to Yeats; but, agreeing with Moore to the extent that his friend had shown him that “the idea needed exposition,” he set out to address the issue in a second poem.[24]

The result was “Byzantium,” a poem that complicates rather than resolves Sturge Moore’s intelligent if limited quibble. Holy and purgatorial though the city may be, we are told, as the “unpurged images of day recede,” that the Emperor’s soldiery are “drunken” and “abed,” perhaps exhausted from visiting temple prostitutes, since we hear, as night’s resonance recedes, “night-walker’s song/ After great cathedral gong.” Amid considerable occult spookiness, including a walking mummy, more image than shade or man, two images of the Eternal emerge, the works of architect and goldsmith; both transcending and scorning the human cycle, sublunary and changeable:

A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains

All that man is,

All mere complexities,

The fury and the mire of human veins.

The second emblem of eternity reprises the first poem’s icon of “hammered gold and gold enameling,” the form the speaker of “Sailing to Byzantium” imagined himself taking once he was “out of nature.” This avian artifact,

Miracle, bird, or golden handiwork,

More miracle than bird or handiwork,

Can, like the cocks of Hades crow,

Or, by the moon embittered, scorn aloud

In glory of changeless metal

Common bird or petal

And all complexities of mire and blood.

However golden and immutable it may be, that the miraculous bird can be moon-embittered and scornful suggests that it may be “almost as much nature” as the golden bird Moore found insufficiently transcendent in the first Byzantium poem. Even in the overtly primary or soul-directed Byzantium poems, the antithetical or life-directed impulse is too passionate to be programmatically subdued. We remember (as with the Byzantium poems’ precursors, Keats’s Nightingale and Grecian Urn odes) the rich vitality of the sexual world being “rejected” in the first poem, and the ambiguity of the famous phrase, “the artifice of eternity.” And the final tumultuous stanza of “Byzantium,” especially its astonishing last line, evokes a power almost, but not quite, beyond critical analysis:

The multitude of souls (“Spirit after spirit!”) riding into the holy city, each “Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,” cannot be controlled, even though that surging power is said to be broken by the Byzantine artificers and artifacts. The poem ends with a single extraordinary burst, asserting one thing thematically, but, in its sheer momentum and syntax, suggesting quite another:

xxxxxxxThe smithies break the flood,

The golden smithies of the Emperor!

Marbles of the dancing floor

Break bitter furies of complexity,

Those images that yet

Fresh images beget,

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

The marbled floor is not only the site for the preceding stanza’s ritual of purgation, where the spirits are envisioned “dying into a dance”; the floor itself seems to be “dancing,” the city almost lifted off its dykes under the inundation of the prolific sea of generation. The Emperor’s smithies and marbles, we are twice told, “break” (defend against, order, tame) these “furies,” “images,” and the sea itself. All three are the direct objects of that one verb; but, as Helen Vendler has brilliantly observed, “Practically speaking, the governing force of the verb ‘break’ is spent long before the end of the sentence is reached.”[25] The artistic defenses erected to order and transform the flood end up emphasizing instead the turbulent plenitude of nature, and those spawning “images that yet/ Fresh images beget.”

We are left—in one of the most remarkable single lines in all of English literature—with “That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Along with the images that yet fresh images “beget,” that final line recalls but overpowers the teeming fish and flesh—all that is “begotten, born, and dies,” the “salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas”—of “Sailing to Byzantium.” The dolphin is at once the mythological savior and transporter of souls to paradise and kin to us, who share its complexities of “mire and blood.” Inversely, the “gong,” though emblematic of Time, also, since it recalls the semantron of the opening stanza, the “great cathedral gong,” has to be seen and heard as tormenting the surface of life, yet pulling the sea of generation up, to the spiritual source of life’s transcendence. Once again, though more powerfully than usual, we are caught up in the dialectical conflict between Time and Eternity, sexuality and spirituality, Self and Soul.

§

We will shortly be returning, at long last, to the second of the Rosicrucian poems earlier mentioned. “The Secret Rose” (1896), the last of his explicit Rose poems, appeared in Yeats’s next collection, the autumnal The Wind Among the Reeds (1899). This fin-de-siècle and symboliste volume (his friend Arthur Symons’s influential The Symbolist Movement in Poetry appeared the same year), evokes a fallen world, soon to be visited by a longed-for apocalyptic wind. This volume includes what may be Yeats’s most beautiful early poem, the exquisite “Song of Wandering Aengus,” which projects ultimate union between the temporal and eternal as a “trysting place,” sexual and, in its mingling—as in that dreamt-of “Faeryland,” where “the sun and moon were in fruit”— of lunar apples of silver and solar apples of gold: a marriage of alchemy and Deuteronomy. The long-sought immortal, transformed from fish to a woman of the Sidhe, and Aengus, a notably human god, will meet in Eternity, an earthly Paradise where he will

xxxxxxkiss her lips and take her hands;

And walk among long dappled grass,

And pluck till time and times are done

The silver apples of the moon,

The golden apples of the sun.

Less entrancing poems in The Wind Among the Reeds feature a world-weary speaker who, to quote the longest-titled poem in a volume of many long titles, “mourns for the Change that has come upon him and his Beloved, and longs for the End of the World.” That consummation devoutly to be wished is far more dramatic in “The Secret Rose.” The poem begins and ends, “Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose”: a rondure suggesting that all is now enfolded (the verb “enfold” appears twice in the poem) within the petals of the symbolic flower. The speaker, and Seeker is among those questers who “have sought thee in the Holy Sepulchre,/ Or in the wine-vat,” a questing alternately Christian or Dionysian. Wandering Aengus sought his elusive beauty (the “apple-blossom in her hair” allying her with Maud Gonne, associated from the day Yeats met her with apple blossoms) “through hollow lands, and hilly lands.” The Seeker in “The Secret Rose” also, over many years, “sought through lands and islands numberless…/ Until he found”—unsurprisingly since this poem, too, was written for Maud Gonne—“a woman of so shining loveliness” that one desired consummation suggests another. No sooner is the beautifully-tressed woman of shining loveliness “found” (a state  projected in “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” where “I will find out where she has gone…”) than we are told:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI, too, await

The hour of thy great wind of love and hate.

When shall the stars be blown about the sky,

Like the sparks blown out of a smithy, and die?

Surely thine hour has come, thy great wind blows,

Far-off, most secret, and inviolate Rose?

This apocalypse, with its approaching “hour” and final questions, looks before and after. That “surely” anticipates (“Surely some revelation is at hand,/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand…”) Yeats’s most powerful, terrifying, and yet longed-for apocalypse, in the most-quoted poem of the past hundred years. The “vast image” of the sphinx-beast that rises up from “sands of the desert,” coming “out of Spiritus Mundi,” in “The Second Coming” had its occult (as opposed to literary) origin in an 1890 symbolic-card experiment conducted with Yeats by MacGregor Mathers, head of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats suddenly saw “a gigantic Negro raising up his head and shoulders among great stones,” changed in its published version to “a desert and a Black Titan.”[26] And “The Second Coming,” like “The Secret Rose,” also terminates in a mysterious question mingling breathless anticipation with ambiguity, an uncertain certitude. “But now I know,” Yeats began the final movement of “The Second Coming,” but the poem ends with a question, the mark of the terrified but excited reverie that defines the Sublime. Intriguingly, whatever gnosis (‘now I know…”) the visionary poet claimed in the final version of “The Second Coming” was reserved, in the drafts, to the apocalyptic “rough beast” itself: “And now at last knowing its hour come round/ It has set out for Bethlehem to be born.”[27]

But I said that the apocalyptic “hour” of “The Secret Rose” looks before as well as after; and just as “The Second Coming” had a genesis both occult and literary, so too with the apocalypse of “The Secret Rose.” In both cases, the primary literary source is Blake. The slouching rough beast of the later poem fuses (among other creatures) Blake’s sublime Tyger with his striking illustration (in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and elsewhere) of bestial Nebuchadnezzar slouching on all fours. In the earlier poem, the precursor passage is Blake’s description of “The stars consumed like a lamp blown out” (The Four Zoas, IX: 826), which reappears as Yeats’s “stars…blown about the sky/ Like the sparks blown out of a smithy.” Even Yeats’s substitution of a smithy for a lamp pays tribute to Blake’s great creative figure, the blacksmith-god, Los (in Eternity, Urthona).

William Blake Nebuchadnezzar (Tate copy)William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar

The Blakean echo is hardly accidental. Of the three Rosicrucian short stories Yeats wrote in the 1890s (“Rosa Alchemica,” “The Tables of the Law,” and “The Adoration of the Magi”), “The Secret Rose” is, as the titles alone suggest, most closely related to the first. The world-traveling hero of “Rosa Alchemica,” the magician Michael Robartes, is a student of comparative literature, especially drawn, as was Yeats himself, to the prophetic poems of William Blake.  Blake’s epic The Four Zoas (originally titled Vala, and abandoned in manuscript in 1807) was rediscovered and published in 1893 by none other than Yeats (and his co-editor, Edwin Ellis). In the finale of The Four Zoas, from which Yeats lifted the lines about the “stars” being “blown” about the skies like “sparks,” redeemed Man, having finally purged all the evil in himself, can look at infinity unharmed.  Los “rose in all his regenerative power”; the hour of transformation arrives:

The sun has left his blackness & found a fresher morning,

And the mild moon rejoices in the clear & cloudless night,

And Man walks forth from midst of the fires, the evil is all consumed:

His eyes behold the angelic spheres arising night & day;

The stars consumed like a lamp blown out, & in their stead, behold:

The expanding eyes of Man behold the depths of wondrous worlds.

Here we have the potentially divine Man envisioned by so many Gnostics, Hermeticists, Cabbalists, and Rosicrucians: Valentinus’s “new man…more noble in his glorified state” than he was before “the conflagration”: a Man fully human, liberated from all imprisoning limitations, whether of materialism, the merely bodily (Lockean/empiricist) senses, or political tyranny. In the final lines of The Four Zoas, Urthona, the eternal form of Los (and, of the four, the Zoa least in need of redemption) “rises from the ruinous walls/In all his ancient strength.” According to one of Yeats’s (and Joyce’s) favorite phrases of Blake (from an 1800 letter to William Hayley), “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity.”  In Blake’s anything-but-static Eternity, Urthona, though still ready for combat, is now armed to wage “intellectual war,” the “war of swords” having “departed.” In his single most famous and concise appeal for an imaginative art prophetically inspired and intended to achieve individual and societal redemption, Blake says his “sword” will not “sleep” in his hand. But the weaponry (“Bow of burning gold,” “Arrows of desire,” Spear, and “Chariot of fire”) is to be employed in ceaseless “Mental Fight.” He has, Gnostics would say, achieved gnosis.[28]

§

Gnosis takes many forms. I have already noted what the visionary poet of “The Second Coming” claims to “know,” and mentioned the very different assertion in the drafts, where the rough beast, “knowing its hour come round,” possesses whatever gnosis there is to go round. In “Leda and the Swan” (1925), the sonnet that begins the three-part cycle that ends with “The Second Coming,” we have another annunciation of a new historical era, beginning with a birth, and a hint of gnosis. Did Leda, raped by the swan-god Zeus, “put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Here is another poem, like “The Secret Rose” and “The Second Coming,” ending in a question, the mystery-marker of the Sublime. There is, of course, no question about the brutality of the sudden rape, and the indifference of the God following the “shudder in the loins,” which, impregnating Leda, completes Zeus’s mission.

For in fathering Helen of Troy, he also “engenders there” the Trojan War (depicted in imagery at once military and sexual: “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower”) and its sequelae (“And Agamemnon dead”), initiating an historical cycle destined to last until, two thousand years later, another lady, the Virgin Mary, would be visited by the Holy Spirit: another divine bird, his “great wings beating about the room” in Yeats’s “The Mother of God” (1931), a dramatic monologue spoken by the terrified village girl singled out to bear “The Heavens in my womb.” The question raised at the end of “Leda and the Swan” is not merely rhetorical. Did Leda, “her thighs” rather tenderly “caressed/ By the dark webs,” so intrigue the swan-god that he inadvertently held her just long enough (“Before the indifferent beak could let her drop”) for her to participate momentarily in “his knowledge,” the divine gnosis of Zeus himself?

Leda and the Swan by Jerzy Hulewicz 1928Leda and the Swan by Jerzy Hulewicz, 1928

Gnosis also figures in the cryptic poem, “Fragments,” which features, like its  far better-known cousin, “The Second Coming,” a strange birth, and a revelation derived from counter-Enlightenment intuition, gnosis. Written between 1931 and 1933, this epigrammatic poem is in two short parts. Here is the first:

Locke sank into a swoon;

The Garden died;

God took the spinning-jenny

Out of his side.

In this parody of Genesis, the role of God, who took Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam, is usurped by John Locke, whose empiricist epistemology and distinction between primary and secondary qualities seemed to Yeats, as to George Berkeley and Blake before him, to have fractured the organic unity of the living world, and thus destroyed not only nature but its archetype, the Edenic “Garden.” That the resultant birth, that of the “spinning-jenny,” bears a woman’s name accentuates the irony, and the horror. It was not altogether to the benefit of humanity and a sign of progress, Yeats once mordantly observed, for the home spinning wheel and the distaff to have been replaced by the robotic looms and masculinized factories of the Industrial Revolution. Blake’s god of the fallen world, Urizen, presides over an Enlightenment world-machine perceived as “the Loom of Locke” washed by the “Water-wheels of Newton,” all “cruel Works” with “cogs tyrannic” moving each other “by compulsion” (Jerusalem 15:15-19)

Yeats is never closer to Blake than in this first part of “Fragments,” where he emulates not only his mentor’s attack on Locke (and Newton), but also his genius for epigram and crystallization, Blake being “perhaps the finest gnomic artist in English literature.” In Yeats’s gnomic vision in “Fragments” (I), which has been called “certainly the shortest and perhaps not the least comprehensive history of modern civilization,” the Enlightenment is revealed as a nightmare for the creative imagination; and the monster that rides upon this spirit-sealing sleep of reason is the mechanistic conception of matter, indeed the whole mechanistic rather than organic way of thinking (a crucial contrast Yeats knew from Coleridge, who had borrowed it from A. W. Schlegel), here symbolized by the invention that epitomizes the Industrial Revolution.[29] Yeats replaces the divinely anesthetized flesh of Adam with Locke’s imaginatively inert body (sunk into that fall into division Blake called “Single Vision & Newton’s sleep”), and substitutes for Eve, the beautiful embodiment of Adam’s dream, a mechanical contraption, a patriarchal cog in the dark Satanic mills of which it is proleptic.

Spinnng room in cotton mill 1916Spinning room in a New England cotton mill, 1916, photo courtesy National Archives

But how does Yeats know all this, and know it to be the “truth”? It wasn’t only from absorbing Blake. Or only from reading Alfred North Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World (1925), a chapter of which, “The Romantic Reaction,” Yeats synopsized with a related variation of the Genesis 2 creation-metaphor, jotting in the margin: “The dry rib (Pope) becomes Eve (Nature) with Wordsworth.”[30] Yeats answers his own question in “Fragments” II:

Where got I that truth?

Out of a medium’s mouth,

Out of nothing it came,

Out of the forest loam,

Out of dark night where lay

The crowns of Nineveh.

Is this mere occult mumbo-jumbo, intended to twist the tail of positivists and empiricists? Well, yes and no. But before coming to conclusions, let’s pause to appreciate the wit of the lines, alive with reversals and allusions. Yeats’s ironic reversal of the birth “out of” the side of Locke takes the form of a counter-“truth,” born “out of” (repeated four times in succession) a variety of sources. The anaphora is Whitmanian— “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,/ Out of the mocking bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,/ Out of the Ninth-month midnight.” And Whitman’s birth-images may have suggested Yeats’s equally fertile sources: the female “medium’s mouth,” the “forest loam,” and “dark night,” all in organic and fecund contrast to the mechanical, sterile “birth” of the spinning-jenny.

Yeats deliberately begins with what rationalists would dismiss as among the least reputable sources of “truth”: “Out of a medium’s mouth…” Even Madame Blavatsky, whose own experiments had been discredited, told Yeats, who reported it to John O’Leary in a May 1889 letter, that she “hates spiritualism vehemently—says mediumship and insanity are the same thing” (Letters, 125). In “Fragments” (II) Yeats is having some fun, but it is worth mentioning that the poem was written shortly after the first production of one of Yeats’s most dramatic plays, The Words Upon the Window-pane, which centers on a séance, climaxing with our shocked recognition that the female medium is authentic. The one scholarly skeptic who had attended, a specialist in the life and work of Jonathan Swift, is refuted once the post-séance stage is bare except for the female medium, who is suddenly revealed, not to be faking it as he had been sure all along, but to be channeling the tormented ghost of Swift, and thus speaking the sort of spiritual truth Yeats, half-skeptic himself, sought all his life. “All about us,” he concludes his Introduction to the play, “there seems to start up a precise inexplicable teeming life, and the earth becomes once more, not in rhetorical metaphor, but in reality, sacred.”[31]

The second source is philosophically and theologically scandalous. Subverting the venerable axiom, ex nihilo nihil fit, employed by metaphysicians from Parmenides on and by theologians arguing for the necessary existence of God, Yeats boldly declares that the “truth” revealed to him came “Out of nothing,” only to instantly add details that deepen the mystery and sharpen his thrust against the Enlightenment. Coming “Out of the forest loam,/ Out of dark night…” Yeats’s “truth” is generated from fecund earth, once more become “sacred,” and teeming with inexplicable “life,” replacing or restoring the “Garden” earlier said to have “died.” It also comes, out of a mysterious, or occult, “dark night.”

If the spinning-jenny epitomizes the Industrial Revolution, Alexander Pope’s intended epitaph for Isaac Newton epitomizes the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment: “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,/ God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.” Pope’s couplet, like Yeats’s opening quatrain, plays off Scripture, with Newton now assuming God’s role as Creator by verbal fiat: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Pope avoids blasphemy; after all, it was God who said “Let Newton be!” Until the advent of the principal scientific genius of the European Enlightenment, the universe existed, but “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night.” Adopting that darkness, and reversing the “laws” that prior to Newton “lay hid in night,” Yeats tells us that his Counter-Enlightenment truth came “Out of dark night where lay,” not Nature’s scientific laws, but “The crowns of Nineveh.”

Nineveh image by archaeologist Henry Layard CC 4.0Archaeologist Henry Layard’s image of Nineveh

Why Nineveh in particular? For one thing, Yeats loved Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s “Ode” celebrating poets as music-makers and prophets. The famous final stanza (and these are the lines Yeats always cited) begins: “We, in the ages lying/ In the buried past of the earth,/ Built Nineveh with our sighing,/ And Babel itself with our mirth.” When, in “Fragments,” the golden crowns of Nineveh flame up “Out of dark night,” what is evoked is more O’Shaughnessy’s city of the poetic imagination than Ashurbanipal’s capital, majestic as that may have been. For Yeats was looking, not merely back to old Nineveh, but cyclically ahead, to the resuscitation of the ancient—a past buried, dark, chthonic, and, here, female. For, as Yeats seems to have known, the Assyrians named their capital city Nin-evah—after “Holy Mother Eve,” the Mother-womb, or Goddess of the Tree of Life in their mythology. Displaced by a machine in the withered Garden of the first part of “Fragments,” Eve, in a return of the repressed, is restored, re-surfacing in the final word of part II, in the disguised but detectable form of the city named for her. Recalling the role of Sophia, often opposed to the male Logos in esoteric tradition, including Gnosticism, I’m reminded as well that gnosis is a Greek female noun.

At his most winning, Yeats reminds us of Hamlet’s rejoinder to his skeptical and scholastic friend: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” But we are right to be wary when Yeats crosses the threshold into the occult. Though concurring in, in fact shaping, Yeats’s cavalier dismissal of Locke and Newton as Enlightenment icons, Blake would be appalled by his disciple’s delving into the occult darkness. Though Yeats tended to mystify and occultize him, Blake in fact condemned the heathen “God of this World & the Goddess Nature/ Mystery, Babylon the Great” (Jerusalem 93: 22-25). But what Blake rejects here are the very things his prodigal son celebrates as the matrix of vision: the forest loam and the mysterious dark night where lay the crowns of ancient Nineveh, repository of Assyro-Babylonian mythology.

Of course, Yeats’s recourse to the occult is one measure of the intensity of his need to expedite what he called in that earlier-cited 1892 letter to John O’Leary “the revolt of the soul against the intellect” (Letters, 211). That is, somewhat reductively, a description of the Romantic Revolution, the noble attempt to beat back, through restored wonder at a re-enchanted nature and the transformative power of the creative imagination, the passivity of mind and mechanistic materialism that had reigned (Yeats insists in introducing his 1936 anthology of modern poetry) since “the end of the seventeenth century” down to the present. With, he emphasizes— as had Alfred North Whitehead, though his Romantic hero was Wordsworth rather than Blake or Shelley—“the exception of the period beginning at the end of the eighteenth century” and ending “with the death of Byron”: that is to say, the “brief period” of the Romantic revolt, a span “wherein imprisoned man beat upon the door.”[32]

That compelling metaphor was repeated the next year in “An Acre of Grass,” Yeats’s late poem (a companion of “What Then?”), in which he prays to be granted the creative “frenzy” and “old man’s eagle mind” he had read of in Nietzsche’s Daybreak. He also specifically invokes “That William Blake/ Who beat upon the wall/ Till truth obeyed his call”—a “truth” related to, but not identical to, the “truth” Yeats claimed in “Fragments” (II) came to him “Out of” Counter-Enlightenment sources both Romantic and, most dubiously, out of a mysterious “dark night” whose counter-Enlightenment frisson will be offset for many readers by resistance to the dangerous irrationality of the occult.

§

Night was not normally privileged over day in Yeats’s thinking. Blake and Nietzsche, his great mentors, were both celebrators of daybreak, of Blake’s “glad day.” In 1902, enthralled by his “excited” reading of “that strong enchanter, Nietzsche,” Yeats drew in the margin of an anthology of selections from the German philosopher a diagram crucial to understanding much if not all of Yeats’s subsequent thought and work. He grouped under the heading NIGHT: “Socrates, Christ,” and “one god”— “denial of self, the soul turned toward spirit seeking knowledge.” And, under the heading DAY: “Homer” and “many gods”—“affirmation of self, the soul turned from spirit to be its mask & instrument when it seeks life.”[33] Reminiscent of Madame Blavatsky’s alternating “days and nights of Brahma,” that  diagrammatical skeleton, anticipated by the pull between eternity and the temporal in such early poems as “To the Rose upon the Rood of Time,” is later fleshed out by Yeats’s own chosen exemplar in “Vacillation”—“Homer is my example and his unchristened heart”—and Self’s choice of Sato’s sword wound in “embroidery” of “Heart’s purple”: “all these I set/ For emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Ultimately, they are the emblems of a life-seeking Poet who, without “denial of self,” attempts to transcend the antithesis set up a quarter-century earlier in that Nietzsche anthology, usurping Soul’s role by also being oriented “toward spirit seeking knowledge,” or gnosis.

“A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is in many ways Yeats’s central poem since its ramifications reach before and after, and it features perhaps the greatest of Yeats’s fused symbols: the “ancient blade” (the gift of a Japanese admirer, Junzo Sato) scabbarded and bound in complementary “female” embroidery. That sword and winding silk are not only “emblems of the day against the tower/ Emblematical of the night.” Fusing the sacred and the profane, war and love, the phallic and the vaginal, the sheathed and silk-wound sword becomes Yeats’s symbol of gyring life, set against the vertical ascent urged by the Neoplatonic Soul. What Gnostics put asunder, body and spirit, Yeats unites. And yet, as we will see, Self’s final act of self-redemption, magnificent but heretical, is as Gnostic as it is Nietzschean.

In the opening movement of the poem, the half in which there is still a semblance of actual dialogue, hectoring Soul repeatedly demands that Self “fix” every thought “upon” the One, “upon” the steep ascent,  “upon” the occult Pole Star, “upon” the spiritual quarter where all thought is done. But the recalcitrant Self remains diverted by the Many, by earthly multiplicity, by the sword wound in embroidery replicating the windings of mortal nature. In unpublished notes, Yeats describes “Dialogue” as “a variation on Macrobius” (the “learned astrologer” of “Chosen,” the central poem of A Woman Young and Old). Yeats had been directed by a friend (F. P. Sturm) to Macrobius’s Neoplatonic Commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. In Cicero’s text, despite the admonition of Scipio’s ghostly ancestor, “Why not fix your attention upon the heavens and contemn what is mortal?,” young Scipio admits he “kept turning my eyes back to earth.” According to Macrobius, Scipio “looked about him everywhere with wonder. Hereupon his grandfather’s admonitions recalled him to the upper realms.” Though the agon between the Yeatsian Self and Soul is identical to that between young Scipio and his grandfather’s spirit, the Soul in Yeats’s poem proves a much less successful spiritual guide than that ghost.[34]

Turning a largely deaf ear to Soul’s advocacy of the upward path, Self (revealingly called “Me” in the drafts of the poem) has preferred to focus downward, on life, brooding on the consecrated blade upon his knees with its tattered but still protective wrapping of “Heart’s purple.” Its “flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn/ From some court-lady’s dress and round/ The wooden scabbard bound and wound” makes the double icon “emblematical” not only of “love and war,” but of the ever-circling gyre: the eternal, and archetypally female, spiral. When Soul’s paradoxically physical tongue is turned to stone with the realization that, according to his own austere doctrine, “only the dead can be forgiven,” Self takes over the poem. He goes on to win his way, despite difficulty, to a self-redemptive affirmation of life.

Winding stair in Thoor Ballylee tower c Jacket2 CC 3.0Walt Hunter viaWinding stair in Thoor Ballylee tower, photo by Walt Hunter via Jacket2 CC 3.0

Self begins his peroration defiantly: “A living man is blind and drinks his drop./ What matter if the ditches are impure?” This “variation” on Neoplatonism, privileging life’s filthy downflow, or “defluction,” over the Plotinian pure fountain of emanation, is followed by an even more defiant rhetorical question: “What matter if I live it all once more?” “Was that life?” asks Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. “Well then! Once more!”[35]  But Self’s grandiose and premature gesture is instantly undercut by the litany of grief that Nietzschean Recurrence, the exact repetition of the events of one’s life, would entail—from the “toil of growing up,” through the “ignominy of boyhood” and the “distress” of “changing into a man,” to the “pain” of the “unfinished man” having to confront “his own clumsiness,” then the “finished man,” old and “among his enemies.” Despite the Self’s bravado, it is in danger of being shaped, deformed, by what Hegel and, later, feminist critics have emphasized as the judgmental Gaze of Others. Soul’s tongue may have turned to stone, but malignant, almost Archon-like ocular forces have palpable designs upon the assaulted Self:

How in the name of Heaven can he escape

That defiling and disfigured shape

The mirror of malicious eyes

Casts upon his eyes until at last

He thinks that shape must be his shape?

This would be, as Yeats says in “Ancestral Houses” (1921), to lose the ability to “choose whatever shape [one] wills,” and (echoing Browning’s arrogant Duke, who “choose[s] never to stoop”) to “never stoop to a mechanical / Or servile shape, at others’ beck and call”: Yeats’s rejection of “slave morality” in favor of Nietzschean “master morality.” The centrality of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” is enhanced by its repercussions in Yeats’s own work and its absorption of so many influences outside the Yeatsian canon. Aside from the Body/Soul debate-tradition, from Cicero to Milton and Marvell, and the combat between Nietzsche on the one hand and Neoplatonism on the other, this Yeatsian psychomachia incorporates, among other poems in the Romantic tradition, another Browning poem, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” which supplies those “malicious eyes” that cast upon Self a distorting lie so powerful that he temporarily falls victim to it, and Blake’s feminist Visions of the Daughters of Albion.[36]  Self’s eventual victory, like Oothoon’s, is over severe moralism, the reduction of the body to a defiled object. In Yeats’s case, Self’s victory is a triumph over his own Neoplatonism. Though Gnosticism, too, seeks liberation from the body, the heterodox Gnostic emphasis on self-redemption makes it compatible with Blake, Nietzsche, and Yeats. “Dialogue” represents Nietzschean Selbstüberwindung, creative “self-overcoming,” for, as Yeats said, “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

 §

Since “Dialogue” is a quarrel with himself, the spiritual tradition is not simply dismissed, here any more than in the Crazy Jane or Woman Young and Old sequences. For Yeats, the world of experience, however dark the declivities into which the generated soul may drop, is never utterly divorced from the world of light and grace. The water imagery branching through Self’s peroration subsumes pure fountain and impure ditches. There is a continuum. The Plotinian fountain cascades down from the divine One through mind or intellect (nous) to the lower depths. As long, says Plotinus, as nous maintains its gaze on and contemplation of God (the First Cause or “Father”), it retains the likeness of its Creator (Enneads 5.2.4). But, writes Macrobius (Commentary 1.14.4), the soul, “by diverting its attention more and more, though itself incorporeal, degenerates into the fabric of bodies.”

Viewed from Soul’s perspective, Self is a falling off from the higher Soul. When the attention, supposed to be fixed on things above, is diverted below—down to the blade on his knees wound in tattered silk and, further downward, to life’s “impure” ditches—the Self has indeed degenerated into the “fabric,” the tattered embroidery, of bodies. And yet, as usual in later Yeats, that degradation is also a triumph, couched in terms modulating from stoic contentment through fierce embrace to a casting out of remorse, leading to self-forgiveness and redemption:

I am content to live it all again

And yet again, if it be life to pitch

Into the frog-spawn of a blind man’s ditch,

A blind man battering blind men;

Or into that most fecund ditch of all,

The folly that man does

Or must suffer, if he woos

A proud woman not kindred of his soul.

X

I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot!

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.

Following everything to the “source” within, Self spurns Soul’s tongue-numbing Neoplatonic doctrine that “only the dead can be forgiven.” Instead, having pitched with vitalistic relish into life’s filthy frog-spawn, Self audaciously (or blasphemously) claims the power to forgive himself. In a similar act of self-determination, Self “cast[s] out” remorse, reversing the defiling image earlier “cast upon” him by the “mirror of malicious eyes.” The sweetness that “flows into” the self-forgiving breast redeems the frog-spawn of the blind man’s ditch and even that “most fecund ditch of all,” the painful but productive folly that is the bittersweet fruit of unrequited love.

That sweet flow also displaces the infusion (infundere: “to pour in”) of Christian grace through divine forgiveness. It is a claim to autonomy at once redemptive and heretical, and a masterly fusion of Yeats’s two principal precursors. “Nietzsche completes Blake, and has the same roots,” Yeats claimed. If, as he also rightly said, Blake’s central doctrine is a Christ-like “forgiveness of sins,” the sweetness that flows into the suffering but self-forgiving “breast,” the breast in which Blake also said “all deities reside,” allies the Romantic poet with Nietzsche. He had been preceded by the German Inner Light theologians, but it took Nietzsche, the son of a Protestant minister, to most radically transvalue the Augustinian doctrine that man can only be redeemed by divine power and grace, a foretaste of predestination made even more uncompromising in the strict Protestant doctrine of the salvation of the Elect as an unmerited gift of God. One must find one’s own “grace,” countered Nietzsche in Daybreak, a book read by Yeats. He who has “definitively conquered himself, henceforth regards it as his own privilege to punish himself, to pardon himself”—in Yeats’s phrase, “forgive myself the lot.”  We must cast out remorse and cease to despise ourselves: “Then you will no longer have any need of your god, and the whole drama of Fall and Redemption will be played out to the end in you yourselves!”[37]

But, as I earlier suggested, this is as Gnostic as it is Nietzschean. The most formidable of the historical Gnostics, Valentinus, claimed that the person who received gnosis could purge himself of the ignorance associated with matter. He describes the process in the “Gospel of Truth,” a Valentinian text unearthed at Naj Hammadi in 1945. In stark contrast with the orthodox Christian doctrine of salvation through the grace of God, Valentinus declared that “It is within Unity that each one will attain himself; within gnosis he will purify himself from multiplicity into Unity, consuming matter within himself like a fire, and darkness by light, death by life.” In the best-known Valentinian formulation, “what liberates us is the gnosis of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereunto we have been thrown; whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.” Here (Excerpts from Theodotus) and elsewhere in Gnostic literature, salvation is defined, as it is in Romanticism (from which Gnosticism often seems less a deviation than a precursor), as an escape into the self, where, through introspective private vision, we find true knowledge, gnosis. The spiritual quest is solitary. When Sturge Moore, who was designing the book cover for the volume containing “Byzantium,” asked if Yeats saw  “all humanity riding on the back of a huge dolphin,” Yeats responded, “One dolphin, one man” (Yeats-Moore Correspondence, 165). There is no real need for any Other; the individual who has attained gnosis is the whole and sole agent of redemption.[38]

In the now-famous Gospel of Thomas, the most audaciously heterodox of the Naj Hammadi texts, the Gnostic Jesus of Thomas tells us, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am.” The central teaching, again, is internal salvation, redemption from within: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If Emerson hadn’t been speaking more than a century before the Gospel of Thomas had been rediscovered, he might have been accused of plagiarizing from that long-suppressed text in his Divinity School Address, the bombshell he exploded at Harvard in 1838. Emerson celebrated Jesus not as divine, nor even as Lord, but as the religious thinker who first realized that “God incarnates himself in man.”  He informed the shocked ministers and thrilled graduating students in the audience: “That is always best which gives me to myself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God out of me, makes me a wart and a wen.” As heterodox as Thomas’s, Emerson’s Jesus is imagined saying, in “a jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.’” [39]

It is primarily under the twin auspices of Blake and Nietzsche, as manipulated by Yeats, that the Self finds the bliss traditionally reserved for those who follow the ascending path. But that heretical self-redemption is also Gnostic. Whatever its various “sources,” Yeats’s alteration of the orthodox spiritual tradition completes Blake, who considered cyclicism the ultimate nightmare, with that Nietzsche whose exuberant Zarathustra jumps “with both feet” into the “golden-emerald delight” of self-redemption and Eternal Recurrence, exultantly embraced as the ultimate affirmation of life in the “Yes and Amen Song” that concludes part III :

In laughter all that is evil comes together, but is pronounced holy and absolved by its own bliss; and if this is my alpha and omega, that all that is heavy and grave should become light, all that is body, dancer, all that is spirit, bird—and verily that is my alpha and omega: oh, how should I not lust after eternity and the nuptial ring of rings, the ring of recurrence?[40]

We might say that Zarathustra here also “jumps” into a cluster of images and motifs we would call Yeatsian, remembering, along with Self’s laughing, singing self-absolution, “Among School Children,” where “body is not bruised to pleasure soul,” and we no longer “know/ The dancer from the dance”; the natural and golden birds of the Byzantium poems; and the final transfiguration of Yeats’s central hero, both in The Death of Cuchulain and “Cuchulain Comforted,” into a singing bird.

In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the Yeatsian-Nietzschean Self, commandeering the spiritual vocabulary Soul would monopolize, affirms Eternal Recurrence, the labyrinth of human life with all its tangled antinomies of joy and suffering. In subverting the debate-tradition, Yeats leaves Soul with a petrified tongue, and gives Self a final chant that is among the most rhapsodic in that whole tradition of secularized supernaturalism Yeats inherited from the Romantic poets and from Nietzsche. In a related if somewhat lower register, it is also the vision of Crazy Jane and the Woman Young and Old.

Of course, Self and Soul are aspects of the one man, and, as Yeats jotted in his 1930 Diary, “Man can only love Unity of Being.” The internal “opponent” we debate with “must be shown for a part of our greater expression” (Essays and Introductions, 362). This resembles the Valentinian Unity “each one will attain himself,” overcoming “multiplicity.” Yeats’s friend, AE (George Russell) to whom he sent a copy of The Winding Stair, said that of the many superb poems in that remarkable volume he liked “best” of all “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.” Acknowledging his friend’s gift, he wrote, “I am on the side of Soul, but know that its companion has its own eternal claim, and perhaps when you side with the Self it is only a motion to that fusion of opposites which is the end of wisdom.”[41]

Having astutely synopsized the central Yeatsian dialectic, Russell was tentatively noting its reflection in the poem’s impulse, beneath the manifest debate of opposites, toward fusion. We seem to achieve fusion in the secular beatitude of Self’s final chant. But Yeats was not AE, the “saint,” as Mrs. Yeats described him, to her husband’s “poet,”[42] and the poet in Yeats, the Self, gives us—in the whole of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and particularly in this magnificent final affirmation—an overcoming of Christian and Neoplatonic dualism and defilement of the body by way of a heterodox, “heretical” self-blessing at once Blakean, Nietzschean, and Gnostic.

§

Despite Self’s triumph in this central poem, Yeats remained torn between what he called in “Vacillation” (echoing Kant) “the antinomies” of soul and body, by antithetical longings for the Otherworld and, on the most autobiographical level, for Maud Gonne: that extravagantly beautiful but never fully attainable femme fatale, the Muse that haunts the life and work of the twentieth century’s greatest love poet. His occult speculations were always entangled in his emotional life. “His aim,” Graham Hough concludes, “was to redeem passion, not to transcend it, and a beatitude that has passed beyond the bounds of earthly love could not be his ideal goal” (The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats, 119). Unsurprisingly, then, in the alembic of Yeats’s paradoxical imagination, the search for hidden spiritual knowledge is often merged with carnal knowledge. Even then, however, the beloved proves to be ultimately unattainable, even if physical consummation has been briefly attained, as it was, in December 1908, with the elusive Maud. Yeats was both impressed and deeply moved (responding to both human tragedy and Latinate rhetorical majesty) by a resonant phrase he encountered—“The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul”—in reading John Dryden’s translation of Lucretius, one of whose arguments in De rerum natura is that sexual union can never provide complete satisfaction.

Maud GonneMaud Gonne

In a 1931 conversation with John Sparrow, then Fellow of All Souls’ College, Oxford, Yeats cited and expanded on Lucretius’ famous lines from the end of the long passage (1030-1237) on sexual love concluding Book IV of De rerum natura. In glossing Dryden’s translation of the Roman poet, Yeats seems to echo the Gnostics’ doubly radical dualism, a dualism between man and nature, but also between nature and the transmundane God who is utterly Other, Alien, and unknowable—except through gnosis. Yeats’s citation and commentary also seem worth quoting because he appears to me to be looking back to four of his own poems, three of them written in 1926-27, the fourth in 1931. Two of them, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “Among School Children,” are indisputably major. The other two, lesser lyrics but closely related to those major texts, are “Summer and Spring,” from Yeats’s Man Young and Old sequence, and, the most splendid of the Crazy Jane lyrics, the poignant yet triumphant “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman,” written in 1931, the same year as his conversation with John Sparrow. But here, finally, is what Yeats told Sparrow:

The finest description of sexual intercourse ever written was in John Dryden’s translation of Lucretius, and it was justified; it was introduced to illustrate the difficulty of two becoming a unity: “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” Sexual intercourse is an attempt to solve the eternal antinomy, doomed to failure because it takes place only on one side of the gulf. The gulf is that which separates the one and the many, or if you like, God and man.[43]

In “Summer and Spring” (poem VIII of the autobiographical sequence in which the poet is masked as an anonymous “Man Young and Old”), two lovers grown old reminisce “under an old thorn tree.” When they talked of growing up, they “Knew that we’d halved a soul/ And fell the one in t’other’s arms/ That we might make it whole.” We recall, as we are meant to, “Among School Children,” written in the same year. In transitioning from the first to the second stanza of this great poem, we shift abruptly from Yeats’s external persona as senator and school inspector, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” to the private, inner man, the poet himself reporting an incident Maud Gonne once related from her childhood:

I dream of a Ledaean body bent

Above a sinking fire, a tale that she

Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event

That changed some childish day to tragedy—

Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent

Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,

Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,

Into the yolk and white of the one shell.

In “Summer and Spring” there is gnosis; the lovers “Knew that we’d halved a soul.” The tragedy in this stanza of “Among School Children” lies in the qualifying “seemed” and in the need “to alter Plato’s parable”—a “Lucretian” alteration, since the blending here is empathetic and partial (yolk and white remain separated even within the unity of the “one shell”) rather than the full sexual union of Aristophanes’ haunting fable in Plato’s Symposium. It is precisely this “whole” union that the old man claims in “His Memories” (poem VI of A Man Young and Old)[44] and in “Summer and Spring,” which concludes with a sexual variation on the Unity of Being symbolized by the dancer and “great-rooted blossomer” of “Among School Children”: “O what a bursting out there was,/ And what a blossoming,/ When we had all the summer-time/ And she had all the spring!”

But even here, despite that “fecund” blossoming, it is all memory and heartache. Two decades later, that night in December 1908, no matter how fleeting, remains paramount among the “memories” of Yeats’s “Man Old.” In “real life,” however, after their night of lovemaking in that Paris hotel, Maud had quickly put the relationship back on its old basis, a “spiritual marriage,” informing Yeats in a morning-after note that she was praying that he would be able to overcome his “physical desire” for her. In a journal entry the following month (21 January 1909), Yeats referred despairingly but realistically to the “return” of Maud’s “old dread of physical love,” which has “probably spoiled her life….I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poison.”

Gonne1Maud Gonne

William Butler Yeats and Wife GeorgieYeats and his wife Georgie, late 1920s

Hence, those “others,” including Yeats’s wife, destined to become “friends,” or sexual partners, if never a fully satisfactory replacement for “that one” (as he refers to her, namelessly and climactically in his poem “Friends”).  Since Maud was, ultimately, “not kindred of his soul,” Yeats sought complete union, if only in memory, in poetry, and masked as “A Man Young and Old” or, empathetically switching genders, in the vision of Crazy Jane. Partly based on an old, crazed Irish woman, Jane is not merely promiscuous. Yeats’s occult experiences had led him to a belief in feminized, often sexualized, spirituality, early embodied in the beautiful, highly-sexed actress Florence Farr, one of the most gifted women visionaries of the Golden Dawn (and, briefly, his lover). Such female adepts, whose powers he admired and envied; women of “second sight” (his own sister, “Lily,” his uncle George Pollexfen’s servant, Mary Battle); his experiences at séances, where the mediums were almost invariably women: all convinced him of a female and erotic dimension in spirituality. The artistic result was the two powerful poetic sequences, A Woman Young and Old and the Crazy Jane poems. The third poem in the Jane sequence, “Crazy Jane on the Day of Judgment,” begins:

“Love is all

Unsatisfied

That cannot take the whole

Body and soul”:

And that is what Jane said.

It ends with Jane still holding forth, now emphasizing her version of gnosis, but one that would certainly resonate with most Gnostics. While mystical experience was possible during life, virtually all Gnostics believed that the true ascent, in which (in Jane’s phrase) “all could be known,” took place after death, with the return of the spirit to its divine origins, the spark of life redeemed and reunited with the One from which it had been severed and alienated by its immersion in the material, temporal world. For most of the Crazy Jane sequence, unconventional Jane, making the most of her time on earth, will take a decidedly unorthodox Itinerarium mentis ad Deum. But here we find her, yearning for Time to disappear and gnosis to be achieved:

“What can be shown?

What true love be?

All could be known or shown

If Time were but gone.”

Jane’s male interlocutor—responding, “That’s certainly the case”—might be Yeats himself, who thought Lucretius remained “justified” in insisting on the “failure,” in this life, to bridge “the gulf,” the insuperable “difficulty of two becoming a unity.”

The poem that immediately follows Jane’s thoughts on the Day of Judgment, “Crazy Jane and Jack the Journeyman,” responds more personally, magnificently, and certainly more audaciously, to Dryden’s Lucretius-  and Epicurus-based assertion that “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” Writing in 1875, the Victorian essayist J. M. Symonds qualified what Dryden before him and Yeats after him designated a “tragedy,” though Symonds goes on to emphasize, even more than Yeats, the Lucretian, Epicurean—and, I would add, Gnostic—bleakness and frustration of lovers whose immaterial souls are entrammeled in the flesh: “There is something almost tragic,” writes a sympathetic but austere Symonds, “in these sighs and pantings and pleasure-throes, and the incomplete fruition of souls pent up within their frames of flesh.”[45] Symonds seems to reflect, along with the frustration described by Lucretius (and Platonism and Neoplatonism in general), the dualism of the Gnostics, concerned above all with freeing the spirit dwelling within (to quote two passages from Genesis well known to Gnostics) that “coat of flesh” imprisoning “the spark of life” (3:21, 3:78).

In the beginning (in what Shelley would later call “the white radiance of eternity”), we were “in the light,” uncreated, fully human, and also divine. What makes us free, in the present and future, the Gnostics insisted, is the gnosis of who we were back then, when we were “in the light.” Crazy Jane, returning to the One, “Shall leap into the light lost/ In my mother’s womb.” That Blakean infant joy marks the exuberant climax of her vision. But she had begun by asserting her own gnosis, shaped by earthly experience:

I know, although when looks meet

I tremble to the bone,

The more I leave the door unlatched

The sooner love is gone,

For love is but a skein unwound

Between the dark and dawn. …

Her knowledge of the transience of sexual love has not driven Jane to abstinence, despite the hectoring of the Bishop (her antagonist in this sequence) that she should “Live in a heavenly mansion,/ Not in some foul sty.” In that poem, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” (sixth in the sequence), Jane tells the Bishop, a “religious” Soul-spokesman nevertheless fixated on “those breasts,” where her God—neither Jehovah nor Jesus, but Eros—has “pitched” (temporarily set up as one would a tent) his mansion. It is not up among the stars as a “heavenly mansion” (Yeats has the Bishop borrow that lofty sty-disdaining phrase from Platonism and Christianity, from Pietro Bembo and the Gospel of John, 14:2). Love’s mansion is “pitched” (with, I suspect, a pun on darkened), not up but down, inter urinam et faeces, “in/The place of excrement.” And her final, definitely punning but serious news for the Bishop, is that “Nothing can be sole, or whole/ That has not been rent”: a sexual/spiritual variation on the archetypal cycle of original unity, division, and reunification and completion.

Despite the graphic nature of her language here, Jane is no more a simple materialist than is Augustine, or Swift, or Blake, whose excremental yet visionary vocabulary Yeats has her echo. What Jane insists on is the beauty of both the physical and the ideal world, with “Love” the tertium quid mediating between them. Love is the “great spirit” or “daemon” celebrated by that Sophia-figure, Diotima, presented in the Symposium by Socrates, whose simplistic dualism between good and evil, “fair” and “foul,” she corrects by presenting Love as “a mean between them,” a yoker of apparent opposites, a creator of unity out of division. (Symposium 202-3).

Statue of Diotima at University of Western Australia

Whatever its other parallels and sources, Jane’s vision is also Gnostic, at least reflective of some aspects of Gnosticism, which is, in general, hostile to “law,” especially to Old Testament law and the sort of puritanical strictures the Bishop wants to impose on Jane. Historical Gnosticism ran the ethical gamut from extreme asceticism to, at its most unconventional, robust promiscuity. The charges, by early Christian opponents, of Gnostic orgies were exaggerated (or at least unsupported by evidence). However, two Gnostic sects (the Carpocrations and the Cainites) held that, in order to be freed from the power of the Archons, the world-creating angels who would “enslave” them, men and women had to “experience everything.” No one, said Carpocrates, “can escape from the power” of the Archons, “but that he must pass from body to body until he has experience of every kind of action which can be practiced in this world, and when nothing is any longer wanting to him, then his liberated soul should soar upwards to that God who is above the angels, the makers of the world.” By “fulfilling and accomplishing what is requisite,” the liberated soul will be saved, “no longer imprisoned in the body.”[46] This is certainly in accord with Jane’s notably embodied theory of illumination through a sexual liberation that is ultimately spiritual and salvivic:

A lonely ghost the ghost is

That to God shall come;

I—love’s skein upon the ground,

My body in the tomb—

Shall leap into the light lost

In my mother’s womb.

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But were I left to lie alone

In an empty bed,

The skein so bound us ghost to ghost

When he turned his head

Passing on the road that night,

Mine must walk when dead.

Most readers of Yeats, even Yeatsian scholars familiar with the finale of the Enneads of his beloved Plotinus, misread the central and crucial stanza, a misreading based on an understandably negative response, when the word is taken out of context, to the adjective “lonely.” It is in fact an ultimate affirmation. Jane will come to God as a “lonely ghost,” the climax of her “flight of the alone to the Alone.” These, the final words of the Enneads, are also memorably recalled by Yeats’s friend Lionel Johnson at the climax of “The Dark Angel,” a poem Yeats rightly admired: “Lonely unto the lone I go,/ Divine to the Divinity.”

Jane’s transcendence is earned not (to echo the final stanza of “Among School Children”) through a body-bruising, soul-pleasuring abstinence, but (since nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent) by utterly unwinding, through experience, what Blake called (in The Gates of Paradise) “the sexual Garments.” Though “love is but a skein unwound/ Between the dark and dawn,” if left unwound, it would bind her to the earth, condemning her ghost, like that of her true lover, Jack, to “walk when dead.” That skein fully unwound, we are to go to our graves (to use a Miltonic phrase, but hardly his meaning), “all passion spent.” Yeats told an interviewer at this time, “If you don’t express yourself, you walk after you’re dead. The great thing is to go empty to your grave.”

To be liberated from those world-making angels who would enslave us, we must, Carpocrates and some other Gnostics insisted, “experience” every action possible on earth; then, with nothing left to be experienced, the liberated soul will “soar upwards to that God who is above the angels,” those makers of the fallen world. Yeats confided to Olivia Shakespear, “I shall be a sinful man to the end and think upon my deathbed of all the nights I wasted in my youth.”[47] He was fond of quoting a passage from Blake’s Vision of the Last Judgment: two sentences which, with their emphasis on both the “realities of intellect” and the need for the passions to “emanate” in a way alien to Plotinus, would appeal to some Gnostics: “Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed their passions, but because they have cultivated their understandings. The treasures of heaven are not negations of passion, but realities of intellect, from which the passions emanate uncurbed in their eternal glory.”[48] The Gnostic Carpocrates would endorse that vision of the Last Judgment. Whatever he might have thought of Crazy Jane’s promiscuous theology, Blake himself saw no puritanical line demarcating the human heart and loins from the human head and spirit.

 §

Finally, the Seeker-theme, the quest for gnosis, informs a number of late, great poems. I’m thinking of “Lapis Lazuli,” and of three death-poems:  “Cuchulain Comforted,” “Man and the Echo,” and the seemingly colloquial debate-poem, “What Then?” If I had to select just one last testament of Yeats, aside from Self’s chant at the end of “A Dialogue of Self and Soul,” the choice would narrow to the final movements of “Lapis Lazuli,” “Cuchulain Comforted,” and “Man and the Echo.” In their own ways, each of these poems constitutes wisdom writing, a quest for gnosis, or the acknowledgment that it may not be attainable in this life. That is true as well of the apparently more casual, but no less momentous, “What Then?”

Written in July 1936, “Lapis Lazuli” was published with war imminent. Yeats is annoyed by those who cannot abide the gaiety of artists creating amid impending catastrophe, unaware of the deep truth—known to Hindu mystics, to Nietzsche, and to Arthur O’Shaughnessy, whose creative artists “built Nineveh” and Babel out of their own “sighs” and “mirth”—that “All things fall and are built again/And those that build them again are gay.” To counter the consternation of those who are “sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,/ Of poets that are always gay,” women dismissed as “hysterical,” Yeats presents Shakespearean figures who—like Ophelia, Cordelia, and (by implication) Cleopatra—“do not break up their lines to weep.” Above all, “Hamlet and Lear are gay;/ Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.” Fusing western heroism with Eastern serenity and Nietzsche’s Zarathustrian joy (“He who climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness”), the poem turns in its final movement to the mountain-shaped lapis lazuli sculpture given to Yeats as a gift, and which, in turn, giving the poet his title, serves as the Yeatsian equivalent of Keats’s Grecian urn.

Two Chinamen, behind them a third,

Are carved in lapis lazuli;

Over them a long-legged bird,

A symbol of longevity;

The third, doubtless a serving man,

Carries a musical instrument.

Aside from the obvious resemblance to the Grecian urn, the repeated “or” in the lines that follow seals the connection, with description yielding to a stunning exercise of the creative imagination, worthy of its precursor, the fourth stanza of Keats’s ode. Since the place of origin of the figures in the sacrificial procession is not depicted on the urn, Keats speculates: “What little town by river or seas-shore,/ Or mountain-built….” Yeats ups the ante to four repetitions:

Every discoloration of the stone;

Every accidental crack or dent,

Seems a water-course or an avalanche,

Or lofty slope where it still snows

Though doubtless plum or cherry-branch

Sweetens the little half-way house

Those Chinamen climb towards, and I

Delight to imagine them seated there;

There, on the mountain and the sky,

On all the tragic scene they stare.

One asks for mournful melodies;

Accomplished fingers begin to play.

Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,

Their ancient glittering eyes are gay.

Yeats turns every discoloration and “Every accidental crack or dent”[49] into a feature of the mountain landscape. But the even greater creative leap in this exquisite final movement is the setting of those sculpted figures, frozen in lapis as Keats’s were on the marble urn, into motion, with the poet delighting to “imagine” them having attained the prospect of the gazebo half-way up the mountain. That the perspective is not quite sub specie aeternitatis; that the “little half-way house” is situated at the midpoint rather than on the summit, makes this a human rather than divine vision. To that extent, the Chinese sages’ mountain-vision may not achieve the gnosis attained by the naked hermits caverned on another Asian mountain, in Yeats’s 1933 sonnet, “Meru.” Those hermits, aware of the “manifold illusion” of one passing civilization after another, “know/ That day brings round the night, that before dawn/ [Man’s] glory and his monuments are gone.” Yet the affirmation of the Chinese sages of “Lapis Lazuli” is also registered in full awareness of “all the tragic scene.” The eyes of these Yeatsian visionaries, wreathed in the wrinkles of mutability, glitter with a tragic joy lit by the poet’s own creative “delight,” and by something resembling the Gnostic “spark.”

's lapis lazuli carving c. National Library of Ireland

Yeats’s lapis lazuli carving, (photo above courtesy National Library of Ireland)

's lapis lazuli carving

The end of mutability is death. The ancient Chinese sages’ gaiety in the face of tragedy may remind us of Yeats’s central mythological figure, Cuchulain, the hero of several Yeats poems and a cycle of five plays, ending with The Death of Cuchulain. The poet’s final encounter with his Celtic Achilles takes place in a ghostly poem completed on January 13, 1939, two weeks before his death.[50] The magnificent and eerie “Cuchulain Comforted,” composed, appropriately, in Dante’s terza rima, finds the nameless hero, wounded in battle and slain by a blind man, in the Underworld among “Shrouds that muttered head to head,” and “Came and were gone.”  He “leant upon a tree/ As though to meditate on wounds and blood.” He is among his polar opposites— “convicted cowards all,” according to one “that seemed to have authority /Among those birdlike things,” and who informs the still armed hero: “Now must we sing and sing the best we can.”

The poem ends with the hero’s apotheosis imminent. Having joined these spirits in a kind of communal sewing-bee, making shrouds, he is soon to undergo their transformation, described in haunting final lines reminiscent of Zarathustra’s vision of evil absolved by its own bliss so that all that is “body” becomes “dancer, all that is spirit, bird”:  “They sang but had nor human tunes nor words,/ Though all was done in common as before.//They had changed their throats and had the throats of birds.” That uncanny final line, the pinnacle of the Yeatsian Sublime, is also a final fusion. Marrying the posthumous continuation, as in “Sailing to Byzantium,” of a bird-like poet’s need to sing with the transformation and liberation of the soul, it should thrill Romantics and Gnostics alike. According to Valentinus, “what liberates is the knowledge [gnosis] of who we were, what we became; where we were, whereunto we have been thrown; whereto we speed, wherefrom we are redeemed; what birth is, and what rebirth.”

Cuchulain's death illus by Stephen Reid 1904Cuchulain’s death, illustration by Stephen Reid, 1904

This, the best-known Valentinian formula of salvation, is cited by Harold Bloom as a “good motto” for “Cuchulain Comforted,” which Bloom considers “Yeats’s finest achievement in the Sublime.”[51] The triumph of this mysterious and yet revelatory death-poem is that it discloses, along with an unexpected aspect of the solitary hero, Yeats himself: the man under the many masks, “one that,” in yet another bird-image, “ruffled in a manly pose/ For all his timid heart” (“Coole Park, 1929”). It recalls the similar if more personal triumph-in-defeat of “Man and the Echo” (1938), a poem that comes, like the ghost of King Hamlet, “in a questionable shape,” and, appropriately, borrows the questioning and tetrameters of Coleridge’s confessional “The Pains of Sleep.” A “Man” halted in a rock-cleft on the mountainside shouts “a question to the stone.”

All that I have said and done,

Now that I am old and ill,

Turns into a question till

I lie awake night after night

And never get the answers right.

Did that play of mine send out

Certain men the English shot?

Did words of mine put too great strain

On that woman’s reeling brain?

Could my spoken words have checked

That whereby a house lay wrecked?

It is unclear what Yeats might have said to save Lady Gregory’s Coole Park, or have not said to preserve the sanity of Margot Ruddock, the infatuated and crazed girl memorialized in “Sweet Dancer” (1937). That “play of mine” is, of course, Cathleen ni Houlihan, the ostensible celebration of blood-sacrifice written for and starring Maud Gonne as Ireland herself. It did send out men that were shot in the Easter Rising; in fact, the first to die was an actor cast in a revival of the play. The “terrible beauty” born that Easter had many causes, but Yeats, fingering the “links in the chain of responsibility,” wondered “if any link” was forged “in my workshop.” Here, his responsibility for its impact is the first “question” that causes him to feel guilt and to “lie awake night after night.”[52]

Here is Coleridge, as sleepless and anguished as Yeats: “All confused I could not know/ Whether I suffered or I did: / For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe.” Yeats concludes his questioning in the same perplexity: “And all seems evil until I/ Sleepless would lie down and die.” Echo: “Lie down and die.” But that, Man responds, would be “to shirk / The spiritual intellect’s great work.” There can be no thought of ending life until he can “stand in judgment on his soul.” Once “all’s arranged in one clear view,” and “all work done,” he will be ready to “sink at last into the night.” But, given Echo’s sardonic repetition, “Into the night,” that prospect only raises more, and more metaphysical, questions (“Shall we in that great night rejoice?/ What do we know but that we face/ One another in this place?”), until all cerebral self-centered thoughts stop together, interrupted:

But hush, for I have lost the theme,

Its joy or night seem but a dream;

Up there some hawk or owl has struck

Dropping out of sky or rock,

A stricken rabbit is crying out

And its cry distracts my thought.

“Take physic, pomp,” cries a chastened Lear out on the storm-beaten heath, finally exposing himself to feel pity for life’s naked victims. The greatness of “Man and the Echo” has to do with a similar intervention from the existential physical reality outside Yeats’s own self-absorbed thoughts about death and the fate of his soul. Gnostics would not approve of this external interference that “distracts the thought” of the thinker. But Yeats is not only philosophizing, he is writing a poem, and the poem’s triumph lies in the old man’s setting aside, as in “Cuchulain Comforted,” of the “heroic mask”— of Swiftian arrogance or Nietzschean master morality, of the perspective of the predatory hawk, of Cuchulain, that “great hawk out of the sun”—in order to fully and humbly accept common mortality: the radical finitude he shares with human rags and bones, with cowards, with the pitiable death-cry of a rabbit, struck down by hawk or owl.

At the end of “Man and the Echo,” amid uncertainty (“joy or night,” “hawk or owl” dropping out of “sky or rock”), the one certitude is death. “Mortality touches the heart,” epitomized by what Virgil (Aeneid 1:462) calls the “tears that are in things” (Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt). Yet here the tears are unshed from “an eye” that has “kept watch oe’r man’s mortality.” Like Wordsworth at the end of the great “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Yeats is touched by the human heart’s “tenderness, its joys, and fears.” Responding to the death throes of a humble, transient creature of nature, he is left, as Wordsworth was, with “Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Both of these great poets end, not crying, but thinking. Having registered “all the tragic scene,” they achieve, amid uncertainty, at least a limited gnosis, though Yeats’s question, “What do we know?” continues to resonate.

§

Two years before his death, Yeats received a request for a “representative” poem for The Erasmian, the magazine of his old Dublin high school. He selected “What Then?” (1937), which lays out for the Erasmus Smith students a planned life of disciplined labor, aimed at achieving what Yeats’s “chosen comrades” at school believed to be his destiny: the conviction, in which he concurred, that he would “grow a famous man.” Writing intimately though in the third person, “he” tells the young students and us that he “crammed” his twenties “with toil,” and that, in time, “Everything he wrote was read.” He attained “sufficient money for his need,” true friends, and that predestined yet industriously sought-after fame. Eventually, “All his happier dreams came true”: house, wife, daughter, son; “Poets and wits about him drew.”

But this self-satisfied rehearsal of accomplishment has been challenged by the refrain ending each stanza: “‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’” As in “Man and the Echo,” despite best-laid plans, an ultimate uncertainty attends the certainty of death. In the fourth and final stanza, as the litany of achievement mounts in passionate intensity, the opposing challenge from the world beyond earthly accomplishment also reaches a crescendo:

“The work is done,” grown old he thought,

“According to my boyish plan;

Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,

Something to perfection brought”;

But louder sang that ghost, “What Then?”

In “The Choice,” written a decade earlier, Yeats had declared that “the intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work.”  The “something” brought to “perfection” in “What Then?” is clearly the second choice. Must “he” therefore, as in “The Choice,” “refuse/ A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark”? Momentous in import despite its casual tone, “What Then?” revisits the “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” with the spiritual spokesman, despite being restricted to two words, at last mounting a potent challenge. The refrain Yeats places in the breathless mouth of that formidable ghost— “What then?”—fuses the Idealism of that “Plato,” who (in “Among School Children”) “thought nature but a spume that plays/ Upon a ghostly paradigm of things,” and the Hindu tatah kim (you may have gained glory and accomplished all your desires: what further?), with the question raised in the synoptic gospels: what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he lose his immortal soul?

That relentless question, “what then?,” also tallies with the Gnostic insistence that the liberating spirit within, the “divine spark” of which most remain ignorant all their lives but which alone constitutes true humanity, was the sole agent of salvation. That inner spark of divinity, once ignited, redeems the “inner” spiritual man, freeing him from the Archon-imposed limitations of an alien body in an alien world, from enslaving attachment to earthly things. However, powerful though the Otherworldly challenge is in “What Then”,” here as always—beginning with the crucial “The Rose upon the Rood of Time”—dialectical Yeats is not quite succumbing to the spiritual, a realm at once alluring and demanding. “His” litany of achievements, in the poem Yeats himself chose to represent his life-work to the students of his former high school, are triumphs of the imagination even more than they are flauntings of material success; and, given the massiveness of Yeats’s poetic achievement, “his” is far from empty boasting. “Plato’s ghost” gets the last word, but “What Then?” consists of more than its refrain. Taken as a whole, the poem presents Yeats once again vacillating “between extremities” or “antinomies” (“Vacillation,” I), and, in the process, making poetry out of the quarrel with himself. It was Nietzsche—Yeats’s chosen counter-weight to Plato and Christianity, that “Platonism for the people”—who said, “It is precisely such ‘contradictions’ that seduce one to existence.”[53]

Nietzsche’s prophet famously advises us, at the outset of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, to “remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes.” In “What Then?,” Yeats seems in part to be following Zarathustra’s imperative; but he had not yet been introduced to Nietzsche when, almost a half-century earlier, he wrote “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland,” a poem to which “What Then?” responds almost point for point. As we have seen, in that earlier poem every earthly pleasure and achievement had been spoiled by a repeated, cruel “singing” whose theme was a golden and silver Faeryland, an Otherworld of immutable, but unattainable beauty. Everything lost in the early poem, including the “fine angry mood” required to rebut mockers, is re-gained in this late poem, where the speaker, his work done, cries out, “Let the fools rage, I swerved in  naught,/ Something to perfection brought.” The mature, accomplished man has “succeeded” beyond his dreams, and thus exposed the folly of the man who wasted his life away by fruitlessly dreaming of Faeryland. And yet, that “singing” from the Otherworld persists: “‘What then,’ sang Plato’s ghost, ‘What then?’”—a “singing” that grows “louder” the more the speaker rehearses his accomplishments. The tension between the two worlds persists.

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Harold Bloom, who has over the years come to half-accept the Gnostic vision he once rejected, most harshly in his 1970 book Yeats, ended the essay he wrote a half-dozen years later—“Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void”—by contrasting Yeats to his own formational  precursor, Shelley, and to Schopenhauer. Though Bloom doesn’t get into the lineage, Schopenhauer was an “educator” of Nietzsche, “that strong enchanter” whose “curious astringent joy” allied him in Yeats’s mind with Blake, and so helped transform the Irish poet from a lyricist of the Celtic Twilight into the most powerful poet of the Twentieth Century. But here is Bloom:

Shelley and Schopenhauer were questers, in their very different ways, who could journey through the Void without yielding to the temptation of worshiping the Void as itself being sacred. Yeats, like Nietzsche, implicitly decided that he too would rather have the Void as purpose, than be void of purpose.[54]

Though Bloom does not mention it, Yeats seems to me to have been thinking of the Gnostic vision when he ended one of his final letters by declaring, “The last kiss is given to the void.”  Some context is instructive. No more a believer in linear progress than Nietzsche (for whom the “theory of progress” was a “modern” concept, “and therefore vulgar”), Yeats, under Indian influence, came to consider cultures and civilizations a succession of provisional illusions: that “manifold illusion” or maya, seen through by those who, in “Meru,” realize that “man’s life is thought,” its ultimate destructive/creative goal to “come/ Into the desolation of reality.” As earlier noted, such seers as the ascetic hermits caverned on Mount Meru or Everest, “know/ That day brings round the night, that before dawn/ [Man’s] glory and his monuments are gone.”

Bhutanese thanka of Mount Meru and the Buddhist universie 19th centuryBhutanese thanka of Mount Meru and the Buddhist universe, 19th century

Those who have, after “Ravening, raging, and uprooting,” finally “come/ Into the desolation of reality,” have come far, but—despite the gay farewell to civilizations, “Egypt and Greece good-bye, and good-bye, Rome!”—they may not have attained the state of “bliss” attained by Bhagwan Shri Hamsa, who describes climbing Meru in The Holy Mountain, read and introduced by Yeats shortly before writing “Meru.” In that Introduction, Hamsa is quoted describing his attainment of ineffable “bliss’—all merged in the Absolute Brahma!”[55] Yeats’s sonnet registers the strenuous mental steps to the Absolute, but does not culminate in the merging joy expressed by Hamsa. Nevertheless, Yeats’s hermits, by coming to “know” the truth underlying illusions, have achieved a considerable degree of gnosis.

In the letter I began with, Yeats insists that there is “no improvement, only a series of sudden fires,” each fainter than the one before it. “We free ourselves from delusion that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void.”[56] Commenting on this letter, the great Irish critic Declan Kiberd perceptively observed that, for Yeats, “the only hope of humanity was to break out of this diminishing series of cycles by recasting life on an altogether higher plane of consciousness.”[57] Kiberd does not dwell on the “void,” or connect this “higher plane of consciousness” with gnosis, but those familiar with Gnosticism well might. I believe Yeats himself did.

The memorable paragraph in Per Amica Silentia Lunae that begins, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry,” ends: “I shall find the dark grow luminous, the void fruitful, when I understand that I have nothing; that the ringers in the tower have appointed for the hymen of the soul a passing bell.” Practical men are committed to the world and to social conventions symbolized by the marriage bell. By contrast, the Poet must concentrate on what is scarcely attainable. The soul achieves its “hymen” or marriage when it forsakes the gratifications of this material world, a forsaking symbolized by the “passing bell,” or death knell. Again, we “free ourselves from delusion that we may be nothing. The last kiss is given to the void.” A lifelong Seeker, Yeats seems at times as much a Gnostic Quester as he is a Romantic Poet.

In his last letter, written to Elizabeth Pelham on January 4, 1939, three weeks before his death, Yeats concluded:

I am happy, and I think full of an energy, an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence. (Letters, 922)

One has no wish to resist let alone refute this gay farewell. But Harold Bloom, in his 2004 book Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? resisted that Yeatsian emphasis on embodiment by choosing, in keeping with his title, to focus on wisdom rather than that “truth” Yeats said could not be “known” but could be embodied. “Of wisdom,” writes Bloom—and he thought his reversal of Yeats important enough to place in splendid isolation on the back cover of his book—“I personally would affirm the reverse. We cannot embody it, yet we can be taught how to learn wisdom, whether or not it can be identified with the Truth that might make us free.” His final, somewhat skeptical allusion is to the Gospel of John (8:32), but Bloom’s emphasis on being taught how to learn wisdom would appeal to all Seekers, certainly Gnostic Seekers.

—Patrick J. Keane

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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Numéro Cinq Contributing Editor Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. 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 (2008).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yeats, Autobiographies (London, 1956), 114-15. For Clarissa Dalloway’s reading, see Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (Ontario, 2013), 106-7.
  2. Even that Gnosticism is syncretist and complex, steeped not only in Hebrew and early Christian writing, but with roots in India, Iran, and of course in Greece (Orphism and Pythagoreanism, Platonism and Neoplatonism). That kind of cross-fertilization simultaneously enriches the tradition, from the mysterious Simon Magus to the formidable Valentinus, and complicates analysis. In addition, the various sects were secret. Because of its value as the way to break out of our imprisonment by the flesh and the material world, and thus the path to salvation, the knowledge was kept hidden, reserved for the spiritual elite capable of achieving and exercising gnosis.
  3. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London, 1954), 210-11.
  4. A very different response to Yeats’s apparent possession of mysterious wisdom is registered by Virginia Woolf. When she met Yeats in November 1930, at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s, Woolf knew little of his thought and not all that much of his poetry, but she was overwhelmed by his personality and by an immediate sense of a body of thought underlying his observations on life and art: “I perceived that he had worked out a complete psychology that I could only catch on to momentarily, in my alarming ignorance.” When he spoke of modern poetry, he described deficiencies inevitable because we are at the end of an era. “Here was another system of thought, of which I could only catch fragments.” She concludes on a note seldom found in Bloomsbury self-assurance: “how crude and jaunty my own theories were besides his: indeed I got a tremendous sense of the intricacy of his art; also of its meaning, its seriousness, its importance, which wholly engrosses this large active minded immensely vitalised man.”  The Diary of Virginia Woolf.  5 vols. Volume 3 (London, 1980), 329.
  5. Ellic Howe, The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (New York, 1972), ix. The ceremony of admission to the R.R.& A.C., based on the legend of Christian Rosenkreuz, required an initiate to commit him- or herself to the “Great Work,” which was, with divine help, to “purify and exalt my Spiritual nature,” and thus,”gradually raise and unite  myself to my Higher and Divine Genius.” In 1901, Yeats wrote an important pamphlet titled “Is the Order of R.R. & A.C. to Remain a Magical Order?” His main point—that frivolous “freedom” is inferior to “bonds gladly accepted”—illuminates his own philosophy in A Vision, and the tension in his poetry between freedom and traditional forms.
  6. Yeats, Letters to the New Island: A New Edition, ed. George Bornstein and Hugh Witemeyer (London, 1990), 84. The volume collects pieces Yeats sent between 1888-92 to The Boston Pilot and the Providence Sunday Journal.
  7. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil (1922), in Autobiographies, 173-74, 179. An almost Yeatsian mixture of fascination and skepticism was evident in the report issued on Blavatsky by Richard Hodgson, a skilled investigator employed by the Society of Psychical Research. Though the SPR report assessed her claimed activities in India to be fraudulent, it concluded that she was “neither the mouthpiece of hidden seers, nor…a mere vulgar adventuress. We think she has achieved a title to a permanent remembrance as one of the most accomplished, ingenious, and interesting imposters of history” (cited in Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon: Theosophy and the Emergence of the Western Guru [London, 1993], 83). Yeats, writing in 1889, and still registering Blavatsky’s magnetism and skills as an eclectic magpie, found that conclusion simplistic, noting, with his usual mixture of skepticism and credulity, that “the fraud theory” at least at its most pronounced, was “unable to cover all the facts.” Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (New York 1973), 281.
  8. The latter, though, poetically, a false start, anticipates Yeats’s debate-poems as well as two powerful late poems: the sonnet, “Meru” (1933), centered on Hindu hermits caverned on Mount Meru, and “Lapis Lazuli,” that marvelous poem based on a Chinese sculpture ending in a blessing and mountain vision. In the Crossways poem, the young priestess Anashuya compels Vijaya to swear an oath by the gods “who dwell on sacred Himalay,/ On the far Golden Peak; enormous shapes,/ Who still were old when the great sea was young;/ On their vast faces mystery and dreams” (lines 66-70). Like Meru, Golden Peak is a Himalayan sacred mountain.
  9. Quoted in Peter Washington, Madame Blavatsky’s Baboon, 88-89.
  10. Chatterjee, Man: Fragments of a Forgotten History (London, 1887).
  11. The quoted phrase is from the succinct synopsis of Graham Hough, The Mystery Religion of W. B. Yeats (Sussex, 1984), 39. Consisting of three Northcliff Lectures given in London in 1983, fleshed out by a fourth chapter on A Vision, Hough’s short book offers an illuminating introduction to the subject. But while he provides a humane counter-weight to the learned but crabbed studies that were threatening to bury Yeats in esoteric commentary, Hough, though a fine reader, discuses very few of the poems, and none at length.
  12. William York Tindall, W. B. Yeats (New York, 1966), 27. With a few notable exceptions, preeminently the late, great George Mills Harper, the best guides to A Vision are not the occultist commentators, but two brilliant literary critics: Helen Vendler (Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays, 1963) and Harold Bloom (Yeats, 1970).
  13. “Introduction” to A Vision, 2nd ed. (London, 1937), 8. It’s hard not to imagine that Yeats was relieved when advice arrived, conveniently, that he should relax, and recall that he was, above all else, a poet.
  14. Peter Allt, “W. B. Yeats,” Theology 42 (1941), 81-99.
  15. Valentinus’s “revelation” came when the Greco-Christian Logos appeared to him as a child. Unsurprisingly, his greatest disciples Ptolemaeus and his pupil, Heracleon, both interpreted the Gospel of John as a Valentinian text.
  16. Both the drafts and the final version of the passage, riddled with echoes of “Vacillation,” “Man and the Echo,” and  of Yeats’s Dantesque death-poem, “Cuchulain Comforted,” make it clear that the ghost is primarily that of  Yeats, an identification confirmed by Eliot in letters to John Hayward, Maurice Johnson, and Kristian Smidt. For details, see Helen Gardner, The Composition of Four Quartets  (New York, 1978), 64-67, and Terence Diggory, Yeats and American Poetry (Princeton, 1983), 115-17, 239. That Jonathan Swift is also part of the compound ghost only reaffirms the dominant presence of Yeats, since Eliot’s reference to “lacerating  laughter at what ceases to amuse” echoes Yeats’s poem, “Swift’s Epitaph,” and nods toward the presence of Swift’s own ghost in Yeats’s play The Words upon  the Window-pane.”
  17. A lengthy text for Yeats (91 lines, like “Anashuya and Vijaya”), The Seeker appeared in 1885, in the Dublin University Review, and was re-printed in the poet’s first book, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889).
  18. Yeats, “Poetry and Tradition,” in Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, IV: Early Essays, ed. Richard J. Finneran and George Bornstein (London, 2007), 186.
  19. Essays and Introductions (London, 1961), 207.
  20. The paragraph, the conclusion of which I will return to in  my own conclusion, occurs in the Amina Hominis (“The Soul of Man”) section of Per Amica Silentia Lunae,  its Virgilian title (“through the friendly silence of the moon”) taken from Book II of the Aeneid.
  21. In a jauntily bleak poem written twenty years later, “Miniver Cheevy,” the American poet Edward Arlington Robinson gave us another frustrated Romantic dreamer (as chivalry-intoxicated as Don Quixote) who, wasting his life, “sighed for what was not,/ And dreamed, and rested from his labors.”
  22. Much in “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland” is reminiscent of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” reminding  me that, many years later, the old woman of “Her Vision in the Wood” (poem VIII of A Woman Young and Old) asks a Keatsian question of other immortals: “Why should they think that are for ever young?”
  23. Yeats, Mythologies (London and New York, 1959), 78.
  24. W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 1901-1937, ed. Ursula Bridge (London, 1953), 164.
  25. Vendler, Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays (Cambridge, Mass, 1963), 118. The floor is ambiguously “marbled.”  Yeats originally envisioned a marble pavement, but another draft, referring to the emperor’s “bronze & marble,” suggests statuary, as in in the statues of “Among School Children,” that “keep a marble or a bronze repose.”
  26. Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue (London, 1972), 71; Autobiographies, 180.
  27. The photocopied drafts of the poem (in the Yeats Archives at SUNY, Stony Brook) have been transcribed by Jon Stallworthy, Donald Torchiana, and myself; here, I cite my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition, 100, italics added.
  28. In the Preface to his epic poem Milton, Blake, having  requested his prophetic weapons (“Bring me my Bow of burning gold,/Bring me my Arrows of desire,/ Bring me my Spear,/O clouds, unfold!,/ Bring me my Chariot of fire”), pledges, in the final quatrain, that “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/ Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,/ Till we have built Jerusalem/ In  England’s green and pleasant Land.” The passage earlier quoted from the apocalyptic Ninth “Night” of The Four Zoas includes lines IX:798, 822-27, and 849-51. Valentinus is quoted from the “Fourth Key”: “At the end,…the world shall be judged by fire,” and “After the conflagration, there shall be formed a new heaven and a new earth, and the new man will be more noble in his glorified state than he was before.” The Hermetic Museum, trans. from the 1678 Latin text, ed. A. E. Waite, 2 vols. (London, 1893), I, 331.
  29. For Blake’s “gnomic” genius, see Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Boston, 1962 [1947]), 5. For the remark on Yeats’s synopsis of modern civilization in “Fragments” (I), see Douglas Bush, Science and English Poetry: A Historical Sketch, 1590-1950 (New York, 1950), 158.
  30. Edward O.Shea, A Descriptive Catalog of W. B. Yeats’s Library (New York, 1985), item 2258.
  31. Reprinted in Explorations (New York, 1962), 369.
  32. Yeats, “Introduction” to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (London, 1936), xxvi-vii. For Whitehead, in his similar account (in Science and the Modern World) of the Romantic reaction to the limitations of the Enlightenment, the principal figure was Wordsworth, as influenced by Coleridge on Imagination and Organicism.
  33. The diagram was drawn on p. 122 of Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, and Prophet: Choice Selections from His Works, compiled by Thomas Common (1901). Given to Yeats as a gift in 1902 by attorney and patron of the arts John Quinn, it is now in the Special Collections of the library at Northwestern University. First mentioned by Richard Ellmann (The Identity of Yeats), these annotations were transcribed for me many years ago by another late, great scholar, Erich Heller.
  34. For these unpublished notes, connecting Cicero’s Dream of Scipio and Macrobius’s Commentary with Balzac’s Swedenborgian novel Séraphita and Paul Gaughin’s Intimate Journals, see my Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (London and Columbia, 1987), 142-47.
  35. Thus Spoke Zarathustra  III.2:1, in The Portable  Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann  (New York, 1954), 269.
  36. In the opening stanza of Browning’s quest-poem, Childe Roland first thought was that he was being “lied” to by that sadistic cripple, “with malicious eye/ Askance to watch the working of his lie/ On mine.” (The earlier allusion, to Browning’s Duke, refers of course to “My Last Duchess.”) Even closer to Self’s temporarily mistaken belief that that “defiling” shape “cast upon” him by mirroring eyes “must be his shape” is the initially deluded, masochistic cry of Blake’s Oothoon (2: 36-39) for her “defiled bosom” to be rent away so that she “may reflect/ The image” of the very man (the moralistic sadist, Theotormon, who, having raped her, now brands her “harlot”) whose “loved” but unloving “eyes” have cast upon her precisely this “defiled” shape—one of Blake’s, and now Yeats’s, grimmest ironies. But both recover.
  37. Nietzsche, Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge, 1982), 186-87, 48 (§437, §79).
  38. Theodotus was a leading Valentinian of the Eastern school. The 2nd-century Excerpts were quoted and thus preserved by Clement of Alexandria.  In his 1970 study, Yeats, Harold Bloom viewed Gnosticism as the pessimistic opposite of Romantic affirmation, especially in Blake and Shelley. Within a half-dozen years (hardly the span of “light years” he jocoseriously refers to), he no longer saw Gnosticism as a “deviation from Romanticism.” Indeed, it “could be argued that a form of Gnosticism is endemic in Romantic tradition without, however, dominating that tradition, or even that Gnosticism is the implicit, inevitable religion that frequently informs aspects of post-Enlightenment poetry.” “Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void,” in Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (New Haven, 1966), 212.
  39. Emerson: Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte (New York, 1983), 81; italics added. The Divinity School Address evoked a ferocious controversy that shook New England. Condemned as a “pagan,” an “infidel,” and a “cloven-hoofed” pantheist who had defiled the sacred citadel of Unitarianism, Emerson was ostracized from his alma mater for thirty years. For the “bringing-forth” passages, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Gospel of Thomas (New York, 2003), 49, 32. As Harold Bloom is right to say, “there is little in the Gospel of Thomas that would not have been accepted by Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman.” Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (New York, 2004), 260.
  40. Thus Spoke Zarathustra III.16:6, in The Portable Nietzsche, 342.Yeats read the work in the 1896 Alexander Tille translation and, excerpted, in the Thomas Common anthology given him by Quinn.
  41. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. Richard Finneran, et al, 2 vols. (London, 1977), 2:560.
  42. Yeats quotes George in a letter to Dorothy Wellesley, written shortly after Russell’s death in July, 1935:  “My wife said the other night, ‘AE’ was the nearest thing to a saint you and I will ever meet. You are a better poet but no saint. I suppose one has to choose.” (Letters, 838).
  43. Quoted in A. Norman Jeffares, The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (London, 1961), 267.
  44. Aside from “To a Young Girl” (1915), addressed to Iseult Gonne, “His Memories” is the only poem where Yeats claims that his passion for Maud was sexually reciprocated. Readers, used to the Maud /Helen association, would know who “The first of all the tribe” was who lay in the speaker’s arms, “And did such pleasure take—/ She who had brought great Hector down/ And put all Troy to wreck—/ That she cried into this ear,/ ‘Strike me if I shriek’.”
  45. “Lucretius,” Fortnightly Review 17 (1875); in The Cambridge Companion to Lucretius (Cambridge, 2007), 12.
  46. The Carpocratian doctrine is synopsized in Against Heresies (§2952), by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyon. Though his motive was to condemn Gnosticism, which at the time (174-89 CE) was spreading in Gaul, this work of Irenaeus has been invaluable to modern scholars studying the beliefs of various Gnostic sects.
  47. Letters, 790. W. B. Yeats: Interviews and Recollections, ed. E. H. Mikhail, 2 vols. (London, 1977), 2:203.
  48. Yeats: Essays and Introductions, 137-38. Blake continued by excoriating those who, “having no passions of their own, because no intellect, have spent their lives in curbing and governing other peoples’.” Yeats’s Bishop comes immediately to mind, especially since Blake is thinking of “the modern church,” which “crucifies” the “true” imaginative Christ “upside down.”
  49. Damage to which I very nearly contributed in 1995, when I almost dropped the piece of lapis I’d been invited to examine during a visit to the home of Michael and Gráinne Yeats.
  50. A week later, dictating to his wife days before his actual death, Yeats wrote “The Black Tower,” in which he resumes the heroic mask shed in “Cuchulain Comforted” and “Man and the Echo.” Here, “the men of the old black tower,” though down to their last provisions and faced with a relentless, sordid enemy, remain “all…oath-bound men;/ Those banners come not in.” Their final exclamation—“Stand we on guard oath-bound!”—echoes an assertion Yeats liked to quote from his favorite Anglo-Irish hero. Defending the merits of the Ancients against the Moderns, Jonathan Swift pronounced himself a man “appointed to guard a position.” “The Black Tower” has its own merits, but we are right to regret its place of honor as Yeats’s very last poem.
  51. Bloom, Poetry and Repression, 230, 228.
  52. Along with pride at its popular success, Yeats felt guilt in having produced a patriotic but propagandistic play that was, at heart, a love-offering to his own terrible beauty, Maud Gonne, and a betrayal of his own better judgment. We cannot simply dismiss some of later Yeats’s ranting and his theatrical waving of Sato’s sword, and cry for “war,” in responding to an Indian visitor’s request for “a message for India.” But Yeats, like Joyce, was opposed to the rabid nationalism embodied in the crude and violent “Citizen” in the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. That one-eyed Fenian, a reincarnation of Homer’s Polyphemus, may also be a male equivalent of Ireland’s own one-eyed Morrigu, the overtly dark side of Cathleen ni Houlihan. I have a suspicion amounting to a conviction that Yeats thought “that play of mine” not really his (in fact, most of the dialogue, though not the lyric passages, was written by Lady Gregory), and that, when he wasn’t basking in its popularity, sometimes wished it had been omitted rather than committed.
  53. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals. III.3. J. M. Kennedy, the first translator of Nietzsche’s Die Morgenröte (Dawn or Daybreak), also translated, in the same year (1913), the Satakas (or Wise Sayings) of the Hindu hermit-poet, Bhartrahari, one of whose texts (Vairagasataka §71) I paraphrased in glossing tatah kim.
  54. Bloom, “Yeats, Gnosticism, and the Sacred Void,” in Poetry and Repression, 234.
  55. Yeats, “Manduka Upanishad,” in Essays and Introductions, 479-81.
  56. W. B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence, 154.
  57. “W. B. Yeats—Building Amid Ruins,” in Kiberd’s Irish Classics (Cambridge, Mass., 2001), 454.
May 112017
 

 

The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems
Fleda Brown
University of Nebraska Press
275 pages, Paperback $19.95 US
978-0-8032-9494-3

 

Former Poet Laureate and editor Ted Kooser, in his introduction to Fleda Brown’s recently published The Woods Are On Fire: New and Selected Poems, says this about the book: “You hold the first of these poems in your left hand and the last in your right, and in between is the carefully and beautifully presented record of the life of a talented and influential American poet. And a person who reaches, in welcome, to you.”

Exactly right. At every turn in this book – made up of poems from six previous books along with fifty new poems – the poet Fleda Brown opens the door to her life and invites you in.

I teach my niece Elizabeth
to let down her oars,
then pull and lift with mine.
Our wake smooths
like a tail. Elizabeth says
we are a dragonfly,
double-oared. I think
we are an old woman,
our low whaler spreading
the reeds with wide hips,
sloshing hollow…..

from “Whaler”

Key to the enjoyment of Brown’s welcoming invitation is a taste for complications – not the complications of language, and not the complications of form or structure, but the complications of life. Brown’s life, filtered through language which avoids sentimentality and obfuscation, is reflected in poems, which examine burdens, confusions, illnesses, losses, reservations and constraints. But it’s also reflected, sometimes as counterpoints within the same poems, in moments of determination, reflection, wonder, hope and heart, as with one of my favorite poems in the book (taken from Reunion, published in 2007) which describes something called “the perfection knot”:

Knot Tying Lessons

The Perfection Knot
—a favorite loop among anglers, it has survived
the advent of slippery nylon monofil, which has
rendered many other knots obsolete.

How do we keep from going mad,
starting over with marriages and children,
making the same mistakes?
Over and over, we leave behind
the buoys that marked the shallows
we should have seen. They bob like zeros
behind us, counting for or against, who
can be sure? Maybe everything was
simpler than we thought from the start,
perfect as the disk of the sun, and the first
loop we took was never supposed to be
tied in some frivolous bow. Maybe
we were to come through the loop bravely,
cross its outer border until we could see
clearly how it was we began all this,
slip under what we used to think
was the route, until we caught
our waywardness in a noose, and nothing
could slip loose. Maybe it’s the kind of thing
you have to teach your hands to do
without puzzling too much about it,
the way you faithfully get up, go to work,
come home. Like the rotation of the planets,
you have to believe than just because
no one says so, doesn’t mean you aren’t
okay, more than okay, really,
in your devotion to what you can’t
exactly explain.

The Woods Are on Fire is a hefty volume – 275 pages – published by the University of Nebraska Press as part of its Ted Kooser Contemporary Poetry series. Previous volumes in the series include Darkened Rooms of Summer by Jared Carter (2014), and Rival Gardens by Connie Wanek (2016.) All three books – Brown’s, Carter’s and Wanek’s – offer “new and selected” work; decades of thought-provoking writing are represented, and Kooser has chosen his poets well.

Brown, who taught for many years at the University of Delaware and was Delaware’s Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2007, maintains an interesting blog called “My Wobbly Bicycle.” One of her recent posts includes this poem, another favorite of mine included as an excerpt from the book Reunion:

Mouse

I admire the way mouse dashes across the top bracket
of the blinds while we’re reading in bed. I admire the tiny whip

of its tail at the exact second my husband tries to grab it.
I admire the way it disappears into our house and shreds various

elements. I admire the way it selects the secret corridors
behind cupboards and drawers, the way it remains on the reverse

side of our lives. The mouse is what I think of when I think of
a poem, or of music, going straight for the goods, around

the barrier of our thoughts. It leaves droppings, pretending to be
not entirely substantial, falling apart a little here and there.

Clearly, it has evolved perfect attention to detail. I wish it would
concentrate on the morning news, pass the dreadfulness out

in little pellets. Yesterday I found a nest of toilet paper and
thought I’d like to climb onto that frayed little cloud. I would like

to become the disciple of that mouse and sing “Wooly Bully”
in a tiny little voice in the middle of the night while the dangerous

political machines are all asleep. I would like to have a tail
for an antenna. But, I thought, also, how it must be to live alone

among the canyons of cabinets, to pay that price, to look foolish
and trembling in daylight. Who would willingly choose to be

the small persistent difficulty? So I put out a spoonful of peanut butter
for the mouse, and the morning felt more decent, the government

more fair. I put on my jeans and black shirt, trying not to make
mistakes yet, because it seemed like a miracle that anyone tries at all.

In this poem, Brown moves from admiration to envy to pity and, finally, to empathy. Her reactions to the simplest things – a chicken bone, a small flower, a bus stop, mushrooms – often clearly demonstrate the changing perspectives of a poet trying to figure things out, trying “not to make mistakes” but, in the end,  accepting the fact that much about this world will remain a mystery.

Brown herself, in an interview in which she was asked to describe her poetry, said this: “I am strongly convinced that poetry should be accessible on the rational level as well as pointing our way into the irrational, non-linear place we often call the dream world.” Lines like the following about a woman and her lover from “Love, for Instance”(from Fishing with Blood)  illustrate Brown’s point: “And look at her eyes as she kisses him, / wide open, deliberate as his flowers. She watches him / roll out of her mouth like a ghostly language….”

The Woods Are on Fire contains excerpts from all but one of Brown’s previous books; the exception is titled The Devil’s Child, a long and continuous narrative poem, and Brown states in her acknowledgements that “the tone of the book made it impossible to fit among these other poems.”  Nevertheless, she considers it her best work, one to be looked up and read separately.

One book from which poems are taken is The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives. All the excerpts deal with Elvis in one way or another – memories of what an adolescent’s life was like in the 50’s, and specific events in Elvis’s life: how he shook hands with Nixon, how he went into the army, how he sang gospel songs. What might have turned glib or silly in another poet’s hands remain meditative in Brown’s. As Elvis talks with Nixon, the singer “… tries to get across that he knows the awful changes / the country can make when you’re not looking, / how one moment can desert the other / and leave you standing in the footlights, / trying to remember if you’re supposed to shoot or fly.”  An earlier poem from Fishing with Blood describes the fan-rivalry between singer Ricky Nelson and Elvis this way: “Ricky and Elvis conflicted down our bulletin boards, / a plain philosophical choice: country-club white / or the deep rumble from the edge of black.”

The most heart-wrenching of the poems in the book are about illnesses and disabilities in her family – the condition of her mentally retarded brother, the vulnerabilities of her aging mother and father, the illness of a well-loved sister. The Woods Are on Fire is a collection meant to be read from cover to cover, unlike some books of poetry which feel best if read by dipping in at any page to read a solo poem. Instead, with Brown, we turn the pages and watch her own sensibilities deepening, we note a perspective developing over the years. Once read, this book will be read again, and we’ll pull the book from the shelf often as a poetic reference text, so to speak, for moments in our own lives which correspond. This is the kind of light-filled  book we use to see the world more clearly and make our way forward – and we do it with a poem in each hand, as Kooser recommends.

—Julie Larios

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Julie Larios is a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. She is a poet and lives in Seattle.

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May 102017
 

As this section opens, the unnamed narrator is leaving the hotel in Rio de Janeiro where he has spent the night. He is anxiously embarking on some sort of necessary journey. But he is travelling without luggage and, it would seem, without a clearly defined purpose, or destination.

Atlantic Hotel is translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris.

—  Joseph Schreiber

.

I went down the hotel steps half stooped, my legs and back were killing me. When I got to the door I put one of my hands against the wall to hold myself up, and with the other I pressed against the pain in my lower back. Maybe I should go back to my room? I wondered. Maybe I should stay, give up? Maybe I should marry the flapper from reception? Maybe I’ll be content with the company of a woman?

I’m old, I thought. Old at barely forty. Traipsing around would be madness. Legs, weak. Irregular heartbeat, I know. And my rheumatoid posture…

There, stopped in the hotel doorway, I felt vertigo. Foggy vision, out of breath…

But I needed to get going. I stepped down from the stoop and leaned against the wall of the building. Lots of people were passing along Nossa Senhora de Copacabana, just like every morning, some brushed against me, touched me inadvertently, coughed.

I felt on the verge of fainting but avoided the idea of asking for help. Resorting to another person’s assistance would be the same as staying, and I needed to go.

Then I thought about getting a taxi. So I went looking for one. I walked by moving one leg at a time, steadying myself on other people like a drunk. Until my feet stepped into the dark puddle in the gutter. I hailed a cab and it stopped.

I told the cabbie I was going to the bus station. I got in the back, curled up, lying down on the seat. The driver asked if I was sick. With what remained of my voice I said I was only tired. Bus station, I repeated. The cabbie kept talking, but I couldn’t follow.

At one point I understood he was talking about the cold. I said: Oh, the cold, as cold as the Russian steppes. He told me: The Russian steppes are cold as death. This I heard quite clearly.

I returned to my senses. The traffic. The cabbie commenting on the smog in the Rebouças tunnel. I leveraged my hands against the seat back and managed to bring myself upright. The car was emerging from the tunnel.

I was almost better, just a tremble in my hands.

“How come you’re so tired?” the cabbie asked.

“I was partying all night,” I replied.

He laughed. I showed him my hand and said, “Look how I’m trembling, it’s alcohol tremors.”

“You’re an alcoholic?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I’m going to a treatment center in Minas,” I replied.

He shook his head, gave a little snort of assent, and said, “I have a brother-in-law who drinks. He was in rehab three times.”

Suddenly, the cabbie said we’d arrived at the bus station.

“You all right?” he asked.

“Great,” I replied, almost startled.

I watched the commotion at the bus station and saw the hour of my departure had arrived, the way someone going under for surgery witnesses the anesthesiologist’s first procedure.

I took a wad of money from my pocket, opened my hand, and gave it to the cabbie. He asked if I wanted change. I inquired if he knew where to find the ticket counters for the buses to Minas. He smiled, gave me a look, and said he had no idea.

“I’m sorry.” I said it full of a sudden shame.

“Sorry for what, man?” he asked.

“Sorry for being who I am,” I replied, closing the car door softly.

I got on the escalator going up. The one coming down was jammed with people. Between the up and down escalators there was a long concrete staircase. People in a hurry were going up and down, skipping steps.

On the escalators everyone seemed totally immersed in what they were doing. Noticing this relaxed me. I too would manage: travel, take the bus, arrive somewhere else.

There were long lines at the ticket windows. A lot of people were milling around. Many others sat on benches. A man and a woman kissed shamelessly at a lunch counter. A man left the pharmacy looking at his watch.

I sat on a bench, way at the end. The rest of the bench was full. I stretched out one of my legs a bit, without letting my heel come off the floor. My leg looked a bit pitiful. Maybe it was the crumpled up unwashed sock, the fleck of mud on my shoe. A pitiful state I’d done everything I could to disguise. I brought the leg back over beside the other.

Now I was looking at nothing except the dirty floor on the upper deck of the bus station. Gazing at that dirty floor, I had nothing else to think about. Maybe a vague yearning for a child’s intimacy with the floor.

It struck me that my journey might bring me back to that intimacy. A voice inside me said, between excitement and apprehension, Who knows, maybe I’ll end up sleeping on the ground.

I took out the ball cap I always carried in the pocket of my blazer. I put it on my head in the position I liked, a little to the right side. I no longer needed a mirror to be sure the cap was placed in exactly that position.

The cap obeyed, loyal. My hands had memorized the way to execute their task. As always, when the task was completed, I gave a little tap on the cap’s brim to see if it was really on right.

I ran my hands down my body as though searching for something and felt a bulk in the blazer’s other pocket. It was a thick piece of paper folded several times—a map of Brazil I’d bought two days earlier.

I looked around, making sure there was room to open the map all the way. I put my legs over the armrest of the bench. Now, with nobody on either side, I could extend my arms.

As I opened the map I remembered what I’d said to the cabbie. That I’d be going to alcohol rehab in the Minas countryside.

On the map, the Minas countryside looked like a swarm of little towns. My gaze descended a little, crossing into São Paulo State and stopping on Paraná.

I was thirsty. I thought about getting a mineral water. I folded the map, discreetly tucked it under my butt. Then I got up and walked away.

I didn’t even make it five steps. A woman seated on the bench facing mine called out, “Hey, sir, sir, I think you forgot something there.”

I looked back, toward the spot where I’d been sitting, saw the paper folded on the bench seat, turned to the woman, and shook my head, saying, “It’s not mine.”

— João Gilberto Noll, Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

Excerpt courtesy of Two Lines Press; translation copyright 2017 Adam Morris

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João Gilberto Noll (1946–2017) is the author of nearly twenty books. His work appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he was a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of more than ten awards in all, he died in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the age of 70.

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Adam Morris has a PhD in Latin American Literature from Stanford University and is the recipient of the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize in literary translation. He is the translator of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel (Two Lines Press, 2017) and Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press, 2016), and Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House Books, 2014). His writing and translations have been published widely, including in BOMB magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He lives in San Francisco.

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May 102017
 

While Noll incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. —Joseph Schreiber

Atlantic Hotel
João Gilberto Noll
Translated by Adam Morris
Two Lines Press, May 2017
$9.95, 152 pages

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Just last year, an enthusiastic English language audience was introduced to the work of the eminent and enigmatic Brazilian writer, João Gilberto Noll, through the publication of Adam Morris’ sensitive translation of Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press). On March 29th of this year, less than two months before the scheduled follow up release of Atlantic Hotel, his most highly regarded and controversial novel, Noll died at his home in Porto Alegre. He was seventy years old. While his passing was met with an outpouring of tributes and grief in his home country, to those of us who have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to his sample more of his work, the confluence of these two events is certainly bittersweet.

For all the acclaim he earned in his lifetime—notably Noll was awarded Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti Prize five times—he was an unassuming literary hero. In his obituary for Words Without Borders, translator Adam Morris wrote:

What was so special about João Gilberto Noll was that he wrote for himself. This might seem like a simplistic criterion for heroism. And what I mean by it is simple, something better expressed by his agent, Valéria Martins, who was quoted in the Folha de São Paulo: “Era um cara que vivia para a literatura.” He was a man who lived for literature. Particularly in his later years, Noll lived a solitary lifestyle that allowed him to devote as much of his time as possible to his craft.

Themes of loneliness and alienation run through his writing; his characters routinely face unlikely situations tinged with surreal overtones. These qualities have engendered a raft of comparisons—Camus, Kafka, and Beckett have been mentioned—while closer to home, Clarice Lispector’s influence is evident. But it is perhaps counterproductive to define him solely with respect to others. Noll stands on his own terms, as a writer who draws on his personal sense of self in relation to the uncertain nature of reality. It is a dialogue grounded in the psychological realm. His protagonists appear to be experiencing and reacting, rather than driving the narrative, and their fatalistic passivity can be unsettling for the reader who expects a main character who, rightly or wrongly, is motivated by some apparent objective.

Originally published in 1989, Atlantic Hotel, like Quiet Creature, can be read, in part, as a reflection of the shifting political climate of the times. Brazil was caught in an extended and difficult process of democratization after several decades of military rule. In Quiet Creature (published in 1991, and which I reviewed last year), the young protagonist, despite the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself and his personal lack of concern for the events of the “outside world,” attends a rally for Lula and observes the relocation of settlers. This gives the novel an identifiable temporal context. However, with Atlantic Hotel, there is no direct reference to current political or social conditions. In this earlier title, the isolation and restlessness of the nameless narrator speaks more generally to the broad existential dislocation that is a constant element in Noll’s work. He asks: How well do any of us really know ourselves?

The novel begins, as it ends, with a mysterious death. The narrator-protagonist is an amorphous character. He arrives at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, just as a body is being removed from the premises. He requests a room for the night, but is carrying no luggage. The receptionist seems enamoured with him from the outset and, in the course of his brief stay, they engage in a couple of abrupt and impersonal sexual encounters. He is fitful and unable to relax. An atmosphere of impending doom weighs on him. “I thought about my departure,” he says, “about how long I would last.” But despite his escalating anxiety, he seems reluctant to leave, and returns to his bed:

I kicked off my shoes. I felt I was repressing a sense of hopelessness inside myself, because I had to get going soon—so I pretended to be calm, very calm.

If I feigned madness, or maybe numbed amnesia, the world would rush to commit me.

And isn’t that the same thing as going away? But with the advantage of not having to expend any effort, such as coming and going from dumps like this one. If I went crazy, they’d have me doped all day and night, asleep as soon as my head dropped in a haze.

When he finally checks out of the hotel, he notices that he suddenly feels and looks aged beyond his forty years. He takes a taxi to the bus station and purchases a ticket to Florianópolis, choosing the destination on a whim. On the bus he becomes attracted to Susan, his beautiful American seatmate. But she is escaping her own demons and, before the trip is over, she has taken a fatal overdose of pills. Rather than calling for assistance or reporting her condition, the narrator responds with the paranoid fear that her death will somehow call attention to him. He takes refuge in a washroom and then a bookstore before slipping out of the station and disappearing into the city.

His experience on the bus, his second encounter with a corpse in as many days, has shaken his haphazard sense of direction and he realizes that he needs “new bearings” on his journey. Through a bartender he ends up securing a ride with a couple of questionable-looking men who are said to be heading to Rio Grande do Sul, the southern-most state in Brazil. From this point on, things get stranger. Their first night on the road is spent at a brothel. Before the second day is out, a mysterious stop at an isolated farm has led to an unseen altercation, perhaps a murder, and our protagonist has to make a hasty escape before he himself prematurely becomes the next corpse on his curious odyssey.

From there he catches a ride on a horse-drawn wagon. The young driver takes him to a village where he secures lodging for the night at the local vicarage. The next day, while his sole set of clothing is being laundered, he strolls the village streets dressed in the old frock of a former priest, enjoying the isolation and anonymity the guise affords him. When a distraught woman beseeches him to perform last rites for her dying sister, he complies, taking on the assumed role, and thus meets his third dead body in four days.

Again he is restless and anxious to move on, so as soon as his own clothing is dry he takes to the road once more to continue his journey south. As evening approaches he reaches a small city, and feeling unwell, knocks on a door seeking assistance. The woman who answers starts screaming, identifying him as a kidnapper; the man at the second door he tries greets him with a gun. He collapses and when he comes to he finds himself hospitalized and permanently disabled. Whatever he is seeking or avoiding with his reluctant wandering, he finds this loss of control and freedom difficult to accept. His recovery will be slow and uncertain.

Readers familiar with Quiet Creature will find that Atlantic Hotel is, on the surface, a more straightforward story. The language is precise, the imagery and circumstances less surreal—strange and at times threatening, yes, but potentially explainable. This novel is essentially a piece of noir fiction, with all of the clichés one typically associates with the genre: cadavers, a secretive hero who seduces and sheds women without a care, the requisite danger and suspense. For example, after witnessing a nasty confrontation that leaves him in no doubt that his own life is in immediate danger, our hero plans and executes a daring getaway:

I dragged myself up the riverbank, taking hold of exposed roots to hoist myself up. The ground had the wetness of damp overgrowth that never sees any sunlight, leaves sticking to my clothes as I climbed, everything muddy, moving carefully so I wouldn’t make any noise—when I got to the top of the bank there’d be no cover, I’d have to run for it, make noise, get quickly to the car, which was close to the guard dogs who would bark as though possessed, pulling their chains to the point of breaking.

And when I got to the top of the hill I ran fast to the car, opened the door, and rolled up the windows with the furious dogs just a few yards away. Deafened, I grabbed the key and started the car, and here came the shots from behind.

One can argue that Noll is intentionally playing against the tropes of genre fiction or, in keeping with the cinematic quality of his writing, commercial film. Yet, while he incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. The protagonist responds with anxiety, paranoia, and an instinct for self-preservation, but resists the temptation to investigate or seek an understanding of the events he encounters. He is increasingly capricious, and there is a growing element of groundlessness to his behaviour. The effect is destabilizing.

If there is a link between the body at the hotel, the suicide on the bus, the devious and deadly pursuits of his travel companions, and the circumstances that lead to his hospitalization and surgery, the narrator reveals no connections and draws no conclusions. Most critically, his own identity is an enigma. We learn nothing of his background or the reason for his exodus. He tells a taxi driver he is on his way to rehab, impersonates a priest, and tells the American woman that he is an unemployed actor. Later, on two separate occasions, others claim to recognize him from movie or television roles. He does not deny this, but holds no nostalgia for a past fame, nor does his persistent anxiety seem to arise from a fear of being directly identified or named.

There is, however, a performative quality to the way he moves through the scenes that unfold. One has a sense that he is improvising and observing himself at the same time, immersed in an ongoing emotional and perceptual interplay with his environment. He is experiencing himself into being, if you like. This ontological process of continual conscious re-engagement with his surroundings—almost every time he awakes he must rediscover where he is—creates a sense of existence that is very much “in the moment.” He seems to require regular physical confirmation to maintain his fragile presence. He is very sensitive to temperature fluctuations, as he travels the weather is either unseasonably cold or hot. His sexual encounters are fleeting, even awkward. And, for a man who owns only one set of clothing, he demonstrates a distinct preoccupation with the condition of his body—he desires regular baths, dreams he is a woman, and is hopelessly devastated when he loses a limb.

As the narrative flirts with the conventions of noir fiction but fails to commit, the narrator seems to be trying to reconcile his physical and psychological realities but keeps unravelling at the edges. Once he finds himself in the hospital under strange and increasingly surreal circumstances, the effort of maintaining the continual re-engagement with his environment quickly wears him down. Unable to leave, he prefers to opt for sedated release, trusting his fate to the black male nurse who attends to his care. In the process of recounting his experiences he has now started to slowly narrate himself out of existence. And, ultimately, Atlantic Hotel becomes an unnerving but starkly beautiful parable of alienation, isolation, and the eternal heartache of the human condition.

—Joseph Schreiber

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Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts

May 092017
 

John Bullock

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To kill time, Mia is studying the Hollywood Legends portrait gallery in the hotel lobby. A small furry spider is moving across George Clooney’s tuxedoed shoulder and then up and across his beaming face. When it gets to the exposed tip of his upper incisor, the spider stops, as if baffled by where it has landed, or unsure where to go from there.

Finn promised to be back by six. That would give them plenty of time to get to the cliffs to see the divers. Finn is a gifted promise breaker, and Mia hopes he’ll have no choice but to stand her up again—another crisis at the restaurant. She would prefer to see the divers alone. They are the main reason she came with him on the trip. Besides, if she goes without him, he can always catch up with her later, which he won’t.

After waiting ten more minutes she decides he is definitely not coming, and so takes a taxi from the hotel forecourt. The thrill of escape trails her like a vapor as the car winds down from Punta Diamante, past the clubs and hotels along the coast, the flashes of sand and water between the buildings. She is glad she won’t see the city when it’s packed with spring breakers, trashing the beauty. When she was in college, the most fun she remembered having at spring break was working at a camp for kids with cancer. They would go on daytrips to Rehoboth Beach, where the main event was crab. From what everyone kept telling her about it, she expected the taste to be so extraordinary that her life would change forever. But after she’d cracked the shell and fiddled with the bits and pulled out some of the meat, it just tasted sour and fishy. And her fingers were covered. Why hadn’t anyone told her that it was just a lot of gunk for nothing?

Lovers are clutched against the safety rail separating the road from the bay below. The driver points to the brightly lit cliff that veers in and out of view as they follow the snaking road. “Clavadistas,” he says, making a diving motion with his hand. Mia can’t believe she’s here. She remembers how she and Vance played hookey in his dad’s den all those years ago and watched Fun in Acapulco, with Vance saying there was no way Elvis had made the dive from the top of the cliff, that it was totally a stunt. If Vance were alive he would have loved to see the real divers. Mia is here for him.

They reach the top, where the El Mirador hotel sits curved into the cliff, its restaurant terrace facing the inlet where the divers land. Tourists and locals mosey through the square before descending the steps to the concrete pier that juts out over the inlet, thirty feet above the narrow strip of water facing the divers’ cliff. Mia’s a bit queasy: the expectant air and ritual drama, the tide bashing at the rock. She thinks of Vance getting sucked out of his canoe at Sullivan’s Weir, a month before graduation, of his dad jogging back along the riverbank, kind of whimpering for help. When Mia and the others reached Vance, he was snagged in a culvert, by a fallen tree, floating in foam from the nearby factories. The next time she saw him was at the funeral home. He looked flawless, better than if he were going to the prom. He would never dress up for that. Mia tries to believe it wouldn’t have mattered, that they wouldn’t have argued about it, though she knows they probably would have. He was so stubborn. But it was different back then. Arguing was easy. Rather than stewing in silence in bed together, you could just put on your shoes and go home.

She looks up at the hotel’s terraces, and for a moment her eyes fall into soft-focus, taking in the blurred dazzle of the night, the murmur around her, the warm bay breeze on her face. She hears hiccups. At her waist is a Mexican boy. His mother and sister are laughing at the faces he’s making to try to conquer his hiccups. The more they laugh the less he can concentrate, and the stronger his hiccups get. He’s mad. When he sees Mia smiling, it’s the final straw. He sulks off to the other side of the pier, takes a full breath, and then bends himself double as if to trap whatever air is inside him. When he stands normally and exhales, he looks hopeful. But his hiccups soon start again.

People crowd the pier. The first dive is scheduled for 7:30. Mia watches the tide surge at the cliff. She’s never felt so raw, so mortal. The night is vast and open, full of dark reaches. How small you can feel here, with so much beyond. There is time and she is idle and it feels wrong. Her hands in the open night. What to do with them? Her dress has no pockets. She takes off her cardigan and is wrapping it around her hands when she feels a brush at her shoulder.

“You are cold?” the man says. He’s older, lean, with an accent. He has a camera with a big lens and is holding it high.

“No,” says Mia. Then she says, “Beautiful.”

“I saw them lighting their torches at the top,” the man says. “The show is about to begin.”

“I can’t wait,” says Mia. And she can’t. Well, she probably could, but she’s here now, and her past is about to appear tonight and make a brave leap into the present. She sees the man looking at her bulge. “I’m replete with the future,” she says, touching her belly, not thinking about being heard.

“Ah,” says the man.

“Mine drift,” says Mia. “My eyes. If you let them slide they’ll pick up on things you normally don’t see. It’s like what things are when you let them be.”

“A philosopher,” says the man, looking expectantly toward the steps. “I’m afraid philosophy is an orphan here.”

Earlier, reading a magazine in the hotel’s breakfast area, Mia overheard a woman say, “Mexicanos son los elefantes de América Latina.” She had no idea why the woman said it, but it sounded far more like philosophy than anything she’d ever thought.

“There,” says the man, “the torches.”

The torch-bearing boys, in black Speedos, descend the steps. The crowd applauds. The boys dump their torches in a bin by a table and cut through the crowd to the low wall against which Mia and others have wedged themselves, to get the best view of the inlet and the spotlighted cliff across from it. One by one the boys hop over the wall and work their way down the sloped bank to the water. There is a splash: one has dived into the inlet. He surfaces, shakes his head. He sways in the current and swims over to the base of the cliff, then hoists himself out of the water. As he climbs, another boy dives into the water and swims to the cliff. In time all nine boys make it across and work their way barefoot up the eighty-foot cliff-face, just as Elvis had. Mia thinks of her rush-hour drives to work. This is a much tougher commute, but they make it look so easy.

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The diving was fabulous, of course. Fantastisch! But the fact that you knew what was coming somehow flattened the magic and made it seem like an experience you’d already had. But the boys’ monkey-scurrying up the rock was very cool.

“Barbary apes,” says the man, who is still there, angling his camera to catch a glimpse of a diver as he scrambles back up the sloped bank and onto the pier. “Do you know them?” he says over the crowd’s applause.

“Apes?” says Mia. “Of course.” Although she doesn’t. But in a foreign country, among strangers, a lie is the same as the truth, or better. She is watching the boy’s bird-lean body as he hops back over the low wall, his black hair short and shiny, the water thin streams down his shoulders. How do they not split on impact?

“Do you think skin has a memory?” says Mia.

The man doesn’t answer. Mia thinks some more about the skin thing. “Have you ever done something with your face, a look or expression, and then suddenly it’s like déjà vu and you’re totally someplace else, maybe years ago, the time when you last made that face?”

“There are two more performances,” says the man. Then he stops angling his camera and addresses Mia: “Why are you here?”

“Last week I was driving,” she says, “and I was thinking about my grandma. It was late, and I was a bit out of it. All of a sudden I start getting twitchy-eye. And then I looked down at the ground. That’s when I got this weird wiggly-sideways feeling. Like a flashback? And then it was like I was eight years old again. Not sad or anything, just that that was the last time — I don’t know if it had happened before then, but that was the last time my body remembered doing that twitchy-sideways face.”

Then she settles back into herself. “I’m here with my husband. For the divers.” She looks up at the shrine at the top of the cliff and frowns. “Is that what you mean?”

He smiles. “You are a tourist?”

“I guess,” says Mia. Then she realizes she isn’t, not exactly. “No, no. It’s much more.”

“We’ll discuss it over drinks,” says the man, nodding in the direction of the hotel entrance. “I am Dieter.”

“My name is Mia,” says Mia.

She is being gently guided by a stranger, and she is intrigued by how natural it feels, how uncomplicated, as though there is no reason for it to feel otherwise. So natural, in fact, that it would be inappropriate, ungrateful, to object. She can’t think of the last time she allowed herself to let something happen, to let herself be carried off. And when you decide, when you really make up your mind, things happen so easily. They want to happen. They just need a little nudge.

Dieter goes to the restroom. The waiter brings menus. Mia sits at the table and wonders about Finn. She is so glad he didn’t come. It didn’t mean anything to him, and if he was in the same mood he’d been in since they arrived, which was likely, he would have ruined her special evening. The restaurant’s main chef had quit again. Finn got rid of him. The temporary chef turned out to be the manager’s kids’ godfather, and a bus mechanic. Finn got rid of him too. So now they had an Argentine steakhouse — “Don’t ask,” Mia would say — with no one to work the grill. Even when they had friends over for cookouts, Finn would set up his cocktail station in the lounge and let someone else do the grilling. He hated getting smoky. It put him in a mood. He said he could still smell it in his nose the next morning. That it took him four showers to get out. Well, he was in a foul mood now. If he didn’t find a new grill-master today, the restaurant would have to close.

Mia is tired of the saga, tired of Finn’s “creative solutions.” Since being here she’s seen a whole new side of him. He never was much of a fixer, but Mia realizes now for the first clear time that he has no clue how to run a business. She’s mad because it’s taken her so long to see this, and even madder because Finn told her that it was his job, that he would handle it. Her job was being pregnant. Now that he hasn’t done what he said he would do, again, Mia is out of ideas. All she knows is that she’s quite capable of building a financially ruinous future with Toby Vance on her own, without Finn’s help. She also knows this is the last time he’s putting any of her money into anything.

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When Mia gets back from the divers, Finn is watching TV in the bar. They order drinks and a snack and go out to the candlelit terrace overlooking the bay. It’s late and deserted, apart from the two waiters inside playing cards.

“They wouldn’t know an easy life if it smashed them in the face,” says Finn, talking about the feud between his chef and his manager.

“They must need the work,” says Mia. “Can’t you incentivize them?”

“Great idea,” says Finn. “I’ve got an incentive, it’s called ‘a job’. They can bullshit the paycheck all they want, they’re not taking money out of my pocket. No más.”

Mia listens, but her mind keeps drifting back to the sight of the divers, scrambling up the cliff-face and then leaping out into the impossibly limitless night, their arms high and wide in salutation. It’s then that she thinks she sees something, or half-sees it, moving around her. She might have imagined it. But then something knocks the table. She leaps from her chair.

“Raccoon,” says Finn. He hisses, and it backs off. But then another one appears through the fence.

“They look evil,” says Mia.

“Nothing a spade to the head wouldn’t fix,” says Finn.

Mia feels swarmed, overrun. Fear fogs her mind. “I’m going to the room,” she says.

“Go, go,” says Finn, dismissing her.

Mia leaves him to his raccoon impressions. She imagines the creatures advancing on him, ready to pounce and savage.

Later, when Finn comes into the room, Mia is lying awake in the dark counting all the single moms she knows or has heard of. Ashley, Andrea, Becky, Meredith, Jess . . . Actually, there’s lots.

Finn leaves the light off.

“You’re still alive then?” says Mia.

Finn doesn’t reply, but she can feel the sad weight of him in the dark.

“Drama, drama,” he says. His shoes thump against the far wall.

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Squeezed in the backseat of a taxi, wearing a dress that does nothing to hide her bulge, Mia isn’t sure if she’s in the mood to make history. The feeling isn’t completely new: she felt the same in her gynecologist’s office, after she’d confirmed her pregnancy. But she’s alone here, with a baby, and that’s different.

She’d been lonely for much of her pregnancy, and that loneliness had been like a rising wall separating her old self from the Mia-to-be. It was supposed to be normal, but she knew it wasn’t. What would happen, she wondered, when the future became her present and the past just disappeared? She didn’t want to give up the past. And she didn’t want a present so draining and stressful that there wasn’t time for the past. The thought of constantly building a future was terrifying. The fear of it wore her down.

The taxi stops at the zócalo. She likes the oomph of the word, like a spade breaking earth, or an oar cutting water. Either way, she feels like she’s entered a different world. The air and sounds and light are from a time even before Elvis, before the airport was built, before Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller. Even if such a time never existed here, Mia believes that it did.

There’s music from speakers on the bandstand. And dancing. The dancers are a mix of old and young couples — the men in pants and pressed shirts, the women in dresses or skirts. Dancing unnerves Mia. Being near it. She isn’t good at it, and she makes sure she’s far enough away from it to not get roped in. But to her amazement, and in a way she has never known, the dancing begins to draw her closer, begins lulling her, like the sway of river grass. A lily opens inside her.

She watches the dancers go through their steps, never moving far. It’s as though the dance was invented by someone who lived in a box. The formal harmony of the dancers makes Mia stand a fraction straighter, newly mindful of her posture, vicariously elegant. How would she start to let go? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if someone did take her arm, like Dieter had, and led her to dance. It would be rude to decline. Mia finds herself moving through the audience and closer to the bandstand, to get a better view. An old man wearing a white fedora smiles at her. “What is this?” she asks. “Danzón,” he says, presenting the scene to her, as if in offering.

Just then Dieter arrives. He taps her arm.

“I didn’t know humans could dance like this,” she says. “The people here are not like us.”

Dieter nods. “In danzón the passion is so . . .” He mimics trying to squeeze something together. “Contained. Intense. Each move means so much.”

The trumpets are tinny and distorted, and Mia’s ears start to hurt. They walk away through the square. The sun is strong, but the banyan and rubber trees shade most of it and soften the heat. Men sit on benches and read newspapers, take shoeshines, or smoke cigarettes and look on. Women bustle about. On the far side is a blue church with two domes. In the middle of the square is a fountain, and a fan of paths lined by low hedges. Black birds caw from the trees.

Mia sits on a wall in a patch of sunlight while Dieter goes to buy water for the hike. She smiles watching him, his loaded backpack and camera. He is interesting, and he is making her think and feel differently. But she is happy to be alone now. The dancing has changed her. She feels poetic. For now she has become someone who can see further into things than the old Mia Pfefferle ever could. And then the sensation leaves her, like a regular melting mood, and she slips back to being plain old Mia. Now she doubts whether she has anything like poetry in her after all. Or dance.

It’s nice on her own, a white woman in a foreign city, but then that feeling also fizzles out and her mood sinks when she thinks of Finn, and how much difference he could have made if he’d thought of doing something nice for them after he’d fixed the mess at the restaurant. Like booking a surprise romantic trip. It would have meant so much. But he never thought about things like that, and it wasn’t likely to cross his mind now. He’s probably so enmeshed in disaster that he’s forgotten Mia even came on the trip with him.

Dieter is back with the water.

“Where’s your hat?” he says. “It’s very open up high.”

Mia feels good in her sleeveless sundress. She has a few things in her shoulder bag, but not a hat. She doesn’t like hats. His has fabric hanging from the back of it, the way of people in the desert. He’s wearing long shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. Very roomy. Only his calves and hands are showing.

“Did you bring anything for the sun?” he says.

Mia doesn’t answer. She doesn’t know what he means.

§

Dieter has his own car, plus directions to the site, so he drives. Waiting in traffic, Mia hears a strained scale from a reverberating trumpet. It sounds as though somebody’s playing it in the bath. She looks to see where the sound is coming from. Above the pharmacy, through the open shutters of a rooftop apartment, stands a schoolgirl, perhaps ten. She has a trumpet to her lips, and her grandma is watching from a nearby chair. The scene reminds Mia of her cello lessons when she was young, how she wrestled the bulky instrument between her knees as though it were alive. She sees an image of herself now, with a full-size cello, in an unfamiliar room, sterile and vaulted. Maybe it’s a sign that she’ll take up music again when she returns home, though she doubts there’ll be time for such luxuries.

“Welcome to Palma Sola,” says the man in the Welcome Center, coming out from behind his desk. They shake hands and he shows them the visitors’ book. He fishes for a pen — Dieter produces one from his top pocket — and stands by to advise them on what information goes where. They are the first visitors of the day. It has been a quiet week. Two days ago a woman from Kazakhstan came to draw petroglyphs. The man points to her name in the visitors’ book. There is no admission fee, he says, but donations can be left in the box. When they’re leaving, he repeats the part about the donations. “Yes, yes,” says Dieter. “When we come down.”

Mia follows Dieter out the door and toward the stone steps. The blue veins in Dieter’s calves are like scrambled cells, how they look under a microscope. Mia thinks of the revolution her body has gone through in recent months — not the right thought for a hot day. She feels a strong pinch of heat in the backs of her knees, and can’t wait to get to the top.

The path winds steeply. Offshoots lead to rock formations and individual boulders, many smooth and oval, and so precisely placed they couldn’t possibly have arrived there by chance. Their presence, their being, feels too intentional, too inevitable, to be down to chance. Many are adorned with carved figures doing whatever the people there did three thousand years ago — worship deities, perform fertility rites, dance. Mia studies the stick figures carved into the boulders. She gets the drawings okay, mostly, and enjoys tracing the looping lines connecting the figures and symbols, like it was one of those find-where-each-string-takes-you puzzles she sometimes did while waiting at the dentist’s. If there’s a quiz when she gets back to the Welcome Center, she won’t be able to say for sure what the different petroglyphs mean. But they do make her think of connections. And of her baby, Toby Vance. And of plain old-fashioned Vance, who probably would have thought the petroglyphs fake or phony. Actually, no. He wouldn’t. She remembered that he’d gone on a caving trip once, to Virginia. He told Mia about how he’d crawled on his belly for what felt like a mile, with the rock shelf only inches above him, its jagged surface sometimes scraping his back. The same claustrophobic feeling she’d had at that time now comes back to Mia, even though she couldn’t be more out in the open.

A particular image strikes her: a regular stick-figure woman, but with a round rock of a body. Looking at the image, Mia is jolted by the unignorable fact of her own swollen self, and her ever-growing belly, which shows no signs of slowing. Once she was slim and fit, now she’s this . . . this fat lump on legs. The more she thinks about the image and about her body and about what it’ll be like when all this growing is over and she’s finally the mother of a helpless adorable blob, the more she feels a sort of kindredness, a connection to something old and wise. The nudity in the drawings seems natural, not vain or attention grabbing. She surprises herself by not jumping to the kinds of conclusions she might have at home. (She’d only once sunbathed topless, at a friend’s house, when she was fifteen. There were five girls. The friend whose house it was went into the kitchen and came back outside with popsicles. Then she laughed at Mia, saying she had the body of a twelve-year-old boy, and the smallest boobs in the school. Mia cried. She got dressed and went home. That was the last time she showed her body.)

Close to the top, Dieter guides Mia gently by the elbow. He seems to like touching her. Mia says nothing, but she likes it also, the way he does it without asking. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that she might not like it. After all, what’s not to like? Was that more European, she wonders. Unlike Finn, Dieter doesn’t spend most of his time explaining what he’s going to do or worrying about what he has to do or imagining all the things that might go wrong when he finally does whatever he decides to do. Something occurs to Dieter, and he does it. He doesn’t stop himself for no reason, and he doesn’t get in his own way. Mia likes that very much.

“Here it is,” he says. They stand at the cave entrance. In front of it are several long stones, again carved with stick figures connected by looping lines. Mia looks at the figures, then at the cave. It has a high roof and goes back into blackness, but she can’t see whether it’s the kind of cave Vance explored in Virginia. That cave was barely visible from the outside, he’d said. Just a few stones marking the entrance. This one is very visible. A giant waiting mouth.

“Are there bats?” she says.

“Let’s see,” says Dieter.

Vance said that in the cave in Virginia there were so many bats, and that they glistened from the light on his hard hat as he passed, as though dusted with sugar. They were hibernating. Vance was scared when the trip leader told them not to shine their lamps on the bats because the heat might wake them. What if all those bats suddenly awoke in a panic and took flight?

And then Dieter is gone. Sitting there, feeling his new absence, and her new solitude, the wind seems firmer to Mia, more resolute, as though it has rushed in to fill the new space.

“It’s nice and cool,” he calls.

Mia can’t see him, can’t tell where his voice is coming from. She climbs onto one of the rocks and looks down at the bay. She can’t see the whole horseshoe, just the middle slice, but the view is stunning. There’s a strong warm breeze rising, and she feels herself ease into it in the warmth of the sun, dropping her shoulders and tilting her head.

When Dieter comes out, Mia is sunning herself on the rock. She’s almost forgotten about him. She’s somewhere else entirely: at the weir, staring at the slick rush of water as it poured over the lip. It was so pure, so unbroken, like you could stand in it on a summer’s day and sing. She liked to sing. Vance said she was annoying, but he always said things he didn’t mean. That was how he loved her.

High above the bay, beyond the car horns and fireworks, the trumpets and steeple bells, one might believe that beneath the chaos and poverty, the corruption and violence, Mexico had in its earth an old deep peace, and that the surface havoc of everyday life came from a newer world, one lost and adrift from the old. But Mia isn’t thinking that. The bay is wide and shining, and she’s thinking she doesn’t want to go down there again, not if it means going back to Finn.

She sits up, feels her bulge. She looks at Dieter’s hand now on the rock beside her. He’s tracing one of the looping tails with a finger. But for the rustle of nearby trees, it is silent.

The quiet continues. Mia waits to hear a bird, but there aren’t any. Then after a while she says, “Photograph me.”

Dieter thinks about it. Then he says, “OK.”

He removes the lens cap from his camera and takes some warm-up shots of the line drawings on the rock, of the cave.

Mia kicks off her sneakers and socks, stretches her legs. The rock is hot and grainy, and her calves go tight with the heat. She lowers herself onto the rock, under the full afternoon sun, and lies onto it until she’s fully stretched. She is alone on the rock with her baby. This moment is hers. Finn is a roll of old carpet she’s been strapped in, her arms pinned, her breath stifled. With her eyes closed, she curls her fingers into the rock and grips tight. Sloughing his cracked-rubber shell, she feels his suffocating roughness slide down the length of her body, until at last he’s cut away, cast off to a past she’ll never recall.

Without the weight she’s been carrying so long, she feels inconceivably light, liable to rise up at any moment and float above the rock she’s been clutching.

She rests her hands on her bulge. “I want to go back to the dance,” she says. “Goddammit I do.”

“Very well,” says Dieter. The shutter clicks, clicks again. “Imagine yourself in the dance. What is the feeling?”

“My skin is new,” shouts Mia.

“You are in the dance,” he says, moving around her, clicking away. “What do you see?”

“My new skin,” she says.

“Dance, dance,” he says, coming in lower and closer.

“Meet my new skin,” she says to the lens, which is so close to her face now that Dieter has all but ceased to exist. “This is my new skin,” she says. “And it’s perfect for dancing in.”

—John Bullock

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John Bullock teaches Language Arts to rural high schoolers in Ohio and parents an old male cat with a fang. He earned his MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Virginia, and has published a novel (Making Faces) and a number of short stories. He is currently procrastinating fixing up the old house he just bought and finishing a second novel.

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May 082017
 

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My father said I didn’t need a college education, even though my brothers had university degrees and he’d grudgingly allowed that I was just as smart as they were. He thought I should be a secretary, marry the boss, have kids and be a housewife like my mother and aunt, the grandmas I’d never met and generations of bored, angry women before them.

This was not an unusual way for a European immigrant to talk to his American-born daughter in 1967, a year before urban feminists organized a protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City that made Women’s Liberation a national force that would eventually change my attitude toward my appearance, housework, birth control and workplace inequality. In the meantime, as a consequence of my father’s meager plan for my future, I didn’t learn to type well, which limited my job opportunities in subsequent years.

I loved reading and writing and had always done well in school, encouraged by enthusiastic New York City teachers to continue my education. At thirteen I’d won a city-wide short story writing competition and was awarded a volume of Shakespeare’s complete works, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, which convinced me I was destined for great things. But first I needed to go to university.

The compromise I finally reached with my dad was that he’d cover my room and board if I agreed to live at home and find a job to pay for tuition, books and incidentals. The best deal in town in terms of cost was the City University of New York, so I applied to the nearest branch, Queens College, and began to look for work at once.

High school graduation

We lived in Far Rockaway, close to JFK Airport and edging the Queens-Nassau County border. It was so far off the beaten track that when you exited the subway at Mott Avenue, the last stop on the “A” train, you had to pay an additional fare—an indignity that continued until 1975. Rockaway Beach and its boardwalk on the Atlantic and a popular diving spot my brother Stan explored in wet suit and scuba gear for many years were the area’s main attractions, plus Rockaways’ Playland, in the middle of the peninsula, with its famous roller coaster. There were rickety wooden bungalows in the Rockaways that people used for summer getaways, and Patti Smith mentions in her memoir M Train that she recently bought such a house, damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The trip from my home to Queens College in Jamaica took nearly two hours by bus each way. Along the route to the campus on an endless highway was a large shopping center, and this, I decided, was a good place to find work, even though I had no usable skills and my most notable attributes were a large vocabulary and what my father referred to as a “fresh mouth.” None of this mattered, I soon learned, when looking for minimum-wage, highly undesirable jobs. I was hired on the spot for anything I applied for on the strength of my high school diploma, my ability to add numbers, speak nicely and smile a lot.

The author’s father cycling on boardwalk, 1966
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.Practice Jobs

I signed on for a full-time job the summer before starting university in the Womens Clothing Department of a downscale store on one side of the highway. There was no apostrophe in “Womens,” I noticed, but was smart enough to keep that detail to myself. Dolly was my manager, a slim, petite woman in a body-hugging skirt and a blouse with a few buttons shockingly undone at the top. She was older than me, but not by much, a dark-skinned Hispanic who laughed easily and walked adroitly on high heels, something I admired because it was beyond me. She never explained exactly what I was supposed to do and often left the department for half-hour breaks, but by watching another girl on my shift I determined that my main task was to empty the fitting room. This involved tidying clothes on hangers and putting them back on racks on the floor, over and over again.

The author’s brother in wetsuit and scuba gear

Occasionally a customer would ask for assistance and I’d help her search for a garment in a size we invariably didn’t have or bring her something else to try on while she was half undressed in the fitting room. I was mesmerized by much of what I saw there—loose, large breasts with dark, intimidating nipples; pouchy bellies; thick waists; enormously wide hips; doughy, dimpled thighs. I was still only a tall, leggy, wee-breasted teenager with limited knowledge of other female bodies, aside from my mother’s. I knew more about young men because a couple of boyfriends had instructed me in the unpaid work of giving them hand jobs and the occasional blowjob so they could get their rocks off without the stress of full performance.

When Dolly was actually in the department, she spent her time trying on clothes in the fitting room. My role was to say how terrific she looked before rehanging the items and returning them to the floor racks. She did, in fact, look great in anything she put on, though I knew, because I had sewn things myself from Vogue patterns, that everything we sold in the Womens Clothing Department was poorly cut, badly stitched, unattractively designed and made of cheap fabric that crackled and sparked when you pulled it on or yanked it off. That didn’t bother Dolly at all, and I envied her confident self-absorption and the fact that as a manager she didn’t have to stand around doing achingly boring work.

My feet were killing me. Aside from two short breaks and a half hour for lunch, I never got to sit down on an eight-hour shift. Sure I was young but I had a design flaw—easily tiring legs—and knew I wouldn’t last past the end of summer. But when I finally told Dolly the job wasn’t working out, she came to my rescue. “Mr. Thomas can use a smart girl like you,” she said. “No one ever shops in his department, so you can sit on a chair and read.”

And so that fall I transferred to the Linen Department, where Mr. Thomas was my boss. He was a very tall, very skinny black man in a silky white shirt and floppy trousers that slapped his legs when he moved, and he spoke in a lilting accent I couldn’t identify. Something Caribbean. He walked me around the floor, reciting measurements for sheets and blankets that went straight out of my head, and gave me a crash course in quilts, pillows, mattress covers and pads. For some reason the Linen Department sold roller window shades, and when he showed me the cutting machine I shot to attention.

First the wooden slat at the bottom of the shade was removed, measured and cut with a blade pulled down on it, and it broke with a delicious snap. Then the rolled-up vinyl shade, locked in a narrow trough, had to be carefully measured against a ruler guide. Any excess was sliced off exactly with a jaggedy-toothed electric blade that made a satisfying roar. Precision work, indeed. Here was something I was actually proud of, a bona fide skill that would open a world of future hardware store positions for me.

There were very few customers, as Dolly had promised, and when I wasn’t cutting shades I sat on a chair by the door of the linen stock room and scribbled notes for my Freshman English essays. Dolly would often appear out of nowhere to discuss something or other with Mr. Thomas, and I would greet her happily. Sometimes they would vanish into the bowels of the stock room, closing the door behind them, and I’d be told to summon Mr. Thomas only in an emergency and left to handle the floor myself. I was honored by his faith in me, pleased to have the chance to play department manager, and didn’t grasp that I was really playing lookout.

The stock room was a dark, cold, two-story labyrinth with packages of linen on open latticed shelves and a clanky, metal staircase at one unseen end leading to the second story. I almost never went inside, preferring to tell a customer we were out of stock than to search for something on the shelves. A more-or-less innocent seventeen-year-old, I was never quite sure what was happening with Dolly and Mr. Thomas in the bowels of that scary place, though I could hear them climbing steps to the upper level. Maybe they were just friends, just chatting, killing time. Well okay, maybe more. Possibly they’d made a bed of quilts on the narrow metal walkway and were actually “doing it.”

One day Mr. Thomas failed to show up and I was told he’d “moved on.” Dolly, who got along extraordinarily well with the pudgy store manager, continued running the Womens Clothing Department, but I was summarily “let go.”

My hurt, nausea and outrage at the unfairness of my dismissal throbbed in my throat, but I got over it soon enough and found work in a rival department store on the other side of the highway.

Cooking in the backyard, Far Rockaway

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.The Refunds Department

This was truly an awful job. I was told I would “interact with the public,” which meant I got to stand behind a chipped and ink-stained Formica counter in the Refunds Department, a windowless room with walls painted the sickly yellow-beige of the paper my mother’s butcher used for wrapping meat. In front of me, for as far as I could see, was a bunched-up line of pissed-off customers holding various packages and items of clothing with limply hanging sleeves and pant legs. It was just after Christmas and the line was inexhaustible. I was slow to check people’s receipts and the condition of their bundles, slow to open the ancient register and return cash, and by the time anyone finally got to the counter their face was a bursting sausage of fury.

Once again my feet were killing me, and I slouched behind the counter with one hip cocked. Why wasn’t there so much as a bar stool I could use? Given my height, no one would even know I was sitting down!

At regular intervals my boss would quietly emerge from the back room to pat between my shoulder blades and admonish me to stand up straight and smile. She never helped advance the line by dealing with customers herself.

I hated her. She was middle-aged, curveless, a head shorter than I was and didn’t make small talk. She always wore wool suits in muted colors with skirts inches below her knees, and although every outfit clearly cost more than I earned in a month, I found them all ugly. Her hair was dyed white-blond, her eyes and mouth tellingly small, her skin only a shade lighter than the overbearing walls. I missed Dolly and Mr. Thomas with a pain in my chest like love.

After a few shifts I was called into the back room and led to a chair by a desk, and my boss instructed another girl to take my place at the counter. The girl hissed a nasty word at me as she elbowed past.

My reward for doing good work—for abiding the verbal abuse of customers, taps on my back and endless achy hours on my feet—was the joy of sitting down awhile in an airless alcove to tally receipts and expenditures under the glaring eye of a desk lamp. Alternating between the front counter and back room, I thought I could slog through until something better turned up.

My shame and downfall came at the hands of an elderly lady. Her fingers were arthritically clawed, her rubber-soled shoes worn, and her twisty varicose veins bulged under her stockings. I felt bad for all the time she’d spent in the line-up. She approached me grinning, a rare thing, and I found myself grinning back, my heart suddenly leaping. “I hope you’re having a nice day,” the old woman said, and I wanted to vault the counter to hug her.

What she spread before me was a stiff yellow girdle that was certainly many years old. She had no receipt, she sighed, because it was a present from her much-loved husband who’d died over Christmas—which Christmas, she didn’t say—and now she couldn’t wear it because it made her think of him, which gave her palpitations. She asked me for two dollars.

I only paused a sec before clanging open the register and handing her two wrinkled one-dollar bills. Quickly, guiltily, I swept the girdle into the Returns bin under the counter, and when I looked up the woman was gone.

My boss laid a hand lightly between my shoulder blades and leaned in close. “You’re fired,” she whispered.

Cycling on the boardwalk

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.The Best Job Ever

Back across the highway, in a self-serve discount shoe store, I found the best ever part-time position. This was not a practice job, like the others, but the real thing, a perfect job, and one that lasted the rest of my university days.

Women’s and children’s shoes were arranged by sizes on open racks here, and for reasons unknown, customers would often separate pairs of shoes, leaving one on or near the proper rack and dropping its match elsewhere. My main task was to locate these “orphans,” as they were called, and return them to their right spots.

I was actually paid for this.

Of course there were benches everywhere so people could try on shoes, and I could sit down as often as I liked, pretending to straighten or dust the display racks.

There was a stock room with a metal door opened to the outside for truck deliveries, which allowed fresh air to waft into the store, as well as the odor of pot smoked by the stock boys. Bob, the store manager, was a thirty-something good-looking guy in a nicely cut suit and tie, someone I felt sorry for because he was stuck in a nothing-job—unlike the stock boys, who assured me they’d be gone soon—and so unhip he couldn’t identify the smell of marijuana. The regional manager sometimes sniffed the air when he came by now and then, but Bob always told him he was smelling incense or exhaust fumes from the trucks.

Now I wonder if Bob knew all along what he was inhaling and simply enjoyed it.

I hardly interacted with The Shoe Shelf customers or their kids, other than to point them toward appropriate racks, and left Bob to deal with complaints. Mostly I wandered the aisles in a dream-state on my dream job, slightly stoned from second-hand smoke, thinking about a paper due in my Shakespeare course. I planned to write an essay about the role of horses in Richard II, a fairly ridiculous topic, but I figured I could dash it off. Working several weekdays after classes and long shifts on Saturdays, I didn’t have time to think weighty thoughts.

On Far Rockaway beach, 1968

The stock boys kept to themselves, I was the only clerk on the floor, and Bob stood up front at a desk, ringing up sales. When business was slow he’d pace back and forth or gaze out a floor-to-ceiling window at passing cars. I think he was lonely and needed a friend.

Sometimes he’d call me up front for no reason other than to talk about what he was reading or ask about my studies. He was always polite, never prying, and had a gentle, appealing manner. He also had a girlfriend and wanted us to double-date. This never happened. He said he was a cracker-jack cook and wanted me to join him and his friend at his house for dinner. That didn’t happen either. He wasn’t at all sleazy and I wasn’t afraid of him—in fact, I found him attractive—but I didn’t have time for socializing with someone I believed peripheral to my forthcoming, real and amazing life.

I knew I would graduate in a couple of years with a BA in English and find a job in Manhattan better than the one I had at The Shoe Shelf. Bob, I imagined, would always be stuck in Queens, and I wouldn’t find him interesting after I became a cosmopolitan feminist. I wanted an adventurous life filled with daring, gob-smacking experiences, and really there was no room for a shoe store manager friend in such a life.

Maybe I was too harsh. But I forgive my teenage self, cloudy-eyed with optimism, anxious for independence, determined to be the writer I knew I was meant to be. What I secretly hoped for was suitably undemanding work—not unlike my job at The Shoe Shelf—that left me energy enough to write novels late into the night, but naturally one that paid a good deal more.

With such dreams I staggered forward and formed a life. An interesting one, as it turned out, true in many ways to what I’d envisioned as a girl in Far Rockaway; different in ways that were then unimaginable.

Which is how a life goes.

—Cynthia Holz

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Cynthia Holz is the author of five novels and a collection of stories. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and her essays and book reviews have been widely published. Born and raised in New York City, she lives in Toronto. Her website is www.cynthiaholz.com.

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May 072017
 

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That Summer with Charlie

The summer I needed money for college
I hit every construction office in town
and finally got my chance, a new motel
going up three miles east on the highway, be there
by eight and they’d find me something to do.
My dad bought me a pair of steel-toed boots
and the next morning drove me out to the job site.
The foreman put me with Charlie, a little guy
with the strength of a Clydesdale horse.
His grip, when we shook, was callus and grit.
He was good with power tools and hammers,
good with cement, with tampers
and edgers, bull floats and trowels,
had me sweating to keep up with him.

Charlie drove down Coteau every morning,
picked me up at the corner close to our house,
telling me stories about what it was like
to be a soldier in the war, and how much
those Dutch girls loved the Canadian guys,
Charlie with the window always open,
cigarette spraying ashes over his shirt.
Once, when laying a pad of cement
for the long line of motel rooms, it meant
overtime for some of the crew, and Charlie
told the boss that I always rode with him,
I might as well stay; thirteen hours we worked,
it would be the biggest payday of my life.

Afterwards, driving home with Charlie at dusk,
I kept dozing off in the passenger seat, Charlie
tapping my shoulder at the corner, grinning
and telling me, don’t forget, tomorrow morning
I’ll pick you up the same time as usual,
Charlie who died a dozen years ago,
and not till I read his obit in the paper
did I think of our long gone summer together,
and realize how stupid I was, the kid
who never once thought to chip in for gas.

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The Town He Remembers

He pulls off the Yellowhead, finds Railway Avenue in Paynton,
no sign of McGee’s General Store where the clerks knew his name,
no sign of Joe Luke’s Cafe where Joe sliced him free cherry pie.
He swings the truck and trailer to the side of the street,
stares at the road running south. Little chance for a u-turn there.
“My grandmother’s house,” he says, “is up this way.”
His wife and kids follow him out of the truck,
along a line of pines and broken poplars
toward the last house at the end of town.

Two storeys, weathered clapboard, empty windows.
The hobby horse that he rode will be gone now,
and the Indian hammer from Cut Knife Creek.
Yes, and the wind-up bird he feared
with the beak that might seize his ear.
No trace of the barn with the deer’s head on the wall,
the dark eyes that stared and stared at his own.
He points to an upstairs window.
“I remember watching a storm from there,
the whole house starting to shake
black clouds rolling in, not even noon,
the town and prairie dark as night.”

The kids keep glancing back at the truck,
edging away. There’s not much to see.
A screen door opens across the road,
a woman steps out, hands on her hips.
We aren’t trespassing, he thinks,
but she’s calling them over. He explains
about Grandma Mondy, but she shakes her head,
says they were looking at Gus Schrank’s place,
Ida Mondy’s house was the next one south,
torn down years ago to make for a bigger field
when the price of wheat was high. He feels
disoriented, a bit foolish, but she invites them in,
offers them lemonade and cookies, asks
about his mom, his aunts, and he thinks
it’s still the town he remembers.

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Where I’ve Lived Most of My Life

I’m sitting on a bench on Main Street,
wind turning the corner by City Hall,
bringing with it chocolate bar wrappers,
a crushed styrofoam cup, a torn envelope,
crumpled sheets of newspaper, scraps
of our lives tossed on the street.
People hurrying by, their eyes half-shut,
a whirlwind of dust rising around them,
I consider how long I might sit
before someone passes I’ll recognize.

I used to delight in trivia games.
What band leader once sang backup
with the Hilltoppers? Billy Vaughn.
Who left his second best bed to his wife
when he died? William Shakespeare.
Who was on base when Bobby Thomson hit
the home run that won the ‘51 pennant?
Clint Hartung and Whitey Lockman.
With the slats of the bench grown hard
on my butt, a sudden thought blows in
on a swirl of wind: Who trusts memory anyway?

Thirty years I taught in this town.
I knew the name of every girl, every guy
in grade twelve, every last one of them.
When they came to my class, I put them
in a seating plan, warned them I was
watching them, but not to worry,
they hadn’t sprouted warts on the nose,
I was matching names with their faces.
And where are those names today?

A woman swings out of the Pita Pit,
hair lifting over her collar. She walks
toward me, high heels rapping,
the start of a smile on her lips.
She looks like someone I may recognize,
but this is the moment the wind
hurls grit in my face. I close my eyes,
hear her footsteps fade and vanish.
Trust memory? At this moment I’m not
even sure why I’m waiting here in the wind?

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What His Mother Said

Sometimes, she said, a man’s flaws
are the size of elephants.
They might be rearing, trumpeting,
he wouldn’t notice a thing.
The boy was sure she meant his father,
was just as sure she wouldn’t say it.
I think I understand you, she said,
but who knows by the time you’re grown?
Most men are a mystery to their wives,
themselves too. They don’t say what they mean.
Fact is, they seldom know it themselves.

The end of the day as long as the sun,
a pale moon already riding the sky,
the boy with his nose at the window
watching his father trudge in from the field,
his hand slapping bugs on the back of his neck.
His mother began to slice the overdone roast,
a cross-rib, he supposed, his father’s favourite.
Wealth, he remembers her telling him once,
isn’t the money you store in the bank.
The sound of the opening door. The blaze
that flared in her eyes like the candle flame
when she let him light the wick at Easter.

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Coming Home at Night

He pulls into the driveway, snow in the headlights,
tracks smudging the walk, a drift over the shovel.
He turns off the lights, the ignition, and sits
where he is, hand gripping the wheel, radio silent,
a ping under the hood, metal contracting
as the engine cools. After a while he notes
how his hand hangs on the wheel, drops it
to the arm rest, later notices the cloud
of breath on the windshield, and beyond that
the house, no light at the front step, no light
in the windows. She must be in bed.

The streetlight down the block casts a pale glow
through the yard, and he can see curtains
lowered in the master bedroom windows.
When he understands that he’s shaking
with cold, he opens the car door, steps out,
picks his way through the snow and enters
the dark house. Hangs his coat in the closet,
tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom.

He opens the door, stands, listening,
her breathing like that of someone asleep.
He sheds his clothes in the dark, warm air
on his legs, the furnace exhaling below.
Clad only in shorts, he steps to his side of the bed,
slides under the covers, the bed sinking, a sigh
deep in the mattress. The quiet house.
He matches the pace of her breaths
with his own. How easy it is.
On the far side of the bed
her body curled like a fist.

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Another Dark Hour

When she slips from their bed in the night
he’s sprawled half out of the covers, breathing
easily, right arm dangling over the mattress edge.
How can he sleep so soundly, she wonders.
She walks toward the kitchen, the hall floor
creaking as she passes the second bedroom.
The living room on the left is dark, not a hint
of light through the picture window sheers,
the street lamp on the corner burnt out again.
She stands for a while with the fridge door open,
the light falling around her as she stares
at the vegetable bin. Cold air pressing against her.
She considers the pitcher of water, reaches
for it and sets it on the counter top, the fridge door
open behind her, her slim figure framed
at the kitchen window, her image on glass.
She closes the door, looks out on the dark yard,
the ragged hedge that divides their garden
from the grounds of the school in the distance, a single light
burning in the lot where the teachers park their cars.
At this hour there are no children climbing the gym set,
no children kicking balls on the soccer field,
and she can hardly imagine them there in the light.
The pitcher forgotten on the counter before her,
she stares at the school, sombre and empty.
Her hands clasp her shoulders, but can’t stop
the shivers. She turns suddenly and walks
back down the hall, the hardwood creaking
at the door of the second bedroom,
the room with the bed that is empty
and will always be empty now.

—Robert Currie

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Robert Currie is the author of eleven books, most recently The Days Run Away (Coteau, 2015) which was a finalist for the 2016 High Plains Book Award for Poetry.  Back in the 70s he edited and published Salt, a little magazine of contemporary writing.  More recently he served two terms as Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan (from 2007 to 2010).  In 2009 he received the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. Email him at robertdmcurrie@yahoo.com

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May 062017
 

In this piece, Moore explains how Ted Morrissey’s postmodern work on Beowulf has opened his mind to fresh interpretations. Far from thinking everything about the poem has been answered, Moore shows, first, that when a critic approaches a work with new eyes the result can be invigorating, and second, that the trauma enacted in these old verses have relevance to our world. —Jeff Bursey

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Not having studied Anglo-Saxon since grad school, nor having kept up with Beowulf criticism in particular, I’ll take Ted Morrissey’s word for it in The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters that most recent criticism on the Anglo-Saxon poem remains fixated on old-fashioned philological study. While these textual issues are important—especially when one’s interpretation hinges upon a proposed emendation or the accurate identification of the dialect of a certain word—Morrissey’s illuminating monograph demonstrates the advantages of bringing newer critical strategies to bear on the poem, especially “postmodern” ones that might seen incompatible with this premodern work. Looking at Beowulf through postmodern eyes fosters a greater appreciation of the craftsmanship and subtlety of this masterpiece.

For example, one the earliest theorists of postmodernism, architecture critic Charles Jencks, argued that po-mo works are characterized by “double-coding,” whereby the artist appeals to both popular and elite audiences by encoding for the latter group subtle allusions, references, and ironies that will probably go unnoticed by the larger popular audience who focus on the more obvious and appealing aspects of a work. In his essay “What Was Postmodernism?” (electronic book review, 2007), Brian McHale gives as an example animated movies like Aladdin, which “appeal to children through slapstick and cuteness, and to their parents through pop-culture allusions and double entendres that go right over youngsters’ heads.” Beowulf strikes me as a deliberately “double-coded” work, with exciting fights scenes that would delight the scop‘s mead-muddled audience, but at the same time encoded with theological and political issues, intertextual references to other works, and some dazzling wordplay for the benefit of the connoisseurs and intellectuals of his time. Double-coding is also in effect as the poet ostensibly tells a tale set in Denmark and Sweden in the sixth century but that is also (if not really) about England in a traumatized period several centuries later, a transhistorical strategy that would probably go over the heads of the tipsy masses but would not be lost on the more sober thanes in the hall. The popular aspects of a double-coded work will always appeal to a larger audience; Howell D. Chickering Jr. speculates that “Beowulf’s tragic third fight with the dragon was more frequently read than his earlier adventures, since folio 182, where this adventure begins, is quite worn out” (Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition [Anchor Books, 1977], 246). In contrast, Hrothgar’s serious sermon on pride (lines 1700 ff.) shows little sign of wear.

Postmodern works also flaunt a heightened self-consciousness about their status as artificial literary creations, metafictionally drawing attention to the artist behind the work. No one would mistake Beowulf for a chapter in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, partly because the poet frequently draws attention to himself and to his artistry. On a half-dozen occasions, the first-person “ic” pops up to remind the reader that the tale isn’t telling itself, but is rather a dramatized reconstruction of what the scop has only heard. The scop is self-consciously aware that he is performing his story, not merely reporting it, and highlights this process at line 871, the morning after our hero’s first encounter with the monster Grendel. The anonymous author self-consciously introduces his stand-in into the proceedings, whereupon this wordsmith

found new words,…..bound them up truly,
began to recite…..Beowulf’s praise,
a well-made lay…..of his glorious deed,
skillfully varied…..his matter and style. (trans. Chickering)

Suddenly the reader realizes the previous 870 lines have not been a historical account of Beowulf’s actions but a fanciful re-creation—a literary performance; the poet, having “unlocked his word-hoard” (l. 259), has armored himself with words to perform a glorious linguistic deed to rival if not outdo Beowulf’s wrestling match of the night before. For the story of Beowulf’s deeds, you can read the Cliffs Notes; the poem is a performance of the story, a showy display of the poet’s wrestling match with words in which he emerges triumphant. (Beowulf only tears off an arm.) Look at me, at my prowess, the word-warrior proclaims, not at Beowulf, whose own later account of his fight with Grendel (lines 2069 ff.) is deliberately bland in comparison. One of the few interesting things about Robert Zemeckis’s comically crude film version of Beowulf (2007)—aside from the golden splendor of Angelina Jolie—was Beowulf’s postmodern awareness that he was the protagonist in a work-in-progress to be called The Song of Beowulf.

The poet’s innovative, unconventional use of words is another feature associated with postmodernism, as Morrissey argues in his second chapter, and which he goes on to align with the obsession with diction that trauma victims display. I was previously unaware of trauma theory, but Morrissey argues convincingly that this branch of postmodern theory shines new light on several murky aspects of the poem, on what some readers call its disjointedness and downright weirdness. Beowulf enacts on both a formal and verbal level the effects of trauma on a people (and on a gifted poet) subjected to centuries of warfare, sickness, and disorder, resulting in a poem closer to nightmare than elegy. Morrissey shows how other postmodern strategies illuminate the poem, and respectfully suggests these new approaches can supplement, not supplant, the more traditional philological approaches. Those earlier approaches have for too long treated Beowulf as a period piece, but these new approaches give the lay a startling relevance in the 21st century: I am writing this at the end of 2012, after the quick succession of Hurricane Sandy, the slaughter of children in Newtown, Connecticut, and fears of going off a fiscal cliff have somewhat traumatized Americans—who are not as bad off as the Anglo-Saxons of the Dark Ages, to be sure, but are now in the appropriate mood to appreciate the traumatized world of Beowulf.

—Steven Moore

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Steven Moore is the author of the two-volume study The Novel: An Alternative History (2010, 2013), as well as several books on William Gaddis. His new book, My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays, is just out with Zerogram Press.

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May 062017
 

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel —Jeff Bursey

My Back Pages: Reviews and Essays
Steven Moore
Zerogram Press, 2017
$30.00, 767 pages

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Introduction

In the mid-1980s, while doing research for my thesis on Henry Miller—a person and subject not popular within Memorial University of Newfoundland’s English department, the choice solidifying my dubious reputation among conservative professors from England and Newfoundland—I read Frederick R. Karl’s critical survey, American Fictions: 1940-1980 (1983). Apart from a few generally dismissive remarks on Miller, indicating a lapse of judgment, this work introduced me, in one giant, dual-columned flow of crackling prose and sharp observations, to authors that I never heard about in university classes. One of them was William Gaddis, whose two published novels (at that time) were discussed at great length. What I read intrigued me, but thesis writing and an imminent marriage, as well as a subsequent move, occupied my mind. In 1986, shortly before leaving Canada, I ordered Gaddis’ three works (a new one had come out the year before) and they accompanied me to London, England, where my then-wife’s studies took us. I resisted reading them as the final draft of the thesis required attention. At some point I needed a break, and soon found myself 600 pages into The Recognitions (1955) with 300+ to go, my spirits uplifted by Gaddis’ monumental first book, a reminder of how genius trumps talent, a salutary blast of corrosive satire and humour in a bleak time (little money, grey weather, England under Thatcher), a rebuke to the palsied minimalism of the 1980s that infested magazines and publishing lists—and suddenly Karl’s term for Gaddis, “tribune,” made sense. With the thesis finally sent to MUN, I turned to the remaining pages of The Recognitions, then to J R (1975), whose technical brilliance and humour helped preserve my sanity while I worked in a warehouse, and then the less impressive Carpenter’s Gothic (1985).

Back in St. John’s in September 1989 I came across a segment from another Gaddis novel in a 1987 New Yorker—what would be published in 1994 as A Frolic of His Own—and also, for the first time, read critical books devoted to his work. There weren’t many. At a guess, 1990 marked the year I first encountered Steven Moore (b. 1951) through his invaluable guide to The Recognitions. For 27 years, in one form or another, my Gaddis reading has been deepened and expanded by Moore. A recent example of the continued efforts at explicating Gaddis, who Moore considers “the greatest American novelist of the 20th century,” and how that can lead to a profounder understanding of his literary worth—and the worth of literature itself—can be found here in a joint review of books by Moore, and Joseph Tabbi, another Gaddis scholar who completes, for me, the triumvirate of Gaddis’ best critics.

In the early 1990s, Steven Moore worked for Dalkey Archive Press, home of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (RCF) and one of the most eclectic publishers around. From 1988-1996 he reviewed for RCF and eventually, as an editor, helped bring into print, among others works, David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress and Reader’s Block and several Rikki Ducornet novels. Behind the scenes, and in front of my eyes, Moore shaped some of my reading (and I daresay that of others). There aren’t many critics so tireless in fighting critical indifference, small sales, and much more for high-risk writing.

There are reasons for this autobiographical introduction. While My Back Pages contains much about Gaddis that, as a fan, I appreciate seeing either for the first time or between covers at last, in this immensely readable, encyclopedic, and essential work there are almost 400 pages of concise reviews, published between roughly 1975 and 2016, of short-story collections, novels, and nonfiction, followed by almost 350 pages filled with meditations on key figures in Moore’s life, including his friend David Foster Wallace, Alexander Theroux, and W.M. Spackman. In these pages—revealed incidentally when its contents were first printed and forming a more than rough sketch when collected—is a partial intellectual autobiography that reveals, now and then, and almost always unexpectedly, his beliefs, his likes and dislikes, his confrontations with ideas and people, and reversals, criticisms, and disappointments in his career and personal life.

Certain figures recur: apart from Gaddis, Markson, Ducornet, and Theroux, there is much on Ronald Firbank, the Beats, Malcolm Lowry, Gilbert Sorrentino, and James Joyce. Certain predilections are as numerous: metafictional and/or experimental works, with occasional excursions into other forms. “It’s the books I write about, many of them forgotten by now, more than the pieces themselves, that deserve to be remembered,” he states outright, though that note of humility goes against the many years in service to literature exemplified by the length and depth of this book (indeed, the length and depth of each Moore book). In individual pieces he is not as shy in taking credit where it’s due.

One of Moore’s best qualities as an explicator is in communicating complex or complicated material in the clearest possible terms, and with humour when possible. Not all is sunshine, though, since every book is written, implicitly and explicitly, against something. There is even the presence of a dark figure that, while not a villain, is an adversary. And there’s sex. How-to guides to crafting correct fiction by James Wood or dreary musings on the uselessness of writing by Tim Parks aren’t going to offer this combination of features.

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I.

My Back Pages is the closest Moore will ever come to completing his massive study of the emergence and development of the novel: The Novel, An Alternative History: Beginnings to 1600 (2010), and The Novel, An Alternative History: 1600–1800 (2013). (In 2014, the second title won the Christian Gauss Award for literary criticism.) “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” an essay placed near the end of the new book, supplies several reasons why he didn’t proceed with a third volume. Partway through the second volume his self-appointed task “became more like a chore, which is exactly what I had hoped to avoid when I began… by the time I wrote the last page of the second volume, I had no desire to go on to the third volume that I had been planning on from the very beginning.” Further:

Even though I had planned to narrow my focus at that point and concentrate only on innovative, experimental novels, I realized it would take me another five years at least working full-time and another thousand pages to cover 1800 to the present, and I finally had to admit that I had bitten off more than I could chew. Now I understood why no one had written a comprehensive, universal history of the novel before, and also understood why such things are only attempted in multi-volume university press series overseen by general editors with troops of contributors at their command.

Moore states he had no grand plan in mind when he began his labours, and yet, thanks to perseverance, missionary zeal, and an enthusiasm buoyed, I suspect, by ceaseless reading, this full-time independent scholar completed what only university presses could achieve. Perhaps it’s best that writers unthinkingly create their own follies. He felt provoked by “the conservative Bush [the Younger] administration of evil memory”—how those years must now seem, while in no way golden, less terrible than the present Republican government—that allowed “a corresponding reactionary backlash against the innovative, unconventional novels I love…”

Considering the fatigue factor, then, My Back Pages might be a better work than the never-realized third volume. Its content differs from that of the Novel works, which together are a magisterial, yet colloquially spoken, introduction to hundreds of fictions from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, on to Ireland and Iceland, then Mesoamerica, Japan, China, Europe, and North America. Moore’s new work comprises spirited defenses, campaigns, and hosannas for the lineage of “unconventional” writers he has long admired. The tempo is that found in breaking news, in Ezra Pound’s sense, excited but not sensationalized. (I’m reminded of what Sven Birkerts says in Changing the Subject [2015]: “I recognized at that moment that if art really is an act of concentrated attention, then it is also at the same time a power, not only carrying its messages, the content that is its pretext, but also storing—and making available—an enormous compacted energy. I’m talking about the energy that made the vision and expression possible in the first place.” Substitute criticism for “art” and that suits Moore’s energetic prose.) Instead of plot summaries devoted to the literary output of one country, we are provided with brief summaries of works and essays focused on single topics. After the Introduction and Acknowledgements, the sections are: Reviews; Miscellaneous Nonfiction; and, in three parts, Essays (“William Gaddis and Friends”; “Significant Others”; “Personal Matters”).

Set out alphabetically, the reviews (sometimes single entries, at other times sequences devoted to the same author), to provide a brief list, are of works by Djuna Barnes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Mo Yan, Severo Sarduy, Arno Schmidt, and Marguerite Young. In addition to what Moore has written for Rain Taxi and the Washington Post, among other places, most of the reviews appeared in RCF. He is most often a polite and eager reader, inclined to treat with the greatest respect metafictional works and meganovels that display erudition and contain recondite language used in a playful way, works that emphasize style over plot (or character) and that break the constraints of the novel. The “anemic stories” of minimalists rarely capture his attention, but in considering Stephen Dixon’s Frog (1991) he does concede that this book “represents an interesting new hybrid: a long novel made up of short episodes, a maximalist meganovel written in a minimalist style.” So he can be won over if the writer has done something original. A writer can also be a “vixen,” but only if they write well, like Mary Butts or Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (He doesn’t offer an equivalent term for males.)

Moore’s enthusiasm is contagious, as it’s often combined with casual displays of his wide and deep reading. Plucked almost at random are three samples of his writing style. The first is the opening to a review of Nicola Barker’s Darkmans (2007):

’Tis the season of huge literary novels. Those of us for whom size matters welcome with holiday cheer Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, James McCourt’s Now Voyagers, two new translations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Paul Verhaeghen’s Omega Minor, Alexander Theroux’s Laura Warholic, and the 900-page Adventures of Amir Hamza, an old Urdu novel (by way of Arabia and Persia) newly translated for the Modern Library. Crashing this boys’ club from England comes Nicola Barker’s 838-page Darkmans, her seventh and longest novel, and a finalist for this year’s prestigious Man Booker Prize (which went to a much much shorter novel).

After reading a 3,300-page work by William T. Vollmann, Moore concludes:

Rising Up and Rising Down is a monumental achievement on several levels: as a hair-rising survey of mankind’s propensity for violence, as a one-man attempt to construct a system of ethics, as a successful exercise in objective analysis (almost nonexistent in today’s partisan, ideological, politicized, spin-doctored, theory-muddled public discourse), and a demonstration of the importance of empathy, whether in writing a book like this or simply dealing with fellow human beings. It can be an exhausting, depressing read, but with the ever-growing role of violence in our lives, it is an essential read. And the amazing fact that during the 20 years he spent writing Rising Up and Rising Down Vollmann also published a dozen extraordinary books of fiction—many in the 700-page range and packed with historical research as deep as that on display here—elevates this achievement beyond the realm of mere mortals.

Though Moore generally prefers those whose language sparkles with new thoughts set out in long sentences, he can appreciate other styles, as shown in this review of the first volume of Zachary Leader’s biography of Saul Bellow:

The amount of detail here is staggering; Leader apparently left no stone unturned, and succinctly summarizes all the cultural upheavals surrounding Bellow in those heady days. (The biography doubles as a primer on the intellectual climate of the times.) But the details never become too dense or overwhelming, thanks largely to Leader’s clear, brisk style.

This compliment applies to Moore. Apart from providing readers with a long list of titles to look for, his reviews are models of how to balance an examination of style, a short summary of salient points, and a decision as to a book’s worth.

The Miscellaneous Nonfiction section contains essays and reviews ranging in subject from critical works on literature and postmodernism to human anatomy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While of varying interest and engagement, this section offers further proof of the diversity of Moore’s taste, which is, incidentally, also shown in the music citations that appear now and then.

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II.

In Essays, Part 1, under the section “William Gaddis and Friends,” Moore brings together previously isolated pieces on Gaddis (and those who knew him), including Pynchon, Markson, and Chandler Brossard. Particularly noteworthy is “Sheri Martinelli: A Modernist Muse.” She was an artist-model in Greenwich Village who Gaddis and Anatole Broyard (author of, among other books, Kafka Was the Rage [1993]) pursued romantically, “a protégé of Anaïs Nin,” friends with H.D., Charles Bukowski, Charlie Parker, and the Beats. She later entered into a hazily defined friendship or relationship with Ezra Pound when he was at St. Elizabeths Federal Hospital. (This is the stuff of a biopic.) The concentration of influences and animosities (Broyard versus Gaddis, Pound versus almost everyone) that congregated in this almost unknown artist is fascinating.

Part 2, “Significant Others,” deals with, among others, Kurt Vonnegut, Edward Dahlberg, Brigid Brophy, Leopoldo Marechal, and Wallace again. Barring Wallace and Vonnegut, Moore is paying close attention to the obscure, the out-of-print, and the forgotten, something that other critics could seek to imitate. Firbank, one of “the more recherché modernists” who is invoked often and gets connected to Francesca Lia Block and Alan Hollinghurst, as well as many others, is looked at for his playwriting. While I can agree with Moore on many things, we part ways on Firbank, who he admits is a writer “so idiosyncratic that one instinctively likes or dislikes [him], and no amount of critical persuasion one way or another is going to change anyone’s mind.” This may be a blind spot of mine, just as Moore’s low regard of a fellow Modernist, Henry Miller, is inexplicable considering his influence on and way with language, on issues concerning freedom of expression, and as a figure who supported Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans, about whom Moore has much to say (as he does on other Beat writers like William Burroughs and Alan Ansen).

Theroux is both reviewed and the subject of an in-depth description of his second novel, Darconville’s Cat (1981), “a dazzling 700-page satire… that surely will soon come to be celebrated as the finest example of learned wit ever produced in American literature.” As Moore mentions in the Introduction, he sometimes wrote with an “optimism” that was misplaced. Theroux’s work matches Moore’s taste for length, wit, language, digressions and allusions, and several modes of presenting material (“poems, fables, nightmares, a diary, an abecedarium, a blank-verse playlet…”), and he offers a persuasive set of reasons for the importance of this novel. What also arises is one of those welcome contradictions that spring up in any person’s record of literary commentary if they do it long enough. In expressing fervent enthusiasm for and belief in Darconville’s Cat—“I want to be buried with this novel clasped to my heart”—Moore has to restrain from commenting negatively on Theroux’s Catholicism. Critics of the Novels volumes, such as Steve Donoghue and Roger Boylan, noted the evident anti-religious stance, the latter saying that Moore “seems constitutionally incapable of finding any redeeming value in the 2,000-year history of Christianity that has been so much a part of Western culture.” This sentiment extends back to when Moore reviewed Lawrence Durrell’s Livia: or, Buried Alive in 1979: “Denis de Rougemont, to whom Livia is dedicated, is the author of the classic 1940 literary-theological study Love in the Western World (still in print and still worth reading in spite of its Catholic bias).” If we didn’t muzzle ourselves now and then when faced with a work that leaps over our convictions we’d hardly be human, so I’m not going to fault Moore for his surprising moderation.

The third section of Part 3, “Personal Matters,” contains “Nympholepsy,” “Rethinking the History of the Novel,” and “Publishing Rikki Ducornet.” The second has been referred to already; the third details Ducornet’s history with Dalkey—who published her books The Fountain of Neptune (1992), The Jade Cabinet (1993), The Complete Butcher’s Tales (1994), and, both in 1995, Phosphor in Dreamland and The Stain—and her and Moore’s author-editor relationship, of which he is clearly proud. As to “Nympholepsy,” that will be dealt with below.

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III.

As already noted, Moore wrote his two Novel books to stand up for the kind of fiction he saw under assault from 2000-2008, and in his introduction to the first volume he addresses, with withering scorn and an abrasive tone, the narrow-minded criticism that Dale Peck, B.F. Myers, and Jonathan Franzen dealt out to writers of so-called difficult fiction. In My Back Pages there are literary theorists to argue with for their instrumental use of texts “as a springboard to explore socioeconomic/political issues, theories of reading… drifting further and further away from the actual words on the author’s page,” and attempts to redress the “little critical attention” and “critical neglect” experienced by authors like Rudolph Wurlitzer and Richard Brautigan. That’s not to say Moore doesn’t admire this or that critic (full- or part-time); he praises Tom LeClair, Marilyn R. Schuster, and Samuel R. Delaney. Yet the chief foes are those who use this or that text for their own ideological thoughts, and the review outlets that are indifferent to writers, in English or in translation, who present new visions.

One individual does stand out. Those familiar with Dalkey know that John O’Brien is its founder and main force. In the Index there are references under his name, but when the pages are consulted he is identified most often as “boss,” “editor,” and “Dalkey’s publisher.” The Introduction provides context for later remarks:

While at the local warehouse buying stock, I noticed a recently published novel with an irresistible title, An Armful of Warm Girl, read it, and became a devoted Spackman fan thereafter. Shortly after he died in 1990, I began planning an omnibus edition of his complete fiction; it was typeset and ready to go by 1995, but was continually postponed by Dalkey’s boss until a year after I left. (During that time, he moved my introduction to the back and called it an afterword because, as Spackman’s daughter told me, “he felt the length of the introduction might discourage less scholarly readers from starting to read the book.”) The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman (1997) was very well received, and I was especially flattered that John Updike referred to my piece as “excellent” in his New Yorker review (but disappointed when he dropped that adjective in his More Matter collection a few years later)… At that time I also prepared a collection of Spackman’s essays that I wanted to publish as a companion volume, but my exit from Dalkey (and the boss’s indifference to Spackman) made that impossible.

The grinding of the axe is audible. Pitting Updike against the “boss” provides pleasure and vindication. Another note airs a different grievance:

I wanted to publish this book [Five Doubts] when Mary [Caponegro] submitted it to Dalkey Archive in early 1996, but the boss adamantly rejected it: “I will not publish this book,” he declaimed in a memo. Upon publication two years later [by Marsilio Publishers], it was very favorably reviewed by Robert L. McLaughlin in Dalkey’s journal, the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Once again, “the boss” is set up against someone whose opinion dovetailed with Moore’s.

Two final peeks into the workplace demonstrate the toll this took: “Working with Karen [Elizabeth Gordon] was one of the few bright spots during my final dark year at Dalkey Archive.” Lastly: “My years at Dalkey Archive were depressing and frustrating, but Rikki and a few other writers kept me sane and entertained.” The theme here is that Moore felt his editorial instincts were often acute, but that he, apparently, had to wage combat within Dalkey every day. At a future time the full story of the Moore-O’Brien relationship will come out; it won’t be a pretty sight. Without adversaries our lives might be easier, but they do provide fuel for the kind of cold fury that allows a snap to enter one’s sentences.

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IV.

Above I mentioned this book contains sex. While there are reviews that touch on that, to be accurate I should say that frustrated desire is more often present.

In “A New Language for Desire: Carole Maso’s Aureole,” one of the essays in “Significant Others,” Moore appraises the author’s 1996 novel: “rarely in literature has desire been explored with the intensity Maso brings to Aureole: a pyrotechnic display almost reckless in its abandon, daring in its subversion of literary propriety, and voracious in its erotic hunger.” He goes on to say that Maso

exhibits the kind of bravado and self-exposure that I associate more with rock music divas than with her literary sisters. She has something of Courtney Love’s swagger, P J Harvey’s erotomania (both are mentioned on page 81 of her book), Liz Phair’s bluntness, Kate Bush’s bookish romanticism, Siouxsie Sioux’s dramatic flair, Jane Siberry’s wit, Liz Fraser’s mellifluousness, Shirley Manson’s aggressive sexuality, Tori Amos’s introspection, and Lisa Germano’s heartbreaking insecurity.

This eight-page analysis of a Sapphic love story takes us through each chapter of what Moore considers “Maso’s most innovative book to date.” He adds: “Maso goes further than any writer working today to create a style that does justice to the polymorphously perverse energy of eros.” As literary analysis, it is at the usual high standard of Moore’s criticism, showing sensitivity to language use, to how themes reverberate and parallel other content, and exhibiting deftness in locating outside sources (literary, musical) that contribute to an understanding of the text under investigation.

What interests me most is the curious verdict rendered on a psychological condition mentioned in the novel: “Lust here isn’t the devouring hunger of ‘Anju’ or the sexy games of ‘Make Me Dazzle’ but ‘sex addiction’…, that dreary concept from 1980s pop psychology that seems to have some validity here.” Sex addiction is considered a mental condition that, according to some opinions, is a form of compulsive sexual behaviour. It has at times been labelled nymphomania or satyriasis. Moore, who as far as I know is a medical layman, offers begrudging acceptance of the possibility this condition exists. Present as well is an appreciation for the sexual content of Maso’s novel. For me, this 1996 essay ties into the very personal “Nympholepsy” (2001) from “Personal Matters,” which outlines Moore’s self-diagnosis of a condition brought about by his everyday interaction with Morgan, a female fellow employee at a Borders store. Both deal with lust/love, and both reveal an aspect of the critic that heretofore has not been revealed. To say it comes as a surprise is an understatement.

Listing the three “factors… [that] had led to the attack,” Moore gives as the third: “the realization that soon I would turn 50, and that I was still alone—never married, no long-term relationships—and in all likelihood I would die alone without every knowing what it is like to love and to be loved.” He assesses the qualities in Morgan (not her real name) that attract him:

But she was more than just a pretty face (there were other teenage girls working at Borders, as attractive as Morgan): she was quiet, a bit shy, introverted, bookish, artistically inclined—qualities I shared and that led me to regard her as a soul mate, despite our age difference, qualities I had always looked for in a girlfriend but had never found. And of course she possessed numerous lovable qualities I lacked; I could fill the page with them. I had been waiting all my life for someone like this on whom I could lavish all my dammed-up care and affection, and thus Morgan became the unwitting victim of this flood of emotion.

In time he terms his ache nympholepsy, and consults Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for a definition. (In addition to having himself as a client, he is getting a second opinion from a literary work.) Moore being Moore, he can’t resist a joke: “Taking down my hardcover copy of Alfred Appel’s annotated edition, I fumbled beneath Lolita’s tight white jacket for a few minutes until I found what I was looking for.” The rest of this poignant confession involves consulting dictionaries, poetry, music, several bouts of self-criticism and misery, and much else. In the Introduction he says this about the essay: “It’s my favorite largely because its subject inspired me—which was what nympholepsy originally meant—to open up my style, one that I’ve used ever since whenever possible. (You can see that style develop over the course of the essay, which begins in a flat, documentary voice that turns more lyrical, scholarly, and fanciful as it goes along.)”

We can, indeed, look at this admission primarily as a style issue. Yet this is sensitive ground. The essay is surprising and touching in its discussion of desire and loneliness. Consequently, I’ve decided that even though Moore’s life has been filled with words he’s read and words he’s written, a literary review wouldn’t pay proper respect to this piece, and also that every reader will want to arrive at his or her own interpretation.

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Conclusion

People wonder why criticism exists and what its function is. When voiced by writers this can be unsubtle code for these thoughts: “What’s the point of it if not to get the good news out about my work?” and “Why do I care what some critic I dunno thought? And what’s exciting about reading a review for a book I haven’t read?” There is also a disdain for those who judge art. Moore doesn’t hesitate to discriminate the good from the bad—he has choice words on Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Sun (1997)—based on a simple criterion that he finds also expressed in the works of Spackman: “The content of his novels, and his characterization of women especially, will always create problems for some readers, but not for those who agree that style is what a writer is to be judged by.”[1] For some people, this will come across as elitism that verges on canon making. As well, as Stephen Mitchelmore points out, there is often a “prideful disdain for anyone who attempts to articulate the fascinating void, which actually reinforces respect for this aspect of art it is supposed to be dismissing…” We are fortunate to have a handful of astute critics who bring us reports gathered from the outskirts of the familiar literary world about innovative authors busily deepening our collective literary heritage. Steven Moore has been at the vanguard of criticism and publication of outliers and explorers whose artistic visions reinvigorate the capacious form of the novel and the short story, and we are in his debt.

—Jeff Bursey

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

 

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. In Rebecca Swirsky’s review of Danielle McLaughlin’s short-story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets, titled “Something else entirely,” the first sentence reads: “Good writers rely on style. Even better writers rely on empathy.” If, as a writer, you prioritize empathy, seek a counsellor; if you prefer writing, look for a stylist who has the ability to show empathy if he or she wishes. Times Literary Supplement, May 13, 2016, Issue No. 5902, p. 22.
May 052017
 

UndoingUndoing — acrylic and graphite pencil on paper, 20″ x 20″, 2012 (from Lachesis measure exhibit, 2012)

Bonnie Baker in studio 8
Bonnie Baker in her studio

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The work I make is connected to rural culture. I grew up in the farmlands of Southern Ontario at a time when big tobacco agribusiness was at its peak. The affected communities changed rapidly as small family farms adapted to industrialized agriculture. Transformation, for good or bad, made a permanent impression on me. I use the imagery of vacant highways, emptied landscapes, abstract cloudscapes, animal bones, twists of rope, and topographical lines to suggest frailty and uncertainty where once was tradition and stability.

The fact that I continue to work within the representational genre is a choice. I am fascinated by the representational element. There is much room for large and small space, for both intimacy and distance within the same work. I never feel constricted or boxed into a dead end by iconic objects or landscapes. Though physical objects appear defined, ideas surrounding them are limitless.

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From Geography of Bliss exhibit, 2016

Seal Island Bridge Split ViewSeal Island Bridge Road Camera Split View — graphite and mica on paper,
40″ x 60″, 2016

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Bridgetown 2011Bridgetown Road Camera Feb 2011 — graphite, charcoal and pastel on paper,
22″ x 30″, 2016

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Hubbards 2012Hubbards Road Camera Feb 2012 — graphite and wax crayon on paper,
22″ x 30″, 2016

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Road leads awayroad leads away — graphite on paper, 40″ x 60″, 2013

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My approach is governed by the Japanese concept called mujinzou, which loosely translated means inexhaustible supply. I may have an idea when I go to the studio, but many theories fail during investigation, which leads to new passages. I allow myself many failures, then explore the unintended consequences. Often the by-product of initial attempts contains profound meaning. I think navigating the passages can be more significant than the finalized state.

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from Lachesis measure exhibit, 2012

7. Infinity 500 pxInfinity — charcoal and wax crayon on paper, 36″ x 72″, 2012 

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FrayedFrayed — charcoal and crayon on Mylar, 36″ x 24″, 2011

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I begin by looking closely at a subject, methodically creating drawings of the same image over and over to understand my subject better. Once the image gains a life of its own, then I can look at it, think about it, and revise it. The revised drawing is now an expression of a new thought, rich in emotional expression and poetic aftermath. What is left behind by erasure or alterations is the debris marks recording the drawing’s history, exposing it to a richness and depth that happens by chance.

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From Boneyard series, ongoing

VertebraVertebrae — graphite on paper, 26″ x 31″,  2016
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Lamb's HipLamb’s Hip — graphite on paper, 24″ x 38″, 2016
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Right AntlerRight Antler — graphite on paper, 22″ x 30″, 2016

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I prefer the restraints imposed by charcoal and graphite sometimes mixed with organic elements, reserving colour for printmaking. Drawing in black, white, and grey intensifies focus without sentimentality, avoiding the temptation to appreciate only the meditative beauty of the subject.

In a similar way, my printmaking also records objects belonging to a rural environment and an ecology of transition. Using combinations of printmaking techniques, I am concerned less with the perfection of the editioned print, letting the image develop at the press as multiple variations often lead to play and exploration of a subject.

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From Archipelago suite, ongoing

ConfluenceConfluence — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012
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ConvergenceConvergence — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012
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IsthmusIsthmus — etching, 22″ x 30″, 2012
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I work full-time as an artist and this gives me a great deal of happiness. I am usually working in my head. I am thinking about projects as I walk, shop, and do household tasks. I make mental notes on changes to things I am working on. I cannot predict who or what will influence how I see or think about what I am working on, only that these experiences will subtly revise how I critically think then technically express themes in my work. The time spent in the studio is far less than the time spent thinking about, making notes on, and preparing for actually working. Working in the studio is my way of being alone, of being curious, of seeking clarity. It is often a confusing, uncomfortable and frustrating way to work, but if I persist long enough, new paths are uncovered.

—Bonnie Baker

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Bonnie Baker works at drawing and printmaking. Before moving to Nova Scotia, where she now lives, Bonnie studied glass blowing at Humber College in Ontario, lived in Whitehorse, Yukon, and travelled through Alaska. Bonnie has studied printmaking at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, at Women’s Studio Workshop, NY, and with master printmaker Cecil Day. In addition to drawing and printmaking, Bonnie worked with textiles from 1984 to 2007.

Community engagement is very much part of her practice. Among other projects, she has organized public events involving outdoor projection of text written collectively by several hundred strangers over a six-hour period; printmaking marathons using skateboards, roller blades, bicycles, and all things wheeled; exhibits on the open interpretation of the book form; and environmentally sensitive installations by several artists along a walking trail. She’s a founding member, active printmaker, and administrator of Elephant Grass Print Collective, a community-based printmaking studio in the fishing village of Parker’s Cove, Nova Scotia. Following her 2016 exhibit of drawings, Geography of Bliss, Bonnie is now focusing on a series of woodcuts and etchings that explore the crossover between her drawing and printmaking practices. Bonnie is a 2016 recipient of an Established Artist Award from Creative Arts Nova Scotia. https://bonniebakerstudio.com/

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May 052017
 

Sydney Lea and his granddaughter Ruthie

 

Enduring Chaos

I watch a dog, a pure-bred white Alsatian,
Approach a small, mange-wasted, coal-dark cur.
This at a park in a fashionable quarter of Boston,

Where I –dog-lover that I am– await
A wagging of tails, rather than what ensues:
White beast’s attack on black at the park’s iron gate.

Can a dog be smug? When the mongrel gives its neck,
The Alsatian seems to gloat, as if he’d taught
The mutt to stay outside the enclosure’s fence.

Is it this inconsequential ruckus that prompts me
To range far and wide in mind, in pure revulsion?
In any case, on a nearby wall I see

An illiterate, spray-painted scrawl: All Mooslims Out!
Old Chaos still provides us with directions,
Though they’re not that at all. He shows no Tao,

No road to Truth and Light, no Golden Mean,
But suppurative disorder. We tend to impute
Our woes to those whose suffering dwarfs our own.

This must be someone’s fault, we think. Where is he?
Milton grasped it all: his Satan’s scheme
Appeared to Chaos commendable, exemplary.

Note, however, that Milton found no shame
In hanging Roman Catholics. The more things change,
We’ve rightly heard, the more they stay the same.

The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity,
Wrote another poet. Rightly. Enmities burst,

The old and new. Hitler’s atrocities.
Stalin’s. Mao’s. Pol Pot’s. Late Balkan horrors.
Revenge of Hutus on their neighbor Tutsis.

Wrongly forgotten slaughters by King Leopold.
On and on. These weren’t enough to check us.
One country, armed to the maximum, summons a fool,

Or rather a knave, who calls for even more armaments
To make, he claims, his nation great again.
Knaves thrive on Chaos, as do his wretched minions:

Discord, Night, Confusion. Yet this ignoramus
Is one of many, his global counterparts,
With their nasty lackeys, building a bridge from Hades

To Earth, which malignant spirits travel across
To entice us feeble mortals. That’s Milton again.
His version of Satan whispers by way of such ghosts,

It’s the Other’s fault. He’s not like us. He’s bound
On our destruction.  Quickly, let’s erase him.
In 1989 a wall came down

And we rejoiced, and now another wall–
No, many walls are under construction. Chaos
Tells us that the Jews are ruling all.

He rails at the Mexicans who tend our cows
And pick our fruit.  Or, more likely in our time,
He curses those bowing eastward at certain hours.

The sun now slips below the architecture
Of the Puritans’ city; a brutal storm blows in
Off the Atlantic; the frigid leaves of winter

Are lifted by a whirlwind in a hissing mass,
Whirlwind that in due course we all may reap.
The leaves at last are crushed against the fence.

I seek some refuge from this gale, so vile and vicious.
In my fraught recollection all the while,
That cruel white dog looms large as Cerberus.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is the former Poet Laureate of Vermont (2011-2015). He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012, and Skyhorse Publications  released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife in 2013His twelfth poetry collection, No Doubt the Nameless, was published this spring by Four Way Books.

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May 042017
 


 

.Marissa woke as intended to the sound of the unearthly chant: qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis. She sat up on her prayer mat, hands folded across her heart, breathing as she had been taught, sharp intakes of air through the nostrils, pulled down to the bottom of her belly, then harshly expelled. The rushing sound of her breath flowed in and out between the long sustains of the singing. Ten breaths brought her alert. What had been the dream she was just dreaming? — but she was not meant go toward it now.

Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.

Now breathing normally, forgetting even that she breathed, she lowered her hands from her heart and let them lie palms open on her inner thighs, in the cross of her legs on the prayer mat. Her palms were full of heart warmth, as if they cupped warm fluid in the dark. The darkness was not total, though. A weak light flickered in a high corner, casting a horned shadow across the floor and the far wall where it broke on the black felt that sealed the window. She brought her memory to bear on the First Sin, which was that of the Angels—wanting to recall and understand all this in order to make me more ashamed and confound me more, bringing into comparison with the one sin of the Angels my so many sins, and reflecting, while they for one sin were cast into Hell, how often I have deserved it for so many…. In doing so she also concentrated on a point of warmth halfway between her navel and her vulva, as though blowing softly on a coal—this practice belonged to a different discipline yet she believed it might aid this one.

Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis the sin of the Angels, how they, being created in grace, not wanting to help themselves with their liberty to reverence and obey their Creator and Lord, were changed from grace to malice, and hurled from Heaven to Hell; and so then qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostrum but here Marissa’s mind hung up on the word hurled which somehow attached itself to a weakness in her meditation, whispering itself into meaninglessness, tawdry as the hidden disc on which she’d looped a Gregorian Qui Sedes, setting the player with a timer to rouse her from her idle dreams at midnight, false as the yellow Christmas bulb tucked on top of her tall corner cupboard which hurled the shape of its fineals across the room like horns. Mocked by her own monkey mind she trembled in frustration, hurled back and repulsed from the meditation even as she continued hopelessly to struggle, to move the feelings more with the will.

The music stopped, but she didn’t notice, and the light was gone too, something had changed, monkey mind was fussing over these changes but quickly completely she managed to smother it, turning her being into the new thing, whatever it was, or rather being snatched into it by three points, the one below her navel and the two aching points of her breasts. Across total darkness curved a sliver of light like a shooting star, going down and down, hurled down. 0, 0, 0, she thought, with unutterable sorrow, she is lost. Away in her room, which somehow her being had after all departed, her hands were fluttering in her lap. Far away in the other realm, among its splintering materials. Lost to me. To herself. Not to herself.

The spark went down a long way into darkness, but it did not go out.

§

“The eye of our intention,” Claude was saying, with the rasp and flare of a match as he scraped it on the striker. He leaned forward across his folded knees to light the candle between them on the wooden floor. Marissa looked down on the top of his bony, close-cropped head, sprouting a silvery down like dandelion seed. He wore his favorite sweater, a black crewneck riddled with tiny moth holes. The sight of it gave Marissa a peculiar watery feeling, like looking at a puppy before its eyes had opened.

She too was kneeling, sitting on her heels. It was a remarkably painful position if held for long. Claude had inured himself to it during a sojourn in Tibet. He tilted his baldish skull, whose shadow shifted on the wall behind him. In the dim his eyes seemed to acquire an ascetic slant.

“…makes the difference.” He breathed slowly. “Between an Exercise and ordinary trance.”

The eye of our intention. Claude had told her not to think of him as pastor or confessor, nor to call him Father, although he was a priest. He was her guide, through the Exercises. Like–

But he did have an intuition for her intention if it faltered. For her confusion, when she was confused. He looked at her now across the flickering candle flame, as if withholding a hint of a smile. As if somehow he knew the odd interruption of her Exercise two nights before: the image of a meteor hurtling down into the dark. The eye of her intention had wandered then—Marissa knew it, would not willingly admit it.

“Set and setting,” Claude announced.

Marissa rolled a little on her already-aching knees. “What are you talking about?”

His smile became visible now. “You know, we used to cooperate with other religions sometimes.” By we he meant the Jesuits. “Not here so much, but sometimes in the East. Considerably. Maybe too much. As if whatever religious practices were really all about the same thing—the Divine but in a different aspect.”

“And so?” She returned his smile with her mouth, eliciting, her eyes turned down.

“Set and setting is a phrase from the LSD culture,” Claude explained. “There’re a hundred ways to enter a trance. What happens inside it depends on your expectations and your guidance. The cultural surroundings, so to speak.”

Marissa raised her eyes from the candle to his face. “But you still believe,” she asked him.

“Lord, I believe!” Claude said, raising his open hands. “Help thou mine unbelief!”

They laughed. The room, which was drafty, grew a little warmer.

Claude said, “Shall we begin?”

§

The candle was a fat white cube, unscented, its four walls faced with thin slices of agate. The reddish-brown whorls of the cross-cut stone warmed with the interior light. Shadows of their two kneeling figures loomed in the corners of the ceiling. A voice resonated, Claude’s, not-Claude’s. … to bring to memory all the sins of life, looking from year to year, or from period to period. She was careful not to look at him first, to look at the place and the house where I have lived; second, the relations I have had with others; third, the occupation in which I have lived.

It was equally possible that Claude sat simply mute with his lidded eyes and his lips slightly parted and the voice she heard was an inner one, a fusion of her study and her familiarity with his tone.

§

Fourth, to see all my bodily corruption and foulness;

§

Fifth, to look at myself as a sore and ulcer, from which have sprung so   many sins and so many iniquities and so very vile poison.

§

She heard these phrases, as her eyes turned backwards in her head, and yet she was having trouble with the composition, which in this as in the previous Exercise seemed difficult because abstract.

 

to see with the sight of the imagination and consider that my soul is imprisoned in this corruptible body, and all the compound in this valley, as exiled among brute   beasts:

§

Her eyes, turned backward in her head, saw no such thing.   Nevertheless she was somehow aware how the candle was a barrier between them like a trench full of burning brimstone—why must it be so? The spark she saw tumbling into darkness now had a shape, a bright rectangle like the form of a small mirror, flickering and turning as it fell. The mirror image was a face, a long Modigliani oval, with something streaming away from its edges like hair or snakes or blood. Animal persons rushed at her from the walls of the cave: bison, bear, a mastodon.

§

an exclamation of wonder with deep feeling,

going through all creatures, how they have left me in life and  preserved me in it; the Angels, how, though they are the sword of the   Divine Justice, they have endured me, and guarded me, and prayed for   me; the Saints, how they have been engaged in interceding and praying   for me; and the heavens, sun, moon, stars, and elements, fruits, birds,   fishes and animals–and the earth, how it has not opened to swallow me   up, creating new Hells for me to suffer in them forever!

§

Now she struggled up through syrupy layers of this dark somnolence; her eyes burst open as she broke the surface. She hoped she had not groaned or cried aloud. The candle flame was ordinary, small. Across it, Claude seemed to look at her quizzically. She knew that much more time must have passed in this room than in the cavernous space where she had been.

Blood rushed painfully through her cramped legs as she cautiously unfolded her knees. An aurora of gold speckles swirled across her vision for a few seconds before it cleared. Claude’s regard was knowing now; he knew she had seen something unusual with her inward eye, while she knew that she could recover and understand it when she would, and that she would not tell him now.

Claude came up from the floor like a carpenter’s rule extending, long arms, lean legs in his black jeans.

“All right?” he said.

“Yes.” Marissa’s smile felt warped on her face. “All right.”

Claude looked as if he would offer a hand to help her rise, but didn’t. She got her feet under her and rose on her own. It was difficult to understand the awkwardness of their leave-takings, which were frequent after all. She had seen Claude spontaneously embrace fat foulmouthed drunken women from the rez. The space between their bodies seemed a chasm now. He reached across it, briefly clasped her hand, then let it go.

§

From the next night she could recall no dream but on the third morning she woke with a comprehension of what she had seen in the dark furrow where her Exercise had strayed. “But you know,” Claude seemed to be saying to her in the space of her mind, and she did know now, exactly. It hurt but she was more glad of the pain than not. She was proud to have figured it out on her own. She had something to bring to him now, like a treasure, her confession.

Early, but Claude was an early riser, and Marissa saw no reason to wait. Though they had not planned any meeting this morning, she might if she went quickly catch him for a bit before either of their workdays were due to begin. She dressed quickly, dragged a brush through her dark hair. No make-up, she decided with a tick of hesitation, for she didn’t normally wear it to work.

Her ancient little Toyota pickup rolled over the side streets of Kadoka till its windshield framed the church. Over the white lintel was affixed an electrified image of the Sacred Heart, exploding the burning cross from its upper ventricles, its Valentine contour wrapped in yellow-glowing thorns and weeping a tear of marquee-light blood. Marissa loathed this artifact and wished that Claude would have it removed. His predecessor as parish priest had raised the funds to install it.

Adjacent and connected to the church by a passage of coal-blackened brick, the small seminary where Claude resided was three-quarters empty, most of its windows dirty and dark. Vocations had dwindled on the rez, where a few handfuls of young men once had seen the Church as a portal to a better life. Of course, especially since the scandals, vocations were a problem nationwide…. An ambulance was parked alongside the seminary, its back doors open, siren quiet, red lights revolving slowly. On the far side of the white marble steps Sister Anne-Marie Feeney stood solid as a fireplug, her orthopedic shoes set apart on the pavement, cool wind twitching the black cloth of her habit.

Marissa’s mind could not yet construct the thing she wished to be other than it was, but as she got out of the truck she was already thinking, if I got up on the other side of the bed, put my right shoe on before my left, if a butterfly flapped its wings in China, if then if— A pair of shoulders hunched in a white scrub top appeared in the doorway, backing awkwardly toward the first step, while leaning forward into a load.

Sister Anne-Marie registered her presence and waved her imperiously back with her brick-red calloused hand. Marissa continued to advance; the nun pointed more insistently at something behind her. Her lips moved but Marissa heard nothing. She looked over her shoulder and saw that she had left her driver’s door hanging open across the bike lane which the town had recently established by dint of drizzling a line of white paint across the pot-holed pavement. Sister Anne Marie, who transported herself on a rust-red Schwinn three-speed, was militant on the subject of the bike lane.

Marissa turned back and slapped her door shut –irritably, though knowing herself in the wrong. She advanced again toward the seminary door, where the two paramedics had now emerged with their stretcher and the long figure laid out motionless upon it, covered from head to toe with a white sheet. With no particular urgency they rolled the stretcher in. No eye contact with Marissa or the nun.   Sister Anne-Marie had caught Marissa’s elbow in her blunt grip—had she looked like she would throw herself onto the, onto the—? But now the attendants had closed both doors and were climbing into the front of their vehicle.

She dipped into her front pants pocket and touched the rosary he had given her. This other sequence of events was so clearly present to her still; she arrived to find Claude sweeping the seminary steps, one of many banal tasks he claimed for himself around the grounds of the church. He looked up, mildly surprised, but already more pleased to see her than not, his smile still not quite perceptible as Marissa glanced at her watch and stopped herself from quickening her step. She did not have to be at work for forty minutes so there was time to go around the corner and have a cup of dishwater coffee at the donut shop there—time and so much to tell, and finally someone she could safely tell it to.

The sun broke over the peaked roof line of the church and flooded the sidewalk where they stood with light.

She had apparently missed a few things Sister Anne-Marie had been saying, “… a mickey valve, a mighty valve—oh I can’t remember exactly what but Father said it wasn’t serious, the doctors were watching it, supposed to be.”

She looked at the ugly electric sign. Claude’s heart had a hole in it then, if it had not blown up. Marissa brought her eyes down to the nun’s face, which was the same color and texture of the abrasive blood-red brick of which the older parts of the town were constructed. Take away the wimple and she might have been looking at the face of a career alcoholic, one of the sterno-strainers. Oh, it was only high blood pressure in Sister Anne-Marie’s case, she knew.

“I didn’t know,” she heard herself say.

“Father didn’t tell many people.”

And now Marissa searched the nun’s face for something along the lines of suspicious knowledge (an insight she had carefully denied herself)—an unspoken What makes you think you had a right to know, you little minx? Instead she found only a gentleness she could not bear.

“Child,” said Sister Anne Marie. Marissa broke away from her and walked stiff-legged to her truck.

§

Early to work, she leafed through her dossiers, barely seeing them with her parched eyes. It was supposed to be a paperwork morning; she had no appointments till late afternoon. Just Jimmy Scales, and he was not likely to show. Marissa knew he had skipped his court-ordered pee test and that she would most likely be spending a piece of her afternoon writing him up for it. The molded plastic chair across from her desk, where Scales sat sullen and uncommunicative for forty-five minutes every two weeks. It would be a paperwork day, then, not just a paperwork morning—well, she could catch up on some of those files. A break midmorning, telling her beads in her pocket while she watched Peggy smoke her weak, toxic cigarettes. Yoghurt or a stale packaged salad for lunch. She could populate her whole future with such banalities, as if instead of being doled out one at a time the events had all fallen out of their box.

She yanked the sheet with Scales’s basic stats on it out of the grubby folder and dropped the rest of the folders back in the metal file drawer. Peggy ran into her in the entryway, coming in as Marissa went out.

“Where you off to?” Peggy said.

“After Jimmy Scales,” Marissa told her.

“What? Would that be a rational act? He didn’t even miss his appointment yet.”

“No,” Marissa said. “But don’t I know he’s going to—am I Nostradamus or what?”

“Girl, you look you seen a ghost.” Peggy was wagging her head slowly. “No, you look you are a freaking ghost.”

§

At a gas station on the north bank of White River she stopped and bought a pack of Marlboro Reds and tossed it on the dashboard. She’d done that before when she quit smoking—once for a whole sixteen months. An unopened pack on the corner of her desk proved she was stronger than her addiction and that her clients might even be stronger than theirs. A parable in pantomime. Sometimes she had given the pack to a client, in the end.

At the border of the reservation she pulled over to enter Jimmy Scales’ reported address into the small GPS unit improvisationally mounted on the cracking dashboard of her truck. It came up somewhere west of Sharp’s Corner. Marissa wasn’t familiar with the area. She knew her way to the IHS hospital on East Highway 18, and to Oglala Lakota College, where she had briefly worked in the health center.

She missed the turn she should have taken at Scenic and drove blind across a narrow waist of Badlands National Park. On the far side she kept following 44 as it twisted south into the rez, and presently found herself passing through Wanblee. The wreckage of a couple of houses torn up by a tornado lay scattered over three acres of ground south of the roadway. A little further was a white frame church, with a quaint wooden belfry, photogenic. She pushed down the thought of Claude.   There’d be a funeral. When would it be? Her future….   A handful of boys in droopy shorts and shirts were popping skateboards off the concrete stoop of the church.   One of the more daring rode crouching down the welded pipe stair rail and survived the landing. Swooping in a wide turn over the asphalt parking lot, he glanced incuriously at her truck as it rattled by.

Her dry eyes burned. West of Potato Creek she began to overtake a pedestrian. Slender, with glossy black hair so long it swung around her hips. A half open backpack swung from her shoulder by one strap. She turned, lifting her chin, and signaled not by raising her thumb but pointing her hand peremptorily to the ground, as if to command the truck to stop.

Inez. Marissa’s heart lifted slightly. She leaned across to pop the passenger door. Inez slipped off the backpack as she climbed in, then shrugged out of the denim jacket she was wearing.

“Wow Miz Hardigan, whatcha doin’ all the way out here? Can you gimme a ride down to school?” Inez wore an orange tank top and the round of her belly pushed a gap between its hem and the waistband of her jeans. In her slightly distended navel glittered a small bright stud. She had not stopped talking: “I’d been late to comp class if you didn’t stop—“ she pointed at the corner of a rhetoric textbook sticking out of her backpack– ” I dunno it’s kinda boring anyway I thought I might switch to the nursing program anyway, Miz Hardigan you musta done nursing, right? Hey, can I take a cig? Hey, cool truck, I always liked ‘m, my uncle used to have one once back when they were sorta new.”

Marissa nodded at the pack on the dashboard. It was not like Inez to chatter this way. Marissa knew her as calm and slightly mysterious. She had already peeled the cellophane from her pack and lit a cigarette with a lighter she squeezed out of her jeans pocket, then let it burn down unnoticed between her fingers, as she picked obsessively at some invisible something between the hairs of her left forearm.

Oh Christ, Marissa thought. Do you know what that’s doing to your baby? Do you know what… she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t have, as there was no chink in Inez’ prattle for her to have slipped a word into before they reached the entrance of the college.   Marissa dug in the pocket behind her seat and fished out a scare-you-off-meth brochure…. Unfolded, it displayed the stages of a twenty-year-old woman aging forty years in two. Inez shoved it into her backpack without really seeming to see it at all, but she gave Marissa a hurt look from her wiggly eyes as she hopped out of the truck and slammed the door.

In a devil’s elbow beyond the college, Marissa narrowly missed a collision with a horse-trailer, though the road was otherwise empty and their speeds were low. She pulled onto the shoulder and sat there, shaking with the fading tension, watching the trailer recede in her side-view mirror. A painted rodeo scene flaked from its back panel: cowboys and Indians, horses and bulls. Marissa saw that Inez had dropped a lighter on the passenger seat when she got out. The blue translucent plastic showed a quarter full of fluid. And the cigarette box lay on the dash, cracked open. Another few months into a meth habit and Inez would have automatically stolen it.

Marissa got out of the truck to smoke her first cigarette in over a week. The blast of unaccustomed nicotine dizzied her so much that she had to brace a palm on the warm ticking hood of her vehicle. In one corner of her mind was the thought that this was not really a pleasant or desirable sensation. In another: Now I am going to cry. But she didn’t cry.

Sharp’s Corner was no more remarkable than Wanblee had been. The GPS led her west onto a gravel road that soon degraded itself into a packed dirt track. Where the track petered out into blank open prairie, the GPS unit went dark. Marissa had a state map in her glove box, but on that the reservation proved to be a nearly blank white space, like the African interior on the maps of Victorian explorers. Her tires were worn and it would be idiotic to break down out here; if the GPS had failed her cell phone probably wouldn’t get a signal either.

Nevertheless she drove on. The prairie was neither as featureless nor flat as it first seemed. There were billows and hollows full of thorny scrub and small twisted trees. In one of these pockets appeared a tin roof streaked brown with rust. Marissa steered toward it, thinking that she might have blundered onto the Jimmy Scales’ domicile after all.

She set her parking brake and got out. The small house sat half in, half out of a thicket of evergreen brush, at the bottom of a dish in the prairie, scattered with sharp white stones. It did not exactly look abandoned, but the door hung open in a way that dismayed her. She started to call to the house but did not. To the left of it the rusted carcass of an old Mustang stood on blocks and beside it a washing machine so ancient it had a wringer bolted on top. A dented aluminum saucepan lay upside down among the stones.

The sky darkened abruptly, though it could scarcely have been noon. Marissa looked up to see a black squall line hurrying from the west, dense inky cloud that blotted out the sun. She could no longer remember why she had come here. Out of the thicket to the right of the house came an old man with long white hair, wearing a green quilted vest with the stuffing coming out from its parted seams. He shook a rattle at the end of one bony arm and made a thin keening sound with his voice. Although he did not seem to see her he was coming toward her certainly, as if everything in this day, in her whole life, existed to carry her to this moment and him to her. When he had reached her, his free hand took hers.

Marissa said, Why?

You have a hollow in your heart, the shaman said. Or maybe he said hunger. The rattle shook in his other hand. Hunger. Hollow. Now Marissa was weeping, with no sound or sobbing. She only knew because the water from her eyes ran into the neck of her shirt and pooled in the shell of her collar bone.

Go to it now, the shaman said. Don’t hesitate.

—Madison Smartt Bell

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Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels, including The Washington Square Ensemble (1983), Waiting for the End of the World (1985), Straight Cut (1986), The Year of Silence (1987), Doctor Sleep (1991), Save Me, Joe Louis (1993), Ten Indians (1997)  and Soldier’s Joy, which received the Lillian Smith Award in 1989.  Bell has also published two collections of short stories: Zero db (1987) and Barking Man (1990).  In 2002, the novel Doctor Sleep was adapted as a film, Close Your Eyes, starring Goran Visnjic, Paddy Considine, and Shirley Henderson.  Forty Words For Fear, an album of songs co-written by Bell and  Wyn Cooper and inspired by the novel Anything Goes, was released by Gaff Music in 2003; other performers include Don Dixon, Jim Brock, Mitch Easter and Chris Frank.

Bell’s eighth novel, All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the 1995 National Book Award and the 1996 PEN/Faulkner Award and winner of the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf award for the best book of the year dealing with matters of race. All Souls Rising, along with the second and third novels of his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That The Builder Refused, is available in a uniform edition from Vintage Contemporaries. Toussaint Louverture: A Biography, appeared in 2007Devil’s Dream, a novel based on the career of Nathan Bedford Forrest, was published by Pantheon in 2009. His most recent novel is The Color of Night.

Born and raised in Tennessee, he has lived in New York and in London and now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of Princeton University (A.B 1979) and Hollins College (M.A. 1981), he has taught in various creative writing programs, including the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Since 1984 he has taught at Goucher College, along with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires. He has been a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers since 2003. For more details, visit http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell

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May 042017
 

Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. —Linda Chown

Behind the Moon
Madison Smartt Bell
City Lights Press, 2017
$15.95; 280 pages

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.Behind the Moon is through and through a magical encounter and a novel of mystery, but then what should one expect being taken there behind the moon, that emblem in the sky of love, of unknown loneliness, and uneasy inaccessibility? The position of the reader is crucial here. Approach this novel like an academic hunting symbols and what these ostensibly might “mean” squeezes out the juice. For instance, common reader sense should have told me that what comes first has to stand forth first as core axis. What comes first is a page with a circle and then this sentence: “The eye was on her first—the first thing she knew.” This opening says to pay attention to eyes, to seeing, to being seen and to watching, who and what are being seen and how, the width of image and the curve of distance. In the first of three readings, I came upon what I experienced as a holy wildness, what could be at one level a hip narrative of adventure and/or a relative of seductive Eleusinian Mysteries from classical times. The words and images spin about each other like silkworms sticky-hot in a summer sky. Actually, here, the reader is everywhere every time with multiple clues to everything in this scintillating book. But then, of course, time isn’t here. Space is and circles are. Spawned in fever dreams which might or might not be dreams, Behind the Moon is the grandest cosmic adventure on earth and also an account of lost women who learned to go elsewhere through solid surfaces, who came to know complete. Just about everything in this book is seductive and deliciously uncertain, once you let go of the silly matter of interpretation and finalities. A book about losing your way, it is foremost of coming through and twinning, of getting closer. As Julie knows: “she wanted to go deeper into the rolling feeling, warmth and openness, cuddlesome.”

It is also a seamlessly sophisticated book in which words as signs, scene and image weave over centrifugally, inexplicable at first. Writing of Julliet Fleming’s Cultural Geography: Writing after Derrida, Gill Parrington reminds that “words are burrows, tunnels, funnels, passages, expanding territories and folding stars. It’s a wonder that any of us can read.” This wise suggestion helps us to get closer to this book’s circular shapes and physical marks everywhere. In another comment fitting Bell’s at first far-fetched, untethered, yet meticulously composed novel, Jacques Derrida once admonished, “We need to stop thinking in wholes.” Well, Behind the Moon takes us rather astoundingly out of any world of stories and wholes and certainties to become a novel behind, not just the hypothetical moon of the title, but also behind the certainties of story, becoming thus, its own shimmering, transparent narrative aporia. Madison Smartt Bell knew that his book was singular to the point of strangeness, far reaching on the verge of sheer undecidability. In a Granta interview, he deemed it an “indescribable novel.” In 2013, he went a step further: “Behind the Moon is a novel just too weird for New York (even I eventually admitted that).” Remember when reading, that our book, this Behind the Moon is a novel explicitly taking place behind the regularity of what we consider story. We have to read it otherwise. Julie the character who fell, disappearing forever into a cave, grieved about the limitations of the story she felt stuck with:  “There had to be another way to tell herself the story. Jamal should tell it to her another way.” She re-affirms her sense of another way: She was seeing what she saw in some other way.” This is not so much a novel with a story within, as a stage setting through which transfuse many mysteries, sexual, mythical, and conceptual.

Once, years ago, a young girl (mainly me) sat in a plush chair in the silent dark of Hayden’s immaculate Planetarium in New York City. She looked upward, mutely waiting like the rest were in the chilly air for what was going to happen overhead. It was going to happen as a mystery at some distance, she discerned then in all her girlish inexperience. And so also did I (as she) immediately know that in Behind the Moon something important was going to present itself to be seen somehow. With my planetarium memory in mind (in hand?), It was a thrill reading to discover that Julie, the main character, had stars overhead on her ceiling at home like in a planetarium, a seething image which recurs six times: “the phosphorescent plastic stars stuck to the ceiling above her bed at home. . . . On the ceiling above the fluorescent green stars lit up. . .They seemed to have been arranged in constellations.” In another visual conundrum, the issue of looking, being watched or seen, became instinctively, intransigently important, remaining somewhat nebulous. ”She was seeing with the same eye that saw her” and “The yellow eye looked through her as she looked through the eye.” This novel bakes and sizzles these visual moments, keeping them warm, although almost unengendered.

Since this novel grows revolutionarily behind the traditional story, chronological time lines don’t apply. Many readers say that this novel is “about” about the attempt to rescue Julie, with the help of shamans (or whomever) from the cave into which she once fell. No, it’s not about that story. It’s not a story at all. Actually, Julie rather defiantly doesn’t want to come back; if anything she wants to get further in, into the cave, to go through the walls, to get closer to what inside is. My review hopes not to seem to provide answers but rather to furnish openings, to animate living in the cross thatched scenes, to adumbrate the eloquent patterning of the pages, thus to coordinate familiar worlds, the people in the hospital and the city and the others, with the unknowable’s, people/animals in caves full of paw marks and illustrations, so as to open the windows of your first and second readings of this exquisitely mysterious book, whose every word, sound, and pictogram constitutes what it is. I will use three frameworks: what I am calling 1) Setting, 2) Summary, and 3) Infiltration, so that by the end you can re-read this Contemporary Eleusinian Mystery your way.

1) First, what could be called setting of Behind the Moon includes both its physical self as textual artifact, as well as the places which the characters and animals inhabit. This most physical book features multiple hand and paw prints and circles throughout, eye-catching fonts and blank pages which accentuate its inter-continuities. It has 79 chapters, but these as such are not the significant markers. There appear, more compellingly, thirteen irregular sectional pages each with one more “circle” on it than the last such page. Thus, the final circle page has thirteen circles or prints scattered upon it. These circles vary on each page as to size, position and color, from a nearly invisible gray to a stern black. Occasionally, there are textual pages with vitally palimpsestic over-markings of different fonts, shapes and densities, letters and phrases, most of which have appeared in some way previously. These over-markings and prints bring about, albeit mysteriously, a kind of continuity of recognition. Sometimes, there are as many as two adjacent blank pages. Sometimes, rather inexplicably, when a person you think you know very well speaks, their thoughts or words get italicized much like in Modernist fiction. Other times, speech may become bolded once, and then other times, a particular word like “wrong” gets bolded many times such as when Marissa says wrong or will. Six what I call “duet or couple chapters” repeat each other in terms of dialogue or action. Some text is in Latin and others in Wingding font, which appears initially as some ancient unspoken language. The physicality of these markings be they hand or paw prints physically influence the book’s fore edges, which are noticeably and unevenly splayed with the dark of them.

Here I will not pretend to fake objectivity, to furnish a list of the setting there or here behind the moon. The physical “settings” involving people and places remain as fluid and episodic as the hand prints, about where and how people are, where they sleep, dream, wander, wonder, make love, fight, come through and vindicate themselves. Take it from Julie who says “she seemed to know where the walls were, but she couldn’t see them.” Much like in Virginia Woolf’s most open novel, The Waves, everything just is as it is in some cloudy relation to the waves and the sun. Much as in The Waves, too, there is no omniscient narrator or any guiding third person over voice. Setting as we have known is here a collective radiant dissonance with pools of darkness and eruptions of light. It’s that there simply is no one stable fixed physical reality or backdrop. Consistently, then, that repeated pattern of dots is “drawing toward each other but never quite touching,” much like the disparate parts of the setting being such as it is where it is.  However, first of all, and unsurprisingly, the moon is perhaps the one constant that remains and reclaims magic in different ways, almost defiantly and seductively present: “the great moon-shape of time” or “Time is not straight but round like the moon.” The moon is the collective presence of this book. Everyone and thus everything is also somehow ruffled by change here, by a warp in their proprioception, that inchoate understanding of how one’s body fits in space. Hence, Marissa, Julie’s birth mother, “got the legs to start walking toward the house. Something was wrong with her proprioception: she could feel her heart rhythm but not her feet striking the ragged pavement.” For part of the book, “we” are in the desert near St. Mary’s Hospital somewhere near a “coven” of caves which Julie inhabits in some way; the prepositions in the following passage indicate how indeterminate position and place are: “she looked down into it, holding it cupped in the palm of her hand, but in the dark of the cave there seemed to be no gravity, and this cup of light might just as well have been beside her, or above, impossibly distant, like that frayed wafer of daylight moon, faint in the washed colors of the evening sky.”

The book begins in medias res with Julie in the cave with the bear after she fell. Then, on the next page a voice is heard “hauling on her, dragged at her.” These taut, compelling opening pages chart the mysteries we face reading and considering. Then, we flashback seemingly objectively to before Julie’s fall when on her trip with bikers and possibly a dose of molly. At the book’s end, Jamal and Marissa revisit this cave of the beginnings to try to get closer to what happened before. What is setting “slip-shifts” from houses (Julie’s former home with Carrie Westover, her adopted mother), to the hospital where Julie is in a coma and not, because she is quite conscious to herself and sees herself in the cave, to Marissa and Jamal’s mother in The Magic Carpet Restaurant and their intimate moments, to scenes with each one of the men, Jamal, Ultimo, and Marco, to driving on the streets, driving into danger, that meth explosion, on the edge of or inside of caves with hawks, bears, great dark walls, and shamans nearby. Getting through this, Marissa breaks free of herself, her divisions, to feel “no difference between the inside and the outside of her head, Marissa wanted to say.”  Real places dissolve fast so that you the reader have to start splicing on your own or cutting your own cross section to look more carefully at more. Multiple shots of Julie’s star ceilinged bedroom and cameos of her hospital room with her trying to pull off her ventilator, her “muzzle” enhance the mystery of this tenuous place behind the moon. Sometimes great knowledge occurs in the caves: “such a stampede of bison as she had never seen (even if she was really only seeing them projected on the lids of her closed eyes)” Bell hath wrought here a tremendously ubiquitous fever dream. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure who’s seeing what or whom. Julie: or is she the eye, that sees herself as another Julie or is it her mother Marissa who observes her daughter, or is it Julie in the hospital knowing herself in the cave feeling her fingers softening, merging into the soft clay? The cave scenes are warm, swarming with reverence for another way of getting through, for paintings on the walls and their chance for intimacy. Any tedious verisimilitude is deliberately fractured. The action is elsewhere.

2) What is to summarize in this bold novel of uncompleted or cross-relating actions? Once, affected by the collapse of reigning ideas about action, D. H. Lawrence is said to have responded with his question, “You see, it was really George Eliot who started it all. . . . It was she who started putting all the action inside. Before, you know, with Fielding and the others, it had been outside. Now I wonder which is right?” At the end of the nineteenth century, many felt quite the same about narrative action: Henri Bergson shuns focus on those (to him) anachronistic inner or outer divisions. He postulates that: “All action aims at getting something that we feel the want of, or at creating something that does not yet exist” (Creative Evolution, 297). Francis Fergusson, esteemed drama critic, once specified that “. . . by ‘action’ I do not mean the events of the story but the focus or aim of psychic life from which the events, in that situation, result” (The Idea of the Theatre, 36). According to Fergusson, “action (praxis) does not mean deeds, events, or physical activity: it means, rather, the motivation from which deeds spring.” Margaret Butcher puts it this way: “The praxis that art seeks to reproduce is mainly a psychic energy working outwards.” She sees that previously stable notions of action had imploded and perhaps “psychic energy working outwards” has taken its place. In the novel form, in English anyway, the effects of this implosion have still to be assimilated. Behind the Moon responds to it appropriately and fractures the action, dividing and doubling up the characters, rendering the surfaces of life and things penetrable, sometimes nearly invisible. As we read, one of the goals is “to get to wherever there was to here, whatever that is.”

Butcher’s phrase “psychic energy working outwards” perfectly suits the parallel engagements of the two main women characters, Julie and her mother Marissa, two women simultaneously strangers and intimates. Remember this behind the moon novel takes place behind the traditional story with its plot and tangible consequence. It is compelling that the three important male figures, Jamal, Marko, and Ultimo, remain rather autonomous, tinged with strangeness and a turbulent wildness. Readers know more of the women, particularly Marissa and Julie who go beyond the moon to what is called make a commitment without a chance for returning. Julie literally falls into a new life while Marissa acquires one in dramatic, painful stages. She goes all the way to get there, getting raped, crying, growing horns and then moving into a consolidation behind the safety of moon, going over the edge so as “to get where you want to go you have to pass through it and risk that you might not return.” Marissa’s skull cracks open and the antlers’ come out, leaving her body relaxed, “buoyed up in a warm sparkling fluid—an ascending helix whose glittering motes were revealed as eyes of the animal persons, looking at her—thousands of eyes regarding her but benignly as if she was one of her own. Their horns fit comfortably on her brow.” At the end, all come together in a yearning magnetic energy:  “In the third spiral was Julie herself, eyes open and trained on Marissa, reaching out her hand. Marissa responded with the same gesture. She could feel the warmth of Julie’s hand. Julie was ascending as Marisa was sinking. In passing their fingers graced with the faintest feathery tingle of a touch.// Then there was nothing left but the bright wall of light, with the power blue sky at the top of the shaft, and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it?” Of course this is the overwhelming question of this novel which significantly has the women coming together and “getting through.”

3) What follows is Infiltration. not interpretation because as reader I am also getting through, making marks and finding, not passing judgment from outside. The novel is subtitled “fever dream.” Characters are continually seeing behind closed eyes and wondering was this only a dream? At one point Marissa remembers, no, “Not dream. That other reality.” Behind the Moon thins the lines between the two and lives longer in “that other reality.” The phrase behind the moon appears exactly that way five times. First, it comes from Julie about Jamal: “Jamal said one of those weird things that charmed her: I wonder what it’s like behind the moon.” Once Julie ponders how it would be to be with Jamal, behind the moon. The moon is that untrespassable limit beyond which one can’t go apparently. Similarly, language as accessible medium often becomes full of stone limits: “There was something hidden behind the words, inside them.”  Julie perceived this when she was on the edge of the ledge ready to fall off. This sense of limits and edges fuses this daring, elliptical adventure. At book’s end, of course, they have left the behind of the moon behind: “and the moon so frail and tattered—how could there be anything behind it,” Marissa questions somewhat rhetorically?

Characters like setting are different in this book; they no longer have a distinctive inside and outside. Perhaps they become all inside and assess thus according to how completely they can get through it and themselves. On one level, this novel overwhelms, erases and fractures Cartesian divisions between inside and outside, as well as splits between physical and mental, men and women. Earlier, I rather dramatically mentioned the Eleuysian Mysteries. Woman becoming passionately and quietly intimate cracks into these fixed limits and gives way to a particularly soothing unity. On various occasions, with Jamal’s mother and with Carrie and also with Julie, Marissa develops a new knowledge which obviates her battering self-questioning and debilitating sense of guilt and division: that “wordless something between Marissa and Jamal’s mother as if the smooth fluid regard of the other was melting something inside her.” There is a passionate life-lovingness about these many moments which allow for a completeness prefiguring Julie’s fingers melting into the walls and “getting through,” and also her deliberate insensibility to the pressures of nurses and of Marissa, her mother. The novel concludes in a radiant moment which I’ll include for its sheer pleasure: “So the two halves made a whole: a squashed sphere like the gibbous moon. She was back to back with herself and facing both realms at the same time, curving outward into both realms, but falling or floating from one into the other….So she raised her own hands, toward the other two hands that closed around hers. Now she did know these voices calling her name, which belonged to the ones she had loved, or was going to.”

Behind the Moon is an astounding achievement, to be read with an equally astounding freedom. As with any groundbreaking book, which this is, the way into it is altogether new; hopefully you will read with excitement of literary virgins and not dreary meaning makers. I hope this review gives you breadcrumbs to taste, however, in your reading. Would that I could say everything here, not just pieces. Virginia Woolf voices here a writer’s searching and her lingering dubiety about story. I conclude with her thinking about stories since Behind the Moon takes place mysteriously behind the story: “I have made up thousands of stories; I have filled innumerable notebooks with phrases to be used when I have found the true story, the one story to which all these phrases refer. But I have never yet found the story. And I begin to ask, Are there stories?”

—Linda Chown

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Linda E. Chown has published three books of poems, Buildings and Ways, Inside In, and All the Way up The Sky, also a critical book, Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in Selected Works of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martín Gaite. She spent 18 years living, writing, and teaching in southern Spain where she was betimes a Fullbright professor of America lit, one year at the University of Deusto, one year at the University of Salamanca. Subsequently, she taught for many hears at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. She has published a multitude of talks and papers on the likes of Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Willa Cather, Kirsty Gunn, Katherine Mansfield, Oliver Sacks, Albert Camus, Susan Glaspell, and many others. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from from the University of Washington. She grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, did creative writing at San Francisco State University, and worked in the fabled Poetry Center. She now lives in Michigan. Her newest poems were recently published in Poethead.

May 032017
 

Donald Breckenridge

Herewith, my introduction to Donald Breckenridge’s extraordinary new novel And Then just out with Black Sparrow, the venerable experimental/indie press now an imprint of David R. Godine in Boston. The introduction is included in the book and is reprinted here by agreement with Breckenridge and Black Sparrow/Godine. This isn’t a review; it’s an elucidation of the genius of form.

—dg

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“We walk about, amid the destinies of our world-existence, encompassed by dim but ever present Memories of a Destiny more vast — very distant in the bygone time, and infinitely awful.”  Poe, Eureka

Donald Breckenridge is a pointillist, constructing scene after scene with precise details of dialogue and gesture, each tiny in itself, possibly mundane, but accumulating astonishing power and bleak complexity. His language is matter of fact, the unsentimental plain style used subtly and flexibly. The only apparent artfulness is in the unconventional punctuation and, sometimes, the way the dialogue breaks up the narrative sentences. His settings are Carverish, bleak and constrained; his characters are the stubborn, alienated authors of their own melancholy fates; they persist in a panoply of failed habits and attitudes, gestures of a wounded self they refuse to give up because it is their own, a refusal that is by turns defiant, sordid, heroic, grotesque, and tragic.

But this novel’s triumph is in its rich architecture, its surprising splicing of genre and quotation, its skillfully fractured chronology, and the deft juxtaposition of alternating story lines. The result of this combinatorial panache is to create an arena of systemic implication, in which the sum is greater than the parts. Nothing here is what you expect; in fact, some of this text is nearly indescribable in terms of genre and form. What do you call a piece of fiction that is a narrative transcription of a real movie that is itself a fiction? Answer: Don’t even try. It’s a logical wormhole. It will turn your brain inside-out like a sock.

I will elucidate: And Then is, like most novels, a story about a character. Let’s say a nondescript loser robs a mom and pop store in some out of the way town and gives the money to his girlfriend so she can escape the mean and derelict provincial life she is destined for. She heads to New York with the cash, finds an apartment share, and has a love affair with a photographer, but the police (somewhere) are after her, and she falls among bad companions under the sign of hard drugs, who love her for her money. When that stake runs out, so does her string, and she disappears, probably dead, floating in the river.

But Breckenridge, the symphonic composer, takes this narrative theme, his melody, and works magic upon it by adding a half-dozen further elements.

1) A second, parallel plot involving a young male student who, a dozen years later, agrees to cat sit for one of his professors away on sabbatical. In the apartment he discovers the photograph of a beautiful woman, his professor’s mysterious former lover and/or roommate, a woman who simply disappeared. The student obsesses on the woman in the photograph; he becomes a sleuth, collecting stray bits of information about her. He finally tracks down the photographer who took the picture. But no one knows what became of her.

These two plots, the young woman plot and the student plot, leapfrog each other in the text, fragmented and uncanny. At a certain point the young woman, apparently waking from a drug stupor (only she is dead), finds her way back to the apartment, ascending the stairs just as the young student is descending. At the climactic moment, he feels her ghost passing through him.

2) An epigraph from Ionesco’s Present Past Past Present, an important influence for Breckenridge who takes epigraphs for all his novels from this text. The passage presents a character unfree, chained down, but conscious that he has the key to freedom, which he hardly ever uses.

3) An overture, or introductory passage, that consists of a prose transcription/narrative summary of Jean Rouch’s film Gare du Nord (1995, one of six short films by leading New Wave directors under the title Paris Vu Par). The film splits into two parts. The first follows a young married couple quarreling over the dissolution of their relationship; they are fed up with each other, disappointed in their mistakes, tired of their lives. In the second half of the film, the wife meets a handsome, brooding fellow who offers transcendence, offers her the chance to run away to a life of adventure. But she’s too bourgeois, timid, and polite to take him up. His response is to climb the bars of a railway bridge and jump to his death.

But what is going on? A novel disguised as a summary of a film? A quotation, as it were? A meta-commentary, or a work of art based on a work of art or in dialogue with a work of art? And the story itself is iconic, presenting the enormous ennui of modern life in the pressure cooker of a young marriage. But then the young man in the suit offers liberation. Is he a con, is he the devil, is he an angel? And the girl can’t contemplate running away from the life that is grinding her down. She hurries back into the trap. She doesn’t trust freedom — well, who would trust a man you had just met, who talks crazily about adventure, who looks too good in that suit? What is she going to do now? The message loop Breckenridge creates is convoluted and mysterious and yet firmly within a novel-writing tradition starting with Cervantes who, after all, wrote a great novel about a man trying to imitate another book.

4 & 5) The last quarter of the novel text is actually Donald Breckenridge’s brutal, sad memoir of his father dying: stark and beautiful and full of our common humanity; pity, love, kindness, stubbornness, squalor and valor. Here again there are two narratives: one works back and forth over the story of a life, two lives, father and son, and the father’s declining days; the other, more mysterious, follows Breckenridge to a diner, the subway, the train station. We get detailed accounts of conversations with the diner owner. We oscillate between donuts and staph infections, but by the genius of construction and understatement, horror and hopelessness accumulate. The word “love” isn’t thrown around, but the son patiently bandaging and dabbing medication on those awful sores tells you more than words. You are fascinated and cannot turn away.

Curiously, embedded in the memoir we find a scene in which Breckenridge tells his father about the suicide of a woman who lived in an apartment above him and how, he is sure, that one day he encountered her ghost in the stairwell. (The reader himself encounters a frisson of combinatorial delight.)

6) But even more curiously, embedded in the memoir we find also a few paragraphs in italics quoted from Théophile Gautier’s romantic horror story “The Tourist” (originally published as “Arria Marcella: A Souvenir of Pompeii” in 1852), a ghost story of sorts, in which a young traveler becomes obsessed with a woman’s figure preserved in the ash of Pompeii only to find himself translated that night to ancient Pompeii where he falls in love with the very woman. The story has the air of Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” or Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The young traveler, sent back to his own time without the ghostly lover, never falls in love again, never fully engages with life.

And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

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And Then is beautiful, artful, an elaborated system of repetitions, motifs and juxtaposed narratives. Without wishing to be reductive, one can say that the three ghost stories relate to the theme of co-presence of temporal periods signaled in the Ionesco quotation, the way the past haunts existence. And they are balanced with three stories of characters who cannot change their behavior when change is the only way to redeem themselves (the young Parisian woman who cannot leave her job and marriage, the girl who runs away to New York with her stash, and Breckenridge’s father who cannot get himself the treatment that would save his life). And these in turn are refracted in three observer stories: the Brooklyn student who falls in love with photo of a missing woman, the youthful traveler in Gautier’s horror story, and Breckenridge watching his father die.

And Then is a contemporary ghost story, full of horror and unremitting melancholy, heir to the romantics, to Gautier and to Poe (yet also, stubbornly unsentimental in affect, reminiscent of the Nouveau Roman), a vastly literate work, engaged in its own conversation with the bookish past. Everything here is doubled and redoubled, echoed, mirrored, and reflected, and the dead do not die. The dead turn into ghosts or memories or words on the page, all of which are the same perhaps, at least in a book. And the effect in this novel is to create a mysterious intimation of a larger reference, a world beyond the book, a teeming yet insensible world that is yet no consolation.

Douglas Glover

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May 032017
 

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Though primarily known for his haunting, enigmatic novel Pedro Páramo and the unrelenting depictions of the failures of post-revolutionary Mexico in his short story collection, El Llano en llamas (The Plain in Flames), Juan Rulfo also worked on various collaborative film projects and his powerful interventions in the areas of documentary photography ensure that he continues to inspire interest worldwide. One hundred years after Rulfo’s birth (May 16, 2017), Deep Vellum Publishing will release The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. This momentous publication includes the first ever translation of Rulfo’s second novel alongside fourteen other short texts. Numéro Cinq is proud to present this conversation between Dylan Brennan and translator Douglas J. Weatherford (both Rulfian scholars). Excerpts from four of the texts are also included below.

Dylan Brennan (DB); Douglas J. Weatherford (DJW)

DB: The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings has been selected by BBC Culture among their ‘Ten Books to Read in 2017’ and by The Chicago Review of Books among the ‘Most Exciting Fiction Books of 2017’s First Half’. Are you surprised by these accolades? Why is this book generating such interest? 

DJW: I am pleasantly surprised by the early interest in The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) is one of the most important Mexican and Latin American authors of the twentieth century and yet in the English-speaking world he has seldom received the attention that he deserves. I believe the book is generating interest for several reasons. First and most importantly, Juan Rulfo is a big deal. His most iconic books —The Plain in Flames (1953) and Pedro Páramo (1955)— were innovative tours de force that challenged narrative forms and helped usher in the so-called “Boom” of Latin American literature that would include such renowned writers as Carlos Fuentes (Mexico), Julio Cortázar (Argentina), and Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia) and Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru). I’m sure it helps that many around the world are remembering Juan Rulfo on this year, the centennial of the author’s birth. It’s also possible, I suppose, that some —hopefully on all sides of the political isle— are looking for ways to build bridges with Mexico to counteract the tensions of the current political environment. Ultimately, I believe that The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings is an exciting publication for English-language audiences. For those readers already familiar with Juan Rulfo, it offers the opportunity to explore his work beyond Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames. For others, I hope that this anthology will serve as an introduction to one of Mexico and Latin America’s most beloved writers.

DB: The myth that Juan Rulfo’s artistic output amounts to just two books and a few photographs still persists. Why is that? Where have these texts been hiding all these years? 

DJW: They’ve been hiding in plain sight, as I’ll explain in a moment. The myth is very attractive: that Rulfo came out of nowhere to publish two books of fiction in rapid succession before abandoning the craft, overwhelmed perhaps by the weight of his own success. It’s a fascinating tale and one that has been repeated for so long that many are hesitant to let it go. Indeed, it’s the version that I learned as an undergraduate major of Spanish in the mid-1980s. But it’s also a fabrication that diminishes the valuable contributions that Rulfo made as a semi-professional photographer and as a writer in the Mexican film industry. Additionally, it ignores the existence of The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro), a second published novel that routinely and unjustly has been marginalized from the Mexican author’s literary canon. Indeed, the exclusion of The Golden Cockerel has been so complete that, until now, no full translation had appeared in English. Although authored most likely between 1956 and 1957, The Golden Cockerel wasn’t published until 1980. That delayed release, combined with the text’s often misunderstood connection to film, led many Rulfo critics and aficionados to disregard the novel. The Fundación Juan Rulfo reprinted El gallo de oro in 2010 and, since then, has offered two commemorative editions that package the author’s novels and anthology of short stories together, a move that draws attention to the significance of The Golden Cockerel. My translation of this second novel is paired with fourteen additional texts (plus a summary of the novel that Rulfo wrote). All of these items have appeared previously in print (many of them posthumously), but never included in The Plain in Flames. Some are well known, others much less so, but all bear witness to the same creative demons that define Rulfo’s literary output.

DB: What is The Golden Cockerel‘s connection with the cinema and in what way has that connection led to its marginalization? 

DJW: That question was at the heart of an introductory essay that I wrote to accompany the 2010 release of The Golden Cockerel.[1] It’s clear that the decision —made most likely by Jorge Ayala Blanco and not Rulfo— to publish The Golden Cockerel in 1980 as a film text (“texto para cine”) had a deleterious effect on the novel’s reception. It also didn’t help that the piece was released sixteen years after Roberto Gavaldón adapted it to film (El gallo de oro, 1964). In that context, many simply began to refer to The Golden Cockerel as a film script, a denomination that is still heard frequently. To this day, in fact, there are some bookstores in Mexico City that incorrectly shelve the novel next to printed screenplays. As such, most researchers who have written about The Golden Cockerel have felt an obligation to address its generic classification. And, in an attempt to free the novel from its mislabeling, many of those individuals have tried to fully divorce The Golden Cockerel from its filmic roots. My preference is to affirm the piece’s identity as a novel while celebrating its very real connection to the Mexican film industry. Rulfo was a film enthusiast who, in the mid-1950s, was hoping to find additional creative and financial opportunities in cinema. Indeed, it is likely that Rulfo wrote The Golden Cockerel precisely so that it could be adapted as a film script, a task that ultimately fell to Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. In the end, I think that it is appropriate to acknowledge the cinematic origins of The Golden Cockerel while reading it as what it is: the second published novel of one of Mexico’s most celebrated writers of fiction.

DB: In addition to Rulfo’s second novel, you have included fourteen other texts in this book. How did you go about selecting which texts to include? 

DJW: My original idea was simply to translate the three texts that were published together in 1980: The Golden Cockerel, “The Secret Formula,” and “The Spoils.” I discarded that idea quickly, however, realizing that it would be a mistake to perpetuate the mislabeling of The Golden Cockerel as a film text. It would also have been, I believe, a missed opportunity to promote other Rulfo writings that have never appeared in English or have done so but only in limited release. Will Evans of Deep Vellum Publishing was very interested in an expanded collection. Víctor Jiménez, the director of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, was more cautious and became convinced only when it was clear that we could build a collection that would have a strong thematic unity while offering an interesting reflection on the creative world of Juan Rulfo through texts that, although lesser known, already existed in print. There were three of us primarily involved in the selection of texts: myself, Víctor Jiménez, and Juan Francisco Rulfo, the author’s oldest son. The anthology includes a number of short pieces that, despite never appearing in The Plain in Flames, have circulated widely and are generally acknowledged as part of Rulfo’s canon: “The Secret Formula,” “A Piece of the Night,” “Life Doesn’t Take Itself Very Seriously,” and “Castillo de Teayo.” Another item, a letter that Rulfo wrote in 1947 to his then fiancé, was published in 2000. The remaining items —ten narrative fragments— are less definitive in their generic and canonic identity and have appeared almost exclusively in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks[2], a unique gathering of Rulfo’s unpublished —and, in many cases, unfinished— writings, authorized by the author’s widow. The texts of Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks are eclectic in nature and include early drafts of Pedro Páramo, fragments of a film script, portions of two novels that the author began and never completed, and other experimental writings. The nine items selected from this collection are unique creative explorations that fit well into Rulfo’s literary canon and exhibit clear narrative structures that allow them to be read as independent, story-like texts.

DB: We’ve seen many examples of posthumous publications, most recently a “new” Bolaño novel appeared in late 2016. These are not always well received. Then again, sometimes we get Kafka or Dickinson. Were there any ethical concerns or worries associated with publishing work that Rulfo himself had chosen not to during his lifetime and, if so, how were these addressed?

DJW: The Golden Cockerel is not a posthumous publication, of course. But our decision to pair it with additional texts, some of which Rulfo never published, can certainly be perceived as controversial. And I was constantly aware of the responsibility of working with an author, like Juan Rulfo, who was self-critical and often hesitant to send items to press. I was encouraged, to be sure, to be working so closely with the Fundación Juan Rulfo and with members of the Rulfo family, and to be selecting only texts that already exist in print. Additionally, Víctor and Juan Francisco liked the selection of texts that we came up with so much that they decided to create a version in Spanish. That edition, titled El gallo de oro y otros relatos (Editorial RM), appeared at the beginning of this year. But returning to your question, the most poignant response might come from Rulfo’s widow, Clara Aparicio de Rulfo, who faced the same controversy when she decided to release Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks. Indeed, I mention her reply —tender in its tone— in my introduction to The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings. Clara explains that she resisted the temptation to conceal her husband’s working papers out of a responsibility to share the valuable writings (“so full of him” as Clara writes) that her husband left in her care. Ultimately, I hope that readers will see The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings as a valuable and respectful collection that, as I write in my introduction, “bears witness to Juan Rulfo and deserves to exist because each text is ‘so full of him.’”

DB: The Golden Cockerel had never been published in English. The same can be said for some of the other fourteen texts. Like most worthwhile tasks, translation can be as frustrating as it is rewarding. What challenges did you face when translating these texts? I’m particularly interested in specific problems and your strategies for overcoming these issues. 

DJW: That’s an interesting question since I have long felt that Rulfo’s first novel, Pedro Páramo, is tough to translate to English. Margaret Sayers Peden offers a strong version (Grove Press, 1994) that, nonetheless, seems not to reach the poetic, experimental, and mythic heights of the original. The Golden Cockerel is an easier exercise and yet not without its own challenges. This second novel is more oral, less polished, and less mythic than Pedro Páramo, and it is less experimental than the stories of The Plain in Flames. In The Golden Cockerel Rulfo uses long sentences, abundant punctuation, and numerous short paragraphs. All of these characteristics feel natural (if perhaps less formal) in Rulfo’s original, but can seem awkward in translation. I found myself shortening a few sentences and lengthening some paragraphs, all the while struggling to balance a desire to conserve Rulfo’s unique voice but making the text more comfortable to English-language readers. Another interesting issue that I confronted was whether to translate a nickname given to Bernarda Cutiño, the primary female protagonist of The Golden Cockerel and one of Rulfo’s most memorable women, standing alongside the remarkable Susana San Juan of Pedro Páramo. Bernarda is known as La Caponera, a polysemic label that is complex even in the original Spanish. One writer (Alfred Mac Adam) who translated a few pages of the novel rendered the term into English as Lead Mare, referring to the horse that is placed at the front since other animals tend to follow it. The choice is not inaccurate, of course, but feels awkward. I decided to conserve the original —La Caponera— untranslated and italicized, allowing the reader to discern the label’s meaning through the narration’s context, much as Rulfo does in Spanish.

DB: What led you to study, research and, ultimately, translate the work of Juan Rulfo? Why should Rulfo still be read in 2017? 

DJW: One of my primary research endeavors of the past decade has been to better understand Juan Rulfo’s connection to the Mexican film industry. As part of that project, I have worked extensively with The Golden Cockerel (including its two film adaptations) and became convinced that the novel deserves a wider audience. I found it baffling and frustrating that the novel —sixty years after its composition and nearly thirty years after its publication— had never appeared in English. In other words, I wasn’t a translator looking for a project; rather, I was a Rulfo devotee who noticed a void and felt a certain obligation to make this significant novel available to English-language readers. My efforts were, in many ways, a clichéd “labor of love” that became a truly enriching personal and professional journey through Rulfo’s lesser-known writings. Indeed, I hope that the reader of this anthology will approach these texts with the same excitement that defined my own exploration.

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The Secret Formula

The truth is that it’s difficult
to get used to hunger.

And although they say that hunger
when divided among many
affects fewer,
the only true thing is that here
each one of us
is half dead
and we don’t even have
a place to lie down and die.

As it seems now
things are going from bad to worse
None of this idea that we should turn a blind eye to
this matter.
None of that.
Since the beginning of time
we have set out with our stomachs stuck to our ribs
while hanging on by our fingernails against the wind.

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Totonac idol in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo) 

DB: Can you tell us a little about the Rubén Gámez film that this poetic text originally accompanied? Did Rulfo see the footage first and then write the text or vice versa? Is this a poem, a monologue for cinema or something else? Does The Secret Formula alter when divorced from the cinematic images? In what way? It seems, at least, to me, to be a text that is still painfully relevant today. Do you agree? Why? 

DJW: “The Secret Formula” is unique among Rulfo’s writings for its poetic structure and for the way it came to exist. Rulfo wrote the text at the invitation of Rubén Gámez who used it as a voiceover narration to accompany portions of his experimental film by the same title (La formula secreta, 1964), an allusion to the ingredients of Coca Cola and a critique, among other things, of the influence of the United States on Mexico. According to Gámez’s widow, Rulfo’s participation in the film came about after a chance encounter in an elevator. Rulfo had somehow seen portions of the still-in-production film and, meeting the director for the first time, expressed his enthusiasm for the project. Gámez, on the spur of the moment, invited the novelist to provide a written text to incorporate in the film. Rulfo seems to have written “The Secret Formula” very quickly and, although it is possible that someone other than the author gave the text the form with which it is now associated, it’s clear that Rulfo produced something more akin to poetry than to narrative (although your suggestion that it might be read as a “monologue for cinema” is not off the mark). There is no doubt that Rulfo’s text can be read independent of Gámez’s film or that it fits comfortably within the author’s literary canon. And yet I highly recommend that readers seek out La formula secreta by Gámez to see how seamlessly Rulfo’s text is incorporated into the experimental, dialogue-free vignettes that make up one of Mexico’s most significant independent films. Finally, I absolutely agree that “The Secret Formula” continues to be relevant. Rulfo imagined the piece as a lyrical response to the marginalization and suffering of Mexico’s poor —whether at home or abroad as immigrants— who, in biblical tone, demand to be seen and heard.

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Castillo de Teayo

A pale, yellowish gleam appeared in the east, revealing the outlines of everything. Meanwhile, on the side of the mountain, the world remained gray, increasingly gray and invisible.

Then, right in front of our eyes, was the Castillo. Its shape was strange in its seclusion, still undisturbed by any sign of life. It was surrounded by a mist that rose like steam from the humid earth and the dampened walls smoothed over with moss. With the moss covered in dew. That’s what we saw.

Night had come to an end.

That’s when that guy appeared, tall, thin, with his shirt open and a beard swarming around him in the wind. He stopped in front of us and began to speak:

—This is where the gods came to die. The banners were destroyed in the ancient wars and the standard-bearers fell to the ground, their noses broken and their eyes blinded, buried in the mud. Grass grew over their backs and even the nauyaca snake built its nest in the hollow of their curled legs. They’re here again, but without their banners, once again enslaved, once again guardians, now watching over the wooden cross of Christianity. They seem solemn, their eyes dull, their jaws dropped, their mouths open, clamorous beyond measure. Someone has whitewashed their bodies, giving them the appearance of the dead, wrapped in shrouds and ripped from their graves.

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Female figure in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J.Rulfo)

DB: Castillo de Teayo—You have described this text as ‘a travel narrative that often feels like a short story.’ Fictional memoirs seem very much in fashion these days. Do you think that its hybrid form contributed to its marginalization? There are various instances of critics attempting to see Rulfo’s photography as illustrative of his fiction, using quotations as captions and so forth and, therefore, neglected his photographic work that bears little resemblance to his prose. However, Castillo de Teayo seems to represent one of the few times when the photographs are meant to illustrate the prose. Would you agree? Why/not? 

DJW: Juan Rulfo was fascinated by Mexico’s history and highways and his wanderings, especially in the early 1950s as a travelling salesman for the Goodrich-Euzkadi tire company, resulted in a number of photographs and travel writings, some of which were published during the author’s life. For example, Rulfo agreed to serve as editor for the January 1952 edition of Mapa, a travel journal sponsored by his company, and he likely visited the archaeological site of Castillo de Teayo for material to use in that publication. Although a selection of photographs from that trip would appear in the journal, the narrative text that he wrote was not included and would not appear in print until 2002. It’s true that some critics have tried to see Rulfo’s photographic endeavors merely as a reflection of the author’s literary output. Such a perspective is misguided, however. Rulfo, who developed a profound interest in the visual image as early as the 1930s, never intended to limit his creativity to the written word. In recent years, as more of his photography has appeared in print, Rulfo has gained a reputation as one of his country’s premier photographers. “Castillo de Teayo,” as you mention, is an exception to the rule as text and image combine to tell a story of a rich and vibrant pre-Colombian past that continues to define Mexico’s present moment.

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A Piece of the Night

The guy who claimed to be Claudio Marcos had also become lost in thought. And then he said:

—I’m a gravedigger. Does that scare you if I tell you I’m a gravedigger? Well, that’s exactly what I am. And I’ve never admitted that my job pays a pittance. It’s a job like any other. With the advantage being that I have the frequent pleasure of burying people. I’m telling you this because you, just like me, should hate people. Perhaps even more than I do. And along those lines, let me give you some advice: don’t ever love anyone. Let go of the idea of caring for someone else. I remember that I had an aunt whom I really loved. She died suddenly, when I was especially attached to her, and the only thing I got out of it was a heart filled with holes.

I heard what he was saying. But that didn’t take my mind off of the quiebranueces, with his sunken, unspeaking eyes. Meanwhile, back here, this guy just kept prattling on about how he hated half of all humankind and how great it was knowing that, one by one, he would eventually bury all those he came across every day. And how when someone here or there said or did something to offend him, he wouldn’t get angry; rather, keeping his mouth shut, he would promise himself that he would give them a very long rest when they eventually fell into his hands.

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Sculpted relief in Castillo de Teayo, c. 1950 (J. Rulfo)

DB: A Piece of the Night—Unlike most of Rulfo’s narrative fiction, this story is unmistakably urban. Rulfo lived in Mexico City for many years, yet rarely does it appear in his fiction. Why do you think that is? How is the city portrayed in this story? 

DJW: Although associated so fully with Mexico’s rural towns and landscapes, Rulfo is seen more accurately as an inhabitant of Mexico’s largest urban centers. He was still very young, for example, when he was sent to live at a boarding school in Guadalajara after an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of his father. Eventually Rulfo would bounce back and forth between Guadalajara and Mexico City before settling permanently in his nation’s capital. So how does one explain Rulfo’s preference for rural spaces? Although there are multiple explanations, the one that I want to enumerate here is biographical. Pedro Páramo opens with a son who travels to the small town of his mother’s memories to search for a father that he never knew. That return to discover one’s enigmatic origin is, in Rulfo, as much biography as it is literary motif. Rulfo’s fascination with provincial Mexico —especially with the small towns of southern Jalisco where he was born— reveal a pained nostalgia for what Rulfo lost with the passing of his father. Although the scarcity of urban environments in Rulfo’s creative output is real, it can be overstated. As a photographer, for example, Rulfo shot a number of images in metropolitan settings. And he would place characters in urban environments in  “Paso del Norte” and “A Piece of the Night.” This latter piece is a particularly touching witness to Rulfo’s interest in the city. Although read today as a short story, it is, in reality, a fragment of an urban novel, tentatively titled El hijo del desaliento, that the author was composing as early as 1940 before deciding to abandon the project. “A Piece of the Night” has long been one of my favorite Rulfo tales. Set in the rough-and-tumble Guerrero neighborhood of Mexico City (near Tlatelolco), the story follows the nocturnal wanderings of two life-weary protagonists, a prostitute and a gravedigger, as they search for shelter. With an infant in tow, the trio is connected archetypally and ironically to the Holy Family. A year ago, hoping to see how closely the story connected to the actual urban environment that Rulfo describes, I walked the same streets and plazas that appear in the story. It became clear that the author wasn’t interested solely in the metaphoric potential of his protagonists; rather, he was offering a very real portrayal of an actual city environment that he knew well.

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Cleotilde

Where I don’t want to look is toward the ceiling, because up on the ceiling, moving from beam to beam, there’s someone who’s alive. Especially at night, when I light a small candle, that shadow on the ceiling moves. Don’t think it’s just a figment of my imagination. I know what it is: it’s the shape of Cleotilde.

Cleotilde is also dead, but not fully so. Even though I’m the one who killed Cleotilde. And I know that everything you kill, while you remain alive, continues to exist. That’s just how it is.

It’s been about a week since I killed Cleotilde. I hit her several times in the head, massive and hard blows, until she stayed good and quiet. It’s not like I was so mad that I was planning on killing her; but a fit of rage is a fit of rage and that’s the root cause of it all.

She died. Afterward, I did get mad at her for that, for having died. And now she’s after me. That’s her shadow, above my head, spread along the length of the beams as if it were the shadow of a barren tree. And even though I’ve told her many times to go away, to stop harassing everyone, she hasn’t moved from where she’s at, nor has she stopped looking at me.

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DB: Cleotilde—This story was previously published in Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo (Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks) in 1995. It reads like a finished story, as opposed to a fragment of an unfinished project. When was it written and was it originally meant to be part of a collection of stories that never materialized? It’s a brutal story of obsession and murder that I am particularly fond of. Why do you think it has still remained relatively unknown, despite having been published in Los cuadernos?

DJW: You are absolutely correct to read “Cleotilde” as an independent and polished short story. Indeed, I hope that the readers of my translation do just that and discover a remarkable tale that deserves a place among Rulfo’s other short fiction. And yet Yvette Jiménez de Báez included the piece in Juan Rulfo’s Notebooks in a section that she titled “On the Road to the Novel” (“Camino a la novela”), a classification that suggests a role as precursor to Pedro Páramo. To be sure, the violence and vengeance that define the narrative, along with its tormented apparition, the murdered Cleotilde, easily connect it to Rulfo’s first novel. Although it’s unclear exactly when Rulfo wrote this story or why he chose not to publish it, I don’t disagree with Jiménez de Báez’s decision to view it as a variation on the people, places, and themes that would eventually lead Rulfo to write Pedro Páramo. Although it’s true that “Cleotilde” has enjoyed only limited dissemination, it has appeared on the big screen as one of three stories that Roberto Rochín adapted to film in the feature-length Purgatorio (2008).

—Douglas J. Weatherford and Dylan Brennan

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Editor’s Note: Excerpts and photographs appear here courtesy of the Fundación Juan Rulfo, Deep Vellum Publishing, and Douglas J.  Weatherford.

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Douglas J. Weatherford at Laguna de Sayula. 

Douglas J. Weatherford is an Associate Professor of Hispanic American Literatures and Cultures at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah). He has developed teaching and research interests in a wide range of areas related to Latin American literature and film, with particular emphasis on Mexico during the mid-twentieth century. Much of his recent scholarship has examined Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s connection to the visual image in film. Weatherford’s translation of Rulfo’s second novel El gallo de oro (The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings) will appear in May (Deep Vellum Publishing), the centennial of that author’s birth.

Dylan Brennan is an Irish writer currently based in Mexico. His poetry, essays and memoirs have been published in a range of international journals, in English and Spanish. His debut poetry collection, Blood Oranges, for which he received the runner-up prize in the Patrick Kavanagh Award, is available now from The Dreadful Press. Twitter: @DylanJBrennan

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. (“‘Texto para cine’: El gallo de oro en la producción artística de Juan Rulfo.” El gallo de oro. By Juan Rulfo. Mexico City: Editorial RM).
  2. Los cuadernos de Juan Rulfo. Transcription by Yvette Jiménez de Báez. Mexico City: Era, 1994
May 022017
 

Michael Carson

http://wp.me/p1WuqK-kRQ

x

“An artist always incites insurrections among things,” says the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky in his essay “The Structure of Fiction.” This is a grand claim. It makes art seem like the exception to everything else in experience—the things. I can’t speak for all aspiring writers, but I imagine this is what draws many would-be writers to literature in the first place: the impression that art is exceptional in its relationship to experience, that literature, unlike every other endeavor, allows the writer to shake things up, to rescue the magical from the mundane. So how do we make Shklovsky’s declaration less abstract? How do beginning writers—and here I very much include myself—accomplish this radical transformation and shake up the world around them to the point of insurrection?

Simply put: Artists shake things up through conflict and the primary vehicle of conflict is plot. While at first glance this response might seem reductionist or even crude when speaking of something exceptional like art, it is actually crude and reductionist for beginning writers to ignore what is in some respects the most difficult aspect of craft. A writer can do little with his or her brilliant ideas, characters, sentences or settings (much less start an insurrection) unless they appreciate what plot is and how effective stories require plotting.

Douglas Glover’s essay “How to Write a Short Story,” in his Attack of the Copula Spiders: Essays on Writing, describes a short story as a “narrative involving a conflict between two poles (A vs B).” This conflict, he argues, “needs to develop through a series of actions in which A and B get together again and again and again.” He describes this conflict as “a desire-resistance pattern.” A character desires something and another character resists (sometimes this can take place internally too, within a single character). According to Glover, this “central conflict is embodied once, and again and again, such that in the successive revisitings we are drawn deeper into the soul or moral structure of the story.” These articulations give a story “a rhythmic surging quality,” and they make possible the aesthetic space for the writer to “go deeper into the moral and spiritual implications of the conflict.”

This essay examines how three canonical writers—Flannery O’Connor, William Trevor, and John Cheever—arrange a conflict between two poles to systematically draw the reader deeper into the “soul or moral structure of the story.” Through the course of the essay, we will see that even though each selected story possesses a unique conflict and writing style, all three possess congruent desire-resistance patterns, and each of these patterns provides its artist the aesthetic space necessary to incite insurrection.

 

Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” begins when a bull wakes up Mrs. May. The next morning Mrs. May enlists the help of Mr. Greenleaf, her farm foreman, to remove the bull from her property. She finds out from her sons, Wesley and Scofield May, that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf. She lets Mr. Greenleaf know this and reminds him of her order to get rid of the bull. She goes to the property of O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf to let them know their bull is on her property. She cannot find them and tells the boys’ foreman to give them a note telling them about the bull. Back at her farm, Mrs. May’s boys mock her. She cries. The boys fight each other, upending the kitchen table. Mr. Greenleaf appears at the door, asks if everything is alright, and Mrs. May reminds Mr. Greenleaf to get rid of the bull. The bull returns to her window that night. The next morning, Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf to get into her car. They drive to the pasture and Mr. Greenleaf leaves the car to kill the bull. He and the bull disappear into the forest. Mrs. May follows him into the pasture and then gets out of the car to wait. She falls asleep on the hood of her car. She wakes up to the sight of the bull charging at her. The bull gores her. Mr. Greenleaf appears and shoots the bull in the eye four times.

Flannery O’Connor

“Greenleaf” is a 9,500 word story related in the close third person. O’Connor divides the text into three sections, the first relatively short and the next two very long. Unlike the other authors we will look at, O’Connor’s section breaks do not denote a jump forward in time, or, more precisely, there is no chronological pattern to her section breaks: she has no problem jumping forward in time—like say to the next morning—within a section as well as between them. This is all to say the logic of the section breaks is different in O’Connor. The first short section details her first confrontation with the bull. Only in the second section does she confront Mr. Greenleaf and begin the desire-resistance pattern in earnest. Mrs. May wants the bull off her property and Greenleaf does not want to remove the bull from the property. He resists her desire through the second section. In the third section she takes active measures to remove the bull herself (but, interestingly, not actually do the work herself), first by going to O.T. and E.T. Greenleaf’s property and then by picking Mr. Greenleaf up in her car and forcing him to go the pasture with her.

O’Connor delays the actual conflict—the literal back and forth between antagonist and protagonist—until the second section. And yet O’Connor definitively establishes the conflict’s parameters through both backfill and the conditional tense. After being woken up by the bull, Mrs. May reflects on how for “fifteen years” she “has been having shiftless people’s hogs root up her oats, their mules wallow on her lawn, their scrub bulls breed her cows.” She blames Mr. Greenleaf, her foreman, for this ongoing oppression, and then imagines what would happen if she went to wake Mr. Greenleaf up just then and what he might say. “If hit were my boys,” says the imagined Mr. Greenleaf, “they would never have allowed their maw to go after hired help in the middle of the night.” This not only helps frame the conflict but marks the first iteration of a curious form of “recycling” where Mrs. May imagines the desire-resistance pattern and the different ways she might end it by telling Mr. Greenleaf what she really thinks of his wife (an eccentric religious enthusiast).

After this two-page section—again, much shorter than the other two sections—O’Connor places her two characters in the same room, establishing and clearly delineating the desire-resistance pattern: “The next morning as soon as Mr. Greenleaf came to the back door, she told him there was a stray bull on the place and that she wanted him penned up at once.” Mr. Greenleaf immediately begins his resistance, which takes a shape of a denial that there is any kind of conflict at all: “Done already been here three days.” Much of the story’s comedy derives from this passive–aggressive (or, in Mrs. May’s eyes, just plain aggressive) refusal by Mr. Greenleaf to admit to a problem. The scene’s internal calculus plays with this too, as Mr. Greenleaf, standing on her back porch, speculates, “He must be somebody’s bull,” rather than answer her questions. The reader also waits for Mr. Greenleaf to simply admit there is a problem.

The scene moves inside to an “off-angle” interaction, this time between Mrs. May and her two sons, each boy uniquely horrible. They are, in a sense, active manifestations of Mr. Greenleaf’s reproof, his resistance, which boils down to the fact that no matter how lazy or troublesome he might be, at least he’s not as bad as her two sons. Inside the house, they threaten to marry a woman like Mrs. Greenleaf when Mrs. May dies and gleefully let her know that the bull is actually the property of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons. This is a long careful delay—note that the Russian formalist writer Shklovsky considers digression the essential component of narrative art—with much backfill on how Mr. Greenleaf was hired and a fleshing out of the two worthless sons, but the scene ultimately returns back to Mr. Greenleaf outside the house (never in the house) and Mrs. May ordering Mr. Greenleaf to put the bull “where he can’t bust out.” Mr. Greenleaf resists, comically, given the desire-resistance pattern, stating the obvious—“he likes to bust loose”—not answering, and not clearly saying whether or not he will follow her order.

At this point of the story the conflict and plot has consisted of the single—if prolonged and disjointed—interaction, this resistance on Mr. Greenleaf’s part to admit there is a problem with the bull or do anything about the problem. The first battle is undecided thanks to Mr. Greenleaf’s refusal to admit a conflict. Given the amount of characters involved—Mr. Greenleaf, Mrs. May, the two pairs of sons, and Mr. Greenleaf’s wife—a less experienced reader might get distracted here by not only the characters, but also the pervasive and pronounced symbolism. Does the derelict bull represent faltering class hierarchies in the post-World War II United States’ South? Is the bull emblematic of Mrs. May’s denial of Christ, her faux-Christianity and unacknowledged hubris? Why did O’Connor create doubles of the antagonist—the successful Greenleaf sons—in her own unsuccessful sons? Yet all of these questions should be put aside: they are reformulations of the basic conflict between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf over the literal fate of the bull. The conflict is the story. It is dangerous to mistake ancillary material and symbolic implications for the backbone plot (though these too are crucial); if we do, we risk missing the central narrative importance of the interactions between Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf.

Thus we should take Mrs. May’s movement in the second scene, her journey over to the modern farm of Mr. Greenleaf’s sons, as a plot-step variation, a delay and reformulation of the actual conflict between Mr. Greenleaf and Mrs. May (Douglas Glover calls this movement a “stepping out,” a delay in an event by creating steps within the event). That the Greenleaf boys are not home (we never meet them in the story) frustrates again Mrs. May’s desire to get rid of the bull; yet only when she returns to her own house, and after getting in another fight with her own boys, does Mr. Greenleaf appear on her back porch. What follows is the second tangible iteration of the conflict—remember that these plots almost always come in threes—and Mrs. May orders Mr. Greenleaf again to get rid of the bull, this time threatening to shoot the bull, upping the ante really and signaling conflict-driven change and development in Mrs. May’s character. Mr. Greenleaf resists first by pushing the climax off, “Tomorrow I’ll drive him home for you,” and, when she shuts that down by repeating her order, through silence (this seems to be the go-to resistance reformulation in the modern short story: all three authors examined in this paper resist through silence in the second iteration of their respective desire-resistance pattern).

Mr. Greenleaf only breaks this silence not by discussing the bull, but by interrupting Mrs. May’s self-pity “quick as a striking snake” (a favorite O’Connor simile) to point out that she has two boys to do what she is asking him to do (again, the unstated assumption that Mrs. May can’t get rid of the bull herself, or without the help of a man, allows for the basic conflict and forces the reader to wonder if there is a sexual element to this conflict). The scene moves again to her bedroom and the nighttime and the bull munching away just outside the window. There is no line break here like the line break after the last nighttime interaction with the bull. This would possibly imply that O’Connor sees this entire scene, from the movement to the boy’s house to the next morning and the climatic confrontation with the bull, as one dramatic unit. The next morning Mrs. May arrives at Mr. Greenleaf’s house, “expressionless,” ordering him to “go get your gun.” Mr. Greenleaf reluctantly retrieves the gun and Mrs. May smiles at the thought that he would like “to shoot” her “instead of that bull.”

The third and final instance of the conflict, the climax, takes place in a secluded environment; the protagonist and antagonist are alone in a new story setting where the antagonist forces the desire to its conclusion. The bull must die. Mr. Greenleaf, characteristically, avoids the problem and runs the bull off into the woods. Determined to make this the climax of their long-running fifteen-year war, Mrs. May exits the car and waits on the hood. She falls asleep (again—she sleeps a lot in this story) and with the sleep comes the impression of a sun like a bullet bearing down on her head (the third instance of this image in the story). Also in these final moments we have more speculation from Mrs. May where she imagines the climax and resolution turning out differently, with Mr. Greenleaf gored by the bull and her being sued by Greenleaf’s sons. She calls this “the perfect ending.”

It is not in fact the “perfect ending.” It is the perfect ending for Mrs. May, who sees her entire life as one perceived injustice after another, an endless series of insults against her, her race, her class and her work ethic. The actual perfect ending, the ending necessitated by the story O’Connor constructed, immediately follows the imagined ending: the bull crosses the pasture toward her ‘in a slow gallop” and “buries his head in her lap” like “a wild tormented lover” (a deft reformulation and return the “uncouth country suitor” outside her window in the story’s first pages, and the ongoing “courtship” between her and Mr. Greenleaf). “Here he is, Mr. Greenleaf!” she shouts just before the goring, remaining “perfectly still, not in fright, but in freezing unbelief.” Her unbelief dooms her in a literal sense—I can’t help but feel this a joke from the Catholic O’Connor here—but the conflict has already been settled earlier, when Mr. Greenleaf runs the bull into the woods (the sight of Mr. Greenleaf’s wife’s ecstatic religious rituals).

What always fascinates me about this story’s ending is the way Mrs. May’s literal perception is changed by the bull’s horns. The horns lift her up and she continues to stare “straight ahead” but “the entire scene in front of her changed”; the tree line becomes “a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky,” and Mrs. May has the look of “someone whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the sight unbearable.” She then, from this upside down position, and even though she doesn’t face Mr. Greenleaf, watches Mr. Greenleaf approach with the gun, “outside of some invisible circle, the tree line gaping behind him and nothing under his feet.” This marks a return to Mr. Greenleaf’s earlier trait, his sullen-shy tendency to create an invisible circle around those to whom he speaks. (Also fascinating is Mrs. May’s imagined switch to Mr. Greenleaf’s point of view in this ending where he witnesses her “whispering some last discovery into the animal’s ear.”)

Sometimes when reading O’Connor I feel overwhelmed by the “on-the-nose” nature of her symbolism and thematic pretensions. This bull must then be another moment of that “grace” peculiar to the Catholic imagination, right? The scenario seems to have all the subtlety of a symbol for Truth or Unresolved Issues running up and attacking the protagonist (which is exactly what happens). But this reading willfully and lazily misses the carefully detailed desire-conflict resistance pattern that makes up the actual story. In a book review of William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo, O’Connor herself defines “genuine tragedy and comedy” as the place where “the definite is explored to its extremity and man is shown to be the limited creature he is, and it is at this point of greatest penetration of the limited that the artist finds insight.”

The key word here is “definite,” and with the definite comes a refusal to let one habit of perception—or urge to reduce the story to one meaning or another—dominate the other levels, levels of structure and craft O’Connor worked very hard to make definite; it is to ignore the desire-resistance pattern that actually frames the story and makes it a story at all. Though new writers often claim to resist detailing the specifics of plot out of a fear of unfairly “reducing” the story to the banal and everyday, the temptation to reduce a story to a certain reading or moral is actually strongest when we dismiss the importance of craft in the articulation of a writer’s vision. In other words, the awful vision of grace in “Greenleaf” is created not by the fact that O’Connor set out to write about the awe-filled vision of grace but because she found an interesting desire-resistance pattern and followed this desire gracefully through to its awful conclusion.

 

William Trevor’s “Teddy-bears’ Picnic” begins with an argument between a newlywed couple, Edwin and Deborah Chalm. Edwin, a stockbroker, does not want to go to a Teddy-bears’ Picnic, a get-together Deborah and her childhood friends attend every few years at the home and gardens of an elderly couple, the Ainley-Foxletons. Due to planning the Teddy-bears’ Picnic, Deborah forgets to cook Edwin dinner. Deborah attempts to make dinner. They argue more. Edwin drinks excessively. Edwin apologizes the next morning. They drive out from London to Deborah’s childhood neighborhood on a Friday, spend Saturday with Deborah’s parents, and attend the picnic at the Ainley-Foxletons’ on Sunday. At the picnic, after Deborah thanks Edwin for attending, Edwin excuses himself from the garden picnic to go to the bathroom. He drinks excessively in the house. He remembers a time from his youth when he made a spectacle of himself at a party. He goes outside and pushes Mr. Ainley-Foxleton over the edge of the lawn and the old man cracks his head on a sundial. Edwin returns to the picnic. Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton discovers her husband’s body. Edwin leads the picnickers over to the corpse, declares Mr. Ainley-Foxleton dead, and takes charge of the proceedings.

William Trevor book cover image

“Teddy-bears’ Picnic” is about 9,000 words long and told through the close third person, switching from the consciousness of Edwin to Deborah and then back to Edwin again, with occasional rare moments of non-POV-dependent authorial summary. There are five sections to the story, each divided into substantial chunks of backfill and dialogue. Trevor’s “Picnic” features a protagonist who resists the action of the antagonist. But here it is Edwin, the husband, who resists his wife Deborah’s desire to go the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. The story’s first section, the longest, initiates this confrontation; the second provides backfill on the couple’s relationship and a short dialogue confrontation; the third, the shortest, escalates the conflict between the couple (if in a somewhat indirect way); the fourth consists of an extended memory/backfill from Edwin and the climatic action; the final scene provides aftermath by detailing the consequences of the already settled desire-resistance pattern.

Trevor registers Edward’s resistance to his wife’s desire to go to the Teddy-bear Picnic in the story’s very first line: “I simply don’t believe it,” Edwin asks, “grown-up people?” She tries to explain the Teddy-bears’ Picnic tradition, to continue to push her desire, in a way that hints at the fundamental miscommunication between the two personalities, which will surface again and again in the story. “Well,” she says, “grown-up now, darling. We weren’t always grown up.” This disconnect between Edwin’s understanding of maturity and his wife’s frames the desire-resistance pattern. Edwin’s next response—“I’ll absolutely tell you this. I’m not attending this thing”—makes obvious Edwin’s violent resistance to what Deborah sees as a perfectly harmless desire.

Through the course of the apartment scene—snippets of dialogue followed by a paragraph or two of summary, both of the principles drinking more and more—the desire-resistance pattern surfaces again and again. Deborah cannot understand why her husband would refuse to have “a bit of fun” while Edwin cannot understand how mature adults could “call sitting down with teddy-bears a bit of fun.” The idea of maturity pops up again and again, expertly “loaded”—to reference another Douglas Glover analytical term—through significant history, juxtaposition and word splintering, but the reader does not lose sight of the plot due to the recursive dialogue exchanges, all of which circle around whether or not they will go to the Teddy-bear’s Picnic. The scene ends with a silent truce. We are told that the next morning Edwin apologized, the implication being the first round of combat has gone to Deborah rather than Edwin.

In the next scene, Trevor’s continues his deft POV switches, showing, somewhat comically, how one side does not see this conflict as a big deal while the other views sitting down with teddy-bears as an existential insult. Because Deborah finds “the consideration of the past pleasanter than speculation about the future,” she spends much of the scene providing relationship backfill and seeing “little significance” in their quarrel over the picnic. Edwin, for his part, thinks about the future, his persistent anger, and how he can give the marriage “a chance to settle into a shape that suited it.” Yet only at the end of the scene, on the way to the weekend getaway—and in yet another admirably concise dialogue exchange—does Trevor push the conflict to the surface again. Deborah interrupts Edwin’s story about the stock exchange to tell him the story of Jeremy’s “Poor Pooh,” her adult male friend’s teddy-bear. Edwin “didn’t say anything.”

This silence constitutes the second movement in the conflict. Edwin’s passive resistance, his stony agreement to attend yet not substantively interact with others at the Picnic (a sort of adult pout really), colors both the second scene and the third. It persists through his arrival at the elderly couple’s house and as they sit down for the Teddy-bears’ Picnic. Edwin drinks heavily through this scene and privately rejoices that he “smelt like a distillery” during his introduction to the elderly Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton. He internally mocks the ridiculousness and ugliness of all of Deborah’s friends. He only breaks this silence at the end of the third scene, when he tells Deborah, he has “to go to the lav,” after Deborah whispers, “thank you.” (Interestingly Edwin makes no comment about and does not seem to have an opinion of the elderly Ainley-Foxleton, who will ultimately bear the brunt of Edwin’s rage.)

Edwin’s interpretation of his wife’s thank you is of course couched within his understanding of the desire-resistance pattern, which is to say Deborah sees Edwin’s attendance as a nice gesture, a moment of loving appreciation and give-and-take between understanding spouses, while he takes her words for a sinister reminder of his earlier humiliation. It also provides for the movement toward the third stage of the desire-resistance plan and the story’s climax; Edwin has in a very literal sense left the Teddy-bears’ picnic. It does not matter that he is just going to the bathroom and that this would seem a perfectly natural thing to do; within the framework of the short story this movement constitutes a definitive and provocative action, yet another resistance on Edwin’s part, and the necessary plot step that brings about the third, climatic confrontation.

After an extended reverie on Edwin’s part, where he drinks the Ainsley-Foxton’s whiskey and reflects on a time in his youth when boredom, anger, and a need to come out on top pushed him to ruin a perfectly pleasant garden party—“within minutes it had become his day”—Edwin goes out to the lawn and tells Mr. Ainsley-Foxton that he sees fungus on the lawn below the rockery. He then murders Mr. Ainsley-Foxton. Deborah is not present in this scene but Edwin’s action cannot be interpreted as anything other than a violent resistance to her original desire. They are still within the same “room”—the sentimental and, to quote Edwin, “gooey,” world of the Ainsley-Foxton’s, Teddy-bears, and Deborah’s childhood (and, by implication, perpetual childhood, the antithesis of Edwin’s stockbroker “manliness”). Whatever the aftermath’s specifics, the consequences, the Teddy-bear Picnic will come to an end and no one will ever again—at least within Deborah’s circle of friends—be attending any Teddy-bears’ Picnics.

Trevor’s final section details the moments following the violent act of a protagonist, moments where he waits for the consequences of his actions. Trevor becomes hilariously mordant (and also philosophical) expertly juggling the juxtaposition of nostalgia and fear, violence and maturity, and innocence and experience in Edwin’s reflections on the blissfully unaware picnickers. And yet even though action does occur—Edwin and everyone else hear Mrs. Ainley-Foxleton scream and Edwin takes “charge of the proceedings,” becomes the grown-up in a world defined exclusively by death—this Teddy-bear’s Picnic has already technically ended because Edwin has already categorically and triumphantly resisted his wife’s desire.

The problem for readers like me is that we tend to mistake these endings for the heart of the story, which they are, in a sense. One leaves Trevor’s story impressed not by the conflict between actors, but by the profound emotional effect and intellectual questions the conflict allows. The effect is never simple; it inverts assumptions and resists explication. In a sense that is the “conflict” of literature. Most readers desire human experience be explicable within some heuristic; literature resists, heroically so. These stories are remarkable artifacts of that resistance; and yet they are nothing at all and mean nothing at all without their perfectly explicable internal desire-resistance pattern. All talk of heart and soul and transcendence aside, these stories—to quote Edwin—would be simply “gooey” without a plot to help substantiate them.

 

John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother” tells the story of Lawrence (Tifty) Pommeroy’s visit to Laud’s Head, a summer place on the shore of one of the Massachusetts islands. Lawrence’s family—including the middle brother and story narrator—awaits the brother’s arrival with some trepidation, as Lawrence, the youngest brother, has not visited the family in four years. Lawrence shows up with his wife and two boys, begins complaining about the summer home’s proximity to the shoreline, and refuses to drink with the family. His mother gets drunk. Lawrence goes to bed and the rest of the family goes swimming. The next day Lawrence refuses to play tennis doubles with the narrator and the family goes swimming to escape Lawrence. That night, Lawrence disapprovingly watches the family play backgammon. Later in the week the narrator and his wife help plan a costume “come as you wish you were” dance at the boat club. The narrator tries to convince Lawrence to enjoy himself and attempts to physically force him into the dance. Lawrence resists. Everyone at the party goes swimming. The next day the narrator goes swimming and finds Lawrence on the beach. Lawrence agrees to walk to Tanner’s Point with the narrator along the beach. The narrator confronts Lawrence about his bad attitude. When Lawrence insults the narrator and walks away, the narrator hits him on the back of the head with a root. The narrator goes swimming. A bloodied Lawrence returns to the summer home and tells his family he is leaving. Lawrence leaves.

John Cheever

“Goodbye, My Brother” is about 8,000 words and is told in the first person, from Lawrence’s brother point of view. Cheever breaks up the story into six sections using line breaks. The major conflict—Lawrence (or Tifty) wants to show his disdain for his family; his family resists—takes places in sections three, four, and five. These major conflict sections take place chronologically, over the course of the two-week family vacation. The first section provides backfill, summary of the family’s history. The final section imagines and reflects on Lawrence’s leaving (aftermath rather than plot). It is important to note that of three stories examined, Cheever’s possesses the most complicated plot structure. Not only is the story told through a narrator who is physically implicated in the desire-resistance pattern only in the story’s second half, but the desirer—Tifty—also expresses his disdain for specific family rituals as well as specific characters. This creates a more elegantly algebraic plot pattern, less A vs B in three different rooms, than A vs X1, and then A vs X2, and then A vs X3. Further, each of these X variables is subdivided into a somewhat consistent pattern of smaller plot iterations—a1, b1, and b3.

The story’s conflict takes a definitive shape about a page into the story’s second section. This scene is defined almost exclusively as a confrontation between Lawrence and his mother, with the other family members watching on. Initially, there is “a faint tension” in the room at Lawrence’s arrival, but Lawrence does not press his disdain on the family and no one actively resists this disdain until Lawrence reappears from a visit to the beach. Here, in a short dialogue exchange, Lawrence’s mother asks Lawrence what he thought of the beach and if he wants a Martini: “’Isn’t the beach fabulous, Tifty?…Isn’t it fabulous to be back? Will you have a Martini?’” She calls him Tifty—one of two family nicknames for the youngest brother; the other is “Little Jesus”—and essentially answers the question she asks for her son, rhetorically providing him an “out,” what he needs to say to elide his four-year separation. Lawrence response—“I don’t care…Whiskey, gin don’t care what I drink. Give me a little rum”—makes clear that he will not fall back into the family banter and habits and has arrived not to rejoin but has come to disapprove of the family. “We do not have any rum,” says the mother with the “first note of asperity.” The narrator then goes on to provide more backfill, to explain Lawrence’s original separation from the family after their father’s death, when Lawrence originally disapproved, when he decided that his mother was “frivolous, mischievous, destructive, and overly strong.”

Unlike the other stories examined, Lawrence’s initial attack seems misdirected. He first gets into a fight with the mother, then makes a snide comment about the sister’s promiscuity, and finally ridicules the dead father’s “damn fool idea to build a house on the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline.” The scene concludes with the mother getting “unfortunately” drunk and declaring that if there is an afterlife, she “will have a very different kind of family,” one with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children.”

Because Cheever’s story is narrated by a character who has no direct exchanges with Lawrence in the first plot scene, the reader might conclude that this long first family interaction with Lawrence is not plot. This reader would be wrong. Lawrence’s disdain here addresses a particular family pastime—getting together to have drinks—and—with this—the process of coming together, of reuniting after a long separation. Lawrence’s challenges—which come in three neatly forceful dialogue exchanges with the mother—represent an assault on the family’s “delight at claiming a brother,” their efforts “to enjoy a peaceful time,” and, most importantly, their ritualistic drinking, which refreshes “their responses to a familiar view.”

Douglas Glover, in an essay on Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung,” argues that Munro is “almost always precise and transparent in terms of her desire-resistance patterns” because “her story organization is heterodox.” In other words, the more complicated the plot structure, the more important a precisely delineated desire-resistance pattern. This holds true in the first scene of Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother.” Because Lawrence is in conflict with an idea or family ritual rather than a specific person and knowing that Lawrence will be conflict with another ritual in the following scene, Cheever must guide the reader carefully through the scene, expertly modulating the conflict’s pressure, insistently reminding the reader of what is in fact at stake. We have seen in the other stories that a desire-resistance pattern tends to work best in three iterations. Cheever knows this, so he gives the reader this three-pronged pattern within the scene itself (think back to the “stepping out” observed in the O’Connor story). Lawrence’s rejection of the family’s ritualistic drinking comes three times—remember the three almost parallel dialogue exchanges?—that leads to the mother drinking too much and insulting the family. The scene itself could be a story. It has its own desire-resistance arc (a+b+c=A (Tifty) vs X1 (family drinking)), one that the consequent scenes (where A will be in conflict with new rituals, new X variables) will reformulate and expand upon.

In the third scene we finally have direct story interaction between the narrator and Lawrence. The narrator asks Lawrence if he wants to play tennis. Lawrence, through indirect dialogue, says “no thanks,” and the narrator excuses Lawrence’s decision because “both he and Chaddy play better tennis than I,” but then, just a few lines later, “Lawrence disappears” when family doubles are about to begin, which makes the narrator “cross.” This frames the later direct confrontation with the narrator and Lawrence—which will be the climax of the story—while carefully and consistently perpetuating the desire-resistance pattern established in the previous scene. Here Lawrence shows his disdain of family tennis doubles, then comments on the house’s specious gentrification—“Imagine spending a thousand dollars to make a sound house look like a wreck”—and finally the family’s eating habits. We have again the three iterations, but this time of three separate family rituals; and yet—since we just had this in the last scene and the key to quality plotting is reformulation, as Viktor Shklovsky says in his Energy of Delusion, plotting requires “inversion and parody”—these three expressions of disdain function as a prelude for the scene’s central dissatisfaction, that is, Lawrence’s disdain for family backgammon (the X2 in the basic plot pattern).

Unsurprisingly, given Cheever’s previous patterning, the backgammon scene-let can be further subdivided into three iterations also (a+b+c) that blooms from the climax of the original three iterations (tennis, house, food):[1] Lawrence watches on with disdain as the narrator plays his other brother’s wife (a), the narrator plays his other brother (b), and finally the other brother plays their mother (c). As the games proceed, the narrator is sure that Lawrence “finds an inner logic” to this innocent family ritual, and “it will be sordid.” He will, according to the narrator, see each loss and victory as evidence of “human rapaciousness,” that they battle not for money, for fun, but for “one another’s souls.” It’s also important to note here that all of this is filtered through the narrator brother, who, importantly, not only internalizes his brother’s criticisms but also interprets and voices them. While one might think that this distancing might mitigate the intensity of the desire-resistance pattern (why not just have Lawrence verbalize these accusations?), the fact that this interior monologue of disdain comes from the narrator’s imagination of Lawrence actually increases the conflict’s intensity. The disdain Lawrence feels for the family is bottled up by the narrator and fermented, and the narrator “resists” Lawrence’s disdain by trying to articulate it, trying to frame it, which again foreshadows his eventual failure.

Lawrence wins this scene’s desire-resistance pattern. He effectively expresses his disdain for this family ritual through silence (which the narrator verbalizes) and then, in the final paragraph, actively states, “I should think you’d go crazy” and “I’m going to bed.” Here, about halfway through the story, we have a seeming break from the desire resistance pattern, as the narrator makes a point to avoid Lawrence over the next few days, to enjoy his vacation and plan for the “Come as You Wish You Were” dance. But this is not an actual break in the plot. Like Mrs. May’s decision to go look for the Greenleaf boys and Edward’s pouting, this is an attempt to resolve the conflict by a new form of resistance (escape). It is another plot step, but one accomplished in the form of a delay (remember Shklovsky on digression and delay). Lawrence might not be physically present or even mentioned through the majority of the scene, but the reader waits for his return, which roars back at the end of this fourth scene with the same puritanical disapproval, this time of the dance party ritual (A vs X3). The narrator resists by pushing Lawrence into the party—the first physical resistance of the story—and Lawrence fights back limply, asking, “Why should I? Why should I?” The narrator returns to the party without Lawrence and they all dance and drink and “chase balloons”—another attempt to escape the conflict, and also the satisfying and logical climax to that scene’s desire-resistance pattern.

The fifth and climatic scene follows the pattern established in the previous scenes, but Cheever adjusts the movement, reformulates it in a way that speaks to the increasing pressure of Lawrence’s disdain on the narrator specifically. It might be useful to think of this in cinematic terms. The first part of the story has a distant shot of the desire-resistance pattern and Cheever moves in closer and closer until the conflict becomes a physical one (a close-up) between Lawrence’s disdain for the family and the narrator’s resistance. This is not to say Lawrence in this final section does not despise a family ritual too. He very much does—he despises the very idea of a beach vacation. After Lawrence’s wife’s vacation laundering affronts the narrator—her “penitential fervor,” iteration “a”—he goes to swim and finds Lawrence at the beach (iteration “b”). He swims with Lawrence watching. Upon exiting, the narrator imagines Lawrence’s criticisms—this again comes in a neat three-iteration cycle; remember that Cheever constantly has the third iteration give birth to a subset of three iterations, like algae blooms of conflict—and the narrator confronts the way Lawrence “kept his head down” as they walk along the beach (iteration “c”). Lawrence responds with the first explicit expression of disdain: “I don’t like it here.”

Following this blunt description of the desire-resistance pattern, the narrator resists verbally by repeating, “come out of it, Tifty.” Lawrence then insults the narrator physical appearance. The narrator strikes Lawrence from behind with a “sea-water heavy” root. This violence comes fast and is surprising, yet at the same time it is expected; through the successful cycles of desire-conflict exchanges, how Cheever reformulates each in their movement toward this particular confrontation, and the fact that the narrator has been verbalizing Lawrence’s disdain for the family through the entire story, it only make sense that the narrator would end up committing violence on a family member and, by extension, on the family.

Why? Because this is the exact pattern established in the first confrontation with the mother and the drinking— her afterlife with “fabulously rich, witty, and enchanting children”—where Lawrence’s disdain for the family produces a disdain for the family from the family itself. This action is a plot twist and yet is also firmly within the established pattern. So too the narrator’s actions after the violence—his binding of the wound, his silence about the action, and his decision to go swimming yet again, to throw himself into that baptismal font, that “illusion of purification,” the one place in the family’s world that Lawrence “neglected to name,” and thus the one place resistant to Lawrence’s powers of “diminution” (one gets the sense that the narrator cannot name it either, and that is what keeps it redemptive and viable even after the events of the story; it is also, of course, where their father drowned—ironic conflict means syntactic excitement!).

In the next scene, the narrator imagines his brother leaving and reflects on the morning’s intensity and wonders whether anything can be done with “a man like that.” He then looks out his window to see the women of the family emerging naked from the water. In terms of story, the sublime imagery and wordplay are ancillary (though no less important). The plot has already ended. The conflict itself came to a conclusion on the beach. Likewise, the narrator’s philosophical ruminations, all the varied reasons he gives for Lawrence’s disposition and disdain, are tempting to privilege (as they come at the end), but this misses the fact that the actual story, the plot, would not work at all if not for Cheever’s determination to follow the original conflict—that of Lawrence’s puritanical disdain for the family—through the course of the story and to let them play out in three similar yet distinct scenes. This nuts and bolts craft substantiates the lyrical prose and philosophical digressions to follow. Missing this craft does not mean we miss the point of the story; it simply means we will likely have a good amount of trouble writing one.

In his Theory of Prose, Shklovsky argues that “art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced, or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence it is to be experienced through the senses.” Each of these three stories has a pronounced musicality to them, and it certainly feels at times that the reader is carried along through the background music alone (whether that comes in the form of syntax or theme or psychology). But this is not what makes a story. As E.M Forster declared in his Aspects of the Novel, a story qua story has but one single merit: that it “makes the audience want to know what happens next.” This merit exists only in an author’s capacity to create a “walking dance to be experienced,” a determination to follow with “the body,” an investment with “the senses.”

We have seen this play out in the three stories analyzed. Each takes a specific character’s desire and invents a situation where another character or group of characters resists this desire. It then takes this conflict and reproduces it at least three times in at least three distinct scenes, and each iteration is reformulated to provide a sense of syntactic excitement, irony and elaboration without ever abandoning the original desire-resistance pattern. This steadfast commitment to the original conflict creates the aesthetic space for the “movement of the body” because this plotting is, ultimately, a commitment to the senses on the part of the author and the reader, to exploring—to quote O’Connor again—“the definite to its extremity.”

Culturally Americans tend to treat literature as an unknown quality, unique with respect to other art forms and disciplines, both urgent and enduring precisely because it cannot be planned, described, and compartmentalized. But this isn’t quite true. The urgent and enduring qualities of literature extend directly from the fact that literature is, as Douglas Glover says, “a process of thinking with its own peculiar form.” Contrary to popular belief—a romanticized and lazy understanding of what art accomplishes and is—this peculiar and specific form provides literature its unknown quality. Writers create interest through, as Glover argues, “variation of form, surprising turns or denials of expectation, dramatic action and emotional resonance”; writers move readers through a walking dance, never for a sentence forgetting that there would be no dance without conflicting bodies and no interesting bodies without this formulaic dance.

—Michael Carson

Works Cited

Cheever, John. The Stories of John Cheever. New York: First Vintage International, 2000.

Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1927.

Glover, Doug. Attack of the Copula Spiders. Ontario: Biblioasis, 2012.

Glover, Douglas. The Enamoured Knight. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2004.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Presence of Grace and Other Book Reviews. Compiled by Leo Zuber and edited with an introduction by Carter W. Martin. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1983.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Energy of Delusion. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 2007.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Theory of Prose. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Scholarly, 1990.

Trevor, William. The Collected Stories. Penguin: New York: Penguin House, 1992.
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Michael Carson lives on the Gulf Coast. His non-fiction has appeared at The Daily Beast and Salon, and his fiction in the short story anthology The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War. He is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. A note here on syntax: Cheever actually reproduces this exact plot pattern on the sentence level in much of his writing. He likes to use the three-beat pattern and then lightly disrupt it, extending the sentence into a six-beat pattern. Here is a particularly strong example from the ending of “Torch Song”: “Jack emptied the whiskey bottle into the sink./ He began to dress./ He stuffed his dirty clothes into a bag. He was trembling and crying with sickness and fear. He could see the blue sky from his window, and in his fear it seemed miraculous that the sky should be blue,/ that the white clouds should remind him of snow,/ that from the sidewalk he could hear the shrill voices of the children shrieking,/ “I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain,/ I’m the king of the mountain.”
May 012017
 

A. Anupama

.
An anklet

for that sweet light tangled inside
the forest will praise the peacock’s foot

pain cannot withstand your word
or the careless gift of your gaze upon the peacock’s foot

song erupts with ash and lightning
in the air between us: a glaze to the peacock’s foot

whatever you asked the river for
the morning has appraised against the peacock’s foot

demain-matin, the lovers say
as though waking could raise the peacock’s foot

I walk towards you as though
the sweet gum tree scatters gold, pays for the peacock’s foot

I drape my arms around your shoulders—
we fall in phase with the peacock’s foot

if any rose could rise like this lotus,
the sun would smite to raze the peacock’s foot

while still as the forest stands,
Anupama says follow always the peacock’s foot

.

That

that separates this world
and opens figs in this world

that question and stance
operates all rigs in this world

quiet that patience and sing
while your voice still digs in this world

not fair to say what gold is
when demons wear wigs in this world

to hide this world in “that separates”
and in stomachs of pigs in this world

the second-nature glance of the jay
stains joy in the amygdala: this world

.

Inner fire

this world that separates life and mind
could dissolve in the line of jewels

claw-of-the-tiger mark on a breast
carefully, artfully revolves in the line of jewels

the mid-afternoon light plays
tricks when the room involves the line of jewels

leap down from the abacus
and into his arms to solve the line of jewels

vermilion in a stare-down with sky blue on our
color wheel, where our eyes evolve the line of jewels

touch doesn’t save it, nor caress—
only skin surrenders to resolve the line of jewels

his heart-temple and mine fall in ordered silicates,
but into opals’ fire entirely devolve by this line of jewels

.

Beyond

hold out a red umbrella to the rain
was the refrain of her song in the broken cloud

drips red, drops clear as birth, drips no matter
the right or the wrong in the broken cloud

wet eyelash steers desire, wet clothes tempt skin
to steal along in the broken cloud

only a moment kissed you back
in the iron gong in the broken cloud

a wheel on a rutted road, shuddering,
and her body a tongs in the broken cloud

she does not bite the day in half, and for you
her light bleeds long into the broken cloud

.

Corallium rubrum

throw the diamond overboard
and sink into the mind of coral and jewel

somber fish, shaped like eyes,
make their wishes to find the coral and jewel

roses spread their petals like gills,
sweep us into one mouth to bind the coral and jewel

I throw my arms around your neck
and a tidal braid unwinds the coral and jewel

what is sharp and what is soft
and what is desire’s vermilion—the kinds of coral and jewels

your touch only barely escapes gravity’s velocity:
this world’s rind, covering coral and jewel

what oceans, left untouched
in synchronous hearts behind the coral and jewel

.

Unknotted garland

Of what is my love made, I ask,
‘til dawn pulls a red shade, I ask.

This night is deep as bells in sleep.
Unfair to dress you in tiger suede? I ask.

It’s only a dream, and I need you
soft to my touch. Why a blade? I ask.

Soften your knife on my throat
where all your diamonds are laid,
I ask.

Spill them into my lap, the offering bowl
of your accolade,
I ask.

Your glittering truth stars my thighs.
Is any sky left to wade? I ask.

My dress of silk shushes the floor.
Ripped and frayed? I ask.

And for all your caresses and sweet words
my naked blood must be paid?
I ask,

but silent, with my eyes
open and without compare, I’ve said, I ask.

—A. Anupama

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A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including Waxwing, Drunken Boat, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and CutBank. 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 organizes literary community (RiverRiver.org), and blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

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May 012017
 

This month, in the slider at the Top of the Page, we have a bouquet of translation pieces picked from the magazine’s archive by Ben Woodard, our translation editor. We take an internationalist approach at Numéro Cinq, trying not to identify with a single geographical region but a larger country of the imagination. We also make something of a fetish of honouring translators as well as a work’s original author. So that every translation piece is listed by genre (fiction, poetry, nonfiction) under the author’s name and then a second time in the translation table of contents page under the translator’s name.

At the Top of the Page this month: Tamil love poems translated by A. Anupama, Róbert Gál aphorisms translated from Slovak by David Short, a Quim Monzó short story translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, poems by the Nicaraguan writer Blanca Castellón translated by J. P. Dancing Bear, a short story from the Mexican writer Mónica Lavín translated by Patricia  Dubrava, a short story from yet another Mexican writer Julián Hebert translated by Brendan Riley, and finally a short story by Zsófia Bán translated from Hungarian by Erika Mihálycsa. There are tons more listed in the translation table of contents. Take a few moments to browse when you get a chance.

Apr 252017
 

Bonnie Baker in studio 8Artist Bonnie Baker in her studio

Another brilliant issue, an overflowing issue, a monumental issue, the result of immense efforts on my part to shrink the magazine and make things manageable (read with irony). But, yes, brilliant, explosive. We have art work by Bonnie Baker, Denise Blake poems from Ireland, Dylan Brennan interviews Douglas J. Weatherford, translator of Juan Rulfo’s The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings just out with Deep Vellum Publishing, fiction by John Bullock and Madison Smartt Bell, plus a short story by Franci Novak, translated from Slovenian by Olivia Hellewell, also a selection of ghazals by our own A. Anupama, plus poems by Robert Currie and Michael Catherwood, a My First Job essay by Cynthia Holz, Patrick J. Keane on Yeats and Gnosticism, Michael Carson on plot (in short stories), Linda Chown reviews Madison Smartt Bell’s new novel Behind the Moon, Jeff Bursey reviews Steven Moore’s My Back Pages (and we have an excerpt), Dorian Stuber reviews Robert Walser, Frank Richardson reviews Compass by Matthias Énard, Joseph Schreiber reviews João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel, Julie Larios reviews Fleda Brown’s new and selected poems, and more! Indeterminate, untold amounts of more. Cataclysmic floods of MORE.

Apr 152017
 

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First we go under: a wide-eyed, thrumming, Rosamund Pike stumbles down a ramp into a subway station.

Before the tale even begins, her body is contorted, an arm out to the side like a broken doll, her gaze voracious, expectant and searching. A wounded creature.

The soundtrack features the sound of keys clattering, a jarring noise. She seems under threat before there is even a threat.

When she finds the hovering device in the jaundiced subway, it appears like an answer to her objectless terror. Does the device find her or does she create it to externalize her horror? Enough ambiguity to make one think the subway is wallpapered yellow. Director Ringan Ledwidge says he drew inspiration for the film from two sources: it “merges the menacing ball from Phantasm and the maniacal subway scene from Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession” cites Rolling Stone Magazine. The dance that follows haunts, seems familiar and uncannily unfamiliar. It haunts.

I am haunted, too, by Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki’s chapter on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, how they note at key moments Godard’s film becomes about the actress, Anna Karina, not the part she is playing. Pike is playing a part here, of course, but it’s impossible to leave her out of it. She exceeds the role. Ledwidge in an interview with Alex Denney in Dazed magazine agrees:

It’s not a role that you would traditionally associate Rosamund with, quite often I think she hasn’t been given the chance to explore herself as an actress. Until recently you might have thought of her in a period movie or something like that, but then she did Gone Girl and you’re like, ‘Holy shit, she’s really capable of some dark stuff.’ So I thought if Rosamund really went for it, and went as balls-out mental as she would need to, she could be a really interesting, really surprising choice.”

The more traditional Pike of period piece films at odds with the disruptive and excessive Pike. The film evokes the first Pike to corrupt her with the second. Her out-of-date moss-green dress, her nylons, her heels, all seem to suggest something is not quite right, like she herself is a little alien here, out of time and place.

I am haunted, too, by the Salpêtrièr hysterics.

Georges Didi-Huberman summarizes in his Invention of Hysteria: “In the last few decades of the nineteenth century, the Salpêtrière was what it had always been: a kind of feminine inferno, a citta dolorosa confining four thousand incurable or mad women. It was a nightmare in the midst of Paris’s Belle Époque.”

Charcot gained a reputation for his Tuesday lectures. These partly live on in photographs. In his analysis, Didi-Huberman links the hysteric’s body with the doctor:

With Charcot we discover the capacity of the hysterical body, which is, in fact, prodigious, it is prodigious; it surpasses the imagination, surpasses “all hopes,” as they say. Whose imagination? Whose hopes? There’s the rub. What the hysterics of the Salpêtrière could exhibit with their bodies betokens an extraordinary complicity between patients and doctors, a relationship of desires, gazes, and knowledge. This relationship is interrogated here. What remains with us is the series of images of the Iconographie photographique de la Salpêtrière.”

The hysteric’s contortions then connect doctor and patient, a transference and counter-transference. Drawing back to Pike and Ledwidge, we also see the connection between the director’s camera and Pike’s hysterical performance, possessed, dispossessed and disruptive.

It’s hard not to see the alien device as camera, especially in the manner it seeks to possess and objectify her. Narratively there is no catharsis here, no place where she triumphs over the alien device or is set free. Pike’s body performs for the camera / device as it seeks to possess her, puppet her to extremes of expression, drive her to violence against herself.

Yet I am haunted by Pike, haunted by her laughter and her howls, her body as defiant. As Ledwidge notes,

For an actress you’ve got to be brave, because you’re doing things that are gonna make you look ugly or weird in certain moments, and if you’re not committed it ends up not looking great. But she really nailed it – we built foam tile walls she could slam into, but she was still pretty bruised and exhausted by the end. It was disturbing and scary and sexy all at the same time. You felt like you were seeing something you shouldn’t really be seeing.

Her laughter and howls rupture the puppetry. Maybe it’s something we shouldn’t really be seeing, but she is the voodoo doll and the bokor. Despite the possession, Pike wins.

—R. W. Gray

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Apr 142017
 

.

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) was a Russian and Soviet poet who is often considered one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. “Well, if you are talking about the twentieth century, I’ll give you a list of poets,” Russian Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky once said. “Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva—and she is the greatest one, in my view. The greatest poet in the twentieth century was a woman.”

The following new translations, by Mary Jane White, are from Marina Tsvetaeva’s final published collection, AFTER RUSSIA (Paris 1926). The poems are witty and lush, and are part of White’s long project of Tsvetaeva translations. White has recently compiled her translations into a 288-page manuscript, which is awaiting publication. White’s previous Tsvetaeva translations include the collections Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).

— Benjamin Woodard

.

A WINDOW

On a pleasing Atlantic
Breath of spring —
Like a stupendous butterfly
My curtain — and — I

Like a Hindu widow
Enter the gold-lipped crater,
Like a listless Naiad
Enter the sea beyond a window . . .

5 May 1923

§

TO HONOR TIME

                                 for Vera Arenskaya

On the refugee-road!
It whooped — and bolted
Headlong on its wheels.
Time! I don’t have time.

Caught up in chronicles
And kisses . . . like sands
In rustling streams . . .
Time, you let me down!

Of clock-hands and wrinkles’
Furrows — of American
Innovations . . . — Empty jar! —
Time, you give me short measure!

Time, you hand me over!
Like a debauched wife — a “new toy”
You drop . . . — “One hour, but it’s ours!”

— Your train leaves on a different
Track! . . —

Since I was born past
Time! To no purpose and in vain
You resist! Caliph of an hour:
Time! I will pass you by!

10 May 1923

§

HIS SISTER

Hell’s too small, heaven too small to contain you:
Everyone’s already at the point of dying for you.

But to follow your brother, sadly, into the fire —
Really, is that customary? It’s not a sister’s
Place, to radiate passion!
Really, is it customary to lie in his barrow . . .
With your brother? . . .
………………………………— “He was and is mine! Even if he’s rotten!”

— And that’s the order of precedence with graves!!!

11 May 1923

§

NIGHT

Time the upper reaches are laid bare,
Time you gaze into our souls — as into our eyes.
These — open sluices of blood!
These — open sluices of night!

Our blood surged, like the night
Our blood surged, — like our blood
The night surged! (Upper regions of the ear
Time: a world poured into our ears — as into our eyes!)

The screen of the visible pulled back!
On time’s distinct calm!
Time of the ear opening, like an eyelid,
No longer do we have weight, or breathe: we hear.

A world channeled into our endless ear’s
Helix: sucking down sounds,
Helix, — our endless soul! . .
(Time, you enter our souls — as you would our arms!)

12 May 1923

§

TO STEAL . . .

And perhaps, the finest victory
Over time and gravity —
Is to pass, without leaving a trace,
Is to pass, without leaving a shadow

On the walls . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By refusal? To erase myself from mirrors?
Like: Lermontov moving through the Caucuses
To steal, without disturbing the rock-faces.

And perhaps — the finest amusement
Given the finger of Sebastian Bach
Would be not to trouble the organ’s echo?
To collapse, leaving no dust

For the urn . . .
…………………….Finer perhaps — to exact
By fraud? To write myself out of the latitudes?
Like: Time moving through an ocean
To steal, without disturbing the waters . . .

14 May 1923

— Marina Tsvetaeva, translated from the Russian by Mary Jane White

.

Marina Tsvetaeva is considered by many to be one of the greatest contributors to 20th century Russian literature. Born in 1892, she published many volumes of poetry during her lifetime and was greatly admired by the likes of Boris Pasternak, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anna Akhmatova. She committed suicide in 1941, and since then, her poetry has been widely translated.

§

Mary Jane White is a poet and translator who earned an MFA from The University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the recipient of NEA Fellowships in both poetry and translation. She has published numerous books of her own poetry, as well as Tsvetaeva translations, which include Starry Sky to Starry Sky (1988) and New Year’s, an elegy for Rilke (2007).

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Apr 132017
 

patrick-oreilly

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Martinmas

I.

Draw the curtain.
Find the ground fasted –
an unspoiled, infinite, hushing

white. And planed by rigid light,
a light that slides like golden straps
across a stiff white cloth

one dares not rustle. Steady. Draw
no breath. Listen. Draw
thyself below the fallen snow.

x

II.

Last night’s frost a shock to all systems.
What goes without saying: the key
turning in the ignition,

the engine not turning over.
Roll the boulder up the hill.
Repeat. The key turning, the key

turning. The engine finally
turning over. What goes without
saying: a prayer. The wheels turning.

x

III.

Roll the boulder up the hill.
Repeat. Roll the boulder away
from the tomb. In the precise spot

between two towns the channels crack,
their signals scattered in the snow.
Pull over. Catch your breath.

Hear the nausea fizzing up.
This is where the tethers snap:
tundra: white noise, natural light.

x

IV.

No spires to fishhook Heaven.
No bats batting ’bout. No belfry.
Closest thing to a gargoyle here,

a grouse hunched in an alder tree.
No iron hinge, no oaken door;
no room, you’d think, for any god.

The angels get their hackles up.
Hoary-feathered skull-gull roosting,
a handsaw Jigsaw Gothic.

x

V.

Creaking lightly past the ribwork
and lighting candles on the way.
Flotsam-coloured light kneels on

twelve carved apostles left alone
to digest and to ruminate.
You’ll notice their resemblance

to sailors who have disappeared.
An ancient furnace wails, its warmth
twenty thousand leagues away.

x

VI.

Whatever convoluted way
I come up from the furnace room,
a gravity will draw, will drag

my eye toward the Sacred Heart,
in the foremost lobe of church.
that solar plexus

where all prayers’ limbs’ nerve endings meet,
Introibo ad altare Dei
and feel those closed eyes follow me.

x
x
x

Paul’s First Mass at Corinth

In the warm drone of the first reading
Eutyches falls asleep
and tumbles over a railing
into the worm-drone of the first reading.

Eutyches falls. Asleep
he dreams a bird sailing
in the warm drome. The first meeting
and already, one sentenced to death.

x
x
x

Office Hours

Like Civil War re-enactments,
stamp collecting, priesthood something
a man just stumbles into when
he starts to feel the prick of time.

Administrating eternity.

A radiator’s knuckles rap.
A rats’ nest in the linotype.
The dry tongues of a calendar

with every month epitomized
by one of the Old Masters.
December: the nativity,
Bronzino. But if I flip back

to March, El Greco, his pieta.
That fog-blue skin that Jesus has.
The Marys, Peter, turning blue,
like Jesus took all reds with Him.

El Greco – the Greek – how did he know
that springtime here leaves minute shards
of winter guilting in the bone
three bodies huddled can’t evict,
or all that fragrant red and gold
won’t hold the blue beneath our skin,
that winter here is a lifetime long?

x
x
x

Sullivan’s Observatory

“Down here, now, there’s nothing to be at.
But I worked as a machinist forty years,
and I always did love looking at the stars.
If not for this, I’d have me wife drove cracked.”

An arsenal of copper pipe and salvaged
mirrors he had piled up in that shed,
and a massive hole cut in the roof to let
the stovepipe out. Never mind the damage.

“I saw the Perseid showers once,” he lied.
He had porthole glass for lenses. Scratched to shit.
You couldn’t see a blasted thing. “Well, Father,

whatcha think? Can you see Heaven?”
“Oh yes,” I said, “they’re tinkering away
to try and get a better look at us.”

x
x
x

Small Hours

Seven steps from door to bed.
Shoes. Then socks. Then trousers.
Collar on the nightstand. Black shirt,
button button button, ’til I’m
sitting there
xxxxxxxxxxxxdefrocked. A priest, naked.
When I close my eyes even I can’t
imagine it. I should prowl out
into the street to mystify
the neighbours.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxI should turn in.

Stretch the full length of the bed,
fold my arms first in, then out
like swimming.
Christ. Corpse. Christ. Corpse.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxGetting nowhere,
my eyes groping
from bookshelf to sideboard
to phonograph, things left behind
by Father Whosits. This is how
a priest propagates, begetting
antiques and booklice. So do I
populate the earth: sheep after sheep
night after night.

x
x
x

Encounters with Men

A joke, to start.

So a priest walks into a bar

and the place goes into rigor mortis. You can hear
the difference between talk and conversation:

a nod, a whisper.

Jesus. Never? Can you imagine?

A young fella like that, it isn’t natural.

Yes, well you know what that crowd are like. Keep an eye
on the kids, if I were you.

That’s what keeps the quiet between us
so thick the counter buckles.

x

When I was five, my father taught me how to fight. Or tried:
held my fists before my face, two knots of little bones
bound in pink crêpe. I’d have to find other means:

anyone can see my hands,
un-cuffed, uncramped, unblistered, clean as paper,
a joke to finish.

“So a priest walks into a bar…”

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Confession #2

I feel awkward, shy, afraid.
But here it is, incredibly boring, so boring I can’t believe it’s true.

I never had an impulse to go to the altar.
I thought everything we were doing was awful.
There are many things in your heart you can never tell another person.
“I ain’t real sure,” for example.
Love is a publicity stunt, and making love – after the first curious raptures – is only
xxxxxxanother petulant way to pass the time.

He would have been a great director, which eventually he wanted to be.
I never said, “I want to be alone.” I only said, “I want to be left alone.” There is a whole
xxxxxxworld of difference.
I only said “The diaphragm is the greatest invention since Pan-Cake makeup.”
If a woman makes a mistake unintentionally, I don’t believe she should be condemned
xxxxxxfor it.
Or shook with such violence that he left ten black-and-blue finger prints on my arms.

You should cross yourself when you say his name.
But once a woman has forgiven a man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.

People used to say that I had a feeling of closeness, a great warmth of loving everybody,
xxxxxx that they could tell me their troubles.
But the worst part of it all is this: no matter how hard you try, you find you cannot
xxxxxxpossibly please everyone.
They had to say something about me, so they wrote stories of their own fantasy and
xxxxxxcalled me temperamental and hard to handle.
That’s a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt, and bewildered
and no one gives a damn.
It never occurs to them that one is simply tired.
And hurt, and bewildered.

Love is disgusting when you no longer possess yourself.
All you have to do is to say you want to be alone.
Right?
Please?

A found poem, made up of quotes from silent film actresses.
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Confession #3

Father, forgive me my sins. You see, Father, I had to come see you.
You see, my son – I, I mean, I’m getting myself tangled up.

Wednesday I hung out the wash and I took little Paddy out with me.
There’s never a happier child – Father, he wouldn’t say “boo.”

When I was done I knelt down to see what he’d got into. He was
playing with some kind of jar. No idea where he got that.

He was filling the jar up with ants and shaking them out on the ground.
I told him not to be at it. Why can’t I? he asked me.

Not in a saucy way, mind you. I told him the ants would get hurt if
he kept on shaking the jar – that they were frightened of him,

he wasn’t nice if he did that. But he shook them right out on the ground. I
said “I’m gonna count, mister. One. Two…” Do you think he would stop?

Dead ants. Dead. I tried taking it from him. I screamed myself red. I
could not get him to understand they were … and he

was so big. He kept shaking and shaking. I
struck him. I struck. O God, Father, what a clout I gave him.

—Patrick O’Reilly

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Patrick O’Reilly is a recent graduate of the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. He has written for untethered, The Partisan, and Numéro Cinq, where he is a contributor. In 2015, his poem “Shelter” was long-listed for Best Canadian Poetry. He lives in Montréal.

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Apr 122017
 

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In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s 1915 story The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa awakens not as a cockroach struggling to escape his bed but as an interpellated black man struggling to escape the Western hemisphere. I preface my interpretation with an admission that I offer the critical reader a conceit to rival Kafka’s own, the enduring weight of which has, in peculiarity of both interest and insight, propelled his writing from his century into ours. Consider  the human Gregor according to what he becomes: a dark-carapaced, living symbol of decadent biology, hidden away from and by the dominant culture, victim of an original sentence, mere animal bereft of the speech act, an innocent much abused by his social relations. Even Gregor’s heterosomatic blood is brown. For blood is the site where all racism makes its nest in the biological episteme of 1915[1] . I contend that Gregor goes to sleep a white bourgeois “commercial traveler” and wakes up a lumpenproletarian black man (Kafka 75).

Subaltern, for he cannot speak to authority without “a persistent horrible twittering squeak behind it like an undertone, which [leaves] the words in their clear shape only for the first moment and then [rises] up reverberating around them to destroy their sense, so that one [can] not be sure one [has] heard them rightly” (77). Lumpen, too, for he cannot engage in industry, Gregor the cockroach reveals in relief the relationship of productivity to whiteness and of the parasitic to blackness. This fallen, racialized modality of being I term Homo vermes, the most maligned product of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that physical arm of ideological racism which is a racism without a human face at all.

Interpellation as a method of metamorphosis: to the specific mechanism of his fictive, anti-humanist-by-other means interpellation of the body that enforces Gregor Samsa’s metamorphosis, Kafka pays no textual attention. In the text Gregor simply wakes up on his fateful day and that is it. Gregor’s “hard, as it were armor-plated, back” as “he lift[s] his head a little [so] he [can] see his domelike brown belly divided into stiff arched segments…His numerous legs, which [are] pitifully thin compared to the rest of his bulk, [wave] helplessly before his eyes” (Kafka 75). Gregor’s body, nearly dead, is also newly racialized, reborn under the domination of racism. There exist subtle hints in Kafka’s story which refer to the racial dimension as that which separates the real life of men from the fatal myth of cockroaches along racial, existential, and class grounds, which I examine in turn.

Upon his metamorphosis, Gregor develops a sort of rash on his carapice, an “itching place which [is] surrounded by many small white spots,” discolored manifestations of the racial apparatus imparted by whiteness onto a white man no longer white, “the nature of which he [can] not understand” (Kafka 76). I consider Kafka here at his most anti-racist and as one such thinker par excellence. In his story, the evaluative site of race assumes the form of a radical anti-humanism which he, desperate to impart to the reader the insidious effects on body and mind of the racial apparatus, equates to a dehumanizing force so enormously powerful it abolishes the whole charactery of human species-being.

Franz Kafka

Gregor Samsa, the man become less than nothing, is less than that if he is not the twentieth century’s prime conceit of the dehumanized person in literature. Here Kafka’s depiction ad absurdum of the descent of man from the racial to the carapacial exemplifies his understanding of contemporary anti-humanist and anti-Semitic propaganda[2] , which advised white people that other people were subhuman or of a different species entirely. That such a radical interpellation could overcome a hard-working commercial bourgeois, a devoted employee who supports his whole family by his labor alone, whose material practices prior to metamorphosis repeat the demands of capital willingly and slavishly, whose family surname, a Hungarian derivation of the the Hebrew Shemu’el, means literally “the name of God,” reproofs interpretations of The Metamorphosis as an undifferentiated  allegory for alienation. The “name of God” here does not refer to the ancient tribes of Israel whose descendants lived, like Kafka, in a diasporic state in Prague. It refers to a formerly white man failed by counterfeit humanism.

The Metamorphosis is not, then, a literary example of the process of alienation in a vacuum; it is not a springboard for discussing the concept of alienation in itself, for Kafka wrote the other majority of his ouvre in regards to alienation qua alienation. Such is why we still read even the isolated paragraphs of Kafka today, in which his left and right hands have a wrestling match, and men become sensuous, hunted beasts. Which striking image, plot twist, or characterization of the unfortunates in the narrative of Gregor Samsa beyond Kafka’s whispered lacuna of the racial could possibly alienate the well-adjusted, self-sufficient salesman prior to his transformation? Gregor’s metamorphosis is representative of alienation, but it is representative of a specific type of alienation coded primarily by the racial apparatus of which the ethnically Jewish Kafka was, beyond a doubt, all too well aware[3].

Racial anti-humanism is that theory of the human which denies all humanism owing to race. The carapacial is that subject-position which has fallen below the sunken threshold of mere, familiar racism, as deadly as it is. The carapacial is that ontological status below the most maligned victims of the most vicious racism imaginable. My argument that Gregor becomes a Western black man may meet with the counter-reply that he devolves from a Jew into a vermin of popular racist caricature and so contextualizes a commentary not on blackness but on the so-called Jewish problem from below. Criteria of the alienation of Homo vermes from the social and familial totality for both demographics at the time were, admittedly, similar in tone, and both were certainly thought of as subhuman, which criterial dehumanizations feature, I think, important exceptions in their discursive contours.

The Jewish and the black man alike were, by and large, despised in Kafka’s century. Jean-Paul Sartre writes in Anti-Semite and Jew that “there is a disgust for the Jew, just as there is a disgust for the Chinese or the Negro among certain people…it is not from the body that the sense of repulsion arises…rather it is something that enters the body from the mind. It is an involvement of the mind, but one so deep-seated and complete that it extends to the physiological realm” (11). But that involvement of the mind “only serves [the anti-Semite] as a pretext; elsewhere his counterpart will make use of the Negro or the man of yellow skin” (54). Although alternate translations of the term Kafka uses to describe Gregor Samsa, Ungeziefer, render forth the words insect, cockroach, and vermin differently—vermin may be insect, rats, or other pests—a rat does not have feelers, nor can a rat crawl on a ceiling how Gregor does in latter parts of the story. Neither does the black man as an object of racist criticism possess enough use-value to satisfy the anti-humanist racial apparatus (for he is always and obviously human, too): he must become ever lesser until he is something which even moral men may stomp upon beneath their feet, something so abject and carapacial no one in Gregor’s family cares about him once he plunges into physical grotesquery, something to be first looked after and then eventually discarded.

The viciousness of anti-humanism stretches throughout the centuries. Voltaire, the anti-Semitic idol of the Enlightenment, writes in his Philosophical Dictionary that “I have never been in Judea, thank God! And I never will go there… Frederick II, when he saw this detestable country, said, loudly enough to be distinctly heard, that Moses must have been very ill advised to conduct his tribe of lepers to such a place as that” (263-64). The premier derogatory stereotype of the Jewish persona contemporary to Kafka’s time was that of a rat—such an anti-humanist theme would later rage forth in the propaganda of the Nazis but is, in fact, much older a theme than Hitler’s doctrine[4]— rather than a cockroach, while stereotypes of the black man in the margins have long riffed on elements of the pestilential and the insectal. Kafka admits he wrote of an Insekt[5]. For instance, compare the brutalization apparent in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Prioress’ Tale,” in which Jews living in their isolated ghetto slit the throat of a Christian child, to the historical likes of Cotton Mather’s treatment of the human status of “The Negro Christianized” or his sermon on the state-ordered death of the slave Joseph Hanno he entitled Tremenda: The Dreadful Sound with Which the Wicked are to be Thunderstruck.

Discursive themes on black pestilence have a history in the West almost as long as that of the facts of anti-Semitic pogroms[6]. It predominated even in the New World discourse of the seventeenth century, when Cotton Mather penned execution sermons like Tremenda  in efforts to convert the condemned and “miserable African” before his summary hanging, while conflating via his fundamentalist religion the diseases spread by unplanned urban living prior to germ theory with the possession, if not its proprietary ownership, of black skin enslaved under the regime of whiteness[7].

Frantz Fanon

The black and insectal appear in reaction even in the exploding bombs of anti-colonial discourse. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon offers a tantalizing image of the racial, in which Fanon, “little by little, putting out pseudopodia here and there, I secreted a race” (92). If Kafka wanted to write about an alienated Jew in Europe, he would have written about such a subject-position without insisting on its silence. Instead, Kafka wrote The Metamorphosis, a story about a white man become black who, in consequence of the anti-humanist racial apparatus, becomes inhuman and carapacial.

The prevailing ethno-racism of the social thought of Kafka’s brief life, were he to reflect it back on itself in the ethical mirror of literature, would have bade him write Gregor as a character who sniffs the air of his apartment with his large, furry nose and who literally squirrels away fresh cheese, if Gregor were merely the caricature of the socially problematic Jew in Kafka’s critical imagination—not as a character radically alienated by the racial, who naturally consumes a diet of the rotten and degenerated food his sister Grete scatters to the floor of his bedroom, whose epidermis is replaced entirely with his uncanny carapice (Kafka 95). Interpellated Gregor has feelers but has neither a tail, fur, whiskers, nor any teeth at all. He is a carapacial rendition of the final product of the dehumanizing, hierarchizing discourse of racism, an animal ontologically beneath the lowliest of mammals under the regime of Western racism, a black man whose subject-position is more subordinate than that of the Jew less than a decade after the conclusion of the Dreyfus Affair and within a year of the Great War, which eventually unfolded its various crimes against humanity into Hitler’s racial doctrine writ gigantic.

The carapacial hide that covers Gregor’s racialized body bears little of the historical assaults on the chosen people or the propagandistic, bitter taints of blood libel. What constitutes his body is a reflective criticism—the shining carapice of a cockroach is itself reflective of the racial gaze—of those who criticize the humanism of blackness from the standpoint of whiteness weaponized entirely against blackness, whose author is ethnically Jewish, but who does not take here in The Metamorphosis the specter of Jewishness in particular as his urgent object. For here Kafka writes urgently. How, and why, does Gregor Samsa, if not quite his subjectivity as his capacity for sentience is not immediately impacted by his metamorphosis, become a cockroach? Kafka provides no specific explanation. The answer to this riddle of the racial apparatus, I think, lies mid-way between Martin Heidegger, who published his Being and Time in 1927, thirteen years after the publication of The Metamorphosis, and the 1970 theory of interpellation put forth by Louis Althusser. Kafka read neither Heidegger nor Althusser as he wrote his story, of course, but he was not unaware of the themes they would bring up as to how the human agent is summoned to become the living form of its opposite.

Martin Heidegger

Kafka’s story can be understood in the light of Heidegger’s investigations of “the call” and Althusser’s conception of material interpellation via ideology. Happy, normalized Gregor is called—interpellated ideologically and thus materially—into his overnight devolution from one life-form of existence to another. Below I examine the mechanism of his metamorphosis via two philosophical anti-humanists, one a Nazi and the other a Marxist, and posit the universal significance of that mechanism for Kafka’s engagement with the anti-humanist racial apparatus, that wicked arm of the ideological which continues to haunt our culture as much as it haunted Kafka’s. In The Metamorphosis, even the universal is problematized as descending from the racial to that which produces and reduces Homo sapiens to Homo vermes, in whose body a virulently racist episteme comes home to roost.

Being and Time seeks to interpret two axes of universal experience. It is not Gregor’s notion of time that is appealed to by the racial apparatus; for all his newly-grown limbs and abilities to crawl upon his ceiling and consume degenerated food, his time spent among the social remains a grinding constant for him, however much his apartment becomes prison-like as his body becomes heterosomatic. His time remains very much the time of the family, though his phenomenology slides downward into ignorance—he forgets even that the seasons pass in the world beyond his apartment. Rather, it is his very being that is called to become carapacial by the appeal of the racial apparatus. I iterate how, via Heidegger, one can understand Gregor’s position. He falls into being by being called as a white man into the insectoid nether-realm of a racist society. How some people experience the call—as though awakening with one’s face in a water basin—Gregor falls ontologically, his face become, toothlessly, quietly, a symbol of the anti-human whose every social relation denounces him.

Heidegger writes in Being and Time that the “call ‘says’ nothing which might be talked about,” and which “gives no information about events,” much how Kafka is silent about Gregor’s devolving mechanism, and which “points forward to Dasein’s potentiality-for-Being,” that is, being another species below even what the racists refer to as the lowest race, “and it does this as a call which comes from [the] uncanniness” of “thrown individualization” (325). Is this not Gregor’s real instantiation of the racial, thrown into being a cockroach, in his uncomfortable, uncanny carapice? Gregor did not study the hardy texts of existentialism to become a cockroach; nor did he proof the ancient Heraclitus against his thesis that all things exist in fluxual metamorphosis. But Heidegger continues:

When the call gives us a potentiality-for-being to understand, it does not give us one which is ideal and universal; it discloses it as that which has been currently individualized and which belongs to that particular Dasein… Whatever the ways in which conscience is experienced or interpreted, all our experiences ‘agree’ on this ‘Guilty!’. Because Dasein has falling as its kind of Being, the way Dasein gets interpreted is for the most inauthentically ‘oriented’ and does not reach the ‘essence’; for to Dasein the primordially appropriate ontological way of formulating questions remains alien… this ‘Guilty!’ turns up as a predicate for the ‘I am’” (326).

Enough ink has been spilled about the relationship between Kafka and affective guilt—his father has probably been written about more than any other father excepting the celestial father of Christianity. “’Being-guilty’ also has the signification of ‘being responsible for’—that is, being the cause or author of something, or even ‘being the occasion’ for something,” according to Heidegger (327). Gregor’s metamorphosis is Kafka’s occasion to discuss guilt but it is also an occasion to discuss something else.

Of more importance is his relationship with Homo vermes, those who come to be defined by not the affect of guilt but the very ontological status of being-guilty of being Homo vermes. Cockroaches, after all, are guilty of nothing: they act on the world solely according to their nature. But the nature of men is manifold, capable of every emotion, and capable likewise of every dehumanizing transformation. So, too, with those assaulted by the ideology of the hardcore racists like de Gobineau and his followers. The Metamorphosis can be understood not as offering a projection of universal doom to those called into racial hierarchy but as a universal state of being, Homo vermes, who are not taken as the subectal object of the hated Jew but rather as the black man. It is at once a place for all to fall into the uncanny inhuman and a specifically designed reservoir of those most hated by the hegemonic sphere of culture. “In uncanniness,” writes Heidegger, “Dasein stands together with itself primordially. Uncanniness brings this entity face to face with its undisguised nullity, which belongs to the possibility of its ownmost potentiality-for-Being” (333). Gregor becomes a nullity where previously he was a full man integrated into the social life of the industrial West. This generous interpretation of the family, the productive enemy of all uncanny individualism, also has its problematic, which even through Kafka does not deliver freedom to those haunted by blackness.

So-called existential freedom under the umbrage of race offers stranger miseries than are usual in the course of human life. “Freedom, however, is only in the choice of one possibility—that is, in tolerating one’s not having chosen the others and one’s not being able to choose them” (Heidegger 331). The call to the carapacial is not universalist in scope, according to Heidegger: it calls only the absolute minority. Of course, the most absolute minority is “that which is individualized,” that is, the individual who “has falling as its kind of Being” (326). Every man is potentially and thus universally such material for metamorphosis, and so every calling develops into the universal via particularity. Every person is potentially Homo vermes according to one’s particular regime of episteme, depending on which kind of persons it casts aside and which kind it lets live; but every person is not individually threatened by being called into such a state of being as Homo vermes in Kafka’s episteme.

This horror of being Homo vermes is reserved for the black man in Kafka. “’Making oneself responsible’ by breaking a law…can indeed also have the character of ‘coming to owe something to Others’. This does not happen merely through law-breaking as such, but rather through my having the responsibility for the Other’s becoming endangered in his existence, led astray, or even ruined” (Heidegger 327). A more complete ruin than that of Gregor Samsa has not been written about except perhaps for the ruin of Job. The specter of racism, which always already references the most inauthentic mode of being human (the racial misrecognition of biology) to which humanistic critique is completely opposed, does not threaten everyone, at least not in Kafka’s sense. It threatens the carapacial who once upon a time were racial. In short, the human being, as utterly human as any other example of the species, becomes utterly less than that once he is called into being an example of Homo vermes.

The absolute minority is the individual Gregor Samsa who falls—I might term this waking up—into another level of species-being. I shall say more of his race and carapace. Gregor the salesman is white, but Gregor the cockroach is not: he has fallen into being a black man, the lowest scale of being according to the racist evaluation of his time, whose missionary impact Kafka seeks to deflect and re-humanize from head to hue. That is, Gregor transforms from the white universal into the black particular, whose instance must necessarily exist in a state of guilt so profound he grows insectal feelers, the uncanny ability to crawl on ceilings, and the capacity to put like with like in his diet of consumption—a rotten body able only to enjoy rotten food. Human beings typically do no such thing no matter their race; nor should any of us, save the racists, ever live in such a state of guilt. Only interpellated Homo vermes can exist in such a state, and at that, only when imagined by an author consumed by the notion that race dehumanizes a man called by anti-humanist racial apparatus.

But Homo vermes here is an imaginary object. No human being is a vermin. Racists rarely know they operate in the realm of the imaginary, that Homo vermes offers hope for humanism even when Gregor’s abused, humiliated body flattens unto his death, when he dies unmourned in a  story written onto paper by the anxious fingers of a Prague Jew writing of the black man as an epitomic object of humanist criticism, or when the failed strategies of racists aim to build a master race but only offer posterity a long and painful laughter. Racial hatred is as absolute and boundless as the human. For the racists who developed Nazism, Kafka could be hated twice; the problematic Jew thrice over; but the black man has been hated ad infinitum even by those who offered theories that rendered humanism solute and replied still in 1915: but, he, the human, is still the aspect of the “miserable African.”

Kafka’s racists hated the Jew who wrote of blackness and so indirectly produced, via the medium of Kafka’s agency, the narrativa exemplum of anti-racism that defined their own century, equal in misery as the plodding century which howled of the plight of Cotton Mather’s “miserable African.” Yet this newer pessimism was confined to the domain of the racist, whose thinking was also novel for all its destructive faults; for, I think, the first true racist was born alongside the first cosmopolitan (consider the sea-faring Portuguese entry into the slave trade). Kafka, anti-racist, prevails against the racial apparatus all the more hopefully because he disproves the critical field of racist attention as living on fallow soil. We see more of Kafka’s defense of Homo vermes in the light of Althusser’s long essay On the Reproduction of Capitalism now that the race-thinking Heidegger inverts himself.

Louis Althusser

For Althusser, every man, woman, and child alive and active in modern society is recruited by that ideology which reproduces the status quo—“the State”—which “recruits them all” to its immanent demands (190). The state is not co-incident with the figureheads of government. It is co-incident with the state of economy and culture which rules a particular society. In other terms, what nineteenth-century Marxists called false consciousness is consciousness itself defined by material practice imposed from birth onward by the directive, reproductive needs of how things always already are and need to keep on being. It is this form of consciousness which, for Althusser, “recruits them all” into being subjects. But Gregor is not recruited into the economistic mold of the state, which tells its workers what to do and when to do it. He is recruited into a debased subjectivity even while maintaining sentience of such, which apparatus tells the racialized worker how to labor (or, in this instance, how not to labor); and more importantly, how to perform that lacunic labor which compares a dignified man to a man who relinquishes all dignity of the self. “We,” writes Althusser, “know what that means: these apparatuses operate apparently ‘all by themselves,’ without recourse to violence. In fact, they function thanks to means other than violence, namely, on ideology, or rather, ideologization” (79).  The status quo of which Althusser writes needs people to die quietly. One such ideologized person is Gregor, who becomes an instance of Homo vermes, a vermin incapable of any speech act in consequence of the racial apparatus.

Kafka’s observation proves true as it metamorphoses from the realm of pure idea to the realm of materiality, material repetition, and material embodiment of which the recruited Gregor is a short-lived example. “We shall go on to suggest ideology ‘acts’ or ‘functions’ in such a way to ‘recruit’ subjects among individuals (it recruits them all) or ‘transforms’ individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) through the very precise operation that we call interpellation or hailing” (Althusser 190). If guilt becomes an Insekt then Homo vermes is personal false consciousness become blackness entirely assumed. “This is a strange phenomenon, after all, one that cannot be explained by ‘guilt feelings’ alone, despite the large numbers of people with ‘something on their consciences” (Althusser 191). Prior to Gregor’s racial guilt, who, as a former bourgeois white man, did not know he could interpolate into blackness, and so was never aware of a false consciousness which is not false at all, Gregor was only a white man engaged in labor. In fact, it seems Gregor did very little else but work for the capitalist system prior to his metamorphosis; and prior to this event, Gregor was not carapacial and was probably not even racial in the sense that he was blind to his whiteness by virtue of being white. I say more of Althusser’s theory of interpellation before I say more of Kafka’s most tragic and carapacial character.

In his essay on ideology, Louis Althusser, in explaining his theory of material interpellation, rarely concerns himself with false consciousness, for such is the orthodox form of the enslavement of the workers with which he takes especial issue. Neither does Kafka much concern himself with false consciousness, for he, like the later Althusser, understands that the concept of the human is at odds with theories of the racial, the biological misrecognition of man, and those dehumanizing theories of the carapacial which he depicts at their harshest materialization in The Metamorphosis. For Kafka, the metaphorical is material. False consciousness is as false as race—the black man under realism’s regime is never Homo vermes and is always as human as Kafka, as you, or as I—but it does offer local criticism of the gigantic monster of the racial apparatus, whose form of praxis is racial anti-humanism.

That a Nazi like Heidegger or a Marxist like Althusser offer a fresh locus of criticism for Kafka’s work, even from the standpoints of two opposing totalitarian tendencies, exclaims his righteous demonization of all that is racial and all that tends towards the monstrous and the carapacial, which, as evidenced by his story, are exactly identical in critical orientation. Kafka supports the universal as much as anti-humanist thought supports the merely particular. The racial apparatus is as “repulsive” and “bound to go on being repulsive ” as Gregor (Kafka 101). A well-adjusted man like Gregor should worry that he might become, in the course of one dark night of the soul, an “Insekt.” Materially successful by Kafka’s account, keen on his nuclear family, happily individual, Gregor  awakens, via no recognizance of his own, in the being-toward-death of a cockroach who loses his job, who slaved for capital and family through his own will and becomes a parasite without will, who integrates the sin of knowledge into a wound in his back—a book could be written about the apple lodged into his carapice and the sort of horrible knowledge its imposition represents as it rots—who whistles through his jaw, for he no longer has access to the Logos which is universally constitutive of the human being.

Gregor is the first cockroach who has a neocortex but no tongue. He dies as black and fallen as the Fanonian[8]subject whose will to revolution is killed under colonialism. Fanon writes of the colonized subject that “in plain talk, he is reduced to the state of an animal. And consequently, when the colonist speaks of of the colonized he uses zoological terms. Allusion is made to the slithery movements…to the hordes, the stink, the swarming, the seething, and the gesticulations” (7).  Kafka seems to have noticed such a process in his own time, writing of Gregor that “hardly was he down [from his formerly upright posture] when he experienced for the first time this morning a sense of physical comfort; his legs had firm ground under them; they were completely obedient, as he noted with joy; they even strove to carry him forward in whatever direction he chose; and he was inclined to believe that a final relief from all his sufferings was at hand” (89).  If Gregor wakes up in the bed he has peacefully slept in all his life as a cockroach against whom society must be defended[9], so may anyone, for such caprice of the carapacial “final relief” informs Gregor with the knowledge of that insidious operation by which the awful genius of anti-humanism operates its racial apparatus.

…Gregor realized that the lack of of all direct human speech for the past two months together with the monotony of family life must have confused his mind, otherwise he could not account for the fact that he had quite earnestly looked forward to having his room emptied of furnishing. Did he really want his warm room, so comfortably fitted with old family furniture, to be turned into a naked den in which he would certainly be able to crawl unhampered in all directions but at the price of shedding simultaneously all recollection of his human background? (104)

The racial apparatus reduces everyone to Homo vermes not collectively but one by one. It reduces them all from a human background to a background that must not be spoken of in polite company, which reminds one of the rotten, the degenerate, and the dying whose death is not even a human sort of death.

I hope here to write the obituary of Homo vermes although Gregor’s death warrants no funeral. No one cares that he has died where in boyhood he used to sleep in peace—indeed, his family cared much more about Gregor when he paid all their bills. Kafka writes, “They had simply got used to [his employment], both the family and Gregor; the money was gratefully accepted and gladly given, but there was no special uprush of warm feeling” (98). Now that he is black and poor, no one fixes for him the final funereal suit which clothes the dead until they look as they were at their best in life, replete with rosy cheeks, meditative features, and business attire. Born Homo sapiens, Gregor exits this world Homo vermes, nuder and somehow more vulnerable than the day he was born. The Samsa family’s charwoman, a simple proletarian not much removed from economic slavery, sweeps away his carcass, now “completely flat and dry, as could only now be seen when it was no longer supported by the legs and nothing prevented one from looking closely at it,” as though his carapacial body were as ephemeral as his memory (Kafka 125). What use does the capitalist society of 1915 Europe, edging into the long race war whose end we refer to as World War Two, have for the racialized and the socially damned?

The West’s current multiculturalism, which is both historically nascent and yet already dissolves in its hopeful adolescence, is a long reaction to the parasitic specter of Kafka’s Homo vermes. Western thought thinks of black men and vermin as occupying the same ontological territory: one of “streaks of dirt stretched along the walls” and “here and there” “balls of dust and filth” (Kafka 114). It considers these categories of the anti-human under a dismal gaze that identifies eternally the black with the pestilential and announces that this foul identity is acceptable, required even, for the maintenance of the social whole. The West needs its cockroaches as upon a century it needed its slaves. Kafka writes, “The decision that [Gregor] must disappear was one that [Gregor] held to even more strongly than his sister…The first broadening of light in the world outside the window entered his consciousness once more. Then his head sank to the floor of its own accord and from his nostrils came the last faint flicker of his breath” (124). Gregor, worn down by the slow death of his metamorphosis, wants at last to die, and finally, quietly does. He can bear no longer his interpellation from a happy man into a hated brute, of living a grotesque rendition of social death, removed from all possibility of communication with those who formerly shared even his blood, of being called into being poor and black.

Western society, a fantastically brutal example of the battle between the human and the racial in which the racial is often victor, must be defended against the carapacial specter. I declare this warning admittedly as a white man who is recognized as such by our society and who has largely escaped the suicidal call of the racial apparatus. For, we in the West, whether we adhere to the liberal register or the fascist, continue to think in terms imposed by our defining history of anti-humanism. We who defend the liberal imperative reproduce these categories and their moral lots as a matter of course, whose real and active course of thought we tend to neglect because it often does not affect our bodies or our subject-positions. For even Gregor’s sister, Grete, who loved him deeply before his metamorphosis, winds up declaring to her family that Homo vermes, once her brother, so thoroughly dehumanized he crawls around in his own filth, is not a victim of larger circumstance, but a “creature” who “persecutes us” (122). Franz Kafka, whom the social theorist of Theodor Adorno once called “the solipsist without ipseity,” is a hero to match the villainy in his stories and, indeed, a hero to counter our own hypocritical villainy which calls the very victims of the hegemonic racial ideology of whiteness our persecutors in turn (237). We persecute those who have been persecuted when we say, “Look, a cockroach!”

We have failed to enact in practical terms our ideals of the essential equality of Homo sapiens. Our failure does not surprise me, for even the heirs of Hitler think of themselves as heroes of the social order. Fascism, I suspect, is the insectal answer to our failing liberalism. Everywhere, Homo vermes lives outside of our sight, and everywhere he lives within our borders: who cannot think of one’s neighbors as potentially harboring some miserable Gregor Samsa, right next to one’s own house, looking forlornly beyond his window at those who have abandoned him in his hour of need?

Western abuse of world history and subsequently of every individual living within its course, if by this point the West still has a course, is a moral lesson against our anti-humanism, which we continue to reproduce even in our most liberal praxes. No one loves Gregor at his most vulnerable. Those who should be kindest to him throw him away as though he were the same trash they fed him. Race is where the hopeless go to die; it is the ontological means by which they are disposed of. It is my hope, now that we know its embodied horrors from our feelings to his feelers, that anti-humanism is selfsame with the realm of the racial, and that its meanest imposition onto blackness is the carapacial imposition, finds its grave-site sooner rather than later, and, furthermore, that this deadly manner of thinking and acting alongside our fellow human beings is buried near wherever it was the devitalized Ungeziefer found his resting place, as the word “nigger” was buried, if Kafka ever did bury Gregor.

—Jeremy Brunger

§

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “In nuce.” Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005. 236-238.

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism. Verso, 2014. 74-191.

Bernofsky, Susan. “On Translating Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.” New Yorker, 2014.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prioress’ Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. Penguin, 2003. 170-76.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man.” Black Skin, White Masks. Grove Press, 2008.       89-119.

—. “On Violence.” The Wretched of the Earth. Grove Press, 2004. 1-62.

Foucault, Michel. “Eleven. 17 March 1976.” Society Must be Defended! Picador, 2003. 239-264.

Frasetto, Michael. “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” Misconceptions About the Middle      Ages. Routledge, 2009. 76-82.

de Gobineau, Arthur. “The Meaning of Degeneration” and “Racial Differences are Permanent.” On the   Inequality of Human Races. 1853. 23-140.

Haraway, Donna. “Universal Donors in a Vampire Culture: It’s All in the Family. Biological Kinship     Categories in the Twentieth-Century United States.” Modest Witness @ Second Millennium.        Routledge, 1997. 213-315.

Heidegger, Martin. “Understanding the Appeal, and Guilt.” Being and Time. Harper & Brothers,1962.          325-35.

Herman, Arthur. “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism.” The Idea of          Decline in Western History. The Free Press, 1997. 53-60.

Kafka, Franz. “The Metamorphosis.” Collected Stories. Knopf, 1993. 75-128.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, 1995. 1-54.

Voltaire. “Judea.” Philosophical Dictionary. Barnes & Noble, 2006. 263-64.

Wiener, Mark. “Let Us Make a Tryal.” Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste. Vintage, 2006. 33-50.

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Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy Brunger, originally from Tennessee, is a writer attending a graduate program at the University of Chicago. His interests trend toward the Marxian: how capital transforms us, abuses us, mocks us. His writing on philosophy and politics has been featured on Truthout, The Hampton Institute, and 3 AM Magazine and his poetry has appeared in the Chiron Review and Sibling Rivalry Press. He can be contacted at jbrunger@uchicago.edu.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Donna Haraway’s article in which she delineates the genealogy of race-thinking according to a temporal, triadic conception of social thought, beginning with the thinking of the “blood,” passing through “population” theory, and ending with an account of the “genetic” cognizance of the human (219). Kafka wrote his story in 1912, three years prior to publication, but this period of writing is congruent with the “blood” episteme of contemporary social thought on race.
  2. Such propaganda was inspired to the last by the declinist racial theories of Arthur de Gobineau who, to his small credit, did not think such a degeneration as Samsa experiences was possible. For the anti-bourgeois de Gobineau, the differences between races—for him these differences were very real and world-historically meaningful—were permanent and immutable. The Inequality of Human Races explicitly denounces two progressive ideas: the improvement of the races towards equality, and the mutable nature of race. A minority race could not actually descend to the level of the insect even for this hardcore racist, albeit his curiously ill-informed observations made little impression on the half-educated racists of Kafka’s era, who took the theories of de Gobineau to their extreme logical conclusions. See Arthur Herman’s “Afloat on the Wreckage: Arthur de Gobineau and Racial Pessimism” in The Idea of Decline in Western History for Herman’s account of the nineteenth-century transition of race meaning lineage to race meaning biology.
  3. See Kafka’s In the Penal Colony, in which the infernal machine, a literal apparatus, inscribes one’s sin on one’s skin.
  4. See Michael Frasetto’s article “Medieval Attitudes Toward Muslims and Jews.” He writes, “In the thirteenth century, the blood libel emerged, which held that the Jews killed Christians and used their blood in Passover ceremonies. The notion that they were subhuman also developed. Jews were depicted in animal forms, with horns and tails, crooked noses, and were thought to give off a foul odor” (79). Black Death Europe, it seems, had no cockroaches, but plenty of rodents.
  5. See Berfosky’s New Yorker article on the difficulty of translating Kafka’s German “hazy focus” into English.
  6.     Even the hyper-egalitarian Karl Marx, himself of Jewish origin, was not above referring to another man, Lassalle, as “the Jewish nigger” in private correspondence, a contrary apotheosis of race-thinking if ever there was one.
  7. See Mark Wiener’s chapter “Let Us Make a Tryal” from Black Trials: Citizenship from the Beginnings of Slavery to the End of Caste in which he examines the conflation of the black with the parasitic in the discourse of Cotton Mather.
  8. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon has nothing to say about Kafka’s story but much, I imagine, to say about its outcomes regarding Hegelian recognition and the suicidal diminution imparted by racism. He does not often touch on the theme of anti-humanism and cannot be characterized as such a thinker; his criticism tends always to focus, like a rounded glass beneath the sun, on those most in agreement with him whose theories on race and Africa disagreed with his own. Hegel famously writes that Africa has no history; Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, hated Hegel’s dialectics, and yet Fanon synthesizes both in a clinical diagnosis of the racial apparatus. “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” even resembles the description of the concept of interpellation in Althusser: “Look! A Negro!” (89).
  9. See Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended!, his 1975-76 lecture on the development of racism in Europe and in particular his theory that the state requires the racial apparatus in order to go on functioning (254-58).
Apr 112017
 

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This is the story, I said, looking at the blank page, and she said to me she knew it was written for her, but I knew I had not written it for anyone.

This is the story, I said, listening to the blank page, and she said she’d heard it before, and I said it is not possible because it is being told still.

This is the story, I said, can you hear it? Silenced it wants to be told, so the screen can crack.

*

I want to tell you of reading The Blank Page, the short story by Isak Dinesen in which a storyteller tells the story of the blank page.

I have been reading the story repeatedly, over the last few months—not to interpret its mysterious parable: I’ve been reading The Blank Page as an echo chamber, listening to the voices that speak to me through it, and through me to it and to you.

Today I’m not reading The Blank Page: I’m looking at a photocopy I made of the first page of the story.

The photocopy is not quite so blank, and I’m reading the notes I wrote on it during my repeated encounters with it, some of which appear obscure to me since the thoughts that prompted them have been lost, while others continue to generate further thinking. I am looking at this photocopy of the first page of The Blank Page as a record of past beginnings, disorderly poured into the ever-present of each repeated reading, return, rewind, da capo.

I am listening to and reading into this blank page as volume.

*

*

My eyes linger for some time on the title, and soon they move around my nearly illegible handwriting as they try to reconstruct in vain the sequence of these incomplete writerly incursions. I can’t resist the temptation of starting from the least obvious connection, from the most remote one.

Turquoise capital letters, on the left: PIZARNIK 139. Three turquoise thick lines around it. An arrow on the right: look at this, it matters.

How promising. My reading of The Blank Page begins with a diversion that precipitates me straight into another book.

I open Alejandra Pizarnik’s collected poems, Extracting The Stone Of Madness, page 139, and I remember the sense of urgency I perceived at the time, in finding an echo while reading Pizarnik during the same days as I read Dinesen:

Here is how I can go about reading this heavily annotated photocopy, entitled The Blank Page and anything but blank: with two eyes looking at the frenzied absence of the blank page, in ferocious void, listening. And, following Pizarnik’s suggestion on the page before, to let there be language where there ought to be silence.

*

Pizarnik’s blue handwritten name actually appears slightly off the page, although in close vicinity to it: on a rectangular scrap of paper that I glued onto the photocopy. There’s ambiguity between foreground and background, between the told and the teller, between who writes and who is being written, what is held and what holds: it enwraps the entire operation of Dinesen’s story and, inevitably, of my words with it.

Or: the glued scrap of paper that holds a specific instance of reading could be an attempt at staying very close to the material of such reading, while performing those small gestures of variance from which writing always rebegins.

*

Top right corner: CARMELITES. In a convent in Portugal, for centuries, Carmelite nuns have been keeping a collection of framed linen sheets, each one holding the trace, in blood, of the first nuptial night of a princess. One of these sheets is completely white, shows no trace of blood, and continues to attract pilgrimages of people who stare at it and interrogate its enigma: it is the blank page that gives the title to the story.

Why the sheet is blank, it is not told.

How the sheet in the story becomes a page in the title of the story, it is not told.

It is not told because it’s not what is expected to be heard, so I try to hear through its absence: something more, and something else than words, Pizarnik suggests to me. Like in Scheherazade’s 1001 blank nights (‘one more than a thousand,’ Dinesen wrote, I underlined) so much happens outside the frame. The blank page continues to compel readers who, like the procession of pilgrims described in the story, couldn’t resist the riddle of the blank sheet that it is generated from, and that it perpetually generates.

A strange and silent museum keeps the collection of bodily inscriptions framed by the stillness of gold, framed in turn by the telling of the story by the old woman at the gate of the town, framed by Dinesen’s own telling although, I’d underlined in red, ‘they and I have become one’. Dinesen haunts her stories, becomes one with them.

I want to hold on to this sense of porosity allowing the told and the teller to become one, rather than to the staccato of the framing devices. I’m drawn to the merging. Rather than considering spatial arrangements I want to think through time, and transmission. Scheherazade as transmitter, Scheherazade who continued speaking and being spoken through, Dinesen as transmitter, Dinesen who said she was not a writer but a storyteller, Pizarnik as transmitter, Pizarnik who wrote I cannot speak with my voice, but I speak with my voices.

At the bottom of my photocopy, after reading the story once, I wrote in capital letters:

“WHAT HAS GONE UNHEARD”. And untold, I add now. The blank page is the site where a more silent tale can be found, through the unheard and unspoken weaving that makes its material. The storyteller disappears in the story yet is present in it, as channel and substance.

I keep staring at The Blank Page through Pizarnik’s eyes and through her inner ears, to hear the place where silence is formed.

*

Have you read The Blank Page yet? Or perhaps you remember it from long ago? And if not, what do you think it is, beyond the first photocopied page? Are these words very abstract? What have you been reading so far in these words: a chronicle of blank, or a chronicle of engagement? Are you more drawn to what is missing, or to what is here? What holds the story, what emanates from it, and why this one? The story unfolds its charms and chances. You read the words and beyond them, something more and something else. Can you tell, now?

*

Top left, in red, thin marks:

POROSITY (not quite “resistance”)

GERMINATION (plough-writing)

TRANSMISSION

I read again Dinesen’s story in the aftermath of Elena Ferrante’s ‘unmasking’. Today the lack of blood on the sheet bears a defiant statement: to be materially present within words does not call for a bodily mark, the material presence of a telling does not need to be legitimated or verified by a trace of the teller. I am tempted to read the storyteller’s disappearance into the blank page not as a symptom of hiding, but as a deliberate gesture that gives space to what Ferrante calls the truth of language, present and significant without the need for biographical evidence. Further down my photocopy I read: IS WRITING ALWAYS WOUNDING/BLEEDING? I wrote these while reading Susan Gubar’s acute analysis of Dinesen’s story in relation to female creativity, in which she refutes the claim that the evidence of a body is the only way for women to be recognised in art. The blank page is not a retreat: it holds meaning whose form is its truth. Along the left border, in red capital letters and referring again to Gubar: ‘Does writing always have to reflect / be a trace of the movements and motions that produce it?’

*

There is no way to enter the page because you are already there, and there are many ways of being there: I learned this from Teresa of Avila. The storyteller is there, through the blank page and its story, in absentia. Her presence is porous, it enables and hosts fabulatory activities as transmissions, and transmissions can be spurious. That’s how I read Dinesen’s storyteller’s / Dinesen-as-storyteller’s statement, ‘silence will speak when the narrator is faithful to the story’: the silence of the blank page is the storyteller’s poiesis, and the words it generates exceed the page: can you hear them? The people in the story keep watching, and I keep listening while watching, with Pizarnik’s eyes looking for the place where silence is formed.

*

In the lower centre, a mark in capital letters, red pencil: FRANTUMAGLIA 72. I recall, but shall not quote, the words of another invisible storyteller, Ferrante, in La frantumaglia, page 72 (Italian edition), discussing the truth of the story as keeper of its own truth, literary truth, with no need for external legitimisation—writing, later on, that the more effective story is the one which allows to gaze out at everything that’s been excluded from it, outside of the frame.

*

THE BLANK PAGE: I look at the title on the photocopy and beneath it, handwritten in red: THE IMMORTAL STORY. Outside of the frame I see Orson Welles, who’d once declared to be in love with Dinesen and who directed The Immortal Story as a homage to her eponymous tale of a rich man at the end of his life, who can’t believe that a story he hears and knows never actually took place, and who makes it happen: at the end, the protagonist of the story realises that, because he has actually been inside the story, he will no longer be able or willing to tell it.

That silence is the story’s porous boundary.

In the inversion of foreground and background, the blank is the material of muteness that exceeds the page. A telling, a spinning of a nothingdense: the truth of that form of silence, sounding with stories passed on, and with voices streaming into the volume of the blank page.

*

I turn the page:

‘Where the story-teller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence…. Who then… tells a finer tale than any of us? Silence does. And where does one read a deeper tale than upon the most perfectly printed page of the most precious book? Upon the blank page. When a royal and gallant pen, in the moment of its highest inspiration, has written down its tale with the rarest ink of all—where, then, may one read a still deeper, sweeter, merrier and more cruel tale than that? Upon the blank page.

‘We,’ she says at last, ‘the old women who tell stories, we know the story of the blank page.’

In the previous page, the woman’s voice is introduced by ‘she said’.

She says, she said.

She says, she said, I read. This is happening now, it happened before, I’m stuck in the looped timing of da capo.

*

Sometimes the photocopy of the blank page can be disappointing, opaque. It’s a material of time. It doesn’t always have to hold meaning. It allows a germination whose movements are slow and difficult to perceive. I can’t exhaust the blank page. Some days it’s impenetrable and I’m drawn to this relationship that doesn’t always have to be meaningful but allows me to drift, or stay still, and nothing changes and its material does. I can’t extract too much from these marks. Only reread them and repeat them, and I’ll be able to hear something then: a troubling urge. This reading is not to find purpose, but to look with a purposive eye, and listen. I hear the sound of a spinning. That is the material of The Blank Page today. In the story, the fabric of the linen is spun from flax grown in the fields surrounding the convent. The making of the linen through spinning is the invisible/inaudible activity of every day which leaves no mark, but makes the material of silence possible. The blank page is dense with unseen work, its silence full with the sound of spinning.

*

I wrote of the linen of the blank page but I want to misspell it as limen, border.

And then I want silence to erode those gilded frames and see them rot.

*

On the border of my photocopy, bottom left: SPIN SPIN SPIN SPIN —— The urge to spin words in a succession of da capo. On the back of the photocopy, my words in cursive sound much like a curse:

On a page, not too different from this one. Out of sync but no. But the attempt. But the gestures. I know I’m writing, but I do not feel I’m in the place where my hands are. These words came before me. They inhabit the page from outside. The voice of the storyteller, that never stops beginning, torments these words, I hear in them what they apparently do not tell. Language is disturbed. The blank page beyond language. These words never finish leaving. Their beginning is absent. I wasn’t there. The muted perturbation of the copied page is the interval between the words I can’t remember. It shakes them but they are muted and cannot say what shakes them. Maybe it will never be named but it moves, shakes them. They gently shake by way of the specific quality of silence the surrounds them. A beginning doesn’t know how or what: it senses its where. It’s impetus before content. An absolute volitive. The space of the blank page transgresses the order of facts to affirm a rebeginning. A small variance allows writing to begin. Not pleasing, orderly and smooth but as disturbance, scratch, crack.

 *

A desire for enchantment. I remember a voice from elsewhere:

These thoughts of mine… I have fetched them from far far away.

You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again. You’ll never hear her speak to you again.

She said. She says. I write. Will I tell? Is reading another way of telling the story of the blank page?

*

There is not a grand plan in my reading of the photocopy, but a daily engagement with its marks as interruptions, a sustained silent conversation with the page as material, and with the thoughts I hear through it: material. This is where syntax breaks, as it must attend to the rhythms of such material, not to a plan. This is how The Blank Page becomes a blank page and mine, through stillness. The blank page is the unnameable, yet visible and audible medium, that amplifies, transmits, echoes, extends, connects voices between interferences and unsteady unison. To lay it bare would be absurd. And to read it is not attached to the privilege of having certain doors opened, to the privilege of access: it is not tied to the ‘discovery’ of new material, but to the thrill of working through what is on the page, available as opaque substance, and rediscover its density and its excess.

*

Isak’s actual name was Karen. Isak means laughter. I think Karen meant some laughter too: at the thought that anyone might claim for the enigma of the blank page to be solved. Today I hear Karen’s laughter across the decades, defiant and distorted, against solutions, spinning more and more words, da capo.

*

There is no blank page as an absolute condition, no purity marked by bleeding: the blank page, loaded with the marks of its making, calls for the presence of more marks, voices, other copies, and screens, many more notes and scratches: the teller disappears into the story so more stories can be heard through her and through it while generating more. Silence holds the excess of words: anything that occurs off the page, and yet wouldn’t be there without it, states of stillness, and rewind, and mishaps, and sometimes nothing happens.

But, still, there. There I can disappear too: in listening, in channelling. I try to read the marks on the photocopy but the marks aren’t the only bearers of meaning: the whiteness is as dense. The blank becomes manifest as the material of muteness that exceeds the page.

I close my eyes. I too have something to tell, it’s not a story: a spinning of silenced motions in and out of languages, made of the debris of stories passed on, and half-forgotten voices. Reading the canonical from a partial view, placing the opaque in a position of prominence.

I look again at a snapshot of my photocopy of The Blank Page on my iPad, it’s full of noise, the screen is cracked, a telling in writing can rebegin.

—Daniela Cascella

List of References

Alejandra Pizarnik, translated by Yvette Siegert, Extracting the Stone of Madness. Poems 1962-1972, New York: New Directions, 2016.

Elena Ferrante, La frantumaglia, Roma: Edizioni e/o, 2003

Isak Dinesen, The Blank Page and Echoes, in Last Tales, London: Putnam, 1957.

Isak Dinesen, The Dreamers, in Seven Gothic Tales, London: Penguin, 2001 (1934).

Isak Dinesen, The Immortal Story, in Babette’s Feast and Other Stories, London: Penguin, 2013 (1958).

Orson Welles (dir.), The Immortal Story, 1968.

Susan Gubar, ‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 8, No. 2, ‘Writing and Sexual Difference’ (winter 1981), 243-263.

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Daniela Cascella is a London-based Italian writer. Her work is concerned with impossible silences, their residues and disturbances. She is the author of F.M.R.L. Footnotes, Mirages, Refrains and Leftovers of Writing Sound (Zero Books, 2015) and En Abîme: Listening, Reading, Writing. An Archival Fiction (Zero Books, 2012). Her texts have been published in Gorse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wire, 3:AM Magazine, The Scofield, minor literature[s]. She is a Contributing Editor at minor literature[s]. Her next book, a hybrid text prompted by a reflection on rebeginnings and the transmission of knowledge, is entitled Singed: A Transmission of Muted Voices, After the Fire. Twitter: @enabime www.danielacascella.com

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Apr 102017
 

Afric McGlinchey 500px

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I, a travelling country of windows

All the bony roads,
spokes shaking off a mouthful
of sleet, and you
further forward than me, or inward perhaps
– a heaped bush – stop.
Fleeting shock of silence;
and then the rattling again,
struggling past the cages. Say one lunges
from above, tipping its point
like a Damocles sword – dare I?
I know what is in that box
stiffly packaged in white canvas
– the first of the seven sorrows –
this, then the next to come tumbling
will be – no, let’s
travel back, round the coastline up north
where the mattress groaned under
our bouncing feet and feathers flew
from the bolsters – wait!
Was that the creak of a door, pink
glow of the landing wallpaper?
He’s here! And fast as the smallest
laughing fury, we’re under the sheets:
one on the floor, pretend-sleeping
the silence intense as the thickness
of snow set across pillows
and pillows of fields.

.

Cha
after All my Friends,
an electronic composition by Edan Ray

Laugh! I nearly ran to the riptide
confluence where stories
are peripheral, and simply water
works. Only you know
the notion of it. Only you keep me
laughing. Only you rush
into the pedal of the music
or crossover
silence that smacks
up against wayward torques
squeaking liquid and you and you
and you, my friends, run backwards, slow
motion as the ocean. Shhh…
or bass it. Strobe-light-fix
each gesture in distortion,
loose-wristed, star-fired, brainless
with excitement. Cha.

.

Nine ways to identify an alley cat

l
Her lashes are upstart
ravens’ nests;
serrated shadows.

ll
Her coquettish circling
is accompanied by a throaty,
insistent growl.

lll
She sets a flat rock
with found risks,
until others hanker too.

IV
She cadges guts
from harassed butchers,
then lays them in the dirt.

V
She almost always
escapes the bolt.

VI
Yes, she’s scratched, but still,
quickens with the music.

VII
She rattles
in a crowded corner.

VIII
Her hooping, toppling,
wounded movement’s like the lick
of a failing candle.

IX
Her thought-ghost proves
that death’s mutation’s
merely a ruse.

.

Faith is the thing with feathers

Beneath the vaulting,
the elderly, deeply-kneeling

and kyphotic,
rock like a pendulum.

In each radiating chapel, a candle
forest is offered up to souls.

The choir’s complex
harmonics echo across pews.

Incense is a series
of hovering exhalations,

visible as umbrellas
in the narthex.

Prayers flutter, three
hundred breaths a minute.

Lungs, rain-licked,
hum white; each tongue

an edelweiss. Leadlight
vignettes glitter

in the clerestory: an angel’s
wing-lashed fire,

in twenty-one-gram
refractions, holding all this.

.

End of the blessing

To me you were the heart’s X
against my Guernica wall,
drowning out calamity.

I was addicted to your trip trap
words, lush as ferns,
all the way to fractal.

And the tandoor of my body grew
wide awake; tongue, a fire
racing through the field.

You seduced my mind,
till it was perpetually
undressed.

What’s left inside me, now
you’ve drifted off,
taking all the alleluias?

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Montage

The old philosopher is sharp as ice in winter,
fracturing all the wicked weights,

the resonance of his voice, lacerating
so-called safe spaces,

until they are ripped and sewn again,
upright as trees.

His words are gateways to the sublime,
conflating human agency

with the natural order, the body
of shared memory with the vanished sign.

There should be flowers, he tells us
in a clear-cut voice, simple as ink.

Every night, his teachings turn to the blue
laws, or stallions

or the book of hours. Come dawn,
he reaches the double zero

in a landscape of confession – luminous
and ferocious, divine and apocalyptic,

inviting invocation and resistance
to those overpouring

toward war – that avenue
lined with little lamps of snow.

—Afric McGlinchey

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Afric McGlinchey was born in Ireland. She grew up in Southern Africa, moving frequently between countries, and received degrees from Rhodes University and the University of Cape Town. She has also lived in London, Paris, Dublin and Spain. She returned to Ireland in 1999 and currently lives in West Cork. Her début collection, The Lucky Star of Hidden Things, published by Salmon Poetry in 2012, was translated into Italian and published by L’Arcoloaio. Among other awards and honours, in 2011 she won the Hennessy Poetry Award, and in 2012 she was nominated for a Pushcart prize, commended in the Magma and shortlisted in the Bridport competitions. In 2015, she won the Poets Meet Politics prize and was awarded an Arts bursary to complete her second collection, Ghost of the Fisher Cat (Salmon Poetry), which was nominated for the Forward Prize for Best Collection in 2016. Runner up in the 2014 Sabotage Awards for best reviewer, she is also an editor. www.africmcglinchey.com

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