Mar 062015
 

StaffordWilliam Stafford via the Poetry Foundation and others

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or are we all real killers?

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

— Robert Day


Robert Day

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

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Mar 042015
 

perec

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

il condottiere

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

“Why did you kill Madera?”

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

“Then what?”

“Then nothing.”

“Why do you say ‘you’?”

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

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

“And what did happen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Jeff Bursey

 

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

—Jeff Bursey

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

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

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NC
jeff again (3)

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

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Mar 032015
 

Julie2 (1) - Version 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Julie Reverb

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

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Mar 022015
 

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

satin-island-cover

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

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

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

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The Construct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Call me U.

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

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

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

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

poetic:

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

and mystical:

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

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

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A Choir of Images

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen Morris, Square Chladni plateStephen Morris, Square Chladni plate

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

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

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

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

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

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Mysteries

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

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

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

—Frank Richardson


Frank Richardson bio pict 2

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

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

diane-williamsDiane Williams photo by bill hayward

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

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

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

—Jason Lucarelli

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

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

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

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

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

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

KleePaul Klee, Ancient Sound, Abstract on Black

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

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

JL: Is uncovering what feels new important to you?

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

The Stupefaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tender Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOON4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DW: Consummate artistry, courage, ambition.

Vicky-Swanky2

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

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

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

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

—Diane Williams & Jason Lucarelli

NC jason-lucarelli-2

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

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Feb 282015
 

senkaO

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I THINK SOMETIMES MEMORIES overlap. People, place and experience seem to merge and it is often difficult to distinguish whose memories are whose. The first place I lived in was my maternal grandmother’s house. I heard her (and my mother’s) memories so often I feel them deep in my bones. My grandmother was from northern Jutland, Denmark. She was one of about 10 or 11 siblings, all raised in abject poverty on a desolate farm near the North Sea. She once said she never felt love from her mother, except for the time she was kicked in the head by a mule. My grandmother sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on a passenger boat in 1952 with my mother (then five years old), my uncle (then four years old) and my other uncle who was a baby and almost died during the trip.

After arriving in Canada, she moved to a small remote cannery village called Namu located on the West Coast of BC. My grandmother lost her husband seven years later and she moved to White Rock, just south of the city of Vancouver. She passed on seven years after that, when I was two years old. Namu no longer exists, but my mother used to tell us enchanted stories of living there among pristine nature, wild free-range kids, women’s church meetings, men’s lunch room fights. She told us that in Namu they had no cars, no roads, and only board walks leading from one place to another. In fact, you could only get to Namu by boat. It was a legendary place of magic, wonder, and cheap movies.

The house that I grew up in was not in Namu, but it was on the West Coast of British Columbia. We lived on the Semiahmoo First Nation Reserve, located just south of White Rock and just north of Bellingham, Washington. During the 1960s-70s, the Semiahmoo people leased some of their land for non-indigenous people to live on. The decision for my family move to the Rez was a natural culmination of several elements. Firstly, my parents were very close to several Semiahmoo families. Secondly, my father was obsessed with Coast Salish culture and ways of living. Thirdly, the area was isolated from the town and afforded us kids a way of life we otherwise would never experience. It also made it much easier to hide secrets.

 

senkaB

In the Early Days

In the beginning, I live with lots of people. Some are grown up and some are only half grown up. All of them are bigger than me. I know some of their names, but not all of them. Sometimes, I also live with several wild snakes, some red-legged frogs, four cats, three chickens, two ducks, a rabbit and a dog. I like the animals but I don’t much like the people I lived with. They don’t seem to like me much either. I get pushed around and slapped a lot. And someone is always shouting at me, even though I usually have no idea why. They are mostly obstacles to me. Terribly frustrating obstacles. But I have safe places to go. Behind our house is a swamp and a forest. And behind that, there is a river. These are the happiest places I know. I don’t like it when I see strangers near the swamp or the river.

 

senkaD

The Archaeologists Last Visit

Once, an archaeologist came to visit
Carrying a bag filled with orange surveyor’s tape
And some wooden sticks.
He pounded those sticks in the ground
And tied up the surveyor’s tape
In demarcated places
Just up from the beach, behind the tracks.
I didn’t like that much.
That was a secret place
Where I once found old yellowed bones
And charred stones
And burnt clam shells
And someone told me to put them back.
Because those bones and those stones
And those shells belonged to the land
Not to me.
So I buried them again.
And when that archaeologist
Went back to his car to get his digging tools
Me and some other kids
We pulled all his sticks out of the ground
And untied all his orange tape.
He saw us and started shouting.
His face got really red
And sweaty.
It was summer so I guess it was hot.
And he yelled at us to give back the sticks and tape
But we threw them on a fire that
One of the older kids had going on the beach.
And we shouted back to him,
“Get the fuck off our land!”
Even though it wasn’t really my land at all.
And he said we were going to get into big trouble.
So we yelled louder and picked up some pine cones
And some dirt and some stones
And whatever else was nearby
And we threw them at him.
He started running and we chased him.
Chased him right back to his car
And we threw stuff at his car
Till he drove away.
He was right though
We did get in trouble.
They said we should have been more respectful
But their eyes were smiling.

 

senkaE

Pastimes and Playtimes

The Semiahmoo First Nation Reserve is squeezed in between the town of White Rock and the American border. One can easily walk down the train tracks and cross the border. Sometimes I would swim across it. No one tried to stop us. No one seemed to even notice. I spent most of my time on the beach. When I was very small and could not speak very well, my mother wrote my name and address on my forehead before sending me out to play. I didn’t really understand why she did this, since I never got lost. Instead, I learned to navigate the land and the natural environment. Since I was sent out from the moment I woke up until it got dark, I learned how to tell time by the sun, how to judge tides, estimate train arrivals, how to swim, how to climb to safety, and where to hide when necessary.

One of my favourite pastimes on the beach was exploring tide pools. They were generally warm for most of the year. At low tide, the Semiahmoo Bay retreated at least a kilometer out, leaving a behind sea life and an endless swath of beach. The sands were grey, soft and undulating, dotted with seaweed, shells and barnacle covered stones. Between the hilly sand bars were warm glistening tide pools full of sea grass and teaming with life. The tide changed twice a day, while the shoreline changed with the seasons. One winter, the beach froze. All of the boulders and rocks were covered in a crystalline layer of translucent ice. The sands were frozen in whatever shape they had been in when the air hit the freezing point. It was, at once, one of the most beautiful and the most perilous places I had ever seen. That is the only time I can remember the tide pools not being warm.

On the shore, where the ocean meets the sea, there were great rolls of decomposing brown, green and ochre seaweed. I imagined these were great stinking sea creatures, waiting for the ocean to carry them to their home. Often, as the tide was coming in, I would see a golden foam on the waves. I asked my mother what this was and she told me it was mermaid dreams. Someone else told me it was pollution from the industrial runoff that was regularly poured into the Little Campbell River, a tributary river that emerged into the Pacific Ocean on the Semiahmoo Nation Reserve. The Semiahmoo people used to fish here for salmon and trout but now there was mainly just boney bullheads. Pollution also came from agricultural runoff, sewage dumping, and the huge barges that regularly sailed through the Bay.

 

senkaG

Safe Places

People tell me I’m a girl, but sometimes I think I’m actually a boy. Every so often, I hide my hair under a hat. I tell people my name is Jack and that I come from Ireland. People tell me that Ireland is across the sea and that Irish people often have red hair like me. I wish I could go and live there. In front of our house runs a railway track and in front of this is the Pacific Ocean. If you walk down the tracks one way, you will get to town. If you walk the other way, you will get to the USA/Canada border. The ocean is my comfort. She is salty, warm and full of knowledge. I can swim in her and she will rock me for hours. And if I dive deep enough, all the noises of the world will disappear. The ocean promises to swallow me whole and to hold me forever. I try to stay under the water for as long as I can. This is the safest place I know.

 

senkaI

Midnight Swim

Late in the dark
We went to the ocean.
There was no moon out
But the sea was glowing
With phosphorescent life.
And we took off our clothes
And we slipped into the water
Which felt warm
Compared to the chilled air.
I saw her body glow
As she swam effortlessly
Through the waves (like a porpoise does).
I followed her till I was exhausted
And we embraced in laughter.
Her body felt warm
Compared to the chilled water.
A boy riding a tired old pony
Came down the railway tracks
And spied on us for a time.
Till we caught him and then
He stole our clothes and rode away
Laughing the whole time.
So we had to run home naked
Hiding in bushes.
She snuck in her bedroom window
And beckoned me to follow
But I shook my head
And strode into the woods
Small, fearless and unashamed.
I did not run.
I walked slowly and purposefully
Quiet among the trees.
And a warm wind blew over
My chilled body.
I walked in through the front door
Amid the fuming stares and shouts
And fervent slaps.
And I lay in my bed
Thinking of her glowing body
The warm air surging over me
The laughing boy
And the ocean
And the trees.

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senkaQ

Shifts in the Family

I don’t remember when my little sister was born. I think I was mostly with my grandmother at that time and I largely ignored the new baby. Anyway, she seemed to sleep most of the time. I liked that my mother was distracted and preoccupied, but she was also angrier and meaner than usual. So I just stayed away as much as possible. My uncles were still living with us at that time. One of them was older and took the role of the family photographer. Later, he worked for the National Film Board of Canada and went on to become a prolific producer, director and animator for over twenty years. The other two were younger and seemed to endlessly enjoy teasing, tickling, and generally tormenting me. Sometimes they would take me into their room and place me on the bed. They would put head phones on me and play the Beatles, Donovan, Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin. I loved the music because it made me disappear.

My aunt was probably about 11 years old. She was always forbidding me from going into her bedroom. So, the first thing I would do after she left for school in the mornings was to sneak into her room and explore. She had the most wonderful things. There were lots of fancy dolls. Some were plastic, some made of clay, and one particularly pretty one was made of papier mâché. My aunt told me that doll was very old and used to be her mother’s. I would sit and play with these dolls, completely forgetting that when she came home she would yell and scream at me. One day, I decided her papier mâché doll should have a nice swim in the wading pool at the local park. My aunt never forgave me.

The house always seemed so empty after they all left home and I spent most of my time outside. I didn’t have many friends, but I found a kind of refuge and friendship in nature. Behind our house there was a vast West Coast rain forest full of evergreen pines, deciduous maples, soft firs and aromatic cedars. There were probably many other kinds of trees that I never learned names for. There were also enormous stumps about six feet high and as big around as a truck. Some were hollowed out inside, some were solid, and some had new trees growing out of them. They all had peculiar cuts in their sides, like steps. These were once tall majestic trees. The great grandfather old growth trees who had been cut down when the lumber industry emerged in British Columbia during the early 1900s.

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senkaJ

Things Change

Things change, people move away and sometimes disappear. That’s why I like trees better than people. They stay around for a while. There’s a tree in our yard that is my friend. I play on her all the time and suck the sweet sap from her branches. You just peel back some of the bark with your teeth and suck the juice. There is also one boy I like. He lives in a green house on the hill. We smoke cigarettes that we buy from the local camp store with money stolen off the tops of dresser drawers and coffee tables. We build fires on the beach and forts in the woods. I’m always hungry. I am told it’s because I am selfish. But the boy’s mom usually gives me an open can of beans. During the right seasons, I can find berries, crab apples and fern shoots to eat as well. I even know how to make a shelter out of branches and leaves. I am convinced I could live just fine on my own.

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senkaK

The Tree

I liked that tree a lot
She was prickly with spines
Like me.
And she was small
Like me.
There were lots of trees in that yard.
And a swamp that stank.
I liked that stinking swamp
With frogs and salamanders
And water bugs.
And past that swamp was a river full
Of bullheads, trout and salmon
And reeds and water birds.
Mostly ducks, I think.
I liked that river.
We made a raft to float down her once
Me and the boy from the green house.
We sailed down it for a while
But the raft broke apart
And we had to swim to shore.
I liked that boy.
He was small
Like me.
And wicked
Like me.
He used to hold my hand a lot
And I didn’t even mind a bit
Even though I never liked holding hands.
We played a game together
He and I
And we imagined the forest was alive
And it was our home
And the trees were our family.
I liked those trees
Especially the prickly sweet one.

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senkaH

Obstacles and Navigations

Most of the Rez kids were on their own during the day. Parents usually sent us outdoors with the mandate to return only when it was dark. If it was a school day, we had to get ourselves across the bridge to the bus stop. This was not an easy task. The bridge was about a kilometer away from my house and required a journey down a dirt road and up a very long hill. At the top of the hill there were two main obstacles, the dogs and the roosters. The dogs were two massive Great Danes who guarded the hilltop, tormenting passersby. It was frightening, but not nearly as terrifying as the roosters (which also seemed to be rather large). The roosters had huge spikes on their legs and for some reason always saw the school kids as a threat. This meant they were on the offensive and would literally chase you down the road. If you made it past them, you could cross the foot-bridge over the Little Campbell River and catch the bus.

At one point, the school district decided to move the school bus pick-up to the other end of the Rez. This also had two obstacles; the dogs and Barbara. The dogs at this end were Dobermans. They lived at the end of a long dusty driveway and had thirty foot chains on them. As a result, when you passed by they came charging towards you barking, snarling and foaming at the mouth. You had about four seconds to run past before they reached the end of the driveway. Barbara was small, fast, and mean. She rode a horse, delivered newspapers, and had a pet monkey. And she specialized in hair pulling. Most of the younger kids were scared of her and she was relentless in tormenting them. One day, she decided it was my turn. She grabbed my hair and began to pull. I told her that she could pull my hair right out and I would not feel it. This was true. I had my hair pulled all my life. I grabbed two fists full of hers and held tight. She let go. Later, we smoked menthol cigarettes together and she let me ride her horse.

I first started smoking when I was about six or seven, stealing cigarettes from my father. My father was often absent. He worked as prospector when I was very small and later as a postal worker. He was a kind of enigma, an elusive writer and poet and a despotic crazy man who did licentious things without thinking, without consideration and with swift and malicious anger. He smoked a pipe, he listened to classical music, read Russian literature, and drank too much rum. He also had sex with a variety of women, petted little girls and shot animals for fun. To this day, I cannot stand the smell of rum. In later days, he took to drinking vodka and beer till he was vomiting and wetting his pants.

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senkaM

People Change

The old man used to smell like cigarettes, Aqua Velva, and soap. Now he smells like cigarettes, beer, and piss. His weight is heavy on me and I wonder if I will stop breathing. I like the idea of not breathing and I practice it every night. I slow my breathing, matching the rhythm of inhaling with exhaling. If I do it long enough, I can slow it down until it seems to stop. But I guess it starts again when I fall asleep. The old man goes out a lot, sometimes for a few days. So I have to wander a bit. There’s a campground nearby and I can trick the camp store owner into giving me free pop. Orange is my favourite. I can also steal things from the campers. They can never catch me because I can run very fast and I know where to hide.

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That Time

There was that time
He had some friends over
And I was supposed to be quiet
And stay in the back room.
But I got so hungry.
I tried to be quiet
And stay hidden
But he caught me
And shoved me hard
So I fell onto the floor.
I fought back.
I was a good fighter.
It didn’t even hurt when he pulled my hair.
But he kicked me really hard
Over and over
And I lost my breath.
I wondered why he kicked me like that.
And then he ripped my pants off
Which was too bad
Because they were my favourite ones.
Purple, velvet and soft.
After, he left me in the dark.
My pants were folded neatly
But they were still torn.
I went down to the river
With the dog.
We went to the river
And talked about running away.
I wished we had
But there was nowhere to go.

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senkaL

Smoke and Fire

My mother worked on a mink ranch for a while. She wanted to have money for Yule dinner. She always smelled like musky putrefied flesh when she came back. But she often brought a ring of fur from a mink’s tail or even whole foot. I loved those. My mother also made pottery in a back room. It was pungent, muddy, and wet back there. I loved that too. But if she was angry (for some reason I could never guess) and I went to ask her a question, she would swiftly slap my face with grey mud-covered hands that stung and left my skin spattered with clay. So I avoided talking to her most of the time. I didn’t tell her what I saw when my father was kissing a woman on the beach. He told me not to tell my mother. I already had many secrets I was not to tell her. And I never did.

My father spent his time after work drinking, smoking, and writing. He typed obsessively on an old typewriter, filling numerous boxes with stories, poems, and papers. He mostly wrote out in the back yard in an old army tent he set up. The tent was probably once white, or at least close to white. But it was now mottled with grey from mouldering in the damp West Coast weather. My father had installed a wood stove, both to keep warm while working and to dry it out. Once my friend and I snuck into the tent and stoked up the wood stove. The fire was slow in starting so we kept feeding it more wood, paper and dried brush. It seemed to happen so suddenly, the fire blazing and the tent filling up with smoke. I have no idea how we got out. But I remember the raging tent, burning my father’s papers into ashes. And I remember my father’s stern hard eyes silently staring into me.

One hot summer night, my father pulled all of our furniture, our bed covers and our clothes out of the house. He threw it all onto a huge pile in the back yard, poured gasoline on it and lit it all on fire. He kept going into the house and coming out with boxes of stuff, dishes, knickknacks, shoes…and he laughed and threw it all into the swamp. Earlier he had shot the family cat. He shot it in the head and I was going to bury it. But he picked up its stiff body and threw it on the fire. It burned and smelled like rancid meat. Out of its side a bubble emerged and exploded. Later, after the fire burned out I searched for remnants of our life. I found some of the cat’s charred bones; a leg and a jaw with some teeth. I kept them in a box, hidden in the ceiling of my room. Years later, when we moved, I forgot them there.

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senkaN

The Shed

I always stay away from the shed. It used to be the old chicken-coop. But there hasn’t been chickens living there for years. The shed is rotted and I am terrified of it. I can’t even look at it. So I don’t usually go back there anymore and I spend more time with the ocean. Sometimes I lay on the tracks, listening for the train. I lay there for a long time. The tracks are curved, following the shore line. When the train comes by it slows down and you can hang onto the sides of the box cars. It gains speed again pretty quickly so you have to hold on tight. If you let go, you will roll down the rocky sides of the tracks, but if you hold on, the train will take you away from here.

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senkaO

The Tea Kettle

It wasn’t really her fault.
She was just making tea
And she didn’t know.
It was the kettle that set me off.
I didn’t know it was the kind
That whistled when it boiled.
It sounded like a scream.
A scream that would not stop.
Like his scream that night long ago
When he was in the shed.
And I couldn’t take it anymore.
So I ran away into the woods
And I took off all my clothes
Even though it was November
And cold and raining.
And I kept running
Through those thorns and brambles.
At first they stung a bit
And then I couldn’t feel at all.
I liked that…not feeling.
But no matter how far I ran
I could still hear him.
Even after that loud noise
(I knew what it was
Because he shot the cat one night
And burned it in the back yard)
Even after that loud noise
I could still hear him.
Even when I woke up
In the neighbour’s house
And the neighbour was stoking the fire
And their kids were building a fort
Out of couch cushions
I kept asking why
The screaming didn’t stop.
And they just shook their heads
And his wife kept crying
While she made tea.

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senkaC

The End and the Beginning

Our house had no running water. There was a sink and a faucet, but nothing came out. We used to have a well, but someone cut our hose. After that, we used large metal garbage cans to collect rain water and went to the local city park to get containers of drinking water. We had no laundry facilities, so all of our clothes were dirty and smelled bad. Once every couple of weeks or so, we took the laundry to the laundromat and took a bath at the local swimming pool. Kids at school used to tease me a lot for having dirty clothes. None of this mattered in the summer. When it was warm out and school was out, I didn’t need much in the way of clothes and I could swim in the river or the ocean every day.

On one occasion, my younger sister was invited to a friend’s house. My sister’s friend was small and frail with thin blond hair and delicate features. She wore pretty blouses, frilly skirts and finely woven sweaters. She had white knee socks that stayed white and shiny black shoes with golden buckles. I always felt so dirty around her. I tagged along, mostly because I was curious as to what a town kid’s house looked like. My sister’s friend lived in a huge rectangular split level house with wall-to-wall carpeting, something I had never even imagined existed. Everyone took off their shoes at the door and ascended a flight of softly carpeted golden stairs. I kept rubbing my toes into them, leaving dark smudges from my filthy feet. This led into a bright yellow kitchen. On the counter lay two plates of delicious smelling lemon muffins. My sister left to go play while I hung out in the kitchen. I started to pick at the muffins, nibbling around the edges. Compulsively, I grabbed about six and crammed them into my pockets. I walked out the door and ate them on the way home.

Years later, when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I moved to Victoria, on Vancouver Island. I left my old life behind and moved into a split level rectangular house that had wall-to-wall carpeting and a faucet with real running water. There was a bathroom with a toilet that flushed, a bath with hot water and a door that locked. And I had a bedroom, a bed, and a dresser drawer. Outside, there was a manicured lawn and concrete sidewalks. The suburban landscape was disorientating, confusing, and filled with noises I couldn’t recognize. As a result, I was constantly getting lost. I was anxious, bored, and lonely. So, I stayed inside most of the time and immersed myself in reading. I read as many books as I could, falling deep into those imaginary worlds. During this time, a young Mohawk[1] man moved into a room. He was 21, in college, and had a truck. We would hang out, watch TV, and go camping. He was fun when he was happy and intensely cruel when he was unhappy. When I turned 16 we got married and he became my legal guardian. I felt free for the first time in years, but it was the kind of freedom that has a heavy price. It was like falling into a bottomless well with no water to hold you, no air to breathe and no hope of escape.

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senkaP

A Short Return

Occasionally, I try to forget. But my body always remembers. Someone once said I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I only know that I have nightmares, sometimes even when I am awake. Years later, I go back there, to check out that old house. It’s a lot smaller now and no one lives there. The windows are dark and the front door is boarded up. The trees have taken over the yard. They’ve even taken over the shed. I look for signs of my existence, but there doesn’t seem to be any. Then I see my prickly tree friend. She is tall, much taller than I am. She is straighter too, reaching high into the sky. I can see her branches trembling in the warm wind. “Play with me,” they whisper. I think she remembers. And she still tastes just as sweet.

—Senka Eriksen

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Senka Eriksen grew up on the West Coast of lower mainland British Columbia in the 1960s and 70s. Most of her life has intersected with poverty, violence, abuse, and multiple trauma. The natural world has always been her place of refuge and her greatest healer. Today Senka has four grown daughters and two young granddaughters. She holds a BA in Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies, an MA in Indigenous Governance, and is currently enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Victoria in the Indigenous Governance Program.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I hesitated to specify that he was Mohawk. I don’t want to feed into the stigma of Indigenous men as inherently violent and since my story does not offer a proper explanation of the colonial violence he actually experienced in his life (his father was abused in residential school and my ex-husband was a victim of the 60s scoop foster care system…he was very badly abused. Both men were denied their own identities).  The fact that he was Mohawk had everything to do with his attraction. It also had everything to do with the abuse that he inflicted, the daughters that I birthed with him, the events of our lives and even in the choices I have made in terms of healing. Even the life path I am living today. So, perhaps removing this element of identity would have taken too much away from what is actually coalescing in this essay.
Feb 282015
 

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

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

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

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

Feb 222015
 

bag air strikeBaghdad under attack at night

It the March issue. The shock & awe issue. Gorgeous, provocative, full of wit and intelligence and fine writing. From Diane Williams to Tom McCarthy, sightseeing in the French marches to growing up poor on a reserve in western Canada, a new Childhood piece, incisive reviews, art, you name it, we got it.

But it’s the shock & awe issue because we have this month an amazingly thoughtful short story by Gary Garvin (a will o’ the wisp author who appeared early in NC, then disappeared for ages, now is back). The image above, the night-bombing of Baghdad is at the heart of the story, though the story itself begins with a meditation on T. S. Eliot and then a Silicon Valley garden and only by degrees turns to its hidden agenda and the arch parallels that drive its meaning. What this story signals is that after the first wave of political commentary and battle memoirs, the Iraq war has now begun to thread its way into the upper reaches of high art, from journalism it has begun to be turned into literature.

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

diane-williamsDiane Williams

Our new special correspondent Jason Lucarelli (new to the masthead, not new to the magazine, where he has published some of our most thoughtful essays on the art of writing) interviews the great Diane Williams, a lengthy detailed interview, bold and illuminating.

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

Petro-PA209870Grave marker art by Pamela Petro

From JC Olsthoorn, we have a sumptuous art, video and interview post about/with the Massachusetts artist Pamela Petro whose thoughts often cohere around the strange, nearly untranslatable Welsh word hiraeth.

Hiraeth refers to the “presence of absence.” Call it a yearning for something or someone irretrievable, beyond place or time, lost to the wars we can never win: the ones against time, mortality, and injustice. It is what we seek in the past, yearn for in the future, and invent in the present to placate our absences. (Pamela Petro)

Pamela PetroPamela Petro

senkaMSenka Eriksen

Senka Eriksen’s “Childhood” is the first essay accepted through our new submissions procedure (click here to  read about it), a first, and a splendid addition to the genre. Eriksen grew up devastatingly poor in a native community on Canada’s west coast. This will chill you, then fill you with admiration.

The first place I lived in was my maternal grandmother’s house. I heard her (and my mother’s) memories so often I feel them deep in my bones. My grandmother was from northern Jutland, Denmark. She was one of about 10 or 11 siblings, all raised in abject poverty on a desolate farm near the North Sea. She once said she never felt love from her mother, except for the time she was kicked in the head by a mule.

perecGeorges Perec

Jeff Bursey reviews Georges Perec’s first novel, newly translated by David Bellos.

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

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r f langley 2 copyPoet R. F Langley, profiled by Julie Larios

Julie Larios, who has almost single-handedly thumped, NC’s poetry arm into respectable shape, offers another of her tour-de-force Undersung profiles, this time R. F. Langley, a new discovery of her own, a British poet who didn’t start writing fulltime till he retired at 61, whose output is sparse but glorious.

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

Tom McCarthy, The GuardianTom McCarthy

Our new contributor, Frank Richardson, reviews a new novel by the hot British experimental author and theorist Tom McCarthy.

McCarthy leaves us, not with a confession, manifesto, treatise, or essay, but “a novel.” He might equally have borrowed another line from Mallarmé’s poem and called this peak behind the curtain “a choir of pages.”

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Julie2 (1) - Version 2Julie Reverb

Also of the British avant-garde, Julie Reverb writes a brisk, twisty, astonishing story that torques the usual Irish immigrant saga. This one has a dog and a dead rabbit as accessories to the act of sex (equally predatory, yes).

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

tunnelwebSightseeing in France

Longtime contributor Natalia Sarkissian recalls a comical and instructive sightseeing trip in France with her teenage son. A droll text, stern photographs.

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

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

And there is more!

A new Numéro Cinq at the Movies from the peripatetic R. W. Gray (who last submitted from a Chromebook in a Bangkok hotel but soon will be living in Uruguay); a new Uimhir a Cúig (means Number Five in Irish) from Gerard Beirne; the indefatigable Robert Day has another of those fey Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind, this time with the poet Bill Stafford; and Jason DeYoung reviews the latest book by Édouard Levé.

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Feb 182015
 

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Another in a long list of zombie book reviews revived from my old days when you could actually make a little extra money writing reviews (and learn a lot about writing on the side). This one appeared in a magazine called Books in Canada in 1990. I quite like it because I managed, despite my tender years and experience, not to be awed by the aura of greatness. For example:

His long-awaited new novel, Vineland, his first since Gravity`s Rainbow (a book about V-2 rockets and coprophilia, I think) in 1973, reads like the mutant offspring of Henry James-turned-northern-California-mall-rat and Marshall McLuhan in the paranoid grip of a bad acid trip, with a little Joseph Campbellish mytho-delirium thrown in for colour.

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Vineland
Thomas Pynchon
Little, Brown (1990)

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THOMAS PYNCHON IS a mysterious and reclusive cult figure in the United States, a kind of highbrow J. D. Salinger, a grey eminence of the American Post Mod movement, and one of the four horsemen of the New Writing of the `60s and `70s, along with John Barth, Robert Coover, and William Gass. His long-awaited new novel, Vineland, his first since Gravity`s Rainbow (a book about V-2 rockets and coprophilia, I think) in 1973, reads like the mutant offspring of Henry James-turned-northern-California-mall-rat and Marshall McLuhan in the paranoid grip of a bad acid trip, with a little Joseph Campbellish mytho-delirium thrown in for colour. Part political allegory and part metaphysical fantasy, Vineland seeks to answer those perennial questions: What happened to the `60s? Who betrayed the Woodstock nation? It`s also about TV, the trivialization of violence, and America`s loss of innocence (yes, yes, that again —America, the eternal virgin) during the Nixon-Reagan presidencies.

Pynchon puts the blame for the steamrolling of Hippiedom squarely on the Tube, the Man (DOJ, DEA, FBI, CIA), and certain dark forces — “… the unrelenting forces that leaned ever after … into Time`s wind, impassive in pursuit, usually gaining, the faceless predators… [which] had simply persisted, stone-humourless, beyond cause and effect, rejecting all attempts to bargain and accommodate, following through pools of night where nothing else moved wrongs forgotten by all but the direly possessed, continuing as a body to refuse to be bought off for any but the full price, which they had never named.”

Bleak? Heck, yes. But Pynchon tempers his bleakness with a stoned sense of burnout that runs the gamut from sly literary in-jokes — e.g. a “Carpenter Gothic outhouse” — to full-scale satirical set pieces and running gags. A character named Zoyd Wheeler lives on government disability cheques he earns by jumping through plate-glass windows once a year in front of a battery of Live Action Cams and TV reporters. Zoyd`s daughter, Prairie, makes a hit as a cook at an Esalen-like martial-arts retreat serving up such yummy items as baked Spam with grape jam garnish, which she discovered on the recipe page of the local TV magazine section. Zoyd`s nemesis, Detective Hector Zuniga, is being treated for “tubal abuse” and tries to have his ex-wife charged with murder for shooting the family television set.

The plot of Vineland is a flimsy, cardboard thing (as you would expect in allegory), a frame for the jazz riffs of Pynchon`s manic-mythic reconstruction of American history. It has something to do with the obsessive, sleazoid relationship between Brock Vond, an evil Department of justice operative intent on subverting everything good in the U.S. of A. from the radical left to marginal marijuana farmers, and Frenesi Gates (blonde, blue eyes, anagram for “sin free”), Zoyd’s wife and the daughter of a couple of pinko Hollywood black listees from the McCarthy era.

At the counter-culture`s apogee, Brock “turns” Frenesi into a snitch and a stool pigeon. She betrays Weed Atman, the Christ-like leader of a rock and roll “republic” on the California coast, then sets him up to be murdered. Frenesi spends the next 14 years in the government`s Witness Protection Program, traveling from one trouble-spot to the next as a freelance traitor. Then in 1984, deficit-driven cutbacks force the WPP to drop Frenesi and her fellow stoolies from the program. She and her file disappear, and Brock goes hunting for her with an army of SWAT teams and black helicopters that pluck people from the ground in a black-comedy version of the “rapture.”

Everyone converges on Vineland, an imaginary county north of San Francisco where the hippies, rad lefties, the Thanatoids (a community of the living dead waiting for “karmic readjustment”), and Zoyd and Prairie have taken refuge from Yuppiedom. At the climactic moment, another round of cutbacks pulls the plug on Brock`s very own program. His choppers grounded, he simply dies away, or at least finds himself being led down an earthen trench to the mythic Yurok underworld where an ancient spirit couple sucks the bones from his body.

What all this seems to mean is that TV has sapped the moral fibre of what Pynchon calls “Midol America,” paving the way for the triumph of the cynical, rich, and sun-tanned retro-fascists of San Clemente and Santa Barbara. Yet, in the long run, these malign forces of modern commercial capitalism will strangle on their own deficits and the ancient Red Indian gods of the North American earth will reassert their hegemony.

This is goofy political day-dreaming and a middle-class, male, whitebread version of American history (what ever happened to women`s lib and the civil rights movement?). This is thinking big on the level of Doonesbury and Oprah Winfrey. Some of the ideas in this book are so downright trite they’re embarrassing (e.g. pistols and stick shifts are penis substitutes). And yet, and yet, beyond the run-on jokes, the jumbled mythologies, the errant orthography, and the relentless folksiness of the dialogue, there is something compelling about Vineland. It’s a book that sticks in your mind, seems increasingly hilarious in retrospect, and fairly seethes with a spooky sort of Quixotic, half-wit wisdom. There is something about the foolishness of it all that may be next door to greatness.

Douglas Glover

(Books in Canada, April, 1990)

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Feb 142015
 

BenhamHans Sebald Beham Engraving “Death and Three Nude Women” circa-1520-50 via Hans Sebald Beham.com

This is the end of the February death issue, but to keep you on your toes (and because I am in that sort of mood) I want to add one parting shot and introduce you to the engravings of Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) who covered a lot of subjects (look him up), including some lovely 16th century urban-scapes with crowds of people doing 16th century things. But he had an especially delectable inspiration toward luscious nudes and Death figures (so voluptuous women and skeletons) or sexual images and Death, an especially poignant and pointed juxtaposition of the energy (and pleasures) of life and the lugubrious prospect of our common end. Besides the Wikipedia article linked to his name in this paragraph, you can read a good essay about him here.

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Adam_and_Eve“Adam and Eve” by Hans Sebald Beham – Private collection. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Death_and_the_Standing_Nude“Death and the Standing Nude” by Hans Sebald Beham – Private collection. Scan by Yellow Lion, 2006.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

HANS SEBALD BEHAM Death and the Indecent Pair 1529 Engraving 150Hans Sebald Beham “Death and the Indecent Pair” Engraving via Frozen Warnings

Death and the Sleeping WomanHans Sebald Beham “Death and the Sleeping Woman” Engraving (1548) via Live Journal

Feb 142015
 

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THE OPENING SEQUENCE of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) begins with the mouth of a canon firing and ends a few minutes later with a tourist collapsing dead from the beauty of Rome. An operatic opening, the shots in this sequence expose a sordid relationship between beauty and death and anticipate one man’s journey through memory, loss and longing as he seeks something of more substance than la dolce vita.

This first sequence is distinct from the plot of the film, but operates as a thematic prologue. Everything of the film that follows could be said to be contained in these few minutes: the locals stand among the statues – a woman with a cigarette dangling from her mouth as she reads the paper and a man in his undershirt washing himself in the fountain – the garish tourists gawk, the steady cam passes by floating out over the cerulean fountain waters operating as the visual embodiment of the glorious operatic voices that also pass over all these images and the vista of Rome. Sorrentino, in his New York Times commentary notes that “Rome is a city where the sacred and the profane work together . . . they are tied to each other.” The divine and the destructive, the operatic and the mundane, the still as marble figures and fluid motion of the camera, all create an absurd and sublime mélange. Beauteous, yes, but unsettling too.

These tensions in the opening have something of Freud’s ‘Uncanny’ in them, appearing familiar and yet oddly unfamiliar. This uncanny offers a taste of the dream-like logic of the overall film to follow, a story world of outlandish parties with lascivious suitors, child artists, massive dance numbers and assorted revelry, then side journeys to strip clubs, secret enclaves of the city only accessible by a key master where they find night gardens and even a giraffe. All of this passes by, the visions of a somnambulant searcher, playing homage to other despairing artist journeys like Fellini’s 8 ½ and La Dolce Vita.

5 the great beauty, girls at nunnery

The central protagonist, Jep, is our guide and searcher here and the opening sequence, from canon fire to tourist’s death by beauty, tells us everything we need to know about his struggle, his searching. Ostensibly the canon fire, as Sorrentino in his commentary for the New York Times points out, indicates that it is noon and the listless and lazy characters in the film to follow are only just waking up from the reveries of the night before “they are lazy and always tired so they probably started their day at noon.” However, Sorrentino has the camera begin in the mouth of the canon and pull away so that the canon points directly at the film spectator. A moment of threat so great it is absurd.

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The canon fires right at the camera and, whether it’s live ammunition or not, that shot is semantically connected to the tourist who collapses dead a few minutes later. The canon might go off every day at noon and might also be part of a historical display about Rome, but here it symbolically connects to the death of the tourist that prologues the film and runs basso continuo under the narrative that follows.

Yet, it isn’t the only shot that addresses the camera directly: there’s the canon that fires at us, the lead singer in the choir, her rapturous voice, her face full of melancholy jouissance, and then, when we finally meet him in the middle of his birthday party, there’s the face of Jep.

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These shots are connected through their direct relationship with the camera: violence and the rapturous sublime build to the tourist’s death and then these all culminate in Jep’s ponderous and melancholy gaze as he stares down us and perhaps his own mortality.

Jep’s melancholy reflection directly pertains to the tourist he never meets. Sorrentino notes in his commentary for the NY Times that the tourist’s death is a “standard case of Stendhal Syndrome.” Though associated more with Florence, the syndrome is also connected to various psychosomatic afflictions involving travelers and other great cities like Paris, Jerusalem. In Paris, those afflicted are most often Japanese tourists who have so romanticized the city that when they arrive reality shocks them to the extent that the Japanese consulate has set up a crisis line for those afflicted. In the case of Florence, scientists recently monitored visitors to the Palazzo Medici Ricardi.

Graziella Magherini, an Italian psychiatrist who analyzed and specialized in this phenomena, named the syndrome after French author Stendhal who in one of his travelogues described “a sort of ecstasy from the idea of being in Florence.” Maria Barnes, a journalist who interviewed Magherini on the subject, felt herself compelled to explore the subject when she saw an American man faint beneath the Giotto ceiling paintings. In a confession that might as well be written by Jep she notes “For me, it is an exciting idea that art has the power to cause people to be seriously disoriented for significant lengths of time, perhaps because that reality seems so far removed from me. I can’t remember ever becoming directly emotional or having had a physical reaction to looking at art.”

For “The Great Beauty,” then, the psychological experience of travel, as troubling as it can be for many, perhaps allows us to reflect on the more static or stationary aspects of life, on the places where we don’t make room to be so moved by beauty. Sorrentino in his commentary notes that he chooses this location, the Janiculum, for the tourist perspective it offers: Rome seen from an outside perspective. Sorrentino also chose to preface the film with an epigraph from Paul Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night: “To travel is very useful. It makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” The epigraph might seem misplaced as the film that follows tells the story of a man who seems, save a memory from a time by the sea, to have never left Rome. Yet the episodic, wandering structure of the film resembles a travel narrative and ultimately underscores that Jep’s struggle is not with an itinerary but with how to most deeply and meaningfully experience the time he has left, that inner travel.

Beyond its tourist perspective, though, the Janiculum has another significance. It is also a temple to Janus, the figure usually noted for being two faced in the sense that he sees to the future and the past. He is the god of beginnings and transitions, and a tourist’s death in a temple to memory and crossroads is a potent beginning for Jep’s story.

But it’s not enough that the tourist dies from beauty, swoons into oblivion. What follows immediately is a scream, one that could be added to the three direct camera shots I already noted:  canon, song, scream, Jep.

scream

Syntactically this would imply a shocked scream in response to the death of the tourist, but as the wail of the scream subsides and the camera backs away from the screamer’s mouth, it becomes apparent that she is screaming from so much party joy. What does this say about the man’s death by beauty? It is not grieved; it is not tragic; it is forgotten in the next frame in a sea of revelers. This isn’t just any roman party though, it’s Jep Gambardella’s 65th birthday party. A profound and powerful relationship to beauty is then juxtaposed with an irreverent and superficial dolce vita.

This collision of the tourist’s death and the party set up what is perhaps Jep’s central question and crisis: what is the difference between experiencing and living and what does beauty have to do with either? As Jason Marshall points out in his article “When Beauty is Not Enough,” the locals who wander among the statues at the beginning of the film provide a chorus of those who are insensitive to this question: “They are surreal figures, the kind that haunt most cities: idle and indifferent to the beauty and excitement around them, to the history they wash themselves in.” They are callous in comparison to the operatic experience of the singers above and the doomed-by-beauty tourist.

Other deaths string along from the first tourist death, accompanying Jep’s searching travels: the offstage death of Jep’s love from his youth; the dancer who dies, almost as an afterthought; the suicide of the tormented son of one of his friends; and, perhaps most looming and oppressive, not the death but the presence of the 104 year old nun Sister Maria, her faith and her reverence. Each in their own way interrupt and shape Jep’s wandering, question his questions before they die or leave him. And each are travelers with him, seeking meaning in the face of beauty and death.

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We are left with the impression that little from the moment of that failed kiss in his youth, to the acclaim of his only book, to this journey of reflection for Jep has mattered, but as he travels through the city we also get the sense that the fellow travelers have given him fresh eyes to see the great beauties around him, to risk the pain of living and inevitable death. The tourist, as he falls to the ground dead in the opening sequence, is the apotheosis of feeling that has escaped Jep, and towards which he journeys. “Roma O Morte” is inscribed on the statue in those first shots, Giuseppe Garibaldo’s rallying cry to draw volunteers to his military and nationalistic cause, but at a glance here it suggests these are two options: Rome with its sort of immortal and limbo-like dolce vita, or a reverence for beauty that leads to death. Jep, by the end of the film, perhaps escapes this dogmatic binary, or at least as a traveler has an experience of beauty that will shape the words to come.

— R. W. Gray

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Feb 132015
 

JayRogoff

…a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death. —Mary Kathryn Jablonski

RogoffVENERA-cover

Venera: Poems
Jay Rogoff
Louisiana State University Press
84pp. Paperback. $17.95
ISBN9780807154298

 

ON ALL LEVELS, JAY ROGOFF’S VENERA embraces the sacred and profane, beginning with its title, which suggests the extremes of both “venerable” and “venereal.” For those savvy about such obscure things, Venera is also the name of the series of Russian spacecraft that explored the planet Venus. Rogoff has described Venera as a book of love poems, parents and children, lover to lover. The book is a tour de force intellectual rollick through Italy, in terms of its art history. And much more.

To those familiar with Rogoff’s many books of poetry, including, The Art of Gravity (Louisiana State UP, 2011), The Long Fault (Louisiana State UP, 2008), How We Came to Stand on That Shore (River City, 2003), and The Cutoff (Word Works, 1995), his verse is known for its formality, intelligence, and exactitude. He has been the dance critic for The Hopkins Review since 2009. As Visiting Assistant Professor at Skidmore College, he teaches courses from Shakespeare to Modernist Poetry and has published his poems extensively in journals, including Agni, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review. 

While Rogoff’s poetry is generally accessible, it can be at times challenging. Having said this, however, it can also be, even in the same erudite, elegant, complex poem — playful, erotic, and at occasional moments, raunchy. Surely, this is not without intent. Upon closer inspection, the reader uncovers complex meter and rhyme structures, including internal rhymes that weld the poems, and clever slant rhymes that unconsciously fuel the senses.

This emotional, intellectual, acrobatic play weaves a tapestry that is quite thrilling. Venera is split exactly in two, and I would submit that the first section, titled “Only Child,” a variety of poems in theme and in structure, is not unlike a seduction, a type of foreplay. It beautifully prepares the reader for the second half of the book, which unfolds as measured, steady and strong. Section one shows the range and versatility of the poet, engages and prepares the reader for the full experience. It is a display comparable to the astounding mating dance of the Bird of Paradise of Papua New Guinea: at times elegant, elaborate, perfected; other times, humorous, yet powerful, in your face even.

Rogoff begins the sequence exploring not only a portrait of the Virgin Mary, but the way in which we view the feminine, in self and other, and in relationship. The poet seems to be subtly coming into a certain sense of social responsibility in his poetry. Indeed, he has remarked about this at recent readings. This maturity can be felt throughout the collection, in which the poems are placed in a larger (art) historical or social context. He does distance himself from engaging in first person emotional drama. This is not to say that Rogoff has lost his ability to be vulnerable and to emotionally engage the reader. For example, his poem “No Dream” maintains its reserve while taking us in a series of questions through the conceit of the dream undreamed. Was it real, or did we imagine it? The poem accomplishes its compelling task in couplets that almost go unnoticed because of deft enjambment and slant rhyme (dream/perfume, erect/conduct, swallow/vanilla, skin/sun, etc):

My lips brushed it – or did I dream
that nape exhaling such perfume,
those fine hairs wicking it erect
in my breath’s breeze to conduct
odors too thick, too sweet to swallow,
pregnant with roses and vanilla?

In section one of Venera we are taken back and forth from the otherworldly to the mundane: from the realm of piano music and paintings to the silverware drawer, from a symphony of birds to the primal bed of intercourse, overheard by a child. In a piece titled “Mother and Child,” he begins in an everyday tone, “Hell of a place to start a family” and later in the poem uses elevated language as beautiful as “They kneel crystal with offerings, their waters / distilled in the effulgence of her face.” Further along it changes again with language describing birth as coarse as “simply undivine, unbearable / a watermelon bursting through her cunt.” Shocking, to experience this shift in the same poem. Surely the poet’s intent.

Rogoff concludes the first section with four poems that squint at our love of life and hint at death. Stellar poems. Like “Life Sentence,” in which a murderer tends daffodils, with grace. It is not only Rogoff’s precise word choice, but also the expert pacing of this poem that is remarkable. And when one is given a life sentence, isn’t it time that is, and should be, notable? The poet writes with authenticity, having worked in prison writing programs in the past. In “Dirty Linen” the absence of the leading character is noted through scent in the poem, primal indeed. And in “Only Child” a woman wakes in the night from a bad dream, and the poem employs a circular rhythm and dialogue between the figures that is magical, almost melding them, concluding on a note that reminds one of the utterly vulnerable tone the poet was able to achieve in his early chapbook Firsthand (the text of which was reprinted in How We Came to Stand on That Shore). A voice one might have missed in the mature poet. Yet it is Rogoff’s restraint that distills the emotion here as it ends the poem:

MMMImagine:
the only child to get you up at night for water
MMis the small child of this visitation —
MMMvoice jingling
MMMlike smashed glass, hand dangling
an eyeless bear —
MMMour child. I cradle you, your back
and bottom sweating in the dark.
MMWe breathe together,
MMMMand the dark at my back
cradles me.

Section one of Venera concludes with “Laughter,” a poem in seven sections, each a tightly woven sonnet. The overall theme is the competition in Florence for the relief bronze Baptistry doors, which were to illustrate the Bible story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. Like the Renaissance artists demonstrating their skill at its height, so too, the poet shines, and his demonstration of the sonnet form prepares us beautifully for what is to come in section two of his book. The poem’s sequence imaginatively includes a call for entries, a play on the name of Isaac meaning laughter, a description of the scene cast in the doors, a vision of the boy as an animal, and a persona sonnet spoken by Isaac. It is notable how seemingly easily, how expertly, the poet takes on the voices his characters throughout the book: an ex-husband, a kindergartener, a son, a husband, Isaac, and later the Virgin Mary, and the angel in the Annunciation.

And the much-anticipated second section? Here the poet hits his stride. In section two, titled “Venera,” Rogoff delivers 24 sonnet-length poems all with two-word titles the first word of which is “The.” The section begins with three bombshells: “The Reader,” “The Mother,” “The Whore.” All, of course, descriptions of the Virgin Mary – and more. They are also descriptions of a detail in the Ghent altarpiece on the book’s cover, Mary Enthroned, by Jan van Eyck. Other poems in this section examine details of the painting as well. The altarpiece, an early 15th century 12-panel painting has had a compelling history, including fire and theft. Some aspects about it remain a mystery.

As in a number of the poems in this book, Rogoff skillfully takes us from the historic to the contemporary in “The Whore.” He begins with the “Behold the painted woman on her throne” turning the reader’s attention to the historic painting, but Rogoff quickly leaps to a fantasy description of the book on her lap instead (a highly unusual element in the painting), imagining she reads about “angels breathing on the phone, / falling to weightless knees”. As he continues in his cheeky eroticism, we assume the poet addresses the oil painting, “if I could prime under your oily glazes / till your book smacked the floor, I’d wring a cry / from your high throat. Throw off your diadem. / Apprentice me beneath your jeweled hem / to labor in profound, unpainted places”.

Like the altarpiece itself, or any substantial artwork to an avid collector, Rogoff’s poems reveal more with each subsequent reading, and one often gets the feeling that there are subtleties beyond one’s ken that perhaps with research or additional careful study of the work, or simply given time, one could grasp. This is an exciting feeling, a feeling that compels one to read each poem repeatedly, deliberately. An example, which may or may not have been intended by the poet, can be found in the sequencing of the three Mary poems, which begin the second section of the book. They are so powerful together in this position that one almost cannot help but think of them as a female version of the Holy Trinity. When one reads about the Ghent Altarpiece, there is much written about the central panel, Deity Enthroned (immediately to the right of the Mary Enthroned panel), and the debate as to whether the figure there is Christ, God the King, or a representation of the Holy Trinity, marked by the three-tiered crown upon his head.

Masterful, too is the overall sequencing of the poems in this book. There is little to fault. If section one holds one or two weaker poems, perhaps too personal in reference to easily place in the larger context of the book (Who are “Barbara” and “Malcolm” the reader wonders momentarily?), section two has no such issue. The beautiful dénouement of section one, preparing us for the second half, is duplicated in section two, where Rogoff concludes with a beautiful climactic sequence. The poem “The Fountain” is a tribute to the feminine, an absolute Venus poem, which begins, “All things flow from her. We know her tears / create the stinging sea”.

“The Garden,” “The Mirror,” “The Bride,” “The Table,” “The Mirror,” and “The Lover” round out the collection. Art historians reveal that Mary Enthroned shows the Virgin Mary dressed as a bride, and Rogoff speaks of marriage as a mirror in “The Mirror,” when he offers us a redux of many of the images from earlier poems. He sees the Ghent altarpiece painting of the Virgin Mary as a mirror reflecting a mystery and longing for her to “swing her eyes suddenly up”.

Of note in this too-brief section is the gorgeous poem “The Table,” in which the poet envisions the Annunciation from the angel’s point of view:

The angel is in love with her. He wants
to break his contract as the messenger.
He wants to speak for himself. But what terror
in choosing the dreck of human romance,
to feel wing-feathers scatter to the winds;

The poet, as ever, employs enjambment and rhyme with ease and skill. His 10-syllable lines seem like conversational bytes in iambic pentameter, seem human. The exceptions to this meter reveal the angel’s exasperation. The internal rhymes play on the reader’s subconscious mind (break/contract/speak/dreck): the poem is tied together just as the angel is tied to his duty, which he must carry out. If the first section contained poems that alternated sacred and profane, section two more often seems to meld the sacred and profane within the single poem, as seen in these two examples, a painting of a virgin we imagine to be reading a racy novel, exciting the poet (simultaneously exciting us?), and the notion of an angel who wants to be human so that he can fall into earthly love.

In “The Lover” Rogoff concludes the book with a poem that harkens back to the Shakespearean tradition, which has been subtly building with each sonnet in the collection. Familiar to almost all of us, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”), arguably one of the most exquisite love poems of all time, ends: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / so long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Shakespeare implicates the poem’s power in keeping the beloved alive.

Similarly, as Rogoff ends his collection, we again we see him plead with the figure in the painting to look up. Then he turns the tables upside down and imagines her engrossed in the reading his very poems! But wait. Is he speaking to the woman in the painting or to us when he says, “Lift your … eyes off that page”? And so we think of the poet imaging the reader (us!) also absorbed in the poems. There is sublime transfiguration here. An amazing climax – leaving us both thoroughly satisfied and wanting more.

Lift your luxurious eyes off that page.
Nothing there can save us from the ravage
of the skin’s quick touch into bones – old themes
crumbling our entwined bodies downward grace-
lessly. What remains! – absorbed by your face
absorbed in the reading of these poems.

While the poems in Venera may seem at first glance to be ekphrastic, Rogoff instead uses the Ghent altarpiece as a touchstone for the poems, allowing him to play with sacred themes. This is a perfect fit for the sense of responsibility to the larger world he hopes to address through his work as he matures. To call Venera a book of love poems is an oversimplification, for it is a book of love poems with a capital L. Yes, lover to lover, parents and children, but also love of – and honor, respect and compassion for – the earth and all it contains: art, music, birdsong, poetry. Love of the spiritual too  – life itself, including birth and death.

—Mary Kathryn Jablonski

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Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a Contributor at Numéro Cinq, a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals including Salmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.

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Feb 132015
 

Savage Love PB cover2 small

Here’s a belated, adulatory little review of my book Savage Love, which came out in the fall of 2013. But in keeping with the buzz about my complete anonymity (“the most eminent unknown Canadian writer alive” — Maclean’s Magazine) the reviewer, a Canadian, only recently heard about me through “an American friend.” What I have come to realize is that a lot of reviewers seek to explain their own inattention (not reading Glover) by a) generalizing the inattention (no one reads Glover) and b) blaming me (Glover is unknown). Reviewers who take this tack mean well. They want to create a narrative that might make more people read me. But at the same time it’s a bit of a tired conceit, and I wish they’d just pay attention to the book.

The reviewer also creates confusion by, I think (though maybe he meant it), mixing up two Spanish words, cojones (balls) and cajones (drawers, as in desk drawers). No doubt, by the time a few of you have read this, the magazine editors will have rushed to fix the error (as I say, if it is an error). But for the moment the reviewer says I have “serious drawers.” It’s so priceless I screenshot it.

Capture

I shouldn’t make fun. God knows, at NC we have cheerfully committed some atrocious blunders (if I had a dollar for every time we spelled an author’s name wrong….). It’s a nice review, and I am grateful for a good reader. And one day I will be remembered as “that writer with the two large desk drawers between his legs.”

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Savage Love is, in my view (and without hyperbole) a master-class in the short fiction form….Glover’s got serious cajones [sic]. I can’t think of another collection this audacious, this willing to alienate its readership by taking us to the edge of our comfort levels….If Freud’s right and life’s all about eros and thanatos, sex and a lust for death, then Glover’s collection can also be called a master-class in the human condition.

Read the rest at Writings / Reviews: Andrew MacDonald | Maple Tree Literary Supplement – Issue 18.

Feb 122015
 

Susan Paddon

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. —Patrick O’Reilly

Two Tragedies cover

Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths
Susan Paddon
Brick Books
96 pp., $20
ISBN 1-926829-94-8

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THE MOTHER IS DYING, and soon. There are few new memories to be made, no place to keep them, and no time at all for rehashing half-forgotten romances and arguments. But what Susan wants most from her mother is a finished story, a memoir ideally, which could adequately sate her own curiosity. As the mother’s death draws urgently near, it becomes clearer and clearer to Susan that she is not going to get it, that whatever secrets, stories, even anecdotes her mother has will go with her. Like anyone else, the mother is both finished and uncompleted, leaving Susan with the fragments of a story and no satisfying conclusion. This lack of finality may be why Susan has become so consumed by Anton Chekhov, a playwright whose own life was both celebrated and scrupulously edited by his executors.

This is the parallel that drives Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths, the debut poetry book from Susan Paddon. Chekhov and Susan’s mother, both victims of respiratory illness, are imagined by Susan as similar figures: important, intriguing figures whose lives are the victim of redaction (self-imposed or otherwise), the details of which Susan is itching to discover. Other figures from Susan’s life have Chekhovian counterparts as well. Her withdrawn father and pregnant (and therefore reasonably preoccupied) sister share the role of Olga Knipper, Chekhov’s inconstant wife. Even Chekhov’s curious, admiring visitors are represented by Leona, the lonely next-door neighbour. The parallel strongly established, but also fairly flexible, allowing the characters to sometimes step out of their roles and exist as themselves.

It might have been tempting for Susan to cast herself as Chekhov in the ongoing drama, but she wisely identifies with Masha, Chekhov’s sister, to whom the opening poem of every section is addressed, and who protected Chekhov in life and death,. It may be that Susan’s frustrations stem from the fact that without answers to her questions, she is unable to protect, and control, her mother’s legacy as Masha did with Chekhov. These questions are elaborated on in the poem “Yellow” (34-35): “Who was Penny again? Why did you leave Fort Lauderdale? / Did dad ever write you letters? Are they under your bed?” Without these details, Susan is forced to focus on “record[ing]” the more observable aspects of her mother’s life. Susan soon reveals “I have already imagined after,” a telling line from a speaker who often alludes to her own authorial aspirations, adding a layer of meta-narrative to the book itself.

In reality, the mother is not an especially mysterious figure, and the answers are gradually meted out later in the text: a few youthful flings, maybe, a long-lost friend, nothing that rewards this level of curiosity from Susan. Instead, Susan chafes against her mother’s hesitancy to answer any and all questions; it confounds her, spites her, when Susan considers all she has given up to be at her mother’s side. Before returning to rural Ontario to care for her mother, Susan had lived an implicitly bohemian life with “J.” in Paris. The series of “Unsent Letter” poems, addressed to J., aim to establish a kind of Prozorovian nostalgia for the Paris Susan left behind. Unfortunately, these are generally unsuccessful. “Unsent Letter #2” reads

Today is the Ouvres Portes. On your way up the hill, you will pass three / boulangeries with meringue in their windows, resist each time because there / are milles feuilles on Boulevard Simon Bolivar worth holding out for. The street / cleaners will spray the sidewalks as you pass. (45)

The second-person voice, the future tense, the abundance of unnecessary French, all contribute to a sense of speculation, implying a Paris that is more imagined than experienced. Ultimately, the “Unsent Letter” poems only add to an already lengthy list of diversions from the main text, and reiterate Susan’s self-absorption.

Susan’s frustration is clear not only to the reader, but to her family as well, to the point that her mother, dependent though she is, suggests “Why not / get your hair cut? How about / giving Tammy a call?” (54). From Susan’s perspective, her father is only minimally attentive. The sister’s absence, encouraged by the mother’s insistence on not worrying her with details while the baby is due shortly, reawakens Susan’s impressions of favoritism and sibling rivalry, as depicted in the two poems titled “My Sister” (38, 64). Left with the burden of single-handedly caring for her mother, and without at least the compensation of a startling revelation from her mother, Susan’s resentment is understandable, but no less obvious.

This is a reminder that it’s foolhardy to demand like-ability or noble stoicism from our narrators, because one of the strengths of this book is Paddon’s depiction of Susan’s growth from a figure of self-pity, to one who is both sympathetic and sympathizing. Susan’s development comes as steadily and surely as the mother’s death (another parallel), and pays off with the one-two punch of “Jacksonville” and “The Minister’s Visit.”

“Jacksonville” finds the mother in the hospital. Susan, sitting at her mother’s bedside, begins musing on her mother’s beauty, both her physical beauty and her inner beauty. As she’s thinking, a handsome young doctor comes in to tend to her mother. Susan identifies him as someone who could be swayed by her mother’s beauty, even by something as simple as the taste of her blueberry pie. She begins to imagine herself bargaining with the doctor, convinced that her mother’s beauty and her own grief should be enough to halt the train. For the first time, we sense how imminent and undeniable the mother’s death really is. For the first time, we see the depths of Susan’s fear and desperation, previously obscured by the daily business of caring for her mother. The bargaining gives way to a list which emphasizes her panic, a show of desperation and dependency which echoes the mother’s. “I want,” Susan says, “to show him the Jackson / shot to see if your beauty can inspire a miracle. / I want to shake him in to God” (91).

Within a few pages, the mother has died, disrupting the parallel. Susan is no longer Masha, or Chekhov; With J. leaving Paris for Egypt with her own mother, Susan is no longer even the Susan who writes in her journal and ruminates on her worldly past-life. Instead, in “The Minister’s Wife,” she assumes a third-person voice centered on Leona, the nosy neighbour. Leona is sitting on her couch when the minister arrives. She’s been expecting him (she had already assembled the ingredients for a consolatory quiche), but his appearance provides a concrete image of finality, a cause for external grief. “Oh, God no. Oh, God no.” she says. The speaker continues

….When she is finished, she cries
for everything bad that has ever been.
Not because this loss
is so great, but because loss
is a reminder of other losses. (96)

This is the apex of the book. Susan’s resentment and self-absorption are completely washed away by Leona’s tears. Through the actions and emotions of a (literally peripheral) other character, Susan comes to understand her grief as not hers alone. It is one grief of many, significant, but not singular.

These are strong poems, and when they appear they have real emotional impact. However they are two bright lights in a technically troubled book. Two Tragedies reads very much like a novel, to the point that calling it a “collection” feels inaccurate. Though this isn’t bad in and of itself (“novel-in-verse” is a genre for a reason), it leans uncomfortably close to prose. The poems push forward in a punchy, journalistic writing style, steadily chugging toward their destination, but there is none of the precision, and none of the metaphorical illumination, of truly great poetry. Whatever could be gained through metaphor, surprising enjambments, or complex metrical shifts is missed here. Any allusion to Chekhov’s life is inevitably underlined by the direct explanation of that allusion. Take, for example, “This House,” in which Susan compares her mother’s house to a stage:

No two props set more than three steps apart,
the distance she can travel now
without a pause. I am her leading stagehand,

Danchenko: driver, bodyguard. (20)

It’s a clear case of over-telling, drawing didactic lines to Chekhov in a way that overwhelms the poems. The sentences are concise to the point of fragmentation, and still somehow too heavy.

It would be more charitable to say that Paddon is as committed to telling Masha and Chekhov’s story as she is to telling Susan’s. Occasionally this leads to some stirring moments, like the catharsis of “Dearest Maria” (97). More often, it leads to the intrusion of epigraphs, allusions, and diversions from the more urgent contemporary narrative. Paddon makes frequent use of epigraphs from Chekhov, but these are not often in service of the poems, and sometimes appear to their detriment. “Chekhov’s Bishop Dreams” uses another favourite tool of Paddon, the bridging title. This first-line/title is immediately followed by an epigraph from Chekhov’s “The Bishop”, thereby interrupting the poem to no apparent purpose. It’s a glaring technical misstep, and the poem suffers.

The truth is Two Tragedies is a little overstuffed, indecisive of just which story it should be telling and how much to tell. Another pass of the editor’s pen, a stronger focus on Susan’s own story, and the omission of some less-effective poems and epigraphs (three before the first poem even starts), could have greatly served the book. That Susan finds solace in her reading and her writing is important to her character, and to her story, but it’s not the whole story. Nonetheless, when she’s focused, Paddon is capable of some of the most touching, human poetry I have seen in a while. It is her first book, and I’m more than willing to chalk up any missteps to earnestness, enthusiasm, and commitment to the idea.

—Patrick O’Reilly

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Paddy O'Reilly

Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He just graduated from St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and will begin work on an MFA at the University of Saskatchewan this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”

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Feb 112015
 

Thomas McCarthy

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Winter With Catherine

The plover and the plover’s page
Apply their narceine to Kenmare water

In this, the earliest light of winter time.
Night lifts its bitter crystalline,

Clouds withdraw in wounded hauteur.

Sunlight tinctures sorrel and sage
With drifts of its royal orpiment

While we gaze upon a lobster-boat
As it drops a rosary-beads of pots.

Gulls attend each sinking reliquary:
Chattering classes in a frenzy of prayer –

The hour is so casually strummed upon,
It booms in opiate lanquor:

This sun is a river, the plover’s a sea.

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While You Sleep

I watch the timeless candle burning at both ends.
At one end it must be my mother’s face
And her infinite correlation with my own fate.
There’s no other end that I would put in place

At this moment or at any moment in our room.
The candle burns in its circadian rhythms,
Leaving words behind it on her waxy lips:
She told stories to the dark while the world slept

And like poems she didn’t need an end
But supped off the oils of perpetual change.
I watch the warm light on your own restless face.
You are restless like a mother. The precipice

Of night threatens you, though I am here
Always to hold you. You must learn to un-drown
Yourself, to float the way light does
From a timeless candle. Your superstition grows

In the absence of day, but night has no substance
When we are together. Look at the stars
Through the bedroom window: their universe
Is nothing in this huge room, in the light from us.

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At Ink Level, The Sea

Here on the writing desk of the earth
The sun goes down quickly at ink level.
Soon the stony outcrop will be a blob
Of light blue and the sky will be pale
As the tissue rises. Is it time to go in
Or is it time to go outside? Only time

Will tell me how the levels rise –
Phrases cluster on the sunlit page,
So many oyster-catchers thread the surf,
Their needlepoint becomes pale green.
Water is near, shale bursts in applause,
Gulls congregate on a drifting raft.

Am I going out or coming in with the sea?
Not everything is blessed by the promise
Of water: your book on birds
Is soaked by the wash, ink grows pale
In its buckled galleys. From the Hellespont
Of a paper-clip, Leander swims to me.

—Thomas McCarthy

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Thomas McCarthy was born at Cappoquin, Co. Waterford, in 1954. Educated at University College Cork. He worked for many years at Cork City Library. Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh Award, 1977, Alice Hunt Bartlett Prize, 1980 and O’Shaughnessy Poetry Prize, 1991. Fellow of the International Writing Programme, University of Iowa, 1978/79. A former editor of Poetry Ireland Review and guest editor of The Stony Thursday Book, he has directed writing workshops at Listowel Writers’ Week, Arvon Foundation and Molly Keane House. He is a member of Aosdana. His last collection of poems was The Last Geraldine Officer (2009). A new book, Pandemonium, is due from Anvil Poetry in May 2015.

 

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Feb 102015
 

Syd2The Author with his Grandson Arthur

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Thank You Note

……Newbury Burial Ground, 2014

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My wife says we’ll be eternally close to Tink and Polly, old-time Vermonters, that vanishing stock, and best of neighbors. To me, she seems like some madwoman, talking about how we should stipulate a bench instead of a headstone to stand at this grave she bought yesterday, when I was out of town. A bench, she explains, will enable our children and grandchildren to sit, have picnics, enjoy the scenery. As they take in the panorama, she adds, they can think of us, and in this setting their thoughts will necessarily be happy ones.

Now I’ll admit she’s always been uncannily good at knowing what our children, and now their children, may need or want, but I’m skeptical of this rosy vision of hers. Our kids aren’t as needy as many I’ve known in any case. Even when they were small, they often proved delightfully resourceful.

The two youngest daughters dreamed up sisters for their games: Sharlee was the bright one, Sally the drunken fool. They had Bunnum the rabbit too, and the younger girl often took on the role of Moodyhawk, an odd, mean character who claimed to rule the world. She came, as I recall, from Guam.

An older brother conceived and played the part of a dog named Ruffy. He would school his father or his mother, or often both at once, in their lines of dialogue with Ruffy, often scolding us for faulty inflection or body language. “Not like that!” he’d snap. (When he became a teenager, his grief at the death of his real dog, a sweet Labrador bitch called Plum, would keep him home from school one day.)

The eldest daughter, at four years old, reported, lisping the plural, that she’d found two slugs on a pumpkin. There was gusto, even mirth, in her description of how the orange of the mollusks and the orange of the fruit “didn’t go together.” She was visibly disappointed when she led me out to the garden; she couldn’t find the slugs themselves, merely the pale paths they had left on descending and heading who knew where?

The firstborn child was obsessed with Jeeps, and in bumbling, nightly drawing lessons, I guided his hand with my own in our cold old kitchen. He’d whistle between his teeth in concentration, his breaths turning to small clouds in that frigid space, no matter the ancient Round Oak woodstove glowed red in the corner. Draft after draft after draft. He wanted perfection. Who doesn’t long for that?

Standing on my grave, I start mourning, because I’ll lose these moments and others accrued over so many years. In short, my own vision is far less cheery than my wife’s. Is this a matter of gender? I’ll never know. I can’t speak for motherhood. But can anyone have been a father and conjured such random memories without some inward weeping?

Now, from the plot she’s just bought, my wife sweeps an arm at the view again: looming above all else, there’s our favorite mountain to eastward, purple with May but still holding snow at the summit. An eagle appears before it as if the woman had willed it there, the bird’s reflection complete in the river’s languid oxbow. Sun-spangled, it skims the treeline along the near shore. My love claps hands in witness, eyes joyous.

Meanwhile, and as always for no palpable reason, my mind makes its oblique jumps. I suddenly think of a check I left this morning for a woman who comes now and then to clean house. She bore a child in her teens, and might have gone on to harm, misery, or dependence; but her boyfriend stood by her, married her, helped her to raise that daughter. I admire that woman greatly: her industry, her constantly upbeat mood, whatever a given day’s circumstances and despite her rheumatoid arthritis.

I scribbled a thank you note to her along with the payment. Typically broody, I think just now how the note resembles so much I’ve put my hand to: a note is no more than a note, and still it’s one more thing that will disappear for good.

Those children’s children: how could I ever have known how much I’d love them? You see, it’s not the abstraction death that daunts me; it’s the leaving behind of all the beloved, particular creatures with whom I’ve walked the earth that will cover my ashes, and all the places on earth that have proved so dear to us. And yet my wife –without saying a word– reminds me that an apter feeling might be gratitude. I have had so much to lose in the first place.

I should study that. Maybe the bench is a fine idea after all.

 

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River, Stars, and Blessed Failure

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I pause in my drive back home from a reading, unknotting my legs and back, which have stiffened while I’ve sat at the wheel. It’s a joy to behold the moon as it breaches the mountain, though I feel even slighter than one of the beads of froth down there in the rapids, which are winking back at more stars than I’ve ever seen in New England. How can there be so many? They rob my breath and speech.

I could almost read my poems out loud again by that moon and those stars. But I’m not in the least inclined to do that. I’m banishing words for the moment, as if by strange instinct – not just my own words, but all. I find it more than peaceful out here to articulate nothing, to feel myself on the farthest edge of conscious thought.

Over the river’s crackle, I catch the lyrical calling of a coyote, and from it can imagine ones nearer to home, their sopranos mixed with the altos of owls and the lilting descant of a freshet. I picture my wife in our house. Perhaps she pauses by a certain window just now, the big one through which at this time of year we watch the deer glide in to browse our night-black lawn. Against that darkness, their bodies show ashen, ghostly, elegant.

Our children are all grown and gone. And yet in this moment their distance feels slight. No longer are we at the exact center of a family constellation, but even so –or is it therefore?– we still know this thing we crudely call joy.

Of course, as one who always longs for the freshest and rarest expression of feeling he can muster, I might easily wince at so paltry and common a noun as that – joy indeed! if I didn’t find this a time, precisely, for rhetorical failure, no words quite apt for what shimmers out there above any one person’s construals of meaning.

—Sydney Lea

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Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives (some of the essays appeared first on NC), has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems (Wipf & Stock) and A Hundred Himalayas (U. of Michigan), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

The essays published here will appear in a collection forthcoming this spring by Green Writers Press.

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Feb 102015
 

Okay, here’s a coincidence that bears telling you all about. Long years ago when I still reviewed books (lots of books), I worked freelance for Larry Kart, then books editor at the Chicago Tribune. In 1995, Larry asked me to be one of the judges for the annual Nelson Algren Short Story Award, which was a very prestigious prize in those days. The other judges were Nicholas Delbanco and Sandra Scofield. The writer we picked for first prize was a 22-year-old Vietnamese immigrant named Dao Strom, who was a student at the Iowa Writers Workshop.

As I say, I had forgotten when I was a judge for the prize and I had forgotten who won (lost in memory — look, a lot happens in life, right?). I do remember the awards ceremony at a very large hotel banquet room in Chicago (I was thinking: What the fuck am I doing here?). I do remember meeting Nicholas because we became friendly acquaintances after that. And at the reception I met Wayne Booth, the eminent author of that great book The Rhetoric of Fiction.

In any case, our new contributing editor Fernando Sdrigotti (in London) put me in touch with Dao Strom (in Portland) a couple of months ago and I invited some work from her. The result is the lovely hybrid memoir we just published today. But it wasn’t till I was noodling around, looking for more biographical details that I noticed she had won the Nelson Algren Award. And then I did remember that the person we gave the prize to was Vietnamese. And then the tumblers began to click, and finally I found an old piece in the Tribune about that particular award, which confirmed what my brain couldn’t.

So after almost 20 years Dao Strom and I meet again through the angelic intervention of Fernando.

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Dao Strom managed not only to make the finals the first year she entered the competition, but also to finish in first place. Of three stories she submitted, “Up Over Boulder Hill” was singled out by the judges, Sandra Scofield, Nicholas Delbanco and Douglas Glover, themselves novelists and short-story writers.

via Cradle Of Writers – Chicago Tribune.

Feb 092015
 

Dao Strom

Herewith an enchanting multimedia (song, image & text) memoir, a piece about childhood, from Vietnam-born singer, songwriter, and author.  The memoir is excerpted from Strom’s forthcoming book We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album East/West.

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The song (as well as the excerpt/essay) both belong to the same larger project, due to be released/published Summer 2015 by Jaded Ibis Productions — I’m calling it a hybrid book/music project (hard to find a good term for it).

The book is called We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People and the accompanying album is called East/West. The song “Two Rivers” comes from the “West” segment of the album. Inspired initially by a Wallace Stegner story of the same title, the song draws a picture of the meeting point between two rivers and a child’s memories of landscape. I think the song and the photo-autobiography traverse the same thematic and emotional terrain, that of negotiating the space between two streams/landscapes.

The catalog description reads:

More than a book, We Were Meant to be a Gentle People  is a song-cycle working in concert with prose fragments and imagery. The author seeks to articulate two concepts of “geographies” — East and West — and the mythos associated with each, through the lens of a writer/musician of the Vietnamese diaspora. Strom combines multiple mediums of “voice” with an investigation of the intersection between personal and collective histories to elucidates the transition between cultures.

—Dao Strom

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Click to play Dao Strom’s recording of “Two Rivers.”

“Two Rivers” was recorded/produced by Hershel Yatovitz (www.hershelyatovitz.com).

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Dao Strom is a writer and musician based in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of two books of fiction, Grass Roof, Tin Roof and The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys. She has a forthcoming book/music project, We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People (Jaded Ibis, 2015). The New Yorker praised Dao’s last book,The Gentle Order of Girls and Boys, as being “quietly beautiful…hip without being ironic.” She has been the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a James Michener Fellowship, and the Nelson Algren Award, among other recognitions. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. She was born in Vietnam and grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.

www.theseaandthemother.com
www.facebook.com/theseaandthemother
www.daostrom.com
twitter: @daostrom

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Feb 082015
 

Lawrence Sutin

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I hate this question because it admits of many answers that each have some sense, if not certainty, to offer.

There are persons who feel that it’s morbid to think about it, a hindrance to engagement with life. There are persons who feel the exact opposite—there always are, on any question, and we as a species could do better at seeing this as a sign of hope rather than a signal for war—and pointedly face their fear of mortality, become devoted to risky behaviors from climbing mountains to snorting coke because you’re going to die anyway, deal with it by using the fear for what it’s good for, fuel. There are persons who have had their dearly loved ones die and their answer is that there’s no hope of their ever thinking about anything else. Others see death as cosmic drama—the gateway to eternal salvation, damnation or reincarnation. Others look forward to death because they’re convinced it’s lights- out oblivion, a blissful rest from life. Still others say that we’re all dead already and just don’t know it, the afterlife is here and now and you can call it heaven, hell, the bardo, the liminal, the astral, the timeless dream in which the universe become us and us it. A sizable subgroup avoids thinking of their own deaths but relishes thinking of the deaths of those they hate.

All of these views are thoughts I’ve had, but none of them quite answer the question I’ve posed with its focus on when. No one would seriously hold that any person who has come of age could manage never to think about death, so we all would agree that we have to think about it sometimes. To what standard shall we set our mental clocks so that we might devote ourselves efficiently to the task? But what do I mean by efficient and what has it to do with when? I mean by efficient that sort of thinking—and I include feeling as a particularly wrenching sort of thinking—that enables us to live well with the knowledge of death. Now, as just what so enables us is intertwined with our time of life, we return to when as the crucial point. When? For how long and how often? And should it ever stop?

By seeing the complexity of the question I am trying to spare myself the problem of answering it. The complexity itself is the answer, I could say. As few of us know when we are going to die and those few—the terminal and the condemned—who do know are likely to think of death without wondering if they’ve found the proper time, that leaves the feckless majority of us not knowing or wishing to know when we will die and not knowing when we should start or stop thinking about it.

But I think that many of us think about it incessantly without knowing we do, if not unconsciously than implicitly, and always with a mind to how we should spend the time we have, a sack of coins that seems never to empty when we are not thinking of death. Joy and boredom both make time burgeon. So we choose certain jobs, certain loves, even certain sorrows, because given the time we have we naturally choose what we can’t escape.

I recently visited my daughter Sarah in Seattle, where she is living with her fiancé–they are both in their early twenties–and wondering where their lives might best lead. When she goes about her day she sometimes has to drive over Lake Union upon the venerable, girded and cantilevered Aurora Bridge—six tight lanes of two-way traffic with no central barriers to take the brunt if a driver happens to wander into the opposite flow.   One spacy swerve in any of the lanes of the Aurora Bridge—on which if you head south will lead you to the Pacific Highway and ultimately all the way to Mexico—when traffic is moderate or heavy which is every day and cars would crush each other one by one for hundreds of yards. I should add that, since its construction in 1932, it has been a favored site for suicides—over 230, second amongst U. S. bridges only to the Golden Gate in San Francisco.

But the old Aurora Bridge with its rattling compression can make you think about death even if you hope to stay alive. That’s the effect it has on my daughter Sarah, who would avoid the Aurora if she could, but given the algae-like spread of the Seattle streets the lost time she put into avoidance would haunt her as the silly cost of fearing to think about death. Sarah does not want to be driven by fear and so she drives the Aurora and does her time thinking.

I have gone along with her on this ride—it’s just the two of us—expressly to watch her and talk with her as she makes the crossing. She’s material to keep my hand moving over this page you now read. She has my brown curly hair only lots more of it. She also has my penchant for anxiety and I would not have wished that for her. I ask how this bridge-drive is impacting her and she says she has to concentrate on her driving to keep her nerves from setting her on fire.

Does she think there is life after death? She does not. What she wants when she is dying is to be able to say that there is nothing left to be done, her design projects completed, her loved ones protected. But she acknowledges the paradox that, were someone she loved dying, a solace to her would be if they would ask her to do something yet unfinished for them. That would take her out of missing them for the time it took to do it.

Suicide?   She doesn’t want to commit it. I breathe again. But in her young crowd the question of preferred method comes up now and then—it’s their way of thinking of death, I’m guessing, with the fantasy of control over their own demise without yet having undergone the agony that makes you yearn for an end—and she felt she needed to come up with an answer. Helium seemed to be easy as such things went. All the while Sarah’s face is serious, her espresso eyes fixed and galactic, the mask of a goddess of life and of death who has no choice but to dwell and rule in both realms.

How afraid are you of death? How often do you think of it when you’re not on this goddamned bridge? Finally I put these questions point-blank and she senses my fear along with hers. She says she tries not to think about it but she does, not a lot, but it never goes far away, she doesn’t think it does for most people.

We have crossed the Aurora Bridge and I am now far more unsettled than Sarah because, at my bidding, my daughter has talked about death to me and I feel I have spurred her to show fear that I wanted to see for the tawdry sake of answering the question of when. But I don’t want Sarah to have any fear of death, none. I want her to be free from every mental crevasse I have fallen into, death’s certainty being an especially deep one. I also don’t want to lie to her when she reads this by hiding the fact that I often imagine happily a future world in which she is vibrant and I am gone. I meditate to accept impermanence but I pray that Sarah’s death will come after I’m gone. I would love it if we could see each other in the afterdeath realm or reincarnate as puppies in the same litter, but I suspect what will ensue is a chain of genetics that will dance through descendants as it has through us. And all of them will think about death and none of them solely when they chose.

So the answer to when might as well be never once you’ve thought about it hard. How else to avoid crossing lanes by recalling we’re tiny sacs of life knocking about without and within, a car or a heart valve could veer and kill us. Our souls would have no idea if they were staying or going as death happened, they would have expected us to have thought about that but we haven’t, not clearly, nothing we have ever thought about seems to answer to this death we will find ourselves dying when there is still a great deal to do and our loved ones need us, loved ones always do. Think of them and not death while you can.

—Lawrence Sutin

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Lawrence Sutin is the author of a novel, When to Go Into the Water (Sarabande 2009), two memoirs, A Postcard Memoir (Graywolf 2000) and Jack and Rochelle: A Holocaust Story of Love and Resistance (Graywolf), two biographies–of Philip K. Dick and Aleister Crowley, and a historical work on the coming of Buddhism to the West.  In addition, his erasure books can be seen at Lawrencesutin.com.  He teaches in the creative writing programs of Hamline University and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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Feb 072015
 

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In comments made aboard the papal plane en route to the Philippines in early January, Pope Francis spoke about the Paris terror attacks. According to the AP, he defended “free speech as not only a fundamental human right but a duty to speak one’s mind for the sake of the common good,” and he condemned the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Such horrific violence “in God’s name,” far from being justified, was an “aberration” of religion. In fact, he said, “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity.” Perhaps; but we also know that, absurd or not, killing in the name of God accounts for many of the more irrational streams of blood staining what Hegel famously called the “slaughter-bench” of history.

Francis is aware of the paradox. His very insistence that when it comes to religion “there are limits to free expression,” anticipates his overt conclusion that a “reaction of some sort” to the Muhammad cartoons was “to be expected.” If not inevitable, a response was hardly unlikely. Most Muslims consider any representation of Muhammad, even the most benign, image-worshiping and therefore blasphemous. And radicalized Islamists, a small but virulent minority of Muslims, have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence when they feel their Prophet has been offended. The pope was not speaking ex cathedra, not pronouncing authoritatively on faith and morals. Still, he was talking about “faith,” insisting that it must never be ridiculed. “You cannot,” he declared, “insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” Though these “Shalt Nots” go too far for some, many will be inclined to agree with the pope. In a gentler world I would myself. But this is decidedly not that world.

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This seems counter-intuitive. Surely in the post-9/11 world, a world in which the blood-dimmed tide of theological passion has been loosed, it would make all the more sense not to intensify those passions. One strand of the Enlightenment interprets free speech as universal tolerance, including the acceptance of everyone’s right to practice his or her own religion on its own terms, with its own codes and beliefs. But another strand of the Enlightenment—reflecting the same reaction to the preceding century or more of religious conflict, obscurantism, and superstition—is radically secular, and therefore more likely to be dismissive than tolerant of religion in general, especially those creeds whose adherents cling to what seem to secularists atavistic mores—which is to say, counter-Enlightenment values.

That’s our Enlightenment, of course: European and then transatlantic. But, as everybody knows or else should know, Islam had its own sustained enlightenment. During that 500-year period, a unique Islamic culture flourished, while, simultaneously, Muslim scholars became the saviors and conduits of much of Greek philosophy, literature, and science: a rich deposit that eventually resulted in the European Renaissance. The Islamic Golden Age, beginning in the Abbasid caliphate of the great Harun-al-Rashid (789-809) and stretching beyond the 13th century, occurred during a half-millennium when Europe was mired in what, at least in comparison with contemporaneous Muslim culture, actually were the fabled “Dark Ages.” Benjamin Disraeli once squelched in Parliament an Irish MP who had alluded to the Prime Minister’s Jewish heritage by reminding the unfortunate Celt that while “the honorable gentleman’s ancestors were living in caves and painting their bodies blue, mine were high priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli’s contrast might be applied, mutatis mutandis, to the contrast between European and Muslim civilization between, say, the 8th and the 12th centuries.

But that Golden Age of Islam is long past, replaced by a post-colonial world of vast petro-wealth for the few and abject poverty for the many. The current Muslim Middle East is beset by fundamentalist versions of Islam, protracted violence, widespread illiteracy, lack of opportunity, and the growing sense of parents that neither they, nor their children nor their grandchildren, are likely to develop the skills required to function in a modern global economy. Their region is multiply afflicted by authoritarian despotism in the oil-rich states; sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia; tribal and civil chaos; and the rise of ever-more zealous and brutal jihadists, with ISIS in particular now trying to slaughter and terrorize its way to a grotesquely distorted version of the long-lost Abbasid caliphate.

Western secularists understand, may even admire, Muslim rejection of our often sordid materialistic culture. But from the perspective of enlightened reason, fatwas and jihad are another matter. Bans on images of the Prophet can fall into the same dubious category. Such prohibitions, even if they seem excessive, are understandable to most Western observers. This likely majority would include believers, who, having their own religious faith, have no wish to insult an article of Muslim faith. It would also include secularists committed to the thread of Enlightenment thought that stresses tolerance and a respect for the beliefs of others, even those we may consider idiosyncratic.

There are, however, secular defenders of free speech for whom these prohibitions regarding images of the Prophet become intolerable when reinforced by the threat of violence. That is the camp in which I find myself, awkwardly caught on the horns of a dilemma. How can those of us defending freedom of expression in the name of secular values avoid falling into a binary opposition pitting “us” against “them? Yet what are we to do if our response to Islamist terrorism is to insist, in this matter of banned images, that our secular faith in freedom of thought and expression requires us to insult the religious beliefs not only of Islamist fanatics but of virtually all Muslims? There is no easy answer, and perhaps no middle ground, for those of us who might wish, in the name of amity and mutual respect, to honor such a ban, but resist being bullied into it by the threat of violence and death if we do not.

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Pope Francis, though adamant in condemning violence in the name of religion, advocates tolerance and respect for the “faith of others,” both as an intrinsic value and because he is the world leader of a faith he also wishes to see respected by others. One reason his recent comments received such worldwide attention is that, quite aside from being, for Catholics, the Vicar of Christ, this charismatic pope has quickly become a popular celebrity in the secular world. As such, it might be argued, his observations to intimates on a plane should be taken as just another instance of the unscripted utterances that have charmed those who share this remarkably informal pope’s vision of a less pompous pontificate—though these same spontaneous observations unnerve the Vatican Curia and send church officials scurrying to preempt any potential fallout. Forget it. Given Francis’ immense personal appeal and his spiritual prestige as pope, his comments cannot be reduced, as they were the day after by a Vatican PR spokesman, to merely “casual remarks.” His utterances all carry significant weight.

The troubling aspect of his remarks on the plane—for those who were troubled—had to do not only with those “cannots” regarding religion, but with the immediate political context in which they were pronounced. I applaud his effort to bring together rather than divide. But to condemn, as Francis did on this occasion, “insults” or “fun” directed at “faith” suggests—in the context of the politically and religiously motivated slaughter of cartoonists who did not share that reticence—a partial misreading of events, and of the issues at stake. Some, even admirers of this pope, of whom I am one, have been disturbed by what struck us as a less than full-throated condemnation of religiously-inspired violence, even if the killings in Paris represent, as they do, an “aberration of religion,” in this case, of Islam.

In his remarks on the plane, the pope—reaching out, as always, to what he calls “the peripheries”—was advocating tolerance and mutual respect rather than engaging in a debate about freedom of speech. The complicating factor, as recently noted by Timothy Garton Ash—Isaiah Berlin Fellow at Oxford and leader of the Oxford-based Free Speech Debate project—is that in our contemporary world, a world where writers and cartoonists can be murdered for engaging in religious satire, “the argument for ‘respect’ is so uncomfortably intertwined with fear of the assassin’s veto.” But there may be safety in anonymity. Writing on January 22, Ash proposed, as a way of “Defying the Assassin’s Veto” (New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015), the establishment of a “safe haven”: a website “specifically dedicated to republishing and making accessible to the widest readership offensive images that are of genuine news interest, but which, for a variety of reasons, many journals, online platforms, and broadcasters would hesitate to publish on their own.”

Fully aware of the “no-holds-barred French genre of caricature as practiced by Charlie Hebdo,” Ash does not expect widespread endorsement of the often grossly outrageous satirical attacks the magazine has long launched against a wide spectrum of religious and political figures. Nor does he glibly charge with “cowardice” those editors around the world who, dealing with genuinely difficult choices, elected not to republish the Charlie Muhammad cartoons. But he does applaud Nick Cohen’s refreshingly frank observation, made during a panel discussion at The Guardian (which did not reprint the original cartoons though it did publish, a week later, Charlie Hebdo’s memorial cover, depicting a weeping Muhammad saying “all is forgiven”). Cohen said: “If you are frightened, at least have the guts to say that. The most effective form of censorship is one that nobody admits exists.” As if in response, the Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley wrote the following day, “I am not Charlie, I am not brave enough.”

“I am not Charlie” prose quickly became, as Ash remarks, a “subgenre.” In his January 9 NY Times column, “Why I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” conservative commentator David Brooks made several characteristically sensible points; but not, it seems to me, when it came to what he thought the “motivation” behind the French people’s “lionizing” of Charlie Hebdo. The mass response in Paris and elsewhere had to do, not so much with approval of the offending cartoons; nor even with approval of Charlie Hebdo’s laudable exposure (one of the traditional targets of satire in Rabelais, Molière and Voltaire) of the use and abuse of religion by hypocrites and fanatics. The marchers were “motivated” by a felt need to defend freedom of expression, to champion liberté, rightly seen as under direct assault by the forces of ignorance, religious bigotry, and militant fanaticism.

The perspective of the pope, as of David Brooks, seems to be shared by most media outlets, which had, until recently, refused to reproduce the “inflammatory” cartoons for the general public. True; free speech is not unlimited. There are considerations of sensitivity, respect for the feelings or beliefs of others. And there is the question of public safety: one mustn’t, to cite the usual cliché, shout “fire” in a crowded theater. In addition, especially in the U. S., many—left, right and center—are quite willing to sacrifice freedom of expression when it comes to voices they disagree with, ranging from speech codes on campuses and college committees disinviting controversial speakers, to attempts to ban flag-burning. And, to cite an example mingling outrage, bias, politics, and self-censorship, there is about as much chance of hearing a favorable word about Israeli policy in the UN General Assembly as there is of hearing a disparaging one in the U. S. Congress.

The crucial question posed by the onboard remarks of Pope Francis has to do with his specific defense of religion set in the specific context of a contemporary world threatened, not by Islam, but by radicalized Islamists ardent to participate—as organized terrorists, as affiliates of al Qaeda and its various offshoots, or as lone wolves—in some form of jihad. Religion’s defense of itself against freedom of speech is nothing new, as attested to by the pitiless but pious burning of “heretics” at the stake; the cherum (ritual of expulsion) pronounced against the noble Spinoza, cursed, damned and driven from his synagogue; the imprisonment of writers and thinkers charged with “blasphemy.” The old lethality resurfaced dramatically in 1989. In the year the Soviet Empire collapsed (fittingly, the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution), Ayatollah Khomeini issued his notorious fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the irreverent (but brilliant and very funny) chapter on Muhammad’s wives in his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses.

Though they joined in deploring the death-sentence against the author, the Vatican of John Paul II, the archbishop of New York (John Cardinal O’Connor), the archbishop of Canterbury, and the principal Sephardic rabbi of Israel also united in taking a stand against “blasphemy.” Pope Francis, not given to dogmatic pronouncements, did not use the word “blasphemy.” But, like Francis now, all these leaders insisted in 1989 that “there is a limit to free expression” when it comes to religion. I may seem to be having it both ways: acknowledging that Francis did not refer to “blasphemy” and at the same time making him guilty by association with those who have employed this term. Not quite.

But the pope does seem to me guilty of mixing messages and muddying the waters by using the occasion of the murderous attacks on Charlie Hebdo to inform us all that we must always be respectful, and “never make fun” of anyone’s “faith,” at the very moment he is also telling us (listen up, ye cartoonists and satirists!) that we and they have to “expect” retaliation of some sort when we violate that taboo. The pope was speaking off-the-cuff and with the best intentions. Nevertheless, this is a taboo he shares, in however benign a form, with most orthodox Muslims and, alas, with Islamist terrorists. In a more formal imprimatur of the “casual” assertion of Francis that “you cannot insult” or “make fun of the faith of others,” there has been a recent joint declaration by leading imams and the Vatican strongly urging the media to “treat religions with respect.”

That may seem reasonable and civilized, but in our particular historical-political context, such respect, normally to be encouraged and embraced, presents a threat to both reason and civilization. Conscious of the secular challenge to Christianity as well as to Islam, but fully realizing that a robust defense of freedom of expression (in practice rather than mere theory) virtually requires secularists to risk insulting Muslims, Pope Francis insists that religion must invariably be treated with respect. Like Timothy Garton Ash, I attribute the self-censorship seen in most media around the world less to a decent respect for the faith of others than to fear of violent retaliation. Despite the polarization it simultaneously reflects and intensifies, my own position, succinctly stated, comes down to this: a conviction that it’s precisely the threat of terrorism that makes it incumbent on the West to refuse to sacrifice its deepest value, freedom, to uncritically “respecting” religion—especially when the particular religion in question seeks to blackmail the rest of the world into “respecting” (under some “only-to-be-expected” threat of death) its own ban on images of the Prophet. That prohibition derives, by the way, not from the Qur’an, but from the Hadith, posthumous tales of Muhammad’s life. Ironically enough, Muslim scholars often cite a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Abraham (whose father, Terah, was a manufacturer of idols) declares the worship of “images” a manifest “error.” The further irony is that the Islamic ban, intended to discourage the worship of idols, has turned the prohibited images, these absent presences, into another and potentially lethal form of idolatry.

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Current Muslim resentment and, in its most toxic form, Islamist terrorism, have been fueled by Western colonialism and, more recently, by U. S. military intervention in the Middle East. The colonialist legacy has been, for the most part, unambiguously negative, culturally and politically. In economic terms, the victims of colonialism had imposed upon them an imported labor market management model that encouraged a race to the bottom in pursuit of comparative advantage in cheap labor. Through conquest, and with the strokes of various pens, Western colonialism created states that were less “nations” than multi-cultural entities, subject to authoritarian despots in varying degrees initially subservient to Western interests: kings and shahs and presidents-for-life propped up by the oil-thirsty West, and who, even when they asserted their independence, tended to brutally oppress their own people. In several Middle Eastern states, people ripe for revolution rose up in the exhilarating but tragically short-lived Arab Spring. That revolution, like so many others (notably including the great French Revolution itself), consumed its own idealistic children, and what emerged, or re-emerged, was military dictatorship, Islamic extremism, and another wave of emigration from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. And some of those immigrants, especially but not only in France, became a fifth column: poor, unassimilated, embittered, and therefore susceptible to the siren call to jihad. From their ranks came the killers who lashed out at the “blasphemous” cartoonists in Paris.

In a Le Moyne College open discussion of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, four faculty presenters explored “issues behind and exposed by the murders,” murders “no one could accept.” As the organizer, history professor Bruce Erickson, rightly insisted: “we do not defend the terrorists, or justify the murderers, or reject the Enlightenment, if we ask questions about how to integrate the multi-cultural world and nations that we created through colonialism.” Though most Muslim immigrants to the United States have assimilated well, many living in France and other Western European countries have not, some choosing to self-segregate. Though the “no-go zones,” alleged Muslim enclaves governing themselves under Sharia law, turned out to be a myth, subsequently recanted by its perpetuators at Fox News, this hardly diminishes the problem, nor does it sever the connection between the colonialist past and the terrorist present. The French failure to integrate the children and grandchildren of immigrants generated just the sort of recruits who became the murderers who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo.

As an explanation of Islamic radicalism, these recent colonial developments, though crucial, may be more symptomatic than causal. The deep roots of jihad (whether interpreted as internal struggle or as external battle against the infidel) are to be found in the “sword-passages” of the Qur’an; and the historical expansion of Islamic extremism came with the transformation of large elements of a once relatively open and intellectually dynamic faith, the Islam of the Golden Age, into puritanical sects—primarily but not exclusively Wahhabism. That, of course, is the narrow-minded brand of Islam (a main source as well of much of the treatment of women and gays deplored in the West) globally disseminated through madrassas funded primarily by our “moderate” friend and supposed ally in the region, oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

To trace Islamic radicalization exclusively to Western provocations would be to “infantilize” Muslims, to hold them utterly blameless for their own actions. In saying that past European colonialism and more recent U.S. intervention have “fueled” Muslim resentment, my point (to flesh out the metaphor) is that these Western phenomena have fed, fanned, and intensified the flames of radicalization and reactionary terrorism. Hardly a complete explanation, let alone an excuse, for Islamist extremism, the impact of this history seems incontrovertible. I have already referred to the cumulative, corrosive legacy of the old colonialism; but here are examples of obvious Islamic reaction to Western provocations.

The original Muslim Brotherhood was reacting to colonialist secularization in Egypt. The Iranian theocracy established in 1979 by the Ayatollah Khomeini sealed the revolution against the secularist Shah, installed in 1953, after the coup against the legitimately-elected Mossadegh government: a coup engineered by petroleum-protecting British Intelligence, and orchestrated with a reluctant but still complicit American CIA. Osama bin Laden founded al Qaeda in reaction to the presence of U. S. troops in “holy” Arabia in preparation for the first (for many of us, the “justifiable”) Gulf War. And over the past decade and a half thousands of jihadists have specifically attributed their radicalization to U.S actions, whether in actual conflict and the carrying out of drone strikes, or in response to the pointless atrocities of Abu Ghraib and to the more systematic employment of torture in CIA “black sites.” The al Qaeda terrorist attacks of 9/11 preceded the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but came after our first Gulf War. And jihadism intensified and metastasized in the wake of our duplicitous, inept, and counterproductive 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld has proven to be prophetic. In one of his myriad “snowflake” memos, the then Secretary of Defense feared that we “might generate more terrorists than we could kill.”

Given the role of the West in, not creating, but certainly exacerbating, Islamic extremism, it is worth noting that the ban on images of the Prophet intensified during the early period of European colonization when Muslims were most anxious to differentiate their religion from “image-worshiping” Christianity. The prohibition is particularly stressed by Saudi Wahhabism and Iran’s clerical theocracy. Because of the impact of these most puritanical forms of Islam, what is for most Muslims anti-iconic “respect” becomes, for many of us in the West, an idiosyncratic, irrational, regressive, and intolerant shibboleth regarding “images of the Prophet.” And yet it is a ban we are to “respect,” not on the moral grounds of sensitivity to the beliefs of others, but under compulsion: the “assassin’s veto,” the clear and present danger of retribution, including fatwa and death.

Many, probably most, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus wish to be respectful of the beliefs of others and tolerant of difference. When the stakes are as high as they are now, however, this misplaced “tolerance” gives at least the appearance of justifying ignorance and barbarism by labeling religion’s satirists disrespectful, for some, blasphemous. With the advent of contemporary Islamist extremism, the old tensions between the religious and the secular and between freedom and limitation of expression have taken on a new urgency, becoming, literally, matters of life and death. Making fun of faith can put you in the grave.

The pope’s point about predictable retaliation, given the history of the past few decades, is non-controversial. But instead of stating the obvious, that some sort of reaction was “to be expected,” he ought to have questioned how things have come to this pass. Such a discussion would have included the background (Western colonialism), but should also have made it clear that, whatever the oppressive historical circumstances in which it evolved and to which it is reacting, Islamist extremism in its current militant form deserves to be criticized, and needs to be resisted. However flawed the West may be, civilization is preferable to barbarism.

Of course, resisting religious extremism can produce, as unthinking backlash, its own form of religious extremism. To shift from the charge that criticism of religion is “blasphemous,” consider the following manifestation of religious fanaticism, this time Christian, from a Fox News radio host and Fox News TV “contributor.” In recently attacking critics of the box-office blockbuster American Sniper, dramatizing the 160-kill exploits of sharpshooter Chris Kyle in Iraq, Todd Starnes announced that “Jesus would love” the film and would personally thank snipers for dispatching “godless” Muslims to the “lake of fire.”[1]

Far from invoking Jesus to justify violence against Muslims, Pope Francis called for “respect” toward Islam, and, indeed, all religions. In defending religion, theirs and others, from criticism, some Christian and Jewish leaders have invoked the specter of “blasphemy.” To his credit, as earlier mentioned, Francis did not employ that incendiary term, and he was right to refrain. Rather than join them in leveling the charge, we should leave such labeling to the thoughtless defenders of their particular faith, to God-and-country jingoists and to Islamist fanatics.

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It’s not necessary to applaud the often scurrilous Charlie Hebdo cartoons in order to defend the cartoonists’ freedom of expression. Unlike American satire (aside from two of its greatest practitioners, Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken), French satire has a long history of being anti-religious and anti-clerical, as well as being offensive—savagely and equally—across the board, skewering every sacred cow in sight. French satire, like the French state itself, is fiercely secular, as is most of post-World War II Western Europe. This is precisely why the previous pope, the conservative Benedict XVI, was so determined to re-Christianize Western Europe. And this is why the French people and their leaders came out in such numbers in the immediate aftermath of the lethal assault on Charlie Hebdo. Aside from expressing outrage against these particular religiously-inspired murders and this specific assault on free speech, the French marchers were defending their twin, and notably secular, heritages: the Enlightenment and the Revolution—at least the Idea of the Revolution, stain-free, the bloody guillotines of the Jacobin Terror conveniently repressed.

But despite the heartening response in the streets of Paris and elsewhere, rallying in support of Charlie Hebdo (like many others, I wondered where President Obama was, or at least Biden or Kerry), the Islamists have already won to the extent that almost everybody else in the world was, at least initially, too “terrified” to even reproduce the Charlie Muhammad cartoons—just as they were too afraid of violent retaliation to reproduce the famous “Danish cartoons” in 2005. And thereby hangs a cautionary tale about the threat of lethal violence. Though many Danish papers republished the Charlie Hebdo images, they were, significantly, not reproduced in Jyllands-Posten, where the original “Danish cartoons” had appeared. Citing the paper’s “unique position,” and concerned for employees’ safety, the paper’s foreign editor, Flemmings Rose—hardly a coward, indeed, the very man who had commissioned those Muhammad cartoons a decade earlier—candidly admitted to the BBC: “We caved in,” adding that “Violence works,” and that “sometimes the sword is mightier than the pen.” One understands his caution, and the dangerous alternative. But there is an even greater danger in surrendering the pen to the sword. Islamists, whose preferred method of terrifying infidels and recruiting fresh jihadists is the publicly exhibited decapitation of prisoners (or, most recently, burning them alive), may, paradoxically, have made it necessary to be religiously offensive in order to defend the Western concept of freedom, now faced with a challenge as theocratic as it is political.

Not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, or labeling them offensive, insulting, or, worse yet, “blasphemous,” is no longer simply a matter of “good taste” or “respect for others.” In the context of a growing threat by Islamist extremists—ranging from self-appointed jihadists to organized armed forces aiming to establish by the sword a new Islamic caliphate—such normally laudable sensitivity becomes, instead, a caving-in to intimidation by fanatics. The momentarily most ruthless of them (ISIS or ISIL) is determined, in God’s name (Allahu akbar!), not only to forcibly install an “Islamic State” in the heart of the Middle East, but to repeal the Enlightenment and the modern world.

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One can make nuanced arguments against both the Enlightenment and modernity, but NOT when the alternatives are irrationality, atavism, and—for unbelieving secularists—superstition. In the end, in the view of skeptics, the leaders of organized religions, Francis included, are in the business of defending their vested interests, their own particular accumulations of doctrine, tradition, and (for agnostics and atheists) “superstition.” But believers who are not fanatics have a particular responsibility to be unequivocal in condemning religious fanaticism.

No one in the world is better positioned to do so than this deservedly popular pope. The emphases and values that dominate his papacy were forged in the 1970s. When, in 1973, Jorge Bergogli became Provincial Superior of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he distanced himself from a Catholic hierarchy that had acquiesced in the brutal repression by the military junta; intensified his compassionate and Jesuit commitment to the poor; and, while avoiding direct confrontation of the military regime, struggled (in the words of Eamon Duffy, Emeritus Professor of the History of Christianity at Cambridge) “to reconcile the demands of justice and compassion for those suffering atrocity with the need to preserve the order’s institutions and mission and to save Jesuit lives” (the later accusation that he betrayed politically radical Jesuits to the junta is baseless slander). As cardinal, he exercised the same wise leadership and again stressed compassionate concern for the poor.[2]

As pope, taking his name from Francis of Assisi (a notably humble saint cherished for his protective love of the earth and of animals, and for his ministry to the poor), the former provincial and cardinal has, true to both his Jesuit heritage and to the spirit of his chosen name, continued his own focus on the poor and wretched of the earth. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, on the joy and true meaning of the gospel, he pointedly denounced, to the annoyance of many conservatives, the “economics of exclusion.” He has also emphasized the dangers to the environment presented by global climate change, and even speculated that there might be a place in heaven for animals: a charming thought of which the original Francis might approve, but which doctrinally-concerned Vatican spokesmen felt the need to quickly walk back. In his first Holy Week as pope, Francis performed the solemn Maundy Thursday foot-washing ceremony not, as usual, in the Lateran Basilica but in an institution housing young offenders. He washed and kissed the feet of a dozen prisoners, one of them (though this was, traditionally, a males-only ritual) a Muslim woman, a gesture that, as Eamon Duffy notes, “predictably scandalized the liturgists and canon lawyers.”

As practiced by this pope, the imitatio Christi, following the example of Jesus, differs from the emphasis of sin-obsessed Augustine, and even from the focus on the interior life and withdrawal from the world of Thomas à Kempis in his 15th-century devotional book Imitatio Christi. This Francis follows his namesake, stressing the path of Jesus, born in a manger, preaching to the poor, practicing humility. Unlike his two immediate predecessors, who tended to treat opposition as “dissent,” Francis has been humble and conciliar in conducting meetings, encouraging a frank expression of views. In opening the Synod on the Family in October 2014, he told the bishops that, in discussing what were certain to be controversial issues, no one should be silent or conceal his true opinion, “perhaps believing that the Pope might think something else.” During the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, deviation from the official line had courted reprimand, even removal. Thus, as Eamon Duffy emphasizes: “For a pope to encourage fearless public outspokenness among the bishops was a startling novelty.” [3]

Given that attitude, one might have expected, if not quite “encouragement,” at least greater “respect” for the “fearless public outspokenness” exhibited by the massacred Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. At the very least, the pope, a remarkably empathetic man pastorally sensitive to suffering, might have displayed greater tact by mourning the dead a bit longer, before admonishing us, with the bodies not yet buried, to always “respect” religion and never “make fun of the faith of others.”

But here, the admirable Francis fell short. At least as viewed from the perspective of a secularist committed to virtually uninhibited freedom of expression—not least when it comes to religion. But that is not the only perspective, and not—as is hardly necessary to add—one shared by Francis. As pope, he is necessarily a man to double business bound, at once a condemner of violence and a defender of religion—any religion, since, in his view, none deserves to be insulted. That includes, of course, his own religion. Just as he had protected the Argentinian Jesuits in his care in the 1970s, so it is his duty now, though a reformer critical of some of its salient shortcomings, to protect the church as a whole.

On that papal plane, in responding to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and to the retaliatory murders that followed, Francis was talking common sense, decency, civility, and mutual respect. That’s all to the good. In a chaotic world of already inflamed religious-political passions, his intention was obviously to condemn the murders in Paris without adding fuel to the fire. But his equanimity was not altogether disinterested. In asserting his own ban—“You cannot make fun of the faith of others”—the pope was also defending the Company Store: the Roman Catholic branch of a global theological enterprise. In that sense, and to that extent, he was aligning himself, not with the massacred humorists, but with their murderers: fanatics who had killed the cartoonists precisely for “making fun” of the fanatics’ own distorted version of Islam.

Like politics, theology can make strange bedfellows. But far more than this momentary convergence of interests would be required to bridge the moral abyss stretching between Pope Francis and murderers. That would be especially true of murderers who violate his own deeply-held conviction that “to kill in the name of God is an absurdity. ” For him, what happened in Paris was the commission of a supposedly religious act that is, in fact, an “aberration” of the religion and of most of the teachings of the Prophet in whose name they claim to act.

Acknowledgment

Though I learned from the previously-mentioned Le Moyne open forum on the roots of, and responses to, the Charlie Ebdo murders, this essay was originally generated by a casual but serious email exchange with three friends, all Le Moyne graduates: Scott, Jack, and Markus. Some reservations of the latter about the initial draft were incorporated in the revised version. My thanks: to Jack in general, and, on this particular occasion, to Scott, for sending along the AP item that started us off. I’m particularly grateful to Markus, for critically reading the first draft and helping to sharpen and clarify my thoughts, not all of which he will endorse. The same is true of Bruce Erickson, the organizer of the Le Moyne forum, who, along with the four faculty presenters, enriched my understanding. Bruce also responded to my penultimate draft, thoughtfully, graciously, and productively challenging my position.

—Patrick J. Keane

January/ February 2015

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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 (2007).

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I have two problems with the well-made American Sniper, one political, one cinematic. Once we are in Iraq, we see Chris Kyle skillfully picking off targets, all of whom, he is certain, are “terrorists” and (as described in his book) “savages.” They were enemies, and in killing 160 of them, Chris Kyle saved the lives of countless American troops; he is a “hero.” Yet many of those he killed do not fit into either of Chris’s categories. But back up: how do we get to Iraq? That political quandary is solved by cinematic legerdemain. In an early domestic scene, Chris and his wife are watching on TV the collapse of the smoldering Twin Towers. A sudden cut, and we are instantly transported to combat, not in Afghanistan, but in Iraq! The effect, intentional or not on Clint Eastwood’s part, is to “fuel” (there’s that verb again) or, rather, refuel, the myth (peddled above all by Dick Cheney) that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in 9/11 and was also harboring al Qaeda. In short, the invasion of Iraq, whatever our fears about WMD, is still being sold to a gullible or manipulated public as justified retaliation for 9/11. If it’s good enough for a hero like Chris, it should be good enough for us.
  2. Duffy, “Who is the Pope?” New York Review of Books (February 19, 2015), p. 12.
  3. The most celebrated demotion by Francis has been that of Raymond Cardinal Burke, removed as head of the church’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signatura. A conservative American traditionalist and harsh critic of the “confusing” doctrinal views of the new pope, Burke had been especially “outspoken” at the Synod on the Family, and had certainly violated protocol in describing the church under Francis as “a ship without a rudder.” But he may have been sent off to a largely ceremonial post in Malta at least as much for a sartorial extravagance utterly alien to the humble spirit of this papacy. Though it was long out of favor, even before the advent of Francis, Burke habitually sported the capa magna, a twenty-foot-long train of scarlet watered silk.