Sep 042015
 
Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation

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Traditionally, novels tend to have a single central character, the focus of the action — the protagonist. All other players in the drama are ancillary, even peripheral. The trajectory happens to — and centers upon — a single person.

Yet in this quickened era — the epoch of text and email and social media — events affect many people simultaneously, en masse and all at once.

By and large, fiction has not kept up with the contemporary change of pace. Music and the visual arts have been more advanced in this regard. Since Marcel Duchamp and Cubism, painting and sculpture have sought to represent — and to not represent (e.g. abstraction, conceptual art, etc.) — the multiple cacophonies of the rapid world. As far back as 1952, John Cage’s “4’33″” represents the apotheosis of radical music, stemming from the dissonant and atonal movements of the earlier 20th Century, not to be outdone by jazz or rock.

Despite the radicalism of other art forms, most contemporary literature, especially American literature, remains rooted in the forms of the 19th Century. Seemingly skipping glibly by the advances of Beckett and Jean Genet, Donald Barthelme and Pierre Guyotat, Ron Sukenick or even John Dos Passos, writers such as Jonathan Franzen (and most others atop the literary bestseller lists) revert to the forms of Flaubert and Balzac and Henry James. Perfect perhaps for 1900; less fitting for 2015.

Meanwhile, many other current writers (usually published by the small presses) now seek a new form for new times, just as Alain Robbe-Grillet and others did more than 50 years ago with the nouveau roman.

I am by no means alone, but I am certainly among those writers looking for new ways and means to reflect our times.

I have published five books of fiction in the U.S. – three have been translated into French and published in France, with my 4th due out there in 2016. Not a single one of my books has a single narrator or even a solo protagonist. I’m not sure this is on purpose, really; but a choral voice is what comes out of my pen.

Urban life seems to me to be marked by a multitude of occurrences, of discontinuous incidents and syncopated rhythms. Traditional narrative arc works well for certain kinds of portrayals. But not necessarily for the jumble of urban living, especially living on or close to the streets. Indeed there a lot of unintended consequences in contemporary life on both large and small scales. I try to approximate the discontinuity with short, stark vignettes that I hope, when taken together, add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I don’t want to write in a trendy way or to mimic social media conventions, but I do want to try to find new means to communicate.

In a French review of my first novel (Angry Nights in English; Sur Les Nerfs in French), critic Frederic Fontes called the book an “unidentifiable literary object.” The description was a compliment, and I took it to be so.

In English language reviews of my second book, Common Criminals, novelist Barry Graham wrote: “…this is not life as we normally read about it in books — this is life as we actually live it.” (Detroit Metro Times) …. and Matt Roberson, in an insightful essay for The American Book Review, called the texts: “… Shocking and shockingly strong pieces.”

Stories and pieces — but what is the book as a whole?

When pressed, I describe myself as an “experimental realist.”

What I mean by that term is that I try to write in the rhythm of my times — in the way that the gangster rap group NWA depicted Los Angeles and Compton in the late 1980s and early 1990s – in musical idiom that matched their reality.

In other words, I am trying to find new forms. In a sense, it harks back once again to Duchamp — the found object, objet trouvé. Now — in words, not pictures — that means hard, fast, and staccato.

In a Rain Taxi review of Unintended Consequences (my 4th book), Canadian novelist Jeff Bursey wrote that the texts told the tale of Everyman, limning the stories of the seldom-heard, and often-neglected “Greek Chorus,” rather than the well-known stories of Oedipus or Antigone.

In yet another review of the (same) book, Tony Rodríguez wrote: “… (Fondation) doesn’t level the playing field with books found in a similar genre. Plainly stated, (he) aggressively razes the genre (crime writing, literary) and seemingly creates something new.” (East Bay Examiner)

In my view, these critics get it. Indeed they nail it dead on. I am not trying to write traditional — or even “postmodern” — novels, and I am not writing “short stories.”

The idea that animates my work is the notion of a “collective novel” — in French, “un roman du collectif.” From my vantage point — in the inner city of Los Angeles — the “new, new novel” should not be the story of a single protagonist, not the tale of one man or woman — but rather the fictional “biography of a place,” a tale of a tribe, the Iliad more so than the Odyssey — Las Meninas, by both Velasquez AND Picasso.   Not either/or; rather both/and.

In my view, the post-realist book of fiction is an “ensemble novel” — a collage, owing more to Alberto Burri and Robert Rauschenberg than to Henry James.

Twentieth century French novelist Raymond Queneau opined that all Western literature was derived from either The Iliad or The Odyssey. Despite the fact that we are so clearly now living in an Iliad world, our literature largely ignores the vast number of ordinary men and woman playing at the corners of the stage.

The contemporary British poet Alice Oswald has written a book of poems based on The Iliad – only she has removed the central conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon and retained only the stories of the lives and deaths of the bit players. In The Guardian (U.K.) review of Oswald’s book (Memorial: An Excavation of The Iliad), critic Sarah Crown writes: “In [Oswald’s] version, the absence of the monolithic main characters leaves the histories of the foot soldiers who died in their shadows exposed and gleaming, like rocks at low tide.”

In a time of historic economic inequality and the deaths of countless poor people in worldwide wars, both civil and international, it is indeed time for the chorus to have its say. To paraphrase Barry Graham, it’s life as we live it now.

—Larry Fondation

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Mass Migration of the Homeless (Novel Excerpt)

They packed up their tents and their cardboard boxes and everything they owned, all now and all at once, and they began to move. They put their things in shopping carts and in backpacks and in anything else mobile and nothing else changed except they were on a march. The dirt brown smog still blocked the San Gabriel Mountains and there was of course still no way to see the sea.

“Who said for us to go?”

“It is time to go.”

Later, no one could say where those voices came from.

Yet no one ceased to follow the sourceless command.

Dare is an awkward word, one destined to ambiguity and the ash heap. Doubt fares better. Nonetheless doubt in complete abeyance causes stirrings still.

At each step something was left behind: a shoe, a blanket, a memento mori, gravestones at Old Granary. Samuel Sewall is my hero.

From ashes to ashes, from dust to dust is no more than the 1st Law of Thermodynamics and vice versa.

But the shopping carts continue to roll.

The Army of the Ragged crosses Central Avenue and soon approaches Main, barricades at the gates, barbarians hard to find.

The trucks full of immigrants dispatched to gather back the stolen shopping carts meet resistance around Broadway and have no choice but to turn around.

The dreadlocked blonde girl is cuter than most. We stop along the route, pause along the pathway.

“What prompted this march?” I ask stiffly.

Through one bend of earshot and through the same refraction of the honeybee’s eye, she says, “We must move on.”

Another listen, ears bent 90 degrees, and she says, “I don’t know.”

Either way, the caravan approaches Main Street.

People are drinking Veuve Cliquot at Pete’s Café. The widow watches warily.

Time stops.

The LAPD intervenes.

But there is no time to go home, no turning back.

Godel is triumphant.

The parking meters are full of remnants, stuffed with memorabilia.

Soon to be capped, the contents captured for all time.

The migrants do not get to Flower Street, let alone Figueroa. They magically turn up at MacArthur Park.

Shopping carts are unpacked, tents are reassembled.

Police presence vacates as the sun sets, officers off to greener pastures.

We de-camp.

Clara Bow dances at the Park Pavilion.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.

*

Though not studied by Darwin to my knowledge, crows are said to be the smartest birds. I rarely fear the ravens that gather on the electric wires and perch on the telephone lines. O’Casey’s crows steal hen-house eggs with impunity. Is it blue or rose, Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow” of 1904? Or right in between? Crows crack open nuts using traffic, deploying signals — stop, go, walk, don’t walk. This in Sendai, Japan. While across a thousand seas, Betty bends a wire. Not to mention New Caledonia.

Gleb returns home, to Dasha, but all is gone, all has changed, everything gone to shit. Livestock roam the streets, factories barren, most men dead, all life ravaged. I want to live in Pleasant Colony. I know what I am talking about, dammit!

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The Eviction (Short Story)

The house
It’s the last night
She has a bottle of wine
Helicopters fly above us
Overhead
Let’s fuck
She says
I worry and struggle to respond
The bank and the realtor
Lawn signs
Elections and evictions
No difference
Candidates
Revolution deferred
Sand scrapes my face
In the last night in my backyard
I love her
Tonight is different
Divorce shows on TV
Watching intently
Looking at the news
I hear your point
Earlier she’d gone to the salon
Nails sharp
The Exodus from Saigon
Better than now
She comes close to me
The Abbot in full control
We did not prepare
The Marshals arrive in the morning
I cannot get hard
Monks and morning
Stars require night
She persists
We will not live here anymore
Limits approach zero
I drink her wine
Light dawns over darkness
No reason the night should end
She has my cock in her mouth
I try to prolong
Not the moment but the history
My mother says we can stay with her
Mother’s nails are long
She has her price
Sequester is approaching
I can pay her bill
The Borgias didn’t last
Real estate in the desert
Bankruptcy
Value lost
I love my mother
I love my wife
The Ganges is an end game
I stagger to the stereo
Lou Reed, the Gap Band, Tame Impala, Cody Chrdnutt
Will the pawn shop pay?
She pulls her pants down
She takes off her bra
She talks dirty about my mothers fingernails
I cannot help myself
The truck comes in the morning
Eight o’clock
I can’t come prematurely
A Catalogue of deaths in the desert
I’ve always hated sand
Sleeping in the truck
Both looking at the sky
The stars invisible
Streetlights blurring light
Next steps
Unsure
Is she mine?
Flatbed
I have books and plants
I’m sad about the Children’s Crusade
Savanrola was not all bad
History sucks
She makes love to me
We have a home no more.

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Mistaken, misbegotten (Short Story)

Mistaken, misbegotten —
They gather in the parking lot.

The streetlights flicker on and off,
The power almost gone.

She looks at me like Circe;
I chew the plant leaves of my own accord.

She tells me the victory at Plataea still weighs heavily on her mind;
I let her know that I have stopped thinking about it .

The flavors are all pungent now;
Everybody here has wished for adoption —

At one time or another,
Or evermore.

We move inside to darkness,
Then some lights turn on, though darkly, dimly.

I once was lost at sea, she says;
“Can I buy you a drink?” I ask.

As a soldier, I never surrendered.
Perhaps my time has come.

She will drink with me but I can never touch her;
I tap her glass with mine.

Out there: the sounds of gunfire;
Here it seems quiet perhaps.

The band begins to play.
She pulls out a knife.

“Will you die for me?”
“Yes,” I say.

We are not in Spain or France, but the music is basque:
Alboka, Txistu and tambourine.

She motions me to stand and I do;
She dances beside me without touching me, and I follow her lead.

Time is decades earlier;
I don’t want to know where I am.

Her dark hair is much shorter than mine;
Her long nails glisten in the inconsistent light.

I believe in infinite divisibility, the definition of atom notwithstanding —
She has me now.

I try to find things to say;
We order another bottle of wine.

“You know that you’re remanded to me tonight?” She says.
“I know,” I say.

I pay our bill;
We leave into darkness and night.

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Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar.

Sep 032015
 

Fledapubphotos.doc

 

Hair

Like light from the stars, all’s been decided,
nothing to do now but watch.
The time between stars is vast,
but the sky shows them all at once,
an impression, the spirit of the thing,
like a field of frail hair-stubs on the plain
urn of the head. An impression
of an ancient vessel with its slight fault-lines.
I peeled a golf ball, in the days
when it was rubber-bands all the way,
not gel in the center, down to
a marble-size ball near the end made of
only itself, fiercely spirited.
My golf-ball head, my memento mori.
Stay, I say to my head, looking back at me
in silence. Stay, I say to my love,
who runs his hand across his memories.
Always, he says, even though I am inside-out,
pink and surprising, burning
with the residue of past civilizations.

 

Rain

It is raining here. If we flew to Vegas
it might not be raining, but everything
would be so different, rain would be
the least of it. Water is dripping off
the roof right in front of our eyes,
repeating, as if we were idiots, “See,
it’s raining.” If it’s not raining where you
are, you can imagine our rain, individual
drops coming so fast they merge into
a pale roaring through the downspout.
While you’re at it, you might imagine
sheep in the field, wet but not soaking,
because of oil in the wool. Happy enough.
And lots of scattered rocks, because we’re
in Grasmere, in a B & B called “Raise View,”
with blue hills through the rain. We
don’t care if it’s raining because we’re in
Grasmere, and that’s part of the ambiance.
How nice that we’ve gone there, if only
for the moment: that morning with
the delicate teacups and scones, and rain.

 

Taxol

I was just thinking about the paradox of the word chemotherapy–that it’s healing/curing: therapy, a word whose root has very much to do with care also–ministering; in the Iliad and Odyssey even a squire could be called a therapon–
the one who administered to the hero, putting on and taking off his armor, etc…

And chemo is chemistry, potentially substances that aren’t normally
encountered in the body…But you know what? I thought a little further in my
nerdy little etymological brain, and I believe the “chem” part, taken from
alchemy, is originally the Egyptian [khem], which is the precious fertile earth
from the Nile flood, the black gold from which alchemists tried to derive the
metal gold.

So, that may be something. “Ministering to the body with precious black-gold
earth?”
…………………………………..–my student Ela

The molecule that oddly binds to a cell’s
hollow tubes, that holds them in paralysis, that stops
…………..their wild replication.

That requires all the bark from one rare yew
in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to save
…………..one person. Also the home

of the rare northern spotted owl.
Now you’re up against the press of need, of cost.
………….The bloody essence, the drug-war

of it. Everyone’s stake. Don’t sleep under the yew
if you don’t want bad dreams. In ancient English graveyards,
………….where the yew’s planted

over graves, rats die. Let the roots
talk to the dead, as the Druids did. There was the woman
…………..who only touched

the hem of Jesus’s robe and was cured.
Likewise, it turns out that simple needle-cells grown
……………in fermentation tanks,

a brew, an essence, is enough. But will this
life be saved? Won’t it? I ask this with reverent earnestness,
………….as the complicated foreignness

enters my small vein, chilly as a stream
through underbrush: Taxol, making a pressure, an ache
…………..farther down my arm,

where the nurse places a warm pack
to loosen the valves, the barriers, to keep death’s molecules
………….going where they’re meant,

into the deep forest of the body,
mine, mine, only one of me in existence. Who touched me?
…………..Jesus asked, so subtle the solution.

 

Blue Angels

………….When, for example, you’re running
the lint roller all over your black dress
before the party, up and down to the hem,
you may notice the grace in this preparation,
its turning and gathering,
the tiny flecks that look black against
the white but looked white against the black,
and that strangeness may make you smile,
a small thing, but it’s as if the sky cracked
open a bit, the sky that all your life
keeps trying to draw close,
like bedcovers.

Angels can come from anywhere,
a host from inscrutably high tearing straight down
toward your ice cream, your partially
melted scoops, one Dutch chocolate, one salted
caramel, before they turn and climb, leaving
the sky split open in their wake.

Angels can also nose-up and slide
as if they had no care in the world down
before they slowly right themselves, a sign
to you that righting is the proper
thing, really—the mundane engines, right to left,
left to right—the other an aberration.
Still, the one you cheer for. The steep climb,
the riotous splitting away
into a sky-flower of vapor trail.

 

Fawn

A fawn the size of a cat with long legs was left
in the tall grass in her yard. Mothers do that
until the fawns can keep up—they come back
and get them in early evening. M— knew it was there
because it stood up once. So sweet!
She waited all evening for the mother to come,
the reunion, the way they nuzzle and the baby nurses.
Around 9:30 a doe came and left. Then two more
came and sniffed. The fawn has no smell.
Usually it stands and they spot each other.
It got dark and then cold, cold rain,
even lightning. M— was in agony, truly.
She lived so far out of town, each event was hers,
only. How was the fawn to survive
without the mother’s warmth?
She felt she was in charge of life,
……………………..no, it was the weight
of watching, the inability to look away.
It was her country that had abandoned its delicate
balance, the armored tanks, the night-vision
goggles. Nothing but window-glass between her
and foreclosing darkness. Should she try
to warm the fawn in her studio?
What if the mother came? All night she lay,
worrying. She almost got up several times, as if
stirring and pacing would solve this.
At 6:30 a.m. she went out. The fawn was gone.
Mother? Coyotes? Then she saw
the mother’s hoof-prints with the tiniest hoof-
prints beside. For a moment she felt
shallow-rooted, with nothing, nothing in sight,
to show her how to withstand
such violent alternations, such grace.

— Fleda Brown

 

Fleda Brown’s New & Selected Poems will be out from University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Her eighth collection of poems, No Need of Sympathy, (BOA Editions, LTD) and her collection of essays, Growing Old in Poetry, with Sydney Lea (Autumn House Press) came out in 2013. Her memoir is Driving With Dvorak, (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Professor emerita at the University of Delaware, past poet laureate of Delaware, she lives in Traverse City, Michigan, and is on the faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, a low-residency MFA program in Tacoma, Washington.

Sep 022015
 

Mark Jay Mirsky

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A: THE FIRST PERSON.

I WOKE UP DISLIKING MYSELF.

I was going to say, “hating” but that sounds grandiloquent, as if there was something massive, majestic, in the weight of who I have been.

No such luck.

Gravity was not holding me down in the bed.

No.

Nor the thought of those perfect round twin globes of yours.

Above, below.

I have been watching the energy level drop lately, the bounce of electrons, so that it’s hard to roll out of the sheets and rise up. Science tells us that this may be a general phenomenon. It’s not just me. It means the critical mass has dissipated further, passed out of the universe, space, in a loss of gravity that is accelerating our expansion towards nothing, absolutely nothing—Einstein’s “Cosmological constant” which became his nightmare.

We aren’t made of much anyhow it seems. More of that later, but the statistics shows that everything we know about and identify as “matter,” every bit, is only a possible paltry five percent of the universe. And this together with all manner of whatever else makes up everything we know for sure of, or can postulate with any assurance might exist, according to the physicists, is rushing. It can’t get away from itself fast enough, every moment faster and faster through the vast space of the galaxies. Yes, the negligible five percent of the universe that Science in the year 2004 thought we were made up of (who knows what the future will bring?) together with the rest of all of space and time’s normal matter; protons, neutrons, electrons, our bodies, minds, thoughts; everything we can touch and feel—sand, rock, water, the swell of your belly (no matter how much I want to stop and stroke it) was expanding faster and faster like the skin of a repulsive balloon into emptiness from which there is no return.

This is our birthday card from Science, with a capital S

On a more intimate level, a former student writes that her new teacher is, a light unto the universe. This latest professor, predictably “a brilliant woman,” has taught my student finally to “feel, express herself,” explicated texts that “make everything obvious,” and promises to make my former charge’s life “worthwhile.”

After this last, my student adds—a barb to points just scored—a meager phrase in which she acknowledges my “brave effort” a year ago to help her.

Why did she do this?

I never touched her belly. Never even thought about it. Not seriously.

Negative gravity, repulsive gravity, in some intricate flip-flop Science tells us is going to do us in.

Science, which is supposed to make things clearer, has concentrated on Dark Matter in the past few years. Dark matter! O Massa! Words like these are sheer metaphor. They say everything.

Science, which is supposed to shine light into darkness, tell us what lies in there, or out there, be a lamp unto the universe, speaks “darkly.” The best it can do is spin me around with the table of elements in a Black Hole.

Just as a matter of political correctness couldn’t Science have spared us the Black Hole, packed all the Dark Matter into one “White Hole,” “Rainbow Hole”? Wouldn’t that brighten life on the “Event Horizon”—the thought of a wild burst sucking us into the Mother of All Holes?)

Didn’t the Elizabethans think of sex as a form of happy extinction?

I am ready, however, to pass quietly into the Dark Matter and be done with it deep in a Hole.

You had denied me even a gentle movement of my fingers over your belly.

You didn’t need to say anything, just shudder, and I felt it.

Negative gravity.

Negative gravity is responsible for the measurable disorder into which I am disintegrating as I speak.

Negative Gravity is a repulsive force.

This explains why you didn’t just let a tremor of repulsion brush “it “when I put my hand on your belly charmed by its youthful shape; but turned your haughty eye on me.

Why did I have three children, embark on a university career, write six novels, four of which are presently gathering dust on my shelves?

Was it all just a futile battle against Negative Gravity? There is a more terrible threat than just Negative Gravity looming over my bed. Einstein in a discouraged moment imagined it, dismissed it but too late. (He understood the consequences of letting it into the scheme of things).

Einstein remained an optimist. Getting along, in the eyes of the world a lonely old man—he took off his socks. Imitatio Einstein. I intend to go out on Third Avenue without socks. (In former days, Third, or the Bowery, was the haunt of old men without socks or shoes too for that matter. Were they reaching toward a further asceticism, a horde of sun burned gurus? Third below Fourteenth, under the old, lamented subway ell, avenue of intoxicated Einsteins!) What did Einstein on his legendary walks without socks think of his nightmare, the Cosmological Constant? Its bugaboo—negative gravity pushing things apart in the whole universe, between me and you?

Watching my children’s movie fables, Lord of the Rings, etc., a heap of rubber Boogie men and their dragon mounts, push out of the corners of the family toy chest, I sigh. Happy Days are Here Again. At four and a half the Atomic bomb went off unexpectedly and with it proof that my toy chest only held a negligible fraction of nightmare. Every ten years the shadow on the horizon looms larger, proof of the expanding universe. Atomic explosions, then Hydrogen, followed by Black Holes, and looming, the Cosmological Constant—acceleration towards chaos!

 .

B: SECOND PERSON (HYPOTHETICAL)

Every person carries a locked box full of forbidden thoughts, acts, possibilities with them, you think hurrying to your appointment with the young woman. She has alternately teased you—brushing her long limbed body against yours so that the heat of her lithe excitement passed into your legs and lap sodden with the beer she poured continually from the cask brought at her request—then lightly pushing you away, finally responding stiffly when you took her hand to say goodbye.

At the end of the evening, the box feels empty though on the way over its secrets threatened to burst the lid.

Why is the box empty? Symmetry would seem to underlie the cosmos. As she withdrew her excitement in you, an electrical spark flickered fainter and fainter toward her. You noted the lines burnt under her eyes. The disorderly charm of her hair dissipated and left it simply unattractive, a bird’s nest. Her description of her present boyfriend who was not sure what he felt toward her seemed more and more to fit your own feelings for her and the decision she articulated to simply withdraw from this man, ill matched it seemed except for that initial rage of voluptuous desire, and spend the time instead in books was exactly what you recommended to yourself as you walked, weightlessly, from her front door.

Entropy suggests the arrow of time in some models of the universe. In the most accurate modes of this one so far, all things process toward greater disorder and appear to fall apart.

What had been in the box for that brief moment when it seemed to contain not just an irrepressible amount of energy, but the secret of time turned back, bending the powerful arch of its arc? At least in your eyes you saw from another angle, one in which you could recover youth.

Is each human body a cosmos in which the story of the universe after the Big Bang is enacted? In the world of chance or planned encounters does the body set the individual spinning from the tight order of conception and birth to the disorder of death?

O it was too abstract!

Touching her breasts you had wanted to feel them swell with the promise of excitement she could not contain, and wanting that same lightning thrust from you to her. She drifted off into sleep instead. You got up bewildered, leaving her peacefully passed out on her couch.

Why had you come there though, feeling as if you held in a locked box what you missed previously? Was it the words, sentences that seemed to vouch for what you had missed, touching her breasts’ perfect tips, the sudden charge of pleasure, blinding, transfixing them both?

“Beyond time lies cold space and what does that imply?”

She is mute.

“Nothing.”

#

C: THE SECOND PERSON INTRODUCES A THIRD PERSON

How can you tutor her into seducing you? Try to break the silence? “Words, yes words are what allow human beings to escape into another dimension, even if it is an illusion. Dante is taught that lesson in his The New Life, by the “women who have intelligence of love.”

“‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.’”

“Are you going to give a lecture?” she asks.

Why don’t you go to the bathroom now? you grumble in your thoughts, anticipating her question, your reply. “Take The New Life with you.”

It’s hopeless. The copy you brought last week lies bedraggled on the couch. She is immersed in Home Economics, “How to Catch a Husband.” Nevertheless, your fingers strum over the little silver cords.

“‘Women who have intelligence of love!’ Why does the Florentine address with these particular words those teases of the 13th century?”

You hope your barb is sinking into her creamy flesh. You declaim. “Tall, slim young women, still unmarried, they gather at a street crossing, then walk to and fro together.

“They have all been to the right school.”

Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident. Con cio sia cosa che per la vista mia molte persone avessero compreso lo secreto del mio cuore, certe donne.

You read the Italian from the copy you gave her, retrieving it from the cushions. As she looks puzzled you are forced to speak plain English. “When that thing was so in my face that many people had understood the secret of my heart, certain women . . .

“Do you talk about me?” you want to ask. “If so, to whom? To what do you admit? Can’t you see that I am making a fool of myself for you?

“Why do you stare at me?” she asks taking another swig from the can in her hand, looking up at the ceiling. She has seen nothing in your face or chooses not to. Dante’s “secret” doesn’t interest her.

Why am I here? You ask yourself, but mutter, “Fortune.”

“Fortune?” she echoes, a dutiful but bored chorus.

“Dante claims Fortune brought him by the knot of heartbreakers parading up a street where they sweep along, daily, gossiping.

“Fortune? Do you believe that?”

A pause. “Or his story about encountering Beatrice’s friends ‘in the street one day’ quite by chance?”

“I didn’t get to that part, yet,” she sighs.

You try to greet her where she sits across from you, reclining in a collapsing armchair, as if she was one these women, girls in grace but beyond their years (nineteen, twenty?) in sophistication. Dante’s appreciation is summed up in the words he speaks aloud to the young woman and you apply it to her, crying out, “Donne gentili.”

A wrinkle of boredom in her brow signals to translate. “One might ring a series of adjectives, Women who are gentili—‘noble, elegant, well bred, heartbreakingly lovely.’ One steps out of the circle to mock. ‘She called me by name. “Dante, Alighieri, to what end do you love this, your lady, since you are not able to endure her presence? Tell us, for certainly, one may agree that the end of such love is bizarre, novissimo.”’”

You taste the condescension in that phrase, “novissimo.” “I could translate, ‘strange, novel, singular, most unusual,’ but somehow I feel the throat of Dante’s speaker warbling the ess’s, her eyebrows raised, and so, ‘bizarre.’”

The young woman you address ignores your hint. Instead she echoes, “To what end?” It has an ominous ring.

You ignore her question and go on. “‘When she had spoken these words, not only she, but all those who were with her, began to observe me, waiting for my reply.’

You take a deep breath, hoping in the silence the she opposite will express some interest, in your explication of La Vita Nuova (for a week now you have been praising it as a manual of secret love), or at least respond to the suggestion that through poetry she can engage in an elaborate dance with you.

“He sets the donne gentili a riddle. ‘Ladies, the end and aim of my love was but the greeting of that lady of whom I believe you are speaking; wherein alone I found that bliss which is the end of all my desires. And now that it has pleased her to deny me this, Love, my Master, of his great mercy has placed all my bliss there where it will not come to less.’”

By this time, you are convinced it will “come to less,” at least this evening, but continue as if you could achieve the force of irresistible, positive gravity with words.

“Dante has changed the subject. They have teased, ‘Why should you pay attention to a woman whose beauty so upsets you that you cannot bear to look at her?’ Dante complained that Beatrice will not longer look at him, but, no matter, he has found a source of ‘bliss’ that is just as good as her greeting.” You hope for a stir of curiosity.

“‘Then those ladies began to talk among themselves; and as I have sometimes seen rain mixed with the beautiful snow fall, so I seemed to hear their words come out mixed with sighs. And when they had spoken among themselves awhile, again, she addressed me.’

You listen. You hear no sigh, just the sip of beer against her lip as she guzzles her sixth can. You wonders if she is letting you go on because she is dead drunk.

#

D: THE SECOND PERSON THINKS “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE!”

You go on with your Dante since she has abandoned you, to speak of the noble young woman. “‘She addressed me,’ which indicates that we are to fill in for ourselves the silence in the street, the sighs in the circle of women who no longer laugh, but feel for the young man who stands before him, sighing himself softly, so he hears it as a hush on the pavement. That image of death, the snow mingles in Dante’s head with the incessant cold rain as beautiful, comforting. The princess among the young women, who mocked his behavior as ‘bizarre,’ takes up the poet’s challenge. ‘This lady who had first addressed me, spoke these words, “We pray you tell us where this ‘bliss’ abides?

“Dante’s reply is arrogant. ‘In those words which praise my lady.’

“The young woman, who is the arbiter of the group, now trumps him. If your speech is true, those words describing your condition, would have been fashioned with another intent.’”

The young woman gets up from the armchair. “I’m sorry, she says. I have to go to the bathroom.”

#

E: THE SECOND PERSON BEGINS TO TALK TO HIMSELF.

He thinks he has been rebuked and given a lesson in courtship. Either he is lying to them now, or his poetry has fallen short of his intention. He has been whining in his verse. These young women in the street, the friends of Beatrice have administered a shock to his pride both as a poet and a young man intent on love. In plain vernacular they sum up his problem, ‘This is no way to woo her or any one of us. What praise is this talk of earthquakes, this perpetual weeping? Our beauty should cause joy not misery? Stop whining!’”

“Should I stop?” you ask. She has come back from the bathroom in the interim and waves you on. The pause has taken four or five minutes, in which time you have decided with the poet to take another tack.

“Dante’s tongue is frozen for several days as he admits. He still wants to write poetry, but now he doesn’t know where to begin. When he does, his “words” are different and he addresses them in gratitude to, “Women who have intelligence of love, Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore.” “Refined and sensitive in love,” one translator proposes, but it is the lesson that Dante is referring to, and therefore the ironic echo of the pedantic, addressing the young women as students echoes in his compliment.”

I am counting on your intelligence too, you think, for something to come of this.

“It is a ‘love so sweet’ Dante sings about now, that it threatens as the musical rhyme comes tumbling, ‘to make lovers of you all.’ Don’t stop, dear words, my verse, he cries, with anyone vulgar, but ‘solo con donne o con omo cortese,’ ‘only with women and men of refinement,’ who can help. ‘Sensitive,’ the translator offers in English for the Italian of ‘cortese. linking it to his previous ‘refined and sensitive,’ ‘Stop and sing only to those who are themselves lovers.’”

“Love is with his lady, Dante is sure. She is already in love, not just with one, but many. Can she begrudge Dante Alighieri her marvelous greeting that transforms all who receive, who obtain just the glance of her eyes?

“How does Dante know this?” you ask out loud.

She is mute with alcohol but you supply the answer. “The circle of young women buzz in agreement. ‘Love and the heart that is gentil, gracious, /are but one thing,

“‘Beatrice, you are consumed. I feel it. You radiate love.

“‘You and love are the same thing!’ Dante cries aloud. And Beatrice’s friends go singing this.”

#

“Are you leaving?” she asks.

“Yes” and you mumble at the door, hoping for a reaction, Despite the fact that she let The New Life you gave her, get soaked in the rain while she trekked around the city with a boyfriend, she might have thumbed a few pages in it. “I can’t endure your presence.”

“What did you say?”

“Were you listening?”

#

F: THE FIRST PERSON DECIDES TO TAKE A HAND.

It is the cosmological constant that is at fault here. Gravity working against us: everything flies apart. I have to use the force pushing me out of existence to assert itself. Reverse engineering of a sort.

“Come into the shadow of this red rock, Jack and Jill. I will show you something… Entropy!

“Jill, let me rest my head on your tummy.”

“I am reserved for a great one of the land,” she whispered. It came out a bit more crudely when I asked, persistently, why I was no longer allowed proximity to what lay under her clothes, or even flashed out between her belt line and her blouse, as pure temptation. In fact she said nothing at the moment when I made the gesture in the direction of her belly button. It was earlier, discussing a fellow poet’s attempt to book a hotel room for the two of them in a city where he was giving a lecture, that she remarked, “Who does he think he is? If he were a great writer, I would consider it.” She laughed, tossing her head, seeing me nod in agreement with her admirable taste.

 .

Later, not much later, maybe a minute or so, I understood her attitude toward my own talent, implicit in this regard.

I tried to scare her with the Cosmological Constant. “Gravity is coming to get you,” I warned. “You better watch out.”

Gently, very gently, I explained how her belly with the rest of the universe was expanding and that soon it would not be fun to spread my palm over it.

“No, no,” she cried, truly convinced, in awe of the approaching Constant. I congratulated myself. I prepared to snuggle up when she whipped out a cell phone and called a girlfriend. She was ready to curl up in a hidden dimension but not with me—“words, words, words,” floating free of gravity.

#

G: ABANDONING PERSONAE

“Words are things” is the insistent refrain of the testament of Moses.

It is those laughing words of hers that have filled the box and he has lived in them for a moment, building in their dimension a hidden abode, resting, from the speed of light bearing him off in his own trip toward entropy.

His own words had weight as well for a moment. Our narrator felt that, but also the danger of extending his fingers: trying to fix her in their web instead of what he had just recited—rhymes meant to vibrate in her now as if he had reached into chords running through her musculature where she responded in delight.

Why follow up those delicate tremors that passed between them in the air at a space of six, seven feet with the brutal thrust of knees, wrists, assuming he pinned her on the floor, couch—or pushed her back into her bedroom, with the emergence of a third party insisting on a corporal, probably unwelcome entry.

Still one wants words to do things. Wants words to translate into mass, and mass into energy. Dante, who pretended to take comfort in his lines of poetry tripping through the streets of Florence, sees words in their character of sounds, images, as only the first stage in his courtship. Academics rarely hear Dante’s wry humor, as he appears to bow his head and accept the rebuke of his beloved’s girlfriends, resign himself to being hopelessly removed from her body’s pleasures in the wake of her marriage.

Words pass though the windows, and come like a fever’s germs on the lips and tongue of those who repeat them, the magical rhymes which go on singing, singing in the ears of Dante’s Beatrice. She locks herself in her bedroom the better to hear them, as they inscribe themselves in memory as a code that turns the body to desire as the secret strings of the genetic code.

This is Dante’s string theory. It works if one is to believe the testimony of La Vita Nuova. Beatrice unites with him in perfect union, indivisible symmetry; if one can specify mystical love in contemporary syllogisms.

Is string theory nonsense as physicists try to understand it? No one knows for sure. The tropes of Science served Shakespeare, Dante, but the box of words, which my personal pronoun carried back and forth to her apartment in the East Village, is empty.

The spirit has fled the vowels. The consonants lie collapsed.

What did she write?

“I miss you.”

What did he read into that as it flew into the box?

“Snuggle up”?

“I have ten dimensions, only three exist in space and a fourth in time. Find me!

“Most of me is missing.”

The “dark matter” in the box begins to move as he thinks about it.

How about the “dark energy” that seventy percent of the universe that’s really missing?

No, better to stick closer to what one might be able to grasp, the twenty five percent he can guess at.

With words though, he is down to the five percent of real matter, since they generate sound waves, measurable amounts of energy expelled at her from his voice box. And the words held in memory? Don’t they flash in tiny electrical currents each time he thinks of them?

Don’t they summon up the smooth touch of her skin, as she lay back naked against him on the bed? He can feel his pleasure again at her high, small breasts and the curve of her buttocks against the mattress; the way the classic line of her face recalls a fragment of classical statuary; its nose roughened in the excavation after a millennium or two under the earth. He wants to enfold himself in her porous marble and take flight.

What energy had given the image the power to make him whirl, giddy, barely holding on to the box for a moment?

Like a speck of quantum matter, in being observed, it had changed direction, spin, position.

There, and now, it was gone.

—Mark Jay Mirsky

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Mark Jay Mirsky was born in Boston in 1939. He attended the Boston Public Latin School, Harvard College and earned an M.A. in Creative Writing at Stanford University. He has published fourteen books, six of them novels. The first, Thou Worm Jacob was a Best Seller in Boston; his third, Blue Hill Avenue, was listed by The Boston Globe thirty-seven years after its publication in 2009, as one of the 100 essential books about New England. Among his academic books are My Search for the Messiah, The Absent Shakespeare, Dante, Eros and Kabbalah, and The Drama in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, A Satire on Decay. He edited the English language edition of the Diaries of Robert Musil, and co-edited Rabbinic Fantasies, and The Jews of Pinsk, Volumes 1 & 2, as well as various shorter pamphlets, among them one of the poet, Robert Creeley. His play Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard was performed at the NYC Fringe Festival in 2007. His latest novel, Puddingstone, can be found on Amazon Books, both in digital and print-on-demand editions.

He founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme, Max and Marianne Frisch, Jane Delynn and has served since then as its editor-in-chief. Fiction was the first American journal to publish excerpts in English from the Diaries of Robert Musil. Subsequently it has published translations of plays and other materials of Musil.

Mark Jay Mirsky is a Professor of English at The City College of New York.

Sep 012015
 

V0048935 Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph Crinolines on fire, 1860, Creative Commons Image

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THIS STORY HAPPENED when I was in my mid-twenties. Like most sensitive young men I was full of romantic notions about all sorts of things. Especially famous writers: most fascinating to me at the time was Oscar Wilde. I was also curious about my family roots, in this case in Ireland. Given these preoccupations I was in the completely wrong place (the cornfields of Iowa), doing the wrong thing (studying for an interminable degree in god-knows-which obscure American modernist poet). I was feeling isolated and claustrophobic in the fishbowl of Iowa City – which was pretty enough and even cool enough thanks to the Workshop students, but which was neither sufficiently old nor charming. Added to this my father had just died unexpectedly at 49. I mourned his death by making rash, unpredictable choices.

So one frosty Iowa spring morning, seized by the desire to abandon my sensible, funded graduate program and pursue my unfunded obsession with Wilde in Ireland, I acted. I withdrew from all my courses and forwarded my small inheritance to the financial department of Trinity College, Dublin. I remember having in mind a particular epigram of Wilde’s, something about lying in the gutter and looking at the stars. Even the gutter part sounded romantic. I was confused, as I say, and overrun by the fever of romance. But that’s how I found myself enrolled the next autumn at the university attended by Wilde (and Samuel Beckett, and Bram Stoker, and many other writers I admired), specializing in Wilde, at a research centre bearing Wilde’s name, in the very house where Wilde was born. (Let’s forget for a moment what happened later: when Ireland and I, having squandered all our money, were subjected to the meanest form of austerity.)

My first term at Trinity had its highs and lows. Academically speaking, it was an inauspicious start: mostly spent in smoky Northside pubs, listening to moody Irish ballads, falling prey to infatuations, drinking too much, lying spread-eagled among the cigarettes and broken glass on the pub floors of Nighttown – that sort of thing. I was attending very few lectures, and still fewer sober.

Yet somehow I soaked up, along with the beer and whiskey and gin, more literature than I ever knew existed. I read voraciously, either in my green leather nook at the back of the Stag’s Head or, like the feckless student narrator in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, in bed all day while I nursed a hangover: not only Wilde but Joyce and Behan and O’Casey and Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston and Eavan Boland, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly (who was one of my teachers). I waded through the mystical mire of Yeats’s A Vision and read the notorious Black Diaries of Roger Casement, the colonial civil servant turned human rights activist and gay Irish revolutionary, who was caught running guns from Germany to Ireland and executed by the English for treason in 1916. My blood ran black and white, and my eyes puffed up from the strain of reading fifteen hours a day.

It was a grand time and I was enjoying myself immensely. But something still nagged: I wanted to stake a formal claim on my ancestry. So I went down to the Passport Office in Molesworth Street near the National Library to obtain my hereditary citizenship. A kind and maternal woman in her fifties named Maebh took my case. She told me what to do and I brought her all the necessary documents, culled from the detritus of my dead relatives and carried across the Atlantic: certificates of birth, marriage, and death. There was one yellowed piece of parchment written in a calligraphic hand that predated the Irish Republic itself. She stamped all her stamps and scurried back and forth from her window to the ancient photocopier while I stood by and watched. Then my application was complete: the last thing she said before she rang the bell to call the next in line was “Welcome home, son.”

By that time St. Patrick’s Day was drawing near, and feeling now exceptionally Irish I decided to write to my great aunt and arrange a visit. Edna, my grandfather’s sister-in-law, was an ancient woman from Sligo whom I’d never met and who lived alone on a farm in County Monaghan just south of the border. I wrote her a proper letter, straining to remember my cursive script, and a few weeks later she wrote back. She invited me to come up for the long weekend. Leaving the party behind I walked down to the Bus Éireann station on Friday morning and caught a bus going to Belfast. I got off a few hours later in the small town of Clones – where Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy was filmed – and found the place respectable enough, if a bit cold and grey. My first thought was: No wonder they left. But one of my grandfather’s brothers had stayed, and now his wife Edna, a robust widow in her eighties with thick glasses and gumboots, was standing there waiting for me. She said hello without offering a hug, and drove us in a battered Mercedes back to the farm at Smithboro, the place where my grandfather was born.

I knew by now not to expect much of the legendary family farm, and in this lack of expectation I was not disappointed. There had once been a larger house, Edna told me, the one where my grandfather lived until he was nineteen, but it had been torn down in the sixties. In its place was a small and sensible two-storey stucco house. There were a few crumbling outbuildings to add a bit of romance, several sheep on the front lawn that Edna called “pets,” and some large enclosures behind the house which held five bulls and two or three horses. Edna said that although she lived alone there were a couple of local men who worked the farm, and her niece Ruth, my father’s cousin, stopped by almost every day. Inside the house was a mix of the very old – sombre furniture that, having survived the long journey, would never leave – and the strikingly new, including a huge television positioned directly opposite a sleek black leather lounger.

On Friday night Edna served fish fingers and boiled potatoes and milk for dinner. Since it was just the two of us we ate in the kitchen, and afterwards we retired to the living room. There we sat, Edna in her lounger and me on the lace-covered sofa, watching The Quiet Man with John Wayne and saying very little to each other. I was beginning to realize that, unlike the Dubliners I had met, Edna was a woman of few words. I remember trying to ignore the silence by focusing on the film, and noticing that John Wayne’s trousers were pulled up higher than any trousers I’d ever seen on a man.

But eventually during a long advertising break we started to talk. She told me the history of my family, once prosperous “gentlemen farmers” now reduced by emigration and economic crisis to this lonely widow living in a few rooms of a modest country house. We touched on education – Edna surprised me with the news that she had attended Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school once situated on the edge of St. Stephen’s Green – and then about particular Irish authors (Shaw was a graduate of Wesley). I asked Edna if she had seen any famous productions of the plays of Wilde or Yeats or Shaw or Synge at the Abbey or the Gate. She indulged me as much as her failing memory would allow: she had definitely seen something scandalous by Shaw.

But I also learned another, more shocking family history – one that was loosely tied up with my own. It was the story of Oscar Wilde’s two illegitimate half-sisters. Wilde’s father, William Wilde, was a notorious philanderer, and he had children hidden away in houses up and down the country. Two of these children, Mary and Emily, had lived on the farm, or “estate,” next to ours. They had died together – shortly after Oscar’s seventeenth birthday, though it is unclear whether he even knew of their existence – in a tragic fire in that very house. On October 31st, 1871, during the last dance of a country ball, the hem of one sister’s – Emily’s – crinoline evening gown had suddenly burst into flames. Crinoline was notoriously flammable: so much so that this sort of death was not uncommon. Hundreds of young women seem to have died in similar fires during the nineteenth century. In this case the other sister, Mary, tried to rescue her, but she was also wearing a crinoline gown; both sisters received mortal burns. William Wilde, Edna told me with a sideways glance, had been spotted at the graveside in the weeks after the funeral, wailing openly in his grief. He never recovered, she said. He died a few years later, a broken man. Not unlike his son after prison, I thought. What a tragic family.

The story came up completely by accident. Not long after I arrived, I had noticed a dust-jacketed copy of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde sitting primly on a doily-covered china cabinet. Ellmann, the American son of a Jewish Romanian immigrant father and a Ukrainian mother, was Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford University from 1970 to 1985. (He also passed through Trinity College, Dublin.) Ellmann wrote the definitive biography of James Joyce in 1959 and a dozen other books on famous Irish authors. He also published an anthology in the 1960s that strongly influenced the study of literary modernism – especially its slant towards Irish writers. Along with The Pound Era by Hugh Kenner, a fellow Yale graduate and Hibernophile, Ellmann’s The Modern Tradition shaped the modernist canon for decades afterwards.

I had taken down several of Ellmann’s books from the stacks at Trinity library during my first two terms. In particular I recalled spending a week in bed around Valentine’s Day, sick with a humiliating case of adult chicken pox, reading his edition of Joyce’s fascinating and filthy letters. I guessed he might have written about Wilde reluctantly, being unsure what to do with him: Wilde was modern, but not exactly a modernist; he was gay, which Ellmann seemed to have difficulty talking about; and unlike Joyce or Yeats, he seemed to have left his Irishness behind when he left Ireland. In fact, as I later learned, Ellmann struggled with the biography through the last two decades of his life. As fate would have it, Wilde was not only Ellmann’s last subject, but also his crowning achievement. Ellmann died in 1987, the same year the book was published, and Oscar Wilde was posthumously awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the U.S. National Book Critics Circle Award. (The book was later used as the basis for Wilde, the biopic with Stephen Fry giving his uncanny performance as Oscar incarnate.)

I knew most of this at the time, and I was delighted to find an object of common interest, so I asked my aunt about the book. Edna was dismissive at first, saying it had been sitting there for a decade gathering dust. After some gentle prodding, however, she told me the story of how the book had found its way into the house. Ellmann had come to Ireland to research the book, and one of his stops was Monaghan to investigate the story of Wilde’s sisters. As Edna told it, he had lain in wait outside the local church on a Sunday, and when the congregation emerged Ellmann started asking if anyone knew the story of the sisters’ death. Someone pointed to my great uncle and said, “Ask him, he’ll know.” So Ellmann interviewed my uncle about it, and when the book came out he sent a signed copy as thanks. And there it sat, long after Ellmann and my uncle had gone.

The story of Wilde’s sisters that my uncle told Ellmann is a sensational one, reminiscent of something Gwendolen Fairfax would read on the train. The first published account of the story appears in a biography of William Wilde by T. G. Wilson in 1942. Yeats’s father recalled the sisters’ death in a letter in 1921 – so the story was probably familiar to the small world of Dublin society. At the same time, some of the obscurity surrounding the events stems from discretion on the part of the authorities when dealing with sensitive matters involving people of significant social standing. From reading several accounts, including the one my great uncle gave to Ellmann, I learned that the births of Mary and Emily Wilde were indeed out of wedlock (that antiquated yet evocative phrase) but they predated the marriage of Oscar’s parents. At the time of their death Mary and Emily were wards – like Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest – of William Wilde’s eldest brother, the impeccably named Reverend Ralph Wilde. The Reverend Ralph, who christened Oscar, was rector of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat: the parish church that my family attended in Monaghan. The neighbour’s house, where the party took place, belonged to a local bank manager named Andrew Reid. Reid was the man who had taken the last dance with Emily and then tried in vain to extinguish both sisters when their dresses caught fire.

The night itself, October 31st, seems to have been a party to celebrate All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain in Ireland. It was most likely attended by the well-to-do landowning families in the area, from neighbouring estates like ours. (I asked whether it was likely that anyone from our family had been present, but Edna just shrugged indifferently.) There was plenty of alcohol, and the party went on late into the night. Accounts of the event differ, with some even calling it a Christmas party. Some accounts also describe there being snow on the ground: Reid is said to have rushed Emily outside and rolled her in the snow to put out the flames, while Mary ran around screaming frantically until she collapsed. There is no mention of snow in the official inquiry, but then the inquiry also gives the family name not as Wilde but “Wylie.”

The aftermath of the tragedy was, if possible, even more gruesome than the terrible accident itself. The sisters remained in the house, as was the custom at the time, where they were treated for the severe burns they had both suffered. To die on Halloween night would have been merciful: instead they lingered on for days and weeks at Drumaconnor. Mary, the younger sister who had tried to help, died first, on November 9th. Her death was kept a secret from Emily, who was also near death, to spare her the shock; nevertheless, three weeks after the accident, on November 21st, Emily also died.

Oscar Wilde, that pioneer of camp sensibility, was not one to respond to tragedy with too much sentiment. One of the most famous remarks attributed to him is the one about the death of Nell Trent, the angelic child in Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. Wilde is said to have quipped: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.” (The child’s death in the popular serial story took everyone by shock: before it was revealed, people were said to have lined the docks in New York, shouting to sailors arriving from England, “Is Little Nell alive?”) In The Importance of Being Earnest, the supremely unsentimental Lady Bracknell, on hearing that Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing is an orphan, declares: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” The same could be said of sisters.

It is hard to say with any certainty what happened that Halloween night, at the end of the party when most of the guests had left. Events were intentionally covered up, and details were kept to a minimum to avoid scandal; the story that was passed down in the neighbourhood, and that my great uncle told Richard Ellmann outside the church, was likely filled in and smoothed around the edges with the passing of time. Was there really snow on the ground in Ireland on October 31st? Was it Emily who danced with the host, or Mary? Who else was in the room? How much had been drunk?

The story ends in the tiny churchyard of St. Molua’s, Drumsnat parish, two miles from Smithboro, County Monaghan, where I drove with Edna that Sunday to visit the graves of our ancestors before catching the bus back to Dublin. In the car on the way Edna repeated a story I had already read in Ellmann’s biography. It was the local legend of the “woman in black” – thought to be the girls’ mother – who visited the graves regularly for twenty years after the tragedy. Oscar Wilde also used to tell the story of a woman in black. Wilde, who was still a teenager at the time, recalled an unknown woman’s visits to his house during his father’s last illness. The woman would come into the house and kneel by William’s sickbed, while Oscar’s mother stood by watching without interfering, apparently knowing that her husband and the woman, who shared a tragic bond, had loved each other deeply.

We entered the churchyard through the wrought iron gate and explored separately in silence. Edna’s hands were clasped behind her back, her head bowed. Right away I noticed that among the names on gravestones that I could read – Arthur Brady; Henry and Anne Finnegan; Robert John Bole and his wife Charlotte, who had emigrated to Alberta and whose bodies had been returned for burial here; Martha Brown, Ruth’s mother – at least half were marked by my family name. There was Thomas Hanna, and Stephen, who died in 1835, and his brother James, and their sister, whose name I couldn’t read. Edna pointed out the grave of another great aunt, Amy Elizabeth, whom my sister was named after. I knelt in the grass and took some pictures. The grave of Mary and Emily was there too, and I photographed it. In contrast to their younger brother, whose famous tomb I had seen once in Père Lachaise cemetery, the sisters were all but anonymous, their gravestone untended and overgrown and lost to time.

Years later I went back to Smithboro and the churchyard of St. Molua’s. Things had improved. The Oscar Wilde Society had erected a new monument beside the old one to mark the Wilde sisters’ final resting place. The simple stone read:

In Memory of
Two loving and beloved Sisters
EMILY WILDE aged 24
and
MARY WILDE aged 22
who lost their lives by accident
in this parish in Nov 1871.
They were lovely and pleasant in
their lives and in their death they
were not divided
(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

Emily & Mary - half sisters of Oscar Wile. Original stone on right.Julian Hanna photo

—Julian Hanna

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Julian_pic

Julian Hanna was born in Vancouver and is currently self-exiled on the island of Madeira. His research on modernism and digital storytelling appears regularly in academic journals; his creative writing has appeared in The Atlantic, 3:AM, Flash, Minor Literature[s], Cine Qua Non, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @julianisland.

Sep 012015
 
Tiara Winter-Schorr2

Tiara Winter-Schorr

At the Top of the Page each month we bring back a selection of some of the most exciting pieces we’ve published in Numéro Cinq. This is part of our campaign to keep the spotlight on our writers and artists, to make sure their work is not forgotten (at too many sites, once you’re off the main page, once you drift into the archives, only Google can find you).

This month we’re featuring a handful of memoirs from our Childhood page, essays by Tiara Winter-Schorr, Eric Foley, Hilary Mullins (with photographs by Bill Hayward), Patrick Deeley, Kim Aubrey, and Keith Maillard. These are beautifully written, poignant, and even shocking evocations of the life of children–innocence, betrayal, loss.

We’ve been gathering this memoirs almost from the magazine’s first issue. There are many more, and more to come. Please take a moment to visit the Childhood page and leaf through them all.

with my brothers

Kim Aubrey and her brothers

Aug 262015
 
Women wearing crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860

Crinolines set on fire, ca. 1860, lithograph

Burning women. It’s not a joke. Remember Miss Havisham burning to death in Great Expectations? This happened a lot in the 19th century due to the presence of open fires, candles, oil lamps, and highly flammable undergarments for women. I know this because I looked it up after reading Julian Hanna’s essay “Death by Fire: The Secret of the Wilde Sisters” in the NC’s September issue. Part memoir, part detective story, “Death by Fire” details Hanna’s investigation into Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters (kept hidden away by the family) who both burned to death at the same party. One sister caught fire, the other tried to save her and was fatally burned as well. Gruesome reading, not only because of the fire deaths, but also because it tells you a lot about the social fate of women. Hanna writes so well, it’s a mystery how something so awful can lift the heart.

But the issue is also chock full of fiery women of a different sort, the metaphorical sort.

Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral

Julie Larios returns with another of her Undersung series, a lovely and personal essay on the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral, whose poems are a wonderful surprise to me — every one of Julie’s essays in the series is a surprise and a doorway into delight, but Mistral is something else. If you read anything in this issue, read this essay. And then go out and track down Mistral’s poems.

The series of poems called “locas mujeres” (crazy women), which includes some of my favorites, was published in Lagar (Winepress), Mistral’s last book of poems. By then, she had lost not only her lover but several friends and a well-loved adopted son to suicide. I have an unpublished manuscript of poems for adults titled “The Madwoman”; it’s only natural I would be drawn to those poems of Mistral’s. Looking at a woman’s perspective on the ordinary objects and routines of this world, once she has some kind of emotional and mental dislocation, is intriguing to me, though not quite as personally motivated as it was for Mistral.

Fleda

Fleda Brown

The last time Fleda Brown appeared in the magazine she was writing essays (“Unruffled” and “Books Made of Paper“) and being treated for cancer. Now she returns as a poet, a fiery woman in her own right. writing about, among other things, cancer treatment, a plangent cry of spirit over death.

The molecule that oddly binds to a cell’s
hollow tubes, that holds them in paralysis, that stops
…………..their wild replication.

That requires all the bark from one rare yew
in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest to save
…………..one person. Also the home

of the rare northern spotted owl.
Now you’re up against the press of need, of cost.
………….The bloody essence, the drug-war

Rossend_Collage

From translators Brendan Riley and Susana Fabrés, we have heart-aching poems by the brilliant Catalan poet Rossend Bonás Miró, who hollows you out with precise moments of pain and then makes them beautiful.

How to describe the tense
and tightly wrapped pain
a dark cocoon
after a definitive separation?

The wind carries away the work of years
and the intimate pleasure of mutual company.

Mark Jay Mirsky

Mark Jay Mirsky

A rare, rare treat, and something of a coup for the magazine — we have a splendid short story by the legendary Mark Jay Mirsky who founded the journal Fiction, in 1972 with Donald Barthelme and Max Frisch (among others). Mirsky has been its editor-in-chief ever since (dg can’t even calculate in his heard how many years that is — a lot). Mirsky has published several works of fiction as well as academic tomes. His latest novel is called Puddingstone He is also something of a Robert Musil expert, having edited the English edition of the Diaries. It’s a privilege for us to have him here.

Her nose twitches. She is still insecure about not attending an Ivy League institution. Good! It’s unfair, cruel, but for a moment you have her. “‘Laughing among themselves,’ Dante tells us, the women exchange secrets in the street. One of their schoolmates is now locked behind the bedroom doors of marriage, but she, Beatrice, obviously confides to these abettors of Love, instructors in the arts of mystical courtship. Dante has advertised his broken heart. Prepared himself with wan expression, suppressed groans as these daughters of the best families approach. Courteously, he pretends to encounter them by accident.

Kathy Page2

Kathy Page

And we have a new story “Open Water” by Kathy Page, about free diving and life.

In training, the body is pushed beyond its limits. It suffers, then reconstitutes itself. Muscles strengthen and develop a tolerance to lactic acid. Lung-capacity increases. The heart grows in size. At the same time, understanding of the stroke accumulates. Young swimmers begin with a general impression, and move into the detail. As each new element is assimilated, the swimmer reaches a plateau, or even loses ground before progressing further. The mind too must remake itself.

Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges

Something new for NC, a venture into the discourse of politics, globalization, and revolution. Tom Faure does a spritely,  erudite, and superbly intelligent job of reviewing Chris Hedges new book Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.

Hedges posits that revolutions happen, not when the people are subdued by total abjection, but rather when they have had a glimmer of hope. Raised expectations follow technical innovations and a rise in the standard of living—this is when the failings of the state, and its all-too-frequent efforts to smother dissent, fuel the fire of rebellion. Much of the battle is invisible, residing in the language and metaphors of the people.

Martin Dean

Martin Dean

Urban, urbane, dystopian poems from Londoner Martin Dean —

God that desperate lust to write won’t go until
you give up hope and then at last /can/ write, dispossessed
and outsidered, lost,
your legs take you, and what you hunted
is with you everywhere.

16_BBallengee_w_great turtle

Brendon Ballengée

We also have another terrific artist interview from Darren Higgins. This time New York-based artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée is the subject, his art a nexus of history, biology, ecology, and nostalgia (for what is erased, lost, extinct).

Last spring’s Armory Show in Manhattan brought welcome attention to Brandon’s work, specifically to one of his various ongoing projects, Frameworks of Absence. Since 2006 he’s been researching animals that have gone extinct in the Americas over the past four centuries, selecting prints contemporaneous with the species’ demise and then painstakingly cutting the creature’s image from the page, leaving a hole.

There are holes everywhere.

Larry Fondation

Larry Fondation

Also an essay, a novel excerpt, and two short stories by the American experimental writer Larry Fondation. The essay is a statement of the author’s theoretical concerns, especially for what he nominates the ensemble novel. He writes stories that evidence his interest in poverty and contemporary dystopianism.

We fuck in the dark hotel. Nobody’s paid the electric bill, nor for running water. Darkness is so romantic, candlelight hard to find. Moonlight is scarce. Her thighs are so pale they shine.

Nothing changes.

Little changes.

Everything changes.

The tent I pitch is not my own.

There is more, much more; Ben Woodard’s review of the latest Mia Couto, a new NC at the Movies, Natalie Helberg on The Story of O, and a new Uimhir a Cúig.

And maybe even more than that! All is flux, as Heraclitus said.

 

Aug 142015
 
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Roy Andersson’s “World of Glory” opens with unspeakable horror: a truck load of naked people, a child last, are herded into the back of a cube van, the doors locked, and a hose is connected between the truck’s exhaust and the back of the van that holds the people. This allusion to the holocaust is made more horrific by the crowd of people watching on as the scene plays out. Halfway through the scene, and then again at the end, the film’s protagonist looks back at the camera, at those of us watching, drawing attention to our watching: it is an incriminating glance that identifies us with the others who stand idly by. We are complicit.

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This horrific spectacle is at odds with the rest of the film’s numb and disassociated narrative. The protagonist who identified our complicit gaze at the beginning of the film directly addresses the audience and introduces us to his mother, the bed he sleeps in, his son, his brother, and various other mundane details as he takes account of his life for and through us. What’s left unresolved by the end of the film is what this mundane life, bracketed by the first scene’s atrocity and the return of the screams at the end, amounts to. What can this one man’s fear of his mortality mean in the face of his complicity in the deaths of so many others?

01_World of Glory, 2000, Roy Andersson.jpg_0

Andersson fixes the camera on this man’s life, holds the shots painfully long, and chooses a mise-en-scene that agonizingly attends to this man’s life. In her article, “Roy Andersson: From Mordant Ad Director To Philosophical Filmmaker,” Neda Ulaby discusses this style of Andersson’s:

“He eliminates the editing entirely,” Linqvist says. “There is no editing within a single shot. The camera does not move. And so it’s our eye that has to move, has to roam around the picture.” Andersson demands we pay attention; he refuses to manipulate us with close-ups. And his filmic philosophy is also expressed through lighting. “I want to have light without mercy,” he says. “There are no shadows to hide in. You are illuminated all the time. It makes you naked, the human beings — naked.”

“Light without mercy. ” At the screening of his new film at the Toronto International Film Festival last year he added,“So the truth can’t hide.”

worldofglory

Ideologically, Andersson’s style has a lot in common with the Italian neorealists and those who have followed in their footsteps. He uses real people instead of actors, and avoids “artifice in editing, camerawork, and lighting in favor of a simple ‘styless’ style.” The intent here is to lay reality bare.

Andersson departs from the neorealists in how he chooses to stylistically emphasize the bareness. “World of Glory” is clearly an Andersson vision with the washed out florescent lighting, the pale visages of the actors who appear drowned or corpse like, and the staged and theatrical mise-en-scene. In his explanation of his most recent film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andersson describes a connection between reality and fantasy in his work that equally applies to “World of Glory”:

“some of my favourite Neue Sachlichkeit painters include Karl Hofer, Felix Nussbaum and Georg Scholz. Their combination of reality and fantasy resulted in abstracted condensed realism, a kind of “super-realism”, an ambition that I also have for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch, in which abstraction is to be condensed, purified, and simplified; scenes should emerge as cleansed as memories and dreams. Yes this is no easy task: “c’est difficile d’être facile” – it is difficult to be very simple, but I will try.”

pigeon07

In the push to get to the truth in reality, to make it simple, Andersson paradoxically stylizes it, exaggerates it. He condenses the complexities of real life into a simple juxtaposition between atrocity and the mundane.

Andersson connects one man’s mortal fears, the lurid, almost pathetic, small things he holds on to as normalcy against life’s passing, and the awful crime that haunts the film. “World of Glory” suggests that the most remarkable thing in this world is our insensitivity, our passivity, our disconnection. Glory exists is an absence. In his other works, this leads to moments of great awkward laughter, yet here in this small film he holds us to the pain. Maybe in that pain lies the hope of glory.

— R. W. Gray

Aug 142015
 

Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey cover

Mirrors on which dust has fallen
Jeff Bursey
Verbivoracious Press
344 pages, Paperback $22.99 CAD
ISBN: 978-981-09-5437-6

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NOBODY WOULD ACCUSE JEFF BURSEY of being lax in his demands on literature. In much of his book reviewing and other literary criticism – including pieces published here on Numéro Cinq – Bursey argues vehemently against a prescriptive approach to fiction. He trumpets the elasticity of form; he challenges his fellow novelists to eschew tried-and-true strictures on structure; he shames those who take a paint-by-colours approach to characterization; he begs us to embrace experimentation in the truest sense of the term. Mostly, he hates it when writers make rigid statements about what can/can’t be done, should/shouldn’t be done, or must/mustn’t be done when it comes to a creative work.

This mindset is very much on display in Bursey’s own fiction. His debut novel, Verbatim, published in 2010 by Enfield & Wizenty, is written almost entirely in Hansard, the official transcriptive record of a Westminster-style parliament. The book is a kind of literary curios: in it, Bursey shows how much of the muck and mess and pulse of a place –in this case, the city of Bowmount in an unnamed, fictitious Canadian province – he can capture via the verbatim excretions of elected officials. Here Bursey hews closely to perhaps an overtired tenet of fiction (write what you know), as he himself works for Hansard in the provincial legislature of my home city of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.

Full disclosure: During biannual visits home from Toronto, I will summon Bursey to attend a social gathering I affectionately refer to as the Prince Edward Island Writers Mafia (members include J.J. Steinfeld, David Helwig, Judy Gaudet, Steven Mayoff, and Beth Janzen) in which Bursey’s position resides somewhere between secretariat and chief thumb breaker. Bursey and I see eye to eye on many – though not all – literary conventions and trends, and I’ve generally judged his reviews, even the harsher ones, as well above the belt. One thing is clear from both reading and socializing with him: he is adamant in his insistence that novels be, well, novel.

Which brings us to his latest offering, Mirrors on which dust has fallen, an explosively unconventional, deeply disturbing, and relentlessly original work. This is not, in effect, your daddy’s Canadian Literature. The novel is set in Bowmount in the late 1990s, same as Verbatim; and rather than dropping the reader in medias res, the opening pages provide us with both general details of the town and some specific issues of the day. One of the larger challenges the city is facing, it seems, is to engender a sense of community among a certain contingent of its populace: “Clearly, for those alleged troublemakers Bowmount was not a community but a point on a map, not a City rich in varied history but a town with a grandiose self-conception.” While these prefatory remarks appear a bit rough around the edges – why is city capitalized here? what is “self-conception”? do we mean “self-perception?” – Bursey does a good job of situating us in a fully imagined and concrete place. (With the novel opening in such a prefatory way, it is unfortunate, and somewhat redundant, that publisher Verbivoracious Press decided to include an incoherent, academically pretentious, and wholly unnecessary introductory essay by Christopher Wunderlee.)

The narrative picks up heft as we begin to meet, through alternating chapters, the book’s motley ensemble of characters. There is Loyola, a university-drop out who works a soul-sucking job at a clothing wholesaler. There is his sleazy, supremely confident friend Jules Deeka, offering all manner of temptation from the wings. We meet a deeply compelling woman named Ivy, who struggles with the onset of middle age and its concomitant frustrations. We get a view into a radio station looking to update itself with the times (at the expense of several of its employees) and we also encounter the local Catholic church grappling with a sex abuse scandal. We lounge around in perhaps Bowmount’s most down-market watering hole, Johnny Bar’s, and we learn about three cops killed in a hostage taking at the local pet shop.

Bursey presents each of these threads in fragmented form, the chapters twitching and looping and hopping from one narrative to the next. Unsurprisingly, these strands intersect in surprising ways, and we soon learn about Bowmount’s darker auras glowing just below its skein of lower-middle class normalcy. What impresses most is the level of occupational detail that Bursey weaves into these stories. He is equally comfortable writing about the logistics of clothing wholesalers and the challenges of running a small radio station as he is about the quotidian detail of Catholic ceremonies and the grit needed to keep a seedy pub afloat. Here is an example of this kind of mastery, taken from a chapter called “The priests”:

The archbishop had descended from the refined heights of Toronto and Montreal, and regarded the priests and laymen of the Catholic Church in this province as boobs. Oh yes, intelligent decisions were made now and then, but less than the law of averages allowed; and of course, good works of a highly Christian nature were performed almost every other week. But to his mind the capillaries of the local Church were clogged by the lacklustre efforts of poor priests recruited from the local population, and by the vapouring laymen and church committees.

This level of specificity helps to offset the larger challenge that Mirrors presents to readers – that of a carefully constructed and confounding set of elisions.

What form do these elisions take? Funnily enough, they are very similar to those found in his previous novel, Verbatim. When you write a book almost entirely in the language of Hansard, (not that you have, or I have, or anyone else has, as far as I know; this seems to be strictly Bursey’s domain), you create the unusual constraint of limiting nearly all of your prose to dialogue – specifically the official dialogue of a provincial legislature. In Verbatim, the novelty of this was sharp and rendered into a very believable verisimilitude. A number of our expectations get thwarted or left out as a result: these elisions include descriptive writing, internal thoughts, and other nuanced interactions between characters.

But interestingly, much of Mirrors is also written in dialogue. There are long stretches that consist almost entirely of two or more characters riffing on each other over some element of their individual narratives, with their exchanges demarcated by dashes. Indeed, like Verbatim before it, much of Mirrors reads like a transcription – and as such, it too comes with various exclusions and limitations. Through most of the book, we get very little exposition, almost no physical descriptions of the characters, and a paucity of internal thoughts or monologues. In this sense, Mirrors is like a mirror of Verbatim. But whereas the previous novel was concerned with the “official-speak” of politicians looking to put their best foot forward and get the upper hand on opponents, Mirrors concerns itself with the rough and rowdy transcript of the street. Its characters talk at length about the filth and failure and frustrations of their personal lives. They discuss thwarted ambitions, secret desires, and their often strange or uninspired sex lives. This is the opposite of politicians’ orating formality in a legislature. This is workaday people being baldly honest in the agora of the public square.

Throughout these narratives, there is one issue, one preoccupation, one motif that occurs and re-occurs. It is an obsession of Bursey’s that I failed to spot in reading his first book and his literary criticism, or in socializing with him personally – that of the human anus. The human anus is, it should be said, the closest thing that Mirrors has to a main character. It makes numerous appearances in the different intersecting narratives of the book. At one point Ivy, suffering from some kind of gastric malady, reflects back on a sigmoidoscopy she received, “its camera transmitting pictures of pink flesh, white flesh, red veins in chain lightning patterns, the camera bungling around the nooks and crannies of her intestines during its serpentine intrusion.” At another point, two men discuss how to prepare for the inevitable unpleasantness of prison life with the aid of a carrot. In a particularly provocative section, Jules and Loyola get into a debate about sex’s more cloacal joys:

– But enjoying it? With a man?

– Before AIDS, when things were safer, you went in the back door with a woman, had a bit of anilingus.

– What? Jules explained, finishing with –a pungent meat, like game, make sure you wash before and after. The fundament is one of those places you get a lot of pleasure out of. Slapping, tickling, biting, kissing, enemas if you’re into that, so why not anal intercourse? Greatest warriors in the world did that, the army, the navy, you name it. Natural. Not healthy, not now, but natural. You’re looking pink. It isn’t the chili, is it?

Of course, not all interactions with the anus in Mirrors is consensual. The book also includes a harrowing anal rape scene, recounted by its perpetrator to the fellow lowlifes who inhabit Johnny’s Bar. This man tells how he stalked a young girl whose clothes (or lack thereof) reveal a bit too much of her backside for his liking. His subsequent assault on her on an isolated bike trail is told in chilling casualness, couched as an act of prostitution because he throws the girl forty dollars before raping her. This is as dark as Mirrors gets, and many readers who find their way to this chapter will no doubt be disturbed by it. As someone who has himself included difficult scenes of sexual assault in a novel, I have no advice or solace to provide other than this: as horrific as the scene is in Mirrors, it’s important to see how it fits into the larger thematic structure that Bursey has built for us. There are many ways this novel shows how the city of Bowmount – rendered into such stuffy officialdom in Verbatim – is still very much in touch with its lizard brain. For all the macro social engineering that occurs at the municipal level, individual citizens still feel – and resign themselves to – their basest human instincts.

The rape scene in Mirrors simply takes this to an unconscionable extreme.

Yet change is coming to Bowmount. Indeed, one could argue that change is the ultimate theme in both of Bursey’s novels. In Verbatim, it takes the form of new (and somewhat corrupted) management at Hansard that actually influences the transcripts of the legislature. In Mirrors, the change comes as an unpleasant intruder into the lives of its core characters. Many of them, it seems, wrestle with the brutality that time can exact on us all and the very instability of modern life. Yet this novel ends on a surprisingly tender note in a chapter called “A new cycle.”

What awaits our intrepid Ivy as she is about to take one step toward a man that she should have been with all along? She doesn’t know, and neither do we, but what we’re left with is the knowledge that it’s probably very important to take that step forward anyway. It’s important that dust not settle on the mirrors we hold up to ourselves.

—Mark Sampson

 

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Photo by Mark Raynes Roberts

Mark Sampson has published two novels – Off Book (Norwood Publishing, 2007) and Sad Peninsula (Dundurn Press, 2014) – and a short story collection, called The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing, 2015). He also has a book of poetry, Weathervane, forthcoming from Palimpsest Press in 2016. His stories, poems, essays and book reviews have appeared widely in journals in Canada and the United States. Mark holds a journalism degree from the University of King’s College in Halifax and a master’s degree in English from the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. Originally from Prince Edward Island, he now lives and writes in Toronto.

 

Aug 132015
 

Nietzsche

 

For a man with such little ears, Friedrich Nietzsche heard a multitude of deep pulses within the heart of European culture. The great despiser of liberalism and humanitarianism was also no less than the great despiser of conservatism and capitalism. As is the case with many important thinkers in the Western canon, Nietzsche’s dislikes greatly outnumbered his likes, just as the contradictions in his thought served to develop them all the better. Adoring power, he hated the powerful of his time for their unearned privileges. Adoring culture, he hated the cultured milieu of his time for its abiding philistinism. Adoring the sanguine bigotry of nineteenth-century society, he hated anti-Semites and the Darwinian biology that Herbert Spencer would later develop into a lethal social philosophy. His reputation in the popular consciousness is inaccurate as often as it is unflattering.

Nietzsche has been called the philosopher of a Hell that would put any of Dante’s to shame; he has also been called the original entrepreneur of the self-help genre. Who can say that most of this popular genre doesn’t boil down to “how to be what you already are?” The majority of humankind sickened him—“suffering from solitude…I have only ever suffered from ‘multitude…’”—even as his own sanity famously deteriorated during his final productive years. The overman himself was a botched invalid, internally contradictory, eloquent even in his madness. It is this aspect of Nietzsche’s thought that proves the most interesting of all his many interesting thoughts. For the epistemological break[1] in Nietzsche, from his relatively sane years to the period in which his syphilis destroyed him, is the hinge of his oeuvre, the unhinging of which provided the world with its own worst reflection.

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There is, first, a need for some biographical context. In life, Nietzsche was a soft-spoken, gentle man. Like Schopenhauer before him, he detested the animal vivisection of his time and the Christian dogma which supported it. Descartes had taught that animals were only machines: only humans could say cogito ergo ego[2]. The beaten horse of Thus Spake Zarathrustra, saved by the anti-Christ himself, is probably the most famous beast in Western philosophy. Nihilism mingled with antihumanism when it came to Nietzsche’s view of war, however; he saw in war a great synthetic process that improved humanity for all its loss of life. This is a paradox, considering he considered himself totally opposed to nihilism in all its forms[3]. All of life was a battleground, power was the world’s skeleton, and whoever could not gain power was rightfully doomed to serve those who could. Nietzsche went far beyond a basic philosophy of “sink or swim” in his preachments—he taught that swimming in the ocean was a belittling affair compared to declaring oneself its personal god. He was a thoroughgoing sexist[4], too, although most men, even Christian men, were sexists in the deeply religious nineteenth century. Had he been more progressive on the sexual question, Nietzsche might have retained more relevance after the sexual turn of contemporary philosophy. Some of his flaws, it must be said, caricature him even at his most solemn.

The timid bachelor held that morality was a mechanism spun into culture in order to enslave mankind to its lower orders and that, once the Victorian liberalism became ascendant over the old feudal regime, the slaves had won the game. Of course, Nietzsche’s view of slave morality was rather idiosyncratic: he thought the rich were slaves, the skilled workers were slaves, and homeowners were slaves par excellence. For Nietzsche, the overman, the man who was himself, the man who had transcended both culture and contingency, had not yet been born. In this respect he thought himself the foe of determinism and the very midwife of a new aristocracy freed from every circumstance save those that were worthy of the next evolution in human ethics. Whether he invented modernism or postmodernism, he invented.

It would be no travail to produce a fruitful thought experiment concerning the man in the flesh. Imagine the phenomenology of being one of Nietzsche’s friends, of knowing him, of having been at first repulsed by his eccentricity and then inevitably drawn into its orbit. He would either entice you or estrange you. Who can say that Ignatius J. Reilly, of Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces, was not modeled on Nietzsche’s physical appearance: a lumberman’s mustache, slicked-back hair, and lunatic eyes? Given that the nineteenth century was a bit less normative than our own—most periods in history respected eccentricity more than our own, in fact—he might have struck a social note less strange than any of the illiterate handiworkers of his day. But if one had the benefit of hindsight, it must have been an event bordering on the uncanny not only to have met Nietzsche, but to have known him for what he was: a world-historical creep, an unsound man, a profound critic of the everyday, a scholar steeped in far-flung days, an iconoclast who couldn’t keep a friend anymore than he could keep a lover. Had he been alive today he would be brushed off as a mouth-breather, or a gloomy diarist, or cast aside as an unsocialized loner incapable of integrating into the status quo[5]. Of course, Nietzsche expected this expelling of singular persons from respectability, writing in Daybreak[6] that

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.

The only cure for the unqualified sameness of human civilization was eccentricity, then. Behaving like the mass was to be equivalent to the mass, and this, for Nietzsche, was a sin greater than any concoction of the Christian gospel.

Given his valuation of difference, what would Nietzsche say about the sane-insane dichotomy which was only coming into scientific discourse during his lifetime? Unenlightened society often calls its outliers insane, and even enlightened society has no limitation of names for psychological deviations. Much of Nietzsche’s writing sounds bipolar, or schizophrenic, or amoral (to this last accusation he would yelp an astounding yes). A more anti-social philosophy the nineteenth century never produced. But it is a mistake of psychological prejudice to denounce him as merely insane, and therefore fit only to be ignored[7].

When he wasn’t a crank, he spoke truths so frightening they hardly bear countenance; when he was a crank, he still provided insights of more worth today than that of most of our credentialed moralists. To be an atheist in the nineteenth century was to count oneself a member of the Ship of Fools. Today, we would sooner declare insane the man who declares his personal affinity with God than the village atheist, who would look incomparably more normal, a veritably endowed member of consensus reality. Nietzsche himself taught that conventions and customs change over time, borrowing this from the German higher biblical criticism of his era. Were it not for the empirical understanding of his venereal disease and its effects on the brain, we would have little evidence of his insanity, except that Der Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, and Zur Genealogie offend us.

If, as Peter Sloterdijk has it[8], Walter Benjamin universalized the category of prostitution in his critique of capitalism, then Friedrich Nietzsche universalized the category of the godforsaken in his critique of Christianity. The modernist Christianity of today bears almost no resemblance to the Christianity of Nietzsche’s era—it was very much the nihilist construction he painted it to be. If it affirms earthly life today, it is only because it denied it in the past; it preached asceticism to the “factory slaves” (Nietzsche’s term, as well as Karl Marx’s) and reserved praise and pleasure for the powerful alone. He thought Christianity had smuggled weakness into the former majesty of Western culture and, in preaching the essential equality of practically unequal people, vulgarized all that existed. To defend the botched was to condemn the perfected. Of course, Nietzsche’s failure to recognize himself among the botched was a lasting error of his philosophy, which even H.L. Mencken, the journalist who introduced him to the English-speaking world, pointed out in a humorous essay condemning the pseudoscience of Jazz Age eugenics[9].

Prescience eludes even the most astute of prophets, at times. Nietzsche was weak and preached the demise of the weak, or their enslavement; perhaps the one remnant worth preserving from this particular labyrinth of power relations is his insistence that race did not determine the worth of a man. Nietzsche was many unsavory things, but he was not a racist. Such a construct as race could only be inherited, and was therefore below the status of the self-made man no longer all too human. While he did not view race as modern biologists do—that is, he did not think it was purely a myth, as post-racial biology insists it is[10]—he did think it was an anxiety of influence the overman deserved to shed. It is a historical quirk that European fascism found a hero in Nietzsche, since he would not have supported totalitarianism[11] or the embrace of capitalism. Such atmospheres, in abolishing solitude, would stifle the Nietzschean overman. He probably would not have deplored the war casualties of the second World War—he was overjoyed at the prospect of Europe depopulating by a fourth-measure after the turmoil of his own mid-century—but he would have deplored the idea of philistines winning the game of international politics. National Socialism was as far removed from the core of Nietzsche’s existential thought as American liberal democracy or Europe’s vying theocracies of the Middle Ages.

*

What to make, then, of the elder Nietzsche’s lunacy? Did it inform his philosophy and thereby disqualify it, or did it oust him from the confines of mere convention and therefore render his worldview absolute? Hating the world as it was, he denounced Christianity for preaching the same, that the mundane was only a pathetic reflection of the platonic Heaven. Proving unfit for war, he preached war and the death of able-bodied inferiors. Flitting from one antimony to the next, Nietzsche’s existence contradicted his philosophy in almost every respect possible. Like the individualist Emerson with his wife’s financial support, Nietzsche lived off a university pension for most of his authorial life—on the nineteenth-century equivalent of welfare. He himself could not have survived in a Nietzschean universe. Every site of his contradiction devalues his philosophy in the abysmal concrete.

But philosophy, as Kant said, is the science of concepts. The Nietzschean concept is beautiful, if terrifying; even if it is not practicable for the uppermost portion of human beings, it inhabits a special place in the imagination that yearns for betterment of self and world. His books were not his body. That his own mind was split in twain by a biological infestation is immaterial in relation to his philosophy, which exists beyond the carnal body. His demon of the “loneliest loneliness” that preaches the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence is a valuable thought experiment anyone and everyone should perform in their private introspection. That this life, being the only one we have, ought to be as perfected as possible is surely not the stuff of sin. It exemplifies the American ideology better than any belief system concocted in America. In his On the Genealogy of Morals, he writes

It is not impossible to conceive of a society whose consciousness of power would allow it the most refined luxury there is—that of allowing those who did it harm to go unpunished.

What statement better exemplifies the American maxim that it is better to travel the high road than the low when confronted with adversity? What better display of power than the power that goes unused? If only the American government’s foreign policy followed such advice as Nietzsche’s—not the Nietzsche of the fascist parody, but the aristocratic Nietzsche who sees warfare as a means to a peaceful end rather than the indefinite extension of the military-industrial complex, or the global hegemony of a single statehood. Against modern capitalist dynamism, which can enslave as much as it can emancipate, and against the medieval Great Chain of Being that inhibited social mobility completely—like it or not—Nietzsche posed his formula of amor fati. Even if one is unable to navigate the world, to bend it to his will, he nevertheless must love that he is in it, be he the hangman or the hanged.

With his decade-long period of invalidity in his sister’s care, he even portrays mankind at its most vulnerable: in him, the brutality of competition melds utterly with the essential impotence of the human experience in this vale of tears. If Nietzsche was insane, his insanity was more valuable to the human race, which he despised, than the sharpest clarity of an Emerson, a Spinoza, a James, a Niebuhr, or a Wittgenstein. We have his books precisely because he could not live up to their ideals[12], because his esoteric and idiosyncratic epistemology was so problematic that it could only be birthed through the medium of text. Few today would recognize that he originated the adage “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” Modernity—right or left[13]—owes to him its viable atheism, its insistence on individual progressive striving rather than collective cow-towing, and the relativist morality that bolsters its liberal achievements. The disease that devoured his unfortunate brain, in turn, enlightened and enriched our own thinking, however much the man himself was damned in the process. Where would we be without Friedrich Nietzsche but lost and raving in the intellectual gutters?

— Jeremy Brunger

Jeremy

Jeremy Brunger is a Tennessee-based writer and graduate in English of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. His interests trend toward Marxist-humanist political philosophy, the psychological tolls of poverty, race theory, and the end results of religious practice in modern societies. He publishes poetry with Sibling Rivalry Press and the Chiron Review and nonfiction prose with various and sundry venues and can be contacted at jbrunger@vols.utk.edu.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. In treating Nietzsche’s 1889 “epistemological break,” I borrow the concept from Louis Althusser’s symptomatic reading of Karl Marx in Reading Capital (Verso, 2009), since Nietzsche is, no doubt, better treated by philosophy than psychiatry.
  2. Descartes, the founder of modern Western philosophy, dissected cats in his spare time. Although Nietzsche was morbid, he never was so morbid as that, and hesitated to harm a fly. It is odd that Descartes is remembered as a positive influence and Nietzsche as a psychopath.
  3. See Heidegger, Martin. “The Word of Nietzsche: God is Dead.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Harper Perennial, 1977.
  4. See Nietzsche. “First Part, 14: On the Friend.” Thus Spake Zarathrustra. Oxford, 2005. Pg. 50. This section, among others, explains the subtleties of Nietzsche’s sexism. In it, he condemns women as essentially still being slaves, and therefore incapable of friendship—even calling them birds and cows—but at the same time he condemns most men for being in the same debased state. It must also be remembered that the narrator is an ambiguous conceit exemplifying madness.
  5. Once a full professor, Nietzsche benefited from his later estrangement from the German academic establishment. His alienation from scholarship solidified his audience, who were still reeling from the revolutionary movements and institutional storms and stresses of 1848. In fact, had he been a more normal man with the same ideas, it is unlikely he would have been remembered by posterity. See also Ratner-Rosenhagen, Jennifer. “Nietzsche as Educator.” American Nietzsche. The University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pg 169.
  6. See Kaufman, Walter. The Portable Nietzsche. Penguin, 1982. In this definitive anthology, Kaufman translates Daybreak as Dawn.
  7. In contrast to his earlier demand for sober aesthetics, Nietzsche exhorts in Twilight of the Idols that “for there to be art, for there to be any kind of aesthetic doing and seeing, one physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.” The Dionysian worldview is the quintessence of what lay psychology would call insanity. See also Ronell, Avital. Crack Capitalism. 1992.
  8. See Sloterdijk in the 2010 film Marx Reloaded , a short philosophical documentary concerning the re-emergence of Marxist philosophy in the light of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. It is also worth noting that, contrary to some popular opinions concerning Nietzsche and laissez-faire capitalism, he would in all likelihood detest elite capital as much as he detested the common man. He would sooner have been impressed by a breath-controlling yogi than by a financial magnate.
  9. See Mencken, H.L.. “Dives into Quackery.” Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series. Library of America, 2010. Mencken introduced the Nietzschean philosophy to America with his 1908 book The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but given that he did not have access to the mountain of scholarship on him now extant, Mencken’s book now reads rather superficially.
  10. See Sussman, Robert. The Myth of Race. Harvard UP, 2014.
  11. See Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”. Picador, 2003. “Here we have the beginnings of the famous great portrait of the ‘barbarian’ which we will go on finding until the late nineteenth century and, of course, in Nietzsche, [for whom] freedom will be equivalent to a ferocity defined as a taste for power and determined greed, an inability to serve others, and constant desire to subjugate others…” (149). Foucault’s portrait of Nietzsche was apolitical, whereas totalitarianism demands over-arching political structures that, in the philosopher’s view, could only limit the individual in his quest for overman status. If, as he aged, he revered a strong state, it was only to keep the masses from limiting the liberated overmen, not as an end in itself. He is also notorious for despising hero-worship as embodied by the proto-fascist Carlyle’s historicist great man theory.
  12. See Nietzsche. “Why I Write Such Good Books.” Ecce Homo. Oxford, 2007. “I am one thing, my writings are another…I myself am not yet timely; some are born posthumously.” Pg.36.
  13. See Berman, Marshall. “Marx, Modernism, and Modernization.” All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. Penguin, 1988. Pg 100-01. While Berman’s book is ostensibly more about Marx’s relation to modernity than Nietzsche’s, in this chapter he thoughtfully links Marx to Nietzsche’s attack on nihilism to the whole administration of contemporary capitalist-bureaucratic society.
Aug 122015
 

Meg HarrisAuthor photo by Abigail Kibler

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C Picture Three

Y

ou remember it as a holiday weekend at camp, an outdoors club your grandfather and a few of his friends and brothers started in the early 1900s. It’s the summer of 1962 and friends and families, who’ve descended from those nine original members of Royal Outing Club, mill around the grounds in rural south western Pennsylvania. Someone starts a bocce game on the lawn, others play cards, drink beer and smoke cigarettes. They lounge around on lawn chairs or the wooden porch swing which hangs from the branch of giant tree near the mess hall. The smell of roast meat emanates from the old wooden building and laughter and conversation rise and fall ubiquitously. Horseshoes clank and thud in the dusty pits behind the beer-garden where old men play poker and drink an amber liquid from tiny glasses. Their cigars make a canopy of oaken smoke over a low hanging black walnut branch which shades the lichened table where they sit. Bright glints of afternoon light chink through the foliage here and again. Inside the crowded beer garden, nutshells crunch under your sandals, bigger kids push past you. Teenage girls, hips swathed in plaid peddle-pushers, sway rhythmically to the beat that rolls from the grill of the Seeburg juke box.

B Picture Two
You and some girls your age run up to the ladies’ bunk to play. It’s the kind of afternoon where you can wander as a pack for hours and someone or other’s mom or dad peeks in on your game when they visit the powder room or stroll down to the creek-side. The cool cement floor and spare block walls of “the house” are the perfect setting for a game of hospital—this and the rows of metal WWII cots with their sagging mattresses. It’s quiet here too, with all of the grownups down at the bar or out on the lawn, even the napping babies become a part of your game of hospital. The children’s ward is in the back room where cribs stand end to end those patients sleep soundly. Ailing 3, 4 and 5 year old patients with measles, river fever, or snake bites convalesce and suffer in the camp hospital. You recall that you and Regina Gemperle or maybe Susie Larkin doctored and nursed with some authority and aplomb. You minister to the sick moving somberly from bed to bed. You are tall enough to reach their pale slight faces and feel for fever, offer a sip of water or medication, bandage an injured wrist. Your mother’s magnifying mirror and other instruments, curling irons and shower caps become the tools of your trade.

A Picture One

Years later you are told by the ladies that so many children were born in 1957 because the summer before your mother taught everyone the rhythm method of birth control. The result of these instructions were you and at least six other children.

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D Picture four
The playing hospital in the women’s bunkhouse part of the day is the clearest in your memory. Maybe you needed a nap or maybe the afternoon grew especially hot and therefore you recall only the blurred moments. You’re not certain as to how or when the day changed profoundly. What you do remember is this day included your first awareness of your mother’s being drunk.

On the back stoop of the bunkhouse your dad holds you in his arms as you sit together on the cool cement slab. You lean your head away from your mother’s distorted face, her mouth coming toward you for a kiss. She comes in close making you swoon and whimper.

“Aaawwwhatsamatterdoll? Don’t cry,” her speech slurs and you catch the scent of sour breath with her words. You are aware of grownups laughing on the lawn and the afternoon suddenly green and bombed with intoxicating heat and sounds which bore into your small head. Your mother’s never been like this; all of the world tips on its edge, if not for the sure arms of your dad you’d collapse on the lawn. Years later, you will blame your nightmares in which your mother is replaced by a shaved-head-Nazi, on this day and that is probably exactly where those nightmares began.
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E Picture five
The gravel road from camp leads out to the Buhl Bridge on old Route 8 and just a few steps from there you can double back on Cottage Lane as it runs with the tracks for a time until it turns toward the tall stalks of corn and leads to the little cottages. Each place is brightly painted and one of these belongs to your Aunt Cle and Uncle Dick. Your favorite is the white cottage with red decorations and the giant letter on its front. Today, you and your father do not stop to visit any of the cottagers. You have trouble keeping the rough chunks of gravel out of your white sandals and your stride is clumsy. No matter your appeal your father does not carry you. Only, he pulls you down the lane, the strap of your summer romper slipping from one shoulder, the buckle on your sandal rubbing a blister onto the side your foot. Your father does walk you through the labyrinth mowed into the tall weeds across from your uncle’s cottage and there you grow dizzier with each twist and turn of the maze, the tall grass moving in a haze of green with the soft shushing of an afternoon breeze which lulls you to doze. One day you will puzzle at the uncomfortable feelings games of hide-and-go-seek that grass maze calls up in you, how you are unable to play along with the other children.
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F Picture six
This is your father rescuing you from the upset of your drunken mother. He takes you for a walk ‘out the road’ and then back toward the cottages and finally, full circle, he walks you across the ball field back toward the camp grounds. The field needs a mow, overgrown barnyard and crab grasses scratch your drowsy feet and scrape your ankles. Ground bees lumber about your moist person. Your wee-self fills with weariness as you approach the back of the mess-hall knowing that opposite is the bunk-house where, in the darkened back room where the cribs are and the soft wooden floor and giant overhead fan. You will rest in your own little bunk with its pink pillow-case on top of the soft-worn Indian blanket. You are by now tired and troubled enough about your mom that you haven’t the energy for finding Tobie cigars with the kids, or beheading dandelions, or the touching of Monarchs, or finding blue fairies, or gathering Queen Anne’s lace. No time for spotting black snakes, hooking worms, or building sand castles creek-side. Your father has insisted that you walk with him and because you adore him you do your best to please him. Your soft light brown curls stick to the perspiration on your forehead and the slow buzz of a no-see-um sounds eternal in your ear.

At last the crepe soles of your sandals meet the scruff of the paved sidewalk leading to the bunk and your father scoops you into his arms. You rub your face into his neck. The damp cotton of his shirt smells of nicotine, sweat and dial soap, a somehow tender and comforting scent. Years after he dies the smell of cigarettes still gives you a sense of security and, you believe, adds to your long struggle to stop smoking.

Your eyelids grow heavy and you are letting yourself slack into afternoon dreams when you hear the distant sound of your mother, “Oh, Stuart,” she is saying and something more you cannot make out as she staggers near.

“It’s alright, Rita,” your father tells her, setting you down on your feet and taking your hand once again. To you he says, “Come on, Babydoll. Let’s walk around the block again.”

You cry. You tantrum. All protests are ignored by your gentle father and after a visit to the ladies’ bathroom, once again you walk with him around the tracks and along the lane where the earth is a gravelly gray clay which traps puddles that will last as long as summer. Your toes are black with dust and your sandals are now a dirty white. This time around a train passes sounding its horn into your sunburnt temples. One of the cottagers drives slowly down the lane heeding the yellow “5 miles per hour” sign and rolls to a slow stop next to you and dad. It is your aunt and uncle and your father picks you up this time allowing you to sleep deeply on his warm shoulder. The sound of his voice chatting with these passersby tumbles up to your ears from his warm chest and soon you are in a deep sleep. He carries you the rest of the way back to camp. The only sound his melodic random whistle and the stirring of the cicada’s call as the warm afternoon gives way to evening.
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G Picture Seven
Years later you will recall this experience while talking with your sister and you will ask if she remembers the time mom was so drunk and how it upset you to the point where dad had to take you for a walk around the block at camp.

She will laugh at your recollection and explain, “Mom wasn’t drunk. Dad was walking you around because you kids got into Sis’ sleeping pills. You were playing hospital in the bunkhouse,” Later other old friends will fill in the blanks for you.

“We called doctor Klatman and he wanted all the kids to take syrup of ipecac.”

“Your dad refused to make you throw up because you hated it so.”

“He decided to walk you around until the effects of the drug wore off.”

“You were five, I think. Our Carol was just a baby at the time. Just two, I think.”

“No. Your mom was not drunk. She wasn’t even drinking whiskey. Just a few beers.”

Your mom is gone over a decade when you learn the truth of what happened that day and you have a vague recollection of perhaps even being the person who distributed the medications. You do remember that as a child you loved to explore, especially into the business and belongings of others. Your sister’s make-up, the old photos your mother stowed in the cedar chest, your brother’s girlie magazines.

You remember some things now and it makes sense that the medication was the culprit making you light headed and sleepy. You see now the deep affection that your father showed for you that day. The cloak of unfaltering devotion from your father bolsters you even today some 40 years after his death.
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H Picture 8
That summer marks the first but not the last time you were inebriated. You know that your condition then made you somehow able to see something you’d never seen in your mother. Drunkenness. It was something you’d never fail to distinguish again. You would also never fail to forgive it, not in yourself, not in your mother.

—Meg Harris

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Meg Harris grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania but has lived in New England since the 1980s. Recently Meg and her husband took occupancy of a home in Connecticut that was purportedly a tearoom in the 1700s and originally a “great barn” in the 1680s. Today, “Sol’s Path” is Meg’s writing retreat. A chap of Meg’s poems, Inquiry into Loneliness is forthcoming this month from Crisis Chronicles; her stories and poems have appeared in both print and online journals. This is the first time Meg’s creative nonfiction has been published.

 

Aug 112015
 

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There is a tide and time in the lives of chickens, as there is in the lives of men and women. Many of you have watched the rise and fall of the hen population on the farm with amusement and sympathy. But things have gone south. In late spring, a Cooper’s Hawk took the third to last hen. Then the second to last fell sick and died (they were all getting old for chickens). And finally Jean broke her hip a few weeks ago (um, she’s 94), putting an end to plans for repopulation. Chickens are social animals and aren’t happy on their own. While Jean was AWOL in the hospital, I got in touch with Amber Homeniuk, poet (see her poems in the current issue) and Jean’s favourite chicken expert, who offered to rescue ours.

Here we have images and video of the last moments. Amber came prepared with a chicken carrier, also sliced grapes and chicken feed. And you can tell from the video what a gentle and reassuring animal wrangler she is.

Below the video is a collection of images Amber put together of the first moments at the other end of the exchange.

More about chickens than you ever wanted to know, right? But I’ll miss them. Surprising, sociable creatures. Nice to have around the place.

dg

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welcome, Jean's hen!

Welcome, Jean’s hen! Images by Amber Homeniuk

 

Aug 112015
 

Kate Fetherston paintingSpring: watercolor/oil pastel/graphite on paper 11”x15”.

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OVERTURE

I dream we argue about money, which is to say, about toast
and how it should be made, if you really loved me. You

lobby for your birthright to pile striations of mail across
horizontally opportune surfaces. That is: everywhere. If I

loved you, I would see this. I would celebrate your scattershot
genius. The next night, I dream prime numbers in bad

moods bump shopping carts in the produce aisle and slam
bananas to the floor with a fury that says, I am

special. And you don’t love me enough for it. After
weeks of this, one evening around midnight, I slip

out of myself, a stranger to the usual
conflagrations, and dream we muscle

through buoyant water as seals slapping
backsides. Our flippers splash each

other’s whiskery snouts as we loll
in sunlight we didn’t earn. When I open

my eyes, there’s music again. I stroke your stubbly
beard and dream of the Sargasso sea.

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IMG_1178Hidden Gold: oil on paper 22” x 30”.

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BAR SCENE

Your pick up line, “What kind of farm animal are you?” could use some work, and you never said where you’re from. But I to you of a white goat am mothered, my manners dainty and feral. Don’t invite me to the company picnic. I’ll bat my eyes at your boss while nibbling his flip-flops. Senseless, these conventions. My beast-like heart has no strings. You could play me like an accordion. My lungs swell with the sharp air of not-yet spring. I have the kind of hope acquainted of a tin can, desiring nothing more than to remain shiny. I to you am fatherless, gotten of a wild boar, an 80’s punk rocker. See, my mouth filled with thyme and laurel. I can’t sing a lick but my braying is the talk of the county and there have been several offers for my hand. I would like a comfortable barn and an acre of mint for my wedding day. I would like to lie down in clover. You could know me real well, buddy, or keep pretending you don’t want it. Either way, baa–aaad boy—the tab’s on you.

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IMG_1376Pieces of Self: collage on cardboard. 20”x 15”.

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GOD’S INTERVIEW

Tell us how you successfully met past challenges
and why you’re applying for this job.

Weary of mere hallelujah, I held the moon’s dark
backside and lounged on my netherworld throne. People
yammered and I tried to listen. For awhile, to get my
attention, small burnt  animals smoldered on every
hillock, then my inbox burgeoned with cracks
about my outdated skill set.  They gave feedback
on my goals.  They wanted me to improve. They wanted
rules to break.  They wanted selves.  Expectations,
evaluations: a poverty of imagination for which I take
full responsibility.  I dressed for the job I had instead

of the gig Lucifer snatched, so I rocked it
invisible. I did vocalize my needs through burning
bushes, giant snakes, dragons,  unicorns, poets,
an Al Gore or two, but nothing slowed the bloodbaths,
pyramid schemes, political stupidity. People bludgeoned
each other no matter what. Praise and lambast
piled up like junk mail and the universe
became unmanageable Maybe I didn’t
have good boundaries.  I tried tough
love.  Leaked news of my death and hung

with Saturn for a while.  His party
presence relies on a few glum
syllables and splitting a can of Spotted
Dick, but at least he’s not
demanding. But, folks seemed
lonely so I packed a lunch and parked
outside Lincoln Center in a plastic
chair for a couple of weeks. Of course, that’s
the most quiet I’ve enjoyed in millennia. Only
psychotics stopped to schmooze. Maybe higher

intellectual pursuits were the ticket, so
I eavesdropped on philosophy:  If p = q, why
is there no water in the gorge? What
were they even talking about? I had to skidaddle
the hell out of there to make that refresher
course on how to be a supreme deity and still
have time for myself. It’s all about balancing self-
care with busting ass. But I knew this gig was toast
when I no longer loved tender acrospires busting
snow laden earth. Yes, when the moon’s white

thigh rose over spring fields I waited
for the sun to gutter out. So I’m available
to start immediately.  Or, since time
is my plaything, before.

The panel appreciates your detailed response. However, in light of your already overtaxed schedule, we feel you are not the ideal fit for us.  And—off the record, that was quite the bar rant, Mr. G. To promote your success in future interviews, might we suggest job coaching—or medication—or, for God’s sake—both?

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IMG_0679Field with Light: watercolor/oil pastel/sgraffito on paper 9” x 10”.

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CHEATING AT SOLITAIRE

Grandma Dubie, day after day, hunched
splay legged over a bourbon glass balanced

on her chair’s cigarette-burned
arm and flicked cards with a loud

snap, each laid down with a private
purpose. Pastel squares on her

ancient rug functioned as a
game board for us kids. Made-

up crosswords: blue six down
by dusty pink three

across for a prize of burnt
toast. Once, unminded, my little

brother Sam gleefully pried
open the china cabinet, wrapped baby

fists around thin-skinned
teacups, and, determined as

a journeyman, dropped them
one by one on the dirty

floor. Without a word, she hammered
it shut. Shooed outside, we shadow-

boxed dust motes adrift in sour
apple trees, their rotten fruit

slippering bunchgrass that struggled
through what she didn’t

think of as neglect. We played with dead
Uncle Somebody’s toy soldiers. We hid

in the smelly basement, wiggling murky
Mason jars to see when, not if, they’d

explode. We tried climbing into the extra
fridge that, thank god, wouldn’t

shut. Eventually, nothing
else to do, we’d belly flop

back on the rug, singing tonelessly
while clicking Grandma’s jewel

clasped cigarette case. Finally, Grandma yelled
at Mom, I can’t take it—Bring

them back when they’re
housebroken or old enough

to drink. As if we could change
ourselves. As if that

would change us. Today, phone
held sideways, I swish virtual

cards with a finger—tick, tick—and my
fingers become my grandmother’s—now that I

too, lost in the cross hatching of love and irreparable
damage, need for something, anything to come out

all right. And the ache of blue shadow glides with winter
sun along walls of that other room I never left.

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IMG_1360Navigating the Underworld: watercolor/oil pastel on paper. Four 9”x10” panels.

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THE OLD YEAR IN JOHNSON, VERMONT

October hunkers on drab hindquarters
spattered with a few resonant

golds and rusty
oranges. She no longer cares to dress
for dinner or other occasions of vulgar

admiration; company is such
a bore. Spiny deciduous trees bristle

against a dirty palate
sky, and the old year lies down beside a mouse-
brown river.   To sleep she might say, if

she were speaking, but the truth
is colder and grief hardly

original. At the local coffee shop, I sift
some poetry through my early
morning confusion while at the next

table two mental health consumers-
slash-respite workers conduct a convo

with their payee. “That money
is coming to me,” says one. “I played
World of Warcraft all weekend. So don’t try

to play-sate me.” The caseworker
unrolls an I’m-Being

Very-Patient tone. In a small voice, guy number
two makes acquiescent I’m no
trouble noises, then says, “I’ve done

everything to lose
weight and it’s not my fault I hurt

my back. Can I get
some Oxy from anyone at your office?   Is anyone
hooked up?” The caseworker’s inaudible

response is sure to be
appropriate. We’re all in need

of respite, right? My seventeen year old
cat purrs and wants to sit close
but, thin to thinner, she’s disappearing. Her once

shiny black hair is drying to chick fluff. Where
is she going? The dwindling year

can’t be bothered for information. You’ll have
to go through channels, she’d say. If I asked
her to whisper god’s secret

name. Buttoning my coat against
a sharp wind coming off the railroad

tracks, I lean over the riverbank where
water is language enough. Red leaves circle
in widening ripples, then move on.

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IMG_0555Summer Storm:  watercolor/oil pastel on paper 9” x 10”.

—Paintings & Poems by Kate Fetherston

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Kate Fetherston

Kate Fetherston’s first book of poems, Until Nothing More Can Break, was released in 2012.  Her poems and essays in numerous journals including North American Review, Hunger Mountain, and Third Coast.   She’s received grants from the Vermont Council on the Arts and Vermont Studio Center.  Kate was twice a finalist for the Pablo Neruda Prize in Poetry and has several Pushcart Prize nominations.

Kate’s visual art is inspired by the line between feeling and seeing.  In this series, she’s is interested in playing with process and form to reinterpret landscape as it connects with internal space.  Kate’s art has been shown in California and Vermont.

 

Aug 102015
 

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AS WITH MOST AUTHORS whose books I buy second hand in first edition, Greg Mulcahy came to me through Gordon Lish.

Mulcahy’s fiction is, as Noy Holland says, “funny, in the way that wisdom, plainly spoken, is funny.” Through his characters’ agonies he reveals the ruse of our surrounding world, and their rock bottom falls propel each consecutive sentence—the content carried through frictive syntax. His sentences slide, stop on a dime, fragment, run on without punctuation, run over you, leave you breathless, bewildered. Sam Lipsyte says, “Reading Greg Mulcahy’s sentences is like watching the best slalom skiers in the world dare the universe a crazy millimeter at a time,” and it’s a ride that leaves you on the other side, as brave and as dangerous, but with new truth.

Mulcahy is the author of the short fiction collections Out of Work, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1993, and Carbine, Winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction and published by The University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. He’s written two novels, Constellation, published by Avisson Press in 1996, and O’Hearn, Winner of the FC2 Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize and published by The University of Alabama Press in 2015.

After reading Greg’s latest novel O’Hearn, in which I laughed the hardest, I sought him out—where else but Twitter, and who would have figured, the platform come in handy after all?

What started in May and ran through the middle of July is disclosed here now, a glimpse into who Lish once called a “menace to your community.”

How harmful is Greg Mulcahy?

You be the judge.

—Jason Lucarelli

§

My favorite stories stand in denial of progression and the onward flow of time. Your recent fiction seems to lean in this direction. Using a phrase lifted from your newest novel O’Hearn, I ask: does your fiction aspire “to be outside time or better than time”?

I think all literature aspires to be outside of time in Yeats’ sense, but of course, that is impossible. Chronology in any work is a fiction, but the real fiction is the contradictory human experience of chronology. People, or at least I, know death is inevitable and certain, yet I feel as though I’m better than time, that somehow I’ll escape its consequence, when, in fact, it’s wrecking me by the second.

In O’Hearn, the narrator struggles “how to know” as he attempts to sort out events occurring before and after “the incident,” a workplace “mishap” occurring outside the confines of the novel. As the narrator struggles to determine “what was now and what was before,” so, too, does the reader. Was this mirroring intentional or simply inevitable?

It is both. Anybody who writes seriously is intentional about every word. That sets up causation. When the reader reads, if the reader reads seriously, the reader produces the effect. The problem, of course, is that the causation can not ensure what the effect will be. But, you can try your best.

P'hearn cover

Throughout O’Hearn appear the phrases “The Use Of Narrative,” “the perfection of the narrative,” “the nature of narrative,” and “confines of…narrative.” There are references to the “roles” of certain characters—The Queen of Productivity, The Volunteer, Doll, Madame Pompous, and Twerp—and to the “story” the narrator tells himself as he tries to slide events and people into place. At one point the narrator says, “Story about a place and some people and what happened. Was that what a story was.” Were these and other metafictional elements a function of the narrative, or part of a larger authorial concern you had while writing O’Hearn?

Again, both. Film and literature fought a battle over narrative in the 20th Century, and film won, at least where conventional, or the misnamed realistic, narrative is concerned. In light of that, fiction has to do what it can do and film can not do. Part of that is to ask itself how to tell a story, and more fundamentally, what a story is. And of course, no story can be trusted. Ever.

Storytellers are arrangers, organizers. When you were a boy and you told stories to adults, did they ever say, “You’re such a storyteller,” and not because they were satisfied by your animated relaying of an occurrence, but because they could see through the seams of your arrangement?

No one ever said such a thing to me when I was a kid. I grew up in a big Irish-American family, and story telling was part of the air, and, as such, unremarked. If someone was displeased with what I told, I was more likely called a liar or told to be quiet. Of course, I wasn’t quiet.

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Your first collection of stories Out of Work was published in 1993 at Alfred A. Knopf. Could you talk about how that first book came to be? Could you reach back in time still to talk about how you rigged your own “system of organization” to tell the stories you wanted to tell?

I started sending work to Gordon Lish at The Quarterly. Eventually, he ran my novella “Glass” in an issue, and he bought Out of Work for Knopf. For me, the main thing was to forget any preconceptions I had, and I had plenty, and do anything the story demanded. In a sense, I had to let the stories tell themselves in ways that made sense to themselves. I think when my work is successful it comes from a mixture of discipline and indifference.

Your wife, Abigail Allen, appears to have also been sending Lish stories around 1995 and 1996. Was sending your work to Lish a shared pursuit? Did she take classes with Lish?

Abigail sent The Quarterly some of her work. She was never Gordon’s student, and she was looking for a great place to publish. She had eight pieces accepted, but the didn’t get printed there because The Q was out of business before it could run them. She eventually published a great novel, Birds of Paradise, under the name Hiram Goza.

Do you and your wife share work with each other? Who is your best critical reader? Where do you turn for advice on drafts?

Sometimes one of us shows the other something, but usually not. We work very independently of each other. I don’t really get advice on drafts unless an editor offers some. My best critical readers are Lish, Abigail, and recently, Sam Lipsyte.

Constellation

Who influenced you most in your education as a writer? What impact did Gordon’s support have? Was your correspondence with him mostly through mail? Did you attend his classes?

Gordon’s support helped me a great deal. It displayed my work to other writers and made my work viable. We corresponded mostly by mail and spoke on the phone before we met. For all the controversy around him, I’ve always found him to be a warm, generous man and great friend. I never took his class though I did sit in on a session once. I learned a lot from the way he edited. As to who influenced me, the answers are multiple. Certainly my teachers Al Greenberg and Rick Barthelme, my wife, Abigail, a million other writers starting with Joyce and Camus, and maybe most importantly, my high school English teacher, Lorraine Potuzak.

What is your fascination with work and the workplace? What do you do for a living? What have you done? What would you do—or not do—if you had to do it all over again?

I started working at a car wash when I was 14. Now I teach at a community college. I’ve been a janitor, dishwasher, factory worker, lawn care worker, telemarketer, shipping clerk, and more I’ve forgotten. Our faculty is unionized and I was a state union officer for 17 years, including Treasurer and President. This culture is embedded in work. Its primary value is money. Yet it pretends, and our literature often pretends, this is not the case. It’s hard to say what I would or would not do again faced with the economic realities I faced, but I will say this: I would not, if I had my life to live over, go into teaching. It is bad enough you don’t make any money, but over the course of my career, I never expected to be attacked for teaching people things. Now these attacks are a common feature of political discourse. What, exactly, is this country pretending to?

I appreciate how you take aim at the popular notion of “profession” throughout your work and O’Hearn, specifically through the character of Poppa Douk-Douk:

There is, Poppa Douk-Douk said, no place for what is not. There is no place for anything which is not in place.

Your mistake, Poppa Douk-Douk said, is to imagine an alternative life. Imagine if we imagined no alternative, imagine how focused, how aware we would be.

This is “the language of business.” What languages are you attempting to teach your students?

I teach expository and developmental writing at a community college, so my focus is on clarity, precision, and simplicity in its most positive sense. The language I try to teach is clear, simple, direct, and exact. In lit, the biggest problem now is an absence of any deep literacy. I teach close reading in lit more than anything else. In all my classes, I try to communicate the ways the culture lies to us and our often willing complicity in those lies.

Have you ever taught fiction writing? What do you think is missing from the curriculum? Or maybe I should be asking instead about what might be missing from your own curriculum?

I’ve taught fiction writing, but I quit doing it some years ago. If I were to teach it again, I’d like to do it at the graduate or professional level, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. What’s lacking in curriculum is what’s lacking in the culture—a large, sophisticated, well-read audience.

Who or what is responsible for this absence of deep literacy, and how, as a teacher, do you fill this absence?

I think the overwhelming presence of screens—TV, computer, cell phone—has a lot to do with it. And the crazy quilt patterns of American education which is so unsystematic you get creationism in some states, and the general anti-intellectualism in the country, and profound indifference are all contributors. I teach close reading by essentially walking students through texts they have already read. Modern work is particularly good for this, but then close reading was codified as response to Modernism.

Some pieces of yours I’ve read in print or online are fragmentary pieces, little narrative slices. “West,” from the 2013 edition of NOON, is one of my favorites:

Now he had to do something. She wrote that. It was not true. She knew that. She did not want him to do anything. Not really. With the desert and the hills, stone and brush, the sun, the dust, the dry everything.

She wrote that letter. Imagine, a letter. Writing in faded graphite on filler paper—smeared pencil—that—enough for her or all she could do or what she could say and what was the difference.

Was Diane’s editing a result of the brevity of this piece? Are fragments like this part of larger works that you’re writing? Or are these fragments composed as stand-alone pieces?

Diane is a brilliant editor and cuts to the heart of a piece. But they begin quite short, and they stand alone. I’m working on something complicated now, and some of these shorter things might form something longer, but I won’t know until I’ve got a big enough manuscript to start to arrange it. I’m envisioning a number of pieces of radically different duration.

When attempting a new form, do you look for hints of what you’re trying to achieve in other writers? Or does your reading in general influence you to try new things?

Both, I think. Reading makes me want to try more things and shows me possibilities, and I don’t think there could be a book in isolation. It’s like you wouldn’t have a language that consisted of only one word. At the same time, I feel like every time I or anybody writes a book, the writer is reinventing the book, and for me, there’s no avoiding that feeling.

Do you mean reinventing in the sense of how you put a book together against past efforts, but also against the books of other writers you have in mind at the time?

Both those and more. Every book comes with the same problems of language and narrative, and these are multiple problems, but they need to be uniquely resolved each time. So, at least for me, every book is like writing a book for the first time. You get better technically, but the problems are always there demanding solutions, or, at least, amplification.

You are a master of omission. As you developed this technique, whom did you study?

Beckett, Handke, early Mary Robison, Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Leonard Michaels, and, now that I think of it, in a strange way Robbe-Grillet. Also Borges. Every serious writer my age read Borges.

Writers are sometimes hesitant to go back and analyze old work. But I wonder if you see the evolution of your short stories from Out of Work to Carbine, from scene-based narrative movement to a kind of momentum driven by interior reflection and pure intent?

I’m hesitant to analyze any of my work, but I would say that my stories are less concerned with conventional plot and more concerned with language than they used to be. I don’t know if this is evolution—I’m suspicious of any notion of progress in art—or simply moving more deeply into obsession. You know, you get older and become an ever-increasing crank.

Culture critiques are everywhere in your fiction. In “Aperture,” a man reflects on a memory of a photograph of he and his wife in Graceland, a photograph he felt guilted into buying but now sits in a box he cannot find, though he surmises it will turn up sometime in the future. Then, he considers his wife’s image of the future: a place where certain humans are picked to colonize another planet. He thinks:

It was all fantasy. Mythology. The mythology of insecurity, the mythology of science fiction, the mythology of redemption melded into a cheesy pop culture concept unworthy of itself.

A reflection of the general insecurity in the culture. That insecurity broadcast daily.

This is a culture influenced by the media and the cinema of the times:

He hated those movies yet once they entered the culture they kept coming back, eternally recycled to squeeze every bit of possible profit from them. If nothing else, images to carry advertising as a host culture carries bacteria in a lab.

Is popular culture a form of distraction? When you teach your students to see through the culture, what role does fiction play in the classroom?

I tell my students pop culture is a device to remove money from the idiots, and we, collectively, are the idiots. I also show them how serious fiction tells the truth and does not neatly resolve itself as pop culture does. But I point out that literature tends towards stasis and the best pop culture can be dynamic, so the two steal from each other and alter their relationship to each other. I realize some writers don’t see a distinction, and some writers like Charles Willeford or Donald Westlake, in the Parker novels, blur the two categories to the extent they’re both. I’m not trying to be some high priest of Culture like Adorno; I’m trying to give my students a method to evaluate the media they receive. Part of what destroyed English as a discipline is when elite universities decided post structural criticism was the truth, the dogma, when it was a method. It’s good not to confuse the two.

What kinds of discussions are going on in your classroom regarding the use of social media? You tweet, as do I. Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice? What is it about the tweet that you enjoy?

The only real classroom discussion is a ban on having devices on in class although yesterday, during a break, I noticed half the students were texting, and, since we had been reviewing semicolon usage, I told them to include a semicolon in their texts. I was on Facebook, but I got so disgusted with their confiscatory policies, I committed Facebook suicide. I like Twitter because it’s a ridiculous platform for inane observations. I make a lot of inane observations.

Isn’t there something to be said about working within a character limit? Online writing is efficient. There’s a limit to how many characters fit into the subject line of your email before the line cuts off on the viewing end—55 characters, typically—and online marketers, for example, write to make their message fit.

I think that’s right. And all the web journals have encouraged short pieces. If I have something longer than 1,000 words, I try to get it in print because I think anything longer is too long to read online. This leads me to write things in different lengths differently although my stuff has always been shorter than what would have been considered standard 30 years ago.

Do you feel, writing and publishing short short prose, and as the form continues to evolve, that your fiction is better suited for today’s readers than those of the past?

That’s a difficult question because I hate the implications of my answer. We are all prisoners of our time and experience, but I don’t want to be. Not wanting does nothing but make me unhappy. I have readers who value and understand my work, and I’m grateful for that, but I have deep concerns about literacy in this country. I do think readers now accept short work. I’m not sure that’s a great development. Style, it seems, emerges from some complicated, obscure history. Then again, I think of Sappho, and I like her work. I even like that it’s fragments.

Stanley Crawford once said in an interview, we live “within a society that is inclined to measure success in monetary terms,” and if his work were to “attain bestseller status,” he “might see that as another kind of failure.” Do you think this is true of your own writing? What do you use to measure your success?

I’d like to be a bestseller, and I’d like to have the money associated with it, but it’s impossible now. Literary writing has moved to the fringes; bestsellers are only commercial entertainment. The culture has fragmented, and the people who control culture have decided serious conversations are over. This, of course, relates to and interacts with the stupidity of our politics. It also serves that stupidity. I don’t know how I measure success. It seems by most definitions I’m a failure, but I’m okay with that.

Does your frustration over the lack of serious conversations cause you to have them through your fictions?

Some of that, and some what life is like now, and some can you believe how ridiculous things are, and some wonder at linguistic constructs.

Sheer force of language is what lures me to your stories. When I think about the source of your stories, what gets them started, I think of this recovered Jiddu Krishnamurti passage: “So there is the content of consciousness, dull, stupid, traditional thought, recognizing all its emotionsotherwise they are not emotionsalways it is thought, which is the response of memory, knowledge, and experience, that is operating. Now can the mind look at this? Can you look at the operation of thought?”

Take, for example, this passage from O’Hearn:

Who do you think you are he had been asked.

He had said about his ambition but he had forgotten to say about his fire of ambition. It was fire, right? He said he would avoid the trap of failure though he thought everyone thought he was trapped in the trap of failure and although his ambitions, regardless of his statements, were not much. Not ambitious.

And one more, for good measure:

The past—couldn’t he stop thinking of it?

Couldn’t it be over?

He had the present. And future. Future always out there. He had no power over it.

Days without power. Years.

A man without power. He might make barely enough if he was extremely careful. That he had to be careful proved he had no power.

If he wanted proof.

These sentences convey the action of thought, all the internal pressures and stunted rhythms of the mind, yet these sentences move as if made with the mouth, by the ear. When did you start writing sentences this way?

I don’t know when I started writing that way. I think it evolved over time. The idea, of course, is to suggest the quality of thinking without having to build in the messiness of actual thought.

On literature in our “contemporary setting,” Lars Iyer says, “All efforts are belated now, all attempts are impostures.” Do you feel as though literature is not only on the fringe, but has reached its end, and if so, what should authors aspire to, if not take part in its revival?

Literature is always reaching its end because we are always reaching our ends. I don’t believe literature will go away. It constitutes and reconstitutes in different forms, but it’s as permanent as humans are. When we go, it goes. Until then, it goes on.

—Greg Mulcahy and Jason Lucarelli

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Greg Mulcahy is the author of Out of Work, Constellation, Carbine, and O’Hearn. He has published over 100 stories in journals including NOON, The Quarterly, New Letters, Caliban, Gettysburg Review, Alice Blue, Spork, New York Tyrant, and Phantasmagoria. He teaches at Century College in Minnesota.

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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Aug 092015
 

Timothy Dugdale

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BENZEMA TURNED THE KEY and the big black frigate with wounded bumpers roared to life. Every car in town took its lumps. People drove wild, aggrieved at things beyond their understanding. Here comes The Duke was the prevailing attitude at the wheel.

It was a day of errands. Benzema was not enchanted by the agenda even though he knew he’d be splashing in the surf of Cuba’s best beach in two weeks if he succeeded with the item at the top of the bill. He had lost his citizenship card and it was impossible for him to renew his passport without the card. The immigration office had called the day before, announcing the arrival of a replacement card from some godforsaken piece of rock on the edge of Nova Scotia where they paid hillbillies to push paper for the government because there were no fish to catch nor coal in the mines. All he had to do was show up at the office and sign for the card.

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After downing an espresso and a brandy at a local cafe on the way, Benzema trawled to the immigration office, a low-slung gray bunker in an industrial park. The lot was almost full. Just inside the door was a ticket machine and he took a number. He cast a wary eye over the room and its steerage rabble, all come to the True White North. Benzema was no blue blood and he knew it. His people were Dutch drunks who farmed for a a few generations and then moved into the factories. His wife came from a line of scoundrels in Suriname including a dodgy mortician who was not beyond grave-robbing for profit. A coffin in the ground by noon would be back on the showroom floor the next day by noon. Benzema folded himself into a seat at the end of a row of orange plastic chairs, closest to the wickets. There were three wickets open, one large one and two smaller ones. The churn seemed pretty good. People were smiling, even the Chinese clan fussing with a folder of paperwork.

But after twenty minutes, one of the wickets shut. Ten minutes later, another one shut. No more churn. No more smiles in the room. All eyes drifted to the wicket that was open. Three women in full length burkas were seated in front of the counter. Off to the side was a young man intensely watching the women. A swarthy middle-aged man in a ratty sport coat was saying something to the big lady behind the counter. At one time, she might have been a biker’s mama, she had that hard-bitten look. She probably had some tats, thought Benzema, perhaps a rose over her tit that was now a full vine. Whatever abuse she had to take was long gone because now she had this iron-clad sinecure. She was behind a choice piece of glass, not unlike one at a zoo, looking into a pen.

“Sir, I’m going to say it one more time. He’s not coming into Canada. Your daughter’s fiance has three convictions. And he is on not one but two lists,” she said, her voice made tinny by the microphone.

The man leaned his shiny dome into the wicket and shouted, “But the wedding is planned.”

The woman let out a little chuckle. “Go ahead with the wedding, have a big one, but it’s not going to happen in Canada.”

“My daughter… I have guaranteed…everything is set with his family.”

Aha, thought Benzema, a deal. But what could be the deal? Money. Perhaps. Not this man’s money. No, it had to be a passport and his daughter, his daughter’s virgin fresh self, ensured by his son, the appointed protector of the collateral. That’s the deal, thought Benzema, he was sure of it, a deal probably made while the groom and the bride were still growing in other wombs. Some people run swindles with coffins, other people run swindles with wombs. It’s a jungle, a zoo.

The woman in the middle chair said something to her father. The man frowned and muttered a retort. The young man turned up his scowl a notch.

“What I’m telling you, sir, is that your daughter can marry this guy anywhere she likes and they can live anywhere they like. Just not in Canada.”

“Where are these lists? Show me these lists.”

“Sir, you’re going to have to contact the minister in Ottawa. We only have the information that they send us.” The microphone clicked off with a squelch of finality.

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All three of the women had started weeping openly. The young man, leaning against the edge of the wicket, never took his eyes off them. As Benzema was watching this stalemate, he noticed that the reedy black man in an immaculate suit seated across from him had also taken an interest in the show. At first the man only glanced over but then his expression changed, as if he recognized a foul odour, like a Frenchman sniffing a bad cheese. Now the black man was not just watching. He was glowering. On one of his cheeks was a raised scar and his eyes were bloodshot daggers. He glanced at Benzema. Benzema cocked a brow that the man must have read as both solidarity and license. He stood up and moved to the counter.

“Excuse me, ma’am” he said loudly to the woman behind the glass. His accent was British.

“Can you tell me when you will have more personnel?” He waved his arm out over the room.

“Many of us have things to do.”

“Sir,” the woman said brightly, “everyone is on break but will be back. Please be patient.”

The black man nodded towards the crew at the wicket. “Ma’am, I have been patient. You have been patient. Now please send these people on their way.”

Benzema glanced around. What was happening was lost on the room. “Sir, someone will be with you soon. You have your number.”

The black man exploded. “I will not sit down. I have been sitting down. I’m finished sitting down. This country must not sit down!” He pointed at the father. “You will not infiltrate.” And then he pointed at the women on the chairs. “And you, you will not breed.” He turned and sauntered away in dignified pique.

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The woman behind the glass lumbered to her feet and followed him with her eyes. Benzema could see her head nodding ever so slightly. She descended into her chair, shimmying the carapace of her bosum. Her microphone crackled. “Number 78, please, number 78, you’re next.” Benzema glanced at his ticket and stood up. He stepped towards the counter, the trio of women in black and their keepers still implacable.

—Timothy Dugdale

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Timothy Dugdale is a veteran copywriter and brand manager. He writes existential novellas and poetry as well (http://dugdale.atomicquill.com). He records electronic music as Stirling Noh (http://noh.atomicquill.com)

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Aug 082015
 

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Due to ongoing death threats, drive-by shootings, kidnappings, lawsuits, federal investigations, vehicle repossessions, and debt collections, the usual fare of literary magazine publication, Numéro Cinq has relocated its headquarters to a hardened bunker somewhere in Vermont. For your edification, a selection of the usual boring Vermont vistas taken from the backdoor, looking west toward Camel’s Hump, the Worcester Mountains, and Mount Mansfield. Also some woodsy shots with dogs. Neighbours report a “small” 300-lb black bear living across the road. DG needs a new camera for this.

The best part is that nobody can find him.

dg

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Morning clouds

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Very early, about 5am

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Evening clouds

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Another morning,  need better camera

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dg and Lucy

dg and Lucy, very first editorial conference at new HQ

Aug 082015
 

Louise Bak

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Restlessness

air smell washed, sidewalk’s shipping crate’s uncollected newspaper’s
high-ranking officials. a forecourt photo’s tousled abbey blouse in the
cart’s overstretched stocking of uncollected tea. a news portal’s picked
out simpler juk syun for “disgusting,” zip maai, broke up with slowed
forward, fingers indenting flat yoke of a dress, at palm molding’s atta,
at x eyes, worsted on lops around its hem. 5:15 a.m. cheep from leaf-
crumbled clump, green “pass” certificate more rigidly vertical than a
sandwich board’s “destiny reform” skill. stripped up sleeve as part of
sock runs down from knee, wind’s whup of glass panel set in wall, at
a cricket in a see-through tube, crosses into wet dab of cotton, where
it drinks. glancing across small hexagonal mirrors, i-ching coins, the
dry-pivot needle at centre of a diviner’s board, its line for north-south
dire, hooded by a lock charm. inscription of tian chang’s perpetuality

is worn, as waxing moon, flat-bottomed clouds rolled, when lurched
off, a watch’s claymore sword style hands, to inside of hand by egely
wheel, glass-boxed. surrounded with more of palm, sighed sensation
to clockwise flit, tensed legs respread at quavered turn, to more brisk
mincing on a redox ring. slid at fifth finger’s dip joint, cocked doubt-
fully, at contrition and defiance of a mayor, caught by cp24 reporter’s
“but … i … i …” appallingly told to newsroom, while uhn shrugged,
that atleast not toronto sensible, to pieds-à-terre towers underway, to
go up to 915 ft, perks of built-in speakers, forced-air heating, but the
scratches on some velux windows to overlook side elevation deemed
“those grandmas, thinned by the first week.” bumptious, timbre on ga
yull, to hurt the sale of units, remarking the walked direction at a few
khata scarves, that the ring musn’t stay on a finger without movement.

advancing warm front curdled the surface pitting of pomes, in swelter
formed within packages. separated husks of roasted watermelon seeds
from seizes of gold premolars, that handed over from long bus back, a
bottle’s semi-cola-colored water swished, bent stiffly, in heard versing
a younger generation’s “can give just 10 (or whatever) hours for free.”
by a stairwell’s tarpaulin, slither of alu foil paper, where the extension
ladder weighted it, leaking “hiraeth,” at blown sauveteur sticker, stuck
on cigarette butts on steps, to more metallic candy wrappers, cornering
the entrance. tpl tee still draped on boxes stacked against the wall, from
hardly picked detritus of a branch’s vhs titles. lust for life’s outstretched
razor on cobbled path, in static-lined chase. sticking drawer opened for
twist-tied villous amomum fruit, pericarps’ longitudinal cracks marked,
in which negatives were under such compression, that some coursed to

floor and off a bowl of liang pi’s starch paste formed at the bottom of it,
water risen to the top, cupped with a polymer note of 100 yuan, china’s
century temple on its backside dampened more, from lain on boxed rice
and in way of slammed gemel bottle, blots ambroxan, like pervading of
men’s aisles. tongue’s stagger to inside of cheek, to noodles-thickness as
a pen’s coating, braided and lashed on a table, without arresting forward
motion, ungained run skips. cordoned outside, steps’ cascading of blood,
after stabbed female, without vital signs taken to hospital, relayed by the
entering of road restrictions and area resurfacing on a keyboard. the okay
asked in writing, so it could be known what to be meted, while a queased
quiet, ambled crossing a tank’s sanddab. its maxillary reaching below the
anterior part of a lower eye, reported borne franticly, splashes from cloth.
bony ridge mid eyes, twained on one side, cam border’s hanged seriatum

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zip maai, conceal, bury (Cantonese)
tian chang in phrase tian chang di jiu, everlasting
ga yull, (to add oil) – to cheer someone on by saying “go, go go”!
hiraeth, homesickness (Welsh)
liang pi, literally “cold skin,” a noodle like Chinese dish

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Immuring

the red one-button gleaming in the semi-darkness, dropped with
the bracket. in her securing it on the chair, it thwacks blinking at
the half rail. taps at the concentrated liner, melted down a corner
of an eye, on a faint swelling at the lateral canthus. she stretches
from scoop neck to roomy sleeve, for the pressured itch, finding
bands of smooth skin in the sanitized blandness. reaching for the
blouson sweatshirt, she pulls it towards her, making it taut at the
neck hole, only to have it weighted like grain jar with ruyi heads,
while its endless knots circling its shoulder nears temporal ridge,
she feels an overall push outwards, to waist ties undone with the
raglan flopped. uncrumpling the sweatshirt to its inset, the mesh
with garlands surrounded by gimps, that’d go across the sides of
arms is more torn to the “sashou” with the scrape on outer thigh,
red-anemone shaped, punctate with black-blue dots, lappet at its
margin. fingers oilier from being rubbed together to pressing for

the bandeau. the upended nip of elastane, rather the snapping up
just under her sturnum, she sees a girl with a long lilac fringe on
the side of her short hair, who retrieves the arcuate bottom glued
scoop, on the bed lined on the other side of the hallway. tugging
on its pre-assembled paper to a convexity with fried oil luctance,
“pmt 5 worstever” said so dryly, with the anodyne account of the
1 baked potato = fist, heard to her more earnest. a turn diagonally
with pulling at integrated thumb hole, few inches along the index
comes away like a puberlous stipe. smarting in the dark garment,
clasped at its upper medium area, the rest of it bunched at her left
underarm. drawing her cheeks back, so that her lips aren’t smiling
to gingival tissue, correspondingly shaped to upper lip’s overlying
skin, slightly tender, seeing the setting off toward the stray ribbon
and the barge on its positioned “gewt,” close together in iridescent
spring pea. the moving the wrist downward while facing the palm,

while an aide steps from a room ahead of her, fidgeting with a slot
behind the finger tab of a magazine holder. the wrist leaned across
the lovatt’s crossword section at the extra page holder. chain marks
blanchable are indicated and got from the sculpey of kagura, while
there’s the turning to a subsequent page, murmuring at just 9 down,
hued “thicko,” old au pair from latvia. a reproving riffle, in tucking
fingers down, but the index raised, to the flexing of airy fabric with
its full 66” sweep, the right arm craned over head, at the reinforced
twill tape, sliding from the slumped bustle, byakuei’s aching crenate
without let-down, voicing “schutt.” a sidelong glance at her leaning
her torso back on a forearm, her knees drawn toward her chest, as if
a pealing heart. edges of the cabinetwork’s minimal nursing supplies
appears with iritis shadows, brief jerks like the contractile tails of t4
bacteriophage, mnemic length-wise pieces of polygonatum rhizome
in the clip note organizer, separated from the receipts and the mom-

and pop cards, with sections like actions, indications and symptoms
adhoc staffed minutes, sturdied fingered extended ketai strap with a
orbicular rehmannia. lined with irregular transverse curves, pressed
to dust grains fluorescing in a pallor, in a tachyonic stretch, neurons
misfiring, radiations on cell membranes, vacuity breakpoints, while
suddenly, a mid-sentence sprung, smoky of “no uniforms -no flags –
and no medals when we are brave.” sheets stripped back, feeling the
blue scalloped thread design of the blanket, from the inside surfaces
of her knees to shoulders drawn together, head and chest lifted, half-
seating to the set back tightened sound that you’ll get out in about an
hour. inclining to discern, there’s a shot where a barer dietrich arrives
at a small sand rise, taking the rope around a donkey’s neck from one
of the other women. they slowly disappear down the other side, while
her eyes closes in on rouched detailing of her faint teal bra, crammed
between a lady palm and greeting cards also on the footwall. glancing

on the evenness of the vct flooring, the aide carrying a folder moves it
in pulling some dented drop solution from a side pocket, grappling the
other, with brows relaxed but slightly raised, that something’s missing.
striding a step back from the door’s frame, she states “get ready to go,”
sweeping her hand about, to straightening the notice, with its phase of
reorganization, often going on for years -mumbles “shmeed’s charger,”
in turning back. leaning the back strap on the legwarmer, its gunmetal
studs, to the desquamation of her lips, pressed back from the kneaded,
slack of under stomach. the flyby of striped nylon brace, the half of its
clasp’s edges, pushed askance, shortly injected upon left scaphoid fold.
crawling on the reticulate wrinkles of psoralea seeds, said to be able to
expand coronary arteries, while scattered in the rattan chair, light, open
vine stitches of the glove’s pom pom, straight-cut, speckled with pieces
of soft root. rushed from from the double-handled herb knife, the straps
fallen of undershirt, in leaning in toward her of mimosa bark, clasped at

her wrist, used for hundreds of years to soothe emotions. tenebrous, the
bands on each nail on the right, slipped over to the left, curled at the top
edge of the package’s knobby contents, balanced on the outside edge of
left inset, shy of exaggerated frill running at sleeve hem, in the apology
for being so juk maa, fil coupé detail of a looped bow, reddened filmily,
wrackful, like a psc cloud. a leaflet is jounced with her grieved sling of
blue slippers. looking up, lumbering with the identification bracelet and
the emitted “erdbeer” on the gauze compress over a cart, pausing by the
wall to watch that she isn’t on her way back. the dull coated paper seems
malleable in her unfurling, as if it was creased and folded numerously to
a hexagonal star, from its starting in a zig zag. hearing the shuffle of one
just assigned and leaving a room, the “bleats” from the oversized pencil,
halting like it’d take an hour to go down the lines just for her coordinates.
“cuttings,” “smears,” scanned in an order that could only be hers, before
mottled burgundy “smaug,” at the afterward’s “statistically insignificant.”

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sashou, trifling, little (Japanese)
kagura, the heroine of the story Ga-rei, who controls byakuei, a white dragon, from the seal on her back and a long chain that connects her soul to his. any damage the dragon receives also damages her as well.
schutt, rubbish, debris (German)
juk maa, disgusting, ugly (Cantonese)
erdbeer, strawberry (German)

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Whine

arm clutched higher on side of a lecturn, with hand hung from
tickling midst yarn of a balloon, mylar airship drifted, stopped
when bumped at start of greimas square’s actants of turdsinker
squeezed in larynx, where it opponent chalked, whoudi, while
slumping far over opened textbook’s bragg lines on a brillouin
lattice that shoulders rose above, jerked wheeze, flicking over
by cover edges more bumped to a division house, age spots in
outer margin. dripped from choana, greyish gob pliable across
but not obscuring a few words, liquid of eyes knotted, bai zhu
it can’t be helped demurred. pitch in seat, rounded tip end of a

pencil stilled, midscratch forearm. bled hazed “sus,” glancing
up, as if raisiny touch like kokuto, poster’s headphoned pullip
arm’s seaming of differing lace swung. “datu thing is,” began
as inadequate breath, to a louder “moe,” at hiki-room’s hetalia
kite, peeled neath cos-hop conveyed with cresset points, burst
in stamp shaped seal pricks on sternum, dessicated coconut of
candy listed, where scratched inkless, stratus clouds’ openings.
tap of calendar, masses of ink caps, darker in stems’ exudance
as squared cat’s eye glasses stared at space mid desks’ smocks
tiered, vacuumformed armor. briskly pitched 1” pin button of

“i ❤ terror” with lagged tacks by marks of dupe opi polish on
front of shirt. stood at desk frame’s epoxy coated tubing, with
lean where knee and end of pant straight, meager grinned are
you sure you want to do this? fingers halfway in open face of
metallic getup up wagged, peered in eyelid twitches adjusted
as calla lily bead cap repinned in false moustache’s tip pulled
down more, below end of lip on side of turned strides. quake
wirier beneath nose, rubbed and shook of head, in three time
rows, as “tha fat” lapped by “loid,” neared third in umbonate
cut, stood over encamped amoeba table’s inaba rabbit mask’s

painted acrylic scraped, from couldn’t help it slaps of umami
bag, cranium’s gold crown cake topper. gruff uptick of don’t
deserve to be around. seated closed fist with balalala craned
had already coursed past hand’s wound-up ovals, contracted
to hip pocket’s water caltrop hitting casing of cell, rearward
spun, while pustule more pressurized below lips, pressed on
poly bag’s several spine creases of chew comic. cover’s kind
of cyber-luchadore rooster, got free at some clothing $6 bag
bag wednesday. indentation at faceplated crest, palm facing
just short of straight up, el santo y blue demon hood’s luster

midst mid-weight socks, puckeringly sour chaw of suan mei
at back of throat. brass stamping of belt buckles declivity at
upper back, photo of burnout jersey back of vest, press-stud
detail at collar, shoulder hair like straggly cat ear flaps, with
having been wbv patter. haste of next posted image, drag of
drop sleeve of jumper, pregnant-looking temp, as girl across
two way rack of joggers, pointed beneath elbow pit, shirttail
hem wrenched, chewed breccia-hued gelate, flim of kleenex
tossed , its lower cursive on-wee dabbed, as bandage square
unasked of why she had such, muffled breaking wind thuds

in steps, as elasticated side of plimsoll pulled, kicked out in
cotton of polo shirts. sections arranged by apparel type with
halting mid-colors of glassed re-ment minis, several sprouts
on teapot and croquembouche’s thin threads, finding cordial
lined, implying pieced together, gone to several-days-starch
syruped haws, glister from tug of coated skin, teeth motions
on sides of zipper match ups in good condition, as shuffling
over sesame rong bag, stacked heel bumped on loose pieces
of gravel, from snagging of display shelves. quickly dashed
left choppings of peanut coating, snagged mǎzai crag gooed

shudders, arched lower back up, felt droop of harness vest’s
block shaped hood, repeated with waist traced rotating from
right to left, in circular motions. screwed round gaze, string
lit near tang suit hat on banh tiêus, layout of silk’s longevity
signs with panels of vinyl’s printed mesembs, sections hand
sewn, moments of even stitches midst “you closing eyes in
that photo? can never tell with you,” inattention settings on
their over/under offs. shirt’s shawl collar of pliable tissue in
dragon garland wouldn’t pass muster, pulling a voucher out
of handbag’s packets of dispensed kari-out lady, as twisted

red cloth of cord hurtled, dimmed sockets whined, to wave
of arm ended wagged in air, turned at window’s scrabbling
with a paw at fur missing half-way up a cat’s torso. noticed
too at base of tail, disappearing to tetra pak bottle’s caramel
shake shell, slanting neck’s dipping of angostura in a shrub,
limply dribbling, further extruded rings of cheez-it, judged
liquidy-ish sick down front column linen shirt. avoided the
ignoring eyes’ moving of oval hook clear plastic of glasses’
“either that,” to snagging on lego tie tack. golden laminate
bumps sped off ear of crooked sack cloth double crescents.

middle fingers crossed over, pointer fingers hunched overs
of random tut waded at nonpareil rack’s highschool jackets,
a sailor moon dress, by sparse “medic” smocks and apron’s
long neck tie unlaced from a tubular hanger’s holster garter
and tried out foam latex galaxina mask, stretched out, as in
mouth moved apart. grasped cotton drill by underline at its
knee, shook at upper its knee’s solid fibrefill, as the not too
ott lace at sides of male zentai suit left, it lain on bale of no
longer suitable for reuse. waist down to the vent area where
back of the thighs hitched lower body’s quality of miniscule

marquise galloons on card, with longdashed globe. pouter’s
heta uma at weight of breath near to bangle’s ballchain and
adhesive streaked, a cut more inside the edge of a glass tile
over wicking of donut bail’s not fabricated to be repeatedly
opened and closed on below ear hair, in press on square of
agloe, made-up map trap. adjustment of centring hold with
town labels, route lines, to pleated details on shoulder of a
shirt, lain in a used hide-a-bed’s straightening of three way
zip through crotch, in who else was looking and what was
being seen, smooths of agglomerated cork, willable sound

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bai zhu, a chinese herb, with a rhizome clenched like a fist
kokuto, black sugar candy
moe, a slang term referring to the sexual attraction to idealized people
hikikomori, a social phenomenon, involving withdrawal, reclusive patterns of adolescents or adults in Japan
inaba, in Japanese mythology, there’s a tale of coming upon a rabbit stripped of its skin and crying. It was told it’d recover, by washing off in seawater, but doing so, things got worse
wbv, refers to weight-based victimization
mazai, chinese pastry made of strands of fried batter, with a sticky syrup, with historical associations, including “[I’d like to] kill that guy on the horse.”
zentai, a term for skin-tight garments that cover the entire body
heta uma, concept of bad technique, good sense (Japanese)

—Louise Bak

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Louise Bak is the author of Syzygy (DC Books), Tulpa (Coach House Books) and Gingko Kitchen (Coach House Books). She’s the co-host of Sex City, Toronto’s only radio show focused on intersections between sexuality and culture. She also curates/hosts a salon series called The Box, which encourages communication across literary and artistic borders.

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Aug 072015
 

15th Cen. St Brenden, stranded whale, B. Museum15th Cen. St. Brenden & The Stranded Whale, British Museum

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There shines in us, though dimly in darkness, the life and the light
of man, a light which does not come from us, which however is in
us, and we must therefore find it within us.
Gerhard Dorn – Philosophia specuativa

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“As the dead prey upon us,
they are the dead in ourselves,
awake, my sleeping ones, I cry out to you,
disentangle the nets of being!”
Charles Olson

1 – Pedrolino

WOKE THIS MORNING in the house where the poet Vincent Ferrini lived and wrote for decades, now the Gloucester Writers Center.August 17th, 2014, at 7:30 AM, newly risen light washes purple drawstring shades, which I keep half-shut. Perched on the shoulder of East Maine Street, a two lane coastal road that runs between downtown Gloucester and Rocky Neck, traffic up and down the hill sets up a constant rush of sound. The front door opens on a gas station/ convenience store at the far side of a parking lot. In back workmen level ground to pave a narrow alley. People walk close to the windows. There’s a small kitchen at one end, and a bathroom off the main room. I’ll be the poet-in-residence here for a week, which ends with a reading from my latest collection, Fishing On The Pole Star.

Last night, after a chicken/vegetable stir-fry dinner, I turned on the overhead fan, moved a lamp to the side of the vintage pull-out bed and perused a book case lining the wall stacked with copies of Vincent’s collection, Know Fish. Among them I found a copy of Charles Olsen’s Collected Works and fell asleep reading his signature poem, “The Kingfishers.” This morning I dimly remember a dream in which I’m standing in a rowboat fishing from the stern with a child’s rig. I understand the implication that I am still developing as a fisherman, but have no doubt that knowing fish has brought me here.

Framed poems hang on white walls beside images of Ferrini and his friend, larger than life poet Charles Olson, who mythologized Gloucester as Joyce did Dublin. Standing 6’8”, aka Maximus, and former rector of Black Mountain College, Olson played a major role in the dynamic changes that drove mid-20th Century American poetry. Ferrini appears small beside him, but no less haunting.

Vincent & MEVincent Ferrini, (monoprint) by Jain Tarnower @ The Gloucester Writers Center

I work on a table facing a print of Ferrini outlined in white on a black field—an image dominated by his white face and hands. He wears a domed hat, like a novitiate in an obscure Italian order, but might as easily be Pedrolino, the moon-faced dreamer out of the comedia dell’arte. His smile is enigmatic. It reads like a confidence, an intimate whisper in my ear:  Pay no attention to what is going on outside and around you. Do as I did. Listen for what comes through the inner doors and windows.

I follow the instruction, submit to the inner sensorium.

What enters is as much shape as sound, ideas like iron filings on a magnetic field. The field becomes an ocean, the magnet a star. Fish swim below or break the surface. Constellations in space dance without touching. This ghost in the room I think of as Pedrolino has awakened a ghost in me. I see myself standing beside Amfortas, the Fisher King, in the Pole Star watching a king fisher dive. How did Amfortas end up in my boat, both of us in the stern waiting for Parzival or his equivalent? Olson’s poem, “King Fishers,” which influenced me as a young poet, has set up an inexorable call to the obsession of my later years, the wounded Fisher King!

Amfortas drops his line next to mine, and with it the orderly content of my inner world breaks down. I can’t predict what will emerge from this matrix, what looks like a massa confusa, but is possibly the first stage of important work.

Pedrolino nods.

“Yes,” I tell him. “I accept.”

I’ll take the risk, go where the currents lead. I am a navigator with faulty maps and a ragged compass. But there is a mystery on the tip of my tongue waiting to be revealed, a series of linkages I had not suspected before that will pull valuable information out of the shadows into the light of day—if only I will engage the journey.

Pedrolino is pleased. His smile deepens.

I let him know that in addition to my reading I will give a talk, because the title just popped into my head like a mackerel: “Trolling With The Fisher King.”

That is, after all, what this about. Whether alone in the boat, or with Amfortas trailing in Charles Olson’s wake, fishing is what connects us. It is as though now all three of us were working the same line after the catch we were all hoping for—the wisdom that whispers, “What wounded thee will make thee whole.”

I email my host Henry, old Ferrini’s nephew, proposing the talk and its title and suggest it immediately follow my reading.

Almost instantly, I get a reply: “You’re on!”

Pedrolino likes this.

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2 – Spreading the Net

The Fisher King figure in its present form appears prominently in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th Century epic, Parzival, set in a landscape devastated by war. Armies returning from the Crusades, and mercenaries hired by expansionist nation-states, have pillaged the countryside. Against this backdrop, knights governed by the archaic laws of chivalry kill each other in the name of love and honor, leaving a trail of widows and fatherless children in their wake. Parzival’s mother, stricken by the loss of her heroic husband, takes their son into the woods vowing he will not perish in this way. She raises Parzival in a state of nature ignorant of his lineage and his real name, which means piercing through. One day at an age when most young men leave home, he sees a brace of knights in armor riding through the woods and mistakes them in their shining armor for gods. Parzival follows them to King Arthur’s court, where he gains entry by killing the Red Knight who blocks the entrance with a lucky throw of his lance through the eye-slit in the seasoned warrior’s helmet. Still innocent (unconscious) but triumphant, the fledgling sets out to prove himself, and becomes what his mother feared most, a man who kills in the name of love and honor.

Riding past a lake one evening at dusk Parzival spies a man fishing from a dingy who directs him to a castle where he can spend the night. He doesn’t recognize that the fisherman is Amfortas (without strength), keeper of the Grail. Under the banner of AMOR, Amfortas killed a Saracen warrior in single combat, and ever since that time has carried a piece of the Infidel’s lance in his groin. Because his pain is greatest in the presence of the Grail, Amfortas can no longer function as Grail Keeper. He now sits with a line in the water to ease his pain waiting for one pure in heart to ask the question that heals his wound, and restore the Waste Land.

In some versions, the question is, “Whom does the Grail serve?” in others, “What ails thee?”

The innocent (unconscious) Parzival doesn’t recognize himself as the one for whom Amfortas and all attendant on the Grail are waiting.He follows directions to the Castle and is welcomed by attendants who bathe and dress him. In the Great Hall he witnesses the procession of the Grail that once held Christ’s blood, and the lance used by the Roman soldier Longinus to pierce His side. Joseph of Arimathea, who prepared Jesus for burial was said to have brought these sacred objects to England.

Galahad_grailGalahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail. Tapestry woven by Morris & Co.. Wool and silk on cotton warp, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

From his divan in the Great Hall, Parzival watches robed acolytes parade with the spear that pierced Christ’s side. After this another set of acolytes carry the Grail, which fills the tankards, bowls, goblets, trenchers, platters and baskets with all manner of delicacies, from fowl, and mutton to cheeses, fruits, breads and wine until everyone at the banquet is provided for. There appears to be no limit to what nourishment the Grail can bestow. In the right hands, such abundance might feed the world.Seated across from him Amfortas writhes in pain waiting to hear the question that will deliver him. But Parzival has been taught that it’s impolite for a guest to question his host, and so he fails to ask the question. He wakes next morning to find the Castle empty except for spectral voices jeering from the battlements. The drawbridge slams shut behind him. Slowly, it dawns on Parzival that he has failed to recognize this opportunity.

It’s a bitter pill.

All of his assumptions, the received wisdom given by those in authority, dissolve in the first light of consciousness. He will spend the next twenty years wrestling with this failure. In the end, confronting his own wounded pride, he is able to “pierce through” to the recognition of his true identity as heir in that lineage as Grail Keeper.

Two details must be noted: after recognizing his role, Parzival rejoins his wife in true union, a Holy Marriage (heiros gamos); and, finally, he encounters his dark brother, Fierfize, (piebald), the son their father, Gahmuret, sired with the black Moorish Queen Belcane, in the North African Kingdom of Zazamanc, on his way home from the Crusades. Concealed by their armor, they face off without knowing the identity of the other. Just before delivering the death blow Parzival sees his brother’s face free of the helmet, recognizes him, and the once embattled knights embrace.It begins as a reprise of the battle in which Amfortas was wounded, and ends with a resolution. Parzival welcomes his dark Muslim brother as a part of himself. He can heal the wounded Fisher King by asking the question which he now embodies. Amfortas, free from pain, dies in peace. may be a cipher and a prescription for our own time..

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3- Mare Nostrum

The reading at the Gloucester Center for Writing from Fishing On The Polestar is scheduled for later this week. The poems record my experience trolling the out islands of the Bahamas, exploring obscure inlets, crossing the section between Eleuthera and Columbus Point known as “the tongue of the ocean.”

What would the tongue of the ocean say if it could speak?

I recall last night’s dream, and reel it up from my store of memories.

As a child I hooked crappies (small sunfish) in Prospect Park. In the 70s , I hauled in snapper on a hand-line from a dugout off the coast of Belize. Later, I trolled for bill fish in a 42’ Bertram from Ft. Lauderdale to Crooked Island. In time it dawned on me that as a poet and psychotherapist drawn to the unconscious, my lures were set to bring up something concealed in my own depths. I have come to understand the Fisher King wound and why a line in the water brings relief.

Olson’s Collected Works lies on my bed open to “The Kingfishers”. I read: What does not change / is the will to change…

He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He
Remembered only one thing, the birds, how
When he came in, he had gone around the rooms
And got them back into their cage, the green one first,
She with the bad leg, and then the blue,
The one they had hoped was a male.

Since the poem was published in 1949, no one has been able to give “The Kingfishers” a definitive reading. Those who engage it are drawn or repelled; few are indifferent to its movement. Some critics call it a dreamscape, and there is reason to treat it as such. Others cite it primarily as a response to post-Holocaust trauma.But what’s most haunting about it is less historical than psychological. “The Kingfishers” occupies a limbic space, that threshold between sleeping and waking where the conscious and unconscious are open to each other. This is also where we locate the Grail Castle that appears and disappears, a quantum space beyond fixed coordinates. Here, Charles Olson drops his lures.

MarillDialogue at Five (Provincetown) – Herman Maril

Lines from “The Kingfishers” float through dream-time into morning light trailing brightly colored green and blue feathers from two caged birds. Still in bed, I hear seagulls outside squawk and cry. Sea-birds have trailed in my wake for hundreds of miles, like my golondrina. As a merchant seaman crossing the Pacific I watched a tiny swallow hitch a ride from the Golden Gate to Subic Bay on our United Fruit ship. Even through the roughest storms. When I thought it had been blown away, there it was the next morning perched on a boom. Long after I returned from the South China Sea, the swallow haunts me. Like Olson’s kingfishers, my golondrina, exists as an ache in the present—an unhealed wound.

I follow my ghost bird into the poem.

Neither “The Kingfishers” nor the Fisher King is primarily concerned with the act of fishing, but each links deeply wounded cultures, lacking coherence, to fishermen, fish and fishing birds. A lost but crucial piece of psyche must be restored. I fish for the clue in Olson’s paradox: everything changes but the will to change.

What is the lure attached to this line?

unnamed paul pinesWayne Atherton – Mounting The Bounty

It isn’t change that carries the charge, but the “changeless will,” and what that implies.We are drawn to what is concealed in changeless will. Calculations will not reveal it. Otherwise discourse—words, ideas and numbers alone would heal the Fisher King wound.Better to follow the kingfisher into limbic space, watch it circle, dive, and emerge with a fish in its beak. Reason will not tell us what lies beyond it, like the sublime—or how to locate “changeless will” in the wound, the fisherman, or the fish.

Better to follow a ghost bird.

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4 – Fixing the Colors

Olson’s narrator wakes fully clothed from a dream. Seated at my computer, under Pedrolino’s watchful eye, I recall that seabirds following a school will mirror the behavior of the fish, then feel a tug, rock back and forth as if I were in the fighting chair. What I bring to light surprises me, a dream fragment from last night. I enter a room where people dressed in blue and green are waiting to hear my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King”. Olson’s birds are blue and green. This is not insignificant. He quotes 16th Century Belgian alchemist/psychologist Gerhard Dorn: “Color/ is the evidence of truth.”

I agree. Color is important.

As an eight-year-old fishing for crappies in Prospect Park, I watch my cork bob on a bed of light that splinters when the float sinks. As I reel in a sunfish, brightness falls from the air (a line James Joyce borrowed from Thomas Nash). The brilliance of its scales fires my imagination. These sparks are evidence of an underwater rainbow I might pull up whole as all those other kids marvel. It will give me super powers, change my life by calling forth the power inside of me.

Years later, at sixteen, reading Freud’s Future of an Illusion, I understand that fishing my dreams is more likely to yield that life-changing catch. The flashes of color I glimpsed as a child were aspects of myself yet to be identified.I’m still waiting for a vision to break the surface like a marlin.

Color…fixes the statement,” (Olson via Dorn).

What shall I say about “The Kingfishers” to my dream audience in kingfisher colors?

We trail lines defined by the color of our lures.”

ArthurDoveSunSun, Arthur Dove, the Smithsonian

The first thing Olson does in “The Kingfishers” is to pluck color from dream-water, the green female bird “with the bad leg,” and the blue male returned to their cage by someone named Fernand who “ had talked lispingly of Albers & Angkor Vat,” and subsequently leaves the party that is taking place…

When I saw him he was at the door, but it did not matter,
he was already sliding along the wall of the night, losing
himself
in some crack of the ruins. That it should have been he
who said, “The Kingfishers!
who cares
for their feathers
now?”

Fernand dissolves like a shadow in “some crack of the ruins.” He points to what we otherwise can’t see, and seeing, turn away. No wonder the poet regrets that it should have been Fernand who poses the question: who cares? The shadow’s voice, peripheral to awareness,delivers a message that draws us down, even as it hangs in the air like an accusation. The poet wishes the question had been his to ask.

Parzival also begs the question; the part of him that would ask it remains buried in his split-off shadow. He must become fully conscious to ask the healing question: What ails thee?

Fernand’s question points to, rather than discloses the disconnection, and so rings both as desperate and ironic: Who cares?

Outraged, Olson raises a more pressing question: Who is Fernand anyway, this shadow that speaks what must be said, then vanishes, leaving behind him a cloud of regret? Fernand’s question, “Who cares?” exists as a statement yet to be understood by those at the party, including the poet.This Post-Parzival situation finds us in stagnant waters.

Bright blue and green sparks in the kingfisher feathers at the opening of the poem disappear into the rapidly deteriorating natural world. Observing from the shadow’s point of view, Fernand comments.

His last words had been, “The pool is slime.” Suddenly everyone,
ceasing their talk, sat in a row around him, watched
they did not so much hear, or pay attention, they
wondered, looked at each other, smirked, but listened,
he repeated and repeated, could not go beyond his thought
“The pool the kingfisher’ feathers were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

Those at the gathering are confronted with the degraded pool at their center, evidence of unconsciousness. They are unmoved, look but don’t see, listen but don’t hear—remain in a peculiar state of indifference, partying in a Waste Land. Part one of “The King Fishers” ends here, with Fernand’s unanswered question.

It was then he left.

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5 – Consciousness / The Wound

How did we become deaf to the voice that reminds us to wake up? Mother earth calls from the depths, warns us to pay attention. This was the purpose of the Great Mysteries. The Dying and Reviving Gods like Tammuz, Dionysus, Attis, Adonis, Ba’al and Jesus demand we remain conscious. Their myths and ceremonies of wounding and healing model the birth, death and resurrection of consciousness, a transformative experience open to those who understand it. In her study The Language of the Goddess (1989), Marija Gimbutas points out that wine and bread were revered as sacraments in Neolithic cultures because they represented the inherent potential for transformation produced by fermentation and yeast. Early Egyptians drank beer and tasted Osiris wafers to partake of an eternal blood and body. The Pyramid Text, dating back to the 5th Dynasty (2,400 BCE), instructs the king to rise from his tomb

Take your head, collect your bones,
Gather your limbs, shake the earth from your flesh!
Take your bread that rots not, your beer that sours not

unnamedUnnamed, Matt Daly

The same text, perhaps the world’s earliest known religious document, records the worship of Osiris, Egyptian lord of the Underworld. Depicted with green skin, a pharaonic beard and ostrich feathers on either side of a conical crown in later hieroglyphs, Osiris is the poster boy for death and resurrection. Dismembered by his jealous brother, Seth, and re/membered by his sister/wife, Isis, Osiris knits worlds above and below into a seamless whole, just as the wounded Fisher King embodies the potential to restore the Waste Land. But there is a shift in this mythos between Dynasty V and the 12 Century AD, and again into our Post-Internet culture. The drama is no longer the provenance of the Gods. The transformation requires human participation. Parzival must become conscious of his own wound before he can heal Amfortas and accomplish his mission.

We are dealing in symbolic terms with human development, the ordeal through which split off material in the unconscious is brought to light and integrated. Carl Jung found in Alchemy a compelling description of transformation applicable to the totality of the psyche. For him, the writing of adepts like Gerhard Dorn revealed in symbolic language the relationship of the unconscious to the conscious as the agent of psychological transformation. Jung recognized in Alchemy an intuitive iteration of Psyche’s drive to realize itself. Olson also quotes Dorn suggestively: “Color is important.”

the blackeningCombat, Marc Shanker

The Alchemical Work broadly speaking unfolds in four stages, the first of which is a condition of decay, the “blackening” known to practitioners as nigredo. It is analogous to the initial wounding, the early call of the unconscious to become conscious. Olson’s poem locates it in Fernand’s recognition of the pool become slime. He points it out to those gathered but no one hears him. Only when there is some acknowledgment of the condition can the Work move on to stages known by their colors, white, yellow and the reddening, rubedo. Here, the transformation is realized in the body of the “Philosopher’s Stone”, or as Parzival beholds it, the lapis exilies, another name for The Holy Grail.

Olson’s poem can be read as the search for materials in anticipation of the Alchemical Work, which is increasingly difficult as we are blinded by distractions. Psyche’s drive toward transformation, the hidden telos in Olson’s “will to change,” calls out to us. His poem, “The King Fishers” is an attempt to hear it, a plea for us to open our ears or suffer the consequences. Riding the stern of his work, feathered lures in the water, I see Charles Olson become the Fisher King. It’s not the nigredo alone he fears, but that he (we) will get stuck in it, and stay that way—trapped in

a state between
the origin and
the end, between
birth and the beginning of
another fetid nest

Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny: the principle states that each of us in our development recapitulates the evolution of the species, and possibly the entire universe, from chaos to cosmos. If true, there is a moment when that movement becomes conscious of itself, a shift (or fall) from undifferentiated “time before time” into time as we experience it—antiphonal, polarized, and fleeting. In a number of myths, the creation of cosmos from chaos involves horrific violence, a wounding and dismembering that becomes embedded in nature.

For the Aztecs creation begins with a many armed female monster, a hungry mouth at the juncture of each arm. In this myth, the agents of “the will to change”, Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, become serpents, wrap themselves around the insatiable matrix and twist until she comes apart. From her parts they construct the ordered world which remembers the pain and exacts tribute in blood. Sumerian hero-god Marduk does the same to the complaining sea-serpent Ti’amat. The mother of us all, pre-conscious chaos incarnate, must be torn apart. This process, essential to creating and sustaining order, also produces the consciousness that re/members that pain.

The wound requires appeasing. Host cultures enacted blood rituals of reparation to a matrix that might exact revenge if disregarded. If we forget or cease to feel the pain inherent in becoming conscious, degradation of the psychological and natural worlds follow as surely as slime on the pool. Numbed and disconnected, we dismiss Fernand’s warning, whisperings from the shadow in the wings.

kingfisher-3Kingfisher hovering, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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6 – Re/member Me

In Greek mythology the wind god, Aeolus, intervenes when his daughter Halcyon attempts to follow her mortal husband drowns in a storm. Aeolus prevails on Zeus to turn them into birds. Zeus does this, but requires that she nest on the shore for two weeks in mid-January ever year during which he stays the waves and winds to let her young hatch in safety. These become known as Halcyon Days; we know these birds as kingfishers.

It is true, it does nest with the opening year, but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There,
six or eight white and translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds.

I have observed riverine kingfishers nesting in the muddy banks of the Sibun River in Belize. We steered our canoe through an uncharted stretch that flowed between the Pine Ridge and jungle low-lands. I noted anhinga, heron, hummingbird and toucan—among other exotic avian life—but the kingfishers where most memorable. They darted in and out of tunnels in which they built their nests. I think of them as I read Olson’s description of that process, how they construct those nests of decomposed fish bones—evidence of which was visible and odiferous as I passed them on the river bank.

Mostly it was the sea-birds I followed.

swallowHieroglyph Swallow, a.frostly.com

E.H. Gombrich tells us in his Little History of the World: “If you want to know where Egypt is, I suggest you ask a swallow.” That’s where they fly every autumn, over the Alps to Italy, across the sea, to the Nile valley. My golondrina: the swallow, for centuries the talisman of seamen—square riggers manned by seamen with barn swallow tattoos on their arms and chests. The swallow delivered a lost sailor’s soul safely to the Underworld. A Pharaoh tells us in the Pyramid Texts he has “gone to the great island in the midst of the Field of Offerings on which the swallow gods alight; the swallows are the imperishable stars.”

Poems in my book, Fishing On The Pole Star, describe birds circling or diving into weeds banked on shoals where small fish are feeding, larger ones under them, and at the bottom tier great creatures with silver fins that break the surface, incarnate beams of light. Aloft on the tuna tower of our boat, a small seat on top of a ten foot ladder rising from our bridge, I admired the weave of worlds from Bimini to the Planas. For years the sun drenched waters appeared to be as they had always been. Then the veil fell from my eyes. I’d been like those Fernand addressed at the pool-party, unaware of the slime.

The Waste Land referred to in Parzival, and revived as a theme by T.S. Eliot, links the mythic to the ecological narrative. The state of the physical world is a reflection of the psychological one in which we live. Our willingness to read and understand it depends on our ability to tolerate the pain in that recognition, and our desire to heal it.

Changes in Bahamian and Caribbean waters have been incremental, but can be measured in bleached reefs, diminishing schools of tuna, the paucity of local catch, and marlin moving further south to Piñas Bay. Sea birds—cormorant, frigate, pelican, heron, and kingfisher—that dive with satellite precision, are the unifying connection of above to below. What becomes of them as the fish populations dwindle? “Who cares for their feathers now?”

Changes in temperature provide a breeding ground for stinging mites that make it impossible to swim in certain locations without a wet suit.

Cays with white sand beaches that held no footprint are now virtual stages where Bahamians set up a fake village for Holland American Line cruise ships, where tourists buy folk art, drink rum punch, and dance to a reggae band before cruising on, unaware they’ve been in Disneyland. It might’ve been a protected beach for halcyon birds to hatch their eggs, but who can protect them from cruise ships?

We’ve come a long way from the Pharaoh’s great island tenanted by imperishable sparrows. All assumptions about endlessly resilient Mother Nature are no longer tenable. NASA photos reveal we live on a frangible sphere wrapped in atmospheric lace. We are now cognizant of five previous extinctions.
Where does the extinction of our species fit in?

In addition to species, we are also aware that words and feelings can become extinct, the once rich chords on the emotional scale reduced to simple notes. Awe, a word once a referring to a transformative experience, has been reduced to a trivial response in every day speech.

What happens to us, and to the natural world when we remain unconscious and therefore unable to address the wound?

Olson puts it another way: What happens when only the feathers are left?

Tomb of Nebamun, Thebes, ca. 1350 BC, British Museum

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7 – Focusing on the Feathers

Olson’s emphasis on the bird and its feathers makes me think of ancient Egypt. In the Ur-myth Isis re/members the severed parts of her husband Osiris thrown into the Nile by his jealous brother, Seth. With the help of Ibis-headed Toth, she retrieves all but his phallus, swallowed by a fish. This doesn’t prevent Osiris from fathering an only begotten son, Horus, his representative on earth. We might call Horus, the falcon: Consciousness Fathered by the Wounded One.

Osiris takes his place as Lord of the Underworld (Duat) where he presides over the fate of souls after death, depicted in hieroglyphs as birds that fly into the underworld. Osiris guides the soul, dis/membered by death, in a transformation through which the wound is healed and the soul restored in the body of Osiris—fulfilling what will be articulated in the Great Christian Mystery: “my father and I are one.”

baNerfertari as Ba, Tomb Painting, 3,200 BC

The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom clearly tell us that souls in the Duat are “regularly and continually” challenged to undergo transformation.  The union of the ba (embodied soul) and the ka (vital spark), form a third, the akh (the effective one). The akh, as the pure light of consciousness, is represented in hieroglyph by a crested ibis, bird of the wise god Toth. The Pyramid Text stipulates that should the ferryman refuse to transport King Unas’ soul to the other side: He will leap and sit on the wing of Toth.

Papyri and tomb walls exhibit images of birds and feathers everywhere. For the world’s oldest high culture, birds embodied distinct intelligences essential to specific gods and goddesses. Amon, the “hidden source” or uncreated creator is a feathered crow.  Amentet, the setting sun, who prepares souls for rebirth, appears with wings and holding a hawk’s feather. Shu, god of the atmosphere, wears ostrich feathers. Isis, wife of Osiris, mother of Horus, sports a vulture head dress and the rainbow wings of a kite. Horus is a falcon. Osiris wears white feathers on either side of his crown. Ra, the Sun and first Pharaoh, has a hawk’s head. Kephri, at sunrise, becomes the Bennu, or risen Phoenix. A single feather belonging to Ma’at on the scale in the Hall of Two Truths determines the fate of all souls. Souls lighter than her feather become Akh and are welcomed to paradise. Those less fortunate are devoured by the crocodile jaws of Ammit.

ostrich wingsGoddess of Balance, Ma’at spreads her ostrich wings over gods and humans.

Sea-birds also link the world above to the one below. Their feathers are talismans. Olson’s kingfishers vanish into the shadows. Their feathers are evidence of a forgotten unity that calls to us unheard. Birds, visible by day, accompany Ra’s solar barc on its Night Sea Journey through the underworld, as did the golandrina, which I failed to recognize as my ba-bird. Birds, especially the swallows, become the vehicles for souls in the underworld, and for their transformation. The Bennu, the Egyptian phoenix, rises and sets with the sun.

The Osiris Mystery, as both myth and ritual, marks the early intuition of an objective intelligence in the unconscious. The drama of transformation in the Underworld describes the potential that takes place in our own psychological depths. Olson’s representation of the soul as kingfisher, a force precipitating the unchanging will to change, and its loss, constitutes more than his own gloss on the old myth, but a new one for our time. Perhaps the de-potentiation of mythology itself, the loss of any symbolic narrative that gives culture coherence and the way of enlarging individual consciousness.

Parzival’s healing question can only be asked by one who has been weighed in the balance of Ma’at and become an akh. Olson’s poem, “The Kingfishers,” is an 11th hour cry for help!

“The pool the kingfisher’s feather were wealth why
Did the export stop?”

When the symbolic links disappear, we are left with lassitude. Anything more is difficult to grasp, certainly the world as a coherent whole. Fernand speaks from the shadows about the devalued kingfisher feathers. He addresses those who sit mindlessly around the stagnant pool full of slime. In the end what he asks is rhetorical, not so much a probe as a hook.

Drawn by the potential for transformation, the changeless will to change, Parzival becomes an embodied soul and asks the healing question. But what happens when Parzival, the Fisher King and the Grail itself disappear from consciousness altogether?

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8 -Rubedo, The Reddening

Olson loved to dig among stones. Indecipherable Mayan Glyphs spoke to him of buried intelligence in images of serpents and birds, heads dressed in woven feathers, the rise and fall of a high civilization incised on clay tablets. These elusive messages held valuable if undisclosed information: how do advanced systems decline into devalued plumage, slime in the pool.

I pose you your question:
Shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among the stones

In the coastal Mayan ruins of Dzibilchaltun, and rubble of “Dogtown”, the Gloucester settlement abandoned after 1812, Olson was drawn to the haunt of civilizations that carved the clues to their demise in stone. He knocks on the door of the unconscious.

b8899ccb1dcf17ffe1cdcfddad9775edCourage, Dogtown, Gloucester/Cape Anne

Olson asks, Shall we find honey where maggots are? He might be speaking of the alchemical work which begins in the decomposing nigredo. He may be referring to the condition of mythological structures that once supported these high civilizations now sinking into the earth, and our own, on the way to becoming a Waste Land.

Olson begins Section 2 of “The King Fishers” with the self-mythologizing Mao, who forbids the centuries old custom of binding women’s feet, while proclaiming the risen sun, la lumiere,” as the symbol of a mythless society. In 1934 he will lead his followers on a long march toward l’aurore, and later, in 1949, as leader of the Peoples’ Republic of China, mount a cultural revolt outlined in his Little Red Book to entirely erase the past. After considering Mao’s position, the man who hunts among the stones weighs in.

He thought of the E on the stone, and of what Mao said

la lumiere”
mmbut the kingfisher
de l’aurore”
mmbut the kingfisher flew west
est devant nous!
mmhe got the color of his breast
mmfrom the heat of the setting sun!

In search of a myth for a mythless world, Olson’s avian avatar flies west, redness baked into its breast. He invites us to ride Ra’s Sunship into the underworld accompanied by swallows. In the Egyptian narrative the sun is totally eclipsed and for a moment faces the danger of total extinction. This happens every night. It appears to be what Olson wants us to consider.

8892_originalRa in the Sun Ship, Egyptian tomb painting, 1,200 BC

There are twelve houses one must pass through on the Egyptian Night Sea Journey corresponding to hours between sunset and sunrise. Each hour presents its own dangers. A Coffin Papyrus shows three ba-birds in the 5th hour there to protect Ra against devouring chaos, the serpent Apophis.

Temple at OptetRa uniting with Osiris, Temple of Optet, 1,200 BC

Ra grows darker and weaker as the hours pass; even his guardians are afraid. There is no guarantee that chaos will not at some point swallow Ra’s light. At the darkest hour, when it appears all may be lost, Osiris, “the Hidden Soul”, meets Ra face to face. In that moment, the high-voltage transformation takes place. In the Mystery of the Two become One, both are renewed. In the Duat souls are continually transformed into enlightened akh.

light_core_darkness_jungLight at the core of darkness, The Red Book, C.G. Jung

On a cosmic level this takes place nightly when wounded Ra consciousness is united to the Osiris intelligence in the unconsciousness. The union gives birth to a third in Kephri, the newborn Sun. This is also the end result of the Work, the red which alchemists call the rubedo. The transformation which starts with the blackening nigredo, moves through the bright white albedo, to Kephri’s light. Both the Egyptian Night Sea journey and the Alchemical phases can be viewed as the movement from despair, through understanding, to enlightenment.

A Hymn to Osiris states: “Thou risest in the horizon, thou givest light through the darkness…”

220px-Theatrum_Chemicum_Vol_I_page_1Theatrum Chemicum, Gerhard Dorn, 1661

Gerhard Dorn, the 16th Century alchemist prized by Charles Olson and Carl Jung, speaks of a “hidden third” arising from the two as “the medium enduring until now in all things…” Jung refers to this as a “synthesis of the conscious with the unconscious,” as a unio mystica. Ra’s transformational connection to Osiris can be compared to Parzival’s to the Fisher King; both describe this underlying unity in the alchemical marriage. Ironically, this was also observed by Chinese alchemists in antiquity and recorded in The Secret of the Golden Flower, which survived Mao’s “cultural revolution.” What the Egyptians called Akh, Western alchemists like Dorn the “philosophical stone,” the Chinese text refers to as the “Diamond Body”.

warhol-maotse-tung-seriesChairman Mao, Andy Warhol

Mao wasn’t interested in hieroglyphs or alchemy. Symbolic thought of any kind became anathema. His demythologized Revolution reduced civilization to a simple surface. Hence Olson’s open question: What happens when only the feathers are left?

He answers it in “The King Fishers” by attempting to re-mythologize the wounded cultural psyche, to locate the place in which the archetypal transformation enshrined in the sacred traditions of all cultures can occur. Even so, Olson feared that it might be beyond reach at the beginning of a period which he was the first to call “Post-Modern.”

Olson asks: Where do we find what we have lost?

“The Kingfishers” is a fragmented psychological treasure map missing that piece where X marks the spot. We are given clues: the changeless will to change, the king fishers, and in the absence of the seabirds, their lore and feathers—representations to challenge us in the absence of a living mythology. Of course there is always the possibility that what Mao did by coercion in China, we are doing in a Post-Internet world by attrition. We may be losing the ability as a species to bring the latent intelligence to light.

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9 – The Alchemical Nest

Chaos stalks our hi-tech lives more powerfully than ever; one inspired hacker-child could send our infrastructure into a tailspin. The same holds true of our personal infrastructure. The Underworld is no longer the place in which souls are weighed or balance restored by Ma’at’s feather. Our psychology is haunted by forces denied, degraded, or disguised as ideologies, religious and political, that set us at odds. Fundamental religious beliefs fused to nationalist politics are fueled by thanatos, an unconscious death-wish. The ecology deteriorates while gods past and present disappear beneath the waves.

untitled colourPacal Descending to Xibalba, Tomb at Palenque, Mexico

In his study The Fisher King and The Handless Maiden Robert Johnson paraphrases Jung: “We no longer have Zeus but we have headaches instead. We no longer have Aphrodite and her noble feminine realm but we have gastric upsets. To dethrone anything from consciousness to unconsciousness is to diminish it in stature to a symptom.” Just so, the wounded Fisher King, split off from ourselves, becomes a hive of symptoms. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is inhabited by hollow men.

Will you leave it there? Pedrolino’s question is rhetorical. What will you tell them?

From his post on the wall, this black figure in his domed hat outlined by a white line on a black field gazes down from a moon face that glows like polished silver. He is the soul of old Ferrini, author of Know Fish. His words crawl through my mind.

“Tell whom?” I protest.

Pedrolino doesn’t answer, but I know. He is referring to those who will come to hear me read from Fishing On The Pole Star, directly followed by my talk, “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

It occurs to me that when only feathers are left, we must use them as lures.

Olson does just that; he uses feathers and stones the way a shaman employs a single bone to re/constitute the entire body. He builds the poem as king fishers do their nests with the remains of rotting fish bones. By gathering the “rejectamenta,” decaying bone splinters of myth, personal, and historical memory he builds to re/member.

it does nest with the opening year but not on the waters.
It nests at the end of a tunnel bored by itself in a bank. There
Six or eight white or translucent eggs are laid, on fishbones
Not on bare clay, on bones thrown up in pellets by the birds

I’ll describe to my audience the scene I witnessed on a bank of the Sibun River. I could smell the rotting fish bone chips from my canoe. Warmed by the heat of that decaying mass kingfisher eggs hatch on the bones of their prey. Future generations will rise from this matrix of remains. From its heat, words are born, take flight, hover and dive. It suddenly strikes me that Olson’s poem about the process is itself a nest of decaying bone chips.

Pay attention, whispers Pedrolino. “You’re close.”

I stop and listen. An idea comes in an open inner window—an insight. Not simply a piece of information, but an epiphany. I must instruct my audience not simply to see what is being described here with the mind’s eye, but to bring all the senses to bear—to hear the birds chatter, feel the river flow beneath the craft, touch the oars, the gunnels, smell the decaying bone chips, let the sulphurous odor of the nests sting the nostrils. Instead of solving the mystery he presents in the opening of “The Kingfishers”, Olson gradually shifts the emphasis from product to process. We must be in it totally to realize what is going on here. The question of what happened to the kingfishers is never answered in the poem—but by the poem. What fledges from it dives like a sea-bird into the unconscious.

Contemplating-the-Origin-of-Thought-An-Exercise-from-The-Secret-of-the-Golden-FlowerContemplating Mind Before Thought, Secret of the Golden Flower, 1668

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10 – Parsing (Parsivalizing) the Question

In his Holocaust memoir, Night, Elie Wiesel describes the secret teaching received by his young alter-ego, Elie, before the entire shtetle was transported to Auschwitz. Bare-foot Moshe the Beadle, who cleans the synagogue, instructs his young protégée, “At the end of your life God measures you by the depth of your question.”

In this teaching, authority isn’t captured by the answer. The deepest question answers itself by deepening. The mythos lies too deep for words but can be alluded to in a myth. Such is the wisdom imparted at the beginning of Wiesel’s narrative that portrays the naked depravity under the veneer of civilization capable of destroying ancient cultures and turning cities into rubble.

Olson asks, “The Kingfishers! / Who cares/ For their feathers/Now?”

Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in The Rye, wants to know, “Where do ducks in winter go?”

Chretien de Troyes’ Perceval inquires, “Who does the Grail serve?”

Von Eschenbach’s Parzival wants to know, “What ails thee?”

From Isis to Olson, we are challenged to re/member what has been left to languish in the dark. In every case, the healing power of the question is measured by the depth of the one who asks it. But what if the question itself is forgotten, lost, out of reach—or, more to the point, there is no

one to bring it full voice into the world?

25Parzival on journey lighter72_900Parzival, from the Feirefiz Project, Liz Neilson

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11 – Spreading the Word

Olson’s vanished kingfisher constitutes a loss of myth, and with it our connection to the unconscious, its potential to transform fragmented souls, the ka and ba of us, into an akh, “the effective one” or pure light of consciousness. As a consequence, something has slipped from our grasp that once linked atoms to the stars and bound existence into a unified whole.

“The Kingfishers,” begins with a comment that might easily go unremarked: He woke, fully clothed, in his bed. He / remembered only one thing, the birds

I might have disregarded it entirely had I not been for my encounter with the spirit of place, the essence of old Ferrini caught by an etching on the wall. No sooner had I named him Pedrolino, than he spoke to me, as he does three days later, after I wake from the same recurring dream. I’m in a room full of folding chairs. They are empty at first, then people file in to fill them. They’ve come to hear my talk. I smile at them. They smile back. Everyone is dressed in blue and green: my ba-birds. I wake in cold sweat.

osiris_nefertariOsiris, Tomb of Nefertari

There has to be something I can tell them about “Trolling with the Fisher King.”

Listen, counsels Pedrolino.

I just need a little more time to tie things together. These are my two thoughts and perhaps from them a third will follow. 1) Olson fishes the imagination for something born on a nest of decaying bones, that voice from the underworld speaking through him, the poet, telling us to hear in this moment what “was differently heard// as, in another time…” and 2) birds guide dead souls in the underworld, and shield Ra in the 5th hour of his Night Sea Journey from the devouring maw of Apophis, which would extinguish the light. Then it comes to me, out of the tension of the two, a third suggested in von Eschenbach’s Parzival 3) that the lapis exilies, or Holy Grail was delivered to us by “the neutral angels” while a war between opposing camps raged in heaven. This may be an expression of the unchanging potential inherent in our psychic structure, a constant that binds our atoms to the stars; our mission is to apprehend what we already contain, the numinous as the thing in itself.

The message I will convey to my audience of ba-birds, is this: each one of us is a wounded Fisher King trolling uncertain waters. We must keep our lines in, follow the sea-birds. The voice we listen for is equally uncertain. It comes through us, “heard differently//as in another time,” but is not our own. The fate of the world from which it rises depends on it.

ad7c4-olson-birdseye2cjpg“O city of mediocrity…”, Olson is Gone, But We Are Here, Peter Anastas, 12.24.14

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12 – Epilogos

Charles Olson sought out Carl Jung when the latter spoke at Harvard in 1938, and engaged him in conversation about Herman Melville. The fever dream of wounded Ahab’s obsession with the whale pales in anticipation of the world driven to the brink of the abyss. Olson published “The Kingfishers” in 1949, long after public knowledge of the Holocaust and the bombing of Hiroshima had redefined civilization, and the year that Mao established the Peoples’ Republic of China. Jung was also putting together the connection between the transformations described by the Sun’s journey through the underworld, the Alchemical Work and his own theory of individuation as a transformative relationship between the conscious and the unconscious.

The Belgian alchemist Gerhard Dorn summed up the situation in his Theatrum Chemicum: “The sun is invisible in men, but visible in the world, yet both are of one and the same sun.” Olson and Jung were drawn to Dorn, a fellow Fisher King.

Olson plaquePlaque on Fort Street, Paul Pines, 8.2014

I feel Olson this afternoon as I walk through town to Fort Street to find the modest multiple dwelling house facing the bay. A plaque affixed to the peeling white wall is a tribute to the insistence of Henry Ferrini, as much as it to Charles Olson. My host at the Gloucester Writers Center, and Vincent’s nephew, Henry petitioned the city fathers for the installation until they relented. It remains the only physical evidence that locates Olson where he lived, looking out at the channel between the Inner and Gloucester Harbor.

Today, Gorton’s huge plant that hugs the shore along Roger’s Street facing the State Fish Pier processes frozen catch from foreign waters. The depleted local fishing grounds, and the plant that packages fish for export echo the missing kingfishers in the poem. I marvel that it was Olson who coined the term that defined such an age: Post Modern. And that he found in Gloucester material to create a mythic monument to what had been lost.

In Parzival the question is asked and answered; at the end, the Fisher King is healed and the land restored. In our time, we have yet to frame the question.

We fish to bring it to light. This is the theme of my book, Fishing On The Pole Star.

There’s a moment in my book, after weeks on the troll, just beyond Concepcion Island, when I hook a three hundred pound marlin, fight him for almost two hours, then bring him to the starboard side of our boat. Our mate holds him in place to “swim him.” The idea here is to quiet the creature and move him slowly until the water circulating through his gills restores color depleted after our struggle.

Color is important.

No shark in the ocean can best a marlin in full bloom. Dimmed, he is doomed.

Our big boy allows us to swim him until bands of green and blue blossom the length of his body. Then he bites down gently on the hand of the man who is holding him to signal he’s ready. The power in his great jaws could take the arm of his handler off at the shoulder with little effort—but the touch is delicate, almost reverential. Upon release, he rides up over the gunnel to meet our eyes with his large circular orb, full of an intelligence so balanced, so complete, I glimpse in it the Divine Child, and also The Grail. I think, Here is the constant which links the atom to the stars, and binds existence into a whole.

And then he is gone.

surrealist-art-2-by-artist-vladimir-kush-on-desartsSunrise by the Ocean, Vladimir Kush

—Paul Pines

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Pines_Paul

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a Merchant Seaman, spending August 65 to February 66 in Vietnam, after which he drove a cab until opening his Bowery jazz club, which became the setting for his novel, The Tin Angel (Morrow, 1983). Redemption (Editions du Rocher, 1997), a second novel, is set against the genocide of Guatemalan Mayans. His memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 2007) explores the unfolding of intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. Pines has published twelve books of poetry: Onion, Hotel Madden Poems, Pines Songs, BreathAdrift on Blinding LightTaxidancing, Last Call at the Tin PalaceReflections in a Smoking MirrorDivine Madness, New Orleans Variations & Paris Ouroboros,  Fishing On The Pole Star, and Message From The Memoirist. His thirteenth collection, Charlotte Songs, will soon be out from Marsh Hawk Press. The Adirondack Center for Writing awarded him for the best book of poetry in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Poems set by composer Daniel Asia have been performed internationally and appear on the Summit label. He had published essays in Notre Dame Review, Golden Handcuffs Review, Big Bridge and Numero Cinq, among others. Pines lives with his wife, Carol, in Glens Falls, NY, where he practices as a psychotherapist and hosts the Lake George Jazz Weekend

Aug 062015
 

Brianna Berbenuik

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“To escape from horror, as we have said, bury yourself in it.”
-Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers

straight lines

We are sitting on the floor of the file room because somewhere, an exhibit transfer sheet is in the wrong file in the wrong box of a homicide that is over two decades old. Everything smells like dust and cardboard, old handwritten reports are like parchment and yellowing. The door is closed and I am sitting with my back against it. He pulls out an old photo album from the latest box.

“Wanna see some old autopsy photos?”

It’s a strange level of intimacy, a weird brand of seven minutes in heaven, locked in a murder file room with a photo album, like someone showing you their family portraits, their childhood.

Inside there is a woman with her throat flayed open, deep red congealed blood hugging her esophagus.

“See, that’s how we know the pressure that was used to strangle her was enormous. It’s actually pretty surprising. Like the fucking Hulk did this.”

Aerial photos of the backroad she was found on.

“If you look at a map, and you can kind of see it if you stitch the photos together, you can tell the person was panicked. It happens when you do surveillance a lot, when someone’s trying to get away or shake a tail.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look. Here’s the main road. Here’s where she was found. What do you see?”

“Left turn, left turn, left turn.”

“Exactly. He was scared when he was dumping the body. Panicking. We never go in a straight line when we’re trying to get away.”

.

dispatches

i.

A: I once killed a deer with a 5lb hammer.

It was a buck, stuck in the fence. It was injured and clearly in a lot of pain, struggling to get free. I called the parks people – they’re the ones who will come out with a rifle to put the deer down – but they said the guy who did that wasn’t even on the island. So I asked him, “do you have a gun?” he says “nope.” what did I have? I didn’t have a gun, I didn’t even have a knife, but I had this hammer. So I went up to the deer, struggling in the fence and I killed it. I hit it in the head.

Q: Did you kill it in one hit?

A: Hell no. it took more than one, i’ll tell you that. Christ, I don’t even want to think about it again.

ii.

A: When i worked up north there was a floater stuck in a log boom on the river. Came from way higher up, floated down for I don’t know how long. he’d been dead a while. So we had to go get the boat to drag him in, and I had the long hook you were supposed to get ‘em with, and bring them to the side of the boat so you could grab them and heave them up. But this guy was so far rotten, I thought I had his arm but it rips right off, starts floating down the river. So I go for his leg and think it’s all good, but that breaks off too. Eventually we end up with the torso.

Q: did you get the legs and arms?

A: Oh yeah, we went chasing after them down the river, eventually got them all. But that guy didn’t smell very nice, I’ll tell you.

iii.

A: Once we got a call to retrieve a floater off of [redacted] road, right on the beach there. But the tide was out, and he was stuck in this really rocky area where the water was about waist high. There were emergency responders on the beach to help us, but they couldn’t get him because he was too far out. So we are trying to grab this guy from the boat and I realize it’s not going to happen. I said to my partner, “well, looks like we’re going in.” I grabbed the bag, the one you use to put the body in, and I cut the corners out of it so the water could drain and we jumped in and managed to coax the body into the bag. My partner’s turning white and trying not to gag, and I’m egging him on like, ‘you’re in the fucking water with this guy!’ Anyway, we get him back up on the boat and we’re both soaked, and fuck he smelled.

Q: So do floaters found in fresh water smell worse or better than the ones in salt water?

A: They’re both pretty rank. I don’t know if there’s a difference. Decomposing human is worse than any other smell. It’s terrible. You can recognize it a mile off, you know it’s not an animal. Maybe we’re just hardwired to know the scent of our own species.
pieces

They will take apart your daughter when she is fifteen years old. They will flay her from head to toe, removing skin, fat, muscle: dismantling her. You handed over her body after she was driven into the woods by a man only a few years older than her where he beat her to death with a hammer. He beat other women to death with the same hammer and now, as they take your daughter’s eyes from her sockets, and they fold her skin off her face, they will press a substance like thick mud into the broken parts of her skull where it will harden to match the wounds with those of the other women.

(You hear that one of the other women, found partially buried and burned somewhere, animals pulling her out of a shallow grave, was so far decomposed they had to ship her rotting corpse, maggots and all, to a forensic osteologist who boiled her down to the bare bones so they could study her wounds, the wounds that will be compared to your daughter’s)

You didn’t want to let her body go.

She will come back to you in pieces. The man who killed her will be sentenced to life in prison but it will never be enough because he is still alive, and he beat your daughter to death with a hammer, and you had to send her body away to be taken apart.

(All the king’s horses and all the king’s men)

You will stop believing in god and live with the emptiness of loss and grief that will be endless and the cold, hard stone in your chest that is the knowledge that he is left and she is gone.

.

wounded animals

There are two cameras in the interview room and you are a voyeur. Face view. Full view.

Face view shows only the face of a young man, twenty-something, who killed a woman by beating her, and then throwing her in the trunk of an old car and lighting it on fire after dousing her and the car with gasoline. Before he closed the hood to the trunk, he took one last long look at the girl.

Full view. The girl’s mother is brought into a room to face her daughter’s killer.

The mother asks the murderer what her daughter’s last words were.

He replies: what’s that smell?

The smell was her burning flesh.

The mother looks him in the eye and doesn’t flinch, she says, “her greatest fear was fire, and you burned her alive.”

Imagine that.

With only a small table between them, the strength it takes not to try to strangle this man, to launch forward and press a thumb in each eye, gouging the orbs out of their sockets, tearing out his oesophagus with her teeth, to ruin him and adorn herself with his insides, to not throw a single punch, is a feat few can claim.

She is escorted out of the room, and the door clicks shut quietly behind her.

Face view. Now the man is seated, hands folded on the tabletop, staring forward.

Full view. A man sits at an empty table. He is still.

And outside, a wail.

I wrote about it in a letter to a friend, weeks after I had seen it.

i can’t forget the sound. i will never forget it. i dream about it. it follows me. i’ve seen so many crime scenes and dealt with horrible things by laughing at them, but i can’t laugh at this. there is no way to. it is one of the few things you can’t ever find the humour in, you can’t protect yourself from. a parent’s ache of losing a child. the demolishing of their entire world, their reason for being. how do you measure that loss?

i once saw a rabbit get hit by the wheel of a bus, leaving its back end entirely crushed. it tried to pull itself off the road but its entrails were ground into the asphalt and anchoring it there. it was screaming. the scream was so jarring and unnatural, frightening and deeply piercing.

the woman screamed like the rabbit screamed, only deeper and more prolonged. it isn’t a sound i’ve ever heard a human being make. it was rage and loss and everything primal exiting out of her mouth, like an exorcism.

except there are no demons here. it’s been said that all demons are just humans. and all humans are just animals.

.

shaken baby

Infant autopsy photos.

the tiniest of human hearts
barely 7 centimeters.
insides pink and clean.

When they do forensic autopsies on babies they need to
strip away all the skin and muscle on the back to get to the spinal cord and then
they take the spinal cord out and look inside that and the baby’s body is like this deflated balloon face-down on the table like that stupid fucking puppet they used to teach kindergarten kids about ‘private parts’ because adults need some kind of comforting displacement when they talk about the truth of the horrors of the world and of adults and therefore themselves with children.
there is a drawer in the morgue that is labelled:

“legs & infants.”

I’ve never opened it to verify the contents.

—Brianna Berbenuik
.

.

Brianna Berbenuik has a Bachelors degree in English from the University of Victoria, where she was also an avid student of Slavic Studies. For the past several years she has worked in various positions in emergency services and currently assists in Major Crime investigations. She has a modest collection of skulls and bones, enjoys horror movies and detective shows, and has an apartment full of thriving plants. She lives in Victoria, BC.

You can request to follow her on Twitter, @ukrainiak47, or follow her on Instagram  @ukrainak47.

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Aug 052015
 
Gordon Lish photo by Bill Hayward

Gordon Lish photo by bill hayward

Tim Groenland has written a compendious and measured account of Gordon Lish’s editing practice (fascinating images of pages edited — Nabokov, for example) and influence, minus the Raymond Carver hysteria. The essay builds on some of the work we’ve published at NC, including Jason Lucarelli’s ground-breaking texts “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence” and “Using Everything: Pattern Making in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’ Robert Walser’s ‘Nothing at All,’ and Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Wrong Arm’” plus my own audio interview “Causing Damage — Captain Fiction Redivivus: DG Interview With Gordon Lish.” All are quoted in Groenland’s piece, putting NC at the front of the wave of new interest in Lishian studies.

dg

Here’s a teaser from the Groenland essay:

These studies make it clear that Lish was, in certain ways, “the minimalist in the machine” in Carver’s work (Churchwell n.p.) and it is clear that he applied similar techniques to the work of other young writers of the period: Lish was instrumental in the early careers of Barry Hannah and Mary Robison, for example, making him an essential figure in the development of what was variously known as “minimalism”, “Dirty Realism”, and “the new realism” (or, to use Mark McGurl’s recent formulation, “lower-middle-class modernism”) in the early 1980s (32). Michael Hemmingson has shown that Lish edited Barry Hannah’s fiction extensively throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s: he reports, for example, that the manuscript drafts for Hannah’s novel Ray (1980) are “a confusing, sloppy mess” and that Lish’s editing work here involved carefully rearranging sections into narrative coherence, much as Max Perkins did for Thomas Wolfe’s major novels (Hemmingson 490–491; Berg 119–130, 223–228). Lish performed line editing on photocopies of Hannah’s stories taken from the journals in which they had been printed, just as he did with Carver’s work: in several cases, the journal in question was Esquire, meaning that the editor often saw Hannah’s work through several iterations and could refine his vision of the stories in different stages. Hannah’s attitude to these changes was markedly different from Carver’s, and in a 2004 interview with the Paris Review he was unambiguous in his praise:

Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right . . . This is your good stuff. This is the right rhythm. So I learned to write better short stories under him. (Hannah, “Art of Fiction 184”)

Read the entire essay @ Irish Journal of American Studies.

Aug 052015
 

Janice Galloway via The ScotsmanJanice Galloway via The Scotsman

.

I.In the eponymous story from her most recent collection, Jellyfish, Janice Galloway shows her genius for the ‘ouch’ principle: the wince-inducing collision of something exposed and over-sensitive with something brutal and sadistic.

We feel it coming; harbingers and hints surround Monica and her four-year-old son, on an outing to the beach as a last hurrah, the day before school starts. Alert to the impending separation, Monica sees danger and careless indifference all around her: in the mother who chats to a friend, unaware that her toddler in his buggy hangs over the kerb, too close to the wheels of a passing lorry; in the angry father swearing viciously at his little boy. She worries too much, she wants to protect. Somewhere between the wild beauty of the coast and the unsavoury piles of rubbish dumped by locals, they come across a parliament of stranded jellyfish. Transparent and ‘gummy’, out of their natural environment, one of them is little more than viscous pulp, object of blunt force trauma by human hand. How is the mother to explain this act of random violence on something so exquisitely vulnerable? ‘Maybe they hurt it – her voice faltered – they hurt it just because it can’t stop them.’ Ach, the jellyfish, so hopelessly undefended, not even a skin to mask its insides; the stupid jellyfish, out of its element and asking for trouble. The sight is painful because Monica – and through her eyes, the reader – knows how it feels, recognizes how easily one might end up in its place, how a cherished child might end up in its place. Characters in Galloway’s books are often alive to their inner jellyfish, and aware of – even enduring – the myriad situations in which the hammer may fall.

The recent Guardian review of Jellyfish suggested that these stories held new departures for Galloway in their focus on the parent-child relationship and the natural world. But both make fine provocations for the sort of catastrophic thinking typical to her work; thinking that has flowed and been repressed so many times it creates a carboniferous pragmatism. In the story that intrigued me perhaps the most, Eric Blair (otherwise known as George Orwell), is living with his young son on the Scottish West Coast island of Jura after the death of his wife, Eileen. It’s a hardscrabble existence in a place with no amenities and only the most basic of resources, and Blair is in denial over the diagnosis of his own soon-to-be-fatal tuberculosis. ‘You don’t fight an illness by fighting it; it gives not a hoot about your stoicism,’ the doctor tells him. But Blair is nothing if not stubborn: ‘Rest was not an appropriate response to encroaching lack of breath, lack of power. They had no idea what they were asking.’

Jellyfish - Janice Galloway

Inside his mind, two concerns breed fear; his belief that another war is coming, and his determination to ‘toughen up’ his young son. Excessive fear promotes a formidable fight response, but Blair cannot allow himself anything as weak as emotions; they must harden into ideologies. The story follows his trip to the general stores where he asks whether his parcel – a firearm – has arrived (it hasn’t), and then he begins the twenty mile return trip on his motorbike. The sound of a gunshot from the hills unsettles him so much he comes off the bike, but he’s okay ‘after a fashion’. Menace and machismo shadow box across the pages. He continues hoping for another five years in which to finish his novel and form his son: ‘He’d ruddy well achieve it by means of will alone.’ He was to die less than two years later. But his novel, 1984, the crystallisation of sadism and denial of feeling into a society in which only the broken would survive, lived a dark and splendid life after him.

It’s a fascinating portrait of an artist, from an artist who grew up in what seemed to be a sort of Scottish working-class family microcosm of 1984. Love in the form of brutality, the grim reckoning that the worst would be likely to happen and the best would be to face up to it, deprivation of all kinds, were basic elements of Galloway’s upbringing that transmuted into her writing. But her literary imagination tempers its casual cruelty with tenderness and a cautious optimism. Critics use the word ‘visceral’ a lot, but note the glittering seam of black humour. The New York Times Book Review memorably claimed her work ‘Resembles Tristram Shandy rewritten by Sylvia Plath’, which we might reasonably take to mean that she is an original. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing (1989) won the MIND/Allen Lane award, and was followed by two more novels, two short story collections and, before Jellyfish, two extraordinary memoirs that took the reader deep into the phenomenology of childhood whilst advising caution towards a simple overlap of reality and narrative. There were prizes all around. Not bad for a woman who claimed that an artistic vocation was unimaginable for her as she ‘thought writers were wealthy people who just wrote things out of the goodness of their heart and gave them as gifts.’

 

II.

Janice Galloway was born in 1955 in Saltcoats, Scotland, to a mother who ‘thought I was the menopause’. In the mythic version Galloway tells in her memoir, This Is Not About Me, which might be the true one for all she knows, her mother was unaware of the pregnancy until her waters broke, perhaps in denial of the freedom-busting, life-ending truth. The young Janice is never in doubt about her status as nuisance. ‘If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d just bloody known.’ Galloway’s father makes scant appearance in the pages, dying when Janice is only six, though when he’s there, he makes his mark felt. By throwing supper out the back door in a fit of temper, locking Janice inside and making her play chequers with him while her mother is locked out, knocking pitifully on the windows. And finally, setting fire (he was drunk and smoking) to the cigarette stand they owned but had not insured. Just over fifty pages in, she and her mother move into a tiny attic flat above the doctors’ surgery where her mother finds work as a cleaner.

This relative idyll does not last, for Janice’s older sister, Cora, joins them. Cora is seventeen years older and has left behind a husband and son of her own, and once her loud-voiced, gleefully selfish, hard-hitting, pan-sticked presence erupts into the pages, she stalks them like the fifty-foot woman of a B-movie. Galloway calls her Cora, though her real name was Nora, some sort of psychological distance being necessary even in a memoir. Cora takes up all the oxygen in their family and is dangerously jealous if her space, status and rule are in anyway infringed upon. ‘Delight to spite took seconds: there was no middle ground,’ Janice recalls. ‘She’ll be found dead up a close with her stockings around her neck one of these days, my mother said. Too bloody cheeky by half.’

Though it’s Janice whose life seems daily endangered. Cora is ‘handy’, which seems to mean useful for violence. She slaps, punches and headbutts her little sister, locks her in a cupboard, sets fire to her hair. Their mother is too tired and too defeated to intervene, and she loves Cora and cannot escape her thrall. The potency of the daemonic, the Greek concept of an unstoppable force of energy that could be turned either to good or evil, is Cora’s superpower. ‘Even wedged into a chair, Cora charged the air with electricity. Something around her crackled fit to kill flies and drop them at her feet in crispy little packets. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.’ She’s mean, but she’s fearless and vividly sexual. Janice is allowed to watch, enthralled, as Cora paints her face on, pours herself into a too-tight bodice and seamed nylons. A trip to the fair with her is high-octane stuff, all thrills and reckless spending. As Janice staggers dizzily off the walzer, Cora ‘walked in a straight line with her hands on her hips to prove it. Nothing beats me, she said. I could stay on that thing all night and not turn a hair.’ But one minute Jekyll, the next Hyde. When their mother has the chance to work full-time, her concern about Janice being all right alone in the two-bed council flat (they moved back in once her father died) becomes Cora’s decision she won’t get in at all. ‘You give her a key and she’ll let people in. Either that or somebody will take it off her. She can wait in the fresh air. It’s good for her.’

this is not about me

In fact, Janice likes the peace in the garden, and there’s the coal-shed if it rains or snows. Although Galloway would later say in interview with Stuart Kelly that ‘The expectation of brutality used to be a commonplace part of most [Scottish] upbringings’, there is a particularly intense quality of disenfranchisement about young Janice, a too-stark awareness of her lack of value, except as emotional punch-bag. The drama in her small household, ruled by Medusa and the Furies, turns her inward, gives her the obsessive good-girl mentality of someone who knows she does not simply deserve the oxygen she breathes. The memoir displays the close-grained hypervigilant powers of observation that come from the traumatised, or as Gareth McLean in The Guardian puts it, ‘her eye for detail comes from having watched life occur while maintaining not so much a dignified silence as a petrified one.’ We’ve been told from the start that this is not about her, and the key to understanding Janice’s story is to recognise the myriad truths in this statement. Her mother’s suicide attempt, her sister’s disappearance, from which she returns bruised and close-lipped, the screaming rows, all the crucible of disturbing events in which Janice is forged, stem from a history that predates her.

‘Watching their faces as they hurled half-understood insults at each other, the feeling of being in the way while most of it raged over my head was letting something else dawn as well. This wasn’t about me…. This was about Cora and mum; mum and Cora doing something they’d done since Cora left Glasgow behind and turned up at the attic… Longer even than that. Weans, my mother said. As though there had been more than one baby Cora had left behind. If I’m man-daft, where did I learn it? I’ve dealt with my troubles. My troubles. It was always the same in our house. Nothing you knew was solid.’

If the young Janice is obliterated by the emotional warfare carrying on around her (in a way that psychologists would suggest is the basis for most severe neuroses), she finds some comfort in knowing she is not its cause. Her place in the world is formed before she ever entered it, by a cross-hatching of fierce emotional currents, the legacy of ancient events, bitter disappointments and sacrifices, in the lives of those who supposedly care for her. Galloway is clear that there is love, that her own childish spirit, even if oppressed, still finds ways to slip free, but the climate and the conditions in which love and freedom find form are not in her control. This is the reality of all childhoods, but most children feel guilty and responsible anyway. The extreme weather of Galloway’s young life may stunt her growth, but it liberates her perspective.

If This Is Not About Me was about the origins of that ‘ouch’ principle, the collision of Janice’s innocence and vulnerability with her sister’s ruthless violence and her mother’s tough love, the next volume of memoir, All Made Up, is about putting Janice together again from the scraps of self left over after the carnage. As a child, she was good at schoolwork and liked singing. As she becomes an adolescent, music will take an ever greater role in her life. Latin will become an unexpected love. And there will be boys, of course, and inevitably. It’s not that conditions change much – within a couple of pages of the start of the book, Cora has broken her nose. And at the end, when Janice is dressed up in borrowed finery for an evening out with her fiancé, Cora takes one look before launching a plate of stew at her. So no change there, then; but Janice grows into her hardiness, her ability to flourish on very little soil and sunshine, and despite her family’s injunction to cultivate shame and self-doubt. ‘I think it’s part of the Scottish temperament: always waiting for something to cut you down to size,’ she later said in an interview.

all-made-up

The memoir races through the key points once Janice has left home for Glasgow university and a degree in music. Her mother died when she was 26, Cora died of a smoking-related illness in 2000 (and the sisters had barely met since Janice left home). This means that when Galloway sat down to write her memoirs, the main characters of her cast were not breathing over her shoulder. She was aware of writing exactly the sort of truthful account of their living conditions they would have hated, but Galloway had come to understand that old, uncomfortable need to pretend was motivated by working-class shame. When she gave her mother a telephone, she would only speak on it in a Yorkshire accent: ‘Even her voice wasn’t good enough to expose,’ she said. But in all the interviews she gave about her memoirs, Galloway is insistent that the mother and sister who appear within their pages are not direct transpositions: ‘I am a writer. You’re not writing people, you’re writing versions of people that fit into a story version of something universal as well as something ideosyncratic.’ But I have to wonder whether this barrier is not there to protect the dead, but to keep Galloway safe from their ghosts. In an article she wrote in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, she admitted that her sister had tracked her down once she realised she was ‘writing stuff’. ‘She phoned me. How she got my number I haven’t an idea. I recognized the voice immediately, however: if I thought I was It I had another think coming, she said. Do you hear? Pack it in. I felt 11 again and almost wept.

.

III.

Janice Galloway’s first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, is an unruly narrative of a distressed and disobedient mind. The ironically named Joy Stone is a teacher in her 20s whose chaotic love life has tipped her over the edge of breakdown. The married man she has been living with – enough of a scandal in itself – drowned on a holiday abroad they took together and Joy’s grief is all the more unwieldy for being that of a mistress, socially unrecognized and unpermissable. She lives in Michael’s house (subject to further legal battles) on a sterile estate with poor transport links, while her own jerry-built house is slowly rotting away. Joy has no one to turn to. Her best friend, Marianne, has emigrated to America, her family consists of a sister, Myra, who ‘could just stand and scare me to death.’ Health care professionals are worse than useless. Joy imagines saying to her weary and indifferent GP: ‘Ok, let’s talk straight. You ask me to talk then you look at your watch… Can’t you send me to someone who’s paid to have me waste their time? You don’t know what to do with me but you keep telling me to come back.’ And all the time she is sinking deeper into bulimia and depression. She is the prototype jellyfish; a quivering wreck of exposed nerve endings.

Or you could read her as a 20th century version of Job, a woman crumbling under an onslaught of calamities specific to being an abandoned Scottish woman in the late 1980s in poor mental health. This is not a story that begs our sympathy, though, despite the rigors of Joy’s plight. Her exquisite vulnerability, which we readers are invited to witness as intimately as possible, from a ringside seat within Joy’s psyche, is played out on the page as an innovative typographical display that’s entirely distracting. There’s a cordon around Joy’s pain that comes from her own lack of lack of sympathy towards herself and the velvety-black humour that springs irascibly from her narration, as well as the experimental features of the text, attention-grabbing features of a verbal energy that ricochets around the pages, out of control, the underside of a too-tightly held persona masking inner collapse.

‘o yes
when I was good I was very very good but
but
there was more going on below the surface.
There always is.’

In the fragmentary text, words jump out from unexpected places and bleed into the margins, sentences trail unfinished, white space marks missing time and emotional dislocation, italics indicate the presence of memories that remain unintegrated. There’s no order to the story, and no neat boundaries either in the form of orthodox chapter divisions or quotations marks around speech. There’s just an uneven torrent of words acting out, or else a parodic inclusion of conventions: play scripts, for instance, marking cliched conversations, lists, excerpts from magazines spouting cultural commonplaces, and marching imposingly across the narrative, the dreaded mantras of mental health:

The More Something Hurts, the More it can Teach Me…
I write:
…..Persistence is the Only Thing That Works.

I forgot to write:
…..Beware of the Maxim.
…..Neat Phrases hide Hard Work.
…..Everything Worth Having is Hard as Nails.’

A beautifully unarticulated paradox rises up from all this verbal play, in which the insufficiency of such mantras is almost insulting in comparison to the depth of Joy’s disorientation and pain. But such inadequate linguistic supports are all that exist as a bridge back to normal life. Galloway is nothing if not respectful to the reality of her protagonist’s state, and little is resolved by the end of the narrative. But there are the earliest hints of healing; tiny shards of optimism that stud the conclusion with welcome precursors of light.

Talking of cautious optimism, her second novel proved that her characters were at least ready to risk travelling abroad again. In Foreign Parts (1994), Rona and Cassie are friends of long-standing, and mildly mismatched travelling companions who have come to spend their precious fortnight off work in France. Short of cash and feeling unworthy of culture, they know ‘that proper holidays are for proper people with proper money and that real travellers, in denim bermudas of uneven leg length, travel to real faraway places in search of real poor people enduring real life in the raw. We are neither real nor proper: just fraudulent moochers in other people’s territory, getting by on the cheap.’ Cassie, source of the narrative voice though it floats, according to Cassie’s mood, between first, third and even second person, is sensitive, observant, moody and questing for something real and meaningful. Rona is stolid, calm, accepting and happy to tick the vacational boxes. Their differences come to a crunch mostly over the guidebook they have brought with them, entitled ‘Potted France’, whose injunctions to notice historical features enrage Cassie with their vapidity.

foreign parts

Threaded in between the stages of their journey are descriptions of photographs from holidays Cassie has taken with boyfriends in the past and the memories they evoke. Not that these holidays have been any better than the one Cassie is currently on. Holidays fall into a similar category to horoscopes, magazine articles and self-help books for Janice Galloway’s main characters: they are places where the commonplace fantasy of achieving something splendid cracks under the weight of recalcitrant reality. Rona, Cassie tells us, at times when they are sleeping in the car, or in some terrible 50 franc-a-night dive, ‘loves games of not admitting hellishness is hellish.’ But Cassie, like Joy Stone, is in no mood to pretend. And more than that, there is an unspoken but deep-rooted belief in both books that anything revelatory, real, valuable or significant, can only come from an unflinching scrutiny of the situation. When Cassie does transcend the ordeal of pointlessness that is tourism – in Chartres cathedral, playing house in a gîte they hire, standing on the beach at Veulettes before taking the ferry home – these moments have a full-bodied poetry about them that can only come from patient attendance on the authentic.

As such, this is a novel wilfully rejecting a number of conventions; it is not the buddy road trip or travel novel that we might be expecting. Cassie’s sharp edges puncture any such glib journeying. More confusing to its readers (if Goodreads reviews are any indication) is Cassie’s conclusion as the end of the trip nears, that she is no longer interested in a heterosexual relationship, but considering the possibility of moving in with Rona. Cassie and Rona may squabble and bicker, but there is a mutual understanding and recognition between them that is missing, as far as Cassie is concerned, from a relationship with a man: ‘They don’t have the same priorities, to be able to organise their priorities in a compatible way with ours,’ she explains. Cultural fantasy rears its head again, to be cut down to size: ‘The knight on a white charger is never going to come, Rona. You know why? Because he’s down the pub with the other white knights, that’s why.’ If there are generalisations going on here, then they belong to a Scottish culture that lags behind the times (‘There are real gender problems in my country,’ Galloway said once in interview). But what Cassie wants is something free from all sexual and domestic norms. The life she envisages with Rona has no recognisable, culturally-approved shape, resists all labels and orthodoxies.

Right at the start of the book, the first sign Cassie and Rona see when they get off the ferry says: BRICOLAGE. This is a common sign in France, indicating a D.I.Y. store, but its original meaning is one of Heath Robinson-type construction, using bits and pieces of other things to create something new. For this reason it was borrowed by the nouveaux romanciers in the 50s and 60s to describe a kind of literary experimentalism that took apart the nuts and bolts of narratives and put the pieces back together in innovative ways. It stands as a fine sign to hang across Foreign Parts, too, in which the patchwork of travel guides, lists, overheard conversations, street signs, flashbacks and letters correspond at a technical level to the unorthodox ways of experiencing travel and building relationships that are its themes. The disparate and the heterogeneous are more playful, less threatening than in Trick, the anxiety and anger about a dissatisfying present are soothed in this novel into something forward-looking and hopeful.

Galloway’s third novel, Clara (2002), was in some respects a departure, a long, lyrical account of the life of Clara Schumann, child prodigy, world-famous concert pianist and composer. Clara passes from the tyrannical hands of an overbearing father, a piano teacher whose love for her resides in her responsiveness to his teaching and who basks in her reflected glory, to those of her husband, Robert Schumann, mad, melancholy, ambitious in his own right and unequal to tolerating a more famous and successful wife. It’s essentially a study of the discipline, the strategems and the sacrifices a woman like Clara must make in order to stay in touch with her musical creativity. Concerns about gender, freedom and madness abound, tethered to historical and biographical realities.

There is still experimentation, but what’s intriguing is that it is so seamlessly incorporated into the narrative it’s oddly harmonious, rather than disruptive. There are phrases from musical scores, poems, lists (of course) and the use of different font sizes. The latter are easy to decode, for they range from the huge beetling-black words of fortissimo, to the smaller fonts of diminuendo. Lists are staccato, poetry is cantabile, all is effortlessly woven into a smoothly flowing, wordy andante narrative. The voice nimbly skips between the heads of Clara, her father and her husband, able to pick up on a wide variety of moods, constantly singing.

clara

In her interview with Stuart Kelly, Galloway denies that her use of experimentation in the early novels was ‘politically motivated’, saying instead that she ‘just didn’t know how to write a story’. Whispering in her ear, perhaps, was the shade of her sister, telling her that if she thought she was It she should just pack it in. The experimentation, in all probability instinctual, reveals a sophisticated understanding of the landscape of the mind when functioning in a state of extreme fear, duress, or misery. Those fragmented, discontinuous texts showed how words could perch unabsorbed upon the mind’s surface, how other voices within might be heckling from the sidelines, how memories repeatedly broke through any stable crust in the present with unwelcome or alien messages. But over the years there is a distinct progression in Galloway’s novels, one that has the appearance, not of anything as facile as healing, but of steady incorporation, acceptance of the ‘hellishness’ for what it is, a breaking down of old parts in order to put them together again, economically, in something new. After Clara came her memoirs, her darkest and her funniest works, the most revealing and the most accessible. Galloway had always been a formidably innovative storyteller; now the novelty was that the story could tell itself straight.

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IV.

In the final tale in Jellyfish, ‘distance’, Martha is all alone on a trip to Jura, site of George Orwell’s last days. Many years ago now, when she was an insecure young mother, her small son cut his head open on a glass table and the accident unleashed some reckoning with the arbitrary and inevitable nature of catastrophe that has never been resolved. Her solution back then was to divorce her husband and allow him custody, afraid that her own fears would prove contaminatory to her child. Since then, Martha has cut herself off, taking only supply teaching work so she should never be lulled into the responsibility of relationships. Though the invisibility begins to tell. Attempting to teach Orwell to a class of resistant children, she tells them about the time he saved his four-year-old son from drowning in a sailing incident. ‘Sometimes, she said, there’s more to people than meets the eye. Repressed and paranoid and dying is not a whole picture of anyone.’

And maybe Martha is dying; in her forties now, with an burgeoning disease that is gynacological, possibly serious, possibly not, she decides to take this solo trip to Jura. The freedom feels easeful, at night watching the waves she understands: ‘There was no hidden code, no message, no meaning. What happened out there was random, wholly without blame or favour. In the end, nothing hinged on human decisions, nothing demanded retribution or just deserts: what happened was just what happened.’ Then, driving back to her lodgings in the darkness, listening on the car radio to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, she runs over a deer. Martha staggers over to the beast, longing to comfort it, afraid her touch will terrify it further. ‘Dislocated bars of Mozart were gusting like feathers in the night air,’ as she tends to the animal and her own relentless blundering in the world. ‘I’m here, she said, her words bouncing off the surrounding rocks and rising, furious, into the solid dark. I’m here. I’m here.’

And here Galloway’s voice remains, holding fast to its lament of risk and vulnerability, innocence and brutality that cannot be resolved. Instead, the elements are left suspended in uneasy harmony together, awaiting conclusion, a perfect augmented chord.

—Victoria Best

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Victoria Best

Victoria Best taught at St John’s College, Cambridge for 13 years. Her books include: Critical Subjectivities; Identity and Narrative in the work of Colette and Marguerite Duras (2000), An Introduction to Twentieth Century French Literature (2002) and, with Martin Crowley, The New Pornographies; Explicit Sex in Recent French Fiction and Film (2007). A freelance writer since 2012, she has published essays in Cerise Press and Open Letters Monthly and is currently writing a book on crisis and creativity. She is also co-editor of the quarterly review magazine Shiny New Books (http://shinynewbooks.co.uk).