Apr 182015
 

Ray A Youngbear and son

Taiaiake Alfred just wrote to say he’d discovered by chance that I had written a review of one of his favourite novels, Black Eagle Child by Ray A. Youngbear. Taiaiake sent me the link, which I had lost track of, which gave me a chance to waste half-an-hour adding the review to NC. This review is important in my own development as a writer. It appeared in April 1992 in the Los Angeles Times. I was working out the aesthetic and form for my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. So there was a crucial influence, a cross-pollination. Black Eagle Child itself was absolutely fascinating and mysterious.

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Cover

BLACK EAGLE CHILD: The Facepaint Narratives
Ray A. Young Bear
First published by University of Iowa Press

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Albert E. Stone, in his foreword to “Black Eagle Child,” calls this book an experimental autobiography. But the reader quickly discovers two things: This tale is not factual–it is full of composite characters and fictionalized events–and it is only tangentially about its author, the Mesquakie Indian poet Ray A. Young Bear, who eventually disappears behind a series of changed names, false leads, alter egos, digressions, epi-stories and myths.

Young Bear is a poet who makes his aesthetic home between two worlds, the native and the non-native. He is a dancer at the world’s rim–a fan dancer, for he conceals as much as he reveals of himself and his people. Concealment is a key aesthetic principle, for as Young Bear constantly reiterates, there is a price to be paid for telling tribal secrets to outsiders. In his afterword to “Black Eagle Child,” he recollects how his grandmother taught him that “there were things I could not write about.”

As an Indian who sets himself up as an author in the white sense, Young Bear is freighted with a terrible dual responsibility: to satisfy his readers that he is being truthful and informative, and to satisfy his personal and tribal need for secrecy. He must invent a new form, the nature of which is duality, a form that is never straightforward, yet full of implication. It will be poetic, but it will not fulfill every demand of traditional poetic genre. It will always be surprising; it may not end. A code, in other words, that only the right people can break.

In his first book of poems, “Winter of the Salamander” (1980), a much younger Ray Young Bear gave a hint of forms to come:

What do you do when
there is a man
who represents your dreams
who goes talking and appraising
his deeds
and for no reason he stops
and says something new
there is a chance
for those who want to learn
but not for those who feel it
hard and difficult

For “those who want to learn,” “Black Eagle Child” is a kind of non-autobiographical Zen treasure trove of non-information about Mesquakie Indians and Young Bear. It is ostensibly a poetic Bildungsroman centered around Edgar Bearchild, a Mesquakie boy from the Black Eagle Child Settlement in central Iowa (Young Bear is from the Mesquakie settlement near Tama, Iowa). It begins with Edgar in grade eight in 1965 and follows him through his career as the community’s youngest treatable alcoholic. There’s a brief stint at a prestigious liberal-arts college in California, then back to Iowa, where he becomes a successful poet haunted by UFOs. He lives off grants from the fictional Maecenas Foundation (Young Bear received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1970s).

This process of becoming a writer fascinates Edgar, who sees himself wrapped in a paper cocoon, changing, altering, saving himself from the usual fates of a reservation Indian. Learning to translate between worlds redeems him, though with redemption comes alienation and survivor’s guilt, since he must separate himself from the normal communal life of his people.

Twinned with Edgar (like the twin boys of Indian legend) is the more adventurous and traditional Ted Facepaint, who follows the tenets of the Well-Off Man Church, a fictional Mesquakie affiliate of the mushroom-eating, pan-Indian Native American Church. (This, by the way, is Young Bear being highly elusive. Rather than reveal traditional Mesquakie rites and legends, he describes a modern cultural intrusion in which he has no stake. Here he seems to reveal without revealing anything.)

Like Edgar, Facepaint also heads west to college. He drops out and hitchhikes across America, trying to reach some romanticized accommodation with this alien white country, only to be beaten and robbed along the way. Back in Iowa, he continues his frenetic drinking and eventually dies—metaphorically, at least—stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver by rogue Mesquakies nicknamed the Hyenas. He is then mystically transported to Orion, the sacred constellation of the Well-Off Man Church. “Black Eagle Child” closes, however, with Facepaint’s resurrection at the hands of Rosie Grassleggings, an immensely obese native healer.

Young Bear knits together these two narrative lines with a complex pattern of imagery. Red-haired and red-hatted people relate to the red-capped hallucinogenic mushrooms, and also to the red-haired man of some native legends. White rabbits recall the Great Hare, Nanebojo, an Algonquin culture hero, who is often paired with Jesus Christ in modern native myth.

This is the bare skeleton of Young Bear’s code, the vastly complex and engaging system the reader has to learn to read. Only superficially chaotic, his narrative bears all the indications of a sophisticated and cunning literary intelligence. Young Bear has a novelist’s eye for precise social and atmospheric detail.

In his afterword, the author himself calls his book a collage, but whatever you call it, “Black Eagle Child” is an example of the new blood flowing back into the hardened arteries of Anglo-American literature from the margins–from the formerly colonized, enslaved and defeated peoples who must, inevitably, change us as we have changed them.

April 12, 1992|Douglas Glover | Glover’s most recent book, “A Guide to Animal Behavior,” was nominated for the 1991 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction, Canada’s highest literary prize.

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Apr 132015
 
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In this scene from Eugene Green’s Le Pont des Arts, an opera singer,  Sarah (Natacha Regnier), sings a profound performance of Monteverdi’s “Lamento Della Ninfa.” She has been struggling to please the conductor, a bastard destroyer of beauty who cruelly describes her voice, in a previous scene, as sounding like a “sick kangaroo.” They are preparing the piece to be performed for a recording, and in this scene we see a sublime moment where his opinion no longer matters. The sequence, like others I’ve pointed to in Numero Cinq at the Movies, could be a standalone short film: everything we need is held in this discrete scene. Green’s careful crafting of shots distances us from the soulless, impervious-to-the-sublime conductor and brings us face to face with a heart-breaking beauty.

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At the core of this scene is a fascinating visual distinction between third-person and second-person framing, where we see the primary action of the other musicians performing (third person) while in other camera shots we see Sarah and a select audience listening to her singing as they stare right at the camera, ostensibly Sarah but vicariously, us, directly addressing us with their emotional experiences (second person). This split between perspectives probably speaks to Green’s own theatre background and the theatre device of dramatic asides, but here it also creates a dichotomy where as audience we are encouraged to have a closer and more vulnerable experience of the beauty of what Sarah’s voice creates.

The scene is blocked like it would be on a stage, the places where the musicians, the conductor, and the singers stand and even the formal way that Sarah enters the scene. What is glaringly missing is an actual audience, but in its place we have a small chorus of more significant witnesses. The audience within a film can show us how to experience the art at hand. This is a common film device, one I have pointed to elsewhere:  the backstage audience in the knife throwing scene in A Girl on a Bridge (which also has a suicidal woman on a Parisian bridge, incidentally);

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but also appearing in profound ways in films like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique with the music conductor’s inscrutable melancholy, nostalgic gaze;

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or similarly in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her, where the male nurse in the audience witnesses a more profound response to the art via the man sitting beside him.

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These characters show us what we might feel, give us permission.

In Pond des Arts, the split between third person and second person in this scene begins with Sarah’s entrance. We see her begin, we identify her with the sublime voice, then the camera moves to spend time with her audience: the lovesick looking lute player intent on his accompaniment (read desire);

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the envious, though moved vocal accompanist who sits gloaming like an understudy;

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but most importantly, Cedric, the blond man who openly weeps at the performance. Though elsewhere in the film the recording of Sarah’s sublime vocal performance will prevent a disillusioned philosophy student from committing suicide, nothing equals Cedric’s experience in this scene.

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The later two of these people are, in the blocking of the scene, actually behind Sarah. The camera frames their direct-camera emotional experiences for us but there are not available to Sarah. We see them illicitly. These are private moments, much like the dramatic monologues in theatre, where a character expresses something internal and private with the audience alone.

These direct camera address shots offer us, the viewing audience, possible mirrors. Who will we identify with and who do we want to be in the film: the jealous and envious and enraptured woman, the mandolin player with the absurd affections, or the beautiful blond man with who is deeply touched by the singing. Or Sarah, after all who would not want to sing with such sublime beauty. Or perhaps identification is more complicated than I am allowing, and this emotional experience for the audience involves identifying with all of these mirrors.

The piece itself, Monteverdi’s “Lamento Della Ninfa,” is composed to have a frame similar to this scene. Monteverdi noted “she has to sing according the her emotions” (al tempo dell’affetto del animo), while the pastori were expected to sing at a regular beat (al tempo della mano). Green parallels this tension between the regular beat, the rather unmoved third person shots here, and the more emotionally affected line of the vocalist, here the chorus of faces having emotional experiences in reaction to Sarah’s performance.

The pastori, the three men singing with her and by extension the conductor and the accompanists, offer this frame visually in the film. They are the day-to-day, the regular heartbeat, the floor and walls her voice echoes off. The frame is useful here: imagine if the film only presented us with Cedric weeping. Would we be less likely to identify with him, less open to his expressiveness? Nothing visually compels us to choose the mundane world, to be the third-person audience. The film inserts us into the desiring chorus of the second-person expressions, intimately connected to the sublime.

Seen just in this scene, we don’t know fully why Cedric weeps, what it is about Sarah’s performance that moves him, and this too creates a space for desire, a visual desire to understand the mystery of what he experiences and why. Something about the vulnerability of his experience rules out erotic or romantic desire. His experience seems very much for himself. Even seeing the rest of the film doesn’t permit any greater access to Cedric. We see him as a pawn to the conductor, we see he cares about Sarah insofar as he loves the beauty of her voice and feels compassion for her, but nothing that would explain the depth of his emotional experience in this scene.

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The scene ends without applause, another space of negation. Do we want to applaud and do we want to applaud more to fill the absence of applause?In the face of such a sublime emotional experience, applause seems a trite response. The players are left in awkward stances, paper rustling, speechless as to how to make the sublime reconcile with the desert of the mundane world. Immediately following this awkward silence the conductor tells the players “Not too bloody bad, my children, not too bloody bad.” His negative compliment desecrating the sublime, showing us the most base way to move from it back to the day-to-day; he has no access to the experience we have had.

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This scene, like the film to some extent, seeks to trouble the relationship between beauty and art and the rest of the world. As Stephen Holden argues in his article “A Leap, With Music, Into the Seine of Art,”The movie is an audacious, mythically slanted inquiry into the place of high art in today’s chaotic culture and an assertion of its primacy.” Pond des Arts prioritizes the vulnerable experience of art, particularly in the face of “ideas” or posturing that move away from that experience.

—R. W. Gray

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Apr 122015
 

Last Judgement by Jan van Eyck


“Consider a little, if you please, unmerciful Doctor, what a theater of Providence this is: by far the greatest part of the human race burning in flames forever and ever. Oh what a spectacle on the stage, worthy of an audience of God and angels! And then to delight the ear, while this unhappy crowd fills heaven and earth with wailing and howling, you have a truly divine harmony.” 
Thomas Burnet, De Statu Mortuorum Et Resurgentium Tractatus, (On the State of the Dead and the Resurrection) posthumously pub. 1720

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George Coyne, S. J., former Director of the Vatican Observatory and currently McDevitt Chair at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, recently repeated to me in conversation a question posed to him by the late Carl Sagan, of Cornell and Cosmos fame. Sagan’s more-than-rhetorical question, as fellow astronomer and seeker, was a compelling one: “Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?” Coyne acknowledged that he had no full answer, though he surmised that his reception of the gift of faith had much to do with his own actions, specifically his having read Augustine and Aquinas.

So have I, but, alas, that reading gradually but permanently shook rather than bolstered my faith. Listening to Fr. Coyne’s report of his response to Sagan, I recalled being disturbed, as a student at Fordham University, by the insistence of Augustine that since humanity is stained with a primal sin, we are utterly dependent on God’s grace, a position that seemed to severely limit human freedom. As Peter Brown notes in his magisterial biography, Augustine of Hippo (1967, updated in 2000), the idea of an ancient transgression as an explanation for present misery was current in both pagan and Christian thought. And Augustine was, of course, steeped in Paul, especially the Epistle to the Romans, and haunted by Paul’s Adamic argument that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Rom 5:12-13). This is a succinct statement of what would become known as Original Sin, a doctrine we associate in particular with Augustine, who, I couldn’t help feeling, spun it, whatever its pagan and Pauline antecedents, primarily out of his own entrails. Convinced that only divine grace could curb a libidinal drive he often felt personally powerless to control, Augustine, on the basis of his own sexual psychology, extrapolated a universal doctrine of primal sin, inherited guilt, and absolute dependence on the grace of God.

Augustine -Jaume_Huguet_Consecration_of_Saint_AugustineConsecration of Saint Augustine by Jaume Huguet

The result was a biographical-theological mélange that minimized, without utterly excluding, the role of individual free will. Even when he gestures toward free will, the pessimistic Augustine emphasizes the wrong choice, that of the lower rather than the higher. In a notably Neoplatonic passage in Book 12 of The City of God, he observes that “when the will abandons what is above itself and turns to what is lower, it becomes evil, not because that to which it turns is evil, but because the turning itself is wicked.” That wicked turning, which began in Eden, reduces the whole of fallen humanity to what Augustine calls a sinful “lump” [massa]. The allusion is to Paul’s Potter-God molding a “lump” of clay (Rom 9:20-21), but Augustine goes beyond Paul, for whom the lump has no right to question its Maker, who chooses willy-nilly to produce “vessels” reflecting his “mercy,” or “vessels of wrath made for destruction” (Rom 9:22-23). Mere clay is not low enough for Augustine, for whom postlapsarian humanity is a collective “lump” of sinful and damnable filth—massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata (Enchiridion, 98-107). In his treatise “On Grace and Free Will” (426-27), Augustine writes that while “God foreknows what we are going to will in the future, it does not thereby follow that we are not willing something freely” (255). But his emphasis is always less on human than divine will, with salvation a free and foreordained gift of God, given gratis and independent of a person’s individual merit. Reading the newly discovered letters Peter Brown printed in the 2000 update of his biography, I was less than fully persuaded by his claim that they substantiate Augustine’s place as the “inventor of the modern notion of the will.”

On Grace and Free WillSt. Augustine by Antonello da Messina

“Those who love [God] are called according to his purpose,” and “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:28-30). This passage from Romans clearly contributed to Augustine’s own version of predestination, which intensified in the later phases of his increasingly furious combat with Pelagius and his followers. When I first read Augustine’s anti-Pelagian tracts, I connected them with another obsessive and sustained assault I was studying at the same time in a Fordham history course: Edmund Burke’s protracted attempt (1788-95, the longest trial in British history) to convict the impeached Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India. In the end, though he was financially ruined, Hastings was not convicted: an acquittal, fumed Burke, who had stressed the “moral” dimension of Hastings’s alleged “corruption,” which redounded to “the perpetual infamy” of the House of Lords.

Augustine’s equally fervid confrontation was with the infamy of Pelagianism, embodied in Julian (380-455), the bishop of Eclanum, and the semi-Pelagian monk John Cassian, both of whom, in responding to Augustine, gave as good as they got. Like the British monk Pelagius and Julian, Cassian, an ardent disciple of Origin, emphasized human capability and responsibility in actively co-operating with God: a mixture of optimism and insistence on human agency that provoked the now elderly and crusty bishop of Hippo into angry responses, including his most extreme assertions of precisely what the Pelagians had accused him of: predestination. Or so I saw it; and though my Jesuit professors at Fordham suggested otherwise, I begged (mostly quietly) to differ. When, two years after I graduated, I read Gerald Bonner’s Saint Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1963, rev. 1986), I felt vindicated. Bonner admires Augustine and the best part of his book is his informed and balanced account of the Pelagian controversy (also discussed at length in Part IV of Peter Brown’s biography), which makes his conclusion, a mixture of admission and dismissal, all the more compelling: “Augustinian predestination is not the doctrine of the Church but only the opinion of a distinguished Catholic theologian” (592).

Bonner

Obsessed with the monstrous transgression of Adam and Eve, transmitted as Original Sin, and by his theology of grace, did late Augustine plunge into the heretical pitfall of strict predestination? Certainly his pessimistic view of fallen human nature, darkened by the contemptu mundi perspective he had inherited from the Neoplatonists and the Stoics and by his own idiosyncratic emphasis on the role of sexual reproduction in transmitting Original Sin, led Augustine to claim that our natural proclivity is toward evil and that all our impulses to good are dependent on God’s grace. What makes his position darker still is Augustine’s post-Pauline insistence that the decision on God’s part as to who receives this grace is, as the word itself suggests, gratis—gratuitous, arbitrary.

According to Augustine (and Aquinas after him), while God wills the salvation of all, certain souls are granted special grace that in effect foreordains their redemption. But “why one is called and the other not” has to do with the “inscrutability” of God. “Why God draws this one and not that other,” Augustine admonishes, “seek not to know or to judge.” And later in the treatise I am citing, in a chapter titled “The Difficulty of the Distinctions Made in the Choice of One and the Rejection of Another,” he concludes that we have no right to question God and that “he who is condemned has no ground for finding fault” (De dono perseverantiae, chapter 16). Augustine is alluding to those “called according to” God’s “purpose” in Rom 8:29-30, and to a passage he specifically cites: Paul’s rhetorical question, “who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me thus?’” (Rom 9:20).

Boethius.consolation.philosophyAn early printed version of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy 

In short, Augustine restates rather than responds to the crucial question posed by Carl Sagan to Fr. Coyne: “Why have you been given the gift of faith, and not me?” Though, as with countless others over the past millennium and a half, I found help on this issue in the lucid prose and dialogue form of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, as a sophomore in college, I was hardly equipped to unravel the paradoxical relationship between God’s foreknowledge and human free will. So “Seek not to know”: simply accept the idea that, by means of his mysterious “grace,” an all-foreseeing God—who made his decision before the oceans rolled, indeed before “time” itself— “predestined those he called” to eternal life, leaving others in their sin, but “justly” condemned as a result, paradoxically, of their own “choice.” Wherever one finally comes down on this simultaneously fascinating and repellent issue, Augustine more than flirted with the unspeakably horrible doctrine of predestination as it later culminated in Luther, an Augustinian monk after all, and, especially, Calvin, who claimed he could have written an entire book “out of Augustine alone” to justify his theology, a theology based on the adamant insistence that while “some,” the so-called Elect, are “predestined unto everlasting life,” all “others” are “preordained to everlasting death.” That is to say, hell—about which Augustine himself has much to say.

In The City of God, Augustine distinguished between the Last Judgment and a Particular Judgment (which he illustrates with the story, in Matt. 16:19-31, of poor Lazarus and Dives, the rich man who had turned the beggar from his door and now, dead and suffering in the flames of Hades, begs Lazarus for a drop of water.) There may be hope following the “first death” and the Particular Judgment, but after the “second death” and the Last Judgment, reward or punishment is irrevocable and eternal. Citing scripture, Augustine resisted those who argued, or at least hoped, that hell’s punishment, however fierce, would not be eternal. It would be both, he insisted—basing his position, as always, on the Original Sin in Eden:

Hell, also called a lake of fire and brimstone, will be material fire, and will torment the bodies of the damned, whether men or devils—the solid bodies of the one, and the aerial bodies of the others; [for] the evil spirits, even without bodies, will be so connected to the fires as to receive pain….One fire certainly shall be the lot of both…eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that purest and highest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed by that first transgression. (The City of God, Books 10, 21)

Augustine, writing in 426, is more severe than Yahweh himself, who told the perpetrators of that “first transgression,” Adam and Eve, that they would “die” if they ate of the forbidden fruit, not that they were risking eternal torment in hell. To be as literal as the literalists, an eternity of pain cannot be the fate even of their son, the first murderer, since anyone who killed Cain would suffer punishment “seven times greater” than his own. In fact, from Genesis on, there is no clear reference in the Hebrew scriptures to a place of eternal punishment. Christian preachers often allude to, or actually cite, Old Testament passages. But while they habitually turn “Sheol” and the dark valley of “Gehenna” into figurative equivalents of “hell,” no Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into English does so. The most “hellish” text—handled gingerly by Jewish scholars, but seized on with relish by Christian exegetes eager to prove the eternal punishment of the wicked—is the rhetorically magnificent but horrific climax of the Book of Isaiah. There the Lord says that he will make a “new heavens and new earth” for the faithful, who shall “go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (66:23-24).

That final verse, the one Hebrew text on which a doctrine of eternal torment can be based, “is so gruesome,” John Sawyer notes in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (1993), “that in Jewish custom the preceding verses about ‘the new heavens and the new earth’ are repeated after it, to end the reading on a more hopeful and at the same time more characteristically Isaianic note” (327). Countless Christian theologians and preachers went in the decidedly un-hopeful other direction, harping on, and taking sadistic relish in, Isaiah’s imagery as proof of eternal punishment. As we’ll later see, in the unforgettable Hell-sermon at the center of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce’s Fr. Arnall not only cites Isaiah’s worm and stench, but takes for granted that they are sensuous aspects of eternal anguish, climaxing in that “quenchless fire.” Yet it could be argued that even in his most “gruesome” image, Isaiah refers to rotting and noxious carcasses, “an abhorrence to all flesh,” not to the rebels’ continuing personality—nephesh, the soul or living being—which alone could be subject to eternal torment.

Augustine’s central ideas often had horrible consequences. In an early public debate “Against Fortunatus” (August, 392), he had declared, “There are two kinds of evil—sin and the penalty for sin” (Earlier Writings, ed. Burleigh [1950], 15). Since we are all allegedly stained from birth with Original Sin, what penalty is to be suffered by infants who die before being baptized? The Church, understandably, has long anguished over this issue—beginning as early as the 4th century, with the treatise on the early death of infants (De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum) by Gregory of Nyssa, an early believer in universal reconciliation. To my dismay, I soon discovered that the dilemma persisted long after Gregory’s attempt to humanely resolve it. A millennium later, the great Council of Trent (1545-65), famed for its lucid definitions, concluded, in its fifth session, that, “Infants, unless regenerated unto God through the grace of baptism, whether their parents be Christian or infidels, are born to eternal misery and perdition [perditionis aeternum].”

Council_of_Trent_by_Pasquale_CatiCouncil of Trent by Pasquale Cati

There have been many intellectual efforts, notably including the desperate if humane hypothesis of the now defunct Limbo (on which the theological doors closed in late 2005), to get the babies out of hell. But even the eminent thinkers subsequently gathered in the Vatican to form, in 2007, an International Theological Commission, though reading the “signs of the times,” could offer only a wistful “Hope”—to cite the final subtitle of the concluding section (“Spes Orans: Reasons for Hope”) of their lengthy and learned final document. Their inconclusive Conclusion was that, “there are strong theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.”

Such are the fruits of the toxic doctrine of Original Sin, as promulgated, above all, by Augustine, whose preeminence as a theological juggernaut eclipsed all rivals until the advent of Aquinas. For the formidable but bleak Bishop of Hippo, no one was exempt from punishment “unless delivered” by an inscrutable God’s “mercy” and by “grace,” which was “undeserved.” And those delivered will be a minority. Jesus himself distinguished between the narrow-gated road that will lead the “few” to salvation and the broad-gated road that will lead the “many” to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). An echoing Augustine, consigning the bulk of humanity to perdition, writes, “Many more are left under punishment than are delivered from it in order”—he adds, setting up damnation as a grim example even for those who made the cut through no merit of their own—“that it may be shown what was due to all” (City of God, Book 22). In short, because of Original Sin, we are all guilty, and deserving of hell. And when that stain has not been cleansed by the sanctifying grace of baptism, it follows, and Augustine unhesitatingly followed that appalling logic—even if the prospect of babies in hell is more hideous than the doctrine of predestination itself— that unbaptized infants must be damned: a singularly atrocious example of what “was due to all.”

The most gifted and persistent opponent of Augustine on infant perdition, indeed on Original Sin root and branch, was Julian of Eclanum, the most prominent second-generation follower of Pelagius. His writings have been preserved, primarily and ironically, by Augustine himself, who quoted freely from Julian’s attack on the doctrine of Original Sin in his own refutation, contra Julianum Pelagianum. In countering Augustine’s dark view of human nature and sexuality, Julian went to the other extreme, his optimism verging on perfectionism. He also set against Augustine’s emphasis on eternal punishment his own version of ultimate reconciliation: a theory of universal salvation (apocastasis) first fully worked out by Origen (c. 185-254), the most brilliant and radical student of Clement of Alexandria. Origen’s belief that through Christ’s sacrifice even Satan might be redeemed (restored by the refining fires to his original angelic state as Lucifer) led the Christian bishops gathered at the Synod of Constantinople in 543 to condemn anyone who said or thought that “there is a time limit to the torments of demons and ungodly persons,…or that they will ever be pardoned or made whole again.” The target was Origen, posthumously excommunicated at this Synod, and, for good measure, at subsequent synods in 553, 680, 787, and 869.

Keane5Nave of Church of the Gesù by Giovanni Battista Gaulli

Julian was himself excommunicated by Pope Celestine in 430, the year of Augustine’s death, for earlier refusing to sign on to Pope Zosimus’s excommunication of Pelagius. But despite the contemporary and historical triumph of his rival, Julian’s rejection of Augustine’s doctrine of Original Sin and his revulsion from the idea of unbaptized infants roasting in hellfire has always seemed to me a welcome alternative to the somber broodings of the Bishop of Hippo. In Book 6 of his contra Julianum Pelagianum, responding to the final Book of Julian’s treatise, Augustine had reasserted his position that, because of collective guilt stemming from the sin of Adam, the inherited “contagion” of Original Sin, “infants who die without the grace of regeneration [the sole source of which is the sanctification of baptism] are excluded from the kingdom of God.” I continue to share Julian’s humane indignation at Augustine’s presuming to speak for God in condemning infants. By an intriguing accident, the theological and ad hominem attack I quote here survives only because it happened to be among the unfinished work on Augustine’s desk at the time of his death:

Tiny babies, you say, are not weighed down by their own sin, but are burdened with the sin of another. Tell me then, who is this person who inflicts punishment on innocent creatures? …you answer God. God, you say, God! He who commanded His love to us, who has not spared His own Son for us…He it is, you say, who judges in this way; he is the persecutor of newborn children; he it is who sends tiny babies to eternal flames….It would be right and proper to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized feeling, so far, indeed, from mere common sense, in that you think your Lord God is capable of committing a crime against justice such as is hardly conceivable even among the barbarians. (Opus imperfectum contra Julianum, I. 48ff)

As revealed by the final report of the theologians convened in Rome in 2007, the Catholic Church has still not found a definitive way to extricate itself from this grotesque spectacle. The Commission labored, and brought forth a mouse—a “hope” that the babies might be saved, but a hope lacking any “explicit” scriptural basis. What, one wonders, about Jesus, who, indignant at his disciples’ attempt to rebuke those who were “bringing children to him, that he might touch them,” insisted (in all three synoptic Gospels), “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Mark 10:14; cf. Matt 19:14, Luke 18:16). Or, moving beyond scripture, one wishes these male theologians had been moved by the account of the third-century martyr, Perpetua, who envisioned, in her own prison-cell, her younger brother (who had died as an unbaptized child) liberated from a place of heat and thirst, and now, thanks to her prayers, drinking at a pool and “playing joyously as young children do.” Or, finally, why not take into account Julian’s rebuke of Augustine for lacking “religious” or “civilized” feeling, mere “common sense” and “justice”?

But the deliberations of these 21st-century theologians were dominated and (to my mind) warped by Original Sin, much of its obsessive doctrinal burden to be tracked back to fifth-century Hippo. For all his indisputable greatness, this is part of Augustine’s ambiguous legacy. Historically and officially, the Catholic Church may have denied, downplayed, or backed away from, the more extreme of Augustine’s doctrinal obsessions; but because of his sheer intellectual power and the magnitude of his authority, he has cast a shadow over the past 1,600 years of Western Christianity, for me, a remarkably dark shadow. Augustine’s particular pessimistic vision was shaped by his own sexually-obsessed psychology, the theological controversies in which he engaged, and, of course, by his response to the history he witnessed in an age of barbarian invasions, culminating in the Fall of Rome in 410, and the siege of Hippo itself in the final years of Augustine’s life. But one wishes that readers, especially theologians, who have adopted or succumbed to the Augustinian darkness would also have remembered the following sentence: “Here also is a lamentable darkness in which the capacities within me are hidden from myself, so that when my mind questions itself about its own powers, it cannot be assured that its answers are to be believed” (Confessions, Book 10:32).

An admirable questioning of his own certitudes, but hardly enough to make up for the subsequent damage caused by Augustinian “answers” that were “believed” by far too many for far too long. While the Confessions and parts of The City of God remain indelible in my memory, the reading of Augustine certainly failed to bestow upon me—as it did upon George Coyne, to revert to his response to Carl Sagan—the “gift of faith.”

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Whatever his inclination toward predestination and his insistence on the eternity of punishment (even of the little ones Jesus wanted near him), Augustine seems rather dispassionate about the actual witnessing of that punishment. He does remark that those who enter into the joy of the Lord “shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness” and that the saints, “whose knowledge is great,” shall be “acquainted…with the sufferings of the lost” (The City of God, Books 20, 22). But he doesn’t seem to have taken sadistic pleasure in the torments of the damned. That ultimate form of Schadenfreude, and another pivotal challenge to my faith, was awaiting me in the pages of the other theologian cited by George Coyne as a pillar of his faith: Thomas Aquinas.

Keane2An image from the Winchester Psaltery (c. 1225)

I learned a great deal from working through the Summa Theologiae, my reading of which began in 1958, the very year George Coyne himself graduated from Fordham. Indeed, for a time I re-oriented my thinking, replacing Augustine’s Christianizing of Plato (or, rather, the Neoplatonists) with Thomas’s Christianizing of Aristotle. Then, one fateful day, I came upon a passage in the Third Part of the Summa, Supplement, Question 94, First Article, titled “Whether the Blessed in Heaven Will See the Sufferings of the Damned.” Here, the good Doctor tells us that “Beati in regno coelesti videbunt poenas damnatorum, ut beatitudo illis magis complaceat [The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will be allowed to see the sufferings of the damned in order that their bliss may be more delightful to them].

More than a half-century later, I can still recall my shock in encountering words I found morally repellent. In the years to come, I would, like all of us, encounter innumerable examples, ranging from the pettiest to the most malicious, of people taking pleasure in the temporal misfortune, even the suffering, of others. And literature provided still more illustrations. I was struck, in reading The Iliad, by those panoramic scenes of the Homeric gods looking down from Olympus, taking pleasure in the entertainment provided by the spectacular carnage of the Trojan War. I was aware, too, of a famous passage in a favorite text, De rerum natura, where Lucretius captures the emotion of Schadenfreude in an extended image: Suave, mari magno turbanti aequora ventus, e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem [It is pleasant to watch from the land the great struggle of someone else in a sea rendered great by turbulent winds]. At the same time I was reading Augustine and Aquinas, I was also deep into the Romantic poets. And so I was familiar with Lord Byron’s moving portrait of the Gothic gladiator, torn from his native land, his children, and his wife, and now about to die in the Coliseum, “Butchered to make a Roman Holiday!” (Though there was a scene outside the Coliseum in the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck film, Roman Holiday, it seems unlikely that whoever titled this delightful and poignant movie had the full Byronic context of the phrase in mind.)

In light of the very different, but Coliseum-related, passage I will soon be quoting from Tertullian, it is worth noting that this butchery to please the bloodthirsty Roman spectators is not the only Schadenfreude-moment in this famous passage from Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The spectacle of the dying German gladiator, a sacrifice that pleased the sadistic Roman crowd safe in their seats, aroused the compassion, and stirred the anger, of the anti-imperialist poet: “Shall he expire, / And unavenged? Arise, ye Goths, and glut your ire!” And the passage ends on a final note of commendable Byronic Schadenfreude: a glimpse of “Rome and her Ruin past Redemption’s skill”—a sort of proleptic vision of vengeance Byron empathetically shares with his coerced and slain gladiator.

Lord_Byron_Childe_Harold's_Pilgimage

But in 1958, for all my delvings into theology, philosophy, and literature as a member of the advanced “A” Class at Fordham, I was still an inexperienced naif from the Bronx and a practicing Catholic. To encounter this passage about the bliss of the blessed being enhanced by delighting in the torments of the damned, coming from, of all people, Catholicism’s central philosopher-theologian, stunned me—especially since elsewhere in the Summa (Second Part, Question 74), Aquinas identifies delectatio morosa [morose delectation] as a sin. In fact, I was still disturbed enough a year later to finally seek out a particularly eminent Jesuit on campus, who referred me to literature on what has been called “the Abominable Fancy.”

farrarFrederick Farrar

The term, coined by the 19th-century cleric and writer, Frederick Farrar, refers to what I learned was a long-standing Christian idea that witnessing the sufferings of the doomed intensified the bliss of the saved. Farrar himself was a believer in universal reconciliation, a position he defended at length in Eternal Hope (1879) and Mercy and Judgment (1881). In his 1963 book The Decline of Hell, D. P. Walker remarks that the idea of eternal punishment in hell (a tradition “almost unchallenged” until the 17th century) was often accompanied by the idea that “part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned.” He offered a persuasive double-explanation: “The sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” Nevertheless, echoing Farrar, he describes it as a particularly “abominable aspect of the traditional doctrine of hell” (29).

Advocates of what Farrar and Walker condemn as an abomination cite scriptural roots, some tenuous in terms of eternal vengeance. In Psalms, for example, “the righteous shall rejoice when he sees the vengeance” (58:10) and, in 68:2-3, when the “wicked perish before God,” the righteous shall “be joyful; let them exult before God; let them be jubilant with joy.” In a favorite phrase of devotees of the abominable fancy, the righteous shall “go forth” to enjoy the suffering of the damned, an allusion to the famous finale (Isaiah 66:24), in which the faithful “go forth and look” on the rotting corpses of the rebellious; as earlier noted, the reference may be restricted to mutable bodies rather than eternal souls. But in the more explicit and far more vengeful New Testament Book of Revelation, we are informed not only that, thanks to an avenging God, the saints and prophets” shall “rejoice” over the fallen city of Rome (18:20), but that the vengeance announced by the Third Angel will be eternal and witnessed by the whole of the heavenly host, including Jesus: a gazing-down scene popular in ancient and medieval iconography. Whoever “worships the beast,” thunders the Apocalyptist, “shall drink the wine of God’s wrath,” and “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever” (14:9-11).

This is presumably the passage to which Thomas Burnet was alluding in ironically describing the “divine harmony” produced by the burning of most of humankind in “the presence of an audience of God and angels.” But another text Burnet may have had in mind in satirizing the delight of that “audience” enjoying the agonies of the damned as an infernal “spectacle on the stage,” is the very book to which my Jesuit mentor directed me without further comment: Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, “On the Spectacles,” perhaps the most sustained and sensational illustration of the Abominable Fancy. I repaired to the old Duane Library and found the text, newly translated by Rudolph Arbesmann, and included in Tertullian: Disciplinary, Moral, and Ascetical Works (Fordham UP, 1959). Pagan public spectacles, such as those in the Coliseum, are despicable. Thus far, Tertullian and the Byron who elegized the dying gladiator are in agreement. But their versions of Schadenfreude could hardly be more antithetical.

ByronPortrait of Lord Byron by Thomas Phillips

Rebelling against but haunted by Calvinist indoctrination and harangued by a pious mother and scripture-spouting nurses, Byron was simultaneously shadowed by the fear that he was predestined to damnation and appalled, on humane grounds, by the very concept of eternal punishment. In serious works, like his great closet drama Cain, he identified with the title character and even with rebel Lucifer; and in his jocoserious moments, especially in his two ottava rima comical masterpieces, Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, Byron mocked aspects of a religion whose catechism he knew more intimately than most believers, praising Jesus but targeting Christian cant and cruelty. In Don Juan, he dealt with the pitiless but pious burning of heretics in a single wittily-rhymed couplet: “Christians have burned each other, quite persuaded/ That all the Apostles would have done as they did” (I.83). And in stanza 14 of The Vision of Judgment, he displays a universalist tolerance and compassion alien to Tertullian’s relish in the agony of the damned: “I know,” says Byron at his ironic best, “this is unpopular; I know/ ‘Tis blasphemous; I know one may be damn’d/ For hoping no one else may e’er be so….”

TertullianTertullian

Here, at last, is Tertullian on Spectacles. The greatest, and by far the most entertaining, spectacle of all, he gloats in Chapter 30, will be the Final Judgment, when the mighty of the world shall be consumed in flame. (In the extraordinary passage that follows I do not adhere to any single translation):

You are fond of spectacles? Expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquefying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded pupils; so many celebrated poets trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of Christ—a surprise! So many tragedians, more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings, should be worth hearing! Dancers and comedians skipping in the fire will be worth praise! The famous charioteer will toast on his fiery wheel; the athletes will cartwheel not in the gymnasium but in flames….

The scenes in which he exults, taking “greater delight…than in a circus,” are in the future. “Yet even now,” Tertullian concludes, “we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination”—just such a topsy-turvy “picturing” as he has here vividly presented. In this reversal, the pagan gods are supplanted by Christ (as in Milton’s “Nativity Ode”), pagan thought and art by the new religion, present suffering by future bliss. Oppressed by prideful pagan masters who tortured and martyred them in public spectacles, Christians will have the last vengeful laugh, looking down, as it were, from the good seats in the Heavenly Coliseum, at the “greatest of all spectacles,” the fiery Hell of the Last Judgment.

Though Tertullian’s fervid and vindictive rhetoric, a masterpiece of Schadenfreude, was reduced by Arbesmann (in a footnote) to “a colorful description of the millennium,” it had been, I soon discovered, singled out by Edward Gibbon for special censure. In his great history of the Roman Empire, Gibbon notes that early Christian hatred of “idolatrous” pagan spectacles and games embraced all pagan art and scholarship—an eternal condemnation, at the very least of those who persisted in their obstinacy after the redemptive sacrifice of Christ on the cross. “These rigid sentiments,” writes Gibbon, “which had been unknown to the ancient world, appear to have infused a spirit of bitterness into a system of love and harmony…[T]he Christians who, in this world, found themselves oppressed by the power of the Pagans, were sometimes seduced by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph.” After citing at length the “stern Tertullian” of chapter 30 of De Spectaculis, Gibbon adds: “But the humanity of the reader will permit me to draw a veil over the rest of this infernal description, which the zealous African [Tertullian is believed to have been born or at least raised in Carthage, in Roman North Africa] pursues in a long variety of affected and unfeeling witticisms.” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 15)

As intended by the Jesuit who had directed me to it, the passage of Tertullian placed Aquinas’s comment in historical and religious context, that of imperial Rome in the 3rd century AD (De Spectaculis was probably written in the second decade of that century, after Tertullian had allied himself with the prophetic Montanist sect). But that context did not make the statement of Aquinas, a millennium later, any less repellent; and Gibbon’s humane rejection of the “resentment and spiritual pride” into which Tertullian had clearly been “seduced” tallied with my own aversion from the echoing passage in Aquinas. Tertullian’s relishing of this one “spectacle” may also be echoed in another passage likely to have influenced Aquinas. The pre-Thomistic scholastic theologian Peter Lombard, in his Sentences (Libri quatuor sententiarum), written in the mid-twelfth century, speaks of the “elect” sallying forth to witness “the torments of the impious, seeing which they will not be grieved,” but rather “will be satiated with joy at the sight of the unutterable calamity of the impious” (Sentences, IV. 50).

But the more I looked into the abyss, the more I realized the extent to which the retributive hell envisioned in the Sentences and in the Summa had been preceded not only by Tertullian, but, minus an emphasis on the gloating bliss of the saved, by Paul and, with wrath rather than sadistic resentment, by Jesus himself. On eternal punishment, Paul goes into less detail than does Jesus and the author of the Book of Revelation. In the remarkably intense opening chapter of his second letter to the Thessalonians, however, Paul foreshadows the apocalyptic fury of Revelation, “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire inflicting vengeance” on those “who do not know God” or who “do not obey” Christ’s gospel: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess 1:8-9).

Early in Romans, his longest and most influential letter and the one in which he has most to say about divine wrath, Paul observes that while “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance,” those with hard and impenitent hearts are “storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath,” when “there will be “tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (2:6-10). As we have seen, the Potter-God analogy (Rom 9:21-23) imprinted itself indelibly on the rather fevered imagination of Augustine, who turned Paul’s “lump of clay” into a sinful, filthy, and doomed “lump”: massa peccata, massa perditionis, massa damnata. Even though he makes it clear that the clay vessels are preordained for either glory or destruction, Paul strikes a better balance than the Bishop of Hippo:

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and anther for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of his mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…?” (9:20-23)

Paul advises us, still later in Romans (12:17), “Do not repay evil for evil.” But there is a catch; we are to forego personal vengeance in order to “leave room for God’s wrath.” In this way, by refusing to “take revenge” against your enemy, “you will heap burning coals on his head” (12:18-21). Moderate commentators have sought to make the final and most graphic image more palatable, suggesting that it refers to a form of ceremonial repentance or a shaming of one’s enemies. Perhaps. But when, in Paul’s likely source (Psalms 25:21-22), David cries out, “May burning coals fall upon them,” he is not talking about merely shaming his enemies. He is invoking what Paul (in the very epistle in which he has most to say about the subject) has just referred to as “God’s wrath.”

Divine wrath was certainly emphasized by Jesus, who—despite his embodiment of the Love thought to be the very antithesis of the God of Wrath—spoke more, and far more graphically, about Hell than about Heaven. In an unforgettable passage (John 10:7-10), Jesus presents himself as the “door” to salvation, as the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep,” as he who “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” In the light of such moving and redemptive imagery, one wants to repress the darker side of Jesus’ ministry. My heart and head are with nuanced theologians, yet it seems to me that Jesus is speaking (or being made to speak by the Gospel-authors) literally rather than (as many would prefer) figuratively in those passages in which he opens the mouth of hell.

For the “door” swings both ways. In the passage I earlier suggested was echoed by Augustine in observing that “many more” are punished than are “delivered,” Jesus said: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matt 7:13-14). The road most traveled by (and Jesus does suggest that most of humanity is on the road to perdition) leads to a hell that is a place of both “darkness” and flame, a “fiery furnace” where (in a phrase attributed repeatedly to Jesus, mostly in Matthew, to describe the torments of the damned) there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 8:12, 22:17, 25:30; cf. Luke13:27-28). And when Jesus says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41), the departure implies more than separation from God and is obviously permanent. The damned are “cast into eternal fire” (Matt 8:18) its flames “unquenchable” (Matt 3:12, Luke 3:17, Mark 9:43). Thus, the “many” depart to a place of agony both intense and “everlasting”—the Greek word for which, aionios, occurs 71 times in the New Testament.

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That the adjective “everlasting” is applied in the New Testament to Heaven as well as Hell points to the Love/Wrath symmetry that ostensibly reconciles the great paradox: that eternal punishment is not inconsistent with the character of God, who is at once loving and benevolent, but also righteous and a God of justice, who metes out punishment as well as reward. The radiance of Jesus shines through the Gospels, despite such passages. But whether or not the hellfire passages accurately depict what Jesus actually said, they are there, and cannot simply be selectively dismissed by those who want a gentler Jesus—a Savior, but not a Sentencer. A major 19th- century theologian tried to do just that. The moderate and much-admired Anglican F. D. Maurice was dismissed from his position as Professor of Theology and Modern History at Kings College, London, when his Theological Essays of 1853 revealed his growing conviction that the notion of eternal punishment was erroneous, and based on a misunderstanding of biblical passages. Others went farther.

Frederick_Denison_Maurice._Portrait_c1865F.D. Maurice

In accord with their optimistic doctrine of apokatastasis, the idea of eternal punishment was rejected by prominent theologians, from Origen through Gregory of Nyssa, Julian, Scotus Erigena, and George MacDonald, whose 1879 rejection of the idea of eternal punishment cost him his post, as it had Maurice—in MacDonald’s case, his Church of Scotland pulpit. Such universalists, right up to the present, believe that divine Love will conquer all. In the words of Rowan Williams, the controversial former Archbishop of Canterbury, “if salvation is for any, it is for all” (The Truce of God [2005], 30). Yet the idea of universal redemption also reminds me rather too much of the Dodo Bird’s response to Alice’s query about how—since the runners in the race they are watching start when and where they want—a winner can be determined: “Everybody has won,” says the Dodo, unconsciously launching a thousand theses on moral equivalence, “and all must have prizes” (Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 3).

Alice_John_Tenniel_Alice and Dodo by John Tenniel

Others, seldom with the resentment-fueled malice of Tertullian, want a judgmental Jesus, since it seems only just that the wicked be punished, if not in this life, then in the next. For those more repelled than awed by the idea of “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” the punishment is justified on the basis of the free will minimized by Augustine. Human beings are free to accept or reject Christ’s offer of salvation. C. S. Lewis is emphatic about this choice. But while he bases his argument on freedom to choose, and wishes hell away, its horrors are presented with all of Lewis’s considerable imaginative power. He also grimly notes, in The Problem of Pain (1940), that our final choice is irrevocable and that “the gates of hell are locked from the inside” (127). Free will is also stressed by prominent Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga, in God and Other Minds (1990), and elsewhere. Free choice was starkly presented in 2005 by Robert Jeffress, in Hell? Yes!—a cleverly glib title synopsizing his Schadenfreude-dripping certitude that “every occupant of hell will be there by his own choice” (85).

hell-yes-book

The smug, stony coldness of that verdict is intensified by the fact that the hell of the secularist-baiting Jeffress (as well as of Lewis and Plantinga) is “everlasting.” Even if punishment of sin is thought justifiable, surely eternal damnation, Augustine notwithstanding, is disproportionate given the brevity of human life; and grotesque in the case of those for whom history and geography ruled out knowing let alone choosing Christ. I am chilled by the thought that the gates of hell are “locked from the inside” and that every inmate “will be there by his own choice.” Nevertheless, as a professor opposed to grade inflation, I am with Alice rather than the Dodo. I also confess to being oddly stirred by the frisson of a remark the poet and Catholic convert Lionel Johnson, “his tongue loosened” by drink, once made in casual conversation with his friend Yeats: “I wish those who deny eternity of punishment could realize their own unspeakable vulgarity.” My response is precisely that of Yeats, who adds, “I remember laughing when he said it, but for years I turned it over in my mind, and it always made me uneasy” (private note, published in T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower: Studies in the Poetry of W. B. Yeats [1950], 291). But even in Johnson’s remark we find hauteur and hyperbole rather than the flippant coldness of the author of Hell? Yes!, let alone the sadism and resentment Gibbon condemned in Tertullian’s catalogue of pagans groaning in darkness and liquefying in fire—to say nothing of his other “unfeeling witticisms” at the expense, for example, of the tragic poets now burning in hell, who have grown “more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings.”

There is no dearth of preachers who take an unseemly pleasure in terrifying, or gratifying, their audiences with fire and brimstone. Celebrated theologians, perhaps most prominent among them Jonathan Edwards, have delivered sermons depicting the terrors of the pit of hell to motivate their flocks to repent and be saved. Edwards was, along with the more flamboyant George Whitefield, the key figure in the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s in America. Speaking softly, he terrified those attending his classic 1741 Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:

The pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive the wicked! The flames do now rage and glow. The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much in the same way one hold a spider or some loathsome insect, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked. (Works, VII, 499)

And, however intellectually enlightened he may have been, Edwards was an enthusiastic advocate of the abominable fancy. The “view of the misery of the damned,” he proclaims in an April 1739 sermon, “will double the ardor of the love and gratitude of the saints in heaven,” for whom the “sight of hell torments will exalt [their] happiness… forever (“The Eternity of Hell Torments”). A close disciple of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins (1721-1803), though a humanitarian activist motivated by disinterested benevolence (indeed, an opponent of the slave trade who envisioned establishing colonies in Africa for liberated slaves), was rather less humane in contemplating the divine design involving hell, and the psychological as well as retributive purpose it served. He was even more explicit than his mentor Edwards about the suffering—specifically, the eternal suffering—of others being required to maximize the happiness of the blessed:

The display of the divine character will be most entertaining to all who love God, [and] will give them the highest and most ineffable pleasure. Should the fire of this eternal punishment cease, it would in a great measure obscure the light of heaven, and put an end to a great part of the happiness and glory of the blessed. (Works, 458)

Of course, to “all who love God,” there was also a “world of love” awaiting. Jonathan Edwards concluded his 1738 sermon, “Heaven is a World of Love,” by conditionally assuring his listeners, “if ever you arrive at heaven, faith and love must be the wings which must carry you there.” He would seem to be echoing the 1708 prayer of his fellow Congregationalist, Isaac Watts, whose hymns were known throughout Protestant Christendom:

Give me the wings of faith to rise
Within the veil, and see
The saints above, how great their joys,
How bright their glories be.

But Watts was also capable, enthusiastically if less characteristically, of attributing the “joys” of those “saints above” to the Abominable Fancy. The following quatrain comes from a hymn that presumably once fired up, or terrified, congregations, but which is seldom sung these days:

What bliss will fill the ransomed souls,
When they in glory dwell,
To see the sinner as he rolls
In quenchless flames of hell.

And what if the sinners rolling in quenchless flames happen to be the nearest and dearest of the ransomed? When asked if the saved will not be saddened by seeing loved ones tortured in hell, Martin Luther responded, “Not in the least.” And Johann Gerhard, the leading Lutheran theologian of the 17th century, observed that “the Blessed will see their friends and relations among the damned as often as they like but without the least of compassion.” Addressing a series of rhetorical questions—“Can the believing husband in heaven be happy with his unbelieving wife in hell? Can the believing father in heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in hell? Can the loving wife in heaven he happy with her unbelieving husband in hell?”—Jonathan Edwards responded quietly but exuberantly, “I tell you, Yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss” (Discourses on Various Important Subjects, 1738). In his 1924 collection of essays, The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child, the “Great Agnostic,” Robert Ingersoll, observed of this repudiation of the familial bond, “There is no wild beast in the jungles of Africa whose reputation would not be tarnished by the expression of such a doctrine.”

packer1J.I. Packer photo by Ron Storer

Such heartless theological sentiments persist. As we were recently assured by Canadian minister and theologian J. I. Packer, “love and pity for hell’s occupants will not enter our hearts” (“Hell’s Final Enigma,” in Christianity Today Magazine, April 22, 2002).Two years later, actor Mel Gibson, later notorious for a drunken anti-Semitic rant and various sexual infidelities, surprised an interviewer for the Australian Herald Sun by stating that his wife, Robyn, though “a much better person than I am,” indeed a “saint,” was an Episcopalian, and therefore headed to hell, since he was doctrinally certain that there was no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church. Gibson, an ultra-conservative Catholic, either didn’t know or didn’t care that the ecumenical post-Vatican II Church had revised the old dogma, extra ecclesiam nulla salus. In any case, as a Catholic, he was going to heaven, from which perch he would ultimately and eternally be looking down on his wife in hell: a woman almost certainly “a much better person” than he—and, in her pre-infernal existence in the temporal world, remarkably well-off, having received 400 million dollars, the largest settlement in Hollywood history, when she divorced Gibson in 2011, less than a decade after he had consigned her to the pit of hell.

That dogma, and the familial heartlessness that turns, in Edwards and others, from wife, husband, and children in the name of theology, was still operative in the late 19th century, when, writing in Spanish, Cuban Archbishop Anthony Mary Claret composed a series of 35 meditations on the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises (translated into English in 1955 as The Golden Key to Heaven). Some meditations are admirable, but in addressing the “Pains of Hell,” Claret noted that “for all eternity,” a condemned “wretch” will be abandoned by friends, without a “kind word.” Rather, “they will be satisfied to see him in the flames as a victim of God’s justice. They will abhor him. A mother will look from paradise upon her own condemned son without being moved, as though she had never known him.”

In my junior year at Fordham, precisely a decade after Archbishop Claret was canonized by Pope Pius XII, we had a retreat that employed Ignatian “composition of place” to evoke the physical and spiritual agonies of eternal punishment: a presentation as graphic and horrifying as the hellfire sermon that sends a terrified Stephen Dedalus scurrying off to confession in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The sustained double-sermon in Portrait (it takes up most of Part III of the novel) was delivered by Fr. Arnall, Joyce’s fictional name for the priest, Fr. James Cullen, who led the actual retreat Joyce attended as a Belvedere College student. In fact as in fiction, the retreat was based on traditional Jesuit sermons. The main text Joyce used was Giovanni Pietro Pinamonte, S. J., Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It, first printed in Bologna in 1688, and frequently reprinted in English translations (though fluent in Italian, Joyce used a late 19th-century translation printed in Dublin).

Keane1Four Woodcuts from Pinamonte’s Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It

As I can attest from my own experience, the order, imagery, phrasing, biblical citations, and graphic images to which we were exposed at Fordham in 1960 were virtually identical to the pattern laid down in Giovanni Pinamonte’s uncompromising ur-text, a rhetorical set-piece at once salutary and terrifying. Another model for Fr. Arnall may have been the appropriately-named Fr. Furniss, a sadistic 19th-century Anglo-Irish priest who specialized in terrorizing children with the threat of hellfire. We can catch the flavor of the preaching of both Pinamonte and Furniss in the hell-passages of the sermon in Portrait. Though Fr. Arnall covers in sequence the four “last things, death, judgment, hell, and heaven,” the section of the retreat that struck terror in the soul of Stephen Dedalus, as in mine in 1960, followed the opening of the maw of hell—fusing Pinamonte’s title, Hell Opened to Christians, with the “opening” of the “mouth” of Sheol in Isaiah:

Hell has enlarged its soul and opened its mouth without any limits—words taken, my dear little brothers in Christ Jesus, from the book of Isaias, fifth chapter, fourteenth verse….

—Now let us try for a moment to realize, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned to which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners. Hell is a strait and dark and foulsmelling prison, an abode of demons and lost souls, filled with fire and smoke ….By reason of the great numbers of the damned, the prisoners are heaped together in their awful prison, the walls of which are said to be four thousand miles thick…They are not even able to remove from the eye a worm that gnaws it [echoing, like the coming “stench,” that old favorite, Isaiah 66:24]….They lie in exterior darkness…for the fire of hell, while retaining the intensity of its heat, burns eternally in darkness…

—The horror of this strait and dark prison is increased by the awful stench. All the filth of the world, all the offal and scums of the world, we are told, shall run there as to a vast reeking sewer when the terrible conflagration of the last day has purged the world…Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes of nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in the reeking darkness, a huge and rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell.

But more and worse was to come: namely, the pain, intensity, and eternity of the fire “created by God to punish the unrepentant sinner”—a litany of tortures that out-Dantes Dante. Earthly fire consumes itself,

but the fire of hell has this property that it preserves that which it burns and though it rages with incredible intensity it rages for ever….The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a redhot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls…And the strength and quality…of this fire is as nothing when compared to its intensity, an intensity which it has as being the instrument chosen by divine design for the punishment of soul and body alike. It is a fire which proceeds directly from the ire of God, working not of its own activity but as an instrument of divine vengeance….Every sense of the flesh is tortured… and through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.

Fr. Arnall concludes by praying “fervently to God that not a single soul of those who are in this chapel today…may ever hear ringing in his ears the awful sentence of rejection: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels!” (Portrait, 119-24).

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The emphasis of our retreat-master at Fordham was, as with Fr. Arnall, on repentance and salvation. But even their final prayerful citation of Jesus (Matt 25:41) intensified rather than alleviated the terror of being cast into “the everlasting fire.” There was nothing merely figurative about our preacher’s detailed descriptions of the myriad torments of hell, and, though I knew nothing in 1960 of Pinamonte or Furniss, it was sometimes hard to separate the tone and sensuous immediacy of our priest’s Jesuit rhetoric from the vindictive glee of Tertullian relishing the agonies of the damned.

NietzscheFriedrich Nietzsche

Shortly after I graduated from Fordham, in 1961, I read Nietzsche seriously for the first time. I had earlier responded to the excitement of his literary style and to what W. B. Yeats described with remarkable tonal accuracy as this “strong enchanter’s curious astringent joy.” But in reading On the Genealogy of Morals, arguably the most substantial of his works, I discovered that Nietzsche had responded to the very passages in Aquinas and Tertullian that had so troubled me a few years earlier at Fordham. Quoting both passages in Latin, Nietzsche attributed their sadism—as expressed particularly by that “enraptured visionary,” triumphalist Tertullian—to what he repeatedly condemns (always in French) as the ressentiment characteristic of “slave morality”— here, future “blessedness” as Will to Power in disguise (Genealogy of Morals 1:15). Gibbon’s image of oppressed Christians “seduced…by resentment and spiritual pride to delight in the prospect of their future triumph,” may have helped generate Nietzsche’s crucial concept, first announced in Beyond Good and Evil §260 and fully developed in the Genealogy, of ressentiment as the driving impulse of “slave morality”: the desire of the weak, the “good”, for vengeance against the strong, depicted not merely as “bad,” but “evil.”

The dubiousness of the doctrine of eternal punishment of those condemned as “evil,” let alone the appalling notion that, far from eliciting empathy, their suffering is a source of glee for the saved, becomes even more repugnant when that pleasure is extended from his creatures to the Creator himself. Some Christians claim that the bliss of the saints, enhanced by looking down on the suffering of the damned, is shared by God—as we just saw in quoting Joyce’s version of the standard Jesuit retreat-sermon as well as the sermons of Jonathan Edwards and his disciple Samuel Hopkins. Whatever the values of its spiritual revival, its influence in effecting social reforms, and its often splendid rhetoric, the Great Awakening seems to me more of a Great Nightmare. The God of Jonathan Edwards, whether the “angry God” who abhors the sinners he holds in his hands, or the “just” God who presides over a system in which the happiness of a father who has made it to heaven is increased rather than diminished by the sight of his “unbelieving children in hell,” is obviously a God to fear, but hardly one we would wish to love or to be coerced into worshiping.

Mills_Examination

I have in mind the conclusion of John Stuart Mill’s Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1865), a book more revealing of Mill’s own philosophy. Putting aside the “glad tidings” of Jesus, Mill aligns himself with Hamilton in denying any “immediate intuition of God.” But some claim that the “infinite goodness ascribed to God” is not “the goodness we know and love in our fellow-creatures distinguished only as infinite in degree,” but is, rather, “different in kind and of another quality altogether.” In concluding, Mill, risking hellfire, defiantly rejects this God of transcendent, ineffable morality in the name of the highest form of morality among human beings, fellow-creatures with whom we interact ethically, compassionately, and, at our best, with love. “If,” Mill writes, “I am informed that the world”

is ruled by a being whose attributes are infinite, but what they are we cannot learn, except that the highest human morality does not sanction them—convince me of this and I will bear my fate as I may. But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say, in plain terms, that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, then to hell I will go. (Works, ed. John M. Robson (1963-1991), 10:103.

Of course, human beings are not always “good.” We can, though it would fly in the face of centuries of Christian tradition, dismiss the notion (hardly restricted to Puritan or Jesuit hellfire sermonizing) of an angry and vindictive deity as an anthropomorphic projection, a reflection of human rather than divine cruelty, sadism, and ressentiment. And it is true that, in what Nietzsche called “these more humane ages,” most Christians, other than rigid traditionalists and literalist fundamentalists, think and speak less of a God of Wrath than of Love, and of hell (as even Billy Graham thinks) as separation from God rather than a literal “place.” Against the Great Awakening of Edwards and Whitefield may be set a more significant awakening: the dawning of the American Enlightenment, best personified by those two once-bitter political rivals and later great friends among the Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. “I can never join Calvin is addressing his God,” wrote the deist Jefferson to Adams:

He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be….If ever a man worshipped a false God, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge, the creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. (17 April 1823)

My friend Paul Johnston recently quoted an observation, made five years earlier, by this letter’s recipient. Writing on 14 September 1818 to Jefferson, Adams attacked reliance on miracles and prophecies, the idea of a vain and vengeful deity, and the awful belief that most of humankind is eternally doomed to Hell. He also offered a personal, rational and humane definition of what he believed it meant to be a Christian:

We can never be so certain of any prophecy, or of any miracle…as we are from the revelation of nature, that is, nature’s God….Can prophecies or miracles convince you or me that infinite benevolence, wisdom, and power created, and preserves for a time, innumerable millions, to make them miserable for ever, for his own glory? Wretch!…Is he vain, tickled with adulation, exulting and triumphing in his power and the sweetness of his vengeance? Pardon me, my Maker, for these awful questions. My answer to them is always ready. I believe in no such thing. My adoration of the author of the universe is too profound and too sincere. The love of God and his creation—delight, joy, triumph, exultation in my own existence—though but an atom, a molecule organique, in the universe—these are my religion. Howl, snarl, bite, ye Calvinistic, ye Athanasian divines, if you will. Ye will say I am no Christian. I say ye are no Christians.

After so much hellfire and rejoicing at its torments, we can find respite in the refreshingly unorthodox voice of Enlightenment Reason, blasphemous though it may be to traditionalists. The deist sobriquets for God, civic and civil, have, in contrast to the sound and fury of sectarian conflict and theological hairsplitting, a euphemistic charm. Momentarily setting aside the angry God and loving but wrathful Jesus of historical Christianity, we can join Jefferson in acknowledging the “benevolent governor of the world,” just as we share Adams’s exultation in his own existence, and appreciate his love of the benign “author of the universe.”

Baruch_Spinoza_-_Franz_WulfhagenBaruch Spinoza by Franz Wulfhagen

Jefferson’s insistence on intellectual and democratic freedom from a tyrannous religion, like the skepticism of Adams regarding the reality of “miracles” and his reinterpretation of the nature of “prophecy,” are aligned for me with the earlier and even more profound enlightenment provided by an Amsterdam Jew writing in the 17th-century Dutch Republic: the great Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. Despite being expelled from his synagogue and condemned as an atheist, Spinoza proved to have immense appeal, exerting an influence that crossed sectarian divisions. Fervently and famously embraced as a “god-intoxicated man” by the German Catholic Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich Hardenberg) and—by the English Romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth—as a pantheist for whom Nature was indistinguishable from God, Spinoza was also profoundly admired by the atheist Nietzsche, an opponent of all other Idealist philosophers, who rightly venerated Spinoza for his simple and sublime nobility of spirit. As did Einstein, who, because of the “God-talk” in which he expressed his sense of awe and wonder in contemplating the beauty, majesty, and ultimate mystery of the universe, was mistakenly thought, by American admirers in his adopted country, to be a believer in a personal God, one who intervened in human affairs and was accessible by prayer. No, explained Einstein, his “religion” was limited to reverence of the order (since “God did not throw dice”) of the cosmos itself, and his only deity was “Spinoza’s God.”

The first serious philosophy paper I wrote at Fordham was on Spinoza’s Ethics, and I still remember that my Jesuit professor, in grading the essay A+, added a remark more gracious than accurate: that I was “farther along than he on the via illuminativa.” But the work of Spinoza I later wished I’d focused on at Fordham was the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670), an immensely influential treatise pioneering the argument that the Bible, written by prophets of superior ethics but vivid imaginations, was not to be read “literally.” Authentic religion had nothing to do with “miracles and prophecies,” church authorities, or divisive sectarian dogma. Instead, “true religion” was based on the moral imperatives to seek the truth, to love one’s neighbor, and to be tolerant. The book’s political chapters, as far in advance of their time as those on theology, were a sustained plea for democratic toleration, especially in defense of “the freedom to philosophize” without interference from religious or political authorities.

For such thoughts, Spinoza was driven from his synagogue in the harshest terms. The cherum (or ritual of expulsion and ostracism) reads in part: because of his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds,” we “excommunicate, expel, curse, and damn Baruch Spinoza, with the consent of God and with all the curses…written in the Book of the Law.” The vicious backlash against the Treatise also came from Christians. Within weeks of its publication, it was denounced by a prominent German theologian as “a godless document” that should be banned in every country. One of Spinoza’s Dutch countrymen described it as an “atheistic book full of abominations…which every reasonable person should find abhorrent.” Another, not to be outdone, called the deeply moral and eminently reasonable Tractatus “a book forged in hell,” written not by the ethical thinker toiling as a lens-grinder in Amsterdam, but by the devil himself.

In short, before and after welcome bursts of Enlightenment, Dutch or American, there remains a long, problematic, and continuing history of religious intolerance and induced terror. Despite being surrounded by and taught by smart and compassionate Jesuits, and despite (perhaps because of) the fact that I was in the advanced theology course, and attended that terrifying retreat, I have always found it difficult, after those impressionable years at Fordham, to glibly dismiss the concept of the vengeful deity fearfully accepted, or sadistically embraced, by so many believers for so long. And, like it or not, and however softened or “symbolic” much non-fundamentalist Christianity has become in these “more humane ages,” the doctrine of eternal punishment—and the concept of a God willing to initiate, approve, and even occasionally take relish in such monstrous cruelty—has defined traditional Christian theology for most of its history.

The widespread phenomenon often described as the “decline” or even “disappearance” of hell—a trickle in the 17th century, a stream in the American Enlightenment (including the Divinity School Address of Emerson), and cresting in England and continental Europe in the later 19th century, first among Protestants, somewhat later among Catholics—is, taken as a generalization, a historical fact. But while hell’s heat has been lowered, its flames a mere flicker in comparison to their former raging in incendiary hellfire texts and sermons, the old time religion is still alive and well, among some televangelists, and in much of Bible-belt contemporary America.

As for Catholicism: A tonal and gestural sea-change has recently occurred. The election of Pope Francis, an Argentina-based Jesuit, signaled a dramatic double-shift: from Eurocentrism and from dogmatic harshness to compassion and tolerance. That shift seems decisive, but is it permanent, and how far can tone take us in tempering let alone altering doctrine? It was, after all, just seven years earlier that Francis’s conservative predecessor, Benedict XVI, strenuously reaffirmed traditional Church teaching on hell. Benedict’s own predecessor, John Paul II, had referred to damnation vaguely as an “eternal emptiness.” Reacting to the “decline of hell,” especially in Western Europe, Benedict complained that the place of everlasting torment was no longer much talked about. He went on to describe Satan as a “real, personal and not merely symbolic presence” and proclaimed that hell, far from being a mere state of mind, or a condition of separation from God, is an actual place, one that “exists and is eternal.” We were spared fire-and-brimstone details, but listening to this March 2007 proclamation on the radio, I was transported back almost a half-century to that Fordham retreat.

Having lost my faith while remaining fascinated by the figure of Jesus, attractive despite his apparent consignment of most of humankind to eternal punishment, I sometimes want to cry out with the boy’s father in Mark 9:24: “Help thou my unbelief.” But the theological Problem of Suffering goes beyond the posthumous torments of hell to pain right here on earth, with the undeserved suffering of the innocent presenting the single greatest challenge to my own ability to “believe” in a God simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving. As David Hume has “Philo,” the more skeptical of his two spokesmen, note in Part 10 of his posthumously-published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779), “Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered”—questions we may apply to the presence of evil and suffering in a world “groaning” for “deliverance” (Rom 8:19-22), or to the groaning of hopeless souls in hell. Simplifying Epicurus, Hume has Philo ask, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then cometh evil? (75).

Nothing I read in Augustine or Aquinas about God’s “justice,” or about the constrained freedom that makes eternal punishment the “choice” of sinners, enabled me to answer those questions. And my subsequent immersion in the pornography of the Abominable Fancy only deepened my alienation from the faith I was raised in, and problematized the beliefs I had brought with me as a Freshman entering Fordham. Beginning college was hardly the time to abandon reason; and, in fact, as my classmate and lifelong friend Bill Baumert has often noted in retrospect, we received a first-rate and rigorous education at Fordham—far superior to what generally passes as education these days at colleges and universities where the canon has been “exposed,” the curriculum softened, and demands on students drastically eased, as their prose deteriorates, tuition costs soar, and the party goes on.

But I’ve also had other thoughts in retrospect. Being shocked into intellectual as well as emotional resistance by my reading of that fateful passage in Aquinas, I may have betrayed my own growing commitment to the Romantic poets by embracing a too-narrow intellectualism when it came to theology. Not that I was willing, then or now, to honor Imagination by a descent into irrationalism, any more than the great Romantics did. Neither, for that matter, despite some of the words by which we best remember them, did Luther (for all his distrust and frequent condemnation of “that whore, reason”), nor even Tertullian, the passionate evoker of that circus-scene in which Christians would posthumously join him, exulting in the spectacle of pagans writhing in hellfire. Tertullian is even more famous for having said he “believed because it was absurd,” but it isn’t quite that simple.

In arguing, in de Carne Christi 5:4, that the resurrection of Christ’s body, crucified and buried, was certain because impossible [credibile est, quia ineptum es, et sepultus resurrexit, certum est, quia impossibile]—Tertullian may not have been relying on blind faith (the fideism of the oft-misquoted tag, credo quia absurdum est), but following, as James Moffatt suggested a century ago, “in the footsteps of that cool philosopher Aristotle” (Journal of Theological Studies 17 [1915-16], 170-71). Since, in lines he quotes from the tragedian Agathon, “what is contrary to probability sometimes occurs,” it can be argued, says Aristotle, that “the improbable will be probable” (Rhetoric 2.24.9); even that some stories are so improbable that it can become reasonable to believe them. For Tertullian, the most improbable story is that of the incarnate, crucified, buried, and risen Jesus—which is, paradoxically, what makes it credible. This is the very point made by Shakespeare’s Hippolyta in an exchange in the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a riposte to her soon-to-be husband, Theseus, that would have delighted Agathon and Tertullian—and, perhaps, Aristotle.

In the opening of that final act, Theseus, a self-assured rationalist, dismisses (“more strange than true”) the lovers’ tales of their adventures in the moonlit wood. They are “fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends,” and thus to be grouped indiscriminately with the merely imaginary constructions common to “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet.” But we in the audience know to be “true” what Hippolyta shrewdly intuits: that however individually fantastic the tales may be, they are part of an over-all consistency that makes each of them credible. To Theseus’ cool skepticism and reductive characterization of “imagination,” she responds:

But the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But howsoever strange and admirable. (5.1.23-27)

A similar case has often been made, certainly in one of my Fordham theology courses, to demonstrate the “historicity” of the gospels. Tertullian would concur, since those gospels tell the story, “howsoever strange and admirable,” of Christ, a man who is God and a God who is a man, who died in the flesh and rose from the sepulcher: a story “certain” because “impossible.” And yet Aristotle, it is worth recalling, was quoting a playwright, and Hippolyta, though wiser than her betrothed, is, like him, merely a character in a play, even if it is a play by Shakespeare. Tertullian’s central figure, on the other hand, is non-fictional, not only a dying and resurrected God, but a Savior and Sentencer, a loving Good Shepherd and harsh Judge, with the divine power to deliver on his threat: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

That was the “awful sentence of rejection” our retreat-master at Fordham, and Joyce’s at Belvedere, prayed we would never hear “ringing in our ears,” but which has never completely stopped ringing in mine—even years after I had rationally concluded that the real absurdity was the doctrine of eternal punishment itself, to say nothing of the abominable fancy that witnessing the endless agony of “many” of our fellow human beings could enhance the pleasure of the “few.” For Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Peter Lombard, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Archbishop Claret, and, last and least, Mel Gibson, this privileged audience may have been the “blessed,” the “saved,” even the Elect. But if its members were consigning most of humankind to hell, some even taking pleasure in that horrible prospect, it seemed to me—to alter Milton, who also had a few things to day about hell—an “unfit audience though few.” And just to cap my blasphemy: to the extent that the God of infinite Wrath (preached, along with the God of infinite Mercy, by Jesus and Paul) seems eager and willing to act in ways which, however ineffable and transcendent, seem petty, vindictive, and everlastingly punitive—alien, as Mill puts it, to “the highest human morality”—he, too, seems less a Father than a Tyrant.

So, while I am fond, and in part envious, of George Coyne, my final question is not the one posed to him by Carl Sagan (“Why should you be given the gift of faith, and not me?”), but, rather, is this a “gift” I want? And yet, George Coyne is more than a foil in these ruminations. Obviously, we took very different religious paths as a result of our exposure to Augustine and Aquinas at Fordham. But we’ve become friends, and we agree on many things, among others, that Intelligent Design, while an engaging surmise, is not a scientific theory to be taught in biology or physics classes. We agree, too, that kindness and consideration matter crucially, among friends and in the way a professor interacts with students. And we concur on the greatness of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, S. J., a handsome edition of whose poems and letters I gave George in first welcoming him to Le Moyne.

In the month I am writing, November 2014, we participated together in an event, held in Le Moyne’s Panasci Chapel, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Hopkins’s death in 1889. I introduced the keynote speaker, Hopkins expert Joseph J. Feeney, S.J., author of The Playfulness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (2008), and the scholar who had, a decade earlier while working in the Jesuit Archives in London, unearthed an unpublished poem written by Hopkins in 1875-76, displaying that “playfulness” and the delight Hopkins took in the companionship of his fellow-Jesuits at St. Bueno’s College in Wales. The poem George read that evening, his favorite, was “God’s Grandeur,” a magnificent, breathtaking celebration of God and God’s Nature. I read the exuberant “Hurrahing in Harvest.” If I were ever to regain my faith, it would have more to do with engaging Hopkins—poems both ecstatically celebrating and darkly “wrestling with (my God!) my God”—than with revisiting the gospels and Paul, let alone Augustine and Aquinas, who led me away from Christianity in the first place.

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Coda

A widely read friend and believer to whom I sent this essay responded that he wasn’t sure what the “story” was primarily “about”–was it autobiographical or theological? about my own “personal loss of faith” or a disquisition on “salvational schadenfreude“? He also asserted that the God in whom I had lost faith was a sadistic deity that “virtually all [my] believing associates would also repudiate.” He further wondered if, in my unbelief, I had become an “atheist,” bereft of all “sense (feeling) of something infusing the material, Hopkins’s glory in dappled things.” He concluded by suggesting that he was “not the right audience” for this essay because he had had spiritual “experiences” that allowed him “to hope that there is something beyond dead, contingent materialism.”

The paradigm for such dramatic spiritual experiences is Saul-Paul’s conversion-moment on the Road to Damascus, which, remarkably enough, Paul himself never mentions (we hear of it in Acts, a particularly corrupt text). Though they’re often life-transforming, I have never had such an experience myself, perhaps because I have not been “given” the “gift of faith,” and thus have no way of judging their ontological, as opposed to their subjective, significance. In thanking my friend for reading the essay and raising probing questions, I assured him that, while I hadn’t had the sort of epiphany he mentioned…

I have had “experiences”—in love, in nature, with animals—that rule out at least “reductive materialism.” Such experiences have long been enhanced by my reading of the Romantic poets and of Hopkins, so I most certainly do have “a sense (feeling) of something infusing the material”—not just Hopkins’s Christ-haunted glory in dappled things, but (in the passage you seem to allude to) Wordsworth’s Spinozistic and (in 1798, when he wrote these lines) non-Christian sublime:

………………………And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man :
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought….

Nor, given the mystery of the universe, am I arrogant enough to label myself an atheist; I’m agnostic, though unconvinced of the existence of a personal God who cares about us.

What is this essay “about”? I’m not sure myself. “Confessional” in both the common and Augustinian senses, it was a convulsive outpouring, written in less than two weeks; and the initial “audience” was… myself: an attempt to lay out the history of, and thus clarify, my individual fall from grace. Eternal punishment, hell, and the accompanying schadenfreude (the sadistic pleasure far too many have taken in relishing the sufferings of the damned), are at the heart of it. But it’s precisely this combination that produced my “loss of faith.” Thus, the “story” is not one of Either/Or, but of Both/And.

The God in whom I lost faith is not simply the God of Augustine or Aquinas, but the God presented to us by the Founders of Christianity: Jesus and Paul. I cite some of the most wonderful utterances of Jesus, as child-loving Good Shepherd and the “door” to salvation. But Jesus also talks more about damnation and hellfire than any person in either testament of the Bible (as I note, the Hebrew scriptures are virtually silent on that subject), and Paul provided the template for the predestined damnation of most humans: the theory of predestination taken up by Augustine (and, to a lesser degree, by Aquinas) and which culminated in the theology of Calvin.

As Calvin himself said, his entire theology is based on Augustine, and much of Augustine (on original sin and on God’s foreordaining of a “few” souls to glory and “many” to damnation) was drawn from Paul, particularly from his longest, weightiest, and most influential epistle, to the Romans. Paul, in turn, was echoing passages of Jesus: the “narrow” gate leading the “few” to heaven, the “wide” gate leading the “many” to hell. And the terrible sentence at the climax of the hell-sermon, in Joyce and at Fordham in 1960–“Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels”–are, of course, the words of Jesus, as reported in Matthew.

As I say in the essay, “the radiance of Jesus shines through the gospels,” often despite those gospels, written decades after his death. But they’re all we have as accounts purporting to have witnessed Jesus in the flesh, and recording what he said. Though written earlier, the letters of Paul are those of a man who never saw Christ—unless we give credence to the conversion-moment on the road to Damascus. Since Jesus is hardly mentioned outside the New Testament (there’s are references to the Jesus cult in Josephus and in Tacitus, though, in the case of the latter, the reference was added much later, by a Christian editor), we have to rely on the New Testament texts: the gospels, the various letters, especially the epistles of Paul, Acts, and the exciting but crazy Book of Revelation: that world-masterpiece of schadenfreude.

Reading these texts led me to the inevitable conclusion that the God in whom I lost faith is not some bizarre and sadistic deity dreamed up in the pessimistic imagination of Augustine or in the darker pages of the Summa. It’s the Wrathful aspect of the God of Love preached by Jesus and Paul: the God who, they both insist, sentences most of us to everlasting fire. Along with most of my “believing associates,” you want to selectively “look on the bright side.” I mention in the essay the historical phenomenon known as the “decline of Hell.” However, while only a tiny percentage believe that they are headed to the pit, a majority of Evangelicals and Catholics still believe in the traditional hell and in a God of Wrath. In fact, the God in whom I lost faith, that “God that virtually all of [my] believing associates would also repudiate,” is one aspect of the God of Jesus and Paul, which, if we follow the logic, you must “repudiate.”

Coming from my own particular background, including the intense reading in my Fordham theology classes, I find it hard to delete the dark bits. I wish it could be otherwise, but, in contemplating the prospect of eternal punishment as well as this temporal world of massive, mostly undeserved suffering, I find scant evidence of a benign God. Given my particular early experiences, I feel cut off from the option of being what used to be called a “cafeteria Catholic.” Instead, I find myself in the absurd but honest position of being fundamentalist in my agnosticism.

— Patrick J. Keane


PAT kEANE

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

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Apr 112015
 

19Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. —Eric Foley

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Adventures in Immediate Irreality
Max Blecher
Translated by Michael Henry Heim
New Directions, 2015
112 pages ($14.95)
ISBN 9780811217606

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In his Journal 1935–1944: The Fascist Years, Mihail Sebastian recounts a visit he paid to his fellow Romanian writer Max Blecher in September of 1936, the same year Blecher’s first book, Adventures in Immediate Irreality (Întâmplări în irealitatea imediată), was published:

I left overpowered and exhausted. He lives in intimacy with death. Not with the abstract, unclear, long-term death. It’s his death, precise, defined, known in every detail, just as an object . . . I wanted to burst into tears a few times when looking  at him. At night I heard him moaning and screaming in his room, and I felt that there was another person at home with us, maybe death or faith—I don’t know who.

At the time of Sebastian’s visit, Blecher had just turned twenty-seven. He had less than two years left to live.

Born in 1909 in Botoşani and raised in the town of Roman, Max Blecher belongs to a remarkable group of Romanian writers who came of age in the 1930s—a generation that included, among others, Mircea Eliade (b. 1907), Mihail Sebastian (b. 1907), Eugene Ionesco (b. 1909) and Emil Cioran (b. 1911). Like his friend Sebastian, Blecher was born a Romanian Jew, yet neither man was fated to die from the fascist exterminations that demolished nearly half of Romania’s more than 700,000 Jews during World War II. Sebastian survived amidst increasing persecution only to be hit by a truck mere weeks after the Nazis surrendered, dying on May 29, 1945, while Blecher succumbed to spinal tuberculosis at age twenty-eight on May 31, 1938. Blecher had contracted the disease nearly a decade earlier while studying medicine in Paris. Thereafter, he spent his adult life confined to various European sanatoria, and finally to his parents’ estate outside of Roman. His condition required him to wear a painful body cast; the majority of his work was completed while reclining in a state of partial paralysis.

blecher2Max Blecher

Adventures in Immediate Irreality is a short, powerful dispatch from the heart of European literary modernism—part idiosyncratic coming-of-age novel, part prose poem to the terrifying intensity of the everyday. The book traces, in retrospect, a series of internal crises a young man undergoes in a provincial Romanian town of the 1920s. It’s the kind of place that gives the unnamed narrator “the vague feeling that nothing in the world can come to fruition,” and a time in his life when he has nothing to do “but saunter through parks, through dusty clearings burnt by the sun, desolate and wild.” Although they coincide with the onset of adolescence, the narrator’s crises have little to do with the usual growing pains. Rather, they stem from a profound confusion between his internal and external worlds. The crises arise particularly through the young man’s interaction with objects, what Blecher refers to as brute matter. “I had nothing to separate me from the world,” the narrator tells us, “everything around me invaded from head to toe; my skin might as well have been a sieve.”

Eugene Ionesco referred to Blecher as “the Romanian Kafka,” while others have compared his work to that of Bruno Schulz, Marcel Proust, and the French Surrealists (Blecher corresponded with André Breton, not to mention André Gide and Martin Heidegger). Adventures in Immediate Irreality reads like a searing combination of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl (a book Blecher could not possibly have read), yet Blecher also possesses a great deal of originality as a writer. His use of similes, for example, brings an unexpected depth to his images. As Herta Muller points out in her introduction, “Blecher’s eroticism of perception requires the constant comparison of one thing with a hitherto unimaginable other.” You know you’re reading an unusual work of literature when the narrator doesn’t bother to describe his appearance until the book is more than half over:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

The simile here—arms that hang like newly skinned animals—is visually appropriate, in keeping with Blecher’s death-haunted prose, while simultaneously conjuring the image of a boy who feels he has been violently thrust into adolescence. The simile also evokes the narrator’s extreme sensitivity: this is a young man who lacks the ordinary layer of protection between himself and the world that others possess. Earlier in the novel, he tells us: “It was what was most humdrum and familiar in the objects that disturbed me most. The habit of being seen so many times must have worn out their thin skins, and they sometimes looked flayed and bloody to me—and alive, ineffably alive.” If the narrator’s arms are like flayed animals, so are the objects that surround him. Both are skinned yet “ineffably alive,” forced beyond their comprehension to participate in this thing we call life. Nearly all of the objects the main character perceives so intensely come from the human world. Even the landscapes he interacts with have been shaped by people:

There was another cursed place at the other end of town on the high, loose banks   of the river where my friends and I would go to bathe. At one point the bank had caved in. Just above it there was a factory that made oil from sunflower seeds. The workers would throw the discarded seed husks into the section of the bank that had caved in, and over time, the pile grew so high that it formed a slope of dry husks extending from the top of the bank to the water’s edge.

My playmates would descend to the water along that slope, cautiously, holding one another by the hand, sinking their feet deep into the carpet of rotten matter. The walls of the high bank on either side of the slope were steep and full of outlandish irregularities—long, fine channels sculpted by the rain, arabesque-like but as hideous as poorly healed scars, veritable tatters of the clay’s flesh, horrible gaping wounds. It was between these walls, which made such an impression on me, that I too climbed down to the water.

One of Blecher’s great themes is the intensity of perception, particularly as regards the faculty of sight. His prose wrestles with the call and the challenge of the visible world: “Such is what I had to struggle with, what implacably opposed me: the ordinary look of things.” An individual of the narrator’s uncommon sensitivity might have encountered such crises in any era, but Blecher came of age in the 1920s, and his book is awash with reference to the technologies, old and new, that proliferated at that time; photography, cinema, chemical experiments, mirrors, and waxworks all provide the narrator with reflections of the unreality that surrounds and inhabits him. They also provide him with the opportunity to repeatedly, playfully, interrogate the process of mimesis. Blecher’s narrator sees imitations as paradoxically more “real” than life itself: “The bullet-riddled, blood-stained uniform of a sad, sallow Austrian archduke”, he tells us, “was infinitely more tragic that any real death.”

Early on, in what could stand as a central trope of the book, the narrator watches a young woman apply her make-up. “The mirror was so old that the polish had completely worn off in places and actual objects showed here and there through the back of the mirror, merging with the reflected images as in a double exposure.” This is only one of numerous occasions where Blecher presents us with an image of a world that consistently breaks through the attempt to represent it. Blecher’s acute awareness of such crises of perception and representation, as well as his articulation of the necessity of searching for new means to express them, is one of the hallmarks of modernism:

Ordinary words lose their validity at certain depths of the soul. Here I am, trying to give an exact description of my crises, and all I can come up with are images. The magic word that might convey their essence would have to borrow from the essences of other aspects of life, distill a new scent from a judicious combination of them.

Throughout the book, Blecher blurs the line between representation and what is represented, calling into question both the act of perception and the act of rendering what one perceives in language. In the context of this interrogation of mimesis, it is perhaps worth remembering that 1936, when Adventures in Immediate Irreality was published, was also the year Erich Auerbach began teaching at the Turkish State University in Istanbul, where he would eventually write his epic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. For Blecher, mimesis is always deliciously bound up in materiality. Here is how the narrator describes a movie-going experience in his hometown:

One day the cinema caught fire. The film tore and immediately went up in flames, which for several seconds raged on the screen like a filmed warning that the place was on fire as well as a logical continuation of the medium’s mission to give the news, which mission it was now carrying out to perfection by reporting the latest and most exciting event in town: its own combustion.

Scenes like this have led Andrei Codrescu, rightly, to call Max Blecher “a recording diagnostician of a type the twentieth century had not yet fully birthed”.

Blecher’s episodes flow not according to chronology, but via the associative logic of memory. By the end of the book, the narrator has even undergone a change of sorts, thus satisfying the requirements of a conventional narrative, yet this is hardly the point of the book. The real pleasure of Adventures in Immediate Irreality lies in how miraculously and minutely Blecher conjures a series of vanished surfaces—bringing an idiosyncratic collection of people, places, and objects to life while remaining focused on the question that Beckett’s Molloy asks: And what do I mean by seeing and seeing again? The “seeing again,” of course, refers to the process of memory.

If the provincial town the narrator inhabits seems at times excessively strange, perhaps many places were once so, before globalization. Indeed, one of many reasons to read this book is for a glorious reminder of just how unusual our planet once was. Blecher excels, in particular, at portraying how one layer of reality can quickly give way to another:

Once, as a child, I was present at the exhumation of a corpse, a woman who had died young and had been buried in her wedding gown. The silk bodice was a mess of long filthy rags, and what remained of the embroidery had mixed with the soil. Her face was more or less intact, however, and one could make out nearly all her features even if the head had turned purple and seemed modeled out of cardboard that had been soaked in water.

Someone ran his hand over the face as the coffin was being raised out of the ground. All present were in for a terrible surprise: what we had taken for a well-preserved face was nothing but a layer of mold about two inches thick. The mold had replaced its skin and flesh down to the bones, thus reproducing its form.  There was nothing but the bare skeleton underneath.

This is a world that will never come again, a world that may never even fully have existed except inside of one young man, but the beauty of literature is that it has been preserved for us, so that we may partake of it repeatedly, in all its strange melancholy.

Blecher3

One further reason to read the newest edition of Adventures in Immediate Irreality is to witness a literary translator at the height of his powers. This was one of the last projects Michael Henry Heim completed before his death in 2012. In order to demonstrate the degree to which Heim has succeeded in breathing new life into this English version, I’d like to take a closer look at the passage from Blecher’s original where the narrator finally gives a physical account of himself:

Eram un băiat înalt, slab, palid, cu gâtul subțire ieșind din gulerul prea larg al tunicei. Mâinile lungi atârnau dincolo de haină ca niște animale proaspăt jupuite. Buzunarele plezneau de hârtii și obiecte. Cu greu găseam în fundul lor batista pentru a-mi șterge ghetele de praf, când veneam în străzile din „centru”.

Here is Alistair Ian Blyth’s respectful, highly competent translation, published as Occurrence in the Immediate Unreality by University of Plymouth Press in 2009:

I was a tall, thin, pale boy, with a slender throat poking from the overly large collar of my tunic. My long hands dangled below my jacket like freshly flayed animals. My pockets bulged with objects and bits of paper. I used to have a hard time retrieving a handkerchief from the bottom of these pockets to wipe the dust off my boots, when I reached the streets of the ‘centre.’

And here, once more, is Heim’s version:

I was tall, thin, and pale. My spindly neck rose awkwardly out of my tunic. My  long arms hung from my sleeves like newly skinned animals. My pockets so bulged with papers and objects that I could scarcely extract a handkerchief to wipe the dust off my shoes when I arrived in the ‘city center.’

As we can see, Blyth is much more faithful than Heim to the syntax of the original, following Blecher almost word-for-word. In Blecher’s second sentence, for example, the Romanian word “Mâinile” unquestionably means “hands”, while “proaspăt” would indeed most commonly be translated as “fresh.” Heim inserts a period in the first sentence where Blecher employs a comma, and he omits the word “boy” (băiat) altogether. Interestingly, Heim turns Blecher’s final two sentences into one long one, thus retaining the same number of sentences (4) in the paragraph. Yet in taking such liberties, Heim arrives at a version that reads more crisply and elegantly in English. I would also argue that he succeeds more fully in transmitting the intensity and idiosyncrasy of Blecher’s prose.

“My struggles with uncertainty no longer have a name”; the narrator of Adventures in Immediate Irreality tells us; “all that remains is the simple regret that I found nothing in their depths.” Indeed, life often is sad. We don’t know why we’re alive, or for how long. One goes out for a walk in the street and feels baffled by each thing one sees. Yet sometimes, reading marks left by others on a page or screen, it’s possible to be lifted cleanly away from one’s confusion. Sometimes, if the vision is intense enough, we feel ourselves become more fully alive, our faculties of perception realigned. In such moments the act of existing even acquires a kind of momentary meaning. At the end Adventures in Immediate Irreality, I found myself looking up from the page like Blecher’s narrator:

I would peer around me wide-eyed, but things had lost their usual meaning: they were awash with their new existence. It was as if someone had removed the fine, transparent paper they had been wrapped in till then, and suddenly they looked new beyond words. They seemed destined to be put to new, superior, fantastic uses  beyond my power to divine.

The miracle of Blecher’s writing is the miracle of literature itself: that strange human endeavor that always must occur in “the immediate irreality.”

—Eric Foley

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eric foley2

Eric Foley holds an Honours BA in English and Literary Studies from the University of Toronto and an MFA from Guelph University. He was a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award and the Hart House Literary Contest, also winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. You can see his work at Numéro Cinq and InfluencySalon.ca. He divides his time between Toronto and Eastern Europe.

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Apr 102015
 

David Zieroth travel pic

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DAVID ZIEROTH IS A GOVERNOR General’s Award winning poet and memoirist. His writing career began in the 1970s with his first publication, Clearing: Poems from a Journey, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1999 for How I Joined Humanity at Last, and the Governor General’s Award for English language poetry in 2009 for The Fly in Autumn. After a 25-year career as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, in New Westminster, BC, Zieroth has retired to write full time.

I met David in 1999 at Douglas College. We’ve remained in touch largely through a mutual friend and enjoy comparing our reading lists. Once every summer I look forward to discussing literature with David over a glass of wine on a brick patio overlooking Shoal Channel in Gibsons, BC. He’s broadly read, has an incisive mind, tells traveller’s tales with aplomb and loves to laugh at his own failings.

In the 1990’s David reclaimed his first name, leaving Dale Zieroth behind, a moniker attached to him by a first grade teacher with two Davids in her class. Since, he’s come into his own as a force in Canadian literature working in a variety of forms: poetry, memoir, and creative non-fiction. He has been praised for his “intelligence that sometimes moves with staggering speed.”–—Brian Bartlett, Fiddlehead. The Governor General’s Award winning The Fly in Autumn received this citation from the jury: “In The Fly in Autumn, David Zieroth addresses our common and defining human fate—the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death—with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader ‘how to walk in the dark with flowers.’ The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning.”

On an unusually bright November day, I met Zieroth at his favourite coffee shop in North Vancouver. We sat down with cups of coffee in the busy café, and immediately we both broke out bags of books.

—Kathryn Para

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Interview

KP (Kathryn Para): I first knew you as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, and you were a bit sharp and very intimidating. I think it was late in your tenure and you were tired of teaching, and yet I remember worlds opening in that class. In The November Optimist your protagonist calls himself a “Conscious Curmudgeon.” Is curmudgeonness difficult to keep out of your work, or do you naturally gravitate to the generosity particularly apparent in The November Optimist?

DZ (David Zieroth): When I start writing, there’s a certain necessary lack of editing, and sometimes that curmudgeon is strong. There’s less of him than there used to be, because, of course, it’s my job as a human being to refine that curmudgeon a little bit, to balance him. I used to be more aware that he was there – and his perspective is valid – but I’m less bothered by his presence now.

No one wants to read a curmudgeon’s writing. Unless it’s that of Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. His work is so acid it’s almost unbearable, but you can’t help but love it because of the incisive skewering.

KP: What are you reading now?

DZ: I’ve got five books with me: On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass; 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, which is about writers and artists of that time, about Rilke having a cold and Kafka writing his endless marriage proposal; Let Me Go, a holocaust memoir by Helga Schneider; Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal; and The Hundred Lives, by Russell Thornton, a remarkable poet who lives right here on the North Shore.

I spend quite a lot of time in second-hand book stores because it seems I’m more interested in books that I’ve missed than in books that are coming. Perhaps that’s ironic or paradoxical, or perverse or worse, for a writer to say. I said once that I was going to read new books until I was 65 and then reread, but it hasn’t worked out that way.

KP: How did Marcus Aurelius’s work come to your attention, and why is it important to you?

DZ: It must have been in university, a long time ago. He went away and then came back decades later. I was reading him when I was writing The Fly in Autumn. And he appears in “Vindobona,” a poem in Albrecht Dürer and me. What I like about Marcus Aurelius is that I can hear his calming voice from across the 2000 years. Plus he has a strong moral vision that appeals to me.

KP: The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: a Country Boyhood is an autobiographical work, and personally, my favourite piece by you, partly because it’s so familiar—I grew up on a farm—and because I love the tone: the recognition of a hard life, and the compassion completely free of sentimentality. How did growing up on a farm help develop that sense of compassion?

DZ: I did see that animals suffer: they were tired, cold, thirsty. The cows came in from the field, and they rushed to the water trough. Also, there were people worse off than my family: those passing through, those who were poor – poorer than we were – and those who were just unhappy. My parents were stable, decent folks, aware of the strange people and the people who might not make it through the winter. You learn from the sense of community that surrounds you.

KP: In Crows Do Not Have Retirement, in the poem “Question,” you write: “when I was afraid to say/ I had a soul…” Were you afraid? Why? What is the concept of soul to you now?

DZ: Years back, the notion of having a soul—I had trouble with that idea. Do I have a soul? The poem brought that up. Now, instead of asking if I have a soul, it seems obvious that I am a soul. That’s a different perspective. The soul has these things it has to do, and some things are hard and some things are easy, some things it loses control of and some things it tries out anew, and it’s all the work of being human.

KP: November is a grey month, but particularly so here in Vancouver. I dread the loss of light and the short days, but here we sit in an unusual arctic chill and bright sun. I made it through last winter on such a long bright chill. Does the light make a difference to you? If so, why stay here and not return to the prairies where the sun shines on a regular basis?

DZ: I’ve lived in North Van since the seventies, so almost by accident it’s become home. In July, August and September it’s paradise, so the secret is to get away in January. And it doesn’t have to be Mexico. I don’t mind the cold, I don’t mind the snow, it just has to be light. I suffer from SAD, and it can be startling what a difference light makes. It’s hard to articulate that to people who don’t have it. It’s not the rain, it’s the cloud cover you’re wearing like a heavy, huge hat! I like the prairies, I have friends there, family there, but… And the best thing about Vancouver is: no bugs.

KP: In The Fly in Autumn, the poem “All of Life We Practice Dying,” you write: “slowly he unearths that asking why/ is a way to prayer, to soften and/enter the quietus after rage.” Is there prayer for you? Does it offer peace?

DZ: No, but I take the question to mean, do I have a spiritual practice of some sort. There are so many different ways of praying. For me the practice is writing. Not that what I’m writing is necessarily prayer-related, but the practice of writing is a way of centering, of clarifying and creating, and no matter what the poem is about, just the actuality of writing it, creating it and making it right is a jubilation. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s very healthy, it’s who I am, and not to do it would exact a tremendous cost. The peace that comes from writing is the peace of satisfaction, of fulfillment, even of surprise, because of course in writing there are always those moments that make you think, Where did that come from? You’re inside something going on inside you.

KP: In How I Joined Humanity at Last, which was the first volume by you that I had read, you wrote a poem called “Foot Rub,” which is the poem I recall first. I couldn’t get over its intimacy, and the strength of the image has remained, the father holding the daughter’s foot. How do you survive the intimacy of publication?

DZ: The old chestnut is, “Poetry is what you say to yourself, and prose is what you say to other people.” There has to be an element of heart in the poem, and because you’re talking with yourself, you explore the images and ideas that come to you, and intimacy is natural. The kind of writing I’m doing needs to touch other people; it’s not dazzling in its language, it’s not formally a masterpiece, so it has to have an element that will reach across to the other. As for publication, I don’t think about it too much, but, yes, there is a vulnerability involved.

KP: The November Optimist reads like an ode to loneliness. It’s so intimate and the device of including the reader with the “you” construction gives such a personal focus for the desire of the narrator. It was very easy to put myself in that place. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the object of desire is not achieved, and the narrator returns to books as the more real or satisfying experience—“the return to the pages’ dream” (page 88). How is the intimacy offered by literature, poetry or prose, a replacement for love?

DZ: Anybody who’s been in love knows that there’s no comparison, there just isn’t. There’s nothing like love. But having said that, if there isn’t love, what’s lovely about books is that they’re such good company, in a wide range of voices, and they offer intimacy. All the books I’m reading now offer that quality, where you can hear a person thinking, feeling, mulling. And it’s not just feeling, you’re also privy to their technique, their art. Books are no replacement for people, but they’re an excellent second best.

KP: As the winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, what can you say about the value of prizes?

DZ: The value of the prize was very personal. The best thing about it was how happy my friends were. In some ways they were more excited than I was. People would say heartwarming words to me, and it was gratifying to see that I lived in a community of people who were so supportive.

The money meant I could fix my teeth, pay off my debts, and I could travel. Our country recognizes the importance of writing by placing money in the jury’s hands. The validation meant that my other books might get read a bit more. I didn’t need the validation – though I might have needed it two or three books before.

The larger question? Awards acknowledge achievement, but they also create losers. Think of all the writers who didn’t win the award. And I think it’s hard on writers who win an award too soon. That kind of attention can cripple them. They have this perception that a lot of people are waiting for the next book, and they’re not able to get back to that necessary solitude of the self without thinking of all these people waiting. Is this what they want? Is this what I should be doing?

Earle Birney said, you always want to discourage writers, because the real writers will continue anyway. I don’t know if he actually said that, but there’s some truth to it.

KP: How does the Alfred Gustav Press fit into the new world of publishing?

DZ: I wanted to work with paper and with poets and coloured pencils. I’m in production right now. I draw every cover, and there’s a temptation to go quickly, but I have to slow down and be patient. There’s a value in working closely and carefully, with every cover different because each is hand done, and a physical pleasure in collating pages and stapling them together.

I named the press after my father, a lover of winter reading; he was also the kind of person who could fix things with nothing, or so it seemed. I’m trying to create beautiful books in the way he repaired machinery on the farm. And of course it’s about the poetry, about the manuscripts that come to us, and about the way we decide on the ones we publish.

KP: Juggling the meanings of words in the series of poems, International Relations, reveals your delight in language, although as a poet, that seems a given. In, do me a favour, you leap from the literal translation of láskavosť or kindness into the figurative, then into abstraction, then turn gracefully to a concrete visual summary of the concept. What technical choices are you consciously making here?

DZ: I am not conscious of technique when I write, and the idea of paying attention to technique while writing is bewildering to me, and so I have very little to say. I don’t use that language.

I write intuitively: Do the words speak, do they catch at that something that is there that is more than words? I’m not thinking, or not just thinking, because of course I am assessing, weighing, accepting, rejecting words all the time (and certainly when I’m revising even if already the first joy of the thing is paling) but always in such a fashion that I’m open to what is wordless up until then.

All of which sounds different from the way it actually is, which is both lightning fast and dead slow. At any rate when I’m writing I’m not thinking about line breaks et al; rather I’m trying to grasp the whole experience engendered in the inspiration so that it can be more than me. And sometimes it works!

And sometimes I get in the way and block my own openness to whatever thought is singing through me, my own preconceptions taking over and stalling the growing poem. And sometimes I don’t hear enough in the first place. Then I go back to the couch and the novel. Or to such a travel book as D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places: “The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.”

KP: Your newest book of poetry is Albrecht Dürer and me. What can you tell me about it?

DZ: Travel was an opportunity the Canadian taxpayer gave me when I was awarded the Governor General’s Award. I wasn’t planning to travel, because I didn’t have money or time, and then my daughter married an Austrian and they live in Vienna, and gradually I began to travel, and now I can’t live without it.

So the book emerged as a surprise. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book of travel poems. The book is really about someone who is looking at what it’s like to live away from home and to rethink ideas about home and elsewhere. Travelling is both thrilling and confusing. On the back of the book it says, “these are poems that could only be discovered through dislocation.” And that’s true, the book’s about what one learns from dislocation but also from surprise, art, history, music and people. It’s a pilgrimage in a way: there are poems about James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner. The audacity! Who am I to write about these famous people? But the Auden poem, for example: We borrowed a car and went to the Vienna woods one day, and Auden’s grave is there, and something about it spoke to me, and I asked myself, am I really going to write this poem? I resisted for a while; then I thought no, this wants to be done, so I’ll do it. It was very satisfying.

—David Zieroth & Kathryn Para

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The following group of poems is new work inspired by an unexpected friendship that began with meeting a random stranger in a café, a visitor to North Vancouver from Slovakia. We ended up meeting regularly over a number of months, exchanging language lessons, sharing our fascination with each other’s language. I thought of calling these poems “International Relations.” —David Zieroth

 

hovädiny

means not important in Slovak
but as the word emerged in greater
context I heard it come closer
to BS, the way Miro tossed it
as we entered and left a store

a Bratislava citizen, he attempted
to tune my friends’ ears and mine
to the soft ‘l’ we could barely
hear, certainly not pronounce
just as he had trouble with the ‘v’

in Vancouver, which he managed
beautifully by the time his four months
ended and he flew home, leaving us
to wonder what else besides the
softness of a consonant we had missed

his self-containment we understood
a sportsman’s, blue-eyed focus
and the way old houses brought him
joy and awakened his village within—
a world before money

which rekindled my own child-self
climbing without fear into a wagon
to sit between two strange men
horses waddling ahead, tender
joking I understood as kindness

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rozhádzaný

means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe

I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—
when last did we see a Slovak?

rattled, because usually traffic
here is polite, unlike his city’s
where pedestrians have to cross
cautiously, cars are king
and walkers never smile, too long

under the realm of closed borders
some wary of what others say
their language owing a debt
to history, more Russian than
English available for curses

if over 30 you’d know Czech
and German and other fears
a nation the size of an island
surrounded by five larger ones
and far from the calming sea

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hviezda

means star in Slovak, and
that evening we thought
at first Venus was a plane
landing at YVR except
it didn’t move just brightened

above the city, the sky
behind deepening into black
Miro cooking his country’s
famous kapustnica soup
and when we ate our fill

I looked into the night sky
and heard myself wonder
that I might have been born
elsewhere, hours of air travel
away, perhaps where paprika

grew in a garden and wise
hands grated cabbage
into sauerkraut and added
salt and blessings—or where
men rode in war machines

stars on their shoulders—
instead, fortune found me
in good company, half dozing
(driemajúci), and distance
no more than a table length

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šťastný

means happy in Slovak but also
lucky, a good pairing of the near-
impossible, I said, and Miro
laughed, understanding jokes
a sign of his improving English

then he showed me how
to stretch the mouth sideways
to say the word: as one grins
with lips in a line, his language
using more mouth, less tongue

than mine—and slowly
I heard a door open
where he once had lived
amongst the days he owned
then, a boy whose father

whistled from a window
time now to come home
all the hours he played
so freely with his friends
in the gardens, on streets

I heard that door again
as we bent over sushi, a first
for him, when its freshness
made him speak of food
his mother made each day

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smutný

means sad in Slovak, maybe
homesick—everyone knows
how the struck chest sags
how the twist in the valves
yields an arid song

we must turn our faces
away from friends when
such feeling builds, fearing
kindness will trigger
the up-rush of tears

when asked ‘What gives
strength?’ Miro looked away
said ‘Boyhood returning
before sleep,’ sweet warmth
he savoured, a nakedness

that gave for one moment
assurance to continue—and if
perturbing events prevailed
to je život—it is life—not
to diminish but to accept

that fullness extracted a price
he paid at evening
in order to arise next morning
reborn, the old smutný cloak
not to be worn at all that day

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do me a favour…

…I said to Miro, please say
favour in Slovak láskavosť—
which also means kindness!
my head tilting at their linking
as if I’d misheard…

then leaving favour behind
I leapt on to nuance instead
eager to explain that
yes, he was kind to his mother
but he was not her kindness

unless of course truly he was!
he the part in her that let her
love the world so that she left
cruelty behind when he was born
an only son, always a favour

from the gods few believed even
lived anymore, how at the instant
of their demise they kindly
cut us free before they themselves
dissolved: vapour, steam, heat rising

vanished, only present now
when a mother made soup
filled the house with vegetable
smells, the tug, animal:
umbilical, primal and always kind

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pie in the sky

…I explained as aspirations
beyond natural capability
a meaning that engaged us
much less than choices
we might make with mouths:

blueberry—čučoriedka?
apple—jablko? I thought
of my mother’s raisin creation
brimming with dark sugar
and a crust of rising gold

I chomped through thoughtlessly
presuming everywhere
had such fare, surely not
a rare great expectation
from a naïve boy’s point of view

(even if famine in China
came in waves back then)
and prompted by time I asked
Miro for his impromptu sky-
target—a ticket to Bhutan!—

we both looked up as if to see
hovering in the heavens more
than sun, then instantly loved
its vastness we could not live
without, food for our light within

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speak of the devil…

…I said, and Miro understood
said hovorit o čertovi back to me
his example classic: talking about
certain person X who just then
enters the room!—although

no horns on him, no black cape
flowing back into searing flames
no fork ready to pierce us even
though we’re not believers in either
this fellow or his angelic counterpart

later, on the street, we met
a deranged man—and I heard
my own mind thinking heedlessly
‘the devil take the hindmost’
but I intended the local madman
no further harm or worsening run

didn’t mention the phrase’s arrival
as we walked, deemed it puzzling
and worthless—until I thought
was not that the way the devil
worked, squeezing himself in

wherever he could?—and so many
entryways waiting! I was made fearful
but then breathed again, knowing
my friend, upright and near, would help
to save me from myself, if need be

—David Zieroth

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David Zieroth’s latest publication is Albrecht Dürer And Me (2014), poems. The November Optimist, (Gaspereau 2013), is part memoir, part fiction and part poetry. The Fly in Autumn (Harbour, 2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in that year and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2010. He has also published The Village of Sliding Time (Harbour, 2006), a long poem; Crows Do Not Have Retirement (Harbour, 2001), poems; and The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: A Country Boyhood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2002), a memoir. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for How I Joined Humanity at Last (Harbour, 1998); his work has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, and his poems have appeared in over thirty-five anthologies, including A Matter of Spirit: Recovery of the Sacred in Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Ekstasis, 1998). He has also published five chapbooks: Hay Day Canticle (Leaf Press, 2010), The Tangled Bed (Reference West, 2000), Palominos and other poems (Gaspereau Press, 2000), Dust in the Brocade (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2008) and Berlin Album (Rubicon Press, 2009). He was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, and now lives in North Vancouver, B.C. www.davidzieroth.com

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Apr 102015
 

Mai Al-NakibPhoto by Omar Nakib

Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. —Natalia Sarkissian

Hidden Light Bformat HB (2)Final

The Hidden Light of Objects
by Mai Al-Nakib
Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2014
Winner 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award
US release January 2015
237 pp. $25.00

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KUWAITI AUTHOR MAI AL-NAKIB’S fiction debut, The Hidden Light of Objects—a collection of ten short stories set largely in the Middle East—transports the reader to a land of memory and secrets by way of objects. A Chinese apple, Mr. Potato Head’s smile, a packet of playing cards wrapped in fuchsia paper, a melted candle stub, a carved wooden bear, a stamp, a Kashmiri shawl—all these have the power to whisk readers off to a place or a time that no longer exists. As the narrator in the first story of the collection, “Chinese Apples,” explains:

Story objects are cobwebs across space and time. When you think it has never happened to anyone else before, a story object proves you wrong, though you won’t always know you have been proven wrong. Most people’s stories are hidden away. Objects may provide the only chance—unlikely, impossible though it may be—to unravel kept secrets. [10]

Thus Al-Nakib proceeds to unravel secrets in the stories of the collection using the trope of objects as her lens. In “Echo Twins,” for example, a long-hidden object is both metaphor and synecdoche and answers a central mystery. At age 18, yellow-haired, pale-skinned Kuwaiti twins Mish‘al and Mishari finally receive their absent British father’s legacy: a locked box. On the night of their mother’s death, they sit in the courtyard of their mud brick home, the box between them:

At midnight, in the white light of a moon turning waves into plains of snow, the twins carefully unwrapped their legacy. The muslin, brown from years of wind storms and rain, disintegrated to dust between their fingers. The tin was rusted, the lock no longer locked. The brothers caught their breath as they removed from the box a heavy object not immediately clear in the shadows along the shore. Mish‘al held it up to the moon. [52]

As they pass the long-anticipated object back and forth under the moonlight, they understand that they hold their peripatetic, long-gone father in their hands.

In “Amerika’s Box,” an allegorical tale of Kuwait’s quixotic relationship with the United States, charred objects symbolize the residue of a great loss. When their daughter is five years old, the Ahmeds change their daughter’s name to Amerika, in honor of the nation that routed the Iraqi invaders in the First Gulf War. Amerika soon finds that people are generally exuberant and approving. Only her religion teacher frowns. “An infelicitous name for an infelicitous little girl. You are doomed, my dear.” [197] But Amerika, who pronounces her name “Amreeka,” shrugs off the teacher’s omens. Instead, she watches satellite television, reads Nancy Drew and collects all manner of Americana, twenty-five objects at a time. A Baby Ruth bar, green jellybeans, a folded page from an Archie comic, an Abraham Lincoln penny. She secrets these in a handmade box with twenty-five compartments.

Then the Twin Towers come down and everything changes. Suddenly Amerika’s name and her objects trigger rage and fury. When war comes to the region again, Kuwaitis—now less sympathetic—stay inside, dodging Scud missiles from Iraq. But not Amerika. She dances on the beach with her box full of treasures, tempting fate:

Amerika pulls her box to her chest and dances harder, the wind knitting lace with her hair. She twirls and dips and kicks up her heels, always the letter k at heart. [211]

In the title story, “The Hidden Light of Objects,” a series of objects symbolize and evoke a stolen past. A Kuwaiti mother is abducted by retreating soldiers after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Held in captivity in Iraq for ten years, the mother’s belongings, the objects she loved and left behind in Kuwait, save family members from utter despair. The girls have memorized where their missing mother kept her Betty Crocker cookbook, her string of pearls, her hand-painted champagne flutes. They are meticulous in caring for these things,“[t]heir broken, damaged lives held together by the painstaking placement of objects that belonged to their lost mother.” [236]

Meanwhile, their mother, in her cell in Iraq, remembers the things that belonged to her—her “fine lace pieces from Burano, clumps of silver jewelry from Peshawar, […] [her] mother’s string of delicate pearls.”[234] Each of these objects “embalm[s] the kernels of [her] life.” [234] Thinking of them daily—as if silently worrying prayer beads—offers her hope:

Every one of us had something in that windowless space […] that stood for home. For me it was counting objects. Not quite counting them. Naming them, sorting them into categories, telling their histories, and trying to remember where they would be in my house. […] A litany of objects. My home for a decade. [226-227]

Objects provide the only chance to cling to what is irrevocably gone. In addition, they serve as signposts to chart the future. As Al-Nakib states in a recent interview in Jadaliyya:

Feelings or affects are composed through our encounters with bodies—both animate and inanimate. We often do not pay sufficient attention to the ways in which inanimate objects intersect with animate life or, even further, the ways in which the division between inanimate and animate is a normative construction rather than an essential opposition.

Many of the ten stories involve characters who are either Kuwaiti or are connected to the country. The stories weave familiar events (from the invasion of Kuwait, to the Israeli Palestinian conflict, to the civil war in Lebanon, to the war in Iraq) into their tapestries. However, the focus is not on politics, but on the lives of the people of the region as they are touched by these events.

The stories are framed by ten vignettes that function, as the author herself says, “like Joseph Cornell boxes, little memory capsules” [in an email from the author]. In other words, the vignette/boxes become echo-chamber objects themselves. They revisit moments of the past in order to heighten the narrative that follows. Vignette II, for example, which precedes “The Echo Twins,” describes an age of lost innocence. In the pre-1991 halcyon era, Kuwaiti middle-schoolers take boat trips to the Kuwaiti island of Failaka, with its marble ruins built by Alexander the Great. Continuously inhabited since Alexander’s time, Failaka was forcibly depopulated and mined during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Likewise, in “The Echo Twins,” innocence is lost; two brothers learn something about their father, and they must move on.

Throughout the book, Al-Nakib’s language of loss is unsentimental yet striking and lush. The author—whose mother tongue is English (it was her Kuwaiti mother’s first language as well)—evokes the land and its inhabitants with unusual juxtapositions, proximities and linguistic contrasts:

Mama Hayat stopped breathing in the early evening, around the hour the sun turns the sky above the horizon the color of a bruise. [29]

In the middle [of the courtyard] was a sheltering sidr tree ringing with sparrows and red-vented bulbuls. [30]

Abla Nada was tightly wound, a pinprick of a woman, with a face as thick as coffee. Her head was securely bandaged in black, a hijab covering her hair, her forehead down to her eyebrows, half her cheeks, and most of her chin. [197]

But she is possibly most exuberant when she writes about language itself:

The grandest thing Amerika learned was the language. Not just English…American. She rolled her tongue around its rs like a parrot, owned its nasal crescendos and punchy confidence. American pried open a world of wonder for Amerika. [199]

This book celebrates Al-Nakib’s love of the English language. Although born in Kuwait, Al-Nakib was just a few months old when her parents moved to London, then to Edinburgh, then to St. Louis, Missouri. When she moved back to Kuwait at age six, her parents enrolled her at the American School of Kuwait. She received a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Kuwait University and then a PhD from Brown University. She is Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Kuwait University.

Much of Al-Nakib’s academic scholarship focuses on cultural politics in the Middle East in relation to the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze. She has absorbed his ideas, “his negotiations about how to live in the world,” so completely that they are part of who she is. “Some people turn to religion to give them faith. But for me it has always been literature and Deleuze.” In her fiction, it is Deleuze’s affirmation of literature as life—as indeterminate becoming and openness—that is most prominent She also identifies Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida as an influence on the collection, though not one she recognized until it was already complete. In Camera Lucida, Barthes tries to recover his dead mother through photographs, accidentally discovering her essence in an unfamiliar picture. Ultimately, the search “is a melancholic exercise,” Al-Nakib explains, “rather than a process of mourning, because you continue to want to hold on to the lost object, to never let it go.”

Although the stories in The Hidden Light of Objects are not strictly autobiographical, the author says that they include autobiographical elements. Perhaps the strongest element the author shares with her characters is the overwhelming desire to recreate and re-imagine the place where she grew up: a brave, cosmopolitan, outward-looking land that existed not so long ago. The author and these stories—her objects—are a pathway to locate the glimmer, the light, the truth of what was and what still may be. These stories are our ticket there and her way home.

—Natalia Sarkissian

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Natalia Sarkissian

Natalia Sarkissian has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in art history and an MBA in finance from The University of Texas at Austin. She has worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and at the Huntington Art Gallery in Austin, Texas. Her writing and photographs have been published in the US and Italy by the University of Texas Press, IPSOA publishers, Numéro Cinq MagazineCorriere della Sera, Tuscany Press, and others. She has been an editor and contributor at Numéro Cinq since 2010.

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Apr 092015
 

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Late-Night Caller

LAST NIGHT, EXACTLY WHEN nothing was happening, I got a call from someone who couldn’t speak. He mumbled into the phone. His mumbling was fast, superabundant, and I think at one point he tried to tell me that he ‘never sleeps a wink.’ I said ‘Yes’ as many times as I could. And then there was a shift in his tone, a shift toward anger, toward annoyance, toward outrage, and it was all directed toward me. I told him to stay calm, to stay where he was, and that I would meet him in the next few minutes. I told him he was in distress. He ‘unhummed’ confirmation. When we hung up, I was relieved and grateful that in his distress he didn’t try to mutter an address to me. He was certainly a man without a tongue.

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Val

In high school, I had a friend named Val and I believe she intentionally exposed her crotch to me one afternoon by propping her legs up and holding them just so her soccer shorts billowed, allowing sunlight to penetrate the fabric. She flashed a shaded panty-less groin in my direction while twitching her legs back and forth. Leaning back to take in the sun while our friends sat nearby unobservantly, she gave no knowing smile or wink. Cunning or clueless? How could I not look? This is what I remember of Val from high school: nonconformity concerned her the utmost. She read how-to books on the subject, she chose her boyfriends by their eccentricities, her face was trussed up with piercing and chains. But her crotch was normal, as perfect as anyone could find. She had great teeth, too.

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Generosity

Pauline from next door said, ‘I’ll tell you the truth.’ I said, ‘Please don’t. Please don’t.’ We turned to face the T.V. to see a pugnacious cartoon selling soap hoot a good-humored halleluiah at the shine his soap wrought. We were watching a doc about priapism. Her choice. I’d wanted to watch something on nest building. I thought fondly about a tiny down of hair that ran from the top of Pauline’s cheek to the curve of her jaw. Pauline said it was all mental. ‘What is?’ ‘The truth, silly.’ ‘I said enough.’ Pauline arched an eyebrow in a disagreeable way and didn’t say another word until the end of the show, and then I said goodbye. And she hiccoughed a nearly honest goodbye, too. Her personal perfume stayed behind until morning, smelling it vigorously before starting my day.

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Take Cover

For years I’d lived where lights polluted the sky, occluding the stars from view. As far as I was concerned stars could have blinked out existence, and I would have been one of the last to know. Then one summer I went to Canada to stay for a week, for rest, for recovery, fortification. I met a woman there who was from Boston, and like people who live in cities we stayed outdoors more than normal, and we walked faster than other people on the streets. She had dazzling shanks. One night near the end of my stay, a night I thought I might try to kiss her, we found ourselves at a public picnic table, where we slowed, and got all reflective and confessional. We shared a bottle of rum, our fingers touched—a crisp-lit moon (an authority on romance, if coldly) hung before our eyes and felt just for us. We were feeling young, selfish; we were feeling that nothing in our lives had been our fault. We felt a prefiguring. Who looked up first, I don’t remember, but we thought we saw a shooting star. It crept across the sky, and we said we’d never seen something so amazing as a falling star in ‘slo-mo,’ as if it knew we both wanted this night to last as long as it could. A homeless woman walked by and looked up and said, ‘Fucking satellite. Spying. Reading our brain waves. Stealing our thoughts! You kids better take cover.’

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Mother’s Cats

My mother asks things like: ‘What are you going to do with your time?’ And I say something like: ‘Live?’ She corrects me: ‘Work.’ When I go to her house, I wake up puffy around the eyes, nearly blind, and tongue-tied. I think it’s her cats. She has four. She says: ‘You overact.’ Of course, I have no retort. Nothing much happens at her house except the occasional cat fights. She likes to brag about how well-balanced her life is now that she has just her cats and no husband (my father).

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Speechless

This time I was trying to be serious when the man with no tongue called back. I told him not to ring me again. He grumbled. I asked him what made him think he had the right number. He hummed and grunted. I couldn’t agree or disagree with him, and felt nothing short of stupidity.

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Tough, Tragic

I saw Val some time ago with her daughter—a skillful and cold child, who furrowed her brow like an adult when I asked her name. Val appeared tough, tragic, and terrifically dressed in slacks and a low-cut shirt—no longer so concerned with nonconformity. As she dithered to keep her other guests busy, I tried to make polite conversation, but I got lost frequently in words as I wondered if Val’s vagina had changed after childbirth. Would I even recognize the once-prime image from my adolescence? I took a beer she offered me and nearly asked, ‘Can I see inside your pants? Again?’ I’d plan also to say, ‘I imagine its image is vastly more important to me than it is to you.’ Which could be possible, I thought, knowing how seldom I looked at my own crotch. But I held my tongue, as it were. Everyone else at the party was being polite. And so what if Val’s genitals were changed? So what? I saw it. Glimpse it. I’m sure I understood its power even then.

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Au Pied De Cochon

I took my Canadian love interest to a fancy restaurant, where we saw three men each wearing the same label on their shirts—a lightening bolt with a name written across it. They sat hunched, haunches to haunch. They were so close their smell had to be one. They scarf up meats, exotic meats. They ate tail, head, foot, tongue, eyeball. These men were hungry and their server was proud to bring them more. ‘I just love your enthusiasm,’ their server said, grinning at the slobbering bunch. They looked up, grunted, and put their faces down once again. ‘What on earth?’ my Canadian-love-via-Boston-brown-eyed darling said, eating a slice of pie with stonecutter patience. This spoiled our evening, somewhat. I told her my plans for law school. But nothing could take her attention from those men. So, I didn’t go to law school.

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Fingers Around My Neck

‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages,’ Pauline said. ‘Still it felt like fingers around my neck,’ I reminded. The tongue-less man had shown up at my front door, frothing mad and ferociously mute. How had he come, car or carriage? He wielded a worn farm-knife, the kind you might clean a chicken with and then dice potatoes. To Pauline I said: ‘And then I held out my arms and said Welcome home. And then he throttled me, tossing the blade aside. He throttled me.’ ‘Obviously a man of action,’ Pauline said, admiringly, and then asked: ‘What then?’ I said: ‘I threw him off. He hit his head. I grabbed the knife and held it to his throat. He looked like some homegrown hillbilly hayseed, like he was from some small town.’ And then that was when Pauline said, wisely: ‘The meanest dogs live in the smallest cages.’ ‘Where is he now?’ she asked. ‘God knows.’ ‘Truth?’ ‘Not right now, Pauline. Not right now.’ I don’t think she felt insulted. She profited a can of cheese whiz toward my mouth, which I took smilingly. I think Pauline’s great. She stays so up-to-the-minute with our friendship.

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Jamestown

Recently I spent a weekend with my mother touring historical sites. We strolled down one of the streets of God’s original world and came to a shop where they sold old-fashioned puppets. ‘You need to find yourself a girlfriend, Jake. You need someone.’ Grim was my mood over this. We each held up a puppet to our face, their little wooden limbs clacking together. ‘I’m not a virgin, mom.  There was Mavis and Molly and Maggie and Magda,’ I said to my puppet. ‘Of course you’re not. Of course you’re not,’ she said to hers, ‘besides, son, one of these days you’ll be married and you’ll be so bored by sex your eyes will fall out.’ ‘Did my father’s eyes fall out?’ ‘Yes, yes they did. When he died he was as blind as a mole.’ We left that shop, walked down the cobblestone path, dodging the great piles of horseshit. Perhaps I do overreact every time I get around my mother? Perhaps I project my overreactions onto her? Perhaps she just acts the way she thinks I want her to act? She tugged on my arm and pointed to a very large man in a mechanized wheelchair. ‘Don’t ever get fat,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t kill yourself, son.’ I don’t know if she meant those two things went together. A child in my mother’s presence still, I thought kindly about being on my best behavior, which must be both insufferable and pride-inducing for her. Not that I haven’t said unkind or unclean things to her. But I wonder if all this dancing around the subject wasn’t hurting me somehow. Mother and I always want to be our best for the other, which brings out, you know, irony.

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Our Last Night

‘It’s not going to happen, is it?’ the woman from Boston said to me on our last night. ‘Why would you want it to happen?’ I asked, knowing that I had nothing to offer her except a small adventure. ‘Why wouldn’t you want it to happen?’ she retorted; she was desperate for something to happen. ‘What made you think we could make it happen?’ I said; I felt hopeless and depressed, the way I get when anything important could possibly occur. ‘Why not make it happen? It is our last night,’ her final words on the subject—the opening, the invitation, the entry. In the end, nothing happened. Something happening had become too heavy. When we parted at the hotel it felt like something important was missing. Pecks were exchanged. I’ve not spoken to her for years; I have to wonder if she seethes with as much disappointment as I do.

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Questionnaire

1. Do you feel your life is without purpose?
2. If so, explain fully. Use complete sentences.
3. Would you prefer your spouse or love ones to die before or after you?
4. Have you ever been willfully blind? Explain.
5. What is your most personal demon? Give it a name.
6. What makes you think you’ve answered the proceeding questions correctly?
7. Mind your thoughts, in geological time?
8. Which memory means the most to you?
9. Name the bones you’ve broken.
10. Now the organs.

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Showdown

The man without a tongue came to my door again, while I was filling out a questionnaire. For personal reasons, that is. This time he carried a broom and as soon as I opened the door he jabbed the broom’s bristles in my face. It felt like a thousand dull needles. He hummed and grunted the most terrible things to me. At one point I thought he called me a ‘whiskery pervert,’ but I couldn’t be sure. Nevertheless, I was soon on the floor, my face submerged in broom bristles. The tongue-less man, standing over me, howled. Why had I become the center of this man’s attention? I wished Pauline had been there to see this lunatic, perhaps she could have observed him and come up with a reason since the tongue-less man couldn’t explain for himself. He grunted and cried and garble-cursed and moaned and blubbered while jamming the broom into my face. I knew for certain that if I didn’t move quickly I would eventually loose an eye or both. I scrambled to my feet and rushed to other side of my den where I had a paint-by-number canvas on a homemade easel. I used the canvas as a shield. What was there to talk about? taking charge of my situation. Who needed a questionnaire? It was action and impediments to our will that makes us come alive (Pauline might have said this in her better moods; she was the smartest person I knew). I swung my paint-by-number canvas at the tongue-less man and he swatted at it with his broom. Things and thoughts were happening, quickly. And it is while we are fighting that I recognize that I’ve been assembling my whole life, mending back together something. My mother ever-so-often tells me how after she had me she was never ‘right again.’ Imagine the wrong. The tongue-less man clobbered me. I let him. I threw my paint-by-number canvas aside. As I allowed him to scar my face with the broom, I saw through his intermittent brush strokes the faint outline of an unfinished satellite, as if its image was flickering.

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Tap

Veiled hunger, awkward leer, constant insipid smile: this is how I see myself as a young man, around the same time I saw Val’s cunt. (I cannot decide if I like that word or not, but what else to call it? The situation deserves a better word than its bloodless clinical substitute.) The man without a tongue rests on my couch. I suppose he’s homeless. He makes a tapping noise when he wants my attention. Sometimes, I swear, I think he’s asking me to go to church. My face wasn’t cut by the broom; slightly abraded, yes. My mother called asking how things were going. I lied and said nothing was happening, that I was painting and that I had plans to go out the following evening with a new friend. ‘Jake, whose there with you?’ ‘No one.’ I tell her I’m planning to make a phone call, though. ‘To whom?’ ‘To a woman in Boston.’ ‘Don’t be off-color, Jake.’

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Ba-ba-ba-bam-boo

I called the young woman whom I had a near-fling with in Canada. I heard her child in the background, cooing and saying ba-ba-ba-bam-boo. As we talked, I cleaned out my medicine cabinet. I took out pills I’d not taken in years, swallowed them. I bandaged myself where I had no cut or abrasions: preparing myself, I guess, for whatever pain I might feel after the conversation. ‘You ever fill out questionnaires?’ I asked her. She said she did before she had her daughter, but not now. ‘Why? Is it because you think you’ve got it all figured out? Your child gives you some insight?’ ‘Maybe. Or… I guess I just don’t feel the need to question myself. I don’t want to disturb my thinking, perhaps. Children need consistency. I can’t crack open my skull and start searching for new answers this late in the game. I’ve got to go with what I know.’ ‘Do you wished something had happened?’ ‘God, Jake, don’t start it.’ Silence. ‘After childbirth was your vagina scarred or deformed?’ Silence. ‘Is that any of your business? Is that why you called?’ ‘No. I’m just curious.’ ‘Well, it’s fine. It’s fine.’ She sounded distant and hurt. We talked some more. She told me about her husband. I told her about the tongue-less man who lives in my apartment. She told me that it sounds weird. I told her his speech is weird. ‘I’m going to send you a painting I’m working on, of a satellite.’ ‘Oh, that would be nice,’ she said; she said it like I just told her I want to read her a poem. ‘Do you remember the satellite in Canada?’ She said she does, and then we dropped the subject and talked some more. She said vague and unimportant things, and I did similarly. We were both feeling out the conversation, searching for a stopping point. And then she said, ‘Ta.’ I went back to my painting. Now, I don’t think I’ll send it to her after all. Like Val’s vagina, the painting means more to me than it does to her, symbolically, of course. I take out some tapes and I pop one in the stereo. I hear the tongue-less man down the hall humming and growling to the lyrics. I had no idea he was a music lover. ‘Ta,’ she had said. And I think, ‘Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta.’

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Theatre

This morning I woke up thinking about the future. Ol’ Tongueless was scrambling eggs. He had written me a note: ‘Not killing you. Leaving today. Please don’t be afraid to speak to me. Invited Pauline over for breakfast.’ He had beautiful, jaunty handwriting. Why he had he waited until now to pass me a note? Maybe I’d ask Tongueless to stay. We three sit, eating omelets, talking about my conversation with the woman from Boston. I was still bandaged from head to toe and had awful hangover from the all the pills I’d taken. ‘What to do you think?’ I asked Pauline. ‘Do you think I would have been better off not calling at all?’ ‘Honestly?’ I sigh, ‘Yes.’ ‘You done good, Jake. You done good.’ Tongueless yarbbled and waggled his jaw in agreement. Bodily, we laughed, the picture of happiness. Pauline patted my leg under the table, and left her hand there. She was my best friend, the smartest person I knew. Idly I wondered what she looked like naked. Why not, she already knew me through and through; and she’d become fast friends with my one-time potential murderer.  Looking at Pauline across the table, she smiled, an open smile, not knowing what I was thinking. Things could really start happening now.

—Jason DeYoung

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Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Booth, REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature (web), and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.

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Apr 082015
 

Kelly-Link-final-Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs PhotographyPhoto Copyright 2014 Sharona Jacobs Photography

Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader. — Benjamin Woodard

Get_In_Trouble

Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House
352 pages ($25.00)
ISBN 978-0804179683

 

Fans of her earlier work are well aware of Kelly Link’s ability to transform seemingly straightforward narratives into twisty, haunted masterpieces without tripping over clunky genre switches or bloated reveals. As a writer frequently delving into alternate realities, Link conditions the reader to accept the unexpected through subtle shifts and hints: an unusual moment here, a strange encounter there. Never in her stories do moments of verbal whiplash surface. And, as opposed to the fates of her characters, this storytelling ability has nothing to do with mystical interference: Link simply understands the mechanics of writing at its simplest, structural form, as well as the value of efficiency in language. In fact, she frequently subscribes to a very traditional first act composition—a simple structure perfected in her latest, the superb Get in Trouble—and it’s this skillset that allows her to leap into the fantastic with ease, dropping protagonists in ghostly communities, a superhero’s arms, and pocket universes, while also exploiting various genre tropes to comment on societal issues.

To see Link’s mastery of form in action, look no further than Get in Trouble’s leadoff story, “The Summer People.” Here, Link introduces characters, conflict, and motivation within the story’s first few pages, using nothing but simple, direct first act structure, before introducing the story’s otherworldly elements. Yet, at the same time, she threads small moments of the unusual within these paragraphs to prime the reader for what’s to come. The story: young Fran lives in a vacation town, and as her narrative begins, she is sick with the flu and left home alone after her drunkard father travels to attend a prayer meeting. Before leaving, he instructs her to clean and stock the local summer homes for soon to be arriving out-of-towners. (This, it should be noted, all unfolds in four brief paragraphs.) Soon thereafter, Fran attempts to return to school, yet her fever forces her to take leave, and she receives a ride from her classmate, Ophelia, a “summer person”-turned-full-time-resident of Fran’s town. The pair work together to fix up a vacation house and, upon dropping Fran off at the end of the day, Ophelia decides to act as the sick girl’s nurse.

Up to this point—about 30% of the story has passed—the structure of “The Summer People” efficiently follows a traditional setup. The reader knows the characters, their shared predicament, and their motivations. There are no real stones left unturned. And it is at this point that Link’s writing takes a turn for the strange. Fran plucks three hairs from her head, places them in an envelope, and sends Ophelia to a mysterious house, where she is to leave the hair in exchange for a remedy. Over the next five paragraphs, the narrative jumps lanes, taking the form of a classic haunted house story, full of secrets, magic, and premonitions. However, this transformation feels natural thanks to a combination of elements: Link’s strong commitment to introduction and organization in her first act structure, as well as little oddities sprinkled like powdered sugar in this opening to whet the reader’s appetite. A man on TV throws knives; Fran’s father is described as “a dark shape in a room full of dark shapes;” a toy known as a monkey’s egg wobbles about. Each of these quirks last no more than a passing mention, yet as they pile up, they ready the reader for the eerie circumstances to come.

Several of the stories in Get in Trouble take shape using this method of affixing an uncanny appendage to a rather time-honored frame. “The New Boyfriend” takes the discomfort of teenage love and mistrust into the near future by inserting robotic boyfriends into the mix. In “Secret Identity,” what begins as a tale of an underage girl traveling to meet a much older man takes a sharp turn when she arrives at their rendezvous only to find a convention of dentists and superheroes. And even when Link shifts into a less linear mode of storytelling, like in “I Can See Right Through You,” she clues the reader into the narrative’s unfamiliar path. The story opens with a discussion of filmmaking, and it includes the following:

Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any order of sequence. Take as many takes as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the same scene together. (44)

While this commentary ties into the relationship between two characters, who once starred together in a vampire film, it also doubles as a form of metacommentary on the part of Link, who essentially tells the reader to expect an atypical structure. This warning comes early, in the story’s fourth paragraph, and, like her other narrative winks, helps usher the reader through Link’s imagined world.

Perhaps the best story in Get in Trouble is “The Lesson.” It may also be the collection’s most accessible narrative, focusing on Thanh and Harper, a gay couple, their quest to have a child via surrogate, and their trip to a remote island to attend a friend’s wedding. Their surrogate, Naomi, is on bed rest, and Thanh fears that if they leave town for the wedding, “something terrible will happen.” Nevertheless, he and Harper fly off, finding themselves eventually on Bad Claw Island without cell service. The isolation of the environment, combined with the chaos of the upcoming wedding (the bride insists everyone wear wedding dresses to go on a hike; the groom is nowhere to be found, though his colleagues, a shifty bunch, linger about; Bear Claw Lodge, where Thanh and Harper stay, is full of leaks from recent rain, as well as spooky bumps in the night) convinces Thanh that trouble awaits them on the mainland. And as his premonition comes true and Naomi goes into premature labor, this island pandemonium takes on an allegorical meaning: the helpless fear that courses through Thanh’s veins. He has put himself in a powerless situation. In his mind, he has made the wrong decision. Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make these kinds of tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader.

— Benjamin Woodard

 

Woodard

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

Apr 072015
 

Agri Ismaïl

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Premise: Four men sit around a giant bottle of vodka, picking at various unappetising appetisers as waiters hurry to bring them an assortment of mixers and pour clumsy blends of vodka and juice. The men raise a toast, welcoming each other, and talk of work, politics, war. One of the men tells the story of when, in 1996, he had saved up and bought his very first portable cassette player after toiling away at the reception desk of a local hotel for months. He describes the specifications of the lost device (auto reverse! 20-radio station memory!) with affection between modest sips of his drink. He recounts how when the city was taken, he was sure that his house would be looted due to his political affiliations, so he considered whom among his friends and family members was least enmeshed in the political situation before driving it to his young cousin, sure that his house would be spared. The man starts giggling then, before he has even told the funny part: of course, in the end, the cousins house was the only one in his family to be looted. All the men laugh in recognition. They drink to all that was taken, all that was lost.

§

IMAGINE THAT THIS STORY has roused whatever part of you that is interested in narratives, for whatever reason, and that you are about to undertake the increasingly non-trivial process of deciding what form said narrative is to take.

Imagine, furthermore, that you are a Kurd, that the event takes place in Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in Northern Iraq and that the men in the above scenario are all Kurds speaking in a Sorani dialect. The first conclusion presents itself as evident: this should be a narrative in Kurdish.

At first, this seems satisfactory. It pleases the dreadfully lazy part of you to know that minimal effort will be needed to achieve an acceptable level of verisimilitude (dialogue will admittedly need to be polished somewhat to achieve a certain degree of artificiality in order to pass for realism, but can otherwise be reproduced more or less verbatim).

Also, to write in a minor language is to a certain extent its own reward. It is not just about reaching an audience (which for Kurdish literature is minuscule, even if you were to disregard the fact that Kurds use two completely different alphabets; it is also, perhaps even foremost, about preserving and enriching said language. The thought that something you write can, fairly easily, have such lasting power feeds your ego tremendously. You imagine cyborgs in the future attempting a comprehensive account of the extinct human race by reverse-engineering our technology to be able to read today’s hard drives and noting that there was such as a thing as Kurdish literature. This will, you imagine, please the cyborgs.

You think back on the Kurdish novel, a feeble object that has barely been allowed to breathe, kept alive by authors like Sherzad Hassan, Bakhtyar Ali and the dearly departed Mehmet Uzun, in spite of overwhelming evidence that literature is pointless in a society that wants to emulate the capitalist wonderlands of our most generic cities (to echo Rem Koolhaas), our Singapores and Dubais and Heathrow Terminal 5s, while simultaneously fighting off the medieval LARP currently en vogue. A tricky juxtaposition, that. But it has always been thus, literature has never had it easy here: texts were uniformly banned for being written in a language that several governments tried their utmost to eradicate during the 19th and 20th centuries. A novel cannot be written, after all, if the language to write it in does not exist. When novels appeared at all, it was often small editions printed by clandestine presses, an arrestable offence for author and publisher alike. That we then define 1929’s The Kurdish Shepherd by Erebê Şemo, 1961’s Peshmerga by Rehîmî Qazî and 1972’s Jani Gal by Ibrahim Ahmad as some of the first Kurdish novels merely attests to the fortune of these manuscripts to have survived. Indeed, there are no extant copies of the first edition of The Kurdish Shepherd, which was originally published in the Soviet Union and heavily censored. That it has survived is only due to a 1947 Beirut reprint. Similarly, Ahmad’s Jani Gal had to be rewritten twice from memory after the original manuscripts were burned or lost, and it wasn’t until a French translation appeared courtesy of L’Harmattan that the text appeared in its complete state, including geographical locations and the overt references to the regime that had been previously excised. It is indicative of the subjugated state of Kurdish writing that one of the very first Kurdish novels ever to be written appeared in its entirety not in Kurdish, but in French, as late as 1994.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

You fortunately no longer have to worry about censorship, about having to burn your only manuscript in the garden before Baathist police get to it, about having to hide a printing press in your bedroom. Even the Turkish government, which for decades insisted the Kurdish language did not exist (and, in a wonderful display of incoherent logic, that this thing that did not exist should, because it did not exist, be banned) has begun to begrudgingly tolerate texts written in Kurdish.

And yet, there are other obstacles. Such as the invisibility of your work by merely writing in a non-Latin script, where it will be hidden to all but those who can conjure the signs to summon it. You often labour under the belief that everything can be found online, yet forget that in order for this to be even slightly true, you must master alphabets that mean nothing to you, alphabets that your computer is reluctant to write in. The non-Latin text is sealed off, unsearchable by the Latin index, hidden behind the limits of written language. You think of the character in Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia who is only known by a non-standard, unpronounceable, symbol (which you cannot reproduce in this text other than as a screenshot: 

and therefore would never be able search for it). You suspect it is not a coincidence that throughout Negarestani’s novel this character is missing.

Another obstacle: Microsoft Word on the Macintosh Operating System cannot use Arabic fonts (let alone Kurdish ones). You could of course use another word processor (e.g. Apple’s own Pages) but the fonts remain often incompatible with other word processors and so e-mailing a file in Kurdish, more often than not, will result in something like this:

☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐☐.

Now this is perhaps impressive in a formalist kind of way, a uniform representation of thought and language and whatnot, but you doubt that you can convince an audience that what they have before them is the Great Kurdish Novel (to take a silly term from the Americans, because lord knows they’ve taken their fair share from us) when all they are looking at are a series of Unicode squares. The computer was not designed, after all, with non-Western languages in mind, nor was any of the software (though you envy the Chinese who you imagine, by virtue of their logographic writing system, would be able to write entire short stories on Twitter in 140 characters — if China had not banned access to Twitter, that is). The electronic age is upon us and that age was coded using a specific writing system. You would be insane to think this does not matter.

Also, and you’re ashamed to have to mention this but even though Kurdish is your native language you don’t really master it: you are a child of exile with the exile’s unnatural feel for language; you frequently mis-use words and your handwriting is all haunted-house seance scribbles of the dead trying to communicate with the living in crude approximations of letters. You are far more comfortable with English, even though you have no tie to that language other than the fact every book you read and every movie you see is in English. You have not read more than a handful of Kurdish novels because as already mentioned, Kurdish novels are hard to come by. You should, of course, practice your mother tongue; you suspect that you could become a half-decent writer if only you put as much effort into reading and writing in Kurdish as you have done in English but this is a multi-year project, akin to reading Proust. And you have yet to read Proust.

At this point you start doubting yourself: if writing in Kurdish means more effort than writing in English why not just write in English? You also begin suspecting that the above premise may not be interesting to a Kurdish audience as everyone has had their house looted at some point. Everyone has lost a family member to genocide or internecine warfare. For you, the exiled one whose portraits would invariably reek of privilege and Eurocentric notions, to comment on the Kurdish situation to a Kurdish audience can easily become patronising and in bad taste. What can a foreigner possibly have to teach people about themselves? You may instead want to shine a light outwards, towards readers unfamiliar with Kurdish history, and this requires another language. “Texts must experience the condition of exile.” said Emily Apter, and which better way to exile a text than to force it into a language which is not its own?

So you choose English, because, yes, “the Anglicized subject is at once bullied and seduced into accepting the corporal burden of English,” to cite Susie O’Brien & Imre Szeman.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

Though this is the right choice (you hope), problems arise immediately, as they tend to for immigrants pretending to be something they are not. You are suddenly tempted to add explanations for your audience that you would refrain from adding if you were writing about a people to themselves.

For instance:

1. The men would have to be defined as Kurdish, as you suspect merely writing “men” would conjure a group of white people to the reader.

2. A Kurdish reader would understand that the choice of vodka, rather than the traditional arrak, indicates that these men are rather affluent or at the very least cosmopolitan (mostly this cosmopolitism is derived from a life in exile, from refugee camps, from being a foreigner where fluid thoughts have had to be rendered as malformed syllables and broken grammar and have been mistaken for stupidity), so when you lose this element you may well be tempted to linger on other details, the brand of vodka, the logos on their polo shirts, in order to convey the same thing in a much cruder manner.

3. You will have to explain what happened in 1996, a reference that would be evident to Kurdish readers but an obscure historical footnote for everyone else. Also you’ll want to briefly touch on the sanctions, embargoes and the overall financial situation that made the purchase of a cassette player in 1996 – when even CDs were beginning to be replaced by MiniDiscs and Mp3s – something that required significant capital.

Your text is now overwritten, heavy with exposition, and you haven’t even dealt with the question of language.

The dialogue will be laboured, tortured into resembling Kurdish. Perhaps you will try to mirror the cadence of a Kurdish speaker; perhaps you will keep the expressions intact, all the “may I be sacrificed in your honour”-style sentences that seem so clunky when translated. You could also use the trick that all those world lit novels of the 1990s used: sprinkle English dialogue with some non-English words for added authenticity. You try, you try, you fail, you delete.

(All fiction is based on artifice, but for some reason writing non-English dialogue in English often seems like an artifice too far. If only there was some form of literary subtitle, you think. [1])

You also worry, as all translators are wont to do, about the weight of words. You are reminded how for centuries, the French have been misunderstanding Nietzsche because the French “sujet” does not contain the “critique of the effects of subjective submission” that the German “Subjekt” does (cf. Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslability and Barbara Cassin’s Vocabulaire européen des philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles). The Kurdish word for looting, تالان, best transliterated as “talan”, has an inherent weight to it from its frequent use in Kurdish society under various dictatorships and processes of ethnic cleansing that is immediately lost in translation, as the English “looting” has since long lost its primal association to times of war (and is mainly used in times of riots, as a byproduct of temporary capitalist collapse).

What you are left with, then, is a text that panders to its audience in its need to hold the reader’s hand through a history with which she is not familiar, a text infused with exoticism, a narrative forced into a form that is inherently Western, with all the issues that arise when, to cite Franco Moretti, “Western form meets [non-Western] reality”. These texts, as selected by Western publishers, often seem to include an outmoded paean to humanism, as though to comfort a bourgeois reading culture, to ensure that the narrative that we are all the same is heard. Fredric Jameson, in his otherwise unspectacular essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism (wherein he actually states that “Nothing is to be gained by passing over in silence the radical difference of non-canonical texts. The third-world novel will not offer the satisfactions of Proust or Joyce.”) provides a rare insight when he notes that “Indeed our want of sympathy for these often unmodern third-world texts is itself frequently but a disguise for some deeper fear of the affluent about the way people actually live in other parts of the world”. This is echoed by a much-debated editorial in N+1 wherein the editors argue that “Global Lit tends to accept as given the tastes of an international middlebrow audience” and that “the bestselling Kite Runner, by the Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini, made some Americans feel better, and others worse, about our war over there”.

Above all, perhaps, it rankles to use English because of the ravages that the British Empire wrought on Kurds and the possibility of Kurdish statehood. If Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is accurate in his assertion that “African authors should be clear about the fact that when they write in English they are contributing to the expansion of, and dependence on, the English language.”, then to write in English is a betrayal.

This should be a narrative in Kurdish. The narrative must be written in English.

***

international capitalism is a system that is simultaneously one and unequal: with a core and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.i.e. the destiny of a culture [] is intersected and altered by another culture (from the core) that completely ignores it’”

(Franco Moretti, Conjectures on World Literature”)

Most novels that you read today seem like relics, as though modernism never happened at all, Flaubertian narratives in which characters hold the latest consumer technology to make you, the reader, realise that it is meant to take place in the now. But it does not feel like any reality you experience on a daily basis, it feels literary: as though what we consider realism is merely what authors convinced readers reality looked like a hundred and fifty years ago, static narratives that embrace the provincial when finance and politics are now global. The very conventions of the realist novel, so daring when they were perfected by Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, have now trapped narratives in an individualistic, humanistic world order. After all, how to describe the light-speed flow of capital, the corporations with human rights but without human obligations, the drones killing the anonymous in a form that is structured around individual agency, about self-realisation and a human perception of time? The novel is doomed to fail. If contemporary capitalism and consumer culture are a part of contemporary fiction, it is often as a mere gloss, rather than the actual spine of the constructed reality. Similarly, the challenges of globalisation are reduced to facile exotifications, the non-Western reality forced into a Western form. The novel was not designed, after all, with non-Western cultures in mind.

What you want is the literary future imagined by Bhanu Kapil — an author who has managed to dismantle all the problems listed here with aplomb — namely “a literature that is not made from literature.” The heroine of her novel Incubation: A Space for Monsters is half girl, half machine/cyborg, her identity and culture shifts along with the text, as essential a creation as any archetype. You are heartened by Julius’s dérive in Teju Cole’s Open City where the character maps out a New York of immigrants and asylum seekers before he transforms the 20th century urban dérive into an international one, by travelling to Belgium, to Nigeria. You embrace the aforementioned Cyclonopedia, a dense but fragile text that can barely even carry the categorisation of novel, with its fake translator’s notes (e.g. “The linguistic structure of the original Farsi text is highly inconsistent, to the extent that one assumes it to have been written by more than one author.”) making the reader realise just how many truths a narrative can contain.

We heed the warning in the aforementioned N+1 essay that “Global Literature can’t help but reflect global capitalism, in its triumph, inequalities, and deformations,” but why should literature not instead revel in these deformations? You realise that English literature always has been “an unsteady amalgam of [the] voices of the vanquished, along with the voices of the dominant English regions” (to cite Stephen Greenblatt) and if you are to dissent from Lorde and try to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, you could do worse than making English your own Latin, a tool for a vulgar novel. Let there be allusions that remain unexplained, let there be dialogue that is not naturalistic, let there be disregard for the master’s rules, let the work contain the fractured realities as we see them today.

—Agri Ismaïl

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Agri Ismaïl is an Iraq- and Sweden-based writer whose work has appeared in the White Review, 3:AM Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Al Jazeera, and the Swedish journal Glänta among other places. He can be found on Twitter.

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Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Yes, of course there is the footnote which has a long literary history: remember how War & Peace began with a long chunk of French dialogue, which Tolstoy then translated (badly, one might add) into Russian in the footnotes. But this does not seem like a very good option: if none of your readers understand the dialogue in the original language, in effect you’re just asking them to do more work. You suspect your readers would hate you after one or two pages of this.
Apr 062015
 

George Szirtes

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Overheard

That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve.
The box was empty bar the usual cards
advertising the usual services of night.
One lives for such small favours, such rewards.
One lives for what night keeps up its loose sleeve.

Steve, I said, come down. It’s quite all right,
there’s no one here to speak of, just a queue
waiting to get into a show and they’ll be gone
once the doors open. It’s just me and you.
We will be reasoned, affectionate, polite.

The stars collide and break up one by one.
The street is empty now. I’ve seen the show
already and it’s fine.  There’s a decent bar
in the next block. I’ve seen the headlights glow
then vanish. There is nothing to be done.

So Steve came down, it wasn’t very far,
and then it started raining as it does.
I felt the usual tightening in my throat.
It was the same then as it ever was.
It’s what we were before. It’s what we are.

Let’s talk then, you and I, as if by rote.
Let us repeat the words and walk past doors
as if they weren’t there and neither was the rain.
These streets and bars are our familiar shores.
But let’s head out now Steve. Go get your coat.

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Photograph of a face

Should someone ask me what life is, I’d say
this is, knowing it is only you, but reading
your face, the light enveloping it, into all faces
for what a face might mean when it is loved
and stares into the dark room of the world
as though that too were life, the light as kind.

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Romance

They were writing Valentines to each other when the words began to splinter. They are more beautiful like that, they thought. Tiny and clear.

He drew a word from his pocket. It was old and yellowed. Give it to me, she said. I’ll wear it when it occurs to me to do so. Maybe tomorrow

So he bought her a dress of words and she put them on. Now try dancing, he said. You spell them out first, she said.

See this word ‘love’ he said. You can have it. I have more back home, but none as nice as this. Try it. It was hotter than she had expected.

She held the word at arm’s length. She had the most beautiful arms. The word was not important. It was the arms. The hands. The fingers.

The word ‘sex’ was never mentioned. It stood outside the door looking at its shoes so she came out and polished them.

I am sure it was in my handbag, she said. Then he drew it out from behind her ear. It sounded like the word but it was only a close rhyme.

What is the right word for your body, she asked. I couldn’t possibly pronounce it, he replied. But I have written it down.

There is a word in my mouth, she said. Open, he said. Yes, I think I can see it. Breathe gently. It’s one of mine. Now blow.

She put the word down by his hand. He picked it up and examined it. It was breathing. It had a scent. He popped it into his mouth.

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Caedmon

My mouth was empty
when the words flew out, light, free,
loud, unencumbered.

I watched them swooping
over rooftops, their flight path
dazzling and certain.

They were beautiful!
How marvellous to master
the air and let go!

They made shapes in voice
and light. They were the language
of grace in movement.

Being so dazzled
I forgot everything else.
I was blank, weightless.

I became language,
a hot mouth, a form of flight
powered by rapture.

I could be written
out of the world, be nothing
but the cry of birds.

My mouth was empty,
there was nothing left in there
except a hot tongue.

Fly home dear words. Nest
in my mouth. My tongue is hot
with yearning for you.

Let me believe you.
Speak me into being. Sing
the heart of the house.

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A Low Flying Plane

Somewhere in a sky
purring with cloud and light, planes
talk to each other.

What is the language
at the bottom of the throat,
that deep-lying growl?

When does it enter
the hangar of the stomach,
how does it park there?

From nowhere at all
the planes appear. The sky cracks
under them and bursts.

I’m trying to hear
the subtext of this, the blown
language of such noise,

the sense of low flight,
the way it presses dense air
into liquid shape.

Then the plane is gone
but things have changed. The tongue,
the ear, the dead sound.

—George Szirtes

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George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry and a roughly equal number of translations from the Hungarian. His New and Collected Poems (2008) was poetry book of the year in The Independent. The Burning of the Books (2009) and Bad Machine (2013) were both short-listed for the T S Eliot Prize which he had won earlier with Reel (2004).

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Apr 052015
 

Kraft and Dutton original-001Richard Kraft & Danielle Dutton

Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking. — Natalie Helberg

Siglio_Here_Comes_Kitty_Cover

Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera
Richard Kraft with Danielle Dutton
Siglio Press
64 pages, Hardback $32.00 CAD
ISBN: 978-1-938221-08-8

 

Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton’s Here Comes Kitty, a collage project (Kraft’s) with written interludes (Dutton’s), beautifully, wantonly, defies review. Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking. The images it combines are unlikely bedmates. What it says, if it says anything, it says without concepts. It channels disparate locations and histories into singular, pressurized, visible forms. It could be read in terms of densely layered symbolism, but it would be wrong to side with Freud and insist on an authoritative parsing. How could we render this work which consists of carefully staged collisions, of artful incoherencies, coherent? How could we render the visible using words? We delimit and inevitably limit the unlimited, prodigious thing. We elaborate on it and hope to illumine. We describe and impose analysis. We suggest, even though these genealogies are uncertain, links to what has come before.

In 1933, the Surrealist and former Dadaist Max Ernst travelled to Italy with a suitcase full of wood-engraved illustrations. Some, he had excised from lurid French novels, others, from books on natural science and astronomy. There, over a three-week period, he fused these materials, breaking with his earlier approach to collage by using particular illustrations, in their entirety, as base pictures, which he reconfigured through the superimposition of other images, other bits of paper. The resultant pieces, violent, sexual, and suggestively eldritch—each, in line with the Surrealist spirit, and not unlike Kraft’s collages, ‘a fortuitous encounter of disparate realities’ on a plane ill-suited for them—became the content of Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, which was framed as a collage novel.

Une Semaine is structurally chaotic; this is true of Here Comes Kitty as well. In keeping with the Surrealist’s embrace of Freudian dream-logic and loose associations, there is, to all appearances, no reason for the particular order of pieces found within each of Une Semaine’s seven chapters; in the case of Kraft’s work, there is no reason for the ordering of panels and pages found within the chapter-less text. No reason, but perhaps a rhyme. Repeated characters, symbols and settings lend a degree of coherency to the chaos of the pictorial, seeming anti-narrative in Une Semaine. Here Comes Kitty similarly recycles its motifs; in doing so, it orchestrates a clashing of tropes associated with birth and death, with innocence and sleaziness, with mirth and barbarism.

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While Ernst used multiple found illustrations as base texts for the pieces making up his novel, Richard Kraft has used a single Cold War comic. The comic pits a Polish infiltrator against the Nazis. Here Comes Kitty is then literally built on the back of, and saturated with, a militaristic image repertoire. Yet each subtly bellicose comic panel is also ornamented with images large and miniscule from far more sanguine and even sacred source texts. Kraft has designed each panel loosely on the model of Indian miniature paintings; they are essentially for the eye which craves detail, which wishes to look closely and stall the motion forward that is the narrative impulse. Butterflies and birds, bright red lips and other playfully mismatched body parts are rife. Indian gods and goddesses are present. Mammals, domestic and exotic, run amok. Phalluses are in abundant supply, along with their only slightly less discrete symbols.

Ernst’s collage text is framed explicitly as a novel, but Kraft, punning, has framed his as a ‘comic opera.’ That is, Kraft’s collage looks the part of a comic, though it does not read like one. It is a comic whose panels are abused boundaries. Some images span multiple panels, occluding their borders. Some thought bubbles and speech bubbles do the same. The work’s various word bubbles contain fragmented, sometimes biblical, sometimes utterly random, sometimes oddly fitting, and sometimes onomatopoeic language: A swinging couple is pasted over an officer; the woman twirls in her green dress; her smile looks like it’s about to break; her partner exudes happiness. The officer’s speech reads “THOU DUMB AND DEAF SPIRIT, I CHARGE THEE TO COME OUT OF HIM…” Choir-boy heads from a single source-text, moreover, are scattered throughout to remind us, with a wink, that the text is ‘meant’ to be sung:

Kitty_page_13_11.5_

As collage, which is to say by its very appropriative nature, Kraft’s work sets itself afloat on a sea of references. In this respect it is not unlike a comic opera. Like a comic opera, it satirizes; it renders ideological authority—whether in the text this takes the form of religious icons, particular political figures, or green uniforms—absurd. For Here Comes Kitty, sacred cows are comestibles. Beyond this, the work paints red lipstick on the horrible. It snatches up the horrible and hands it a drink and incorporates it into a Dionysian revel.

Though the book is not, like Ernst’s, divided into formal sections, Danielle Dutton’s poetical prose does disrupt Kraft’s thirty-two-page collage at regular intervals. There are four textual interludes, each of which consists of four pages of writing. The written pages carry on the same associative (or dream) logic that characterizes the collage pages, only of course in a different medium; they also riff off of some of Kraft’s motifs. Each of Dutton’s pages functions as a contained unit with an abstract narrative of its own; a given page’s content only loosely resonates with that of adjacent (written) pages. The sentences which make it up are subtly discontinuous:

I’d begun to feel a direct relation to each of the words I spoke. Mushroom. Angel. Destroyer. Had all this happened before? A small man took my bag. “Think of it as a hotel,” a man with a mustache advised. A chorus of boys was singing. I was sure it had happened before. “Their voices are the voices of angels,” someone called. This was a kind of sickness. I was standing on the grounds. In a certain spot in Germany,” I told the morning group, “you’ll find the longest earthworms in the world.” Someone passed a bottle, but the doctors never saw. “No arms, no legs, no bones!” I cried. One doctor had a headache. One doctor had no neck. “Be happy you’re not dead!” the handsome doctor recalled.

In working with the page as her principal organizing unit, Dutton was also coordinating her contribution with the larger project: Kraft used the page-spread as his unit when designing the ambient “comic”; each panel had to have visual appeal when considered as part of this larger, two-page unit consisting of multiple panels, in addition to capturing the eye on its own. Kraft was also working with a second version of the collage, a bird’s-eye, or god’s-eye version, in which all pieces could be viewed together simultaneously, rather than one after the other, as we would view them in the necessarily sequenced, though decidedly repetitious and non-linear, book form of the project.

Even this book version of the project, however, insofar as, like Ernst’s chapters, it is irrational, insofar as it is not logically apparent why this panel follows that panel, why this page was deemed the rightful successor of that page, dissents to time. Relatedly, it invokes pursuit and voyage as themes, yet confuses procession: The title, Here Comes Kitty, announces the arrival of a possible mammal, a possible guide: “KITTY IS HERE” announces a panel. “Look, it’s a cat!” cries a choir-boy, though there is no cat to be found. Eventually, a recurring cat image is given a speech bubble: “FOLLOW ME!” The collage is riddled with motion motifs. Miniature soldiers and other figures march to and fro, with or against the left-to-right grain of the read. Bodied and disembodied hands are perpetually pointing the reader in incompatible directions. Speedboats and other ships circulate, though they are never navigationally in sync; whatever voyage we have been enjoined to partake in, dizzies: it takes us from land to sea, to land, to sea.

Alchemical tales often begin with journeys. Some feel that the overall structure of Ernst’s Une Semaine is in fact less arbitrary than it appears to be, that the succession of chapters symbolically mirrors the steps involved in the alchemical procedure; alchemy had captured the imaginations of the Surrealists working in the earlier part of the twentieth century. Ernst’s novel explicitly appropriated alchemical symbols, the images associated with its elements: lions and men as the representatives of earth, dragons to evoke fire, women and the sea to bespeak of water, birds to signify air and the seven stages of the alchemical process more generally. Very similar elemental and zoological dimensions are discernible in Here Comes Kitty. Birds are ubiquitous, as are tides and conflagrations. Lions are not alien to this territory, nor is sun and moon imagery.

In the alchemical symbolic, the sun is yoked to sulphur and the moon to mercury. The alchemical process is supposed to culminate in the integration of the sun and the moon, of the masculine and the feminine, into a single androgynous figure. Both Ernst’s novel and Kraft’s comic opera achieve this amalgamation through the free combination of male and female body parts, and Kraft additionally through gender-bending thought bubbles (a male officer’s reads “I am a big girl. I sing! I sing!”). Ernst’s novel also consciously (and cannily) aligns alchemy and collage in order to exploit the former’s allegorical pertinence to the latter: in alchemy, a base of primary matter is destroyed, recombined, and purified to produce gold or silver. In collage, essentially the same thing occurs, only it is a source text which is aesthetically re-particularized. Here Comes Kitty is not interested in rehashing this connection, for the idea has been done already; however, it does stand at the edge of itself, emanating a related but original form of molecular intensity:

Kitty_page_11_11.5_ (2)

There is a kind of unbridled pleasure circulating through Here Comes Kitty. Its intrigue is addictive. It is serene and cataclysmic. It is spiritual, yet sinister. It is all delinquent-joy and death-drive, and yet it is equally inexhaustible, incessantly generating: There is a choir-boy’s head on the last page, gobbling wieners. He seems to be in a wooded area. The white rabbit says “HURRAH! LET US PLAY.” The owl says ‘abandon ship.’ The panel commands us to ‘set fire,’ and then to hush up and wait.

— Natalie Helberg


Richard Kraft
is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Los Angeles. He has produced video, collage, photography and performance art. His work privileges open fields of meaning; it defamiliarizes by making use of incongruity and paradox. Kraft has exhibited in various galleries (Charlie James, LA Louver, Rosamund Felsen) and non-profit spaces (the Portland Art Museum, Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Photographic Resource Center, and the Laguna Art Museum). Richard has also co-authored a chapbook, In the Air (2013), with Peter Gizzi, which was released by Manor House.

Danielle Dutton is the author of Attempts at a Life, a collection of lyrical narratives, and an experimental novel, S P R A W L, which was a finalist for the Believer Book Award in 2011. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and has also been anthologized in A Best of Fence and I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women. Dutton has worked in the capacities of managing editor, production manager, and book designer for Dalkey Archive Press. In 2010, Dutton founded the acclaimed experimental small press, Dorothy, a publishing project. 

helberg pic

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

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Apr 042015
 

tsvoboda-early-pix2

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DIRTY THIRTIES

PEEL THESE COUPLE of potatoes and make the pig happy, her sister says. It’s been eating dirt.

Molly gets taken by the arm into the kitchen, Molly looking right past her―she is the shorter sister―right past her ear. You see another duster out there? That spread of cloud isn’t a thing to worry over, says her sister.

She gives Molly the peeler to grip. Molly takes up a potato in such a way as to break your heart, like it was left alone in the bin. Which it almost is.

Her sister goes about her business, ripping feed sacks into strips. She has been up to this since early, since she saw her head shape in dust around her pillow. She has seen that before, when she was sure no weather like this could go on and on and she didn’t fuss with caulking the windows with feed sack. She’s going to fuss now. She was never so careful a cleaner as Molly, Molly used to sweep at the dust in the middle of the night.

She steps out to the barn to get another sack and returns quick.

The kitchen’s empty. She throws down her burden, she wipes her hands on her bum. Molly!

Where she finds her, this time in the bedroom, Molly’s face is wet, teared-up. The pump’s about dry out there and you’ve got it spurting, says her sister. She drags her back into the kitchen.

She finishes the potatoes herself with Molly looking on, Molly looking on and on. You got to keep busy, she says. She gives her the scrub brush.

Molly sinks to her knees. There is hardly room for both women in the kitchen and Molly works wide, will scrub out a whole corner in a single swath. Her sister splashes down some dishwater and Molly scrubs and scrubs, then sits back on her haunches and looks toward the bedroom and coughs.

You catch that dust cough now? Her sister pours milk into a cup and gives it to her. Tastes like tumbleweed, she says. Cow doesn’t eat anything else.

Molly stares into the cup. Molly drinks it.

Her sister starts ripping the strips of feed sack again, humming what song she heard on the neighbor’s radio. Car coming, she says after a bit.

Molly’s already half legged it back to the bedroom. Her sister doesn’t aim to stop her, she hasn’t the heart for it, she knows who’s coming too.

The old young man drags in, his britches gone to thread and his head low. Molly any better?

She’s in the room, she says.

He takes a seat in a turned-around spindle-back chair. Well? Get her out.

You do it.

He does not so much as move a muscle.

She goes in to coax. Molly, come on, she says. He’s here. He’s tired of coming.

She has to pull her out this time, pry her fingers free of the door frame, then she forces her to sit beside him at the table that he’s pulled the chair to.

Molly coughs.

Honey. He takes her hand.

I kept her in the house all day today, her sister says. It’s not so far to the road that if she’d run, with her luck, there’d be a car coming. There are more cars today, going away.

Molly turns his hand over and touches where it is lined with dirt. The baby, she says, quiet like it will wake.

He flips his hand and holds hers down so she can’t get away. He heaves a sad sigh and sticks his head even with Molly’s so as to look her in the eye.

Molly breathes heavy as if her stomach’s about to turn.

After a while of watching the two of them, her sister says, You got to try to work the plow again. We can’t eat a plow.

He drops Molly’s hand, runs his own through his hair, says, Another duster coming.

You’re as bad as her.

She takes things out of the cupboards they’re kept in, flour goes in a cup, she ladles water into it.

He watches her as if he’s out of practice looking, then he looks into Molly’s face again, where it is crossed with dirty tears, then he stops. Sawyer said he found his way back to his house today only because his fence was glowing like a light bulb.

You don’t say, her sister says. She has a paste of flour and water going.

Some kind of electricity that comes with the dust. Lit it right up, made the fence come alive.

Molly starts―what does she hear? She wrenches free of him and gets up out of her chair and takes a step for the door of the bedroom.

Dead is dead. She knows it, says the man.

Molly has her back to them, she’s almost to the threshold.

Her sister says, Cold for July, and shifts the cup toward the window where a single cloud sits over by where they once wanted to put in a big new street, or so she says and then goes on: old man Dickens walked all the way over here to give me these feed sacks.

Nice of him, he says.

Molly has slipped out of the room.

Her sister slathers a strip of sack with the flour paste, her hand running it the whole length.

He watches her. I tore up the cover, he said, yesterday. Before the storm. Just before.

The cover? The bed cover? She turns to him in shock at the talk of such violence.

I mean–he puts his hands to his eyes and rubs–I mean land cover. I did plow, and the land pulled back all as nice as a piece of cake. It would’ve grown corn, it was that kind of dirt. I plowed it and it come up and then the wind blew it away like it was waiting for me to get a mouthful of it.

He scratches at his stiff hair. I want the flour sifter if you can spare it.

No, she says.

After Sawyer told me about the electrified fence, he showed me an arrowhead the size of a knife blade. Yea size, he says, his hands wide. He said he took a flour sifter down to his blowout and found it.

Not with a sifter did he find something as big as that. You find it yourself with your eyes.

I ain’t got the knack, he says, looking hard at her.

She wipes the paste off her finger and goes in and brings Molly back into the kitchen, gets her set up with her scrub brush again. Molly scrubs out a new corner, moving the dust and water in dark swirls. Maybe if she were expecting again, her sister says. Maybe that would perk her up.

The man slaps his thigh, and dust from his pants rises into the air. I don’t know how that will happen. She won’t won’t let me set foot in that room.

Molly scrubs.

Her sister applies the wet feed sack strip to the window crack, the one side where the dust blows in worst.

A corner of land, he says. I just wanted to stomp the land back down. Weeds grow anyway. Why not what I try to plant?

Molly starts sobbing.

He looks at her sister, they both step away from Molly’s shaking shoulders as if the kitchen is huge, they step back.

Four months almost to the day, he says, and shivers. She was watching him just fine in that room. I don’t see why she thinks she wasn’t.

Stray dust smacks the window.

Even wrapped him with rags of turpentine, says her sister. He hardly coughed.

Molly coughs, gets up off her knees and, stumbling, runs back into the bedroom again.

Her sister starts pressing the strip into the window wood but the top of the strip is so heavy with paste it bows and peels down. You could help, she says.

He stands at the threshold of the bedroom, then he doesn’t, he is over by the stove, he is beside her. He holds the strip into place while she rubs more paste onto another, more flour they don’t have much of, less water.

His arm sweats not so far from hers, his filthy hand is right next to her face.

The sister bites his thumb.

He doesn’t pull it away. She bites him again, holding the new strip against the dust that is coming, that is coming through no matter what she does.

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RUGBY

HERE COMES HIS BROTHER. I can tell by the tread, bear-heavy but light-footed, even more solid than his brother’s, who tiptoes into some game position I don’t know the name of, being ever-so-slightly rugby-educated, but certain he blocks. I’m mostly asleep from the exhaustion of teaching three-year-olds to pinch pots for their mothers all day, preventing them from throwing the pots at each other. The brothers like art like honey-on-pancakes, good if that’s all you’ve got. The younger isn’t home yet, the one whose room I rented while he roamed various continents rugby-free, who, still jetlagged, claimed his room and me the night he deplaned. You can stay, he said, the fey kerchief of vacation still wrapped around his forehead.

His brother is light-footing his way into what is still referred to as my room. It is dark but he can probably make out the blow-up of his brother and I unclothed, a lot of negative space going positive, hung over the bed. I like this brother, the one now hovering, beery-breathed and gentle with his punches when the two of them fight after games, mud-caked and happy having either won or lost, the game played all over in the living room. Furry in the face, arms, legs, and back, a nimbus of soft, the two of them doubled, exhale male.

He touches my face. I play-sleep.

My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway.

I’ve never seen a rugby match, just the aftermath, the blood and crossed eyes, the storm of beer. They tell me not to. No—they never say. They practice and practice, ramming the house beams, then one day they don’t, they play for days in a tournament, blood and beer morning and night. They can’t hide their lust for the sport, I don’t get it, so they tell me okay, go, and I witness a hugging mass of milling men, grunting, for an hour. Not much with regard to a ball. Both of them are shy afterwards, sleek from the shower, all warrior and new gut. They never disagree about who did what and they never tell me the rules.

Toward their parents they are deferential: Please pass the butter. Their mother, though cordial, could wallop them as well as the father, at least with her love-torn eyes at the least. The brothers arm-wrestle the father, a ritual demanded and met with some regret from the brothers: they now win. But their father is happy, all congratulations, a kind of Eden is breached, they’re men on their own.

I’m inspected and fed. They’ve seen the photo, the art over his bed.

It’s not you is what I try to say to him, then I say it. It’s everything else, my pot-muddy job over and there’s another job so far off I have to live elsewhere. You can visit.

He’s shy about feeling, what does he feel? He strokes his fair beard for an answer. Out of the house means out of his long reach, means it’s a decision he’s tentative over, me being still art-alien, unknowable, me with my will and my wont that he wins with his out-of-character respect. We stand on the porch with my bag, ready for transport.

Fuck respect, he’ll keep the photo.

There’s a roommate too. He drinks late at night and says his door isn’t closed, and he plays rugby too, on the better team, and it’s the season of switching love-fests and rock and roll heavies. I try him for luck but his chest is too hard, I can’t even lay my head on its ridges and sigh. My foolishness makes him drink late and later, but neither of say anything to either brother. You want coffee? he states now, holding his cup out to me. I can’t shake my head. He’s gathered at the door too, as if I’m baggage to be handled. I kiss them all but my lover’s brother is the saddest, he’s the one who cries out Goodbye.

Driving to the game drunk a week later, his brother screams at the traffic, he goads us to scream with him, the road twists and carooms while he hardly holds the wheel. We miss many cars so close we could be two-wheeling. And there’s still the ride home. How to get home where I live in my room so far away without anyone else for a roommate? They won’t visit. I’m here now to show them I’m the same from my place not so convenient, but what game am I playing? You have only one life, my lover says, as if that’s why I should risk it, kissing me so hard in the back seat that I have to close my eyes, that I should.

—Terese Svoboda

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Terese Svoboda‘s most recent novel, Bohemian Girl, was named one of the ten best Westerns by Booklist. She has stories coming out in The Common and Exterminating Angel, and she won a Guggenheim last year. www.teresesvoboda.com.

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Apr 032015
 

cid corman and gregory dunneCid Corman & Gregory  Dunne

Cid Corman was born in Roxbury, Boston, in 1924. His seminal magazine Origin was one of the first to publish poets such as Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, and Robert Creeley. In addition to the magazine, Cid, a poet and translator, organized poetry events around Boston and started the country’s first poetry radio program, This Is Poetry at WMEX featuring readings by Creeley, Stephen Spender and Theodore Roethke amongst others.  In 1958 he moved to Japan where he continued to edit Origin and in 1959 published Gary Snyder’s first collection Riprap. He began to translate Japanese poetry, in particular work by Basho and Kusano Shimpei. A prolific poet, he published over a hundred books and pamphlets. In 1990 he published the first two volumes of his selected poems Of. In all there are five volumes each containing 750 poems. Volumes 4 and 5 were just published in January of this year. Although described as a selected poems, Corman did not necessarily see it that way. He saw it as a single book that told his life in passing. Cid Corman died in Kyoto on March 12, 2004.

cid-corman

I am grateful to Greg Dunne, not just for the extract from his new book but for the wonderful opportunity he gave me back in 2000 to spend an afternoon visiting with Corman in his home in Kyoto. I had been travelling with my wife and young children in China for several months and stopped off in Japan on the way back to visit Greg. Over the years I had heard the story many times of how after moving to Kyoto Greg had stopped in at a coffee shop, CC`s, that sold western style ice-cream and cakes. The shop turned out to be Corman’s and Greg soon joined with a small group that met with him every two weeks for gatherings that lasted five hours or more. Cid read and talked poetry with them, discussed their work.

That afternoon, however, we talked to Corman about his work and his life. I got the feeling that he liked visitors so that he could relate the stories of his past to them, and through those stories reaffirm his true relevance to American poetry. This seemed to me to be borne of disappointment, sadness even – an awareness that his decision to live in Kyoto had left him largely forgotten in his home country. Nevertheless, it was evident that deep-down he knew that the poet’s life was exactly that – a life, a way of living. And he talked that day too of not even wanting his name on his poems at all, at refusing publicity when it occasionally came his way.

He excused himself at one point and left the room briefly returning with a copy of the first issue of Origin. He was proud of it, and rightly so. He spoke then of his writing routine. His morning began by writing letters, long letters to anyone who had taken the time to write to him. “If you write to me,” he told me, “I will write back.” After his letter writing he began work on his poems. He took me in to see his study. It was stacked high with manuscripts, heaps of paper across his desk and all around the room. “I write a book of poems a day,” he said. Most of these pages would probably never see the light of day. The act of writing to him, it appeared, was akin to the act of breathing – a breath in/a breath out, a word given/a word taken. This was not a rushed process; it was not a mountain of first drafts, of beginnings, but an ongoing expression of self.

Cid Corman

Later we took a pleasant walk to the post-office to mail off his letters and then said our goodbyes.  Despite his generous offer, I never did write to him. I regret it enormously of course but, in some ways these feelings of regret seem apt – a more fitting response to our short afternoon together.

—Gerard Beirne

quiet accomplishment cover

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What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. …….~ Homi Bhabha

A boundary is not that at which something stops but, as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing.…..~ Martin Heidegger

IN 1990, CID CORMAN PUBLISHED the first two volumes of this five-volume magnum opus book of poetry, of. The work was monumental in scope – each volume consisted of 750 pages of poetry. The book included many translations of poetry from around the world and from many different time periods that stretched from the earliest of times – Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese texts – up through contemporary poetry translations. In an unusual move, Corman left his translations un-sourced, that is, he did not attribute his translations to their original authors openly. Some fellow writers, notably Clayton Eshleman, found Cid’s practice suspect and wrote to Cid concerning it. Eshleman explained his dismay in the following way: “I was shocked to find Cid’s translations here, of Homer, Sophocles, Catullus, T’ao Ch’ien, Montale, Villon, Rimbaud, Basho, Malarlarme, Rilke, Ungaretti, Char, Celan, Artaud, and Scotellaro, treated as Corman poems. So I wrote to him questioning such appropriation” (Eshleman).

To do justice to the book, a book of this size and scope, and a book that is the culminating event in the life of a significant American poet, more attention is warranted in exploring the act of his incorporating un-sourced translations into the book – how it was accomplished – and what rationale there may have been for the move, assuming the act is not simply one of appropriation. To understand, appreciate, and comprehend more fully what Corman was up to then, one needs to begin with his poetics, with what informs them – his sense of poetry and its role and place in culture, society and life.

Translation came early to Corman and through the activity – within it – he found himself drawn into a larger community of poetry that would sustain his interest and attention throughout his life. For Corman both the writing of poetry and the translating of poetry developed at about the same time when he was in high school. Here he began translating Greek and Latin poetry. Later, during the war years (World War II), when he stayed home from the war due to his youth and illness, he went deeper into translation. In conversation, some years ago (1994), at his home in Kyoto, he told me about his start in poetry and how intertwined it was with his activities in translation:

…The first quatrain I wrote one Sunday two weeks after Pearl Harbor was… (shakes his head in disapproval)… almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time. I had studied Greek in high school, and I was very interested still in Greek literature and read quite a bit at University, mostly on my own, this was not for any course. is was just for my own satisfaction. I had read no translation of Aeschylus that struck me as being accurate or true to the thing…. when I started out… I wanted to know about meter. I wanted to understand how poetry was structured, why they used rhyme, the way poetry moved. (Corman, APR 25)

The translation of poetry affects his poetry. Even as a young man, he was able to see the effect that translation was having on his poetry. The force, or influence, is so strong that he seems to recognize a need to disassociate the two: he is unsatisfied with his own poem because it reads too much like the work he has been translating: “. . . almost like a translation from ancient Greek, because I had been translating the Agamemnon of Aeschylus at the time.” The translating of poetry is shaping this poet – the translation work is exerting an influence that Corman recognizes and understands as becoming a part of him. Though he seems to understand the influence can be negative at times, he does not disavow the overall positive influence that the practice is having in teaching him how to become a better poet. In our conversation that day, he went on to make the following points:

By the time I was a sophomore, I was studying Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. And those poets struck me very strongly. They were new to me, and they were different than American poetry. But, I figured by translating I had a way of getting closer to what they were doing, and by doing that, I could learn.

So… it was the beginning for me. So I translated almost all of Les Fleurs du Mal for myself. They weren’t meant for publication. To learn. So it was for me, my education. (Corman, APR 25)

One sees from these comments that Corman understands his beginnings as a poet to be closely associated with his beginnings as a translator. We see also his passionate interest in non-English poetries, and his interest in translating as a means of education, of educating himself as a poet. In looking at the poetry of others, at other poetries, and translating that poetry into his own language, Corman put himself in conversation with other poets, and more importantly found himself within a conversation of sorts that involved poetry – a community of poets that carried him beyond the borders of language, state, and time. In this community, poetry itself became a unifying force –– a center that actually did hold, at least for Cid Corman.

We see further evidence of Corman viewing himself as working within a tradition and within a community when he collects his prose writings and publishes them as one book in two separate volumes. The first volume, Word for Word: Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow Press, 1978), contains essays related directly to his own poetry and poetic theory. The second volume, At Their Word/Essays on the Arts of Language (Black Sparrow, 1978), concerns itself with translation, and with the work of other writers: “At Their Word.” The two volumes make for a whole; with each volume informing what is said in the companion volume. Corman knows how essential translation has been in helping him to shape and refine his own understanding of poetry and how, in turn, his poetics have informed his translations of other’s poems.

And as it turns out, the first two essays in the second volume take up the topic of translation. Here, in the first essay, Corman offers five translations and commentary upon those translations: “translator’s notes.” The poems he offers are from Rilke, Baudelaire, and Montale. In his prefatory comments at the start of the essay, he offers the following explanation:

The versions here offered (my emphasis) are representative of different approaches possible. In all cases, however, the poems are pieces that have been savored and put into English originally for no other purpose than to prolong the translator’s own pleasure and perhaps to discover some possibility in them for his own tongue. Only where the results seem felicitous poems too (my emphasis) have offerings (my emphasis) been made to a larger audience. (Corman, ATW 10)

Corman’s use of the term “offer,” underscores his sense of giving – or gifting – the translations to the reader with humility – he makes no claim that the translations are definitive. They are offered – the reader can take them, or leave them: “The versions here offered . . .” They are being offered because the original poems were poems that he appreciated so deeply that he was moved to translate them, poems he “savored and put into English to prolong his own pleasure.” His versions of the poems, and only those versions that have become poems in English, and thus deemed worthy of being shared, become “offerings” to a wider audience. Corman’s explanation, particularly his use of the word “offerings,” implies both his giving something of himself to the reader – his work as a translator – and also – and more to the point here – his gratitude for the gift of the original poems. In this gesture and use of the word “offerings,” he implies his awareness of being part of a community that has involved many others over time.

He shows this attitude of gratitude towards the original poets and those who have translated the poem when he speaks of titling one of his translations, in this case the Baudelaire’s poem, “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie.” Unlike other translators who have tried to approach the untitled poem by translating the poem’s first line as the title and coming up with titles such as “The Servant” or the “The Kind-Hearted Servant of Whom You Were Jealous,” Corman titles his translation simply “after Baudelaire.” In his “translator’s notes,” he explains that “’After’ . . . is quite honest, for countless versions over many years achieved this result – which is finally a sort of homage to feeling shared.” The word “homage” as in the case of the word “offering” suggests an awareness on Corman’s part of being involved in a community – a world poetry – and a world that can be shared across time, space, and culture. Here is Corman’s version of Baudelaire’s “La servante au grand coeur dont vous étiez jalousie:”

after Baudelaire

The bighearted nurse
you envied, buried
sod, merits flowers.
The living thankless
rest between warm sheets
while the poor dead feel
all alone, no one
to bring them fresh trash.

If, at the good fire,
I saw her sitting,
some December night
found her in my room
crushed from the long bed
gazing at this child,
what cold worlds tell her
tears filling those eyes?
(Corman ATW 10)

Corman felt a need to translate, as well as a need to share his translations of poetry with others: To make “offerings” to a larger audience. We see further evidence of this in the story of his coming to translate the poetry of Paul Celan and to publish that poetry in his magazine Origin.

After leaving the University of Michigan, and after a few years back in Boston where he hosted a weekly poetry radio program, Corman was awarded a Fulbright and traveled to France to study at the Sorbonne. In Paris, Cid wrote poetry and immersed himself in translation. During this time, in 1955, he met the poet Paul Celan, virtually unknown in North America at the time, and began translating his work into English. Some years later, when Corman wanted to publish his Celan translations in his magazine Origin, he contacted Celan to ask permission. Celan refused to give permission and threatened litigation against Corman if he pursued publication. After some consideration, Corman went ahead and published the poems in Origin and, as promised, Celan wrote an angry letter to Corman threatening “persecution” – an ironic typographical error, as Corman would later remark to me, considering Celan’s persecution by the Nazi’s during the Second World War. Celan had meant to write “prosecution,” of course.

In 1994, when I asked Corman how he first meet Paul Celan, he told me the following story:

My friend. I was living with her at the time: 1955, in Paris. Edith Aron (German, but reared mostly in Argentina, of Jewish descent too) who had helped Paul Celan get a job with UNESCO introduced me personally to him one day. He seemed very dour to me and they did most of the talking. Both near my age – early 30s. And she gave me his first two books and suggested we translate from them together. We did. And I did the first English versions ever and a few were published in Toronto by Ray Souster at once. I didn’t like those first two volumes as much as what followed. And I bought each of his books as they occurred thereafter and translated each – with someone native to German assisting. I met him just as he was really coming into his own. And I have translated all his work – much of it still unpublished.

I asked Corman what specifically attracted him to Celan’s work, and he answered in the following way:

His depth of language use – not as technics (cf. Zukofsky) but as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me. I couldn’t /wouldn’t be as obscure and “difficult” as he allowed himself/his language to be, but I could feel the truth of what he was doing, or trying to do. And that moved me. To want to share that work – despite his challenging me. (Corman, APR 26)

Corman speaks in terms of feeling “moved” to translate the work, feeling compelled to share the work of Celan with others. He decided to publish the translations despite Celan’s “challenging” him. His rationale being, in so many words, that he felt compelled to share it – that he could feel “the truth” of what (Celan) was doing: “His depth of language use . . . as the only way to get language to tell what life humanly is – touched me.”

One might find fault with Corman’s rationale as stated here. Is his desire to share the work reason enough to publish his translations without Celan’s permission? But in questioning Corman rationale, one would also do well to consider Corman’s passion and sincerity to share the work. Every- thing about Corman’s life in poetry suggests that his reply to Celan was sincere. Of course, I do not mean to assert that passion and sincerity, in and of themselves, make Corman’s actions right or absolve him of honoring the wishes of Celan. What I do want to point out is that Corman was deeply motivated to act in the way that he did act, and that his action speaks to his understanding of poetry in the world, and per- haps also to questions of ownership of it.

Corman felt Celan’s work should be shared – that it needed to be shared. This desire to share poetry has remained consistent throughout Corman’s life: his poetry radio program in Boston was a way for him to share poetry with a wider community. It was a way of creating a community around poetry, for poetry. His founding of the magazine Origin was another way in which he worked to share poetry with a larger community: he wanted to get poetry into the world, particularly the kind of poetry that mainstream poetry magazines were not taking seriously, at least not taking seriously enough to publish.

Written correspondence was a further way in which Corman shared poetry with others. Correspondence, i.e. letter writing, was a central part of his life as a poet. In conversation once, he referred to it as his “life-line.” When I asked him if there was anything that stood out in the letters that he received – anything remarkable? He told me, “Everything. Every letter is my news. Is poetry” (Corman APR 26). At the time, I didn’t think he meant that the letters were themselves really poetry – but over the years I have come to doubt that first understanding – maybe he did mean it, literally. After all a letter, like poetry, involves the experience of one person sharing news, to use Pound’s word for poetry – news that stays news with another. Letters and poetry are correspondences, if you will, that share an experiential quality about them: the words of the writer being shared with the reader in an intimate way. So for Corman, this idea, of letters being “poetry,” is not as far fetched as it might at first sound. Perhaps his feeling on this accounts for his publishing letters right alongside poetry in his magazine Origin. In the first series of Origin (1951-1957) Volume XIV/Autumn, for example, he published the following section of letter by the Canadian poet Irving Layton:

Letter to Cid Corman

Lac Desert, County Lab
Quebec
August 5, 1954

Dear Cid,…

In all these poems I’ve tried to express the idea “in the image,” for although as a rule I leave theorizing about poetry to others, there are one or two work-a-day rules I try to govern myself by when writing verse. For me, rhythm and imagery usually tell the story; I’m not much interested in any poet’s ideas unless he can make them dance for me, that is embody them in a rhythmic pattern of visual images, which is only another way of saying the same thing in different words. If I want sociology, economics, uplift, or metaphysics; or that generalized state of despairing benevolence concerning the prospects of the human race which seems to characterize much of present-day poetic effort, I know my way around a library as well as the next man. Catalogues are no mystery to me. I regard the writing of verse as a serious craft, the most serious there is, demanding from a man everything he’s got. Moreover, it’s a craft in which good intentions count for nil. It’s how much a man has absorbed into his being that counts, how he opens up continuously to experience, and then with talent and luck communicates to others (my emphasis) without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply …

Yours, Irving

This letter appeared in Origin alongside Layton’s poems. It was not set off as a prefatory statement of any kind but appeared on the page as if a poem, in the flow of the poems presented there, with several poems preceding it and several poems following it.

Poetry is a craft, according to Layton, that demands much of the poet: “demanding from a man everything he’s got.” It is also a craft that demands the poet open up “continuously to experience,” a craft that calls upon the poet to communicate to others “without fuss or fanfare or affectation, but sincerely, honestly, simply . . .” These ideas are all in sympathy with Corman’s own poetics, as editor and as poet. Certainly, an open- ness to experience, and a direct form of communication/address are characteristic of Corman’s poetry. Here, Layton’s letter may be seen to be a poem in Corman’s eyes in so far as it achieves a rhythmic liveliness in its prose while communicating in a direct, unaffected and sincere way. A piece of writing that opens up to experience and communicates with others. In publishing the letter, we see Corman, the publisher, opening up to the experience of the letter and sharing that experience with others. In placing poes and letters in the magazine in such away, Corman seems to ask, “Why can’t a letter such as this be read as a poem?” Corman opens himself to the possibility of the letter being read in such a way – opens himself to that experience. In publishing the letter, Corman participates then in a reciprocal gesture of gift giving, and communicating with others – he shares Layton’s letter with a wider audience.

Corman’s active life as a correspondent is legendary, and the books of correspondence that have been published over the years indicate this – no doubt more books will follow.  The many letters between Corman and Charles Olson, for example, were edited and published in 1987 and in 1991 (Charles Olson & Cid Corman, Complete Correspondence 1950 –1964 Volume 1 and Volume II. Ed. George Evans, National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine Press); Olson’s letters to Corman were published earlier in 1970 (Charles Olson, Letters for Origin, Cape Goliard [London] and Grossman [New York] Ed. Albert Glover); a collection of Lorine Niedecker’s letters to Corman was published in 1986 (Between Your House and Mine: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 – 1970, Ed. Lisa Pater Faranda, Duke University Press); a more recent volume of Corman Letters was published in 2000 (Where to Begin, Selected Letters between Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, Ed. Keegan Doyle. Ekstasis Editions).

The contemporary American poet and translator, Andrew Schelling provides a telling and instructive story of his coming into correspondence with Corman through the aegis of Clayton Eshleman, who had known Corman in Kyoto years earlier and knew first-hand of his approachability, and his willingness to help younger poets. As Schelling recalls in a tribute that he wrote after Corman’s passing in 2004, he was a “fledgling poet . . . just beginning to publish . . . in the early to mid eighties” when he first corresponded with Cid Corman. Clayton Eshleman told him he had “to get in touch with Cid Corman.” Eshleman’s suggestion was a piece of “true counsel,” and not simply “a piece of advice.” Schelling listened to Eshelman and contacted Corman and they began corresponding. In short order, Schelling and Corman became correspondents. Corman replied “to every letter instantly,” Schelling says, expressing wonder at Corman’s generosity and attentiveness: “his aerograms usually leaving the day my own had arrived. Always an aerogram, always every patch of space on it filled with typewritten words—almost always a small poem or two or three typed onto the outside.” (Schelling)

As a poet living far from the American scene, one might expect Corman to have less to offer Schelling than an elder poet based in the U.S. and familiar with contemporary American poetics. Schelling however did not find this to be the case. While it was true, Schelling concedes, that Corman was not always up to date on the latest developments on the American scene, and that poetry news reached him “in curiously winnowed ways,” Schelling felt that Corman had something special to offer. According to Schelling, Corman’s “expatriate status gave him an in-touch status hard to qualify but completely visible to all who knew him. He was more a citizen of the world than are most American poets. His correspondence permitted him equal access to friends in Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Mexico.” Corman was in his own curious way at the center of things – his correspondence had him in touch with poets around the world. For a young poet like Schelling, a poet interested in translation, Corman’s international contacts and his active engagement with translation had much to offer Schelling.

Corman wrote tens of thousands of letters to contacts around the world during his lifetime. His correspondents included friends, family members, and poets, as well as politicians, philosophers, artists, and religious figures. His correspondence with others was something that he wanted to share, that is, he wanted not only to connect with others through correspondence, but he wanted to connect others to others through correspondence. If he thought that one of his correspondents would benefit from getting to know another of his correspondents, he would try to put them in touch with one another. Through his correspondence then, Corman tried to introduce different writers to each another. When I first began corresponding with Corman on a regular basis, he frequently went out of his way to send me contact information about writers he thought I should connect with.

When one looks at the sum of Corman’s life then, one feels convinced that Corman felt poetry was, in large measure, about sharing and community. He felt that one of the most fundamental qualities of poetry was found in its ability to bring two individual lives together – to create a community of two: a conversation between the reader and the poet. This sentiment is found throughout his oeuvre. Here are four poems that demonstrate some of this:

Poetry becomes
that conversation we could
not otherwise have.
(Corman, ND 86)

Assistant

As long as you are here –
Would you turn the page?
(Corman, APR 23)

The Call

Life is poetry
and poetry is life — O
awaken — people!
(Corman, APR 21)

There’s only
one poem:
this is it.
(Corman, ND 121)

In elegant and conversational language, Corman asserts the primacy of poetry in human relations in these poems: “Poetry becomes / that conversation we would / not other- wise have.” Poetry is unique and solitary in what it offers – nothing else is quite like it.

In the second poem we see a humorous and yet quite serious invitation for the reader to participate actively in the reading of the book. It is as though Corman himself were reaching out through the poem to make contact with the reader and participate in the reading of the book: “Would you mind turning the page?” The poet shows up and speaks directly to the reader – let’s the reader know that he, the poet, has thought of him. The poet has envisioned the reader one day finding himself on the page and reading. This is the community that Corman values – the interaction of one person conversing with another through the medium of poetry. Corman moves through time and space in doing this, he is aware of the poem’s ability to transcend time and space and remain relevant – to still speak. Here he quietly alludes to times’ passing and to the ephemeral nature of life: “As long as you are here.” This conversational line, a line we commonly hear, is brought to bear its full measure of import within the poem: the weight of intonation and stress falls precisely on the word “are:” “As long as you are (my emphasis) here.” If Corman were not the poet that he is, he might have written “you’re” instead of “you are.” Corman wants the reader to sound “are:” “As long as you are . . .” In other words, as long as you are here, and alive, will you turn the page?

This subtle gesture points to one of the enduring qualities and strengths of poetry: the poem speaks to the reader even when the poet is gone. It speaks to the movement of time, the movement within a lifetime, to the human condition of being here now and knowing we will not always be. The poet after all, is not really with the reader on the page in the present moment of reading. He has passed on. The reader in reading the poem understands this, feels it through the poem.

The final two poems cited above get at similar notions as the first two poems. “The Call,” again announces the primacy of poetry, equating it with life itself: “Life is poetry/and poetry is life – O.” And the final poem makes the playful and, at first glance, seemingly audacious statement, that “There’s only/one poem:/this is it.”

Of course, in a real sense, Corman means exactly what he says, and that is, that the impulse behind the writing of a poem, the engine of the poem, the origin of any poem, of all poems, is the same at its source – it is the impulse to speak, it is the “O” of breath and being – the reaching out of one to another through language – the poet and reader together – the song that brings one to another. It is at base a connectivity, and communication, a form of communion, or community: ”the conversation/we could not otherwise have.” Seen in this light, we understand the claim that the poem makes: there is one poem and it resides in our very breathing and breath. It is life.

This poem, this last one, is an especially helpful poem to consider in relation to Corman’s book of and his questionable act of incorporating un-sourced translations into the book alongside his own poems. I say this because in this poem, we see a clear statement which may be seen as supporting what Corman has done in the book; that is to say, he makes his poems and his translations one book, one unified book, one poem: “There is /only one poem:/ this is it.”

***

Of is, at first glance, a strange title for a book. How many books can one think of that contain a preposition for a title? Strange as it is, it is a title that is precise and telling, and one meant to draw attention. When one opens the book, one finds a preface that immediately addresses the rationale behind the titling of the book:

for those who find themselves here
and sounding the words care to be

this is a book of a life as exacting as any
other, not in chronological order, but
through as for all time: a small proportion of
what has occurred to me and to which the work
unseen is complementary

the title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics:
the meta the indissoluble unfathomable fact: the
genitive case: to which we are all beholden and
within which we remain hopelessly particular

and to the extent that a poetry can, these poems
articulate it – which humbly (meaning – aware
of there being no choice) reveals transparently,
whatever else may be felt, I trust (trust implying
you), wonder, gratitude, pain, and love.

(Corman, of Vol. I, 2)

The Preface begins by immediately engaging the reader: “for those who find themselves here/and sounding the words care to be.” The reader is said to be “sounding” the words, suggesting that the reader is actively involved in both sounding the depth of the words – the depth of their various and associative meanings – as well as physically making the sound of the words in their mouths – “sounding” them. The words themselves are said to be things that “care to be,” underscoring Corman’s emphasis on our appreciating “words” as having an existence beyond the individual’s control – emphasizing, reminding the reader that words exist independent of the individual speaker – that they are thus shared within a larger community. If words did not possess this characteristic capacity, of what use would they be? To the extent that words are shared, they carry meaning and significance for us, and they bring us together, allow us to communicate with each other. Readers can “find themselves here” (my emphasis) precisely because the words on the page belong to the reader as much as they belong to the writer.
 As Corman says, “The title reflects a precisely physical metaphysics,” that is, it attempts to underscore the existent relationship between the individual and the world beyond the individual to which the individual is both separate from and a part of: “the genitive case: to which we are all beholden and/within which we remain hopelessly particular.” Language is thus the bridge, or the “connectivity,” as the post-colonial scholar Inderpal Grewal refers to it (Grewal 236).

Corman continues to elaborate upon this theme on the following page of the book with another epigraph. Here he translates the Greek of Philo of Alexandria (20 B. C. E. ~ 50 C. E.). It is salient to note that Philo himself was writing a literary work in Greek that was based on the older Hebraic writings of the Bible (Genesis), namely the Old Testament. Thus Philo too, like Corman, was involved in translation – the crossing of linguistic borders. Corman translates the epigraph as follows:

The soul of the most perfect is fed by the word as a whole; we may well be content should we be fed even by a portion of it.

PHILO: Allegorical Interpretations of Genesis. III, Ixi, 176.(Corman, of, Vol. I. 1)

In this epigraph, Corman once more alludes to there being a whole to which we belong: “the word as a whole.” With my layman’s knowledge of ancient texts, I cautiously interpret Philo in the following way: I take the “most perfect” as referring to God. Following upon this, I understand God is fed “by the word as a whole.” I read “the word as a whole” to refer to the whole of humanity, and that humanity’s offering God prayers, songs, poetry – praise feeds God. If the word as a whole is what God – “the soul of the most perfect” – is nourished by then we lesser ones might be sustain by, and should be “content” with, even a portion of it, the word: our own individual languages. The divine world and the human world are bound by, and through, the word. For Corman then, poetry is nothing less than manna – an essential thing – meant to be shared. Further, it is the diversity of languages that Corman is signaling as being of importance. It is not one particular language but the word as a whole – all poetries contributing to the whole that feeds the most perfect.

With this title, preface, and epigraph, Corman makes the case, rhetorically, for including un-sourced translations from many different languages and time periods into the book. His gesture is to say that we are OF this material – that the poetry of the world belongs to all of us. Moreover, he means to suggest that we are shaped by our inheritance of these languages, poetries, and cultures. We are of them – born into a scene and situation that we did not ourselves wholly create. He honors the inheritance.

In 2000, Corman responded to the charge of appropriation – whether or not his use of un-sourced translations in of was a form of appropriation. Did he deliberately leave the names of the original authors of his translations off the page? In his characteristically frank way, he acknowledged that he had done so while emphasizing that he did so with a purpose:

Yes, of course. Take Eshleman, who I know very – have known very well: very angry at me for doing that, not to give the credits. But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize… Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is. Anyone who’s really interested could easily find out. But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous; and if you look at my books that I myself designed without fail, my name is not on the title page. This is unique: there’s nobody else that ever has done this and I do it deliberately. My name is put as a signature at the end, but actually, I would rather have my name not in the book at all…

(Corman, ICPR 1)

“But the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced.” Corman doesn’t want the names introduced because he wants the work, of, to be that whole that he alludes to in the epigraphs. His own poems will be part of the book, but they will find themselves within a community of poetry – his poems will be at home within a greater whole.

While I think it is understandable how the charge of appropriation could be leveled at Corman – for he does incorporate translations of others’ poems into his book – I believe under close analysis the assertion of appropriation does not stand up. “Appropriation” doesn’t adequately come to terms with the nuanced complexity of Corman’s gesture, and it is in the nuance and carefully balanced aesthetic manner in which the translations are brought into relationship with Corman’s own poetry that matters. The manner in which the translations are incorporated allows for them to be felt as translations, known as such, while not overtly crediting them as translations nor naming the authors.

Corman asserts in the interview that anyone really interested in finding out the source of a poem can easily do so because the poems are well known, or they are tagged in a way that allows them to be identified: “But anyone who’s really interested could easily recognize . . . Most of them are very famous pieces; the others, often the title gives it away, where the source is.” In other words, Corman maintains that the translated poems remain in some fashion distinct and particular, in some way known and sourced.

This is in keeping with what he announces in the Preface and through his use of epigraphs. In some measure, “a precisely physical metaphysics” is enacted in the book: the translated poems remain particular within a constellation of other poems, including Corman’s own. The ability of Corman to translate poems and incorporate them so that they become both distinct and a part of the whole is one of the signal achievements of the text. And in so much as readers experience the poems as translations within the book, that is, poems different from Corman’s own poems, a multitude of voices are allowed to enter the book and circulate through and between Corman’s own poems.

For Corman to insert the names of the original authors on every page where a translation appeared would be to break (brake) the resonant play of the poems echoing off each other. It would be, in short, contrary to the aesthetic intentions suggested in the titling of the book. This is to say that the listing of sources would break the text into discrete parts and detract from the whole that Corman is trying to create.

When readers encounter translations in the text, the readers should understand that the poetry is other than Cor- man’s own. When Corman’s friend and fellow poet, Clayton Eshleman read the book, he had precisely this experience – he recognized certain poems as translations despite their lack of citation. The first poem, for example, is entitled Shingyo; as such, it immediately signals a foreign language – in this case Japanese. The poem is actually a translation of an ancient prayer, a sutra that comes from India. Just as Philo’s use of the Genesis story demonstrates his awareness of precedent, Corman too chooses a work that demonstrates his awareness of precedent, and the way in which languages and ideas cross borders and are shared among and within communities. The sutra, which is well known in Asia and in- creasing in the West, was written in Sanskrit at around 350 C. E. Later, Buddhist monks brought the sutra to China where it was translated into Chinese. Then the Japanese brought the sutra to Japan, and translated it into Japanese. Here, the sutra, known in English as “The Heart Sutra” is a work that has passed over and through many national borders, languages, and cultures to be shared anew through further translations. Interesting to note, and apropos to what Corman has said about his own wish for anonymity in poetry, the poem he begins the book with – his magnum opus – is an anonymous work, a poem that has been chanted by many different people of various cultural backgrounds for ages.

Beginning the book with this poem amplifies the theme struck by the epigraphs and the Preface, that is to say, the poem moves us to confront the paradox that we find ourselves in – we are particular and yet each exists within a community – in relationship with others – our shared language tells us as much: no one person invented the language, and no one owns it. It is shared. Shingyo speaks to a condition of enlightenment, which would have us acknowledge being both a part and a whole, a poem that celebrates non-duality:

SHINGYO

Seeing reflecting sense nonsense
Friend – here is emptiness here is form
Unborn undying – untainted
unpure – no more no less – therefore
Friend – nothing to know or not to
to come to this – the suffering
reaching where it is and is not
Come – body – and go – body – no
body – gone to the other – gone.
(Corman, of, Vol. 1. 5)

The poem speaks to a sensibility that is unified, a non- dualistic sensibility – one that recognizes both the part (“body”) and the whole (“gone to the other”). It reaches through both – goes beyond opposites – to locate a site of commonality in a singular word of compassion “Friend.”

It is not only by titling the poems carefully then, as in the case of “Shingyo,” and by including well-known translations that Corman indicates which poems are translations: Corman also employs other techniques that quietly signal translation. The entire first section of the second volume of the book, for example, is indexed in the back under the title “Offered,” echoing the title of the book, of. Indexing the poems in this way, suggests that the majority of the poems in the section are translations, as they indeed are.

And it is not only by his unobtrusively marking the poems as translations that Corman succeeds in building the polyphonic quality of the text; He also succeeds through skillful translation. Corman is careful to honor the text, to honor the rhetoricity of the original. This is to say that his translations are distinguished by what the post colonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak refers to as “fraying,” a manner of translating that eschews the long searched-for equivalency between the original and the target language in favor of acknowledging qualities of the original that may be better left un-translated, giving the text a frayed or roughened feel. As Spivak puts it, “The task of the translator is to facilitate love between the original and its shadow, a love that permits fraying, holds the agency of the translator and the demands of her imagined or actual audience at bay.”

Corman’s translations leave the text open and rough with possibility. When balanced between the translator’s agency and the reader’s expectation, Corman honors the rhetoricity of the text. In 1964, long before the term of fraying came into use in translation studies, Corman spoke about his willingness to retain Japanese words in his translations. For example, in the Preface to his translation of Basho’s Oku-No-Hosomichi, (Back Roads to Far Towns, Munjinsha 1964) he and his fellow translator decided to retain original Japanese words in the translation. Corman expressed their decision this way:

If the translators have often not accepted Western approximations for particular Japanese and/or Chinese terms, it is not to create undue difficulties for readers, but rather to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible. As a result, notes may be needed in greater profusion than before. (Basho, BRFT 10)

Corman is not going to smooth the text out so that it reads comfortably in English if that means compromising too much of the complexity of the original. The original words, rich in associative meanings, may offer a complexity that the English words cannot adequately represent, that is, the English equivalent is not accurate enough. This decision on the part of translators (Corman and Kamaike Susumu), make it is necessary for them to use original Japanese words in the translation. In translating Basho’s Oku-no-Hosomichi, Corman and Kamaike retain original Japanese words in both the prose and the poetry. Here is some of their translation work – the poetry following the prose:

Afterwards off to the Sesshoseki on horse sent by
the kandai. Man leading it by halter asked for a
tanzaku. Beautiful he wanted one:

across the meadow
horse take your lead now from the
hototogisu
(Basho BRFT 25)

In this brief passage, Corman and Kamaike retain four Japanese words. Their notes in the back of the book relate the following:

kandai: Castle overseer
Sesshoseki: Still exists, though fenced about. The legends associated with it are told in Noh of the same name.
tanzaku: Narrow strip of fine paper to write poetry on; a poem
hototogisu: Japanese cuckoo, whose name is its song.
(Basho BRFT 122)

In using original words the translators intend “to admit an exactitude otherwise impossible.” They bring the Japanese flavor of the original in – they “admit” it – because English does not have similar words that are reliably precise. By retaining the Japanese words the translators allow the shadow of the original to be felt and appreciated. By “shadow” I mean to suggest that Corman and Kamaike’s translation emphasizes that while it is not the original it does retain some of the original’s defining qualities. Hototogisu, for example, is the Japanese cuckoo, but more to the point – and the point Corman and Kamaike want the reader to experience – is the fact that the name of the bird IS the bird’s song. When the reader reads “hototogisu” the reader hears what the Japanese themselves believe the bird sounds like when it calls. And it just so happens that this has a further meaning (or possibility of meaning) – the sound of the song is imaginatively thought to be the sound of a Buddhist sutra. Thus, the bird is thought to be, figuratively speaking, chanting a sutra. The bird and its call are steeped in the folklore of Japan, and its literary history and culture. The reader gets the onomatopoetic sound that the Japanese themselves feel best represents the sound of the bird. The reader is thus connected in this way with Japan: its animals, culture, language, and people.

Corman frays many of his translated texts in of in similar ways. When he translates Catullus, for example, he uses the Latin title of the poem and translates the poem in the following way:

IUCUNDUM, MEA VITA

Happy, my life, to me you propose love
This ours between us perpetual be.

Great gods, see that she really can promise
And she say so honestly and from heart,

So that it be ours all life to continue
Eternal this trust of blest affection.

I will tell you the secret.

(Corman, of, Vol. II, 30)

Encountering a poem such as this would lead any observant reader to conclude that she is indeed reading a translation. Why else would the poem be titled in Latin? If this doesn’t wake the reader to the fact of the poem being a translation, the reader could Google the title and find the poem ascribed to Catullus. In other worlds, the poem calls out to be understood – read – as a translation. The fraying one finds in the translation makes this even more abundantly clear. This translation is not rendered in Corman’s contemporary American English, but in a distinctively textured, tonal, and syntactical manner quite foreign to it, resulting in a poem that sounds ancient. Some of the ancient sounding qualities of the translation come from Corman’s mining the possibilities of the original Latin poem. Corman draws our attention to the word “ours:” “Happy, my life, to me you propose love/this ours between us perpetual be.” Here, “ours” functions as a noun and retains its Latin sense of something not only as something shared between people but something alive and living, and “ours” that is, “perpetually to be, a love that comes “honestly” and “from heart.” The word “ours” is struck again in the penultimate line with stress and weight – “So that it be ours all life to continue.”

Beyond the polyphonic and the symphonic qualities that the book achieves by bringing in such a rich variety of voices from various cultures, languages, and time periods, Corman’s book, of, reminds us that we come from this stuff – from this poetry – and that our languages and poetries have played a role in shaping the world we live in – the way in which we see and understand ourselves and the world.

Homi K. Bhabha, the literary scholar and cultural theorist, in commenting upon the contemporary Mexican American musical artist Guillermo Gomex-Pena, who travels between Mexico and American to sing songs on both sides of the border, both old and new songs – a man who sings to different audiences – Spanish-speaking audiences and English-speaking audiences, may provide us with the clearest lens yet by which to discern and appreciate what Corman achieves in his own crossing of boundaries – the boundaries of time, space, languages, cultures, and poetries – not to mention his crossing back and forth between his own poems and his translations.
 According to Bhabha, Gomez-Pena’s actions of performing songs in both languages on both sides of the Mexican and U.S. border – songs that are traditional as well as new – creates a generative “inbetween space” that allows for the artist to elaborate “strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity . . .” This “inbetween space,” he asserts, is a site of “collaboration, and contestation.” (Bhabha LC 336) Corman’s work too creates such an inbetween space. It also creates a site of collaboration and contestation in so far as we see him collaborating with other poets through the act of translation, taking their poems and translating them into English. We can see the contestation in terms of his own voice, his poems, asserting themselves through the surrounding poems, many voices vying, if you will, to be heard.

In fact, Bhabha prefaces the above comments by saying that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial is the need to think beyond narratives of “originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is precisely this activity that opens up what he terms “the inbetween space which leads to new signs of identity . . . in the act of defining society itself:”

What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These ‘inbetween’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of sellfood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself.” (Bhabha, LC 337)

Corman’s inclusion of poems from many languages – translations – poems both old and new – creates an “inbetween space” that is at once familiar and de-familiarizing – Corman’s own poems written in vernacular contemporary American English sound familiar to the American ear, whereas the translations, such as a poem like “Shingyo,” sound much less familiar because they are sourced in different languages, time periods, or cultures and because Corman’s renderings in English of those translations tend to be deliberately marked or frayed, creating a degree of dissonance between his own poetry and the translated poetry. In this way, Corman creates a gap, a space, and in-between, that allows, admits, a larger world of poetry to enter. He gets beyond, as Bhabha would have us do, “originaries and initial subjectivities” and allows the reader to experience a larger world of poetry by allowing her “to focus on moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences.” It is through this performance, this act, that Corman succeeds in initiating “new signs of identity,”which would lead to “the act of defining the idea of society itself ” (337).

The new identity that Corman wants us to embrace says that WE are OF this stuff, this material, this poetry. It is an identity that includes others – other languages, other poetries, other stories, and it accepts them graciously and identifies with them as human stories, familial stories. The new identity implies that the poetry of the world is gifted – offered – in the way that language itself is gifted to each of us, that is, handed down to us by our mothers and fathers, freely given. Corman’s move is deliberate and provocative – an insurgent act – and we should understand it as such and appreciate it as such. Rather than apologize or become defensive in responding to Eshleman’s question regarding appropriation, he becomes more assertive: “. . . the point is precisely I don’t want the names introduced. My dream, even when I first began, the first year I wrote poetry, was to be anonymous” (Corman, ICPR).

In placing translation directly beside his own poems, Corman forces us to ask questions about poetry and poetry’s role and place in the world at a time when cultures and languages are crossing borders more rapidly than ever before. He asks us if we are ready to hear what a world of poetry has to tell each of us about the nature of our existence on the planet. Do we understand the generous loving gesture that the poem itself is offering each of us? Can we approach not only poetry but each other with a larger sense of gratitude, or, as he would say in another poem, can we listen to the poem and each other?


Listen.
What is it – you ask?
I keep telling you:
Listen.

(Corman, ND 64)

Corman wants us to understand that poetry is as important now as it’s ever been in helping us through the night in helping us understand who we are, and what we are – even if poetry is nothing but cry in the night, even if it’s simply one person reaching out to another. Corman is not concerned with copyright issues, or questions of appropriation. It is as though he deliberately pushes these concerns aside in order to get at something more elemental and vital, and that is to remind us that poetry bring us together into a conversation – that language itself comes before ownership, that it is held in trust and commonly constructed. What ever it is that compels a person to write a poem, or for a person to read a poem, gestures toward shared community.

Corman’s magnum opus, of, by combining both translations from other poetries and placing them beside his own poems in a single book allows us to think beyond boundaries into new spaces that allow for a world of poetry to open up, a large world we find ourselves a part of. In doing this, the book reminds us that poetry, to be worthy of the name, to remain vital in our lives, must remain within the community as something offered and shared.

Family

We know it is love
Because we are – as
The stars are – because

Dante and Shakespeare
And Homer were and
So many others

Who never leave us
Alone – light shining
Under the closed door.

(Corman, of Vol. II 378)

—Gregory Dunne

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Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Locations of Culture.” The Transnational Studies Reader: Interdisciplinary Intersections and Innovations. Ed. Peggy Levitt. New York: Routledge, 2007. 233-237. (Print)

Corman, Cid. At Their Word: Essays on the Arts of Language. Vol. 2. Santa Barbara, California. Black Sparrow. 1978. (Print)

Corman, Cid. Back Roads to Far Towns. Buffalo, New York: White Pine Press. 2004. (Print)

Corman, Cid. “Cid Corman in Conversation.” Interview with Philip Rowland. Flash Point Magazine, 16 Sept. 2000. (Web) 06 May 2013. <http://www.flashpoint mag.com/corman1.htm>.

Corman, Cid. Interview. “An Interview with Gregory Dunne. “American Poetry Review. (July/August 2000): 25. (Print) Corman, Cid, Mike Doyle, and Kegan Doyle. Where to Begin: Selected Letters of Cid Corman and Mike Doyle, 1967-1970. Victoria, B.C.: Ekstasis Editions, 2000. (Print) Corman, Cid. Nothing Doing. New York: New Directions,

  1. (Print) Corman, Cid. of. Vol. 1 and 2. Venice, California: Lapis. 1990.

(Print) Corman, Cid. The Gist of Origin, 1951-1971: An Anthology.

New York: Grossman, 1975. (Print) Dunne, Gregory. “Getting the Secret Out of Cid Corman.” Poetry East: 44 (Spring 1997): 9 – 23. (Print) Eshleman, Clayton. “Cid,” Cipher Journal. 12 June 2004. <http://www.cipherjournal.com/html/eshleman_cid_ii.

html> (Web) Grewal, Inderpal. Transnational America. Durham and London: Duke. 2005. (Print)
Heidegger. Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. Trans. Albert Hofstadter. Harper Colophon Books, New York:1971.

(Print) Niedecker, Lorine, Cid Corman, and Lisa Pater Faranda. “Between Your House and Mine”: The Letters of Lorine Niedecker to Cid Corman, 1960 to 1970. Durham [N.C.: Duke UP, 1986. (Print)

Olson, Charles, Cid Corman, and George Evans. Charles Olson & Cid Corman: Complete Correspondence 1950- 1964. Orono, Me.: National Poetry Foundation, Univer- sity of Maine, 1987. (Print)

Schelling, Andrew. “Schelling CC Death Notes.” Web log post. Schelling CC Death Notes. Cipherjournal, 28 Mar. 2004. (Web) 03 May 2013.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “The Politics of Translation.” Destabilizing Theory. Eds. Michele Barrett and Anne Phillips. London: Polity Press, 1982. (Print)

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Gregory Dunne is the author of two collections of poetry: Home Test (Adastra Press, 2009) and Fistful of Lotus (a handmade book by Canadian printmaker Elizabeth Forrest, 2000). He has contributed to Strangest of Theaters: Poets Writing Across Borders (McSweeneys and the Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poetry and prose have appeared in numerous magazines, including the American Poetry Review, Manoa, Poetry East, and Kyoto Journal. He lives in Japan and teaches in the Faculty of Comparative Culture at Miyazaki International College. Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman was published by Ekstasis Press in 2014.

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Apr 032015
 

Maura Kennedy and B. D. LoveMaura Kennedy & B. D. Love

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“I Cried to Dream Again” Lyrics by B.D. Love, Bonificence Music, ASCAP/Music by Maura Kennedy, Parade of Echoes Publishing, BMI. The song will be included in the album, Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love by Maura Kennedy on the Varese Sarabande label (4/28/15).

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I RECENTLY VISITED THE NOTTINGHAM, an assisted-living facility in Syracuse, to see a dear friend and former Le Moyne colleague, Gordon Boudreau, the author of a splendid book on Thoreau. Gordon’s daughter, Maura, and her husband, Pete (professionally, “The Kennedys”) happened to be there. They had just performed in Syracuse, and were now putting on, for a large and enthusiastic audience of residents, a concert that turned out to be quite wonderful. I liked everything on their playlist, all their own music, except for two pieces: Willy Nelson’s “Crazy,” on which Maura sounded every bit as good as Patsy Cline, and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which Pete, a terrific guitarist, played beautifully—on a tiny ukelele!

But the highlight for me was a song titled “I Cried to Dream Again.” Maura wrote the music, to accompany lyrics by a poet-friend, B. D. Love. As the title indicates, Mr. Love is playing off one of the most beautiful, and utterly unexpected, passages in Shakespeare: lines spoken by Caliban in Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. When the fools Stefano and Trinculo are frightened by the music created by the invisible Ariel, Caliban responds:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

Those last lines, the ones that supplied the song’s title, are an exquisite conclusion to a beautiful set-piece. What makes the lines even more extraordinary is that they are spoken by the half-human, half-bestial Caliban, whose normal vocabulary consists of brutish gabble and cursing. Even the illogical sequence of tenses in this passage is intentional on the part of Shakespeare, who retains all the beauty of the speech, while suggesting that Caliban is not quite a master of grammar. More intriguingly, the shifts back and forth among past, present, and future tenses create what Robert Graves praised in The White Goddess as “a perfect suspension of time.”

I didn’t go into all this in talking with Maura after the performance. Nor did I babble on about the lyrics alluding to the Brunhilde-Sigurd myth. But I did tell her, honestly, that I thought the song “worthy” of this astonishing passage:  even higher praise than saying that her performance of “Crazy” was as good as the great Patsy Cline’s.

I liked “I Cried to Dream Again” so much that Maura was gracious enough to send me an MP3 of the song prior to its release on their upcoming CD. In writing to thank her, I told her I liked it even more after playing it a couple of times.

The lovely imagery of moonlight, starlight, and mist may or may not be consciously Shelleyan, but the lines, “I dreamed/ I was circumscribed by flame/ when I heard you call my name,” seemed a clear allusion to the Valkyrie Brunhilde, punished by being put in a spell and surrounded by fire. That ring of fire is, of course, penetrated by the hero Sigurd, who rides through the flames, kisses and awakens her…and then leaves her.

That trajectory suits a song about love and loss, ecstasy and abandonment: “I never cried/ until you walked on by/ without one word, a nod, or sigh.” Whether it was a fully conscious allusion or not doesn’t matter; as D. H. Lawrence insisted, “trust the tale, and not the teller.” Whatever Mr. Love’s intention, this mythic imagery is there, in the song. So now, that Brunhilde-Sigurd myth joins the haunting final line of Caliban’s speech on the island’s music, becoming, at least for me, an integral part of the song.

The music Maura wrote for it verges on the magical, and the poignant word “bittersweet,” crucially placed and held beautifully by Maura in a long and rising note, evoked for me the love poems written by W. B. Yeats for his enchantress and muse, Maud Gonne. Spectacularly beautiful and never fully attainable, Maud fascinated the poet, broke his heart, and inspired some of the most beautiful and (a favorite Yeats adjective) “bittersweet” poetry in the English language.

Coincidentally or not, Maura had included in her email recent photos she and her husband had taken of themselves at the gravestone in Drumcliff churchyard in Sligo, where Yeats is buried “under bare Ben Bulben’s head,” and beneath one of the most famously cryptic epitaphs in history. This year is the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birth. On April 9, in the Le Moyne Library, I’ll be reciting a selection of Yeats’s poems of unrequited love, many of which I have by heart (a wonderful phrase, when one thinks about it). When I do, it will be with “I Cried to Dream Again” playing, perhaps as background music, certainly in my imagination.

—Patrick J. Keane

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B.D. Love grew up in a small town in Southeastern Michigan, along the banks of a murky and probably toxic body of water called — presumably for its color — the River Raisin. His first poem, a prayer to the Virgin Mary composed when he was in the third grade, inspired his homeroom nun to accuse him of plagiarism. He did not write again for many years, until the death of his grandmother prompted his return to verse. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in numerous journals, and he’s had several books published. His lyric writing and collaboration with musician Maura Kennedy has resulted in a full-length album titled, “Villanelle: The Songs Of Maura Kennedy And B.D. Love” due to be released April 28, 2015 on the Varèse Sarabande record label. An avid dog-lover, he now resides along the banks of the murky and occasionally toxic Los Angeles River.

Read more about him @www.bdlove.org.

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Maura Kennedy The daughter of a professor of English, and the ”musical one” of seven children, Maura Kennedy carved out her moments of teenage creative solitude sequestered in a closet, blasting Queen and Kate Bush on headphones, while she read C.S. Lewis and Stephen R. Donaldson. Not given to the hermitic life, she made nocturnal escapes, crawling out of her bedroom window and across the roof of her family’s suburban split-level home, to hit the streets of post-industrial Syracuse, New York, in search of crunching power chords and soaring pop hooks.

She found them—and was always the first on the dance floor—in small clubs where R.E.M. and Squeeze were scrounging gas money for the road, and especially at a dusty used record shop, where she got a job just to spin vinyl all day. She soaked up the Kinks, the Hollies, the Raspberries, and leavened the sweetness with a strong dose of Thompson/Denny era Fairport Convention. In the stainless steel splendor of the Little Gem Diner, the Ramones autographed her Social Security Card. At college, she pawned her meal tickets to buy an amp and lived off of her bandmate’s doggie bags. She cracked a couple of ribs in the mosh pit at a Clash show and finally got the music degree. After spending the night in an upstate Greyhound station when she missed the last bus following a Cheap Trick concert, she and some like-minded friends formed a combo and blazed a trail through the Syracuse club scene. And with the breeze off Onondaga Lake at her back, she took off for Austin.

It was there that she hooked up with Nanci Griffith, and toured the US and the British Isles behind Nanci’s Grammy-winning Other Voices, Other Rooms. Working the road in the acoustic format of roots-pop mavens The Kennedys, her songwriting blossomed, as she began drawing from novels, poetry, and especially from her own dreams.

Maura’s love of both music and literature was the basis for her most recent collaboration with writer B.D. Love, and the resulting album, “Villanelle: The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love,” Maura’s second solo album, is slated for an April 2015 release on Varèse Sarabande records.

Read more about her @www.maurakennedy.com.

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Patrick J Keane smaller

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

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Apr 022015
 

Toni Marques

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“WHERE’S IT?”

The question sounds as if he’s chewing a living centipede, and she thinks about Daisy and that thought almost makes her cry because Daisy wasn’t a bad centipede at all, she was just doing the stuff centipedes are supposed to do, for instance when she bit that little boy the other day while he was sleeping or something. God rest Daisy’s soul. By the way, sometimes Mrs. Kidder can be very annoying. She said she had no idea whether Daisy indeed got a soul. How come, Mrs. Kidder? Mrs. Kidder and all the gang are supposed to know everything about anything, right? However, Mrs. Kidder sometimes can be very dumb. The Daisy thing is a good example. If that favela has so many centipedes, how could you be sure Daisy is really the Daisy? Mrs. Kidder once had asked. Simple answer: Daisy used to be the largest centipede around. And how did she know Daisy was a female centipede? Mrs. Kidder had insisted. Because Daisy used to live with the girl’s family and never bit anyone inside the house, and there was that day, Mrs. Kidder said she didn’t remember it, when the girl found the little eggs. More than that, many times the girl saw how Daisy curled its body to protect its brood, right? She showed it to Mrs. Kidder, right? But, yes, no baby centipede was ever spotted in the house, just the eggs, Mrs. Kidder was right on that. Mrs. Kidder can be very dumb but also can be very cruel, because then Mrs. Kidder said that probably Daisy had eaten all the eggs. Or the babies. Mrs. Kidder is also very funny. The girl knows Daisy was no stranger to Mrs. Kidder. The truth is Mrs. Kidder enjoys playing games. But the girl enjoys playing games too. Mrs. Kidder is the best friend a girl can have.

“What did you do to my bong, you little fucker?” the man says, his voice now sounding as if his mouth is a little dark bucket full of dried saliva, a toothless bucket, of course, because neither buckets nor his mouth have teeth.

“You should ask her,” the girl says. “She is impossible.”

The girl had already finished her homework and there is nothing else to be done at night. They have no TV set, computer, anything. They just have each other, but she also has Mrs. Kidder. It’s not her problem if he refuses to be friends with Mrs. Kidder, a very distinguished lady who came all way down to Rio de Janeiro just to spread kindness and love.

“Mrs. Kidder hid your bong somewhere. Why don’t you try to find it? You can walk, can’t you?”

“You don’t play games with me, you little sucker, or I’ll sell you to The Madame. I mean it.”

The girl is now playing with her dolls. The dolls yell at each other, and the fight saddens the girl, but what can she do? They are pretty old dolls, tired pretty old dolls who are not tired of fighting, though. They argue about anything. Mrs. Kidder doesn’t like to play with the dolls, not because Mrs. Kidder is not a child anymore, but because, the girl thinks, Mrs. Kidder gets jealous when the dolls are around.

“Gee, The Madame is in jail now, you should know it,” the girl says. “The new drug lord is someone else, I don’t know his name. I don’t think Mrs. Kidder knows his name either, otherwise she would have told me, you know. Mrs. Kidder tells me everything.”

“How many stones do you think The Madame will offer me if I sell you to her?”

“I don’t know. But you can visit her in jail and ask her.”

Now the dolls are friends again. They are very complicated dolls.

“What’s the new guy’s name?” the man says.

“I told you a million times I don’t know. You should know his name. You are his client.”

“I’m gonna ask him if he wants you. Unless you give me back my bong. Where’s the goddam bong?”

The man’s voice now sounds like his tongue is made of melted rubber. Words are so beautiful, even ugly words are beautiful, you can’t talk like that. Words are very precious, that’s the reason she doesn’t like to talk when she’s at the school.

Tourist Nº1 takes his headphones off and says:

“Poor guy. He looks like an anorexic elephant, if that’s possible”.

“Very authentic stuff,” says José, the Tour Guide.

José the Tour Guide never knows the tourists’ names. Instead, he assigns mental numbers to each one. His job doesn’t make him happy.

“The stench is even more authentic, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “This plexiglas can’t hold it. We should have had those creams medical examiners spread under the nose.”

“Not all coroners use it,” says Tourist Nº 3. “They are used to it, you know.”

“Well, I’m not a doctor. I hope the next sight-seeing activity is a nose-friendly one,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Wait a minute. There’s a woman over there.”

“Yes, there is,” the Tour Guide says. “It’s her mother’s corpse. I mean, not a real corpse. A prop one, you know what I’m saying?”

“The stench could be hers, don’t you think?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “She looks real, very real.”

“No, no. It’s a prop corpse. They’d really spent some days living with the corpse here, until city hall people were warned by neighbors and came over and removed it. Crack-cocaine overdoses or something like that, I don’t know, had just killed her. It took a while until they’d noticed it, I mean, the family.”

“There’s a lot of things you don’t know,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The programme says this kind of tour started in…”

“2014,” the Tour Guide says.

“Ok. Still, 20 years later, a tour guide does not know what’s being shown? I want my money back.”

“Wait a minute,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “If you guys have a doll representing whoever here…”

“The girl’s mother,” the Tour Guide says.

“The girl’s mother, ok. If you have that, what else here is, like, fake? This ain’t a reality tour.”

“I want my money back,” Tourist Nº3 says again.

“Shhh,” the Tour Guide says. “You are missing their exchange. Put the headphones back on.”

“You should be more polite, you know?” the girl says. “Mrs. Kidder appreciates good manners. She’s British, you know. No, you don’t know. Forget it.”

Now the dolls have become boring, and she decides to kill them. Before killing them, though, she explains very carefully that there’s nothing to worry about, sooner or later they will be alive again.

There’s something she doesn’t like about the dolls: they used to be afraid when Daisy was around. The dolls feared being bitten by Daisy. No one in this world can imagine a centipede biting a plastic doll or any kind of doll. Poor dolls. Dolls can have soft hearts, that’s correct, but their bodies can handle almost any dangerous situation, with the exception of the heat. Rio de Janeiro is very, very warm. So the girl would like to have a job so she could buy a refrigerator so the dolls could be feel safe from the heat and from the favela’s centipedes.

“They have another woman running business here? Fuck,” the man says.

She finds it funny, the time lapse between what she says and the man’s response. Sometimes he needs a couple of days until he can find an answer to one of her questions. She laughs when she remembers that day when she asked how old he was. He couldn’t remember. When she’d already forgotten the question, he’d remembered to answer it. A wrong answer, but that doesn’t matter. He never delays the answers to Mrs. Kidder questions, though. Now he is pretending he doesn’t know who Mrs. Kidder is. He does that very often. Of course he knows Mrs. Kidder. The other day he tried to punch Mrs. Kidder on the face when she swore at him. It was a pretty funny moment, the furious but tiny, frail, toddling man speaking in tongues and throwing his fists at random because he couldn’t control them nor could he stare at her, his usually frozen eyes floating on his face like a pair of dead seagulls on the surf. The girl knew that Mrs. Kidder was a big woman and, despite not being young anymore, Mrs. Kidder was able to defend herself against him or anybody else, for that matter. That day Mrs. Kidder threw out one more stone and, more than that, she kicked everybody out the house, all his stupid crack-head buddies, a bunch of living skeletons who got so scared that they never came back. Good job, Mrs. Kidder.

Now the man is crying. He’s able to cry without shedding tears, something the girl finds remarkable because the dolls do that too.

“Give me a drink”, he says, like an old baby.

He stands up from the ground where he spends most of his time at home and looks for things they don’t have at home: drinking glasses, a refrigerator, things that he himself had exchanged for money, and the money, for crack-cocaine stones. So she knows he will go out, and out he goes.

“I understand the addicted population…,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“City Hall supplies a regular amount of stones on a weekly basis,” the Tour Guide says. “Haven’t you read the e-brochure?”

“I have. There’s no word on alcohol, though.”

“They don’t get alcohol.”

“What about food?”

“Her school provides all her meals, on-site. He receives food stamps, which he probably exchanges for stones.”

“Then the old lady must be starving,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “That’s interesting.”

“There’s no solution to the crack-cocaine epidemics,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “That’s Rio’s solution.”

“In the beginning, part of the money the city gets from you tourists was funneled to the public health care system that handled the crack-head population. After a while the city gave up. Those people can’t be treated.”

Now she can play host to all her friends. They don’t like to come when the man is at home. That’s why she likes Mrs. Kidder more than anyone. But she understands the reason they avoid visiting her when he’s around. Whenever she can, she visits them as well. They live nearby and they’re a very nice gang.

“Mrs. Kidder!” she says when Mrs. Kidder comes in.

“Who is this Mrs. Kidder she’s always talking about?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“An imaginary friend, I guess,” the Tour Guide says. “The family briefing I have here says nothing about eventual family’s relatives or acquaintances. The State Tour Company selects stuff you guys can understand immediately. With a little help from the interpreting software, that is.”

“This girl does not speak English, does she?” Tourist Nº 1 says. “Or is Kidder a common Brazilian surname? She says ‘Kidder’, right?”

“I think so,” says Tourist Nº 2. “Excuse me. I have a question.”

“Yes?” the Tour Guide says.

“Why can’t we talk to the subjects? This is a stupid rule, I should say,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Let’s talk to her.”

“Why are you laughing?” Tourist Nº 3 asks the Tour Guide.

“Forgive me. Brazil and more specifically Rio de Janeiro needed centuries and centuries to get a sense of establishing and following rules, and now an American asks to bypass the rules. It’s just plain funny. I’m sorry.”

“The girl is obviously suffering,” Tourist Nº 1 says. “This is not just a matter of curiosity, you know?”

“She is suffering indeed. She and hundreds of thousands in the same situation all over the city, all over Brazil,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “That’s precisely why we are here. Next time you try a reality tour in Finland or something.”

“Anyway, it seems to me that probably the interpreters must know whether the girl does speak English or not,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“I’ve told you this is machine-translated,” the Tour Guide says.

“Does she speak English?” Tourist Nº 4 says. “She’s the cutest girl ever.”

“And one of the dirtiest,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“’Neglected’ would be the proper word,” Tourist Nº 3 says. “Is she available for international adoption?”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says. “She’s available to reality tours, therefore neglected she must remain.”

“I see.”

“I don’t think she does speak English,” the Tour Guide says. “They don’t teach English in public schools anymore. And she has no access to the Internet. She’s too young, you know.”

“But you have an Internet café over here, I saw it,” Tourist Nº 2 says. “Maybe she’s been learning it online.”

“I can see some books,” Tourist Nº 1 said. “Books and textbooks, I guess”.

“That’s right,” the Tour Guide said. “None of them in English.”

“What if that Mrs. …”

“Mrs. Kidder,” the Tour Guide says.

“Thank you. What if she is a representative, a field officer with a foreign NGO and is teaching English around?” Tourist Nº says.

“No foreign NGOs are allowed in the reality tour zones,” the Tour Guide says. “Otherwise there wouldn’t be poverty shows for your enjoyment, right? So let’s enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Are there expats living here? I mean, we’ve seen Americans and Chinese people, lots of them, side by side, on that big favela, how’s it called again?” Tourist Nº1 asks.

“Rocinha,” the Tour Guide says. “Don’t forget the Brits. They’re here in throngs. The gentrification thing has happened in the South Zone favelas, where they have the best view. Here, downtown, we have no foreigners. Rio has like what? Over two thousand favelas? The gringos moved into the fanciest ones. Actually there’s no reason to call those places favelas anymore. Here in Morro da Providência we have some South Americans, you know, Bolivians and Venezuelans and Argentinians… Our amigos can’t afford the South Zone favelas.”

Valeriy the poet showed up as soon as the man left the house. A very sensible and funny man.

Valeriy asked the woman if she needed something.

“Wait a minute!” Tourist Nº 3 says. “The lady, she’s not a doll. She’s alive.”

“I don’t think so,” the Tour Guide says.

“Is she a talking doll?”

“Nope.”

“Then she’s definitely not a doll, because she’s talking or trying to talk. See her mouth? It’s moving.”

“You’re right,” Tourist Nº 4 says. “And our guide here has no clue on what he’s supposed to show us!”

“It’s not my fault, ok?” the Tour Guide says. “This is my first time with that family and my briefing says we have a doll.”

“I thought you’d referred to Brazil as an organized country,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“You wouldn’t believe if told you how messy we used to be. Anyway, let’s see it from the bright side, my fellow tourists. That’s what crack-cocaine does, alright? It destroys a person to the point that you don’t know if a person is really a person or if a person is a corpse or if a person is a doll. I assume you all know that, but wait until we visit Downtown Crack-o-land. You’d wish they were dolls, the fucking zombies.”

The woman tells Valeriy she just needs some of his poetry. Valeriy’s poetry is a gay man’s poetry, and she likes it, despite not knowing the Russian language. She enjoys the effect of his words hammering her head. The poetry reciting sessions make Valeriy happy. He feels like a doctor managing a drug substitution therapy: crack-cocaine out, Russian poetry in.

Valeriy starts to recite his poems, but the girl can’t pay attention to him. She’s busy playing with Francis the Sailor. Francis the Sailor enjoys playing hide and seek. It’s very difficult to play hide and seek with him or anyone else because of the furniture: there are two mattresses, the man’s and the one she shares with the woman, there are the makeshift shelves where the TV set used to be and where her few books and textbooks are. But she can hide beneath the stacked clothes or in the bathroom or even outside the house, at the neighbor’s place.

“Where is the little mermaid?” Francis the Sailor asks, while Valeriy recites a poem. The woman shakes her head as if it were punched by several pairs of colorful sponge fists, and the girl is somewhere trying to keep her mouth shut, something very difficult to achieve due to the thrilling joy that overwhelms her.

“I’m here!” the girl says. “Francis the Sailor will never find where the little mermaid is!”

“Francis the Sailor?” Tourist Nº 4 asks.

“Don’t look at me like that,” the Tour Guide says. “I have no answers, alright? Let’s watch and have fun.”

“But your company should have briefed you about what you’re dealing with,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“We’re Brazilians, ok? We should do this, we should do that, but we don’t do anything because we are Brazilians, period. Nowhere else in the world can you get something like this tour. Yes, this is something totally new. Yes, we need to improve lots of stuff. But, hey, you’re in Rio’s oldest favela watching a typical day of a crack-cocaine torn family. It’s a crack-o-rama if you will. Anything can happen to a crack-cocaine favela family, what else can I say? You see the girl running around like crazy? Perhaps right now she’s high, you know.”

“Crack-heads don’t run like that,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Whatever,” the Tour Guide says.

Now Petty Officer Bradley has joined the play. He tells Francis the Sailor to look for the girl outside. Francis the Sailor is not a smart man. He’s still looking for the girl in the empty house.

“Ordinary Seaman Bell!” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“Yes sir!” Francis the Sailor says.

“How many times have you two played hide and seek here?”

“We’ve played it many times, sir!”

“And how many times have you found her hiding outdoors?”

“About every time, sir!”

She loves Petty Officer Bradley’s imposing manners. Petty Officer Bradley never hesitates. Petty Officer Bradley just hesitates when Mrs. Kidder is around. Mrs. Kidder’s imposing manners can be very intimidating, even if you’re a Royal Navy Petty Officer.

“So you better find that girl outdoors right now,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Unless you think the gallows are your destiny, Ordinary Seaman Bell!”

“No, they are not, sir!” Francis the Sailor says, before leaving the room.

The Tour Guide is feeling weirder by the minute. Nothing is happening, the girl is out of sight, and the tourists are clearly feeling weird too. They don’t want to stay here anymore.

Now they’re arguing. The Tour Guide shuts his ears down. He doesn’t want to know what’s going on. He wishes he wasn’t here. In his mind, he belongs to a happy place, full of the stuff Rio dreams are made of: laidback clients, beachfront cocktails, bikini-clad women, men in thongs, booze-fueled tips, raining yuans. No tourists searching for “culture”. No guilt-driven European and American sensitive scavengers looking for “authentic” stuff.

“I think I’ve had enough,” Tourist Nº2 says. “I want to get back to the hotel.”

“Me too,” Tourist Nº 3 says.

“I’ll go with you,” Tourist Nº 4 says.

“You?” the Tour Guide asks Tourist Nº 1.

“Yes, let’s go,” Tourist Nº 1 says.

“Praise the Lord,” the Tour Guide says in Portuguese.

“Tomorrow we have the favela extra-judicial killing sight-seeing, is that correct?” Tourist Nº 2 says.

“What?” the Tour Guide says.

“Just kidding,” Tourist Nº 2 says.

Valeriy gets worried when the woman stops shaking her head. He checks her out. Then he calls the girl.

“Dearest, where are you?”

“I can’t find her,” Francis the Sailor says.

“We need her right here, right now,” Valeriy says.

“I can sense something,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“You can sense what?” Valeriy says.

“I am feeling weak,” Petty Officer Bradley says.

“So what?” Valeriy says.

“I don’t know,” Petty Officer Bradley says. “Never mind. Let’s find her.”

Valeriy and Petty Officer Bradley join Francis the Sailor to look for the girl.

“Where’s Mrs. Kidder? She can be useful,” Valeriy says when they leave the house.

“The old witch… Who needs her?” Francis the Sailor says.

This is the girl’s happiest moment. For the first time it takes more than an hour for her to be found. She knows it because she carefully listens to the TV soap opera someone is watching nearby. When she had found the perfect hideout, the soap opera hadn’t started. Now the neighbor’s TV is on the news show.

Tourist Nº 1 couldn’t help coming back to Morro da Providência as soon as the Tour Guide left the hotel.

Morro da Providência is a safe place, tourist-wise, so he had no problem reaching it. He gets disturbed when he arrives at the family’s place. The observation deck is closed, and it takes quite a while until he finds a safe spot where he can see what’s going on inside the house without being disturbed. He’s not sure what to do, actually. He wants to talk to the girl, yet he fears the possible outcomes of interacting with her.

The man is not in the house. The girl is sitting right beside the woman’s body. He can’t understand what the girl says. The real-time translation service is off. The few Portuguese words he knows are not enough. They should have developed a smartphone app for this, but they haven’t.

“Mrs. Kidder, have you seen him?” the girl says. “We need to tell him.”

“No, but I am afraid he will ever come back,” Mrs. Kidder says.

Mrs. Kidder feels very sad.

“You will need to be even stronger from now on,” Mrs. Kidder says.

The girl looks at Mrs. Kidder wondering how Mrs. Kidder knows the man won’t come back. But then she asks something else.

“Mrs. Kidder! What’s wrong with you?”

“The end is near,” Mrs. Kidder says.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, there’s something I want to give to you before leaving.”

“You can’t leave, Mrs. Kidder! You are my only real friend!”

The girl’s little arms reach Mrs. Kidder legs, and she dumps her face on Mrs. Kidder long, dark skirt and starts to cry. But suddenly Mrs. Kidder’s legs become softer than ice cream, and Mrs. Kidder slides away from the girl.

“This book belonged to me. Now I want you to have it, please. See, this is my name here.”

The girl holds the book, opens the first page and reads the name out loud: “Cynthia Harriet Russell Kidder. It’s the most beautiful name in the whole world.”

Tourist Nº 1 grabs his smartphone, opens one of its mobile browsers and types the name. The first web link triggers a shock wave that makes him babble and after babbling he feels suffocated and after suffocating he babbles again and after babbling again he cries. His trembling hands refuse to click further on the smartphone, and then his tongue sticks out and it’s the tongue itself that does the job his hands can’t do, and now his eyes shut, his tongue can’t do the job, he needs another part of his body to become his eyes’ burglar, and he fears his hand, if let loose, will break into his eyes and throw them away, what now?

   His head still seems to function like any head is supposed to function, so he bangs it against a tree several times until he gets his eyes open, and if the head is functioning his brain can order his mouth to bite his hands until they obey him, and that’s what he does, and now his eyes can finally read again the web address brought by the name search, findagrave.com, and his hands can tell his fingers to click on it:

Birth:

Nov., 1817
Salisbury
Litchfield County
Connecticut, USA

Death:

Apr. 16, 1840
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Cynthia Harriet (Russell) Kidder was the daughter of William P. and Eleanor (Dutcher) Russell. She was the 1st wife of Rev. Dr. Daniel Parish Kidder. They were married Wednesday evening, November 9, 1837, at Salisbury, Conn. by Rev. O. V. Ammerman. Rev Kidder was a minister in the Genesee Conference, New Jersey Conference, Newark Conference and Rock River Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Methodist Episcopal Church
Missionary Society
The Gospel In All Lands, Vol. 21, c1900, Page 87

Rev. Daniel Parish Kidder and Cynthia arrived in Brazil, South America, January 8, 1838. Mrs. Kidder died in Rio de Janeiro April 16, 1840. Mr. Kidder left for New York in April, where he arrived in June 1840. He died in Evanston, Illinois July 29, 1891.

Family links:

Parents:

William P Russell (1788 – 1865)
Eleanor RusselL (1789 – 1856)

Spouse:

Rev Dr Daniel Parish Kidder (1815 – 1891)

Inscription:

“Sacred to the Memory
of Mrs. Cynthia Harriet
wife of Rev. Daniel P. Kidder
American Missionary
Died April 16, 1840
Aged 22 years and 6 months”

Burial:

Gamboa British Cemetery
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

He needs to pay attention to what’s going on with the girl, but now his hands look for other names on the web site, and there they are: Valeriy Frantzevich, dead on October 7th 1992, Francis Norman Bell, dead on November 22nd 1917, B Bradley, dead on June 23rd 1917. Where are they? Where is this Gamboa British Cemetery? He needs to click more and he needs to click fast. Right there, he finds out, now his whole body working in a terrified harmony, right behind Morro da Providência, Rio’s oldest cemetery.

The terrified harmony of his body makes him storm the house. He doesn’t know what else he can do.

Now the girl is crying, and there’s a book on the floor. The girl doesn’t notice him. He talks to her, but she doesn’t answer. She doesn’t even look at him.

He then carefully picks up the book. It’s a very old book, and there’s the full name of Mrs. Kidder on the title page, beautifully handwritten, and the title page says more: it’s a Bible by the American Bible Society, 1837 edition.

Tourist Nº 1 sees himself being buried in the Gamboa British Cemetery of Rio de Janeiro. And collapses to the floor.

—Toni Marques

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Toni Marques was born in 1964 in Rio de Janeiro. A journalist, he is a former NYC correspondent of O Globo newspaper and currently is a story editor with Globo TV’s “Fantástico,” a leading weekly news show. He has published three books and is the co-editor of The Book of Rio (Comma Press, UK, 2014). His short stories have been translated to Spanish, French and Arabic. This year HBO Brasil will air the series “Magnífica 70,” based on his original screenplay. He was the curator of the first two editions of FLUPP, the first and only international literary festival hosted by shanty towns in Brazil.

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Apr 012015
 
john connell author

Photo by John Minihan

Born in County Longford, where his debut novel is set, John Connell like many Irish before him emigrated to Australia. The success of his short story The Little Black brought him to the attention of Picador Australia publisher of The Ghost Estate. Set during the Celtic Tiger, the novel explores the psychological and emotional “boom and bust” of those reckless times:

“Gerard McQuaid has been waiting for his start in life: his house, his girl, his land. And with rural Ireland being swept up by the Celtic Tiger and villages becoming towns, the electrician’s moment has finally arrived. With the chance to run a big job, McQuaid finds himself on Birchview Manor, a decrepit estate where the dreams of modern Ireland crash up against the weight of history. As McQuaid gets further into the restoration, he falls deeper into the story of the estate’s previous owner, Lord Henry Lefoyle, whose fate begins to loom ghost-like over McQuaid’s own.”

 

 

Gerard Beirne (GB): John, your debut novel, Ghost Estate, somewhat unusually for an Irish writer is being published in Australia (Picador). How did that come about? Are their plans for it to be published in Ireland or England?

John Connell (JC): Yes it is quite unusual. I was an Irish emigrant living and studying in Australia and wrote a short story which was included in two short story anthologies in the country and happily for me it received quite a bit of attention and a few different publishers approached me with book offers. I decided to go with Picador as they said I could write about whatever I wanted so that was a really great gift. I have just engaged an agent at the moment who is looking to see about publishing the book in UK/Irl and other regions. So hopefully 2015 will see the Ghost Estate get an Irish release.

GB: Tens of thousands of Irish have move to Australia in the last decade with many staying on to become permanent residents or citizens? Why did you move there and do you intend on staying?

JC: I went to Australia as an exchange student studying journalism, I was then offered to finish my degree there and did my final degree project on the aboriginal communities in remote Australia and produced an investigative radio documentary, That piece won a journalism award and secured me work with ABC the national broadcaster. I had only ever intended on being in Australia for 6 months which later turned into four and a half years before moving to Canada.

GB: Many of those who have emigrated have done so because of Australia’s “booming” economy – having written a novel about the boom and bust in Ireland, do you see any similarities there, any concerns, warning signs?

JC: Ah yes of course, Australia is in a boom and the refugees of the Tiger are driving that boom in so many sectors. In my few years in Australia I saw the price of living increase, the price of houses, the proliferation of money and its wasting, all the hallmarks of a country running away with itself. Australia unlike Ireland has mineral wealth that won’t run out any time soon, but it is dependent on its trade relationship with China, its number one trade partner. In my opinion, Australia won’t crash like Ireland, but it will slow down (and it has started to slow down- I have Irish friends who work on rigs and mines that have been let go with that same slow down). The greed is fairly pronounced there at the moment sadly.

GB: Where was the book written? If Australia, did this make a difference to the writing of the book? If Ireland, was it necessary to go back to Ireland to write it? If both, was this a necessary part of the process and why? 

JC: The book was wrote in Ireland in a portacabin in a field in Longford. It was necessary to write the book in Ireland (I even did the rewrites here). I needed to be in the atmosphere of the place and listening to the local people talk, and I also gained so many stories from local people that ultimately found their way in some form into the book. It would not be the same book if it had been written in Australia. I just actually can’t imagine what it would have been. Ireland was the canvas and the book was the paint if you’ll pardon that bad analogy.

GB: How does the literary world in Australia compare to that in Ireland? — The literary community, the publishing scene, the literature itself? Is there an Irish literary community there?

JC: The literary scene in Australia is quite small compared to Ireland. There are lots of publications and publishing houses but not the sheer volume of writers as we have in Ireland. However, there are wonderful Australian writers with a unique Australian voice. It was only in living in Australia and Canada that I realized the tremendous output of Ireland in world literature. Thomas Keneally author of Schindlers’ List is Irish-Australian and would be the one stop shop for Irish literary scene to my opinion though other writers such as David Malouf have wrote books on Ireland or Irish-Australian subject manner.  Ireland and Irishness is part of the history and story of Australia and many Australians have Irish heritage so I suppose we are part of the Australian story in many respects. I mean Ned Kelly was Irish after all. Peter Carey would not have got his Booker without us convicts!

GB: The novel is set in Longford where you grew up – how did the Celtic Tiger and its aftermath affect your home and community? Depression plays a central role in the novel. We know that suicide rates increased due to the recession particularly amongst those in the property business. What has been the psychological impact of the “bust”?

JC: The Celtic Tiger and its death had a huge impact on Longford and other rural communities. Longford was a very quiet place as a child, but it gradually became very busy during the boom years, and in the death of the tiger a ghost county as opposed to a Ghost Estate. Suicide was sadly all too common and still is. We have 10 suicides a week in Ireland. 8 of those are men. Many young men who had known nothing but success in the boom years suddenly found themselves in debt, unemployed and caught; and sadly far too many remained silent, suffered quietly and took their lives. It is a sad, sad truth but one that has yet to be fully talked about. For many, it was either emigrate to Australia and now Canada or face the quiet lonely Longford nights and the dole queue.

GB: You grew up on a farm — how has that played a role in your life? How has farming been impacted by the Celtic Tiger years and how have the changes affected rural communities?

JC: I enjoy the countryside and I’m proud of my rural roots but that’s about it. The Celtic Tiger changed everything in Ireland even farming; farmers were builders and developers too.  Thankfully that has calmed down now and people are returning to the land in a more healing and respectful manner.

GB: On a final note, you mentioned that you know Yanis Varoufakis the current Greek Finance Minister. What is your connection to him and does it have any relevance to the book?

JC: Yanis and I talked a number of times after I heard a lecture he gave on the GFC. I was on the rewrite of my book at the time and Yanis’s ideas combined with those of Tony Judt whom I met before he passed away, really cemented some of my economic thinking on why things got as bad as they did. Yanis had offered for me to study with him in Texas, but I had a wedding to plan and he a country to run. Maybe in time we might get to reconnect on that one!

—John Connell & Gerard Beirne

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Listen to John Connell read an excerpt.

 

cover

Excerpt: Kane – a short chapter about the developer

John Kane balanced the car keys and mug of tea in his hands as he opened the sleek black door of his new Landrover. It was a bright if somewhat cold morning. He let the engine warm before he turned the ignition. One, two, three. He sipped from his mug quietly, as the window slowly defrosted.

He was used to this morning routine now. The Landrover moved smoothly along the country roads. He could hear the scrape of briars and overgrown branches against the vehicle as the lanes narrowed towards the cottage.

How many times had he come up this lane? It was beyond measure now. The house was still the same, had been since Noel had lived there. Old Noel, his distant cousin, the bachelor, the man who had left him everything in his will.

But wasn’t that what he had wanted, he reminded himself, all those visits, the shopping trips to Longford, the dinner in the Landmark. Had it all been for the hunger, the want of land, those twenty acres and the plot of turf in Kelleher bog? Yes, he admitted, and no. He and Noel had shared a friendship, and while it was not a surprise that one day the man asked to be brought to the solicitors in town, some part of him felt that he was entitled to it. It was in a way a gift. Though Noel’s niece had never seen it in that light. Not at the funeral when he had taken the front pew reserved for immediate family, nor at the reading of the will when she had received nothing, despite nursing him in those last few months.

Friendship had a price and that was not his fault.

He rolled to the door and beeped the horn. The vehicle hummed quietly as he waited on the cracked concrete. The house was old. Sheds dotted here and there around the yard were filled with turf and old creamery cans. The turf was never burned any more. The house ran on oil.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

‘We’re all well I hope?’ asked Kane, looking in the rear-view mirror towards the others.

‘We well, yes,’ they agreed sullenly.

Each morning was the same. A talk, a half-hearted chat that petered out. There existed in the car two different worlds with many incomprehensions.

‘I drop you at the manor today, okay?’ he said.

The group nodded.

‘Jans, can you come with me to the office? I need you to give me a hand.’

The Polish had arrived with the boom, come like a wind indeed. The country had woken up to find new names and faces that spoke of towns and villages no one had ever heard of. They were good workers and in so many ways were what the Irish had once been, Kane thought. Strong-backed, fond of a drink and, yes, ignorant. They were in search of a better life in another land and yet dreamed only of returning home.

Jans, who spoke the best English, had been a teacher of sorts, but there was more money to be made lifting blocks than teaching children. He, like all the others, had made that Ryanair migration across Europe and somehow, somehow, ended up in Longford.

It still puzzled Kane, Longford being multicultural, and was there not enough trouble between the two native groups that lived here already, not to mention the travellers? How were they ever to come to terms with foreigners when they had yet to come to terms with themselves?

But there was work to be done, and these men, these Poles, were ready to do it.

They never complained, they never questioned, they simply shrugged and worked. They had become serfs in a way; a man’s success could be measured by how many Poles he had working for him.

Kane drove toward the estate. Big Jack would be waiting for them. It was the same routine each morning. And they would be set to work on some menial task around the sites, something a contractor would refuse to do. They were the workhorses of this boom and when it ended, whenever that might be, they would be sent away like all old nags.

On Fridays after work he would bring them to town to wire their wages back to Poland, back to their families. It was perhaps paternalistic but he knew the minds of young men well. If they had the money, they would spend it, and an arsehole pub in the middle of Ireland was no place to waste a week’s work. He would give them their pay slips and drive them to the Western Union branch and the rest was their own choice.

It was not really a life, Kane often thought, to work and save and never be able to fully communicate your thoughts and fears for the lack of words. It was little wonder the men took to the cheap bottles of vodka at the weekend.

They were not so different, not so very different at all, Kane thought. A picture of Poland instead of Ireland on the cheap bedroom walls and a set of rosary beads under each man’s pillow. Poverty had a way of repeating its motifs.

‘Come on, Jans,’ he said as Lech and the others packed out of the Landrover. ‘The gutters in the office need a good clean. They’re full of fucking weeds.’

‘Yes, boss,’ Jans said simply, and returned to silence.

Was it better than teaching, Kane thought. It must be. It must be.

—John Connell

 

John Connell was born in 1986. He grew up in County Longford, Ireland. An award-winning investigative journalist, playwright and producer, The Ghost Estate (Picador Australia) is his first novel.

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Mar 312015
 

Jen Bervin

 

J

EN BERVIN IS AN ARTIST and maker of poems without boundary or limit. Jen Bervin is an artist and maker of poems without boundary or limit. Her poetry is a poetry of connections, threads, weaving, words born of sound and image, of history, text from textile, textile from text. Her poetry emerges in art venues, artists’ books, public performance, silk film, and it is fabricated with typewriters, sequins, thread, ink and, soon, nanotechnology.

I will not forget the first time I saw her Dickinson Fascicles, large-scale, wall-size embroideries of the punctuation and markings found in the hand-stitched booklets that Emily Dickinson made for her poems. I leaned in close to the fabric on the wall, my eyes riding the twitching rhythm of the marks across the batting, but also the minuscule rising and diving within each mark, stitch by stitch. I raised my hand instinctively, perhaps as a conductor would before a score, and paused, imagining the texture of the text on the tips of my fingers. Then I traced in the air those gaps and spans where there was nothing at all.

Jen Bervin

But there’s always something. Even white space, Bervin has said, citing John Cage, is musically scored. In Nets, her book of erasures of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she wrote, “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page; when we read or write poems, we do it with or against this palimpsest.” Her work—at the intersection of writing and weaving, text and textile, song and silence—makes luminous that which we hadn’t noticed or, until she showed us, been able to see.

Her current—and most ambitious—project, the Silk Poems, is an experimental book (if “book” is defined loosely) that takes silk, in Bervin’s words, “as its subject and form, exploring the cultural, scientific, and linguistic complexities of silk, mending, and the body through text and images nanoimprinted on transparent silk film.” If you were to hold up a piece of this translucent material, what would it look like? What might you see? Very little at all—until you shine fiber-optic light through it. Then the words and pictures would jump up, projected into bloom. Here too, embedded within the high technology, history pulses: 5000 years of culture, art, and writing, of poets, traders, emperors, laborers. The history and the silk itself almost invisible, until illuminated.

While most of us think of silk as something we might wear, scientists regard it as much more than that. They’ve recently begun unlocking its remarkable properties, some of which could eventually have widespread high-tech and biomedical uses. Bervin believes that poetry has work to do in the world. With silk film, that work travels beyond the library or classroom, beyond books and academia, and into laboratories—even, potentially, into our own bodies. Bervin’s work shows us that every trace, every thread matters, every mark, every last letter, everything we hide and everything we reveal, that art and poetry are made of our intentions, and that we are too.

In Souls of the Labadie Tract, Susan Howe describes how, two hundred and fifty years ago, the theologian, pastor, and writer Jonathan Edwards traveled between parishes in Western Massachusetts by horseback, writing as he rode and pinning those notes— scraps of paper fashioned from silk or other some other salvaged fabric—to his clothing, “fixing in his mind an association between the location of the paper and a particular insight.” He would arrive at his destination dressed in words. Today words needn’t only clothe us; they may quite literally enter and become a part of us. With the right light, poetry rises through and from the page, rises to the walls, and signals and shines beneath our skin.

* * * *

Although her Silk Poems research has her traveling widely and often, Jen Bervin and I were able to talk at length on the phone in early January 2015, which is where the bulk of the interview below has its origins. We continued editing, revising, and refining over a series of follow-up emails. I have known her for about four years now, and no matter the medium—online, on the phone, or in person—Jen is unfailingly generous, kind, engaging, and gracious. She laughed often throughout our conversation and conveyed an infectious enthusiasm about her work and writing/making art in general.

Jen Bervin (JB): Earlier you asked me about where I was and whether I was writing poems for the Silk Poems project already.

Darren Higgins (DH): Yes.

JB: Right now I am thinking more about content and forms—really the overall structure. But one of the things that I have been doing as I research is trying to realize when components of the research get too big and should be diverted into their own thing. That has amounted to some very exciting thinking.

I knew that the research would lead me in some wild directions, but one of the treasures that I came across in Suzhou, China, was a woven replica of a poem composed in the fourth century B.C.E. by a Chinese woman poet, Su Hui. It is written in a reversible form she invented—a 29 x 29 character grid that can be read in any direction, yielding thousands of possible poems. Moreover, she wrote it in five colors and embroidered the poem in silk.

Jen Bervin Su Hui Suzhou
There is very little written about the poem in English. David Hinton translated one quadrant of it under the title “Star Gauge” and has a useful essay on it, “Welling Out of Silence.” The best work on this poem I’ve been able to find is by the French poet, Michèle Métail, who wrote a whole book on it: Le vol des oies sauvages. So I was trying to read about the poem in French, which is pretty slow going.

Jen Bervin
When I was in Italy on the Bogliasco Fellowship this past fall, I started hashing out a rough translation of it with substantial help from the dancer in residence, Mei-yin Ng. I was spending a lot of time looking up definitions of words but, seriously, you come across single characters that have up to 70 meanings.

DH: How many?

JB: Seventy, seven-zero.

DH: My god.

JB: You can imagine, as a non-native speaker of Chinese, the translation problems it starts to pose. To add to the mess, the poem was written in complex Chinese characters and now it’s typically presented in simplified Chinese characters, which are slightly different, so that’s when I lost it in Italy. I thought, “Oh my God, I’m translating it from the simplified Chinese. I’m not even translating from the right alphabet yet.”

DH: Must have been incredibly frustrating…

JB: I’d been at it for quite a while. Not to mention the fact that a Chinese character can act as any part of speech, depending on context, and the meaning of the character changes according to the character next to it. If you’re coming to that character from all different directions, the meanings are very much in flux. It’s an infinite poem, essentially. I felt both so thrilled and daunted by it and also somewhat appalled that there was just so little written about it. That there was this treasure written by a woman so early on, the complexity of which we really haven’t matched today, and it’s not a well-known thing!? That was shocking to me.

DH: Hard to believe.

JB: Like with any big, delicious problem I started to think about what could be done. And like with any big, delicious problem in art I took a lot of wrong tacks looking for something that works, but what it has come down to now is really beyond thrilling—some real progress. I think that Jody Gladding is going to translate the Michèle Métail book, so that whole book could, in some form, be available in English to English-speaking audiences. The book goes into not only the complexity of the reading patterns and how you might structurally read it but also the celestial maps that influence the structure of the poem, and it talks about a lot of poems that came out of Su Hui’s work and were influenced by it.

Now we’re just figuring out where it might go publication-wise. Hopefully we can lure David Hinton back into trying to translate the rest of the poem. You can imagine that it’s quite a task—a task that could be done thousands of times over with different results!

DH: Unending possibilities.

JB: Right. But the thing that seemed most exciting to me was to have the experience of time in that poem, and to keep the textile aspect of it in the foreground. I can’t read Chinese, so I thought, well, for me to embroider it would be a craft, not a reading experience. This is when something very special that I encountered on my research trip, in the same city where I encountered the facsimile of that poem for the first time, came back to me—the Suzhou Embroidery Research Institute.

This is a place where highly, highly trained embroiderers make these double-sided works that can be viewed from either side, so it’s essentially a reversible image. These embroideries take a couple of years to make and I thought that it would be really exciting for me to commission embroideries of this poem, after first building a relationship with a few embroiderers at the institute who have an interest in reading poetry. And then, through conversations, writing, and film, we would track the experience of the embroiderers—of their relationship to the poem—and let that be its translation too.

DH: Adding another layer of translation (and meaning). In this case, a translation of experience as well.

JB: Yes. The important part of that work is the experience of the embroiderers’ journey with that poem. That’s what is exciting to me.

DH: You’ve been working on this Silk Poems project for a while now. When did this new plan start to come together?

JB: Well, none of it would have happened without the Creative Capital Grant in 2013—I’ll never cease being thankful for that one. We visited China around the beginning of November 2013, and I’ve been talking about that Su Hui poem non-stop ever since. The whole solution came slowly, first with begging Jody to translate the Métail book. I was just trying to read the book in French for awhile. I soon realized that it was becoming a question of what I need for my research vs. what I would hope would be available to a lot of other people.

DH: That seems like a crucial distinction. Can you talk more about that last point?

JB: I think that’s where a lot of these decisions were coming from—I could spend a lot of time in this Su Hui poem trying to translate it, but I don’t feel confident (given that I’m not a Chinese translator and this is one of the most difficult translation projects imaginable) that I could bring that experience to other people in a way that’s as meaningful as the idea to collaborate with an embroider at the research institute. I could point to that collaboration as a kind of solution to get other people interested in working on it again.

I’m a big fan of the joyful solution and that really feels like one…so that happened within the last month or two.

DH: This poem has an interesting back story: Su Hui’s husband, a government official, took a concubine, which infuriated Su Hui. He soon after left for a distant post with this mistress. Su Hui refused to go, but it’s said that she grew to miss him and composed the poem to win him back and call him home. According to the story, it worked. He dismissed the concubine and rejoined Su Hui.

JB: The story is quite compelling, and it is mostly what gets discussed—the story of the poem. That she sent this poem as a letter obviously has a lot of resonance for me with the Dickinson envelope poems. Su Hui’s intended audience for the poem, and her intended purpose as well, is quite singular and yet the poem everything but—it’s infinite. It’s easy to fall into the trap of speculating about a writer’s life instead of focusing on her work, and this is too often the case with women artists and writers. When a lot of translations of the poem exist and Su Hui’s work is getting tons of attention, I won’t need to have this redirecting bent. I look forward to that.

DH: There is so much here. It’s the kind of project you could play with for the rest of your life, essentially.

JB: Yes. But I think that for the sake of the Silk Poems, the nano-imprinted silk film, to simply reproduce the Su Hui poem is enough. You lose the five colors because it’s not a color format. But simply to have it present and to allow its structure of reading to help me think about how other things appear or inform how they are read—that idea of reversibility, which was already in the silk poem, coming out of the DNA structures and writing forms related to the structures—has already done its work.

DH: Hearing you talk about reversibility makes me think of how you’ve always paid attention not merely to the front of a piece, the part we might most readily see, but the flipside as well, as in The Desert. That play between the seen and unseen, the possible and the revealed… it comes up again and again, now that I think about it. In Nets, your words float to the surface in pools of Shakespeare’s sonnets. In the Dickinson Fascicles, you highlight markings, symbols, twitches. In the Gorgeous Nothings, you and Marta Werner bring scraps and torn envelopes and variations to the fore. Do you see this interest playing out in the Silk Poems? Perhaps in how you want to record the experience of the embroiderer as another form of translation?

Jen Bervin Desert_1open

JB: Absolutely. Just as you said.

DH: So, what has all this new thinking done to your original concept for the project?

JB: If anything it’s just a huge relief. I feel like in our practice one of the most difficult things is coming to the right framing of something that’s really exciting to everyone, and once that’s in place, the work becomes very easy and fluid. It’s when you’re stuck in that purgatory I was in with that poem that things are complicated.

I think of myself as a giant digesting machine for all of this, and I’m just so relieved when something becomes that clear.

DH: You don’t seem to panic, or at least not outwardly, when you are having doubts or collecting endless amounts of information without a sense of where it’ll lead.

JB: The thing is I panic but I’m talking with everyone about that panic. One of the things that I really wanted with the Silk Poems in particular was exactly that aspect, that I couldn’t figure out almost any of it alone, and that it was something that I was going to have to keep talking about with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of people to get anywhere interesting, both in the research and in the development of the project.

I really love that idea that you can’t make a work alone. I question the idea of single authorship in general, but especially in a work that has and draws from such a complex history and such a complex presence in a sense.

With all the scientific development in this work, the historic wealth of information about silk, and art and literature that draw from silk, the too-muchness of it was a known problem to begin with.

DH: So it was built in from the start that you’d interact and collaborate with people from different disciplines, different industries even, across the world?

JB: Yes. I think also I wanted to get much more comfortable feeling out of my element in every way.

DH: How so?

JB: If you walk into a bioengineering lab where they are developing new uses for silk, you pretty much don’t know anything. You just have to enjoy the place of asking a ton of questions about it and continuing to ask those, and not being embarrassed about having to race up to speed every time you enter.

DH: What’s appealing or exciting about that to you?

JB: I’ve always felt like it’s a trap in the arts to get comfortable in your work. I think naturally we revert to ways of thinking pretty readily. I’m guilty of that, but I think if you choose things that make doing that pretty impossible, then it puts you in some good spaces to learn and explore. I am excited about making something that doesn’t look like anything else I have made and has a process that doesn’t resemble any other process I have worked with before.

DH: When did you first realize that this is the way that you enjoyed working?

JB: I didn’t say I enjoyed it! I said that I wanted to work that way. I think by nature I am very shy and I’m also very curious, so that’s something I have to live with in the world. It’s not necessarily comfortable to go about things this way, but it certainly is interesting. Does that make sense to you?

DH: It does. I know, from being an inherently shy person myself, that there’s a certain jolt in saying yes to an idea or proposal that makes me uncomfortable. It’s frightening but thrilling. There’s productive energy in that discomfort.

JB: I would say I’ve been super-lucky in that Charlotte Lagarde, my partner, was willing to work and travel with me and to photograph and film places we went for research—not with the aim to make a film about the Silk Poems but to give me a way to keep growing from the research after the fact, because you can’t re-do a lab visit on the other side of the world. You might only get that access once, so to have a record of what people are saying and how they are saying it and what they are showing you in real time is indispensable. That was a huge shift. I had never thought about working on a poem that way. I’ve never needed photo and video, for years throughout a process, to research something. It’s been humbling to try to communicate what you need to someone else when you’re generally very private about it.

Jen Bervin Soochow UniversityHuang Haisu and Dr. Tieling Xing with Jen Bervin at Soochow University

DH: How do you keep yourself from being overwhelmed by all the information and everything you’re taking in?

JB: I think I try not to have too many expectations about what I’m going to experience or understand. I guess I could compare it to going to a library in search for a particular book and then finding one in that same row that you needed far more and wouldn’t have found on your own. It’s often that thing to the side of the thing that I’m actually looking for that turns out to be meaningful. Getting too fixated on coming away with a particular thing or looking for a particular thing doesn’t help me be aware of what the potentials are in the moment.

It’s important to be able to admit defeat and keep looking around, do you know what I mean?

DH: That’s true of writing itself, isn’t it? Seems like whenever I start a poem or essay with an idea of what I think I mean or want to say, I wind up, by the time I’m done, in a completely unexpected place, with completely unexpected words on the page. I love that. Discovery and surprise. What a rush—it’s almost magical. The poem finds and determines itself.

Part of it must be opening yourself up, exposing yourself. You let go of intention, which leads to things you wouldn’t have figured out had you held strictly to your plan…and leads to these discoveries that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

JB: Absolutely. I think your essays read that way.

DH: I certainly experience them that way. I find out a lot of what I actually think by going through the process of writing.

JB: I think that’s why it’s so enjoyable to read them.

DH: That’s kind of you to say…

JB: I also love that this work is leading to collaboration with people that I deeply, deeply admire. This matters to me—and has for a long time. It’s just becoming more and more overt.

DH: Did Charlotte’s recording of your travels, your research, play at all into your idea of documenting the embroiderers’ experience with the poem?

JB: Yeah, absolutely, because I have been looking at the videos she made at the embroidery institute in Suzhou for two years now. It’s just so exciting to watch the technique—and the environment in which people are embroidering is quite special. The workshop itself is beautiful and full of light. I love how layered the work sites are. You have a skull-and-crossbones cloth where someone might put their elbow and a cell phone a little farther down and then particular ways each embroiderer organizes their thread color palette and their work area, you have tea on the window sill. It’s a joy to be in that space. I was taken through it on a tour during which I was rushed along and still I have that sense of the richness of slow time there.

DH: That’s beautiful: “the richness of slow time.” Has that sense always been with you? Maybe you can talk about how you came to work with textiles in the first place, and how that intersects with your poetry.

JB: I grew up in a family of women who sew. My mother sewed clothes for us, my grandmother sewed clothes for her family, and I learned pretty early on. My mom was great about teaching me how to do a lot of different things, how to do some basic sewing and how to work with pattern and that kind of thing. Before I even really got underway in the visual arts I was already involved in sewing and the culinary arts for sure. Those things developed in step with reading. I don’t think I really would have considered myself a writer until I was pretty far along in my 20s even, late 20s to early 30s.

I came to writing from the visual arts. I was feeling uncertain about what art could do and how it could do it in the art world, along with a desire to really learn how to articulate complex thoughts in the medium of language, which is what I think poetry does best. I didn’t know how to do that yet. As I was finishing up my degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago it became really important to me to slow down and make work that I wanted to live with.

It’s a lot like this translation tangle I got myself into. A lot of great things in the arts come out of a sense of discontent or disgust or failure or inadequacy, so it’s a such useful feeling in the arts, if you let it be useful.

DH: That could take some practice though, letting it be useful.
JB: Yeah. I think that I was really lucky to have a family that left me alone. It gives you privacy about your failures. Because you have time to just be comfortable with them.

DH: There’s a bumper sticker: “More parents should just leave their kids alone…”!

JB: Yeah, that’s not a popular parenting recommendation…

DH: No.

JB: And I’m in no position to recommend, but I really appreciated that.

DH: To have your own space to work through what you needed to work through?

JB: Yeah, and just to…I don’t know. I think it fostered a confidence in myself that early on made me comfortable in discomfort. Maybe too comfortable in discomfort, I don’t know.

DH: I guess that’s a danger. I hadn’t thought of that…

JB: The jury is still out. I’m just so pleased that I’ve become more of a social animal as I’ve aged. I didn’t see that coming. I was a little worried I’d be more of an Agnes Martin loner type, so that’s been a nice surprise.

DH: What do you think is responsible for this evolution?

JB: I guess I had had enough time alone. When I was at that juncture between art and writing, I worked as a fire lookout and that’s pretty isolated work. I think for some people it sounds really awful but to me it was just heaven. I was learning Latin, reading, embroidering, writing, hiking, etc.—with a view to die for and some wonderfully amusing chatter on the Forest Service radio to monitor. As a lookout, you spend all day reading landscape—and I love that landscape: the Sonoran Desert. I kept a keen eye out for fires or “smokes,” as they call them, and had plenty to report, but the work of the lookout is mostly map-based—conveying very precise map work accurately.

I moved to the desert with a real intention to slow down and figure things out, and that willingness to be alone and to be lonely and to be uncertain for a long time gave me a grounding that never left. I just waited. I waited and I read and I wrote and I tried to figure things out.

Then when I came back to graduate school for writing and was combining the two, art and writing, it was with a very different sense.

DH: I said earlier that you never seemed to panic but I realize now that it’s more about what you just mentioned: your patience, your willingness to wait (to be on the lookout, so to speak), and yet with an underlying confidence that the answer will arrive, that you’ll find it, however long it takes.

JB: One thing I encounter a lot in conversations about interdisciplinary work, especially with writers, is the inter-genre question. I guess I’m grateful that for me it was never a hang-up. I never felt that I had to explain to anyone what I was doing. I just had to show them what I meant. I feel like anyone who encounters my work can understand what I’m doing if the work is good—and it’s not always good, but I try. If you give people the opportunity and you show them what you mean by that intersection, anyone can meet you there, but to put the genre ahead of the work often makes that seem more impossible than it actually is.

DH: And what drew you to silk? Why silk?

JB: A friend, Amanda Schaffer, wrote a really wonderful piece for Slate magazine. She was researching many different aspects of this new silk boom that resulted from David Kaplan’s discovery in 2009 of how to liquefy the silk cocoon. Once Amanda finished writing the article she was still so engaged with the ideas that she got in touch to ask if I might want to collaborate on something visual and verbal. She sought me out because she knew I was already working with text and textile and the intersection of the two. Even though the research didn’t look like other things I did, it was the same area of interest.

So it really started in the spirit of collaboration. Amanda got very busy with other projects, including a pregnancy (her second child), and as much as I tried to lure her back into the project, she’s really held her ground. But she is generous with conversations from time to time—asking the right questions, or telling me what to ask, and explaining intensely complex things to me.

I think going into the Silk Lab at Tufts with her to meet Fio Omenetto and David Kaplan in the very beginning was a real gift. Because if you walk into one lab, you get this idea that you can walk into another, so visiting the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility just feels like something I might be able to do after all, or at least like something to propose. I’m a big fan of just letting people say no, but always asking, always asking.

Jen Bervin at Stanford NanolabStanford Nanolab

DH: I’m interested in the relationship of silk to the body. What role does that play in the project?

JB: That aspect of it is really important. Silk is universally biocompatible. Every single body on earth will accept it in any context, which is why the liquefaction discovery was such a big deal. It opens up a huge range of new possibilities. The bioactive silk sensor—the thing I’m working with as an imagined context—is still in the research phase.

I just want to stop the clock for a minute to say, Wow! That’s an amazing context—silk inscribed nanoscale inside the body as a visual sensor, something that would act as a harbinger, something that will alert someone, in a medical way, to a change that has occurred in the body. Obviously, it’s not a neutral thing to have an inscribed piece of silk inside of you that is showing you something potentially very bad or hopefully normal about what is most likely a really precarious health situation. So I have been interested all along in imagining how this sensor affects someone’s conception of their own health—how it affects their imagination, how what is inscribed there is affecting on other levels, deeper levels in the psyche and spirit.

That seemed like a territory that a poem could handle—and has handled—in meaningful ways. I think that in many times and kinds of difficulty we turn to poetry, and yet most of the time we act like it’s superfluous. I really believe that poems have jobs to do. Not set job descriptions, but I think we need them more than we let on.

DH: In what sense do we not admit to that, do you think, or do we fail to see the work of poetry?

JB: I’m not so focused on pointing to failures. I’m more interested in pointing to poetry and saying it’s a wellspring, because I believe that.

The poem (and by “poem” I mean visual and images I’m thinking through right now) probably isn’t going to be inside of a body. It’s going to be a silk film outside the body. Something that you can project and read with fiber-optic light as a projection on a wall. It’s content comes from the assumed context as a bioactive sensor, one that may become real and may not, but I guess the viability, so to speak, of the thing that I make (that is, whether it becomes part of a real sensor inside someone) is really not up to me.

I’ll definitely offer anything I do back to the researchers who inspired it and hope it will open up new possibilities for collaboration. What I can do is offer up a context in which a poem can be an important component of a medical development.

DH: So where do you envision the Silk Poems living, ultimately? Will they be “published” in a traditional sense?

JB: The object was always the easiest part because that’s already a given—to nanoimprint silk film—that’s been fairly straightforward, and to know in advance that it’s something one would read as a projection with light. That’s a lot of knowns for a work of art. I don’t usually start knowing what the thing I’ll make in the end is. I don’t know how many need to exist. Maybe just one. And I’ve been calling it “Poems,” which suggests a book, but I’ve imagined something more like microfiche there. I’m guessing that a reading situation for this is probably a room, not a folio. It will show me, I guess. Or other people will suggest things and show me. That’s most likely what will happen. Or the materials will suggest things.

DH: I was curious about that, how much the material or context determines the content—how much the textile determines the text.

JB: The silk film has to be nanopatterned to work as a sensor, so the scale of the writing, the surface material, the way in which it can be read, and the imagined context were all already there when I started.

DH: Right, but does silk demand a particular kind of poetry? Are there things that shouldn’t be said on the silk or things that should be said?

JB: I think there are things that I feel responsible to in a structural way, like the development of the card loom, for example. The first binary system, the first computer, so to speak. The structure of the silk itself. And the process and the forms that are involved in sericulture. All that seems very fundamental to get in the poem. I feel like there’s a danger of falling into the traps that historical novels can fall into. You can get so overwhelmed by the factual material you want to convey that the book itself suffers. I guess that’s where that sitting and waiting and standing back and seeing what things are indispensable to the work comes in.

In traveling the world to research silk—China, Japan, France, Italy, Turkey, Georgia (and more to come: India, Spain, Egypt, etc.)—what becomes increasingly difficult is how to address that kind of multilingual context well in the finished work. I mean, you can’t just bring it all into English—it’s wrongheaded. I’ve imagined translating at the very least the project description into every language that affects the project. I also hope to return to sites where I researched to share the finished work.

DH: I love that the poem will be read with light.

JB: I’m really happy with that because the way silk reflects light is one of its remarkable properties. I was just reading about how the smoothness of the fiber made it a superior embroidery material and how it really brought the craft of embroidery to Egypt and replaced wool permanently. That the material itself can change the course of what is made in a given culture, it’s quite astounding to me.

DH: We have this ancient fiber, used in so many cultures for thousands of years, and yet even today we’re still discovering its properties and finding new ways to use it. It’s remarkable.

JB: It really is.

—Jen Bervin & Darren Higgins

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Based in Brooklyn, poet and visual artist Jen Bervin brings together text and textile in a practice that encompasses poetry, archival research, artist books and visual art. Her works involve strong conceptual elements with a minimalist’s eye for the poetic and essential. Recent books include Draft Notations (Granary Books 2014) and Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings (Christine Burgin/New Directions) co-edited with Marta Werner, a finalist for The Poetry Foundation’s 2014 Pegasus Award for Criticism, and a Best Book of the Year from Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, and The New Yorker. Her works have been shown at the Walker Art Center, The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum and elsewhere, and are held in more than thirty collections including the J. Paul Getty Museum. Bervin’s honors include a Creative Capital Grant, a NYFA Fellowship, and residencies from The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, MacDowell Colony, The Camargo Foundation, The Bogliasco Foundation, and the Rauschenberg Foundation. She has taught at Poets House, University of Denver, New York University, Pratt Institute, Vermont College of Fine Arts, Harvard University, Yale University, and will be a Fitt Artist in Residence at Brown University in 2015.

Darren Higgins

Darren Higgins is a writer, editor, and artist living in Waterbury Center, Vermont, with his wife, two sons, and a cat who never comes when she’s called. A graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, he has written poems and stories for a variety of publications, essays for a couple of local newspapers, and commentaries for Vermont Public Radio.  

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Mar 312015
 

interview94

At the Top of the Page this month (April), we feature a selection of the best of Numéro Cinq‘s fast-growing archive of stellar author interviews. There is only room for a few. “Best” is subjective. Some great conversations got didn’t make the cut. So go to the NC Interview page (nav button on the right) and check them out, after you read these interviews with Lydia Davis, Sheila Heti, Diane Williams, David Shields, Dodie Bellamy, Joseph McElroy, David Ferry, and Micheline Aharonian Marcom.

Mar 272015
 

Windsor Review2

A new little story of mine, a jeu d’esprit, a micro-story (a three-pager), called “A Noir Romance” has just come out in the fall issue 2014 (yes, a bit late) of the Windsor Review, a special Alice Munro issue. This is a print magazine, so you’ll have to go buy a copy to read the whole story. This issue of WR is blessed with work from several other Numéro Cinq bad girls and boys, including Marty Gervais, Karen Mulhallen, John B. Lee, and Amber Homeniuk.

Here’s a bit from the story, the opening lines.

“The short one, you say?”

“Yes. I believe that’s him. He had a mask. It was dark in my bedroom.”

“He had a mask.”

“Yes, sir.”

“But it was definitely the short one, you say?”

“He had a mask, but he was short just like the one in the middle.”

“The short one.”

“He had that look, you know. Short. I was wearing my nightie and putting cold cream on.”

“In the dark.”

“Yes. I’m really rather sure it’s the short one. He looks like a man who would steal up on women in their bedrooms.”

“Because?”

“Well, he has that look. Short. Shortness. Like the one in my bedroom.”

“Ma’am, the short one is an officer from the precinct. He picked you up and drove you here.”

“No. I would have recognized him.”

“He’s a police officer.”

“No, sir. It’s the man in my bedroom.”

“Because he’s short.”

—from “A Noir Romance” by Douglas Glover @ the Windsor Review

Mar 262015
 

another image for ncDetail from the cover of Here Comes Kitty reviewed in this issue

Call this the Other Worlds issue, the liminal issue, the ghost issue. It’s our best yet, no doubt about it. It has come together fortuitously with contributions from Iraq, Brazil, Ireland, Australia, Canada, China, Argentina, and the United States (maybe there are more, I am getting lost and the issue is still taking shape as I write). And the other worldliness is just a matter of geography. We also have pieces on the after life, on Hell and Judgment, on ghosts — real fictional ghosts and ghosts that are figurative as well as ghost literatures and shape-shifting art forms, fluid and combinatorial. This issue is a symptom of where we want to go. It is always a mistake to think that NC is any one thing, is achieved; it is protean, it is always on its way to being something else, something future and possible, or, perhaps impossible.

BervinAuthorphotoJen Bervin

In this issue Darren Higgins interviews  the peripatetic and brilliant experimental poet/artist Jen Bervin on her latest project, the Silk Poems…

an experimental book (if “book” is defined loosely) that takes silk, in Bervin’s words, “as its subject and form, exploring the cultural, scientific, and linguistic complexities of silk, mending, and the body through text and images nanoimprinted on transparent silk film.” If you were to hold up a piece of this translucent material, what would it look like? What might you see? Very little at all—until you shine fiber-optic light through it. Then the words and pictures would jump up, projected into bloom. 

 

IMG_4455Agri Ismaïl

American English, English-English — English is the world Leviathan, and what is it like to write a novel in a language spoken by only a few and in a script that is neither Roman nor Arabic nor Chinese? Agri Ismaïl is a brilliant Iraq & Swedish-based writer tackles the issue for the Kurds, a people with no country to their name and a literature that trembles on the edge of disappearing.

The remains of the Kurdish novel are, then, mere shadows, flickers of what once was. To think of what exists as a comprehensive picture of Kurdish literature is akin to thinking Sappho’s fragments represent her complete work.

Keane1Four Woodcuts from Pinamonte’s Hell Opened to Christians, to Caution Them from Entering into It

Patrick J. Keane, our insanely prolific contributing editor (so much so that he bumped his own piece from the last issue AND he has two pieces in this issue), pens here a gorgeous, dense, erudite and deeply personal essay/memoir on death, judgment and that pernicious notion of Original Sin that condemns even babies to the eternal torments of Hell.

In short, because of Original Sin, we are all guilty, and deserving of hell. And when that stain has not been cleansed by the sanctifying grace of baptism, it follows, and Augustine unhesitatingly followed that appalling logic—even if the prospect of babies in hell is more hideous than the doctrine of predestination itself— that unbaptized infants must be damned: a singularly atrocious example of what “was due to all.”

 

photo(33)George Szirtes

We have poems, yes, wonderful poems, from the Hungarian-English poet, essayist, translator George Szirtes.

That night I spent my last nickel to call Steve.
The box was empty bar the usual cards
advertising the usual services of night.
One lives for such small favours, such rewards.
One lives for what night keeps up its loose sleeve.

tsvoboda-early-pix2Terese Svoboda

Terese Svoboda offers our readers an embarrassment of riches, two short stories, electrifying, so precisely written they seem etched in stone.

My lover and I take three ferries, hike to a promontory and sleep in bags. A sort of sleep: sausaged with his big body and member, there’s not much turning room other than inside each other. Then there’s dawn and food: we knife open oysters from their beds. He’s lithe across the rocks in his nudeness despite his size and fur, he’s ridiculous running after me, mock caveman. I’m restless when caught, asking for another story about his trip abroad. I was so stoned, he says. All of it was art. I set the timer for the picture of the two of us anyway. (from “Rugby”)

David Zieroth travel picDavid Zieroth

And this month our production manager (currently holding down a beach blanket in Hawaii) Kathryn Para interviews the Governor-General’s Award winning Canadian poet David Zieroth, who also offers a clutch of poems in the shape of a Slovak lexicon.

rozhádzaný

means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe

I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—

KittyAuthors2Richard Kraft & Danielle Dutton

Natalie Helberg reviews wildly combinatorial arts of Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton in the just published Here Comes Kitty….A Comic Opera.

Richard Kraft and Danielle Dutton’s Here Comes Kitty, a collage project (Kraft’s) with written interludes (Dutton’s), beautifully, wantonly, defies review. Like a dream, it slips off the binds of the mind, building up structures which differ from those present upon rational waking.

Siglio_Here_Comes_Kitty_Cover

cid-gregCid Corman & Gregory Dunne

We have a comprehensive and erudite re-assessment (resurrection) of the Boston poet Cid Corman, overlooked and forgotten perhaps, by Gregory Dunne, an excerpt from his book Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman published by Ekstasis Editions. While curating this piece, Senior Editor Gerry Beirne wrote: “…the more I look at his work/life, the more he grows in my estimation and I share a sense of the sadness he felt about being “forgotten”- I think the piece is timely and it would be good to share his significance with a literary/artistic community that may be unaware of him.”

Sem títuloToni Marques

From Brazil (yes, we are branching out a bit this issue, have I mentioned that?), we have a little magic realist tale that puts me in mind of Peter Carey’s novel of Australia, Illywhacker, a magic history of  Australia-cum-novel in which Australia becomes a museum diorama for Japanese tourists. In somewhat the same vein, Toni Marques takes us to a Brazil in the future where the notorious slums have become tourist sites where outsiders come to get a taste of the real — only, of course, the real bites.

“We’re Brazilians, ok? We should do this, we should do that, but we don’t do anything because we are Brazilians, period. Nowhere else in the world can you get something like this tour. Yes, this is something totally new. Yes, we need to improve lots of stuff. But, hey, you’re in Rio’s oldest favela watching a typical day of a crack-cocaine torn family. It’s a crack-o-rama if you will. Anything can happen to a crack-cocaine favela family, what else can I say? You see the girl running around like crazy? Perhaps right now she’s high, you know.”

Get_In_Trouble-683x1024

Senior Editor Ben Woodard reviews the new Kelly Link short story collection Get in Trouble.

Throughout Get in Trouble, Kelly Link dares her characters to make these kinds of tough decisions, whether it’s stepping into a hurricane or fooling around in an abandoned amusement park, and while these choices vary in their reward for the author’s protagonists, they continue to shock, move, and amaze the reader.

john

And in Uimhir a Cúig, our regular Irish feature edited by Gerard Beirne, this month we offer an interview with the Irish-Australian novelist John Connell and an excerpt from his new novel The Ghost Estate, a book about the boom and bust of the Celtic Tiger and the effect that has had on the lives of the Irish and east European immigrants as well.

The Poles emerged with their shaved heads and plastic bags full of sandwiches. Odd they never seemed to have a lunchbox, not one between them, Kane thought to himself.

They had lived here for over two years. He’d done little with the house: put in some bunk beds, a lick of paint and that cheap oil burner instead of the range. The walls were still damp on cold winter mornings. They had probably brought on Noel’s bad chest and would, in time, would make the Poles sick too. But they were young and hardy.

‘Good morning lads,’ Kane said as Jans and the others began slowly to climb into the vehicle.

‘Morning boss,’ said Jans quietly.

IMG_3233B. D. Love and Maura Kennedy

The indefatigable and prolific Pat Keane doubles this month as a music critic, penning a short essay on a brand new song by Maura Kennedy (t0 lyrics by poet B. D. Love). We have the song! Play it while you read.

But the highlight for me was a song titled “I Cried to Dream Again.” Maura wrote the music, to accompany lyrics by a poet-friend, B. D. Love. As the title indicates, Mr. Love is playing off one of the most beautiful, and utterly unexpected, passages in Shakespeare: lines spoken by Caliban in Act II, Scene ii of The Tempest. When the fools Stefano and Trinculo are frightened by the music created by the invisible Ariel, Caliban responds:

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me; that, when I wak’d,
I cried to dream again.

CaptureFrom The City That Flees by Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel

And in Numéro Cinq at the Movies this month, Sophie Lavoie introduces readers to Lucrecia Martel’s stunning short documentary on the rise of gated communities in the cities of Latin America.

These compounds have become playgrounds for the rich, featuring country clubs with golf courses, polo grounds, shopping malls, bilingual schools, and medical centres, as the film points out. They provide the illusion of an oasis for the wealthy, allowing them the freedom to circulate freely within the confines of their fences.

Martel’s short documentary juxtaposes the steady, foreboding view of the wall with shots of the neighbours across the street, emphasizing the fact that her film crew was not allowed into the neighbourhoods, in spite of their many attempts. The outsiders, like the film’s viewers, are left to muse about the wonders contained within.

And need I add: There is more…